It’s not—Xichen knows that his brother isn’t likely to die on a night hunt. It’s not that simple. In a way, he’s not even worried for him. No matter what else he is or may be, Xichen’s brother is still Hanguang-jun, the bearer of light, who stormed Wen supervisory strongholds and who stood against most of the cultivation world and whose skill as a warrior is very arguably unparalleled. The only one who could match him—
Well. Xichen doesn’t worry about his brother being beaten in battle, these days.
And he doesn’t worry about Wangji allowing himself to be killed, either, although that’s a closer way to define it. There is little A-Yuan, sweet-eyed Lan Sizhui, to think about, who Wangji loves with a desperate ferocity Xichen has only seen in him once before. Sizhui is thirteen and the best son any father could hope for, in Xichen’s admittedly biased opinion, talented and kind and earnest, easy to love and quick to love in return. Xichen loves him almost as recklessly as he loves his brother. He can do nothing less for the only person who seems to bring his solemn didi joy anymore.
He is utterly confident that Wangji would never leave his son, never, not for all the peace that might be found on the other side of a sword.
This absolute truth, this wholehearted confidence that Wangji will always return, no matter the challenge, no matter the risk, makes it difficult to explain why Xichen worries.
The thing is, Lan Wangji, Hanguang-jun, A-Zhan, is dimmed, in a way that tears at Xichen to see it. He is less, as if he abandoned more than just color when he stopped wearing blue. There were days, when Xichen would visit during Wangji’s seclusion—and the elders be damned, for trying to stop him, for trying to keep A-Yuan away, he is Sect Leader and he was not having it—when he would have sworn that he might have seen straight through his brother. Wangji has always been quiet, he was a quiet baby, but since—since, he’s been a ghost of himself. Even after three years in seclusion and nearly a decade to heal, Xichen still barely recognizes him. A thick shade has settled over the light in Xichen’s brother, and he is afraid that someday, while Hanguang-jun will come back from a night hunt, that faint light will not.
Xichen is supposed to be wise, he’s supposed to be Zewu-jun, he’s supposed to be the calm, enlightened Sect Leader of GusuLan, but he doesn’t know how to help his brother. He hasn’t found a good answer in all this time. He knows that the wound of—that the wound won’t heal because Wangji won’t let it heal, and he doesn’t know where to go from here.
He remembers when Sizhui first began to learn to play the guqin, and brought a piece to Xichen in childlike pride. His lullaby, he had called it as he plucked out a careful melody, learned by heart. Without spiritual energy directed and channeled, without the complexities of an experienced hand, it was only music, but Xichen had listened to Inquiry too many times not to be able to translate it.
Are you there?
Are you lost?
Are you at peace?
Are you with your sister? Your parents? Your people?
Are you waiting?
I miss you.
It’s not—it’s not a search, not anymore, Xichen doesn’t think. It’s been too long to expect an answer, and Wangji has never been a fool. But Wangji can do nothing else. There’s nowhere for him to bow, there was no vigil to keep, there will never be anyone who burns paper money or grieves with him. So Wangji plays Inquiry, over and over again, to a spirit that doesn’t answer, and someday Sizhui will learn Inquiry himself, and know that his lullaby was always a eulogy spoken in secret.
Once, Xichen tried to make his brother stop. Tried to make him leave off his long, slow grief, to shake him out of his ghost-self and back to life and light. He hadn’t been able to think of anything except to take Wangji’s guqin, an attempt to force him to stop, stop, playing that damned unanswered query. And it had worked, in a way. The cold, blinding flare of rage, when Wangji swept uninvited into Xichen’s rooms and demanded flatly that his instrument be returned, please, Sect Leader Lan—it had been good to see. Proof that, even if the embers were banked and dull-glowing, there was still a fire to be woken in Xichen’s brother. But the days of bitter silence, afterward, wasn’t worth the short-lived victory.
Sizhui had sided with his father, of course, even if he didn’t then understand what the point of contention was. He had given Xichen affronted looks and orbited closer to Wangji than usual for weeks. Sizhui had always known that there was a wound somewhere in his adopted father, in that sharp perceptive way that’s entirely too unlike Wangji, entirely too himself to be anything but a relic of before Cloud Recesses, the time that he doesn’t remember and Wangji won’t discuss.
Xichen has his theories. But Lan Sizhui is the pride of GusuLan Sect, the brightest light in his father’s life, and Xichen is grateful that someone else loves his brother enough to be angry on his behalf. Xichen’s theories have been buried in a shallow grave for many years.
And Wangji is only himself, in any way that Xichen can recognize, with Sizhui. It’s been like that ever since he first brought the boy back, when A-Yuan, feverish and delirious and calling for people none of them knew, crept into his sickbed. Wangji had been barely responsive, had allowed the physicians to tend his scourged back and had stared at the wall, not sleeping, not meditating, not speaking, just waiting. When Xichen got word that his brother had spoken, to call the weeping A-Yuan over and tell him, quietly, that the man he called for was not going to come back, he’d felt a rush of relief like his lungs trying to jump out of his mouth. But he hadn’t spoken to Xichen, not that day, nor for several more, only holding A-Yuan close while the boy slept.
Xichen hadn’t gotten a word out of his brother for eight days after he was whipped, and then, when he finally did, it was only to claim A-Yuan as his son in a tone that broke Xichen’s heart. He had forced the elders to accept the child without arguing or demanding details from Wangji, had simply put him in the sect records as Lan Yuan and stared down anyone who questioned his actions. Xichen would have done anything Wangji asked of him, in that moment, anything to keep him talking, anything to keep A-Yuan near him. Wangji had been nearly a corpse himself, in those early days, lightless even in the presence of A-Yuan’s tiny sun, but he had moved and spoken and lived when A-Yuan was near. The effect should have grown less pronounced as Wangji returned to himself, but instead it has only made the difference more apparent.
Maybe that’s what he’s worried about, when Wangji leaves on night hunts. Some part of Xichen never got over the fear of it, of seeing his solemnly brilliant didi transformed into a shell, silent and detached, the heart of him carved out. Some part of him is terrified still, that being away from Sizhui for too long will let Wangji slip back into that numbness, that corpse-cold stillness, so different from his familiar reserve.
Hanguang-jun would never die on a night hunt, not through anything but dire misfortune. He is still the best of the Lan, their bearer of light. But Xichen is secretly, desperately afraid that, someday, one of the reports they receive of resentful spirits and demonic cultivation will be true, and he will not get his brother back.
Wangji never allows anyone else to investigate those reports, the ones that claim in half-hysterics to be the Yiling Patriarch reborn, or trapped as a spirit, or the dramatics of the day. He always comes back with flat unfeeling reports of frightened villagers and exaggerations and resentful spirits easily dispatched. And when Xichen gets down to the bone of it, the living core of his fear for his brother, Xichen is horribly sure that someday, someday, Wangji will come back from one of those night hunts and say nothing at all and shimmer out of existence at last, a heat mirage under a cold wind.
It isn’t suitable for Zewu-jun, Sect Leader Lan, to hate someone. Xichen thinks about it sometimes during meditation, about how foreign it feels, this hard hot chip of loathing, and worries at it like a loose tooth, tries to pry it out of place to be discarded. He can’t manage it.
He hates Wei Wuxian, for what his death has done to Xichen’s brother.
For standing up when everyone else knelt down, even though it cost him everything, life and family and sanity all gone in a mere handful of months.
For what finding his resentful spirit would do to the last light in Hanguang-jun.
So. He just—he has to find a way to keep Wangji from following these leads. It isn’t healthy for Wangji, and none of them ever have any sign of the man himself anyway, dead or otherwise. Xichen has to find an excuse to send other cultivators after fantasies of the Yiling Patriarch, and that means finding something to keep Wangji busy.
Wangji is only himself around Sizhui—a quieter, sadder self, to be sure, but the honest adoring boy that Xichen half-raised nonetheless. Sizhui, while a prodigy, is too young for night hunting.
The junior disciples are promising and bright, and Wangji needs a—a check, for lack of a better word. Something that will force him to speak, to interact, to think of safety and security rather than only results.
He will not appreciate what Xichen is going to do, but someday, Sizhui will be on night hunts too. Maybe then Wangji will brighten again, traveling with the son he adores. Maybe then Xichen will be able to sleep while his brother is gone.