Lan Xichen almost dropped A-Ling when he heard Jiang Cheng say, “I love you.”
“Said the prince, and with a flourish he knelt and presented the glass slipper to the maiden. “Your slipper has led me to you, the maiden who has stolen my heart,” he declared.”
Lan Xichen slowly turned around, having gathered A-Ling securely back into his arms and thankfully spared of the baby's anger, most likely due to the presence of Fairy the Giant Husky Plushie in A-Ling's chubby fist. Jiang Cheng had a picture book open, reading aloud the fairytale in perhaps the flattest tone Lan Xichen had ever heard applied to Cinderella, to an attentive audience of Lan Zhan, A-Qing and Wen Ning.
He could feel the flush rising across his cheeks like a bleeding watercolour, and he turned away hastily to put A-Ling back on Nie Huaisang’s stomach, his preferred place to nap while the sole employee of the daycare lounged on the beanbags.
“They got married and lived happily ever after. The end.” Jiang Cheng shut the picture book with a definitive snap.
“That’s a stupid confession,” A-Qing declared, “that shoe could fit anyone! The prince is stupid! Stupid, stupid!”
“I-I think it's nice…” stammered Wen Ning, and naturally no one responded to his comment except Jiang Cheng, who patted the toddler’s head.
“At least someone appreciates my effort,” Jiang Cheng huffed, and when Wen Ning lifted his head to gaze at the student with wide, shining eyes, Lan Xichen could see the slight upturn at the corner of the other’s mouth. After so long, he knew Jiang Cheng was ecstatic that the children were no longer terrified of him and his grumpy tsundere aura.
Cute, he thought, then mentally slapped himself.
“Lan Zhan!” A bouncing blur of red and black tumbled past Lan Xichen’s legs to skid to a halt before Lan Zhan. Wei Ying grinned, and held out the crumpled piece of paper. “Look! I drew us together with Xichen-gege and Chengcheng!”
“Idiot!” Wei Ying ducked Jiang Cheng’s halfhearted swing with a giggle. “How's that Lan Xichen anyway? It's just a blob!”
“It is so Xichen-gege! Xichen-gege said to me and Wen Qing, we should draw all our favourite people today! So Wen Qing’s drawing A-Ning but I wanted to draw Lan Zhan and Chengcheng! Cause they're my favourite people!” Wei Ying’s smile was blinding and unfairly adorable. “But then I thought you and Lan Zhan would be lonely so I added Xichen-gege! See!” He jabbed at his drawing again, with such force that Lan Xichen decided to step in, lest the boy rip his own masterpiece.
“May I see?”
Wei Ying nodded eagerly, relinquished the drawing then immediately latched onto Lan Zhan. “Do you like it, do you like it?”
Lan Xichen smiled at his younger brother, then inspected the drawing. It truly did resemble a series of blobs and lines, but he thought he could make out Lan Zhan’s eyes and Wei Ying’s tiny ponytail. And of course, Jiang Cheng’s angry expression.
“That gremlin,” Jiang Cheng grumbled at his shoulder, and Lan Xichen thanked all his uncle's lectures of poise and dignity for not startling like a mouse. “I look like I'm about to crap lightning.”
Lan Xichen declined to mention that was a remarkably accurate representation.
Jiang Cheng glared and turned away, though his hand was open and beckoning to Lan Xichen. “Come on, let's find a space for it on the Tree.” The Tree, as it was known, referred to the tree painted on one side of the daycare room with a pale blue sky behind it and a bright yellow sun in the corner, though through some unknown reason, the original tree was now barely visible beneath all drawings covering it. Most were done by Wei Ying’s messy hand and A-Qing’s surprisingly careful colouring in, though occasionally the others had contributed with their own work.
Lan Xichen caught sight of a series of stick figures in one corner and could not help the beam spreading across his face.
“Why do you always do that, it's weird,” Jiang Cheng muttered as he snapped the Blu Tack into smaller pieces.
“It was A-Zhan's first picture since we moved here. Whenever I look at it, I always remember that despite everything that has happened, I'm grateful we met you all here.”
“Right.” Jiang Cheng reached up to stick the picture into the sliver of free space remaining, engrossed in the effort. “I forget your little ice block of a brother can actually emote.”
“He's just not a very expressive child!” Lan Xichen pressed a hand to his heart in mock offence, then laughed gently. “Look, he knows we all think of you guys as our family. A-Zhan is a very caring boy.”
Behind them, Nie Huaisang wafted by, A-Ling strapped to his back and batting his shoulder with Fairy. “Come on you two, shoo, shoo. It's nearly the end of lunch and I do not want Headmaster Lan to hear about you two being late to class again.”
Jiang Cheng snorted and as he strode past, taking off the apron with his name stitched on beside a lotus flower, he said, “Right, you just want to read your weird doujinshi without us here. There are children present!”
Nie Huaisang merely snapped his fan open and batted it towards the door. Lan Xichen shot a small smile towards Jiang Cheng, who was as usual waiting by the door with a face of thunder, and he turned to take off his own apron and say goodbye to A-Zhan when Nie Huaisang brushed past his shoulder.
“You know, that does look like a family.”
Lan Xichen jerked and found himself staring at Wei Ying's picture. With the Wei Ying and Lan Zhan-sized blobs in between the Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen blobs, it could, in a certain light, really, truly look like a family portrait…
He shook his head furiously and gave a sharp glance at Nie Huaisang, though his expression was inscrutable behind the fan. Either that or he was lamenting his choice of career when he saw the mini crayon apocalypse on the drawing table.
Lan Xichen decided to ignore the comment, to tuck it away tidily and not ever see the light again, and not to ever be considered later when, on the walk back to the high school buildings, he tried to recall whether Jiang Cheng blob and Lan Xichen blob were holding blob hands.
“And you know the worst thing about today?”
Jiang Cheng was engaged in his complaint of the day, a long held tradition as he and Lan Xichen walked back to their respective homes after the end of school. Before them, Lan Zhan was being dragged from one side of the path to the other as Wei Ying chattered away.
“The fact that I had to read fucking Cinderella to the kids while you were changing A-Ling because A-Qing heard that Xiao Xingchen was confessed to and wanted to know what a romantic confession was like.”
Lan Xichen gave a questioning hum. “I wonder who the girl was.”
“Probably some idiot from our class. They'd have to get in line,” Jiang Cheng huffed. Lan Xichen was never quite sure when Jiang Cheng described the girls in their year if he had a personal vendetta towards them, or they for him.
In any case, Jiang Cheng held a mutually poor relationship with most of the girls after the one time their class decided to hold a speed-dating event for the Cloud Recesses Academy annual fundraiser day, and Jiang Cheng was irrevocably blacklisted after only three dates. Lan Xichen considered him rather endearing in his efforts, if rather coarse in his words, but he digressed.
Besides, there was a tacit agreement that with the presence of Song Lan, all those girls would have to wait for a very long time.
“It wasn’t even a good confession,” Jiang Cheng sighed.
“Oh? And what would make a good confession?” Lan Xichen kept his gaze on A-Zhan, and swallowed hastily.
“Fuck, I don’t know… it’s just all the same kind of thing you always see, nothing stands out so you don’t care. Hell, there should be some kind of schedule considering how many people think it’s romantic to confess on the rooftop. I swear there were two just last week.”
Lan Xichen allowed an inward smile - how he would have loved to have pointed out Jiang Cheng’s surprisingly good memory of Nie Huaisang’s gossip and snippets of news from his sister, who worked part-time in the school office, but then again, he rather liked this tranquil atmosphere.
“I don’t believe it matters, as long as the feelings are sincere.” Lan Xichen paused then tilted his head to regard the other. His hair was still damp from his swim team practice after school, and despite the regularly scheduled scowl twisting his mouth, there was a softness relaxing his expression as he watched his adopted brother scamper ahead, a gentle touch behind his pride. And so Lan Xichen could not help but say: “How would you like to be confessed to?”
Jiang Cheng halted as if he had slammed into a glass wall. His eyes were wide and his mouth parted as if to speak and though Lan Xichen was transfixed, he could not read his expression at all. Then came the sound of Wei Ying’s shrieks of laughter and Jiang Cheng raised his eyes to the heavens.
“Oh for fuck’s-” He took a deep breath. “Wei Ying!” And not missing a beat: “Put that caterpillar down now, you’re terrifying Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying pouted and scrambled away to replace the curling, crawling green thing in his palm back on a leaf of the hedge. Carefully, Lan Xichen stepped forward to his frozen little brother.
“A-Zhan.” He placed a hand on his brother’s head and when Lan Zhan slowly turned his head, he held out his arms for a hug. Immediately, the string snapped and Lan Zhan barrelled into his arms, shivering all over so Lan Xichen felt like he was holding a spooked bunny rather than a toddler.
“Shh, it’s okay, gege’s here, the bugs won’t hurt you,” he soothed. He vaguely registered the dulcet tones of an irate Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying bursting into tears, though except for a silent reminder to check their room for spiders when they came back, he could only think of the tiny body in his arms and the scent of his brother’s hair. Sandalwood, like his own and their father’s.
“Come on, we’re going home,” Jiang Cheng declared when Lan Xichen stood up, Lan Zhan at his hip, and he glared down at a red-eyed Wei Ying holding his hand. “Apologize. Now.”
Wei Ying nodded and rubbed his eyes, then ran forward to tug on Lan Xichen’s leg. “I’m sorry Lan Zhan! I won’t ever show you a bug again, promise!”
And surprisingly (or not, depending on how you look at it), Lan Zhan gave a tiny nod and even quieter, “Okay.”
The smile in response was like the sun while the following laughter was like the stars. “See you tomorrow Lan Zhan! Xichen-gege!” Wei Ying waved as he ran back to Jiang Cheng, and Lan Xichen could see they were at the crossroads at which they would normally split to go back to their homes.
Lan Zhan lifted his head briefly from Lan Xichen’s shoulder to give a short wave then buried his face back into his older brother’s shirt, while Lan Xichen chuckled and nodded farewell to the Jiang brothers.
Lan Xichen turned back at the strange catch in Jiang Cheng’s voice, and in the soft glow of the setting sun, his dark eyes were glinting, sparks of violet light that were searching, searching for a mirage he could only see but never grasp. “I... “ Jiang Cheng’s sigh was soft, an evening breeze. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You too.” Lan Xichen’s voice felt tight and forced, and as he walked back home, the imprint of Jiang Cheng’s expression remained behind his eyelids, for he looked, he looked…
Oh heavens, I like Jiang Cheng.
Lan Xichen jumped and stared at his uncle, who wore a stern frown behind his goatee. “Do not allow your mind to wander whilst eating.”
“Yes, uncle.” Lan Xichen blinked, and saw he had dropped the piece of tofu in his chopsticks into the rice bowl. A-Zhan was gazing at him with wide eyes, and he gave him a swift reassuring smile before answering, “I apologise uncle, I just remembered I have some homework I still need to complete.”
“Then do so after dinner.”
By the time he had shut his bedroom door behind him and was lying face down on his bed, he thought he was safe. However, he realised belatedly when he heard the door open and was met with an almost wicked grin, he forgot to take into account Sisi. Nobody expected Sisi, not even his uncle. How on earth Lan Qiren managed to employ Sisi as his housekeeper/secretary, Lan Xichen did not know, and he thought it would remain one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of life.
“Homework?” she scoffed in lieu of a greeting. “Young Master, I would have invented at least ten excuses far more believable and interesting at your age than just homework.”
Lan Xichen could never tell if Sisi’s habit of addressing him and A-Zhan as ‘Young Masters’ was ironic or not, but she had never failed to sneak them treats and more flavoursome food behind their uncle’s back, so he simply pushed himself up into a sitting position and gave her a faint smile. Lan Zhan, who had been quietly reading his favourite picture book about a family of bunnies on his side of the bed, put down the book and climbed into Xichen’s lap.
“Please enlighten me then,” Lan Xichen said lightly.
“Oh I will.” Sisi perched on the bed beside Lan Xichen and poked Lan Zhan’s cheek, earning a cold look that seemed more pitiful than annoyed. “And in return, you tell me who’s on your mind.”
Lan Xichen’s smile stiffened. “Who?”
“Of course it’s a who! At this point I’d almost given up hope for you to find a nice person to settle down with, your brother complex is legendary. In the past year I’ve never seen you zone out like that over anything, so the only conclusion?” Sisi jabbed a finger towards Lan Xichen’s chest, and he almost flinched instinctively, the arms holding Lan Zhan tightening around him. “You’re in love, Young Master.”
“I-In love?” Lan Xichen fought the urge to press his hands to his cheeks, lest they be as red as Wei Ying’s hair ribbon. “You must be mistaken,” he managed, and even he was surprised by how little his trembling voice betrayed him.
“Uh-uh, trust me, I know these things.” Sisi tapped the side of her nose with her finger and winked. And despite himself, Lan Xichen laughed.
Lan Xichen was fundamentally an open person - he did not see the need to hide away his thoughts in unnecessary situations, he was not one to build layer upon layer of concealment to deceive himself of his feelings. There was no need, then, to work himself up to deny his revelation to someone he trusted like Sisi (and he couldn’t help but feel a little smug at how he was defying this shoujo trope, as Jiang Cheng had griped earlier).
“I do like someone,” he said, “but I hope you don’t mind if I don’t say their name.”
“No, no, that’s fair. So,” Sisi shuffled closer and raised an eyebrow, “what are you gonna do about it?”
“I…” His thoughts slammed into the locked door; it was one thing to happily accept his feelings, it was entirely another to act upon them and to drag someone else into the equation, particularly when they were as volatile as Jiang Cheng.
“I don’t know,” he murmured. “That person… is not one who accepts affection easily. If-if I tell him, I don’t know…” Lan Zhan shifted slightly in his arms, and he gently drew the toddler closer to his chest. “Besides, I need to look after A-Zhan, I’m perfectly satisfied with remaining friends for A-Zhan’s sake.”
Sisi tutted and crossed her arms. “See what I mean about brother complex?”
Lan Xichen decided to ignore her comment and opted to hide his face in Lan Zhan’s hair.
“You can’t keep basing every decision in your life around your little brother, and neither can he. Anyway, I think you’re holding him too tight.”
“What?” Lan Xichen looked down to see Lan Zhan squirming more vigorously against his brother’s embrace, and he hurried loosened his arms. “Oh I’m sorry A-Zhan! Please remember to tell me if you’re uncomfortable, okay?”
Lan Zhan did not settle himself down or clamber off his brother’s lap, but twisted around and raised himself onto his knees, so he and Xichen were almost at eye level.
“Gege likes someone?” The words were low and though there was the tiniest crease between his brows that Lan Xichen was itching to smooth away with a finger, he thought Lan Zhan did not seem concerned or envious as he might have initially expected, merely curious.
Lan Xichen smiled and raised a hand to stroke A-Zhan’s head. “Yes, I do like someone. Not like how I love A-Zhan,” he added, “but like… how Papa and Mama liked each other.”
“Papa and Mama?” There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by their heartbeats, as often occurred when their deceased parents were mentioned. It had been over a year ago and while Lan Xichen had grieved for a long time, now he mourns the memories his brother will never have, the lost time he would never cherish with his parents unlike Lan Xichen. It scared him, to think one day Lan Zhan may no longer remember their parents’ faces, and so he knew he overcompensated for his brother’s loss.
“Were Papa and Mama happy together?” Lan Zhan questioned, and the slight frown was thoughtful, considering.
“They were, yes.” Then Xichen remembered the way his mother’s eyes shone whenever his parents came home from their business trips and they saw their sons waiting for them on the doorstep, how tightly he and his brother were held when their parents had to leave much too soon, how his father had patted his head and told him he could trust Xichen to protect Lan Zhan. Their last embrace before their parents boarded the plane that would later crash seemed particularly warm in Xichen’s mind.
“But I think… they were always happiest when all of us were together.”
Lan Zhan nodded gravely. “So to make gege happy, he needs both A-Zhan and that person he likes.”
As Lan Xichen felt his mind collapsing, he vaguely heard Sisi break down into peals of laughter. “Oh my, Second Young Master, you are officially my favourite person.” She ruffled Lan Zhan’s hair, who barely noticed as he gazed steadily at his older brother. He even patted Lan Xichen’s cheek as if to reinforce his point.
“I think you just got your answer,” Sisi said between chuckles.
“I…” Lan Xichen stared at his brother, studied the clear determination, the unwavering certainty glinting in his eyes, and he sighed. He leaned forward to he was resting his forehead against Lan Zhan’s, whispering, “When did you get so smart?”
When did you grow up so quickly?
“I’ll try,” he said eventually, to Sisi, to A-Zhan, to his heart. “I’ll try. But first,” he recalled Jiang Cheng’s scowl and lightning within his deep eyes, “I need to think of the perfect way to tell him.”
“Good morning, Mo Xuanyu,” Lan Xichen said as the other student leapt to his feet from where he was sitting beside the locked door of the daycare. At his neck, Lan Zhan raised his head and blinked sleepily up at his brother, while Xichen soothed him, rubbing his back gently.
As per their uncle’s rules, Lan Xichen and his brother had become accustomed to rising at five in the morning, both by Lan tradition and so they could open the daycare in the morning to prepare for the day. Lan Zhan was still really only a toddler, and so Xichen’s mornings ended up consisting of Lan Zhan napping on a blanket while he quietly cleaned the daycare, until he was invariably woken up by the noisy arrival of the other kids.
“What brings you here so early?” smiled Lan Xichen after he settled Lan Zhan onto the blanket.
Hearts were bursting out of Mo Xuanyu’s eyes as he clasped his hands and declared, “Love!”
“...Okay. You do know Jiang Yanli is the one who brings in A-Ling, right?”
Mo Xuanyu waved away the question with a scoff. “Of course I know, except when Mrs Jiang is accompanying the middle schoolers on their annual field trip, so dear A-Ling can only be left in the care of Jin Zixuan.” Lan Xichen blinked, and the hearts and bubbles sparkling around Mo Xuanyu disappeared from his view.
“Or Jin Guangyao! I’m not picky,” Mo Xuanyu added.
“...Mn.” Through much painful experience, he had learnt not to question Mo Xuanyu’s ardent crushes on Jin Zixuan and Jin Guangyao, however hopeless they might be. Putting on his own apron (blue with flowing white clouds), Lan Xichen asked politely, “So what are you going to do-”
“Confess my undying love!” Lan Xichen felt the child-sized chair he was lifting slip out of his grasp, and he hurriedly caught it.
“See! A poem, written in my own hand and filled with words of love.” Mo Xuanyu waved a piece of paper in front of Lan Xichen’s gaze, and the few lines he read before Mo Xuanyu snatched it away made him almost want to vomit unicorn glitter.
He said carefully, “You will confess… with your own poem? Declaring your feelings?” And he could not help but wonder if Jiang Cheng liked poetry.
“Mhm! What could be better - a beautiful sunrise streaming through the windows, the scent of roses heavy in the air-” at this Mo Xuanyu whipped out a bottle and liberally sprayed the room, causing Lan Xichen to cough and shoot a concerned glance at Lan Zhan, who thankfully remained asleep, “-and the most heartfelt love confession he has ever heard! It’s foolproof! It’s perfect! It’s-”
“What’s this about a confession?” Mo Xuanyu yelped and jumped a foot into the air, clutching both hands to his heart. Lan Xichen fared little better, and after rearranging his features into a gentle smile, he turned towards the door, where a confused Jin Zixuan stood with A-Ling gurgling happily in his baby holder.
Jin Zixuan knelt down to pick up a crumpled piece of paper, and frowning at it, he smoothed it out. Lan Xichen heard a strange choking sound and as he followed Mo Xuanyu’s stare, he realised what had transpired. He mentally lit a candle to his classmate, squared his shoulders and approached the business empire heir.
“Good morning Mr Jin, I assume Mrs Jiang is away on the school trip?” He held out his hands to accept A-Ling and could not help poking the baby’s cheeks. A-Ling gave him the flattest look and reached out to pat his cheek, in some kind of miniature form of a slap.
Jin Zixuan sighed. “Yes, she’ll be away for a week. A-Yao is going to pick up A-Ling later too. Anyway, is this yours?” He held out the offending piece of paper with a thankfully blank expression.
Lan Xichen wavered, “Well…”
“It was me! I wrote it!” Mo Xuanyu was snapped out of his stupor and he bounded across before Jin Zixuan, and with a kind of daring that made Lan Xichen both admire him and think about what kind of supplies one would need after a rejection, he clasped Jin Zixuan’s hands in his own.
“I wanted to say it to you properly but…” Mo Xuanyu laughed awkwardly, then tilted his head up to regard a nonplussed Jin Zixuan with shining eyes. “I wanted you to have it, because, because…”
Looking away, Lan Xichen braced himself for the inevitable outcome. Moments ticked pass, one after another, and eventually the silence pressing against his ears was unbearable. He turned and blinked. Mo Xuanyu had his arms half outstretched, seemingly frozen in his original position, while Jin Zixuan had his head in his hands.
“Did Jiang Cheng tell you?” he was muttering.
As Mo Xuanyu appeared to be catatonic, Lan Xichen answered. “Tell us what?”
Jin Zixuan gave him a long, appraising look, before he huffed and said, “That I confessed to A-Li using a love poem by my scriptwriter. That bastard has never let me live it down.”
Lan Xichen felt his eyes widen, the realisation settling over him, and with it, a great sympathy for Mo Xuanyu. “Oh, so this confession-”
“I’m sorry I read it Mo Xuanyu, but you really shouldn’t come to me for advice. A good confession, as Jiang Cheng ripped into me afterwards, should not be some saccharine dramatic affair, it should be sincere, full of initiative, and most importantly, not a collection of quotes from cliche love poetry. I wish you luck in your own endeavours nonetheless.” Jin Zixuan handed back the piece of paper to Mo Xuanyu’s lifeless fingers, unaware of the heart he had ripped out and torn into two.
“Also, what is that smell? Nie Huaisang needs to get better air fresheners.” With that and a delicately wrinkled nose, Jin Zixuan handed Lan Xichen A-Ling’s bag of supplies, kissed his son on the forehead, and left.
Once the door had slid shut and Jin Zixuan was out of sight, Mo Xuanyu dropped to his knees, painfully slowly, in time with the loud ticking of the clock. Lan Xichen took his time, putting the bag away in its usual place on the shelf, lowering A-Ling safe and secure into the daycare crib, handing him Fairy for him to wave and gnaw on. Only once he checked once more Lan Zhan was undisturbed, he stepped forward carefully.
“Mo Xuanyu,” he said softly, “do you want to talk about it or-”
“My first rejection.” Mo Xuanyu turned towards Lan Xichen, and though his eyes were almost unnaturally round, there was little other emotion on his face. “I had my first ever rejection,” he whispered, and Lan Xichen was convinced there was more awe than devastation in his voice.
“Here, I have a handkerchief-”
“No thanks, I can’t cry, my foundation was over three hundred yuan alone.” Mo Xuanyu batted away Lan Xichen’s hand and stood up, remarkably steady.
“It could have been worse,” he mused, and he shrugged. “Ah well, I still have Jin Guangyao to woo and win over. If I’m not A-Ling’s second father, then I can at least be A-Yao’s second boyfriend.”
Lan Xichen really did not want to know the answer, but his body betrayed him. “What happened to the first?”
Mo Xuanyu’s eyes glinted. “Nothing you can prove.” Then he winked, and Lan Xichen desperately wished he could be like Lan Zhan and bury himself under a mountain of blankets.
“Anyway, I’ll see you in class, ‘kay? Bye bye A-Ling, let Uncle Mo hug you goodbye- ow, ow, ow, you’ve got stronger!” Mo Xuanyu extracted his hair from A-Ling’s claws, and with a teary wave, he left the daycare.
There was only one legible thought running through Lan Xichen’s mind: why was Mo Xuanyu willing to cry when his hair was pulled but not when he got rejected?
“Hey.” A sharp click sounded and long, pale fingers entered his vision, causing Lan Xichen to jolt. Jiang Cheng ran his eyes over Lan Xichen, and what he saw made him cluck his teeth and cross his arms. “Spill. I see Mo Xuanyu that ass running away from the daycare, and then I find you standing here like a fricking statue. What. Happened.”
Lan Xichen considered Jiang Cheng, his features more relaxed in the early morning, and his fringe where the sunlight made some parts gleam a deep chocolate brown. Behind him came Wei Ying’s exuberant greetings and Lan Zhan’s monosyllabic replies.
He reached out, and after a slight hesitation, rested his hand on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “You don’t want to know,” he smiled.
Then he turned away before his mask could crack, and when he glimpsed Jiang Cheng shake his head in disbelief, he reminded himself to never, under any circumstances, confess to Jiang Cheng through love poetry.
“Nie-gege! Nie-gege!” Nie Mingjue glared at the tiny body hugging his leg. A-Qing beamed up at him, the only one apart from Wen Qing who was unafraid to initiate contact with Nie Mingjue.
“You be the monster! You be the monster! You gotta roar and be scary, like this!” She made her hands into mock claws and roared, surprisingly loud for her petite stature.
Nie Mingjue sighed, “What about-”
“Oh, does my darling nephew need his nappy changed? Come on, Uncle's gonna change you, good boy.” Nie Mingjue stiffened as Jin Guangyao walked past, bouncing a sniffling A-Ling and wearing a faint smile that made Nie Mingjue clench his fists.
“Yes?” Jin Guangyao looked up and grinned, his eyes narrowing to crescents. “I'm afraid I can't play with the children right now, as you can see.”
A quick glance around the daycare confirmed no one else was available: Nie Huaisang that good-for-nothing was missing for some reason, Jiang Cheng was still coaxing (threatening, really) Wei Ying to finish the last of his vegetables from his lunch, and Lan Xichen shook his head with an apologetic smile from where he was wiping down the lunch table scattered with bits of food.
Nie Mingjue closed his eyes, inhaled, then let out a menacing growl that sent A-Qing running away to the corner shrieking with laughter.
Lan Xichen struggled to hide his indulgent smile. It had taken some time with patient, guiding steps, but now he was glad that in the daycare, Nie Mingjue no longer needed to hold onto his anger, that Jin Guangyao did not need to construct mask after mask, as the children, in their own strange and wondrous way, would easily tear them apart. Whatever others may think of young kids, Lan Xichen truly believed that caring for them was healing, that experiencing their youthful logic and naive frankness meant one was often more honest here than anywhere else. And of course, the cuteness overload could not be overstated.
He looked at Jiang Cheng, and his face softened. “Don't come crying to me if you get hungry later. I'm not giving you anything until dinner,” grumbled Jiang Cheng as he wiped almost roughly at Wei Ying's mouth. Lan Xichen knew by the end of the day, a snack (not too sugary, they all learnt that the hard way) will have mysteriously found its way into Wei Ying's bag and everyone knew how, though as they preferred to have their legs whole, it was never acknowledged.
Wei Ying stuck out his tongue and leapt to his feet, ignoring Jiang Cheng's admonishments as he ran to where Nie Mingjue was obligingly sinking beneath the weight of four toddlers. As Wei Ying tackled his head, the death throes of the mighty beast of Qinghe were imminent.
“Quit it,” Jiang Cheng said, and Lan Xichen realised he had been staring unabashedly at him.
He pursed his lips in consideration, then, “Pardon me Jiang Wanyin, but I won't ever be tired of your love for your brother.” His heart sang, as if he was leaning over a cliff edge and barely holding on, and yet he was rewarded with the breathtaking sight of Jiang Cheng's blush.
“You-!” At this point Jin Guangyao had finished changing A-Ling and Jiang Cheng clung to the distraction. “Hey! Give me A-Ling, he needs his Uncle too.”
Jin Guangyao granted him a thin smile, “I gave him Fairy, I am the favourite uncle.”
“In your dreams, shorty. I know how to sing his favourite lullaby, I have changed a hundred times more dirty nappies than you, I know the exact temperature he prefers his milk at. Now give him to me.”
Jin Guangyao exchanged a pained smile with Lan Xichen, but graciously relinquished and knelt down on Lan Xichen's other side around the toddler-sized table.
The joy of winning did not last long as A-Ling shifted and crumpled his face. Immediately, Jiang Cheng seemed to soften, to redirect his body and mind to the tiny body in his arms. He began to sing, too low for Lan Xichen to make out the words, but the timbre of his voice was rich and deep, the melody gentle and lilting.
If he could, Lan Xichen would listen to Jiang Cheng's voice for the rest of his life, even, in his most private dreams, when he was accompanied by his xiao
Still, Jiang Cheng had left to tuck the sleeping A-Ling into his crib and Nie Mingjue took his place, looking rather tousled.
“So the great Nie Mingjue has been brought low by a child who doesn't even reach my knees.”
“Shut up, Jin Guangyao,” hissed Nie Mingjue, and he started to rearrange his hair.
“Then that must not have been Wen Qing who brought you down to your knees with merely one kick, I apologise, I must be seeing things. Let me check my phone, surely the pictures won't lie-”
“You-!” Lan Xichen placed a hand on Nie Mingjue’s chest and the other on Jin Guangyao's hand, poised to unlock his phone.
“Please, we are role models for the children,” he admonished gently.
“Then they should be shown how to deal with bast- cheaters like him,” growled Nie Mingjue, cracking his knuckles. Jin Guangyao's visage was innocent and wide-eyed, and that was the tipping point.
“Lan Xichen,” he declared, turning to face his friend.
“I,” unlike some people , his black glare at Jin Guangyao implied, “have something I need to say to you.” The gravity in his tone made Lan Xichen frown slightly, and he leant forward.
“What is it? Are you okay?”
“Dage and I spent the day together on Saturday,” came Jin Guangyao, sliding smoothly over Nie Mingjue’s choked growl. “We went to the gardens and had tea, he showed me some self-defence, it was quite enjoyable.”
Lan Xichen beamed, any concern of Nie Mingjue’s health instantly banished. “Really? Oh, I'm so happy for you! You've made so much progress, the both of you!”
Jin Guangyao ducked his head in mock embarrassment, saying, “Oh, it was all dage’s idea.” And while Nie Mingjue seemed to have swallowed something off, there was a grin spreading across his face, sharp and glinting.
“I'm sure all those self-defence lessons will be put into good use,” he gritted out.
“Oh? I didn't know you and A-Yao went on a date on Saturday.”
Nie Mingjue yelling his older brother's name was not an uncommon occurrence, and so the children barely paused before reassuming their previous activities - in this case, rolling on the floor for Wei Ying and Wen Ning, and having a peaceful tea party for the girls and Lan Zhan.
Nie Huaisang ducked, raising his load of coloured paper from the art supply room as a shield (at least that explained his absence - one of the few things that made him good at his job was his ability to distract the children with an unending supply of arts and crafts ideas.)
“I don't know, I don't know! Why else would you spend so long fretting over your appearance before you left?”
“I never realised you cared so much, dage.” Lan Xichen blinked, and he was almost convinced that Jin Guangyao’s ears and Nie Mingjue’s neck were flushed similar shades of pink.
“One day I'll tear you to pieces you midget piece of-”
Lan Xichen clapped his hands and laughed loudly. “Okay, I think we're done here! Go on ahead, I'll meet you in a moment.” While it was said Lan Xichen possessed a remarkable level of patience to tolerate Nie Mingjue, he knew there was no going back after death threats were made and cussing flowed freely. And so, because he truly loved his friends, he pushed them to the door and dumped them outside in the corridor.
When the door was shut and their complaints were muffled, Lan Xichen breathed a sigh of relief. He turned and stilled, as Jiang Cheng was gazing at him with a strange expression. It was dark, bruised purple like thunderclouds concealing the sky.
“What is it?” Lan Xichen frowned and reached out a hand. “Jiang Wanyin, is something wrong?”
“... You have a bunch of stickers on your… on your ass.” Lan Xichen inhaled and reached around to feel the glossy surfaces. “It must have been A-Qing when you were bent over clearing up,” Jiang Cheng continued, the words muffled as they were forced between clenched teeth.
Lan Xichen gave him a sympathetic look. “Thank you for telling me. Oh…” He paused in pulling off the glitter-smothered stickers. “Is that what A-Jue was trying to tell me?”
He did not know why Jiang Cheng was staring at him as if he had murdered his entire family, but he felt perhaps he really should not have eye contact with his fellow club member for the rest of the lunch hour.
Lan Xichen could not help but feel envious of Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. While nothing had been explicitly declared, their actions were perfectly in sync, as if they were performing a duet only they knew. Even the way Song Lan held out tissue after tissue to stem Xingchen's bleeding nose exuded tender concern and care.
Immediately after, he mentally scolded himself. It was no use harbouring envy for something he didn't have, when he had made no move himself the entire day. Jiang Cheng had been at his side from the early morning and now, as they waited for the children to be picked up by their guardians, he was a few mere feet away. Close enough to touch, and yet the distance between them seemed insurmountable.
A-Qing had wrapped herself around Xiao Xingchen’s waist like a koala, refusing to let go under Song Lan’s quiet encouragement and remaining like a clingy stubborn vine until her foster father Xue Yang the drama teacher had arrived. At once she pounced upon Xue Laoshi, hitting his shoulder as she demanded further details of the so-called ‘confession incident’ involving Xiao Xingchen.
Jiang Cheng seemed just a single word away from decking Xue Yang, teacher or not, and so Lan Xichen ushered them all out with a harried smile. He spared Xue Yang a sympathetic look as he bore A-Qing's abuse with a long suffering expression and pointed quips, and he said to Song Lan under his breath, “When are you going to tell her and put everyone out of their misery?”
Song Lan tensed, then shook his head, the crease between his brows smoothing out as he watched Xiao Xingchen bid a final farewell to the other kids. “In our own time,” he whispered back. “Maybe it’s just me, but Xingchen… brings out another side to me. Like you can see both sides of the coin at the same time. We will, in time, but for now, we both agree we prefer it to be a private affair.”
Lan Xichen nodded, turning the other’s thoughts over carefully in his head, and placed a hand on Song Lan’s shoulder. “You can count on the full support of the Babysitting Club.”
After A-Qing left, as Jin Guangyao came to pick up A-Ling with Nie Mingjue his skulking shadow, and then while the Wen twins’ grandmother gathered a teary Wen Ning to her hip and held Wen Qing’s hand, Lan Xichen examined Song Lan’s words, imagining them like streams that cut into the landscape, tumbling over each other and the rock. And so when Jiang Cheng began forcing Wei Ying into his jacket, Lan Xichen’s voice was caught in his throat in the brambles of the day’s unspoken words.
He was scared, not of his feelings, not necessarily of Jiang Cheng’s reaction, but of the consequences. Would the pieces be constructed into something even stronger than before, or would they be mismatched and crumble? Of course, he could never forget the possibility that Jiang Cheng did not return his feelings.
“Hey.” Jiang Cheng’s sharp tone pulled him out of his whirling thoughts. “You coming?”
Lan Xichen shook his head. “Not yet, I’m locking up today.” Nie Huaisang’s shift had already finished, and it was by Lan Xichen’s insistence that on days such as this, he would be the one to clear up for the night until Sisi came to pick up him and Lan Zhan.
The recollection of his promise to Sisi the previous night came flooding back, and he inhaled. If there was nothing else to his name, one could not say he broke his promises.
Jiang Cheng was still standing there at the door, Wei Ying at his side staring between his older brother and Lan Xichen. “Are you… Today, you’ve been…” Jiang Cheng huffed and opened his mouth a third time.
Lan Xichen could feel his heart, heavy and full but never too much, swelling with affection as he witnessed Jiang Cheng’s obvious concern, and with the impetus of Sisi’s words, he took a step over the cliff edge.
“Jiang Wanyin. I wanted to say-”
The words clung to his throat and he was falling. He thought of Wei Ying’s picture and sighed, “I meant what I said yesterday: meeting you here was one of the best moments of my life.”
“Oh.” Jiang Cheng had glanced away, a scowl just dancing at the edges of his visage, before catching Lan Xichen’s gaze - his eyes were now a clear blue, boundless as the sea. “I appreciate that. You… you’ve also changed me. Us. For good.”
He gave a final, curt nod, and with the faintest shade of red dyeing his neck, he left, dragging Wei Ying behind him.
Lan Xichen swayed on the spot, and finally he fell to his knees. “Meeting you here was one of the best moments of my life.” Whispering a fervent apology to Sisi, Lan Xichen decided once and for all: he was an idiot and never deserved to grace Jiang Cheng’s presence ever again.
“Gege?” He heard soft footsteps, and Lan Xichen raised his head from his internal mourning to see Lan Zhan, apprehension and worry written all over his face.
“I’m alright, A-Zhan, see, gege’s fine-”
“Is Jiang Cheng the one gege likes? Why doesn’t gege tell him?”
Lan Xichen’s placating smile froze, and he internally wept rivers. Really, his baby brother was too smart for his own good!
Unaware of his brother’s lament, Lan Zhan patted his shoulder. “Doesn’t gege like Jiang Cheng?”
“Does that make you sad?” Lan Xichen said carefully.
Lan Zhan shook his head once. “If Wei Ying likes him and gege likes him, then I like him,” he said with such resolution, Lan Xichen felt the tears leaking out of the corners of his eyes. His baby brother was truly too good for this world, his only blessing on this wretched day.
He reached out to touch Lan Zhan’s cheek. “Gege’s really happy you said that, remember that A-Zhan. It’s not your fault, it’s just…” He searches for the right words, the ones he could not, would not express, and places them down openly, simply, because out of everyone, he could not lie to A-Zhan.
“Jiang Wanyin is like the sea - you can spend your entire life combing its depths and never map everything. He’s scary and violent and temperamental, harsh and proud and unpredictable. But he's also comforting and loyal. He adores his family and would do anything for them. He's passionate and a bit awkward, but earnest and honest. Jiang Wanyin is a beautiful, fascinating person I am very grateful to know, and I'm very happy I could be his friend, but I have no idea how to say this to him without everything changing. Part of me says not to tell him, another says I should try.”
“Gege.” Lan Zhan tugged at his sleeve, and Lan Xichen softened at his brother's form of comfort. “That was a bit long-winded, I'm sorry. Nonetheless, no matter what I may say or do, I really do love Jiang Wanyin.”
“Gege!” Lan Zhan was more insistent, almost demanding, and as he focused more clearly on his brother, Lan Xichen saw his golden eyes were fixed not on him, but just behind his shoulder where-
Lan Xichen clambered robotically to his feet, and with jerky movements he faced the subject of his speech drowning under its own flowery metaphors: Jiang Cheng. His eyes were wide and mouth slack, and Lan Xichen wanted the earth to swallow him up.
“Wei Ying… forgot his lunchbox…”
In his annoyingly frank manner, Wei Ying pointed at Lan Xichen and cried gleefully, “Xichen-gege loves Chengcheng!”
“Oho! I knew staying behind would be worth the wait!” Nie Huaisang popped up behind Jiang Cheng's shoulder, blissfully unaware of the ticking bomb next to him.
“Be useful for once in your life,” gritted Jiang Cheng, the veins in his forehead prominent, “take the kids, and get out.”
His raised fist seemed to spark lightning, and so with a squeak Nie Huaisang put Wei Ying beneath his arm and took Lan Zhan by the hand, the other covering Wei Ying's mouth lest he yell something even more mortifying.
When the door slid shut, the silence remaining was deafening. Lan Xichen closed his eyes for a moment, inhaled, exhaled. When he opened them once more, something had settled in his chest. Yes he was falling and he didn't know where the bottom was, but in this moment, he would be willing to bear it.
Jiang Cheng had not met his eyes the entire time, and his head was bowed, casting his face into shadow. His fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, he said stiffly, “What you just said-”
“I meant every word.”
There was no change. It really was like watching the ocean, the tide inexorably swallowing the shore as Jiang Cheng stepped forward, in time to Lan Xichen's thudding heart. He stopped just in front of Lan Xichen, so he could sense the warmth of his skin.
“If you truly love me…” Lan Xichen raised his chin, prepared for any response.
“Then kiss me.”
At his confused silence, Jiang Cheng raised his head, and his eyes were now the night, scattered with stars, bathed in endless light. “I said, if you truly love me, then kiss me, idiot.”
Lan Xichen decided then that thinking was overrated. “Okay.” And he pressed his lips to Jiang Cheng's.
At first it was a chaste kiss, and yet Lan Xichen yearned for more, so he touched their lips together, again and again. His hands rose to cradle Jiang Cheng's face and there were hands in his hair, pulling them closer, bumping noses and clicking teeth. Lan Xichen laughed into Jiang Cheng's mouth, until those lips thoroughly distracted him.
He drank in Jiang Cheng's scent, his skin, the sharp planes of his face and shoulders, his little gasps and moans, so his lips parted to consume him, take him. He was giddy off Jiang Cheng, Wanyin, and oh that noise he made was delightful, he wanted more and more and-
“I didn't expect things to escalate so quickly. Sucking each other's faces off, really! There are children present!”
Lan Xichen pulled away with great difficulty, and despite Nie Huaisang perched most obnoxiously at the door, he was captivated by Jiang Cheng’s flushed skin and red lips, the affection and desire the sparks of light in his eyes.
“Gege… has his face sucked off?” That is, until he heard Lan Zhan say those words in the most dismayed tone he had ever heard, and glancing at the door, he felt justified in pushing Jiang Cheng away when he saw the tears gleaming in his golden eyes.
“No no no! A-Zhan look! See? Gege’s fine, in fact-” he glanced at Jiang Cheng, who did not seem offended at being shoved away and even had the gall to smirk, “I feel great.”
“And Nie Huaisang,” he faced the other with a terrifying grin, “please delete any pictures, otherwise I'm afraid by some unfortunate accident, Nie Mingjue will find your entire collection of doujinshi.”
“I don't know what you mean, Xichen, I really don't know!” Nevertheless, Nie Huaisang made himself absent very swiftly.
There was the brush of calloused fingertips at the back of his hand, and he entwined it tightly with Jiang Cheng’s. “I'm sorry for not telling you earlier. I could never find the right time,” he addressed Jiang Cheng, who had approached with his other hand clutching Wei Ying, the only force that seemed to be preventing an entire toddler-sized explosion.
Jiang Cheng gave him a sideways grin. “No worries. I understand, I didn't know how to confess either.” He then narrowed his eyes, and finally, Lan Xichen could fulfil his fantasy of smoothing Jiang Cheng's forehead with his own hand.
“Are you willing to go along with this?” Jiang Cheng nodded at the joined hands, and Lan Xichen answered him with a reassuring squeeze.
“This is going to change things,” he began, “I can never abandon A-Zhan and I’m still apprehensive of the future. But A-Zhan is much wiser than I really give him credit for, and for Wanyin,” he beamed and tucked a strand of hair behind Jiang Cheng's ear, caressing his cheek, “I'm willing.”
“You freaking romantic.” Jiang Cheng shook his head and chuckled, his tenor voice soft and deep. “Better check with your bodyguard first.”
Glancing down, Lan Xichen saw Lan Zhan wrapped around his leg, giving Jiang Cheng a dark glare as if he had violated his entire family, which was not entirely inaccurate, given the circumstances.
“Lan Zhan!” Of course Wei Ying was the only one to distract his brother, despite Lan Xichen murmuring reassurances that Jiang Cheng really was safe and not set out to harm him in any way, and he once more felt that pang of witnessing Lan Zhan growing up away from him.
Things change, for good. And that's okay.
“Lan Zhan, if our brothers get married, we get to spend a lot more time together!”
Uncaring for Jiang Cheng's spluttering or his brother's gasp, Lan Zhan considered the proposition, then nodded definitively. “Mn.” He then returned to his previous position of hugging Lan Xichen's leg, just perhaps not as tightly as before.
With their hands now almost welded together and two children at their sides, Lan Xichen looked at The Tree and the drawing of blobs and line, and he grinned. “We truly are the family of Wei Ying's drawing.”
Jiang Cheng followed his gaze then rolled his eyes, giving Lan Xichen a mock shove. “You moron,” he said. “You're so lucky I love you too,” and he raised his head for another kiss.