"I have been thinking, we should somehow thank Sect Leader Jiang for his support during your... indisposition"
"Oh?" Lan Xichen set down his cup of tea, looking curiously at his uncle.
As a matter of fact, he'd also been thinking of how to repay Jiang Cheng for helping him throughout his period of seclusion, but, given the significance of his aid and support, no suitable means of thanking him came to his mind.
Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren were drinking their usual afternoon tea in the older man's quarters. It has been a month since Lan Xichen left his two-year seclusion and resumed his duties as a Sect Leader.
He had been worried how the world would greet him when he returns; he had been worried if he still had a place in this world. Swallowing his embarrassment, he asked Jiang Cheng whether he could accompany him on this day, to which the other Sect Leader agreed instantly, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Lan Xichen couldn't figure out what he had done to receive Jiang Cheng's support throughout his seclusion. Before the incident they were not particularly close, at least no closer than two sect leaders of similar age and experience would be.
He didn't know what made Jiang Cheng walk through the door of the Hanshi, invite himself over for tea and spend the afternoon at Lan Xichen's home. And then another one after that, and another. He didn't know, but he was eternally grateful.
While Lan Xichen attempted to distance himself from the world, Jiang Cheng brought the world in with himself, giving Lan Xichen a glimpse of it, through his curt words and blunt attitude, not allowing Lan Xichen to escape it.
What Lan Xichen initially considered to be an anchor, mercilessly weighing him down in the depth of the past he'd been trying to leave, proved to be a lifeline, pulling him to the surface and onward.
Time stood still in the Hanshi and so did Lan Xichen, until Jiang Cheng walked through the door, like a gust of fresh wind smelling of rain and proving life went on outside Lan Xichen's hideout, forcing the man to move on as well.
When Lan Xichen first set foot outside, he was not sure what kind of life he was stepping out into, but he knew for sure there would certainly be a friend, waiting there for him with the inherent scowl Lan Xichen has grown to cherish.
"What do you have in mind, Uncle?" Lan Xichen asked "Jiang Wanyin is not overly fond of trinkets, but maybe something more useful? Perhaps a teaset from that wonderful store in Caiyi?"
"Well" Lan Qiren stroked his beard "I was thinking, maybe we could repay Sect Leader Jiang's favour with a favour of our own"
"That does sound promising, Uncle, but I cannot think how we could be of service to Jiang Wanyin"
"As you know, it is no secret that Sect Leader Jiang has had no luck finding a wife so far" Lan Qiren said "I believe we could take it upon ourselves to search for suitable candidates for him. He is so busy all the time, surely he has barely a moment to spare for thinking of that matter"
Lan Xichen felt slightly uncomfortable at those words. Probably due to the fact that it was quite a responsible task and he was not sure if he was ready to take up such a responsibility, especially since the favour in question concerned his close friend.
He scolded himself for such thinking. After all Jiang Cheng has done for him, he should be happy he can perform such a task and help his friend out.
"I think this is a brilliant idea, Uncle" Lan Xichen said, taking a sip of his tea.
Lan Qiren was a man of limited patience, yet, through years of practice and discipline, he managed to stretch those limits a little bit. He has taught hundreds of disciples, including one Wei Wuxian, without committing homicide. He brought up two boys, he led the sect, he watched his younger nephew elope with a demonic cultivator, still without resorting to murder.
But, by gods, he had never suspected that the person who would one day challenge his patience the most would be the less problematic of his pair of nephews.
Lan Qiren wasn't blind. He has been experiencing some difficulties reading in dim light recently, but he wasn't blind.
He has seen enough blossoming romances in his life to know the symptoms and he had spent enough time with his nephew and the leader of the YunmengJiang Sect to notice the symptoms.
How Xichen looked at Jiang Wanyin as though he put all the stars up in the sky or how the Sandu Shengshou smiled behind his back, every time he thought Xichen couldn't see. How his nephew beamed at the prospect of Jiang Wanyin's visit and how, during the last two years, Jiang Wanyin, always so polite, so respectful, spared barely a second to pay his respects to Lan Qiren, before darting to the Hanshi, as though each visit could be his last. How Jiang Wanyin brought back Xichen's light and how, at the same time, Xichen brightened the darkness around Jiang Wanyin.
Unfortunately, the gift of such insight bestowed upon Lan Qiren, was denied completely to the two younger men. They seemed as unaware of the other's feelings as they were of their own.
Therefore, for the good of his nephew and the two sects, Lan Qiren decided to take the matters into his own hands. Not directly, of course, he was not indiscreet.
“Here" he said, putting on the table a list of eligible ladies of appropriate age, from the Lan Sect and a couple of neighbouring sects and families.
Lan Xichen picked up the paper and ran his eyes through the list and was it discontent Lan Qiren saw on his nephew's face? He hoped it was. It would save them a lot of time and effort.
"I think we should start with crossing out all those who are not cultivators" Lan Xichen said "And those whose level of cultivation is too low. Jiang Wanyin would not want someone who cannot match him"
"Very well" Lan Qiren said, pulling the list towards himself and crossing out those names who didn't meet the criteria "What else?"
"Cross out those who are much younger than him"
"Oh? But we are looking for a woman who could give the Jiang Sect an heir. Younger girls might be better suited for that, don't you agree?"
"Yes, but the younger girls, I believe, could be easier intimidated by his temper" Lan Xichen said "Wanyin... Sect Leader Jiang is kind and caring, but his manner can be rather sharp and intimidating at times" he smiled at that "Someone closer to his age, more accustomed with the world, hardier, has better chance of accepting and dealing with it, perhaps even standing up to him at times"
"But surely, she shouldn't be quarrelsome?"
"Quarrelsome, no. Assertive, yes"
"But not voiceless"
"Able to hold an interesting conversation, but also to enjoy a silence shared together"
"Skilled with sword?"
"What about her cooking?"
"If she can match Jiang Wanyin's" Lan Xichen chuckled, before quickly slapping a hand over his mouth "I meant... not necessarily"
"Jiang Wanyin does enjoy music, even if he cannot play an instrument himself. He has a lovely voice though" Lan Xichen answered immediately and his eyes widened "I... was not supposed to say that"
"So, we are looking for someone who is a talented cultivator, close to Jiang Wanyin's age, patient and able to put up with his temper, skilled in combat and playing an instrument..." Lan Qiren said thoughtfully "Anything else?"
"She has to like dogs. She cannot sneeze around them, like Lan Hua. And, she must be ready to love Sect Leader Jin like her own son"
"Very well. Anyone comes to your mind..?"
Lan Xichen bit his lip thoughtfully.
"Lan Shu?" he finally asked.
Lan Qiren was a man of limited patience and he thought this was to be the day he would find out exactly where those limits were.
Lan Xichen's enthusiasm at doing such an important favour for his friend dimmed with every next candidate mentioned, yet he couldn't quite put his finger on the reason.
The list, put together by Uncle, consisted of outstanding maidens – those who passed all of their criteria seemed like the most auspicious matches for Jiang Wanyin and, after all, wasn't auspiciousness all Lan Xichen wanted for his friend?
Then why, with every next name on the list he felt less and less inclined to read the next?
Charming young lady, gifted young lady, lovely young lady... skilled with sword, with instruments, with calligraphy... able to support him, advise him, provide him with an heir...
Lan Xichen suppressed a wince. He wasn't sure whether any child of his own could ever replace Jin Ling in Jiang Wanyin's heart, even though he knew Wanyin would love this child with all his might, because that's what he did.
And, bah! to understand and appreciate the fearsome Sandu Shengshou beside his superficial image of power and anger, it would take months, years, maybe, of patience and effort.
That ought to be the criteria – whether the girl was willing to get to know Jiang Wanyin, with or without his cooperation.
And Lan Xichen knew it wasn't crucial. He knew that whether two people would be able to genuinely love and appreciate each other was usually the last of the criteria – if it even was on the list at all.
But if Lan Xichen was to help find a person to accompany Jiang Wanyin for the rest of his days, then, by gods, he intended to make sure she would understand him and appreciate him the way he did.
The... way he did?
Surely, not exactly the way he did. She should love him as a partner, whereas he simply cherished their friendship.
He was grateful to Wanyin, he was impressed by his bravery, strength and persistence, he felt for his pain and loss, he understood his anger, he longed for his company, he rejoiced in every second spent with him, he...
He was in love with him.
Lan Xichen felt dizzy, losing contact with the world for a few seconds, pulse thudding in his ears, drowning out whatever words Uncle directed to him for another moment.
He was in love with Jiang Wanyin.
Since when? And when was he going to be notified of it?
Lan Xichen looked back at the list and the feeling of utter rebuff was overwhelming at that moment.
Oh, this is what it was, wasn't it? Jealousy. He has never had that before. He was jealous of anyone else taking that place by Jiang Wanyin's side.
Jealousy was quickly followed by dread.
Because, someone will take this place, surely. Jiang Wanyin, beautiful, extraordinary, fierce Wanyin, if he would only allow other people to see what Lan Xichen saw, the queue for offering him a hand in marriage would stretch for li.
And Lan Xichen did not think he could ever hope for claiming that particular place in Jiang Wanyin's heart.
At last, dread gave way to resignation.
Cannot lose something you've never had. All he could do now was to ensure that his friend finds happiness with or without him. Probably without him.
The afternoon wasn't entirely as fruitless as Lan Qiren had feared it would be.
By the time they narrowed the list down to five candidates, Lan Xichen was visibly disheartened, not even feigning minimum enthusiasm.
It did not bring Lan Qiren joy to torment his nephew like so, but years of serving dozens of children awfully-tasting medicine taught him that sometimes one has to suffer a tiny bit to feel a lot better.
"Very well" he said, collecting the pieces of paper on which they've written down the names of the candidates, together with a short note of description "I will have the birthdates compared. Once that is done, why don't you pay Sect Leader Jiang a visit, to personally acquaint him with the idea? A short trip would surely do you good as well"
Lan Xichen nodded.
"I will announce my visit" he murmured "Goodnight, Uncle"
He stood by the window, watching his nephew drag himself through the courtyard, his shoulders drooping.
Very well. Nothing like a lonesome walk under the stars and a night of gathering thoughts to clear things up.
At random, he picked three pieces of paper out of the final five, putting the rest away.
His job for today was done.
Jiang Cheng was walking through the main courtyard of Lotus Pier and he was not nervous. He really wasn't. He was anything but...
"Is that what you call a swept floor?!" he barked at an unfortunate disciple, punished with cleaning duty for slacking off at yesterday's training.
The number of disciples punished with some or another form of household chores doubled since Jiang Cheng received a letter from Cloud Recess two days earlier.
As far as Jiang Cheng knew it was Lan Xichen's first time leaving Gusu after his seclusion and with that, first time visiting Lotus Pier. Everything had to be perfectly in order for his arrival.
Jiang Cheng has just checked (for the third time) if the best guest quarters were ready for Lan Xichen's arrival.
He was elated that his friend already felt strong enough to travel so far outside Gusu and that, of all places, he chose Lotus Pier to visit first. Which is why everything needed to be perfect – he wanted Lan Xichen to see how welcome he was in Lotus Pier; how Jiang Cheng wanted to greet his dear friend.
"Boats!" came a cry from the piers.
Jiang Cheng hurried – with dignity – in the direction of the river.
'Boats' turned out to be exactly one boat, with Lan Xichen's bright figure visible on deck. Jiang Cheng stood in front of all disciples who appeared on the pier, facing the river so that they wouldn't see him smiling. He had a reputation to uphold.
Lan Xichen has brought almost no one with himself; the visit was clearly more social than official, which flattered Jiang Cheng greatly.
The side of the boat knocked against the planks of the pier and Lan Xichen stepped down from it, radiant as the sun itself. Jiang Cheng approached him, his hands reaching for Lan Xichen's hands and holding them tightly.
"I am happy to see you" Jiang Cheng said "You look well"
"A friend of mine has been nagging me to spend more time on fresh air" Lan Xichen said "I believe it is working"
"What a smart friend you have. Then, would you care for a walk on fresh air before dinner?"
"I'd love that"
Jiang Cheng showed Lan Xichen and his disciples to their rooms – the floor was finally swept properly – before leading Lan Xichen through Lotus Pier to one of the longer and more desolate piers stretching above the edge of the water.
"How have you been?" Jiang Cheng asked, looking at the other man carefully.
"Very well. Honestly. And quite busy" Lan Xichen chuckled "First week and I was already ear-deep in paperwork"
Jiang Cheng nodded. He'd suspected Lan Qiren will see to it that his nephew resumes his duties immediately, thrown into the deep end first thing after leaving his seclusion. And he thought it a smart decision – with enough things to occupy his mind Lan Xichen won't even notice when he's fully back in the world, neither will he have much time to ponder and worry, which he was so fond of doing.
"I am happy that for your first vacation you've chosen Lotus Pier, then" Jiang Cheng said.
"Vacation? Not on Uncle's watch" Lan Xichen shook his head "Though I can hardly express how glad I am to be able to visit, I'm actually here on a mission"
"Well, more of a message, really" Lan Xichen stopped walking and turned towards Jiang Cheng "See, Uncle and I were thinking of a way to repay you for your kindness during my... um."
"Don't be ridiculous" Jiang Cheng scoffed "Repay, what nonsense"
"But we truly do want to show our gratitude. I do"
"I'm not listening"
"Thus, we figured we might do you a favour in return" Lan Xichen continued, unperturbed "Help you out, like friends do"
Jiang Cheng tilted his head. Now, he was kind of intrigued. What kind of favour could the two Lans figured he might require?
Lan Xichen took out a sheaf of papers, neatly tied with a string.
"We are aware you have been having difficulties finding a... a suitable candidate for a... a wife" Lan Xichen said, eyes fixed on the sheaf "So we thought, since we might be bold enough to assume to know your preferences, we searched for some eligible maidens you might consider... uh, considering"
Throughout his talking, Jing Cheng managed to go from embarrassed, at the mention of his ridiculous bad luck with dating, through irritation at the two Lans taking such liberties, to simple rebuff.
He didn't want a wife. Never mind the fact that no woman would put up with him, he did not want a wife, senseless though it was.
In his stupor, he missed his chance to reply and stop Lan Xichen from speaking on, which he now did, still avoiding Jiang Cheng's stare:
"There is Lan Shu, from our sect, you might have met her. She is quite charming and her calligraphy is most exquisite. I am told that last year she has defeated a jiangshi all on her own, when she was travelling through the northern part of Gusu. She has..."
"I don't want Lan Shu" Jiang Cheng finally managed to speak.
"Oh? Well, from the Li sect, there is Peony Li. She has founded a poetry club there and is one of the top archers of her family"
"I don't want any Peony Li"
Lan Xichen's eyes finally left the papers, only to slip behind the wooden balustrade and stare at the lotus leaves, swaying lazily above the water surface.
"That leaves us Ping Jin, from the Ping family" he spoke quietly "She has recently come back from a year of meditation in the western steppes and began teaching. I hear she's..."
"I don't want Ping Jin either" Jiang Cheng drawled "I don't want any of them!"
Lan Xichen blinked and finally looked at him.
"Why?" he asked.
Because I want you!
The thought left Jiang Cheng slightly breathless, like a solid punch to the chest, and most dumbfounded, but now that it appeared, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world.
How had he not realized it?
Though, truth be told, the only thing he missed was the shift from the ever-present admiration and respect he has always felt for the graceful, renowned Zewu-Jun, to a feeling more personal, more profound, which wandered far beyond the border of friendship when Jiang Cheng wasn't watching.
And now, he was losing him.
"Because I-I... I..." he started "Why... Why would you even think those girls would even put up with me?"
"Well, you are the Sandu Shengshou" Lan Xichen said quietly, his eyes escaping once more "The great leader, revered warrior. Strong and fearless, carrying scars evidencing of his bravery. Don't you know, you are quite adored"
"Adored, that's a good one" Jiang Cheng snorted.
He felt his control of the situation slipping from his grip. That was not a good moment to realize his feelings. Not that any moment was good for that. He needed time to consider... he couldn't think about it right in front of Lan Xichen!
"And why... why don't you worry about yourself first, huh?" he blurted "Why don't you find some nice, charming girl to be your wife instead?"
"I-I'm... I don't think I can do that" Lan Xichen said weakly "I... don't want to get married"
"Well, maybe I don't either!"
"Consider them, Wanyin. They can make you happy"
"Well, since you clearly know more of them and of me than I do" Jiang Cheng said, sharper than he intended "Which one would you suggest? Whom should I marry, Lan Shu, Ping Jin or Peony Li?"
His heart was beating so hard, Jiang Cheng felt as though it might shatter his ribcage any moment; he was angry and in love and both of those feelings were aimed at the man in front of him. The man he so desperately wanted to have for himself and who was currently pushing him into someone else's arms.
Jiang Cheng turned away from Lan Xichen, searching for anything else to look at; anything that wasn't the breathtakingly beautiful face of the breathtakingly unbearable man.
"So?" he asked listlessly "What is your choice?"
Lan Xichen's answer was almost lost in the hum of the river:
"What was that?"
"I do not want you to marry"
Jiang Cheng turned back towards him so suddenly he felt he might have pulled a muscle. He took half a step towards Lan Xichen who still held his head down and his eyes fixed in his feet.
"Why?" Jiang Cheng asked, holding his breath.
He can't possibly..?
"For the same reason I do not want to marry" Lan Xichen murmured.
He must have felt Jiang Cheng's piercing stare drilling into him, because he finally raised his head to meet the other man's eyes.
"Which is?" Jiang Cheng asked, his voice raspy with tension.
Lan Xichen's gaze flicked to Jiang Cheng's mouth for a split second and Jiang Cheng knew the answer a moment before Lan Xichen leaned in to capture his lips in a featherlight kiss.
His lips were soft and warm and gentle – much too gentle for Jiang Cheng's liking and he realized that grievance with a bit of a surprise. He felt as though only a second passed before these lips parted from his and, without much thinking, Jiang Cheng chased after them, snaking his arms around Lan Xichen's neck and pulling him closer.
A soft gasp escaped Lan Xichen's lips and Jiang Cheng used that opportunity to deepen the kiss, Lan Xichen cooperating eagerly.
Jiang Cheng felt the other man's arm wrapping around his back and a hand cradling the back of his head; he hummed with content into the kiss. Part of him wanted to be soft, be gentle, not scare Lan Xichen with his eagerness, with how much he wanted him. Other part wanted to kiss him hard, senseless, so that the memory would stay on their lips forever. The rest of him was still a bit angry.
He couldn't believe he allowed himself and Lan Xichen to stall for so long and waste so many days not doing this.
Jiang Cheng vented those emotions by nibbling at Lan Xichen's bottom lip, eliciting another quiet gasp, before peppering small kisses all over Lan Xichen's lips, his jaw, his cheekbones, the tip of his nose and finally leaning back to look at what was left of Lan Xichen.
If Jiang Cheng thought him radiant before, now Zewu-Jun was blinding.
"Wanyin" Lan Xichen sighed happily, his eyes glimmering.
"What" Jaing Cheng grumbled, feeling his face heat up. Has he gone too far? He probably looked like an idiot now, face red, unlike Lan Xichen, whose cheeks were only dusted with a slightest hint of pink.
Lan Xichen tightened his grip and Jiang Cheng worried that any moment his ribs might start creaking warningly.
"Wanyin" the First Jade of Lan repeated "My Jiang Waniyn"
Jiang Cheng huffed a quiet laughter.
"Yeah, and you better remember that" he said "My Lan Huan"
Lan Qiren received his nephew's letter informing him of his prolonged stay in Lotus Pier with cautious optimism.
He allowed himself to indulge that hope a bit more when Xichen returned to Cloud Recess together with Sect Leader Jiang and aimed his steps straight to Lan Qiren's quarters.
Certainty eased his mind completely when he saw two youngsters gingerly holding hands as they walked (though, if he was being honest, he would gladly pay with a few more minutes of doubt for them not displaying their affection so publicly).
Lan Qiren slipped away from the window before the two sect leaders could notice him and sat by his desk, grabbing a random poetry volume from the shelf and opening it in front of his eyes.
He barely managed to read the first verse of a poem, when a quiet but decisive knock sounded on the door.
"Come in" Lan Qiren said.
Xichen and Sect Leader Jiang walked inside, saluting with respect.
"Sect Leader Jiang, what a pleasant surprise" Lan Qiren said, putting down the book and standing up.
"Master Lan, please forgive my unannounced visit" Jiang Wanyin said "I wanted to personally thank you for your and Zewu-Jun's effort"
"Ah, it was our pleasure" Lan Qiren replied "Was it not, nephew?"
"That is certainly one word to describe it" Xichen mumbled under his breath and Lan Qiren had to do his best not to smirk.
"Do not mutter, Xichen, I asked you thousands of times" he said instead.
"Master Lan, I, um..." Jiang Wanyin began "I actually came to ask you one more thing"
"What might that be?" Lan Qiren asked "If you wish to ask for our assistance passing the message to the young lady's family, it would be our honour"
He couldn't deny himself that short moment of toying with the two young sect leaders, especially when they exchanged awkward looks with each other.
"Actually, Uncle, you see..." Xichen began bravely "See, the thing is, Sect Leader Jiang and I would like to court, um. Each other"
Lan Qiren eyed the two men and thank gods his face was not prone to smiling, because otherwise, he'd be laughing his lungs off at the sight of these two faces, slightly pale and watching him warily.
"Huh" he said "What an unexpected development"
"But. You will allow it, Uncle, won't you?" Xichen asked with concern.
"I don't know, I should probably ask the Sect Leader" Lan Qiren replied sourly.
His nephew blinked, before a wide smile bloomed on his face.
"Enough, enough" Lan Qiren waved his hand "No need for all the exclamation, this is not a theatre"
"Thank you, Master Lan" Jiang Wanyin breathed out “I will do everything within my power to..."
"Enough" Lan Qiren repeated, already growing tired of the two youngsters beaming at him, as though he had been the only thing keeping them apart. That's rich!
"Now, if you excuse me, I am still in a state of utter shock" he announced "I shall now have to drink some lemon balm to soothe my nerves after such an unforeseen turn of events"
Thanking and saluting, Xichen and Jiang Wanyin left his quarters and the older man could finally allow himself a smirk of satisfaction.
Now, he could at last face his ancestors with no shame, knowing at least one of his nephews tied his fate with a proper, respectable cultivator. One out of two was not a bad score, after all.
Lan Qiren was a man of limited patience, but sometimes, he figured, stretching those limits paid off.