Lan Huan is three years old when his brother is born.
He sits obediently, fighting every urge to fidget, as his uncle brings the bundle of cloth towards him.
"Support his neck," Lan Qiren says, as he lowers the baby into his arms.
Lan Huan does so, taking care not to jostle the bundle too much. He stares at the baby's face, round with fat and pink from the crisp winter air. Tiny eyes stare back at him, lighter than Lan Huan's own, and he giggles as they focus and unfocus on him.
"He is very cute," he tells his uncle. "What is his name?"
"Lan Zhan," Lan Qiren answers as he sits beside him. "When he's older, he'll be called Wangji."
Lan Huan looks back at the small being in his arm. He rocks gently, like how he'd seen family members rock their babies. "Zhan-didi," he smiles. "Hello. I'm your dada."
"He will need you, Huan-er ," his uncle tells him. "He will look to you for guidance as he grows up, do you understand? You must set a good example."
"I will!" Lan Huan promises ardently, unable to resist pressing his cheek against that small, warm forehead. "I will, Uncle. I will protect didi and teach him everything."
"Good child," his uncle says, the corners of his lips at the start of forming a smile. He takes Lan Zhan away from him. "Come. It is time for the midday meal."
Lan Huan aches at the sudden loss of warmth and he resists demanding his little brother back. "Will we see mother?" he asks instead. Surely mother will want to see Lan Zhan, and Lan Huan wants to be the one to bring him to her.
"Your mother is resting," Lan Qiren answers with a turned back. "Come," he says in a tone that shuts down any further discussion.
Lan Huan follows closely behind, his gaze so fixated on the bundle in his uncle's arms that he almost forgets to bow to every elder they pass.
It is a month until he is finally allowed to bring his brother to see their mother. By then, Lan Zhan is more active, and his eyes no longer go out of focus when he looks at things.
"Mother," Lan Huan greets, proudly holding up his baby brother.
His mother smiles and takes Lan Zhan. She places him carefully in one arm, and hugs Lan Huan close to her with the other.
"A-Huan," she kisses his forehead, "have you been good?"
He nodded eagerly. "And so has A-Zhan!"
"Good," she murmurs, stroking his cheek. "I'm very proud of you."
They eat their meals, his mother holding his little brother in her arms the whole time. At times, she would kiss his face and tickle his chin, smiling when he squirmed or made a gurgly sound.
When their visit time is up and Lan Qiren comes for them, Lan Huan hugs his mother, then steps back to give her his best bow. "Goodbye, mother! Rest well, and we will see you in a month."
She strokes his head and takes his hand. "Listen to your uncle, and watch over your brother. I love you, A-Huan. You and your brother both."
"I love you too, mother!" Lan Huan chirps back, before exiting the building with his uncle.
When they're outside, he turns back around—intent on waving to his mother—and sees her collapsed on the floorboards, her face buried in her hands and wet trails down her arms.
It is the first and only time Lan Huan sees her cry.
Lan Xichen is five years old when his little brother learns to say, "No."
"No!" Lan Zhan insists, when Lan Xichen tells him their time with their mother is up.
"A-Zhan," Lan Xichen protests weakly. He is at an utter loss. His brother has never directly disobeyed him before. "Uncle will be angry."
Their mother tries to gently pry her robes from Lan Zhan's grasp, to no avail. "A-Zhan, listen to your dada."
Lan Zhan shakes his head furiously, his face streaked with tears and snot bubbles forming at his nose. "No!"
Lan Xichen looks at his mother, feeling helpless. "I… I think he wants to stay," he tells her. "I've seen him looking at other children with their mothers. Perhaps he…"
His mother's gaze softens at that. Gently, she kneels and smooths Lan Zhan's hair back from his face. "You cannot stay," she whispers to him. "Mother is very sick and cannot take care of you. You don't want to get sick, do you, A-Zhan?"
"No," Lan Zhan blubbers, still holding fast to her robes.
"Good boy," she croons, wiping his face with her sleeves. "Don't cry, don't cry. Be brave. You're a Lan, A-Zhan. Those of the Lan bloodline must be brave. You must be brave for mother, alright?"
Lan Zhan nods, still sniffling.
Their mother beams. "Now go give your brother a hug and apologize for disobeying him."
Lan Zhan obeys, almost falling onto Lan Xichen as he wraps his tiny arms around his older brother's waist. "I'm s-sorry," he hiccups, muffled, into Lan Xichen's chest.
Lan Xichen pats his back. "Listen next time, okay?" he says softly. "Dada only wants what's best for you."
"Okay," Lan Zhan mumbles, rubbing his face into Lan Xichen's robes. "A-Zhan will listen."
"Good." Lan Xichen nodded. "Now say goodbye to mother. Uncle is waiting for us."
Lan Zhan hesitates, and—for a moment—Lan Xichen fears he would disobey again. But in the end, he acquiesces, giving his mother a shaky bow and a hug.
"Goodbye, mother." His voice shakes; he's about to cry again.
"Goodbye, A-Zhan." Their mother kisses his cheek, then moves to give a kiss to Lan Xichen. "Goodbye, A-Huan. Take care of each other, and I will see you two again in a month."
Lan Xichen is eight years old when Wangji asks him for clarification on something he was taught.
He is baffled; his brother is usually diligent about his studies, and rarely doesn't understand his lessons. "What do you need clarification on?"
Lan Wangji looks at him. He is five years old, and his baby fat still clings to his cheeks. "What is a cultivation partner?"
Ah. Their uncle must have started teaching him their family history. "Wangji, do you recall the story of Lan An, our sect founder?"
His little brother nods at him. "Lan An was born in a temple and became a famous monk at a young age. He cultivated as a musician—a tradition that we, to this day, observe. He found his fated person and became cultivation partners with her. Together, they founded our sect. When she died, he returned to the temple to live out the rest of his days."
A perfect, textbook response. Lan Xichen smiles. "Correct. Based on that, what do you think a cultivation partner is?"
Lan Wangji takes his time thinking. "A cultivation partner is a companion to whom you are married and whose cultivation skills complement your own."
Lan Xichen nods. "Very good."
But Lan Wangji looks unsatisfied with his own answer. "Wangji still does not understand."
Now neither does Lan Xichen. He tilts his head. "What part are you struggling with?"
Lan Wangji meets his gaze. He has their father's eyes, or so Lan Xichen has heard from the elders. They are the one similarity that the two brothers don't share, with Lan Xichen taking more after their mother. "Are mother and father cultivation partners? They are married, and they are both cultivators."
Thoughts click into place for Lan Xichen. Oh. He sees the dozens of questions hiding behind that one query:
Why are they so different from our founders?
Did Lan An and his fated person stay away from each other like father and mother?
Do cultivation partners not live together?
If they do, then why don't our parents?
If they don't, they why does everyone else's parents?
If not cultivation partners, then what are they?
Lan Xichen bites his lower lip. His brother is having a difficult time reconciling the story of their founders with his own observation of their parents, and Lan Xichen does not know if he can properly explain it to him.
He must have taken too long to answer; Lan Wangji asks him another question: "Xiong-zhang, are we cursed?"
The question hits Lan Xichen like a cold wave. "What makes you say that?"
"I heard Uncle say it," his little brother answers dutifully. "He says our family is cursed."
Lan Xichen's heart sinks. Their uncle means well, but sometimes he wishes Lan Qiren would watch his words a little. "Eavesdropping is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses," he recites, more out of habit than any real chiding. "Not everything is meant for your ears."
Lan Wangji bows his head. "I apologize, xiong-zhang. Wangji will seek punishment."
"No need, just remember it next time," Lan Xichen sighs. "I'm sure Uncle did not mean it." He carefully thinks through his next words. "Those of the Lan bloodline have always been… passionate," he answers. "We are extremely devoted, whether it be to our studies, our friends and families, or to our fated person. Like all things in life, that devotion can be good or bad, depending on whether we control it or let it control us."
Unconsciously, Lan Wangji reaches up to smooth out his forehead ribbon. Regulate oneself.
Lan Xichen gives him an approving smile. "This is why our forehead ribbons are so important, Wangji. They are a constant reminder to focus on what really matters."
"Having restraint and control," Lan Wangji answered.
"Exactly." Lan Xichen pats him on the shoulder. "Good Wangji. You're learning fast. Mother would be very proud to see you right now."
"Mother," his little brother echoes, and Lan Xichen know he's counting down the days until they can see her again. "Xiong-zhang, Wangji has one more question."
"Did Father forget the meaning of our forehead ribbons when he brought Mother back here?"
Lan Xichen's jaw drops. While the circumstances of their parents' marriage weren't exactly a secret in the Cloud Recesses, it still isn't talked about. Anybody who needs to know already knew of Qingheng-Jun's near-obsessive infatuation with his wife. Conflicted between loving her and hating her for killing his teacher, he married her to save her life, but then forbade himself from sharing a room with her. He imprisoned her in a small house surrounded by gentians, and went into seclusion as punishment.
Despite his fury at his brother's decision, Lan Qiren never brought him up whenever he needed an example of the destruction excessive emotions brought. For that reason, Lan Xichen didn't know the true reason behind his parents' marriage until recently, and only because he directly asked his uncle. For his little brother to figure out that something was wrong, and at such a young age—
Lan Xichen's heart pounds, and he doesn't know how to answer.
"It is alright if xiong-zhang cannot answer," Lan Wangji breaks the silence—a rare thing, from him.
Lan Xichen cannot help feeling inadequate. "I don't know," he confesses. "I am not our father, and I do not know how he thinks. But I do know this: mother loves us very much, regardless of what she thinks of our father."
His little brother nods politely, but Lan Xichen doubts he gave a satisfactory answer.
Lan Xichen is nine years old when his mother passes away.
Lan Qiren is the first to tell him. His uncle cancels their lessons for the day—something he had only ever done if Lan Xichen was ill—and walks him back to his bedroom, where they wouldn't be interrupted.
"Her heart gave out. We found her this morning," his uncle tells him with a hand on his back, the only physical contact they've had in months. "I am sorry, Xichen."
Lan Xichen barely hears the words; his heart is pounding so loud and his skin numbs over. "Wangji?" is all he can manage to say.
"I am on my way to tell him," Lan Qiren reassures him, before standing up. "Take your time, Xichen. Grieve."
He grabs his uncle's sleeve in a moment of weakness. "What about Father?" he demands. "Wangji and I should see him!"
Lan Qiren looks down at his sleeve. For a moment, he looks like he's contemplating scolding his nephew, but ultimately just sighs a heavy sigh. "Your father already knows."
"Then Wangji and I should go to him," Lan Xichen chokes, his throat hot. He needs us. We need him.
His uncle bows his head. For a moment, Lan Xichen thinks he sees grief in his uncle's usually-stern eyes. "I've already asked him, Xichen," he answers gently as he pulls his sleeve away. "He wishes to be alone."
A scream threatens to rise in Lan Xichen's throat. He wants to wail at the sky. He wants to roar into the earth and curse, curse , his father. Dark thoughts towards his father—his father —fill his mind, taking up his vision. Your fault. Your fault. You killed her. Now you're killing your sons. It should have been you, not her!
It takes a hand on his shoulder to make him realize he's trembling.
"Xichen," Lan Qiren's voice is a strong pillar amidst the haze of anger and disbelief, "grieve."
He sobs until his throat is sore and stars fill his eyes. His head pounds, and his hands are raw from hitting whatever is nearest to him. His uncle has long since left, replaced by his great-aunt, who does nothing except alternate between soothing his tears and scolding him for showing excessive emotion.
When Lan Qiren comes in again, Lan Xichen does his best to wipe his face and greet his uncle properly. His voice is too raw from screaming, so he does not speak; he only bows his head, and hopes his uncle understands.
Lan Qiren frowns, although he looks more concerned than disapproving. "Xichen, Wangji is refusing to listen to reason."
He is only six, Uncle, he wants to say, but can't. It's not like his uncle doesn't know.
"He's kneeling in front of your mother's house," Lan Qiren continues. "I've already told him that she's gone, but he hasn't moved."
Lan Xichen straightens up. "Let me see him." His voice is pitifully hoarse.
"Clean yourself up first," Lan Qiren orders. "Wash your face and fix your forehead ribbon."
He does so, albeit clumsily. His hands are unsteady after so much crying, and he is impatient to go see his little brother. By the time he's somewhat presentable, it's almost time for bed.
Still, he goes outside and makes his way down a familiar, small paved path.
It is easy to spot Lan Wangji; he is a spot of white among the dark brown wooden floorboards of their mother's house. His heart sinks when he sees the small figure kneeling in front of the door, in a proper position as always, waiting.
"A-Zhan," he calls.
Lan Wangji raises his head. Upon seeing who it is, he stands up and gives a proper bow. "Xiong-zhang."
"A-Zhan," Lan Xichen calls again, tears stinging again in his exhausted eyes. "I-I'm so sorry…"
He's holding his little brother before he realizes it, crying into his hair. His arms shake uncontrollably. Lan Wangji moves as if to try to escape his embrace, but Lan Xichen only holds him tighter.
He cries for his mother, who died imprisoned in her small house. He cries for his father, who has lost his wife. He cries for himself, so young yet already without a mother.
But mostly, above all, he cries for Wangji, who still doesn't understand that their mother is not coming back and never opening her door for them again.
In the months that follow, Lan Xichen has many bad days—days when his grief nearly suffocates him and he feels it might kill him. But slowly, he starts to have… he wouldn't call them good days, but they are not as bad as the ones before.
Ebb and flow. Good days and bad days. Life goes on, and so must he.
Lan Wangji remains stubborn, keeping up his monthly vigil at their mother's door. No amount of scolding from Lan Qiren or coaxing from his brother can move him. He doesn't shed a single tear; he just sits politely, waiting.
Lan Xichen is ten years old when he hears it: the first negative comment about his brother.
Two elders happen to be walking by when they see Lan Wangji kneeling in front of his mother's door. One of them gives a disapproving sigh and jerks her head towards him as she sneers to the other, "Just like his father."
Just like his father.
Lan Xichen remembers his mother, who died alone. His mother, married to their father so that she wouldn't be put to death, only to live imprisoned for the rest of her life. His mother, who always smiled for him and his brother, and never once spoke of her own sorrows.
His mother, who lived because of her husband's love, but couldn't step foot outdoors because of his hatred.
You are wrong , he thinks at the departing elders, as he cannot say it to their faces. Wangji is a Lan; he cannot control the magnitude of what he feels, but he is not their father. He is not guaranteed to be consumed by the same maniacal infatuation and jealousy their father had.
Right now, he is just a boy who misses his mother.
Let him miss his mother.
Lan Xichen is fifteen years old when he asks his brother what he wants to name his spirit sword.
Lan Wangji answers almost immediately: Bichen.
To avoid worldly affairs. Lan Xichen is not surprised. His brother is quickly growing to be the most promising cultivator the Gusu Lan sect has ever produced. Although their uncle would never say so out loud, everyone knows that Lan Wangji is Lan Qiren's star pupil—the perfect embodiment of the sect and its ideals. Of course he would name a sword Bichen.
To everyone—and Lan Wangji, especially—the problems that plagued their father cannot be further away. Here is a talented disciple, so beautiful and so far above his peers that he seems godly. Mortal affairs do not concern him. What secluded father? What passionate, fiery Lan blood? This young man looks so cold that anything within a three-foot radius of him would surely freeze to death.
Lan Xichen is standing closer to him than three feet, and he feels fine. He smiles at his brother.
Lan Wangji gives him a look. "Xiong-zhang, do you disapprove?"
"No, I approve." Lan Xichen pats him on the shoulder. "It's a good name for what will surely be a fine blade."
The sword turns out to be no less than stunning. With its hilt of silver and icy-blue blade, it looks like it was cut from a glacier and forged in the winter sky. Lan Xichen watches with pride as the swordmaker presents it to his little brother.
Lan Wangji receives it with a low bow and unsheathes the blade for the first time. Bichen glows, as if coming alive in its master's grasp. He gives the sword a few test swings, each movement graceful and smooth. He then forms a hand seal; Bichen darts through the air, a sharp point of blue light, before coming to a dead halt just inches off the ground.
The Second Jade of Lan, as everyone calls him now, nods once and sheathes the blade.
Lan Xichen beams. It is so nice to see his brother ecstatic to finally have a sword of his own.