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Lose the Beard

Chapter Text

Note:

 

To get right into YOUNG Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen’s relationship, feel free to come back to this prologue later and just skip to next chapter.

 

To understand this prologue, please read up to Chapter 8 of Poetry (Part 1 of this series) first, otherwise, TLDR: Lan QiRen’s birthday party was just crashed by Jiang Cheng, who basically eloped with Lan XiChen in public. It’s a long story, but if you just came from Poetry, enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Absurd! How can two sect leaders marry each other?!” 

 

 

“There is nobody else in the Jiang Sect of direct bloodline, but we still have WangJi. If Uncle insists that two sect leaders cannot marry, I will abdicate my role to WangJi tomorrow, and the husband of GuSu Lan Sect’s leader will fall to Master Wei.”

 

 

 

 

The image of Jiang Cheng and Lan XiChen’s unremorseful, confident strides out of the banquet hall together burned into Lan QiRen’s memory like cinders on silk. After dismissing the party and politely slipping back to his quarters, Lan QiRen found himself unceremoniously slumped onto the floor, his back against the door to stop any well-wishers from entering.

 

Like Wan WangJi and Wei WuXian’s romance, Lan XiChen and Jiang Cheng’s relationship had progressed right under his nose and exploded in his face. In a way, Lan XiChen’s path will be even more difficult than Lan WangJi’s – marrying a known heretic is abundantly easier than a Sect Leader marrying another Sect Leader. The political strife caused by the day’s events will surely cause an uproar in the cultivation world Lan QiRen could hardly fathom… yet the children of yesterday had grown into men madly in love enough cast all their responsibilities aside to pursue this prickly path.

 

‘What an abysmal birthday,’ the exhausted Lan QiRen put his hand up to his mouth and coughed, ignoring the metallic drips of red fall through his fingers and staining his pure white robes.

 

His vision blurred with tears of frustration threatening to fall. For one infuriating moment, the spreading bloodstain on his clothes blossomed out into a sun-shaped crest. A familiar, young face that haunted his dreams flashed by, smiling innocently with a youth long-lost.

 

Lan QiRen, will you take my hand and follow me away from this madness, casting aside your Lan name, never to return?’

 

“Is this divine retribution?” he silently chuckled ironically to himself, catching more blood in his hand, “Wen RuoHan, is this what you wanted? Is this what I wanted for myself but could never do?”

 

“Did you want to?” a barely-there voice rang out from behind the door, answering Lan QiRen’s question to himself.

 

Lan QiRen whipped his head around, jumped to his feet and pushed the door open so quickly, he forgot about his sorry state. He himself was used to coughing blood in moments of extreme anger and stress, but to the passing disciple, seeing the composed Lan QiRen fling open his bedroom door with bloody hands and dripping red must be a sight to behold. Nobody must be permitted to hear him say that name out loud, no matter the cost.

“Who goes there?” he shouted.

 

 

Nobody must ever know.

Nobody.

Not even Lan QiRen himself should be permitted to blunder.

 

 

 

 

Sunlight flooded his field of vision as he hurled open his doors with a flourish.

 

Subsequently came the welcoming arms of black, and a falling feeling.

 

 

 

 

 

When Lan QiRen next opened his eyes, Lan SiZhui’s worried expression and the ceiling of his bedroom gradually came into focus.

 

“Sir, we have been worried for two days,” Lan SiZhui breathed a sigh of relief,

 

“It must have been unseemly…” Lan QiRen said weakly. The taste of old blood lingered in his mouth and throat, making him frown slightly. No matter how many times this happened, he could never normalize the after effects of vomiting blood.

 

“.....I was not at the scene, Sir,” Lan SiZhui said gently, “some new disciples saw you burst out of your room, covered in blood, and collapsing onto the corridor.”

 

“Was there….anyone else present?”

 

“No, Sir.”

 

“Good,” it was Lan QiRen’s turn to be relieved. If the voice he heard had been his imagination, then all was well in the world. He cast his gaze to the last remaining Wen Clan child, not aware that he already knew of his past. “SiZhui, do you think I was wrong?”

 

Puzzled, Lan SiZhui shook his head and put Lan QiRen’s strange questions down to his recovery. He motioned to servants to bring Lan QiRen’s medicine and sat by Lan QiRen’s bedside. “Wrong about what, Sir?”

 

“….was I wrong to oppose WangJi, to oppose XiChen? Their paths will be difficult from now on - their fated ones are far from ideal. Was I wrong to want the best for my nephews?” Lan QiRen murmured, half to himself. His true question lay in his heart, heavy. ‘Was I wrong to choose to walk away from Wen RuoHan instead of walking with him, like my nephews had chosen?’

 

“If I may be blunt, Sir,” Lan SiZhui bowed his head a little in apology of his upcoming words, “One cannot circumvent fate, that is my belief. That is also the reason why they are called fated ones… HanGuang-Jun was separated from Senior Wei by life and death, yet they have found their way together against all odds. I am… envious of ZeWu-Jun and Sect Leader Jiang for having the courage to trust each other, I am sure they will not end in tragedy.”

 

“Of course you may say so,” Lan QiRen shook his head and sighed, “you are young and naïve, but life is not as kind to lovers as they are in poetry. What if I were to make you Sect Leader? Would you still be able to hold the same views?”

 

The usually quiet and polite Lan SiZhui stood up with such a start, Lan QiRen’s eyes widened a fraction and he coughed, “Improper. Sit down.”

 

“S-Sir, you should not jest about such matters!” Lan SiZhui fought to control his ragged breathing. He did not know which would be worse for him as a Sect Leader… being of Wen descent, or being in love with Jin Ling. Indeed, a different position would mean much different views.

 

“I do not jest,” Lan QiRen calmly replied, “It would serve you well to follow XiChen for the next few years and learn more about his responsibilities. The Lan Clan has no direct bloodline heir and due to XiChen and WangJi’s male partners, and I myself am unmarried. If one day neither of them are able to take the position, my first choice of Sect Leader would fall to you, SiZhui.”

 

A knock on Lan QiRen’s door broke through the icy atmosphere as Lan SiZhui’s world shattered.

 

“M-Medicine is here,” he stuttered, “I-I shall take my leave today, Sir.”

 

Lan SiZhui hurried to the door to escape Lan QiRen’s bedside. A disciple from Lan Sect’s medical team, with a plain white forehead ribbon, kept his head low and carried a tray with two bowls, one medicine and one congee. Although flustered, Lan SiZhui’s sharp senses still were active. He noticed the lack of steam rising from either bowl and asked, “Why is the medicine not hot?”

 

“This is a new internal injury medicine, intended to be taken lukewarm,” the young man replied quietly.

 

“What about the congee?’ Lan SiZhui followed on, “One must not make excuses for being off-task.”

 

Lan QiRen welcomed the thought of lukewarm medicine and congee, as opposed to boiling hot. He usually hid his child-like dislike for hot foods well, but in sickness, nothing could be more relieving than not being forced to put on an act.

 

“Wen- [1]

 

Simultaneously, the medical disciple dropped his tray to the floor with a CLANG, and Lan SiZhui banged his forehead on the open door.

 

“……..” Lan QiRen furrowed his brows. Lan SiZhui was already agitated from the mention of taking the Sect, but the medical disciple should have no reason to react so oddly to the mere mention of ‘wen’ or ‘warm’.

 

‘Does this disciple know something about Wen Yuan that he should not?’ Lan QiRen thought to himself. He decided that it would be much safer to be overly suspicious than sorry, and observed the disciple, who was frantically trying to clean the floor.

 

“Raise your head,” Lan QiRen ordered.

 

GuSu Lan Sect officially does not allow judgement based on physical attributes but had an unspoken tendency to only accept disciple of above-average features. This disciple was no different. Although losing to the likes of Lan WangJi and Lan XiChen, the man (looking to be in his mid-twenties, at least 8 years older than Lan SiZhui) had symmetrical, sharp, handsome features and large eyes.

 

However, hidden beneath a totally foreign face was the soul of a man he once knew so intimately – the late QiShan Wen Sect Leader, Wen RuoHan.

 

 

“What is your name?”

 

“Ling…. Sheng. Of the instrument,” Wen RuoHan replied, voice shaky, “Courtesy name… XuYin.” This was a line he had rehearsed for 13 years, praying to the Gods every day he would never have to use. [2]

 

“Which characters?”

 

“Jade Sound, Sir,” Wen RuoHan said quietly.

 

“How long have you been a Lan Sect disciple?”

 

“13 years, Sir.”

 

13 years would perfectly fit into the time frame when Lan SiZhui was brought back from the YiLing burial mounds by Lan WangJi – this man could possibly know something he should not.

 

“SiZhui, leave us,” Lan QiRen ordered. Lan SiZhui gladly complied, shutting the door behind himself at the speed of light.

 

 

 

 

Alone in the silence with a terrified-looking disciple who refused to look him in the eye, Lan QiRen considered his options. Asking directly whether he knew of Lan SiZhui’s history would arouse suspicion and lead to lies – Lan QiRen decided to slowly gain his trust first.

 

“Sound of jade, as in silence?” Unable to think of any appropriate small talk, he decided to question Ling XuYin’s name, “Fascinating choice of courtesy name, given that your first name is an instrument.”

 

Wen RuoHan glued his line of sight to the floor, afraid that meeting Lan QiRen’s gaze would give away his perfect hiding game. “Silence is sometimes much better.”

 

Impressed at Ling XuYin’s understanding, Lan QiRen nodded. “Inspiring insight for a young fellow. Do you not want to make a name for yourself in the cultivation world?”

 

Beads of sweat balled up on Wen RuoHan’s forehead as he struggled to form coherent sentences after having stayed hidden in plain sight for so long. He willed every muscle in his face into a calm expression and replied, “I-I prefer to just silently protect the people important to me, that is why I am I practice healing.”

 

“You have someone who you want to protect? Even at this age?” Lan QiRen was beginning to like this quiet, composed man.

 

“I held too tight once and hurt someone with my cultivation. I do not think it is too late to realize the error of my ways, and make up for it as much as possible,” Wen RuoHan confessed to the oblivious Lan QiRen. His heart bled from knowing that his words had not carried their intended effect, his hands bled from his fingernails digging into his palms.

 

‘I just wanted to watch over you and guard you for the rest of your days, make some lukewarm medicine for you, then follow you to the grave.  Why did I come into your bedroom and make myself suffer like this? Lan QiRen, do you know it’s me? Do you know what it’s like to want to reach out and touch you, but not able make myself known to you?’

 

 

Unbeknownst to Wen RuoHan, Lan QiRen’s heartstrings quivered at his words for a different reason.

 

 

“What if… it is too late?” Lan QiRen asked, half to himself.

 

Lan QiRen wryly chuckled to himself at his second double-layered question for the day. ‘Why ask these juniors questions that they do not understand? What could Ling XuYin possibly understand about my decisions, about driving Wen RuoHan to the pits of hell?’

 

Wen RuoHan snuck a glance at Lan QiRen, only to meet his intense gaze dead-on. “It is not too late,” he uttered, as if possessed, “not for me.”

 

Lan QiRen smiled sadly before closing his eyes and dozing into a turbulent sleep, “Good for you, it certainly is too late for me.”

 

‘I have buried graves for my second chances many times over, I can only dream of them now.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s note:

 

[1] ‘Wen’ 温 is of course both SiZhui’s last name and Wen RuoHan’s last name, but also the same word for ‘warm’ or ‘lukewarm’.

Lan SiZhui does not know that Lan QiRen knows that he is a Wen, therefore he is panicking at the word ‘Wen’.

Wen RuoHan, who is pretending to be Ling XuYin (Ling Sheng), panicked that Lan QiRen might have somehow already known who he is, therefore panicking at the word ‘Wen’.

Lan QiRen was trying to say that ‘lukewarm is fine’ but he never got to finish his sentence, nor does he know that the man in front of him is Wen RuoHan. Instead, he deduced that the man knows something about SiZhui’s past, which would be a huge problem if the secret got out.

This is a wordplay that only works out in Chinese, haha.

 

 

[2] Ling Sheng 凌笙, courtesy name XuYin 珝音 (meaning 'sound of jade'). I had to make up a name for Wen RuoHan’s new body. Think of this guy as Wen RuoHan’s Mo XuanYu, except he looks totally unrecognisable to Lan QiRen. Lan QiRen has zero reason to believe that this could be a possessed body… right now.