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What I've failed I will not unknow / What has failed me is not yet unknown

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Lan Xichen finds seclusion a relief. As a youth, the quieter parts of his training—studying texts, practicing his music and his meditation—had brought him the most joy. Now, he devotes himself to them almost exclusively. The first months of seclusion, he reread the Lan sect principles from start to finish once. After, he dedicated a week to music and meditation alone, then reread the Lan sect principles again. He knows now that he was looking for something in them to either absolve him of or justify the guilt he feels—for helping Jin Guangyao, however unwittingly, with his plans; for killing Jin Guangyao. 

The principles don’t help. Seclusion does, though.

The solitude of the house on the back hill seeps into Lan Xichen’s heart like a balm. When he plays Liebing, he stays away from any songs with spiritual effects, playing mundane pieces: classical pieces, folk songs he’s heard on the lakes of Gusu, his own compositions, meandering melodies of no composition whatsoever. He doesn’t touch Shuoyue except once a month to care for it properly. He feels he owes the sword that much, but every time he unsheathes it, he has to remember how it felt to pierce through a-Yao’s chest, and then he remembers how it felt when a-Yao forced his way further onto the blade and said, “I never once thought of hurting you.” And then the only thing to do is quickly wipe down the blade and turn to meditation, because if he doesn’t, he will either weep or wail, and his little house on the back hill is far enough from the other little houses that nobody will hear either sound, but Lan Xichen thinks that if he lets himself cry out, he might never stop screaming.

So he lets himself sink into the quiet of seclusion. He rises and goes to sleep at the customary hours. His solitude is broken only by visits from people bringing food, his uncle, and Wangji. 

Sometimes Wangji brings his guqin and they play together as they used to in their youth. Never cultivation songs. Sometimes Wangji brings sect business or Chief Cultivator business with him, and Lan Xichen does his best to provide what guidance he can. He often feels guilt for leaving his little brother alone with the leadership of the sect, as their father did their uncle. But he knows that Wangji understands, viscerally, what it is he feels. Wangji remembers his own grief and guilt too well to begrudge Lan Xichen his. Wangji never asks when he will come out of seclusion, but sometimes when they have finished eating a meal or playing a song, Lan Xichen lifts his eyes to find his brother gazing searchingly at him. Lan Xichen never tries to speak of that day in Guanyin Temple and Wangji never asks him to. 

When Uncle comes, they drink tea together and sometimes discuss the education of the disciples: who is ready to move up to a more advanced class, who might be served by specializing in music or healing or another specialty. Occasionally Uncle comes with a text for Lan Xichen to wrestle with and there's something comforting in that, to feel like he’s a student again. It’s peaceful, and in the peace, he thinks he can feel himself healing.

 

**

 

One day, about six months into his seclusion, there is a knock on the door that startles Lan Xichen out of his meditation. After half a year he knows intimately the sound of every visitor, their footsteps on the path outside, their idiosyncratic ways of knocking. This is a newcomer. He has no idea whom Wangji has allowed to enter his seclusion, for it must have been Wangji to whom this visitor applied for that permission. Lan Xichen rises from the seat on the floor where he had been meditating, feels his knees protest their first movement in three hours, and opens the door. As surprised as he is to have any new visitor, he’s even more surprised to see Jiang Wanyin at his door. 

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Xichen says, unable to disguise his confusion. And then he doesn’t know how to proceed. It’s been such a long time since he has seen anyone outside of his own clan.

“Lan-zongzhu,” Jiang Wanyin says, bowing formally. Lan Xichen belatedly returns the bow. Jiang Wanyin looks incredibly uncomfortable, mouth set in a scowl, eyes darting between Lan Xichen’s face and the ground. “Hanguang-jun said that, if you were willing, I might speak with you.” He swallows and looks away for a moment, then apparently summons up determination and turns back to meet Lan Xichen’s eyes. “May I come in?”

Lan Xichen is still perplexed, but he nods and moves aside, offering Jiang Wanyin the smile he normally offers, used to offer, to acquaintances. It feels alien on his mouth and in his eyes. “Please,” he says, gesturing to the small table, to the place that is Wangji’s customary seat when he visits. “Have a seat. If there’s anything I can help with, I am willing.”

“It’s not about help,” Jiang Wanyin says, setting down his sword Sandu next to the table and taking a seat himself. “It’s…” He scowls again, deeper. His eyes bore holes into the dark wood of the table. “This was Wei Wuxian’s idea. I don’t—”

This opening does nothing to alleviate Lan Xichen’s bemusement. What is Jiang Wanyin doing here? Why did Wei Wuxian suggest that he come speak to Lan Xichen? Why did Wangji agree? “I’m not sure I understand,” he begins to say, but then Jiang Wanyin lifts his gaze from the table and Lan Xichen is startled to find tears in his eyes. Jiang Wanyin swipes them away with the back of his hand and looks around the small one-room house. There is a screen separating the bed from what can be termed a common area, if one is feeling generous, but the rest of Lan Xichen’s life is clearly on display. Lan Xichen watches Jiang Wanyin take in the rack holding Shuoyue and Liebing, the shelf holding the books and scrolls he is currently reading, the table holding everything he needs to prepare tea.

“How’s seclusion?” Jiang Wanyin asks. The question borders on the rude and Lan Xichen can’t help the chuckle that escapes him. He was never particularly close to Jiang Wanyin, of all the sect masters (not when the other two nearest his age were his sworn brothers, his mind supplies before he can shy away from the thought), but over time he’d learned how to respond to his prickliness. 

He answers seriously. “I think it’s the kind of thing that takes on the meaning you give it.” Lan Xichen pauses and then realizes that it has indeed been too long since he was a host to a guest. He rises and starts making tea while he considers his next words. “I read, I meditate, I play my xiao. I think the quiet helps.” He heats the water with a small burst of spiritual energy, pours it over the leaves, then glances over his shoulder at Jiang Wanyin. “What about you? How are things in Yunmeng?”

Jiang Wanyin laughs; the sound bounces harshly off the walls of the house. “You may as well ask about Lanling as well as Yunmeng, for all the time I spend there. It’s been a hell of a time, trying to shore up Jin Ling’s support in his own sect while keeping up with everything at home.”

“How is the young Jin-zongzhu bearing up?” Lan Xichen asks. 

Jiang Wanyin shakes his head, frowning. “As well as can be, given everything,” he says. “It’s hard. You know,” he trails off for a moment, watching Lan Xichen return with the tea set and sit down. “I was just about a-Ling’s age when I became sect master. I still remember how scared I was. Of course, we were at war, then, so I didn’t really have time to feel it until afterwards.”

Lan Xichen frowns down at the teapot, watches the steam spiral lazily out of its spout. “I wish I had been a better help to you, back then,” he says.  “When Jin Guangshan was coming after you and Wei-gongzi. It was wrong of me to stand aside.”

Jiang Wanyin shakes his head again. “You were still rebuilding Cloud Recesses,” he says. “I can’t blame you for being concerned for your own sect.” He, too, stares at the steam for a long time. “Wei Wuxian doesn’t blame me for being concerned with mine instead of standing with him.”

“So we blame ourselves in each other’s stead,” Lan Xichen says, smiling wryly. Jiang Wanyin looks back up at him and the smile on his face is a mirror of Lan Xichen’s own. Lan Xichen thinks he must be feeling the weight of every one of his thirty-eight years, the way Lan Xichen feels his own years weighing him down. Their cultivation keeps their bodies young, but the passing time still leaves its scars.

“Anyway, I’d like nothing better than to stand behind a-Ling’s throne and threaten anyone who looks at him funny with Zidian, but a-Ling needs to show the upstarts in Carp Tower that he’s not in my shadow.”

“If you’re able to take the time to come here, I’m sure you’re doing a good job of giving him his space,” Lan Xichen says. He pours the tea for them both, then passes Jiang Wanyin’s cup over.

“He misses his shushu,” Jiang Wanyin says abruptly, staring into the depths of his teacup. Lan Xichen winces, takes a sip of his own tea to hide it. Nobody has brought up Jin Guangyao to him in half a year. He doesn’t know why Jiang Wanyin is bringing him up now. Jiang Wanyin presses on. “He doesn’t say it, because he feels he can’t, but all the places Jin Guangyao walked with him, all the places a-Ling walks now…” He looks up and Lan Xichen sees the tears in his eyes again, feels a bone-deep panic welling in his chest.

“We raised a child together,” Jiang Wanyin says, voice thick with pain. “You two were sworn brothers.” He swallows hard and oh. Oh, no. Lan Xichen is not ready for this conversation. He is never going to be ready for this conversation. “And because of what he did, there is nowhere outside this room that either of us can mourn him.”

“Oh,” Lan Xichen breathes. He wasn’t expecting Jiang Wanyin to frame it that way. Mourning. He takes in a deep breath and then exhales it, closing his eyes against the pain. It doesn’t help; he still sees Jin Guangyao’s last moments behind his eyes. He doesn’t know what to say to such an overture, but he knows that Jiang Wanyin is offering him the precious gift of his own vulnerability, and to throw it away now would be the height of cruelty. Despite the pain, Lan Xichen doesn’t have it in him to be cruel to Jiang Wanyin. He says the first words that come to mind. “What did you do,” he asks, “when the whole world was against Wei-gongzi and you were mourning him?”

Jiang Wanyin reels back a little in his seat, eyes widening. Lan Xichen feels a spike of vicious satisfaction at blindsiding him the way he has done to Lan Xichen. It’s an unworthy feeling, so he tries to squash it down. He watches Jiang Wanyin’s throat work for a few long moments before the Jiang sect master snorts a bitter laugh. “Suffered in silence,” he says. “Pretended I wasn’t mourning at all.” He stays silent for another long moment, mouth working around words he seems to be struggling to say. The quality of his silence is so different from Wangji’s. “Threw myself into rebuilding my sect, again.”

Lan Xichen bows his head. “You must think it the height of indulgence, then, for me to pass on my responsibilities to another, just because of the grief.”

“No.” The answer comes quickly, vehemently, and Lan Xichen raises his head, surprised. “No,” Jiang Wanyin repeats. “I think…” and for once, he speaks slowly and thoughtfully. “I think when you are as close to someone as you were to him, when you are betrayed as thoroughly as he betrayed you, and when you feel responsible for that person’s death… No, I think you need time to bear up under all that weight.” Jiang Wanyin casts his eyes to the side, looking suddenly just as he did nearly twenty years ago, as a young, nervous auditor in Cloud Recesses. “I think seventeen years ago, if there had been such an option for me, I would have taken it.” He pauses for a moment, then huffs a laugh and shakes his head. “Or I wouldn’t have, but I might have been better for it if I had.”

Lan Xichen isn’t sure what he was expecting from Jiang Wanyin, but such a level of empathy wasn’t it. He blinks rapidly, feeling his eyes sting, then closes his eyes entirely. “Thank you,” he says, when he masters his voice again. 

“For what?” Jiang Wanyin grouses. “I’m an adult, aren’t I? I can learn from my mistakes.” 

“The thing I can’t forgive,” Lan Xichen says quietly, looking down at the table between them, surprised at the words coming out of his own mouth. The table has gone blurred through the tears in his eyes. “He said, I never thought of hurting you. As if— as if the deaths of da-ge and a-Song didn’t hurt me! As if he could separate out the things he did from the way he was with me.”

Lan Xichen can’t see Jiang Wanyin’s expression right now, can’t see anything through the welling tears. He keeps thinking he’s shed all of them, but there are always more. “But, of course, he did care about you, and about a-Ling,” the other sect master says quietly. Lan Xichen takes a long shuddering breath, swipes a hand over his eyes to dry his tears. “I think of all the time we spent together, planning out a-Ling’s education and upbringing. I thought we were—” Lan Xichen looks up when Jiang Wanyin pauses and sees him shrug. “I thought we were friends, friendly at least. I know I’m not an easy person to be friends with, but he was—” He covers another pause by downing his cup of tea and pouring himself another, refilling Lan Xichen’s tea while he’s at it. “You know, he was kind. And he had good ideas. He didn’t care about Yunmeng Jiang like he did about Lanling Jin, or even Gusu Lan. But if I came to him for advice, he gave it, and it was good. And Jin Ling—” He gives another expansive shrug. “You know, he got some of my… temperament. But he’s a good kid. He’ll be a good sect master. Some of that was Jin Guangyao—he trained his memory, you know. Who’s the third daughter of Laiwu Gao and what skill is she known for? Stuff like that. So it’s hard. Because you can’t— well, I can’t… separate out the good he’s done from the bad.”

Lan Xichen keeps being surprised in this conversation. “That’s exactly it,” he says, and then he drinks his tea because he can’t think of the words that will convey the depth of his feeling. “That’s exactly it,” he says again, speaking with sudden vehemence. “But because we can’t separate it, I find all the good memories are poisoned, too.” He swallows, the rage he hadn’t been letting himself feel burning in his throat. “I taught him music cultivation and he was a good student, such a good student. He had no background in cultivation, but what he was able to do once he had access to education!” He heaves another deep breath around the knot in his throat. “A teacher should be lucky to have such a pupil once in a generation. I used to think on our lessons with such fondness. And now to know that he took that gift, and turned it to murder, not once, but multiple times. That he poisoned the mind of a man I have loved and respected since my youth, his own sworn brother, my sworn brother, until that man died of rage, bleeding from the qiqiao, and that even after that he would not let his spirit rest… How can I think with any warmth about his learning, my teaching, now?” Lan Xichen is breathing hard now, fists pressed painfully into the wood of the table. He doesn’t know where all this fury came from. He’ll have to meditate for another week after this visit to regain his equilibrium. Why did Jiang Wanyin come and break his peace? 

“Huh,” says Jiang Wanyin, after a pause. “I think I understand now why Wei Wuxian suggested this.”

“What?” As ever during this whole strange meeting, Lan Xichen feels unbalanced, his voice sounding distant past the ringing in his ears. 

“I think you needed some help, or permission, or something, to express your anger, while I—” Again that self-deprecating twist of the mouth. Jiang Wanyin is more self-aware than Lan Xichen has ever given him credit for. “That’s about the one emotion I’m any good at sharing.”

“I don’t want to express my anger,” Lan Xichen mutters, staring down at his clenched fists. He feels weary and sullen. “I don’t want to feel anything at all.”

Jiang Wanyin reaches across the table. He moves slowly, telegraphing his movements, and settles his hands over Lan Xichen’s fists. “Yeah,” he says, when Lan Xichen looks up at him in surprise. His hands are warm, calloused. Lan Xichen can feel his own hands loosening under that warmth. “I can understand that.”

“Can you?” 

Jiang Wanyin grimaces. “You think it’s been easy, all the things I’ve been feeling since Wei Wuxian came back? All the truths that have been revealed? Yeah, I’d love to shut that off once in a while. Get a decent night’s sleep for once.”

“Your… golden core,” Lan Xichen says slowly. Jiang Wanyin’s hands tighten over his, but he nods. “A-Yao—” he cuts himself off. Closes his eyes. Er-ge, join me in death. He opens his eyes in a hurry. Breathes. “Jin Guangyao said…”

“I didn’t know until just a few days prior,” Jiang Wanyin says. “So it was fresh.” His jaw is clenched so tightly, Lan Xichen can almost hear it creak. “If I let myself think about it, I’m furious. Especially Wei Wuxian telling me to forget it. As if I could! Hey, every drop of spiritual power in your body is circulating only because of me and my great sacrifice, but, you know, forget about it, it’s no big deal. I only lied to you for four years and would have kept lying forever if it weren’t for my fierce corpse buddy telling on me!” 

Zidian sparks on Jiang Wanyin’s finger, startling them both. Jiang Wanyin moves to take his hands back, but Lan Xichen finds he’s not yet ready to give up the warmth of a human touch. He opens his right hand from its loose fist and turns it palm up, catching Jiang Wanyin’s hand in his own. With his left hand he lifts his teacup, drinks the lukewarm tea in it. Jiang Wanyin mirrors him.

“It’s the lies that hurt most,” Lan Xichen says. 

Jiang Wanyin nods, swallowing. “Years of them. The way they build on each other.”

Lan Xichen looks down at their joined hands, not really seeing them. “And how it destabilizes everything when the truth comes to light.”

“Mn.”

They sit like that for a while. Lan Xichen had not expected his time in seclusion to include sitting quietly, drinking tea and holding hands with Jiang Wanyin. It helps, though. Somehow.

Eventually, he takes his hand back, pours them both more tea. “Jiang-zongzhu,” he starts, but Jiang Wanyin cuts him off.

“You may as well address me informally,” he says. “Given the subject matter.”

Lan Xichen smiles and takes a sip of his tea. “Jiang-xiong, then,” he offers. Jiang Wanyin nods. “And you must address me informally as well.” Jiang Wanyin nods again, though the scowl he’s been wearing for most of this conversation looks a trifle uncomfortable now. 

“I can hardly bear to touch Shuoyue,” he confesses. “Even to clean it. I remember...” He trails off. Jiang Wanyin can figure out what he remembers.

“It was like that for me after Nightless City,” Jiang Wanyin confesses in turn. “I couldn’t indulge it, not that I think you’re being indulgent!” he hurries to assure Lan Xichen, who shakes his head, smiling the amused smile he remembers turning on Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian back during the lecture series all those years ago. “But I had to keep going, you know, because there was nothing else to do. My sect was still… I’m glad you can take the time. But for a while, every night hunt, I was on that cliff with Wei Wuxian again.”

“But you didn’t…” Lan Xichen trails off. Jiang Wanyin shakes his head.

“He— I couldn’t, not even then. But he took the opportunity to… fall.” 

“I don’t think you were there to see it, at the end,” Lan Xichen says. He hasn’t said this to anyone, not even Wangji. He doesn’t know why he’s saying it now, except that Jiang Wanyin keeps drawing uncomfortable parallels to the past. “A-Yao asked me to join him in death…” He closes his eyes, remembering, and hears the hiss as Jiang Wanyin breathes in sharply. “And I was ready to do it. For him.”

“Lan-xiong…” Lan Xichen opens his eyes again, steeling himself to face the pity on Jiang Wanyin’s face. Jiang Wanyin’s brows are knitted together and his lips are parted, not with pity, but… concern? Huh, so that’s what that looks like on his face.

“Also because I felt responsible.” He swallows. “For the way he killed da-ge. For making excuses for him time and again all these years.”

“That— You’re not—” Jiang Wanyin shakes his head, scowling harder as he struggles for words. “What he did wasn’t—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lan Xichen says. “He pushed me toward the exit as the temple collapsed. It must have taken the last of his strength to do it.” He feels his mouth twist, lips purse. “He saved my life.”

“Did he.” Jiang Wanyin’s expression is stormy.

“More than once, in our acquaintance,” Lan Xichen says. He knows that that’s not what Jiang Wanyin means, but he can’t let go of that part of it. A-Yao, back when he was Meng Yao, saved his life, asked nothing in return, and then put himself in further danger to bring vital intelligence to the Sunshot Campaign. Lan Xichen can’t forget that. 

“You can’t give him credit for sparing you after he endangered you first!” Jiang Wanyin bursts out, setting his teacup down with such force that the tea sloshes out of Lan Xichen’s cup. “Why was the temple coming down in the first place?” he demands. “I take it all back. I don’t want to mourn the bastard—I want to punch his face in. I want to wring his neck myself!”

“Would it help?” Lan Xichen asks tiredly. He lets the ‘bastard’ go, although he shouldn’t. Jin Guangyao always took it so hard. “Does it ever help?”

“It might,” Jiang Wanyin insists, something burning in his eyes that frightens Lan Xichen a little bit. “It felt very, very good to kill Wen Zhuliu, back then.” He’s sneering like he did in Guanyin Temple. Jin-zongzhu, isn’t it harder to be your shixiong? Lan Xichen feels sick. But then Jiang Wanyin meets Lan Xichen’s gaze and the moment passes, the sneer fades, his brows knit in apology. “No. I’m sorry.” 

Lan Xichen shakes his head. “Don’t be sorry. Not for having more concern for my life than I do. Did.”

“I don’t blame you for any of your actions, Lan-xiong,” says Jiang Wanyin. Lan Xichen winces away from the earnestness in his gaze. “Not that day and not prior. Jin Guangyao lied to us all. I’ve never thought that you acted with anything but righteousness.”

Lan Xichen feels so brittle right now, all the places where he used to feel solid filled with bitterness and sorrow in equal measure. He says nothing because he can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t be unworthy of a Lan. I’ve never thought that you acted with anything but righteousness. What a joke. What a sham. The First Jade of Lan, indeed. 

Jiang Wanyin heaves a sigh, finishes his tea. “I’m flying to Lanling today. I should… get going.” He looks reluctant, but Lan Xichen of all people understands the duties of a sect master. Also, he’s grateful for the reprieve.

Lan Xichen rises as Jiang Wanyin does. Jiang Wanyin steps around the table to stand in front of him. He bows shallowly. “I’m sorry to intrude on your seclusion like this. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”

Lan Xichen returns the bow, the courtesy a muscle memory. He swallows around the lump in his throat. “Thank you, I think,” he says. He smiles, lopsided for once, not the controlled amiable smile he has cultivated for decades. He knows what he’s going to say, though he doesn’t want to say it. “I can’t say that I enjoyed this conversation, but… would you return and speak with me again?”

Jiang Wanyin offers him a tight smile. “As often as I am able, and you’re willing to have me.”

He turns to go, then turns back. “You know,” he says, that odd expression on his face: half-smile, half-scowl. “What I’m going to Carp Tower for… Jin Ling wants to expand the outposts Jin Guangyao developed. And he’s right. They were a good idea and there’s still many places that need that kind of support. I’m going to look over a-Ling’s plans before we present them to Xiandu.”

“So we can never escape his legacy,” Lan Xichen says. He closes his eyes again, fruitless though he knows it is to calm him. When he reopens them, Jiang Wanyin is watching him intently. “Please pass on my greeting to Jin-zongzhu,” he says.

“I will. Lan-xiong…” Jiang Wanyin steps forward and claps him once on the shoulder, surprising him. Then, he gives a formal bow. “Take care.”

Lan Xichen sees the other sect master to the door and watches him ride his sword out of sight. He closes the door carefully behind him and then collapses bonelessly onto his bed. He’s never felt so exhausted just from conversation, and that includes all the times he’d tried fruitlessly to mediate between Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao. 

In a minute, he’s going to get up and sit properly and meditate. After that, somebody will come by with dinner. He can do this; he’s been doing it for half a year. He can keep doing it. At some point in his seclusion, the roiling mass of grief and guilt and fury and love in his heart must resolve into something he can live with. After all, a-Yao wanted him to live. Wangji wants him to live. And Jiang Wanyin… wants to come back and have more of these exhausting conversations. Which is good, because Lan Xichen finds that he wants to have them, too, with someone who has the same roiling mass of emotions in their own chest.

In a minute, he’s going to find the rhythm of seclusion again. Now, Lan Xichen lies on his bed and lets himself weep until he is hollow.  

 

**

 

Lan Wangji comes up the hill a few hours later. He is alone, carrying a tray with two servings of dinner laid out upon it. Lan Xichen has put himself back together at this point, so he greets his brother with a smile. The smile even reaches his eyes, despite what Wangji sprang on him today; it’s hard not to smile at Wangji, at his quiet, earnest face, beloved since their youth.

“Wangji,” he says in greeting and takes the tray off his hands.

“Xiongzhang.” Wangji enters behind him, helps him set out the bowls on the table. 

They sit and eat in silence, as is customary. Lan Xichen basks in the familiarity of the meal and Wangji’s presence. After, Lan Xichen pours out tea for them both. He knows Wangji will want to ask about Jiang Wanyin’s visit; he knows that’s why Wangji chose to bring his dinner today rather than leaving it to one of the younger disciples.

“Jiang Wanyin visited today,” he says, by way of permission. 

“Mn,” says Wangji, a questioning hum. 

“I wonder how you and Wei-gongzi decided upon such a thing,” Lan Xichen says. 

“Wei Ying thought it might help you both to speak with someone who has experienced similar things.”

We both murdered our brother, you mean, he doesn’t say aloud. He knows that’s not what Wangji means, anyway, but the wash of bitterness overwhelms him for a moment. “It’s too early to say,” he says instead, when he can speak again. “But I think it… I think it may well help.”

Wangji is looking at him with a startlingly piercing gaze, like he sees more than what Lan Xichen is saying. Maybe he does. They’ve almost never had secrets from each other. The secrets Lan Xichen has kept from Wangji in the past were mostly about sect business his brother was too young to know, and about the Yin Iron... and about Meng Yao. 

“You will tell me if you’d like to speak to him again?” Wangji asks. “It shouldn’t only be on Jiang-zongzhu’s prerogative.” 

At that, Lan Xichen smiles at his brother, amused. Of course he’d be concerned about not wanting to give Jiang Wanyin’s schedule precedence. They’ve probably come to some kind of peace, what with Wei Wuxian’s influence, but Lan Wangji will never like Jiang Wanyin. “I will,” he says. “And if he comes, whenever it may be, I’m always available.”

Wangji sits in silence for a while. Lan Xichen recognizes the quality of it as his brother working up the effort to say something difficult. “I’m sorry to surprise you with it today.”

Lan Xichen shakes his head. If there’s one thing he has, it’s self-knowledge. “No, I think it was right of you to do so. If I had known or been offered, I may not have agreed. Even now, I’m not really glad that I spoke with Jiang-xiong. But it was right.”

After that, conversation turns to other things for a short while before Wangji returns to his own home.

 

**

 

Three weeks after the first visit, Jiang Wanyin stops in for a short while in the early evening. He tells Lan Xichen about helping Jin Guangyao select a spiritual puppy for Jin Ling. Jin Guangyao had known almost nothing about dogs prior to that. Jiang Wanyin hadn’t been able to bring himself to raise any dogs in Lotus Pier even after Wei Wuxian’s death, but he had kept up with information about selecting and training spiritual dogs and was glad to share that expertise with his co-parent. As with every other thing, Jin Guangyao had been an avid student and had wanted nothing but the best for their nephew. Jiang Wanyin is a good storyteller; he paints a vivid picture with his words: Jin Guangyao going from puppy to puppy, asking intelligent questions, a smile on his face that shaded closer than usual to real.

Lan Xichen, in turn, tells Jiang Wanyin about the time Meng Yao had taught him how to fish, shortly after he had fled Cloud Recesses. He describes how hopelessly he had tangled his line and how patiently Meng Yao had corrected him, only laughing a little bit at his distress. Despite his worry for his family and his home, and the cultivation world in general, Lan Xichen still recalls those months he had spent in hiding with Meng Yao as being some of the most peaceful in his life. They had used mundane methods for housekeeping and acquiring food. Some of them had been difficult for Lan Xichen, raised as he was to privilege, to learn. But he took pleasure in taking some of the work of living off of Meng Yao’s hands.

 

**

 

After that, Jiang Wanyin becomes an irregular but familiar visitor at Lan Xichen’s house. Lan Xichen never does bring himself to extend an invitation to him through Wangji, but Jiang Wanyin takes him at his word and comes when he can, blustering in like a storm and attempting to minimize the bluster. One time, he comes up the path with a tray full of food for the midday meal, Sandu pushed through his belt to free up his hands. He spoons chili sauce into his bowls from a container Lan Xichen remembers seeing in the jingshi—something Wangji must keep for Wei Wuxian’s use—and keeps the silence of the meal gracelessly but completely. He never comes for meals again, and Lan Xichen is almost entirely certain that it’s because of the silence.

 

**

 

Sometimes, it seems to Lan Xichen that he and Jiang Wanyin are having one long conversation, broken up by months.

 

**

 

“What pisses you off the most,” Jiang Wanyin asks one time, “that he used you or that he loved you?” 

Lan Xichen nearly cracks his teacup in his fist before he sets it down.

 

**

 

One time, Lan Xichen is playing the xiao when Jiang Wanyin arrives. They’re informal enough with each other now that Jiang Wanyin sits and gestures for him to continue. Lan Xichen returns to the country air he had been playing. Jiang Wanyin listens with his chin resting on one hand, eyes half-closed. After the last notes have died away into the still air, Lan Xichen puts Liebing back onto its stand. 

 

**

 

“Did you ever night hunt with him?” Lan Xichen asks once. 

Jiang Wanyin shakes his head minutely. “He came to Yunmeng to observe Jin Ling’s first night hunt with me. But we never night hunted together. I think he preferred to night hunt within the bounds of Lanling.”

So that was another honor reserved for Lan Xichen alone. It hurts. Evidence of his care hurts more than evidence of his crimes.  

 

**

 

When Jiang Wanyin arrives one afternoon about a year and a half into Lan Xichen’s seclusion, his expression is as stormy as the sky over Cloud Recesses had been two days prior. He bites out an explanation over tea: a minor sect master had cast aspersions on Jin Rulan’s leadership—He’s been educated by that Jin Guangyao; who knows what else the snake has taught him—and it had taken all of Jiang Wanyin’s self-control not to call the man out on his nephew’s behalf. The hand wearing Zidian does spark a bit in the retelling, Lan Xichen notices. “I know I can’t duel everyone who insults a-Ling,” he says, when he’s calmed down a bit.

“It would set a bad precedent, anyway,” Lan Xichen tells him.

“I know that, too,” Jiang Wanyin grumbles. “A-Ling can handle himself, especially against the other sect masters. The real problem is the Lanling Jin sect elders trying to undermine him.”

So then Lan Xichen tells him a little bit about his own experience getting the Lan elders to take him seriously when he was a fresh-faced sect master at the tender age of nineteen, just a couple years before Jiang Wanyin had first arrived at Cloud Recesses. It’s different, of course. The Gusu Lan sect’s elders weren’t actively trying to undermine him—they had all wanted him to succeed as sect master—but they had trouble seeing him as anything but the child they had all, in one way or another, helped raise. So they had nearly driven him to distraction questioning his every move, especially that first year after his father’s death. It had helped to have his uncle’s support, actually. Another parallel. 

He remembers that Nie Mingjue, too, had helped a lot in those early years. Da-ge had also taken control of his sect far too young. Although his advice could never really apply to the Gusu Lan sect’s ways, Lan Xichen had been grateful for Mingjue’s example of what a sect could become when led by someone with a plan and the will to see it through. He has missed Nie Mingjue every day for the past twelve years. He… carefully does not think about Nie Mingjue’s younger brother.

“Hey, Lan-xiong, spar with me?” says Jiang Wanyin after about an hour of throwing around ideas for how Jin Rulan could manage the treacherous political waters of his sect.

Lan Xichen blinks. “What?”

“Spar with me,” says Jiang Wanyin again. He looks completely serious, no hint of the grin that, for instance, Wei Wuxian would be throwing him with these words. “No swords,” he says, a reassuring note in his voice. “Just hand-to-hand. How long has it been since you’ve done that?”

Lan Xichen… does not know how long it has been since he last sparred with anyone hand-to-hand. He remembers viscerally the last time he fought with his sword and he does not want to. But it’s true that he is out of condition and likely has been for longer than his time in seclusion. 

“I… All right.” He rises hesitantly and follows Jiang Wanyin out of the house and onto the snow outside. 

Jiang Wanyin draws Sandu and marks out the bounds of a sparring circle with an efficient gesture, blasting the snow away with his sword glare, then sheathes the sword and lays it down outside the circle. Lan Xichen raises his hand to feel the shape of the ward and smiles at Jiang Wanyin. “Nicely done.”

“I don’t want to be responsible for any damage to your home,” Jiang Wanyin says gruffly, but the corner of his mouth is tilting toward a smile.

They both take a moment to stretch. Lan Xichen moves through a few basic forms, remembering what it’s like to use his body in this way. Luckily, the muscle memory doesn’t fail him. A year and a half is nothing compared to almost four decades of training. Once he feels sufficiently loosened up, he turns toward the center of the circle and Jiang Wanyin. 

They bow to each other and then Jiang Wanyin is launching himself across the grass at Lan Xichen, aiming a blow at his head. Instinct honed by years of training takes over and Lan Xichen steps aside with the spare movements taught by the Gusu style and retaliates with a kick. He remembers being ten and Lan Jiayang showing how the unarmed forms derive from the sword forms; he remembers being a teenager and Mingjue insisting on sparring unarmed after classes because, “You never know if you’ll be caught without your peijian, and then what?”

The Yunmeng style is looser than the Gusu style, the stance a little wider, the movements more aggressive; when Jiang Wanyin spins away from Lan Xichen’s kick, Lan Xichen pursues, only to meet a flurry of blows he can barely block, as out of practice as he is. 

The sparring circle takes up most of the clearing in front of Lan Xichen’s house, though it doesn’t block the path up the hill and to the door. The ward on the circle is designed to slow moving objects as they pass through, breaking their momentum and, yes, preventing damage to any structures they might fly into. Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin battle across and around the clearing for the remainder of the afternoon. The first series of exchanges knocked Lan Xichen sharply out of his mind, into his body, preventing any thought but the strategy of attack and counterattack. It has been literal years since he’s had this: bodies in motion, uncomplicated by responsibility. 

Jiang Wanyin fights fiercely, an unremitting scowl on his face, presses the advantage when he has it, gives up as little ground as he can. He challenges Lan Xichen and if Lan Xichen had any room to think beyond the moment, he could imagine the Jiang sect master rising early in the mornings, working through forms before beginning sect business for the day, sparring with disciples every afternoon, pushing himself as mercilessly as he pushes his subordinates. 

They’re halfway through another exchange when they’re interrupted. Lan Xichen has just deflected a punch to the gut, turning his body into Jiang Wanyin’s and sliding a hand up his arm in preparation for a throw. As he turns, he sees Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui coming up the snow-covered hill with trays of food, mirror expressions of surprise on their faces. Seeing them throws him out of the moment, but his body, well-trained creature that it is, completes the familiar motions, throwing Jiang Wanyin over his shoulder. The other man rolls into the throw, lands on his feet, and launches another attack before realizing that Lan Xichen has been distracted and pulling his blow. He stumbles a little with the redirection, and then turns around, following the direction of Lan Xichen’s gaze. 

Seeing Lan Xichen’s brother and adoptive nephew, he flushes, turns toward Lan Xichen with a grimace. “I didn’t realize it’s been so long,” he says, and then moves to dispel the ward on the sparring circle.

“You haven’t overstayed your welcome,” Lan Xichen assures him, turning away from his approaching relatives to smile at Jiang Wanyin. They’re both sweaty, robes disordered, and Lan Xichen feels a different kind of peace for the first time in a long time.

Jiang Wanyin meets his eyes, then ducks his head with embarrassment. He straightens his robes, picks up Sandu, and walks over to where Wangji and Sizhui are approaching at last.

“Zewu-jun, Jiang-zongzhu.” Sizhui has mastered his expression by this point and bows over the tray at them with a smile. 

“Thank you for coming, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says and nods, smiling, to Sizhui. “Welcome back, Sizhui.” The young man had been off on an extended night hunt with Wen Qionglin and a few of the older juniors. Wangji had worried that he wouldn’t be back before the snows came.

“Xiongzhang, Jiang-zongzhu.” Wangji bows as well, face schooled to impassivity. “We have brought dinner for four.” 

That’s as close to an invitation as Wangji is likely to give to Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Wanyin seems to recognize that. His mouth quirks into half a smile. “Hanguang-jun,” he says, bowing in return, the consummate sect master once more. He nods at Sizhui. “Lan-gongzi.”

Lan Xichen leads them into the small house, moves the tea things aside so that Sizhui and Wangji can lay out bowls of food. Sizhui tells them about the night hunt he’s just returned from, his clear voice grave as he talks about the small Gusu village troubled by resentful beasts. Once the food is laid out, the silence of the meal takes over. Lan Xichen thinks how strange it is to call this seclusion, when there are three people at table with him.  

After dinner, Lan Xichen pours more tea. “You went easy on me today, Jiang-xiong,” he accuses, the gently teasing tone coming surprisingly easily. Wangji’s gaze sharpens, eyes narrowing fractionally, at his tone. He knows it intimately, because in previous years it had been directed at him almost exclusively.

Jiang Wanyin, on the other hand, has never heard Lan Xichen speaking this way and has never been particularly good at reading either of the Twin Jades. “I would never!” he sputters, flushing. “You may be out of practice, but you’re not some… some first-year disciple who’s never thrown a punch before! Who’d coddle you?”

Sizhui picks up his teacup to hide a smile; Wangji is still looking at Lan Xichen narrowly and Lan Xichen can almost hear his question, What are you doing, xiongzhang?

“Nevertheless,” Lan Xichen rejoins, still speaking mildly. Wangji can probably tell that he’s grinning. Jiang Wanyin will take some time to learn the character of this smile. “I have seen you fight in battle many times and you can definitely move faster than you did today.”

“Is that a challenge?” Jiang Wanyin’s brows climb toward his hairline in incredulity.

Lan Xichen bows over his teacup. “This Lan disciple would be honored if Jiang-zongzhu would deign to show his skills to me next time we meet.”

Sizhui chokes and even Wangji makes a noise in the back of his throat that might be a little scandalized. Jiang Wanyin, on the other hand, suddenly grins bright and fierce. “Certainly, Lan-xiong. Then, next time, I hope you will bring better skills to bear as well.”

 

**

 

After that, sparring joins the rotation of Things That Happen When Jiang Wanyin Visits. They still talk, over tea or, when the weather warms again, sitting in the doorway and looking out at the woods. They talk about sect business, about Jin Guangyao, about their families, both the living and the dead. But now—not every visit, but sometimes—Jiang Wanyin gestures with his chin toward the outside and Lan Xichen nods, and they step into the clearing and fight as though there were nothing outside the circle drawn by Sandu. Lan Xichen learns to recognize the exultation hiding behind the focus in Jiang Wanyin’s eyes. Jiang Wanyin may have developed his skill through persistence rather than natural talent, but he enjoys himself when he fights. Lan Xichen learns to enjoy himself, too.

 

**

 

When Lan Wangji comes up the hill one day carrying two wooden practice swords in his arms, Lan Xichen doesn’t have it in him to be surprised. He doesn’t protest too strenuously when Wangji says, “Perhaps xiongzhang would be willing to run through the first twenty sword forms with me. Due to my responsibilities, I find I am out of practice.”

Lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, so it’s probably true that Wangji hasn’t had time to practice his forms, but Lan Xichen knows for a fact that he still night hunts regularly, even with his duties as Chief Cultivator and acting sect master. He knows that it’s for his sake that Wangji has brought these practice swords to the back hill.

He accepts the wooden sword gingerly, but it’s really nothing like a peijian. He can do this, he thinks.

So he and Wangji stand in the clearing where sometimes he and Jiang Wanyin fight. They move smoothly through the forms they have practiced since their childhood, first together and then separately, watching each other for mistakes. Once, Lan Xichen nudges Wangji’s elbow half a finger-width up as he moves through a parry. Once, Wangji points out a minor deviation in Lan Xichen’s stance in the fourteenth form.

After, once they’ve had tea and spoken and Wangji’s gone back down the hill, Lan Xichen sits in front of the rack holding Shuoyue and runs a hand along its scabbard. It is not the day for cleaning the sword, and he still can’t bring himself to unsheathe it or hold it for longer than necessary.

Still, he is beginning to think that maybe the day will come when he can do it. When he can pick up his sword and his flute and walk down the hill to rejoin the world.

He folds his hands in his lap and looks at Shuoyue a long time, unmoving. It’s not the peijian’s fault, what Jin Guangyao did, what Nie Huaisang did. Maybe, one day, Lan Xichen can believe that he, too, is not to blame.

 

**

 

The first month out of seclusion may be the most difficult that Lan Xichen has ever spent in the Cloud Recesses. Despite the decorum and the more-than-four-thousand rules, everything seems so loud.

He moves his things back into the hanshi alone. Wangji offers to help, but Lan Xichen refuses. He needs to exit seclusion the way he entered it—alone, carrying both his possessions and the weight of his grief. He has already returned the last of his borrowed texts to Uncle Qiren to return to the library, so there isn’t a lot to carry. The trunk with his clothes and accessories, his tea set, Liebing, Shuoyue. 

He takes up his duties slowly, sharing many of them with Uncle as he did in his youth, starting with the ones that don’t require him to be among people. Taking up official correspondence is as easy as breathing, all the diplomatic turns of phrase coming back to him as if they had never left. The progression of branch clans’ grievances, the parts of Gusu’s economic development that are relevant to the Lan, and issues around the borders over the last three years are harder to catch up on, but here Wangji’s position as Chief Cultivator turns out to be helpful, because he has kept meticulous notes on everything that has been brought to his attention and the pieces about the other sects complete Lan Xichen’s understanding of what is going on in his own. 

“I never doubted that you would be successful in anything you undertook, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says when he has looked up from the notes. “But this is incredible work. I’m very proud of you.”

Wangji reddens ever-so-slightly at the compliment. “I adapted my organizational system from the previous xiandu,” he says quietly. “Jin-zongzhu provided the old notes and they were very helpful.”

Lan Xichen swallows. Since Jiang Wanyin broke the dam, he has been able to speak a little bit with Wangji about Jin Guangyao, but even so this feels like wending his way through a swamp, never knowing if the next step he takes will be solid ground. He prods the feeling, like testing a healing limb. This time he feels all right. “You’ve built on it well,” he says.

 

**

 

The first time he feels ready to represent his sect at a discussion conference, it is in Lanling. An invitation comes from Sect Master Jin saying that if Sect Master Lan wishes, he would be welcome to come to Carp Tower a week early. Jin Rulan would like to show him around and solicit his advice on certain matters. Lan Xichen can sense Jiang Wanyin’s hand behind the message. He is… very grateful to have the extra time. 

Lan Xichen packs a qiankun bag and bids farewell to his brother, who will arrive a week later, attending the discussion conference in his capacity as Chief Cultivator. Then he steels himself and draws Shuoyue. It gets easier every time he does it. Except when it suddenly is hard again, as if it’s his first month of seclusion and he’s still overwhelmed with helpless shock. This time, the grief is only a pang and no memories overwhelm him. He mounts the sword and turns it toward Lanling.

The walk up the stairs is long, as always. Lan Xichen can see the small figures waiting for him at the top and he focuses on them as he walks. He pays no attention to the murals commemorating the lives of the sect masters since the Jin sect’s founding; he’s seen them hundreds of times before. He slows when he gets near the top, however, can’t help but seek out the newest ones. The “swearing brotherhood” mural is there and Lan Xichen can’t help but stop and look at it as though for the first time. He looks at his own face, meets the graven eyes, haughty and distant as all carved faces are, no matter the nature of the person they represent. Those men there, carved in stone, forever swearing brotherhood, never having to live with the consequences of that oath and its breaking—he envies them the security of that moment. Lan Xichen remembers how sure he was back then, that the rift between Mingjue and a-Yao could be healed, that the oath was the way to do it, pledging the three sects to mutual aid—he looks away from the mural at the people waiting above—leaving the Jiang sect behind. 

He shakes his head and starts to walk on, then stops again as he realizes that there is only one mural remaining, not two. The mural in which Meng Yao kills Wen Ruohan has been replaced. There are two figures centred now, both Jin faces. It still represents heroes of the Sunshot Campaign, he realizes, but now it’s both Meng Yao (still killing Wen Ruohan) and Jin Zixuan (leading his men to victory). “Kindness and might” is gone entirely. It’s a deft move, Lan Xichen thinks. Keeping some of the history of Jin Guangyao’s leadership and honoring the new sect master’s father, especially since the sect master himself has too few deeds of note for now.

Jin Rulan and Jiang Wanyin meet him at the top of the tower stairs. The sect masters make no mention of his breach of etiquette in stopping, twice, on the way up. They salute him formally; he returns their bows. He can’t help but notice how Jiang Wanyin’s eyes flick between his face and Shuoyue held loosely in his hand. 

“Lan-zongzhu,” says Sect Master Jin. “Welcome to Carp Tower. You must wish to refresh yourself after your journey, but I hope you will join me and Jiang-zongzhu for an informal dinner this evening.”

“Certainly,” says Lan Xichen. “Thank you for your kind welcome, Jin-zongzhu.”

The formalities thus complete, Jin Rulan relaxes a little. It’s been four years since he took leadership of the sect and Lan Xichen knows from Jiang Wanyin that they have not been easy ones, but he seems to rest easier in his skin. He is now just a little older than Lan Xichen was when he first became sect master. 

“In that case,” says Jin Rulan. “I have a few things I still have to do. Jiujiu, will you show Lan-zongzhu to his rooms?”

Jiang Wanyin nods at his nephew, mouth tilted up in a half smile. “I will. We’ll see you later, Jin Ling.”

Carp Tower hasn’t changed a bit. Oh, there are different touches here and there. Some of it is the new sect master making his mark, as every sect master before him. Some of it is decor for the upcoming discussion conference, also different every time. But Lan Xichen has been here often over the years and he knows the grounds almost as well as he knows Cloud Recesses. 

He and Jiang Wanyin walk in silence down the well-paved walkways. Lan Xichen keeps poking at his grief, peeking over the edge of the chasm, wondering when the next fall will be. He shakes his head to shake himself out of it. “Carp Tower looks good. Jin-zongzhu has done well as sect master.”

“So far,” Jiang Wanyin says. His eyes track ceaselessly across their surroundings, noting the presence of guards and passersby. Despite the cumulative months he’s spent in Carp Tower with Jin Rulan, he is not at his ease here. It seems a habitual wariness rather than actual concern, so Lan Xichen opts to ignore it.

“You must be very proud of him,” he says.

Jiang Wanyin smiles slightly, even as his eyes maintain their vigilance. “I am. I told you two years ago that a-Ling can hold his own. So far, he’s proven me right.”

Jiang Wanyin stands in the doorway while Lan Xichen takes his things out of the qiankun pouch and lays them out in the rooms set aside for him. They’re not the quarters Jin Guangyao had kept for him, but they are equally fine. Lan Xichen wonders if the change was Jin Rulan’s idea or Jiang Wanyin’s. He sets Shuoyue on the rack provided for that purpose, but keeps Liebing in his hand.

“There are a few hours before dinner,” Jiang Wanyin says when Lan Xichen turns back toward him. “I can leave you alone to refresh yourself, but I thought I’d offer—is there anywhere in Carp Tower you’d like to see first?”

Lan Xichen hadn’t been thinking of it, but as soon as Jiang Wanyin says it, he knows where he needs to go, what he needs to see. This is another one of those painful kindnesses that Jiang Wanyin has given him over the years. He nods gravely—no need to fake a smile for Jiang Wanyin—and walks past him out the door. “Will you come?”

Lan Xichen’s feet lead them unerringly down walkways and past pavilions. He doesn’t speak. The path is so familiar that he is overpowered by memories—strolling through Carp Tower with Jin Guangyao, discussing sect business and art and their families and music; marking his rise to sect master; commemorating the Sunshot Campaign; celebrating his wedding; the one hundred days celebration of a-Song; all the little moments that blur together now even as his sight is blurred from tears. 

When they come at last to the turtle pond, Lan Xichen stops just short of one of the bridges going to the small pavilion at its center. “It’s still here,” he breathes. 

Jiang Wanyin stops next to him. “Did you doubt it would be?”

Lan Xichen shrugs, uncharacteristically, he knows. “You know how the Jin sect is. They’re fully capable of removing an entire water feature if they decide it suits the aesthetic of the day.” He steps onto the bridge and walks to the pavilion. It’s open to the air. One can sit at any of the tables and look out onto the pond.

Lan Xichen sits down at one of these and nods Jiang Wanyin into the opposite seat. They look out onto the pond. Lan Xichen sees a turtle swim out from under one of the bridges and make its leisurely way through the water. “We never brought work here,” he says, watching the turtle’s progress. “We'd read to each other, or play music, or just talk, or read on our own. This was the place we came to rest together.”

Lan Xichen looks at Jiang Wanyin out of the corner of his eye and sees him nod. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Lan Xichen is crying, great gasping sobs doubling him over. He presses his fists into the table in front of him and leans his forehead onto his fists and weeps and gasps and chokes. A-Yao, I’ll never hear you read aloud again. You’ll never feed the turtles, never play the qin, never pour me tea, never… 

Dimly, as if at a distance, he feels Jiang Wanyin’s hand on his shoulder. The touch grounds him even as he’s wracked by a pain that feels as fresh as it had on the first day, his own sobs tearing him in two.

Eventually the storm passes, as all storms do, and Lan Xichen finds he can breathe again, if shakily. He wipes his face with the trailing end of one sleeve. Jiang Wanyin squeezes his shoulder once and then returns to his seat.

“It’s been four years,” Lan Xichen whispers, clenching his sleeve in both hands. The damask slips between his fingers like water. “You’d think I—”

“This is your first time back in Carp Tower, since…” Jiang Wanyin trails off.

Lan Xichen shudders at his words. It’s true. The last time he was in Carp Tower, he had come to confront Jin Guangyao and had had his spiritual energy locked for his troubles. He still doesn’t entirely understand what Jin Guangyao’s intentions in taking him to Yunping had been. Thinking back to that, he feels bile in his throat all of a sudden. How could I weep so bitterly for him when he did… all of that? And still, he’s glad that the confrontation had not taken place here, in the Turtle Pond Pavilion, the one place in all of Lanling that holds only good memories for him.

He covers his face with his sleeve one more time and summons control, breathes deeply and evenly. Then he lifts his head and meets Jiang Wanyin’s eyes, which, he notices, are also wet. “Thank you for coming here with me, Jiang-xiong.”

Jiang Wanyin’s mouth twitches; Lan Xichen can’t tell if it is trying to turn into a smile or a scowl. “Thank you for showing me this beautiful pavilion,” he replies. “I would not have known about it otherwise.”

They both turn to look out onto the pond. The sun shines bright and the water is a dark, vibrant green. There are two turtles swimming lazily past their side of the pavilion. Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin don’t say anything more about Jin Guangyao. But the memories are here, woven through every plank of wood, every carved peony, and saturating the water just outside.