Lan Wangji was always a perfect child. For the Lan clan, and for his Uncle Qiren especially: intelligent, disciplined, almost silent. If not for his dutiful recitations of his lessons and the clan rules, Lan Xichen used to think he would be functionally mute, the little hums and nods of agreement he gave his elders not enough to qualify as speaking.
Lan Qiren liked silence. Silence during meals, during classes, during meditation, during sleeping hours. He liked Wangji’s stiff posture - perfect, but stiff, more stiff than a five year old should ever be - his serious demeanour, his quietness. Xichen was sure that his uncle would never see anything wrong with A-Zhan; in fact, he thought he was a model for all the other juniors
But Xichen saw. The shuttered expression, the subtle, constant, signs of his brother’s distress in his tight lips and balled fists.
And at night, when they knew they should be asleep, sometimes little A-Zhan would clamber out of his wide, low bed and crawl in beside his older brother, curl up small and press in close.
“Gege,” he whispered, sometimes, a hint of pleading in his faint voice.
“I’m here, didi.”
And by the time Uncle Qiren would appear to wake them, a few minutes after five in the morning, Wangji would be lying perfectly still in his own bed, as though he had never moved, as though Xichen hadn’t spent half the night comforting him and stroking his hair, like if there was no evidence then he didn’t have to be ashamed.
He wanted to yell at his little brother, there’s nothing wrong with breaking one minor rule! You’re only a tiny child! You’re not bad just because you need love, just because you can’t be the statue he thinks you are all the time, when he and Father are the ones who took our mother away in the first place!
He knew he couldn’t. If he even so much as acknowledged that Wangji embraced him at all, it would stop immediately and things would only get worse.
As he got a little older, Wangji learned to comfort himself instead, to stick so stringently to the rules that he could never worry about doing anything wrong. But when they were told their mother was no longer in the jingshi, that there would be no more visits - before Wangji could understand why - on the nights before that one day a month that had been theirs as a family, Xichen would hear that soft pad of footsteps, those frozen feet pressed up against him that he would have to force himself not to jump away from, so that his brother would never think he wasn’t welcome.
For the first time in years there was crying, the only way that the perfect A-Zhan could cry, which was in great soft sobs and long stretches of quiet as he held his breath, trying to stop from the moment he began. The only thing Xichen could think to do - because he was only eight, and hurting too, and trying his best - was to hold him until the sobs became hiccups and then exhausted tears.
“Is it because of me?” Wangji mumbled into Xichen’s shoulder, the fourth month that they had not been allowed to see their mother (the fourth month that she had been dead), his rarely-used voice thick.
“No, no, A-Zhan -” And his eyes had filled too, without him meaning to. “- Never.”
“Then why ?”
“I don’t - I don’t know, didi,”
Xichen was sure that was the moment that Wangji knew, maybe without having the words for it, that she was dead.
He didn’t come into Xichen’s bed again. He lay as still and proper in his own bed as a corpse.
When they came of age, Wangji moved into the jingshi with not one single sign of emotion on his blank face, with every one of his movements precise and measured, and Xichen, watching, winced internally. Of course, he had gone through the same training as his brother, and he was just as silent and elegant, and they followed the Gusu Lan path together perfectly, as twin jades.
Wangji’s walls had come up fully, and they didn’t come down until…
Well. Until Wei Wuxian coaxed his way past them and turned everything in Wangji’s well-ordered life upside down, as inevitable as a force of nature. And as destructive as one.
After Heavenly Nightless City, Wangji had seemed to be half the disciple he was raised to be and half the rebel that had strayed towards the Yiling Patriarch, somehow both at once. He had owned his disgrace in the eyes of the great families of cultivators, accepted his punishment, and knelt upright beneath the blows even as blood ran down his back. And yet he had still challenged the justice of it. Living in seclusion, in truth, was not so different from living anywhere under the rules Wangji enforced on himself, and three years is not so long a time that Xichen had worried for his brother’s state of mind - rather, he worried about what other radical conclusions Wangji might come to, left to his own devices, or if he might simply walk away one day and not return.
When nothing seemed to happen, he began to wonder if they had reached the end of Wei Wuxian’s influence on Wangji, if this was all there would be. And perhaps it would have been, if not for the child.
Wangji had disappeared for a few days after the fall of the Yiling Patriarch, and then come striding back from the Burial Mounds with a child unconscious in his arms, and the hand not cradling him against his chest holding tight to a toy, a paper butterfly. The boy was found, apparently, hidden in a barren field of crops; he must have survived by eating the scraps of what was left.
The child was Wen clan, that much was obvious. His name, if anyone else had found him, could have brought down wrath and vengeance upon his head - if he had been given over to the Jin clan with the other remnants of the Wens he could have been executed. Xichen’s blood ran cold at the thought of it, of this three-year-old child sacrificed for the actions of a single corrupt branch of his sect.
However anybody felt about the rest of what Wangji had done, nobody at Cloud Recesses could fault him for saving the child. They were not Jin clan, after all: they sought for impartiality. Besides, there was already a group of young juniors being inducted into the study of cultivation, and the boy - A-Yuan, or as they began urgently to correct him, Lan Yuan, now - was quick-witted and friendly, an ideal pupil, and he could be hidden easily among them. As young as he was, he would barely remember his life on the Burial Mounds at all, and hopefully would soon stop calling out for Brother Wei and Brother Charcoal, not to mention Brother Rich, who as far as anyone could work out was Wangji.
Wangji’s punishment and seclusion was not explained to A-Yuan. What could that possibly do but upset him?
Instead, for three years A-Yuan had come to believe that Wangji had done what every member of his family had in his eyes: slowly disappeared, one by one, as he was passed all over the world, unexplained because no one thought him old enough to hear the awful truth.
And then three years had come to an end, and Wangji has reappeared in Cloud Recesses, with his countenance as smooth and blank as paper and his guqin balanced perfectly across his knees, saying barely a single word to anyone and seeming as though his isolation had restored him to the state of silence and repression that Lan Qiren had always wanted.
Until, at the very moment the children’s morning meditations were due to finish the next day, he swept into their hall, allowed a six-year-old little boy to - among the stunned whispers of Hanguang-jun? - to greet him with a delighted shriek as Gege! and take his hand, and then led him out into the forest.
“Do you like rabbits, A-Yuan?” Wangji paused to ask him, with his usual calmness.
A-Yuan beamed and nodded excitedly. Wangji smiled back, almost imperceptibly.
“Teacher says pets are forbidden.”
Wangji crouched, and very carefully adjusted A-Yuan’s forehead ribbon, which was slanting down across one eyebrow.
“They’re not pets,” he said eventually. “They are… untamed. But still friendly.”
A-Yuan nodded again, more serious, but still almost vibrating with excitement.
“You have to sit very still.” Wangji went on flatly. “For the rabbits.”
A-Yuan did not manage to sit as motionlessly as Wangji would have, at the same age. But that was probably a good thing - and the rabbits liked him anyway, despite the little movements, the little noise.
Wangji led him back when it was almost time for the midday meal, listening attentively to A-Yuan’s chatter about his studies and his friends and, as they drew increasingly closer to the centre of Cloud Recesses, about how much he had missed Wangji; his steps, too, grew smaller, and he tugged on Wangji’s hand to hold him back. Eventually they slowed to a complete stop.
Wangji took a patient breath, and glanced down at the big, doleful eyes gazing up at him.
“May I come and see you again? And the rabbits?”
He sounded sad, as though he expected to be told no, that he had to go back to his lessons now and be a good, perfect, silent child.
Wangji thought of spending one day a month with his mother, not speaking of the rules and teachings that made up the rest of his young life, of looking forward to it so much that it hurt and of how long a whole month had seemed to a little boy.
“Of course.” he said simply. “Whenever you want.”
A-Yuan threw his arms around his leg - a habit he had yet to grow out of.
They were almost late for lunch, Wangji realised, finding somewhat to his surprise that he didn’t really care.
“Whenever you don’t have anywhere you should be.” he amended.
A-Yuan still didn’t let go of him. In the distance, a group of juniors hurried along towards the dining hall.
“Go with them. Go on.”
They stared at each other for a moment; something unspoken passed between them. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the moment broke, and A-Yuan released his leg to trot away.
Xichen officially knew nothing about this, of course. It would be bad form to allow his brother to bend the rules - other disciples might, but not the main branch of the family, not Hanguang-jun. Uncle Qiren would certainly not take it well, after Wangji’s actions at Heavenly Nightless City. As clan leader, though, it was Xichen’s duty to address it, not his uncle’s.
“It’s good,” he remarked, over tea with Wangji, who levelled a flat stare at him that anyone unrelated to him likely wouldn’t recognise as alarm. “What you’re doing with Lan Yuan, I mean.”
Please don’t make me talk about this with words , Wangji said to him, by blinking pointedly, face unchanging.
“Have you thought about courtesy names?”
Wangji nodded, then hesitated.
“I am not his parent.”
“No, but you fill that role.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgement - and also, Xichen thought, to hide his face as he considered his words.
A sad name, for such a happy child. Still - he had asked, and Wangji had decided. His brother shifted minutely, a massive expression of discomfort by his standards.
“I want him to remember,” he said slowly, brows furrowed slightly. “Not be ashamed. Not think that it was his fault.”
Xichen’s face fell in sympathy before he could stop it, and Wangji averted his eyes. They sat quietly together and drank their tea; it was no more of an easy silence than any other he had shared with his brother, but there was an air of understanding in it.
“You should tell him,” Xichen said, eventually.
“And you should teach him to play guqin.”
“It would be a good way to spend time with him, without distracting him from his studies.”
If he didn’t know better - and if not for the fact that Wangji’s face hadn’t moved at all - he would have said his brother was smiling.
He nodded to Xichen and left, impeccably unruffled as always; the idea, though, had clearly taken root, and a few days later as he passed by the stream where Wangji usually liked to sit with his instrument, he heard not the usual melancholy tune of Inquiry, but the imprecise sound of scales played with soft young hands, the murmur of instruction over it.
“Don’t push yourself too hard,” he heard Wangji say, voice low. “Tell me if your fingers hurt too much.”
Xichen looked carefully around him, then took a few steps forward so that he could see the pair sat cross-legged by the running water, their backs to him.
“Can we go see the rabbits afterwards?” asked A-Yuan.
If he had asked Lan Qiren, he would have been scolded not to become distracted from his music.
Unselfconsciously, the taller of the two figures turned his elegant head to look down, and - with the attitude of someone very fond but with no idea how to express that fondness, of someone who knew what he had wanted when he was the same age as this boy, but wasn’t quite sure how to give it - he laid a hand affectionately on top of the child’s head.
A-Yuan giggled freely.
His brother seemed happy, truly. If Wei Wuxian had cracked open Wangji’s shell, this was the light flooding in. And if Wei Ying could return, then A-Zhan and he could raise A-Yuan together, and… Xichen found himself thinking, and forcibly cut the thought short. It was a ludicrous idea. The Yiling Patriarch - if he was even able to return, if he was even dead in the first place - would have a lot more to answer for than Wangji’s love.
(In time Wei Wuxian would answer for many things, it would turn out, and seek out explanations for those things that were not his to answer for. But Wangji’s love was not the least of them.)
(In the meantime, there was Sizhui, who was the most accomplished Lan disciple of his agemates - but who was also loved, and never silent.)