When Lan Xichen is nearly twelve years old, he learns about sex.
So do all the other twelve-year-old boys in Gusu’s Lan Clan. It’s a lecture offered to every one of the growing disciples, and one that would not be prudent of them to miss.
Afterwards, the boys do not snicker and nudge each other to mask pink cheeks and awkward shifting. That is not the way of the Lan Clan. They learn what they must, and they learn it well, and they move on. Besides, the teacher told them that this was nothing to be embarrassed about. Everybody has sex, he said. It brings new life-- what is more beautiful than that?
So Lan Xichen is not embarrassed by it.
“It’s gross,” he mumbles to his mother when she asks about what he learned today. Really, he shouldn’t be talking to Madam Lan about this. It isn’t becoming of young men to speak of such matters with a lady, whether she was related to him or not. But he had to talk to someone about it, and well-- he shudders at the idea of asking Shufu.
“It’s not,” his mother chides, smiling faintly.
“It is! Why would I ever want--” Lan Xichen drops his gaze and reminds himself of Lan Clan’s rule to not argue with family. Nobody wins. “Sorry, A-Niang.”
“A-Huan,” Madam Lan says fondly, reaching up from her place in bed to fondly pet his hair. “Don’t worry about it. I bet all boys your age think it’s gross. You’ll grow out of it.”
Lan Xichen accepts this with a nod, trying to ignore the wriggling doubt in his heart. His mother has never been wrong before.
A rasping cough ends the conversation. Lan Xichen rushes to help his mother up and reaches for the cloth to dab the blood from her lips. They can talk about this another time.
In the end, he doesn’t get the chance.
Lan Xichen is fourteen when he walks in on something he’d rather not have ever seen.
He rounds the corner of the Cloud Recesses’ secluded gardens, and freezes.
There are two junior disciples, one stretched across a stone bench, the other bending over her. Muffled giggles leak from between their conjoined lips as their hands fly across each other’s bodies, robes loose and falling off their shoulders. Their cheeks are flushed, their eyes dark.
Lan Xichen digs his foot into the pebbles loudly.
The disciples instantly jerk away from each other. Horror turns to terror when they realize who interrupted them. Apologies flow freely and they pull their robes back together, excuses and assurances mixed between. Lan Xichen remains silent as he watches their deep bows and flurried movement.
He lets them run away.
He can’t stop thinking--
They’re my age. They’re my age. They’re my age.
What should I be doing?
Lan Xichen is fifteen years old when he meets Nie Mingjue.
The boy is just a year or two older than him, but Lan Xichen never feels younger than when he’s at the Nie Sect Leader’s side. His shoulders are broader than most teenagers’, his dark eyes shrewder, his posture straighter. They are peers, Nie Mingjue assures him, despite the title that the older boy has already inherited. They are peers, because they are attending Gusu’s summer classes together. An older Nie Sect disciple-- an advisor of sorts to the young leader-- rules in Nie Mingjue’s place while he is gone, allowing him one last summer of youth.
A week passes, then two-- by the close of the third, Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen are inseparable. Lan Xichen has never laughed so openly as he does in Mingjue’s presence. He has never had a friend before, not really, save his didi who, well-- is nothing like Mingjue.
“Nie-gongzi,” Lan Xichen begins one day, only to be cut off by a snicker and a calloused hand falling heavily onto his shoulder.
“Nie-gongzi?” Nie Mingjue repeats, eyebrows climbing to his hairline. “How many times must I tell you-- Mingjue will do fine.”
Lan Xichen ducks his head, slightly embarrassed but unable to hide his smile. “Mingjue. You may call me Xichen, then.”
“Xichen,” Nie Mingjue repeats, and Lan Xichen isn’t sure how to feel about the soft adoration in his voice.
It’s not a week later before Nie Mingjue asks to court him.
And Lan Xichen--
Lan Xichen accepts.
He accepts, even though he’s not sure he wants to. He loves Mingjue immensely, of course-- but…
But one night, Mingjue lets his head lean close to Lan Xichen’s, lets wandering hands trail up stiff arms, blinks slowly at Lan Xichen…
The hai hour bells rings. Lan Xichen pulls himself away, bows to Nie Mingjue, and practically flees.
Two weeks into their relationship, and Lan Xichen still has not let Mingjue kiss him yet.
It’s normal, Lan Xichen reassures himself, decidedly not panicking. This is all normal. It’s normal to want to move slowly. Neither of them have done any of this before. And it’s not like Mingjue is pushing him, it’s not like he’s even asked him about it.
Lan Xichen groans and buries his face into his pillow. Mingjue is so good to him. He doesn’t ask questions. He lets Lan Xichen pull away when he needs to (which is always. Which is every time.). He is kind, and handsome, and strong, and funny, and he’s perfect. He’s the perfect man, so why doesn’t Lan Xichen love him the Mingjue loves him?
The end of summer comes. It’s time for Nie Mingjue to leave. Lan Xichen takes him by the hand and pulls him away from the crowd, into the empty classroom.
His chest feels too tight. He lets his hand slip from Mingjue and stares at the bamboo floor.
“I know,” Nie Mingjue sighs.
Lan Xichen glances up. Mingjue isn’t looking at him.
“I’m sorry,” Lan Xichen manages. “I… there will be someone else. You’ll find someone else.”
Nie Mingjue shrugs and doesn’t reply.
“Mingjue,” Lan Xichen tries desperately. “I-- It’s not your fault, Mingjue. It’s-- It’s me. I’m sorry, it’s all my fault. You’ve never done anything… you’re fantastic, I’m sorry, I don’t… I don’t know why… ”
Mingjue just sighs. “Don’t apologize, Xichen.”
He leaves without so much as a hug.
Lan Xichen lets his eyes slide close. Just for a moment. He doesn’t crumple to the floor, he doesn’t sob, he doesn’t tear his hair out, no matter how much he wants to.
Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen write letters. They stay in touch. They’re friends. It’s much easier this way.
They never mention that summer again.
Lan Xichen is eighteen years old when he becomes Sect Leader.
The first month is hell, and if he’s being honest with himself, Lan Xichen doesn’t remember half of it. He’s completely overwhelmed with ceremonies and visits and new responsibilities, not to mention the grief and not-grief at his father’s passing, not to mention trying to be there for his colder-than-ever brother, not to mention trying to smile through it all.
By the second month, Lan Xichen has settled into an uneasy peace. Lan Qiren still manages many responsibilities, for which his nephew is endlessly grateful for. Lan Wangji steps up to start participating in more night hunts. Lan Xichen doesn’t relax, but he does… embrace the new normal.
Until the elders sit him down and tell him it’s time to discuss visiting a matchmaker.
It’s not like this is unexpected, of course. He’s the eldest son, and the burden-- no, no, the responsibility of maintaining the family line falls to him first. Maybe he didn’t expect this so soon, but he smiles anyways and lets his uncle arrange a matchmaking session for him.
It goes… poorly.
The elders crossly tell the woman she read him wrong. Sect Leader Lan is the first Jade of Gusu! He is bright, benign, benevolent! Women already throw themselves at his feet! What do you mean, he is not matchable?
So he visits another. And another, and another.
They all tell him the same thing, lips pursed and heads shaking.
My apologies, Zewu-jun. Some men are just not right for matching.
By the time he is nineteen, the elders decide they’ll try again when he’s older.
When Lan Xichen is twenty years old, he wonders for the first time about Lan Wangji.
He watches his little brother keep his distance from his peers, ignore the fawning of young girls, coldly reject any advances.
He wonders-- is Wangji like him?
When Lan Xichen is twenty-four years old, he realizes Lan Wangji is nothing like him.
His didi stands in front of him, face flushed. Eyes dark. Jaw clenched.
“Wei Ying,” he manages.
Ah, Lan Xichen thinks.
And if he is selfishly, bitterly, horribly disappointed-- well. That’s his own business.
When Lan Xichen is twenty-six years old, he is given his first kiss.
Jin Guangyao practically purrs at his touch when Lan Xichen stiffly lets his hands settle on his waist. The noise reverberates against Lan Xichen’s lips, and the smaller man leans closer, eagerly pressing his nose into Lan Xichen’s cheek to reach a better angle.
But it takes all of five seconds for Jin Guangyao to pull back and stare at him with wide, dark eyes.
“My apologies, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen laughs shakily, trying to not pass out from relief at the halted contact. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao replies hesitantly, “I’m the one who should be apologizing.” He tips into a bow. “Please forgive me. I acted foolishly. I will not be so presumptuous again.”
“What?” Lan Xichen stares blankly as Jin Guangyao straightens. “N-no, I-- A-Yao, what do you…”
“It was my understanding that we felt the same way about each other. I’m sorry. It is clear I was wrong.”
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen tries weakly. “I… I do feel for you. I do. Kiss me again, I can-- I’ll do better this time.”
Jin Guangyao eyes him almost pityingly. “Wanting to want is not the same as truly wanting, Er-ge.”
A childish sob clings to the back of Lan Xichen’s throat. “It can be. It should be. I should-- I do want. I do want to want you, so-- so I do want.”
“No.” Jin Guangyao is softer now. Truer. “It’s alright, Er-ge. I’ve kissed men before.I know what they feel like when they want me.” A hesitation. “You feel like you’d rather hide.”
Lan Xichen would like to hide. Hiding sounds perfect right now.
“I’ll take my leave.” Jin Guangyao bows again. “Please, say nothing of this matter. Let’s put it behind us.”
Lan Xichen doesn’t even have the chance to agree before he leaves in a whirl of pale gold robes.
Lan Xichen is thirty years old when he stops trying to fight it.
His uncle has long since stopped needling him about it, and even the most persistent elders have quieted to only the occasional grumbling.
Lan Xichen says, “Perhaps Wangji will be more successful.”
If he were in a room filled with anybody other than Lans, he would have been met with a most disgruntled chorus of scoffs. Instead, there is a frosty, disapproving silence.
He doesn’t tell Lan Wangji he said that, of course. His didi is all sharp angles and empty eyes and one-syllable replies these days. Lan Xichen doesn’t truly believe what he said, but he has to hope in vain.
Of course, when it comes down to it, Lan Xichen knows what he will force himself to do. For his clan. For his shufu, for his didi.
He tries not to think about it.
Lan Xichen is nearing forty years when he loses everything.
He sits alone. He sleeps alone. He lives alone.
Just like he always wanted.
Wangji visits him sometimes. Tells him how his precious sect fares in his absence.
Lan Xichen never asks about an heir. Perhaps the elders will swallow their pride and allow Lan Sizhui to take his place. Perhaps Lan Jingyi is a close enough relative that he will be permitted to rule.
Lan Xichen doesn’t care so much anymore. There are other matters to care about now. Other flaws to torture himself over.
Wangji watches with sad eyes. Lan Xichen pretends not to notice.
He never asks, but Wangji brings it up anyways.
“The elders are speaking of finding potential brides for you.”
Lan Xichen nearly laughs. He cannot even fathom a marriage anymore. Can’t even imagine trying.
“I will try my best to discourage them,” Wangji continues at Lan Xichen’s silence.
Lan Xichen stirs his tea and glances at his brother from the corner of his eyes. “...Thank you.”
Wangji simply nods, but Lan Xichen notices the press of his lips and the twitch of his brows.
“What is it?”
Wangji hesitates. “I always… thought it was easier. To not… love.”
Lan Xichen blinks.
“I envied you,” Lan Wangji admits quietly.
Lan Xichen takes note of the past tense.
“We all fight different battles,” he responds at length. “One is not easier than the other.”
Lan Wangji hums noncommittally. “Some are longer, though. I fear this is one you will be forced to fight your whole life.”
“There are ways out.”
A horrified silence meets his words. Lan Xichen takes a sip of his tea. His brother can interpret his answer any way he wants.
“I’m okay, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says in response to Lan Wangji’s unuttered question. “You may leave now.”
Wangji gathers himself and thanks his brother for his time, voice low and mournful.
Lan Xichen watches him go.