It was nearly noon when Lan Qiren looked up from his desk at the front of the Lanshi.
After the Sunshot campaign, this room had been built to look exactly like its predecessor. But the new group of visiting disciples that filed in every morning to listen to lectures or take exams was not quite the same.
Only roughly half of the desks were filled, but it was still more than he expected, so soon after the war.
Whether it was because parents held their children back to rebuild, or if it was because the children who would've sat here were no longer of this world, he did not know.
The students who did come were considerably more grim, quiet, and obedient than the ones he'd seen before.
Lan Qiren, who had made his name on being able to stamp out high animal spirits from almost every student who'd been sent to him, was somewhat at a loss now that his job had been completed for him.
Most of his students had finished their memorization test on the last six generations of the Jin family and were waiting quietly for him to collect their papers.
He nodded to the Lan sect disciple standing to his left, who then silently collected the papers.
"Dismissed," he said, and the room was empty in a flash.
"Lan-xiansheng, will you be using your noon meal now?" the disciple placed the papers in a neat stack on his desk and asked.
"Mm, in a bit. I have some business to take care of first. Deliver these to Wangji. He should be back later tonight."
He nodded and scurried off to obey.
Lan Qiren sighed and stood up, taking care to straighten the rows of desks in the now empty room before making his way to the kitchens.
The Lan sect's kitchens were full of servants busily preparing the noon meal, none of whom looked askance at him when he appeared with a basket on his arm.
Well, that was to be expected.
Firstly, the Lan sect prided itself on correct behavior of everyone who lived inside Cloud Recesses.
Secondly, this was something he had to do whenever his nephew was absent, and Lan Wangji was absent quite often nowadays.
His nephew had developed quite the reputation of always being where help was needed, no matter how trivial the task.
Naturally, Lan Qiren was very proud of him, just as he was proud of his elder nephew for becoming a fine sect leader.
But he also suspected there was something else.
Lan Wangji was famously stoic and expressionless, but his uncle, who'd raised him since infancy, could tell that something worried him.
Watching that burden of worry grow heavier by the day, Lan Qiren was also at a loss on what to do.
For all their emphasis on correct behavior and morals, the Lan sect had yet to perfect the art of communication between family members. His brother had certainly not talked to him about his worries over twenty years ago, and his brother's son now seemed equally disinclined to talk.
Lan Qiren sighed and placed a few leafy vegetables inside his basket and made his way towards a grassy plain near the mountain's entrance.
There, amid the tender shoots of newly grown springtime grass, two white bundles came bounding towards him as soon as they saw him.
A few years ago, Lan Xichen had once asked him if he would not prefer to assign this task to one of the disciples or servants, but he had immediately rejected the idea.
He was the one who'd agreed, in a moment of weakness, to let Lan Wangji keep these rabbits, so naturally he could not foist such a... frivolous task on someone else. It was his responsibility, his duty to take care of them when his nephew could not.
As he leaned over and watched the rabbits climb into the basket for their meal, a small part of him wondered if it was also because he wanted to help his nephew shoulder some of his burden, no matter how trivial the matter.
Lan Qiren was seated in his study, about to grade a stack of night hunt homework, when he heard a scratching at the door.
He sighed when he opened the door and saw what was waiting for him on the doorstep.
The rabbits had followed him back to his study again.
"Renyi, Zhongyi, go back," he said, pointing in the opposite direction.
They ignored him and scurried inside.
Well, naturally they would not listen to him, for those were not their real names.
Lan Qiren had made an effort to learn what their names were, but both his nephews always made an equally strong effort to change the topic of conversation whenever he brought it up.
So he had come up with his own names for the pair, very proper names that they adamantly refused to answer to.
He watched as Zhongyi ran around him and started pawing at his legs, wanting to be carried.
Then he also watched as Renyi started to panic when he picked up the other rabbit, leaving him alone on the floor.
In the end, he carried both rabbits over to his desk and placed them inside their currently unused food basket.
But any hopes that they would behave and let him grade homework in peace were quickly dashed.
Zhongyi peeked his head out to see what he was doing, then climbed out and started to run around on his desk, as if demanding his attention. Renyi also stood up to peek out of the basket to see what the other rabbit was doing.
Fearful that Renyi would also join in and turn his desk into a complete mess, Lan Qiren pointed at Zhongyi and said, "If you continue to misbehave, then copy the sect rules ten times."
It was only after he said it that he realized how strange it was to say such a thing to a rabbit.
But he was even more surprised when the rabbit froze and then dove back into the basket to hide behind his companion. And if he wasn't mistaken, was Renyi actually glaring at him?
Lan Qiren shook his head and decided he must be imagining things.
Still, a small smile of satisfaction crept onto his lips as he enjoyed the peace and quiet and started grading homework.
Zhongyi 忠义 - Loyalty, fealty
Renyi 仁义 - Righteousness, benevolence
The first thing Lan Yuan felt when he slowly came to from what felt like an unending sleep was a deep emptiness.
Where there should be memories, he could find nothing, as if something had burned it all away.
As he looked for anything he could hold onto, he remembered that his name was A-Yuan.
He could hear voices calling that name, kind voices. But when he reached out and grasped for them, everything merely faded away.
The second thing he felt was a hand holding his own. He could feel an energy flowing into his body from that hand, a warmth that filled his entire being and slowly pulled him back from the nothingness.
And then he heard voices close by.
"A-Min, I can watch over him," said one voice, low and soft and musical. "You should get some rest, you've barely left his bedside ever since he got sent here."
"It's a doctor's duty to watch over her patients," said another voice, bright and crisp. "Besides, after I found out... whose nephew he is, did you think I was going to let anything happen to him?"
The first voice let out a sigh. "Still, after all these years?"
"Of course. Oh, if I even had as much talent as my idol had in her little finger..."
"You're a very good doctor in your own right."
"You're my sister, that's what you're supposed to say."
"I'm sure any of your patients would agree. But A-Min... you know it's not wise to bring this up."
"She didn't deserve what she got!"
"I know, but that's just not something you can say, not in this day and age!"
"Hmph, all these cultivators going on and on about Wen dogs every day, when they're the ones who act like a pack of rabid dogs whenever one of her old works comes to light."
"Fine, fine. I'll go collect my punishment later. Gods, I can't wait to go traveling again. Cloud Recesses is just as suffocating every time I come back. I wouldn't have even come back this time if you didn't write to say that you were short on hands and needed help."
"It can't be helped. There were too many injuries and losses recently. That's why he got sent to us, because there's no more room on the men's side."
Lan Yuan slowly opened his eyes and saw two figures in white at his bedside.
As his field of vision gradually grew sharper and more detailed, he saw that they were two young women with cloud-patterned ribbons tied around their foreheads. Their white robes were also decorated with similar cloud-patterned embroidery.
He thought they were both very beautiful.
Both of them turned to look at him and smiled in delight when they saw that he was awake.
"A-Yuan! You're awake!" The one seated by his bedside released his hand and touched his forehead. "How do you feel?"
"I... I can't remember anything," he said truthfully.
He stared at their faces and wondered if they were people he knew. He knew he ought to feel scared or lost, but the energy still swirling through his body made it impossible to feel anything but an inner serenity.
The two briefly exchanged glances, then the one standing by his bedside nodded and said, "This...does occur sometimes when a fever is left untreated for too long."
"What happened to me?"
"There was a fire, and you were the only survivor." The young woman seated by his side took his hand in hers again, and he could feel the flow of energy resume. "Then you had a high fever for a few weeks. But you're all better now! And perhaps in time you'll find your memories again. I suppose I should introduce myself then? My name is Lan Min, and I'm a doctor, herbalist, apothecary, cultivator, poet, and whatever else I feel like being on any given day. You can call me Min-jiejie."
"Ahem," the other young woman coughed, as if somewhat displeased with that long, rambling introduction. "And I am Lan Xin, a doctor and cultivator. Welcome to Cloud Recesses, the base of the Gusu Lan Sect, and your new home."
Lan Yuan's first impression of these new people he found himself with was that they were very, very rich.
He clearly didn't remember anything, but he could still tell that these fine, soft clothes he was now dressed in were not what he was used to wearing. And that the airy, bright room he had been sitting in was not where he was used to spending his days.
Even the air itself was unfamiliar, so fresh and crisp that he couldn't stop himself from taking in deep breaths of it.
And Cloud Recesses itself was so stunningly beautiful that he had a hard time accepting that it was all real.
He held onto Lan Min's hand as they followed her sister along stone-paved paths that wound by white walls topped with dark tiles.
Lan Min had suggested that they take him out for some fresh air, and then her sister had smiled and said she knew just the place.
"Look over there, A-Yuan," Lan Min spoke up after a while, pointing at an open gate that looked like it led to another part of Cloud Recesses. "That's where you'll be going tomorrow."
"I'm not staying with you?" he asked. For some reason, he felt close to the two sisters and didn't want to see them go.
"Haha, no," Lan Min laughed. "My sister and I are part of a side branch of the family that specializes in medicine. Starting from tomorrow, you're going to be staying with the main house over there. Lan-xiansheng said he's going to raise you personally, at least until Hanguang-jun is better."
Lan Yuan had no idea who these people were, but they sounded important.
"Don't worry," said Lan Xin, smiling at him as she adjusted the basket that she held in her arms. "I'm sure they will treat you well."
Lan Min nodded fervently. "Bless both of them. I'm so happy... You know, this family isn't that bad sometimes. I mean, nobody talks to each other and everyone's so horribly stuffy, but they can do nice things now and then."
"A-Min..." her sister sighed.
Soon they came to a grassy plain that stood apart from the masses of buildings behind them. Lan Xin waved her basket around, and they could immediately see two white bundles of fur come bounding over.
"Rabbits!" Lan Min exclaimed. "How adorable!"
"Don't get any ideas, A-Min," Lan Xin warned. "They belong to Hanguang-jun. Lan-xiansheng used to tend to them personally whenever he went down the mountain. But...recently Lan-xiansheng himself has been absent too for weeks at a time. So some of the girls took the opportunity to beg him to let us take care of them whenever he's busy."
"How crafty! That's exactly what I would've done too!" Lan Min's eyes were positively shining. "What are their names?"
Lan Xin's expression turned a bit conflicted. "Nobody knows what their real names are other than Hanguang-jun and maybe Zewu-jun. In any case, once the boys on the other side found out what we'd done, they also begged to share the feeding duties. And then soon everyone was calling them... Tudou and Baicai."
Lan Min almost fell over laughing. "What... kind of... naming sense... is this?" she gasped between giggles.
Her sister shrugged. "Don't let any of the elders hear, or else we'll never hear the end of it. But apparently they like eating vegetables, so someone just named them after common vegetables."
"How do you tell which is which?"
"That's easy. Tudou is friendly with everyone, and Baicai only likes Tudou."
Lan Min leaned down and placed a few pieces of shredded vegetable leaves in Lan Yuan's hands and smiled at him. "Don't you want to say hello?"
Truth be told, Lan Yuan was mesmerized by the two white rabbits that now stood up on their hind legs and started pawing on his legs, trying to reach their meal. And after hearing that they belonged to such important people, he immediately knelt down and held out the leaves.
"Tudou-gege, Baicai-gege," he said, afraid of being rude somehow and offending the two sisters, who had showed him nothing but kindness.
Lan Min instantly started laughing again while Lan Xin smiled and said, "I suppose they are indeed much older than him."
Lan Yuan watched as one of the rabbits crawled onto his lap and started munching the leaves. After a while, the other one joined its companion.
Then, struck by a passing fancy, he rearranged the two rabbits so that they were facing each other. Still unsatisfied, he moved them closer until their noses were almost touching. "I like you. I like you too," he said, speaking for one rabbit and then the other.
But then as both sisters cooed over how adorable he was, Lan Yuan felt a stabbing pain in his heart, as if some important memory inside him was trying to fight its way to the surface.
All of a sudden, the fear, terror, pain, and loss that had been kept at bay ever since he woke up surged past the protective barrier of Lan Min's spiritual energy. Tears formed in his eyes, and he couldn't stop himself from sobbing.
One of the sisters, he couldn't tell which, immediately threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. Her touch seemed to trigger some other memory inside him, and he could remember other arms, sometimes shaking, sometimes with an almost painfully strong grip, holding him, telling him that they did not want him to die.
"A-Yuan, will you promise me something?"
He could hear Lan Xin's voice near his ear.
"I know it's hard, but you have to promise me to brave, just like your... like Hanguang-jun. Can you do that?"
Her words, especially the promise me to be brave, seemed to echo in his mind, as if he'd heard it before. He knew then that someone he'd loved a great deal had asked the same of him, even if he couldn't remember who it was.
Lan Yuan wiped the tears away and nodded.
Tudou (土豆) - Potato
Baicai (白菜) - Cabbage
Every day when Lan Xichen walked back to his Hanshi from the most trafficked parts of Cloud Recesses, the Jingshi would always come into view.
It stood some ways away from the path, just far enough away that he would have to make an especial trip there, yet close enough that it was never far from his mind.
Today, however, he noticed a certain oddity.
The door to the Jingshi was open.
His heart skipped a beat as he wondered if his brother had finally come out of seclusion. It had been three years already, three years in which the only companions Lan Wangji had were his pet rabbits when they returned to the Jingshi at night and Lan Xichen when he could spare the time to visit.
They spoke mostly of mundane matters, of the goings-on in the sect, of happenings in the cultivation world. Lan Xichen did most of the talking, and even though most of what he said was meaningless and meant to pass the time, he always came back again and again.
Truth be told, he was afraid of leaving Lan Wangji alone with his thoughts and the ghost who would never come back to haunt him.
When he knocked on the door and entered, he found Lan Wangji seated by an open window, looking down at his pet rabbits in his lap.
"Wangji...your rabbits." Lan Xichen said in shock.
"Brother," Lan Wangji looked up. His expression was completely unreadable, even to Lan Xichen's practiced eye.
The two rabbits were completely still and lifeless.
"Yulan passed on last night, and by morning Lianhua was also gone."
Lan Xichen had known that this day would come, but that did not make it any less difficult.
"What would you like to do with them?"
"Cremate them, and return them to Wei Ying."
"As you wish," Lan Xichen said. "I will make the arrangements. Will you come?"
His little brother, who'd seemed to turn inward after their mother died and have no interests in life outside cultivation and studying, had once come across another boy whose existence lit up his world.
Ten years ago, Lan Xichen had thought it a stroke of luck and tried to encourage his brother to make a friend.
Back then, before he'd learned what his brother named the pair of rabbits that he absolutely insisted on raising, Lan Xichen had amused himself by coming up with his own names for them.
An artist, he'd named them after his favorite colors. Feihong, after the cheery red that decorated Cloud Recesses during the New Year, the only time their home was awash in color. And Zhanlan, after the color of the sky he always saw above his mother's old residence, one of the only places in Cloud Recesses that was never swathed in mist.
Little did he know that it was not friendship that Lan Wangji had in mind.
Lan Xichen and his uncle had done all they could to prevent the news of his little brother's...exploits from leaking out to the wider cultivation world. Apart from a certain incident with alcohol and a Wen clan brand, even most people in the Lan sect hadn't a clue what'd transpired.
Did he have regrets? Lan Xichen was not so arrogant to assume that his brother needed his help to form his fixation. Nor did he believe that he could've stopped Lan Wangji from giving up everything for love.
At the end of it all, he just wanted his brother to be happy.
But how could he accomplish that when he had only meaningless words to offer?
As he watched the rabbits turn into ash seven days later, Lan Xichen thought that he must be the only Gusu Lan sect leader in history to hold a cremation ceremony for two rabbits.
Yet here he was at a temple in Gusu, watching as the monks chanted their sutras, standing alongside with his brother, the only other attendee from their sect.
Lan Wangji kept his eyes tightly shut during the entire ceremony. As if he was afraid that if he opened them, then he'd catch a glimpse of a figure in black appear to gather the rabbits in his arms and then wave one final goodbye, his smile as dazzling as the sun.
Finally, after the urn containing ashes had been placed in his arms, Lan Xichen turned and touched his brother's arm.
"Wangji, let's go home."
They walked in silence back to Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen tried to think of something to say, but the words simply froze in his mouth and every subject seemed to sensitive to touch on.
He had thought that they would continue in silence back to their respective rooms, but they were stopped by a group of disciples at the entrance door.
"Zewu-jun! Hanguang-jun!" they shouted excitedly, completely ignoring the rules against raising their voices. "Come quick!"
"Did something happen?" Lan Xichen might've been worried that there was a problem, but none of the disciples waiting for them looked anything other than ecstatic.
"Yes, this way!"
Lan Xichen exchanged glances with his brother, who looked just as confused as he was.
The disciples led them to the grassy plain where the rabbits used to graze most of the day. And there, they found a crowd of people that Lan Xichen had seldom seen gathered together in one place.
Clan elders, disciples, young and old, male and female. Nearly a hundred people stood together in a crowd.
And each of them was holding a white rabbit in their arms.
"Ehm, Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun," said one disciple sheepishly. "I heard what happened to Hanguang-jun's rabbits, so I thought I could go get him another one. I just didn't know that everyone else also had the same idea."
"It seems like there was some grave miscommunication," an elder said with a smile.
"Did you people grab every last rabbit from the back mountain?" asked an onlooker.
"Only the male ones! We heard Hanguang-jun only likes male rabbits."
Lan Xichen looked at his brother, completely speechless.
Lan Wangji's completely unreadable expression was finally showing some signs of cracking.
"What is the meaning of this?" Lan Qiren arrived, no doubt attracted by all the commotion.
Lan Xichen immediately felt a stab of fear. If his uncle had been difficult ten years ago about just two rabbits, what would he say now to around a hundred?
But before he had a chance to explain, Lan Wangji stepped up and bowed to his uncle.
"Uncle, the sect members' actions were for my sake, so if there is to be any punishment then it should be on me."
"No," Lan Qiren immediately cut him off, his voice shaking slightly. "No more punishment."
He then looked around at the crowd and seemed to understand.
"Wangji," he sighed. "These are everyone's feelings, please accept them."
"Yes." Lan Wangji turned and bowed to the crowd. "Thank you."
While Lan Xichen couldn't say that his brother looked especially happy, there was a light in his eyes that he hadn't seen there in years.
Perhaps this was the answer that had eluded him for all these years. If he couldn't offer words of encouragement, there were still other things that he could do, that everyone in the Lan sect could do.
He smiled happily, enough for both their sakes, and also bowed to the crowd. "Thank you."
Everyone then released the rabbits onto the grassy plain amidst smiles and laughter.
Lan Wangji seemed to notice one younger disciple in particular standing near him and looking at the rabbits in rapt attention.
"A-Yuan," he said, and the child looked up to him in awe. "Do you want to play?"
When the boy nodded happily, Lan Wangji picked him up and buried him inside the rabbit pile.
Lan Xichen, who'd been deep in thought about how he needed to bring in more rabbits to repopulate the back mountain, looked up in horror.
Lianhua (莲花) - Lotus flower
Yulan (玉兰) - Magnolia
Feihong (绯红) - Scarlet red
Zhanlan (湛蓝) - Azure blue
(Yes, Zhanlan is the two characters in Lan Zhan’s name flipped in the opposite order.)
Thanks for reading!