Lan Wangji has disappeared, people whisper, we used to see him every other day, and now there’s no trace of him.
Usually, usually, Lan Xichen doesn’t believe rumours. Rumours are just that—rumours, and they are warped and twisted and passed through many trials of exaggerations and fabrication.
Usually, Lan Xichen doesn’t believe in rumours, but when his younger brother goes missing for four days, he begins to worry.
Wangji adheres to rules and regulations—in fact, he’s probably broken the least rules out of all the Lan generations that have existed—and for him to suddenly disappear without a trace or warning is disturbing, to say the least.
Lan Xichen prays for his brother’s safety.
Their uncle brings it up with him, of course, asking if Lan Xichen has sent Wangji off to another sect for business or anything, and Lan Xichen has to tell him that he has not heard from his brother since the night they last talked—six days before.
Lan Xichen worries.
But despite his concerns, he does not have much time for worrying, for his duties as Sect Leader keep him occupied and well and truly tired to ponder Wangji’s whereabouts.
—but that does not mean he stops worrying.
With every day that passes, Lan Xichen, eventually, grows restless, conducting searches along with his uncle for Wangji. He asks other Sects for help when his own efforts prove futile, he stays up late into the night trying to figure out where Wangji could possibly be.
And yet nothing happens.
Nothing turns up, not even a trace of cloth or blood or anything that could possibly be thought of as Wangji’s.
It’s as if he’s disappeared from the face of the world itself.
It’s two months after his disappearance that everything comes to a standstill.
‘Sect Leader Lan,’ the townspeople tell him, ‘There is a corpse on the outskirts of our village, dressed in Lan Sect robes. We thought you might not know about it—it looks old.’
And Lan Xichen has to fight down the spike of panic in his heart, and smiles, and thanks them for informing him.
(He doesn’t remember much of that night. He doesn’t remember who came along with him, doesn’t remember who held him back as he tried to rush towards the walking corpse.
He doesn’t remember how the disciples had feared him, for that one single moment, because he looked so wild and ferocious and unrestrained, so unlike the Zewu-jun they knew, and he doesn’t remember how he had screamed until his voice had been lost to the winds.
What he remembers, though, is the brush of the leaves, the startle of forest animals as they hurried to escape the corpse in GusuLan sect robes, the corpse with Wangji’s forehead ribbon.
He remembers himself losing composure, because Wangji is the only thing that’s been a constant in his life for as long as he’s known, because Wangji is his brother, and he can’t bear to lose another member of his family, not with his parents being isolated from him and not with Lan Qiren acting more like a teacher than an actual uncle—he can’t lose Wangji too.
For days afterward, he remembers people giving him their condolences, being gentle with him and saying sorry like that even meant anything.
He remembers hearing Lan Qiren’s hushed theories on how Wei Wuxian killed his brother, and he hears people organizing a funeral, a proper one, for his brother.
He doesn’t remember much else aside from the pain and worry and hurt and the ever-constant black hole in his chest that seemed to consume him alive—
—but he remembers.
He remembers that it isn’t Wangji’s body.)
But they never find him. Despite Lan Xichen’s belief that his brother is still out there, alone, no one believes him and no more effort is made to investigate. (‘At least there’s a body,’ other people say, when they think he can’t hear them, ‘Hey, the corpse looked really sucked dry—do you think the Yiling Patriarch killed him?’)
He has to swallow it down, though. His duties as Sect Leader come first, whether he wants them to or not.
And so the years pass.
There’s a wisp of a rumour that Jin Zixuan had invited Wei Wuxian to his son’s two-month anniversary, and there had been a rumour that he had been turned down, because, as stated in Wei Wuxian’s letter, I’ll have to decline, Peacock Princess. I know you of all people won’t do anything to me since you invited me, but—no offense—the same can’t be said for your relatives. I’m sorry, though, and I want Jin Ling to have this from me—sorry it isn’t very expensive—and please give shijie my sincerest wishes.
Lan Xichen does not care.
He governs his sect dutifully, methodically, welcoming new disciples each year, and teaching them to the best of his abilities. Sometimes, sometimes they remind him of his brother, but none of them can replicate the way his brother walks, with the elegance of passing breeze, nor the way he’s always there as a silent comfort.
Lan Xichen plays Inquiry every night, hopes that he will one day get a response, hopes with all his heart that at least his brother’s soul will still be out there, unharmed, and hopefully just roaming around the world as a peaceful spirit. He cannot bear to think otherwise.
The Yiling Patriarch has disappeared, people say, they say he has disappeared, after some years of not hearing anything from him, but his barrier of corpses is still up, people can still be seen leaving the Burial Mounds from time to time, but there is no word from the Patriarch himself.
People wonder whether he has taken on an apprentice and passed away, people wonder if he is still alive, and if he is, why wasn’t he wreaking havoc on the world? And sometimes, discreetly, Lan Xichen knows, LanlingJin tries to carry out attacks on the remaining Wen people, the people that Wei Wuxian had abandoned everything for, but those never work and everyone is sent back with injuries.
There have been no deaths.
But as time passes and nothing happens, people start letting their guard down, people eventually stop shaking in fear at the mention of the Yiling Patriarch. Out of sight, out of mind, some people say, as they laugh at their children playing the Sunshot Campaign.
But Lan Xichen never forgets.
And so thirteen years pass.
(And despite people’s beliefs that the YYiling Patriarch may be gone, there are still ones who are curious and ones who inquire until their hearts are sated.
And from them Lan Xichen hears of rumours—
‘Is it true that the Yiling Patriarch is trying to set up his own sect?’
‘No way—who’d want to follow him?’
‘The Wen remnants?’
‘Eh, still. I don’t believe it.’
‘They say he even has a husband!’
‘What! Him? Who’d even love someone like him?’
Lan Xichen can think of someone, but of course, he’d never say it out loud—
‘I don’t know, but it’s true.’
‘I don’t believe you—‘)
It is at a yearly discussion conference, when—pardon his language—everything goes to shit.
Everything is normal, for the most part. Like they always do Lan Xichen and Sect Leader Jiang meet before the conference itself, taking time to update each other on what has been going on lately. It helps that both of them have felt the pain of losing a brother—Lan Xichen used to feel resentful that at least Jiang Wanyin still had hope for his brother being alive, but that resentment has turned into a dull resignation—and as Sect Leaders, they can talk about their worries and even share thoughts and ideas with each other.
They’re taking a walk in the gardens—the conference is at LanlingJin this year—and Lan Xichen listens at Jiang Wanyin talks.
‘I—‘ and there’s a frown, ‘—something’s going to happen.’
Jiang Wanying takes the encouragement for what it is, looking straight forward and furrowing his brows, ‘I felt something some months ago.’
‘Yes?’ And Lan Xichen is confused, for he doesn’t really know why he’s being told, but he’ll listen anyways.
‘Have you,’ Jiang Wanyin pauses, ‘Have you ever felt this, this gut feeling that someone’s doing something stupid?’
The words are blunt, as Jiang Wanyin is always wont to be, and Lan Xichen tilts his head to the side, ‘How so?’
‘Well,’ the younger wrings his hands, ‘Whenever Wei Wuxian used to do something stupid, I’d always know. Even if I was far from him, I’d always know that he’d done something stupid and embarrassing.’
‘Ah,’ Lan Xichen hasn’t heard that name in a few years, but he pushes that thought away as he answers, ‘Not really. Wangji was, well, more well-behaved than your Wei Wuxian, so no.’
At this, Jiang Wanyin lets out a loose laugh, and shakes his head. ‘Of course you haven’t. I just hoped—‘
—that he’s still alive goes unsaid, but both of them still hear it, plain as the sun that’s shining down on both of them.
And then there’s a silence, one where Lan Xichen is entirely confident in, and it continues like that, with occasional quips from both of them until they have to go back to start the conference.
Lan Xichen thinks he quite likes spending time with Jiang Wanyin.
Nowadays, most discussion conferences are held in lieu or extravagant get-togethers for most cultivators, and usually everyone exchanges courtesy and any news that is significant enough for any of the Great Sects to consider.
This year though, with its number, holds a greater significance.
Since it’s the thirteenth year after the Yiling Patriarch’s mysterious disappearance, a decision is going to be made about the Burial Mounds and what should be done with it. Lan Xichen holds the thought that they should not be attacked, that their years of peace shouldn’t be broken, but Jin Guangyao seems to think otherwise.
‘Who knows what they could be coming up with?’ he asks, voice mild, ‘We’ve left them alone for thirteen years, and if the Yiling Patriarch is still alive, who knows what kind of contraptions he has come up with?’
Sitting slightly in front of him, Jin Zixuan looks preoccupied, but seems like he agrees with his half-brother’s words nonetheless.
Lan Xichen glances at Jiang Wanyin, sitting at a table beside his for a mere second. Lan Qiren sits behind him.
‘We have no intention to believe that he has any harmful intentions,’ Lan Xichen tries to placate, ‘After all, he has helped out a great deal in the Sunshot Campaign.’
The air immediately becomes sour at the mention of past battles, wars and pain and anguish people felt at the loss of their loved ones, but Lan Xichen gently pushes through them. ‘He has left us alone, should we not give him the liberty of freedom to be alone as well?’
‘He holds the Stygian Tiger Seal,’ Jin Guangyao says, voice flashing with something Lan Xichen can’t identify, ‘And what if he’s biding his time? Last time he did—might you expand for us, Sect Leader Jiang?’
Jiang Wanyin stiffens, and then says, ‘If you think you’re on the same level of evil that Wen Chao was, be my guest, Sect Leader Jin.’
Jin Guangyao curls his lip the tiniest bit, and Lan Xichen doesn’t think he would’ve noticed it if he wasn’t looking for it.
The moment of silence brings notice to the slight rumbling of the ground—and everyone sits up, straining their ears to hear hoarse shouts from the men outside.
There’s a sound akin to whinnies, and then the shouts grow louder—
And then there’s silence, a few murmurs, and then the doors creak open.
Lan Xichen notices the pallor of Jiang Wanyin’s skin.
When the doors are fully opened—by LanlingJin guards, no less, four people in black robes step in. Lan Xichen’s heart stutters.
They come into the hall in a single file line, but the black of their robes align so well with the shadows at the end of the room that, if not for the red tassels and gold edges of the robes, Lan Xichen thinks he would not have noticed it. He shudders to think of what this means.
Instead of moving forward, they stay in place, uncomfortably long, until one cultivator raises his voice among the clamour that occurs, ‘Who the hell invited you?’
‘Why, I invited myself, of course,’ the first person, Lan Xichen thinks, replies, voice smooth and honeyed, but Lan Xichen knows this voice, but he cannot place it, he knows that he has heard it before, and it is a faint memory, but—
‘Who are you!?’ another person demands, looking ready to whip out his sword at a moment’s notice.
‘Hm?’ and then the person comes forward, into the light, and—he doesn’t have a bad figure, actually, Lan Xichen thinks, and his hair is twisted into braids at the sides, which are woven into a half ponytail, and the rest is left to hand freely behind his back. But his face—‘Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the Yiling Patriarch’s face in only thirteen years?’
The murmur increases to a roar—and Lan Xichen looks at Jin Gaungyao first, and his face is unreadable, and then he looks at Jiang Wanyin, who looks—
—who looks so angry and miserable at the same time, purple sparks from Zidian flying around his fingers and his eyes hold all the questions an abandoned brother holds; why haven’t you contacted me, why haven’t you told me you were alive, why did you leave me—
Lan Xichen tears his gaze away from the Sect Leader to catch on the question his uncle asks.
‘And who might your…companions be?’
Wei Wuxian steps to the side, and gestures for the three people to step forward.
‘This is my husband,’ he says first, raising his voice over the chatter of cultivators, ‘and my sons. Allow them to introduce themselves.’
Lan Xichen feels faint.
This person—this person is dressed in the exact same black, red and gold as Wei Wuxian is wearing, but instead of Chenqing, a white sword that is all too familiar to Lan Xichen rests at his side. Matching his robes is a black forehead ribbon—
And the figure bows, more towards GusuLan than LanlinJin, and both of them watch, hearts stuck int their throats, breath caught in their lungs as achingly familiar golden eyes gaze upon them.
‘I am Wei Wangji,’ he says—Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen’s own brother, says—‘of YilingWei.’
And then Lan Qiren bellows, ‘What is the meaning of this?!’ and everything erupts.
Everyone is yelling, Lan Xichen thinks, but everything is far from his ears, and his only focus is on Lan Wangji—Wei Wangji—and his brother stares back, steadfast, and Lan Xichen sees thirteen years’ worth of apologies in them, but not regret.
Not a pang of regret flashes across those eyes, and Lan Xichen suddenly feels the weight of thirteen years lift off his shoulders, however miniscule it may be.
In fact, he looks…happier.
Lan Xichen’s suddenly pulled back into reality as something hits him from the back, and turns to see—
His uncle has fainted.
At his side, Jiang Wanyin looks confused, angry, and like he wants to cry all at the same time.
Everyone is still yelling questions, most of which is ‘wait they’re cutsleeves?’ and Jin Guangyao normally placid face looks like he’s ready to by swallowed up by the earth.
Jin Zixuan, on the other hand, looks like a cross between happy that his wife will be happy and annoyance that the biggest annoyance in his life is back.
Everyone stops at Wei Wuxian’s loud exclamation, and when he’s sure that he has everyone’s attention, he clears his throat and gestures for his sons to come forward.
‘Greetings,’ the taller one says, ‘I am Wei Yuan, courtesy name Sizhui, of YilingWei. Pleased to meet everyone.’
‘I’m Wei Lanyue, courtesy name Wangxian,’ the second teenager says, eyes glinting.
‘Welcome,’ Jin Zixuan says, ‘What business might you have?’
‘Oh, nothing much,’ Wei Wuxian drawls, ‘But considering you’re talking about me and my Sect, I thought I’d visit.’
With a hushed whisper, Jin Guangyao is made to get a table for the Wei family to sit down at.
Lan Xichen smiles despite the turmoil in his heart.
The discussion conference takes three hours—it would’ve lasted half that time if Nie Mingjue was here, Lan Xichen thinks with sorrow—and the verdict has Lan Xichen happy: YilingWei will be facing regular inspections from the Great Sects and allowed to live in peace.
During that time, Wei Wuxian smiles, threatens, and accepts the comfort of his sons and husband.
Lan Xichen does not think he has ever seen anyone so natural and affectionate with his own family.
After, when everyone has been told to leave, only Jin Zixuan, Jiang Wanyin, the Wei family, and Lan Xichen himself remain—Lan Qiren had been carted out to the LanlingJin infirmary earlier—, and that is when Jiang Wanyin takes a deep breath and blurts out, ‘What the fuck.’
There’s a moment of silence, and then Wei Wuxian doubles over laughing, slapping a hand of his thigh and laughing until he’s breathless. Lan Xichen quirks a smile at this display.
The laughter dies down after a short while, an there is a pause, not so awkward as it is filled with questions, until a door from the side slams open and a figure rushes into the room.
Lan Xichen watches at Wei Wuxian launches up and runs towards Jiang Yanli, catching her in his arms and twirling her around, and then they’re crying, Lan Xichen sees, but Wei Wuxian’s smile is as bright as Jiang Yanli’s own, and even Jiang Wanyin’s eyes go impossibly soft at the familial display between his siblings.
‘Shijie, I missed you so much!’ Wei Wuxian blabbers, pulling her towards his family, ‘I have to introduce you to everyone!’
Jiang Yanli follows with a smile.
‘A-Yuan, Xiao Yue, this is your aunt,’ Wei Wuxian gleefully tells them, ‘Shijie, these are your nephews!’
Lan Xichen moves his gaze away from them as they start to get to know each other, and turns his attention onto his brother.
His brother, who’s ever so quiet and observant, but Lan Xichen can’t help but notice the way he seems so much more relaxed in his dark robes than he was when he was with GusuLan, and he can’t help noticing that Wangji’s more expressive now, showing a quirk of his lips then and now, and he especially notices the way his brother’s eyes light up when he’s talking to Wei Wuxian.
(He also notices—he’d noticed white bandages around Wei Wuxian’s arm when his sleeves had been pulled back, but the bandages are made of fine material, and when Lan Xichen had squinted he’d seen the faint cloud pattern embroidered on it—)
Wangji notices his gaze, and then politely excuses himself from Jiang Yanli, who has been joined by a reluctant-looking Jin Zixuan to come and sit in front of Lan Xichen.
‘Brother,’ Wangji addresses him first, ‘Sect Leader Jiang.’
‘Second Master Lan,’ Jiang Wanyin replies on impulse, and then seems to reconsider his words, ‘Sect Leader Wei?’ He says these words uncertainly, because they’re foreign on his tongue, they’re words associated with the person he’d always thought to be by his side, and they’re words he’d never thought he would say.
‘Hanguang-jun is fine,’ Wangji tells him.
‘Hanguang-jun,’ Jiang Wanyin repeats, and then leans forward, voice getting soft, ‘How is my brother?’
‘He is well,’ Wangji says, a trace of affection coming into his voice, ‘There is a lot of work to be done as Sect Leader, but I’m sure you know that well.’
Jiang Wanyin nods, and leans back, apparently satisfied.
‘Brother,’ Wangji says again, looking at Lan Xichen with painfully honest eyes, ‘I apologize.’
He looks like he wants to say more, but Lan Xichen knows his brother, even after thirteen years, and he knows how difficult words are for him. So, he smiles, and tells him, ‘I know.’
At Wangji’s startled gaze, he says, ‘It’s okay. I’m glad you’re alive.’
Wangji looks away, and Lan Xichen smothers a laugh while Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes at something stupid Wei Wuxian has said.
‘A-Zhan!’ Wei Wuxian yells in the background, ‘Tell Jiang Cheng I did not do anything stupid!’
Wangji, the ever prestigious Wangji, even more noble than Lan Xichen himself, rolls his eyes and mutters, ‘Because you can’t possibly do yourself.’
Lan Xichen cracks up at Wei Wuxian’s indignant yell.