The silence of the Hanshi is broken only by the soft sounds of cloth over steel— Lan Xichen watches as his reflection stares up at him.
Baxia is cold on his lap, unnaturally still.
He’s held her enough times over the years to know the hum of her energy beneath his hands intimately well— Lan Xichen’s careful fingers stutter over the saber as his breath catches in his throat.
Am I to lose you as well as Mingjue? he asks the saber silently, but his face twists into a grimace at his selfishness. Mingjue is alive— a child perhaps, but still of this world— he bends forward until hair slips over his shoulders and trails along Baxia’s edge.
Polish makes the steel gleam, a task he had taken up to chase the shadows from his mind. But Lan Xichen hadn’t expected such utter stillness from the saber that had danced at Mingjue’s side for more than half his life.
Is it merely because Mingjue has regressed to an age before he received her? Lan Xichen wonders, sitting upright once more as he continues his work. He takes a breath. Or is it a sign that he will stay A-Jue?
One of his hands curls into a fist before he can stop it. Lan Huan, Lan Xichen berates himself silently, that he lives is enough. It’s enough. He stares at the steel braced on his knees. It has to be.
A soft knock at the door has his face smoothing into serenity with the ease of years of practice.
Lan Xichen takes a breath to ensure that his mask is firmly in place.
The disciple enters and bows, and Lan Xichen waits to hear what she has to say.
“Lianfang-Zun has arrived.” Rage courses through his veins at the words— he’d made it clear that no one was to enter Cloud Recesses— “He has requested to see you, and waits at the bottom of the mountain.”
Lan Xichen exhales soundlessly, releasing the unnecessary anger that had filled him. His disciples would not have disobeyed him in this, even for Jin Guangyao. Lan Liqiu’s eyes dart to where Baxia rests on his knees and Lan Xichen gives her a pleasant smile for her curiosity. It is no secret that Mingjue is recovering from his deviation in Cloud Recesses, after all— that Gusu and Qinghe have always enjoyed a close friendship even less so.
“Thank you,” he says, and watches as Lan Liqiu meets his gaze once more. “Please tell him I will be with him shortly.”
His disciple bows before she leaves the Hanshi, and Lan Xichen strokes his fingers over the saber’s hilt in thought. No doubt Jin Guangyao has come to ask for an update on Mingjue’s condition, and Lan Xichen wonders how much to tell him as he wraps the saber in silk and puts her away.
He has taken care to hide the saber from A-Jue, not wanting to chance triggering something before they had any idea how this had even happened. But A-Jue has the run of Cloud Recesses, now, and Lan Xichen often finds himself followed by the wide eyed boy. It is better to have Baxia placed to the side; hidden in the depths of his home.
A smile curves Lan Xichen’s lips as he makes his way to where Jin Guangyao is waiting, almost expecting A-Jue to appear beside him. But Lan Xichen knows that Wei Wuxian and Wangji have been tasked with his care today, and that Nie Huaisang is visiting once more, and that A-Jue will be pleasantly distracted for a while longer.
Lan Xichen nods to the sentries as he steps outside the ward, then fixes a slight smile on his lips as Jin Guangyao comes into view.
His retinue is further away, Lan Xichen notes, then reaches out to break apart the other man's bow.
“There is no need,” he reminds, and Jin Guangyao’s humble smile feels shocking against the suspicion Lan Xichen has of him.
“Ah, Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao replies, allowing his arms to fall to his side. “How is Da-ge?”
Lan Xichen’s heart stalls in his chest, his smile freezing in place for a bare moment. “A-Jue still does not remember,” he says softly, and Jin Guangyao hums at the answer.
“How could this have happened?” Jin Guangyao wonders, and Lan Xichen is grateful for the weight of Liebing in his hand as he tucks his other behind his back.
“We still do not know,” he replies honestly, watching as Jin Guangyao’s expression of concern never waivers. “There have been no records found of such a thing in the Nie Clan histories.”
Jin Guangyao lets out a slow breath, then shakes his head. “Tragic,” he murmurs, “that Chifeng-Zun has forgotten who he is.”
Lan Xichen lets his shoulders slump for a moment, and sharp eyes catch the action instantly. “Should we even try to reverse it?” he asks softly, and Jin Guangyao goes still. Lan Xichen shakes his head. “A-Jue… A-Jue is a happy child,” he continues, the weight of Jin Guangyao’s eyes on his skin as heavy as the mountain they stand on. “Happy and trusting, and curious, and he laughs—”
Lan Xichen cuts himself off and turns away, studies the way the sun peeks through the leaves before he continues. Jin Guangyao is silent at his side, patient.
“I cannot recall the last time I heard Mingjue laugh,” Lan Xichen admits after some time. His hand tightens on Liebing. “Perhaps it would be a mercy to let him have this second chance.”
His heart aches as he speaks, memories of Mingjue at his side filling his mind. Of Mingjue in battle, fierce and deadly and so vibrant that Lan Xichen had fallen in love with him over and over again, helpless to do otherwise.
“Is he not suspicious?” Jin Guangyao asks, and Lan Xichen turns to face him. “Of being in Cloud Recesses, not Qinghe,” the other man clarifies, and Lan Xichen represses the urge to frown.
The only one that child is suspicious of is you, he says silently, careful to keep any hint of his thoughts well-hidden.
“A-Sang brought Nie Qiuyue with him,” Lan Xichen tells Jin Guangyao, who nods in understanding.
“And so he believes this is nothing more than a prolonged visitation.”
Lan Xichen merely inclines his head in response. Jin Guangyao exhales heavily.
“Then,” he says slowly, “since a cure cannot be found, perhaps it is best that he cannot remember.”
Lan Xichen turns to face the other man once more. “We will not stop searching,” Lan Xichen tells him honestly, and sees a flash of interest cross Jin Guangyao’s eyes. “It would be an affront to Mingjue to stop. I—” Lan Xichen smiles, self-conscious. “If I were to have such a thing happen to me, I would hope that my friends would search for a way to reverse it.”
Jin Guangyao inclines his head far enough that it is almost a bow of itself. “Da-ge is lucky to have you,” he says softly, and Lan Xichen’s mind is suddenly filled with visions of Mingjue covered in blood, his shattered meridians barely held together by Lan Xichen’s spiritual power— how cold he had been once Mingjue had lost consciousness, his power drained to nothing to keep Mingjue alive—
Lan Xichen hums. “We are lucky to have him.” He blinks away the memories and inhales slowly. “But I fear I must return,” Lan Xichen says, and Jin Guangyao brings his arms up in a bow that Lan Xichen is not quick enough to stop.
“Take care, Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao says, stepping back. “Give my best to Da-ge.”
Lan Xichen inclines his head. “Travel safe.”
He watches until the Jin Clan retinue disappears from sight, then taps Liebing against his chest in thought.
He was quick enough to agree to leave A-Jue as he is, Lan Xichen thinks slowly, turning and stepping through the ward. A-Yao, A-Yao, are you truly behind this? Or have I been unjust in my suspicion of you?
He desperately wants it to be true, wants all this to have been one giant misunderstanding— but A-Jue had been so scared of Jin Guangyao, and Mingjue had never shown fear in his life— Lan Xichen closes his eyes for a brief moment and steadies himself.
Proof is needed, regardless. Lan Xichen bites back a bitter laugh. The best proof would be Mingjue, returned to his proper age and in full control of his memories…
Nie Qiuyue appears at his side a moment later, and Lan Xichen inclines his head in welcome.
“Clan Leader,” she says, bringing her hands up in a brief bow. “Are you on your way to see A-Jue?”
Lan Xichen sends a warm smile her way. “I believe you were told to call me something else,” he teases, and has the unique pleasure of seeing the iron-faced woman blush.
“I’ll save that for when I need my nephew to behave,” she says firmly, and Lan Xichen laughs lightly.
“As you wish,” he replies, “but yes, I am heading to A-Jue. Will you walk with me?”
Nie Qiuyue falls into step with him easily, her hands laced together behind her back. Her silence speaks of curiosity, but Lan Xichen knows the woman well enough by now to wait for her to order her thoughts.
His own swirl in his mind as they make their way through Cloud Recesses, tripping over themselves in his haste to make sense of his emotions.
“Zewu-Jun,” Nie Qiuyue says slowly, calling him from his memories. “You did not allow Lianfang-Zun into Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Xichen lets out a slow breath, then smiles. “Not much gets past you, does it,” he murmurs, then shakes his head. Perhaps it is better this way. “Nie Qiuyue, you have known Mingjue his whole life.”
“I have,” the woman responds, curiosity in her eyes.
“Tell me, then— what is he afraid of?”
Nie Qiuyue barks a laugh, then immediately coughs. “I apologize, Clan Leader Lan, but…” Dark eyes meet Lan Xichen’s. “Chifeng-Zun fears nothing.” Her voice is absolute, firm. “He never has.” Nie Qiuyue tilts her head, watching Lan Xichen. “He will worry, and plan, and suspect, but fear?” She shakes her head, and that is enough.
There is a pause in the conversation as they get closer to their destination, Nie Qiuyue’s eyes burning into Lan Xichen’s side as curiosity overwhelms her.
“A-Jue,” he says finally, delicately, and Nie Qiuyue’s attention turns as sharp as a razor, “was scared of Jin Guangyao.”
The sharp inhale tells Lan Xichen that Nie Qiuyue has quickly come to the same realization that the rest of them have; her suddenly rigid shoulders tells him she believes it. Lan Xichen wonders at her quick acceptance, then tightens his lips in realization. No Nie Clan member had forgiven Jin Guangyao for the murder of their Captain, despite their Clan Leader’s acceptance of the sworn brotherhood.
Silence guides their steps the rest of the way.
They arrive to sounds of laughter ringing through the Jingshi; the high, gleeful delight of A-Jue and the warm amusement of Wei Wuxian weaving in symphony with the guqin that plays through the chaos.
Lan Xichen feels his shoulders relax unconsciously at the cheerful noise and Nie Qiuyue shakes off her tension, smiling as well. They proceed unnoticed up the path, expressions clearing at the sounds of lighthearted play.
“Get back here, Young Master Nie!” Wei Wuxian’s voice rings through the air as the sound of giggling intensifies. "I'm not through with you!"
“Wei-xiong!” A-Jue shrieks, and Lan Xichen can’t help but hasten his steps to see what is happening. Nie Huaisang is leaning on the door, face covered by his fan at whatever chaos is going on inside the Jingshi— A-Jue skids past his brother in a bid to escape Wei Wuxian’s hands, and his face lights up at the sight of Nie Qiuyue and Lan Xichen.
“Lan Huan! Auntie! Save me!”
A-Jue barrels down the path towards them and slams into Lan Xichen’s legs, then shimmies his way up Lan Xichen’s body, sticking his tongue out at Wei Wuxian as he does so.
“You can’t touch me now,” A-Jue says proudly as Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue right back out at the child. “Lan Huan will keep me safe!”
Lan Xichen is stricken by the words— he doesn’t know what expression crosses his face but Nie Qiuyue steps forward abruptly and takes A-Jue’s attention from him as his hand spasms in the back of A-Jue’s robes.
“Of course he will,” she says, like it’s obvious, like Lan Xichen hadn’t already failed once, “why are you being so rude to Young Master Wei?”
“He deserves it,” A-Jue argues, his arms slung comfortably around Lan Xichen’s neck. “He was rude first!”
Wei Wuxian laughs at A-Jue, making a mocking face. “A-Jue, A-Jue,” he teases, “you told Lan Zhan he was playing a song wrong!” Lan Xichen snaps his eyes up to meet Wei Wuxian’s, who meets his gaze and nods. “And Lan Zhan is never wrong.”
Nie Huaisang waves them closer to the Jingshi, and Lan Xichen notices the guqin has gone silent.
“Wei-xiong is correct,” Lan Xichen manages to say as he steps inside, and inclines his head in a greeting to Wangji. “My brother is gifted at music.”
A-Jue yawns, then weaves his hand loosely through Lan Xichen’s hair and rests his head on his shoulder. “That’s okay,” he says simply, “but he’s wrong this time.” Lan Xichen raises a brow to Wangji, who shakes his head once, slowly. “A-Sang,” A-Jue continues, and Lan Xichen turns his body so they both face the other man. “You know I’m right, right?”
Under the weight of everyone’s attention, Nie Huaisang blushes brightly. “Ah, A-Jue,” he dithers, waving his fan in front of his face. “I don’t know…”
Nie Qiuyue huffs a laugh at him and rolls her eyes. “We are not going to make fun of you for some humming,” she says sternly, then grins. “We’ll save that for your saber practice.”
“Auntie!” Nie Huaisang yelps, and Wei Wuxian laughs at him outright, A-Jue giggling in delight at the scene.
Lan Xichen looks over his shoulder at Wangji, though. “Wangji, what was the song?”
His brother’s words strike through his heart like an arrow and Lan Xichen goes still.
“A-Sang,” he says, making an effort to keep his voice even. There can be no possible chance that Wangji performed Clarity incorrectly. “If you please.”
“Ah, Er-ge,” Nie Huaisang complains, pouting. But Lan Xichen watches him until he cracks and folds his fan shut with a snap.
“It was something like this,” Nie Huaisang says, then begins to hum. His forehead is scrunched in thought, but the melody is clear enough, and Lan Xichen tilts his head to the side and wonders what could possibly be different.
But the melody changes, and his blood runs like ice through his veins, and Wangji stands from the guqin and comes to his side.
Nie Huaisang raises a brow as Lan Xichen and Wangji stare at him, but finishes out the melody.
“What?” he asks, pouting again, snapping his fan open. “A-Jue, I got it right, didn't I?”
A-Jue nods into Lan Xichen’s neck. “Sorry, Wangji-xiong,” A-Jue says earnestly, wiggling in Lan Xichen’s grip to face Wangji. “I like yours too, I promise!”
Lan Xichen stares at his brother, golden eyes reflecting his own fears back to him.
It can’t be possible… can it?
“Wuxian,” Lan Xichen says, and tears his eyes from Wangji’s. He reaches down to the pendant on his belt and unlatches it, then sends a burst of spiritual power into the jade. “You recall the melody, correct?”
“Yes, Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, looking between the brothers curiously.
Lan Xichen nods once, sharply. “Go to the library and play it for my uncle.”
Wei Wuxian hesitates, then spins Chenqing on his palm. “Isn’t he in the Forbidden section?” he asks, and Lan Xichen hands him the pendant that is vibrating with his power.
“This will allow you access.” Grey eyes blow wide at the words, and careful hands reach out to collect the pendant. “Go. Now.”
In the wake of Wei Wuxian’s sudden absence Nie Qiuyue and Nie Huaisang remain behind, worry clear on their faces.
“Er-ge?” Nie Huaisang asks, concerned. “What’s wrong?”
Lan Xichen inhales deeply, and takes a moment to relax the fingers that have begun to grip A-Jue too tightly. A small hand pats his neck gently, dark eyes staring up at him, bright with trust.
“How do you know that melody?” Lan Xichen asks instead of answering, because—
“Jin Guangyao taught it to me.”