Love was not forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, despite what was whispered by the common people and, often, even by the other great sects.
Lan Wangji couldn’t call it injustice that they thought so. There were no rules forbidding love, but there were more than a few about it--rules restricting its expression, the circumstances where it could be indulged, the extent to which it could be felt. The distinction was easy to miss, for an outsider.
Love, under different names like compassion and consideration and respect, was even encouraged...at least in theory. Of the married couples living at the Cloud Recesses, certainly there were more than a few who had married for love. And perhaps other marriages were lifeless for being loveless, but there were also many couples who married for practicality, for comfort, for companionship, for procreation, and he was aware that as many of those marriages were peaceful and healthy as the ones that were bound by romantic love.
(Lan Wangji may no longer be content to accept that excessive love was unlawful and therefore undesirable, but he had known all this life that there was danger in it, as sure as the danger of standing in an open field under a storm)
If the Gusu Lan were not widely reputed to be kind, they were not known to be cruel either, and so despite the punishment that he knew awaited him he never feared for A-Yuan as he brought him home. Although there were married couples in Cloud Recesses they were probably few indeed compared to some of the other sects. Many Gusu Lan cultivators never chose to take a partner, too closely cleaved to their duty: vows of chastity were common and respected. So it might have happened that the sect dwindled, the clan thinning out and dying off within a few generations--albeit long generations, with the lifespans of powerful cultivators--if not for the tradition of adoption.
Gusu Lan cultivators went where there was evil, where there was trouble, to bring order to chaos. In many of those situations they encountered broken lives and broken families. There were no surviving records of a ‘first adoption’, so long-standing a tradition it was in the sect. Lan Wangji was a prodigiously diligent student and had read far more than the majority of his peers, so he knew that the tradition had grown slowly and steadily, like the frog that doesn’t realize the pot is warming until it has become too hot to escape: there was no mention of it in the records until it showed up fully-fledged.
In those early records, the most basic regulations were laid out: always, the Lan loved their regulations. (Ah, there was the love again!)
-Never was a child to be taken against their wishes.
-The opportunity was to be provided to children with promise: strong and healthy and of sound mind, young enough to adapt to life in the Recesses, and showing the early signs of bright cores.
-Every attempt was to be made to ensure that the child could stay with other relatives, if they and the child were willing.
-Respect for the child’s origins was only proper, as a matter of filial piety, and the child’s name was not to be discarded casually.
--Some children, however, came with a little more darkness in their backgrounds: for every child who was orphaned by the actions of a fierce corpse, there was a child whose guardian was the source of the evil at hand. Such children were not to be punished for the actions of their forebears, and in such situations the name and past were quietly discarded.
Wen Yuan would become Lan Yuan. It was in full accordance with the Rules. In this, at least, Lan Zhan felt no fear.
His seclusion could not begin until he was out of danger, and it had been many and many years since a disciple received such a scourging. He drifted, in a haze of pain and grief and confusion, aching bone-deep with something that might have been equal parts illness of the body and the soul. During this time his brother was by his side almost constantly: he left, here and there, as business could not be delayed, but never more than an hour or two together, and never overnight. Lan Zhan was so grateful that any words of thanks were choked to death in his throat, but of course his brother didn’t need such things to be expressed to know of their existence. He slept by Lan Zhan’s bed, gently refusing a cot of his own in favor of a simple sleeping mat that let him be right beside his brother, and their headbands laid out side-by-side overnight on the table.
Apart from his brother, he only saw healers. There were several, some he knew by name and some he didn’t, and they were all gentle and professional and impersonal. He had asked his brother about A-Yuan when the elder Jade first entered the Jingshi, before even greetings or apologies: the child had burned with fever the whole trip back, and he had been an impossibly limp little weight where he was tucked inside Lan Zhan’s robes to try and protect him on the way to Gusu. Lan Xichen didn’t know anything the first time he asked, and something of the terrible hollow fear that rose up in Lan Zhan must have shown in his face because after that he always had an answer when his brother asked him the question.
“They are still fighting the fever, but are able to get a little water into him by-and-by.”
"His head had to be shaved for lice, but he is as clean and comfortable as they can make him."
“He sleeps restlessly but it is no coma. I am told they are trying a new medicine.”
“He has a little color in his cheeks.”
When they realized what was going on, one of the healers was brave enough to offer their own insights unasked for, to fill in the gaps. They met the eyes of both Hanguang-Jun and Zewu-Jun without fear to tell them the details of the child’s care, kindly and without any speculation in their gaze about why this particular child’s welfare was so important. They also told Wangji, quietly, when Zewu-Jun wasn’t there, that the first Master Lan had started delegating a few minor tasks throughout the day to conserve enough spiritual energies to be able to play songs of healing every evening. “It has been very good for all the patients in the infirmary, of course. They are all grateful for his efforts. He has taken to standing by the head of the child’s cot when he visits, and it seems the child sleeps easier every time he plays.”
(Lan Zhan loved his brother, in defiance of the rules, excessively )
His recovery was not complete, and wouldn’t be for a long time: the whip of discipline was designed to be so. But he recovered enough to sit up, and wash himself, and take his own food, in a little less than three weeks. The first time Xichen awoke in the morning to find his brother already sitting up and tying his hair out of his face, he smiled. Only for a moment, then he breathed out a deep sigh that took the smile with it, and from his place on the floor hid his face against the side of his brother’s leg for a quivering moment. Lan Zhan was grateful no one could see his control slip as his eyes widened and jaw dropped in shock at the loss of composure from his oak-steady brother. He didn’t say anything, but let his hand lightly rest atop Xichen’s where it curled into the bedcovers while they both meditated their way back to serenity. “I will send for a bath, Wangji,” he said after a moment, no trace of dismay in his voice. “It is a unique joy to take the first bath after a long illness, is it not?”
“Mm.” Lan Zhan handed his brother his headband with the great reverence that object required. Many siblings did not touch each other’s headbands, but Xichen had taken care of him in place of a father long enough. “Safe?”
“There are tinctures they can put in the water that will help your wounds, actually. As long as you don’t move too quickly and tear something….”
“I will be careful.”
He was: Zewu-jun was not mistaken about the joys of a hot bath after days of cleaning only done with a bowl and cloth. After he came out, he saw that the water was swirled pink where the deepest of the whip-weals still seeped, but he felt more human than he had in...some time. He dressed more carefully still, in the unbleached linen that would be his to wear until he no longer risked permanent stains to any of Lan’s cloud-blues and whites. Afterwards he sank back into his cot, frustratingly exhausted. He was sitting there still when his brother returned and started ferrying some supplies into the Jingshi. Lan Zhan tried to rise and help, but was stopped by a chiding glance. “This will only take a moment, Wangji, thank you.”
He watched as his brother arranged the items across the room, gently moving a small table out of the way. The largest of the items was a small cot, and Lan Zhan cleared his throat reluctantly. “Brother?”
“Ah, yes.” Xichen straightened and gestured to the cot, the long drape of his blue sleeves brushing over its edge. “I told you before that the child’s fever has broken: as soon as he is a little stronger he will be ready to leave the infirmary.”
He said no more, and Lan Zhan realized that he was waiting for a response. Xichen met his eyes patiently: there was tiredness in those eyes, but mostly the same kind light that had been there since their childhood.
“Rules. Visitors in seclusion.”
“And yet here I am, and of course the healers. The child is not yet a disciple, so he isn’t officially a member of the sect. The seclusion rules mention sect members.” The corner of his mouth quirked higher. “I am sure you did not expect to escape this responsibility?”
Well. Not as such. Any cultivator that brought back a candidate was expected to take a level of responsibility for their raising and education. There had been a few occasions where the Elders decided the sponsor was not suited for that responsibility. Wangji was both in disgrace and younger than the accepted age for a cultivator to take in a foundling: but then on the other hand he still was Hanguang-jun. Lan Zhan had vaguely hoped that he would be allowed to participate in the child’s education to some degree, but…. “The nursery. Where the young children are raised?”
The smile didn’t leave Xichen’s face but his eyes dimmed. “Grandmother Song perished in the Wen’s attacks, along with the two aunties that assisted her. Her successors are doing admirable work in her stead, but....” he sighed. “Well. There are more orphans than before, these days.” Lan Zhan had no response for that, so it was fortunate that one wasn’t required. “You will be assisting the sect, by taking one such task on yourself. Under the circumstances, I argued it a natural extension of the foundling responsibilities, and no one was able to argue against it.”
“I am--” he paused, unable to articulate the thought. “Mm. There is much involved in taking care of the very young.”
“I have every confidence,” Xichen said gently. He stepped across the room, and laid his hand on Lan Zhan’s shoulder. There was the end of a whip-weal there, and the pressure hurt, but Lan Zhan let no signs show lest he pain his brother. “When you were a junior disciple and did your turns with the initiates classes, they always quite liked you.”
Lan Zhan stared.
“No? I was informed that they took to you more than any of your fellows.” He shrugged. “If you need assistance, of course I will fetch it for you both: and once the child is a little older he can join the early initiate classes for midday meals and classes. Until then, I have every confidence in your diligence.”
Lan Zhan looked at the hand on his shoulder, and suppressed a sigh. He reached for his headband on the table and carefully, wary of the stretch on his shoulders, tied it on. Thus prepared for the day, he slanted a look at his brother. “A-Yuan.”
“The child’s name.”
“Ah! Of course.” Xichen tucked his free arm behind his back. “Lan Yuan, then.” He returned to the supplies and took up a bundle, which he laid on the table near Lan Zhan’s bed.
He gently unfolded the bundle’s wrapping, and blinked to see many bound stacks of papers, all prepared for musical scores but empty of notation. He stared at his brother.
“As you know, the rebuilding is not yet complete, even now. There is much to do, and certain things have been prioritized. We had to rebuild the bones of the Cloud Recesses, then assist Caiyi town with rebuilding and with settling the many unquiet dead. Then the health of our people, and rebuilding still more. And always there are night hunts. We have only just begun to take full stock of what is left of the library, and what is gone. You noticed, I am sure, when you took all the music scores from the library that it was a small stack, compared to what once was.” He let his fingertips rest on Liebing where the xiao hung at his side. “Not just Wangji, but there are two elders in seclusion at the moment. One made a particular study of genealogy: he is re-creating the missing family trees according to his memory. The other was fond of poetry, and is putting down what he remembers of what is gone.” He tapped the xiao lightly. “Wangji is the best musician in Cloud Recesses. A full list is included of the scores that survived. Anything else will need to be re-written.”
“Mm.” Part of Lan Zhan rankled at the reminder that so much important work was being done while he was here, not helping. He breathed out the frustration, and focused on his gratitude that here was something to do: and not just busy-work, but something that would actually benefit the clan. He suppressed the whispered thought that said you are being punished, why should you receive such a gift ? “I will do my best.”
“Hanguang-jun always does his best.” Xichen’s voice caught as he spoke, and Lan Zhan flinched internally without letting any such reaction show.
He did not regret his actions, which of course was why his punishment was deserved. He would do it again without hesitating. But causing his brother pain was a needle right to the heart.
POV: The story is written in 3rd person limited, limited to LWJ, so I did dither a bit on what term of address to use for him in the narration. The obvious choices were ‘Lan Zhan’, ‘Lan Wangji’, or plain ‘Wangji’; of those I settled on Lan Zhan both because it rolls trippingly off the tongue, and because he thinks of WWX as ‘Wei Ying’ so it seemed only fair to keep that level of familiarity.
Seclusion: I ain’t puttin him in no cave. He still has to have people supporting him in his seclusion, it’s not like he has a kitchen and washroom and medbay. Would they make the servants/disciples haul food and dishes and laundry back and forth that long hike day after day? I’m quite confident being wasteful is against the rules. It makes more sense to put him in the Jingshi, as well as being Backwards and Horrible due to the history of his family.
Worldbuilding: I have had a lot of fun extrapolating, so please remember that I only know what was shown on the show if it contradicts with what it is 'really like' (in the book, for example) <3