“Jiang – Jiang Cheng!”
Wei Wuxian is hollering behind him but Jiang Cheng is running, legs powering over the ground. It had been easy for Wei Wuxian to keep up when he’d been fleeing across clear ground, but now they’re entering the back hill and Jiang Cheng is using his new, much smaller size to his advantage.
He does not want Wei Wuxian to catch him.
Bad enough he’d already been caught off guard; he doesn’t like the feeling of a curse sinking through his skin at the best of times, let alone one he knows was cast by his idiot bro-
He tears right through the middle of a thick screen of bamboo, dives underneath the twigs of a brush fence, and fetches up in a small clearing surrounding a building that he half recognises.
No time for reminiscing, though – he can already hear Wei Wuxian trying to shove through the bamboo, and who knows where Lan Wangji is.
Jiang Cheng darts across the clearing, leaps onto the porch, scrabbles at the door. (Without his claws, because despite his usual behaviour, Wei Wuxian has been known to be intelligent now and then, and if he sees claw marks in the door-)
The door slides open, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t even stop to look up – darts straight through stockinged feet and into safety. (Anything is safer than being left at the tender mercy of Wei Wuxian while cursed like this.)
“Oh-” the person says as Jiang Cheng comes to a stop in the middle of the room, looking around for a place to hide in case Wei Wuxian follows him in. The voice is familiar but Jiang Cheng can also hear Wei Wuxian getting closer, and he cannot-
The door slides closed, and Jiang Cheng spots the bed, sitting next to the wall, and runs – nearly bounces off the wall as he tries to stop and turn at the same time – and wriggles into the small space between the bed and the wall.
Is he – can he be safe, here?
The sounds outside of someone struggling through bamboo cease. “Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, “I think I lost him.”
Lan Wangji (wherever he’s appeared from) says nothing, of course. A moment later, Wei Wuxian says: “Maybe we should check inside that house.”
Jiang Cheng scrunches himself smaller, because if Wei Wuxian is going to come inside he does not want-
“Brother is in seclusion,” Lan Wangji says, solemn like he always is, and – what? Brother? “It would not be right to disturb him.”
“Ah, you’re right, of course,” Wei Wuxian says. “He must have run off that way!”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t listen to them leave, because he’s too busy thinking-
(Brother is in seclusion.)
Has he just-
“Hello little one,” that familiar voice says, and Jiang Cheng squirms around, squinting one eye in the direction he’d come from-
He’s wrapped in a simple house robe over his underclothes, hair barely up, forehead ribbon slightly crooked. He’s smiling, but it’s small. Sad.
Jiang Cheng has definitely made a mistake, because he’s just gone and disturbed the seclusion of the goddamn First Jade of fucking Lan.
Crouched down at the end of the bed, one hand carefully outstretched in his direction, is Zewu-Jun himself.
Jiang Cheng stays in his self-induced ball of misery for several minutes, but he eventually feels bad for Zewu-Jun, who is still crouching with his hand out, but somewhat slumped against the back of the bed. He’s not smiling anymore, and now Jiang Cheng is really making a mess of things, isn’t he – he’s made Zewu-Jun sad. (Or at least: more sad.)
He uncurls a little, squirming back through the narrow space, and touches his nose to Zewu-Jun’s hand.
“Hello,” Zewu-Jun murmurs, keeping still. Is he trying not to startle him? “My name is Lan Huan. What’s your name?”
What the fuck, Jiang Cheng says, and it comes out as: “Mrrroooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwww.”
“That’s a lovely name,” Zewu-Jun says, and good, he’s smiling again. “Would you like to come out? I have-” he falters for a moment. “Do you like – tea?”
Jiang Cheng blinks up at Zewu-Jun for a moment, because – he’s been a cat for less than half an hour, he has no fucking idea whether or not cats can even drink tea. Who fucking knows, he says.
“Why don’t you come out,” Zewu-Jun says. “You can’t be comfortable in there.”
He retracts his hand, and Jiang Cheng squeezes out of the narrow space, and sneezes.
“Oh-!” Zewu-Jun says, and covers his mouth, but it’s too late – Jiang Cheng has just heard him giggle.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Zewu-Jun says, and when he lowers his hand, his smile is broader, more real. “That was adorable.”
Fuck off, Jiang Cheng says, because who cares what he says right now? He’s a fucking cat, because his fucking bro- because Wei Wuxian thinks he’s hilarious. Well, he won’t find it so hilarious when Jiang Cheng changes back and breaks his legs-
“Ah, my apologies,” Zewu-Jun says, and bows to him, and – what the fuck, Zewu-Jun has definitely been in seclusion for too long, treating a cat like this.
Whatever, Jiang Cheng says, and sits primly on the floor to groom the dust out of his coat.
“Please excuse me,” Zewu-Jun says a moment later, and then Jiang Cheng is-
And then hands close around him and Jiang Cheng is being lifted into the air-
He’s too startled to react, at first, and by then Zewu-Jun has him cradled in his arms, walking across the room, and he-
Actually, it’s kind of nice.
Zewu-Jun is warm, and Jiang Cheng is being held securely, and after his frantic dash across the Cloud Recesses and subsequent squashing between a bed and a wall, this is really quite comfortable.
Zewu-Jun carries him into his small kitchen, carefully puts him down on the end of the counter. (Jiang Cheng tries not to feel disappointed.) “I’ll make tea,” Zewu-Jun says, and proceeds to do just that.
When he’s finished, he starts to pick up the tray, seems to realise he won’t be able to pick up Jiang Cheng and the tea tray at the same time, and pauses.
Jiang Cheng gets to his feet, pads over to the tray, and walks up Zewu-Jun’s arm, balancing carefully on his shoulder, and butts him in the face with his nose. You’re an idiot, he says. I have legs.
“Ah,” Zewu-Jun says, and walks very slowly back into the other room.
He sits at the table, straight backed, and carefully places the tray down. He pours first into a bowl, sets the bowl on the edge of the table where Jiang Cheng can reach it if he wants.
“Wangji brought me this tea last week,” Zewu-Jun says, pouring a cup for himself. He sets the teapot down. “It’s from the north of Yunmeng. Apparently it’s supposed to be calming.”
His shoulders shift under Jiang Cheng’s paws as he lifts his cup to take a sip.
Jiang Cheng waits until he lowers his teacup, pokes him in the side of the face, again, and leaps down to the floor. Pads over to the table, rears up and plants his paws on each side of the bowl, and laps at it.
He’s drunk this tea before, before – remembers it had a delicate flavour, although he can’t speak to any calming properties. (His temper is still considered something to be feared.) He doesn’t remember it being this bitter, but perhaps that’s an effect of the curse.
He drops down from the table, cleans his whiskers with a paw.
“Don’t like the tea?” Zewu-Jun says. “I can find you something else.”
He reaches over to set his teacup down on the table, like he’s actually going to get up to find a random stray cat something else, and-
Don’t be an idiot, Jiang Cheng says, steps up onto Zewu-Jun’s legs, and curls himself up neatly right in Zewu-Jun’s empty lap.
It strikes him, a second later, what he’s just done, and Jiang Cheng has to close his eyes for a second in mortification. Clearly being cursed into a cat has made Jiang Cheng lose his fucking mind.
“Oh,” Zewu-Jun says, freezing for a moment, and then-
A hand gently touches Jiang Cheng’s back, carefully stroking along his spine. It does it again, and again, and there’s a soothing, comforting noise, and Jiang Cheng snuggles his nose into his paws, because this feels-
It takes him a minute to realise that he’s purring.
(Wei Wuxian is never going to find out about this.)
Zewu-Jun’s hand was trembling at first, but now he’s more confident, firmer strokes that start up at Jiang Cheng’s ears and go all the way to the base of his tail. Zewu-Jun is warm, and his hand feels really nice, and Jiang Cheng is going to stay here forever.
Zewu-Jun pats him for what feels like hours.
It’s almost like meditation – Jiang Cheng’s entire world falling away, none of the usual pain, none of the bitterness – just Zewu-Jun’s lap, surrounding him; Zewu-Jun’s hand, stroking through his fur; his whole body vibrating as the purr rumbles through him.
The sky has faded from blue to gold, and then to grey; Zewu-Jun has drunk his way slowly through the entire teapot, lighting candles with a flicker of spiritual energy as dusk fell.
As nice as this is, it was bound to end eventually.
“I’m sorry,” Zewu-Jun murmurs, hand slowing to rest over Jiang Cheng’s back. “I need to get up.”
I don’t want to, Jiang Cheng says, and it comes out in the most plaintive sounding noise he’s ever heard.
“Ah,” Zewu-Jun says, “I am sorry,” and he does sound truly sorry, apologising to a cat.
Fine, Jiang Cheng grumps, pushes himself up, and stretches right there in Zewu-Jun’s lap, front paws extended and back legs kicking out.
“Oh-” Zewu-Jun breathes, and Jiang Cheng yawns, and rolls up out of his stretch, stepping off Zewu-Jun’s lap back onto the floor. It’s cool under his paws, extremely substandard.
“Thank you,” Zewu-Jun says, puts the tea things all back on the tray, and carries it into the kitchen.
For lack of anything else to do, Jiang Cheng follows, leaps effortlessly up to the counter top.
“Do you like fish?” Zewu-Jun says, setting the tea things aside and stirring up the hearth fire.
I’ve only been a cat for a few hours, Jiang Cheng says. How the fuck should I know?
Zewu-Jun just hums, keeps humming as he washes rice, sets it on the stove to cook; cuts fish into strips, tossing them in oil; starts slicing vegetables. Jiang Cheng flops down on the bench, drops his head onto his paws and curls his tail around himself. (The bench is also much colder than Zewu-Jun’s lap. He doesn’t like it.)
(He likes it much better when Zewu-Jun starts frying the fish and vegetables, one hand on the chopsticks to toss things around, and the other extended to scratch behind his ears. That’s much nicer.)
Eventually everything is cooked, and Zewu-Jun fusses for a moment with bowls and chopsticks and picks up the tray.
“Oh,” he says. “Did you want to-”
I do have legs, Jiang Cheng says, and leaps off the counter to lead the way back to the other room.
Zewu-Jun puts the tray on the table, sits back down. He fills a bowl mostly with fish, a little rice and vegetables on the side, and puts it on the edge of the table.
“It’s still hot,” he says. “Please be careful,” and starts serving a bowl for himself.
Jiang Cheng pokes his nose at the food; Zewu-Jun’s right, it’s definitely too hot. Well, that’s okay – Zewu-Jun’s lap is available while he waits for the food to cool down.
He curls himself up, tucks his tail around himself, and relaxes.
After awhile, Zewu-Jun gently taps him on the head. “I think your food is cool enough now,” he says, and Jiang Cheng stretches again, pushes to his feet and goes back over. It is cool enough, and it turns out he does like fish. The vegetables and rice taste a little odd to him, but that’s okay – there’s more than enough fish to take the taste out of his mouth.
“Was that enough?” Zewu-Jun asks when he’s finished licking out the bowl, and Jiang Cheng comes back over and flops down in his lap in answer, and Zewu-Jun laughs.
(Jiang Cheng is no longer upset that he’s broken Zewu-Jun’s seclusion, because Zewu-Jun looks a lot less sad than he had before.)
When he’s finished eating, Zewu-Jun puts his bowl and chopsticks back on the tray and starts stroking Jiang Cheng’s fur again, and he snuggles down and makes himself comfortable, feeling that rumbling purr start in his chest.
(He’ll still break Wei Wuxian’s legs, but he’s reconsidering the murder, because-)
He’s no longer sorry that this happened.
Eventually, Zewu-Jun’s strokes slow. “It’s nearly nine,” he says, and Jiang Cheng grumbles, but pushes up to his feet. He supposes he can allow Zewu-Jun to go to bed.
Fine, he mutters, and allows Zewu-Jun to move.
Zewu-Jun returns the tray to the kitchen, washes the dishes and sets them out to dry; washes his face and hands from a basin; removes his forehead ribbon and starts to comb his hair.
He’s standing at his dresser, combing his hair over one shoulder, and his forehead ribbon is dangling halfway down the dresser, swaying, and Jiang Cheng feels-
He feels tense, focus settling over him like it does on a night hunt. He’s crouching before he realises it, tail lashing from side to side, creeping closer, closer-
He leaps, catching the waving end of the ribbon, and tumbles to the ground in a tangle, ribbon falling all around him. It’s much longer than he expected, and that’s great, and he’s rolling around and kicking his paws and somewhere above him Zewu-Jun is laughing again and he’s-
Something wrenches inside his chest, and there’s a flare of spiritual energy, and then he-
He feels dizzy; he’s too big and too small all at the same time. It feels almost exactly like how he’d felt when Wei Wuxian had hit him with the curse, hours ago, but reversed – then he’d felt compressed, and now he feels stretched.
He shudders, whole body trembling, and he’s gasping for air, lying on his back on the floor with Zewu-Jun’s forehead ribbon hopelessly tangled around his hands.
His – his hands, not his paws, because he’s-
“-ang Wanyin, can you hear me?” Zewu-Jun is saying, and there’s a gentle hand on his forehead, smoothing his hair away from his eyes, and Jiang Cheng gasps, blinks until his blurred vision clears.
“Zewu-Jun-” he gasps, and Zewu-Jun smiles, hair spilling over his shoulders as he leans over Jiang Cheng.
“Jiang Wanyin, I did ask you to call me Lan Huan earlier,” he says, and – what? He-
“You knew?” Jiang Cheng says, still trying to get enough air, because has Zewu-Jun known it was him all this time?
(He can feel his cheeks flush, thinking about his behaviour as a cat – climbing into Zewu-Jun’s lap alone-!)
“Ah,” Zewu-Jun says, and it’s his turn, now, to blush. “As soon as you touched my hand, I could feel your spiritual energy.”
“You didn’t-” Jiang Cheng says, and has no idea how to finish that sentence.
“I didn’t want you to run away,” Zewu-Jun says, blush deepening. “Your company has been-”
It’s his turn to trail off, and Jiang Cheng takes the opportunity to steady his breathing. Zewu-Jun turns back after a moment.
“I could see the curse,” he says. “I could – I read the sigils, I know what it-” He’s still blushing, and he closes his eyes, takes a breath. Opens them to meet Jiang Cheng’s gaze. “If you hadn’t turned back, what would you have done? Tonight?”
It’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to look away. He knows exactly what he would have done tonight, and that’s wait until Zewu-Jun had tucked himself into bed and then go and sprawl on top of him to sleep.
But he can’t say that to Zewu-Jun, that’s-
He swallows, looks at his hands, and starts trying to untangle the ribbon. He doesn’t know how he managed to get it so badly tangled.
“I,” he says. “I was going to-”
He can feel the heat in his cheeks. He can’t-
Zewu-Jun’s hand lands over his, freezing him into stillness.
“You were going to-” Zewu-Jun murmurs, and Jiang Cheng musters up every ounce of will he still possesses.
Opens his mouth-
“I was going to sleep here, with you, in your bed,” he says.
“Happiness,” Zewu-Jun says, and Jiang Cheng glances at him, confused-
Zewu-Jun is looking down at their hands, Jiang Cheng hopelessly tangled in Zewu-Jun’s ribbon, Zewu-Jun’s hand on his.
“The curse lifted when you experienced true happiness,” Zewu-Jun clarifies.
His cheeks are still red when he looks Jiang Cheng dead in the eye and says: “You still can.”
Jiang Cheng has completely lost track of this conversation. “What?”
“Sleep here, with me, in my bed,” Zewu-Jun says. “You still can.”
Jiang Cheng can only stare at him for a minute, because-
He doesn’t get to just have things, he’d only acted how he had around Zewu-Jun because Zewu-Jun hadn’t known it was him – but it turns out he had known, all along; the way he’d spoken to him like a person, the way he’d always served Jiang Cheng first, as his guest-
It’s obvious in retrospect.
And Zewu-Jun had – had treated him kindly, told him to call him Lan Huan, laughed; carried him, let him sit in his lap-
Stroked his hands through his fur again and again-
(His hands had felt good down Jiang Cheng’s spine.)
Zewu-Jun is waiting patiently for his answer, and-
Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to just have things, but maybe this time-
Maybe this time, he does.
“Lan Huan,” he says, and watches Lan Huan’s blush deepen. “I accept.”
(Later, after forehead ribbons have been untangled, and hair has been combed, and robes shed and folded-
Later, after Lan Huan has settled into bed, and Jiang Cheng has climbed in after him, awkwardly settling against him-
Later, with Lan Huan’s hand stroking gently up and down his spine (and it does feel as good as Jiang Cheng had thought it might-)
Jiang Cheng thinks about the day, about how Lan Huan had talked to him, responded to him-
“Wait-” he says, and shoves up on his elbow. “Could you understand me?”
Lan Huan blushes. “Ah, I-”
“What the fuck,” Jiang Cheng says. “Lan Huan-”
“It is a lovely name,” Lan Huan says with a completely straight face, and then they’re both laughing, and-
Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to just have things, but maybe this time, he does.)