Cangse Sanren is familiar with him long before he feels it’s appropriate. She calls him Qiren, like his parents and his brother, and it’s so blazingly rude that the first time she does it he chokes and orders her to copy the rules three times over.
His brother softens her punishment, laughing. He doesn’t do this because it’s not an appropriate punishment. He does it because Cangse Sanren is the student of Baoshan Sanren, because she’s beautiful and powerful and eligible, and every clan heir is scrambling after her, trying to claim her as their own.
Lan Qiren hates it. She’s infuriating and flighty and rude to everyone and they all indulge her because they want her to choose them. It makes his skin crawl, and he does not like to think uncharitable thoughts about his older brother, but he thinks that perhaps he should copy down the rules about respect and honesty a dozen times, not that Lan Qiren can say that, not that their father would make him.
It’s not right. Their tolerance of her behavior is conditional on her choice, and as soon as she chooses one of them, the rest will turn against her. Can’t she see that? She’s so smart, for all that she’s infuriating, she has to know. She has to know that she’s not doing herself any favors, toying with them, trampling over them in ways that they’ll throw back in her face.
Well. His brother and Jiang Fengmian won’t, but the Jin and Nie will. He can only be grateful that Wen Ruohan is closer to their parents’ generation than theirs, that his sons are too young for courting.
He refuses treat her any differently. She’s a nuisance and disrespectful and if his brother weren’t in the middle of trying to court her then she would have been thrown out by now. She’ll never make a proper Lan, and his brother is going to be clan head one day, he should have more care for who he marries.
The whole thing is none of his business except that of course it’s his business, happening in his home and involving his brother and his clan. He tries to explain it to her, tries to tell her that their kindness isn’t real and she has to be careful that it doesn’t ruin her.
She’d started this conversation grinning, teasing him for wanting to talk to her alone, but the grin is gone now. There’s an uncertain smile hovering around her mouth, which he hates seeing because it looks so odd on her face, but this is important. She has to understand. “Qiren. Are you worried about me?”
“Don’t call me that!” he snaps. “You need to be careful. You’re never careful.”
Her lips press together, then, not a frown but like she’s trying to hold back laughter, which is a strange sight. She never bothers to hold back anything. “A-Ren,” she says, still too familiar, because no one has ever called him that, but for the first time it doesn’t sound like she’s mocking him, “I know what I’m doing.”
“You do not,” he hisses, throwing up his hands, done with all this, done with her.
She’s not done with him. She’s seeks him out all the time now, but for once, only when he’s alone, not where others can see them. Sometimes she brings Wei Changze, who is careful and polite and an astoundingly impressive cultivator who is too humble for his own good. Lan Qiren thinks, only too himself, that Wei Changze’s scores always being exactly one step below Jiang Fengmian’s is by design, not coincidence.
She doesn’t leave him alone, and she’s still just as obnoxious, but somehow not as grating. He can’t get her to leave, and eventually he doesn’t even want her too. Wei Changze is there often, but not always, enduring Cangse Sanren’s exuberance with a glint in his eye that makes Lan Qiren think he’s more like her than he’s willing to let any of them think.
He hadn’t known that she and Wei Changze were friends. He’s never seen them together.
Like, he realizes several weeks later, no one ever sees him and Cangse Sanren together now. She flaunts herself in front of the others, flaunts her attention with one over the others, but she only spends time with him and Wei Changze when they’re alone. The things that matter to her, she keeps close.
A month after this realization, when the three of them are absolutely not skipping meditation time to track deer in the woods, he says to her, “Even if you are my best friend, you’re also my only friend, so the title isn’t that impressive.”
Wei Changze lowers his bow to stare at him. “I can’t believe you just said we weren’t friends.” He would never dare talk like that around the others, around people that weren’t him and Cangse Sanren. Lan Qiren likes it when he does. He’s the second son of the Lan clan head, he has to be perfect all the time, but Wei Changze isn’t a servant anymore and he shouldn’t have to act like one.
“You’re just here because of her, it doesn’t count,” he says.
Wei Changze rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I clearly hate spending time with you.” Sarcasm isn’t allowed in Cloud Recesses. As soon as the warm feeling his chest fades, he’s going to remind him of that.
“A-Ren,” Cangse Sanren coos, draping herself over his shoulders. “You’re so sweet and repressed. I want to pinch your cheeks until you look like a little chipmunk and then I’ll gather so many nuts for you so you’ll survive the winter.”
Every word is more horrifying than the last. “I have terrible taste in friends,” he says, more to himself than to her, contemplative.
She puts him in a headlock. He doesn’t know what anyone sees in her.
Later, when the year is coming to a close and her suitors are all getting impatient, he says, “I’ll do it, if you want.”
“Do what?” she asks, distracted as she works on a ward that definitely isn’t for class.
He steels himself then says, “Marry you.”
She drops her brush to stare at him. “You don’t want to marry me.”
“Who would?” he mutters. “But you have to choose someone, the way you’ve carried on all year. None of them love you. You shouldn’t marry them.” Political marriages are all fine and good, but not for her. There’s not enough money or power in the world that could tempt her into being an obedient clan head’s wife. He doesn’t know why no one else has figured that out.
“You’d marry me even though you don’t love me?” He glares and she amends, “Even though you’re not in love with me?”
It’s not like he has anyone else he wants to marry, and he can’t stand the idea of her trying to make herself fit into a different shape for her husband. “Better a passionless marriage than a loveless one.”
She smiles then, full and bright, and kisses him on the cheek. He wipes at his face in disgust and she says, “I know what I’m doing, A-Ren, but it’s sweet of you to worry.”
All he does is worry about her. It’s exhausting.
She waits until they’re all gathered together, all her suitors and every guest disciple in Cloud Recesses. She announces, “I’ll accept the hand of none but Wei Changze.”
Lan Qiren can’t believe they didn’t tell him about this. He’s going to strangle them. When did they even have the time? He’s with them pretty much all the time outside of class.
Except then he gets a look at Wei Changze and he looks just as shocked as everyone else, face slack and eyes wide.
“Even if he does not choose me,” she continues gently, “I choose him.”
He gets it, then.
She’s confessing and proposing as one so Jiang Fengmian knows that Wei Changze didn’t keep any secrets from him. She’s saying it here, now, in front of everyone, so they know. She is Cangse Sanren, the student of Baoshan Sanren, and out of all of them, out of all the illustrious people vying for her hand, she chooses the former servant, even if he does not choose her.
He does, of course, for once not even glancing at Jiang Fengmian before taking Cangse Sanren’s hand in his own.
Lan Qiren’s lucky everyone’s looking at her because it means no one notices his uncharacteristic grin.
The night before she’s set to leave Cloud Recesses with Wei Changze back to Lotus Pier, she sneaks into his room and shaves off his goatee. By the time he wakes up, she’s long gone.
No one suspects that she’s his best friend, that she’s anything but another disciple that Lan Qiren had hated it.
He thinks that there were probably easier ways to accomplish that. He tells her that the next time he sees her, at her wedding, and she laughs in his face and tugs on his beard, which has grown back no thanks to her, and says, “Don’t be ridiculous, A-Ren, I know what I’m doing.”
“You do not,” he says, familiar and fond.
She’s infuriating and flighty and rude and he loves her with a tenderness he hadn’t known himself capable of for anyone besides his brother.
Not that he’s ever going to tell her that, of course. She’d be insufferable. More insufferable.
He doesn’t even know what someone who’s even more shameless than Cangse Sanren would look like and he doesn’t want to find out.