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out with lanterns

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i.

After almost a month of collaboration, Jiang Cheng will freely admit: Lan Wangji is a brilliant swordsman, with an uncanny talent for wrangling information out of anyone they come across, and his dedication to finding Wei Wuxian is—well. Admirable, especially given the fact that they hadn’t been particularly close (beyond Wei Wuxian being obsessed with him, and Lan Wangji putting up with it). 

Of course, he’s still the most insufferable person that Jiang Cheng has ever met, but he’d known that before agreeing to work with him, so it doesn’t affect him much in their day to day interactions. And anyway, by silent agreement, they are both being neutral. In theory, this could mean many things; in practice, it means that Lan Wangji does not wrinkle his nose when Jiang Cheng speaks, and Jiang Cheng does not roll his eyes when Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. 

Tonight it is almost too much, the silence. Jiang Cheng finds himself getting angry, the feeling held inside him like a hot pepper, blistering the roof of his mouth. There is blood in his hair and mud caked onto the hem of his robes, and they have turned over yet another Wen stronghold with no sign of his shixiong. Lan Wangji is feeling it too, if the flat line of his mouth is any indication. Jiang Cheng sometimes tries to pick out the sorrow from the anger from the frustration in the minute twitches of Lan Wangji’s jaw or eyebrows. It’s a game he plays with himself; he generally loses. He doesn’t know what Wei Wuxian sees in him. Saw. Sees.

(“Did Zewu-jun send you?” Jiang Cheng had asked, that first week, when Jiang Yanli was (finally) safe with Jin-furen and Jiang Cheng could turn his attention to their lost brother. When he had already cried in the burned-out husk of his home, and stood to keep walking. He had still consciously straightened his shoulders when Lan Wangji stepped off his sword and onto the docks of Lotus Pier. Lan Wangji has that manner about him: he makes Jiang Cheng feel like a particularly errant child.

“Wei Ying is missing,” Lan Wangji had said, his eyes fixed on the lake. Tracing over the lotuses, blooming. Jiang Cheng couldn’t bear to look at them: it was too much life for a lifeless place. Lan Wangji never looked away from them, bouncing on the water, the soft edges of the petals and leaves that dipped in and out of the lake.

“He was supposed to meet me,” Jiang Cheng had said, and the world had blurred. Lan Wangji, in what might have been compassion, had still not looked away from the water.)

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji says, that evening. Unexpected. 

Jiang Cheng blinks. He had been standing in the middle of the empty room, chest aching, head full of straw. That same wrenching pain held firm inside his body, the spitting fire of anger. Until he opens his mouth, and he realizes—

“Sometimes I think he’s really dead,” he says. 

Lan Wangji flinches, bodily. It’s such an unexpected, visible reaction that it brushes away Jiang Cheng’s violent grief, muddying it with surprise. 

“Wei Ying is strong,” Lan Wangji says, his voice a little too loud in the echoing, empty room. Jiang Cheng’s mouth parts, and then closes. Comfort is not something you offer to the Second Jade of Lan. Comfort is not meant to be something he needs, with his turned-up nose and aggressive competence and the way he stays clean through every battle. 

He sounds like he might need comfort now. Almost. 

Jiang Cheng looks at the empty room, the moon out the window. Clearing this place out took longer than he expected, and it’s late, now, too late to do anything except wash up and go to sleep and hope for more news tomorrow. In the first week he stayed up all night, until he collapsed. Rebuilding docks and holding his sister and trying to ignore how ill he felt without Wei Wuxian’s dark-robed shoulders in his field of vision. And then Lan Wangji had come, and he had been silent and pointed and stubborn as ever about bed-times, and Jiang Cheng had started getting some sleep again. 

“Yes, he is,” Jiang Cheng says, roughly. He doesn’t know how to do this. How to keep doing it, day after day, without Wei Wuxian here to help him. Sending letters back and forth to disciples who all want him to be someone he’s not, with the sect leader’s guan too tight over his hair, and no training to speak of; his sect too heavy to carry. But Wei Wuxian is strong. If he would just—if Jiang Cheng could just find him. See the bright edge of his smile, feel his hand on his shoulder. If Jiang Cheng could rescue him, for once. Maybe it would even some things out. The world cannot be all loss, all grief. How would anyone bear it, if it was? 

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He clears his throat. 

“He—of course we’ll find him. He’s too stubborn to die.” 

Lan Wangji is quiet again for a moment, and then, unclenching his jaw, he says, “Xiongzhang did not want me to come. Too reckless, he said.” 

Jiang Cheng feels like he’s being told something important, if only he could grasp what it was. But he is too tired, and he misses his parents, his sister, his brother, his home. He wishes Lan Wangji would be clearer. 

“Yes, well,” he says, picking dried blood out of his hair, trying to comb it free with his fingers. “Maybe he was right.” He heads for the stairs, thinking of a bed. A place to close his eyes for a while, to let the world be quiet. 

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji says, leaving off his title. Not quite right; not the version of his name he wants to hear, or the voice he wishes would call it out. 

He turns on the stairs, looks down into Lan Wangji’s pale stubborn face. There is so much not to like about Lan Wangji: his coldness and his superiority and his fierce lack of concern for whether you care for him or not. But there is, at this moment, something Jiang Cheng likes very much. A certain light in his eyes, fever-bright and burning. 

“He will be found,” Lan Wangji says, with the conviction of thousands.

Jiang Cheng snorts, and turns back to the stairs. Wonders if Lan Wangji can see how much better the four words had made him feel. “Well, if Lan er-gongzi says so,” he says, “it must be true.” 

 

 

ii.

Lan Xichen cannot sleep.

It had come on slowly, at first. In the first weeks of his seclusion it had been all he’d done, it seemed; his body stilling and staying quiet past five, six, seven, eight. Waking when the sun was already high, the room too-hot as the rays beat down. And then the pendulum had shifted, swung the other way. At first it had been simple, easy to trace: he was awake later because he had slept later, and that was—reasonable, wasn’t it, rational, a clean alignment of cause and effect that he could pick apart and see, and examine, and then—

It’s late. He doesn’t know how late. He has not slept in—well, he slept a little. A little, the night before, laying on his side with his hand outstretched on the bed alongside him, mind full of fog, reaching for—and then he had woken with the sun, still tired, and there had been nothing to do but get up.

Tonight, he is slipping from the Hanshi into the library. 

It feels like a curse, this sleeplessness. Lan Xichen is half out of his mind with it, with the fog that has settled after a few days too many of three or four hours of rest, and the awful, heavy sleep that comes when his body can no longer resist it, for ten or eleven hours at a time. He wakes up achy, his mouth sour; he shivers even in full sunlight. It takes him a few days to even make the decision to venture out to the library, but surely there is something that can be done. Lan Xichen has never needed to worry much about illness—his core has kept him protected from most diseases, and caution has kept him from others. He wants to fix it, somehow. 

Wangji would help, if he asked, but Lan Xichen doesn’t want to ask. Lan Xichen is supposed to be the elder of the two of them—the idea of bothering his brother with this, when he has already asked him to run the sect in his absence, makes shame wash through him, white-hot. 

He sees Wei Wuxian a little too late. His brother-in-law is sprawled at a table in the library, papers spread out around him, idly paging through a book and mumbling to himself as he takes notes. One of Wangji’s winter robes is draped around him like a blanket, the white of it stark against his dark clothing, but Wangji himself is nowhere to be seen. 

It’s dim, the table lit by a single candle. He doesn’t see any others. If he wants to read, he’ll have to share the table. 

Feeling as if he’s intruding, he clears his throat. Wei Wuxian looks up, and then jumps, scrambling for his papers. Wangji’s robe falls from his shoulders. “Zewu-jun—!”

“You don’t need to . . .” Lan Xichen says, and then trails off as Wei Wuxian stands and bows. He bows back, fists clenched. Tracks, as he does it, how sometimes his limbs feel disturbingly weak from lack of sleep. Something else he needs to fix.

“You’re awake,” Wei Wuxian says, frowning. “Is everything all right?”

“I have to look into something,” Lan Xichen says, which is appropriately vague. Wei Wuxian is too clever to be mollified by a statement that means nothing, of course, but he may back off for the evening, which is all Lan Xichen needs from him. But Wei Wuxian’s presence annoys him, a little—Lan Xichen wants to be alone, he wants to sleep, he wants—

“I know I probably shouldn’t say this,” Wei Wuxian says, softly, “but I think Lan Zhan would worry if—ah, Zewu-jun, you don’t look well, you know?”

Of course Wangji would worry. But if Wangji was worried he would visit Lan Xichen every day, and bring him lunch, and sit with him, and he would be waiting once again outside of a room he could not enter. Lan Xichen does not want Wangji to worry, because he does not want him to suffer. “It’s nothing to concern yourself with, Wei-gongzi,” he says. Stiff. Unkind. He takes a few books of music off the shelves. Variations on Cleansing, ones that might help him sleep, if he can—

His hands know the pages when he turns them. He played this for Mingjue, this variation. Before. And as soon as the thought comes his mind riots against it, and he lets the books fall a little too heavily onto the table, next to Wei Wuxian’s candle. 

Wei Wuxian, despite Lan Xichen’s attempts to brush him off, still looks concerned. 

Softer this time, he asks, “Zewu-jun, have you been sleeping?”

Lan Xichen looks away. 

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, and tugs at his ear thoughtfully. “I ask because I haven’t been, either.”

Lan Xichen does not answer this, for a while. He kneels at the table, and opens the books in front of him. The notes swim, muddle themselves, transposing into different keys. He feels so blank, scraped empty. Eventually, he finds the words. “Does Wangji know?”

“Eh, you know him,” Wei Wuxian says, and waves a hand. “He’d stay up with me if I asked him, but I don’t see the point in that. It would just make both of us miserable. Better he get rest than try to be noble, don’t you think? And anyway,” he adds, a little softer, “it’s been happening a long time.”

Lan Xichen looks at the books stacked on the table. “How long?” he says to Wei Wuxian. His brother’s husband, his brother-in-law. Father to his nephew. There are so many small ways they are connected, and yet Lan Xichen knows so little of him. 

Suddenly the knot in his stomach feels more like nerves than annoyance, twisting tight.

He had teased Wangji about Wei Wuxian once, when they were young enough that nothing mattered except laughter, sunshine, a tossed loquat. Could he tease him now? He doesn’t think so. Back then, Lan Xichen had thought he’d known something about love. What it looked like. What it was, to have it. 

“Since I was little,” Wei Wuxian says, and shrugs. “My shijie—she used to sit with me sometimes, when it was really bad.”

Lan Xichen nods. His thumb catches against the paper, a small scratching noise in the empty room. 

“You should tell Wangji, if you need him,” Lan Xichen makes himself say. He had stood outside the Jingshi and told Wei Wuxian of their mother, of those afternoons Wangji spent awake, and waiting. Nights would be no different. Surely Wei Wuxian can see that—but perhaps Lan Xichen had not been clear enough then, either. 

Wei Wuxian’s clever gray eyes meet his again, across the table. “Shouldn’t you tell him, too?”

He opens his mouth and closes it, scratches the paper again. Wouldn’t it be different, with Wei Wuxian? 

Wei Wuxian tilts his head knowingly, and goes back to his own work. “In any case, if you can’t sleep—” He gestures at the table, leaving the sentence unfinished. It’s a cautious gesture. Lan Xichen surprises himself by feeling a little comforted. Perhaps neither of them know what to do with each other.

“Mm,” Lan Xichen says. He is not glad that Wei Wuxian has offered, precisely. But there is something sighing in him, and closing its eyes. Something contented by the presence of another person. “I won’t disturb you?”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth quirks, and he tugs Wangji’s robe back up around his shoulders. “No,” he says. “You won’t.” 

The candle flickers between them. Lan Xichen is still tired. The night still seems like it will be too long, the sunlight leagues away. But—and this is a strange thing after so much time in seclusion—he is not alone. 

He folds his hands in front of him on the table, and lets his books sit, for now. “So, Wei-gongzi,” he says, and watches as his brother-in-law offers him a surprised smile, “what are you working on?”

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