They land just outside Lotus Pier in the small hours of the morning.
Jiang Cheng had sent word earlier in the day that he would be returning late, so the disciples at the gate are expecting him despite the hour. They bow, welcoming him back with quiet voices, and open the door to let him and his guest through. Lan Huan is unrecognisable, shapeless with the heavy cloak bundled around him, hood drawn deep over his face, but Jiang Cheng is pleased nonetheless that the disciples’ gazes don’t linger.
Jiang Zhao is waiting in the courtyard. He bows as Jiang Cheng crosses the threshold, falls in a step behind his shoulder.
“Sect Leader, everything has been arranged as you instructed,” he says quietly as Jiang Cheng leads Lan Huan onto the walkways, deeper into Lotus Pier. “Tea and refreshments have been prepared.”
Jiang Cheng nods. “Jiang Feng?”
“Will lead the morning training and then report to you in your office,” Jiang Zhao says. “Written reports have already been prepared and are on your desk for review.”
“Any major concerns?” Jiang Cheng says, opening a gate for Lan Huan and ushering him through; they’re leaving the main areas of Lotus Pier behind, and entering the private family wing.
“No, Sect Leader,” Jiang Zhao says. “Everything has been very quiet. No reports of disturbances from any of our territories or allied minor clans.”
“Good,” Jiang Cheng says, and slows as they turn the corner. His room is ahead, but he’s not sure exactly which of the two adjacent rooms has been prepared for Lan Huan.
“This way, Sect Leader, honoured guest,” Jiang Zhao says, ever observant, and quickly hurries ahead to slide open the furthest door.
It’s the room that would usually be intended for the Sect Leader’s wife or cultivation partner; there’s a connecting door between the two rooms, and they both back onto a large private garden. Jiang Cheng is pretty sure there’s a set of drawers in front of the connecting door on his side; he glances at Jiang Zhao, sees the man give a nod. All right then.
Lan Huan has stepped into the room; Jiang Cheng hesitates on the threshold. “Lan Huan,” he says, and Lan Huan turns; Jiang Cheng nods at him, and he lifts his hands, slowly lowers his hood. “Jiang Zhao is my third in command,” he says. “You’ll meet Jiang Feng tomorrow, he’s my second. If I am unavailable for any reason, they will assist you with anything you need.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jiang Zhao bends into a low bow. “Welcome to Lotus Pier, Zewu-Jun,” he says.
It’s very late; Jiang Cheng starts unpacking while Lan Huan slumps at the table, slowly sipping tea.
It had taken three days to pack up Lan Huan’s belongings, but only because they’d gone through the entire hanshi in the process, sorting the bookshelves and papers and cleaning everything as they’d passed. In the end, Lan Huan hadn’t wanted to bring much with him – clothes of course, a few books, his favourite tea; some papers and inks and brushes.
(Jiang Cheng had found Shuoyue in a corner with Liebing, next to his guqin, still wrapped in protective cloth. They’d all been dusty, clearly unused, and he’d slipped them into a qiankun pouch when Lan Huan hadn’t been paying attention.)
Unpacking is far faster; Lan Huan is half asleep in his second cup of tea when Jiang Cheng puts the last book on the shelves.
“Come to bed,” Jiang Cheng says. “You can look around in the morning.”
Lan Huan finishes his tea in one long swallow, rises to his feet, only slightly wobbling.
Jiang Cheng takes his hand, draws him over to the dresser; presses him down to sit and starts taking out his hair. “This is your room,” he says. “My room is just through there-” he nods to the door visible in the reflection, “-which you may also enter at any time. I thought we would,” he falters for a second, but Lan Huan has come to Yunmeng with him. He shouldn’t second guess this. “-sleep in there, and this can be your space to use as you wish.”
“Thank you, Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Huan says, and then has to stop as he breaks into a face splitting yawn. “Oh, excuse me.”
Jiang Cheng snorts, sets the hair piece on the dresser, and starts untying Lan Huan’s forehead ribbon. “It’s two in the morning,” he says. “If you think you’re getting up in three hours, I regret to advise, you are very much mistaken.”
Lan Huan smiles. “Is that so?”
Jiang Cheng sets the forehead ribbon on the dresser, picks up the comb; meets his eyes in the mirror, and smiles in return. “It is.”
After two weeks, they fall into a routine.
They sleep, tangled together in Jiang Cheng’s bed; they take turns soothing each other from their nightmares. Lan Huan learns how to sleep past five (or at least, does such a passable impression that Jiang Cheng can’t tell the difference), and slowly, gradually, the dark circles begin to ease from his face.
Jiang Cheng still helps Lan Huan dress, does his hair and ties his ribbon; but Lan Huan has been practising his braiding, and now insists on doing Jiang Cheng’s hair in turn. (It feels nicer than Jiang Cheng cares to admit, the teeth of the comb scratching gently across his scalp, Lan Huan’s fingers warm in his hair as he sets in the braids, pins up his top knot.)
They have breakfast together in Lan Huan’s room, where one of the household staff will have already left a tray. (It’s normally just congee and tea, but given that prior to Lan Huan’s arrival at Lotus Pier Jiang Cheng would often skip breakfast entirely, it’s more than he’s eaten in years.)
Jiang Cheng attends the morning training of his disciples; he goes to his office and runs his sect, reports and meetings and letters. Lan Huan has the run of their rooms, and the garden; Jiang Cheng returns there for lunch, instead of eating in his office like he used to, and it’s nice, to talk to someone who understands the problems he’s dealing with, even if he hasn’t yet managed to coax Lan Huan into dropping the no talking rule to answer back.
(Jiang Cheng has found Lan Huan in a variety of places when he’s returned to their rooms for lunch. Initially, he’d been inside, at the table, occasionally drinking tea but always staring into space; lately, though, he’s found him further afield. He hasn’t touched his inks and papers yet, but just yesterday Jiang Cheng had found him out in the garden, lying spreadeagled in a patch of sunlight with his eyes closed, a faint smile on his face.)
Their afternoons proceed much the same as the mornings, Jiang Cheng seeing to sect business and Lan Huan occupying himself; and then instead of eating in his office and working until his eyes strain against the candlelight, he eats dinner with Lan Huan, and they spend the rest of their evening together.
(He hasn’t quite managed to spend every evening together: he’s had to return to his office to finish urgent reports twice so far, and on another occasion he accompanied his disciples on a night hunt. Lan Huan took the first with grace, and both times Jiang Cheng was back within a few hours, well before their usual bed time. When he returned from his night hunt, though, he found Lan Huan, clothes dishevelled and with his hair still up, sitting at the table with his head pillowed on his arms, like he’d been waiting for Jiang Cheng and simply fallen asleep where he sat. Jiang Cheng had carried him carefully to bed.)
Lan Huan starts drooping as it approaches nine, and they prepare for bed together. Jiang Cheng has learned that Lan Huan can manage bathing himself if the bath is drawn for him, so Jiang Cheng does that while Lan Huan ties up his hair. Lan Huan bathes while Jiang Cheng sets out fresh inner robes for them both; Jiang Cheng bathes while Lan Huan is drying off and dressing. (The bath is behind a screen; they have yet to see each other naked. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how he feels about that possibility – Lan Huan came to Yunmeng with him, Jiang Cheng touches his forehead ribbon on a daily basis – but when he thinks about Lan Huan naked, he feels-)
(Lan Huan is recovering. It doesn’t matter how he feels.)
After their bath, sometimes Lan Huan has enough energy left to take out and comb his own hair; sometimes Jiang Cheng presses him to sit and does it for him. Even if Lan Huan is the one holding the comb, he always asks Jiang Cheng to untie his forehead ribbon. (And every time he asks, Jiang Cheng feels-) Jiang Cheng takes care of his own hair, and then they settle into bed together.
If Lan Huan has had a bad day, he wants to be held; Jiang Cheng has become used to pressing tight to Lan Huan’s back, arms wrapped around him and legs entwined – or sometimes facing each other, Lan Huan’s face pressed into his neck, Jiang Cheng’s hands soothing along his spine.
(The time he returned late from a night hunt, he’d fallen asleep curled carefully around Lan Huan, and woken with their positions reversed; Lan Huan clutching him tight, one hand over his heart. He’s become used to holding Lan Huan, but to wake caged by Lan Huan’s arms, cradled in the curve of Lan Huan’s body, he’d felt-)
(Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to just have things, but this, what he has with Lan Huan – he wants, desperately, to keep.)
He’s become accustomed to their quiet intimacy – sharing meals, the gentle touches, the occasional kiss on a forehead after a nightmare. It no longer feels awkward – it’s nice, and having Lan Huan’s company, well, that’s nice too.
And then, one evening, Lan Huan asks him to meditate.
They’re at the table, drinking tea side by side; Jiang Cheng has just set down his tea cup, is reaching for the pot to pour another-
“Would you meditate with me?” Lan Huan says, and Jiang Cheng stills with his hand outstretched, because Lan Huan sounds-
He retracts his arm, eases back onto his cushion, glances to the side; Lan Huan is looking down at his tea cup, turning it around and around in his hands. He’s nervous, and Jiang Cheng can’t think of why.
(They’ve meditated together twice since Lan Huan arrived in Yunmeng. It’s never been Jiang Cheng’s favourite thing to do, but even he can admit that sitting next to Lan Huan, knees and hands brushing warm against each other, listening to his steady breaths – it’s the calmest he’s felt while meditating in a long time.)
Jiang Cheng reaches over, gently eases Lan Huan’s cup out of his grasp, sets it on the table; takes Lan Huan’s hands in his own.
“What are you really trying to ask?” Jiang Cheng says. “Because we meditated together earlier this week and you weren’t this nervous about it.”
Lan Huan’s fingers squeeze against his own, and then he lifts his head, meets his eyes.
Takes a breath.
“I want to meditate with you as my cultivation partner,” Lan Huan says. “It’s – different to normal meditation.”
“Different how?” Jiang Cheng asks, because he knows the sorts of things cultivation partners can be involved in and he doesn’t really know how meditation fits in, but trust the Lan to come up with a way to-
He can feel a flush start across his cheeks. Has Lan Huan just asked him to-
“Not like that,” Lan Huan says, and he’s smiling now.
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says, flat, and Lan Huan’s smile widens.
“I don’t think I will,” he says, and then his eyes cut away, and his smile droops, and whatever this is, he’s really-
“Lan Huan,” Jiang Cheng says, as gently as he can. Waits for Lan Huan to look up at him. “Just tell me,” he says. “What does it involve?”
Lan Huan’s hands squeeze tight on his fingers. “Instead of meditating as two separate beings, we would meditate together as one,” he says. “Cycling spiritual energy together through our meridians-” he pauses; continues, softer: “-learning the feel of each other’s golden cores.”
Jiang Cheng blinks, feels his hands spasm against Lan Huan’s; breathes-
Hears, as though from underwater, Lan Huan’s voice: “Jiang Wanyin, are you – Wanyin-”
He breathes in; feels the thrum of energy in his golden core, lets himself sink into the feeling of the spiritual energy that flows through his body – lets the emotions wash over him. It’s not the core he formed himself, but Lan Huan was there, at the temple; Lan Huan already knows. Jiang Cheng has no reason to feel shame, or fear.
He breathes out, opens eyes he hadn’t realised had fallen closed.
“I’m all right,” he says, and Lan Huan heaves out a sigh of relief.
“Please, forget about it,” he says, face tight with worry, and Jiang Cheng shakes his head.
“You want to share one of your traditions with me,” he says. “I would be honoured to meditate with you as your cultivation partner.”
“Are you sure?” Lan Huan says, not quite over the top of him – he’s clearly still worried if he’s nearly breaking Gusu Lan rules. “I thought it might be a difficult subject – I shouldn’t have-”
“Lan Huan,” Jiang Cheng says, squeezing his hands, and waits for Lan Huan to meet his eyes. “Lan Huan,” he says, gentler, “you already know.” And in any other company, he wouldn’t admit this at all, but this is his – his Lan Huan. Here, he can be vulnerable. “I don’t need to be afraid with you.”
The faintest edge of a smile breaks through the worry, the lines on Lan Huan’s brow easing. “Thank you for your trust, Jiang Wanyin,” he says.
Jiang Cheng smiles back, slowly releases Lan Huan’s hands. “How is this meditation performed?” he asks.
Lan Huan arranges them facing each other, seated as they would normally but with knees touching, hands clasped, two fingers on each wrist. Jiang Cheng breathes, tries to clear his mind; closes his eyes and reaches for that quiet calm he has when he’s with Lan Huan, just the two of them, breathing together-
“Pass me spiritual energy, and follow,” Lan Huan murmurs, and Jiang Cheng initiates an energy transfer, a thin stream passing from his fingers and into Lan Huan’s wrist, and he can feel-
Lan Huan accepts the energy, guiding it through his meridians, into his lower dantian, and then Jiang Cheng is spinning with Lan Huan’s golden core, vast potential banked, burning at low ebb. Somewhere far away he breathes in, fingers pressing into Lan Huan’s skin.
“Your core-,” he says, and Lan Huan hums.
“For a long time, I didn’t think I would ever recover,” he murmurs. “And then there was you, and every day it burns a little brighter.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to say to that, to the naked emotion in Lan Huan’s voice, grateful and hopeful and something else he doesn’t know what to name – something that feels like the warm intimacy of their evening embraces, something he wants to hold onto until he can name it, and then beyond. (Something he wants to keep.)
“You’re here,” he says, and Lan Huan hums.
“I’m here, with you,” Lan Huan says, and then his spiritual energy rises, and-
Jiang Cheng’s energy spins with Lan Huan’s golden core, sharp purple spark of breath before the storm softening into the pale blue warmth of early morning sunshine, and then they spin away from his core back into the meridians, flowing through Lan Huan’s body and back down his arm, into their hands-
Jiang Cheng has a moment to brace himself and then they’re in his meridians, and it’s second nature to flow the energy through his body like he’s done countless times before, into his lower dantian to spin around his core-
With an observer, everything feels new, like he’s seeing it for the first time; the way his core spins, slightly off centre; the faint line scored against the edge of his lower dantian that matches a cleanly healed thin white scar on his skin, just under his navel, the only visible evidence of the core transfer; a shadow across the outside edge of his core-
Jiang Cheng’s next breath comes too fast, out of rhythm with Lan Huan, because there’s a shadow on the outside edge of his core-
“Jiang Wanyin-” Lan Huan murmurs, and even through the panic rising to choke him Jiang Cheng can hear how his voice is carefully gentle.
“I don’t know-” Jiang Cheng says. Somewhere his body is trembling, but Jiang Cheng is focused, reaching for all the spiritual energy he has, purple spark and blue warmth melding together as he spins around his golden core, ready to scour away the shadow that’s marring what is his-
The energy spins, fast, faster, and pours into the shadow, a flash flood ready to destroy anything in its path-
In the back of his mind, something snaps-
There’s a wrench from inside his chest, and the spiritual energy pouring into the shadow flares, and-
(Somewhere, someone is crying out. Somewhere, someone else is calling-)
His head spins; he’s too big and too small at the same time, everything he is compressed-
(It all feels horribly familiar, and then the world just falls away-)
There are hands on his body and Jiang Cheng bolts upright, hissing, tail lashing as he shakes off the touch, ready to bite and claw-
He realises several things in quick succession-
There’s a familiar scent in his nostrils, a familiar texture of the robes under his paws – it’s Lan Huan, and he relaxes all at once, because Lan Huan is allowed to touch him-
His body aches, limbs trembling and struggling to hold his weight-
He is, once again, a fucking cat.
For a moment, he just gives up; lets himself collapse into a heap of limbs and tail in what can only be Lan Huan’s lap.
“Jiang Wanyin?” Lan Huan says from above him. “Can you hear me?”
Jiang Cheng can hear him, but he thinks he would have preferred to be unconscious, because he hasn’t even been cursed and once again, he’s a fucking cat. He lets out an inarticulate yowling screech, and when that doesn’t make him feel any better, breaks off into cursing instead. “Fucking fucking fuck-”
Lan Huan sighs above him, relieved, body relaxing under Jiang Cheng’s collapsed sprawl. “There you are.”
“How the fuck did this happen?” Jiang Cheng snarls, claws flexing in and out of their sheaths. He’d really like to kill something right about now – he can feel the anger boiling through him, because this time there wasn’t a curse and how is he going to turn back-
There’s a static snap, and Lan Huan jerks under him, and-
Jiang Cheng shoots back upright, lifts his paw; watches as the purple lighting crackling over his leg dies down to nothing. “Did I just-”
Lan Huan’s hand eases past him slowly, like he’s trying not to startle him – rubs at his thigh through his robes, where Jiang Cheng’s front paws had been; where he’s clearly just hit him, somehow, with some measure of Zidian’s power. “You definitely did,” he says, but not unkindly.
“Sorry,” Jiang Cheng says (and it comes out sounding pathetic, fuck-), lets the exhaustion in his body collapse him back into a heap of mortification. “I didn’t know I could even use spiritual energy like this!” he complains.
“You couldn’t last time,” Lan Huan offers. His hand lifts from his leg, settles carefully onto the back of Jiang Cheng’s head; after a moment, starts those long, firm strokes along his spine that feel so good. “There’s no curse this time, so those restrictions are gone.”
“There wasn’t any resentful energy,” Jiang Cheng says, and he can feel the rumble start low in his chest – fuck, he’s purring already.
“A shadow, but no malignant energy,” Lan Huan muses. “It’s unlikely to be a curse mark, but if you’ll permit I can take another look, to make sure.”
Jiang Cheng lifts his front paws, lets Lan Huan’s other hand slide underneath, fingers pressed to his legs, where his wrists would be, if he were human. It’s – weird, like this, feeling a trickle of Lan Huan’s spiritual energy slide into his meridians; his qi is flowing exactly as it should, core spinning reassuringly in his lower dantian, it’s just his shape that’s wrong.
Lan Huan hums. “It’s definitely not a curse mark,” he says after a few minutes. “It is a mark of some kind, but it doesn’t appear to be harmful.”
“It turned me into a cat!” Jiang Cheng squawks, and Lan Huan huffs a laugh at the noise that makes.
“And you’re a very handsome cat,” he says, scritching behind Jiang Cheng’s ears before his next stroke, and Jiang Cheng is too busy being distracted by how good that feels to freak out about Lan Huan calling him handsome. (Anyway, he called the cat handsome, it doesn’t mean anything. Jiang Cheng doesn’t need to panic over absolutely nothing.)
Lan Huan doesn’t say anything else for a minute, the quiet of the room broken only by the whisper of Lan Huan’s hand stroking over Jiang Cheng’s fur, and Jiang Cheng’s low rumbling purr.
“There haven’t been any ill effects since the curse was broken,” Lan Huan says eventually, “and it only turned you into a cat after you struck at it with spiritual energy.” His spiritual energy is still seeping into Jiang Cheng’s meridians; curls, warm and familiar, around his core. “I think it’s – an echo, perhaps, of the curse.”
“What the fuck does that mean,” Jiang Cheng grumbles.
Lan Huan hums for a moment. “The curse has left a mark, but not a curse mark. It’s an echo of the transformation it forced on you, not an echo of the curse itself.”
“My core remembers how to turn me into a cat?” Jiang Cheng splutters. He doesn’t want to believe it, but he currently has four paws and a tail, so what he wants doesn’t fucking matter, does it.
“Apparently so,” Lan Huan says. “But you did go night hunting last week without ill effects, so we know it should only happen when directly triggered.”
“Maybe if it didn’t hurt so fucking much,” Jiang Cheng mutters, and Lan Huan’s hand stills on his fur, and that won’t do at all. “No, keep going-”
Lan Huan’s hand starts moving again, and Jiang Cheng relaxes under it. The aches in his body are finally starting to ease, a combination of Lan Huan’s warmth surrounding him and the spiritual energy cycling through his body.
“Perhaps it might be a matter of practise?” Lan Huan says after another moment. “Or taking it slower, now that you know the shadow isn’t harmful.”
“Maybe,” Jiang Cheng says. “But will it turn me back?”
(It’s a relief to still be able to access his spiritual energy, but he can’t lead his sect like this – can’t perform his duties with paws instead of hands, can’t lead his disciples when no-one but Lan Huan is able to understand him. As nice as it is to be cradled in a soft lap and stroked by firm hands, he already knows he can have those soft touches when he’s human, too. He can’t-)
(He can’t help Lan Huan like this-)
“Very likely,” Lan Huan says. “It would have been initially scored when the curse struck, and reinforced when it was broken; I suspect it will act like a lever, facilitating the transformation in either direction depending on which form you are in at the time.”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, reaches for his core; grasps his spiritual energy, pours it carefully into the shadow-
Hears Lan Huan, voice urgent: “Jiang Wanyin-!”
Feels that wrench in his chest-
(It hurts less, but it still hurts-)
And then he’s shaking, gasping as his limbs tremble uncontrollably, body sprawled uncomfortably across Lan Huan’s lap-
Lan Huan’s arms curl under him, and the world spins sickeningly around him as he’s lifted-
He’s placed onto soft sheets, head on a pillow – he’s in the bed, Lan Huan has carried him – and then Lan Huan slides in next to him, rolls him a little-
He’s still shuddering, but now he’s also cradled in Lan Huan’s arms, held tight against his body; a sense memory from night after night of nightmares, warm and comforting. The shudders gradually ease, swept away by Lan Huan’s hand, soothing up and down his back; his breathing slows, and then it’s just him, and Lan Huan, curled together in their bed like they are every night.
“Feeling better?” Lan Huan murmurs, and presses a kiss to Jiang Cheng’s forehead.
Jiang Cheng hums, nuzzles in closer, face pressing into the curve of Lan Huan’s neck; breathes into his skin, and kisses him softly in return.
Lan Huan huffs a little laugh. “I’ll assume that’s a yes,” he says.
Jiang Cheng smiles into his neck; kisses him again. “Always better with you,” he mumbles. “My Lan Huan.”
Jiang Cheng wakes once, in the middle of the night. Lan Huan is still wrapped around him, pressed tight to his back with their legs intertwined, one arm curving around his waist, hand dangling loosely against his stomach.
After two spiritual transformations in quick succession, he’d been exhausted, barely clinging to consciousness; Lan Huan had had to roll him back and forth on the bed to wrestle his robes off him. He remembers complaining about being dizzy, smiling as Lan Huan laughs softly above him; remembers Lan Huan’s fingers careful against his head as they pull pins from his hair, let down his top knot.
Remembers Lan Huan carefully brushing the hair back from his face, leaning in to kiss his forehead, his nose-
Remembers the lightest touch on his lips, warm and soft-
Remembers Lan Huan’s voice, a quiet whisper heavy with emotion: “Goodnight Jiang Wanyin, my A-Cheng-”
Lan Huan had-
He touches a hand to his mouth, fingers pressing against his lips, where Lan Huan had-
Lan Huan had kissed him.
Lan Huan had kissed him and then called him-
Jiang Cheng knows that Lan Huan means it when he asks Jiang Cheng to tie on his forehead ribbon; that Lan Huan came to Yunmeng with him for a reason beyond simply escaping the Cloud Recesses; that Lan Huan already considers them cultivation partners, even though they have no official arrangement. But there was always a part of him – the part that watched his family leave him one by one, the part that knew he was never good enough, always second best – that wondered when he would realise that Jiang Cheng wasn’t worth it; that wondered when Lan Huan would inevitably leave.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to just have things. But to hear his name in Lan Huan’s voice, said with affection, with-
To hear Lan Huan claiming him as his-
(Lan Huan is still recovering, but Jiang Cheng feels-)
(Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to just have things, but maybe this time-)
They’ve chosen each other. Lan Huan isn’t going to leave. And maybe this time-
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, leans back into the warm embrace of his cultivation partner, his Lan Huan. In the morning, he will wake in the arms of the man he thinks he might be beginning to love; that morning, and the next, and the next, on and on into the future.
(Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to just have things; but this, he’ll fight for – this, he’ll keep.)