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except for when i'm missing you

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+

 

if your hands need to break

more than trinkets in your room

you can lean on my arm

as you break my heart.


- i don't smoke (mitski)

 

+

 

Gusu has become quite lively since the return of his brother and Wei Wuxian. It is an odd change for many, having been so used to the dedicated, studious silence observed within their sect, but it is not unwelcome. The Yiling Patriarch – that fabled, almost mythical being they had all been told to never, not once , speak of at the Cloud Recesses, especially when in the presence of Hanguang Jun – appears before them daily with playful smiles and hidden sweets up his sleeves. His presence does not bring death like the stories of his past say, but instead an exasperating fondness one cannot shake once it has taken root.

Perhaps this is why no one complains even when they want to. They look at Wei Wuxian, the fearsome demonic cultivator their fathers had told them horror stories of as children, and he is not an angry, vengeful ghost, nor a demon revived to scorch the earth in flames. He is instead a man who laughs a lot and talks excitedly about everyone and everything. More importantly, he is also the husband of Hanguang Jun and the father of Lan Yuan.

And not to mention my brother-in-law.

But that is a more commonly forgotten detail. Most disciples are too busy wondering where Lan Xichen even is to bother connecting him to the expanding family tree. Some say that you can catch sight of him leaving the Cloud Recesses in the dead of night, but only if you are willing to risk punishment for breaking curfew. Others say that you must rise hours before dawn to see him. Either way, the arguments that arise in the dining hall over the Zewu Jun sightings are apparently quite the spectacle.

“It’s like some great balance has been tipped over. We get to see Hanguang Jun look the happiest he’s ever been, but Zewu Jun… Did I tell you before that I caught a glimpse of him the other night while on patrol duties? I nearly mistook him for a wandering ghost, with how pale and unhappy he looked. He didn’t even have his attendants with him.”

“Ah, is that so? You should leave him be. He’s still grieving after everything that happened.”

“But after all this time, shouldn’t he be… you know, getting a little better? It’s nearly been a year. That vile person can’t possibly matter this much to Zewu Jun, can he? He took advantage of his kindness for so many years! If I were Zewu Jun, I’d be angry!”

“Keep your voice down, stupid. You shouldn’t be talking about such things out in the open. Besides, have you already forgotten about Hanguang Jun? He grieved for years. Newborns have since grown into young disciples! It takes time, you know.”

“Senior Wei is a different case, though. Hanguang Jun knew he was a good person worth waiting for! But that Jin Guangyao… How can Zewu Jun miss such a person?”

Indeed, he wants to laugh, because it really is quite shameful, but he remains silent and only emerges from around the corner when the gossiping boys vanish somewhere up ahead. How nice, how simple , it must be to see the world the way they do. He almost envies them.

{ There is a boy with quiet, determined eyes that stare out at the world as though envisioning it beneath his feet. Lan Xichen can’t help but think he must be lonely and decides to smile at him. The boy, however, reacts as though he’s been struck across the face and recoils. }

Almost.

+

 

Jiang Cheng hates Gusu. Not for any reason in particular, but just because he hates it. Yet as the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang, he cannot avoid the damn place, for his sect and the Gusu Lan have an unfortunately intimate history with one another, and no amount of groaning and rolling his eyes at the thought of traveling there can erase that.

When he arrives, however, he thinks that maybe, just maybe , the real reason he hates Gusu is because Wei Wuxian has attached himself to it like a parasitic louse and won’t fucking leave. It’s almost like he’s trying to piss Jiang Cheng off.

“How long are you staying with us?”

“Only a couple weeks. Jin Ling will be attending lessons here for three months, and I just want to make sure everything is well adjusted before I leave.”

“Haha… What you mean is that you don’t want me to fill his head with anything stupid, huh?”

“Exactly.”

But Wei Wuxian looks excited nonetheless. He’s always been fond of Jin Ling, which is annoying to think about. “If you’re so worried, why don’t you just give him his lessons back at the Lotus Pier?”

“Something about the Gusu Lan method of teaching being good for aspiring young leaders.” Jiang Cheng pauses, pointedly glaring at the man – his brother, he almost thinks with a sour note – across from him. “You do remember when we came here back then, right? Or is your memory still absolute shit?”

Wei Wuxian covers his mouth in feigned shock. “My, my! Such language! Don’t you remember that obscenity is forbidden within the Cloud Recesses?”

“Hmph! In that case, you and that husband of yours should be drowned in the river for going about as you do. And speaking of which, why did they send you to receive me? Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji are both unavailable?”

“I’ll have you know that I’m actually a representative of the Gusu Lan as well. One of those little perks of being married to Hanguang Jun, you know?” He laughs and slaps his knee as if it’s the funniest thing in the world – it’s not. Jiang Cheng almost wants to smack him. “But you know, it really isn’t their fault. Don’t be cross with them. Lan Zhan had to go run an important errand for his uncle, and should be back soon. That’s why I’m keeping you company until then!”

Jiang Cheng suddenly thinks of Lan Xichen. His throat feels funny, as though it’s closing in on itself.

“And... Zewu Jun?”

“Oh, well…” Wei Wuxian frowns. The answer must not be his to freely share. “He isn’t seeing anyone today. You might run into him in the dining hall later, maybe , but other than that…”

Of course he isn’t seeing anyone. Even after all these months, he’s hiding, mourning in silent shame over person Jiang Cheng once distantly had to consider family . His teeth clench.

“Still? It’s been how long , and he’s still –”

“I know,” the other interrupts, “But this isn’t something that someone like you can understand right now.”

Jiang Cheng silently glares at him. It doesn’t matter whether or not he understands what Lan Xichen is going through, and really, it shouldn’t. The most important thing is that they won. They survived . And meanwhile, Jin Guangyao is dead and unable to return.

{ The Yiling Patriarch is dead. }

{ Who killed him? How did he die? }

{ The fierce leader of the Yunmeng Jiang. I heard he was the one who brought his reign to an end. }

{ But weren’t they raised as brothers? }

{ It doesn’t matter. The Yiling Patriarch is dead and gone. It doesn’t matter. }

Wei Wuxian pouts much like a child who isn’t being taken seriously. “Hey, hey. I know that look! That’s your I don’t care because I’m always right look, isn’t it? Well, think what you want. It doesn’t matter much to me! Just don’t go bothering my brother-in-law during your stay about anything, okay? You’ll seriously piss off Lan Zhan if you do.”

“What, like that’s supposed to scare me? We aren’t kids anymore. I’ve got no reason to be scared of him.”

“Wait, you were scared of him? But he was so cute back then!”

Jiang Cheng is about to snap at him again, but he’s cut off by the sound of the door. It’s Lan Wangji. He arrives with the usual expressionless look on his face, as though he’s bored, or somehow unimpressed by everything in his path. He meets Jiang Cheng’s mildly surprised gaze and offers a brief greeting before taking a seat. And of course, it’s right beside Wei Wuxian.

“Lan Zhan, I was just talking about you! Do you have some kind of magical ability to sense when I’m bragging about how handsome you are to other people?”

Lan Wangji seems amused, perhaps even on the verge of a faint smile. “Yes.”

Fucking gag me, Jiang Cheng thinks with a curl of his lip.

He hates Gusu. He hates having to sit in front of the most annoying couple to ever plague the earth. To think that he could have had Lan Xichen greeting him instead, smiling that tranquil, patient smile he always seems to wear no matter the situation, is almost cruel. He’ll have to complain to him about it later when he gets the chance.

If he gets the chance.

“Actually, we were talking about your brother.” That strange, tight feeling in his throat is back, and suddenly he can’t trust himself to properly speak. He pauses to clear his throat. “I… I haven’t seen him in months. I’m almost to the point where I’m convinced he isn’t even here.”

“He is.” Lan Wangji says quietly. “But he isn’t receiving anyone at this time. Is there something you needed to tell him?””

“If there was, I’d prefer to tell him myself.”

“You cannot.”

His response is infuriating, if only because it isn’t what Jiang Cheng wants to hear. The thought of Lan Xichen locked away in his room and mourning in shame is enough to make him feel sick to his stomach. What’s worse is that everyone around him almost seems fine with it, too, as if letting him rot away behind closed doors is what’s best for him after all this time. He scowls.

“Do you think that’s okay? Shutting yourself away like that instead of facing the world outside? Just because you did it doesn’t mean he has to. Not everyone can live in solitude, Lan Wangji.”

Wei Wuxian is the one who reacts first, frowning and beginning to rise from his seat. His husband tries to calm him with a look, but it’s Wei Wuxian, and he isn’t the smartest person when it comes to subtle gestures. “Hey, c’mon now,” he snaps, jabbing a finger against Jiang Cheng’s chest, “Don’t be rude! You only just got here, and you’re picking fights already? Think about how embarrassing that’ll be for Jin Ling!”

“Quiet, you,” he snaps, pushing his hand away. “Sect Leader Lan has always been a reasonable person. It’s stupid of him to be shutting himself away like that and shirking his duties, and it’s stupid of you two to let him! If you really wanted him to get better, you’d drag him out of that room and make him confront reality – Jin Guangyao is dead, and we have all survived long enough to speak of it!”

Lan Wangji stares back at him. Though he does not express it with even the slightest of facial expression, there is a dark, quiet anger brewing in those eyes of his. Jiang Cheng scoffs.

“Just because our sects work well together doesn’t mean I have to sweeten our every exchange. We aren’t friends, Hanguang Jun, so don’t look at me like I have to act like it.”

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian warns. “What is with you? Why is your mood so bad today?”

{ He screams that night. He screams and screams until his throat is raw, demanding through bitter tears to know why he had to be the one to take everything away from him. But just as the night before, there is no answer. There is only a cold, empty room and the distant cries of an infant who has lost everything just the same. }

Nothing, it’s nothing, just mind your own business, he wants to spit out, but he can’t. A creeping sense of shame has already seized him by the throat and rendered him speechless. He doesn’t even want to look up, knowing that Lan Wangji’s disapproving stare has only intensified – like I care, like I fucking care. Jiang Cheng clicks his tongue and pushes himself to his feet.

“You’re leaving.” It is neither a question or observation. Lan Wangji wants him out of the room, and Jiang Cheng is more than happy to oblige. “You know where your guest room is.”

“Tch! You want me to retire so early in the day? At least afford me the opportunity to stretch my legs out, Hanguang Jun. And don’t worry – if I run into that brother of yours, I’ll be sure to look the other direction.”

He slams the door shut behind him.

 

+

 

to the you that lives on in my memories –

do you remember me as i remember you?

 

+

 

Across the Cloud Recesses, past the back mountain, through the mist – his journey tonight is a long one, but he has quickly grown used to it. Out here, there is nobody. It’s just him and his thoughts, which is surprisingly a comfort . He only hopes that Lan Wangji won’t drop by his room tonight to check up on him like the last time. They had almost argued then, the only thing stopping them from doing so being the worry evident in his brother’s eyes.

I used to look at him like that, he thought at the time, struck by the sickening familiarity of it all, But now he’s the one looking at me.

How embarrassing, really.

Lan Xichen arrives at a large, dead tree that sits rotting off the side of the mountain path. Behind its lifeless trunk is a view of the small valley below. There are rivers and trees and small huts – how easy it would be, he thinks, to simply take one step too many and go tumbling all the way down. Yet just as his eyes begin to linger over the edge, a gust of wind pushes back against his face. It’s almost as if the mountains themselves are urging him to to be careful, to keep on the path and not let his thoughts wander off in such dangerous directions. He smiles a little.

“I’ll be good. Don’t worry.”

WIthin his sleeve is a small, folded piece of paper. He takes it out and, after holding it tightly in his hands for just a moment longer, places it inside a small opening in the dead tree. Several other papers can be seen nested around it, some old and some new. They are all his own work. His fingers gently brush against them in greeting.

“My wrist has been hurting from all the work Uncle has given me this week, so today’s is a little short. I apologize for that.” He pats the tree and laughs dryly. Many years ago, he had sat beneath it with his two sworn brothers many an afternoon and felt that maybe, just maybe, the world wasn’t such a cold, dead place. How cruel such memories are – now he stands alone, both his friends dead and the tree they had always gathered at rotting from the roots up. “Though when I think about it, apologizing to you like this… It’s unnecessary after everything, isn’t it?”

As always, there is no answer. Only the distant chirping of crickets and the faint moaning of the wind.

Lan Xichen stares out at the lonely expanse of the mountainside and thinks of nothing.

 

+

 

 

He had gotten into a fist-fight with one of Jin Zixuan's arrogant servants during their three month stay in the Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng cannot remember for the life of him what it had been about, but what he does remember is that he punched the other boy so hard in the nose that it bled all over them both.

Needless to say, everyone went wild . Wei Wuxian was screaming with laughter, rolling around on the floor in a fit of hysterics. Nie Huaisang peeked out from behind that fan of his with wide yet morbidly curious eyes. And as for Lan Qiren...

I’m so dead,  he remembers thinking at the sight of the man parting his way through the crowds of children.

And he might as well have been by that point, for Lan Qiren grabbed his earlobe with enough force to nearly rip the whole damn thing off. To the library he was then dragged and instructed to copy the Gusu Lan sect rules until sunset.

“But Honorable Teacher ,” Nie Huaisang attempted to plea on his behalf, “It is but 9 in the morning! Can a person really spend so many hours writing?”

Lan Qiren stared back at the boy, unimpressed. “Would you care to join him and find out for yourself?”

“...I would prefer not to.”

And so he was left, abandoned in the same way he had abandoned Wei Wuxian countless times before. Years seemed to pass within the library as he tediously copied each and every rule dozens of times over, and by then Jiang Cheng was convinced that such a punishment was devised to render his hands entirely useless by the end of the day. He cursed the Gusu Lan under his breath, and cursed Jin Zixuan tenfold. If not for Yanli's engagement to the snobby bastard, he'd have nothing more to do with him and his troublesome sect.

At one point, however, his miserable punishment was interrupted. It was Lan Xichen, whose presence had gone undetected for who knows how long, honestly. Jiang Cheng only noticed him when he realized the scent in the air had steadily changed from that of ink and paper to the familiar fragrance of lotuses.

( Lotuses. That’s right. His smell always made me feel homesick, so I tried to avoid him that entire time. )

“Need help?” Lan Xichen smiled in an unusually mischievous way and took up a spare brush.

“W-What? No, it’s not that big of a deal.” He felt hot. Hot and sweaty. “I’m almost done, anyways. I have only a couple hours left until sunset, so…”

But the older boy paid his words no mind, already reaching for one of the blank scrolls stacked atop the desk. “You’ve written enough copies to supply each of your fellow students with one. That’s impressive.”

“Hmph. I’ll probably just give them all to Wei Wuxian. He needs them more than anyone else if he’s going to survive here.”

“Ah, I wouldn’t worry so much about him. He’s being looked after fairly well, believe it or not.”

“Huh?” Lan Xichen did not elaborate further. He was already writing, each stroke of the brush graceful beyond description. Jiang Cheng’s face grew hotter. “You… You really don’t have to help me, you know.”

“In the future, we will be working quite often together as the leaders of Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan. There is no harm in getting an early start to our close relationship, right?”

“Our… close relationship?”

“Mn. A strong, healthy friendship between two sect leaders is perhaps the next closest thing to marriage in the cultivation world, don’t you think?”

Jiang Cheng turned scarlet. Sputtering indignantly, he slammed down his brush and rose to his feet.

“Y-You…!”

“Yes,” and Lan Xichen had only laughed, quickly motioning for him to sit back down, “Me.”

 

+

 

On his way back down the mountain that same evening, he hears someone furiously pacing back and forth over the pathway leading into the Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen stops in his tracks – though it doesn’t feel like it, such a person can only be his brother.

Perhaps Lan Wangji has finally had enough of his avoidant behavior.

But for him to be this angry sounding is a worrisome sign. Rarely does his brother express himself in such inelegant, obvious ways. Lan Xichen stands there for what feels like an eternity and runs through all their interactions of late, searching for something, anything, he might have done to push his younger brother this far. Yet the more he thinks about it, the less certain he becomes. There really is nothing, and that only makes him all the more uneasy.

Am I losing touch with him?

{ There is no rest. There is no sleep. Each night is spent staring up at the ceiling in wide-eyed agony, the ghastly image of Lan Zhan a trembling, bleeding mess of self-inflicted wounds and heartbreak burned into his vision. }

{ I wish I could take the pain away. He’s become so distant, so detached… I’m scared, actually. It’s like I’m losing him. }

{ Meng Yao smiles in that soft, calming way he does and places a hand over his own. You could never lose him. You never let go of anything important to you. }

The thought of no longer being able to read his brother like an open book is terrifying enough to make his ears ring and blood run cold. He can’t afford to lose him. Not his dearest Lan Zhan, the little brother he’s unconditionally loved and cherished since the very day he was born. Whatever he must have done to finally drive his concern to outright anger, Lan Xichen is sorry, so sorry.

I keep failing to notice things in the people around me, he thinks as he hurries down the final stretch of the mountain path. His heart is pounding wildly in his chest, fear coursing through his veins. If I lose you too, I don’t think I can keep going.

The world is not patient. Time waits for no one. And after the 13 years of agony Lan Zhan had endured to wait for his beloved, it’s quite cruel, Lan Xichen realizes with a sting of regret, to ask that he possibly wait 13 more for someone who’s never even left.

Breath ragged and lungs on fire, he reaches the end of that path that leads back into the Cloud Recesses. The small lantern he carries is shaking from how unsteady his hand has become. Yet as he finally wills himself to approach the dark figure in the close distance who has yet to cease their angered steps, something strikes him – it is not his brother.

Frowning, he lifts the lantern and peers further ahead. He catches deep shades of purple, and a ribbon that is not the same snowy white as his own.

It’s Jiang Wanyin.

He trembles in disbelief and drops the lantern entirely, drawing the immediate attention of the other. Jiang Wanyin’s face is only barely visible against the dying light, but he looks surprised, maybe even a little embarrassed. He’s stopped walking round and just stands there staring at him with wide, confused eyes that Lan Xichen oddly thinks look a little childish.

This is ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Lan Xichen almost wants to laugh at how he had worked himself up all this time over the mere suspicion of it being his brother. But he does not laugh – instead, he feels something hot, wet, and sickeningly familiar streak down his face.

“Ah…”

They are tears.

“Sect Leader Lan?” Jiang Wanyin takes a cautious step towards him, looking just as lost and confused as Lan Xichen feels. “What’s wrong?”

He can’t bring himself to respond. There’s no answer to such a question. Releasing a quiet, shuddering breath, Lan Xichen brings his hands over his face and tries to will the tears to an end.

“Hey…!” The Yunmeng Jiang leader suddenly closes the distance between them and grabs him by the shoulders, giving him a firm shake. Such an action would draw offended gasps and whispers of disbelief if anyone were to witness it. Though Lan Xichen has never made it a point to keep a physical distance from others like Wangji, touching him so casually, so freely is still quite disrespectful. He actually does laugh a little this time, but it’s broken and sounds much more like he’s gasping for breath. This only alarms Jiang Wanyin further. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you crying like this?”

Slowly, he lifts his tear-streaked face to meet the worried stare of the man in front of him. He doesn’t know what to say. Jiang Wanyin seems rather uncertain himself, his face suddenly a pinkish color. Maybe he’s embarrassed to be trying to comfort a man three years his senior. Lan Xichen can’t blame him. Releasing another unsteady breath, he wipes his eyes with the back of his sleeve and shakes his head.

“Sect Leader Lan?”

Finally, finally, he manages a hopeless smile. Jiang Wanyin reacts as though it’s burned him, letting go of his shoulders and stumbling back in wide-eyed alarm.

“I’m… I’m just so relieved ,” Lan Xichen whispers, and the fat, heavy tears are rolling down his cheeks again. “You don’t know how happy I am to see you right now.”

Jiang Wanyin’s face is a glowing, scarlet beacon in the darkness.

 

+

 

Wei Wuxian is nothing short of suspicious the following day. He annoyingly trails him at every turn, trying to be sneaky but ultimately giving himself away at every chipper, “Good morning, Senior Wei!” that he receives from disciples in passing. Jiang Cheng decides to at least humor him for a good half hour, silently carrying on with his business and preparing lessons he would like incorporated into Jin Ling’s approaching stay rather than pay his distanced brother any mind. Yet the moment Wei Wuxian not-so-subtly tries to steal the scrolls from his library desk and look over them, he finally puts his foot down – literally, and over the other man’s head.

“Ow! What is with you?!”

“I should be asking you that. Why are you spying on me?”

“Because this morning, you looked…” And there’s a pause. The former Yiling Patriarch sits up and rubs his chin thoughtfully, squinting into the distance. “How do I put this? It reminds me of how people look the morning after.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “The morning after what?”

Wei Wuxian only grins at him, which earns him another sharp kick.

“H-Hey! No fighting in the Cloud Recesses!”

“I’m trying to get work done, and you’re here harassing me about such stupid things! Don’t you have a husband to go throw yourself over? Leave me alone.”

But Wei Wuxian does not. He just grins wider and leans over the desk, his hands dangerously close to smearing the fresh ink on the scrolls. “I’ll leave you alone when you tell me why you’ve been acting so weird today! All that sighing and staring off into the distance you’ve been doing has me worried, you know~”

“I’m doing no such thing,” he scoffs.

“Oh? Then how come at breakfast this morning, you just sat there with this troubled look on your face, and kept sighing and mixing up your rice? It’s better to be honest with me~” Like a child with an ear for gossip, Wei Wuxian leans closer and teasingly pokes his forehead. “There’s someone special on your mind, isn’t there?”

Jiang Cheng idly thinks of how easy it would be to tie the annoying bastard up using Zidian and drown him somewhere outside. But then he thinks of that equally annoying husband of his and grimaces, knowing the consequences of shutting Wei Wuxian up outweigh the benefits by far.

“Ah!” Wei Wuxian pouts as the Yunmeng Jiang leader gathers up his things and turns to leave. “Jiang Chen, where are you going? We aren’t done!”

“Yes,” he snarls over his shoulder, “We are!”

Once safely holed up in his guest room, Jiang Cheng tosses the incomplete scrolls onto a nearby desk and practically collapses on his knees over the floor. His face is red – burning,  almost to the point where it feels like he has a fever. Damn that Wei Wuxian, he thinks. Just when he had managed to focus on something other than the events of last night, the meddlesome brat just had to come barreling through with the most ridiculous of accusations.

The thought of himself moping about like some lovestruck young boy is laughable. Detestable, even. Jiang Cheng prides himself on his image as the unrelenting leader of the Yunmeng Jiang, a man whose sheer will and determination have made the impossible possible. For him to act in such a way would be spitting on everything he’s done up until now, he tells himself.

And yet his face still burns.

Maybe it’s because of how embarrassed he felt to have witnessed Lan Xichen in such a moment of weakness. He shouldn’t have been there, shouldn’t have been the person to see the esteemed Zewu Jun suddenly break down in tears after so many months of restrained silence. If he had followed the curfew rules that the Gusu Lan asked everyone, even their guests, to observe, then the entire situation could’ve been avoided.

But, a voice in the back of his head suggests, it could also be because he hadn’t expected the man to smile at him the way he did. It was so honest, so raw. While Lan Xichen has always been known to offer kind smiles in the likeness of sunshine itself, the one Jiang Cheng witnessed last night couldn’t have been any more intimate . His face grows even hotter at the memory.

Stop. He was worried that I was that dumb Lan Wangji, that’s why he was so relieved to see me. He even said so himself.

He does not stop, however. The smile plagues him. Lan Xichen’s face, flushed and glistening with tears, plagues him. It’s almost as if he’s been cursed with some forbidden knowledge that he must now carry to the grave. Jiang Cheng, not one to be defeated, decides to throw himself into his paperwork for the remainder of the afternoon in attempts to forget, to let the damned image slowly fade away into a clear, complete nothingness in the back of his mind. But the harder he works, the more he thinks about it. And the more he thinks about it, the harder he works.

It’s a torturous cycle that eats up the entirety of his day. A disciple eventually arrives to inform him that he is expected in the dining hall for supper, where Hanguang Jun and Senior Wei are awaiting him. Jiang Cheng almost wants to say he’ll be taking his meal alone tonight, but he figures that company – even theirs – might do well to take his mind off things.

“Jiang Cheng! I didn’t think you’d actually show up after how mad you got earlier,” Wei Wuxian laughs, pointing at him with his chopsticks. There’s a few grains of rice stuck to the corner of his mouth. “Don’t worry, I won’t bug you about things anymore. I don’t want to risk you storming off before you finish eating.”

Lan Wangji eyes his husband curiously, likely wanting to know the details of their earlier conversation, but he instead reaches over to clean off his face. “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” he says patiently, and Jiang Cheng almost loses his appetite at how annoyingly doting he sounds.

“For a sect that prides itself on rules, you don’t seem to mind much when he breaks them. Talking with your mouth full and being rude in the company of others while eating – surely those are in there somewhere, correct?”

Further down the table, Lan Qiren can be heard muttering darkly under his breath.

“Haha, I’m being well taken care of by Lan Zhan.”

“That’s favoritism.”

Not that you’re unfamiliar with it, he almost adds. But he wills the comment down with his first mouthful of food, which is honestly just as depressing and tasteless as he remembers it being. Jiang Cheng resists the urge to make a face and lowers his chopsticks, casting a quiet glance around the room.

Lan Xichen isn’t here.

Lan Wangji turns to look at him, and it’s then that he realizes he must have made his observation out loud.

“Mn,” the man says quietly, a strange, unreadable look in his eyes. If Jiang Cheng didn’t know any better, he’d say that it was worry, maybe even uncertainty. “He sometimes takes his meals in his room. Other times, he does not.”

“Did… Did he say why? Is there a reason?”

Wei Wuxian glances at him, interested. “Is there a reason in particular you ask?”

I just wanted to make sure it’s not my fault that he’s hiding in there right now, Jiang Cheng thinks tiredly, an embarrassed flush creeping up the back of his neck. It’s possible that Lan Xichen might be trying to avoid him after what happened last night. The thought stings a little more than he expects.

“No. Just wondering.”

“Well…” And Wei Wuxian looks over at his husband, asking for silent permission to continue. He receives it with a slight nod, followed by Lan Wangji returning to his own food with noticeable disinterest. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. He actually was in a pretty good mood today! It’s just that sometimes, being around a lot of people is a lot to handle at once.”

Jiang Cheng’s fingers twitch. He thinks of all the times in the past he’s taken meals alone, unable to surround himself with the laughter and cheerful commotion of others out in the dining hall. How lonely and bitter those days had been, he remembers, and suddenly the thought of Lan Xichen sitting alone in his room just as he had starts to hurt.

“I guess it doesn’t really matter where he’s at so long as he’s eating,” he says quietly.

“...”

Lan Wangji sets down his chopsticks and rises to his feet. It looks as though an unpleasant thought has struck him, and now he can’t rest until he’s taken care of it somehow.

“Lan Zhan? Is something wrong?”

“...I’ll be back,” he whispers urgently, taking his leave.

While both Wei Wuxian and Lan Qiren stare after him in worried silence, Jiang Cheng can only push away his bowl of food with an unhappy, almost sickened expression.

Had he taken the time to stop guiltily delighting himself in the memory of Lan Xichen’s smile, he might have remembered earlier just how much thinner the man’s face had become.

 

+

 

“I’ve gotten better about this, I promise.”

“...Please eat.”

“Brother, must you look at me that way? I know I’ve given you cause to worry before, but I really am getting better. I was just about to eat when you arrived, I promise you. It’s just that I’m so behind on work, and I thought I could finish up another letter before touching dinner.”

“...You will eat everything?”

“Yes, I will. I… What we talked about this morning, I meant it. I’m not going to shut you out. I’m not going to lose sight of what is important. But please, just… If I can be so selfish, please just have the tiniest bit of patience with me while I catch up. I’m going to be a little slow, but I will get there.”

“Losing patience with you like this is impossible. It is not a race. I am not waiting for you to finish. I just want to help however I can, Brother.”

“I… I know. Thank you.”

“...You will try to eat?”

“Yes. Yes, I promise.”

The sight of food is sickening, but Lan Xichen wills himself to eat a few mouthfuls. Lan Wangji’s previously tense expression gradually relaxes.

“Did you want me to stay? I will tell Wei Ying. He doesn’t mind.”

“No, no. I don’t want to intrude on your time together. Besides, we’ll be quite busy tomorrow afternoon as we prepare for Young Master Jin’s arrival.”

“...”

“Young Master Jin has nothing to do with Meng Yao. It’s fine – I’m not bothered.”

“...Goodnight, Brother. I shall visit you first thing in the morning.”

“Thank you. Goodnight.”

As soon as the door closes behind him, Lan Xichen returns to his writing and leaves the bowl of food to sit on his desk forgotten.

 

+

 

The Gusu Lan disciples stationed outside Lan Xichen’s residence are completely bewildered by the sudden arrival of Jiang Cheng. They clumsily offer him greeting before straightening back up at their posts, expressions tight with unease.

“S-Sandu Shengshou, I apologize,” one stutters beneath his gaze, “But… But we have been instructed n-not to let anyone other than Hanguang Jun or Master Qiren see Zewu Jun for the remainder of the evening. May we, um, take a message for you instead?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng replies. “I’ll tell him myself. It’s important. Urgent, actually. Who are you to interfere with official business between sect leaders, hm?”

“That’s not it,” the other says hurriedly, eyes wide in alarm. “Please try and understand, sir! We can take a message or let him know of your arrival, but to let you in right now is out of the question.”

The disciple who had spoken first suddenly notices the bowl of food that Jiang Cheng is carrying in his hands. His eyes go wide in disbelief. “F-Forgive me, but is… is that… Why did you bring your dinner here?”

“...”

“Wait, are you… are you trying to go eat with Zewu Jun?”

Intense sparks of purple light escape from Zidian, causing the two disciples to frantically yelp in alarm and take defensive positions. Their faces are intense with an eagerness to keep the man out, but their knees, however, are shaking like those of a newborn calf. Jiang Cheng only stares at them, unimpressed and quickly losing his patience.

“W-We will not repeat ourselves! Please leave and –”

“My, my,” a voice suddenly interrupts, the ghost of a laugh interlaced somewhere in its tone, “You two have rarely shown such fear against corpses and the like. Don’t tell me you find our good Sandu Shengshou all that terrifying?”

Jiang Cheng looks up and sees Lan Xichen emerging from his private quarters. He’s like an entirely different person from last night. Calm, graceful, refined – such a contrast to the man whose tear-stained face was still burned into Jiang Cheng’s mind.

“Zewu Jun,” one of the disciples says, “Please forgive us for disturbing you. It’s just that Sandu Shengshou wishes to see you privately, and we’re trying to explain your orders to him.”

“Please return inside. We… We can handle this.” Which is a lie, and a rather bold one at that. Clan loyalty is certainly something, Jiang Cheng thinks idly.

“Sandu Shengshou, we apologize again, but we must ask you to lea–”

“It’s fine,” Lan Xichen suddenly says, smiling that usual polite smile of his. Though it’s pretty and always has been, it pales in comparison to what he had offered Jiang Cheng last night. The memory of it causes the Yunmeng Jiang leader’s ears to grow hot. “He is my fellow sect leader and a long time comrade. He has permission to come see me if he so wishes.”

After everything they’ve just gone through, the two disciples nearly collapse on the ground. Jiang Cheng brushes past them with a touch of smugness, glancing over at their defeated expressions with a slight, victorious smirk. They merely stare back at him tiredly before returning to their posts.

There are a few candles lit to bring light to the room, but somehow it still retains a dark, rather gloomy appearance. The smell of sandalwood is faint, outweighed by a strange, smokey scent that clings heavily to the walls. Lan Xichen must have burned something in here recently, which is both odd and dangerous to think about in such a private, enclosed space. Jiang Cheng almost wants to ask.

He is gestured to sit in front of Lan Xichen’s desk, where a few stacks of scrolls and a bowl of food sit forgotten. It looks like a few small bites have been taken, but Jiang Cheng can still see its contents peeking out over the rim. He frowns and places his own bowl on the ground before him with a rather loud clack against the floor mats, surprising the other sect leader.

“I want to eat with you.”

“You… what?” Lan Xichen seats himself, an odd look in his eyes. “You came all the way here to ask me to dinner?”

Jiang Cheng feels something leap in his throat.“N-Not like that . I want to eat here, and in front of you while you eat.”

Finally understanding, Lan Xichen sighs and gives a quiet shake of his head. “You’ve been talking to Wangji… Ah, this is rather embarrassing. But you know, I already gave my brother my word that I’d eat my dinner tonight. I would never lie to him. It’s just that I have a few things I intend to write before it gets too late in the evening, and so I was going to eat afterwards –”

Excuses. Jiang Cheng folds his arms over his chest and stares back at him defiantly. “I already told you. I eat when you eat.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because,” and he pauses, struggling to find the right words, “You’re a leader, and so am I.”

Lan Xichen looks amused, his lips curling upwards as though he means to laugh. “Yes, that is true. But what does that have to do with this, Jiang Wanyin?”

“When you’re a leader, you have to make sure you’re doing whatever you can for the good of your sect. If you don’t eat, you’ll be weak. And if you’re weak, what will I have to do? Pick up after your slack.”

“Then isn’t it dangerous for you not to eat until I do?” And there’s this way that he tilts his head, eyes filling with a warm, almost fond light, and Jiang Cheng is left breathless. He’s always known Lan Xichen to be good looking, but it hasn’t ever struck him so deeply until now. “You’re not making very much sense. How can you pick up after my slack if you’ve weakened yourself as well, hm?”

“Well, I think the answer is pretty obvious.”

“Is it?”

“Yes. Because I’m always used to picking up after people's messes, I can fight no matter what condition I’m left in.”

Lan Xichen suddenly laughs. “Ah, ah… Jiang Wanyin, you’ve been bringing me all sorts of surprises the past couple days. I should thank you.”

“Thank me by eating.”

“Alright, I will eat. For the good of our sects, just as you say.”

It is then that Jiang Cheng realizes he forgot to take into account how awkward it would be for the two of them to be eating alone together, and in silence. And it is awkward – for what seems to be an eternity, they sit there and fill the room with quiet chewing noises, saying not a word to one another. His face burns, and he can’t help but wonder if Lan Xichen feels a little odd about this as well.

But, he reminds himself with an undeniable satisfaction, it hardly matters so long as he’s eating. The way Lan Wangji had left the dining hall earlier suggests that this has been a problem between them for quite some time, and it’s only worrisome to think that not even his own brother has been able to keep him on top of meals. Though Jiang Cheng rarely allows himself to, he feels bad for Lan Wangji. How awful it must be to watch your brother suffer and have no remedy for it.

It’s then that he can’t help but wonder how Lan Xichen managed those 13 years, watching Lan Wangji suffer as he does now. Jiang Cheng doesn’t like thinking about the time following the death of the Yiling Patriarch, doesn’t like thinking about the things that he himself did to find Wei Wuxian and finally get the answers he so desperately wanted, needed, but…

Is that why he isolates himself? Because he feels bad grieving in front of his brother and Wei Wuxian?

{ Wei Wuxian never offers to go along with him to visit his parents. He always just stands there and watches him quiet, sad eyes that refuse to shed tears. Jiang Cheng initially didn’t pay this odd behavior much mind until one day, he noticed his brother slipping out in the middle of the night to their graves. }

{ He never goes with me, but goes by himself at night. Why is that? Is he saying things to them that he doesn’t want me to hear? }

{ No, his sister says, gazing out the window sadly. He feels guilty. }

{ What do you mean? }

{ For him to grieve for our parents with you, when he still blames himself for everything… Ah, I wish you’d pay better attention sometimes, A-Cheng. }

Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like he wants to eat anymore. Jiang Cheng lowers his bowl with a frown, drawing the attention of the other.

“Is something the matter?”

“Last night,” he slowly, carefully begins, “You told me you were relieved that I wasn’t your brother. Why?”

Lan Xichen watches him, and for a moment it feels like he might suddenly order him to leave. But instead, he sets down his food and heaves a long, heavy sigh. “That’s quite the personal question. You and my brother-in-law both seem fond of asking those.”

The thought of being held in the same regard as Wei Wuxian is sobering. Jiang Cheng immediately bows his head and begins to apologize, but he is quickly cut off. “It’s not any major trouble. I was just… not expecting it from you, actually.”

He blinks. “Why’s that?”

“You’ve always been rather… guarded about things. I never would have thought you’d be in here trying to console me,” Lan Xichen replies. “But nevermind that. I have an idea. In exchange for this question, I get to ask you one. Is that fair?”

It’s difficult to think of anything too personal he can be asked about, so he relents with a stiff nod.

“Then I shall tell you. Last night, I was worried about it being Wangji because I thought that maybe he was angry with me after all this time.”

Jiang Cheng cannot even begin to imagine the two brothers being angry with each other. Compared to him and Wei Wuxian, they’ve always been so in touch with one another. Curious, he leans forward and strains himself to hear more of what the other man is so quietly confessing.

“So when I saw it was you, I felt like someone had poured cold water over my head in the middle of the night. It was such a shock. In those few moments, I was so convinced that it was my brother waiting to finally lash out at me for all the trouble I’ve caused him these past several months, but it was just you. That’s why I was so relieved, that I couldn’t help but…”

A small, noticeable redness can be seen creeping over Lan Xichen’s earlobes.

“So that’s why,” Jiang Cheng murmurs.

“Alright, enough about me. Isn’t it my turn to ask you something?”

“Oh? But you asked me something just now, Zewu Jun.”

“Don’t be so eager to escape,” Lan Xichen chuckles. “My question isn’t all that bad. I simply want to know what you were doing out last night, pacing around the way you were.”

Ah. Jiang Cheng swallows and reaches up to rub the back of his neck. “About that… I was actually kind of pissed – mad , I was kind of mad at you.”

This shocks the Gusu Lan leader. He blinks, eyes wide with surprise. “Me? What did I do?”

“You didn’t come to greet me, and left me at the mercy of your brother and that idiot Wei Wuxian!”

What he doesn’t tell him is what they had argued about at the time. Even the slightest mention of Jin Guangyao might be too much. That, and Jiang Cheng simply doesn’t want the bastard’s name on his tongue. He already feels sick at the mere thought of him and that two-faced smile of his.

And to think that he’s been grieving over such a person all this time.

He suddenly remembers how he had grumbled to the married couple before about how unreasonable Lan Xichen was being, about how he’d just avoid the man because of his lingering feelings towards the previous Lanling Jin leader. Guilt throbs in his chest. Looking at Lan Xichen now, with his face that has grown thin and eyes that still have yet to retain the light they once held, he can’t believe he had said such things. He clenches his fists over his lap.

“But… I apologize.”

“You’re apologizing to me? For what?”

“For being angry with you. I guess… I guess I was just frustrated that you wouldn’t come to see me, but even then that’s… You had your reasons.”

{ Whenever he comes to visit the Lanling Jin, Jin Guangyao is writing letters to Lan Xichen. They are always personal, never of official business. If the man weren’t married, Jiang Cheng would have thought he was busy writing to his lover. }

{ You two get along that well? }

{ Jin Guangyao laughs. He’s always been there for me. Is it not natural for me to try and be there for him? Letters help close the distance. }

{ Jiang Cheng watches him continue to write and feels the familiar clench of envy around his heart. But he thinks little of it – maybe he’s just turning into a lonely old man. }

“I should have come to see you,” Lan Xichen argues, brow furrowing. “I… I’m sorry. I wasn’t feeling very well, but I should have made an effort to at least come see you after your arrival. I don’t blame you for being angry.”

“Be sure to properly greet Jin Ling when he arrives and I’ll forget all about it.”

“I’ll be sure to.”

A moment of silence passes between them, but it no longer feels as awkward as it did before. Jiang Cheng almost feels comfortable in it, which is impressive, because for him to feel comfortable anywhere these days has been difficult. Yet just before he can truly take the time to enjoy the security of the moment, Lan Xichen rises to his feet.

“You’ll have to forgive me, Jiang Wanyin, but I need to step out for a short while. There is an errand I must run before it gets too late.” He pauses and smiles, but it’s a little different than the polite one he had shared before. Something about it is warmer, brighter. Jiang Cheng swallows thickly. “I shall walk you out, though. Thank you for coming by tonight… It’s been a while since I’ve eaten in the company of someone other than my family, and it was surprisingly nice.”

“Don’t mention it.”

He notices Lan Xichen tuck a small, folded piece of paper into his sleeve before they head out. It must be something for his uncle or Lan Wangji, he thinks, and decides not to dwell on it.

“Goodnight, Jiang Wanyin.”

“‘Night.”

Before they part, Lan Xichen turns to smile at him one last time. “And maybe come to eat with me again sometime.”

If Jiang Cheng were any clumsier of a man, he would have tripped over his own two feet and landed flat on his face.

 

+

 

sometimes i think about what could have been.

please forgive me for never noticing,

for leaving you to drown all those years.

 

+

 

When he first started visiting the dead tree again, Lan Xichen would rest alongside it until the sky began to glow with the approach of sunrise. He never slept during all that time, however. He couldn’t. Instead, he would just sit there and stare out into the distance as though waiting for something – or someone – to come and provide him with all the answers he so desperately sought. By the time he’d get back to the Cloud Recesses at dawn, there were always bags under his eyes and an unhealthy, pale look to his skin that even drew the most terrified of looks from Lan Qiren.

{ Please, he tells him, hands trembling around his own, Please don’t make this elder go through all this again. It was bad enough to see your brother the way he was. I can’t do it again. Do you understand? If you are to go up that mountain, you are to return within an hour’s time. Promise me. Promise me this, Lan Huan! }

But tonight, Lan Xichen surprisingly can’t bring himself to stay his usual hour. His hand caresses the brittle bark of the dead tree, ignoring the unpleasant feeling of it rough against his skin. “I was talking to Jiang Wanyin tonight. I remember you both would always tell me he was such a fussy one… Admittedly, I don’t remember very much about him in those three months he stayed here.”

It feels a little strange to be talking about someone with his two lost friends. He would sometimes talk about his family, certainly, but Jiang Wanyin isn’t anyone in particular to him. They are only comrades, fellow sect leaders whose history has only entwined through circumstance. Lan Xichen thinks about this for a moment and almost feels wrong , because after tonight it seems like they’ve moved into some strange, new territory.

Not quite friends, not quite brothers, but… something.

A good something.

He laughs quietly. “Do you remember? During the Sunshot Campaign, I once caught him practicing a speech he’d wanted to give Wen Chao moments before killing him… It was funny, but I don’t think he remembers. We were both so young back then. We all were.”

A pause. He remembers Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue fighting by his side and feels pain ache in his chest. It’s best to stop talking about such memories.

“Jin Ling is coming tomorrow. I will be taking care of him for three months,” he says. The only response he receives is the faint moaning of the wind. “I… I won’t let him struggle. I won’t let him be hurt by everything you did in the past.”

And neither will Jiang Wanyin, he suddenly thinks, which is odd, because he can’t quite figure out why the man’s name keeps coming to mind like this. 

Maybe I’m just turning into a lonely old man.

Lan Xichen’s fingers curl over the tree bark before he wills himself to leave.