( 17 )
In the old days, disciples of different cultivation sects would attend the lectures of the Gusu Lan Sect for the better part of a year. Nowadays, it’s more like a two-month summer camp for young cultivators, although it doesn’t really feel like one because a summer in Gusu is still colder than anywhere else, probably except for Qinghe.
This year, Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian and a select few of Yunmeng Jiang’s most promising junior disciples are attending. They arrive a day early, and Jiang Cheng is almost proud of their very uneventful arrival. That is, until the next day, on the opening day of the lectures, when he finds out that Wei Wuxian had tried to sneak alcohol in Cloud Recesses the night prior and he’s been caught by none other than The Second Jade of Lan, Hanguang-Jun – Lan Wangji.
Maybe their actual first day would be better, Jiang Cheng dares to think as he slips on the Lan Sect’s all-white robes that they’re all required to wear while attending the camp. Lans and their rules and traditions. But it’s fine – the robes are soft and comfortable, and it did suit the cold of the Cloud Recesses.
Jiang Cheng is hopeful, until he spends the day trying to listen to the lectures while trying to ignore how Wei Wuxian keeps trying to piss off Lan Wangji, while Lan Wangji sends Wei Wuxian glares sharp enough to send any lesser man running home.
Jiang Cheng is tired, but Jiang Cheng is hanging in there.
Just when he thinks it’s probably going to be a relatively ‘okay’ first day, Wei Wuxian manages to piss off Lan Qiren instead, and thus gets the Gusu Lan Sect equivalent of a detention.
Oh, Mother would be pissed, Jiang Cheng just knows it.
Maybe he can just… not… tell her?
There’s a silver lining to it after the day’s lectures end. It comes while Jiang Cheng is trailing after Wei Wuxian who is being led by Lan Wangji to the Library Pavilion where he’s going to copy rules (because Lans and rules, okay). Jiang Cheng being there is not entirely on purpose, he just happens to be heading in the same direction as they were.
Then he hears a familiar voice calling out to them.
“Ah! Wei-xiong! Jiang-xiong!”
The three of them turn around and there he is. Nie Huaisang, still in his casual clothes, waving his fan at them.
“Nie-xiong!” Wei Wuxian greets, face lighting up from sulking about his punishment. “What are you doing here? I thought you weren’t attending this year? Something about a busy season in Qinghe?”
“Yes, but we sorted it out! Baba really wanted me to go. I missed the first day, but Xichen-ge said I can catch up.” Huaisang explains, beaming, as cheerful as always as he hauls his bags and approaches them. He goes to hug Wei Wuxian first.
“Thank God. I won’t have to deal with Wei Wuxian by myself.” Jiang Cheng says, just as Huaisang turns and practically tackles him. He burrows himself into the hug, in sheer relief that there will be a comforting presence around during what he is expecting to be two gruelling months trying to keep his brother from getting thrown out the mountain.
Wei Wuxian pouts. “Hey, I’m being good!”
“You are not.” Lan Wangji coldly interjects. “That’s why you’ll be copying rules.”
Nie Huaisang untangles himself from his best friend to beam at the mighty Hanguang Jun. “Hi, Wangji!”
Lan Wangji eyes him with his ice cold stare and then nods. “Huaisang.”
“Aw, Wangji.” Huaisang pouts. “At least look happier to see me…” Then he walks over to Lan Wangji and hugs him too.
Or more like, he tries to.
Lan Wangji is too tall.
Jiang Cheng resists the urge to kick the guy’s shin so he’ll lean down and let Nie Huaisang hug him properly. What kind of person doesn’t let Nie Huaisang hug them properly?
To Lan Wangji’s credit, he at least gives Huaisang’s back two solid pats before Huaisang draws away, looking entirely unbothered by how awkward that entire thing was.
“Will you let me take a selfie with you?” he asks, taking his phone from his pocket. “Sometime during the next two months?”
Lan Wangji’s expression just… doesn’t change. At all. “No phones in the Cloud Recesses.”
“You know I’ll still do it.”
“I will catch you.”
“I’ll find a rule around it.”
“You are welcome to try.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what’s happening.
All he knows is that Nie Huaisang and Lan Wangji are either very good friends, or one argument away from stabbing each other. He knows they’ve known each other since childhood, because everyone knew about sworn brothers Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, but he didn’t expect… this. Whatever weird relationship this is.
“Anyways, I have to get settled, but I’ll drop by and greet Xichen-ge first. Gonna take a picture of him to send to Da-ge.” Nie Huaisang says, finally turning away from Lan Wangji. “Good luck copying rules, Wei-xiong. I’ll see you at dinner, A-Cheng. You both look amazing in the Lan robes, by the way!”
He presses a quick kiss to Jiang Cheng’s cheek before grabbing his bags again and heading to… somewhere. Jiang Cheng is new to the place, but Nie Huaisang sure looks like he knows his way around. He probably does.
“Bye, Wangji! I’ll get that selfie!”
Lan Wangji counters with another emotionless, “No shouting in the Cloud Recesses.”
“Love you too!” Nie Huaisang says, and, determined to be as annoying as possible, blows him a kiss with his fan.
They watch as he disappears around a corner, but not before taking out his phone and snapping a photo of the stunning Gusu sunset.
“Hanguang Jun…” Wei Wuxian says, slowly, almost innocently. “Nie-xiong just broke two rules… Why is he not in detention with me?”
Lan Wangji stares at him.
Jiang Cheng decides that there must be some grace in surrendering and retreating, just this one time. He throws his hands up. “I’m going ahead. Goodbye.” Then, he speedwalks away from whatever trouble Wei Wuxian stirs this time.
Wei Wuxian succeeds in getting himself into Gusu Lan Detention with Lan Wangji for five consecutive days. Then he somehow manages to do it again on the sixth day.
Jiang Cheng genuinely wonders if his brother somehow thinks that that’s what they’re trying to achieve here. Is there a Piss Off Lan Wangji Bingo Card he’s trying to fill? If so, why?
As for Lan Wangji… Jiang Cheng doesn’t know whether to admire the guy’s tenacity or question his sanity. For someone to bear with Wei Wuxian for the whole day and then spend some two or three extra hours one-on-one with him… they’d either have to be really determined, or just insane.
He says as much to Nie Huaisang. Or rather, to Nie Huaisang’s shoulder as they sit together on a meadow at the back of Cloud Recesses, surrounded by bunnies.
It’s Saturday, and for the first time in years, they both had to call off their volunteer duties at the animal shelter for their two months at Gusu. Thankfully, Nie Huaisang brought him to this field, all the while sharing how it was Lan Wangji who had first shown him the place and the bunnies when they were children.
“A-Cheng, look up!” he hears Nie Huaisang ask, so he looks up. He sees their faces in Huaisang’s phone screen, together with one little bunny eating a little piece of carrot and sitting idly in Huaisang’s raised hand. “Smile!”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t smile. He scrunches up his nose, and that makes Huaisang laugh just as the camera snaps the photo.
Jiang Cheng thinks that it turned out better than how a perfectly-planned one would have been.
“So what were you saying?” Nie Huaisang asks as he puts the bunny down on his lap and goes back to his phone to choose a nice filter.
Jiang Cheng returns to the familiar comfort of Nie Huaisang’s shoulder, then he answers the question. “Lan Wangji is either crazy determined or just plain crazy?”
Nie Huaisang hums, thoughtful. “I don’t know. I’ve known Wangji a long time, and I’ve seen him uptight, strict, even a bit of a killjoy-”
“Just a bit?”
“Fine, he snitched on me a lot when we were kids. I get back by being cuter.” Huaisang says, laughing. “But he’s always been… cool. With Wei-xiong though, it’s… it’s kinda different? He’s almost… angry? No, not angry. Maybe frustrated? I’m not sure, I’m not as good at reading him as Xichen-ge is.”
“I’m surprised you can read him at all.”
“Oh, yes, you’d have to be like a Level 50 friend to unlock the Lan Wangji translation feature.”
Jiang Cheng’s own phone chimes and he checks to see a message from his sister, filled with her usual flower and heart emojis and telling him to enjoy his stay in Gusu and to send her love to A-Xian. She probably saw Huaisang’s post, wherever he posted that. Jiang Cheng types in a reply.
“Hey, if phones aren’t allowed in Cloud Recesses, why is there good signal and wi-fi?”
“I think that’s just Old Lan Qiren being old.” Huaisang shrugs. “No one really reports it because everyone uses their phones and other gadgets anyway. They just don’t use ‘em around the elders. I mean, I was just playing Animal Crossing with Xichen-ge the other day.”
Jiang Cheng tries to imagine the honorable Zewu Jun sitting in his Hanshi and instead of his Xiao, he is holding a Nintendo Switch and playing Animal Crossing.
It’s… an image.
“Dammit.” Jiang Cheng mumbles. “I didn’t bring my Switch.”
Nie Huaisang giggles, then he cuts off abruptly, pouting. “And that Lan Wangji, how dare he tell me no phones in Cloud Recesses, he regularly sends me bunny pictures! Ugh, I’ll get that Hanguang Jun selfie, I really will.”
“Good luck with that.” he yawns.
The day is passing so slowly. He already spent the first half of it training with the Jiang Sect disciples and even got Huaisang to do some practice drills with them for a bit. Now that’s all done, and he’s left with idle time he doesn’t really know what to do with.
“God, Saturdays are boring now. I wanna go and feed the puppies.”
“Me too.” Nie Huaisang says, sighing and slumping against him. Jiang Cheng shifts so Nie Huaisang can lean back on his chest instead. “I miss our children, A-Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. Wei Wuxian never went with them to the shelter – that one’s something that’s just a Jiang-Cheng-And-Nie-Huaisang thing – but he’s supportive and always teased them whenever they talked about the rescue animals they’re working with because apparently, they sound like doting parents.
And, well, Jiang Cheng thinks, there could be worse jabs. If he learned one thing by being Nie Huaisang’s friend, it’s that sometimes, the best way to deal with someone teasing you is just to own it.
He asks, “Our fifty-something furry children? Even Mandu?”
“Yes. All of them. Even Mandu, though she hates me.” Nie Huaisang sighs dramatically.
Jiang Cheng chuckles. That cat does seem to hate Huaisang with a passion, for some reason. It’s almost funny watching Nie Huaisang try with all his might, every week without fail, to get validation from a very grumpy cat.
“She’ll come around.”
“She better! I’ve been spoiling her and the others are getting jealous!” Nie Huaisang complains, but he does open a photo of the cat on his phone. Jiang Cheng has to hold back his laughter. Even through the camera, he could feel the animosity. “Aw, she’s so cute though. Grumpy, but cute. Like you, A-Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng lets out a strangled noise and raises a hand to pinch Nie Huaisang’s cheek. “Shut up.”
Then, Nie Huaisang looks up at him, pinched cheek and all. ”Oh, we’re allowed to go out tomorrow! Let’s go to Caiyi Town, A-Cheng! Buy me something pretty!”
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow, letting him go. “And why would I do that?”
Nie Huaisang bats his eyelashes. “To ease my sorrow? I am suffering from empty nest syndrome and one of my children hates me?”
“Your brother will say I’m spoiling you again.” Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “It’s weird enough everytime I give you anything , he glares at me for days. You live three hours away and I could still feel when I’ve pissed him off somehow. And that’s just for giving Turtle a rubber duck.”
“Yeah, no, I told you already, that’s just Da-ge’s regular face.” Huaisang assures him. “…and his regular energy. He likes you! Both Baba and Da-ge like you.”
“Your baba, yes, thank God he does.” Jiang Cheng says, sighing. He thanks his stars everyday that Huaisang’s very terrifying father likes him, for some reason he doesn’t dare question anymore. Nie Mingjue, however… “But your Da-ge? No, he does not like me at all, A-Sang.”
“He does. I promise. He lets me go places if you’re going too. He doesn’t even trust Wei-xiong like that.”
“To be fair, no one should trust you and Wei Wuxian together. He’ll do something very Wei Wuxian and you won’t stop him.”
Nie Huaisang hums as he flips his fan open and flaps it over both of them. “Whatever. Just. Caiyi Town, tomorrow? Please? Jiang Cheng Jiang Wanyin Sandu Shengshou- ”
“Fine! Fine. There’s nothing to do here, anyway.” Plus, Jiang Cheng knows Huaisang will find a way to drag him there, either way. His phone chimes again. “A-jie says Wei Wuxian asked her to ask me where we are. What kind of- He can just text me!”
“Wei-xiong’s mind works on a different plane. You know this.” Nie Huaisang says. ”Are we taking him with us tomorrow?”
“I think we might have to.” Jiang Cheng heaves a long-suffering sigh. “If there’s someone who can get detention even on a Sunday , on a day without lectures , it’s Wei Wuxian.”
Huaisang laughs, giddy. “Should I invite Wangji?”
“I just wanna see his reaction-”
Nie Huaisang doesn’t invite Lan Wangji – that’s how Jiang Cheng knows that his best friend still loves him.
Wei Wuxian, to his horror, does invite Lan Wangji.
…and Lan Wangji says yes with a very sour expression, or at least, that’s what Huaisang said that particular neutral face actually means. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t know. He is not a Level 50 friend.
Now Jiang Cheng is not really close to the famous Hanguang Jun, no, not all, but he has a lot of questions, and even more concerns. Right now, he wants to grab the guy and shake him , and ask him if he’s okay .
‘You’ve been suffering Wei Wuxian for six days straight, man.’ he wants to say. ‘ And here you are signing up for another one. WHY.’
Only one person can really handle the sheer force of chaos that is Wei Wuxian 24/7, and that person is Jiang Yanli.
And Jiang Yanli is… well, she’s Jiang Yanli.
Even Jiang Cheng taps out for one day. He goes and runs to the animal shelter once a week and there he asks something like ‘Why did Wei Wuxian think it’s necessary to make a talisman that turns someone’s hair to a totally random neon color?’ while he gives ten dogs a bath. It’s some form of therapy. Don’t judge him.
Nie Huaisang, bless his soul, perhaps senses Jiang Cheng’s brain having a very hard time trying to make sense of the reality he’s currently living in, because he clings to Jiang Cheng’s arm and fans his face. “A-Cheng. A-Cheng, let’s go, you promised to buy me something pretty, remember?”
“Aw, Jiang Cheng, you didn’t tell me this is a date! Don’t worry, shidi, I will stay out of your way, yeah?” Wei Wuxian teases as he walks past the two of them. Then he waves Lan Wangji over. “C’mon, Lan Zhan, you don’t wanna walk behind these two. They take forever.”
“Maybe you can show me around Caiyi Town! D’you know where to get spicy food? I need spicy food after the week I’ve had. You Lans need to put spices in your food. Wait, can we request to get spices in our food? Is that an option we have and you’re not telling me?”
Jiang Cheng watches as Lan Wangji frowns, but the guy does follow Wei Wuxian and the two start walking down the many hundred thousand steps down the Cloud Recesses.
He lets Nie Huaisang drag him – and Nie Huaisang does drag him – and they follow a still chattering Wei Wuxian and a dead silent Lan Wangji. Huaisang closes his fan and presses it to his lips, thoughtful.
“I think I know what’s happening now.”
Jiang Cheng turns to him, frowning. “What?”
“I’ll have to confirm it first, A-Cheng. But I’ll tell you when I do.”
“No, just tell me now-”
“Maybe you can buy me a nice scarf, since it’s cold here in Gusu-”
The streets of Caiyi Town are colorful and teeming with life. It’s pretty much the only town in the Gusu area that is this festive, a lively tourist destination before one reaches the quieter heritage towns and buildings that are under the care of the humble and restrained Gusu Lan Sect.
Jiang Cheng trails after Nie Huaisang as he flits between stalls, shops and food carts, taking photos and buying little trinkets here and there, never forgetting to talk to the people selling their merchandise. Further along the market, Jiang Cheng sees Wei Wuxian pointing at handmade kites and talking poor Lan Wangji’s ears off. As for him, he examines some nice hand-painted porcelain mugs he thinks his sister might like. He did promise to bring her a souvenir. Maybe he’ll buy one before going back home.
Then, he feels a tug on his sleeve and he lets Nie Huaisang pull him to a stall with colorful scarves.
It’s a nice change of pace from their usual weekends spent in between homework, training and volunteer work. He knows Nie Huaisang has been spending a lot of time lately helping his father and Nie Mingjue around the Nie Corp. offices so this might be a much-needed break for him, too. He recognizes some vaguely familiar faces from the Cloud Recesses in the streets, as well as some Jiang Sect disciples who he’d all given permission to go to town as long as they stayed on their best behavior.
He lets Nie Huaisang pick a green and yellow scarf reminiscent of the Qinghe Nie colors, and of Turtle. The sweet old vendor woman watches with a smile as Jiang Cheng drapes the scarf around Nie Huaisang’s neck, then she offers to give them a discount if they buy a second one. Huaisang picks for him – black and dark purple.
When they find Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji again, Wei Wuxian is carrying an armful of spicy snacks, while Lan Wangji simply stood beside him, hands on his back as always.
“Wei Wuxian, I told you to find something nice for A-Jie.” Jiang Cheng said, narrowing his eyes at the mostly black, red and orange-colored packets of snacks in his brother’s arms. “Did you find anything at all or were you too busy buying all this food for yourself?”
“Aiyah, Jiang Cheng, what do you think of me? Of course I looked!” Wei Wuxian says, pouting. “Here, I’ll show you, I bet it’s better than whatever boring thing you found.” He moves to lead the younger, but fumbles with his snacks. He turns to Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan, can you hold these real quick? We won’t take long, I promise. Thank you!”
Lan Wangji is too surprised to do anything else but accept the items, and then Wei Wuxian is grabbing his brother and pulling him to… somewhere. They got lost in the crowd too quick to track.
Nie Huaisang sidles up beside Wangji and takes some of the snacks which were threatening to fall from the other’s hold. Where did Wei Wuxian buy these? And why didn’t he at least ask for a bag? Luckily, he’s carrying Jiang Cheng’s scarf since Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel like wearing it yet, so he uses that to hold the snacks easily.
Lan Wangji looks down at the items in his arms. They all look like something he wouldn’t touch if his life depended on it, but Wei Ying claims they are good. On the other hand, Nie Huaisang has subtly hinted earlier that Wei Ying probably has no more taste buds at this point in his young life.
So yeah, that’s a ‘no’ on the snacks.
“Wangji…” Nie Huaisang starts sweetly. “Are you having fun with Wei-xiong?”
Wangji doesn’t reply, because he knows that tone. Huaisang doesn’t really prod a reply from him. He just giggles behind his fan and probably tries to come up with the best combination of words to tease Wangji with, as he always does.
He glances at his childhood friend beside him, just in time to see Huaisang check the time on his phone. He catches the lockscreen: Nie Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin surrounded by a bunch of adorable dogs of all shapes and sizes.
He remembers something he had been meaning to talk to Huaisang about since he first arrived. “Huaisang.”
“I didn’t know you were dating Jiang Wanyin.”
Nie Huaisang’s head snaps up so fast and he almost drops his phone when he looks back up at his friend. “Wangji!” he laughs. “No gossiping in Cloud Recesses!”
“We are not in Cloud Recesses.” Wangji says, then he frowns, just slightly, easy to miss for someone who doesn’t know to look. “Am I wrong?”
“A-Cheng and I aren’t dating.” Huaisang says easily, sliding his phone back in his pocket. “We’re-… Oh?”
Wangji blinks at the abrupt pause and the frown that accompanies it. His gaze follows where Huaisang is looking, straight ahead of them.
It appears that on their way back to their company, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin have been intercepted by a group of fellow teenagers. Tourists, Lan Wangji recognizes. And non-cultivators, too.
Wei Wuxian is happily talking to some of them, some are pointing at Suibian on his hip and he answers their questions in the nice, easy way he always does.
For once, he is not the cause of Lan Wangji’s concern – Jiang Wanyin does not seem to be dealing with the attention as well as his brother is. He has his chin up and his frown on, answering their questions with curt answers. Lan Wangji can see that he is on the verge of snapping, but it seems like he does not want to cause a scene after all, and is trying very hard not to sneer at the unwanted flirting.
For a second it seems that maybe it might work, but then one of the boys drape an arm around his shoulders and he freezes before pointedly stepping away, one hand already balled into a fist.
Lan Wangji only has a second to process Nie Huaisang dumping the snacks he’d been holding back into Wangji’s arms and then jogging towards the scene.
“A-Cheng!” he calls even before he reaches them.
Lan Wangji doesn’t hear the rest, but he watches as Nie Huaisang weaves flawlessly into their little crowd and sticks himself to Jiang Wanyin’s side.
Jiang Wanyin stops himself from punching a defenseless – rude, Lan Wangji thinks, but still defenseless – guy in the face and instinctively wraps an arm around Nie Huaisang as Nie Huaisang greets the unfamiliar faces, perfectly pleasant and friendly. He drapes the black and purple scarf around Jiang Wanyin’s neck as if to hammer in his point, and the strangers finally back away a step, perhaps finally realizing that they were being too close for comfort.
Wei Wuxian seems to tune in on what is happening and he smoothly transplants himself to Jiang Wanyin’s other side and expertly navigates the conversation to its natural end.
The tourists said goodbye, and that was that.
They walk back towards where Lan Wangji is still standing with an armful of extra spicy snacks. Jiang Cheng leads the way, Nie Huaisang still stuck to his side, while Wei Wuxian follows them with a concerned frown.
“Jiang Cheng, I’m sorry, I didn’t know they’d be too familiar-”
“It’s fine.” Jiang Cheng says, sounding more tired than angry. He looks over his companions, including Lan Wangji. “Are we good? Can we go back now?”
“Mm-hm. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us. We should make it just in time for dinner.” Nie Huaisang says, as easily as ever, though Lan Wangji catches the way he’s rubbing Jiang Cheng’s back as they start walking back towards the direction of Cloud Recesses.
Wei Wuxian grins sheepishly as he takes his snacks back from Lan Wangji. “Thanks for holding on to these, Lan Zhan…”
Lan Wangji nods. “I will carry half.”
“How very kind of Hanguang Jun! Would you like to try one?”
He shakes his head.
“Just a bite?”
He doesn’t reply.
“They taste amazing, you know. C’mon, just try!”
He starts walking away. Wei Wuxian laughs and catches up to him. This time, they are the ones to trail after Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang as they made their way back to Cloud Recesses.
They remain a good distance behind, out of earshot if they talk quietly enough, so Lan Wangji decides it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
“Lan Zhan~” Wei Wuxian sings, already munching on a small pack of what looks like hot cheetos, only somehow more garishly orange than anything Lan Wangji has ever seen.
“Your brother seemed uncomfortable. Will he be alright?”
“Ah, he’s okay. He’s just not very good with crowds like those. He knows what a lot of people say about his temper, you know. He really tries not to let it get the best of him.” he answers, a small fond smile on his face as he watches the other two walking ahead of them. They aren’t stuck to each other’s side anymore, but they are still holding hands. “Anyway, Nie-xiong’s got him. He’ll be fine.”
“They are close.”
“Oh, yes, they’re married, with like, fifty dogs, twenty cats, one turtle and the entire wild bird population of Qinghe.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow slightly. “Entire population…?”
“Yep.” Wei Wuxian nods. “Check this out.” – and before Lan Wangji could remind him ‘no shouting in Cloud Recesses’ , he calls out loud to the other two: “Oi, A-Sang, A-Cheng, how many lovebirds do you have in Qinghe?”
It doesn’t even take a second to get an answer as both stop walking to look back at him and say, “Twenty-two.”
Lan Wangji is impressed at the coordination.
“Why are you asking, Wei-xiong?” Nie Huaisang asks.
“Nothing, just curious!”
Jiang Cheng shoots him a look before shaking his head. “Weirdo.” Then he tugs at Nie Huaisang’s hand and continues walking.
Wei Wuxian beams proudly at Lan Wangji, gesturing towards his brother with a flourish. “See? How mean. You can tell he’s feeling better already.”