It wasn’t that Jiang Cheng never thought about it. About love, that was.
As a teenager he’d really liked Wen Qing, had respected her as a person and thought her beautiful. However, with the sacking of Lotus Pier, his parents’ deaths and Wei Wuxian’s disappearance, his duty had far outweighed any fledgling feelings he’d harboured for the physician. When she returned his comb to him, it hurt, but nothing like the heartbreak he saw written in Lan Wangji’s usually so stoic face when Wei Wuxian fell to his death.
Sometimes Jiang Cheng had wondered whether he was broken in some way, whether he was incapable of feeling real love, the way he’d witnessed with both his siblings. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to, not after seeing his beloved jiejie pining for the peacock for so many years and observing the pain Wei Wuxian tried so hard to hide after the rift with Lan Wangji. And then both Jiang Yanli and the man he used to call his brother died, just as his parents had. Even Wen Qing was dead, sacrificing herself in vain for a completely lost cause.
In Jiang Cheng’s experience, love meant loss and destruction, so why should he bother?
He preferred to direct all his attention to rebuilding Yunmeng Jiang and helping to raise the only family he had left. Jin Ling was simultaneously his greatest joy and sharpest pain, a living reminder of everything he’d lost. It made him sharp, impatient, his temper flaring with a crackle of Zidian. He had none of Jiang Yanli’s tenderness or Wei Wuxian’s easy affection. No, love was not for Jiang Cheng.
This also meant that marriage was out of the question. He’d seen what a loveless marriage looked like; in this regard he refused to follow in his parents’ footsteps. It didn’t matter that the sect elders muttered about his duties as sect leader to provide an heir. He would find a way. After all, hadn’t he somehow managed to lead Yunmeng Jiang all through the Sunshot Campaign when he was only a teenager, with no help from anyone?
The only person whose advice Jiang Cheng had accepted back then had been Lan Xichen.
To the other sect leaders he’d been stiffly polite while secretly fuming at being patronised, resenting their apparent need to interfere in his business. However, it was absolutely impossible to be short-tempered with the First Jade of Lan, whose entire demeanour was always nothing but genuinely helpful and kind. He was entirely unlike his brother, who’d reappeared from his seclusion following his shocking behaviour at the siege of the Burial Mounds refusing to as much as look at Jiang Cheng. This suited Jiang Cheng just fine, the other man forever painfully connected to a moment that haunted his nightmares.
If Lan Wangji had told his brother of Jiang Cheng’s role in Wei Wuxian’s demise, Lan Xichen never let on. He was the only one Jiang Cheng actually looked forward to meeting at conferences, especially after Nie Mingjue’s death. Nie Huaisang’s apparent determination to become the most indecisive of Clan leaders set Jiang Cheng’s teeth on edge. It had been amusing when they were children, but now they were adults with adult responsibilities.
Therefore he naturally gravitated towards Lan Xichen, who always greeted him with a warm smile and the invitation to sit with him. Still, Jiang Cheng made sure to never overstay his welcome, for example when Jin Guangyao took up the First Jade’s attention. Seeing the two sworn brothers together always sent a pang of something Jiang Cheng refused to call grief through him. Wei Wuxian had betrayed and left him, he was not going to dishonour jiejie’s memory by missing a bond he'd obviously only ever imagined existed.
The bitterness he tasted when he walked in on Lan Xichen kissing the newly-appointed chief cultivator had been an entirely different matter. Later, he blamed his reaction on the many toasts he'd had to endure during the formal celebration, which made his stupid heart confuse admiration for the Lan sect leader, appreciation for his kindness, and the loneliness Jiang Cheng had by now become mostly used to. Anything else was unimaginable, and therefore Jiang Cheng decided to never think of it again.
He was just grateful neither man had noticed his presence, and that he managed to keep his countenance when he met them again the next morning. Sometimes it was an advantage that no one expected him to smile and make small-talk. Still, from that day on he couldn't help but watch their interactions with new eyes although he couldn't detect anything out of the ordinary. Even when Jin Guangyao got married in a big ceremony in front of representatives from most of the sects, Lan Xichen appeared unbothered, a smiling presence at his sworn brother's side, making Jiang Cheng wonder if maybe that pleasant smile served a similar purpose to his own scowl.
He dismissed the idea as preposterous. Not everyone was a barely concealed mess held together by the weight of necessity, other people's expectations and stubborn bloody-mindedness, the way Jiang Cheng sometimes felt. Never around Lan Xichen, though, who seemed to welcome his presence whenever their paths crossed, not put off by Jiang Cheng's inability to make small talk or play political games.
It was only natural, therefore, to drift into the First Jade's orbit, let his calming presence soothe Jiang Cheng's temper when the ever-smiling chief cultivator meddled with Jin Ling's education, when the older sect leaders made remarks about his lack of an heir or when Nie Huaisang determinedly refused to commit to anything. They also happened to agree on many points of sect politics, making Jiang Cheng feel less as if he was taking advantage of Lan Xichen's patience.
It wasn't until Guanyin Temple, however, that he stopped feeling the way he had when they first met: a sixteen-year-old boy admiring a grown man with an already impressive reputation. It was only natural that Jiang Cheng had put the young Lan sect leader onto a pedestal, considered him more like a flawless statue than a regular human being.
It was this pedestal that broke into a million pieces in light of the depth of betrayal Lan Xichen experienced.
Jiang Cheng saw the First Jade's hand tremble as he held his sword to Jin Guangyao's throat, witnessed the naked pain in his eyes when he was forced to kill his sworn brother - but worst of all, he noticed the resignation in face of certain death, only avoided because the traitorous former chief cultivator grew a conscience at the last possible moment... It was more than enough to shatter anyone's peace of mind, even a mind as formidable as Lan Xichen's.
No one should ever look as small as he did in the wake of the temple's destruction, and the sight made Jiang Cheng's heart ache and his fingers itch with the desire to smoothe away the pain lining a suddenly ashen face, the way Wei Wuxian had done for Jiang Cheng only a few hours before. However, Lan Xichen wasn't Jin Ling, and Jiang Cheng was not the person anyone turned to for comfort anyway. That had been jiejie's role, and even now Jin Ling was embracing Fairy instead of his abrasive uncle.
The thought didn't hold the bitterness it might have before. Overall Jiang Cheng felt lighter, not quite so angry anymore, although objectively speaking not much had changed. There was still too much history between him and Wei Wuxian, too much pain, and Jiang Cheng still carried his burdens alone.
When he set out at the head of the Yunmeng disciples, Jin Ling and Fairy by his side, he didn't bid anyone goodbye. He had no words to offer to his former shixiong, nor to Nie Huaisang, whose role in all of this he didn't quite understand, and least of all to Lan Xichen in his grief, but he left feeling as if they were all beginning a new chapter.
At first it seemed his instincts were correct. Not only did Nie Huaisang begin to take a more active role in running his sect, more importantly to Jiang Cheng Jin Ling proved himself readier for his new role than Jiang Cheng's pessimistic heart had dared to hope. Maybe spending so much time with him had given his nephew, who now went by Jin Rulan, some insights into being a sect leader. Maybe Jiang Cheng hadn't failed in this, his most important duty towards his beloved jiejie's only son, despite being blind to the machinations of the snake who'd so quietly and efficiently usurped his place. If Jiang Cheng had been a more fanciful man, he'd have imagined Jiang Yanli smiling proudly.
She would definitely also have smiled at the news that Wei Wuxian, after wandering the world and doubtlessly causing mischief for a while, had apparently ended up back in Cloud Recesses and was currently preparing his nuptials to none other than the new chief cultivator. Jiang Cheng might not be exactly smiling, but if anyone was stubborn enough to take on Wei Wuxian forever, it was Lan Wangji. These two fools deserved each other, and he might even attend the wedding, if only to have an excuse to visit Gusu.
This desire had little to do with the two grooms, because among all the good there had been one bit of news that left Jiang Cheng unsettled, dissatisfied. Lan Wangji was not the person he wanted to lead the cultivation world in the wake of Jin Guangyao's shocking death, but with Lan Xichen going into seclusion, there really had been no other choice. In the beginning Jiang Cheng had thought it to be a temporary measure, but it had been a year, and even the marriage announcement of his only brother appeared not to have drawn the Lan sect leader out of his self-imposed isolation.
Was he going to live out his days shut away from everyone, as his father had? Like everyone else, Jiang Cheng had heard the stories, yet more proof that love was foolish at best, dangerous at its worst. He wasn't sure why he felt this urge to see for himself even knowing it was a useless endeavour, since the entire concept of seclusion forbade visitors, except that the thought of the shining light that was Lan Xichen fading away in grief-stricken exile made him unaccountably angry.
The Lans were such stickler for their rules, had anyone even dared to suggest to their leader that it might be time to rejoin society? Had Lan Wangji? Or did he resign himself to losing his older brother the way he'd lost both his parents? Jiang Cheng had never understood the relationship between the Twin Jades, so alike in strength, cultivation and reputation yet so different in personality. But even as the familiar train of thought crossed his mind, his memory flashed back to the naked desperation on Lan Wangji's face as he clung to Wei Wuxian on that precipice, only to be quickly followed by the much more recent image of Lan Xichen being pushed away from Jin Guangyao, his normally so handsome features similarly twisted in anguish.
Maybe the hearts of the two brothers were more alike than people thought, after all, and for the first time Jiang Cheng began to believe that there might be truth to the founding legend of the Lan clan, which he'd always dismissed as much too romantic for such a serious-minded sect. It was definitely still too romantic for anyone with sense, though, Jiang Cheng included, which he told Wei Wuxian to his face in lieu of congratulations when he arrived in Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji, as always glued to his betrothed's sides, shot him his haughtiest look, but Jiang Cheng really couldn't care less what the Second Jade thought of him, and Wei Wuxian was beaming so happily, it only confirmed Jiang Cheng's opinion.
Rather than stick around for an uncomfortable dinner, he sought out Jin Ling, finding him as expected with the Ouyang sect heir and the two Lan disciples he'd befriended. What was strange, though, was that sometimes, when Jiang Cheng caught sight of Lan Sizhui out of the corner of his eyes, he remembered the Burial Mounds and a small boy clinging to Wei Wuxian's legs. Had his parents possibly been Wens?
Jiang Cheng wasn't one of those who believed Lan Wangji had fathered a child out of wedlock, and as he watched the four young men interacting over dinner, suspicion became almost certainty. How strange to find a relative of Wen Qing's as a shining example of Gusu Lan principles, much more so than Lan Sizhui's outspoken friend Lan Jingyi. Almost as strange as imagining strict and humourless Lan Wangji raising such a warm and caring son, one who strongly resembled the uncle whose heir he was rumoured to be.
His thoughts once more drawn towards Lan Xichen, Jiang Cheng used the opportunity after dinner, when Lan Sizhui offered to show him to his quarters, to inquire after the Lan sect leader.
"Is he still in complete seclusion? If not, if there's a chance..." Jiang Cheng trailed off awkwardly, unsure how to word his request without seeming too forward.
Luckily, Lan Sizhui appeared well-versed in reading between the lines, his smile kind. "Zewu-jun has taken over some of the duties as sect leader again. I believe he wants to give his brother more time with Wei-gege - I mean, Wei Wuxian."
The slip only confirmed Jiang Cheng's suspicions, but he cared much more about the fact that Lan Xichen seemed to be doing better. He was about to ask again about the possibility of seeing him, when Lan Sizhui continued, "He has yet to hold an official audience, but I'm sure he will be happy to see an old friend. I will inquire if he's free for breakfast tomorrow. That is, if you don't mind rising at six. The rest of the day will likely be very busy with wedding preparations."
Although Jiang Cheng would have preferred to sleep a little longer after a hard day's travel, he didn't hesitate to agree. Left alone in one of the guest pavilions, he found himself smiling. He would never have dared to call himself Lan Xichen's "old friend," but the thought that other people might consider him as such made him feel rather pleased.
He slept fitfully, although he refused to call his restiveness nerves. There was nothing to be nervous about, after all. He'd known the First Jade for more than half of his life, they had interacted so many times, so there really was nothing to this meeting, just one sect leader looking in on another. Lan Xichen had lent Jiang Cheng his support in countless small ways ever since he'd had to assume his role years before his time, this was his opportunity to return the favour at least a litte.
Repeating this, Jiang Cheng finally managed to stubbornly force himself to sleep, only to be roused what felt like minutes later by an unfailingly polite Lan Sizhui, who appeared annoyingly awake. Jiang Cheng managed not to tear his head off and quickly got dressed, after a moment's hesitation choosing the second-best garment he'd brought.
He very carefully didn't examine why it felt so very important to make a good impression on Lan Xichen. Instead he followed Lan Wangji's ward to the hanshi, where the Lan sect leader bade him enter after only a short pause. Nodding his thanks to Lan Sizhui, Jiang Cheng followed the invitation.
The room was tidy, but there were small signs of Lan Xichen's personality everywhere. It was a peaceful dwelling, beautiful in its tranquility, and Jiang Cheng immediately calmer. Even more so when his eyes came to rest on Lan Xichen, who'd risen from a small table set with dishes for two.
"Sect leader Jiang, what a pleasure to see you again." At first glance, the smile that met him was unchanged, warming a face that could have been sculpted from the most precious white jade. Jiang Cheng had always understood why Lan Xichen's name was at the top of the list of most handsome cultivators. A closer look, however, showed lines that he was certain hadn't been there before the events at Guanyin Temple and shadows hiding in the corners of Lan Xichen's smiling eyes.
Mentally shaking himself, Jiang Cheng hoped his preoccupation hadn't been too obvious. "Thank you for receiving me, sect leader Lan. I hope I haven't been too presumptuous in asking to see you - I hear you've only recently left seclusion."
"Of course not. I am always glad of your company." No matter how closely Jiang Cheng looked, Lan Xichen appeared genuine, making him one of very few people to be kind to Jiang Cheng and mean it. The thought sent tendrils of warmth through him, and he quickly averted his eyes as he followed Lan Xichen's gesture and sat down at the table. The First Jade followed his example, only breaking the surprisingly comfortable silence once he'd poured them both tea. "You're my first official visitor since I returned from my stay in Gentian House, Jiang Wanyin."
Few people used Jiang Cheng's courtesy name, but he liked when Lan Xichen said it instead of his title. As if they were really on the same level, adressing each other as equals. Friends, even. Biting his lower lip nervously, Jiang Cheng hoped the continuing warmth in the pit of his stomach wasn't colouring his cheeks. Casting his mind around for something to say, he settled on asking inanely, "Gentian House? Is that part of Cloud Recesses?"
However, with his unfailing ability to insert his foot always squarely into his mouth, the question appeared not as innocuous as he'd hoped. This time there was no mistaking the way Lan Xichen's face darkened, although he quickly hid it with his usual placid smile, confirming Jiang Cheng's longstanding suspicions that it served as armour of sorts. There was no sign of it, however, when Lan Xichen explained calmly, "Yes. It's where my mother used to live. It lies on the outskirts and is a haven of peace, which is what I needed."
Of course Jiang Cheng had managed with one question to not only evoke Lan Xichen's ill-fated parents, whose story had been the cause of many a rumour in cultivator circles, but also the reason for his choice to go into seclusion. Anger at himself replaced his earlier pleasure, always an easy transition for him. Forcing himself to remain calm, he asked with perhaps a bit too much insistence, "Did you find it?"
"Peace?" Lan Xichen appeared a little startled at Jiang Cheng's forceful inquiry, his gaze turning inwards. "Y-yes, I did. Maybe more than I deserve."
Now it was Jiang Cheng's turn to be taken aback by the other man's honesty, and it made him blurt out angrily, "More than you deserve? Zewu-jun, no one deserves peace more than you!"
"That... that's very kind of you to say, but-"
"Kind? No one's ever accused me of being kind." A bark of bitter laughter escaped Jiang Cheng. "But I am known for being honest, I hope. So please, believe me. You're the best man I know, Lan Xichen, and your only fault was being blinded by friendship. By... love."
He hesitated over the last word, remembering what he'd witnessed between Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao all those years ago. Yet more proof that love was dangerous, wreaking destruction more often than it brought happiness. Jiang Cheng knew he should be grateful that it was an emotion he'd been spared. Having reached this familiar conclusion, he was yanked back to the present by the completely unfamiliar sensation of a hand covering his.
"Thank you, Jiang Wanyin." Jerking his eyes up to Lan Xichen's face, Jiang Cheng blushed hotly at the naked gratitude in the First Jade's gaze, all his composure seemingly evaporated. It left Jiang Cheng breathless, even before Lan Xichen tightened his hold and said warmly, "People are fools if they don't see you for the good man you are."
Every instinct of Jiang Cheng's urged him to tear himself away and run or maybe say something cutting and sharp, the way he normally did when emotions threatened to get the better of him. However, Lan Xichen had always been the exception to his rules, so he remained seated, although it took all his willpower.
As they sat, sharing a silence heavy with words unsaid, in a strange way Jiang Cheng felt as if he was teetering on the edge of a precipice. It was a loaded comparison, yet somehow very fitting, and maybe that was why he impulsively turned his hand upwards. Palm to palm with Lan Xichen, he could feel a tremor run through the First Jade, and it was this that made him push past the lump in his throat and offer hoarsely, "Maybe you could call me Jiang Cheng?"
"I- I would like that very much." The smile Lan Xichen gave him was shy, vulnerable, and it curled around Jiang Cheng's heart, tugging gently. "Thank you... Jiang Cheng."
For the first time since his sister died, as he heard it spoken in Lan Xichen's gentle voice, Jiang Cheng's name sounded beautiful. Blushing, he felt an answering smile spread over his face, but more urgent than his bashfulness was the need to continue to reassure Lan Xichen, to once again make him believe in his own goodness and kindness. So he took a steadying breath and shook his head firmly. "There is no need for thanks. Not between us."
Wordlessly, Lan Xichen bowed his head in acquiescence, but there was something new, something Jiang Cheng didn't quite dare to name, hiding in the upturned corners of his mouth. It made Jiang Cheng want to reach out and touch.
Instead, he drew a sharp breath and tangled their fingers together. If previously he'd been on the verge of falling, he had now jumped, feet-first into the unknown. It wasn’t that Jiang had Cheng never thought about love. But now, looking at Lan Xichen, his heart in his throat, he dared for the first time to hope.