While others might find some measure of pride in being the most un-Lan-like-Lan, all Lan Jingyi can think about is how much of a failure it makes him.
It’s not like he doesn’t try. He does, really. He copies the rules and books assigned to him (despite the initial grumbling and complaining), controls his emotions until it feels like his heart might burst, follows and attempts to enforce the sect rules whenever possible, but it is never enough. Him acting like a proper Lan is as impossible as, let’s say, getting Sect Leader Jiang to crack a smile at one of Senior Wei’s many bad jokes.
Why can’t you think before you act! the elders admonish him, and Jingyi always bites back the words that threaten to rise up. He can feel their expectations, more and more of them piling up onto his shoulders as the months fly by. You should start acting like a proper member of the Lan sect , they tell him, you’re too unrestrained .
I’m trying , he wants to scream, I’m trying, okay! But it’s hard acting like someone you’re not! Instead, he merely takes the words with a bowed head and halfhearted apologies that leave a bitter taste on his tongue.
It is always during scoldings like these that he exhibits the most Lan-like self-restraint, he thinks wryly, alternating between staring at the ground and his clenched fists. Through years of experience, he’s found that the harsh words are easier to bear like this. Jingyi is no stranger to being scolded. This incident, however, is particularly bad.
He knows that it was mostly his fault for starting an all-out brawl with a group of guest disciples, but they were insulting Senior Wei, and while Jingyi has insulted the man on more than one occasion, his insults are different from the pure mockery that had dripped from their every word. At first, he tried to ignore it, the same way he pretends he doesn’t hear what the other disciples say about his… un-Lan-ness, but then, one of them called Senior Wei the “son of a whore”, and what remaining self-control he had promptly vanished.
The disciple was down on the ground before Jingyi himself realised that he had thrown a punch. It only escalated from there. The other guest disciples joined in, and in hindsight, picking a fight with a group of people was not a good idea at all, especially if said people were cultivators. Junior cultivators, but cultivators, no less. Still, Jingyi figured that it meant he had even less to lose, so he threw himself into the fray, fists flying and cursing them with every expletive he managed to pick up from their night hunts outside the Cloud Recesses.
Needless to say, it did not end well. While the guest cultivators were disciplined accordingly, Jingyi himself still has not been given a punishment. Yet. Because there are definitely going to be repercussions for this, he knows, but he cannot bring himself to regret it. Senior Wei would’ve done the same thing , he thinks resolutely, facing the elders’ tongue lashing with his back ramrod straight and head bowed down.
Finally, after a long speech about sect values and image that he’s heard at least a thousand times, they let him off with copying the sect rules five times while doing a handstand.
Part of him is grateful for the light punishment, but another part of him goes into blind panic, because he knows something as serious as this should have landed him a far harsher punishment. To him, it sounds an awful lot like they have given up.
He’d like to think that he isn’t that hopeless — sure, sometimes he ran his mouth and got into (relatively) small fights, but he wasn’t a lost cause, right... right?
Except, he probably is, he realises with a sinking heart. This incident had probably been the last straw for the elders, and now he has to live with the knowledge that he has failed as a member of the clan. He swallows hard as he walks back to his room, using whatever scraps of self-control he has left to rein in his tears.
He’ll show them that he can be the perfect Lan. He has to.
The next morning, Lan Jingyi gets out of bed at exactly five in the morning.
He does not run in the corridors.
He does not laugh loudly and swing an arm over Lan Sizhui’s shoulder in his usual cheerful greeting.
He does not shout at Senior Wei for behaving shamelessly at breakfast.
He copies his share of rules quietly in the library, only looking up a few times after feeling Sizhui’s concerned gaze on him to reassure his friend that he is fine.
Lunch is a relatively quiet affair. Senior Wei causes a ruckus, as usual, but unlike the previous times Jingyi does not interfere. It takes every ounce of restraint he possesses to continue silently taking small spoonfuls of food as he watches Lan Qiren’s face turn the colour of Yunmengjiang’s robes.
It is much easier after that. After lunch, he excuses himself and returns to the library, where he continues copying the sect rules wordlessly, unaware of the worried glances various people aim at him.
He gets through the entire day without a single mishap, and while he’s proud of himself, something about it makes his gut twist painfully. He should be happy — happy that he’s finally proven that he’s able to act like a proper lan, but all he can think about is how utterly suffocating it had been.
He does not know if he can keep it up for much longer.
He keeps at it for almost a full week before someone decides to finally stage an intervention.
Harbouring a fear of ghosts (and consequently, things that resemble ghosts) as a cultivator is pretty ridiculous, he knows, but he cannot help the yelp that slips out when he sees a dark figure at the window of his room an hour past curfew.
“Easy there, it’s just me!” the grinning face of one Senior Wei greets him as he climbs through the window.
“S-senior Wei!” he hurriedly sheaths his sword. “What are you doing here?” It’s past curfew , he wants to add, but the man probably already knows that, and doesn’t care.
Wei Wuxian straightens himself out, his gaze turning into one that seems way too serious for him. Jingyi finds himself wanting to shrink away from those eyes that suddenly seem so aware . It is only because of his years spent practicing the Lan clan's self-control that he is kept in place.
“Lan Jingyi,” he says, taking a step closer, “You—”
A hand thwacks the back of his head, hard enough to send him sputtering, but not enough for it to hurt.
“—can be kind of an idiot.”
Of all the things he had been expecting, this was definitely not one of them.
“Hey!—” he starts to say indignantly, before remembering that he was supposed to be trying to be the perfect Lan. So much for that , he thinks bitterly, his mind already pinpointing where he had gone wrong in the short exchange with Senior Wei.
“You’re trying so hard to be the perfect Lan, but Jingyi — you’re fine as you are!"
His rule-breaking senior leans against the window ledge. “Do you have a goatee that you refuse to shave? Or a stick up your ass? If you don't — then why are you trying to hard to act like that old man?” When Jingyi remains silent, he continues, with the kind of grin he usually wears when he’s talking utter nonsense, “Besides, Lan Jingyi wouldn’t be Lan Jingyi if he wasn’t Lan Jingyi.”
“What— stop talking rubbish!” His exasperated cry is met by laugher as Senior Wei turns away.
“My job here is done~” he singsongs as he slips out through the window.
The next morning, Lan Jingyi is all smiles as he flings an arm around Lan Sizhui, chattering on about something one of Hanguang-Jun’s rabbits had done. His friend is visibly relieved at this, and part of him feels guilty for having worried him, along with Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun.
Breakfast is chaotic, with Senior Wei and a few of the juniors bursting into the room, yelling something about chasing after a few of Hanguang-Jun’s rabbits that had strayed into the main compound. Jingyi joins them in a heartbeat, letting out a peal of exhilarated laughter as they run after the elusive creatures, his steps and heart lighter than they have been in ages.
Here, as Lan Jingyi, he is free.