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“Well, no one cares what you think!” Jin Zixun shouted, and Jin Zixuan flinched, already knowing that this was going to end in disaster. His older cousin – his father’s favorite of the lot – was mean at the best of times, and when he was angry, he was especially cruel. A kid like Jiang Cheng, barely nine, wouldn’t be able to deal with him. “You’ll never made anything of yourself, anyway; the best thing you’ll ever be is A-Xuan’s wife!”

That was worse, somehow, than Jin Zixuan had thought it would be. Maybe because his name was invoked – maybe because Jiang Cheng looked as though he’d been slapped in the face, his eyes filling with unshed tears, and when his fist found its way to Jin Zixun’s face a moment later, Jin Zixuan thought that it was completely deserved.

Afterwards, when they’d all split off their own ways, he went to find Jiang Cheng.

He didn’t need to, he knew, but – he’d liked Jiang Cheng, at least a little.

He was the same age as Jin Zixuan, a little boy like him, even if he was the second child and not the heir the way Jin Zixuan was. He’d been laughing about something when Jin Zixuan first saw him, something whispered to him by his older sister, a plain girl recognizable only by her Jiang sect colors, but he’d straightened up the second he’d seen them walking into the room, putting on a serious expression, and Jin Zixuan had suddenly felt an overwhelming rush of oh you have to deal with this too that he’d never felt before in his life.

All of his so-called friends thought it was great to be the son of the sect leader, but they didn’t have to go to the terrible parties and stand there being shown off to people all night; they actually complained that they didn’t get to go.

He didn’t think Jiang Cheng would complain like that.

Maybe they could be friends, he thought, hopefully. Real friends, not pretend; friends that stayed together because they liked each other and not because their parents needed a political connection –

And then, less than a shichen after they’d been ushered off to go play together by adults who had better things to be doing, Jin Zixun’d managed to ruin everything. Again.

It didn’t take long to find Jiang Cheng.

They’re in Jinlin Tower, which meant that there weren’t many places Jiang Cheng could go that Jin Zixuan couldn’t find him – not like the Lotus Pier, which was an impassable maze even in the guest quarters that they’d taken special care to try to make nice and orderly for the one time they’d tried unsuccessfully to visit – and it turned out he hadn’t gone all that far, just ducked into a nearby guest room that was tidied up even though no one used it.

Jiang Cheng was curled up next to a window, his whole body looking especially small. He wasn’t even looking out of it, but he still gave off the impression of being on the verge of jumping out, or even just that he’d be blown away by the wind.

He wasn’t actually all that small – maybe a bit short for a nine-year-old, maybe a bit more slender, but his father and mother were both tall and that meant he probably would be, too, given time.

“You shouldn’t listen to Zixun,” Jin Zixuan said, and Jiang Cheng looked at him, red-eyed. “He’s dumb. All he ever does is say mean things, and they’re never true.”

“S’true, though, isn’t it?” Jiang Cheng said. “I’m the one that has to marry in, ‘cause I’m second, not first. I’ve got to leave Lotus Pier, go to Jinlin Tower…”

Marry you. Be the official wife. Smile and bear it and host your parties while you’re off fucking someone else – multiple someones – to get kids for the inheritance. Never have children of my own, but instead be stuck raising your bastards for you…

Jiang Cheng didn’t say any of that, of course, but Jin Zixuan knew.

After all, he’d overheard his mother and her friend – former friend – fighting over it. Madame Yu wanted to break the engagement when it turned out that the girl had come first and the boy second, since her husband was refusing to flip the order and marry Jiang Yanli out instead, and his mother had refused, the lure of the Yunmeng Jiang’s power more potent than their old friendship. 

Caustic words had been said. Words he probably should have been too young to understand, words that maybe Jiang Cheng didn’t get yet, but…well.

His mother had always been very clear about all the things she hated about her life.

And now she was going to force the same life onto someone else.

“I don’t think my parents would agree to let me be the one to marry in,” he said, almost wishing he could. Sure, then he’d have to be the one living his mother’s horrible life, but at least there was something familiar about that type of suffering – he’d spent his whole life hearing about it, after all, hearing about it over and over and over again until it almost felt like he’d lived it himself. 

He thought he could bear up with living that terrible life.

He wasn’t so sure he could bear up with being the one to cause it.

Jiang Cheng snorted. “Why would you want to?” He squinted up at him. “Aren’t you going to tell me that Jinlin Tower is great and I shouldn’t worry because being your wife will be great, too, or something like that?”

“I have no idea if being my wife is great,” Jin Zixuan said blankly, out of lack of anything better to say. He probably should have said something like that. “I’ve never had one before.”

They looked at each other for a moment, and then for some reason they both started sniggering uncontrollably.

“Of course you don’t have a wife, you’re nine,” Jiang Cheng said, giggling. “Even I know that nine year olds don’t have wives! And anyway, if you did, it’d be me, wouldn’t it? It’s not like they’re just, I dunno, handing out practice wives.”

“I wish they’d hand out practice wives,” Jin Zixuan confessed, covering his eyes. “That way I could be sure I wouldn’t…you know…”

“Screw up?”

“Yeah.”

Was Jiang Cheng going to judge him? Should Jin Zixuan have kept that to himself, pretended that everything was under control…?

But Jiang Cheng was nodding. “I wish they made practice everything,” he said emphatically, and Jin Zixuan drooped in relief, coming to sit on the floor next to Jiang Cheng. He wasn’t actually allowed to sit on floors, not even clean ones, but he was also supposed to be hosting Jiang Cheng, so if anyone asked that was going to be his excuse. “It’s so hard to get things right on the first try.”

No one gets things right on the first try,” Jin Zixuan said.

“Wei Wuxian does,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Who’s he?”

“He’s my shixiong,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s – kind of complicated. His parents were friends with my dad, before they died.”

- well at least I managed to keep my husband from bringing home a bastard!

Right. That kind of complicated.

His mother always told him he had to be the most careful around bastards – that they would be smart and pretend to be nice, try to get him to like them, while in reality they’d be scheming against him in the dark, maybe even try to kill him, so they could get what he had and they didn’t. Jin Zixuan figured the same had to be true for Jiang Cheng, and he felt sorry for him.

“Well, you seem good enough to me,” he said firmly. “When you’re my wife, I’ll treat you right.”

He would, too. He wouldn’t go around with other women, wouldn’t come home smelling of them, wouldn’t rub what he was doing in Jiang Cheng’s face and laugh until Jiang Cheng lost his cool and started throwing things – of course, there was always the question of the inheritance, but maybe when he had to find himself a woman, he could try to find Jiang Cheng a woman of his own, too, someone he liked, and those children could be surnamed Jiang. 

Maybe they could find one they both liked and share.  

“I don’t know what’s so bad about being ‘just’ someone’s wife, anyway,” Jin Zixuan added. “I mean, my mom’s the scariest person I know, except maybe for your mom, and they’re both wives.”

Jiang Cheng grinned. “Yeah, that’s right. Next time that big old bully says anything, I’ll tell him to repeat that where my mom can hear it, see what he does then…uh, no offense about the bully thing. I know he’s your cousin.”

“I don’t like him either,” Jin Zixuan admitted.

“Then you’ve got good taste,” Jiang Cheng said, and Jin Zixuan preened. His first ever compliment from his wife!

“I know we’re only hanging out together because our parents said we had to,” Jin Zixuan said, suddenly feeling brave. “But maybe we could…maybe…”

“Be friends?”

He nodded.

Jiang Cheng thought about it, crinkling his nose as he did. Jin Zixuan waited patiently.

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng finally decided. “But only if you help me prank Jin Zixun to get back at him.”

“Deal!” Jin Zixuan exclaimed, then hesitated. “I’ve never pranked anyone before, though…”

“I’ll teach you!” Jiang Cheng scrambled to his feet, then stopped as if struck by a sudden thought. “Do you like dogs?”

“Dogs?” Jin Zixuan repeated blankly. “They’re well enough, I guess…you have three, right?”

He’d seen glimpses of them when he’d visited the Lotus Pier last year, when they were supposed to have first met except Jiang Cheng got sick with a stomach illness right before their visit, throwing up and everything, and Jin Zixuan’s mom had refused to let him anywhere near him.

Jiang Cheng scowled, and suddenly his eyes were welling up with tears again, causing Jin Zixuan to panic again even though he was pretty sure it wasn’t his fault this time. 

“I used to,” Jiang Cheng muttered. “But Wei Wuxian’s scared of dogs, so my father had them sent away. I was just thinking…never mind. It was stupid.”

Jin Zixuan bit his lip. It wasn’t a good sign that Jiang Cheng’s father was already favoring his bastard over his son, not at all, not when fathers had all the power in the cultivation world. Not when even his mother, proud and fierce and famous for cowing his father with thrown pottery and fits of temper, was in the end helpless to stop him – she couldn’t make him stop humiliating her, couldn’t make him stop going out and having all those bastards. She stopped him from bringing them home, but she couldn’t stop him where it mattered, because all he had to do was threaten to make one of them the heir instead of Jin Zixuan.

He wouldn’t, because he needed her maternal family’s support, but he could.

It wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair to his mother, it wasn’t fair to Jin Zixuan, and it wasn’t fair to Jiang Cheng, either. And it especially wasn’t fair that he was already being replaced – and just when Jin Zixuan was starting to feel better about the marriage, too!

The whole arranged marriage deal didn’t seem so bad if it was going to be with Jiang Cheng, who seemed pretty nice. Jin Zixuan didn’t want to have to start all over again with another boy, especially not a bastard.

“If you know where they are, you could send your dogs here to live with me,” Jin Zixuan suggested, feeling suddenly spontaneous in a way he almost never did, and Jiang Cheng turned to him with wide eyes. “That way you’d have a reason to come visit a lot, and your father could see that we were getting along.”

It would remind Sect Leader Jiang that their marriage could be broken by either side at any time, if they were unhappy – show him that they were committed, that they wouldn’t accept inferior goods in Lanling. Maybe it could help convince him to keep Jiang Cheng and his mother instead of swapping them out.

“I was just thinking I could introduce you, but that’s even better!” Jiang Cheng exclaimed, looking excited. “You’re serious?”

“Sure,” Jin Zixuan said. He had an entire palace of his own back in Jinlin Tower, full of rooms he never used meant to host as guests all the friends he didn’t have. They could put the dogs in some of those, hire someone to take care of them – feed them, walk them, brush them, whatever needed to be done for dogs. If there was one thing Jinlin Tower didn’t lack, it was servants to do things. “But you have to come visit them. Without bringing Wei Wuxian.”

That way, even if this Wei Wuxian person used his bastard tricks to pull the wool over Jiang Cheng’s eyes to make him think that they were friends even as he stole away Jiang Cheng’s birthright in secret - Jin Zixuan’s mother had warned him - there’d still be a way to show how important it was to keep Jiang Cheng as the legitimate son. They might have just met, but it was pretty clear to Jin Zixuan already that Jiang Cheng was way too friendly and nice to know how to properly guard himself – someone would have to do the work for him.

And who else, if not his husband?

“Don’t worry about Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said. “He won’t go anywhere if he thinks there’ll be dogs. You’ll really do it?”

“I’ll talk to my parents,” Jin Zixuan promised – he was only nine, there were limits to what he could actually do – but Jiang Cheng seemed to think that was enough. He smiled at him, and Jin Zixuan smiled back.

Maybe this could work out.