Jiang Cheng sat on the private deck adjoining his bedroom and looked out over the water. On the bigger deck to his left, Jin Ling and his friends were relaxing after an exhausting day swimming, fishing, stealing lotus pods and napping. Jiang Cheng snorted, but in truth, they’d all had a busy summer and his nephew and his friends had worked hard. They deserved some down-time.
Jiang Cheng, however, couldn’t afford it. He pulled his feet out of the water and stood, stepping into his slippers just inside the door, and then made his way through his bedroom and into the main house and along to his office. A couple of hours to tidy up some loose ends, and he could properly relax for the evening – if the boys let him. Jin Ling ran his own business now, and was doing a damn fine job of it, but for two weeks every summer he came here, and this year he’d brought three friends. Jiang Cheng hadn’t really thought about it before agreeing, and now they were here he wasn’t sure how happy he was with it, but there was no denying they livened up his big, empty family home. Almost as if it had family in it.
He was just wrapping up for the day – it was Saturday, after all – when he got an email from Hanguang-Jun. His stomach tightened just at the sight of the name, and didn’t get any less tense when he read the contents – it was from Jiang Cheng’s idiot, still-mostly-estranged brother, inviting him to a surprise birthday party for Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng cursed, quietly but with deep feeling, then forwarded the email to Wei Wuxian’s actual email account with a simple, “he’s going to see everyone reply, you fucking idiot”. Followed, five minutes later, with the vague promise to check his diary.
Distantly, he heard Jin Ling shout something and a burst of excited babble. He’d counted to fourteen when reluctant footsteps padded along the corridor towards him.
‘Ah. So you’re his sacrificial lamb this time, are you?’ Jiang Cheng asked when Lan Jingyi knocked hesitantly at the door. ‘How’d you lose?’
‘Floor is lava,’ Jingyi muttered. Without missing a beat, Jiang Cheng drew his feet up off the floor onto his seat; his chair spun gently halfway around, and by the time he’d flailed back to face the door, Lan Jingyi was gaping.
‘And that’s why you lost,’ he said.
‘He waited until I was in the middle of the deck before saying anything, Lan Jingyi protested. ‘He did it on purpose.’
‘Excuses are for people without sufficient motivation, Lao-Lan,’ Jiang Cheng said and it took the younger man a good three seconds to work out he was joking.
‘I brought you a beer,’ he said. ‘Xiao-Ling thought it might make the news a bit easier to bear.’
Jiang Cheng put his feet down and reached across the desk; Lan Jingyi crossed the room to give him the drink. ‘What news?’
Lan Jingyi paused with his own drink halfway to his lips. ‘What? Why’d you call me a sacrificial lamb if you don’t know?’
‘I presumed A-Ling has broken something, stolen something, dropped something in the lake, or otherwise caused my life to be a tiny bit more unbearable.’
Lan Jingyi paused, then grinned. ‘Well, now that you mention it, there’s a six-pack lost somewhere under the deck. But that’s not actually it.’ Jiang Cheng sipped very slowly, his eyes not leaving Lan Jingyi’s face. Of course he was going to make him say it. ‘Wei-xiong has invited everyone to a surprise party for Hanguang-jun in two months and you’re on the list. Xiao-Ling will be going, and obviously, well, obviously we’ll be there, me and A-Yuan, and Zizhen-di too. So he, he thought he’d let you know in case you hadn’t seen the email.’
The words came out in a rush and he actually flinched, as if anticipating the famous Jiang temper.
‘I see. Thank you for telling me – on his behalf.’ Jiang Cheng swallowed a little more beer and Lan Jingyi shuffled his feet and then turned to go. Jiang Cheng waited until he was halfway along the corridor. ‘Hey, Lao-Lan?’ he shouted. ‘Floor is lava.’
There was a muffled curse and then a bout of cheers from the main deck. Mouth twitching, Jiang Cheng checked his email, snorted at the panic-stricken reply from Wei Wuxian and the frantic ‘message recall’ notification from Hanguang-jun’s account, and shut down his computer.
He left the boys – gods, he really shouldn’t call them that, but they were all so young, even Lan Jingyi – playing some idiot video game in the lounge and wandered onto the deck to watch the sun go down. He had another beer in hand and a mild headache from the amount of noise four almost adults seemed capable of producing as they screamed incomprehensible orders at each other involving words like ‘triangle, triangle you idiot!’ and other nonsense. But the wind was cool, stealing the last of the sting from the day’s heat, and the lake was placid and pink under the dying sun. The same shade of pink jiejie had loved so much.
Jiang Cheng’s free hand rubbed absently at the centre of his chest, trying to ease the ache of old grief. He wandered to the edge and recalled Lan Jingyi’s words. He checked the sky again. Yeah, it was probably light enough and he hadn’t really started his second drink.
Jiang Cheng stripped off his shirt and checked the pockets of his swim shorts, then kicked off his slippers and dived into the lake. The shock of the cool sent a ripple down his back, but he swam beneath the pier and started looking for the six-pack. It was a lot darker under here, colder too, and he had to surface three times for air before he just caught the glint of metal and snagged the cans before his breath ran out again.
He reached the side of the deck, put the cans on it, and then pushed himself out of the water to find Lan Jingyi sitting on one of the loungers. He frowned. ‘Not playing?’
‘Nah, I’m shit at that one and your nephew is a very poor winner. And shidi – you may not believe this, Da-ge, but A-Yuan is fucking ruthless. I haven’t got a chance.’
‘Well, your shidi was raised by those two, wasn’t he? Whatever their faults, a lack of ambition isn’t among them. I can and do believe it.’
Lan Jingyi passed him a towel. ‘You were down there a long time.’ Jiang Cheng nudged the beers with his toe. ‘Xiao-Ling said you’d get them. Said it was any excuse for you to show off how long you can hold your breath.’
Jiang Cheng snorted and scrubbed the towel through his hair. ‘That tells you an awful lot about A-Ling, not me. There’s more than enough room to breathe under the deck; when he was little – well, littler – I told him I told him I could hold my breath for five minutes and I think he still believes me.’
He sat in the next lounger over with the towel around his neck and his reclaimed beer in hand. ‘How is my brother?’ he asked casually.
Lan Jingyi was silent for a while. ‘Loud. Brash. Annoyingly competent. Really … quite devoted to Hanguang-jun and A-Yuan and xiao-Ling, when he can get away with it. He talks about here a lot. About when he was young. You and, and Jiang Yanli.’
‘Mn. And what does the venerable Hanguang-jun have to say about the stabbing incident?’
Lan Jingyi looked confused. ‘Stabbing?’
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know? How when Wei Wuxian first waltzed back into our lives with all the decorum of a fart in an elevator, A-Ling stabbed him with a meat skewer?’ Lan Jingyi sprayed beer across the deck, and across Jiang Cheng’s feet. Jiang Cheng glared and then grinned. ‘Gods, I’ve never been so proud of the boy as I was that day.’
‘It’s … there’s … no, they’ve never mentioned it. Not once. Fucking hell,’ he added. ‘And he was, what, fifteen?’
‘Hanguang-jun was all for calling the police, and A-Ling was threatening to go to the fucking electric chair if he didn’t take Wei Wuxian away because he was gonna carve him up, but I guess in the end my brother convinced him not to press charges.’
Lan Jingyi whistled and then held up his beer. ‘To the sulkiest little psychopath I know,’ he said, and Jiang Cheng clinked their bottles together. ‘So, will you go? To the party?’
‘I’ll go to keep an eye on A-Ling,’ Jiang Cheng said a little stiffly. ‘They get on better these days, but that doesn’t mean I’d trust the pair of them at an event where alcohol’s going to be flowing.’
‘I’ll make sure there are no meat skewers nearby.’
Jiang Cheng grinned. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘make sure there are. Several. I haven’t stabbed him since we were much younger. It’s my turn.’
Lan Jingyi made a show of holding up his hands. ‘Look, just let me live and I promise I’ll never breathe a word about you and xiao-Ling being assassins, alright? You’re secret’s safe with me. Just don’t tie weights to my ankles and drop me in the middle of the lake, I’m begging you. I’ll do anything.’
‘Can you make Wei Wuxian’s life a living hell?’ he asked.
‘Nobody can do that,’ Lan Jingyi said fervently. ‘Believe me, I’ve tried. That man is made of elastic, the way he bounces back.’
‘Fucking tell me about it,’ Jiang Cheng muttered, souring. ‘I’d settle for shocking him speechless. Just once.’
‘Hey, Yi-ge, you playing or what?’ A-Ling bellowed from the lounge, his voice unnecessarily loud. Much like his dress sense.
‘You carry on, the adults are talking,’ Lan Jingyi shouted back and Jiang Cheng snorted. There was an explosion of derision and a cheerfully-hurled cushion that he saved from the water by sticking out his foot.
‘Floor is lava,’ A-Ling screeched as Lan Jingyi got up to get himself another beer and he cursed and leapt for his lounger, knocking it over and then tumbling over it in his haste. Lotus Pier echoed with laughter.
‘Very mature,’ Jiang Cheng said as Lan Jingyi’s head appeared over the upturned furniture.
He scowled. ‘Says the man perched on a chair,’ he pointed out and Jiang Cheng smirked and lowered his feet back to the deck.
‘You’re really not very good at this.’
‘This may surprise you, Da-ge, but the Lan family doesn’t play a lot of games.’
‘I am astounded,’ he said gravely. ‘You have blown my tiny fucking mind. Lan Sizhui, on the other hand, appears more than capable.’
‘Lan Sizhui,’ he said in scathing tones as he snagged himself and Jiang Cheng fresh drinks and then righted his lounger, ‘lives with Wei-xiong.’ He inspected a barked shin and muttered something about little bastards.
‘He also lives with Hanguang-jun,’ he pointed out, feeling this was rather pertinent.
‘Who can deny your brother nothing. And has never once learnt how to control him.’
Jiang Cheng felt a very uncomfortable moment of kinship with the eternally reserved Lan Wangji. He shuddered and drank beer to wash away the taste.
It was nearing midnight when he finally left them. He fixed Lan Sizhui with a glare before he went. ‘You’re not the oldest, but I think you’re the most sensible. Do not let them swim drunk. Do not make me explain your corpses to the Lan. If we even find your corpses before the water ghouls eat them.’
Ouyang Zizhen cast an uneasy glance at the black water, and though A-Ling nudged him and shook his head, he stayed satisfyingly quiet. Which had been his aim.
‘I won’t, shushu,’ he said and Jiang Cheng blinked, suddenly flustered. He managed a final glare and slunk away.
Jiang Cheng was drinking orange juice in the kitchen when Lan Jingyi wandered in, bleary-eyed. He looked at his watch. ‘Some of that famous Lan discipline sliding? It’s seven AM.’ He slid coffee and juice across the counter.
‘A-Yuan’s meditating, of course. The other two are either snoring or attempting to saw through the floorboards in their rooms, I’m not sure. I’m just … existing.’
‘That bad, huh?’
Lan Jingyi perched himself on a stool and drank juice, groaning. ‘It’s not even the late hour or the beer. They’re just so loud. Even A-Yuan.’
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together but couldn’t prevent the snort of laughter. ‘Gods alive, you’re too young to be this old.’
‘So are you,’ he said and Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow. ‘Look at you. It’s seven in the morning on a Sunday and you’re up. Why are you up? You’re not a Lan with our ridiculous internal alarm clocks.’
‘Because running a business is a full-time job.’
‘Mm, and yet xiao-Ling is taking two weeks off.’
‘And spending them here. With all of you. While I attempt to run a business.’ Unexpectedly, Lan Jingyi looked embarrassed and Jiang Cheng sighed and finished his juice. ‘Don’t worry about it, kid. I said you could all stay; I meant it. Right, I’m going for a swim.’
He took a glass of tepid water and drank it slowly as he changed into his swim shorts and then walked onto the deck to stretch his shoulders and back.
‘Mind if I join you?’
Jiang Cheng glanced sidelong at him. ‘You a strong swimmer?’
Lao-Lan nodded. ‘There’s not a lot of opportunities in Cloud Recesses, but I’ve got good stamina.’ He paused. ‘Why, how far are you swimming?’ He stared out across the expanse of the lake, wide-eyed.
Lan Jingyi gulped. ‘Wow, that’s … a long way.’
Jiang Cheng turned to face him. ‘I’m happy to swim with you, but you have to turn back when you get tired, alright? I mean it. It’s deep.’
‘And there are water ghouls, apparently.’ He grinned. ‘I promise. Despite what Hanguang-jun and Lan Qiren think, I’m not actually reckless.’ He hesitated. ‘Mostly not reckless. Not when it’s really important, anyway.’
‘Lao-Lan, this is really important.’ Jiang Cheng injected as much gravity into his voice as he could. ‘It’s a lake. There are no life guards. You cannot touch the bottom with your tippy-toes.’
They cleaved the water together and the cold shock kicked Jiang Cheng’s lingering braincells into gear. He set off through the lotuses and into open water, cataloguing the emails he needed to write and idly wondering what the fuck he could buy Lan Wangji for his birthday. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to have a couple of Lans here whose brains he could pick.
The sun was doing nothing to warm the water this early, but the exertion heated his blood and he revelled in the long push and pull of his muscles working out the kinks of sleeping and combating the loose posture of someone who spent most of every day at a computer. There was a bright gold flash beneath him as a carp flicked away from his approach and he followed it with his eyes until he had to come up to breathe. And then he heard it.
‘Jiang-xiong? Uh, Jiang Cheng? Fuck, fuck, ow. Da-ge!’
Jiang Cheng stopped and turned, breathing hard. Lan Jingyi was thirty strokes or so behind him, waving, pain creasing his face. ‘Cramp!’ he yelled and Jiang Cheng swore and started swimming back to him, pouring everything he had into speed because the man was panicking and panicked swimmers were sinking swimmers.
Lan Jingyi was actually going under when he got to him and hauled him up into his arms. ‘I’ve got you, deep breaths, okay? Deep breaths.’ He was panting himself, adrenaline and exertion clawing at his lungs. ‘Where’s the cramp?’
‘Left hamstring. Ah!’
‘Alright, lie on your back. Come on, I’ve got you.’ Jiang Cheng trod water and kept his hand under Lan Jingyi’s shoulder-blades as he gingerly lay back in the water. Then he slid sideways and put the man’s left leg over his shoulder, grabbed him under the arms and pulled him close, forcing a stretch into the back of his thigh.
Lan Jingyi groaned and then blushed scarlet as his other leg slipped around Jiang Cheng’s waist. He started to scrabble it free.
‘Don’t. It’s easier to tread water if I’m not worried about kneeing you in the balls. Just concentrate on the cramp. Is it easing?’
‘A bit,’ he croaked, his eyes screwed shut. Jiang Cheng hauled him closer, arms bulging as he locked his hands around the man’s back. Fucking Lans and their flexibility. Lan Jingyi’s chest pressed against his own thigh and he dropped his head onto Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, panting through the pain as his fingers clawed at his shoulders.
Jiang Cheng was gasping by the time the cramp faded and he let Lan Jingyi go; treading water for them both was hard work. ‘Take it slow and switch up your strokes on the way back, alright? Let’s go.’
He cramped a second time when they were almost back to the pier, and when they finally reached the deck, Lan Sizhui was there looking concerned. He helped Lao-Lan onto the deck, then offered a hand to Jiang Cheng, who didn’t even glare as he took it. He was a little shaken himself, being honest. They’d really been quite a long way out. If he hadn’t heard him call…
Jiang Cheng blew out a deep breath and then knelt next to a collapsed Lan Jingyi. ‘You did well,’ he murmured as he pressed him back to the planks and began massaging the back of his leg. ‘Lot of guys would have tried to swim through it rather than ask for help.’
Lan Jingyi whimpered as Jiang Cheng’s thumb found the knot in the muscle. ‘Lot of guys are morons,’ he managed and then yelped when he increased the pressure, leaning his weight through his thumb until the knot popped and relaxed. ‘Ow ow ow ow!’
Jiang Cheng applied firm pressure down the length of his thigh and calf, six long strokes, and then let go. ‘Rehydrate and then get some gentle movement in it, do a few stretches. Okay, Lao-Lan?’
Lan Jingyi raised his forefinger in acknowledgment, looking as if he had no intentions of moving, possibly ever. Lan Sizhui came out with a glass of warm water for him and Jiang Cheng nodded his thanks and put it down by the man’s head. Sizhui-di paused at the door and then looked back and said, ‘Oh, A-Yi?’
‘Floor is lava.’
Lan Jingyi’s curse was choked off in a wheeze when Jiang Cheng stood on him.
‘So, uh, thanks, Jiang-xiong. Really, thank you. I was pretty sure I was going to drown.’ Lan Jingyi hovered in the doorway to Jiang Cheng’s office, looking sheepish. ‘And … sorry for ruining your swim.’
‘I think my heartrate remained consistently high enough for it to still count as a workout,’ he said dryly. ‘But honestly, don’t worry. You didn’t drown, I don’t have to explain your bloated corpse to Hanguang-jun in the run up to his birthday, and I’m sure you have learnt a valuable lesson regarding proper hydration before exercise. And you can come in, you know. You don’t need to wait in the doorway like a modest young woman.’
Lao-Lan edged in and perched in the chair opposite. ‘Still, I’d like to thank you properly.’ Jiang Cheng arched an eyebrow and he blushed again, almost as red as he’d been in the water with his crotch pressed to Jiang Cheng’s stomach. Which … he was not thinking about. At all. ‘I think I might have come up with a way to render Wei-xiong speechless. If you’re game?’
Jiang Cheng slid his laptop closed and leant his elbows on the desk, fixing him with his undivided attention. ‘Lao-Lan, I am all ears.’
‘It’s going to require Hanguang-jun’s assistance.’
‘I am no longer all ears.’
‘And I can almost definitely guarantee he’ll go for it.’
Jiang Cheng paused. ‘I am, perhaps, half-ears.’
Lan Jingyi laughed. ‘This will definitely surprise you, but Hanguang-jun does occasionally take the piss out of Wei-xiong. And when he does, said Wei-xiong has literally no idea how to handle it. So, if we can get the two of you working together, it’s a sure-fire win. The shock of you instigating something that Hanguang-jun goes along with? Gold.’ He put his head on side and gave a frankly evil grin he had no rights to possess as a Lan. ‘Ears?’
‘Mostly ears. Alright, convince me.’
Lowering his voice and scooting forwards on his chair, Lan Jingyi did just that. ‘I can get Xichen-ge on side easy,’ Lan Jingyi said when he’d finished. ‘He’ll get the rest of the Lans on board and -’
‘Even Lan Qiren?’ Jiang Cheng interrupted.
Lan Jingyi laughed. ‘A chance to get one over on Wei-xiong? Yes. Besides, we’ll make sure he’s already comfortable when it goes down so he doesn’t have to do much. There’s no way Hanguang-jun doesn’t know about this surprise party, so it’s the perfect opportunity for him to get a little vengeance on his husband for foisting it on him in the first place.’
‘Gods, you could be a Jiang, the way your mind works,’ Jiang Cheng said and Lao-Lan blushed again. ‘Alright, so we’ll get the three idiots on the deck to agree, and Wei Wuxian has…’ he opened his laptop and read the email again. ‘Yes, he’s just copied everyone in openly, as you do, because it’s not as if someone might want to keep their email address private, is it? On the other hand, it at least gives us the full guest list. So. You take the Lans, like you said, I’ll take the Nies, Jin Ling his lot, and we’ll split the rest according to who knows them best.’
He glanced up and Lan Jingyi was staring at him, eyes dancing with excitement and his cheeks pink. ‘I just wish it was Hanguang-jun we were pranking,’ he said.
Jiang Cheng blew out his cheeks. ‘Awfully bold of you, kid,’ he said. ‘Let’s get my idiot brother first, yes? We’d need a bigger boat for that particular fish.’
‘Hanguang-jun. Happy birthday.’ Jiang Cheng handed over the gift and Lan Wangji removed the box’s lid with a perfectly sculpted expression of polite enthusiasm. An expression that cracked and then slid into something much more genuine when he revealed the jade ornament nestled in tissue paper. It was carved in the shape of a lotus, but each petal had been decorated with the characteristic flowing lines common to the Cloud Recesses’ insignia.
‘It’s truly beautiful,’ Lan Wangji said. ‘Thank you.’
Jiang Cheng nodded. ‘You and my brother and your son are welcome at Lotus Pier anytime,’ he said gruffly.
‘I … thank you,’ he said again and then leant in a little closer. ‘I was thinking – the presentation of the birthday cake?’
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. ‘Eye-catching and perverse, Hanguang-jun. I am here for it.’ The corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth curved just the slightest, and then he bowed and slipped away as Wei Wuxian bounced up.
‘What do you think? Great party, huh?’
‘How long did it take him to work it out?’
Wei Wuxian assumed a patently false expression of haughty disdain. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ He snagged two champagne flutes from a passing waiter and passed one to Jiang Cheng. ‘Man didn’t have a clue until -’
Lan Sizhui appeared at his elbow. ‘Baba, lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. Hello again, shushu, and to answer your question, apparently about three seconds, according to Lan Qiren.’
‘A-Yuan! How could you betray me, I who bore you with my own body?’
‘Enjoy the party, shushu. Baba, the caterers want to know what time to bring out the cake.’ He gave Jiang Cheng the tiniest look with those words.
‘Eight on the dot,’ Wei Wuxian said immediately. Lan Sizhui endured a cheek-pinch from Wei Wuxian without the least sign of embarrassment, bowed slightly to Jiang Cheng, and slid away through the crowd.
Wei Wuxian grinned after him. ‘Such a good boy. That reminds me, I hear the ravening hordes stayed at yours for a couple of weeks? How was it?’
Jiang Cheng winced. ‘Loud and messy. Lan Jingyi nearly drowned, your son has a ruthless streak a mile wide when it comes to videogames, and I successfully convinced Ouyang Zizhen the lake’s infested with water ghouls. A-Ling resorted to throwing him in until he got over it. Which was unexpectedly entertaining.’
Wei Wuxian’s grin was brighter than his crimson shirt. ‘Sounds like fun.’ There was a curl of wistfulness to his voice.
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath. He’d already extended the invitation once, but saying something to Lan Wangji would count for nothing if he couldn’t also say it to his brother. ‘Your old bedroom’s still there, you know.’
Wei Wuxian paused. ‘Eh?’
‘If you ever wanted to use it.’ Jiang Cheng stared into his champagne flute and then sipped, nearly choking as Wei Wuxian slung an arm around his shoulders.
The barb had already leapt to his tongue when the arm was removed and his brother took a step sideways. ‘That’s … very generous of you,’ Wei Wuxian said quietly. ‘Very generous. I’d like that a lot.’ Jiang Cheng eyed him, uncomfortable. ‘And of course I won’t be offended if the offer is rescinded at any time. Oh, is that someone calling me?’ And he was gone.
‘That looked awkward.’
Jiang Cheng leapt about a mile in the air. ‘Fucking hell, Jingyi,’ he hissed, pressing his hand to his heart and then realising his shirt was wet with spilt champagne.
Lan Jingyi laughed and grabbed a napkin off the buffet table and blotted the worst of the wet out of Jiang Cheng’s shirt while he dried his hands. ‘He swims, he does the high jump, he rescues drowning maidens. Is there no limit to your talents, Jiang Wanyin?’
He glowered, but it bounced off his sunny smile as if it was armour. ‘Eight o’clock, when the cake comes out,’ he said and blinked when Lan Jingyi winked at him.
‘Got it. Zizhen-di is going to be filming the whole thing. Eight, did you say?’ He looked at his watch and gave a happy little squeak. ‘Twenty minutes. Oh, this is gonna be awesome.’
Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but smile at his enthusiasm. ‘Thanks for your help.’
‘Are you kidding me? Pranking Wei-fucking-xiong in the actual Cloud Recesses? With Lan Qiren’s participation? You have made every one of my dreams come true, Da-ge. I should probably just propose to you now before I lose my nerve.’
Jiang Cheng blushed. ‘Don’t be absurd. As if I’d marry a Lan.’
Lan Jingyi gasped, his hands flying to his chest. ‘You fiend,’ he said breathlessly. ‘You stole my heart and have trampled it beneath your uncaring feet. How will I ever find love again? Why did you ever rescue me from the water ghouls?’
‘I really have no fucking idea,’ Jiang Cheng muttered and accepted a new flute, downing half its contents in one go.
Lan Jingyi held the damp napkin to his face and pretended to sob. Then he stopped. Sniffed. ‘Oh, but I can smell my truest love on the cotton. I will never wash it, I will sleep with it beneath my pillow, the cologne will -’
‘We have a serious fucking problem.’
‘Oh, thank the gods,’ Jiang Cheng said and turned away. ‘What?’
Jin Ling threw up his hands. ‘Wei-jiujiu is insisting on carrying out the cake himself.’
Lan Jingyi clung to Jiang Cheng’s arm, teasing forgotten. ‘Abort,’ he hissed. ‘Abort, abort. I don’t care if Hanguang-jun is in on this, he’ll be furious if the cake gets damaged.’ Jiang Cheng frowned at him. ‘Wasting food is not permitted!’
‘No,’ he said instead. ‘It’ll be fine.’ He looked at them both. ‘Just be ready.’ Jin Ling grinned and bounced away, either unconcerned with cake-wasting or confident Jiang Cheng could handle it. Jiang Cheng hoped it was the latter. He and Lan Jingyi began to drift through the crowd, closer to Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian was hanging from his husband’s arm and regaling the gaggle around them with some ridiculous story; he gave Jiang Cheng a distracted smile as he caught his eye, and Jiang Cheng tapped his watch with a finger. He nodded, and within seconds had disengaged from the audience and hurried away.
Hanguang-Jun wandered into the area that had been cleared for dancing. Jiang Cheng stood with Lan Jingyi nearby. The latter was vibrating with excitement, his eyes wide as his gaze switched from Hanguang-jun to Jiang Cheng. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Ssh, it’ll be fine, kid. Just be ready.’
And then the lights and music dimmed and the space opened up around Lan Wangji as Wei Wuxian came in holding a cake covered in candles and singing badly at the top of his voice. The guests joined in as he came to a stop in front of his husband. ‘Happy birthday to my beautiful, kind, talented, perfect -’ he began.
‘Shameless,’ Hanguang-jun said, and there was scattered laughter.
‘No interrupting in the Cloud Recesses,’ Wei Wuxian crowed. Lan Wangji smiled fondly and Jiang Cheng was struck by the width of his brother’s smile and the genuine joy in his face. It tugged at the old wound in his heart and he refused to let himself acknowledge it. ‘Come on, blow out the candles before my face melts off!’
‘I can’t,’ Hanguang-jun said loudly, and Jiang Cheng stepped forward, squeezing Lan Jingyi’s shoulder as he passed.
Hanguang-jun pointed with his chin behind Wei Wuxian. ‘Because of him.’
And Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and bellowed. ‘Floor is lava!’
Wei Wuxian spun so fast the cake flew out of his hands. Jiang Cheng snagged it from the air, leapt sideways and up onto the chair Lan Jingyi was on. They wobbled, and the younger man’s arms went around his waist to steady him. When Jiang Cheng looked around, Hanguang-jun was standing on a fucking table and Lan Qiren was sitting in a chair with his legs in the air. The only person still standing – on the floor – was Wei Wuxian.
And there it was. Wei-fucking-Wuxian, mouth open, eyes bugging out of his head, speechless. Jiang Cheng drank in the sight and then looked over his head to Lan Wangji. His brother-in-law was smiling, the broadest smile he’d ever seen on that closed face. He nodded once to Jiang Cheng, and then Wei Wuxian caught sight of Lan Qiren and dropped to his knees and put his head in his hands as if the sight had blown his tiny fucking mind.
It had done much the same to Lan Jingyi if the choking noises behind Jiang Cheng were any indication. ‘That … look at … he’s … fuck, if Zizhen hasn’t got this I will shove his phone so far up his arse he’ll be able to photograph his tonsils.’
Jiang Cheng laughed and stepped carefully down. Some of the candles were actually still lit. He and Hanguang-jun approached Wei Wuxian from opposite directions as everyone climbed down off the furniture, laughing and cheering. There was a lot of flash photography and he hoped it was all of Wei Wuxian looking utterly nonplussed.
Hanguang-jun dragged his husband to his feet and brushed him down. ‘There, there,’ he said in a voice utterly devoid of sympathy. ‘I’m sure you’ll get over it in time for my next birthday.’
‘Never,’ Wei Wuxian said mournfully. ‘I will never overcome this shame. Never have I been treated so harshly by my one true love and my one true – false! – brother.’ He shook his head and his eyes grew impossibly big. He seized Lan Wangji by the lapels. ‘Lan Qiren, A-Zhan. Did you see? Lan Qiren!’ He looked like he might actually cry.
‘Please blow out your candles, Hanguang-jun,’ Jiang Cheng said, holding out the cake.
He did so, and gave Jiang Cheng another small smile. ‘Thank you. I have had a marvellous evening.’ Wei Wuxian wailed. And then, because it turned out he had more mischief in him than Jiang Cheng had ever suspected, he took the cake, kissed his husband’s cheek, and said: ‘it was all his and Jingyi’s idea.’
The look Wei Wuxian gave Jiang Cheng made him flashback to when he was twelve. He held up his hands. ‘Don’t,’ he started. ‘We’re in public,’ but his brother was already lunging for him and he reacted on instinct, spinning and darting off through the crowd, hearing Wei Wuxian’s gremlin scream of vengeance behind him.
It was utterly juvenile and ridiculously unprofessional, but even worse was the fact Jiang Cheng didn’t know the Cloud Recesses very well and Wei Wuxian fucking lived here. He’d end up getting himself cornered and then –
A hand snagged his arm as he sprinted past a shadowed alcove that turned out to be a cloakroom and he let himself be pulled in. He heard Wei Wuxian run past and started to laugh, and then the hand on his wrist slid up to his neck and a body pressed to his and a mouth to his mouth, swallowing his laughter and his surprised gasp. He froze under the kiss for an instant as it seared through every braincell and every nerve-ending in his body, setting them all on fire, and then pulled away. ‘Jingyi?’
Lan Jingyi grinned and kissed him again before he could even begin to form more words, his hands and lips insistent, the long, strong heat of his body pressed close, shoving him back through the coats to the wall. He grunted as his back hit plaster and somehow that made his hands come up to Lan Jingyi’s waist, who let out a little moan and opened his mouth and what the actual fuck is going on and why is this boy such a good kisser and oh gods he tastes of vanilla.
'What are you -' he managed.
'Why?' he tried a moment later and then moaned, startled but needy, as Jingyi pulled their hips together.
'To make you do that,' he mumbled against his mouth, 'and because I've wanted to for months,' and then kissed him again.
Jiang Cheng’s brain stopped functioning at the word "months". So this probably wasn't just a drunken fumble. He hoped. Gods, he hoped. He dragged Jingyi – A-Yi – closer, crushing him to his chest and swallowing the noises he made, remembering how he’d looked in shorts, remembering the feel of his thigh over his shoulder and oh fuck I should not have thought about that, have a little decorum, but gods I want to see him like that again, legs on my shoulders and –
‘Ah ha! I knew – aaah!’
The lights flicked on in the cloakroom and Wei Wuxian stood there, one hand still raised in triumph but frozen, a look of unmitigated horror twisting his features. His mouth opened and closed several times and then he just … backed away, turning off the light as he went.
A-Yi was rigid in Jiang Cheng’s arms, apart from his shaking shoulders. ‘Hey,’ he whispered, his mind hazy with far too many feelings and surprises and joys, ‘hey, don’t worry, I’ll go and talk to him. Shh, don’t cry.’ And then he heard it – the jagged hoots of laughter Jingyi was muffling into Jiang Cheng’s neck.
Jiang Cheng leant his head back against the wall and wrapped A-Yi tighter in his arms and joined him, laughing until his sides hurt, until A-Yi was suddenly kissing the side of his neck and he didn’t have the breath or capacity for laughter anymore. Or speech. Or any thought other than vanilla, and A-Yi, and more.