apologies for the late posting- seclusion is really starting to get to me! I don't know how poor Xichen can stand it without losing his mind, though I suppose I do write about just that concept a lot...like right now :D written for day five of Xichen Week: Responsibility.
Not even the sect leader is above punishment for disobeying the rules of the GusuLan Sect. They're there to instruct cultivators how to live, and if even one person was allowed an exception, then all order would fall apart. Being willing to face judgment and take responsibility for one's actions is required; otherwise, how could one be considered a proper disciple?
Lan Xichen accepts his punishment without complaint, despite the sadness in his uncle's eyes and his brother's absence. The sect elders decided on a punishment to fit his crimes, and he is in no position to argue.
For the crime of allowing evil to exist and turning a blind eye…
For the crime of sharing sect secrets with someone not of the GusuLan Sect…
For the crime of failing to protect innocent lives…
For the crime of conspiring with a murderer…
He sits in silence as his failures are quantified into the specifics of how he failed as a sect leader and representative of his sect. Every decision he made led to the suffering of others. Every skill he learned fell into the wrong hands. He can't be trusted anymore.
Lan Xichen knows they're right, because despite it all, he still can't bring himself to completely denounce his friendship with Jin Guangyao. In his heart, he's not sure if he could prevent himself from making the same mistakes all over again. He wishes he could be sure. He deserves his sect's distrust and this punishment because he's still wracked with uncertainty.
And he knows that practicing secluded meditation is enough of a tradition that no one will question him. He doesn't want to face the cultivation world now. He doesn't deserve to be trusted with his sect's cultivation techniques anymore.
Weighed down with his failures, Lan Xichen doesn't fight the finality of his punishment.
Winter is colder than Lan Xichen expected. The first snowfall and deep freeze necessitate a constant fire in the hearth and thick, heavy robes, ones he'd only worn a handful of times before. Day to day life slogs by, with months of copying Righteousness only feeling different as the temperature drops and his fingers grow stiff with cold. In some ways, he feels like a little kid again, unable to regulate his body temperature or appetite while writing out the rules over and over.
Somehow, Lan Wangji hasn't questioned him about his punishment, though he doubts his brother knows the extent of it. Lan Xichen doesn't feel the need to tell him. Why worry his brother over something so trivial, especially now that he's gotten the happiness with Wei Wuxian he always wanted?
No, it's better this way. It's his penance to serve, and his alone. No one forced him to turn a blind eye to Jin Guangyao's crimes. No one asked him to smooth things over when they went wrong, not even Jin Guangyao. He chose, over and over again, to protect his sworn brother, and no one else should have to suffer for his mistakes.
Lan Xichen pulls fur-lined robes tighter around himself and watches the sun dip beneath the horizon. Another day gone, another day of reflection past.
Lan Xichen has a small box of personal affects tucked away in the back of the cottage. His seclusion is meant to be free of distractions, but he couldn't resist one last broken rule. Perhaps someday he'll do better.
Today, he picks through faded letters. He should destroy them. He should destroy his failures or he'll never move past them. But Jin Guangyao is dead and gone, and Lan Xichen has no way to commune with any wayward spirits, so he allows himself the luxury of rereading almost two decades of communication. If he lies to himself, he can believe it's to learn from his mistakes, instead of missing someone undeserving of his grief.
He shouldn't lie. Jin Guangyao deserves his grief, however terrible his actions were.
He shouldn't let his heart linger on the past, except in the form of regret.
He shouldn't keep reading them, but without any other responsibilities left, he can't stop himself.
He can't blame the sect elders for his punishment; his lack of restraint is proof that he's failed to learn from his mistakes. A single tear lands on the letter in his trembling hands and he does his best to salvage it before the ink can run. There's only so much of the Jin Guangyao he thought he knew left in the world, and he doesn't plan on losing anymore of it.
Lan Xichen wants to believe he was more than the monster the world sees him as now. The barest ghost of a smile pulls at his lips before he shakes his head. Mementos alone won't change the past or fix the future.
Loneliness and grief are integral parts of his punishment; he'll never be the cultivator he was before, and he's meant to meditate on that for the rest of his days. He's meant to use this solitude to understand the depths of his mistakes and learn how to prevent future failures, but Lan Xichen knows that seclusion is a pretty word for imprisonment.
He doesn't blame any of them. Even if he hadn't been sentenced to this life, he doesn't think he'll even feel like he can return to the person he used to be. That life is over.
Lan Xichen sits quietly in his peaceful solitude and watches the world go on without him.
In solitude, he slowly loses his grip on reality. It's strange; Lan Xichen didn't expect this sort of side effect. But he's unable to center himself properly now, and his mind seems intent on giving him the strangest attempts at comfort. He hears voices in the emptiness of his home, sees flashes of people and times long gone, and—
There's not much he can do about it. There's no cure for losing your sense of self, and Lan Xichen only knows how to fall further into his well-deserved punishment.
"Er-ge," whispers the wind, beckoning him closer in the heavy warmth of a midsummer evening. It's so clear, so specific, so nostalgic, that he can't help but open his home to investigate the inevitable emptiness. Darkness greets him, barely illuminated by the slivers of light from inside, and Lan Xichen steps onto the porch.
"Zewu-Jun," the barest hint of Jin Guangyao's voice pleads. There's a weight in the air, the heat almost solid in its misery. It's the probable cause of his newest delusions, but he's seized by a rare curiosity to explore it further. Either that, or he's truly lost the last of his self-restraint.
"I'm sorry," he hears, and Lan Xichen knows that whatever it is, it's born of wishful thinking and loneliness, nothing more. But he is a weak man who has learned nothing from his mistakes, and he greets his imagined companion warmly.
"Welcome," Lan Xichen says, voice raspy from disuse, and from the murky shadows of dusk, a figure emerges.
"Er-ge," the spectre of Jin Guangyao says, details coming into focus as he glides closer.
Lan Xichen forgets decades of cultivation studies and steps aside. Never allow a ghost of walking corpse through a doorway, or you'll never be able to keep them out. However, Jin Guangyao is neither of those things, and Lan Xichen has never learned how to say no to him.
"Can you still stand to look at me?" Jin Guangyao asks, an unfamiliar hesitation in his voice. Or- no, he recognizes it from years past, from desperately worrying that his father would never truly accept him. It's a fear of not being wanted and not being seen as who he strives to be, and so much has changed between them that it's a fair concern. But Lan Xichen has never wanted anything to come between them, even now. Even after the lies that shattered his trust and the years of punishment he's received.
"Always, A-Yao," he answers, and the ghostly vision follows him inside.
Perhaps he should worry about the spectre that lingers in his home and follows him around. Perhaps he should mention it to someone. Perhaps it's another problem that shouldn't be ignored.
But perhaps Lan Xichen wants to allow himself to be selfish and enjoy Jin Guangyao's company again. He's not real, so where's the harm? He's just—
He's just so, so lonely.
Perhaps he doesn't deserve this sliver of comfort, but he cherishes it while he can.
"Zewu-Jun, have you really been in secluded meditation this whole time?" Jin Guangyao asks him, politely seated across from Lan Xichen as he copies a section of Righteousness.
"Of course. It's so I can properly consider my mistakes and understand their consequences," he answers, giving him a soft smile. It simply is what it is.
Jin Guangyao exhales in polite frustration, and worry settles on his brow as he looks over Lan Xichen's sorry state. "Yes, but it's been years now, hasn't it? Do you plan on staying out here forever?"
Lan Xichen doesn't have it in him to be embarrassed, though, and shakes his head. "It's fine, A-Yao."
He doesn't have an answer. How can he put his feelings into words? He supposes that's what having a hallucinated memory of a friend is for: working through his tangled mess of emotions. "It's hard to explain."
Jin Guangyao gives him a comforting smile. "I don't have anywhere else I'd rather be." Lan Xichen has missed his fond patience. .
"Even without this punishment, I wouldn't be able to return to my old life," he says slowly, carefully trying to find the words as he goes. "I don't know how I could with how I feel now."
"No grief lasts forever, Er-ge."
"Don't lie, A-Yao."
He chuckles, but there's very little mirth to it. "I suppose you caught me. But I was hoping you wouldn't waste your grief on me. Not for this long."
Lan Xichen smiles tightly. "It's not easy to lose a friend, and even harder without proper closure," he says, not quite meeting Jin Guangyao's eyes. The longer he lingers, the harder it is to remember that he isn't really here, and Lan Xichen is struggling to push through it. "So whether my seclusion is required or not, I find it necessary."
"For how long?"
"As long as need be."
"And whose decision is that? It's not like the Lan Sect to be so imprecise when meting out a punishment."
Lan Xichen eyes him with curiosity. "You're upset about this."
Jin Guangyao's perfectly measured smile slips. "I don't like seeing you punished for my actions."
"I'm being punished for my failure to prevent them and my weak morals," he explains patiently. "Not your actions."
He clenches his hands together, a subtle sign of internal frustrations that Lan Xichen recognizes and tries to ignore. "Ah, Er-ge…it's not your fault for trusting me," he says softly. "I desperately wanted you to protect me and my reputation, and went out of my way to keep you from finding the truths about anything that could ruin your trust in me."
"I always trusted you, even when I knew I shouldn't. I still can't make myself regret all of it," he says, trailing off at the end.
"That's why it's necessary. Punishment is taken seriously here; you know that," he manages, a reminder to himself as much as it's a statement of fact.
"I also know that having a sect leader kept in secluded meditation is a poor tradition to uphold," he shoots back.
There's fire in his words, and Lan Xichen knows he's one of the few who have heard him speak in anything but a respectful tone. But this…this is his lifelong friend, willing to speak up when something's wrong; he can be grateful for that. Even if there isn't anything that he'd change, Lan Xichen is always happy to hear Jin Guangyao's opinions.
"I know," Lan Xichen admits. "But what's done is done, and it's out of my hands now."
Jin Guangyao's frown deepens. "You sound so resigned, Er-ge. I don't like that you talk like it's meant to last the rest of your life."
"Sometimes, it's best to just take things as they are," he says, trying to put an end to the discussion. He doesn't want more reminders of his failures than he already has.
"Of course. Apologies, Zewu-Jun," he replies, bowing his head, and eventually, comfortable silence settles around them.
"Does Er-ge ever play music anymore?" Jin Guangyao asks idly, watching Lan Xichen clean up the remnants of his breakfast. His long, musician's fingers stack the dishes neatly so they can be taken away and cleaned. .
Lan Xichen shakes his head. "I haven't felt the need."
He chuckles lightly. "Not even to banish a pesky ghost? I'm touched that you've let me intrude for this long."
"Ghosts can't get past the barrier," Lan Xichen says without thinking, as though Jin Guangyao could be anything but a hallucination.
"Come now, Er-ge. I know every inch of the Cloud Recesses and its borders, almost as well as my own home. There are ways," he says.
Lan Xichen sighs, turning over a page. "If there are gaps in our security, I wish you would just tell me."
Jin Guangyao laughs again, a mischievous smile on his lips. "And reveal all my secrets? Where's the fun in that?" he teases. "Don't worry. No one else would be able to figure it out."
"I promise, there isn't a gaping hole. Though, is it really a concern when the Ghost General is allowed to come and go as he pleases?" he asks, leaning forward to meet his eyes.
Lan Xichen shuts his eyes, slowly breathing in and exhaling. The affairs of his brother, the Yiling Patriarch, and the Ghost General are a thing he is glad to miss in his seclusion. "I don't know much about that," he admits, fully ready to discuss this breach more thoroughly, until he catches himself. He's being ridiculous; Jin Guangyao's ghost is nothing more than a figment of his imagination, conjured up to fight his loneliness. He just has to keep reminding himself that he isn't actually here.
Jin Guangyao gives him a strange look. "I assure you, I am very much real. Not alive, but still here," he says, concern shining in his eyes as he meets Lan Xichen's. "I'm sure you've been lonely here, but—"
"Yes," he says firmly. "That's how I know my senses can't be trusted."
He sighs deeply and pinches the bridge of his nose. "While I don't disagree with you on that, I promise I'm here. If you won't believe your eyes, at least believe your cultivation. If you play 'Inquiry,' I'll answer."
Lan Xichen shakes his head. "Don't be ridiculous, A-Yao. I can't do that."
"Why not? I know you haven't played anything since I've been here, but that doesn't mean you have to stop cultivating forever," he says patiently, and coming from Jin Guangyao's mouth, it almost sounds reasonable. But there's a cold emptiness inside him to serve as a reminder that no, he'll never be the same.
"Inquiry is useless without spiritual energy," he says simply, and Jin Guangyao frowns again.
"Practicing secluded meditation doesn't forbid you from practicing cultivation," he says.
"Of course not."
"I, specifically, cannot." Does Jin Guangyao really need his explanation? He shouldn't, unless he isn't actually a hallucination, and then he'd have a very different problem to deal with.
Jin Guangyao leans further forward, enough that if he were alive, Lan Xichen would feel warm breath on his cheeks. "And why is that?"
"As part of my punishment, it's no longer possible."
His face shifts from frustration to worry as he eyes Lan Xichen intently. "I thought you were merely forced into isolation. What is the extent of your punishment?"
"Something that fits the severity of my actions," he answers.
"I know that you're being cagey to avoid having to lie," Jin Guangyao says fiercely. "Er-ge, what did they do to you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me."
"Please answer my question, Er-ge," he demands, polite without any room for disobedience.
Lan Xichen almost doesn't answer. Why rip that wound open again? But he'd be hypocritical to mourn all the lies and half-truths Jin Guangyao left behind, only to do that same thing. He takes a deep breath and the words catch in his throat, snared before he can properly formulate them. He hasn't told anyone; anyone who knows was part of the trial and sentencing process. Now, faced with having to explain himself, Lan Xichen begins to feel the true weight of it.
"Er-ge," Jin Guangyao says, interrupting him with a soft plea for his attention. "It's alright. I won't be upset with you."
The thought had never crossed his mind, but it's a comfort nonetheless. "I know. It's difficult to explain," Lan Xichen says, gently gripping the edge of the table. "I feel like I've said that to you a lot recently, but…it's another thing that's hard to put into words, I suppose. But it's rather simple. I was deemed unworthy of the responsibility that cultivation requires, and my golden core was suppressed."
Jin Guangyao's expression freezes on his face and there's silence between them at first. He looks at Lan Xichen like he's trying to make sense of what he's just heard, and Lan Xichen can tell the moment it's truly sunken in. Jin Guangyao's face goes from neutral to disgusted frustration and it's all he can do to keep from snapping. "They did what to you?"
"It's fine, A-Yao. It's the punishment the sect elders decided on," he says, which does nothing to slow Jin Guangyao's anger.
"I didn't ask if it was fine. I asked what they did," he says again. "What Lan sect technique suppresses a golden core? Why is this even an option?''
He doesn't quite meet Jin Guangyao's eyes. "I wasn't familiar with it before, but no one can know everything."
"Keeping secrets from the sect leader doesn't sound very righteous."
"What's done is done, A-Yao—"
"So it's permanent?"
"No," Lan Xichen answers automatically. Thinking back, he was never given a time frame, but it doesn't seem important. He's in no hurry to leave seclusion.
Jin Guangyao doesn't let up. "Are you sure of that?"
"No," he says again. "But it doesn't matter."
"Why not? It should. You can't waste the rest of your life like this."
"Why not, A-Yao? I'm willing to accept the consequences of my actions," Lan Xichen says firmly.
"And I'm here to tell you that it's too strict," he snaps.
He sighs. "It's not your decision to make. It was voted on and carried out without any complaints, and I don't intend to make trouble now."
Jin Guangyao straightens, standing tall and proud. Lan Xichen is going to have to deal with the very real possibility that he's not a hallucination, and he's not really sure how to. "What does your brother think of this? He's usually in charge of punishments."
"Wangji wasn't here." Because he was off on his honeymoon with Wei Wuxian. Because the entire cultivation world went up in flames, and Lan Xichen lost his closest friend, but Wangji had to take three months away instead of helping. Maybe it would have been different if Lan Wangji had been here for the trial, but Lan Xichen can't bring himself to be upset.
Apparently Jin Guangyao can, since his eyes narrow. "What do you mean he wasn't here? Deciding on a punishment for you, especially one so severe, shouldn't have been done without him."
"No one was sure when he'd return," he explains.
"And they couldn't wait?"
He shakes his head. "They were worried he might not come back, since he'd gone off with Wei Wuxian."
"Oh, I see," he says in exasperation. "Always here to pull your brother away from his responsibilities."
Lan Xichen doesn't have an answer. It's true, but he would hate to deny Lan Wangji a second chance with someone he never expected to see again. It's brought him so much joy; who is he to ruin it?
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't be so harsh," Jin Guangyao says apologetically, before Lan Xichen can come up with an answer. "I'm happy for him. Someone deserves to get something out of my tragedy, I suppose, and I'd rather it be your brother than Huaisang."
"At least I'm not alone in being bitter about the matter," he says without thinking. Being unable to let go of his grudge against someone for enacting their revenge is exactly why he's being punished.
Jin Guangyao sighs. "As clever as his plans were, I'm still more upset than impressed."
"Apparently, you can hold quite a grudge."
He laughs, muttering Huaisang's name under his breath, before his expression turns serious again. "Now, do you finally believe it's me, or do I have to think of other ways to prove myself? I'd rather move onto more important matters."
"I believe you," he admits. He can deal with the consequences later; he's just tired of being alone.
"Good," he says, smiling. It's one Lan Xichen recognizes from countless meetings shared, usually as a preface to tackling a particularly difficult project or proposal. "Tell me more about this inhumane punishment."
"I know it sounds extreme, but it's what was decided on," he says again. "Honestly, my excitement over your presence and willingness to let it continue is proof enough that I'm in no position to be trusted."
"Missing someone who hurt you doesn't make you weak," Jin Guangyao says softly, placing a hand over his. He can't feel it, but Lan Xichen can see it and feel the comfort of its symbolic presence.
"Thank you, A-Yao."
"Perhaps we can discuss this more later," he says, sitting down next to Lan Xichen. "Let's catch up, now that you understand that it's really me."
Lan Xichen smiles again, more honestly this time. "That sounds nice," he agrees, content to let something lost be remade.
One of the duties of the Second Jade of Lan is to play Inquiry for any wayward spirits lingering outside the Cloud Recesses. Jin Guangyao knows this, both because he's witnessed it personally, and because he memorized the sect's schedule well over a decade ago, and he knows the Lans rarely change their traditions.
If Lan Xichen won't open up, he'll get answers from someone far less likely to lie- and far more invested in his wellbeing.
Lan Wangji sets out his guqin with effortless grace that comes from decades of practice. Soft, purposeful notes fill the evening air and Jin Guangyao hangs back, unseen by all as he allows the few other spirits there to go first. His queries will take longer.
He watches the last spirit dissipate and puts himself within range. There's something terrifying about allowing himself to be bound to honesty, and if it was for anyone else, he doubts he'd go through with it. But he can't stand by while Lan Xichen wastes away.
'What is your name?' gentle notes ask, and Jin Guangyao feels both the compulsion to answer and his own guqin abilities flow through him.
'Jin Guangyao,' he answers with clear authority, and Lan Wangji's hands still momentarily.
'How did you die?' he asks, continuing the traditional pattern of questions without fail.
'I hardly think you'd forget so quickly,' he replies, proving to himself that he can stretch the definition of giving an answer if he spins it the right way and remains honest.
'Why are you here?'
'To talk to you,' Jin Guangyao explains, causing another pause in Lan Wangji's playing. It's hard to talk without a specific question to answer, though, and he has to wait patiently for him to continue.
'Does my brother know you're here?'
'Yes, that's why I'm speaking to you now,' he answers. Lan Wangji doesn't need to know that his brother is only aware of his presence in the Cloud Recesses, not their current conversation.
Jin Guangyao smiles pleasantly, even though he knows only he can see it, and begins. 'Let me finish before you ask any further questions, please. I found myself loose as a wandering spirit and returned to Zewu-Jun's side, only to find him suffering from an unreasonable punishment while in secluded meditation, one that was handed out without your input,' he opens with, plucking out a mournful, worried melody from his explanation. 'His golden core has been suppressed, and neither of us know if it's reversible.'
Lan Wangji's hands rest on the strings without responding, long after the final note of Jin Guangyao's has faded. There's a tense worry in the air now, more poignant than the surprise and confusion his presence brought, and Jin Guangyao knows not to rush. Lan Wangji will respond when he's ready.
'Who else knows?' he finally asks, controlled and measured, even in the face of the unknown.
'Many of your sect elders, potentially your uncle as well. Other than that, I don't know. He doesn't want to talk about it.'
There's such a pained strain to the single note that Jin Guangyao wishes, once again, for a physical body capable of properly comforting someone. He has to settle for expressing it through music, which is easily just as comforting for Lan Wangji. 'I don't know for sure, but I assume it's because he doesn't want to worry you or somehow tarnish the happiness you've found with Wei Wuxian. But I couldn't let him self-sacrifice forever.'
'Thank you, Lianfang-zun. Do you intend to harm him?'
'Never,' he answers without hesitation, because this truth has never wavered.
'Have you apologized?'
'Yes.' Silence lingers after his concise answer, but despite how much Jin Guangyao cares for Lan Wangji, he doesn't need to share the depths of his regrets.
'Good,' he says, pausing before continuing to play. 'Does he know you came to see me?'
'No, I think this is an 'ask forgiveness later' situation.'
'Why do you think his punishment is unfair?'
The question catches him off guard and Jin Guangyao's answer flows through the guqin without his polished practice and half-truths he'd tried so hard to guard himself with. 'He doesn't deserve to be punished for my actions. I worked very hard to keep him ignorant; it's not his fault that he never saw what I hid from him. He shouldn't be denied the chance to live a better life without me.'
'Thank you. I must talk to my uncle about this, but I won't send you away for now.'
Jin Guangyao is saved from answering; it's not a question and he's not ready to elaborate on his thoughts. He merely watches Lan Wangji bow and carefully pack up his guqin. He doesn't know what he expected from forced honesty, and he plans on never being trapped by it again.
Lan Xichen only barely stops himself from setting out two cups for tea while mid-conversation with Jin Guangyao. It's like a pleasant memory from their friendship, played out in a dream, but it's happening in reality- with a few changes. It's still hard to fathom.
"Perhaps you could try painting again," Jin Guangyao suggests, following his light complaints over monotonous days. "It keeps your hands busy, but more creatively."
"I don't have any of my supplies here. I'm meant to be thinking about my mistakes," he says gently. Someday Jin Guangyao will remember and accept that Lan Xichen is not supposed to treat this like a peaceful getaway, but Lan Xichen is content to only scold him gently.
"That doesn't mean you're banned from ever experiencing joy again, does it?"
"I think it's against the spirit of it, if not the official written guidelines."
He shrugs. "All the more reason to do it, then. No one can hold it against you in any official capacity."
Lan Xichen warms his hands on the tea cup and smiles. "You worry too much."
"Allow me the honor of worrying about you, Er-ge, as you always did with me," he says, smiling back. "How many times did you chastise me for pushing myself too hard at the expense of my health?"
He feels his cheeks flush and takes a long sip of his tea in lieu of answering.
"It's not the same."
"It's similar," Jin Guangyao insists.
A knock on the door saves Lan Xichen from having to answer. He sees Jin Guangyao vanish as he makes his way to greet his visitor, and he's met with Lan Wangji's neutral face.
"Ah, Wangji, come in," he says warmly, stepping aside to allow his brother entry. "I was just having tea. Would you like some?"
Lan Wangji sits, nodding. "Mm."
Lan Xichen busies himself with pouring a second cup now that he has a living guest. "What brings you out here?"
"Can we discuss something?"
"Of course," he answers, serving Lan Wangji tea in the silence that follows. Quiet isn't uncomfortable with his brother, though; Lan Xichen has long since known that it's just how Lan Wangji communicates. When he's ready, he'll talk. The soft noises of spring's rebirth filter in from the outside, and Lan Xichen's mind wanders. He's looking forward to the warmth of the coming months, now that he's learned to truly appreciate it. Fresh air without bundling up sounds like a luxury.
"I'm worried about you," Lan Wangji says, setting down his empty cup.
"It's alright, Wangji," Lan Xichen assures him. "I'm fine."
"Lying is forbidden," he replies without hesitation. "Why didn't you mention receiving a punishment?"
Lan Xichen's breath catches in his throat, and he can't answer, not about this, not now that he's failed to keep his punishment hidden from his brother. Lan Wangji wasn't supposed to know. No one was, because why should they have to suffer worrying about him? His mistakes shouldn't ruin anyone else's lives further.
He raises a hand to halt any further questions, and does his best to compose himself. "I didn't want to worry you."
This does nothing to ease the frown from his face or the concern from his eyes. "It's an unreasonable punishment."
Of course Lan Wangji would know the specifics already- he isn't sure how, but his brother and Wei Wuxian are dangerously good at airing secrets, especially when they work together. He sets his cup down, closing his eyes to collect his thoughts. He refuses to worry his brother unduly, so it's his duty to school his emotions and expressions. "It's fine, Wangji."
"He said you'd be like this."
Lan Xichen opens his eyes, raising an eyebrow. "Who?" There's only one person he's discussed his punishment with at any length, but he can't imagine Jin Guangyao behaving so recklessly. His uncle, perhaps?
"Jin Guangyao," he says simply, shattering any lingering doubts Lan Xichen held that Jin Guangyao's spirit was a mere figment of his isolated imagination.
Lan Xichen takes a deep breath and exhales heavily. "I see."
"He is worried about you."
"Can it really be reversed?"
"I was told as much."
Lan Wangji nods severely. "Then I will talk to the Elders and argue your case. It's a cruel and unnecessary punishment."
Lan Xichen sighs again. "Do my opinions not matter?" He ignores his brother's shock, pressing onwards. "I know it sounds extreme, but it was voted on by the whole council. I did not object then. What are you going to tell them now? That you spoke to the ghost of Jin Guangyao and he told you all about it, because he's been keeping me company for months? That only proves that I can't be trusted with the responsibilities and power of cultivation."
His brother's brow furrows. "Brother, there must be a way."
"Please," Lan Xichen says, shaking his head, "don't worry about me."
There's nothing to be done; as much as he wishes it were otherwise, he can't control his brother or his feelings now any more than he could in the past. "At least try, for my sake."
Lan Wangji gives him a curt nod and gathers himself. "I have lessons this afternoon."
"Then don't let me keep you," he says, walking him out. "We can talk later."
Lan Wangji makes a noise of agreement, and Lan Xichen watches him go. He's long out of sight before Jin Guangyao returns, his face a very familiar shade of apology that Lan Xichen recognizes from years of friendship. It's genuine, but only so much.
"You told him."
The words hang in the air, Jin Guangyao unflinching. "I did." There isn't a hint of a lie in his voice. "I needed more action than you were willing to give."
"I told you I didn't want to worry him."
Jin Guangyao's resolve doesn't falter. "But I care about your well being more than I care about his worry."
"You never asked me not to tell him."
"I assumed it went without saying that it was a deeply personal matter," Lan Xichen says, but he can't summon any true ire. All his anger burned away years ago, until he was left with nothing but the charcoal of his regrets and emptiness. He doesn't have the fight left to try and find it again.
"I know," he admits. "I am sorry for breaking your trust again. I just want to help, and there's so little I can do like this."
Being stripped of control is easily one of Jin Guangyao's greatest fears, and the last of Lan Xichen's resolve crumbles in the face of it. "...I know. It's alright. I'm sorry there isn't anything to be done."
Jin Guangyao shakes his head stubbornly. "I'm not letting you give up."
"I suppose I can't stop you."
"No, not this time." Jin Guangyao's voice is soft, and Lan Xichen wishes he could feel his warmth as he steps closer, pressing against him. "You still have life left to live."
Lan Xichen doesn't argue. He's said enough on this subject, and if he had any say in the matter they'd never bring it up again.
"So I've come to realize that even the Lan Set has its share of dirty secrets," Wei Wuxian calls from the front yard. "Zewu-Jun! Can we come in?"
Lan Wangji trails behind him, and Lan Xichen gives them both a welcoming smile. Spring has come in earnest now, and the light that dapples through the trees casts them both in a lively play of light and shadow that makes them feel part of a world Lan Xichen can no longer see himself as part of.
"Wangji, Master Wei. It's nice to see you. To what do I owe the pleasure of having you both visit at once?" He motions for them to follow him in.
"Lan Zhan talked to the elders and- ah, Lianfang-Zun, we meet again. I didn't think we'd see you here."
Jin Guangyao bows in reply, leaving Lan Xichen just as surprised. He usually vanishes as soon as anyone gets close, but he's obviously lingered on purpose. "Hanguang-Jun, Master Wei." He nods to each in turn. "I see no point in hiding when you both know I'm here."
Wei Wuxian laughs it off. "Fair enough! I guess you wanna hear what we found out as well, huh?"
"Really, this isn't necessary," Lan Xichen interjects, but his brother cuts him off, shaking his head.
"See! We're all in this thing rooting for you Zewu-Jun!" Wei Wuxian's expression turns serious. "Unfortunately, we don't have much to report on. Okay, so we do, but it's not very productive."
"The Elders insist that their decision is final," Lan Wangji explains.
Jin Guangyao's expression sours. "And any chances of reversing it?"
"Up to their discretion."
"But, that means it should be possible; it was probably suppressed, rather than destroyed outright," Wei Wuxian continues, tapping the side of his nose as he works through the puzzle before him. "I've never heard of a technique that could suppress it for this long, but, hey! I've invented enough cultivation techniques to know that just about anything is possible."
Wei Wuxian would put it like that all these years later. His YunmengJiang background and childhood shines through in the most unexpected of ways. Lan Xichen sighs and gives him a smile in a vain attempt to placate him. "I appreciate your concern-"
"But you'd appreciate being left alone a lot more. And I get it! But Lan Zhan has been inconsolable, and, not to be rude, but I speak from experience when I say that isolating yourself with nothing but an empty hole in your chest isn't ever going to make it better."
'Not to be rude' only means so much when it's Wei Wuxian.
Jin Guangyao sighs, waving the interruptions and rudeness aside. "Are you just here to waste our time with what we already know?" Death has carved away at some of his impeccable manners, or perhaps Lan Xichen is finally seeing a more honest version that was there all along.
"I don't have an answer," Wei Wuxian admits with a shrug. "But there's probably one out there somewhere."
"What? I said I wasn't being rude."
Lan Xichen chuckles. "It's fine, Wangji. Thank you both for your concern, and I apologize for worrying you so much. I'm going to think on it, I promise."
Jin Guangyao smiles with a somewhat worrying intensity. "We'll talk about it."
"Thank you," Lan Wangji says, bowing.
"Of course. Thank you for listening."
Wei Wuxian waves as they go, pausing briefly at the door. "You don't always find answers where the problem began," he muses, fixing Lan Xichen with a strange look before following Lan Wangji away.
Lan Xichen sits down with a heavy sigh. "I believe that's enough excitement for one day," he says before Jin Guangyao can press him into conversation.
He takes a seat across from him. "Whatever is best for you, Er-ge."
"It's been whatever others have felt is best lately." Lan Xichen feels tired, so damnably tired, from all of this. He wishes he could just be left to endure his pain without having to think about it, and each discussion feels like it's scratching raw something he's trying to bury so it can fester in peace.
Jin Guangyao's smile doesn't falter. "I know."
Lan Xichen looks at the small cottage, with it's barely adorned walls and the few personal items he allowed himself. Seclusion felt like escape and an answer to his guilt, but now he sees it was just an excuse to stay in one place and hide from his mistakes. Nothing has changed, save for Jin Guangyao's presence. Guilt and regret still have their chains around his heart, and he's slowly realizing that they may hold him prisoner forever. Time keeps moving forward, however, and so shall he.
"Are you sure?" Jin Guangyao asks politely, as if they hadn't debated and discussed the matter at length for weeks.
"As sure as I can be," he answers, prompting a bright smile from Jin Guangyao.
He smiles back before returning to carefully packing the few gifts from Jin Guangyao that he allowed himself to keep in seclusion, along with a few mementos from Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren. "You were right. I can't stay here forever." Lan Xichen can apologize to his brother when he returns. For now, he has more pressing matters to attend to.
"I'm glad you figured it out so quickly."
"I can be very insistent. It's not a bad thing."
"I never said it was."
Lan Xichen pulls a thick travelling cloak around himself to guard against the mountain's morning chill and finishes closing up the cottage. Perhaps when he returns, he'll be ready to go back to his own rooms as well. Perhaps things will be different.
"Perhaps I'll be more forward next time," Jin Guangyao muses.
"What's stopping you now, A-Yao?"
"Physical form," he answers, barely a whisper on the early morning breeze.
"Then I suppose we both have goals for this journey. I'll heal my core, and you'll heal your body."
Jin Guangyao fixes Lan Xichen with a dubious look. "Death is quite permanent."
"And yet here you are," Lan Xichen says, watching the sun rise over the peaks of the mountains. "Don't tell me you'll let something as insignificant as death hold you back."
"Now who's stubborn?"
"I just want what's best for you A-Yao." It's a bit fun to tease him by throwing his words back at him.
Jin Guangyao laughs, clear and light. "You've made your point, Er-ge. One day at a time."
There's something freeing about leaving responsibilities behind, if only for now. It's a conscious decision— to not just run and hide but to consciously step away to heal and find himself again.
"I look forward to it," he says, the most hopeful he's felt in years, as they step into the dawn and towards something new.