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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.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

35 years ago, GuSu, Autumn – Cloud Recesses

 

 

For Lan QiRen, life as Second Young Master of the GuSu Lan Sect had always been an easy ride. Guided by rules carved onto the rock wall, passing days were always much the same – even as his brother suddenly married and he became uncle to a little boy, Lan QiRen’s life had always been predictable.

 

But, the current situation was unprecedented.

 

“Hey, are you even listening?” the taller of the duo who were clad in robes with distinct red trim clicked his tongue impatiently, “ZhuLiu, do you think this one is a deaf mute? It’s a shame, he’s got quite the charming face.”

 

Lan QiRen was puzzled by the unprompted appearance of the pair who were standing outside his bedroom. The taller one looked to be in his early 20’s while his lackey was younger. Neither of them looked like they had good tempers. ‘What could members of the QiShan Wen Sect be doing here? Brother never mentioned any discussion meetings, and they certainly do not belong in the inner buildings…’

 

“Unlikely, Young Master,” the boy, ZhuLiu, looked to be of Lan QiRen’s age. He sounded annoyed, but still polite. “GuSu Lan Sect values outward perfection, there are no disciples here with physical defects.”

 

Lan QiRen continued to speak to only himself in his mind. ‘If I ask what they are doing here, I may offend them if they are important guests. Brother will be upset. But if they do not have permission to be in the inner buildings and I let them do as they please, Brother will be upset too…’

 

“Hey you, blink if you can hear me,” Young Master waved his hand in front of Lan QiRen’s face a few times and sighed at the lack of response, “I might as well be talking to a statue. A pretty jade statue is nice, for god’s sake can you just run along and bring me some tea? Your frozen face is beginning to creep me out.”

 

“Young Master,” ZhuLiu spoke again, “This person has blue cloud print on his forehead ribbon, a mark of a direct Lan Clan member. It may be unwise to make him serve tea.”

 

‘Young Master’ rolled his eyes and patted the still-silent Lan QiRen on the shoulder, “Wen ZhuLiu, you worry too much. If Sect Leader Lan wants me to make myself at home, then the least he could do is having his disciple make me some tea. If this little lad complains, I’ll just complain right back that QingHeng-Jun left for ‘urgent matters’ and stranded me in this maze of a place with no map. I bet he’s just coddling his precious wife.”

 

He walked past Lan QiRen and shoved him gently on the back, causing Lan QiRen to stumble, before walking through the open door of his bedroom and sitting down like he owned the place.

 

Furious, Lan QiRen opened his mouth to give the rude guest the biggest tongue-lashing of his life. He was cut off by another tongue click.

 

“Go on, get me some tea, and if you can find that Lan QiRen fellow, bring him here too. I haven’t got all day.”

 

“…..”

 

Lan QiRen used every fibre of his being not to curse. Strangers of questionable authority had shown up out of nowhere, made unwanted physical contact, and were sitting in his bedroom and ordering him to serve tea while making snarky comments about his brother. What had the cultivation world come to?

 

He slammed the door as politely as he could and made a beeline for his brother’s study – all within speed limit, of course. In the Cloud Recesses, running in the hallway was certainly forbidden.

 

 

 

 

“Brother, there are Wen Sect members sitting in my bedroom. May I ask why?” Lan QiRen kept an expressionless face. Outwardly showing dissatisfaction was not against the rules, but in the presence of the Sect Leader, he still had to show extra restraint.

 

QingHeng-Jun scratched his head absent-mindedly and smiled in embarrassment, “QiRen, I am sorry for forgetting to tell you. It was your sister in-law’s birthday five days ago, and Huan-er had just learned to walk, so the matter slipped my mind. The two gentlemen whom you just met are Wen RuoHan and his kinsman, Wen ZhuLiu. Wen RuoHan is the Eldest Young Master of the QiShan Wen Sect, and starting from today, he will be your student.”

 

“Brother, I must apologize, I believe I may have heard something preposterous in error. May you repeat your last sentence?” Lan QiRen blinked twice and rubbed his temples. ‘There is no possibility that is what Brother meant to say. Did he mean… guest? Or something else, anything else….’

 

“Wen RuoHan, next in line for the Wen Sect Leader, will be your student starting today. I still have some matters to attend to, you may seek our Uncle for the details…”

 

Lan QiRen stumbled out of the Sect Leader’s study, dumbfounded. Like lightning on a sunny day, the sudden disaster of the day had caught him off-guard and struck him on the head. Ears ringing from as fast-approaching headache, he sought the guidance of his Uncle.

 

 

 

 

Uncle made much more sense than Brother. However, the more Lan QiRen found out, the less positive things sounded for him. The reason for why a 22 year-old adult man was coming to take academic lessons from a 17 year-old was simple – during his formative years, Wen RuoHan stubbornly refused to attend classical schooling of any kind and practiced only his cultivation level instead.

 

‘In other words – a muscle headed oaf. No wonder he knew no manners,’ Lan QiRen groaned inwardly to himself, ‘how could this get any worse?’

 

“QiRen, your Brother has organized for the rooms adjacent to your quarters be made into Young Master Wen’s abode, and he will be staying in the Cloud Recesses until the next Autumn.”

 

The universe had answered – yes, it most definitely can get worse.

 

 

 

When Lan QiRen returned to his own bedroom, he found the bane of his existence laid out on his bed like a lazy cat, happily napping. Wen ZhuLiu sat nearby at a table, motionless, simply watching his master desecrate Lan QiRen’s sacred learning space. Blood pressure rising, Lan QiRen held onto his last remaining straws of patience.

 

“Napping is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” he snapped at Wen ZhuLiu, “wake your master up.”

 

“hmmm…….” Wen RuoHan stretched his arms lazily over his head and yawned, his long eyelashes fluttering open to reveal warm brown irises, “Seriously, napping is forbidden? Are you just making up and adding to the 2000 rules as you go?”

 

“It is not strictly forbidden,” Lan QiRen conceded.

 

“Then you might as well get me updated on the actual rules,” Wen RuoHan made no effort to get up, “I don’t want to follow any more than what is necessary. Actually, I don’t want to follow any at all, but it would be nice to know them all so I can pick some to break. Also, where is my tea?”

 

Lan QiRen glared at Wen RuoHan like he was a piece of dandruff stuck to a polished surface. ‘Challenge accepted, muscle-head.’

 

“Do not kill within Cloud Recesses, Do not fight without permission, Do not commit acts of promiscuity, Do not go out at night, Do not make noise, Do not walk too fast, Do not laugh for no reason, Do not sit with a disgraceful pose, Do not eat more than 3 bowls, Be a filial child, Organise work properly, Diligence is the root, Morality is the priority, Harmony is the value, Learning comes first, Do not take your own words lightly, Do not act impulsively, Do not give up on learning, Make sure to act virtuously, Do not forget the grace of the forefathers, Be careful with your words, Be respectful and humble, Be loyal and filial, Be amicable and united, Be of one mind, Train your body and your mind, Stop the bad habits, Be strict with yourself, Be easy on others, Do not hold grudges, Love and respect yourself, Maintain your own discipline, If others win over you, do not envy, If other lose to you, do not look down, Do not be wasteful, Do not create damages, Love all beings, Honour good people, Steer away from bad men, Respect the filial ones, Destroy poisonous animals, Nurture aspirations, Uphold the value of justice, Shoulder the weight of morality, Embrace the entirety of the world, Perform acts of chivalry, Have courage and knowledge, Have courtesy and integrity, Have affection and gratefulness, Have wins and losses, Be fair, and they will follow you, Be trustworthy, and they will believe you, Be mighty, and they will die for you, Take the straight path, Reject the crooked road, Earn trust, Believe sincerely, Have a strong will and anything can be achieved, Win friendships with kindness, See friends as neighbours, Be just, Be generous, Be ethical, Be grateful, Be loyal, Appreciate the good people, Wake up at 5am, Do not be picky about food, Have a proper posture, Do not be overly happy, Do not be overly sad, Do not-“

 

“Woah woah are you actually going to list all 2000 rules?!” Wen RuoHan finally sat up and looked at Lan QiRen in disbelief, “DO NOT BE HAPPY OR SAD? What kind of bullshit is this?!”

 

Lan QiRen ignored him and continued, “Do not be over-the-top, Do not use bad words to hurt others, Do not spread empty lines, Do not break promises, Do not form cliques, Do not speak ill of others, Do not live extravagantly, Do not build wealth by using others, for this wealth won’t last, Help the underprivileged, Do not argue with your family, for it doesn’t matter who wins, Speak meagrely, for too many words only bring harm, Do not-”

 

“You win! You win!” Wen RuoHan threw his hands in the air, “I’ll follow as many as I can, so can you just stop listing?”

 

“You will go to the stone wall and copy all 2000 rules,” Lan QiRen gracefully pulled the chair out from under Wen ZhuLiu and took it for himself, “for this ‘bullshit’ is the accumulation of wisdom from generations of Lan Sect leaders Also, you will serve your own tea.”

 

“Hey! Don’t get full of yourself, little prick,” Wen RuoHan stood up and tried to look intimidating with his bed-hair, “I take orders from nobody. Now piss off before I lose my patience and find me Lan QiRen or whatever he’s called.”

 

“If you followed our rule of Learning comes first, you would know that I am Lan QiRen,” Lan QiRen glared at Wen RuoHan, this time with the look he usually reserved for rotting fruit. Slightly amused at Wen RuoHan’s shocked expression, he added an extra blow. “You will copy the rules, twice, and I will consider then whether I should report your insolence to your father, Sect Leader Wen.”

 

Wen RuoHan’s surprise turned to fear as he shuddered at the thought of his father. He decided that a literal pummelling was not worth it over 4000 rules, and he would live to fight the annoying kid another day.

 

“I concede, you got me,” Wen RuoHan turned up his nose and stormed out with Wen ZhuLiu in tow, “I did not expect that the famous scholar Lan QiRen would be a prickly little kid with no respect for his elders.”

 

“I also did not expect the heir to the Wen Clan would have such a bad memory. Speak meagrely, for too many words only bring harm, I just said it. I believe you need to copy the rules off the wall once more to fully learn them, please bring your three completed copies here in two days.” Lan QiRen spared Wen RuoHan a passing glance just in time to see a vein pop out on his forehead.

 

‘Good riddance,’ he thought smugly to himself, ‘this gives me two days of peace and quiet.’

 

 

 

Two days later, Wen RuoHan returned to Lan QiRen’s bedroom with his completed copies of rules in a comically oversized burlap sack, carried by Wen ZhuLiu.

 

“What in the world is this?” Lan QiRen narrowed his eyes, “I expect that you have finished copying the rules three times over?”

 

“Why yes, my Teacher, of course,” Wen ZhuLiu smiled innocently, “let me show you my earnest hard work.”

 

He drew his blade, sliced two clean cuts across the sack and released a gush of spiritual energy, letting loose a torrential downpour of 6000 crunchy maples leaves - each with a Gusu Lan Sect rule written on one side.

 

Lan QiRen watched in horror as his student laughed loudly in his doorway while leaves continued to rain on everything he owned.

 

“Hahahaha,” Wen RuoHan laughed uncontrollably as he observed the look of pure rage on Lan QiRen’s face, “These leaves had already fallen, and I didn’t want to be wasteful, don’t you like how I am following your precious rules of not living extravagantly? Paper is expensive, dear Teacher! Hahaha…”

 

“You!” Lan QiRen stood and raised his fist, “You insolent- preposterous-

 

“Do not hold grudges, Teacher,” Wen RuoHan said between laughs, “it is forbidden!”

 

 

Wen RuoHan’s laughter ceded when through the fluttering leaves, he saw Lan QiRen’s knees buckle as he fell to the ground, clutching his chest. Rushing forward, he caught Lan QiRen inches from impact.

 

Lan QiRen’s view of his new arch nemesis blur as a familiar pain shot up his torso an accumulate at his heart. The blur faded to black, the blackness engulfed him and his frustrations in a gentle embrace…. Wait, embrace?

 

“Hey, hey!” Wen RuoHan shook Lan QiRen’s shoulders in panic as he saw a small trickle of blood run out of the corners of his mouth. He dabbed at is frantically with his sleeve, voice strained, “Are you alright? Can’t you take a joke?”

 

“…an old childhood illness, I will not die,” Lan QiRen said weakly as he struggled against Wen RuoHan’s arms, “…let…go…”

 

“Oh no you don’t!” Wen RuoHan rolled his eyes, “You’ll tell my father I left you for dead on the floor. Put your arms around my neck if you don’t want to fall.”

 

Lan QiRen gasped as Wen RuoHan lifted Lan QiRen like a ragdoll in his arms, princess-style, and marched for his bed.

 

“Improper! Put me down this instant!” he commanded with as much energy as he could muster.

 

“Save it,” Wen RuoHan gently laid him on his bed, now covered in crunchy orange maple leaves, “you are sick, and your room is a forest floor, forget the rules for one minute.”

 

Lan QiRen formulated another protest, but as he saw Wen RuoHan’s hand reach forward for his forehead ribbon, he froze like a startled rabbit. Closer and closer came the hand, while Lan QiRen suddenly became unable to move. His heart pounded wildly in his chest as he tasted more metallic blood in his mouth, yet unable to look away from that annoying, handsome face. Wen RuoHan’s red-lined robes seemed to blend in to the sea of fiery leaves – passionate, unrelenting, zealous.

 

“Your face is very pale, are you sure you are alright?” Wen RuoHan asked as he absent-mindedly picked a leaf off Lan QiRen’s forehead ribbon.

 

Lan QiRen breathed a sigh of relief as his forehead ribbon went untouched.

 

“Blushing now?” Wen RuoHan laughed at Lan QiRen’s rapidly-changing expressions. “My oh my, Teacher is so dainty and pure. If you weren’t a man, I’d carry you anywhere you wanted,” he leaned in so close that he would see the small beads of sweat forming on Lan QiRen’s head and whispered in an exaggerated seductive voice, “even to my bed…. Hahahaha!”

 

“Get out!” Lan QiRen spluttered ad sat up, seething, “And take your leaves with you!”

 

Wen RuoHan wagged a finger in Lan QiRen’s face, “This is my homework, and you have to check it. You ought to read every leaf to make sure all the rules are there, and then I will come to clean it up if I feel like it.”

 

He strode through his mess of leaves, crunching them under his feet, leaving Lan QiRen on his own bed. “ZhuLiu, let’s head into town, I hear that the loquats in GuSu are perfect at this time of year!”

 

Lan QiRen grabbed a fistful of leaves and threw them at the door before collapsing into his bed, alone at last. He checked to make sure there was nobody passing by his bedroom before he let out an exasperated yell, muffling it with his own sleeve. A few deep breaths later, Lan QiRen regained composure and a normal heart rate.

 

Ignoring the rule of ‘no grudges’, he carved Wen RuoHan’s insolent, laughing face into his memory.

 

‘Wen RuoHan… you want to break my resolve? Bring it on, I can handle you.’

 

 

 

In hindsight, he may have carved it a little too deep.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Young Master, shall we unpack our belongings before we head down the mountain?” Wen ZhuLiu respectfully pulled out a chair for Wen RuoHan as the pair made themselves at home in the room next door to Lan QiRen’s.

 

The rooms in the Cloud Recesses were never adorned extravagantly, but the Lans’ taste in interior decoration were flawless. Wen RuoHan took a moment to admire the calm atmosphere and let out a deep breath. The trip South to GuSu from QiShan was the only freedom he enjoyed - even such an elegant setting could only remind him that he had flown from one cage into another. Wen RuoHan’s lips curled into a small smile as he remembered his neighbour. ‘At least, I am trapped with an interesting fellow to tease.’

 

“Young Master? We will be locked outside the gates if we do not return by nightfall, so if you would like to eat loquats, it would be wise to leave now,” Wen ZhuLiu reminded earnestly.

 

Wen RuoHan frowned, thoughts of Lan QiRen had totally distracted him from his earlier plan. “Loquats can wait,” he stretched his arms and yawned, “ZhuLiu, go and tidy up those leaves. If that annoying kid really writes a letter to my Father, I’ll probably be caned.”

 

Although perplexed as to why Wen RuoHan would suddenly make him return back to where they just left from, Wen ZhuLiu simply turned and followed orders.

 

“Wait a minute,” Wen RuoHan stopped Wen ZhuLiu just as he opened the door to leave, “Do you still carry it with you?”

 

“I do not understand,” Wen ZhuLiu scratched his head, “Young Master, what should I be carrying?”

 

“Ah, you know, that.”

 

“….”

 

Wen RuoHan stood from his chair in frustration and flicked Wen ZhuLiu on the forehead. “Are you playing dumb?!” he clicked his tongue impatiently, “Those medicine pills that you carry for emergencies, if the brat looks like he’s really dying, make sure he stays alive. I can’t have anyone say that I killed my teacher on the first day. Now go!”

 

 

 

Wen ZhuLiu found Lan QiRen’s door open and did not bother to knock as he strode back inside, leaves crunching under his feet. To his surprise, Lan QiRen was fully serious, examining the writing on every leaf and organising them into piles. Noticing the intrusion, Lan QiRen put down the leaf in his hand and sighed.

 

“What brings you back?” Lan QiRen groaned, “this will take me until tomorrow morning to finish checking, so you are both dismissed for today. Lessons start tomorrow at 7am, sharp.”

 

“Young Master sent me to clean up the leaves,” Wen ZhuLiu answered honestly.

 

“You may clean them after I have sighted his work,” Lan QiRen continued to sort leaves, “Should there be even one rule missing, there will be consequences.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu had never met a person more serious than Wen RuoHan up until this day. Usually, such tenacity would surely be in jest, but Wen ZhuLiu was sure that no matter what happened, Lan QiRen would really read every leaf.

 

“There is no need, I can guarantee that Young Master did copy every rule three times with his own hands,” Wen ZhuLiu said, “he is a very serious person by nature, he does not cheat.”

 

“Serious?” Lan QiRen raised an eyebrow, “Serious people do not commit such ridiculous acts. You are dismissed.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu exhaled sharply. “Young Master Lan, my Young Master will seriously keep any promise, but that does not mean he does not take revenge when revenge is due. I respect you as a scholar and his Teacher, but it would be wise for you to be fair to him in the future.”

 

“Are you threatening me?” Lan QiRen’s tone was cold and unforgiving, “Mr Wen, your Young Master was sent to me to learn. His first lesson will be ‘respect’, and maybe then I can teach him decent handwriting.”

 

“Young Master is learned in the books and arts,” Wen ZhuLiu grew increasingly impatient as Lan QiRen’s words turned sharp, “do not speak of him like you would a child.”

 

“Why would anyone learned be sent here?” Lan QiRen was genuinely surprised at Wen ZhuLiu’s words. For a lie, it would be all too easy to prove wrong, but if Wen RuoHan were not truly a dullard, who in their right mind would send their only son to GuSu at this age?

 

“Young Master may not be an accomplished scholar like Young Master Lan,” Wen ZhuLiu explained, “but his cultivation base and talent are like no other. He simply chooses to spend most of his energy in perfecting his cultivation, but Sect Leader saw it as a threat. Young Master is kind, and does not resent his Father, but this year spent away could severely damage his standing in the Clan. Young Master Lan seems like a gentleman, so ZhuLiu would like to take this chance to implore you not to make his life any harder than it already is.”

 

“You are a diligent servant,” Lan QiRen nodded, “but I have a duty to teach now, whether I like it or not. If Young Master Wen does not cause any more trouble, I have no reason to punish him. I believe that no matter the circumstances in his home, both of you should take this chance to learn as much as you can from our Sect. As the next leader of the QiShan Wen Sect, if your Young master cannot overcome this small setback, I truly rue the day he takes over that position.”

 

Satisfied that Lan QiRen appeared a reasonable man, Wen ZhuLiu fished a small golden bottle out of his sleeve.

 

“Young Master reminded me to hand you our family’s secret internal medicine for your injuries,” Wen ZhuLiu placed the bottle on the nearest table, “he wishes you a fast recovery.”

 

‘How much of that care was even true, and how much was added by Wen ZhuLiu?’

 

Lan QiRen watched Wen ZhuLiu close the door behind him before picking up the shining bottle, letting it roll around in his palm. The thumbnail-sized ruby cap caught the morning light on its facets and cast dancing red lights onto the ceiling, entrancing him for a moment before reality set in. The cost of the bottle alone would be enough to fund the Cloud Recesses a new building and was truly from a different world to his own. Lan QiRen sighed and tucked it into his sleeve, reminding himself to return it to its owner, and continued to read the leaves one by one.

 

He shook his head as he picked up yet another leaf in the seemingly endless pile, ‘I must be mad to even entertain the thought of that man as a decent sort, such extravagance for a medicine bottle must not be encouraged…’

 

 

 

 

The next morning, Wen RuoHan and Wen ZhuLiu arrived at Lan QiRen’s door at 7am sharp, armed with Wen RuoHan’s stationery. Lan QiRen frowned as an offensively expensive set of brushes, paperweights and ink stones were laid out in front of him. He looked at his own set of simple wood-handled brushes then at Wen RuoHan’s set - five wolf-hair calligraphy brushes with handles made of red jade, green jade, white jade, solid gold and ivory.

 

“Extravagance is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan QiRen rubbed his temples in annoyance, “have you learned nothing from your punishment?”

 

Wen RuoHan picked up the red jade brush and examined it closely, puzzled. “These are nice brushes, of course, but they are not outrageous and extravagant. I sometimes get these as gifts and it would be a shame to never use them, so my Father said that I should give these to you if you like them.”

 

“Preposterous. GuSu Lan Sect disciples are impervious to bribes,” Lan QiRen could not help but be shocked at how nonchalantly Wen RuoHan treated what appeared to be priceless artefacts. “Young Master Wen, how will you become an accomplished Sect Leader if you allow yourself to wallow in such ostentatious displays of wealth?”

 

Wen RuoHan’s eyes flashed with a dangerous spark upon hearing Lan QiRen’s harsh words. He slowly set down the brush in his hand and stood up, towering over the seated Lan QiRen and cast his shadow over the smaller man.

 

“Young Master Lan, I will even call you Teacher Lan, I will say this only once – never use ‘Sect Leader’ to judge me ever again.”

 

“If not for securing your position, what made you focus on cultivation over everything?” Lan QiRen questioned, “your cultivation level is famous, and your father should be proud to have a successor who he can leave QiShan Wen Sect in good hands to.”

 

Wen RuoHan sighed and stared expressionlessly out of the window behind Lan QiRen. “Don’t mix my cultivation with that job I didn’t ask for. Cultivation is for myself, what I do because I want to become stronger. That Sect Leader job is only mine because my Father didn’t have any more children, I didn’t ask for it.”

 

Hearing Wen RuoHan refer to his duty in complete disregard made Lan QiRen angrier than he cared to admit. Even as the second son and unable to succeed the Lan Sect, he was made very clear to his duties since he was old enough to remember. It seemed impossible, and horribly unfair, that anyone should be allowed to escape. Swallowing his personal bias and trying his best to calm his breathing, Lan QiRen cleared his throat and started to lecture. “Why become stronger if not to help the common man? Wise men often-

 

“Why help the common man if he cannot help himself?” Wen RuoHan cut him off.

 

“I beg your pardon?” Lan QiRen could not believe what he was hearing.

 

“I become stronger for myself, not to work for people I don’t know. That is my decision, and I don’t need a lecture on what I ought to do with my own power,” Wen RuoHan shrugged.

 

The words he spoke horrified Lan QiRen as he realized his first student was more than under-educated… he lacked empathy and aspirations.  The idea of such a man succeeding one of the most powerful cultivation sects sent shivers down his spine, turning his face an ashy white.

 

“Hey, are you alright?” Wen RuoHan noticed small beads of sweat forming on Lan QiRen’s forehead, “did you take that medicine?” He reached forward towards Lan QiRen’s forehead ribbon in a bid to check for a fever.

 

Lan QiRen drew in a sharp breath and jumped backwards as the events of yesterday played in his mind. “Do not overstep your boundaries,” he guarded his forehead with one hand and continued to retreat out of arm’s reach from Wen RuoHan. Fishing the heavy gold bottle out of his sleeve, he placed it onto the wooden desk with a dull thud. “I have told you, extravagance is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. Take back your medicine and put your wealth to better use,” Lan QiRen sighed.

 

Wen RuoHan watched Lan QiRen’s face get even paler until he was about the colour of paper. Fearing that Lan QiRen would become even more ill and land him in hot water with his Father and the GuSu Lan Sect, Wen RuoHan deftly picked up the bottle, took off the ruby cap and emptied one small red pill into his palm.

 

“Medicine is medicine, no matter what it’s stored in. Just hurry up and take one.” Wen RuoHan pinched the pill between his thumb and forefinger and offered it to Lan QiRen, who took a few steps backwards until he was against the wall.

 

“No,” Lan QiRen stubbornly shook his head, “The price of this medicine also looks astronomical, it would be improper.”

 

Visibly annoyed, Wen RuoHan took two quick steps forward, grabbed Lan QiRen’s cheeks and stuffed the medicine between his lips. After the initial soft warmth greeted his fingers, sharp pain followed.

 

“Ow!” Wen RuoHan snatched his hand back and examined the neat row of freshly-bleeding bite marks, “How dare you bite me?!”

 

“How dare YOU be so insolent?!” Lan QiRen wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, grimacing at the metallic taste, “Disgusting.”

 

Wen RuoHan had been called many things in his life (mostly out of jealousy), but ‘disgusting’ was a first. Having his rare bout of goodwill referred to with such disdain by a kid barely even tall enough to reach his chin made his blood boil. However, Wen RuoHan’s tenacity and vengeance were a forced to be reckoned with.

 

“ZhuLiu, get out,” he ordered.

 

Wen ZhuLiu knew that things were likely to end badly but made no attempt to stop his master, as he shut the door behind himself. If Lan QiRen was brave enough to bite THE Wen RuoHan, he would also need to face the consequences.

 

Alone with Wen RuoHan, Lan QiRen’s quarters seemed four times as empty and spacious, yet small enough to suffocate in.

 

“I’ll give you one more chance,” Wen RuoHan tipped another two pills into his hand, “take them.”

 

Silence was Lan QiRen’s answer.

 

“I admire your resolve,” he smiled with lips but not eyes, “but you’re just a kid who needs to be taught who’s really in charge.”

 

At the speed of lightning, Wen RuoHan threw the two pills into his own mouth and pinned Lan QiRen up against the wall with his entire body weight, smothering their lips together. Lan QiRen opened his mouth to scream, naively giving Wen RuoHan’s tongue just enough leeway to force itself in between his virgin lips, delivering the double dose of medicine. A hot warmth swept across the roof of his mouth, Lan QiRen’s knees buckled as he struggled to move against Wen RuoHan’s stature. Not to mention, every part of his face in contact with Wen RuoHan seemed to be on fire. Utterly trapped and unable to pull away in any direction, Lan QiRen could only let out muffled sounds as the inside of his mouth was assaulted against his will, while the futile effort he put forth with his own tongue to push out Wen RuoHan only caused the reverse effect.

 

Wen RuoHan did not expect himself to go further than delivering what needed to be. He had tasted his fair share of kisses at brothels and the such, but Lan QiRen’s quivering lips against his own sent a jolt down his spine. When their tongues touched, even though Wen RuoHan knew Lan QiRen was doing the opposite of kissing back, he knew he needed more of that delicious drug. The bitter taste of the dissolving medicine did little to mask Lan QiRen’s sweet taste as Wen RuoHan narrowed the space between them to barely enough room to breathe, ignoring all kissing techniques to force himself closer.

 

By the time Wen RuoHan remembered to pull back and breathe, Lan QiRen’s lips were swollen and bruised. Saliva stained pink with the outer coating of the red pills glistened on the corners of his slightly parted mouth as Lan QiRen gasped for air, lighted-headed and dizzy from what felt like an eternity.

 

Wen RuoHan admired the pretty scene in front of him. An overwhelming urge to make Lan QiRen’s slightly watery eyes cry tears of pleasure caught him off guard, as he too tried to maintain composure while the atmosphere around them froze.

 

“I… have my ways to get what I want,” Wen RuoHan awkwardly laughed, feigning calm, “that medicine is made from the rarest, oldest lingzhi from LongYuan [3], no matter how angry you get, a double dose would be able to keep you alive. I even taught you how to kiss, for free, how will you repay me?”

 

Lan QiRen unsheathed his sword one inch before Wen RuoHan realized that his last tease had gone too far. “Wait wait I’ll get lost,” he sidestepped Lan QiRen’s merciless swing before bolting out of the room without looking back.

 

“Teacher Lan, fighting is forbidden!” he yelled as he slammed the door shut, “Wen ZhuLiu, stop standing there and run for it!”

 

 

Alone at last, Lan QiRen finally collapsed his knees and dropped to the floor in an unseemly heap. The blistering heat of Wen RuoHan’s kiss lingered on his every nerve – it taught him more about his impossible student more than he ever cared to know.

 

Somewhere, deep inside Wen RuoHan’s exterior package of indifference and apathy, was a ruthless and passionate ember waiting to ignite.

 

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan did not appear at 7am the next morning. He would later joke to Lan QiRen that he feared for his life and change the subject, but the truth was Wen RuoHan failed to sleep a wink that night and could not wake up until high noon.

 

Later in the day, another piece of news made him lose sleep for the second night in a row.

 

“Young Master,” Wen ZhuLiu reported, “Lan QiRen has requested that you accompany him to QingHe, effective immediately.”

 

“To do what?” Wen RuoHan groaned, “So he can assassinate me?”

 

“He says… it is a field trip.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[3] LongYuan [龙渊lit. Dragon Abyss] is the olden name for LongQuan [龙泉lit. Dragon Spring] which is a place in ZheJiang Province that produces lingzhi mushrooms, prized in Chinese herbal medicine. Google it!

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

QingHe – Zhao County, Han Village

 

 

“You want me to hand over my WHAT?!” Wen RuoHan spat out the mouthful of sweet stewed pear he had been enjoying and coughed violently, glaring at Lan QiRen in disbelief. The owner of the street stall glanced at him with an unapproving look, but quickly averted his gaze when he realized that the young man making a scene was well-dressed (read: rich) and very, very angry.

 

“How slovenly,” Lan QiRen furrowed his brows, “utterly distasteful.”

 

“Listen here, you punk-ass kid,” Wen RuoHan grabbed the handkerchief Wen ZhuLiu passed him and roughly wiped his mouth as well as the table he dirtied, “I don’t care what words you use against me because of your grudge but taking a cultivator’s sword is a line nobody should cross. NO. WAY.”

 

“I am not taking your sword, we are both giving our swords to Wen ZhuLiu so he can keep them safe in GuSu,” Lan QiRen took a calm sip of his own pear stew.

 

“That’s more than 600 miles away!”

 

“I am well aware, we just flew 620 miles to arrive in this village,” Lan QiRen nodded, “Would you have rather we left our swords at the Cloud Recesses and walked more than 20 days to get here?”

 

“Please don’t tell me this field trip is only to eat these damn pears,” Wen RuoHan complained, “You don’t look like a spontaneous fellow to me. Stop pretending to be mysterious and spit it out!”

 

Lan QiRen took one last sip of his bowl of pear stew, stood to pay the vendor politely and motioned for Wen RuoHan and Wen ZhuLiu to follow him. The trio walked down the ageing yet bustling centre street of Han Village until the houses became scarce and a small orchard just outside village grounds came into view.

 

“We walked a mile for more pears?” Wen RuoHan rolled his eyes, “Why are you GuSu Lan so bad at explaining everything?”

 

“This is a pear orchard left to the GuSu Lan estate from the dowry of a great-aunt. The land is tended to by the people of this village and in exchange, they may keep all profits of the fruit and use it to fund the village school,” Lan QiRen led the Wens up the dirt path to the thatched roof house in the middle of a grove of fruit-laden pear trees, “It is one of the very few places we can come to study that is outside the jurisdiction of the Lan and Wen Sects. As long as we do not night hunt, the Nie Clan will not have any complaints.”

 

“That doesn’t mean ZhuLiu has to take both our swords back to GuSu,” Wen RuoHan countered.

 

“Indeed not,” Lan QiRen pushed open the creaking wooden door to reveal the dusty interior of the cottage. He set his heavy bag of books down on the table after dusting the surface and began to deftly unpack the rest of his belongings, “but it is the only way for you to forget about cultivation. We shall spend a month in this village, discussing literature and living humbly.”

 

“Humbly? What, selling pears?” Wen RuoHan joked.

 

Lan QiRen nodded seriously.

 

“You have GOT to be kidding me!” he put his head in his hands and let out an exasperated groan, “Is this because of my calligraphy brushes or the medicine bottle? Just because wealth offends you, that doesn’t mean you can abuse your power!”

 

All of Wen RuoHan’s protests were perfectly ignored by Lan QiRen.

 

“Sect Leader Wen clearly stated in his letter that I have sole responsibility for Wen RuoHan during his stay, and that any disobedience should be reported directly to the Nightless City,” Lan QiRen said as he handed a rag and old washbasin to Wen ZhuLiu, “The last thing I permit you to do here is to help clean this cottage, after which you shall take both our swords and return to the Cloud Recesses. Failure to comply is not an option.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu studied Lan QiRen’s serious expression before politely reaching for Wen RuoHan’s sword. “Young Master, it is best not to directly go against Sect Leader’s orders,” he said, “Also, studying here mean that the rules of the Cloud Recesses do not apply. Is this not more freedom than those walls have to offer?”

 

 

Two hours later, Wen RuoHan could only watch with a sinking heart as Wen ZhuLiu flew away with both his and Lan QiRen’s swords in tow.

 

“Are you happy now?”

 

“I did not expect your attendant to really clean this house, so I am happy,” Lan QiRen ignored Wen RuoHan’s sarcasm and continued to unpack books from his bags.

 

Indeed, after two hours of dusting and wiping, Wen ZhuLiu had left the old cottage in good shape. A large square central table took up the centre of the main room, serving as the living area, dining room and study. A modest hearth-bed on one wall, wooden stand holding the washbasin plus copper mirror with one towel, and a divider wall behind which the small kitchen could be found completed all the amenities of the cottage.

 

“I refuse to admit this shack is a house,” Wen RuoHan viewed his surroundings with disdain, “Also, Wen ZhuLiu is not a servant. He has cultivation talent beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, I took him from the streets to become stronger, not to do your housework.”

 

Lan QiRen smiled, only for a fleeting moment. He had never seen Wen RuoHan display any care for another person before – knowing that this person could be capable of doing good made him feel more at ease. The gamble in living alone with Wen RuoHan was risky, but Lan QiRen had already seen enough to know that should the pair stay in the Cloud Recesses, Wen RuoHan would continue his outlandish behaviour and break rules until his entire day was taken up by punishments. If he could use one month of intensive teaching to make Wen RuoHan a better man, he could send this outrageous fellow back to QiShan and out of his life as soon as possible.

 

‘Just for one month,’ Lan QiRen grimaced as he envisioned the difficult task ahead, ‘One month until I never have to see him again.’

 

 

“So, are you going to teach me anything, Teacher?” Wen RuoHan mocked, “Or are we just going to pick some pears?”

 

“Pears will be picked by the villagers. Our lessons will start tomorrow,” Lan QiRen replied curtly, “We must visit the village before the sun sets to procure food.”

 

 

 

Like all farming villages, Han Village was at its most prosperous in Autumn. The land was fertile, with underground aquifers laying the foundations of irrigation that enabled the production of snow pears, famous for their juicy white flesh. Wheat and corn were planted in drier lands, making flour dishes a staple of the people. Merchants frequented the area to check their orchards, and the steady flow of money created a small but complete business block. Pharmacies, pawn shops, tailors, restaurants and blacksmiths all lined up on the main street, rare for such a small village.

 

However, to Wen RuoHan, the place could only be described at destitute and in poverty.

 

Village children playing in the main street curiously looked on as two handsome outsiders in expensive white robes wandered from store to store, comically out of place. The taller of the two, with red trim on his robes, seemed very displeased as he carried large bags of rice, flour and vegetables, grumbling to the younger man wearing the mourning ribbon why they did not buy the heaviest items last.

 

“Punishment,” Lan QiRen said with a tinge of smugness as he added some potatoes from a street stall to Wen RuoHan’s ever-growing pile, silently amazed at Wen RuoHan’s ability to make it thus far carrying well over 40 pounds of food.

 

The pile Wen RuoHan was made to carry almost obscured his vision and his arms were beginning to ache. Frustrated, he peeked over the top of the potatoes and put on his best seductive face to disgust Lan QiRen. “Punishment for what?” he said with a voice that even sickened himself, “For the kiss that made you weak at the knees?”

 

Lan QiRen’s face turned shades of red and purple as he nearly lost his footing. “Indecent!” he spluttered, “N-never mention that ever again!”

 

Satisfied at the reaction, Wen RuoHan chuckled to himself. The only thing making his predicament bearable was that his teacher was fun to tease. ‘Maybe I will kiss him again later, just to keep things interesting…’

 

“Teacher Lan,” Wen RuoHan lessened the sickly-sweet tone in his voice, “Can we go back? If my arms are dead tomorrow, how will I study?”

 

“Ahem, very well, let us return,” Lan QiRen composed himself and fished a few coins out of his money bag to pay for the potatoes without making eye contact with the vendor, making a mental note never to return to this vegetable farmer’s stall.

 

 

 

The pair made it back to the cottage just as the sun set in the valley beyond. We RuoHan could not help but wonder how things had gotten to this point – just 6 days ago, he had been drinking wine with exotic dancers in his chambers in the Nightless City. Now, he was returning to a farm house, carrying food, with another man for the night. What bad karma had he sowed in his previous life to make for such punishment?

 

“Why did you buy so much food?” Wen RuoHan set the mountain of food down heavily on the kitchen floor and stretched his cramped shoulders, “Just because you don’t have to carry it?”

 

“Correct,” Lan QiRen nodded, “and I am your teacher.”

 

Speechless at Lan QiRen’s shift in attitude from snarky to downright hostile since leaving GuSu, Wen RuoHan began to wish they were back inside the walls. “Just so you know, I have never cooked before,” he shrugged, “what do you propose we do?”

 

Lan QiRen dug through his pile of books on the table and produced a volume dedicated to culinary arts. “I will make food for today, but you will learn starting from tomorrow. For now, you may fetch water from the well in the back yard and gather firewood,” He said, picking up a cabbage from the ground, “Do not stand there, we need water.”

 

 

Wen RuoHan returned, two hours later, with a large bundle of sticks and one bucket of water.

 

“Did you fight a mud demon in the orchard?” Lan QiRen looked at the sorry sight in front of him. Wen RuoHan’s left side had a large mud stain, and his left hand was missing some skin, truly a spectacle to behold for the Young Master of QiShan.

 

“It’s your fault I don’t have a sword!” Wen RuoHan kicked the back door frame like a frustrated child, “I fell into a ditch while breaking branches off trees for firewood with my bare hands, if you must know. Where is dinner?”

 

“Dinner is delayed because you took two hours to fetch firewood,” Lan QiRen said with a judgmental tone, “be prompt with the fire, I will make rice porridge.”

 

“What about all the vegetables I carried from the damn village?” Wen RuoHan looked at the untouched cabbage still sitting on the wooden chopping board, “You didn’t even chop any while I was gone?!”

 

“The cleaver is rusted from age,” Lan QiRen admitted, “your first lesson tomorrow will be to sharpen the cleaver and buy an axe to better chop wood. Start a fire and I will make porridge for today.”

 

Too tired to argue, Wen RuoHan stuffed the firewood in his arms into the burner at the base of the stove and used a spell to start fire. Lan QiRen directed him to pour some water into the old wok on the stove and poured some rice in. Satisfied that at least one of them knew how to cook, Wen RuoHan retreated from the kitchen, took off his dirtied outer robe and collapsed onto the hard bed in his inner robe. Exhausted from the day, his heavy eyelids soon closed as he fell into a dreamless slumber.

 

Wen RuoHan woke to a beautiful face leaning over him. Lan QiRen’s features were fine and delicate, only marred by a small smudge of soot on his right cheek from cooking.

 

“It is not yet time to rest,” Lan QiRen shook Wen RuoHan’s shoulder, “Rise, I have prepared porridge.”

 

Half-asleep and bothered by the soot, Wen RuoHan reached out with his left hand absent-mindedly to wipe it away, only for Lan QiRen to brush it off like a pest. He had forgotten his left hand had been scraped by a rock during his previous fall, and the pain from having the wound touched made Wen RuoHan wince in pain.

 

“D-does it hurt?” Lan QiRen felt guilty. The threat of physical contact with Wen RuoHan had made him move instinctively, without consideration for the other’s injuries.

 

“I am fine. But you…you have soot on your face,” Wen RuoHan said quietly, embarrassed by his own actions. Lan QiRen’s look of concern and soot mark made Wen RuoHan think of an inexperienced wife trying to cook for her husband for the first time. His heart fluttered for a moment before he caught his own thoughts, appalled at how he got there in the first place.

 

“M-many thanks,” Lan QiRen turned away quickly to wipe his face, ears slightly warm. “Our porridge is on the table.”

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan had expected plain white porridge, but the bowl in front of him seemed like it had been seasoned. Pleased, he took in a mouthful –

 

- and immediately spat it onto the floor.

 

“DO YOU WANT TO FUCKING KILL ME?” he said between coughs, “HOW CAN THIS BE BURNT, RAW AND SALTY AT THE SAME TIME?!”

 

Lan QiRen looked offended at Wen RuoHan’s rude outburst. “Do not be ungrateful,” he frowned and took a sip for himself before swallowing with difficulty, “…….but I will admit, this is less than ideal.”

 

LESS THAN IDEAL?!” Wen RuoHan’s day of pent-up frustrations exploded, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW TERRIBLE THIS WHOLE THING IS?! DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING APART FROM WRITING THOSE STUPID BOOKS?! I know you are famous for your scholarly writings, but how can you bring me out here to this godforsaken place and not know how to survive? You’re just like me, born into privilege, just too proud to admit that you don’t know a DAMN thing about anything else!”

 

Lan QiRen looked at his feet, unable to retort. “….I…did think that I had the necessary knowledge to at least survive humbly. I misjudged the need for experience.”

 

“You know what? I am finished with playing games. I am not interested in learning anything from you, you can write whatever you want to my Father!” Wen RuoHan picked a clean outer robe from his bags and dressed himself quickly. Flinging the bag over his shoulder, he kicked the front door open and stepped into the night air, “I am going back to QiShan, this is ridiculous!”

 

“Wen RuoHan, get back here this instant!” Lan QiRen chased after him, “We can learn together, but you cannot give up just because we have difficulties on the first day!”

 

“Oh, spare me the lecture,” Wen RuoHan stormed down the path, with Lan QiRen in hot pursuit, “Stop trying to force your own morals onto me!”

 

“I just want to help the people of QiShan, so their next Sect Leader is not a self-absorbed spoilt-

 

“STOP IT!” Wen RuoHan turned suddenly and unleashed a torrent of spiritual energy at Lan QiRen in close range, “I TOLD YOU, NEVER MENTION THE SECT LEADER NONSENSE!”

 

Caught entirely off guard, Lan QiRen barely had time to dodge. While he avoided being struck in any vital areas, Wen RuoHan’s attack still sent him flying back ten feet into the wall of their cottage. He crumpled to the ground, clutching his chest, blood pouring from his mouth, unconscious.

 

Realizing that Lan QiRen was likely still ill from days ago, all of Wen RuoHan’s anger dissipated as he hurried back to the younger man. He took up Lan QiRen in his arms and rushed back indoors, gingerly laying him on the bed. Without a moment to spare, Wen RuoHan fished out another red pill from the golden bottle he carried with him and scooped up a bowl of water from the bucket in the kitchen. Lan QiRen’s breathing was shallow and forced, Wen RuoHan felt his pulse and sighed in relief to find it stable. He sighed, putting the pill into his own mouth along with some water, and placed his lips over Lan QiRen’s for the second time. He scowled at the sharp metallic taste of blood but forced Lan QiRen to swallow the medicine before pulling back.

 

“…I’m sorry,” he said to nobody in particular, “I didn’t mean to.” Wen RuoHan was not sure for what he was sorry for – the first kiss, the injury, the second kiss, or the more kisses he had to hold himself back from? He slapped himself, shook his head, rolled up his sleeves and moped into the shabby kitchen to do some damage control.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

GuSu Lan Sect strictly obeys ‘rise at 5am; and ‘rest at 9pm’. Lan QiRen’s eyes opened at 5am without fail, even though a nauseating dull ache in his chest. As his vision cleared with a few blinks to a dim room, his other senses also sharpened. Lan QiRen heard the sounds of a crackling fire, smelled the faint aroma of rice, and felt uncomfortably warm. Lifting the blankets off himself to check that he was indeed still dressed, he slowly meandered towards the kitchen.

 

He stood in shock as he watched Wen RuoHan taste bubbling vegetable rice porridge from the wok like a… normal person. Most of the tools in the kitchen apart from the wok seemed to have been replaced with much newer models, including gleaming cleaver and a stack of coarse porcelain bowls. Though it was not yet daybreak, Lan QiRen also spotted a clay medicine pot over a small fire through a crack in the back door.   

 

‘Did he… go out in darkness to gather these things, and wake up early to cook?’

 

Wen RuoHan was so intensively focused on the task in front, he failed to notice Lan QiRen behind him. With every spoonful he tasted, he sprinkled another pinch of salt into his concoction until he was satisfied that it was perfect. He ladled a serving into a bowl and wiped the sweat from his brow, muttering, “Surely the fifth try HAS to be edible…”

 

Wen RuoHan turned around to make his way to the table, nearly rushing head-first into Lan QiRen. He gave a surprised yell and sharply turned to the right to avoid a collision, but a splash of piping hot porridge still spilled onto Lan QiRen’s left hand.

 

Lan QiRen could barely finish the word ‘ouch’ before Wen RuoHan grabbed his hand and placed his mouth over the scalded part, soothing it with his lips.

 

“W- what do you think you are doing?!” Lan QiRen exclaimed, “Let go!”

 

“And let you go back with a burn on your hand?” Wen RuoHan held on firmly and began to blow gently on the back of Lan QiRen’s struggling hand, “It’s not even light outside, what are you doing wandering around?”

 

“GuSu Lan Sect rule: Wake up at 5am.”

 

“We’re not in GuSu… but if you are awake, have some food and take your medicine while it’s still hot.” Wen RuoHan looked at Lan QiRen’s inquisitive expression, and explained with a stutter, “I- I feel bad for hurting you yesterday so I went out early. Be grateful!”

 

Lan QiRen felt his cheeks warm and controlled the urge to call Wen RuoHan’s bluff. It is not possible to procure a full set of kitchenware by ‘waking up early’ in the middle of the night, and certainly not enough time to attempt to cook a porridge five times. The idiot had gone out the night before then spent the whole night learning to cook but was too proud to admit it.

 

“Thank you,” Lan QiRen said simple, and withdrew his hand. Even though Wen RuoHan’s actions were indeed inappropriate, ‘Just this once I will let it slide,’ Lan QiRen thought to himself as he sat at the table.

 

“……….”

 

“………..”

 

“Why are you not eating?” Wen RuoHan stared at Lan QiRen’s untouched bowl, “I didn’t poison it.”

 

“Too hot,” Lan QiRen’s voice grew quieter until it was barely a whisper, “I… can’t eat hot things.”

 

Wen RuoHan looked surprised for a moment, then burst out with hearty laughter. “Hahahaha I- Hahahahaha you are full of surprises hahahahaha!”

 

“Stop this at once!” Lan QiRen fumed, cheeks bright pink, “I forbid you to laugh!”

 

“We’re not in GuSu, I’ll laugh as much as I want to!” Wen RuoHan teased before walking to the back door, laughing all the way. He removed the bubbling medicine from the fire outside and brought the clay pot indoors, pouring the contents into another bowl. He returned with two more empty bowls and two spoons.

 

“Why so many bowls?” Lan QiRen asked.

 

“I used to not eat hot things when I was a child, and my maid taught me this trick,” Wen RuoHan smiled and patted Lan QiRen on the head, much to the younger man’s chagrin, “If you scoop out the food or medicine one spoonful at a time into another bowl, it cools down much quicker. Unless, you want me to blow on it and feed you?”

 

“Preposterous!” Lan QiRen grabbed a bowl and spoon from the still-chuckling Wen RuoHan and began to intensively spoon porridge from one bowl to another while Wen RuoHan worked on the medicine.

 

After some porridge and medicine, Lan QiRen felt better, but still weak. He suddenly remembered the new set of kitchen equipment and frowned. “Did you spend all of my money?”

 

Wen RuoHan rolled his eyes as he finished the rest of his third serving of porridge. “Don’t worry, I took the ruby off the pill cap and pawned it,” he produced a hefty bag of silver pieces from inside his robes and threw it onto the wooden table with a loud ‘clang’, “The pawn shop owner is a surprisingly good-natured guy for being woken up from sleep, this amount of money should be enough to get us by for a few days.”

 

“A few days?” Lan QiRen rubbed his temples, feeling a headache coming on, “this is more money than common people live to see their whole lives, please be more conscientious about your wealth.”

 

“Really?” Wen RuoHan looked down at his lap awkwardly, “I…. didn’t know. And I am also sorry.”

 

“Sorry?”

 

Wen RuoHan scratched his messy hair, avoiding eye contact with Lan QiRen. “Sorry for insulting you yesterday. Cooking is a lot harder than I imagined… and… sorry for hitting you.” He could not bring himself to apologise for the kiss.

 

“Dwelling on the past and holding a grudge is against the rules,” Lan QiRen sighed, “You are not a bad person, so I will forgive your misdeeds if you promise to listen to my lessons.”

 

“I will listen to your lessons if you promise not to cook again,” Wen RuoHan said seriously, “you will kill someone.”

 

He dodged a flying spoon and ducked into the kitchen to wash dishes, chuckling to himself.

 

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan did not let Lan QiRen leave the bed or do any housework for five days. At first, Lan QiRen was apprehensive about whether he would be forced to share a bed with the spoilt Young Master, but to his utter surprise, Wen RuoHan was reasonable to a fault. He slept sitting up at the table, calling it cultivation. At 5am, Lan QiRen would wake to the smell of a new breakfast dish, always vegetarian. Lan QiRen taught history, classic literature and basic politics all from the comfort of his own bed in the morning, after lunch Wen RuoHan would head to the village and return with food for the evening. During that time, Lan QiRen would wash himself as well as he could while they lacked a bathtub. Lan QiRen suspected that Wen RuoHan had been learning how to cook from someone in the village, because there was no other way to explain how a basic vegetable rice porridge coked five times could evolve into fried stuffed eggplant and tofu casserole by day five. Satisfied that Wen RuoHan was at least interacting with common people, Lan QiRen did not ask further questions.

 

Wen RuoHan’s learning ability continued to climb until Lan QiRen found himself quietly jealous at how quickly Wen RuoHan began to point out flaws in age-old war and political theory. Upset at both himself for harbouring negative thoughts and frustrated that Wen RuoHan still showed no motivation to put his talents to good use, Lan QiRen’s expression grew grim as Wen RuoHan rounded the dividing wall with lunch.

 

“You don’t look so good,” he frowned, “Is your body not recovering?” Wen RuoHan set down the steamed vegetable buns he had made and came to Lan QiRen’s bedside with concern in his eyes. He reached out with one hand to feel Lan QiRen’s temperature, only to have it slapped away. Wen RuoHan’s expression turned cold as he said slowly, “What is your problem?”

 

“…I beg your pardon?” Lan QiRen had forgotten what Wen RuoHan’s arrogant voice sounded like.

 

“I said, what in the living hell is wrong with you?” Wen RuoHan’s voice contained none of the past five days’ usual warmth and mirth, “I work myself like a servant to you, listen to all your lectures and am trying my best to let you heal. How are you still like this? Even ice should have melted now, or do you simply hate me?”

 

“You are right, I am upset,” Lan QiRen admitted, “You have unsurpassed cultivation talent, far above average intellect, yet every time I mention using your skills to help the world, you turn a blind eye!”

 

“I told you, I don’t care,” Wen RuoHan raised his head to stare at the ceiling, “I… have no interest in people I don’t know. Right now, I just want you to be healthy.”

 

“…tell me why you loathe the position of Sect Leader so much,” Lan QiRen reached out and grabbed the hem of Wen RuoHan’s sleeve, pulling him down to sit on the edge of his bed, “If you tell me, I may be able to offer advice.”

 

“Look, I will tell you, but you can never lecture me about this again,” Wen RuoHan sighed, “do you promise?”

 

Lan QiRen nodded solemnly.

 

“Put simply: It’s a thankless job,” Wen RuoHan explained, “I had an attendant who treated me like his own brother, we had the same archery master when I was only 7 years old and he was ten years my senior. He got himself killed protecting his hometown from a malicious snake demon because he chose to stay and fight instead of letting it escape to a new town. Do you know how the town repaid him? They burnt his family home to the ground because he failed, and killed his parents in the scuffle. Why should I lay down my own life to save these scums of the earth while sacrificing my personal freedoms? If they want help, they should become stronger and help themselves – I am only interested in the people I deem worthy of my help.”

 

Knowing that big-picture moral lectures have no effect on Wen RuoHan, Lan QiRen could not come up with an answer. Indeed, not everyone cultivators help are grateful, and some can be downright resentful. However, GuSu Lan Sect’s family values are to love the world regardless of fame, fortune or appreciation, so he could not bring himself to agree with Wen RuoHan either.

 

“Then, why do you show such favour to Wen ZhuLiu?” he finally asked.

 

“I found him on the street, fighting his disgusting family who wanted to sell him into slavery,” Wen RuoHan laughed, “the boy took a rock and blinded his father in one eye. What can I say… I respect his fight. He wants to become stronger to protect himself and so do I, so I help him because I know he has talent. He is a loyal man worthy of the Wen name.”

 

“Do you hate people like me?” Lan QiRen gripped his blankets until his knuckles turned white, “If you are being courteous to me because you think that I will write letters to your Father otherwise, I will not. I do not need your pretence or your pity, you may leave at any time should you choose.”

 

He regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth. Lan QiRen realized in that moment that he really did want Wen RuoHan to truly care for him, treat him as a special presence and even change his views for him. He naively though that maybe, just maybe, learning to cook and clean for a person was done out of more than just obligation to a teacher.

 

However, after listening to Wen RuoHan’s story, it seemed like a bad joke to expect Wen RuoHan to like anyone who lectures him all day about the opposite of his convictions, especially from a lofty moral high-ground.

 

 

“I like you, so I will not leave.”

 

 

Lan QiRen stared dumbly at Wen RuoHan, the sharp words he prepared in retort coming out of his mouth as a strained ‘ah?’

 

“I don’t know why, but I like you in a strange way. You are annoying, high and mighty, tried to poison me with porridge and are opposite to me in every way, but I want to watch you be happy - so I will not leave unless you hate me,” Wen RuoHan said without even flinching.

 

Lan QiRen’s mind, however, was in utter turmoil at Wen RuoHan’s unabashed honesty.

 

‘He likes me? How? Why? Is it because I am ill? How much does he like me? Have I done anything to make him like me? ..... Why am I so happy?’

 

“Do you want me to leave?” Wen RuoHan put a large, warm hand on Lan QiRen’s shoulder, “I must seem like a good-for-nothing to you, I’ll admit that my ways are off the beaten path. I won’t become Sect Leader for you, but I can leave you in peace.”

 

As Wen RuoHan stood, he felt a weak resistance from his right sleeve. Lan QiRen avoided eye contact with him but refused to let his sleeve go, even as Wen RuoHan gave a few tugs.

 

“Do you want me to stay?” he relaxed his tone, offering Lan QiRen a chance.

 

“Don’t….”

 

“Which one is it?” Wen RuoHan teased, “I have a short temper, I might just go home if you can’t decide.”

 

“…Don’t…leave,” Lan QiRen stammered, “…I am still ill.”

 

From the standing angle looking down, Wen RuoHan could see Lan QiRen’s defined collarbones and the graceful curve of his upper chest, his view cut off just before it could get good.

 

‘Wait….good? What’s good about a kid’s nipples?’ Wen RuoHan’s own thoughts horrified him, ‘I must really be losing it.’ Still, the small flame of unexplained happiness lit by Lan QiRen’s request burnt brighter as he noticed that Lan QiRen was blushing down to his neck.

 

“Alright, I won’t leave you until you get sick of me,” Wen RuoHan laughed, “now let go of my sleeve and eat lunch, I have to go to the tailor shop to pick up some new clothes for us. I tried to wash my dirty robes yesterday and ripped it, I think it’s better for us to buy new clothes until we get back to GuSu. I can’t afford to ‘practice until perfect’ in the case of laundry.”

 

As he left the cottage, Wen RuoHan looked back and met Lan QiRen’s damp eyes staring at him for a split second before Lan QiRen quickly averted his own gaze, still holding a bun in his hands.

 

“I promise I’ll come back,” he laughed, “don’t worry.”

 

 

‘Come back, and don’t you dare leave until I get sick of you…’ Lan QiRen watched as Wen RuoHan walked the path, disappearing into a grove of pear trees. He bit down on the fluffy bun and tasted sugar, even while knowing it was seasoned with salt.

 

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan returned from the markets with four new sets of clothes, one cabbage, one block of tofu, four tomatoes, and child licking a lollipop.

 

“…..”

 

“I didn’t buy him, I swear he was free,” Wen RuoHan set down the child onto the bed and pointed at Lan QiRen. “Hey little guy,” he laughed, “this is your new mommy.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Explain,” Lan QiRen frowned a little and looked at the child. He looked around 12 to 13 years old and was wearing only his middle and inner layer of clothing. Even without outer robes, the child’s finely-made shoes and silk inner garments poking out from under the collar of his middle layer suggested he was from a well-off family. “Little boy, what is your name? Where are your parents?”

 

The child ignored Lan QiRen entirely, and continued to lick his lollipop.

 

“Don’t bother,” Wen RuoHan sighed, “He doesn’t answer to any questions about who he is. I bought him about five snacks at the markets and he would only tell me that his name is A-Ming, and that he is 8 years old. I found him fighting with the neighbourhood kids who were beating up a rabbit, this kid is insanely big and strong for his age.” Wen RuoHan held the child’s left wrist up to Lan QiRen’s hand and said, “Feel.”

 

Lan QiRen placed two fingers on the child’s wrist and let some spiritual energy swim around his veins. The reaction almost burnt his fingers.

 

“What in this world-

 

“I know, right?” Wen RuoHan laughed, “This kid has amazing hidden talent, if I teach him cultivation and you teach him some book smarts, he could grow up to be an amazing hero that you want me to become!”

 

“Do not joke about this, he is someone’s son and his parents must be searching for him desperately,” Lan QiRen sighed, “A-Ming, please tell me where you live so I can take you back to your parents.”

 

“Nobody wants me,” A-Ming said, “I have no parents.”

 

“See?” Wen RuoHan patted A-Ming’s messy hair, “We should just adopt him into a clan and raise him. Maybe I’ll even go out and find him a brother!”

 

A-Ming suddenly snapped the lollipop stick in the half and threw it at Wen RuoHan’s face. He screamed, “NO BROTHER!” and pounced on Wen RuoHan, sinking his teeth into Wen RuoHan’s thigh.

 

Caught off-guard by the sudden attack, Wen RuoHan dodged the candy projectile but could not avoid A-Ming’s bite. Lan QiRen kept his composure for five seconds before letting a small chuckle escape his throat. The chuckle turned into full laughter as Wen RuoHan hopped around, trying to remove the child off himself and swore up a storm inside the cottage.

 

Hearing Lan QiRen laugh for the first time, Wen RuoHan forgot about the pain in his leg for a moment and looked across the room. Lan QiRen’s silky hair fell around his shoulders as he held his stomach and shook with laughter, eyes closed into petite half-moons. The pain in his leg returned as A-Ming started to chew, and Wen RuoHan howled in pain, drawing more laughs from Lan QiRen.

 

Wen RuoHan winced and grabbed A-Ming by the collar, ripping him forcefully from his leg and tossed the boy like a cat to one side. “Stop laughing!” he groaned as he watched blood seep through his last set of clean Wen robes. Lan QiRen continued to laugh uncontrollably, and Wen RuoHan could only smile wryly to himself as an even more terrifying thought crossed his mind.

 

‘If you could laugh like this every day, I would let this little rascal bite my hand off.’

 

After a few minutes, Lan QiRen finally stopped laughing and composed himself into the icy jade statue he once was.

 

“A-Ming, come here,” he ordered without raising his voice.

 

Wen RuoHan marvelled at how obedient A-Ming was to Lan QiRen’s no-nonsense approach. A-Ming sheepishly made his way to Lan QiRen’s bedside and rubbed his nose, looking guilty.

 

“A-Ming, do you know what you did wrong?” Lan QiRen looked the boy in the eyes and wagged his finger in Am-Ming’s face.

 

“I don’t want a brother,” A-Ming pouted.

 

“But you cannot hurt other people because you don’t want a brother,” Lan QiRen explained patiently, “Look, uncle Wen is bleeding, and it must hurt very much. Would you like it if uncle Wen bit you until you bled because he didn’t want a brother?”

 

Wen RuoHan gnashed his teeth in an exaggerated fashion, stifling a laugh as A-Ming shook a little, jumped on the bed and hid behind Lan QiRen. “Wait, UNCLE?!” Wen RuoHan complained, “I am 22! Lan QiRen, watch your tongue!”

 

“No… don’t bite me…” A-Ming shook his head and looked over Lan QiRen’s shoulder at Wen RuoHan with a worried expression.

 

“You need to say sorry to uncle Wen,” Lan QiRen reached behind himself and held A-Ming hand gently, “If you do the wrong thing and say sorry, the person you hurt can choose to forgive you. But if you hurt them on purpose, they might still not forgive you.”

 

“Then why should I say sorry?” A-Ming asked, “Can’t I just run away?”

 

“No, you must say sorry because it is the right thing to do. Good men stand up for what is right and admit their mistakes. Great men do not do what they know is not right.” Lan QiRen gave A-Ming’s back a small push towards Wen RuoHan, who sat by the table, nursing his injured leg. “A-Ming, great men also protect those who are weaker. I will protect you, so you do not need to be afraid. Go on, say sorry to uncle Wen.”

 

A-Ming looked back at Lan QiRen’s gentle expression, took a deep breath and said loudly, “Uncle Wen, I am sorry!”

 

Wen RuoHan nodded and said seriously, “I hear you.”

 

“You are not going to forgive him?” Lan QiRen raised an eyebrow, “He is 8 years old, do not be like a child.”

 

“Hey, I served you hand and foot for 5 days, and this kid made me bleed!” Wen RuoHan pouted, “How can you throw me to the side just because he is cuter? I won’t forgive him until he is given fair punishment like a Lan!”

 

Lan QiRen rolled his eyes at Wen RuoHan’s childish jealousy. Before A-Ming became scared again, he patted the boy on his head and turned him around to face him. “A-Ming, do you want to be a good man or a great man?”

 

“A great man!” A-Ming grinned, “Am I a great man now?”

 

Lan QiRen shook his head. “You are nearly there, but there is one more thing you need to do. A great man does not do things wrong on purpose, did you know that biting people is wrong?”

 

“…yes…” A-Ming hung his head.

 

“Great men accept the consequences of their actions,” Lan QiRen said gently, “if you do a wrong thing on purpose, there is punishment. If I punish you, will you be a great man and stand up tall to accept it?”

 

A-Ming looked back and forth between Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen, as if trying to decide which side will be less likely to hurt him. His decision came quickly.

 

“Yes, I will be a great man,” he said, eyes full of fire.

 

Lan QiRen patted him on the head again. “Good boy. My punishment for you… is you have to tell me why you do not want a brother.”

 

“WHAT?!” Wen RuoHan smacked his fist on the table as he stood up with a start, rattling the plate on it, “Beat his ass! Or at least give him a knuckle on the head!”

 

“Wen RuoHan, stand down,” Lan QiRen pointed downwards like commanding a dog, “I make the rules here, do not overstep your authority.”

 

Wen RuoHan sat down, grumbling to himself about ‘favouritism’.

 

A-Ming quickly understood that Lan QiRen was the master of the house and began to talk. “My mommy died when I was 6,” he held up 7 fingers instead, “and my daddy found a new lady. That lady is my new mommy, but she isn’t my real mommy, she made a new baby Young Master and now all the people in my house say that my brother is going to make me go away. My daddy plays with baby brother all the time and I have to go to school, he doesn’t want me anymore…”

 

Lan QiRen nodded and wiped the tear from the corner of A-Ming’s eye. “I understand now,” he said gently and gave A-Ming a hug, “That must be hard for you. But A-Ming, has your baby brother done anything wrong?”

 

“No.”

 

“Has he made you go away?”

 

“….yes.”

 

Lan QiRen shook his head, “No, you ran away because you were scared. You baby brother did not make you go away, am I right?”

 

“….yes.”

 

“I think your daddy made you go to school so you can be a great man when you grow up, and so you can take care of your baby brother. That’s what great men do, am I right?”

 

“How do you know?” A-Ming asked.

 

Lan QiRen smiled. “I have a big brother who loves me very much. I used to be very sick when I was small, and my big brother did everything he could to help me. He works very hard so I can have a good life, so I love him very very much. I want A-Ming to grow up to be a great man like my big brother too, so that your mommy in heaven can be proud of you.”

 

Lan QiRen turned to Wen RuoHan and said, “I believe that A-Ming had a legitimate reason to be upset at your joke about a brother. Please say sorry to A-Ming.”

 

“I didn’t know, I can’t be found guilty,” Wen RuoHan shrugged.

 

“Even though you were unaware, you did hurt his feelings. Great men say sorry when they hurt people, even when it’s not on purpose,” Lan QiRen looked at Wen RuoHan seriously.

 

“Alright, I am a great man so I’ll say it,” Wen RuoHan sighed and turned to A-Ming. “Sorry kid, I didn’t know about your story. I won’t find you a brother, we’ll only dote on you alone, is that okay?”

 

“Okay!” A-Ming hugged Lan QiRen, “A-Ming will become a great man who does the right things no matter what! Big brother, what is your name?”

 

“You can call me Brother Lan,” Lan QiRen smiled, “A-Ming is a great boy, I just know it. Now, do you want to eat some pears? If you run outside and climb a tree, you can have as many pears as you can carry.”

 

“Really?!” A-Ming bolted out of the back door and scampered into the pear grove like a dog let loose off its leash.

 

“Wow, you are so good with children,” Wen RuoHan sounded genuinely amazed, “How did you even talk sense into him?”

 

“I have had practice,” Lan QiRen looked at Wen RuoHan and smiled with a small gleam in his eyes, “I didn’t know you were great enough of a man to apologise to a child, you surprised me.”

 

“I’m a reasonable person, unlike someone who already has a favourite student,” Wen RuoHan poked his tongue out at Lan QiRen, “Some of us are still bleeding here…”

 

Lan QiRen looked at the bloody mess that had become of Wen RuoHan’s robes around his right thigh with concern. “Quickly, you must change into clean clothes and bandage that bite wound.”

 

Wen RuoHan dug out a new set of clothes he picked up from the village tailor and proceeded to take off his pants. Lan QiRen quickly turned around to give him some privacy, but the next thing he knew, Wen RuoHan’s naked thighs positioned themselves right in front of him. Wen RuoHan kneeled on the bed, straddling Lan QiRen in a position that can only be described at erotic. Even though he no longer had pants on, his robes still covered his groin, splitting only to reveal his thighs and a small part of his hipbone.

 

“Teacher Lan, I think you should reward me for being a great man and bandage my leg for me,” Wen RuoHan’s hoarse voice gave Lan QiRen goose bumps.

 

Lan QiRen’s heart rate increased as he tried and failed to take his eyes off the rippling muscles on Wen RuoHan’s pale thighs. He swallowed dryly and peeled his vision away for just long enough to pick up some calm. “Shameless.”

 

“I don’t even know how to write that word when I’m with you,” Wen RuoHan laughed and ripped some clean strips of silk off his undergarment pants, handing it to Lan QiRen before placing Lan QiRen’s hand on his injured right thigh, “we’re both men, what’s there to be ashamed of?”

 

Scared that Wen RuoHan would do something even more intimate should he refuse, Lan QiRen began to bandage the small bite wound on Wen RuoHan’s right thigh with shaking hands. He tried to avoid the delicate inner thigh area as much as possible, flinching as his fingers accidentally brushed in between Wen RuoHan’s legs.

 

Wen RuoHan wanted only to mortify Lan QiRen and cause a reaction – he did not expect Lan QiRen to take him seriously. As the shaking, slim fingers brushed against the sensitive skin on his inner thighs, fire shot up Wen RuoHan’s spine and pooled at his groin. He bit his bottom lip to trap the moan that nearly escaped his lips, and desperately conjured up the least erotic image he could and tried to recite the Lan Clan rules in his head to distract himself. Minutes passed like years and when Lan QiRen finally finished, Wen RuoHan’s back was drenched with sweat.

 

Wen RuoHan quickly removed himself from the danger zone and began to change his clothes, back to Lan QiRen. When he turned back around, Lan QiRen had also changed his own clothes from white to plain brown cotton, looking as calm as usual.

 

“You need to take that forehead ribbon off,” Wen RuoHan coughed awkwardly, “you look like you’re going to a funeral even more than before.”

 

“A GuSu Lan must never take off his ribbon unless… unless…” Lan QiRen could not finish his sentence. He had changed his clothes because his own robes were damp with sweat, and feelings he did not even know could exist had clouded his heart as he reminisced the feeling of Wen RuoHan’s skin under his fingertips. Whatever the feeling was, it made him want to remove his forehead ribbon while he was unmarried.

 

“Unless what? Just take it off, nobody in Han village is going to care,” Wen RuoHan reached behind Lan QiRen’s head and deftly untied the ribbon.

 

Lan QiRen felt the silky material leave his forehead, eyes impossibly wide. Wen RuoHan held the ribbon in his hand and admired the embroidery, totally unaware of the chaos in Lan QiRen’s heart.

 

“Please….give it to me….” Lan QiRen began to beg, voice quivering, “….please don’t do this….”

 

The fire burning in Wen RuoHan’s groin returned with a vengeance the moment Lan QiRen opened his mouth. Even though he knew that Lan QiRen did not mean his words in an erotic way, all Wen RuoHan could imagine was Lan QiRen’s delicate body under his own, begging for release. In a moment of madness, Wen RuoHan raised the ribbon in his left hand as high as he could, out of Lan QiRen’s reach. He pulled Lan QiRen by the waist in so close that he could feel the other’s heart beating against his chest.

 

“I’ll give it back if you kiss me,” he leaned over and whispered quietly into Lan QiRen’s ear, breathing in Lan QiRen’s faint scent of sandalwood incense that still lingered in his hair.

 

The funny thing about absolute madness is…. It all seemed so reasonable at the time. Unable to control his physical reactions any more, Wen RuoHan leaned even closer into their contact, making sure Lan QiRen could feel the rising bulge between his legs.

 

Lan QiRen felt both his and Wen RuoHan’s hearts race against each other. He was terrified of the absurd thoughts running through his head and poisoning his blood with foreign desire - but knowing that Wen RuoHan was just as nervous made him feel a little better. Still, it did little to help him escape the iron grip Wen RuoHan had on his waist.

 

“Let- let go of m-,” Lan QiRen struggled in vain to release himself. He stopped and froze in mid-sentence as his groin rubbed against Wen RuoHan’s obvious arousal, causing both of them to sharply inhale.

 

“Why did you stop struggling?” Wen RuoHan smiled wickedly and held Lan QiRen even closer, “Didn’t it feel nice?” The Lan Clan’s strict puritan rules were famous even in QiShan. Wen RuoHan was well-aware that every fibre in Lan QiRen’s being was fighting the urge to self-combust - but knowing so just made the fire in him burn hotter. For the first time in his life, he wanted to conquer, to win, to possess someone.

 

“Teacher Lan, the first two kisses I forced on you…” Wen RuoHan lifted Lan QiRen’s chin and looked down into dazed eyes, “This time, I want you to submit to me.”

 

Lan QiRen could feel Wen RuoHan’s breath on his own lips, less than two inches away. None of Wen RuoHan’s words made it into his ears as he fixated on the pair of tempting pink lips in front of him.

 

What would happen if he just gave in?

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before Lan QiRen could come to a decision, A-Ming stumbled into the cottage from the pear orchard carrying pears up to his neck. “Brother Lan, Brother Lan! Look at all the pears I picked!”

 

As fast as they had come together, Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen pushed each other apart and turned their backs on each other.

 

After a moment of suffocating embarrassment, Wen RuoHan spoke first.

 

“A-Ming’s clothes are all dirty, I better head back to the village before the tailor closes shop.”

 

“Yes, you should,” Lan QiRen nodded without daring to look back at Wen RuoHan. The burden of decision-making had been lifted from his shoulder by the sudden interruption, and he did not want Wen RuoHan to see through his weakness.

 

When he could no longer hear Wen RuoHan’s fading steps, Lan QiRen finally let out a shaky breath and stumbled to the bed to sit down. Head in his hands, he desperately tried to erase all traces of the irrational mistake he was seconds away from making.

 

“Brother Lan, I am sorry,” A-Ming set a pear down by Lan QiRen.

 

“A-Ming, why do you apologise?” Lan QiRen sighed.

 

“My parents used to get mad at me when I saw their adult time,” A-Ming said quietly, “If I knew my mommy would die, I would have been a good boy and not bothered them to play with me so much when they had their adult time…”

 

Lan QiRen patted A-Ming on the head and comforted him a little. However, his mind was filled with not the tragedy of A-Ming’s loss, but more and more reasons he ought to admit his own feelings. A-Ming was right – life is short, there is no telling when he or Wen RuoHan might be forced apart by life and death. While out of GuSu and not wearing his forehead ribbon in a place where nobody knew him as the ‘Scholar Lan QiRen’, there were many more reasons to pursue these feelings than not.

 

Giving the forehead ribbon left on the table by Wen RuoHan a long solemn look, Lan QiRen walked to the table and slowly picked up his precious rationale. Hesitating for a moment, he neatly rolled it up and packed it into his bags. If what he was experiencing was indeed the beginnings of romantic feelings, surely there would be a way to make things work.

 

 

 

 

The further Wen RuoHan walked down the dusty dirt path from their orchard cottage to the village centre, the surer he was that he had lost his mind. The number of days he had known Lan QiRen could be counted on both fingers (8 or 9, he had forgotten) and even if the crazy emotions he was feeling were true, it would be insane to assume that the stoic Lan QiRen could possibly feel the same way. Wen RuoHan listlessly kicked a pebble to the side of the path and did a quick mental calculation of what Lan QiRen probably thought of him at this moment. For every good thing he did, he added one point. For every bad thing he did, he subtracted one point.

 

The good:

 

Made medicine +1

Made food +1

Got new clothes +1

 

The bad:

Ordered him to make tea -1

Covered his room in leaves -1

Made him cough blood -1

Kissed him without permission -1

Late to class -1

Called his cooking poison -1

Injured him -1

Kissed him while unconscious -1

Made him touch me -1

Threatened him to kiss me -1

Rubbed myself on him -1

Imagined him under me -1

 

Total… minus 9 points. Even without consideration for the things Lan QiRen would not know about (the second kiss and his own imagination), Wen RuoHan found himself undeniably in Lan QiRen’s bad books.

 

By the time Wen RuoHan listlessly made his way back into the tailor’s shop, he looked like a man whose wife had just run away.

 

“Didn’t you just go home with the clothes?” the village tailor, Liang Qi, was surprised to see Wen RuoHan return so quickly. Liang was a tall man with narrow eyes and high cheekbones, not pretty but commanded a presence. In his finely embroidered black robes, he looked far more important than just a tailor. Wen RuoHan was wearing the tan cotton clothes he had handed over just two hours ago, and it looked like a great fit. Although the cut was simple due to not being given nearly enough time to make a fine piece, Wen RuoHan had paid him a handsome sum for the order so Liang Qi was keen to please this mysterious customer with deep pockets. “Or perhaps did your friend not fit his?” he asked, “If he comes to my shop, I can alter them, free of charge. If he is too ill to come, I can visit your home after my shop is closed?”

 

“No, the clothes are just fine,” Wen RuoHan sighed, “I need three sets of clothes for a boy about waist-height. Quite quickly.” He made a vague hand gesture indicating A-Ming’s size.

 

Liang Qi asked, “How quickly?”

 

“Within the next hour.”

 

“That…. Would be impossible to make from scratch,” Liang Qi shook his head, “Even with all my workers, I could possibly only make one set.”

 

“Then do you have any half-finished orders for other people? I’ll buy it from you for five times the price, I don’t care what it looks like, just give it to me.”

 

Businesspeople have no qualms with money, and Liang Qi quickly promised to go to his workshop to look for suitable pieces. Just as he nearly disappeared behind the door at the back of the storefront, Wen RuoHan asked, “Tailor Liang, do you have a lover?”

 

Liang Qi stopped in his tracks. “I do. Why do you ask, sir?”

 

“Is your lover… a man or a woman?”

 

The tailor paused, cocked his head to one side, and studied Wen RuoHan with an expression halfway between doubt and mirth. He stared for a while, silent. After he decided that his customer meant no ill, Liang Qi continued into the back room and called out for someone called ‘Gu YongSi’.

 

Gu YongSi was slightly shorter in stature than Liang Qi, dressed in dark blue. He contrasted with Liang Qi in that his face looked boyish but permanently angry, while Liang Qi looked sharp yet kind.

 

“You’re the idiot who broke into my shop in the middle of the night!” he pointed at Wen RuoHan’s nose and shouted, “What do you want now?”

 

“YongSi,” Liang Qi was shocked, “Mr Wen is a valued customer, don’t be rude.”

 

“But he’s that person I told you about, the one that had money but no manners,” Gu YongSi continued his tirade, “he’s wearing less conspicuous clothes now, but I’ll never forget his arrogant face… what’s he doing here?”

 

Wen RuoHan remembered Gu YongSi’s face as the very angry doctor who prescribed Lan QiRen’s medicine five days ago in the middle of the night. Karma was certainly a bitch.

 

“It was an emergency,” Wen RuoHan shrugged, “I believe I paid you enough for your troubles. Mr Liang, why is the doctor from next door in the back of your shop?”

 

“You asked me whether my lover was a man or a woman,” Liang Qi smiled, “so I called him here, so you can see for yourself.”

 

“…” Wen RuoHan was visibly taken aback by how little Liang Qi tried to hide his male lover. Even as bold as he was, Wen RuoHan would still think twice about revealing such unorthodox relations – meanwhile this village tailor seemed to have no fear. Wen RuoHan felt the respect he had for the man rise a little.  

 

“If you do not mind me asking,” Liang Qi smiled again, “is Mr Wen bothered because you have found yourself affectionate to another man?”

 

“Oh! Is it the guy who you injured?” Gu YongSi teased, “Can he walk yet, or are you not allowed to sleep on the bed?”

 

We RuoHan replied absent-mindedly without much thought, “He is fine now, but I am just sleeping at the table- HEY, WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?!” He blushed, furious, after he realized Gu YongSi’s words had hidden meaning.

 

“I meant his internal injuries I prescribed medicine for, I don’t know what you’re angry about,” Gu YongSi stuck out his tongue to spite Wen RuoHan and laughed, satisfied at his revenge.

 

“Do you think your affections are unrequited?” Liang Qi ignored his lover’s childish remarks, “How long have you known him for?”

 

“To be honest, I do not know how he feels… if anything, he may dislike me. We have known each other for less than 10 days, and I feel like I am losing my mind,” Wen RuoHan admitted. Nobody knew his true identity, which liberated him.

 

“Wow, 10 days? What kind of a person is he?” Gu YongSi asked.

 

“He…” Wen RuoHan looked at the ceiling and recalled, “Is from an important family with thousands of strict Clan rules. He is scholarly, stern, has a strong sense of duty and justice, humble, vegetarian, and good with children.”

 

“A monk?”

 

“No, he has beautiful hair, but close enough,” Wen RuoHan shrugged.

 

“Do you want to hear my honest advice?” Gu YongSi placed his chin in his hands, leaning on the counter, “Give up and find someone else.”

 

Wen RuoHan frowned and clenched his fists. Being told to his face that his feelings are hopeless hurt more that he cared to admit. His eyes lit up with a flare of anger before the fire fizzled out and was replaced by a disheartened glaze. He bit his lips and looked at his feet, knowing Gu YongSi was right but unable to muster up the confidence or basis to retort.  Both Gu YongSi and Liang Qi turned to look at each other, surprised at his change in expression - the man in front of them was serious.

 

“YongSi, be nicer,” Liang Qi nudged Gu YongSi with his elbow, “Mr Wen, I am sorry for this… he has a sharp tongue, but he means well.”

 

“Why should I be nice?” Gu YongSi rolled his eyes, “It sounds like an impossible situation, and he looks like he knows it too. Hey, Wen Whatever, if you’re looking for someone to tell you to go and try your best, then you already know what you want. If you want something, grow some balls and die trying, because there’s no medicine for regret. And I’ll shut the door in your sorry face if you wake me up at 3am again.”

 

Watching Wen RuoHan leave the tailor shop without a word, Liang Qi sighed.

 

“YongSi, you really have to find a nicer way of saying things…”

 

“Well, it worked,” Gu YongSi looked out at Wen RuoHan’s receding figure in the distance, finally losing sight of him as he ducked into a snack shop.

 

“Do you regret the choices that you made, abandoning your heritage to become a village doctor thousands of miles away?” Liang Qi wrapped one arm around Gu YongSi’s waist affectionately.

 

“I knew I would regret it forever if I just let you marry that girl from the Li Clan,” Gu YongSi pinched the offending hand and groaned, “You’re a shameless Young Master, but I guess I’m stuck with you now, that’s a choice I made and won’t regret.”

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen paced around the small cottage, leaving a trail of footprints from the front door to the back door. The sun was setting, Wen RuoHan was not coming back, and with every step he took, Lan QiRen’s heavier with doubt. Removing his own forehead ribbon may have seemed like a trivial detail to outsiders, but to Lan QiRen, removing the ribbon signified a purposeful deviation from the rules he held so dear. Without a set of strict guiding principles, he became less and less sure whether what he wanted to do was acceptable or even possible. After all, even if he admitted to the bubbling feelings, there was no guarantee Wen RuoHan would even understand them, let alone reciprocate them.

 

‘How pathetic you are, Lan QiRen. Without the Lan Clan rules as your anchor, you have revealed your true self… a coward.’

 

Lan QiRen sighed and paced back to the neat pile where he had packed his forehead ribbon. Defeated by his own thoughts, he reached forwards. Just before his fingertips could reach his forehead ribbon, Wen RuoHan kicked open the cottage door with a clang.

 

“I’m back! A-Ming, quickly come and help me with all these things!” Wen RuoHan stumbled into the cottage, hands full. A-Ming quickly took a few items from Wen RuoHan’s arms before they fell onto the ground and stacked them onto the table obediently.

 

“…why did you buy all these things?” Lan QiRen’s eyes darted around the pile, estimating cost. Wen RuoHan tossed A-Ming a bag of clothes and unloaded a pile of vegetables onto the kitchen floor, which left a large pile of brightly-coloured packages still unexplained for.

 

“Gifts for you,” Wen RuoHan said simply and flashed Lan QiRen a grin, “I didn’t know what you like apart from that rock wall of rules, so I bought everything I could find in the village. None of these are expensive, so surely you can accept one? You look much better without the mourning ribbon, by  the way, very handsome!”

 

Lan QiRen was taken aback at how simply Wen RuoHan was in his expression of favour. When he liked something, he was unabashedly straightforward – whether it be words or actions. Compared to his own prohibitions and wavering resolve, Wen RuoHan made it look easy.

 

‘Of course… to like someone means to give them the best of what you have, and always try to make them happy. He is willing to do this much for me, and look at what I have done instead?’

 

“I….I… I like non-extravagant things,” Lan QiRen tried his best not to look too happy, just in case Wen RuoHan were to get ahead of himself and start spending copious amounts of money, “I appreciate your thoughts, but I would like to keep the least costly thing here. If you cannot return the rest, please donate them to a charitable cause on my behalf.” He did not know how to respond to Wen RuoHan’s compliments on his new look and chose instead to pretend he did not hear it.

 

To his surprise, Wen RuoHan smiled and nodded instead of disagreeing. “As long as you are pleased, I will turn these into rice for the village poor tomorrow,” he said as he moved the whole pile to a corner on the floor apart for a delicate box, wrapped in waxed paper, “but you must try these filled rice cakes, these are delicious!”

 

Lan QiRen unwrapped the package to find a box of 12 neatly arranged white spheres the size of eggs, lightly dusted in sugar. A-Ming crept closer, almost leaning into the box, clearly eager to take one for himself. Lan QiRen smiled and gently picked up a soft rice cake to pass to A-Ming, only to have his hand captured by Wen RuoHan’s.

 

“These are all for you, Teacher,” Wen RuoHan ignored A-Ming’s loud protests and moved Lan QiRen’s hand toward his mouth, “all for you.” He watched contently as Lan QiRen’s face lit up after he took a small bite. “Eat these while I cook dinner. Hey kid, if you want your share of candy, you better change into some clean clothes and help me carry water from the well!”

 

Lan QiRen felt his ears heat up as he watched Wen RuoHan drag A-Ming away before disappearing into the kitchen. His touch still lingered on Lan QiRen’s delicate fingers, and the warmth seemed to spread instead of dissipating. GuSu Lan Sect did not favour food with much flavour, and sweets were rare to come by. Lan QiRen had never tasted anything so delicious before, he could not even begin to describe the intoxicating fruity aroma of the filling inside the soft rice cake. The addictive sweetness linked his thoughts back to Wen RuoHan’s smile as he ate one after the other, unable to stop.

 

By the time Wen RuoHan brought dinner to the table, Lan QiRen had emptied the box. He laughed and applauded, “Haha! I guess GuSu has no rules about how many desserts one can eat before dinner! I am very happy you liked the pear cakes, but are you able to eat dinner tonight?”

 

Wen RuoHan’s teasing and sweet tone made Lan QiRen feel giddy like a spoiled child on his birthday. A blush crept from his ears to his cheeks and made the older man chuckle.

 

“A man shouldn’t be allowed to look as adorable as you,” Wen RuoHan gentled prodded Lan QiRen’s warm cheek with one finger, “tell me, did you… fall in love with me while I was gone?”

 

Without thinking, Lan QiRen nodded.

 

Wen RuoHan fell silent in disbelief. “Wait. You…did?”

 

Shocked at his own lack of self-control, Lan QiRen quickly shook his head so hard that he felt a muscle pull in his neck. “No- Wait- I didn’t….” he stuttered, “W-Wen RuoHan, what did you feed me?!”

 

“Don’t change the subject,” Wen RuoHan’s eye lit up with sparks of joy. He picked up A-Ming by the collar and dumped the complaining child outside and locked both doors of the cottage before grabbing the hands of a madly blushing Lan QiRen and holding them up to his heart. “…do you feel how fast my heart is beating?” his voice was hoarse and desperate, “Answer me properly, Lan QiRen, did you miss me while I was gone? Do you want to kiss me the same way I want to kiss you?”

 

Lan QiRen felt himself losing more and more control as Wen RuoHan’s words hit the deepest part of his soul and lit his whole body on fire.

 

“…what did you feed me?...”

 

“Pear wine and honey jelly rice cake,” Wen RuoHan smiled, “the owner of the shop said it was so sweet, any maiden would confess her heart’s desires. Tell me what you truly feel, Lan QiRen…”

 

Wine was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, so Lan QiRen did not know what he was tasting in the sweet dessert. Suddenly, his feelings had an explanation, but it was already too late to stop the torrent of words. “….I did miss you while you were gone…” Lan QiRen’s vision blurred as indescribable feelings welled to the surface against his will, “….I might want to kiss you… but I do not know if I love you, because I have never had feelings like these before. Is this…alright?”

 

This time, there was no more room for doubt – the heir to the Wen Sect finally knew what he wanted in this life. Not fame, fortune or power… He would give the world and everyone in it to make Lan QiRen his and his alone.

 

“I will make you fall in love with me, until I am the only thing you are sure of,” Wen RuoHan wasted no time before capturing Lan QiRen’s lips in a searing kiss.

 

Lan QiRen tasted of honey, pear, and magic. Every surface inside his mouth needed to be discovered, claimed and conquered. Wen RuoHan pushed Lan QiRen down onto the bed and let himself be lost in the mad dance between their tongues, driven entirely by instinct, breathing long forgotten. He did not know how long their kiss lasted, but when he finally pulled back to wipe the trail of glistening saliva from their chins, Lan QiRen looked faint and fatigued.

 

“Tired from a kiss?” Wen RuoHan cleared a strand of messy hair from Lan QiRen’s damp forehead, “…do you mind if I slept in your bed tonight?”

 

A sudden wash of exhaustion washed over Lan QiRen. He blamed the wine, but before he could answer Wen RuoHan’s question, his conscious mind drifted into a dreamless slumber.

 

“9pm like clockwork, huh?” Wen RuoHan sighed and looked down at the sleeping beauty beneath him, “How did I even fall in love with someone so predictable yet full of surprises like you?” He carefully put blankets over Lan QiRen before quietly opening the front door a crack. A-Ming sat on the ground outside, shivering.

 

“Sorry, A-Ming,” Wen RuoHan whispered, “I’ll buy you all the candy you want tomorrow. Come inside and sleep, we only have one bed so it’s going to be the three of us.”

 

In the darkness, Wen RuoHan took one final look at Lan QiRen’s face from the side before gentling holding his hand and closing his own eyes. Owls hooted in the mountains, cricket chirped from the pear orchard and A-Ming’s light snoring from the other side of Lan QiRen all made him want to laugh out loud - their strange family was a new concept, but this new life was much better than he had previously anticipated only 10 days ago.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

“You WHAT?” Wen RuoHan’s new family life was rudely interrupted at breakfast time.

 

“Please compose yourself,” Lan QiRen dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a handkerchief, “You are spitting porridge onto the table.”

 

“Don’t change the subject, Lan QiRen, look me in the eyes and tell me again,” Wen RuoHan set down his chopsticks heavily and crossed his arms over his chest.

 

Lan QiRen sighed and checked to make sure A-Ming had not returned from picking pears outside. “I was under the influence of alcohol yesterday evening, and my thoughts were incoherent. Please forget what happened yesterday,” he said, the shyness and seduction from last night nowhere to be seen.

 

“Drunk from pear jelly?” Wen RuoHan had to question whether his ears were playing tricks on him early in the morning, “If this is a joke, you need to stop right this moment. I am serious about you, Lan QiRen.”

 

“I appreciate your sentiments, but you must be well aware that alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses for a reason. It shreds our minds into meaningless strands, and I apologize if I acted inappropriately yesterday.”

 

Wen RuoHan leaned over the table so close that he could feel Lan QiRen’s even breathing on his face. No trace of doubt could be seen on Lan QiRen’s porcelain features, it was as if the giddy happiness from just hours ago had been a complete lie. His knuckles cracked and the old wooden table under him creaked, threatening to splinter.

 

“Will you…. ever return my feelings?” Wen RuoHan’s lips hovered over Lan QiRen’s by a mere half inch, but unable to move any closer.

 

“I do not know,” Lan QiRen admitted, his face still devoid of expression.

 

Defeated, Wen RuoHan slumped back to his own seat and lay the back of his hand across his face. “Teacher… does this mean I still have a chance? You are a cruel person.”

 

 

 

The days passed slowly, but predictably. Wen RuoHan was still attentive as ever to the bed-bound Lan QiRen but did not make any more attempts to kiss him. His touch would linger sometimes a second too long on Lan QiRen’s hair, or take an extra-long look while Lan QiRen explained a difficult literary piece.

 

Five days later, half a month had transpired since their first meeting, and Wen RuoHan felt like the only net progress he had made was successfully domesticating a kitchen worker in the form of A-Ming. The child was the only thing stopping tense atmosphere between him and Lan QiRen freeze over altogether, so in some ways, they were married already. On Day 16, the villagers who harvested pears from their orchard came to pay their respects for another year of donations. Some pears still remained on the higher branches, but the intensive picking season was over. Despite Lan QiRen’s vehement protests, the villagers still left a small bag of silver in his hands, and Wen RuoHan suggested that they spend the money in the village together. Wen RuoHan had begun to worry that Lan QiRen’s illness was not getting any better despite his constant medicine deliveries, and Gu YongSi had also suggested that he bring his ‘dainty wife’ out to breathe some fresh air once in a while.

 

A-Ming had finally made some friends in the village and had run off to catch fish in the river outside village grounds. After a light lunch of eggplant fritters and five bean soup, Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen stepped out into the warm, sunny path to Han village.

 

Even without the snow-white Lan Sect robes, there was no denying that Lan QiRen’s icy porcelain features were far from ordinary. As he shielded his eyes from the sun and tidied a wisp of hair blown out of place by the wind, Wen RuoHan caught a glimpse of the perfectly unmarred skin on the nape of his neck. Every muscle fibre in Wen RuoHan’s body screamed to reach out and touch the man. Touch him, claim him, mark him. Clenching his fists so hard to nearly draw blood, Wen RuoHan breathed in deeply to fight the primal urge pooling inside him.

 

“Are you alright?” Lan QiRen asked as he noticed Wen RuoHan’s sharp inhale, “your eyes are bloodshot.”

 

“It’s the dirt in the air,” Wen RuoHan hurried ahead to put distance between them, “let’s hurry before the wind picks up any more.”

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan was already on friendly terms with the villagers from his daily excursions. In common clothing he was much more approachable, and all the stall-owners all loved this good-looking customer who had deep pockets. Lan QiRen smiled lightly as he watched the villagers greet Wen RuoHan warmly as if he were one of their own – even if this was all he achieved in teaching the pampered Young Master, it would be more than he could ever learn within the walls of the Nightless City.

 

Before reaching the pharmacy to see Gu YongSi for more medicine, the pair passed by the sweets store. Lan QiRen’s smile disappeared as scenes of the unforgettable nights assaulted his senses when he saw the familiar packaging of their products. Memories of Wen RuoHan’s touch, his voice, his smell, his taste and the beating of their hearts together made Lan QiRen’s step falter. Wen RuoHan instinctively reached out to steady him just as a nasal voice rang out from inside the shop.

 

“Customer!” the store owner recognised Wen RuoHan from outside, and rushed out to greet him, “You are finally back for your refund!”

 

“Refund?” Wen RuoHan looked at the podgy, moustached man in front of him, “What are you talking about?”

 

The man dabbed at his sweating brown with his sleeve, explaining, “You paid top dollar for those pear wine cakes, but that imbecile new hire of mine was careless and gave your parcel to another man! I cannot have my reputation soured and have people say I cheated your money by giving your ordinary pear cakes instead-

 

“ORDINARY PEAR CAKES?!” Wen RuoHan grabbed the terrified man by his collar and lifted him off his feet, “YOU MEAN THERE WAS NO WINE IN THOSE PEAR CAKES?!”

 

“I- I- I just told you!” the man struggled and kicked about, “Full refund, full refund! Please let me down!”

 

Wen RuoHan released his grip and let the man fall to the ground. All his attention was focused on the mortified Lan QiRen. “Teacher, there was no wine in the pear cakes,” a smile crept onto his face as Lan QiRen’s face grew redder until he looked as if he was about to drip blood, “not a single damn drop of wine…”

 

The wave of realization that every word out of Lan QiRen’s mouth had been sane nearly knocked Wen RuoHan off his feet. “No words?” he ran his free hand across Lan QiRen’s flushed cheeks, “Oh Teacher, you have caused me so much grief, how will you repay me?” His playful voice barely contained the undercurrent of unadulterated desire.

 

Lan QiRen tried to avert his gaze, but his chin was caught by Wen RuoHan’s nimble fingers and brought back into position. His last shred of blame he could lay on anything but himself was pulled away. The Second Master of the GuSu Lan Sect stood, metaphorically naked, forced to reckon with the undeniable fact that the person who uttered those words five days ago had been him, after all. Wen RuoHan’s intense gaze threatened to eat him to his bones right on the street.

 

Without waiting for a response, Wen RuoHan threw Lan QiRen over his shoulder like a burlap sack, tossed a large piece of silver at the shaking sweets store owner (who had never seen someone crazy enough to both assault and reward him for an order error), and ran the mile straight back home with his new prisoner.

 

 

 

Lan QiRen’s kicking and yelling were of little effect on Wen RuoHan due to his restrained nature, and the fact that Wen RuoHan had all but switched off all his senses to the outside world apart from eyesight. He felt nothing, heard nothing and thought of nothing apart from the gift from Heaven that had been bestowed to him.

 

‘He meant every word… He loves me back… He missed me while I was gone…’

 

In Wen RuoHan’s mind, the repeated words were his internal monologue. Lan QiRen, however, still retained a piece of sanity and heard every word, again and again. His struggling slowly halted as Wen RuoHan’s simple, joyous mantra carried through the autumn wind and tickled at his heartstrings. The melodies of joy were infectious, and by the time Wen RuoHan kicked open the doors of their cottage to unceremoniously dump Lan QiRen on the bed, Lan QiRen’s initial shock and anger at himself had subsided by half.

 

That half was filled immediately with a sense of impending doom as Lan QiRen realized why Wen RuoHan had begun to loosen his own robes.

 

“Wa- wait, Wen RuoHan, calm down…” he instinctively covered his check with a hand and shuffled backwards on the bed, “What do you think you are doing?”

 

“What do you think I am doing?” Wen RuoHan wiped the sweat from his brow and roughly pulled his right arm out of the restraints of his clothing. His muscular shoulders rippled with his movements and Lan QiRen’s eyes could not help but wander past them to his clavicle and a dusky mauve nipple. “Teacher,” Wen RuoHan taunted, “see no evil, speak no evil, was that not lesson number one?”

 

Like a child caught raiding the candy jar, Lan QiRen squirmed and turned his head to one side. “Hear no evil, do no evil,” he muttered, “you have forgotten the second half.”

 

Wen RuoHan leaned in until his lips were grazing Lan QiRen’s right ear. He slowly raised his right index finger to the slightly parted lips he so desperately wanted to kiss and wiped across, earning a shudder. “These lips have already ruined my chances at hearing no evil,” he whispered and trailed his hand down Lan QiRen’s neck until he could almost reach into his cotton robes, “but whether or not my actions are evil…. is your decision.”

 

Horrified at his own involuntary urge to lean into Wen RuoHan’s touch, Lan QiRen could only stay dead still and pray to his ancestors that Wen RuoHan would not notice the rising tent in his lower half. “…improper,” he uttered through gritted teeth.

 

“I can no longer trust you, Teacher,” Wen RuoHan laughed, “I have learned my lesson.”

 

Lan QiRen’s body fiercely fought the instructions to stop Wen RuoHan that his mind was sending. As Wen RuoHan’s warm hand deftly untied the fabric around his waist, he could only flinch and scream at his muscles to move him away, to no avail.

 

Just as all hope was lost and surrender became imminent, the pitter patter of footsteps from the backyard came to Lan QiRen’s salvation. Wen RuoHan’s face, however, showed murderous intent too horrendous to portray in words.

 

“I’m going to get rid of the kid.”

 

 

 

A-Ming pushed open the back door to the cottage just in time to see a half-dressed Wen RuoHan stagger towards him while Lan QiRen held him back by the waist.

 

“A-Ming, RUN!” Lan QiRen yelled.

 

“I’m not going to kill him!” Wen RuoHan did not know whether to laugh or to cry, “I’m giving him money, so he can go to an inn for tonight!!” He tossed his money pouch at A-Ming and said, “Hey kid, take this and don’t come back until tomorrow evening. Eat whatever you want and stay wherever you want, but go to the pharmacy and tell doctor Gu that I’m going to need internal injury medicine for tomorrow. Now scram!”

 

A-Ming did not have to be told twice to leave. Although he did not comprehend what was happening in the room, all his primal instincts told him that staying for even one more minute with the demonic aura emanating from Wen RuoHan would endanger his life. He picked up the hefty bag of silver from the ground and slammed the door behind him, making a beeline as far away from the danger zone as his little legs could carry.

 

 

Wen RuoHan took the opportunity to bolt both the front and back door shut from the inside.

 

“Now, where were we?”

 

Lan QiRen used little remaining sanity he had to quell the rising desire in his body and shook his head. “This will not, cannot go anywhere,” he said, “I forbid it.”

 

“Forbid it?” the taller man threw his head back and laughed also manically, “Does your sect forbid love? Then what is your own brother doing? I hear QingHeng-Jun is almost negligent of his duties for the sake of love. Lan QiRen, why are you so afraid to confront yourself?”

 

“You may not remember, but other things exist in this world than personal feelings,” Lan QiRen retorted, “For better or for worse, Brother is my Sect Leader, I cannot let selfish desires impede on my duty to thousands of disciples and the people we protect.”

 

Wen RuoHan paused for a moment before letting out a deep breath. He sat beside Lan QiRen and studied the younger man. “I admit, my life is not as complicated as yours,” he smiled, “but I know that it would be foolish to ignore mutual affection. To you, I might just be a good-for-nothing with no ambitions… but I know myself and what I want. Trust me, Lan QiRen. If you give yourself to me, I will never hurt you.”

 

Taken aback at Wen RuoHan’s sudden serious proclamation, Lan QiRen’s heart wavered. He looked at his hands, wringing on his lap. “You are not a good-for-nothing,” he whispered, “you have great potential as a leader. I do not believe you will hurt me, but our positions will only cause strife.”

 

“Leadership again?” Wen RuoHan laughed wryly, “If you do not wish to accept my feelings in fear of my position, I will abdicate my succession and leave the Wen Clan.”

 

“You must not!” Lan QiRen was horrified that Wen RuoHan could speak in such flagrant disregard for his responsibilities, “If you dare to, I will never speak to you again!”

 

“Do you wish for me to become the most successful Sect Leader that QiShan has ever seen?”

 

“That is why I have brought you out of the walls, to make you understand that there is a world worth saving,” Lan QiRen replied, “Of course I wish for it.”

 

“For you, and nobody else, I swear I will become the leader you dream of,” Wen RuoHan placed his hand over his heart, “but in return, you must give yourself a chance. Accept our feelings for each other and be honest. This is an order from the future Supreme Leader of the Wen Sect.”

 

Never in Lan QiRen’s wildest dreams could he have predicted that Wen RuoHan would be so dedicated. The kind of wild love that burns so bright it would drive a man to bend his iron-clad resolve scared Lan QiRen, but also made his heart skip beats and threaten to pound out of his chest in bliss. Possessed by a moment of happiness, Lan QiRen sealed his fate with a barely noticeable nod.

 

 

Wen RuoHan smiled and placed a hand gently on Lan QiRen’s flushes cheek, as if afraid to break the delicate skin. Lan QiRen’s nod was already a great leap forwards – at this moment, he could want for nothing. “Can I…. touch you?” he asked.

 

“You are doing this in the wrong order,” Lan QiRen sighed, but did not move away, “are you not already touching me?”

 

Wen RuoHan placed his free hand on the other cheek and cupped Lan QiRen’s face, pulling the younger man within inches of his own face. “No,” he said as he leaned down to touch their foreheads together, “I want to touch you in places nobody had touched you before. I want to be special to you… can I be?”

 

Lan QiRen’s defences were not nearly strong enough to withstand such attacks. He gasped a little before averting his gaze, “You… are certainly doing this in the wrong order. You are already special, what is the point of asking now?” he mumbled, face growing even warmer.

 

The universe had stopped for Wen RuoHan a long time ago, but hearing the words out of Lan QiRen’s mouth still made his heart flutter so much he feared he would be ill. Addicted, his ears, his lips, every inch of his skin yearned for more. “I am selfish,” he whispered, “Just for me, Teacher, will you say yes? Say you want me, say you want me to touch you where nobody has ever touched you before…”

 

His breathing now so shallow that if the pair were not sitting down, Lan QiRen would not have been able to stand. He struggled for words, but sheer embarrassment still stood in his way. Unable to maintain the willpower to reject the outrageous request nor find the ability to answer Wen RuoHan’s pleas, Lan QiRen bit his bottom lip and forced his neck to raise his face, pressing his quivering lips onto Wen RuoHan’s as the final answer.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The sudden kiss made Wen RuoHan’s halted universe spin wildly out of control into a kaleidoscope of colours and flashes. Lan QiRen found himself pushed backwards in an instant with Wen RuoHan leaning over him. He gasped for air and grabbed Wen RuoHan’s shoulders, the small gap between his lips inviting tongue. Inexperienced, Lan QiRen could only do his very best to hold back the embarrassing sounds spilling from his throat as Wen RuoHan assaulted his mouth, every sweeping movement made by his tongue on the roof of Lan QiRen’s mouth drawing a muffled moan. As if rewarded by the small sounds of confused pleasure, Wen RuoHan let out a satisfied moan himself, shifting his mouth slightly to enable better access to deepen the kiss further and develop a rhythm.

 

Wen RuoHan noticed that Lan QiRen had forgotten how to breathe after the initial minute’s fervour. He pulled back and nibbled on Lan QiRen’s bottom lip as a parting gift. Suddenly, Lan QiRen’s hips bucked upwards, the unexpected contact of his erection with Wen RuoHan’s own caused Wen RuoHan’s arms to give out, collapsing his entire body weight onto Lan QiRen.

 

“Aah- what- what are you…hgnn” Lan QiRen’s hip seemed to have a mind of their own as his lower half uncontrollably shifted against Wen RuoHan’s hardest parts, seeking friction. He gasped for air as the kiss broke and put a hand over his mouth to stop the lewd sounds from escaping. Newly discovered pleasure caused all the blood to rush South – Lan QiRen’s experience with his lower half stopped at cleaning it in the mornings, that it made a mess by itself, and sometimes waiting for an erection to subside. Seeking pleasures of the flesh by himself was unthinkable, and he had severely punished Lan disciples his own age for whispering about their own endeavours in the past.

 

As Wen RuoHan picked up the pace and rubbed their clothed erections together forcefully, Lan QiRen could no longer hold back his moans. He latched his arms around Wen RuoHan’s neck for dear life and desperately rubbed back instinctively.

 

Wen RuoHan’s own breathing was laboured as he tried to hold himself back from coming. Lan QiRen’s sweet moaning and writhing under him was enough to almost drive him over the edge, his unpredictable movements served only to excite Wen RuoHan more. He had maidservants in his teenage years whose whole job was to give him release with their hands and mouths, but the level of pleasure Lan QiRen gave him simply from rubbing was extraordinary. Wen RuoHan let his mind slip a little and imagined for a moment a wild scene – Lan QiRen’s lips around his cock – and sharply drew back to avoid coming from the thought.

 

The contact gone, Lan QiRen let out a guttural sound in protest.

 

“Have you… never touched this place by yourself?” Wen RuoHan panted and reached down under Lan QiRen’s dishevelled outer robes to grasp his leaking, rock-hard erection through his undergarments.

 

“Ugn- AH! Of- of-course no- AHH- no-!” Lan QiRen shivered as Wen RuoHan’s hand started to stroke him, up and down, torturously slowly.

 

“Shit,” Wen RuoHan cursed under his breath as the need to quench his own desire started to consume him. Lan QiRen’s every movement and every sound seemed to amplify the throbbing pain between his legs and set his senses on fire. “Do you even know what face you are making right now? Do not ever… do not ever let anyone else see you like this.”

 

Wasting no time, he unceremoniously pulled down Lan QiRen’s pants then his own, then reclaimed his previous position on top. Lan QiRen’s eyes widened as he felt himself exposed in the cool autumn air. He opened his mouth to protest just as Wen RuoHan’s naked erection touched his own, so all that made it out was yet another seductive moan. Wen RuoHan used one hand to reach between them and deftly used his thumb and forefinger to pull back Lan QiRen’s foreskin and spread some of the leaking moisture between them.

 

The overload of sensation from Wen RuoHan’s touch at the very tip of his cock made Lan QiRen recoil, them immediately lean in for more. His thighs quivered as fiery friction coursed through his veins and a strange heat had begun to gather in the pit of his stomach - like an archery bow pulled too tight and needing release. Every fibre of his being wanted more friction – harder, faster, tighter – yet it only served to make the coiled feeling worse. He shifted uncomfortably as his hips jerked upwards more desperately than before, searching for something.

 

Wen RuoHan sensed Lan QiRen’s urgency. He also felt close to climax, and gave the both of their cocks a few more hard pulls before capturing Lan QiRen’s lips in a second kiss, inserting his tongue into his mouth and drinking up Lan QiRen’s moans. Lan QiRen had just barely come to terms with the double-ended pleasure when Wen RuoHan’s thumb intentionally swiped across the very tip of their weeping members multiple times and moaned into the kiss. The older man’s low, raw voice sent a shiver down Lan QiRen’s spine. The coil inside him snapped and white hot pleasure robbing him of all senses as he arched his back. Moans turned into screams as Wen RuoHan’s hand went even faster through his orgasm and spread the white, viscous seed between them.

 

Lewd, watery squelches and hastened breathing filled the room while Wen RuoHan rubbed himself with Lan QiRen’s seed. Finally, unable to take it anymore, he grunted, burying his head into the crook of Lan QiRen’s neck and shoulder before coming to his own release.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…..internal injury medicine?” Gu YongSi scratched the back of his head at the vague request of the young boy, “Kid, you need to be more specific. Did your parents tell you anything thing else?”

 

“Not my parents,” A-Ming put Wen RuoHan’s delicately embroidered money bag onto the pharmacy counter, “Uncle Wen said to come and get some internal injury medicine for tomorrow.”

 

“Uncle Wen…” Gu YongSi recognised the lavish money bag and frowned when Wen RuoHan’s face came into his memory, “Why did that guy not come instead?”

 

“Uncle Wen and Brother Lan are busy.”

 

“Busy?”

 

“It was very strange… Uncle Wen had half of his clothes off and looked like he wanted to kill me when I went inside. Doctor, where can I find an inn to stay at for the night?” A-Ming asked, “I am not allowed to return to the house until tomorrow.”

 

“Half of his clothes off?” Gu YongSi shook his head and laughed, “I think I understand now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen awoke a little past 7am, later than usual. Wen RuoHan’s open eyes stared right back at him, hardly blinking, arms wrapped Lan QiRen in a tight embrace. The unexpected sight gave him a small fright, but not much as the shock of being totally naked under the blanket in the arms a fully clothed Wen RuoHan.

 

“Be careful,” Wen RuoHan laughed as Lan QiRen struggled against him, “you might get me excited to do it again.”

 

“Where are my clothes?!” Lan QiRen stopped struggling lest he be molested, “We cannot do such things early in the morning!”

 

“I washed you after you fainted yesterday, and this is the thanks I get?” the older man teased, “You seemed to enjoy it much more than I did, there was SO MUCH to clean up…”

 

Lan QiRen felt his face burn at the mention of their carnal activities. “You…. you….”

 

“Alrighty, I will stop teasing you before you get angry,” Wen RuoHan stole a kiss before getting out of bed, “I was distracted by your sleeping face, so breakfast will be late today.”

 

 

A-Ming knocked on the door as the pair ate breakfast. He described how the doctor had taken him to the tailor’s house, and presented Wen RuoHan with the special ‘internal injury medicine’ that Gu YongSi had provided.

 

“What the hell is this?” Wen RuoHan studied the small silver canister of smooth ointment A-Ming brought back.

 

“Doctor Gu said this is what you need for Brother Lan,” A-Ming shrugged, “He said this is his best internal injury medicine, tried and tested.”

 

Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen looked at each other in confusion, passing the ointment between them, neither sure what had possessed the doctor to prescribe what looked like external injury salve instead of the usual herbal concoction meant for consumption.

 

“This is a mistake,” Wen RuoHan scratched his head, “I’ll take it back and get the usual medicine for you right away.”

 

“There is no need,” Lan QiRen shook his head, “I have a confession to make… I… I have not been ill for a while.”

 

Wen RuoHan could hardly fathom why Lan QiRen would feign illness. “Since when?” he asked.

 

“Since… the time you wanted to leave. I did not wish for you to leave, so I claimed I was still ill,” Lan QiRen hung his head and did not meet the other’s gaze, “I apologise for being deceitful.”

 

“Is that so?” Wen RuoHan could barely contain the joy in his voice. The thought of Lan QiRen resorting to telling a fib just to stay with him made butterflies flutter in his stomach. Not willing to let a once-in-a-lifetime chance slip by, Wen RuoHan cleared his throat, “Will you accept any punishment for violating my trust?”

 

“….I will,” Lan QiRen conceded that he had given up the upper hand.

 

“A-Ming, get out.”

 

And thus, a second round of activities begun while the sun was still high in the sky.

 

 

 

 

The days passed with little trouble. Without his forehead ribbon, Lan QiRen pushed sect rules further and further from his mind, while Wen RuoHan’s presence in his heart grew stronger and stronger. Their mutual touching became a daily occurrence, almost beginning immediately after A-Ming leaves the cottage (on Wen RuoHan’s orders, the boy had become their vegetable buyer).

 

20 days from their arrival at Han Village, things begun to unravel.

 

A-Ming returned from the markets unusually quickly, with only half of the food he was sent to buy. Wen RuoHan was quick to chastise the boy, but Lan QiRen saw a slightly frightened expression on his face.

 

“What’s wrong, A-Ming?” he asked gently,

 

“Servants from my family have found this village,” A-Ming said, dejected, “but I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here with Uncle Wen and Brother Lan… Can you hide me?”

 

“For the last time, I’m also Brother, not Uncle!” Wen RuoHan sighed, “but Kid, you have to go home. You can’t stay here forever, we can’t keep you or hide you.”

 

“You do not have to be so blunt,” Lan QiRen shook his head at Wen RuoHan’s harsh choice of words but had no choice but to agree. “A-Ming, if you were an orphan, I would not hesitate to take you back to my ancestral home. However, you have a home to return to and parents who care about you. If fate allows it, we may meet again in the future.”

 

A-Ming gave Lan QiRen a teary bear hug. “Will you still be here if I come back when I am all grown up? I will bring my brother to meet you.”

 

“A-Ming,” Lan QiRen ruffled the boy’s hair, “Neither me nor Brother Wen can remain here for long. Can you keep a secret to your family about us?”

 

 

 

After a heavy goodbye, the pair found themselves at the Han Village streets, bags packed.

 

“Why keep it a secret?” Wen RuoHan asked, “We didn’t do anything bad.”

 

“What do you think will happen if people found out that the Young Masters of GuSu and QiShan kept a child of an important family here, in QingHe grounds?” Lan QiRen lamented, “It is best for all parties if nobody were to ever know.”

 

“So what, we are just going to escape?” Wen RuoHan adjusted the luggage on his shoulders as the pair hurried through the village streets, “Why do I feel like a criminal?”

 

“We are not escaping, we are simply leaving 10 days early.”

 

“Yes, leaving early for the reason of not wanting to be caught. That is escaping!” Wen RuoHan laughed, “But before we leave, let me go and buy some more medicine just in case we need it on our way back. The walk to GuSu will take more than 20 days, who knows what will happen?”

 

“Nothing had better happen,” Lan QiRen warned, “we are without our swords, if we were to encounter demons or feral corpses, we would be at a significant disadvantage.”

 

“And whose fault is that, Teacher?”

 

“Quiet, student.”

 

The bickering pair entered the village pharmacy while both Liang Qi and Gu YongSi were inside. The tailor and pharmacist looked at Lan QiRen up and down, trying to decide whether the beautiful young man was the one Wen RuoHan had described days ago. Wen RuoHan gave the happy couple a triumphant smirk, as if showing off his prize, earning him an eye roll from the doctor (whom promptly ignored him and politely started small talk with Lan QiRen).

 

“Young Master Wen,” Liang Qi pulled Wen RuoHan to the side as Lan QiRen was kept busy discussing medicine with Gu YongSi on the side, “Is this…. the one that needed internal injury medicine?”

 

“Yes he is,” Wen RuoHan proudly answered, “but he no longer needs it for now. We are stocking up on various types of medicine for travel. Why do you ask?”

 

“No longer needs it?” Liang Qi asked, “I was not aware that there is another seller of lubricating ointment in this village…”

 

“What are you even talking about? If it’s about the cannister of ointment your husband gave our kid, I need a refund for that.”

 

“Was it not good to use?” the tailor grew more and more confused.

 

“What use would I have for it? I needed internal injury medicine just in case I made him angry, I don’t need external injury ointment!”

 

“Wait a moment,” Liang Qi started to understand that he and Wen RuoHan were likely not talking about the same topic. He whispered, “I am talking about bedroom activities, could it be that you have not gone all the way?”

 

Wen RuoHan looked at Liang Qi dumbly. “All the way? I believe so, many times… but surely there is no need for medical ointment? We’re not farmers, our hands aren’t that rough…”

 

Out of words, Liang Qi dragged Wen RuoHan out of the pharmacy and into the back rooms of his own shop, where he lived. He reached under his bed for a locked wooden box, from which he retrieved a thin book. “What does ‘all the way’ mean to you?” he thrust the book into Wen RuoHan’s hand, “show me.”

 

Awkwardly, Wen RuoHan opened the book and nearly dropped it as graphic depictions of homosexual sex positions he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams jumped out at him. “What- WHAT- HUH?” he blinked a few times and looked harder at the details. ‘Where is the THING going??’

 

Gu YongSi sighed. “Let me guess, neither of you have been with another man before?”

 

“….no,” Wen RuoHan admitted.

 

“So neither of you inserted anything, anywhere?”

 

“…………..no.”

 

“Please read this book and return to the pharmacy when you are done,” he tailor patted the shocked Wen RuoHan on the shoulder before leaving his room, “I believe it is your best interests to buy a few more cannisters of ointment. First times can hurt if you are not well-prepared…”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen noticed a change in Wen RuoHan’s demeanour immediately after the man returned from across the road. Wen RuoHan stopped looking him in the eyes, stopped talking about nonsense, and purchased close to ten small silver cannisters of ointment they seemingly did not need. Ten miles out of the Han Village and with an atmosphere too awkward to ignore, Lan QiRen finally broke the silence. 

 

“Wen RuoHan, what happened back at the village?” he asked with concern, “You do not seem like yourself.” 

 

“What do you mean? If I am not myself, who could I be?” Wen RuoHan shrugged off his question with a laugh, and once more failed to look Lan QiRen in the eyes. The information presented to him in that book were earth-shattering, and the more time he spent with the younger man, the more unrelenting desire Wen RuoHan had to push him down into the grass and put his newfound knowledge to use to the test. Lan QiRen’s worried, innocent eyes added fuel to the fire, Wen RuoHan lamented how his usually abundant self-control had dwindled to next to nothing over the span of 22 days.  

 

Lan QiRen sensed that there would be little use in pushing stubborn Wen RuoHan for answers. The pair traversed through QingHe’s borders with LanLing, stopping every night at inns or local farm houses, but Wen RuoHan would use every attempt to sleep in separate rooms for sake of ‘Lan QiRen’s sanity’. Lan QiRen grew puzzled at Wen RuoHan’s unwillingness to share what was weighing on his mind, but neither did he want to let down to his pride and request to sleep in the same room. Tensions persisted until a few days later, when the pair gradually drew near to Carp Tower. 

 

“If we continue following this river, we should arrive to the busiest part of LanLing,” Lan QiRen unfurled the hand-drawn map he had prepared for their journey, “If we board a boat at the next township, our journey can be shortened by two days.”  

 

Wen RuoHan nodded absent-mindedly and continued to wander down the forest path.  

 

Fuse already cut short due to days of sleeping in separation, Lan QiRen tucked the map into his robes and abruptly stopped walking. “Wen RuoHan, if you do not tell me what is on your mind, you may head West to QiShan and I will head South to GuSu.” 

 

His sudden change of tone forced Wen RuoHan to stop, dead in his tracks. “Why the sudden anger?” he finally replied with a forced smile after a pause, “I will treat you to a grand feast when we arrive at Carp Tower, Jin GuangShan owes me a favour from years ago when I saved his ass on a night hunt. That guy is a walking bag of venereal diseases, but he is an accomplished dinner host.” 

 

Lan QiRen grimaced at the mention of LanLing Jin Sect infamous playboy heir. The idea of Wen RuoHan being on friendly terms with him felt like a blade dragging on rock, scratchy and uncomfortable, sometimes causing a spark. “We shall not alert Carp Tower to our presence,” he scowled, “and we shall  definitely  not associate ourselves or be seen in public with Jin GuangShan.”  

 

Wen RuoHan walked back towards Lan QiRen and put his large, warm hand on his head. “Your jealous face is very attractive,” he said as he ruffled Lan QiRen’s hair a little. 

 

“Do not change the subject,” Lan QiRen brushed Wen RuoHan’s hand away, “What is it exactly that you have been unable to tell me since we left Han Village?” 

 

Wen RuoHan’s smile faltered. For the first time in his life, he could neither speak nor do what was on his mind, in fear of another person’s feelings. Before discovering that their feelings of love were mutual, he had been purposefully brazen with his words as the chances of them being reciprocated were so miniscule. Now, due to unforeseen circumstances, the object of his affection did truly belong to him, but Wen RuoHan was never prepared for such an overwhelming sense of fear in case he was to lose Lan QiRen.  

 

He finally understood what it felt like to be afraid to grip too tightly in case they broke, afraid to leave in case they escaped, afraid to embrace in case they melted. For someone with a sky-high sense of pride like Lan QiRen, the mere suggestion of Wen RuoHan inserting any part of his body into his own may be enough grounds to drive him away. However, Wen RuoHan’s imagination ran wild every time he caught a glimpse of Lan QiRen’s skin, and the craving to re-enact every page of the sordid book of pleasures had all but eaten him alive. 

 

“Please,” he said hoarsely, “do not ask any further. I…. really cannot tell you.” 

 

“Wen RuoHan, was I so foolish to believe that we are- 

 

Lan QiRen’s words were cut off abruptly by the ghoulish howl of feral corpses. 

 

The hairs on the back of both Lan QiRen and Wen RuoHan’s necks stood on end. 

 

“This is broad daylight…” Lan QiRen instinctively reached for his sword and grabbed only thin air, “What kind of horrendous feral corpses run amok at midday?” 

 

“Run, or fight?” Wen RuoHan assumed a fighting stance, guarding Lan QiRen’s back. Their argument would have to wait, until they could be sure of survival.  

 

“We have no choice,” Lan QiRen replied grimly as he reached into his robe for talismans and seven qin strings, “we are surrounded.” 

 

“Perhaps ordering ZhuLiu to take our swords was an unwise decision, Teacher?” Wen RuoHan teased, without a hint of blame in his voice, “But I promise you, even if I die here today, I will never regret my time with you.” 

 

“I forbid you to act impetuously,” Lan QiRen cut Wen RuoHan off before he could make any more grand statements, “if the fight becomes impossible, I order you to escape with your life.” 

 

“Have I ever been the one to follow orders?” Wen RuoHan laughed and lunged at a hoard of approaching feral corpses. His hands glowed with raw power as he struck with ruthless accuracy and intensity at the heads of his targets, wasting no time to demolish three for every one that Lan QiRen dismembered with his qin strings. If it was not for the seemingly endless pack of feral corpses emerging from the trees, Lan QiRen would have liked to stop and marvel at the ease by which Wen RuoHan was defeating the walking dead. His own cultivation level was by no means low, but in the face of sheer numbers, Lan QiRen began to tire and his fingers began to bleed. Soon, as much as he hated to admit, Wen RuoHan began to bear the burden of defending him while continuing to fend of attacks from the bloodthirsty creatures.  

 

“This is the most ridiculous way to die, is it not?” Wen RuoHan grimaced as he put his fist nonchalantly through yet another skull, “How could this many feral corpses gather in one location at this time of day? Watch out!” 

 

Lan QiRen nearly bit his tongue as he was hoisted up into the air by Wen RuoHan to avoid being bitten by a feral monster, “There were no signs of miasma or mass graves in this area, I do not understand either.” 

 

“We can’t stay here much longer, I am going to carve out an escape route and keep these at bay! When I give the signal, run South and find help!” 

 

“You and I both know there is no help to be found for tens of miles!” Lan QiRen was livid at the suggestion, “You cannot make me escape alone!” 

 

“You are not of any help staying here!” Wen RuoHan’s unassuming demeanour finally cracked at Lan QiRen’s stubborn unwillingness to cooperate, “Just go!”  

 

No sooner than the second the words left his mouth, Wen RuoHan realized he had made a terrible mistake. Even on the verge of being eaten alive by zombies, Lan QiRen’s pride was still sky-high. While Wen RuoHan had really meant that keeping Lan QiRen alive was more important to him than courageously dying together, his abysmal choice of words had come across as treating Lan QiRen as a burden… even if he was to survive this hoard to feral corpses, the chances of surviving Lan QiRen’s wrath afterwards was slim.  

 

Before Lan QiRen could blurt out his own regrettable choice of colourful words, a volley of spiritually-charged golden arrows burst through the forest, setting the battlefield alight with burning feral corpses. Wen RuoHan held Lan QiRen close as the pair ducked behind he nearest tree, both relieved that help had arrived, but nevertheless in fear that the blind tidal wave of firepower would incur collateral damage.  

 

Who could afford such a grand display of golden arrows but also care very little about the people in their way? 

 

Needless to say, it was none other than the heir to the LanLing Jin Sect fortune, notorious playboy Jin GuangShan.  

 

 

“Who is killing all my prey?” Jin GuangShan emerged from the dense forest, tapping his luxurious fan on his palm in annoyance as he surveyed the ground littered with feral corpses killed my Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen. “Never mind, this hunt is no longer fun,” he signalled to his army of attendants, “get rid of the prey. If you see the rogue cultivators who dare spoil my hunt, kill them too.” 

 

“Big talk, Young Master Jin,” Wen RuoHan emerged from behind his tree refuge, hands once again glowing, “you are welcome to make the first move.” Lan QiRen stayed behind the tree, ready to strike if the situation turned hazardous.  

 

“W-Wen RuoHan?!” Jin GuangShan took a moment to decipher the enigma that was Wen RuoHan in common clothing, on his turf, killing feral corpses, with no sword, “What in the devil’s name happened to you? Did your father finally kick you out of the Clan for being an embarrassment?” 

 

“Not far from the truth,” Wen RuoHan shrugged. He leisurely strolled up to the lavishly-dressed man and offered him a friendly pat on the shoulder, “I am on a field trip, it’s a long story that your attention span doesn’t cover.”  

 

“These clothes are new, don’t you dare soil them,” Jin GuangShan gave a look of disgust and smacked away Wen RuoHan’s bloody hand, “You must be out of your mind, fighting over a hundred feral corpses out here by yourself. Where is your sword?” 

 

 “Who says I’m by myself?” Wen RuoHan laughed, “Teacher, it’s okay, this man is not dangerous unless you catch a venereal disease from him. He just has too much free time and not enough sense in his head.” 

 

Lan QiRen breathed a sigh of relief to hear friendly chatter between Jin GuangShan and Wen RuoHan - before frowning a little at how friendly the two seemed to be. He tidied his appearance and emerged from behind the tree with his best stern expression.  

 

“Good day, Young Master Jin. What brings you to release a hundred feral corpses into the mountain?” 

 

“And who the hell are you?” Jin GuangShan rolled his eyes at the younger man, “Wen RuoHan, explain.” 

 

Wen RuoHan could not help but laugh at how predictably badly the two got on from the very start. “This is the younger brother of QingHeng-Jun – Lan QiRen. He is my teacher while I complete a year of studies at the Cloud Recesses,” he watched as Jin GuangShan’s eyebrow twitched in surprise, and choked back another laugh.  

 

“….what a pleasure,” Jin GuangShan coughed awkwardly, “I did not expect a Lan Clan member to be so…. casually dressed.” 

 

“Judging by appearance often leads to blunders,” Lan QiRen replied coolly, not giving any face to Jin GuangShan, “May you offer any explanation to the feral corpses?” 

 

Jin GuangShan frowned. He felt like Lan QiRen was looking down on him, but could not find a valid reason to argue. Despite being younger by more than five years, QingHeng-Jun’s younger brother sure had the aura of an old schoolteacher… 

 

“A mere training exercise and a test for the new arrows,” he waved his fan at the ground, littered with burning corpses, “successful, as you can see.” 

 

Before Lan QiRen could comment on wasteful extravagance or endangering the public, Wen RuoHan interjected with a change in subject. “Do you have any boats nearby?” he asked Jin GuangShan. 

 

“Of course, but no spares to take you back to GuSu,” Jin GuangShan pointed to the large entourage cleaning up his zombie mess, pearlescent sequins on his golden robes glittering with filtered sunlight through the trees, “you can ride with us back to Carp Tower if you want, but please for the love of God, change out of those horrendous peasant clothes. You will be refused entry to my estate if you look like you crawled out of a gutter.” 

 

“Thanks for the offer, but we will not be staying at Carp Tower as we are incognito,” Wen RuoHan brushed off Jin GuangShan’s insult, “just as far down the Yi river as you can take us will be fine. I’ll cash in that favour you owe me for some new clothes and your promise that nobody must know we were ever here.” 

 

“Done. I’ll take you as far as KaiYang [4], but the only clothes I have are Sparks Amidst Snow,” Jin GuangShan sighed, “you had better not embarrass me wearing them.” 

 

 

 

 

Reluctantly, Lan QiRen boarded an opulent Jin Sect ship. He and Wen RuoHan were assigned separate rooms – in the aftermath of an unnecessary bloodbath that almost cost him his life, Lan QiRen was grateful for the chance to be alone. However, faced with silence and his own thoughts, the day’s events began to catch up.  

 

Wen RuoHan’s words had left a small but festering wound in his psyche. Without distractions, Lan QiRen could only play ‘you’re not of any help’ over and over in his mind while he stared blankly at his raw, bleeding fingers. Even at his best, he had not been good enough for Wen RuoHan. Perhaps, Wen RuoHan sat with Jin GuangShan at this very moment, jeering at his weakness? 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, inside Jin GuangShan’s cabin, a ‘boy talk’ beyond Lan QiRen’s wildest imagination took place. Wen RuoHan had changed into a spare set of lavish golden peony robes and looked even more charming than usual. Next to the good-looking but thinner Jin GuangShan, his presence dominated the room, drawing attention from servants and attendants alike.  

 

 

“How do you put up with that little jerk?” Jin GuangShan tapped his fingers impatiently on the table as a pretty maid poured him and Wen RuoHan wine, “He is insufferable!” 

 

“Pot calling the kettle black,” Wen RuoHan smiled, enjoying his ire, “I’d be careful if I were you, he can outsmart you with his pinky finger.” 

 

“I am not so stupid that I would upset a prominent GuSu Lan, otherwise I would have tossed him off my ship already. Did you see that look on his face when he boarded? I’m doing him a favour here!” he waved his fan to dismiss the servants before downing a cup, “You’re seriously going to spend a year learning classics with him?” 

 

“A year, maybe longer…” Wen RuoHan’s eyes narrowed as he smiled contentedly, nonchalantly taking a sip of the sweet wine. 

 

‘Maybe, forever.’   

 

“You look so serene, it’s scary,” Jin GuangShan shuddered, “have they poisoned you with their Buddhist scriptures?” 

 

“Let’s just say that you can’t drag me into brothels anymore…” 

 

“What difference does it make? You just sit and eat food like there’s something physically wrong with you anyway,” Jin GuangShan sniggered as he bit a pickle in half, “If you’re afraid of getting some whore pregnant… just remember: first of all, they’re whores, nobody will miss them if you make them disappear. Second of all, you can just use the back end!” 

 

“Back… end….” Wen RuoHan’s ears perked up at the lewd suggestion, “does it even fit?” 

 

At such an innocent question, Jin GuangShan’s handsome features crinkled with mirth. Wen RuoHan waited patiently for the man to stop slapping the table and holding his stomach, and offered no help even as he choked a little. 

 

“Oh- you- hahahaha- virgin- hahahahaha-“ Jin GuangShan coughed and laughed, a tear lingering in the corner of his eye, “let- let me enlighten you, muscle-headed virgin…. Of course it fits. A bit of oil, a bit of force, and you’ll have a great time!” 

 

Wen RuoHan frowned and picked up a small squid ring from the exotic seafood dish with his chopsticks, and a banana from the fruit arrangement. He crudely put the small squid ring on the tip of the banana and forced the banana through, immediately tearing the squid ring in half. “Force and oil?” he raised an eyebrow at the smirking Jin GuangShan, “This hardly seems possible.” 

 

“I didn’t say there would be no mess,” Jin GuangShan shrugged and continued to eat, “but as long as you don’t do it on your own bed, the blood is someone else’s problem in the morning.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s note: 

 

[4] KaiYang (开阳) is the olden name for LinYi (临沂) city on the edge of the Yi River (LinYi literally just mean ‘by the Yi’). It is about 520km from GuSu, and roughly 500km from where Han Village would be. The place has quite a complicated history and has changed name lots of times in history, I am just referring to the city itself and not the LangYa county around it.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan grimaced at the thought of what would happen if he followed Jin GuangShan’s advice. He made a mental note to thank Liang Qi for his book and Gu YongSi for his ointment – or rather, thank them on behalf of Lan QiRen’s lower half. 

 

“One day, your bedroom antics are going to get you in real trouble,” he peeled the banana and bit the tip off, “I feel bad for whoever ends up marrying you.” 

 

Jin GuangShan winced at the bite. “And one day, your ridiculous moral alignment is going to kill you,” he shot back, speech slightly slurred, “I’ve always told you, Wen RuoHan, either don’t care about anyone like me, or care for everyone like the stupid Lans, don’t be in between. Nobody appreciates a half-arsed hero or a half-arsed villain.” 

 

 

 

 

Half a day later, the Jin Sect’s impressive convoy arrived at the junction of the mighty Yi River. Jin GuangShan’s ship peeled off the fleet and docked at KaiYang City as night fell, its golden trimmings reflecting onto the water lit by thousands of lanterns.  

 

“A local festival, how quaint,” Wen RuoHan leaned over the railings like an excited child, “Look, Teacher! Cotton candy!”  

 

Lan QiRen remained silent, expression fixed in a state of unease as he stood in his own golden robes.  

 

“I told you to not embarrass me while wearing the Sparks Amidst Snow!” Jin GuangShan put his head in his hands. Aside from Wen RuoHan’s inexplicable excitement at a small local festival and kindness to Lan QiRen, he was still unhappy about the younger man’s indifference to his help. Combined with their interruption of the day’s expensive hunt, he prayed for a better tomorrow. “Young Master Lan, if you are so unhappy about our uniform, you are welcome to remove it and wander the streets naked.” 

 

“I appreciate your hospitality,” Lan QiRen replied coolly, “GuSu Lan Sect will send reparations within the month.” 

 

Jin GuangShan rolled his eyes and waved his fan, “No need. Wen RuoHan, consider my debt to you paid with interest. KaiYang is a busy place one festival day, if you can’t find an inn to stay, I have a permanently reserved room at the Chrysanthemum Pavilion. Remember, oil and force, ask for Yun’er.” 

 

“Oil and force?” Lan QiRen looked at the horrified and spluttering Wen RuoHan, “Yun’er?” 

 

“….I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Wen RuoHan shook his head so hard he suffered mild whiplash, “Let’s leave!” Palms sweaty, he took Lan QiRen’s hand in his own before hurrying off the ship and onto the shore. 

 

 

 

 

The county town of KaiYang ran along the edges of the Yi river, bustling with business. Its annual late autumn festival was truly a sight to behold – thousands of red paper lanterns hung from tree-lined avenues along the water’s edge, swaying in unison as a pleasant offshore breeze blew. The town’s piers were busy with boats that evening, so busy that the Jin Sect armada could hardly manoeuvre their way out without scraping merchant ships.  

 

Lan QiRen adjusted the round collar of his new golden robes uncomfortably as he watched Jin GuangShan’s back float further and further away. “You seem close with him,” he coldly stated, tone accusing.  

 

He did not expect himself to hold such hostile attitudes towards Jin GuangShan – after all, the man did not know they were in the vicinity before letting loose a hoard of fierce corpses. Even though he was the cause of some strife, Jin GuangShan was no doubt helpful in their journey, and even in the very worst case, Lan QiRen should still be treating him with the respect of a Sect heir. However, Wen RuoHan’s words were like an infection and had poisoned Lan QiRen’s judgement long before Jin GuangShan arrived at the scene. The battle had made it painfully clear that Wen RuoHan (even without his sword) did not need and did not want help from him, whereas Jin GuangShan was a helpful equal. 

 

“Are you jealous?” Wen RuoHan teased, oblivious to Lan QiRen’s inner strife, “That guy is not interested in men, you do not have to worry about him. Besides money, he has no redeeming qualities.” 

 

“You… should not refer to friends as such,” Lan QiRen struggled to conceal his disdain. He did not want to prove himself a jealous lover, but Wen RuoHan’s friendly tone made his blood boil.  

 

“You must be misunderstanding,” the older man smiled, “We are similar in age and position, so we know each other. We have no reason to dislike each other yet, so we politely associate ourselves to maintain Sect relations – if one day our political positions change, neither of us would hesitate to behead the other. Does this help your idea of our friendship?” 

 

Lan QiRen did not know whether to be glad that Jin GuangShan’s position in Wen RuoHan’s heart was so low, or to be worried at how little Wen RuoHan regarded others’ lives with a charming smile on his face. “You say you are not Sect Leader material, but I have never heard a more concise description of a purely political relationship,” he slowly released his clenched fists, “….Wen RuoHan, in what regard do you hold people who are of no help to you?” 

 

“Why regard them at all if they are of no consequence?” 

 

Wen RuoHan’s answer came with another pleasant smile, illuminated by a thousand lanterns. The gold threads on his yellow robes flashed beautifully as he turned his back to Lan QiRen and walked to a cotton candy vendor with a spring in his step, delighted, like his answer was not at all terrifying. Lan QiRen’s vision blurred a little, his heart heavy.  

 

Wen RuoHan returned with two pink cotton candies on sticks, grinning like a child as he handed one to Lan QiRen. “LanLing Jin Sect robes are very helpful,” he laughed as he took a large bite out of his snack, “I wonder what else I can get for free while we are here?” 

 

His happiness was short-lived as Lan QiRen’s cotton candy deflated in two places, moistened by two small tear drops. “Why are you crying all of a sudden?” Wen RuoHan’s voice grew shrill with panic, “Do you not like cotton candy? What is wrong? I’m sorry, whatever I said or did, I’m sorry!” He rushed to wipe Lan QiRen’s pale cheeks, only to have his hand brushed off. 

 

“I am of no help to you in study or in battle,” Lan QiRen stubbornly said, “how can I hope for the mighty Young Master Wen to pity me?” 

 

“Huh?” the sudden mood change took Wen RuoHan by surprise, “Teacher, I think your mind works too fast for me to comprehend… you need to explain to me how you have come to such ridiculous conclusions? When have I ever expressed that you are of no use to me?” 

 

“At the forest, while fighting fierce corpses,” Lan QiRen’s porcelain features became flushed with frustration and embarrassment, “you told me to leave because I was of no help… but you can accept Jin GuangShan…” 

 

Wen RuoHan threw his cotton candy to the ground, freeing up both his hands to hold Lan QiRen’s shoulders and shake him almost violently. “No!” he exclaimed, “You have it all wrong! I forbid you to ever think of yourself like this! I meant that it would be pointless if we both died there, and that at least one of us must survive! Lan QiRen, you have taught me more in these 20 days than I could ever hope to learn from anyone else… you taught me simple happiness. I would kill every man, woman and child in this world before I deserted you!” 

 

The last sentence slipping him by, Lan QiRen could only hear the sound of his furiously beating heart. “Do you… think of me as…” 

 

Exasperated and unable to find better words to express the torrent of nameless emotions welling in his chest, Wen RuoHan snatched Lan QiRen’s cotton candy and threw it into the river where it disintegrated into the black water. “Teacher, what is the word to describe the ache in one’s chest when looking at someone so important to you, the world around them ceases to exist and one loses all rationale?” 

 

Lost in Wen RuoHan’s intense gaze, Lan QiRen took one deep breath and replied into the night wind, “Love.” 

 

The taller man took one step forward and closed the arms-length gap between them. Ignoring all passer-by stares and their public image, Wen RuoHan wrapped his strong arms around Lan QiRen’s quivering shoulders and squeezed with the intent to meld their bodies together. “Good,” he whispered, drawing in the faint aroma of Lan QiRen’s silky hair, “I was beginning to think of it as madness.” 

 

“It is madness no doubt,” Lan QiRen struggled for a moment before his strength was sapped away by Wen RuoHan’s touch, “perhaps I am also mad.” 

 

“Then just let us just be mad for today,” Wen RuoHan let his hands travel to Lan QiRen’s waist, “Stop your worries, forget the rules. Nobody knows us, nobody can stop us here… we are not the Wen Sect heir and QingHeng-Jun’s brother – just two people, senseless.”  

 

“What happens after today?” Lan QiRen’s last straw of sanity spoke through, “What happens when we go back to GuSu?” 

 

 “I don’t have any basis for this… but trust me, please. I will take responsibility and give you all the proper rites and ceremony later. But today, let us enjoy ourselves!”  

 

Wen RuoHan stroked Lan QiRen’s stiff lower back gently and swore an oath to himself,  ‘I will give you all that you deserve . Nothing will stand in my way , or they will perish . Not rules, not our Sects, not the world.’  

 

The dark thought left his mind as quickly as it came when he felt Lan QiRen’s anxiety lessen from under his touch. When the pair finally separated from their public display of affection, both had pink cheeks, flushed with happiness and rapidly beating hearts. 

 

“Do you want another cotton candy?” Wen RuoHan scratched his nose sheepishly. 

 

The younger man let out a small chuckle, much to Wen RuoHan’s surprise. “Hm… make sure you pay the vendor!” Lan QiRen’s words carried a high-spirited tone, unlike his previous worries, “I also want one of the steamed red bean buns from that stall!” 

 

Wen RuoHan had never seen Lan QiRen’s youthful, selfish side. His eyes gleamed with affection as he gave Lan QiRen’s head a quick ruffle and laughed, “Yes, yes, anything for my adorable ShiDi~” 

 

“ShiDi? What are you playing at?” Lan QiRen asked, “Are you taking advantage of our clothing to make fun of me?” 

 

“Yes I am,” Wen RuoHan admitted without shame, “As we are disguised at Jin Sect disciples and you are 5 years younger than me, you must refer to me as ShiXiong and your senior until we have new clothes.” 

 

Lan QiRen desperately searched in his robes for money and found none. Face sullen, he ordered, “Go and buy us new clothes, right this instant.”  

 

Wen RuoHan shamelessly held his own money bag up high where Lan QiRen could not reach, “Call me ShiXiong and I might consider…” 

 

Lan QiRen rolled his eyes and cursed internally before finally uttering through gritted teeth, “…..Shi….Xiong….” 

 

Pleased with his successful threat, Wen RuoHan tucked his money bag back into his robes. “Proposal rejected,” he deadpanned, “ShiDi, let us to buy some red bean buns and go to the fortune teller booth. I have a feeling the old man will tell us we’re a match made in heaven!” 

 

The night air carried Wen RuoHan’s laughter and Lan QiRen’s half-serious complaints like music over the gentle waves of the river Yi. The pair wandered the KaiYang festival lanes, hand in hand, troubles temporarily forgotten as they shared food and played street games like children. 

 

 

 

 

Troubles began as night fell. 

 

 

Jin GuangShan’s earlier predictions had come true – not a single inn room was unoccupied in the whole of KaiYang on festival night. After the tenth failed attempt at finding a bed for the evening, Wen RuoHan dumped his pile of game winnings into the sidewalk and stretched his tired arms.  

 

“I know you do not hold Jin GuangShan in high regard, but is it not time we took his advice and go to the Chrysanthemum Pavilion?” he asked the exhausted-looking Lan QiRen. 

 

“I concede,” Lan QiRen looked up at the position of the stars, “it is nearing 8pm, we must find a place to sleep.” 

 

With directions from well-meaning passer-by, the pair found themselves at the doors of Chrysanthemum Pavilion without much trouble. It was only when they entered the building did Wen RuoHan’s hairs stand on end…. No matter how he looked at it, the place was a high-class brothel masquerading as an inn. Wen RuoHan mentally slapped himself for ever believing that Jin GuangShan could ever suggest a prim and proper place to stay. 

 

 

Lan QiRen seemed oblivious to the sheer number of beautiful women gathered in the lobby. Before Wen RuoHan could stop him, he politely approached the front desk to ask for a reserved room. The middle-aged manager dripping with jewels took one look at their high-ranking Sparks Amidst Snow robes before breaking into a smile so wide, Wen RuoHan thought her makeup would crack and fall onto the floor. 

 

“Why, if it isn’t the honourable gentlemen from our protectors?” she cooed with a sickly sweet, high-pitched voice, “This one is so beautiful while the other is so handsome! Shall I call Yun-er for your, gentlemen?” 

 

“No no no no we are fine!” a bead of sweat rolled down Wen RuoHan’s forehead as he all but pushed Lan QiRen towards the stairs up to rooms, “Show us the way and leave us!” 

 

“Are you sure?” the manager winked, “People travel far and wide to see- 

 

“THE FESTIVAL! YES PEOPLE TRAVEL FAR AND WIDE TO SEE THE FESTIVAL AND THE FESTIVAL WAS GREAT, NOW TAKE US TO THE ROOM!” 

 

Lan QiRen frowned at Wen RuoHan’s odd behaviour but did not question any further as he was hurriedly led up to a lavish suite in the top floor of the ‘inn’. Jin GuangShan’s spending habits may be absurd, but the room was decorated in such extravagance it made his ships seem ordinary. A comically oversized bathtub fit for 8 people took up an entire corner, an ornate bed fit for 8 people took up another, and a gleaming bronze mirror took up almost the entire wall opposite the bed. 

 

“I have never seen a room with such strange fengshui and uselessly large furnishings,” Lan QiRen looked back and forth at the bed and the mirror, “but I suppose for an evening of rest, this will more than suffice. Wen RuoHan, are you alright? You look pale…” 

 

 

“No-nothing!” Wen RuoHan stammered, “Everything is fine! Nothing is wrong! I’m perfect! Shall we take a bath?”  

 

Lan QiRen’s cheeks turned bright pink and he forgot about Wen RuoHan’s obviously suspicious demeanour at the mention of bathing. Since their cottage had no bathtub, the pair had been making do with basins of water and towel for the better half of a month. The idea of stripping down naked next to Wen RuoHan was no longer foreign to him… but bathing together was still comically forbidden and erotic to Lan QiRen. 

 

“I… already bathed on the ship,” he shook his head, “the servants offered, and I obliged.” 

 

The older man coughed awkwardly and shut the double doors to their room, locking it from the inside. “Did anyone see your body?” he asked, half pouting and half serious. 

 

The ethical dilemma caught Lan QiRen off-guard. He disliked lies, but telling Wen RuoHan that a Jin Sect servant had seen his upper torso while adding water to his tub would no doubt make Wen RuoHan jealous, but not telling him would seem very suspicious should he ever find out.  

 

Taking Lan QiRen’s silence as a ‘yes’, Wen RuoHan’s expression changed from questioning to annoyance. He rolled up his sleeves and scooped up the smaller man into a haphazard princess carry before setting him down onto the large bed. “Did they touch you? Was it a woman or a man?!” 

 

“He was just there to add water to the tub,” Lan QiRen sighed, not bothering to put up a right he could not win, “Wen RuoHan, do not act so unbecoming. You must not behave like a jealous woman, for you are the heir to your Clan.” 

 

“Before you, I am but a petty commoner who wants for nothing,” Wen RuoHan’s gaze softened as he gently undid the buttons of Lan QiRen’s golden robes, “Tell me, Teacher, what did the bastard see?” He ran a fingernail across Lan QiRen’s collarbones, drawing a shiver. “Did he see your chest?” 

 

“O-only the chest… ah!” Lan QiRen let out a small gasp as Wen RuoHan’s fingers travelled south to his left nipple. All it took was a light scratch at the tip of the mauve bud for him to unravel into Wen RuoHan’s greedy touch – as much as Lan QiRen discouraged his possessive displays, it was mainly to stop himself from being seduced by them. 

 

“So he saw these?” Wen RuoHan gently pinched the hard nipple and rubbed it between his forefinger and thumb as he enjoyed the stifled moans escaping Lan QiRen’s lips. He took the right nipple into his mouth and sucked just hard enough for the man under him to break his resolve. Wen RuoHan smiled – this would never get old.  

 

Lan QiRen had especially grown fond of Wen RuoHan pulling then letting go of his nipples alternatively, although he would never admit it. “Stop- AH- don’t jus- ah- H-nhg… too much- Annggh- Wen-Wen RuoHan!” The tent between his legs had grown uncomfortable, and much to his embarrassment, had already started to moisten at the tip. Every time his hips buckled upwards at a nipple tug, the friction between his erection and fabric would cause another wave of pleasure.  

 

This fact did not escape Wen RuoHan’s gaze, and he continued his merciless services until Lan QiRen no longer had any will left to hide his beautiful, sultry moans. Satisfied that his younger lover was close to coming just by his teasing, Wen RuoHan dragged his fingernail down Lan QiRen’s sweat-slicked abdomen and navel, peeling off the rest of his robes that got in the way. Finally, the full picture of Lan QiRen’s beauty presented itself as a feast for his eyes. 

 

No matter how many times they pleasured each other with their hands, Lan QiRen would forever be taken by Wen RuoHan’s penetrating gaze at him the moment he became undressed. Those intense brown eyes would seem to glow purple with lustful hunger and threaten to eat him alive, and on more than one occasion did Lan QiRen covertly wish right then for just that. Little did he know, Wen RuoHan was truly planning to ‘eat’ him this time.  

 

“What are you doing?” Lan QiRen stuttered as Wen RuoHan’s head followed his hands down past his navel and in between his legs, “Wh-where are you putting your head? It’s… dirty…” 

 

“Dirty?” As if intoxicated, Wen RuoHan poked out his tongue and gently dragged it along the thickest vein lining Lan QiRen’s dripping member, “You have no idea just how wrong you are. You are the last thing under the Heavens that could possibly be sullied.”  

 

Without word or warning, Wen RuoHan took a deep breath and lowered his head all the way to the base of Lan QiRen’s cock. The moist, heated feeling of being totally engulfed could not begin to compare with the dry friction given by each other’s hands – Lan QiRen’s breath caught in his chest the tip of his erection hit the back of Wen RuoHan’s throat. Wen RuoHan’s inexperienced gag reflex and clumsy swallowing action only took it in further, and as the base of his tongue swiped under Lan QiRen’s frenulum, the younger man finally lost control of his lower half. He began to buck his hips upwards, desperately searching.Rules and appearances be damned, the red hot pleasure was all he needed… Wen RuoHan’s shade of red was all he needed.  

 

“St- sto- don’t… don’t stop…” Lan QiRen quietly prayed to nobody as Wen RuoHan recovered and began to bob his head up and down. The man was a terrifyingly fast learner of Lan QiRen’s sensitive locations, especially as his defences crumbled to pieces under him. Each suck, swipe and lick became pinpoint accurate and rhythmic. Wen RuoHan did nothing to curb Lan QiRen’s wildly bucking hips, restraining his gag reflex as much as he could to allow his lover to enjoy himself. Much to his amusement, he needed to move his head less and less as Lan QiRen became lost in the frenzy of this newfound sensation and began to instinctively thrust into his mouth. However, the upward motions were difficult to maintain for someone so inexperienced, and Lan QiRen could not find the speed or pressure needed to bring himself to climax.  

 

“Haaah… nghh… nn…” The more Lan QiRen searched, the more unbearable the pressure building in his lower abdomen became. His frustrated moans and mews carried through the large room, only to be totally ignored by Wen RuoHan, who was having the time of his life watching the lewd show meant only for his eyes. He was well aware that Lan QiRen desperately needed release, but greedily took in a few more minutes of the scene in front of him before pulling back entirely. Wiping his numb lips, Wen RuoHan debated with himself whether he would be entitled to make Lan QiRen beg for it.  

 

“…..wh-wha…” 

 

Slightly teary-eyed, Lan QiRen could not form the sentences he needed to ask. The glistening pools and fluttering eyelashes, however, were enough to convince his lover that nothing should be denied him. Wen RuoHan gently stroked Lan QiRen’s damp, pink cheek before locking his lips around his throbbing cock once more, this time leaving no room for error or mercy. He jammed the tip of his tongue up against the most sensitive underside of the bell and sucked hard, moving his head to the base and letting Lan QiRen press up to the back of his throat in one swift motion.  

 

“AAHHH-HNNNAAGHH!!” His combined efforts were perfect. Thick, viscous streams of hot liquid flooded the back of Wen RuoHan’s throat as he continued to suck Lan QiRen dry despite the other’s screams. 

 

When Lan QiRen’s cock was released to the air, screams of pleasure turned into soft, rapid panting. As his head cleared, Lan QiRen suddenly realised what had just happened. “…spit it out!” he quickly rushed to sit up but blood rushed to his head and he fell backwards instead.  

 

Wen RuoHan caught him and laughed, “I didn’t know know what to do with it, but in my rush to catch you, I drank it!”  

 

“!!!” 

 

“Don’t worry, it tasted like honey to me.” 

 

The Young Master of the mighty QiShan Wen Sect was never meant to service another man, let alone drink another’s semen. But for a man so hopelessly in love, giving his lover pleasure and taking every part of him became such a natural, beautiful thing. As Lan QiRen watched the powerful man kneel in front of him, a wild, unprecedented thought emerged in his head – he needed to reciprocate.  

 

‘If he can do this much for me, even though I have done nothing but hold him back, I can surely give a little back to him.’  

 

“Wen RuoHan, lie down.” 

 

“I beg your pardon?” Wen RuoHan could hardly believe his ears. 

 

“I said, lie down,” Lan QiRen averted his gaze to find the courage, “I can... do it for you too.” 

 

“You shouldn’t force yourself, I can wait until you are ready.” For his entire life, Wen RuoHan had never truly understood the phrase ‘it’s the thought that counts’. What good could thoughts possibly serve in the absence of action? However, Lan QiRen’s bashful offer alone could send him to Heaven, and he truly did not care for action if Lan QiRen would be uncomfortable.  

 

“I will not offer once we enter the Cloud Recesses,” Lan QiRen sighed at how low he had sunk since leaving home, trying to convince another man to let him lick his private parts, “Take it, or forever hold your peace.” 

 

Wen RuoHan laughed at Lan QiRen’s stubborn side revealing itself. “If you insist, who am I to refuse? Thank you, Lan QiRen.” 

 

“We are past thank you, are we not?” the younger man shook his head lightly and gently pushed Wen RuoHan backwards until his head hit the pillows. He internally grimaced at the promise he had made as he set his eyes on Wen RuoHan’s much more formidable erection, at least one inch longer than his own. As he formed a plan in his head on how to tackle the task ahead, Lan QiRen gave the rod a few light strokes. 

 

Lan QiRen’s feather-light touches on his own cock made Wen RuoHan’s hairs on the back of his neck stand up in anticipation. When soft lips finally encased the tip of his erection, Wen RuoHan arched his neck back as a wave of pleasure washed over him. “Oh my g- ah- AHHH- 

 

“Am I bad at it?” Lan QiRen asked, only to send vibrations down the shaft. 

 

“No- Hnngg... so- so good....” Wen RuoHan gasped between heavy breaths as Lan QiRen started to lick the tip and take him into his mouth, “P-please don’t... stop...” 

 

Happy that Wen RuoHan seemed to be enjoying himself, Lan QiRen attempted to take as much of his length as possible. The deeper he went, the louder the corresponding moans became, and the deeper he was motivated to take in the throbbing length.  

 

Wen RuoHan felt his sanity slip thread by thread as his cock slid deeper and deeper into the heated cavern. No words could describe the sense of elation he felt as he cast a glance down to Lan QiRen, GuSu’s famous ice statue, working so hard to please him. Wen RuoHan would never be able to admit the moment he felt a tiny trickle of warm run down his temples from the corner of his eye, but he would always be sure of one thing – this man was his, and his alone.  When he could no longer control his urge to thrust upwards, Wen RuoHan groaned and pulled himself backwards to avoid hurting his lover. With a wet ‘schlorp’, his dripping, erect member was released from Lan QiRen’s lips.  

 

“Can you... let me do something different?” he asked a bewildered Lan QiRen, wiping a thin line of saliva from the younger man’s chin. Lan QiRen was not sure what Wen RuoHan could possibly want, aside from to come quickly, he could only nod in confusion.  

 

“Different?” Lan QiRen nodded, unsure whether the thin tear streak on Wen RuoHan’s face was due to his own incompetence. “Was I…. bad?” 

 

“Simply the best,” this love reassured him, “But I learned something that would let us become one for real, would you allow me to make you mine?” 

 

Seeing the earnest expression on Wen RuoHan’s face, Lan QiRen could not help but oblige him. “You always ask for permission after it is too late…”  I have been yours, for quite a while now.   

 

Overjoyed, Wen RuoHan wasted no time in digging through his pile of robes discarded to the corner of the oversized bed. One of many small silver canniters of salve he had purchased from Gu YongSi would finally come in handy. As he gently lay Lan QiRen’s head down and reversed their positions, Wen RuoHan nudged his legs apart and kneeled between them, breathing almost as hard and as nervously as the one who would soon receive him.  

 

“Relax, and trust me,” he whispered, coating his member in the splippery concoction.  

 

“Did you learn this from Jin GuangShan?” Lan QiRen asked, suspicious of the happenings inside the Jin ship. He did know what Wen RuoHan was thinking of doing, but shameful spreading of his legs gave him second thoughts about the progression of events.  

 

The mention of Jin GuangShan made Wen RuoHan stop in his tracks. Memories of the snapped squid ring and conversations of blood were still vivid in his memory, and he could not continue while knowing Lan QiRen would be have to endure such pain.  

 

Wen RuoHan paused for a moment before promising, half to himself, “I am better that that guy.” At the very least, he would need to try a smaller object first. He took a deep breath and lubricated his forefinger before pressing it into the crevice between Lan QiRen’s soft, white cheeks.  

 

“Y-you- wait, stop!” Lan QiRen instinctively tightened his entrance at the foreign sensation, “Are you mad?!” 

 

“Yes, yes I am,” Wen RuoHan gently caressed the fleshy mounds with his spare hand and gave then a small pat, “I want you so badly, I can barely contain myself. Relax... please... I promise I will not hurt you.” 

 

Lan QiRen squirmed uncomfortably before letting out a shaky breath and relaxing his lower half. Wen RuoHan’s first digit entered slowly, without much effort. The sensation of being filled in such a place was not pleasurable, but also not unbearable. “Is this... all you wanted to do?” he asked. 

 

Wen RuoHan grimaced at how tight the hot walls felt around his finger. He could not tell Lan QiRen exactly what else he planned to put inside, but was glad at least the entrance could be stretched a little further. As he slowly retracted his finger, he curled his upwards slightly to better assess how much room was available inside. As the pad of his finger grazed a slightly raised spot, Lan QiRen arched his back suddenly and let out a moan so loud, Wen RuoHan thought he had been hurt. 

 

“Are you alright? Should I pull out?” Wen RuoHan was terrified to move in case he hurt his lover again.  

 

Lan QiRen shook his head and blushed three shades of pink. “N- no, I did not hurt... but strange...” 

 

“Does it feel good or bad?” Wen RuoHan asked, puzzled. He attempted to find the same spot again – this time, Lan QiRen’s moan sounded much more pleasurable. 

 

“H-Aahh... w-wait... not so- so many times- Nghhh- AH! I- I can’t- A- AH!”  

 

“Good?” Wen RuoHan’s worried expression melted into a satisfied smile as he continued to gently stroke the magical spot. He added another finger as Lan QiRen loosened, and then yet another when Lan QiRen’s cock started to harden and leak. The lubrication salve contained a weak medicine formulated to dull pain but increase blood flow and enhance pleasure, and with every pass of Wen RuoHan’s skilled fingers over his prostate, Lan QiRen’s moans grew louder and more desperate. He was not aware that one finger had increased to three, nor was he aware that his hips had started to push back into the thrusts.  

 

Wen RuoHan felt his own neglected hardness weep a little. He decided that if he had to wait any longer, he would no longer be able to control himself. Lan QiRen’s small whimper as he withdrew all his fingers made his cock twinge and drip, leaving a glistening trail to the bedsheets.  

 

“I’m putting it in now,” Wen RuoHan’s parched voice came as less of a question, more of a notice. Lan QiRen in his frenzied, desperate state could not care less of what exactly Wen RuoHan wanted to put in. Eyes glazed with lust and totally out of focus, he nodded slightly as he felt a hot rod prod his entrance. 

 

But Wen RuoHan’s cock was much bigger than his fingers, and pain was inevitable.  

 

Lan QiRen tensed all the muscles in his body as his entrance was stretched taut by the formidable girth. “St- STOP!” he begged, “It hurts!” 

 

Wen RuoHan froze at the truly pained, panicked tone of Lan QiRen’s voice. His body desperately wanted to invade the tight cavern currently squeezing and milking the tip of his length, but every slight movement he made (inwards and outwards) only earned more painful, ragged breathing from the man under him. He was well and truly stuck. 

  

“R-relax... Aah- stop- stop tightening- hngg-ah- please... I can’t... control... myself...” Wen RuoHan stammered as his legs shook from trying to stay as still as humanly possible. Sweat dripped down his forehead, and he pleaded with the little sanity he had left to quell his base instinct to push onwards.  

 

Lan QiRen covered his tearful eyes with one hand and begged once more, “P-please... don’t... move....” 

 

“I- I am not such a great man that I can simply stop at this point,” Wen RuoHan laughed dryly, “....hit me as hard as you can.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“Incapacitate me before I do something we both regret!” he implored as a last ditch attempt to control himself, “Or I won’t be able to stop.” 

 

“Do you think I can move in this position?” Lan QiRen winced as he tried to shift the position of his lower back. Any movements caused the searing pain to travel up his spine, all he could do was stay as still as possible and pray that Wen RuoHan would do the same.  

 

Without a second thought, Wen RuoHan gathered spiritual energy in his right hand and struck himself in the chest.  

 

Lan QiRen gasped, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” he reflexively tried to sit up, but was forced back down instead in pain and could only watch helplessly as Wen RuoHan swallowed a mouthful of blood. Lan QiRen could feel the other’s erection subside a little and eased his breathing, “You.... are truly mad.” 

 

Wen RuoHan smiled gently and reached forward to stroke Lan QiRen’s cheek, “I cannot allow anyone to hurt the one I love.” 

 

“You... you are bleeding,” Lan QiRen fought back tears at Wen RuoHan’s passionate confession. 

 

“A small price to pay,” the older man nonchalantly wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, “I am sorry....I will take it out when it subsides.” 

 

“No.” 

 

“No?” 

 

Lan QiRen gripped the sheets until his knuckles turned white. “No. I can bear it. Move.” Wen RuoHan’s love for him had always been so intense, it made Lan QiRen afraid to face it in fear that he could not reciprocate it to the same level. The very least he could offer was his body, to return some pleasure back to the one he loved.  

 

“You won’t regret it?” Wen RuoHan asked in disbelief.  

 

“Never.”  

 

Wen RuoHan snapped his hips forward and plunged himself to the hilt. Lan QiRen’s broken cries grew fainter and further away as his reason was stripped from his being by the pleasure of friction. As he slowly regained some semblance of control, Wen RuoHan angled his hips upwards to try and find Lan QiRen’s sweet spot. 

 

“Slow down- AHH! Wai- not there- AAHH! Hnngg-you- HAH!” Lan QiRen cursed Wen RuoHan’s impeccable memory as the intense pain of being filled to the brim was overtaken by the undeniable pleasure coursing through his veins. The friction given by the tip of Wen RuoHan’s growing erection was much more extreme than what his fingers could offer, and Lan QiRen quickly came to understand how to maintain the all-consuming ecstasy by relaxing his legs and matching their breathing rhythms.  

 

Wen RuoHan grabbed Lan QiRen ankles and pushed his legs upwards, almost folding the delicate man in half as he plunged deeper and deeper. Lan QiRen’s cries had turned completely into moans, echoing off the walls.  

 

“I- I can’t- AHH- HAH- can't take it- AAAAHHH- more-  

 

Since Wen RuoHan started hitting the right place, a burning feeling had started to well up deep inside Lan QiRen’s abdomen. A slower but more intense pressure, similar yet different to the feeling of needing release from his cock, made his whole body desperately need more of anything that could scratch that itch. If need be, he could beg for it. 

 

“More?” Wen RuoHan panted as he felt Lan QiRen tighten himself rhythmically around his cock, “You... are full of surprises.” He pulled out as far as he could, leaving only the engorged tip of his length inside before slamming back in, earning a wanton moan laced with pure, unadulterated lust. 

 

He slammed in harder and harder as the moans turned back into screams. 

 

“I- I can’t- hold- AAHHHH- Can't hold on- 

 

Wen RuoHan felt Lan QiRen’s climax around himself as spurts of white coated their abdomens. The sudden quivering and tightness of the walls coupled with Lan QiRen’s orgasming face brought Wen RuoHan over the edge – he slammed as deep as he could inside his lover before releasing his own seed within and collapsing on top. 

 

As his vision slowly faded back from the blinding white throes of ecstasy, Wen RuoHan caught a glimpse of Lan QiRen’s unconscious face beside him.  

 

“Asleep again?” he chuckled and stole a kiss from cherry lips, “I wish I could steal you away... make you wake up in a place with nobody else but me. Will you marry me, my love?” 

 

Of course, the fast-asleep Lan QiRen was none the wiser to his loving whispers.  

 

As night fell on the city of KaiYang, Wen RuoHan worked hard at cleaning the body of his lover, stealing touches and kisses to reward himself for his labour. He was also none the wiser to the dreams of Lan QiRen – dreams of a red wedding cloak, children, and a lifetime of gentle embraces.  

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The moment Lan QiRen’s eyes opened, he knew his life had twisted wildly out of control. The sun was high in the sky and he could hear the sound of a bustling market in the streets below. He persevered through the dull ache in his low back to gently push open the window of their oversized room and allow the light to tickle his skin, squinting at the brightness of the midday sun. 

 

Although he did not fully regret the previous night’s activities, Lan QiRen had regained enough of his logic to remind himself that no matter what Wen RuoHan promised, their forbidden love stood very little chance against the world. In fact, were it not for their LanLing Jin Sect disguises, Lan QiRen would never have allowed himself to hug Wen RuoHan in public. He turned his head slightly to catch a glimpse of his dishevelled appearance in the large mirror across the room and pulled up his collar to cover the purple mark Wen RuoHan had left on his collarbone. Lan QiRen felt his cheeks burn at the memories. 

 

As if on cue, the subject of his thoughts pushed open the room door carrying a neatly folded stack of golden robes. Wen RuoHan himself was dressed in their simple cotton clothes from days prior. “I… got them washed and dried,” Wen RuoHan stammered slightly, embarrassed yet unable to take his eyes off the beautiful scene in front of him. Sunlight lit up his lover’s flowing hair like a golden halo from behind, his undergarments slipping just far enough down his shoulders for Wen RuoHan to still be able to see the edges of black ink. 

 

Wen RuoHan’s eyes narrowed as his lips upturned into a sly smile. To reward himself for bathing a sleeping Lan QiRen after their first night together, Wen RuoHan had drawn the QiShan sun symbol on the back of his right shoulder where the man himself could not see. It was a small, arguably stupid gesture of possession, but the idea of Lan QiRen belonging to him by stamp stirred a carnal desire so strong that the he almost raped Lan QiRen in his sleep.  

 

Thankfully, Wen RuoHan won his battle with himself, but not before he had his fun drawing other marks on the sleeping man. Wen RuoHan had written his name over Lan QiRen’s heart and a few love poems before he drew a beard on his face just to see what the pretty face’s future might look like. The resulting image immediately inspired him to grab a wet washcloth and wipe his handiwork clean. He could not bring himself to remove the shoulder sun, however, deciding that since Lan QiRen would not be able to see it anyway, he should be allowed to enjoy the mark for a while longer.  

 

“Why are you smiling like that?” Lan QiRen frowned a little, instinctively jumping to the conclusion that Wen RuoHan’s mind had drifted to perversion. He tidied his undergarments and tucked a stray strand of hair behind his ear before turning his back to the window, trying to put on the most serious, scholarly face possible. 

 

To Wen RuoHan, it looked positively adorable.  

 

“Nothing,” Wen RuoHan chuckled, “but promise me one thing… never, EVER, grow a beard.” 

 

“Hah?”  

 

“Never mind, just don’t do it,” Wen RuoHan shook his head, “I went to all the trouble of cleaning you inside and outside last night… care to reward me, Teacher?” He tossed the freshly laundered LanLing robes to the bed and rushed forward to embrace Lan QiRen. Somehow, the younger man smelled like sunshine. 

 

“I am Teacher again, am I?” Lan QiRen complained, “Where was your respect for me yesterday?” 

 

“When we wear the LanLing robes, you are my ShiDi,” Wen RuoHan shamelessly argued, “sometimes ShiDi just needs to obediently let your ShiXiong take care of you.” His wandering hand reached lower and gave Lan QiRen’s bottom a light smack and rub. 

 

“Ah! Hey- Ah-… nnn…. What are you doing in broad daylight?!” Lan QiRen quickly stopped his own involuntary moans and struggled up against Wen RuoHan’s embrace, only to fuel the man’s fire. 

 

“I can’t help it, I want to hear your voice,” Wen RuoHan used his free hand to hold Lan QiRen’s waist still before grinding their hips together.  

 

Lan QiRen’s body responded by enthusiastically seeking more pleasure. His hips bucked forwards into Wen RuoHan’s obvious erection, who took it as permission to reach into Lan QiRen’s undergarment pants and grab his bare buttock. Wandering fingers slipped between soft cheeks and teasingly rubbed Lan QiRen’s puckered entrance, still sensitive from previous use.  

 

“…mnhn.. wait… this is an inn….. Ah-no- 

 

“No this isn’t,” Wen RuoHan whispered in Lan QiRen’s burning, blushing ear, “trust me, we look perfectly in place here… and yours seems to be enjoying this too.” 

 

Lan QiRen struggled to comprehend why on earth a pair of men embracing in the middle of the day without closing the door would be normal. The delicious friction between their groins made it difficult to think. Just as all his blood flowed South, he opened his eyes to look past Wen RuoHan’s shoulder at the door one last time – only to see a flabbergasted young man standing in their doorway. 

 

“La- Lan- LAN QIREN?!”  

 

 

Lan QiRen felt his knees buckle. Alas, his worst nightmare had come true. The man wore the uniform of a cultivation sect close to GuSu, and Lan QiRen knew the man’s reputation was far from good. More than once did this junior cultivator incite quarrels between smaller sects that the Gusu Lan Sect had to mediate – on every level, this individual was the worst possible witness to their forbidden love. 

 

Wen RuoHan turned to face the intruder with pure murder in his eyes that Lan QiRen could not see. The man turned to flee, and without thinking, Lan QiRen instructed, “Do not let him get away!”  

 

Wen RuoHan followed hot on the young man’s trails and the pair both disappeared from view. Lan QiRen threw on his LanLing Jin Sect robes and quickly followed the sounds of chaos through the ‘inn’ and streets, cursing under his breath that their swords were back in GuSu. Thankfully, the witness’ cultivation was not quite strong enough to get on his sword while his breathing was ragged from running, and even with his large head start, Wen RuoHan’s speed soon started shortening the distance between them.  

 

Lan QiRen’s own running was slowed due to the previous night’s activities and the bags he carried, but he maintained a pace enough to see Wen RuoHan catch up to the man at the abandoned riverside just outside of KaiYang township. The fight did not last long. With one landed strike to his torso, the man crumpled to the riverbed and stopped moving. 

 

“Wen RuoHan!” Lan QiRen dropped to his knees and felt for the man’s breathing only to find none, “What are you doing?!”  

 

“Making sure he doesn’t get away,” Wen RuoHan wiped his brow nonchalantly with his right hand still emanating a spiritual power so strong, Lan QiRen could see the purple manifestations.  

 

Lan QiRen ignored Wen RuoHan’s cold remark and continued to search for signs of life in the man. When he ran his spiritual energy through the man’s veins, Lan QiRen’s own blood ran cold. Not only was Wen RuoHan’s victim well and truly dead, all signs of his golden core had simply melted away. 

 

“…..what have you done?” he collapsed next to the dead man, “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?!” 

 

“You told me not to let him get away,” Wen RuoHan shrugged, “so I thought I would test my new technique I have been working on. It’s a quick death designed to shatter the golden core… even if I throw him into the river and someone finds him, nobody will ever be able to know that he was a cultivator.” 

 

“Do you really think we can just get away with this?!” Lan QiRen felt like he could vomit. Wen RuoHan’s indifference to the human life he just took was almost as overwhelming as the crushing guilt of having incited this himself. A feeling of horror wrapped a tightening noose around his neck – both he and Wen RuoHan knew in their gut that nobody should know of their relationship, the difference was that Wen RuoHan could finish was he started and was prepared to fight for it. Lan QiRen was no stranger to fighting between clans and definitely no stranger to the concept of death… but seeing such an overt murder up close for his own cause made him want to turn back time.  

 

“….Promise me something, Wen RuoHan,” he whispered. 

 

“Promise you what?” 

 

“Just promise!” Lan QiRen’s voice was so shaky, he hardly recognised it himself. 

 

Wen RuoHan sighed, “Alright. I promise.” 

 

“Never do this again.” 

 

The older man paused for a moment, studying Lan QiRen’s shaking shoulders. He did not understand why Lan QiRen seemed so upset at the removal of an obstacle he clearly wanted gone, but anything that upset Lan QiRen he would cast away with no doubt. “I promise,” he sighed once more, “but what’s done is done. If you don’t want to see the rest, please close your eyes.” 

 

Wen RuoHan saw Lan QiRen’s eyes stay unflinchingly open. He sighed a third time, “Do as you please.” 

 

Lan QiRen kept his eyes open long enough to watch Wen RuoHan deftly remove identifying objects from his victim and reduce them to cinders in his hands. However, when Wen RuoHan lifted the lifeless body up by the head and brought it down hard on a nearby rock, Lan QiRen could no uphold his resolve. In darkness he sat, through the wet thud, dull crack, sound of body hitting the flowing water, ruffling of clothes, until Wen RuoHan’s hand patted him on the shoulder. 

 

“It was for the best,” Wen RuoHan was back LanLing robes after his perfect crime, “you and I both know that even if we caught him alive, there would be no way we could convince him to keep quiet. If he so much as told a soul, I would be kicked out of the Cloud Recesses and we would never be allowed to see each other again.” 

 

“Please… just let me be alone for a while…” Lan QiRen could not bring himself to totally disagree with Wen RuoHan’s logic but could also bring himself to agree. In the face of overwhelming possibility of being separated from his lover, Lan QiRen could not confidently say he would not resort to violence as well. The Lan rules seemed like a cruel, cruel irony.  

 

“My promises hold true, Lan QiRen,” Wen RuoHan put his listless lover’s head on his own shoulders to support him, “I will take responsibility for us with all rites and ceremony. Don’t think about this anymore, this is just an unfortunately accident.” 

 

Unable to face the gravity of his decisions, Lan QiRen could only nod. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 10-day walk back to GuSu from KaiYang was, predictably, a sombre affair.  

 

As the pair stood, back in their respective sect uniforms at the base of the Cloud Recesses mountain, Lan QiRen looked up at the stone stairs with a complex expression as he held his forehead ribbon in his hands. “When we walk into the gates… we….” 

 

“If you dare say that it is over between us, I will never allow you go up these stairs!” Wen RuoHan grabbed Lan QiRen’s hand so hard, Lan QiRen flinched at the pain. 

 

“I did not mean that,” he winced and pulled his hand away, “When we walk into the Cloud Recesses, me must return to a teacher and student relationship on the outside. Until we find a way for our families to accept us, nobody must find out. And even if someone does find out, you are forbidden to harm anyone. If you cannot promise me, I will immediately have you sent back to QiShan.” 

 

“I promise,” Wen RuoHan took Lan QiRen’s ribbon and deftly tied it around the younger man’s forehead, “I promise you the world, and anything you could wish for.” 

 

 

 

Wen ZhuLiu’s surprise at Wen RuoHan’s return was quickly overshadowed by his surprise at Wen RuoHan’s newfound love for his teacher, Wen RuoHan’s bite scar on his thigh, and Wen RuoHan’s sudden order for him to return to QiShan armed with a handful of envelopes and sachets.  

 

“If you do not mind me asking, Young Master, what happened at that village?” Wen ZhuLiu gripped his sword tightly and tried to stay calm in the face of Wen RuoHan’s outrageous plan. In little under a month at one lone village in QingHe, his place in his Master’s heart had been totally replaced by a stoic scholar whose main hobby seemed to be adding rules to the stone wall.  

 

“The process is not important,” Wen RuoHan patted his attendant on the back, “Your job is to carry out my plan. In any case, I shall marry Lan QiRen.”  

 

 

 

20 days after handing the first letter from Wen RuoHan to the QiShan Wen Sect Leader, Wen ZhuLiu welcomed the Young Master back home to the Nightless City. Instead of happiness, he could only feel impending dread at the rapidly unfolding plan.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

20 days later,  QiShan, Nightless City   

 

 

 

Young Master,  what do you plan to do should  this … proposal   not work?” Wen ZhuLiu  asked quietly He was not normally the one to speak before spoken to, but today  Wen RuoHan’s footsteps sounded less confident than usual , echoing through the  wide, cold corridors of the Nightless City  as he followed half a step behind.   

 

The  heir to the  QiShan Wen Sect stopped in his tracks and nearly caused Wen ZhuLiu to  collide with his broad shoulders . Wen RuoHan  stood in contemplation  for  a full minute , back to him . Just as Wen ZhuLiu was about to open his mouth  for a second time, Wen RuoHan raised his fingers and clicked  sharply. A ball of  purple  flames  swirled at his fingertips effortlessly, but any cultivator would know that such a controlled manifestation of spiritual energy was unattainable to most, even with a lifetime of training. Wen ZhuLiu admired Wen RuoHan’s display  gather  moths , he himself  almost drawn to the flames in  the same manner.  

 

Suddenly, Wen RuoHan  flicked his finger  towards the largest fluttering moth  and turned his head back to look at his assistant.  The smell of  death  emanated from  the ball of smoke behind  Wen RuoHan  and  almost seemed to radiate from him , from Wen ZhuLiu point of view.  

 

“ZhuLiu ,   I am not beyond reason ,” he  smiled kindly  as falling ashes  and fleeing critters  scattered, “ but I promised him I would be back for him, and  so I shall.”  

 

The younger man had no  doubt that the Young Master would keep to his word, but  even he  who carried out the first part of the plan had to wonder – how serious  was Wen RuoHan about Lan QiRen?   

 

After the pair returned to the Cloud Recesses from Han Village,  Wen RuoHan immediately penned a simple letter   to his father, the Wen Sect Leader , to be delivered by Wen ZhuLiu. He had instructed Wen ZhuLiu to stay at the Nightless City and await his reply .   The younger man  was given two  silk sachets of white and black , with instructions  to open the one Wen RuoHan replied with and to burn the contents of the other .  

 

The Wen Sect Leader  sent his own assistant back to the Cloud Recesses with a reply, and ten days from  delivering Wen RuoHan’s letter to the Sect Leader, Wen  ZhuLiu received his coded  response . Upon deciphering Wen  Ruo Han’s message, be burnt the black sachet immediately and opened the white.   

 

The contents  were, in one word,  horrifying .  

 

Wen ZhuLiu  tried to put the past behind him and  catch up to Wen RuoHan’s footsteps.  The past is past,  and all he could do  was obey the man who saved his life .  

 

Wen RuoHan  paused for one more minute at his father’s door.  He thought back to Lan QiRen’s trusting, sad and adorable face  two days ago when he had broken the news to him that his father was gravely ill.  

 

 

 

 

I wish him well,” Lan QiRen earnestly held Wen RuoHan’s hand and stroked it , “If there is anything, anything I can do… I can go to the medical supply room and look for ancient remedies to whatever ails him! Come with me!” he pulled  Wen RuoHan to the direction of the door.  

 

Swiftly, Wen RuoHan pulled his secret lover into a tight bear hug , burying his face in Lan QiRen’s fragrant hai r. He took a deep  breath and  felt Lan QiRen shake as much as he did at the rare bout of physical contact. The pair had  planned to keep their relationship  as secret as  possible before working through how to become accepted by their respective families, but  the 20 days after stepping back through the gates of the Cloud Recesses had been torture, to say the least.  

 

“W-What if someone were to see?” Lan QiRen whispered, but made no effort to remove himself from the embrace. Wen RuoHan ’s scent was like the flaming sun giving him life.   

 

“No matter,” Wen RuoHan  held him even tighter, “No matter how long it takes, I swear on every life in QiShan that I will be back for you with a red sedan chair , carried by eight men, to take you back to the Nightless City , a nd have you  accepted  in the Wen Clan ancestral hall .”  

 

Lan QiRen chuckled to hide his embarrassment. “ Student taking his Teacher as a bride?”  How bold  this is very much your style, is it not?”  

 

You did this to yourself,” Wen RuoHan’s  serious tone softened  at Lan QiRen’s rare jest, “ You want a Sect Leader out of me? You’ll have to marry yourself into my house for the sake of the people of QiShan .”  

 

I did not refuse, did I?”   

 

Wen RuoHan pulled them apart slightly   and rested his forehead on the younger man’s . The pink tint on Lan QiRen’s  face  drove his heart into overtime , he could not help but place a light kiss on his nose and  continue to tease. “Just for the people of QiShan? Not for yourself ?”  

 

Lan QiRen coughed awkwardly and struggled against Wen RuoHan’s iron grip . Unable to escape, he rolled his eyes, “This is all the sweet talk you are getting out of me , I am being kind because your father is ill !”  

 

Pity me , Teacher,” Wen RuoHan sniffled  and let out a fake sob, “ Please?”  

 

Just… leave,” Lan QiRen  rolled his eyes so hard he almost saw his brain, “but don’t you dare  leave me here by myself .”  

 

Wen RuoHan picked up a brush  from Lan QiRen’s desk and drew a QiShan sun  onto the back of his hand before kissing his knuckles. Half-laughing, he  said,  “I  told you , I would kill every man, woman and child in this world before I abandoned you.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dismissing his pre-placed guards and emptying the  whole win g of the main building , the Young Master of the QiShan Wen Sect steeled his resolve and pushed open the door to his father’s bedroom without knocking.   

 

‘It is time to uphold my end of the bargain .’    

 

 

“You have come.”  

 

The Wen Sect Leader rested feebly on his bed , using what seemed like  an enormous amount of energy to turn his head to look at his only son A mysterious illness  had  all but sucked his body dry his large frame  grossly  disproportionate to how frail he looked.  

 

The Sect is in chaos, of course I must return,” Wen RuoHan  sighed. His father looked to be in worse shape than he expected , which would be troubling for his intentions.   

   

Ghostly white lips parted into a silent laugh,  “ ….how  rare to see you interested in Clan matters, Han-er.”  

 

Wen RuoHan frowned a little at his  childhood name. Perhaps his father had gone soft ?  

 

I was taught well by my Teacher,” he replied stiffly, “If you would only accept  him as your son-in-law, we would both be much happier.”  

 

“Must you ask again?” the  middle-aged man suddenly looked twenty years older at the mention of Lan QiRen, “ I meant every word of my  letter. No Wen man shall be permitted to marry another man !”   

 

Wen RuoHan  laughed through his nose. He  walked slowly up to his father’s bed and sat  by his side, gently taking a frail  hand into his own.  

 

“Father, I am not asking for anything,”  he patted  the hand that had held him when he learned to walk, “I am simply stating a fact.  I am well aware of what your letter contained.  Over your dead body, right?”  

 

“Hah, your old man isn’t dying just yet,”  Sect Leader Wen  coughed  dryly.  

 

“Oh, that is  definitely   not  for  you to decide,  how wise you are…  his son  laughed, out loud this time He  placed a hand on his father’s forehead  and let out some spiritual energy from his palm.  His other hand held a red scroll.  I have a  Sect Leader’s decree, which only needs the Sect Leader’s signature… you could sign it, or I could sign it. Which one of us do you think should, Father?”  

 

Very quickly, the warm feeling  on his h and    turned to  suffering , and the  feeble man groaned in pain. Even though ill, his comprehension  skills had not lessened. Wen RuoHan’s threat  was unexpected,  but as Sect Leader, he was more than ready to handle a threat or two while he was ill.   

 

“Boy, you dare threaten me?” he mustered up some strength to  shake off Wen RuoHan’s hand, “You are too green , I still have  my cultivation , your threats are empty.”  

 

You are right,” Wen RuoHan shrugged, “ I am not interested in killing you for power. I just want to marry the man of my dreams .”  

 

“Never!”  the elder Wen  tried to  bring forth spiritual power, only to find  his sources  ebbing dry . The realization that he had been  poisoned  by We n  RuoHan  brought forth only a mouthful of blood.  “…you….. unfilial…….  Son of a bitch….  

 

Sign the paper, old man,” Wen RuoHan  carefully wiped some splattered blood off his own hand, “this is taking too long.”  

 

Kill me and sign it yourself!”  his father spat  more blood on him  in di sgust and despair.  

 

The young man raised his bloodied fist  as if to  strike but  lowered it  after much thought. Wen ZhuLiu let out a small sigh of relief as he stood guard in the corner of the room , pleased that his Young Master had not lost  all  rationale The plot to poison the Sect Leader was so meticulously thought out, so  mercilessly planned, Wen ZhuLiu  was only half sure when Wen RuoHan told him the goal was only to  urge  his father to sign a decree  (as ill people are more likely to consider the greater good ) . As he watched their conversation escalate to forced abdication, Wen ZhuLiu was not sure what he would do if his Young Master  were to decide to murder his own father in cold blood.  

 

I told you, I am not interested in killing you for power,” Wen RuoHan  sighed, turning to leave, “but I will have to acquire it one way or another. You have made your choice, Father,  I may visit you from time to time after this is over.”  

 

As  Wen RuoHan turned his back , a  movement in his peripheral vision  towards  him  made him whip his head around.  Too threatened to process  the scene, he unleashed a torrent  of  spiritual energy at the offender  at full force. B y the time  Wen RuoHan’s breathing settled,  he was only holding one half of the scroll in his hand. T he headless body of his father  lay crumpled in his bed holding the other half .  His unrecognisable skull lay five feet away, split into three pieces.   

 

“Young Master!”   Wen ZhuLiu fought back the urge to vomit .  

 

Wen RuoHan calmly wiped the back of his hand across his cheek,  smudging the red out into a much larger streak.  He collapsed onto the floor, weak at the knees.  

 

“You Master…” Wen ZhuLiu could only kneel where he stood.  There was no going back from this  mistake .  

 

Master and attendant breathed shallow gulps of air , trying to avoid the overwhelming smell of fresh meat that permeated the air.   

 

Wen RuoHan  lay on his side , shivering, but eyes dry.  Do you think…. He wanted to…. sign the paper?  

 

Hands shaking, Wen ZhuLiu reached into his robed and pulled out a red silk sachet. Wen RuoHan had only give n  it to him this morning, ordering him to only open it should  h e commit a great error.  

 

  “Do you regret this, Young Master?”  

 

Wen RuoHan silently settled himself on the cold, tiled floor and closed his eyes.  Implement the plan.  Call me Sect Leader, starting from when I wake up,” he   murmured in exhaustion, “ My dear  ZhuLiu,  I have no time for regrets … He is still waiting for me in GuSu.  

 

 

 

 

 

5 days later, GuSu, Cloud Recesses  

 

 

In GuSu,  Lan QiRen  silently counted the 34 th  maple leaf to fall from the old tree outside his bedroom  for the day.   

 

Wen RuoHan left the Cloud Recesses  five days ago, having sworn to return with a bridal party, red sedan chair and all – meanwhile, Lan QiRen had  yet to plan how he would break the news to his brother. He had no doubt in mind that Wen RuoHan meant every word  of his promise … The  large, lovable fool would seriously arrive,  undeclared, any day now with a pile of betrothal gifts. QingHeng-Jun was a mild-mannered man , but even Lan QiRen did not have confidence that he could convince the Lan Sect Leader  should things spiral out of control.  

 

He wrung his pale hands until his knuckles turned  ghost white, pacing back and forth  along the wooden floorboard of the outer corridor like an animal trapped in a long cage .  

 

Wen RuoHan… have you ever considered the consequences of our  affairs? Even if your father were to agree , on what do you base your confidence that I would be able to convince my own Clan?’  

 

“QiRen, what are you pondering?”   

 

Lan QiRen nearly jumped out of his skin at his brother’s voice, a mere two feet away from where he stood .  

 

“G-good day, Brother,” he managed to stutter, shocked that he failed to sense  another person’s presence until they were right in front of him.  

 

QingHeng-Jun’s typically placid face was marred with worry . “Calm your mind and follow me,” he sighed, “you must be in top mental condition  for what is about to happen nex t.”  

 

 

 

In the top floor of a pagoda in the Cloud Recesses, a secret meeting that would seal the fates of all in attendance  took place that day.  

 

Lan QiRen sombrely watched as the guests  filed in and took their seats .  He expected the leaders of the four big Sects to  be in attendance but did not expect to see an annoyed Jin GuangShan be dragged in be his father.   

 

Jiang FengMian ,  the young YunMeng Jiang Sect leader  ( recently  married to the  awe-inspiring Yu ZiYuan of the MeiShan Yu Sect ) congratulated the QingHe Nie Sect leader  of the birth of his second son.  QingHeng-Jun  congratulated  Jiang FengMian on the birth of his first daughter , while Jin GuangShan sat by his father and pulled a face, vowing never to become a  ‘silly doting daddy’.  

 

“One of those children may become your future son or daughter-in-law,” Sect Leader Jin chastised his son, “watch  your conduct, you rascal.”  

 

Jin GuangShan rolled his eyes, “Whatever you say, old man .  What is it about this stupid meeting that you couldn’t tell me about before we got stuffed up in this cramped pagoda?”  

 

Sect Leader Nie cleared his throat and respectfully nodded at QingHeng-Jun . Everyone took their cues and seated themselves, while Lan QiRen and Jin GuangShan both pondered why they had been invited to a Sect Leader meeting.  

 

“Since everyone is here, let me cut to the chase,”  Sect Leader Nie began, with no formalities, “ Everyone seated should know already, that the leader of the QiShan Wen Sect passed away after a sudden illness two days ago -  

 

“No, but thank you for the update, Sir,” Jin GuangShan  interrupted, earning him a slap on the back of his head by his father.  

 

Sect Leader Nie was a fortress of a man who looked even more dominating when visibly annoyed. The Nie Clan are not known for their good tempers or  diplomacy – Jin GuangShan’s obvious intent to rile up the caller of this meeting had gained its intended effect.  

 

QingHeng-Jun hurried to diffuse the tense atmosphere by continuing the statement. “This was top secret , Young Master Jin would not have known… neither did my brother.” He turned to a shocked Lan QiRen  and said calmly, “One day after Wen RuoHan returned to the Nightless City, the  Wen Sect leader passed away.”  

 

“Indeed, the coincidence is unsettling,” Sect Leader Nie continued,  information is on lockdown in QiShan,  our sources are few The only thing that we can be certain of is that Wen RuoHan is now de facto leader of the QiShan Wen Sect   and will be made official leader in three days.  

 

Senior Nie,” Jiang FengMian respectfully addressed the  older man, “are you perhaps insinuating that there has been a coup?”  

 

“There is no evidence for or against this suspicion,”  QingHeng-Jun added, “we are simply gathering all available sources to judge this situation .”  

 

“The fact that you have gathered me and the little scholar here must mean that there is really nothing to go on,” Jin GuangShan  read the room accurately, “you want a judge of character?”  

 

“Indeed,” QingHeng-Jun nodded, “Let us speak in turns.  I have no personal interaction or connection to Wen RuoHan, besides welcoming him into the Cloud Recesses one month ago . I reserve my opinions as I have no basis for or against his ascent to leadership . Sect Leader Jiang, what about yourself?”  

 

Jiang FengMian  thought for a moment before answering, “Wen RuoHan and I are close in age, but  we have only ever met in  night hunts. He is a powerful cultivator, but I also have no basis on which to judge his character.  I wish to remain neutral on this subject.”  

 

“My son may speak on my behalf as an  acquaintance  of Wen RuoHan’s,” Sect Leader Jin  shook his head, “I have no information to provide on this, either.”  

 

Jin GuangShan impatiently waved his fan before closing it and setting it down. “ Look, Wen RuoHan is not easy to figure out.  He and I are wine and dine acquaintances,  I hardly know who he is apart from his face and his name. When we go to brothel- I mean,  uh, night hunts, he is a careful person.  I have never seen him do anything that can be considered  terrible, and he did save my life once, but then again, I had to repay him….”  

 

“I think the kid did something behind closed doors,” Sect Leader Nie  laid his cards on the table, “The more airtight  and carefully crafted  this story is, the more suspicious I am.”  

 

“QiRen, it is your turn,” QingHeng-Jun directed all attention to his Lan QiRen, “ Everyone, my brother may hold the most information out of all of us. He and Wen RuoHan were teacher and student for  one whole month.”  

 

One month, was that enough time to know a person? Lan QiRen gripped the fabric on his knees  and calmed his racing heart.  Accusations of  patricide and usurpation were serious crimes , crimes he did not believe in his heart that Wen RuoHan could commit. His memories with Wen RuoHan had been the happiest days of his life  – a man determined to cook for him, make him medicine, raise a child with him, lay his life down for him,  commit  his life to a job he hated… such a man could not possibly be evil. Not to mention the pleasure… oh the pleasure.  Lan QiRen  purposefully put the ‘unfortunate accident’ beside the Yi River to the back of his mind. After all, Wen RuoHan had promised to never do that again.   

 

“I believe he is a  respectable  person ,”  Lan QiRen  said calmly, looking across the small room and meeting every man’s gaze without backing down. “I will be  blunt – I do not see the possibility of Wen RuoHan usurping power.  One of my first lessons to him was regarding accepting the power he would inevitably inherit, and he did not want it  to say the least .  He had no real interest in any Sect matters and was motivated only by his personal cultivation. Whether or not such a person can make an effective Sect Leader remains to be seen, but he is a caring individual  who  has an untapped  acumen .  

 

That is a fine defence of a man you have only known for one month,” Sect Leader Nie looked only half-convinced .  

 

“I have merely spoken  based on evidence,” Lan QiRen’s soft-spoken demeanour  disappeared as he rose to his feet, “ Young Master Jin has confirmed that Wen RuoHan is careful  and able to lend a helping hand, while I have personal experience of his kindness and lack of motivation . Whether or not Sect Leaders doubt Wen RuoHan is beyond our control.  

 

“Then why not give the young man a chance to prove himself?” Sect Leader Jin  suggested, “Sect Leader Nie, you seem to have nothing but intuition for your suspicions, and we cannot raise a flag against  someone with no hard evidence. Even if Wen RuoHan turns out to be a n unsavoury individual, as long as we stand united, there is nothing he can do  against all of us.”  

 

A tense few moments passed .  

 

Lan QiRen’s tightly wound heartstrings finally loosened as Sect Leader Nie sighed  and conceded to Sect Leader Jin’s suggestion.  In a tiny, hidden corner of his heart’s desires, Lan QiRen imagined himself one step closer to Wen RuoHan after having helped him on this day. Wen RuoHan’s promise had taken root in  his  mind,  morphing  into a joyful dream before he  could question it    the image of himself  standing beside Wen RuoHan at the Nightless City, watching over the people of QiShan, hand in hand.   

 

Qing H eng-Jun noticed a skip in his brother’s step  as they walked back to the inner buildings of the Cloud Recesses . He smiled  as they parted ways , happy that a teacher had defended his favourite student  

 

Little did he know that  the young  man  clad in flowing  white and blue  was dreaming about the day he could retire his  snowy ensemble  for  passionate, fiery  red …. then  board a red sedan chair to QiShan  with his fated one.  

 

 

Later that day,  Lan QiRen counted the 56 th  red maple leaf to fall from the old tree.  How many  more  would need to fall  before  the kind  Sect Leader Wen would come for him?  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

3 months later, GuSu, Cloud Recesses  

 

 

Days turned into  months, and the old maple tree lost all its leaves.   

 

News of Wen RuoHan’s ascension as Sect Leader spread far and wide , but due to the coinciding funeral for his late Father , the was little ceremony for his appointment.  With so little information,  Lan QiRen was at a loss .  

 

“Brother, your  calligraphy is showing signs of anxiety,” QingHeng-Jun  gently picked up Lan QiRen’s  new work off the table and held it to the light ,  “I believe that your student will be fine.”  

 

The young man studied his own work intently  before prying the thin sheet from his brother’s fingers. He held it over the  glowing embers of the bronze charcoal pan and watched  the murky ink dry.  A corner of the paper started to smoke as Lan QiRen’s mind wandered to Wen RuoHan . The flame crept up, threatening to burn his hand.   

 

“Let go.”  

 

“I can’t,” Lan QiRen whispered to himself.  

 

“Let go!” QingHeng-Jun  tore the flaming paper from Lan QiRen’s hand just seconds before the fire licked his finge r s , “Brother,  what is  really  troubling you? There is no need to be so anxious about Wen RuoHan  that you would resort to bribery and lose your focus.”  QingHeng-Jun’s tone was serious with worry, not blame.   

 

But sometimes, people hear what they want to hear. Lan QiRen felt accused.  

 

“I can let go  when I want to,” he said, much to the older man’s confusion.  But he promised he would be back.’  

 

I do not believe we are talking about the same thing,” QingHeng-Jun sighed, “Never mind. But, QiRen,  the gifts you sent to the other Sects created some unnecessary waves of gossip.  

 

“I believe it is within my  rights to send congratulatory gifts to Sect Leader Nie and Sect Leader Jiang for the birth of their children,” Lan QiRen  replied curtly, “those calligraphy brushes were my private property.”  Shortly after the pagoda meeting, he arranged for the ivory brush to  be sent to YunMeng, the green jade brush to QingHe, the white jade brush to LanLing and the gold brush to  YueYang   [5] He kept the red brush for himself,  under his pillow.   

 

What about to  the Jin Sect ?”   

 

Young Master Jin GuangShan was of help to me on the way back from QingHe .”  

 

“And the  YueYang  Chang Sect? You have never even met  anyone from that Clan before,” QingHeng-Jun pressed  on.  

 

Cornered, Lan QiRen wracked his brain for an acceptable answer. The undeniable truth was that  he wanted to do anything he could to help Wen RuoHan in his new role, and the  YueYang  Chang Sect was the closest  major cultivation sect  neighbouring   QiShan.  While  his intention was not outright bribery,  he did  include a small note to encourage the neighbours to help each other in times of need.   

 

QingHeng-Jun’s mind was sharply tuned to the  unnatural actions of his younger brother .  Seeing Lan QiRen’s troubled face  like a child caught stealing candy, he frowned slightly then laughed. “QiRen, if you want to be his friend,  why do you not just accompany me at the next discussion meeting?”  

 

“…friend?” Lan QiRen ’s voice wavered with surprise.    

 

Is it not because you want  him  to be looked after by the other sects that you sent those gifts?” QingHeng-Jun smiled and  reached out his large hand to pat Lan QiRen’s shoulder, “You needn’t be so shy , you are an accomplished young man and I am sure that Sect Leader Wen would be delighted to have his Teacher as a friend !   You do not have many friends, so we must not waste this chance!  In fact, why don’t we go to the vault together and find a present we can give to him?  I will take you to QiShan  myself and arrange a meeting !”    

 

“Wait, wait,” Lan QiRen’s face burned as he imagined his brother taking him to QiShan to see Wen RuoHan with a- a-  DOWRY “Brother, you must not take me there with a gift!”  

 

“Why?” QingHeng-Jun blinked innocently, “Do you not want to become closer to him? Have I misread your intentions?”  

 

Totally defeated yet unable to convey his true intentions nor disclose the true nature of his relationship with Wen RuoHan, Lan QiRen could only shake his head then nod then shake his head again.  

 

Thoroughly confused, the elder Lan rubbed his temples. “ You  young ones sure are complicated,” he smiled wryly, “ I cannot imagine how awkward you will be when you find your fated one, if this is how you  try to make a friend.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The  Heavens  would answer Lan QiRen’s  hopes to see his lover that night.  As the Second Young Master of GuSu Lan Sect  prepared for bed mere minutes before 9pm , a small sheet of folded paper flew onto his bed from the cracks in his window. The content s would make his heart skip three beats.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dark, moonless night contrasted violently with Lan QiRen’s  giddy heart as he tip-toed through the Cloud Recess es. Wen RuoHan’s secret message to meet at this ungodly hour could not mean anything  good, but it would be the first time the pair had seen each other since Wen RuoHan’s hasty departure from these grounds two months ago  

 

On that thought, Lan QiRen’s footsteps halted.  

 

‘Am I to call him…. Sect Leader Wen ?’   

 

The image of Wen RuoHan dressed in lavish QiShan Wen Sect Leader robes flashed in his mind . Thankful that the moonless night shielded his pink cheeks from the heavens, Lan QiRen  continued on  his way to th e inconspicuous side entrance Wen RuoHan had requested they meet at.  

 

Lan QiRen drew in a deep breath and knocked once on the door.  

 

A faint knock from the other side answered immediately.  

 

Resisting the urge to open the doors immediately, Lan QiRen continued their code. He knocked 24 times, the number of strokes in his name. The person on the other side replied with  an agonisingly slow 32.  

 

温若寒 …  Lan QiRen silently counted each stroke like he had counted the falling leaves. At the last knock, he flung open the doors to his home, and was immediately  snatched into a searing embrace.  He did not need to see that it was Wen RuoHan… every fibre in Lan QiRen’s being knew it.  

 

Wen RuoHan  pulled Lan QiRen to the side, out of the doorway , before roughly pulling up his head to lock their lips.  If there had been any doubt as to who the man on the other side of the door was,  the taste of Wen RuoHan on his tongue removed it all. Lan QiRen  tipped his toes and stood taller to meet the kiss and wantonly opened his lips to  allow Wen RuoHan deeper access. Despite his best efforts to draw in deeper breaths to fill his lungs with Wen RuoHan’s scent, every breath he drew was  taken  by an ever-hungry intruder  who plundered his mouth without mercy.   Wen RuoHan’s tongue and teeth left scorch marks upon scorch marks where they  went, stealing, possessing every inch of him.   

 

Finally , the feeling of being held up by his neck overpowered the  magic of the kiss (Lan QiRen’s legs had given up quite a while ago)  and Lan QiRen pulled back to breath. As he drew some ragged breaths, he could finally feel more than just his  mouth. On his cheeks  lay a few drops of  warm water, which had dripped down to his jaw. Lan QiRen felt his own eyes to check for tears, but they were dry.  

 

“You… are crying?” he whispered incredulously at the shadow in front of him.  

 

“We do not have much time,” Wen RuoHan  whispered back, “we must leave, immediately.”  

 

The night’s first slivers of moonlight filtered through the dark cloud just enough to illuminate Lan QiRen’s  confused expression and the glistening streaks down Wen RuoHan’s handsome features.  

 

“Leave? For what reason?”  

 

A thousand reasons ran through Lan QiRen’s head. Had the Wen Clan  overthrown Wen RuoHan? Were there assassins coming after him? Has Wen ZhuLiu already been killed? Is Wen RuoHan injured?  

 

However, the reason Wen RuoHan spluttered out could not have been further from the truth.  

 

“I… have been forced into a marriage. The invitations will arrive to major Sects tomorrow morning. We have to leave, now.”  Wen RuoHan’s face was twisted in anguish, the bags under his watery eyes  heavy, forced awake with harsh medicines.   

 

Lan QiRen dumbly stared at the taller man and blinked twice.  There was simply no possibility that a man as stubborn as Wen RuoHan would let anyone force him into ANYTHING, let alone marriage.  “I beg… your pardon?”  he  barely managed to force out his words of disbelief.  

 

Wen RuoHan showed no sign of his usual confidence and  splendour. “I… I miscalculated,” he rested his head int the crook of Lan QiRen’s shoulder , voice  hateful . “I thought I had enough support in the Clan to do whatever I wanted… but when I was sworn in as Sect Leader, those bastards all turned against me.  My father had no other children, and neither his father… suddenly my  first priority  was to get married and have children. I fought them, I really did. But I couldn’t win. I tried very hard…  I was just short of starving myself or threatening suicide. But Lan QiRen, what is the point if I die? What is the point of anything if I can’t be with you?  I…. I….”  

 

“You… want to elope?” Lan QiRen  desperately wanted Wen RuoHan to say he was joking. “What are your plans?”  

 

“Plans?” Wen RuoHan laughed bitterly, “ The best laid plans of mice and men…  haha … plans…. Fuck it. Fuck the plans. I don’t need them, I just need you.” Suddenly, Wen RuoHan raised his head and caught Lan QiRen by his shoulders.  He leaned in so close that Lan QiRen could see his own horrified expression reflected his Wen RuoHan’s  tear s.  “Lan QiRen, will you take my hand and follow me away from this madness, casting aside your Lan name, never to return?”  

 

“Are you insane?” Lan QiRen  struggled against Wen RuoHan’s vice-like grip, “If you disappear without so much of a plan, what do you think will happen to QiShan? The Wen Sect will descend into chaos and internal warfare. Wen ZhuLiu will be tortured to find your whereabouts.  Your plate in the ancestral hall will be burnt!”  

 

“So what?!” Wen RuoHan spat, “Why should I care about any of them?!”  

 

“If you don’t care, I’ll care on your behalf!” Lan QiRen  raised his voice to a harsh whisper, “ You are being disgraceful as the Sect Leader of QiShan Wen Sect! Think about what your  legacy will be! Think about what they will say about us!”  

 

“And your brilliant suggestion is that I should marry someone else? Is that your grand plan, Teacher?”  Wen RuoHan dug his fingers into Lan QiRen’s shoulders.   

 

Crack.   

 

Lan QiRen winced at the pain coursing through his chest. Was it his shoulder dislocating?  Was it his heart breaking? He would never quite be sure what that sound was.  

 

Lan QiRen, I became Sect Leader for the sole purpose of giving you all rites and ceremonies . For what purpose do I continue this farce if you care nought  about our future?” Wen RuoHan’s strained voice grew louder and louder , threatening to wake the residents of the Cloud Recesses, “Was this your intention? To deceive me onto a throne I  despise, for  some kind of greater  good? What place do I  hold in your heart?!”  

 

Unable to block his ears due to his arms still being controlled, Lan QiRen could only shake his head wildly  as tears of his own fell to the ground.  The pain in his body had awoken him to  the excruciating reality that he would not be permitted to follow Wen RuoHan into the unknown. He was the GuSu Lan Sect’s Second Master, the mentor to his nephew , the assistant to his Brother, the role model to all Lan Sect disciples. He was Lan QiRen.   

 

Wen RuoHan’s hands loosened their grip.   

 

“You….  are not coming, are you?”  

 

With a shaking right hand, Lan QiRen bit his bottom lip and forcefully shoved his left shoulder back into its socket . He raised both hands and blocked his ears in denial, giving Wen RuoHan his answer.  

 

“Answer me, Lan QiRen!” Wen RuoHan’s  agitated yells rang out much louder than before, “Tell it to my face!  Tell me how much you love me,  then  tell me how much you love the  people you don’t even know!  

 

“Stop talking… I beg you…. please stop…” the younger man sobbed as he blocked his ears and shook his head some more , “…please…”  

 

Wen RuoHan  seized  Lan QiRen’s shaking hands .   “I will wake the goddamn whole of GuSu if I so wish,” h said while he  pulled  the hands   from  Lan QiRen’s ears slowly but deliberately breaking  the  last defence over his senses.  “I will burn this whole fucking place to the ground if I have to!”  

 

Overcome by panic, Lan QiRen forced his head forwards.  Wen RuoHan stumbled backwards in shock as he temporarily lost vision due to the sudden headbutt.  

 

It was now or never.   

 

Lan QiRen bit his bottom lip so hard , he drew blood. However, the small trickle of red was no comparison to the gushing wound in his heart as he cast his Silence Spell .   GuSu Lan Sect’s Silence Spell is the ultimate form of punishment  - o nce afflicted, it may only be undone by a Lan Sect member, or  by  physically ripping the lips and throat apart . Wen RuoHan stared for a moment at Lan QiRen in disbelief.  His eyes blinked, but he did not struggle.  

 

“Go home to QiShan, Wen RuoHan,” Lan QiRen  wiped the tears from his eyes  and forced an ugly smile. “I will be here, waiting for you.  There are better ways to do this.”  

 

What ways?   For all his academic prowess, Lan QiRen for once  had not an inkling of a clue.  

 

Wen RuoHan did not move as his lover planted a soft kiss on his sealed lips . He did not move as he watched in silence as his lover closed the door from which he came.  He  could hear Lan QiRen’s quiet sobs as the smaller man slid his back down the door and rested on the path , utterly defeated by the cruel twist of fate that tore his heartstrings to shreds.   

 

Just as Lan QiRen regained enough composure to remember to undo his Silence Spell,  there came a dull  thud  on the door.   

 

Then ,  a laugh.   

 

A  terrifying ghostly  voice  Lan QiRen hardly recognised  filtered through the door cracks , making all the hairs on his neck stand  up .  

 

You…. underestimate… me.”  

 

Lan QiRen’s eyes grew wide as he put his hand up to his mouth to stop himself from  screaming when it dawned on him that Wen RuoHan had broken the Silence Spell himself  by tearing himself apart The pain  must have been inconceivable - except that Lan QiRen was living it  

 

“Do not… believe… that you can stop me ….from ….  coming for you. You want…. Legacy?  I’ll give you…. legacy.  Wait for… me… right…here.  

 

When Lan QiRen finally opened the door an hour later,  Wen  RuoHan was nowhere to be seen A  pool of drying blood  lay  on the ground  where he once stood . Lan QiRen reached for the latch to shut the door once again,  pausing as  his hand touched something wet  and sticky .   Filtered m oonlight illuminated  his red palms and the large patch of  dripping  blood  that stained the outside of the door , where Wen RuoHan undoubtedly rested his head as he uttered those excruciating words.   

 

 

 

 

 

As the sun rose, invitations to QiShan Wen Sect Leader’s marriage  made their way through the doors of each Sect , and Wen RuoHan dragged his feet through the door of his bedroom.   

 

“Sect Leader ,” Wen ZhuLiu greeted  Wen RuoHan with surprise. He made no attempt to explain why he was sitting on Wen RuoHan’s bed  once it became clear that Wen RuoHan was past caring. “Did it… fail?  

 

“…fail?” Wen RuoHan’s hoarse voice  barely reach Wen ZhuLiu’s ears. He  sat beside his attendant heavily.   

 

The  stony , dead look  was all the explanation Wen ZhuLiu needed to know what Wen RuoHan’s  note to him had meant “I did my job,” he calmly stated, “you did disappear, and I did not make any  attempt to find you.”  His knuckles turned white , fists gripping so hard that faint cracking could be heard  

 

“I  know.”  

 

“Yet you are back hurt by him, again .”      

 

“….Mn.”  

 

“The wedding  will go on. Are you here to stay?”  

 

Wen RuoHan closed his eyes  out of exhaustion at last. Flying on his sword nonstop between QiShan and GuSu then back again  was no easy feat. Combined with the agonizing pain in his throat , mouth and heart, even the strongest man would break a little. He slumped over, head caught  b y Wen ZhuLiu’s lap.   

 

“Are you here to stay, Sect Leader?”  Wen  ZhuLiu asked gently, as he fought the urge to stroke Wen RuoHan’s  wildly unkempt hair. “If you require, I can make that woman disappear.”  

 

‘I can also make Lan QiRen disappear, but you may never look at me again.’  

 

“…stay…”   

 

Wen ZhuLiu’s heart fluttered upwards at the simple word. Stay.  

 

“…here… to…. stay …. for ….him. ”   

 

And it fell as quickly as it rose.  

 

Red  sun  flags  that looked like they were painted in blood adorned the walls, basked in gold dawn light   while  their Sect Leader rested  his weary head . Wen RuoHan’s breathing turned from shallow to peaceful under the watchful gaze of Wen ZhuLiu  as  he dreamed of Lan QiRen’s empty promise to himself.  

 

‘Wait for me, right here.’  

 

 

Master and servant stayed in such position for ten hours. Wen ZhuLiu could not see whether the dampness on his lower body was Wen RuoHan’s blood or tears, but he was sure of one thing – Lan QiRen deserved neither.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 month later, QiShan, Nightless City  

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan looked out at his  sea of  wedding reception guests ,  one last time.  

 

QingHe Nie Sect,  LanLing Jin Sect,  YunMeng Jiang Sect,  YueYang  Chang Sect,  BaLing   OuYang  Sect …. and smaller Sects that Wen RuoHan could not even remember the names of  offered up their congratulations at the lucky groom about to experience his first night as a married man.  Sitting at the GuSu Lan Sect  table,  Lan QiRen’s brother and uncle  were both present, but the man himself was nowhere to be seen.   

 

Any hope left in Wen RuoHan’s heart  were   burnt up  by  the  red candles illuminating the Nightless City . H e understood Lan QiRen, that man would never crash this wedding . For one mad moment, he considered burning his own home to the ground  and foregoing his entire plan.  

 

Instead,  the young leader of the QiShan Wen Sect  flashes a smile so bright that it rivalled the wedding candles  -  and  strode headfirst into his personal hell.  

 

 

 

As he shut the door to his bedr oom and  tossed a small bottle Wen ZhuLiu retrieved from the cold  storage into his robes, Wen RuoHan stared at the figure sitting on his bed  under a bright red wedding veil Of course, there was no possibility his newly wedded wife  could be whom he prayed, but imagination never hurt.  After all,  if  he lifted the veil, he would no longer be afforded even the luxury of fantasy.  

 

I believe my attendant has already briefed you about our engagement?”  he said coldly.  

 

Do I have a choice?” the equally uncaring female voice answered.  

 

I suppose neither of us did,” Wen RuoHan felt slightly better that his wife did not seem to care for him either, “ I have no interest in you  and I will not touch you . I only need heirs.  Hence, under the condition that you do not get caught or mother any children not from  me, you are more than welcome to  keep men at your side.”  

 

“How do you expect me to give you heirs without touching me?”  

 

“Your cycle will be monitored by m y attendant, and you will be given my essence on your most fertile days. Of course , those days will be recorded. If your pregnancy is suspicious by date of conception, I will have you  hanged.”  He tossed the small bottle onto the bride’s lap , “If your fingers are not long enough, I can provide you with tools . Try to bleed a little on the sheets tonight if you can,  just for theatrics. I expect results  from you within the next 6 months,  or your family may start to lose members in unfortunate accidents … good night, my wife.”  

 

Wen ZhuLiu gave a small bow as his Master exited his bedroom.  “Where will you sleep tonight, Sect Leader?”  

 

“Where I work, of course ,” Wen RuoHan shrugged  as he  strode through the corridors “There are people who need to be taught a lesson, starting with the bastards who  are treating me like a breeding stud…”  

 

“And your wife?  You did not even lift her veil  Wen ZhuLiu followed hot on his heels.    

 

“She still has a purpose, so leave her ,” Wen RuoHan replied curtly, “After my second son turns 3 years old , she can be disposed of too. If you think she is pretty, you are welcome to  sleep with her, just don’t get her pregnant.”  

 

Wen ZhuLiu frowned at the  suggestion and shook his head in disgust. “Sect Leader, please do not make such crude jokes , it turns my stomach…”  

 

“Then make sure she does her job so I can get rid her as soon as possible ,” Wen RuoHan’s sharp features  glowed in a sickeningly positive expression  off the red satin adorning every wall , “The sooner she  gives this Sect an heir, the sooner he will marry me …”    

 

The young Wen ZhuLiu could never have  imagined  that wedding red could look so  much like a bloodbath.   

 

 

 

 

Notes [ 5 YueYang  ( used to occupy a place  outside of modern day  Xi’An  and is  home to   the clan that  Xue  Yang eventually massacred. Geographically, it is very close to QiShan (which is around modern day  BaoJi )  so they are close neighbours At the moment , their Sects get on quite well and Wen RuoHan should be  striving to be on their good side to secure that border.   

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

IMPORTANT NOTE: For anyone who had forgotten about what happened in Chapter 1 (Prologue) or decided not to read it at the beginning, this is your chance to GO BACK NOW and read it. This chapter follows chronologically immediately from chapter 1 and there is almost no reminder of what happened then. If you need a refresher, this is your chance to familiarize yourself with Wen RuoHan’s new body and new name!

 

 

 

 

 

Present Day, GuSu, Cloud Recesses

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

Wen RuoHan looked helplessly at Lan QiRen’s calm, sleeping face. The last time Lan QiRen was able to remain without defences in his presence was 35 years ago, when they were still student and teacher. The ripples and waves of time had eroded and carved the space between them so much, Wen RuoHan felt they were separated by an endless canyon.

 

‘Quite literally the canyon of life and death, huh?’ he smiled sadly at his reflection in the mirror across Lan QiRen’s bedroom. The eyes starting back at him were still foreign – Wen RuoHan had never attempted to familiarize himself with his new body’s outer image as the idea that Lan QiRen would not be able to recognise him caused much anguish he could not face. He had considered loitering around the man as a ghost for the rest of his days, but could not risk being exorcised or disappearing.

 

‘But my current existence is like that of a ghost anyway,’ Wen RuoHan chuckled silently at himself, ‘You are so close, yet I cannot touch you. I am afraid of facing you in case you smite me where I stand... but I still must be grateful of this new vessel, because the time when you can sleep so soundly next to the old Wen RuoHan without hate or fear was probably the first time I claimed your body, right? Do you still have nightmares about the man I killed in KaiYang? Do you regret not destroying me sooner?’

 

He leaned forward, towering over the obliviously sleeping figure and sighed before curling up young lips into a sad smile. ‘I am the repository of regret... I regret not having the hardened heart they all warned me about. Wen ZhuLiu warned me, even that bastard Jin GuangShan warned me about being a half-arsed villain! I should have never taken in Meng Yao, no matter how much I wanted to hear him laugh. I should have never hesitated to kill your nephews, that troublesome Nie fellow, or hesitated to take you away by force.’

 

Wen RuoHan paused for a moment as a thought danced across his conscience like a dragonfly over a lake. The thought rippled and fell flat before he could catch its impression. The thoughts he had before his untimely death were unclear, but he had always remembered there was a mystery to solve.

 

Lan QiRen furrowed his brows in his sleep and shook his head a little, cutting off Wen RuoHan’s drifting thoughts about other people. His thoughts drifted once more back to the man under him.... Many times he lay awake in the dead of night as a Lan disciple, pondering Lan QiRen’s reactions – how the middle-aged Lan QiRen would no doubt blow his top if a young man he did not know took his hand and ran away from the Cloud Recesses.

 

Wen RuoHan stifled a laugh as he replayed Lan QiRen’s youthful outraged expression in his mind. They had been adorable. His laugh died in his throat as more memories surfaced, Lan QiRen’s anguished and terrified expressions finally overtook the cute ones, and only the bloody remnants of a torn man remained.

 

The chances of this Lan QiRen in front of him eloping with anyone (let alone himself) was so farfetched, he had to laugh at himself again.

 

‘My biggest regret in the last life is that I did not take you away by force, but I was a coward… so scared that you would hate me. Is it not ironic that you still ended up hating me? Maybe you were right the last time I saw you – we were fated to meet, but not meant to be.’

 

Wen RuoHan hovered his lips over Lan QiRen’s for what seemed like an eternity before stealing one fleeting touch so light, it could barely be considered a kiss. Still, the jolt of pleasure burnt him to know that this could well be the last time the Heavens granted him the chance... a chance he did not deserve. As he turned to leave, Wen RuoHan tidied the collar of his Lan Sect robes and mentally prepared himself to face the world again as Ling XuYin.

 

‘I just wish that you will grow to forget your hate for me, Teacher, I just wanted to do my best at fighting destiny. If I could be given a second chance, I would not hesitate to kill everyone in my way.....but if you were given a second chance, you would probably choose never to meet me.’

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen woke from his long dream to an eerily empty room. Dazed and weak, the shook his head a little to bring himself back to reality, only to realise that his living hell had not ended simply because he had woken up. Palms sweating and shaking, he unfurled his tightly clenched fingers to take a glance at his left palm. The QiShan sun motif was nowhere to be found.

 

His dream had ended the night of Wen RuoHan’s wedding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

35 years ago, GuSu, Cloud Recesses 

 

 

“QiRen, must your seclusion period take so long?” QingHeng-Jun sighed, “If you change your mind, you can still come to the Nightless City as long as you are not late for the banquet. I am sure your student does not mind adding an extra chair and chopsticks-

 

“Brother, I will not be attending,” came a distant reply from the other side of Lan QiRen’s bedroom door.

 

“You are being stubborn, you cannot fool me,” his voices softened, “ever since the invitation arrived last month, you have been akin to a walking corpse. What kind of cultivation are you achieving in your own bedroom apart from wallowing in your own thoughts? Even if you do not approve of Sect Leader Wen’s match, he is obligated to marry her. As a Teacher and a friend, you should send your well wishes-

 

“Brother, I will not be attending.”

 

Hearing a colder tone, the Lan Sect leader shook his head in exasperation and turned to leave. “I trust he would want to see you.”

 

‘See me?’ Lan QiRen softly chuckled to into his folded knees as he curled himself at the foot of his bed. ‘Brother, you cannot hope to fathom how much he does not want to see me on this day. I cannot give him what he wants- what I want- what we both long for. It is better that I stay away lest he does something mad.’

 

The sorry sight finally uncurled himself from his position as QingHeng-Jun’s footsteps faded away. Too exhausted to move after stretching his stuff joints, Lan QiRen let himself crash sideways to lie on his bed instead. He did not fall asleep, but stared lifelessly at the door of his room, wishing upon every deity that Wen RuoHan would fight his way into the Cloud Recesses and break open the door.

 

As night fell, Lan QiRen’s silent tears had run dry.

 

“He did not come,” he said to nobody. “Of course he did not… was I not the one who sealed his protests and forced him away?” The idea of Wen RuoHan going through the proper rites and ceremony with a woman, as per his own instruction, made Lan QiRen’s stomach churn. Acid as strong as his own jealousy and anger at the cruel world flooded his mouth, along with the familiar taste of blood.

 

As the gong sounded for the passing of yet another hour, Lan QiRen stumbled to the table in the free of his room and poured himself a cold cup of tea. “You are drinking wedding wine, are you not? And all I have is tea, in solitude. All I have of yours… is…”

 

In a sudden wave of lunacy, Lan QiRen dashed to his cupboards and flung open the doors like a madman, digging to the very bottom of a chest of drawers for a cotton undergarment stained with ink. It was the same undergarment he wore the morning after their first night together in KaiYang, which had been imprinted with the QiShan sun motif Wen RuoHan drew secretly on his shoulder. Lan QiRen did not know of the prank until the pair had returned to GuSu and he unpacked his belongings to launder his clothes. Wen RuoHan had stuck out his tongue and cheekily proclaimed ownership of him, leaving him speechless and blushing. Unable to send the ‘branded’ item to be washed by disciples, but also unable to bring himself to wash it, Lan QiRen hid the item in his cupboard as a memento.

 

“I told you I burnt it...” he ran his fingers over the incomplete imprint on the shoulder seam, “but I could not. Maybe it is time to let go...”

 

With an unwavering flourish, Lan QiRen tossed the item straight into the burner warming his room.

 

Immediately, a sickening sense of regret followed as the QiShan sun symbol was swallowed by hungry flames. But alas, what was done was done. Lan QiRen stood by his fire and stared at the pile of cinders before finally accepting the outcome of his actions. There was only one more thing left in his possession to remind him of Wen RuoHan – the red jade brush he had kept under his pillow instead of gifting.

 

This time, the young man thought long and hard.

 

His moment of madness had passed, and holding the jade brush in his hand brought forth memories of their first meeting. The brush handle warmed to body temperature in his palms, mimicking Wen RuoHan’s touch, burning not his skin but his heart. Lan QiRen dangled the item precariously from his fingertips over the smouldering fire before finally giving in – he was unable to let go, after all.

 

“Defeated by my own affections... how utterly pathetic.” Lan QiRen shook his head and tidied his unkempt hair. He wandered listlessly to his desk, dipped the red brush in ink and drew a small QiShan sun symbol on the palm of his left hand to replace the one he had burnt. “You promised you would come back...”

 

 

 

 

 

Present Day, GuSu, Cloud Recesses

 

 

 

Lan QiRen stared his left hand for what seemed like an eternity before finally deciding that he was back in the current day. All of his dreams in the wake of immense stress had seemed so real and vivid, he had let the undeniable reality escape his mind – Lan XiChen had forsaken all responsibility for Jiang WanYin.

 

Let alone three days, even three months of lucid dreaming could not relieve the now (yet again) de facto leader of the GuSu Lan Sect from the responsibility of cleaning up what could prove to be the biggest mess in the cultivation world since Jin GuangYao’s epic fall from grace. If managed poorly, the ensuring tsunami of political strife could weaken the already fragile Lan Sect for generations to come, and Lan QiRen was determined to kill any ripples before they grew.

 

“I did not enslave myself to this Clan to have my nephews end it,” he muttered to himself before raising his voice at the attendants outside his door, “Send for Lan Yuan at once!”

 

Lan JingYi’s voice replied courteously, “Sir, SiZhui has returned to LanLing to aid Sect Leader Jin. He was in a hurry when he left, perhaps there are sudden developments in the Jin Sect?”

 

‘Nonsense,’ Lan QiRen rolled his eyes, ‘the child is simply running away from becoming Sect Leader. If I had a better candidate, I would not choose a descendant of the Wen Clan... Wen Clan... oh Heavens, if anyone were to discover his heritage, the GuSu Lan Sect would be up in flames. Again.’

 

“JingYi,” Lan QiRen ordered, “give instructions for Ling XuYin of the medical team to bring my next meal.”

 

To prevent any more trouble within the Sect, Lan QiRen had to remain vigilant. Ling Sheng Ling XuYin had come to the Lan Sect as a disciple at an uncannily similar time to Lan SiZhui being brought in from the Burial Mounds, and one previous conversation could not rule out the possibility that the young man knew of Lan SiZhui’s secret. Or worse - the young man would use such information against the GuSu Lan Sect. Or even worse – the young man was a spy. It was common knowledge that sects would place well-hidden spies in other sects to gain intelligence, and while the Lan Sect did not partake in unscrupulous activities, they too often benefitted from other sects’ information.

 

Some time later, the man in question knocked on Lan QiRen’s door. “Sir, I have brought your midday meal.”

 

“Enter.”

 

“Yes, Sir.”

 

Ling XuYin seemed nervous – suspiciously nervous for a disciple delivering food. His handsome features were entirely hidden by his hair as he glued his line of vision to the floor, as if afraid to look at Lan QiRen.

 

“Men ought to stand straight with pride,” Lan QiRen’s already overacting suspicions grew, “why do you not raise your head?”

 

“I...... have always admired you from afar,” Wen RuoHan cursed his luck. He had barely had time to collect his thoughts after returning to the medical team’s base before a boisterous young disciple from the main Clan ordered him to make food for Lan QiRen. Lan SiZhui did not provide any semblance of detail as to what kind of food to make, nor could he offer the reason why ‘Ling XuYin’ had been the one ordered to make it.

 

 

 

 

One hour ago

 

Curious members of the medical team stood by and watched as Wen RuoHan went to work, wondering what kind of delicacy could drive Lan QiRen to request a disciple by name.

 

In the end, the onlookers were disappointed by a humble meal of lukewarm rice porridge and eggplant casserole. Even for GuSu Lan Sect standards, the presentation was lacklustre. While Lan Sect foods lacked flavour, presentation was delicate and refined as per Southern tradition. Wen RuoHan’s Northern habits died hard, and his two simple bowls filled to the brim with no garnish or flair contrasted hilariously to his new Lan image.

 

“Senior Ling, are you really going to serve this to our Master?” a new recruit asked incredulously.

 

“XuYin, do not be offended, but this might be slightly.... simple?” an older member agreed.

 

“The Master is recovering from illness caused by stress and fatigue,” Wen RuoHan shook his head with confidence so well-presented, he almost believed it himself, “decoration is unnecessary.”

 

His sham confidence withered in front of Lan QiRen’s door. The old maple tree outside Lan QiRen’s quarters had thickened with decades gone by, and Wen RuoHan repeated to himself silently that times had long changed. He was no longer the Young Master of the QiShan Wen Sect – he had not been that innocent for 35 years.

 

 

 

One hour later

 

 

“Admired me?” Lan QiRen barely contained his surprise at the young man’s direct and seemingly honest response. Many of his students have been grateful to him, some may have even feared him, but nobody had ever expressed unabashed admiration to him. Especially not while holding a tray of food like a timid maiden.

 

‘Perfect choice of words, Wen RuoHan you absolute idiot,’ Wen RuoHan cursed again, ‘now I look like some kind of lovestruck stalker!’

 

Putting aside the unfortunate fact he was indeed a lovestruck stalker, Wen RuoHan forced a small smile. “Who in the Cloud Recesses does not fear and admire the great Lan QiRen? We are all humbled by your presence.”

 

Lan QiRen’s gaze seemed to bore into his skull. For the man with a tremendous secret to keep, the paranoia of being discovered was enough to suffocate. Wen RuoHan set the tray of food down to Lan QiRen’s table with little room for grace, and turned to escape. Today would not be a day to test his own willpower.

 

“Halt.”

 

“…….”

 

“Sit.”

 

The chairs in Lan QiRen’s room might as well have been made of live hornets.

 

 Wen RuoHan could only sit in agony while Lan QiRen silently ate his meal and skewered him alive with only his eyes. There was now no doubt in his mind  – Lan QiRen was suspicious of his strange demeanour and reaction to the word ‘Wen’ days ago.

 

Lan QiRen, on the other end of the table, was troubled more than he was suspicious – because Ling XuYin’s meal was magnificent. Both the porridge and eggplant were impeccably seasoned to his taste, and both were perfectly lukewarm with no burning sensation on his tongue. In fact, he had not tasted anything so delicious since he was 17 years old. If the man responsible for perfect cookery was indeed aware of Lan SiZhui’s heritage, Lan QiRen almost entertained the thought of swearing him to secrecy and demoting him to the kitchens as his personal chef.

 

But of course, such outlandish thoughts were quelled in their formation. Never again would Lan QiRen risk the future of the GuSu Lan Sect for any personal desire – no matter how small. In fact, Ling XuYin’s perfect grasp on Lan QiRen’s preferences only served to deepen his existing suspicions that the man was not as simple as he seemed.

 

After a round of questioning, Lan QiRen was at a loss for options. He could not find anything wrong with any of Ling XuYin’s answers that made him worthy of an official investigation. If the man was truly a spy from another Sect that would leak such sensitive information, there would likely be holes to his story of how he came into the GuSu Lan Sect.

 

Unluckily for Lan QiRen, Wen RuoHan had all memories from his current body intact since the age of 12. Ever since he possessed Ling Sheng’s body on the river bed, freshly drowned, and come to the Cloud recesses as a junior disciple, all the experiences had been his own. When Lan QiRen asked of his home life, he could also conveniently tell the truth that his hometown had been destroyed by floods. No amount of questioning or research could be done to prove he was anyone apart from Ling Sheng, courtesy name XuYin. Not even ZiDian would be able to separate his soul from this body, for the previous soul had departed with no relation to the possession.

 

Of course, Lan QiRen’s gentle probing to reveal the ‘spy’ would prove futile. There was simply no evidence to suggest this man had left the Cloud Recesses or had any outside contact for the past 13 years.

 

But Lan QiRen was nothing if not cautious and tenacious.

 

“One last question,” he asked, “after spending all your time in the medical team, from whom did you learn to cook Northern flavours?” 

 

The sudden question had Wen RuoHan at a loss. “I… have never been taught. I hardly know how to cook. I threw this together to not disappoint your request for food.”

 

For the first time, he lied to Lan QiRen. How many nights had he spent secretly at a peasant’s cottage in Han Village after Lan QiRen fell asleep, learning the culinary arts from a chubby grandmother whose name he had long forgotten? How many hours were spent at the village markets, picking the very best vegetables? How much sweat had he shed, gingerly waiting until Lan QiRen took his first bite to hear his criticisms? Wen RuoHan quickly learned that Lan QiRen would never say anything negative about his efforts, which made learning his preferences all the harder. However, when Lan QiRen was especially fond of a particular dish, his eyes would fixate on the food and he would make no conversation.

 

Wen RuoHan could thus tell that his porridge and eggplant casserole was perfect.

 

Too perfect.

 

But Lan QiRen must never know, therefore he needed to lie. Even while knowing his existence as Ling XuYin was by far the bigger lie, Wen RuoHan’s heartstrings tightened.

 

“Does it not suit your tastes, Sir? Too much salt, perhaps?” One lie followed another. Wen RuoHan’s ability to feign ignorance has never been as convenient as it proved on this day.

 

Lan QiRen had no comeback for his reply. Indeed, lukewarm, slightly salty food was perfectly to his taste – but to anyone else, it was likely average at best. ‘Perhaps this fellow is not as suspicious as I presumed?’ he wondered, ‘No, I must keep my enemies close, none shall be permitted to slip through the cracks. Nobody… not again.’ Blood and tears of the past had taught him an unforgettable lesson – the more perfect a person seems at first, the more destructive they may be later. Jin GuangShan was so, Wen RuoHan even more so.

 

“Ling XuYin, pack your belongings from the medical wing,” Lan QiRen said unflinchingly, “You may move into the room next to mine from today.”

 

Wen RuoHan could never have dreamed that his plan to silently watch over Lan QiRen could fail so badly, mere days after they reunited. As a GuSu Lan disciple, he had no grounds to refuse Lan QiRen’s absurd request even if the man requested that he jump off the nearest cliff. If Lan QiRen had seen through his lies already, he was as good as dead. “May- may I ask the reason, Sir?”

 

“I am ill. You are a medical cultivator. I need an assistant. Your role is to assist me. Do you have any questions?”

 

“One,” Wen RuoHan bowed slightly, “starting from tomorrow, may I address you as Teacher, and continue to cook for you?”

 

If the Heavens’ will was for Wen RuoHan to return to Lan QiRen’s side, he would try his darned best to relive some happier times before he died once more.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Lan QiRen paused to ponder the intentions of the curious young fellow once more.

 

“Teacher…” he murmured, “very well, but I am in no shape to teach you anything.”

 

“Every Lan disciple dreams of being able to call you Teacher. I am satisfied.”

 

Wen RuoHan kept his line of sight to the ground and resisted the urge to leap into Lan QiRen’s arms. The word was so common, yet so special to him. Lan QiRen’s small quiver in his voice could not escape Wen RuoHan’s ears – at the very least, he still cared for that word too. The scariest thing is often not hatred from one’s lover, but no more feeling altogether… for Wen RuoHan, even hatred was preferable to obscurity.

 

 

The first item on Lan QiRen’s agenda was, ironically, his students. The days he had been ill, others in the Lan Sect had taken liberties to temporarily suspend his lessons until further notice. However, a pile of essays written prior to the events of his disastrous birthday celebration still sat tall on his desk, waiting his comments and marks.

 

Not one to leave his students waiting, Lan QiRen began to slowly work through the heap under the watchful eye of his new personal assistant. ‘Ling XuYin’ would stop him at any sign of cough or shiver and offer medicine or blankets or tea – Lan QiRen could almost swear the man was a reincarnation of his mother.

 

“XuYin, please leave me for a few hours at least,” Lan QiRen gently complained, “I cannot work with so many interruptions.”

 

“Teacher, you are still ill,” Wen RuoHan shook his head and offered up the fourth ginger tonic of the day, “If I had my way, you would not be working. Is there nobody else in the whole Cloud Recesses to share your burden?”

 

“These are my students, most of them will grow to become pillars of the cultivation world,” Lan QiRen sighed, “If I am too ill to hold lessons, they must at least reflect on their own essays in their study time. There is simply no time to waste.”

 

A thought crossed Lan QiRen’s mind in a moment of genius.

 

“XuYin, take some essays from the top of the pile and mark out the sections of interest.”

 

If this Ling XuYin fellow is indeed a spy, it would serve Lan QiRen well to understand his thoughts. One can tell a lot about a man from his commentary, this task of marking essays would be a perfect test.

 

“Is it really alright for me to comment on your students?” Wen RuoHan asked, “I am not nearly as well-read as you are, Teacher, and I was not bright enough to be referred to your lessons… I fear I would embarrass you.” If Lan QiRen wanted to test his handwriting, Wen RuoHan was confident he could pass, but he would make Lan QiRen take the hardest road possible.

 

“Did you not want me to do the least work possible?” Lan QiRen raised an eyebrow, “Or was your intent to do the least work yourself?”

 

Wen RuoHan lost his battle of words but was happy that his old lover still had some fight in him. He smiled wryly and took a paper from the top of Lan QiRen’s pile.

 

 

As the hours passed, Lan QiRen forgot all about grading essays or even his quest to uncover the spy. Ling XuYin was far more intelligent than he gave himself credit for, citing references and insights to his unique view of the students’ work that startled Lan QiRen. The pair started an intellectual conversation spanning the subjects of history, arts and politics until the sun set.

 

“How many hours have you spent in the Library Pavilion, Ling XuYin?” Lan QiRen asked as the younger man turned to leave for his own room, “I ought to make an example of you for our younger disciples.”

 

“Teacher, there are far better exemplary disciples in this Sect,” Wen RuoHan smiled, “I am just a naughty one who became bored of medical texts and went to the library instead.”

 

‘If I hid in the library for long enough, I could see you from the window…’

 

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen’s body was on the road to recovery when suddenly, 3 days later, Sect Leaders from far and wide descended on the Cloud Recesses. Totally unannounced, they demanded an explanation and an audience from Lan QiRen. A clearly shaken Lan JingYi could only watch helplessly as what could only be described as a mob let themselves into the largest meeting chamber of the main wing and refused to leave. QingHe Nie Sect, LanLing Jin Sect (with a very apologetic Lan SiZhui in tow), BaLing OuYang Sect and countless smaller cultivation sects followed, but it seemed like their leader was the stocky, moustached leader of the BingZhou Peng Sect [6]

 

“Peng Sect?” Wen RuoHan furrowed his brows, “I thought that old man was near death already? What is he doing travelling all the way from BingZhou?”

 

“XuYin, do not be disrespectful,” Lan QiRen chastised, “JingYi, did they state the reason of their visit?”

 

“They did not, Sir,” Lan JingYi said, “they only demanded your presence. The Sect Leader Peng is a middle-aged fat man, I believe his father may have passed away. He definitely introduced himself very loudly as Sect Leader…”

 

Lan QiRen sighed deeply. “I have a fair idea as to why… I suppose this cannot be avoided. What will come, will come.” He could have as many riveting conversations with Ling XuYin as he wanted, but the inevitable cannot be ignored for much longer – the political thunderstorm brewing since Lan XiChen and Jiang Cheng’s spectacle had finally landed.

 

 

 

Indistinct chatter in the large meeting room ceased immediately as Lan JingYi announced the presence of Lan QiRen. Wen RuoHan sensed danger, and followed as ‘medical personnel’, despite Lan QiRen and Lan JingYi’s protests.

 

It seemed like Lan QiRen was not the only important figure with an entourage, as every other Sect Leader had their right-hand men in tow. Lan SiZhui stood nervously beside Jin Ling – neither had been told of the purposes of this visit until recently, and Lan SiZhui avoided all eye contact with Lan QiRen. The last thing he had done was escape all responsibility of future Sect Leader at Lan QiRen’s bedside, yet he was back only days later acting as advisor to the Jin Sect in some kind of strange coup against the Lan Sect? Truly, spectacularly… awkward.

 

“Gentlemen, your appointment is so sudden, forgive the Lan Sect for not preparing better tea.” Lan QiRen politely underlined their intrusion while maintaining an expressionless face, “To what do I owe the pleasure of this unannounced visit?”

 

Nie HuaiSang silently fanned himself in the corner, Jin Ling looked annoyed while OuYang ZiZhen waved at him from across the table, and other leaders remained in silence.

 

Sect Leader Peng, however, could not hear Lan QiRen’s accusatory tone. “Mr Lan, we want an explanation, forget the tea!”

 

“An explanation?” Lan QiRen narrowed his eyes, “Do go on…”

 

“While Mr Lan has been sleeping, the cultivation world has erupted into chaos,” Sect Leader Peng sneered, “Your nephews, one after the other, have caused much strife. ZeWu-Jun out of all people should understand that Sect Leaders should never be permitted to marry each other!”

 

“I too am well aware that XiChen’s matrimony is not ideal,” Lan QiRen admitted, “But what business do you gentlemen have with me?”

 

“As his uncle, and representing the Lan Sect, we need you to break up this godforsaken, sinful alliance between the Jiang and Lan Sects, and restore balance to the world.”

 

Lan QiRen scanned the room quickly to assess the situation. No other Sect Leader spoke aside from Peng, who seemed eager to make his mark as Sect Leader by making a fool out of the esteemed GuSu Lan Sect. Everyone else either agreed or were neutrally watching from the side-lines. Lan QiRen’s face grew darker and darker as he watched his former allies turn their eyes away from him – nothing had changed in the political landscape all these years, and cowards will always be cowards.

 

The fat man carried on preaching, nearly spitting onto the table, “We need justice! Who can guarantee that GuSu Lan Sect and YunMeng Jiang Sect will not join to form another monolith and destroy all those who oppose them? Lan WangJi canoodling with the dangerous YiLing Patriarch is already damning enough, we cannot have these cut-sleeve cultivators ruining the peace and prosper we have worked so hard to achieve!”

 

“I am neither the Sect Leader nor am I powerful enough to turn back time,” Lan QiRen gathered all his mental energy to save himself from casting a Silence Spell on the man insulting his nephews to his face, “If this is all Sect Leader Peng has come to say, I have heard you. Please enjoy some tea, GuSu Lan Sect will deal with matters privately.”

Sect Leader Peng had other thoughts. “Privately? Don’t even joke about that, Lan QiRen. You should take responsibility for not raising your men properly, and now they are wreaking havoc on the world order!”

 

Lan QiRen frowned at the man’s crude choice of words. He was not accustomed to dealing with maniacs unable to reason and could only stroke his beard angrily as he drafted a response.

 

The fat man took it as a sign of his winning. “See?” he gestured at the rest of the room, “The great Lan QiRen is out of excuses-

 

“Excuse me Sir, but who are you?” Wen RuoHan nonchalantly interrupted his grand speech.

 

Sect Leader Peng choked on his saliva. OuYang ZiZhen and Lan JingYi badly stifled a laugh each as the man turned a deathly shade of green then red while coughing his lungs out.

 

“WH-WHO AM I?!” he smacked the table with his palm, “Who are YOU to be speaking to me?!”

 

“I am Ling Sheng, courtesy name XuYin, a member of GuSu Lan Sect’s medical cultivation team,” Wen RuoHan replied flatly, “May I know who I am speaking with? If Sect Leader Peng knew his disciple were spitting all over the Cloud Recesses, I doubt he would be pleased.”

 

Nie HuaiSang shielded his mouth with his fan and watched intently as a war of words began – this Ling XuYin fellow was fascinating in his confidence.

 

“I am Sect Leader Peng,” the fat man stroked his thin, oily moustache and puffed up his chest, “I inherited the position of the Leader of the BingZhou Peng Sect from my late Father!”

 

“I suppose that answers the question of who died and made you king, then,” Wen RuoHan said, “Sect Leader Peng, it would serve you well to heed my Teacher’s advice and return to BingZhou. You have outstayed your welcome.”

 

“Shut your mouth, you nobody!” Sect Leader Peng spat at the floor, “We will not leave until this disgusting matter is resolved!”

 

Wen RuoHan took a deep breath and studied Lan QiRen, who looked a picture of stress and anger. “Teacher, as your doctor, I believe this would be time for me to intervene.” He glowered at the room full of dignitaries from an angle where Lan QiRen could not see the sparks of blue and purple spiritual energy manifestation in his eyes, forcing Sect Leader Peng back half a step from sheer intimidation alone.

 

“Most of the seniors sitting here fought in the Sunshot Campaign, am I correct?” he leaned on the table, supporting himself with his hands, eyes continuing to glow, “Were you not once united against a common enemy? Now that the cultivation world has finally had a few days of peace a quiet, and you are all storming the Cloud Recesses like storming the Nightless City?”

 

“W-we have come to restore peace!” a man from the crowd spoke.

 

“Yeah, we just don’t want to see any selfish lack of judgement from the Lans!” another joined in.

 

Wen RuoHan laughed in his throat and gently tapped the table. A thin crack appeared on its surface, startling the crowd. “Peace? Do not forget, you would all be dead if it was not for this man sitting here starting the Sunshot Campaign. How dare you treat him like a failure, when he has been choosing the world over his personal feelings for his whole life?”

 

“Are you guaranteeing that Lan QiRen won’t take his nephew’s side?” Sect Leader Peng shot back, “I don’t believe it! Nobody is stupid enough to believe it!”

 

“Let us take a million steps backwards and say he does lean to his own nephew’s side – so what? What right do you have to judge a man for whom he holds dear?”

 

“But two Sect Leaders getting married with no chance of an heir is a cause for political unrest!” another voice from the crowd said, “If they combine the powers of the Lan and Jiang Sects-

 

“So what if Sect Leader Lan and Jiang are married now?” Wen RuoHan retorted, “They have yet to hurt the cultivation world, are you insinuating that the two heroes of the Sunshot Campaign are unjust lowlifes who are calamities to the world? Have we descended into some sort of lawless anarchy where we collectively persecute before a crime is committed? Shame!”

 

At the mention of Jiang Cheng and Lan XiChen’s accomplishments, most of the crowd were swayed. Wen RuoHan could never have foreseen that he would be standing inside the Cloud Recesses one day, arguing the case of two Sect Leaders who had tried their utmost to kill him.

 

However, Fat Peng would not go down without a fight. “But we cannot allow these homosexuals to lead the largest Clans! Social order will crumble, and neither will have heirs!”

 

“Sect Leader Peng, surely you did not travel all the way from BingZhou to GuSu because you care so much about whether seed is sown into a woman’s womb?”

 

Wen RuoHan laughed at his dumbfounded expression, “Let me put your thoughts at ease: Teacher has been so vehemently opposed to Sect Leader Lan’s marriage to Sect Leader Jiang that he has been coughing blood. Teacher is not Sect Leader, so he has no power over the matter. Teacher is Sect Leader’s Uncle, and will not tolerate any abuse towards his family. Teacher is a fair man and will not stand for persecuting the innocent. Teacher judges a man based on the good in his heart, not the companion in his bed. Teacher is tired now and would like to retire for the day, if anyone has any snide comments to make about this matter in the future, please speak to any of the homosexuals you despise so much to their face and stop cowering behind your façade of justice. If you are scared they may kill you, then you should perhaps reconsider your absurd case.”

 

 

“I agree. This is ridiculous.” Jin Ling stood from his chair and left without another word. Nie HuaiSang and Sect Leader OuYang followed silently, deep in thought.

 

Seeing his two biggest allies exit, Sect Leader Peng’s forehead started to drip sweat. His outwardly perfect plan to look down upon the biggest cultivation sect had dissolved with hardly a ripple, and the man himself was in hot water.  

 

“You- you- you insolent wretch!” He pointed at Wen RuoHan’s nose from across the room and began to shout, “Lan QiRen, you must punish him for spouting such nonsense!”

 

“Nonsense?” Lan QiRen hardly spared him a glance, “GuSu Lan Sect punishes only those who break our rules.” Ling XuYin spoke all the words he had been unable to articulate, and although it may damage relations with the Peng Sect, Lan QiRen had had enough of the fat man to say the least.

 

Enraged that Lan QiRen was giving him no face, Sect Leader Peng put his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Justice has crumbled! If your elder won’t teach you a lesson, I will! Draw your sword, Ling boy!”

 

The sudden escalation to a physical fight inside the meeting room shocked everyone. Before Lan QiRen could intervene to cut the tension, Wen RuoHan made a sword drawing action in the air.

 

The next moments would be described by later cultivators as a legend.

 

As Wen RuoHan’s hands parted, a crackling blue spiritual energy manifestation in the shape of a sword and scabbard appeared. The sword portion, held in his right hand, grew impossibly long in an instant and shot straight towards Sect Leader Peng, lodging its end at his throat.

 

“Sect Leader Peng should know better to start a fight inside the Cloud Recesses,” Wen RuoHan’s eyes glowed even fiercer as he put on a terrifying smile, “Please allow us to serve you some tea, and leave.” The pointed tip of his energy sword pressed into the delicate flesh of its victim, drawing one single point of blood to flow down the petrified man’s neck, staining his white collar.

 

Nobody had ever seen cultivation of spiritual energy to this level, or even heard of such a thing. Wen RuoHan had combined GuSu Lan Sect’s qin string skills with his own experience to create the ‘sword’ – a qin string straightened and extended out by physical manifestation of spiritual power that he could disguise as any long weapon he wished was a convenient threat, it served as a warned to anyone who dared challenge him. The sword reached its intended effect quickly and accurately.

 

Wen RuoHan took a moment to savour the terrified faces around the room, he had not felt so powerful in a long time. His lack of reliance on a sword was always perceived as a threat by his enemies, for he was stronger than them all even without a metal weapon. As his instincts to squash the bugs in his way rose to the surface, a sharp voice pierced his conscious.

 

“XuYin, cease this at once.”

 

Lan QiRen command was Wen RuoHan’s law. The sword withdrew immediately, and the scabbard disappeared into the air, leaving only a small cut and a trickle of red on Sect Leader Peng’s neck.

 

“My technique lacks control, Sect Leader Peng,” Wen RuoHan smiled coldly at the ashen man, “My apologies. please allow me to get you some medicine for your journey.”

 

More than one pair of legs were shaking in the room, Sect Leader Peng’s was one of them. “Wh-who the hell are you?”

 

“Sect Leader Peng may need a tonic to improve memory. I am Ling XuYin, a medical disciple, Sir.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the entire crowd’s hasty retreat, Lan QiRen found himself alone in the now very spacious meeting room with his new assistant. The pair sat in stifling silence for a few moments before Wen RuoHan finally broke the peace.

 

“Teacher, thank you for defending me.”

 

“Was it not you who defended me?”

 

The Autumn breeze ruffled the leaves by the old maple tree, and the first golden leaf fell where Lan QiRen could not see. All he could see was the recent memory of Ling XuYin’s broad shoulders, shielding him from the terrors of the world. His food, his intelligence, his protection, even his strange yet endearing reverence of Lan QiRen has a Teacher struck chords in Lan QiRen’s heart he had sealed for decades. Everything seemed so eerily similar, yet devastatingly different – when those shoulders turned around, Lan QiRen’s fantasy was torn to shreds.

 

He faced the cruel reality sitting in front of him, unflinching. Wen RuoHan was gone, and no matter how closely resembling Ling XuYin was to him, he could never be replaced.

 

“Will Teacher not ask about my cultivation or where I learned my techniques?” Wen RuoHan mistook Lan QiRen’s silence for him already knowing his identity. He regretted not controlling his anger better moments ago.

 

“As long as they are used for good, what does it matter?” Lan QiRen’s will to further expose this potential spy was gradually ebbed away by a hidden part of his conscious, the part that wanted to see more of this man.

 

 

The ‘spy’ was both pleased and alarmed at the other’s wilful ignorance. ‘So he does not want to expose me as Wen RuoHan just yet? What a cruel game you play, Lan QiRen….’

 

 

Silence consumed the pair once more as they each struggled to find words. Each was a mystery to the other, but neither wanted to solve it to the end. Tired of the recently unending mental games, Lan QiRen motioned for his assistant to follow him outside.

 

“To where, Teacher?”

 

“Let me call it…. A field trip.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s notes:

 

[6] BingZhou (并州) is the olden day name of TaiYuan (太原) a place near QingHe, in the ShanXi prefecture. The whole area is a basin of the Fen River, and is quite fertile. It used to be the capital of quite a few dynasties so it is also called ‘Dragon City’, and the culture is quite similar to QingHe due to its geography. I just made up this sect for the purposes of this story because I didn’t want to offend anyone who is a fan of OuYang ZiZhen and his father (the MZDS universe really didn’t bother to name any other Sects than was necessary so I had to do it myself)

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“Field trip?” Wen RuoHan could not help but remember the last time Lan QiRen ‘invited’ him on a field trip. That field trip cost them their virginities and a lifetime’s worth of happiness and sadness.

 

“Just for today, for the task is overdue,” Lan QiRen nodded before exiting the meeting room, “Your cultivation level is adequate to join me. In half an hour, meet me at the gates.”

 

 

Wen RuoHan laughed at Lan QiRen’s old habit of taking people on trips without informing them why and where. He tidied his collar, flicked a speck of dust off the crisp white fabric and headed back to his own quarters, now neighbouring that of Lan QiRen’s.

 

He did not make it far. In fact, Wen RuoHan had barely left the meeting room before he was stopped by Lan JingYi, walking as fast as he could without breaking any rules, with Jin Ling, Lan SiZhui and Nie HuaiSang following close behind.

 

“Senior Ling!” Lan JingYi huffed, “Please wait!”

 

“What brings you back, Sect Leaders Nie and Jin?” Wen RuoHan politely offered greetings.

 

“JingYi stopped us at the gates, and said we had to come back to meet someone incredible,” Nie HuaiSang dabbed some sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, “JingYi, where is the person you told us of?”

 

“It’s him!” Lan JingYi pointed at Wen RuoHan, “I swear to you he made a sword out of spiritual energy and cut that Peng man!”

 

 

 

“Impossible!” Jin Ling looked at him up and down, “JingYi, you must have been hallucinating. This man is not even 30 years old… even the bastard Wen RuoHan himself did not attain that level of cultivation, and he was crazily devoted to cultivation without weapons. If this guy can do what you said, I’ll give you all the treasures you can carry out of my bedroom!”

 

“Show him, Senior Ling!” Lan JingYi’s eyes almost shone with both admiration for his senior and the prospect of soon becoming very wealthy, “Show all of us!”

 

Wen RuoHan shook his head and frowned a little. “My cultivation is for protecting those I hold dear, not an acrobatic show at the markets….”

 

“See?” Jin Ling rolled his eyes, “Let’s go, Lan Yuan, there is nothing to see here but a fraud.”

 

“Sect Leader Jin, I am not a fraud,” Wen RuoHan fell victim to a child’s goading, “I would hate to see JingYi be called a liar, so I will make one exception for him. What long weapon would everyone like to see?”

 

“Do a spear!” JingYi applauded, “I saw the sword before, but if you do a spear, that would be a spectacular sight to behold!”

 

“Alright, does anyone have a target that they can launch into the air?” Wen RuoHan jumped into a clearing of grass just outside the corridor where his audience stood.

 

Nie HuaiSang produced a scented pouch from his robes and held it up for him to see. “Mr Ling, would this suffice?”

 

“As long as Sect Leader Nie does not mind that it will break, please throw it and I will strike it,” Wen RuoHan nodded.

 

Nie HuaiSang handed his pouch to Jin Ling and smiled, “You youngsters can probably throw it higher than I can.”

 

Jin Ling grabbed the red pouch and threw it as far as he could, eliciting a gasp from Lan SiZhui.

 

“RuLan, there is no way that anyone ca-

 

Lan SiZhui’s sentence was cut off as a brilliant flash of crackling blue, in the perfect shape of a spear, pierced the target 30 feet in the air. Dried flowers and herbs rained down all over the grass, some landing on the roof. As quickly as his spear had appeared, Wen RuoHan retracted his weapon and gave a small bow to the flabbergasted trio while Lan JingYi clapped his hands in glee.

 

“I’m rich!” he skipped around Jin Ling and patted the shocked young man on the back, “I can’t wait to visit Carp Tower next time!”

 

“That was…. Truly incredible,” Nie HuaiSang folded his fan and offered a few claps of his own, “With this level of cultivation, I would not be surprised if Brother Ling becomes the next GuSu Lan Sect Leader.”

 

“Sect Leader Nie truly jests,” Wen RuoHan shook his head, “Ling XuYin is but a normal disciple unrelated to the Lan Clan, I have no interest in staging a coup.”

 

“I have no ulterior meaning,” Nie HuaiSang apologised, “Considering the state of the Lan Clan’s inheritance issues, I believe it is a good time for the cultivation world to return to the days of Sect first, Clan second. Those with esteem and skill ought to lead, instead of ruling by bloodline and burdening an entire Sect with misery… like me…”

 

Wen RuoHan could not bring himself to disagree. If he had not been forced upon the throne of QiShan Wen Sect Leader, Nie HuaiSang’s father would not have died the way he did. If he had not been forced upon that prickly throne… Lan QiRen would still be his.

 

“Sect Leader Nie ought not to have such a negative outlook,” Wen RuoHan said politely, “although I humbly agree with your premise that those with esteem and skill should lead the Sect, I am neither of those things. My only wish is to remain in obscurity for the rest of my days.”

 

“You may not have such luxury after all those Sect Leaders you offended return home and spread the rumours of your cultivation,” Nie HuaiSang advised, “Those with skill are often targeted.”

 

 

“Ahem.”

 

 

Lan QiRen’s cough drew all eyes to him. He has witnessed the whole spectacle from around the corner of the next corridor.

 

“Ling XuYin, return to your quarters immediately to copy Sect rules for the next 3 days. Frivolous shows are an embarrassment.”

 

Watching his assistant silently retreat, Lan QiRen sighed and stroked his beard. “Sect Leaders Nie and Jin, I trust you to deal with his matter appropriately?”

 

Jin Ling looked confused, while Nie HuaiSang and Lan SiZhui offered Lan QiRen a polite bow as he too turned to leave.

 

 

“Deal with what?” Lan JingYi asked, half to himself.

 

“I think Ling XuYin is going to become an important person...” Nie HuaiSang smiled knowingly and sauntered away, leaving Lan JingYi none the wiser.

 

“I think the Sir is… protecting Senior Ling?” Lan SiZhui whispered.

 

“How? He is being punished for showing us a technique,” Lan JingYi complained, “I think the Sir is trying to quash his talent.”

 

“Then he would have been severely punished immediately and forced to apologise to Sect Leader Peng, if what you said happened in the meeting room was true. Instead, Senior Ling was given silent permission to threaten a Sect Leader and given a punishment so light, it amounts to nothing,” Lan JingYi analysed.

 

“So, you mean the old man is showing to all of us how much he dotes on his new pet?” Jin Ling pondered.

 

“No, I think the Sir would like RuLan and Sect Leader Nie to pacify the other Sects and tell them that the offender has been punished. The next 3 days will be when the waves of gossip and potential danger to Senior Ling are at their highest, so if there can be word that he has been punished and not permitted outside, he can be as safe as possible.”

 

“SiZhui, you are so clever!” Lan JingYi patted his own forehead, “That is a lot of reading into just a few minutes of talk!”

 

“I do not know if what Sect Leader Nie said could come true,” Lan SiZhui sighed, “but I have a feeling that Senior Ling is not at all a simple man.”

 

Lan JingYi nodded in agreement. “I think even if the next Sect Leader is not surnamed Lan, I would follow him! You didn’t see him in the meeting room, but that guy has an aura of power, like he was some kind of conqueror in his past life or something. Everyone thinks that GuSu Lan Sect is weak-spirited and easy to bully, Ling XuYin would shut them all down!”

 

 

 

 

 

Three days later

 

 

“How many times have you copied the rules?” Lan QiRen scanned his vision across Wen RuoHan’s quarters. His desk was void all of all signs of use, even the inkstone had long dried out.

 

Wen RuoHan bowed his head respectfully and fished a single sheet of paper out of under the inkstone, passing it to Lan QiRen with both hands. The words written on the sheet were few – ‘do not fight without permission’. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

“Ling Sheng,” Lan QiRen narrowed his eyes and brought forth a sterner tone than he had ever used, “Do not jest.”

 

“I have been copying for the past three days, and these are my results.”

 

Lan QiRen did not expect the younger man to openly challenge his punishment. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ is Lan QiRen’s favourite proverb, and although his true intention was indeed to protect Ling XuYin, the other’s actions that brazenly say ‘I know what you are doing’ irritated him. It was a more polite version of Wen RuoHan’s cocky protests that drove him insane decades ago, and Lan QiRen was at a loss of whether to let him get away with it.

 

“I have taught many brazen students in my life, but you top the list in our Sect,” Lan QiRen cast the single sheet of paper back to Wen RuoHan and rubbed his temples, nursing a headache, “How did GuSu Lan Sect raise such a disciple?”

 

“There has always been men of differing character in the Cloud Recesses,” Wen RuoHan smiled at his victory and poured Lan QiRen a cup of tea, “Devoted romantics that show their feelings like QingHeng-Jun, quiet staunch types like HanGuang-Jun, quietly rebellious types like Sect Leader, playful sunshine types like JingYi, sarcastic witty types like my junior in the medical team, and even bad seeds like Su She… we are all bound by one set of rules, but there are many surprises. Teacher, type do you think I am?”

 

Lan QiRen nearly cracked a smile. Ling XuYin was once again correct in reading his thoughts… forcing different personalities on a path he considered the straight and narrow had reaped no good harvest, and there was a time and pace to relax the rules a little. He could not bring himself to punish Ling XuYin further after hearing him say that his ‘cultivation was to protect’ to Nie HuaiSang – a great regret of Lan QiRen’s life was that he had been unable to convince Wen RuoHan that simple principle, despite his utmost efforts.

 

Lan QiRen had forgotten, yet again, the vital context of only protecting those who are deemed important.  

 

“You are the type that knows no fear,” he sipped at his tea and spared his assistant a meaningful glance, “brazen, outlandish, a risk-taker.”

 

‘Of course I am,’ Wen RuoHan chuckled to himself, ‘Is this not the game you want me to play?’

 

“I prefer to be called courageous,” Wen RuoHan topped up Lan QiRen’s teacup and let his eyes linger on the fluttering, long eyelashes as Lan QiRen lowered his gaze. Those eyes were at their least dangerous when they looked away from him, as they often threatened to cut and drown.

 

“If you would like to show me your courage, save it for the field trip.”

 

“Teacher, had you been waiting for me all this time?”

 

“Quiet,” Lan QiRen huffed, “Do you want to copy more rules?”

 

Wen RuoHan slyly smiled at having gotten under Lan QiRen’s skin. He graciously asked Lan QiRen to leave as he was ‘going to pack his underwear’, and the fuming Lan QiRen stormed out of his quarters muttering that it was a day trip.

 

Wen RuoHan could barely hold in his laughter at Lan QiRen’s receding image.

 

‘Two can play this game, Teacher. If you don’t kill me soon, I might just give you a stroke first...’

 

Two heads poked around the corner of Wen RuoHan’s doorway, catching his half smile.

 

“Psst… Senior Ling!” It was the same junior/senior medical disciples who had commented on his cooking several days ago.

 

“What brings you both here?” Wen RuoHan cleared his throat and hid his smile away.

 

“Don’t hide it, we could see your smile,” his senior said, “The whole medical team are in uproar. How in the heavens did you use your below-average cooking to climb the ladder so quickly?”

 

“Please elaborate.”

 

“Don’t play dumb, Senior Ling!” the junior exclaimed, “The Sir has never allowed anyone to call him Teacher before! The other senior disciples are shocked that you have been given such privilege, yet you have never sat in his lessons before.”

 

“Never?” Wen RuoHan was genuinely surprised that a famous teacher and scholar such as Lan QiRen has no serious protege.

 

“Never,” the senior confirmed, “Not to mention you attacked a Sect Leader indoors, without permission, and received less than a slap on the wrist. Everyone is questioning how this is possible.”

 

‘Ha. Haha. So he absolutely knows who I am… Oh Lan QiRen, how you have matured. I once thought you were not the cruel type, but it seems like you are really playing me for a dying mouse before you break the window paper…’ [7]

 

“I do not think I am special,” Wen RuoHan lied elegantly, “perhaps Teacher is so disturbed and tired from recent events, that he has temporarily forgotten to pay attention to the details.”

 

“Really?” the junior put his chin in his hands and thought out loud, “maybe Sir just wants to use your cultivation talents- wait… Senior Ling, where did you learn such incredible skills anyway? JingYi has been telling everyone about how you annihilated people without even lifting a finger, can you show us?”

 

Wen RuoHan internally cursed Lan JingYi’s big mouth and the rumour chain. No doubt, in a few days the whole cultivation world will hear stories further and further from the truth until he sounds like a fairy-tale hero. GuSu Lan Sect may shut down talk within the Cloud Recesses, but the GuSu Lan Sect cannot control the after-dinner gossip of the entire world. 

 

“I was sentenced to home detention for three days because I showed people,” Wen RuoHan shrugged, “I am average, not totally stupid. Now, if you will excuse me, I must accompany Teacher on a field trip.”

 

 

 

 

Later that day, Lake BiLing

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan stood idly by as Lan QiRen ripped old talismans from trees on the shore of Lake BiLing and replaced them with new ones. He threw stones into the water and watched the ripples ebb into calm as Lan QiRen drew a complicated set of sealing spells. Not once did Lan QiRen ask him for help (or even talk to him), and his offers were rejected by silence. At long last, Lan QiRen finished his task, and Wen RuoHan could finally ask the question burning on his mind:

 

“Teacher, what is my role in his field trip?”

 

“Insurance, lest I become overwhelmed and the water demon is released from its seal. I trust your cultivation would be enough to stop it.”

 

“It is very well sealed…” Wen RuoHan frowned, “I could not detect its presence whatsoever.”

 

“Good.”

 

“……” Wen RuoHan awkwardly followed Lan QiRen on his sword as the pair started on their way back to the Cloud Recesses after the shortest, least interesting, most boring field trip in the history of field trips. Not only had Wen RuoHan learned nothing from his ‘Teacher’, he did not know why/how/who was being sealed.

 

“Teacher, are you perhaps angry at me for what I did to Sect Leader Peng?”

 

Lan QiRen did not answer his question until the pair landed in CaiYi Town.

 

Sheathing his own sword, Lan QiRen beckoned Wen RuoHan to sit at an outdoor tea stall by the canal and ordered a pot of green tea. Wen RuoHan watched as nimble fingers deftly poured the fragrant tea and looked at his own palms… when was the last time he had held those hands? Did they still run slightly cold?

 

“XuYin, I am not angry. I am worried.”

 

Lan QiRen’s directness caught Wen RuoHan off guard just as he raised his teacup to his lips. Without drinking, he set the slightly cracked porcelain cup back down on the wooden table and asked, “Is Teach worried that I may bring calamity to the GuSu Lan Sect?”

 

‘As a spy, that is your job, is it not?’ Seeing Ling XuYin so directly challenging his own uncertainties only made the man seem more suspicious.

 

“Do not worry, Teacher!” Wen RuoHan flashed his most charming smile, “I do not start fights I cannot win. If the Peng Sect dares insult Teacher one more time, they will regret being born.”

 

“A GuSu Lan Sect disciple must not be so keen for conflict,” Lan QiRen chastised, “If you do not mend your impulsive nature, I will have you do this sealing technique from now on until you learn patience.”

 

“What is sealed at Lake BiLing, Teacher?” Wen RuoHan changed the subject before he earned more of Lan QiRen’s ire, “What requires sealing more than once?”

 

“A Waterborne Abyss. It has plagued this lake for over 15 years,” Lan QiRen sighed, “I have sealed it temporarily, but the seal must be reinforced every 2 months to maintain efficacy.”

 

“That is a tremendous amount of work. Why not dam, then drain the lake?” Wen RuoHan frowned, “Waterborne Abysses are complex in administering the solution, but straightforward. If the lake had been drained and left to soak up sunlight 15 years ago, there would be no more problems by now.”

 

“That was certainly a consideration, but waterways in GuSu are complex and crucial to the everyday lives of its citizens. Look around you, XuYin, how would the village folk conduct everyday business should the water stop flowing?”

 

“Teacher, if I may be so rude, but your lips are pale and you look exhausted,” Wen RuoHan shook his head, “Even if it must remain sealed, why must you be the only one doing this year upon year? One day, you will not be able to exert such huge amounts of energy…” Lan QiRen’s over-exertion during his sealing spells did not escape Wen RuoHan’s watchful eyes. He clearly saw a man on the brink of collapse, summoning spiritual energy on willpower alone and skating on thin ice. Lan QiRen’s lips had been paper white and his eyes laced with red as the life force ebbed out of him to the yellow talismans, Wen RuoHan’s heart ached thinking he had been fighting this battle alone for over a decade.

 

“When the Sunshot Campaign ended, I was given the choice to return this Waterborne Abyss to its original location or find resources to contain it. I chose this path.”

 

Utterly confused, Wen RuoHan asked, “What does the Sunshot Campaign have to do with this demon?”

 

“This Waterborne Abyss originated in QiShan. The Wen Sect did not have the means to destroy it, so they chased it downstream to us.”

 

Crack.

 

Wen RuoHan’s cup shattered in his hand, spilling boiling hot tea that scalded his skin. The pain his hand did little to compare with the sudden realization that the reason why Lan QiRen risked his life every 2 months… was him.

 

Unconsciously, Wen RuoHan’s lack of care for the citizens under QiShan Wen Sect’s protection had influenced the ethos of his disciples from the top down. He did not see the value of staying to fight battles he could not win – for he did not wish to end up like his senior who died fighting the snake demon instead of chasing it away. He did not care for how problems to do with demons were ‘taken care of’ as long as there were no complaints from the people. Chased away, purified or destroyed – it made no difference to him. Wen RuoHan had allowed a festering, negligent culture void of ethics to happen, and Lan QiRen was still suffering for it to this day.

 

“….why?” Wen RuoHan whispered, “Why did you not chase it back to those Wen bastards that deserved it?”

 

‘Why did you not come to my door and punch me in the face? Why did you suffer silently? Did you hate me that much, Lan QiRen?’

 

“XuYin, do you think I could drive back this monster to QiShan, to the people who had just lost all of their protection?” Lan QiRen was disappointed in Ling XuYin’s short-sightedness in this matter when he seemed so wise just days ago. He raised his voice a little and set his tea cup down with a resounding thud. “The Wen Sect had been destroyed, and their jurisdiction was being fought over by surrounding Sects. If I had chased the Waterborne Abyss back at that time, it would have been a death sentence to the people of QiShan! Even now, it is absolutely out of the question.”

 

 

Wen RuoHan always knew that his lover had been stuck-up, caring too much about the common man and almost unreasonably driven by the greater good. But Wen RuoHan had not considered that Lan QiRen’s sense of responsibility extended to his enemies. As a ghost, he had witnessed Lan QiRen silently take in the Wen Clan’s last remaining child without a second word but had thought Lan QiRen was doing it for his nephew’s sake. To him, the idea of risking his life half a dozen time a year, every year for 15 years to reap no reward protecting the people of QiShan was almost idiotic in its morality.

 

Wen RuoHan certainly would not have done the same.  

 

He sat in silent contemplation and drank his tea, watching intently as townspeople greeted Lan QiRen as they passed him. Some would wave, some would offer a bow, and some would just nod and smile. Perhaps this level of idiocy impressed the commoners?

 

“Magical cultivators! Look mommy! Those are the people who save us from the monsters!”

 

Wen RuoHan resisted the urge to shoo away the young boy that tugged on his clothes. The boy’s mother looked awfully embarrassed as she apologised and tried to pull the boy away, but small hands only held tighter.

 

“Get your dirty little paws off the great cultivator’s white robes!” she gave her son a light smack on the back of his head.

 

“No!”

 

Flashbacks to A-Ming’s bite on his thigh, Wen RuoHan stood up with a start and started to shake his right leg like getting rid of a parasite. He hopped closer and closer to the edge of the canal and no longer held back his expression of utter disdain. “Kid, get off!”

 

To the child, a swinging leg was more fun than a stationary one. He fully latched on, laughing, “This Uncle is fun!”

 

“I am not an Uncle!” Wen RuoHan exasperated, “I am Brother! Brother, do you hear me?! Now get off!”

 

Immediately, Lan QiRen was taken back to a small orchard house in QingHe. The scene of Wen RuoHan desperately shaking A-Ming off his leg and the many times he told the boy off for calling him Uncle were so fresh in his memory, he could almost smell the damp, earthy air of Han Village.

 

Slowly, but surely, Lan QiRen cracked his first genuine smile in decades.

 

Smiles grew into chuckle, and chuckle grew into laughter.

 

 

Entranced by the sound of Lan QiRen’s laughter, Wen RuoHan tripped over his own feet and plunged head-first into the CaiYi Town canal.

 

Wen RuoHan had definitely learned to swim in his formative years, as a precautionary measure. Ling Sheng (the previous soul to occupy this body) had died by drowning. In a sudden case of falling into water and swallowing some, Ling Sheng’s paralysing physical fear overcame Wen RuoHan’s learned responses and he could only struggle to keep his head above water.

 

Lan QiRen continued to laugh for a few moments before suddenly remembering that Ling XuYin’s hometown was destroyed by flooding. He peeked over the edge of the canal and was horrified to find the man weakly flailing… and drowning. Lan QiRen did not even know he was capable of moving so fast.

 

“Ling Sheng! Grab my hand!” All GuSu composure was lost as Lan QiRen rolled up his sleeves and stretched himself over the edge of the riverside, reaching down towards the water.

 

In a panicked moment, Ling Sheng’s body moved on its own to grab desperately at his sole chance of survival – only to drag Lan QiRen down with him instead.

 

Lan QiRen’s momentary panic lasted for a split second before his feet touched the bottom of the canal.

 

He stood and watched his student flail about, in shallow water barely enough to reach one’s chin, before letting out an exasperated sigh and dragging him by the collar ten feet onto the stone steps at the water’s edge.

 

“How stupid!” the child pulled a funny face at Wen RuoHan’s pathetic, spluttering and shivering form, “I have never seen an adult drown in this shallow water!”

 

Lan QiRen gave his student a few pats on his back as he continued to hack and cough. The child’s mother was beyond mortified as she apologized profusely, pushing her son’s head downwards to force a bow.

 

“Oh my goodness, I am so sorry! Dear cultivators, please come to my humble home to dry your clothes and have a hot meal before you catch a cold.”

 

Silently, Lan QiRen weighed up the consequences of arriving back at the Cloud Recesses one day late, as opposed to returning with Ling XuYin together, saturated with canal water. He grimaced, removed a stray leaf from his dripping hair, and accepted the woman’s invitation as gracefully as he could…. As gracefully as one could while forming puddles on the ground.

 

The woman was the wife of a blacksmith, whose store was not far from where Wen RuoHan had fallen. The pair were given dry clothes and towels, although La QiRen forbade the removal of their wet forehead ribbons. After Wen RuoHan finished the ginger broth prepared by the [very apologetic] family, he felt sufficiently good enough to smile at the memories of a young Lan QiRen in Han Village too stubborn to remove his symbol of control, even as he washed and hung his own GuSu Lan Sect robes out to dry.

 

As night fell, issues arose. Autumn was too cold of a season to sleep on the ground, but the humble family home’s spare bedroom only had one bed.

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

 

[7] Breaking the window paper (捅破窗户纸) is a saying that means to say forthright what is obviously implied/very clear already to both parties. It’s a ‘I know it he knows it, but neither of us are going to address the elephant in the room’ situation, where one can still conveniently feign ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“Teacher, it looks like we have no choice but to huddle close for tonight,” Wen RuoHan put on a serious expression while he danced and raved internally.

 

Lan QiRen looked at him with a judgmental face that silently said, ‘this is your fault, go and sleep on the floor.’

 

“We have both been in cold water today, if either of us sleep on the floor, we will surely fall ill,” Wen RuoHan added without missing a beat, “I cannot let Teacher fall ill, nor can I let Teacher be known as one who let his student fall ill….truly caught between a rock and a hard place…”

 

Blackmail. Pure and simple blackmail.

 

Lan QiRen swore to himself never to entrust this sly spy with any of his personal secrets. Truthfully, he was a little intimidated by how quickly Ling XuYin had walked into his life and into his heart. The young man was always pushing into placed he did not belong, yet Lan QiRen could not find any reason nor will to drive him out… much like a person he once knew.... Or once thought he knew.

 

The bed was not wide enough to accommodate two full-grown men shoulder to shoulder, forcing them to lie sideways (face to face) and temperatures soon rose to uncomfortable levels after they lay to rest. Wasting no time in seducing Lan QiRen, Wen RuoHan got out of bed specially to light the small oil lamp on the table and take his upper under-garment off. He turned his back then whipped his head around to catch Lan QiRen swiftly averting his gaze – bingo. Every day he was not exposed and killed, Wen RuoHan become more and more daring.

 

“Ling Sheng, this is preposterous! Clothe yourself this instant!”

 

“Teacher, excessive sweating will lead to illness.”

 

He ignored all of Lan QiRen’s outraged protests and climbed back into bed after blowing out the lamp, trapping his teacher between his naked chest and the wall in complete darkness.

 

Lan QiRen felt his cheeks turn so red, he was afraid he was glowing. Moonlight filtered through the paper windows enough for him to see Ling XuYin’s innocently closed eyes and long, sultry eyelashes flutter as he dozed off. At this point, it was too late to question whether he was being purposefully seduced – whatever the intention was, Lan QiRen felt his head start to ache.

 

Ever since Wen RuoHan’s touch, he had been unable to conjure up sexual feelings with anyone else. That is, until today. Whether it was the extreme proximity with another male body so similar in age to the Wen RuoHan he had been attracted to… or, much scarier, the thought that his heart had opened to another man against his own will.

 

Lan QiRen did not have time to consider the reason. His most pressing issue was how to hide his emerging erection before it pressed onto Ling XuYin.

 

The space between Ling XuYin and the wall was so small, Lan QiRen found it impossible to flip himself onto his other side without touching the ‘sleeping’ man. He could only shift his hips backwards as far as he could in hopes that his bedmate did not move a single inch closer to him.

 

Unluckily for Lan QiRen, Wen RuoHan’s thirst for physical contact was overwhelming - and very shameless. Pretending to sleep was a skill he had perfected 35 years ago to look at Lan QiRen’s sleeping face (and sometimes to cop a feel or two) and this time, he would use it to roll into Lan QiRen’s body like a limp, lifeless fish. An adult man’s body weight is significant when fully relaxed, difficult to push off from a compromised sleeping position. In Lan QiRen’s panicked effort to move his vital parts away from the sudden contact, a hand ‘accidentally’ grazed between his legs.

 

Horrified, Lan QiRen let out a gasp that sounded much more erotic than he anticipated.

 

Fluttering eyelashes opened.

 

“Teacher, are you alright?”

 

Most GuSu Lan Sect disciples have very limited (if not absolutely zero) education on matters of sex. Lan QiRen could not be sure whether Ling XuYin was asking about his obvious erection or his ragged, erratic breathing and sweat.

 

“I… just feel warm, that is all,” he avoided eye contact and tried to wriggle away, “XuYin, move back to your side of the bed.”

 

Wen RuoHan would have none of Lan QiRen’s excuses. He put on the most innocent air and asked, “Teacher, you seem unwell. This bed is much too small, even if I moved away, it will still remain too hot. Would you like to also remove your upper clothing? We are both men, there is nothing inappropriate…”

 

Lan QiRen’s embarrassed expression was almost too much for Wen RuoHan to contain as he fought to maintain a straight face. To add fuel to the fire, he pretended to heed Lan QiRen’s instructions to move away but instead rubbed his leg against the now slightly damp bulge between Lan QiRen’s legs.

 

Not satisfied at another quiet gasp, Wen RuoHan wanted to hear more.

 

“Teacher, are you in pain?” he whispered, voice sultry and thick with thinly veiled lust, “If you are uncomfortable, I will do my best to cure you. After all, I am a medical disciple…” Before Lan QiRen had time to complain, Wen RuoHan closed the distance between them and reached between their bodies, palm landing square on Lan QiRen’s tip.

 

“I… am… fine… st- stop- AH-h!” Lan QiRen’s lower half felt as if it was on fire. He may have forgotten how it felt to be touched by someone other than himself, but his body betrayed him without the slightest hesitation. He heard the man beside him whisper something akin to ‘relax’ and ‘treatment’ before pleasure overcame all rational thought.

 

Wen RuoHan felt Lan QiRen succumb to his grip through the fabric of his undergarment. Although it was more difficult to accurately attack his most sensitive spots through a barrier, the cotton offered extra friction. Wasting no time, Wen RuoHan swiftly reached in to Lan QiRen’s undergarments to take the leaking erection into his hands. With a few quick tugs, it was exposed to the air.

 

“Ling Sheng- wait-

 

“Teacher, does it not feel better?” Wen RuoHan whispered into Lan QiRen’s burning ears and picked up the pace, “It is bad for your body to keep it all inside…”

 

Lan QiRen could only shake his head as tears threatened to fall. The pleasure was undeniable, but it was coming from the wrong person. Even if that person was the lowest of the low, Lan QiRen was not yet ready to accept another. “You- AH! Shameless- you are not-

 

‘You are not him.’

 

“I am. Close your eyes, Teacher, and just pretend I am.”

 

Wen RuoHan ran his thumb repeatedly over the tip and under the frenulum in time with his mid-paced strokes. Lan QiRen’s preference was for either fast or slow (surprisingly, slow movements would cause him to get mentally excited enough to climax) and such an innocently teasing speed soon earned his ire. His hips bucked forward in a desperate attempt to pick up speed, brushing the end of his cock into Wen RuoHan’s abdomen.

 

Unlike the now slick hands working their way around him, the skin he thrust into was still dry. Lan QiRen totally lost control of his body to the search for more pleasure and thrust forward once more, covering his own eyes and biting down hard on his lower lip to recover some dignity. Ling XuYin’s gentle whispers of ‘Teacher’ nearly drove him insane. As an image of Wen RuoHan’s face flashed across his memory, Lan QiRen shuddered and released into his hand without warning.

 

It was over in little under three minutes.

 

When Lan QiRen finally calmed his breathing and took his hand off his eyes, he saw a sight that turned his stomach. A man clearly not Wen RuoHan was licking his seed off his hand, slowly and deliberately, savouring each drop.

 

“There is no place to wash or wipe it away,” Wen RuoHan ignored Lan QiRen’s horrified expression continued his erotic display, “Teacher, your look is scary even in the moonlight… do you have a better way to dispose of this?”

 

The amalgamation of anger, shame and guilt of having betrayed his own principles exploded. Lan QiRen pushed Wen RuoHan as hard as he could with both his hands, backwards off the bed, and sent his head straight into the corner of a table.

 

“Get out!” he cried, “Get out…”

 

Wen RuoHan nursed his throbbing skull and grimaced. He had gone too far.

 

“Teacher, I am sorry-

 

“Shut your mouth and get out,” came Lan QiRen’s cold and distant reply, “You disgust me.”

 

Truthfully, Lan QiRen was disgusted in himself. He wanted more.

 

In the darkness came a chuckle, then two, then three. “Yes… I am disgusting,” Wen RuoHan said quietly in between laughs, “…disgusting. For all the things I have done, I expect you to hate me. But Teacher, if you knew that every step I have taken was to make your life easier, would you give me a chance to redeem myself?”

 

“You have lost your mind, Ling Sheng.”

 

“You know what I mean!”

 

“Then let me tell you clearly, Ling Sheng Ling XuYin,” Lan QiRen uttered through gritted teeth, “For every possible meaning – no.”

 

 “If I rid you of the Waterborne Abyss, will Teach reconsider?” Wen RuoHan thought Lan QiRen’s field trip was to show him how much strife he had caused him over the years, and would not forgive him unless he righted past wrongs. If the monster stood in his way, it would have to die just like everyone else.

 

“…” Baffled by Ling XuYin’s sudden shift in topic to the Waterborne Abyss, Lan QiRen paused to collect his thoughts.

 

The latter mistook his silence for agreement. He threw on his robes and marched out of the room without so much a glance back at the thoroughly confused man left behind in bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen did not think anyone in their right mind would actually go to fight the Waterborne Abyss. But when the sun filtered through the window paper and illuminated the table with one corner seeped in dried blood, Lan QiRen began to worry.

 

When he ventured outside and saw boats washed onto the road and fish dead on doorsteps more than three feet above the CaiYi canal’s water level, he began to sweat.

 

“Did you see the lightning above Lake BiLing last night?” a fruit vendor said to his customer, “Maybe that had something to do with these freak swells…”

 

“Oh boy, I saw it, heard it, and know someone who nearly died in it!”

 

Lan QiRen rushed to the fruit seller and asked, “Sir, do you know if there have been any casualties?”

 

“A cultivator, thank Heavens,” the old man wiped his brow, “everyone is saying that the monster has been set loose, please go to check! Wait, is that dang thing not sealed properly?”

 

“Impossible, I personally sealed it just yesterday…” Lan QiRen uttered to himself, “Unless that Ling XuYin went to…. Oh no. I should not have assumed Ling XuYin is sound of mind.”

 

‘Why must I always attract the crazy ones?’

 

 

 

 

Lake BiLing

 

 

When Lan QiRen arrived at the lake, its shores could only be described as chaotic when viewed from the air. Swaths of trees had been uprooted and dumped half a mile away, overturned boats in their canopies, and some fish had found refuge in new, smaller ponds formed on the shore. Lan QiRen frantically scoured the shore for his sealing talismans but found only a few fragments, hanging off trees that had survived whatever disaster occurred in the dead of night.

 

The Waterborne Abyss had most certainly been unsealed.

 

As he surveyed the damage, a fluttering piece of white caught Lan QiRen’s eye. As he neared the strand hanging from a branch, his heart stopped and sank – a blood-stained GuSu Lan Sect forehead ribbon quivered in the morning wind, its owner nowhere to be seen.

 

‘He… cannot swim.’

 

“Ling…. Sheng…. Ling Sheng!” Lan QiRen’s panic surfaced, now that he no longer had any reason to believe his assistant was miraculously unharmed. “Ling XuYin! ANSWER ME! I FORBID YOU TO DISAPPEAR, DO YOU HEAR ME?!”

 

Lan QiRen’s frantic searched around the perimeters of Lake BiLing lasted until early afternoon. Exhausted and almost in tears due to worry, he finally discovered a battered Ling XuYin washed ashore, miles from where his forehead ribbon stayed.

 

Overcome with happiness of having at least located the man, Lan QiRen dropped to his knees and gingerly scooped up his head. Trembling, he put a hand on Wen RuoHan’s ashen face and felt for signs of life.

 

“Thank goodness…. Still breathing. XuYin, XuYin, are you alright?”

 

Lan QiRen shifted Wen RuoHan in an attempt to get away from the puddle he was kneeling in, only to find his own robes were his head rested was drenched in fresh blood.

 

“Wake up! Ling XuYin, please…” Afraid to move the man left he add to his injuries, Lan QiRen could only call his name over and over again. He had not felt this helpless since his older brother passed away holding his hand – how had this young man walked into his heart so easily to cause such pain?

 

“….Tea…cher?”

 

Wen RuoHan could only muster the strength to open his eyes a sliver.

 

“I am here,” Lan QiRen hurriedly dabbed at his brow with his sleeve, “XuYin, conserve your energy. I will get you back to the Cloud Recesses at once-

 

“I… have rid you of the Waterborne Abyss…”

 

Lan QiRen could not believe his ears. “You what?” Not even Lan An and Wen Mao could possibly take down a monster of this level, let alone a man who could not swim. “How?”

 

Wen RuoHan forced a rigid smile and whispered, “Do we….. have a chance… to be together now?”

“You are delirious, XuYin, please stop talking,” Lan QiRen was worried that the man would really talk himself to death.

 

“Teacher… Will you not call me by my name?” Wen RuoHan tried to grab Lan QiRen’s collar to pull him close, but only managed to sit up a little before collapsing backwards in pain. Not a single organ was spared in his fight to the death with the Waterborne Abyss. Bile and blood dripped from the corner of his mouth as he continued a dying man’s rant, “All I wanted…. 13 years… maybe it is too much to ask, but are we still possible?”

 

“This is blackmail!” Lan QiRen cried, “How idiotic are you, Ling Sheng?! Going on a suicide mission to force me to accept you… I- I-

 

“I understand…”

 

“You don’t understand a damn thing, now shut up!”

 

Wen RuoHan had never hear Lan QiRen speak such uncouth words. The world was losing its light, but at the end of the tunnel was no light. ‘If you will not acknowledge me or accept me… why do you look so worried? Why do you give me hope?’

 

“Teacher…. It is getting dark, maybe I just need to sleep…”

 

“I forbid it!” Lan QiRen was past caring about appearances. He slung the barely conscious man over his shoulder and boarded his sword, wincing at the dead weight. “You stay awake, do you hear me?! You are going to be atoning for your actions yesterday, I forbid you to die until you have copied the rules at least 100 times!”

 

 

 

 

Cloud Recesses

 

 

“Sir! What in the world-

 

“Every single medical team member to my quarters, NOW!”

 

No man in the Cloud Recesses was about to ask questions of Lan QiRen as he tore through the corridors like a madman and kicked open the doors to his bedroom.

 

“J-JingYi, is th-that Senior Ling?”

 

“…just get help before Sir notices you are idle,” Lan JingYi shuddered at Lan QiRen’s manic state. It turns out, Lan QiRen’s anger at badly written prose in the classroom was not even a fraction of his wrath, and Lan JingYi was not about to test the boundaries.

 

The medical team were dumbfounded at the extent of Wen RuoHan’s injuries. Normally, they would only have to name so many types if they were performing an autopsy.

 

“The injury to the occipital is… odd,” a disciple scratched his head, “what kind of Waterborne Abyss leaves a right-angled mark? XuYin has no injuries to his dorsal plane aside from this…”

 

“Table,” Lan QiRen answered, “That was a table.”

 

The medical team turned to look at each other for a few moments before swallowing their questions. Nothing about Ling XuYin or Lan QiRen made sense in this instance, and another mystery did not seem like much. To start with, Lan QiRen’s insinuation that their junior unsealed and killed off the Waterborne Abyss in Lake BiLing singlehandedly was beyond comprehension. Even the youngest of disciples in the room knew of it as a monster so formidable, the QiShan Wen Sect chased it away and nobody had been able to exterminate it for close to 20 years – to be able to survive such an encounter is already praiseworthy, let alone eradicate it.

 

“Brother QiRen, let me be frank,” Lan QiRen’s second cousin from the medical team was assigned the bringer of bad news, “the medical team’s Master will not be out of seclusion for another 16 days, and XuYin will not last until then. His internal injuries are beyond severe, his head injury is rendering him in and out of consciousness, and his spiritual energy is hanging by a thread. If any one of those three problems were not as bad, we could perhaps save him… but Sect Leader is not here, and we need two top cultivators for our array to work-

 

“Cut it short. Am I not enough to power the array?’ Lan QiRen stood up with a start and leaned uncomfortably close to his cousin, “How powerful do we need?”

 

“HanGuang-Jun level or above, Sir,” a younger medical disciple answered nervously, “Within the next 12 hours.”

 

“JingYi!” Lan QiRen ordered, “Take men to Lotus Pier immediately, and bring back Sect Leader with his husband even if you have to kidnap, blackmail or bribe!”

 

“But-

 

“NOW!” he put his head in his hands, shaking, “….what’s in the past does not matter, just get them here immediately!”

 

‘I do not know where WangJi or that Wei WuXian have gone… but if XiChen and Jiang WanYin can be here… and I help them… maybe, maybe there is hope. If I did not push him into the table… If only I had not pushed him….’

 

 

 

11 hours later

 

 

“Uncle, we have returned!” Lan XiChen and Jiang Cheng were rudely interrupted from their afternoon tea by a stumbling and blabbering Lan JingYi, who had not announced himself at the gates of Lotus Pier and was being chased by guards. A recklessly fast flight from YunMeng to GuSu ensued, both his and Jiang Cheng’s hair were in various states of disheveled as they walked as fast as they could into Lan QiRen’s bedroom.

 

A medical array for replenishing spiritual power was already laid, Lan QiRen had forbidden any of the medical team to leave the array ever since it had been drawn, just in case the pair would arrive. JingYi had not been particularly effective at communicating exactly why Ling XuYin was or why he needed saving before he was outpaced in flight, but judging by the desperate look on Lan QiRen’s face and the battered, bloody man lying on his bed, Lan XiChen could guess enough.

 

Jiang Cheng was not as sharp. Slightly annoyed that Lan QiRen would bring them back with hardly a cordial invitation, he tidied his front bangs and examined the room. “What in the flying fuc-

 

“WanYin, join the array, our Uncle needs help,” Lan XiChen tugged Jiang Cheng’s sleeve and pushed him to act first and talk later. If anything, this would hopefully get them back on talking terms with Lan QiRen.

 

The spiritual energy array was a success after a few close calls.

 

“His core has stabilized,” said a medical disciple, “but his physical injuries are severe. Whether he is able to recover will depend on his tenacity.”

 

“This man is tenacious to the extent of insanity,” Lan QiRen remained on the floor, too exhausted from over-exertion of his own spiritual energy to stand, “I forbade him to die.”

 

As the medical disciples took their leave one by one to prepare medicines, Lan QiRen was left with only his nephew and new nephew-in-law.

 

Lan XiChen took a deep breath, “Uncle… I-

 

“No need,” Lan QiRen sighed, “You and WangJi have chosen your own paths. Difficulties lie ahead, but what can we all do but try our best?”

 

Surprised at Lan QiRen’s sudden shift in attitude, Jiang Cheng let out a sigh of relief.

 

“I am not finished,” Lan QiRen said, “Jiang Cheng, I know you are not a bad child at heart. But your temper must be controlled as long as you remain married to my nephew. You are both Sect Leaders, and now that you are married, the eyes of the world will be watching. A single misstep could throw you both into the pits of political Hell, and if you dare hurt XiChen-

 

“I will not.”

 

“Good. But do not interrupt me again. Now, go to tend to the pile of paperwork on XiChen’s desk… both of you have been gone for too long.”

 

“Uncle,” Lan XiChen was still curious, “Who is this man? Is he a disciple of ours?”

 

“JingYi seems to enjoy telling his stories,” Lan QiRen replied, “you may appreciate him more after you learn what he has done for all of us.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the ten days Wen RuoHan lay unconscious, Lan QiRen prayed to any deity that would listen. He once thought not having time to see Wen RuoHan before the man died was the biggest regret in his life, but watching someone slip away from life in front of him was just as painful. Before he knew it, all he could think of was Ling XuYin. If Ling XuYin could wake up, he did not much care how.

 

When those eyes opened one fine, sunny morning, Lan QiRen nearly laughed out loud and sobbed simultaneously.

 

“XuYin!” he cried and leaned over Wen RuoHan, too elated to find better words, “XuYin… XuYin…”

 

“Teacher….” Wen RuoHan reached out to touch him but only managed to snag a few strands of hair, missing his face entirely. “Teacher, why do you not light some candles in the middle of the night?”

 

Lan QiRen’s smile froze on his face. “…..XuYin…. can you not see me?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

---------- TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions of suicide ahead --------------

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen waved his hand across Wen RuoHan’s face again and again, praying those listless, unfocused eyes would move. He even pretended to jab at his eyeballs to elicit a flinch response – nothing.

 

“Teacher, I can feel the breeze,” Wen RuoHan sighed, “I really cannot see.”

 

Lan QiRen collapsed onto the bed, nearly sitting on Wen RuoHan’s arm in the process. He held his hand over his mouth lest the sobs spill out, silently contemplating. Finally, Lan QiRen asked with a quiver in his voice, “How…. Are you so calm?”

 

“This is my retribution,” Wen RuoHan replied with no rise or fall to his tone, “for all the trouble I have caused you. I accept it.”

 

“XuYin, if I had not pushed you-

 

“Teacher, I have all the explanation I need.” Wen RuoHan had never been interested in apologies that cannot fix what is wrong - Lan QiRen’s guilt cannot be redeemed for his vision nor love, and was useless to him. He had, however, uncovered the answer to his long-time question: Would Lan QiRen accept him while he was on the verge of death?

 

Wen RuoHan’s previous death 15 years ago was so sudden, he never could predict what Lan QiRen’s reaction would be to see him die. Would the man cry for him, profess his undying love, or even offer him a kiss as a parting gift?

 

‘Not even calling my name as I lay dying in your arms… Lan QiRen, you truly are a cruel man. At least now I have no more fantasies, I understand my place now. You will never go back to how things were even if I die right here, I will only be Ling Sheng to you. Am I that much of a scourge on your life that you refuse to even utter my name?’

 

“I have ordered disciples to search the Library Pavilion for treatments of your condition, we will cure you,” Lan QiRen gingerly touched Wen RuoHan’s forehead to feel for a fever and winced as the man flinched from under his touch, “I do not wish to see your talents simply waste away.”

 

‘Talents…..’

 

“Was I of any help in the short time we had together?” Wen RuoHan asked. He could hear Lan QiRen’s tone of voice soften and imagined his kind smile (a rare thing).

 

“One of the best right-hand men anyone in that meeting room had ever seen.”

 

Wen RuoHan slowly climbed out of Lan QiRen’s bed and stumbled towards the door, feeling and knocking his legs on sharp furniture corners along the way. Lan QiRen quickly held him back before he fell over a chair. “Where do you think you are going?!” he exasperated, “lie down this instant!”

 

Wen RuoHan shook his head and headed towards the door again, only to bang his forehead on the doorframe.

 

“Ling XuYin! Have you had quite enough?!”

 

“Yes, Teacher,” Wen RuoHan cried, “Yes I have had enough. I am in no shape to continue to stay beside you, and I no longer have the will to. I have been watching you for 13 years madly in love, I only ever wanted to show you my best side. If I could not gain your affection at my strongest, my pride cannot tolerate your pity! Please let me go back to the medical dormitory and forget that I ever tried, Sir.”

 

“Are you mad?!”

 

“MAYBE I AM!” Wen RuoHan was near screaming volume, his voice cracked, “I am… I am… I knew it was much better to keep watching you from the shadows, Lan QiRen, but I couldn’t do it. Not when you stood in front of me, noticed me and talked to me… I couldn’t do it. Rather than live like this, why did you not just leave me to die?”

 

Lan QiRen was beyond furious. “You wish for death because I rejected your one advance? How pathetic! Ling Sheng, you disappoint me.”

 

“I have always been pathetic in your presence,” Wen RuoHan laughed, “How convenient for you to only notice now…”

 

“Then go!” Lan QiRen said through gritted teeth, “Get out.”

 

He watched the back of a lonely man walk slowly along the corridor, feeling his way around with his hand on the wall. Many times, Lan QiRen wanted to rush forward and catch Ling XuYin’s elbow as he stumbled, but held himself back.

 

‘Is this how Wen RuoHan looked, walking away as I rejected him again and again?’ Lan QiRen fought back tears as his vision blurred and Ling XuYin’s silhouette disappeared around the corner. ‘But he is not Wen RuoHan…. Ling XuYin is smart enough to never come back for me to break his heart again. Never again will I start to love while knowing there is no future. First the QiShan Wen Sect Leader, now a spy. Lan QiRen, what in the world is wrong with you?’

 

Lan QiRen caught himself off guard with his own thoughts. A passing Lan JingYi nearly dropped his tray of medical texts as he rounded the corner to see Lan QiRen slap himself.

 

‘Wait, how…. No. No no no no no no NO! I am not in love with him. Never have been, never will be, never can be… NO.’

 

 

 

GuSu Lan Sect’s medical team is a force to be reckoned with and Lan QiRen was quietly confident that Ling XuYin could be cured as long as he calmed down and stayed in the medical dormitories. He had no shortage of admirers after his heroic tale of defeating the Waterborne Abyss spread through the Sect, even Jiang Cheng had awkwardly attempted to ask Lan QiRen where to find Ling XuYin. Lan QiRen was determined to forget about his own confused feelings before they took hold – whirlwinds of affection had never worked out well for him in the past. Secretly, he did not want to admit he was capable of harbouring affection for anyone apart from Wen RuoHan. The most hated man in the cultivation world had become a great excuse for himself to refuse to love again… if he could be so loyal and so heartbroken, he would never be in harm’s away again. No beginnings also meant no endings – a perfect defence.

 

Lan QiRen began to busy himself with the mundane tasks of everyday, his normal life before this fiasco started. He had students to teach, punishments to administer, and essays to grade. Jiang Cheng had taken it upon himself to teach fighting to some of the Sect’s weaker disciples while Lan XiChen dealt with seemingly endless paperwork, and became Lan QiRen’s surprising pillar of support. Support, in a sense that as Sect Leader’s husband, Jiang Cheng naturally assumed the role of second in charge at the Cloud Recesses.

 

This sudden shift in role, plus the fact that the Waterborne Abyss no longer needed constant attention, made Lan QiRen a full-time teacher with too much spare time. Ten days later, Lan QiRen found himself itching to go to a night hunt – with too much time on his hands and not enough work, his mind had gradually dulled and became filled with nothing but memories. Sometimes, Wen RuoHan’s quips and actions from the past would be replaced with Ling XuYin’s face, and sometimes vice versa.

 

Lan QiRen’s most poignant mix-up was imagining Wen RuoHan, in all his QiShan red-robed glory, defending him with a spirit energy sword before the world.

 

“…..ir, Sir!”

 

Lan JingYi interrupted yet another meaningless daydream as class was dismissed.

 

“What is the matter, JingYi?” Lan QiRen asked.

 

“….the medical team wishes for your presence, Sir.”

 

“For what reason?”

 

“They say they have found a cure for Senior Ling’s blindness,” Lan JingYi’s troubled expression made Lan QiRen’s heart sink. Would Ling XuYin need donor eyes? Would the cure require a sacrifice?

 

“Go on…”

 

Lan JingYi shook his head. “The treatment is quite ingenious, but Senior Ling is refusing treatment and demands to be allowed to night hunt.”

 

“Does he have a death wish? Night hunting blind, when he cannot even walk across a room without tripping over chairs…” What kind of sickness of the mind leads to this kind of madness?

 

“A Senior well-versed in psychiatry has deemed Senior Ling does indeed have a death wish, Sir,” Lan JingYi looked uncharacteristically serious, “Nobody in the medical team is sure how to handle him. They have placed a curfew on Senior Ling and refused to let him near any sharp objects, but they are afraid that should he decide to break out, nobody would be able to stop him before it is too late. A junior disciple approached me yesterday and begged me to deliver you this message. The medical team are aware that Senior Ling has upset you, Sir, but he is not responding to anyone-

 

“Enough. Take me to him.”

 

 

The medical dormitory is usually shared between two disciples. Wen RuoHan occupied his own room due to odd numbers, but even if he had a roommate, nobody would dare approach him now.

 

Lan QiRen frowned at the talismans across closed doors.

 

“Locked inside like a vicious ghost?” he ripped the yellow paper off and glared at the disciples responsible for Ling XuYin’s care, “With his cultivation, do you think you could trap him here if he truly wanted to break out?”

 

He pushed open the doors and stepped inside. Wen RuoHan lay on his bed like a dead man, unflinching as sunlight flooded his room and warmed his face.

 

“Sir, what brings you to my humble abode?” he said flatly.

 

Lan QiRen did not respond to Wen RuoHan’s obvious taunt. He gracefully closed the door behind himself, walked slowly up to Wen RuoHan’s bedside and lifted the man’s torso up by his collar.

 

“Violence, Sir?” Wen RuoHan seemed unfazed and remained limp, “Think of the Sect rules.”

 

“Get your sorry self out of this bed and treat your eyes.” Lan QiRen was close to wanting to strangle the man out of frustration.

 

“I would like to night hunt.”

 

Lan QiRen laughed coldly. “Ha. So you can accidentally die?”

 

“Yes,” Wen RuoHan replied curtly, “Clearly suicidal acts such as jumping off a cliff or hanging myself would bring unnecessary investigation and trouble to you. I would like to disappear in the most graceful way, would you grant me my last wish, Lan QiRen?”

 

“All because I rejected you?” Lan QiRen could not believe what he was hearing, “This childish blackmail disappoints me, Ling XuYin.”

 

“Not because you rejected me,” Wen RuoHan smiled sadly, “But because I have become nothing but a burden. Even if I regain my sight, you will never let me near you again… but neither of us can pretend I do not exist, nor ignore the feelings I have to you. Have I not become a burden on you already?”

 

“Maybe you are a burden,” Lan QiRen slowly let Wen RuoHan back onto his bed, “but you are bold to assume that I will never let you near me again.” In this battle of wills, he was always destined to be the loser.

 

Wen RuoHan sat up so quickly, Lan QiRen was afraid he would break his back. “What? What did you say?”

 

Lan QiRen would never admit that a smile crept on his face that day. “I will say this only once,” he said as he walked towards the door to leave, “You are free to die if you wish. But if you die, you will miss the opportunity to become anything other than a burden. The room next to mine has not been assigned to anybody else, you are free to move back or go to night hunt.”

 

“No, say what you said before that!”

 

“When you stop being pathetic, maybe you will live to hear it.”

 

Even in total darkness, Wen RuoHan could swear he saw Lan QiRen smile before the doors closed.

 

 

 

The medical team could not believe Ling XuYin’s sudden change in attitude only mere minutes after Lan QiRen’s presence. No matter how many acupuncture needles they stuck in his head, or how bitter his medicine tasted, Ling XuYin would comply with a smile. In many ways, his smiling compliance was more terrifying than his previous lethargy and depression.

 

In little over one month, as the leaves in GuSu turned red, Wen RuoHan saw the light. Through his own cultivation efforts and the medical team’s fear of disappointing Lan QiRen, a two-month course of treatment that had questionable chance of success miraculously worked. Of course, Lan XiChen and Jiang Cheng were coerced into helping by Lan QiRen.

 

Wen RuoHan’s first act as a seeing man was to move back to his room next to Lan QiRen’s.

 

“Teacher!” he knocked so hard on Lan QiRen’s door that the door itself wobbled in its hinges.

 

“Stop this obnoxious noise at once!” Lan QiRen furiously opened his door. The anger on his face melted as he met Wen RuoHan’s gaze and realized that his efforts had not been in vain. “It… worked?”

 

“Thank you for giving me a third chance…” Wen RuoHan placed a hand on Lan QiRen’s cheek and traced his features with long, elegant fingers. “How I wished the first thing I saw upon regaining sight was this face, and not my doctor…”

 

Lan QiRen’s face flushed from his ears to his neck. He had forgotten to hide his expressions from Ling XuYin since his blindness, because there was no need to.

 

“Th-third chance?” he stammered, “I do not remember giving you more than just this one… and I have yet to retake you as my student, do not get ahead of yourself.”

 

“Yes, Teacher!” Wen RuoHan let himself into Lan QiRen’s bedroom despite protests, “Wow, are those snow pears from QingHe?”

 

“Ah, that basket?” Lan QiRen sighed and gave in. On such a joyous day, he would overlook as much as he could. “Sect Leader Nie sent them to me. He said to share them with you in hopes you make a fast recovery.”

 

“Teacher, do you want to eat pear-filled rice cakes?” Wen RuoHan picked up the basket of ripe pears and grinned, “I can make some for us!”

 

Lan QiRen had to look twice to make sure Ling XuYin was real, and not a figment of his imagination. Pear-filled rice cakes was such a specific memory he had with Wen RuoHan, Ling XuYin’s suggestion could well have been his delusion.

 

“You…. know how to make desserts?” he asked incredulously.

 

“I believe I can impress you with this signature dish,” Wen RuoHan took a small bow, “Please give me a day, and after you eat my pear cakes, will Teacher forgive all the bad things I have done to you?”

 

“Not all of them,” Lan QiRen rolled his eyes, “But if they suit my tastes, I can leave your ridiculous acts of self-sabotage behind.”

 

“I will take what I can get,” Wen RuoHan walked happily towards the kitchens with such a bounce in his step, some disciples who saw him swore he was skipping. Life, death, blindness or war… Wen RuoHan’s reason for existence had long since belonged to Lan QiRen alone. Of course, he knew it was senseless. But once a man learns love, it is all too late.

 

 

 

Carrying a basket of pears, Wen RuoHan stopped at the kitchen doors as he sensed a suffocating aura of murderous intent. He calmed his presence down to a bare ripple and sealed all his spiritual energy to remain undetected and slipped through the ajar door.

 

Jiang Cheng was the origin of the animosity, so thick it almost radiated off him. Under a comically large cleaver was his victim… a small lotus root. Jiang Cheng stared at the slices of lotus root on his chopping board (he had two more, unchopped), the clay pot and water on the fire, and almost bore into the other vegetables with eye eyes until Wen RuoHan could no longer hold in his laughter. Jiang Cheng reminded him so much of his first attempt at cooking, he momentarily forgot the man had made it his life’s mission to murder his whole clan.

 

Jiang Cheng heard a laugh over his shoulder and struck behind himself with such speed and ferocity, he did not expect his arm to be easily caught. Whoever had managed to get within inches of him without being noticed was surely highly skilled and therefore dangerous, he did not hold back.

 

Wen RuoHan disarmed Jiang Cheng of his cleaver and placed it elegantly down back onto the shopping board. “Good day, Sect Leader Jiang,” he greeted, “I mean no harm.”

 

“L-Ling XuYin?” Jiang Cheng recognised the man immediately. How could he forget? Lan QiRen was just short of begging Lan XiChen and himself to save this man’s life and his sight, Jiang Cheng had never seen the stubborn old man so desperately and humbly asking for help. He had heard from various sources that Ling XuYin’s cultivation was beyond imagination, and it was hard for Jiang Cheng to believe at first how such a talented individual would remain hidden in obscurity for so long – on a medical team, to top it all off. To rise to the occasion in the Lan Sect’s most turbulent times meant Ling XuYin was either fiercely loyal to Lan QiRen – or nefariously plotting a coup. Jiang Cheng agreed to help an unconscious Ling XuYin the first time due to Ling XuYin’s help debating for his marriage, the second time he helped a blind Ling XuYin because he single-handedly destroyed the Waterborne Abyss that the whole gang could not even hope to take down 15 years ago.

 

He needed to see exactly what kind of magic this young man was capable of.

 

“Is Sect Leader Jiang cooking for our Sect Leader?” Wen RuoHan let go on Jiang Cheng courteously.

 

“Good guess,” Jiang Cheng retorted, stretching his sore wrists. Judging by Ling XuYin’s cultivation, his silent approach and his confident speech patterns, the man was clearly not afraid of SanDu ShengShou. That alone was worthy of caution. But Jiang Cheng could not find any way to fight him, not within the Cloud Recesses. “I see your eyes are now as sharp as they used to be?”

 

“Who else would Sect Leader Jiang bring lotus root all the way from YunMeng for?” Wen RuoHan set down his basket of pears onto the ground, “Sect Leader is a lucky man.”

 

“Only half right, perhaps we did not quite cure you?” Jiang Cheng purposefully let it slide that he was involved in Ling XuYin’s cure. Powerful people are much more useful when they owe you a favour.

 

The lotus roots Jiang Cheng was cooking did not come from YunMeng. They were from the lotus flowers Lan XiCheng planted in the tank outside his quarters, from seeds gifted by Jiang Cheng when they were pen pals [8]. However, the flowers had long gone. Lan XiChen looked sad, and Jiang Cheng had stupidly offered to make soup out of the roots like his sister once had.

 

But he had no recipe, and Lan XiChen was a vegetarian who did not eat ribs.

 

Wen RuoHan politely thanked Jiang Cheng for his role in providing the spiritual energy to heal him. “Sect leader Jiang, I have not much to thank you with, but may I offer some advice on your soup?”

 

“Go on.” Advice on this mess of a soup would make Lan XiChen happy, and that was enough for the time being.

 

“I believe that Sect Leader Jiang is vexed because you cannot make this soup with ribs?”

 

Actually, Jiang Cheng was more terrified because he did not know how to cook at all. He only had enough lotus roots for one attempt, hence his nerves.

 

“Yes,” he lied, “very smart.”

 

Wen RuoHan gathered carrots, shiitake mushrooms, peanuts and a single preserved date and set them down for Jiang Cheng to chop. “I will only talk,” he motioned for Jiang Cheng to start preparing ingredients, “lest I spoil your loving intentions.”

 

Jiang Cheng had to hold his fists back. He took all his embarrassment and anger out on the carrots instead. Ling XuYin must annoy Lan QiRen to no end – this man was polite, but had words like a venomous snake, jabbing him where it hurts but also leaving him unable to fight back.

 

“When the dish has no meat, the balance of flavours becomes crucial. To create harmoniously tasting vegetarian dishes, one must always decide where the critical umami, or stronger tastes, comes from. Lightly seasoned dishes like brothy soups will definitely become bland and tasteless if there is lack of flavour-

 

“It’s lightly seasoned, how do you make a flavourful lightly seasoned soup?” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. Ling XuYin sounded like Lan QiRen’s lectures.

 

“Anything that excited the palate is flavourful,” Wen RuoHan chuckled, “but does not have to be heavily seasoned with the likes of garlic, chilli and herbs. For lightly seasoned soup, the balance of sugar, salt, oil and umami is everything.”

 

“That sounds like a lot of seasoning for lotus soup,” Jiang Cheng frowned.

 

“But if any of these are lacking, the soup will become lacklustre and bland. Lotus root lacks all of these tastes, and we will be adding on the side. Carrots and a single candied date for sweetness, mushroom and peanut for umami. You will lightly fry with oil, but not brown, the ingredients first before adding 9/10 amount of water for extra flavour, then cover with cold water and let simmer with open lid.”

 

Jiang Cheng cautiously followed instructions. When the simmer had reduced the soup by a further 1/10, Ling XuYin began to add what seemed like a copious amount of salt.

 

“What are you doing!?” Jiang Cheng exclaimed.

 

“I previously said there was no meat, therefore salt becomes very important,” Wen RuoHan put in an extra half spoon of salt before giving some to Jiang Cheng for tasting. “Too salty?”

 

Jiang Cheng spat it out. “What have you done?! It’s too salty!!”

 

“Good,” Wen RuoHan ignored him and added more water, “The perfect amount of salt for your soup is a little too much salt, then the rest of the 2/10 water when the soup has a little bit of time left. This ensures your soup is not bland and gives ingredients time to absorb a little salt without entirely taking on all of it. Have a taste.”

 

Jiang Cheng’s frown disappeared as he took a hesitant second spoonful. Slightly light for his tastes, but for Lan Clan members used to totally unsalted foods, this soup would be fireworks for the palate. He begrudgingly had to admit, Ling XuYin had wasted no words, even with his long spiel. “This… is good. Far from my sister’s skills, but tasty for having no meat in it.”

 

Wen RuoHan watched Jiang Cheng awkwardly take his soup away and smiled lightly. He wondered how Lan XiChen and Jiang Cheng would react should they find out his identity.

 

‘I doubt this soup is enough to bring back the dead,’ he chuckled to himself, ‘but I think enough for a Lan boy to succumb to your desires for a night.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan’s quest to make the fated pear cake was complicated by his lack of recipe. Out of all the people he should not have executed or murdered in his past life, the owner of the sweets store in Han Village was, at this moment, topped the list. As a last-ditch attempt to placate Lan QiRen after Wen Xu burnt down the Cloud Recesses, Wen RuoHan had sent his disciples to procure a box of pear cake from the village. However, QiShan Wen Sect’s evil deeds had spread far and wide, and the owner refused to make them any. Enraged, the disciples captured the owner of the store and cast him before Wen RuoHan, who threw him into prison. He had forgotten that a normal person could not take as much torture as accomplished cultivators, and his path to the recipe was cut off by the man’s organ failure after only half a round of ‘enhanced interrogation’.

 

But Wen RuoHan was anything but a quitter. He would never be able to forget the taste of those pear cakes that led to Lan QiRen’s first confession 3 years ago, and although it took three days instead of one, Wen RuoHan finally managed to create something that matched his memory perfectly.

 

When Lan QiRen saw the white pear cakes delivered to his bedroom, perfectly dusted in sugar, he once again questioned his reality. There was simply no way that by coincidence Ling XuYin had discovered his likes and dislikes – even as a spy, there were too many questions unanswered. He looked at the dozen of sweets and back at the smiling man who made them, then blinked and looked again.

 

Nothing alike, but so similar to Wen RuoHan.

 

‘Can I really accept him? Would it be fair to him if he ever found out I am seeing him as another’s shadow? But… perhaps this is a gift to me from the Heavens, destined for me. Wen RuoHan, would you blame me if I took his hand? I can no longer run away, and you are long gone, so if this pear cake tastes the same as what you gave me, I will take this as a sign from the Heavens that I should give in…’

 

Lan QiRen’s hands trembled as his ceremoniously picked up one delicate pear cake. Under Ling XuYin’s hopeful gaze, he took a small bite, afraid to chew.

 

Delicious.

 

 

 

 

But different.

 

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan watched in horror as a steady stream of tears overflowed from Lan QiRen’s eyes and dripped onto the floor.

 

“Teacher, are they really that bad?” He quickly grabbed the pear cake in Lan QiRen’s shaking hands and bit into it, scratching his head as the taste turned out perfect.

 

‘Could I have remembered it wrong? There is no way I could be wrong… I got all the other foods right, how can this be wrong?’

 

Wen RuoHan had never truly tasted the box of pear cakes Lan QiRen had eaten all by himself. Not only had the alcohol content been mixed up by the store owner, so had the underlying flavour. Lan QiRen’s box of pear cakes had honeyed chrysanthemum blossoms mixed in – no matter how many times Wen RuoHan made these rice cakes according to his own memory of the sample he tasted, he could never replicate what he did not know.

 

Lan QiRen was devastated at his own foolishness. Even though he knew what he prayed for was impossible, the part of his heart yearning for a reason to love again had reached so close to the surface of the abyss he had locked it in, falling to the bottom again was excruciating.

 

‘Of course…. Of course it is impossible. Of course….’

 

“Teacher, are you alright?” Wen RuoHan gently took Lan QiRen’s hand, “I am sorry I upset you. I will destroy these right away and make more until you like them, please dry your tears…”

 

“No… it is not you at fault…” Lan QiRen smiled sadly as his eyes continued to water, “It is me… it had always been me. 35 years ago I was naïve, today I am no better. XuYin, I have tried my best… I really have tried my best…”

 

Lan QiRen could not find the strength to push away as he felt strong arms around him. He melted into Ling XuYin’s embrace and buried his head into his chest, sobbing silently. In the end, he had been unable to walk away from it all – even as he remembered his brothers dying words, he still preferred to imagine those arms around him as Wen RuoHan.

 

‘Make your choice, QiRen, because you can either achieve all of them or none of them. If you falter even once, there will be no second chances.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s notes:

 

[8] Reference to Part 1 of this series. In Poetry, Jiang Cheng had once sent Lan XiChen some lotus seeds and Lan XiChen planted them. He invited Jiang Cheng to see his handiwork but a lot of things happened and Jiang Cheng never got to. By the time they returned to the Cloud Recesses, it was Autumn and the flowers had wilted, leaving only the roots. So Jiang Cheng decided to cook! (yikes) Jiang Cheng’s awkward cooking scene was fun to write, because Wen RuoHan thinks it is hilarious. He has no real animosity towards them now that is circumstances have changed – to Wen RuoHan, killing people is just an annoying task that has no deeper meaning so now that he doesn’t have to do it, he is quite happy teaching Jiang Cheng to cook for Lan XiChen.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

5 years later, Gusu, Cloud Recesses

 

 

As the leaves grew, turned red and fell, Lan QiRen’s days grew predictable and blurred together. 5 winters passed him by, and before he knew it, Lan Huan and Lan Zhan had both grown old enough to run circles around their young uncle. Unfortunately for them, running for forbidden the Cloud Recesses, and the dynamic duo would often bear the wrath of Lan QiRen’s creative punishments (like holding their favourite picture books above their head in the bath).

 

On this day, the first red maple leaf had fallen from the old tree outside of Lan QiRen’s bedroom.

 

“Uncle, Uncle!” Lan Zhan triumphantly raised the leaf into the air, “I got the first one!”

 

“A-Zhan, this is not a competition,” Lan Huan held his brother’s small hand, “We must go back to our quarters, it is nearly dinner time.”

 

“But Uncle counts the falling leaves every year,” Lan Zhan waved the leaf around at the older boy, “I am five years old now, I can count too! One, Two, Three, Four…. Seven?”

 

“Five,” Lan QiRen corrected the small boy and patted him on the head, taking the leaf and tucking it into his robes like a treasure, “Lan Zhan will turn six years old in the winter… how time flies. Hurry along, you two, before your Father asks for you.”

 

As the boys walked as quickly as they could back to their own rooms, the now 23-year-old Lan QiRen smiled sadly at the signifier of his sixth Autumn alone. No matter how many leaves he counted, Wen RuoHan would never be able to come for him again.

 

‘What good is it to continue to think of him, when you pushed him away?’ Lan QiRen furrowed his brows as he caught himself thinking yet again about the man he had not seen in half a decade. ‘Lan QiRen… you were too much of a coward to attend the wedding you pushed him into, too jealous to send a congratulations at the birth of his children, yet you stare and count these leaves like he will come to you? How pathetic.’

 

Yet every red coloured item reminded him of Wen RuoHan. Using the red jade brush Wen RuoHan left behind, he traced the Wen name onto the fallen leaf with water before placing both under his pillow. There could be no colour more suitable for Wen RuoHan than the brilliant shade of QiShan scarlet.

 

‘He must be nearly 28 years old now,’ Lan QiRen closed his eyes and reminisced the handsome face. Wen RuoHan was always much taller than he was, with sharp yet feminine eyes and a defined jaw. Lan QiRen was sure that time would treat him well – surely that sinfully gorgeous face could only mature into something heartbreakingly beautiful. If he could only muster the courage to attend discussion meetings with his Brother, he may see that face again. ‘If I had the courage to elope with him, could I have seen him dressed in red wedding robes? Could I have seen him… without the red wedding robes?’

 

More than Wen RuoHan’s face, Lan QiRen missed the comforting heat of his body. After their first night together at the Chrysanthemum Pavilion, the pair could no longer sleep separately at night. Wen RuoHan’s stamina was Lan QiRen’s favourite and most hated part about him, as the many nights of repeated, agonisingly gentle lovemaking would drive his mind blank. Since the pair stepped into the Cloud Recesses 6 years ago, they no longer had any chances to touch each other. Wen RuoHan had attempted on more than once occasion to catch Lan QiRen in the Cold Spring, but it was only after he returned to QiShan did Lan QiRen regret fighting off his advances.

 

‘How would he have touched me if it had been our wedding?’

 

Lan QiRen slipped into yet another impossible dream as he slumped onto his bed. Sometimes, he imagined Wen RuoHan as gentle. Sometimes, he imagined him as passionate. Sometimes, joyful.

 

Today’s Wen RuoHan was slightly angry.

 

“You rejected me so many times, but look who’s finally under me now?” Lan QiRen bit his lower lip to stifle a gasp as he imagined Wen RuoHan’s frown and cocky smirk as he gave his own nipples a harsh pinch through his clothes.

 

‘I… had to reject you… there was no choice….’

 

Hands that almost seemed like not his own pinched harder, creasing the cotton fabric.

 

“No choice? To hell with the Lan Clan, you had a choice. You could have chosen me, but you did not!”

 

Wen RuoHan’s harsh and desperate tone of voice seemed to reverberate in Lan QiRen’s ears. No matter what tone he imagined, Lan QiRen would always harden at the image of Wen RuoHan’s lips by his ears.

 

An angry Wen RuoHan would probably ignore his yearning erection and continue to torture him. Lan QiRen closed his eyes and let out a shaky sigh as he continued to tug and squeeze the buds on his chest. The rougher he was, the more convincing he felt.

 

Tug. Squeeze. Pinch.

 

“Hah…. I- I-

 

“You what? Teacher, you are so dirty… yet I cannot stop touching you.”

 

Lan QiRen gave himself an opportunity to finally reach down to the base of his legs and palm his erection through the many layers of snow-white fabric. He let out a satisfied breath then lessened his force, teasing the tip gently. Although he was desperate for more friction, the Lan self-control came in handy. After all, an angry Wen RuoHan would never let him off so easily.

 

“Who allowed you to wash off the mark I drew on your shoulder?” Lan QiRen suddenly gripped the base of his penis so hard, he would have softened if he just tightened his grip a fraction. However, the joys of self-pleasure meant he could quite literally grasp the fine line between pain and pleasure.

 

‘I… had no choice….’

 

“Lies!”

 

One had found its way under the layers of clothing, and between his own legs. Without preparation, Lan QiRen forced a finger into his entrance and winced at the discomfort. Even an angry Wen RuoHan would still care for him, he believed. Using his free hand to deliver some saliva to moisten his puckered entrance, he squirmed at the welcome feeling of being slickly filled.

 

“Do you like being filled, Teacher? Accepting me so readily on our wedding night… could you not even pretend to be a virgin?”

 

‘It’s because you… ah- so fast-

 

Quickly, Lan QiRen dug deeper and found the spot that would drive him insane. He added another finger and started to caress the location repeatedly, ignoring his imagined thrusts for a moment to seek pure pleasure. The tip of his weeping erection ground up against the fabric of his pants with every uncontrollable hip movement, Lan QiRen’s hoarse moans barely escaped his throats in fear of being discovered.

 

Satisfied physically did not equal satisfied mentally – the show had to go on. Gradually, ‘Wen RuoHan’ started to miss his prostate on purpose.

 

“Which do you prefer? Feeling good from behind….. or the front?”

 

The frustration of his shallow thrusts were overtake by a different kind of pleasure as Lan QiRen finally paid some attention to his cock. He ran his thumb directly under the frenulum like Wen RuoHan would always do, and shuddered as his nimble fingers scratched the very tip roughly.

 

“Hah… nhgh- pl-please….” Lan QiRen could no longer differentiate between his real and imaginary moans.

 

“Please? Please? Please what? Abandon me with a woman I do not care for? How many times did I say please to you?! Did you ever stop to consider my pleas?!”

 

“No- I- I couldn’t- ah! I-

 

Lan QiRen’s strokes on his shaft grew faster and faster as clear liquid began to leak and lubricate his efforts. Every so often, his fingers inside himself would slip and accidentally graze the location he tried to avoid. As Wen RuoHan’s annoyed yet impassioned face appeared in his memories again and again, Lan QiRen really wished he had a third hand to pinch his nipples again. He had never seen Wen RuoHan’s angry side in bed, but that that made the imaginary scene extra riveting – no doubt, Wen RuoHan would never miss the opportunity to thoroughly assault all his most sensitive places.

 

Finally, the instinct to seek pleasure became too great, even for Lan QiRen. His fingers slipping in and out of his quivering entrance soon began to hit more than miss his prostate, and the tugs on his cock became frenzied and less rhythmic.

 

“R-RuoHan- ahh….p-please….”

 

“Teacher…. Teacher…. I love you….”

 

“A-Ah- hnnngghh!” Lan QiRen could not resist the onslaught of pleasure that coursed from his head to toe as the three words he most loved came to him. Thick streams of pent-up fluid dirtied his pristine Lan Sect robes and smeared all over his hand and he shivered in pleasure.

 

Another day for secret laundry.

 

 

 

 

 

As his ragged breathing calmed, a red envelope dropped through Lan QiRen’s bedroom window with a soft crunch as its corners hit the wooden floor. Written on a golden maple leaf in handwriting was a date 50 days from this night, an address YiYang [9], and the character for Wen RuoHan’s ‘han’. The handwriting was so familiar, Lan QiRen’s eyes burned with tears of both bitter frustration and elated joy – Wen RuoHan had not forgotten his bloody oath from 5 winters ago, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

49 days later, QiShan, Nightless City

 

 

The Nightless City was rarely covered in white unless it snowed. In the midst of an otherwise red Autumn, the grand buildings had been adorned white cotton shrouds for the past 49 days [10]. Today, they would be finally removed.

 

“Why do you look like it’s finally springtime for you?” Jin GuangShan nudged Wen RuoHan on the shoulder, much to Wen ZhuLiu’s annoyance. He had caught his friend crack a small smile as they watched the first of the mourning decorations be removed from the gates of the Nightless City.

 

On Jin GuangShan’s subtle reminder, the leader of the QiShan Wen Sect swallowed his smile and returned his facial expressions to those of a man who had just lost his wife to sudden, unplanned, simple illness. “I do not believe in long mourning, the past is past,” he said plainly, “the dead are dead, 49 days of subjecting everyone to ritual is not showing the dead any more respect than keeping them in our minds.”

 

“I happen to agree, but sometimes we must put up appearances for the sake of keeping the peace,” Jin GuangShan chuckled, “Your bare minimum mourning rituals draw attention. Did you know what that Nie fellow said about you once? He thought you had killed your father to usurp this position you didn’t even want! Now if you’d just pretended to cry a little at his funeral, Second Lan and I wouldn’t have had to defend you against that room full of opinion-less cowards.”

 

‘I must clean up the Unclean Realm sometime…’ Etching every single word into his memory, Wen RuoHan brushed the topic aside as a joke and forced an uninterested expression. He did not often make jokes back at Jin GuangShan’s expense, but the very real discussion about his previous patricide must be quelled at all costs. Based on Jin GuangShan’s brief, casual remarks, it was clear that at least Lan QiRen and himself did not believe it and that the majority of people remained neutral.

 

“And how is keeping the peace working for you? I hear your wife will hardly take no for an answer.”

 

Jin GuangShan had been forced to marry a lady of high pedigree and formidable cultivation almost immediately after Wen RuoHan himself, in preparation for his planned ascension into Sect Leader role. As the man had yet to formally take over the LanLing Jin Sect, he spent most of his days trying to avoid his duties at home, often coming to QiShan to complain about his ‘Purple Spider Knock-off’ about to ‘bite his dick off’. No doubt, the time spent outside of Carp Tower was with numerous women, Wen RuoHan had to issue a formal ban on Jin GuangShan’s frivolous seduction of Nightless City residents lest he had to ‘sterilize’ yet another maid.

 

At the mention of ‘wife’, Jin GuangShan screwed up his nose as if an unpleasant smell had wafted by. “Don’t even joke about that bladed witch,” he nearly spat, “just because you have been relieved of your breeding duties, my one is unfortunately still alive and well. She betrothed our oldest boy to that Yu ZiYuan’s Jiang girl… I can accept the girl being older, but that child shows zero promise even at this age! Tell me, how do I get the plague to infect just ONE person at Carp Tower?”

 

Fearing that Jin GuangShan had once again accidentally stumbled onto the truth of his perfectly planned murder, Wen RuoHan sidestepped for the second time. “I thought you enjoyed the art of procreation?” he raised an eyebrow at his very bothersome acquaintance.

 

Forgetting his previous advice for not smiling, Jin GuangShan laughed out loud. “Haha! I did not expect that out of you! You are correct, but I prefer to separate my hobbies from my job… actually, you may not understand. You probably quite enjoyed using your wife, no? After all, you had more than one child- hahaha!”

 

Wen RuoHan grimaced internally at Jin GuangShan’s crude remarks of his late wife. Even though he harboured no affection of any kind for the unlucky woman and successfully used her as a breeding vessel, Wen RuoHan had tried to make her life as comfortable as possible as meagre payment for her ultimate, unwilling, unknowing sacrifice. To outsiders, he treated her well. Unfortunately for the woman and her family, they could not be permitted to exist, should Wen RuoHan’s plan to marry Lan QiRen come to fruition. Poison had become one of Wen RuoHan’s lesser known areas of expertise.

 

Sensing he may have crossed a thin line, Jin GuangShan sealed his laughter and coughed awkwardly. “Say, where are you going?” he pointed at the bags slung over Wen ZhuLiu’s shoulders, “Please don’t tell me you are going to find a second wife before this one is even done being mourned for?”

 

“Young Master Jin,” the ever-silent Wen ZhuLiu had finally heard enough, “please restrain your tongue.” Jin GuangShan’s intuition was somehow razor-sharp without intention, and he had shaved too close to Wen RuoHan’s plan.

 

As per his optimistic letter to GuSu, sent out mere hours after the well-orchestrated death of Madame Wen, the pair were headed to YiYang to meet Lan QiRen. Wen RuoHan’s plan seemed fool-proof – travel time to YiYang was the same from GuSu and QiShan, and the region offered access to both the Yangtze and Huai waterways should the couple decide that travelling by sword was too conspicuous. [11]

 

 

However, the plan rested entirely on the assumption that Lan QiRen would agree to come.

 

 

 

 

 

1 day later, YiYang, unnamed forest

 

 

“Sect Leader,” Wen ZhuLiu remarked, “There is nothing here.”

 

“ZhuLiu, I am not so stupid as to meet my lover in the middle of town,” Wen RuoHan laughed and shook his head as he contentedly sat underneath a tree in the gingko forest. YiYang’s gingko forests were only pretty for a while in the few days their leaves remained golden but before their fruits started to ferment. Wen RuoHan was in an especially good mood – it seemed to be his lucky day.

 

“If I may be so impudent, Sect leader must take Young Master Jin’s advice and look sadder.”

 

“Why?”

 

“The Madame was your wife in every sense,” Wen ZhuLiu sighed, “Second Young Master Lan would become suspicious if Sect Leader looked too overjoyed.”

 

“But I am indeed overjoyed,” Wen RuoHan picked up a fallen yellow gingko leaf and twirled it around between his thumb and forefinger like a child, “Nothing had made me happier than seeing her buried in the ground. Without her gone, how can I carry Lan QiRen into the Nightless City on a red sedan chair?”

 

“One should not speak lightly about murder,” Wen ZhuLiu frowned slightly. Wen RuoHan’s killing spree was accurate and decisive, a skill set he had also unwillingly taken on as his main executioner. Although Wen ZhuLiu had never hesitated to follow orders, Wen RuoHan’s relish in clearing a path for Lan QiRen and himself had started to border on the terrifying.

 

“It is called cleaning,” Wen RuoHan gently set the leave down, almost ironically. “Cleaning the swamp of bureaucracy my Father left behind, cleaning the traces of that woman, cleaning up the blockades in our way… By the way, ZhuLiu, when we get back, tell our spies in the Nie Sect to keep a close eye on that man. He will have to disappear soon.”

 

Not wanting to become a blockade that needed to be cleaned, Wen ZhuLiu silently nodded. At least, Wen RuoHan still trusted him enough to allow his company on this final mission. Had the man eloped with Lan QiRen 5 years ago, Wen ZhuLiu would no doubt have been tortured then killed by the following inquisition within the Wen Sect without ever seeing him again.

 

Suddenly, all those deaths seemed worth it.

 

“ZhuLiu?” Wen RuoHan suddenly asked, voice sombre.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Do you think… he will come?”

 

Wen RuoHan’s shaky voice took Wen ZhuLiu by surprise. Even as his own father’s battered corpse lay at his feet, Wen ZhuLiu had never heard such an unsure voice from his Young Master. It was laughable to suggest that the all-powerful QiShan Wen Sect Leader was afraid of rejection, but Wen ZhuLiu had seen the devastation Lan QiRen was capable of causing.

 

“Was the letter delivered?” Wen ZhuLiu asked.

 

“Of course…” Wen RuoHan sighed, “My agent saw him read and burn it with his own eyes...”

 

“How much faith do you have in Lan QiRen, Sect Leader?”

 

Wen RuoHan looked up at the clear Autumn sky though the foliage of gold. Columns of light rained down on his lightly tanned complexion as he closed his eyes and enjoyed the peace for once. “I have no choice but to believe in him,” he smiled despite his anxiety, “Ever since I set foot on this path, I have not thought of the backup plan.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu grimaced at the thought.

 

If being rejected once by Lan QiRen resulted in an unrelenting bloodbath of the Nightless City, the second time would likely open the gates of hell that would have the world yearn for the sweet release of death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

 

[9] YiYang (弋阳)is the old name for modern day XinYang (信阳), a city juuuust outside the HuBei province that YunMeng occupies. It is almost smack-bang in the middle of GuSu and QiShan and is not occupied by any of the major cultivation sects in the novel. It’s quite a nice place, Google it and see!

 

[10] Chinese funeral rites vary, depending on geography and time period. Very simply, white is the official colour, and there are mourning periods with set numbers of days. The spirit is said to move on after 7 days, and there is mourning that goes on at 49 days, 81 days, 1 year and 3 years etc (the square numbers are referred to as 7x7 and 9x9). At those days, some kind of ritual is observed, and you can choose whether you want to formally mourn throughout. The more important or loved you are, the longer your mourning period. 49 days is basically the bare bones minimum for someone like Wen RuoHan’s wife. He really should not have even gotten married after his father’s death so quickly, as it is seen as very in auspicious and disrespectful, but his Sect let it slide due to the pressing issue of inheritance.

 

[11] The Yangtze is Asia’s longest river, which many of you would know. The Huai River (which is now one of Yangtze’s tributaries due to course change) was historically one the 7 great rivers of ancient China and one of the only 4 that had an independent flow into the sea, so also important. It was very prone to flooding, so served as a natural border between dynasties. Best way to describe it would be to google up a map of the region XinYang is in, makes more sense that way.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Wen ZhuLiu had never cared much for small talk, especially small-talk about the weather. He had never thought one day he would be forced to pray to the weather gods for five days in a row.

 

For five days, the Wen duo camped under the same tree, and Wen RuoHan did not look like the type to go home even if it started to rain. Thankfully, the sky remained cloudless for five days in a row, but Wen ZhuLiu feared their luck would run dry soon. Either that, or Wen RuoHan would starve himself to death waiting for Lan QiRen to come.

 

“Sect Leader, we should go home.”

 

Every day since day one, Wen ZhuLiu would repeat this sentence once. Every day, Wen RuoHan would pretend he was deaf to his pleas.

 

Today, out of nowhere, he finally replied. “ZhuLiu, are you hungry?”

 

Wen ZhuLiu clenched his fists and fought back the urge to wring his Master’s neck at such a ridiculous conversation. Wen RuoHan knew better than anybody that their cultivation level could withstand fasting for quite a while, and as long as Wen ZhuLiu kept bringing him water, the pair could stay under the trees for half a month. Hunger was not remotely close to the point – waiting for a man who would never come was.

 

“Will you let us die out here until he comes?” Wen ZhuLiu was tired of loyalty. No matter how cruel or cold Wen RuoHan had acted up until now, at least he kept himself healthy. For Wen ZhuLiu, it had been enough to watch he man he loved move towards a goal. But standing beside his Master as he waited for the man of his dreams to keep abandoning him? Wen ZhuLiu did not have the loyalty for that. The Wen RuoHan he loved was not a dog.

 

“If you are hungry, you are welcome to fly to the township for some food,” Wen RuoHan said nonchalantly, “I will wait here.”

 

‘If you leave my sight and Lan QiRen comes, will you abandon me again without saying goodbye?’

 

Wen ZhuLiu glanced at the small creek ebbing within view. “I am fine with water,” he sighed, “but he is not coming, even if we drink the creek dry.”

 

“You lack delicacy,” Wen RuoHan closed his eyes and leaned back onto the tree trunk, “and you are wrong.”

 

“Please, let us return-

 

“I will wait here.”

 

“…….”

 

Wen ZhuLiu’s frustration at both Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen exploded in a torrent of rage. He let out a yell and struck the tree next to him so hard, the golden fan-shaped leaves nearly obscured his whole view of the man in front of him. “He is not coming! Please wake up, Sect Leader!!”

 

Through the downpour of foliage, Wen ZhuLiu caught a glimpse of a terrifyingly serene smile. “I told you, I have no choice but to believe he is coming. Do you want me to lose hope, ZhuLiu?”

 

“Hope can always be found, why do you torture yourself like this?! He has obviously chosen… chosen….” Wen ZhuLiu cut his sentence short. He did not have the courage to tell Wen RuoHan about the intelligence he intercepted from their Lan Sect spies ten days ago. QingHeng-Jun had locked himself in eternal seclusion after his wife died for some unknown reason, and the Lan Sect was likely in chaos, having lost their leader for good this time. If the man already had a reputation for being insane, this was the final straw.

 

Lan QiRen had made his choice to choose Sect over love, it was clear as day.

 

Wen ZhuLiu had planned to break this news to Wen RuoHan after he became angry at Lan QiRen for not coming to their rendezvous, but the longer they waited, the more apparent it became that Wen RuoHan had lost his mind. Truth be told, Wen RuoHan had lost his mind a long time ago, but those in love are often blinded.

 

 

“Chosen what?”

 

Before Wen ZhuLiu had a chance to respond, a flash of white caught his peripheral vision. Wen RuoHan’s face seemed to instantly glow with radiant happiness as he saw Lan QiRen from far away - forehead ribbon and flowing black hair fluttering behind him as he ran.

 

“He chose me, ZhuLiu,” Wen RuoHan’s shoulder grazed Wen ZhuLiu as he stood up with a start and ran towards his lover.

 

Wen ZhuLiu’s vision fogged as he saw the fated pair run towards each other and embrace.

 

‘I also chose you. I would never make you wait.’

 

The closer he walked, the more his heart ached. Watching the man he loved lift Lan QiRen off the ground and spin him in circles, watching them kiss, watching them stroke each other’s faces and whisper sweet nothings… Wen ZhuLiu would rather he be blinded with a thousand needles.

 

 

“You have been here all this time?” Lan QiRen stroked Wen RuoHan’s cheek with the back of his hand, “Your face is so cold… have you eaten?” Although tired and looking slightly gaunt, Wen RuoHan’s complexion was still a cut above the masses. Different from his youth, the man nearing the age of 30 years has a sharper, mature appeal that emanated power. Even as Wen RuoHan’s features creased a little with a wide grin (like a child finding a candy jar), Lan QiRen could still not help but admire his raw sex appeal.

 

‘Have I been this lustful? What in the world am I thinking about?’ his own intrusive thoughts caught him off guard.

 

“I was so afraid that if I left for even a moment, you would come and think I had abandoned you,” Wen RuoHan grabbed Lan QiRen’s hand from his cheek and moved it to his chest, “Can you feel my heart beating? It slowed and early stopped because I was beginning to think you did not feel the way I do anymore… I was so afraid….”

 

Lan QiRen laughed through his nose and patted his taller lover on the forehead, “The great QiShan Wen Sect Leader, afraid? How old are you?”

 

“3 years old, I need a babysitter,” Wen RuoHan laughed and leaned forward to rest his forehead on the younger man, “Will Teacher come to the Nightless City and feed me milk every day?”

 

“Obscene,” Lan QiRen blushed from his neck to his ears. He had lost immunity to dirty jokes over the last half decade.

 

“I will wager the clothes on my back that Teacher misses obscenity more than I do,” Wen RuoHan moved his head to one side and leaned even closer until he was grazing Lan QiRen’s beet red ear while still holding his hand, “Have you amused yourself with these hands while I was gone?”

 

“You-

 

“I certainly did… but nothing was ever as good as you, so I focused on cultivation to distract myself. Teacher, I want to save myself for your wedding night.”

 

Such innocent words dripping in an awfully erotic tone made Lan QiRen’s whole body ignite. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up in anticipation of more touches – anything to quench the blaze eating him from the inside out.

 

Wen RuoHan’s sweet words carried on like a melody. “Teacher, the time is right. I am here to tell you that I plan to send an envoy to the Cloud Recesses on the next auspicious day to formally ask your brother for your hand in marriage. The betrothal gifts I collected over the last five years forced me to build a new building to store them in, and I have constructed a 32-man sedan chair, well it is close to a sedan house… it has the most brilliant red paint on the outside but entirely white jade inside-

 

“What?! The extrava-

 

“Extravagance?” Wen RuoHan leaned even closer and drew Lan QiRen into a tight embrace and refused to let go. “Indulge me this once, Teacher. I will have you carried from GuSu to QiShan, with musical procession and scattering of gold sand the entire 1000 miles. I will have the world know that I, Wen RuoHan, am marrying a man worthy of the world’s riches. In fact, to hell with auspicious dates! I will have my envoy travel to GuSu tomorrow!”

 

 

“You cannot!”

 

 

“Alright, we will wait until the auspicious day then…” Wen RuoHan sulked.

 

Lan QiRen had not dared imagine what Wen RuoHan had called him out to YiYang to do. The news of his wife’s sudden illness spread fast, but Lan QiRen did not expect Wen RuoHan to be so prepared for marriage after the minimal 49 days.

 

“I… I cannot leave my Sect…. especially for marriage… It is impossible….”

 

Lan QiRen felt Wen RuoHan’s strong arms envelope him tighter. But how was it that the safer he felt in those arms, the more foreboding and danger seemed to permeate the Autumn breeze?

 

“If your Sect will not allow it, I have planned an elopement route for us along the Huai River. We can leave immediately, they will never hear from us again!”

 

“Do not be preposterous,” Lan QiRen gasped, “I cannot believe you are still spouting nonsense about abandoning your role!”

 

Wen RuoHan’s cheerful tone turned cold in an instant. “Then marry into the Nightless City and help me with this Sect Leader position you love so much!” Wen RuoHan suddenly drew back from their embrace and held Lan QiRen by the shoulders. He caught a glimpse of a fearful expression and let his strength mellow, not wanting to cause any pain that would remind Lan QiRen of his dislocated shoulder five years ago. “If you cannot convince your Sect, just come with me! My Sect will not go against me, and we will protect you. If anyone dares lift a finger or their tongue at you, I have ways to make them stop.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu shuddered as he observed from a safe distance. Wen RuoHan’s methods of ‘making people stop’ was an excruciating death. He had been the executioner of many novel and innovative ways to die. Once, when Wen RuoHan was in a bad mood, he caught one dissenting Sect official and invited his colleagues to watch as he scalded, then burnt, then buried the same person alive, before digging the half-dead man out of the ground to hang upside down in a sunless dungeon like a piece of jerky and gradually cutting pieces off him to feed the dogs. The official charge was corruption. The man’s true crime? Starting the original petition for Wen RuoHan’s marriage to his wife. Wen ZhuLiu did not have the imagination to fathom what would happen to anyone who dared speak ill of Lan QiRen in QiShan.

 

“The Lan Sect cannot be without me-

 

“I can’t be without you either!!” This Wen RuoHan was far from the overjoyed man only minutes ago. He was near screaming pitch, unable to understand what exactly was holding Lan QiRen back, “YOU ARE NOT SECT LEADER! YOU ARE NOT EVEN HEIR TO BE SECT LEADER! WHY AM I NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU?!”

 

“…. Do you not know of what happened to my brother and my sister-in-law?”

 

“Oh what, you don’t mean to tell they died and made you Sect Leader?” Wen RuoHan scoffed.

 

“........”

 

“.........”

 

“...................”

 

“Lan QiRen, you cannot be serious?!”

 

Lan QiRen avoided Wen RuoHan’s blistering eye contact and said quietly, “He is not... he is not dead. He has locked himself in eternal seclusion, my sister-in-law has passed away, and the Lan Sect has been in chaos for half a month. My nephews are in distress, Zhan-er suffered a terrible fever and kept crying for his father, then for me... that is why I am so late. I really thought you would have known...”

 

It was such an unbelievable tale to Wen RuoHan’s ears, he almost failed to believe it altogether. The gravity of QingHeng-Jun committing metaphorical suicide and leaving a major Sect in disarray should have been reported to him the day after it happened, yet he was kept in the dark. During his mandatory mourning period for his wife, important communications with spies had been left to Wen ZhuLiu. There was simply no way such a crucial piece of intel would be missed.....

 

Unless.....

 

Wen RuoHan’s blistering gaze shot to Wen ZhuLiu.

 

“You withheld information.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu did not deny the charge, simply choosing silence. How much did Wen RuoHan value his life? He took a gamble by withholding the news of QingHeng-Jun's incident, for he knew that if Wen RuoHan found out, he would ransack the Lan Sect while it was in turmoil and take Lan QiRen before the dust settled. To test Lan QiRen’s true feelings towards Wen RuoHan was Wen ZhuLiu’s only chance – his life was a fair wager for a chance to see Wen RuoHan give up on Lan QiRen.

 

“There will not be a second time.” Wen RuoHan did not want to shed any blood in Lan QiRen’s presence, lest it add to his stress.

 

Wen ZhuLiu nodded solemnly. He had his wager, and he lost. To his surprise, he was forgiven just this once.... but it was clear – the next time he stood in Wen RuoHan’s way, heads will roll.

 

 

As quickly as his anger came, Wen RuoHan left Wen ZhuLiu’s betrayal in the back of his mind. There were more important issues at hand.

 

“Does this mean you are Sect Leader now?” he asked Lan QiRen.

 

Seeing Lan QiRen shake his head, Wen RuoHan let out a sigh of relief.

 

“Lan Huan is only 8 years old, I must keep the Lan Sect afloat before he is of age. It would be improper for me to assume leadership while my brother has two heirs.”

 

“You had me scared,” Wen RuoHan’s dazzling smile returned, “I can wait. In 12 years, when Wen Xu and Lan Huan are both Sect Leaders, we can finally unburden ourselves from this path we did not choose. I do not need the pomp and ceremony, we can change our names and retire to the countryside... maybe start a pear orchard? We can raise some children of our own, build a house, make love under the stars and-

 

“Wen RuoHan, please wake up,” Lan QiRen pleaded, “I would love nothing more than to spend a carefree life with you, but we have standing far from normal. We cannot afford to tarnish the names of our Clans.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu laughed coldly. “Sect Leader, he has made his choice.”

 

“ZhuLiu, know your place,” Wen RuoHan warned, “I said there would be no second time.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu marched up to Lan QiRen and pointed at his face in exasperation. “Wake up, Sect Leader! You have spent all 5 years in misery, living your life to his every whim! You have become every type of person you did not want to become, married a woman you do not love in a thankless job you detest, just because he told you to! What does he give you in return? Leaving you out in the goddamn forest for days and rejecting you yet again!” He gritted his teeth and snarled at Lan QiRen, “You are just a pretty face with no backbone, you do not deserve his devotion!”

 

“One more word, and I will take your head off your shoulders!” Wen RuoHan glared at Wen ZhuLiu.

 

His tone softened at Lan QiRen upon seeing his delicate features contort with guilt.

 

“You are not Sect Leader, you do not owe anyone anything. I said I would wait until you set down your burdens, even if it takes decades, what more do you want from me? Please... do not reject me again, Teacher. You said you would wait for me in GuSu, did you not?”

 

In the depths of his heart, Lan QiRen knew Wen ZhuLiu was right. The duty to his Clan and the desire in his heart were tearing him from limb to limb, but there was another monster hiding in the chasms, waiting to pounce. The monster reared its ugly head – his name was fear.

 

The path they would have to lead deviates so far from accepted practice, Lan QiRen could not find the courage to turn his back on the teachings carved in stone. If he could have remained the carefree scholarly younger brother of QingHeng-Jun, perhaps he could have convinced the Lan Sect to let him go. But now he was forever trapped in a cruel cage he can never break free from – the Sect needed him, his nephews needed him, and the day he took responsibility was the day he threw away the key. No matter how much time passed, Lan QiRen will always be known as a leader of the Sect, such position simply did not allow for marriage to Wen RuoHan. It was no wonder Wen RuoHan did not want walk into a cage of his own, the feeling was like drowning on dry land.

 

“I.... cannot marry you, Wen RuoHan. The world will never accept us.”

 

His words had barely left his lips before Wen ZhuLiu swung a fist at his face from close range. Lan QiRen instinctively tried to dodge but was not fast enough. The blow sent him tumbling back into a tree trunk, pain tearing through his jaw and neck.

 

Wen RuoHan’s hands went straight for Wen ZhuLiu’s throat. Before he could wring the life out of the man who dared hurt his lover, Lan QiRen cried, “Don’t hurt him!”

 

Lan QiRen put his head in his hands and sobbed quietly, “I.... owe you more than just one punch. I am so sorry.... I.... I cannot....” If he had known that life would be so cruel to them both, Lan QiRen would never have given Wen RuoHan any hope before he married his wife.

 

Wen RuoHan dropped Wen ZhuLiu to the ground in a heap but did not walk any closer to Lan QiRen. His shoulders shook lightly as he began to giggle softly.

 

“The.... world?” Manic laughter Lan QiRen heard in his nightmares from the night before Wen RuoHan’s engagement rang out from Wen RuoHan’s gruesomely contorted lips. “Ha. Hahaha- hahahaha! The world?! Lan QiRen.... Teacher.... mark my words, when the world will have no choice but to accept us, I will personally escort you to the Nightless City, whether you like it or not!”

 

“You are insane!” Lan QiRen turned his eyes away from the sad scene. Wen RuoHan’s heartbroken state twisted a knife in his heart that drove deeper and deeper, Lan QiRen could taste the familiar metallic tang of blood in from his stomach again.

 

“Then spare me from this torture!” Wen RuoHan screamed, “SPARE ME! Why do you tell me that you will wait for me when I can never have you?! Say you don’t love me, say you don’t care for me, say you never want to see me again!”

 

Unable to utter anything in case the blood flowed, Lan QiRen could only walk away with tears in his eyes. Of course, the blood was another excuse – he could not cut the red string of fate himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

QiShan, Nightless City

 

 

 

“You are relieved of your duties, starting immediately,” Wen RuoHan tossed a bag of jewels on his study table with finality, “There should be enough in here for you to live on for this life and the next.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu could only stare, horrified, at his Master’s sudden shift in tone. “May I ask what I have done to warrant dismissal?” he clenched his fists.

 

Sect Leader Wen RuoHan laughed in a cold voice, “Are you testing my patience? What you have done warrants death. Did you really think that I would forgive you for hurting him?”

 

“He doesn’t deserve you!” Wen ZhuLiu marched forward and slammed his hands on the table, inches from Wen RuoHan’s face, “Can’t you see that he doesn’t even WANT you?! You wed your wife, killed your wife, killed your Father and your counsel for him, and he had never appreciated it!”

 

“That is why I will make him mine, regardless of his protests,” Wen RuoHan smiled sadly, “You, out of all people, should understand what motivates me to achieve my goals. I thought you would support me, ZhuLiu, but it seems like I can no longer rely on you…”

 

The younger man bit his lower lip and swallowed the three words he had buried in his heart. With great difficulty, he looked down and uttered, “…I… will support you. Please, do not drive me away, Sect Leader. I cannot live my life without having repaid by debt to you.”

 

Wen RuoHan put his head in his hands and massaged his aching temples. “ZhuLiu, I am already at my limit. I cannot give you what you want from me.” One does not sit on the Sect Leader throne without a level of intuition. If he had doubts about Wen ZhuLiu’s intentions towards himself, Wen RuoHan now could be entirely sure that his attendant harboured more than just loyalty to him as a Master.

 

He grew even more sure when the proud Wen ZhuLiu pitifully dropped to his knees. “Please,” he begged, “please…”

 

“Then you shall become Wen Chao’s attendant, starting today,” Wen RuoHan sighed without looking up at the man, “you are dismissed.”

 

Wen ZhuLiu offered his Master one loud kowtow on the floor before rising to his feet. As he turned to leave, his footsteps faltered with a burning question. “Am I so disposable that you will not even assign me to your firstborn?”

 

“Wen Chao needs you more than Wen Xu,” Wen RuoHan shook his head, “The firstborn heir has many people around him, he does not need more. Second-born sons are the most pitiful… your only assignment is to let my second child live his life as he pleases. Use that core-melting technique I taught you for him, should he wish.”

 

The younger man closed his eyes to stop frustrated tears from falling. Even in a totally unrelated matter, Wen RuoHan’s penchant for projecting onto Lan QiRen showed. “Hah. Second son living life as he pleases? Truly, everything you do is for that damn GuSu Lan…”

 

When Wen RuoHan did not deny his accusation, Wen ZhuLiu’s heart grew as cold as the bitter QiShan winter. “I have one last question,” he asked helplessly, “will you…. replace me?”

 

After a long pause, Wen RuoHan used a voice so gentle, Wen ZhuLiu could swear that it ought to be reserved for the bedroom. “ZhuLiu… you know I can never replace you.”

 

It was these small moments of warmth that made Wen ZhuLiu sure he could never hate the man, no matter what he was subjected to. If he was to spend the rest of his life babysitting Wen Chao or killing innocent people to make Wen RuoHan smile, so be it. As the closed the final door between him and his Master, the faithful attendant offered one last piece of advice.

 

“For your cause, you should harden your heart to me and those around you,” Wen ZhuLiu finally let his first tear fall, “Your small pieces of kindness will kill you one day, because the person you really are is not suited to such ambitions.”

 

‘The true conquerors of this world should show neither mercy, hesitation nor favour towards anyone but themselves. Those who do are doomed to fail.’

 

“Oh, really?” Wen RuoHan raised an eyebrow, “then maybe I should replace you? Harden my heart, perhaps?”

 

A laugh and a barely audible sniffle were followed by Wen ZhuLiu’s soft footsteps down the Nightless City’s chilly corridors. Slowly, the presence of Wen RuoHan’s closest confidant faded to black, and the leader of QiShan became well and truly alone.

 

Chilled to the bone by sudden solitude, the pitiful leader of the QiShan Wen Sect closed his eyes to conjure up an image of Lan QiRen in fiery red wedding robes to warm his body. He unfurled a world map onto his messy desk and began to circle smaller cultivation clans in ominously red ink – if Lan QiRen wanted the world’s approval, Wen RuoHan would force the world to bow at his feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 


Note: I highly recommend watching the donghua Season 1 Episode 7 from 5:30 onwards to see this scene play out (either before or after you read the scene), if you imagine Lan QiRen’s internal strife along with what happens in screen, it fits exactly with what has happened in this fic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 years later, QiShan Archery Competition

 

 

 

Lan QiRen’s own head throbbed as he reasoned with Nie MingJue’s short fuse.

 

On the face of things, he knew he was right. Wen RuoHan’s cultivation had reached a peak level of absolute dominance and is without rival in recent years. He had been violently subjugating smaller cultivation clans for the past decade. He had killed the former Nie Sect Leader…. But looking at the ridiculously high throne Wen RuoHan set for himself at this sham of a discussion conference, Lan QiRen had to use every muscle in his being to not turn and walk away with Nie MingJue in tow.

 

“I understand that you wish to avenge your father’s death,” he reached out a hand in a last attempt to stop Nie MingJue from leaving, “but the Wen Clan takes bloody means against voices of dissent, you must restrain yourself for the sake of the Nie Sect.”

 

Saying so, Lan QiRen could not help but think back to the pagoda meeting 17 years ago. Nie MingJue’s father had strongly voiced his opinions on how fit Wen RuoHan was to lead, and now the man lay in a coffin, brutally murdered. Even though the meeting was held in absolute secrecy, Lan QiRen could not help but wonder if Wen RuoHan had taken some kind of retribution against the man…. Or even if the accusations had been true?

 

His thoughts were cut off by a familiar, sticky voice.

 

“Hahaha I agree. Why get angry, Sect Leader Nie?” Jin GuangShan had found himself the highest-ranking seat amongst the reserved four, unfurling his fan, “Why not sit down and have a drink?” As usual, Jin GuangShan seemed unfazed by Wen RuoHan’s obvious provocations. Of course, for one reason or another, the Jin Sect remained entirely untouched by Wen RuoHan’s ambitions over the years to an almost suspicious degree. Lan QiRen was no man to point fingers based on assumption alone, but it would not surprise him if Jin GuangShan had let slip the positions everyone held at the pagoda meeting.

 

Seeing Nie MingJue return to his seat, Lan QiRen breathed a sigh of relief and decided not to chastise Jin GuangShan. The man in garish golden robes presented a hard to swallow pill  – reality. The reality of the fact was that Wen RuoHan’s power had already climbed to astronomical degrees and there was no longer any point in him pretending to be amicable.

 

Pagoda meeting attendant, Jiang FengMian, agreed. “It no longer matters where we sit, in these times.”

 

Lan QiRen could not discern whether he referred to Wen RuoHan’s throne or Jin GuangShan’s confident self at the helm of the guest seating. Out of all the attendants at the pagoda 17 years ago, only Jiang FengMian and Jin GuangShan still remained active as Sect Leader, the others were either dead or… Lan QiRen tried his best not to think about his own brother’s self-confinement. The last decade had taken its toll because of it – raising XiChen and WangJi while acting as de facto Sect Leader had not been a job he wanted nor prepared for, but seeing the brothers representing the Lan Sect (along with Jin GuangShan and Jiang FengMian’s sons whom he tutored) he could only feel pride. He would likely feel more pride if he had been able to keep that darned Wei Ying on the straight and narrow, but that child was a lost cause, much like Wen RuoHan in the past.

 

“I am more curious as to who ranks above us, aside from Wen RuoHan?” Jiang FengMian looked across from their seats at another reserved table.

 

As if on cue, the announcer’s voice rang out, “Please take a seat, Second Young Master Wen!”

 

Wen Chao swaggered to his assigned seating and rudely avoided eye contact, while Nie MingJue jeered in a caustic tone, “Are you satisfied with the answer to your question, Sect Leader Jiang?”

 

Jiang FengMian could only take another drink with a dead look in his eyes. What had the world come to?

 

“The systems and rites have collapsed, a sign of chaos!” Lan QiRen nearly spat, setting his water down heavily. Wen RuoHan surely knew better than this?!

 

It had become more than apparent that Wen RuoHan had spent no effort in raising his sons to become righteous men. Lan QiRen had to admit that he held no good will towards Wen RuoHan’s sons and was secretly glad they were not sent to be his pupils. Even though Wen RuoHan’s wife had died a decade ago and the man did not remarry, Wen Chao and Wen Xu’s existence painfully reminded him of how close he had once been to Wen RuoHan, and how impossible their relationship had become. In the years gone by, Lan QiRen had thought to himself on more than one occasion that should he have raised children with Wen RuoHan, they would have turned out less rotten. But, hidden in a dark corner of his heart, a small spark of joy remained… Wen RuoHan had not let anyone else into his heart.

 

That spark of joy glowed slightly brighter as Wen RuoHan took his own seat, his confident and handsome face looking like he was born to rule over the cultivation world. Jin GuangShan looked happy to see his friend in a high place, but quickly returned to feigning neutral after the atmosphere froze solid at the Wen Clan’s excessive exaltation of their leader.

 

Lan QiRen held onto a small glimmer of hope that Wen RuoHan would at least look at him before the archery competition started, but the spark of joy in his heart fizzled out slowly as Wen RuoHan refused to even spare him a glance.

 

‘Could he still be harbouring the grudge from me not eloping with him?’ he grimaced, as the memories of cleaning blood off the door still lingered. Wen RuoHan’s bloody oath assaulted his mind without mercy, but 17 years later, it had still not come true.  To be precise, half of it had come true. Wen RuoHan has surely created a legacy so monstrous, Lan QiRen could not comprehend how many people had already perished at his hands – but had he returned to take Lan QiRen to QiShan?

 

He tried and failed - and Lan QiRen was both petrified and yearning for him to try again.

 

 

 

Little small talk was made as the heated competition waged on in the rock valley. Each Sect leader looked on anxiously as the flares rose one by one, only Lan QiRen looked continuously at Wen RuoHan sitting nonchalantly on his throne, hardly sparing him a glance. Stifled by the awkward and prickly atmosphere, Lan QiRen took an angry swig at his water and stood up with a start.

 

“My legs are a little cramped,” he said bitterly, “Excuse me as I stretch them.”

 

As members of each Sect watched in awe as Lan QiRen turned his back and walked away from Wen RuoHan without so much a nod, a few whispered whether or not GuSu Lan Sect was being too haughty. Wen RuoHan did not take well to displays of pride or arrogance, a man as wise as Lan QiRen would be mad to try and provoke him.

 

Mere minutes after Lan QiRen left his seat, Wen RuoHan gently set down his own wine cup and walked in the same direction. “Gentlemen, please enjoy yourselves. I would also very much like to stretch my legs.”

 

 

After the pair were out of earshot, Nie MingJue slammed his own cup down with the intention of following them.

 

“Sit and drink,” Jin GuangShan instructed without looking at him.

 

“Sect Leader Jin, Mister Lan is going to die,” Nie MingJue retorted, “While you can sit back and watch, I have my own conscience to answer to.”

 

Jin GuangShan waved his fan and rolled his eyes at the brash man’s hot-headed insult. “If you sit here, Lan QiRen will come back. If you go, you will both die. Your choice.” He chuckled at Nie MingJue’s utterly confused expression and added, “Here, I will wager the most valuable thing on my body, aside from my sword, if you will sit down and wait a while.”

 

Half-believing and half-doubting, Nie MingJue slowly sat down and poured himself another drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen wandered aimlessly through the stone forest and kicked a pebble off the winding path. He cursed Wen RuoHan silently for daring to pretend they were strangers before also cursing himself – is this not what he had wanted for them all along?

 

‘What right do I have to complain? I was the one who drove him away…’

 

 

Out of nowhere, Wen RuoHan’s presence came bearing down. “Be careful, Teacher, for you might get lost in this maze.”

 

Wen RuoHan’s voice was so close, Lan QiRen could feel his breath tickle his ears. With his current level of cultivation, Wen RuoHan could have killed him where he stood without even letting him make a sound, and such frightening power made the hairs on the back of Lan QiRen’s neck stand up.

 

“You… why did you follow me?”

 

“Will you not even turn and look at me?” Wen RuoHan said flatly, “I preserved my youth for you and you repay me with this horrendous beard?”

 

“You were looking at me?” Lan QiRen replied accusingly.

 

“I don’t have to, even a glance of that black mark on your face is enough to make my stomach turn.”

 

“Then why are you here?”

 

“To ask for your hand in marriage, of course.” Wen RuoHan’s voice was still devoid of any tone or expression, making it almost impossible for Lan QiRen to be sure whether the man was serious and insane, or ironic and hateful.

 

“Look at what you have done, Wen RuoHan,” Lan QiRen gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. He turned his body and locked eyes with the world’s most feared man, gazing into his red irises so closely he could not see the rest of his face. “Look at your legacy. The trail of dead bodies behind you is so long, you could pave the way to GuSu! If you are still playing your abhorrent game of world domination, stop now before we become less than strangers.”

 

“Game?” Wen RuoHan laughed dryly, “Do you think I have spent nearly two decades playing a game? You wanted the world to approve of us, Lan QiRen, and now nobody dares oppose me! I will have you, whether you like it or not. Prepare to greet my envoy at the Cloud Recesses in 5 days.”

 

“You are no longer the man I knew. The Wen RuoHan I loved was not like this…”

 

“I have not changed, you have! I have always told you I care for nobody but you, but that no longer is convenient for you!” Wen RuoHan thrust Lan QiRen by his shoulders up against the nearest boulder, pressing his whole body over the smaller man.

 

Even in complete shadow, Lan QiRen could see that Wen RuoHan’s features had hardly aged since they last met. That handsome face with sharp features remained as spellbinding as they always were. However, his eyes had lost focus and were much less innocent than before - this was a man who murdered his way to the top of his Sect, and to the top of the cultivation world.

 

“You should know better than anyone I cannot be associated with a killer,” Lan QiRen calmed his breathing and refused to back down, “Stop now while you still can.”

 

“Before I sat on a throne of corpses, your answer was still always no,” Wen RuoHan smirked and stole a kiss from tightly-sealed lips, “Don’t tell me old man Nie is the reason you always ripped my heart out? Lan QiRen, you make me laugh.”

 

“Let go.” Lan QiRen was terrified to show any signs of his determination wavering. Wen RuoHan’s familiar scent attacked the remainder of his sanity, and his lips were soft compared to his poisonous words. Lan QiRen struggled against his iron grip with limited success, only riling up Wen RuoHan to press onto him harder. Men are often victims to their lower half, Lan QiRen cursed at his inability to control his wildly beating heart and the half-hard erection he pressed into Wen RuoHan’s thigh.

 

“Let go, or take you right here?” Wen RuoHan whispered lustfully before capturing Lan QiRen’s lips yet again. He roughly forced his way between the tightly shut lips before slowing down, gently caressing every corner where he remembered Lan QiRen liking it best.

 

The last shred of sanity left in Lan QiRen’s mind shut the gates before he was swept away, and he bit down hard on Wen RuoHan’s tongue. Wen RuoHan continued to kiss him as blood poured into their mouths, refusing to give in until Lan QiRen struggled so hard that his head was shoved to one side.

 

“….stop this now, Wen RuoHan,” Lan QiRen spat out a mouthful of blood, “Even if you rape me right here, I will never marry you.”

 

“I would never be so distasteful,” Wen RuoHan licked his lips, “That is what beds are for. The envoy will arrive in 5 days, we will see if your precious Sect dares to refuse me.”

 

“Try it,” Lan QiRen was past furious at Wen RuoHan’s utter disregard for anyone but himself. “You will have to step over every single body in the Cloud Recesses before I marry you!”

 

“Do you really believe that I daren’t not?” Wen RuoHan laughed, “They mean nothing to me.”

 

“Every single body, including mine. Do you really believe that I daren’t not?”

 

Wen RuoHan’s cocky smile faded from his face as he gazed at the sky and fought back the tear threatening to fall. The last shred of hope inside him faded to reveal a bloody heart-shaped abyss, mocking him. Who would have thought that the man he killed for would rather lie in a grave than lie in his bed? Mockery was more than deserved.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jin GuangShan coughed and reached over his table to Nie MingJue with an outstretched hand as Lan QiRen staggered back to his allocated seat after Wen RuoHan returned. Nie MingJue glowered as he deftly produced a dark green jade token from his inner pocket and tossed it at Jin GuangShan, muttering under his breath. But nevertheless, he was relieved that Lan QiRen had miraculously survived. Wen RuoHan’s murderous tendencies did not fare his father well, losing a bet to Jin GuangShan was a small price to pay for peace of mind.

 

 

 

The archery competition was a great success for the Away team.

 

YunMeng Jiang Sect’s Wei WuXian took first place, followed by Lan XiChen and Jin ZiXuan. Even Lan WangJi who had left the grounds halfway earned fourth place. Although the Nie Sect did not place, Nie MingJue was pleased that the Wen Sect, despite being on their own turf, did not place either.

 

Wen RuoHan could not care less about the poor performance of Wen Chao, and was impatient to leave his even before Lan QiRen’s face drove him to insanity. “ Very good, people of talent have emerged to succeed the four clans,” he announced, “Since the competition is over, I will take my leave. Everyone, enjoy your drinks.” As courteously as he tried to be, the anger in his voice did not fool anyone.

 

With the host of the event gone yet again, another awkward silence descended on the guests.

 

Jin GuangShan fretted, “Sect Leader Wen is obviously displeased. We stole the show in QiShan, I fear for our arrogance.” ‘Lan QiRen, one day you are going to get us all killed! Stop testing Wen RuoHan’s patience!’

 

Lan QiRen ignored him in favour if remaining expressionless.

 

Jiang FengMian, as calm as ever, poured himself another drink. “The youth are free-spirited; the future of all cultivation sects depends on them,” his words carried weight and wisdom far ahead “Moreover, nobody can predict what the future holds.”

 

Lan QiRen’s face still remained stone-like as he pondered the words of Jiang FengMian. Nobody really knows what the future holds, but it was precisely Wen RuoHan’s volatile and unpredictable nature that terrified him. He did not fear death himself, but the weight of others’ lives crushed the air out of Lan QiRen’s lungs as he struggled to keep his head above water – it was much easier to distance himself from the cause of mayhem. After all, he never instructed Wen RuoHan to hurt anyone, not even the unlucky cultivator at the Chrysanthemum Pavilion.

 

 

 

 

 

Later, Nightless City

 

 

The humiliating defeat at their own discussion conference cast a shadow over the Nightless City. Although Wen RuoHan did not show any outwards anger, the murderous aura he emitted more than tripled since the event ended. Although nobody had died directly as a result of his quiet rage, the more it festered, the more uneasy the entire Wen Sect became. Calm before a storm is often the eeriest, and even Wen Chao hid in his quarters in fear of becoming the scapegoat. Wen Chao hardly ever regretted anything he did but volunteering for the archery competition (only to have the floor wiped with his face) topped the list of regrets in his life.

 

‘Damn the GuSu Lans and that bastard Wei WuXian… one day, I will kill you all!’

 

Wen Xu, on the other hand, rubbed his hands in glee. The morning of the archery competition, he had been informed that Wen Chao had pulled strings to take his seat and was plotting to take revenge, but after seeing Wen Chao take a terrible tumble from Wen RuoHan’s graces, the heir to the Wen Sect laughed so loudly he almost choked on his wine.

 

“Hahahahaha- that imbecile- hahahaha! He is finished!” Wen Xu slapped the table and downed a cup in celebration, “I never knew what Father even saw in that ugly duckling, he has Wen ZhuLiu by his side every day like a damn parasite and can’t even win against Lan WangJi with a broken bow!”

 

His attendants could only nod and agree. The sons of Wen RuoHan had been spared almost no attention on his plan of conquest and were in a bitter rivalry over succession. Although it was tradition to let the eldest assume leadership, Wen ZhuLiu’s assignment to Wen Chao since he was a child led to many rumours that Wen RuoHan favoured his second son. In reality, he had taught neither of his sons any cultivation due to their immense lack of talent, but to Wen Xu (who had assumed he would be the next Sect leader), the treatment Wen Chao received seemed like taunts.

 

Months after the disastrous archery competition, Wen Xu hatched a plan to strike while the iron was hot and win back some of his credibility within the Sect, as well as please his father.

 

His first target was the arrogant GuSu Lan Sect. The Lan brothers won 2 out of the top 4 places at the archery competition, not to mention Lan QiRen had left his seat in disrespect. In Wen Xu’s mind, Wen RuoHan must be furious at them.

 

Wen RuoHan was indeed furious, but not for the shallow reason that his clansmen thought. Lan QiRen’s words cut him to the bone and left his raw, festering wounds without so much as a second glance. Wen RuoHan did not know if Lan QiRen would really refuse his advances if he threatened the lives of his family – the root of his anger was really the realization that he had been placed in checkmate. He could not touch the Lan Sect lest Lan QiRen live up to his promise, but even if Lan QiRen sold himself to save his family, Wen RuoHan would lose him forever. If he so much as lifted a finger against the Lan Clan, Lan QiRen was as good as dead to him.

 

As Wen RuoHan tried to distract himself by violently taking over dozens more cultivation sects, his eldest son requested an audience.

 

“What do you want?” Wen RuoHan tapped his finger on his desk impatiently. Seeing his children reminded him of his dead wife, they had been born with her unfortunate face, almost like divine retribution. If Wen RuoHan did not need an heir, their bumbling foolishness would have sent them to the grave long ago. “If you need money, go to the treasury. If you want to learn cultivation, I have no time to teach you talentless oafs. I have limited patience with you two dullards, do not test me.”

 

Wen Xu flinched a little from his kowtowed position on the cold stone floor. He was used to indifference from his father, but such a hostile tone was usually reserved for when he had already made a mistake. He gulped and cleared his throat.

 

“Father, I humbly apologize on behalf of my idiot brother for embarrassing our Sect. If I had been present, I would have brought QiShan glory.”

 

Wen RuoHan laughed through his nose, “Hilarious. Now get out.”

 

“But Father,” Wen Xu braced himself and continued to speak, “The GuSu Lan Sect obviously had no respect at all for our great Sect and humiliated us as guests. Such egotism is detestable, those bookworms should be taught a lesson for their arrogance!”

 

For once, Wen RuoHan agreed with his son.

 

Seeing his father not throw anything at him, Wen Xu took the opportunity to elaborate. “Those headband wearing monks preach their holier-than-thou teachings to anyone who cares to listen, but deep down they are hypocritical gutter rats! Let me take men to the Cloud Recesses and burn their books, and bring you the heads of those who dare oppose us!”

 

“Those books have rotted their minds,” Wen RuoHan’s lips curled into a savage smile, “Xu-er, I have never heard anything so agreeable in days. Make sure you tie them up and make them watch as their precious principles and traditions go up in crimson flames. Go forth, drape our blazing sun flag on that wall of rules!”

 

As Wen Xu marched triumphantly out of Wen RuoHan’s study, the lone man inside threw his head back and laughed. His pained, manic voiced echoed through the empty room as his heart continued to bleed.

 

‘Lan QiRen, I will never hurt you…. but those DAMN GuSu Lan ideals can go to Hell. If you were not so subservient to meaningless morals and ethics, perhaps we would both be happier.’

 

 

 

We Xu’s life had never been better. As he puffed up his chest and gave orders to rally manpower on an expedition to GuSu, he made a point to run as many sect members around Wen Chao’s quarters as he could. It was time to let the runt know who the master of the house is.

 

Unable to tolerate any more footsteps, Wen Chao threw open the door to be bedroom after a few hours and yelled, “Whoever the FUCK is disturbing my nap can go and throw themselves into the kitchen fire! That’s an order!’

 

“Who do you think you are, little brother?” Wen Xu sauntered into view, “I don’t recall such a pathetic person in charge of Father’s great empire.”

 

Wen Chao rolled his eyes so hard into his head, he looked like a corpse. “Why if it isn’t Big Brother and his pitiful quest to light a fire,” he sneered, “No wonder Father did not even let you attend the archery competition, you are pathetic!”

 

“That is better than losing to someone who quit halfway,” Wen Xu shot back, “Look at you, hiding under your blankets like a puppy.”

 

“At least I give my best effort, unlike Big Brother. If I were leading this campaign, I would vow to not return unless I had every Lan Clan head on a stick like a kebab! Burning books is so suitable for you, I doubt Father even thinks you are capable of doing anything manly... Oooohh… is this why you beg Father every day to teach you his great cultivation and he kicks you out? Hahaha! No wonder!”

 

Wen Chao’s cheap tactic was often used as it never fails to anger Wen Xu. This time, however, he had his own blow to deal.

 

 “I have an army to lead, but you?” Wen Xu turned his nose up his brother, “Wen Chao, don’t think that you can act all high and mighty just because you have Wen ZhuLiu as your bodyguard. You think Father favours you? I have been hearing from the older Clan members that Wen ZhuLiu totally fell out of favour with Father before being assigned to wipe your ass. If Father truly cared for you, why do you not learn the Core-melting Hand?”

 

Wen Chao’s sneer turned into a snarl as Wen Xu landed a critical hit. “You… you just wait!” he snapped at Wen Xu, “One day, your will pay for this!”

 

 

 

As the men Wen Xu rallied prepared to leave for GuSu, Wen Xu encountered a rare guest.

 

“Shouldn’t you be feeding Wen Chao his night-time milk?” Wen Xu leaned again his doorway, rudely refusing to invite Wen ZhuLiu inside.

 

“Eldest Young Master,” Wen ZhuLiu respectfully greeted, “I am here with one piece of advice, and will take my leave immediately afterwards.”

 

“Spit it out and piss off,” Wen Xu yawned, “I leave tomorrow at dawn, I haven’t got time for rubbish.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Eldest Young Master,” Wen ZhuLiu respectfully greeted, “I am here with one piece of advice, and will take my leave immediately afterwards.”

 

“Spit it out and piss off,” Wen Xu yawned, “I leave tomorrow at dawn, I haven’t got time for rubbish.”

 

 

“Do not hurt Lan QiRen, and if at all possible, do not hurt any Lan Clan members.”

 

“What a joke!” Wen Xu laughed, “Father hates the Lans to their bones, I will smite them!”

 

Wen ZhuLiu frowned, “Did Sect Leader instruct you to hurt or kill anyone?”

 

“So what if he didn’t? I have always planned to take initiative - Wen Chao was just adding the obvious so he can brag that he had the idea first!”

 

“Eldest Young Master, Sect Leader dislikes those who disobey his commands. Lan QiRen was once Sect Leader’s Teacher, if you think about it carefully, he is your Grand-Master. I will bet the head on my shoulders that if you harm him in any way, this time next year we will all be mourning for your departed spirit.”

 

Wen Xu raised an eyebrow, “Bullshit! Lan QiRen is younger than Father, and Father would never learn anything from that stuffy prune! Whatever Wen Chao is trying to pull, you can tell him to fuck off. This battle will be victorious, and I shall present Father with the heads of Lan QiRen, Lan XiChen and Lan WangJi! Actually, that Sect Leader of theirs, that recluse, I’ll take him too!”

 

“Young Master!” Wen ZhuLiu was getting desperate. Wen RuoHan would tear the world apart should Lan QiRen come to any harm, Wen ZhuLiu knew that he would have been too prideful to specially warn Wen Xu against killing anyone… but Wen Xu was too thick-skulled to understand subtle hints. Wen ZhuLiu sighed, “Young Master, do you know why I was assigned to care for your brother instead of follow Sect Leader as his closest confidant?”

 

“Why?” Wen Xu was genuinely interested to know how such a formidable man became a babysitter to the brat.

 

“When Lan QiRen and Sect Leader had a fight, I landed one punch to Lan QiRen’s face.”

 

Wen Xu’s startled expression made Wen ZhuLiu feel slightly more confident that his advice would be taken. “That is why, Young Master, I implore you to think of your future before acting on emotion. If Sect Leader wanted the Lans dead, he would wring the life out of them with his own hands. Before he chooses to do it himself, it is unwise for Eldest or Second Young Master to attempt it.”

 

 

 

 

 

1 day later, GuSu, Cloud Recesses

 

 

 

“SIRE!”

 

Lan QiRen frowned at the intrusive yell and walked towards the edge of the Cold Spring. The altercation with Wen RuoHan in QiShan did not go to plan, and their difference in physical ability had left him reeling and afraid. Wen RuoHan was always stronger than him but had never intentionally tried to overpower him until recently… every time Lan QiRen’s mind drifted to those beast-like eyes, he shuddered. When men feel threatened, an instinct propels them to make themselves stronger – Lan QiRen’s arduous cultivation efforts since returning from QiShan often left him aching, and he often frequented the Cold Spring with a book to read. If nothing else, the piercing chill could freeze his despair.

 

Tonight, his luxury would be robbed from him.

 

“Quiet, and stop running,” Lan QiRen placed his book on the shore and stroked his beard, “Why the commotion this late?”

 

“SIRE, THE WENS-

 

“The Wens?” Lan QiRen blinked twice in surprise, “Who is here?”

 

“Wen RuoHan’s eldest son, Wen Xu!” the Lan disciple stopped to calm his haggard breathing, “He read out some ridiculous proclamation at the gates, and barged in with an army!”

 

Lan QiRen’s stomach turned at the very mention of Wen RuoHan. No matter how dire their relationship became, Lan QiRen had never once thought Wen RuoHan would really hurt him or the Lan Sect. Perhaps, he had overestimated his position this time.

 

“Why were they not stopped?!” he struggled to throw on his clothing, not caring that he was still dripping wet from the spring water, “Where is XiChen and WangJi?”

 

“We- we tried to stop them, but their numbers are great… the young masters rushed to protect the Library Pavilion, Wen Xu said he would burn it down!”

 

As Lan QiRen rushed towards the scene, sounds of swords clashing, screams of the injured and Lan WangJi’s qin melded into a chaotic mess. “Ensure the safety of Sect Leader!” he instructed a few passing disciples, “Alert all disciples nearby, arms yourselves but do not engage in battle unless your lives are threatened! If they were here to massacre, they would already have started. Stall the Wens at any cost before I meet with their leader!”

 

“Mister Lan, you are as clever as they say...” Slow claps emerged from behind a grove of trees as Wen Xu sauntered into view, heavily guarded. He leaned lazily on a tree, studying Lan QiRen’s peculiar, damp look. “But you’re only half right. I am here to kill anyone who gets in my way.”

 

“Your way of what?” Lan QiRen unsheathed his sword a little. Wen Xu’s QiShan Wen Sect robes looked the splitting image of Wen RuoHan decades ago years ago, but even with his face half hidden by shadow, there could be no mistaking him and his father. Wen Xu’s voice carried none of Wen RuoHan’s majesty or allure.

 

“The Lans have been poisoned by your own scriptures, it’s frankly disgusting and arrogant,” Wen Xu laughed, “As the next QiShan Wen Sect Leader, I am here to cleanse you all. Anyone who knows what’s good for them should thank my Father for his kindess.”

 

“Did he…. send you?”

 

Wen Xu laughed again, this time mocking, “Who else can order me around?”

 

To avoid Wen RuoHan’s accusing eyes and to avoid the temptation in his own heart, Lan QiRen had never been brave enough to face the reality that the lover of yesterday had turned into a bloodthirsty monster. Even as they tore each other apart outside the archery range, Lan QiRen naively thought that GuSu would be safe from Wen RuoHan’s never-ending conquest. But as Wen RuoHan’s flesh and blood stood before him, Lan QiRen had no choice but to admit he had been wrong. He closed his eyes to force away the overflowing moisture in his eyes lest they fall, heart aching, and gripped his sword so hard that his knuckles cracked.

 

‘Wen RuoHan.. why must you push me this far?’

 

Lan QiRen let out a yell and lunged, sword drawn. Wen RuoHan had not taught his sons any cultivation, and the brothers were notoriously untalented amongst their peers. To end the Wen assault before things got out of hand, Lan QiRen’s only chance was to quickly capture Wen Xu and hold him hostage.

 

The pair only crossed blades a few times before Lan QiRen quickly found himself at a disadvantage. It was not because Wen Xu had more cultivation than he envisioned, but the exact opposite – the young man was so full of openings and utterly terrible, Lan QiRen found himself pulling back in order to stop himself from killing him. Wen Xu’s guards were worth their salt, but immediately switching between trying his utmost to fight them and pulling back at Wen Xu was a challenge.

 

At closer range, Lan QiRen could finally see Wen Xu’s face. Unlike Wen Chao, Wen Xu was blessed with a few facial features from Wen RuoHan. Although not as handsome, Lan QiRen could still see the resemblance. As he pulled his blade back from Wen Xu’s vital areas again and again, Wen Xu became more and more ruthless with his own strikes until at last, Lan QiRen was surrounded.

 

“Hahaha!” Wen Xu jeered, “And to think I half-believed that damned Wen ZhuLiu! You are too much of a coward, scared of retribution, you daren’t even injure me while you had the chance!  Lan QiRen, you are pathetic! My Father could never learn anything from the likes of you!”

 

‘How could I? Not when you… look like him…’

 

Wrapped in layers of rope and talismans, Lan QiRen was escorted to the Library Pavilion. The site was carnage. Important members of the Lan Clan, including Lan QiRen’s uncle, were either injured or disarmed and held prisoner. Lan WangJi lay barely conscious on the Library Pavilion steps after his final stand, surrounded by dead Wen disciples. His qin strings were decimated and one leg was bleeding, twisted in a gruesome angle not usually possible.

 

“WangJi!” he cried, “WangJi, are you alright?!”

 

“…uncle….. Bro- brother is still…. Inside….”

 

“Light the fire!” Wen Xu ordered.

 

Wen Sect disciples threw oil-soaked rags into the magnificent building and then their torches. Lan QiRen watched in horror as hungry flames licked up the wooden structure with Lan XiChen inside.

 

“XiChen!!” Lan QiRen’s uncle wept, before falling unconscious.

 

“Wen Xu, you monster!” Lan QiRen screamed, “What more do you want from us?!”

 

“What more do I want?” Wen Xu cocked his head to one side and kicked Lan WangJi’s limp body, “I want this cocky kid dead for killing so many of my men. I want your Sect Leader dead for fun, and I want this whole place burned to the ground with all of you in it!”

 

“You’re here to punish me, aren’t you!? Just take my head and get out of here! The Lan Sect has done nothing to warrant this violence, just me!” Lan QiRen cried, “Tell Wen RuoHan… tell him… I have repaid what I owe him…”

 

Wen ZhuLiu’s warning rang in Wen Xu’s head like an alarm bell. By Lan QiRen’s words, the possibility of Wen ZhuLiu being right all along increased too much to ignore. If Wen ZhuLiu was right, and Lan QiRen was indeed his grand-master, he had already done more than was safe…. But even if Wen ZhuLiu was wrong, he had more than shown the Lan Sect who was boss. In a rare moment of clarity, the fear of Wen RuoHan’s potential wrath overcame the temptation to further trample the GuSu Lan Sect.

 

“I’m bored, let’s light some more fires and go home,” Wen Xu kicked Lan WangJi’s leg again and stretched like a lazy cat.

 

Justifiably confused at Wen Xu’s sudden change of heart, a Wen commander asked, “But Young Master, what about killing-

 

“They already look like they’re at a funeral with those stupid forehead ribbons, where’s the fun in killing them?” Wen Xu spat, “And that’s Eldest Young Master to you, you oaf! Did you idiots not hear my orders? Leave! Now!”

 

And thus, as mysteriously as they came, Wen Xu’s army of torch-welding QiShan disciples retreated. Lan QiRen swallowed a mouthful of vomited blood and looked helplessly at the sky that that filled with smoke and sparks. Hatred was a strong word he did not often use, but his gut-wrenching agony of being betrayed by the one he loved the most was more than deserving of the honour.

 

 

 

 

QiShan, Nightless City

 

 

Wen Xu’s moment of clarity saved his life. His triumphant reports of how he destroyed the Cloud Recesses became less and less joyous as Wen RuoHan’s expression grew more and more deadly. By the time Wen Xu was made to explain who he had injured, his voice was down to a terrified whisper.

 

“Who else?” Wen RuoHan asked, polishing an arrowhead with a silk handkerchief. The ornamental arrowhead had surfaces so bright, Wen Xu’s life flashed before his eyes every time the point face towards him.

 

“…..L-Lan WangJi’s leg was broken by a few disciples, but he should survive…. L-Lan XiChen might have burned to death in the library……. I- I heard later that some disciples had injured the Lan Sect Leader but did not see for myself…. and a few insignificant people from their side were hurt.”

 

“What about Lan QiRen?”

 

Hearing Wen RuoHan ask specifically about Lan QiRen, Wen Xu began to sweat. Wen ZhuLiu was right. “H-he… is fine. We left him tied up, but uninjured.”

 

“Did I order you to burn down the whole Cloud Recesses?” Wen RuoHan continued to polish the arrowhead.

 

“…no, Father.”

 

“Did I tell you to shed blood or kill anyone?”

 

“…no, Father.”

 

Wen RuoHan flashed his small weapon in front of Wen Xu three more times, taking aim. He enjoyed his son’s expression of excruciating fear for a few moments before setting down the arrowhead neatly on his desk. “Then perhaps I will give you one more order to follow, if you can carry it out, I will forgive you.”

 

Wen Xu kowtowed so hard on the stone floor, his forehead bled. “Thank you, Father, for your good graces! Your son will never disobey you again!!”

 

“Take a bedsheet from your bed, and hang yourself tonight. If you are dead by tomorrow, I will take mercy on your women.”

 

Wen RuoHan’s voice was so void of any expression, Wen Xu’s knees buckled as his blood ran cold. Wen ZhuLiu was wrong, after all….it was much more serious than even he had predicted. “FATHER! PLEASE GIVE ME ONE MORE CHANCE!” he pleaded, “I AM YOUR OWN FLESH AND BLOOD, I LIVE TO SERVE YOU! EVEN DEADLY TIGERS DO NOT EAT THEIR OWN YOUNG, CAN FATHER REALLY BEAR TO KILL ME?” As soon as the cry left Wen Xu’s mouth, he regretted his choice of words - Wen RuoHan was far deadlier than any beast known to man, he knew better than anyone.

 

“I cannot bear to even look at your face right now,” Wen RuoHan waved his hand and set a surge of spiritual energy at Wen Xu. As Wen Xu crumpled to the floor after flying backwards into a wall, Wen RuoHan glanced at him in disgust, “If you would rather me kill you, just stay alive until tomorrow. Otherwise, just write a will and get it over with.”

 

 

Wen RuoHan retreated back to his bedroom in internal panic. After making sure his doors were closed and nobody could see him, he cast a dome of silence over himself and screamed in frustration. It had taken every drop of his self-control not to decapitate Wen Xu immediately for committing such a grave mistake, Wen RuoHan was also livid at himself for not having made it clear to his idiot son that hurting people was completely off-limits. Lan QiRen valued family and his Sect over everything – after their altercation at the archery grounds, it was now much too late to try and explain anything to the stubborn man. No matter how hard he tried to rationalize his actions, it looked like pure and simple revenge. In reality, Wen RuoHan had let his frustrations get the better of him and just wanted to vent his anger on the Lan Sect rules and regulations holding him back from his lover, but Wen Xu had quite literally burnt his bridges.

 

Wen RuoHan found himself praying that nobody in then Lan Clan would die. Books can be copied, buildings can be rebuilt, but if there turned to be any fatalities, Lan QiRen would never forgive him. If Wen Xu’s death as an apology can save what little was left of their relationship, Wen RuoHan would gladly even bury the whole expedition Wen Xu led, alive.

 

His spiralling panic was cut off by two curt knocks to his door.

 

“Who goes there?!” Wen RuoHan was ready to take his anger out on anyone who dared disturb him.

 

“Sect Leader, it is me.”

 

“ZhuLiu, you should not be here.”

 

“I do not recall your orders that I never be permitted to seek you audience, Sect Leader.”

 

Wen RuoHan was caught by surprise. Wen ZhuLiu had never talked back to him in such a manner before. “Enter,” he sighed.

 

“Thank you for seeing me, Sect Leader.”

 

Wen RuoHan sat on his bed and rested his head on the wall as Wen ZhuLiu carefully closed the door behind himself. “I am tired, what do you want?”

 

“Eldest Young Master was in distress,” Wen ZhuLiu said directly, “I believe it to be unwise to execute him.”

 

“What are you talking about? He is going to commit suicide out of guilt.”

 

“Your reputation will suffer.”

 

“I don’t care.”

 

“He will not forgive you, it is far too late to offer up your firstborn.”

 

Wen RuoHan always hated to admit that Wen ZhuLiu could see right through him. He picked up a teacup set by his bed and cast it onto the floor in frustration, “THEN WHAT CAN I DO?! TURN BACK TIME?!” The resounding shattering of fine china ended quickly, leaving only the faint sounds of two mens’ strained breaths.

 

Wen ZhuLiu admitted after a while, “I do not know, but killing your own son to appease him will simply make you seem void of any reason-

 

“THEN SO BE IT!” Wen RuoHan cried, “In his mind, I am nothing but a monster, a scourge on his perfect life! What more do I have to lose?! I hear that Lan WangJi is still alive? Bring him to me! If he won’t listen to what I have to say, then I will take a hostage until he will!”

 

“Sect Leader, please think calmly. The other Sects will surely feel unrest if GuSu Lan-

 

“Then bring me their hostages too!” Wen RuoHan put his head in his hands and exasperated, “Whatever reason you have to make up to bring them all here, just do it… those smaller Sects are getting too arrogant anyway, this will be a good time to teach them who is the superior one.”

 

“He will not negotiate with you, you know that,” Wen ZhuLiu attempted one last time to bring Wen RuoHan back from insanity.

 

“Then I bring him here by force, when the precious world he holds dear belongs to me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

5 days later, GuSu, Cloud Recesses

 

 

To say that this was the biggest crisis the GuSu Lan Sect has ever faced would be grossly understating their terror.

 

Lan QiRen’s uncle remembered a time when their biggest source of stress was the killer wife his Sect Leader nephew suddenly brought home, or the time when he locked her away, or indeed the time when she died and he locked himself away. Or even the time after that when Lan QiRen disappeared for a day then came back reeking of wine and ordered himself to be caned until he fell unconscious. Those dark days ten years ago were fresh in his memory, and it seemed like the sky would collapse and bury them all.

 

But now? How he wished time would turn back, he would accept his niece-in-law in a heartbeat. The old man wiped his brow and shakily handed the letter from the QiShan Wen Sect to Lan QiRen and said, “From the Wens… they want WangJi to go to QiShan.”

 

Lan QiRen’s eye widened in horror.

 

‘Of course… of course he would not ended it. He will not end this until the Cloud Recesses is flattened, and every single one of us is dead…’

 

“What do they want from WangJi?!” he gritted his teeth, “The boy’s leg is broken, we have barely even set the bone. How should he make that trip?”

 

“It seems like this is addressed to all major Sects… a farce of an excuse to take hostages under the pretence of educating the next generation.”

 

Lan QiRen held back his impulse to kick one of the few tables that had not burnt along with the building. His brother lay severely injured, Lan XiChen was missing, and now Wen RuoHan had come for the Lans’ last remaining hope. ‘This is why you kept us alive… what good is suffering if we cannot bear witness to it?’

 

He straightened his back and tore the Wen decree in half. “Uncle, the Lan Sect cannot let ourselves be bent like bamboo in the wind. I would much rather break like jade than be moulded to his twisted will, I will set off for the Nightless City immediately.”

 

‘I will admit I cannot play as dirty as you, Wen RuoHan. If I am threatened with the Lans’ only heir, you knew I would come…”

 

“You stop right there, young man!” his uncle cried, “Just who do you think you are to that monster?! You are walking into your coffin!”

 

“Uncle, you still remember me as a boy? Do not forget, Wen RuoHan is my first student and I have my ways to convince him to stop this madness.” Lan QiRen’s actions seemed as if he was courageously defending his own nephew, but his eyes looked like a man who had been truly defeated. If Wen RuoHan was not satisfied in him as a replacement prisoner, he would have to slit his own throat and end this bloody conquest. If then man was already too hungry for power and could no longer stop his crusade, at the very least, Lan QiRen would be blind to it in death.

 

“He is clearly not the man you once knew! QiRen, have you lost your mind?!’’

“Uncle! Please trust me, I am his-

 

“His teacher for one month! Do you know how many of his political rivals Wen RuoHan has disposed of?! Those men watched him grow from a baby, do you really think he would spare any thought before smiting you where you stand?”

 

“…….”

 

Lan QiRen was at a complete loss. His uncle would likely suffer a heart attack should he find out he and Wen RuoHan had engaged in relations of the flesh… but should he leave for QiShan and not return, he would be forever branded as an impulsive simpleton who failed his mission.

 

“Then are we sending WangJi to die?” he looked to the older man for answers.

 

Uncle stroked his white beard and sighed, “The Wens are far too powerful for us to attack. In our current state, I think it is better to entrust diplomacy with WangJi and rally our forces. He is a smart boy, and I believe he will survive. Time is of the essence, we must find XiChen, heal our Sect Leader and rebuild the Cloud Recesses.”

 

The subject of QingHeng-Jun cast another shadow of doubt over the Lan Sect. Lan QiRen knew as much as his uncle did, that his brother was not likely to survive. The Wen assault on him had been brutal, and even now his life hung by a thin thread. A Sect that was about to lose their leader is in no position to fight with Wen RuoHan, Lan QiRen had no choice but to accept the crushing defeat his love had handed him.

 

Lan QiRen looked at his uncle hopelessly and sighed. “…..let us try to at least make Brother’s injuries seem lighter than they are, lest we add extra stress to WangJi.”

 

“QiRen, WangJi is perceptive,” the old man looked equally miserable, “We have not given him much information, but I believe he already knows.”

 

 

 

Only as Lan QiRen watched his youngest nephew put on his usual brave face and set off to QiShan did Lan QiRen begin to truly regret his irresponsible love affair. Even though wise men do not look back on what cannot be changed, it would be unreasonable for one to not have such thoughts as one stood amongst rubble, watching Lan WangJi’s limping figure. Lan QiRen had a sense of dread that his nephew will never be the same again, even if he did make it back from QiShan alive.

 

With his eldest nephew missing and now the youngest gone from his sight, the gaunt and tired Lan QiRen stumbled into his brother’s quarters. QingHeng-Jun’s bedroom was full of burnt-out talismans from medical arrays, none of which had worked. The atmosphere was heavy as medical disciples rushed about in vain, bleary-eyed with bleak expressions. Some younger disciples looked like they had been crying, and the older ones had stubble on their chins.

 

Lan QiRen dismissed the team to take a break, taking over their tasks of bandaging his brother’s wounds and changing the dressings. QingHeng-Jun looked haggard and deathly pale, fresh blood seeping from his incalculable number of wounds. Lacerations. Stabs. Scrapes. Fractures. Everywhere.

 

Lan QiRen drew in a sharp breath as he removed the bandage on QingHeng-Jun’s forehead and took off a layer of barely-intact skin – he could see all the way down to where the Wen’s weapon had scraped the skull bone underneath. This was a sight he had tried to prevent Lan WangJi from seeing, but alas his uncle was right – it was not hard to judge the severity of the Sect Leader’s wounds if one even bothered to check the medical waste basket being delivered out of his quarters every day.

 

The barely conscious man groaned in pain and slowly opened his eyes.

 

“Qi…Ren…”

 

“Brother, please rest,” Lan QiRen sat next to his brother and placed his hands on his arms to comfort him, “Do not worry, they only burned some things, it is not serious.”

 

“The…. Children….”

 

“WangJi and XiChen are in good shape,” Lan QiRen lied, “They will come to see you when you are better.” Rules are good, but he preferred his brother to stay alive.

 

“….do you…. resent him?”

 

“…Brother, I do not understand,” Lan QiRen stammered.

 

QingHeng-Jun forced a half-smile and coughed at the pain, his breathing laboured. “QiRen… I do not have much time…. I know you have… affectionate feelings towards Wen RuoHan.”

 

The younger man’s expression froze on his face. He thought he had perfected his façade of indifference over the years and avoided Wen RuoHan whenever possible, but how had his brother seen through it so easily?

 

“Do not….look so surprised,” QingHeng-Jun’s voice was down to a whisper, “…the…the days from his engagement announcement….to his wedding…..and after the wedding….and every celebration of his children….you looked the picture of misery. Others may fail to see…but I have also loved desperately…”

 

“Brother, please, that is of the past,” Lan QiRen could not take any more blows to his heart. He regretted his words to Wen RuoHan the most – the words giving him hope and the words tearing it all away. If Wen RuoHan was not already insane when they met, he was most definitely insane now. The bloody mess of a man dying in front of Lan QiRen was his own doing, but he could not face it yet.

 

“Is it in the past?” QingHeng-Jun forced another few words out, “Then why are you…..the only one….uninjured?”

 

Lan QiRen had nothing left to defend himself with. From the moment Wen Xu kicked down the doors to the Cloud Recesses, Lan QiRen had already lost.

 

“QiRen…do you love him regardless?”

 

For the first time since the night of Wen RuoHan’s wedding, tears began to overflow from Lan QiRen’s eyes. Of course he still loved Wen RuoHan. If his heart had filled with hatred or even gone cold, the twisting, searing pain in his heart would not be so unbearable. The guilt of still loving a man who had destroyed his home and tried to kill all he held dear was crushing, and Lan QiRen had not prepared himself to be confronted by the victim of Wen RuoHan’s bloodlust.

 

However, QingHeng-Jun’s weak voice carried no accusatory tone. He chuckled and blood seeped from the corner of his mouth. “….I do not blame you…my fated one was hardly a saint herself… Oh QiRen, we are truly brothers. I just hope that Huan-er and Zhan-er find reasonable girls to… settle down with.” He tried to raise his hand to pat Lan QiRen’s head as he sobbed like a child, but only managed to nudge his younger brother’s hand.

 

“I have kept them on the straight and narrow path, Brother,” Lan QiRen said between sniffles, “I swear by my soul I will not let them repeat my mistakes.”

 

“…make that… both of our mistakes…” QingHeng-Jun sighed, “….but I am glad for you. You are lucky enough…to be loved in return.”

 

“I would much rather he forgot about me,” Lan QiRen buried his head in his brother’s blankets as the tears continued to flow, “Why can we not just forget it all?”

 

“….if you cannot forget…. What right do you have to demand he forget you?”

 

“But it hurts…. It hurts so much, Brother…. I do not know what to do.”

 

QingHeng-Jun reached out with a bloody, bandaged hand to lay on top of Lan QiRen’s own. He coughed, blood spluttering from his lips as he found the energy to form more words. “I am much aware... that I am the least qualified to advise you about love versus duty. I am a failure…. as sect leader… a father.. a husband and a brother…. but please allow me to say... you cannot be all of those things at once. Make your choice, QiRen…. Because…. you can either achieve all of them or none of them. If you falter even once… there will be no second chances.”

 

“Brother, please conserve your energy!” Lan QiRen raised his tear-stained face and tried to calm his brother’s ragged, wet breathing. Such long sentences was like draining the man of his life force, and the uneasiness he felt listening to what sounded like last words made Lan QiRen’s tears well up again. How was it that even a man on the verge of death was capable of more reason than he had for the past 15 years?

 

“….I leave…. Lan Huan and Lan Zhan to you… Brother…” QingHeng-Jun closed his eyes restfully, “….but please do not be overly critical of them if they fall in love. We are all…pitiful…at best…”

 

A calm sense of finality descended on the room, and Lan QiRen knew without doubt that his brother’s tired, worn soul had departed this world. How worried for Lan QiRen he must have been, to use the very last of his energy to console him? Lan QiRen’s decision had been made for him the moment his only brother departed this world – Wen RuoHan no longer had any place in his life. The decision came late and had claimed one more fatality as a result, Lan QiRen could no longer afford any more.

 

Days later, Wen RuoHan received the news of QingHeng-Jun’s demise, along with an envelope addressed to him in handwriting he did not recognise. His sense of foreboding turned into momentary fear (very rare for Wen RuoHan) and then into murderous rage as the contents of the letter revealed themselves.

 

In slanted, terrifyingly deliberate strokes of blood were the words ‘FATED NO MORE’, faded slightly on the edges by what looked like dried tears. A lock of hair was matted onto the last character, and the whole page looked to be hastily folded together and sealed in the envelope by an unknowing disciple to deliver by pigeon. Wen RuoHan’s hands shook as he cradled his head in his hands and let a single tear trickle down his cheek.

 

After the tear dried, he marched up to the unfurled world map on his desk and circled every sect he had yet to annex with calm precision. YungMeng Jiang Sect… LanLing Jin Sect… QingHe Nie Sect… GuSu Lan Sect… the larger sects he had tactfully stayed away from in fear of full-blown war were no longer off limits. If they were unable to be annexed, they would need to be destroyed. In Wen RuoHan’s mind, the answer was simple – if Lan QiRen’s approval was no longer possible, it would no longer be needed. The faster he could stand on top of the world, the faster Lan QiRen would become his and his alone.  

 

Wen RuoHan had committed too much of his life to give up so easily. If love was no longer possible… ownership was close enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Intermission:

 

It would be a good time now to watch the debate with Jin GuangShan and co in Season 1 Episode 12 starting from 11:50

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, Lan QiRen would never see Wen RuoHan’s pain and anguish. Lan QiRen saw a man consumed by power, a cruel hostage taker, and a mass murderer. It seemed as if every single day there would be news of yet another cultivation sect either annexed or annihilated by Wen RuoHan, news so common that even Lan QiRen became desensitised to the horrors. Even the usually centrist and peaceful YunMeng Jiang Sect was not spared from a bloody end when they refused to become a vessel for Wen RuoHan’s conquest.

 

Finally, months later, the cultivation world had enough.

 

Lan QiRen’s intention had never been to start a war, but the tortured souls of the fallen and his brother’s dying words haunted his nightmares from dusk till dawn. Wen RuoHan never attempted to contact him again, nor apply any more force to the Lan Sect since the day Lan QiRen’s letter was delivered, but instead of a sigh of relief, Lan QiRen’s most feared scenario had come true. He understood Wen RuoHan’s twisted rationale – when the last two sects standing were the Lans and the Wens, his red sedan chair would come. The dye would be the blood of the conquered, and the destination would be Hell.

 

News of Lan XiChen had long last been found, Lan QiRen’s wavering heart settled and the cloud cleared. Returning to the past has long been impossible and staying silent will only result in more tragedy, but fighting Wen RuoHan head-on has at least a slim chance of saving them both.

 

Lan QiRen put his sternest, most valiant face as he strode into the half-burnt meeting hall where he had invited the remaining major sect leaders. Nie MingJue looked pleased, Jin GuangYao looked hesitant, and there were many faces in between. It was a wonder that Jin GuangYao had even responded to the invitation given his previously fair terms with Wen RuoHan, but the pressure for subjugation had become too much even for him. Lan QiRen remembered Wen RuoHan’s description of their relationship: “If one day our political positions change, neither of us would hesitate to behead the other.” True indeed.

 

‘Who knew that it would be Jin GuangShan who made the first move?’ Lan QiRen wondered quietly to himself whether birds of a feather do flock together… but what would that make him?

 

 

 

“Everyone,” he drove the wandering thought away and started on topic, “The QiShan Wen Sect has oppressed us to this state, does everyone still intent to sit on the side-lines and watch the fire burn? Be careful, this fire will burn you next!” The words were from his heart. The fire that tore through the Cloud Recesses had left their mark on him forever, and he could no longer let Wen RuoHan’s love burn any more out of control than it already had.

 

Jin GuangShan nervously took a sip out of his cup. The Lans would never serve wine, much to his chagrin, he truly wanted nothing more than to drown his worries in the cellar. Out of those who had witnessed the pagoda meeting nearly two decades ago, only he and Lan QiRen remained alive. It was no coincidence that they had been the only two to speak for Wen RuoHan at that time, and both were now regretting it. Jin GuangShan’s instinct told him that no matter what Lan QiRen did, Wen RuoHan would let him escape unscathed – the best evidence was Lan QiRen’s miraculous lack of injury from his many altercations with the man. But Wen RuoHan would be never so kind to the LanLing Jin Sect. Should this campaign fail, Jin GuangShan knew that he would be the first to hang from the city walls.

 

“Mister Lan,” Jing GuangShan feigned a relaxed tone and set down his tasteless liquid, “Since we are all here, of course we want to earnestly discuss this matter. However…”

 

“Would Sect Leader Jin like to share your wise idea?” Lan QiRen shot back sarcastically.

 

‘After so many years, and you still take such a hostile tone with me?’ Jin GuangShan internally rolled his eyes, ‘I will never understand what Wen RuoHan even sees in you… he might have been better off just going to brothels with me.’

 

“Not a wise idea,” he forced a smile and waved his fan, “but in my humble opinion, attacking the Wens rashly at this time is inappropriate.” ‘Lan QiRen, do you take me for a fool? You know well enough that Wen RuoHan would never hurt you, and he would decapitate me if I hurt you, so you want to drag me out there to be your vanguard? I will not be played like a harp!’

 

“Indeed, there is still room for negotiation at this time,” another Sect Leader agreed, “If we really enrage Wen RuoHan, then we would have no way to retreat!”

 

“Where is this negotiation room? Where is the way to retreat?” Lan QiRen’s head began to throb at the pathetic lack of courage in the room, “Is it to surrender our formations and our magic treasures, then drag out a feeble existence in the Supervisory Offices!?” He was used to idiotic students, but a room of grown men with such little brain made him want to throw the nearest table over each and every one.

 

Nie MingJue laughed coldly. “Forgive my candour,” he exclaimed, “Once you surrender your weapons, in Wen RuoHan’s eyes you are nothing but livestock waiting for his slaughter!”

 

Sect Leader Yao often had qualms with the way the younger Nie MingJue’s fiery words.

 

Jin GuangShan quickly sough to control the overflowing emotions in the room. The valiant option would be a crusade of justice, but he valued his life more than an idealistic death. If the room became carried away by Lan QiRen’s calculated ushering and Nie MingJue’s booming speech, he would be forced with the flow.

 

“Everyone, please calm down,” he said, “What I mean was that we should not use force against force. Think of QingHeng-Jun, who was formidable and skilled, and GuSu Lan Sect is a top-ranked cultivation Sect.. but look at what happened?”

 

Lan QiRen bent his arm to throw a table at Jin GuangShan daring to disgrace his brother’s memory but was cut off by Lan XiChen’s triumphant return. With somehow Jiang WanYin in tow, the tides of debate quickly turned.

 

Lan QiRen’s appreciation for Jiang Cheng and Lan XiChen’s help was quickly overshadowed when Nie MingJue swore he would take Wen RuoHan’s head.

 

‘Oh no… stop stop stop stop!’ he lamented, ‘This child always had taken things too far….Wen RuoHan must be stopped, but I will not have him perish at my hands.’

 

Quickly directing the subject back to Jin GuangShan, Lan QiRen let it be known very clearly that those who chose to sway with the breeze would be damned either way. Jin GuangShan looked displeased at the obvious threat, but eked out another slick smile and questioned their firepower. Imagine his surprise at Lan XiChen’s army of supporters from far and wide, even Jin GuangShan had no choice but to be swept along with Nie MingJue’s motivating Sunshot Campaign toast.

 

While the crowd no doubt wanted Wen RuoHan’s demise, Lan QiRen watched on with a sense of loss. His aims had been achieved, but nothing could push Wen RuoHan further away from him than his current actions and Lan QiRen’s heart bled at the fact. If the bloody letter had left him any hope, this declaration of war would be the final nail on the coffin to seal their love away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

To everyone’s surprise at the Nightless City, the first person Wen RuoHan sent to lead his troops into war was Wen Xu. Wen RuoHan nonchalantly placed his eldest son in the hardest possible battlegrounds despite the latter’s utter lack of talent, many saw the move as sending the young man to die. Only Wen ZhuLiu saw past the rumours that Wen RuoHan favoured Wen Chao and wanted Wen Xu gone – it was true that Wen RuoHan would like nothing more than for Wen Xu to disappear, but the motivation was surnamed Lan.

 

As Wen ZhuLiu watched the fighting from a distance, it became clearer and clearer to him that his master’s undying obsession with Lan QiRen was jeopardising their entire Sect. Unable to reason with him, Wen ZhuLiu could only stay by Wen Chao’s side as Wen RuoHan launched a blistering campaign against Jin GuangShan, yet seemingly unable to win any ground against the Lans (or even the Jiangs, while they had Lan WangJi covering for them). How he wished to ask Wen RuoHan one last time: ‘What made an ungrateful man who set out to wage war against your love better than me? Will you ever look at me with even a fraction of the care you show for him?’ Wen ZhuLiu would never live to find out the answer. Even as Wei WuXian looked down on his battered frame, he still could not find it in himself to hate the heartless man he had given his all to. Whether Wen RuoHan acknowledges it or not, he had been saved and learned the feeling of love while by his side. Many people let their lives pass their entire lives mundanely and never truly live – Wen ZhuLiu was grateful at having been given the chance.  ‘Debts to the Sect Leader must be repaid... I don’t owe you anymore, Young Master. May you be happier in your next life.’

 

Wen RuoHan hardly changed his expression at the news of Wen Xu being beheaded, or even Wen Chao being torn to shreds, but as the messenger’s list of fatalities included Wen ZhuLiu, his usually steady hand jolted and spilled scalding hot tea over his hardwood table. His room full of strategists and senior sect members fell quiet.

 

“He… how?”

 

“Reporting to Sect Leader, Wen ZhuLiu and Second Young Master both suffered at the hands of Wei WuXian. That bastard has learned demonic cultivation and controls hoards of feral corpses.”

 

“Wei WuXian…” Wen RuoHan shattered the cup into fine sand in his hand and worked to calm his breathing, “I thought Wen Chao had him killed!?”

 

The disciple tasked with delivering bad news shuddered as he imagined himself in place of the cup. “S-Second Young Master pushed him down the YiLing mass grave…. Nobody has ever come out of there alive-

 

“But there is one, is there not?” Wen RuoHan put his head in his hands and nursed a throbbing headache. Almost no Wen disciple survived Wei WuXian’s deadly assault. Had one not barely escaped to report the news, the mysterious downfall of an entire army would severely damage morale. “You are dismissed. Send my orders and prepare funeral rites for Wen ZhuLiu. Use… Second Master of the Clan rites, spare no expense.”

 

“Sect Leader, forgive my impudence,” a senior Wen Sect member dared speak, “But even the late Madame did not enjoy such lavish rites due to budget restrictions at the time. We are at war, it may be seen as improper to-

 

“Senior Zhou, do you have a fever?” a smooth voice laced with mirth cut off the old man from behind Wen RuoHan.

 

Old man Zhou’s face turned shades of purple in rage. “Meng Yao, you insolent little-

 

“I would imagine you are fairly ill to become so muddleheaded,” Meng Yao took Wen RuoHan’s approving glance and ran with it, “I have not been under the care of our great Sect Leader for long, but even I am aware of Senior Wen ZhuLiu’s tremendous deeds for our Sect. He has been loyal to Sect Leader since he was a child, and even wiped YunMeng Jiang Sect off the face of the earth in one night, not to mention his work over decades! He came from humble backgrounds to aide our Sect Leader in ways I can only dream of, who dares say he is not worthy of a proper funeral?”

 

Meng Yao’s silver tongue had been a pleasant surprise to Wen RuoHan, useful in times where he needed someone to understand him. Of course, the young man did not comprehend the full reason why Wen RuoHan wanted Wen ZhuLiu to have rites usually reserved for Sect Leader’s spouse, but as long as his goals were achieved, Wen RuoHan did not much care how. He doubted Wen ZhuLiu would really care, but at least it eased his own guilt ever so slightly.

 

Seeing no chance of winning an argument alive, the senior sect members quickly backed down on the Wen ZhuLiu matter. “Very well. To avoid rumours, let us plan a joint ceremony between Wen ZhuLiu and the Second Young Master-

 

“Did I give the order for two funerals?” Wen RuoHan said coldly, “Perhaps you need a doctor, old man Zhou?”

 

Even Meng Yao was left speechless that Wen RuoHan would deny his son a funeral. The room’s atmosphere was already low due to bad news, but now it was truly dead. Sect members looked towards each other in shock, no man was able to decipher Wen RuoHan’s inexplicable decision.

 

“Wen Chao is an embarrassment,” Wen RuoHan flatly offered an explanation, “If I recall, once in the XuanWu cave, once in the raid of Lotus Pier, and once at YiLing he could have killed Wei WuXian. He failed all three times and was decapitated along with an entire army by the same man… I am doing him a favour by even keeping him in the Ancestral Books. He may keep his birth record in the Books, that is all.”

 

“But-

 

Wen RuoHan glared so menacingly at the faces of dissent, one disciple’s knees buckled and he fell to the ground.

 

“All dismissed. Meng Yao, stay.”

 

As the study emptied and only two men remained, Meng Yao studied the beast in front of him carefully. He had walked into Wen RuoHan’s inner circle with such ease, he often wondered if Wen RuoHan had figured out his true intentions. In the months since he arrived at QiShan undercover, he had been given an unreasonably fast series of promotions and received personal cultivation training from Wen RuoHan – a luxury not even Wen RuoHan’s owns sons were afforded. Meng Yao was apprehensive at first and remained polite, but Wen RuoHan seemed to favour him the most when he laughed or showed small amounts of sarcasm, or even defiance. He was an adaptable man, but his enigmatic new master was a challenge and was never easy to read – how did he manage to become the pampered pet of Wen RuoHan, a man who had no time for anyone’s nonsense?

 

“Meng Yao, you look troubled,” Wen RuoHan poured himself a new cup of tea.

 

Snapping out of his daze, Meng Yao hurried to clean the remnants of the last teacup off Wen RuoHan’s desk and put on his characteristic smile. “How can I be more troubled than you?” he said sweetly, “I cannot even imagine how hard it is to keep a brave face after such a terrible day.”

 

“He and I…. have not spoken for quite some time,” Wen RuoHan sadly took a sip of slightly bitter Pu-er tea and pressed his lips together till they were a thin line, “He was foolishly loyal, and stubborn in his own way. If he had begged me to return to my side again when I was not so angry, perhaps he would not be dead today.”

 

“Those who live the longest are round on the edges,” Meng Yao remarked and started to massage Wen RuoHan’s tense shoulders, “If one stays too sharp, chips and cracks starts form after a while.”

 

“Hmph. Or become the sharpest weapon of all, and cut down those in the way,” Wen RuoHan closed his eyes and let Meng Yao’s nimble fingers rub away the stress of the day. Wen ZhuLiu was dead, partially by his hands, and there was no more he could do. Any regrets would have to wait until the war was won, until Lan QiRen was in his hands.

 

“Sect Leader, not everyone is as all-powerful as you are!” Meng Yao laughed.

 

“Then practice your cultivation, or you will never get any taller, little boy.”

 

“Sect Leader!” Meng Yao purposefully pouted in the slightly cute way Wen RuoHan seemed to like, “Please stop making light of my height every time you want a laugh! I am 16 years old and still growing! You are just too tall for us mortals…” Of course his age was a lie, but feigning innocence and disguising his background were easier. Nobody would ever guess a pretty face on a 5-and-a-half-foot tall body was from the enemy’s camp.

 

“I am not making fun of Yao-er,” Wen RuoHan chuckled, “but did you really practice the techniques I demonstrated to you?”

 

“You are literally laughing right now!” Meng Yao complained in a joking tone but squeezed a little harder at Wen RuoHan’s neck massage.

 

“Ouch! Do you intent to strangle me?”

 

Afraid he had gone too far this time, Meng Yao quickly ceased his movements and changed his facial expression to that of respect and fear. He dropped to his knees and quivered, “S-Sect Leader I- I did not mean to- I am so terribly sorry!”

 

Wen RuoHan sighed. Meng Yao’s habit of acting like a scared rabbit showed he was still uncomfortable with him, no matter how much ground Wen RuoHan yielded. Appetite for playful banter gone, Wen RuoHan rubbed his temples and patted Meng Yao on the shoulder and started towards his bedroom.

 

Perceptive as ever, Meng Yao followed obediently. His exceptional memory allowed him to systematically decipher Wen RuoHan’s behaviours and expectations far better than the average disciple in QiShan. Even though he had made a few mistakes and feared for his life in the past few months, Wen RuoHan seemed to never punish him, instead giving him promotion after promotion. With the extra chances gifted to him, Meng Yao was sure he had the best understanding of the unpredictable man (even if he was admittedly still not totally sure of every aspect) and was no longer truly afraid of him. Wen RuoHan was not a grotesque monster his enemies made him out to be, but his cultivation was second to none and would be difficult to kill. At first, his excessive trust and favour shown to Meng Yao made the younger man suspect Wen RuoHan had a penchant for young men and wanted him as bedroom stress relief, but Wen RuoHan never made any moves more intimate than from ruffling his hair. He seemed to enjoy take pure delight in teaching Meng Yao cultivation, playing chess and holding intelligent discussion, often praising his memory and talent like a father would a child. However, the closer Meng Yao became with Wen RuoHan, the more he perceived a crushing sense of loneliness from the man and a faint feeling that Wen RuoHan was looking through him instead of at him.

 

Unable to get close enough to Wen RuoHan and kill him in bed, Meng Yao could only bide his time and hope that Nie MingJue and Lan XiChen would turn the tables on the battlefield and give him a chance to act.

 

When Meng Yao opened Wen RuoHan’s bedroom door, the man was being undressed by the maids, arms outstretched. He saw a chance, and gently ushered the maids out before continuing the task of untying the many layers of intricate fabrics from Wen RuoHan’s waist.

 

“Did I hurt you, Sect Leader?” he asked softly, knowing full well that there was no possibility of him really having hurt Wen RuoHan. Wen RuoHan’s physical form was perfect, his unattainably high level of cultivation left his body almost frozen in time as a man in his late 20’s (despite being old enough to be Meng Yao’s father). He let his fingers linger pleasantly long enough on Wen RuoHan’s waist, not too long to be intentional, but long enough to draw out lust in anyone who was already keen. Although not a proud technique to use, Meng Yao had a few seductive tricks he had unwittingly learned from his mother’s colleagues and he was not one to miss a great opportunity.

 

“You somehow become even smaller when you apologise,” Wen RuoHan chided, “I am not angry, you may leave after you are done here.”

 

“But I am afraid I may never grow as tall as you, or become a man worthy of you…” Meng Yao’s own words made him want to vomit, “…does that mean you will never see me as anything other than a child?” Instead of circling around to face Wen RuoHan, Meng Yao carefully wrapped his arms around Wen RuoHan’s chest from behind to undo his inner layer of clothing.

 

Without a word, Wen RuoHan grabbed Meng Yao’s hands and tossed him onto his bed like a sack of rice. Bearing down so close that the latter could see the red flecks in his glowing eyes, Wen RuoHan smirked at Meng Yao’s brave effort to conceal his fear. “Yao-er, whatever you think you are ready for, you are not ready for.”

 

“…..I- I….” Restrained by the wrists with only one hand yet unable to move an inch, Meng Yao’s life flashed before his eyes. Did Wen RuoHan want to kill him or bed him?

 

“If I wanted to, I could probably rip you in half,” Wen RuoHan whispered in a seductive yet chilling voice, “then who would I send to organise ZhuLiu’s funeral tomorrow morning?”

 

 

His answer did little to answer Meng Yao’s question. As Meng Yao wandered back to his own quarters in the Nightless City, the enigma that was Wen RuoHan remained unsolved.

 

 

Of course, till the day he died, Meng Yao would never guess that the sole reason Wen RuoHan picked him to serve at his side was his voice. Months ago, only a few days after Meng Yao infiltrated the Wen Sect as a new recruit, Wen RuoHan had passed around the corner of where he had been chatting and laughing with some fellow Wen disciples. His clear, melodic laughter was so similar to Lan QiRen’s, Wen RuoHan stopped in his tracks and shook his head to make sure he was not daydreaming. He instructed his men to bring him the laughing boy, only to discover that his speaking voice was also quite similar. Wen RuoHan knew that showing such blatant favouritism to one person would bring travesty, but Meng Yao was a likeable fellow with exceptional talent for cultivation, strategy and even afternoon chatter. Plus, listening to him read battle reports and laugh washed the stress from Wen RuoHan’s day. Wen RuoHan especially enjoyed teasing Meng Yao to hear his occasional witty and annoyed reply – although his face and personality were nothing alike the man on his mind, the words that came out of his mouth were close enough.

 

The greatest cultivator in history was simply yearning for any warmth he could find in the cold stone walls of the Nightless City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

News of Wei WuXian’s incredible return from the dark depth of YiLing spread like wildfire. Wherever he went, Wen disciples fell like paper men, and the Sunshot Campaign soon breached Wen RuoHan’s territory. However, even after half a month of endless fighting, no end could be seen.

 

“Sect Leader, they are at the gates,” Meng Yao reported, no decoration or expression in his voice. He had planned to exterminate Wen RuoHan for a while but could not find a chance to. There was only one chance left before he risked being killed in the crossfire of battle as a Wen disciple.

 

Wen RuoHan’s face looked calm but grim as the sound of war grew closer and closer. “Who leads them?”

 

“Nie MingJue, Lan XiChen-

 

“What about Lan QiRen?”

 

“He has never been seen on the battlefield, Sect Leader,” Meng Yao reported, “Why does Sect Leader ask about a man who poses no threat to us?”

 

“Good,” Wen RuoHan ignored Meng Yao’s question and stretched his arms, “Then let us head out. Stay behind me, Yao-er, lest you get killed.” With Lan QiRen out of the picture, he no longer needed worry about collateral damage - everyone standing in his way can die.

 

“I can fend for myself,” Meng Yao gripped the hilt of his sword, “You needn’t pay me any attention.”

 

 

Wen RuoHan looked down upon the tens of thousands of cultivators climbing the stone steps up to his palace like ants.

 

“Weaklings, know your limits,” he smirked, and let forth a torrent of spiritual energy that knocked the first few hundred off their feet and into the air like a child knocking over his toy soldiers.

 

The first to charge back up the stairs was a furious Nie MingJue. The man who killed his father without so much a second thought (or even a decent reason) was playing them for fools, and it was his destiny to avenge the fallen. He had one Wen head in his collection already, and it was time for number two.

 

Wen RuoHan watched nonchalantly as Nie MingJue swung his sabre at his head, and dodged by a hair’s breadth. It had been a while since he fought against anyone, and Nie MingJue was also disappointingly slow. At this rate, he would not need to unsheathe his sword before he killed every single one of these children. However, just as he considered landing a final blow, the spiritual energy surrounding the sabre lit a spark in Wen RuoHan’s distant memory.

 

Somewhere, somehow, it was familiar to him.

 

He dodged and parried a torrent of Nie MingJue’s vicious attacks like a game, struggling to remember exactly where he had felt or seen such cultivation before. While Nie MingJue’s strikes were not fatal or even landing any hits, they were frequent and annoying enough to a thinking man. Irritated at his own inability to think while being attacked, Wen RuoHan closed his eyes and caught the sabre blade between his fingers.

 

Finally, the dust settled. Wen RuoHan slowly opened his eyes and looked into Nie MingJue’s frustrated eyes as if to say ‘don’t bother, you can never beat me’. While it would have been nice to reminisce and remember where he had encountered such a raw energy in the past, time was of the essence and quite frankly, there were people that needed to be disposed of. Besides, torture could always wait until he had won the war. Wen RuoHan slowly inched the sabre down with his hand despite Nie MingJue’s best efforts, and drove his bare fist into his core.

 

At the very last moment before he shattered Nie MingJue’s body, Wen RuoHan pulled his force back entirely, landing only a physical blow barely strong enough to temporarily stun the man. His intuition had not screamed at him so loudly in a long time, ‘don’t do it’.

 

Wen RuoHan did not have the luxury to think any more about the doubled-over Nie MingJue at his feet before a flying silver sword flew straight at his head. He put up an energy barrier to stop the sword in his tracks before jumping backwards to fend off Lan XiChen’s second strike. At the very least, the young man seemed like Lan XiChen… he had never observed GuSu Lan Sect’s eldest son up close before, and for a moment it became clear why he had been sent to fight – Lan XiChen’s face was uncannily similar to a young Lan QiRen.

 

‘Lan QiRen… this is your answer for me? You send both of your nephews here to kill me, wagering their lives that I would not dare hurt anyone with your likeness?!’

 

As much as the burning rage seethed within him, Wen RuoHan had to admit his defeat in the face of Lan QiRen’s silent threat. Wen ZhuLiu’s words suddenly rang through his mind: ‘you should harden your heart to those around you,’ but as Wen RuoHan continued to dodge Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue’s combined attacks, he could not strike back. Even pushed back to the door, the best he could do was defend himself with their blades in fear of hurting either one.

 

Lan QiRen had him at checkmate long ago.

 

‘What do you want me to do, Lan QiRen? Am I to spill your family’s blood once more, or will it take my death to prove to you I never intended to kill your brother? At this point, will you even be satisfied with that? But Teacher, you should know me… I do not believe in the afterlife. All I know is if I die here, I will never be able to be with you. That is why you must forgive me, even if it takes years, that I cannot fall here. I know there is a chance you may never forgive me…. but if I allow myself to be killed here, I will never see you again.’

 

The decision became very simple when Wen RuoHan was pushed to the brink – quite simply put, a Lan QiRen who hated him was certainly better than a death without Lan QiRen at all.

 

‘Therefore, your nephew must die. Anything and everything that stands between us must disappear.’

 

Wen RuoHan’s chilling smile before his spiralling torrent of spiritual energy could tear Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue apart was cut short by a golden sword that emerged from his chest.

The precision and sharp spiritual energy could only come from the boy he thought he knew best. He had been in checkmate by more than one opponent, his very own Meng Yao.

 

“You….” he could not even turn his head to look at the traitor before collapsing in the pool of his own gushing blood.

 

If anything, Wen RuoHan was ironically proud at just how accurate Meng Yao’s sword was. He had taught him, holding his graceful hand, the perfect points to quickly and efficiently kill a man no matter the cultivation level (lest Meng Yao was bullied by other in the Wen Sect) with no consideration that it would be used against himself.

 

As the life poured out of his body, Wen RuoHan could hear Meng Yao’s happy laughter in the voice he so loved. The same as Lan QiRen’s voice, saying, “Brother!” [12]

 

He laughed, blood pouring from his mouth, in a voice so small that it could not be heard over the spreading of cheers in the battlefield. The smell of death permeated the air, cruelly contrasting the celebration happening over his dying frame.

 

‘Small pieces of kindness… ZhuLiu, you know how much I hate to admit defeat…. But you were right. The one I gave my heart to… does not even want to see me. The one I tried to be kind to… is standing with my enemies, laughing. ZhuLiu… why could I not choose to love you instead? Why is it that…I still see his face in my mind? Lan QiRen….did you ever truly love me? If you did not…why did you never say it?’

 

Wen RuoHan never felt the vengeful sabre of Nie MingJue’s wielding separate his head from his shoulders – before his heart stopped beating, he was already numb from the pain.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[12] Brother refers to Meng Yao (or Jin GuangYao’s) reference to Lan XiChen specifically, but Wen RuoHan is about to die and all he hears is Lan QiRen’s voice calling out for QingHeng-Jun. Wen RuoHan’s biggest problem with Lan QiRen is that he never puts Wen RuoHan first, so this hurts more than the stab wound in his chest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Lan QiRen would loved to have said he was valiantly rushing through the crowd, running up the staircase to see Wen RuoHan one last time before he died. He would have loved to be able to say he tried his best.

 

However, Lan QiRen received the news of Wen RuoHan’s death in by the cheers of unknown disciples outside his war tent 10 miles from the Nightless City, as he awaited news on the siege.

 

“We killed Wen RuoHan!”

 

“Really?”

 

“Honest to God, one of our spies killed him almost the minute he came out of his room!”

 

“Wow, like a dog?”

 

“His head is hanging on the eaves, you can go to see it if you want.”

 

 

Lan QiRen’s calligraphy brush left an unsightly splash mark on his strategy map before rolling to a halt. He stumbled backwards two steps before collapsing onto the ground, seated. The dripping ink from his overturned inkstone stained his pure white robes as he stared dumbly at the neatly planned escape plan he had laid… he had failed to consider Wen RuoHan losing a battle so quickly.

 

The plan he had laid to rescue Wen RuoHan when he was too tired or injured to run away and hide him forever, maybe even remove his core, was the best possible outcome of the Sunshot Campaign. If Wen RuoHan were to win the war, Lan QiRen would no longer have the luxury of choice but also be freed from the agony of it.

 

Either way, they would be together.

 

But the almighty Wen RuoHan be killed? It was never a possibility, the man was like a god. How does one kill a god? How does one….overcome such pain?

 

Often, one cannot contain it.

 

By the time Lan disciples found Lan QiRen in his tent, his entire face was matted with his own dried blood that he lay in, face down over an illegible map of YiYang.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 days later, QiShan, Nightless City

 

 

Lan QiRen did not know what he hoped to achieve by walking through the Nightless City. The war had been won almost miraculously by the sudden appearance of Wei WuXian and Meng Yao (whom was apparently Jin GuangShan’s illegitimate son), it did not seem true. Despite having passed the bloodied nail that once hung Wen RuoHan’s head at the door, Lan QiRen still wandered the cold, dark halls listlessly, as if his lover would stroll around the corner and announce the results of his elaborate hoax.

 

‘Teacher, I was kidding! How could I, Wen RuoHan, die without seeing you again? I live my life for you, nobody can take you away from me! Death tried to, but I killed him! Haha! Behold, the pinnacle of cultivation!’

 

“Are you here?” Lan QiRen whispered to the walls.

 

“Are you here?” they echoed sadly.

 

“I am here now,” he called out

 

“I am here now….” they replied.

 

“LIAR!” he cried.

 

“LIAR!” the empty halls accused.

 

 

“Who is the liar?” came a slick, sing-song voice.

 

“Jin GuangShan….” Lan QiRen glared at the face behind the fluttering fan. With his son at the helm of victory, the LanLing Jin Sect seemed to tower above the rest.

 

Jin GuangShan laughed at Lan QiRen’s haggard face and pointed to the door just a few feet ahead of them, “You’re free, congratulations. Wen RuoHan was truly a madman, you may want to take a good look at his bedroom and burn whatever is in there. Truly sickening…”

 

“Speak not in riddles,” Lan QiRen gritted his teeth, “I do not have time.”

 

“The Sects are going through the Nightless City’s magical treasures and storage rooms. Wen RuoHan has amassed a large fortune and we thought the secret room in his quarters would contain the best treasures…” Jin GuangShan could not hold back a snicker, “….but all we found was a cotton undergarment too small for him, and a set of wedding robes.”

 

Lan QiRen tore through the corridor like a madman and kicked open the door to Wen RuoHan’s bedroom. As Jin GuangShan described, a stone door opened to a secret room that Sect Leaders used for generations to hold their most valued treasures.

 

Wen RuoHan’s treasures were yellowing books, annotated by Lan QiRen, a cotton undergarment stolen from his closet, a branding iron and a set of bright red wedding robes. The secret room was well-cleaned, had no sign of dust or cobwebs and had a small table and lamp in the corner where its owner sat for hours in silent longing. With shaking hands, Lan QiRen placed his hands on the fiery red robes and lifted, only to be weighed down.

 

“Fabricated of spun gold and vermillion,” Jin GuangShan quipped behind him, “Each weighs at least 15 pounds. What did I tell you? He was rotten in the head…”

 

“Was he?” Lan QiRen’s vision fogged and the intricate patterns and embellished jewels faded. Wen RuoHan would know better than anyone that this did not matter to him, yet he could only do the best he knew… insane indeed.

 

“What good does it do for us to judge him?” Jin GuangShan shrugged, “The world has already made its choice. Winners are kings, losers are criminals, that is all. Do you want to burn all this?”

 

“Burn? Gold is impervious to fire [13], what will you have me burn?” Lan QiRen sighed, “Sect Leader Jin, the Lan Sect gives up all rights to the Wen treasures… but please, leave me the contents of this room.”

 

“You are as insane as he was, like teacher like student,” Jin GuangShan laughed as he walked away, voice echoing in the great stone hallway, “…what a farce, Wen RuoHan! Hahahaha…”

 

Lan QiRen left QiShan with a small wooden case that weighed 40 pounds. Rumours would spread that the Lan Sect valued QiShan’s gold, but no money would enter the Sect accounts. In fact, the only spoil of war that the Lan Sect was recorded to have kept was a single QiShan sun symbol branding iron. The remaining contents of Lan QiRen’s case disappeared as soon as it entered the Cloud Recesses.

 

Pain heals quickly when one forces one’s head away from it, but the wounds remain. Lan QiRen only let his wounds show once after burying the wedding robes, books and undergarment in a lead box under his old maple tree. The branding iron did not fit, so he tossed it amongst miscellaneous magic treasures and closed the door, but three years later, Lan WangJi would dig it out in a drunken stupor and brand his chest with the mark of Wen RuoHan’s battle flag.

 

As he watched his nephew maim himself with the product of his own indecisiveness and sin, Lan QiRen had his first and only mourning cry since Wen RuoHan disappeared from his life. Nephew and uncle cried that night for totally different reasons, unbeknownst to each other, but the pain was much the same. The pain of loss was all-encompassing, but the elation of seeing one’s fated one again would visit them both, over a decade later.  

 

 

 

 

Present Day, GuSu, Cloud Recesses

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen stood at the base of his old friend, the maple tree outside. Its leaves had all turned brilliant shades of gold and orange, falling with the breeze and dancing elegantly for a few moments before returning to the earth. He looked at his feet, wondering if he had sealed the lead box buried under soil tight enough, or whether darkness had eroded its contents.

 

Either way, he had no intention of finding out. All memories of Wen RuoHan needed to remain buried and wither with time, not be dug out to be aired… especially when Ling XuYin visited him 3 times a day, every day. Ever since his eyes had been healed and Lan QiRen made a spectacle of himself eating pear cakes, Ling XuYin had made it his life’s duty to ‘undo his wrongs’ and become Lan QiRen’s personal chef. Even Lan XiChen commented on how lucky his Uncle was to receive a banquet morning, noon and night - while Jiang Cheng secretly fumed and allocated a whole kitchen to himself in a bid to out-cook the younger man.

 

Whispers in the Lan Sect circulated: Sect Leader Jiang and Ling XuYin are both great wives. Jiang Cheng was predictably furious, as he had already lost the battle of the bedroom to Lan XiChen and was especially sensitive to the word ‘wife’ on Lan grounds, but Wen RuoHan quite enjoyed his newfound domestic time. The joy he felt watching Lan QiRen savour his cooking every day was much more than his conquering and murder, and he often laughed to himself that had he married Lan QiRen 30 years ago, he would cooking anyway. What separated him and Jiang Cheng was their night time activities. Wen RuoHan learned very quickly to avoid Sect Leaders quarters after nightfall unless he wished to be reminded every single night that this new body of his was still a virgin – Lan XiChen truly his own special way to make it clear who was the master of the house.

 

Sexually frustrated and very jealous, Wen RuoHan poured even more of his time and effort into the culinary arts.

 

As he delivered today’s lunch and walked briskly with his wooden tray of fine porcelain bowls, lidded to avoid the food getting cold, Wen RuoHan stopped just short of rounding the corner to Lan QiRen’s quarters. His only hobby since he entered the Cloud Recesses was to watch Lan QiRen silently from the shadows, his side face when he was in deep thought captivated Wen RuoHan the most. As golden leaves fluttered around him, Wen RuoHan would have sworn Lan QiRen was glowing like a god. The closer someone is, the more unbearable it becomes when they cannot be touched… Wen RuoHan felt his cheeks begin to flush as the familiar pounding in his heart started again. He closed his eyes and deprived himself of the image in front of him and thought about something unappealing. After mentally running through a few people he killed in the Wen Sect, and then Wen Chao’s face for good measure, Wen RuoHan’s racing heart calmed and he put Ling XuYin’s smile back on his face.

 

“Teacher, I have brought you lunch.”

 

Lan QiRen’s smile half appeared before he quickly pulled his mouth back into a straight line. “XuYin, you must use your time wisely. When do you cultivate during the day?”

 

“When I am not cooking, I cultivate diligently!” Wen RuoHan caught the small smile and grinned.

 

“Your lies need more planning,” Lan QiRen rolled his eyes, “JingYi reported that you have become a member of the kitchen staff. Any time anyone needs you, they just have to visit the kitchen, my quarters, or your bed. Tell me, where is the time for cultivation?”

 

“I am not lying,” Wen RuoHan whined, “My priorities are Teacher, sleep and cultivation. When I am not doing either, I cultivate. There are simply not enough hours in the day… Teacher, do you think I should care about you less, or learn to lie?”

 

“Ridiculous!” Lan QiRen huffed, “You are truly more shameless than that Wei Ying!”

 

“Yes yes, I am shameless,” Wen RuoHan followed Lan QiRen into his bedroom and closed the door gently, “Teacher you must eat before this gets cold, then you can continue your lecture.”

 

As Lan QiRen looked upon the lovingly prepared meal in front of him, different dishes glistening in their own fine porcelain bowls, he could not summon any more anger. Today’s centre-piece is a clear tofu soup. The tender tofu had been cut in a criss-cross array hundreds (or was it thousands?) of times so finely that when placed in the clear broth, it bloomed like a hydrangea and swayed gently with every spoonful.

 

“Your knife-wielding skills have improved,” Lan QiRen tried not to show too much awe, “Impressive.”

 

“If Teacher likes flowers, I can carve a peony for your soup tomorrow,” Wen RuoHan leaned with his elbows on the table and chin in his hands, smiling. Watching Lan QiRen gingerly avoid the delicate tofu flower made him want to laugh, but Lan QiRen does not take well to being laughed at.

 

The pair shared less words since Wen RuoHan’s blindness, Lan QiRen especially avoided Ling XuYin at all costs. However, he never forced the man to leave every time he delivered food, leaving the impression to the Lan Sect that they were inseparable when in fact it was mainly a one-sided affair. Lan QiRen hated to admit that he enjoyed Ling XuYin’s company, indulged in it even, but knowing he could not return his feelings prevented him from seeking company lest he ben seen as reciprocating.

 

Hidden even deeper was a thought so terrible, Lan QiRen would never ever admit it, not even to himself – it was not that he could not reciprocate any affection, it was that he should not. The deep fear that any affection between himself and a man could only bring calamity onto everything he held dear was overwhelming, he simply could no longer afford to open his heart to anyone.

 

Unluckily for him, Wen RuoHan’s special skill was forcing his way into places he should not be. One of those places seemed to be the attention of everyone in the world.

 

“Teacher, JingYi gave me an invitation from Sect Leader Nie this morning, did you also receive one?”

 

Lan QiRen set down his soup spoon gracefully and frowned a little. “Indeed, I have. Most influential cultivators and Sect Leaders have received theirs, but one must wonder why Sect Leader Nie decided to include you?”

 

“Perhaps he wishes to see my cultivation at closer range?” Wen RuoHan half-joked. Nie HuaiSang is a notoriously useless man, but Wen RuoHan sensed that there was more than meets the eye. The guest list for Nie MingJue’s death anniversary is highly political, and inclusions (as well as exclusions) speak volumes about rank. Nie HuaiSang’s invitation of Ling XuYin can be interpreted in three ways:

 

One – Nie HuaiSang is sending a message to their neighbouring BingZhou Peng Sect to cut ties, and making it very clear that he supports Lan XiChen and Jiang Cheng’s marriage.

 

Two – Nie HuaiSang really thinks that Ling XuYin is a candidate for the GuSu Lan Sect Leader position in the future (or become very important) and is seeking a mutual benefit.

 

Three: Nie HuaiSang is truly useless and wants to see another performance.

 

No matter his intentions, as soon as Ling XuYin steps into the Unclean Realm, Nie HuaiSang would have achieved at least the first two.

 

 

“Do not allow yourself to become a circus act,” Lan QiRen stroked his beard angrily, “That Wei Ying will likely be in attendance, and he is a ridiculous good-for-nothing. He was in a trio of trouble with Jiang Cheng and Nie HuaiSang in their younger days, I forbid you to lose the Lan Sect any face during your time there!”

 

“If Teacher wishes, I can decline the invitation,” Wen RuoHan smiled, “I do not have any personal relation to the late Sect Leader Nie, it would not be inappropriate for me to respectfully decline. I will not do anything Teacher does not want.”

 

Lan QiRen paused for a moment and studied Ling XuYin’s handsome face. He was almost entirely certain that the man was a spy, and he seemed to be slyly edging his way away from the trip to QingHe.

 

‘Could it be that his true master has also been invited? Perhaps if I allow him to attend the event, I can investigate his interactions with other Sects and cast a fishing line to the truth…’

 

“No need,” Lan QiRen replied, “You have been invited therefore you shall attend. I trust you to not make a fool of yourself.”

 

“High praise from Teacher makes me want to stretch my luck,” Wen RuoHan grinned happily, “Teacher, may I make a selfish request?”

 

“I doubt that you would refrain from doing so even if I refused,” Lan QiRen sighed, “Let me hear it.”

 

“My birthday is coming soon, and the Discussion Conference in QingHe is over one month away… will Teacher take me on a field trip and walk there with me over the next month?”

 

“That is 600 miles, XuYin.”

 

“If we get tired, we can fly on our swords the rest of the way.”

 

“I have many Sect affairs to attend to-

 

“Sect Leader is capable, Teacher, I think you need a holiday.”

 

“Such a long field trip is-

 

“I was blinded and nearly died on our last field trip.”

 

“Do you not desire anything else for your birthday-

 

“No. I want to spend time with Teacher.”

 

Lan QiRen let out an exasperated sigh and gave in. Ling XuYin’s incessant begging sounded like that of a child on the verge of tears. Even if they were crocodile tears, Lan QiRen still could not defend himself against the large, earnest eyes staring him down.

 

‘Just one month…. Then I can find out who his master is. Lan QiRen…. don’t you DARE let your emotions go. This will be the opposite of my last walk from QingHe… I shall end the trip without anyone in my heart.’

 

 

 

In the end, Lan QiRen had no choice but to tell a fib to his own nephew. He could not find any legitimate reason to embark on a month-long travel away from the Cloud Recesses with Ling XuYin, let alone tell the truth that it was for his birthday. In a time of delicate political tension, it would be inconceivable for the second-highest ranking GuSu Lan Sect member to leave his post.

 

“Uncle, I understand that there is unrest in the regions, but incognito may not be necessary,” Lan XiChen smiled, “Uncle is famous and respected, any cultivator worth his salt would be able to recognise you.”

 

“With XuYin at my side, we would look like father and son,” Lan QiRen could only continue his hard-headed explanation, “he is my decoy. Almost nobody outside of the Cloud Recesses knows his face, we will be safe as long as we do not wear our ribbons.”

 

“That is true, but surely we can leave the job of gathering intelligence up to our younger disciples…”

 

“It is something I would like to ascertain for myself, XiChen,” Lan QiRen sighed, “We simply cannot afford any mishaps in the current climate.”

 

“I believe that Uncle always has his own wisdom,” Lan XiChen smiled knowingly, “Very well, let us rendezvous at HuaiSang’s home next month.”

 

 

Lan QiRen wondered if his thinly veiled attempt at a holiday had been seen through by his nephew. Incognito travel was never his first choice, but considering the very high likelihood of Ling XuYin attracting unwanted attention for one reason or another, not being associated with the GuSu Lan Sect was much safer. As Lan QiRen removed his physical forehead ribbon and packed his bags, he tied his mental forehead ribbon even tighter. Never again would he repeat the fiasco of three decades ago.

 

The pair left the Cloud Recesses under the shroud of darkness, through a side door. It was very much like eloping, Ling XuYin commented, only to harshly silenced by Lan QiRen. Explaining to disciples why the pair was leaving incognito was difficult, explaining sneaking out like thieves was even harder. Lan QiRen could not help but lament at how Ling XuYin had roped him into such ridiculous tasks despite only knowing each other for mere months, the spy had an uncanny way to bewitch him.

 

Ling XuYin the spy and his cunning words… not love…. not love…. not love….

 

As he closed the side door, Lan QiRen took one last look back at the walls that once felt suffocating. The moonlight seeping through the clouds illuminated the cracks in the wooden door, cracks stained a darker brown by decades-old blood that a young Lan QiRen could not fully clean no matter how har he scrubbed. Whether he liked it or not, Wen RuoHan’s memory lives on in him, seeping into every fibre of his being. But just like the blood that stained the door, time rendered it almost able to be forgotten.

 

‘If you could see me leaving by this door with another man, would you be angry? I do not know if the Heavens bless me or are extraordinarily cruel… why is it that I can never fully understand either of you? You claimed to love me, yet turned into someone I did not even recognise. He also claims to love me, but I fear that he may be even more malicious than you. Wen RuoHan, what did I do in my past life to warrant this torture?’

 

Just as Lan QiRen nearly fell into yet another chasm of painful memories, Ling XuYin’s crisp voice pulled him back. “Teacher!” he waved from a few steps up ahead, “Let us make haste! If we can leave the township by daybreak, we will be free!”

 

Lan QiRen’s mouth curled into a barely-noticeable smile at his student’s unabashed happiness. “Be quiet,” he whispered, “I do not wish to explain this to anyone. Hurry along now, we haven’t got all night.”

 

“Teacher is smiling already, this trip was worth it!”

 

“We are ten feet from the door, and you have already lost composure. Behave!”

 

“Teacher, you take the father-son decoy too seriously. Should I call you Daddy this whole way?”

 

“Shut it, or I will punish you!”

 

“By spanking? Teac- MMMMFFFFFF!!!!!!!!!!!!”

 

Lan QiRen’s Silencing Spell gave him a few hours of peace and quiet to simply gaze upon the stars the handsome face as the pair strolled along the moonlit path. Even without words, Wen RuoHan did not give up his incessant pandering. He walked closer and closer by Lan QiRen’s side, despite being dodged and politely shoved away a few times. Finally, their shoulders touched. Then wrists. Then fingers. When Wen RuoHan figured his luck was at its end, he was pleasantly surprised as Lan QiRen allowed him to hold his hand without complaints. No words were needed, and certainly no words could be formed. Neither could see the pink tinge on each other’s cheeks as they continued to walk as if nothing was happening, but both were the happiest they had been in decades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

 

[13] 真金不怕火炼: Literally ‘gold is not afraid of melting’ really is referring to the fact that solid gold may melt but will still remain true to itself, as opposed to fool’s gold or alloys. Usually used in Chinese to convey that good products will withstand the test of time/wear, but Lan QiRen is saying to Jin GuangShan that even trying to burn the solid gold robes will not make Wen RuoHan’s legacy disappear. To himself, he means that he cannot burn Wen RuoHan’s love for him as it will only warp and turn ugly. On a deeper level, he acknowledges that Wen RuoHan’s love for him is tried and true, withstanding any test.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Lan QiRen did not know why he let Ling XuYin hold his hand in the first place. If the man was anything like Wen RuoHan, one thing would surely lead to another and he would declare them lovers. However, much to Lan QiRen’s surprise, the younger man did not make any extra advances towards him even on nights they shared a room. As they did not embark on any more night-time walks, there would be no more chances to repeat the events of the first night.

 

Ten days into the walk to QingHe, the pair arrived within KaiYang City by dusk. Lan QiRen looked at scarlet clouds and setting sun, wondering whether to find lodging for the night. Wen RuoHan directed his attention to merchants propping up tables and bringing out wares, exclaiming, “Teacher, look! The KaiYang markets by the river is such a delight, let us enjoy the city life before we rest for the evening!”

 

“XuYin, how do you know about these markets?” Lan QiRen asked, slightly hesitant to know the answer. Was he a spy from LanLing?

 

“…no matter how one looks at this, there is going to be a night market,” Wen RuoHan scratched his head, “Does Teacher think this will be something else?” He gestured at the gathering merchants with their good on carts, and the street food vendors starting their grills. Indeed, even a child could guess the purpose of setting up tables by the main road at this hour.

 

‘Perhaps I am being overly suspicious,’ Lan QiRen reprimanded himself, ‘I should just observe until I have irrefutable evidence.’

 

 

“Very well,” Lan QiRen sighed, “But first let us rid ourselves of the luggage on our backs, they are unnecessary for strolling through the markets.” Lan QiRen felt the weight of his money pouch and mentally estimated their budget for the rest of the trip. Ling XuYin’s birthday was today, according to his secret visit to the archives, and Lan QiRen wanted to spoil him a little. Luckily, no incidents apart from the odd low-level haunting has troubled them throughout the trip, and Lan QiRen’s strict budgeting skills enabled him to save the majority of his silver for tonight.

 

“Where shall we stay tonight? A local inn, or a peasant’s house?”

 

“Nonsense, today is your birthday, I shall take you to a comfortable lodging just for today.”

 

Wen RuoHan paused for a moment before a pink tint crept onto his cheeks. “T-Teacher, did you perhaps investigate my b-birthday?” It was not his real birthday, but one would have needed to search the archives for this information. Wen RuoHan had never elaborated on exactly when the date was, he did expect Lan QiRen to have him on his mind.

 

“Quiet,” Lan QiRen’s tone was soft at Ling XuYin’s adorable expression he had not seen in quite some time, “Follow me.”

 

Wen RuoHan’s joy was short-lived as he realized the fatal mistake 30+ years in the making. The gold-encrusted sign of ‘Chrysanthemum Pavilion’ seemed to laugh at him as Lan QiRen innocently led him into the gates of his personal Hell.

 

‘OF COURSE! TEACHER KNOWS ONLY OF THIS DAMN PLACE IN THIS WHOLE DAMN CITY! FUCK YOU, JIN GUANGSHAN! FUCK YOU AND YOUR BASTARD SON!’

 

“T-teacher, this is much too opulent,” Wen RuoHan tried to pull Lan QiRen’s sleeve and stop him from crossing the threshold into the building, “W-We can go anywhere else- I mean, you do not have to go to such expense-

 

“XuYin, just this once I would like for you to broaden your palette,” Lan QiRen patted Wen Ruohan’s hand, “You are a talented chef, to taste some fine food every once in a while will do you good.”

 

Before Wen RuoHan could protest some more, the pair had already made it inside the Chrysanthemum Pavilion. A polite waiter greeted them with hot hand towels and invited them to sit in the lobby. “Good evening gentlemen, will you be in for a short rest, or an overnight stay with us today?” he quickly studied the plainly dressed yet immaculately handsome customers, the older one with a finely embroidered yet unassuming money pouch. Incognito rich people, for sure.

 

Assuming the man was asking about accommodation instead of prostitution, Lan QiRen replied, “Overnight. We shall check in our luggage and head out soon to return by nightfall, I would like to place an advance order.”

 

Wen RuoHan sweated bullets. Lan QiRen obviously meant food, but in a high-class whorehouse like this, every single one of his words carried innuendos that he was a frequent customer who knew the ropes. “T-T-Teacher, please let us go anywhere else-

 

“Young Master, not to toot our own horn, but this is the finest establishment for hundreds of miles around,” the waiter said with a signature smile, “You can rest assured, even if it is your first time staying with us, you will leave satisfied.”

 

“Indeed this is a fine establishment,” Lan QiRen motioned for Ling XuYin to stay silent while he finished his orders, “You are not to speak until we are back outside.”

 

“Sir, will it be one or two rooms for this evening?” the waiter asked. Often, pairs of men have orgies on their mind, but just as common are friends with different interests.

 

“One room will suffice, your beds are large enough in the suite rooms I recall.”

 

Their waiter pulled out a pad and brush and licked the tip to moisten the drying ink as he took note. “Excellent choice, suite room... and do you have any specific requirements?”

 

“The delicate sort, not too heavily seasoned, vegetarian.” Unfortunately, seasoning and vegetarian were common phrases to be heard in the Chrysanthemum Pavilion, referring to the amount of makeup worn by prostitutes. ‘Vegetarian’ referred to the lesser experienced or even virgin-esque types, a special requirement enjoyed by many in the upper class.

 

The waiter nodded and began to scribble once more. “Of course... you have good taste, Sir. There will be a small surcharge, but I can guarantee you will enjoy our freshest batch! How many such delicacies will you require?”

 

Thinking of the small serving sizes in pricier restaurants, Lan QiRen stroked his beard and answered, “Four, please. Wine will not be necessary, tea is preferred.”

 

“Good taste indeed!” the waiter laughed, “Four for two gentlemen will be a treat! Do you gentlemen have preference for gender?”

 

“Gender?” Lan QiRen frowned.

 

“The gender of those serving, of course,” the waiter flashed a knowing wink.

 

“Ah. No preference,” Lan QiRen nodded. Neither of them will do anything inappropriate to waiters bringing them their dinner, so either would suffice. GuSu Lan Sect did not judge people based on sex.

 

“Fantastic, we shall be eagerly awaiting your return!” the waiter closed his order book and took their bags politely, “If you have some time, you are welcome to choose-

 

“NOT NECESSARY, CANCEL ALL OF THAT AND JUST THE ROOM PLEASE!” Wen RuoHan had heard enough. Any more ambiguous questions, and Lan QiRen would likely order them much worse entertainment that a gender-diverse orgy. He dragged a speechless Lan QiRen into the garden between the front door and streets, sweating profusely from his foreheadm. “Teacher, do you know what you just ordered in there?!”

 

Lan QiRen frowned and shook Ling XuYin’s hand off his elbow. “XuYin, you are being ungrateful. All I did was order food for us, could it be that you want to eat dinner at the markets instead?”

 

Unable to take any more stress, Wen RuoHan admitted, “Teacher, this is a brothel. You were ordering prostitutes for our room!” It felt good to get the elephant in the room off his chest, but Lan QiRen’s fuming look of disgust quickly turned whatever was left of Wen RuoHan’s happy birthday into dust.

 

“Teacher! Wait for me! Please, I can explain!”

 

“EXPLAIN?!” Lan QiRen whispered harshly as to not attract attention as he stormed out of the place, “HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN?! ARE YOU A REGULAR CUSTOMER?!”

 

“No, no, of course I am not!” Wen RuoHan followed hot on Lan QiRen’s heels through the streets of KaiYang, “It is as plain as day, Teacher just had never been to these establishments to take the hint!”

 

“And you have?!” Lan QiRen turned suddenly to face him, “Tell me, who was it that told me he has never been outside of the Cloud Recesses since he was 12 years old?!”

 

“I- I-

 

Lan QiRen’s heart ached for two reasons aside from the initial shock. His first time with Wen RuoHan had been inside a brothel. Ling XuYin knew that was a brothel. He did not know which revelation was more painful or ironic, or where the seething jealousy and rage inside of him was directed at. Had Ling XuYin been inside enough brothels to know? He is a spy after all... did he learn the techniques of seduction in one? Who did he work for? Jin GuangShan, or Jin GuangYao?

 

 

 

 

 

 

One street behind the quarrelling duo stood a pair of flabbergasted men, one in black, one in white.

 

“L-Lan Zhan.... that.... is your Uncle, right?”

 

“.....”

 

“That was your Uncle, incognito, coming out of the Chrysanthemum Pavilion... with a younger man, right?”

 

“....perhaps it is a disciple of the GuSu Lan Sect.”

 

“Don’t kid with me, HanGuang-Jun!” Wei WuXian nearly had to pick up his jaw dropped onto the pavement, “Chrysanthemum Pavilion is the most famous brothel of all LanLing, why in the world would your Uncle take a Lan Sect disciple in there?! Does he even know that it is a brothel?!”

 

“Only you would know it is a brothel,” Lan WangJi’s expression changed a little at the thought of his own lover’s previous womanizing ways. He picked up Wei WuXian by the waist like a sack of potatoes over his shoulders and marched to their inn, ignoring the latter’s pleas.

 

“Lan Zhan put me down! We have to investigate! Why are you getting jealous for no reason?! Put me down! Heeeelllp!!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unaware of having been discovered, Lan QiRen was busy being chased by Wen RuoHan through the night market and onto the pebbled banks of the Yi River.

 

“Teacher, please! I swear to the Heavens I have never been inside a brothel with anyone apart from you!”

 

“Silence! Do you think I am stupid enough to fall for your trickery again and again! And to think I- I... in any case, stop calling me Teacher! I have no student like you!”

 

“Teacher, you are simply jealous!” Wen RuoHan caught Lan QiRen’s elbow and forced them both to stop. The sun had mostly set over the horizon, casting a brilliant red light over the city of KaiYang and all its tiled roofs. Islands in the middle of the river were home to flocks of birds returning to their perches, singing songs of a day well spent.

 

Lan QiRen’s face was locked in a scowl, far from the atmosphere of a romantic river walk. “Jealous?!” he snatched his arm away, “You think too highly of yourself! I am furious that you would do this to the GuSu Lan Sect!”

 

“Then would Teacher be satisfied if I left the Sect?” Wen RuoHan retorted, “If I leave the Sect, I can visit as many whorehouses and brothels as I like?”

 

“Preposterous! How dare you?!”

 

“Does Teacher feel burning anger and unexplained heart palpitations when I say preposterous things like this?” Wen RuoHan fought off Lan QiRen’s reluctance and held his hands to his rapidly rising and falling chest, “Feel my heart, it beats so fast for you... if Teacher were to visit a brothel, I would get so angry I would burn the place down. I understand you are in pain, but you are mistaken. I admit that I have an unsavoury past, but that is all history now! Can Teacher.... move forward with me?”

 

“I... am ill,” Lan QiRen could feel his cheeks burning and his logic beginning to fade, “my heart is not well.” Ling XuYin’s clever words and heat of his skin chipped at his better judgement every hour of every day, and it was almost too late.

 

“Then let me heal it,” Wen RuoHan leant forward to place a chaste kiss on Lan QiRen’s flushes cheek, “All the transgressions of the past, even the ones that were not my fault, I would like to heal them all. It may sound ambitious, but I swear to you that I can make you trust me!”

 

“That is what I do not want!” Lan QiRen stood stiffly and squeezed his eyes shut, “Ever since you came into my life, I have had nothing but trouble! I do not want these insane feelings, I do not want any more confusion or pain, I just want to live out the rest of my life in peace, am I not allowed?!”

 

“...... is this.... a confession?” Wen RuoHan whispered incredulously.

 

“No, no it is not!” Lan QiRen exasperated, “Please, I do not want to love you... I cannot afford to love you...”

 

“But you cannot do it by yourself, or you would have already,” Wen RuoHan pulled Lan QiRen close enough to meld their chests together and rested his chin on Lan QiRen’s shoulder, “Teacher, if the only way for you not to love me is for me to stop loving you.... I have you at checkmate. I cannot stop loving you, so you might as well give in and stop resisting.”

 

A few weak punches landed on his back and Wen RuoHan laughed. Whenever Lan QiRen resorted to ‘kitten punches’, it meant he had given up. He stroked the back of Lan QiRen’s gently and ran his fingers through his hair, breathing in the light incense scent.

 

“Teacher, I will not force you again. I understand that accepting my feelings is a difficult thing for you, and to be honest, I am already overjoyed that you are willing to admit it. I am a truly lucky man, I do not wish to push my luck any further. I think I have already used up two lives’ worth of luck and happiness just being here with you, I am content.”

 

“Content?” Lan QiRen sounded unconvinced, “You are the greedy type, wanting more and more. Who was it that said he was content with just cooking for me? Look at you now...”

 

Wen RuoHan laughed again and gave Lan QiRen’s waist a cheeky squeeze. “Teacher, you are too sharp and ruining my chivalrous facade.... You are right, I am a greedy man. I want more, I want to see more of you and feel more of you. May I?”

 

“Absolutely not!” Lan QiRen hit his back again, “We are in public!”

 

“Teacher, I would attempt fornication by a river in daylight. If Teacher cannot make it back to the Chrysanthemum Pavilion, I can do it when the sun sets?”

 

“Utterly shameless! Do not put words in my mouth! I have promised you nothing, we are in no such relationship!”

 

“But Teacher, it is my birthday, will you entertain my small wish of visiting the markets while holding your hand? We can pretend tomorrow nothing has happened, but for the remaining hours of the day, I would like to delude myself that you are my lover.”

 

Unable to muster any more energy to argue, Lan QiRen did not refuse. If his ridiculous dream could be only for tonight, he could indulge in Ling XuYin’s care for just a few more hours. When he woke up tomorrow, he could forget everything and move on to expose the spy for who he really was.

 

The KaiYang night market lanterns seemed to glow even brighter than they had 35 years ago. Lan QiRen noticed that there were more of them, as the trees they hung from had all grown older and bigger. The nostalgic cotton candy and carnival games were operated by different faces, but tasted just as sweet as they had in his memory. Even though his lover for the day won just as many prizes as Wen RuoHan had, Lan QiRen’s heart was in tatters. He desperately wanted to forget the past and cling to the budding feelings of love in front of him, but like a child once burnt by fire, his heart could only bleed at the similarities between the two men.

 

“Teacher! There is a fortune teller booth up ahead!” Wen RuoHan pointed at a white-haired old man sitting by an ancient sign, “Shall we visit?”

 

The face at this booth had not changed since 35 years ago. Lan QiRen had no faith in fortune-telling – 35 years ago, the then middle-aged man had confidently announced that he and Wen RuoHan were a match made in Heaven, inseparable by life, death and all worldy worries.

 

“They tell nothing but damn lies!” Lan QiRen clenched his fists.

 

“Teacher, you are breaking my fingers...” Wen RuoHan winced as his own hand fell victim to Lan QiRen’s sudden anger, “Come on, let us see what this wise man has to say!” ‘He was right the last time... I have died once and am somehow still here with you. Perhaps I should pay him extra?’

 

“Welcome welcome, what do you seek?” the old man lifted his bushy eyebrows to peer at the strange customers. The bearded man had a look of pure hatred on his face, while his cheerful... son (??) holding his hand seemed overly cheerful. “Do you seek promotion, health, or-

 

“Love!” Wen RuoHan declared loudly, “Master, I would like to hear my prospects for love!”

 

“Ho ho... You have already found your fated one. Your fate is so strong, it is inseparable by life, death and all worldly worries. Even the gods cannot sway this if they tried! Young man, I have only ever said this to one other man, you are both the luckiest and unluckiest kind...”

 

“One other man?” Wen RuoHan’s eyes lit up like fireworks, as he placed an entire tael of silver on the old man’s table, “Who?”

 

“A young man close to your age.... over 30 years ago. He was overjoyed and also paid me handsomely, I could never forget him.”

 

“Ridiculous liar,” Lan QiRen broke free from Ling XuYin’s grasp and stormed away, “Never again...”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suite room, Chrysanthemum Pavilion

 

 

“Teacher, what angers you?” Wen RuoHan tried to venture closer to Lan QiRen, only to have a pair of chopsticks thrown at his face.

 

“What angers me?!” Lan QiRen huffed, “I am eating in a brothel, I had to watch you pay that liar to lie to you, and the candied apple stand ran out of apples, which do you think angers me?!”

 

“I shall go out and procure candied apples for you this instant,” Wen RuoHan said with mock seriousness, only to have Lan QiRen throw a bowl at his head. The room they shared was not the penthouse Jin GuangShan had them housed in 35 years ago, but was still large enough to sleep a whole family. Wen RuoHan coaxed Lan QiRen towards the large bathtub that had been prepared for them despite the latter’s loud protests. “Teacher, since we are already stuck here, we should make the most of it. Such a luxurious bath is wonderful, and I am forever grateful to Teacher for spoiling me tonight... will Teacher wash my back?”

 

“Spare the rod and spoil the child, indeed,” Lan QiRen smacked Wen RuoHan across the forehead, “But seeing as it is your birthday.... get in the tub. However, I will not be removing any clothing!” He averted his gaze and motioned for his student to hurry.

 

“Of course!” Wen RuoHan gleefully started to remove his own robes in a show-like fashion, confident that Lan QiRen will steal a glance.

 

You do not need to remove any clothing for fun to be had...’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text



 

Lan QiRen could avert his gaze from a striptease, he could avert his gaze as the naked man slowly stepped into the lightly steaming water, he could even close his eyes as he ran the washcloth down Ling XuYin’s back. However, he could not unhear the satisfied sighs (or was that a moan?) or un-feel the toned muscles of Ling XuYin’s broad shoulders rippling under his indirect touch. Jasmine and gardenia petals had been steeped in the bathwater, giving the bathing man added beauty through the rising steam. Lan QiRen stole another glance before shutting his eyes again. He could feel his own body temperature rising in the heat, and wondered if this was the kind of temptation that gnawed at Wen RuoHan in the past.

 

If he could simply reach a little further forward, or a little further down, or even... with his bare hands...

 

‘Lan QiRen, are you insane?!’ he seemed to ask himself this question more often than not, ‘Do you know what you are doing?! Have your decades of study and diligence been for nought?!’

 

As if reading his mind, Wen RuoHan said innocently, “Teacher, since you have the washcloth anyway, would you do me the favour of washing my chest?” He did not wait for Lan QiRen’s answer before suddenly standing up in the wooden bathtub and turning to face Lan QiRen, scented water running his bare skin in streams.

 

Lan QiRen quickly diverted his gaze to the floor, only to catch a fleeting glimpse at the shadow of a half-hard member beneath the water’s surface.

 

“S-Sit back down!” he stammered, “This is b-beyond inappropriate!”

 

“I thought my lover for the day would grant me some extra wishes,” Wen RuoHan lowered the tone of his voice to the sultry whisper he knew Lan QiRen could not resist, “Besides, I believe that Teacher would have seen every inch of my body already when I was unconscious and injured... there is nothing new here...”

 

“I said only until the markets! Do not push your luck!” Lan QiRen kept his eyes glued firmly to the wooden floorboards and then shut them for good measure. See no evil... do no evil...

 

“Teacher agreed to my terms, which were for the remaining hours of today. Strictly, that is until midnight.”

 

“You- you- brat!!”

 

“It is the truth,” Wen RuoHan stretched his arms out and let droplets rain onto the floor as he waited, “Maybe I will stand here until I catch a cold?”

 

Arguing with this silver tongue had always been futile. “Stop your threats, I will comply just for today,” Lan QiRen wished for the minutes to pass faster as he slapped the washcloth onto Wen RuoHan’s shoulder and started to work his way roughly downwards, eyes closed.

 

“Ouch! Teacher, nipples are sensiti- Ouch! You are removing my skin!”

 

“Stop complaining! You are receiving a free service!”

 

Lan QiRen’s movements became more erratic as they bickered, and his hand slipped past Ling XuYin’s abdomen. The stifled moan that escaped lips only served to confirm Lan QiRen’s sinking feeling in his gut of what the foreign object he grazed was.

 

Horrified at his misdemeanour, Lan QiRen stumbled backwards one step before having his arm caught and jerked forwards. The loss of balance sent him tumbling into the tub headfirst, splashing hot water onto the floor as the bath overflowed.

 

“Oh no, how terrible!” Wen RuoHan could not hide the laughter in his voice and was rewarded with his second smack of the night. “Teacher, the more you splash, the wetter the floor will get! Let me help you wash, since you are already in here....”

 

“Let go of my waist, you shameless- ah! Remove your hands from me at once! I- I- Stop taking off my clothes!”

 

“But how will I wash you with your clothes on?” Wen RuoHan purposefully nudged their lower halves together, “Perhaps this brothel has added a little spice to their bathwater... Teacher, are you excited by it?” Wen RuoHan knew of no such thing, but from prior experience, Lan QiRen is weak to the power of suggestion.

 

After hearing there is a medical explanation to his rising body temperature and rapidly hardening erection, Lan QiRen’s tense shoulders relaxed slightly under Wen RuoHan’s touch and his complaints lost a bit of their harshness. Wen RuoHan felt a tinge of guilt at his own lack of scruples, but steeled his resolve and peeled the saturated garments from Lan QiRen’s flushed skin. He took a deep breath and admired the scenery on display before gently turning Lan QiRen around to ease his embarrassment, pretending to wash his back from the shoulders down.

 

“Teacher... do not worry.... you do not have to look at me... you do not have to say my name.... just close your eyes and relax.... I am only washing you....”

 

As Wen RuoHan’s gentle hands caressed his lower back, Lan QiRen held his breath every time those nimble fingers threatened to venture into the forbidden territory. However, despite how seductively he massaged the back, Lan QiRen’s buttocks remained untouched. Wen RuoHan bide his time patiently, like a hunter waiting for curious prey to peek out from their hiding place, he waited for Lan QiRen’s own lust to surface. When he felt an impatient pressure against his hand on a downwards stroke, Wen RuoHan smiled to himself and slid his index finger between the soft mounds.

 

“Ah- wait- where are you- touching...” Lan QiRen gripped the edge of the tub until his knuckles turned white. His head wanted for him to escape but his body screamed for more, leaving him unable to move an inch. The most he could do was limit the movement of his hips so as to not invite the man more, but even that plan was impossible to execute properly.

 

“Washing... we all must wash these parts...” Wen RuoHan’s voice became strained as he too resisted the urge to go one step further. His erection stood at full attention, dripping into the bathwater as he massaged Lan QiRen’s buttocks firmly.

 

Lan QiRen tried to shuffle forwards and away from the praying fingers until he could go no further, but he had forgotten his own erection in front on him. The smooth wooden surface of the bathtub rubbed against him as he took one more step forward, shocking him and causing a jerk reaction backwards just as Wen RuoHan’s finger circled his entrance. The sudden backwards motion of his hips caused the tip of Wen RuoHan’s finger to slide inside him, eliciting Lan QiRen’s surprised moan.

 

“I was getting there... but it seems like Teacher would like to washed inside?” Wen RuoHan pressed so close to Lan QiRen’s back that Lan QiRen could feel his erection pressing the back of his leg. The rim of his entrance felt on fire, begging for friction.

 

“Get... out... AH! Stop moving!”

 

“How can I get out without moving?” Wen RuoHan pressed a little further into the warm cavern and slyly let in a little hot water, “If it is uncomfortable for you, lean forwards... I promise it will feel good to be all clean inside...”

 

Wen RuoHan faced the palm of his hand down and reached inside deeper, searching for the location that would drive Lan QiRen to do his every bidding. Lan QiRen nearly lost his footing the moment a blinding torrent of pleasure ran straight to his head, giving him no choice but to lean his whole body weight onto the edge of the tub to avoid falling over. Seeing the pale cheeks spread and hips quivering, Wen RuoHan finally received the access to the pink puckered hole he had been craving.

 

“Here?” he whispered, and curled his fingers downwards to teasingly stroke Lan QiRen’s prostate. Not too fast, not too slow... just torturously mild enough to make him squirm. Lan QiRen’s knees buckled as he struggled to keep his balance. The finger was not speeding up past an infuriating medium pace, but he could not let go of the edge of the tub to touch his own erection. Too prideful to ask for more but too pleasured to convince himself to stop, Lan QiRen could only hide as many of his frustrated moans as possible while sneakily pushing his hips backwards for more contact.

 

Not wanting to hurt his pride, Wen RuoHan pretended not to notice the seductive hip movements and began to purposefully miss Lan QiRen’s prostate every second time he thrust backwards. The wet sloshing sounds became more and more erratic as Lan QiRen slowly lost control of his lower half. Every time he was rewarded with friction to his sweet spot, he was emboldened to thrust a little faster, a little deeper. As the speed picked up and the pleasure became too much to bear, he also lost control of his voice.

 

“Ah- AH! Nhgg- please- AH!- no- aaahhnn-

 

“Where?” Wen RuoHan rubbed his erection on Lan QiRen’s thigh in time with his fingers and was close to coming himself.

 

“T-there- ah! No- yes- AAHH!”

 

As he felt Lan QiRen’s insides contract, Wen RuoHan quickly snaked his free hand to the base of his erection and exert a vice-like grip. Lan QiRen could no longer be bothered with how he would orgasm, only following his instincts to seek more pleasure from behind. As he felt the familiar pressure build in in his lower abdomen, he threw his neck back in a beautiful climax around Wen RuoHan’s talented finger.

 

Not yet satisfied, Wen RuoHan immediately turned Lan QiRen back to face him and pressed their bodies together until Lan QiRen could not move backwards any more. Taking advantage of his post-climax weakness, Wen RuoHan grasped both of their straining erections in his hands and frantically rubbed their shafts together in time with their laboured breathing. The onslaught of a second orgasm in quick succession was too much for Lan QiRen to bear and he could only rely on Wen RuoHan’s arms to keep him upright.

 

Wen RuoHan’s mind raced at the possibility of being disowned the next day, but his head not also not keep up with the burning pleasure in his groin. His hands moved faster and faster and his own moans echoed from the walls. “Ahh.. S-so good... T-Teacher, I- I can’t hold-

 

“Xu-XuYin- stop- too fast- AH! I- I am- AAAHH!”

 

Streams of thick white fluid settled into the water between their abdomens and dissolved without a trace, leaving only two sets of heavy breathing. This time, there would be no ensuing fight, just an understanding between two men that their day of intimacy would be over when they both woke up the next day... on the surface, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset, Unnamed forest, QingHe

 

 

The days walking from LanLing to QingHe were spent in relative peace, which baffled Lan QiRen to no end. He had started to, once again, conflate Wen RuoHan with Ling XuYin... it was unthinkable for Wen RuoHan to make no further moves after their encounter in the bathtub, yet Ling XuYin was able control himself. A few times they held hands briefly, but Lan QiRen’s guard against (and hope for) intimacy fell flat. If he thought of Ling XuYin as a passionate lover, it did not make sense. If he thought of Ling XuYin as a spy who is seducing him for nefarious reasons, it made even less sense.

 

Finally, Lan QiRen snapped. “What is your meaning behind this?” he asked out of the blue as the pair traversed through a thick evergreen forest. The path had not been maintained and was overgrowing with grass, Wen RuoHan was busy ten steps ahead clearing the grass with a stick to scare off hiding snakes.

 

“Snakes, in case we are bitten. It is difficult to see them at night,” Wen RuoHan hummed as he swished his stick through the undergrowth.

 

“I do not mean the snakes, XuYin.”

 

Hearing Lan QiRen’s suddenly serious tone, Wen RuoHan ceased his footsteps and turned to face him. “Teacher, have I done anything to offend you recently?”

 

“I do not know. I do even know what we are... this kind of more than teacher-student but less than lovers relationship... it must cease. We cannot go on like this!”

 

Wen RuoHan sighed and threw his stick into the grass. “Teacher, you know of my feelings towards you. We are able to continue this ambiguous relationship because you do not despise me for it, am I correct? I am willing to wait as long as it takes before you accept me-

 

“That is not what I meant by ending!”

 

“Then does Teacher wish to never touch me again?”

 

“I-

 

“WATCH OUT!”

 

Wen RuoHan deflected a flying dagger with his spiritual energy, mere inches from grazing Lan QiRen’s neck. The unmarked weapon lodged itself on a nearby tree trunk with a thud, and five more flew from different directions. Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen deflected all five back to the direction they had come from and listened for any that hit their mark. Unfortunately, all had missed – the enemy was formidable.

 

“Reveal yourselves, flying weapons cannot harm us!” Lan QiRen demanded, “Cowards!”

 

Seventeen masked figures emerged from up in the trees, all dressed in black. Wen RuoHan smirked, ”What a terrible disguise... go and tell your Sect Leader, if he would like a taste of my sword, he can come and beg me for it!”

 

“You bastard! Don’t get ahead of yourself!” a masked figure spat.

 

“Bingo.”

 

“XuYin, you know who is behind this?” Lan QiRen asked incredulously.

 

“I did not, but I do now,” Wen RuoHan smiled, “I have only one Sect Leader whom I have offended.  We are a stone’s throw from BingZhou, if the Peng Sect want us dead, this is a great place to assassinate both of us and dump the blame on Sect Leader Nie.”

 

“You bluffed them?”

 

“Sect Leader Peng is hardly the sharpest tool in the shed, I imagine the assassins he sent after us also are even less so,” Wen RuoHan shrugged, “It was a lucky guess.”

 

Masked man shouted, “You bastard! You will die here!”

 

“Oh you are SORELY mistaken,” Wen RuoHan’s hands crackled with blue, icy power through the rapidly darkening forest, “Say your prayers!”

 

“XuYin, stop!” Lan QiRen put his hand out in front of Wen RuoHan’s chest, “You cannot kill these men!”

 

“What?!” Wen RuoHan’s composed demeanour disappeared, “Teacher! Your benevolence must stop here! They are here to kill us!”

 

“If we kill them, there will be consequences! Do you think the Peng Sect will not make a fuss over these deaths? We will never be able to explain killing them, the public scrutiny will crush the Lan Sect!”

 

Wen RuoHan paused. As much as he hated to admit it, Lan QiRen’s caution was absolutely warranted. Should any of these men escape alive, or should anyone discover their dead bodies with any wounds caused by Lan Sect cultivation, the consequences would be far-reaching and never-ending. His argument with Sect Leader Peng was witnessed by most major Sects, over a topic directly detrimental to Lan Sect... it is easier to rationalise retribution from the Lan Sect to the Peng Sect than the other way around.

 

Fighting on the defensive in darkness was more difficult than Wen RuoHan had predicted. The killers were ruthless in their strikes, especially towards Lan QiRen, but Wen RuoHan’s cultivation practiced solely for the purpose of fast killing were unable to be used.

 

“Teacher! This is impossible! If we do not strike back, we will be killed!”

 

“Hold back! The Lan Sect cannot afford to walk into their trap!”

 

“But we cannot die here! BEHIND YOU!!”-

 

Lan QiRen’s instinctive dodge to the side saved his life. A sharp blade pierced his thin sleeves and drew a line of blood where his back had been just a split-second ago, splattering across a tree trunk. He fell to the forest floor, clutching his lacerated left arm, barely managing to fend off the next wave of attackers.

 

Wen RuoHan had seen enough. Lan QiRen’s stubborn attempt at keeping peace and maintaining appearances would kill them both unless he did something before total darkness, fast. If Lan QiRen’s ultimate goal was not to create political problems…. The killing would have to be so perfect, nobody could ever find out it was him. Wen RuoHan met Lan QiRen’s gaze for a moment and mouthed the words ‘trust me’ before closing his eyes and bringing forth the bright purple manifestations of spiritual energy he had been hiding for over a decade.

 

Lan QiRen watched in horror as his student landed one fatal strike after another, felling men as if they were made of straw. Within less than one minute, every single assassin was dead and hanging in the branches above, not a single one had escaped. Blood, fluids and a sickening array of organs lay strewn across the undergrowth as Ling XuYin wiped his hands with a dead man’s torn sleeve. He kicked a lung to the side, stretched his arms and settled his glowing, red eyes before wandering to Lan QiRen’s side.

 

“Teacher, even if the Peng Sect find these bodies, they will never be able to blame the Lan Sect.” ‘I used Wen cultivation so rare, nobody has ever seen it in battle. Good luck to the autopsy team, I dare you to come looking for us!’

 

Lan QiRen flinched from Wen RuoHan’s outstretched hand as if burnt by fire. “You…. what are you?”

 

“Teacher?”

 

“That was not Lan cultivation…”

 

“Of course, you specifically forbade me to use Lan cultivation,” Wen RuoHan exasperated, “I had to do something lest we both die here.”

 

The carnage in front of him, attacking his every sense, was something Lan QiRen prayed he would never have to witness again. He would never forget the frightening ease with which Wen RuoHan murdered the witness to their relationship in KaiYang 35 years ago, this time Ling XuYin had repeated it to a much more horrifying degree. At his own instruction, more than ten bodies lay in various states, killed so quickly Lan QiRen did not have time to discern how. Such efficient butchery could never be taught by the GuSu Lan Sect… It was clear as day – the man he shared a bed with had more than one master.

 

“How…. How could you?” Lan QiRen asked half to himself, “How could you?”

 

“How could I save us both?” Wen RuoHan lost his patience, “Should I have waited until we were both missing body parts, or sacrificed both of us to keep the peace? If that fat man wants to look for trouble, I will take his head off his shoulders and hang it from our gates! Teacher, must you wait until we are at war before fighting back?”

 

When words hit too close to one’s heart, often it leads to bruises. Lan QiRen often thought that he had perhaps walked away from the nightmarish few years of the Sunshot campaign, he even thought that he could walk away from Wen RuoHan if he had Ling XuYin. But seeing the events of yesterday replay in a comically grotesque manner reminded him that he was destined to repeat the same mistakes. He was still the same – polite, overthinking, weak, reliant on others… driving good men into murder.

 

Pressure in the chest. Pain the stomach. Released. Lan QiRen’s vision faded to black as a mouthful of dark blood poured from his mouth. He could feel strong arms catch him before his head hit the ground and muffled yelling beyond his comprehension, just like the old days.

 

“Teacher!” Wen RuoHan screamed again and again as he broke into a frantic run. How could he have forgotten Lan QiRen’s illness? Thankfully, Han Village was less than 30 miles away, and gods permitting, the tailor’s husband still lived there.

 

 

 

 

 

Midnight, QingHe, Han Village

 

 

 

“TAILOR!!” Wen RuoHan yelled. The door he had kicked off its hinges fell to the floor with a clatter and raised a cloud of dust, and he could hear faint swearing as a body fell off the bed in the inner courtyard. He fumbled around in the darkness for cloth, tearing a shred of the closest thing he could feel to bandage Lan QiRen’s injured arm.

 

Moments later, a middle-aged man wielding a plank and a lamp emerged from the back of the tailor’s shop, dressed in thin undergarments. “Who goes there?”

 

“Are you the doctor?” Wen RuoHan fixed his messy bandaging by the faint lamp light. He had torn off a piece of what looked to be scarlet embroidered silk for a bridal dress.

 

“………”

 

“ARE YOU THE FUCKING DOCTOR OR NOT?!” Wen RuoHan picked up the dumbfounded man by his collar and shook him violently.

 

“…Xu…Yin… stop…” Lan QiRen coughed weakly, unable to lift a finger to stop his student.

 

“Teacher, please conserve your energy, I promise I will do everything you ask after you are better,” Wen RuoHan exasperated, “Please rest!”

 

“Let him go and calm down,” an irritated voice came from in the darkness, “Also, you had better pay for the door and that dress you ruined!”

 

“Doctor?”

 

“How did you even know I lived here?!” Gu YongSi rolled his eyes and marched forward to help carry Lan QiRen to the back of the tailor’s shop, “Let go of Liang Qi and help me unless you want your precious Teacher to die here!”

 

“I tried to go across the road, but it is no longer a pharmacy, but the tailor’s shop is still here…. So I thought you might be,” Wen RuoHan said sheepishly as he wrote out the prescription for Lan QiRen’s medicine while Gu YongSi put Lan QiRen to sleep with an acupuncture needle, “Here is the prescription, doctor, please help us!”

 

Gu YongSi paused for a moment at the scribbled list of herbs and looked back and forth at the strange duo before letting out an annoyed sigh and walking out.

 

Liang Qi motioned for Wen RuoHan to sit at Lan QiRen’s bedside and poured them both cups of tea. “Calm your breathing, young man, YongSi will be back as fast as he can.”

 

“Where did he go?”

 

Liang Qi yawned and took a sip of tea. “To the East end of the village, where the new pharmacy is at. He retired from practice 10 years ago after his student became independent, then leased the land of the previous store to the pottery store you saw across the road. He still has a key to his student’s medicine storehouse, so it should be an easy task. Young man, are you from the area?”

 

“From GuSu,” Wen RuoHan answered half-heartedly as he watched Lan QiRen’s sleeping face for any signs of distress, “Came here a long time ago.”

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan was ushered out of Lan QiRen’s room the morning he awoke, as he his presence seemed to cause the man more anguish than peace. Dejected and exhausted from his 30-mile run and no sleep, Wen RuoHan lounged by the front door with an empty look in his eyes. He had been too afraid of being attacked from the sky, so had carried Lan QiRen on his shoulders to the village. Every muscle in his back screamed bloody murder as he stretched them.

 

“Pick some new clothes,” Liang Qi patted him on the back and sighed, “If he does not want to see you, at least clean yourself up. We cannot open the shop today because of this mess, so I will employ you to help me clean.”

 

“I apologise,” Wen RuoHan muttered, “My mind was blank with panic. Thank you for helping us.”

 

“You looked like you had survived a war,” Liang Qi motioned at Wen RuoHan’s attire. He was so bloodstained, his robes cracked in places where blood had dried and the fabric had bent. What was a blue garment was almost entirely an ugly shade of brown. “I thought it wise not to argue with you.”

 

“We were being attacked, I doubt they will come anymore.”

 

“Before I continue to let you stay here, I need the truth,” Gu YongSi’s voice came from behind them, “I am retired from practice, I do not want any dangerous men in my home. He is healing, speak now before I change my mind.”

 

Threatened, Wen RuoHan’s hands began to glow purple.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 


“Before I continue to let you stay here, I need the truth,” Gu YongSi’s voice came from behind them, “I am retired from practice, I do not want any dangerous men in my home. He is healing, speak now before I change my mind.”

 

Threatened, Wen RuoHan’s hands began to glow purple.

 

 

“I know you are a cultivator,” Gu YongSi said firmly, “But I have been threatened with much worse. I did not bend to threats from Liang Qi’s family, and I will not bend to you. Who is after you? Is it the Nie Sect?”

 

“A cultivation sect from BingZhou,” Wen RuoHan dismissed his manifestations, there would be no merit in offending the master of this house. “The assailants are here in secret, the Nie Sect likely does not know. They are all dead now, you needn’t worry about anyone coming to endanger this village. The man being treated is Lan QiRen, GuSu Lan Sect Leader’s uncle, and I am his personal assistant, Ling XuYin.”

 

“I like your straightforwardness,” Gu YongSi stretched and headed back to Lan QiRen’s room, “I am still a doctor, as long as I am not in danger, I will continue to treat him. For a fee, of course.”

 

“Don’t mind him,” Liang Qi chuckled at his husband’s receding shadow, “He is a good man. A little cold on the outside, but truly he is just worried for me and the village. Say… young man, how did you know he lived here with me? Are you a local?”

 

“I… have visited in the past, with an old acquaintance who once tended a pear orchard just outside the village,” Wen RuoHan’s eyes crinkled at the fond memories of years gone by, “You made them some clothes, and also some medicine. Even some salve…”

 

“Wait, wait,” Liang Qi’s face lit up at the mention of clothes, medicine and salve, “Was your acquaintance surnamed Wen?!”

“………what of it?” Wen RuoHan carefully asked. He was sure he did not disclose his full name to anyone in the village, but Liang Qi’s sudden shift to an excited tone did not seem to match anything he previously mentioned.

 

“”You cultivators really have a way of meeting together!” the tailor laughed, “Do you still contact him? Oh boy, that an was a character I’ll never forget!”

 

“We are….on speaking terms,” Wen RuoHan said slowly. Liang Qi seemed unaware that his old customer is long ‘dead’.

 

“The next time you see him, ask him about the child he picked up off the side of the road.”

 

“I know that that story,” Wen RuoHan could still feel his thigh ache from being bitten by A-Ming, “He was an interesting child.”

 

“Interesting?” Liang Qi laughed and slapped his own knee, “Haha! You would never guess… that child was the Eldest Young Master of the QingHe Nie Sect! He grew up to become the Sect Leader, famed cultivator ChiFeng-Zun!”

 

“!!!” Wen RuoHan stood up with a start and staggered to uphold his balance on the doorframe, “…you lie…”

 

“It is true! I swear on my shop!” Liang Qi puffed up his chest, “He was rescued by his family and taken away, but he came back to the village to try and find his saviours more than ten years later, but they were already gone. He had a whole envoy of cultivators following him, and even his younger brother came to my shop! They stood right here, and bought some fabric! I bet that boisterous Wen fellow would spit out his tea if he found out the child he called a brat was the most formidable cultivator that QingHe has ever seen!”

 

Wen RuoHan’s eyes widened as a torrent of memories from moments before his death came rushing to his mind. A-Ming….. it had never occurred to him that the child was clever enough to use the most common character in his name instead of Nie or Jue…. Indeed, the raw power he felt coursing through his veins made perfect sense considering his Nie Clan pedigree. And the brother he ran away from… of course, Old Man Nie had a new wife a few years ago, Wen RuoHan had even been forced to attend that wedding! The familiar spiritual energy he felt from Nie MingJue during their first and only battle at the Nightless City should have awakened him to the fact, but A-Ming’s power was so untapped and raw, Wen RuoHan had no time to fully understand it before his own death.

 

As Ling XuYin, Wen RuoHan learned of what had caused Nie MingJue’s tragic demise years later. On the surface, he had been killed by the same filthy man who had killed him – Jin GuangYao. But deep down, in this moment, Wen RuoHan knew who it was that really killed Nie MingJue.

 

He, he did.

 

It was he, Wen RuoHan, who had murdered A-Ming’s father an pushed him onto the Sect Leader throne. It was he, Wen RuoHan, who had pushed A-Ming to declare war. It was he, Wen RuoHan, who had the stupidity to let loose Jin GuangYao on the world and destroy A-Ming.

 

‘Wen RuoHan…. How much more useless could you have been? You thought you could protect Lan QiRen, but you killed his brother and he hates you. You thought you could protect this child, but you failed to even recognise him and murdered his father instead. You even went so far as to try and kill him with your own hands! Is this the legacy you leave? So blinded by an impossible dream, you destroy the lives of all you hold dear, without even trying…’

 

His pride in never having hurt the few people who he held dear were shattered by the death of Wen ZhuLiu and the bloody letter from Lan QiRen. However, at least then he had known the immediate consequences of his actions. Wen RuoHan’s worldview had never included people like Nie MingJue whom he did not have a personal relationship with… but today, it had been forced to change. Undeniably, people mattered whether he recognised them or not.

 

“Are you alright?” Liang Qi asked, “Brother Ling, you look like you are going to faint.”

 

“I…. would like some new clothes… please..”

 

For the first time in his life, the sight of blood repulsed Wen RuoHan. The blood on his robes, the blood on his hands, the countless lives taken by him could never be washed away. Is this how the family of those who perished at his hands must have felt when their child is taken from them?
 

 

 

Lan QiRen drifted into consciousness from a light sleep to find Ling XuYin nodding off, sat by his bedside. Unable to muster the energy to speak, he silently studied Ling XuYin’s long eyelashes down to his slightly parched lips. The initial rage, frustration and shame of having been betrayed had settled – Lan QiRen’s could only laugh at himself for failing to prepare for the inevitable.

 

‘He is a spy… you have known for months that he is a spy… why are you so disappointed for being correct? Lan QiRen, is there no limit to how pathetic you can become?’

 

Whether he liked it or not, Ling XuYin had saved his life and his nephew’s happiness. Whether he liked it or not, Lan QiRen’s heartstrings would quiver at the memories of the short few months the pair had spent together. The frustrating sense of being unable to dislike a man who was in every way dangerous and treacherous was all too familiar to Lan QiRen, it was that horrifying realization of his own feelings that brought forth his illness to begin with.

 

Lan QiRen stared listlessly at Ling XuYin’s sleeping face for three hours, pondering his choices. But really, what choices did he have? Making it known to anyone that he travelled with a spy would immediately result in Lin XuYin’s imprisonment and interrogation. Now that Jiang WanYin is the Second Master of the Lan Sect, that would equivalent to a death sentence. Trying to win Ling XuYin over with promises of affection is much too risky – the rewards of creating a double agent is rich, but Lan QiRen could not trust that Ling XuYin’s professed love for him was even real.

 

Imagining a cold snicker behind his back while he fell into a chilling whirlpool of heartbreak sent pain radiating to Lan QiRen’s chest. He coughed lightly and grimaced at the taste of old blood and bitter medicine in his mouth.

 

Wen RuoHan woke up with a start at the sound of dry coughing from beside him. “Gu YongSi!” he cried down the hallway, “Medicine! Bring the medicine!”

 

“Stop your yelling!” Gu YongSi yelled just as loudly, “What time of day do you think it is?! Medicine is for the morning! Just take his pulse, feed him some water and go to sleep! I left him to you because you said you are a medical disciple, what in the world is wrong with you?!”

 

“YongSi, be gentle,” Liang Qi could be heard consoling the irritated man, “he is simply worried and lost his bearings. Do you remember that year you had a fever? I could barely tell which direction the sun rose-

 

“Alright alright, you hopeless romantics, just go to sleep….”

 

 

Lan QiRen felt a tinge of jealousy at the lovers’ quarrel while he dealt with internal strife. As Ling XuYin hurried a cup of cold tea to his lips, he hesitated for a moment to look at the man’s earnest and worried expression. If this was acting, either he had truly fooled himself, or was even better than Jin GuangYao at feigning sincerity.

 

Wen RuoHan’s hands shook slightly as he waited for Lan QiRen to accept his peace offering. Tea spilt from the edges of the cup and wet his fingers, but still he persisted. “Teacher… I swear to you that I will never do anything you dislike from now on… so please… please be kind to your own body. I cannot bear to watch you suffer because of me….”

 

“Men do not let their tears fall so easily,” Lan QiRen reached out to wipe the small glistening trail halfway down Wen RuoHan’s cheek.

 

“Alas his heart had not been hurt enough,” Wen RuoHan whispered the second half poem [14] and grasped Lan QiRen’s cold fingers, “Teacher… whatever I do, I do for you. Why is it that my best intentions hurt you instead?”

 

The lingering smell of blood in Ling XuYin’s hair betrayed what would have been a heart-warming and loving scene between the two. Who knows how many days had passed, who knows whether Ling XuYin had killed the entire Peng Sect while he was asleep? Lan QiRen was too afraid to ask.

 

Endless questions that he knew would go unanswered tired Lan QiRen’s mind and soul. If he could not prove to anyone that the Ling XuYin in front of him was not who he seemed, what would be the point of dwelling on it? Still, he pondered aimlessly whether his own feelings were being genuinely reciprocated. Of course, if Ling XuYin’s affections towards him was a complete farce, he would have nothing left to lose in exposing the man. But the possibility of Ling XuYin being torn by his genuine affections towards Lan QiRen was not zero, and Lan QiRen’s own fervent hope of this possibility kept him from facing his reality.

 

Three days passed in suffocating silence between the two.

 

Driven almost insane by the awkward atmosphere, even Gu YongSi grew warmer to the idea of idle chitchat.

 

“I have been wishing to ask you since the day you were carried in, are you the same Mister Lan who stayed in this village 35 years ago with another fellow named… Wen?”

 

“……indeed.”

 

“I though as much. That strange and particular prescription you take, I have only ever seen once. You were a boy then, and look at you now,” Gu YongSi laughed, “I feel so old…”

 

“You look well,” Lan QiRen replied, “much younger than I.”

 

“I suppose our carefree countryside lifestyle leaves fewer wrinkles on the face. What ever happened to that Wen fellow? Or maybe, the problem lies with you. Every time you have an episode, a hot-headed idiot breaks my door at night,” Gu YongSi joked.

 

“He is dead.”

 

Lan QiRen’s sullen expression left Gu YongSi scrambling for a way out. “….I apologise, my condolences. Although he was a spoiled rich brat who knew no manners, I think he truly cared about you. I have never seen anyone demand to see every herb in my herb drawer, even though he had no idea what he was inspecting for! As a pharmacy owner, he was a nightmare, but he would have made a great husband.”

 

“Who? Who is the greater husband than I?” Liang Qi poked his head around the doorway with a tray of porridge, “YongSi, are you being unfaithful?”

 

Gu YongSi rolled his eyes and scoffed sarcastically, “You are a lecherous old man with a failing memory, go and collect the accounts from Zheng’s shop!”

 

The bantering couple provided much needed warmth in Lan QiRen’s heart. How he wished to live simply like them, without a care in the world. How does one escape the shackles of pedigree and duty, when all they have every known is a cage?

 

The feelings he had been so adept at keeping hidden from view were written on Lan QiRen’s face as soon as he is out of the constraints of GuSu and his forehead ribbon. Gu YongSi was not trained in mental diseases, but it was obvious to him that his current patient needed more than just herbs and acupuncture.

 

“Were you happy... with him?” he asked.

 

“For a time, perhaps,” Lan QiRen flinched at the painful memories. Was he ever happy? Of course. Until the realities of the world forced them apart, of course he was. Without such overwhelming happiness, where would the overwhelming despair have come from? “My history makes one rather despondent,” he shook his head, “but I am interested to hear of yours. The manner in which you speak and conduct yourself is... uncommon for a Northerner.”

 

“Haha!” Gu YongSi could not help but laugh at Lan QiRen’s politeness, “Do you mean to say too refined for a peasant?” He laughed again at Lan QiRen’s flinch at his straightforwardness, “I understand completely, my mother used to chastise me often for my lacking in Southern grace. Oh how she judged the Northerners for their brashness, I believe I fit in rather well here in QingHe.”

 

“You are from the South?”

 

“Your dialect is from GuSu, am I correct?” Gu YongSi sat at the table and poured both of them a cup of water, “Our dialects have mixed into QingHe for so long it may be difficult for you to pinpoint, but both Liang Qi and I were raised in FuZhou [15].”

 

“FuZhou, a beautiful place with beautiful people,” Lan QiRen reminisced the many times he had visited to expel seaborne demons, “What brings you both thousands of miles to QingHe?”

 

Gu YongSi took a sip out of his cup like the water was wine, and sighed. “No Southern man would be unfamiliar with the Liang family of sea merchants, I trust?”

 

The Liang family were more than sea merchants. Their business and political empire was so vast in the Southern provinces, they were practically rulers of the land. Lan QiRen gasped, “You do not mean to insinuate-

 

“Oh Heavens no! I promise he is not an illegitimate child,” Gu YongSi waved his hand and explained, “But he is much worse than that. His real name is Liang Qing, the Eldest Young Master and heir to that grotesquely large empire.”

 

Seeing Lan QiRen’s astounded expression, Gu YongSi continued. “For the sake of continuity, I will just refer to him at Liang Qi from this point. He was a genius at mathematics from childhood and talented in the art of business, but not well-rounded in the finer arts. Old man Liang thought his precious son would lose face in the upper classes later in life, so he sent Liang Qi to learn classics at the manor of a retired official who was once a renowned scholar. That scholar was my grandfather. My family were far less wealthy than the Liangs of course, but my father and uncles held important offices, so he and I were destined to cross paths at some point. I am of the main Gu Clan branch but only the third son, so I was only burdened with carrying myself gracefully and supporting my elder brothers. I will spare you the dramatic tale of two idiotic young men at age 19, but our relation was not well-received by either of our families. I nearly lost my life twice to the Liang Clan, and there looked to be a war brewing between our parents. One night, Liang Qi came to my door in the dead of night with only the clothes on his back, and asked if I would run away and never return... so I did. End of story, now we live here. Any questions?”

Lan QiRen silently drank the remaining water from his cup and blinked once.

 

Gu YongSi shrugged, “Well, it turned out he had accumulated an unreasonable amount of wealth on his own accord and hid it from me until we arrived in his village, that is why were able to open our shops. He is sneakier than he looks, that idiot...”

 

“....how.....were you able to just walk away from it all?” Lan QiRen finally stuttered, “What about your family?”

 

“He is my family, my family that I was fated with and chose for myself,” Gu YongSi’s tone turned from jovial to serious, “We argue and banter, but there are only two ideas we agree on unequivocally – neither one of us can live without the other, and neither of us want to spend the rest of our lives regretting what could have been. I reasoned with my family, I even begged them, but there was no convincing them. I have done my dues, and I will not allow anyone to keep us apart when we had done nothing wrong. The only thing wrong with us is that we were born in cages and shackles of so-called prestige, but those shackles only bind as strongly as we allow them to. We broke out, that was all.”

 

“But-

 

“I am not so arrogant to say that our choice was the best choice. In fact, it is objectively idiotic and insane,” Gu YongSi chuckled, “but it is the one we still do not regret, so I would call it the correct one. All this talking has made my throat parched, perhaps I will brew some date and calendula broth....”

 

Lan QiRen was once again left alone with his own thoughts. When faced with an eerily accurate portrayal of what could have been his own happy ending, the nauseating feeling of defeat crushed the air out of his lungs. He set the cup down heavily and hid his face in his head, desperately trying to purge the story out of his mind. The impossible choices he had shied away from... there were lovers in the world who had faced the same choice and overcome them.

 

‘Yet what have I done? I pushed him off slowly off a cliff with my own grandiose excuses and my fear. You were at my door, but I tore your heart in two and closed the door in your face. Wen RuoHan... did you hate me until your death? Did you know I was coming for you?”

 

The answer, even Lan QiRen knew deep down, was no. His brother’s last words resonated with him more than ever – he had made his choice, and there would be no second chances. The world was cruel to introduce Ling XuYin into his life as yet another impossible lover, or perhaps he was being cruel to himself? Being the repository of all knowledge hardly seemed important when he could never answer a single question most important to himself:

 

How far could he go for love?

 

 

A timid knock on the doorframe cleared Lan QiRen’s unravelling thoughts.

 

“Teacher...” Wen RuoHan gently said, “How do you feel? Would you like me to cook you any food? Please do not hate me until your body is healed...”

 

“XuYin, come in,” Lan QiRen sighed, “I will not be angry with you.” If most of the anger was directed at his own inability to process his feeling effectively, there would be little fairness in continuing to give the cold shoulder to a man who just wanted both of them to live.

 

“Truly?!” a great weight lifted off Wen RuoHan’s shoulders as he nearly jumped to Lan QiRen’s bedside. He grasped Lan QiRen’s hands in his own and kissed the slim fingers passionately and refused to let go, “Teacher, I was worried I would never be forgiven!”

 

“I....”

 

‘I am not strong enough to lose you too....’

 

“Teacher, we may be late for the Discussion Conference if we do not get on our swords by midday tomorrow,” Wen RuoHan said, “Are you well enough to travel?”

 

“I believe I am, now let go of my hand!”

 

Wen RuoHan was relieved at Lan QiRen’s usual shy tone instead of coldness and quickly let go of his hand to not push the madly blushing man any further. However, he could not resist planting a chaste kiss on Lan QiRen’s forehead before running to the market to buy ingredients for dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day, QingHe, Unclean Realm

 

 

 

“YOU!!” Wei WuXian’s jaw dropped to the floor as he studied Wen RuoHan’s face so closely, he was almost within kissing distance, “You are wearing Lan Sect uniform now, but that was DEFINITELY you and the old man coming out of the Chrysanthemum Pavilion!”

 

“That is certainly an elegant name,” Lan XiChen politely smiled and pulled Wei WuXian a couple of inches away from the very uncomfortable man, “Master Wei should introduce us all to the place one day.”

 

Lan WangJi and Jiang Cheng’s faces turned different shades of green while Lan QiRen put his hand in his head in shame. The white forehead ribbon seems to burn him as he replayed that night’s events. Nie HuaiSang choked on his saliva before spluttering, “B-Brother XiChen I- I don’t think that is a good idea....”

 

“Oh, is it too far to travel?” Lan XiChen asked, the picture of innocence.

 

“No no, it is in LanLing, not too far-

 

“I’ll take us all there then, my treat on my turf!” Jin Ling quipped, “Lan Yuan, do you want to come?”

 

“Absolutely not! Not in a million fucking years!!” Jiang Cheng roared, “Jin Ling, if you dare set one pinky toe into that place, I will chop it off!”

 

“WanYin, do not be so harsh,” Lan XiChen chastised, “Sect Leader Jin is our equal at this Discussion Conference, if he wishes to drink tea with us, he is more than welcome.” He turned to Jin Ling and then to Wen RuoHan, smiling, “We shall all go to the Chrysanthemum Pavilion together, next time.”

 

Wen RuoHan could only nervously nod. If nobody was going to tell the Sect Leader what the Chrysanthemum Pavilion is, he was not about to stick his neck out. On their arrival into the Unclean Realm, he had been relieved to know that the Peng Sect had not been invited (perhaps on purpose), avoiding possible conflict. However, this crowd of interesting people is sure to make the experience unforgettable. Just for good measure, he cursed Jin GuangShan yet again for making them stay at a whorehouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

 

[14] 男儿有泪不轻弹,只因未到伤心处 (Lit. Men do not easily cry, for they have yet to reach sorrow) is a famous line from a play, 宝剑记 (lit. Tale of the Sword) written by Li KaiXian, really saying that men do cry if they are sad enough. The first half is often used by itself, out of context, to say that men should not cry at all.

 

[15] 福州(FuZhou) is a part of 福建( FuJian) province (known as Hokkien to some), the closest shore to Taiwan and has bustling maritime trade. It is one of the few major centres that has hardly ever changes its name throughout history, so I have just left it the same.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The Discussion Conference fell on the anniversary day of Nie MingJue’s passing. This was the first year the world had learned the truth behind Nie MingJue’s tragic murder, and the ceremony to celebrate him was grandiose, almost to a fault. Nie HuaiSang’s performance during the event was remarkably stoic, reciting his beloved brother’s achievements with a tear in his eye but a straight back. Even more remarkable was that his heartfelt speech mentioned nothing about Jin GuangYao, as if to bury the man’s name in dust.

 

Nie HuaiSang had made a point to invite only cultivators who had a personal relationship with his late brother before his death, which included every living participant in the Sunshot Campaign. Jin Ling had been invited to signify a fresh start in the relationship between the Nie and Jin Sects, but Wen RuoHan was at a complete loss over why he had been personally invited when ‘Ling XuYin’ had only ever met Nie HuaiSang once, let alone Nie MingJue.

 

Listening to a heroic tale wherein his adopted child beheaded his real child (born by request of his lover) in a war started by his lover to defeat him… proved too much for Wen RuoHan’s psyche. It was as if he was listening to a story of his entire life’s failings while all his enemies clapped and cheered. Wen RuoHan’s face grew ashen as he forced himself to endure the events of the day, finally taking his leave while Lan QiRen’s attention remained occupied by older cultivators who were keen to converse with him.

 

As he wandered aimlessly through the stoic pillars that upheld the Unclean Realm and gazed upon the weathered pine trees that refused to bend to the elements, Wen RuoHan tried yet again to convince himself that perhaps Liang Qi had been mistaken. How did such a cheerful, adorable child who ran errands and gobbled up food become the furious, sabre-wielding warrior who cut off his head?

 

‘You, it was your own fault!’ Wen RuoHan knew better than anyone.

 

His footsteps stopped in front of the Nie Clan Ancestral Hall. Usually closed to visitors, today it had been opened by Nie HuaiSang for the various attendees to pay their respects to the wooden name plaques. Wen RuoHan lit three sticks of incense with his spiritual energy but did not bow. Instead, he sat cross-legged on the kneeling cushions in silence, watching the incense burn slowly in its holder. He knew more than anyone, that neither Nie MingJue nor his father would accept his kowtows anyway.

 

‘Old Man Nie, I really did not like you, but perhaps I should not have killed you…. but what were my choices? Watch as you whispered in his ear, that I am a cold-blooded monster who would murder my own father?’

 

Wen RuoHan blinked once at his own folly.

 

‘Oh but I am…. I am indeed that monster. But A-Ming, I swear I had no intention of hurting you. If I had known he was your father, I would have reconsidered. I did not know that my conquest would leave me with nothing. You were pushed to a throne which killed you, ZhuLiu died without me even having a chance to save him, and Lan QiRen…. he…. he….’

 

Wen RuoHan had once been so sure that absolute power could answer all his prayers. He believed could own the world and Lan QiRen in it, while protecting the few he held dear. Oh, how wrong he was, how utterly and ridiculously wrong he was.

 

“What good is it, talking to the dead?” Wen RuoHan removed a paper-wrapped package from his sleeve, “It is the living that need solace from our own grief.”

 

“Mister Ling is a deep thinker,” Nie HuaiSang’s whimsical voice followed him around the corner, blocking off Wen RuoHan’s exit from the Ancestral Hall, “Those of us not so smart are bound to making ourselves feel better, even if we know they may not hear us.”

 

Wen RuoHan quickly put the package back into his sleeve, put on his Lan Sect demeanour and offered greetings. “With all due respect, Sect Leader Nie, I… did not mean harm by those words.”

 

“I have heard plenty of harmful words, don’t be so uptight with me,” Nie HuaiSang waved his fan, “Everyone knows that my sect leading abilities really don’t deserve the polite talk. The only things I have conducted properly are my brother’s funeral rites and this event…”

 

“That shows your love towards him, I believe he would be pleased in the afterlife,” Wen RuoHan said.

 

“I thought you do not believe in talking to the dead?” Nie HuaiSang smiled, “Or is this your kindness towards the living?”

 

“The late ChiFeng-Zun and his father are hardly on speaking terms with someone like me, I do not believe they would want to listen to me even if I tried,” Wen RuoHan said sadly.

 

“Me too. At least, to my Father.”

 

Nie HuaiSang’s candour towards him threw Wen RuoHan off guard.

 

“…Did Sect Leader Nie not get along with his family?”

 

“Which Sect Leader Nie do you speak of?” Nie HuaiSang chuckled and folded his fan. “Never mind, would you accompany me and my bird for some tea? I promise I will not make you perform your cultivation. This is supposed to be my event, but none of the cultivators really want to talk to me…”

 

Refusing an invitation from any Sect Leader is not within his rights, Wen RuoHan had no choice but to follow Nie HuaiSang into a secluded courtyard. A bird perched in its ornate cage and hopped about, eager to be fed a treat by its owner. Nie HuaiSang dismissed the servants and let Wen RuoHan pour him some tea while looking intently at his face.

 

“Master Ling, were you about to offer my Brother something back at the Ancestral Hall?”

 

Wen RuoHan paused for a moment before bringing out his small parcel, about the size of a fist. Since Nie HuaiSang had already seen it, there would be little to gain by hiding. He untied the string and offered Nie HuaiSang a piece of its contents – ruby-red hard candy.

 

“…Candy?”

 

“Indeed.”

 

“This seal… could this be Xu’s Sweets Store from Han Village?!”

 

If Nie HuaiSang had been spying on him, he should not be so stupid as to reveal himself over candy. With doubt in his voice, Wen RuoHan answered, “Teacher and I passed by on the way to the Unclean Realm, does Sect Leader Nie know of such place?”

 

“We share a Teacher, haha,” Nie HuaiSang smiled at the candy and put a piece in his mouth, “You can call me Senior if you like, although Mister Lan probably regrets every having me as a student.”

 

“I can bet every cent in my money bag that he regrets me the most,” Wen RuoHan grimaced.

 

“Then we have some kind of fate!” Nie HuaiSang raised his teacup, “To bad students!”

 

Wen RuoHan smiled politely and sipped his own tea, still unable to discern whether Nie HuaiSang knew too much or too little. “Sect Leader Nie, how do you recognise the candy from such a small village?”

 

Nie HuaiSang’s expression turned forlorn as he gazed in the direction of the Ancestral Hall. “You are the only person other than me to know of this, but that candy was my Brother’s favourite. When I was very young, my Brother took me on an excursion to a village not far from home. I do not remember many details from the trip, but it was the most fun I had ever had. He told me about his adventures in a pear orchard, the two men who took him in, and that they taught him to treasure his family. We bought clothes from a tailor’s shop, and so much candy that I thought I was going to drown in it. My Brother tried to pass it off as all mine, but he stored his share in my bedroom and even ate most of mine as well…. Of course, he would never admit it. After his passing, I often asked about his childhood from the old servants in the house. An old granny told me that when I was born, my Brother detested me and my Mother. He ran away from home and was found again in Han Village, but refused to ever name the people he stayed with in case they suffered for it. Somehow, after that incident, he came to treasure me and dote on me…. even when my Father and Mother abandoned all hope for me and pretended that I did not exist, my Brother never treated me like I was lesser than him. I have been searching far and wide for the whole story, but I have grounds to believe that if it were not for the village people, I would be all alone with nobody to love me.”

 

Nie HuaiSang chuckled at Wen RuoHan’s stony expression. “You do not believe me, Master Ling?”

 

“I believe every word,” Wen RuoHan could feel the blood draining from his face. He could no longer pretend the tailor was mistaken - he had destroyed A-Ming’s life. A-Ming’s little brother was more difficult to face than Wen RuoHan could admit, so he chose to escape like a coward. “Thank you for the tea. Good day, Sect Leader Nie, I must now return to my Teacher’s side.”

 

Nie HuaiSang put another piece of candy into his mouth and followed Wen RuoHan’s quickly receding figure until he was gone from sight. He had omitted a piece of information – that the residents of Han Village had testified the men residing in the pear orchard were surnamed Lan and Wen. The candy offering supposedly from Lan QiRen to Nie MingJue was no coincidence – he had found the ‘Lan’ half, but was disappointed he could not squeeze more information out of Lan QiRen’s closest companion.

 

‘Lan QiRen matches both Brother’s stories and the candy… But who, who was the other?’

 

The land sale records for the pear orchard cottage had been wiped clean, seemingly on purpose, making it impossible to track who owned it over 30 years ago. Nie HuaiSang’s investigation had hit a dead end, making his only source of information Lan QiRen and his mysterious new student.

 

‘Interesting…’

 

 

 

 

When Wen RuoHan returned to the main hall, he lingered by the door and observed the cultivators inside. Lan QiRen seemed to glow and form his own halo, surrounded by admirers and old friends. He looked entirely at ease with his surroundings, like he belonged.

 

For the first time in his life, Wen RuoHan felt totally unnecessary.

 

‘Had I been delusional? He never truly needed my help, he did not need me silently watching and protecting him. He has family, friends and people who admire him… what am I to him?’

 

“Master Ling, what is the matter?” Nie HuaiSang patted Wen RuoHan on the shoulder and smiled, “Why do you not go in?”

 

“….the hall is full of important people, I think I had better remain outside.”

 

“Oh please! You are my guest, and perhaps you will become one of those important people soon,” Nie HuaiSang winked, “Besides, with your level of cultivation-

 

“Sect Leader Nie!” Sect Leader OuYang greeted, “Is this the lad my son had heard about?”

 

His son, OuYang ZiZhen, had most definitely heard the Valiant Tales of Ling XuYin through Lan JingYi and passed it all around his own Sect, leading to much intrigue over this young, powerful and obscure cultivator the Lan Sect had been hiding. Interest in the GuSu Lan Sect was abnormally high within the hall, thanks to Lan XiChen’s sudden marriage to Jiang Cheng and Ling XuYin’s sudden appearance. Rumour has it that this mysterious man could be in line for the Sect Leader role should Lan XiChen abdicate his position, but the origins of the rumour are unknown.

 

Nie HuaiSang unfurled his fan and waved like a child to OuYang Xin. “It is! Sect Leader OuYang, he is Mister Lan QiRen’s favourite student, Ling Sheng, courtesy name Ling XuYin.”

 

“I thought all this time that I was the favourite,” Wei WuXian quipped, earning an eye roll from everyone.

 

“XuYin, pay your respects to everyone,” Lan QiRen signalled.

 

“Greetings, Sect Leader OuYang, Sect Leader Wang, Sect Leader Fu, Sect Leader Sun, Sect Leader Yang, Sect Leader Li, Sect Leader Wu. It is an honour to meet the veteran heroes of the Sunshot campaign here in one place,” Wen RuoHan flashed a dazzling smile. Every single man here was once cowering under his feet… what an honour, indeed. He vaguely remembered some of their faces, though the details of his actions against them blurred together in an insignificant jumble, none of these men were worth more than a passing glance to him.

 

“He looks like a fine young man,” OuYang Xin praised, “Mister Lan, if my son is to be believed, the GuSu Lan Sect truly are hiding tigers amongst the grass. If only my Sect had such talented junior disciples, I could rest easy…”

 

“I am not worthy of such praise, Sect Leader OuYang,” Wen RuoHan bowed politely, “XuYin is but a simple medical disciple, those petty tricks of mine are hardly worth the fuss.”

 

“Humility is a power in itself,” Sect Leader Wang stroked his beard, “Nobody could believe that you single-handedly destroyed the Waterborne Abyss that even the damn Wens could not control. Keep that humility, boy, and you could do big things in your life.”

 

“XuYin is still young and green, he needs much guidance from your wisdom in the future,” Lan QiRen poured Wang Jin a cup of tea, “If he offends any of you gentlemen, I offer my apologies in advance.”

 

“He is welcome to RuNan at any time!”

 

For the prideful and stoic Lan QiRen to bend his back and show such favour towards any individual was a sight to behold. Lan XiChen, Lan WangJi and older cultivators who knew him best were aghast, silently watching the spectacle unfold.

 

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian whispered, “Your Uncle is being strange… does he intend on marrying that Ling XuYin or something?”

 

“…….”

 

“WangJi is right,” Lan XiChen nodded, “We have never seen Uncle like this before.”

 

“…………..”

 

“Even if you ask me, I have no way of knowing,” Lan XiChen continued to answer his silent brother, “Uncle did seem desperate to save him when WanYin and I were called back, but I do not know why.”

 

“That man is… not bad, I guess,” Jiang Cheng mumbled under his breath.

 

“Jiang Cheng, you’ve talked to him?!” Wei WuXian was astonished anyone would be brave enough in the Lan Sect to even look at Jiang Cheng, let alone converse with him.

 

Too embarrassed to admit to his cooking lessons, Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes at Wei WuXian and pretended not to hear him.

 

 

 

 

Idle chatter and small-talk were the bane of Wen RuoHan’s existence in his past life, but in his current position, he could not simply refuse to participate. To make the situation even more dire, Nie HuaiSang’s topic of conversation continuously shifted to Nie MingJue’s younger days.

 

“Say… Mister Lan, my Brother often mentioned he knew of a wise man who lived in QingHe many years ago, who taught him all kinds of useful things. Do you know of any relatives who lived in Han Village?”

 

Lan QiRen’s back stiffened at the mention of his own prickly memories. “I… do not, perhaps it is a coincidence?”

 

“Perhaps, but the man was surnamed Lan and spoke with a GuSu dialect,” Nie HuaiSang lied as he continued to push the conversation forward, “I would be honoured to meet him…”

 

“Perhaps it was another Lan Sect disciple,” Wen RuoHan could not take Lan QiRen’s uncomfortable expression any more, “Tending the orchard, maybe?”

 

“Orchard?” Nie HuaiSang’s expression turned sharp, “Do tell.”

 

Without thinking too hard, Wen RuoHan repeated Lan QiRen’s words from 35 years ago. “The Lan Sect owns a piece of land somewhere in QingHe, given as part of a dowry in times gone by. Perhaps the late Sect Leader Nie met a disciple charged with cleaning the house on that land?”

 

“Oh, whose dowry?” Nie HuaiSang offhandedly asked. He had been unable to trace the land being gifted to any individual in from GuSu, unless the records had been falsified.

 

Having found the perfect excuse, Wen RuoHan quickly calculated what generation Lan QiRen’s great-aunt would be to his current body. He decided it would be too conspicuous to know in great detail, and turned to Lan QiRen, “A few generations back, perhaps Teacher would know? Maybe even a great-aunt… Teacher, what is wrong?”

 

Lan QiRen’s face was deathly grey, as if a gust of wind could blow him over at any time. He staggered backwards three steps and supported himself on a pillar, clutching at his chest and breathing heavily. Lan XiChen and Lan WangJi quickly stepped in beside their uncle to support him, both with worried expressions on their faces and marred by utter confusion at the turn of events.

 

“Teacher!” Wen RuoHan gasped, “Your injuries-

 

“What injuries?!” the Lan brothers asked in unison.

 

Unable to explain that they were attacked by the Peng Sect without giving away that he had slaughtered the attackers using unknown techniques (or in fact that he had secretly flown to the Peng Sect to launch a secret, one-man revenge attack while Lan QiRen was sleeping), Wen RuoHan quickly felt Lan QiRen’s pulse and uttered a string of medical jargon about ‘qi deviation and recurrence’ before removing him from the main hall.

 

“Jiang Cheng, did you annoy your Uncle-in-law so much that he is still ill?” Wei WuXian half-joked while maintaining a serious tone, “I don’t believe a word of what Ling XuYin is saying… his expression is well past concern for a mentor.”

 

“Wei Ying, do not spread rumours,” Lan WangJi frowned.

 

“I am not spreading anything, simply stating what I see with my own eyes. We all have eyes, we can all see this!” Wei WuXian’s eyes began to dart around the room in search of something, “HuaiSang, do you have any paper?”

 

 

 

 

As Wen RuoHan walked briskly in search of an empty room for Lan QiRen to lie down in, he quickly realized it was not him who was leading their escape. While Lan QiRen’s face still looked ashen, his expression had changed from that of illness to anguish.

 

“Teacher, how are you feeling-

 

“Shut your mouth, not another word!” Lan QiRen said with such hostility, Wen RuoHan shuddered.

 

“Where-

 

“Do you want to die again?!”

 

After making sure they were being followed, Lan QiRen ducked inside an empty storehouse made for stockpiling supplies in times of war. Recent peaceful times and Nie HuaiSang’s pacifist ways meant most storehouses like these have been emptied and gradually demolished to make way for new buildings. Wen RuoHan coughed and swept a stray cobweb off the doorway, lifting his head to look at the few windows that lined the upper third of the tall walls. If anything, the storehouses could be remodelled to prisons.

 

“Teacher, how are you-

 

“I talk, you answer, or else,” Lan QiRen’s voice was void of his usual politeness and proper tone.

 

“…..”

 

Who are you?!”

 

The sudden question left Wen RuoHan at a loss. In his heart, he did not know. Was he conqueror of the world, or just a sad man who had killed all his family?

 

“Ling XuYin,” he answered finally.

 

“What is your name before you became Ling XuYin?”

 

“……”

 

“Then let me answer for you,” Lan QiRen gritted his teeth so hard, Wen RuoHan feared he may draw blood, “You thought you could get away with this?! Wen. Ruo. Han!”

 

“…...”

 

Seeing no denial from the man in front of him, Lan QiRen let out a pained yell and violently grabbed the collar of Wen RuoHan’s crisp white robes. “What have you done with Ling XuYin!? Are you so jealous you would possess a simple man like him?! Do you know what those people will do to you if they find out?! Why are you mute now?! Talk!!”

 

“….. Teacher…. I thought you were aware that I-

 

“I was not, until you talked about that land in QingHe, now everything makes sense! All the strange words, your cultivation, your perverse obsession with me!”

 

Wen RuoHan did not know whether to rejoice that Lan QiRen did not behead him immediately after discovering the truth, or be alarmed that Lan QiRen had, in essence, began to fall in love without knowing it was him.

 

“But if you did not know it was me until just now, why did you yield yourself to Ling XuYin?!” his voice shook, “Would you have gone all the way with him to bed, even without knowing it was me?!”

 

“That is not important!” Lan QiRen pushed his voice down to a vicious whisper, “Un-possess yourself this instant and let out the real Ling XuYin! If you do not, somebody here will discover and erase you from this world!”

 

“I have been in this body since it drowned at age 12!” Wen RuoHan shot back, “I cannot be separated from it any longer, the golden core is totally mine! Lan QiRen, how have you been so slow to recognise me?! How did you even discover me with mere words when you have felt my spiritual energy and slept in the same bed with me before this?!”

 

“That pear orchard in QingHe is not a dowry at all, but a piece of land gifted to the Lan Clan as payment for an exorcism, but we had never registered change of ownership on the land deed because of a clerical error. The real dowry land is near YunMeng, but when I asked by brother for land to reside in for our field trip, he accidentally passed me the incorrect address. Brother was surprised to hear we went to QingHe only after you had left to go to QiShan, and rectified the misunderstanding with me… so the only people in this world who know of the mistaken story is you and I. If anyone investigated the land ownership records, they would never be able to find that the GuSu Lan Sect has anything to do with the Han Village. If you want to search the archives, be my guest.”

 

“You have not answered my previous question,” Wen RuoHan grabbed Lan QiRen’s hands on his collar and leaned in so close, he could smell the faint sandalwood in Lan QiRen’s hair, “What relationship did you have with Ling XuYin if you did not know it was me?”

 

“How could I have known you had been hiding in plain sight for over a decade?!” Lan QiRen’s tears began to uncontrollably overflow as it finally dawned on him. He had not betrayed Wen RuoHan, just fallen in love with him yet again. “You left me all alone, dead without a trace, then watch me silently while letting me suffer… how dare you?!”

 

“You sent a blood letter and then sent  your nephews to kill me! How could I have reasoned with you?!”

 

“You killed my Brother!!”

 

“I did not!”

 

“You….. what?”

 

“I….. did not want Wen Xu to do anything but burn the Library Pavilion,” Wen RuoHan’s own tears began to escape his eyes, “I was frustrated by how the books and rules separated you and I. I swear on my soul that I nearly killed him when I discovered he had done those things- I- I did not mean to-

 

“Then why did you never explain?!” Lan QiRen shook Wen RuoHan by the neck, “WHY DID YOU NEVER COME BACK FOR ME?! Do you know how many times I dreamed of you, dreamed that this was all a nightmare and I would soon wake?! But no, all you leave me with is a DAMN box of garish costumes and an empty castle, and blood pouring down the stairs! What was I to do?!”

 

Unable to find any more words to express his frustration, elation and confusion, Wen RuoHan could only look straight into the eyes of the man berating him. Lan QiRen’s eyes were bloodshot, gleaming with fresh tears, and had the beginnings of fine lines in the corners.

 

Through all his outwardly anger and resentment, Lan QiRen could do little to mask his love for Wen RuoHan. His first thought after his revelation was to shield the man from danger, lest his life be taken again. How and why Wen RuoHan came to hide by his side was not important to him in this moment – all that mattered was that he stayed that way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Wen RuoHan…’

 

In a guest room away from the crowded main hall, Wei WuXian opened his eyes and regained his bearings. His roughly constructed paper form lay in his hand as he rubbed his temples and came to terms with what he had heard through the door crack. Surely, there had been a mistake. Lan QiRen had asked the question so directly, he did not seem to hold any doubt in his voice when accusing such a ridiculous charge.

 

The most horrifying thing was Ling XuYin’s lack of denial – was Wen RuoHan back from the dead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s note: These Sect Leader names mentioned are all the men who Lan XiChen recruited to start the Sunshot Campaign with, you can hear their voices in Episode 13 16:50 onwards introducing themselves. They had all been under serious attack or subjugation from Wen RuoHan, some if not all had their families murdered or their homes burnt.

 

Nie HuaiSang doesn’t know who Wen RuoHan is, but he fairly convinced that Lan QiRen was involved with Nie MingJue to some extent. To him it looks like Lan QiRen sent his favourite student to offer candy to Nie MingJue so that he would not be caught doing it. He tried to get information out of Ling XuYin or read him to see if Lan QiRen had let anyone  else know about it, and to him, it seems like it worked.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Wei Ying, how do you feel?” Lan WangJi dabbed at Wei WuXian’s damp forehead with a handkerchief.

 

“I…. must be getting old,” Wei WuXian shook his head, “I heard the words ‘Wen RuoHan’, panicked and came back.”

 

“Wen RuoHan?”

 

“I heard your Uncle demand to know if Ling XuYin is in fact Wen RuoHan, and that man did not say no…”

 

“Wen RuoHan is long dead,” Lan WangJi stated plainly, “Even if he…. How could he possess one of our disciples without alarming any of our skilled cultivators?”

 

“I am also long dead, but look at me,” Wei WuXian grimaced, “Before we find out the truth, we must be careful, but even if Ling XuYin is Wen RuoHan-

 

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” Jiang Cheng kicked open the door and burst in, ZiDian crackling, followed by a concerned Lan XiChen and flustered Nie HuaiSang

 

 “Jiang Cheng, calm-

 

“CALM?! CALM?! Wei WuXian, your face is the colour of fucking paper, and you tell me to calm?!” Jiang Cheng roared, “Where are they?!”

 

“WanYin, perhaps we misheard Master Wei,” Lan XiChen frowned, “Master Wei, did you really hear my Uncle ask Ling XuYin whether he is Wen RuoHan?”

 

“I am sure I heard it, but this doesn’t mean it is true,” Wei WuXian grimaced, “Even if it is true, rushing into Wen RuoHan’s lair is plain suicide. If he has an evil plot, it has not yet come to light so we should bide our time, find out the truth, rescue Uncle, and then-

 

“I AM GOING TO HANG HIS HEAD IN THE LOTUS PIER ANCSTRAL HALL!” Jiang Cheng promptly ignored him and rushed outside, yelling, “JIN LING! GET OVER HERE!”

 

Wei WuXian’s new body was too slow to catch Jiang Cheng before he disappeared around the corner. “It’s no good, nothing we say will be comprehended. Big Brother, quick, follow Jiang Cheng before he does something terrible!”

 

“Wei Ying, I fear Uncle may be in a perilous state,” Lan WangJi unsheathed BiChen, face sombre, “Take me there, and protect Uncle.” Wei WuXian had forgotten that Jiang Cheng was not the only man who harboured a grudge towards Wen RuoHan – if anything, the Lan Clan brothers are the most motivated to hunt him down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in the storehouse, Lan QiRen’s defences were falling, one by one, as Wen RuoHan embraced him and said nothing. Wen RuoHan stroked his hair over and over with no regard to his complaints or broken sobs.

 

“I- I am going to kill you… I swear…. You are the worst- most- liar… why did you not tell me…. I would have- would have-

 

“…….” Wen RuoHan could only hold him tighter, hungrily taking in the scent of Lan QiRen’s hair and the warm of his body. He knew that there would a chance that after Lan QiRen’s senses return to him, he would be pushed away once more. In the precious second chance that he had been given, Wen RuoHan would not dare let go again.

 

“Will you…. leave once more?” Lan QiRen’s few coherent words made Wen RuoHan stiffen his limbs.

 

“I… I would like to stay by Teacher’s side, if I am permitted,” Wen RuoHan said quietly, “I do not need a marriage, nor a promise of any kind. If I could just stay by your side as Ling XuYin, I am willing to do anything-

 

“Including the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocent men, women and children?!”

 

The sudden intrusion gave Lan QiRen barely enough time to jump out of Wen RuoHan’s arms before Jiang Cheng kicked down his second door for the day. He led Jin Ling into the large storehouse, swords drawn and blazing spiritual energy. A mystified Lan SiZhui followed close behind, along with Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi, Lan XiChen and Nie HuaiSang.

 

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei WuXian tried one last time to control the situation, “Do not be rash!! Jin Ling, do not attack!! He will kill you!!”

 

“Rash?” Jiang Cheng snickered coldly, “Alright, let me ask him this – Ling XuYin, are you Wen RuoHan?! If you dare deny it, I will strike you out of your body with ZiDian and see for myself! Speak!”

 

“Jiang WanYin, have you lost your mind?!” Lan QiRen subconsciously pushed Wen RuoHan backward half a step and held his arm in front of his chest, “This is QingHe, how dare you antagonize us in this fashion?!”

 

“The perimeters of these storehouses have been sealed by HuaiSang’s men,” Lan XiChen partially unsheathed ShuoYue and inched himself forward, “Nobody can enter or escape. Uncle, please step away from that man until the questions are answered.”

 

“XiChen, sheath your sword!” Lan QiRen’s voice raised with panic, “WangJi, you too! Sect Leader Nie, if there is indeed such a barrier, do you not think it presumptuous to entrap us with no evidence?”

 

“Evidence?” Jiang Cheng laughed manically, “EVIDENCE?! If you had any, you would have denied it by now! Wen RuoHan, today I take revenge on behalf of my late parents!” ZiDian seemed to take on a life of its own, zapping straight towards Wen RuoHan’s throat at lightning speed.

 

Lan QiRen drew his own sword to parry the attack but was blown back with the force of Jiang Cheng’s rage and caught by Wen RuoHan from behind. Jiang Cheng drew SanDu and lunged with no hesitation straight back at Wen RuoHan, bypassing Lan QiRen’s body. Wen RuoHan caught Jiang Cheng’s blade between his fingers, stopped him point blank and frowned at Jiang Cheng’s efforts to release himself.

 

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he said slowly and deliberately, “If you injure Teacher, I will kill you.”

 

 

“Wen RuoHan you bastard!” Jiang Cheng screamed, “WEI WUXIAN, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! DO YOU NOT CARE ABOUT OUR PARENTS?!”

 

“Uncle!” Lan XiChen’s voice began to crack under stress, “What is the meaning of this? Who is he? Is he really Wen RuoHan?”

 

“……”

 

“Uncle!” even Lan WangJi’s voice shook.

 

“He… he is, but please stop this first and let me explain,” Lan QiRen admitted, “Jiang WanYin, put your sword down.”

 

“Wen RuoHan is standing right here, and you want ME to put my sword down?!” Jiang Cheng cried, “Lan QiRen, have YOU lost your mind?! Or are you being controlled by him?!”

 

“Otherwise you will die! Do you want the Jiang Clan to end with you?!” Lan QiRen urged. If Wen RuoHan were to be cornered, no number of barriers put up by the Nie Sect will save the people in this building. As Wen RuoHan’s eyes began to smoulder with purple, Lan QiRen knew he was running short of time.

 

“Who would believe I am being threatened by the mighty Lan QiRen to let the biggest evil in this world escape?” Jiang Cheng laughed again, “Lan Huan, is he really your Uncle?”

 

“…..Uncle, are you being controlled?” Lan XiChen could not believe his eyes or ears. He looked at his younger brother for help, only to find even more anguish and disbelief on his face. He could not unsheathe ShuoYue to point it at his Uncle, nor totally return it to its scabbard.

 

“I promise I will atone for this, but I command you as your Uncle to sheath your swords immediately!”

 

“Old man, think about it carefully,” Wei WuXian had no choice but to accept the strange truth in front of him, “I don’t know why this is all happening, but your decades of reputation will go up in flames if you continue to defend Wen RuoHan. If you are being controlled, I can break you out right now. SiZhui, Jin Ling, you guys step back and get out of this room!”

 

Lan SiZhui looked desperately at Jin Ling’s direction and pulled on his sleeve, only to be shaken off. “No!” Jin Ling cried, “I will sever this Wen bastard’s head myself! Lan Yuan, go somewhere safe!”

 

But how could Lan SiZhui move an inch when confronted with a battle between his only surviving relative and his new family? Jin Ling’s ‘Wen bastard’ rang in his ears – would he be next?

 

“Uncle, please reconsider!” Lan WangJi urged, “He… he killed Father.”

 

“That was a misunderstanding!” Lan QiRen shielded Wen RuoHan behind him like a mother hen defending her chicks. Although, he did not know whether he was defending Wen RuoHan from his nephews, or the other way around. “I will explain and atone for this, so every one of you, lower your swords! Every single one of you here have sat in my lessons yet cannot trust me for even just this once?! Put your weapons away!”

 

Wen RuoHan’s expression grew grimmer and grimmer as Lan QiRen continued his back and forth quarrel with his family. As much as Wei WuXian’s words hurt, even Wen RuoHan had to admit that there was little room for him to escape. He could fight his way out, but Lan QiRen would surely never forgive him if he hurt his nephews. Should Lan QiRen succeed in defending him, the entire cultivation world would find out overnight that GuSu Lan Sect protected Public Enemy Number One, and the Lan Sect would never recover. A bounty would be put on their heads, and Lan QiRen’s reputation would be ground into dust along with his legacy. Eventually, they would both be hard-pressed to do things out of their control – yet again.

 

“Teacher,” Wen RuoHan gently placed a hand on Lan QiRen’s trembling shoulder, “Please calm yourself, your health is suffering. What will come is inevitable, I can accept this.”

 

Lan QiRen steeled himself and let his sword cast dancing lights on the walls of the storeroom. He gritted his teeth and said, “In your last life, I left you to fight for both of us because I was too scared to fight along with you. Today, I will not leave you and push you towards another death. Stand back!”

 

“Uncle, what on earth happened before the Sunshot Campaign?” Lan XiChen exclaimed, “Please let us understand! I will never attempt to hurt you, but we cannot simply let Wen RuoHan escape!”

 

“XiChen!” Lan QiRen exasperated. His eldest nephew’s anguish is imaginable to him, having lost the trust in his closest friend just months ago. “XiChen…. WangJi… I cannot excuse the past because the deeds have been done, but he… Wen RuoHan is important to me in a way that surely you both understand! What happened with your Father is partially my fault, he really did not mean to harm anyone that day. I beg you, please do not make me fight my own family, because you will have to step over my body before you can cut him down!”

 

“…..” The Lan brothers looked at each other with pained expressions, neither able to speak.

 

“…..” Wen RuoHan, however, was speechless for another reason. This Lan QiRen was far from the one that threatened death over marriage to him nearly 20 years ago, yet he could not be happy at Lan QiRen’s newfound devotion. Clearer than ever to Wen RuoHan was the pain cutting Lan QiRen’s heart as he was forced to choose sides yet again, he could almost envision the blood dripping onto the floor. The happiness Wen RuoHan imagined he would feel on the day Lan QiRen finally abandoned his morality, ethics and family ties to choose him was nowhere to be found - instead replaced by a spreading sense of dread.

 

What had he done to the man he loves?

 

“Wei WuXian!” Jiang Cheng’s sword was still firmly grasped by Wen RuoHan as he cried, “What the fuck are you doing?! If the Lans won’t do it, we must! Cut that bastard’s head off!”

 

“…..”

 

“WEI YING WEI WUXIAN!! DO YOU STILL CALL YOURSELF A MAN OF LOTUS PIER?!”

 

“……………”

 

“HOW WILL YOU EVER FACE MY FATHER AND MOTHER?!”

 

Wei WuXian looked at Lan QiRen’s desperate expression, Lan WangJi’s tortured eyes, and Wen RuoHan’s calm. He sighed, “…..Jiang Cheng, I…. I can’t.”

 

“WHAT?!” Jiang Cheng could almost pull his sword from Wen RuoHan’s grip and slice Wei WuXian just by anger alone, “WHY?! GIVE ME ONE REASON!”

 

“I… We are too similar. I don’t know what happened, but there is clearly a misunderstanding of some kind. As a public enemy who died alone without anyone to believe in me, I am lucky enough to be given a second chance at living my life. I cannot kill someone who is the same, without at least listening to his story,” he held Lan WangJi’s hand with clammy fingers, “Lan Zhan, can I… not make this decision?”

 

“If Uncle says he did not harm Father…. I believe Uncle.”

 

Wen RuoHan could barely believe that Lan QiRen believed him, let alone his nephew.

 

“Lan Huan, do it!” Jiang Cheng yelled at his husband, “I believe you can get to him without hurting your Uncle, you cannot let Wen RuoHan escape!”

 

“WanYin…” Lan XiChen slid ShuoYue painfully slowly back into its scabbard, much to Jiang Cheng’s chagrin, “If I….. if I had to choose between a Father whom I did not know, and the Uncle who raised me…. I would not be able to abandon my Uncle. I do not know why Uncle is insistent on saving Wen RuoHan, but whatever the reason, I am not prepared to draw my weapon against him.”

 

“Even if you don’t, they’re not going to be able to leave this place!” Jiang Cheng looked at Nie HuaiSang by the door, “Wen RuoHan killed HuaiSang’s father, he is the reason why none of us have parents!”

 

“You are right,” Wen RuoHan’s soft voice startled the room to silence.

 

“You are simply right. Either directly or indirectly, I am responsible for the deaths of every family in this room. Regardless whether I am believed, I now truly wish that none of it had happened. Sect Leader Nie, I especially regret my actions to your Father and your Brother. I am well aware that apologies mean little after the fact, and I will admit that I did want them dead at the time, but if I were given the choice, I would not kill them again.”

 

“What kind of apology is that?!” Jiang Cheng gave his sword another pull and staggered backwards when Wen RuoHan released his hold, “Nie HuaiSang, would you say something for Heaven’s sake?!”

 

“Were you the people my Brother met while running away from home?” Nie HuaiSang asked, deep in thought.

 

“Who?” Lan QiRen’s mind raced.

 

“Unfortunately, yes,” Wen RuoHan sighed, “I am sorry, Teacher, I planned to never let you know. A-Ming was-

 

“Nie MingJue,” Lan QiRen’s eyes widened in horror, “but we….never knew…..”

 

“Of course he would have never told you his name,” Nie HuaiSang unfolded his fan, “Brother would have hidden his name first to protect himself, then later to protect both of you from our Clan. I have been doing much investigating, but never could I have guessed that the Wen man was actually Wen RuoHan.”

 

“Nie HuaiSang, are you crazy?!” Jiang Cheng pressed, “Kill him!”

 

“I reserve my opinion,” Nie HuaiSang shook his head, “I will not aid in killing them, but I will not stop it.”

 

“Why?” Wen RuoHan asked, “I murdered your Father.”

 

“That is why I will not save you either,” Nie HuaiSang replied curtly, “But I will not harm you, because without you, I would not be here. Do you remember when I said that my Brother started to dote on me after he returned from the village? He was taught so. When my Father and Mother saw me as good for nothing, only Brother never gave up on me. He would be kind to me and patiently teach me, others often talked about how he only did so because I was not a threat to his inheritance, but I knew he cared for me. Father grew more and more distant and violent when I showed no cultivation talent, but Brother shielded me every time. If the two of you had not taken him in, I would be dead by either my Brother or Father’s hands…”

 

“…..that little oaf, he really remembered everything you told him, Lan QiRen,” Wen RuoHan smiled sadly, “Now I know where his stubborn sense of justice comes from.”

 

“I have often admired the stories of how Sect Leader Nie got along with his Brother despite having different mothers,” Lan SiZhui said quietly, “I finally understand now…”

 

“Lan Yuan, whose side are you on?” Jin Ling frowned, “Don’t be fooled by this sob-story!”

 

“RuLan, I think… perhaps we should reserve judgement until we hear everything,” Lan SiZhui paused for a moment to take a deep breath before continuing, “Perhaps not every Wen is dangerous? Or perhaps, we should not continue the cycle of hatred…”

 

“WanYin, SiZhui is right,” Lan XiChen placed his hand over Jiang Cheng’s hand on SanDu, “My selfish request from you… only once… will you let go of the past for our future? WanYin, WangJi and I only have one family left. We really cannot bear losing our Uncle…”

 

Jiang Cheng’s mind raced as the tides turned against him. The idea that Wen RuoHan had taught him to cook while knowing he had murdered every soul in Lotus Pier made him sick to his stomach, but he also knew more than anyone that killing Wen RuoHan would not bring back any of his loss. Lan XiChen’s broken form after losing Jin GuangYao was fresh in his memory still, he could not imagine what would happen should he lose his Uncle too. It would seem he had no choice – do the impossible? He gazed out of the small window at the harsh sunlight, half-expecting an answer from the Heavens.

 

Finally, Jiang Cheng reverted ZiDian back to his ring. “If he does anything even remotely wicked again, I will smite him.”

 

 

Lan QiRen let out a sigh of relief and prepared to thank Jiang Cheng for his difficult decision before a flash of gold flew past his ear – Jin Ling’s SuiHua. Wen RuoHan was unfazed as he stopped the charged blade with two fingers and poised to send it back.

 

“DO NOT HURT ANYONE, DO YOU HEAR ME?!” Lan QiRen desperately clung to Wen RuoHan’s arm. Jin Ling was courting death with a sneak attack, Lan QiRen could almost smell the bloodshed about to happen.

 

No man in the room expected Wen RuoHan to comply. He slowly set down SuiHua but did not let go, and looked Jin Ling in the eye before uttering, “If Teacher loses a hair on his head, those responsible will die. I do not care for children.”

 

“I am not a child! I will avenge all LanLing Jin Sect disciple lost to your evil, and my parents!” Jin Ling began to sweat as his calls for SuiHua to return were heeded but not followed – Wen RuoHan’s power was overwhelming his own by orders of magnitude.

 

“Jin GuangShan’s offspring just get worse and worse….” Wen RuoHan sighed, “You do not seem to know what is good for you, boy.” He tightened his grip on SuiHua’s blade, and the sword shrieked under pressure.

 

“Wen RuoHan!” Wei WuXian cried, “Don’t break that sword! That is the only thing left from his parents, he is just a kid! Jin Ling, step back! Wen RuoHan didn’t even kill your parents-”

 

“But he started the war that did!” 

 

Wen RuoHan looked at Wei WuXian with a complicated expression. “A kid who will lunge for our throats with a blade that does not even recognise his ownership? You are that Wei fellow from YiLing, are you not? I would much rather give it to you.” He tossed SuiHua nonchalantly to Wei WuXian and added, “Your efforts to preserve my Clan are repaid.” His temptation to take revenge on behalf of Wen ZhuLiu was cut short as the man himself would never have wished for it. Wen ZhuLiu would stupidly wish for the past to be past, just like all the other stupidly good people who are dead now.

 

“Don’t think you can leave here alive, Wen RuoHan!” Jin Ling cursed, “I am not easily swayed! No matter how many times you die, it will not be enough to avenge the innocent lives you have taken! You have dragged enough people down with you, today the LanLing Jin Sect will not let you free!”

 

“Jin Ling, you can’t win this!” Wei WuXian watched nervously for any movement from Wen RuoHan, “Stand down!”

 

“Where is your moral compass?!” Jin ling pointed at Wen RuoHan and screamed, “He is the evillest man to have ever existed! Are you all just going to let him go?! I will not accept this!”

 

Lan QiRen quickly surveyed the expressions in the room before whispering, “Wen RuoHan, on my signal, run. If it is just Jin Ling, you can overcome him without hurting him-

 

“Teacher, I am sorry.”

 

Wen RuoHan pulled out three acupuncture needles from his robes and pierced Lan QiRen’s neck swiftly and efficiently. Suddenly unable to move his limbs, Lan QiRen let out a surprised gasp. “What are you doing?!”

 

“Sect Leader Jin,” Wen RuoHan turned to Jin Ling with a smile, “Could you give me a few moments? Every person here has ample reason to kill me. However, I have a few words for my Teacher before I go.”

 

“Wen RuoHan, undo this right now!” Lan QiRen’s voice shook with fear of Wen RuoHan’s intentions. He quickly surveyed the damaged by running spiritual energy along his meridians, the blocked pressure seals flared with searing pain at any opposition. Undoing the points by force felt like it would be fatal.

 

“Teacher, you must know more than anybody that if I walk out of QingHe with you, the reputation you have cultivated with your whole life will go up in smoke. The Lan Sect may never recover, and if you follow me, you may never see your family again. I cannot let that happen to you.”

 

“Are you mad? Why do you always go against me?!”

 

“I have never been surer of anything in my life, Lan QiRen. I have never said sorry to you for all the things I have done to hurt you because I was not sorry. I did not understand… I did not understand anything. I have only ever had eyes for you, so everything that held you back from me, I saw as our common enemy that I needed to remove. I did not understand the selfless love you have for the world and destroyed so much of it… I can only say I am sorry, but I cannot bring any of those people back. I cannot bring back the man who saw us at KaiYang, I cannot bring back the Jiang Sect, I cannot bring back Nie MingJue, I cannot bring back your brother or any person who died fighting in my wars, and I am sorry now.”

 

Wen RuoHan’s words were gentle as he caressed Lan QiRen’s hands over and over, as if trying to carve the memory of his touch into his own flesh. However, his valiant phrases did little to calm Lan QiRen’s terror as at yet another loss. Lan QiRen tried again to undo his sealed meridians to no avail, the pain overwhelmed him before he could even get close.

 

“What good will you do, dying for a second time?” Lan QiRen’s voice grew urgent, then strained, until finally it was a shriek, “I thought you cared for me so much, you would rather erase the world than abandon me?! WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR PROMISE?! YOU LIE!” He held onto Wen RuoHan’s hands so hard he could hear joints cracking, but the dread of letting those hands slip by yet again was too petrifying to risk loosening his grip. Lan QiRen finally understood the feeling of pure, unadulterated fear of loss Wen RuoHan must have felt outside the Cloud Recesses the day before his own engagement. Even if he broke Wen RuoHan’s hand, he could not let go.

 

The young lips curled into a sincere smile that revealed the weathered soul inside. Hearing Lan QiRen lose his temper at him brought back a torrent of memories, and he closed his eyes to enjoy the scenes play. Wen RuoHan let out a satisfied breath before he gingerly plucked his hands out of Lan QiRen’s grip and caressed the tear-stained cheeks, afraid to hurt him again. For Wen RuoHan, the answer was as clear as the day – his mission had only ever been to clear the obstacles in the way of Lan QiRen’s eternal happiness. If the obstacle was himself, so be it.

 

“These months I spent with you as Ling XuYin were happy, because I know that you are living a much more purposeful and fulfilled life without Wen RuoHan holding you back…”

 

“Stop it! Stop talking!”

 

“ …many more people will be happier with me gone, than me forcefully taking you away. You are needed in this world, Lan QiRen, and I am proud to have received your love. I only wish I could have seen this sooner, so I could have spared your pain.”

 

“I forbid you, you are forbidden!” Lan QiRen’s helpless voice echoed through the suffocating room, “You are forbidden, do you hear me?!”

 

“Teacher, please let me do a little extra work to correct my mistakes. I once dreamed that you would be happiest while shackled to my side, but you really needed to be freed…from me.”

 

I forbid it!”

 

But what use was arguing with a man as stubborn as Wen RuoHan?

 

“Sect Leader Jin, I apologise for the wait. You are entitled to my head.”

 

 

Wen RuoHan tidied his wrinkled collar before deftly untying his plain white forehead ribbon and placing it in Lan QiRen’s hand. He sat down elegantly and closed his eyes, waiting for the cold release of Jin Ling’s blade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan tidied his wrinkled collar before deftly untying his plain white forehead ribbon and placing it in Lan QiRen’s hand. He sat down elegantly and closed his eyes, waiting for the cold release of Jin Ling’s blade.

Lan QiRen’s world stopped as he helplessly watched Jin Ling snatch SuiHua from Wei WuXian’s hands. While righteous men in this room could stretch their moral standing to ‘not kill’ Wen RuoHan, none could be moved to ‘save’ him. Lan QiRen understood their reservations. It is precisely because he understood that no good man could ever convince themselves that Wen RuoHan deserved to be saved, that Lan QiRen’s heart broke for Wen RuoHan.

 

Brother had been right – there would be no second chances, after all.

 

Wen RuoHan being alive in a new body did not mean his actions had no consequences. Lan QiRen often found himself during the Sunshot Campaign praying that his lover would come to recognise the error of his own ways… but now that the atonement is happening, he cursed it with every fibre of his being.

 

‘Why… why is it that I cannot break free? Not from the Sect, not from my own mind… not even from these acupuncture needles!’

 

He ran more spiritual energy through his meridians and was stopped by a wall of pain akin to being stripped of his skin by his own bones. Every drop of blood in his veins screamed at him to cease tearing his body apart, to stop the futile effort of running through Wen RuoHan’s seal. As Jin Ling’s cold and merciless swing began its descent onto Wen RuoHan’s neck, an image flashed before Lan QiRen’s eyes – the bloodied door behind which Wen RuoHan tore his own throat apart just to profess his love. The pain to forcefully break the Lan silencing spell is described as unfathomable by the texts, yet Wen RuoHan had never complained. To him, not even death would stand in the way, let alone pain.

 

Lan QiRen’s mind cleared momentarily. Surely, even death would be a sweet release than to watch the love of his life be beheaded. If the price to pay to save Wen RuoHan is death by qi deviation from breaking seal, then so be it – ‘If he dies here, then it would be the same for me. In fact, if I die here saving him, surely XiChen and WangJi will forbid any more attempts. What is stopping me?’

 

Lan QiRen gathered every sliver of spiritual energy he could muster and directed the flow as forcefully through his sealed points as he could.

 

Agonising, white hot pain blinded him momentarily, yet Lan QiRen persisted with no regard for himself. Only when Wen RuoHan’s needles were engulfed with blue sparks and fizzled out of his skin could Lan QiRen lurch his body forwards in the general direction of Jin Ling’s swing. Although he still had no fine control over his body, at least he could become a shield for Wen RuoHan, just this once.

 

 

“!!!!”

 

The chorus of panicked yells as Lan QiRen’s neck fell between Wen RuoHan and SuiHua echoed from the walls.

 

First, the blade cut through ribbon.

 

Then hair.

 

Then skin.

 

Then blood.

 

“UNCLE!”

 

“OLD MAN!”

 

It was difficult to tell who had yelled what.

 

When Lan QiRen opened his eyes, he lay in Wen RuoHan’s one-handed embrace. Wen RuoHan’s other hand held a glowing sword of blue and purple, crackling louder and brighter than ten ZiDians combined.

 

“Wen RuoHan!” Jiang Cheng shielded Jin Ling behind himself, his own sword drawn, “Stand down!”

 

“I live by one law,” Wen RuoHan replied coolly, “those who hurt him, die.”

 

“Weren’t you accepting of punishment?!”

 

“That was BEFORE Teacher is in danger!” Wen RuoHan held Lan QiRen closer, his hand shaking, “I thought he would be safe if I died, but you people are ruthless! If I left him here, someone will take his head!”

 

“I don’t want to hear the word ruthless from you!”

 

“Then if one of your self-righteous friends wants all of you to hand over Lan QiRen for defending a Wen, what will you do, Sect Leader Jiang?” Wen RuoHan snarled, “Will you let him die a miserable death like Wei WuXian, or will you kill him yourself? Will any of you risk destroying all you hold dear to protect him?! I will, and I can! Now get out of my way while I still have patience!”

 

‘WangJi and I would never let such a thing happen!” Lan XiChen exclaimed, “Please trust us!”

 

“You Lans value so-called justice and morals over anybody! You and your father are the same! And THIS little runt wont even hold back his sword for the innocent, how do I trust any of you?!”

 

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Jin Ling cried, “He fell in front of my sword!”

 

“If I didn’t pull him back, you would have beheaded him!” Wen RuoHan spat, “Such poor control of a sword…. No wonder it has yet to acknowledge you.”

 

“You-

 

“Wen RuoHan, do you think Old Man Lan would want this?!” Wei WuXian tried to reason with the impossible, “If you injure anyone here, he would never forgive you!”

 

“I don’t need his forgiveness, I need him alive and his reputation intact! Everyone will see him kidnapped by me, and he will be remembered as a victim to another one of my crimes. Do your worst!”

 

Lan QiRen mustered the strength to wriggle against Wen RuoHan’s chest. “Wen….”

 

“Teacher!” Wen RuoHan was overjoyed to hear Lan QiRen’s voice, no matter how faint. “Don’t worry, we are leaving soon. Preserve your strength, I will-

 

“Stop….”

 

“This is what I feared, Teacher. For defending me, this world will rip you to shreds… I cannot watch that happen. When did you become so dumb to the consequences?”

 

“…..consequences are a strange word coming from you,” Lan QiRen almost managed a laugh at the irony, “….of course I know… what would happen… but did you ever think of what I would do without you?”

 

“You are strong and needed, you could have survived.”

 

“Without you, how could any of this be called surviving? I would sooner die than watch you perish.”

 

Wen RuoHan tightened his grip on his spiritual energy sword and forced a smile. “Then we are at an impasse, Teacher.”

 

Nobody knew what to expect from the pair of lovers backed into a desperate corner. Even Nie HuaiSang’s face was grim, as he too pondered the implications of simply letting them go versus attempting to bring Wen RuoHan to justice. Should such a dangerous, unhinged individual really be permitted to roam free?

 

 

 

“Uncle, do you love him so?” Lan WangJi broke his long silence.

 

Lan QiRen sighed. “Let me stand,” he said gently to Wen RuoHan, “I thought you would use a harsher seal… but it seems my meridians are all intact.”

 

“Teacher, did you really think I would seal you in a way that would maim you to be broken from it?” Wen RuoHan frowned, “I would never-

 

“Thank you,” Lan QiRen cut Wen RuoHan off before he could finish, “I do not believe for all you have done for me, because of me, or even just thinking of me, have I ever said thank you. Now it is my turn to help us.”

 

He turned to his nephews and looked both in the eye, one after the other, while blood trickled from his neck. “XiChen, WangJi, when your Father entrusted you boys to me, I was already in love with Wen RuoHan. I have been, since I was 17 years old. He is the reason I added 1000 rules to the Wall, from 2000 to 3000. I was so utterly terrified that either of you may encounter the same ill-fated love and heartbreak as your Father and I, so I used my entire life to steer both of you on the straight and narrow path.”

 

Lan QiRen looked at Wei WuXian, Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling before sighing in defeat. “I must now admit that fate is too strong for me to control. Despite all my best efforts, each of you have come to love those who are least suited to your positions, and so have I. However, I must also admit that all of you are stronger than I am, and no longer need my guidance. From today, I hereby request to be dismissed from the GuSu Lan Sect.”

 

He slowly bent down to pick up his broken forehead ribbon from the dusty ground, bloodstained from the thin trickle of blood Jin Ling had drawn from the side of his neck, and a lock of hair that had suffered the same fate. Lan QiRen patted some dust from it and held it out to Lan XiChen, along with Wen RuoHan’s ribbon. Lan XiChen accepted with two shaking hands. “XiChen, lead the Lan Sect well. Although we will have no blood heirs, our ancestors would be proud of the man you have become. WangJi, lend XiChen your help in guiding SiZhui. He may one day make for great leadership.”

 

“Yes, Uncle,” Lan WangJi nodded. Nothing could change Lan QiRen’s mind.

 

“But Sir!” Lan SiZhui gasped, “I cannot possibly-

 

“I am well past forcing anyone into a role they do not wish to undertake, as I so forced Wen RuoHan in the past,” Lan QiRen shook his head, “But SiZhui my boy, no matter how you may doubt yourself or your heritage, you are a Lan man. Nothing can change that. If your reservations come to matters of the heart, I would implore you to look at the myself, the current Sect Leader and his brother – whatever choices you make for a spouse cannot possibly be worse than your elders, so rest assured.”

 

With his curt words, Lan QiRen spoke straight to Lan SiZhui’s heart. Emboldened, he put a warm hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder and said, “RuLan, please let it go.”

 

“Lan Yuan, you-

 

“For the future matters more than the past… please, RuLan, one day I will explain.”

 

“….fine,” Jin Ling finally muttered, “but your reason had better be good.”

 

 

 

 

Lan QiRen turned to Wen RuoHan, who was frozen in shock, and smiled warmly at his lover. Even as his neck bled and the hair to one side of his head had been sliced in a ridiculous half-cut, Lan QiRen was the most beautiful person under the sun to Wen RuoHan as he uttered:

 

“Wen RuoHan, will you take my hand and follow me away from this madness, casting aside your Wen name, never to return?”

 

Wen RuoHan nodded tearfully. “You… remembered my words.”

 

“I have replayed it in my dreams so much, it sounds much more embarrassing out loud.”

 

“You are blushing, Teacher.”

 

“Do not push your luck.”

 

 

 

Lan XiChen placed his hand on his brother’s and felt him tremble. Lan WangJi’s silent suffering at the loss of both of their parents were fresh in his memory – as a brother, he had to try his best to not lose their uncle too.

 

“Uncle, even if you no longer remain in the Sect, the Clan is always your family,” Lan XiChen held Lan WangJi’s hand even tighter, “Will you ever return to us?”

 

“XiChen, WangJi, both of you must understand how perilous the world is for him,” Lan QiRen sighed, “To bring Wen RuoHan into any cultivation sect is a risk too large, I would be forever grateful if you could announce that I have retired into seclusion from the world, with Ling XuYin as my lover. When we are safe, I will send word of my whereabouts, you are welcome to visit. If anyone were to discover his identity, I would implore everyone in this room to pretend they did not know. I will take sole responsibility for his actions from this point onwards.”

 

The rooms fell silent. By letting Wen RuoHan free, they have all become complicit in perhaps the biggest crime since Jin GuangYao’s…. But Wen RuoHan’s only point of control seemed to be Lan QiRen’s wishes. Should they refuse, Wen RuoHan would kill them all.

 

Wei WuXian quipped, “With all due respect, Old Man… I believe in the power of love and all, but do you really think you can control Wen RuoHan?

 

Lan QiRen looked wistfully and Wen RuoHan and sighed deeply. “Yes. I believe in him.”

 

Wen RuoHan laughed to himself. Only Lan QiRen would be able to still trust in him when he had almost lost sight of himself, despite all their trials and tribulations. “That gives me no choice but to be a model citizen, then.”

 

 

 

Each man looked at each other across the room, then back at the pair, waiting for the first move. Jiang Cheng scratched the back of his head in frustration and exasperated, “For fuck’s sake, just leave before I change my mind! Your lovey-dovey looks are giving me goosebumps. Jin Ling, come with me! HuaiSang, get your men out of here before this bastard murders them!” He rolled his eyes and gave Wen RuoHan a final dirty look before dragging Jin Ling and Nie HuaiSang out of the door.

 

As the heavy wooden door slammed shut and the trio out of earshot, Wen RuoHan turned to Wei WuXian and took a shallow bow. Lan QiRen could hardly believe what he was seeing. “Wen Chao took things too far, but you have killed Wen ZhuLiu as well as him. For your efforts in preserving the lives in YiLing, and your words today, I thank you.” He spared Lan SiZhui a glance but did not speak more. No words were needed as far as Wen RuoHan was concerned, the child was much better off having no formal relationship to him.

 

“I saved the innocent, it has nothing to do with their Clan. If they didn’t have you for family, maybe they would still be here,” Wei WuXian did not mince his words, “I still don’t trust you, but I believe that this old man is not senile enough to risk his life for a completely evil man.” He turned to Lan QiRen and raised an eyebrow, “Before you leave, I am too curious not to ask… what do you see in Wen RuoHan? If he is going to be our Uncle-in-law, we have a right to know. Lan Zhan, don’t you think?”

 

“…….”

 

Lan QiRen’s face turned shades of purple and red under the inquisitive stares of Lan XiChen, Lan WangJi, Wei WuXian, Lan SiZhui and even Wen RuoHan.

 

“Why are you looking at me too?” he glared at his lover.

 

“I want to know,” Wen RuoHan said earnestly, “You have never told me what you love about me, Teacher.”

 

“I do not speak such shameless words!”

 

“Then neither of you are leaving today!” Wei WuXian spread his arms in front of the door, “We deserve to know! If the answer is too raunchy… SiZhui, go to find Jin Ling, this is adult time. You don’t want to hear about his sex life, do you?”

 

A madly blushing Lan SiZhui blubbered a few incoherent words and escaped under Wei WuXian’s guard, while Lan QiRen yelled unintelligible denials and shook his fists. “Wei WuXian!! Why did you not stay dead?!”

 

“If I stayed dead, wouldn’t your 1000 extra rules go to waste?” Wei WuXian poked his tongue out at Lan QiRen despite Lan WangJi’s warning glare, “Does any one of those rules say that Lan disciples are forbidden from visiting brothels? Or is it fine as long as they are expensive?”

 

“Of course visiting such places is out of the question!” Lan XiChen was horrified, “Such immoral actions are against everything the Lan Sect stands for!”

 

Wei WuXian laughed and ignored Lan WangJi’s pained expression before going in for the kill. “What about now, old man, do you want to keep talking about brothels or do you want to tell me what you love about him?”

 

Blackmail. Pure and simple blackmail. Lan QiRen briefly considered Lan XiChen’s disappointed face should Wei WuXian tell him (undoubtedly using the most slanderous and suggestive wording possible) about the inner workings of the Chrysanthemum Pavilion and admitted defeat.

 

‘Should one not wish to be exposed, simply do not commit the deed…’ The words he chastised cheating students with seemed extra ironic. Here Lan QiRen was, being forced to confess his love for Wen RuoHan, by the YiLing Patriarch, because he was afraid for his nephew finding out about his escapade to a brothel. The situation seemed comical in its absurdity, should the 17-year-old Lan QiRen be told this was his fate in 35 years’ time, he would have banished the offender to a lifetime of rule-copying.

 

Wei WuXian dramatically turned to Lan XiChen and whispered in a voice even louder than his usual speech, “PSSTTT, Older Brother, did you know that the CHRYSANTHEMUM-

 

“NOT ANOTHER WORD!” Lan QiRen roared, “Wei Ying, I curse you to Hell….”

 

“Been there, done that,” Wei WuXian rolled his eyes, “Just tell us, your nephews have been sweating in anxiety waiting for it!”

 

“I…. I….. like……….”

 

Lan WangJi leaned forward ever so slightly.

 

“…. Like….. his…….”

 

Lan XiChen nodded and clenched his fists.

 

“……….he……..”

 

Wei WuXian held his stomach and stifled a laugh.

 

“…………………………”

 

Wen RuoHan had stopped breathing to listen harder.

 

“…….he makes good congee, and never gives up even when it is bad.”

 

 

“WHAT?!” Wei WuXian choked on his own saliva and stared incredulously, “THERE HAS TO BE MORE?! Nothing about his good looks?! Body?! Power?! Shitty personality that masochistic people look up to?! Old Man, are you lying to us?!” He glanced at Wen RuoHan, who was grinning from ear to ear like a lovestruck fool. Frustrated that the truth was so simple, Wei WuXian groaned, “And here I thought you had a scandalous past… Lan QiRen, why are you so boring?”

 

“Wei Ying, not everyone has a grandiose reason to fall in love,” Lan QiRen rubbed his temple and tried to ignore the pheromones Wen RuoHan sent in his direction, “If one were to ask for the exact reason you devote yourself to WangJi, what would you answer?”

 

“His bedroom skills,” Wei WuXian looked Lan QiRen dead in the eye, “Unequivocally, as of today, his bedroom skills.”

 

He winked as Lan QiRen spluttered and gasped for a retort to his shamelessness, but was picked up by the collar from behind. “L-Lan Zhan, I am just messing with Uncle, wait, Lan Zhan! Put me down! I’m sorry! Spare me!”

 

“Uncle, I apologise for the disturbance,” Lan WangJi put Wei WuXian down momentarily to kowtow three times to his uncle, “WangJi is not skilled with words… but I wish you the very best. Please allow us to visit you in the future. Wei Ying simply wishes you to be sure of your happiness.”

 

“Rise, WangJi,” Lan QiRen sighed, “My selfishness does not warrant your kneeling. One day, I will tell you boys the full story.”

 

“Uncle chose our family at a time when you could have chosen your fated one you have loved since the age of 17,” Lan XiChen dropped to his knees to kowtow with his brother, “Our appreciation and respect for your great sacrifices have only increased. Please, Uncle, be happy.”

 

Before Lan QiRen could convince his nephews to rise, Wen RuoHan lifted both by their arms to stand. “This may sound strange from a face younger than both of you,” he said, “But never have I ever seen in my life a man who loves his family more than Lan QiRen. My deeds and circumstances that have led to him being separated from you boys are regrettable, and I can only swear on what is left of my soul that I will use the rest of my life to make him happy. I do not expect to be forgiven, nor do I truly understand your ways, but at least know that all I have ever wanted was for your uncle to be content.”

 

The complicated expressions on Lan XiChen and Lan WangJi’s face was at least better than denial. Lan QiRen patted Wen RuoHan’s shoulder and said, “XiChen, WangJi, if you only ever believe one thing he says, I would implore you to believe this one. Go, leave us, and rest assured that your Uncle is not senile enough to make the wrong decision here.”

 

Wei WuXian pushed open the door to the storehouse, letting in brilliant sunlight from the cloudless QingHe sky.

 

“Lan Zhan, Older Brother, let us leave them in peace,” he grinned, “I am sure this will not be the last time we see them! Uncle has many books at the Cloud Recesses he can’t possibly just leave to waste!”

 

 

 

 

As the three figures receded from sight, Wen RuoHan nudged Lan QiRen’s arm. “You know, for someone you seem to hate so much, that Wei fellow really understands you.”

 

“Shut it.”

 

“Never,” Wen RuoHan suddenly whipped his head around to face Lan QiRen and captured his lips in a searing kiss. His force sent Lan QiRen retreating several steps into a wall, gasping for air. “Teacher…” he panted between hungry, breathy kisses, “Can you tell me one more time…. Can you tell me one more time how you came to love me?”

 

“……….”

 

Of course, Wen RuoHan never truly expected the proud Lan QiRen to recount again how his naïve 17-year-old self fell in love with a handsome man kind enough to spend a whole night cooking congee for him. Simply hearing the words once could send him to heaven, let alone another proclamation.

 

For those words, he would gladly go to war again.

 

But for that body? Wen RuoHan would not even blink to trade in his soul.

 

He smiled contently as he felt the heat rise between them and Lan QiRen’s tell-tale softening at his hips. Wen RuoHan would feast tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Lan QiRen often thinks about Wen RuoHan’s invitation to elope with him, this can be found in Chapter 1 (Prologue) and Chapter 13 (Here Comes the Bride)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text



 

 

It felt like a millennium since Lan QiRen had kissed Wen RuoHan. It seemed like Wen RuoHan was always full of surprises – the more possessive he was, the gentler his kisses, and vice versa. Despite having mellowed out since 35 years ago, Wen RuoHan’s kiss was more passionate and fierce than Lan QiRen had ever experienced.

 

As Wen RuoHan’s tongue swiped over his palate, Lan QiRen felt the little sense and dignity in him escape through his lips by a wanton moan. He had no more defences in front of this man, even if he would be taken right here against the wall.

 

“Teacher… your knees are not doing their job….”

 

“….it’s…. your fault- AH!”

 

Wen RuoHan chuckled between breaths as he purposefully forced his thigh in between Lan QiRen’s legs to rub a little. “Hard to stand?”

 

“………….”

 

Lan QiRen was ready to give in just as Wen RuoHan pulled back. Seeing his lover’s slightly frustrated, dishevelled look, Wen RuoHan wanted nothing more than to throw his reservations out the door and enter him immediately. Nevertheless, he dabbed at Lan QiRen’s now drying neck wound with his sleeve and uttered, “Teacher, this is…. Not a good time. We must leave this place before we are discovered by less understanding crowds.”

 

As much as Lan QiRen wanted Wen RuoHan’s body, he had to admit that a storehouse in the Unclean Realm was hardly an ideal location for romance. The Sunshot Campaign commemoration was in full swing and danger was a stone’s throw away… although it did sting to be logically corrected by Wen RuoHan, out of all people.

 

‘Either Wen RuoHan has finally matured, or I have finally lost all my shame…’

 

“You are right. I was hasty.”

 

Wen RuoHan grinned and landed a gentle peck on Lan QiRen’s cheek as if to reward him. “This is my lucky day. Teacher told me why he loves me and praised me for the first time. Dying was worth it! Wait here for me, I will check for danger.”

 

Perhaps Wen RuoHan’s only purpose was this simple? Lan QiRen wished the whole cultivation world to see Wen RuoHan in this moment, bathing in sheer bliss from only words. Or perhaps, he had been too hard on this man in the past?

 

‘Have I really never praised him or given him any loving words? Did he believe in my poorly shown love, or was he too timid to ask?’

 

The heavy, black wooden doors opened outwards to save space inside the storehouse, and as Wen RuoHan pushed them outwards, he heard a small bump. He carefully poked his head out through the crack and found a small cloth bundle that the door had hit.

 

“What is it?” Lan QiRen asked.

 

Wen RuoHan used his sword to bring the package inside the storehouse and closed the door before deftly unwrapping the black cotton cloth. Inside he found two sets of common clothes, bandages, a bag of silver and a simple, hand drawn map of the Unclean Realms.

 

“Unguarded,” Wen RuoHan studied the red cross at the door marked on the map and read the corresponding words, “Guards have been cleared from storehouse to East side servants’ door.”

 

“Show me,” Lan QiRen also studied the map for a moment before concluding, “This is indeed HuaiSang’s handwriting. He plans to help us escape undetected.”

 

“Teacher, I do not trust him,” Wen RuoHan grimaced as he wrapped the bandages around Lan QiRen’s neck, “If he truly wishes to help us, he would have done so when we were on the verge of death. Nie HuaiSang is not like Nie MingJue, every word that man speaks has a purpose. I do not believe he would do this for us out of the goodness of his heart.” Nie HuaiSang’s luring words from their two previous conversations stuck in Wen RuoHan’s mind. He did not care for sneaky tactics but could see them if he looked hard – Nie HuaiSang was hiding something dark behind his useless façade.

 

Lan QiRen reached out and patted Wen RuoHan’s shoulder. “RuoHan, we are only here because of the goodwill and trusting nature of everyone. I understand your reservations, but I believe we should trust HuaiSang and follow this map. If he tricks us, you will protect us, am I right?”

 

Wen RuoHan looked half convinced. “I just do not want Teacher to be hurt again… nor do I want to be forced to kill A-Ming’s brother.”

 

“HuaiSang is not a bad person, I believe that,” Lan QiRen coaxed Wen RuoHan’s nerves, “He has been through a lot, so perhaps he is complicated, but not bad. At least, a bad person would not give us bandages…”

 

“Teacher, you know as well as I do that I do not understand good and bad,” Wen RuoHan sighed, “I can only follow you, then.”

 

The Eastern walls’ servant door was less than 100 feet from the storehouses, but the open courtyard was in plain view of the surrounding estate and impossible to hide. Through empty space, nobody could smuggle out the weapons in storage unless they dug through solid rock flooring. Should the pair want to follow the map to freedom, they must cross an open space with no cover for arrows shot from the taller buildings. Wen RuoHan created a shield of spiritual energy and guarded Lan QiRen under it, ushering him to the door as quickly as he could.

 

As promised, all guards and servants had been removed from their posts nearby, leaving the whole wing of the Unclean Realm deserted. The small door was unlocked from the inside, easily pushing ajar. Wen RuoHan tested the door by throwing the black cotton piece outside. Satisfied that there were no traps, he stepped outside into the wind with Lan QiRen by his side, still carefully protected with his shield.

 

 

 

A cheerful voice came from the left side of the door. “Welcome to freedom, I wish you all the best.”

 

 

 

“Of course…” Wen RuoHan transformed his shield into a blue, sparking lance and extended it 10 feet to point at Nie HuaiSang’s neck, “Don’t make me do anything I might regret, little Nie.”

 

“Now, now, you are my benefactors, I would never hurt you,” Nie HuaiSang forced a nervous smile and gulped at the sizzling spiritual energy at his throat, “I am just here to say goodbye!”

 

“Wen RuoHan, stand down,” Lan QiRen calmly ordered, “Let us listen to what Sect Leader Nie has to say.”

 

Wen RuoHan reduced the length of his sword to 3 feet and allowed Nie HuaiSang to walk closer with his hands in the air, holding a stack of paper. He passed the pile to Lan QiRen and explained, “This is the deed to the pear orchard in Han Village, if you want to stay there, I can register a change in ownership to your names… or even a pseudonym.”

 

“Why?” Wen RuoHan and Lan QiRen both asked.

 

Nie HuaiSang unfurled his fan and pointed nonchalantly at the QingHe landscape. “Your plan to escape is badly financed and lacks thought. If the great Lan QiRen and his prodigy student were to simply vanish from QingHe, even if the Twin Jades swear it was elopement, there will be people searching for you. The Peng Sect are not powerful, but they are tenacious-

 

“You followed us!” Wen RuoHan’ eyes glowed purple at the mention of the Peng Sect.

 

“I observed you,” Nie HuaiSang admitted, “In your frenzy, you mistakenly killed one of my recons, so let us call it even.”

 

“You never once helped us in that forest.”

 

“You hardly looked like you needed help,” Nie HuaiSang shrugged, “But you need help now. As I said, both your friends and your enemies will be searching for you. Nobody is going to look for you within a 100 mile radius of the Unclean Realm, let alone a village 60 miles from my front door… even if they do, if I do not want you to be found under my jurisdiction, there is nothing that can be done.”

 

Wen RuoHan stared at Nie HuaiSang silently and waited for him to finish. His intentions were unclear, but no man would stand outside waiting with such a good deal for nothing.

 

Lan QiRen broke the silence first. “Sect Leader Nie, if I may ask what you wish for in return?”

 

“For the clothes on your back and your freedom, I have repaid my brother’s debts,” Nie HuaiSang smiled, “There were many doors to leave from, you did not have to choose to trust my map. Had you escaped, I would never see either of you again. Since you have decided to come through my door, I believe a certain level of trust has been established. Therefore, I will be frank – I want your help.”

 

“I cannot bring your brother back from the dead,” Wen RuoHan said plainly, “You should ask Wei WuXian for that.”

 

“But you can help me rebuild the Nie Sect,” Nie HuaiSang’s eyes suddenly turned serious, “For reasons, I was forced to run this Sect into the ground. From today, I vow to bring this Sect to its former glory and pass leadership onto a worthy candidate. The age of forcing roles onto children who have no say in their birth will be over after this generation, I believe my brother would much rather this Sect be in strong hands then Nie hands. However, I lack my own cultivation to build a following due to my weak composition, and I also lack strategists and firepower.”

 

“You want Teacher to act as a consultant, and me as a mercenary?”

 

“Mainly to hunt down vicious ghosts and monsters out of our control,” Nie HuaiSang nodded, “To keep the peace in our mountains so I do not lose men, I will pay you for your services. Teacher Lan, I have much to learn from you still. I promise to be a better student than in my younger years.”

 

Wen RuoHan looked at Lan QiRen then back at Nie HuaiSang. Truly, there is nowhere he would rather be than back in a little cottage with his lover and hide forever, but Nie HuaiSang’s proposal could easily take advantage of their fugitive position. Lan QiRen’s eyes were so firmly glued to the deed to their future home, Wen RuoHan could not possibly decline.

 

“On my conditions,” he finally said.

 

“Go on.”

 

“The land remains under the Nie Sect name. We will accept payment into an independent account with an independent bank, with your handwritten receipts to my name.”

 

“Of course, and you will be called upon sparingly.”

 

Lan QiRen sighed but did not speak. Implicating Nie HuaiSang is perhaps unkind, but the last time Wen RuoHan trusted a sly man, he was quite literally stabbed in the back. People change, sometimes not for the better, and Wen RuoHan knew that better than anyone.

 

He knew Wen RuoHan’s chess pieces were  placed to blackmail protection from Nie HuaiSang, and as an insurance for both of them. By not taking ownership of the land and taking payment through a bank, Nie HuaiSang cannot falsify records to remove his involvement then threaten them to complete tasks against their will on pain of being exposed. If Wen RuoHan were ever to be discovered, Nie HuaiSang would be forced to protect him at all costs, given that Wen RuoHan would be living on Nie property with proof he was working for Nie HuaiSang. Even if Nie HuaiSang denies writing receipts, the flow of money through a bank would be incriminating enough.

 

‘I have spent my time wary of Lan QiRen, but have underestimated Wen RuoHan instead... his reputation had always been more brawn than brain, but he is almost as sly as Jin GuangYao. I suppose my plans to stamp out the rebellious smaller Sects must proceed with caution…’

 

Checkmated, Nie HuaiSang could only nod and smile wryly as the pair walked away, hand in hand.

 

‘Brother, your teachers are formidable…. Never mind, may you be happy together.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zhao County, Han Village

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan’s leisurely stroll broke into a jog as he held Lan QiRen’s hand tightly across the border of Han Village. Neither man spoke much during their trip from the Unclean Realm, there was too much on their minds and not enough words to convey it. Nie HuaiSang’s words were chilling but accurate, rolling like needles amongst the happiness of finally being free. Would they finally be free? How long would this freedom last? Before attaining the man of their dreams, neither Lan QiRen nor Wen RuoHan had given much thought to the possibilities – why would they? It had seemed so futile when they once had nothing to lose. It is true that happiness turned men into cowards, as the thought of losing each other again became terrifying to imagine.

 

Conflicting thoughts battled in Wen RuoHan’s mind until the sign to a barbershop crossed into his peripheral vision. He stopped in his tracks and looked hard at Lan QiRen’s dishevelled figure.

 

Lan QiRen’s hair was chopped roughly on one side above his shoulders, yet full length on the other. The bleeding of his neck had stopped, the bandage around his neck was dry with a cracked brown patch instead of red. And even though their clothes were new thanks to Nie HuaiSang, the beard Lan QiRen sported annoyed Wen RuoHan more than words could describe. Wen RuoHan could not help but chuckle at himself for worrying about his future when the present was in such dire straits – the beard needed to go.

 

“Teacher,” he turned to Lan QiRen and grasped the man by his shoulders, “Do you love me?”

 

“We are in public!” Lan QiRen was mortified as passer-by began to cast curious glances.

 

“Do you love me?”

 

“Yes, just let go!” Lan QiRen turned pink as he struggled against iron grip, “I said yes!”

 

“So please agree to the next thing I say.”

 

“Have I not been blackmailed enough today?!”

 

“Teacher must agree first.”

 

“Oh what the hell, out with it!”

 

“We need to lose the beard. Now.”

 

“Huh?”

 

Before Lan QiRen could make sense of Wen RuoHan’s demands, he was being led by his hand into the nearest shopfront. Wen RuoHan sat him down on the barber’s chair and roughly tied a bib around his neck before throwing money at the mystified man behind the counter, “Shave the beard and fix the hair!”

 

“What are you doing?!” Lan QiRen cried, “Leave my beard out of this!”

 

“You grew this horrific thing to spite me two decades ago and I want it gone!” Wen RuoHan shook his head, “I have been waiting over 20 years for this moment, my final victory is near!”

 

The barber polished his blade meekly in the corner as he mentally calculated Wen RuoHan’s age. The young man looked to be no older than 25, yet remembers events from 20 years ago... Was he manhandling his own father into shaving his beard off? He shuddered at the last time he was involved in family affairs to do with differences in hair opinion.

 

“I grew this to look older when I had to assume responsibility at home!” Lan QiRen sighed and his tone softened, “I did not know... I did not know you had taken a personal offense. I am... sorry. I would never do anything to make you dislike me.” He turned to the awkwardly dawdling barber, “It is fine, please assume your duties. Please fix my hair and shave the beard cleanly.”

 

Wen RuoHan blinked a few times before breaking out into a toothy grin. “Thank you, Teacher! I didn’t know it would be so easy to convince you!”

 

“You are being foolish,” Lan QiRen sighed again, “Do I seem like an unreasonable man to you? Next time you have a request, please approach me with manners and I will listen. If you run about all day making rash decisions that make my heart stop, you will kill me one day.”

 

“I hear you,” Wen RuoHan murmured sheepishly before leaning by Lan QiRen’s ear to steal a kiss in broad daylight, “I love you.”

 

 

“!!!!!” Lan QiRen scrambled to find a suitable polite expletive in a frenzy but only managed empty blubbering as Wen RuoHan darted out the door. “WHERE ARE YOU GOING NOW?!”

 

“The tailor’s shop!” Wen RuoHan yelled without looking back, “Make sure you come when you are handsome!”

 

“That little imp,” Lan QiRen huffed, “As if to say I am not already handsome?!”

 

The barber silently held up a bronze mirror to Lan QiRen’s face to let him survey the results of the Battle of the Storehouse.

 

“Alright...” Lan QiRen grimaced at his lopsided haircut, “Please continue.”

 

 

 

 

Tailor’s Shop

 

 

 

Liang Qi propped up his broken front door and wiped his sweat-drenched brow with his sleeve.

 

“Damn that Ling XuYin,” Gu YongSi kicked the hinge and huffed, “The builder will not be back from his home village for days, what are we going to do about this damn door he broke?”

 

“I JUST fixed it a little bit, stop kicking!” Liang Qi huffed.

 

“Oh, getting snarky with me?” Gu YongSi crossed his arms over his chest, “Who keeps telling me to help their sorry asses? You are so lucky that you are ahead in all your work for the Li family, otherwise the brides will kill you!” He rolled his eyes and wiped his husband’s brow with his own sleeve, “Are you hungry? I can make some egg rolls.”

 

“YongSi, if you didn’t have such a mean mouth, you would have more friends...” Liang Qi smiled, “I am sure that Mr Lan and his student appreciate your help.”

 

“Oh they better,” Gu YongSi shuddered at every inconvenience Lan QiRen and the two different men following him have caused, “And they better stay away for at least another 30 years-

 

“LIANG QI!!” Wen RuoHan waved from the other side of the street and shouted loud enough to scare chickens in the market, “I HAVE AN EMERGENCY ORDER!!”

 

Gu YongSi’s jaw dropped and he kicked the doorframe again before turning swiftly back into the back of the tailor’s shop, “Well, damn me to Hell I am going back to sleep, wake me up when this nightmare is over.”

 

“Hey, where did he go?” Wen RuoHan strode into the shop, “How is your door still broken?”

 

Liang Qi smiled wryly, “He went inside because he is afraid of a headache, the door is broken because you broke it and the builder is away to visit his wife’s family. Master Ling, you have only gone for a day, what brings you back?”

 

“Oh well, I have no use for him or the door... I am getting married, I need wedding robes before the day is over,” Wen RuoHan stuffed a heavy bag of silver in Liang Qi’s hands, “Go go go!”

 

“Master Ling, clothes don’t appear from thin air,” the tailor could feel a headache starting. He considered disappearing like his husband, but the young man would likely torch his shop. “It is impossible to finish wedding robes in this time due to the complex patterns and embroidery-

 

“Then alter an existing job!” Wen RuoHan paced around the shop, gathering pieces from Liang Qi’s work that vaguely resembled wedding robes, “I have been waiting too long for this day, I refuse to wait any longer! I will pay you double, or tenfold, measure me and make some wedding robes!” He dumped a pile of fabric into Liang Qi’s hands and stretched out his arms, waiting for measurements. “Actually, I do have use from your husband. Where is that lubricating ointment he used to make? I’ll take ten cannisters!”

 

“............” There was no use arguing with someone so thirsty, Liang Qi knew very well. He paused to consider how this young man knew of their ointment, but quickly shifted his focus to the unreasonable request thrust at him. “Master Ling, I can quickly alter a nearly finished robe, the Li family have a joint wedding for their twin sons in three months and I have been ahead for their pieces... but you must never tell anyone I altered their robes for you. It would be highly inauspicious-

 

“Hurry hurry! I’ll agree to whatever you say!” Wen RuoHan impatiently tapped his foot on the floor bricks, “I’ll treat you to dinner after this is over, just take the measurements!”

 

“Please give me reasonable timing for future jobs, and I will burn incense for you,” Liang Qi sighed and started to place rulers on his arm, “Are you that Wen fellow’s son? The last time he requested clothes, he also had more money than sense... “

 

 

One hour later, Liang Qi was sweating even more profusely than when he was trying to fix his door. Wen RuoHan leisurely sipped at tea as the tailor hurried to alter a bright red groom’s robe, giving motivational quips like the world’s most benevolent slave driver.

 

“This is near completion,” Liang Qi breathed a sigh of relief, “but Master Ling, the sun is close to setting and your fated one is nowhere to be seen, I need them to take measurements-

 

“Teacher!” Wen RuoHan jumped out of his chair and flew past Liang Qi to hug Lan QiRen, who had poked his head into the shop, “I am getting wedding robes made, you looks ten years younger without the beard!”

 

“W-wedding robes?” Lan QiRen blushed, “You are too hasty...”

 

Liang Qi rubbed his eyes and stared at the man in the doorway. The voice was certainly the same, but compared to the dishevelled and blood-soaked mess he had previously seen Lan QiRen in, there was no comparison. Without the long beard, Lan QiRen indeed seemed ten years younger. Instead of looking like Ling XuYin’s father, he could now comfortably pass for his brother. The cleanly shaven chin and short-hair let his sharp features shine, even his common cotton clothes could not hide his regal air (lessen significantly by the pink flush from ear to ear).

 

“A-As I just said,” Ling Qi cleared his throat, “Master Ling, where is your bride? I have to take measurements before the sun sets! Mr Lan, your new looks suits you greatly, please do some by should you need new clothes.”

 

“Bride?” Wen RuoHan pointed at Lan QiRen and ushered both men to the workstation Liang Qi cut fabric on, “He is right here. Get to work and measure him, Liang!”

 

Liang Qi’s forehead wrinkles seemed to double immediately. “Mater Ling, be reasonable!” he cried, “No bridal robe would fit Mr Lan apart from the veil! I can’t adjust clothing to be larger by four sizes, the fabric has been cut already!”

 

Lan QiRen grimaced at the thought of being squeezed into a bridal robe much too small for him, then having it ripped apart by a hungry Wen RuoHan.

 

“Liang Qi, are you blind?” Wen RuoHan rolled his eyes, “Teacher may have shaved his beard, but he is a man with the right parts! Why in the world would he need a woman’s robe or a veil? Just adjust the twin brother’s robe to his size and we will be out of here by nightfall. Move your hands, go go go!”

 

As he watched Liang Qi utter his apologies and get to work, Lan QiRen began to chuckle, then laugh wholeheartedly. Wen RuoHan’s eyes were immediately captivated by his lover’s rare expression and he started to chuckle himself, “Teacher, what is so funny?”

 

“Hahahahaha.... I- I- it is okay, nothing much,” Lan QiRen shook his head and continued to stifle back laughter.

 

He was really laughing at himself. Although the memories from the Nightless City were vague due to pain, Lan QiRen could still remember the heavy golden wedding garments Wen RuoHan had prepared – two robes, equal in design and embellishments, only differing in size, not a veil to be seen. Lan QiRen had questioned many things about Wen RuoHan – his morals, his goals, and even his sanity, but nobody could ever convince him that Wen RuoHan thought of him as a woman.

 

“As long as Teacher is happy, I am happy,” Wen RuoHan’s eyes twinkled as he smiled, “I have been waiting so long to see you like this, for this night...”

 

“Save your romance for the wedding,” Lan QiRen smiled back.

 

Liang Qi made a face to his back and lifted Lan QiRen’s arm to continue measurements. Unlike this stupidly happy couple, he planned to sleep tonight in peace.

 

‘Based on their lack of care for what the end products look like, it seems like my work will just be torn off after minimal wear.... Heavens, why do I even bother? The bare minimum will do... Wait, I must remember to give them some ointment before they leave, otherwise one of them will be limping for half a month.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Have you ever witnessed a six-foot tall man skipping down the street?

 

Lan QiRen helplessly watched as Wen RuoHan paraded through Han Village (neatly wrapped bag of wedding robes in hand) with such bounce in his step that Lan QiRen trailed behind, desperately trying to remain anonymous. He hid his face behind his sleeves (even though the likelihood of anyone recognising him after a clean shave was close to nil) and thanked the heavens he firmly denied Wen RuoHan’s multiple pleas to wear their new clothes home. At this rate, the villagers would report Wen RuoHan to the local ‘special hospital’ for investigation – and woe to anyone getting Wen RuoHan’s way today.

 

“Teacher!” Wen RuoHan waved from the vegetable stall, “Let us buy some food for tomorrow on the way home!”

 

The vegetable seller eyed Wen RuoHan up and down, trying to ascertain whether the young man was deranged or pathologically happy. Wen RuoHan tossed a daikon radish in the air and caught it behind his back like a circus act while he waited for Lan QiRen to catch up, and the vegetable seller sighed – today would be the full moon, the crazy ones are out.

 

“Let us not get carried away,” Lan QiRen quickly picked up any vegetable he could lay his eyes on. He threw some carrots, cucumber and sweetcorn into a cloth bag the vegetable seller lay by his table and told the baffled man to keep his change. If Wen RuoHan was going to be known as the madman to their new neighbours, he may as well be the rich one. “We must make it home before you get another idea. Put that radish in the bag and stop tossing it!”

 

At least their new identities would be safe. Should any nosy cultivators come to investigate, no villager could ever begin to imagine that the man dancing with vegetables was once an apocalyptic murderer. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose…’ Lan QiRen forced himself to set down his worries for just tonight, ‘Perhaps I should also take a page out of Wei Ying’s book and be stupidly happy for once…’

 

 

 

The small cottage looked somehow more idyllic than Lan QiRen’s rose-tinted memory. Even as the setting sun disappeared behind the mountains, it was apparent that the once dusty path through the pear trees had been cobbled, broken fences mended and roof re-thatched. The interior of the cottage had been redecorated with new furniture, only the walls remained the same.

 

“That little Nie kid was planning this all along….” Wen RuoHan swiped a finger across the windowsill, “There is no signs of life in this place, but it’s spotless.” He lit every candle in the cottage with his spiritual energy and helped Lan QiRen unload their baggage onto the large wooden dining table.

 

“There is tea on the table, and the table has stains by the teapot” Lan QiRen cast is gaze on the untouched comforters on the bed and shiny new kitchen tools, “HuaiSang likely came here just to sit. I do not think either of us can fathom how dearly he misses his brother… perhaps he thought his spirit would linger here…”

 

At the mention of Nie MingJue, Lan QiRen’s voice trailed off to a whisper. Wen RuoHan loosened his own stiff shoulders and cupped Lan QiRen’s cheeks in his hands, meeting his forlorn gaze.

 

“No sadness today,” he touched their foreheads together, “We will visit him one day, but today is for our future. The past is past, we can’t turn back time.”

 

“I truly wish we could,” Lan QiRen closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling of Wen RuoHan’s shallow breathing, imaging their younger years, “I wish we had never left this place, and I had married you 35 years ago.”

 

“It is not too late,” Wen RuoHan chuckled, “We are back right where we started. Teacher, please dress yourself so I can undress you, I have been waiting since quite literally my past life for this night…”

 

“You are still so crass,” Lan QiRen laughed, “What is this nonsense of undressing? You are forgetting all ceremonies beforehand, like the wine.”

 

“Your laughter makes me forget everything, but even then I remember that you do not drink any wine, Teacher. In fact, from my memory you will turn into another person even by thinking you had a drink, so I dare not even buy desserts!”

 

“Are you mocking me?!” Lan QiRen grumbled, “I have survived many a drink!”

 

“Against the rules?” Wen RuoHan raised a eyebrow, “That is hard to believe… Who could have convinced the strict and unforgiving Lan QiRen to break the rules.”

 

“You jest, Wen RuoHan, look at yourself. Who do you think has led me to break almost every rule on the cliff, even the ones I wrote?!”

 

“But when did I even convince you to drink wine?” Wen RuoHan became genuinely confused, “I have never even offered you meat, let alone wine. I lost weight in my time with you…”

 

“…….” Could Lan QiRen really tell Wen RuoHan that he stumbled into a nameless inn outside of GuSu after rejecting Wen RuoHan in YiYang? The locally brewed alcohol tasted terrible, and Lan QiRen could not remember much between his first few cups and the next morning when he woke up on the stone steps of the local morgue with a stray cat in his lap and a chicken wing in his hair. After ordering himself to be caned until unconscious, no man in the Cloud Recesses dared ask why disappeared for a day and returned half-drunk – in fact, it was months before anyone wracked up the courage to ask Lan QiRen anything.

 

“………”

 

“Teacher?”

 

“…………………..” Lan QiRen would much rather hold to his last piece of dignity with his face pink. “Ask no more,” he cleared his throat, “You have caused enough trouble, Wen RuoHan. Do you promise to follow my word from this point? Be aware that no is not an answer if we are to survive together.”

 

“Blackmail!” Wen RuoHan gasped dramatically.

 

“I learned from the very best,” Lan QiRen rolled his eyes, “Do you promise?”

 

“I solemnly swear,” Wen RuoHan crossed his heart in mock seriousness, “So please put on your wedding robes, my dear husband!”

 

Liang Qi’s skills were not nearly as polished as Wen RuoHan’s army of talented seamstresses in the Nightless City, but the scarlet wedding robes on Lan QiRen were so beautiful his breathe caught in his throat. Every curve was defined yet left enough to tantalize the imagination. The satin fabric was slightly shimmery, reflecting a pink tinge onto Lan QiRen’s already rapidly reddening skin.

 

The pair looked at each other for moments in complete silence before Wen RuoHan placed his eager hands on Lan QiRen’s waist ties. “Such a slender waist.  I need to feed you… with myself.”

 

“Remember your promise,” Lan QiRen coughed to hide his embarrassment, “What did you just promise?”

 

“What is Teacher’s order?” Wen RuoHan’s eyes shone with mirth, “I shall cater to your every whim.” His hands snaked to the tassels holding Lan QiRen’s robes together, enjoying the feeling of Lan QiRen tensing and relaxing under his touch. He stopped to look at his lover when he felt him straighten his back. “Your request?”

 

Lan QiRen stared at Wen RuoHan’s smiling eyes as he uttered with no hesitation, “Head to the bed.”

 

“Of course…”

 

“Face the wall.”

 

“Alright-

 

“Lubricate yourself.”

 

“Wait-

 

“Bend over.”

 

 

“………………………………………..”

 

 

The atmosphere froze so quickly, even crickets stopped chirping. Wen RuoHan would doubt his hearing, but he could clearly hear even the blood rushing through his ears, and his own laboured breathing. What did dear Teacher just say? Surely this was a nightmare. Had he died and gone to Hell 35 years ago?

 

“Go on,” Lan QiRen gave Wen RuoHan’s buttock a light tap, not expecting the man to nearly jump out of his skin.

 

“T-Teacher, w-wait, wait-

 

“Your promise.” He inched closer, sending Wen RuoHan tumbling backwards onto the bed.

 

“B-but does it have to be today?” Wen RuoHan could feel his own wedding robes stick to his skin with sweat as he backed away, “W-we can t-talk about-

 

“We have done it only once, so it must be my turn,” Lan QiRen stated, creeping forwards as he closely drove his lover back first into the wall.

 

“B-but- I- I-

 

“I am older thank you now,” he leaned into the ashen-faced Wen RuoHan.

 

“I- I- don’t-

 

“Do you think you do not deserve some kind of punishment after all you put us through?” Lan QiRen landed his final kill.

 

“Y-you don’t- w-wait- I have more-

 

“More?” Lan QiRen towered over Wen RuoHan and loosened his own collar, “I will be as gentle as you were with me… then some more.”

 

 

 

‘This is why all the vegetables are cylindrical!’ Wen RuoHan’s rapidly spiralling paranoia was suddenly drawn to the pile of radish, cucumber, carrot and corn on the table across the cottage, ‘WHAT IS HAPPENING?! HAD HE PLANNED FOR THIS UNDER MY NOSE?! Oh Heavens, I forgot, he has always been satisfied by punishing people….’

 

Yet Wen RuoHan could not find a single reason to say no, given his current circumstance. Overpowering Lan QiRen and forcing the stubborn man into anything was a tried and true method to ensure ongoing misery (and most likely revenge). Wen RuoHan lamented at his position of being the middle fish in the food chain. He had temporarily won his battle again Nie HuaiSang, but who knew that he would be having his backside handed to him on his wedding night? Out of nowhere, the memory if him fitting a squid ring over the banana in Jin GuangShan’s ship assaulted his senses, and his bottom lip quivered.

 

‘Be a man, Wen RuoHan! You are NOT to ruin your second chance!’ He sat straight and braced himself with the resolve of a loving husband bidding farewell to his family for war.

 

“I- I…. fine. Please be gentle.”

 

 

Lan QiRen studied Wen RuoHan’s desperately brave face for moments before he his lips curled into a smile. The smile cracked into chuckles, then chuckle cracked into laughter.

 

“I did not expect you to be so forthcoming,” his eyes crinkled in mirth, “I was joking with you, silly! I thought I would take a page out of Wei Ying’s book and lighten the atmosphere with a joke, was I convincing?”

 

“………… come again?”

 

“A joke, a jest,” Lan QiRen looked confused, “For laughter.”

 

“Teacher, that is not a joke, that is a heart attack,” Wen RuoHan’s cold sweat dripped from his forehead as he crumpled into a heap on the bed, “I love you for who you are, please NEVER tell jokes again…”

 

“Am I lacking in skill? Is it not a lie that brings relief?”

 

“No, I think you Lans are collectively are lacking in talent….”

 

Jin GuangShan had often complained to Wen RuoHan regarding Lan QiRen’s lack of ‘fun and humour’, but Wen RuoHan’s most poignant memories of Lan QiRen laughing were mostly due to his direct pain. ‘Humourless’ suddenly seemed like a great positive feature.

 

“I believe a small scare is good for you every once in a while,” Lan QiRen patted Wen RuoHan’s shoulder, “This student has become a little haughty to his Teacher.”

 

“But from this day onwards, Lan QiRen will be my husband. Lawful or not, I care nothing but for your devotion to me. Lan QiRen, I hand the remainder of my time in this world to you… will you do the same?”

 

“Until the next life, then every life after.”

 

“I have yet to find time to tell you how breath-taking you are in red…” Wen RuoHan reached forward and brought Lan QiRen toppling on top of his chest, “How many nights have I dreamed of this sequence, never have I thought this is how it comes to be.”

 

“You have said it all, what do you leave me to say?” Lan QiRen closed his eyes to the racing of their hearts in unison. Finally, nothing else mattered.

 

“Just let yourself be mine, and don’t say anything.” As their lips pressed together, the world around the cottage disappeared into sparks and fireworks.

 

 

 

Wen RuoHan gently slid his nimble fingers underneath Lan QiRen’s waist sash and reached between them to untie the simple knot. He wasted no time peeling off every layer of the red robes he so yearned to see, the view was much better underneath. Lan QiRen’s pale skin glistened with a thin layer of sweat, shimmered under the flickering candlelight. The faint rise and fall of his chest and dusty pink buds invited Wen RuoHan closer, close enough to taste.

 

“Y- you a-animal- ah!”

 

“I was sweating because of stress,” Wen RuoHan mercilessly swirled a nipple with his tongue and gave the other a tug with his finger, “What were you sweating for?”

 

“!! Ah-st-aahh-

 

“I know the answer,” Wen RuoHan snaked his free hand from Lan QiRen’s tone back to his front, “This here has been waiting since the Unclean Realm…”

 

Unable to hold back his voice or his body, Lan QiRen pushed his hips into Wen RuoHan’s touch. Sticky, clear fluid seeped between Wen RuoHan’s fingers from the tip of Lan QiRen’s cock, squishy sounds escaped with every thrust.

 

“You really enjoy it here…” Wen RuoHan ran his thumb along the slit of his husband’s weeping erection, “Did you think of me when you did this alone? I did… so many times….”

 

“You- AH! You are so full- of- AH! Of yourself….” Lan QiRen gasped between moans, “Who- would- hhnng… who would do-

 

“Oh?” Wen RuoHan continued to attack all of Lan QiRen’s weak points, “Teacher is learning to be deceptive… what was the punishment for that?” As Lan QiRen’s cock pulsated at the root, Wen RuoHan swiftly removed his hand to stop him from coming too quickly. “I will make you come with me inside you.”

 

Lan QiRen covered his own eyes with the back of his hand as Wen RuoHan lay him on his back and spread his legs. The level of urgency Wen RuoHan felt was reflected in his rushed fumbling for the cannisters of lubricating ointment he bought from the tailor. Lan QiRen feared that he may attempt to force his way in immediately, but Wen RuoHan’s last shred of patience won through. As his gentle caress of Lan QiRen’s entrance continued with shaking fingers, Lan QiRen let out a sigh of relief and allowed one finger inside himself.

 

The heat of Wen RuoHan’s touch could not begin to compare to his own. As Wen RuoHan reached deeper and curled his finger upwards to his belly, the sudden jolt of pleasure that spread from his prostate forced Lan QiRen to arch his back and scream.

 

“AAAh- nhgg!! Wai- too much- Wen- AAAAH!”

 

Wen RuoHan’s patience was always famously short. Every intrusion hit its intended target as he dragged the pads of his finger across Lan QiRen’s most sensitive, intimate place time and time again. Every few thrusts of his fingers, Wen RuoHan would sneak in another. As Lan QiRen’s moans grew louder and louder and he reached three fingers, Wen RuoHan’s patience ran dry.

 

Wen RuoHan used his left hands to quickly spread more ointment onto his own throbbing erection and gave it a few experimental tugs to calm the feeling of wanting to release immediately. The thought of entering Lan QiRen’s body again sent shivers up his spine, and he held a shaky breath before positioning himself at Lan QiRen’s quivery entrance.

 

“Ahh-!!” they cried together as their bodies connected, Wen RuoHan only halfway in before his thighs shook in overloaded pleasure and he had to stop. However, the slightly upward curvature of Wen RuoHan’s (new) cock grazed Lan QiRen’s prostate exactly where he stopped. The pressured, pleasured feeling drove Lan QiRen’s senses to a frenzy and he begun to twist and turn his lower half to generate more friction.

 

“T-Teacher, wait,” Wen RuoHan said with difficulty, “I-If you keep doing that, I-I won’t be able to- ah- control myself… I might- might hurt you- ah!”

 

“Mo-move…” Lan QiRen gasped, “Move….”

 

“D-Did you do this yourself?” Wen RuoHan inched himself further into Lan QiRen’s hot, moist cavern and relished the latter’s satisfied moans.

 

“Not… the… same- AAH- nhgg….” Lan QiRen covered his eyes to hide his embarrassment as he confessed, “F-fingers not- not the same…”

 

Wen RuoHan’s final shred of sanity left his body as he slammed as deep as he could, and then some. Lan QiRen’s back arched into the piercing mix of pleasure and pain as they both writhed in ecstasy, neither able to speak anymore. Both men drowned in their senses and in each other, unable to tell exactly how long their bodies connected before white hot seed spread over their stomachs.

 

Lan QiRen’s memory lasted until his third orgasm, then faded to a jumble of screams and moans as he craved more and more. He paid little attention to comparing the Wen RuoHan a lifetime ago to the man he has become now, as physically the two have little in common but the burning, desperate pleasure was just as intense as his dreams.

 

But tonight, there would be no more dreams for either man, for their wildest fantasies had both come true.

 

 

 

When Lan QiRen awoke, his new husband was nowhere to be found. Instead, the wafting aroma of Wen RuoHan’s familiar cooking ad rustling in the kitchen made Lan QiRen cover his head in the blankets and pinch himself.

 

Wen RuoHan poked his head around the corner just in time to see his husband’s first morning reaction to their new life together. He laughed and clanged his cooking ladle to a plate like a gong.

 

“Good morning my husband,” he said melodically, “Lateness to breakfast is punishable by immediate re-consummation of marriage~”

 

“You are an insatiable monster!” Lan QiRen cried from under the covers.

 

“I learned from the very best joker,” Wen RuoHan poked his tongue out and laughed again, “I always have my revenge.”

 

 

 

 

 

Some things never change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main story END

 

 

Flashback Extra pending