Lan Qiren sent the jars of Emperor’s Smile a grim look.
Three should be more than enough, he told himself. If it’s not, then there is an entirely different issue at hand. He left his home and walked the pathways of Cloud Recesses, the gentle warmth of summer only just beginning to turn into heat.
It was not hard to find his nephew; Xichen had always been an easy-going child, Lan Qiren knew, and the disciples that had come to the lecture had only succeeded in drawing him even more firmly out of his shell.
It made Lan Qiren stifle a laugh— some days it seemed like Xichen had received all of the friendliness between him and A-Zhan— no, Wangji.
He sighed softly as the group of not yet loud enough to break the rules disciples came into view. He wishes to be called Wangji only now, Qiren, he reminded himself, despite the bittersweet pang in his heart. Once Wangji had received his courtesy name he had made it very clear that he did not wish to be called ‘A-Zhan’ anymore.
His appearance sent waves of startled silence through the courtyard the teenagers had claimed, though Lan Qiren ignored all but his nephew. He met Xichen’s gaze and raised a brow, then watched as Nie Mingjue jabbed his nephew with an elbow and muttered something under his breath. Most likely some variant of ‘you’re in trouble’, given the other boy's expression— Xichen seemed surprised to be called over, but not worried.
“How can I help you, Uncle?” Xichen asked as he came to a halt, and Lan Qiren studied him for a moment. The older he became the more like his mother he looked— and Lan Qiren found himself glad for it, in a bitter way that he did not wish to examine any closer.
“Join me after dinner,” he said gruffly. “For the next three nights.”
Interest made Xichen’s eyes gleam, though he kept his curiosity firmly in check. It was almost enough to make Lan Qiren laugh, though he held it back. No doubt the sight of his amusement would send the disciples into shock— he swept his gaze over the crowd, and huffed under his breath as dozens of eyes darted away from his.
“Should I bring anything with me?” Xichen asked, and Lan Qiren turned his attention back to his nephew.
“No,” he replied, walking away. But he paused, then looked over his shoulder. “Tell Wangji where you’ll be so he doesn’t worry.”
Xichen’s grin was broad and shocking in its mirth. “I’ll have Mingjue keep him company, Uncle,” he assured, eyes bright.
Lan Qiren merely inclined his head and left the courtyard, then sighed as the roar of voices sprang up once more, louder than before.
But the lecture would end in a week when the conference began, and Lan Qiren was tired of trying to enforce rules on children who just did not care.
The soft knock at his door heralded Xichen’s arrival.
“Come,” Lan Qiren called, and watched patiently as Xichen slipped into the room.
Golden eyes turned wide at the sight of the liquor on the table— Xichen paused, head tilted in confusion.
“Uncle?” Xichen asked, but Lan Qiren merely waved him in.
“Lock the doors.” Confusion turned into interest, but Xichen complied. “You have eaten?” Lan Qiren asked as his nephew came and sat across from him.
“Yes, Uncle,” Xichen said obediently, folding his hands into his lap.
Xichen looked up from the incongruous sight of Emperor’s Smile on the Acting Lan Clan Leader’s desk.
“Ah, Mingjue is teaching him saber forms—” a hesitant smile took over Xichen’s lips— “I thought it would be a successful distraction, and good for both of them?”
Lan Qiren kept his own expression placid as a smile tried to take over his own lips. A-Zhan— Wangji did not like to be alone, and Lan Qiren sent up a brief prayer of thanks that the timing had worked out so well. Wangji had taken some time to come around to the friend Xichen had made during the lecture; but Nie Mingjue, just like his father, never backed down from a challenge.
Lan Qiren studied the way Xichen relaxed at the implied approval, then tightened his lips.
“Xichen,” he began, and golden eyes glanced up from the jar of liquor once more. “The conference is in a week and will be hosted in Lanling.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Xichen replied, visibly wondering where this conversation was going.
Lan Qiren nodded, then took a breath and let it out in a sigh.
“Jin Guangshan finds our rules regarding liquor to be idiotic at best and offensive at worst.” This should not be news to his nephew, and by the expression in his eyes it wasn't. Lan Qiren nodded. “Likely, as this is the first conference you will attend as Sect Heir, he will force you to drink in an attempt to make the Sect look foolish.”
The color drained from Xichen’s face, and Lan Qiren recalled a night well over a month ago where he’d seen Xichen and Nie Mingjue sneak into Cloud Recesses, barely holding each other up, giggling like children as they shushed each other through their stumbles.
Good, he thought, and was glad that he had been hit by a wave of nostalgia that night and had let it go unpunished. He is at least aware of the family’s low tolerance.
“I see you’re already aware of our line’s inability to handle ourselves,” Lan Qiren said pointedly, and Xichen paled further.
But Lan Qiren raised his hand. “Enough, Xichen,” he said firmly. “That is not why we are here.” Lan Qiren took a deep breath. “I am going to show you how to burn the alcohol off with your core.”
Xichen’s eyes gleamed at the words, his unease of moments ago vanishing. “That’s possible?” he asked, and Lan Qiren sent him a heavy look.
“I would not have brought Emperor’s Smile into Cloud Recesses for a whim, Xichen,” Lan Qiren snapped, and his nephew’s back snapped straight.
“Of course,” Xichen apologized, hands rising in a bow.
Lan Qiren waved off the gesture, disgruntled. “Enough,” he said gruffly, then offered his wrist to Xichen. “Follow along with what I am doing.”
It was easy enough to pour the wine and ready his core— Xichen’s gaze was hazy and unfocused as he traced how Lan Qiren’s spiritual power began to move. He raised the cup to his lips and drank, and allowed his core to burn off the alcohol as it flowed into his body.
“Did you see?” Lan Qiren asked, watching as Xichen’s gaze became focused.
Chagrin made Xichen’s voice meek. “It was very fast, Uncle… could you do it once more?”
Lan Qiren inclined his head. “It is better for you to watch multiple times first,” he said, and Xichen’s shoulders relaxed.
He poured himself another cup and readied his core as Xichen’s eyes focused inward. “Watch,” he reminded, then drank the wine. Lan Qiren’s core burned through the alcohol once more and he savored the feeling, allowing himself to enjoy the taste of the Emperor’s Smile for the first time in many years.
Xichen sat back as he released Lan Qiren’s wrist, head tilted to the side in thought. “That seems easy enough,” he murmured to himself, and Lan Qiren quirked his lips in a hastily removed smile.
“There is a reason I have requested your presence for three days,” he said, and Xichen’s attention refocused on him.
“Can I try now?” Xichen asked. “Or should I watch again?”
Lan Qiren paused as he thought it over. The first time he’d done this he’d only been allowed to watch once— he still could not recall what he had done that night. The following nights were better, but Lan Qiren had been scolded for needing additional time; his brother had done it in one night.
“Once more,” Lan Qiren decided abruptly, and offered his wrist. Xichen’s hand was steady as Lan Qiren poured out his third cup, and after a moment a thin wisp of power slid along his own, golden eyes watching him through thick lashes. “Good,” Lan Qiren bluntly. “Feel it as well as see it, because tonight you will only get one chance.”
Xichen nodded, determined, and Lan Qiren lifted the cup to his lips.
He tried to go slowly, but the act itself needed to be completed in a quick fashion— there was only so much preparation Xichen would have before needing to accomplish it on his own.
But the alcohol burned off, and Xichen’s head tilted to the side, and a wide smile crossed his nephews lips.
“Okay,” he said as he released Lan Qiren’s hand. “I’m ready.”
Xichen looked confident, and Lan Qiren wondered if he would take after his father here, and only need one attempt. But he poured his nephew the wine and offered him the cup, and folded his hands in his lap.
It was amusing, the way Xichen considered the liquid as he brought the cup to his lips; as though it was an enemy to be fought before it even entered his body. Lan Qiren waited patiently however, and gave his nephew the time to gather himself.
Golden eyes flickered to his as Xichen drank the wine, eyes wide and cheeks flushed from the flagrant violation of rules. But a moment later the determined smile slid off of Xichen’s lips and the cup hit the table with a thump.
“Oh, I didn’t do that right,” Xichen informed Lan Qiren seriously, eyes wide, then swayed to the side and slumped into a graceful heap.
Lan Qiren’s hand reached out to catch his head, and let Xichen rest on the floor.
“Take your time, A-Huan,” Lan Qiren murmured, sitting back and preparing a pot of tea. “In this it seems you take after me more than your father.”
It was silent as he waited for Xichen to wake up, listening to the sounds of the mountain as the cup of tea warmed his hands. Lan Qiren wondered at how their blood ran so true so as to totally overwhelm the tolerance from their mothers side… He smiled down at Xichen, allowing himself to be unguarded in this moment.
His mother drank like a fish and her child collapsed from a mouthful. Lan Qiren let a rare laugh roll out of him. The sound filled the room and Xichen sat upright with a gasp, glassy eyed and smiling.
“Uncle!” he cried out, and Lan Qiren raised a brow from the exuberance of the greeting. Xichen shuffled across the floor in a flash until he was at Lan Qiren’s side, peering over his arm and staring into his cup. “Is that more wine?” Xichen asked, brows furrowed. “It looks funny. Why does it smell like tea?” Lan Qiren watched as Xichen’s head twisted to face him, wide-eyed. “Can wine taste like tea, Uncle? Can I have some more?”
Lan Qiren bit back a smile at Xichen’s actions, then offered him the tea cup. “You may have this,” he said solemnly, and Xichen gasped.
Xichen took the tea cup like it was a priceless treasure, cradling it carefully in his hands. “It’s hot! I didn’t know wine could be hot! I bet that would be good in winter!”
Xichen blew across the surface of the tea like a child and Lan Qiren’s heart clenched in his chest at the action. His nephew had always been so self-assured, confident and mature beyond his years— Lan Qiren hadn’t known how much he missed this childish innocence until it was in front of him.
Xichen took a sip, then made a face. “This is tea,” he pouted, staring at Lan Qiren. “I wanted more wine!”
“I never said it was wine,” Lan Qiren replied, and Xichen’s shoulders slumped at the words. But before Lan Qiren could respond Xichen had placed the cup on the table in a hurry, liquid sloshing everywhere.
“Uncle!” Xichen stumbled to his feet and ran for the door, and Lan Qiren took a moment to be glad that it was locked, because he wasn’t sure he would have been fast enough to catch his nephew. “Uncle! I want to see A-Zhan!”
The locked door flustered him though, and Xichen turned to face Lan Qiren, devastation written across his face.
But Lan Qiren held up Liebing instead, and Xichen’s gaze snapped to the xiao in an instant. “A-Zhan,” he could forgive himself for using Wangji’s birth name, in this instance, “is with that Nie boy, remember?”
“Mingjue!” Xichen corrected even as he darted back to Lan Qiren’s side.
“Yes, Xichen,” Lan Qiren smiled as the xiao was taken from his hands. “Nie Mingjue.”
“He’s fun!” Xichen said, eyes following the xiao he was twirling in the air. “He’s good to A-Zhan, and he made A-Zhan laugh last week, did you know that Uncle?” Xichen barely waited for an answer before he continued, and Lan Qiren settled back, content to wait out the drunkenness.
“And the last time we drank he didn’t make fun of me!” Xichen slapped his hand over his mouth and dropped the xiao, then covered his eyes with his other hand. “Oops?” he said softly, peering at Lan Qiren through his fingers.
“I knew,” Lan Qiren said, struggling to keep his voice even. It was likely that Xichen had punished himself for his actions already, regardless.
Xichen leaned forward so far he collapsed against Lan Qiren’s side. “You knew!? But you didn’t punish us!?” Xichen’s voice was loud, unusually so for someone who usually kept it moderated and even, but Lan Qiren couldn’t bring himself to shush the boy. Xichen’s weight on his arm grew exponentially heavier.
“Oh wow, Uncle,” Xichen breathed, and Lan Qiren glanced down into the golden eyes that shone up at him. “You’re so nice!”
Lan Qiren huffed and Xichen slid off of his arm until he stretched out on the floor. Dancing fingers searched for the xiao that had rolled well out of reach and Lan Qiren shook his head, then summoned the instrument to Xichen’s hand with a flick of power.
“Oh!” Xichen looked down at the xiao with wide eyes as it smacked against his palm. “Did I do that?”
Lan Qiren snorted and Xichen twisted his head to look up at him, grinning. “You laughed!” Xichen held the xiao close to his chest, giggling. “Wait till I tell A-Zhan you laughed!”
You won’t remember any of this, if your blood holds true, Lan Qiren thought silently, then poured himself a fresh cup of tea.
“Will you play for me, A-Huan?” Lan Qiren asked, then pursed his lips at the name he’d used.
But Xichen didn’t seem to have noticed as he lifted the xiao to his lips, remaining sprawled on the floor— the unholy noise that emanated from the instrument made Lan Qiren’s spine tighten in reflex.
Xichen pulled the xiao from his lips and laughed and laughed, bright and clear and filled with mirth, his body shaking where he lay.
“Uncle, Uncle,” Xichen chanted through his laughter, “don’t tell anyone I made that sound!” Xichen rolled onto his stomach and swiped tears from his eyes, looking so much like his mother that Lan Qiren’s stomach dropped. “That was pretty bad,” Xichen said earnestly, shoulders still shaking.
“It was… not the worst sound I have ever heard,” Lan Qiren allowed, because the rights to that firmly belonged to the memory of Xichen’s first month studying the xiao. He shook his head. “Will you try again?”
“No,” Xichen said easily, the xiao still snug in his grip. He relaxed where he was and pillowed his head on his arms. "Did you know your room spins?" Xichen asked abruptly, staring at the wall with a far-away expression.
"That happens," Lan Qiren replied gravely, and Xichen’s eyes went wide.
"Are you doing it on purpose?" Xichen asked, and Lan Qiren took a moment to cover the amusement at his nephew’s seriousness.
"Regrettably, I am not. It will stop on it's own."
"So weird," Xichen mumbled, then turned his head to look at Lan Qiren. "Will you play for me, Shufu?” he asked, and Lan Qiren’s spine went tight for a new reason. “You never play anymore,” Xichen continued thoughtfully, though his words were interrupted by a yawn. “I miss it.”
Xichen settled down where he was and closed his eyes, and Lan Qiren watched him, and wondered if his energy had been depleted so fast.
“How about… that song?” Xichen asked, voice muffled as he spoke into his arms. “When A-Zhan had the nightmares, remember?”
Lan Qiren remembered, clearly. Two little boys under each arm, pressed against him tightly, roused from sleep by A-Zhan’s screams. It had been Xichen who had brought his brother to Lan Qiren that first time, eyes wide as tears streamed down both of their faces— Lan Qiren reached a hand out and rested it on Xichen’s hair.
“Let me finish my tea,” he replied softly, and Xichen hummed in answer.
It had been almost impossible to play, encumbered as he was by his nephews, but Lan Qiren had managed it, torn from his own sleep by two children who needed parents and had never had them.
Lan Qiren pushed the table clear as he summoned the guqin. Xichen lifted his head and blinked as the hand was taken from his hair, then grinned.
“Thank you, Shufu!”
“Hush, child,” Lan Qiren said absently. But Xichen went still for a moment, then hauled himself upright. He crossed his legs as he sat next to Lan Qiren, then rested his head on his uncle’s shoulder.
Lan Qiren allowed it, and turned his attention back to the guqin.
The notes were soft, sweet— it was a song made to soothe a fearful child and that showed in its simplicity, but Xichen’s head grew heavy on his shoulder.
“Sometimes,” Xichen whispered, the words almost inaudible, “I wish you were our Father.”
Lan Qiren’s fingers fumbled the strings but Xichen curled up against his side and said nothing. Lan Qiren kept playing, shaken by the words.
“I know this was supposed to be his job,” Xichen continued, face still hidden. “I know that you didn’t want any of this.”
Lan Qiren’s heart tore open in his chest, because— Xichen was right, he hadn’t wanted any of this, he’d never wanted children, he’d never wanted to marry, he had never thought that he would be Acting Clan Leader as his brother wasted away in the same seclusion that had killed his wife—
Xichen’s breath blew softly across his shoulder, his weight somehow growing heavier. “I just want to say thank you,” his nephew mumbled, “and I love you.”
Lan Qiren’s hands went still and flat on the strings.
“A-Huan,” he managed, and turned his head to look at Xichen. But his nephew was sleeping soundly now, braced up against Lan Qiren, and he sighed, long and low.
He hadn’t known what to expect from his drunk nephew— though he’d prepared for the giggling he had witnessed once before, Lan Qiren hadn’t expected this.
He stared at Xichen’s face, relaxed from sleep, then closed his eyes.
With a steadying breath Lan Qiren reached out and curled his arm around Xichen’s shoulders and stood, scooping his surprisingly heavy nephew up into his arms. He’d prepared a pallet for the boy earlier and was glad for it as he set Xichen down and drew the blanket up around his neck.
Lan Qiren remained squatted at Xichen’s side for a long moment. He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Xichen’s forehead, just above the medallion on his ribbon, and whispered, “I love you too, A-Huan.”
Morning came as it always did, though this time Lan Qiren had the unique pleasure of watching Xichen roll off the pallet with a thud, then glance around wondering where he was.
“...Uncle?” Xichen asked, blinking quickly as he struggled to remember the previous night.
Lan Qiren looked over and held in a laugh at how disheveled Xichen was— hair wild, robes crooked and wrinkled, lines from sleep dug across his face.
“Make yourself presentable, then come eat breakfast.”
Wangji had shown up the moment it was allowed, concern written across his face when Lan Qiren had opened the door. It had been the work of a moment to reassure his youngest nephew that Xichen was fine— though Wangji had not been pleased to be kept away from his brother, he had hidden the dissatisfaction well.
Lan Qiren looked up as Xichen sat across from him, a cup of tea in hand.
“What do you remember?” he asked, and Xichen grimaced and shook his head.
“I remember thinking I knew what I was doing,” Xichen said, shamefaced, “and nothing else.”
Lan Qiren hummed. “Then again, tonight.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Xichen said, then reached out to begin eating.
When Xichen showed up after dinner Lan Qiren had the Emperor’s Smile out once more, and Xichen locked the door behind himself without being told.
“Are you ready to begin?” Lan Qiren asked, but Xichen hesitated.
“Ah, Uncle…” Xichen dithered for a moment, then clasped his hands in his lap. “Did I do anything regrettable last night?” Lan Qiren raised a brow and Xichen rushed to add, “I’m not used to having such holes in my memory.”
Lan Qiren contemplated the boy, then shook his head. He would not consider any action from last night regretful in any sense— and he hadn’t heard either boy say ‘I love you’ in years— Xichen’s shoulders relaxed.
“If you had done something worth mentioning, I would have. Now,” Lan Qiren raised a brow. “Do you need me to show you again?”
Xichen bit his lower lip uncertainly; it made Lan Qiren narrow his eyes in annoyance, though he said nothing. “Once more, please,” Xichen said softly. “I think I know where I went wrong last night.”
Lan Qiren inclined his head and offered his wrist, and Xichen took it in steady hands. “Watch closely,” he said, unnecessarily, because Xichen’s focus was already inward.
The wine was sweet as Lan Qiren burned it from his body, and Xichen jolted forward, eyes shining. “I think I understand!”
Lan Qiren raised a brow, but withdrew his wrist and poured Xichen’s cup. He watched as his nephew readied himself then took the cup, and drank.
There was no immediate collapse this time so Lan Qiren waited as Xichen’s eyes remained closed, a frown on his brow.
“I uh, I think I did it?” Xichen said, sounding not at all confident in himself.
Lan Qiren studied his nephew, then gestured with his chin. “Stand and bring me the fan behind you.”
Xichen put the cup down and stood, then immediately wobbled. “Oh…” he said softly, hands bracing him upright on the table. “I did not do it.”
Lan Qiren watched as Xichen trembled upright, prepared to catch him again if necessary.
“This feels weird,” Xichen said, nose wrinkling. He was waving gently from side to side, staring blankly at the table, and Lan Qiren shook his head. Xichen looked up at the movement. “Uncle? What was I doing?”
“I asked you to bring me my fan,” Lan Qiren repeated patiently, and Xichen’s eyes brightened as he remembered.
“Oh, that’s right!” Xichen spun around and stumbled, but caught himself. “Fan, fan, fan,” he mumbled, and Lan Qiren could see his eyes searching the room for the fan that was in front of him, but higher than he was looking.
“Would you like some assistance?” Lan Qiren asked, preparing a pot of tea. Xichen turned to look over his shoulder with a brilliant grin.
“No thank you!” Xichen chirped. “I’ve got this!”
Lan Qiren laughed under his breath as Xichen turned away once more and continued looking.
“Fan, fan… oh, what’s this?”
Lan Qiren looked up as Xichen became distracted— his nephew was holding a tiny scroll, poking at the seal that bound it, head tilted curiously.
“Bring it to me and I will show you,” Lan Qiren called out, and Xichen startled like he’d forgotten where he was.
“Okay!” he replied cheerfully, spinning in place and lurching across the room. Lan Qiren reached a hand out before Xichen fell completely, and settled his nephew at his side. “Thanks for catching me!” Xichen said, happily leaning against Lan Qiren.
“You are welcome, A-Huan,” he replied, and took the tiny scroll from his nephews hands.
It was old, yellowed with age, but Lan Qiren knew exactly what it was. He unrolled it and Xichen gasped loudly, delighted.
“A bunny!” Lan Qiren turned so that Xichen could see the drawing better, and a wavering finger reached out to stroke over the lines gently.
“Wangji drew this, many years ago,” Lan Qiren said softly, and Xichen’s head met his shoulder with a solid thump.
“A-Zhan is all grown up now,” Xichen said tremulously, and Lan Qiren looked down, bemused to see tears welling in golden eyes. “He doesn’t want us to call him A-Zhan anymore.”
Lan Qiren hesitated, then offered the drawing to Xichen in its entirety, and wiped the tear that had escaped down his cheek.
“We must respect his wishes in this,” Lan Qiren said gently, and Xichen nodded, his fingers tracing the bunny endlessly.
“I know, Uncle, I know…” Xichen sniffled, then put the scroll on the table and turned into Lan Qiren’s chest. “He’s so big now! He doesn’t need us anymore!”
Lan Qiren looked down at the boy gently sobbing in his arms, and couldn't help the smile that no one would see.
“And did you forget what you said when you received your courtesy name?” Lan Qiren asked the shaking bundle in his arms.
“Yes,” Xichen replied rebelliously, sniffling.
Lan Qiren shook his head. “You said, ‘when you get your courtesy name you’ll understand’.”
Xichen sniffed louder. “Well I take it back, Shufu.”
Lan Qiren hummed as he began to rock his nephew gently, staring at the fan that Xichen had never managed to bring him.
“To live is to change,” he said softly. Xichen mumbled under his breath, too low for Lan Qiren to hear. He looked down and could only see a mass of sleek hair and the curve of a nose, and smiled. “Not all change is bad.”
Despite it all, I am glad. Glad I was here to see the men you and your brother will become.
“‘m tired,” Xichen turned his head just enough to be heard. “I want to go to bed.” He sank firmly into Lan Qiren’s arms, and for a moment he contemplated carrying Xichen to the pallet once more. But Xichen was still awake, if barely, and capable of walking.
“Come along, A-Huan,” Lan Qiren said quietly, maneuvering them both upright. “I am too old to carry you to bed again.”
Xichen stumbled on the smooth floor then clung to Lan Qiren’s robes firmly, face still pressed into his shoulder.
“Not old,” Xichen argued weakly, laying down obediently as Lan Qiren unwound his arms. “Uncle,” Lan Qiren looked up from the blankets he was covering Xichen with and found golden eyes staring at him, worried. “I think I forgot something.”
Lan Qiren looked at the fan on the wall, and thought of the tiny scroll on the table, and smiled.
“You did,” he said easily. “But it is okay.”
Xichen was quiet the next morning, contemplative as he ate.
Lan Qiren allowed him the time to think, and wondered how much of last night Xichen recalled. He had burned a large quantity of the alcohol, though obviously not all.
He should be more than prepared after tonight, Lan Qiren thought.
“Again tonight?” Xichen asked quietly, and Lan Qiren inclined his head. “Thank you for breakfast, Uncle.”
“You are welcome,” Lan Qiren replied in a voice just a low, and Xichen raised his head and met his eyes for the first time all morning.
“Will you do this with Wangji as well?”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said. “When he is older.”
Xichen hummed in thought, his fingers tapping the table gently. Ordinarily Lan Qiren would scold him for the action— but the atmosphere was companionable, though fragile, and he made himself ignore the sound.
“May I be here for it?” Xichen asked, and Lan Qiren met his gaze straight on.
“That is for your brother to decide.”
“Of course,” Xichen murmured, then rose from the table and bowed. “Thank you.”
Lan Qiren watched as Xichen left, golden eyes flickering to the fan that was still untouched on the wall.
That night Xichen showed up at the same time.
Lan Qiren had the jar of Emperor’s Smile ready once more— Xichen reached out and poured for both of them.
Lan Qiren raised a brow but kept silent. If Xichen thought he was capable then there was no point in holding him back— there was a reason they were doing this now, well in advance of the conference.
Xichen waited until Lan Qiren had emptied his cup first before tossing back his own, and Lan Qiren watched carefully until golden eyes met his, as steady now as they had been when Xichen had arrived.
“You understand?” Lan Qiren asked, and Xichen inclined his head.
It was different tonight, now that Xichen had mastered the trick of burning the alcohol with his core— Lan Qiren found himself missing the freedom with which Xichen had spoken to him the previous nights, though he tucked that feeling away. This was being done for a reason.
“Good.” Lan Qiren reached out and poured them each other cup. “And now to test your skill.”
Xichen accepted the cup easily and once again waited for Lan Qiren to drink first. The liquor was warm as it slid down his throat, before his golden core reached up to nullify it. Lan Qiren hadn’t allowed himself to be drunk in so long… likely since well before Wangji had been born.
Xichen met his gaze as they each placed their cups down, and a smile tilted his nephews lips up.
“Thank you for teaching this to me, Uncle,” Xichen said, and Lan Qiren shook his head as he poured out the last of the jar for each of them.
“It is a necessary skill for us to have,” he said. Especially where Jin Guangshan is concerned, he didn’t add. There was no reason to add to Xichen’s worries just yet.
They drank the last cups and settled into silence for a long while. It was peaceful— not yet dark out, the birds singing to each other in the trees— Lan Qiren looked up as Xichen stood. His nephew walked over to the fan on steady legs and lifted it gently, then brought it back to Lan Qiren.
He kept his expression neutral as Xichen presented the fan to him with a bow; his nephew met his gaze with a wry grin.
“I remembered,” he offered as explanation, and Lan Qiren huffed a laugh.
“Go see your brother,” Lan Qiren said, and Xichen set the fan down on the table gently. “And Xichen?”
Xichen turned at the door, no sign of intoxication on him anywhere. Lan Qiren glanced down at the fan and rested his fingers on it gently.
“Should the opportunity present itself,” he continued, “teach this to that Nie boy.”
Surprise made Xichen’s eyes wide, though he collected himself shortly. “Ah, yes, Uncle.”
Lan Qiren turned away pointedly until the sound of the door opening and closing came, then looked down at the fan and shook his head. He rose slowly to put it back where it belonged, thoughts whirling.
Nie Mingjue will benefit from staying sober in conferences as well. Lan Qiren straightened the tiny scroll before turning back to the low table. He sat in silence for a while, thinking back over the last few days.
With a wave of his hand Lan Qiren summoned his guqin, then rested his fingers on the strings.
Xichen was right. Lan Qiren thought of those early years where he’d been harried and stressed every day, two little boys trailing after him with wide eyes, trying to learn how to be a Clan Leader and a father at the same time. It has been a while.
He let his fingers move across the strings, and a lullaby filled the air.