The night should have been peaceful, as most nights were on Dafan Mountain. Only the rustling of nocturnal creatures as they went about their simple whims should have disturbed the sleeping forest.
This night was different.
This night, something evil had stirred, breaking free of the bonds that had kept it silent and still for so long. Something with a mind more cunning and an intent more cruel than its delicately pleasant face would suggest.
Evil stirred, and the earth trembled.
The animals had all long fled, but men had hearts that were both more prideful and more foolhardy, and they were eager to tear the night asunder with the cacophony of battle. Clashing steel, rattling chains, the bone-shaking fury of guttural inhuman roars, the grinding crash of rocks as the fierce corpse broke apart the stone goddess and she crumbled, tumbling in pieces to the ground.
The true evil haunting the woods that night had been defeated, but only one of the people watching could see this was so. The other cultivators, torn between terror for their lives and the glimpse of potential glory within their grasp, rallied quickly and cried out.
“It's him! It's the Ghost General!”
“Surround it! Close in! Don't let it escape!”
How quickly their targets changed. But this was no easy opponent. With one swing of an arm the fierce corpse sent men flying, spraying earth and chunks of rock into the air. The chain shackled to its wrist whipped around and smashed into a tree, shattering the trunk and showering razor-sharp shards of bark over a group of frozen, pale-faced juniors.
The adult cultivators were too focused on the prize before them, and what obtaining it could do for their own status, to notice. And why should they care? The youths of other sects, especially those seemingly abandoned by their chaperones, were outsiders. How was it the duty of those cultivators to take responsibility?
It was a situation that could only end in tragedy if someone didn't do something – and the most at risk were these youngsters, who had no way of knowing what it was they were up against.
Only a scant few days since he had awoken, and there Wei Wuxian was, once again, courting the practice that had in the past been both his saviour and his executioner.
But Jin Ling...
Heart decided, mind resigned, he brought the flute to his lips.
...a song to calm, a song to soothe...
The melody came to him naturally, swimming from the depths of his subconscious like a fragment of a long-forgotten dream. If he'd had time to stop and wonder where he'd learned such a melody he wouldn't have been able to place it. Perhaps his mother had sung it to him as a lullaby, once, years and lifetimes ago; there was no way to be sure. Any memories attached to it were hazy, lost in dripping darkness and shifting fog, but it brought with it an innate tranquility, a sense of deep, all-encompassing peace. Wei Wuxian was entirely alone in the world and could only ever be met with hatred if he revealed himself, and yet the song stirred an ember in his soul that felt like companionship. It felt like someone was there, standing by his side. Echoes of steady warmth beneath his head, gentle fingers in his hair. Someone who was glad to see him.
The dizi's call drifted softly into the night.
Wen Ning stopped. His chained arms dropped to his sides. Slowly, he turned to look at Wei Wuxian.
Emboldened, Wei Wuxian drew his next breath deeper, to put more volume, more power, into the next note–
A distant thwip, and the trance was broken in a burst of fiery pain. He dropped the flute with a sharp cry and staggered back, staring in shock – he'd been shot! With an arrow! Gods, he'd forgotten – had it always felt like this? How few days had he been alive and it was happening again! Already his cheap robes were covered in his own blood, washed-thin fabric ripped apart by the black shaft that now protruded from his shoulder. The fletching quivered mockingly, drawing his eye. If they'd been aiming for his head they were a poor shot indeed – but still!
He swallowed down the pain and looked up. Half the cultivators had stopped facing Wen Ning and had switched targets again, their swords raised against him. One with a grimly smirking face – in plain, pale clothes that looked like a cheap imitation of the GusuLan mourning robes, a sect Wei Wuxian didn't recognise – was lowering his bow.
Can't any of you idiots understand I'm trying to help you?!
“He's controlling the Ghost General!”
“Kill them both!”
“–Young Master Mo!”
With a curse Wei Wuxian snatched the flute from the dirt and darted away into the undergrowth. He couldn't afford to hide for long – Wen Ning was looking around as if searching for where the music had suddenly gone, and an angry snarl was deepening upon his stiffened face. The bruised and battered cultivators still circling him had stopped attacking, as if unsure how to deal with such a formidable enemy suddenly ignoring them, but the stalemate wouldn't last – the moment one man took initiative Wen Ning would be enraged again, and who knew what havoc he could wreak.
Wei Wuxian did know. All too well.
Frantic, he tried to recall the melody that had sung out from his heart. It had come to him so easily before, but the shock of that arrow had sent it fleeing just as easily and now it was gone. With no other choice remaining he improvised. He strung together bits of old folksongs he'd heard on the Yunmeng docks with snatches of tunes he'd heard on his travels, patching them together with sections he made up on the spot; a ragged, slapdash compilation of every soft, gentling tune he could think of.
Go, Wen Ning, he thought, infusing his will into the music. Go, run, disappear, before they destroy us both!
Wen Ning shook his head, shifted his feet, and finally shoved past the ring of drawn swords, following Wei Wuxian into the trees.
And then, just as Wei Wuxian was beginning to think the situation might be resolved, his flute was interrupted once more by the ethereal, resonant strum of a guqin.
Wherever the chaos is, indeed!
Wei Wuxian sped up his playing, despite the pain radiating from his shoulder and the blood that made his fingers slip on the flute. He stumbled backwards blindly, all his concentration focused on making sure Wen Ning was still following, still following – and ignored the white robes illuminated in the moonlight, that were approaching from the corner of his eye.
Lan Wangji came up to his side. He didn't reach out to stop him, as Wei Wuxian had anticipated; his hands were occupied with his guqin, and as his elegant fingers plucked the strings Wei Wuxian realised there was no killing intent in Lan Wangji's music. He wasn't trying to suppress or cancel out Wei Wuxian's own tune. He was accompanying it.
Wei Wuxian didn't have time to be confused. He would have to accept it as a rare moment of lenience from the righteous Hanguang-jun, and carry on.
Wen Ning lumbered past them and disappeared into the gloom of the forest. When they could no longer hear the rattling of chains, Lan Wangji's hands stilled on the guqin's strings. Wei Wuxian let his own notes fade out and lowered his flute with a shaking sigh.
It was too late to try and escape. Even at his most powerful, Hanguang-jun would've been a well-matched challenge for the Yiling Patriarch. Now, in this weaker, worn out body, with the adrenalin of battle fading and leaving him all-too aware of the arrow pierced through him, grinding against sinew and bone...
He took a glance at Lan Wangji, only to find the man already watching him. His brow was furrowed, his light, clear eyes darkened with something intense that Wei Wuxian couldn't name. Disgust, maybe? Lan Wangji had always had a strong distaste for demonic cultivation.
But then, why help Wen Ning escape?
Oh, well. Wei Wuxian had never managed to understand Lan Zhan, had he?
“Hanguang-jun!” The other cultivators came running. “Hanguang-jun, this man – he was using demonic cultivation! He summoned the Ghost General!”
Lan Wangji didn't respond. He didn't even look at them, only narrowed his eyes slightly at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian clutched his injured arm and met his gaze without a flinch. It didn't matter that Lan Wangji had caught him playing the flute, or that he'd seen him do so many times before. There were tens of thousands of other people who could play such an instrument, and the number of people who imitated the Yiling Patriarch's methods could form a sect on their own. Unless Wei Wuxian did something truly stupid or foolish there was no way his cover was blown.
Lan Wangji looked away first. His pale eyes flicked to the arrow in Wei Wuxian's shoulder, narrowed some more, then turned to the gathered crowd.
The young Lans Sizhui and Jingyi stepped forward and saluted their master. Wei Wuxian was glad to see them both unharmed, save a little dirt on their once-pristine robes and a bruise on Lan Jingyi's cheek; the gladness became a relief so strong it almost buckled his knees at the sight of Jin Ling following mulishly behind. His hand was wrapped protectively around his ribs, but the moue on his face was one of frustration more than anything else. He was all right.
He looked like his Uncle had when he used to lose at shooting kites, Wei Wuxian realised, and had to look away.
The Lan disciples described the sequence of events to Hanguang-jun, who listened solemnly.
“This disciple doesn't know if the fierce corpse that was here was Wen Ning,” Sizhui was saying, “but before Hanguang-jun arrived, it was fighting the stone goddess.”
“It destroyed the stone goddess!” Lan Jingyi interjected.
“Yes. The goddess was immune to spiritual power. Our own methods were proving ineffective against it.”
“Come to think about it,” Jingyi mused, “wasn't the Ghost General destroyed long ago, before the siege of the Burial Mounds?” He turned to Jin Ling. “LanlingJin sect made sure of it themselves, right?”
Flustered, Jin Ling gaped at Lan Jingyi. “I-!” His eyes flicked to Lan Wangji and he shut his mouth, swallowed.
On learning of the danger Jiang Cheng had rushed back up the mountain, but seeing that his nephew was safe he was able to calm and hide the desperate feelings that had overcome him. “Don't answer any impertinent questions,” he snapped at his nephew. Then he turned to Lan Wangji. “Hanguang-jun. I would expect your disciples to be above such baseless accusations.”
The air between Jiang Cheng and Hanguang-jun was cool, the words they spoke to each other blunt, at best curtly polite. It was obvious time hadn't fostered any camaraderie between them. Hanguang-jun raised his chin. “I heard no accusation.”
“Did you not? Hmph. Jin Ling, come here before I break your legs. What happened?”
Having been ignored by Hanguang-jun, the other cultivators appealed to Sandu Shengshou instead.
“Sect Leader Jiang! It – it was Wen Ning!”
Jiang Cheng stilled. “What? That thing was ground to dust years ago.”
“That's what I said!” Jingyi muttered. Luckily, Jiang Cheng didn't seem to hear him.
The cultivators continued, “It's true! I saw it with my own eyes!”
“That young man – he summoned the Ghost General!”
They were pointing at Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng's voice became low and dangerous. “The Ghost General? Is that so?” He fixed a narrow-eyed stare on Wei Wuxian. “Well, well. So you have finally returned.” A stroke of the ring upon his finger, and purple sparks crackled out around his hand.
At Wei Wuxian's side, Lan Wangji tensed, hands ready on his guqin.
When everyone else had been distracted by each other, Wei Wuxian had started edging away. Now Jiang Cheng's sights were on him escape seemed impossible. There was a coldly burning focus in his sharp eyes that Wei Wuxian recognised from many nights on battlefields together, when they were two brothers taking down the sun. He didn't like it being directed at him. He didn't want to face it. Didn't like the memories it stirred, didn't want--
His anxious feet took the gamble before he could think. He turned to flee – and was abruptly halted by a streak of purple lightning, a sizzling snap that cracked the air and the flesh along his back. He managed to twist so he fell on his side into the dirt and not face first, but the impact still jostled the arrow, sending a fresh bite of pain through him. He couldn't help but let out a cry.
Ow!! That really hurts! Jiang Cheng, you really...
He blinked away the tears that had sprung to his eyes. Struggling to his knees he gasped out a laugh. “You cultivators from your powerful sects! You really can do whatever you want, can't you? Beat up anyone you like!”
Whatever Jiang Cheng had been expecting, it hadn't been this. He shook off the shock and grit his teeth. He raised the whip, preparing to strike again, when Lan Jingyi called out, “Sect Leader Jiang, once should be enough, right? It's Zidian!”
It was true: if Zidian's soul-expelling properties didn't work the first time, they definitely wouldn't succeed a second. And of course it wouldn't work on Wei Wuxian. He hadn't stolen this body, after all; he'd been stuffed into it against his own will.
Jiang Cheng was frustrated, but he had to conceed. He lowerd Zidian and barked at Wei Wuxian. “Then who is this?”
A cultivator from YunmengJiang haltingly explained to his Sect Leader who Mo Xuanyu was. Perhaps at another time it would have been shared as an entertaining, scandalous tale, the nobody cutsleeve who harassed his peers and apparently became a lunatic, but in the circumstances it was harder to find it amusing. Those cultivators who were so eager to condemn him and attack him now looked uneasy – on his knees and bloodied, attacked with a legendary weapon like Zidian, and now confirmed not to be anyone nearly as frightening as the Yiling Patriarch after all...
He must have made a pitiful sight indeed.
Lan Sizhui stepped forward, hands folded in front of him. “Hanguang-jun, forgive this disciple for speaking out of turn, but I cannot believe Young Master Mo meant to cause harm with his actions. Perhaps he has wandered off the righteous path, but instead of keeping away tonight he came back up the mountain to help us. If he had not... the outcome here may have been very different.”
There was muttering and shuffling from the crowd of cultivators. It was embarrassing to feel shown up by a youth, but no one could deny the truth that their own efforts had not harmed the stone goddess, or that it was the summoned Ghost General who had destroyed her. More importantly, no one was willing to claim that a Lan disciple – and Hanguang-jun's, at that – was embelleshing the truth, much as they clearly wished to.
Jiang Cheng was still glaring at Wei Wuxian. “It doesn't matter,” he growled. “These types of cultivators – nothing good can ever come from them.”
He gestured at some Yunmeng disciples, but before they could do anything Hanguang-jun stepped forward to stand in front of Wei Wuxian. “He will come with me,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. If the ferocity of Jiang Cheng's glare affected him at all, it didn't show on his impassive face. “He has been involved in the matters of Lan disciples twice now. I will question him.”
Jiang Chang sneered. “He's bothered Jin Ling too.”
I saved his life, Wei Wuxian thought, but without much indignance. He was still deeply ashamed of the careless words he'd said to Jin Ling before. The world was so changed. It was better that his part in it was over. He didn't want to go with anyone; he just wanted to go off by himself, become a nobody person, unconcerned and untroubled by the affairs of the sects and them untroubled by him. If such a thing wasn't possible...
Once, it would've been unthinkable, but going with Lan Wangji was preferrable to facing this new version of Jiang Cheng, who was so similar, but with all his prickling edges honed into blades by years upon years of anger.
He shook away the thought with a thin laugh and ducked his head, gripping the wrist of his hurt arm. “Um, excuse me, but... if anyone's being bothered, it's this one by you, Sect Leader Jiang...”
Jiang Cheng's eyebrow twitched.
“Your attention is very passionate,” Wei Wuxian continued, “but, you see, I don't just like any man who pays me attention. For example, I'm not very much interested in types like you.”
His pride left Jiang Cheng unable not to question. “Then what type are you interested in?” he asked.
“Not the type who would whip an injured man,” said Wei Wuxian bluntly. Then he grinned bright. “I am, however, very much attracted to men like Hanguang-jun!”
It was a last attempt to throw both of them off, disgusting them both enough to distance themselves and leave him alone. But Lan Wangji, who had been so appalled by the slightest insinuation when they were boys, merely looked at him, with eyes that gave away nothing. After a moment he inclined his head. “So it is agreed.” He looked back to Jiang Cheng. “I will be taking him. Sizhui, Jingyi.”
Before Wei Wuxian knew what had happened Lan Wangji had taken his uninjured shoulder in a tight grip and was leading him off. He had no choice but to follow.
Hey – hold on! I didn't agree to anything!!
Wei Wuxian didn't resist, because he knew to do so was pointless. He went along with the Lans compliantly, with only some whining complaints, but in truth he feared slightly what Hanguang-jun was planning to do. Would he take him back to the Cloud Recesses, make him renounce his cultivation? Gusu was the last place Wei Wuxian wanted to be!
Despite his misgivings Lan Wangji made no move to restrain him beyond the grip on his shoulder – which he'd shifted to Wei Wuxian's armpit, a supportive hold that was actually making it easier for Wei Wuxian to keep himself upright.
The juniors also seemed at ease. During a brief stop for Hanguang-jun to assess his disciples' wellbeing, Lan Sizhui smiled at Wei Wuxian and saluted him.
“Young Master Mo has assisted us at Dafan Mountain and at Mo Mansion,” he said with polite deference. “You were the one who ordered the corpses to fight the possessed arm, weren't you? We thank you for lending us your strength.”
Feeling awkward at his earnest tone, Wei Wuxian laughed off the praise. The group continued onward into town.
There were a couple of inns in the town, but only one elegant enough to meet GusuLan standards. It was busy, stuffed to the ceiling beams with cultivators – the poor maids were hurrying around like they'd never had to deal with so many people at once before, and in a small, provincial town like this that was probably the case. Even so, a group of people who looked as distinguished and impressive as the Lans had no trouble getting service. Even Wei Wuxian's disturbing appearance, dirty and covered in blood as he was and with an arrow shaft still pierced through his shoulder, only received startled glances before Lan Wangji stepped in. Whether it was the calmness of his request for healing supplies or the staff were just overcome by his ethereally handsome face, their fears were assuaged either way.
Lan Wangji quickly secured them rooms, with meals and baths to be brought up. He checked once more if the two juniors had any injuries, and when they denied he bid them a good night and sent them off.
Then he turned the full force of his focus at Wei Wuxian.
He led Wei Wuxian upstairs and unlocked a door. The room inside was small, and there was only one bed.
Did he really bring Wei Wuxian here only to poke at his wound and interrogate him, and then... what? Cast him out again? Make him sleep on the floor? Wei Wuxian was feeling distinctly woozy from blood loss and pain and tiredness, and was rather lacking in patience. “Hanguang-jun, just what are you expecting?” he tried to teased, though it came out more slurred than purred. “It's true that you are very attractive, but I want to keep my virtue! It's not fair of you to tempt me like this-”
Lan Wangji cleared his throat. “Your room.”
“Booked two rooms. This one is yours for the night.”
Wei Wuxian licked his dry lips, surprised. Did that mean..? “One room for the juniors... and one for me?”
“..And where is Hanguang-jun going to sleep?”
Lan Wangji didn't answer. He stepped forward into the room and made a cursory inspection, pausing to look out of the window. There were no clouds and the moon was bright; it reached down with silvered fingers to caress the graceful angles of his face. The years that separated them must have done him well, Wei Wuxian thought; he still had the ageless beauty of a youth, but a little more strength and maturity in his countenance really suited him. It was a pity about that blank, empty expression he wore as default, glum and gloomy like he'd lost his wife.
Their silence only broke when the servants brought up a tub and heated water. Lan Wangji quietly thanked them, closed the door behind them, then turned to Wei Wuxian. “Your wound,” he said. “Let me see.”
Lan Wangji would undoubtedly do a better job patching it up than Wei Wuxian could do on himself, so he bit down his protests and sat on the bed. He had to pluck one-handed at the ties of his robes, and after a difficult minute Lan Wangji knelt down to assist him in undoing them. It was strange, being so close. They hadn't been close like this since... when would it have been? Trapped inside the Xuanwu cave? No, Lan Zhan had kept away on the other side of the fire. Not the archery contest – so before that, in the Cloud Recesses? It truly had been a long time.
Stranger still was the thought that Lan Zhan had no idea who he was showing such exceeding courtesy. His eternal enemy, the viscous oil to his clear water, the dastardly Yiling Patriarch – imagine the face he'd make if Wei Wuxian told him right now! How shocked he'd be! Haha, that would be funny... at least for a while.
He watched Lan Zhan from beneath his lashes. Those pale eyes were as focused as ever, absorbed in his task, and his breathing was deep and steady, except for a brief hitch as the inner robe slipped from Wei Wuxian's shoulders to leave him bare from the waist up. Was he thinking of impropriety? No, probably not – he wouldn't fuss about such things when a person was injured and he could do something to help. Wei Wuxian guessed the wound can't have been pretty.
Channeling a sharp pulse of qi through the tip his finger Lan Zhan severed off the feathered end of the arrow. He gripped Wei Wuxian's shoulder, thumb pressed under his collar. “Brace yourself,” he warned. Wei Wuxian nodded, grit his teeth – and with one strong pull Lan Zhan pulled the remaining arrow shaft out through the hole. It was over in one smooth, swift motion, but the pain was still great enough that it left Wei Wuxian feeling sick and lightheaded, black spots twirling in his vision. The warm hand at his collar held him steady while the other pressed clean wadded cloth to the seeping wounds.
Wei Wuxian found himself drifting. He could almost have fallen asleep had he not had company.
If it had been anyone else he couldn't have let them do anything like this, no matter if they didn't know who he really was, but if nothing else he knew that Hanguang-jun was a genuinely honourable man. He could trust that Lan Zhan would show him respect and would not mistreat him. This wasn't an excuse to let down his guard, however; he couldn't afford to when he still had no idea whether or not Lan Zhan would let him go. He might not mistreat him, no, but that didn't mean he wouldn't drag him away to Gusu to keep him under surveillance. Best not to give him any reason to do so.
For all his thoughts of remaining wary he was still distracted enough to be caught by surprise by a sudden surge of tingling warmth. He blinked down at the slender, pale hand on his collar, and realised – Lan Zhan was passing him spiritual energy. He was boosting Wei Wuxian's weakened, depleted energies with his own.
A tight feeling knotted behind Wei Wuxian's ribs. He tapped Lan Zhan's wrist, ushered him off. “There's no need for that, Hanguang-jun, really.”
Lan Zhan removed his hands without a word. He washed them and rose elegantly to his feet.
“You are able to bathe?” he asked.
“I'm sure I can manage,” Wei Wuxian replied, gingerly patting the clean bandages that were wrapped around his shoulder and chest. Lan Zhan had done a good job. It wasn't surprising; all the cultivators of their generation were well practised at dealing with wounds. Life during the Sunshot Campaign had been an effective teacher. He bit his lip and sent a coquettish grin Lan Zhan's way. “Though you're welcome to help me out, Hanguang-jun.”
Another hitch of breath. “You-” Lan Zhan looked away, paused, then looked back at him, his brow furrowed slightly. “Do you often use demonic cultivation?”
Wei Wuxian couldn't restrain the sigh. Still on this, Hanguang-jun? Are you like Jiang Cheng, hating me so much you can't even tolerate people who copy my practises, all these years later?
“No more often than I need to,” he said blithely.
Lan Zhan's frown deepened. “You should take care. Moderate it. Using resentful energy damages the heart and the body. It requires constant control. The consequences, should that control slip-”
If he'd shot Wei Wuxian with another arrow, he couldn't have struck more true. Was there anyone on this earth who knew the consequences better than Wei Wuxian?
“I understand,” he snapped. Agitation itched under his skin. “I mean no disrespect, Hanguang-jun, but look at me. I'm not like you. I have no sword. My spiritual power is low, and I was cast out by my sect. And this flute-” he gestured to the crude instrument set aside by his bloodied clothes- “I wasn't even carrying this before! I made it on the spot, because I had to! I didn't see any other options. Those children were in danger, and I could do something, so I did! I wouldn't have gotten involved at all in any of this business, here at Dafan mountain or in Mo village, if it weren't for the children!”
Lan Zhan was watching him placidly. Wei Wuxian caught his breath, feeling suddenly self-conscious – he hadn't meant to say so much, or so vehemently. The events of the day, with all those unexpected reunions, must have shaken him more than he realised.
He cast about for an excuse to laugh, to shake off the sudden tension, when Lan Zhan changed the subject for him.
“What will you do?”
“Will you return to Mo village?”
Wei Wuxian grimaced and rubbed his forearms. “No,” he said, with a small shake of his head. “I don't think there's anything for me there.”
Lan Zhan was still watching. His gaze was intense; it felt almost like a physical touch when his eyes flicked down to Wei Wuxian's arms. The slashed wounds from the body offering technique had disappeared without a trace, but there were still bruises wrapped around his wrists and dotting his torso. They'd been there on Mo Xuanyu's body when Wei Wuxian inherited it, and his cultivation wasn't high enough for them to have faded yet. A wave of sorrow swept over Wei Wuxian's heart. This boy... he really had been treated poorly, hadn't he?
“I don't know,” he sighed. “I'll travel, I guess. Find somewhere quiet to settle down and find an occupation. I'll figure something out. There's lots of jobs out there that need doing, and I'm good with my hands.”
Lan Zhan's lip twitched downwards, but if he felt pity for Wei Wuxian's state he made no other sign of it. “We could assist you,” he said, folding his hands together behind his back. “Find you employment in Gusu, in Caiyi town.”
Inwardly Wei Wuxian cringed. “Ah, pardon this one's impertinence, but, why would you offer to do that for me? Not that I'm not grateful, but I am no one important.”
“Your actions saved the lives of Lan disciples,” Lan Zhan reminded him. “Twice, by their account. Is this not true?”
Wei Wuxian scratched his neck. “..It is, I suppose...” Lan Wangji nodded as if this settled the matter, and Wei Wuxian almost rolled his eyes. “Listen, Hanguang-jun, I appreciate the offer, but I don't have a good reputation with LanlingJin. It might make things awkward, if they knew that your sect helped me.”
“Hm. No matter.”
Stubborn as always! Exhausted, Wei Wuxian rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Alright, to tell you the truth, I would prefer to go somewhere quieter. It would suit me far better. I... don't want anything to do with the Great Sects, or cultivators, or anything like that. I just – want to go.”
For a short while all Lan Zhan did was look at him silently, then he dipped his head. “Sect Leader Jiang will not let you go a second time,” he warned.
“I got that impression,” Wei Wuxian quipped. Don't worry, Lan Zhan. I know how to avoid Jiang Cheng.
Lan Zhan nodded. He refastened his sword to his belt and picked up his guqin, and headed for the door, where he paused, his gaze aimed pensively at the floor. Wei Wuxian wondered what else he might have to say, but if there had been something on Lan Zhan's mind he would never find out. The next moment Lan Zhan straightened his back again, all expression wiped clean as though he'd never had a doubt in his life. “Rest well,” he said, and he slipped out, shutting the door quietly behind him.
The bath water was no longer steaming once Wei Wuxian climbed in, but it was still much better than washing oneself in an ice-cold stream. Carefully he washed his body, then scrubbed his clothes, setting them out to dry. The simplistic but warm meal that was brought to him by a maid who looked dead on her feet was even more welcome. Lan Zhan never returned, and eventually Wei Wuxian decided he must have been sincere when he said this room was for Wei Wuxian alone, and crawled into bed.
Much as he was tempted to lie in by the first opportunity he'd had to sleep in a proper bed since he'd been ressurected, he woke before dawn and forced himself not to linger. Strict Lan sleeping hours may be slackened after an arduous night hunt, but even if the juniors slept in late he couldn't rely on Lan Zhan to do the same – and that was assuming he had found anywhere to bed down at all and hadn't just stayed awake to wait for morning.
No – it was better that Wei Wuxian took his leave before Lan Zhan had the chance to reevaluate his leniency from the night before, to decide that he wanted to punish 'Mo Xuanyu' after all.
The outer robe was still a bit damp, but most of the blood was gone. A slight stain remained but the handy thing about black was that bloodstains didn't show unless you knew to look for them – and the hole from the arrow wasn't so awful that Wei Wuxian's mediocre darning skills couldn't tackle it at some point. A job for later. He shrugged the robes on, shifting his right arm through the fabric with care, then grabbed his poor excuse for a flute and shimmied out of the window, landing with a quiet grunt in the soft grass below.
He wound his way through the empty streets. All the cultivators who had stayed in town must still be resting after the excitement from last night; no one was around to stop him as he passed. Soon enough he found himself at the outskirts of town, and was just wondering about liberating a few supplies to help him on his journey when the hush of morning was broken by a loud and cranky bray.
A wide grin split his lips. “Haha, perfect timing!” he laughed, as a familiar grey shape stepped out on to the road. “Hey, Lil' Apple! You must like me after all, huh? Letting me know you were here! This always happens. People acting like they don't like me when secretly they do – you're just the same, aren't you!”
The donkey shook its ears and stamped a foot. It eyed him with nothing but contempt, but it let Wei Wuxian approach nonetheless and didn't, for once, try to bite him. Wei Wuxian handed it the last remaining apple from his pocket as a reward.
“Did you make it all the way down the mountain by yourself?” he crooned. “You came where you knew there were people, right? Clever, clever.” With the donkey contently chewing, Wei Wuxian clambered up on to its back and patted its neck. Its fur was coarse, softly curling under his hands. “Well, we're going away from all these people, now. It'll be fun! The open road, just you and me.”
He took one last glance over his shoulder. Behind him the town stretched down into the valley; the first glimmers of dawn were peeking over the far horizon, lining the buildings with edges of vermillion and gold. From here Wei Wuxian could just make out the tiered roof of the inn.
He turned away.
“Come on, Lil' Apple,” he murmured, nudging the donkey with his heels. “Let's go. There's nothing for us here.”