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Audience of One

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Lan Xichen is in the studio when he gets the call.

There are several missed ones waiting for him when he finally has a fifteen break and steps out of the live room to exchange his guqin for his phone. Two of them are from Lan Wangji, but five are from Wei Wuxian, and Lan Xichen closes his eyes for a second against the bright lights of the control room.

“Could I have a moment?” he asks his music producer, Mianmian. She sits at the creamy wooden table pressed against the window of the live room, her elegant fingers hovering over the keys of the computer all his songs are mixed and processed on. “Family emergency.”

“Sure, you’ve been working so hard anyways, now would be a good time for a longer break,” Mianmian says, even though Lan Xichen has only managed a single verse worth keeping after a few hours. She climbs to her feet and gives Lan Xichen a warm smile as she passes. Lan Xichen’s own smile is a brittle thing these days, but it stays on his face. “I’ll get us some water for the final bit.”

As soon as the door to the hall closes, Lan Xichen’s smile falls from his face and he swipes open his phone to his text messages. There are a few from acquaintances wondering if he’ll be attending Today’s Top Ten Talents dinner this month, unlike the last couple months. He’s fallen a few spots from number one in the months he’s been absent from the public’s eyes, but years of popularity have kept him from completely falling off the list like he almost wishes.

Text messages from Wei Wuxian also clog his phone, but it’s Lan Wangji’s single text message from two hours ago that grabs his attention.

He said no, the message reads, and Lan Xichen immediately presses call.

The longer Lan Wangji doesn’t pick up, the harder Lan Xichen’s heart hammers as he paces around the small lounge attached to the recording booth. The black leather couches call to him after so many hours pouring his heart out into a song and the two hours of sleep he got last night, but Lan Xichen knows as soon as he sits, he won’t get up.

Lan Wangji doesn’t pick up on the third call, and Lan Xichen lowers the phone to stare helplessly at the screen. Even if Lan Wangji is in the studio, Lan Xichen knows he’s told his producer and manager to keep an eye on his phone and interrupt any recording if Lan Xichen calls.

The hypervigilance stings, but Lan Wangji not picking up even on the fourth call, makes the whole room spin around Lan Xichen. The only other time Lan Wangji has purposefully ignored Lan Xichen’s calls is when Wei Wuxian disappeared from the country and Lan Wangji disappeared into despair.

But both men have been back and together for a year now, and Lan Xichen has seen nothing but smiles and heard nothing but yes as their days passed with as much steady happiness as two young stars could obtain.

A fifth call ends with no answer from Lan Wangji, and Lan Xichen digs the palm of his hand into his forehead. Even when Lan Xichen closes his eyes, the world continues to spin when he thinks of Lan Wangji sitting alone somewhere, refusing to answer the ringing phone because he knows Lan Xichen will try and fail to fix the impossible.

He almost grabs his bags and leaves the studio right then, even with Lan Wangji’s radio silence. He’ll bang on the door of every room in the studio if he has to, drive to every apartment Lan Wangji has ever visited, stop by every restaurant Lan Wangji has ordered from, check every childhood hiding spot, and look inside every pet shop with rabbits in the city.

He found Lan Wangji before when he didn’t want to be found by anyone but Wei Wuxian, and he will find him again. Even if the thought of seeing Lan Wangji unresponsive and dishevelled a second time has Lan Xichen reaching for the table’s edge to steady himself, Lan Xichen refuses to let his little brother be alone.

Only the new text from Wei Wuxian waiting for Lan Xichen when he opens his eyes stops him from leaving. Another one comes in as he stares at the screen, reassuring Lan Xichen that whatever has happened, this time the lines of communication remain open.

He glances at the closed door once, and after taking a deep breath, he calls Wei Wuxian.

“Xichen-ge.” Wei Wuxian picks up on the first ring, his words a rush of breath more than sound. “Is Lan Zhan with you?”

“No. He’s not with you?”

“He said he had an interview booked for later this afternoon, but I thought after what happened–”

Wei Wuxian trails off and Lan Xichen closes his eyes again. He should have asked Mianmian to grab him a tea while she was out.

“What happened?” Lan Xichen asks.

Lan Xichen knows what was supposed to happen, and not just because Lan Wangji told him and their uncle his plan over breakfast. He’s been privy to most of the couple’s struggles and triumphs during their eight years of private dating, including the recent two-year break that followed the tragic deaths of Wei Wuxian’s adopted parents, and Wei Wuxian’s own adoption of their son. While the couple may have shredded the predicted script of Lan Wangji’s life, they had never not followed the natural path their love paved for them.

Lan Xichen doesn’t know if he has the energy to shove them back on that path right now.

“I have to talk to him,” Wei Wuxian replies instead. With each new syllable out of his mouth, his tone pitches higher. “Please, Xichen-ge, I know he’s probably upset right now and he probably needs to put his thoughts in order, but I can’t go to my shoot knowing I’ve hurt him like this when all I wanted to do was keep making out with him and then send Jiang Cheng a smug message and call jiejie and tell A-Yuan he could live with both of us now and–”

“Wei Wuxian.” Lan Xichen can’t hear the patience he’s always been known for anywhere in his voice. “Please, slow down and start at the beginning. What did Wangji say and what did you say?”

A beat of silence passes and Lan Xichen glances at the still closed door.

“He proposed to me,” Wei Wuxian wails, and something thuds on the end of his line. “He proposed to me and of course I told him I wanted to marry him, but then Lan Zhan started talking about the wedding ceremony and public announcements, and when I told him he couldn’t do that, he got upset and thought I didn’t actually want to marry him and he left.”

“Ah,” Lan Xichen says, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Why can’t you make it public?”

The two have never been subtle around each other, least of all Wei Wuxian. Their closest family and friends know the two have been dating from the start, but they’ve managed to keep the extent of their relationship from the public and the press.

Lan Qiren is the one who insisted on the secrecy at the start and given their careers and Lan Wangi’s own dislike of sharing private details with the public, the men agreed easily enough.   Still, even Lan Qiren couldn’t expect that secrecy to last forever, and Lan Xichen has been expecting Wei Wuxian to throw the chains of silence off as soon as he can. 

“You know our positions,” Wei Wuxian replies. “You know how easily the public opinion can affect what we’re offered and who chooses to represent us, and even if they’re okay with two guys marrying and having a child, you know how toxic and old-fashioned the industry is.”

“So you’re scared this will hurt your career.”

“I never took you to be such a coward, Xichen.”

“I’m scared this will hurt Lan Zhan’s,” Wei Wuxian snaps, breaking Lan Xichen from the echoes of the past and stopping any indignation from spreading through Lan Xichen’s tired limbs. “There’s always been negative press about me, and I can always go somewhere else, but everyone has always loved Lan Zhan, and he needs that love to stay in the career he loves.”

“Wangji loves you more than his career,” Lan Xichen says.

“But it’s still important to him and he shouldn’t have to lose what’s important.”

“He shouldn’t have to lose you.”

The again bounces silently between them along the phone line.

“He hasn’t. He won’t. We just need to talk about it.”

Mianmian returns to the room, carrying a bag of fruit along with water bottles. Lan Xichen gives her a grateful smile before he turns to face the wall as Wei Wuxian continues.

“Please, Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian begs, “You’re the one who told me about your parents and you’ve been in the talent industry the longest. You can understand best what reputations do to us.”

Lan Xichen flinches and fights the urge to politely hang-up that second. Instead, he inhales deeply and pictures how tired Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian must be looking right now. He saw that expression a lot during their break, and empathy still comes when Lan Xichen calls.

“I’ll convince Wangji he needs to call you soon,” Lan Xichen tells Wei Wuxian, “I’m sure the two of you can work this out.”

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, but the word droops into a whisper. “Thanks, Xichen-ge.”

Wei Wuxian hangs up as Lan Xichen turns back around and watches Mianmian begin setting up the computer to start recording again. He sends Wangji a quick text message recounting the phone call and asking his little brother to call Lan Xichen back when he can.

“Ready for the final crunch?” Mianmian asks, glancing at the clock informing them they only have two hours left in the studio that day. “Or should I see if we can get more time?”

Lan Xichen’s phone buzzes in his hand.

Not now, the response from Wangji reads.

Unnecessary, comes the second text.

Talk at shushu’s tonight? the third text asks.

If Wangji didn’t get into the studio until later in the afternoon when he’s working on the end of an album, he likely won’t be home until shortly before midnight. Potentially with Wei Wuxian in tow, potentially with a face frozen in a second heartbreak instead. Either one will require at least an hour of conversation when both brothers are tired from a long day, which means Lan Xichen will not get the rest he needs before a mid-morning recording session tomorrow. He has an interview tomorrow too, and it’s the first interview he’s held since coming out of his months-long retreat from the public eye and returning to the music scene.

Of course, Lan Xichen tells his younger brother.

An incoming call from Jin Guangyao lights up Lan Xichen’s screen and he shoves the phone back into his bag.

“No extra time needed,” Lan Xichen says striding back to the booth, and his cheeks ache from the polite smile that stretches them.

 

*** 

 

Lan Xichen drives himself home from Gusu Studios.

“Self-sufficiency,” their uncle used to say from the driver’s seat of their family’s car when Lan Xichen asked why he didn’t hire a driver like all the other rich children with busy parents who attended Lan Qiren’s famous Cloud Recesses School of Music. He said the same thing when the two were old enough to learn how to drive on their own in much older cars than befitting of their social status. 

Now, even though both Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji have long been rich enough to afford drivers, they still drive their own cars. Even when Lan Xichen’s eyes burn from exhaustion and the crammed roads roar with the honking of frustrated drivers, the steering wheel in his hands eases their shaking.

The last few hours in the studio passed just as poorly as the first few, none of the meagre lyrics Lan Xichen was prepared to sing coming out right, and the notes of his violin wobbling weakly. There will always be days like that, even for talented musicians like himself.

But his car will always be his to control. 

He turns on the radio while he waits in traffic, and peppy voices bounce off the leather seats.

“–eight months now, but there’s rumours he’s been seen going in and out of the studio again,” a male announcer says, and Lan Xichen’s whole body tenses. 

“He could just be supporting his brother,” a female host replies. “He did that frequently almost three years ago now, and they’ve written some truly beautiful duets together before.”

“True, but we do know he’s scheduled an interview with the Phoenix Hunt tomorrow, which his fans are desperate to hear.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were them,” the female host laughs. “Both Lan brothers are notorious for giving polite interviews that seem to say a lot without saying anything substantial.”

“Careful, Bicao, their fans love to say you just have to read between the lines.”

“Well, they’ve certainly been doing that a lot with this next song,” Bicao says, and Lan Xichen’s breath catches in his dry throat. “I’m sure they’ll be interested in finally hearing a little more about the inspiration behind it tomorrow. For those of you who don’t know, this is the song Red Blades from Venerated Triad, the latest album from the talented if currently reclusive, Zewu Jun.”

The first soft notes of a violin surge sadly through the air, and Lan Xichen turns the radio off. It doesn’t stop him from hearing the lyrics that have branded his heart.

“My friend, you carry yourself like you have a saber hanging at your hip.”

“Better that than my brother’s silly fans.”

“I think his fans may be better suited to our current times. Unless you have a secret vigilante life you’ve been hiding from me.”  

A horn blares behind Lan Xichen, and he jerks his car forward through the now green light.

His hands stop shaking by the time he arrives at his uncle’s penthouse. Both Lan brothers have their own apartments that are closer to downtown and the studios they frequent, while Lan Qiren’s home has always sat on the outskirts of the sprawling city to be closer to the more isolated music school. The location is a common compliant of new parents, but the location allows for expansive and beautifully kept grounds, and Lan Qiren always attributes some of his students’ consistent success to the lack of distractions such a location holds.

Lan Xichen went even further into the countryside during his months long retreat, and though his own city apartment was maintained during that time, he has yet to stay there for more than a night at a time since his return.

Partly because, like when he enters the penthouse now, his uncle already waits for him to discuss his upcoming schedule. Lan Qiren has always taken an active role in their careers, especially in maintaining their public image and deflecting the media, even when they hired managers of their owns. Since Lan Xichen’s seclusion and return, though, Lan Qiren has taken on full managerial duties for his oldest nephew.

“Recording?” Lan Qiren asks as Lan Xichen gives him a smile before heading straight for the polished kitchenette.

“A good start,” Lan Xichen says as he prepares tea for them. He stays by the kettle until most of his frustration with the day has been exhaled, and his parched throat drenched.

Lan Qiren might have agreed with Lan Xichen’s decision to throw himself back into the musical scene, but he frowned the whole conversation.

“They’ve revised some of the interview questions,” Lan Qiren says after a pause, and Lan Xichen joins him at the table with their tea.

Lan Xichen goes over the questions with his uncle once more, even though all he wants is a nap. They finish quickly, given Phoenix Hunt gave a rough copy of the questions a week ago at Lan Qiren’s insistence, and Lan Qiren rises with a nod.

“You’ve never had trouble with these before,” he says, and Lan Xichen thanks him for his vote of confidence softly. “Wangji’s press announcement, on the other hand, will take much more finessing.”

Lan Xichen stares at his uncle’s frown, but simply gives him a weak smile when he returns Lan Xichen’s gaze.

“I’m sure you’ll think of the proper way to proceed,” Lan Xichen tells him as he busies himself with clearing the table. “I’ll let you focus on that.”

And try not to scold Wangji myself while you do.

“Rest, Xichen,” his uncle replies before heading down the hall to his office.

Lan Xichen does not rest. Lan Xichen fills his cup with more tea and then stands at the wall of windows in their open concept living room that overlooks the lights of the city. He sips his tea and contemplates his brother’s predicament, and what Wei Wuxian told him.

He tries very hard not to think about his own messes, but the longer he considers his brother’s problem, the more he sees a possible connection between the two. And not just because Lan Xichen’s troubles are recent or because Lan Xichen loves his little brother more than anything else.

By the time Lan Wangji returns, Lan Xichen has retired to one of the L-shaped leather couches near the penthouse’s entrance. His sketchpad balances on his knees even though the day has drained him of most inspiration and the couches are, as Wei Wuxian complains, hard enough to make you prefer standing over sitting.

It’s Wei Wuxian that Lan Xichen hears first, his expressive voice raised in argument over Lan Wangji’s deeper rumbles of discontent. Wei Wuxian spots Lan Xichen first as well, and the smaller man drags Lan Wangji over with a desperate look.

“Xichen-ge! I knew you’d help us!”

Shushu is home already,” Lan Xichen warns his brother, but shifts over so the two can join him on the couch. “And is already preparing a press release for the two of you.”

Lan Wangji hums and stares at his hunched boyfriend.

“Wei Ying said forever,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian grabs one of his hands.

“And I mean it, Lan Zhan, you know I do. But what if you only have me because of this and then you start to resent me–”

“Never.”

“Even when I’m the reason everyone hates you?”

Xiongzhang and shushu won’t hate me.”

“But they’ll be affected negatively too. The school will too, given you’re its golden boy, and I know you care about it.”

“Our talents and success speaks for it.”

Shushu and I can handle our own reputations,” Lan Xichen cuts in smoothly before Wei Wuxian can protest. “If one of your concerns is the engagement affecting our positions permanently, please let me put it to rest now.”  

“Fine, I know better than to doubt either of you, but, Lan Zhan, you’re still really young,” Wei Wuxian argues desperately, “Young and new, compared to everyone else, and you know how much everyone likes to tear down a rising star.”

“Then let an established star go first,” Lan Xichen interrupts again before Lan Wangji can give a stubborn reply. Both men twist toward Lan Xichen, and he smiles at Wei Wuxian’s tilted head. “If I publicly date a man for awhile first, your engagement shouldn’t receive as much backlash.”

“But,” Wei Wuxian says into the pause. “You’re not dating anyone right now and you’re not out publicly?”

Lan Xichen shrugs as if he’s not lost a lifetime of sleep recently over this issue.

“Not officially, no. But I’m sure you heard Venerated Triad like everyone else, and Wangji told you about the interview tomorrow.”

Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says softly, and Lan Xichen’s assured smile flickers.  

Like Lan Xichen was the only one to witness the depth of Lan Wangji’s despair when Wei Wuxian left the country in grief, Lan Wangji was the only person Lan Xichen allowed near him in that first month after Venerated Triad’s release. When Lan Xichen hid away in the rural estates their parents once owned, Lan Wangji stayed with him every weekend for three months, despite his own busy schedule.

Others were there for Lan Xichen’s firing of Jin Guangyao. But Lan Wangji is the only who was there for the fall-out.   

“You just got back,” Lan Wangji says.

“And so I should put the speculation to rest,” Lan Xichen replies, and places a hand over his brother’s. “I know I’ve told you that everyone on my staff predicts the news to be met mostly favourably.”

Even Mianmian, new and hired as a favour to Lan Wangji, told Lan Xichen that she will make sure no studio is a problem when he warned her of what the interview tomorrow would entail.

“No self-martyring,” Lan Wangji says, lips pressed into a thin line while he holds Lan Xichen’s gaze. Lan Xichen nods, grateful he had time earlier this evening to think about this issue and whether this really is him attempting to sabotage himself before he could even get started again.

But even with the thrill of producing something meaningful currently out of his reach, Lan Xichen loves music more than he loves anything but his family. He has never known any other career, and he can never thank life enough for giving him every opportunity since he was a young boy to pursue that musical path when so many others can’t.

He still doesn’t feel himself and his personal life is still a mess at his bare feet. But he speaks with confidence when he says,

“I’m not trying to hurt my career, Wangji, and neither will the fans. They just want confirmation for the answer they’ve already decided on since I’ve been gone.”

“And you only missed, what, one concert in those eight months?” Wei Wuxian says slowly, glancing at his boyfriend before continuing. “A couple of planned interviews?”  

“That’s right.”

“Then they should accept you back easily enough,” Wei Wuxian agrees, and Lan Wangji untangles his and Wei Wuxian’s hands so he can wrap an arm around his boyfriend when Wei Wuxian’s voice catches on the word accept.

“They were mostly just confused and surprised,” Lan Xichen says, looking at Lan Wangji again, given his family were the ones who passed on the news of fans’ reactions in the wake of Venerated Triad’s release.

“They’ll want more,” Lan Wangji warns.

More interviews. More guest appearances. More songs. More interaction with other stars. More glimpses of the personal life Lan Xichen no longer has.

They will want so much more than Lan Xichen simply going to the studios to make music and then returning home to calm himself with tea and blankets, even though Lan Xichen barely has energy for more.

“They always want more,” Lan Xichen replies, and silently apologizes for his next words. “And we have always dealt with it fine. Do you not trust me to handle things anymore, didi?”

Lan Wangji stiffens and his fingers curl around Wei Wuxian’s arm.

“I don’t trust others,” Lan Wangji says after a few seconds pass, and Lan Xichen’s throat tightens to a straw’s width. Unable to respond immediately, Lan Xichen squeezes Lan Wangji’s free hand and hopes he hears the thanks for always forgiving and supporting Lan Xichen even though Lan Xichen is partly to blame for the splintering of his own social world. 

“A-Yao’s trying, da-ge, why can’t you see that?”

“We’ll create a contract together,” Lan Xichen tells the two. “A non-disclosure agreement included, of course, and then we’ll find someone to pay to play the part, just like any other acting role. A few interviews together, some photos of dates, and a pre-determined break-up.”

I wouldn’t be giving them my heart, Lan Xichen doesn’t say, but knows Lan Wangji hears. No one would want this fragile mess anyways.

“Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian starts, looking to Lan Wangji first and then to Lan Xichen, “You’d really do something like that for us?”

“I want you to be happy,” Lan Xichen addresses his brother, but even after all the chaos he has brought with him, the sentiment rings true for Wei Wuxian too, “If this will help, then I will gladly do it.”

Xiongzhang should be happy too,” Lan Wangji says stubbornly, and the smile Lan Xichen gives him is real, even if it’s sad.

“I will be,” Lan Xichen assures him, and scoots closer so both brothers can take comfort in the physical presence of the other. “How could I not be?”

This will exhaust him, but he doesn’t think either of them can survive even the possibility of Lan Wangji losing Wei Wuxian again.

“We could find someone we trust,” Wei Wuxian says when Lan Wangji stays quiet. His tone stays deferential, but his eyes brighten with the familiar light of inspiration.  

“You have suggestions?” Lan Xichen asks. A stranger would be easier to keep things professional, but someone with a positive connection to them would be safer.

Unfortunately, some of Wei Wuxian’s closest friends likely want nothing to do with Lan Xichen at the moment.

“Well, there’s Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says as he chews on his lip, “But he’s practically a baby compared to you, and not very good at lying. Ninety-nine percent of shijie’s friends are women who wouldn’t be interested.”

Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji and taps on his knee with his free hand. “I do know someone single and trustworthy who–”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian pouts.

Er-gege, he’s not that bad.”

“Yes.”

“You two just don’t know how to communicate with each other. I’m sure Xichen-ge–”

Xiongzhang is already busy and tired.”

“He’s been getting better at controlling his temper, and they won’t see each other often.”

“Inconvenient.”

“He’ll be living in the city for awhile to take care of A-Ling for shijie, remember?”

“You’re talking about Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen finally clues in, and almost laughs at Lan Wangji’s faint scowl. “You think he would agree to something like this?”

Though Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng have lived in each other’s orbits for years now thanks to their respective brothers, the two aren’t friends. Lan Xichen can count the number of one-on-one conversations the two have had on one hand, and all happened at large family dinners or the few movie premieres Jiang Cheng attended for Wei Wuxian.

From the teasing Lan Xichen has overheard from Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng has stayed aggressively single the entire time, and prefers living in the countryside near the lakes his family’s business cares for.

“He’s been yelling at me to get hitched to Lan Zhan for years now,” Wei Wuxian replies, “And he never breaks his promises.”

“Still angry with you.”

“It’s a work in progress,” Wei Wuxian says, softening his words and pressing tighter against Lan Zhan’s side. “But he wants me to be happy, just like you want Xichen-ge to be happy.”

“We can at least ask him, Wangji,” Lan Xichen agrees. Jiang Cheng may be a more personal candidate than Lan Xichen was considering, but Wei Wuxian bounces in his seat at Lan Xichen’s acquiescence.

“I’ll go ask him to meet you for breakfast tomorrow!”

He leaps up and Lan Xichen watches him rush to grab his phone from his jacket. Lan Xichen watches the grin that lights up his face when Jiang Cheng answers, and the cheerful greeting that gives no hint to the dark shadows currently under Wei Wuxian’s eyes.

Xiongzhang.”

Lan Xichen turns to Lan Wangji, and even the single, faint crease in Lan Wangji’s forehead pushes Lan Xichen to sit even straighter.

“I’ll be fine, Wangji,” Lan Xichen assures him quietly, just as he did when Lan Xichen announced to his family he would be returning to the city in a week to start recording again.

They are the same words Lan Xichen has been telling himself for the past month, especially when Lan Wangji found him a new music producer and Lan Xichen began checking social media again.

Repetition has not made the words any truer yet and signing up for the scrutiny of the public may do more harm than good.

But Lan Xichen will do anything to help Lan Wangji get the happiness at least one of them still deserves.