“I-,” Jiang Cheng announces grandiosely as he slumps into a chair in front of Lan Wangji, “-have suffered.”
Lan Wangji pauses in pouring the tea and glances at the Sect Leader with unreadable golden eyes before resuming his tea pouring. Jiang Cheng kind of wants to slap the serenity off his pretty boy face.
“I have suffered,” Jiang Cheng stresses again, leveling Lan Wangji with a glare as if daring him to counter his statement. “And this is all your fault. Your kid is a menace.”
Lan Yuan is playing with a young Jin Ling who toddles behind him in the garden and assists him in digging holes in the perfectly manicured lawn. They’ve just returned from Lotus Pier and Lan Wangji had invited the Jiang Sect Leader for some refreshments before he headed back with Jin Ling.
They’re not friends by any stretch of the imagination but as single fathers raising young children, they have struck a sort of amicable truce. Whenever either of them is busy with night hunts or sect duties, the other can take care of the kids all in the name of fostering sect relationships in the next generation. Jiang Cheng has steadfastly not been calling it the Single Fathers Association in his head.
“Oh?” Lan Wangji tucks into his own seat with grace, “A-Yuan is perfectly well-behaved for his age.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyebrow twitches. This jerk…
“That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it,” Jiang Cheng pins Lan Wangji with a harrowed look and nurses his cup of tea like it’s something much stronger. “Your kid is fucking creepy. Super cute but also super fucking creepy.”
Jiang Cheng holds Lan Wangji’s gaze, never wavering. He didn’t grow up with the incarnation of chaos and not have some epic staring contests in his day. This is nothing. Under Jiang Cheng’s steely gaze, Lan Wangji finally caves in.
“What did he do?” Lan Wangji sighs.
If Jiang Cheng was to ever think of the poster child for the Gusu Lan Sect, then Lan Yuan would be that poster child. The Lan boy is the most even-tempered, polite child he has ever met. He plays willingly with Jin Ling even when his brat of a nephew throws an awful temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. At such a young age, he’s already skilled in the four gentlemanly arts and has the beginnings of a strong golden core. No doubt he will be ranked top of his generation when he begins cultivation training.
And to add insult to injury, the kid is pretty damn cute. It would only go to show that Lan Wangji would give birth to such an adorable, well-mannered kid. Not to say, his own Jin Ling is any less cute but Jin Ling tends to be a bit of a needy crybaby at this age and screams more than he smiles. It kind of detracts from the cuteness when Jiang Cheng is faced with a screaming baby.
The children are due for their afternoon nap and they’re on their way back to the family quarters. Jin Ling is already nodding off in his arms, being the younger of the two and much more prone to being easily tired out. Lan Yuan is following them at a sedate pace, quiet and unobtrusive.
The weather has been getting warmer, Jiang Cheng needs to make sure the kids don’t overheat in the sun while they’re outside playing. The disciples on the other hand can bake while they lift weights. Call it endurance training.
“There’s a spider,” Lan Yuan says, clutching Jiang Cheng’s purple robes and tugging urgently on them.
The Jiang Sect Leader pauses in his steps. Is the little Lan boy afraid of bugs? It is spring and thus the abundance of creepy crawly insects has increased. Lotus Pier’s architecture is also designed in a way that allows for plenty of open air spaces to better admire its namesake flower. It isn’t uncommon to see a spider or two make their home in the eaves of the pavilions despite the attendants’ efforts in cleaning the place.
“Where?” Jiang Cheng searches where A-Yuan is looking but he can’t see any bugs or anything that would alarm a small child. They are completely alone out on the open hallway. The child offers no further elaboration but Jiang Cheng follows Lan Yuan’s line of sight. Ethereal silver eyes are staring out into the pavilion in the middle of the lake.
“A purple spider lives here,” Lan Yuan repeats, turning back to focus on Jiang Cheng. “The one who gave you lightning.”
Jiang Cheng freezes in his steps and clutches Jin Ling closer to his chest reflexively. The sleepy child makes a muffled noise of protest but Jiang Cheng can’t hear anything. It can’t be. It is too ludicrous to even voice out loud. The boy is barely four and extremely sheltered in the Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji isn’t the type to gossip and there’s no way Lan Yuan could have heard about the Violet Spider from anyone else with the way Lan Wangji keeps him protected.
“Uncle Jiang Cheng, can I tell you a secret?” Lan Yuan asks sweetly with a small smile on his face. The child should not look so damnably innocent after dropping something like that but he does and it’s freaking the hell out of him.
Despite every survival instinct in his body warning him, Jiang Cheng lets curiosity win out and he slowly bends down until Lan Yuan can whisper in his ear.
“Mother is afraid of the spider.”
“Madame Yu was a formidable cultivator,” Lan Wangji agrees readily and refills Jiang Cheng’s cup.
“Your spawn is some sort of ghost medium and that’s all you have to say?” Jiang Cheng splutters with indignance.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lan Wangji pours himself another cup of tea. “A-Yuan could have heard some of the Elders or disciples talking about Madame Yu. Hardly a cause for concern.”
“That’s not the only incident,” Jiang Cheng continues ominously.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t often cook, preferring to leave that work to the maids while he is off training the disciples or taking care of sect business, but sometimes he is struck with a sense of nostalgia for his sister’s pork and lotus root soup. Try as he might, he can never get the recipe quite right. He doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong. He’s followed the recipe as written down exactly in his sister’s elegant script but it never tastes the exact same as his memories.
He chalks it up as another one of his failures as her brother. He’s always left with a sense of melancholy after each and every failed attempt but like a dog with a bone, he does not know when to give up.
Jiang Cheng has already prepped the ingredients and has added them to the pot. He’s in the process of waiting for the soup to boil.
“You put too many goji berries,” a voice behind him snaps him out of his reverie. He turns and nearly startles at Lan Yuan standing right behind him. How the hell did he not hear the child’s footsteps approaching him?
“Lan Yuan,” Jiang Cheng is quick to pick the little Lan boy up into the safety of his arms. The kitchen is filled with sharp dangerous objects and open flames, definitely not a place for a child to wander around in, “I thought I put you and Jin Ling down for a nap.”
“I was but then I woke up,” Lan Yuan replies simply, “And then I smelled something yummy and I got hungry.”
“How did you even find me?”
“You should take out some of the goji berries before your soup starts boiling,” Lan Yuan continues on undeterred as he peers into the soup pot. The Lan child is clearly not going to elaborate more so Jiang Cheng lets it go for now.
“The recipe says a handful of goji berries,” Jiang Cheng sighs in defeat.
“Auntie says that your handful and her handful are different because you both have different size hands,” Lan Yuan explains and then touches his tiny palm to Jiang Cheng’s adult sized palm in demonstration.
The bottom of his stomach drops out, “Auntie?”
“Yes, Auntie,” Lan Yuan says, “Jin Ling’s mother. The nice lady in purple.”
Jiang Cheng nearly lets go Lan Yuan in shock. The boy points to the empty air next to them.
“Erm…” Lan Yuan squints his eyes and then giggles, the sound both cheery and completely frightening. “Auntie Yanli also says that you don’t let the meat boil for as long as it should. She’s calling you impatient.”
Lan Yuan has already said some horrifying things in the morning, but this beats them all by a long shot. Yanli. The boy very clearly said Yanli.
He has some very choice words he wants to scream out loud right now but doesn’t because Lan Wangji would most likely eviscerate him if he found out Lan Yuan had learned some interesting language while staying at Lotus Pier.
“Well?” the child motions commandingly to the pot.
Jiang Cheng woodenly scoops out some of the goji berries.
When they have the soup with the evening meal that night, it tastes exactly the same as his sister’s. Jiang Cheng doesn't cry into his bowl of soup but it’s a damn near thing. He also doesn’t say a word when Lan Yuan has him ladle out four extra bowls.
“One for Grandfather, Grandmother, Auntie, and Mother,” Lan Yuan explains with a bright smile.
“So he saw the late Sect Leader Jiang, Madame Yu, and Young Madame Jin,” Lan Wangji nods and then takes a refined sip of his tea. Jiang Cheng resists the urge to slap the stupid tea cup out of that smug motherfucker’s hands.
“How are you not freaking out about this?” Jiang Cheng demands, slamming the table with his fist. The tea sweets rattle to the edge of the table but Jiang Cheng ignores them in lieu of trying to get Lan Wangji to understand the eldritch horror that is masquerading as his child.
“A-Yuan is rather gifted,” Lan Wangji says demurely.
“Your child is cursed!” Jiang Cheng counters, “Where did you find this kid anyway? Who is his mother?”
“Not cursed,” Lan Wangji denies in a sudden sharp tone, gold eyes turning flinty at the accusation. “And Lan Yuan’s parentage doesn’t concern you. He is my son and that’s it.”
They stare at each other in tense silence until the Jiang Sect Leader relents.
“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng offers a grudging but sincere apology.
“You’re forgiven,” Lan Wangji sighs tiredly. “I know about Lan Yuan’s… ability but I do not sense anything malicious from him so I choose to see it as a blessing. It will certainly aid him in night hunts in the future.”
Lan Wangji smiles turns a touch gentler and more nostalgic which Jiang Cheng has never seen before on the other man’s face. It softens the ice cold beauty of the man’s aristocratic features, and renders him even more attractive than before if that was possible.
Jiang Cheng isn’t stupid. The man is clearly hiding something else but Jiang Cheng has never been one to intrude on the Lan Sect’s affairs and he’s not going to start now. The promise to not reveal Lan Yuan’s unique ability goes unspoken.
Lan Xichen adores spending time with his little nephew. The child is very cute in the way all small children are cute with round soft cheeks, little sticky fingers that get into everything not bolted down to the floor, and large sparkling silver eyes. But Lan Yuan has the added bonus of being exceptionally gifted in the four venerated arts and extremely well-behaved. He cherishes the quiet moments spent with Lan Yuan, a welcoming distraction from his various meetings and other sect affairs.
It’s a rather temperate day and they’re in the Library Pavilion, surrounded by the calming scent of aged paper and ink. Being Sect Leader means being in charge of a veritable mountain of paperwork and he’s absorbed in his task while Lan Yuan is content painting in front of him. Though they do not exchange any words, the silence is amicable and soothing.
“You look like grandmother,” Lan Yuan suddenly says out of the blue.
“Grandmother Lan,” Lan Yuan repeats patiently with the air of someone who has had to explain things very slowly for many people. “She’s standing right next to you.”
Cold sweat forms on the back of the Lan Sect Leader’s neck. Lan Xichen remembers Lan Wangji mentioning something like this in passing. Even so, he can’t help the feeling of growing unease settling in his pit of his stomach when Lan Yuan stares at him with those eerie silver eyes.
“Is she?” Lan Xichen replies carefully. He’s not scared of his own nephew, Lan Xichen tries to tell himself. He is the leader of a prestigious sect that hunts ghosts for a living and he definitely not scared of Lan Wangji’s child.
Lan Yuan nods in a distracted manner as he continues to doodle on his paper, “She wants me to tell you that she saw Father waiting every month outside the house surrounded by gentians even after her death. And she wants me to tell you that she is proud of how you two have grown up and that she loves you both very much.”
That in itself terrifies Lan Xichen to his very core but then he finally looks at what Lan Yuan has been painting this entire time and does a double take. A house surrounded by deep blue gentians is depicted against a backdrop of a forest. But more disturbing than that is the woman who sits in front of the house. It is a perfect portrait of the late Madame Lan, drawn smiling and bright, in the prime of her youth before the sickness had taken her from Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen.
While Lan Xichen is still trying to process all of this, Lan Yuan visibly perks up and drops his brush on the table with a clatter.
“Oh, Grandmother tells me Father is home!” Lan Yuan exclaims and quickly gets up. He sketches a polite bow to Lan Xichen. “Thank you for taking care of me today. I enjoyed our time together. Bye, Uncle Xichen!”
And with that, the child blissfully trots out of the Library Pavilion.
Lan Xichen sits silently in the library for a long time, well past curfew.
“Stop terrorizing your uncles.”