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Hoards and treasures

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Xichen might never have noticed.

If it hadn’t been for Wangji’s unusual but definite preoccupation with that one particular guest disciple drawing Xichen’s attention in turn, he probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Which would have been a shame. Not only regarding Wangji’s happiness but also that of his brother’s chosen mate. Even the Gusu Lan as a whole rather benefited, and Xichen certainly counts himself lucky for the additional family member he ended up gaining.

Although, he is getting ahead of himself.

The point is, Xichen might never have noticed.

However, the very first time Wangji mentioned the Yunmeng Jiang Head Disciple– by name! – to him during their shared morning tea, a daily ritual they both take perfect  care never to miss, Xichen had instantly taken notice. And definite interest.

For the sole reason that someone had clearly succeeded in drawing his little brother’s attention.

And, as an older brother, it is Xichen’s most sacred – and most fiercely enacted – duty to check out anyone his little brother, who can barely even be bothered to pay attention to any of their own sect’s disciples on most days, might have taken such definite notice of.

His brother. His family. His to protect.

The dragon blood, so diluted in their clan now, even in those of Lan An’s own line, however, certainly enough to still clamor within his veins with the need keep his little brother safe and protected and to not let anyone but those truly worthy near him.

So.

So what if Xichen might then have decided to maybe make his way past the lecture halls right around the time he knew the lectures would end for the day. Just to get a glimpse. To see who had so clearly managed to captivate his brother, when Xichen had been afraid Wangji might never find anyone to befriend. Much less someone to want at his side in a more… permanent capacity.

Of course, he knew of Wei Wuxian before he had arrived at the Cloud Recesses with the Yunmeng contingent and certainly before Wangji ever mentioned him. Everyone knew of him. There is a reason why this class of guest disciples is so much more numerous than they usually tend to be, why so many of the smaller sects chose to send anyone within the accepted age range to Gusu this year.

This year of guest lectures, which doesn’t only boast the attendance of heirs from most of the major sects but also has a celestial fox amongst them.

Wei Wuxian, the Yunmeng’s Head Disciple and adopted ward of the Jiang main family. A fox amongst turtles.

Ever since word first reached the other clans of a trueborn fox amongst this generation of cultivators, amongst Yunmeng Jiang’s disciples, all of the sects have been clamoring to strengthen their ties to Lotus Pier.

The boon of allying one’s clan with that of a trueborn celestial creature is rather incomparable. And think of the increase in standing which a potential marriage alliance to said creature might bring even the smallest of clans. Not to even mention the children, that might result from such a union, the potential reawakening of any clan’s trueborn bloodline…

So, yes, Xichen had certainly heard of Wei Wuxian before, had even met him during the Yunmeng contingent’s – somewhat chaotic – arrival at the Cloud Recesses. However, it had been a brief meeting, entertaining but nothing particularly of note, if only compared to how perfectly intent Xichen is on his observation now. Now that he knows of Wangji’s interest in this particular disciple. Now that he knows to pay attention to every detail.

So, over the next few days of ‘coincidentally’ making his way past this year’s group of guest disciples, Xichen expected his view of one Wei Wuxian to shift, considering that added factor. Which it did.

Although, maybe not quite in the way he might have expected.

At first, he had been surprised – though maybe not as much as others might have been – at finding said Head Disciple to be the exact opposite of what most people would expect Wangji to find notable in another.

Bright smiles and wide gestures and joyful laughter, ever-surrounded by others, forever at the center of mischief. One might say, his brother’s exact opposite.

However, Xichen also sees the other side of it, the boy’s kindness and willingness to include absolutely everyone, the laughter shared with anyone who cares to join in, the quick tutoring sessions in between lectures for those disciples not quite able to keep up with the pace Shufu tends to set, the way the younger disciples – even of Xichen’s own sect – seem to flock towards him, children clamoring for his attention, drawn in by his bright spirit and forever-kind words.

So, after a few occasions of observing from afar, Xichen can admit that he does understand why this disciple in particular might have caught Wangji’s eye.

A fox who, as Xichen can confirm, does his kind’s reputation and their mischievous nature justice, always a smile on his lips, mischief curling at its corners, laughter in his voice. But, to Xichen’s relief, never meanly so, never condescending or disregarding, less so even than Wangji himself tends to be.

Wei Wuxian laughs just as loudly at his own misfortunes and failings as he does at those of others.

Xichen also sees the way Wei Wuxian seems rather notably focused on Wangji whenever he is near, the way the fox seems to constantly scan his surroundings restlessly, almost like he might be waiting for something. Right until Wangji walks into sight. Only for Wei Wuxian’s attention to then immediately zero in fully on Wangji, nearly to the exclusion to all else, badgering him with smiles and comments and teasing jokes, until he has gotten at least some sort of reaction from Xichen’s little brother. The honest delight in Wei Wuxian’s eyes whenever he does.

It is promising. To see how absolutely returned Wangji’s preoccupation with Wei Wuxian is.

So, as he watches his brother and his chosen mate circle one another, neither of them quite acknowledging the draw between them, quite possibly not even entirely aware of it yet, but the interest certainly reciprocal, Xichen feels rather buoyed.

His dragon blood is still clamoring within his veins to keep his family, his precious little brother, safe. However, the worst of his fears have been put to rest with almost astounding ease after the first few days of observing one Wei Wuxian.

If nothing else, even if Wei Wuxian were to settle on friendship rather than fully returning Wangji’s far more romantic feelings, the boy would at least do his best to be kind about it. Which is something.

Although…

Knowing how exclusive his own kind’s focus on anything they might ever deem precious – even more so in regards to chosen mates – tends to be, Xichen would certainly prefer if his little brother didn’t get his heart broken at all, no matter how kindly that devastating blow might end up being delivered.

Yes, it would definitely be best if Wei Wuxian were to simply return Wangji’s feelings. Entirely.

Xichen’s heart could rest easy then.

+++

Over the coming weeks, Xichen continues to observe, if no longer quite as fiercely intent on watching his brother and his chosen mate as he had in the beginning, assured that Wangji will not come to any intentional harm at Wei Wuxian’s hands or words.

Which doesn’t mean his brother’s heart is safe quite yet, but his observations have assured him that Wei Wuxian is sooner going to cut off his own limbs than to purposely do Wangji any harm, much less let anyone else get away with doing anything of the sort. Which is reassuring, at least.

If nothing else, Wei Wuxian seems perfectly intent on becoming Wangji’s friend, continuously seeking him out, badgering him, teasing him, spending as much time around Wangji as he can or is allowed to, and, whenever around one another, his focus utterly unwavering on Xichen’s little brother.

Which is a promising sign, Xichen thinks.

Even if Wangji might not be showing his returned intent on Wei Wuxian quite as… obviously as the fox might be expecting.

Going by the definite dejection crossing the fox’s expression from time to time at once more finding himself brushed aside by Wangji with nary a comment, Xichen suspects that Wei Wuxian has yet to realize just how firmly Wangji has slotted him into the position of ‘friend’ – though ‘object of affection’ might be more accurate – weeks ago already.

Then again, Xichen knows that, for all that he himself finds his little brother’s expressions perfectly easy to read, even their own uncle has difficulty understanding Wangji more often than not. With Wei Wuxian and Wangji having met mere weeks ago, Xichen can forgive the fox for maybe not having mastered the ability of interpreting Wangji’s minute shifts of expression quite yet.

If all goes to plan, Wei Wuxian will have as much time as he could possibly need to learn.

All in all, Xichen is rather content with his brother’s choice of who to add to his – admittedly rather meager – hoard of people to treasure.

In that, Wangji is like Xichen. They both hoard people rather than things or power like so many others do, neither of them having any interest in worldly treasures when they know that true value is found in those few whose loss would have you stop breathing, would have your world stop turning, the very center of you suddenly missing, taken from you.

However, it also means that Wangji’s entire hoard consists of Xichen and Shufu. Nothing else. Barely enough to keep a dragon on this side of sanity.

Even Xichen has a few friends he holds dear and considers part of his hoard to protect, a couple of things he has collected over the years, gifts and souvenirs from certain travels and mementos. His brother doesn’t.

He knows the elders are to blame for Wangji’s so overly strict keeping to their clan’s rules of not hoarding in excess. The constant reprimands during his early childhood, the very effective lesson that holding a person precious does not protect them from being taken from you.

Their mother, who had been his little brother’s entire world, the center of his hoard of things to treasure, and who had been so easily taken away by life and others’ pettiness.

No, Xichen is never going to forgive the elders for instilling that particular lesson into his brother so very early and so very harshly.

If anything, it only makes him all the more determined to see to it that his brother gets to add who he has clearly chosen as his future mate to said hoard.

There is little he wouldn’t do to see his brother happy.

+++

Over the coming weeks, Wangji’s helpless focus on the celestial fox amongst them seems to only grow more intense.

Then again, maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dragons are ever-ferocious whenever they find something to chase after, something worth keeping safe, worth adding to their cache of personal treasures.

There is a reason why the Gusu Lan has so many rules.

Most of them were written in an attempt to prevent any of them from razing the world to the ground while pursuing something they might deem worth chasing after.

Then again… Wei Wuxian could certainly be considered… precious, couldn’t he. Even beyond his little brother’s thoughts on the matter.

A celestial fox. When their kind has been thought to have died out several times across history, chased nearly to extinction by those trying to get their hands on the celestial magic they so easily wield.

Celestial magic, its source the very heavens themselves, capable of granting near any wish if only the fox might deem it worthy enough. Celestial magic that can even be shared with another, the easiest way for any cultivator to improve their Golden Core towards immortality.

Celestial magic which sees to it that its favored line always breeds true, the only heritage amongst creatures forever undiluted, not even necessarily in regards to their own creature heritage but, if not that, then in regards to that of their mate.

Foxes are known to only ever have trueborn children.

It has been centuries since the Gusu Lan – and even Lan An’s own line – last produced a dragon capable of shifting into their trueborn form. Instead, it has been generations of different degrees of partial shifts, some born with a smattering of scales – like Xichen’s collection of iridescent scales along his shoulder blades – and some with other marks of their heritage – like Wangji, the first Lan in generations to be born with more than one mark of his heritage, a trail of shining scales along his hipbones, and the barely-there nubs of his immature antlers on his forehead – but some of their clansmen also born with no longer bearing any signs of their trueborn heritage at all.

Such partial shifts – if you can call manifesting a couple of scales somewhere on your body a ‘shift’ at all – are seen as the height of anyone’s power these days. For all that they are well aware that their ancestors once roamed nature freely in their other forms, fully shifted, their celestial heritages a boon almost unimaginable nowadays.

Of course, cultivating one’s Core does serve to ever-increase one’s connection with the creature blood slumbering within them, however, no one has succeeded in doing so to the point of re-attaining a full shift into their trueborn form in centuries.

Their heritage might still makes Gusu Lan one of the most feared clans amongst the major sects, but their celestial blood, like that of all clans, has still been diluting ever-further with each generation. Some sects, like the Jiangs and the Jins, seem to have lost their connection to their other forms pretty much entirely.

Which brings him right back to Wei Wuxian. The only known celestial fox amongst the sects.

The potential addition of trueborn fox blood, undiluted in its effect even so many centuries after the other sects lost most of their abilities, the thought of maybe gaining an heir capable of fully calling on their trueborn form, would be an unimaginable boon for any of the sects.

Xichen certainly isn’t the first to think so.

Ever since Wei Wuxian’s heritage became known as he reached maturity and first shifted into his trueborn form, all the sects have wondered about Yunmeng Jiang’s motives in taking him in back when he was a child. Whether Jiang Fengmian might have already known of Wei Wuxian’s heritage beforehand.

Shufu confided in Xichen some time ago about his certainty that Cangse Sanren hadn’t been a celestial fox. Which means it must have been Wei Changze, Jiang Fengmian’s close friend. Thus, the Jiang sect leader might very well have known about his friend’s, and thereby also Wei Wuxian’s, heritage, even if no one else had.

A secret kept between friends. A secret easily exploited in the absence of the former.

House Jiang’s willingness to adopt someone not of their blood, especially in the face of the Lady Jiang’s obvious disapproval of her husband’s ward, would certainly make sense if they had known of Wei Wuxian’s heritage before he ever showed the signs.

Of course, no one within the cultivation world ever quite dares speak those facts out loud, for all that they are perfectly aware of it.

At most, people tend to comment on how… lucky the Jiangs had gotten in their choice of adopted ward. To find a fox kit living on the streets, entirely on his own, no help or remaining relatives to go back to, no one to take care of him, already used to the desolation of living on the streets. And so very grateful to those who took him in.

A fox now powerful, bright and incandescent in his brilliance. And perfectly loyal, indebted even.

Yes, the Yunmeng Jiang had been rather lucky, indeed.

+++

In hindsight, Xichen can admit that, if not for Wangji’s interest and his own sudden, so intent scrutiny on the fox, he likely would not have noticed the… discrepancies surrounding one Wei Wuxian.

Discrepancies regarding his education and conduct. Discrepancies regarding how he is clearly treated by those he calls family.

During their family dinners, he listens to his uncle’s furious tirades about Wei Wuxian’s intentional disregard of established codes of conduct amongst gentry, although Shufu’s continued references to Wei Wuxian’s mother and how he clearly inherited his disregard for authority figures from her, makes it rather apparent that his uncle might be holding some… grudges that seem to have very little to do with Wei Wuxian himself.

Because, when Xichen chooses to run into Wei Wuxian one afternoon after the lectures have ended, the boy is perfectly polite towards him, maybe a little louder, more energetic, than Shufu and the elders tend to prefer, but in no way as disrespectful as his uncle’s words had made him expect.

Wei Wuxian uses all the correct forms of address, the right terms of referring to himself and Xichen while in his company. He bows in all the right places, even if…

Well, some of his bows are admittedly not quite deep enough to be considered appropriate or even entirely polite due to their respective stations, the heir of one of the main clans and the adopted ward of another.

It is nothing too notable, but some of Wei Wuxian’s bows are just the slightest bit off in a way that would certainly be ignored from anyone who is not part of the gentry, anyone who wouldn’t know better. But, from someone who grew up to as part of one of the main houses, those slight differences are a rather large affront.

Because…

He bows to Xichen like they were equals, like they were both heirs to one of the major sects. When Wei Wuxian certainly isn’t.

Come to think of it

Xichen tilts his head in thought.

Wei Wuxian bows to Xichen just as Jiang Wanyin does, the exact same angle and depth and time holding the bow. Almost like Wei Wuxian might have copied said bow straight off his brother. Almost like he might not have been taught differently and was certainly never corrected in his behavior.

It is at that point, after their first few interactions, a few conversations full of bright, genuine laughter and just slightly off manners, that Xichen starts noticing the discrepancies.

The discrepancies of someone supposedly raised amongst gentry – alongside an heir to one of the major sects, no less – but who so clearly doesn’t have the expected ease of a firm and steady education, certainly not in regards to sect politics. It is something anyone of the main houses would be expected to know, but which Wei Wuxian simply doesn’t, committing faux-pas after faux-pas, though never grave enough to be confronted about it and also clearly without intent, but rather because he simply doesn’t seem to know better.

Almost like he never attended any lessons pertaining to the finer points of inter-gentry interactions and thus found himself trying to emulate his adopted siblings’ behaviors as best he could in order to make up for it.

Which would… fit, wouldn’t it? If Wei Wuxian never received any lessons about the finer points of conduct amongst gentry, that he would then use his brother as his guiding example, maybe not even entirely conscious of doing so but rather just choosing Jiang Wanyin as his nearest point of reference and molding his own behavior based upon what he was seeing.

Which likely works just fine in most interactions, certainly amongst his own sect where the only ones considered of higher station than him would be his own adopted family. However, it is a different story when interacting with other sects…

It is not like the bows themselves truly bother Xichen as such, and he certainly won’t be demanding a deeper bow from someone he is rather hoping to coax into at least friendship with his brother, if not something more.

Still.

Xichen can admit that, from someone who should know better, who was raised – supposedly –amongst the gentry, even those slight differences do certainly come across as rather disrespectful. Like an intentional provocation from someone thinking themselves above said codes of conduct.

Except…

Except there is nothing in Wei Wuxian’s demeanor that would suggest any sort of intent, nothing that hints at him even being aware of his own impoliteness, much less him having done so on purpose. The disrespect shown seems utterly unintentional.

To the contrary. Wei Wuxian bows and enthusiastically greets Xichen hello whenever he spots him, clearly happy to see him whenever they keep ‘coincidentally’ crossing paths. He chatters freely at Xichen, bright-eyed and energetic and forever asking about Gusu Lan and the Cloud Recesses and musical cultivation. And about Xichen’s brother.

Xichen was quick to notice that about every second or third of Wei Wuxian’s eagerly asked questions or comments or stories tend to relate right back to Wangji. A cheerfully bright comment about their rules, because Wangji keeps protesting Wei Wuxian’s constant disregard of them. A delighted question about Gusu Lan’s musical cultivation, because he saw Wangji practicing his guqin. A laughing account of yesterday’s visit to the cold springs, because Wangji would not stop glaring at him for attempting to join him in the water.

It is reassuring how obviously preoccupied Wei Wuxian clearly is with Wangji. If only because the sentiment is most certainly returned in full by his little brother.

To everyone else’s rather obvious ire.

For that is another thing.

Xichen is clearly rather alone in his delight at the obvious connection between Wangji and Wei Wuxian, for all that the two of them still seem somewhat unaware of it.

He sees the general growing ire at Wei Wuxian’s obvious focus on Wangji, not only from some of the other clans’ disciples – most likely at the implications of the celestial fox they have all been encouraged to ‘befriend’ or make some sort of ‘bond’ with by their own sects – but also from the Yunmeng contingent.

Most obviously, the fierce and ever-deepening scowl on Jiang Wanyin’s face, whenever his adopted brother’s attention is drawn away from him by the mere appearance of Wangji somewhere close by.

Xichen understands somewhat, how devastating the realization that your own brother might ever hold someone else more precious than you. However, not to the proprietary degree Jiang Wanyin clearly seems to feel it.

Xichen is mainly concerned with his brother’s happiness. His brother being happy makes him happy.

That’s all there is to it.

And thus he honestly cannot make himself care about the Jiang heir’s growing discontent at his own brother’s continued distraction with another.

Even more so since, by then, Xichen has already started drawing some conclusions about Wei Wuxian’s treatment within House Jiang. Conclusions which aren’t at all reassuring.

Conclusions which started with him wondering whether the gaps in Wei Wuxian’s education might have been deliberate or not, whether other sect duties might have ‘coincidentally’ called him away from those lessons at the most inopportune of moments.

Or rather, the most opportune. Depending on one’s agenda.

It is those conclusions that also have him pay somewhat closer attention to the Yunmeng contingent as a whole. He isn’t particularly happy at what he finds.

Because, for all that Wei Wuxian’s loyalty towards his adopted siblings in particular seems immutable, said adoration does not seem quite as openly reciprocal as one might wish, if only for Wei Wuxian’s own sake.

It is in the Jiang heir’s harsh words and rough gestures, the constant reprimands and accusations, more often than not in direct reference to Wei Wuxian’s heritage or his station within House Jiang. Like his nature of a celestial fox is something to be shamed for, instead of something any of the other sects would give half – if not all – of their clan treasuries in exchange for being able to lay any sort of claim to.

It is in the young maiden Jiang’s lack of support for her adopted brother, her reprimands certainly much kinder, much softer than Jiang Wanyin’s, but the scolding just as constant, still a far too easily made assumption of blame on Wei Wuxian’s part in any given situation, something almost like pleased surprised in her eyes whenever it turns out the fox is not at fault at all. It is somewhat painful to see her praising Wei Wuxian on a few occasions for not being to blame for whatever is happening at the moment.

Assumed guilt until proven innocent. Not quite the dynamic Xichen would wish on any child within their own home.

A dynamic which seems even more worrying due to how utterly unbothered Wei Wuxian seems by the clear disparity between his own adoration, his immutable, unquestioning loyalty towards his siblings, and what he gets in return. He doesn’t even seem to notice. None of them do. Almost like the three Yunmeng Jiang siblings are so familiar with this particular dynamic, so used to it, they have long-since forgotten to question any aspect of it.

Xichen thinks that, even if he didn’t have such personal, vested interested in the cheerful celestial fox his brother has fallen for, he would feel somewhat unsettled by the dynamic he is observing amongst the Yunmeng Jiang delegation.

Because, there is also the fact that the Yunmeng disciples only ever seem to approach Wei Wuxian with anything they might need, never once even attempting to approach either of the born Jiang siblings with their worries or problems or requests.

Young maiden Jiang, so kind and gentle and gracious. But also so clearly bred and raised to stand above anyone not of the gentry, even above the more common members of her sect, her demeanor making her impossible to approach by anyone not of her own standing. Of which there are few, considering she is daughter to one of the main houses and betrothed to the heir of another.

Similarly, her youngest brother, the Jiang heir, seems just as impossible to approach, so harsh and constantly angry, clearly conditioned to forever question his own worth based on how he compares to everyone around him, forever envious of anyone’s successes and unbearably boastful of his own.

And in the middle, there is Wei Wuxian, cheerful and bright and so very caring towards anyone who might ever approach him.

Yes, it really isn’t all that surprising that the Yunmeng disciples seem to only ever approach their Head Disciple rather than their sect heirs. Wei Wuxian who instantly tries to do his best to help, trying to solve any problems brought before him for them, all the while never once giving anyone else’s secrets away if entrusted with their confidence.

Loyalty and kindness. Good qualities to have. Especially towards one’s own clan, one’s own family. Especially for anyone of a clan leader’s family.

Unwavering loyalty and unending kindness, neither of which seems to find much in terms of reciprocation from his own family.

If even his adopted siblings, who do admittedly seem to love Wei Wuxian, treat him in such an unbalanced manner, all the while so clearly unaware of the inequality towards the one they so freely call their brother… It would indicate that Wei Wuxian’s treatment at the hands of yet others within the House Jiang might be even worse.

Which is the exact moment in time when Xichen starts to think on some of the… less genial implications of that very loyalty he finds so admirable in the fox Xichen has come to care about over the past weeks of conversation and shared walks around the Cloud Recesses, even beyond his brother’s preoccupation with Wei Wuxian.

Implications regarding Wei Wuxian’s treatment at the hands of his adopted family, his unwavering devotion in spite of it. And what that might mean, even if Wangji were to attain exactly what he is hoping for, the mate he has clearly chosen for himself.

A mate who seems to have little by way of self-worth, and certainly not compared to his own family, no matter how they might treat him.

All the while, Wei Wuxian’s devotion remains unchanged, utterly unaltered, almost blind in his loyalty.

Conditioned, Xichen’s mind whispers at him, the dragon within him furious at the affront committed against his brother’s future mate, even if the two of them are nowhere near that stage yet.

Still, those thoughts circling his mind as he observes the Yunmeng delegation are jarring. Almost panic-inducing.

Because…

What if Wei Wuxian were to return Wangji’s feelings after all?

It should be a happy thought. Except… What if Wei Wuxian does bond to Xichen’s little brother, but then also refuses to leave his adopted clan behind, the clan he is so very, immovably loyal to. What if Wei Wuxian were to refuse staying in Gusu and instead insists his mate comes to Lotus Pier with him…

Xichen knows better than to think that his brother would choose to remain in Cloud Recesses if it would cost him his mate. That choice is within no dragon, Xichen knows.

However, the thought that Wangji might agree to follow his mate to Lotus Pier, not only removing him from Xichen’s immediate protection but also dragging him to a place where the celestial fox is clearly treated as so much less than he should be, a treatment that might then even extend towards Wangji…

Wangji who would have left the Cloud Recesses for the fox, would have left Xichen’s territory and immutable protection, only to then be treated even remotely less than what he should be…

The dragon within his mind roars with fury at that thought, fighting to tear free for all that he will not be able to shift, but still furious enough to try.

Xichen breathes in, calms himself, even as his mind spins, trying to think of implications and solutions and means to employ in order to make sure his brother never leaves his den, never removes himself from Xichen’s hoard or his protection, especially if doing so might bring him the slightest bit of potential harm.

The dragon within him snarls, celestial fire raging through his veins.

Yes, Xichen would much prefer if that… didn’t happen. If only because he would much rather avoid starting a war with one of the other major sects over the treatment which his own brother might receive at the clearly delusional hands of one Madam Yu and Jiang Fengmian. Although, he certainly would. If that is what it takes in order to keep his little brother and his chosen mate safe.

For, if House Jiang would so freely mistreat a celestial fox, the one trueborn celestial creature currently known of in the entirety of the cultivation word... What would stop them from doing the same to Wangji, no matter his bloodline?

Xichen swallows.

Yes. That cannot happen.

He won’t let it.

No matter what he has to do in order to prevent it.

+++

Xichen quickly comes to quite enjoy his repeated ‘coincidental’ run-ins with Wei Wuxian, once the lectures have ended for the day. Even if, the more time he spends with the fox, the more his suspicions about his home life and his rather gap-filled formal education seem to prove true.

Because there are definite things that Wei Ying doesn’t know, things he should know if he had received a steady education at a sect heir’s side. Unless, he’d been pulled away from lessons too frequently to still be able to make up for it, leaving him no choice but to simply fill in the parts he was missing on his own.

Which Wei Wuxian has, to the best of his abilities. Maybe not always correctly, but still enough so to speak of how truly brilliant he is, to be able to do so even in parts.

Now, if only Xichen could find an opening to offer filling in those gaps, to start pointing out the holes – most likely left willfully – in his education.

A chance which presents itself only a week later, Xichen having taken to stretching his legs in between sect duties by taking a walk around the Cloud Recesses in the afternoons. The fact that those walks tend to have him pass by the lecture halls right when the guest lectures usually end, well, surely that’s just coincidence.

It is, of course, a new habit, these afternoon walks, something he didn’t use to indulge in before, but which he has come to rather enjoy nowadays. If only due to the company it so often brings.

Wei Wuxian certainly seems delighted to keep running into him so frequently, sometimes even waiting for him along the trails, anxiously bouncing in place until Xichen rounds the corner, greeting him enthusiastically, the fox’s silver gaze the slightest bit hesitant, clearly worried about his welcome but exploding into happy storytelling as soon as Xichen greets him in return and gives no sign of wanting him gone, clearly happy to have someone to talk to, someone willing to listen to his endless chatter.

Chatter, which tends to rather reliably circle around Wangji. And Xichen will always be happy to listen to someone talk so delightedly about his little brother.

He wonders whether, if Wei Wuxian were to move to the Cloud Recesses after bonding to Wangji, they could still make these afternoon walks a regular thing between them. Although, he doubts that Wangji would agree to stay away and instead most likely join them as well.

Xichen smiles at the thought.

+++

“And then Lan Zhan was so furious,” Wei Wuxian laughs at Xichen’s side as they walk along the trails leading through the back mountains, so happy to have someone to talk to, just in general and about Wangji in particular, when those in his life apparently have a tendency of shutting him up whenever he does, too annoyed by his constant preoccupation with Wangji. “Just because I asked to borrow his ribbon.”

Wei Wuxian’s laughter is bright, inviting everyone around him – which, at the moment, is only Xichen – to join in on the hilarity.

“Your brother is such a fuddy-duddy,” Wei Wuxian concludes happily, the word which should be an insult somehow sounding more like an endearment, something almost precious, the fox’s eyes soft as he says them.

Still. Wei Wuxian’s little story…

Xichen halts his steps, calmly turning towards Wei Wuxian beside him. Who pauses as well twirling around to face him and see what made him stop, grin still bright on his face.

Although, the grin freezes a little at seeing the serious expression on Xichen’s face, the boy forever so very conscious of anyone’s disapproval. Xichen can practically see the way Wei Wuxian immediately starts mentally skipping backwards through their conversation, obviously trying to figure out what he might have said that could have changed the happy atmosphere between them so abruptly.

He just as obviously comes up empty, blinking in confused question as to what could have made Xichen turn so serious so suddenly.

It is then, in that very moment, that Xichen realizes… Wei Wuxian doesn’t know even this, doesn’t know what the Lan ribbon signifies, what him asking to touch it means based on Lan customs.

Maybe Xichen shouldn’t be so surprised at the revelation, already having realized how much common-amongst-gentry knowledge Wei Wuxian is missing. Still… All sects have something they hold sacred, something unique to their traditions, something usually relating back to their celestial creature blood. It is one of the first and one of the most essential lessons anyone interacting with other sects in any sort of official capacity – as a Head Disciple or a member of a main house definitely would – should be taught.

However, Wei Wuxian clearly has absolutely no idea, so obviously certain of his assumption that its importance is exaggerated by Wangji in particular that it almost makes Xichen wonder whether someone might not have deliberately confirmed Wei Wuxian’s ignorance in this regard at some point.

“Young Master Wei,” he starts, keeps his voice calm, knows this is his chance to show himself different from those of his own sect who would already be calling for punishment, possibly for him to be sent home due to the committed affront of asking to touch a Lan heir’s forehead ribbon. “The Lan ribbon signifies our self-control. It is sacred to us.”

Across from him, Wei Wuxian is nodding cautiously, eyes on him, clearly aware that he must have missed something just based on Xichen’s reaction to his story. His fingers are curling anxiously at his sides, worry radiating off his form.

He is afraid, Xichen realizes. Afraid he might have offended me, possibly to a degree beyond what I might be willing to accept.

From anyone else, Xichen might admittedly have been, if only due to the inherent joke played on his little brother. However, he has already slotted Wei Wuxian into the position of future family, has done so for Wangji’s sake. Brushing aside this one misstep when the fox so obviously meant nothing harmful by it, watching him anxiously now as he realizes he had done anything offensive at all, is easy.

The reward of remaining calm in this one instance will be well worth it.

He tries not to think of Wangji and how furiously devastated he must have been at his chosen mate jokingly demanding what, by Lan customs, would amount to a betrothal request.

Wei Wuxian is not to blame for this, Xichen reminds himself, soothing the deep snarling within his mind. He cares for Wangji. He does not realize what hurtful offense he committed. It is the fault of those who kept him deliberately ignorant.

“Our ribbons are only ever to be touched by our immediate family, with the sole exception of our mate,” he continues, pauses once more.

Across from him, Wei Wuxian’s eyes have started to widen, shock in them. The words themselves cannot be new to him, certainly elaborated on in detail within the rules he has been assigned to copy numerous times for various transgressions by now.

However, rather clearly, either he had skipped past those particular rules or he had not taken them to be particularly serious at all.

Xichen keeps his expression calm and kind as he concludes, “Requesting to touch a Lan’s forehead ribbon, when only our family and mate are permitted to do so, is equivalent to requesting becoming either of those. To do so as a joke…” he deliberately trails off.

Wei Wuxian is gaping at him. “I-,” he blinks. “What? But I didn’t- But the others said-,” his eyes are wide, focused on Xichen, like he might still be expecting him to burst out in laughter and reveal this to be some sort of joke.

Xichen just watches him back calmly.

The longer he remains serious and the clearer it becomes that he isn’t joking at all, the more Wei Wuxian’s shock seems to grow.

Then, something seems to occur to the fox, something desperate overcoming his expression, his hands twitching, half-stumbling a step sideways in his hurry to assure, “Zewu-jun, I didn’t- I swear, I wouldn’t- And Lan Zhan-,” he stutters uncharacteristically, stumbling over his own words, starting to blush bright red, eyes wide and desperate, almost terrified.

Ah, seems like Wei Wuxian has realized that, by their customs, he has more or less proposed to Lan Zhan. And now he is clearly panicking at Xichen potentially thinking he might have tried to do so without asking his family’s permission first, much less in such an uncouth manner.

Xichen holds his serious expression for another moment, then lets his features relax once more, even as he re-starts their walk around the Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian hesitating for a few moments before cautiously falling into step with him again.

He very deliberately doesn’t give away how very much he – or Wangji – wouldn’t mind Wei Wuxian speaking such a proposal. Just as long as he actually meant it.

“It might be best if you were to assure Wangji of that fact,” he then provides leadingly. Because, his brother deserves to know that, as much as he might wish for the proposal to have been serious, Wei Wuxian hadn’t joked about such a serious issue out of spite but simply out of honest ignorance.

Beside him, Wei Wuxian is nodding vigorously, eyes still wide and cheeks still bright red with his embarrassment.

+++

Over the next couple of days, Wei Wuxian blushes brightly every time he so much as spots Lan Zhan from a distance.

Everyone notices. It is rather hard not to.

Tongues wag, the other sects start paying quite a bit more attention to the potential alliance being formed between Gusu Lan and Yunmeng Jiang by way of the celestial fox amongst them showing such definite preference for the second Lan heir.

Jiang Wanyin continues frowning from the sidelines, trying to keep his brother close, scowling at anyone daring to come near.

Wei Wuxian seems perfectly ignorant to it all, only having eyes for Lan Zhan, apparently trying to work up the courage to approach him after a few days of avoiding him rather obviously.

Wangji, who is clearly caught between his anger at assumedly being made of by Wei Wuxian’s request to touch his ribbon, and his dejection at suddenly being avoided by said object of his affection.

Xichen is already considering whether he should step in, having intended to leave it to the two of them to clarify things between them, but now uncertain whether his interference by way of explaining the significance of the ribbon might not have done more harm than good if it leads to Wei Wuxian avoiding not only Xichen but also Wangji.

To his relief, he comes across the two of them having a hesitant conversation just a day later.

“Listen, Lan Zhan,” Xichen overhears Wei Wuxian saying softly to his brother on the path leading between the lecture hall and the Library Pavilion, “I just meant to say- That is- About your ribbon- That I’m… I’m sorry? About asking to, to touch it? I really didn’t know what it meant and then your brother said that… And I really didn’t! And I’m just- I’m sorry?”

His voice is pleading, like he is honestly expecting Wangji might not forgive him. A ludicrous notion.

The silence between them stretches for a while longer.

“Mn,” his brother finally returns, something of his quiet fury from the past few days settling once more, likely realizing, just as Xichen had, that Wei Wuxian truly hadn’t known about the significance of the ribbon and his request to touch it not at all having been intended as it had been received.

Considering how easily he accepts the apology, Xichen thinks that Wangji might have already suspected as much. Because, after several weeks spent around the fox, he likely knows that there is not a single mean-spirited bone in Wei Wuxian’s body.

Wei Wuxian’s explosive sigh of relief at the calm hum only affirms that thought, his obvious worry at potentially having overstepped to a point where their friendship might not recover any longer.

Xichen carefully withdraws, not interested in stealthily taking part in more of their reconciliation, whichever form that might take.

He also doesn’t doubt that Wangji has taken note of Xichen’s own name having been mentioned by Wei Wuxian in connection with the misunderstanding being resolved.

So, he isn’t surprised when his little brother seeks him out that very evening, clearly seeking clarification. Interfering with another dragon’s courtship of their chosen mate, as slow-going or unacknowledged as Wangji’s interest might yet be, is never a smart thing to do without good reason.

Thankfully, there are allowances to be made for family.

+++

Wangji is silent as always as he sits across from Xichen, but his eyes serious and definitely demanding an answer as to what Xichen is doing, interfering in Wangji’s business.

He does not want to bring his brother in on Xichen’s ever-firming plans to ensure that Wei Wuxian will not even consider remaining anywhere other than Cloud Recesses after bonding to Wangji. If only because speaking of those plans would put Wangji in a rather bad spot regarding his – hopefully – honest courtship of his chosen mate in the future.

So, instead Xichen sets his own tea aside, before he carefully supplies, “I have had a few conversations with Young Master Wei.”

Wangji doesn’t move but the continued calm in his eyes tells Xichen that his little brother must have somehow been aware of his rather frequent conversations with Wei Wuxian. Most likely due the fox’s own unceasing chatter at Wangji, which most likely includes mentions of said afternoon walks, now that he thinks of it.

He adds carefully but weightily, because this part is important, “I have come to realize that Young Master Wei’s most grievous missteps since his arrival here, might be less due to irreverence and more due to simple ignorance.”

He pauses, can see the consideration of his words dart through his brother’s eyes, merely a few seconds before he sees the recognition of how Xichen’s assumptions regarding Wei Wuxian’s patchy education might fit into Wangji’s own observations of the fox’s behaviors.

He calmly waits for his brother’s acknowledgement, something rather intent in Wangji’s eyes now.

“I simply sought to correct his erroneous assumptions in regard to things his education has clearly been neglected in,” Xichen provides seriously, doesn’t add that these are things anyone who might want to marry into the Lan An’s direct line will have to know.

Wangji listens, his expression remaining unchanged, but something in his eyes gleams, something attentive and possessive and protective at the thought of his chosen future mate having gone neglected in any regard.

Their evening ends without further discussion on the topic.

His brother’s lack of protest might as well have been a ringing endorsement of Xichen’s actions.

+++

From that day forward, Wei Wuxian seems to deliberately make Xichen his gauge for how ridiculous others are truly being about supposed traditions or how embarrassing of a faux-pas he himself might have unknowingly committed at some point.

Xichen quite enjoys it.

The inherent trust and getting to laugh – at least internally – at some of Wei Wuxian’s stories. For, while some of his stories would certainly be seen as quite the affront by some of his own sect’s more… self-important elders, Xichen can admit that some of them could do with some shaking up from time to time, if only in the form of a mischievous fox challenging their ever-so-self-righteous views of themselves.

Their rules warn of arrogance. Letting the ever-cheerful, forever-bright fox poke at those elders who seem to have long-since forgotten that the rules they so like to impress on others should also fully apply to themselves, seems like a suitable punishment.

For Wei Wuxian can dance circles around absolutely anyone. And he is going to be family anyway. Thus, it seems fitting that he would get far more leeway in teasing their clan’s more pompous members than anyone else would.

If only because he wants Wei Wuxian to see that, no matter how serious their reputation, how grandiose they might make themselves appear towards outsiders, at the heart of them, the Gusu Lan is just like any sect. Family first, everything else second.

A place where true loyalty to your own and kindness to those depending on you is treasured as it should be.

Admittedly, Xichen also rather enjoys the way Wei Wuxian has chosen him in particular to confide in. If only because, Xichen had always hoped that he might get along well with whoever Wangji might ever choose as a mate.

His easy and so very cheerful conversations with Wei Wuxian certainly exceed his own expectations.

Xichen is glad.

+++

Wei Wuxian hadn’t known about the significance of the Lan ribbon. At least not what it truly signifies.

He doesn’t know about the sect rules, at least not how seriously they are taken by Gusu Lan as a whole.

He certainly doesn’t know about many of the inter-sect politics which everyone else takes such care to never step on, and which are thus also never openly mentioned and thereby impossible for anyone not directly taught about them to surmise.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know a lot of things he definitely should as someone so closely associated with one of the main houses.

His siblings certainly know. But neither of them ever seems to see fit correcting Wei Wuxian’s erroneous assumptions.

Xichen has yet to figure out whether there is a reason for that or whether it is just simple habit to not interfere in the patchiness of Wei Wuxian’s education.

+++

No one amongst the sects doubts whether Yunmeng Jiang is perfectly aware of the increased standing the addition of fox blood to one’s own clan might bring any bloodline.

It makes Madam Yu’s unhidden dislike of her ward so very unseemly. To the contrary. She should be congratulating her husband for taking in the child, for granting such an incredible boon to his own sect.

Xichen knows he isn’t the first to wonder about Yunmeng Jiang’s motives in taking in a celestial fox.

However, his observations regarding Wei Wuxian’s education, education that he should have received as a member of one of the main houses amongst the sects but which Xichen is suspecting he never did, instead kept somewhat ignorant to some of the finer points of inter-gentry interactions make Yunmeng Jiang’s motivations appear in a far… harsher light.

With everyone having become aware of Wei Wuxian’s heritage, the other sects have been clamoring to improve their ties to Lotus Pier, whether in hopes of gaining a marriage this generation or in the next or simply profit of their increased standing doesn’t matter.

Still, despite the many careful inquiries made by several sects, Yunmeng Jiang has yet to announce whether they intend to marry Wei Wuxian off to another sect at all.

It makes Xichen wonder.

It might be that Madam Yu is aiming to keep the fox within her own sect, to bolster their blood instead, only dangling the potential alliance by way of marriage to the fox under her ‘care’ in order to gain better trade deals from the other sects.

She clearly cannot stand the boy, but keeping him within her sect would still be of far more benefit to Yunmeng Jiang than having him marry into another clan, no matter what another sect might offer in return. The injection of trueborn blood into their clan would be incomparable.

Whether she interfered with Wei Wuxian’s education out of simple pettiness or whether she did so in order to keep him ignorant of the options he certainly does have amongst the sects, options of places where he would certainly be treated better than he is in his current clan.

Xichen thinks, she must be rather irked at realizing that, even despite that handicap she so harshly and deliberately instilled in his life, Wei Wuxian is still effortlessly outshining all other disciples of his adopted sect. Including its heir.

Still, any sect would take in a fox the very moment he might show the slightest inclinations to do so. Said sect wouldn’t even have to worry about retaliation, because the other clans would do all they could to remain within the fox’s good graces and thus refuse their aid to the slighted sect.

So, for Madam Yu to keep Wei Wuxian’s education on the level of a common sect member – if that – in order to keep him with her sect, despite his treatment there... It would make sense.

It is smart. Thinking years ahead.

Then again, if someone were to interfere with her machinations… If someone were to offer Wei Wuxian a home where he would not be disregarded, where he would be taught all he needs, all he might wish to, a home where his blood line might certainly be noted but not the sole reason he would be treasured, where he could be happy

Xichen tilts his head, smile soft and genial.

Well, who knows what might happen then.