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Of Few Words

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The first time Nie Mingjue met Lan Xichen’s little brother, he thought he would be just like Nie Huaisang, so he picked him up and threw him.

Mingjue-xiong,” Lan Xichen gasped, clearly horrified. “What are you doing?”

Probably something forbidden by the rules, Nie Mingjue thought, and shrugged.

He wasn’t good with words, was too blunt and too direct, especially for the Lan sect, and so over the past couple of weeks or so that he’d been here he’d found it was easier not to speak at all. They’d make whatever assumptions they wanted about him, no matter what he did; it was easier to just let them do that and work with that than it was to futilely strive to get them to actually understand him.

“Even if Wangji has done something to upset you, you may only assign him to do copying,” Lan Xichen told him, and Nie Mingjue was briefly surprised that his new friend had assumed he was angry before he remembered that everyone here thought he was angry all the time, so it wasn’t actually that much of a surprise. “Please keep that in mind. Also, I don’t know if I’ve said, but he’s very reserved, so please don’t take offense if he just points things out...oh, I wish I wasn’t needed elsewhere this afternoon! I’d much rather show you around myself, but as it is, he’ll be showing you around this part of the Cloud Recesses in my place.”

Nie Mingjue grunted assent, and watched, a little desolately, as Lan Xichen disappeared down the still confusing twists and turns of the paths of the Cloud Recesses. It was all gardens here, carefully tended to maximize graceful tranquility, and he was sure he would have no chance of ever finding his way back on his own if left to it.

It wouldn’t surprise him in the slightest if he was. The other Lan disciples hadn’t really taken to him the way Lan Xichen had, much less a younger brother that the (rather reserved, by Nie Mingjue’s standards) Lan Xichen had described as reserved…

Unexpectedly, a small hand slipped into his own, and he looked down in surprise.

Lan Wangji looked up at him, his cheeks flushed a little red.

Nie Mingjue instinctively smiled at him, charmed by the reminder of Nie Huaisang, then remembered that too much exuberance seemed to only disturb the Lan sect and struggled to get his expression under control. He expected him to start leading him around the Cloud Recesses without another word – he had overheard Lan Qiren telling his father that Lan Wangji wasn’t much of a talker, very quiet, and to not expect much interaction with him – but to his surprise Lan Wangji did not move, looking at up at him thoughtfully, lips pursed as if he was considering saying something.

Nie Mingjue waited for his judgment.

“You weren’t angry,” Lan Wangji finally said. “When you threw me.”

Nie Mingjue blinked.

“No,” he admitted, breaking his own informal vow of silence. “I wasn’t. I thought you might enjoy it.”

Nie Huaisang loved being tossed around, whether up into the air or into bushes, headfirst shrieking into his bed or ass-first into a pool of water; he’d thought tossing little brothers around was what big brothers were there for. Sure, there was a small age gap – Lan Wangji was six, Nie Huaisang still not quite five – but he hadn’t thought it would make such a difference.

Lan Wangji hummed thoughtfully. He did not speak for another long while, but Nie Mingjue was starting to think that that was just him chewing over his thoughts before forming them into words.

At last, he spoke again: “I did.”

Nothing afterwards. Hesitantly, Nie Mingjue asked, “Would you like me to do it again?”

Lan Wangji nodded.

This time, Nie Mingjue was a little more cautious: he threw Lan Wangji up into the air and caught him, trying to demonstrate that he knew what he was doing, that he could be trusted, and by the third or fourth time Lan Wangji was smiling. It wasn’t quite on part with Nie Huaisang’s giggles and shrieks, but felt rewarding nevertheless.

Satisfied by his success, Nie Mingjue was about to put him down on the ground, but hesitated. “Do you want to ride on my shoulders?” he asked, and waited as Lan Wangji considered it.

“Another time,” Lan Wangji decided. “Not today.”

Nie Mingjue nodded and put him down. Lan Wangji took his hand once again and, this time, led him around the way he’d expected from the start, pointing out various places and naming them in a quiet murmur.

Lan Wangji really wasn’t much of a talker, a person of few words, but that was fine. So was Nie Mingjue.

-

It was a few days later that he came across Lan Wangji kneeling beside the training grounds and impulsively challenged him. He was getting bored of training alone: Lan Xichen was busy again, and the other Lan disciples had already made clear that they didn’t want to have anything to do with him, the interloper who’d pushed his way into their lessons by force.

It wasn’t actually like that at all – his father had sent Nie Mingjue to learn here for the season as a gesture of goodwill, wanting to support Lan Qiren’s lecture series and make it clear that other sects should follow suit, to encourage Lan Qiren’s goal of eventually creating a safe haven for all the Great Sect’s heirs to come together and learn and build friendships while still in their youth – but Nie Mingjue knew that there was no convincing any of his wary Lan sect peers of that. Even if there was, he certainly couldn’t do it, not with his clumsy tongue and scowling face and too-tall height that made everyone immediately assume he would resort to violence as his first and only argument.

So he trained alone and studied alone, or with Lan Xichen in the rare times when his friend was free, but it was boring, and anyway, he thought he’d gotten on pretty well with Lan Wangji the first time they’d met. It wouldn’t be a real spar, of course, not against a six-year-old, but doing the moves slow and mirroring a smaller opponent would force him to pay close attention to his own technique, which would pay off in the long run.

He explained this to Lan Wangji when the boy frowned up at him in what Nie Mingjue was starting to be able to identify as a silent question – he didn’t use many words himself, just spat out “Mirroring improves technique,” and saw that Lan Wangji understood the rest – and a moment later Lan Wangji nodded and rose to his feet, picking up one of the practice swords and taking a position opposite him on one of the fields.

Nie Mingjue started with a standard warm-up routine, unsure of Lan Wangji’s skills. Supposedly he was the opposite of Nie Huaisang in this respect, too, startlingly advanced for his age, but Lan Qiren had also said something about him pausing his sword training as a result of some incident, not specified; his father had nodded in response as if he’d understood, which was very unhelpful to the eavesdropping Nie Mingjue, who didn’t. Since he didn’t know the background of the incident or when Lan Wangji had picked up sword training again, and more to the point wasn’t inclined to ask since he knew that Lan Wangji wouldn’t enjoy explaining, he just started out with the basics and went up slowly from there.

It turned out his concerns were mostly unnecessary – Lan Wangji was a bit stiff at first, maybe because of the kneeling he’d been doing, but he clearly had the basics down flat, and they were able to progress to something a little more interesting quick enough, trading very slow swipes with saber and sword.

Nie Mingjue didn’t even notice that they had an audience until he heard Lan Xichen say his name in a strangled voice. He finished the follow-through of the move they were on, since stopping in the middle could be dangerous (not for them, not with training swords, but in the future, when it was real, and forming good habits now would help more later on), saluted Lan Wangji with his saber and was saluted in return, and then turned to look for his friend.

Lan Xichen was staring at them as if they’d turned into ghosts, and there was a whole crowd of Lan sect disciples standing around gawking at them instead of doing their own training.

Nie Mingjue hunched up his shoulders, assuming he’d somehow managed to do something wrong again, and automatically stepped in front of Lan Wangji, blocking the others’ views of him. “I challenged him,” he said bluntly, hoping to take the brunt of whatever punishment would need to be imposed here – generally speaking, he’d learned that the Lan sect’s penalties for being lured into misbehavior were less than the penalties for instigating it. “He didn’t seem otherwise occupied.”

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, or started to say, but Lan Wangji was already turning to put away his training sword. He then formally saluted his brother and trotted away from the training field entirely.

Lan Xichen watched him go without stopping him, then turned to Nie Mingjue. “Mingjue-xiong, how did you get him to fight you?”

Nie Mingjue blinked, confused. “I asked.”

“Yes, but – how?”

“I asked him to train with me,” Nie Mingjue said slowly, not sure if he was missing something. “I pointed out that mirroring improves technique. He probably did it as a favor to me…listen, do you need me to copy lines or something?”

“Copy lines?”

“For whatever rule I just broke,” Nie Mingjue clarified, but Lan Xichen only looked more confused. “Was it because he was kneeling and I interrupted him?”

Everyone is staring at me again and I don’t know why, again. Just tell me what it is that I did, impose the punishment, and I won’t do it again, I promise – but you need to tell me what it was that I did wrong first.

“Mingjue-xiong,” Lan Xichen said, staring at him even more strangely now. “You didn’t break any rules at all.”

That was even weirder. “But –”

“Wangji was kneeling because that’s what he always does during training hours,” Lan Xichen said. “He doesn’t train the sword anymore.”

“He – doesn’t?” Nie Mingjue asked, now even more confused, and in his confusion forgot that he was in the Lan sect with their carefully thought-out sentences and myriad of prickly unwritten rules. “Why not? He’s so good at it! And he seemed to be having a good time, too…listen, I know your sect prizes musical cultivation, Xichen, and that it’s often one or the other, but there’s really no reason he can’t do both.”

He belatedly realized he was talking too much and shut his mouth, embarrassed. He shouldn’t have brought up that subject.

After all, Qingheng-jun had been a sword cultivator with little interest in music beyond battle-songs  – still was, Nie Mingjue supposed, although he was in seclusion so much that it might as well be ‘had been’ – and Lan Qiren was an expert at musical cultivation, skilled in both xiao and guqin, but used his sword only to fly.  They’d been trained that way, complementary to each other’s strengths – Qingheng-jun the attacking hand, Lan Qiren the supporting arm – which was a pretty decent plan right up until it had all rather been ruined when Qingheng-jun had for whatever reason retreated from the world.

“Of course,” Lan Xichen echoed, and luckily he didn’t seem to notice the implied criticism. “He should, of course, if he wants to…Mingjue-xiong, I’m sorry, I have to go again, I need to talk to my uncle at once. But you should feel free to challenge Wangji again – in fact, I would appreciate it if you did. Liu-xiong, can you tell Mingjue-xiong what Wangji’s training hours are?”

One of the other Lan disciples nodded, and Lan Xichen flashed them both a thankful smile before disappearing again, even though he’d promised that his uncle only needed him for half a day and that they’d be able to go down to visit Caiyi Town that afternoon.

As a result, despite Lan Xichen’s assurances, Nie Mingjue still had the distinct feeling that he’d done something wrong, but he really couldn’t see what. Best not to think too much about it, he supposed.

-

By the afternoon, Nie Mingjue had retreated to the library to avoid being stared at. He’d thought that the indirect sneers and silent rigid politeness that invited no familiarity was bad, but apparently it was actively worse when the Lan sect disciples treated him like he’d just turned into a performing monkey that had done a neat trick. They still wouldn’t condescend to talk to him, of course, but they felt no issue staring or talking to each other about him – even though Nie Mingjue was sure there was a rule about not talking behind people’s backs.

Maybe it didn’t count if you did it in front of their faces.

Nie Mingjue actually rather liked the library, despite the Lan sect’s general tendency to treat him like an illiterate ape that only knew how to swing a saber – even Lan Xichen had looked a little puzzled the first time he’d asked to spend the afternoon there, though of course he hadn’t said anything out loud beyond reminding Nie Mingjue that they didn’t have to go there and that it wasn’t necessary to sacrifice his own enjoyment for Lan Xichen’s.

It wasn’t his friend’s fault that he was brought up to prefer those were gentle and scholarly, Nie Mingjue reminded himself, even if it chafed a little every time that Lan Xichen automatically sided with someone who could express themselves better, someone cleverer with words than he; that trait was common to just about everyone at the Cloud Recesses, and at least Lan Xichen would eventually listen to him if he kept his temper under control and persisted in trying to make his point.

Nie Mingjue might wish that the Lan sect didn’t view losing one’s temper as an automatic forfeit of the argument – do not succumb to rage had been whispered in his vicinity more times than he could count, though rarely to his face – and he might think in his heart of hearts think that they were simply wrong in dismissing his viewpoint just because he felt too strongly about a matter to contain himself, but he was a guest here and he needed to respect their ways, conform himself to their customs, even if it upset and disturbed him to do so.

At least sometimes those ways and customs served him, including in the deliberate air of quiet contemplation in the Library Pavilion. There were separate rooms for private study, of course, but an emphasis was put on preserving the tranquility of the location, and it seemed that the Lan disciples at least knew enough shame to avoid coming to gawk at him from the door when he was there.

Deciding to entertain himself, Nie Mingjue picked out several books on military strategy utilizing musical cultivation – just because he was all but tone-deaf didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate the power of the Lan sect’s core techniques – and settled down for a nice afternoon of being alone.

Until, of course, he wasn’t.

He was pretty absorbed in an analysis of altitude effects on range attacks for a while, deaf and blind to the outside world the way he usually was when he was reading, and then, perhaps alerted by some sound, he looked up to find that the sun had shifted position and also that Lan Wangji was sitting across from him with his own book primly laid out in front of him.

Nie Mingjue blinked and thought briefly about saying something. If it had been Nie Huaisang, he would have – some friendly jibe that Nie Huaisang would return in full measure, before they both settled down to enjoy each other’s company in communal silence – but this was Lan Wangji, who was a Lan, and probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

So he didn’t say anything, just looked back down at his book and continued reading.

After a little while, there was a tug at his sleeve.

Nie Mingjue looked up. Lan Wangji was pointing to one of the words in his book – “Frivolous,” he said, assuming that Lan Wangji was asking for assistance with the more complicated characters the way that Nie Huaisang would have, albeit with much less whining. “Means lacking purpose or value.”

Lan Wangji nodded, released his sleeve, and returned to his reading.

They carried on in this fashion for a while, quiet reading interspersed with occasional reading comprehension questions, and it was nice. Nie Mingjue could feel the stress of the day slowly sliding off his shoulders – more than just the day, maybe the whole week, the entire time he’d been here, or even before, when Nie Huaisang burst into tears at finding out his big brother was going to be leaving him behind. He would need to write to him again soon, Nie Mingjue thought to himself, and send presents; he’d been hoping to pick something up in Caiyi Town today, but then Lan Xichen had gotten busy…

It’d be nice if he could get him something from the Cloud Recesses itself, though.

“Wangji,” he said before he could stop himself. “What is a present you would get for someone who likes pretty things?”

Lan Wangji blinked up at him, then frowned. Nie Mingjue was pretty sure that it was a thinking frown, though, so he just waited, and sure enough Lan Wangji carefully closed his book and stood up.

“Flowers,” he said, and held out a hand as if to help Nie Mingjue up.

Nie Mingjue long ago learned that when a small child offers to help you, you accept regardless of whether or not they were actually capable of performing the action in question – though with Lan sect arm strength, who even knew – so he took Lan Wangji’s hand and scrambled up to his feet.

“Flowers?” he asked, a little dubiously. “I don’t know if they’d survive being sent by post.”

“Flower petals,” Lan Wangji clarified. “Pressed.”

Nie Mingjue blinked, but actually, no, that sounded perfect for Nie Huaisang. Especially if he got them pressed into a bookmark or something.

“My brother will love it,” he said enthusiastically. “Do you know where there are good flowers?” He knew himself well enough not to even try to make that sort of judgment call. “Can you show me?”

Lan Wangji frowned, and this one wasn’t his thinking frown – it seemed sad, almost.

“You don’t have to,” Nie Mingjue assured him, but Lan Wangji set his shoulders in a look of fierce six-year-old determination and he nodded as if he was going to go to war. “Really, if you don’t want to interrupt your reading –”

“The place is sad,” Lan Wangji said. “But it has the best flowers.”

Nie Mingjue frowned. He could tell from the way Lan Wangji’s little lips were firmed up in stubborn intent that there would be no stopping him, that he was determined to get Nie Mingjue the best flowers – truly, Lan Wangji was such a good boy, unlike that junior hellspawn and walking calamity named Nie Huaisang – but also that he thought it would hurt him to do so.

He didn’t want Lan Wangji to hurt.

“Do you want to ride on my shoulders this time?” Nie Mingjue asked, and Lan Wangji looked at him in surprise. He shrugged. “Sometimes having a different perspective on the same place makes it feel different.”

He knew he was butchering the explanation – he really wasn’t good with words – but he didn’t know how else to explain it.

He didn’t know how to explain that he used to spend days and days looking at the place where Nie Huaisang’s mother had gone in to give birth and never come back out, equally drawn and repulsed by it, right up until the day he climbed up the gate of the Unclean Realm on a dare and by coincidence happened to see it when he looked down from that great height, only to realize that the place he’d thought of as dark and depressing and even haunted was just a room like all the rooms right beside it: he couldn’t even tell it apart from the rest.

“…mn,” Lan Wangji said, sounding doubtful, but he hopped onto Nie Mingjue’s back when offered and scrambled up to sit on his shoulders, ducking his head to avoid the doorway to the Library Pavilion as they exited out the side door, and then he showed him the way to a nice looking cottage that seemed a little out of the way but which was surrounded by what were undoubtedly lovely purple gentians.

“Wow,” Nie Mingjue couldn’t help but say. “They’re very – purple.”

Lan Wangji poked him in the head.

“They are! Very purple. I’m sure Huaisang will love them to a ridiculous degree and that my father will write me angry letters about trying to sell him to the Jiang sect again –” There was a very small snort from above his head. “In my defense, he was really annoying when he was a colicky baby, and at the time I thought the Jiang sect were pirates.”

Another snort, this time less small. Somewhat disdainful.

“Listen, they’re ‘known for their watercraft’, right? It was a perfectly reasonable mistake to make…”

Lan Wangji didn’t giggle the way Nie Huaisang did when Nie Mingjue clowned around for him, but he was smiling by the time he edged onto a nearby tree branch to get a particular blossom that Nie Mingjue had set his heart on, declaring it the fattest of all the flowers and thereby a necessary acquisition, and in the end they collected a full basket of the purple flowers, more than enough for a dozen pressed bookmarks.

The smile made Nie Mingjue feel like he accomplished something.

It was almost enough, even, to let him brush off all the stares they got as they walked back together, side-by-side.

-

Nie Mingjue reported to Lan Qiren’s study with a great deal of trepidation.

It only got worse when he saw Lan Xichen sitting there as well, and when Lan Qiren instructed his nephew to serve them all tea. Nie Mingjue was abruptly seized by the fear that something terrible had happened: that he’d broken some unknown rule and needed to be punished severely, that he’d failed all his tests, that they’d decided he wasn’t actually a good fit for the Cloud Recesses after all, that his father had been summoned to take him back home early in disgrace –

“You’ve been spending some time with Wangji of late,” Lan Qiren said.

Nie Mingjue nodded.

“Yesterday, you presented the craftsman with a basket of purple gentians. Did Wangji show you where to find them?”

“Yes,” Nie Mingjue said cautiously. “He helped me pick them.”

Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen exchanged glances.

Nie Mingjue somehow felt even more nervous.

“Was I not supposed to take them?” he asked. “Wangji said they’re his mother’s favorites.”

Lan Xichen dropped his cup.

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren said sternly, and Lan Xichen apologized and quickly cleaned it up. Luckily the cup had not shattered. “Nie-gongzi, to confirm, Wangji told you that himself?”

Nie Mingjue nodded.

Lan Qiren stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Nie-gongzi…if I were to tell you that Wangji has not spoken to anyone in nearly six months, what would you say?”

Nie Mingjue blinked.

“He also hasn’t trained with the sword in that time,” Lan Xichen interjected.

Nie Mingjue opened his mouth, then closed it. He had no idea what to say.

“Our mother died,” Lan Xichen explained, his brow creased in misery and concern. “Wangji didn’t really understand…it took a long time before he understood that he couldn’t see her any more.”

“Oh,” Nie Mingjue said, feeling uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, Xichen.”

Now it was Lan Xichen’s turn to blink. “Sorry? For what?”

“For your loss? I mean, she was your mother, too, right?” It occurred to Nie Mingjue that she might not be, the way his mother and Nie Huaisang’s mother weren’t the same, but he was pretty sure the Lan sect only allowed for one marriage, and the age gap between Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji was smaller than the one between him and Nie Huaisang…

“Yes,” Lan Xichen said. “She – was. Thank you.”

Lan Qiren made a thoughtful sound.

“If you’re asking if I did something to convince Wangji to come with me and do all that,” Nie Mingjue said, having finally figured out why he was sitting here having tea and being uncomfortable, “I really didn’t. It may just be that enough time has passed for the wound to scab over.”

“Perhaps,” Lan Qiren said.

“I think he feels bad for me?” Nie Mingjue hazarded. “I’m not sure. I’m still learning how to understand him.”

“The fact that you’ve realized that there’s something there to understand puts you way ahead of most people,” Lan Xichen told him.

“Why would he feel bad for you?” Lan Qiren asked.

Because your sect is full of snobs that all hate me.

“Uh,” Nie Mingjue said. “I – have no idea.”

Lan Xichen frowned at him. “Mingjue-xiong, ‘do not tell lies’ is a rule.”

“So is ‘do not insult people’,” Nie Mingjue said sulkily, and refused to say another word no matter how many ways Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen asked. He’d already figured out that not talking was the best way to avoid getting into trouble – the Lan sect was much more insular than the Nie sect, with all sorts of restrictions about getting brought in, and he didn’t have any confidence that expressing grievances would result in anything other than more shunning.

Eventually, Lan Qiren dismissed him, frowning, and Lan Xichen escorted him back to his rooms.

“Is it because you don’t trust me?” he asked, and Nie Mingjue stared at him.

“What are you talking about?” he said. “Of course I trust you. You’re my friend.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me that there was something wrong?” Lan Xichen demanded. “And don’t say nothing’s wrong, that’s obviously a lie.”

“It’s because we’re friends,” Nie Mingjue said with a sigh. Most of the time, he forgot that there was an age gap between him and Lan Xichen – three and a half years, same as the gap between Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji – but sometimes it really hit home. “I don’t want to make trouble for you. This is just a place I’m staying for a little while, but you live here; after I go, we’ll still be friends, but you’ll still be stuck with whatever mess I make for you.”

Lan Xichen was scowling, his lower lip trembling a little, and Nie Mingjue cautiously reached out a hand to put on his shoulder, squeezing. He would prefer to give him a hug, but he didn’t know if it would be welcome – he’d already told Lan Xichen that he himself was always open for hugs, but he knew very well that Lan Xichen was uncomfortable with too much contact.

“It’s all right,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” Lan Xichen said. “Wangji noticed that you were unhappy, and I didn’t! What kind of friend am I?”

“You’re a good friend,” Nie Mingjue insisted. “You are. It’s not about you. I promise.”

They still hadn’t resolved it by the time Lan Xichen left him at his room. Nie Mingjue sighed, hoped that he hadn’t inadvertently ruined everything, and went to sleep.

The next morning, he woke up when the door to his room opened abruptly with a slam that seemed, in his sleep-fogged brain, to echo throughout the entire Cloud Recesses.

“Mingjue-xiong!”

“…Xichen?” Nie Mingjue said, and rubbed his eyes disbelievingly. “Did you just slam a door?”

It wasn’t really a slam. It was a small shove, at best.

“Why didn’t you tell me people were being mean to you?” Lan Xichen demanded, and Nie Mingjue stared at him. “I would’ve made them stop! Really, I would have! I don’t care if they’re Lan sect and you’re not, they shouldn’t be – I shouldn’t be – making assumptions about you or pushing you out or – or – or anything!”

“Where did you get all of this from?” Nie Mingjue asked, utterly at sea. He was right, of course, about the problems Nie Mingjue had been having, but he certainly hadn’t known it last night before curfew and while, yes, it was only morning by the standards of guest disciples and not Lan sect members themselves – he got an extra shichen to sleep in while he adjusted to the earlier schedule, of which he generally tried to use only half – it still seemed a little implausible that Lan Xichen had managed to puzzle all of that out overnight.

“Wangji!” Lan Xichen said, and threw himself on the bed next to Nie Mingjue and gave him a hug, a good proper one like the ones he used to get all the time back in Qinghe and which he missed rather terribly. “He actually came and talked to us! With words! Well, a few words, anyway, but he hasn’t said anything to Shifu or me for six months up until now. He said you were unhappy because of the other Lan disciples persisted in thinking that you were stupid and angry when you’re neither.”

Nie Mingjue felt warm inside.

“Your brother’s smart,” he said gruffly.

“He is,” Lan Xichen said. “I’m sorry if I made you feel like I also thought you were stupid and angry and nothing more than that. I know you’re not.”

“I didn’t think that,” Nie Mingjue said, and it was mostly not a lie. “We’re friends, aren’t we? A friend wouldn’t think that about another friend.”

“That’s right,” Lan Xichen said, nodding firmly. “And friends don’t let friends go around thinking they didn’t do anything when they did something big – I still don’t know what exactly you did, Mingjue-xiong, but you helped Wangji a lot, and I’m eternally grateful.”

“There’s no need for thanks between friends,” Nie Mingjue reminded him, the first rule of their friendship formed in the spaces between discussion conferences that neither of them had any choice but to attend, and Lan Xichen smiled.

“I know,” he said warmly, and Nie Mingjue felt warm in response. “But I’m going to abuse my privilege and ask you to keep spending time with him – with both of us, sometimes, but with him by yourself if you don’t mind – so I think you’re owed at least one ‘thanks’.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Nie Mingjue said, grinning. “You just want a free babysitter, is that it?”

“It is not! Mingjue-xiong!”

Nie Mingjue started laughing. Lan Xichen smacked him – lightly by Lan standards, no doubt, but it was a good thing Nie Mingjue was as strong as he was.

“I don’t mind,” Nie Mingjue finally said. “I like your brother.”

Lan Xichen’s smile was as dazzling as the sun. “Good,” he said. “He likes you, too.”