They were the Twin Jades of Lan, and they were inseparable.
Inseparable, and indistinguishable.
Oh, there was an older Lan Xichen and a younger Lan Wangji, but they were born less than an incense stick apart, one chasing the other at such speed that they had barely needed their mother’s help to push them along, and they’d hardly been parted since. To see one’s face was to see the other, and the clearest mirror did not resemble them as well as they did each other; in all aspects, their face, their height, their gestures, they were the same, and people treated them that way.
Only their uncle, who had delivered them both with his own hands and no help, who had helplessly taken them away from the mother that did not especially want them (resembling as they did their father) and the father that refused to see them (failing as they did to be their mother), could reliably tell them apart.
It might have been maddening, utterly intolerable, and set them at each other’s throats, each one struggling to establish themselves as separate. But their uncle did not think like other people, did not see and hear as others did, and even as he loved each of them in their own way, he taught them the benefits of creating a persona for public use: the kind, gentle, urbane and diplomatic First Jade of Lan, the thoughtful heir to the Lan sect, and the cold, standoffish but incomparably righteous Second Jade, the spoiled younger brother who did not need to concern himself with the mundane every day. He had explained that such distinct characteristics, coupled with their identical features, would allow them the opportunity to occasionally switch between the two roles at will, sharing the burden between them and keeping it from being too heavy for any one person to bear.
Their uncle, when he spoke of it, seemed sad, and they sometimes whispered to each other late at night about how it was said that he was nearly ten years the junior of his own elder brother, their father, and that the two of them had not been close at all.
At any rate, their uncle taught, and they learned, and they were the Twin Jades of Lan, inseparable and indistinguishable except to those few that were allowed into their private spaces. Their uncle always said that if the two of them together were worth not two but three of any other person, and privately, in their hearts, they agreed.
Their hearts were – naturally, in the tradition of the Lan sect – the primary issue.
Oh, it started well enough: their first love they met when they were only children, attending their very first discussion conference held at the Cloud Recesses, and in the way of too-young children everywhere, had been shooed away to play with anyone else still considered a child.
That was how they had met Nie Mingjue, who was perfect.
Perfect with his smile and his easy manner, with his strength and upright sense of righteousness, his charming straightforward nature, and even his occasional bouts of temper that he exercised as carefully as he could – he could even, they discovered, tell them apart if they weren’t trying to conceal it. The first time he had seen them swap places, he had looked at them a little strangely but had said nothing the entire time; it was only at the end, when they were alone, that he inquired quietly whether they were all right and that nothing was wrong that had caused them to make such a switch.
They had reassured him, their hearts glowing and in love.
Truly, if Nie Mingjue had but one fault, it was that he thought of them in the same breath as his younger brother.
“You should have been a few years older,” the Second Jade of Lan said to the First, who rolled his eyes at him. “That would have been enough to make you his peer, and you could have introduced me later.”
“Mm,” the First Jade of Lan said, too dignified to roll his eyes back at him. “Or perhaps it should have been you who was his peer.”
“Perhaps,” the Second Jade said, so then they swapped and then Lan Xichen was the older one again.
At any rate, they did not intend to let something so foolish as age interfere with their love, and so they grew older as quickly as they could, which was unfortunately at the same rate as everyone else. Eventually, as they grew, they realized the logistical problems of two brothers sharing the same love, and worried, and then they grew a little older still and learned that there were many different ways a person could love, and relaxed.
“Is it wrong, shufu?” Lan Xichen asked in the quiet calm following dinner one night. “Wangji and I, liking the same person? Brothers marry the wife of a deceased brother all the time. Anyway, it’s not as if we like each other – we’d just want to share, that’s all.”
“It would be better if you didn’t, if only to help develop your individuality,” their uncle said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “And of course you must consider how he would feel being traded back and forth between two beds on whatever schedule you saw fit, since unlike the situation in your example you are both still very much alive. But as for the rest, what do I know? You boys have always been inseparable, and the Lan sect does not stand in the way of the longings of our hearts, to whatever end, great or terrible, it may lead you. Do as you will.”
He then thought about it for a moment.
“But first, write me an essay explaining the benefits and drawbacks of your plan,” he ordered. “I want to see that you’ve thought it over carefully and given all the relevant aspects due consideration.”
(He burned the essays, later. They’d all agreed that public knowledge of their plan was not advisable, at least until they were old enough to pursue Nie Mingjue in earnest and see if that was what they really wanted.)
Of course, before they got that far, they met Wei Wuxian.
Perhaps more accurately: Lan Wangji met Wei Wuxian, and Lan Xichen spectated, and sometimes (often) teased.
“Shufu said we should try to like different people from each other,” Lan Wangji mumbled, his ears bright red, and Lan Xichen just laughed at him and tried to coax him with loquats bought fresh from the boats.
Even then, in that, they were inseparable. Sure, it might be Lan Wangji who was so enamored of the mischievous Jiang sect disciple, but their interactions were supervised (and occasionally facilitated) by Lan Xichen, and Lan Wangji wouldn’t have it any other way.
They were inseparable.
Even when flame came to the Cloud Recesses, and all their peace and calm was shattered, they would not leave each other’s side.
“You must go and preserve our sect’s books,” their uncle told them. “I will stay and defend what I can.”
They looked at each other.
“The books can be carried by one,” they said. “You do not need us both to go.”
“I will risk neither of you, for to lose one would be to lose the other. Listen to your shufu. Go!”
“We will need to split up eventually,” Lan Xichen said, and Lan Wangji nodded. “But not yet.”
“No,” Lan Wangji said. “Not yet.”
It was on that trip that they met Meng Yao, who caught Lan Xichen’s eye.
Lan Wangji frowned, and looked away. He did not like the smiling man as he was right now, not one bit, though he couldn’t say why – but Lan Xichen had indulged his choice, when it had been him making it, and so he felt he could not speak but had only to tolerate.
“If you really don’t like him, I’ll drop it,” Lan Xichen told him, sounding a little anxious. “Wangji…”
Lan Wangji shook his head, and bit his lip to keep from speaking.
“Oh, all right – keep it to yourself for now, but know that you can’t forever. I hate it when you get self-sacrificing.”
Lan Xichen lived to rue his words, for the very next day Lan Wangji drugged his drink and left him with Meng Yao in their safe hiding spot, going out to be captured by the Wen sect forces to mislead them into thinking that Lan Xichen was nowhere nearby – because of course they would split up and separate if they had half a chance. It was the only thing that made any sense to do, so why wouldn’t they do it?
They were inseparable.
They were separated.
It was miserable.
“Let’s never do that again,” Lan Wangji said to Lan Xichen when they were reunited, or maybe it was the other way around. “Never again, all right?”
Of course, it wasn’t to be. The war needed both Twin Jades, and not always together – but at least they were fighting on the same side, pursuing the same ends, and they saw each other often. Nie Mingjue, indulgent older brother to them both that he was, made sure of it.
They were still in love with him, because he was still perfect.
They would have proceeded with their original plan to seduce him and see how he felt about bed-swapping, but now there was Wei Wuxian and Meng Yao to consider, so they put the plan on hold for now. And then Wei Wuxian turned to demonic cultivation and Meng Yao became a spy and things got even more complicated.
They went to ask their uncle for advice.
“I think I preferred it when you both had that crush on Nie Mingjue.”
“I would recommend talking with them and taking their opinions into consideration,” their uncle finally said after they nagged him for a while, each in their own ways. “Don’t make any assumptions – whether that they like you or don’t. Just…ask. And when they answer, listen.”
Also unhelpful. They didn’t really like the idea of just – putting themselves out there.
Still, their uncle hadn’t steered them wrong before, and luckily, there was a safe person to start with.
They went to Nie Mingjue.
“Well, to start with, I’m extremely flattered,” he said, blinking owlishly. “Although somewhat concerned about the logistics – I’m too much a loner to want to be with someone all the time, and my preference is for occasional interludes, not every day – but let’s put that aside for now. Can you go back to what you were saying about Wei Wuxian and Meng Yao?”
“…not that I want to speak against my own best interests or anything, but have you ever considered just swapping?”
They blinked at him.
“No, not in bed. I meant in terms of feelings. You were saying it was difficult for you to talk about this to the ones you like because you have too many feelings about it, right? They get stuck in your throat and you can’t talk?” He shrugged. “So why not just do the confessing for each other?”
Such a perfect, perfect man.
“So Wangji is in love with you and would like you to marry him and come back to Gusu so that he can take care of you, because he worries about you,” Lan Xichen said to Wei Wuxian when he came to see him in Yiling. “He’s not always the best at expressing it, but that’s what he means. You could bring your Wen friends too, if you like; we’ll figure something out. What do you think about that?”
“Uh,” Wei Wuxian said. “…what?”
“My older brother loves you and would be willing to make you his husband if you would be willing to go with him to Gusu,” Lan Wangji said to the newly renamed Jin Guangyao. “You could fulfil the duties of Madame Lan, with the attached rights and responsibilities, and so gain safety and security to your heart’s content without having to fend for yourself in Lanling Jin. If that were something you wanted.”
“…I’m sorry, what?”
“Also,” they added, each to their brother’s intended, “how do you feel about an occasional threesome with Nie Mingjue?”
Their uncle once said that the two of them together had the capacity of three other people. They were pretty sure he was talking about fighting, but there was no reason they couldn’t improve on that.