Lan Xichen is unhappy, Jiang Cheng knows that. It’s plain to see, if someone cares enough to look, and Jiang Cheng does care.
Too much, probably.
Their betrothal isn’t made out of love; it has been decided on shortly after Jiang Cheng was born, but he thinks both his parents and Lan Qiren hoped for someone more worthy.
But now Jiang Cheng’s parents are dead, and Lan Xichen is wasting away in Lotus Pier, so there is only one possible course of action for Jiang Cheng to take, no matter if it breaks his heart or not.
Because while Lan Xichen must have hoped for someone more promising, someone more impressive, someone more loveable, Jiang Cheng couldn’t have wished for a better fiancé.
Lan Xichen is everything Jiang Cheng always dreamed of and then some, but it’s not fair to Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng sees how he looks at Nie Mingjue, sees how Lan Xichen looks around Lotus Pier like he can never imagine calling it his home, and he doesn’t want to do this to Lan Xichen.
Doesn’t want to be like his mother, trapping a good man in a marriage he never wanted.
It’s just not right.
Jiang Cheng finds Lan Xichen on one of the private piers, drinking his tea in solitude and even just seeing Lan Xichen sitting there, by his own and without even the smallest hint of a smile on his face, breaks Jiang Cheng’s heart.
“I think we need to talk,” Jiang Cheng opens with as he stops next to Lan Xichen who looks questioningly up at him.
“Gladly,” Lan Xichen replies and puts his tea down. “What about?”
“I want to break this arrangement,” Jiang Cheng says without preamble, because why extend both of their sufferings further, and he keeps his eyes on the water so that he doesn’t have to see the relief on Lan Xichen’s face.
“Oh,” Lan Xichen says lowly. “Why?”
Jiang Cheng knows that if he brings up how unhappy Lan Xichen seems, he will deny it and afterwards try his best to appear to be happy and content with this betrothal and his place at Jiang Cheng’s side, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t want that.
So the only thing to do is make Lan Xichen believe that Jiang Cheng doesn’t want this.
“I’m not happy,” Jiang Cheng says, and at least that is not a lie.
He isn’t, not knowing that if given the choice Lan Xichen would never even look at him.
“My parents decided on this match, without questioning either of us, but they are dead now. There is no reason to cling to something that was decided for us.”
“I see,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng can’t decipher the emotion in his voice at all.
“It’s for the best,” Jiang Cheng says decisively and then brusquely turns around, before he does something stupid.
Like go down on his knees and beg Lan Xichen to tell him what he can do to make him love Jiang Cheng like Jiang Cheng loves him.
Lan Xichen doesn’t show up for dinner that evening and he’s gone on the next morning.
Jiang Cheng keeps telling himself that it’s for the best.
“Sect Leader Jiang, Sect Leader Nie is demanding an audience,” one of Jiang Cheng’s disciples tells him, and going by how frantic he seems, it’s more than likely that Nie Mingjue is about to simply barge in.
“Let him in,” Jiang Cheng tells him, and a few moments later Nie Mingjue marches into the room.
He looks ready for a fight, and Jiang Cheng squares his shoulders.
“What can I do for you, Sect Leader Nie?” he asks, but Nie Mingjue only scoffs.
“Stop this bullshit,” he spits out. “What the fuck did you do to Xichen?” he demands to know and Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw even as his heart painfully stumbles in his chest.
“I didn’t do anything to him,” he gives back, but Nie Mingjue doesn’t seem convinced at all.
“Is that why he’s holed up in Qinghe, barely speaking and eating even less?” Nie Mingjue asks and Jiang Cheng can’t help the stab of worry at hearing that.
“Is his family alright? Did something happen to Lan Qiren or Lan Wangji?”
“They are fine,” Nie Mingjue tells him with a frown. “He came directly from here, so it must have been something you did. I always knew you would be no good for him,” Nie Mingjue mutters and it probably would have hurt less if Nie Mingjue hit him in the face.
“I know,” Jiang Cheng forces himself to say. “That’s why I called off the arrangement.”
There’s a beat of silence, before Nie Mingjue explodes.
“You did what?”
“I called off the arrangement,” Jiang Cheng repeats. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed how unhappy he was here, wilting away from his home and the people he loves.”
“He loves you, you stupid boy!” Nie Mingjue almost yells and while it’s exactly what Jiang Cheng always wanted to hear, he knows it’s not true.
“He doesn’t. He’s bound by his duty to his clan and the need to honour a promise that was made for him. But I won’t do that to him. I saw what a loveless marriage did to my parents, saw how my mother smothered my father, and I won’t be like that. I have her temper, I know, but I refuse to do that to Lan Xichen. I refuse to be like her.”
“Oh boy,” Nie Mingjue mumbles as he pinches the bridge of his nose. “I can’t even be mad at you for that,” he goes on as he looks back at Jiang Cheng. “But you’ve got it all wrong. He loves you. He was never unhappy with this arrangement.”
“Sure,” Jiang Cheng sarcastically says. “That’s why he only ever smiled while you were around, and why he was so eager to go home every opportunity that presented itself. That’s why he kept to himself all his time here.”
“He thinks it’s nothing more than a duty to you. He didn’t want to impose or bother you,” Nie Mingjue explains, and Jiang Cheng is surprised to see that the fight has gone out of him.
Jiang Cheng scoffs at his words, and turns his head away, because Nie Mingjue is wrong. That’s not how it is.
“Will you at least come to talk to Xichen? He thinks he did something wrong. At least settle that,” Nie Mingjue says.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand why Nie Mingjue can’t just tell Lan Xichen about this himself, but he nods anyway.
Lan Xichen thinks this is his fault. Jiang Cheng can’t let him believe that, it’s not right.
Nie Mingjue seems strangely pleased, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t question him. If he clears this up, there will be nothing standing between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen. Of course Nie Mingjue would be happy.
True to Nie Mingjue’s words, they find Lan Xichen in one of the guest rooms, and it doesn’t look like he left it even once. The food is still on the table as well, untouched, and Jiang Cheng frowns when he sees it.
Lan Xichen scrambles up and falls into a bow when he sees them enter.
“You better clear up this misunderstanding,” Nie Mingjue threatens them and scoffs Jiang Cheng over the head. “I’ll await you for dinner afterwards,” he then tells them and marches right back out of the room.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen greets him, and Jiang Cheng’s mouth twists unhappily.
He thought they could at least be friendly with each other.
“Sect Leader Lan,” he gives back, even though the words taste like ash on his tongue. “I heard you’re under the assumption this is somewhat your fault.”
“Isn’t it?” Lan Xichen asks and he avoids Jiang Cheng’s eyes. “I couldn’t be what you wanted me to be.”
“I don’t want you to be anything,” Jiang Cheng blurts out and Lan Xichen flinches. “Fuck, I mean—,” Jiang Cheng says and takes a deep breath.
“I’ve seen the way you look at me when you think I don’t notice,” he tries to explain as Lan Xichen’s eyes go wide. “Like you can’t figure out what you did wrong in your life to end up at my side. I know you don’t love me, and that’s okay, but you do love and you shouldn’t be bound to me if it’s not what you want. You were unhappy at Lotus Pier, unhappy with me and the situation--and who can blame you, really—but this shouldn’t be it for you. Not for a promise other people made. You deserve better,” Jiang Cheng says, because Lan Xichen does.
He deserves so much better than a loveless marriage with a man he can barely stand.
No matter that Jiang Cheng would have tried to give him the sun and stars if only Lan Xichen had asked.
“It’s not like that,” Lan Xichen softly says and before Jiang Cheng can scoff at that, he goes on. “I looked at you like that because I tried to figure out how to make you happy, how to make you want this. I—I was never against this marriage, be it arranged or not, but I know that you were always struggling with this. I just wanted to figure out how to give you what you need. And you’re so--proud, and not in a bad way, I thought it would be best if I didn’t try to interfere in your Sect or your life too much. I don’t want to impose myself, that’s all,” Lan Xichen tells him and it makes Jiang Cheng speechless.
“You’re not against the marriage,” Jiang Cheng eventually repeats, his voice faint and barely audible, but Lan Xichen smiles at him.
“I’m not. I used to be, before I knew you, when we were just kids, but then I got to know you and I realized it wouldn’t be so bad. I realized that it could be good, that I wanted this. I know you never got over the duty of it all, and that’s okay,” Lan Xichen reassures him in a sad voice, “but I hoped I could at least make you comfortable. I’m sorry I failed at that.”
“But you’re in love with Nie Mingjue,” Jiang Cheng blurts out and Lan Xichen seems so startled it would be funny if the situation was different.
“Mingjue is my best friend. I’m not in love with him,” Lan Xichen tells him. “I’ve never been in love with anyone else.”
“Anyone else than—,” Jiang Cheng haltingly says, because Lan Xichen cannot be implying what Jiang Cheng thinks he is.
“You,” Lan Xichen gives back without hesitation and Jiang Cheng can only blink at him as his heart starts to beat fast in his chest.
“Me,” Jiang Cheng repeats and blinks some more, because what the fuck.
“You,” Lan Xichen agrees again and then he gives this small horrible smile to Jiang Cheng. “I know it’s not what you want from me,” he says as if this isn’t the only thing Jiang Cheng has ever wanted, “and you don’t have to say anything to it.”
“I didn’t want to marry someone who couldn’t love me,” Jiang Cheng says and takes a step closer to Lan Xichen. “I’m a romantic, Xichen, I only ever wanted to marry out of love, and nothing would have made me happier than marrying you,” Jiang Cheng says, as the blush rises on his cheeks and he hopes Lan Xichen gets it.
Because for all that he does consider himself a romantic at heart he cannot say the words right now.
But it seems like it isn’t necessary, because Lan Xichen beams at him.
“Really?” he asks, and it’s his turn now to take a step forward. “But you said you’re not happy.”
“Because I thought you couldn’t love me, that you are in love with someone else, that you saw this as nothing but a burden or a punishment. That didn’t make me happy. Knowing that you love me, and that you want this marriage--that makes me happy.”
“I do,” Lan Xichen immediately agrees. “I want this marriage. And I love you. Nothing would make me happier.”
“Then maybe we shouldn’t cancel on the engagement yet,” Jiang Cheng says as he reaches for Lan Xichen’s hand to intertwine their fingers, which Lan Xichen allows.
“Okay,” Lan Xichen agrees and then looks at Jiang Cheng with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Fiancé.”
Jiang Cheng goes hot all over at hearing that and he drops his head on Lan Xichen’s shoulder.
“You can’t just say that,” he complains, voice muffled by the fabric and Lan Xichen puts a hand in Jiang Cheng’s hair.
“I can, fiancé. I have waited a long time to call you that. It’s either that or my heart.”
Jiang Cheng whines at that and clutches at Lan Xichen’s waist.
But before he can form any coherent words at that, the door is pushed open.
“You’re better not being stupid in here, I swear to the ancestors,” Nie Mingjue declares as he marches in and then comes to an abrupt stop. “I see,” he then mutters, before he shakes his head. “Get a grip and come to dinner. It’s getting cold,” he orders them and then storms back out.
“Is this his way of saying he approve?”
“Yes,” Lan Xichen tells him and Jiang Cheng chuckles.
“I thought he hated me.”
“That was when he thought you hated me,” Lan Xichen explains. “We should probably follow him.”
“We should,” Jiang Cheng says with a sigh and raises their still intertwined hands to press a kiss to the back of Lan Xichen’s.
“After you, my fiancé,” Jiang Cheng says with a small smile, and Lan Xichen laughs at that.
“No, after you, my heart,” he immediately gives back and Jiang Cheng distantly wonders how long they can keep this up, before Nie Mingjue begs them to stop.
He’s excited to find out.