I never get things done on time but I do try...I promise... :TTTT I realize this is the second reincarnation fic I've posted for Xichen Week, but this one specifically was written with the day 6 prompt in mind OwO
"I wish I'd listened," Lan Xichen says to himself softly. Everything is to himself now, save for the few times he allows his family to visit. Everything is overwhelmingly loud outside of his safety net; the secluded cottage at the far reaches of the Cloud Recesses is the quietest part of the sect, and it's what he's grown used to.
"I shouldn't have listened," he continues. "Or perhaps, I shouldn't have let you fool me."
A bird twitters outside, a sweet song to beckon the warmth of spring after the chilled winter months. It pulls at something in him, drawing him to listen closer, and Lan Xichen ventures outside to watch the simple muted brown of its wings as it lands nearby. It twitches its head before chirping at him, and Lan Xichen wishes he still found smiling effortless.
"Hello there," he says kindly, voice still low in hopes of not scaring it off. "Can you sing me a happy song?"
With barely a moment's hesitation, it bursts into song again. The song is warmth on a cloudy day, a smile long forgotten, and, somehow, a plea for hope. Even in emptiness, sometimes beauty can rise from the simplest things.
He can't forget what's long gone, but maybe he can try to find something more than pain in betrayal and loss.
During the first snowfall of winter, Lan Xichen brews a carefully measured amount of tea, delicately rationed, and looks out across the swiftly whitening scene outside his home. Snow muffles the rare sounds that travel out this far. Snow wipes the slate clean for another year, and perhaps someday, he'll let it wipe his own sins clean.
A high pitched yelp pulls him from his thoughts, and his hand jerks in surprise, nearly spilling the last of his tea. He sets the cup somewhere safe and pulls a thick robe and sturdier shoes from his wardrobe. Rarely do animals wander into the Cloud Recesses, but Lan Xichen always does his best to send them safely on their way. The beginning of a winter storm is poor timing, though, and he's sure whatever poor creature is stuck out there feels similarly.
Just outside his yard, Lan Xichen sees bright orange fur. Another distressed yelp confirms he's found what he's looking for.
The small fox looks up at him, one of its back paws caught in the fence.
"Oh dear," Lan Xichen says to himself, the falling snow almost blocking the words from his own ears. The fox doesn't move, only softly yelps in his direction. "I'm here to help you," he says carefully, louder this time.
Snow is building on the fox's bright fur as he approaches, but there's nothing but a cautious trust in its eyes, followingLan Xichen's every moment without flinching. His fingers grasp the offending piece of wood that slid out of place to ensnare the fox, and with a firm tug he starts to pull it free.
"Please don't move," he urges, as comfortingly as he can, and yanks it the rest of the way free. He smiles as he gently sets it aside. "See? You're all good to go."
The fox stares at him some more before standing up and limping closer through the hole Lan Xichen ripped in the fence. Now that he's on this side, Lan Xichen can see his front paw is missing, and it catches like a hook in his heart. It's bitterly cold out—- no place for a disabled and injured animal. Lan Xichen slowly rises and takes a step back, closer to the warmth and safety of his home, with his eyes still trained on the fox. Intelligent eyes meet his as the fox hesitantly takes a step forward. They play a slow duet, Lan Xichen waiting patiently, every beat an attempt at kindness and calm, until the final stanza ends with the fox following him inside.
Snow falls heavily outside, while inside Lan Xichen spreads comfort to another soul once again.
Over the years, Lan Wangji's rabbit colony has expanded - rabbits have a tendency to multiply if left unchecked. Rarely do they wander off, though. They're domesticated enough to enjoy their pampered lives, away from any dangers or hardships.
Lan Xichen finds a wayward rabbit digging in his gardens, looking far too sure of itself. He shakes his head, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "Good afternoon, bunny," he greets it, his voice soft and level.
The rabbit glances up at him and then, with a surprising amount of purpose, jumps towards his home.
"I think you're a bit far from home," he says, following it inside in hopes of preventing any further damages from its mischief.
It looks at him again but continues in, ignoring delicately balanced scrolls in favor of a well-used teacup, its glaze lightly stained by decades of Xichen carefully reaches down and picks the rabbit up and away from any irreplaceable mementos.
"You have impeccable taste," he says kindly to the docile rabbit in his arms. Unsurprising, given how much Lan Wangji has handled and trained them to be calm and friendly.
It cocks its head, one of its large ears twitching as though it's asking him to elaborate. Maybe he really has been living alone for too long; he's assigning personalities to animals now.
"Just… something from a dear friend," he says, and somehow admitting Jin Guangyao's existence is a release of stress he didn't realize he was still holding. "He had the finest taste and an eye for quality."
The rabbit snuggles into his arms, tucking itself into his robes as much as it can. Its soft fur brushes against his arm, and Lan Xichen gives it a brief pet.
"I'll have to take you back home eventually," he tells it, fingers gently curling in its fur. "It's not good to be alone. Why, I've even heard it can kill rabbits like you."
It nuzzles its nose against him, and Lan Xichen can't justify his own loneliness in a reasonable way. His family still visits, he's not banned from exiting seclusion, and yet…
"I hope being a rabbit is a happier life," he manages to say, before losing track of another afternoon.
A light rain shower falls on the roof, giving a comforting background noise to Lan Xichen's evening. It's not yet cold enough to justify bundling up; the last of summer has held on unseasonably long, and it's almost warm enough to enjoy the weather despite the rain. He picks up his inkstone to grind some, only to be interrupted by a desperate yowl outside.
Somehow, it feels like all the lost animals of the Cloud Recesses make their way to him. It's not daily, but animals slip in rarely enough that each instance over the last few years stands out in his memory. Lan Xichen merely sets his inkstone back down, with every intention of returning to it later, and ventures outside.
In the dim light of evening, he almost misses the brown and gray cat hiding in the tall grass. It's trying to stay dry, but unfortunately plants only provide so much cover. Its fur looks soaked even from where he stands. He tries to gesture fondly and urge it closer.
"Here, kitty," Lan Xichen says, tapping the railing of the porch. "Come get out of the rain."
It gives him a dubious look and yowls pitifully. He frowns, trying to get a better look without getting wet himself. No such luck.
"I hope you're not injured," he murmurs to himself, stepping off the porch. The cat watches him intently, waiting patiently for him to get close before meowing at him expectantly. "Do I need to pick you up?"
The cat tilts its head, almost like an agreement, and Lan Xichen bends down to scoop it up into his arms. It's soaked almost to the skin and looks like it has seen much better days, leading Lan Xichen to wonder what brought it all the way here in such a dreadful summer storm. He rushes them inside, keeping it as dry as possible in his robes. Once they're safely out of the rain, he sets it down on the softest thing he can find: a freshly washed set of blankets that he had meant to put away days ago.
"Let me take a look at you, kitty," he implores, shedding his now soaked outer robes. The cat watches him with golden eyes, perfectly still and trusting now that it's out of the rain. "You look a mess."
It yawns and stretches, and Lan Xichen feels sympathy clench at his heart. There's some strange nostalgia in helping a second animal with a missing front paw.
He's not sure what he should feel now, so he busies himself drying the cat and trying to find appropriate food for it.
"I'm sorry we don't keep meat here," he says while looking through his nearly barren food stores. Perhaps he shouldn't go without for so long, but that wouldn't change the lack of meat in the Cloud Recesses.
The cat meows in understanding, as though that's possible. There he goes personifying animals again. He should socialize more. He should stop losing track of days and weeks and years. He should move past old memories.
Something soft weaves between his legs, and Lan Xichen looks down to see the cat at his feet. It meows again, softer this time, and he bends down to pat its head.
"Looks like it's slim pickings for both of us," he says, sinking to his knees. "Sorry kitty."
It nuzzles his hand gently, fondly, friendlier than a secluded cultivator is used to. Lan Xichen merely pets it until it crawls into his lap.
He could leave at any moment, return to the cultivation world and pretend that things are normal. He could live another lie, though this one would be on purpose, not out of ignorance. He could take the steps to grow and change and make connections anew.
The cat purs loudly and nudges his hand, begging for more pets.
"I suppose it was good luck for you that I was out here," he muses, fingers combing out knots in its still damp fur. It doesn't complain, merely shifts to give better access to certain spots. Lan Xichen smiles. "You're ready to be spoiled, huh?"
He gets an even louder purr in response.
"I see. Don't worry, I'll send for something for you to eat after the storm," he promises.
Maybe tomorrow will dawn brighter.
Lan Xichen has to travel for the first time in decades, at the request of a council of sect leaders. Despite his request that Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren attend in his stead, he is forced out of seclusion for a simple land dispute.
Of course, nothing is ever so simple, but Lan Xichen attends nonetheless. The route to Qinghe is nostalgic, the only change the towering growth of the trees over the years. There was a time he made the flight often, and despite the years, his body still knows it well.
Outside of Qinghe, a crow lands on a wall and caws at their small group. The other Lan cultivators ignore it, but Lan Xichen has developed somewhat of a fondness for random wildlife during his years in seclusion, and he can see the purpose in its gaze.
"Just a moment, Lan Xichen says, waving his travelling companions onward. "I'll catch up."
He can't fault them for their doubtful looks, but he's relieved when they listen to his request. Lan Xichen makes his way to the bird with slow, careful steps, until he can see the way curiosity lights up its eyes.
"Hello there," he says, bowing his head in greeting. The crow bobs its head in return - Lan Xichen had heard they were intelligent mimics, but he's never seen it in person - and looks at him expectantly. "You looked like you needed something."
It caws again before taking to the skies, flying in the opposite direction.
Away from Qinghe and responsibility. Away from Gusu and loneliness. Away from—
"Will you sing me a happy song?" Lan Xichen asks, taking to his sword and following after something new.
"Esteemed cultivator, would you honor this humble merchant with your attention?"
Lan Xichen pauses his walk through an open-air marketplace to smile at the merchant. "Apologies, but I am merely here to browse."
"Ah, but what cultivator doesn't desire a spiritual animal for company? Please, step inside and look at a few. I assure you'll be impressed," he says, stepping aside to gesture further into the stall.
He plans on declining, but…he's still lonely. That hasn't changed, no matter the years that past, and the few animals that made their way to his cottage always did their best to brighten his time there. "If you insist."
The merchant smiles politely. "My master is just inside. Speak to him, and he'll find you the perfect companion."
If nothing else, his assistant should be commended for his ability to draw someone in. Lan Xichen pushes aside the delicate silks hanging from the entry and finds himself in a warmly lit room, the soft sounds of well-behaved animals filling his ears. It's far more peaceful than he expected from a stall of animals, but Lan Xichen has learned many times over that things rarely end up how he expects.
Someone dressed in simple gold and white robes tends to one of the animals, but he turns to greet Lan Xichen with a smile when he hears him come in. It brightens from respectfully polite to genuinely warm; there's something familiar in his eyes. Lan Xichen has seen it countless times before, in the animals that kept him company while in seclusion, and—
"Zewu-Jun," Jin Guangyao greets fondly, clasping his hands to bow. Lan Xichen steps forward to stop him, catching his arms just as easily as he last did, decades upon countless decades ago.
"Hello," he replies clumsily. There's something so precious in the way Jin Guangyao's eyes crinkle when he chuckles, something that Lan Xichen never thought he'd see again, at least not outside of dreams and memories.
"I was hoping we'd meet again, now that I can actually talk to you," he says, still smiling, still warm and solid and real, and Lan Xichen finally manages to stop gaping in shock to smile back.
"Thank you for trying even when you couldn't."
He bows his head. "Perhaps I can't resist asking Er-ge for help."
He laughs, nearly pulling Jin Guangyao into his arms, and instead settles for taking his hands in his. "Let's try to do better this time."
Jin Guangyao squeezes back. "I do need a second assistant- perhaps I could tempt you into staying in town for a while longer?"
Some would call it a doomed meeting and a foolish decision, but Lan Xichen has waited too long to hesitate now. "Of course, A-Yao," he promises, and they begin anew.