I thiiiiink this is the saddest thing I've written in quite awhile. Sorry! :D
Just remember, all 400+ of y'all who follow me on twitter asked for this. Or like, some of you did. The ones who asked for my [redacted] rant did, at the very least.
In the aftermath of the siege on the Burial Mounds and the Yiling Patriarch's defeat, there are celebrations across the cultivation world among his numerous enemies, and ceaseless questions for any who could be considered sympathizers. There had been so much death and fear leading up to his fall that it can't vanish overnight, and while the world breathes a collective sigh of relief, Lan Xichen finds himself in the middle of a manhunt for his brother.
Hanguang-Jun is more devoted to defending the Yiling Patriarch than his own sect. Did you hear? He stood against GusuLan Sect elders to protect and conceal that Wei Wuxian!
I always thought Lan cultivators could be held to such a high standard, but who knows if he can be trusted now?
Lan Xichen knows that his brother is in no state to defend himself; Lan Wangji will be recovering from the wounds inflicted by the discipline whip for months and months. But the Cloud Recesses continues to receive summons for Lan Wangji's release, so Lan Xichen continues to write clear, polite, and firm responses: he has already been punished as the GusuLan Sect sees fit.
What if the Yiling Patriarch comes back? We don't know everything about his cultivation methods-
He could have a backup plan!
And if anyone would know, it would be Hanguang-Jun! But I hear that his sect is hiding him now that the Yiling Patriarch has died, because he has nowhere else to go.
What a shameful mistake.
Lan Xichen juggles arranging care for the young child that Lan Wangji recovered from the Burial Mounds - they don't discuss his origins, and Lan Xichen knows when to keep his mouth shut about someone's identity - between sending away representatives from various sects. They're looking for a final shot at Wei Wuxian's legacy and, unfortunately, his brother has become their target.
There is another disagreement between his two sworn brothers, though it barely registers as important with how much he is handling. He almost misses the letter from Nie Mingjue detailing it, among the many he has to sort through these days, and Lan Xichen is embarrassed to realize he's a month late to reading it. It's direct and not very subtly frustrated, and he carefully sets aside his current project to draft up a sympathetic reply while making a mental note to ask Jin Guangyao for his side later.
Another week passes, a flurry of meetings, and then another, and then a headache over the many challenges of proper childcare, and then—
Jin Guangyao arrives, unannounced but polite as always, to find Lan Xichen balancing A-Yuan on one leg and shuffling through old reports with his free arm.
"Ah, Er-ge- bad timing?" he asks from the doorway.
Lan Xichen gives him a tired smile. "A-Yao," he says fondly, because his bright smile truly is a sight for sore eyes. "Never. Please, come in. I'm always happy to see you."
Jin Guangyao enters and sits across from him, making himself comfortably while Lan Xichen continues to try to sort the pile of Sunshot Campaign reports one-handed. They sit in a comfortable quiet for a bit, only the sound of rustling papers breaking it up, and slowly, he feels like he can breathe a bit easier.
"Do you want me to take him?" Jin Guangyao asks, gesturing at A-Yuan, who has been creeping towards another pile of scrolls. Lan Xichen sighs, trying to reign him in, and Jin Guangyao chuckles. "Hand him over, Er-ge. You're doing too much at once."
He passes A-Yuan over gratefully. "Thank you."
"Of course. I came by because you sent me a nearly incomprehensible letter, and I thought you might be a bit overwhelmed," he explains, carefully removing the cords of his hat from A-Yuan's curious grasp.
Lan Xichen feels his cheeks burn- had he really sent out something that even Jin Guangyao couldn't decode? What else has he done recently hasn't been up to standard? "I'm sorry, I must have sent it off without thinking. I didn't mean to worry you."
"It's no trouble. I know you have a lot going on," Jin Guangyao assures him.
"Thank you," he says sincerely. "It's good to see a friendly face."
He nods sympathetically. "Is it that bad?"
"On and off. Wangji is still recovering, and will be for awhile, but some sects are very insistent about pursuing him," Lan Xichen explains, pushing aside his papers. "Let me get us some tea."
"Do you want me—" Jin Guangyao tries, only for Lan Xichen to hold up a hand.
"Let me at least try to be a good host. You're already holding A-Yuan," he says before busying himself with the tea set.
"Alright, alright, that's a fair point," Jin Guangyao allows, and it's followed up by a brilliant burst of laughter from A-Yuan. "Oh, do you agree?"
Lan Xichen smiles, a truer one than any he's worn recently, and returns with the pot and cups. "Are you two going to gang up on me now?"
Jin Guangyao gives him a mischievous smile. "If it will help you slow down, perhaps…"
"But will you listen to your own advice?" he teases fondly, serving Jin Guangyao first.
There's a delicate flush on Jin Guangyao's face that he gracefully hides behind a sleeve, but not before Lan Xichen can see it. "Er-ge worries too much."
"I just want you to be happy," he says, serving himself and taking a long drink of the warm tea. "And I know you well enough to know that helping others brings you joy, but you should remember to take care of yourself, too."
There's a moment where something unreadable flashes across Jin Guangyao's face and a fond thoughtfulness lingers in his eyes. "I'm happy with you," he says, so very softly that Lan Xichen almost doesn't hear it.
"A-Yao—" he begins, and gets cut off.
"You're right. I do want others to be taken care of. So let me help you," he says, still smiling as kindly as before, but Lan Xichen feels like he's missed something small and yet so very important. "I'll talk to my father about these accusations against Lan Wangji. I'm sure they're unfounded- or at the very least, no other sect's business."
"I know your station in Lanling is still precarious," Lan Xichen tries.
Jin Guangyao shakes his head. "Even so, I insist. If I can take some of the stress from your shoulders, then it's worth it."
"How many times are you going to save me, A-Yao?" he muses, smiling into his tea.
"At least a few more, hopefully," he answers, voice warm with an honest, fond protectiveness. With Jin Guangyao, everything can slow down and they can just be, relaxed and together, for at least a little.
In the aftermath of the betrayal at Guanyin Temple, there is confusion and celebration and blame being tossed around, because no one quite knows what to make of the messy situation left behind. Public opinion had shifted so quickly that some cultivators are still reeling, but overall, it's been declared a successful defeat.
Did you hear? Zewu-Jun delivered the final blow!
It's good to know that the GusuLan Sect can still be counted on to defeat any evil in the world, even if there's a personal connection.
Right! A hero for the world, once again…
The return to the Cloud Recesses is a hazy blur of muscle memory and unhappy, uncomfortable stares. He sits though questions from his uncle and sect elders quietly, his agitation having faded into resigned silence, and in the end, Lan Xichen excuses himself to his chambers without being able to give any useful explanations.
In the haunting quiet of the evening, sitting in his room where everything looks the same despite knowing that nothing ever will be again, Lan Xichen realizes that Lan Wangji vanished in the commotion, presumably with Wei Wuxian in tow. His brother wouldn't be able to answer any of the questions burning in Lan Xichen's mind, but—
A word or two of comfort, of quiet togetherness, with one of the few people in the world who might be able to understand what he's going through, would be nice. It would be something, a solid, familiar anchor, but—
But he's alone.
There's no restful sleep for him, despite his exhaustion, because every time he closes his eyes, he sees every horrible second in the Guanyin Temple play out, and there's nowhere for him to seek comfort.
When morning dawns, Lan Xichen methodically gathers a few necessities and makes his way out to the far reaches of the Cloud Recesses. There is a still a small cottage here, the perfect dwelling for someone who needs to spend some time to themselves, thinking over their life and the painful mistakes within it.
Lan Qiren finds him later.
"How long do you intend to stay out here, Xichen?" his uncle asks, trying for sympathy, but Lan Xichen can hear the tightness in his voice that comes from being stretched too thin.
"I just need some time," he answers. He doesn't want to lie; he isn't sure how long he'll need yet. Lan Xichen knows there must be a lot to handle at the moment, but trying to think about cleaning everything up and facing the world is too much to process.
"Wangji hasn't returned yet," Lan Qiren tells him - a statement of fact but also a clear message: he alone is balancing every part of the sect right now.
"I thought he was merely taking his time," Lan Xichen says flatly. "I'm sorry, Uncle. I don't know where he went off to."
They both know that he's not answering the right questions, but Lan Qiren simply sighs. "I will let you know when he does, then," he says. There's a moment where it feels like he has something more to tell him, some sort of wisdom or comfort to share, but it passes. "Do take care of yourself promptly."
Lan Xichen nods. "Good day, then," he replies. The conversation is over and he wants to return to his solitude before he can think anymore about the disappointment he'll be for hiding away in here.
He knows there's so much to be done; he's lived this once before, just from a different angle. The fall of the Yiling Patriarch caused less of a political shake up then this is bound to, and it was his desire to prevent Lan Wangji from further blackening of his reputation and harsher punishments that threw him deeply into it.
Multiple sect leaders are gone, decades of lies exposed, and he's sure that anyone with any closeness to—
He's sure many alliances will be drawn into question, policies rewritten or thrown out, and no one will want to trust any of the LanlingJin Sect's closest supporters.
There are lies and fears and a need to point fingers so that the living can be punished, even though everyone at fault is already dead.
And he can't—
Lan Xichen can't defend himself or his actions, and he certainly can't speak for Jin Guangyao's. He can't distance himself enough to continue rationally, to slip into his practiced routine while also drowning in the fall out from this, and the weight of it leaves him gasping for breath.
He needs time, and if nothing else, he can rely on Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren to cover for him while he takes it.
Months pass before Lan Wangji returns, leaving the weight of three people on Lan Qiren's shoulders. Lan Xichen can see it on his uncle's face, long after he's stopped asking how long until he returns to his duties. There's a frustrated undercurrent to his words and a constant hint of exhaustion from balancing day to day sect business, teaching, and assigning other disciples to temporarily cover Lan Wangji's responsibilities.
He knows he should step up, but—
He can't take it on again, not yet.
On the eve of the first hints of snow, Lan Wangji comes to see him.
"Brother," he says, hesitating at the door. He looks well; months without stress or responsibilities giving him a lightness he hasn't had in years.
"Come in, Wangji. It's good to see you again," Lan Xichen. "Did you just get back?"
He comes to sit by Lan Xichen. "Last night."
"I'm glad you've returned safely," he tells him. It's the truth - he wants nothing but the best for his brother, even if his romantic taste is terrible - but he has selfish reasons for wanting him back as well.
"Mm. Wei Ying and I are married now," he says with delicate fondness, and it pulls Lan Xichen from his thoughts. Lan Wangji isn't asking for permission or appraisal, only sharing something important to him and trusting Lan Xichen to handle it kindly.
He smiles, something he can't help, even if happiness is so far from him that it has become a foreign concept. "Congratulations. It's been a long wait for you."
Once, 13 years ago, Lan Xichen balanced the weight of his brother's mistakes and poor judgment with his regular responsibilities, took in the Wen child, concealed his identity while raising him, until Lan Wangji could face the world again, and never once complained. He just wanted to help, and it was what he had to do to keep everything from falling apart around him.
"I shouldn't keep you," Lan Xichen says, before frustration manages to break through the dull ache of loss that rules his existence.
"Brother—" Lan Wangji begins, and Lan Xichen holds up a hand to stop him.
"It's alright. We'll talk later," he assures him, and ushers his brother out.
In the aftermath of—
There's no third tragedy that affects Lan Xichen personally, just the two that drove him to fix things and give up in equal amounts. The world continues outside his room, with peace and strife and everything in between, but—
He shouldered so much that he nearly worked himself to the bone, and his only saving grace at that time was Jin Guangyao. Jin Guangyao, who could recognize his own tendency for overworking himself in Lan Xichen and tried to lighten the load, despite everything he was balancing, too. Lan Xichen never complained, never thought to, least of all to Lan Wangji, despite how much it hurt to reach out to comfort his brother and be turned away, time and time again.
Even now, he can't turn his brother away, even now that hurt and betrayal have become his constant companions, because he can't imagine knowingly allowing his Lan Wangji to feel the sting that comes from being turned down by family. He can still force a smile and listen, until the inevitable sad disappointment settles on his brother's face when he realizes that Lan Xichen still has no intention of leaving his self-imposed seclusion.
I never made you feel guilty for grieving and recovering at your own pace! he wants to yell, but instead asks how the newest group of juniors is doing.
I convinced the entire cultivation world to forgive you for your involvement with the Yiling Patriarch! he wants to shout when his brother asks for his opinion on one of Wei Wuxian's newest inventions, but instead Lan Xichen smiles as warmly as he can and politely looks it over.
I fixed the problems you caused for yourself! he wants to point out, but instead listens patiently while Lan Wangji goes over policy changes for his input.
I raised a child for you, one you took in when you couldn't even take care of yourself! he wants to scream when Lan Wangji tells him about an upcoming discussion conference, but Lan Xichen merely gives his apologies for his inability to attend.
Lan Xichen gave his youth and adulthood to his sect and family and never asked for anything in return, and now that he needs to be alone, they can't even give him that.
At this point, Lan Xichen is resigned to his fate. He knows every responsibility that he's shirking, but he can't bring himself to care. Someone else can care. Someone else can fix it. Someone else can figure out where to go from here, because—
He did so much for so long and it only ended in tragedy. Perhaps it's for the best that he step aside. Someone else will make better decisions than he did.