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Sizhui is avoiding him.

Lan Xichen hadn’t noticed at first. He’s busy, after all, with the work of taking back the mantle of sect leader after over a year in seclusion. Sizhui is busy too, balancing his duties as the first disciple with his frequent trips across the countryside. It’s a strange role reversal. Wangji stays close to home these days, his duties as Chief Cultivator allowing him to do little else, while his son does what he once did, wandering the countryside looking for problems to solve.

Wei Wuxian accompanies Sizhui often, along with the undead Wen Qionglin, and Lan Xichen doesn’t say anything about it because if he were going to, it should have been before he went into seclusion, before it became something normal. Jingyi goes too, sometimes, although of course not often. Jingyi and Sizhui are their two most accomplished junior disciples and so it’s often impossible for both of them to be out of Cloud Recesses at the same time for long.

Sizhui had been there for the first family meal after he’d left seclusion, sitting between Wangji and Wei Wuxian. He’d been silent during the meal, of course, but he’d stayed silent during tea, which had been unusual. He used to dominate the post meal conversation, but that mantle seems to have shifted to Wei Wuxian. Wangji speaks some, more than he used to, but Sizhui had said nothing unless he were addressed directly. Uncle is frustrated but not surprised, so this behavior clearly isn’t new.

It’s a pattern that holds true for the subsequent weekly meals, when Sizhui is there at all. He’s absent from them more often than he’s there, but Wei Wuxian speaks of his frequent trips, and Sizhui says nothing at all. Lan Xichen hadn’t thought it was too strange, before, but before he hadn’t realized that it was purposeful.

~

Two weeks and two more meals without Sizhui later, he brings the subject up to Wangji, concerned, and Wangji pauses with his tea cup halfway to his mouth before lowering it back to the table.

Wangji isn’t looking at him. That’s not a good sign.

“Wei Ying has a big heart,” he says, and Lan Xichen has no idea what this has to do Wei Wuxian. “Sizhui inherited it. But he is not just Wei Ying’s son. He is mine too.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying,” he says after a moment of silence. His brother didn’t used to speak in riddles before becoming the chief cultivator.

He picks his tea back up. “I am saying that it’s nothing you need to concern yourself with. Sizhui will do as he sees fit.”

No amount of prodding will get Wangji to speak more on the subject so Lan Xichen drops it because he doesn’t have any other option and they shift their conversation to clan business.

The door to the jingshi is shoved open with a bang. Lan Xichen startles, but Wangji doesn’t. “Lan Zhan! We were visiting A-Ning and I got you some of those buns you – oh, hello Lan Xichen,” Wei Wuxian cuts himself off, hair loose, robes askew, tracking dirt into the room because he’s neglected to take off his shoes.

He almost starts listing off all the rules he’s broken, but it would be pointless. Wei Wuxian lives in Cloud Recesses, is the husband to the Second Jade of Lan, but he is not Lan, and Wangji would never ask him to be.

He understands that his brother doesn’t want his husband to live as their mother lived. He thinks perhaps there exists a medium between these two extremes, but he keeps it to himself because he learned a long time ago that attempting to discuss Wei Wuxian with his brother never got him anywhere.

“Hello, Wei Wuxian,” he says politely, then excuses himself, making sure his smile doesn’t slip until the door’s closed behind him.

~

Lan Xichen is reduced to having to sneak up on his nephew during his morning meditation. He doesn’t interrupt, of course, just waits until Sizhui comes out of it himself and then makes sure he steps onto the main path at precisely the same time that Sizhui does. Sizhui sees him and hesitates but his lips curve into a smile, which is heartening.

“Sizhui,” he says warmly, “we missed you at dinner again.”

The smile immediately drops.

“I know you’re busy,” he says, going for soothing. He’s not accusing him of anything and he doesn’t want him to feel as if this is a scolding. Sizhui is a teenager experiencing his first real taste of freedom and responsibility. Family dinners must seem like a chore to him now. “I read your reports, after all. We understand. We just miss you.”

Sizhui walks beside him, but the silence between them grows, until he says, “I thought it would be better with you there. But it’s not. You don’t like him either.”

“I – what?” He’s not used to being caught off guard. But this isn’t where he expected this conversation to go.

“You don’t like him,” he says, frustration leaking into his voice. They’ve stopped walking, facing each other in the middle of the walkway in way that would look strange to anyone who passed them. “I thought you would help, but you don’t, you just sit there and – it upsets Baba when I argue with Grand Uncle, so I don’t, and A-die doesn’t either, not anymore, for the same reason, but I thought,” he cuts himself off, taking a deep breath. “I was wrong.”

Wei Wuxian. They’re talking about Wei Wuxian.

Why are they always talking about Wei Wuxian?

“It’s not that I don’t like him,” he says. He is Wangji’s husband. He makes Wangji happy. These days, at least. “It’s complicated.”

Sizhui laughs and Lan Xichen flinches. It’s not a good laugh. It’s sharp and bitter and a sound that doesn’t belong in his nephew’s mouth.

“There you are!”

He looks up in time to see Wei Wuxian hurrying over to them. He flings an arm around Sizhui’s shoulders, clutching him to his side, and Lan Xichen sees the tension drain away from him as he leans into Wei Wuxian. “Your father is looking for you. He just got a request for aid that he thinks you’ll like. It’ll be a good fit for you and A-Ning.”

“And you?” Sizhui asks, looking up at him with earnest, pleading eyes. All that bitterness is gone now, like it was never there to begin with.

Wei Wuxian scrunches his nose but rubs his knuckles along the side of Sizhui’s face, deliberately brushing over his forehead ribbon, which seems to relax him even further. “We’ll see. That will be Lan Zhan’s call, I think. Go on and ask him. He was in a good mood when I left.”

The way Sizhui is purposely not looking at him is more obvious than if he had. “Come with me.”

Wei Wuxian squeezes him against his side then steps away to nudge him along the path. “Go on. I’ll be there in a moment.”

“Baba,” Sizhui says, but Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow, and he sighs before bowing to both of them and going back down the path.

Lan Xichen means to make his own exit, but Wei Wuxian is still looking at the direction Sizhui had left in when he says, “It would be easier for him if you pretended not to hate me.”

“I,” he starts, then narrows his eyes. “You were listening.”

Wei Wuxian hums, neither denying nor defending it. “He’s having a hard enough time as it is. You’re not obvious or anything, but Sizhui knows you too well. You’re going to have to try harder around him if you don’t want him to catch on.”

“I don’t hate you,” he says. It’s the beginning of the day but he’s already exhausted. “I just-”

“I know,” Wei Wuxian says, not unkindly. “But Sizhui doesn’t understand that. He’s still a kid. You have to cut him some slack.”

Sizhui’s the same age that Wangji was during the Sunshot Campaign. Right now, that feels less like a defense and more like a condemnation. “What is he having a hard time with?”

Wei Wuxian stills, finally turning to face him. His face isn’t blank, exactly, but it’s the expression he wears when he wishes he didn’t have one. “What do you mean?”

“You said he’s having a hard time,” he points out, shoving down the spike of irritation. “With what? Can I help?”

He sighs, and Lan Xichen has the uncomfortable sensation of being pitied. “No. A-Ning and I are handling it.” His expression melts, and his tone is aiming for irritated but the expression on his face is a little too besotted for it to be believable. “Lan Zhan isn’t being any help at all.”

What’s that supposed to mean?

Lan Xichen means to ask but then Wei Wuxian is grinning and turning away from him, back towards the jingshi, back towards his husband and son.

~

He means to let it lie. He’s not entitled to Sizhui’s secrets just because he’s his nephew, after all, and Wangji is aware of the issue, so there’s no need for him to interfere.

But more time passes and Sizhui misses more meals, spends longer away on his night hunts, and when he’s home he can usually only be found with Jingyi or in the jingshi. There’s only one person who he hasn’t asked.

When Wen Qionglin isn't traveling, either with Sizhui or on his own, he rents a small house in the middle of Caiyi. Lan Xichen has a sneaking suspicion that this is paid for out of Wangji’s personal income, but how his brother spends his money isn’t any of his business, so he’s never asked.

His face is less expressive now than when he was alive, but not by much. His surprise and confusion at finding Lan Xichen at his door is obvious, but he doesn’t hesitate to invite him inside, and makes him what smells like an excellent cup of tea. They sit across from one another, and even in his confusion Wen Qionglin is too polite to speak first, so Lan Xichen says, “About Sizhui.”

Wen Qionglin’s face clears and then softens. “Sometimes I worry he’s too much like Jiejie.”

“Wen Qing?” he asks, surprised, then has to suppress the urge to wince. It’s not as if he had more than one sister. “I would think you would consider that to be a good thing.”

“She was the best person I’ve ever known. She and Senior Wei were similar in that way,” he adds, his expression going mild in a way that doesn’t feel mild at all.

Lan Xichen refuses to touch that. He’s determined to have one conversation that’s not about Wei Wuxian. “But?”

“Jiejie,” he sighs, “never forgave anyone, anything, her whole life.”

For a moment, Lan Xichen envies that Wen Qionglin doesn’t need to breathe, because for that same stretch of time, he can’t remember how.

“It is not a bad thing,” he continues, “to be like Senior Wei, to be like me. But maybe it’s not a bad thing to be like Jiejie either.”

“Thank you for the tea,” he says finally, when he can think of nothing else.

Wen Qinglin inclines his head. “Of course, Zewu Jun.”

~

Lan Xichen is feeling something approaching frazzled, so perhaps he’s not as eloquent as he’d like to be, and some things are getting misunderstood. That’s the only explanation he can think of when he goes to Wangji and his brother says, “Wei Ying does not understand you.”

“Wangji,” he sighs, rubbing at his temple. “Please.”

He continues like he hasn’t said anything. “Right before Lotus Pier fell, Madame Yu used Zidian against Wei Ying at the Wen’s request. Jiang Wanyin had to be restrained as he begged his mother to stop. Once he got away, he put himself between Wei Ying and his mother’s whip. When Jiang Wanyin lost his golden core, Wei Ying worried that he could not be happy living an ordinary life, so he cut open his chest and tore himself apart to give the pieces to his brother.” He goes quiet for a moment then continues, “Between that, Jiang Wanyin saw the Wen soldiers heading towards Wei Ying. He attracted their attention on purpose to keep them away from Wei Ying, even though he knew that he faced either death or something worse. The fate of their clan rested on his shoulders, and he chose Wei Ying anyway.” Wangji raises a hand, almost like he’s going to reach over his own shoulder to press it against his back but instead he lowers it into his lap. “Wei Ying and I have matching scars. In more ways than one. But there are some things that he will never understand.”

I don’t understand,” he admits, throat tight. He wants to touch Wangji’s back, but his brother has never tolerated people touching his scars.

Wangji looks tired then, looks older than his years even though he hasn’t physically aged in over a decade. “Wei Ying loves in one way. When others love differently, he does not understand it. He has a big heart and a terrible memory. Sizhui is his son.” Wangji doesn’t smile, but he almost does. “I have been loved in many different ways. I recognize all of them. But I am selfish and my memory is long.” He shrugs, almost apologetic. “Sizhui is my son. Sometimes our children inherit things we hadn’t intended to give them.”

“Is,” he starts, clears his throat, then tries again. “What is Sizhui – is he okay?”

He still doesn’t understand exactly what they’re talking about. But that’s the important part, he thinks.

Except instead of answering, Wangji discusses some of the skirmishes going on in the North, and Lan Xichen can’t bring himself to ask again.

~

It’s another family dinner and Wei Wuxian is telling a story from their latest night hunt, describing Wen Qionglin climbing a tree in a way that’s truly humorous.

Uncle’s lips pull back. “Is it really appropriate for a fierce corpse to accompany you? One day you’ll need to subdue-”

Sizhui slams his cup against the table with such force that tea sloshes over the side and it cracks down the side. Wei Wuxian immediately reaches out to him, but Wangji catches his wrist, giving a subtle shake to his head.

“Sizhui!” Uncle blinks, taken aback. “What are you doing? Surely the tea isn’t that terrible.”

Sizhui doesn’t say anything for a long moment, staring at Uncle without blinking, before sliding that same steady gaze to Lan Xichen. He doesn’t flinch, but he wants to. His dark eyes are alight with fury even while the rest of him is perfectly composed. He’d seen Wangji like this, once.

“I have a mathematics problem that I can’t figure out,” Sizhui says, his voice cool and detached in a way it never is, and Wei Wuxian tangles his fingers with Wangji’s, anxiously tapping the fingers of his free hand against his thigh.

Uncle shoots him a baffled look, but Lan Xichen can’t return it, and he says, “Alright, tell us the problem. We’ll help you.”

“I can’t seem to figure out,” he starts, “the value of a Wen’s life.”

Lan Xichen would close his eyes if it didn’t feel like a coward’s choice.

Uncle opens his mouth, but Sizhui continues before he gets the chance to say anything. “The Dafan Wens once numbered over three hundred. There were sixty four Wens on the Burial Mounds, myself included. The rest of us were dead by then. Baba wasn’t a Wen, but he was the only reason any of us were alive, him and Wen Qing. So sixty five of us.”

Wangji has to hold both of Wei Wuxian’s hand to keep him from reaching out to Sizhui.

“A-die injured thirty three Lan clansmen when he attempted to defend the Burial Mounds and so now he has thirty three scars. One lashing for each disciple injured.” Sizhui’s anger is so large, filling the room until there’s barely enough air to breathe. “How many lashings will you take for the sixty four dead Wens?”

Uncle is speechless. Lan Xichen would be impressed by that if he had any room for it.

“I am the only living Wen left,” he says. “Uncle Ning was killed once, then again when his mind was stolen from him, and you speak now as if he should die a third time. How many Wens must die for you to be satisfied? How many times must we die?” Sizhui’s eyes are bright and Lan Xichen held him when he cried for so many years and sitting here he wonders if he’ll ever hold his nephew again. “Did you think allowing me to live was mercy? Did you feel righteous when A-die brought home a feverish child crying for the family you’d killed and you magnanimously decided not to slit his throat?”

Lan Xichen has to swallow twice before he can say, “We wanted to give you a home.”

Speaking was a mistake. Sizhui’s eyes are on him alone now and it’s like being branded. “It wasn’t yours to give. This was all always supposed to be mine. From the moment Wei Wuxian claimed me as his own, I was always going to be the son of Lan Wangji. You didn’t give me anything. You only stole. You watched as my family was burned to death and called it justice. You celebrated when Baba died. You weren’t sorry. You did not regret. You were not forced by circumstances. If any of that were true, you would not have whipped A-die thirty three times for trying to do the right thing.”

Uncle’s mouth closes, all the defenses he’d been about to offer dying on his tongue.

“Do not tell lies. Do not fear the strong. Do not bully the weak. Do not take advantage of your position to oppress others.” Sizhui looks between him and Uncle and snaps, “Shoulder the weight of morality. These are the principals I was raised on. I believe in them. I have allowed them to shape me. Because I have chosen to live by them, I cannot belong to a sect that does not.” He stands, reaches to untie his forehead ribbon, then drops it in the middle of the table. “I secede from the sect.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t realize he’s reaching out until he sees his hand in front of his face, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. Sizhui bows once then turns around and leaves. He doesn’t look back.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t spare them a glance as he scrambles to his feet, rushing after Sizhui.

Wangji sighs, bowing to both him and Uncle before getting to his feet. His gaze lingers on both of them, but he says nothing before leaving.

It takes several minutes for Lan Xichen to force himself to stand. He steps outside, but hesitates at the entrance.

He can hear Sizhui crying, can see the way he’s clinging to Wei Wuxian and shaking in his arms. Wangji rubs a hand over his son’s back and he and Wei Wuxian look at each other over Sizhui’s head.

Lan Xichen goes back inside and sits back down next to his too pale uncle.

Tomorrow. He’ll talk to them tomorrow.

~

When he goes to the jingshi the next morning, he finds it empty. Not just of people, but of belongings too. Only one personal effect remains.

His brother’s forehead ribbon lies on the bedside table.

Lan Xichen does not think that he’ll be coming back for it.

~

When Jingyi returns from his night hunt and hears that Sizhui and Wangji have left the clan, he’s not surprised.

Lan Xichen is just as unsurprised when Jingyi disappears from Cloud Recesses in the middle of the night and leaves his forehead ribbon abandoned on his pillow.

~

Lan Xichen hears it through rumor first, but it’s not until the next cultivation conference that he’s able to see it for himself.

Lotus Pier is especially beautiful in summer, covered in blooming lotus flowers.

It hadn’t come as a terrible surprise. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin had reached some sort of understanding months ago. Jin Guangyao had insisted that Jiang Wanyin was so preoccupied with his grieving sister that it would be wrong to pull him away to witness the execution and so he had not even found out the Wen had arrived until they were ashes. Jiang Wanyin had visited the Burial Mounds and worked with Wei Wuxian to protect the Wens in what little ways they could. Jiang Wanyin pulled the blow that would have put his sword through Wei Wuxian’s chest and could not have known that the fall would kill him when he still believed his brother had a golden core. Wangji’s dislike of Jiang Wanyin notwithstanding, if they were to join any other clan, of course it was the Jiang.

Seeing them, however, is different than knowing. Rumor has it that Wen Ning is around here somewhere, although of course he’s made himself scarce with so many foreign sects visiting.

Wei Wuxian stands besides Jiang Wanyin, his black robes accented in deep purple and the silver Jiang bell proudly attached to his hip. Jiang Wanyin has not technically given the position of first disciple back to his brother, but technicality seems to be a minor thing in the Jiang clan.

Wangji is in lavender robes so pale they’re almost white. His forehead is bare. His shoulders are loose and he listens to whatever argument Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin are having with long suffering fondness.

Jingyi and Sizhui are laughing with Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen on the docks. They’re both clad in Jiang purple, although they still wear their hair in the typical Lan style.

He hadn’t realized how long it’s been since he’s seen Sizhui really smile, since he’s heard him laugh. How could he have forgotten?

“Um, Sect Leader,” a senior disciple says, eyeing him worriedly. “We have to make our formal greetings.”

“Of course,” he says smoothly, tearing his eyes away.

Lan Xichen takes a step forward.

Wangji’s warmth remains when he catches his eye. Hopefully, by the time he has to return to Cloud Recesses, he’ll have taken a step forward in more ways than one.