Summers tend to be slow, what with the majority of the college students leaving town in droves the moment exams are over. It gives the city a much needed break from the day-to-day rowdiness, from the congestion of human traffic jamming up the otherwise peaceful brick-lined sidewalks, and from the cacophony of sound that would otherwise fill the air like thick miasma.
Wei Wuxian would probably call it boring. Wei Wuxian calls most places that do not have bright flashing lights, pounding music, and his precious Lan Wangji boring. The latter of which is the definition of irony because Lan Wangji is literally the most boring person Jiang Cheng has ever met, so really, his brother has no leg to stand on.
In any event, the city is quiet, it’s summer, and there are fewer young people milling about. Jiang Cheng welcomes this with open arms, but then again, he’s been described as having the soul and grumpy disposition of an old man, so what he likes may be a bit...questionable.
He’s also the only person staffed to run the cat café this morning, the boss having scaled back on the number of staff needed to man the fort. He’s more than looking forward to spending a quiet shift on his phone, mingling with the cats, and getting paid for doing the bare minimum.
The KitTea Cat Café is tucked away by the corner of a quiet intersection, a couple of blocks away from the busy main street. It tends to be a hot spot for young families and, as with any coffee-serving establishment, for college students. While the outside of the café looks understated with a simple, black and white sign above its doorstep and the menu hanging from the window, the inside is the complete opposite. Upon stepping inside, the customer would be greeted with cat paraphernalia of all shapes and sizes lining the white shelves along the walls. The shelves wrap around the store in a seamless highway of tacky cat goods, breaking up intermittently to make space for the occasional message board, store merchandise, and pictures of recently adopted felines. A glass partition serves to separate the rest of the café from the glass pen where the cats are housed.
It’s not normally the type of place that Jiang Cheng would frequent. The overwhelming bombardment of cute threatens the core of his salty old-man soul, but in addition to the reasonable pay, the boss is allowing him to live in the unit above the café for cheap on the stipulation that he keeps an eye on the cats over the weekend. It was a packaged deal that jives well with his frugality.
Jiang Cheng gives the counter one last wipe.
Speaking of keeping an eye on the cats.
He leans around the cash register to look into the glass partition. The few cats that have made their presence known by laying out in the open seem to be doing just fine. Only Princess Caroline, a two-year old smokey Persian, bothers to acknowledge his staring by lazily lifting her head from her spot on the grey, shaggy carpet. She gives him one slow blink, then settles back into her cat nap with a toothy yawn.
So, this may not be the life he’s imagined for himself. He’s living in an apartment that’s slightly bigger than a closet, penny-pinching and coupon-cutting his way to stave off starvation and scurvy.
But at least he’s out on his own, and that’s the important part.
He checks the clock: 7:58 am, two minutes before the store officially opens for the day and he’s done all the prep work. He’s cleaned the place, refilled everything that needs refilling, prepped the food, and fed the cats –
His sweeping gaze stops at the glass door to the cat pen. His brow furrows.
The glass door is slightly ajar.
From the corner of his eyes, he spots a shadow darting along the wall before disappearing behind a set of bookshelves by the corner.
Frowning, he strides over to the pen, shuts the door and tip-toes his way to the shelf to peer behind it. A pair of glowing eyes stare back at him from the darkness, followed by the sound of a soft, “mreeoww”.
Jiang Cheng sighs. He can recognize that meow from anywhere. “Bandit, what are you doing in there? Come out from there.”
Unsurprisingly, the cat only blinks and starts licking its paw.
He grabs a pouch of cat treats on the counter and shakes it. “Bandit, treat!”
When nothing happens, he shuffles closer to the space behind the bookshelf, opens the pouch, and cringes at the pungent smell of dried meat that wafts into his nose. “C’mon, Bandit. Treat,” he repeats in a sing-song voice, shaking the bag a little harder.
The licking stops, and the pair of eyes stare back at him with the same dead-panned look he’s seen all too often on Jin Zixuan’s face.
Jiang Cheng can feel his left eye tick as a Pavlovian response to anything remotely resembling that peacock. “Oy! This is gourmet chicken liver! Gourmet!” he snaps, offended on behalf of Fancy Feast. He gives the open bag another shake. “And it’s organic!”
“Excuse me, is the store open?”
Kibbles fly out of the pouch as he spins around with a yelp. The sudden noise is enough to startle Bandit as well because the next thing Jiang Cheng knows, the cat shoots out from its hiding spots and beelines for the now open front entrance.
“Shut the door!” Jiang Cheng shouts as he bolts forward, dropping the bag of kibble to the floor.
Sharp, hot pain shoots up his side as his right hip clips into the corner of one of the tables and he bites back a curse, but continues to sprint after the racing cat. Just as Bandit makes its way to the welcome mat, the door shuts with a firm click, and Bandit skitters to a halt.
“Gotcha!” Jiang Cheng whoops and quickly scoops up the wriggling cat into his arms, but immediately winces at the feel of sharp, prickling claws digging into his shirt. “Ow, ow, ow! Calm down, kitty. You’re safe, you’re safe!” He shifts his hold to support Bandit’s paws and presses it closer to his chest. “See? Safe!”
Miraculously, that seems to work because Bandit actually stays put.
“Is everything alright?”
His attention jerks back to the customer who apparently did not escape during the chaos. “Hey, thanks for the assist,” he starts only for his voice to catch when he finally sees who’s front of him.
“It is no trouble at all,” Lan Xichen, in all of his shining, elegant beauty, replies with a gentle smile.
There are a handful of moments in his life that Jiang Cheng can remember feeling strangely detached from his body, most of which stem from deep-seated mortification.
This is one of them.
From the handful of times he’s met Lan Xichen in the past, the man always looked so well put together. That hasn’t changed here; standing in the café, Lan Xichen looks like he strolled out of a spread from the GQ magazine with his neat pony tail, three-piece charcoal suit, and leather dress shoes polished to a spit shine. The jacket, probably bespoke, does wonders with accentuating the broadness of his shoulders and the narrowness of his waist. The inoffensive dark tie under his vest only adds to the air of sophistication to his ensemble.
Jiang Cheng, on the other hand, feels and probably looks like a foot. His hair is tied up in a messy bun, and he’s practically swimming in his over-sized store merch T-shirt, with “How do you like me Meow?” emblazoned across the chest and a picture of a smirking cat wearing shades beneath it. His skinny jeans are tattered beyond the point of being fashionably distressed to straight up hobo-esque. His sneakers have seen better days as well.
His only hope to be spared from further embarrassment right now is that Lan Xichen doesn’t recognize him. Jiang Cheng sends a silent prayer to whatever deity that will take pity on this poor soul.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen’s eyes light up, and Jiang Cheng immediately takes back his prayer. There is no God, and if there is one, it is a vengeful being who has forsaken him. “Is that you? What a pleasant surprise. It’s been a while.”
“Um,” Jiang Cheng coughs and shifts Bandit into a more comfortable position. “Yup, that’s me. Good morning. Good to see you too. I should, er…” he jerks his head towards the cat pen.
“Ah, yes of course. We wouldn’t want Bandit to escape again.”
The awkward silence prevails even as he shepherds Bandit back into the pen, quickly sweeps the loose kibbles on the ground into a pile, and washes his hands. When the silence gets to be a bit too much, Jiang Cheng, now firmly behind the safe barrier that is the cash register, clears his throat. “Is there anything I can get you?”
If Lan Xichen is affected at all by the awkwardness, he doesn’t show it. He strolls up to the menu by the counter with all the grace of a prince and hums, “What would you recommend to drink?”
To be honest, Jiang Cheng is surprised that Lan Xichen isn’t ordering something boring like plain tea, or black coffee. From what he’s heard about the Lans from Wei Wuxian, they tend to have a pretty bland diet. But recommending those things seems a bit dismissive, given that the man had asked him for what he thinks is good. Not to mention, he had helped him with catching Bandit and all.
“Let me get you a large cappuccino.” He waves at the other man to take a seat when he reaches for his wallet, “On the house. As a thank you for earlier.”
It’s easy for him to slip back into the role of a barista as he falls back into the ritual of grinding the beans, filing the strainer, and preparing the milk. And perhaps it’s because he’s relaxed by the familiar scent of coffee and the soothing, familiar movements that he finds himself comfortable enough to ask, “So, how have you been? What brings you to this city?”
“I am doing very well, thank you.” And Jesus, even seated on a cat-themed chair, Lan Xichen looks effortlessly elegant. “I just arrived to the city for work and thought I would explore the area by my office. Do you know the Lookout Towers?” At Jiang Cheng’s nod, Lan Xichen continues, “I’m helping with that construction project.”
The Lookout Towers are a series of new condominiums set to be constructed around the city. They are slated to be some of the most modern, environmentally friendly buildings that will go up. Somehow, Jiang Cheng is not surprised that large property developers such as the Lans would be involved.
“Huh. Sounds like you’ve got some work ahead of you,” Jiang Cheng says as he foams up the milk. Last he heard, the project for building the Lookout Towers have just been green-lit. “How long will you be around for?”
“At least a good handful of months.”
Jiang Cheng winces. “That long, huh? Well, if you’re looking for recommendations for places to eat around here, there are a couple of bistros further east that do lunch. Otherwise, this is a university town so every block has a café. At the very least, you will be caffeinated.” He tops the beverage with a last dash of cocoa powder. “And here we are, one large cappuccino.”
He realizes immediately the error of his ways upon handing the cup over to Lan Xichen. While operating on auto-pilot, his muscle memory has fully kicked in in preparing the drink to perfection as per KitTea Café standard.
It’s unfortunate that the KitTea Café standard involves topping every drink with some sort of cute, cat-themed foam art. His mind has also clearly registered hearing Lan Xichen talk about work because within the span of that short conversation, he’s crafted a picture of an adorable smiling fortune cat in the milk foam, clutching a medallion made of cocoa powder, with the words ‘Good Luck!’ written at the top in sweet, looping letters.
He can feel his face flushing red as Lan Zichen stares silently at the cup. “Uh, it’s for your job. You know, good luck and all,” he mumbles all the while wishing the floor would swallow him whole.
For once, Lan Xichen seems to be at a loss for words. Then, he abruptly turns his head to the side and starts coughing into his fist. Jiang Cheng feels his face grow warmer and scowls.
If he doesn’t know better, it almost sounds like Lan Xichen is laughing. At him.
“I can make you another one if it’s not to your liking,” he grits out.
“No! No need,” Lan Xichen shakes his head and brings the beverage closer to him, though his shoulders have not stopped shaking.
“This is lovely. Thank you. Really,” he repeats again when he’s calmed down. Although the smile he wears remains gentle, there is a spark of warmth in the depths of his golden eyes that wasn’t present before.
“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says again. “It’s nice to see you again.” With a last graceful wave, he turns to leave the shop. Jiang Cheng watches his figure disappear down the street before slumping into a nearby chair.
Welp, so that happened. It’s for your job, you know, good luck and all. Smooth, Jiang Cheng. Real smooth.
He buries his face in his hands and groans.
Hopefully, the whole encounter is so awkward that Lan Xichen will just stay far away from him from now on, and neither of them will have to go through another similar experience again.
He looks up in time to see Princess Caroline awake and staring at him from her spot on the carpet, her gaze piercing as if judging him for everything that had transpired.
“Don’t,” he points a finger towards her, “you even start.”
Of course, Lady Luck continues to forsake him because the next morning, Lan Xichen comes back, and at 8 am sharp to boot. It so happens that Jiang Cheng is also working that morning except this time, with one other co-worker.
“Why, hello there,” Rebecca says to him under her breath and gives a hum of approval. “Tall, hot Asian approaching at nine-o’clock.”
“Shut up!” he hisses, mortified. “He’s right there and he can hear us.” Then, he promptly ignores her and plasters on a semblance of a smile that probably looks more like a grimace. “Lan Xichen. Good morning.”
“Good morning,” the other greets back, all serene-like and once again, impeccably dressed. Jiang Cheng mentally approves of the dark grey suit he has on. “I hope I am not being too intrusive but I brought you something.”
Jiang Cheng blinks at the bag in front of him and automatically reaches for it. A cold compress?
“It’s for yesterday,” Lan Xichen clarifies, sounding almost sheepish. “You hit that table pretty hard, and I thought this would help you feel better.”
Oh. That’s awfully thoughtful and kind. “Thanks,” Jiang Cheng mumbles and rubs the back of his neck. He’s surprised the other man even remembered that tiny detail among the many other things that had happened that morning. “You don’t need to bother yourself with something so small. It’s just a bruise, nothing serious.”
“It’s not a bother at all and please,” Lan Xichen presses the bag closer to Jiang Cheng. “I insist. If nothing else, you will be doing me a favour by easing my worries.”
Ooh boy, he can feel his face glow hot at that. How the hell does Lan Xichen manage to keep such a straight face while saying such things while sounding so goddamned sincere?
“Uh, if you insist,” he mumbles for lack of a better response and carefully stashes the bag behind the counter. “Is there anything that we can get started for you?”
“I would very much like a cappuccino.” At that, all previous traces of sheepishness on Lan Xichen’s face disappear as his lips quirk up in an expression that Jiang Cheng can’t identify.
Jiang Cheng’s gaze narrow. It almost looks…teasing?
“Of course,” and the smile grows broader, “if I can get another cute latte art, that would be much appreciated as well.”
The heat on his face does nothing to deter his scowl as realization hits Jiang Cheng. He is being teased! By Lan Xichen of all people. And for his moment of weakness!
“Of course, sir,” Rebecca pipes up when Jiang Cheng’s glare doesn’t let up. “Right away. Why don’t you grab a seat?” Then, she drags him by the espresso machine, where they’re safely out of earshot, and smacks him in the arm. “What the hell was that?”
Jiang Cheng winces and rubs his arm, because ow, uncalled for. “He’s mocking me! Did you see that?”
“I –What?” Rebecca looks a bit pole-axed. “No! Not that – I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I meant why is Hot Asian giving you gifts! Do you know him?”
Jiang Cheng cringes. “Will you stop calling him that? He’s got a name.”
“I’m sure you’ll tell me all about it after you tell me about the presents,” she replies, her tone flippant.
“He’s not bringing me presents,” Jiang Cheng corrects once he’s got the coffee beans grinding. “He brought me a cold compress for my hip because he’s a decent human being.” Except for when he’s taken to mocking Jiang Cheng, that is. “He’s also my brother’s boyfriend’s older brother.” What does that make Lan Xichen? His almost brother-in-law?
“Oh, so he’s your almost brother-in-law,” Rebecca says. Not for the first time, Jiang Cheng wonders if she can hear his thoughts. “So, what does he do for a living? He’s a model? An actor? Because with a face like that…”
He gives her a dirty look. “Go steam the milk if you have so much time to ask all these useless questions!”
He hasn’t forgotten or forgiven Lan Xichen’s…request for a cute latte art by the time he’s finishing up the beverage. Which is just as well, because he’s feeling particularly inspired.
“Is that a grumpy tabby with its arms crossed?” Rebecca’s look turns judging. “Jiang Cheng, you can’t serve a cappuccino with grumpy tabby’s face on it to Asian Adonis.”
“I can and I will,” he snaps. “And stop calling him that.”
“Look,” Rebecca jabs a finger to his chest. “The man requested cute latte art. You will give him his cute latte art! Capisce?”
Jiang Cheng refuses to be intimidated. He crosses his arms over the sore spot on his chest. “Well, I’m not starting from scratch.”
“Add something to it then!”
It is with shame (of having to compromise) that Jiang Cheng hands the cup over to Lan Xichen, containing not only a drawing of a grumpy tabby made with chocolate crème on the milk foam, but also the message: “Stay Pawsitive!” written in pretty cursive.
The beaming smile on Lan Xichen’s face upon reading it only makes Jiang Cheng regret not having drawn something offensive instead, like a pile of turd.
Wei Wuxian, like the useless brother that he is, offers no sympathy when he recaps everything that has happened over the phone that night.
“It’s Big Brother!” Jiang Cheng shudders at that term of endearment. “He’s practically a saint. I doubt he’d be mocking you. And people call me dramatic.”
“That’s because you are. Dramatic is the kindest word people can use to describe you.” Jiang Cheng ignores Wei Wuxian’s indignant spluttering. “But don’t you think it’s weird that he showed up not once but twice?”
“Eh, he showed up the second time to give you that thing. It’s hardly anything to write home about.” A pause. “What’s really bothering you?”
Jiang Cheng frowns. “Nothing! There’s nothing else! Why would you think that?”
“Because ever since you’ve gone into your weird monk seclusion – ”
“I haven’t gone into seclusion!”
“ – it’s been hard to get a hold of you. I don’t know what else you might be hiding!”
Jiang Cheng flops onto his bed. The shitty Ikea bed frame creaks alarmingly under his weight. “I’m not hiding anything. Besides, you’re talking to me right now. You text me every day, and you keep sending me horrible pictures of you and your,” he makes a face, “boyfriend being gross together when I explicitly and repeatedly told you to stop.”
“Excuse you, Lan Zhan and I are adorable together, so you can take your heathen words back.” At Jiang Cheng’s snort, his brother adds, his tone more serious. “And it’s not the same. We haven’t seen you in a year. Uncle Jiang – ”
“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng warns.
Wei Wuxian wisely stops and sighs instead. “Just, promise you’ll visit. At least during the holidays.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“And be nice to Big Brother! He’s a gentle soul who isn’t equipped to deal with your seething rage.”
Wei Wuxian does not need to worry about Jiang Cheng being mean because Lan Xichen does not show up the next day, or the day after that. When Day 3 hits and the café remains Lan Xichen-less, Jiang Cheng breathes a sigh of relief. Finally, all of this ridiculousness is behind him, and the rules of normalcy and rationality have reasserted themselves in his life.
He carries that warm, smug feeling into the weekend, even as he goes on his early morning jog at a local park that Saturday, music pumping from his earbuds.
It all comes to a screeching halt when he spots a familiar figure from a distance, running towards him.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he mutters and glares at the sky. “Really?”
He still has time to turn around and run the other direction; Lan Xichen is far away so there’s a good chance he hasn’t spotted him.
“Okay, now I know you’re fucking with me.”
He manages to plaster what he hopes to be a more neutral expression by the time Lan Xichen jogs over. “Good morning,” he greets. Even sweaty and in workout gear, the man exuberates elegance. “How’s your week been? Settling alright?”
Lan Xichen nods, his trademark genial smile firmly in place. “Things are a bit busier than anticipated but at least the apartment is more or less set up. How about yourself? How’s Bandit?”
Bandit is a little shit who regularly escapes the pen, and he tells a delighted Lan Xichen as much. “Honestly,” he adds, “the day where he isn’t getting into trouble is the day I start to get worried.”
Lan Xichen laughs, “I have good faith that you are well equipped to handle the job.” And Jiang Cheng just knows he’s talking about Wei Wuxian, which makes him smirk a little. “You seem to have a good handle on the animals there. Have you had any pets growing up?”
A few dogs when he was young, but unfortunately, those had to go under his father’s order because of his brother’s fear, but like hell Jiang Cheng will explore those particularly messy feelings. Besides, Wei Wuxian’s words come rushing back to him at this moment:
And be nice to Big Brother! He’s a gentle soul who isn’t equipped to deal with your seething rage.
“Only briefly,” is what Jiang Cheng says instead with a shrug, “and none of them are cats. I had to learn everything on the job. It isn’t too bad though. Cats are easy to understand if you know their body language. They tend to be pretty chilled animals unless they feel like their territories are threatened or they get over-stimulated, but even then, there are ways to fix those issues. As a rule of thumb, leaving them alone so that they can do what they want is a pretty sound tactic.” Except for Bandit, of course. Never leave Bandit unsupervised.
It occurs to Jiang Cheng that somewhere along that response, he’s deviated into his usual cat handling ramble that he tends to give to those looking to adopt, and he flushes. “Sorry, I’m rambling. That’s probably more information than you’re looking for.”
Lan Xichen shakes his head. “Not at all! I’ve never had a pet before so this is all new to me. It’s fascinating.” He pushes his sweat band up, mussing up a bit of his hair. It does nothing to detract from his beauty; if anything the slight imperfection only reminds Jiang Cheng that he is human, further accentuating his attractiveness.
It really is unfair, Jiang Cheng muses wryly. Some people really do have it all – beauty, brains and (judging from his physique), brawn. Worst part is that even his personality is perfect. At least have the decency to be socially awkward like Lan Wangji!
“Would that be alright?”
The question jerks him back to attention. “Sorry,” he says, shaking his head to clear away the fog. “Could you repeat that, please?”
Rather than taking offense, Lan Xichen only looks amused. “I was asking about the cats that you keep at the café. I was wondering if it would be alright to visit them.”
Jiang Cheng blinks. “It’s a cat café,” he answers, confused. “That’s what they’re there for, so that people can visit and play with them before deciding to adopt. Wait, why did you think we keep the cats there?”
Lan Xichen’s eyes widen as his mouth drops open to an ‘oh’. “I thought,” he trails off and looks away. Jiang Cheng can see that his ears are glowing red. “I thought that they are kept at the café for inspiration.”
Jiang Cheng furrows his brow. Inspiration? Inspiration for what?
Wait, does he mean – “For the foam art?” he blurts out.
Jiang Cheng didn’t think it’s possible for Lan Xichen’s ears to glow more red. “It seems that I have completely misunderstood. I thought you were working only as an artist, but it turns out, you are also working for a charity. I apologize for assuming so wrongly.”
An artist? What can remotely classify Jiang Cheng as an artist in his job as a barista? Unless he means, “The latte drawings are just silly drink toppers,” he chokes out, and it’s his turn to be embarrassed. He thinks back on the grumpy tabby cat and internally winces. “They’re hardly what anybody would classify as art.”
“No, that can’t be right.” Lan Xinchen frowns. “They’re lovely. You’re a very talented artist, Jiang Wanyin,” he adds, tone sincere to the backdrop of Jiang Cheng dying from embarrassment.
This man is too much, he thinks even as he feels he is getting ready to combust. The warning his brother gave him about Lan Xichen being a gentle soul is nowhere near enough. He is woefully unprepared for how wholesome and good the other man is, and he just, can’t. Not right now. Not in public.
“Thanks,” he wheezes but feels like a complete phoney for it. An artist. Him? Preposterous. “Glad you like them.”
Lan Xichen smiles broaden. “I will be sure to visit the café more to support your hard work – both as an artist and your work for the charity, to make up for my assumption.”
At the face of such shining sincerity, Jiang Cheng can only nod in a daze and answer something lame like, “Looking forward to it.”
It isn’t until after they’ve bid each other goodbye and have went their separate ways that Jiang Cheng wonders what the heck just happened.
[EDIT - JAN 1, 2019]
Welp, I lost my original Author's Notes, and can't seem to find my copy on my desktop. The below is a recreation of what I remember; apologies if I left anything out, or if things seem a little different.
 Fancy Feast - This is a popular brand of cat food owned by Purina (which is a subsidiary of Nestle). Fancy Feast cat food is widely available in North America (no idea about the rest of the world). Although it does produce a line of natural dry food made with real white meat, the organic, gourmet chicken liver kibble is a work of fiction.
 How to hold cats properly - Fun fact! The reason why a cat would thrash around when you pick it up (aside for it not wanting to be picked up) is because it is not being supported properly. One way to make a cat feel secured is to provide support all four paws while pressing it against your chest to maximize contact point. For more examples on how to hold cats in an emergency, I recommend the wonderful YouTube video "How to pick up a cat like a pro - Vet advice on cat handling." by Helpful Vancouver Vet.
If there's one take away point in that cat handling video, it's always squish the cat.
 Naming the KitTea Cat Cafe - There is, in fact a real life KitTea Cat Cafe, located in San Francisco, although I did not know of its existence when I was naming the cafe in this fic. The real KitTea Cat Cafe has stellar reviews and from the images, looks pretty amazing. I'd be interested to know if any of you had a chance to visit it!
 The cats of the fictional KitTea Cat Cafe - There are currently 8 cats that are staying at the cafe. In no particular order, there are: (1) Princess Caroline, (female, grey Persian, known to be fickle with her affection); (2) Bandit (male, grey tabby, the escape artist); (3) Pirate (male, Maine Coon mix. He's a big boy); (4) Walter (male, black and white tuxedo cat); (5) Maisy (female, Russian blue); (6) Lucy (female, calico); (7) Arti (male, orange and white, tuxedo tabby); and (8) Nala (female, sandy beige shorthair)
 Princess Caroline - This is my little nod to the the wonderful Netflix show "Bojack Horseman", which features a character called Princess Caroline who is an anthropomorphized pink Persian. I can't recommend this show enough but don't watch it unless you're in a good headspace. It's got fantastic writing, but it tends to not hold back any punches to the feels.
As always, thank you for reading and reviews are always welcomed.
True to his words, Lan Xichen starts dropping in more often to the point where his other co-workers are noticing.
“Aannddd that’s visit number three by Day Five!” Derek cackles to a chorus of groans at the sight of Lan Xichen approaching the café from the windows. “Pay up, suckas!”
From his once peaceful corner of the café, Jiang Cheng pauses in his sweeping and glares at his shameless colleagues. “Are you,” he splutters, “are you betting on how often Lan Xichen is visiting in a week?”
“Nope!” Rebecca lies even as she pulls out a few bills from her pocket. Beside her, their other colleague, Jane, does the same with more cursing. “Here you go, jackass,” Rebecca slaps the bills into Derek’s palm. “Don’t get too comfortable, I’ll get it back in no time.”
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game!” Derek calls after her retreating back. He shoves the money in his shirt pocket, gives it a few pats and glances at the window again. “Also, Mr. GQ is approaching in T-minus ten seconds. Look alive, everyone!”
Friday evenings, barring the one they’re currently experiencing, tend to be busier than the slower weekdays. In anticipation of the influx of customers, the boss normally staffs four employees to manage the chaos.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t mind being busy. Busy means more tips to the point of doubling the amount he would normally earn on any other weekday shift.
However, not even the incentive of more tips is enough for most of the other employees, who tend to have other plans on Friday evenings. This makes finding four people for the Friday slot to be as difficult as pulling teeth.
Which is why Jiang Cheng was so surprised to learn, upon shift sign-up time, that two of the four slots have already been voluntarily filled. In advance.
Although as he watches his colleagues disperse to different parts of the café, pretending to look busy, he thinks he knows the reason for their sudden enthusiasm.
“Mr. Lan!” Rebecca greets as Lan Xichen steps into the café, not a wrinkle in his pristine navy suit. “So good to see you again! I heard you’re planning to visit the cats today!”
Jiang Cheng ignores the casual small talk happening in front of him, opting to wash his hands and get the beverage started. “Your cappuccino should be ready shortly,” he interjects during a lull in their conversation. “Any requests for today?”
“Good evening,” Lan Xichen greets warmly, because he is polite to a fault like that. “I will defer to your expertise. I’m certain I will be happy with whatever design Jiang Wanyin comes up with.”
Jiang Cheng ducks behind the espresso machine so that the other man couldn’t see him fluster. Really, that man is impossible.
“Wow,” a voice next to him drawls out and he almost drops the pitcher of milk in his hands. “So that’s the infamous Mr. Lan I’ve been hearing about.” A pause. “Does he wear suits like those everywhere he goes, because hot damn!”
Jiang Cheng shoots Jane a withering look. “You’re married,” he says, dry as the Sahara. “To your wife.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate beauty in all forms, but that’s neither here nor there.” She makes to lean against the counter, but thinks better of it at the waves of judgment emanating from Jiang Cheng. “Okay, real talk. I may or may not have put some cash on Mr. GQ showing up next – ”
“No.” Jiang Cheng turns away from her to get back to work. Clearly, she does not deserve his full attention. “Absolutely not. And stop calling him that.”
Jane makes an offended sound. “You didn’t even let me finish.”
“I want no part in whatever ridiculous scheme you’re planning.”
“I’ll give you a cut! Ten – Twenty!” she corrects quickly at his arched brow. “Twenty percent of whatever I win! I just need you to casually let him know to show up at, say, 11 am on Saturday. And maybe to text him to remind him if he forgets.”
“Yeah, no.” He reaches for the melted chocolate crème and gives it a stir. Maybe he’ll draw a cat holding a cup of cappuccino. No, better yet, he’ll draw a cat inside a cup. A catpuccino. Heh. “Besides, I don’t even have his contact information, so go away.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” he scowls. “I just don’t! Go bother the other slackers with your scheming. I need to concentrate.”
He blocks out whatever she may have to say in favour of completing the design to perfection and serving the beverage to Lan Xichen. (He’s also inordinately proud at how he manages to keep a straight face as he watches Lan Xichen mouth “catpuccino” in what almost looks like pained amusement.)
“Ready to see the cats?” he asks once Lan Xichen has finished his beverage. “You should leave your jacket outside unless you don’t mind all the cat hair.”
The cat pen is a long, rectangular space mostly designed to bring the cats as much comfort as humanly possible. The floor is covered with a plush, shaggy carpet and littered with various cubbies, cat beds, toys of all sizes, and scratching pads. Each corner of the room has its own cat tree, and the trees are connected by way of strategically placed perches and shelves screwed to the wall. The cat litter and food bowls are located in a separate room that the cats can reach via a cat door in the north-facing wall.
“Oh no you don’t,” Jiang Cheng says as he opens the door and spots Bandit trying to make a run for it. He quickly shimmies into the pen and with deft hands, picks up Bandit and carries it towards a frozen Lan Xichen.
“You’ve already met this trouble-maker. This,” he bounces the cat in his arms a little, “is Bandit.”
“Hello Bandit,” Lan Xichen leans forward and greets the small, grey tabby with as much seriousness as one does a business partner. Jiang Cheng bites the inside of his cheeks to stop himself from smiling. “It’s very nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Very nice,” Jiang Cheng nods. “Now, let me teach you how to say hi in a way they would actually understand.”
He carefully puts Bandit down on a nearby cat bed, where it promptly flops down on its side, looking very much like a beached whale. A far cry from the hyper-active brat it tends to act.
“People forget that cats are prey creatures too,” he murmurs, giving Bandit a good chin scratch. “For prey creatures, the concept of closing their eyes is not something they would do willingly because they are showing vulnerability. If they were to close their eyes at you, that’s a sign of trust.”
He bends down with his hands on his knees until he’s at eye-level with Bandit. “So, what better way to say hi than to say you trust them in a language they understand? First, relax your face. Then, soften your eyes so that you’re not making direct eye contact.” He shuffles closer to Bandit. “Then, blink slowly, like this.”
At Bandit’s returning slow blink, his lips curve into a slow smile. “There you go, Bandit,” he coos. He reaches over and pets the cat on its head with slow, even pets until it starts to purr like a motor. “You’re not so bad are you? You just like to cause a little bit of mischief sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad kitty.”
He turns to see Lan Xichen’s golden eyes locked on to him and he gives the older man a sheepish smile. Ah, looks like he got a bit carried away with the cat lecture again.
“Would you like to try?” he gestures to Bandit.
Lan Xichen blinks, then clears his throat. “Yes, please.”
He practices the slow blink a couple of times to no effect, but when Bandit finally blinks back at Lan Xichen’s sixth try, he spins around with a grin so bright, it lights up his eyes and the entirety of his face.
“It worked!” he laughs in a picture of pure, unbridled delight, so different from his usual genteel grace.
It’s a good look on Lan Xichen.
“Yeah, you did good,” Jiang Cheng gives an answering grin of his own. “Now, let’s say hi to the other cats. You up to the task?”
They spend another half hour with the cats, during which Lan Xichen carries out the task like a man on a mission. For someone who claims to have never had pets, Lan Xichen is an absolute pro at getting the cats to trust him. Jiang Cheng supposes it has to do with his innate patience and even temper that the animals are attracted to.
He finally decides to step in when Princess Caroline, in a clear gesture of disinterest, runs away from Lan Xichen to hide in a hard to reach cubby. “Hey, don’t beat yourself up,” he says at the other’s crestfallen frown. “Princess Caroline is notoriously fickle with her affection, so it takes some time for her to warm up to people.”
“Then, I shall come back,” Lan Xichen nods with grim resolution. “So that I may win her over.”
“Mr. Lan!” Jane pops into the pen just as they were getting ready to call it quits. “Do you mind if we take a picture of you with the cats? We like to take pictures of all our visitors for our wall.”
“Of course,” Lan Xichen acquiesces with a small nod and sinks down on a nearby bench. “Will this do?”
“Looking good,” she grins after getting a couple of cats to coral around the man, whose natural poise makes the whole ensemble look more like a renaissance painting. “JC, you mind if we use your phone? It’s got a much better camera than any of ours.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jiang Cheng grumbles and digs his phone out from his jeans pocket. “Knock yourself out.”
“I think we’re missing something,” Jane lowers the phone and tilts her head, squinting. “Mr. Lan, can you roll up your sleeves up to your elbows? That’s perfect, thanks. Oi, JC,” her voice turns significantly less saccharine. “Grab Pirate and get in there.”
Jiang Cheng bristles. “This is not a photo-shoot for a magazine spread!” Still, he does what she says and trudges over with the large, Maine Coon mix practically spilling out of his arms.
“Sorry,” he mutters to Lan Xichen with Pirate sprawling firmly on both of their laps like a king lounging in his throne. “Jane gets a bit,” he grimaces, “photo happy.”
The other man chuckles. “It’s no trouble at all. I should be thanking you for taking your time to show me around. The cats have all been lovely.”
“No worries.” Jiang Cheng huffs, amused. Really, that man and his impeccable politeness. “A few more visits and we’ll make a cat whisperer out of you. You’re a natural.” His eyes flash, teasing. “You’ll win over Princess Caroline, just you wait.”
Lan Xichen’s lips quirk into that almost-smirk. “Princess Caroline won’t see what’s coming.”
“And we’re done! Thanks for your patience!”
Jiang Cheng looks up. “Wait, that’s it? But we haven’t done anything.”
“Nah,” she gives him a dismissive wave and hands him back his phone. “I got everything we need. Mr. Lan, if you want, we can send you those pictures.”
“Of course.” He transfers his contact information easily to Jiang Cheng’s phone once they’re outside of the pen. “Please feel free to send them at your convenience.”
“And there goes the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. I hate seeing him leave but I love watching him go,” Jane sighs at Lan Xichen’s retreating figure from the store window. “Also,” she gives Jiang Cheng a smug look like the cat that got the cream. “Problem solved.”
Jiang Cheng shoots her a suspicious look. “What problem?”
“Oh you know,” she gestures the phone he still has in his hand, and horrible realization dawns on him like ice water creeping through his veins. “Now you have a way of reaching Mr. GQ. You’re welcome.”
He barely resists the urge to bury his face in his hand, as he tends to do whenever Wei Wuxian opens his mouth. Instead, he settles for outrage. “Has this been nothing but an elaborate ruse to get his contact information for your bet?” he hisses.
“Oh, honey. Young Padawan.” Jiang Cheng bristles further at her faux look of pity. “My eyes are on a much bigger prize.”
He scrolls through the pictures when he has some free time and, as much as he hates to admit it, they’re pretty good.
Mind you, almost all of them are of Lan Xichen looking flawless from various angles as different cats lounge around him, so he suspects Jane did not have to put too much work to get the photos looking great.
He pauses at the last picture, the only one that has him in it.
It’s clearly taken when neither he nor Lan Xichen were paying attention since they were busy facing each other, caught in mid conversation. As always, he looks a bit of a mess – a few strands of his hair had fallen loose from his man-bun and they tumbled over his cheeks in soft wisps. His oversized, dark T-shirt was covered in cat hair and hung baggy on him, making his skin look pale and his frame look delicate under the excess material.
Lan Xichen, though…
Soft, Jiang Cheng thought. He looks soft.
His gaze sweeps over the neat waterfall of hair flowing from his ponytail to the wrinkled cuffs of his shirt that have been rolled up to his elbows. The top button of his shirt have also come undone, exposing his collar bone and the delicate skin there. But his expression was what made Jiang Cheng freeze.
He was looking at Jiang Cheng with kind, tender eyes, and with warm fondness, like he was something precious.
Jiang Cheng clears the uncomfortable lump at the back of his throat and wills his flush to go down. It’s probably just the lighting of that photo. He shouldn’t get into the habit of seeing things that aren’t there.
He moves on to the rest of the picture and almost laughs out loud.
In the middle of the photo and on their laps laid Pirate, who was on its side with its tummy exposed and all four, fluffy, white paws visible. It was also squinting directly at the camera with the most perfect smug expression that only a cat can make.
The picture is perfect.
Jiang Cheng saves the photo as his phone’s background without a second thought.
“My co-workers are all insane!” he rants to his sister on his phone the next evening as he’s preparing dinner. “Did you know they’re placing bets on how often Lan Xichen visits in a week? When they’re not doing that, they’ve been making up ridiculous nicknames for him. The poor man deserves better!”
Jiang Yanli’s soft, tinkling laughter carries over the phone’s earpiece. “I’m so happy that A-Cheng is having so much fun at his workplace,” she says, apparently having an entirely different conversation than the one Jiang Cheng is having, because what the heck, A-Jie? “It sounds like you’re getting along with everyone. How is Lan Xichen doing?”
“Fine, just fine,” he grumbles, shifting the phone so that he’s holding it between his ear and his shoulder. With his free hands, he dumps the left over rice into the hot pan, giving a quick scramble before chucking in some left over veggies and adding soy sauce. “He showed up yesterday to visit the cats for the first time. The man is a natural.”
“I’m glad that he’s able to visit often. I was worried that A-Cheng might get lonely without a familiar face around.”
“His presence hasn’t been a bother,” he admits begrudgingly, which is the nicest thing he’s willing to say out loud about anybody that’s not his sister. “If nothing else, his continuing visits are good for the café. Summers tend to be slow and all, so he’s visiting at a good time.”
He realizes his slip-up when his sister doesn’t answer immediately. “A-Jie, I didn’t mean – “
“A-Cheng, are you strapped for money? I know you’re not touching the account Father has set up for you, you told me as much –”
“A-Jie, I’m fine –”
“And they worry, you know?”
The bark of laughter that escapes him sounds harsh even to his own ears. “One of them worries,” he corrects. He adds the rest of the ingredient to his fried rice and gives the concoction a stir that’s probably more violent than needed. The fragrant scent of dinner does nothing to chase away the rising bitterness in his throat. “The other doesn’t even notice, let alone cares. Either way, it doesn’t matter – ”
But his sister is not having it. “Of course Father noticed. You’ve been gone for a year, and they’re both worried.” His sister pauses, hesitating, and Jiang Cheng can spot that red flag a mile away. “They’ve been asking about you. They’re thinking of visiting.”
“No,” his voice goes cold. “Definitely not. And if they do, I will move and this time, I won’t bother telling them where I’ve gone.”
At the disapproving silence, he sighs. “Tell mother I’m doing fine and that I’m happy at work.”
His sister is wise enough not to ask about whether he has anything to say to the old man. “Just, promise me you’ll let me know if anything troubles you,” she pleads. “Or if you need anything. I’m sure I can ask – “
“Oh, hell no!” Jiang Cheng moves the pan away from the hot burner and turns off the stove before he paces to a nearby seat. “I am not taking money from you or that peacock husband of yours. I’d rather starve, which I most definitely am not by the way. So you can stop worrying.”
He sits down heavily and pinches the bridge of his nose. “I’m doing fine,” he says, more sedated. “Just fine. Happy as a clam.”
Their call continues for a bit longer, although much more stilted. After saying their goodbyes and after he repeats his promise that he will call if he needs anything, Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and slumps into his chair. Whatever appetite he had has long since dissipated into thin air.
He stays unmoving until his phone vibrates in his hand. He cracks one lazy eye open.
A text from Lan Xichen?
Idly, he unlocks the phone and skims the message, and as he continues to scroll down and down and down, his brow raises at both the length and strange formality of the text. The man practically composed a formal thank you letter for sending the photos Jane took. He even went so far as ending it with a “Yours very truly, Lan Xichen”.
Jiang Cheng huffs out a laugh. Really, that man is too much.
But what should he write as a response?
He crosses his arms over his chest, and thinks. He’s not going to compose an equally formal letter back, but it has to be poignant. It needs to make a statement.
He’s eyes light up. Here’s an idea.
Flipping back to his phone's photo gallery, he pulls up the picture of him, Lan Xichen and Pirate. He crops out Pirate, taking care to capture his full, smug pose in all its fluffy glory, and draws a pair of sunglasses on him with the editing tool.
Then, as a last minute touch, he adds the text: “UR Welcome” in white font, followed by three smirking emojis.
And then, he sends that hot mess of a picture to Lan Xichen, and sits back and waits for the fireworks.
His phone remains silent for a grand total of five seconds.
Then, buzzing. And then, another buzz, followed by more buzzing.
He checks his phone and smirks.
The first message is nothing but a string of exclamation marks. Then: “This. This is adorable!” and: “Wait, how did you do that??” with two question marks and all.
Well, he’ll be damned. It looks like the man can loosen up after all. He just needs the right incentive.
Jiang Cheng leans forward in his chair and begins teaching Lan Xichen the wonders of photo editing on his phone.
Wow, thank you all so much for your response. It really means a lot to see all of you liking this fic so much. As a special treat, here's Chapter 2 posted in time for the new year. Happy 2019, everybody!
Without further ado, here are more random facts of varying degrees of usefulness that I couldn't fit into the fic:
 KitTea Cat Cafe employees - There are a total of 10 employees working for this cafe, not including The Boss (who will most likely remain unnamed and genderless). I doubt I will include all 10 employees in this story, unless they become relevant at some point. But for the time being, the ones named are as follows:
Derek (African-American male, age 25, enjoys long walks on the beach, terrible romance novels, and anything related to space. Does DJ-ing on the side);
Rebecca (Latina, age 28 but looks younger because she's 5'1''. Enjoys B grade horror movies because she finds them hilarious, those stupid life hack videos on YouTube, and dystopian novels. Also does cross-fitting.);
Jane (White caucasian female, age 32, loves shitty reality TV shows, photography, and greek classics).
 Lan Xichen's suits - Jiang Cheng is right; most of them are bespoke. The navy one isn't though; it's Giorgio Armani.
 Jiang Cheng's collection of store merch T-shirts - While working, Jiang Cheng defaults to wearing a handful of T-shirts, all of which can be purchased at the cafe. They are all oversized and feature the colours grey, black, burgundy/purple, and white (just to match with his canon outfit's colour scheme). They also contain the store logo of the smirking cat wearing shades, and some sort of cat pun ("How do you like me Meow", "You've got to be Kitten me", "Looking good FELINE good"...and etc.)
 The number of cat puns I had to think up and/or google is slowly killing me on the inside. Please send help.
 Jane was willing to give Jiang Cheng up to 30% of her bet's winning, which would have been and even $30. Jiang Cheng would have refused because his dignity is priceless, or at the very least, worth $50.
 The slow blink - This is a legit trick, taught by the legendary cat whisperer Jackson Galaxy himself. I highly recommend the video "4 Ways to Tell Your Cat "I Love You!"" by Jackson Galaxy on YouTube. Basically, the slow blink is the equivalent to the cat version of I Love You. If you own a cat, try it!!
 By virtue of Item  above, Princess Caroline actually told Jiang Cheng that she loves him by way of the slow blink back in Chapter 1. (This was planned since the beginning when Chapter 1 was first drafted. It's a weird Easter egg to include in the fic and I'm not sorry.)
 Lan Xichen, upon learning more about editing photos on his phone, proceeds to spam his little brother with ridiculous pictures. Lan Wangji is confused but amused. Wei Wuxian is straight up confused.
As always, please let me know what you think Although I can't guarantee that I'll be able to update this fic as quickly as I have for Chapter 2, I have stuff planned and am looking forward to sharing it with you all.
As the summer rolls into the fall, the number of customers at the KitTea Cat Café starts to pick up once again with the students making their sad return from their land of sweet, summer freedom to a year of fresh school hell. The increasing number of customers also means an increase in the number of staff on shift at the café.
However, despite the changing seasons, one thing remains constant in Jiang Cheng’s life, and that is Lan Xichen and his routine visits.
In all seriousness, Lan Xichen is probably one of the best customers they’ve had. He shows up regularly, predictably orders the same thing time and time again, never complains about anything, and tips hella well.
He also doesn’t harass the cats whenever he spends time in the cat pen, and they adore him for it. Even Princess Caroline, who was the last cat to jump on the Lan Xichen bandwagon, now occasionally tolerates a few head rubs from him.
And whenever she does, Lan Xichen looks like he’s won the lottery of lotteries. It’s frustratingly endearing, and Jiang Cheng finds himself having to look away from the pure blissful joy emanating from the other’s face, because he just physically cannot process that much positivity in one, concentrated sitting. His salty, old man soul can only withstand so much.
In any event, the man is a perfect customer, so Jiang Cheng is also not at all surprised by the meteoric rise in his popularity among the rest of the staff. Stories about a beautiful Disney Prince of a man showing up to the café like clockwork, gracing staff and customers alike with his beauty and elegance have transcended from mere gossip to urban legend status at this point.
The pictures of Lan Xichen plastered on the visitors wall (‘it’s a literal shrine to Asian Adonis!’ as Rebecca gleefully and loudly describes it) only adds fuel to the fire.
“Mr. Lan! Good morning! Welcome back!” A chorus of greetings chime in as the man of the hour steps into the café, this time in a fashionable mottled grey wool suit perfect to fend off the autumn chill. Even the smattering of customers are glancing up and watching with interest.
Behind the safety of his trusty barricade that his beloved espresso machine, Jiang Cheng sighs. Here they go again.
“Mr. Lan! I was trying a new recipe for these chai shortbread cookies. Would you like to test some?”
“Mr. Lan! Please try this instead –”
Jiang Cheng pauses in making Lan Xichen’s order to roll his eyes. Dear Lord, are they always this excitable?
It’s not that Jiang Cheng is all that bothered that Lan Xichen is popular with the staff. That’s to be expected.
What Jiang Cheng takes an issue with is how shameless these co-workers can get with dolling out the royal treatment and with their fawning. Some of them would straight up flock around the poor man like fans would around a celebrity. Completely outrageous behaviour, if anyone were to ask Jiang Cheng, not to mention unprofessional.
What’s even worse is that Lan Xichen is much too polite to tell them to back off, even if their behaviour does bother him. His damnable politeness won’t let him. Instead, he’ll probably say something ridiculous like how much he finds their enthusiasm to be refreshing while silently bearing the torture like the saintly man that he is. Jiang Cheng can already hear him in his head saying this, and it infuriates him.
The crowd around Lan Xichen grows, and Jiang Cheng can feel the vein in his temple pulse.
So clearly, all of this leaves only one solution.
“Alright, alright. Break it up, people! Break it up! The man needs his coffee!”
Jiang Cheng strolls over with the swagger and self-importance of a king, coffee thrusted in front of him as a shield. The group around him parts like the Red Sea.
He hands Lan Xichen his cappuccino with a quick nod of greeting to the other man. He’s rather proud of the design; it has a picture of a cat dressed up as Shakespeare on the milk foam and the words, “Tabby or not tabby, that is the question” scrawled on the cup itself. Strange but classy, like Lan Xichen himself.
Speaking of which…
He glances up, checking to make sure that the other man is fully engrossed with trying to dissect the madness in his cup.
Then, he channels his mother’s look of deep-seated rage, the same one that puts the fear of God into his and Wei Wuxian’s very beings whenever they’re on its receiving end, and sharpens it into flared daggers.
And he buries them straight into his squishy co-workers, those too slow or too stupid to run.
The wide-eyed, frozen looks of horror are as delicious as fresh, spring water to his parched, salty old man soul. Linda may or may not have squeaked a little.
“Scram,” he mouths the word slowly, dangerously.
The group disperses like cockroaches fleeing from the light.
Only in the lingering dust trails does he allow himself to smirk.
Heh. Still got it.
“I didn’t know you’re a fan of Shakespeare.”
Jiang Cheng turns his attention back to the source of all his troubles. The man only looks vaguely amused. If he’s surprised by the sudden peace that surrounds them, he’s not showing it.
Nor will Jiang Cheng provide an explanation for it either. Like hell he’ll admit to having defended Lan Xichen’s virtue and possible sanity like a knight in shining armor.
Even if seeing how effective he is at crowd control warms the recesses of his cold, dark heart and fills his chest with smug delight.
“I doubt a true Shakespeare fan would sully his image the way I did, and with latte art of all things,” Jiang Cheng notes wryly, but he digresses. He has more important matters to discuss.
“You know, you don’t have to stand here and let my colleagues bother you, especially if they get a bit too pushy.”
Lan Xichen chuckles. “Thank you, but I don’t find them to be a bother. If anything, I find your co-workers’ enthusiasm to be rather refreshing.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. As predicted.
“But, I will keep your comment in mind. Although,” Lan Xichen’s lips quirk up to that almost smirk of his, and Jiang Cheng has seen enough of that expression to feel wary, “I doubt I will need to ask for aid, not when Jiang Wanyin is already keeping such constant vigilance.”
Whelp, that feeling of self-satisfaction did not last long. Busted.
“Yeah, well,” Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and scowls, because no, Lan Xichen does not deserve an iota of his embarrassment when he’s the one who did all the work. “Someone has to be keeping an eye out. Linda was getting ready to force-feed you those shortbread cookies if I didn’t show up just now.”
“Then, I must thank you for your interference,” Lan Xichen says with utmost sincerity in his voice, but that damnable not-smirk is still firmly in place as with that tell-tale gleam to his eyes, so Jiang Cheng is not buying it for one second. “Thank you for saving me from the terrible fate of being offered home-made, freshly baked goods.”
And there it is.
“You know what, I take it all back,” Jiang Cheng snaps. This is what happens when he tries to do a good thing. Such ungratefulness! “I should just leave you to fend for yourself. Next time, see if I bother to swoop in!”
At that, Lan Xichen places a hand over his heart, as if pained by the words. “Such cruel betrayal, Jiang Wanyin. To imagine that you would abandon a friend in their moment of need.”
It takes a few seconds for what was said to fully sink in, but when it does, Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen and the conversation freezes on its track. Everything around them seem to go quiet all of a sudden, so quiet that Jiang Cheng is surprised that the other can’t hear the pounding of his heart as it thrums in his chest.
It’s funny. Throughout the two months of near constant interaction, neither of them have acknowledged that they’ve long since passed the threshold of being mere acquaintances. Jiang Cheng himself certainly hasn’t put much thought into it. Between taking care of the cats and trying to survive on his own, he was far more invested in his daily grind and in maintaining the status quo then he does in things like building relationships.
Even if he wasn’t preoccupied, he doubt he’d have spotted the signs. Unlike his older brother who attracts a plethora of friends with his easy-going attitude, or his sister with her sweet, gentle nature, he has neither of those things going for him. He’d be the first to admit that he can be a bit difficult to deal with, his strict (and often times grumpy) personality lending more towards a life of quiet solitude, which works just fine for him, thank you very much. But because of all of this, he finds himself lacking in experience when it comes to the subject of friendship. Or spotting one in bloom.
But when it’s laid out like that in the open, even Jiang Cheng, who is normally a master of ignoring soft, fuzzy feelings, cannot deny that calling Lan Xichen a friend has a certain ring of truth to it. Somewhere along the lines amongst all the ridiculous visits, coffees, and cat-puns, Lan Xichen has wormed his way into Jiang Cheng’s heart, and had endeared himself to him. Somehow, without Jiang Cheng noticing, Lan Xichen had ceased to become his almost-brother-in-law, this abstract figure of a man with no discernable characteristics aside from being exceedingly polite and beautiful.
Somewhere along those lines, Lan Xichen became real. He became someone who matters.
And apparently, that feeling is mutual.
“Ah, I apologize,” Lan Xichen grimaces as the pregnant silence between them stretches on for a little too long. “I – I may have overstepped my bounds. I do not wish to presume – ”
Jiang Cheng silences him by holding up his hand. “I’ve abandoned my own brother for a lot less, let alone in his moment of need,” he says, all matter-of-fact over the rapid thump-thump-thump of his racing heart, the sudden crash of his realization still hitting him in full swing. “Don’t think I won’t abandon you just because you’re my friend.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t think he can ever get used to Lan Xichen’s smile, his real one as opposed to his trademark face of pleasantry that he wears for the rest of the world. There’s something delicate and vulnerable about it, from the gentle upturned corners of his lips to the slightest crinkle by the side of his eyes, and the way his eyes sparkle like sunray on powdered snow.
And it’s directed at him.
Jiang Cheng turns to cough into his fist. Jesus, look at him, waxing poetic about the man in his own head. He’s just as bad as Linda. How embarrassing.
“Now, drink your coffee and admire my masterpiece some more before it gets cold and gross,” he manages to grump out, but he doesn’t think he’s fooling anyone.
Things start to shift between them after The Awakening, as Jiang Cheng is calling it in his mind, in little but noteworthy ways. For example, Jiang Cheng notices the way Lan Xichen’s shoulders would relax whenever he sees him, and his mask of pleasantry would melt into something warmer and more genuine. Or how whenever they talk, Lan Xichen’s not-smirk would make its way on to his lips with ease, almost always accompanied by the teasing lilt to his voice.
Ever since The Awakening, Jiang Cheng feels like a dictionary is suddenly thrusted on to him, one that is only partially filled, but what is present can be used to translate the other man’s quirks. With every new interaction, more pages are being filled so that bit by bit, he can solve the mystery that is Lan Xichen.
One of those recent discoveries is that despite possessing all his grace, level-headedness, and apparently, a well of patience to withstand bullshit as deep as the goddamned ocean, the man is definitely not immune to the terribleness that are cat puns. Jiang Cheng realized this when he saw, with his own two eyes, the way the older man had failed to fully suppress the flinch of a particularly bad pun (“Live long and pawspurr”) before he could slap on his trademark gentle smile in time to hide his brief moment of weakness.
But it was too late. Jiang Cheng had witnessed that moment, and it had been glorious.
He then proceeded to act like any reasonable human being would in his position by abusing the ever loving fuck out of that knowledge. He had been aggressively spamming Lan Xichen’s drinks with the most terrible puns he could think of, even having taken to writing the puns out on the side of the cup in large, blocky letters so that the message would last longer. After all, designs on milk foam are fleeting; they only last for as long as it remains unconsumed. Words written with a black sharpie in font size 32, however, are permanent, as with the pain that accompanies them.
As an extra bonus, he likes to include puns that are double or triple whamos. “Feline purrfect right meow” remains his magnum opus. The way Lan Xichen’s eyes had shuttered at that had been nothing short of legendary.
But perhaps the biggest discovery for Jiang Cheng is that underneath Lan Xichen’s thick layer of properness and zen, there lies a streak of mischief. Sweet, glorious mischief.
“I have been putting the photo editing skills you taught me to good use and to great effect,” Lan Xichen had said during one of Jiang Cheng’s Saturday morning jogs at the park. It was the second time they’ve ran into each other, although compared to the first time, Jiang Cheng was much more welcoming. “Would you like to see?”
“Sure,” Jiang Cheng agreed and took the phone Lan Xichen had passed to him.
Honestly, Jiang Cheng had expected generic pictures of nature and buildings with classy filters on them, most likely sepia-toned everything. Instead, what he got was so much better.
He scrolled through snapshots of text messages between Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji, which, okay - their existence was a bit dodgy because why? – until he realized just what they were taken for.
The snapshots were taken for the sake of preservation. Probably for nefarious purposes.
And then he took a closer look at the actual pictures themselves, and he scrunched his face. “Are those pictures of my latte art?” He squinted down at the tiny screen, without fully registering what he was seeing, until – wait, a minute. Wait a goddamn minute.
“Have you been trolling your brother with my latte art?”
In one such snapshot, Lan Wangji had sent Lan Xichen a disgustingly saccharine image of him and Wei Wuxian gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. The kitchen in the background, however, looked like a war zone. The accompanying message read: “Wei Ying tried to help me cook today.”
In response, Lan Xichen had sent back a cropped image of the latte art of a cat and an apostrophe, one of Jiang Cheng’s personal favourites for its simplicity, along with the added text: “What a catastrophe” at the bottom. This was followed by three crying laughing emojis.
Lan Wangji’s response had been a simple, but deliciously poignant: Brother. No.
In another snapshot, Lan Wangji had sent yet another picture of him and Wei Wuxian, cuddling by an old oak tree surrounded by nature. The sky behind them was the perfect shade of azure with not even a wisp of cloud in sight. The text that followed read: “Spent time relaxing at the park with Wei Ying today. How are you, brother?”
And Lan Xichen, had sent a very familiar picture back –
“Is that my magnum opus?” Jiang Cheng almost screeched.
It was. “Feline purrfect right meow” had made its way as the response in all of its horrible, terrible glory. To add insult to injury, Lan Xichen had added a sparkly frame to the picture and a sticker of a sassy cat.
Apparently it was all to devastating effect, because Lan Wangji’s response to that was:
And then, with a faint whiff of betrayal: Why.
Jiang Cheng had no words.
“Since Younger Brother likes to share so many pictures, I thought it is only right to return the gesture,” Lan Xichen had said as he took back his phone, his tone calm and pleasant, but that damnable not-smirk was there and Jiang Cheng knew better. Oh, did he know better.
Thinking back on that whole debacle, Jiang Cheng wonders what sort of monster he inadvertently helped create.
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian wails over the phone one evening, a handful of days after that faithful meeting in the park. “I think Big Brother has gone crazy!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jiang Cheng straight up denies as he takes a slow sip of his tea. “He’s been acting perfectly normal to me.”
“You and Mr. GQ seem to be getting pretty chummy these days!” Derek notes to Jiang Cheng one day, when they’re cleaning the cat pen under the judging, watchful gaze of Princess Caroline. “Is this in any way, shape, or form related to why some of the staff have been giving you a wide berth?”
Jiang Cheng pauses in his wiping. “Stop calling him that,” he says almost automatically by this point. But also, “What? They have?”
“Rumor has it, that you’ve been running interference on some of the more enthusiastic co-workers who want Mr. Lan’s attention. A little birdy has also told me that you’re apparently super scary when you’re mad. Something to do with ‘the wrath of a particularly pissed off God in the face of sinners’.”
Jiang Cheng has a good idea as to who this little birdy is. “It’s Linda isn’t it. Linda told you.”
“Yup, it was Linda. She told me everything,” Derek quips, sounding not at all guilty for throwing Linda right under that moving truck, or the speed at which he did it. “But, is it true?”
“I told them to scram because they’ve been harassing Lan Xichen, and I know he’s too polite to say anything. He’s a nice guy, so he will tolerate a lot of things that may annoy him.” Jiang Cheng shrugs. “That’s basically the gist of it.”
“Oh. So you did it because it was the right thing to do. Huh.” Derek sounds disappointed. What the hell kind of reaction is that?
A beat later: “But aside from wanting to do the right thing, what would be, say, the next closest reason for you wanting to help Mr. GQ? Is it because you think he’s a friend or…”
Jiang Cheng narrows his gaze at him. “What do you mean, next closest reason? What are you trying to fish for and why are you asking so many questions all of a sudden?”
“No reason at all! Just making small talk!” A pause. “But say, hypothetically speaking, does it have anything to do with you being closer to – ”
“Is there a bet on me and Lan Xichen?!”
The Awakening aside, it genuinely surprises Jiang Cheng how easy and quick it is for his mind to get used to the fact that yes, Lan Xichen is a friend. Once he’s made peace with this, the knowledge settles over him like a childhood blanket, warm and familiar.
Which makes it all the more jarring when on the day Lan Xichen is slotted to show up to the café, he…does not.
Nor does he make an appearance the day after that, or the following day.
“Yo, Jiang Cheng,” Rebecca asks one week later, after three consecutive missed visits, “do you know what’s up with Mr. GQ? Everyone’s noticed that he hasn’t been around, and we’re all getting a bit worried. It’s unlike him to ghost like that.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t have any idea either. After the first missed visit, he had sent a quick text to Lan Xichen asking if everything was alright. At the time, he didn’t think too much of it. The man does have a busy day job, after all.
But after a full day had passed and he received nothing but radio silence, the concern started to trickle in.
He had tried sending another message but again, he received no response. He tried calling his idiot brother to see if he or Lan Wangji had heard of any news about Lan Xichen but his call went straight to voice mail. Apparently, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had gone off to parts unknown on their usual travelling adventures. Knowing his brother and Lan Wangji’s tendency to let Wei Wuxian do as he pleases, they’ve probably ventured off somewhere exotic with no access to the outside world – like the heart of the Amazon forest, or some remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Having exhausted all of his avenues to contact Lan Xichen, Jiang Cheng is at a bit of a loss as to what he can do next.
Scoping the news did not turn up any scandals surrounding the Lans or their companies, or, God forbid, on missing bodies found.
“I honestly have no clue,” Jiang Cheng admits with a little helpless shrug. “I reached out to him but I haven’t heard anything back at all.”
“It’s not us, is it?” Rebecca bites her lips and asks in a small voice. “Maybe we’ve gone a bit too far with the shrine and the fangirling.”
Jiang Cheng had entertained the idea that Lan Xichen was finally done with their collective bullshit and decided to bail, but nothing about that made any sense. For one, Lan Xichen honestly seemed like he enjoyed his time at the café even amidst the over-enthusiastic staff. For another, even if he was trying to bail, he would have still answered Jiang Cheng’s messages rather than giving him the silent treatment. Lan Xichen was much too polite to simply ignore him, so if he’s not answering his texts, then there has to be a reason for it.
“I don’t think so,” he finally answers after mulling things over in his head for a bit longer. “On his last visit, he promised he’ll swing by to visit the cats again. I doubt he would’ve said that without meaning it.”
“Is there anything we can do, then?”
“Not much besides wait, I guess.”
The second week rolls by, and the once lively atmosphere of the store has gone quiet and grim. The staff are noticeably more subdued, and on more than one occasion, Jiang Cheng sees from the corner of his eyes an employee making their way to approach him only to lose their courage at the last second.
Even the cats are affected; they’ve spent more time sleeping, or lounging about then Jiang Cheng has ever seen them do. Attempts at play did not go anywhere. The cats would only stare at the toy, give it a few haphazard bats here and there, before giving up entirely in favour of lying down. Even Bandit’s escape attempts have decreased.
By the beginning of week 3, the staff is low-key panicking.
“Do you think we should maybe call the police?” Jiang Cheng walks into the café just in time to hear Jane ask.
“We don’t even know if the man is really missing,” Rebecca replies. “What would we even tell the police?”
“We can’t just sit here and do nothing! The not knowing is driving everyone crazy.” Jane turns to Jiang Cheng. “Have you heard any news?”
“Nothing.” At this point, Jiang Cheng has sent a number of embarrassing text messages to Lan Xichen, each with escalating panic. He’s even tried calling the man.
“This is just great. At this point, I don’t even care if Mr. Lan doesn’t want to drop by our café anymore. I just want to know if he’s safe!”
Jiang Cheng couldn’t agree more.
As the day fades into the night, the number of customers slowly trickle away from the café until finally, 9 pm rolls around and it’s closing time.
“Hey, sorry for bailing early,” Rebecca pops her head out from behind the counter to say. They’re the only ones who are manning the shop for the night shift, Jane having long since clocked out. “It looks like the fam jam just got in town and I’ll need to swing by the airport to pick them up. Will you be okay with getting the rest of this stuff wrapped up on your own?”
Jiang Cheng waves at her to leave. “Don’t worry about it. There’s not much left to do anyway. I can take care of the rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Jiang Cheng. You’re the best. I’ll cover tomorrow morning’s prep for you!”
Jiang Cheng spends the next couple of minutes stashing everything away, wiping down the tables and counter before stacking the chairs on the table. He’s about to make one more round to check up on the cats when he hears the soft creak of the front door opening.
“Sorry, we’re closed for today – ”
His eyes widen at the visitor. “Holy shit. Lan Xichen?”
Thank you all so, so much for your lovely comments and for all your support. This chapter was giving me more trouble than I would have liked as it serves as that awkward transitional point in Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen's relationship as well as in the plot itself. I have this chapter in my head as the end of Act I.
As always, thanks for reading. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this <3
 "Tabby or not Tabby, that is the question" - a horrible cat-pun based off of a famous line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To be, or not to be, that is the question."
 "Live long and pawspurr" - another horrible cat-pun for the line "Live long and prosper", popularized by Stark Trek as the greeting of the Vulcan people.
 "Feline purrfect right meow" - Feeling perfect right now. It's so bad it's good.
 Mr. GQ - This is one of the nicknames that was given to Lan Xichen by the cat cafe employees. GQ is a famous men's magazine known for having these gorgeous covers and spreads, mostly featuring famous male celebrities in suits. By calling Lan Xichen Mr. GQ, the employees are basically saying that Lan Xichen looks like he belongs at the cover of GQ, given how well he normally dress.
 Magnum opus - Latin for great work. In modern day, magnum opus is used to describe an artist's greatest masterpiece. Jiang Cheng is using it to describe his three combo cat pun, because he's a sarcastic shit.
The man in front of him looks like he’s seen better days. His hair, normally tied neatly in an elegant pony tail, is mussed as if he’s just woken up, with loose strands flying everywhere. His blood-shot eyes are ringed with deep, purple circles contrasted to look darker against his pale, wan face. His grey-blue button-up shirt, once immaculate, is wrinkled with some of the buttons coming undone. Even his posture betrays just how weary he must feel from the way he’s leaning against the door jam, as if he can barely support his own weight.
Jiang Cheng eyes the duffle bag hanging from his other shoulder, and painful relief floods his entire being. The man had physically been away for the past weeks to god knows where. That’s why he didn’t answer his phone. Even though he looks like hell now, clearly him standing there meant that he had been safe and sound all along.
“I, uh,” Lan Xichen looks away with a grimace, clear embarrassment on his tired features. “I apologize, I just realized how late it is.”
He takes a step forward, and sways a little.
“Jesus Christ!” Jiang Cheng rushes forward and throws the other man’s arm over his shoulder for support. Together, they shuffle to the closest table, pausing briefly for Jang Cheng to pull down a chair.
“Are you alright?” he asks after helping Lan Xichen settle into the seat. “Do you need water or anything?”
Jiang Cheng casts another worried look over the man. In the brightly lit café, the man looks even worse for wear. Under the fluorescent light, the shadow of the exhausted lines etched into his face are made all the more pronounced.
But even when he’s clearly barely functioning, Lan Xichen manages to give Jiang Cheng a small, but genuine small. “No, no, I’m fine. I’m just exhausted.”
Jiang Cheng frowns. Well, obviously. “If you’re so exhausted, then why are you here?”
At Lan Xichen’s pained wince, Jiang Cheng mentally kicks himself. Shit, that came out way harsher than what he had meant.
“Sorry, that’s not, that came out wrong,” he manages to sputter out. He’s always been so bad with words, let alone in the face of the warring sense of relief and rising worry at seeing Lan Xichen in his current state. “I’m glad,” he tries again after a few heartbeats of silence. “I’m glad you’re here. You have no idea how worried I – we all were. But you should take care of yourself first. You need rest.”
Especially when the man looks like he desperately needs to sleep for a month.
“I didn’t want to go home. I just got off the plane and I wanted,” Lan Xichen’s hesitates, his gaze shifts to the table, and for a second there, he looks abashed. “I wanted. To see you.”
Heat floods to Jiang Cheng’s face. Oh.
“I realized that I had left abruptly and I wanted to apologize,” Lan Xichen continues. “I was called away for a work emergency. The accounts for one of the construction projects were,” he presses his lips into a thin line and shakes his head, his brow drawing together as frustration mars his expression. Probably catching himself before he can divulge any confidential information, Jiang Cheng surmises. But the fact that Lan Xichen had let that much slip only shows how tired he is. “It was meant to be a short trip, two days at most. I wanted to reach out to let you know, but. Well.”
He fishes around his pant pocket and pulls out a dark, rectangular mess of cracked glass and twisted, bent metal.
Jiang Cheng stares at it. “Is that your phone?” he chokes out. “What the hell happened to it?”
Lan Xichen sighs and tucks the contraption back into his pocket. It’s the closest Jiang Cheng has seen Lan Xichen looking utterly defeated. “I dropped it. And then it got run over by oncoming traffic.” At Jiang Cheng’s incredulous stare, he runs a hand through his hair, messing it up even further. “I’ve had the most horrible two weeks.”
At that precise moment, the distinct sound of stomach gurgling fills the air.
“You weren’t kidding when you said you just got off the plane, were you?” Jiang Cheng asks faintly.
Lan Xichen hunches into himself, his ears practically glowing hot red. For a man over six feet tall, it’s actually pretty impressive how small he’s able to make himself look, if the sight of it wasn’t so heart-wrenching . “I apologize.” The words are dripping with mortification. “I have been nothing but an inconvenience this evening. I will take my leave and get some supper at home.”
Before Jiang Cheng can protest, the man has the audacity to try to get up on shaking limbs.
“Oh no, you’re not in any state to be going anywhere. Sit back down!” Jiang Cheng scolds and gently pushes the other down into the chair. Honestly! The man can barely stand, let alone walk out the store unaided. Such stubbornness is unwarranted!
“I’m going to run to the back and get you some orange juice. Don’t you dare refuse,” he levels Lan Xichen a disapproving look before the man can say anything. “You are not to leave this chair either. Okay?”
At Lan Xichen’s meek nod, he huffs out a final, “Good!” and marches to the kitchen.
Once out of sight, he drops his posture and sinks back into his heels, one hand reaching to pinch the bridge of his nose.
What the hell is he doing, and what the hell can he do to fix this? Lan Xichen needs more than just goddamned orange juice right now; he needs actual food and sleep before he passes out.
He reaches for the fridge door and yanks it open. As suspected, the café isn’t left with a lot of stuff that he can use to cobble together a decent meal. Tomorrow morning, when their fresh shipments arrive, they should be able to restock their larder to a much more respectable state. As it stands right now, all they have left is bread and some condiments. He’s not about to send Lan Xichen loose after serving him a fucking diet of dried bread and orange juice. That’s a meal more befitting for sad, starving college students than a beloved member of the KitTea Café.
He reaches for the orange juice, snags a clean glass from the shelf and pours out a cup before stashing the juice back in the fridge. Okay, so dried bread is out. But what about if he just gives the juice to Lan Xichen, makes sure he drinks it, and then call a cab for the man? Surely, he’ll be able to feed himself once he’s at home, right? His kitchen has to be much better stocked than the café.
His face twists into a grimace. There are several things wrong with that. First, he’s assuming that Lan Xichen’s apartment would contain anything edible after being gone for two weeks. The man has a notoriously healthy diet if he’s anything like Lan Wangji at all. Anything fresh and green, which Jiang Cheng is willing to bet is most things in Lan Xichen’s fridge, would’ve become a rotting mess by now.
Second, he’s assuming Lan Xichen will have the capacity to make himself something to eat…which is looking less and less probable. What’s more likely to happen is the man would simply pass out in bed and go hungry, which no. That’s not acceptable.
Jiang Cheng’s cheeks flush. Third and most important of all, Lan Xichen deserves better than being sent away in a cab to fend for himself. The man had come all the way straight from the airport to see him so that he can apologize.
For not being there.
Because he was away on an unforeseen work emergency.
Honestly, that man.
He temporarily puts the glass of orange juice down so that he can pop his head out of the kitchen entrance. Lan Xichen has kept his word and is staying put, but the man is fading fast. He’s got his elbow on the table with his head propped up against his palm, his head sinking lower and lower into his hand with every passing second.
Jiang Cheng ducks back into the kitchen and paces, a fresh scowl adorning his face. Of all the ridiculous things Lan Xichen has done, this has to be ranked at the very top. It’s a minor miracle that he even managed to get to the café in his half-disoriented state.
But Jiang Cheng’s original point still stands. He can’t in good conscience just release Lan Xichen into the wild in his current state. He just can't.
But what can he do? Where else has decent food this time of the night that’s also not too –
He pauses mid-step. Shit, there is a simpler way to solve this problem. He hates it, but it’s there. And unless he can come up with a better idea right then and there, he’s shit out of luck.
He spends a few more seconds pacing. When nothing more comes to mind, he scowls and shakes his head.
Time to face the music.
He tip toes out of the kitchen, grabbing the orange juice on his way, and yup, Lan Xichen looks like he’s just about to fall asleep. Gently, he deposits the glass on the table in front of Lan Xichen, and as he’s debating whether he’ll need to shake the other awake, the man startles upright, almost making Jiang Cheng jump back in shock.
“Hmm?” he blinks at Jiang Cheng owlishly, disoriented, and his expression is so much like the cats when they’ve been started awake, that Jiang Cheng has to physically stop himself from giving the other a fond smile.
“Here, drink this,” he murmurs instead and nudges the glass closer to the other man.
He watches Lan Xichen down the juice in possibly the least amount of grace he’s ever seen of him. Once the glass is empty, and no alternative, miraculous solution has come to his mind, Jiang Cheng mentally breathes a sigh and steels himself.
Here goes nothing.
“So, I live right above the café,” he starts, trying to sound casual least he betrays the internal cringing that’s happening right then. “If you want, you can, uh, crash at my place. For the night.”
Even dead tired, Lan Xichen still has the mind to be polite. “I couldn’t. I don’t want to be a bother.”
“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng lies through his teeth. “If you’re a bother, I wouldn’t have offered. Just, let me check on the cats first. Then, we can head-up. How does that sound?”
He leaves before Lan Xichen can refuse some more, and before the man can make out just how red his face has become.
His internal panicking did not cease even as he finishes making his rounds, drops the used glass in the kitchen sink, and helps Lan Xichen navigate to the door. Nor does it stop as he locks up the café for the night before they slowly, but steadily, trudge their way through a separate entrance to the side of the café, and up the steep, rickety wooden stairs.
Finally, they reach his apartment door.
And, he hesitates.
He knows he’s being irrational, but Jiang Cheng has always been intensely secretive of his home. With the exception of the Boss, who happens to own the property, nobody has actually seen the inside of his apartment since he’s moved into it a little over a year ago. Not even during the occasional video calls with his siblings does he show them all of the apartment, opting instead to stay confined to his bedroom or to the kitchen for the duration of the call.
He doesn’t know why it bothers him so much, the idea of having someone step foot into his home. He supposes that it has to do with his natural preference for solitude and quiet, which is yet another reason why he thinks he has the soul of an old man.
But more than that, this apartment is his safe space. It’s his fortress, his last defence against all the sound, chaos and messy, ugly drama that is his life. Outside leads to frustration, disappointment and heartbreak. Inside though, once he steps past the threshold of the front door and onto the worn wooden floor, he doesn’t need to worry about any of that. Inside, he has time to recoup, to find his center again, to decompress so that he can finally breathe a little easier.
Inside, he only needs to be Jiang Cheng, grumpy loner extraordinaire.
And to have someone view the place where he gets to let his guard down makes him nervous. Especially if there’s a chance they’d find it, if they find him, wanting.
“Is something the matter?”
Lan Xichen is looking at him with his bruised eyes, concerned.
More than you can fathom, is what Jiang Cheng thinks.
“I’m fine. Just spaced out for a second there,” is what he ends up saying.
But at the same time, it’s just Lan Xichen, paragon of virtue extraordinaire, who will be visiting. Since when has he said a negative thing about anybody? He hasn’t even expressed mild annoyance when he was being accosted by his co-workers for the past couple of weeks before his trip, or when his little brother was spamming him with gross PDA photos. If that’s not saintly behaviour, than Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what is.
Besides, a snide little voice in Jiang Cheng’s head grumbles, if the man is going to judge Jiang Cheng and his home, then the fucker can sleep on the goddamned floor.
Armed with a fresh wave of righteous fury and with that surprisingly comforting thought, Jiang Cheng fishes for his keys and moves to unlock the door.
For all the hype he’s built up in his mind, things are nowhere near as exciting in reality. The key slides into the lock smoothly, the lock clicks and the door swings open with barely a sound. It’s all very anticlimactic.
“Well,” he gestures to the space around him after guiding Lan Xichen to the couch. “This is it. Welcome to my humble abode.”
Humble being the key word there. His apartment is the definition of spartan, barely filled as it is with the minimum furnishing he could afford on his meager funds. He’s confined to the bare essentials – he has a tiny square dining table, a couple of chairs, a bed, a couch, a coffee table, some shelves, and a small work desk. Most of the stuff he has range from one of the neutral shades, either white, grey, or black. The only thing that gives the space a pop of colour is the couch, which is in a calming shade of grey blue, and the reason for that is because it’s bought second hand.
He doesn’t have a lot of decors up either. With the exception of one framed picture showing the smiling faces of his sister, Wei Wuxian and him together, the whole place is devoid of any other items that would hint at his family life. Even his assorted personal effects, like his small collection of books, his clothes, and other random nick knacks, are carefully stored or hidden away.
Looking at his apartment critically, he supposes that Wei Wuxian wasn’t that far off in saying that he had gone into some sort of weird monk seclusion.
Well, at the very least, it’s his place, and everything here, he obtained through his own means. (Save for his phone and laptop. Those are the only things from before that he took with him when he moved out.)
Lan Xichen doesn’t seem to be bothered by the same things plaguing Jiang Cheng’s mind. He gives everything a polite, cursory glance and beams at Jiang Cheng. “Jiang Wanyin’s home is lovely,” he says after settling in, his voice soft with sincerity. “Thank you for your kind hospitality. It’s much more than what I deserve after having so rudely interrupted your evening.”
Some of the tight ball of anxiety in his chest loosens at Lan Xichen’s heartfelt comment. Jiang Cheng finds that he can breathe a little easier after that.
And he promptly feels a thin thread of annoyance piercing through his mind.
It’s stupid and it’s irrational to place so much importance on receiving the other man’s validation, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but feel betrayed by his own body for its reaction. At the same time, it’s… nice to be thanked. And to be acknowledged that his little fortress of solitude is deemed respectable by someone other than himself.
It still doesn’t mean he has to like his heart for liking Lan Xichen’s compliment though.
“It’s no problem.” He dips his head, partly in in acknowledgement and partly to avoid making awkward eye-contact with his house guest. Not when he’s still trying to get a hold of himself and the cluster-fuck of anxiety-giddiness-frustration that is coursing through his body. “Feel free to make yourself comfortable. I’m going to scrounge up for something to eat. The bathroom is to your right, if you need it. Towels should be in the linen closet beside it. Otherwise, let me know if you need anything else.”
He dimly registers Lan Xichen replying with a quiet, “Of course, thank you,” as he trudges to the kitchen. He refuses to call it fleeing, even when the rapid thrumming in his heart noticeably slows down once he’s safely out of the living room.
Now, on to tackling the next problem – dinner.
He opens his fridge and eyes its content critically. Nothing too heavy that will sink to the bottom of the stomach and cause indigestion, especially this late at night, so that rules out the saltier, greasier meat options. And since Lan Xichen is a guest, it’s only polite to prepare something that is more suited to his tastes. What does Lan Xichen like to eat aside from green things, anyway?
Bland, this time, it’s Wei Wuxian’s bright, obnoxious voice that comes to mind. Lan Zhan’s family dinners taste and look like the physical embodiment of sadness! They barely salt or flavour anything! Worst of all, they don’t put any spice at all! Who even lives like that? Jiang Cheng, are you listening to me? Why are you not listening to your big brother’s pain and suffering? Jiang Cheng is so cruel to have forsaken –
And that’s enough of that. For once, half-listening to Wei Wuxian’s ramblings comes in handy. Who would have thought.
Jiang Cheng snags the pot of left-over white rice. He can easily whip up a pot of plain congee, garnish it with a bit of spring onion, maybe serve it with a side of pork floss and fermented bean curds. He also has different types of Asian veggies, so those can be easily boiled and stir-fried with garlic and ginger for quick side dishes.
He doesn’t have his sister’s talent for the culinary arts, but he can make this work.
With his mind made up, he starts pulling out the rest of the ingredients he’ll need and gets to work.
He’s just about ready to plate everything when he hears Lan Xichen’s soft footsteps padding up to him from behind. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I’m almost done,” he answers as he turns off the stove and give the Chinese broccolis one last stir. “Why don’t you grab a seat instead?”
He pauses, having finally casted a glance back at the other man. Lan Xichen had taken the opportunity to clean up. Although the bags are still prominent under his eyes, the skin on his face looks fresher with a tinge of pink that comes from recent scrubbing. His hair is once again, neatly combed so that each silky strand falls perfectly in place from his usual ponytail. He’s also taken the opportunity to change out of his wrinkled work clothes and into a white cardigan over a light sky blue T-shirt and a pair of pale grey sweatpants.
It’s a much more welcomed look than what he was like before. At least now, the man looks more comfortable and less likely to keel over.
Also, even in his casual wear, Lan Xichen clearly continues to soar well above the rest in the good looks department. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how any mortal can rock a plain T-shirt and sweats and not come off a bit grungy looking, but Lan Xichen can. Not only that, Lan Xichen manages to look soft and cozy but still chic.
Honestly, what the hell is this man, and how is he so goddamned beautiful all the time?
“I hope I’m not being too presumptuous,” Lan Xichen’s face goes pink a little at the silence. He tugs the hem of his T-shirt, and Jiang Cheng refuses to acknowledge how this gesture only adds to his soft, cozy appeal. “I took the opportunity to freshen up a little.”
“It’s fine, glad - glad you got comfortable,” he manages in what he hopes sounds just the right amount of casual. He turns back around to focus on transferring the Chinese broccolis to a dish. Sweet, blessed distraction. “Hope you don’t mind dinner that’s a bit lighter on the grease and salt. I figured that it’ll sit easier on the stomach given how late it is.”
“I’m sure anything you make is perfect,” comes Lan Xichen’s response, and Jiang Cheng has to spend a couple of extra seconds pretend-plating to wait for his heartbeat to go back down to normal.
Dinner is a surprisingly quiet affair in that they’re both too busy wolfing down their collective bowls of food to make small talk. It also looks like listening to that little Wei Wuxian-sounding voice was the right thing to do; Lan Xichen had taken one look at the spread on the table, and his eyes lit up.
And then, he proceeded to inhale what’s in front of him. “Everything is so delicious!” Lan Xichen had said as he grabbed another serving of garlic bok choy. “In addition to being a talented artist, Jiang Wanyin is also a talented cook!”
“It’s nothing,” Jiang Cheng had mumbled, “I learned everything from Older Sister.” And YouTube. God bless social media. “Older Sister is the real talent. I have yet to master her lotus root and pork soup.”
“I have every confidence that your sister’s recipe will be no match for you.”
All in all, Jiang Cheng considers the meal a job well done as any.
“So, how did your trip end up being the way it did?” Jiang Cheng asks after they’ve cleared the dishes and he’s made a fresh pot of chrysanthemum tea for the both of them. Something tells him that with Lan Xichen’s lack of sleep, he’s going to need it. “Where were you the past two weeks, anyway?”
“I was in Geneva,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng almost spits out his tea because he was expecting inside the country, not Switzerland. “The trip started off pretty normal, all things considered. But things quickly spiralled out of control immediately after I landed. Work being a mitigated disaster aside, my phone got destroyed on my way to the hotel.”
Jiang Cheng winces at that. Despite his hermitting ways, he’ll be the first to admit that he’s also pretty dependent on his phone. He can’t imagine what a pain it would be to suddenly not have his phone available, especially when he’s in a different country.
“It so happens that the only phone number I have memorized is my brother’s, but when I tried to reach out to him…”
“He disappeared on that trip with Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng finishes. “I found out about it afterwards when I tried to get a hold of them too. Do you have any idea where they went?”
“Christmas Island,” Lan Xichen takes a slow sip of his tea and hums in appreciation. “By Indonesia.”
“An island in the Indian Ocean.” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Called it.” At Lan Xichen’s confused look, he clarifies, “Knowing Wei Ying, I predicted that they’ll either be in the heart of the Amazon or an island in the Indian Ocean. Either way, somewhere completely unconventional, hard to reach, and hard for outsiders to reach them.” Wei Wuxian can’t simply opt for a normal vacation. What’s wrong with Paris?
“In any event,” Lan Xichen continues after another sip of tea, “I found myself in Geneva for what I had thought to be a two-day trip at most, so I figured that I could operate just fine without my phone for the time being. But things blew up even further. When the situation was finally deemed stable, two solid weeks had passed.”
Jiang Cheng can’t say he’s envious of Lan Xichen’s situation at all. The few business trips he had went on from…before had been dreadfully boring and exhausting. It wasn’t so much as getting the work done that had been annoying, it was the fact that he had to do so surrounded by annoying, corporate ass-monkeys while wearing a mask of pleasantry at all times that did it.
Those business trips he had went on were, thankfully, short and accompanied by either his mother or father, so most of the attention was deflected away from him. He can’t imagine what it would be like in Lan Xichen’s position when he had to solo carry a two-week long meeting like that. A two-week long meeting that forces you to constantly interact with people you wouldn’t want to see at any given length of time. It also forces you to be, in effect, on the clock for 24-7 while being away from your comfortable home. Frankly, it sounds every bit like Jiang Cheng’s personal hell.
There are some aspects of his life from before that Jiang Cheng misses. This type of bullshit is definitely not one of them.
They continue to chat until the tea pot is done, their conversation jumping from topic to topic, including what type of new phone Lan Xichen should get (“Not an iPhone,” Jiang Cheng shudders), and the cats at the café (“I think the cats miss you. They’ve been weirdly lethargic.” “Even Princess Caroline?” “Especially Princess Caroline.”) to their collective brothers’ bizarre adventure (“Why Christmas Island?” “I believe it was to view the different species of land crabs.” “And Lan Wangji is okay with travelling twenty-something hours to look at land crabs?” “…I rather not think about what incentive Wei Wuxian must have offered my brother to get him to agree.” “…Noted.”)
When midnight rolls around, Jiang Cheng rises from the table to grab the empty pot and cups. He waves away Lan Xichen’s attempts to help. “We should probably get to bed soon. It’s getting late, and you’ve had a hellish two weeks.”
Lan Xichen dips his head. “Thank you. If it’s not intrusive, I will set up my belongings in the living room.”
Jiang Cheng scowls. “For God’s sakes, you’re not sleeping on the couch. Take the bed. I’ll take the couch.”
If Jiang Cheng thought he’d seen Lan Xichen look mortified at the café, he’s clearly seen nothing yet. “I couldn’t possibly,” the other man chokes out with bright, glowing ears. He sounds so offended for Jiang Cheng too, like the mere suggestion would impugn on Jiang Cheng’s honor. “To make you sleep on the couch in your own apartment, that is wholly unacceptable. Please, I insist. I will sleep fine on the couch.“
“I fit on the couch. You don’t,” Jiang Cheng cuts in, even though technically, their height difference isn’t that great. But, it’s midnight and the last thing he wants is to fight over Lan Xichen’s heightened sense of propriety. “I’ve also passed out on it more times that I can count, so it’s fine.”
When Lan Xichen doesn’t look like he’s going to back down, Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and glares. “I’m going to sleep on the couch. It is my choice and you’re not forcing me to do it. If it makes you feel better, you can help me by changing the sheets to the bed and grabbing extra blankets from the linen closet. But either way, I’m not going to touch the bed. Even if you don’t take the bed, I’ll still be sleeping on the couch. Those are the terms and conditions.”
They stare at each other in silence for a few seconds, Jiang Cheng with his hackles raised and his arms crossed, and Lan Xichen looking more and more uncomfortable.
“But, is there any way that I can convince you – ”
“What if I were to – ”
“Perhaps, I can – ”
“Does the suggestion involve with you sleeping on the couch?”
“Then, no. Hard no. And no to any suggestions that flow from this if they involve the same.”
“Jiang Wanyin does not wish to negotiate,” Lan Xichen says with a pinched expression on his face and, do his ears deceive him? Is that a hint of frustration he is hearing? “Then I have no choice but to concede to your wishes for this evening.”
‘But, this conversation is not over yet’ clearly hangs from the end of that sentence, although unsaid. Still, Jiang Cheng is willing to take that as a solid win. To think, he’s discovered a monumental weapon against Lan Xichen’s politeness and that’s stubborn brashness with a hint of shamelessness.
The former, he's got in spades. The latter, well, he can always borrow some from Wei Wuxian.
“Good,” he says and the smile he gives probably makes him look like a cat that got the cream, the mouse, and a buffet of other food items. Lan Xichen’s flat look only makes him feel even more smug. “Now, shall we grab those sheets and blankets?”
For all the excitement that had occurred, or maybe, it’s because of said excitement, Jiang Cheng slept soundly the moment his head landed on his pillow.
It also explains why at the first whisper of “Jiang Wanyin”, rather than startling awake as he normally does, he simply reacts by pulling his cover over his head and mumbling, “G’way.”
There, that ought to do it.
He manages to ignore the second and third whispers of his name, but at the slight touch to his cover, he musters the energy to sit up and utters a coherent, “Whaddya want, Wei Ying?”
In the darkness of the room, he can barely make out a distinctly not Wei Wuxian-shaped figure, crouching in front of him. The warm smell of sandalwood brushes against his nose, and he feels his previous annoyance melt away at this curious discovery.
“My apologies for waking you,” comes a soft, low tone. The smoothness of his voice caresses his ears, a welcomed reprieve from his brother’s usual pitchy exclamations. “But I thought it would be rude of me to leave without a word.” The figure lets out a self-deprecating laugh. “Well, to leave without a word again.”
Oh, his muggy mind registers a beat later. So, that’s not Wei Ying.
He sits up a bit straighter, pulling the covers over his shoulders to ward off the morning chill. Idly, he runs his fingers through his hair to comb out the tangles – he always lets it down from its usual severe bun when going to bed, but every morning, he pays the price for it.
“S’no problem,” he says, his voice thick with sleep, even if he isn’t sure what he’s responding to, or who’s responding to, for that matter. It seems like the right thing to say. He gives his hair one last comb through with his fingers before giving up and letting it fall so that it rests over his shoulders.
When no other noise is forthcoming, he rubs his eyes and asks. “What time is it?”
“Very early, unfortunately,” the same voice responds, though it sounds a bit thin, “You, ah – ”
The voice stops, as if unsure of what to say.
“Hmm?” He blinks and casts his bleary eyes down. Oh, his cover’s slipped off. It also managed to pull the collar of his oversized shirt down so that it’s hanging loosely on one side, exposing his collar bone and his left shoulder to the cold air. Slowly, he tugs the collar back up with one hand and rearranges the shirt so that it sits properly. “Thanks.”
“It’s no problem,” the voice chokes out. Then, the sound of a voice being cleared, and, “Unfortunately, I do need to get going. I left you a note on the table for later. Once again, thank you so much for your hospitality.”
Jiang Cheng scrunches his face. Go? Go where?
Oh! A light bulb clicks over his head. He’s talking to Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen stayed over and now, Lan Xichen has to go to work.
Right. Got it.
“’Kay. No worries.” Jiang Cheng snuggles back into his warm nest, infinitely more at peace now that he’s figured out who the mysterious figure is. The figure with the velvet voice – Lan Xichen. It’s Lan Xichen – pauses, then reaches for the covers and pulls them over Jiang Cheng for him.
“Thanks.” Jiang Cheng sighs in contentment and sinks further into his pillow, the faint scent of sandalwood carrying him back to sleep.
It is with much cursing when he jolts awake for the second time that morning, this time to the obnoxious sound of his phone alarm blaring.
“Alright, alright, shut up already!”
Gingerly, he sticks his hand out of his covers, sacrificing it to the cold air so that it can snatch his phone up. He gropes around the table, reaching for the general vicinity of where he thinks the phone is, but when his fingers brush against something that feels like paper, he pauses in his movement.
Frowning, he pokes his head out from his blanket burrito. There is a square piece of paper, neatly folded and placed right beside his phone. Jiang Cheng is fairly sure that that hadn’t been there last night before he went to sleep.
He snags the phone, taking a second to turn off the damned alarm, before reaching for the paper and unfolding it.
Oh, it’s a thank you note from Lan Xichen.
From the warmth of his blankets, Jiang Cheng skims over the neat, delicate writing, snorting a little at how polite and proper it all sounds. Thank you for your kind hospitality and for generously providing me with dinner…yadda, yadda. It reminds him of that same thank you message he had received via text message from what seems like so long ago. It’s charming, but completely unnecessary, at least when used on Jiang Cheng. He would've been just as happy with a 'Thx, LXC.'
He gets to the last bit of the note and freezes.
With regards to your kind offer to sleep on the couch, and your refusal to accept any other alternatives or reasonable compromises – this draws an eye roll from Jiang Cheng – I thought it would only be fair if I were to offer something in return.
I would be grateful if you would indulge my selfish request to join me for dinner some time next week? Time and location of your choice, of course. It would entirely be my treat.
I look forward to hearing your response.
Yours very truly,
PS: Any suggestions that I do not owe you for your generosity will be met with, as you put it, a “hard no.”
Then, as if Lan Xichen is completely incapable of being impolite, he ends the note with:
PPS: Have a lovely day. :)
Jiang Cheng stares at the note some more. Then, he flops back onto the couch and pulls his covers over his head.
Longest chapter to date, and it’s basically (almost) 6k words of Jiang Cheng being awkward, Lan Xichen being awkward, and the both of them together being (awkward)^2. Also, this chapter is the first that does not in fact have any cat puns. You’re all spared. Temporarily.
 Jiang Cheng’s complete home cooked meal includes the following items: One big pot of plain white congee (aka jok, or savoury rice porridge) garnished with green onions, pork floss (aka 肉鬆, which is this dried pork or beef jerky that’s been shredded so finely that it has this wool-like, or floss-like, texture), fermented bean curds (豆腐乳, it’s a super savoury cube of preserved, fermented tofu that’s so soft, it's spreadable), and the following stir-fried veggies: a plate of Chinese broccolis (aka gai lan 芥蘭), a plate of bok choy (白菜), and a plate of snow peas with thinly sliced carrots.
Also, I’m clearly Cantonese given the above, so the transliteration of those food items are from their Cantonese names. Apologies to the Mandarin speakers!
 Chrysanthemum tea – hoo boy, where do I begin with this one? So in Chinese medicine, Chrysanthemum tea is believed to combat against 熱氣, which is a state of being that can be brought upon by eating too many deep fried, greasy and/or spicy food, or by lack of sleep. Symptoms of 熱氣 include acne (or the development of pimples in general), sore throat, and canker sores. Jiang Cheng offering a pot of chrysanthemum tea to Lan Xichen is in anticipation that his lack of sleep will lead him to develop one of said symptoms.
 Lan Xichen’s casual wear includes a baggy, basic white cardigan (from Uniclo), a plain cotton T-shirt in light sky blue (also from Uniclo), a pair of light grey sweatpants (Nike), and thick, dark socks (Champion).
 Jiang Cheng likes to wear an oversized white nightshirt and a pair of boxers to bed. The sleeves of his shirt hang off of him, so he tends to have to roll them up. He’s had the ratty shirt for so long, it’s broken in and super soft.
 In light of the above, it’s a good thing that Lan Xichen did not see how JC was in his boxers. Pretty sure the guy would have had a coronary. Heh.
 Christmas Island - this is a real place! It's classified as an Australian external territory and it's an island located in the Indian Ocean, approximately 50 km (or 220 mi) south of Java, Indonesia. It has a population of under 2,000, and it's known for having incredible flora and fauna unique to the island. Christmas Island is also known for having an incredible diversity of land crabs. In fact, once a year in October to November, the Christmas Island red crabs would migrate in large masses to the sea to lay eggs. During this annual migration, these red crabs would blanket the ground to the point where the Island has to shut off certain street access. I definitely recommend you looking up some videos of this because the sight of so many crabs is pretty wild.
Jiang Cheng will be the first to admit that he tends to not do well with surprises. Maybe, it stems from spending the last twenty odd years living with the walking, talking, trouble-magnet that is Wei Wuxian that has him diving away from any proverbial grenade life can lob at him. And maybe, because of said grenades, Jiang Cheng has since equated surprises with unpleasant things looming in the horizon, like the thick, churning clouds of an approaching tornado.
From his comfortable nest on his couch and with his blankets drawn over his shoulders like a cape, Jiang Cheng stares with blurry eyes at the innocent note he’s since tossed back on the coffee table. He can still see the crisp lines Lan Xichen had folded into the paper, cutting into his neat, elegant handwriting.
Lan Xichen’s presence in on itself, although initially jarring, had not disrupted his life of self-imposed exile anywhere near the level of an exploding grenade. The way Jiang Cheng was able to seamlessly integrate Lan Xichen’s visits to the café into his day-to-day life speaks to that.
This note, however, is triggering all the warning sirens in Jiang Cheng as if a motherfucking F5 tornado is about to touch down. One that is about to touch down while he’s trapped in a rust bucket of a car. And said car happens to conveniently die directly in the path of the oncoming disaster, like some plot of a terrible disaster movie.
The thing is, Jiang Cheng isn’t even sure why his brain is going into panic mode.
“Get a hold of yourself. It’s just a thank you dinner,” he mutters even as he draws his knees to his chest, the blankets around him shifting with his movement, bathing him in soothing warmth.
For God’s sake. It’s just dinner. It’s nothing complicated. He just has to pick a time and place, let Lan Xichen know, and then enjoy his free meal. Easy peasy. He’s got this.
He buries his face in his knees with a huff. So what if dinner is a bit out of his element given how he rarely goes out to dinner with people outside of his immediate family? Or the fact that hardly anybody wants to spend one-on-one time with him, the twenty-four year old grumpy asshole extraordinaire, and not as a means to get their foot into his father’s company?
Or the fact that the most intimate experiences he’s had are from his sad, failed attempts at dating, and those have never progressed past meet-ups at coffee places, and awkward exchanges of messages. Not like those count for anything here because this is a thank you dinner and is a wholly separate entity. A thank you dinner.
Although, thinking back on it, he supposes that last night with Lan Xichen could technically count as an addition to his repertoire of quasi-intimate experiences with people who are not family, and wow, everything about that train of thought is straight up sad. He’s just going to stop before he makes himself feel even more depressed.
Jiang Cheng lifts his head enough to eye the note again.
How did that get there anyhow? Did Lan Xichen leave in the morning before he left?
A more alarming thought crosses his mind. Lan Xichen did leave, right?
Jiang Cheng shrugs the covers off of his shoulders and crawls on the couch until he can lean out and get a clear view of his door. His apartment is small enough that even from his seat, he can make out the welcome mat that only has his beat-up trainers, his slippers, and no other shoes on it.
Looks like Lan Xichen is gone.
He sinks back into the nest of blankets in his couch and settles back into the divot he made in the cushion with his legs crossed. He pulls the blankets back around him to drape himself in warmth once again, and drops his head to rest against the back of the seat.
When did Lan Xichen leave, anyway? Must be pretty early, if he wants to dip back to his apartment to clean himself up before work.
He thinks he remembers a low, velvet-smooth voice murmuring something, coupled with the soothing, earthy scent of sandalwood. He may have muttered something back – maybe a ‘thanks’?
He closes his eyes with a hum of concentration. From the recesses of his mind, he can just make out the phantom sensations of soft sheets over his shoulder, of warmth spreading over his body as he gently sinks back into sleep with the knowledge that he’s safe and sound. Of soft footsteps trekking across the wooden floor away from him, the sound getting further and further away until nothing.
Although all of this could very well be in his dream rather than what actually happened in reality. He’s not really sure. It’s all just a white haze.
His eyes fly open. If it had been reality though…
Slowly, he peels away the blanket and peers down at what he’s wearing with rising dread. His usual, tatty, oversized shirt fills his vision, with sleeves that hang off his hands and the way-too-big neck hole that has the tendency to droop down and show off too much of his chest at any given time he moves. He looks down further with horrified eyes, at his pale, skinny legs poking out from his goddamned boxers, although thank god, it’s one of his normal boxers as opposed to the many joke ones Wei Wuxian has given him over the years that have been relegated to sleep wear.
With an embarrassed ‘eep’, he draws the blankets around himself tightly like a scorned maiden trying to protect her virtue. His face is burning hot, so hot that he’s surprised steam isn’t coming out of him.
Dear sweet lord in heaven, or whichever deity that will forgive this poor soul for its previous transgressions, please don’t let it come to pass that Lan Xichen has seen him in his boxers. His crumbling self-esteem and pride are not equipped to handle this level of humiliation.
His phone beeps. His second alarm is going off, but he doesn’t care. Frankly, he’s a bit too busy dealing with the swirling chaos that are flooding his being as he grapples with the dual, but equally mind-breaking, thoughts of: Lan Xichen wants to have dinner with him. Him. And willingly! and Lan Xichen probably, maybe saw too much of him.
For the umpteenth time that morning, he groans out loud and burrows further into his blanket although this time, he makes sure to pull the covers over his head so that he looks and feels like a great big, mortified turtle hiding in its shell.
If he sends a text to Rebecca that he’s not feeling well, she wouldn’t mind him not showing up for work, would she?
“It’s not like you to be late! Did something happen this morning?”
“It’s nothing,” Jiang Cheng grumbles into the baked goods he’s haphazardly arranging in the glass display exactly 45 minutes later. It’s the sudden realization that Lan Xichen might show up to the café at any moment now, looking for him, and potentially saying some uncomfortable things to his co-workers that finally got him scurrying off the sofa and into the washroom.
“Okay,” Rebecca drawls, drawing out the ‘o’ in a clear sign of disbelief. “If you say so. But as an FYI, your shirt’s on backwards and your hair’s coming a bit undone.”
His cheeks colour but he steadfastly ignores the embarrassment trying to rise up in him. He’s experienced enough of that. Instead, he grits his teeth, puts on the best scowling face in his collection, and, without saying a word, stalks to the employee’s break room while doing his damndest to not meet Rebecca’s suspicious gaze.
Once the door closes behind him, he tugs off the elastic band that’s barely holding his bun up, fixes his shirt so that it’s actually on the right way, and then ties his hair back up in a messy pony tail, his movements jerky and awkward.
He should’ve just stayed in his apartment. He doubts Lan Xichen will even make an appearance to the café, the man is more likely to go straight to work or stay at home to recuperate. Which means all of this – his frantic scramble to get to work, his accumulated humiliation, the ongoing effort it will take to get Rebecca to shut up and to stop making that face at him – would’ve all been in vain.
And even if Lan Xichen does show up, what the heck is he even going to say to the man that won’t sound awkward as hell in front of his co-worker? ‘Hey, hope you slept alright,’ will only raise questions and invite horrible, terrible rumours, as will ‘I didn’t see you leave this morning, hopefully I didn’t make an ass of myself or accidentally flash you,’ or ‘I saw your note. Can’t wait for that dinner!’
Jiang Cheng brings the heel of his hand to his forehead and groans. Speaking of dinner, he still has no idea how to handle that bombshell. Maybe, if he does see Lan Xichen, he can just…ignore the topic altogether and hopes it doesn’t get mentioned?
Jiang Cheng snorts at the thought. Yeah, good luck with that.
So in hindsight, coming to work is definitely a tactical mistake. Maybe, just maybe, he can still make his retreat, one that could potentially be half-dignified if Rebecca buys his terrible excuse of him suddenly ‘not feeling well’ and not ask too many questions.
“Oh my God! Mr. Lan! You’re back!”
Thoughts of escape come screeching to a halt in his mind. Jiang Cheng can practically feel his blood pressure spike over the sound of Rebecca’s cheers of jubilation.
Speak of the goddamned Devil.
He stalks over to the door and presses his ear against it. A more sedated, low voice sounds back, much too soft for Jiang Cheng to make out the words, but if he were to hazard a guess, it’s probably Lan Xichen needlessly apologizing for the trouble he’s caused for his disappearing act.
“Oh, no need to apologize, Mr. Lan!” comes Rebecca’s jubilant voice, which makes Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes at the other man’s predictability. “We’re just happy to know you’re safe and sound!”
He hears more murmuring in response.
“It’s no problem! If you’re looking for JC, he’s out at the back. I’ll go get him, just give me a second!”
Jiang Cheng just manages to scramble away from the door and slaps on what he hopes to be a face of bored disinterest when the door swings open and Rebecca bursts in.
“JC! Mr. Lan is here and he is alive! It’s a miracle!”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I’m just so, so glad that he’s safe!” she continues, and dear lord, are those tears in her eyes? Jiang Cheng leans away from her. “We were starting to think that the worst has happened, but it turns out that he’s simply been away on a work trip! Thank goodness!”
“Yeah, that’s, uh, good.”
“It’s a miracle,” she gushes again and wipes the corner of her eyes. Jiang Cheng definitely takes a step back at the blatant display of so much happiness. God forbid, she might actually reach over and hug him or do something equally impulsive. Urgh.
Thankfully, her emotions seem to cap at a few more sniffles. “I need to tell everyone! They’re going to be so happy to hear the good news!” Her eyes widen. “Oh god, I need to call off the search party!”
She scurries off, still blabbing about all the things she has to do, and it’s not until she’s elbows deep into her tote bag, rummaging for what Jiang Cheng guesses is her phone, that he has the mind to snap, “Oy! What about your shift? We’re kind of on the clock right now!”
“There’s nobody here! Besides, it won’t take more than a few minutes! Just, cover for me in the meantime, okay?”
Jiang Cheng’s eye tick a little at the dismissive wave she gives him, especially when they both know she’s lying. A few minutes his ass!
“I’ll give you fifteen minutes.”
She pauses. “Twenty?” she tries. He levels her protest with a glare.
“Fifteen. Minutes,” he grits out, “And not a second more!”
He reaches the door and turns around to fire off one last warning glare for good measure, because sometimes, it’s all about making a statement. Then, he pushes the door open and stalks out.
Only to realize, when his eyes immediately meet Lan Xichen’s startled gaze, that in his self-righteous, angry exit, he’s stepped right into the source of his original problem without a second thought.
“Um, morning.” Jiang Cheng tries not to cringe at the sound of his own awkward voice. “Heard you’re looking for me?”
“Good morning!” Lan Xichen positively lights up and beams with brilliant exuberance. Jiang Cheng is a bit taken aback by how genuinely happy the other man is first thing in the morning, or how good he looks now that he’s properly cleaned up, rested, and back in his usual bespoke suit. All traces of the tired, vulnerable man from twelve hours ago is completely erased as if he never existed.
Oddly enough, Jiang Cheng rather miss seeing that softer side of Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng also can’t be certain if it’s his eyes are playing tricks on him, but bathed in the golden light of the morning sun, Lan Xichen’s complexion looks a little rosier than usual.
The paranoid, mortification that had previously been simmering low in his gut flares up anew with a dark vengeance.
Shit, is Lan Xichen blushing at the sight of him? Why would he be blushing…unless he reminds Lan Xichen of something embarrassing? Something embarrassing like Jiang Cheng in his boxers maybe?
“I hope I wasn’t too disruptive this morning and you were able to get some sleep after I left,” Lan Xichen continues in his usual cheerful manner, but is it even his usual manner, really? Maybe, it’s all an elaborate ruse.
“It’s, uh, fine. Just fine.” Jiang Cheng managers to trip out as a litany of shit, shit, shit runs through his mind like a broken record. But Lan Xichen continues to look unperturbed, so maybe he’s the one who’s got it wrong? “And, you’re able to make your way out just fine? Obviously, given that you’re here and all, but the hallway outside of my apartment can be a bit dingy especially if it’s dark out, and the exit leading out can be a bit hard to find. So. Yeah. It’s a bit of a maze and a tripping hazard.”
Christ almighty, he’s babbling. He hasn’t babbled like this since his mother almost caught him watching porn when he was a teen, and what a fun time he had talking his way out of that scenario. Someone put him out of his misery.
Luckily, Lan Xichen does not seem to mind. “Thank you for your concern,” he says with soft eyes and a gentle curve to his lips. “I was able to get home safely and without any issues. I even had time to run a few errands. Speaking of which,” he holds out a small package, neatly wrapped in forest green wrapping paper. “This is for you.”
Jiang Cheng stares pole-axed at the package. Where the heck did that come from? “I – ah, thank you?”
He takes the package more as an automatic response than anything; it’s a rectangular box, fairly light in his hands and upon closer inspection of the wrapping paper, he can see the faint, shimmering designs of flowering tree branches. Subtle, but tasteful.
He glances up, confused. “This – this is for me?
Lan Xichen’s smile broadens. “Yes.”
“Oh.” Jiang Cheng stares back at the package. Lan Xichen got him a gift. Lan Xichen got him a gift and he’s not sure how to react. Even the panic in his head goes silent at the sudden turn of events.
“Okay, now you’ve really lost me,” he confesses. “What’s the occasion?”
“None whatsoever,” Lan Xichen admits with a grin. “Just a small token of my appreciation.”
Jiang Cheng frowns. Token of appreciation? Appreciation for what? “If it’s about last night,” he begins, “you really don’t have to get me anything. Besides, you’re offering to treat me to dinner already.”
No sooner has those words left his lips does Jiang Cheng immediately want to kick himself. Welp, there goes his half-baked plan of avoiding the dinner topic.
“Not like you have to do that either,” he backtracks with a wince. “I mean, it’s generous of you to offer, but you really, really didn’t have to.”
“Please, I insist. On both dinner and the gift.” Lan Xichen interjects gently. The quirk of his lips turns up into a mischievous curl. “I’m afraid any objections you have will simply be met with a hard no on my part, just as I have promised in the note.”
That surprises a huff of laughter out of Jiang Cheng. “Again with the hard no. You’re not going to let me live that down, aren’t you? Was my stubbornness truly that awe-inspiring?”
“It is very formidable and I find myself at a bit of a loss as to how to properly respond,” Lan Xichen admits, and Jiang Cheng finds himself oddly charmed by the honesty.
“Except you have figured out a way,” Jiang Cheng points out. “By stealing my own words and using them against me.”
“I was merely inspired by Jiang Wanyin’s superior negotiating tactics and chose to borrow a few key points here and there.”
“That sure is a funny way of saying stealing.”
“I would never do something as dishonourable.” But the twinkle in Lan Xichen’s eyes is telling enough, and Jiang Cheng has to laugh at that.
“Alright, wise guy. I can accept that negotiations about dinner is off the table. But the gift is just overkill.”
“Dinner was merely for you lending me the bed,” Lan Xichen responds blithely. “This,” he gestures to the package, “is for the meal and for putting up with me.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “You make it sound like it was such an effort to put up with you,” he says without thinking, but freezes a second later when he’s processed what he blurted out. Because while the whole shenanigan leading up to having Lan Xichen enter his apartment had been anxiety inducing, the evening afterwards had been…pleasant as a whole.
Everything had felt so effortlessly easy with Lan Xichen around, even when the other is being obtuse by insisting on being all polite and proper when he’s barely functioning as a coherent, human being.
Not like he completely succeeds at maintaining his façade of perfection either. In the dingy lighting of Jiang Cheng’s kitchen, as they sat around the too small kitchen table and chatted about everything and nothing, Lan Xichen displayed a surprisingly dry sense of humour to Jiang Cheng’s sarcasm, as well as a terrifying arsenal of horrible puns of his own.
If that had been Lan Xichen at his worst, then Jiang Cheng firmly stands by his statement.
“I – thank you,” Lan Xichen sounds oddly touched, and Jiang Cheng barely stops himself from scoffing. Lan Xichen would be the type to be touched by such a back-handed compliment. “But it still doesn’t excuse me for putting you in the position where you have to put up with me to begin with.”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Stop apologizing about that already. What kind of a shitty friend would I be if I won’t even let you stay over when you can barely walk?”
At Lan Xichen’s sheepish look, he sighs. “Okay, new deal. I’ll accept the gift on the condition that you promise to stop beating yourself up over last night. And on the condition that if something like that happens in the future, you won’t hesitate to reach out to me.”
That last stipulation he throws in on the reasonable assumption that Lan Xichen would avoid bothering him again given last night, which no. Jiang Cheng can’t have that. What if the fool man gets himself killed or something?
Lan Xichen frowns. “That hardly seems like a fair deal at all. I’m getting far too much.”
“Seems fair to me,” Jiang Cheng shrugs. “But call it the Jiang Cheng’s Friend Discount if it makes you feel better. Now, do we have a deal?”
“Jiang Wanyin is far too kind,” Lan Xichen responds, still with the slightest furrow to his brow, which screams to Jiang Cheng that the other man is not happy about it, but is too polite to vocalize it. If the dinner thing is an accurate precedent, Lan Xichen will probably think of new ways to try to even the score.
Better to nip the cycle of guilt right at the bud before perpetuating it anew.
“Alright, how about this? In addition to what I said, you will, er,” Jiang Cheng looks around the café frantically. He spots Princess Caroline lounging by her usual perch on the cat tree, staring back at him through the glass in her usual judging manner, and he smiles. He’s got an idea.
He spins back around to a patient Lan Xichen. “How about you promise to help me on our next adoption event?”
Lan Xichen blinks. “Adoption event?”
“Yes, our adoption event. Every four months or so, we host this big, weekend event where we partner up with a couple of shelters to promote adoption and to raise money. Uh, I think we have a flyer somewhere,” Jiang Cheng goes over to the cash register, taking a small detour to carefully stash away the gift behind the counter, before plucking a colourful orange flyer from one of the stacks nearby with a soft “ah ha!”
He brandishes it to Lan Xichen. “Here you go. We tend to open our store for extended hours and run different events from educational sessions to the more social events. You don’t have to stay the whole weekend, but I could use some help in keeping an eye out on the cats during one of these sessions.”
“Ah,” Lan Xichen nods knowingly and takes the flyer. “By cats, do you mean Bandit?”
“Most definitely Bandit,” Jiang Cheng nods, already dreading the thought of his inevitable escape attempts. “He’s small and quick so he can dart around and hide in hard to reach places. So, what do you say?”
He holds out his hand. “Deal?”
It doesn’t take long for Lan Xichen to design. His eyes light up and with a grin, Lan Xichen takes his outstretched hand into his own free one in a firm handshake. “Deal,” he says warmly and gives Jiang Cheng’s hand a light shake. “A pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Jiang.”
“Likewise, Mr. Lan,” Jiang Cheng answers with his own teasing grin. “Now, what can I get you today?”
All in all, Jiang Cheng has to say that he’s pretty happy with how everything turned out. His mood only improves as he hands Lan Xichen his drink (today, featuring a drawing of a smug kitty in a suit, with the words “Art of purrsuation”), and watches the other man try to hide the split second grimace that flashes across his face.
“It’s in light of the deal and all,” he explains, completely unprompted except for the fact that he likes to be a little shit. He makes no effort to disguise his smugness. “Guess I was feeling particularly inspired by what just happened.”
“I see,” Lan Xichen says simply after a few seconds of contemplative silence. “I suppose it’s good to be purr-actical.”
Jiang Cheng can feel his jaw drop. Son of a – did he just?
But by the time Jiang Cheng can process that he’s just been out-catpunned, Lan Xichen has already made his way to the café door. With a last cheery wave, which Jiang Cheng returns robotically, the older man is out the door with a spring to his steps, cappuccino in hand and smiling like a cat that got its cream.
The door closes with a soft click and once again, all is well and peaceful in the café, minus the horrible terrible vengeance Jiang Cheng is swearing out loud to himself that he will enact the next time Lan Xichen is over. Oh, it is on. It is so on.
The employee break room flies open with a large bang.
“JC! WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?”
Jiang Cheng yelps as Rebecca emerges from the entrance with the enthusiasm of the motherfucking Kool-Aid man bursting through the wall. The expression on her face makes her look like she’s won the mother load of all lotteries.
“Have you been back there the whole time?!” he practically shrieks, clutching at his chest.
“What do you mean, have I been back here? Where else was I supposed to go?” she shouts back. “Maybe, if you and Mr. Lan hadn’t been flirting for the past half-hour, I wouldn’t have had to hide like a scrub!”
He sputters. “That wasn’t – we weren’t flirting!” And had it really been a half-hour?
She gives him a look. “Honey, that was flirting. Questionable and odd flirting, but flirting nonetheless. But I’m not here to judge that.”
She ignores the sound of Jiang Cheng’s protests and strides over to where he is. “I have more important things to discuss, mainly, you!” She takes a few steps closer to him and jabs a finger to his chest. “You’ve been keeping secrets about our Mr. Lan! Terrible, wonderful secrets!”
He flinches back. “What secrets? There are no secrets!”
“You knew Mr. Lan came back last night!” She advances on him like a shark scenting blood in the water. “And more importantly, why the hell didn’t you tell us you scored a dinner date with Mr. Lan? Wait, wait a minute.” Her eyes widen with realization. “You let him stay over at your place! Is this why you’re such a mess this morning?!”
Jiang Cheng flushes bright red. “Nothing happened between us, not like it’s any of your business! And It isn’t a dinner date! It’s a thank you dinner! A thank you dinner!”
“Oh, and here I thought you had more game than that. Huh,” she crosses her arms over her chest and visibly deflates even in the face of Jiang Cheng’s look of embarrassed outrage. But she brightens up a beat later. “But it doesn’t mean it can’t become a dinner date! Do you know where you’ll be going? What’s the atmosphere like? Will it be a more casual or do you have to suit up?”
“I – ” Jiang Cheng pauses, mid-protest. Those are actually very good questions. “I don’t think we actually agreed on anything?”
“That’s fine,” Rebecca gives a dismissive waive. “It means the ball is in your court. You can pick somewhere nice, but maybe not too nice because that’d be a bit too stiff and awkward. Somewhere chilled, maybe?” She gives Jiang Cheng a soft, fond smile and it’s enough to make him cringe. “It’s been so long since I went on my first date! This is bringing back so many precious memories.”
“It’s not a date!”
“Oh, wait! I got a couple of suggestions!” Rebecca continues, clearly hell bent on ignoring the hell out of Jiang Cheng to advance her own, twisted agenda. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her phone. “If you’re looking for some decent French food, you can hit up the bistro by 10th Street and Market, here.” She turns the phone over to him. “Yelp reviews are stellar and prices are reasonable, so you won’t look like a cheap date or overly pretentious.”
“Gee thanks. If you’re only half as helpful with the Friday shifts!”
Despite his dry answer, Jiang Cheng takes the phone and scrolls through the reviews and pictures, at the exposed bricks that make up the restaurant’s exterior and the sprawling vines that cover the wooden trellis by the walls. Delicate, white tables and chairs fill the small patio by entrance, shaded by the occasional red and white outdoor umbrellas.
It’s all very French, and horribly, painfully romantic. Jiang Cheng can practically hear the violins.
“Too much?” Rebecca says, taking her phone away, probably reacting to whatever face he is making at the moment. “It’s okay. We’ll take baby steps. I’ve got more suggestions. Oh, and we can also talk about clothes as well!”
That snaps Jiang Cheng out of his daze. “No! We’re not – First off, there is no we and again, this is not a date,” he spits out. “Second of all, I’m going to wear whatever the hell I want! There won’t be any talks about clothes because this won’t be an issue for a thank you dinner!”
“I have to say Jiang Cheng. This is a real sad collection you have here.” Derek flips through Jiang Cheng’s closet with a series of tsks and with the same judgmental gaze Jin Zixuan gives to pretty much anybody who’s not his immediate family. “Why is 99% of your closet made of polyester, cotton, or a blend of both? Also,” he pulls out a T-shirt hanging from a hanger, then another, and another until, “Ten! Why do you have ten of these KitTea Café T-shirts? And they’re all at least two sizes too big!”
Seated on the swirly office chair a few feet away from the closet, Jane pops the bubble from her gum as she idly swipes through her phone. “We’re not here to shame the man’s terrible T-shirt collection,” she says without looking up. “We’re here to make sure he looks presentable so that he can woo Mr. Lan. You heard Rebecca’s marching orders.”
“There is no wooing!” Jiang Cheng snaps from his seat on the edge of the bed. He’s been mostly keeping his face buried in his palms ever since these strangers have forced their way into his home half an hour ago, wondering how it all went so horribly wrong. He only raises his head to dish out some much deserved vitriol, which will be happening a hell of a lot more frequently unless Derek stops making those obnoxious tsking noises and Jane stops being a presence in his home. “None of you should be here to begin with! I only asked Rebecca for help!”
Jiang Cheng’s resolve to seek any sort of advice had held on strong, even days after confirming the time and location for dinner with Lan Xichen, and after enduring multiple soft, insufferable looks from all of his co-workers. Only his much practiced sneer manages to repel the majority so that they stay at a healthy, arm's length distance away from his being at all times, and from infecting him with all their...happiness.
It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon, hours before the supposed dinner date, that he threw open his closet.
And then proceeded to panic the fuck out as he finally registered what he actually owns. And the sheer, pitifully sad state of it all.
In his moment of weakness, Jiang Cheng thought he could discretely ask Rebecca for simple guidance. He had left exactly two text messages, and they read: "so." followed by, "maybe, let's talk about clothes."
Somehow, it ended up with him having more people in his apartment then he cares to have since moving to the city.
How did this happen?
Jane looks up from her phone to give him a pitying look, which has him gnashing his teeth. “Rebecca is, unfortunately, busy taking care of her sick nephew and niece so she sent us as her proxy. She’s very sorry that she couldn’t come but sends you all of her love.”
“But why does she need to send two of you?”
“JC! There is no organization in here!” Derek laments, completely oblivious to Jiang Cheng’s rage. “Why are the dress shirts mingled with your sweat pants and jackets? How do you find anything?”
“He doesn’t need to. In the year he’s worked with us, have you seen him wear anything except store swag with a pair of jeans?” Jane points out, all matter-of-fact. She narrows her gaze at him. “Have you ever worn anything aside from jeans and a T-shirt?”
He barely manages to clamp down a scathing, I’ve worn suits that are worth more than your car, woman! Never mind the fact that those very same suits are probably currently sitting in a closet, collecting dust at his parents’ house some thousands of miles away.
Some days, he really regrets how little he took from home. At the goddamned least, he could’ve packed more than just the barebones, everyday casual wear.
Although as he eyes his noticeably larger dress shirts, which were the very first sets of clothes he’s had to purchase after his move, he’s not sure how well those old suits would still fit him, or any of his old clothes, for that matter. He’s dropped a shit ton of weight from a year of living like a starving artist before figuring out how to budget like a boss.
“Ho! I think I struck gold!”
Jiang Cheng and Jane turn their attention to Derek in time to see him dig out a smart v-neck sweater in dark lavender with the enthusiasm of a pirate unearthing a treasure chest. Jiang Cheng recognizes it immediately: a birthday present from A-Jie, and,
“Oh shit, is that cashmere?! From Prada?!”
An expensive birthday gift from A-Jie.
“Give me that!” he scowls and reaches over to snag the sweater out of Derek’s grubby hands. The material feels just as soft as it did when he first unwrapped it, the colour just as vibrant.
Probably because he’s never had the chance to actually wear it, not even when he was still back at home - he had either defaulted to his suits for his job, or his lazy wear for just about anything else. After moving and landing his current job at the café, he's had even less reason to wear it, or anything that would attract a shit ton of cat hair and could easily be shredded by tiny, razor sharp claws.
“Okay, but in all seriousness, you need to wear that,” Jane points to the sweater with her brow raised. Derek is nodding furiously beside her. “I think we can all agree that it’s perfect.”
A couple of minutes later where Derek has procured one of his grey dress shirts (“for you to wear under the sweater!”), a pair of dark, fitted jeans, some socks, and decent, ankle-length brown boots as opposed to his ratty sneakers (“You are not wearing those with the sweater. Prada would roll in his grave.” “Prada wouldn’t give two shits about the shoes I wear!” “He would if you are ruining his aesthetic!”) Jiang Cheng is just about ready to commit murder.
But as he finishes pulling everything on, fixes his hair so that it’s in its usual bun, and takes a good look of himself in the mirror afterwards, even he can’t deny that he doesn’t clean up half-bad.
He steps into the living room where Derek and Jane are currently slouching on the couch, and makes a half-assed wave of his hands as if to say, a sarcastic Ta-da! “There, happy? What do you think?”
As predicted the grey dress shirt and sweater are a bit bigger for his current size and they hang loosely on his frame, but it gives him a fashionably cozy, vintage hipster vibe, especially contrasted against his slim fitting jeans tucked into his boots.
Both Jane and Derek pause in their conversation and cock their heads to the side.
“Huh,” Jane says simply.
Derek nods. “I know what you mean.”
“It’s cute, but – “
“There’s something missing.”
“Right, it can be better.”
Derek snaps his fingers. “I got it!” He reaches down from the side of the couch and hauls a big duffle bag to his lap. “I thought we’d need a couple of extra stuff so I brought a few things with me.”
Jiang Cheng splutters. “Where did that even come from? Have you always had that here?”
“Always come prepared for a fashion emergency!” Derek practically sings out without pausing his search, to Jane’s snort of, “and they call me the gay one.”
“And here we go! Put this on.” He pulls out a black fedora. “If we’re going to go hipster chic, we’re going to go full out hipster chic. There will be no half-assing, not with Fairy Godmother Derek around!”
Jiang Cheng grabs the hat and pulls it over his head quickly, if nothing to get Derek to shut up. “There! Happy? Are we done? Can you all leave now?”
“Better,” Derek nods.
“But still not quite right,” Jane hums, holding her chin. “JC, pull out the man-bun for a sec.”
“She means your hair. Leave it down.”
He throws his hands in the air but does what he’s told; he takes of the hat off, yanks off the elastic band, and combs out his hair with his fingers so that it falls to its natural shoulder-length. A couple of loose curls brush against his jaw, tickling the skin there, and he tucks those behind his ear absentmindedly. Then, he fits the hat over his head again.
There is a moment of contemplative silence.
“Oh shit, son,” Derek breathes out, eyes wide. “We got it! We got the winning combo!
Jane brushes a fake tear from her eyes. “Who’d have thought you’d be cute as a goddamned button, even with all the scowling you do?”
The thin, remaining strand of his patience, already stretched taut like a violin string, snaps right there and then with a sharp twang that only Jiang Cheng can hear.
“Alright, so we’re done then?” he grits out, and when he receives a series of approving nods from his co-workers, he turns up his glare from deeply annoyed to homicidal rage. “Good. Now, get out of my apartment before I call the cops.”
With a last chorus of protests and well wishes (“Good luck! Go get him, tiger!” “Have fun and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” ) Jiang Cheng firmly herds his colleagues outside and shuts the door in their smug faces with a satisfying click. He leans against the door, waits until the footsteps from outside fade away, before breathing a massive sigh of relief.
Dinner hasn’t even started yet and he already feels exhausted.
The upside to that whole mentally scarring debacle with his colleagues is that it doesn’t leave nearly enough time for Jiang Cheng to work himself up into a frenzy. Instead, upon checking the clock, Jiang Cheng curses, snags his wallet, keys and a light jacket and hurries out into the crisp autumn evening.
PAI Kitchen is a popular Thai food restaurant within a brisk twenty-minute walk from Jiang Cheng’s place. Known for its eclectic, but casual, vibe and some of the most stellar food in town without costing an arm and a leg, it’s no small wonder that the restaurant is considered to be a go-to for young professionals, especially during happy hours and weekends.
Jiang Cheng tries not to scowl as he gets jostled by a group of chatty people he’s trying to bypass to get to his reserved table.
Normally, he stays far away from busy places like PAI, but the alternative of having dinner with Lan Xichen in a quiet restaurant screams of a level of intimacy that Jiang Cheng is, frankly, not ready to acknowledge or deal with. Also, PAI does this amazing green curry chicken that’s served in a coconut, and Jiang Cheng has been meaning to try it for some time now, so as far as he’s concerned, he’s killing two birds with one stone.
He’s also so distracted by having to navigate through the sea of people around him, that upon seeing Lan Xichen at the table, he forgets to panic and instead, simply feels relieved that his search is over.
“Hey! I hope you didn’t have to wait too long,” he says when he slides into his seat by way of greeting. To the surprise of nobody, Lan Xichen is already seated. He’s also exuding his usual poise and elegance, but this time, in a perfectly casual, but chic pale grey blazer and dark crew neck tee. From the corner of his eyes, he sees more than a few diners casting the occasional admiring glances at their table.
“No, not at all. I just arrived a few minutes ago.” Lan Xichen answers, sounding a little distracted, and cocks his head a little.
“What?” Jiang Cheng asks, in the process of taking off his hat and hanging it on the back of his chair. He looks down at his shirt. Everything looks normal to him.
Lan Xichen blinks a couple of times and shakes his head. “No, it’s nothing.” He coughs into his fist, and his face pinks a little, probably from being caught acting dazed and distracted, Jiang Cheng surmises. “You – you look lovely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this sweater on you before.”
Jiang Cheng rubs the back of his neck and laughs a little self-deprecatingly. “I didn’t think I owned anything outside of work gear, to be honest. Hard to remember what it’s like to wear normal clothing.” He adds a beat later with a rather lame, “You, uh, you look great too.”
Lan Xichen does not seem to mind his awkward response though. “Thank you,” he answers with a slight dip to his head. “Although in hindsight, wearing pale coloured clothing may not have been the best choice given the items on the menu.”
Jiang Cheng grins. “You know, I’ve always wondered how you managed to keep your suits and shirts looking so immaculate given all the white that you wear. I don’t think I can last five minutes without staining something.”
“Years and years of practice.” Lan Xichen huffs out a laugh. “And a perpetual supply of Tide to Go as well as cultivating an excellent relationship with the local dry cleaners.”
“That…seems like an awful amount of trouble to go through.” Especially when all of this could’ve been easily avoided with Lan Xichen wearing pretty much anything else except white or pale-coloured stuff.
“Yes, yes, I know. I could have avoided all this simply by wearing a different colour.” Lan Xichen’s lips curl into his almost-smirk at Jiang Cheng’s look of surprise at his supposed mind-reading. “You’re not the first to have thought as such. But in my defence, it’s become a bit of a family tradition to dress in white, blues and greys whenever we’re out in public. It’s a bit odd, I know.”
Sure, it’s odd, but at least, it’s relatively harmless. It’s a hell of a lot less destructive than the tradition in the Jiang household, which mostly consists of…shouting. At each other.
“I live with a human cyclone who likes to frequently experiment with odd things,” Jiang Cheng says instead. “Some of those include food items that should constitute as cruel and unusual torture for those who have to eat them. I think when it comes to being exposed to oddness, I’ve got you beat.”
Naturally, that devolves into an impromptu competition of who’s experienced weirder events in their lives that slowly evolves into a competition as to who experienced more chaos in their lives. They spend some time swapping stories about their childhood, their respective brothers, and the shenanigans they had to endure by proxy of being the best bros ever. Jiang Cheng, for one, did not throw any punches when it comes to airing all of Wei Wuxian’s dirty laundry. In fact, he absolutely relishes in recounting, in great, glorious details, all the times Wei Wuxian’s pranks had gone horribly, terribly wrong, even when most of them ended up with both him and his brother fleeing for their lives.
“The worst part is that I wasn’t even involved in most of those!” Jiang Cheng digs into the green curry coconut dish with relish. It’s as perfectly flavourful as the yelp reviews described but with just the right amount of heat that it leaves a pleasant tingle on his tongue and lips. Yum. “I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time! But I’ve been around my stupid brother long enough to know that if I see Wei Wuxian running towards me at full speed, shouting at me to ‘Go. Go, dammit!’ I will drop everything and run for the hills, no questions asked. Except by running, I also get myself implicated.”
“Oh?” Lan Xichen’s eyes gleam, pausing from taking careful bites of his pad thai,“But you said you weren’t involved in most of them. What are some that you were involved in then?”
“Well, if you promise you’ll take this to the grave, I can tell you about one.”
At Lan Xichen’s enthusiastic nod, Jiang Cheng leans over. “Remember that time when your uncle suddenly lost his goatee?”
Lan Xichen’s eyes widen. “No,” he breathes. “We thought it was Wei Wuxian who was solely responsible!”
“Oh, he did the shaving, alright.” Jiang Cheng leans back into his chair, his fingers laced loosely on the table, smug in his knowledge of mischief well managed. “But someone had to help with the planning, look-out, and diversion.”
The exchange of stories continue completely uninterrupted even as the waiter drops by, first to collect the empty dishes, then to refill water and to grab their dessert orders.
“Do you find yourself missing some of that liveliness by living in this city?” Lan Xichen asks between his next spoonful of his mango sticky rice. “I find that at times, I miss some of the chaos from back home.” He chuckles at Jiang Cheng’s skeptical expression. “Admittedly, the chaos doesn’t so much comes from Wangji, but more from friends.”
Everyone who is remotely familiar with the Lan family has heard of Lan Xichen’s great friendship with Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao, both of them, like Lan Xichen, are slated to head their families’ companies within the next decade.
How the three of them became such close friends is a bit of a mystery given the hodgepodge of personalities at play, but no one can deny that the partnership is perfect. Between the Lans’ domination in land development, the Nies’ reputable civil engineering firm and the Jins’ world famous architect firm, together, they have already successfully pushed forward and constructed some of the most beautiful and technologically advanced properties in the world. If Jiang Cheng remembers correctly, the Lookout Towers is one such collaboration.
And if Jiang Cheng also recalls correctly, Nie Mingjue is quite the no-nonsense human being with a fiery temper as bright and scorching as his mother’s, so Lan Xichen may be grossly understating the level of chaos he experiences back home if he’s the voice of reason in his group of friends.
He stares at Lan Xichen with something akin to horror. Heaven forbid, and the man actually misses the chaos. He must be some sort of a masochist.
“Whatever you are thinking, it’s not that bad!” Lan Xichen defends between laughter. “I just miss having more familiar faces around me, I suppose, and the honest exchange of opinion I normally receive – alright, point taken. You can stop looking at me all horrified.”
“I honestly can’t say I relate.” Jiang Cheng snorts. “I’ve discovered that to retain my sanity, I can withstand small doses of chaos, which I get daily from text messages and phone calls. Any more than that is probably not good for my blood pressure.
“But in all seriousness though, I do see what you mean about missing some familiar faces, I suppose,” he adds begrudgingly at Lan Xichen’s expression of ‘go on’, “Living out here especially on my own is different, and it can get to be…a lot.”
The first day he had officially stepped foot into his apartment, he had stood in the empty living room for a good solid fifteen minutes, just basking in the utter stillness of it all – no footsteps from the skittering cleaning staff, no booming shouts from the parents as they find new ways to tear into each other, no incessant ringing from phone calls from annoying work associates – just silence. It was a stark reminder of what Jiang Cheng had left behind, willingly for that matter, he couldn’t get away fast enough. But stripped of all that, what did that leave him?
Who was he outside of his fancy trappings?
At the time, Jiang Cheng did not know, and it had terrified him.
“Maybe, it can get a bit quiet at times too,” he admits softly. “But, I needed it. And it’s been an eye-opening experience.”
A year and a half later, he’s still not fully sure, but he thinks he’s improving. If nothing else, the time spent alone has forced him to face his multiple inadequacies as he goes through this crash course on How to Be a Competent Adult.
And maybe, just maybe, he’ll eventually get there.
“A much needed reprieve, I can understand that sentiment,” Lan Xichen murmurs, and their table descends into a comfortable silence as the both of them finish the last bites of their desserts. “In any case, I for one, am glad that you are here. You have made my stay here exponentially more pleasant.”
“Only exponentially?” Jiang Cheng teases despite the rising heat to his cheeks. “And to think, all the effort that went into the cat puns and latte art, wasted!”
“The cat puns pulled your score down,” and Lan Xichen says that so quickly and with such a blunt, unimpressed tone that it sets Jiang Cheng off into a peal of laughter. Who would have thought he’d see the day where he gets such blatant sass from the other man?
“There’s no reason to be so catty,” Jiang Cheng fires back. “Besides, I’m almost paw-sitiviely sure the puns are growing on you.”
“I was going to offer you a ride home, but on second thought, it’s best if you walked home,” Lan Xichen sniffs. “I do not want my car sullied with your unsavory puns.”
He ends up giving Jiang Cheng that ride home anyway, even if it only takes five minutes by car to get home.
“Thanks a lot for dinner, I had fun,” Jiang Cheng says when they pulled to the curb.
“Likewise, and thank you for making my evening that much more pleasant.”
They sit in silence for a few seconds, neither of them quite sure what to say next. It’s the weirdest thing; they haven’t shut up for the past three hours in the restaurant, talking about anything and everything like they did a week ago, during Lan Xichen’s impromptu stay. Funny how it’s near the end of their evening together that things begin to feel awkward.
But Jiang Cheng wasn’t lying; despite whatever reservations he may have had, they’ve been tossed out the window with how well everything went during dinner. He had fun, and God forbid, he wouldn’t mind a repeat performance.
“Um, I was thinking –” Jiang Cheng starts just as Lan Xichen also chimes in with, “If I’m not too bold to ask –”
“Sorry, why don’t you go ahead first?” Jiang Cheng offers.
“I was wondering if you’re willing to do, er, this. Again. If it’s not too much trouble.” Even in the darkness of the vehicle, Jiang Cheng can make out the way Lan Xichen’s looking a touch nervous from the slight downturn of his lips, to the way he almost stuttered his sentence. But despite that, he refuses to look away. There’s a look of determination in his eyes, and an open look of hopefulness and yearning that would make a weaker man capitulate.
Jiang Cheng never claims to be a strong man.
“I was just about to offer the same,” he says with a widening smile. Oddly enough, the sight of seeing Lan Xichen a tad nervous has done wonders quelling his own nerves. “I would love to have dinner with you, and this time, you can pick the restaurant.”
Lan Xichen’s returning grin of utter jubilation puts every single one of his previous smiles to shame. “Great! That’s, that’s great! I’m looking forward to it! Maybe sometime next week? Unless, you’re busy, I don’t want to intrude.”
“Sometime next week sounds perfect,” Jiang Cheng cuts in gently.
“Good,” Lan Xichen breathes out. “That’s good.”
With a last goodbye, along with “See you next week, drive safely!” from Jiang Cheng, he gets out, trudges to the curb, and watches as Lan Xichen’s car peel off, but not before one last wave from the other man.
There’s a lightness in his heart, and it stays with him as he climbs up the rickety stairs and enters his chilly apartment. It stays even as he putts around the apartment to do a few chores humming a popular song he’s heard from the radio, before getting ready for bed.
He barely remembers to check his phone just as he’s about to turn off the lights.
And he promptly grimaces at the slew of messages – all of them from the same nosey colleagues he had kicked out of his apartment earlier that evening, including the Devil spawn Rebecca herself. They have started a Whatsapp chat group and for some godforsaken reason, have felt the need to include him in their madness.
He scrolls to the bottom of the group chat, and eyes the last message there:
“JC! Hope your evening went well! We’re rooting for you!!”
He replies with a single thumbs up emoji.
Then he turns off the vibrate notification, shuts of the lights and burrows himself in his bed
A/N – I am back with a behemoth of a chapter that is just shy of 9k. Hope you will all enjoy! :D
 Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli’s presents to Jiang Cheng – over the years, the siblings have taken two very drastic paths when it comes to gift giving. Wei Wuxian would undoubtedly end up giving gifts he thinks are funny while Jiang Yanli would opt for something tasteful, but at the same time useful and thoughtful. This results in Jiang Cheng receiving things from his brother like joke boxers, weird socks, candy in flavours that should not exist, and how-to guides like How to Not Die Alone, How to Conceal Don’t Feel, and How to be a Hermit. From Jiang Yanli, Jiang Cheng received various articles of clothing, including the Prada Sweater, Home-made baked goods, and fancy art supplies.
 The Prada sweater – Prada does sell cashmere sweaters, although not in the purple burgundy that Jiang Cheng’s wearing and the sweater has a crew neck instead of a v-neck. It costs 620 euros.
 The only thing Jiang Cheng made sure to take when he moved were all the gifts from his brother and sister.
 Lan Xichen’s gift to Jiang Cheng – a nice brick of pu-erh tea.
 The items in Derek’s duffle bag –Derek’s fashion emergency kit includes multiple hats in different styles and colours, an assortment of scarves and gloves, ties (various styles), bow ties (various styles), cuff-links, tie clips, rings, bracelets, and necklaces. Derek wasn’t fucking around.
 Jane brought with her fuck all except a sassy attitude. She did managed to take a couple of pics of JC in his outfit and sent it to Rebecca with the message “Mission complete”. Rebecca’s response was an appropriate string of heart emojis.
 Pai Restaurant– this kitchen is inspired by the real life restaurant called Pai’s Northern Thai Kitchen, located in downtown Toronto. They do have, on their dinner menu, a green curry chicken served in an actual coconut. I’ve had this before and it is phenomenal. The restaurant is also known to be super popular given it’s amazing food.
 The What’s App group – titled the Fairy Godmothers, because of course, it would.
[Edits made on Dec 14, 2019, including tweaking passages/re-writes]
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Everyone! Shut up and listen!” The sound of Rebecca’s hand clap cuts through the chatter in the employee break room with a sharp crack. “Our Halloween Adoption Event is just around the corner and we’ve only got half of our stuff planned out. We need more ideas for fundraising activities!”
“I don’t care what we do so long as it doesn’t involve paint,” Jiang Cheng hears Jane mutter bitterly from somewhere behind him. Apparently, it’s loud enough for everyone else to hear from the chorus of agreements that follows.
“Alright already! Quit your rabble rousing!” The murmur dies down again, begrudgingly, and Rebecca huffs out a sigh before continuing, “We’ve all agreed that there will be no repeat performance of the Winter Event of 2015, so y’all can just calm the heck down. Besides, we were nothing but young grasshoppers back then.”
“And we’re still as clueless as Day 1!” a random employee shouts back without an ounce of shame.
Among the renewed jeers, Jiang Cheng leans over to Derek to his right. “The hell happened in 2015?”
“Paint Night,” Derek mutters back with a hollowed look of the traumatized. “With cats. It was unmitigated chaos. And then some of the cats ate the paint.” He pauses and shudders. “Did you know that paint just passes right through them?”
Jiang Cheng leans away with a grimace. “Ah.”
“Poop in all the colours of the rainbow. Everywhere.”
“If we can all just focus,” Rebecca levels everyone with a stern look. “We still need those ideas, and this brainstorming session is going nowhere, fast.” She gestures to the white board beside her as if to make her point. The emptiness of the board seems to gleem back at the team with mild disapproval and judgment.
“Why can’t we just copy the itinerary from our last event?” some perfectly practical member of the team pipes up. Jiang Cheng likes this person already though not enough to actually learn this person’s name. “If it worked before, it’ll work again. There’s no point in re-inventing the wheel.”
“Except we’ve been doing that for three years in a row. The boss wants to switch things up a bit. Inject some fresh ideas. Be more creative and all that jazz.” Rebecca waves her hand in a vague gesture at the word ‘creative’, as if that alone would magically impart the boss’ intention onto the rest of the group.
It does not.
“Or, how about instead of being creative, we steal some ideas?” Jane asks. “What do people even like to do these days?”
“Living active? Having mental health awareness? Protecting the climate?” Linda muses out loud from the front of the room in her distinct, dreamy voice. “So, maybe yoga? Spinning? Tree planting sessions? Can we add cats into the mix and make it into a cause? People will pay good money for a good cause, right? Save trees and cats!”
“We can have a selfie station! Selfies with cats!” Another worker – Kelly? Kaitlyn? Katherine – interjects with enthusiasm. Too much enthusiasm. “We can set up a cute little photobooth and have cute costumes for the cats. It’ll be so cute!”
She’s one of the newer (and younger) staff members whom Jiang Cheng hasn’t really spoken to yet because their shifts don’t seem to ever line up.
(Jiang Cheng suspects that that is done on purpose. Whoever’s in charge of setting the schedule is probably aware that everything about this girl, from her blinding optimism to her overuse of the word ‘cute’, pains Jiang Cheng on a deep, personal, and spiritual level. Staffing them together will probably end in disaster.)
After hearing her speak, Jiang Cheng can’t say he disagrees with that assessment.
“We’re not making the cats wear costumes,” he says out loud for the first time in the meeting, unsure if he’s more unimpressed by the suggestion itself or the fact that he’s the only one to voice his disapproval of it. “They’re going to hate it and end up scratching the shit out of the customers. The last thing we need are complaints about our cats being jerks when we’re trying to get them adopted.”
“Oh. Huh. I guess you have a point.” Kate-Kristin-Whatever frowns. But almost immediately, she brightens up again. “But what if, we’re the ones who wear the costumes then? We can still set up that photo booth but the customers can take pictures with us with the cats and – ”
“No,” Jiang Cheng’s tone turns icy. “Absolutely not.”
“Aww, but JC, I bet you’d look fetching with a pair of fuzzy cat ears, an apron and a tail!” Jane whispers over his shoulder. When he fails to swat her away like the annoying gnat that she is, her look turns absolutely filthy. “I bet a certain someone would appreciate that fun little get up too. Not like he needs any more reasons to stare at your as–”
“Keep your filthy, perverted thoughts to yourself!” Jiang Cheng hisses out, fifty shades of mortified and outraged. “Lan Xichen is honourable and I refuse to hear you sully his character like that!”
“What?” Jane blinks in faux-innocence. “I was just going to say that he likes to stare at your astonishing latte art!”
“Jane, stop badgering JC!” Rebecca’s voice cuts in, startling Jiang Cheng out of his death glare. “JC, stop trying to murder her with your mind. We still need her alive for the event! I don’t care what you do with her afterwards!”
“So cruel!” Jane cries out.
“The people weep,” Rebecca rolls her eyes and turns her attention back to everyone else. “Kaitlin, how about we revisit that idea and move on for now? Any other ideas? Yes – you at the back?”
“Wine nights with the cats. Think of the pun potential – pinot meow, mos-cat-o, ca-purr-net sauvignon!”
“I still think the costume idea is a great one!” Kaitlin – that’s apparently her name – steamrolls on like a woman with a mission. “We can have cute cat ears and cute themed aprons – we’ll look so cute!”
“Stay strong, man,” Derek utters and pats Jiang Cheng on the shoulder. “On the plus side, it’ll all be over soon enough!”
“I was there for three hours!” Jiang Cheng rants at a bemused Lan Xichen a handful of hours later as they’ve settled down on a nearby park bench. The ranting is made more difficult since he’s also clutching on to his tray of fish and chips that he’s trying very hard not to spill. “If I have to hear someone say something being ‘on trend’ or ‘relevant’ or ‘lit AF’, there will be consequences. Terrible, horrible consequences!”
When he sees Lan Xichen cocks his head and mouths the word ‘lit af’ with utter befuddlement, he grimaces. “Don’t ask. It’s one of the many bizarre lingos of the youth.”
That startles a laugh out of the other man. “You’re not that old, Wanyin, certainly nowhere near old enough to sound so world-weary or refer to your colleagues as ‘the youth’.”
“I definitely feel like I’ve aged at least a decade!” he shoots back, ignoring the warm glow in his chest at the others’ affectionate Wanyin. “You haven’t witnessed the horrors that I have witnessed. It was mentally scarring.”
“I am sorry to hear you’ve had a difficult time,” Lan Xichen placates with his usual genteel tone. “At the same time, it must be nice that your colleagues are all so enthusiastic and, uh, creative and honest with their suggestions.”
The look Jiang Cheng gives Lan Xichen is filled with pure judgment. “They wanted to dress the cats up in costumes and set up a selfie station,” he says flatly. “A selfie station.”
At that, Lan Xichen flinches a little. Good. The man can see sense after all. “Ah, I can see how that is a bit…ill advised. I trust that you voiced your concerns?”
“I’m not sure how effective my protests were, but yeah, I made them.” Repeatedly, loudly, and punctuated with his patented death glares too. “If we’re lucky, the team would forget all about it by the time our next meeting hits.”
A little voice in his head tells him that he’s in denial. He kindly tells that little voice to shut the hell up.
“Were you able to come to a rough itinerary?” Lan Xichen asks after they’ve abandoned the bench for a gentle stroll down the winding pedestrian pathway, the last few bites of their meals polished off.
Jiang Cheng snorts and kicks a stray pebble out of the way. “That implies a level of organization that we do not have. What we currently have is a loose collection of ideas.” Most of which are terrible, just terrible. And he’s all the more sorry for dragging the other man into this debacle.
Speaking of which, “This is becoming a bit of a hot mess,” he grimaces and rubs the back of his neck. “I swear that when I asked for your help with this, I wasn’t anticipating things to get so out of hand. I completely understand if you want to bail.”
Lan Xichen shakes his head. “I would never forgo the opportunity to spend more time with the cats and you.”
That flare of warmth comes rushing back to Jiang Cheng, and he awkwardly coughs into his fist as an excuse to turn away until the sensation dies down.
Luckily, Lan Xichen does not seem to notice because he continues, “Besides, I am looking forward to the event. From what you’re suggesting, it sounds like it will be exciting and very lively – yes, yes I know!” he laughs at the grimace Jiang Cheng is making. “My enthusiasm for anything lively is foreign, unnatural and utterly offensive, but I appreciate you not pointing out my obvious flaws nonetheless.”
Jiang Cheng wisely does not answer except to give him a pointed look with one arched brow. The other merely grins in response.
They continue their stroll in a friendly silence. With evening approaching, the park’s visitors are starting to dwindle down, leaving behind open fields of yellow-green grass on both sides of the dusty path and a hush of quiet that permeates the clean, crisp fall air. Over the treeline, Jiang Cheng can make out the last bit of sun slowly sinking into the horizon, and as it does, the world around them is cast in an orange, golden glow from the last vestiges of dying light. It won’t be long now for even that bit of warmth to fade and for the street lamps to flicker on one by one.
It’s been a good number of weeks since they’ve started to actively meet up outside their usual morning interactions. Their initial plans to have dinner once a week had quickly gone out the window when a couple of days after PAI Kitchen, Jiang Cheng, newly off of his shift and bored out of his mind, sent a stray message to Lan Xichen to see if “he’s up to doing something”. Despite the vague and, admittedly, lame message, the other man had readily agreed, and had been surprisingly quick about his response too.
That meeting had started a cascade of impromptu get-togethers, which is a nice change from Jiang Cheng’s day-to-day monotony.
It also offered him the chance to revisit his metaphorical dictionary half-filled with observations about Lan Xichen, and even add a couple of solid, new entries too. For one, Lan Xichen absolutely hates traffic. That alone is nothing special – who on Earth doesn’t? – but it’s the way he tends to hide his impatience that is fascinating to watch. Although not obvious from the man’s peaceful, zen-like expression, the longer they sat on the road, unmoving, the more fidgety the man became, from the quick, staccato, tap-tap-tap of his fingers drumming over the steering wheel to the increasing way he shifted his weight in his chair. All of this done without a single word of complaint, of course.
It was a weird contrast to the way most Jiang members express their dissatisfaction: out loud, firmly, and with varying degrees of tactlessness.
And then, there was Lan Xichen’s humming. He has a good humming voice – a baritone of pure velvet. He also has a tendency to hum bits and pieces of songs without ever finishing one, switching between a chorus here and a fragment there as seamlessly as Jiang Cheng flips through shows on Netflix.
The third discovery is that Lan Xichen has a truly impressive recall for conversations previously interrupted, one that he uses to inevitably circle back to where the conversation last dropped off with pin point accuracy. Frankly, the degree in which he must have been paying attention to Jiang Cheng’s bullshit rambling to achieve that feat is incredible.
“Do you go through a similar process every time you plan for these events?” Lan Xichen asks in an impressive display of the third discovery, some 20 minutes into their stroll.
“Hm?” Jiang Cheng looks up. “Oh, you mean the adoption event?”
At the other’s nod, he hums a little in thought. “I’m not sure if it’s always been like this. I’ve only done two of these so I’m no real authority on how the café runs these things, but those haven’t been this chaotic. What?” he pauses at Lan Xichen’s quizzical look. “Why the look?”
“Oh, it’s just that you make it sound like you haven’t been working at the café for long.”
“That’s because I haven’t. I started working a little more than a year ago. Why?”
“Oh.” Lan Xichen looks even more taken back. “I’m rather surprised to hear that. I was always under the assumption that you’ve been working at the café far longer from the way you handle the cats. You’re very good with them.”
“I haven’t been in this city for long,” Jiang Cheng mumbles through the fresh wave of embarrassment he can feel choking him. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to Lan Xichen’s liberal and outspoken praises. “I’ve been here for about the same time I worked at the café. Plus a month or two? I dunno. Those first few months were brutal between settling in and juggling between my other jobs, so my memory is a bit hazy.”
He only realizes that he might have said too much when no response is immediately forthcoming.
“Uh, that is –”
“The other jobs?” Lan Xichen uncharacteristically interjects, and there’s no mistaking the worry in his voice. Jiang Cheng tries not to let his wince show.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal. I was doing a few other jobs here and there – ”
“A few? At the same time?”
“They were temporary,” Jiang Cheng mumbles against the collar of his jacket, his body hunching a little and his hands stuffed deep into his coat pockets. “I didn’t stay with them for longer than a couple of months. Once a full-time spot at the cat café opened up, I quit the other places.”
Somehow, he doubts Lan Xichen would react well to the fact that he had been working 60-hour weeks and had still been struggling to put food on the table. In hindsight, he ought to have known that floundering in poverty would be an outcome of him leaving town and quitting his old job. As he came to realize during his job-hunt, it was rather hard to find a well-paying job without broadcasting the only marketable skills he had, which happened to be the very same skills obtained from his work as the heir of the Jiang company.
“Still,” Lan Xichen frowns, “to have been juggling with all that when you’ve just moved to a new city, that could not have been easy at all.”
The unspoken why lingers in the air.
Because I‘d rather struggle than rely on the family name, he thinks viciously.
“It’s old news at this point,” Jiang Cheng deflects instead with a helpless shrug. “I survived it just fine.”
“It all came together in the end. For the better!” Jiang Cheng assures, ducking a little to hide his grimace. “I like living here in the city and the job’s alright, annoying co-workers aside. I’m certainly liking here a lot more than when I was back at home.”
That’s true enough. Despite the rocky start, he likes his current life and the freedom that comes with it. He likes that he can do as he please without his mother’s disapproval and his father’s cold disinterest shadowing his every step. He likes having the breathing room to take random strolls in the park with Lan Xichen, to meet up and hang out, or if he wants to, he can choose to spend his days hermitting alone with his laptop and a good cup of tea.
(He feels guilty about this, but he even likes the distance away from his siblings. He can avoid being constantly reminded of his brother’s natural superiority and his sister’s constant worry over their family’s deteriorating relationship.)
Also, Jiang Cheng rather likes working with the cats. And he likes to think that deep down, in their cold, fickle, feline hearts, the cats like him back. It’s stupid and probably inconsequential, but goddamnit, knowing that something likes him matters, especially when so many people clearly don’t.
“I’m glad to hear that you enjoy your time here,” Lan Xichen says diplomatically. “You deserve all the good things, and I would hate to imagine you being unhappy.”
“W-well, there's nothing to worry about here,” Jiang Cheng manages to mumble out, making a point to not look at the other man. “I’m happy as a clam.”
“Good,” Lan Xichen nods. “Although, if you ever need anything, and I do mean anything at all, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. It’s only fair since you’ve offered to do the same for me.”
“Yeah, yeah, you sap.” He hunches a little more into his jacket and ignores the other’s huff of laughter.
If his heart thumps a little harder in his chest and his cheeks feel a little warmer, well, that’s nobody else’s business but his.
It appears that the moment Wei Wuxian returns from his bizarre trip, he tells the whole world about it. In the past few days, Jiang Cheng has been inundated with posts on social media of beautiful azure seashores, lush verdant forests and…crustaceans. Lots and lots of pictures of tiny, ruby red crabs carpeting the white sandy beaches, the roads, the forest floor, just everywhere.
So it doesn’t come as a surprise that when he logs onto Skype from his laptop one evening, a notification for a call from his brother pops up almost immediately.
“A-Cheng!” an extreme close up of his brother’s forehead and left eye floods the screen as his voice rings loudly in the apartment. Jiang Cheng winces and violently jabs the volume button. “Look, A-Jie! A-Cheng is on the line!”
The screen shifts in a blur of shapes and colours before settling on the beaming face of his older sister.
“A-Jie? What are you doing with that loser?” Jiang Cheng asks, ignoring his brother’s squawks of protests.
“I thought I’d pay A-Ying a visit! Things have been so quiet with him away.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. My phone’s been blowing up the moment he landed on the tarmac.” He glares at his brother, who’s since pulled up a chair beside his sister. “Oy, can’t you contain your shit posts to five per day, max? I didn’t need to get ten notifications from Facebook for pictures of you and Lan Wangji lounging at the airport.”
Well, technically, it’s just Wei Wuxian who’s doing any sort of lounging. His stuffy boyfriend merely sits beside him as stiff and still as a marble statue.
“And deprive the people of Lan Zhan’s beautiful face? Never!” Wei Wuxian quips back. “The people are loving those pictures. They can’t get enough of him.”
“Does your boyfriend know you’ve been shamelessly milking him for clicks on social media? Because I feel like your boyfriend should know the extent of your shamelessness for internet fame.”
“My wonderful boyfriend encourages my hobbies and friendships with other people, and likes that I’m happy,” Wei Ying answers entirely too glibly.
“So, basically, what you’re saying is no. If he knows half of what you do online, he’d do the exact opposite of what you just said there.”
Wei Wuxian snorts and tosses his hair like the diva that he is. “Lan Zhan is nowhere near as much of a buzzkill as you are.”
“You’re the buzzkill.”
“Your face is a buzzkill.”
“Your whole body is a buzzkill.”
“Your cells are a buzzkill.”
“All the atoms that make up your body are a buzzkill.”
“Oh yeah? Well, all the quarks that make up the neutrons and protons in your atoms are a –“
“Boys! Really,” Jiang Yanli interjects.
“He started it!” both Wei Wuxian and him exclaim at the same time before dissolving into cackles of laughter like they were teenage boys once again.
They spend the next twenty minutes listening to Wei Wuxian regale them with a colourful account of his journey, one that’s filled with so many mishaps that Jiang Cheng wonders how he and Lan Wangji even made it back alive and in one piece.
“So, you lost your luggage, your backpack, and your wallet, you almost fell to your death in your attempt to scale rocks not once, or twice, but four times, meanwhile, Lan Wangji was dying first from a heat stroke, then from food poisoning.” Jiang Cheng shakes his head in disbelief. “What are you guys, cursed or something?”
“Lan Zhan’s phone also got destroyed accidentally, so there’s that as well.”
“Destroyed accidentally?” Jiang Yanli asks.
“He accidentally dropped it down a cliff. There were lots of rocks at the bottom.”
Jiang Cheng chokes down his laughter. “Wow. First Lan Xichen then him. Phones must hate the Lans or something.”
“Oh yeah, I heard about Older Brother’s mishap and his sudden business trip,” his brother muses with a soft hum, his tone suddenly quiet and serious. “Lan Zhan was so upset.”
Jiang Cheng can feel his brow raise. “Why would Lan Wangji be upset? It’s their family business.”
Wei Wuxian scowls. “Because this isn’t the first time that that's happened. According to Lan Zhan, Uncle Lan has the tendency to just order Big Brother to drop everything because of work.”
“I don’t know the details, but wasn’t there some sort of a work emergency this time around?” Jiang Cheng asks. He is also not surprised that Lan Qiren was the one who gave his nephew his marching orders. It’s been years since he’s last met the overly serious, recalcitrant leader of Cloud Recesses Land Development, since the Shaving Incident, in fact. He doubts time has softened the man even if it did erase the damage to his facial hair.
“It was, but Lan Zhan thinks it’s something that another family member could have easily handled,” Wei Wuxian huffs out. “It’s not as if Uncle Lan even tried to get someone else. He expects Big Brother to do everything and doesn’t respect his personal time at all!”
Jiang Cheng winces and he can see his sister do the same. Being the sons and daughter of the head of their family company, the three of them had their fair share of fires to put out. But at least, there are three of them to handle matters, and they were certainly not expected to do everything.
Having one man to hold the fort just seems like a bad business practice.
“That’s awful,” his sister says softly but with feeling. “I hope he’s taking care of himself and I hope the emergency trip wasn’t too rough on him.”
“He’s fine. Got back a bit worse for wear but was surprisingly coherent,” Jiang Cheng reassures. “He just needed some food and sleep.”
Wei Wuxian flashes his trademarked shit-eating grin at Jiang Cheng, and a chill goes up his spine. It’s the same grin Wei Wuxian wears whenever he thinks of something devious, inevitably ending with the two of them running for their lives. “That’s right! I forget that you’ve become a resident expert on everything that has to do with Big Brother!”
“Lies and slanders. Nothing but lies and slanders,” Jiang Cheng denies quickly.
“Well,” his terrible, no good brother leans closer to the screen and drawls out, “I heard Lan Xichen himself has been singing praises about your wonderful hospitality! You were the perfect host!”
“Does Lan Zhan know you’ve been eavesdropping on his private conversations with his brother? Only shitty boyfriends do that, you know.”
“In fact,” Wei Wuxian carries on a little louder, “I heard about how you, my grumpy little brother, invited him to your home and cooked for him!”
His face falls into a pout a second later as the thought sinks in. “Wait a minute, I’ve never been treated with anywhere near this level of kindness from you. Why haven’t you ever cooked for me? It’s not fair that Big Brother is getting such preferential treatment!”
“You can eat shit and die,” Jiang Cheng snarks, ignoring his sister’s chastising, “A-Cheng!” and continues, “That poor man looked like he was ready to collapse at any second. The least I could do was feed him and offer him a place to crash!”
“I’ve been exhausted in front of you before but I wasn’t given any TLC!”
“You being tired from gaming all night is a product of your own stupidity and deserves none of my sympathy!”
Their bickering is interrupted by Jiang Yanli’s bright laughter. “I’m so glad to see A-Cheng is in such high spirit and that Lan Xichen has you to rely on.”
“A-Jie, not you too!”
“Lan Zhan is happy as well!” chimes in Wei Wuxian, which is news to Jiang Cheng. He’s fairly sure that Lan Zhan doesn’t like him much. The feeling is pretty mutual. “He’s glad that at least someone is there to keep an eye out on Big Brother. Lan Zhan is worried that he works too much, and thinks you’d make an appropriate distraction.”
Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how to react to that, so he settles for good ol’ fashion suspicion. “Appropriate how?” Also, distraction?
“You know,” Wei Wuxian gestures unhelpfully. “Not too wild, not too shameless, will be home and ready for bed by 9-o’clock. Just having a good, wholesome time with Big Brother.”
“Wow,” Jiang Cheng drawls out after a beat of silence. “Should I be flattered? Because I’m leaning more towards feeling insulted and attacked.” The saddest part is that none of that is wrong either, which only makes him want to curl up and die at the thought that even Lan Wangji, the blandest Lan to have ever Lanned, thinks that his social life is bland. Or Heaven forbid, virtuous.
“A-Ying is just teasing,” Jiang Yanli soothes. “Besides, there’s nothing wrong with an early bed time!”
“Not the point, A-Jie.”
“If you don’t want us to think that you’re a wet blanket, then prove us wrong,” Wei Wuxian leans back and crosses his arms over his chest. The gesture is oddly challenging. Jiang Cheng is immediately suspicious. “My birthday is coming up and I’m doing a Halloween-birthday bash this year. Come out and join us! Everyone will be there. A-Jie is coming!”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng intones flatly. “You guys live on the other side of the country. I’m not going to fly out just for one evening of partying.”
It’s not like he can afford such an impromptu trip or has the time for it given the Halloween adoption event at the café, but even if those things are not an issue, it’s still a solid no thank you.
“So? Take some time off and make it into a mini vacation! It’s been, like, forever since you’ve been back home. Stick around for a bit longer.”
“It has been a long time since we’ve last saw you,” Jiang Yanli agrees gently and, dare Jiang Cheng say, a bit too readily? “We miss you and would love to see you. We can have dinner as a family and I can make you my lotus root and pork soup!”
Jiang Cheng’s mouth draws into a tight line as realization dawns on him like he’s been hit by a sudden blast of arctic wind. He draws himself up from the relaxed, slouched position he had been in for most of the conversation and leans into the laptop camera so that he can look his siblings in the eyes. “…I see. Please don’t tell me that this has been the real purpose for this call all along.”
The silence is damning, as with the guilty shifty look on his siblings’ faces. It only makes him glare harder.
“For the last time, I’m not going back.”
“We’re not saying you should stay at Uncle and Auntie’s place,” Wei Wuxian counters, apparently throwing all pretenses to the wind. “But what’s wrong with making a small visit? Uncle and Auntie are worried.”
A look of annoyance settles on his features at Jiang Cheng’s bark of harsh laughter. “They are! How do you expect them to feel? They haven’t seen or heard from you since you moved across the country. There are only so many times we can tell them that ‘he’s doing fine’ to quell their panic!”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “You know, I’d actually believe you had I not seen how completely unphased Father was when I got the hell out of dodge. Mother was the only who actually reacted, and it was in outrage.”
“You went from quitting to moving out within the month! He wasn’t unphased. He was in shock!”
“Yeah, just like how he was in shock when he missed my graduation ceremonies, recitals, and birthdays.” Of course, not like Wei Wuxian would know. Father made sure to go to all of his.
“A-Cheng, that’s not fair,” his sister interjects. “Father isn’t perfect, but he loves you.”
“If that’s how he shows his love to his own goddamned son, then I don’t want to see how he’s like to the people he likes, or god forbid, his acquaintances!” Jiang Cheng manages to keep his harsh tone low despite choking down the next round of terrible laughter that’s been threatening to bubble up his throat. There’s a weird tightness to his chest, like someone is squeezing his lungs and his heart simultaneously.
He ignores it, just like how he ignores the constant disappointment he feels towards Jiang Fengmian.
“But hey, I’m glad more of us is starting to acknowledge the fact that that man isn’t perfect,” he adds with sarcasm. “The next step is to admit that he’s a shitty person and a shittier father, then we’d actually get somewhere!”
“That’s going too far!”
The last vestiges of pretend civility dissipates into thin air and Jiang Cheng snarls, “That’s going too far? Really? That? You know what I think is ‘too far’? Try subjecting your son to twenty some odd years of emotional neglect! Calling him a shitty father is being kind!”
The silence that falls between them is heavy and charged like the roiling thunder clouds of an oncoming typhoon. Jiang Cheng swallows the growing lump in his throat. That damned pressure in his chest is back, and he puts in a renewed effort to push it down, all the way down until he stops feeling anything. Slowly, and out his laptop camera’s view, he tucks his trembling hands into his pockets, and curls them into tight fists, so tight that he can feel the pinpricks of pain as his nails bite into the meat of his palms.
He doesn’t remember the last time the three of them had fought, genuinely fought, like they are doing now. And it’s all because of that man. Isn’t it bad enough that he ruined his childhood and injected a myriad of trust issues in him? Why does he have to also ruin what tenuous relationship he has with his sister and brother?
“I’m sorry,” his sister says after a little while, soft but with feeling. Wei Wuxian remains frowning beside her, his arms still crossed over his chest, but the way he’s chewing on his lips betrays how upset he’s feeling. “I’m sorry that Father made you feel that way. I wish you’d believe us when we say that Father cares, but I understand how that can be hard to swallow. He hasn’t given you any reason to believe otherwise.”
Jiang Cheng can only answer with a stiff nod at that, not trusting his voice just yet.
“I’m sorry for the hurt you’ve gone through and for the hurt you’re still going through,” Jiang Yanli continues. “We shouldn’t have pushed you to come home. We’ve just been so worried about you, A-Cheng. We’ve never had to live far away from each other before. To have you suddenly move away like this, and knowing you’d rather be out there alone,” she pauses, and takes in a shaky breath. “We can’t help but think that we’ve got a part to play in pushing you away.”
Never in a million years would he think that his siblings blamed themselves, and they couldn’t be more wrong as well.
“Shit, no, no, that’s not – this isn’t your fault!” Jiang Cheng runs a frustrated hand through his hair. His previous anger sizzling away at the newfound presence of terrible guilt washing over him. “I didn’t move because of you. And it’s not your fault either,” he adds, pointing at his brother who’s looking more and more miserable. “This whole thing has been about them and me. It’s also been about me needing to get away so that I can fucking live a little.”
“Are you sure it’s not something I’ve done?” Wei Wuxian’s voice is small. It’s the most subdued he’s been in a long while and a flash of renewed guilt cuts into Jiang Cheng’s heart.
“Yes, you big idiot!” he insists gruffly. “As if anything you do can chase me away! I went with you on that stupid Shaving Incident thing, didn’t I? If I hadn’t run from your dumbassery then, then I wouldn’t now! So you can tell whatever stupid self-flagellating thought in your bird brain to shut the hell up. This is not your fault.”
The truth of that sentiment resonates through him. Despite all the hurt he’s gone through from his dysfunctional parents, he genuinely does not blame Wei Wuxian for it. It took him a couple of months into his self-imposed exile to sort through the ugly mess of his emotions to come to that conclusion. He’s still working on letting go of all this irrational anger and petty resentment, but at least there’s progress.
Just as Jiang Cheng is trapped in his situation, the same can be said of his older brother. Hell, Wei Wuxian didn’t ask to be adopted by his father, to be caught in this terrible game of favouritism and abuse, nor did his brother ask for the talent he’s naturally blessed with. His brother is just trying to live his life as best as he can with the cards he’s been dealt with.
Instead, the blame should fall entirely on the adults of this family unit who should’ve acted like adults. His shitty parents and their toxic issues that had spilled out into every other aspect of their lives, like oil slick staining everything it touches black.
No child should be made to pit against his sibling just to vie for the affection of a parent. That’s multiple shades of fucked up. Jiang Cheng sees that now and hates himself a little for ever thinking that that was okay.
“Okay, if you say so, then I believe you.” Wei Wuxian nods, still frowning but sounding a bit more like his old self. “We promise we’re not going to push about the home thing again too. But there’s only so much we can do to stave off Uncle and Auntie. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to make an appearance before they do something drastic.”
Jiang Cheng breathes out a heavy sigh. “Yeah, I know. I just…need a bit more time. I’d appreciate if you can buy as much time as possible for me.” He’s not sure if he’ll ever have enough time to sort through the mountain of issues and complexes in his twisted mind, but he’ll work with whatever he can get.
And he knows just the way to start – with a bit of honesty.
“Listen,” he starts, “I don’t think I’ve said this before, but thanks. For, uh, keeping mother and father off of my back.”
He knows he’s half-mumbling at this point. But even then, he spares a fleeting glance at his sibling’s expressions to see if there’s any confusion.
There is none; only surprise and gentle patience.
He ducks his head back down with a grimace. Christ. Emotions are terrible. Why is he so bad with them?
Still, he continues. “You guys didn’t sign up to be my shield, and I kinda just bailed and foisted all this on to you without talking to you first. It’s a real dick move, and I’ve been a jerk about it, so I’m really sorry.
“And I’m sorry I can’t come to your birthday party thing, A-Xian. All this aside,” Jiang Cheng gestures at the space between them, “I genuinely have a massive work thing that I can’t abandon. We’re doing this adoption event at the café and it’s going to be all hands on deck. Your party sounds like it’s going to be fun though.”
When he finally scrapes together enough courage to look up again, it’s to the sight of his siblings beaming at him. Yanli looks a bit teary-eyed even. “You don’t have to thank us,” she says. “You’re our little brother. Of course, we’ll always help you.”
“Being your meat shield is practically in my job description!” his brother adds, all sunshine and rainbow once again. “And don’t worry about the party thing. You can make up to me by getting me something extra for Christmas! I expect double, no, triple the usual amount of presents!”
Jiang Cheng chuckles, feeling nothing but fondness for his sweet sister and his dumbass brother mixed with the relief of knowing that all’s been forgiven. “More like triple the amount of coal for you, you shameless punk!”
He sits back and listens to his brother’s squawking with a heart much lighter than when the call had started. It’s funny, but somehow, he knows it in his bones that they’re going to be okay.
Through what must have been some divine intervention, the employees at the cat café had miraculously managed to cobble together a semi-respectable itinerary for the Adoption Event. The schedule is a bit eclectic and the planned events range from information sessions on basic cat care to things like yoga with cats, tea time with cats, or cats and craft (sans paint, of course). However, all this suits the zaniness that permeates the café and its staff to a tee, so Jiang Cheng can’t complain too much about it.
Setting the schedule was not even half the battle; working out the logistics to have everything run smoothly over the course of the weekend was the real challenge. It had taken every bit of Jiang Cheng’s patience and rusty management skills to have everything sorted in time. Suffice to say, when the Halloween finally rolls around, Jiang Cheng is just about ready to crawl into bed and not come out for at least two weeks.
Although, as he looks around the café bustling with excited families, students, and cat lovers from all walks of life, all of them happily mingling together and playing with the cats, he can’t help but feel a sense of pride at the job well done.
His eyes scan the room and naturally land on a large group of whispering, giggling college students lined up outside the glass partition. He cranes his head to catch a glimpse inside the pen and wasn’t at all surprised to see Lan Xichen, seated at a bench in all his graceful beauty. He has his hair tied up into his usual, neat pony tail, and is wearing a version of the outfit from when he had crashed Jiang Cheng’s place that faithful night – a comfy beige cardigan, white T-shirt, and soft, grey pants to top it all off. It definitely adds to the serene calm he’s exuding as he minds the cats, completely unfazed by the way they had taken the liberty to drape themselves across whatever free space available on his lap in the bold, selfish ways that cats oft do. Jiang Cheng thinks he can just make out a tuft of Bandit’s tell-tale gray fur among the nest of cats.
“That little shit,” he mutters. Bandit has never acted so docile whenever Jiang Cheng is around. He’s starting to suspect that the cat just likes to mess with him.
“Had we realized sooner that Mr. Lan’s presence alone is enough to draw a crowd, we wouldn’t have needed to work so hard.”
Jiang Cheng snorts and turns to Rebecca. She returns a wry grin and jerks her head towards the crowd around the glass. “Do you think it’s too late to switch up our itinerary? Just scrap everything we’ve planned and instead, replace it with a perpetual session of watching and/or pining after Mr. Lan, featuring the cats? We can charge people money. We’d make so much out of it.”
“Hmph, ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng mutters, although he’s secretly wondering how much money they’d actually get away with charging. $5 will guarantee you 5 minutes of staring time, standing room only; $20 for a picture. “I’m just surprised that none of his admirers have attempted to get into the pen with him. The man is perfectly approachable.”
Rebecca chuckles. “Most normal people are intimidated by perfection, and no,” she adds, cutting off Jiang Cheng before he can speak, “you’re nowhere near the realm of normal. You flirt with latte art cat pun and snark. Who even does that?”
“I do not flirt!” Jiang Cheng manages to splutter out, outraged. “There was no flirting involved. Only snark. Nothing but pure, unadulterated snark!”
“Hey, I ain’t judging!” Rebecca holds up her hands. “Mr. Lan seems to be really digging your efforts so good on ya!”
And then, she has the audacity to give him a friendly punch on the shoulder to add insult to injury.
“He’s not digging my, my anything!”
“Sure he isn't. Just like how he’s not practically pleading for you to save him with his eyes right now.”
Cursing, Jiang Cheng spins around to see that Lan Xichen had been staring sheepishly at him from across the glass. When he sees that he’s finally caught Jiang Cheng’s attention, he mouths the word, ‘help.’
“I’ll be right back,” Jiang Cheng utters and beelines for the pen before Rebecca can answer.
“Hey, sorry. I got distracted out there,” he says to Lan Xichen by way of greeting when he firmly shuts the pen door behind him. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a bind,” Lan Xichen admits with a small, apologetic frown that does nothing to mar his perfection. He looks down at the nest of cats on his lap and around him, one of which is definitely Bandit, the little shit, and gives a helpless shrug. “I would like to grab some water but, um, I can’t seem to feel my legs.”
Jiang Cheng blinks at him. Lan Xichen stares back. Although his expression remains unchanged, Jiang Cheng can see that the tips of his ears are glowing redder and redder by the second.
“You can’t feel your legs,” Jiang Cheng repeats. There’s no disguising the slight warble in his voice. Or the shaking of his shoulders from repressed laughter.
“That is correct.”
“And instead of moving the cats, you’ve just been sitting there, silently dying of thirst.”
“I’m hardly dying of thirst,” Lan Xichen mutters, and sweet Heaven on Earth, is the man actually pouting? This just got so much better. “I’ve just been inconvenienced, and I did not want to disturb the cats by standing up.”
“Which you couldn’t, cause you can’t feel your legs. How long have you been stuck like this?”
The not-pout on Lan Xichen’s face firmly turns into an unmistakable full-fledged pout, and Jiang Cheng loses it. “Alright, alright! No need to give me that look!” he laughs. “Let’s see who you have here who’s giving you so much trouble. Oh, hello there, Princess Caroline! Did my lady have a good nap?”
“I’m still having trouble believing that you’ve only been here for a year,” Lan Xichen says in wonder after Jiang Cheng transferred most of the cats to surrounding cat beds all the while feeding them a snack to placate their feline fury. Only Princess Caroline remained nearby and has made herself perfectly comfortable in Jiang Cheng’s arms, purring up a storm. “How do you manage to get them to do what you want them to do?”
“Well, the first step is to give up the notion that cats will do what you want. They only do things if they want to, and on their terms. Isn’t that right, my lady?” he gives Princess Caroline a good chin scritch and gets a soft, purry ‘mew’ in response. “But, if you want to convince them to do something,” he gives Lan Xichen a sly grin, “a treat laced with a little bit of catnip never hurts.”
“Briberies and drugs!” Lan Xichen breathes out a laugh. “How scandalous, Mr. Jiang!”
“Excuse you, I feed only the best, organic and locally-sourced drugs to my cats. I’m not a monster!!” Jiang Cheng sniffs and guides Princess Carolina back into her usual perch where she can continue to lay there and judge. “Now, let’s see what we can do about that water.”
They leave the pen chattering their usual nonsense, all the while ignoring the crowd of gawking onlookers and Rebecca’s audible mutterings of, “so much money.”
“I see that you don’t have a costume on, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen teases once he’s had his glass of water and is settled into a chair in the employee room. “What happened to your Halloween spirit?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jiang Cheng gestures to his body. He’s wearing his usual outfit consisting of a store merch T-shirt (with the words “Everyday’s a cat-urday” blazoned across his chest), skinny jeans, and beaten up sneakers. “Clearly, I’m a professional cat wrangler who moonlights as a catnip dealer. Besides, I don’t see you in your costume!”
But Lan Xichen is not at all phased by the challenge. He merely leans forward and with an easy, teasing grin, replies, “Why, I’m dressed as the partner in crime of the professional cat wrangler who moonlights as a catnip dealer. It’s very nuanced. I’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“Oh?” Jiang Cheng shoots the other what he hopes is a cool look despite the butterflies in his chest. “I don’t recall asking for a partner in crime. What sort of skills do you have to offer?”
“Judging by all the people gathered outside of the pen just now, I apparently make for a very good distraction,” Lan Xichen says in such a deadpan, matter-of-fact manner that it startles a bout of incredulous laughter out of Jiang Cheng. “I am also an excellent getaway driver.”
The grin on Jiang Cheng’s face grows wider. “You make some good points, Mr. Lan.”
Lan Xichen raises his water glass in a toast. “I do try.”
The familiar sound of phones buzzing cuts into the room. On instinct, Lan Xichen puts his glass down and reaches for his phone in his pant pocket.
Then, he chuckles. “Speaking of Halloween, it appears that our brothers are having fun without us.”
Jiang Cheng leans closer to peer into the screen that Lan Xichen had turned towards him. Looks like Wei Wuxian updated his Facebook with a group picture from his Halloween/birthday party bash. At the front is obviously the birthday boy himself, wearing a pink, sparkly tiara of all the ridiculous things and wrapped in the arms of his precious Lan Zhan. At the back, Jiang Cheng can make out more familiar faces including his sister and her peacock husband, Wen Quonglin and Wen Qing, and hiding in the corner, Nie Huaisang.
Unsurprisingly, the post is already filling up with a slew of comments and a ton of likes. His eyes however stopped at one of the comments near the top of the thread:
A-Xian, Wishing you a very happy birthday filled with laughter and joy. May this birthday bring more cheer than the last, may it bring more friends, and may it bring more birthdays. - JFM
Jiang Cheng stares.
The post is signed by JFM.
A couple of thoughts hit Jiang Cheng at once as he tries to process what he’s seeing. His father is on Facebook. Not only that, but apparently his father knows how to use it, and has used it to leave a thoughtful message to Wei Wuxian, wishing him a happy birthday. In public.
He rereads the message again.
It’s a short message, a bit superficial, and a bit generic, but Jiang Fengmian is not known to be a man of many words, least of all words that are spoken in public. What he does end up saying, he means wholeheartedly though.
There's a weird pressure in his chest, like someone had taken a sledgehammer to his heart, knocking out all of the air in his lungs in one vicious blow. He pushes that sensation away and forces himself to draw a breath, slow and steady. In and out.
Jiang Fengmian has never wished Jiang Cheng a happy birthday like that, not in public, not in so many words beyond the curt, barebones, “happy birthday, Son” when he does show up to his birthday celebrations. And he has certainly never wished Jiang Cheng to have many more cheer and friends.
In and out.
Jiang Fengmian has never wished Jiang Cheng using such gentle words. Jiang Cheng had thought that his father was incapable of them. Growing up, he had wanted to believe that to be true. It’s a hard pill to swallow to see physical evidence of the contrary.
In and out.
It’s weird. It’s stupid. Jiang Cheng knows better than to expect anything from his father. He's had his whole life to get himself used to it, to brace himself for the cold reality that Jiang Fengmian may acknowledge their blood relation, but he won't ever like Jiang Cheng as a person, let alone love him as a son.
That's right. In and out.
And yet, it’s funny how someone can keep being a disappointment even when that's expected.
It’s funny how even with the expectation of being disappointed, it doesn’t make the pain hurt any less.
“Wanyin? Are you alright?”
A gentle pressure against his back, and Jiang Cheng is jerked back into the present.
Lan Xichen is looking at him with the slightest furrow between his brow and lips pressed into a thin, worried line.
“I-I’m fine,” he stutters, his voice coming out a bit scratchy. He clears his throat. “I’m just a bit tired. It’s been a long couple of weeks and they’re catching up to me.”
So his father is a douchebag who plays favourites. How is that new news? The whole purpose of him being here is to get away from all of that and for him to figure out who he is as a person, as defined by himself and nobody else.
Pull yourself together, Jiang Cheng, he thinks to himself. You’ve been doing fine the past year. Don’t let this one message set you back.
“Do you want to stay here and rest up a little longer?” Lan Xichen asks. His frown has not let up. “I am happy to stay or leave, whichever you prefer.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng shakes his head and takes in a steadying breath. Pull yourself together, Jiang Cheng. “I should probably head back out there. Make sure everything’s okay.”
He moves to trudge out the door, but is pulled back by the grip on his arm.
“Something is clearly not alright,” he hears Lan Xichen mutter from somewhere in the vicinity of the top of his head, but he can’t be certain because his eyes are trained to the floor. “You don’t have to tell me what it is, but please don’t think you need to pretend for my sake.”
Jiang Cheng feels himself pulled closer by the same gentle grip on his arm, closer until he’s inches away from the other man. He still hasn’t looked up, he doesn’t think he can muster the courage or strength to without his tenuous hold on his emotions breaking. This close, he can see the fine knit pattern on Lan Xichen’s cardigan and the subtle faintest smattering of light grey speckles that adorn his shirt’s fabric. The other man’s familiar scent of sandalwood and cedar drifts towards him, enveloping him in warmth and safety.
The funny pressure in his chest flares up again and he takes in another shaky breath to soothe it away, in and out.
It doesn’t work this time.
The hand on his arm moves to his shoulder, trailing heat through the thin fabric of his short sleeve.
“It’s just me, Wanyin. It’s just me.”
Jiang Cheng closes his stinging eyes.
Then, he takes a half-step forward and leans in so that his forehead is pressed against the other man’s shoulder, and he can hear nothing but the soothing sound of steady breathing.
“I think I’d like to stay here for a bit a longer,” he whispers, “if you don’t mind.”
He feels the hand that was previously on his shoulder move so that it splays across his back, nudging him closer until he’s pressed firmly against the warm expanse of Lan Xichen’s chest.
“Of course not,” he hears Lan Xichen say. “We can stay here for as long as you like.”
I have risen from the ashes like a phoenix! *makes weird dinosaur noises*. Also, this is probably the longest chapter I've written. I think it's approximately twice the length of some of my previous chapters, but there's a lot going on here and I don't want to chop anything out...so here you go! Have at it!
Thanks to everyone's amazing supportive messages and for all of your patience. I was stuck on this chapter for a long while since it has so many things going on at once. It also represents an important turning point in the story, it reveals more information about JC's past, and sets the stage for the remainder of this fic. I'm still not 100% satisfied with how I structured it, especially when it comes to balancing the comedy with the angst, but there has been a solid attempt on my part. A very solid attempt.
Anyway, please let me know what you think. I'd love to hear back from you! I do read every comment, even if I don't have the opportunity to respond to everyone as I would've liked. OTL
Bonus Chapter Notes:
 Wine nights with cats definitely made it on the Adoption Event itinerary, although it's been morphed into late night horror movie watching event with booze and cats.
 Jiang Cheng is right that Lan Xichen pays very close attention to the stuff he says, but not because it's done out of politeness. Lan Xichen just genuinely thinks Jiang Cheng's rants are hilarious and is fascinated with how such a young man can be so passionate (read: angry and judgmental), and so openly honest about it too! It's refreshing compared to the usual personality types he deals with in his family and at work.
 Over the year and a couple of months that he lived by himself, Jiang Cheng has developed a love for food trucks since they're delicious and cheap. His outings with Lan Xichen has only encouraged his exploration even further now that he has a dining partner to share his experiences with. Some of the types of food they've had, aside from the fish and chips place mentioned in this chapter, include: (1) various hot dog stands, (2) a place that only does soups, (3) a place that only serves bacon, and (4) waffles. Just lotsa waffles.
 Due to Note 3, Lan Xichen is marginally concerned about Jiang Cheng's poor diet, so in return, when it's his turn to pick restaurants, he makes sure to pick places that serve exceptionally healthy food.
 Lan Xichen also gets the same barrage of Facebook notifications that Jiang Cheng gets the moment Wei Wuxian returned from his trip. After Jiang Cheng's complaint during the call with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli about Wei Wuxian capping his shitposts to five per day, Wei Wuxian's Facebook activities have subsided, and Lan Xichen breathed a sigh of relief.
 Jiang Cheng completely missed how his added presence in the cat pen with Lan Xichen and they're blatant flirting have served to double the amount of college students watching from the outside. Rebecca came this close to charging people.
She would've charged $50 per picture.
Jan 8, 2020 and Jan 11, 2020 - Revised for typos
Jan 23, 2020 - re-wrote portions of this. Mental note to self - don't post without first sleeping because yikes, some of this needed editing.
The bright melody of the generic song Jiang Cheng set for his phone alarm chimes through the early morning silence, each second getting louder and more abrasive until it cuts through the fog in Jiang Cheng’s sleeping mind like hot knife through butter.
From beneath the small mountain of blankets, Jiang Cheng utters out a few slow, garbled curses. When that doesn’t stop the incessant sound, he sticks a hand from beneath his comforter, feels around a bit for his phone that he knows is somewhere on the night stand to his right, and turns the alarm off with a familiar flick of his thumb.
Silence, blessed silence, once again fills the room.
Except, Jiang Cheng couldn’t quite sink back into the comfortable recesses of his consciousness like he was mere moments before. A minute passes, then another. Jiang Cheng shifts a bit, then shifts a bit more, trying to find that perfect, comfortable spot in bed. It’s his day off and he’ll be damned if he’s getting up before noon.
Another minute passes. There is a muffled sound of conversation and laughter, then the rush of running water through the pipes – probably the neighbours as they go about their morning routines. Beneath that, there’s an even fainter sound of angry honking from the morning traffic as it drifts through the thin glass of the bedroom window.
Jiang Cheng takes a nearby pillow and places it over his head. Just to be safe, he also pulls the covers over everything to bury himself in a cocoon of blanket.
Several minutes slip by. Jiang Cheng can feel his body getting heavier and heavier with each even breath he takes. His mind drifts like clouds on a breezy day.
Of course, it is at that moment that the second alarm on his phone goes off with an annoying blare, and any pretence of peace is abruptly shattered.
He throws his blankets off of him with a snarl. “Alright! I’m up! I’m up already!”
He snags his phone off of the nightstand and shuts off the alarm with a vicious jab of his finger. Out of habit, he also checks to see if he’s gotten any new messages or emails while he’s asleep.
He freezes at the notification on his phone screen.
One message. From Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng sinks back into a seating pose on top of his covers, his shoulders going slack as anger leaves his body in a rush, only to be replaced with mounting mortification.
Christ, does he even want to know what it says? Last night had been enough of a hot mess with the way he had lost his shit in front of the other man. The last thing he wants right now is to be reminded of anything remotely related to his…temporary lapse of control.
He’s not a stranger to controversy; he’s well aware that his fiery temper has lead him to blurt out some unfortunate comments that had ruffled more than a few feathers. Even when his temper is not at play, Jiang Cheng tends to go about operating on a base level of snark by default, or as Wei Wuxian likes to call it, Jiang Cheng’s resting bitch personality.
Anger and cutting remarks are his choice weapons to deal with the masses, and he finds solace in the ease in which he can draw from his deep well of rage to use as a natural repellant. The fact that people tend to not see beyond the face of his wrath as they flee from him is definitely an added bonus.
There hadn’t been any of that yesterday though – none of his usual quick anger to surge forward for him to wield, nor scathing retorts ready at the tip of his tongue. At the presence of that one stupid Facebook comment, the fire in his belly had simply…sputtered out, leaving him hollow, cold, and numb in a deep and visceral level he hadn’t felt since the day he told his Father he was quitting.
He can’t shake off how incredibly stupid this whole situation has been, because really? He broke down over a goddamned Facebook comment? Of all the asinine things that could get to him, of the lifetime of horrible experiences he could draw from, that innocuous random comment was enough to trigger him?
Why that message? Why during his goddamned shift?
Why did it have to be in front of Lan Xichen?
He turns the phone in his hand and the new message notification stares back at him. Through the thin walls of his bedroom, he can make out his neighbours’ low murmured conversation, then the muffled sound of door opening before shutting with a resounding click.
Silence once again blankets his room, echoing the chilly quiet in his head as he draws a blank to his questions. But then, he remembers from last night –
It’s just me, Wanyin. It’s just me.
He had crumpled at those words, absolutely folded like wet cardboard at the tiniest bit of kindness shown to him. He had simply let himself be drawn into Lan Xichen’s presence with no protest, had even clung on to the man at some point during his moment of weakness, like a drowning man grasping on to his only lifeline.
But it’s Lan Xichen, the man who’s been nothing but kind to him since Day One, and that hasn’t changed last night. Lan Xichen had been exceedingly patient with him, never once complaining even when it had become evident that he was the one keeping the both of them upright like a pillar of strength. Lan Xichen had merely tightened his hold around Jiang Cheng as he was desperately trying to keep the cracks in his chest from splintering out further, all the while murmuring, his voice low and soft as the wind brushing against the mirror calm surface of a lake, “I’m here, Wanyin. I’m here.”
And Jiang Cheng could do nothing but hang on and let the other man’s presence wash over him. All he could do was hang on and ride out the storm of his emotions, until finally, the sharp pang in his chest dissipates to a manageable dull ache.
Jiang Cheng draws his knees up against his chest and wraps his arms around them. He leans his forehead against his knees and shuts his eyes. The morning chill around him is making goosebumps appear on his arms, but he ignores the feeling.
He had never succumbed to anyone like that, never dared to bare any of his vulnerabilities to anyone except on rare occasions, to his siblings. And why should he? He’s his mother’s son through and through. He’s inherited her sense of pride and special brand of stubbornness for keeping himself in check. His doubts, his hurts, the constant, overwhelming feeling that he doesn’t matter, those are things he keeps tightly locked up in his heart where they can stay buried or be dealt with in the privacy of his own home. Until then, there they shall remain, secreted close to his chest and far away from the constant prying eyes of the world.
No one needs to see the ugliness of those feelings exposed in the harsh, cold light of day. He certainly doesn’t want to give anyone any more reasons to see how pathetic, inconsequential and weak he truly is.
Lan Xichen appears to be the exception. Lan Xichen appears to be the exception and God willing, Jiang Cheng had let him be one.
He’s not sure what to do with that revelation.
His phone buzzes and his head jerks up in surprise. Blinking, he reaches for his phone beside him and unlocks the screen. Another notification for a message from Lan Xichen.
This time, he couldn’t stop his deep-seated sigh. Speak of the Devil.
There’s really no point in ignoring these messages, is there? He can stay in bed and mope all he wants, but the truth of the matter is that it changes nothing. What’s done is already done, and the only thing he can do is to move forward and face the horrible aftermath of last night head on, even if that means potentially (most probably) subjecting himself to more emotional scars and further opportunities to have his dignity shattered.
Besides, if he stays too quiet, he’ll only make Lan Xichen worry, and the mere thought of making Lan Xichen upset floods him with a wave of uneasy guilt. That man deserves better from Jiang Cheng to be treated like that, especially after last night.
Turning the phone in his hand, he gives a resigned sigh. Might as well just bite the bullet and get this over with.
He taps on the notification for the oldest message first and reads.
Thank you once again for inviting me to the adoption event. I enjoyed spending time with you, your colleagues, and the cats, and I look forward to having the privilege of your company in the near future.
Please enjoy your day off, you deserve your rest. As always, I’m here if you need me for anything.
Jiang Cheng stares at his phone.
“Huh,” he squints at the text. “Wait, for real? That’s it?”
He rereads the message again. No references to what happened last night. Just a very gentle, but oddly formal, thank you message. The formal tone probably has more to do with Lan Xichen’s habit of communicating like he’s the personification of cursive writing rather than an actual indication of him being uncomfortable.
The only thing Jiang Cheng takes issue with is that bit about having the “privilege of his company”, because seriously, what privilege? Lan Xichen could not have enjoyed his time standing around, propping Jiang Cheng up like a six foot two emotional crutch.
Well, it’s not like Jiang Cheng has any way of knowing what Lan Xichen truly means by that odd phrasing since his message doesn’t actually elaborate on anything. Looks like the man really isn’t going to address the elephant in the room.
In hindsight, that’s unsurprising. He didn’t push Jiang Cheng to talk last night, so why would he start now?
He focuses on the last portion of the message and lets his eyes slowly trace over the words. I’m here if you need me for anything.
I’m here if you need me for anything, he can practically hear the other man say with patience and gentleness and above all else, understanding.
“Huh,” he utters again a few seconds later, except this time, it’s more to do with the sudden realization welling up in him.
It’s not like Lan Xichen to sit back and not worry. The man is a bit of a worrier, judging by all the times Jiang Cheng has heard him fuss over his little brother. Having to avoid asking about what happened last night is probably chewing him up on the inside.
However, at the same time, Lan Xichen would do everything to avoid making Jiang Cheng feel uncomfortable.
Which leaves the other man with this option – a gentle offer to lend an ear under the cover of a thank you note. It gives Jiang Cheng the option to interpret the message as he sees fit (if he wants to save face) while at the same time, it puts the ball in Jiang Cheng’s court so that he can address this issue on his own terms if he chooses to do so.
It’s…horribly thoughtful, sweet, and completely expected that Lan Xichen would do something like that. Ever the kind gentleman, that man. Why he even wants to be friends with someone as cantankerous as Jiang Cheng will forever be a mystery.
“What am I going to do with you?” he asks with an exasperated huff.
With a last incredulous shake of his head, Jiang Cheng scrolls down to read the second message.
It’s an image of Bandit and Nala, a sandy beige shorthair, both of them deeply asleep after having squeezed themselves into a too small cat bed. Their furry bodies are practically spilling out and over the side of the bed even with how tightly they’re curled up together, their fluffy paws strategically wrapped around each other to minimize space. What makes the picture even more adorable are the kitties’ tails – it just so happens that the way the tails are curled sweetly towards each other, they form the most perfect heart shape.
Underneath all of that is the caption, “Wishing you a purrrfect day” followed by a truly ridiculous amount of crying laughing emojis and grinning cat faces.
A snort of laughter slips out of Jiang Cheng. “What the fuck, Xichen. You absolute nerd.”
It’s funny – the tone of those two messages are as different as night and day; one of cool politeness while the other is mischievous chaos distilled. They’re also both so quintessentially Lan Xichen that Jiang Cheng can’t help but reread the messages with a fond smile.
Even the shit post, as much as it pains him.
If only more people realize that the real Lan Xichen can also be this embarrassing, they’d lose their collective shit.
Before he knows it, he’s typing out a response.
Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to. You’re just taking advantage of the fact that I’m not at the café to enact my revenge, aren’t you?
Then, he adds before he loses his courage, Thanks.
Thanks for checking up on me, thanks for not prying -- all of which goes unsaid. Jiang Cheng can’t find himself to type those out least he dies from embarrassment. He’s had enough of feeling raw and vulnerable for the entire year, thank you very much.
Besides, Lan Xichen will most definitely get Jiang Cheng’s meaning behind his thanks. He’s sure of it.
It isn’t until a few hours later after he’s downed at least two cups of coffee, with a third in hand and a new blanket cocoon firmly wrapped around his hunched form on the couch that he checks his phone again.
Good morning, Wanyin!
Now that is simply not true. I am not so bold to assume that you will not find a terrible and creative way to return fire. I merely thought you’d enjoy that delightful well wishes as well as the photo. Proof that Bandit is not a troublemaker all the time.
Also, you’re very welcomed.
Jiang Cheng smiles. Just as he suspected. Lies, he types back. Even in sleep, that cat is plotting something. Just because he looks cute doesn’t mean he’s not a pain in the ass when he’s awake.
Good morning, he adds a touch belatedly when he finally remembers his manners, You doing okay?
The response comes surprisingly quickly. I’m doing well, thank you! Or at least, I’m doing as well as one can be when stuck in a call for the past two hours.
Jiang Cheng winces and begins to type. Shit. Sorry. You’re busy. I’ll leave–
Before he can even finish his message, a second message comes in. Please do not think you’re interrupting. This is an impromptu call that should have lasted thirty minutes at most, but has devolved into useless ranting. Your messages are a much welcomed and a much needed distraction.
Jiang Cheng frowns into his phone. Wow, that’s terrible, he taps back between sips of his coffee. Any way you can cut the call short? Say you have an upcoming meeting or something.
I rather not lie to my uncle. The trouble I will get in return when he inevitably discovers the truth is not worth the brief reprieve, comes Xichen’s wry reply.
A two hour phone call with Lan Qiren in the morning. Jiang Cheng cannot think of a worse way to start the day, except for those times when his mother shouted him awake so that he can squeeze in additional studying time, least he falls further behind his brother and is viewed even less favourably by his father.
Clearly, that had worked marvellously.
Hope everything is okay? Jiang Cheng responds with instead as he shoves that unpleasant thought away from his mind as he tends to do. You sure you don’t need to pay attention to the call? It sounds pretty serious.
Just a slight difference in opinion about some of our construction projects and the directions in which they are heading. None of the points being brought up are novel.
Yeah right. A “slight” difference in opinion that culminates into two hours of straight-up nagging, and knowing Lan Qiren, he’s probably punctuated it with super condescending statements about holding oneself to the highest virtue, or some other equally useless advice most likely derived from some Confucius texts. Lan Xichen is massively downplaying what’s going on, and the utter joy he must currently be experiencing.
Any idea as to when you’ll be free from the call? Jiang Cheng probes.
My estimate is that this can go on for the next hour.
Jiang Cheng grimaces into his coffee. That poor bastard. No wonder he is latching on to this mundane conversation. The desperate need to escape is real and Lan Xichen is practically radiating it.
It’s a very good thing that Jiang Cheng knows just what to do.
It sounds like your uncle is not kitten around. How clawful.
Just for kicks, he throws in a string of terrible emojis to really amplify his pettiness. Then, he takes a long sip of his coffee and casually makes himself more comfortable by tucking his legs into the warmth of his blanket cocoon, shifting his weight until he’s fitted perfectly into the divot in his couch cushion that's basically shaped like the perfect mold of his ass.
Silence stretches on. He takes another sip from his cup.
Wanyin, comes Lan Xichen’s response after what seems like a small, delicious eternity. How could you?
Jiang Cheng’s answer is a lot more forthcoming. You shouldn’t have told me that your next hour is free. Tactical mistake there, Xichen.
The avalanche of outrage only makes him cackle out loud.
I trusted you!
I told you about my less than stellar morning. I thought you’d be sympathetic but instead, I get betrayed. Betrayed when I’m at my lowest even!
I never thought you’d be this cruel, Wanyin!
Should’ve thought of that when you sent that cat post! Jiang Cheng sends back with zero fucks, zero sympathy, and zero chill. You come at the king, you best not miss!
What follows has to be one of the most bizarre, passive-aggressive battle of wills Jiang Cheng has fought with anybody from his couch.
What are your plans for today? Lan Xichen asks. Given that it’s your day off, the pawsibilities are endless.
Probably going to take it easy. Get some chores done, meal prep and shit. Feline pretty lazy at the moment.
Oh? Do you have any thoughts on what you’ll be making? Purr-haps I can offer some suggestions.
Un-fur-tunately I’ve got no idea, so go for it. I’m all cat ears.
It certainly makes for a nice change of pace from his usual mornings, though not at all productive. At some point, Jiang Cheng manages to drag himself off of his sofa to get some of his chores done, but he finds himself pausing every now and then just to hit back with a particularly cringy comment. He can practically see the face Lan Xichen must be making at these, the way he would stare at the phone with his pinched brows and pursed lips, giving him the subtle look of a man constipated.
The thought sends a dark thrill of satisfaction down Jiang Cheng’s back and a smirk makes its way to his lips. He thinks he can understand why Wei Wuxian enjoys being such a shit-stirrer to Lan Zhan. There’s something strangely satisfying about provoking a typically unflappable Lan, to see their cool, polite composure unravel into something distinctively less elegant, that scratches this deep-seated itch for chaos in Jiang Cheng, one he hadn’t even known existed.
He feels like he should be a bit more alarmed by this discovery. Heaven knows what sort of other unsavory habits his older brother has infected him with.
Uncle is just about done airing his grievances, comes Lan Xichen’s observations as Jiang Cheng finishes up with sweeping his floors.
And? How did it go?
It looks like I will be travelling this coming Sunday to help ease some of Uncle’s concerns. I’ll be flying out first thing in the morning, Lan Xichen answers, resignation practically soaking his every word, and Jiang Cheng can feel his good mood plummet. His mind flashes back to his previous conversation with his siblings, about Wei Wuxian’s comment on how Lan Xichen is expected to put his duty to the company before anything else, to drop everything at a moment’s notice at the expense of his personal life.
About Lan Xichen’s tendency to bend over backwards time and time again to avoid disappointing his uncle.
“Okay, fuck that noise. He shouldn't be okay with this. Nobody should,” Jiang Cheng mutters, because this right here reeks of Lan Qiren’s guilt trip, and he knows guilt trip when he sees it. It’s his mother’s favourite card to play, after all.
He basically ordered you to fly out with less than a week’s notice, Jiang Cheng sends back after editing out his unflattering comments about Lan Qiren. With all due respect, that’s bullshit. What if you’ve made plans and stuff?
The timing is unfortunate, but at the very least, the trip is a short one so it’s not too disruptive. Three days at most.
That does nothing to calm Jiang Cheng’s scowl. “That’s not the point, and you know it, Xichen. Don’t be obtuse.”
As if hearing Jiang Cheng’s displeasure, Lan Xichen adds, I know it’s sudden, but this is about the Lookout Towers.
That actually gets Jiang Cheng to groan out loud in a long, drawn out sound of misery. Although he had initially thought that the Lookout Towers is just one of many ambitious projects formed by the Lan-Nie-Jin trifecta, hearing Lan Xichen gush about it during their many dinner get-togethers made him realize that the Lookout Towers is Lan Xichen’s baby. It’s a project that he’s in charge of running, one that he’s spearheaded since Day 1. Hell, it had taken him a full year of convincing Lan Qiren and the other Lan elders executives for the opportunity.
It’s also why Lan Xichen’s in town to begin with – so that he can supervise the Lookout Towers’ progress personally, like a protective mother bear.
There’s no way in Hell that Lan Xichen won’t do anything to ensure its success, even if that includes continuously putting up with his uncle’s bullshit, which means that Jiang Cheng is fighting a losing fight from the start.
“Urgh!” Jiang Cheng throws his hands up in the air. Okay, fine, I get why you’d want to go, but I still think it’s unreasonable to ask that you go ASAP. I don’t see why it couldn’t wait an extra week to give you some breathing room.
I know it’s not ideal, Lan Xichen writes back. Nonetheless, I don’t mind. If there are any issues, it’s best if we know about them sooner rather than later.
Jiang Cheng hates it but it’s a well-reasoned answer, so all he can muster is: Well, it better only be three days. Let’s not have a repeat of that last shit show.
He realizes his faux-pas almost immediately. Fuck. What if Lan Xichen takes that message the wrong way? With a wince, he tacks on quickly, By that, I meant your travel being unexpectedly extended for two weeks. That’s the shit show I was referring to.
Not the other thing. The you visiting thing.
You visiting is fine, by the way.
But don’t feel like you need to visit every time though, like it’s your duty or something. Cause you definitely do not have that duty.
And definitely don’t do it because you think I’ll feel bad or something. I don’t want you to guilt-visit me. This is a guilt-visit free zone.
But if you still want to visit, then that’s cool too I guess.
He promptly shoves his phone away and buries his glowing face into his palms. What the fuck was that even? Someone needs to take his phone away from him before he makes a bigger ass out of himself.
He’s not surprised when his phone vibrates, rather aggressively at that, at what must undoubtedly be a string of responses from Lan Xichen, possibly with a massive heaping side dish of teasing. Maybe he’s a glutton for punishment, because even knowing that and filled with significant amount of dread, he still reaches for his phone.
I understand completely. No need to be flustered. ;)
Thank you for worrying about me, Wanyin. That’s incredibly sweet of you.
I may just take you up on your offer.
The messages end with a single heart emoji.
“He called me sweet!”
“I can’t imagine why anyone would do that.” Even over the phone, Jiang Cheng can picture Wei Wuxian’s incredulous expression all too well. “You sure he didn’t accidentally send you the wrong message? Because I can think of a few words to describe you and none of them would be ‘sweet’.”
If Jiang Cheng wasn’t so preoccupied, he would snap back at his brother for that jab. “He called me by my name, so no, he most certainly didn’t send me the wrong message.”
“Okay, so what did you do for him to call you sweet?”
“I just…pointed out the way Lan Qiren is sending him out on a last minute business trip is utter bullshit.”
“Oh. Is that it?”
“Is that guilty silence? That is totally guilty silence that I’m sensing! What the hell else did you do? C’mon, tell your amazing, loving Xian-ge ge.”
“First, don’t ever call yourself that embarrassing name in my presence ever again. Second, I, erm, may have invitedhimtovisitagain.”
“Sorry, repeat that?”
Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. “I invited him. To visit. Again.”
“Sooo, did he accept?”
“Yes, he accepted!” Jiang Cheng snaps before taking a deep, calming breath. “Why does that even matter?”
“Nothing, nothing!” Wei Wuxian laughs. “I was just curious! You know, everything you’ve described so far sounds pretty benign, so I don’t think you should put much stock behind – ”
“He said I was being ‘incredibly sweet’, accepted the offer to visit me, and sent me a heart emoji and a winky face emoji. So again, I ask: what. The. Fuck?”
Jiang Cheng has to pull his phone away from his ear as Wei Wuxian’s loud cackles reach deafening volumes.
“I never knew Big Brother Lan is such a flirt, this is amazing!”
“He was not flirting! How is that flirting? And I swear to God, Wei Wuxian if you ever dare breathe a word of this to anybody –”
“Yes, yes. You’ll break my legs, I know.” The mental image of his brother waving him away makes Jiang Cheng scowl even deeper. Even across the country, his brother never ceases to be the bane of his existence. “I just wasn’t expecting Lan Xichen to be so bold. Although maybe I should’ve seen that coming. He clearly likes you and he doesn’t shut up about you to Lan Zhan.”
Jiang Cheng balks at that fun little bombshell. “Wait, he talks about me to his brother?”
“Of course he does. Unlike you, he’s not so emotionally repressed that he only talks about his job and what he ate the previous day, and nothing else.”
“Given how I’m currently regretting every second of this conversation, I should’ve just stuck to those topics!”
“In all honesty though,” Wei Wuxian’s voice turns more serious, and it’s enough for Jiang Cheng to sit up straight from his spot on his couch. “Big Brother is sweet on you. It’s always, ‘Wanyin and I went to this place’, ‘Wanyin and I did this and that’, or ‘Wanyin told me the funniest thing today’. The rate you guys go out is putting me and Lan Zhan to shame.”
“We don’t go out!” Jiang Cheng splutters. “We just hang out a lot! He doesn’t know anyone else in this city so I’m default company. It doesn’t mean anything at all.”
“Uh huh. Sure. Just like how you’re not calling me in a panic with your gay crisis.”
“It is not a gay crisis! I am not having a crisis of any kind, gay or otherwise!”
“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” comes Wei Wuxian’s flippant answer. “Look, you called me asking me what I thought about those messages so here are my thoughts: The man likes you, has been for a while now. Clearly, you’re attracted to him as well because otherwise, you wouldn’t spend so much time with him and get mad on his behalf.”
“I’m not – I mean – ”
“Yes, you are,” Wei Wuxian presses on. “So do us all a favour and ask him out already! Odds are, he’ll say yes. I mean, the man specifically came to you so that he can spend his birthday with you, for God’s sake.”
“Wait, what?” Jiang Cheng’s eyes go wide. “When the hell did that happen? How did I miss that memo?”
“When he came back from his hell work trip!” Wei Wuxian exclaims. “Why did you think he dropped by your workplace unannounced?”
“I don’t know!” Jiang Cheng exclaims. “He said he wanted to apologize for ghosting me! He never said it was his birthday!”
“That’s probably one of the reasons,” Wei Wuxian hums. “The way I understood that situation is that Big Brother wanted to salvage his birthday come hell or high water as like, a really weird passive aggressive act of defiance for having to travel on his birthday after that really long, shitty work trip? I honestly can’t relate. I would’ve just rabble roused until someone throws me a massive party.”
“Not everyone is that shameless,” Jiang Cheng replies a little weakly, his mind still reeling at the implication that Lan Xichen sought him out specifically to spend his birthday with, that to Lan Xichen, spending time with Jiang Cheng was the high note to end on after wading through all the terribleness. Why the hell didn’t Lan Xichen tell him?
“I can’t believe he didn’t tell you,” Wei Wuxian parrots his thoughts. “But it makes a hell of a lot more sense why you didn’t bring up his birthday as an excuse for your uncharacteristic TLC in our last convo.”
“Oh God,” Jiang Cheng breathes. “I fed him leftovers!”
“I mean, I thought you were being weird and evasive.”
“I gave the man plain congee and plain Chinese broccolis and bok choy!”
“It turns out that the real reason is so much funnier. I can’t believe that your response to Big Brother suddenly popping into your life is legitimately, ‘Imma feed that man!’”
“I served him old people food! On his birthday! And he ended up giving me a gift as thanks when it should’ve been the other way around!”
“This is possibly the best belated birthday present anyone has given me. Oh my God.”
“Wei Wuxian, why didn’t you tell me?”
“How am I supposed to know that you didn’t know?” Jiang Cheng can practically hear the nonchalant shrug. “Besides, no harm no foul. Like I told you, Big Brother is over the moon at having a home cooked meal. You made his week!”
“This is terrible,” Jiang Cheng slumps further into the couch cushion seat and cradles his head to fend off his incoming headache. “Everything is terrible.”
“Aw. Chin up, A-Cheng. I think Lan Xichen didn’t want you to make a fuss over his birthday, and you gave him just that – a chilled evening with no frills and no bullshit. I don’t think he’d want to celebrate his birthday any other way.”
Wei Wuxian has a point. Lan Xichen is hardly the type to want a massive celebration in his honor. The man had looked downright grateful and relieved as he devoured Jiang Cheng’s meal in his sweatpants and cardigan, a far cry from the crisp perfection of his usual office attire. By the end of the evening, whatever tension that had lined Lan Xichen’s face and kept his shoulders tight had dissipated like smoke in the air.
Maybe he hadn’t done too shabby after all.
Wei Wuxian seems to sense his mood shifting, because he chirps, “I think that settles that. Why don’t we park that thought for now and talk about something else, like say, my awesome birthday party that you missed out on?”
Jiang Cheng groans. “I told you I was working!”
“I know, I know. But since you weren’t there, it’s only fair that I get to tell you all about it, in all the glorious, epic details!”
Some fights are not worth having, Jiang Cheng muses. Especially not when Wei Wuxian sounds so damned happy and chipper about it.
“Fine, fine.” Jiang Cheng sighs. “Don’t let anyone tell you that I never do anything nice for you. Let’s hear about it.”
He sits through his brother’s excited, whirlwind chattering. True to his words, the party sounds like it was epic and glorious between the large amount of attendees, the venue hopping, and the nonstop shenanigans that have spanned till 4 am the next day, with a small handful of stragglers brave enough to go toe to toe with Wei Wuxian until the bar closes. Not even the thing with Lan Zhan stopped the party train.
“Wait, what thing with Lan Wangji?” Jiang Cheng interrupts.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “My beautiful, wonderful boyfriend is perfect in every way, but man, is he a lightweight. He had one drink. One drink, and then down he went. Out like a light. I had to drag him back home to tuck him in before heading back out again.”
“Lan Wangji is like six foot something. You’d think he can pack in a lot more than just one drink.”
“Nah. The Lans are really into treating their bodies like temples. They eat really healthily and they don't drink! Did you know that my Lan-er ge ge never had McDonald’s before we started dating?”
Jiang Cheng wonders if that’s the case with Lan Xichen. The man hasn’t put up a fuss at all to all those food trucks they’ve frequented whenever it was Jiang Cheng’s turn to pick a food spot. They went to a place that only served waffles and waffle fries for dinner for crying out loud. And a place that served aggressive amounts of bacon.
Actually, now that he thinks about it a little harder, Lan Xichen’s meal choices, in contrast, have always been filled with organic, leafy veggies, lentils and tofu everything, so maybe, the man had been sucking it up for his sake. That or Lan Xichen is actively trying to counter his poor meal choices with stuff filled with actual nutrients to prevent them from getting scurvy or something. Jury’s out on that one.
Either way, whether the man is going against his usual diet for him or trying to salvage his nutritional health, that all seem to suggest that Lan Xichen might truly be sweet on him like Wei Wuxian suggested. Thinking that does not make it seem less foreign or weird. There’s someone who likes him? As in romantically? Absolutely preposterous.
“ – do you have any plans?”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “Sorry, what was that?”
“You zoned out on me, didn't you?” Wei Wuxian accuses. “I said speaking of birthdays, do you have any plans for yours? It’s this Friday! You should go out and celebrate! Have some fun!”
“Not everyone wants a massive party.” Who is he even going to celebrate it with? Him and the dozen of cats he’s watching over?
Wei Wuxian appears to be reading his mind because he says, his tone sly, “You can always have a private celebration with Big Brother. I bet he’ll drop everything he’s doing to make that work.”
“You’re doing that ridiculous eyebrow waggle thing aren't you? Stop that right now.”
“HA! You’re deflecting! I also see that you’re not rejecting my suggestion!”
“What’s there to reject? I have zero intention of celebrating my birthday anyway. It’s just counting down another year closer to death.”
“Sometimes, I worry about you. So young and already you’re acting like such a crotchety old man. Fine! Have it your way, you old coot.”
“Get off my lawn, you damn punk.”
Despite Jiang Cheng’s best effort to pretend that his world has not been violently turned upside down from his brother’s words, his thoughts inevitably circle back to Lan Xichen. It’s gotten so awkward that he can barely make eye contact with the man the handful of times he drops by the café.
Thankfully, Lan Xichen does not seem to mind his weirdness. If anything, Jiang Cheng almost swears that the other man looks more…smug with the way his lips curl into a hint of a smirk when he accepts the fresh cappuccinos with their adorning cat puns, or the way his golden stare turns molten with heat.
“Thank you, Wanyin,” he says on one of those instances when Jiang Cheng hands him his drink (“you’re hiss-terical” scrawled on the side of the cup in looping letters). Jiang Cheng is positive he did not imagine the way Lan Xichen’s voice went caramel smooth when he said his name, or the way Lan Xichen’s hand brushed against his, his touch lingering just a bit too long to be considered casual.
“I am not having a crisis,” Jiang Cheng hisses under his breath as he watches Lan Xichen saunter to the door, the cut of his light wool coat all too easily drawing his eyes from his broad shoulders down the length of his body. “I am not having a crisis.”
“Yo JC, did you say something?”
Jiang Cheng yelps and whirls around. Jane eyes him back with one brow raised.
“Nothing!” he stammers. “I didn’t say anything!”
“Oookay, weirdo,” she shrugs. “I just wanted to see if you’re free on Friday. The team is getting together to celebrate the Adoption Event. Big Boss is footing the bill for our booze and food as thanks and as an apology for not being able to make it.”
“Yeah, uh, that should be fine,” Jiang Cheng answers as his eyes dart out the café window at the figure of Lan Xichen casually strolling further away, his movement elegant even in doing something as mundane as crossing the street. He’s probably on his way to work now. Hopefully, Lan Qiren won’t give him any grief today.
“Alrighty then,” Jane drawls. “I’ll just put you down as attending.”
Jiang Cheng thinks he answered back with some noncommittal sound. Whatever it is, Jane seems satisfied enough to dismiss this conversation and goes back to preparing a fresh pot of coffee.
Objectively, he knows Lan Xichen is beautiful. Anyone with eyes can see that. Heads turn where ever that man goes as the masses are collectively captivated by his sheer grace and ethereal presence. His pleasant demeanor, his caring and patient nature, and his sharp wit are just overkill at this point, the metaphorical cherry on the most perfect cake created by man.
It doesn’t help that Lan Xichen’s personality practically checks out everything he’s attracted to in a lover – hard-working, thrifty, personality not too strong, not too talkative, generally be able to withstand his bullshit, and must treat his crazy family members nicely. It’s no wonder Wei Wuxian is convinced that Jiang Cheng is romantically interested in Lan Xichen.
Maybe, Wei Wuxian came to that conclusion because his interaction with Lan Xichen is so out of the norm from his typical hermitting ways. Jiang Cheng knows he’s not a people person, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who’s interacted with him for more than five minutes. So for Jiang Cheng to willingly expend the effort to leave the house to interact with anybody, and to do so consistently, must raise all kinds of red flags for his brother.
Does he like Lan Xichen beyond the physical attraction and as more than just a friend? Jiang Cheng isn’t sure. But maybe, the way he had not recoiled that violently when his brother first suggested it shows that there is potential for Jiang Cheng to go down that path.
He spends the rest of the week mulling it over, a bit thankful that the week is slow enough that it leaves him the time to do that. He sure as hell is nowhere focused enough to do his job well if the café is full.
He blames his distraction for being completely caught off guard when, on Friday evening just as he flips the open sign to close on the door, Derek asks, “When are you heading out to our thing tonight?”
Jiang Cheng blinks. “What thing?”
“What do you mean, what thing?” Jane chimes in with a none too impressed Rebecca behind her, both having stepped out of the employee break room in time to witness Jiang Cheng’s confusion. Now that Jiang Cheng is paying attention, they’re suspiciously out of their work clothes already. “I told you about our party for the Adoption Event, remember?” At the ensuring damning silence, Jane actually rolls her eyes. “I asked you a couple of days ago and you said you’re going. You didn’t even fight me on it. I should’ve known that you weren’t paying attention.”
“I was preoccupied!” Jiang Cheng automatically defends even as he wracks his brain for the time when he actually agreed to Jane’s invitation. Shit. That does sound vaguely familiar. There goes his plans for a quiet evening. “Where is it and when is it?”
“Starts at 8 pm. We’re meeting at that pub on 14th street, next to the pizza joint.”
“Don’t think about bailing either!” Rebecca adds. “We invited Mr. Lan and told him you’d be there!”
Jiang Cheng double-takes. “What do you mean, you invited Mr. Lan?”
“Yup. He said he’ll meet us there too. He’d be sad if he shows up to find that you’ve abandoned him.”
“Although we’re fine if you decide to not go,” Jane says with a leer. “That just means we get to keep him all to ourselves. Linda will probably be over the moon. She’s been dying to have some one-on-one time with him.”
“Linda can go to Hell,” Jiang Cheng spits out, perhaps a bit too aggressively. “And you can tell her to keep her harpy claws off of him.”
“Tell her yourself!” Rebecca cuts in. “In the meantime, we really should do something about…this.” She gestures to Jiang Cheng’s body, her clear judgment makes him instinctively scowl even harder. “We’re not letting you go in your work gear. C’mon, back to your apartment. It’s this way, right? Jane, grab him – I got his other arm – JC, this will go over a lot easier if you’d stop resisting!”
“Stop manhandling me, woman! This is kidnapping! I do not consent to this!”
“It’s not kidnapping if we’re dragging your ass back home!”
“You are abducting me by force! That is literally the definition of kidnapping!”
“Team Fairy Godmothers, assemble!” Derek pumps his fists in the air and casually follows the chaos.
By the time they pull up to the bar in Rebecca’s car, they’re fifteen minutes late and Jiang Cheng is completely ready to call it quits. Had it not been for his fear of abandoning Lan Xichen to the wolves (and the iron grip Jane has on his arm), he would’ve made a run for sweet, blessed freedom.
“Aw c’mon! This’ll be fun!” Derek says with his perpetual optimism as they stroll into the building and are promptly directed to the back by a server. “If nothing else, you look great!”
“I feel stupid,” Jiang Cheng grumbles just to be contrary. In all honesty, he’s pretty comfortable in his get-up – dark leather jacket over a simple, fitted grey tee, a pair of jeans, and black boots. Nothing at all outlandish. The only thing unusual is the way his hair is styled. Upon the team’s collective nagging, he’s opted to wear it down with a single braid tucked behind his right ear.
Derek rolls his eyes. “Alright, Negative Nancy. If you say so.”
Bonnie and Clyde Pub and Grill is a type of place that exudes a certain flare of vintage, roaring-20’s charm. With its brass fittings, art-deco gold accents adorning the walls, dark leather seats, and polished cherry wood floor, the pub looks more like it’s something out of the Great Gatsby movie set than an establishment in a quiet college town. The owner must also realize how seemingly out of place this pub is. As a compromise between its largest group of clientele (i.e. the students) and its aesthetic, the pub does not only have an interesting menu of different vintage cocktails, but also a wide variety of cheapo shots that would make any college student fear for their liver, should they decide to order everything on the list.
It is probably that combination of classiness and cheapness that the pub is chosen as their celebration spot, if Jiang Cheng is to hazard a guess. That, and the spectacular Happy Hour menu that runs later than other places on a Friday.
A cheer goes up as they approach the long table filled with familiar faces. Near the end sits Lan Xichen who, upon seeing Jiang Cheng, gives him a wide smile and a cheery wave. He looks like he came straight from work from the clothes he’s wearing, though his jacket and tie are off already, and the first couple of buttons in his shirt are unbutton, revealing smooth, pale skin of his collarbone that really should not be that appealing.
It surprises Jiang Cheng to see that there is an empty spot right beside Lan Xichen, and that Linda is seated far, far away. Looks like his coworkers have some semblance of control after all.
“Hey, sorry you got dragged into this madness. Thanks for coming though,” Jiang Cheng says as he takes the empty seat, naturally. He also tries to keep his eyes off of the delectable patch of skin and focuses on Xichen’s beautiful face instead, which makes matters worse.
Xichen laughs. “I am just happy to be invited and be considered a part of the team. How can I refuse? Besides,” his not-smirk from a couple of days is back, and it has Jiang Cheng flushing so quickly that it might as well be a Pavlovian response at this rate. “I wouldn’t miss today for the world when there’s such a wonderful cause for celebration.”
Thankfully, the clinking of glass cuts off that conversation and at once, silence descends on to the table. Cheeks still flushed, Jiang Cheng is more than eager to turn his attention to Rebecca, who still has her fork raised to the side of her glass. She clears her throat and stands up.
“Fellow KitTea Café members and dear friends,” she adds with a nod to Lan Xichen, “we are here today to celebrate yet another successful Adoption Event! Together with our sister charities, we were able to raise $30,000. So thank you to everyone once again.
"We couldn’t have done it without everyone here. Thank you for making this event a success and most importantly, one that is rainbow poop-free!
“I do have another announcement though,” she adds after the laughter and cheering die down. “It has come to my attention that today is a very special day for one of our team members.”
At that, she gives Jiang Cheng a very pointed look, one that has Jiang Cheng tensing up. What on Earth could she be – No. There’s no way she’d know.
His futile hope lasts a grand total of one microsecond.
“It turns out that today is our JC’s birthday!” she announces, drowning out Jiang Cheng’s squawk of, “how did you find out?” “As per KitTea tradition, our birthday boy or girl has to wear an appropriate birthday costume of our choosing. We’ve asked the people to vote, and they have responded. Derek? You got the goods?”
“Right here!” Derek yells, his hand fishing around a bag that Jiang Cheng could have sworn he had not seen the man carry. With an enthusiastic, “Ah-ha!” Derek pulls out, to Jiang Cheng’s mounting horror and everyone’s collective delight, a large faux silk sash with bright purple bubbly letters that spell out MEOWY BIRTHDAY, a truly hideous fluorescent purple feathery boa, and a set of purple fuzzy cat ears.
“No! Abso-fucking-lutely not! I am not wearing those!” Jiang Cheng leans away sharply from the monstrosities laid out on the table. It has the unintended effect of him leaning into Lan Xichen’s space, but the other man is too busy laughing like the terrible, awful, no good friend that he is to even notice.
Never mind that just yet. He has more pressing matters to focus on, like, “Just who the hell told you? I made sure to tell no one! Who’s the snitch whose legs I have to break?”
He barely catches the slightest, guilty-sounding cough coming from beside him, and whirls around to face the culprit.
“You!” He turns his blazing eyes at Lan Xichen, who actually has the audacity to look sheepish even when he hasn’t stopped laughing.
“In my defence,” Xichen placates, “I was asked to pass on the message. I was not told about the details of your colleagues’ plan aside from the fact that it’s going to be a surprise celebration.”
Jiang Cheng glares. “Pass on the message by who?” he asks even when he’s pretty sure he knows the answer.
There’s only one person, one obnoxious, chaos incarnate dickweed, who fits the bill.
“I will fucking kill Wei Wuxian,” he swears even as he swats away Derek’s attempt at handing him the sash.
“You can’t not wear it! The people have spoken!” Jane cries out from across the table. “Think of the people!”
“As if you care what the people think. You have no leg to stand on!”
“I care when it matters!” Jane retorts. “And this,” she points to the terrible props Derek is still clutching, “very much matters to all of us. Isn’t that right, gang?”
A chorus of jeers rises from the table, and as if Jiang Cheng’s mortification cannot reach a new height, the jeering transforms into very enthusiastic chants of, “Put them on! Put them on! Put them on!”
Jiang Cheng’s left eye is twitching. Wei Wuxian is going to die a slow and painful death. No, scratch that. Death is too easy. Jiang Cheng will go out and adopt a pack of dogs just so that he can unleash them on Wei Wuxian all at once. In a locked room. A sound-proofed locked room. Without his cell phone.
The familiar sound of choked laughter has him turning his attention back to Lan Xichen, the culprit who helped escalate this madness. Although he isn’t chanting with the rest of the team, the mischievous glint in his eyes is burning brighter than before, and when he sees Jiang Cheng glaring at him, his smile widens to a roguish, unapologetic grin.
“Happy birthday, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen smirks.
Oh, Hell no. Two can play that game.
“Fine! Fine! Shut up already, I’ll put those on but on one condition.” Jiang Cheng shouts at the crowd. “My condition is that he has to wear something too.” He points to a wide-eyed Lan Xichen.
“His birthday was a month ago,” Jiang Cheng says with triumph, now that the tables have turned and Lan Xichen’s expression is becoming more and more flabbergasted. “But he kept quiet about it, so today, we’re celebrating his belated birthday to make up for the lost opportunity.”
“I hate to interrupt,” Lan Xichen protests. “But the last thing I want to do is to take away from your celebration.”
“Oh, you won’t be taking away anything.” Jiang Cheng flashes the other a maniacal grin made more so by the unimpressed look Lan Xichen is firing back. Nobody can beat Jiang Cheng at being petty. Nobody. “As the old saying goes, ‘the more the merrier!’ What’s merrier than celebrating two birthdays instead of one?”
“You make a fine point,” Rebecca nods towards Jiang Cheng, and with the authority of a queen, she decrees, “Give Mr. Lan the boa!”
“Twice in one week, you have betrayed me, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen mutters with a pout even as he lets Derek drape the purple monstrosity over his shoulders with as much dignity a man in his position can muster. “How did you find out anyway?”
“I’ll give you one guess as to which mutual acquaintance let slip that fun little detail,” Jiang Cheng scoffs and adjusts the sash and those ridiculous cat ears. “Also, if you think for one second that I’ll go down without dragging you with me, then you have another thing coming."
Lan Xichen fires him a flat look.
“But seriously though, why didn’t you tell me?” Jiang Cheng asks as they are corralled into a group photo. He makes sure to slap on his trademark scowl as the flash goes off. Just because he agreed to wear those ridiculous items doesn’t mean he has to cooperate on anything else. “Had I known, I would’ve made something more impressive than congee and stir fried vegetables.”
“I didn’t want to be more of a bother,” Lan Xichen confesses quietly with an air of resignation. “I realize that dropping in unannounced is already an act of profound selfishness. I can’t also declare that it is my birthday as if I am entitled to any more of your time and energy spent hosting me. The fact that you have done so voluntarily is beyond what I deserved.
“But if I am completely honest, that evening with you is exactly what I needed. It was perfect. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else.” He turns to Jiang Cheng, his eyes tender. “Thank you, Wanyin. You’ve made my birthday one of the best ones I’ve had in recent memory.”
Jiang Cheng looks away with a cough. “Geeze, when you put it like that, you’re almost making me feel bad for outing your birthday now,” he mumbles, but something tells him he didn’t do as good of a job hiding his satisfaction given the fond look Lan Xichen is now giving him.
“I suppose the retaliation wasn’t completely undeserved. I should know better than to trust Wei Wuxian,” Lan Xichen chuckles. “Although this is not too bad. The boa is a small price to pay if it means that I get to see you in those cute cat ears. They suit you rather well.”
“See, it’s comments like those that warrant retaliation.” He doesn’t think his grumblings have any effect though. Lan Xichen’s grin does not waver at all.
After all the pictures have been taken to Jane’s great satisfaction, the team settles down for a round of drinks and proper dinner. It appears that the boss’ generosity on footing the bill has reached everyone’s ears as well. Endless appetizers lay across the table from end to end, squeezed awkwardly between plates and cutleries in an impressive display of Tetris skills by the waiters. When the apps are cleared, the mains appear in surprisingly generous portions and cooked to perfection. Jiang Cheng certainly has no complaints about the medium rare steak he ordered, or the side of perfect, fluffy mashed potatoes. Lan Xichen appears to share his opinion for his own beautifully crafted ratatouille as well, humming in delight with every bite he takes.
Dinner is pleasant and filled with laughter. Although Jiang Cheng had to field a couple of awkward questions like, ‘do you have any plans to celebrate with your family?’, Jiang Cheng finds the genuine warmth and affection from his co-workers’ well wishes surprisingly…touching. Maybe it’s because dining together like this reminds him of simpler times when he was still at home, the rare shining moments of happiness he’s had while growing up. He used to have birthday parties like these, first with family and as those begin to dwindle as he grew older, with his siblings and his friends.
He’s forgotten what’s it like to be celebrated by people who clearly reciprocates his love.
He’s forgotten what it’s like to have one evening where he can simply forget everything that is shitty, sit back and enjoy the attention lavished upon him.
He’s forgotten what it was like to feel like he mattered.
He meets Lan Xichen’s eyes and gives him a small smile. The man answers with his own, tender and sweet.
He’s forgotten a lot of the good, but maybe, he can replace what he’s forgotten with these new memories. Hopefully, there will be many more to come in the upcoming years, many of which will feature Lan Xichen. It’s his birthday. He’s allowed to be wistful.
“Okay everybody! Now that everyone’s feasted, on to our next time honoured tradition for birthdays. Tequila shotssss!”
Jiang Cheng’s smile drops off like a stone.
If Jiang Cheng is to identify the exact moment when everything starts to go downhill, he’d pinpoint it to when Lan Xichen downs his multiple shots in quick succession with the bravery of an Icarus soaring towards the sun just mere moments before plummeting into the cold, unforgiving ocean.
If Jiang Cheng is a smart man, he’d remember what his brother told him about the Lans and how they live really, really healthily. Like stupidly healthily. And how one drink was enough to knock Lan Wangji out for the count.
He’d also realize that Lan Wangji was knocked out by a beer, likely with an alcohol by volume content of 5%. And that in contrast, Lan Xichen just downed three tequila shots, each shot having eight times the amount of alcohol in a pint of beer.
If Jiang Cheng is a smart man, he’d put those things together and realize that they spell trouble. Terrible, horrible trouble.
Jiang Cheng is not a smart man. He is very much cursing that very fact as he half carries and half drags a giggling Lan Xichen up the stairs to his apartment, many, many hours later. The task is made all the more difficult from the way Lan Xichen is latching on to him like a baby monkey to its mother.
“Wanyin!!! The moon is beautiful tonight, don’t you think? I know just the song to express my emotions!! I just need to find my flute!!!”
Even if Lan Xichen reacts the same way as his brother, that wouldn’t be nowhere near as bad. Jiang Cheng can handle sleepy drunks. They’re compliant and can easily be shepherded home with minimal fuss.
Nothing on this planet could have prepared Jiang Cheng for the reality that Lan Xichen is, in fact, a happy, active, high-energy drunk.
Like Wei Wuxian on too many Red Bulls level of active.
God help them all.
“You’re not carrying your flute. I didn’t even know you have a flute – would you let go for a second? I need to find my keys!”
“Wanyin!!! You can help me find my flute, and afterwards, we can gaze at the moon together!!!”
“It’s 3 am. We’re gazing jack shit!”
Luckily, whatever deity witnessing this hot mess seems to take pity on Jiang Cheng’s soul because the door swings open easily. Jiang Cheng even manages to stumble towards the couch and dump Lan Xichen on it without tripping and falling on to their collective asses.
“Stay there,” he orders after removing their shoes. “I’m going to get you some water and I want you to drink all of it. Understand?”
Lan Xichen blinks up at him with a wide, dopey smile. Good enough.
This was not how Jiang Cheng had envisioned the evening to end. Sure, he had expected a later night than usual and some socializing, but he was thinking more along the lines of things wrapping up by midnight with him in bed by 1 am at the latest.
What ended up happening was Lan Xichen. A happy, energetic Lan Xichen who wanted to do all the things. Dancing? Sure! Karaokeing? Most definitely! An impromptu trip to the park for some star-gazing sesh? You betcha!
Worse of all, he wanted to do those things with Jiang Cheng in tow, and he made sure Jiang Cheng knew this by physically clinging on to him like an octopus.
“Wanyinnnn,” Lan Xichen whines the moment Jiang Cheng steps back into view, glasses in hand. “I seem to have lost my birthday boa!”
“You haven’t lost it. It’s wrapped around you like a belt. Now, drink.” Jiang Cheng shoves the glass into the other’s hand. He hands the second glass to him when the first one is done. “And this as well. I have a hunch that you’re going to need this too.”
The beaming grin he receives back shouldn’t be that endearing. “Thank you, Wanyin. You’re so kind!”
“Are you feeling okay?” Jiang Cheng asks after the second water is done, and finally, finally, Lan Xichen is starting to look like he’s drooping. “Tired now? Please say you’re tired.”
“Okay. Looks like it’s bed time. Up you go, arms on my shoulder. Slowly does it now. You remember where the bedroom is right? You can have the bed.”
“No!” Lan Xichen pauses in his half-carried shuffle and tightens his hold on Jiang Cheng. “Wanyin shouldn’t sleep on the couch. Wanyin should be comfortable and sleep in his own bed!”
“We can’t both take the bed. It’s too small – for fuck’s sake, stop dragging me!”
They land on the bed in tangled heap of limbs with Jiang Cheng cushioning the other’s fall.
“Ow! Get off, you’re heavy. Xichen!”
“I won’t,” Lan Xichen’s muffled voice can be heard from somewhere in the vicinity of Jiang Cheng’s chest, probably because the man is sprawling on top of him like he’s a pillow and his face is firmly buried in his chest. “If I move, then Wanyin will try to leave.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Jiang Cheng repeats out loud, because some thoughts warrant to be said. “Can you let go? I just want to grab you something to change into, like maybe a T-shirt and sweat pants – okay, okay! I get it, you’re not interested,” he yelps when he feels the other man’s arms tighten around his middle. How the fuck is he so strong? “You can let go! I’m staying put! I’m staying put!”
Lan Xichen doesn’t let go completely but he does loosen his grip a little. He also doesn’t move.
“Hmm. This is nice and comfortable. Soft,” Jiang Cheng hears him slur out to his growing embarrassment. “Wanyin is nice and kind. And warm. I like everything ‘bout Wanyin.”
Jiang Cheng sighs and sends yet another silent prayer to the sky. He's been doing it nonstop the entire evening. What number is even at? "That's very nice of you, Xichen, but if you can just loosen your arms a bit -"
He glances down and his breath hitches.
Lan Xichen is looking up at him with one cheek still resting against his chest, his soft, pink lips curled into a sweet, gentle smile. His normally pale skin is flushed a delicate pink that only makes his bright golden eyes shine even brighter beneath long, dark, feathery lashes. Somewhere along the struggle, his pony tail has come undone, and his long, dark hair fans down his back onto the bed in a curtain of dark, silky tendrils.
Jiang Cheng licks his dry lips and swallows hard.
He is breathtakingly beautiful. And he is staring at Jiang Cheng with unbridled adoration. He is staring at Jiang Cheng like he is the most important person on the planet.
“Ri-ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng manages to stutter out, his voice hoarse, “I’m none of those things, you know.”
Xichen frowns. “Wanyin is being ridiculous. Of course you are all of those things. And more.” He hums again, and rests his cheek back on Jiang Cheng’s chest, nuzzling into the fabric of his T-shirt, which only serves to ratchet Jiang Cheng’s heart rate up even more. “You have the kindest heart, and you’re so generous with everything, your time, your energy, your affection, your loyalty. Hard working, honest, clever. So very clever and so very beautiful.”
Xichen looks up again, and Jiang Cheng can’t seem to shy away from his honest gaze. “I only speak the truth, and it breaks my heart every time when I see that you don’t believe those things about yourself. Sooo,” he drawls out in a teasing lilt, “I suppose I’d have to repeat it again and again and again until Wanyin believes me. And I’ll do it gladly.”
“Ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng repeats weakly. “What does it matter if I don’t believe?”
Xichen’s gaze turns fierce, the gold in his eyes practically molten . “It matters,” he says with a hard voice. “It matters because Wanyin matters. You matter so much to everyone here. To the café, to the cats you care for, to Bandit and Princess Caroline, to your colleagues even the ones you can’t stand, to Wei Wuxian and your sister.” He draws in a breath as if bracing himself, “And to me. You matter so much to me.”
Lan Xichen lets go of his waist and reaches up, his long, slender fingers caress his cheek, trailing warmth down his cheek bone, his jaw, until his hand is cupping the side of his face like it’s always meant to be there, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t think he can breathe, the air in his lungs and his surging emotions trapped within his chest in a swirling vortex. Everything feels warm, and soft, and he feels –
He feels –
Cherished. So very cherished.
“You matter so much to me,” Lan Xichen breathes, “So much that it hurts. And you deserve all the happiness and all the good things. My A-Cheng. My kind, beautiful, wonderful A-Cheng.”
As if some spell is broken, Lan Xichen’s expression softens into a smile and he closes his eyes, again nuzzling into his chest as if to make himself more comfortable.
Then, silence. Silence permeates the room except for deep rhythmic breathing, the tell-tale sign of a man fast asleep.
Lan Xichen does not seem to notice Jiang Cheng’s frozen state, or how his heart is hammering in his chest a million miles a minute and how he’s flushed red from the root of his hair to the tips of his ears.
Or hear Jiang Cheng’s very emphatic, very heartfelt, “Fuck. I am having a crisis.”
Here’s a whopping 11k word chapter. I was debating splitting this up into more bite-sized chunks given how many things this chapter covered (and how very eclectic it feels because so much stuff happened), but these events also tie together so…*shrug*. Here it is in one fell swoop instead.
My original plan for this fic had been to keep it relatively short and sweet. Clearly, that plan fell to the wayside. Hoo boy. But at least we’re finally, finally getting somewhere with this slow burn! \o/
Thanks once again for everyone reading and for your patience! Please let me know what you think. As always, I love hearing your thoughts!
 Lan Xichen’s image of the cats curled up together as their tails form a heart. See here as an example: https://www.pinterest.jp/pin/359443613991175698/.
 After Jiang Cheng’s phone call with Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian thinks back on what his brother says about not celebrating his birthday, and promptly decides, fuck that! He’s not going to watch Jiang Cheng hermit away like he’s been doing in the past year. Although Jiang Cheng likes to believe that he’s perfectly fine in his splendid isolation, Wei Wuxian knows his little brother and remembers how growing up, Jiang Cheng is always surrounded by someone – him, his sister, friends, hell, even the many staff running the Jiang household. Wei Wuxian doesn’t believe for one second that Jiang Cheng is truly happy alone, and so like the protective older brother that he is, he calls in reinforcement in the form of another protective older brother. If that other older brother also happens to be very interested in ensuring Jiang Cheng’s happiness, then even better.
 Wei Wuxian may have played up how important Jiang Cheng feels about celebrating his birthday with friends and family. It does wonders convincing Lan Xichen to spread the good word about Jiang Cheng’s birthday.
 Upon Lan Xichen letting Rebecca know about Jiang Cheng’s birthday, she cackles and says, “Leave everything to us, Mr. Lan!” There’s a small, nagging part of Lan Xichen that thinks that maybe, just maybe, he should ask about what she means by that. There’s another part of him, possibly his self-preservation instinct, that thinks that it’s best not to know, especially with the glint in Rebecca’s eyes that spells trouble.
 Lan Xichen’s drunken rambling about the moon and knowing a song to express his emotions is a nod to the wonderful audio drama featuring the drunk Twin Jades of Gusu Lan. While Lan Zhan is a moody, depressed, sleepy drunk, Lan Xichen is the complete opposite, and it is hilarious.
 "The bravery of a soaring Icarus mere moments from plummeting into the ocean" - an analogy referring to the greek mythology about Icarus. Icarus and his father attempted to escape Crete by crafting wings made of feather and wax so that they can fly over the ocean to freedom. Icarus' father warned him against complacency by not flying too low (or else the waves would clog up the wings), and against hubris by not flying too high (or else the sun would melt the wax). Icarus flew too high, the wax in his wings melted, and he plummeted to the ocean where he drowned, paying the price for his hubris. Just like Icarus, Lan Xichen flew too close to the sun by brazenly downing the shots...and then promptly paying the price for his hubris, haha!
Next chapter – the aftermath. And more plot a-brewing. Thanks again for reading!