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Blue runs the Water

Chapter Text

*

 

Lan Xichen shivers even under the heavy fall of his best robes, reserved for the most important functions, but at least it’s minute enough no one else should be able to tell. Shufu would already have reprimanded him if that were the case. It’s his first visit to Koi Tower – one of his first official visits to another major sect as future Sect Leader Lan, in fact – and he’s a little mortified to realise he simply doesn’t like the Jin Sect’s ancestral home. The gaudiness of his surroundings doesn’t help, overbearing rather than impressive to a Lan’s sense of aesthetics, but it’s the atmosphere that has his senses tingling unhappily. It’s nothing like the serene peace and quiet of Cloud Recesses, nor even like the hearty strength of the Unclean Realm, the other major sect Lan Xichen has so far visited. It’s cold and tense here, in a way that belies Koi Tower’s golden aura.

 

Though perhaps it’s the occasion colouring his perception. He isn’t sure why the announcement of an engagement necessitates quite so much pomp, but that in itself would not have soured his mood. It’s the way the two children who are being betrothed, far before they themselves would have put any thought to romance much less marriage, are both clearly uncomfortable in differing ways. Jin Zixuan is standing stiff as a board next to his imposing father, face frozen in a haughty mask that Lan Xichen is certain hides very real unhappiness. He has not looked at his betrothed once since the embassy from the Jiang Clan entered the hall. But it’s Jiang Yanli who Lan Xichen’s gaze keeps straying back to. She looks perfectly placid, perfectly demure, the very picture of a courteous young lady – and Lan Xichen does not doubt that she is – but there’s a pain in her eyes that no one else seem to be reacting to. Her parents, flanking her on either side, look coolly proud (Yu Ziyuan) and warmly calm (Jiang Fengmian), but not inclined to support their daughter further than with their presence. Lan Xichen doesn’t know the reasons behind this engagement, political or otherwise, but they must have agreed to it or they wouldn’t be here now. He seems to recall that the Jiang Clan also houses two young masters, who do not seem to be in attendance. Perhaps Jiang-guniang misses her brothers?

 

Lan Xichen has only been gone from Cloud Recesses a few days and he already misses his a-Zhan terribly. He worries how his little brother is coping without him there to encourage interaction with other people. Now that Lan Xichen lives in the Hanshi and a-Zhan in the Jingshi, they already have far fewer interactions than he would prefer, though a-Zhan doesn’t complain. He’s still fragile from their mother’s death and their father’s absence. While Lan Xichen was very relieved when he stopped going to her cottage every month, finally accepting that she would not be coming back, there’s still some spark of life missing in his didi even years later that Lan Xichen tries very hard to bring out again. These days it’s usually music that gives his brother happiness, having taken to the guqin like a duck to water and Lan Xichen is happy to indulge him in this. Not even Shufu could argue, after all, that mastery of instruments is not a skill valuable to any Lan.

 

While he’s been wool-gathering, the ceremony has concluded and Shufu is giving him a narrow-eyed look, as if sensing his inattentiveness, though Lan Xichen is far too well-trained for any of his distraction to reflect on his face or in his posture. As guests all around the hall begin to move and mingle, attention diverting from the betrothed pair, Lan Xichen catches a last glimpse of Jiang Yanli, her lips curving into a gentle smile as she is drawn into conversation by Madam Jin.

 

Two hours later, the festivities are still going strong and Lan Xichen begs leave from his Uncle to go and catch some fresh air outside. Shufu gives him a curt nod – strict he may be, but he’s not without mercy – returning to his discussion with Jiang Fengmian.

 

With a sense of undue relief which he’s careful not to show, smiling pleasantly at anyone who catches his eye as he makes his way out of the hall, Lan Xichen heads for a little garden area he remembers from the previous day’s exploration of Koi Tower.

 

He’s almost in the heart of the garden when he realises he’s not alone.

 

“My apologies, Jiang-guniang,” he murmurs, bowing. “I did not realise someone else frequents this place.”

 

He averts his gaze politely as she dabs at her eyes with her sleeves, but when he looks at her again there’s an almost amused twist to her mouth that tells him she knows exactly why he’s here – because it’s the same reason she is.

 

“It is no matter, Lan-gongzi,” Jiang Yanli returns, composed once more. “This garden is public and your company is not unwelcome.”

 

Lan Xichen relaxes a little at this overture of friendship. But his worries for her remain, memories of his mother who always smiled gently through her sadness crowding in his mind.

 

“Forgive me for presuming,” he says, keeping his voice gentle and even as he has been taught, a form of Lan music in itself, “but Jiang-guniang does not seem happy on this auspicious day. This one offers a sympathetic ear, should she wish to unburden herself.”

 

Jiang Yanli’s surprise at the offer quickly morphs into a truer smile than he has seen from her so far and it lightens his heart.

 

“Lan-gongzi,” she says, hands now clasped in front of her body, “you are as kind as the rumours say. I wouldn’t wish to burden you with other people’s problems.”

 

“It would not be an imposition,” Lan Xichen assures her and winks. “It would be a further excuse not to return to the festivities just yet, would it not?”

 

That coaxes a giggle out of her, and for the first time she sounds like the young girl she is, maybe a year or so younger than Lan Xichen.

 

“It is a bit dreadful, isn’t it?”

 

Lan Xichen nods solemnly. “Is that he cause of your worries?”

 

She sighs, eyes downcast again. “Not truly, Lan-gongzi. It is… Jin-gongzi.”

 

“You do not like him?” Lan Xichen asks, a little surprised at her candidness. He does not know Jin Zixuan personally, so cannot judge the matter for himself, but he certainly hasn’t appeared very agreeable so far.

 

“I do!” Jiang Yanli quickly corrects, honest earnestness shading her voice. “But he does not like me. He has made it quite clear. It is years yet until we are to be officially married, but I worry he will not be happy with me.”

 

Lan Xichen frowns. “He has made it clear? That does not sound like behaviour befitting a young master, towards a proper young lady such as yourself.”

 

A faint hint of red dusts Jiang Yanli’s cheeks as she bows her appreciation of his compliment.

 

“Are your parents aware of this?” Lan Xichen asks quietly, hoping her answer will be negative. There’s little to be done if they do and have taken no steps to correct Young Master Jin’s stance.

 

“I do not know,” Jiang Yanli replies, fingers worrying at her sleeve for a moment before she remembers herself. “My brothers were there for one of the… incidents. It’s why they did not accompany Mother and Father to Koi Tower. They do not approve of Jin-gongzi.”

 

Lan Xichen smiles, heartened at this sign that the Young Lady Jiang has family firmly supporting her. “As is only right, for them to defend their Shijie. Tell me of them?”

 

The way Jiang Yanli lights up is subtle, but when Shufu comes many minutes later to find him, disappointed with his prolonged absence, Lan Xichen does not regret the punishment in his future. He had enjoyed listening to Jiang Yanli’s stories of Yunmeng, of her a-Cheng and a-Xian – had told some stories of him and Lan Zhan in return – and they had parted with the promise of letters to be exchanged in future.

 

Shufu had grumbled a little about the impropriety involved in two young people of opposite genders exchanging letters, but had caved in the face of Jiang Yanli’s courtesy and Lan Xichen’s sincerity.

 

(If, privately, he rather thought that if Jin Zixuan wasn’t going to make an effort with his future wife – and rather disapproved, being subtly possessed of the rumoured Lan sense of romanticism – he could stand to be upstaged by his rather excellent nephew, he did not voice this thought aloud. He would keep an eye on Xichen to make sure the boy doesn’t do anything so unwise as fall in love with a girl promised to someone else, but his nephew generally has a good head on his shoulders, if he does say so himself, so Lan Qiren has little worry of such an eventuality.)

 

It does not resolve her problem concerning her engagement with Jin Zixuan, but Lan Xichen hopes that continuing to provide an unbiased ear for her to confide in will at least alleviate her worries a little.

 

*

 

...How are your brothers? I’m certain they’re both glad your back from Lanling. Have the lotus blossomed yet this year? The Yunmeng you described sounds beautiful…

 

*

 

… Congratulations on your title, Zewu-jun. It truly suits you, I believe, though others would make better judges. I do know that few cultivators earn a title so early in their lives and hope you are proud…

 

*

 

… Sometimes I wonder what growing up in a place like Lotus Pier would have been like. You make it sound so free – or at least your stories about your brothers’ activities do…

 

*

 

… A-Xian is here right now, asking me to make him soup. He finds letter writing boring, or so he says, but I enjoy it (and perhaps he would too if he had someone interesting to write to). There is something meditative to simply writing down my thoughts like this – I hope you do not mind. My letter to Jin Zixuan was never answered, so I shall not attempt another when it is not received gladly…

 

*

 

… My a-Zhan is insisting I call him ‘Wangji’ from now on – it is the Gusu Lan way, to use courtesy names, but I must admit I will dearly miss being able to call him such, though I would never deny him this wish. Shufu is pleased – more proof that Wangji is a model student. He will be the best of us soon; I simply worry, as an older brother does…

 

 

*

 

… Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian are doing well. A-Xian still drags a-Cheng into all sorts of trouble and I cannot find it within myself to truly try and curb their fun. Just yesterday they went swimming by the nearest waterfall, despite it being forbidden. It is a good thing a-Niang is visiting her Die and her Niang in Meishan at the moment, or they would surely have been punished had they been caught…

 

*

 

…Wangji still does not have any friends and seems to avoid other disciples his age where possible. I know it’s partly because they don’t understand him well, but I fear he has given up trying. Perhaps matters will change when your brothers come to Cloud Recesses to study in a few years’ time. There are no pets allowed in Cloud Recesses, so Wei Wuxian would be safe from dogs here…

 

 

*

 

Lan Xichen halts his xiao-playing when he feels another presence outside the Hanshi. He looks up to find Wangji in the doorway, looking as composed as ever save for the slight narrowing of his eyes that speaks of worry.

 

Didi, Lan Xichen almost says, xiao lowering, but catches himself in time.

 

“Wangji. What is the matter?”

 

Wangji steps further into the room, noiseless, and indicates the music sheets on the low table in front of Lan Xichen.

 

“What are you playing?”

 

Lan Xichen almost frowns, surprised that the music had upset Wangji – or perhaps someone else, who had then sent Wangji to investigate.

 

“Jiang-guniang sent me music pieces from Yunmeng with her latest letter. They are not spiritual, but still rather pleasing to the ear, don’t you think?”

 

“Mn,” Wangji agrees, but he looks no less concerned.

 

Silence falls. Lan Xichen, who has learned when he has to simply wait his taciturn brother out, sets aside his xiao and settles himself in front of the dining table. The tea he had made earlier wouldn’t be hot anymore, but still drinkable. He glances at Wangji and lifts the teapot in invitation. His brother nods and settles himself on the cushion opposite him with that fluid grace he has always possessed, even as a child.

 

Lan Xichen pours and lets his didi drink a cup before letting his silence shade more towards inquisitive.

 

Wangji doesn’t look up from his cup, but eventually he speaks, abrupt. “Jiang-guniang is to be wed to Jin Zixuan.”

 

“Yes,” Lan Xichen agrees, puzzled why Wangji would repeat something they both already know.

 

Wangji’s grip tightens minutely around the delicate tea cup, the only sign of his distress, baffling as it is. Wangji is usually so phlegmatic.

 

“I would ask Xiongzhang to remember this.”

 

There’s such a wealth of sincere pleading in Wangji’s gaze that Lan Xichen finally understands that his didi is worried for him and the penny drops.

 

“Oh Wangji, I do not have feelings for Jiang Yanli beyond friendship, I promise.” He can’t quite help himself this time. “But I sincerely thank my didi for his concern for my welfare.”

 

Wangji’s ears go red, but he also relaxes, the strict line of his shoulders easing a fraction.

 

“Welcome.”

 

They pass an enjoyable hour drinking tea in silence, occasionally conversing on one matter or another. Later in the day Lan Xichen seeks out Shufu.

 

He bows, Liebing in hand. “This one apologises for making Shufu worry. There is no danger of improper love between me and Jiang-guniang.”

 

Shufu doesn’t do anything so base as visible sigh in relief, but the marks around his eyes ease a little as he nods. “I am pleased to hear it, Xichen, and there is no error in cultivating friendships outside our sect.” He strokes along his beard, an absent-minded gesture Lan Xichen used to find amusing – still does, occasionally, but now he is bereft of the excuse that he is a child and thus can’t be held responsible. “Perhaps it is time to arrange a visit to Yunmeng, now that you have been to both Qinghe and Lanling.”

 

Lan Xichen bows once more, smiling to himself.

 

*

 

… a-Die tells me that the Lan Sect is planning an official stay at Lotus Pier some time this year. Did you raise it with your uncle? It would be lovely to see you here – you would meet a-Xian and a-Cheng!...

 

*

 

… Shufu tells me the visit is set for late summer. I look forward to seeing you in person once more and to meet your brothers…

 

*

 

Lotus Pier is as beautiful as Jiang Yanli had described, water glimmering in the sun and elegant wooden structures rising above a sea of lotus blooms.

 

They are greeted on arrival by Sect Leader Jiang Fengmian himself, his three children clustered off to the side waiting their turn. The Sect Leader’s wife, Yu Ziyuan, is nowhere in evidence. Lan Xichen shouldn’t be relieved about that, but going by some of the rumours that have made their way even to Cloud Recesses, about her sharp mind, sharper temper and sharpest tongue, he had been a bit worried about meeting Yu-furen.

 

A little behind Lan Qiren as is proper, Lan Xichen watches his uncle greet the other Sect Leader, a hint of warmth in his voice that Lan Xichen has rarely heard applied to anyone other than him or Wangji – he can only conclude that they’re friends of a sort. Once upon a time a young Lan Huan had thought that Shufu Qiren couldn’t possibly have anyone else in the world he cares for, not with how dour and lonely he always seemed. It’s unexpectedly heartening to find that he does get along with at least one other person, even if he only sees Jiang Fengmian rarely.

 

Before they leave to take tea, Shufu turns and gives him a nod.

 

“There will be an official dinner you are required to attend, Xichen. Have them show you the way when it is time.”

 

Finally allowed, Lan Xichen makes his way over to where the three young heirs of Lotus Pier stand. Jiang Yanli is smiling brightly, but her two brothers seem more reserved. Not glaring, or outright suspicious, but not exuding warmth either.

 

Lan Xichen bows to each in turn, receiving bows in return, Jiang Wanyin’s correct to the millimetre while Wei Wuxian’s is a little sloppy. He smiles when they’re officially introduced, eliciting a startled blink from Jiang Wanyin and an answering smile from Wei Wuxian.

 

 “It is a pleasure to meet all of you,” Lan Xichen says. “Lotus Pier is as beautiful as you promised, Jiang-guniang.”

 

“We were going to give you a tour, weren’t we?” Jiang Yanli looks at her two brothers, something almost pointed in her gaze if Lan Xichen is any judge. The hurried way in which they agree bears his theory out and he represses a smile that probably wouldn’t be well-received.

 

He had determined beforehand he would be as polite as he possibly could be, not wanting to make a bad impression, so Lan Xichen bows again. “I would very much enjoy seeing more of your home.”

 

Jiang Wanyin goes a little red, but his nod is stately enough to mimic any Sect Leader, belying his age. Lan Xichen knows from Jiang Yanli that they’re both a little younger than her, but they already carry the confidence of cultivators.

 

“Follow me,” Jiang Wanyin says, heading off down one of the many piers. Lan Xichen follows, flanked by Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian, who starts chattering almost immediately.

 

What follows seems to Lan Xichen like perhaps the most thorough – and most charmingly narrated, all three siblings chiming in with different points of enthusiasm about their home – tour of a place there has ever been. He is showed their favourite lotus pond, the best pavilion which has the most beautiful sunset view and secret hide-outs that the heirs have found while playing hide and seek. They even start a little game over who can spot the largest carved lotus.

 

By the end Lan Xichen feels like he knows Lotus Pier better than some of the people who live here, and somewhere around the time Jiang Wanyin had told a story about shoving Wei Wuxian into one of the ponds in revenge for some prank that remains unnamed, Lan Xichen lost the fight to keep his smile decorous and contained as is proper.

 

It feels… good, to be so free with other people near his age. He has never resented the Cloud Recesses or its many rules, but he’s starting to see why other people, who aren’t used to it from childhood, might.

 

For lunch, he is led to the room Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian share, spacious and light, and is presented with a bowl of soup that Jiang Yanli herself cooked this morning in preparation for his visit.

 

He takes it, inhaling the gentle steam that wafts upwards before he spoons a mouthful.

 

Three expectant faces are turned towards him.

 

Lan Xichen chews, taste exploding all over his tongue, unfamiliar but warm.

 

He smiles as soon as he has swallowed, inclining his head towards Jiang Yanli. “It is very delicious, Jiang-guniang. You are a masterful cook.”

 

“Thank you, Lan-gongzi.” Jiang Yanli dips her own head in reply, clearly pleased. Some of the tense alertness that had briefly returned to her brothers’ bearing also fades, and Lan Xichen becomes aware that he has just passed a test more crucial than was immediately apparent.

 

Following word with action, he doesn’t hesitate to finish his bowl, the others also bending over their food now that he has proven sensible in liking the food. Lan Xichen is quietly impressed by the speed with which Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian shovel soup into their mouths, catching up with him in no time. Maybe savouring your food is impolite in Yunmeng? His studies hadn’t indicated such a thing.

 

As his spoon finally scrapes the bottom of his bowl, out of the corner of his eye Lan Xichen sees Jiang Wanyin elbow Wei Wuxian, but before he can observe the two’s interactions further, Jiang Yanli distracts him with an offer of more.

 

Not wanting to be rude – and the soup is delicious – he accepts, though he already feels rather full. He’s used to smaller portions of what outsiders routinely term ‘bland’ food at Cloud Recesses.

 

None of the food at the banquet dinner that evening is as good as Jiang Yanli’s soup. On the way there from Jiang Wanyin’s room, he trails behind a little, having been distracted by a growth of particularly beautiful lotuses.

 

He only realises that the Jiang siblings aren’t aware of his better than average hearing, honed by years of musical study, when Jiang Wanyin elbows his brother – a form of affection, perhaps, between the two? – yet again and turns towards Jiang Yanli.

 

“Why can’t you marry him, a-Jie? He’s much nicer than that peacock, and prettier too.”

 

Lan Xichen is suddenly very glad no one’s paying enough attention to him to notice his ears flaming.

 

Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, is nodding vigorously, bangs flying. “Yeah, Shijie, he’s a much better match for you!”

 

Somewhat to Lan Xichen’s relief, Jiang Yanli only smiles gently. “We are friends, not anything more. I am already betrothed, you know that.”

 

Wei Wuxian looks mulish. “I don’t know why you even like that Zixuan.”

 

Lan Xichen would like to hear the answer to that himself, truth be told, but Jiang Yanli only shakes her head silently, looking as close to exasperated as he’s ever seen her. It seems to be a recurring topic, not that he can fault Jiang Wanyin or Wei Wuxian. It’s oh so easy to feel protective of Jiang Yanli.

 

But they’ve arrived at the Swords Hall and even Wei Wuxian stows his grumbling in the face of Jiang Fengmian and Shufu waiting for them.

 

*

 

On his fourth day in Yunmeng, the Jiang siblings take him to the big market in Yunping City. It’s a riotous affair, full of the smells of food and every colour under the rainbow. Jiang Yanli buys sweets for them all, that stick to his teeth and leaves him trying to wash them with his tongue. Wei Wuxian somehow manages to get some of the substance stuck to his cheek, where it stays until Jiang Yanli wipes it off while Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes off to the side.

 

Lan Xichen thinks that the siblings must have noticed that he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in the crowd, the press of bodies and sheer number of people around him apt to overwhelm his senses even as he enjoys the happy atmosphere – Cloud Recesses is quiet and calm and nothing like this – for at least one of them always sticks close to his side, steering him around the worst crowds.

 

It’s Wei Wuxian who’s walking next to him, chattering away as Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin examine the richly-coloured cloth a merchant is displaying in heavy rolls – Lan Xichen would not have thought Jiang Wanyin to be someone to appreciate such things, serious child that he is, but the way he’s haggling with the seller over quality and price tells its own story – when a dog barks in the distance, just audible over the din of the crowd.

 

Before he can so much as turn his head, Lan Xichen suddenly has an armful of whimpering Wei Wuxian, hiding his face in Lan Xichen’s robes as he babbles something panicked about dogs. Without thinking, Lan Xichen pulls him closer, more secure, draping his long sleeves around the younger boy until he’s almost obscured under the light blue fabric.

 

“Shh, it’s all right,” he soothes. “I won’t let any dog near you. I have my sword and xiao, no dog will get past me.”

 

Wei Wuxian shifts a little so one scared eye can peek up at Lan Xichen’s face. “Promise?” he asks, quietly pleading in a way that twists Lan Xichen’s heart, it’s so far removed from his earlier playful whining.

 

“Promise,” he says firmly. “Between me and your Shijie and your Didi, we’ll keep every dog in the world away.”

 

For even as he was speaking, Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin had hurried over, placing themselves between Wei Wuxian and the rest of the world. He emerges from under Lan Xichen’s sleeve to be fussed over by Jiang Yanli and berated by Jiang Wanyin, but the way the latter stands strongly, looking outward with one hand on his sword sends a completely different message from his words.

 

A few minutes pass without any more barks or an actual dog appearing, and Wei Wuxian recovers his good cheer quickly.

 

“Thanks, Xichen-ge,” he beams.

 

Lan Xichen blinks at the familiarity, but finds he doesn’t mind the address from him. Four days has been more than enough to discover that any perceived outward rudeness doesn’t reflect Wei Wuxian’s character.

 

“Shameless,” Jiang Wanyin mutters, but the look he throws Lan Xichen is full of a quiet gratitude for looking after his brother while he was distracted.

 

Lan Xichen nods at him in recognition of the sentiment, even gets a sliver of a smile in response.

 

Suddenly, he wishes Wangji were here so fiercely that it arrests his breath. He never feels quite complete without his brother, but it’s more than that. It would do his didi so good to experience the warmth between these siblings, be a part of a group that’s outside his clan.

 

One day, Lan Xichen silently vows to himself. One day.

 

In the meantime he’ll just have to tell him all about his visit to Yunmeng.

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

Time passes. More and more of the daily running of the Sect is entrusted to him and while he bears this burden gladly, the time he has for himself shrinks even further. Lan Xichen tries not to think about the man who should, by rights, be taking care of these things, and mostly succeeds. While his blossoming friendships with Nie Mingjue and Jiang Yanli and Shufu’s steadfast presence give him support, Wangji is his solace. What time he has left over, he spends with his didi, meditating, studying in the library, doing handstands and sparring, drinking tea and, best of all, making music together. For Wangji’s fifteenth birthday, Lan Xichen writes a duet for guqin and xiao which combines the trickling of water and rushing of the wind into a floating melody that lazily drifts through the air – the elements of their home. He will forever treasure the subtly delighted expression on Wangji’s face when they play it for the first time. His brother is also the only person in whose presence Lan Xichen feels he can play the music that runs through his head, through his heart, without score or reason.

 

*

 

… Such a lovely gift, Lan Xichen. I would very much enjoy hearing it performed one day, if your brother is willing…

 

*

… I am not surprised to hear that Wei Wuxian started a fight over your soup, nor that Jiang Wanyin backed him up…

 

*

… as eldest I have some responsibilities to the Sect, but you sound like you are being inundated with work – please try to remember to take care of yourself, too, my friend…

 

*

 

… Cloud Recesses is preparing for the arrival of the guest disciples. Soon it will be your turn to experience my home…

 

*

 

Lan Xichen isn’t there when the Yunmeng Jiang disciples arrive at Cloud Recesses, but he hears about it from three different sets of people soon after. If he weren’t so distracted by the living puppet in their pavilion, he might’ve been amused by Wangji’s unwilling curiosity, Shufu’s frustration and the Elders’ complaints about the wards that Wei Wuxian broke when he arrived at night.

 

But there’s a man who suffered, is still suffering lying on the floor and a sense of foreboding in the air like the ringing chime of a warning bell. It makes him want to shiver and when he finally finishes with his duties for the day, he automatically seeks out Wangji.

 

Only to find him not in the Jingshi. He must be out patrolling, still, unsettled by the confrontation with Wei Wuxian. Not, perhaps, the way Lan Xichen would have chosen to introduce the two of them, but he knows his didi well enough to read the way he’s already hooked from his expression and the things he doesn’t say. It has always been that way with Wangji, what he doesn’t say often more crucial than what he does utter. No one who can’t learn to read the silences between words and meanings behind a handful of syllables has any hope of truly understanding him.

 

Smiling a little to himself, Lan Xichen turns for the Hanshi. He’ll catch up with Wangji tomorrow.

 

 

The next morning, his brother reminds him of nothing so much as a ruffled cat.

 

“He called me a second Xichen-ge,” Wangji says, looking so affronted Xichen is hard-pressed to keep his laughter behind his teeth.

 

If he didn’t know Wangji so well, he might’ve been insulted at the implication, but he knows his brother isn’t upset about being compared to him – just about Wei Wuxian not bothering to distinguish them when he was clearly well aware that the man before him wasn’t, in fact, Lan Xichen.

 

“Ah,” he says, “I do hope he did not mean it as an insult.”

 

Wangji glares at him. “Xiongzhang is peerless,” he declares stoutly.

 

“You are my peer, Wangji, and more than,” Lan Xichen returns, equally as implacable. It’s a well-worn path between them, this conversation – both convinced they are correct about the other’s virtues.

 

But today, Lan Xichen has another agenda, so doesn’t intend to run this discussion in circles for as long as it sometimes goes. They’re strolling through one of the quieter areas still within the main complex, hidden behind a line of trees and bushes.

 

“I have a request for you, Wangji. Jiang Yanli has asked me to keep an eye on her brothers’ interactions with Jin-gongzi, if I am willing.”

 

Wangji does nothing so crass as to twitch, but the slant of his eyebrows deepens ever so slightly.

 

“I am, of course,” Lan Xichen continues, smiling a little. “However, I am not always available – would you help me in this?”

 

Wangji looks at him sideways, that almost frown still present on his brow. “Is the match between Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli not a good one?”

 

“It isn’t my place to speculate,” Lan Xichen says automatically – and he really is aware that his view of the situation is entirely one-sided; he has yet to exchange more than a few polite sentences with the Jin heir.

 

“Jiang-guniang is your friend,” Wangji points out, almost on a sigh. “Will you not share your opinion with Wangji?”

 

Lan Xichen presses his lips together, fingers itching for Liebing. “Jiang Yanli likes him. Whether he will treat her as well as she should be treated, I am yet uncertain. But I will respect her choice – she does not want her brothers to get in trouble on her behalf.”

 

“Mn,” Wangji says, inclining his head and Lan Xichen breathes a sigh of relief. There could be no more dedicated a watcher than his brother and if this also means he will pay more attention to Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin… well, let it not be said that Lan Xichen can’t multitask.

 

*

 

The female disciples live separate from the male group and generally have their own classes, so Lan Xichen doesn’t have much reason to interact with them. While he might wish to spend more time with Jiang Yanli in person, it would be improper to do so overtly.

 

There are, however, no rules against coincidences.

 

There is a small, out of way courtyard garden that’s Lan Xichen’s favourite place within the Cloud Recesses compound. Somewhere to be close to people still, and yet alone, surrounded only by the quiet of the plants. Someone else must know about it, as it’s as meticulously kept as the rest of Cloud Recesses, but Lan Xichen has never encountered another soul there.

 

Today, he finds Jiang Yanli sitting beside the small pond, legs folded into a lotus position, eyes closed. She’s clearly meditating, and Lan Xichen is about to turn around and leave her to her peaceful reflection when she opens her eyes and smiles at him.

 

“Lan Xichen,” she murmurs, “please join me.”

 

While Jiang Yanli is kind, he has never known her to extend invitations she doesn’t mean, so he inclines his head, settling beside her in the same pose, robes fanning out around him. It briefly reminds him of many a childhood hour learning how to move gracefully with the voluminous layers of cloth the Lan wear. It’s a skill it takes formative years to learn, but the body will never forget it. The last time Lan Xichen had snagged his sleeves on anything had been when he was seven.

 

“This courtyard is well-suited to meditation,” he says, a little non-committal perhaps, but there’s something melancholy about Jiang Yanli’s expression that has him treading carefully.

 

Jiang Yanli throws him a sideways glance, a little rueful and clearly well-aware of his diplomatic intentions. “It is,” she agrees. “And yet I am not successful.”

 

There’s suppressed discontent there, something deep-seated, and Lan Xichen almost frowns. He hums his enquiry, expression open – an invitation to elaborate without pushing for it.

 

Jiang Yanli sighs, and then she comes to a decision, subtle steel entering her face. Someone who knows her less, or expects less, might not have noticed it.

 

“My cultivation is not high,” she says evenly, chin raised. “I have trouble with many of the subjects taught here, no matter how well the teachers explain them. While I carry a sword when I must, using it is largely beyond my skill.”

 

There’s a wealth of words unsaid behind those she speaks, devastating in implication as they are. Jiang Yanli is the eldest child of Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, both strong cultivators in their own right – a Sect Leader’s daughter. Lan Xichen can only imagine the reactions she gets for what some with less compassion than sense and little of either would deem an unusual deficiency. Briefly he wonders whether this is at the root of her troubles with Jin Zixuan as well, before turning his mind back to the conversation at hand. It would not do to hesitate too long here.

 

He gives her a smile as warm as he can make it and speaks softly. “It is easy for me to say that it should not matter, that power is nothing compared to the person you are, for I do not lack it. Let me ask you this – are you content or do you wish to extend your knowledge, yet feel unable?”

 

“That is not an easy question to answer, Zewu-jun,” Jiang Yanli replies, hands motionless on her white-clad knees. Were it not for the subdued warmth in her voice Lan Xichen might have worried about having given offence, for her to suddenly use his title. “In truth, I have no desire to use my sword. And if what I can do now should turn out to be all I can do, I would not be unhappy with it.” A breath of hesitation. “But I can’t deny that sometimes I wish I could... help more.”

 

Lan Xichen refrains from pointing out that she already does help, a lot; more than many people he knows of higher standing and power. She is the mediator of her family, shielding her brothers as best she can from the tensions in her household, while also acting much more diplomatically than either. She is what keeps them together and Lan Xichen does not like to think about what might happen if she stopped.

 

“If you are willing to let me observe you, I might be able to help you with meditation,” he says. The teachers do their best, but where the guest disciples are concerned, they just don’t have the time to devote themselves to the individual betterment of every single pupil. “Whatever your level of spiritual energy, meditation should work equally well and it will aid your control.”

 

She bows to him before he can stop her, but at least stays sitting. “This disciple thanks you for your offer of guidance, Zewu-jun, and gratefully accepts.”

 

Lan Xichen only smiles in reply, unwilling to be drawn into the back and forth of courtesy with a friend. He thinks about swords and those who would rather not wield them – as much as he loves Shuoyue and the dance of its blade, the thought of using it outside of night hunts, against a living human being, freezes his blood.

 

“As for other areas, a sword is perhaps not the spiritual tool that fits you best. The sword path may be holy, but other acceptable options do exist.” With a flick of his wrist he produces Liebing from his sleeve in demonstration. The Lan Sect is well-known for their musical cultivation and no one would dare suggest that using instruments is in any way deviant.

 

But Jiang Yanli doesn’t look comforted, her gaze flickering to the ground. “While that is true, I do not believe it would help in my case. I was born sickly, you see, and I am physically too weak for high-level cultivation.”

 

Perhaps Lan Xichen should have expected something like this. It had not escaped his notice, over the years of their acquaintance and few times they have met, that Jiang Yanli is frail in a way that is purely physical, so overshadowed by the brightness of her spirit that he has, perhaps, not paid enough attention to it.

 

He doesn’t doubt her word – but he also doesn’t think that it should be the end it.

 

“Would you allow me to examine your core?” he asks and dearly wishes the flash of hope he sees in her eyes at his continued trying will not prove baseless.

 

Jiang Yanli nods.

 

Lan Xichen brings Liebing to his lips and plays a song of revealing, spiritual energy flowing from the instrument to swirl around Jiang Yanli. When he stops, it is only so he can hover a hand over her core, directing the energy to draw outwards a shining visual representation of her inner energies.

 

The glowing orb of golden energy that now hovers in the air in front of Jiang Yanli isn’t small, as one might have expected of someone with a small cultivation base, but a very respectable size. Were it not for the tendrils of energy going off it into all directions, constantly sending energy into a weakened body to keep her as healthy as her core can manage, she would have the potential to rival any cultivator alive today. The largest strand of energy leads to her heart, wrapping around it almost protectively. If that is where the physical fault lies, there is likely little the healers can do to help her – which surely she already knows, from the Jiang’s own healers at Lotus Pier.

 

Lan Xichen withdraws his hand, letting his own spiritual energy fade and the representation of Jiang Yanli’s golden core with it. She is staring at the space where it had been, eyes wide.

 

“Your core is very healthy,” Lan Xichen tells her, emphasising what she has already seen with her own eyes. “Not at all underdeveloped. It is simply, as you knew, constantly expending a lot of energy to aid your health.” He tucks Liebing away again, giving her a moment to compose herself.

 

“You are right that sword cultivation would not work well for you, and could easily deplete your reserves to a dangerous degree, but there are spiritual items that are capable of storing a limited amount of energy, requiring you only to add a little each day to be quite useful in an emergency. Talismans, too, should be a good option. Is not Wei Wuxian said to be particularly talented in their invention and use? I am certain he would be only too willing to help you.”

 

Although her eyes are sparkling with interest, she sighs. “I have not spoken about my cultivation with a-Xian and a-Cheng. They have enough troubles and they are already overprotective as it is, without knowing the details.”

 

“Your wish to protect them is admirable,” Lan Xichen says gently, “but if there is something concrete they can do to help you, do you not think they would prefer to know?”

 

There is no way she can argue with him on that point, but she does at least throw him a mildly exasperated look for his meddling. “I will consider it.”

 

He inclines his head. “That is all I ask – the choice is yours. Now, would you join me in meditation? I have another half bell before I am needed elsewhere.”

 

Lan Xichen has always enjoyed both meditation and teaching. Doing so with and for a friend only makes it sweeter.

 

*

 

Wei Wuxian seeks him out a few days later, bowing low.

 

“This disciple wishes to thank Xichen-ge for guidance offered to his Shijie.”

 

Lan Xichen shakes his head at him, bringing him out of the bow with firm hands beneath his arms.

 

“There is no need to thank me, Wei Wuxian.”

 

But he would recognise that kind of stubborn expression anywhere.

 

“Respectfully, there is,” Wei Wuxian says, smiling in a way that might be fond. “Shijie hasn’t been this happy studying cultivation since before my time at Lotus Pier, if she ever was.” His face falls. “She didn’t tell us she was struggling.”

 

“She did not want to burden you, nor your brother,” Lan Xichen tells him gently. “The prerogative of an older sibling.”

 

Wei Wuxian positively beams at him. “You would know, Xichen-ge! Though I bet Lan Zhan hardly ever worries you, he’s so proper!”

 

If Lan Xichen were to try and remember a day where he spent no time at all worrying about his dear didi, he would be grasping for the clouds indeed, but he only smiles and inclines his head.

 

“Are you helping Jiang Yanli with talismans then?”

 

We Wuxian nods, sending his bangs flying. Lan Xichen has the strangest urge to smooth them down, perhaps braid them into his ponytail. Clearly having so many younger disciples around is turning him into a mother hen.

 

“We’ve made a lot of progress already! Jiang Cheng is helping, too. He’s very good at spotting mistakes in the designs.”

 

Though curious to hear more, Lan Xichen is painfully aware that he’s meeting Shufu in a bare handful of minutes, and can only say, “Then I am glad.”

 

Wei Wuxian, who’s proving attuned to others’ subtleties when he wants to be, bows again and takes his leave, though not before extending a kind offer to join them in their endeavours some time.

 

A similar encounter with Jiang Wanyin the next day is a little more awkward – not everyone finds words as easily as Wei Wuxian – but no less sincere. He, too, extends an invitation before beating a somewhat hasty retreat, and Lan Xichen is starting to see an agenda here. A kind one, so he takes some time from his own training to join the three Jiang siblings in one of the courtyards set aside for guest disciple training.

 

He’s greeted by a happy chorus of Lan Xichen and Xichen-ge, bows his amusement in return.

 

“What have you planned for the day?” he asks, ignoring the way Wei Wuxian’s eyes have taken on something of a calculating glint.

 

“Wind talismans,” Jiang Wanyin provides even as he gives his brother a worried side-long glance. He’s clearly well-familiar with Wei Wuxian’s tendencies for mischief – and accompanying warning signs.

 

Wei Wuxian is grinning now, clearly attempting to look innocent and failing abysmally. “How about a friendly duel first, Xichen-ge? We’ve been here for weeks and I haven’t had the opportunity to experience the famous Lan sword style for myself.”

 

If Lan Xichen were anyone else, he would’ve raised a brow. “Did you not already duel Wangji?”

 

“Eh, not a proper duel.” Wei Wuxian waves his hand dismissively. “I keep asking him, but he’s being stubborn.”

 

Lan Xichen isn’t disinclined – it’s always good to train with disciples from other sects, a broadening of horizons he feels some of the Lan are a bit too adverse to – but they’ve assembled here for Jiang Yanli’s benefit, not his. Or Wei Wuxian’s. “We are here for a different reason.”

 

Jiang Yanli only smiles, eyes twinkling. “A-Xian is allowed to have a bit of fun before training with his sister.”

 

Lan Xichen inclines his head towards Wei Wuxian. “In that case, it is my honour, Wei-gongzi.”

 

He doesn’t change his stance in any other way, Shuoyue still resting calmly in its sheath, and Wei Wuxian’s eyes sharpen in appreciation.

 

Without further warning, Wei Wuxian moves, Suibian jumping into his hand.

 

Lan Xichen doesn’t make the mistake of underestimating Wei Wuxian, having listened to Wangji’s retelling of their fight when the Jiang disciple first arrived. More tellingly, Wangji had described Wei Wuxian’s sword form as ‘adequate’, which equated to an enthusiastic ‘outstanding’ from just about everyone else – and had said much about how floored Wangji had been by the other’s skill.

 

Wei Wuxian is fast, agile, with admirably precise footwork and if Lan Xichen hadn’t also trained for speed all his life, he might’ve found himself outmatched. In terms of sheer power, he still exceeds Wei Wuxian, both physically and in terms of cultivation – much as he finds it vaguely embarrassing, there’s a reason he’s ranked first among the younger generation of cultivation (though he credits having to work to keep up with Wangji for much of that) – and that gives him an additional edge. While the Lan style usually relies on simply not letting any enemy get close enough to score a hit, in this case, it would actually be to his advantage to force close combat with Wei Wuxian.

 

As the match progresses, he can’t deny that it’s fun. They move well together and against each other, jumping backwards and forwards, wide arcs of the sword countered with nimble evasion, points narrowly side-stepped. These days, only sparring with Wangji gives Lan Xichen much of a workout, and they know each other so well that matches are becoming a bit too predictable. Wei Wuxian is anything but predictable.

 

His base style is that of the Jiang, the clan’s affinity with water displayed in the fluidity of motion and their deceptive strength and ferocity, but there are definite elements of his own innovations.

 

Lan Xichen finds himself smiling, even as he doubles over backwards to avoid a thrust that passes centimetres above his face. Jiang Wanyin is hollering encouragement from the side-lines, though to whom isn’t entirely clear.

 

When the bout finally ends with Lan Xichen’s sword pressed gently into Wei Wuxian’s side, Wei Wuxian bows with new respect.

 

“The reputation of the First Jade of Lan is truly deserved.”

 

Lan Xichen returns the sentiment honestly and gladly.

 

As instructive as the bout was, it’s what comes after that’s truly memorable. Talismans are a long-established part of a cultivator’s arsenal, but he has never seen anyone approach them quite like Wei Wuxian does.

 

An offhand comment is as likely to stay ignored as it is to lead to a completely new talisman function being invented right before Lan Xichen’s eyes. While he needs to work to keep his astonishment subtle enough as to not cause offence, Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin seem to take it all in stride, apparently used to their brother’s genius.

 

A lesson that was supposed to be about allowing Jiang Yanli to practice using wind talismans defensively, branches out to include the incorporation of fire into the small whirlwind one of the talismans creates, a discussion of ways these could be used to distract long enough to run away to safety, and Wei Wuxian demonstrating how to catapult oneself to the upper branches of a tree by stepping on one of them.

 

Lan Xichen’s main involvement ends up being the voice of reason, vetoing the more dangerous sounding ideas (and holding firm even in the face of Wei Wuxian’s pouting), and on one memorable occasion catching Wei Wuxian just before he accidentally hurls himself face-first into a tree trunk.

 

He develops new sympathy for Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan – if this is what these three are normally like when left unsupervised, he doesn’t know how they managed to coral them without gaining permanent headaches.

 

It’s all worth it to see Jiang Yanli throw and activate a wind talisman so precisely that she catches Jiang Wanyin, designated to act like an approaching enemy, right in the middle of the ensuing whirlwind, effectively trapping him.

 

To see her eyes shine with the knowledge that she can be a force to be reckoned with if she so chooses.

 

 

A week later, a package arrives from Lotus Pier. Lan Xichen would not have heard about it, except that Jiang Wanyin seeks him out again, absolutely insisting that he eat his share of Yunmeng delicacies his parents sent alongside two beautiful hair pins for Jiang Yanli to imbue with spiritual energy.

 

He hasn’t had candied lotus root since his stay in Yunmeng. It dissolves sweetly on his tongue, reawakening memories of sun on water, smiles and laughter.

 

*

 

There’s a rabbit in the Hanshi. Sitting on the threshold, it blinks up at him innocently, and seemingly not afraid at all. Lan Xichen blinks, too, half expecting the rabbit to have disappeared by the time his eyes open again. The rabbit remains very much corporeal. Its nose twitches rather cutely.

 

Moved on a whim he might not normally have indulged – recent events have worn him down, puppets and waterborne abysses and Wangji going missing for hours only to re-emerge with a piece of yin iron – Lan Xichen settles cross-legged in front of the rabbit and plucks Liebing from his belt. One of the first tunes he ever learned was set to some silly words about a rabbit hopping to the moon, and that melody is what he plays now, to a furry audience of one. As the music rises and falls around him, Lan Xichen can feel his mind calming, some ease returned that recent events had robbed him of.

 

Light, sure footsteps sound outside, and Lan Xichen looks up, still playing, to find Wangji in the doorway, eyes a little wide as he takes in the scene. And then Wangji’s mouth twitches into the barest of smiles and Lan Xichen’s heart lightens further.

 

Eventually he lowers his xiao, the last notes fading away into the air and the little white rabbit’s ears twitch and it makes an adorable sneezing noise.

 

“Am I correct in assuming that this is one of Lan Yi’s rabbits?” Lan Xichen asks, watching with a smile as Wangji bends down to pick up the rabbit, cradling it gently in his arms. Anyone who calls his brother icy, unfeeling, has never seen him dote on a small, fluffy animal. He looks his restrained version of besotted.

 

“Mn.”

 

Lan Xichen has never liked to rain on his brother’s extremely rare parades, but he feels bound to point out, “The Elders are unlikely to allow them within Cloud Recesses.”

 

He has never quite understood the rule about pets – there’s nothing particularly unrighteous about owning one, nor righteous about doing so. He suspects it has more to do with an attempt to ensure the peace and quiet of their Sect’s home than anything else.

 

“This one strayed from the colony,” Wangji says, lightly stroking the rabbit’s ears. It cuddles closer into his touch and it’s all Lan Xichen can do not to entirely melt at the sight. “In the back hill.”

 

“A good compromise,” he agrees. Technically, the back hill is still part of Cloud Recesses, but he doubts anyone would find issue with a few rabbits living there freely. Certainly, Wangji’s plausible deniability is much better this way than if they were hopping about the Jingshi.

 

Wangji looks pleased at his agreement. Of the two of them, Lan Xichen has always been the one more politically minded and he knows his brother trusts his estimations of such things more than his own judgement.

 

With Wangji still partly distracted by the rabbit, Lan Xichen takes the chance to bring up another topic he’d been meaning to talk to his brother about.

 

“Does Wei Wuxian know the significance of the forehead ribbon, Wangji?”

 

The way Wangji’s eyes narrow in betrayal, offset rather amusingly by the adorable bunny in his arms, is answer enough.

 

There are many things Lan Xichen could follow this up with, quelling, warning, encouraging. But he only says, “Don’t get your heart broken, Wangji. Not everyone communicates as easily as we do.”

 

Wangji inclines his head in acceptance of his point – if a little unlikely to change his approach based on it – then meets his gaze squarely.

 

“You speak well of Wei Wuxian.”

 

Lan Xichen nods. “I do. I think he’s a fine young man with a good heart, and you could temper each other.” He rises then, finally, bringing himself to Wangji’s eye level. “But you are my didi and I will always worry about your well-being above any other’s. I do not wish to see you hurt, even by accident.”

 

Because he doesn’t think it would be on purpose, but Wei Wuxian is carelessly charming and Lan Xichen isn’t yet quite certain how he feels about Wangji. Likes him, certainly, but whether his feelings go beyond friendship isn’t clear, for all of Lan Xichen’s suspicions about the matter. He supposes he could talk to Jiang Yanli, who would be the most likely to know, but he first needs to decide for himself whether he would be in breach of his brother’s trust if he did so.

 

Wangji doesn’t say anything in the face of his brother’s declaration, only silently bends down to release the rabbit onto the floor. Then he steps forward and puts his arms around Lan Xichen, a little stiff in the hug at first, then relaxing when Lan Xichen leans into it, tugging his didi further towards his body.

 

Wangji is not one given to casual physical contact – he tolerates it from Lan Xichen, knowing that his brother needs that connection occasionally, but Lan Xichen can count the instances in which he had initiated a hug in the last five years on the fingers of one hand.

 

It makes him smile into Wangji’s silken hair.

 

*

 

The disciples return from the lantern ceremony on a wave of gossipy murmuring. The ban on gossip had always been one of the harder rules to enforce.

 

Lan Xichen catches sight of Wangji, radiating icy disapproval and dragging a red-faced Jin Zixuan and equally red-faced Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin in his wake through sheer force of personality. His heart sinks. A confrontation between those three is exactly what he’d been hoping to avoid all this while. Though at least it looks like Wangji managed to limit the damage – there’s no blood, no tears and Wangji isn’t making a straight beeline to Shufu to submit himself or anyone else for punishment.

 

He steps out onto the path to greet them and receives four bows in return, with varying airs of sheepishness. Where Wangji keeps younger disciples in line with his reputation, Lan Xichen has long opted for an alternate approach: weaponised disappointment.

 

“Tell me, what happened?” he asks the assembled group, curious to see who would speak up.

 

In the background Luo Qingyang ushers Jiang Yanli away from the scene, a protective arm slung around her shoulders. If Lan Xichen were a less even-tempered man, he might not have been able to subsume the flash of anger at seeing his friend’s eyes turned to the ground into calmness. The ability to do so might seem unnatural to some, but he is a Lan by both birth and training, and not given to anger in the first place. He doesn’t like being angry.

 

“That one,” Wei Wuxian starts, sneer on his face as he points at Jin Zixuan, “insulted my Shijie! On this happy occasion! If he can’t even be nice to his betrothed – ”

 

Lan Xichen’s eyes slide over to Wangji, who nods imperceptibly. Jin Zixuan crosses his arms over his chest, looking like nothing so much a petulant child.

 

“Wei Wuxian was about to attack me, if Lan-gongzi hadn’t stopped him!”

 

Jiang Wanyin remains silent. As Sect heir he has less freedom to act than Wei Wuxian, and if the bitter expression on his face is anything to go by, he isn’t happy about it.

 

He turns to his brother. “Wangji?”

 

“I interfered,” Wangji says, concise as always. “No blows were exchanged.”

 

Small blessings.

 

He turns to Jin Zixuan first. “Courtesy is the hallmark of a good cultivator. Copy the rules three times.”

 

“Attempted violence to resolve a row is equally unacceptable,” Lan Xichen continues, turning to Wei Wuxian, whose victorious smirk dies on his lips. “Go kneel before the lecture hall.”

 

Both of them bow their heads, if not contrite then at least making a good show of it. “Yes, Zewu-jun.”

 

Lan Xichen casts his gaze across the assembled disciples. “Everyone else, please return to the festivities.”

 

They scatter, and only when Wangji is the only person left near him, does Lan Xichen allows himself a minute sigh, closing his eyes for a moment.

 

“Thank you for helping avert that disaster, Wangji.”

 

Wangji nods at him, before he too retreats.

 

 

 

Near the end of the day Lan Xichen carefully kneels down across from Wei Wuxian.

 

Only when the other boy has looked up eyes a little wide to find Lan Xichen kneeling with him, does he speak. “Wei Wuxian, will you listen to this one’s advice?”

 

Wei Wuxian stares at him – blinks, smiles. “I would never stop Xichen-ge from speaking.”

 

But will you listen?

 

“You are making your sister’s position worse,” Lan Xichen says bluntly, because in this at least Wei Wuxian being so familiar with him works to his advantage – he could not speak so candidly otherwise.

 

Wei Wuxian’s face falls, a hangdog expression that pinches at his heart, but Lan Xichen perseveres. “Meeting Jin Zixuan with such open resentment will only breed more resentment in him.”

 

Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, but Lan Xichen raises a quelling hand before he can speak. “I’m not here to argue whether he deserves it or not – you already know that Sect politics are not always fair. Who do you think would have come out for the worse if you had succeeded in laying hands on the Jin Sect heir?” He pauses briefly, but Wei Wuxian is avoiding his gaze. “You would have been expelled from Cloud Recesses for such an act, and Jiang Yanli would have left with you, leaving Jiang Wanyin here alone. She is far too kind to leave you to stew in your mistake alone. The relations between the Jiang Sect and the Jin Sect would have suffered, perhaps the engagement compromised. That might be to your liking, but you should ask your sister whether it’s what she wants, too.”

 

The silence lasts long enough for a distant bird to trill thrice.

 

“But it would have been really satisfying,” Wei Wuxian all but whines – as petulant as Jin Zixuan had been earlier that day, not that Lan Xichen is going to voice that thought.

 

“Yes, it would – for you personally.” Lan Xichen rises, hand sweeping across the front of his robes to dislodge any stray gravel. “I simply implore you to remember that your actions will also have consequences for the people you love.”

 

He bows to Wei Wuxian. “Your punishment will be concluded at sunset, Wei-gongzi.”

 

Lan Xichen retreats, unsure whether his words have made any impact at all, but feeling better for having attempted it.

 

 

 

Over the next few days, he stews over the question whether he should meddle in Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan’s affairs, whether he has any right to. The atmosphere during lectures is still tense, but no one seems likely to attack anyone else, at least.

 

When Jin Zixuan presents himself and passes his completed punishment scrolls to Lan Xichen, face expressionless, the time of day gives Lan Xichen an idea.

 

“Come with me,” he instructs, tucking the scrolls under one arm for later perusal. It would be the height of impoliteness to check Jin Zixuan’s work in front of him, rather than trusting that he has indeed finished his punishment to satisfaction.

 

Bereft of other choices, Jin Zixuan falls into step behind him. Silently, Lan Xichen leads him across the compound to the secluded courtyard the Yunmeng siblings have appropriated for daily training in the break hour before lunch.

 

He’s not going to give Jin Zixuan any advice – they’re not close enough for that to be considered anything other than an insult, however well-meaning – but he can show him some of what his short-sightedness is making him miss.

 

Lan Xichen hears the startled indraw of breath from behind him as they step under the porch on one side of the courtyard, the three disciples training there now in full view. Compelling Jin Zixuan to also remain and watch through his continued presence, he stays long enough to witness Jiang Yanli forcing Wei Wuxian to the ground with a talisman slapped onto his back, smiling her victory even as she helps her brother up again with a gentle hand,

 

But when he finally nods at the Jin heir and takes his leave, Jin Zixuan doesn’t immediately follow.

 

It’s a start.

 

(He will apologise to Jiang Yanli for his meddling next time he sees her.)

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

Cloud Recesses is burning.

 

He can smell the smoke and ash, the scent clinging to his pristine robes, haunting his every step further away from where he should be.

 

This is the first act in his life that Lan Xichen thinks might be unforgiveable. Duty demands it. Shufu demanded it. But – he’s fleeing when Wangji, his didi, his a-Zhan is in danger. Shufu is in danger. He doesn’t know if either of them are even still alive, and clings to the thought that he would know if Wangji breathed his last, somehow, that he would feel that emptiness. But. Both of them are stubborn and righteous and will not back down and the Wen have shown no mercy yet.

 

His Sect brothers and sisters are dying.

 

And he is running through the forest with two bags full of the Sect’s legacy hidden in his sleeve, Shuoyue heavy in its scabbard. Undrawn. The worst thing is that while he would fight for his home, his loved ones, his sect, he doesn’t want to draw his sword against other cultivators. Swords aren’t instruments of peace, but for all the years of his life he has been able to pretend that they are.

 

All moral certitude evaporates when he runs into a patrol of five Wen cultivators. His heart is already broken when he slices through their ranks like wind through a rock crevasse, staining Shuoyue’s shining blade crimson with blood.

 

Lan Xichen takes a last look back towards his home, obscured by trees and hill.

 

Shufu, why did you send me away?

 

*

 

Survival becomes a chore. For all his gift in cultivation, Lan Xichen has never truly been taught how to survive in the wild. When he fled from Cloud Recesses, there had been no time to do anything but shove as many books and scrolls into his pouches as possible – he has no food, no drink, no change of clothes, none of the practical utensils needed to live on the road. Water, at least, he finds plenty in Gusu, and for the first few days he subsists on berries and nuts foraged on the way, but his energy levels are flagging dangerously.

 

Practising inedia would help, but that would require stopping somewhere to meditate for several hours and nowhere is safe enough to even contemplate it.

 

On the fourth day he comes across a secluded village – just a few houses and huts on the bank of one of the many rivers heading for the sea. There’s no sign of any Wen in the area. The village appears peaceful from his vantage point, a couple of sleepy dogs basking in the sun while most of its inhabitants are away toiling the fields.

 

The problem is that Lan Xichen is so very recognisable. Villagers this far out might not be able to identify who exactly he is, but between his robes, his sword and his forehead ribbon (not to mention his height) he is so clearly a Lan anyone in Gusu and the lands beyond would recognise him as such. Nerves tingling, he stows Shuoyue on top of the books in his qiankun pouch, trying not to think about the fact that the delay in getting to it could mean the difference between freedom and capture should he be spotted by enemies.

 

He has enemies now. The thought lies sour on his tongue.

 

His robes are muddy and torn from his flight, sleeping rough, and several encounters with Wen patrols. A keen eye would still be able to tell their quality, but at first glance he should pass as a weary traveller.

 

Which leaves his forehead ribbon. He has no hood to obscure it, and it’s meant to be noticeable, sitting proud on foreheads unbowed. Lan Xichen closes his eyes, breathing deeply against the stabbing pain beneath his sternum. The logical thing, the sensible thing would be to take it off, just for a little while. What use will it do him to cling to the traditions of his Sect if they get him killed? He won’t be able to help anyone if he gets captured now, his flight (his cowardice) made meaningless.

 

But. The ribbon has been his anchor over the last few days, a tangible reminder of who he is, the duty he’s carrying out by bringing the writings of the Lan Sect to safety instead of staying to fight. He knows it’s not rational, to feel like taking it off will sunder him further from his clan, but the black bile that rises in his throat at the mere thought doesn’t care for rationality. His fingers clench around his sleeve, helpless.

 

Just a few days ago, he took his ribbon off to sleep with nary a thought.

 

Stop being a fool .

 

Only trees are a witness as the First Jade of Gusu Lan raises a shaking hand to tug at the snow white ribbon. Only a passing squirrel hears the quiet gasp of anguish as it comes loose into his hand, curling in gentle, forgiving waves. His forehead feels bare, the wind suddenly stinging where it had caressed before.

 

With jerky movements, Lan Xichen wraps the ribbon around his forearm, hidden under the heavy drape of his outer robe. He can’t bear to tuck it away entirely, and this way it won’t be on display. He can feel its weight through the light inner sleeve, not quite as reassuring as it is on his head, but still there.

 

He had stowed his headpiece in his bag days ago and now his hair falls down his shoulders entirely unhindered.

 

Lan Xichen takes a few more deep breaths, evening out their shakiness through sheer force of will, and steps forward. The sooner he enters the village and finds some food he can pay for – at least he had his small money pouch on him when he fled – the sooner he can get back to the shelter of the forest.

 

He is about to pass the outermost hutch, when its door opens, an old woman hobbling out with a basket of washing in her arms.

 

They blink at each other, his movement halted, and he still stands frozen when she puts down the basket and beckons him forward.

 

“Gongzi, what brings you this far out? Are you lost?”

 

Lan Xichen forces his lips into a smile, hoping it doesn’t look as tense as he feels.

 

“I am just passing through, qianbei. I was wondering if there was any food I can purchase in your village?”

 

Though bowed by age, her eyes are keen on his figure, seeing more, he thinks, than he can afford right now.

 

“Come inside,” she finally says. “These are not times to be talking on the street.”

 

Lan Xichen gratefully ducks through the low entryway. The open air had made his skin prickle with the phantom feeling of eyes and being inside is enough of a relief that he doesn’t even jump at the thump of the sliding door closing behind him.

 

“Welcome to my home,” she says, gesturing for him to sit at the low table while she heads for the kitchen.

 

Lan Xichen bows to her before he sits. “Thank you, qianbei.”

 

“No need to be so formal, I’m not so illustrious,” she tells him, amusement lurking in her voice, reedy with age. “Call me Feng-po.”

 

Lan Xichen nods through his embarrassment. He’s a guest in her house, the very least he can do is to follow her wish. Words that used to come easy now stick in his throat – what should he say? What can he say?

 

Feng-po’s gaze softens as she looks him over, though there’s a sharpness lurking in her eyes that he dares not discount.

 

“I’ve raised four babes to adulthood,” she says, pouring tea for him. “I can read you, too. What did you lose, gongzi?”

 

He sits frozen, fingers curled around his teacup. Heat prickles along his fingertips, shocking in its intensity. He hasn’t felt warm for days. There’s nothing he can say that wouldn’t make it painfully clear who he is.

 

Feng-po hums, busying herself with the teapot. “A group of Wen cultivators passed through here two days ago, searched every house and not a word of courtesy among them. They didn’t seem to have plans to return. You should be safe here for a little while, Cultivator Lan.”

 

Lan Xichen raises his eyes to meet her hers, too weary even for panic. Besides, a seed of rebelliousness stirs in his gut. This woman has given him no reason to distrust him – if he regards everyone he meets with suspicion, haven’t the Wen already won?

 

“You know?” he asks, voice barely more than whisper.

 

“Drink your tea,” she says and brings her own cup to her lips.

 

He does as he is told and almost makes an indecent noise when the hot liquid flows into his mouth. He has missed tea, whatever its quality.

 

Feng-po shifts a little, bones creaking as she makes herself more comfortable. “A few years ago, this village had trouble with a restless spirit. We wrote to the Lan sect, and not three days later a group of disciples came and played music until the spirit lost its resentment. We were grateful, but the cultivators would take no payment beyond words of thanks.” She smiles at him and every line of her age glows with the gesture. “Having you as a guest for a few days is only right.”

 

He shakes his head, grip on the cup tightening. “It would be dangerous for you to harbour me. The Wen – ”

 

“Are not our masters.” Her voice is solid as steel. “No one in this village will turn you in. Besides, are you not just a humble rogue cultivator on his way to Yunmeng?”

 

The twinkle in her eye dares him to argue with her story, false as it is. Lan Xichen, who according to most Lan Sect Elders has always been the sensible sort, doesn’t even try.

 

“This humble cultivator is grateful, Feng-po,” he says, inclining his head.

 

She rises. “It’s decided then. There’s a spare cot in the back – rest a little. You look like you’re a gust of wind away from shattering. I’ll have dinner ready when you wake”

 

Blunt as the words are, Lan Xichen once again can’t argue. He must look a fright after an undernourished week on the run. For once he gives little thought to the Lan precepts on sleeping times and simply lies down on the pallet, eyes already heavy. It takes him no more than five breaths to fall into slumber.

 

 

Lan Xichen stays with Feng-po for two days. Most of that time is spent resting and eating, while she goes about her daily business. He doesn’t leave the house, unwilling to risk further exposure even if he believes her assurance that no one in the village would turn him in to the Wen. The fewer people forced to lie when asked if they saw him, the better.

 

Feng-po is kind enough to offer him a much less conspicuous change of clothes (“Left over from my late husband, bless his soul – I have no use for them”) and even takes his robes to be washed. Her fingers must be a little bit magic, for once they’ve dried they’ve regained much of their original colour, and Lan Xichen packs them away in his pouch with a pang of sadness. One more piece of himself hidden in this new cruel world.

 

When he leaves again, it’s with best wishes, worn but comfortable clothes in faded forest green and a pack full of food alongside a water flask. Feng-po had told him to simply take her generosity, as she had precious few people to share it with these days, but he’d snuck a piece of silver onto her table before he left nonetheless.

 

He follows the road for a few days, ears alert for any sound of other travellers. It’s a risk, but he has no wish to endanger any more of Gusu’s populace with his presence and finding his own way through the forest is simply too laborious. Every so often his right hand brushes along his left forearm, where his ribbon now rests wrapped around his skin under the thinner sleeve.

 

He has enough food for now that he plans to circumvent the village ahead, but just as he prepares to step off the road he hears raised voices from the houses ahead. No screams, or signs of distress, but there’s enough of a crowd that Lan Xichen can slip in without causing notice, seeking for the cause of the noise.

 

When he does, his blood freezes.

 

“Lotus Pier has fallen!” someone at the front of the crowd exclaims, to much shouting and murmuring. This village is close to the Yunmeng border, farther from the Cloud Recesses than the seat of the Jiang Clan, for all that the land is technically still in Gusu. “The Sect Leader and his wife are dead, the disciples slaughtered by the Wen.”

 

Lan Xichen doesn’t know where this man got his information from, but it makes a terrible sort of sense, that the sacking of Lotus Pier would follow the burning of Cloud Recesses. It’s all he can do to keep breathing through the vice around his heart.

 

“What about the young heir?” someone else shouts, and some of the ice seeping through his veins thaws when the man, likely the head of the village, answers, “Word is that the two young masters of the Jiang escaped along with the young lady, the sole survivors. We can only pray for them.”

 

More questions are shouted, people wondering what this will mean for their village, but Lan Xichen fades into the background, making his way out of the village before someone can comment on the stranger in their midst. Numbly he retreats a ways into the forest, thoughts swirling.

 

First Cloud Recesses, now Lotus Pier. Would Wen Ruohan stop at nothing? At least he has the hope to cling to that his family is still alive, that other members of his sect survived. If what the man said is true, then Jiang Yanli, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian have no one left.

 

Lan Xichen has made the decision before his conscious mind catches up with his heart. At the moment he is wandering aimlessly, uselessly – but if he can find his Jiang friends, perhaps he can help them. Where would they head? If they knew of Cloud Recesses’ fate, then Lanling is the obvious choice on their northern border, if they can make it that far. Given Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan’s engagement, the Jin would be honour-bound to take them in.

 

Now that Yunmeng is no longer safe, Lan Xichen’s next choice would have been Qinghe, but he’s willing to go to Lanling, too, if it means he might come across his friends. New determination fills his heart as he sets to walking.

 

*

 

Lan Xichen is nearing the Lanling border with Yunmeng, on the eastern side near Yiling as he’s been avoiding getting to close to the now occupied Lotus Pier, when he starts feeling a tug in his core. Occasionally, in the past during night hunts he would feel himself being pulled one direction or another, always ending up where he was needed. It’s not a cultivational skill so much as an awareness, but he had never questioned it too much.

 

He follows it now, hand steady on Shuoyue as he steps further into the forest from his course paralleling one of the two northward roads.

 

He did not expect to find what looked to be a young woman huddling among the roots of a great tree, a dark cloak pulled around her frame.

 

The maiden looks up.

 

“Lan Xichen!” she gasps, her face too pale and eyes too red for a true smile.

 

“Jiang Yanli,” he breathes, hurrying the last few steps until he can kneel in front of her, can take her cold, slender fingers between his in an effort to warm them. There’s a talisman crumpled in her hand, one of the ones they’d all drawn together in Cloud Recesses. It feels like a lifetime ago. “I’ve been looking for you and your brothers.”

 

Her eyes fill with tears, crystalline and heart-breaking to see. “I don’t know where they are, they sent me away. I shouldn’t have gone, I should have stayed with them.”

 

Alone?” Lan Xichen demands, horror creeping into his expression, but if they truly hadn’t had anyone to turn to…

 

But Jiang Yanli is already shaking her head. “A rogue cultivator accompanied me, one Song Lan. He was supposed to escort me to Lanling from Yiling but we kept running into Wen patrols and we had to divert further south and then we were attacked – I don’t know if Song Lan is still alive, he told me to run and I was already so weak. I needed all my talismans just to get far enough away to lose them.”

 

Lan Xichen feels compassion rise like a tide in his chest, where his own guilt for running away rather than fighting (helping) still sits in a strangling knot. “I am so glad to find Jiang Yanli alive,” he whispers – not absolution, that’s not his to give, but nonetheless the truth.

 

Then something else she said comes to the forefront of his mind. “Yiling? Why were you in Yiling?”

 

“We fled there, after, after – ” She chokes, fresh tears escaping. “Wen Ning and Wen Qing gave us shelter. A-Cheng was so badly injured, the Wen did such horrible things to him and Wen Zhuliu…”

 

Ice flows down Lan Xichen’s back. Wen Zhuliu. The Core-Melting Hand. “Did – ” he starts, then doesn’t know how to finish the question.

 

Jiang Yanli raises her gaze to his and he has never seen her eyes so bleak.

 

“He burned out a-Cheng’s core.” For all their bleakness, there’s an entirely unfamiliar spark of anger there too, in her dark eyes, a reminder of the strength she hides as well as the strength of her love for her siblings. “He nearly died. If not for Wen Qing…”

 

Lan Xichen doesn’t know what his face is doing, but it must be something terrible for it finally prompts action from Jiang Yanli, who lays a hand on his arm. “It’s all right, a-Xian said he could get it fixed. They went to find Baoshan Sanren, she’ll heal a-Cheng.”

 

He only just manages to keep from frowning. That… sounds like an unlikely story at best, but if this is what Jiang Yanli needs to believe to cope, he can’t voice his doubt. It wouldn’t help anyone, not until they know more.

 

Finally thinking beyond the first slew of questions, Lan Xichen pulls out his provisions. Jiang Yanli accepts the chunk of bread and his water flask with shaking fingers, but she eats neatly still, with small, poised bites.

 

It brings some colour back to her cheeks, and long years of habit leave him sitting silently in front of her as she eats. When the last crumb is gone and she has drunk her fill, Lan Xichen takes the flask back only because she has nowhere to put it.

 

“Tell me?” he entreats, because these scattered impressions of the worst that has happened to the Yunmeng siblings since they last parted are almost worse than having the whole story. “If it’s not too much of a burden.”

 

Jiang Yanli meets his gaze, collected once more. She nods. And she tells him.

 

She tells him of the day Lotus Pier burned, though she only saw the smoke from afar. Of waiting for Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian to return to her when they hurried back to try and save their parents. How they came back, each looking as empty and broken as the other, and hadn’t needed to say a word for her to know. She tells of her fever, and how when she had awoken from it, Jiang Wanyin had been missing and Wei Wuxian frantic, how Wen Ning had found them and hidden them away in the Yiling Supervisory Office with his sister. How Jiang Wanyin’s physical wounds were slowly healed by Wen Qing, but his mental ones persisted, until Wei Wuxian had come up with his mad, miraculous plan to save his brother’s core.

 

She says little of her time travelling with Song Lan, short as it had been.

 

Halfway through her rendition, Lan Xichen had reached out, impropriety be damned, and taken her hands in his, the only comfort he could give. All words of condolence turn to ash in his mouth because what could I am sorry or I grieve with you do for the magnitude of her grief? He says the words anyway.

 

“You’ve been missing for weeks,” she tells him, voice hollowed. “Your brother didn’t know whether you were still alive.”

 

Relief unfurls in his throat, fleeing and cloying all at once. “A-Zhan?” he breathes. “You saw him? Tell me, is he all right?”

 

Jiang Yanli’s face falls. “Oh, I’m sorry, Lan Xichen, I didn’t think… of course you wouldn’t know. I should’ve said something earlier.”

 

Lan Xichen just shakes his head, urging her on.

 

“I didn’t see him, but a-Xian and a-Cheng did. They said he had a badly broken leg, and he sustained more injuries fighting the Xuanwu of Slaughter, but he was alive and strong enough to walk when he returned to the Cloud Recesses afterwards.” Her brow furrows, and Lan Xichen is far too busy mentally repeating Xuanwu of Slaughter? to interrupt. “That was only a few days before the attack on Lotus Pier.”

 

“So he’s alive.” His prayers had been answered. As long as Wangji was alive, he would continue to hope. “He’s alive.”

 

Jiang Yanli nods, but her gentle smile, that even this tragedy had not killed entirely, can’t hide her tiredness. Lan Xichen wants to ask more, wants to hear everything she knows about Wangji and how he came to fight a beast of myth, but he suddenly becomes aware of how long they’ve stayed in this spot already. He imposed greatly, asking for the tale of her home’s destruction. Everything else can wait. So he swallows back the questions crowding his tongue.

 

“I passed an abandoned hut in the forest not far from here,” he says instead. “It won’t be comfortable, but it should keep us safe for a little while.”

 

Jiang Yanli nods and doesn’t protest when he helps her stand – too tired, perhaps, or more gracious in acceptance of aid than many people Lan Xichen has met.

 

Halfway there, she stumbles on a tree root badly enough that she would’ve fallen were it not for his quick arm around her shoulders and he almost gasps in surprise at the heat he can feel through her thin garments. He briefly touches the back of his hand to her brow, heart clenching in worry. What he’d thought was just tiredness, at first, is quickly developing into something worse and he recalls her saying she’d had a fever not long ago. Wen Qing may have healed her then, but if she’s prone to it, recent exertions may have caused a relapse.

 

Lan Xichen looks down at her slack face, not quite unconscious but not quite there either and swallows through any reflexive embarrassment to pick her up. No one will ever know that he carried an unmarried young woman in his arms, but even if they did, he’s not going to be ashamed of helping someone in need. His long strides eat up the distance and soon he pushes his way through the doorway into the dilapidated hut he’d noticed on his way past. The interior is dim, only small window spaces letting in light that’s already been filtered through several layers of leaves by the time it arrives through them.

 

An abandoned cot sits in the corner, much to his relief. It has no bedding, but the shaped wood is better than the dirty floor. Lan Xichen gently lays Jiang Yanli down onto it, then rummages around in his qiankun pouch until he finds part of his own set of discarded robes, which he arranges into a makeshift pillow under her head. Much to his concern, her forehead is truly burning now, eyes moving restlessly under closed lids.

 

Lan Xichen wishes, desperately, that he had brought some medicine with him on his headlong flight. He can’t risk going to a village, not when someone else is also depending on him, but he is the first young master of the Gusu Lan – he’s been taught the plant lore of his sect from a young age, knows what herbs to look for in the wild. Yunmeng is a fertile country, even this far towards its northern border, and he has faith that he can find at least one of the fever-reducing specimens.

 

He’s not happy about leaving Jiang Yanli alone while he goes foraging – he spends a while drawing warding sigils all around the hut until he’s certain that no one could attempt to enter without him knowing about it. When he returns, several hours later, his wards lie undisturbed and so does Jiang Yanli. He breathes an invisible sigh of relief, even as he takes out the flask of water he’d refilled at a stream on his trek and sends his qi spiralling through it until it’s heated to tea temperature. He mixes in the herbs, crushing them into the water until their aroma fills the entire room.

 

Getting Jiang Yanli to drink a couple of mouthfuls of the concoction is much harder than its preparation, even with his murmured encouragements. He dabs at the drops spilling out onto her cheek when the second mouthful has finally gone down, deeply grateful for the standard rotation he’d done in the healers’ ward when he was younger.

 

Lan Xichen spends a few precious minutes in meditation to recover his own balance and shore up his waning energy reserves. By the time he opens his eyes again, the sun is dipping low and he has a few bites to eat before he takes out Liebing. He doesn’t know any of the truly advanced scores meant to help heal the physical – something he will redress as soon as he gets home, if there’s still a home to return to – but any of the songs of Clarity should help Jiang Yanli fight the fever raging inside, providing a cleansing effect even to those not conscious to hear them.

 

Two days pass like this, Lan Xichen soothing Jiang Yanli through her fever with gentle music and gentler words – and if he finds himself calling her Yanli now, he’s too weary of spirit to curb himself – punctuated by attempts to get her to drink more of the herbal concoction. It isn’t the care she deserves, but it’s the best he can do out here in the wilderness, far from supplies, friends and home. It hadn’t occurred to him that it would be the healers’ ward at Cloud Recesses rather than the Hanshi, the library, the cold pond or his little garden courtyard that he would miss first.

 

Jiang Yanli has occasional lucid spells, even through the fever still hovering in the background.

 

“It would be easier to mourn them, if love were not intermingled with so many other things,” she says quietly once, in the middle of a particularly sad passage of the music.

 

Lan Xichen almost halts his playing, but his fingers carry on reflexively, and if she wanted a reply in words she would not have spoken her thoughts while he plays. Perhaps the music is dragging it out of her. Perhaps she simply wanted to speak the words, have them acknowledged without the burden of conversation about things she doesn’t believe she should feel. He certainly sympathises – he has never talked about his parents, about his complicated feelings about his parents, to anyone but Wangji. At any rate, he has spent enough time with the young heirs of Lotus Pier, and has heard enough rumours, to be able to put together much, and doesn’t require confirmation.

 

When the piece is finished and he lowers Liebing, her eyes are closed again, breathing even. With every hour that passes afterwards, her fever lessens.

 

On the third day, Lan Xichen just finished a meagre lunch when Jiang Yanli stirs on the low cot. He shifts from his lotus position so he’s in her line of sight, smiling as her eyes flutter open.

 

“Yanli,” he starts, and then quickly corrects himself, “Jiang Yanli, how do you feel?”

 

She looks up at him, and while tiredness still lives in her expression, her eyes are clear again and free of fever haze. “Call me Yanli,” she says. “It is only right for friends such as us.”

 

He dips his head, smiles. “Xichen, then.”

 

When she doesn’t say anything else, he asks again, “How do you feel?”

 

Her eyes lose focus as she gazes inward. “Like I’m waking up from a long dream that was not a dream.” Catching his alarmed look, Yanli smiles. “Physically, I’m recovering. I can feel your qi bolstering mine even now.” The smile fades. “But even as I grow stronger, my home is still sacked, my parents still dead and my clan still alive only in me and my brothers.”

 

Lan Xichen bows his head, thinks of Wangji. “Yes. Your brothers are going to need you.” There’s nothing else he can say, no other motivation he can offer, her grief her own to process unless she chooses to confide in him further. He rises. “I’ll prepare some food for you.”

 

They talk about neither the Cloud Recesses nor Lotus Pier in the days that follow.

 

Finally, when Yanli stays awake throughout the whole day without signs of fatigue, Lan Xichen broaches the topic of where to go from here.

 

“What do you want to do? I was planning to make my way to Qinghe – if there’s anyone willing to stand up to Wen Ruohan it would be Mingjue. But you were on your way to Lanling and I’m not averse to going there first. If nothing else, we would hear news of the state of the world at Koi Tower.”

 

Yanli is silent for several minutes.

 

“We go to Qinghe,” she finally announces, voice hard.

 

She doesn’t elaborate. Lan Xichen nods and doesn’t ask. He can guess her reasons well enough.

 

 *

Chapter Text

*

 

Mingjue, despite his grim reputation, looks like he’s a hairsbreadth away from embracing Lan Xichen.

 

It was a small comfort to find that Lan Xichen was right – arriving at the Unclean Realm had made it very clear that the Nie Sect is at war. Where he used to simply stroll in through the gates, they had been stopped by a patrol of Nie soldiers nearly the moment they passed into Nie territory. He doesn’t know what they would have done if Lan Xichen hadn’t already clothed himself in his old robes, refastened the forehead ribbon with a sense of profound relief, and taken to carrying Shuoyue openly again – had, in fact, looked so very Lan that the Nie cultivators immediately agreed to escort them to their Sect Leader.

 

Now they’re in Mingjue’s greeting hall and Lan Xichen is only halfway into his bow when Mingjue reaches him, strong, warm hands lifting him out of it.

 

Xichen,” Mingjue says, the thunder of his voice muted in relief. “We had feared you dead. Your brother brought word of your disappearance weeks ago – ”

 

Lan Xichen’s eyes flick up, searching Mingjue’s face. “Wangji? Wangji is here?”

 

At any other time he would’ve been mortified that he’d effectively interrupted someone else’s speech, but in this moment nothing is more important than finding out where his brother is.

 

Mingjue’s expression softens into the same look he always wears when Huaisang does something he grudgingly approves of. “He’s usually out searching with Jiang Wanyin, but your arrival is timely – he’s here.”

 

A distant part of his mind wonders why Wangji would be out with Jiang Wanyin, the two were hardly friendly last he knew (to his disappointment), but the majority of him is engaged in a battle of wills. Only years and years of instilled patience and diplomacy stop him from turning on his heel to search out his brother, protocol be damned. He needs to see, with his own eyes, that Wangji is alive. Healthy. Of sound mind.

 

Forgotten until now, standing a little behind Lan Xichen – as much as he likes Mingjue, the Nie Sect Leader does suffer from a certain amount of tunnel vision and doesn’t have much time for people not already in his circle, though he’s usually more courteous – Yanli suddenly coughs delicately.

 

Mingjue turns to her, surprised expression turning as close to awkward as Lan Xichen has ever seen on him, but before he can apologise for the oversight, Yanli speaks.

 

“Nie-zongzhu, it has been a long journey.”

 

Her gentle smile takes any possible reproach out of the statement.

 

Lan Xichen’s heart swells in gratitude and fondness. It had taken a little while to realise that Yanli knows exactly how to get her own way if she deems the cause necessary and it’s still a little bit of a revelation to find that she judges helping him as such.

 

“Of course,” Mingjue says, bowing his head in her direction. “We can converse further after you’ve both rested. I’ll send someone to escort you. Your brother has been most anxious since you failed to arrive at Koi Tower, Jiang-guniang.”

 

Only Lan Xichen’s long acquaintance with Yanli allows him to observe how her face falls minutely. If Jiang Wanyin is the only brother here, that means Wei Wuxian is still missing.

 

Out searching with Jiang Wanyin .

 

Oh. Yes, if the cause is Wei Wuxian, Lan Xichen doesn’t doubt Wangji would ally with Jiang Wanyin.

 

A Nie disciple appears at his side and he follows her, idly watching the swing of her braids as she leads him through courtyards at a brisk pace.

 

One exchange of looks and nods with Yanli before they parted had been enough. They would talk again later – for now, what remains of their families comes first.

 

Finally, they reach one of the larger guest suites, one Lan Xichen has stayed in before, and just as he starts to ascend the few steps to the entrance, the sliding door opens to reveal Wangji, Bichen in hand and clad entirely in white.

 

The Nie disciple retreats to give them privacy, but Lan Xichen barely pays her any heed.

 

“Wangji,” he breathes, eyes drinking in the brother that looks so unchanged he could weep, if he ignores the added severity in his gaze, the remnants of innocence already lost to this war.

 

“Xiongzhang,” Wangji says at the same time, and Lan Xichen doesn’t think he’s ever heard the word fall from his brother’s lips with this much emotion – relief, gratitude, joy. Wangji steps forward, almost into Lan Xichen’s space, and Lan Xichen simply watches as he stretches out a hand to place it right over Lan Xichen’s heart, beating strongly even through layers of clothes.

 

He can’t help himself and reaches out, brushing his fingertips over Wangji’s cheek, a little chilled from Qinghe’s mountain air, but warm and alive nonetheless.

 

They stand like that for moments verging on eternity, Wangji’s hand on his heart and his fingers on Wangji’s cheek. Finally they both withdraw, movements synchronous.

 

Wangji steps aside to allow Lan Xichen entry. The room looks eerily similar to the Jingshi, several of Wangji’s belongings settled neatly in their respective places. His guqin sits on a low table opposite the entrance.

 

“You have lost weight,” Wangji observes critically, a note of worry in his eyes. “I will call for food. Tea?”

 

“Yes please.” Lan Xichen folds himself down onto the cushion at the table, suddenly acutely aware in this pristine environment that his robes are dubiously clean at best. “I haven’t had proper tea in weeks.”

 

While he settles himself, breathing deeply to enjoy the fragrant smell of the tea, Wangji briefly disappears. Lan Xichen keeps breathing, eyes drifting shut as muscle after muscle releases tension he has held for weeks. He knows overwhelming tiredness is just around the corner, waiting to sink him into sleep now that he’s somewhere safe, but for the moment he calls on his core to lend him energy enough to talk with Wangji first.

 

He blinks his eyes open again as Wangji returns, settling opposite him and reaching for the tea pot.

 

“How is Shufu? The Clan? Cloud Recesses?” he asks, all his most burning questions bundled together as Wangji pours him tea.

 

Lan Xichen takes the cup gratefully, letting the warmth seep into his hands.

 

“Shufu is recovered. He’s overseeing reconstruction at Cloud Recesses. Many buildings were burned.” Wangji’s expression is outwardly placid, but Lan Xichen can see the turmoil roiling underneath. “We lost 40 disciples in the attack. Fuqin is dead also.”

 

Lan Xichen takes a measured sip of tea. Closes his eyes. The words sink in, their hideous meaning unfurling behind his eyes. He takes another sip.

 

“And you? Yanli said something about the Xuanwu of Slaughter? I could hardly believe it.”

 

Wangji’s eyes sharpen at the familiar address, but he doesn’t comment.

 

“Mn. Wei Ying and I killed it.”

 

Lan Xichen shakes his head, a smile tugging at his lips despite everything. “My wondrous didi, so strong and capable.”

 

That earns him Wangji’s patented ‘stop teasing’ glare, even as his ears flare red.

 

“Won’t you tell me the story?”

 

It’s a testament to Wangji’s regard for him that he does. He dislikes talking about himself, and Lan Xichen is sure that the account Wangji gives is as barebones as they come, but it’s enough for him to put together a picture of what his brother’s life had been like these past few weeks. It makes his heart hurt to think of his didi suffering at the hands of Wen Chao and his lackeys only to be trapped in a cave with a mythical beast while injured, yet he’d still rather know than remain ignorant.

 

As Wangji’s story winds down, barely a sentence said about his return to Cloud Recesses and subsequent joining of the war effort, Lan Xichen can’t help but worry about the absence of a certain someone like an injured man picking at his wound.

 

“What happened to Wei Wuxian?”

 

The pain that flares in Wangji’s eyes runs deep and if Lan Xichen hadn’t already been certain of Wangji’s feelings for the young man, he would be now.

 

“We do not know.” Wangji stares down at his empty tea cup. “He is missing. Jiang Wanyin and I are searching as much as can be permitted, but most believe he is dead.”

 

Lan Xichen sighs, thinking of the outgoing boy he had first met in Lotus Pier. “I’m sorry, Wangji. Wei Wuxian is a strong, intelligent cultivator – as long as you hope, I will support you.”

 

Wangji nods his acceptance. He doesn’t need to express his gratitude any other way.

 

“With me here, it should be easier for you to keep searching,” Lan Xichen continues, refilling his tea cup. “I can take over command of the Lan forces once I’ve caught up with recent events.”

 

As much as he’d like to avoid the fighting altogether, they are far past the point where that would be possible.

 

There’s a different kind of sadness in Wangji’s eyes as he studies his expression, but he only nods. “Xiongzhang will do well.”

 

Lan Xichen swallows past the sudden lump in his throat. Even after he had left Wangji behind, fleeing from danger rather than standing at his side, his brother still trusts him like this. So unconditionally.

 

It’s a gift greater than Wangji perhaps realises.

 

Wangji gestures towards him, wordlessly indicating that it’s Lan Xichen’s turn to share.

 

Lan Xichen has barely begun his tale when a servant interrupts with a tray of food and speaking is set aside in favour of dinner for the time being. They may not be in the Cloud Recesses right now, but some habits are too deeply ingrained to ignore for anything but an emergency. Besides, as soon as he starts eating the fresh, warm food, Lan Xichen suddenly realises just how hungry he is, having subsisted of little for the last few days as their supplies started running out. He eats a little quicker than is quite decorous, but Wangji doesn’t complain, only pushes some more dishes towards him as his plate empties.

 

Eventually, all the food is gone and Lan Xichen resumes his story. He supplies a little more detail than Wangji had, but doesn’t draw it out. Sleep is hovering at the edge of his consciousness already, kept at bay purely through use of his core and even that energy is running low now.

 

Wangji watches him attentively throughout, looking like he’s committing every word to memory.

 

When Lan Xichen only barely suppresses a yawn, Wangji rises.

 

“Stay here tonight,” he says, but there’s a question in the angle of his head.

 

Lan Xichen doesn’t know whether he asks for his own sake or for Lan Xichen’s, but he does know that Wangji wouldn’t offer if he weren’t willing, so he has no compunctions in nodding.

 

It’s been a long time since they last slept in the same bed, but it still feels natural as they both situate themselves. Wangji’s warmth at his side evokes memories of a much younger a-Zhan crawling into Lan Xichen’s arms after a nightmare, innocently seeking the safety of an older brother who had never quite felt adequate to the task of providing comfort but had done his best nonetheless.

 

For the first time since the attack on Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen falls asleep swiftly, easily, without worry. Safe.

 

*

 

The next morning is much less promising. He’s clad in one of Wangji’s outfits – they are much the same size, but Lan Xichen is a little less lithe and broader around the shoulders, which makes the fabric pull uncomfortably in several places. It’s nonetheless his only option if he doesn’t want to appear before the war council in stained clothing. The fastest Lan disciple in Qinghe has already been dispatched to Cloud Recesses with news of Lan Xichen’s appearance and the two qiankun pouches full of precious books and scrolls in tow. Lan Xichen had felt curiously reluctant to give them up, but as much as he might like to keep the items he saved at such great cost close, he knows that they’ll be safer in the rebuilt Cloud Recesses than with him, at the frontline of a war. Shufu will make sure of it. His Hanshi had survived the fire intact, according to Wangji, so he’ll soon have changes of his own clothing. He is, he reflects, possibly looking forward to it unduly. This would be easier if Wangji didn’t insist on wearing clothes so perfectly tailored to his frame.

 

It takes more effort not to fidget during the meeting designed to catch him up on the current state of affairs than is proper for a Lan cultivator. Eventually he gives in and directs a tiny stream of energy to the patch of skin between his shoulder blade that will not stop itching and almost sighs in relief.

 

Wangji throws him a sidelong look in the middle of the update on known Wen troop movements, but no one else seems to have noticed, all focused on Mingjue’s strong voice. It’s a small meeting to begin with, just Mingjue, his top general, and several sect leaders – including a worn-looking Jiang Wanyin.

 

The poor man must be exhausted between fighting a war, searching for his brother and trying to rebuild a whole sect – and that’s putting aside his grief for slaughtered friends and family. Lan Xichen had seen it in Yanli, too, and she at least had only had to survive, without the burden of the survivors’ wellbeing resting on her shoulders. He hopes that now the siblings are reunited they’ll be able to share the burden neither should’ve needed to bear in the first place.

 

He doesn’t think of his father, or his own recent ascent to sect leader at an age not much older than Jiang Wanyin is now. Qingheng-jun was barely a figure in his life for all the years Lan Xichen can remember. Absent or dead, the difference hasn’t quite sunk into his mind yet. Once they have the time for a formal ceremony, perhaps.

 

Lan Xichen isn’t surprised to be approached by Jiang Wanyin when the meeting breaks up for lunch, but to be addressed so formally as ‘Lan-zonghzu does sting a little. He understands it, of course – their respective situations have changed, and Jiang Wanyin is in a precarious position as the too-young leader of a decimated sect – but he’s determined to not let the other young man isolate himself.

 

“Lan Xichen, please,” he says, smiling and making sure to meet Jiang Wanyin’s gaze openly. “We’ve known each other long enough for that, Jiang Wanyin.”

 

It’s a declaration of support as much as it is Lan Xichen trying to preserve the bud of a friendship, and out of the corner of his eye he sees Sect Leader Ouyang pause briefly on his way out the door.

 

Something about the set of Jiang Wanyin’s shoulders relaxes at that and his bow of acceptance is much less stiff than his greeting had been.

 

“As you say, Lan Xichen.” He hesitates then, looking up at Lan Xichen with a little crease between his brows as if he’s searching for the right words. “I wanted to thank you. For helping a-Jie.”

 

It’s not a deed that needs thanks, so Lan Xichen merely inclines his head.

 

Jiang Wanyin takes a deep breath. “If there’s ever anything Yunmeng Jiang can do for you, only give the word.” He smiles then, a bleak little thing that Lan Xichen would dearly wish to be able to wipe away. “Not that that’s worth much at the moment. I don’t have a face thick enough to pretend that.”

 

Lan Xichen shakes his head. “The intent matters, Jiang Wanyin. And one day, your Sect will be strong again. If, in the meantime, there is any help that Gusu Lan could give you, I would be pleased to arrange what I can.”

 

It’s a rash thing to offer, perhaps. He doesn’t yet know how well the Lan Sect has weathered the Wen’s attack, if they’re even in a position to offer any help at all. But what is the point of friendship, of allied sects, if they don’t stand together when times are hard? Even if he can only afford to send a handful of people, it’s still better than none.

 

He can see the war of pride and need on Jiang Wanyin’s face. He hasn’t yet learned how to veil his expression, and though Lan Xichen may find the fact that he wears his heart on his sleeve – the only of his siblings to do so – endearing, if he wants to become more politically savvy he’ll have to learn how to control it.

 

The room, empty now aside from them, echoes with silence around them, but Lan Xichen waits patiently.

 

“Craftspeople,” Jiang Wanyin finally presses out between tightly clenched teeth, as if saying the word physically pains him. “All but the few surviving disciples I brought with me are engaged in rebuilding, but if we are to survive the next winter we’ll need more than the main compound that the Wen left standing. They razed the nearby villages. There was no one there who could’ve opposed them.”

 

“I will see what I can do,” Lan Xichen says, doing Jiang Wanyin the courtesy not to mention the way the other man’s hand is flexing around the scabbard of his sword. There’s nothing constructive he can say about the Wen’s pillaging. As terrible as the deeds are, there’s already enough anger everywhere he looks and he’s trying hard not to add his own to it as he works to purge it from his motivations, or fan someone else’s rage.

 

 

The next day, Wangji and Jiang Wanyin leave on another foray to the edges of Qishan, ostensibly to scout, but mainly to look for any traces of Wei Wuxian. Lan Xichen spends the morning familiarising himself with the few Lan disciples currently in Qinghe because he firmly believes that he should know more than just the names of every person he will fight alongside for the foreseeable future. He has met all of them previously, most of them outer disciples who’d been elsewhere when the Wen attacked, but he takes the time to talk to each of them, gathering some more personal details and fixing them in his mind. He also makes a point of asking each of them for their preferred musical instrument and whether they’re advanced enough in the study of musical cultivation to use it in battle – that is knowledge he needs, to be able to plan how to best utilise his group.

 

Lan Xichen finds himself a little surprised at how tiring the entire thing is, after weeks of interacting with one person at most. He’s not an unsociable person, but he hadn’t noticed how used he’d gotten to his solitude.

 

After the mid-day meal, which he takes in traditional silence with the disciples, he retreats to Wangji’s room for some much-needed meditation. It still feels like a luxury to have surroundings so safe he can sink down into himself and forget the outside world as he focuses on his core. He expects that feeling to fade with time – he’s spent far more of his life under good circumstances than bad – but for now it persists.

 

Then he takes another hour to play Liebing, which he hasn’t done nearly enough recently, and simply revels in the sound floating through the air all around him, no aim to it, no goal.

 

The sun is already threatening to sink beneath the craggy mountainside by the time he seeks out company again.

 

Lan Xichen finds Yanli in her rooms, next to the ones assigned to Jiang Wanyin, surrounded by bits of paper and ink. She’s carefully drawing a talisman for protection, hand unfaltering even as Lan Xichen steps inside at her acknowledgement of his knock.

 

He has the sneaking suspicion that she’s supposed to be on bed rest, or at least resting, but he knows enough by now not to start an argument he won’t win, so he only sits down quietly, waiting for her to finish.

 

Once the last line has dried to her satisfaction, Yanli sets it aside on top of a pile of other completed talismans and comes to join him.

 

Over cups of the Nie’s characteristically strong tea, Lan Xichen finally voices the shadow over his recent thoughts.

 

“I am sorry,” he says, holding her gaze. “All my questions were answered. Yours were not.”

 

“I don’t begrudge you,” she says, which is both true and an evasion of his actual point. “And mine may yet be answered.”

 

Lan Xichen takes another sip, rolling the flavour around in his mouth. “I certainly hope for it, and so does Wangji.”

 

Yanli’s voice is dangerously meek when she asks, “Why is Lan Wangji so invested in finding my brother? He has no obligation.”

 

Lan Xichen sighs. Not because he minds occasionally translating his brother’s thoughts for others, but because if Yanli, who has always read people well, isn’t certain of Wangji’s motivations in this, Wei Wuxian isn’t likely to be any more enlightened. “My brother… cares for Wei Wuxian.”

 

Her eyes sharpen, just enough to be noticeable. “That was not evident to Wei Wuxian.”

 

“Wangji is not one to speak much, but his actions are clear,” he says, entirely honest. Anyone who knows Wangji well can easily see it, but it’s not Yanli’s fault that that list barely stretches to two people.

 

Yanli smiles, curve of her lips tinged by relief. “I’m glad. It would’ve been a shame for a-Xian to get his heart broken.” She looks down at her clasped hands. “I told a-Cheng that I have faith they will him.”

 

Lan Xichen nods, understanding all too clearly. She has faith, yes, but faith doesn’t eradicate the doubt, the worry. Yanli is used to projecting an image of unflappable support to her brothers. Lan Xichen wouldn’t be surprised if Jiang Wanyin, right now, depends on it.

 

Even with their new close friendship, he wonders if he’s overstepping when he says, “You don’t have to be strong all the time. I understand, one older sibling to another.”

 

It had taken him too long to understand this truth for himself. That his desire to support Wangji doesn’t have to mean he shouldn’t lean on anybody. He had made a concerted effort to internalise that, over the last few years, though it’s usually still easier in theory than in practice – he may be generally well-liked, in his Sect and beyond, but that doesn’t mean there are many people he feels he can talk freely with.

 

Yanli’s hesitant nod and the warmth in her eyes feel like a victory.

 

*

 

Jin Zixuan arrives with what cultivators Jin Guangshan can be deigned to spare. It’s widely suspected that the final numbers are down to the heir’s own initiative more than anything else. Lan Xichen is not a cynical person by nature, but Mingjue isn’t the only one angered by the way the Jin Sect Leader seems happy to let the other sects expend themselves in this war while sitting safe in Koi Tower.

 

Throughout the greetings, Jin Zixuan hides the fact that he’s looking for one person in particular badly, though he greets Lan Xichen with the aloof kind of warmth that he has come to expect from a Jin who actually likes you.

 

A few days later Jin Zixuan sweeps past Lan Xichen and Yanli tending to the wounded in one of the Unclean Realm’s many converted courtyards, halts, stares for a minute too long, and then hastens on quicker than he had approached.

 

After a few more such incidents, Jin Zixuan’s interactions with Lan Xichen become noticeably cooler.

 

*

 

Lan Xichen is in the war room when Jiang Wanyin returns with Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian looks haggard and there are shadows in his eyes Lan Xichen doesn’t remember seeing before. He still smiles, bright like the sun, but there’s a brittleness to it, trauma barely hidden beneath a veneer of cheer.

 

No one knows what happened to him in the three months that he was missing. Wei Wuxian isn’t talking – oh, words still come out of his mouth, but they rarely say anything pertaining to himself.

 

It wouldn’t worry Lan Xichen as much as it does –

 

the war is wounding them all, he only needs to look at Wangji’s ever stiffer expression, the hollow fire in Jiang Wanyin’s eyes, the strain around Yanli’s gentle mouth to be aware of it; their entire generation is coming of age in a war and there’ll be no healing while it lasts –

 

if it weren’t for Wangji’s report of Wei Wuxian’s recent methods. Which are worrying, and deeply so. Lan Xichen can’t imagine what it must’ve taken to make Wei Wuxian take up the demonic path, for that is what all accounts point towards him doing. Even if Lan Xichen hadn’t seen the dark curls of resentful energy billow forth from Wei Wuxian’s slender form, making him seem bigger, darker, more dangerous, he still wouldn’t have doubted Wangji’s word of the method behind the slaughter at Yiling.

 

What worries him the most is that Wei Wuxian is proving resistant to any attempts to redirect him to the path of sword cultivation and though Wangji speaks little of it, Lan Xichen knows every encounter with Wei Wuxian tears at Wangji’s soul even while he persists in seeking the other out.

 

Wangji has always been good at persisting. Enduring.

 

Meanwhile, Wei Wuxian pretends that nothing is wrong, that not carrying his sword is just a whim, that no one will judge him.

 

It’s a convincing enough front and Lan Xichen knows that the majority of his colleagues don’t look any further. Neither might he, if he didn’t know Wei Wuxian, if he weren’t friends with his siblings – and, he’d thought, Wei Wuxian himself. And there’s no ignoring that this new version of Wei Wuxian hurts and deeply so.

 

Lan Xichen can’t help but wish he could help the other, lighten his burdens by whatever small amount he may. If only Wei Wuxian would let him.

 

Because these days, Wei Wuxian seems to be avoiding him. Lan Xichen might think he’s just being paranoid – they’re all busy, after all, the war continuing without an end in sight – if it weren’t for the way Wei Wuxian always manages to find some excuse not to be alone in a room with him.

 

It hurts, a little, but Lan Xichen has always tried his best to respect other people’s wishes, so he stops trying so much. If Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to talk to him, he can’t force him to. Wangji, at least, managed to get himself assigned to playing Cleansing for Wei Wuxian every day, though he rarely comes back with a pleased expression.

 

Lan Xichen isn’t the only one worried. He still makes time for tea with Yanli as often as he can, and much of their conversation revolves around her anxieties about a-Xian’s mental state, and the way he keeps overextending in battle and still isn’t taking up his sword even after Jiang Wanyin returned Suibian to him. Lan Xichen is only a little more reticent about Wangji’s stress in response to Wei Wuxian’s suddenly cold attitude. He doesn’t talk about his own sense of hurt at Wei Wuxian’s adroit avoidance, but occasionally he catches Yanli giving him sympathetic glances.

 

He’s grateful that she keeps him updated, as much as she can. Second-hand information is still better than none.

 

And, a little to his shame, there are so many other things to worry about.

 

The fighting itself… wears on his soul. Lan Xichen is lucky in that he spends a decent amount of time at the Unclean Realm, helping strategise – Mingjue thinks he’s good at it; Lan Xichen isn’t so sure – but the longer the war drags on the more often he’s needed at the frontlines, as one of the strongest cultivators their side has.

 

The fact that they’re more and more often fighting puppets rather than Wen cultivators is both better and worse. Better, because the puppets are barely alive by anyone’s reckoning (and less skilled to boot). Worse, because as the war drags on, the puppet force almost entirely comprises fallen comrades. He finds himself fighting beings clad in Jiang purple, Jin gold, Lan white. Once he almost lets himself be skewered because he ends up faced with one of his disciples, whom he had mourned just a few days prior and it shakes him enough that he barely gets Shuoyue up in time to block a clumsy blow to his torso.

 

In between all the bloodshed, the constant losses, it’s all anyone can do to still sleep soundly enough to preserve the mind.

 

*

 

“I seem to have done something to offend Jin-gongzi,” Lan Xichen tells Yanli over tea, barely bothering to hide his amusement.

 

The smile she sends him in response is the closest thing to a grin Lan Xichen has ever seen on her face.

 

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

If it weren’t for Yanli, Lan Xichen might’ve let the entire matter of Wei Wuxian go until the war was over. Well, if it weren’t for Yanli and Wei Wuxian’s tendency to get injured (and not care about it).

 

They’ve started to prepare for the big push towards Nightless City, the timing not yet set but looming closer, when an unconscious Wei Wuxian is escorted back into the Unclean Realm by the group of Jiang disciples he went out with. A fuming Jiang Wanyin is striding at the front, gruffly ordering the injured to the healers before taking Wei Wuxian’s limp body from the two disciples who’d been carrying him and disappearing towards Wei Wuxian’s rooms.

 

Lan Xichen’s first thought is to call for Wangji – surely Wei Wuxian will need Cleansing played again, his state now so similar to when he’d first been recovered after his three-month disappearance. Then he remembers that Wangji is out with a contingent of Jin disciples. That leaves Lan Xichen himself as the only one present capable of playing such a complicated piece of music and his jaw sets. Wei Wuxian may not want to see him and so far Lan Xichen has honoured that wish, but that ends the moment it puts the other’s health at risk.

 

He arrives in front of Wei Wuxian’s quarters, Liebing already in hand, just as Jiang Yanli steps out, face drawn and pale.

 

“Xichen,” she says, eyes flicking down to the xiao and up again.

 

“Wangji isn’t here at the moment,” he explains, knowing that Yanli at least would not object to his presence at Wei Wuxian’s bedside. “How bad is it?”

 

“Thank you,” she breathes, some of the tension in her face easing. “It’s not as bad as it was when he first returned, but he’s still unconscious.”

 

He can see her hesitate over the next question, face tight and worried, but finally she asks, “Is his method… is it harmful?”

 

“Continued use of resentful energy unbalances the mind, distorts the temperament,” Lan Xichen says honestly, because they’re far past the point where lying about it might’ve been kinder. “If the caster only used it sparingly, perhaps they could mitigate the effects, but…”

 

“But a-Xian isn’t slowing down at all,” Yanli whispers. “Can you not speak with him? I don’t understand why he – ”

 

She trails off and Lan Xichen gives her a sympathetic look. “Wangji already tried, but I will do my best.”

 

Yanli nods, then waves him towards the door.

 

Wei Wuxian is indeed still unconscious. Jiang Wanyin is his only company, sitting slumped near the bed. There’s something lost in his eyes as he looks at his older brother’s still form

 

Jiang Wanyin looks up as Lan Xichen enters, relief and doubt warring on his face. “More music?” he asks, voice a little scratchy. “It doesn’t seem to be doing much.”

 

“It should,” Lan Xichen says, settling himself on the unoccupied bed with Liebing. “It’s a very powerful melody.”

 

Jiang Wanyin only shrugs, bone-tired. “Look after him for a bit, will you? I need to debrief.”

 

Lan Xichen inclines his head, warmed by the trust shown to him as Jiang Wanyin leaves without further hesitation.

 

He brings Liebing to his lips and begins to play. Cleansing is well-known to him, so after a while he opens his eyes, concentrating until his vision shifts so he can see the spiritual energy surging through the air. If Jiang Wanyin is right and Cleansing does little to help Wei Wuxian, there should be a reason for it, that he hopes to be able to see.

 

His gaze tracks the swirls of his own blue energy in the air, gathering all around Wei Wuxian – but seemingly not merging with Wei Wuxian at all. The energy hovers over the other’s skin not mingling with Wei Wuxian’s own energies. In fact, Lan Xichen can’t see Wei Wuxian’s spiritual energy at all. Has he learned of a way to obscure it from others’ sight?

 

Lan Xichen keeps playing a while longer, but his eyes show him nothing new. Cleansing barely touches Wei Wuxian, just as Jiang Wanyin had said.

 

He’s about to give up – there’s little use in expending his spiritual energy on something that’s clearly not helping – when Wei Wuxian stirs on the bed and his eyes open.

 

Lan Xichen finishes the last grouping of notes, then sits quietly as the sound slowly disperses in the air.

 

He hopes for a reaction after such long avoidance, but when Wei Wuxian’s gaze lands on him his eyes are blank.

 

“Zewu-jun,” Wei Wuxian says, voice as dead as his gaze. “Why are you here.”

 

“Wangji is out,” he says quietly, because it’s an explanation, if not truly the explanation (how would Wei Wuxian react to a simple statement, Because I am your friend, in his current state?), “I played Cleansing for you.”

 

Wei Wuxian still isn’t really reacting. “I’ve told him he should stop that.”

 

“Wangji worries about you,” Lan Xichen starts, only to break off when this, inexplicably, is what sets Wei Wuxian off.

 

We Wuxian sneers, an expression so foreign on his face that Lan Xichen almost recoils. “Is that why Hanguang-jun asked me to come to Gusu with him? Because he worries?”

 

“Wangji did what?” Lan Xichen blurts, and his obvious surprise must get through to Wei Wuxian somehow because his sneer is replaced by a much more palatable frown.

 

“Told me to come back to Gusu with him? Is that not a thing you guys do with demonic cultivators? Keep them imprisoned until they can be rehabilitated?”

 

The last word is spit with enough venom Lan Xichen can almost see it curling in the air.

 

“There hasn’t been a known demonic cultivator in centuries. We have no set ways of acting towards them,” he says placidly, even as his mind is still scrambling to work through the idea that Wangji had taken the initiative to offer Wei Wuxian refuge in Gusu. Lan Xichen is absolutely certain it’s not to imprison Wei Wuxian, or punish him, as the other man clearly seems to think – not given their own history. But that he acted in this without consulting Lan Xichen first, that is… notable.

 

Wei Wuxian’s eyes glint in the low lighting. “The rules are clear enough – do not associate with evil.”

 

Lan Xichen shifts until he can look Wei Wuxian square in the eye. “Are you evil, Wei Wuxian? Because I cannot believe it. And neither does Wangji, if he offered you refuge.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s eyes go wide as he mouths the last word. That he should be so shocked by the idea of refuge offered to him burns Lan Xichen’s heart, but he stays quiet as Wei Wuxian gathers himself again.

 

Still, Wei Wuxian doesn’t say anything, instead pushes his energy into sitting up on the bed. Maybe to be on more even ground with Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen makes a move to support him, but freezes when Wei Wuxian flinches away from his hand.

 

Lan Xichen slowly draws it back, apologetic. He had forgotten what the others had said, that Wei Wuxian hasn’t let anyone really touch him since he was recovered.

 

A sudden, ugly thought pervades his mind (there’d been rumours, of a sort, that Mingjue once mentioned  – ), and for once in his life he starts speaking before his rational brain can stop him. “While you were captured, Wen Chao didn’t… he didn’t touch – ”

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t immediately catch on to his meaning, looking at Lan Xichen uncomprehending.

 

Lan Xichen can see the moment he understands in the revulsion that enters his expression as he hisses “No, no, no, not that” and jerks violently backwards, as if physically trying to escape the mere suggestion.

 

Reflexively, Lan Xichen reaches out (too late remembering that he shouldn’t, that he’s just remembered he shouldn’t), fingers closing around Wei Wuxian’s bony wrist to stop him from toppling backwards.

 

Both of them freeze, Wei Wuxian’s wide searching Lan Xichen’s face while Lan Xichen stares at the point where his fingers touch Wei Wuxian’s skin. Then Wei Wuxian jerks his hand backwards, and Lan Xichen is far too stunned to do anything but loosen his grip and allow the retreat.

 

Because he had not felt Wei Wuxian’s golden core.

 

Instead of the bright spark of spiritual energy, there had only been emptiness.

 

Lan Xichen keeps staring at his fingers, trying to make sense of this.

 

“Did Wen Zhuliu – ” Lan Xichen starts, then stops himself. Yanli’s words from months ago echo in his head. They went to find Baoshan Sanren, she’ll heal a-Cheng. No, surely not. And yet… it would fit.

 

“No,” he breathes, eyes raising to Wei Wuxian’s panicked ones. “Jiang Wanyin? How is that even possible?”

 

For a brief moment it looks like Wei Wuxian might deny it. Then he collapses inward like one who has wanted to do nothing else for months, a bleakness so stark in his expression that Lan Xichen almost recoils.

 

“Wen Qing is a brilliant doctor,” Wei Wuxian says blankly, eyes staring at something only he can see. Lost in memories. Yet, before Lan Xichen can think to do anything further, he comes to life again and this time it’s Wei Wuxian who reaches out, anchors his fingers around Lan Xichen’s wrist with a strength that belies his thinness. A fire burns in his eyes.

 

“You can’t tell anyone. Especially not Jiang Cheng.”

 

Lan Xichen shakes his head, but makes no move to escape Wei Wuxian’s hold even as he can feel the imprint of fingers form on his wrist. “Why?”

 

Wei Wuxian’s gaze skitters away. “Ever since I came to Lotus Pier Jiang Cheng lived in my shadow. His mother was angry that I outpaced him in cultivation, and his father, well, he liked me. To learn that the core in his chest is mine would destroy him.” He laughs bitterly, not an ounce of joy in the sound. “And even if it doesn’t, it would distract him at a time that he needs all his wits to survive this war.” His free hand picks at his own sleeve, worrying a loose thread. “And… Jiang Cheng is my brother. To learn that he is the cause of my inability to cultivate – he might not forgive himself.”

 

“You did not ask him because you knew he would deny you,” Lan Xichen surmises and if his voice is a little sharp he really can’t help himself. “Should he not have had a say in what happened to his body, his life?”

 

“You didn’t see him!” Wei Wuxian explodes, desperate and angry and hurt beneath it all. “He was acting like one already dead. Cultivating was his everything, his reason for living. And I promised, I promised I’d protect him and I failed and this way at least he could live on, take his revenge.”

 

Lan Xichen wants to argue, wants to point out that he knows of at least two people who he thinks Jiang Cheng would’ve lived for once he’d gained a little distance, a little healing, but it has been slowly dawning on him that Wei Wuxian, while happily sacrificing himself for those he cares about, doesn’t, in fact, seem to think himself worthy of such sacrifice in return and there’re only so many dysfunctionalities Lan Xichen can tackle at a time.

 

Besides… Lan Xichen has done foolish things for Wangji’s sake, and would do more foolish things yet. He can hardly judge Wei Wuxian on that, though he hopes he won’t ever have to make a decision between Wangji’s life and Wangji’s autonomy.

 

“Do you not think he’ll find out eventually?” Lan Xichen asks quietly. “And that it will be worse the longer he goes on, ignorant of the truth?”

 

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Maybe, maybe not. But right now, he can’t know and I need your promise that you will not tell him, Zewu-jun.”

 

In the end, it doesn’t take him long to come to a decision, however much he dislikes it. It’s not his place to tell Jiang Wanyin of his brother’s sacrifice, not without Wei Wuxian’s blessing, and Wei Wuxian isn’t exactly wrong about the dangers of telling Jiang Wanyin a life-altering secret in the middle of the war. Yet it galls him, to leave Jiang Wanyin in the dark about something so fundamental. He knows the other man well enough to predict just what a disaster the revelation is going to create, but he doesn’t think it kind to let him go on in ignorance either. And he honestly doesn’t believe that Wei Wuxian will be able to keep it a secret forever.

 

“On one condition,” he says, voice implacable, and Wei Wuxian’s eyes go wide. “That you allow me to help you as I may, especially once this war is over. The library in Cloud Recesses may be diminished, but I saved many texts. I may find something to aid you.”

 

“Xichen-ge!” Wei Wuxian protests and Lan Xichen is surprised by how nice it feels to hear his name from Wei Wuxian again. There’s a sharpness buried under Wei Wuxian’s playfulness now, but it’s still progress. “Who would’ve thought the First Jade of Lan doesn’t play fair?”

 

Lan Xichen smiles at him – that blandly serene smile that Mingjue had deemed ‘irritating as fuck’.

 

“That is my offer, Wei-gongzi.”

 

We Wuxian scowls, fingers tracing along his black flute. “You leave me little choice then, Zewu-jun. Your silence for permission to meddle in my affairs.”

 

Lan Xichen nods and breathes out. The exchange settles in his bones, not a binding promise, but a tangible weight nonetheless.

 

The mention of Cloud Recesses, however, seems to have brought Wei Wuxian onto a different mental tangent.

 

“You won’t tell Lan Zhan, will you?” he asks and there’s real concern in his voice, Lan Xichen deems.

 

Along with the fact that he still calls Wangji Lan Zhan, perhaps the only person living to do so regularly, gives Lan Xichen hope that those two’s relationship can still be mended.

 

But lie to Wangji? They don’t, as a rule, keep secrets from one another, and certainly not if knowing something would bring the other comfort.

 

Something of his inner struggle must translate to his expression, for Wei Wuxian’s expression softens into something almost sympathetic. “Please, Xichen-ge? I don’t want Lan Zhan to think ill of me, and… well, I should really tell him myself, shouldn’t I?”

 

Lan Xichen has some doubts as to whether Wei Wuxian plans to ever actually do so, but he isn’t wrong, and Lan Xichen has already given his word. Neither option is all that palatable, either choice breaking the trust of people Lan Xichen holds dear.

 

He closes his eyes. He can only hope that Wangji will forgive him this.

 

“As you wish, Wei Wuxian. My promise will hold here, too.” Lan Xichen opens his eyes, feeling old and weary, and yet still not as tired as Wei Wuxian looks. “But Wangji might surprise you – ”

 

Voices outside the door interrupt him, Jiang Wanyin’s sharp tones intermingling with Yanli’s soft ones. Lan Xichen rises.

 

He bows to Wei Wuxian, deeper than perhaps he should, both as acknowledgment of all that has passed between them in the span of such few minutes, and as apology for what he is about to say.

 

“Should you ever wish to talk about what happened in the three months that you were missing, I am at your disposal.”

 

He pretends he doesn’t see the anger sparking in Wei Wuxian’s eyes before he turns and takes his leave. Better that Wei Wuxian be angry at him for the offer, than no one making such an offer at all.

 

Lan Xichen steps outside Wei Wuxian’s quarters, blinking in the stark sunlight, and resolutely moves in the opposite direction of where the Jiang siblings are conversing. He needs to get himself together before he comes face to face with any of the people he’s now – against his better judgement – keeping a vital secret from.

 

*

 

“Lan-zongzhu, may I have word?”

 

“Certainly,” Lan Xichen replies with a smile, gesturing for Jin Zixuan to walk with him.

 

He has never seen an expression quite so careful on Jin Zixuan’s face. “You spend a lot of time with Jiang-guniang.”

 

The Jin heir’s jealousy may be amusing, but it’s also irritating enough (Lan Xichen’s own reputation should make it evident that he wouldn’t attempt to seduce someone else’s betrothed, yet what he truly takes exception to is Jin Zixuan’s lack of understanding of his future wife’s character – she would never) that Lan Xichen isn’t inclined to make this any easier on him.

 

“We are friends,” Lan Xichen says blandly. “Jiang Yanli is an admirable woman.”

 

Jin Zixuan hesitates, frustration clear on his face as he debates just how clear he can be with his questions without being intolerably rude to a sect leader. “Just friends?”

 

Lan Xichen tilts his head, gaze sharp. “I do not hold friendship to be in any way less worthy than other relationships.” Jin Zixuan is turning a little red now, and Lan Xichen finally takes pity on him. “However, I do not have any intentions beyond that. Jiang Yanli is betrothed to you, Jin-gongzi. Whether you will squander that gift is your choice.”

 

He doesn’t wait for Jin Zixuan’s reply before directing his steps elsewhere. Even his patience is only so enduring in these trying times.

 

*

 

Yanli corners him a week after his visit with Wei Wuxian – it only takes so long because Lan Xichen and his Lan disciples are sent out the day after, to repel a Wen push towards Meishan Yu territory.

 

She had pressed him into taking tea with her, by way of an invitation so courteous that he could not have refused, and he would’ve smiled about her cunning if the weight of Wei Wuxian’s secret did not weigh down his heart.

 

“How did he seem?” Yanli asks, as soon as the tea is poured and Lan Xichen has had a first sip. “Did he confide in you?”

 

Lan Xichen keeps drinking, outwardly calm as he considers his options. Lying is forbidden and personally abhorred besides, but neither is he willing to break his promise to Wei Wuxian. A middle path is left to him – truth, but not the whole truth.

 

“Of a sort,” he says, setting down his cup. “He told me very little, but he asked me not to share what I now do know. It’s not my tale to tell.”

 

He half expects anger, or – more likely – hurt that Wei Wuxian would open up more to a friend than his own sister, but when Yanli’s posture slackens it’s in relief.

 

“I am glad, Xichen. I worried he would keep everyone at arm’s length forever.”

 

Lan Xichen smiles. “He would prefer to keep me at arm’s length, too, of that I am certain. But he will learn that I, too, can be stubborn.”

 

They both return to their tea.

 

“Did you ask him about his cultivation?” Yanli finally asks. The pot is nearly empty, and Lan Xichen has duties he must return to.

 

He shakes his head, knowing what her true question is. “I am no more able to change his mind on this than you or Jiang Wanyin or Wangji.” He sighs. “Perhaps we can develop methods to make it less dangerous to his temperament.”

 

It’s not an answer that would make anyone happy, but she seems to accept it.

 

 

Not long after, Jiang Wanyin seeks him out, scowl firmly in place on his young face.

 

“A-Jie says Wei Wuxian talks most to you these days,” he says, and the hurt that Lan Xichen had expected to find in Yanli is obvious in his expression and the tight timbre of his voice. “Is he… coping?”

 

He doubts Jiang Wanyin knows how hard a question that is to answer – particularly coming from him. In the interest of secrecy, Lan Xichen has refrained from attempting to sate his morbid curiosity about the core transfer; does Jiang Wanyin’s qi now feel like Wei Wuxian’s once did? Is it morphing into something more his own with every day that passes? Can Jiang Wanyin feel a difference?

 

“He is not well,” Lan Xichen says after a pause that’s slightly too long. “But there is little we can do while the war is ongoing. We all need healing.”

 

Jiang Wanyin’s mouth thins into an even sterner line, clearly unhappy with the answer.

 

“He is not getting worse,” Lan Xichen offers. What else can he say that would not be a lie?

 

Jiang Wanyin sighs, passing a weary hand over his face. “He’s still not using his sword. What’s he thinking?”

 

“It puts you in a hard position with the other sects.” This acknowledgement comes easy to Lan Xichen, where Wei Wuxian prefers to be wilfully blind to it. Jiang Wanyin’s stunned expression pays testament to that. “But I can tell you that your brother is resolved in his course. Expecting him to change will not bring you much beside his anger.”

 

He watches his companion deflate, reminded once again of just how young they all are.

 

“What does he expect me to do?” Jiang Wanyin scowls, for the moment seeming to have forgotten Lan Xichen’s status as leader of a different sect altogether. “How am I supposed to protect him and the Jiang’s reputation both?”

 

It’s a good question, though perhaps a rhetorical one. Jiang Wanyin isn’t looking at Lan Xichen, may well be talking to himself more than the man standing beside him.

 

“Forge your own bonds with the other sects,” he says nonetheless, because if Jiang Wanyin is willing to listen to advice, Lan Xichen will give it to the best of his ability. “Gusu Lan already stands behind you and I know Mingjue is sympathetic to your Sect’s plight. Meishan Yu and Baling Ouyang have long been allies to the Jiang as well.”

 

Of Lanling Jin he doesn’t speak. He knows that Jiang Wanyin is sharp enough to notice the omission and draw his own conclusions, if he hasn’t already.

 

Jiang Wanyin fingers Zidian as he nods, still deep in thought.

 

They all need to survive this war first, but Lan Xichen can only hope that peace time won’t exacerbate the struggling Jiang Sect’s plight in the political arena.

 

*

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t exactly make himself as scarce as he used to, but he still doesn’t make it easy for Lan Xichen to corner him for ‘uncomfortable conversations’, as Wei Wuxian puts it, with such an exaggerated expression of woe on his face that Lan Xichen has to smile.

 

“You Lan really are too stubborn,” Wei Wuxian complains, as Lan Xichen guides him to his favourite secluded spot in the Unclean Realm – outside the complex, halfway up the mountain, there’s a place perfect for meditation, facing the sunrise.

 

Lan Xichen settles himself on a boulder, still smiling. “I am certain I have no idea what you are talking about. Though if I did, I would tell you that there is no rule forbidding certitude in actions.”

 

Wei Wuxian finds another boulder, still grumbling to himself. “If I hadn’t met Lan Zhan I would be surprised at how you keep using the rules to fit your behaviour.”

 

“Do you think us hypocritical?” Lan Xichen asks, a little surprised.

 

“No,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “I just think that having so many rules encourages you to find ways around them.”

 

Lan Xichen nods. Wei Wuxian isn’t entirely wrong about this, but he doesn’t mean to engage in a debate about the many Lan precepts right now.

 

“Did you do as I asked?” he inquires instead, and finally Wei Wuxian looks at him properly. There’s still tiredness and deep pain in his eyes, but for the moment not quite so much desperation as Lan Xichen had last glimpsed there.

 

“Would I ignore your instruction, Xichen-ge?” Wei Wuxian brushes a bit of dust from his robes with fingers that are ever so slightly unsteady. He sighs. “You were right that my temperament is affected. I knew it even then, but it was harder to deny when I was paying specific attention to my reactions.”

 

“That’s good, that you were able to tell,” Lan Xichen encourages. “Were you able to affect that once you were aware?”

 

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “It’s… I can feel myself getting angry at small things, more paranoid, but even if my head is saying that I shouldn’t be, it doesn’t reach to the emotions.”

 

“When Wangji played Cleansing or Clarity while you were awake, did that help?” Lan Xichen asks, eyes on one of the Nie banners fluttering in the wind far below them. “I know it does nothing for your energies, but it may still have an effect on the mind.”

 

To his surprise, a blush rises on Wei Wuxian’s face as he fiddles with the black dizi he now carries everywhere. “There may have been a little bit of calming, yes…”

 

Lan Xichen tilts his head inquisitively. “But?”

 

Wei Wuxian avoids his gaze, blush deepening. “That might just have been… Lan Zhan…”

 

“You find Wangji calming?” Lan Xichen swallows back his amusement. His brother discomfits most people, and he hardly exudes warmth. For Wei Wuxian to nonetheless find Wangji’s presence relaxing is indicative.

 

“You don’t?” Wei Wuxian asks sceptically, as if the mere thought is alien. “He’s all… Lan Zhan, you know? He’s only ever angry at people who deserve it. It’s all layers, with him – still water on top, then turmoil underneath and softness in the middle.”

 

This time, Lan Xichen’s gentle smile comes entirely without thought. “I do, and he is that indeed. But I am his brother, and few care to see so deeply into him.”

 

Wei Wuxian shrugs, clearly intending to blow right past Lan Xichen’s sincerity. Taking pity on him, Lan Xichen lets the specific subject of Wangji drop. Not that he expects Wei Wuxian to appreciate his next question much more than he did the previous one.

 

“Are there other people you feel calmer around?”

 

“Aiyo, Xichen-ge, you’re really trying to embarrass me today,” Wei Wuxian moans, swooping his arms dramatically through the air.

 

Lan Xichen nods his head in sympathy and says quietly, “I would not ask if I did not believe it to be relevant and important, Wei Wuxian.”

 

“I know that,” Wei Wuxian wails, still intent on his dramatics even as his expression has softened a little. “You make it so hard to say no to you! How did Lan Zhan cope with this for so many years?”

 

“I suspect he wanted to say no to me rather less often than you do,” Lan Xichen offers, smiling again. It astounds him sometimes, this capacity of Wei Wuxian’s to make himself and others smile even while he’s hurting. “Are you avoiding the question?”

 

Wei Wuxian throws him a rather weak glare, the blush already returning. “Perish the thought. It’s people I… well, like. Shijie, Jiang Cheng, even though he’s usually so annoying.” He hesitates. “You.”

 

Lan Xichen dips his head, says, entirely sincerely, “It is my honour.”

 

Wei Wuxian groans something that sounds suspiciously like ‘Lans’.

 

A songbird hops near their spot, trilling happily, and Lan Xichen brings Liebing to his mouth, playing a short little tune that has the bird alighting on his shoulder, curious. When he stops, it trills once, and takes off again.

 

Lan Xichen watches it go with a smile, and when he turns he finds Wei Wuxian is smiling too.

 

“This could be a solution,” he muses, tucking Liebing away again a little regretfully. He has so few opportunities to play just for the joy of it these days. “If what you need to balance your temperament is an emotional anchor of a sort, that is something we can work with, do you not think?”

 

Wei Wuxian taps a finger to his lips, deep in thought. Lan Xichen can almost see his brain taking the idea and running with it far beyond what Lan Xichen can imagine.

 

It gives him hope.

 

*

 

By the time Mingjue calls him to the war room to talk about Wei Wuxian, Lan Xichen can’t help but wonder how he became the middleman between Wei Wuxian and the rest of the world.

 

“Wei Wuxian has shown a lot of power,” Mingjue says bluntly, but without judgment. The Nie have always respected martial prowess, and following a slightly different cultivation path themselves, are less likely to vilify Wei Wuxian for his methods. “Does the boy have it under control? Does the Jiang heir have him under control?”

 

Lan Xichen really misses the time when people asked him easy questions. Or at least less important ones.

 

He folds his fingers over Liebing and meets Mingjue’s searching gaze squarely. He learned long ago that you never get far with his friend with obfuscation, that he values his own brand of forthrightness in other people, too. However, that has never stopped Lan Xichen from being more polite about it.

 

“He is not a danger to you,” Lan Xichen says, and of that at least, he is certain. “Though I would not speak so to Wen Ruohan. For the rest… he is healing. You know what toll capture and battle both take.”

 

Mingjue grunts his agreement. He doesn’t seem happy, exactly, with Lan Xichen’s words, but he also doesn’t look inclined to act against Wei Wuxian. That would be a disaster of proportions that Lan Xichen doesn’t wish to imagine – given Wei Wuxian’s somewhat tenuous control over his emotions at the moment, any perceived betrayal could easily make him volatile.

 

“Keep an eye on him, Xichen,” Mingjue finally directs. “I know you’re fond of the boy, as you are his siblings, but try to keep your head on your shoulders about this.”

 

Lan Xichen smiles. It’s a very Mingjue warning, both evidence of his trust in Lan Xichen and his incomprehension concerning Lan Xichen’s tendency to be fond of all and sundry, unless someone proves particularly bothersome – or so Mingjue puts it.

 

 

 

The only person who never approaches him about Wei Wuxian is Wangji. Seeing as even Mingjue knew to come to him, Lan Xichen can only assume his brother does know, but has chosen not to confront him. At first he’s unhappily uncertain whether it’s because Wangji is angry with him or because he knows that Lan Xichen would tell him anything he can and wants to spare him. Yet Wangji remains entirely normal during their interactions, showing no sign of hidden anger or discontent with Lan Xichen even to his brother’s keen eyes, so eventually he decides it’s his brother’s mercy at work.

 

It doesn’t make him feel much better.

Chapter Text

***

 

The war ends more abruptly than it had begun.

 

One moment Lan Xichen, Jiang Wanyin and Wangji are fighting for their lives in sight of Wen Ruohan’s palace, the next Wei Wuxian controls a whole battlefield, the choking feeling of massed resentful energy prickling along Lan Xichen’s skin as the Wen Sect Leader is goaded out of his lair –

 

and the one after that Wen Ruohan is dead, killed from behind by a vaguely familiar figure.

 

Lan Xichen doesn’t think he’s ever been so exhausted in his life, making it through the next few days of celebration and feasting (rather tasteless, in his opinion, but several sect leaders insist) through sheer effort of will.

 

The Jin’s political manoeuvring is upsetting in general, profiting from a war that brought them all so much grief. Even the elevation of Meng Yao to Jin Guangyao sits ill with him – for all he wishes the young man he’d met once during the last set of classes well, he doubts Jin Guangshan looked beyond Meng Yao’s killing of Wen Ruohan to the welfare of the man he has adopted into his clan. Or at least the fact that Jin Guangshan decided to accept his bastard son after the successful assassination of another sect head is… telling. Mingjue had told him of the way Meng Yao had been refused once before, and cruelly so. Why should Jin Guangshan wish better for his child now, unless it’s for political power? Then again, perhaps Mingjue’s cynicism is rubbing off on Lan Xichen, after all these years.

 

It’s also disquieting to think that none of the Jin, not even Jin Zixuan, had seen fit to inform him or Mingjue or Jiang Wanyin that their intelligence regarding Wen Ruohan’s strategies had come from a spy in the Wen court.

 

If Lan Xichen didn’t already have so many worries, he might have made it his problem. But Wei Wuxian is poorly again after his efforts at the last battle, Wangji is going around with an expression that betrays nothing but a wish to run anyone who gets close to him through with Bichen, Yanli and Jiang Wanyin are both worrying, and Shufu has sent word from Cloud Recesses that he’s needed as soon as he can make the trip. It’s not the first time in his life that Lan Xichen defies his uncle’s orders in spirit, if not in word, but it never fails to leave him unsettled.

 

He lingers in Qinghe until the Jiang siblings plan to depart with what remains of their sect’s fighting force. Even as he joins in the unofficial ‘visit Wei Wuxian and remind him that he has support and loved ones’ rota, that leaves him a little time to do his own research outside of his efforts to help Mingjue with post-war clean-up.

 

Mingjue had given him the run of the Nie Sect library years ago, on the grounds that Lan Xichen is going to make much more use of it than he himself is ever likely to, so Lan Xichen spends as many hours as he can manage in the quiet company of books. Quite aside from anything else it does his soul well, this tranquillity scarcely found elsewhere in the Unclean Realm. He memorises many texts about qi deviation and the Nie Sect’s strategies to deal with its effects. Wei Wuxian isn’t qi deviating – does not, in fact, have enough qi to do so anymore – but some of the side effects such as uncontrolled temper and general emotional overload are similar enough that he has some hope it could be useful. He also finds several comprehensive tomes on the treatment of battle shock which might be even more so. Lan Xichen is convinced that the trauma of whatever Wei Wuxian went through in the three months he was missing is exacerbating his condition, and healing, or at least mitigating, those mental ailments would go a long way in helping him stabilise.

 

He does also check whether there are any books on demonic cultivation, and finds none. At least not in the public spaces of the library, and he certainly isn’t going to ask Mingjue or Huaisang about it.

 

Then the Jiang leave, the remaining Lan are ready to depart, and Lan Xichen takes his leave from Mingjue and Huaisang both. At least he can return to Cloud Recesses with some hope in his heart that if they preserve the peace, he’ll be able to visit again under much more pleasant circumstances soon.

 

There’s much to do in Cloud Recesses; the rebuilding of quite a few of the outer buildings is still underway, the library is in deplorable condition and they’ve barely managed to take stock of all their surviving disciples while the war lasted.

 

It hurts his heart to see his home so disorganised and for the next few weeks Lan Xichen throws himself into any task that could be expected of the sect leader to perform, and quite a few that he’s scolded for getting involved in. Lan Xichen smiles politely at whichever Elder makes such an opinion known and gets right back to lending his hands in the kitchen when they’re short-staffed, or helping raise buildings. It’s a temporary broadening of his duties only, he learns some valuable skills (as his time on the run made abundantly clear), and his sect should see their leader as involved in the small problems as in the large.

 

Eventually Shufu takes him aside, the skin around his eyes tight with worry, and orders him to rest for at least two days before he runs himself entirely ragged. When Lan Xichen begins to protest, Wangji silently – but exceedingly pointedly – backs their uncle up, even though he’s doing just as much work as Lan Xichen himself.

 

He gives in, and makes certain to thank both Wangji and Shufu when he returns to work three days later, body and mind at rest again.

 

*

 

Weeks later, Shufu agrees that Lan Xichen may go to Yunmeng, but forbids Wangji doing the same. Lan Xichen understands why Lan Qiren is so against it, Wangji’s recent, unfamiliar behaviour clearly troubling to their uncle, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with it.

 

He isn’t surprised when Wangji stops by the Hanshi the night before Lan Xichen leaves, tension in his stance.

 

“Xionshang,” Wangji starts, then falls silent. He doesn’t seem to know how to phrase what his heart is asking him to say.

 

Lan Xichen smiles at him, tilts his head in understanding. “I’ll do my best to see him safe.”

 

“And to heal?” his brother asks then, so insistent that he takes an unconscious step forward.

 

Lying is forbidden. Lan Xichen holds his brother’s gaze. “What I can.”

 

Wangji nods once, sharply. It’s the best either of them can do.

 

*

 

Lan Xichen takes a room in the village closest to Lotus Pier, instead of straining the Jiang’s resources even further by turning up as a guest, and pays a young boy to ferry a message to Wei Wuxian.

 

Wei Wuxian shows up not long after, knocking at the door to Lan Xichen’s room before letting himself in. Lan Xichen almost drags in a startled breath. Wei Wuxian doesn’t look worse than he did during the war, a little more settled perhaps, but he still carries an aura of tiredness only enhanced by the dark bags under his eyes.

 

If he’s sleeping at all, it’s surely not the kind of restful sleep a healthy mind needs.

 

“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Xichen greets, and smiles despite his worry because here is his friend, in whatever shape, and he has missed him.

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t bow as he once did, for which Lan Xichen is grateful – he should still, to honour Lan Xichen’s status as a sect leader, but Wei Wuxian at least can be trusted to do what makes the other more comfortable rather than what is more polite, and Lan Xichen has led a sect for long enough now to treasure it – and the smile he receives in return is real, though smaller than used to be Wei Wuxian’s wont. Perhaps that is normal now.

 

“Xichen-ge,” he murmurs. “Yunmeng welcomes your visit.”

 

Lan Xichen’s smile broadens before he relaxes his face back to neutrality. “And Wei Wuxian?”

 

“Wei Wuxian thinks our honoured guest is here to meddle some more,” Wei Wuxian retorts, some of that spark of mischief he’s known for returning to his voice. “And that we will likely be happy of it in the end, Zewu-jun.”

 

“Help, where I may,” Lan Xichen gently corrects. “Not meddle. I have kept my word to you.”

 

Wei Wuxian nods, and his hair, at least, still flies the exact same way. “I know. There’s been a suspicious lack of Jiang Cheng shouting at me.” He pauses, taps a thoughtful finger to his lips. “Or at least shouting at me about… that.”

 

“So you still have not told him,” Lan Xichen observes, voice as bland as he can make it.

 

Playfulness forgotten, Wei Wuxian doesn’t meet his eyes. Lan Xichen would like to push the matter so dearly – he truly believes keeping the core transfer a secret will do much greater harm in the long run, and a part of him (deeply buried and yet he’s so very conscious of it) also wants to be selfish. The secret weighs on him, under Wangji’s heavy gaze, in the warm company of Yanli and Jiang Wanyin. They deserve the truth from him, and Lan Xichen isn’t built for lying. Yet Wei Wuxian also deserves to have his trust honoured.

 

In the end, he doesn’t only because he knows that in this he cannot bend Wei Wuxian’s will.

 

But then Wei Wuxian says, “I don’t know how much longer I can evade the questions about training the disciples, or why I don’t use my sword anymore.”

 

And Lan Xichen just can’t help himself. “Unless you tell your brother.”

 

It’s a sign of just how exhausted Wei Wuxian is that he doesn’t even get angry, just sends Lan Xichen a very jaded look. “You’re never going to stop pushing that, are you?”

 

Lan Xichen gives him a serene smile in return. “Lying is forbidden.”

 

“And yet you’re keeping my secret,” Wei Wuxian points out, faintly mocking.

 

Lan Xichen sighs. “I am unlikely to be asked about it outright – no one else has enough information to even suspect, you have made certain of that.” His smile long since faded, Lan Xichen catches Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “Except perhaps Jiang Wanyin, but he trusts you. Why would he question what you told him?”

 

Wei Wuxian winces, fingers twitching towards Chengqing. “And some people think you’re meek, Xichen-ge.”

 

“Few care to look deeper, if they think they know your character.” Lan Xichen’s words carry a hint of ironic self-deprecation. “None of us are just one thing, but people like things to be black and white. Easy.”

 

Lan Xichen pours himself more tea, marshalling his thoughts. “The war is over. Do you intend to continue on this path of demonic cultivation?”

 

“And what if I do?” Wei Wuxian asks, defiant. His bangs fall over his face, obscuring his eyes. “It can be made safer, I know it can. And without it…”

 

There are many ways that sentence could end, but Lan Xichen thinks he knows what Wei Wuxian fears the most.

 

“Do you think you could not still do good without the ability to cultivate, in whatever form?” He gently sets down his teacup on the table, at odds with the force of his words. “You, who invented a new path of cultivation amid hurt and deprivation? Whose mind runs in circles many of us cannot even hope to reach?” Every word he says is true. Lan Xichen believes that should Wei Wuxian bend his formidable intellect to something else, he could contribute just as much to a sect, just differently. And there’s something else to consider. “Wangji has been tearing through the Cloud Recesses library searching for more musical scores which might help you. He even petitioned Shufu for access to the forbidden section.”

 

Wei Wuxian, already wide-eyed at Lan Xichen’s unusual intensity, blinks in startlement. “Eh? Lan Zhan is…”

 

“He was forbidden to come, or he would be here. He still wishes you to come to Gusu.”

 

It’s as close Lan Xichen can get to saying just how much Wangji cares without betraying yet another trust, and so he can do little but briefly close his eyes in disappointment when Wei Wuxian just continues to look confused.

 

Eventually Lan Xichen gives up on hoping the other will reach an emotional epiphany and takes up the thread of the conversation once more.

 

“It is your choice, but if you do continue down this path, you will shift the balance of power in the cultivation world even further than it already is, and some may not take kindly to that. You will need support, not to isolate yourself.”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs then, bitter and chilling. “And who would support me if they knew the extent of it? Not even you do, Zewu-jun.”

 

“Do you truly think your siblings would give up on you so easily?” Lan Xichen asks, infusing his voice with calm that spreads over the room in an invisible ripple.

 

Wei Wuxian knows the truth of it, too, for he slumps on his side of the table, hair swinging as his head bows forward, as if from an invisible weight.

 

Lan Xichen deems that’s enough heavy conversation for the day, still worried about Wei Wuxian’s thinness and the deep shadows under his eyes. He takes Liebing out of his sleeve, preparing to play.

 

Wei Wuxian’s eyes are narrow as he stares at Liebing. “We already proved that Cleansing doesn’t help.”

 

“I have done more research,” Lan Xichen tells him evenly. “There are melodies designed to calm the mind irrespective of your own spiritual energy.”

 

That’s perhaps putting it a little too broadly – he’d found one such melody in the Cloud Recesses library, and adapted two more himself with aid from the Nie texts on dealing with battle shock – but he does not wish to give Wei Wuxian more reasons to doubt him.

 

As he plays, he watches Wei Wuxian keenly, relieved to find the lines around his eyes and mouth easing the longer Lan Xichen plays. He doesn’t think Wei Wuxian has been truly relaxed in months, possibly years, and he badly needs it. By the time he has finished the first song, Wei Wuxian has fallen asleep, limbs slack on the bed in a way that’s almost upsetting.

 

Lan Xichen plays a second composition just to be certain, then puts aside his xiao and keeps watch over his friend.

*

 

On the second day, Jiang Wanyin stalks into the guesthouse Lan Xichen is staying in, immediately honing in on where Lan Xichen is sitting in one of the more secluded corners. He hadn’t wished to draw more attention than necessary.

 

Jiang Wanyin’s mouth sits in a grim line, his eyes sparking.

 

“Lan Xichen,” he says, with faint emphasis on his name – a reminder of friendship offered and accepted. A hush spreads through the room. Jiang Wanyin may be a young sect leader, but few of his people would not recognise him. “When I heard a Lan was staying here, I didn’t think it would be you. Why do you eschew the hospitality of Lotus Pier?”

 

Lan Xichen bows his apology. “I did not wish to put further strain on rebuilding efforts by appearing as an uninvited guest.”

 

Jiang Wanyin crosses his arms, still scowling. “Hosting a friend wouldn’t be a burden. Whatever you’re doing with Wei Wuxian, you can do it easier there.” Seeing Lan Xichen’s hesitation, he goes in for the kill. “A-Jie would be disappointed if she doesn’t see you while you were in Yunmeng.”

 

Lan Xichen folds like a hut in a landslide, just as Jiang Wanyin knew he would. No one invokes Jiang Yanli like this without knowing it’ll win them the argument.

 

“Of course I’ll be pleased to accompany you to Lotus Pier, Jiang Wanyin,” he accedes, smiling at the smug look that overtakes Jiang Wanyin’s expression.

 

He paid upfront and all he took with him on this trip is on his person, so Lan Xichen takes up Shuoyue and rises, gesturing for Jiang Wanyin to precede him.

 

As they walk, Jiang Wanyin keeps throwing him little sideways glances. Eventually, when Lotus Pier is already visible in the distance, he says, “If Wei Wuxian isn’t going to tell me I don’t need you enlightening me behind his back, just…” Jiang Wanyin looks vulnerable all of a sudden, vulnerable and a little hurt. “Is this something I, as Sect Leader of the Jiang, need to know?”

 

What about as his brother? he doesn’t ask, and Lan Xichen is grateful for it.

 

The brutally honest truth would be that, yes, as Jiang Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin should probably know of what’s going on with Wei Wuxian because Wei Wuxian is notorious these days and he is part of the Jiang Clan – what he does reflects on them. On the other hand, at the moment, with Wei Wuxian safe at Lotus Pier, the chances of him getting into trouble are low and Lan Xichen had given his word.

 

He chooses his words carefully. “I cannot betray his confidence – he is trying to keep you and Yanli from worrying – but I believe he is… healing. He is not, himself, a danger to the Jiang Clan.”

 

Jiang Wanyin snorts, but there’s relief in his open expression. He seems to trust Lan Xichen’s assessment and he can only hope to live up to that trust. Hopefully he’ll consider the emphasis Lan Xichen put on a certain word later.

“Of course we’re going to worry about him when he’s acting like this.” They step onto the newly cleaned entrance pier together and Lan Xichen pretends he doesn’t see Jiang Wanyin’s hand reaching out to lovingly brush against the smooth wood as they pass.

 

“He hasn’t got dead drunk in the last two days, while you’ve been here. That’s good enough for me.”

 

Lan Xichen privately thinks that might be more because Wei Wuxian wants to demonstrate to Lan Xichen that he’s fine, whether he actually is or not, than because he’s actually improved by Lan Xichen’s presence, but it would be unkind to say so.

 

*

 

He finds Yanli on one of the pavilions floating further out in the lake and braces himself for another version of the talk he just had with Jiang Wanyin.

 

That she calls him Xichen in greeting gives him hope that she doesn’t bear a grudge for failing to come and greet her immediately upon his arrival in Yunmeng, at least.

 

“It is good to see you,” Yanli says, and where so often Lan Xichen’s smiles are a habit, with her they’re always a reaction he couldn’t suppress even if he wanted to.

 

“Likewise, Yanli.” He looks around at the water, the clean wood shining in the sun, the lotus flowers not quite in bloom. “It is good to see Lotus Pier restored as well.”

 

“We have recovered much,” Yanli agrees, but her gaze is far away, seeing a Lotus Pier that Lan Xichen had only visited a meagre handful of times which is now lost to her forever. Or perhaps she sees the people that will never again set foot on these piers.

 

There are Lan disciples Lan Xichen still expects to see in class in Cloud Recesses and their absence remains an ache in his heart. He can’t imagine her heart to be any less bruised.

 

Finally, her gaze snaps back to the present, meeting Lan Xichen’s openly and with a smile. “But we are here, a-Xian, a-Cheng and I – alive and well. That is what I pleaded for the most in those dark days.”

 

Lan Xichen nods in understanding, feeling much the same about Wangji. This had been what united the two of them from the start – a love for their younger siblings that directs their actions and their thoughts, unquenchable. Of that much, Lan Xichen is certain.

 

He looks out over the water, breathes in the peace that lies over Lotus Pier like a shroud at dusk.

 

“I cannot remain here long.” He knows his regret is clear in his tone and doesn’t wonder at Yanli laying a supportive hand on his arm, just for a moment. “There is too much to be done in Cloud Recesses still.”

 

“I know. We are glad that you came at all.”

 

*

 

While Lotus Pier looks outwardly restored, over the few days he dwells there it becomes clear to Lan Xichen that the real loss lies in the way entire wings stand empty, devoid of the people who once inhabited the floating piers.

 

Wei Wuxian has laid claim to one such pier, furthest away from the Swords Hall and not accessible to anyone outside the Jiang Clan, reduced as they are to a less than two dozen. He still sleeps in his old rooms, and spends time with his siblings, but during the day Lan Xichen now meets Wei Wuxian in an abandoned room that once belonged to someone now dead. Lan Xichen almost asks who it had been the first time he enters, before he thinks better of it.

 

It’s an ideal place for Wei Wuxian to attempt to hone his control over the heretical path he has now claimed for his own. As much as Lan Xichen wishes Wei Wuxian would simply abandon cultivation altogether, even he could not argue that it would be much better in the long run for Wei Wuxian to do it safely (or at least, more safely) because they both know that the chances of an emergency situation in which Wei Wuxian will use his powers, for the sake of others if not his own, is far more likely than their living in peace for the rest of their days.

 

It’s not a thought that sits well with Lan Xichen, but years of war have burned away some of the innocence and optimism he still projects to the world. Not all of it, but enough.

 

“The problem is that I can’t expect my emotional anchors to be with me at all times,” Wei Wuxian complains on the third day. “We know their presence can stabilise me, but what if I’m ambushed alone, or whoever is with me is hurt? I would just lose control even more quickly.”

 

To everyone else, even his siblings, Wei Wuxian still pretends he has full control over his demonic cultivation. Lan Xichen is nothing but grateful that his incessant meddling has at least resulted in some more honest assessments from him. If he hadn’t kept pushing, would Wei Wuxian even have stopped to take stock of the flaws in his abilities?

 

“Would objects infused with our spiritual energy suffice?” he asks, fingers on Liebing. “It would not have as potent an effect as the person themselves being there, but if we rely on quick communication, it need only serve for a small period of time.”

 

Wei Wuxian taps at his nose absently, mulling it over. “It’s possible, Xichen-ge. We’d have to test it.”

 

His eyes grow wide, when with slow, deliberate movements Lan Xichen detaches the jade charm that has dangled from Liebing since he was first gifted the instrument by Shufu and offers it to Wei Wuxian.

 

Wei Wuxian hesitates, looking at Lan Xichen searchingly for long moments before he reaches out to take the charm.

 

“Can you feel my spiritual energy?” Lan Xichen prompts, watching as Wei Wuxian closes his fingers around the charm and then closes his eyes, a small frown of concentration appearing between his brows.

 

“It feels like you,” he murmurs. “Calm water and high wind in the trees.”

 

Lan Xichen, who has never heard his own energy described by someone else before, takes only a moment to consider this new information before moving on.

 

But Wei Wuxian pre-empts him. “I’ll go test how well this works. Wait here.”

 

At Lan Xichen’s questioning look, he adds, “I’ve been limiting what I do in Lotus Pier, and if we want this test to have any useful results I need to not hold back.”

 

Lan Xichen bites back the urge to ask whether he’ll be safe. Wei Wuxian used his powers plenty during the war, he wouldn’t appreciate being second-guessed now. Besides, his presence might skew the outcome, since Wei Wuxian is trying to ascertain how well he does at controlling his temper without an anchor nearby.

 

“Very well.” Lan Xichen inclines his head. “Call for me afterwards, or if anything should go wrong.”

 

Wei Wuxian salutes him and Lan Xichen watches him go, uneasy. In the end, he has to resort to playing music for his own sake, to stop himself from pacing around the room in quite an undignified manner.

 

The act of playing, as much as the soothing nature of the melody itself, calms him enough to fall into light meditation as he waits for Wei Wuxian to return.

 

Several hours pass before unsteady footsteps on the pier outside have Lan Xichen on his feet before Wei Wuxian even opens the door.

 

He is upright, but grey with exhaustion, Chengqing dangling limply in one hand, the other curled into a fist.

 

“It helped,” Wei Wuxian whispers as Lan Xichen steps forward to guide him to a seat. “Enough to keep my mind.”

 

He opens his fist so Lan Xichen can see the jade charm, lying unharmed in his palm. Red imprints speak of the force with which Wei Wuxian had gripped the stone, and whatever he was doing burned the tassel clean away. But the charm itself looks unblemished, and when Lan Xichen touches it he can still feel the echoes of his own spiritual power swirling inside it.

 

“Make a list of all the people whose tokens might help stabilise you,” he says quietly, even as he gently folds Wei Wuxian’s fingers back over the stone. He will not take it back. “Do you want me to approach them, or would you prefer to ask for a token yourself?”

 

“Easier if you do it,” Wei Wuxian answers around a yawn. “That will raise fewer questions.”

 

Lan Xichen isn’t certain that’s true, but he nods nonetheless. “I will do it. Rest now.”

 

Wei Wuxian accedes easily enough, sliding down until he’s lying on the pallet rather than sitting. Lan Xichen brings Liebing back up to his lips, intent on giving Wei Wuxian the recuperative sleep he so dearly needs yet again.

 

*

 

Yanli is easy to convince. Lan Xichen only has to say that a token imbued with her spiritual power will help Wei Wuxian and she immediately pulls one of her two hairpins from her hair. She had worn them since their shared time in Cloud Recesses, slowly but surely imbuing them with her own power to bolster how little of it is usually accessible to her. There is a lot of work in that single pin, that she would feel the loss of should she need to defend herself from an attack any time soon, but Lan Xichen doesn’t do her the dishonour of asking whether she is certain she wants to give it up.

 

He bows deeply and accepts the pin on Wei Wuxian’s behalf.

 

Jiang Wanyin is similarly easy – he, too, would never deny his siblings anything they need – and yet more complicated. He’s much more likely to ask questions that Lan Xichen cannot answer.

 

And indeed Jiang Wanyin looks at Lan Xichen with some confusion when he approaches him with his request, brows drawing together in a way that makes him look angry even though Lan Xichen knows it’s not anger he’s feeling.

 

“Why would a spiritual token from me help Wei Wuxian?”

 

There was an ever so slight emphasis on the ‘me’ that Lan Xichen sorrows to hear. He can’t make the two brothers talk to each other, can’t erase the circumstances that have Wei Wuxian keep Jiang Wanyin at more of an arm’s length of late, but he can do this.

 

“It will help stabilise his emotions,” he says quietly. “He trusts you and loves you – why would it not help? Your sister has already contributed a token, too, and so have I.”

 

Something spasms across Jiang Wanyin’s face, but he gives a jerky nod all the same. It takes him longer than Yanli to settle on something suitable, but eventually he takes his clarity bell from his belt and hands it to Lan Xichen.

 

Lan Xichen knows it will never ring for Wei Wuxian, but the imprint of Jiang Wanyin’s spiritual energy is strong, sending a tingle through his fingertips. He wonders if this is an imprint from the golden core Jiang Wanyin used to have, or whether his new core has overwritten the original signature. It doesn’t feel like Wei Wuxian to him, but he wasn’t closely acquainted with Wei Wuxian’s spiritual imprint before he gave it up so he can’t be certain.

 

Jiang Wanyin scowls. “Tell him to just ask me himself next time he needs something.”

 

“Of course.” Lan Xichen smiles. “I believe he simply thought it would be easier for you to refuse me than him, were you inclined to do so.”

 

The scowl deepens. “Why would I be? If this will help, it’s a small price to pay. I’ll just get a new one.”

 

Lan Xichen restrains his smile from growing wider and bows. He knows enough about Yunmeng Jiang customs to be well aware of the significance of Jiang Wanyin’s gesture – in another circumstance it would be tantamount to a proposal of marriage, but from what Lan Xichen has read, gifts of bells among relatives also have a rich history. “I am certain Wei Wuxian understands the value of your gift.”

 

Jiang Wanyin promptly goes red in the face and shoos him out.

 

Of the short list, this only leaves Wangji now – among the ones he can feasibly ask (Wei Wuxian had also written down Wen Qing and Wen Ning’s names, but Lan Xichen has no idea where they are or how he could contact them). Wangji, at least, is known to him. Lan Xichen considers the problem as he walks back to his guest quarters.

 

Just as the Jin have their messenger butterflies, the Lan have a method to send messages via spiritual energy-infused music. Unlike the Jin, the Lan method relies on the sender being very familiar with the recipient, and the amount of power required to send such a message increases exponentially the farther it has to travel – to the point where few Lan ever use it. Lan Xichen himself had only learned it because he liked the idea of being able to contact Wangji from far away, and he does have comparatively large reserves of energy to draw upon.

 

He only sits down to attempt it now because he’s in the safety of Lotus Pier, where it won’t be an issue if he needs the next two days to recover.

 

The melody itself is irrelevant for the message transmission, though the mood of the music can give insight into the kind of message it carries – the actual message is pressed into the spiritual energy that carries the music across the land. Lan Xichen plays something slow and harmonic, to make it clear that this is not a call for help or a warning. He very deliberately pushes more and more power into the music, while keeping the short message in mind (Wangji, Wei Wuxian requests a token infused with your spiritual energy to help balance his mind. No urgency), until the air in front of him all but glows with power. Then he seeks out the unique way Wangji feels to his senses and impresses that upon the music, too.

 

When he lets go, another rush of energy leaves him, propelling his musical message away from him, towards Gusu.

 

Lan Xichen sways, exhaustion crashing over him like a wave. He had never sent Wangji a message from this far away.

 

He could have waited until his return to Cloud Recesses, he supposes, as he summons the last of his energy to make himself bed ready, but this is something he could do for his brother. He knows Wangji will be glad to have something concrete to do that will help, and if he decides to infuse a new token with his energy he needs all the time he can get to create such a thing. And in the end, a few days of exhaustion are a small price to pay for giving his brother a little happiness. He certainly hopes that Wangji will understand the significance of Wei Wuxian asking such a thing of him, specifically. It’s a clear indication of, at least, a degree of friendship that few people share. Certainly of trust.

 

Lan Xichen falls into sleep between one thought and the next

 

*

 

The next morning, he arrives at breakfast to three equally concerned demands as to what in the heavens happened to him, all expressed in wildly different ways.

 

Jiang Wanyin shouts, Yanli looks quietly disappointed in his ability to look after himself, and Wei Wuxian gives him the largest sad eyes Lan Xichen had ever seen on anyone, including a very young (and utterly adorable) Wangji.

 

He must still look truly exhausted. He feels it, too, a little to his chagrin. The longer distance had taken an enormous amount of power, leaving him all but spent. If he hadn’t slept the entire night through immediately after, he probably wouldn’t have had the energy to take breakfast with his friends at all.

 

“I am perfectly well,” he says quietly, helping himself to the blandest dish on the table. “I merely used a little too much energy yesterday evening.”

 

“A little too much?” Jiang Wanyin demands. “You look like you’re going to keel over any moment!”

 

“What did you do?” Wei Wuxian asks at the same time, teacup still halfway to his lips.

 

“I sent Wangji a message,” Lan Xichen admits. He adds a little honey to his congee, an indulgence he would not allow himself in Cloud Recesses, and happily takes a bite. “The method is not intended for long distances.”

 

Now Wei Wuxian looks guilty, knowing exactly what this is about. But he also knows Lan Xichen well enough not to argue with him about it – Yanli, too, keeps her peace.

 

Jiang Wanyin scowls. “And you couldn’t wait until you return to Gusu?”

 

“No,” he says calmly.

 

Lan Xichen ignores the resultant silence as he applies himself to his breakfast with unusual enthusiasm.

 

“We just want you to take as good care of yourself as you do of others,” Yanli eventually murmurs, voice gently pointed in a way that is entirely unique to her.

 

Lan Xichen dips his head in acknowledgement of the point. He does not, however, promise to never do anything of the sort again.

 

Yanli sighs.

 

 

 

A flier from the Cloud Recesses arrives that same day, bearing greetings and a pouch she immediately hands to Lan Xichen.

 

He had hoped Wangji would be able to come himself to present his token, but it seems Shufu is holding firm in his attempts to keep Wangji and Wei Wuxian apart.

 

Lan Xichen knows it won’t stop Wangji for long. He also knows that he will do everything in his power to facilitate his brother’s wishes – the first true wish that a-Zhan had ever had. Starting with teaching him the songs that have proven to be helpful for Wei Wuxian as soon as he is back in Cloud Recesses.

 

Much as he wants to peek, Lan Xichen restrains himself and simply passes the unopened pouch on to Wei Wuxian, who opens it in private. Whatever token his brother has chosen, Wei Wuxian keeps it squirreled away on his person, denying them all a look, though Lan Xichen deems him pleased.

 

Well, he can always ask Wangji when he gets back.

 

*

 

When Jin Zixuan arrives for a surprise visit to “an allied clan” his gaze immediately seeks out Yanli and doesn’t leave her again. He doesn’t look overly enthused to find Lan Xichen there, oblivious to the private amusement this is causing. Wei Wuxian reacts with a barely-controlled anger that Lan Xichen only partly attributes to his generally volatile temperament and Jiang Wanyin surprises them all by taking a long look at the Jin heir and nodding his acceptance.

 

Lan Xichen isn’t entirely certain whether his change of attitude is due to having matured, acceptance of the political situation, or just bowing to the inevitable, but it makes Yanli’s life easier so he’s pleased regardless. Now that the war is over, discussions over setting a date for the wedding are bound to pick up again.

 

Jin Zixuan and Yanli’s interactions are slowly becoming less stilted, which is a mercy for all of them. Yet Yanli limits her time with her intended, subtly making it clear that her priorities, as yet, still lie elsewhere. Lan Xichen can’t deny that he’s a little selfishly pleased that this includes taking tea with him in a quiet pavilion once a day.

 

Sunrise is a favoured time by both of them, and they often find themselves watching the play of rosy light on the water in companionable silence.

 

“Are you going to marry him?” Lan Xichen asks, two days after Jin Zixuan’s arrival. It’s an idle question, and perhaps a little intrusive, but he’s seen something in her gaze when she looks at the Jin heir that makes him wonder exactly what her plans for the future are.

 

“Yes,” she says baldly, without a hint of doubt in her voice, and he nods in return, unsurprised. “But not yet. Not until a-Cheng and a-Xian are more settled.”

 

Lan Xichen isn’t normally a petty man, but he finds himself hoping that Jin Zixuan ends up grovelling a bit more beforehand, too.

 

“Wei Wuxian does not like the idea,” Lan Xichen ventures, voice quiet as to not carry across the water.

 

Yanli smiles, impossibly fond. “He is protective.” There’s a shrewd twinkle in her eye when she adds, “He would have other things to think about, if your brother decides to make his intentions clear.”

 

The long sigh Lan Xichen lets out is the closest he will ever come to a whine. “Stubbornly blind is the phrase, I believe. Both of them.”

 

“War is no good environment for such things,” Yanli rebukes him gently. “Perhaps peacetime will encourage them.”

 

This time his sigh is more of a true release of tension, though he can’t help but think that Yanli at least only has to watch one side of the drama, while Lan Xichen has far too good a vantage point on both sides. Keeping Wei Wuxian’s secret wears on him, especially where Wangji is concerned. He knows his brother’s personal interest in this, yet still keeps his silence.

 

Lan Xichen expects there will be a reckoning of that some day. He can only hope his reticence will not destroy any chance Wangji has at happiness with Wei Wuxian.

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

Anyone of any note in the cultivation world is invited to the hunt at Phoenix Mountain and subsequent banquets at Koi Tower. A celebration of the new peace, Jin Guangshan terms it, which is not an occasion anyone can find fault with. That Jin Guangshan is also going to announce the wedding date for his son and the eldest of the Jiang siblings is something that Yanli has told Lan Xichen in confidence so he knows what to expect.

 

Lan Xichen can’t say that he’s warmed up to Koi Tower much since that first visit, but he has become better at hiding all of his emotions, not just the ones he knows he should hide. It’s hard to see this as a positive development, rather than only a necessary one.

 

As sect leader he doesn’t take part in the hunt itself, but he does have to sit through all of the banquets, which would be entirely more pleasant in the absence of people such as Jin Zixun, who take the Lan’s rule against consuming alcohol as an affront. Lan Xichen is already not inclined to like the man given his treatment of Wei Wuxian, but trying to humble Lan Xichen and, more importantly, Wangji through this is so very petty that he has to briefly close his eyes to calm even his slow temper.

 

Then Wei Wuxian explains about the mistreatment of the Wen civilians, and Lan Xichen feels the heat leeching from his face in horror. If this is true, and Wei Wuxian has neither reason to lie nor shown the inclination to do so as long as the topic isn’t himself, then Lan Xichen is partly responsible for this. After they took Nightless City, he could have disagreed when the Jin Sect offered to take care of the survivors. He hadn’t thought, of course, that they’d be this unfair, but he’d had his doubts about Jin Guangshan’s late entry to the war, hadn’t he? His political reasons? But he’d been so busy, so tired from years of fighting and killing and mourning friends…

 

The Wen hadn’t been his priority, perhaps rightly so. But looking at Wei Wuxian, bristling with indignation in the golden halls of the most powerful sect, Lan Xichen finds that he can’t be anything but glad that Wei Wuxian has taken up the care of those wrongs by people more powerful than they, even though he’s in the middle of creating a major inter-sect incident.

 

Lan Xichen glances at Jiang Wanyin, who seems to be frozen in indecision, his position untenable either way. Then at Wangji, who’s staring at Wei Wuxian with single-minded intensity and not a shred of doubt in his expression.

 

And he makes a choice.

 

“Perhaps I should accompany Wei Wuxian as an outside observer,” he offers smoothly, standing. He smiles gently. Harmlessly. “After all a second pair of eyes never goes amiss and if there is indeed an issue with the Wen remnants it concerns all those who fought in the war.” He turns his gaze on Jin Guangshan. “Did we not agree that the non-cultivators of the Wen clan would not be held accountable for their superiors’ actions?”

 

It’s a generous interpretation of the conversation he’d had with Mingjue, Jin Guangyao and Jin Guangshan at Nightless City, but Lan Xichen keeps his face open and innocent. He isn’t above pretending to be that little bit more naïve than he actually is when it suits him, and it makes him oh so very hard to argue with.

 

Jin Guangshan looks like he might be about to protest, and strangely enough so does Wei Wuxian, but before either of them can open their mouths, Mingjue speaks up.

 

“Just get going with it then, so the rest of us can go back to enjoying the banquet.”

 

Lan Xichen takes care not to let his surprise be visible on his face, nor his gratefulness. Mingjue has never met a banquet he didn’t loathe having to attend, but there’s something sharp glinting in his eyes as they exchange a glance. Mingjue jerks his head towards the steps and Lan Xichen resolves to show him his appreciation for the way he always has Lan Xichen’s back later, even when he may not quite agree with him.

 

He picks up his sword, exchanging a quick, meaningful look with Wangji that he hopes his didi will interpret correctly, and bows to the assembled. “Come, Wei-gongzi. The sooner we leave the sooner we may return and partake in the festivities.”

 

Wei Wuxian is still looking faintly mutinous, but he, too, can do little but let himself be dragged along by Lan Xichen and he had wanted to be fast about it after all.

 

“What are you doing?” he hisses, as soon as they’re out of earshot.

 

Lan Xichen gives him a level look. “What do you think?”

 

“I think you’re risking your standing and that of the Lan by throwing in your lot with me!”

 

They halt at the bottom of the steps, not quite outside Koi Tower yet but the nearest guard is several hundred meters away.

 

“Wei Wuxian, if what you have said is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, then what I am doing is to right a wrong. The Jin may be wealthy and powerful, but even they cannot stand against a united front of the other great sects – and Yanli has been working on Jin Zixuan. It will be fine.”

 

Wei Wuxian looks like he wants to argue some more, so Lan Xichen adds, “Besides, I can fly by sword and carry you with me, which will be much faster than whatever you were going to do.”

 

Wei Wuxian pauses. “Can you take two?”

 

“Unless you expect me to carry you to Qinghe, yes.”

 

“Alright then.” Wei Wuxian lets out a long breath. “Follow me.”

 

*

 

For propriety’s sake, Lan Xichen ends up standing on the back of his sword, holding on to Wei Wuxian, who is holding on to Wen Qing. Why exactly it’s more proper for Wei Wuxian to be holding her is beyond Lan Xichen, but he made no protest either way. Wen Qing had not been pleased to see him. Had looked, in fact, ready to run until Wei Wuxian explained – she’s clearly more at ease with Wei Wuxian and Lan Xichen doesn’t wish to make her any more uncomfortable than she already is.

 

For most cultivators carrying more than one passenger on their sword is either a stretch or impossible, but Lan Xichen has large reserves to call on and Wen Qing is far thinner than he remembers her, weighing almost nothing at all.

 

They touch down outside the labour camp just before nightfall, the last rays of the sun highlighting the mud and filth and deprivation without mercy. As Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing rush forward, looking for her brother, Lan Xichen closes his eyes, breathes out.

 

The clouds break just as raised voices sound from up ahead and Lan Xichen is moving even as he assesses the situation. The argument – Wei Wuxian tense and angry on one side, Wen Qing behind him, and cultivators in Jin yellow sneering on the other – stalls as he arrives, to a shocked chorus of “Zewu-jun!” and bows. He inclines his head in return.

 

“We are simply here to inspect the work camps and look for a specific person,” he says so gently that one might miss the implacability. In the face of Zewu-jun – and without further orders – there’s little the guards can do but exchange awkward glances.

 

“Surely everything is in order,” Lan Xichen continues mercilessly. “After all, we’re all allies – what secrets could there be between us?”

 

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Wei Wuxian’s grateful glance before he and Wen Qing start moving again, heading past the guards. No one stops them.

 

“Of course,” one of the men stutters.  “I’m sure it’s fine for Zewu-jun…”

 

Lan Xichen smiles at them. The rain is dropping into his eyes, turns the soft ground beneath his feet into mud. It does nothing to hide the filth of the few ramshackle huts, the thinness of the faces peering at him from entrances. His own robes are the only bit of pale colour in the whole area.

 

While he waits for Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing to do what they need to do, he makes conversation with the guards, enquiring after their health and families as politely as he knows how. It’s almost worse, that they’re not bad people. Just humans, cultivators, who are following orders from their sect leaders; who somehow manage to not see the misery of the people they’re guarding, as if it’s not… relevant.

 

Humans who can be delighted by being paid attention to by the lofty cultivator Zewu-jun. He has never hated his position more, however useful it is.

 

Eventually he spots Wei Wuxian returning, radiating menace, and halts the conversation.

 

“I suggest you return to where you sleep at night.”

 

The cultivators take one look at Wei Wuxian and the wisps of angry black trailing him and bow to his authority.

 

“Qiongqi path,” Wei Wuxian snaps at him and Lan Xichen only nods, Shuoyue already in hand.

 

What they find at Qiongqi path is going to haunt his nightmares for years to come. A field of bodies, discarded like an afterthought, resentful energy so thick in the air he can almost taste it.

 

Wei Wuxian’s hand keeps clenching around Yanli’s hairpin as they search for Wen Ning, passing dead after dead of a clan now all but exterminated.

 

When they finally find him, Wen Ning is barely clinging to life.

 

Wen Qing’s face is cold and set, as she falls to her knees in the mud, eyes closing as she sets about saving her brother’s life.

 

While she’s occupied and Wei Wuxian hovers over her with a tortured expression, Lan Xichen forces himself to take a closer look at their surroundings. Something evil has happened here – so much resentful energy hints at terrible deaths, and then there’s the matter of the lure flag sticking out of Wen Ning’s body. What were the Jin cultivators doing?

 

He sees the approaching flier, light blue against the rapidly darkening sky, just as Wei Wuxian calls for him.

 

“He’s stable for now,” Wen Qing says, almost swaying with exhaustion – she poured what little spiritual energy she’d had left into keeping her brother alive. “But I need better supplies.” Her voice dies to a whisper. “Somewhere safe.”

 

“The rest of your family too,” Wei Wuxian adds, voice sharp and stinging. “We can’t just leave them here to be slaughtered!”

 

“Lotus Pier isn’t so far from here,” Lan Xichen says and Wangji lands next to him in a swirl of spiritual energy. The way his eyes widen minutely in horror might not have been noticeable to anyone but Lan Xichen and perhaps Wei Wuxian, but to him it is clear as the cloudless sky just how repelled his brother is by the scene that greets him.

 

“Xiongzhang?” he asks quietly, eyes on Wei Wuxian and his white-knuckled grip around Yanli’s token.

 

“We need to get everyone to Lotus Pier,” Lan Xichen replies, already mentally going over the best configuration. If only they had more than two fliers…

 

At the same time, Wei Wuxian yelps, “We can’t go to Lotus Pier! Jiang Cheng – ”

 

“Jiang Wanyin would want to support you,” Lan Xichen states surely. “What the Jin sect has done here is not right, and he will have enough support to keep the Jiang safe if Mingjue and I have anything to say about it.”

 

There’s something startlingly vulnerable in Wei Wuxian’s gaze as he steps forward close enough to study Lan Xichen’s face even in the darkness. “You’re certain? I couldn’t bear it if I brought destruction to Lotus Pier again.”

 

“What Xiongzhang says, he will do,” Wangji weighs in, a solid support at Lan Xichen’s side as he has always been.

 

Lan Xichen shakes his head, but holds Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “I cannot be certain – no one can see the future. But I do believe that we need to try and have a chance of succeeding. Jin Guangshan is not yet powerful enough he can act entirely with impunity.” He sighs. “What other option do you have? They would not leave you be, wherever you went. Wen Ning needs help now.”

 

It’s the distressed sound from Wen Qing, who’s still monitoring her brother, that decides Wei Wuxian.

 

“Fine then. I will go to fetch the other survivors and bring them to Lotus Pier. You will keep Wen Qing and Wen Ning safe?”

 

“With our lives,” Lan Xichen says and Wangji nods silently.

 

 

They fly closer together than any other two cultivators would’ve dared, so that Wen Qing can keep hold of one of Wen Ning’s wrists to monitor his condition even as Lan Xichen holds her on his sword and Wangji cradles Wen Ning in his arms.

 

By the time they descend onto Lotus Pier, Lan Xichen is more tired than he’s been since the end of the war. He doesn’t stumble as he steps off his sword at the entrance of the pier, but he does bow his head for a long moment, before he goes to meet the disciple left in charge of Lotus Pier in the absence of the Sect Leader.

 

Once the matter of Wen Ning and Wen Qing is settled until Jiang Wanyin’s return – as irregular as it is to have two disciples of a different sect come and demand such a thing, for two Wen no less, Lan Xichen finds that the time he has lately spent in Lotus Pier affords him more trust than anyone else could’ve assumed – and one of the Jiang healers is assisting Wen Qing, Lan Xichen turns to leave again.

 

Wangji steps in his way, brows furrowed. “Xiongzhang, you’re tired.”

 

“Yes. “Lan Xichen smiles. “But I must return to Koi Tower. If we’re to resolve this peacefully, I cannot wait to regain my energy. And Jiang Wanyin needs to be told of what has occurred here.”

 

“I can go,” Wangji says, but Lan Xichen is already shaking his head.

 

“It has to be me. I went with Wei Wuxian, and I’m Lan-zongzhu. Stay here and wait for Wei Wuxian’s return – protect them.”

 

Wangji’s slow blink says be careful and Lan Xichen nods. “I will be. Hopefully I will be able to return with Jiang Wanyin.”

 

He steps onto Shuoyue and musters his fading energy to soar into the air towards Lanling.

 

*

 

He’s surprised to find Luo Qingyang waiting for him when he touches down just outside Koi Tower.

 

She bows to him, politely ignoring the way it takes him a little longer than normal to return Shuoyue to its sheath.

 

“Zewu-jun. May I escort you?”

 

Lan Xichen remembers her as one of the cultivators close to Jin Zixuan, someone who had also always been fond of Wei Wuxian and has no compunctions in saying, “Certainly, Luo-guniang.”

 

She leads him to a side-gate, nothing in her bearing suggesting that they’re sneaking, but also clearly attempting not to encounter too many people on the way.

 

“A disciple already returned from the work camp with news. Jin-zongzhu isn’t… pleased.”

 

Lan Xichen doesn’t pause in his stride. “I did not imagine he would be. May I assume by your presence that his son disagrees?”

 

Her lips twitch in some private amusement. “You may. You will find your allies are already waiting for you.”

 

To think that he’d hoped to have outlived the need to have allies against enemies, real or imagined, with the end of the war.

 

He’s glad of Luo Qingyang’s hesitant question as they enter a secluded courtyard. “Wei Wuxian – is he… well?”

 

“He is. You need not fear for him.”

 

“Not yet,” she mumbles under her breath. Lan Xichen can’t blame her. If they don’t get a handle on the situation quickly, Wei Wuxian is going to end up in the thick of things again – that much he’s certain of.

 

Luo Qingyang leads him into a small room, already quite full with the people waiting for them: Yanli, Jiang Wanyin, Jin Zixuan, Nie Huaisang and a scowling Mingjue.

 

His old friend doesn’t look at all pleased to be included in this conspiracy, but Nie Huaisang is smiling, and besides, Lan Xichen knows how much Mingjue dislikes Jin Guangshan. That alone would be enough to ensure his coming, and the addition of Jin Zixuan to the round is telling. The Jin heir looks a little ill at ease, but resolved nonetheless.

 

Yanli, Lan Xichen notes, is sitting next to him, and quite closely so.

 

It takes a little while to relay all he has learned to the circle.

 

Jiang Wanyin stands up when he is done. “I will return to Yunmeng.”

 

He turns to Lan Xichen, an almost frightening focus in his gaze. If Lan Xichen hasn’t forgotten that the Wen were solely responsible for the genocide of the Jiang sect then Jiang Wanyin certainly hasn’t. And it’s so much more personal for him. 

 

“If Lotus Pier weren’t an option – what would Wei Wuxian do? Would he stop?”

 

The answer to the second question, at least, is easy.

 

“No,” he replies quietly. “He is set on helping Wen-guniang.”

 

Jiang Wanyin nods once, sharply. With a last glance at Yanli he sweeps out of the room. Lan Xichen has no doubt he’ll reach Yunmeng at a record pace. What he has decided to do, he is less certain about.

 

Once he’s gone, Mingjue turns to Lan Xichen.

 

“Is this wise Xichen? We have only just finished one war and to protect the Wen…”

 

Even years later, the word still sounds like a curse on Mingjue’s lips.

 

“If we all stand united, there will not be a war,” Lan Xichen says strongly, holding Mingjue’s gaze. “And this isn’t just about the Wen Remnant. Covert experiments with resentful energy should worry all of us. Wei Wuxian may have tipped the balance with his new path, but he is only one person.” One coreless person with no other options, he wishes he could say. “If Jin Guangshan continues to pursue this, it will not stop at one.”

 

“Father has been talking of Wei Wuxian’s Stygian Tiger Seal a lot,” Jin Zixuan offers quietly, looking uncomfortable. It can’t be easy to hear such accusations against one’s father – even a father who is already quite disillusioned in the son’s eyes.

 

Yanli lays a comforting hand on Jin Zixuan’s arm. No one comments.

 

“If we were to remove the Seal from the equation,” Lan Xichen starts slowly, “would that suffice to soothe objections?”

 

“You think Wei-xiong will give it up?” Nie Huaisang had remained unusually silent up to now, face now set in a grave expression that doesn’t fit him at all.

 

Lan Xichen sighs. In truth, he cannot be entirely certain, but he knows Wei Wuxian well enough for his opinion to hold weight. “In exchange for peace? I believe so.”

 

Yanli nods, supporting Lan Xichen’s assessment, which comes as a relief. If anyone would know, it’s Yanli.

 

“Unless people want to lose enough face to admit to being afraid of a single cultivator, destroying the seal would settle the matter,” Mingjue decides, face set. “As for Jin Guangshan’s experiments, without more proof than your testimony there’s nothing we can do other than watch the Jin closely.”

 

Jin Zixuan winces, but quite tellingly doesn’t object out loud.

 

Lan Xichen turns to him, folding into a bow. “For my part in freeing those labouring for the Jin Sect, I am willing to compensate you.”

 

Jin Zixuan draws a hand through his hair. “That’s not necessary, Zewu-jun.”

 

Lan Xichen opens his mouth to politely object, but Jin Zixuan holds up a hand. “I already checked the ledgers. The Wen workers were not listed anywhere and thus cannot be counted as a loss to revenue.” His mouth twists. “Whatever my father had them doing, it had nothing to do with actual work benefiting the sect.”

 

Mingjue doesn’t even seem to try to smother his snort.

 

A knock on the door interrupts whatever he may have had to say on the subject of Jin Guangshan.

 

They exchange a glance – the meeting isn’t exactly secret, taking place in the middle of Koi Tower as it is, but Lan Xichen doubts they advertised it.

 

It’s Mingjue who stands and opens the door. From the side Lan Xichen observes his friend’s face twisting into an expression of distaste.

 

“What do you want?” he grunts, radiating an impressive amount of hostility.

 

Lan Xichen blinks in surprise when it’s Jin Guangyao’s voice that answers, pleasant and low as it always is. “Jin-zongzhu has asked for Lan-zongzhu’s presence.”

 

Lan Xichen, who had been looking forward to going to bed, allows himself a brief closing of the eyes.

 

As if they’d previously rehearsed it, Jin Zixuan rises and in concert with Mingjue steps forward so they flank Lan Xichen on either side.

 

“We will accompany him,” Jin Zixuan says smoothly. “I’m sure my father would not mind my presence.”

 

Now that Mingjue has stopped blocking the doorway, Lan Xichen can see the way Jin Guangyao’s expression goes briefly flinty before smoothing back into pleasant impassiveness.

“As you wish.”

 

Lan Xichen casts them both a grateful look as they make their way through the mostly empty corridors to Jin Guangshan’s receiving room. He could have faced the other sect leader alone – Jin Guangshan would certainly not have done anything to him – but to have such support is invaluable and sends a clear message from the outset: they won’t let each other be singled out and left vulnerable.

 

The fact that Jin Guangshan’s own son is participating in this just drives the point home further. Too far, perhaps, but there’s little they can do about that now.

 

Jin Guangshan receives them with a stern expression. He doesn’t seem surprised to see Lan Xichen’s entourage – Jin Guangyao likely sent word ahead.

 

“I only asked for Lan-zongzhu,” he says, the picture of relaxation as he sits on his large golden throne.

 

Before Mingjue can say something bald and undiplomatic (yet no doubt true), Lan Xichen smoothly replies, “As I already discussed recent events with Nie-zongzhu and Jin-gongzi” – he lightly bows to each of them in turn – “I saw no harm in letting them come along. Unless, of course, you wish to consult me on a different matter?”

 

He did no such thing of course, his two companions having decided quite on their own that they were going to accompany him, but Jin Guangshan can hardly argue with the statement, his expression souring. The glare at his son is brief, but potent. To his credit, Jin Zixuan doesn’t flinch, but Lan Xichen can hear the way his breathing goes ever so little strained.

 

Jin Guangshan waves his hand, expression placid again. “By all means. I have been waiting to hear an explanation of your and Wei Wuxian’s… conduct at my labour camp.”

 

Lan Xichen can feel Mingjue stiffen next him at the implied slight against Lan Xichen’s honour, but he ignores him. He has to keep his attention on Jin Guangshan.

 

“I am uncertain as to what ‘conduct’ you are referring to, Jin-zongzhu. I had quite a pleasant talk with your guards.” Lan Xichen smiles. “Peng Xuan’s wife is expecting their first child, I heard, and his brother is looking forward to a visit to Baling. I believe he is hoping to court a maiden he met there on a night hunt?”

 

 Lan Xichen lets his inflection rise at the end of the sentence, inviting Jin Guangshan to join in the topic. The fact that they’re having this conversation in private rather than in front of all the minor sects the next day already speaks volumes to Jin Guangshan’s (lack of) certainty that he’ll come out on top in this conflict.

 

“You stole away with all the prisoners in that camp!” Jin Guangshan snaps, not rising to Lan Xichen’s bait. “You had no authority to do so.”

 

All the prisoners amounted to less than thirty people,” Lan Xichen returns, still smiling affably. “Old farmers and a young child not yet grown – none of them cultivators. None of them a threat.”

 

Lan Xichen’s smile sharpens at the edges. Not, perhaps, enough for Jin Guangshan to notice, but if Wangji were here he’d be advising everyone to take a step back in caution. “As we then found the slaughtered remains of the other Wen rotting in the rain, we deemed it safer to evacuate the labour camp – the resentful energy was threateningly thick in the pass.” He bows to Jin Guangshan again. “The Lan sect offers their disciples to help cleanse the resentful energy on Jin territory before it can become a danger to travellers.”

 

He straightens to find Mingjue radiating smugness, Jin Zixuan a little wide-eyed and Jin Guangshan purpling in rage.

 

“There’s no need,” he presses out between clenched teeth. “I will have it taken care of.”

 

Lan Xichen bows again. “Very good, Jin-zongzhu. Did you have any other questions?”

 

He can see Jin Guangshan weighing his options, the small hesitation as he wonders whether it would be worth it for him to push further.

 

Then the other’s face relaxes into something almost pleasant. “I should not keep you further from your rest.”

 

Lan Xichen carefully does not show any relief, not until he’s alone in his rooms and sinks onto the bed with a little more force than usual.

 

*

 

The banquet runs for another day before the visiting sects disperse to their own homes, whispering about events as they go.

 

It takes much of Lan Xichen’s training to spend that day as placid and smiling as ever. No word has come from Yunmeng as to the reception of the Wen remnant, nor whether Wen Ning still lives. He supposes no news is good news in this instance – surely they would have heard if Jiang Wanyin had decided to eject the Wen from his hospitality? He would be well within his rights, after all.

 

The one bright spot during the enforced waiting is Yanli. The small garden they had met in for the first time so many years ago has become their regular meeting place. While she spends most of her time with Madam Jin and her husband-to-be, they’ve still run into each other several times already during the week-long festivities. With Wangji still at Lotus Pier and most of Mingjue’s time taken up with Huaisang and his own sect matters, Lan Xichen is left at loose ends often enough.

 

The night after his return, he had slept like a log for more than the allotted hours, but he awoke refreshed and with his core no longer in danger of depleting entirely if he exercised it any further.

 

Yanli is already in the garden when he arrives there, having stopped at the kitchens to acquire a late breakfast.

 

“Xichen,” she greets, voice warm. “Are you feeling better?”

 

“Much.” He joins her on the bench by the small pond. “I simply needed a little rest.”

 

“Will you return to Lotus Pier with us tomorrow?”

 

Lan Xichen allows himself a small sigh as he nods. “I am needed in Cloud Recesses, but for now it is more important to make sure this situation resolves itself.”

 

Yanli lays a gentle hand on his arm. “We are always glad to have you, for however long.”

 

Lan Xichen lets her comfort seep into his spirit, relaxing into the golden late morning atmosphere. Time with Yanli is always like this – quiet and comfortable, an oasis of calm in a life that’s been little but turbulent of late.

 

Eventually he turns his head to find Yanli with a pensive expression on her beautiful face.

 

“Will you share what weighs on you?” Lan Xichen asks softly.

 

Now it’s Yanli’s turn to sigh, eyes closing as she thinks over some inner sorrow.

 

“Am I doing the right thing?” she whispers, gaze trained on a floating leaf with a disconcerting intensity that would be more at home on her brother. “Marrying Zixuan?”

 

Lan Xichen breathes through his surprise, doesn’t let it touch his expression. “Do you love him?”

 

“Yes, of course.” The immediate reply leaves no place for doubt. Her voice dwindles to something quiet, strained. “But I love my brothers more. Marrying Zixuan means leaving them.”

 

Understanding comes easily now that she has revealed the root of her worries. He can’t imagine voluntarily moving away from Wangji and can only be glad it’s unlikely to be an issue for them.

 

“You are the only one who can answer this question for yourself. But if you want my advice, I will give it.” Lan Xichen pauses for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “Your brothers love you, whether you are at Lotus Pier or at Koi Tower. They will miss you if you go, but for all their love I do not believe either of them would wish to tie you down in their home forever. They would want you to seek your own happiness.” He catches her gaze. “Whether your husband would be amenable to you spending some time in Lotus Pier every year, you still have time to find out.”

 

Privately, Lan Xichen thinks it unlikely Jin Zixuan will turn out to be able to deny his wife much of anything.

 

The sudden glimmer in Yanli’s eyes makes him smile. These days, Yanli is not unaware of her effect on the esteemed heir of the Jin sect.

 

“And we are not married yet,” she says quietly. “I am returning to Lotus Pier tomorrow. If slower than expected.”

 

Lan Xichen casts her a sympathetic glance. “I would fly you myself, but it would not be proper. Outside of war time,” he adds, when her eyes twinkle knowingly. “I am afraid you will have to take the longer way of travel now that your brothers are absent and you are to be married soon. Unless Jin-gongzi is planning to accompany us?”

 

She sighs, gaze flitting to Shuoyue resting next to Lan Xichen’s hand.

 

 

The next day, a blushing Jin Zixuan gallantly offers to escort his fiancée back to her current home. Yanli throws Lan Xichen a suspicious look but he only smiles back at her. Jin Zixuan hadn’t needed more than a gentle nudge in this direction before jumping to the right conclusion himself. Lan Xichen was barely involved.

 

Chapter Text

*

 

Lotus Pier lies silent and serene in front if him, no sign of recent struggle evident. Lan Xichen decides to take that as a good sign.

 

As he waits for Yanli to say goodbye to Jin Zixuan – who, with unusual amounts of tact, is intending to fly straight back to Koi Tower after delivering her home – the Yunmeng Jiang disciples who hadn’t returned with their sect leader the previous day stream past him onto the pier.

 

Finally, Jin Zixuan and the two Jin disciples who had accompanied the sect heir take off, leaving Yanli and Lan Xichen standing alone at the entrance. They exchange a glance. The world is caught in potential – neither of them knows what will await them within.

 

Yanli’s chin comes forward and she begins to walk, Lan Xichen following. They don’t encounter any of the people they are looking for on their way to the main square. There they part in unspoken agreement. Yanli keeps going into the main hall, while Lan Xichen veers right in the direction of the healers’ rooms.

 

When he enters, he finds the rooms empty save for Wen Qing, who’s tending to her brother Wen Ning. Her movements are calm, not at all frenzied, and Lan Xichen breathes a quiet sigh of relief. Wen Ning must be recovering.

 

Not wishing to interrupt her work, Lan Xichen stays by the doorway, quietly observing. He’s certain she knows he’s here and doesn’t mind waiting for her to acknowledge him.

 

A few minutes later, Wen Qing puts away her instruments and turns to him. She looks a little less like she’s about to be blown away by a strong gust of wind, clearly having been fed a good meal or three since her arrival at Lotus Pier, but there’s still something haggard about her appearance. That does not, however, affect her bearing. She stands tall and strong, fight in her eyes.

 

And then this proud, unbending woman, who has earned her pride twice-over, bows deep to him. “For my brother’s life, I am in your debt.”

 

“There is no need,” Lan Xichen says immediately. “It is Wei Wuxian you should thank.”

 

Wen Qing straightens. “I have, not that he’ll accept it.”

 

“Has your family been accepted at Lotus Pier?” Lan Xichen asks and finds the answer in the relaxation of tension in her expression.

 

“Yes.” She folds her hands over her waist. “Jiang-zongzhu has been… accommodating, given the circumstances.”

 

Lan Xichen smiles to hear it. He hadn’t truly expected Jiang Wanyin to throw out the Wen remnants, not when they were not the ones in their clan who harmed him (had even helped him), but the confirmation eases his heart nonetheless.

 

“I am glad to hear it,” he says, inclining his own head to her. “I offer you my apologies for what happened at Qiongqi pass – we should not have depended on the Jin to mete out justice.”

 

Wen Qing’s eyes are dark, searching. Perhaps she means to find sincerity in him, or the lack of it. “We knew what was coming,” she finally says. “Wen Ruohan’s actions were always going to lead us to ruin. I do not hold you responsible for his delusion.”

 

It’s coldly pragmatic of her in a way Lan Xichen can only admire. She would not have hesitated to burn down the world to protect her family if it had been within her power, but she did not deny her own clan’s culpability in the matter either. He isn’t so certain he should be absolved of his inaction in this matter, but she is the aggrieved party – if this is where she wants to draw the line it is not for him to argue.

 

*

 

Once he finds the area of Lotus Pier now assigned to the Wen, he also finds Wei Wuxian. Who’s holding a toddler on his hip as he talks to one of the Wen elders. None of them are wearing red openly anymore. Lan Xichen wonders how hard that decision was, to forego their heritage in order to feel safe.

 

When Wei Wuxian catches sight of him, he smiles. “Xichen-ge! Meet a-Yuan.”

 

And Lan Xichen finds himself with an arm full of toddler, thrust at him with some enthusiasm. He holds on out of sheer instinct, finding himself face to face with a-Yuan, who blinks in equal surprise. They size each other up for a moment, before a-Yuan smiles, showing off a few missing teeth, and pats at his robes.

 

“Shiny!” he says, and Lan Xichen smiles down at his head, uncaring that the child leaving slightly sticky handprints on his pristine clothes.

 

“We Lan wear light colours,” he explains, settling a-Yuan a little more securely on his hip. “Mostly blues and white.”

 

A-Yuan’s little forehead scrunches up. “How do you not get dirty, gege?”

 

“We practice a lot,” Lan Xichen tells him solemnly. “It’s a great art of our clan.”

 

A-Yuan stares at him, probably trying to determine if he was being serious, then laughs. “You’re funny, gege.”

 

Lan Xichen’s smile widens. “I am glad you think so.”

 

A-Yuan starts to wriggle in his grip and Lan Xichen puts him gently on the floor. For some reason, that prompts the toddler to hug his knee before he makes his way back towards the group of adults in charge of his care.

 

Wei Wuxian is beaming at him. “He likes you! When he first met Lan Zhan, he refused to let go of his leg for half an hour.”

 

Lan Xichen tries to imagine that picture in his head, and finds himself regretful to have missed it.

 

Wei Wuxian’s smile goes knowing. “If I can find the time I’ll make you a drawing. It really was too adorable. Jiang Cheng just scowled when a-Yuan did it to him, but Lan Zhan was panicking so hard.”

 

Wangji would be mortified to find such a picture in Lan Xichen’s possession, but he finds he rather likes the idea. “It would be a precious gift.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s face goes through a few contortions before settling on fond. “Aiyo, you Lan are so sincere all the time.”

 

They watch the group of Wen for a few moments, standing side by side. None of them look entirely comfortable yet, but some of the hunted quality in their eyes had lessened already. Lotus Pier would be good for them.

 

“Were you looking for me?” Wei Wuxian finally asks, turning back to Lan Xichen.

 

Lan Xichen smiles, in hopes of alleviating some of the tension he can see creeping into Wei Wuxian’s frame, in the manner of someone waiting for the other shoe to drop. “I was. Given recent events, I thought you might have some thoughts on how well the tokens helped you.”

 

Wei Wuxian blows a breath out his nose, hand landing on Chengqing. “It worked, to an extent. I didn’t entirely destabilise, but I had to lean on a-Jie’s pin pretty hard.” He sighs. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if it had taken longer to rescue Wen Ning. Or if he’d been dead.”

 

“We never thought it would entirely stop the effects of your cultivation path,” Lan Xichen points out. “It did as we hoped, did it not?”

 

“I suppose.” But Wei Wuxian’s expression isn’t glad or happy. His gaze kept skittering away from Lan Xichen’s eyes, which doesn’t make much sense until he adds quietly, “A-Jie told me about Jin Guangshan coveting the Stygian Tiger Seal.”

 

He turns dark eyes on Lan Xichen. “Do you expect me to hand it over to him?”

 

“There is no world in which I would prefer the seal in Jin Guangshan’s hands over yours,” Lan Xichen says quietly and watches as Wei Wuxian’s eyes blow wide in surprised wonder. Another thing to regret – that Wei Wuxian still doesn’t truly understand the trust Lan Xichen places in him, nor his own value. “So no, I do not expect you to give it to him. I think you should consider destroying it, but that too will always be your choice.”

 

Wei Wuxian stares at him. “Destroy it?”

 

“The political situation is tenuous.” Lan Xichen sighs, listening to the sounds of Lotus Pier for a moment before continuing. “It would be a gesture of good faith for the smaller sects, who fear your power. And anyone, even from the larger sects, who continues to rail against you afterwards will look more paranoid than cautious – you are only one man, after all. And while we both know the seal is not the source of your power, it would be a lot easier for you to keep a low profile without it.”

 

Wei Wuxian swallows hard, grip tightening on Chengqing. His eyes have gone unfocused. “I don’t need it,” he mutters, so quiet Lan Xichen almost doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t think it’s directed at him. “I don’t need it.”

 

Lan Xichen gives him the time to gather his thoughts, pretending to become engrossed in the nearest lotus pond.

 

Finally, Wei Wuxian stirs, and Lan Xichen returns his attention to him to find some life returned to his expression.

 

“I can’t decide right now,” he says and Lan Xichen nods.

 

“Take what time you need.” He smiles, making sure to catch Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “We will support you regardless. Believe me in this.”

 

After a moment Wei Wuxian nods, a small, fragile smile on his own lips.

 

*

 

Lan Xichen is in search of Yanli when he passes by Wei Wuxian’s rooms. Jiang Wanyin’s voice drifts through the gaps in the wood.

 

“Why did you have to drag Zewu-jun into it?”

 

Lan Xichen halts.

 

“Xichen-ge dragged himself into it,” Wei Wuxian protests indignantly. “I tried to stop him! Besides, he’s a strong flier. Almost as fast as you.”

 

Here Jiang Wanyin’s voice goes quiet, tight. “And why is it that you never fly on your own sword anymore, huh, Wei Wuxian? You are the fast one, the strong one. You don’t even carry Suibian anymore – ”

 

A terrible silence falls, and Lan Xichen realises with a jolt that he absolutely should not be witnessing this moment, long in the making as it has been.

 

He turns and hurries away, ignoring the loud shouting that erupts in his wake.

 

In the morning, much of the furniture in that room needs replacing. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin have gone separate ways, but both are still in Lotus Pier.

 

The truth has finally come to light – it’s all anyone can do now to deal with the aftermath.

 

*

 

Lan Xichen is a little surprised that it’s Jiang Wanyin who seeks him out first, entering through the open door of Lan Xichen’s guest room around lunchtime.

 

“You knew.” Jiang Wanyin’s voice is flat. “How long?”

 

“Partway through the war,” he replies and for a moment sees an expression of such angry grief on Jiang Wanyin’s face that his breath arrests. “In exchange for my promise not to tell anyone, Wei Wuxian allowed me to at least try and help him. I counselled him to tell you, but it was his own decision to make.”

 

Jiang Wanyin’s jaw works, but no words escape his tightly-pressed lips. And Lan Xichen does what he has dreamed of doing for months and bows deep, holds it. “This one will accept any punishment you deem fit for this omission of truth, and will make any reparations you wish.”

 

A punched-out noise erupts from Jiang Wanyin’s throat and he roughly shoves Lan Xichen upright again.

 

“Don’t be an idiot! If this is anyone’s fault it’s Wei Wuxian’s.”

 

Lan Xichen straightens reluctantly, eyes watchful on Jiang Wanyin’s twisted expression. “Anyone would be angry, Jiang Wanyin – it is your right.”

 

“Yes, I’m angry!” he explodes, “I’m angry at Wei Wuxian, I’m angry at you, at everyone involved in this sorry affair, but…” He looks away. “I need some time.”

 

Lan Xichen nods. “I can leave Lotus Pier immediately.”

 

“No. You’re Yanli’s best friend. She’ll need your support about” – his hand waves a little aimlessly – “this. Just, don’t seek me out for a while.”

 

“I will not,” Lan Xichen promises and bows again.

 

Jiang Wanyin scowls at him and stomps out, and for a long moment Lan Xichen is tempted to slump in relief.

 

That could’ve gone much worse.

 

*

 

Yanli says very little. They have tea on her favourite pier like they did during his last visit, but it’s not until the pot runs dry that Yanli finally speaks.

 

“Is this what you knew?”

 

Lan Xichen sets down his cup, keeping his sleeve clear.

 

“Yes.”

 

Yanli’s face contorts in regret, or perhaps grief, and he thinks to add, “I found out by accident. Wei Wuxian did not wish anyone to know.”

 

That startles here, as if she hadn’t expected him to be so regretful in turn. She lays a hand on his arm, fingers steady. “I am glad he had someone to confide in, Xichen. Never doubt that.”

 

He sighs, voicing a thought he had with some regularity during those grim months of war. “You could have done more for him.”

 

Yanli’s eyes spark, her voice iron. “You did plenty. Don’t think I didn’t notice, that we didn’t notice, how much you tired yourself. We heard the stories of Zewu-jun. Saving villages, turning the tides of battles wherever he went – and when you were with us, when you were supposed to rest, you supported us instead. You spent time with me, you advised a-Cheng, you tried to keep Wei Wuxian from spiralling, while also being there for your own younger brother and helping keep Nie-zongzhu’s temperament in check.” Her gaze catches his, uncompromising. “What time did you have left for yourself?”

 

Lan Xichen blinks, startled. His lips part, but he knows of nothing he can say. Yanli’s hand on his arm is warm and he focuses on the sensation to ground himself.

 

“I had no expectation of time to myself during a war,” he finally says, spreading his hands helplessly. In truth, he has never had much time to himself, not even before the war. The Lan sect teaching schedule is strict for all disciples and had been doubly so for him – the future sect leader. And if Yanli counts supporting Wangji… well. That’s the majority of his leftover time, not that he’d ever regret it. Then again, there has always been quite a lot of overlap between things he was supposed to study and would do in his free time anyway. Music is the best example, but also calligraphy and painting.

 

Yanli sighs a little, eyes sad but warm. “I will make soup for lunch. You will eat at least two bowls.”

 

What eating, or specifically eating soup, has to do with what they were just discussing, Lan Xichen isn’t clear on, but he knows better than to argue with an order from Yanli.

 

And her soup is delicious.

 

It only occurs to him later that she had perhaps hoped to draw her brothers together with the meal, but neither make an appearance.

 

*

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t seek him out, nor does Lan Xichen go looking for him. They’ve said all that needs to be said on the subject between them already.

 

*

 

Lan Xichen spends the next few days mostly keeping Yanli company and dealing with mildly urgent sect matters forwarded to Lotus Pier from Gusu. He’s aware that the amount of time he’s around Yanli isn’t entirely proper, but while there’s no rule against gossip among the Yunmeng Jiang they all like their Jiang-guniang far too much for any malicious rumours to arise. His own reputation, which exaggerates his virtues past anything a human can truthfully embody, works in their favour as well. Yet even if that were not so, Lan Xichen considered possible ramifications and – uncharacteristically – decided to ignore them. Yanli grows quieter by the day as her brothers refuse to be in the same room together, which invalidates any argument towards keeping his distance (no matter what Shufu might have to say on the matter).

 

He isn’t there (and rightfully so) when the pressure finally breaks, isn’t privy to what it takes for Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian to begin the process of forgiving each other. What he finds, the next morning is the three siblings at breakfast all together for the first time since the truth came to light and an atmosphere that’s strained but not smothering. There’s still bitterness in Jiang Wanyin’s expression and stubbornness in Wei Wuxian’s, but they’re interacting and Yanli looks less like her spine is about to snap from suppressed tension.

 

Lan Xichen smiles a little and doesn’t say anything, just helps himself to the Lan-approved dishes that won’t assault his taste buds first thing in the morning. As he eats, careful not to look at either of the previously-feuding parties too overtly in case it would be received as nosiness, his mind turns to logistics. Now that the Jiang are mending, it’s time for him to return to Cloud Recesses. He has already been away too long, left responsibilities that are his to others to manage while he supports his friends in Lotus Pier. To a degree that is acceptable – many duties of a sect leader centre around diplomacy and building good relationships with other sects – but he has been pushing the bounds of what’s advisable recently, as he’s sure Shufu will inform him in no uncertain terms when he returns.

 

It will be good to see Wangji again, at least. His brother had left shortly after the Wen remnant settled in – reluctantly, but without a good excuse as to why he should stay he hadn’t wished to outstay his welcome. Wei Wuxian had been distracted anyway, and Wangji had slipped away with few the wiser.

 

Lan Xichen waits until everyone has finished their food to quietly make his announcement. No one looks surprised, all of them aware of the many duties of a sect leader in their own way. Jiang Wanyin now bears them, Yanli and Wei Wuxian supporting him. All three had learned of these responsibilities from their parents as early as Lan Xichen, like as not.

 

They don’t drag out their goodbyes. The wedding is in a few months’ time and they will see each other then. Besides, the Jiang siblings need some time with just each other to reaffirm their relationships now that the break between Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian is healing. (Or so he hopes.)

 

After a trip to his guest quarters to gather the few belongings he doesn’t have on him, Lan Xichen only has one more thing to do and goes to find Wei Wuxian.

 

For once, Wei Wuxian is easily found, waving Lan Xichen into his room with a smile.

 

Lan Xichen bows deep and holds it. “I have come to ask your permission to tell Wangji about your circumstances.”

 

With his eyes politely downcast, he can’t see Wei Wuxian’s expression, but he doesn’t miss the startled intake of breath, the unusually long gap until that breath is let out again.

 

Before he says anything, Wei Wuxian nudges him upright. “It’s strange when you bow like that to me,” he says, voice forcibly bright, and Lan Xichen almost asks why. Coming from someone technically higher in status it’s a mark of respect. If Lan Xichen has decided to give him that respect, why should it feel wrong to him?

 

But that is not an argument he wants to have today, when he came with a different goal.

 

Still, he doesn’t push that matter either, simply waits for Wei Wuxian to think it through or ask him questions. He has no way of knowing what thoughts are playing out behind Wei Wuxian’s dark eyes.

 

“Lan Zhan wouldn’t tell anyone else,” Wei Wuxian finally says, more to himself than to Lan Xichen.

 

Nonetheless Lan Xichen says, “No, he would not.”

 

“And he would find out eventually anyway,” Wei Wuxian continues.

 

Lan Xichen surely hopes so, but isn’t so certain that’s actually true. Wei Wuxian has done a distressingly good job at keeping the state of his golden core to himself for several years now and much as Lan Xichen thinks Wangji would like to, his brother doesn’t currently spend all that much time with Wei Wuxian.

 

“Perhaps,” he eventually settles on because he’s not going to lie to get his own way.

 

But Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to be listening to him. He’s fidgeting with the belt pouch that holds his tokens, unknotting the string that holds it closed and dipping two fingers inside. Lan Xichen suspects its Wangji’s token that Wei Wuxian is looking for, tangible proof of Wangji’s regard for him. He still doesn’t know what token his brother has actually sent.

 

“It would answer a lot of questions that have been preying on Wangji’s mind,” he says gently and Wei Wuxian’s eyes flicker back to him.

 

His free hand clenches, but eventually he nods once, jerkily.

 

“Would you prefer to be the one to – ” Lan Xichen starts, but the words halt on his tongue when he sees the look of utter panic on Wei Wuxian’s face.

 

“You go ahead,” Wei Wuxian says, still a little wide-eyed. “I’d rather not be anywhere near that conversation.”

 

Lan Xichen wants to protest that Wangji wouldn’t react badly – or at least not in a way that would be directed at Wei Wuxian – but another look at the tightness around Wei Wuxian’s eyes dissuades him. He suspects Wei Wuxian has a good idea how Wangji will react and his reluctance is anchored in reasons closer to his own emotions.

 

So he only nods. “I thank you.”

 

Wei Wuxian manages a smile that almost looks natural. “Make sure to say goodbye to a-Yuan before you go, yes?”

 

“I will,” Lan Xichen promises.

 

As he takes his leave, a burden feels lifted off his shoulders. As easily as he could have pretended, even to himself, that he asked for Wangji’s sake alone, it’s for his own too. Lan Xichen has struggled with keeping this secret from his brother for as long as he has carried it, and to finally be able to tell the truth means more to him than Wei Wuxian perhaps realises.

 

*

 

Lan Xichen doesn’t immediately get to see Wangji upon his return. First there are Elders to placate and reassure that he would be present for the foreseeable future. Shufu, a little to his surprise, looks a little sympathetic around the edges, his private scolding less stringent than Lan Xichen would have expected, even given his status as sect leader. Technically, it’s Lan Xichen’s right to make these kinds of decisions for himself. Practically, every sect leader is to some extent dependent on other senior members of the clan and offending or disappointing them isn’t wise.

 

It’s nearly time for the evening meal when Wangji enters the Hanshi. Lan Xichen puts away one of the pieces of recent urgent correspondence that had been left in a neat pile on his desk and gives his brother his full attention.

 

“Xiongzhang,” Wangji greets in his quiet manner. He doesn’t return Lan Xichen’s smile, but something in his expression relaxes.

 

“Wangji. I am glad to see you again.”

 

Lan Xichen gestures for him to sit and Wangji does, shifting his light blue robe to fall perfectly as he kneels.

 

“How are matters in Lotus Pier?”

 

It’s not what Wangji really wants to ask, Lan Xichen suspects.

 

“The Wen have settled in well,” he says, pushing a cup of tea towards Wangji. “It would be hard for any sect now to make trouble for them.”

 

Before Wangji’s slightly pinched look can settle into something truly exasperated, Lan Xichen continues, with a knowing smile that he knows will irk his didi, “Wei Wuxian is well. He has taken a liking to the young boy – ”

 

“A-Yuan,” Wangji says quietly, his lips momentarily moving into something that’s very nearly a smile. “He immediately liked Wei Ying.”

 

“It is easy to,” Lan Xichen murmurs sympathetically. He resists the temptation to drag out this light conversation longer and braces himself. “Something else happened after you left.”

 

Wangji is immediately alert, whether because of the phrasing or the suddenly serious note in Lan Xichen’s voice. His gaze is fixed on Lan Xichen’s expression in a way that would’ve made someone who isn’t used to Wangji’s ways uncomfortable.

 

Beating around the bush wouldn’t help.

 

“Jiang Wanyin realised that Wei Wuxian needed my help to get to Qiongqi pass because he no longer has a golden core.”

 

Absolute stillness overtakes Wangji. All movement ceases as his mind works furiously to contextualise this new information. Then, for a brief moment, his expression splinters into something so hurt that Lan Xichen’s heart aches for him, before Wangji’s neutral mask reasserts itself.

 

Finally he looks at Lan Xichen. “You knew.”

 

His tone isn’t accusing, not yet. Lan Xichen is perhaps the only person in the world Wangji would give the benefit of the doubt in this.

 

“I found out during the war. In exchange for my silence on the matter, Wei Wuxian allowed me to help him as much as I could.” Lan Xichen sighs, eyes closing. “I wanted to tell you, but it would have ruined any trust Wei Wuxian has in me. I could not do much to help him, but at least he let me try.” He opens his eyes again, gaze finding Wangji’s. “I am sorry, didi.”

 

Wangji sits quietly while he digests this. He has never been one to come to a conclusion hastily.

 

Eventually, he inclines his head minutely. “I understand. Wei Ying’s well-being is paramount. Xiongzhang did what he could.”

 

Lan Xichen had expected this reaction – Wangji’s actions are generally predictable, as long as one understands where his priorities lie – but it’s a relief to hear the words, nonetheless.

 

“He gave me permission to tell you,” Lan Xichen explains. “You are one of very few people who do, now.”

 

Wangji nods sharply. “Mn. Will not tell.”

 

Lan Xichen smiles and takes a sip of his cooling tea. “Good. Now tell me, what has been happening here while I was away?”

 

Wangji drinks too and begins to fill Lan Xichen in on what he missed. His brother may detest gossip, but he has a gift for briefly summarising any events he deems important. No one else manages to be quite so efficient about it, and Lan Xichen has never found his assessment as to what’s important and what is not to have led him astray.

 

*