They part on the western ridge between Gusu and Yunmeng. Lan WangJi is fine until the breeze carries to him the gentle melody of WuJi, and he feels his chest collapse. To play WuJi now — it feels like an answer. It is an answer. He wants, more than anything, to turn back. But he knows he can't, not now, not yet. He has responsibilities to his sect, to his family; with his brother in seclusion and the cultivation world destabilized, Gusu will need more than just his uncle to recover. So he swallows and continues his path back to the Cloud Recesses.
Upon his return, Lan WangJi is immediately thrown into the hell world that is high-level cultivation politics, and then he's so busy and irritated by everyone that by all rights he shouldn't even have time to miss his friend. But he does miss him. After the fifth straight day of all-day meetings with sect leaders, he starts amusing himself — to his own shame — by imagining what Wei WuXian would have to say about the proceedings, if he were here. Sect Leader Ouyang must have donated his spine to his son, how thoughtful, the spectre of Wei WuXian snickers, or, Perhaps if Sect Leader Xie had to live off radishes from the Burial Mounds for a year he'd whine a little less about how his own bumper crop of rice is driving prices down.
By the end of the first month of being Chief Cultivator, Lan WangJi is truly operating on the last shred of formal respect he has for most of the sect leaders. Jiang WanYin is alright, despite Lan WangJi's personal distaste for him, and Nie Huaisang is actually quite agreeable; and little Jin Ling isn't particularly wise yet, but he has good advisors and he thinks Lan WangJi is great, so he's not horrible to deal with. The one surprise to Lan WangJi is that Xiao XingChen and Song ZiChen's sect survived their destruction, and Lan WangJi finds the second pair of leaders, two women named Shi and Guang, to be quite pleasant: they're wise, brave, and understandably unafraid to break from tradition, when tradition wants breaking.
But aside from them, even the most well-meaning sect leaders are just sort of exhausting. The politics of cultivation have always been the least compelling aspect of it for Lan WangJi; he doesn't have the temperament for it, no ambition and no patience for other people. He knows that cultivation can't be only night hunts, and that it's his responsibility to deal with the boring things as well as the interesting ones. But he can't help but feel that he's a little wasted here, like he's shrinking when he should be thriving.
A month and a half into his duties, a letter arrives. Lan Zhan, it reads, I miss you already. Throw over your responsibilities and meet me at the western ridge at Qixi. Yours, Wei WuXian.
Lan WangJi reads it over and over, like a maiden with a love letter. That's what it is, right? A love letter, of sorts. I miss you. He tucks it into his robes and mentions it to no one. This year's Qixi is still only two months past; how is he supposed to wait the better part of a year before seeing him again? They'll be apart for longer than Lan WangJi had him back. But it's true that Lan WangJi will need those months to withdraw from the council, and he supposes whatever it is that Wei WuXian has been up to will take time to wrap up as well. So he accepts the date and begins to plan.
By the end of winter, he's formally resigned as Chief Cultivator, and Sect Leaders Shi and Guang have gracefully replaced him. There's pushback from the traditionalists, and his uncle in particular is dismayed by what he perceives is Lan WangJi's giving up, but it quickly becomes apparent that Shi and Guang are much better Chief Cultivators than he was. They are ambitious, and they're at turns friendlier and meaner than he was inclined to be, so the other sect leaders both like them as people and are a little scared of them. Lan WangJi retreats to Gusu and works on smaller-scale projects, and feels his soul begin to settle down. His next problem is to withdraw from the smaller-scale projects, too, but that's easier and requires much less social maneuvering.
Lan QiRen catches on just after the spring equinox and requests a meeting. "WangJi," he says slowly, when Lan WangJi kneels before his desk. "This uncle cannot help but notice that not only have you given up your position as Chief Cultivator, but all your projects here end before midsummer. Or you are training senior disciples to take over for you at that time."
"Mm," Lan WangJi agrees. No use hiding it, he supposes.
"There must be a reason for such a pattern," Lan QiRen prompts him.
"Mm," Lan WangJi agrees again.
Lan QiRen's well of patience is really more of a puddle. It dries now. "WangJi, tell me you aren't going to run off with that horrible boy," he demands.
"No horrible boys," Lan WangJi allows. Only good ones. Lan QiRen must see his meaning in his face, because he sighs in exhaustion.
"You were such a good child," he says.
Yes, Lan WangJi had been a good child. And he had been lonely the whole time. "WangJi apologizes for the inconvenience this will cause," he says.
"Oh, I'm sure WangJi is very sorry indeed," Lan QiRen says gruffly, waving his hand in dismissal. "But I imagine not sorry enough to stay."
"No," Lan WangJi agrees. "Not sorry enough to stay."
Lan QiRen sighs again. "Just like your father," he mutters. Lan WangJi doesn't know how to feel about that. Some complicated mix of pride and hurt. Lan QiRen shakes his head. "WangJi, I won't tell you not to leave," he decides. "Work done distracted is no work at all. That is why this uncle did not try harder to convince you not to give up as Chief Cultivator, either. But allow this uncle to impart his wisdom upon you one last time."
"Please," Lan WangJi says.
Lan QiRen rises from behind the desk and strokes his beard thoughtfully. "WangJi has crossed paths with Sect Leader Jiang in the past, I know. And you are so intimate with Young Master Wei, I imagine you have seen the two of them interact more even than I have, both before and after Young Master Wei's... unusual return."
"Mm," Lan WangJi agrees. Jiang WanYin may have wanted him to be Chief Cultivator, but he has not endeared himself to Lan WangJi any in the months since.
"So you have seen how the violent rupture of their brotherhood has affected both of them for the worse," Lan QiRen says, pausing in his slow tour of the room. Lan WangJi blinks in surprise, but he nods. Is he going to be instructed to repair their relationship? Such an interference… It's not his place. Lan QiRen strokes his beard again and switches tack. "Your father and I were very close, as children and then as young men. He was my first and closest friend, and I his," he confesses. He begins to walk again.
Lan WangJi turns to watch him. He's never thought about what their childhood must have been like; Lan QiRen has always had such a vinegared opinion of his father that he'd just assumed they had never gotten along.
"I never forgave him for marrying your mother," Lan QiRen tells him. Lan WangJi smothers a flinch. His uncle continues, "And for that, I shall never forgive myself."
Lan WangJi opens his mouth, but no words come out. Lan QiRen stops in his path and looks at him. "WangJi," he says, "Your father died believing, rightfully, that I resented the most important choice he ever made. It has been twenty years since his death and forty years since the last real conversation I had with him." Lan WangJi watches him, shocked. Lan QiRen taps his chin with his fan and says quietly, "I still believe he was wrong to do what he did. But I have spent too long missing him. It is all well and good that you have your Young Master Wei. You may build the rest of your life around him if you so choose. But don't let that life exclude your brother."
Lan WangJi honestly does not know what to say. "Uncle, I…" he tries, but Lan QiRen interrupts him (!).
"XiChen is the only other person alive who will ever know what it was like to be your mother's child. He is the only other person who knows what it was like to be raised by me. He knows you in ways that Young Master Wei can never know you. So don't you waste that, Lan WangJi," Lan QiRen orders him, gesturing insistently with his fan. "Don't you waste that."
Lan WangJi stares, then nods. "Yes, Uncle," he manages.
Lan QiRen harrumphs. "Alright, the lecture is over," he declares. "Go finish your work."
"Yes, Uncle," Lan WangJi says again. He rises and bows deeply. "Thank you."
Midsummer comes and goes, and Lan WangJi finds himself with nothing in particular to do. This is good, of course, because it means all his projects were completed or handed off successfully, per his plan, but it also means that there's a full half-month before he can reunite with Wei WuXian, and nothing to keep him busy. He learns song after song, learns the guqin part and then the dizi accompaniment as well, so he can teach Wei WuXian later. He builds, dismantles, and rebuilds a hutch for the rabbits. He escorts the juniors into town whenever they ask, which is frequently; he suspects this has something to do with the fact that Wen QiongLin exists quietly on the edge of town, having endeared himself to all the grannies within a 50-li radius with his politeness and eagerness to help carry heavy things. Lan WangJi knows that he and SiZhui meet regularly, but the other juniors seem to have adopted him too. He's begun to like Wen QiongLin too, a little in spite of himself; he had spent a lot of time resenting him for what he symbolized of Wei WuXian's past, but in person Wen QiongLin is polite and gentle and brave, a good friend to Wei WuXian and a good cousin to SiZhui. So… he's alright.
In any case, Lan WangJi manages to occupy himself up until three days before Qixi. He'll need a day to travel to the western ridge, but that leaves him with two full days of nothing to do. Everyone else has halted their work in anticipation of the festival, so he can't help out around the Cloud Recesses. Even the cooks threw him out, insisting that they had all the hands they needed and that he would just confuse things, although not in so many words.
So he makes his way over to the Hanshi.
His brother has been in seclusion since their return to the Cloud Recesses. It's not quite that he has refused to see anyone; it's more that everyone knows he's in seclusion, and so have stayed away by themselves. Certainly Lan WangJi hasn't seen him since they returned. He's not certain he'll be welcome, but he knocks at the door frame once anyway.
There's a long moment of silence, then his brother opens the door. "WangJi," he greets, his voice rough with disuse. He looks alright, at least; he's wearing simple robes and his hair is in a clean, relaxed half-ponytail, and he doesn't look as though he's been starving or anything.
"Brother," Lan WangJi says. "I apologize for interrupting your seclusion. May I enter?"
Lan XiChen looks at him and nods, stepping in so that he can pass. They sit at his table and Lan XiChen pours tea for them both. Lan WangJi sips his in silence, not wanting to startle his brother with the sound of his voice. At last Lan XiChen clears his throat and says, "WangJi must have something important on his mind, to visit me now. Please share."
Lan WangJi nods and swallows, thinks how to broach the subject. He decides, "I wanted to let Sect Leader Lan know that I will be leaving the Cloud Recesses." His brother raises his eyebrows at the honorific, but doesn't reply; he can tell that Lan WangJi has more to say. Lan WangJi looks down at his tea in mild embarrassment to continue, "And I wanted to tell my brother that I don't know when I'll be back."
"Ah," Lan XiChen says. He takes another sip of his tea. After a moment he says, "Your Wei WuXian, is it?"
Lan WangJi nods, his ears burning.
"Hmmm," his brother says. "What do you expect you'll do?"
"Go on night hunts," Lan WangJi says. "Solve problems. Cause others."
Lan XiChen smiles at that. "That sounds about right. When will you leave?"
"Two days from today. We'll meet at Qixi," Lan WangJi says, and his brother raises his eyebrows again.
"That's not very subtle even for the two of you," he points out.
"Hm," Lan WangJi says, looking away.
"And yet you don't know when you'll be back," Lan XiChen says thoughtfully. "You're meeting him, but you don't know what comes next?"
"I do not," Lan WangJi admits. Wei WuXian's choice of Qixi as the date for their meeting is certainly romantic, but it makes him nervous; he'll play the cowherd to Wei WuXian's weaver for one day every year if that's what Wei WuXian wants, but if it were up to him, they would spend every day together for the rest of their lives.
"WangJi…" Lan XiChen sighs. He puts his teacup down and holds his chin in his hand. "I do not doubt that Wei WuXian loves you," he says slowly. Lan WangJi's heart pounds hard in his chest. "But, little brother… Sometimes love isn't enough."
Lan WangJi swallows. There are many ways he could reply to that statement. It will be enough for us. Or, It isn't only love. Or, I'll take what I can get. But what he says is, "Brother, what happened with Jin GuangYao was not your fault."
"My trust in him enabled his actions," Lan XiChen insists.
"You were right to trust him," Lan WangJi tells him. Lan XiChen looks at him in disbelief. Lan WangJi revises, "Not to trust him would have killed you."
"You don't know that," Lan XiChen says, looking away.
"I do," Lan WangJi insists. It was Lan XiChen's trust in Jin GuangYao that ensured Jin GuangYao's sincere adoration of him, without which he surely would have killed him; but perhaps even more importantly, Lan XiChen is a person who hates to mistrust people. To be suspicious of Jin GuangYao would have killed his heart long before Jin GuangYao could have killed the rest of him. And in any case… "I have no love for LianFang-Zun," Lan WangJi says slowly. "What he did was cruel. But the world was cruel to him first." Lan XiChen looks up at him then, and Lan WangJi holds his gaze as he says, "To be his true friend… was not a mistake, XiChen."
Lan XiChen looks shocked by his use of his name. To both their horror, his eyes start watering visibly. A single tear escapes before he reaches up to wipe his eyes. He chuckles wetly to himself and says, "WangJi, you have grown up."
"Mm," Lan WangJi agrees. He passes Lan XiChen a clean handkerchief from his sleeves.
"Thank you," Lan XiChen says, and Lan WangJi understands he doesn't just mean the handkerchief.
"Mm," Lan WangJi says again, lowering his gaze respectfully.
"When you see Wei WuXian, tell him to be careful," Lan XiChen says, apropos of nothing. Lan WangJi waits for him to clarify, although of course he tells Wei WuXian to be careful all the time, for many reasons. Lan XiChen continues, "He happens to possess a rather singular treasure of the Lan sect, one more delicate and more powerful and more important to us than he could possibly know."
Lan XiChen smiles gently at him. "He has my little brother's heart."