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The ribbon

Chapter Text

On a particular sunny day, the YunMeng Jiang Sect Leader, Jiang FengMian, was visiting GuSu Lan for important sect matters. He had brought his barely-old-enough-to-walk son along with him at the insistence of Madame Yu, who was very displeased with him for not providing his son with enough attention.

The one who became responsible for looking after the toddler and keeping him entertained, as the adults discussed business?

Lan Huan.

Although Lan Huan was a kind-hearted boy and would gladly look after any children, this particular Jiang child was much more feisty than his own toddler brother, A-Zhan. Lan Huan truly had his hands full looking after this child.

“Ah, ah, ah… don't pull on Huan-gēge's hair,” he gently admonished the pouting boy.

But the boy continued to reach with his grabby little hands, and as soon as Lan Huan managed to free his hair, something else was already caught between those chubby fingers.

The child pulled.

The ribbon floated free from Lan Huan's forehead.

Oh no… thought Lan Huan, his eyes widening in horror.

Even as Lan Huan assigned to himself a punishment of two shíchen writing rules while doing the handstand, he swore to himself that his Uncle QiRen would never find out about this.

I'm so lucky Uncle isn't here…

The child, Jiang Cheng, happy to have gotten his way, put the ribbon in his mouth and began to nibble on it, unaware that he had just promised himself to the sect heir of GuSu Lan.

Chapter Text

It was years later, when it happened again.

Lan Huan had only just received his courtesy name and moved into the hánshì to live by himself. He was therefore no longer considered a child, although he was not fully an adult either. Even so, a certain measure of independence was expected of him now, but handling the new responsibilities that came with this independence had been more challenging than Lan Huan had thought they would be.

At the end of the day, Lan Huan was tired to the bone.

He took off his forehead ribbon, washed it, and hung it out to dry, before trudging back towards his bed and then, quickly shrugging off his outer robes, he collapsed on top of it and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning he woke up to find his ribbon gone.

“Oh no… oh no…!” he muttered to himself in a quiet panic. “Shūfù is going to kill me!”

He searched every corner of the small garden surrounding the hánshì, then went inside to search every nook and cranny within the hánshì as well, although he was certain he had hung his ribbon up on the bamboo pole outside last night to dry.

Still nothing.

“This is bad…!” he quietly moaned to himself as he went back outside to look through the wolfberry bushes once again, only to be interrupted by a young boy’s voice just beyond the wall separating the hánshì’s garden from a winding corridor.

“Why is there a pretty ribbon here?”

That's mine!

Lan Huan ran towards the voice without a second thought, forgetting his outer robes, and forgetting to cover his forehead with the spare ribbon, which each Lan had in their possession in case their main ribbon was unavailable for wearing. It was only when he reached the owner of the voice, that he remembered himself.

I forgot to wear… and I ran… I broke so many rules…

He felt his face heat up, but it was already too late.

The boy, dressed in YunMeng Jiang's deep purple robes, was staring at him bashfully, ribbon dangling in one hand. The boy was young.

As young as A-Zhan, Lan Huan realized to both his immense relief and dismay.

“Uhm… h-hello?” the boy stuttered.

“H-hi,” Lan Huan returned.

“I, uh… didn't mean to intrude,” the boy muttered, averting his gaze.

Lan Huan took a deep breathe to compose himself, aware that he had broken all manner of propriety by walking in only his undergarments. He, a senior and sect heir to GuSu Lan, had embarrassed himself in front of a child only his brother’s age.

But this boy was much too young to be part of the group of visiting disciples that was studying at GuSu Lan. There was a possibility that he didn't know about the significance of the ribbon he held in his hand. Perhaps some dignity could still be salvaged.

“It's alright,” said Lan Huan, forcing the calm, gentle smile he's known for onto his face. He placed his hands in front of himself in greeting. “I’m Lan Huan, courtesy name XiChen.”

A flicker of startled recognition flashed across the boy’s eyes, though he was quick to mimic Lan Huan’s gestures. “Jiang Cheng,” he introduced himself curtly.

Jiang Cheng… wasn’t that the name of the heir to YunMeng Jiang?

Oh… that's right. Uncle has a meeting with Sect Leader Jiang today.

Lan Huan felt the beginnings of a new flush rising to his cheeks.

A sect heir Jiang Cheng's age would have already been educated to some extent in the different customs and cultures of the main five sects. Did this boy know of the ribbon's significance?

This was really, really bad!

“Can you give me back my ribbon?”

The boy blinked, as if surprised. “Oh, it's yours?”

“Yes.”

The boy offered the ribbon in an outward stretch, their fingers brushing against each other as Lan Huan took his ribbon back.

“Thank you.”

A bright blush suddenly covered the bridge of Jiang Cheng’s nose.

“T-that’s, uh... I mean… I’ll be going then,” he stuttered and pointed in a direction that Lan Huan didn't care to know about.

The boy turned around and ran off, leaving Lan Huan with a tingling sensation in his fingertips and a few embarrassing stray thoughts.

Young Master Jiang has a really nice blush…

Chapter Text

The third incident happened during the Sunshot Campaign when the Wens attacked them in an ambush. In the unfolding chaos Lan Huan and Jiang Cheng became separated from the others.

As they fled, the adrenaline still rushing through their veins, Lan Huan could vaguely feel an ache starting to build up in his left arm. He did not dare to glance down to see what was wrong with the limb.

His companion suddenly grabbed him by his sleeve and pulled him sideways.

“Where are you going?” he panted.

“River,” Jiang Cheng answered sharply.

Focusing on his surroundings, Lan Huan could indeed hear that they were heading towards the sound of running water.

“Why?”

“Because you're bleeding out and those Wen dogs will be able to track us by the trail you’re leaving behind.”

His companion turned to give a pointed look at the left arm he was still profusely ignoring.

They got rid of their followers by jumping into the river. Afterwards, they found a cave to shelter them for the coming night.

“We need to tie your arm before you lose too much blood,” Jiang Cheng said. “Do you have anything we can use?”

“I… no.”

Clicking his tongue in frustration, Jiang Cheng looked around in the cave for anything that could be of help, but then his gaze strayed back to Lan Huan. There was an odd glint in his eye that made Lan Huan feel very uncomfortable.

“W-what is it?” he asked, but instead of providing him with any answer, Jiang Cheng reached out towards his face.

Realizing what the other was about to do, Lan Huan pulled back in shock. “No!” he protested and struggled to stop the other from getting near his head.

“I don't have time for your Lan manners and propriety,” Jiang Cheng snarled.

And with that, he made a feint towards Lan Huan’s forehead only to grasp for the end of the ribbon instead and pull.

The ribbon let loose and without another word Jiang Cheng went to work to cut off Lan Huan’s bloodstream just above the wound. They remained silent afterwards, as Lan Huan was furious with the other for disrespecting him so, whereas Jiang Cheng was much too occupied with finding a way to return to the group.

Eventually, the two did manage to reunite with the rest.

***

It took three more days for Jiang Cheng to find enough courage to apologize to Lan Huan.

“It was never my intention to insult you, ZeWu-Jun,” he said. “If those Wen dogs hadn't injured you, I wouldn’t have done what I did in that cave. I know your ribbon is important to you, because it’s a symbol to mourn and remember your family by. I would never disrespect that.”

And after that apology, Lan Huan could no longer be angry with the young man in front of him. In light of the losses they both had suffered at the hands of the Wens, what great injury had Lan Huan been dealt by having Jiang WanYin force a betrothal upon him in order to save his life?

He let out a small sigh and smiled. “I accept,” he replied.

He wasn't sure whether he was accepting the apology or the betrothal.

Chapter Text

Lan Huan did his best to pretend that the incident at the cave had never happened and, to his relief, the other man did not appear in any hurry to pursue the matter with him either. Both of them had their attentions drawn away by the burden of restoring and running their own sect and Lan Huan also became much too occupied with his sworn brothers to give the new Sect Leader of YunMeng Jiang more than a cursory polite greeting when crossing paths with him. Consequently, over the course of more than a decade, the issue of Lan Huan’s betrothal faded into the back of his mind and, upon entering his seclusion, the possibility that he would ever marry another person only weakened further in his mind.

It was therefore a great shock to Lan Huan when his betrothal was brought back to the forefront of his thoughts in the most arbitrary way possible.

It happened when he heard an unknown, yet strangely familiar voice, shouting outside of his hánshì.

“Damn you little hell beast!!! Stop running from me, you— no! Bad boy! Let that go right now!!”

Blinking in confusion, Lan Huan quickly grabbed his spare ribbon and, while tying it into his hair, walked out of his hánshì to see who was causing all this commotion in his garden. Only to almost trip over a stray object.

That stray object turned out to be the clip he had used to secure his primary forehead ribbon (which he had washed last night) onto the bamboo pole in his garden in order for it to dry out. And the person causing a loud ruckus in his garden? Jiang Cheng.

He never expected to see Jiang WanYin of all people again. He certainly did not expect to see the other Sect Leader fighting one of his little brother's pet rabbits, the little animal pulling on one end of his primary forehead ribbon while Jiang WanYin held fast onto the other end.

“S-sect Leader Lan!” the other man exclaimed in surprise.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Huan replied in greeting, a neutral smile pasted onto his mien.

“This is not what it looks like,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Sect Leader Jiang is not arguing with Xiao Bai about my ribbon?” Lan Huan asked. He felt the smile on his face become slightly more genuine, as the other man sputtered to form a proper response.

Coughing softly in embarrassment, Jiang Cheng replied: “I— no. Certainly not. I was training Xiao Bai.”

“Oh? Sect Leader Jiang knows how to train rabbits? Like spiritual dogs?”

Although Jiang Cheng was caught in the most transparent of lies, he did not let up. “Of course,” he said; then, turning to the small white fluff-ball, ordered, “Xiao Bai, sit.”

Miraculously, as if taking pity on Jiang Cheng (who sorely needed a bit of reprieve), the rabbit did as it was told and sat on its hind legs, its front paws raised in a gesture mimicking a civil greeting. The two Sect Leaders could only stare in bewilderment.

“Uh…”

The silence that stretched after this was awkward. Neither man appeared to know what to say to the other, since the two of them had never been close, interacting only as distant acquaintances with each other when it concerned sect matters.

It was Jiang Cheng who first broke the silence.

“Are you still in seclusion?” he asked Lan Huan.

The mood around them dampened.

Lan Huan, who had not been expecting such a question, did not know how to reply to it. But that was fine, because Jiang Cheng did not need his answer. Instead, he boldly offered his own opinion: “You should end it, since it didn't work out.”

The frankness with which the other stated those words offended Lan Huan. “W-wha— what gives you the right to tell me what to do!?” he exclaimed, but Jiang Cheng was not in the least deterred.

“As a man who has walked the same path you do, I understand what you're going through; and as a fellow Sect Leader, as someone who has known you for almost two and a half decades, I have every right to lecture you.”

In that moment, Lan Huan’s view of Jiang Cheng shifted. What this man said was true. They had walked the same path, experienced similar fates.

They both suffered the destruction of their sects and the loss of their family at the hand of the Wens. They had both taken part in the Sunshot Campaign to enact justice and revenge, and afterwards rebuild their sect from the ashes of tragedy. Both became Sect Leader at too young an age. And although Wei WuXian turned out to have been innocent, this man had for thirteen years thought differently, he had believed for all that time that he’d been betrayed by own brother. The exposure of their ignorance (Lan Huan blinded by his trust in A-Yao; Jiang Cheng buckled under the weight of his own insecurities) still smarted them both even now.

Indeed, Jiang Cheng did know intimately what Lan Huan was going through.

Lan Huan wondered in that moment, as he studied the other man, why he had never been closer to Jiang WanYin. Why had he never reached out to him in the two and a half decades they had known each other?

Wait. No.

A sudden memory of a toddler pulling at his hair jolted awake in Lan Huan's mind when his eyes landed on the ribbon that was still securely held in Jiang WanYin's hand.

Not two.

I've known this man for three and a half decades. And I've been betrothed to him thrice over for just as long.

Four times over, in fact, if Lan Huan were to count this very moment as a betrothal too.

A small smile found its way back to Lan Huan’s lips.

“You're right,” he acquiesced.

Who else, if not my own fiancé, the one I’ve been unfairly neglecting for all these years, has the right to admonish me for all my foolishness?

His admission seemed to both surprise and please his longtime betrothed.

“O-of course I'm right!” He was just crossing his arms, when suddenly he stopped in his motions and blinked. “Wait. Which part am I right about?”

“All of it,” Lan Huan replied. “I'm going to leave seclusion. Thank you for lecturing me, A-Cheng.”

“Humphf! I'm just glad to hear yo—”

The blush that sprouted across the bridge on his fiancé's nose and fanned over his cheeks was just as nice as Lan Huan remembered it to be from their second meeting.

“W-what did you call me?!”

“You just reminded me that we've known each other for a very long time. I thought it appropriate that we should leave behind such formalities from now on.”

His betrothed sputtered for a moment before coming to a decision. Then, he resolutely crossed his arms, although he bashfully averted his eyes and his blush never left his cheeks. “You can call me WanYin.”

It was disappointing, but not unexpected. No matter how much Lan Huan wanted to, he had neglected his betrothed for too long; he had no right to call him so familiarly by his birth name. Being allowed to call his fiancé by his courtesy name without any titles was already a great concession on WanYin’s part.

Lan Huan dipped his head in a slight nod. “WanYin,” he repeated. “Then, you can call me XiChen.”

“Right.” Jiang Cheng nodded back in turn. “Well, I should bring this little monster back to JingYi,” he continued, indicating the rabbit that had still not let go of the ribbon. “That brat was supposed to take care of it,” he muttered by way of explanation, while bending down to pick the fluff-ball up, “but he ran off with Jin Ling.”

Finally, pulling the ribbon free of the rabbit's grip, Jiang Cheng offered the piece of fabric to Lan Huan in an eerie imitation of their past.

“Here.”

“Thank you.”

Their fingers brushed once more against each other as Lan Huan took back his ribbon. This time too he could not escape the tingling sensation that prickled with such delight at his fingertips.

“I should go,” said Jiang Cheng, turning around to leave. “I guess… I'll see you next meeting?”

“You can come visit GuSu Lan whenever you want,” Lan Huan said hastily. He did not know what had come over him, but he did not want them to go back to being distant acquaintances who only saw each other for sect business.

Jiang Cheng seemed rather taken aback by Lan Huan's outburst. “Oh. Ah, well... then I guess you can come visit YunMeng Jiang too, if you want. Let me know in a letter beforehand?”

For some inexplicable reason, Lan Huan felt ridiculously happy hearing those words.

He wants me to write him letters!

His heart sped up with joy and the small smile, which had been lingering on his lips thus far, grew into a big grin. “I'll definitely take you up on the offer, WanYin!”

“Then, I'll hear from you soon… XiChen-xiōng.”

A fleeting smile touched upon his lips and then it was gone; Jiang Cheng left the garden, unaware of the massive storm he had unfurled inside Lan Huan’s heart. For in that moment, the Sect Leader of GuSu Lan had been graced by a beauty that was unequalled in this world.

I heard that the lotus-covered lakes provide the most beautiful sights within YunMeng Jiang, but that has to be a lie. Those flowers would all wither in shame, if they were forced to compete with their master’s smile…

Contemplating his feelings for Jiang WanYin, Lan Huan would still be standing there rooted to the spot for another shíchen to come, as if struck by a bolt of lightning.

Granted, he might as well have been, because he came to realize that—

…I'm in love with WanYin.

Chapter Text

Lan Huan tried not to overwhelm his betrothed too much with his attentions, for he did not wish to impose, but (in his zeal to win Jiang WanYin's affections) he was uncertain whether he had succeeded. The one letter he sent every week quickly turned into three and their length doubled. Visitations to YunMeng Jiang, too, escalated in frequency and duration in the following half year from a single day once a month to two consecutive days biweekly. Jiang Cheng accepted him without complaint every time, however, and the YunMeng Jiang disciples, for some odd reason, always seemed extremely pleased with Lan Huan’s visits.

Once Lan Huan had overheard them whispering something about “getting rid of the single dog status” and “even being blacklisted won't be an issue”, but he was uncertain what the meaning behind those words were and, when his betrothed came for him, the disciples quickly stopped their gossiping and went back to work.

With the more frequent interactions between the two Sect Leaders, there also came a closer cooperation between the two sects. Today, Lan Huan's visit to YunMeng Jiang was not simply a social call; he had brought Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian with him to help prepare in a joint nighthunt. It was gratifying to witness the mending of the relationship between Jiang WanYin and Wei Wuxian, even though an awkwardness still lingered between them. Even so, no amount of awkwardness between the two brothers could trump the copious levels generated by the shameless couple and their free displays of public affection.

They had barely touched their dinner when Jiang Cheng slammed his chopsticks down. “I’m done!” he ground out.

“Already?” Wei Ying asked, sitting in his husband’s lap.

“You don't get to say that!” Jiang Cheng yelled, pointing a severe finger in their direction. “You two keep behaving so disgustingly and I will puke all over you!”

“You can't puke when your stomach’s empty,” Wei Ying said.

“Ugh!!”

With a shove, Jiang Cheng pushed away from the table and stomped off.

“Ah…” Lan Huan stared after his betrothed. “Perhaps I should go after him.”

This was the perfect opportunity to have some time alone with his betrothed.

Turning to one of YunMeng Jiang's servants, he relayed for some dishes to be brought to Jiang Cheng’s private chambers. Then, he followed after his fiancé.

It turned out that the other had been waiting for him just outside.

“I knew you would leave,” Jiang Cheng said and smirked. “Even for the benevolent ZeWu-Jun those two are too shameless to stomach.”

A soft giggle escaped Lan Huan at that. “They might be a bit much, yes, but they're just trying to show each other their affections.”

Jiang Cheng huffed. “Even then, I wouldn't be caught dead like that.”

“I know you wouldn't. It's not in your character to be so open, but you have your own ways of showing you care.”

There was that marvelous blush dusting his fiancé’s cheeks again. WanYin was so easily flustered by such small compliments, and yet Lan Huan never tired of seeing him so; in fact, his blush only became more and more endearing each time he showed it.

Lan Huan gave his betrothed a gentle smile.

“I asked for some dishes to be brought up to your private chambers. We can enjoy them there, while we discuss how to proceed with tomorrow's nighthunt.”

***

Lan Huan woke up in an unfamiliar room with a nagging headache and not remembering a single thing of the previous night. What had happened?

Frowning, he brought his hand up to nurse his temple. Only to realize that his ribbon was missing.

Oh no…!

With a gasp he sat up straight in bed, the covers falling off of him to reveal that he was only wearing his undergarments.

What happened!?

His panic rising, he took in his surroundings to find his clothes neatly folded on a nearby table, his ribbon carefully laid on top of it, while his xiāo, LieBing, and his sword, ShuoYue, were placed beside the pile of clothes. He quickly scrambled over to the table. A short note addressed to him had been trapped underneath LieBing, and Lan Huan instantly recognized the flowing calligraphy as that belonging to his fiancé. He picked it up and read:

XiChen-xiōng,

My apologies for allowing Wei WuXian the opportunity to embarrass us by tinkering with our food. I will kill him for you as soon as I finish writing.

I hope it was not too forward of me, but while you were inebriated, I took the liberty of undressing you and putting you to bed. You will find all your belongings with this letter.

For the sake of your dignity, XiChen-xiōng, please don’t ever consume alcohol again.

Jiang Cheng

Reading through the note a couple of times, Lan Huan felt his face grow increasingly hot.

WanYin has… undressed me…

It was highly inappropriate for an unmarried couple to do such a thing. But then, from what he could discern reading the letter, it seemed that the one who had behaved inappropriately last night was Lan Huan, and WanYin had only been as helpful as he could be under the circumstances.

Lan Huan read the letter one more time and this time his eyes were drawn to the last two characters written on the paper.

Jiang Cheng. Not WanYin. Not his courtesy name, but his birth name.

Lan Huan’s heart sped up with unbridled joy.

Does this mean WanYin has allowed me to…?

Lan Huan bit his bottom lip in anticipation, and then, softly, he whispered the name he'd yearned to say for so long.

“A-Cheng…”