Jiang Cheng is night hunting when he first meets him.
It's not the first time, of course; that was years ago, at the Cloud Recesses – back when Jiang Cheng was fifteen and young and stupid, back when Wei Wuxian was-
Jiang Cheng had met Lan Xichen then, of course; the admired First Jade of Lan had welcomed each student personally, had been calm and composed – seemed perfectly comfortable taking up the mantle of his family responsibilities even though he was only a few years their senior.
Jiang Cheng remembers the way Lan Xichen had smiled with genuine warmth as he sincerely welcomed him to the Cloud Recesses – enquired about his health and his family with completely unfeigned interest, wished him the best for his year of study-
They were never close; Lan Xichen had acted as something of a teaching assistant for his uncle, even as he stepped effortlessly into the public face of leading his sect. Jiang Cheng had gone to him several times with questions, when he didn't quite understand the work; felt comfortable asking Lan Xichen in private questions he didn't want to ask aloud in front of the other students – but there was always some distance, there: Lan Xichen was his senior, and a teacher.
They haven't had much cause to speak, since; Jiang Cheng has his own responsibilities now, his own sect to run, and Lan Xichen his. There have been official meetings, of course, discussion conferences and negotiations – but nothing really personal.
Jiang Cheng skids down the alley on his back, tucking his chin to his chest to keep his head clear as his leather jacket scrapes unpleasantly over the asphalt. He hadn't intended to be night hunting today – he's not in his proper robes, woven and embroidered with characters for protection, spiritual energy imbued into the fabric. His leather jacket only has the most basic of protections, a narrow strip of embroidery sewn into the lining down his spine, and Jiang Cheng is regretting that decision now – depending on how bad the damage is, the whole jacket might be a loss.
He kicks his feet up as he slows, legs flipping over his head as he tucks into a backwards somersault. His feet touch the ground and he's lashing out with Zidian even as his head comes up; he can feel the ghost, way too close for comfort, and there's an unearthly screech as the whip connects, ghost shattering into fragments only to reform slightly further away.
The boy had been desperate, when he'd stumbled out of the alley and nearly run face first into Jiang Cheng; had marked him immediately as a cultivator even though he was in civilian clothes (Sandu was a big giveaway – civilians didn't carry swords) and begged for his help.
So now Jiang Cheng is in an alley, his leather jacket might be ruined, and this fucking ghost just won't die-
And then the gentle tones of a xiao ring clear through the darkness.
It's only just louder than Jiang Cheng's own ragged breathing, but it's enough for Jiang Cheng to hear the notes, to identify the music after a single measure – it's musical cultivation, a song of rest and sealing from Gusu Lan.
Jiang Cheng rises from his crouch as the spiritual energy imbued in the music takes hold of the ghost; he can see it, a net of hair-thin strands closing around it, trapping it in place-
There's not too much power in the song; just enough to hold the ghost for a moment-
Just enough for Jiang Cheng to strike.
Sandu flashes once in the darkness, and the ghost dissipates – and Jiang Cheng can feel, this time, the energy properly dispersing: this time, the ghost is gone.
He sheaths Sandu, turns to thank the Gusu Lan cultivator for the assist, and there in the mouth of the alley, silhouetted in the neon lights of the street-
It's Lan Xichen.
He's in civilian clothes too, lowering Liebing from his lips, Shuoyue hanging from his hip. Jiang Cheng closes the distance between them, brushing himself off, and stops as Lan Xichen-
As Lan Xichen smiles.
Lan Xichen smiling is not unusual – Lan Xichen smiles all the time. But this smile-
This smile is different.
Jiang Cheng has never been close to Lan Xichen, but he's well versed with the way the other man smiles – gentle, yes; welcoming, friendly, always sincere – but never familiar.
Lan Xichen smiles now, at Jiang Cheng, and his whole face lights up. He smiles at Jiang Cheng with none of his usual polite distance; he smiles like Jiang Cheng is his entire world, and his eyes-
Jiang Cheng blinks, blinks again, and then Lan Xichen gives a tiny minute shake, and blinks himself-
And then it's almost back to normal: friendly politeness, tinged with a touch of – maybe sadness?
"Sect Leader Jiang," Lan Xichen says, something odd in his tone, and Jiang Cheng nods in acknowledgement.
He has no idea what just happened.
"Zewu-Jun," he says. "Thank you for the assist."
"Ah, please don't mention it," Lan Xichen says, spinning Liebing back into his sleeve. Now that Jiang Cheng is closer to him, he can see Lan Xichen isn't quite wearing civilian clothes after all – the cut is from modern fashions, but the fabrics are definitely woven with spiritual energy, so heavily imbued Jiang Cheng is surprised they're not glowing.
"Does Gusu Lan have business with Yunmeng Jiang?" Jiang Cheng asks. It's a little abrupt, perhaps, but it's late, he's tired, and his favourite jacket might be ruined – he's not in the mood for a long conversation.
"I was just passing by," Lan Xichen says, and steps to the side of the alley, to let Jiang Cheng pass, if he chooses.
Jiang Cheng nods. "Very well," he says. And then, because he wasn't raised to be impolite: "I'll take my leave."
Lan Xichen nods, and Jiang Cheng goes past, steps into the neon lights of the street.
It's almost too soft to hear over the traffic, and Jiang Cheng isn't sure he's supposed to have heard it at all. But just as he turns onto the street, he hears from behind him-
"Take care, A-Cheng."
It takes effort not to pause at the informality, but nothing about this encounter has made sense from the very beginning.
He has no idea what just happened – but he knows what he saw, what he heard.
And that's the first time Jiang Cheng meets that Lan Xichen.
He doesn't see him again for two weeks.
Oh, he sees Lan Xichen – has Jiang Feng find some excuse for a business meeting, some trivial detail that's nonetheless important enough to be discussed in person. They meet at a private room in a local tea house; Lan Xichen is in a suit with only the faintest trace of spiritual energy – probably an embroidered lining, much like Jiang Cheng's own.
Jiang Cheng watches him while they sip their tea and speak of business matters. Lan Xichen is polite and friendly as always, nothing like how he'd been in the alley. His smiles are gentle, but not intimate, and he certainly doesn't look at Jiang Cheng like-
(Jiang Cheng isn't ready to really think about the way Lan Xichen in the alley had looked at him.)
"Thank you again," Jiang Cheng says as they get up to leave, and Lan Xichen cocks his head, confusion on his face.
"For meeting you?" he says, and smiles, polite. (Only polite.) "It was no trouble to arrange some time in my schedule."
Lan Xichen clearly has no idea; which means that-
It's been theorised, of course; studied, discussed, and ultimately concluded impossible – or at least, not worth the incredible risk and extreme personal danger to anyone attempting it.
Lan Xichen – the Lan Xichen in the alley – had looked at Jiang Cheng like-
(Jiang Cheng had thought, after everything, that he wouldn't ever-)
He has suppositions only; he doesn't have proof.
He spends the next week attending to sect matters; minor and moderate incidences are on the rise, a surge of resentful energy across all of the territory that Yunmeng Jiang is responsible for.
All of his senior disciples, himself included, are running ragged; Jiang Cheng himself is now three days without sleep, which probably explains why he's currently plummeting head first down the side of a building.
In retrospect, it probably wasn't a good idea to chase the ghost across an ice-slick rooftop.
He's trying to squint against the wind, reaching for Sandu, and then-
Strong arms curl around him as his fall is abruptly slowed; a hand cradling his head in an effort to prevent whiplash.
Somehow, he knows what he'll see even before he opens his eyes.
It's Lan Xichen, of course; he's in the same clothes he was wearing in the alley, the ones almost bursting with spiritual energy, and he's looking down at Jiang Cheng like Jiang Cheng is-
"Are you all right?" Lan Xichen is saying, and he sounds far less composed than Jiang Cheng would have otherwise expected, far more worried, and Jiang Cheng-
It's perhaps more blunt than he should be, but honestly, does Lan Xichen think he's stupid?
"What was going to happen?" Jiang Cheng says. "In the reality where you didn't catch me?" and in retrospect maybe he should have waited to ask his question until they weren't in midair-
He clutches at Lan Xichen's lapels as the arms around him suddenly slacken, and gives him a shake even as he's sliding.
"Lan Xichen," he says, sharp, and watches embarrassment chase the panic off Lan Xichen's face as he tightens his arms and hefts him back up.
"Ah, my apologies," Lan Xichen says, cheeks pink, and guides them to land on the nearest roof that doesn't look too icy. "Here."
Jiang Cheng might be imaging the way Lan Xichen's arms slide away from him a little reluctantly; he's definitely not imagining the way Lan Xichen's eyes dilate as Jiang Cheng stays standing right up against him, smooths out the creases his fingers have left in his lapels.
"Lan Xichen," Jiang Cheng says, low – and this close he can hear the noise it makes when Lan Xichen swallows. "What was going to happen?"
"Sect Leader Jiang," Lan Xichen says, and he sounds calm, but the panic is back in his face – Jiang Cheng can almost see the thoughts whirling, because those of Gusu Lan don't lie but they sure do stretch the truth on occasion.
Jiang Cheng presses his fingers into Lan Xichen's chest, leans in a little more, and watches those thoughts scatter into nothing as Lan Xichen hitches a breath-
"Lan Xichen," he murmurs, lets a smirk curl up the corner of his mouth. "Don't try and lie to me – I already know."
Lan Xichen's eyes drag up from his lips with what looks like genuine effort. "Already know what?" he says, and he's barely breathing-
"You're not the Zewu-Jun from my reality," Jiang Cheng murmurs, and there it is: a minute flinch in Lan Xichen's expression, accompanied by an absolute lack of denials.
He straightens abruptly, takes a half step back and pats Lan Xichen's lapels one last time before crossing his arms – watches Lan Xichen blink and blink like he's shaking off the effects of a curse. Wherever Lan Xichen is from – whenever he's from – they're something to each other. But Jiang Cheng is three days without sleep and tired of whatever shit is affecting Yunmeng Jiang on a broader scale – and if Lan Xichen is here, if Lan Xichen is interfering-
Something is going on, and Jiang Cheng intends to find out what.
He waits until Lan Xichen's eyes focus, waits until he has his full attention; lets his expression fade from smirk to serious. This is business, now, and his more personal interest in the details can wait.
"Now," Jiang Cheng says, "tell me what happened."
Lan Xichen leads him to a tiny apartment.
There was no question about returning to Lotus Pier; this isn't the right Lan Xichen, and Jiang Cheng can't risk his disciples catching a glimpse of him and making a mess of things.
Lan Xichen's apartment is perched on the top of a run down apartment building; there's barely room for the both of them to land on the balcony. They sheath their swords, and Lan Xichen raises a hand and touches a finger against a ward that blooms visible in a rush of blue, makes a hand seal to lower it just enough to allow them passage.
The balcony door sticks a little in its tracks; Jiang Cheng sidles through and glances around. There's nothing of interest except for how little there is: a mattress and blankets against one wall, a kettle and battered tea set on the kitchen counter. It makes sense; Lan Xichen can't afford to have his presence known, to leave evidence – he's likely practising inedia, and carrying everything on him in qiankun pouches.
"Please, sit," Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng sits at the low table and watches Lan Xichen prepare tea.
His hands are steady, sure, as they move through the motions of pouring and discarding, and by the time he's carrying the tea set over to the table, he looks a lot more settled.
He sinks down opposite Jiang Cheng, pulls Liebing from his sleeve and casts a silencing charm. Jiang Cheng can feel the difference, now, between the spiritual energy of Zewu-Jun and this Lan Xichen; his spiritual energy is heavier, somehow, less like early morning sunshine and more like the bruised kind of light that heralds a storm.
Lan Xichen pours the tea and slides him a cup. "What would you like to know?" he says.
Jiang Cheng lifts his cup and sips; the tea set might be cracked and worn, but the tea is good quality, a delicate jasmine flavour that's really quite soothing.
He takes another sip, sets the cup down on the table. He knows Lan Xichen is from some version of the future; not necessarily the future that will be but a future that might be. Lan Xichen's presence here, just as Yunmeng Jiang territory is inundated with moderate level incidences, can't be a coincidence; Jiang Cheng had been working toward a conclusion that the current disturbances were both deliberate and targeted, and the fact that Lan Xichen is here, now, can only be further proof toward that.
What he doesn't know is why – why now, why Yunmeng Jiang, why him-
Doesn't know why – or who.
"What are you trying to prevent?" Jiang Cheng asks, and Lan Xichen's hand tightens on his cup.
"War," he says simply, and it's Jiang Cheng's turn to flinch, because he thought the war was behind them; thought that with the destruction of the Wen they might finally be assured a time of peace.
He's not blind, though, to the power struggles between the remaining clans; to the machinations always churning under the surface. (To the whispers, about the remnants of the Wen, about Wei Wuxian-)
"Why now?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Why not earlier?"
The Sunshot Campaign had cost so many lives; Jiang Cheng had lost his parents and very nearly his entire sect, but that wasn't unique: every cultivator had lost someone. If Lan Xichen was going to intervene somewhere, surely there-
"I'm afraid my options were limited," Lan Xichen says, shaking his head. "The spiritual energy required to power the array was vast; in the end, it was only because I felt so strongly about this time that I made it here at all."
Jiang Cheng takes another sip of tea. He might not like the answer, but he has to know-
"Why now? What do you feel so strongly about?"
And Lan Xichen sets down his cup, meets his eyes-
"You," he says.
It sounds so simple, when he says it: you, so straightforward, like Jiang Cheng could be worth-
Lan Xichen has come from a future that might be, done something that everyone agrees is impossible – surely he couldn't have come just for Jiang Cheng.
"What happened?" Jiang Cheng asks, because there has to be something-
Lan Xichen takes a breath, and Jiang Cheng can almost see him steel himself-
And tells him.
It was war.
But not just any war – the insidious kind, the silent kind; the kind of war waged in secrets and rumours, the kind of war waged in assassinations.
Jin Guangshan, the instigator at the centre of everything: greedy for power and coveting that held by Wei Wuxian – and prepared to use any means to secure it-
Jin Guangyao, responsible for carrying out his orders, but hungry in his own right for acknowledgement, for recognition – and eventually deposing him to take his place-
But not before between them they destroyed Jiang Cheng's entire world.
First, orchestrating an increase in incidences across all the sects; keeping everyone tired and exhausted, keeping everyone distracted – rumours flaring about the cause of the surge of resentful energy, quiet whispers about Wei Wuxian and demonic cultivation.
Second, the death of his sister's husband; Jin Zixuan cut down in a night hunting "accident" in the Yiling slums that would be blamed on Wei Wuxian – Jiang Cheng's sister left a grieving widow, a baby nephew fatherless.
Then, the stirring of the cultivation world against Wei Wuxian; Jin Guangshan's fury and "grief" the final catalyst to the years of rumours and slander, uniting the sects against him in a bloody war that would leave thousands dead-
Thousands dead, Wei Wuxian among them – Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Yanli.
And Jiang Cheng left, the last of his line – left injured and alone, to care for his nephew.
"There were more deaths in the later years, Chifeng-zun among them," Lan Xichen says, spreading his hands on the table. "But this is where it starts. This is where – if something will happen, it must be now."
"But why travel at all?" Jiang Cheng counters. "It should be impossible, no doubt it's incredibly dangerous – yet here you are."
"Here I am," Lan Xichen echoes, gaze drifting off to the side, lost in that distant might be. "I – I had to try."
"Lan Xichen," Jiang Cheng says, and waits until Lan Xichen's eyes track back to him; until he has his full attention. "What are we to each other?"
Lan Xichen blushes, instantly and completely; even his ears are red. Even so, he manages to speak. "Married," he says simply, and holds open the left side of his jacket; there, hanging from the inside pocket, is a Yunmeng Jiang clarity bell.
It hits Jiang Cheng almost like a blow: married. He's married, in this future that might be; and not only that, he's married to Zewu-Jun, who smiles at him like he's his entire world.
If they're married, if Lan Xichen is so in love-
"If we're married," Jiang Cheng says, and the words sound strange on his tongue; he didn't ever think that he would be – that anyone would want- "if we're happy – why travel at all? Why risk – can you even go back?"
"I can go back," Lan Xichen says immediately. "All the risk is in the initial array; I simply break the seal on this end, and I should rebound back to my starting point."
"So why?" Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen takes a breath-
Closes his eyes for a moment, and Jiang Cheng watches the flush fade from his face; when he opens his eyes, he's solemn. Determined.
"Jin Guangyao cursed you," Lan Xichen says. "It took years, but eventually his deeds were uncovered and made known; and in that last confrontation, he laid upon you the final marks of a curse that has, in my reality, incapacitated you."
Jiang Cheng had honestly wondered if he was dead; to hear that he's alive after all is something of a relief. Except-
"Incapacitated?" he asks. "Am I in a coma?"
Lan Xichen shakes his head. "The ICU," he says. "You're on life support; you keep having seizures, and it takes longer and longer for you to recover each time. The curse is causing your internal organs to fail, and it's affecting your core, too. If we can't break the curse-" his voice breaks, and Jiang Cheng looks away; it's the least he can do, to let Lan Xichen compose himself in private.
After a moment, Lan Xichen continues, voice steady again. "I think he started around this time," he says. "Initially, most likely an effort to poison you against Wei Wuxian, if the curse could be blamed on him. I think – he must have had some difficulty, though, probably because of your core; it wasn't until after the war and you were in Lanling regularly with your nephew that he had any chance of getting it to stick."
Jiang Cheng's hand is curling in his shirt without conscious control, fingers pressing against his abdomen; the reassuring thrum of his core spinning in his lower dantian a counterpoint to the sudden maelstrom of his thoughts.
"What about my core," he says, and his voice sounds like it's being dragged over shattered glass, throat burning – and then he's back in the ruins of Lotus Pier after all, smoke and soot and blood heavy in his lungs, and Wen Zhuliu's hand sinking into his body straight through his skin, fingers curling sharp around his core, and then pain-
"-nyin," Lan Xichen is saying. "Jiang Wanyin-"
Jiang Cheng gasps for air, curling in on himself – it hurts, his core is burning, melting, the culmination of his years of dedication and training slowly stripped away, and it hurts it hurts it hurts-
Hands touch his shoulders, and he shudders upright, his own hands coming up and shoving, Zidian sparking to life-
Wen Zhuliu isn't here. His core is intact, restored. He's in Lan Xichen's shitty apartment, a Lan Xichen from the future that might be, a Lan Xichen to whom he's married, a Lan Xichen who-
A Lan Xichen who is sprawled on the floor, hands carefully in view, staying very still-
Jiang Cheng swallows around the shards in his throat. "Lan Xichen," he says, and with an effort, Zidian calms.
"I apologise," Lan Xichen says immediately. "I'm sorry, I – I shouldn't have brought it up, I know it's a sensitive subject – even years later you were still so angry about it."
"Angry?" Jiang Cheng asks. He has flashbacks, certainly – PTSD, from fighting a war as a teenager, from being tortured – but he wouldn't characterise those as anger.
"Ah, I don't wish to upset you further," Lan Xichen says. "Just about Wei Wuxian, you know. The transfer."
The thing is-
Lan Xichen is talking in the vaguest of terms, no doubt so as not to upset Jiang Cheng further. But the thing is-
Jiang Cheng doesn't know, but Jiang Cheng is also very smart.
Wei Wuxian had told him-
"That motherfucker," Jiang Cheng grinds out, because Wei Wuxian had said-
He never should have believed him.
Lan Xichen, slowly pushing himself upright, freezes. "Jiang Wanyin-?" he says carefully, and then his eyes widen. "Oh. Oh, no, I-"
Jiang Cheng's fingers dig into his abdomen, over the core that isn't his, over the core that wasn't restored after all, and he's going to-
"I thought you knew," Lan Xichen whispers, almost to himself. "What have I done?"
Jiang Cheng takes a breath; lets it out, takes another, and grapples for calm. This, Wei Wuxian and his core, this can wait; they have more pressing issues, no matter how he personally might feel.
Wei Wuxian's reckoning will come later.
"Lan Xichen," Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen's eyes snap to him, full of self-recrimination. "Thank you," he says. "For telling me."
"But I-" Lan Xichen starts, trails off as Jiang Cheng shakes his head once, decisive.
"No," Jiang Cheng says. "I needed to know, and it doesn't matter how I found out, that you were the one-" He huffs a breath. "I – the other me – I clearly found out eventually, so what does it matter, that it was you? What does it matter, that I found out early? Perhaps I will be less angry, when the time comes."
He uncurls his fingers from his shirt with an effort, reaches for his tea cup – drains it in two quick swallows. He needs the soothing calm; he's three days without sleep, and now to discover-
He lowers the cup; Lan Xichen has pushed himself back upright, is reaching for the pot.
"Please, let me," he says, and pours.
"Thank you," Jiang Cheng says, and takes another sip; sets the cup back down on the table. "So – this curse?"
Lan Xichen settles himself back onto his cushion, reaches for his own cup. "I hope to find the means to break the curse, here in this time," he says. "So that once I return to my own, I can save you."
"Very well," Jiang Cheng says, and settles more comfortably on his cushion. "Tell me what you have so far."
The third time Jiang Cheng meets Lan Xichen, it's in an attempt to catch Jin Guangyao in the act.
Ostensibly, he's in Lanling to visit his sister; in reality, Lan Xichen will be shadowing him under several layers of wards and charms. Properly executed, Lan Xichen's arrays make him absolutely invisible, soundless and undetectable; when he'd demonstrated this to Jiang Cheng, three weeks ago back in his shitty apartment, he'd been forced to concede that he couldn't, in fact, see, hear or sense Lan Xichen in any way.
It was the only way he would agree to let Lan Xichen accompany him into the heart of Lanling; incredibly dangerous, if either Jin Guangshan or Jin Guangyao discovered that there were two of Lan Xichen – if either of them realised that not only was there a traveller from the future in their midst, but that time travel was possible, after all. (Now that he knows of their machinations, of what they would stoop to, Jiang Cheng doesn't want to even contemplate what Lan Xichen might be subjected to, were he to fall into their hands.)
No, Lan Xichen is completely imperceptible – the only reason Jiang Cheng can hear him at all is that Lan Xichen has traced an array on the bare skin behind his ear. Technically it doesn't allow Jiang Cheng to hear Lan Xichen through the layers of wards; rather, it allows Lan Xichen to speak to Jiang Cheng directly.
(Jiang Cheng is also not thinking about how it had felt as Lan Xichen carefully lifted his hair out of the way, as Lan Xichen's finger had traced so lightly over his skin, as his spiritual energy had shivered through Jiang Cheng's neck and settled heavy and tingling in the back of his skull-)
He takes tea with A-Jie in the garden; it's the one Jin Zixuan built for her, a beautiful pond of lotuses taking up most of the space, smaller walkways and an arching wooden bridge through the surrounds.
A-Jie leads him to the shaded table as an attendant brings tea and snacks, and they settle to chat next to the lotuses.
He almost forgets Lan Xichen is there at all, that there's a purpose to this visit other than the pleasure of seeing his sister – and then Jin Guangyao appears, apologetically bowing to A-Jie and then to Jiang Cheng.
"Sect Leader Jiang, my deepest apologies for disturbing you," he says. "It's a minor matter – Lanling Jin has been remiss in our last reports covering the shared territories, and the recent disturbances. New reports have been immediately prepared for all sect leaders, of course – please, take these with our sincere apologies."
He bows, holding out a leather folio stamped with a large gold peony in his outstretched hands. It's typical of the Lanling Jin extravagance; except for where an actual formal signature and seal is required, Jiang Cheng sends his reports by email, because why wouldn't he? Jin Guangshan is a little old fashioned, though, and so Lanling Jin reports are always in hard copy – and always in these stupid leather folios that must cost the sect a fortune.
"Of course," Jiang Cheng says, taking the folio. "Yunmeng Jiang appreciates your quick attention to this matter."
Jin Guangyao smiles pleasantly at him. "If you believe any further corrections or additions are required, please let me know," he says, and bows his way out.
The leather of the folio is butter-soft; Jiang Cheng's fingers are tingling. He sets it aside on the table, trying not to grind his teeth together too audibly. Lanling Jin claim they're respecting traditions, but it's really just an excuse for a casual show of ostentatious wealth. It's not like Yunmeng Jiang can afford to pay for hundreds of leather folios, after all; half their buildings are still being repaired or rebuilt. Jiang Cheng has much more important things to spend the money on.
"Sorry, A-Jie," he says, "what were you saying?"
A-Jie smiles at him from across the table, and Jiang Cheng knows that she loves Jin Zixuan, that she's happy in Lanling with her husband and the beautiful garden he made for her-
But it means that back in Yunmeng, with A-Jie married and Wei Wuxian – gone-
Back in Yunmeng, Jiang Cheng is alone.
They reconvene at Lan Xichen's shitty apartment.
Jiang Cheng still has the folio tucked under his arm; he'd taken precautions against being followed, of course, but he'd otherwise come straight here from Lanling.
Despite their preparations, despite the sense-memory of Lan Xichen's fingers trailing over his skin, he'd been almost entirely silent during Jiang Cheng's visit. There had been a quiet murmur, as Jiang Cheng was passing through the gate of the estate – a request to meet immediately at the apartment, phrased in the politest of terms – but nothing else prior or since.
Jiang Cheng had been under the impression that Lan Xichen might direct him through some more active infiltration – but instead he was silent, and all Jiang Cheng did was take tea with his sister and get handed some paperwork.
He lands on the balcony, sheathing Sandu. He can feel the ward, still; he must have beaten Lan Xichen back.
He reflexively glances at the sky, but there's no-one and nothing there – remembers a moment later that even if Lan Xichen was right behind him, secured behind his layers of arrays he's imperceptible.
It takes another few minutes, but eventually the air in front of him shimmers and Lan Xichen wavers into view. He looks-
He's not smiling, not even a hint of it in his eyes, nothing of the usual warmth he carries on any of the previous occasions he's met Jiang Cheng. This morning he'd been solemn as they made their preparations, but there was still-
And he looks-
"What is it?" Jiang Cheng asks, because Lan Xichen looks a hairsbreadth from falling apart. He's pale, eyes wide and pupils blown – he looks like he's about to collapse.
Lan Xichen doesn't answer, breathing too fast in short, shallow gasps, and Jiang Cheng takes a step forward and lays his free hand on his forehead – he's cold, clammy.
"Take down the ward," he revises, because getting inside is the priority – they need to get off the balcony, get out of public view-
Lan Xichen is going into shock.
Lan Xichen raises a hand, takes two tries to summon enough spiritual energy to his fingers in order to make the hand seal. He staggers as they go through the door, and Jiang Cheng slides it closed with his foot as he makes a grab for Lan Xichen with his free hand – manages to catch him by the elbow and steady him just enough for a controlled fall in the direction of the mattress.
Jiang Cheng isn't from years in the future, but he is a Sect Leader, and no slouch himself; he drops the folio on the table and draws a line of characters in the air, slapping his palm against them with a press of spiritual energy. The silencing charm balloons out in a bloom of purple light, quickly fading as the charm attaches itself to the inside of Lan Xichen's ward.
Their security and privacy assured, he turns to the mattress-
Lan Xichen is half curled on his side, gasping for air, and Jiang Cheng slides down beside him, mindful of the swords strapped to their waists, hauls him into his arms-
Jiang Cheng has fought in a multi-year war. He's dealt with shock before; been in shock himself.
(Remembers, like a half forgotten nightmare, the feel of the whip coming down; how he'd started to fade out, everything cold and shaking and nothing but pain – stops the thought with an effort. He can't afford – this is not the time.)
He presses Lan Xichen to him, back to chest; presses one hand into the centre of Lan Xichen's chest, over his heart – slides the other down to Lan Xichen's pulse point in his wrist, draws up a thread of spiritual energy from his core, and presses in.
Lan Xichen heaves in a choked gasp as Jiang Cheng flushes through his meridians with all the subtlety of a thunderstorm, the tangled mess of his spiritual energy easing into something less damaging.
"Breathe," Jiang Cheng murmurs, hooking his chin over Lan Xichen's shoulder and demonstrating slow, steady breaths; letting his chest expand into Lan Xichen's back. "With me, now. In – and out."
Lan Xichen's breath is rasping, but the tangles in his meridians are easing, and slowly, surely, his breathing evens out too; until they're breathing together, steady, pressed together on the bare mattress in this shitty apartment, Jiang Cheng from now and Lan Xichen from what might be.
He gives Lan Xichen another minute, two; but something happened to cause this, and Jiang Cheng needs to know what.
(Or who; Lan Xichen didn't go into much detail, but Jiang Cheng knows that Jin Guangyao had orchestrated things from the shadows for years before he was discovered, had cursed Jiang Cheng in what might be; perhaps it was merely his appearance alone that had thrown Lan Xichen into turmoil.)
"Tell me what happened," Jiang Cheng says, and feels Lan Xichen shudder. He's still pressed against him, though, still cycling his spiritual energy through Lan Xichen's meridians; he rides out the spike, smoothing everything back into calm.
With their heads resting together, he hears the click of Lan Xichen's throat as he swallows.
"Jin Guangyao," he says, voice a quiet rasp. "He – seeing him-"
The space between them is nonexistent, pressed together and still breathing in sync; they're safe behind Lan Xichen's ward and Jiang Cheng's silencing charm, and Jiang Cheng isn't a gentle person by any stretch of the imagination, but he can feel himself quieting in response.
"You should have said something," Jiang Cheng says softly, after Lan Xichen trails off and doesn't continue. "I was – I spent – we could have left earlier, if you needed."
"Your sister," Lan Xichen rasps, sucks in a breath. "I couldn't," and Jiang Cheng can understand that, too; that this Lan Xichen from a future that might be, a future where he's married to Jiang Cheng, a future where Jiang Yanli dies-
That this Lan Xichen couldn't bear to impose on Jiang Cheng's time with his sister – when if he doesn't succeed, she, too, might not survive.
"I understand," Jiang Cheng murmurs into the quiet that surrounds them, and then cold fingers touch the hand he has held over Lan Xichen's heart as Lan Xichen shifts, curling their hands together.
"Thank you, A-Cheng," he rasps, and for now, in this moment, Jiang Cheng lets him have it – the informal address, maybe even the pretence that he's someone else; closes his eyes and leans their heads together-
And together, they breathe.
The light is fading through the windows by the time Lan Xichen stirs.
"Jiang Wanyin," he says, squeezing Jiang Cheng's hand, "thank you." His voice sounds a lot better – almost entirely back to normal.
They've been lying in the quiet for what feels like hours, Jiang Cheng's spiritual energy thrumming through Lan Xichen's meridians, breathing in sync; and perhaps it should have been awkward, before now, but it hadn't been. It had been – nice, even, to hold Lan Xichen close, and Jiang Cheng is trying not to think too hard about how he's learned the feel of Lan Xichen's body against his, how he could draw the map of his meridians even blindfolded-
Now, though – it feels awkward, all of a sudden; too close, too intimate, too much.
"It was nothing," Jiang Cheng says, and starts the process of extricating their limbs; he needs distance, now, so that he can try and sort out his tangled thoughts. This Lan Xichen is from the future that might be; he belongs to that Jiang Cheng, the one that Jiang Cheng might be, one day, but isn't, yet.
Jiang Cheng has no claim on him – but he can't stop himself squeezing Lan Xichen's hand one more time before their fingers slide apart.
"I'll prepare tea," Lan Xichen says, standing, and crosses over to the tiny kitchenette to boil water.
Jiang Cheng rolls off the mattress, brushes himself down, and seats himself at the low table, snapping Sandu off his belt and setting it aside. He can still feel the phantom warmth of Lan Xichen pressed against him, and draws the folio across the table to distract himself.
His fingers sink into the leather as he flips it open, reaches for the first page-
Jiang Cheng freezes as something in the kitchenette clatters; a moment later, Lan Xichen is across from him, snatching his hand out of mid air.
Liquid trickles onto tiles in the pause that follows; Lan Xichen's eyes wide as they flick between Jiang Cheng and the folio in horror.
And the thing is-
Jiang Cheng isn't stupid.
"Did it get me?" he asks, because Lan Xichen's reaction can only mean one thing: Jin Guangyao is sending out his curses on Lanling Jin paperwork, and Jiang Cheng has touched a hundred folios just like this one since the end of the Sunshot Campaign.
It might already be too late.
Lan Xichen releases his hand, but only to take it in both of his, turning it over to press trembling fingers against Jiang Cheng's pulse point; moments later his spiritual energy pours through his meridians.
Jiang Cheng can't help but gasp; this morning his energy had felt like bruised sunshine before a storm, and now it's thundering through his meridians like a sudden deluge of rain, heavy and overwhelming-
"Xichen-" he manages; he's light headed, and the room is spinning-
He blinks awake slowly.
He's – warm, and, and tilted – he's not lying down, he's leaning back, against-
"A-Cheng, can you hear me?"
The words rumble through him; it's the reverse of earlier, when he held Lan Xichen and soothed him from his distress. Now he's the one being held; cradled against Lan Xichen's chest, head tipped back against his shoulder.
He can still feel Lan Xichen's spiritual energy in his meridians – only a trickle, now, instead of the raging torrent, and Lan Xichen's other hand is resting on his chest, just under his collarbone; fingers steady against the pulse in his neck.
Jiang Cheng feels lethargic, still; he makes an inarticulate noise, flops his head to the side.
"A-Cheng," Lan Xichen says, voice heavy with relief. He nudges Jiang Cheng's head upright with his nose, face looming large in his vision; dips his head, and kisses him.
Lan Xichen is kissing him, and his lips are soft and his nose is brushing against Jiang Cheng's cheek, and Jiang Cheng is kissing back, and he's never kissed anyone before, never thought – who would want him? Angry, violent Jiang Cheng, scars a shameful secret, who ripped his way through the Wen until he was soaked in blood, revenge for his sect, his parents-
He doesn't feel so angry now; Lan Xichen's hand tightens against his throat, slides into his hair, and Jiang Cheng can't help the noise he makes as Lan Xichen's tongue slides into his mouth, as he tips his head back and lets himself melt into this embrace.
He's – not helpless, because Jiang Cheng is never helpless, never again, not with his core restored, not with Zidian on his wrist and Sandu nearby – but content to yield, to let Lan Xichen lead; all his weight resting against Lan Xichen's chest, his head against his shoulder, Lan Xichen's hand in his hair guiding him-
Lan Xichen's other hand slides from his wrist onto his stomach and just rests there, fingers spread; his thumb nearly at Jiang Cheng's sternum and his pinky low on his abdomen, and the touch is almost more intimate than Lan Xichen's tongue curling around his own – that hand right above his core, just above where Jiang Cheng is hard and straining-
"Xichen," he gasps, and Lan Xichen's eyes snap open as he lifts his head; and Jiang Cheng watches shock and consternation and regret chase each other across his face.
"Jiang Wanyin," he says, and his cheeks are flushed and his lips are wet and red and Jiang Cheng wants them to be kissing again right now, wants-
"If you try and apologise to me I'm going to be very angry," Jiang Cheng says, because he didn't think anyone would ever want him; but in this future that might be he's married – and it feels good, to be desired, to know that Lan Xichen wants him. (And since Lan Xichen has thrown propriety out the window, Jiang Cheng will too: he does have a claim on this man who will one day be his husband. As far as he's concerned, just because he's a few years younger than his future self doesn't make his claim any less valid.) "Am I or am I not the person you fell in love with?"
"You are," Lan Xichen admits, and Jiang Cheng nods once, decisive.
"In every way that matters, I am him," Jiang Cheng says. "I will be him. And I-" he takes a breath, because this matters, to Lan Xichen; this matters, and he has to get it right.
Jiang Cheng has had three long weeks to think about the way Lan Xichen's eyes dilated when Jiang Cheng had leaned in to him back on that rooftop; three long weeks to think about how he would feel, years into the future, if his husband had travelled back in time and slept with his younger self. (He'd rejected it all, of course, papered it over with a ward of denial – but then Lan Xichen had kissed him, and the ward had broken, too thoroughly to repair.)
"I thought about it," he murmurs. "If I were him, how I might feel, if you – if we-" he can feel his cheeks heat, takes a breath and meets Lan Xichen's eyes. "You're a Lan," he says. "You love deeply, and fiercely, and completely-" Lan Xichen nods, and Jiang Cheng takes another breath, raises a hand to lay it on the side of his face, thumb stroking over the apple of his cheek. "How could I be upset, that you love me? That you love every version of me? That you love the person I used to be and the person I am now?"
He shifts in Lan Xichen's embrace, pressing closer against him, lowers his voice-
"And then I thought about how hot it would be, and I came harder than I've ever come before," he murmurs, and watches Lan Xichen's eyes blow wide.
"I've never slept with anyone," Jiang Cheng continues, and his face is burning, but this man is his husband in this future that might be, surely he doesn't need to be afraid of sharing things that might be considered weak or vulnerable or shameful. "And I thought about how in your future we're married, and how it might feel, if you-"
"Jiang Wanyin-" Lan Xichen says, nearly a gasp; his hand clenches not quite painfully in Jiang Cheng's hair.
"I want you," Jiang Cheng murmurs, "and I want you to take me."
"You don't know what you're asking," Lan Xichen says weakly, and Jiang Cheng can feel his heart racing from where they're pressed together-
"I know exactly what I'm asking," Jiang Cheng counters. "You know me, you know my body – you know what I like, and how I like it, probably better than I do." He leans in so that his lips are nearly brushing Lan Xichen's, whispers: "I want you to ruin me-" and then they're kissing, Lan Xichen clutching at him desperately like he's drowning – like he's drowning and Jiang Cheng is the only thing keeping him afloat.
"A-Cheng," Lan Xichen gasps against his lips between searing kisses, and Jiang Cheng wants-
"What do I call you?" he gasps, kisses Lan Xichen again, groans as Lan Xichen bites at his bottom lip. "What should I-"
It's clear that Xichen isn't what he calls Lan Xichen, in the future that might be; wants to call him something that won't be jarring, that won't cause him distress.
"Huan-ge," Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng draws back from the kisses just enough, blinks his eyes open; makes sure he holds eye contact with Lan Xichen as he says-
"Huan-ge, I want you to touch me."
Lan Xichen's eyes are so dilated they're practically all pupil; he shifts the hand on Jiang Cheng's stomach around to his hip, and then with a jolt Jiang Cheng is in his arms, Lan Xichen rising smoothly to his feet like Jiang Cheng's weight means nothing-
And then Lan Xichen lays him out on the mattress, hovering over him, and Jiang Cheng feels nothing but anticipation – he's safe, secure behind these wards, and this man is his husband.
"A-Cheng," Lan Xichen says, leaning forward, and brushes a tender hand across Jiang Cheng's cheekbone. "Let me take care of you."
"Yes," Jiang Cheng says, reaching up, and then Lan Xichen is kissing him again, his full weight pressing him into the mattress like the best kind of blanket. He can feel the strength in his chest, the muscles trembling in his stomach – and the solid heat pressing into his hip like a brand.
Jiang Cheng wants to feel it, wants to feel Lan Xichen against him, wants to feel his hands on his skin-
"Clothes," he gasps, and feels Lan Xichen smile against his lips.
He draws back far enough for Jiang Cheng to shrug off his jacket, shuck his shirt up over his head, skin prickling immediately into goosebumps. Lan Xichen's hands land lightly on each side of his chest, thumb stroking across the top of his pectoral next to where the jagged scar begins, and Jiang Cheng can barely breathe-
"Beautiful," Lan Xichen murmurs, and Jiang Cheng shudders as his lips come down against the top of the scar, licking and kissing along it. He detours to a nipple, closes his teeth around it and bites, and Jiang Cheng-
"Huan-ge," he moans, arching off the mattress. It feels-
Lan Xichen smiles against his skin, lets the nipple slip from his mouth and kisses his way over to the other one. Jiang Cheng can feel his breath come faster in anticipation, and then teeth close around it and he's moaning again. It feels like there's a direct line from his chest to his cock, aching inside his jeans. He wants-
"Huan-ge, touch me," he groans, and Lan Xichen slides up his body until they're face to face; he's smiling again, a touch of wickedness in the corner of his mouth.
"I am touching you," he says, dips his head, and proceeds to kiss Jiang Cheng breathless.
Jiang Cheng doesn't know how long it's been when Lan Xichen pulls back; licks tingling lips as he tries to catch his breath. Lan Xichen slides down his body, a heated press there and gone against his cock, until he's kneeling between Jiang Cheng's legs.
Jiang Cheng goes up on his elbows, cranes his neck to look down his body – just in time to watch Lan Xichen undo his belt, pop the button of his jeans, and slide the zipper down.
"Huan-ge," he breathes, catches the corner of Lan Xichen's smile as he urges Jiang Cheng's hips up, tugging at his clothing – and then Jiang Cheng is naked, and Lan Xichen is fully clothed-
The first touch of Lan Xichen's fingers has Jiang Cheng shivering. He's careful, delicate; gentle trails of his fingers down his length, circling his balls, pad of a thumb brushing against the head.
"Beautiful," Lan Xichen murmurs again, and then he bends down and Jiang Cheng can only watch as Lan Xichen licks a stripe up his cock and takes him in his mouth-
And it feels-
Lan Xichen is relentless; Jiang Cheng doesn't have the vocabulary or the experience to know what, precisely, he's doing, but it feels so good – Lan Xichen's mouth tight around him, hot and wet and absolutely nothing like Jiang Cheng had ever imagined prior to tonight, pushing into his own oil-slick fist, alone. His tongue is everywhere, licking up his length, sliding against his foreskin, flicking into the slit – and every now and then there's the faintest brush of teeth that makes Jiang Cheng shudder.
He can feel it building, low in his abdomen, feel the pressure rising, the trembling in his limbs; and then a hand slides down, back behind his balls, and brushes slick against his hole, and Jiang Cheng shudders again – groans as that finger presses back and forth against him, doesn't resist as Lan Xichen's other hand shifts his legs further apart.
The finger slides against him, slides into him, and Jiang Cheng groans again, lets his elbows collapse; he can't watch this, watch his own cock sliding into Lan Xichen's mouth, not when Lan Xichen's finger is pressing into him, deeper on every thrust, not when the feeling inside him is rising.
Lan Xichen hums around him, vibrations shuddering through him, and then there's another finger, and Jiang Cheng is gasping as it presses in, two fingers sliding deep; he can feel them inside, that's Lan Xichen's fingers inside him, taking him, making him ready for Lan Xichen's cock, and Jiang Cheng is nearly – Jiang Cheng is going to-
"Huan-ge-" he moans, shaking; the tension inside him snaps like a dam breaking, and the flood washes over Jiang Cheng, overwhelming, and carries him away. His whole body arches like a bow, hips jerking off the mattress as he spills into Lan Xichen's mouth; Lan Xichen's free hand lands on his hip and shoves him back into the mattress, and that makes it better, somehow, feeling shuddering through him sharp and tingling.
Lan Xichen swallows around him, pulls back and licks the last bead of come out of his slit, lets his softening cock slip from his mouth.
"Very good, A-Cheng," he praises, voice warm and just a little hoarse, almost like he hadn't just sucked Jiang Cheng's brain out of his cock. "You're nearly ready."
Jiang Cheng doesn't need to ask what for; Lan Xichen is still fully clothed, but he can see the way the front of his pants is straining.
He wants to touch Lan Xichen's skin; whats to see him naked, wants to curl his hand around that cock, wants it to press into his body the way Lan Xichen's fingers are, wants-
He hadn't been lying, before: he wants Lan Xichen to ruin him.
"Huan-ge, aren't I ready now?" he asks, and Lan Xichen shakes his head, still smiling.
"Not quite, A-Cheng," he says, and then there's more pressure against his hole; Jiang Cheng gasps, clenching down as a third finger sinks into him – Lan Xichen knows him, knows what he likes, what he needs, and if Lan Xichen thinks he needs three, then he probably knows what he's doing.
That doesn't mean Jiang Cheng has to like it – he doesn't want to wait.
It feels like an age before Lan Xichen withdraws his fingers, circling one around the rim of his hole.
"A-Cheng is ready for me now," he says, and Jiang Cheng clenches reflexively around the finger, watches Lan Xichen smile. "You've been so good for me," he adds, and Jiang Cheng feels warm all through. "I'll take care of you."
He pulls the finger away, lifts his hands to his buttons, and starts to undress; he's not hurrying, but laying there underneath him, Jiang Cheng can feel his breath coming faster with every button that pulls through its hole, with every inch of skin revealed.
Finally, the last button comes free; he shrugs his shoulders, lets the fabric slide down his arms to pool onto the mattress. Jiang Cheng has never seen the other Lan Xichen shirtless, of course, so he can't compare; but this Lan Xichen is broad across the shoulders and chest, solid with muscle.
His hands drop to his belt, and Jiang Cheng feels his breath catch; finally, finally-
He unbuckles, unzips, pushes his pants down and kicks them off. His cock is hard, jutting away from his stomach; as Jiang Cheng watches, a bead of clear fluid rolls out of his slit, and he follows it as it runs a slick trail down the generous length of his cock.
His eyes jerk back up as a hand lands on his hip, Lan Xichen leaning forward to make eye contact.
"Is A-Cheng ready?" he asks, and Jiang Cheng sucks in a breath.
"I'm ready," he says, "I've been ready, I want – give me-"
"I will," Lan Xichen says, runs a hand over his cock that leaves it slick, nearly dripping; presses Jiang Cheng's legs even more open, shuffling up-
Something nudges at Jiang Cheng's hole, and he takes a breath, and then-
Lan Xichen pushes inside.
Jiang Cheng can hear himself moaning as Lan Xichen presses in; he goes slow, but he doesn't stop – it's inexorable, the wet slide of his cock pressing inch by inch into Jiang Cheng's hole. He presses and presses and presses and surely he's in? Surely that's all? And then he keeps going, and Jiang Cheng moans-
He's deep, much longer than his fingers, pressing in, in, and then Jiang Cheng can feel Lan Xichen's balls pressing against his perineum as he bottoms out-
He doesn't know if he's imagining it, but it feels like Lan Xichen is pressing so deep inside Jiang Cheng can feel him on every breath; feel him carving a new place for himself inside Jiang Cheng, a place that belongs to him – a place that he can keep.
And then he pulls back, just as slow, just as inevitable, until the head of his cock catches on Jiang Cheng's rim, Jiang Cheng clamping down reflexively – he doesn't want – that's his, Lan Xichen is giving it to him, he said-
He hears himself whine, feels his cheeks heat at such a ridiculous noise, but Lan Xichen only smiles wider.
"That's it, A-Cheng," he says, "let me hear you-"
He snaps his hips forward, pressing in again, and Jiang Cheng can definitely feel that, breath punching out of him in a moan-
And then Lan Xichen is off, long steady thrusts hitting deep on each stroke, and Jiang Cheng had thought he was ready but he honestly doesn't quite know how he's going to survive this; how he's ever going to be the same now that he knows what this feels like, for Lan Xichen to split him open on his cock, for Lan Xichen to take, and take, and take-
Lan Xichen shifts Jiang Cheng's hips into a new angle on his next thrust, and Jiang Cheng cries out as sensation shocks through him, as sharp as a strike from Zidian. He sucks in a quick breath as Lan Xichen pulls back, the corner of his mouth curling up into that wicked smile – and then he does it again, and again, and again, until Jiang Cheng is nothing but a gasping mess against the sheets. He can't think; it's overwhelming, this feeling, and he can't-
Nothing exists, in this moment, except them; the world narrowed down to Lan Xichen's body against his, Lan Xichen's hands on his hips, Lan Xichen's cock driving so deep inside. He can feel tears leaking out of the corners of eyes squeezed closed, hear the moans and whines coming shameless from his own throat; it's too much, and it's still rising, and he-
Before, it had been a dam breaking; floodwaters released. This time-
This time, it's a tsunami.
Sensation rolls over him like a wave, all-consuming; Jiang Cheng can't breathe, shaking, shaking, as it pours through him, and Lan Xichen is still moving inside him even as he's clenching helplessly down around him, still slamming into that place that makes Jiang Cheng cry out, and it only makes it better, longer.
"So good, A-Cheng," Lan Xichen is saying from somewhere above him, and Jiang Cheng's cock is still pulsing, hot fluid splattering across his scars as he comes and come and comes-
Eventually, the sensation eases, limbs still shaking as he gasps for breath.
He blinks tears out of his eyes, tilting his head, and meets Lan Xichen's gaze – hot, satisfied, and hungry all at the same time.
"Did you like it?" Lan Xichen doesn't even have the decency to sound breathless – and he's still moving, cock still driving deep into Jiang Cheng's pliant body, aftershocks skittering through him.
"Yes," Jiang Cheng says – and then, because he's apparently lost all sense of shame: "is Huan-ge going to come soon?"
He wants to know what it feels like; wants to feel it as Lan Xichen comes inside, marks him like no-one else ever has or will again, wants-
"Not yet," Lan Xichen says, somehow leans in closer without breaking his rhythm, "I said I'd take care of you." He leans in further, breathes the last against Jiang Cheng's lips: "You wanted me to ruin you, and this husband will oblige," and then they're kissing again, Lan Xichen swallowing Jiang Cheng's moans with his eager mouth, and Jiang Cheng can't imagine anywhere else he'd rather be right now: the folio, the future, all forgotten in the face of this-
Holds on to Lan Xichen, as he sets about thoroughly fulfilling his promise.
Jiang Cheng wakes in the middle of the night.
It's quiet, in the shitty apartment; a moment's concentration reassures him that both Lan Xichen's ward and Jiang Cheng's silencing charm are still in operation – they're safe, still, secured.
Lan Xichen is sleeping; head tucked into the curve of Jiang Cheng's shoulder, one arm around his waist and legs thoroughly entangled, soft breaths puffing goosebumps against his neck. He clings tightly, in his sleep, like Jiang Cheng might simply vanish if he lets go.
Jiang Cheng huffs a snort; he's not going anywhere, not after Lan Xichen had fucked him through three orgasms before finally succumbing to his own (and it had been everything he'd wanted, the feeling of Lan Xichen releasing hot and slick inside – although the way it trickled out afterwards, even with Lan Xichen's softening cock still tucked into his hole, had been somewhat less pleasant). He can barely even walk; had managed to limp to the tiny bathroom and back only with Lan Xichen's help.
The dead of the night is a good time for thinking, now that Jiang Cheng can think again. They have a long struggle ahead of them; they have proof, now, of cursed paperwork, but it won't be enough to unmask the culprits. A single folio laid in with a curse, no doubt, will be claimed to be false: a forgery, or tampered with, to try and discredit the Jin.
No, they need more – need to uncover the details about these plots that Lan Xichen learned of too late, in the future that might be, need to save the lives that can be saved.
They'll need allies; the existence of this Lan Xichen will need to be kept absolutely secret, so it will be Jiang Cheng who'll need to speak to Jiang Yanli with a watered down version of the truth – maybe Nie Huaisang, too, with his brother's life potentially on the line-
And, he realises with a sour feeling in his stomach, he'll need to reach out to Wei Wuxian, the lying asshole, to stop any further wedges being driven between them.
He scoffs, shaking his head. It's ridiculous, this whole situation has been ridiculous, but it's gone on long enough. He's rebuilt enough, surely; the sect is recovering, Jiang Cheng has been consolidating his power – and with the help of Lan Xichen-
Tomorrow, Jiang Cheng will go to Yiling, and Wei Wuxian and his Wen refugees will come home.
He shifts, feeling the ache shudder through him, and reaches for his core, cycling his spiritual energy through his meridians. That's if he can walk by then, of course; Lan Xichen had teasingly offered to carry him around, as Jiang Cheng had struggled to the bathroom, but Lan Xichen also can't be seen in public, so Jiang Cheng needs to be able to walk under his own power by tomorrow.
And that's another thing to think about – this Lan Xichen, a Lan Xichen from the future that might be, a Lan Xichen who is Jiang Cheng's husband-
Once this is all over, once they've unmasked the conspiracy, once Lan Xichen has enough detail on the curse he needs to break-
Lan Xichen has a husband waiting for him, in the future; he can't be Jiang Cheng's to keep. Jiang Cheng is – borrowing him, for a while, but it's only ever a loan; eventually, inevitably, Jiang Cheng will need to give him back.
But the thing is-
Jiang Cheng's not stupid.
Knowing that Lan Xichen is his husband, in the future that might be, knowing now what it feels like, to be the subject of that undivided attention, what it feels like to be loved, to be desired-
Jiang Cheng doesn't want that from anyone else. He doesn't want to give Lan Xichen back.
But the thing is-
Jiang Cheng doesn't have to.
There are two Lan Xichens, after all. And while one of them might belong to Jiang Cheng in the future that might be, while one of them has obligations he must fulfil – while one of them must go back, once everything is said and done-
The other Lan Xichen has no such claims against him.
Jiang Cheng turns his head, presses his face into Lan Xichen's hair and breathes in, settles himself more comfortably in this sleep-soft embrace.
If Jiang Cheng wants to make this future real, if he wants to turn the might be into will be-
Tomorrow, he'll travel to Yiling, and speak to Wei Wuxian; Jiang Cheng is still angry with him, incandescent, but his core and Wei Wuxian's lies can wait. Tomorrow, Wei Wuxian will come home, and then the next day-
Jiang Cheng can feel a smile start to creep onto his face, and here, unobserved, with Lan Xichen's steady breaths on his skin, lets it grow.
The next day, perhaps he'll visit the Cloud Recesses.
He has a husband to catch.