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The first weeks and months of his seclusion pass in a haze of pain, grief, and guilt. Nightmares haunt his dreams and self recrimination dog his every waking moment.

How could he have been so stupid?

How could he have been so blind?

How could he have not?

The high mountains, austere uniforms, and the wall of three thousand rules are all to protect a heart prone to falling at the slightest provocation. Lans are built to love and love fiercely, so isn't everything that happened really nothing more than the logical conclusion of his very nature?

He loses months trying to make peace with himself, and even after he somehow drives the manic fog from his mind, the grief remains. As does the hole in his heart carved out by his own hands, and he is sure it will never heal, but Lan Xichen has regained enough clarity of mind over the past few months that he knows he cannot go on living as he has. And so, he forces himself to begin anew. The routine that has been shattered by the darkness is restored piece by piece.

At first he can only force himself to sleep at nine, pick his heavy body up at five, and nothing else. Eventually, he begins to meditate, then take his meals at proper times.He vacillates between cultivating, practicing Liebing, and reading during the day, until the soreness of being inactive for too long forces him to take up Shuoyue.

The sword never leaves its sheath. The first time he dances across the Hanshi with a sheathed blade makes him feel foolish, but the oddity fades quickly, which is fortunate as the thought of drawing the blade makes him physically ill, and so he swallows his pride.

It should bother him more, to think that he would never draw Shuoyue again, but it doesn’t.

Like this, Lan Xichen's life settles into a pattern and the seasons pass like an afterthought. What does time matter to him anyway?

Until one day, when Lan Xichen raises his head from his papers and realizes the snow has long since melted, and the first shoots of spring are peeking tentatively through the dark soil. The sight shocks Lan Xichen so much that the brush in his hand drops and clatters on the desk, spattering dark ink all over his once pristine white papers.

A year and a half has passed, and Lan Xichen has barely noticed. Or, he thinks as his hands shake, a year and a half has passed and the world has barely noticed his absence.

No one has sought him out since he entered seclusion - not his uncle, not his brother. His throat closes at the thought until he forces himself to calm. This is a good thing he reminds himself. This means that everything is well, otherwise he would not have been given the kindness of time and peace. But still, he finds himself staring blindly at the growing ink splotches, the implications so many and varied that he struggles to grasp even one as they fly about in his mind. The peace also means he's not needed, the loudest of his thoughts hisses insidiously. His sect does not need him, his uncle does not need him, and even his brother, his beloved brother, no longer needs him.

What is the point of anything then?

The realization makes him numb.

There's a buzzing in his ears, and he's certain the black spots dancing across his eyes are not ink blotches.

Breathing, he should really breathe, that would help the situation, Lan Xichen thinks hysterically even as his body refuses to move, and his lungs refuse to expand. Just as his mind is veering to the truly absurd territory of imagining the maid who delivers his noon meal finding his passed out body because he couldn't do something as simple as breathe, a loud thunk on his door startles him badly enough that every thought flees his head like a flock of birds taking sudden flight.

He chokes on air even as he tries to lunge up from his desk to check the door. All he manages in the end is to bang his knees painfully against the edge of the low desk. Lan Xichen bites back a curse as his arms crash into the table to save him from face planting and getting the ink smears all over his pristine white robes.

Distracted by the mess and pain, it takes him a minute to realize that someone is speaking outside his door. It takes even longer for him to understand the words and when he does, he blinks in surprise. Of all the people to seek him out in his seclusion, he would never have pegged Jiang Cheng to be the first.

He is so lost in thought and his shock, by the time he pulls himself together, he has missed the first parts of Jiang Cheng’s sentence.

"...I have no idea how you people are even alive. Can people survive on this food? Have you never heard of spices? Actually, maybe no, the food is probably the least objectionable thing about this place. If I never set foot in these mountains it’d be too soon."

Lan Xichen blinks and tries to make sense of what he hears, but can’t. Perhaps he is wrong to think Jiang Cheng has sought him out. It is spring now, so it is not unusual for Cloud Recesses to receive visitors and there are many reasons for Jiang Cheng to visit as Sect Leader of Yunmeng Jiang and whatever he is now to Jin Ling. So maybe, Jiang Cheng is just venting outside what he thinks is an empty cottage.

"And that brother of yours! Does he know how to speak like a normal person?"

Alright, so much for that theory, Jiang Cheng clearly knows this is Lan Xichen’s residence. To a certain extent this is not unexpected, who else can Jiang Cheng go to about Wangji in the Cloud Recesses? He sighs at this; his brother and Jiang Cheng had never gotten along for one reason or another, and certainly the relationship only seems to have gone downhill after Lan Wangji almost eloped with Wei Wuxian. It would be more unusual for the two to be in the same room and not be at odds, but Lan Xichen had hoped after the events of the Guanyin Temple, things would have changed for the better. Another thing he is wrong about.

In any event, there’s still a good chance Jiang Cheng isn’t here to seek actual conversation with Lan Xichen. That seems more logical than Jiang Cheng seeking him out to ask for advice on how to manage their brothers. Right?

"Do you even understand him half the time when he doesn’t use actual words? How did the two of you grow up so different? He’s bad enough on his own, but when he’s together with Wei Wuxian? Together, the two of them are...are...UGH."

Or maybe Lan Xichen is just having a very vivid hallucination and he is actually passed out right now on his desk because he was too stupid to breathe. Then again, Lan Xichen doesn't think he is imaginative enough to conjure the depth of emotion conveyed by Jiang Cheng's groan of disgust.

"It's not...I don't want you to think I am bitter, because I'm not. They’re like night and day, it’s difficult to imagine the two meeting and being happy. I just don’t understand.”

There's a long pause where Lan Xichen imagines Jiang Cheng is staring with a scowl at the ground, possibly fingering Zidian as he tries to think of what to say next. It's a look he's seen many times over the years, and he hadn't realized it is a familiar enough sight that his mind can supply it on a whim. Strange.

"All I want is for him to be happy, and it's just hard to imagine him being happy here no matter what he says. And if he's not happy, what is Lan Wangji doing? If he is not happy, what am I doing?"

Understanding dawns on Lan Xichen and he resists the inappropriate urge to laugh. He doubts it would be well received, but there are so many things he could say to that, he's not even sure where to start. Didn’t he have the same thoughts all those years ago after the first siege of the Burial Mounds? It had taken him more than fifteen years to come to grips with the reality of his brother’s happiness, it doesn’t surprise him Jiang Cheng is so lost.

Before he can think of something to say, he hears a fist being slammed into the wooden deck that surrounds the Hanshi and the shuffle of departing footsteps. It seems, whatever impulse had brought Jiang Cheng to his door is not enough to keep him long enough to actually get a response from Lan Xichen.

That's fine. Sometimes voicing the thought is enough. Lan Xichen knows this well enough - on the darkest nights of his seclusion, when the silence and his own thoughts became too much, he remembers screaming his sorrows into the night, despite knowing that even if he screams his throat bloody, those he wishes to speak to are far beyond his reach.

Regardless, he hopes it helped Jiang Cheng to voice his concerns.

With that, he cleans the mess that is his desk and puts the entire episode behind him. He doesn't expect to hear from Jiang Cheng again. But when the first muggy days of summer penetrate even Cloud Recesses' defences, and Lan Xichen wishes for nothing more than the freedom to retreat to the Cold Springs before the sun has even reached its zenith, he comes again.

"I was rude last time. I apologize."

It must pain him to say those words aloud, Lan Xichen thinks, once the words penetrate the hazy meditative state he's sunk into to try and escape the heat. Jiang Cheng's pride is second only to his anger, that much Lan Xichen still remembers. He wonders if that has changed now that fate has seen fit to restore him some of what he has lost.

"...right you're in seclusion. I probably...I should leave. I apologize for disturbing you, again."

He's been silent too long again, it seems, and before Lan Xichen can rectify the situation, he hears Jiang Cheng's rapid footfalls as he leaves and slumps. Well, he still can't do anything right, even something as simple as accepting an apology, he thinks ruefully and unsuccessfully tries to return to his meditation.

This time, he is certain he will never hear from Jiang Cheng again.

He is wrong, again. Jiang Cheng comes back the very next day and this time, he is being driven by the righteous fury of someone who's been wronged and every word is spoken in a sharp staccato.

"I take it back! I may have disturbed you, but you're just as bad! At least accept my apology! You may be in seclusion, but it's not like you took a vow of silence, so there's no reason why you can't speak to me even if it's to tell me to go away."

Like the first time, Lan Xichen is in the middle of practising his calligraphy. The surprise at hearing Jiang Cheng only makes his hands wobble slightly, and he takes it as a win.

"I apologize for my rudeness." He doesn't make a conscious decision to speak, and it's not until he hears the words that he realizes he's spoken at all. The roughness of his voice and the way his tongue struggles to make the proper sounds gives him pause. Has it really been so long since he’s spoken that he has forgotten how to?

Jiang Cheng must be similarly surprised, because there is a pregnant pause that stretches uncomfortably after Lan Xichen speaks that he almost regrets it.

Eventually Jiang Cheng speaks, "...good. That's...fine...I accept...your apology."

The relief is so sharp that it feels like physical pain, and all he wants to do is cry because in this moment, Jiang Cheng reminds him so strongly of Nie Mingjue that the well of tears he had thought long dry, replenishes itself. Would his life have turned out differently if he had been more selfish and begged for shelter with the Yunmeng Jiang when Cloud Recesses had burned? What would have happened had he not spent those months with Jin Guangyao? What would things be like now?

He’s prevented from going down that dangerous path when Jiang Cheng practically growls, frustration colouring each word, "I don't need an apology. I don't...I just wanted to...you know what, I have no idea what I want."

"I don't either," Lan Xichen finds himself whispering unbidden. "Know what I want that is."

He can almost see Jiang Cheng freezing at his words. He imagines that Jiang Cheng may have been about to leave again, or maybe he is sitting stiffly on the deck. Lan Xichen forcibly keeps himself at his desk so he doesn't peek to satisfy his curiosity.

"Things used to be simpler," Jiang Cheng agrees, and they lapse back into silence. "I used to think everything would be better, easier after...everything was over. But life goes on and it is never simple or easy. Over doesn’t exist, not really."

Lan Xichen winces. Jiang Cheng doesn't need to elaborate on what 'everything' means, and if anyone has realized that time marches on regardless of how one feels about it, it is him. After all, he's here having this conversation isn't he?

"What brings you to Cloud Recesses?" Lan Xichen eventually asks rather than addressing Jiang Cheng’s original statement, and then wants to smack himself. Jiang Cheng must be here for Wei Wuxian, he implied as much on his first visit to the Hanshi, hadn't he? Seclusion is making him slow.

To Jiang Cheng's credit, he takes the question seriously and says only slightly defensively, "Jin Ling ascended as Sect Leader of Lanling Jin over the winter and he came to pay his respects to your uncle and brother, so I came with him. Now the little brat won’t leave until he goes on at least one night hunt with his friends."

"I see," Lan Xichen says slowly, and he does. He can read the silences between Jiang Cheng’s words as easily as the words on the book on his table. Jiang Cheng loves his family above all else, and they’ve been torn from him save one. But now, by some miracle, one who's been lost to him for what should have been forever has been returned. Not to Lotus Pier as he may have wished, no, but it is likely beyond his wildest imaginings already, so is it really surprisingly he would leap at any opportunity to have them together? Even in a place he hates?

"Yes, that."

A beat and Lan Xichen makes a decision. He never liked the silence, not really. “Tell me about this night hunt Jin Ling wants to go on?”

**************

It surprises him when Jiang Cheng continues visiting him when he is taking time he can barely spare as Sect Leader to visit Cloud Recesses in an attempt to heal the rift between him and Wei Wuxian. Especially as he doesn’t seem to be making much progress on that front.

The first few times, it is clear Jiang Cheng only drops by the Hanshi if he has time to spare when he visits, but eventually, he begins visiting Lan Xichen like a scheduled appointment. As though Jiang Cheng considers Lan Xichen Sect Leader in fact and not just in name. Lan Xichen can’t tell if it's politeness or something else, but he can’t find it in himself to complain because Jiang Cheng brings him news, even if it's just the latest gossip about how Sect Leader Ouyang’s son has run away from home to pursue a halcyon dream of being a romance writer - fortunately for Sect Leader Ouyang’s blood pressure it was a passing fancy that only lasted a week.

Suffice to say, they fall into an easy pattern.

This time though, Jiang Cheng is in a mood when he drops by the Hanshi. He’s so irritated, he has been storming around Lan Xichen’s deck since he arrived and Lan Xichen imagines he can see his rage - it is so palpable.

Abruptly, Jiang Cheng stops and says, “I wish he would come back to Lotus Pier with me.”

Lan Xichen meets Jiang Cheng’s gaze steadily and then looks away and asks as diplomatically as he possibly can, “You could ask him, perhaps?”

The noise Jiang Cheng makes to that is unintelligible, but the meaning is clear, and Lan Xichen has to smile a little. He picks himself up and moves deeper into the Hanshi to prevent Jiang Cheng from seeing his amusement lest the other turn his ire on him. Lan Xichen, unlike Wei Wuxian, doesn’t have any reassurance Jiang Cheng will continue to visit if he angers him. “It’s not as though Wangji is keeping him in Cloud Recesses against his will. If Wei Wuxian wants to return to Lotus Pier, he can.”

“Shackling Wei Wuxian is easy as long you know the right way to do it,” Jiang Cheng sighs and sits himself by Lan Xichen’s open door, close enough to converse, but just far enough outside to respect his seclusion.

Lan Xichen freezes where he is crouched, digging for tea in his cupboards. Every word is true - Wei Wuxian would die for his convictions, staying in Cloud Recesses is nothing for him. Cautiously, he asks, “And is that what you think? That Wangji has shackled Wei Wuxian here? To him?”

The pause that follows is uncomfortable, and Lan Xichen busies himself preparing tea, giving Jiang Cheng time to think.

“No, I don’t,” Jiang Cheng huffs eventually. “The righteous Hanguang-jun isn’t the type to take advantage like that, and especially not of Wei Wuxian. But he’s my brother.”

“I understand,” Lan Xichen says as he pushes a cup of tea across the threshold to Jiang Cheng. “It’s natural to want family close.” And then more tentatively, “And happy.”

Jiang Cheng grimaces, but nods in thanks and agreement as he picks up his teacup and takes a sip. “Lotus Pier is his home,” Jiang Cheng argues, and then makes a face and glares at Lan Xichen balefully, “not this place. I thought he hated this place, I just can’t understand it. And his relationship with Lan Wangji, when did that even happen?”

“Well,” Lan Xichen says, drawing out the word. “Are you really surprised given how they were when they were young?”

Jiang Cheng’s glare morphs to disgust, before his face relaxes and he lets out a soft laugh. “No I suppose not,” he admits, chagrined, and takes another sip from his cup. This time the grimace of disgust has nothing to do with their brothers. “What is this tea?”

“It’s Pu’er,” Lan Xichen replies. It is the best he has, he takes a small sip to ensure he hasn’t served Jiang Cheng stale tea, that would not do. It tastes just as he remembers.

“No wonder,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. “Honestly, I swear only the Jins drink this swill. The price tag matters more than the taste.”

“Ah, it was a gift,” Lan Xichen admits softly, teacup dropping back to the ground just a tad too hard, and Jiang Cheng freezes. Unsurprising, Lan Xichen thinks, because even he isn't sure what the muscles in his face are doing, only that the smile he is trying to force doesn’t feel right. “I don’t really like it either.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything else after that, but he stays and drinks the rest of the pot with Lan Xichen without complaint. Lan Xichen takes it as the apology Jiang Cheng can’t articulate. It’s fine, he isn’t sure he would have known what to say had their roles been reversed.

************

It may be a problem when Jiang Cheng inevitably stops visiting, Lan Xichen thinks, as he listens to Jiang Cheng pace outside his door, ranting about how Jin Ling had thrown himself off a tree at a fierce corpse in an effort to help Lan Sizhui, who apparently hadn’t needed any help.

"What happened in the end?" He asks, while Jiang Cheng pauses and growls in a good imitation of Fairy.

"What happened? What happened?" Jiang Cheng roars, whirling on him in a swirl of violet fabric. "The idiot slipped on some wet leaves and broke a leg! Your nephew carried him back to their inn over his shoulder like a lame sheep! If he thinks he’s going night hunting without supervision any time soon he’s got another thing coming!"

"Well, I suppose the added embarrassment of being supervised will be more than punishment enough," Lan Xichen chuckles. The boys are more than old enough to be out on their own and were sure to complain about a chaperone—well perhaps not Lan Sizhui, but Jin Ling, especially now that he is a sect leader, certainly won’t appreciate it.

"Damn right!" Jiang Cheng spits out. "Where did he get that idiotic streak from? It has to be from Jin Zixuan."

"Ah," Lan Xichen says, good sense and tact having deserted him while he has been in seclusion. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound. "I seem to remember stories about a certain duo from Yunmeng when I was young."

The silence that follows is enough to make him regret his words, and each passing second of silence sets his heart racing. Just as he is about to apologize, Jiang Cheng suddenly barks out a laugh and says lightly, "Shut up, we were young and stupid. Plus, we had to make a name for ourselves, what with you and your brother being so perfect."

Relief is like a drug and makes him light headed for a moment, and perhaps that’s what leads him to compound his poor judgment as he jokes. "I see, well it seems we've wronged you and yours greatly, my brother and now my nephew."

"As long as you are aware. Now pass me the tea. I didn't bring it all the way from Lotus Pier so you could hoard it for yourself,“ Jiang Cheng demands imperiously without missing a beat. “And the tea cakes.”

“They’re not all for me?” Lan Xichen asks, even as he passes the tea cakes across the threshold of his door, and then pours tea for Jiang Cheng.

“What made you think that? I have to bring food with me every time I visit, just so I don’t starve to death in this place!”

Lan Xichen laughs, and the sensation of it strikes him. He can’t remember the last time he laughed, and immediately pushes the thought aside as his mind tries to offer up the answer. Instead, he focuses on the tea and the sweetness of the cake.

His silence must trouble Jiang Cheng because he pauses as he is about to take a sip and sets his cup down instead. “They’re for you as well. You like this blend, or at least I seem to recall you drinking a lot of it that time you were at Lotus Pier, after the Sunshot Campaign.”

Lan Xichen’s head jerks up, and he stares at Jiang Cheng in what he knows must be an unattractive way. He and Jiang Cheng have worked together over the years, as is to be expected given their respective statuses, but that had been the only time he visited Lotus Pier.

“I’m not completely unobservant,” Jiang Cheng huffs indignantly at him. “I was taught how to be a proper host, you know.”

Lan Xichen ducks his head to hide a smile - Jiang Cheng always reminds him of an offended cat when he gets like this. “I meant no offense. You’re right, I do like this blend. The scent is quite unique,” he says, and shoves the last of the tea cake in his mouth to be doubly sure Jiang Cheng can’t see him smile.

It works. Jiang Cheng gives a token grumble and says, “That’s because it’s a special blend. The tea is steamed on lotus leaves and then dried in fresh lotus blossoms.” He lifts his tea cup to eye level and looks at it pensively for a moment before continuing, "Wei Wuxian and I would drink this to wake from our drunkenness when we were young. It's funny, I never thought I would have a drink with him again, but who knew your brother was so devious, sneaking alcohol into Cloud Recesses."

"Well," Lan Xichen says, and thinks warmly of the jars of Emperor's Smile hidden beneath his brother's floor boards. Then almost on a whim he finds himself adding, "Even I've had alcohol before."

Jiang Cheng chokes on his next mouthful of tea and sputters, "You? I don't believe it."

"It was accidental and only the once. I don’t even know how and I certainly don't remember much of what happened after," Lan Xichen admits, chagrined, and Jiang Cheng laughs, delighted.

"Did you enjoy it?"

"I'm not sure. I remember only feeling very light, like I could float away. It wasn't entirely unpleasant."

"Well that sounds better than what happens to your brother. He turns into an absolute menace when drunk. He and Wei Wuxian were at Lotus Pier last month, some ghoul haunting a nearby town, and all the inns being full or something else, I can’t remember what their excuse was. Anyway, somehow the esteemed Hanguang-jun accidentally had a sip and the next thing I knew he had dragged Wei Wuxian back to the ancestral halls and tried to marry him. Tried being the operative word."

This news gives Lan Xichen pause. "They're not married yet?" he asks. He would have thought his brother would have remedied that at the first opportunity, and yet it's been more than a year.

Jiang Cheng freezes and Lan Xichen sees the bobbing of his throat and knows instantly whatever Jiang Cheng wants to say, it is not something he wants to hear. Eventually Jiang Cheng clears his throat and says, guilt flashing across his sharp features, "They're waiting."

"For --?" Lan Xichen asks and immediately stops. Of course, what else could his brother be waiting for? His throat closes up and his heart drops. The way Jiang Cheng is watching him, warily like he expects him to break, just makes it worse.

The ensuing silence is so stifling it feels as though both of them have stopped breathing. Then, Jiang Cheng nudges the plate of sweets back across the threshold.

************

The next time Jiang Cheng visits, it is for the Duanwu Festival, and he brings platters of sticky zongzi stuffed with red dates and a black tea to balance out the sweetness. The majority of the Lan sect have absconded to Caiyi town for the annual dragon boat races. A race to see who gets heat stroke first, Jiang Cheng grumbles as he peels the sticky rice from its reed wrappings, no way is anyone going to catch him joining in that kind of stupidity.

Their fingers are soon sticky from the rice and sugar, as they eat their fill in the warmth of the midsummer afternoon.

Trying to unstick his fingers from the reed leaves after scraping off the last of the rice, Jiang Cheng groans and flops onto Lan Xichen’s deck and tries to catch a bit of mountain breeze. Night may be falling, but the heat is still stifling. “Aren’t you hot inside? Why not come out where there’s at least a bit of a breeze?” Jiang Cheng asks with a groan, but before Lan Xichen can think of an answer he adds, “Or can you not because of your seclusion? I don’t actually remember anyone mentioning the specifics, now that I think about it.”

“About that,” Lan Xichen begins, and then stalls as he tries to think of how to phrase it before just giving up. He is too full and warm, and his mind too sluggish to come up with a diplomatic answer. “There are no parameters to my seclusion. It’s not official,” he admits.

Jiang Cheng rolls over and peers at him, eyes narrowed and thoughtful. After a moment he says with slow deliberation, “Seclusion as decided by the Sect Leader of Gusu Lan alone then?”

The phrasing gives Lan Xichen pause, but he has to admit the words are accurate, and so he nods. “Yes, that is one way to describe it.”

“Hm,” Jiang Cheng spares him a glance and rolls back into his previous position before saying, “Sect Leader Lan, perhaps you should change the terms of your seclusion before you get heat stroke.”

Startled, Lan Xichen stares at Jiang Cheng’s back, before laughing and joining the other on the deck. The night breeze is a definite improvement, he admits.

Sleep comes to him easier that night after his first tentative steps into the world, and perhaps that should have been the first sign of things to come. After all, Lan Xichen has given up his right to freedom and happiness long ago, and fate is more than happy to remind him should he dare to forget.

The midnight hour strikes and Lan Xichen jerks awake as pain lances through his chest like he has been struck by a blade. All of this fades to nothingness as he peels away his robes and gazes at the once unblemished skin over his heart, and so this is his just punishment he thinks as the darkness claims him once more.

***********

It’s a death curse, Lan Xichen had known the minute it had taken hold of his heart and sunk barbed roots of poisoned qi into his blood, but hearing it from the healer makes it feel somehow more real.

He suddenly feels trapped in the healing room. His uncle and brother’s worry is palpable, all of it compounded by Wei Wuxian’s almost manic anxiety. The latter worries him more than the healer’s unease, because whatever else Wei Wuxian may be, he is likely the foremost expert in spells, curses, and the demonic arts, and his silence says more about Lan Xichen’s prognosis than anything else.

“You may as well say it,” Lan Xichen says, not unkindly, but the sharpness of his words are uncharacteristic. He is just so tired and the pain is unrelenting and all he wants to do is retreat to the Hanshi.

Wei Wuxian sighs and says apologetically, "It's our fault. We should have been more careful when we went to pacify Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao's fierce corpses. It never even occurred to me that Jin Guangyao would leave a death curse, they're so rare."

"It is no matter," Lan Xichen replies, reassuringly. This is no less than what he deserves, why trouble Wei Wuxian?

To his credit, Wei Wuxian only gives him a long hard look, as though trying to peer into his soul, before before continuing, "Death curses are tricky. In some ways they're similar to what Mo Xuanyu did when he sacrificed his body to summon my soul. Lifting the curse is deceptively simple, a matter of fulfilling the desire of the deceased. It’s usually the death of the cursed, unfortunately, but there are exceptions, like yours," here he shrugs helplessly before continuing. "The seal around the mark means nothing more than 'heart's desire'. I can't even begin to guess what that could be."

He had suspected something like this, but for it to be confirmed still sends Lan Xichen’s heart plummeting to his stomach, and all Lan Xichen can do is look at the ground to avoid Wei Wuxian’s knowing gaze. What could Jin Guangyao’s heart’s desire be other than his death? It’s not even a question.

"Who can say?" he finally forces himself to say with a tight smile, as he pulls his robes around himself. "Uncle, I think we should discuss the matter of succession."

"Xichen! Don't be preposterous!" Lan Qiren sputters. “It’s -”

Lan Xichen smiles self-deprecatingly; so he is going to be forced to say it after all. "Uncle, be sensible. What else could A-Yao's heart’s desire be? There is only one way to lift this curse." He catches and holds Lan Qiren’s gaze until the other looks away.

“Is there anything we can do,” Wei Wuxian asks quietly, after a long awkward pause, and Lan Wangji hums in agreement.

For a hysterical second, Lan Xichen almost asks Wei Wuxian to tell Jiang Cheng, but thankfully sanity intervenes before he can voice the absurd request. Instead he just smiles and says, “No, but I appreciate the thought.”

************

The summer passes and the small red mark that appeared on Lan Xichen’s chest the night of the Duanwu Festival grows into an angry red serpent that spirals ever larger, coils wrapping first around his chest and then slowly his limbs.

He has good days, and he has days where the pain is so debilitating he can hardly pull himself from his bed. Through it all, Jiang Cheng continues to visit, bringing food, stories, and on one memorable occasion, a kite that he uses to lure Lan Xichen from the confines of the Hanshi and into the surrounding meadow. They shoot kites for the entire afternoon, and for those few short hours, Lan Xichen is free from pain, and idly entertains Jiang Cheng’s suggestion to visit Lotus Pier to shoot kites over the lotus ponds.

He is noncommittal in his response and pretends not to see Jiang Cheng’s disappointment. Even so, he is punished for his brief delusion when that night, the curse burns its way across his legs, spreading faster than it has before as though reminding him of his place, of what he owes Jin Guangyao.

It's not enough to make him regret his decision. It’s not enough to stop him from stepping from the Hanshi when Jiang Cheng beckons next with a basket full of pilfered fruit.

Lan Xichen becomes more and more conflicted with each passing visit, he knows he should tell Jiang Cheng, he knows they cannot continue. He says nothing.

The first chilly days of fall are upon them when Jiang Cheng shows up at the doors of Hanshi with a pensive look on his face.

"Is something the matter?" Lan Xichen asks, the beginnings of a frown edging across his forehead when Jiang Cheng seats himself in a spot that Lan Xichen privately thinks of as his.

For a long moment Jiang Cheng doesn't respond, but when he speaks, the words escape him like birds rushing from a cage. "Did you know? That Lan Wangji cooks for him?"

Mystery solved. Lan Xichen's expression clears and he moves to make tea for them. "I did," he replies. "Uncle wasn't pleased when Wangji first took it up, a gentleman doesn't enter the kitchen after all, but I supposed Wangji no longer cared what our uncle thought by then. His seclusion had been deferred so he could heal and acclimatize Sizhui to Cloud Recesses. At the time, Sizhui's constitution was weak and he did not take to our food easily, so Wangji cooked for him. It wasn't easy, no that's an understatement - I have no idea how he managed with his wounds, but he did, and I suppose he never stopped."

He sets a teacup in front of a pensive Jiang Cheng, who takes it with a murmured thanks.

"I didn't expect it," Jiang Cheng eventually says. "Though perhaps I should have."

Between one breath and the next Lan Xichen considers his words, but since he has been nothing but honest up to now, he sees no reason to hold his counsel. "Perhaps. It is interesting how you and Wangji were at odds all these years because both of you loved the same person as fiercely as the other, but in different ways."

That gets him a sharp look, and Lan Xichen merely smiles and fills Jiang Cheng's cup. "You can't be surprised. Cooking for Wei Wuxian is perhaps the least of all the things he has done for him over the years."

"It's the least he can do if he's going to keep him here," Jiang Cheng retorts sharply, but there is no heat to his words.

"Of course," Lan Xichen agrees easily. "What purpose do our lives serve if those we love are not happy?"

They don't speak much after that, and Jiang Cheng leaves once they finish the pot of tea.

The curse pulses angrily that night. What purposes does his life serve, he wonders, when he’s killed the ones he loves?

************

The next time Jiang Cheng comes, it is the Mid-autumn Festival and the first frost has begun to form overnight, spreading a carpet of white across the meadow before the Hanshi. This time he comes with a clay pot held carefully in his hands, with a plate of mooncakes balanced on top.

The aroma of the rich meat stew reaches him before Jiang Cheng even makes it to the stairs outside the Hanshi. Lan Xichen hurriedly opens the doors and beckons Jiang Cheng inside, away from the cold, even as he pulls bowls and cutlery from his cupboards.

"It's the closest anyone has gotten to A-Jie's soup since she died," Jiang Cheng whispers as he ladles soup into Lan Xichen’s bowl. "I swear Wei Wuxian cried when he tried it."

Lan Xichen's throat closes up, and his eyes are suddenly blurry with tears as he is overwhelmed by a crushing wave of guilt. He has to put his bowl down, hands shaking too hard to hold it steady.

Jiang Cheng frowns at him and asks, "What's wrong?"

Lan Xichen tries to smile, fails, and then tries to speak but also fails. Just as Jiang Cheng is starting to look worried, he manages to gasp out, "I'm sorry."

Jiang Cheng's face turns blank and he also carefully sets down his bowl and looks away. The silence drags on, and finally he speaks, "It's not your fault. No more than it is Wei Wuxian's."

"But isn't it? I could have stopped it all, had I just been less stupid, less trusting." Lan Xichen whispers. The thought has been slowly eating away at him like a slow acting poison since the extent of Jin Guangyao’s deeds had been laid bare to him.

“Or you could be dead,” Jiang Cheng points out bluntly. “Nie Mingjue saw Jin Guangyao for what he was and died for it. Whatever else you may have done or not done, at least your family and your Sect escaped his machinations.”

Lan Xichen frowns at Jiang Cheng and sighs heavily, “But so many deaths...your sister, Jin Zixuan, Wei Wuxian, would any of them have happened if I hadn’t trusted him?”

In the ensuing silence, Jiang Cheng refuses to meet his eyes, and for that Lan Xichen is unbelievably relieved. He doesn’t want to see hatred in them.

When Jiang Cheng speaks again, his words are slow and measured, “Perhaps or perhaps not. The past is immutable and thinking of what-ifs helps no one. Maybe A-Jie would be alive, maybe Wei Wuxian would still be digging in the mud in the Burial Mounds, or maybe, more likely, we’d all be dead.” He picks up his own bowl and begins eating, clearly done with the conversation.

After blinking at Jiang Cheng for a long moment Lan Xichen picks up his own bowl and takes a small sip and his eyes close in appreciation. The soup is well seasoned, the meat tender and the slight sweetness of the lotus root washes away the taste of bitterness.

**********

They’re sitting out on the deck outside the Hanshi this time. Someone had managed to convince his uncle to permit some fireworks in light of Wei Wuxian’s birthday, and Jiang Cheng had retreated to the Hanshi as soon as everyone had decamped to the back mountains, claiming the festivities and Wei Wuxian were giving him a headache.

While they’re still blinking away the after images of the sparks, Jiang Cheng turns to him and asks, “Did you ever -.” He stops abruptly and shakes his head as though dismissing his thoughts and taking a sip of his tea instead. “Never mind.”

“Did I ever what?” Lan Xichen prods absent-mindedly as he considers the teapot that is just slightly out of his reach, and debates if it is worthwhile reaching out from his warm cloak to get it. In the end, he shuffles inelegantly, crab-like, a few inches so he can grab the teapot without leaving the warmth of his cloak. He ignores Jiang Cheng’s snicker and happily pours himself a new cup of tea - Jiang Cheng has brought him a different blend from Lotus Pier a few weeks back, a black tea with a tiny hint of spice that warms him from the inside. He had been skeptical when Jiang Cheng first offered it to him, but it is his favourite blend for these unseasonably cold days. It helps that the heat sometimes negates the burning feeling of the curse which has spread to his forearms.

When the silence drags on for too long, Lan Xichen opens his eyes and peers at Jiang Cheng who is watching him with a bemused smile. “Hm?” he hums questingly and Jiang Cheng turns away.

“Nothing,” Jiang Cheng says.

“Well that’s not fair,” Lan Xichen laughs. “Now I’m curious, so you have to tell me.”

Jiang Cheng sets his cup down and sighs. His expression turns pensive as he tilts his head back to stare at the night sky for a long moment. He finally shrugs and says, “Just thinking of stupid things. I thought, back when the Sunshot Campaign first started and we were running around trying to drum up support against the Wens that we were - I don’t know, becoming friends? Something more than what we ended up being for the last decade or so anyway. It’s nothing, ignore me, I just thought we would have gotten here before now.”

“You had other things on your mind,” Lan Xichen says lightly, but then pauses as he thinks back. Why had his relationship with Jiang Cheng been...not strained, but they had never interacted much even over the intervening years. The more he thinks on it, the stranger it seems. They were both leaders of prominent sects and yet had only really dealt with each other in passing a handful of times, even when things had been tense immediately following the end of the Sunshot Campaign and leading up to the sieges at the Burial Mounds. “But you’re not wrong,” he concedes hesitantly.

Lan Xichen finds now that he’s turned his mind to it, he can’t stop. It’s been almost twenty years now and his memories are fuzzy, but Jiang Cheng is right. They had been on friendly terms, especially in those early days of the Sunshot Campaign, that much he remembered. He frowns at Jiang Cheng. The other is studying him, clearly waiting for him to come to a specific conclusion that is escaping him.

When it becomes clear he’s not going to reach whatever conclusion Jiang Cheng is hoping for, the other looks away, disappointment crossing his features. Lan Xichen feels his heart twist, disappointed in himself.

“Forget it,” Jiang Chengs says, and nudges the bowl of pitted candied hawthorn berries at him. “Eat. I still can’t believe Lan Wangji bought the vendor’s entire stock for Wei Wuxian, even that glutton can’t eat that much tanghulu.”

They slip into companionable silence as they work their way through the bowl together, each lost in their own thoughts.

It is Jiang Cheng who breaks the silence with a rueful smile, “I don’t even know why I brought it up. I just, I remember you always being there and then one day, I didn’t see you anymore. I’m probably imagining things.”

And that’s it. Lan Xichen’s thoughts and memories click into place and the amber candy turns bitter on his tongue. He almost wants to laugh at how stupid he’s been all these years. Nothing had seemed out of place to him, and wasn’t that the problem? It must have seemed like Lan Xichen had disappeared to everyone around him, so wrapped up in Jin Guangyao. How much had he missed? The truth Nie Mingjue had all but thrust in his face, his brother’s burdens, Jin Guangshan’s plots, Wei Wuxian and the Wen remnants, and of course the opportunities he had discarded, all in favour of what?

“You weren’t imagining it,” he says in the end. “I guess I was the one with other things on my mind.”

The penetrating look Jiang Cheng gives him, like he can see exactly what Lan Xichen is thinking, gives him pause. What happened to the man who had been so consumed by rage that he lived only for revenge he wonders. Had he really missed so much?

“Well, at least we’re here now,” Jiang Cheng says easily, spearing the last of the candied haws and popping it into his mouth.

Lan Xichen almost asks him what he means by ‘here’, and if they are really walking side by side on the path of life. He swallows the question with difficulty and the curse pulsing around his heart reminds him that his life is no longer his own, and his heart hasn’t been for a long time.

**********

Of course the peace does not last.

Jiang Cheng’s next visit falls right before the first snow. The air has a crisp quality to it and everything seems sharp around the edges. The vivid violet of Jiang Cheng's winter cloak stands out in sharp contrast against the colourless landscape around the Hanshi, and it is immediately obvious from the way he holds himself that something is wrong. For one heart stopping moment, Lan Xichen thinks that this is it, Jiang Cheng has accomplished whatever he had hoped in terms of mending his relationship with Wei Wuxian or has done something to destroy it irrevocably, and he is here to tell him this is his last visit.

Lan Xichen has been preparing for this day, but he is less ready than he thought.

Their strange little standoff lasts until the unknown becomes unbearable, and Lan Xichen finally hardens his resolve and asks, “Is something the matter?”

The struggle on Jiang Cheng’s face is obvious, and after a long tense moment, he stomps onto the deck and huffs a breath. “Nothing, just the bloody matchmakers driving me crazy,” he finally sighs, and gives Lan Xichen a look before saying, “Are you going to let me in? Your deck is a bit cold this time of year.”

Lan Xichen realizes he’s been standing still as a statue in front of his door, and hastily takes a step back to let Jiang Cheng into the Hanshi. “Matchmakers?” he forces himself to ask even as his heart races.

“Harpies, the lot of them,” Jiang Cheng mutters as he strips out of his heavy cloak and tosses it over the low chair, and then goes to dig through Lan Xichen’s cupboards for his tea. “Do you want the black tea or the green?”

Lan Xichen blinks and says, “Green,” without putting much thought into it.

“Well good, because the black tea is almost gone,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. “I’ll bring some more next month, assuming the snow doesn’t seal off the mountain pass.” He pauses pensively and dumps some leaves into the teapot. “I suppose I could fly if I needed to. You really should just come to Lotus Pier in the spring and take a look at our stores. The food will be better as well, it’s not like I can bring every single ingredient here you know.”

Whether it’s the stress of the last few moments, or the sudden swirl of pain from the curse, Lan Xichen finds himself suddenly incautious as he says more sharply than intended, “You know I can’t do that.”

The look Jiang Cheng sends him is equally sharp. “And why not,” he demands, standing so he can stare Lan Xichen in the eye. “Are your elders going to drag you back and whip you for leaving seclusion?”

“You know that’s not - ,” Lan Xichen protests, only to be cut off by Jiang Cheng.

“No, I’m sick of this,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and Lan Xichen is suddenly reminded that Sandu Shengshou’s temper is second to none. “How long are you going to punish yourself?” He makes a sharp cutting motion with his hands when it looks like Lan Xichen is about to protest, “Don’t lie to me, I know grief, and you may have been grieving still in the spring and maybe even in the summer, and perhaps you always will, but it is no longer life consuming. You’re just punishing yourself now. Do you have any idea what you’re doing to everyone around you? Your uncle, your brother, the kids? They’re giving you time, but how much time do you need? What will it take before you feel you’ve repented for things that are not your fault?”

“I -” Lan Xichen tries again, but Jiang Cheng is not done.

“Tell me, if you were to walk out of this place and join everyone for dinner, what do you think is going to happen? Do you think your family, your sect is going to shun you? Send you back into seclusion? Punish you?” Jiang Cheng asks.

“No,” Lan Xichen admits softly.

“Then why?” Jiang Cheng inists just as softly, anger replaced by resignation. “It’s been almost two years now. No one blames you for what happened, so why keep doing this to yourself?”

It’s a good question and Lan Xichen, forced to confront it, knows the real reason he can’t voice his thoughts is because if he answers Jiang Cheng truthfully, he would have to admit it to himself as well. Why can’t Jiang Cheng just leave it well alone, he thinks bitterly as he feels his eyes burn with tears. The curse, as though sensing his unease, begins to burn, stealing what remains of his breath.

“Tell me why,” he hears Jiang Cheng ask again, and his vision blurs from the pain.

“Because it will never be enough,” he finally gasps out, and immediately chokes on the sudden flood of tears. “There’s nothing I can do that will make it enough. My wants, my feelings have no bearing on my future.” As each word leaves him, he can feel the coils of the curse pulse, and he knows it is burning its way along still unmarked flesh, enough that his clothing can no longer hide the markings if Jiang Cheng’s horrified gasp is anything to go by - to be honest he’s surprised he’s been able to hide them from Jiang Cheng for this long.

The pain is suddenly too much, and he hears Jiang Cheng scream his name right before the darkness claims him. He knew the afternoons spent drinking tea with Jiang Cheng would end, but he never predicted this ending, though perhaps he should have.

*********

When he wakes, he is in the healing rooms and his brother is leaning over him, visibly unhappy.

“Wangji,” he croaks and immediately starts coughing. “What happened?”

“The curse has spread. You passed out and Jiang Wanyin brought you to the healers,” Lan Wangji replies. “I will summon Uncle, please wait.”

Lan Xichen lets his head drop back onto the hard pillow. To anyone else, Lan Wangji’s succinct summary might indicate little excitement, but Lan Xichen knows better - he hasn’t seen his brother this upset outside of what happened with Wei Wuxian all those years ago. All of Cloud Recesses must have been turned on its head, and he can just imagine Jiang Cheng carrying him from the Hanshi to the healing rooms and the type of alarm he must have raised. He lifts a hand and is horrified to find that almost every inch of skin is now covered in blood red scales. The curse has spread indeed.

He idly wonders how much time he has left and what he is to say to Jiang Cheng when he sees him next. Fortunately, he’s spared when his brother returns with their uncle, Wei Wuxian, and a healer.

“Shufu,” He greets, “Wei-gongzi.”

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren sighs and waves the healer forward. “What happened?”

Lan Xichen lets the healer help him sit up, and shrugs at his uncle while the healer takes his wrist to check his qi. “I wish I could tell you. It suddenly spread. I hope I didn’t upset Sect Leader Jiang.” The last he directs to Wei Wuxian, who sends him a forced smile.

“Jiang Cheng will get over it,” Wei Wuxian reassures him.

There’s not much else to say after that, and they descend into an uncomfortable silence as they wait for the healer to finish his examination. When the man finally looks up, his expression is grim.

“Sect Leader Lan,” the healer begins solemnly. “I don’t think you need me to tell you the curse has progressed dangerously.”

“How long?” Lan Xichen asks. He doesn’t see the point in beating about the bush. They’ve known it was only a matter of time for months.

The healer pauses and says, “It is difficult to tell, a week or two perhaps if you can avoid exacerbating it. Days if you cannot. I can only recommend you rest as much as possible.”

“I see,” Lan Xichen murmurs.

What else is there left to say?

********

This is possibly one of his worst ideas, Lan Xichen thinks. He has no idea why he said yes when Wei Wuxian asked if he wanted to see Jiang Cheng, but it’s not as though he can escape now.

“Have you lost your mind?”

The words are whispered quietly, and Lan Xichen is reminded that thunder, while loud, is not what kills. He sighs and forces himself to face Jiang Cheng’s rage. “I didn’t mean for you to find out that way. I was going to -.”

“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and Lan Xichen’s jaw clicks shut. “I’m not talking about that. Wei Wuxian told me you’re abdicating in favour of Lan Wangji. And it's been in the works for months.”

He feels like a coward, but anything is better than meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes, so he swallows and keeps his eyes firmly on the ground when he says, “It only makes sense given the situation.”

“Bullshit!” Jiang Cheng screams, rage finally boiling over, and he grabs Lan Xichen by the collar and hauls him up until he is forced to meet his eyes. “What are we if not curse breakers? And you’re just going to give up? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

He slaps Jiang Cheng’s hands away and yells back, “Yes I am! Do you think I want this? This is A-Yao’s death curse, do you really think there’s anything other than death waiting for me?”

“If death waited for you, this would be nothing but a shapeless mark!” Jiang Cheng snarls at him. “Do you know? Your brother and Wei Wuxian have been running around the countryside all year trying to fix this. They even went to Nie Huaisang and somehow found out what he did with Meng Shi’s body so they could give her a proper burial. And Jin Ling, I thought he was just being a brat and shirking his duties to play with his friends, but they were searching Koi Tower from top to bottom trying to see if Jin Guangyao left any clues. And yet here you are, waiting for death.”

He hadn’t known any of that. He had just assumed … actually, Lan Xichen doesn’t actually know what he assumed, but not that. Shame steals the air from his lungs and he bows his head, unable to look at Jiang Cheng any longer. “What would you have me do?” Lan Xichen asks again.

Jiang Cheng explodes, “I don’t know! Anything except this! You knew him best so what’s his heart’s desire?”

“I didn’t know him at all,” Lan Xichen finds himself whispering, and wasn’t that the heart of the problem? When Jiang Cheng stares at him stunned, he laughs bitterly and says, “I thought I did, but more fool I because everyone knew him better than I did in the end, didn’t they? A-Yao said it himself, I never saw through him.”

“Just because you didn’t know everything about him doesn’t mean what he showed you wasn’t true,” Jiang Cheng sighs. “The man was a chameleon, true, but he cared for you. I would wager whatever face he showed you was more true than what he showed the rest of us.”

A sob threatens to tear itself from Lan Xichen’s throat and he chokes it down to say. “And I loved him, but I still killed him in the end.”

Jiang Cheng is quiet after that. Eventually he lets out a puff of air and sits cross legged next to Lan Xichen. “It would be fair for Wei Wuxian to blame me for his first death, but I doubt he would curse me to death. I know Wei Wuxian is not Jin Guangyao, but my point stands. If Jin Guangyao wanted you dead, you would be dead already.”

“Then -.”

“The end is not the same as the journey,” Jiang Cheng continues. “Death waits for all of us, it doesn’t mean not living or not trying. Even if you don’t want to live, shouldn’t you try for the people who love you? Especially when they are trying so hard?”

Lan Xichen looks away and then admits, “I didn’t think it mattered. No one visited me until you came.” He stops when he sees the strange expression on Jiang Cheng’s face and asks, “What?”

Shaking his head Jiang Cheng laughs softly, “And everyone lectured me about Wei Wuxian. You Lans are worse.” He turns a lopsided grin to Lan Xichen and continues, “Of course you didn’t get visitors, they were respecting your seclusion. Lan Wangji sat outside your door once a week. He’d sit there like a statue all day and all night with his qi suppressed. Your uncle writes you letters, his desk is full to the brim with them. The kids ask after you and I’ve heard your elders muttering about how they can’t wait until you leave seclusion on more than one occasion.”

“Oh,” Lan Xichen says, shocked.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng laughs and then looks down suddenly shy and hesitant. “And did you ever consider my feelings?”

Lan Xichen swears his heart stutters to a stop for a moment before it begins racing. They have been dancing around this for months, haven’t they? Now that Jiang Cheng has brought it to the fore, he’s not sure what to say, except, “I never planned for you,” he admits quietly.

“Nor I you,” Jiang Cheng agrees, and catches Lan Xichen’s eyes. “There are many things I am willing to accept, but I won’t come second to a dead man.”

*********

The bandages drop in coils to the floor and Lan Xichen studies his bared flesh.There’s a strange beauty to the markings, he has to admit, and then sighs when Wei Wuxian reaches for his hand so he can study the spreading mark.

“Does it hurt?” Wei Wuxian asks as he probes at the skin along Lan Xichen’s forearm.

Lan Xichen shakes his head and replies, “It's an ache, like I overtaxed my muscles and I’m tired more than anything.”

Wei Wuxian studies him steadily and then says, “There’s likely not much time left. Are you sure you…” he pauses and considers his words before saying, “I know it isn’t my place, but I have to ask. About Jiang Cheng, what happened?”

That’s a good question and not one Lan Xichen wants to answer, but he owes Wei Wuxian that much. “I can’t burden him with this.”

“But...” Wei Wuxian frowns and studies him carefully before saying, “Are you saying that you worry your death will hurt him so you pushed him away? With all due respect, if that is your concern, you should have pushed him away months ago. The only thing you’re sparing him now is actually watching you die, and that’s just foolish. Do you think sparing Lan Zhan from watching me die diminished any of his pain?”

Lan Xichen freezes as he considers Wei Wuxian’s words. When put like that, his actions certainly seem very foolish.

“If you ask me, you have two choices. You can make the both of you miserable for the last few days you have left or you can spend it with him. Wouldn’t it be better to have a few days of happiness than none at all? I know which I would choose had I been given the choice.”

**********

Shuoyue wobbles dangerously and for a moment a stray gust of wind almost sends him plummeting to his death. In the privacy of his own mind, Lan Xichen concedes deciding to fly to Lotus Pier as soon as Wei Wuxian left the Hanshi and without notifying anyone in his condition was a bad idea. But now, less than a few miles from Lotus Pier, he refuses to stop or turn back. For the first time in days the curse is dormant, and he finally feels like himself.

His mind may feel better, but his body is a different story altogether and he is reminded of this painfully when he stumbles on the descent and crashes hard enough, he is slightly worried the dent he has left in the cobbled ground is permanent. His crash landing brings Yunmeng Jiang disciples running, saving him the need to announce himself, which is just as well since he doesn’t think he has the necessary energy to take the proper petitions for an audience.

The events that follow after are a bit of a blur, he’s not entirely certain what he said to convince the Yunmeng Jiang disciples to take him to Jiang Cheng, but suffice to say he cares not except that he is being hastily shown to a floating pavilion.

The way Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen in horror when he sees him tells him not much time has passed, and no one even had a chance to inform Jiang Cheng of his arrival. “What are you --,” is as far as Jiang Cheng gets before Lan Xichen interrupts.

“You’re not second best.” He takes a deep gasping breath to steady himself and continues, “But I have nothing to offer you, except this worthless life of mine if you will have it.”

For a long breathless moment, Jiang Cheng studies him, and then asks slowly, “And if I said I want your heart as well?”

“Then it is yours,” Lan Xichen replies without hesitation, and a sense of peace overcomes him, if he were to die in this moment, he would die with the certainty that he has no regrets, and he has reached for his own happiness with both hands.

The moment of pleasure is brief, because as though the curse has heard his thoughts, it flares to life more fiercely than ever, setting his flesh and blood on fire. He sees Jiang Cheng rushing for him as his knees buckle from the pain and he is dimly aware of Jiang Cheng calling his name over his own screams.

Then the pain sweeps him away.

**********

Lan Xichen wakes to an unfamiliar bedroom and he blinks blearily until the ceiling comes into focus, and then continues blinking when he registers the vivid purple of Yunmeng purple sashes strung along the ceiling beams and carved lotuses.

The clatter of ceramics hitting the ground startles him from his stupor, and he turns his head to see Jiang Cheng dropping to his knees by the bed, tea spreading unheeded on the fine wooden floors.

“I thought you had died! Again!” Jiang Cheng roars and pushes him back into the bed, hands gentle despite his tone. “What were you thinking flying here in your condition and without telling anyone?”

“I feel fine. What happened?” Lan Xichen tries to reassure him and moves to pat Jiang Cheng on the shoulder, only to freeze as he spots the unblemished skin on his hands - the curse mark is gone. His heart races as he struggles against Jiang Cheng earnestly so he can check the rest of his skin.

“Stop,” Jiang Cheng admonishes gently, unable to hold onto his anger in the face of Lan Xichen’s distress. “It’s gone.”

“It’s gone?” Lan Xichen whispers dumbly and looks up at Jiang Cheng questioningly. “How? I don’t understand?”

Jiang Cheng pulls back and rifles in his sleeves for a moment before pulling out a sheaf of papers and pressing them into Lan Xichen’s limp hands. It takes just a glimpse for him to recognize the neat handwriting and he recoils and tries to push them away, but Jiang Cheng’s hands tighten over his. “Read it,” he instructs softly. “Jin Ling found this hidden in Koi Tower, you’ll understand once you do.”

With one last squeeze, Jiang Cheng pulls his hands away and Lan Xichen gulps, before smoothing out the now crumpled pages with shaking fingers. There is only one line of script on the first page: Er-ge, whatever truths you may learn, know that I have only ever wished you happiness.

It takes a surprisingly long time for the words to register and he almost wants to laugh at his own stupidity when he finally understands. Of course, now everything made sense; why the curse was quiescent the times he was with Jiang Cheng, why it raced along his skin each time he pulled back.

When he looks up again, Jiang Cheng is watching him calmly. “Did you read this?” he asks softly and flips through the rest of the pages, they’re a confession as he expected and so he sets them aside. Maybe one day he will read them, but not today.

“I did,” Jiang Cheng admits and after a beat asks, “Do I make you happy?”

It’s a matter of a second, but the decision is easy at this point. Lan Xichen strips off his forehead ribbon and wraps it thrice around Jiang Cheng’s wrist and ties it securely.

“You are my happiness.”