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the autumn leaf (falls not far from the tree)

Chapter Text

Of course, the moment he is summoned back into the realm of the living again, Wei Wuxian ends up stuck in a manor with a bunch of baby Lans, rogue fierce corpses and a demonic cultivation curse. 

 

Typical. So he makes a run for it.

 

Or rather, Wei Wuxian had been going to run. 

 

He was suppose d to run. 

 

He should be running. 

 

Oh the irony, the Yiling Patriarch, back in the realm of the living again and on his first day he is running from battle. Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian, what happened to the once fearless demonic cultivator who had laughed in the face of the Great Cultivation Clans? Oh right...he ended up losing everyone that had ever mattered to him in the end; and died alone on Yiling’s broken hills.

 

Maybe it is best not to stir up the past again. 

 

There is a fatal curse placed on Mo Manor and it would soon sap the life from all of its inhabitants soon. By the darkness of the outer gardens, Wei Wuxian stops beneath one of the flickering candlelight of one of the last few lanterns still alit and pulls his sleeve up to reveal the single last cut running down the length of his forearm. When all of Mo Manor turned to dust, the contract of the body summoning would be fulfilled. It would be difficult for the group of junior Lan disciples to control so many rogue fierce corpses of this level, but they had sent the Lan flares up and help would come soon.

 

Wei Wuxian yanks his sleeve back down and picks up his footsteps. If that person came ...if that person came, it would be troublesome indeed.

 

There is only one problem that dawns on him when he reaches the outer manor walls - he doesn’t have enough spiritual cultivation to flip over the walls, and the exits are sealed. Wei Wuxian sighs and falls back down to the ground in defeat after his third failed attempt at scaling the tall manor walls.

 

"First day back and living is too hard," He grumbles into his knees.

 

For a qianyuan, and a cultivator at that, this Mo Xuanyu was really too weak!

 

So he ends up sneaking back into the courtyard, watching the battle, hoping and praying that of all possible Lan Clan members, it would not be him. 

 

“I can’t be so cursed that the world doesn’t even let me rest in peace. I died fair and square sixteen years ago,’ Wei Wuxian mutters furiously under his breath as he clambers over the low bannister clumsily to continue his facade of a crazy Mo Xuanyu. Landing heavily on the stone corridor, he scuttles behind one of the pillars to poke his head out to observe the ongoing battle in the courtyard. 

 

The disciples are young, perhaps just past their fifteenth birthday, the age where they would be trusted with easy night hunts in groups on their own. The three of them back into each other, supporting their moves around the array seamlessly.

 

One of the small Lan disciples sends a fierce corpse flying back into the stone statue and it explodes across the garden - Wei Wuxian just manages to duck in time, out of the way of a spatter of stone fragments. Mo Xuanyu ah, Mo Xuanyu ...what a mess the previous owner of this body had summoned him into. And when he returns to the afterlife again, Wei Wuxian thinks, he’s going to have words with the spirit ranking officials, because surely he doesn’t count as a vengeful evil spirit!

 

A loud roar suddenly rings in his ears, and Wei Wuxian looks up in alarm only to see one of the fierce corpses staring down at him, its rotting mouth pulled back in a guttural snarl. His hands instantly fly to his side, but there is no spirit blade there, and when he calls his spirit core to himself, the golden core of this body is barely strong enough to cast a shielding spell. What sort of cultivator-

 

“Young Master Mo!” One of the Lan disciples call out in alarm and sends his spirit sword flying in the direction of the corpse, pinning it against the wall. The entire pillar shudders with the impact of the sword, and Wei Wuxian groans and cowers, cursing the weakness of this body yet again.

 

Drawn back by the sword, the corpse roars and leaps back into the array where the corpses are clashing with the cultivators. The Lan disciples are young, but they are already skilled in Lan style swordplay and their cultivation skills are not bad to boot. Wei Wuxian settles against the wall as he watches the disciple who had protected him from the corpse. He is fending off one of the fierce corpses with an excellent show of swordsmanship.

 

There’s something about him that is oddly familiar, in the seriousness of his gaze and refined cultivation casting...He is clearly the eldest of the three Lan disciples, although he edges closer to one of them over the other. The other appears to be the youngest, his swordsmanship and cultivation not as strong and experienced as his seniors. But the look in his eyes is determined, the curve of his side profile elegant with sharp tidy features and distinct Lan bearings. As he turns, his head ribbon catches the sunlight and there is the embroidered pattern of Lan descent - a Lan Clan disciple, part of the main family. He is young, but the gold brown of his bright eyes makes his lineage clear. And no wonder he looks so familiar - it's like looking at a mini Lan Wangji, albeit...albeit about a hundred times more expressive, Wei Wuxian thinks as he watches the baby Lan Clan disciple attempt to give the loudest battle cry he's ever heard from any Lan ever as he charges towards one of the corpses.

 

He certainly did not get that from the Second Jade of Gusu Lan.

 

For a moment, it looks almost as if the suppressing array worked, testament to the cultivation talent of Gusu Lan that such young cultivators could perform such a powerful array. And then Madam Mo gets back onto her feet from where she had fainted, except there is something off about her gaze now, hollow, dark and vacant...and when she pulls her lips back, her teeth flash in a vicious, forbidding snarl. The wind howling through the courtyard picks up further, lashing wildly with heavy threads of resentment and despair. The clouds have covered the moon, and the last lantern flickers out, plunging the courtyard into complete darkness.

 

Wei Wuxian tenses from behind the pillar. 

 

This...This is going to be a problem.

 

His gaze immediately snaps back to the Lan disciples in concern, and before he knows it, his hand begins to glow a dark red. It’s too risky to use demonic cultivation, but if no one from the Lan clan showed up soon, these few disciples would be done for. They’re already worn down from battling the rest of the corpses, and the fatigue is beginning to show in their missteps and faltering arrays. If help didn’t come soon, if he didn’t do anything to help-

 

The youngest Lan disciple stumbles in battle and goes crashing on his knees in the midst of the courtyard, and eldest one cries out in concern and runs over. But the corpses have noticed too, snarling ferociously in triumph and preparing to leap for their throats- 

 

A panic unlike any other crashes through him, tears his breath out of his chest. Like thunder in his ears, so fast his heart is suddenly racing. 

 

His vision goes red.

 

No, no, not-  

 

Without thinking, he reaches out to pull the young Lan disciples back and the demonic energy pours out of him in full ferocity, a blast of raw, unfettered resentful power stronger than anything he’d ever called upon in an emergency before, even in his old body. The dark crimson wave shatters the courtyard, and all the corpses in their midst.

 

And then the familiar sound of a guqin resonates through the courtyard, suspending all in-between pure white spiritual energy. 

 

Wei Wuxian closes his eyes.

 

Ah... so it is him after all. After that little show, there would be no way that HanGuang Jun, who hates demonic cultivation above all, would let him go now.

 

The young Lan disciple slips out from his grip, falls onto the floor but his expression is shaken and confused. For some reason, Wei Wuxian does not move an inch from his side, his and this body’s protective qianyuan instincts still raging at the back of his mind.

 

“HanGuang Jun!” The other Lan disciples chorus in relief, except the Lan disciple who remains on his knees next to Wei Wuxian, shocked.

 

Wei Wuxian finally gets out of the way when Lan Wangji walks over to the both of them - he's done plenty of foolish things before but he knows at least not to get in the way of a kunze and their children.

 

“Chenping, ” Lan Wangji calls out as he gathers the disciple - Lan Chenping - to his feet, slowly, but with more urgency that Wei Wuxian had ever seen from the perfect countenance of the Jade before. He doesn’t miss the quick one over of concern that Lan Wangji gives the young disciple as he brushes the dust and soot from his robes. Standing together like this, the family resemblance is undeniable, though it would not account for the strange unruly curl sticking out of the young disciple’s hair. On his end, Lan Chenping actually shamelessly pouts before flinging his arms around Lan Wangji who lets his son be without even blinking.

 

Then the Jade looks around quickly and reaches out for the eldest Lan disciple, drawing him in as well. 

 

Sizhui .”

 

“I am fine, HanGuang-" Lan Sizhui says as he steps out from Lan Wangji's arms, then at the slightest dip of his brows, hastily adds on in a softer voice, " F-father." 

 

Father too huh...

 

Oho , Wei Wuxian finds himself staring at the log of them, father and sons and that one extra Lan, with renewed interest now. That explains it - well, what had that passing villager said? It has been more than sixteen years now. So Lan Wangji had found a worthy mate in the end, of course he had...He nods approvingly on the inside. Whoever his mate was, they must be quite the individual to be worthy of HanGuang Jun, and have such fine sons too. 

 

There is a sour twinge in his chest for some reason and he tightens his folded arms across it, pinching his side for good measure. He should be happy that Lan Wangji has found such an excellent mate in the end. Hadn't he always said that the other needed to lighten up a bit, to smile more, otherwise who'd want to mate someone who always had a wooden block expression on their face!

 

“And…”

 

“That is Young Master Mo Xuanyu,” Lan Sizhui supplies in return.

 

“Young Master Mo,” Lan Wangji nods politely, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t miss how his light golden brown eyes are examining him closely despite his placid expression. He shifts on his feet, trying to think of any possible explanation for that outburst of resentful energy.

 

To his surprise, Lan Wangji just bows his head gracefully in response. 

 

“Thank you for saving our Lan disciples.”

 

“Oh…" Wei Wuxian snaps his mouth shut and shrugs nervously. "Ha ha ha, that? That...that was only to be expected, I mean, don't get me wrong I was just protecting myself too!"

 

“You are very powerful in demonic cultivation,” Lan Wangji says mildly, and Wei Wuxian still can’t read anything in his expression at all. 

 

This part of Lan Wangji has certainly not changed one bit.

 

"An accident, an accident, that's all, you know, crazy little me, who knows what I can do and danger, had to help, all that…" He waves the topic away, stepping slowly back with each word, ready to bolt. It's not like he is lying - qianyuan instincts had always been to protect the young and those in danger, that's all it had been...

 

There is something starting to ache in his chest - really, what other problems did this body have?

 

“If HanGuang Jun has no further questions, this one shall be taking his leave. Goodbye!"

 

He rushes off to the entrance before anyone can say anything, throws himself atop Lil Apple and kicks the donkey into a braying run.

 

For some reason, the ache in his chest grows heavier still, like he's doing something wrong, like he's left something behind.

 

Something important behind.

Chapter Text

The dry leaves crackle beneath his boots. The night air is damp and cold in his lungs, but Wei Wuxian takes in the dark forest and thinks - he is alive.

 

Alive, even if his wrists are currently bound together and he is being dragged halfway across the realm behind a traitorous surly donkey. So much for their apple alliance, Lil' Apple, stupid miserly beast. 

 

A misunderstanding, damn it! 

 

“You...You can’t take me, Sect Leader Jiang! Because...because….” Wei Wuxian stares at Jiang Cheng, and then at Lan Wangji, before deciding that surviving Gusu’s thousands of rules was preferable to a thousand of Zidian’s lashes. Besides, there was no way that stick in the mud Lan Wangji would stand him for more than a day; he’ll probably can’t wait to get rid of him!

 

“Because I’ve fallen in love at first sight with HanGuang Jun and I now know the folly of my previous ways! And I want to go back to Gusu with him!”

 

“What-”

 

“You-”

 

“Why you-”

 

He curls himself up shamelessly over the ends of Lan Wangji’s pristine white robes, thanking the heavens and the earth that whoever Lan Wangji’s bondmate was, he wasn’t here - if not Wei Wuxian would be dead on the first day he came back to the living already. (He knows Lan Wangji, the Jade is definitely too proper to off him like this). But here, so close to Lan Wangji, he catches fleeting snatches of his scent - a deep, soothing sandalwood and pure light jasmine. It's such a pleasant scent that he can't help but linger a little - when had Lan Zhan started to smell so nice?

 

Then Lan Wangji speaks up.

 

 “Good,” He says, and Wei Wuxian suddenly finds himself hauled up and thrown over one shoulder easily, limbs dangling in the air.

 

"I will take this person back to the Cloud Recesses."

 

...Look, how was he to know that the esteemed HanGuang Jun would actually agree to bring him to Gusu when he so shamelessly threw himself in front of him, fawning over his pristine robes like a crazed scoundrel. Truly a case of a toad lusting over a swan's flesh. He was supposed to have been disgusted, furious even with this rude qianyuan who would dare accost a bonded kunze . Wei Wuxian had even pulled on Lan Wangji's dark blue bond ribbon for good measure, despite the look of utter horror that had passed through all the faces of the junior Lan disciples.

 

His bond ribbon.

 

That reminds Wei Wuxian - he has to break free before they reach Gusu or else who knows what Lan Wangji's mate would do to him. Probably string him up by his guts and then throw him down the mountain side for daring to even breath in the vicinity of his kunze . You know, if the rest of Gusu Lan hasn't already run him over for being so unforgivably rude in the face of the Second Jade of Lan.

 

"Your thoughts are busy," Lan Wangji says quietly as he stops the donkey, untying the rope from the saddle. Wei Wuxian pulls a face as he rubs his sore wrists, shooting him as sour a look of betrayal as he can help it. His heart is smarting like the marks on his wrists with the turn of events.

 

“My wrists are sore from being dragged all the way behind that donkey! HanGuang Jun...is this how you treat your admirers?”

 

Lan Wangji doesn't reply beyond a flat, unreadable stare. Wei Wuxian sticks out a tongue at his back when he turns back to the donkey, before wandering over to a large tree root and sitting down.

 

He studies his old rival, the man he once crossed paths and swords with. Years later, Lan Wangji is as beautiful as ever. He wears his hair down now, loose over his neck and tucked neatly beneath the dark blue head ribbon that the bonded kunze of Lan do. But there is no cloud embroidery pattern woven onto it to mirror his bondmate’s. Rather, it is just a plain band, made of linen.

 

Strange, Wei Wuxian thinks, but he only thinks that for a moment as the clouds overhead clear and a stream of moonlight, like fine silver descends over Lan Wangji’s frame in the middle of the camp. Refinement fills his every simple move, and his gaze is clear and unclouded as the moonlight illuminating his features. His fair skin shines, pure as white jade, a stark contrast against the dark silk of his hair. The passing years had only served to sculpt his high, aristocratic features even finer, accentuate the broad build of his shoulders over which the white robes of Gusu Lan billowed.

 

Even when he had been a youth studying at Gusu, the twin Jade kunze of the Lan clan were already renown far and wide for their quality of skill, character and temperament. And though the other Clans did not come forth with marriage proposals - no, that would be too forward - they sent the finest of their qianyuan disciples to the Cloud Recesses to train. 

 

And everyday in class Wei Wuxian remembers the qianyuan’s neverending attempt to one up each other in front of their kunze classmates, till Elder Qiren punished them all to stand under an icy waterfall for an entire afternoon to cool their heads. Still, it made class fun and Wei Wuxian could drink any of them under the table, even if he had only been a zhongyong back then.

 

 (It would take the cliffs of Yiling to show him otherwise; the red of resentment was the same as the red of qianyuan fury and from henceforth, Wei Wuxian was both.)

 

On the quieter moments later on in Yiling, he had once let his thoughts wonder as any qianyuan does. Of mate, and of family. 

 

Once, he had wondered, if the fates would be so kind to deem him worthy of a mate, he hoped his mate would be just a little bit like Lan Wangji - fair, just and kind. But people like Lan Wangji had always been meant for greater things and nobler souls  - Wei Wuxian is not one of them; certainly not as the Yiling Patriarch. Certainly not as this lunatic cutsleeve who'd longed for another qianyuan's touch-

 

Well, that doesn’t mean he can’t admire how good looking the other is though-

 

A small vial suddenly lands in his lap, breaking him from his thoughts. Wei Wuxian nearly falls over scrambling to catch it. Looking up, he sees Lan Wangji looking at him with his steady gaze. 

 

“Ointment,” Lan Wangji says simply, in explanation.

 

“I just knew HanGuang Jun is the best,” He flashes the other the brightest grin he can muster - that’s how...lunatics act, right, right?? - but Lan Wangji just blinks at him in silence, before quickly ignoring him by turning back to the bags he is unpacking.

 

He inwardly breathes a  sigh of relief - thank goodness a silly smile is all that is needed to get Lan Wangji to ignore him.

 

Now free from that worry, his mind turns to other matters.

 

Sixteen years had passed. 

 

Wei Wuxian leans back against the tree trunk and massages the herbal salve into the marks on his wrist. His wandering gaze lands on the three young Lan disciples talking to each other, a little to the side from Lan Wangji and him, where they are trying to get a campfire going.

 

The eldest, Lan Sizhui. His younger brother, Lan Chenping. Their cousin, Lan Jingyi.

 

Such refined names, as expected of Gusu Lan... as expected of Lan Wangji.

 

But something wasn’t adding up. 

 

Sizhui, the elder of the two, could not be more than thirteen, or fourteen - unless Wei Wuxian had been more out of the loop than he thought all those years ago. But surely someone would have told him if Lan Wangji was getting bonded? Even if he was the last guest Gusu Lan would ever want at a grand wedding for one of their Jades.  But… Wei Wuxian frowns as he examines Lan Sizhui more closely from the distance.

 

Though the Lan Clan was famed for their youthful looks and beauty, he could not be that young. In appearance, Sizhui looked closer to coming of age and his twentieth birthday. Besides, when he had passed him earlier, despite the suppressing of his thick birch and fresh plum scent, he was sure that the other had already presented as a qianyuan. There was something about his scent too that was nagging at the back of his mind, like he should be able to find a place for it somewhere, somewhere in the mess of his memories...

 

Earlier in Mo Manor, Sizhui and Chenping had both called Lan Wangji 'father', although in very different ways. Wei Wuxian wondered what would make Sizhui hesitate so when Chenping was clearly more comfortable with his father.

 

And there was another thing - Sizhui's resemblance was more distant than his younger brother, Chenping who far more resembled the young Lan Zhan of Wei Wuxian's memories, with a soft, elegant scent like fresh snow and pure jasmine to match.

 

Sizhui could always have taken after his qianyuan sire, Wei Wuxian thinks. Maybe Lan Wangji had found someone a long time ago then, thought that the other was clearly too precious to share the news with someone the likes of Wei Wuxian.

 

Sixteen years.

 

Jin Ling was all grown up now; and even Lan Wangji had two children of his own.

 

A-Yuan…

 

Wei Wuxian forces the lump in his throat down, and grips his crossed arms tighter.

 

That child would never grow older.

 

He would never see that child again.

 

He had just been turning four when Wei Wuxian last saw him. Only four years old, and A-Yuan had meant the world to him. Every one of his little smiles and the way his eyes lit up when he saw him; when he would come racing over the dirt paths and happily call out for him.

 

The memories are like mist in his mind; just out of reach, and he can't even begin to conjure up A-Yuan's face anymore. Biting down on his lip, he forces back the stinging in his eyes. The past is the past. Regrets then were best left to the passing of time.

 

Meeting Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng was the only reason why he was thinking about what happened back then. 

 

He looks back over at his old rival, mated now with a family of his own, with new disciples that he is leading and teaching. The respect that they had called him as HanGuang Jun already tells Wei Wuxian all that he needs to know - that the righteous, upright gentleman he had fought with as a youth, that he had always secretly admired since young, had continued to be exceptional. 

 

Lan Wangji doesn't need this now, to have Wei Wuxian back like this, stirring up the past again needlessly.

 

He must leave.

 

Like this, it’s best for everyone.

 

He forces himself to his feet despite the ache starting up again in his chest. Really, did Mo Xuanyu have a heart condition? Perhaps that would explain the low level of cultivation the other had managed to muster over the years.

 

“HanGuang Jun…" Wei Wuxian says coyly as he slides right up by Lan Wangji's side, too close for propriety. "I don’t mean to say this, but won’t your mate be...upset if he sees you bringing another qianyuan back?”

 

He daringly reaches out to capture the edge of his sleeve, tracing a finger down the edge of the white Gusu robes. Somehow this Lan Wangji still does not move away. Frowning a little at the lack of reaction, Wei Wuxian just plasters on a too bright grin on his face and stares up at the other's light brown eyes, batting his lashes.

 

"Travelling in such close proximity to another qianyuan ," He murmurs lowly, "It is easy to misunderstand…"

 

He drops his voice even further. “Han.”

 

Takes another step closer. “Guang.”

 

They’re so closed their sides are pressed together. “Jun-"

 

Wei Wuxian ends up with a faceful of fine white Gusu silk as Lan Wangji flicks his sleeve over him, sending him tripping over his feet and careening backwards with arms windmilling. He just barely manages to catch a passing branch to break his fall.

 

Behind him, he can actually hear the stunned silence (Sizhui) and a chorus of completely outraged noises (Chenping and Jingyi) over the crackle of a fire.

 

“He will not,” Lan Wangji remarks coolly, and turns back to adjusting the saddlebags on Lil' Apple.

 

No way, Wei Wuxian curses on the inside and resists the urge to curl up on his knees in defeat. Of course, Lan Wangji’s mate would be another ridiculously upstanding and understanding individual. Of course.

 

He’s doomed. 

 

“As expected, I should have known only such an exceptional person would be worthy of being HanGuang Jun’s mate,” He quickly rattles on, trying to hide the gloomy defeat from his voice.

 

He’s never getting away from Lan Wangji now.

 

To his surprise, Lan Wangji stills at his words and the edges of his lips actually turn up a little. 

 

“He is.”

Chapter Text

 

When Wei Wuxian does not present at the age of sixteen, Jiang Fengmian sends for the renowned physicians of Lotus Pier. They take his pulse and frown over his constitution as he sits there and struggles not to squirm, before bowing to Sect Leader Jiang and saying that it must be the lack of food from his childhood days that is causing the delay in his presentation. 

 

It is not uncommon also, the last physician notes, for zhongyong to present late. Yes, Cangse Sanren had been an qianyuan , but Wei Changze had been a servant, a zhongyong , had he not? 

 

On his part, Wei Wuxian is mostly relieved. A zhongyong is suitable for his place in life, a zhongyong means he can stay by Jiang Cheng's side as brothers in arms.

 

He remembers when Jiang Cheng hit his presentation, keeling over one day while they were practicing by the great lake. He had been complaining of late that it was too hot, although the season had just swung to the summer and everyone was finding any opportunity they had to strip of their clothing and escape to the cooling respite of the lakes.

 

He had been sparring with Jiang Cheng that day, their usual evenly matched flow of Lotus stances and attacks. All of a sudden, the other had struck out wildly with his stave, slashing forward with a furious yell and a red tinge to his eyes that had Wei Wuxian dropping his own weapon in alarm. Then Jiang Cheng had fallen to the ground. All the disciples had promptly frozen in their positions, exchanging worried looks before quickly carting the sect heir back to the main hall.

 

Madam Yu had frowned and whisked her son away. When he looked to Yanli in concern, she had just smiled back and told him it would all be alright.

 

Wei Wuxian had been given strict instructions to not go near Jiang Cheng’s quarters for the rest of the week - so clearly, he breaks in anyway. Even from outside, the room’s scent was so thick it was almost oppressive but he could hear Jiang Cheng’s annoyed voice at the servants, so he was probably mostly fine. It is only when he is stalking out through the garden bushes that he spies Madam Yu passing a coin pouch to a pretty young kunze dressed in the fancy silks and golden chains of the flower houses at the back door.

 

When Jiang Cheng finally meets him again, looking tired and still painfully embarrassed, he stays an arm’s length away from Wei Wuxian. Even from this distance and still unpresented, Wei Wuxian can pick up the difference in Jiang Cheng’s scent - it is thicker, richer now, with an earthy undertone to his lotus scent.

 

“I’m...I’m a qianyuan now,” Jiang Cheng says, looking at the floor between them. “This isn’t going to change anything-”

 

“You mostly sounded like a stray cat wailing in heat anyway,” He grins and Jiang Cheng punches him square in the jaw. Then they’re both laughing, Wei Wuxian still clutching onto his aching jaw, and it’s like nothing ever changed between the both of them again.

 


 

He’s heard about the twin kunze of Gusu Lan - everyone has. The Twin Jades, they are called. The female disciples give deep sighs and dreamy eyes when they talk about them, as do the qianyuans who shove each other and claim they’re going to impress one of the famed Jades.

 

Wei Wuxian secretly thinks it is all sorts of silly. 

 

They say that the Twin Jades are as refined and beautiful as the purest white Jade from the southern mountains, that their countenance is as fair and bright as fine silver, as the full moon cast over a still lake. They are young, but their skill in swordplay and the gentlemanly arts is unparalleled amongst their generation. They are young, but their knowledge of the cultivation arts is foremost amongst the realm. They are young, but far more accomplished than many others of their age and even the generation before.

 

Given how the Twin Jades are described though, Wei Wuxian honestly thinks only a celestial is worthy of their hand in mating. 

 

Nobody, he thinks, can honestly be that good.

 

They are in the main hall - Jiang Cheng and him - paying their respects to Madam Yu and Uncle Fengmian before they depart to Gusu Lan.

 

“I expect both of you to excel in your studies and do great things. Show Gusu Lan and the rest of the cultivation sects what our Yunmeng disciples are made up of.”

 

Madam Yu looks meaningfully at her son when she says that and Jiang Cheng shuffles on his feet self-consciously. Wei Wuxian looks nervously to Jiang Cheng and then back to Madam Yu, but Madam Yu’s gaze looks right through him like Wei Wuxian doesn’t even exist.

 

Shijie is already betrothed to the young sect heir of Lanling Jin. A relationship with Gusu Lan through marriage would only serve to benefit Yunmeng Jiang greatly, especially if it were that of the future Sect Leader.

 

Before he leaves, Madam Yu catches him by the sleeve and the message of her narrowed eyes is clear.

 

Do not be a disappointment to Yunmeng Jiang.

 

He is still thinking upon that ruefully when he slips out of the main hall. Jiang Cheng catches up with him halfway down the Path of Tranquility away from the commotion of the main hall. No doubt, Elder Qiren is going to send a curtly worded letter to Uncle Fengmian and Madam Yu now.

 

He inwardly groans. 

 

"There is no need for secrets in the Cloud Recesses." Lan Zhan had said with his ever blank expression, before popping open the lid of the box in the middle of the main hall before Wei Wuxian could stop him .

 

“Tell me you didn’t,” Jiang Cheng says, and sounds about two tones away from smacking Wei Wuxian in exasperation.

 

“Yes, yes, yes the Twin Jades of Gusu Lan, the two of the most upstanding cultivators in the realm. Refined gentlemen kunze , skilled in both the word and the sword, knowledgeable, just and wise…”

 

He can’t help but roll his eyes. “With the praises heaped on those two, even the ground they walk upon is better than me!”

 

“Of course they are,” Jiang Cheng snaps back. “Gusu Lan is acclaimed for their rigour of Confucian teaching and Cultivation studies. If you were listening in class today, you’ll realise that that Lan Wangji knows way more than even our seniors back in Yunmeng about cultivation principles.”

 

Besides, you are just a zhongyong. The truth hangs in the air between them, unsaid but laid bare in their minds regardless.

 

Behind them, the commotion grows louder and there is the sound of footsteps hurrying down the path. Wei Wuxian frowns. Is that his name he hears? Yes, that is definitely his name-

 

Jiang Cheng drags him behind a pillar and grabs him by the shoulders. His face looks just slightly on the verge of purple, a perfect match to his robes.

 

 "So why did you give Lan Wangji a courtship token?"

 

Wei Wuxian laughs and shoves Jiang Cheng back, pulling the creases on this shoulder straight.

 

"Why not? All the qianyuan are trying to one up each other by showering him with their terrible poetry and bad paintings and the likes."

 

Folding his arms and jutting his chin out stubbornly, he continues. 

 

“My gift is far more useful. I got it custom-made in Caiyi Town too.”

 

Jiang Cheng looks to the heavens, the earth, before finally groaning into the palms of his hands.

 

 “Wei Wuxian, you’re not a qianyuan so why are you joining in the stupid frenzy for Lan Wangji's hand?"

 

In the stupidest way possible , he adds under his breath which Wei Wuxian hears it but he very graciously chooses to ignore it.

 

It’s much more fun to think about Lan Wangji right now. He is always so uptight and polite whenever Wei Wuxian ran into him, white robes neatly put together and never a strand of hair even out of place. He tears up his notes in class and always calls him out to be punished. He never laughs at any of his jokes; or even changes his expression no matter how many funny faces Wei Wuxian makes. Everytime he sees Lan Wangji he always has a huge scroll or two in hand, and all he does is study all the time. 

 

And he has never tasted alcohol before. Never! Imagine that! No wonder he is so boring all the time.

 

Wei Wuxian can't help the laughter that rises out of him.

 

"Because he gets this look - his lip goes stiff and his eyelid starts twitching in whenever I bug him and it's fun."

 

Jiang Cheng buries his face further into his arms. "Oh god, you're hopeless."

 

"Hey, we could have been friends, but he decided to take away my wine on the first night and tattle me out!"

 

“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

 

Wei Wuxian freezes on the roof tiles, spinning around only to see a vision in white. He’s beautiful, one part of him thinks; oh shit this is definitely one of the Twin Jades, the other part of him thinks. So he does the only thing he can think of at the moment.

 

He smiles and holds out one of his precious wine vats.

 

“Emperor’s Smile! I’ll share a vat with you if you don’t tell anyone!”

 

The punishment from sneaking the alcohol in is still stinging on Wei Wuxian’s back. Every single drop of Emperor's Smile spilled is a tragedy and both vats had been smashed on the floor during their fight.

 

It’s all Lan Wangji’s fault.

 

Jiang Cheng shoves him pointedly again to get his attention, before dragging him by the arm over to a smaller corridor half hidden by the wall.

 

 “Go hide somewhere until this blows over! And you better make up with Lan Wangji when all this is done - you know how important it is for us to maintain good relations with Gusu.”

 

"Yes, yes I know!" He waves back at Jiang Cheng to stop his nagging and ducks behind the corridor, only to promptly run into a whole group of Lan disciples.

 

Oh no.

 


 

His uncle, Lan Wangji thinks, is about to hit the roof with anger. The table in his small room is piled high from scrolls of .. .attempts at famous paintings and great calligraphy and intricate embroidery, but it is the simple wooden box in the middle of it all that his uncle is staring furiously at.

 

"Crass! Utterly crass! Pure impudence! How dare that troublemaker from Lotus Pier do this! I should write to Sect Leader Jiang about this, throw that rascal out of the Cloud Recesses!"

 

Lan Wangji knows what’s inside, although he should have really seen the prank coming. 

 

Truth is, Wei Wuxian had shown up out of the blue amongst all the other qianyuan and shoved the box in his hands, and he’d been too stunned to do anything else except accept it quietly.

 

 Ever since that night along the walls of the Cloud Recesses, Young Master Wei has been nothing but...infuriating, he decides. 

 

Infuriating is a kind word to put it.

 

Passing notes in class, asking all sorts of ridiculous questions to the Elders, pestering him every single time they run into each other about something or the other, breaking curfew, sneaking alcohol into the Cloud Recesses, talking about...about demonic cultivation, of all things!

 

Opening the box in the main hall had probably been a bad idea though.

 

Inside the box, nestled in sky blue silk is a…a…..Lan Wangji suppresses a sigh. Inside had been an ornately carved phallus made of dark wood, polished till it gleams in the candlelight.

 

It pains him to admit it but it is indeed a far more attractive gift than the poetry and paintings he has received from the other qianyuan.  

 

Much more practical too.

 

The kunze of Gusu Lan were always given their own in cool translucent jade to use to take the edges off their heat, but this ...He looks back down into the box again curiously. This one was longer than the one Wangji kept for his own, fancier too with a ribbing down one side that looked...interesting.

 

Gusu Lan was stricter than the rest of the realm - abstinence was necessary for purity and peace of mind and cultivation that they practiced. Their forehead ribbons were always there to remind them of that. To control their needs and regulate their thoughts, to keep themselves for their fated partner. Qianyuan or kunze, male or female, there was no difference or exception. Clan members especially were taught from young the ways of meditating in the cold springs whenever they felt the urges of their body come upon them. But it wasn't healthy for heats and ruts to be suppressed for too long, so as needs must, they would go into seclusion after a certain number of cycles.

 

His gaze wanders over the mountain of gifts as a scroll teeters over the edge and goes tumbling down the side, causing a mini cascade of rather sad poetry scribbled onto abstract attempts at the scenery of the West Lake or Mount Tai.

 

The other qianyuan were only giving him gifts on his birthday because he was the second son anyway. As the future Sect Leader, his brother’s mating would always be a political one. The smaller sects stood no chance against the major cultivation sects and they knew it.

 

So only Wangji was left.

 

None of them meant their gifts. 

 

Except ironically, maybe Wei Wuxian.

 

“Uncle,” Lan Xichen tries to soothe, putting a cup of tea into their uncle’s hands. Elder Qiren's face is still red and he throws back the tea in a single mouthful, slamming the cup back down onto the table. It shakes and there is the slightest cracking sound.

 

“Young Master Wei is a zhongyong, it is only natural that he would not be acquainted with the ways of kunze or qianyuan."

 

He refills the cup smoothly before continuing in a calm voice, lightly fanning their uncle with a paper fan in his other hand.

 

  " Besides, he is also an outsider. Beyond Gusu, they do not share customs as strict as ours, and such items are commonly bought, traded and given. Even the nobility seek out the great craftsmen and commission great works of art from them out of bronze and fine jade. It would not be so strange to be given out of thoughts for the recipient's needs.” 

 

“Hmph," Elder Qiren strokes his beard with a scowl. "The moment I learned who his mother was, I should have driven him out! Nothing but trouble from that line, I tell you!”

 

"Thank the Heavens he is just a zhongyong. If he were a qianyuan, I'll jump off the peak of the Cloud Recesses myself!"

 

It takes some time to placate their uncle till he is no longer seeing red and with an angry swish of his robes, he storms away from the hall to the respite of his own quarters to meditate and calm his mind.

 

Left in the quiet of his room, Lan Wangji quietly turns over his brother's words to him some weeks ago.

 

“Brother,” He says, trying to keep his voice calm and level. “Do you really still think I should befriend Young Master Wei?”

 

Lan Huan just smiles.

 

“Wangji, you seem to be quite fond of him, are you not?”

 

Fond?

 

He’s not fond. 

 

Wei Wuxian is...a nuisance. He drinks, interrupts class and skips lessons sometimes to sneak down to the nearby village. He is everywhere when he is not needed, always surrounded by a flock of other disciples. Every time Lan Wangji turns his head, Wei Wuxian always seems to be there, a too bright and loud mouthed presence in his life. 

 

But in the cloudy spring afternoons, his smile is bright sunshine, and even for a zhongyong , his frame matches his qianyuan brother's, broad defined shoulders sloping to a neatly tapered waist-

 

He makes an affronted noise, then frowns at his behaviour and turns away all without saying a word.

 

"It will be good to have a friend, A-Zhan,” His brother rests his hand on his shoudler for a moment as he passes him on the way out. “Besides, as I said, Young Master Wei is a zhongyong . He means no harm."

 

“Wangji understands,” He replies in turn.

 

Lan Wangji keeps Wei Wuxian’s present anyway - it is only practical, after all.

 


 

Lan Wangji has no idea how his brother managed to suggest to their uncle that he be the one to accompany Wei Wuxian in his punishment, but now the two of them are stuck in the Library Pavilion for the next month, or at least until he finishes copying the Volumes of Virtues, which at the rate the other is going about it, may need up to half a year instead.

 

After causing a ruckus for the better part of the day, easily settled by a voice sealing spell on Lan Wangji's part, Wei Wuxian had at least finally sat down and copied out a number of pages neatly sit in a pile next to him.

 

Seeing that he had already finished nearly twenty pages and looked sufficiently contrite, Lan Wangji had finally decided to undo the silencing spell.

 

Much to his regret now.

 

He frowns at the words in the scroll he is reading, trying to focus while the other is peering over his shoulder, too close for comfort. 

 

So close, his scent lingers in the air around him. It's fresh and clear like spring water, cold with fresh melt from the mountains, lightly scented with the fragrance of rich lycoris and the strength of spice and cinnamon. It is a dizzying mix and perhaps, this is what they mean to get drunk off wine. 

 

Lan Zhan grits his teeth and turn away.

 

Wei Wuxian is just a zhongyong , but there is something about his scent that is pleasant at the back of his throat. The back of his neck feels a little warm beneath the collar of his robes although the spring air is cool. He frowns and adjusts the white and blue lapels silently in annoyance.

 

Wei Wuxian finally leaves his side - thank heavens - but then he plasters himself down over the low table in front of him, covering half of his papers and Lan Zhan just stares at the wide-eyed pout he is making and resists the urge to strangle something. 

 

“Lan Zhan...Lan Zhan!” He gives a dramatic sigh and flops down over the table, shaking his head all the while. “If you’re so serious all the time, what qianyuan would fall for you!”

 

"Write. Your. Lines." He enunciates slowly through painfully gritted teeth, before turning away to the side to attempt to continue reading in peace. Why he had even thought this possible escapes him when an outraged noise sounds out from behind him.

 

“I’m serious! We’re talking about your lifelong happiness here!” 

 

The corner of Lan Wangji's robes is beginning to crumple in his tightly gripped palm. He looks down at the words he is copying, glaring at the thick blob of dark ink slowly drying on the page now ruined. His brush continues to shake a little in his clenched fingers.

 

“As for me, I'm just a zhongyong , so I don’t understand a lot of things, but even I think you’re pretty.”

 

In his surprise, all his rising anger dissipates. Lan Wangji blinks at Wei Wuxian’s bright grin, then hastily looks back to his scripture. The tips of his ears are suddenly strangely warm.

 

"You, well, you're a bit of a... bookworm, I guess, but you're good at all the gentlemanly arts and can beat us all in cultivation and swordplay. All those qianyuan clearly aren't good enough for you. Lan Wangji, are you hearing me? I'm saying this as a concerned friend-"

 

A...friend…

 

"Lan Zhan? Lan Wangji? HanGuang Jun!"

 

His emotions are ruffled and unsettled. Lan Wangji has never felt this off-balanced before, for all that he is firmly seated on the library floor. He needs the peace and quiet of his jingshi, to quieten the unrest in his heart and soothe his roiling thoughts.

 

Be quiet - he wants to snap back, but patience, manners and civility are rules of the Cloud Recesses.

 

"Second Young Master Lan!"

 

"Do not be noisy in the Library P-"

 

Wei Wuxian has a look on his face. Lan Wangji stills his breath and narrows his eyes. Why does he have that look on his face-

 

"...Lan er... gege?"

 

Lan Wangji stares at the other in complete shock. Wei Wuxian's face slowly breaks out into an entirely unrepentant grin.

 

“Hahahaha Lan Zhan, you should see your face! You’re redder than a little red apple!”

 

“You-”

 

“Yes, yes, me me me!”

 

“How dare you-”

 

“I? Of course I dare!"

 

"...Shameless. Shameless!"

 

"Yes that's right, I'm just like this as a person!"

 

"Foolishness, shameless, no sense of propriety!"

 

"What- Lan Zhan! I was just joking, look at how seriously you're taking it!"

 

“...You!”

 

“Lan...Second Master Lan, Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji! Is that- h-hey Lan Zhan, we’re still in the library, be careful of where you’re swinging Bichen ! ...Private duels are forbidden in the Cloud Recesses! Lan Zhan! Stop attacking! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Lan Zhan! Calm down! Lan Zhannnnnnnnnnnnn-”

 


 

A little ways from the Library Pavilion, Lan Xichen folds his arms to the faint sound of Wei Wuxian’s laughter ringing out from behind him.

 

“I’m glad Wangji seems to be having fun,” He remarks to himself and walks away just before the sound of swords clashing begins.

 


 

Chapter Text

 

In the drifting mist, Wei Wuxian dreams for the first time in sixteen years.

 

He dreams of wilting plum blossoms, drooping late into spring. He dreams of snow falling over the jagged edges of black rock. He dreams of a small hand in his, walking up the small path to Yiling.

 

In the distance across the rocky path, there is a small hut. The fields are tilled and the chickens are running around by the front. Through the open doorway, there is a family crowded around the table upon which a meal is set, the white steam still rising from the hot soup. Their conversation is muffled but their silhouettes are shrouded in the golden glow of a warm hearth. 

 

Of a mate, of a family, of a home.

 

When he nears where the light gives way to the shadow of the darkened path, the soft fragrance of sandalwood curls in the air, blanketing him in the warmth and protection. The figures within are hazy, just out of sight, like his eyes refuse to see, or his mind cannot understand what is before his sight. But he can tell that it is an adult and two children. Their children.

 

The person inside looks up at him, and though he can’t see, can’t make out much more than the steady, gentle yin that soothes the back of his mind, he knows that they are smiling.

 

"You're back."

 

Wei Wuxian wakes up with his heart in his throat and want seared into his thoughts. The back of his throat is dry, glands heavy and aching.

 

It's not the first time he's dreamt of a family. 

 

Foolish qianyuan instincts, that is all. Wei Wuxian grumbles as he pushes himself up, rubbing the sleep away from his eyes.  As if...he could have one waiting for him. Even reincarnated, he could not be spared from being a qianyuan it seems. It is not as if he wants to be a kunze - he’s not that blessed - but the simplicity of a zhongyong would be enough this lifetime. He doesn’t want to burden anyone again this time round.

 

“...Young Master Mo," Lan Sizhui's calm voice interrupts his thoughts. He looks over the camp to see that the other Lans are already awake and ready to travel, although Lan Chenping still looked like he was half dozing off on Lan Jingyi's side. 

 

"It is time we resume our travel.”

"O-of course!" He tries to ignore the way Lan Wangji is looking at him and takes the hand Lan Sizhui offers. There is something familiar about the Lan disciple’s scent, but Wei Wuxian is probably imagining things. Getting to this feet, wincing as he stretches out his back aching from the ground - ah, having a material body that hurts and aches is something he hasn’t missed.

 

Lan Wangji sticks out a leather waterskin at him as he wanders over to join him, giving Lil' Apple a pat that the donkey shakes off with a snort. Ingrate. 

 

"Water," He repeats when Wei Wuxian doesn't take it, then he presses a mantou still warm into his hands.

 

"Ah...thank you," Wei Wuxian mumbles in reply between mouthfuls of water and the bun. In all that happened yesterday, he had not realised that he had not eaten a single thing at all. The hunger is both strange and familiar. His stomach chooses to growl loudly at that moment and he glares at it, except Lan Wangji is already reaching into his cloth bundle for another bun.

 

"Not tying me up again?" He teases as he finishes the last of the food, watching Lan Wangji secure his guqin onto his back.

 

Lan Wangji looks up sharply at his words.

 

"No need. Your wrist hurts."

 

Then he pauses and for the strangest moment, Wei Wuxian could have sworn there was a look of uncertainty in his eyes - but that's a ridiculous thought, must just be the morning sun in his eyes.

 

"...you...will follow?"

 

He shouldn't. But Wei Wuxian had had the whole night to run, late into the night where the campfire had flickered out, after Lan Wangji had taken first watch and still, he was here.

 

"I…." 

 

It was safer to travel with Lan Wangji, at least for this stretch of mountainous forest where the spiritual energy could quickly turn fraught. When they passed by the nearest town, then he would bid them goodbye.

 

He nods and feels his heart settles. "I will."

 

"Mm."

 

For the most part of the day, their journey is unremarkable. Wei Wuxian spends it marveling at how different the three young Lan disciples are: Lan Sizhui is quiet and calm, a peaceful present to balance off the energy of his cousin and younger brother. To his credit, Lan Jingyi tries to keep to the quiet of the group, but Lan Chenping just chatters animatedly the entire way, running back and forth between the juniors and his father.

 

He almost expects Lan Wangji to scold him, but he lets his son be. So much for one must always practice restraint in character and calmness of demeanour, Wei Wuxian thinks. When it came down to it even Lan Wangji could not help but indulge his own son. 

 

All three of the juniors keep staring at him from where he is walking just behind Lan Wangji in barely veiled curiosity the entire way. Chenping is the most obvious - turning back whenever he walks beside his father to frown at him. 

 

The cold wind stirs the moment they pass the rotting stump and then the mist sets upon them. The leaves beneath their steps stir listlessly, before falling down flat and lifeless.

 

Wei Wuxian stops in his tracks before he registers it, instincts flaring up even as the air sends a shivering chill down his back.

 

 Something is amiss.

 

The energy is not right in this place, and he has neither sword nor flute. If it came down to a fight, he would be the most disadvantaged one here. So much for following Lan Wangji would be safe.

 

Just in front of him, Lan Wangji has sensed the unsettled spirits in this part of the forest too, slowly backing closer to where Wei Wuxian is standing with the three juniors, who have huddled closer to both their seniors in their unease. His wary gaze looks out around them, then he looks back at Wei Wuxian and the youths, tightening his grip on his sword. 

 

Around them, the mist grows colder still.

 

“There’s someone!” Lan Jingyi is yelling and Wei Wuxian immediately whips around to follow his outcry to the sound of all three juniors drawing out their swords. A shadow flits through the white haze, then vanishes.

 

The air drops to ice.

 

Then the screaming starts.

 

The cry is soft at first, picking up slowly as it swirls around them in the little grove in the trees before mounting to a horrific shrill banshee shriek. Wei Wuxian’s hands fly up to cover his ears, cringing as he struggles to stand up against the piercing scream. It’s like a knife, sawing into his ears, into his mind- He barely manages to push himself back up and tries to move, but to his horror, his feet remain frozen to the ground.

 

They’re trapped.

 

“Stop, stop it, stop-”

 

“I can’t move!”

 

The junior’s voices are strangely distant in his still ringing ears, but Lan Wangji’s voice comes strong and crystal clear.

 

“Don’t be scared.”

 

Wei Wuxian struggles to remain upright. If he just reaches out, he can grasp the edge of Lan Wangji’s sleeve. The other has already drawn his guqin out and with a strike, the clear sound reverberates through the clearing, driving the mist away long enough for Wei Wuxian to see the contorted face and twisted smile lunging straight at them.

 

The woman’s corpse is glowing blue, ice cold, black matted hair streaming out from behind her even as her macabre grin twists her entire face sideways. Her eyes are rolling about crazily in her sockets, but still the corpse is smiling. She stretches out a half rotten arm, long black nails sharp enough to slash and stab. 

 

“...Young….man….” She hisses out in as she dives straight towards Sizhui who’d positioned himself in front of the younger disciples, staring at the strange corpse in shock.

 

The corpse is too near and too fast - Sizhui has his sword in his hand, but the sword would do nothing to a feral fierce corpse this long gone and festering with cold rage. Lan Wangji is too far, his guqin will not be fast enough, nor will his sword reach over in time before those nails raked down Sizhui’s flesh.

 

His heart in his throat, he lunges forward, the entrapment slashing through his legs as he wrenches them away. Throwing himself over Sizhui, Wei Wuxian barely has time to squeeze his eyes shut and wait for the blow to come.

 

But it doesn’t.

 

"Father!" 

 

He hear Chenping's voice, high pitched and distraught. When he turns back, ears still ringing, he just makes out Lan Wangji in front of him, one arm thrown out protectively in front of where Wei Wuxian is covering Lan Sizhui and...

 

The frozen arm of the corpse has plunged cleanly through his shoulder.

 

The corpse shrieks once more in fury, but Lan Wangji calmly reaches out to grab the emaciated arm and tears it out of his shoulder, breaking it easily in his hands.

 

“Rest now and know peace,” He recites and plunges Bichen, shining with a purifying spell, straight into her rotted frozen heart.

 

The corpse gives one last cry, hating and hurting, painful and mournful, before it shatters, body and soul.

 

Wei Wuxian has to look away to steady his breath and heartbeat again. Beneath his feet, the mist has begun to clear to reveal a cascade of broken wood fragments, half burnt. A torn basket, a broken fence, the wooden leg of what was perhaps once a table or chair, a scrap of cloth, a broken roof tile. At the end, there is a pile of bones, both that of an adult's and a child's.

 

“HanGuang Jun, I’m sorry-” He hears Sizhui start and turns back to see the other’s head bowed even as Chenping tugs at his older brother’s sleeve in worry, but Lan Wangji shakes his head.

 

“Sizhui, it is the first time you have met such a fierce corpse. You will get better with experience.” He sheathes Bichen and follows where Wei Wuxian has been following the traces of a life once lived to a burned out hull of a wooden hut, preserved in the cold mist.

 

“HanGuang Jun,” Lan Jingyi pipes up. “What sort of corpse was that? It was blue, and so fast, and why was this area so cold? We couldn’t even move!”

 

“Father, father! I know, I know!” Lan Chenping joins in, sticking his hand up excitedly as though they had not been on the verge of mortal danger just seconds ago. He only quietens down under a strict look from his father.

 

 From here, watching Lan Wangji teach his disciples and children, he can’t help but want to laugh on the inside at Chenping in particular. His boundless enthusiasm and expressiveness is so unlike that of everything he knows about the Cloud Recesses - really, these traits must’ve only come from his qianyuan sire.  

 

Perhaps Lan Wangji’s mate is more interesting than he thought.

 

“Five years ago,” Lan Wangji speaks up as the juniors listen raptly. “This part of the range near Mt Dafan was experiencing exceptionally cold weather. Many blizzards struck the mountain side and the avalanches cut off access to many villages here. Some tragedy affected this place, where the dip of the land already draws water and cold air to collect here.”

 

Wei Wuxian nods along to his explanation and turns to the juniors too. “There is a reason why Cultivators do our Night Hunts here, because the energy flows of the land intersect in many nodes over these mountains, but as much as it traps lingering spirits, it also attracts demons and ghosts. We won’t know what befell this little settlement, it could have been an ice demon, or beast, or a festering ghost with a rage nurtured in the ice till it turned cold...but ending the tragedy that happened here is part of being a cultivator.”

 

Uncle Fengmian had once said those very words to him, on his very first night hunt accompanying his adopted father out by the edges of the Yunmeng lakes and he had dispelled a water ghost for the very first time.

 

Wei Wuxian sighs as he bends down and touches the charred remnants of what must have once been a house, someone’s home. They will never know what transpired here years ago, what grievances had trapped the woman’s spirit here, frozen in the cold until it seeped into her cold bones, a vengeance burning cold till it turned her soul to ice. 

 

But at least she would no longer harm anyone else passing by these parts and the cycle of unrest would be broken.

 

Even at the cost of a soul. 

 

Muttering one final spell beneath his breath, he calls for the lingering remnants of resentful energy and dispells them from this area. The way of the land could not be helped, not at least for a millenia, but human tragedy could move on. 

 

Perhaps one day, another might find a home here again.

 

Looking over the juniors once more to check that they were all fine, he turns back to Lan Wangji only to catch him wincing slightly as he picks up his guqin.

 

“Lan Z-” Wei Wuxian’s ankle is stinging but he rushes over to the other’s side anyway. 

 

He just barely catches himself from reaching out in time.

 

“Han-HanGuang Jun, your injury-”

 

His fingers twitch in the air even as he forces his arms to remain down. For some reason, it’s the hardest thing he has had to do so far.

 

“You’re alright, right?”

 

Lan Wangji looks up at him in surprise and slowly reaches a hand up to touch where the corpse’ hand that stabbed through his right side. Thankfully, it had been on the right side, and the cold had frozen the blood from the wound. 

 

“Mm. I am fine.”

 

When he turns away from Wei Wuxian, for some strange reason, it's as though the corners of his lips turned up a bit, like in a smile.

 

It's probably the light playing tricks on his eyes.

 


 

The innkeeper gives them a long, long look.

 

“The thing is, dear guests…we only have two rooms left,” The innkeeper says apologetically, looking over their company of five with a frown. 

 

For some reason, Wei Wuxian is sure that if it had just been Lan Wangji and the young Lan disciples, they would be more than happy to give over the rooms immediately. As it is, it is the upstanding HanGuang Jun of Gusu Lan and his disciples....and one random scrappy qianyuan with messy hair, ragged and torn black linen robes and probably smelling a bit too, no thanks to the donkey shed.

 

He clears his throat and spins around on his feet for good measure, ignoring the dull ache growing in his ankle.

 

“Ah, that’s simple, I will just stay with the disciples and HanGuang Jun can-”

 

The innkeeper shakes her head.

 

“This gentleman...our rooms are big enough to house two comfortably, but four?” She looks at the juniors. “The three youths can be quite comfortable but…”

 

“Ah we’ll be just fine!” Wei Wuxian chirps merrily, except Lan Wangji also speaks up at the same time.

 

“You are welcome to stay in the same room as me.”

 

He stares at Lan Wangji in shock, but the look on his face is serious.

 

“...That…” Wei Wuxian throws a panicked look over at the juniors, but for all that Jingyi looks scandalised and Chenping looks outraged, they’re both unhelpfully silent. If they’re in the same room, there is no way that he can slip out in the middle of the night now. The juniors, he still had a chance of shaking off, but Lan Wangji himself?

 

“HanGuang Jun, that probably isn’t appropriate, a qianyuan and a bonded kunze in the same room…”

 

“Does not matter.” Lan Wangji is already handing over two silver coins to the innkeeper, who brightens up at the sight at the fat money pouch and is already happily stepping away from the counter to usher them up the stairs.

 

All Wei Wuxian can do is follow along helplessly, trailing after Lan Wangji into the same room and reluctantly dropping into a chair while the other passes the innkeeper another silver coin and asks for dinner to be prepared.

 

He had always assumed Lan Wangji had mated with another prominent cultivator from one of the four great clans, likely one close to the Sect leader, a strong and beautiful female qianyuan , or even a male one if he were exceptional enough for the Elders of the Lan Clan.

 

Or perhaps Lan Wangji was mated to a qianyuan of lower status.

 

He would not have to care about what his qianyuan thinks then. For a young master of Lan Wangji’s renown, if he were not of Gusu Lan upbringing, he would be free to indulge in the qianyuan of the flower houses, or take on concubines of his own and it would be inconsequential. He did not even need to be so involved with his children aside from the necessary tasks of education and discipline; caring for children was a zhongyong’s job, a servant’s task.

 

He moves to stand up as Lan Wangji packs his guqin and belongings neatly away in a corner, but the other gives a curt shake of his head at him when he does so.

 

“Do not move.”

 

Wei Wuxian shrinks back obediently, lingering by the table. But it’s not without being grateful for Lan Wangji settling everything else - where the spiritual energy had caught onto his legs, it had slashed through nearly to the bone. Though the injury is just spiritual and not physical, the phantom pain still echoes up the moment he put any weight on either leg.

 

But...He watches carefully as Lan Wangji settles into the chair at the far end, closing his eyes as if to meditate.

 

Lan Wangji’s wound would need seeing to no matter how much the other was brushing it off. At the very least, it would need to be cleaned with warm water and any lingering malicious energy would have to be cleansed from it. Medicinal herbs would help too - it is late, but surely there would be a physician hall still open in this town. Perhaps he would go and purchase a pack later.

 

A knock on the door interrupts his thoughts.

 

Wei Wuxian immediately perks up at the sight of the waiters coming up to their rooms with the food - is that chicken wings, golden and tossed in glistening dark soya sauce he sees? And a tureen of what must surely be fish soup, so fragrant is the smell of freshly caught river fish stewed in rich broth. And…

 

Wait.

 

Why were all of the waiters turning the other way to the junior’s room?

 

A moment later, Wei Wuxian stares at the entire table of vegetable dishes and curses the Cloud Recesses’ strict diet under his breath.

 

“Why...is it all vegetarian,” He pouts, picking up his rice bowl sadly and poking at the pearly white grains of rice.

 

“Eating vegetarian is good for your body,” Lan Wangji puts a piece of silken tofu on top of his rice, which Wei Wuxian picks at despondently. Not even the surprising amount of chilli peppers dotting the tofu and amidst the stir-fried green beans, tossed scallions and leeks, and slices of crystal cabbages so thin they're translucent in the light can cheer him up.

 

"But surely even a little bit of chicken will be fine!" He protests.

 

Really, after sixteen years of not even being offered any paper money or food offerings, now living again, he still doesn’t get to eat good meat and fine wine. What a tragedy!

 

Lan Wangji stirs the tureen of watercress soup, ladling it into a small bowl and placing one at Wei Wuxian’s side. He shuffles the dishes around and moves the plates closer to him, the bright green white of fresh bean sprouts, blanched round spinach, pickled mountain vegetable mixed with mushrooms.

 

“Eat, and rest.”

 

“I know, I know,” Wei Wuxian sighs into his food and jabs a piece of cabbage into his mouth, chewing it thoroughly grumpily.

 


 

It is only when Lan Wangji goes to change from his travel robes and ask for his torn robes to be mended, that Wei Wuxian finally finds the chance to slip away.

 

It is easy enough to find the herbs he needs, charging it to their room in the inn. He has also picked up a warming brew, of strong ginger and star anise, good enough to dispel any lingering cold in the body, just in case. He will get the kitchen to prepare it in two batches, one for tonight, and another just before they leave to continue their travels.

 

The inn’s waiter waves him down before he climbs up the stairs to the rooms.

 

“Young Master, young master! I have already delivered the ‘tea’ you requested to your room!” The youth grins, and Wei Wuxian immediately brightens at the news.

 

“Well done!” He shares a knowing look with the young waiter, dropping his voice lower to a whisper. 

 

 “I may also request for more tea later as well.”

 

“Of course, young master! We have all the finest wine- ah, I mean, the finest teas in this region at our inn!”

 

Now excited, Wei Wuxian happily pushes open the door to their room.

 

Only for a chicken to fly straight into his face.

Chapter Text

 

“Chicken.” 

 

The chicken is white and clearly very well fed. It fluffs up its feathers, throws its wings out and gives a loud disapproving cluck.

 

“I know it’s a chicken," Wei Wuxian says in growing despair because this exchange has been going on for too long. The damn chicken has come dangerously close to nearly pecking his nose off. The light in its beady eyes is clearly one of a chicken up to no good.

 

"Why are you giving me a chicken?”

 

“For you.”

 

Lan Wangji holds the chicken out again, face blank but sounding more and more like a sulky child.

 

Wei Wuxian sighs and resists the urge to throw his hands up. "I did say I wanted chicken, but that was a cooked chicken! Roasted! Steamed! Baked in salt! Poached in superior rice wine! Not-"

 

Wei Wuxian just barely manages to lean back in time to escape the fury of the chicken in retaliation for its chicken breathen. He scrunches his nose up back at the chicken, before looking at Lan Wangji’s still intent face with exasperation.

 

“Lan Zhan…” He folds his arms and frowns at the usually serious and stoic Jade. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

 

“This chicken has an owner! Where did you even get it from-”

 

Lan Zhan looks down at the chicken in his arms. It clucks twice, disapprovingly. Then he looks back up at Wei Wuxian and tightens his grip on the squawking chicken.

 

“Is chicken...not...good?”

 

How on earth is that the conclusion you came to…. Wei Wuxian stifles the urge to groan and tries to remedy things now. “It’s not that it is not good-”

 

Lan Zhan just ignores him, grabbing onto the chicken with one arm as he reaches for the qiankun pouch with his other hand and from within it, draws out…

 

Another chicken.

 

Wei Wuxian stares.

 

The second chicken clucks loudly.

 

“Where did that second chicken come from?! W-wait, Lan Zhan, what are you- what-”

 

Wei Wuxian stares down at his arms and the two plump chickens stare back up at him, immensely unimpressed.

 

What, Wei Wuxian thinks, am I going to do with two chickens?

 

For you,” Lan Zhan says again, his voice more insistent this time. He pushes the pair of chickens towards Wei Wuxian, refusing to let go until he accepts them.

 

“Alright, alright, I get it, thank you for the...chicken?”  

 

Wei Wuxian gives up. 

 

Maybe later, he’ll sneak the chickens out to the kitchen staff, tell them to ask around the next morning if anyone had lost a pair of chickens. Otherwise, maybe he can arrange for the kitchen to make chicken soup before their journey tomorrow. With the herbs he had picked up, it would be nourishing and strengthening for all of them-

 

Too late, he catches sight of Lan Zhan reaching into the bag again and-

 

“Lan Zhan! Did you steal an entire coop?!”

 

Too late, Lan Zhan is already opening the hatch and there is only an explosion of chickens as his answer.

 


 

Wei Wuxian slams shut the door behind him and slides the latch in place, crumpling against the door with a huge sigh of relief. Fifteen chickens. Fifteen. Chickens. It had taken him nearly the greater part of an hour to catch the squawking, rampaging birds angry at being disturbed from their nest and then even more time explaining to the very confused inn attendant as to why he had fifteen fat chickens he needed to put into their backyard.

 

Spying the small teapot still placed on the side table, Wei Wuxian suddenly remembers what he had asked the waiter to do and grabs it, tilting it over to pour out a cup of fresh fragrant Emperor's-

 

It's empty.

 

Shaking the teapot in disbelief, he tilts it left, right upside down but not a single drop of wine comes from its spout.

 

Wei Wuxian nearly throws it at a wall in betrayal.

 

How dare the waiter scam him of his - well, technically Lan Wangji’s - money! How-

 

Wei Wuxian pauses, and then slowly looks up at Lan Zhan who is still quietly sitting on the chair, staring at Wei Wuxian earnestly even as the realisation and horror dawns on him.

 

“...Lan Zhan...you didn’t drink from the teapot, did you?”

 

"Mm."

 

"You did?!"

 

"Mm"

 

"The whole thing?!"

 

"Mm."

 

Then after a pause, Lan Zhan adds, softly.

 

"Happy."

 

Wei Wuxian groans into his hands. "Of course you're happy you drank an entire pot of Emperor's Smile! This is bad, very, very bad-”

 

Lan Zhan is suddenly in front of him, gripping both his hands firmly and wrenching down apart, pinning his wrists to the table.

 

"Not…." Lan Zhan frowns deeply as he struggles to find the words. “ Not. ..bad.”

 

He looks back up at Wei Wuxian, his light honey brown eyes serious, bright in the waning candlelight. 

 

"Happy , so drink."

 

For a moment, all Wei Wuxian can do is stare back into the other’s eyes. How is it that he can be so drunk, yet still so earnest and serious in his demeanour? 

 

So close, Wei Wuxian can taste Lan Zhan’s scent beneath the bland scented herbs, the fresh snow melting delicately on the tip of his tongue, the fragrance of jasmine filling his spirits. There is a sweet contentment filling his scent, more intoxicating than even the best of Emperor’s Smile. His forehead ribbon is slightly askew now. Where his hands are pinning his wrists down, his touch is warm and gentle.

 

Wei Wuxian pulls his hands out from the other’s grip, gently folding Lan Zhan’s hands back together. He reaches out to brush back a stray hair from the other’s face before he can stop himself. His hands move to adjust his ribbon lightly back into place, fingers smoothing over the plain blue linen. 

 

This is not right - Lan Zhan has a mate, Wei Wuxian shouldn’t be so close to him, as another qianyuan to a bonded kunze. 

 

But he can’t bear to move away - he wants to stay here, enveloped in this scent forever. He needs to be here, in this warmth, knowing that the other is safe and well, that the juniors in the other room are fed and happy. Sixteen years and one passing had not erased the hidden yearning he had buried in his heart at all - the one thing he could never follow his heart to do, the one thing that he could never tell Lan Zhan. 

 

Lan Zhan is only obliging him now because he does not know who really lies in this body of Mo Xuanyu. He is only letting him be because he is not of the right mind from the drink, because Wei Wuxian has saved his sons. Because…

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know anymore.

 

 "Lan Zhan, you're so bad at taking care of yourself,” He can’t help but say, voice faltering around the growing lump in his throat. There are stray chicken feathers strewn all over Lan Zhan’s fine, dark hair, and his robes are messy and mused, ties tangled and there is a smudge of dirt over his cheek. He gently leads the other back and sits him on the edge of the bed.

 

 Your mate must have a handful looking after you, Wei Wuxian thinks and falters. He lifts his hands away, suddenly alarmingly self-conscious about this and the position they are in. They are too close, any closer and he might-

 

Lan Zhan tugs at his sleeve insistently and Wei Wuxian immediately steps closer obligingly. Just for tonight, he thinks to himself. Someone needs to take care of Lan Zhan now that he is in this state, and it had been Wei Wuxian’s fault to some extent.

 

He carefully parts through the soft strands of Lan Zhan's hair with his fingers, picking out the stray feathers and brushing away the little twigs. Lan Zhan continues toying with the edge of his sleeve, gripping it and letting it go before gripping it again.

 

"Mm."

 

He nods, the movement causing his hair to shift through Wei Wuxian's fingers making a feather escapes his grasp. Wei Wuxian gasps as the little white tuff escapes his grip, frowning again as he tries to pick it out. 

 

"Look after me," Lan Zhan whispers into Wei Wuxian’s sleeve, turning to bump the side of his head against his arm. His eyelids are sliding lower and lower, almost closing.

 

"Yes, yes, yes, look at you, your hair is a mess!" Wei Wuxian hums softly under his breath as he brushes his fingers through his hair gently one more time, making sure the last of the feathers are now gone. "What would people say about the perfect HanGuang Jun now?"

 

Inwardly, he's thinking - what have I done to the perfect HanGuang Jun?

 

He frowns at the small lump that the bandages around Lan Zhan’s shoulders is making beneath his robes. Moving around to sit before Lan Zhan, he rests his hands on the lapels of his white robes.

 

“Let me check on your injury.”

 

“Mm.”

 

Carefully, Wei Wuxian peels away the layers of his robe, pushing his sleeve up and behind his shoulder to expose the poorly wrapped bandage, the best that Lan Zhan could manage with one arm. He unravels the cloth slowly, frowning at the frost tinged edges as he nears the wound, blackened over from the icy touch of the festering resentment. If left untreated, it could be a problem - the herbs he had would only stop the cold infection from growing, but Lan Zhan would need the treatment of the physicians at Gusu to fully recover.

 

It was on his dominant side too - he would not be able to fully play the qin , or wield Bichen

 

The juniors were talented, and few would dare cross the path of HanGuang Jun of Gusu Lan, but even so, Lan Wangji had been protecting him. He should at least look after them until they got to the Cloud Recesses.

 

Wei Wuxian reaches for the medicinal herbs that he had ground into a paste, left near the candles to slowly warm up.

 

“Stay still, don’t move,” He instructs quietly, taking some of the dark green paste and warming it up in his palms. 

 

Pressing it gently to Lan Zhan’s wound, he spreads it carefully all around his shoulder, holding his arm firmly even as he can tell Lan Zhan is trying to hold back his wincing. A wound like this would still hurt no matter how much they are told that this is only a minor injury and should not matter. For those who have fought through a war, who live by the sword, who had the way of cultivation to heal them, wounds like these were supposed to be inconsequential. But the injuries still hurt, and the old aches still persist.

 

He smooths out the paste over Lan Zhan’s wound, but then he catches sight of a thin white line, vanishing down his back. He ventures to touch the raised edge of the scar, wondering what a scar like that could have come from. Not a sword, nor a fierce corpse could make a mark like this. But perhaps...a whip? Frowning, he pushes Lan Zhan’s hair to a side and slowly pushes his robe further down his back, moving around to try to tend to the wound on his back too, except Lan Zhan is suddenly jerking away from his touch. 

 

“Lan Zhan, don’t move, I’m just trying to see your back-”

 

But the other is shoving his hand away. He grabs his robe and yanks it back up over his shoulder. His head is turned away.

 

From here, Wei Wuxian can’t see his expression, but he can scent that the other’s scent has turned sour with distress.

 

...Lan Zhan must have sobered up from the drink already.

 

Wei Wuxian quickly moves away to the other side of the table.

 

Lan Zhan...no, when had he started calling him so informally in his mind? It’s not proper, it’s how Wei Wuxian had dared entertain the idea that they could be so close, that had led them here. How outraged Lan Wangji must be, that Wei Wuxian would dare to touch him like this, would dare to stand so close to his side. Being willing to share a room with him was already a great sign of graciousness on his part.

 

“Lan W...HanGuang Jun, are you sober already?” 

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. Wei Wuxian doesn’t dare to look over at him. 

 

A candle flickers out and the room dims.

 

“We...the drink must have been too much tonight. All I wanted was to treat your injury, it doesn’t mean anything, please don’t take it to heart,” Wei Wuxian chances one last look at Lan Wangji, but the other is still refusing to look at him, curled up by the edge of the bed, fist clenched tightly in his robes, holding it up over his back and neck. 

 

“I...I’m sorry; I will leave,” He bows by the door. “Please...forget about tonight.”

 

Chapter Text

The street is still bustling though the sun has long set but even the bright chatter of the festival cannot rise above his thoughts.

 

There are enough people here, that he could just fade away and hadn’t that been his plan from the very beginning? Still here, in the midst of this crowd, Wei Wuxian has never felt more alone. Not even on the peaks of Yiling.

 

He doesn't get far down the main street before he is barrelled into by a furious small Lan.

 

"You! How dare you! After all the kindness my father has shown you-"

 

There are stands of berry red tanghulu and crisp, golden spring onion bing , little candied apricots and fresh purple plums. Sweet cakes of osmanthus, hazelnut and mung beans pressed in the shapes of flowers fill one table, next to braised pork trotters stewing in rich dark soy sauce broth. 

 

There are stands of ribbons streaming in the wind, pink and purple and red and blue; little brass trinkets that ring and rattle; red windmills turning merrily on their wooden stand; lanterns in all the shapes of gods and myths and animals and men. 

 

There is the laughter of children racing over the streets, there is a lovers’ sweet sigh fading into a smile, hands clasped.

 

Overhead, the moon is round and full.

 

"What are you doing out here?" Wei Wuxian asks after he drags Lan Chenping to the side of the street, where his white robes with light blue Gusu embroidery will not be too obvious beneath the shadows of the awnings.

 

It is far past the bedtime of the Cloud Recesses. Lan Chenping’s face is a worrying shade of crimson, like little chilli peppers.

 

Whatever happened to the tranquility of the soul that Gusu Lan preached? It has only been a short two days that he had traveled with Lan Wangji and his disciples, but for some reason the other has raised his younger son to be the antithesis of Gusu teachings. If Lan Sizhui was a model disciple of Gusu Lan, his juniors had...some ways more to learn. Lan Jingyi was outgoing too, but Chenping was downright...unique.

 

Unique is a nice way to put it.

 

Lan Chenping is a firecracker, a stormy cloud of lightning sputtering with rage. He doesn’t back off, far from it, rather walks right under Wei Wuxian's nose and pointedly starts yelling.

 

 " You! I don't know what you did, but how! dare! you!"

 

Wei Wuxian quickly backpedals to safety from the other’s fury. 

 

Truth be told, he rather liked the young rascal.

 

He was energetic, honest and whip smart, not unlike himself when he was younger to be honest. Wei Wuxian nods to himself. Now to see if he had been introduced to the wonders that was Emperor's Smile - hey, learning how to appreciate a good drink, it’s just part of learning about the world!

 

In front of him, Lan Chenping is still continuing his tirade, pacing up and down furiously. 

 

"How dare you shamelessly pester my father like that, hanging off his robe ends and speaking such….such shameless words! Have you no self respect! And how dare you sully his name with your lunacy! My father is far too gentlemanly to rebuke you so harshly but I'm not afraid of you!"

 

This young disciple is indeed a handful, Wei Wuxian thinks. He folds his arms and surveys the little Lan disciple, from his round red face to the little tuff of hair sticking out from the top of his head. Wei Wuxian twirls a strand of his own hair absently - he used to have a bit of hair like that, once. It always stood out no matter how much he tried to pat it down with water or once this horribly smelling wax from the river reeds. Jiang Cheng had laughed at him all afternoon for that.

 

Lan Chenping clenches his fists, rocking forward on his toes to glare up at him.

 

"I'll ...I'll fight you!"

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t quite know whether to sigh or to laugh.

 

 Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan, truly who did you mate with to end up with a child like this.

 

But in either case, he has quickly realised two things - that Chenping must be close to his father to be able to sense so innately the other's feelings.

 

 And that he had truly offended Lan Wangji, hadn't he.

 

He draws a shaky breath and wants to turn away, but the other is here and in his face and he can't leave. What had he expected from him, lingering around someone like Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian should have long left, for better or worse on the wild roads of jianghu. 

 

He had wanted this, to make Lan Wangji so disgusted with him, infuriated, furious even, that he would chase Wei Wuxian away. 

 

For some reason, disappointment weighs down like a rock in his chest. Disappointment in himself.

 

Self-consciously, he tugs his hands through his fringe.

 

"Look I…"

 

He looks back but the youngster isn't paying attention to him anymore. Following his rapt gaze, he finds an old lady hunched over a tiny stove a little distance from them under the same roof awning, twisting and twirling golden malt thread between two sticks.

 

Wei Wuxian is left speechless. That change in attention was surely too fast!

 

Then a thought strikes him as he frowns at Chenping’s rapt attention to the golden candy.

 

"Have you never seen man ya tang before?"

 

"Sweets are forbidden in the Cloud Recesses." Lan Chenping recites dutifully, but his eyes are not leaving the candy even as the strands wrap around each other into long ears and a stubby nose. A bunny, Wei Wuxian thinks, smiling a little as he remembers the little black and white rabbits that used to hop around the grassy foot of the Yiling mountains.

 

Oh they had been delicious roasted.

 

Of course sweets too were banned in the Cloud Recesses - what wasn’t? - and the little Lan disciple would be so intrigued by such a common candy.

 

“That can’t do,” He decides, grabbing Chenping’s hand and pulling the startled youth over to the little stand. He bends down and gives a bright smile at the old woman, pointing to the almost fully formed bunny shape of glistening amber and gold candy wrapped around the wooden stick. 

 

“One stick please!”

 

The old woman chuckles lowly, twisting the stick around in her wizen, burnt fingers. Sweeping the stick around the blackened iron stove, the candy twists around to finish off into a tiny fluffy tail. With a flourish, she plucks the sticky candy from the little iron stove and holds it out with a toothy smile. 

 

“I’ve not heard someone so big so excited about my candy in a while.”

 

She holds it out and Chenping’s eyes grow so wide that Wei Wuxian almost wants to laugh. Inside, there’s a calm that settles over his heart, a peaceful sort of satisfaction that feels odd as it comes over him. 

 

“Senior Mo! It’s a rabbit!”

 

So long it has been since he had felt this way, he had almost forgotten this feeling.

 

This feeling, like the sunshine falling over Yunmeng lakes and the taste of fresh lotus seeds plucked straight from the waters. Just him, Jiang Cheng and shijie , the three of them, watching the sunset over the western lakes before the servants call them back for dinner. They’d been happy; they’d been together. 

 

He can’t help but look over at Chenping with that same smile.

 

“...That will be two coppers, young master.”

 

“...”

 

Chenping tugs at his sleeve. “Senior Mo, what’s wrong-”

 

“That is…” 

 

Wei Wuxian gives up the pretense of searching the pockets of his robes.

 

“This...well…” He turns to the other slowly with a sheepish smile. “Little Lan one, I don’t suppose you have any money-”

 

The little Lan disciple stares at him, mouth slowly falling open in outrage once more. “You- you, you, you!”

 

 “I can’t believe it! You don’t even have any money, I knew it! You are even trying to cheat my father of his money too!”

 

His loud outburst attracts prying eyes and raised sleeves from the passers-by once more. Wei Wuxian groans and rustles the little embroidered coin pouch out of his pocket before Chenping can protest. It is a little light purple silk pouch with red flowers, inscribed with so many protection spells it nearly stings his fingers. Quickly tossing two coppers to the old woman, he quickly drags the Lan disciple back into the crowd on the street.

 

“I just knew you were up to no good,” Chenping yells after him, trying to twist his wrist out of his grip furiously. “Confess your untold intentions towards my father!”

 

Wei Wuxian had thought this sort of ridiculous stories only happened to the rich and noble families in Capital, not here in some common corner of the realm. The Gusu robes that Chenping is wearing is too out of place on the street, white with the distinctively cloud embroidery, especially with the ongoing festival. So he claps a hand over the youngster's mouth and hauls him away with strength he didn't think Mo Xuanyu's scrawny body had.

 

Chenping finally breaks free on the other side of a little stone bridge, away from the main festival street where it is quieter and the rustle of the willows by the canals can be heard softly beneath the rushing water.

 

“You’re not good enough for my father,” He says finally, turning up his nose and folding his arms. 

 

Wei Wuxian stares at the little Lan disciple and almost wants to laugh. 

 

“I know, I know I’m not” He replies cajolingly and dangles the stick of malt candy back in front of Chenping. A knowing grin grows on his face as the youth’s eyes grow wide again and he tries to swipe the stick out of his hand.

 

“But is this good enough for you?”

 

“Give me!” Chenping lunges at it but Wei Wuxian holds it high up, just out of his reach.

 

“Not until you tell me what you are doing out here. I’m sure I heard your father tell all three of you to get an early rest. Isn’t this way past bedtime for the Cloud Recesses?”

 

He frowns at the youth, at his red and fuming face, but there’s something else in the look in his eyes. The light from the lanterns on the stone bridge over the river flickers through the light brown too brightly, shimmering with a veneer that could only come from... oh . Beneath the anger of the tantrum, there’s something more, an uncertainty breaking through that Wei Wuxian knows with old familiarity, and something in his chest twists, aches.

 

He remembers being on streets like this, empty handed in a corner, watching other children laugh with their families, sweets in a hand and lantern in the other.

 

Wei Wuxian lowers the malt candy stick slowly. Hesitantly, he takes one step towards Chenping, then another, rest a hand on his shoulder gently as he draws closer to the young Lan.

 

“It’s okay , A-Ping ,” He murmurs softly, wondering if he is trying to coax Chenping or convince himself. The name rolls off his tongue in too easy familiarity - he has not even heard Lan Wangji himself address his own child this closely, but something feels right about it, in this moment.

 

“I….I snuck out,” Chenping confesses at last, long lashes flickering down with his gaze. He turns a little into Wei Wuxian’s sleeve.

 

The rest of his words tumble out slowly at first, then like a torrent.

 

“I...I always knew there would be a festival, Senior Jingyi told me about it before we left the Cloud Recesses for the Night Hunt. He told me that there would be lanterns and tasty foods and new toys, and they would set off big fireworks! And there would be so many people, so many things to see and so many things to play with…. I’ve never been out of Gusu before, I just wanted to see it...I...I told Father about it, but he...he said...he said we have to get back to the yun shen as soon as possible, but I-”

 

His breath hitches in a choked sob and Wei Wuxian places a hand firmly down on his shoulder, pressing down lightly to ground him.

 

“HanGuang Jun is right, we have to travel early tomorrow…” He sighs as he catches his words. He too will have to face HanGuang Jun tomorrow. Remembering the malt candy in his hands, Wei Wuxian reaches down to press it into Chenping’s hand. The youth sniffs a little, but starts nibbling at the rabbit’s tail anyway. 

 

It is a festival, after all. Gusu Lan had always been strict, but he didn’t expect Lan Zhan to be so strict with his children too. Surely there was no harm with letting them play a little. Especially if this is the first time Chenping has left the walls of the Cloud Recesses.

 

That was what they had fought for, hadn’t they? So that children could play in the streets again, safe and happily. 

 

...Back then, he didn’t have money to bring A-Yuan to the town festivals either. 

 

"...Father never plays with me." Chenping mumbles again, voice low and cracking below the sticky candy. "I… I know Father is busy, but he personally teaches da ge the qin and the cultivation techniques but I'm not good enough at either of them. Da ge is his personal disciple and sees him all the time, but I….I hardly get to. He's always working, or teaching, or..."

 

"I just wanted to spend some time with Father.”

 

Lan Wangji is HanGuang Jun, one of the Jades of Gusu Lan. His status and skill means that he is needed for a great number of tasks, too many, it seems. It is common for the children of the Great Clans to be brought up by the zhongyong servants and nannies who could dedicate their time to their care, much like how it is with the nobility and imperial families.

 

But Wei Wuxian thinks back to how Lan Wangji had looked, rushing over to his sons at Mo Manor.

 

"Xiao Ping,” He pats Chenping’s head softly. “Your father cares for you more than you think.”

 

He draws closer to Chenping, reaching down to squeeze his hand in reassurance. His other hand reaches to rest lightly on his hair. Absentmindedly, he pats down the little tuff of hair sticking up from Chenping’s head, then starting to frown as it sticks back up again, and again, and again.  

 

“I know! I know, Father has more important duties to do, I’m not.. it’s not right for me to be so selfish, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this!”

 

“No, you’re right.”

 

Chenping tenses beneath his grip and looks up at him in surprise. “...what?”

 

Wei Wuxian just clasps both his hands tighter. “Chenping, there is nothing wrong with wanting to spend more time with your family. Even if you think that is being selfish.”

 

“...Senior Mo?” 

 

Chenping’s hands are warm in-between his palms. Wei Wuxian turns them over in his hands, tracing the back of his hands slowly with his fingers as if he cannot let go.

 

It’s the strangest thing.

 

So he doesn’t let go.

 

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian puts a smile on his face again, like all the times he’d had to be brave, like an invitation, but this time, he feels the echoing warmth, deep and genuine in his chest.

 

“Come on, let’s go play in the festival! But only until zi shi, then we must go back to the inn.”

 

At his words, Lan Chenping finally lifts his head to nod slowly in agreement.

 

“Only if you buy me more candy. And...and a lantern! And that drum over there!”

 

“Alright, alright, xiao shao ye, anything you want at all.”

 

Then a thought strikes Wei Wuxian just as he turns to leave.

 

“....But you have to pay for it, I have no money.”

 

“You!”

 


 

 

It is getting later into the night. Lan Sizhui finally draws away from the window in the corridor overlooking the street.

 

Chenping has never really been very good at controlling his emotions. His younger brother wears his heart and opinions on his sleeve, clear for all to see. It’s most unlike the way of the Cloud Recesses, and Elder Qiren is always exasperated by it, muttering and shaking his head all the time at Chenping.

 

 Lan Sizhui had heard HanGuang Jun mention on occasion, where he thinks no one else is listening, that Chenping must have inherited it from him .

 

He doesn’t know who he is, but it must be Hanguang Jun’s mate that no one will talk about.

 

Lan Sizhui pauses by the doors to the other’s quarters. Jingyi is still fretting in their room ever since Chenping had stormed out.

 

“You’re HanGuang Jun’s personal disciple, Chenping’s big brother... if anything you should be the one to ask him!” Lan Jingyi had pointed out, almost all but shoving him out of the room, and Sizhui could not refute that.

 

...If it were Chenping he would have already burst into his father’s room already.

 

But he is not Chenping, Sizhui thinks. He is...

 

He is not Hanguang Jun’s real son.

 

No matter how much he is treated of the main family and respected as a trusted disciple under Hanguang Jun’s tutelage, Lan Sizhui knows that he has no blood claim to the Lan name. He only bears the name Lan from the esteem Jade’s kindness. It is unspoken because of the scandal behind Chenping’s heritage, but without an heir from Zewu Jun, Chenping is undeniably next in line to the main family. Even Jingyi himself is further down a minor family branch. It is why Chenping’s education is led by the Sect Elders, taught day and night about matters beyond just the ways of Cultivation and swordplay and the qin, but in trade, and history, and strategy and literature...

 

Lan Sizhui knocks on the door twice before he hears HanGuang Jun's soft note of acquisition and steps inside.

 

"This disciple worries about HanGuang Jun’s injury…” He begins by way of explanation as he enters. Sizhui is still in a formal mid-bow, but a gasp escapes him when he sees HanGuang Jun pressing a bloodied bandage to his shoulder.

 

“Shifu!”

 

HanGuang Jun gives him a sharp look and Sizhui falters, stepping back to correct himself.

 

"Please let this son help attend to Father’s injury…”

 

"...Mm."

 

He moves quickly to his father’s side, gathering the edges of the bandage and slowly unravelling the mass of linens into long neat strips under the candlelight.

 

"Young Master Mo is very thoughtful," He remarks, noting the bowl where the herbs had been ground into a dark green paste and warmed near the oil lamps. Fresh bandages have been placed by the side, still carrying the smell of spring water and sunshine. 

 

HanGuang Jun does not reply. Lan Sizhui catches sight of the expression in his eyes, drawn and close, and regrets his words a little.

 

The shift in HanGuang Jun's mood had not gone unnoticed by his children. Chenping naturally could pick up on his father's emotions through their bond, no matter how imperceptible it is. That had been the only reason stopping the usually hot headed younger brother of his from picking a fight with Young Master Mo.

 

Sizhui does not have the same fortune. 

 

But he has grown up by the side of HanGuang Jun, selected to be his own personal disciple. He knows it had been HanGuang Jun who stood before the elders for him to be able to bear the Lan name, even if it had been Zewu Jun who had watched over him in the first few years in the Cloud Recesses. He doesn’t understand this kindness afforded to him, but it is more than he knows he deserves, as a child found on the field of a great battle almost sixteen winters ago.

 

"A-Yuan," HanGuang Jun says in a quiet voice. "What do you remember of your parents?'

 

"HanGuang Jun, I-"

 

Flashes of memories, splintering when he reaches out for them. He remembers the sound of the dizi and wind whipping over barren rocky plains. He remembers laughter, and bright red crackle of campfires on winter nights, the smell of radish soup, bland but homely.

 

He remembers a dark figure, many hands taller than him and always dressed in black, who would pick him up and fly him through the sky in his arms. And that person smelled like red spiderlilies, like star anise, like protection and love and home. But if he presses, he doesn't remember a bond where he should be able to reach out to him as his sire-

 

"I don't…” He frowns, searching back into his memories, through the hazy fog that is sharp hunger and searing heat. “I remember the scent of lycoris, and sharp spice. A.. .qianyuan. ..he would always be in black-"

 

"I see," HanGuang Jun says after a beat, but does not continue.

 

Lan Sizhui carefully wraps the final stretch of bandages around his father’s shoulder, each layer pressed together with a thick layer of healing herbs.

 

"Why does Father ask that of this son?"

 

"Do you miss them?"

 

He tucks the end of the bandage to secure it, fingers pausing as he thinks back to when he had first arrived at the Cloud Recesses. The place had been so large and cold, in the thick of winter. He remembers clinging to Zewu Jun’s robes. He remembers missing the scent of lycoris.

 

"...when I was younger, perhaps, but not after the kindness Father and Zewu Jun has shown to me."

 

“I…” HanGuang Jun starts, then pauses. After a beat, he shakes his head and reaches for one of the teacups that Sizhui quickly rushes over to fill with fresh tea. 

 

"Where is Chenping?" HanGuang Jun asks finally, gaze not lifting from his teacup that he has curled his good hand around. 

 

Sizhui’s eyes widen in alarm.

 

"... Didi is in the room!”

 

HanGuang Jun looks at him, and Lan Sizhui falters, gives up.

 

“Didi has gone out to the festival,” He bites his lip. “But I believe Young Master Mo is with him-”

 

“...Is that so?” 

 

A cloud must have passed by, because for a moment, a shadow flickers across the silver light of the moon falling across HanGuang Jun’s figure. Then it passes, just in time for Sizhui to catch the fading edge of a smile on his Father’s face.

 

Lan Wangji turns to the window, to the moonlight. "That's good."

 


 

A stick of tanghulu , a goldfish lantern and a toy drum later, Wei Wuxian has now managed to get a now beaming Chenping. 

 

Success, he thinks, with a grin to himself as he watches the youth twirl the toy drum in his palms. 

 

Ah, children are so easily won over.

 

Chenping is cute when he’s happy, a bright smile and shining eyes that’s so unlike his father’s tight lipped frown and pinched brows when he was younger.

 

...Now for the grand finale.

 

He takes the vat of wine from the smiling waiter and dumps it onto the low wooden table to a satisfying thump. He can already smell the delicious floral scent and rich, promising smell of rice wine. Laying two cups out on the table, he sloshes the drink into both until they are nearly overflowing.

 

“Emperor’s smile,” Wei Wuxian nudges the cup over to Lan Chenping who eyes it suspiciously. He takes the cup, bringing it to his nose before making a face. 

 

“It smells strange.”

 

“That, young one,” Wei Wuxian leans over to grab the other cup, holding it up to his nose is the smell of good alcohol.”

 

Ah Emperor’s Smile, he smiles down at the clear drink shining with promise in the small wine cup.  It’s the one thing he missed most when, well...when he was dead.

 

Chenping sniffs the drink again, scrunching up his nose like a rabbit.

 

“Alcohol is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses-”

 

Wei Wuxian downs the cup at one go, revelling in the strong, sharp and sweet edge of the rice wine.

 

“Well, it’s a good thing we’re not in the Cloud Recesses right now, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian grins, then brightens as the stall attendant walks over to their table to set down two large bowls, skewers of meat and vegetables, still steaming and smoking hot, slathered entirely in delicious, dark red chilli oil.

 

Chenping’s mouth falls open at the sight.

 

“...Should food be that colour?”

 

“Oh young one,” Wei Wuxian picks up a skewer of grilled meats and waves it at him. “You have much to learn.”

 

“I’m not young! I will be sixteen next winter!” 

 

Chenping continues to wear an expression that is a strange mix of disgust and curiosity as he eyes the contents of the table. Wei Wuxian is sure that his curiosity will win out in the end.

 

The skewer is deliciously numbing and spicy, the chilli oil a satisfying burn at the back of his throat. Chenping is still engaged with his staring battle with the drink, and Wei Wuxian just lets his gaze wander to the small collection of toys that they have gathered from their short jaunt down the street.

 

The bolang gu.

 

Wei Wuxian reaches out for it, twirling it around in his fingers and listening to the steady tock-tock-tock. For some reason, he’d always been fond of this toy-

 

“Alright! I’ll do it!” Chenping exclaims suddenly and makes a grab for a cup of wine. He gulps it down in one go, spluttering as he slams the cup back down onto the table.  

 

“Isn’t it good?” Wei Wuxian leans forward, beaming with pride. The little Lan disciple’s face is still scrunched up like he’d eaten an exceptionally sour prune.

 

“No, it’s not, it’s weird!”

 

“You won’t say that after your second cup,” He grins, already refilling both of their cups as Chenping tries out one of the skewers, face going an alarming red at first but a delighted look flashes through his eyes.

 

“This is good!”

 

Hesitantly, he washes it down with another cup and his eyes grow even wider.



A Lan that could eat chilli and drink wine, who would have thought. Wei Wuxian folds his arms, pleased. In his short time back, this would probably be his proudest moment.

 

“Senior Mo? Can you teach me how to play the dizi?

 

“The dizi?”

 

"I’m not all that good at the qin so Xichen-jiujiu tried teaching me the xiao once. But I think I like the dizi more! Father tried to teach me once, but he isn't…” Lan Chenping makes a face around his wine cup. “...He isn’t all that good at it either."

 

Wei Wuxian wants to snort. Lan Wangji, playing the dizi instead of the qin ? The very idea sounded hilarious. Something as frivolous and flamboyant as dizi playing should be best left to someone like him; Lan Wangji should keep to his refined and elegant qin .

 

“Mo...Senior Mo,” Chenping sways a bit by his side and Wei Wuxian is suddenly keenly aware of the small pile of Emperor’s Smile vats that had piled up by their table. “Thank you for spending tonight with me.”

 

“It’s not fair,” He mutters on in his tipsy stupour, poking at his sleeve forlornly. “ Da ge gets to be with Father all the time ...and Father lets him do anything he wants just because he's not his child. But I ask Father about going to the harvest festival one time and he doesn’t let me go, just says we need to return to the yun shen. I don’t want to go back! There’s so many rules, so many rules! I can’t even call Father Father there, I hate it! I hate it!”

 

Wei Wuxian coughs on his wine, thinking he had heard wrongly for a moment. “Xiao Ping, Lan Sizhui...is not Lan Wangji’s son?”

 

“No!”

 

That cannot be. He wants to grab the little Lan disciple by the shoulder, to ask him to explain, but his eyelids are already sliding half close. Wei Wuxian shakes him a little - he needs to know what he means.

 

“...Chenping, Chenping, what do you mean-”

 

“Chenping!”

 

Turning around, Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi are there by their table, faces red and panting a little as though they had run through the streets finding them. They probably had too.

 

Lan Chenping brightens at the sight of his older brother and cousin despite his tirade earlier.

 

“Da ge! Drink this, this is really good!” He brandishes an entire vat of Emperor’s Smile at them, laughing as he does so.

 

Lan Sizhui gives Wei Wuxian a hesitant look before taking the seat next to Chenping and gently helping guiding the vat of wine in his younger brother’s hands back to the table. Chenping elbows him away and somehow manages to grab two cups, filling them both even if he does spill it over on the table.

 

“Sizhui,” Wei Wuxian presses with a strange, unsettled urgency. “Are you not...Lan Wangji’s child?”

 

“Ah….Chenping has told you that as well,” Lan Sizhui’s voice is mild, but he bows his head and does not meet his gaze. “I...it’s true. They say I was found as a child after a great battle, sixteen years ago.”

 

“Lan Wangji brought you back to Gusu?”

 

“Zewu-Jun brought me back to Gusu. It is only through HanGuang Jun’s kindness that I can stay by his side and ...and call him father.”

 

He looks at the cup of wine that Chenping has pushed across the table to him, and then takes it and downs it before Wei Wuxian can stop him.

 

Three drunk junior Lan disciples later, Wei Wuxian has reached one horrifying realisation. 

 

Lan Chenping’s money pouch is empty.

 

The disgruntled waiter glare at him is intensifying, clearly starting to call his bluff. 

 

Wei Wuxian tucks the empty money pouch back into his sleeve and coughs politely, wearing the best smile that he can conjure even as he looks sheepishly back at the waiter.

 

“Say, good sir-”

 

“I will pay.”

 

A familiar voice that Wei Wuxian is not sure if it is welcomed or not at this point. The waiter walks off with Lan Wangji’s heavy money pouch, leaving Wei Wuxian alone to turn around and face the music.

 

“Oh this...er..Hanguang Jun, I can explain-”

 

To his surprise, Lan Wangji’s expression doesn’t change. He just looks over all three of the juniors, red in the face and half collapsed over the table before turning back to level a flat, distinctly disapproving gaze at Wei Wuxian.

 

“We are going back now.”

 

Chenping jumps to his feet, rushing over to his Father’s side. In his inebriation rather, he all but runs straight into Lan Wangji's leg, except his father catches him and steadies him next to his side.

 

“F-father, this isn’t Senior Mo’s fault, I’m… I’m sorry, I just wanted to see the festival.”

 

“You disobeyed my order."

 

The little Lan’s face immediately falls, and though turned away from him, Wei Wuxian can see the tears welling at the edge of his eyes.

 

He quickly gets to his feet and walks over. “Come now, HanGuang Jun, it’s just one time.” 

 

Letting his hand linger on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, he hopes the other gets his message.

 

“Lan Zhan,” He whispers softly by his ear. “it’s just one night. Chenping just wanted to see the festival once, that’s all.”

 

For the first time, he sees Lan Wangji’s stiff facade falter a little, the edges of his expression softening in the lantern light as he continues to hold his son and it strikes Wei Wuxian as oddly beautiful. 

 

His long fingers brush against his son’s hair, settling gently on both his shoulders as he drops to his knees and bows his head down, foreheads touching. When he sighs, its like the tension lifts from his entire frame. Still, Wei Wuxian doesn’t miss how he is favouring his non-injured side.

 

“You all are safe, that is good.”

 

“A-Ping,” Lan Wangji murmurs, fingers tightening over the edge of his son’s shoulders. “Don’t run off without telling anyone again.”

 

“I....I understand,” Chenping hugs his father’s side even tighter, voice muffled as he buries his face in his robes. “This son apologises for worrying Father.”

 

Relief settles into his heart, and he is smiling without even realising it. Wei Wuxian isn’t quite sure what is coming over him, but looking at Lan Chenping with Lan Wangji is enough. Enough to stop the roiling conflict in his heart, enough to set him at ease.

 

It must be for that reason, that he does what he does next.

 

“HanGuang Jun, it is late but it will not take us more than half a day’s travel more to reach the Cloud Recesses. We can begin our travels later tomorrow.”

 

He takes the other’s hand and pulls him closer.

 

“Come join us at the table.”

 

Lan Wangji looks back at him in silence for a long moment before finally nodding.

 

“Mm.”