Chapter 1: Growing Up
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.
Lan Xichen is eighteen years old when the Gusu Lan sect accepts two disciples from the Yunmeng Jiang sect.
He knows who they are; he was the one who'd helped his uncle decide which students to accept for study. They arrive while he is away dealing with a haunting on a nearby farm, so he doesn't have the privilege of welcoming them to the Cloud Recesses. His little brother, however, should have left his secluded cultivation by then, and could have greeted them instead.
Lan Wangji isn't the most approachable young man in the Lan sect—his position as the head of student discipline makes that even more so—but Lan Xichen still wishes for him to have friends.
So Lan Xichen is pleasantly shocked when he hears a loud, no-shouting-rule-breaking "Lan Zhan!" within moments of him stepping foot back inside the Cloud Recesses.
The yell is more than enough to turn heads and earn a few disapproving glares, but a surprising number of people look in the opposite direction: at the person being called.
Lan Xichen raises an eyebrow. Interesting. Evidently this sort of interaction happens often enough that others are more interested in his brother's reaction than in shushing the loudmouth.
A pony-tailed figure bounces across the courtyard, his hair mussed and his white disciple robes loosened. He grins, nothing but pure joy on his face, as he stops in front of Lan Wangji. "Lan Zhan! I haven't seen you in a while! Where did you run off to?"
Lan Wangji—impeccable, perfect, stoic Lan Wangji—barely gives him a glance. "Proper attire must be observed at all times in the Cloud Recesses."
The disciple doesn't lose his smile. If anything, it grows. "Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan." He pats at his robes and makes an attempt to smooth them out. "I've missed you and that scowl of yours."
Lan Wangji is not scowling—Lan Xichen knows. He is, however, clutching his books a little harder than necessary, and his throat tightens as he swallows.
It takes everything in Lan Xichen to not burst out laughing.
"Anyhow." The disciple leans conspiratorially forward. Lan Wangji noticeably doesn't step back. "I went down the mountain with Jiang Cheng yesterday, and I got you some new… books for your Library Pavilion. Do you want to see?"
The look Lan Wangji gives him could freeze a man solid; it is too bad the pony-tailed boy smiles brighter than the sun. "Books on provocative subjects are strictly forbidden."
The disciple's expression changes to one of false innocence. "Why, Lan er-ge, who said anything about provocative? I merely said that I got you books. Where is your mind going, Lan Zhan? What did you think I got you?"
The tips of Lan Wangji's ears tinge pink. With a huff, he leaves. "Ridiculous!" he hisses.
The disciple only laughs. "I'll stop by the Library Pavilion later to give them to you!" he calls after Lan Wangji. "You will like them, I'm sure!"
Lan Wangji's jaw clenches at that, and he stubbornly keeps going. Upon seeing Lan Xichen, he stops—then, with a little embarrassment, he sets his books down and bows. "Xiong-zhang, you are back."
"Wangji," he greets, unable to hide his amusement. "You are well, I hope?"
"Yes," his brother answers, picking his books back up. "Classes have started, and the disciples are quickly adjusting."
A loud laugh comes from the courtyard. Lan Xichen looks and sees the same disciple vaulting over a fence, clutching something while his friend chases after him.
"All except one, I see," Lan Xichen muses out loud.
Lan Wangji frowns. "That one is Yunmeng Jiang sect's senior disciple."
"Wei Wuxian," Lan Xichen recalls from the student files. "He's the son of Cangse Sanren, who was a disciple of Baoshan Sanren."
His little brother's eyes widen almost imperceptibly at the name. Baoshan Sanren—the infamous cultivator rumored to be of the same generation as Lan An, the Lan sect founder. She cultivated in secret, taking in abandoned children as disciples and making them promise that, if they left her mountain for the world below, they would never come back.
Cangse Sanren was one such disciple who left. Both Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen knew of her from the stories their uncle told of her mischief and talent. She, like the first disciple who had left the mountain, died a disturbing death.
Lan Wangji glances back at the courtyard and, really, it is too easy to read him: no wonder Uncle accepted Wei Wuxian as a student.
"It looks like you two get along," Lan Xichen says gently.
If it were anybody else, Lan Wangji would nod with a dismissive, "Mn." This time, however, his eyebrow twitches, and his eyes narrow. He looks utterly scandalized, as if the very thought disturbs him. "We do not," he insists.
Lan Xichen knows better. "In any case, it is good for you to have friends."
His brother bows his head. "Wangji understands."
"Now, if there is nothing else you need, then I should be going. Uncle is expecting me." Lan Xichen pauses. Then, unable to resist, he adds, "You should be going too. I believe you're scheduled to meet someone at the Library Pavilion."
So many emotions flicker through Lan Wangji's face, imperceptible to anyone except Lan Xichen: shock, annoyance, betrayal, indignation, and—maybe—a bit of anticipation.
Lan Xichen laughs.
Lan Xichen is nineteen years old when he participates in the archery competition hosted by the Qishan Wen sect.
He takes his time with each target, always allowing his fellow sect members to go first. He knows he can hit each target if need be; everybody knows. He is, however, content to let the younger disciples go first. It is, for many of them, their first archery competition, and they are eager to test their mettle. No need to steal the targets when glory is shared by the entire sect.
He is right in the middle of aiming at a feral ghost when whispers suddenly erupt around him, overlapping too quickly to be fully understood.
"… grabbed his forehead ribbon…"
"…Second Young Master Lan…"
"… accident! It's not…"
"… just another man, it shouldn't…"
He turns immediately, and his heart drops at the sight.
Wangji, A-Zhan, his little brother, walks towards him, his forehead painfully bare and his sect ribbon clenched in his fist. He ignores all attempts from his fellow sect members to reassure him, and he keeps his eyes resolutely on the ground.
Lan Xichen hands his bow over to a disciple and faces him. "Wangji—"
"Xiong-zhang, I request to leave the competition." Lan Wangji's voice is thick, like he is choking.
Lan Xichen looks at him. His brother—his always immaculately-dressed, rule-abiding, emotionally-reserved brother—is trembling from barely-contained rage. His forehead ribbon is crumpled in his hand, and his breaths come out staggered and uneven. Even though he refuses to meet Lan Xichen's gaze, it doesn't stop Lan Xichen from seeing his eyes.
He looks like he's about to cry.
"Of course," Lan Xichen answers, placing a hand on his back and quickly leading him away. "Continue your hunt without us," he calls over his shoulder at the rest of their sect.
They stop in a nook, naturally created by the mountains, and Lan Xichen makes Lan Wangji sit on a boulder. "Breathe," he tells him as he kneels in front of him, holding his arms. "Breathe, Wangji. It is alright. Look at me. Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Lan Wangji's breaths are nowhere near as steady as they should be. He shakes his head.
"Alright." Lan Xichen doesn't push the issue. Based on his brother's reaction, he can deduce which party was involved and what happened, anyhow. "Could you at least tell me if it was deliberate or an accident?"
His brother finally looks at him. It gives Lan Xichen some comfort to see him slowly begin to relax. "Accident," he answers.
Lan Xichen exhales in relief. If the ribbon-pulling was deliberate, he would have to have a few strong words with a certain Jiang sect disciple. He knows Wei Wuxian can be a trickster, but even someone like Lan Xichen has his limits, especially when his brother is involved.
He respectfully looks away while Lan Wangji ties his forehead ribbon back on. "I will exit the competition with you."
"Xiong-zhang, there is no need—"
"You are upset, Wangji," Lan Xichen tells him, his tone edging towards scolding. "I cannot let you leave alone. I will go with you."
Lan Wangji bows his head, and does not argue.
After the competition is over, when all the sects' members have reconvened at the start of the archery field, Lan Xichen sees Wei Wuxian glancing remorsefully in Lan Wangji's direction. He looks like he wants to come over and apologize, but the cold glare Lan Wangji shoots him keeps him rooted in place.
Good to see that even Wei Wuxian knows when he is wrong.
Lan Xichen knows the sect will talk when they return home, despite the rule against gossiping. He knows Lan Wangji will be upset for some time. And he knows that his uncle will be utterly incensed once he hears about this.
But at least it is over and done with. Wei Wuxian knows Lan Wangji's limits now. If he is smart, he will not push him further.
Lan Xichen is twenty years old when the Cloud Recesses burn.
He is in the Library Pavilion, shoving armfuls of scrolls into a spirit bag. Many of the scrolls and books in the Library Pavilion are made of paper infused with spiritual energy, which allows for easy transport in a spirit bag. Still, far too many—older scrolls, especially—are normal ink and normal paper. Those, he shoves into the basement and prays that the fire spares them.
Flames lick at the walls, and smoke burns at his eyes. Sweat pours down his face as he runs. He does not have the time to pick up any scrolls he accidentally drops. Outside, his brother's guqin strums a harsh chord.
Run! Lan Xichen wants to scream at him, but he doesn't. Breathing is already too difficult, and he knows Lan Wangji will not hear him above the roaring fires.
Another cabinet is consumed by flames. He is slow, far too slow.
A hand clamps down on his shoulder, and Lan Xichen cries out. The Wens have broken in! He reaches for Shuoyue, ready to draw it and fight for his life.
It is not the Wens.
For a moment, Lan Xichen thinks it's his brother—those golden eyes are far too distinct. Then, he thinks it's his uncle—their cheekbones are too similar. With a halt, he realizes he sees himself in that jawline and brow bone, even as covered in aged skin as they are.
"Father," he breathes.
Qingheng-Jun wastes no time. He sweeps scrolls off of shelves by the armful into another spirit bag. He pulls up floorboards that Lan Xichen didn't even know could be pulled up and buries artifacts and books beneath them.
The flames spread. Already, parts of the roof are starting to cave in. Lan Xichen nearly gets hit by a pile of falling, burning tiles.
Qingheng-Jun tightens the spirit bag and shoves it at him. "Go."
Lan Xichen clutches both spirit bags tightly. "Father!"
Outside, the guqin abruptly stops playing. Lan Xichen thinks he can hear his brother cry out in agony. His heart feels like it's being sliced open.
"Go!" Qingheng-Jun orders, pushing him towards a window. "Run!"
Lan Xichen cannot recall if he climbed out the window himself or if his father tossed him out, but he is stumbling away from the burning Library Pavilion, half-blind from smoke and tears. His foot catches on something, and he falls, hitting the ground hard and rolling downhill. He crashes into a tree, and he distinctly feels the bark ripping into his skin.
Fear drives him to stand back up. He sways, leaning against the tree for support, as he looks back. The Library Pavilion is completely consumed by fire, bellowing smoke thick enough to distort the moon's light. Lan Xichen thinks he sees a figure among the flames, running around, still trying to save as many precious sect texts as possible.
There is no time. Already, he sees red-and-white robed figures flying around, their swords glinting.
Without knowing if his uncle and his brother are safe, he runs into the night, one hand clutching the two spirit bags, the other frantically ripping his all-too-recognizable cloud-patterned robe off. It is now too dangerous to be a Lan. He cannot be recognized, at any cost.
He touches his forehead ribbon, feeling the clouds embroidered into the fine fabric—symbols that mark him as a blood-descendant of the sect founder.
He must. It is far too risky otherwise. Yet his heart still cries at the mere thought.
With shaky fingers, he removes his forehead ribbon and tucks it away safely in his sleeve.
Lan Xichen is twenty-one years old when he hears the familiar notes of Inquiry.
Words can not possibly describe the relief he feels when he sees his little brother with his guqin in his lap. He steps into the clearing. "Wangji."
Lan Wangji looks up, the wariness on his face quickly giving away to surprise—then relief, and joy. He bows deeply, and his voice shakes a little. "Xiong-zhang."
"You've been well, I hope." Lan Xichen smiles at him. "I knew it was you the moment I heard Inquiry. Although," he looked at the spirits, aqueous and glowing in the air, "from their response, it sounds like Young Master Wei is still missing."
Worry returns to Lan Wangji's brows, furrowing them. "He's been gone for three months."
Lan Xichen rests a hand on his arm. "Young Master Wei is resourceful and clever," he reassures him. "He will find a way."
It is not enough. Lan Wangji looks unconvinced, and glances at his guqin as if he plans on starting yet another session of Inquiry. Yet he restrains himself. "I will find him," he says it as an oath.
Later, years later, Lan Xichen will think back to this exact moment and realize that this is where it all started. Whatever happened to his brother and Wei Wuxian when they were trapped in Xuanwu cave had drastically changed Lan Wangji—stirred his blood, awoke a devotion within him that would make their sect elders froth at the mouth and rage: not this again.
But, for now, Lan Xichen knows no better, and he thinks nothing of his brother's earnestness.
"I know you will," he tells him, fully believing him.
Kudos and comments keep me happy!
Chapter 3: Conflict
The Battle of the Nightless City is based off of the donghua, just FYI.
Lan Xichen is twenty-two years old when the four sects storm the Nightless City.
It is their second attempt, and it is fueled purely by desperation. Their numbers are low; too much of their main force consists of new cultivators. Many of them have barely formed a golden core. Even more have never killed a man.
Still, they charge. Lan Xichen soars through the air, leading his sect. Nie Mingjue is already in front, cutting a path through the Wens. Everywhere, buildings burn, alighting the entire city.
Behind them, hovering in the air like a twisted version of some god, is Wei Wuxian. He holds an artifact of his own making—a black seal that pulsates with malicious energy. The destruction he wields is mind-staggering. The more he kills, the more powerful the Stygian Tiger Seal grows. The more powerful his Stygian Tiger Seal grows, the more he can kill. It is a gruesome cycle.
As soon as the Wens had figured out who Wei Wuxian was and what power he wielded, they resorted to burning their dead. It was the only way to ensure that Wei Wuxian couldn't reanimate them.
Pyres cannot be built in the middle of a battle.
And so the dead rise.
Morale is already low among the Wens from defeat after defeat and rumors of entire surveillance posts wiped out. Some flee upon seeing black robes and Chenqing, but not many. The might of the Wens remains strong.
Another pulse. Resentful energy lashes out. Another wave of Wens down.
Then, cries into the air: "Wen Ruohan is here!"
Lan Xichen turns to the main building, but Nie Mingjue is still faster by far. He tears through the Wens, eyes fixed on nothing but the white-and-red robed figure at the top of the stairs.
They collide hard enough to shake the earth and crack the floor. Blades flash, cutting into pillars and scraping against stone. Nie Mingjue is strong, and full of anger, but Wen Ruohan's cultivation level is far above his.
Shuoyue flies through the air, but stops short of the Wen tyrant. Undeterred, Lan Xichen grabs his sword and puts all his strength behind it, piercing Wen Ruohan's shield.
The Wen Sect leader looks unbothered, grabbing Shuoyue with his bare fingers and pushing its blade onto Nie Mingjue's Baxia with ease. The longer they fight, the more frustrated Nie Mingue becomes, his motions becoming more and more erratic.
Lan Xichen barely has time to catch his breath, much less yell for Nie Mingue to calm down. All he can see is the man in front of them—the man who must die for all this to end.
And die he does.
A golden blade pierces through Wen Ruohan's chest. The sect leader lets out a terrible shriek and falls to the ground. He looks over his shoulder at a young man who is already shedding his red Wen sect robes to reveal the golden colors of the Jin sect.
The Wens' wails of disbelief are easily drowned out by the victorious roar that spreads all across the Nightless City.
Lan Xichen collapses to the ground. His white robes are stained red, and he doesn't know which parts of it are his own blood or someone else's. Still, he smiles at the man holding the golden sword. "You did it, Young Master Meng. Very well done."
Meng Yao kneels beside him and bows low. "Sect Leader Lan," he says, unable to hide the relieved smile on his face.
Nie Mingjue is there too. He is bleeding heavily from his shoulder, but he doesn't take notice of it. He falls to his knees too. "Xichen! Are you hurt?" he demands, taking his arm and looking him over. "Hold still, I'll find a healer!"
Lan Xichen shakes his head and places a hand on Nie Mingjue's shoulder, letting his spiritual energy flow into the wound. Already, he can feel cells multiplying and blood clotting. "I am fine." He smiles at him, then at Meng Yao. "How are you?"
"I am unharmed," Meng Yao answers, shuffling closer. "Sect Leader Lan, it's over, isn't it? It's really over."
Lan Xichen looks at him, then at Nie Mingjue. Pride blooms in his chest, raging like a fire, and he pulls the two men close.
If Nie Mingjue is surprised by the sudden contact, he does not show it. He just pats Lan Xichen on the back and grunts in affirmation. Meng Yao is considerably more startled, but he too accepts the embrace, his face buried in Lan Xichen's shoulder.
"It's over," Lan Xichen breathes, his face up towards the sky. Whether the tears in his eyes are from relief or the smoke, he doesn't know. "It's finally over. I cannot believe it. We did it. We did it."
The next day, the three of them take an oath of brotherhood. They become the Venerated Triad—heroes of the Sunshot campaign. The Lanling Jin sect, the Qinghe Nie sect, and the Gusu Lan sect are bound by alliance, sworn to protect and support each other whenever need be.
The future has never looked brighter, and Lan Xichen could not be happier.
Lan Xichen is twenty-three years old when his brother approaches him.
"Xiong-zhang," Lan Wangji greets him with a bowed head.
"Wangji." Usually, Lan Xichen's mood lifts upon seeing his brother, but there is a wariness to Lan Wangji's expression that makes him hesitate.
Lan Wangji looks at him; he is as pristinely-dressed as usual, but his worries are starting to show through on the flawless lines of his face. "I… I want to bring someone back to the Cloud Recesses."
Lan Xichen cannot hide his surprise. Lan Wangji has never openly wanted something, not since their mother had passed away. Lan Xichen has always resorted to reading his desires through his demeanor: a basket of fresh loquats, a beautifully-crafted inkbrush, a certain young man with a black flute in his hand and darkness in his eyes.
He murmurs, more to himself than to his brother, "You want to bring someone… back to the Cloud Recesses?"
Lan Wangji looks down again. "Take him back. Hide him away."
Hide him away.
Lan Xichen's heart sinks. He thinks of their mother, hidden away from the world for her crimes and allowed only a monthly visit from her children.
Wei Wuxian is not like their mother. She was a still pond while he is a raging fire. Where she had been a calm, cooling presence in Lan Wangji's life despite her confinement, any attempts to imprison Wei Wuxian would undoubtedly result in him obliterating all of Gusu out of sheer rage.
Lan Xichen doesn't want to see their father in his brother—doesn't want to see those eyes cloud over with obsession, helpless to the turmoil of emotions in his heart that chant nothing but you cannot leave, I must have you, you cannot leave, I must have you.
"What will you do if he doesn't want to go?" is what Lan Xichen says. Will you be like our father, is what he asks.
Lan Wangji's eyes fill with resignation, a quiet defeat. "Then there is nothing I can do," he answers. "I cannot force him."
It is an answer that relieves Lan Xichen's heart, but does nothing for the knot in his stomach. At least Wangji knows their father's mistake, he tries to reassure himself. His brother would not go astray.
Lan Xichen is twenty-four years old when his brother goes astray.
He is in a cave, along with his uncle and many sect elders. It has been a few days after the events at the Nightless City, and the Gusu Lan sect has been tirelessly looking for their Second Jade, scared that another sect will find him first and kill him for sheltering the Yiling Patriarch.
Lan Xichen makes his way to the front of the group, apologizing to each sect elder he passes. He stops, and looks.
His brother is kneeling on the floor in front of a sitting Wei Wuxian, holding his hand as he gives him spiritual energy. Their clothes are filthy and covered in blood. There is no source of light other than the fire talismans held by the Gusu Lan elders, yet neither man seems to notice that they aren't alone.
But the worst part—the worst part—are the words tumbling from their mouths.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji's voice is hoarse from despair and overuse. "Please, listen to me."
Wei Wuxian's eyes are distant, focused on nothing. "Get lost," he snarls.
Lan Wangji reaches up to touch his cheek gently with scabbed fingertips. "It's alright," he whispers, reassurance dipped in grief. "It's alright. I'm here."
Wei Wuxian does not react to the touch. "Get lost."
"I'll protect you."
"I won't let anything happen to you."
"I love you."
Lan Xichen can listen to no more of this. He steps forward. "Wangji," he calls.
His brother turns at his voice, but doesn't look at him.
Lan Xichen hurts. He wants to rush over and pull his brother away from the Yiling Patriarch. He wants to drag Lan Wangji back to the Cloud Recesses and force him to cultivate in seclusion until he becomes so much of an untouchable immortal that he forgets petty troubles like love and devotion. He wants to turn back time and discourage his uncle from ever choosing Yunmeng Jiang's Wei Wuxian as one of his disciples.
"Wangji," he calls again, and holds out his hand. "It's over. Come home, please."
His brother does not respond; he only faces Wei Wuxian again, and continues to give him spiritual energy.
One of the sect elders—a great-aunt to Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji—steps forward, bristling with anger. "Wangji!" she barks, her voice like a knife's edge against the cave's stone walls. "This has gone too far! You are being ridiculous! Surrender that murderer and come home this instant!"
Lan Wangji says nothing. He stands up, still holding Wei Wuxian's hand.
"Wangji!" the great-aunt yells. "Wangji, this is—this is—!" She sputters, struggling to find words. "This is heresy! Step aside—this man will answer for his crimes! As for you, return home and seek your punishment!
Lan Wangji releases Wei Wuxian's hand and tenderly places it in his lap. He turns around slowly, his gaze settling on all thirty-three elders present. He says nothing, only looks at them in silence.
Lan Xichen feels his brother's intentions before he even moves. Dread seizes his ribs, cold as ice, and he takes another step forward. "A-Zhan," he says, unable to keep the fear out of his voice. "No, A-Zhan, don't—"
His brother does not listen. Bichen flies from its scabbard, a blinding flash of blue light, and Lan Wangji charges at his own family.
Lan Xichen screams.
Lan Xichen is twenty-five years old when he has to tell his brother that Wei Wuxian is dead.
He goes to the jingshi every day to change Lan Wangji's bandages. Thirty-three whip marks, criss-crossing all over his back—a permanent reminder of the thirty-three elders he had injured.
The discipline whip the Gusu Lan sect possess is not an ordinary whip; it is designed to leave a scar, no matter how much spiritual energy is used during the healing process. If the crime is great enough to warrant the whip, the crime is great enough to stay with the offender for life, or so was the intention.
Lan Xichen had pleaded—pleaded—with his uncle to consider other forms of punishment, but the elders were furious and beyond reasoning. Not only had Lan Wangji injured his own family, they had argued, but he had also disobeyed his sect leader, harbored a mass murderer, and endangered his sect in the process. Fewer crimes were more severe.
Then Lan Wangji asked for the whip himself, and there was nothing Lan Xichen could do except watch his brother receive lash after lash, until his back was ruined and he knelt in his own blood.
That was the second time Lan Xichen openly wept in front of his family—the first had been upon hearing of his mother's death, back when he was a child. As soon as the thirty-third lash had landed, Lan Xichen threw himself at Lan Wangji, giving him spiritual energy despite knowing the whip's unforgiving nature.
None of the sect elders had stopped him. They were strict, but not cold-hearted, and all of them had watched Lan Wangji grow up. Whatever anger they felt towards him had long disappeared by the tenth lash, and they did nothing except avert their gazes and call for a healer.
Now, Lan Xichen sits on his brother's bed, carefully peeling off bloodied bandages and washing his back with medicine. The sight of peeled skin and raw flesh makes him sick to the stomach, but he endures it. This is his brother. He will not abandon him.
Through the whole process, Lan Wangji does not once look at him, nor make a sound except for the occasional labored breath. He sleeps on his stomach at night, and when he's not asleep, he's staring silently at the wall.
Lan Xichen ties the ends of the bandages together and takes a deep breath. "Wangji."
Lan Wangji does not respond.
"Wangji, I should tell you…" The words almost catch in his throat. "Two days ago, the four sects laid siege on the Burial Mounds."
No reaction. Not even a hitched breath. Lan Wangji remains blankly staring off somewhere far away.
Lan Xichen places his hand gently on an uninjured part of his shoulder. "He's gone. I'm sorry."
Lan Wangji blinks. It is the only reaction Lan Xichen gets.
He carefully tucks the blankets around him, mindful of his injuries. "I will leave you be," he whispers. "Take care. I'll check back on you later."
He isn't even out the door when he hears the flurry of cloth being thrown and the hum of Bichen responding to its master. He turns just in time to see Lan Wangji vault out the window with a robe haphazardly tossed on.
Lan Xichen makes no move to stop him, and listens to the sound of Bichen carrying his brother away into the night sky.
Days go by without a single word from Lan Wangji. Lan Xichen goes about his business as usual, arranging funerals for those killed during the Siege of the Burial Mounds and keeping Jin Guangyao up to date on events through letters. At some point, he overhears whispers that perhaps his brother had gone to Yiling to take his own life, and Lan Xichen is quick to discipline the gossipers.
Lan Wangji finally returns one evening, when Lan Xichen is practicing on Liebing. He holds a child in one arm and two jars of Emperor's Smile in the other. He steps off of Bichen, and bows his head at Lan Xichen. "Xiong-zhang."
"Wangji." Lan Xichen quickly puts Liebing away and hurries over. "You're home."
Lan Wangji nods. Bichen sheathes itself neatly back into its scabbard.
Lan Xichen looks at the child. He is young, likely no older than three, and covered head-to-toe in dirt. His face is flushed red, possibly from a fever, and he weeps pitifully into Lan Wangji's neck.
Lan Xichen almost doesn't dare to ask. "Whose…?"
Lan Wangji shifts the boy higher up on his arm. "Mine," he answers. "This is A-Yuan."
For a while, Lan Xichen can only stare at his brother, unsure what to make of the claim. His knee-jerk assumption is that this is his brother's illegitimate son, but he quickly dismisses it as far too improbable. His second assumption is that this is Wei Wuxian's illegitimate son, which makes more sense, even if it would make his blood boil.
He studies the child, trying to find any similarities between him and the Yiling Patriarch. None. The eyes, ears, brows—nothing resembled Wei Wuxian.
He has many questions: where did you go, where did you stay, have you eaten, where did you find this child, where did Young Master Wei find this child. But questions can wait. Both his brother and the toddler need medical attention.
Lan Xichen feels his heart soften, as it usually does when children are involved. He smiles. "Hello," he greets. "You're a bit of a mess, aren't you, A-Yuan?"
A-Yuan hiccups, and looks at him with wide eyes.
Lan Xichen is only human, and cannot help melting a little at the sight. He holds out his arms. "Come here. Let Uncle hold you."
The child looks at Lan Wangji, then at Lan Xichen. Slowly, at Lan Wangji's nudging, he reaches out with small, chubby fingers.
Lan Xichen beams as he takes the boy. "Good, good. You're very good." He comfortingly pats him on his small back. "Would A-Yuan like a bath and some food?"
The boy nods, his face already buried in Lan Xichen's shoulder. He is, as Lan Xichen had suspected, running a high fever.
Lan Xichen looks back at his brother. "Go to the jingshi," he tells him. "I will send a healer over to treat your back. Once I clean this little one up, I'll bring him over and you two can have your evening meal."
Lan Wangji nods, and turns to leave. Lan Xichen bites his lower lip when he sees the entire back side of his robes stained dark red. Some of the wounds must have reopened.
That night, he helps set up another bed in the jingshi for A-Yuan, who is still too exhausted from whatever he had endured to do anything except fall asleep immediately.
Lan Xichen is smiling and stroking the boy's hair fondly when he hears Lan Wangji say, "Xiong-zhang, I am going into seclusion."
His fingers still.
He does not know what to feel. Disappointed? Angry? Resigned? He'd always hoped that he and his brother would not follow the example of their father—that they would not have to retreat to seclusion because of emotions they couldn't control and leave behind family and friends to deal with their absence.
He looks at Lan Wangji and thinks about how upset he'd been when Wei Wuxian accidentally pulled his forehead ribbon off at the archery competition. He also thinks about how broken Lan Wangji had looked, sitting in a cave for days, trying to heal a man who said nothing to him except, "Get lost."
Head bowed. Voice soft as a confession. "Xiong-zhang, I want to bring someone back to the Cloud Recesses. Bring him back. Hide him away."
Lan Xichen makes sure the blankets are snug around A-Yuan before standing up. "If you feel it is necessary, Wangji, then I will not stop you." He looks around. "I assume A-Yuan will sleep here?"
"Then I will make sure he is brought back here every night." Lan Xichen smiles at his brother, although he feels no joy. "I will visit daily to treat your wounds until you are healed. Is that alright?"
Lan Wangji nods.
Relief floods Lan Xichen. "Then I bid you goodnight, Wangji. Take care of yourself, and your child."
He leaves the jingshi just as the bell tolls, signaling bedtime. Feeling lighter than he has in days, he retires back to his own room.
His brother has the heart of a Lan. His blood will always burn. But now that the worst has happened and Wei Wuxian is dead, Lan Xichen hopes that Lan Wangji can start to heal, in both soul and body.
Lan Xichen is twenty-six years old when his brother gives A-Yuan his courtesy name: Lan Sizhui.
The name's meaning worries him a little. Sizhui. To remember and long for.
It has been over a year since Wei Wuxian's death, and Lan Wangji shows no sign of leaving seclusion. But he is not a bad father, by any means. Whenever he's free to do so, Lan Xichen accompanies A-Yuan back to the jingshi, and it cheers him up to see the boy eagerly report his daily lessons to Lan Wangji.
A-Yuan is a sweet child, and polite as can be. Even Lan Xichen's great-aunt—who had initially turned up her nose upon hearing that Lan Wangji had brought a child back—had warmed up to the boy and tried to teach him how to play a game of Go. It did not stick very well in the four-year-old's mind, but A-Yuan tried his best.
When A-Yuan proudly emerged from the jingshi one morning with a cloud-patterned ribbon tied around his forehead, there were some disagreements among the elders. Some claimed that, illegitimate or not, Lan blood was still Lan blood. Others, unable to bear the thought of their Second Jade having a child out of wedlock, argued that adopted children of Lan members did not count as bloodline members, and thus could not wear the cloud-patterned ribbon.
Lan Xichen thinks he's the only one who suspects that A-Yuan is the son of Wei Wuxian. He still couldn't see any physical resemblance, but sometimes he'd hear A-Yuan laugh a certain way, and he'd… wonder, just a bit.
But he asks no questions, and Lan Wangji offers no answers, so Lan Xichen keeps the observations to himself.
A-Yuan smooths out his forehead ribbon with such care that the action could only have been copied from Lan Wangji. "Sizhui," he repeats the name, and gives Lan Xichen a big smile. "Zewu-Jun, I am Lan Sizhui!"
Lan Xichen could not help smiling back. "Do you know what your name means, little Sizhui?"
A-Yuan nods. "It means 'to remember'. Although," he frowns, his lower lip sticking out. "I'm… I don't know what I'm supposed to remember. I-I think…"
Lan Xichen holds his breath.
A-Yuan blinks, suddenly distracted by Jingyi waving wildly at him from another hall. He starts to wave back, but catches himself, and does a proper bow instead.
Lan Xichen exhales. The moment is lost. Maybe someday, A-Yuan will remember past the day Lan Wangji brought him back to the Cloud Recesses, but that day isn't today. Between his silent brother and his amnesiac little nephew, Lan Xichen doubts he'd ever know the truth of A-Yuan's parentage.
But seeing A-Yuan chirp out, "Jingyi! Running is not allowed in the Cloud Recesses!" as the other boy bounces towards him is more than enough to keep Lan Xichen from minding too much. His brother is in seclusion, and interacts with nobody except Lan Xichen and A-Yuan. If naming his son 'remembrance' in honor of Wei Wuxian is enough to soothe Lan Wangji's grieving soul, then Lan Xichen sees no reason to keep that from him.
Lan Xichen is twenty-six years old when Nie Mingjue dies.
The news is delivered by Jin Guangyao, who personally came to the Cloud Recesses to deliver the tragic news himself. He is badly shaken; his hair is tousled from flying so fast on his sword, and his hands tremble so much that he can barely hold the offered cup of tea.
Lan Xichen sits down on the cushion next to him, feeling numb to his very core. Nie Mingjue is dead. Nie Mingjue is dead. The words echo hollowly his chest.
Jin Guangyao sets his cup down and straightens out his robe. "I must apologize for being such a poor guest." His smile is strained. "I came here as fast as I could."
"And I appreciate it, A-Yao," Lan Xichen pats his arm reassuringly. "You have always been very dedicated. You do not need to strain yourself."
Jin Guangyao relaxes a little, but he is clearly still upset. "Oh, er-ge, what are we going to do? Without da-ge… "
Lan Xichen already knows what he's going to say: without da-ge, how can they be the Venerated Triad? Nie Mingjue had always been the backbone of their group—a figure of brute strength that they could always fall back on, reliable and resilient. And now he's gone.
"How's Nie Huaisang?" Lan Xichen asks.
"Devastated, but at least surrounded by friends and family," Jin Guangyao reassures him. "I made sure before I left."
A surge of admiration runs through Lan Xichen. Always count on A-Yao to think several steps ahead and consider those involved. "And how about you?" he asks. "A-Yao, you've lost a brother too. How are you feeling?"
Jin Guangyao's smile falters, then finally disappears altogether. He stares down at his cup. "I… I know what must be done," he starts. "I know a funeral must be held, and I've already compiled a list of texts Huaisang should read to prepare him for the role of sect leader. I've also—"
"A-Yao," Lan Xichen interrupts—a horrible crime, coming from a Lan, but he doesn't care at the moment. "I did not ask what you're going to do. I know you already have that figured out. I asked how you're feeling."
Jin Guangyao looks like he hadn't anticipated the question at all, and he almost fidgets. "… Lost," he answers. "Er-ge, I feel lost. I know of the Nie family's history, but I didn't think…"
He does not need to complete his sentence. Lan Xichen already knows what he's going to say: I didn't think da-ge would succumb to qi deviation, too.
"Stay, A-Yao," Lan Xichen says. "At least for a night. You've traveled far to tell me."
Jin Guangyao nods, looking for a moment like a small child, helpless and shocked. "I thank er-ge for his hospitality."
He tries to stand up to bow, but Lan Xichen stops him. "There is no need for gratitude between brothers. We take care of each other, and now, Huaisang too."
"Of course," Jin Guangyao agrees. "Da-ge loved Huaisang, despite his way of showing it. Huaisang will not be alone."
The thought soothes Lan Xichen somewhat, although his mind is still reeling from the news. "We," he starts, his voice surprisingly distant to his own ears, "should help Huaisang with the funeral."
"I think perhaps it is best to leave the Nie sect leader's funeral to the Nie sect," Jin Guangyao says, taking another sip from his cup. "Tomorrow, we should go to Qinghe to see Nie Huaisang. He will need help."
Lan Xichen nods. This news will hit him much harder later, probably when he's alone in his room with nothing but his own thoughts. But for now—
He looks at Jin Guangyao, unable to suppress the intense protectiveness he feels towards his remaining sworn brother. A-Yao has already endured so much in life, yet never once has he been anything except compassionate and generous. To have Nie Mingjue, the strongest man either of them know, die…
For a heartbeat—a fleeting moment that barely registers—Lan Xichen feels it: an irrational, irresistible urge to keep A-Yao here, in the Cloud Recesses, where he can personally guarantee his safety and health. Nothing would be able to touch him here, so long as Lan Xichen is sect leader. His remaining sworn brother wouldn't have to worry about anything ever again.
He blinks, and the feeling is gone, so he thinks nothing of it.
Lan Xichen is twenty-eight when his brother leaves seclusion.
He is beyond elated to see Lan Wangji outside of his jingshi and interacting with other sect members. And he knows that, although his uncle doesn't show it, Lan Qiren is relieved too. He is not his father, after all.
The first thing Lan Wangji does is greet all thirty-three elders he'd injured and bow to them. Out of all of them, only his great-uncle's cousin turns away from him. The rest warmly welcome him back into sect life and remind him to uphold the Lan ideals. They are old, and know not to hold onto grudges for longer than necessary.
Little six-year-old Sizhui does not seem to know what to make of suddenly seeing his father out in the open. The boy is accustomed to having Lan Wangji all to himself, but now he has to share him with the whole sect. He knows enough of propriety to not try and cling to Lan Wangji in public, but it puts a visible strain on his little face whenever he is in close proximity to his adoptive father.
It makes Lan Xichen want to pinch his cheeks and coo at him.
His brother often leaves the Cloud Recesses, sometimes for weeks at a time, which Lan Xichen doesn't mind. He doesn't know the precise nature of whatever Lan Wangji is up to on his trips, but he does receive letters—and not just reports from his brother. Letters of gratitude, gifts of thanks; they come slowly at first, then steady increase in flow.
Lan Xichen only opens the ones clearly marked to the Gusu Lan sect. If the letter or package is addressed to his brother, he sets it aside for Lan Wangji to open himself at a later date. The nature of the letters are the same: a person, a family, a village, or even an entire town thanking Lan Wangji for helping them with supernatural issues, ranging from the simple haunting to a rampaging demonic entity. Some claim that seeing the illustrious Hanguang-Jun in action inspired them to pursue cultivation. Others promise that Lan Wangji would always be welcome in their homes. More than a few are marriage proposals.
It lifts Lan Xichen's spirit immeasurably. His brother has never been completely comfortable around people, so it fills him with great pride to see him out in the world, doing as much good as he can.
So when Lan Wangji pulls out a black flag and tells him that it's a spirit lure he's been testing out, Lan Xichen listens. When Lan Wangji shows him a compass that points towards evil beings and suggests that their sect members use it, Lan Xichen obliges. When Lan Wangji adds a few extra strokes to a talisman to alter its purpose, Lan Xichen watches, and learns.
Lan Xichen is firmly aware that these are Wei Wuxian's inventions, but he knows his brother would not allow harm to come to their sect. If these inventions can be used as tools, then all the better. He is so confident in Lan Wangji that he doesn't hesitate to share the sect's newfound knowledge with Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao.
But even with all the sect's praise and the never-ending flow of thankful letters, Lan Wangji remains even more stone-faced than before. Lan Xichen doesn't blame him. The wounds on his back are one matter. The wounds on his heart are another. One can be healed with time and attention. The other might never heal at all.
Lan Wangji is not like their father. He is out of seclusion and among family. He travels far and wide, helping others whenever he can. He talks. He participates. Sometimes, on rare occasions, he smiles—even if it's just the barest stretch of his lips.
For Lan Xichen, it is enough. It is more than enough.
Lan Xichen is thirty-eight years old when Lan Wangji brings a guest home.
It is quite the sight: Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi trying to coax a sobbing man away from his donkey while Lan Wangji calmly watches. Lan Xichen cannot help but be intrigued.
"Wangji," he greets.
Lan Wangji turns to face him and bows. "Xiong-zhang."
He nods at his brother, then at the two bowing disciples behind him. "It's rare that you bring guests home. Who might this be?"
The man on the donkey stops crying just long enough to blurt out, "I am—"
And that's all he gets out. His jaws clamp shut, muffling his words.
Lan Xichen nearly laughs, but fights to keep a straight face. "Wangji, learn to treat your guests better. Be gentle with them, and definitely do not use the Silencing spell on them."
Lan Wangji lowers his gaze in acknowledgement. Behind him, the man suddenly opens his mouth with a loud gasp and sighs in relief. Lan Wangji asks, "Are you off to see Lianfang-Zun?"
Lan Xichen nods. "I will be back in a month. Until then, I leave matters in your hands, Wangji. Take care."
"Xiong-zhang, have a safe journey." Lan Wangji bows again, followed by a chorus of, "Zewu-Jun, have a safe journey," by the junior disciples.
He is just about to get on Shuoyue when another exaggerated sob catches his attention. The man has slid off the donkey, and is sprawled on the pristine stairs leading to the Cloud Recesses, whining incessantly.
To Lan Xichen's surprise, Lan Wangji calmly walks over to the young man and drags him to his feet by his arm. He even dusts nonexistent dirt off of the man's shoulder.
Lan Xichen raises an eyebrow. Interesting. He knows of only one non-Lan person whom Lan Wangji would willingly touch, but that person is—
It can't be.
He looks back. The man, still unwilling to walk, is being carried under Lan Wangji's arm in a rather undignified manner. He has stopped crying for now, although Lan Xichen can't tell if it is from another Silencing spell or out of pure shock at being handled like a child.
… Surely the Yiling Patriarch would put up more of a fight than a simple temper tantrum.
Lan Xichen shakes his head. No matter. He still trusts Lan Wangji with their sect, and he doesn't want to potentially accuse an innocent being of being the Yiling Patriarch. Sect leader Jiang does enough of that on his own, despite Lan Xichen's disapproval.
He steps onto Shuoyue, and soon leaves the Cloud Recesses far behind. The upcoming Discussion Conference at the Golden Carp Tower in Lanling is a higher priority than a guest his brother just so happened to physically touch. He must focus his attention on helping Jin Guangyao prepare, although he doubts there would be much for him to do, given A-Yao's dedicated nature.
The past decade has been kind. All the sects are flourishing, and Jin Guangyao's watchtowers have proven effective at spotting supernatural problems early and saving human lives. Nie Huaisang is still struggling as the Nie sect leader, but at least he responds to letters and reads any helpful materials Jin Guangyao sends him. Sect leader Jiang tends to keep to himself, but cooperates with Jin Guangyao whenever Jin Rulan is involved.
Yes. Even if Wei Wuxian returns, the cultivation world is in a much better state to handle him if he feels like stirring up trouble again. Lan Xichen has no doubt about it.
One more chapter until this is officially over! Thank you everyone for your kudos and comments!
Chapter 5: Cursed
[laughs nervously] Enjoy?
Slight warning for suicidal thoughts.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lan Xichen is thirty-nine years old when he plunges his sword through Jin Guangyao's stomach.
"Xichen-ge, behind you!" Nie Huaisang screams.
Lan Xichen whirls around, unthinking. Shuoyue flies through the air—
—and sinks easily into Jin Guangyao, right where his sternum ends, where there is no bone to protect him.
It is a fatal blow.
Blood drips off of Shuoyue's silver blade.
The shock in Jin Guangyao's eyes. Then, hurt—hurt—morphing into anger, rage, betrayal.
"Lan Xichen," he hisses, voice hoarse from a forcefully-broken Silencing spell.
Lan Xichen. Not er-ge. Not anymore.
Lan Xichen swallows hard. It is difficult to focus. He sees himself in those eyes, a storm of disbelief, pain, and anger that mirrors his own. "I said," he starts, each word like a blade against his soul, "if you did anything, I wouldn't spare you."
Jin Guangyao barks a harsh laugh, spraying blood everywhere. A fine mist of it lands on Lan Xichen's robes. "Did anything!" he snarls. "Yes, you did! But did I do anything? I did nothing! Nothing!"
Words fail. Lan Xichen looks at Nie Huaisang.
Nie Huaisang's face is pale, and he's easily on the verge of passing out. "I-I saw—"
"Lan Xichen!" Jin Guangyao roars, the sound unnatural from a voice that has always been soft and courteous. "I have harmed countless people in this life: my father, my brother, my wife, my son, my teacher, my friend. There isn't a crime on this earth I haven't committed!"
He takes a deep breath. More blood spills from his stomach. Lan Xichen can't look away.
"But I've never once thought about harming you!"
Lan Xichen's heart stops. His stomach churns, and he is almost physically sick.
"The Cloud Recesses, the fire, the rebuilding—when have I not helped you?!" Jin Guangyao is still shouting, his voice piercing through the haze of Lan Xichen's mind. "Admit it—you've always hated me too!"
No. Lan Xichen's mouth forms the word, but no sound comes out.
Jin Guangyao wretches himself free from Shuoyue with a sickening squelch of broken flesh. He stumbles backwards. Without thinking, Lan Xichen reaches for him.
Someone is shouting for him, he thinks. Is it Wangji? Or perhaps Wei Wuxian? He doesn't know.
Jin Guangyao leans back.
Blood trickles onto the coffin, destroying its seal.
The lid explodes.
A grey, vein-filled arm shoots out from within and seizes Jin Guangyao by the throat. Black nails dig into his neck, drawing blood from all five tips.
Bichen flashes, but even Lan Wangji's legendary blade is too slow.
Another hand appears from the coffin, aimed for Lan Xichen's neck. Lan Xichen does not let go of Jin Guangyao and only watches as the hand opens, fingers flexing, reaching close enough that it nearly brushes against his hair—
Something pushes him hard in the chest.
He falls, hitting the floor hard enough to lose his breath and see stars.
A monstrous roar shakes the temple. Jin Guangyao screams.
Blue, white, red, black. Heavy thuds. The strain of stone against guqin strings.
He looks down at his chest. There is a blood-stained print of a hand he'd recognize anywhere. Only one man has such small, slender fingers—fingers that had written him countless letters in the past, fingers that had never been anything but gentle with him.
Fingers that, he now knows, are stained with the blood of thousands.
He can't breathe. His vision blurs.
A hand waves in his face. "Xichen-ge? Xichen-ge?" The green eyes of Nie Huaisang stare back at him. "Are you alright?"
Lan Xichen grabs him.
Nie Huaisang shrieks as he's lifted into the air like a doll. His fingers clutch at Lan Xichen's hands. "Xichen-ge! It's me, Huaisang! Mercy!"
"Did he move?" Lan Xichen can barely recognize his own voice; it sounds nothing like him. He tightens his grip. "Tell me the truth! The truth, Huaisang! Did you really see him move!? "
Tears stream down Nie Huaisang's face as he sobs incoherently. He might be saying something; Lan Xichen can't tell. If it's any version of, "I don't know," Lan Xichen might actually lose all composure.
White-sleeved hands tug his fingers off of the Nie sect leader, and Nie Huaisang scrambles away, whimpering. Lan Xichen dimly recognizes his brother's face.
Lan Wangji's mouth moves, but Lan Xichen hears nothing. He knows his brother must be calling, "Xiong-zhang," but if there are more words, he completely misses them.
The doors to the temple slam open, and a sea of people pour in. Dimly, Lan Xichen sees white, then hears a stream of Zewu-Jun, Zewu-Jun, are you injured, Zewu-Jun?
"Xichen!" his uncle bellows, forcing his way to the front of the crowd and giving his nephew a once-over. "Xichen, what happened? Look at you! You are a mess!"
Lan Xichen presses a hand to his own cheek.
No tears. He can't even cry.
"Uncle," he says quietly. Lan Qiren probably can't hear him above the commotion the others are making, but he doesn't care. "Do not ask. I do not wish to talk right now."
In the background, people get to work sealing the coffin. One of them sneers that the Guanyin statue looks like Jin Guangyao and another agrees that the now-deceased Jin sect leader must have tried to deify himself in his arrogance.
Lan Xichen remembers the Cloud Recesses, how Jin Guangyao had sheltered him when it burned, then helped to rebuild it. Not once had he asked for anything in return. Not once had he done anything except softly smile and offer to help.
Lan Xichen buries his face in his hands. Sobs well up in his throat, threatening to spill out.
Yet what comes out is not a sob, but a laugh—a disbelieving laugh that makes his sect members draw back in horror and confusion. He can't stop despite seeing their reactions. Soon, he hears nothing but his own laughter, completely devoid of any joy or grief.
Ah, father. I understand now.
No tears come. They stay deep in his chest, etching deep into his heart and searing into the delicate flesh. There they stay, and burn.
Lan Xichen is forty years old when he tells Lan Qiren, "Uncle, I am going into seclusion."
His uncle gives him a sad, tired look and doesn't protest. He must have expected this ever since the incident at the Guanyin Temple. Whatever grief he must feel at losing yet another family member to seclusion has already been processed during the time Lan Xichen spent wandering around, a hollow shell of his former self as he fulfills his duties.
He pities his uncle. Lan Qiren tried his best to raise his nephews with the highest discipline and restraint—not just to be exemplary members of the Lan Sect, but also to avoid the fate of their father, who locked himself away because he was stuck between his heart and his morals.
"Xiong-zhang," his little brother asks him, "are we cursed?"
After all these years, he finally has an answer for the then five-year-old Lan Wangji: I am, little A-Zhan, but you are not.
Ever since Wei Wuxian came back, Lan Wangji has remained by his side, firmly believing in him and staying true to his values. Even during the Second Siege of the Burial Mounds, when the cultivation world once again marched against Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji stayed by him with a clear conscience and a faithful heart.
What a contrast he was against his brother. It was Lan Xichen who had taught A-Yao the Song of Clarity that he later corrupted. It was he who had protected A-Yao despite the fact that he, too, was a victim of his tricks. It was he who had wavered in the face of his last sworn brother, when he'd earlier promised Lan Wangji that he'd be just and fair.
A part of him wishes that he had died, too—that Jin Guangyao hadn't pushed him to safety at the last moment. The Gusu Lan sect would continue on fine without him, he is sure. His brother would have made a great sect leader; his heart and morals are one and the same, unwavering and steady where Lan Xichen's had faltered.
Speaking of Lan Wangji, he and Wei Wuxian haven't returned since they disappeared from Guanyin Temple together a few months ago. There have been rumors of two men travelling from town to town, one dressed in black and the other in white, but the man in white was often reported with no forehead ribbon, so many believed it was just a case of mistaken identity.
Lan Xichen does not hold it against his brother for not coming home. Now that all of Jin Guangyao's crimes have come to light, Lan Xichen wouldn't be surprised if Lan Wangji blames him for the role he played in them—especially the ones that had contributed to Wei Wuxian's downfall and death.
He just hopes his brother is happy. Lan Wangji is, most likely. But after recent events, Lan Xichen can no longer be certain about anything anymore.
He sees no choice. He's already failed as a brother, a nephew, a role model, a truth-seeker, and a sect leader. He cannot bear the possibility of failing more.
Father, mother, I am sorry.
Lan Qiren steps closer to him, and places a hand on his shoulder. "Xichen," he sighs, looking far older than his actual age. "I understand."
Lan Xichen bows his head, unsure what to say—if there is even anything left to say.
For a long time, Lan Qiren stays there, looking at him. Then, without warning, he pulls Lan Xichen to him, wrapping his arms around him in a rare hug. His breath is strained next to Lan Xichen's ear, as if he's fighting back tears.
"We will miss you," he says. "We will wait for you."
Lan Xichen nods. "When—if Wangji comes back, tell him I'm sorry."
I'm sorry. For everything.
"Of course," his uncle takes a deep breath. "Take care, Xichen."
"And you, Uncle."
Lan Xichen walks alone to his room. He pauses at the door's threshold, and looks down at it.
"Those of the Lan bloodline have always been passionate," he smiles at his curious little brother. "We are extremely devoted. Like all things in life, that devotion can be good or bad, depending on whether we control it or let it control us."
The heart of a Lan is a curious thing, both a blessing and a curse, a strength and a weakness.
He thinks of his brother, reunited with his love and travelling the world. He thinks of his mother, alone in her gentian-lined house. He thinks of his father, bound by love to protect his wife yet bound by honor to despise her.
Finally, he thinks of Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao, his sworn brothers, now both among the restless dead and banned from the cycle of reincarnation. He thinks about the former's strength and the latter's generosity, now immaterial and lost to time as the world moves on without them.
There's nothing left for him.
Lan Xichen crosses the threshold.
The door shuts behind him.
The End! Or is it...
An epilogue will be posted in a few days!
Lan Wangji looks well.
The observation pleases Lan Xichen as he watches his brother silently prepare tea. Lan Wangji doesn't visit him very often, which is understandable, but Lan Xichen appreciates it whenever he hears those quiet knocks on his door.
Lan Wangji has changed, in a way. There is a sort of peace about him that Lan Xichen almost envies. Married life suits him well. He does not give Lan Xichen many details on his marriage to Wei Wuxian, but he doesn't need to—one look at the joy in his eyes, and Lan Xichen knows.
Lan Xichen nods as his brother pours him a cup of tea. "Thank you, Wangji."
"Mn." Lan Wangji fills his own cup.
They drink in familiar silence. Living in seclusion has placed Lan Xichen in a world of quiet, little sounds—the creak of a particular wooden floor panel as he walks by, the brush of pen against paper, the birds outside at dawn. Just hearing his brother's breathing and the soft rustle of his robes is enough to chase away any loneliness.
"Wangji," Lan Xichen says.
Lan Wangji sets his cup down and looks at him attentively. Briefly, Lan Xichen is six years old again, with a little brother who looked up to him for everything.
"How is everybody?" he asks.
His uncle. The elders. The disciples. Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji. Everybody.
"Fine," his brother answers.
A pause. Outside, a bird takes flight from a nearby tree.
Lan Wangji glances at the cup in his hands and tries again, "The sect is doing well," he starts. "Wei Ying has invented a few new tools that are greatly beneficial during night-hunts. We've accepted new disciples from the other sects, including Lanling Jin Sect's Jin Rulan. And," he smiles, just a little, "yesterday, Uncle finally agreed to add Wei Ying to the family records."
Lan Xichen sits up a little straighter and returns his brother's smile. That was a lot of words, coming from Lan Wangji. "You sound like you're managing the sect quite well."
His brother's eyes narrow, just a little, and Lan Xichen can already feel his disapproval. "Mn."
Lan Xichen doesn't follow up his comment. The last time Lan Wangji visited, Lan Xichen had offered the position of sect leader to him. He did not want to be like their father and keep his high-status position during seclusion. The sect deserves a leader who is present and there, not locked away and distant.
The look his brother had given him upon such a suggestion; it was almost like Lan Xichen had asked him to cook one of his beloved rabbits for supper. Then Lan Wangji had shaken his head firmly. "Xiong-zhang is the sect leader," he insisted.
Lan Xichen knows his brother wants him to leave seclusion, to resume his duties as sect leader and manage their family affairs. He does not have the heart to tell him that it might never happen, not while he still hears Nie Mingjue's voice and feels Jin Guangyao's hand on his shoulder whenever his mind wanders.
There are people outside—two pairs of steady footsteps, and one pair that skips and hops. A nervous voice whispers, although quite loudly, "Ah… Senior Wei, we're not supposed to be here."
Lan Wangji doesn't move, but his eyes light up at the name.
The erratic pair of steps stop. "Nonsense," Wei Wuxian scoffs. "I've been in the Cloud Recesses for months, and I haven't heard a single sound from this area. It must be unused."
"Senior Wei," that soft voice can only belong to Lan Sizhui, "perhaps we should find another area to practice. Zewu-Jun lives here."
"Does he?" Wei Wuxian hums. "I don't believe you. Zewu-Jun cannot possibly be quieter than Hanguang-Jun, and this house is silent."
Lan Jingyi sputters in protest. "But… we saw Hanguang-Jun enter… he must be visiting—"
A light smack. Wei Wuxian must have hit him on the head with Chenqing. "Jingyi, out of everyone here, I think I would most know where Hanguang-Jun is at any given time. He's not going to disturb us."
Amusement rises in Lan Xichen's chest, and he looks at his brother. Lan Wangji appears torn between feeling overjoyed at hearing his husband's voice and being acutely aware that Lan Xichen's peace is being disturbed.
He starts to rise. "I will send them away, xiong-zhang."
Lan Xichen stops him. "No need. It is alright."
Outside, Lan Jingyi mutters something too quiet for them to hear, but it earns him another smack from Wei Wuxian.
"Just because I can play wrong notes and still get the job done doesn't mean you can." A pause, then Wei Wuxian slyly adds, "Unless, you want to gain more power by learning demonic cultivation from me, Jingyi."
"I'd rather not, Senior Wei," Lan Jingyi answers hurriedly.
"I thought so," Wei Wuxian chuckles. "Better practice until you're as good as Zewu-Jun, then. Sizhui, are you ready?"
A few experimental plucks of guqin strings. "Yes, Senior Wei."
"Alright, start from measure thirty-two."
They take a collective breath, and play.
Lan Xichen's heart nearly stops.
Hearing Wei Wuxian's dizi and Lan Sizhui's guqin is no surprise. What he hadn't expected to hear are the warm, dulcet notes of a xiao, slightly squeaky from lack of practice.
He hasn't played Liebing since he entered seclusion, and the achingly familiar sound tugs at his soul.
His brother keeps his face carefully neutral, although Lan Xichen can tell he's pleased. "Jingyi has finally chosen an instrument."
So he has.
"I half-expected a dizi, like the one your husband plays."
Lan Wangji smiles—actually smiles—at the words 'your husband', but he hides it before it stays on his face for too long. "Jingyi said someone he greatly admires also plays the xiao."
Lan Xichen falters a little at that, and he's left speechless.
The playing outside continues. It is nothing like the practice sessions Lan Xichen remembers from his childhood. He does not recognize any of the melodies, and Wei Wuxian often cuts the two disciples off to repeat a few troublesome measures or correct Lan Jingyi's posture. It is broken, messy, incorrect, and a far cry from the perfection the Lan sect demands from each and every one of its members.
Lan Xichen closes his eyes, and listens. He listens to Jingyi complaining to Wei Wuxian about a pitch he can't reach, and he listens to little Sizhui laugh at their interactions. He listens to every wrong note played and each fumbled harmonization. He listens to the trio stop and alter a chord when it doesn't quite progress as nicely as they'd like.
Across from him, his brother pours him another cup of warm, fragrant tea. Music dances on the breeze, played with all its human, stumbling flaws.
Lan Xichen smiles.
It is perfect.
[megaphone crackles] LAN XICHEN COME OUT OF SECLUSION WE LOVE YOOOU.
Thank you so much for reading "The Heart of a Lan". I hope you've enjoyed this little trip through Lan Xichen's life. I originally wanted to end this story on the sad note of the previous chapter, but I couldn't help adding this bit. Hope is great, hope is good, let's all give Lan Xichen hope.
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