Love was a foolish little thing. It gave you strength, but it made you vulnerable, it gave you hope, but it could break you faster than any battle.
However, to Lan Xichen, love brought paralyzing terror.
To Lan Xichen, love was a terrifying way to lose oneself.
During his first year of seclusion, after the events of the Guanyin Temple, he mourned. He mourned deeply, not only for the loss of his Sworn Brothers, but for every tormented soul and innocent person affected by their journey because of the people he loved. He also mourned the hopes and dreams and goals that passed away to open space for fresh wounds, hushed whispers and silent tears.
During his second and third year of seclusion, Lan Xichen contemplated. He contemplated all the what ifs surrounding every tiny detail of what happened in the last decade and a half. Every tormented waking hour was spent calculating what could have been if he had realized the schemes running around him and playing him as if he was just another game of Go. He had been a blinded fool, and it consumed him from the inside.
During his fourth year of seclusion, there was a deafening silence. He felt empty, cathartic, void-like. His mind and his heart had exhausted themselves and, at first, he imagined he was finally beginning to succumb to a Qi Deviation almost poetically close to what Nie Mingjue had gone through - and wouldn’t that be an ironic end, dying by the same circumstances as a person he failed to protect? But no, he was just tired. And so, in his mind and in his spirit, there was silence.
During the earlier half of his fifth year of seclusion, Lan Xichen felt fire swim in his veins. After the deceptive numbness came the bloodlust and anger at himself, at everyone who failed the people dear to him, at every single bird in the sky who dared chirp happily and move on as if his ground had not crumbled beneath his feat. How dared the world go on without his Sworn Brothers? How dared the world go on, when he was still alive while so many innocent lives perished?
But also… how could things be normal as the world went on beyond the doors of his residence, if his grievances flowed through him like a deep river to drown in but his responsibilities kept him from doing so until he brought justice to the families ruined because of the turmoils between Nie Mingjue, Jin Guangyao… and himself?
During the later half of his fifth year of seclusion, he decided to do something. Do something to pay his penance - not to relieve the burden of his degraded conscience but rather bring at least a faint resemblance of closure to all loose ends left behind by those vile machinations of his era. He had no intention of working towards his cultivation - much less his ascension, not until peace was brought forward on his shoulders, on his immaculate skin that remained smooth unlike the suffering he failed to protect even his brother from.
So, at last, at the end of his sixth year of seclusion, the once revered Lan Xichen finally spoke to another living being for the first time since he had isolated himself, and stood in front of his uncle and of his brother to announce he was finally ready to take on the world again - starting, of course, by reacclimating himself to his old Sect Leader duties.
For someone who had been always been so methodical at important things, two months were perfectly enough for Sect Leader Lan Xichen to resurface and be caught up with everything he missed in the past six years - although his brother’s succinct words accompanied by meaningful looks from Wei Wuxian whenever there were ‘saucier’ details were to be thanked for that.
However, out of all the sects he had received updates about, he quickly noticed how both conveniently failed to even allude to the Jiang Sect. Lan Xichen figured the wounds of a painful brotherhood were still fresh for the brothers, so maybe it was time to take advantage of a well-informed and well-intentioned albeit not exactly rule-abiding Lan to pinpoint what exactly was the status of the other clan.
Of course, Lan Jingyi was more than glad to be of help and promptly covered him in an avalanche of information (gossip, if they were to be fully honest, but he was going to let the boy slide this time) over a few cups of tea during a tranquil evening.
The conversation resulted in a revelation to Lan Xichen, that his initial supposition had been incorrect and that what plagued the Jiang Sect was no longer the struggles of a difficult brotherhood (Lan Jingyi had been quick to point out that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin had met multiple times in the previous years and had reached an amicable level of civility, mostly incentivated by the leader of the Jin clan, Jin Rulan).
The ‘enemy’, this time, was someone else. Or, better saying, something else.
As it was, according to the younger Lan, people believed a nefarious curse had been cast over the hot-tempered Sect Leader but “inside sources” (at this point he knew Sect Leader Jin had been involved, for the kids were like peas in a pod) actually discovered that Sect Leader Jiang had reached a turning point after constant pressure from his clan elders and scholars for a possible alliance with one of the bigger clans - as if the Jiang clan could not stand by themselves, and here he could pinpoint just what would have made the man flow with ire.
The pressure, according to Lan Jingyi, went on for a few years and increased steadily until it lead to an incredible outburst of anger from Jiang Wanyin and resulted in the Sect Leader ceasing any and all communication with the outside world beyond his head disciples and two trusted maids - if they could even be called so, given they were much closer to being generals or even assassin-like guards.
From Discussion Conferences to any other event in which he was expected to appear, a small entourage from his head disciples would be sent instead and very little would be heard about the man at all, if not from the measly crumbs woven through his formal letters to other sect leaders.
By the time Lan Jingyi had deemed the onslaught of information enough and had retreated to his quarters before anyone could bother him about curfew, Lan Xichen had finally digested the situation.
Jiang Wanyin was being pressured into marriage and, in exchange for a shot at peace, he had secluded himself almost entirely. That notion made Lan Xichen feel very contemplative, musing over the context of his own voluntary seclusion and what brought him there versus the not-so-voluntary seclusion of Sect Leader Jiang and what forced him there - and just how unjust it felt.
In all honesty, there wasn’t much he could do to assist the other Sect Leader in solving that issue without giving him more reasons to make him retreat further… but both of them were equally capable of approaching things under a more practical, business-like logic, and with that thought his brain supplied the early beginnings of an idea. A tiny, frail seedling of an idea, barely there… but Lan Xichen was nothing if not patient, and even more determined.
He had a letter to write and, hopefully, a meeting to schedule.
It took him long enough to write the letter after properly formulating a plan, and it took him even longer to inform his uncle of his ideas - surprisingly, he was the one who took the least effort be convinced of it, perhaps aided by the certainty of Lan Xichen’s righteousness and propriety especially when in public when in comparison to his brother and his brother’s husband.
Waiting for a reply from Sect Leader Jiang provided said brother enough time to figure out something was building up from within the cloudy mist that surrounded the early mornings in the mountains and, well, gossip was forbidden but he should have expected his uncle and his brother to have conversations about it.
“This is less than ideal, brother.” Lan Wangji repeated for what felt like the tenth time in the past following days since they talked about his plans regarding the Sect Leader from Yunmeng - what an awkward conversation that had been considering the already existent semi-formal bond between the two clans if Wei Wuxian was still to be considered a member of the Jiang Sect (he clearly was, but public relations were complicated), but he had to admit he expected a further degree of comprehension from his brother.
Still, Lan Xichen maintained his smile and nodded almost distractedly to the younger. “Trust me, I am aware. But you would do anything for Master Wei’s happiness, and you can deduce seeing his brother well and back to his former energy would most certainly aid in that direction.” He pointed out just as he was tying off a Qiankun pouch and securing it inside his sleeves.
“In any case, I am leaving for Yunmeng in a few moments and Sect Leader Jiang responded to my letter saying he would wait for my arrival for further… negotiations.” Lan Xichen told the younger and moved closer to him for a moment, resting a hand on his shoulders. “Don’t worry, Wangji, and please don’t tell Master Wei so soon or he will most certainly try to intervene.” He concluded with a small breath of laughter before finally leaving the Hanshi.
“Good luck, and be careful.” He heard Wangji’s voice trail behind him like a reminder to be prudent and wise in his actions, and with that he made his way to their uncle’s quarters to announce his departure - Lan Qiren could easily see the logic in his plan and that reassured him - before stepping on Shuoyue and taking a deep breath.
May the Gods be with me and please may this work, he thought to himself before speeding his sword’s impulse through the air.
Traveling to Yunmeng by foot or horse was slightly exhausting, but a cultivator of Lan Xichen’s level could very easily endure doing the same travel by sword and reach the same destination in a considerably shorter amount of time. As things currently stood, is was not common for the Lan Sect Leader to leave home so soon after returning from seclusion, but arming himself with the purpose of helping another sect gave him enough leeway to reach Lotus Pier with a neutral expression on his face as if it was perfectly natural for him to land on the wooden structure that was occupied by Sect Leader Jiang.
“Welcome, Sect Leader Lan. I hope your trip was pleasant, and I am pleased to be graced by your presence.” The flurry of dark purple robes bowed formally in a deep greeting, nearly making him blush.
“Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang, for receiving me at such short notice and for welcoming me to Yunmeng once more.” He bowed just as deeply in return, aware both were being closely watched by the people of Lotus Pier who had last seen Sect Leader Jiang in public so long ago, and followed the man as he led them through the bustling streets up until the Jiang residence.
As soon as they crossed the main gates and the wooden gates closed behind them, Sect Leader Jiang’s posture relaxed visibly and he grumbled out something about how ‘the old ladies are always looking out for gossip’, before properly facing the Lan Sect Leader. “I hate going out, things have been complicated as I’m sure you understand.”
“Don’t concern yourself with such formalities, Jiang Wanyin. We were once friends, I assure you it’s quite alright… you are, after all, in the comfort of your own home and we have delicate matters to discuss.” Lan Xichen granted as much, not exactly laughing at the other’s mannerisms but feeling somewhat lighthearted at the familiarity of them.
“Well then, let’s go to my quarters and we can have tea in peace as we talk about your idea.” The younger gestured vaguely and Lan Xichen could only make himself follow in his stead, with a subtle relief to his steps with the promise of warm tea after a trip.
Mentioning their friendship of earlier years made his mind hesitate for a moment as they walked side by side, but within the safety of Jiang Wanyin’s quarters and with the pleasant warmth of a fresh cup of tea between his fingers his worries seemed to settle and his mind assumed a more relaxed state. Despite the other’s austere demeanor it was clear they had an amicable enough relationship to allow them a remarks of sincere familiarity before any of them actually breached the subject of his visit.
“Sect Leader Lan, I believe it will be easier for me to go about this subject with a business-centered view, if you would be as kind as to accommodate it.” The Jiang Sect Leader finally spoke before he could end up stalling the conversation any further. With a reassuring nod from the other Sect Leader, he continued. “As you know, I am far from an auspicious match and there is no tangible advantage for you nor your sect in this proposed partnership, so would you like to point out for me what exactly are you looking to get out of this exchange?”
Not deterred by the slight tone of irony and of challenge in the Jiang Sect Leader’s voice, Lan Xichen took another sip of his tea. “Simply put, Sect Leader Jiang, the same as you.” He rested the teacup on the table before directing his gaze back up. “Relief from the pressure of marriage and from the risks of being allied to an unknown individual, formal and public support from another powerful sect, free circulation within the other sect’s commercial grounds and possibly even shared knowledge for the disciples in training.” The Lan was too elegant and uptight to give a shrug, but came very close to doing so. “And if you do allow me the sincerity to say so, I would say you would be on the less profitable end of this alliance considering I’m no longer an example of moral values or cultivation - but at no moment would you have the obligation of, well, being physically present in the union.”
“Are you saying you would not bother whether I slept with someone else or am I hearing this incorrectly?” Jiang Wanying almost instantly cut his words, which elicited a light huff of laughter off him.
“Perhaps not in such blunt terms but, If you would choose to do so, I would respect your decision… I do not expect you to have the same inclinations as our brothers or me, or even if you did I am certain I would not be up to the standards, so I don’t expect the physical aspect of it to end up becoming an uncomfortable obligation besides the publicly acceptable levels of civility.” He elaborated with humor softening his words.
Sect Leader Jiang nodded twice in understanding, and his eyes seemed to fog up for a moment as he mulled over the options extending in front of him. “You are fully aware I disagree with your opinion on me being on the less profitable side of the exchange, are you not?” He questioned with a slight frown. “I can’t agree with that statement, and quite frankly I don’t don’t blame you for what happened to us in our past despite whatever skeletons you have hiding under the floorboards. Don’t tell me you think Sandu Shensgshou was a beacon of morality and peace during the war? Or have you forgotten I have shed much more blood than you ever did?”
The Jiang Sect Leader gave a deep, heartfelt sigh that refrained Lan Xichen from argumenting against the words, however hard his conscience attempted to supply him with weapons of self destruction. If Sect Leader Jiang had formed an opinion of something, he was considerably adamant about it, and Sect Leader Lan knew that trying to change his mind would probably prove to be a fruitless endeavor.
“We have both been wrung out by war, our minds riddled with scars to the point of no return, so it’s quite safe to say neither of us is who we used to be before the Sunshot Campaign or the events that followed it.” Jiang Wanyin conceded, and his face finally dispersed the contemplative expression to form a more determined one Lan Xichen refused to admit he missed seeing - for familirity’s sake, of course. “So, if you insist on moving forward with this foolish plan of yours and are so certain the precedent set by our brothers will serve as a more believable foundation for it… I say we move forward with this, and set up ‘formal negotiations’ between the sects for a proper betrothal to avoid further questions that may arise.” He concluded, hands coming to rest on the table like a final gate closing behind him.
“That being said, I believe we should refer to each other by our courtesy names when in presence of people we wish to… convince of this idea, and around each other for practice purposes, if you would agree to do so.” The Elder Jade of Lan proposed and finished sipping his tea as he waited for a reply from the other.
“Very well, then. Lan Xichen, would you accompany me for lunch as we discuss the details of this grand scheme?” A blur of purple robes crossed his vision with equal parts imposing and anxious on its way to the door. He smiled with serenity, proceeding to stand up after a couple more deep breaths.
“It would be my pleasure to do so, Jiang Wanyin.” Lan Xichen finally spoke, and followed the other through paths sprinkled with lotuses in full bloom.
During the first year out of seclusion, after formally uniting the powers of two major sects through what was supposed to be nothing but a business marriage, Lan Xichen felt like he could breath. He felt a purpose again, like helping Sect Leader Jiang rid himself of the torments brought upon the elders and helping one more region with his recovering cultivation was the reason he still couldn’t give up on himself.
During his second year out of seclusion, Lan Xichen became ‘Lan Huan’ to Jiang Wanyin, who in turn became ‘Jiang Cheng’ - a quick snarky comment from the Yunmeng leader with no real bite to it whatsoever that resulted in his self control going down the streams of water around them because he kept failing on suppressing his smile of contentment.
In the third year after his seclusion, Lan Xichen contemplated again. He contemplated all the what ifs surrounding every tiny detail of what happened in the last decade and a half, but now he also contemplated how he still had tangible power to make changes in their world and his value had not been completely erased by his mistakes. No, Jiang Cheng insisted his values only increased afterwards, that him choosing to reinforce the values he once believed in but without the shackles of innocence was infinitely more important than just growing to be righteous. Choice was more important than circumstance, and he needed to learn that.
During his fourth year after the ‘marriage’, the Lan Sect Leader learned he could befriend the Yunmeng leader with much more ease than initially expected. They laughed together behind long sleeves and pristine teacups during conferences, and worked together with sobriety in night huntings and other regional matters. They were effective together, and he felt gradually less and less stifled by ghosts of their past. Now, when his nightmares came, morning would also come with a demure Jiang Cheng knocking on his door with freshly brewed tea - a favor he returned as much as he could, under the excuse of being fair to his friend.
At the fifth year away from his voluntary confinement, after a long discussion about long-buried skeletons fueled by a cup of fine Yunmeng wine for the Lan and a full bottle of Gusu wine for the Jiang, they felt lighter. Freed. That freedom made him long for things he tried to deprive himself of, maybe under the logic of self-sentenced punishment or old promises or a mix of both. At that fifth year, he yearned for a different kind of companionship.
So, at last, at the end of his sixth year out of seclusion, during one of his latest visits to Lotus Pier, as he and his ‘friend’ admired a lake filled with lotuses that should bloom within the next few weeks, he finally gathered enough courage to risk it all again.
Lan Huan kissed Jiang Cheng amidst what would soon become the prettiest lake in all of Yunmeng, and Jiang Cheng found that he didn’t mind it at all.
“Took you long enough.” Jiang Cheng whispered against his lips, before diving back in for their second kiss and then a third, a fourth… the prettiest lake in all of Yunmeng, and yet it could not hold a candle to the beauty of a freshly bloomed romance.
To Lan Xichen, love was a terrifying way to find oneself.