It had been months since Lan Xichen had entered seclusion, and Cloud Recesses ached around the absence of its leader. Those unattuned to the Lan sect’s pulse of life might not have found much of a difference, but to Lan Qiren, who had had a hand on that subtle heartbeat as long as he could remember, the contrast was painfully stark.
It was, after all, familiar, in a way Lan Qiren had hoped to forget.
Lan Xichen would not abandon his sect. He would not abandon his family. Lan Qiren knew this. He knew, furthermore, that Lan Xichen deserved a little more of Lan Qiren’s faith in that fact, and yet… and yet.
Once bitten, twice shy— but Lan Qiren was better than that, wasn’t he? He was above such base fears as abandonment. It was Lan Xichen he was concerned for, really. He was not Lan Xichen’s responsibility, Sect Leader or not. Rather, Lan Xichen was his.
A person was a great responsibility to bear, and a whole sect even more so. Lan Xichen’s decision to step back somewhat from his duties as Sect Leader might have stung Lan Qiren more, but the weight of the Lan sect on Lan Qiren’s shoulders was familiar and almost comforting. It was a weight that had saved him, all those years ago, anchored him against a grief that had swept his brother away.
He worried that Lan Xichen would let himself be swept away as well. And so Lan Qiren broke his nephew’s seclusion, again. It wasn’t strictly proper, but Lan Qiren knew the rules of his sect better than anyone, would know them blind by the marks they left on his hands as he clung to them like a lifeline, and he was sure that what offense he was committing by disturbing Lan Xichen’s secluded mediation was nothing compared to the harm that would be done by leaving him alone.
People could not always be saved, Lan Qiren knew, and he himself was not the type to save them. All he could do was teach them to save themselves, and perhaps, when it was needed, remind them of what paths remained for them to walk.
It was needed now.
Lan Xichen looked like he’d been expecting a visit, but not one he anticipated enjoying in the least. The difference would have been negligible to most, but Lan Qiren had watched Lan Xichen grow up, had seen the echoes of his absent parents show themselves in brief flashes of tension that played across Lan Xichen’s face as swiftly as a gust of winter wind.
He could read Lan Xichen, was what it meant, and Lan Xichen was shutting down, mired in grief and betrayal that had sunk its claws too deeply into the warmth of his heart.
“Uncle,” said Xichen, bowing appropriately.
“Xichen,” responded Lan Qiren with a nod. He swept past Lan Xichen to take a seat at his table, posture straight and sharp as always in the hopes that Lan Xichen would mirror it and drive away some of the dejected slump of his shoulders. Lan Xichen echoed Lan Qiren’s posture, sitting down across from him, but did not partake in any of Lan Qiren’s carefully presented surety.
That was fine. Maybe. Lan Qiren cast his line out for Lan Xichen and hoped that this would be the day he finally took it and stopped drowning.
“Have you thought about returning to your position?” asked Lan Qiren gently, or so he hoped. “Gradually, if you must.”
“Uncle, I have done nothing but think, and it has done me no good as of yet,” said Lan Xichen, an edge of anguished frustration in his voice. He stopped, looking stricken, and took a deep breath. Lan Qiren watched as he centered himself, mastered his anger and put it back in its place.
“I apologize,” said Lan Xichen, “for my outburst.” Lan Qiren shook his head in dismissal. That was really the least of his worries. Lan Xichen hardly looked any less anxious, but the next breath he took was as if he was steeling himself.
“I’ll consider it,” he said, in a voice smaller than Lan Qiren was used to, but at least it was there, hanging in the air between them. He shifted, and Lan Qiren knew when to take the victories he was given.
“Good,” he said, as if that word encompassed any of the relief he felt. “I will come see you tomorrow.”
Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen stood at the same time; Lan Xichen bowed as if he was about to flee, and Lan Qiren was going to let him, but as they walked away from each other, Lan Qiren turned back to tell Lan Xichen again that it was good, it was progress, and froze with the words stolen off his tongue.
“Xichen,” he said. Lan Xichen spun to face him with a swiftness and grace that would have been more characteristic of him but for the fear in his eyes.
“I,” said Xichen, as if he’d been caught in the midst of a crime, and his nervousness did nothing to raise Lan Qiren’s spirits. It wasn’t a crime, technically.
All Lan Xichen had done was cut his hair.
It wasn’t dramatic, not at all. Lan Xichen, always the equalizer to his family’s uncompromising wills and fierce tempers, disguised behind rules and respectability as they were, could not afford to be dramatic. That was not, however, a comforting thought. Lan Qiren had thought that Lan Xichen was coming back to life, that he was resurfacing from whatever grief he’d resigned himself to drowning in, but it had only been another wall to hide behind.
There was no reason for Lan Xichen to cut his hair. No drama to it, no statement to make, nobody to see it besides Lan Qiren, for the moment, which meant it could only be meant for Lan Xichen himself. Lan Qiren wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he knew it set him on edge.
“Why?” he asked, too sharply, an accusation where Lan Qiren had intended to ask a simple question.
The look he got in return was not encouraging in the least; it was wounded, hesitant, guilty. Lan Qiren took a deep breath and clenched his jaw shut, willing himself not to snap at Lan Xichen any further. He’d come here to try and coax his nephew out of seclusion, not drive him further in. Clearly, though, he’d failed thus far. Lan Xichen’s shoulders drew in around him, and his mouth was set in a tense line. Defensive. Lan Xichen only got defensive when—
Lan Xichen did not get defensive. Not when he was grieving, not when he was exhausted, certainly not when Lan Qiren snapped at him, not until now.
Lan Qiren loved his nephews, and at least with Lan Xichen, that had always been enough to soften the hurt his harsh tone might otherwise bring. But now, Lan Qiren got the sense that if he said anything too sharp, he might break Lan Xichen the way his father had been broken and never come back from. Irrevocably. Since when did Lan Xichen bear that kind of brittleness?
Lan Qiren decided to switch tacks.
“What happened?” he asked after a long pause.
“Nothing happened,” said Lan Xichen. Lan Qiren watched him force the ever-so-slightly hunched angle of his shoulders back open, as if that could hide the hunted look in his eyes. “I— I had simply thought about it for a long time. As… penance. To remind myself.”
“I wasn’t asking about your hair,” said Lan Qiren. He thought his tone was gentle enough, but Lan Xichen almost flinched. Almost.
“You know what happened,” said Lan Xichen, his tone almost pleading.
“I know what happened. What happened to you?”
Lan Xichen had gone through many, many things and still kept his grace. Lan Qiren knew, technically, what had happened at Guanyin Temple, but it didn’t explain this. Lan Xichen guarded his innermost thoughts with a careful vigilance that Lan Qiren normally approved of, but now…
“Please, Uncle,” said Lan Xichen. His hand twitched as if he wanted to bring it up to his face again like he had that night at the temple. A pitiful excuse for a shield, but it was all Lan Xichen had, at least now that he wasn’t alone within the walls of his Hanshi. “I can’t talk about it. Please don’t ask any more questions.”
Lan Xichen turned his face away slightly. It was almost outright rude for his standards, but as much as it got under Lan Qiren’s skin, he had to admit that maybe Lan Xichen had earned the right to a little bit of rudeness. It didn’t mean Lan Qiren would stop trying to find him a better outlet, though.
He knew better than anyone that seclusion was no outlet at all.
Lan Qiren opened his mouth to speak, to ask Lan Xichen once more to consider his duties to the sect, then thought better of it. Lan Xichen, however, seemed to have heard the words that went unsaid. He turned back to Lan Qiren, and though his expression remained guarded, a new vulnerability had welled up in his eyes and begun to seep through the cracks in his mask.
“I apologize,” he said. This, though, was not a general apology. The raw grief in Lan Xichen’s eyes was trained directly on Lan Qiren. “I know I am— my mistakes— I will not let this go on for too long. I will return to my duties, I promise. Right now, I only— I need time. Please.”
Lan Xichen had stumbled around the actual statement Lan Qiren was sure he’d meant to make in a way that was completely uncharacteristic of him, as if the words he’d been trying to say had slipped through his fingers like fish, scattering in their terror. Lan Qiren heard them nonetheless.
I will not make his mistakes, Lan Xichen meant.
“You will have it,” said Lan Qiren. Time was all he had ever gotten. Time was the only thing he had left to give, apparently.
He tried not to be bitter about it.
Lan Qiren left his nephew to his seclusion and returned to his sect, as he always had, giving Lan Xichen the time he had asked for, even though Lan Qiren already had the sinking feeling it would do him no good. Lan Qiren had given every suggestion he knew how to give, and yet Lan Xichen insisted on imprisoning himself. He really was almost as stubborn as Lan Wangji, when it came down to it.
Lan Wangji— well. Lan Qiren had kept his thoughts away from Lan Wangji for a good while now. He’d come home from his unannounced honeymoon with Wei Wuxian on his arm and a look in his eye that promised the towering fury of a mother bear should anyone threaten this arrangement. He and Lan Qiren had had a brief exchange, a few terse words that had chilled into a silence as large as Cloud Recesses itself.
And then Lan Wangji had gone to visit Lan Xichen, who had not been there at the gate to smooth over the tension between his uncle and his brother. Who Lan Qiren knew for a fact didn’t end up speaking to Lan Wangji, because both of his nephews had made the choice to wall themselves off in their own small worlds. A fatal choice, as far as Lan Qiren’s experience was concerned, and he had quite a bit of it.
He really must have failed them. Years of striving for the opposite, and somehow, both of Lan Qiren’s nephews had managed to fall into their father’s path.
Lan Wangji, at least, was content where his father had done nothing but grieve, where his brother was grieving. But that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? Lan Wangji had what he wanted, a husband and a son and a peaceful life he would kill to protect, and nothing else mattered.
(Qingheng-jun had married the woman he loved, and nothing else had mattered. The younger brother he’d left to fill all his empty spaces, to bear all his burdens, hadn’t mattered.
Lan Qiren had carried the embers of that selfish bonfire all these years, and he should have known they would one day reignite.)
But Qingheng-jun had given Lan Qiren nothing, and Lan Qiren had still succeeded. Sort of. Well enough.
Something in the back of his mind whispered that though he had succeeded, it had come at a price, and that, though the injustice of it stung like poison, he did not want either of his nephews to have to suffer the same fate. If Lan Qiren had let that voice speak whenever it wished to, whenever the nothing, nothing, nothing that his life had given him hadn’t felt like enough, he knew without a doubt that it would have consumed him. So he had shut out the longing for anything more than what he had gotten, and he had not been consumed.
It had hurt nonetheless, to stand and struggle onwards with nothing but time to spare and rules to guide him.
Lan Xichen deserved more than that, but Lan Qiren, himself a boundless, endless void of bitter tenacity, wouldn’t know how to give him softness even if he had any to begin with. The chasm that had yawned between Lan Qiren and Qingheng-jun had always seemed impassable, had only widened over the years, and so Lan Qiren had never learned to treat people with the soft touch that Lan Xichen seemed to exhibit in his every move. He’d never had to, or so he’d thought, but maybe he should have at least tried.
The solution was becoming increasingly clear to Lan Qiren, though he didn’t like what he’d found. There was, in this world, at least one person left alive and whole who had received enough of Lan Xichen’s love to mirror it back to him.
Lan Qiren, who had never had any tangible sliver of his older brother’s heart, could not help. Lan Wangji, for whom Lan Xichen’s love was an irrefutable truth, might have better luck.
However, convincing Lan Wangji to try his luck with Lan Xichen meant that Lan Qiren had to try his own luck with Lan Wangji first, and he suspected that that luck would not be good.
“Wangji,” said Lan Qiren.
“Uncle,” said Lan Wangji, and in his voice was the first clash of blade against blade, another round of the battle they had seemed to be fighting ever since Nightless City, if Lan Qiren cared to think back that far.
Lan Wangji had been unhappy then. He was happy now, at least when Lan Qiren wasn’t around, but while the part of him nearest to Wei Wuxian had softened and bloomed, the rest of him was bare steel, gleaming by sunlight or moonlight, an open challenge to try and take away the happiness he had finally been able to snatch from the jaws of death. A statement. A threat. A defense.
Lan Qiren did not wish to fight this time, but Lan Wangji was a difficult man to move. Lan Qiren could already see the distinct possibility that he would be given no choice.
“Lan Zhan,” said Wei Wuxian, clearly intending for it to be a whisper, but the smallest buzz of an insect would have been deafening over the silence brought down by Lan Wangji’s glare. “I’ll go check on the bunnies?”
It was a question. Lan Wangji broke off his intense stare to give his approval, and Wei Wuxian scampered out the back door in a hurry, leaving Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji to return to the tension that they could never seem to figure out how to undo.
“Your brother needs you,” said Lan Qiren into the endless distance that had somehow squeezed itself into a single room. He watched as Lan Wangji parried a strike that hadn’t come and lost his balance in the process, his eyes widening ever so slightly before he rearranged his face back into its inscrutable mask. Lan Qiren was only allowed to see Lan Wangji’s anger, these days, but perhaps Lan Xichen merited something else.
“He doesn’t want to see me,” said Lan Wangji shortly.
“And I didn’t say want,” said Lan Qiren, equally shortly. He’d expected Lan Wangji to disagree, if only as a reflex, but he hadn’t been expecting the intensity of the fire that flared up in his eyes at that, as if Lan Qiren had only stoked his fury without meaning to.
What do you know of what Xichen needs? asked Lan Wangji’s silent gaze, as loudly and as clearly as if he’d shouted it. What do you know of what any of us need?
He certainly doesn’t need your silence, thought Lan Qiren. In truth, he still wasn’t sure what Lan Xichen needed, but he had had enough of life to know that what people needed and what they wanted rarely aligned.
Lan Qiren had been doomed from the start to never get what he wanted. He’d tried to make sure his nephews would get what they needed, because wanting was an impossible luxury for the Twin Jades, for Lan Qiren himself, abandoned by a man who had wanted and given no thought to those who might need him. And here Lan Wangji was, challenging Lan Qiren to know which was more important, as if he hadn’t earned that knowledge in sweat and tears.
“What is seclusion to you?” Lan Qiren asked, instead of voicing any of the anger that was throwing its full weight against the walls he had built to keep it in. Lan Wangji seemed taken aback by the question, but the initial confusion at least gave way to thoughtfulness rather than redoubled refusal to consider anything Lan Qiren had to say.
“A punishment,” said Lan Wangji finally. It was exactly what Lan Qiren had expected from him. And why wouldn’t that be his answer? Seclusion was a punishment for those within and those without alike.
“Why is Xichen in seclusion?” asked Lan Qiren. Lan Wangji gave him a suspicious glance before answering nonetheless.
“To reflect on his mistakes,” he said, but the confidence that gave strength to his anger had wavered, and Lan Qiren had seen it.
“Who ascribed him these mistakes?” asked Lan Qiren.
“He did,” said Lan Wangji quietly.
“Why is Xichen in seclusion?” asked Lan Qiren again, and let the question hang in the air between himself and Lan Wangji until—
“Because he wants to be,” whispered Lan Wangji.
“And what is seclusion?”
Lan Qiren stood and stared at Lan Wangji until his briefly broken eye contact was reestablished. He could see in that steady gaze that Lan Wangji had accepted the point that had been made, that he had been allowed to make for himself rather than hear from someone he had made up his mind not to listen to.
“Your brother needs you, Wangji,” said Lan Qiren, and left.
Lan Wangji waited until Lan Qiren was out of sight to go and find Wei Ying and tell him he was going to visit Lan Xichen. The stubborn nephew in him refused to give Lan Qiren the satisfaction of knowing just how right he was, but contrary to popular belief, Lan Wangji wasn’t impervious to having his mind changed.
He’d found long ago that to learn the rules of the world by rote and trust in them unquestioningly was a path that would ultimately lead to ruin. The rules that Lan Wangji operated by were his own, now, carved into his soul with the point of a compass needle, guiding him to his own true north.
Lan Wangji did what he thought was right and justifiable, no more and no less— treated himself and others with fairness and clarity, traveled where chaos called, helped where he was needed. Or so he had thought, before Lan Qiren had barged in so rudely and reminded him that while Lan Wangji himself flew straight and true as an arrow, finally balanced between what was wanted and what was needed, Lan Xichen did not have the same luxury.
Unbidden, Lan Wangji remembered Wei Ying. Not that he minded remembering Wei Ying, usually, not when what came to mind was his smile, his laughter, the new memories that they finally had the chance to create together.
He did not like remembering Wei Ying broken and bleeding in his arms, resentful energy pulsing and swirling with every fluttering beat of his heart, his eyes hazy and his face pale and his voice snarling get lost, get lost, get lost.
Wei Ying had wanted Lan Wangji to get lost, but Lan Wangji hadn’t listened. Couldn’t bring himself to listen, not when Wei Ying’s pain was so large, so heavy that it felt like an ocean, thrashing and unrestrainable.
Lan Wangji remembered Wei Ying, and then he remembered Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen, in whose mouth get lost became please don’t ask right now.
Lan Wangji’s mind was spinning so badly that when he arrived on Lan Xichen’s silent doorstep and raised his hand to knock, he froze and realized he didn’t have a single clue what to say.
Then again, he hadn’t said much to Wei Ying, either, save that he loved him, and now, though it had taken thirteen years, he knew that Wei Ying loved him back. Lan Wangji made his presence known and waited.
The door opened only after enough time had passed that it was clear that if Lan Wangji was still there, he was willing to wait as long as it took for Lan Xichen to speak to him. Lan Wangji registered a whole progression of emotions flickering across his brother’s face in the moment it took for Lan Xichen to fully realize who was at his door— resignation, surprise, apprehension, all of which were quickly smoothed away into a diplomatically blank expression that didn’t quite have the easy warmth that Lan Xichen usually exuded.
Lan Wangji didn’t like the almost-nervousness he’d caught a glimpse of on his brother’s face, as if Lan Xichen thought he had something to fear from this visit, as if it was completely out of the question that Lan Wangji would show up for any innocent reason.
Lan Xichen wouldn’t have been entirely incorrect in that assumption, thought Lan Wangji, and that realization stung all the more sharply.
“Wangji,” said Lan Xichen, smiling. He smiled like he was walking a wire stretched over a thousand-foot drop, thought Lan Wangji, and his balance was wavering. He had, after all, been walking that same wire all his life; there was not and had never been any room for error.
“Brother,” said Lan Wangji, so as not to let the silence drag on too long and give Lan Xichen any more cause for worry. He didn’t quite know what to say, only that it had to be something. And yet, Lan Xichen was still the one to break the tension.
“Did Uncle send you?” he asked. That small, brittle smile stayed resolutely on his face, but there were stress fractures in its surface, like a porcelain teacup only one wrong touch away from shattering.
“Not exactly,” said Lan Wangji, opting to tell the truth rather than continue to stand in silence until he could find a truly tactful answer. He suspected there wasn’t one to be found. Lan Xichen sighed almost imperceptibly and stepped back to invite Lan Wangji inside, looking drained in a way Lan Wangji hadn’t seen since Lan Xichen had first become Sect Leader, barely an adult and struggling to manage a sect thrown into disarray by war and loss.
Lan Wangji couldn’t remember how that period had ended. He’d been too wrapped up in his own worries by then, which had steadily built until Wei Ying had died and Lan Wangji had been left to fill the empty shell of his being well enough to call himself a person again.
Through it all, though, Lan Xichen had been there, tending to Lan Wangji’s wounds when he refused to let anyone else see him, caring for Lan Yuan more than any other single person in those first few months, keeping Lan Wangji company in his own seclusion even when Lan Wangji’s grief had been so thick it sucked the very life out of the room.
Lan Wangji had been angry for a long time— about what Lan Xichen had done, about what he hadn’t done, about the unfairness of the world. He’d realized, in the months and years that followed, that Lan Xichen had done what he could, and now it was Lan Wangji’s turn to do the same.
“There was really no need for Uncle to bother you, even if he wouldn’t outright send you here,” Lan Xichen was saying. He sat across from Lan Wangji, hands folded delicately before him in a way that suggested barely restrained anxiety.
“He is worried,” said Lan Wangji, surprising himself. It was correct, he knew as soon as the words left his mouth. Lan Qiren was worried, and so he had sent Lan Wangji to do what he could not.
“There’s no need,” said Lan Xichen again. “I told him already, I will return to my duties as soon as possible.”
The look in his eyes, thought Lan Wangji, was dangerously close to pleading. Pleading for Lan Wangji to leave him be, to push no further, to take his hand off the delicate equilibrium that Lan Xichen was trying so hard to maintain.
“It’s not about your duties,” said Lan Wangji. He wasn’t expecting Lan Xichen to tense further at that, to withdraw sharply into himself as if Lan Wangji had touched a nerve.
“He—” Lan Xichen started, the beginning of a sentence cut off before it could form itself into something too large to be passed off as simply a gasp.
“He didn’t tell me,” said Lan Wangji slowly, reading the rest of that sentence in Lan Xichen’s slightly panicked gaze. Lan Qiren hadn’t told him anything specific at all, and so he must have assumed that Lan Wangji would see for himself.
Lan Wangji moved to sit beside Lan Xichen rather than across from him, and though he hated having most people in his personal space, he hated the idea of considering Lan Xichen most people even more. There was no reason for Lan Xichen to flinch away, and yet he did, bringing one arm up behind his back on instinct and inadvertently drawing Lan Wangji’s attention to what Lan Qiren had not mentioned.
It was just like Lan Xichen, Lan Wangji thought, to allow himself to hurt up to the bounds of propriety and no further.
Lan Xichen hadn’t cut his hair in as long as Lan Wangji could remember. The difference now was hardly noticeable, or at least it was clear than Lan Xichen had intended it to be, but evidently he hadn’t counted on his family, who knew him.
Lan Wangji would have asked why, but he knew. Lan Qiren had said it. Lan Wangji had been punished for his transgressions, however much he did not regret them, but there was no need to take a discipline whip to Lan Xichen when he would do it himself. Only perhaps this was worse, because there was no absolution earned in blood, no violent catharsis of punishment dealt by another’s hand, only a slow-burning guilt that would persist as long as Lan Xichen kept twisting the knife he’d sunk to the hilt in his own heart.
A sound like a surprised little sob caught in Lan Xichen’s chest as Lan Wangji hugged him. There were no raw wounds to be careful of, not physically, but Lan Xichen had been cut down to the bone nonetheless, and Lan Wangji knew how difficult it was to heal alone.
Perhaps Lan Xichen needed to abandon his tightrope and burn to ashes before he could start again without the crushing weight of guilt. Perhaps he needed to hurt beyond the bounds of propriety; perhaps he needed to tell someone to get lost and have them refuse.
Lan Wangji knew his brother would do none of these things, that even the concept of falling apart so obviously was alien to Lan Xichen, but—
But Lan Wangji could at least give him the space to do so, if he did ever wish to break. Lan Xichen had given him that, and so he held his brother close, and gave it back.