“Good work everyone! Now we just need to—“
“What's that smell?”
“Eugh! Oh, that's awful!”
“That's not the corpses, is it? They've never smelled like that before!”
“No, hang on, isn't that—did you hear that?”
Lan Wangxian blinks.
And blinks again.
Then he struggles to move.
It's harder then it should be. His limbs feel weighed down, forcing him to move sluggish and slow as he tries to banish the ringing in his ears. His vision slowly comes into focus and he looks around.
The clearing is still hazy with lingering smoke. It seems to be the only thing to indicate there was an explosion at all, given how the grass around them remains unharmed. The strange green smoke slivers like snakes through the grass as it wafts over the bodies scattered around and for a second it is hard to tell what is a corpse and what is not.
Thankfully it becomes apparent quickly enough with the low sounds of the other juniors stirring around Wangxian. Jin Ling is the first one he notices. His cousin's bright gold robes are stark against the dark grass and dissipating smoke. The boy shakes his head like an irate dog as he stumbles to his feet, cursing under his breath.
He seems fine.
Wangxian turns to the white clad junior beside him. Assuming it's Lan Sizhui, he reaches out to shake them awake, to make sure his brother is alright. He frowns in confusion when instead of Sizhui, Lan Jingyi rolls over to face him.
“Ugh...what was that...?” Jingyi grumbles as he sits up.
“A trap, obviously.” Jin Ling grunts.
“I got that far, thanks. I was hoping for specifics. Like, you know, why was there a trap of exploding corpses out here in the middle of nowhere!”
“The corpses didn't explode.”
“Don't you nitpick me!”
Wangxian ignores them as they continue their usual sniping banter. He looks around at his fellow juniors getting to their own feet around the clearing. The corpses they defeated earlier lay as still and unmoving as they should. But he doesn't see his brother.
“Sizhui?” he calls out.
Beside him, Jin Ling grabs his bow off the ground and suddenly stills. “Hang on...”
“What, is it cracked?” Jingyi asks.
Wangxian stands, looking around the clearing for another flash of white.
Jin Ling scowls. “Of course not! It'd take more then one lousy bomb to crack my bow!”
“Well then, what's with the face? Besides the usual reasons.”
“Why you—! I can't feel its energy, you idiot!”
That draws everyone's attention, even Wangxian's, and then all the juniors collectively turn to their own swords. Wangxian frowns deeply as a chorus of shouts go up around him, all confirming what Jin Ling had said; it seems all of them have been cut off, their spiritual energy sealed and unaccessible for at least a few hours.
“What the hell, what the fu—!” someone yelps.
“Was it the gas?”
“I don't know...”
“Energy sealing gas? That's not a thing, is it? Is it?!”
“Why are you asking me?”
Wangxian tunes them all out. He still doesn't see Sizhui and he doesn't hear his brother's voice among the others ringing out. The area is quickly becoming saturated with scents of anxiety as everyone tries to figure out what happened and the mixture of so many different scents is making his nose itch.
A hand comes down on his shoulder then and Wangxian turns to face Jingyi.
“Hang on...Guys, where's Sizhui?” Jingyi asks loudly over the din. Everyone stops.
“Hey, HanGuang-Jun's other son!”
“Why are you – He has a name!”
“Well he's not answering to it!”
The shouting, though meant well, doesn't really help calm Wangxian's nerves any. His fellow juniors start spreading out, still calling for his brother, and Wangxian digs through his pouch for signal flares. Mama had recently crafted his own special one, meant to partner with the Gusu Lan symbol in case his sons ever needed to call for him and Father specifically.
He doesn't notice his hands are trembling until Jingyi reaches out to snatch the pouch from him.
“You'll drop them at this rate,” Jingyi says. He then plucks out two flares himself before handing the bag back. Beside him, Jin Ling drops one of his own flares on top.
“I'll set these off. You keep looking. Maybe Sizhui already went to get help, you know?” he offers. It's a clear attempt to try and settle not only Wangxian's increasing anxiousness but his own as well.
Jin Ling too looks concerned despite his attempt to maintain that snappish facade of his, but when Jingyi starts walking away to set off the flares, the young sect leader continues to pick his way through the grass and calling for the unaccounted for Lan.
Wangxian tries to breathe, to focus and reorient himself like his father taught him to. He hears the whistle and crackling boom of the flares going off above him, briefly illuminating the sky in blue, red and purple, comforted knowing his parents will be here soon enough.
Then Jin Ling stops dead. His eyes widen and his head snaps back to meet his cousin's eyes.
Wangxian darts forward.
He inhales sharply when he sees what made Jin Ling stop. A white strip in the grass, caught on the prickly stem of some plant or other. He kneels to pick up the white ribbon and fear lodges itself in his throat as the cool silk meets his skin. The cloud pattern is unmistakable. None of the others are missing their ribbon.
Wangxian shoots up.
Sizhui's head throbs.
Blearily, he tries to open his eyes. Little good it does. Everything is dark. He can't see anything except the fuzzy outline of his hands, bound with shimmering rope in front of him.
Deity-binding ropes. That's a problem. So is the gag in his mouth.
He tries to shift, to stretch his (also bound, damnit) legs out, only to find he can't. He frowns and reaches his arms out. His fingers meet rough wood not far above his face. A sudden jolt bangs his head against the wood wall there, making him groan. There's not even room for him to roll onto his side.
It's like he's in...a box? Of some kind?
The creaking and shifting under him makes him think he's in a wagon, but the pounding in his head makes it hard to focus on any other noises to give him clues, though he tries. His sword is definitely gone. Can't feel that anywhere under or beside him. He gives his sleeves a quick shake, feels the weight of his pouch missing, so he knows his talismans are gone too. Not that he could grab them anyway with his hands bound. He tries to see if the guqin string he keeps coiled in his hairpiece, like father had shown him and Zhenli to do when they were just learning to fight, is still there but his fingers are too numb to do anything but fumble around.
So that's out.
Sizhui almost whimpers then mentally chides himself. There's no need for panic. He's uncomfortable, sure, the gag is making his jaw sore and whatever it's laced with burns his throat. Unless, maybe they forced him to drink something while he was unconscious? Whatever the method he certainly feels like he's been drugged. Or rather, how he imagined being drugged would feel like, when reading about it in class.
Anyway. It's not worth panicking. He'll get nowhere if he panics. He just needs to focus a little harder. If he can't see or hear what's going on around him the usual way, he'll just have to reach out with his energy.
So he closes his eyes and does just that.
Or. He tries to.
Sizhui's eyes snap open when, after several minutes of trying, he realizes he can't sense anything. Nothing. Even his core is a barely there pulse.
“—then I'm stuck too! It's true, don't give me that look Lan Zhan, I was really stuck!”
“So now I'm starting to panic, he's still facedown in the pond, everyone else is screaming, and the horses are—Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji looks up at his husband's sudden shift in tone. Wei Wuxian had been sitting by the window during his vivid storytelling, perfectly framed by the night sky and soft candle light, but his usual lax posture has been traded for one more rigid.
It only takes a moment for Lan Wangji to figure out why.
Beyond him the night sky is lit up with the GusuLan Sect cloud symbol entwined with a blazing red circle. A moment later the Yunmeng Jiang Sect lotus joins it.
Their sons are calling.
Jingyi just barely stops Wangxian from blindly charging off by tackling his friend to the ground. The boy's alpha scent is sour and bitter with fear and anger, and the growl he directs at Jingyi makes Jingyi flinch.
“Wait, wait! Wangxian, you have to—HanGuang-Jun and Senior Wei will—!” he struggles to think. Telling the boy to calm down won't do any good. He knows from growing up with them how protective the two brothers are of each other, how Wangxian is even more so due to his quicker temper and Sizhui's hesitance toward confrontation.
Jingyi's worried for his friend too but he recognizes there is little they can do, with their energy cut off and knowing nothing about the people behind this. They can't just go running blind into what could be another trap and Jingyi really doesn't want to have to explain to Senior Wei why both of his sons are mysteriously missing from the group when he and HanGuang-Jun get here.
Jin Ling leaps in to help control his cousin, his own alpha scent surging to battle against the others on instinct, and that really really doesn't help at all Jingyi thinks desperately.
Deity-binding ropes aren't cheap. Whoever is behind this must have been paid handsomely.
To know about the talismans in his sleeves and about needing to seal off his energy as well? Yeah, Sizhui thinks as he tries for another kick at the wooden walls of his prison, either his captors are from another sect or they've dealt with cultivators before.
Between the energy sealing and the drug though, the binding ropes feel a little like overkill. Sizhui can practically hear Mama laughing about the dramatics of it.
“So much trouble to get one junior cultivator? These guys must think very highly of the sects teachings then, haha! No offense boys. I know how strong you are, but some strangers? There's not underestimating the youth and then there's having no confidence in one's own abilities. Tch! Now if they were trying to catch a senior, like say, my dear sweet husband HanGuang-Jun here, then sure! They'd need at least all those things! But a junior? Aiyah, it sounds like someone's compensating for something.”
The drug alone does seem to be doing a pretty good job keeping him, well, useless, Sizhui agrees bitterly. His kicks are feeble at best, not having the space to get proper momentum to do more then thump against the wood of the box he's in. His captors don't even seem to notice. Or if they do they're ignoring it.
His vision keeps swimming in and out, though he can't say for sure if that's from the drug or from his head getting smacked against the wall with every lurch of the wagon. Sizhui groans as the rocking causes another wave of nausea to hit. It's not as bad as when he's on an actual boat but between being tossed around, the headache, blurry vision, and the uncomfortable heat caused by his own body heat being trapped in an enclosed space, he really does not need it.
He tries to breathe through his nose to calm down.
For a moment, it almost works.
Then the wagon picks that moment to go over a particularly bad bump and Sizhui's head slams into the wood again.
His eyes burn with unbidden tears, both of pain and frustration, while an involuntary whimper escapes him.
He's been in tough spots before. He's been in danger before. Such is the life of a cultivator. It's nothing new to him, exactly. The difference between that and this is he'd had options. Weapons. Fellow disciples fighting beside him. He'd been able to think and move and fight back when he'd found himself stuck in less then ideal situations before.
There'd been very few times where he had felt helpless in the past, unable to do anything but watch...watch as everything he'd ever known burned down while clinging to his brother as the sounds of corpses and the night surrounded them in their hiding spot where Mama had left them, not knowing it'd be the last time they'd see him for years...then having to watch, again, after having just gotten Mama back, only to watch both him and Father be swarmed by corpses, so much red and black and the stench of blood, his brother's screams ringing in his ears—!
He shakes his head to banish the memories. They already plague his sleep, he doesn't need them to do so right now. He tries once more to focus, to breathe deeply and calmly like he's been taught, tries to think what he can do.
Except all it does is make him choke around the gag, makes his eyes sting as his numb fingers grapple blindly for purchase on the wood above him.
He's drugged, weaponless, his energy has been cut off, and Sizhui—
Sizhui is scared.
Wei Wuxian isn't sure what to expect when they arrive on the scene. Anything from an army of fierce corpses to a landborne abyss seems plausible with his luck.
He doesn't expect to see the group of juniors he had seen off just hours ago pacing around in a field, completely ignoring the defeated corpses littered around them, and the lingering smell of smoke.
He shoots a confused glance at his husband, who's own brow creases ever so slightly.
Beneath the smell of smoke the air is practically dripping with combined scents of distress, fear, panic, and anger. Some of that changes to relief as the juniors notice their seniors presence, but Wei Wuxian still has to shake his head when they land, the sudden influx of scents making his nose itch. Lan Wangji gives him a concerned look that Wei Wuxian waves off.
The more aggressive scents seem to be coming from where Jingyi and Jin Ling are struggling to restrain a thrashing Wangxian. Jingyi's omega scent is just barely detectable underneath the two alpha's but he's clearly trying his best to calm the situation while Jin Ling is...
Well. Trying in his own way.
“—are you gonna do, you dumbass?!” Jin Ling shouts. “We don't know where they went and you can't fly after them!”
“I don't care!” Wangxian snarls. “I need to—!”
“Whoa whoa! What's going on here?” Wei Wuxian jogs over to the three. “Really now! I leave you alone for one night and suddenly you're at each other's throats? And what's with the mess! Some new technique you didn't tell me about? Honestly, what happened that you couldn't sort out on...your...own...?”
His words trail off with a frown as he notices there's a missing member from the usual quartet of juniors Wei Wuxian likes to claim are “his boys.” Beside him, Lan Wangji has noticed too.
“Where is Sizhui?”
Jingyi and Jin Ling immediately let go of Wangxian, who has gone quite still. When he turns to face his parents, his eyes are wild with panic, and Wei Wuxian inhales sharply when he sees the ribbon clutched in his son's hand.
“Zhenli, where's your brother?”
His son's gaze wavers. “I'm—Mama I—I didn't—“
“There was a trap.” Jin Ling interrupts his cousin's stammering. He's breathing hard after trying to keep Wangxian still and Jingyi beside him is fairing no better. “After we took out the corpses, there was some kind of bomb and then this gas and we were all knocked out. When we woke up, Sizhui was gone.”
Wei Wuxian reaches out to gather Wangxian in his arms. “Okay, well, that's not good. But Sizhui's plenty capable of taking care of himself, you know that. He'll be fine. HanGuang-Jun and I will—“
“They sealed off our energy!” Jingyi bursts out.
Wei Wuxian blinks. Lan Wangji stiffens.
“What? What are you talking about?” His son pulls back to look at him and Wei Wuxian finally notices that his son's usually strong spiritual presence is greatly diminished. In fact, none of the juniors energies are very present. They all chime in to confirm and a quick sweeping glance shows more then one of them are clearly shaken. A few of them point at what must be the sight of the explosion, confirming there is nothing left of whatever was set off except smoldering ash.
“We assume it was whoever did this, which means...A-Yuan must've...” Wangxian croaks. “Mama, Father, I'm sorry, I didn't stop them, it's my—“
Wei Wuxian shushes him, cradling his son's face as his own scent turns soft, a parent instinctually trying to calm their child, and Lan Wangji's scent mimics it, a brush of snow against lotus.
“We were all knocked out, idiot!” Jin Ling snaps. “It's not your fault!”
Jingyi swats his arm with a hiss.
Wei Wuxian ignores the two. His heart thumps rabbit-quick against his ribs, but he forces his scent to stay calm for his son's, and the other juniors, sake. It won't help them any to see their seniors panic, even if it is their son that's missing.
“Sizhui is still more then capable of taking care of himself, even without spiritual energy. He'll be fine.” he repeats firmly. “Your father and I will go get him. Now, Jin Ling, where's that uncle of yours?”
Almost as if thinking of him caused him to materialize out of thin air, Jiang Cheng descends before them, scowl already in place as he barks out, “You can't stay out of trouble for one night? What the hell Jin Ling, I thought you were raised better!”
Lan Wangji steps between them before Jin Ling can respond, interrupting the usual song and dance the pair partake in before it can start, and gestures to the juniors. “Ambushed. Their spiritual energy has been sealed off. Take them back to Cloud Recesses for healing.”
Jiang Cheng's eyes narrow. “Do I look like a babysitter? I came for that one—“ he points at Jin Ling, who bristles out of habit. “—not to herd your disciples around.”
“Sizhui is gone. Wei Ying and I must go retrieve him.”
“How is that my problem? The others can walk back on their own.”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes as the juniors shift nervously. He wisely does not point out how Jiang Cheng came to get Jin Ling, despite the boy being the same age as the other juniors, instead of making him walk back.
“Not safe.” Lan Wangji says, and while Wei Wuxian catches the hidden worry behind his husband's curt tone, Jiang Cheng does not and only scowls harder.
“Are they cultivators or not? Even without their energy they can still—!”
“There's no time, Uncle!” two voices snap in perfect unison.
In any other circumstance, the look on Jiang Cheng's face at the abrupt reminder he does, in fact, have more then one nephew currently present would have Wei Wuxian doubling over in laughter. The equally surprised look Jin Ling and Wangxian share would also be much funnier at a different time. Even Jingyi looks baffled.
Wei Wuxian takes advantage of the stunned silence to step up. “Whoever ambushed the juniors took Sizhui. We're assuming they've cut off his spiritual energy as well, so we'd like to go get him as soon as possible, but we can't just leave the others here.” he explains as Jiang Cheng's gaze snaps to his. “Please, A-Cheng, if you could escort the rest of them back safely while HanGuang-Jun and I go track our other son down, we would be very grateful.”
(Lan Wangji's not the only one that be so studiously polite.)
(Lan Wangji's also not the only one that can insert hidden meaning in their words.)
Wei Wuxian hopes the message comes across well enough to not have to spell it out.
Thankfully, Jiang Cheng seems to understand.
“Fine.” he bites out. “Go get your kid. I'll keep the rest out of trouble. You!” he barks and the juniors all jump to attention. “Let's go, on your feet! Get those corpses taken care of, we're not leaving them here! That means you, Jin Ling! What, did you all fall asleep? Move it!”
While the other juniors scramble to obey, Wangxian grabs Wei Wuxian's arm.
“I'm going with you!” he declares fiercely.
Wei Wuxian smooths his son's hair. “No, you're not. Your father and I need you to be where we know you're safe.” And out of the way if this gets ugly, he adds silently.
“Ah ah, no buts! You know better then to argue with your mother. Right, Lan Zhan?”
His husband nods once and places a reassuring hand on his son's shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “Stay. We will bring Sizhui back soon.”
Wangxian looks between the two of them, and for a moment it seems like he's going to argue further, but Jiang Cheng grabs him by the collar of his robes and yanks him back. “You heard them, you're coming back with me. Besides, they're going to be flying, which you can't do with your energy sealed off,” he growls. “Do you trust them to bring your brother back or not, huh?”
The fight bleeds out of Wangxian at that. Wei Wuxian shoots Jiang Cheng a grateful look as the man pushes Wangxian towards the other juniors. His brother holds his gaze for a second before giving a jerky nod.
“And don't even think of trying to sneak off after them or I'll snap your legs like twigs!” Jiang Cheng adds as he stalks after his nephew.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head fondly and turns to his husband. Lan Wangji holds out his hand.
“Well then! Let's go get our son, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji nods.
Wen Ning turns his head toward the distant call of Young Master Wei's flute.
He rises from the patch of moonlight he'd been sitting in and melts into the shadows.
The clearing doesn't give them much clues, unfortunately. By the time Jiang Cheng has herded all the juniors away, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji have picked the area clean for suspicious materials, and there's nothing but a thin layer of ash and smell of singed corpse from the initial explosion.
“There's not even a drop of substance that would block someone's spiritual energy in this,” Wei Wuxian sighs, rubbing ash between his fingers. “Or anything else suspicious to give us a clue. The gas must have been to knock the juniors out and then they used something else to seal off their energies.”
Lan Wangji hums.
“If it was a spell or talisman, then they must be cultivators, probably rogues if they are, or sect drop outs,” Wei Wuxian muses. “That would explain how they knew to use the corpses as bait, too. And they must be familiar with how GusuLan trains to knowingly recognize a group of unsupervised juniors. Unless they thought their tricks would work on a senior. That's rather bold of them. The question is; why kidnap a cultivator in the first place? I haven't heard of anyone from other sects going missing, have you Lan Zhan?”
“No. Might not share that information though.”
“True, true. It doesn't make a sect look good to have their disciples kidnapped.”
Wei Wuxian stands, fingers twitching on Chenqing. “Wen Ning should be here soon. Maybe he saw something.”
Lan Wangji doesn't respond to that, his eyes narrowed as they scan the area for the nth time. He's not quite pacing in circles, but it's as close to it as the great HanGuang-Jun gets; shuffling his position every few minutes.
For all his silence Wei Wuxian knows that while Lan Wangji has the utmost faith in his families abilities, he does not take kindly to even the slightest hint of a threat against them. Spoken or otherwise. No doubt when they find their Sizhui and whoever took him, those people are going to experience firsthand that rare Lan temper in all its glory.
As for himself, Wei Wuxian drums his fingers anxiously over Chenqing's length. He'd meant what he said about Sizhui being able to take care of himself. He's one of his sons, after all! And HanGuang-Jun's! He knows firsthand how brilliantly talented both his boys are in the family line of work.
Call him a paranoid parent but with every passing moment that he doesn't know exactly where Sizhui is, worry gnaws at him. The whole “spiritual energy sealed off” thing doesn't help either. According to the juniors and the meager clues, the group was unconscious for at least an hour. That's too much of a head start for his liking, even if the culprits are only on foot (he doubts they are but anything is possible.) There's four roads around here, each one leading off in a different direction and with no hint to which direction the culprits went, Wei Wuxian refuses to waste precious time randomly picking one road and risk the possibility of it leading them away from Sizhui.
Wei Wuxian hates waiting. Especially this kind of waiting. The kind of waiting that grows increasingly more tense as the night drags on around them, blissfully unaware of the two men standing under its dark cloak waiting for a sign. For Wen Ning, for a flare from Sizhui himself, for something to give them direction.
A warm hand encases his, pulling it away from where his fingers had been tapping at Chenqing. Wei Wuxian turns to see Lan Wangji standing beside him. His golden eyes mirror that same restless need for action Wei Wuxian is feeling. He gives Wei Wuxian's hand a squeeze.
Wei Wuxian breathes out and nods, a small smile quirking his lips.
His bangs stick to his face, sweat and possibly blood trickling from his hairline to his neck. The box isn't air tight but it is still rather stifling and Sizhui feels like he's slowly being roasted. Or maybe the drug has the side effect of causing a fever, who knows. At this point he doesn't particularly care.
He doesn't know how long he's been in here but it feels like hours have passed.
He hopes the others are okay. Hopes they didn't get taken too. Hopes they're not suffering from whatever he's been drugged with or worse. Hopes someone has gotten word back to Cloud Recesses, has let Mama and Papa know what's happened. Hopes someone—his parents, his brother, Jingyi, Jin Ling, his uncles, anyone—has figured out where he is and is coming after him.
The wagon jolts over another bump and Sizhui groans.
He hopes they come sooner rather then later.
Wei Wuxian is quick and to the point when Wen Ning gets there. He explains what happened and has already redirected Wen Ning's anger (and concern) to focus on whether he saw anything on his way over.
“Anything. At this point we've got nothing to go on,” Wei Wuxian says, trying very hard to keep the desperation out of his voice (judging by the looks Lan Wangji and Wen Ning give him it didn't work.)
Wen Ning starts to shake his head before pausing. His eyes narrow thoughtfully. “There was...a wagon. Heading west. With two men and cargo, but no lantern.”
Lan Wangji's frown deepens.
“No lantern, eh? At this time of night? Sounds like someone who doesn't want to be seen.”
Lan Wangji has already unsheathed Bichen and is offering his hand to Wei Wuxian.
“Lead the way, Wen Ning!”
The wagon stops.
Sizhui almost wants to cry with relief and prays they at least open the box a crack because he feels like he's close to suffering from heatstroke. And he's nauseous. And bruised.
(Lan's aren't supposed to complain but he feels like he's earned a few free grumbles at this point.)
There's shifting and he hears voices before the wood at his feet slides away and suddenly he's being yanked out of the box.
He only has a brief moment to enjoy the blessedly cool air before he lands hard on the ground, a cloud of dust around him as he's left where they unceremoniously dropped him. He bites back a groan and squints. Judging by the pink and purple streaked sky above him, the sun has just started to rise, which means he's been in that box for at least several hours. He should be able to access his spiritual energy by now.
He tries and everything spins violently.
That's a no, then.
“You cut him off, right?” a disembodied voice barks from above.
There's scuffing around him. “Yeah. Need to reapply it soon though.”
Ah damnit, Sizhui thinks. Then there's a hand in his hair and he's dragged to his feet. The sudden motion makes spots explode in his vision as sharp pain shoots through his skull. Any sound he makes is muffled by the gag.
The face looking down at him is blurry.
“Still think we should have grabbed the yellow one,” it says roughly. “The Lanling Sect would've been a bigger payoff.”
A harsh laugh. “Are you crazy? That kid reeked of alpha. He's probably some top ranked cultivator's crotch-spawn and I ain't taking the risk of being slaughtered for kidnapping the possible heir to a major sect. I'd like to actually enjoy our reward.” There's the sound of wood sliding back into place. “A random beta kid is safer. All the sects have dozens of them, so what are the odds of us grabbing an important one? And the Gusu Sect is just as loaded as Lanling. We'll still get a fat purse for the brat.”
If Sizhui had the coherency to appreciate the irony, he'd snort.
Instead he gets dropped back in the dirt.
“Ey now, don't rough him up too much. We don't want them hunting us down for costing them a cultivator 'cause we ruined those pretty hands he needs for brushwork or something.”
“What makes you think they won't hunt us down anyway?” another voice whines. “They have the manpower to spare!”
A hand wraps around Sizhui's arm, lifting him to his feet once more, and then his world rapidly shifts as he's thrown over someone's shoulder.
“We get our money and they'll get their precious disciple back,” the voice that sounds like the leader is explaining. “The major sects are no different then the lesser ones. All about pride and appearances. They won't wanna let word out one of their own got plucked out from right under their prim lil' noses. No, they'll wanna bury the whole thing as quickly as possible. They won't bother tracking us down and we can quietly disappear with all our money.”
“Still think Lanling would pay more...”
A sharp thwack and a grunt. “No one asked you. Now get the talismans.”
“Think he needs another round of the drug, too?”
Please no, Sizhui thinks.
“Can't hurt. 's not like it's deadly and it shuts him up if nothing else.”
“Mama, look. There's people at the Grave House!”
The young woman frowns and looks to where her daughter is pointing. Surprise makes her hands jerk on the reins, pulling their cart to a stop. The pair of donkeys snort at the rough treatment.
Hastily, she shushes them.
“Ai, get down and stay down until I tell you to.”
Her daughter frowns but recognizes the seriousness in her mother's tone, so she obeys and bends down out of sight behind the cart's sides. She watches as her mother stares, eyes narrowed and lips twisted into a frown, for what seems like a long time before quietly nudging the donkeys onward once more.
She wonders what about people at the long empty house could make her mother frown like that.
Maybe it was the way they dropped the white one on the ground.
That was rather rude of them. Mama and Mami never liked it when she dropped things on the ground after all.
By the time the moon sets and the sun starts to peak over the horizon, they've passed several small farms whose owners suffered from the unfortunate shock of having two cultivators and a fierce corpse crash down their doors in the middle of the night.
(Thankfully they didn't seem too angry after being given a hasty explanation, apology, and some coin to replace their doors.)
When they finally come across a town, Wei Wuxian wants to scream. Sure, it may be a small town, but it's still too big! Too many buildings, too many possible places where Sizhui could be, and no way of knowing if he's even in this town or the next one and they're just wasting time lingering here.
If he buries his face in Lan Wangji's shoulder and just, screams, would his dear husband judge him?
(Probably not but he still doesn't do it.)
The sun creeps higher as the morning rolls on. Wei Wuxian procures a cloak to toss over Wen Ning so he doesn't accidentally scare anyone and the three of them split up to search for any sign of the wagon or the men Wen Ning described in it. When that provides no results they move to asking the locals about any missing persons or suspicious travelers passing through.
“These people can't be that good!” Wei Wuxian whines. “Ugh, Lan Zhan, I think I'm losing my touch!”
His weak attempt to joke only makes Lan Wangji's expression tighten, his husband seeing right through his act, and Wen Ning grimace. Right then. Wei Wuxian turns to his sleeves and digs through his talismans. He must have something useful on him! Because some run of the mill kidnappers outsmarting him is just ridiculous, really, unless they turn out to be dealing with some top secret undercover revenge plan from another sect who found out about his sons and decided to lure out the evil Yiling Patriarch (formerly evil, damnit, formerly) into a trap. But that doesn't make much sense because then they surely would have taken Zhenli as well (Wei Wuxian does not dwell long on the possible scenario of both his sons being taken. Nope. Not going there.)
Or maybe this was a plot to go after the great HanGuang-Jun, using a disciple from his own sect as bait. No, wait, these people couldn't possibly know Lan Wangji would personally go after a kidnapped disciple. Wei Wuxian knows his husband would, in a heartbeat, because his husband is just that good a person, but that's not really general knowledge among the common public. Or is it? His husband's reputation is pretty well known...
Wei Wuxian doesn't realize he's started pacing until he walks straight into Lan Wangji.
His alpha's scent is sour with worry but there is the underlying hint of soft sandalwood trying to make itself known, to reach out and offer some comfort. Lan Wangji's gaze softens a little as he wraps strong arms around his mate and Wei Wuxian feels some of the tension bleed out of him.
“We will find him.”
Sizhui rolls onto his side, shifting until he finds the rock again, and continues rubbing his cheek against it.
His captors may have thought when they tossed him into the small room they were leaving him to do nothing but stare at dirt while his vision swam in and out of focus for hours. But Sizhui is not his parent's child for nothing. Without the incessant rocking from the wagon and the subsequent nausea caused by it finally calming down, he's able to focus a little easier. Of course the room he's locked in is bare, there's not even a single window for him to keep track of time, but it has a dirt floor. And where there is dirt, there is (usually) rocks.
It had taken some fumbling with his still numb fingers but he had managed to find a decently sized rock partially buried under the dirt floor, and the texture is just rough enough for his idea to work.
The fabric of the gag in his mouth isn't high quality nor very thick from what he can tell, so Sizhui sets to work rubbing the part of the gag where it lays across his cheek in hopes that the fabric is cheap enough to be worn down. If he gets it frayed enough to rip a hole in it, he should be able to rip the rest himself even with clumsy fingers and at least be rid of this one binding.
Of course Sizhui doesn't know how long he's been at it. Nor can he tell if it's working exactly. The only thing he's certain of at this point is he's rubbed part of his cheek raw. There's red streaks on the rock and that part of his face stings.
He keeps at it.
“I see her, Lan Zhan.”
The little girl has been staring at them for a while now. If Wei Wuxian didn't know better, he'd think she was following them, except she hasn't left the side of the young woman she's with. The woman hasn't spared them a glance so it must just be them coincidentally moving in the same direction through the town's market.
Still. The little girl is staring very intently and normally Wei Wuxian would brush it off. Children tend to be awed by his husband wherever they go, so stares from little ones too shy to say hello are nothing new.
Except this little girl doesn't look shy or awed. There's a curious gleam in her eyes and a worried frown on her face that gives him pause.
Finally, Wei Wuxian smiles at her and waves.
The little girl starts, mouth forming a small 'o', before she tugs on the young woman's sleeve and points at them. The young woman's eyes dart up at them and suddenly widen. She turns to the owner of the cart she's at, mouth moving. The man glances over at them, nods, and then the woman is taking the little girl's hand and briskly walking towards them.
Wei Wuxian arches a brow at his husband, who looks just as surprised.
“Excuse me,” the young woman says, bowing before them. The little girl mirrors the action. “Are either of you by chance looking for someone?”
“Dressed like him?” the little girl adds and points directly at Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji's eyes widen. Wei Wuxian pounces.
Sizhui thinks he's almost got a hole started in the gag when he hears raised voices. He pauses, strains to hear, and then the door suddenly bangs open.
“Oi! What're you doing, huh?”
Sizhui struggles to sit up, squinting while his eyes rapidly try to adjust to the sudden light. This proves to be a pointless endeavor when he gets smacked across the face and knocked back to the ground.
“What did I say about roughing the brat up!”
“Like that matters anymore!” one of his captors growls. “Word in town is there's some cultivators from Gusu asking questions. We need to ditch the kid and go!”
Through the haze of fresh pain, Sizhui perks.
“We're not in town,” the leader's voice sneers. “They're not gonna find us out here.”
“But cultivator's from Gusu...” that whiny one says. “What if it's HanGuang-Jun?”
A scoff. “And why the hell would he be here?”
“Well it is one of his sect's disciples...”
“I told. You. No sect wants word of this kind of thing getting out 'cause it'll make them look bad. Sending one of the world's top ranked cultivators would just draw unwanted attention. It's probably some green pair on their first outing as adults or whatever, which we can handle. So calm the hell down both of you!”
They leave the room still bickering. As he's plunged back into darkness, Sizhui shakes his head to clear it and turns his attention back to the rock.
He really hopes it is Mama and Papa though. Just to see the looks on his captor's faces.
After ushering the pair out of the market and busy streets, the woman introduces herself as Lu Xia and her daughter Lu Ai, and quickly starts explaining how on their way to market this morning they saw something strange.
“We live rather far so we have an early start,” Lu Xia says. “and I've traveled that road for many years and have rarely seen anyone at this place, let alone so early in the morning. I wouldn't have thought much of it except it looked...well, there were three people standing around a wagon and a fourth person lying on the ground.”
“The white one!” Lu Ai chimes in helpfully, her wide eyes locked on Wen Ning, who had immediately captured the girl's attention. “Mama didn't see 'cause she was watching the road like she's 'spose to, but I saw. They pulled the white one outta box and then just dropped 'em on the ground.” Her lips purse. “It was very rude. People shouldn't drop things on the ground,” she tells them with the air of someone imparting great wisdom.
Wen Ning and Wei Wuxian nod solemnly.
Lu Xia winces apologetically. Lan Wangji gestures for her to continue.
“The, ah, 'white one' was moving. From what I could tell they appeared sedated. I would have tried getting a closer look at the situation myself except...”
Her gaze darts to her daughter examining Wen Ning's hand with rapt fascination.
Lan Wangji understands.
“I thought I'd be able to find someone who could send word to one of the nearby sects when we got to town. Then Ai saw you two and when I asked the merchant if you were cultivators, he said you were and that you'd been asking around all morning so. Well.”
She spread her hands in a “here we are” gesture.
The three men bow deeply before the mother and daughter. Lan Wangji, his eyes gleaming with gratitude when he rises, says; “Thank you for helping us.”
Lu Xia just smiles softly.
The Grave House, as Lu Xia said it tended to be called after being abandoned for so long, turns out to be a ways out of town. By the time they get there the sky is just starting to bleed from blue to red.
Wei Wuxian is practically vibrating with the need to just blow the whole building up. He knows he can't, he knows, not until they determine where exactly Sizhui is inside so he doesn't get caught in the crossfire, but still. The temptation is very much there.
Beside him, his husband is doing a much better job of restraining himself. On the outside. Wei Wuxian can tell by the tightness of Lan Wangji's shoulders, the set of his jaw, and his narrow gaze that his husband is just as eager to wreck some havoc on these culprits who took their son.
The white knuckle grip on Bichen is also a rather large indicator.
They send Wen Ning ahead first to scope out the situation. He reports back that there are three men inside and Sizhui is not with them.
They must be keeping Sizhui somewhere else in the house then.
“You two take the front. I'll sneak in the back in case they make a run for it,” Wei Wuxian whispers.
Lan Wangji nods.
Wei Wuxian crouches in the shadows of the building, listening while the three men inside snap at each other in what sounds like a reoccurring argument. It only takes a few minutes of eavesdropping for him to roll his eyes.
So the men are just run of the mill kidnappers looking for a ransom. He curses. These are the idiots who'd hid from him all day? Really?
On the one hand, he supposes it's a good thing they're just overly ambitious kidnappers. Only two of them look like they're any good with a weapon and it will be all too easy to take the trio as a whole down.
On the other hand, they took his son. On a whim. For their stupid little get rich quick scheme.
They're going to regret that oh so much.
He raises Chenqing to his lips and begins to play.
Sizhui spits the accursed gag out with a cough, his throat burning with every breath, just as he hears a familiar groan in the distance. The walls around him seem to shudder as the shadows curl toward the sound.
A faint groan drifts out from amongst the trees, rippling across the silent countryside like a breeze. To an untrained ear, it could almost pass as the wind playing through a forest of bamboo, gentle and unassuming.
But Lan Wangji knows the sound. Lets it wash over him as the shadows dance, answering the song's beckoning call to them. Beside him Wen Ning shifts waiting for their cue.
Then a spark of red light flashes in the sky, pulsing once before vanishing quick as a firefly.
The men inside the house barely have time to register their candles being snuffed out by a mysterious breeze before the front door is flying off its hinges in a burst of energy. One of them shrieks and makes a dash for the hallway behind him, while the other two grab for their swords.
A fruitless gesture.
Wen Ning lunges. He goes for the nearest man's throat, hand curling around it and slamming the man into a wall with a feral roar. The man's sword clatters to the ground beside him as he slumps to the floor.
The other man charges at Lan Wangji before recognition seems to dawn on him. Blood drains from his face but by then it's too late. Bichen's blade flashes, taking one second to knock the sword out of the man's hand and the next to pin him to the wall.
From another room comes a scuffle, a yelp, and a thud, followed by a familiar cackle.
All in all the culprits are subdued in less then one breath. It's almost insulting.
Lan Wangji takes a step forward and his icy presence dominates the room, his scent bitter with fury and rapidly overpowering all others present as he stares down the length of Bichen's blade, golden eyes dark.
“Where. Is. My. Son.”
The man's eyes bulge. “Y-yo-your son...?”
He presses Bichen closer with a snarl.
“O-out back! Back shed, back shed, he's in the back shed, we didn't kno—!”
The man's dropped unceremoniously to the floor, white robes sweeping past him. He has one moment to breathe before Wen Ning surges forward and knocks him unconscious.
Sizhui jumps when the door bursts open for a second time. This time though, the scent of sandalwood and snow wafts over him, and he sags with relief. A weak whimper escapes him as white obscures his vision and then strong arms are pulling him close.
Sizhui buries his face in soft white. “Papa...”
“Shh,” a familiar voice hums at him, trembling hands smoothing the hair out of his face.
Rapid footsteps and then a second scent of spice and lotus blossoms joins them not a moment later, another set of arms wrapping around him. The hands that cradle his face shake slightly, mindful of the split skin, as lips press against his forehead and murmur soothingly.
“A-Yuan. Oh A-Yuan, my baby, it's okay, we're here. We've got you, mama and papa have you. You're safe now, I promise, my little lotus, you're okay now, we're here...”
And Sizhui melts into the mingling scents of lotus and sandalwood that mean safety and home.
Wen Ning tosses the culprits in their own wagon to take them back to Cloud Recesses for punishment. The donkey doesn't even bat an eye at the change of masters. Wei Wuxian adds an extra three (or four, or five, who's counting) paralysis talismans on each of the men.
“Just to make sure they don't cause Wen Ning any trouble!” he chirps, but there's a slightly sadistic quirk to his grin that neither Lan Wangji or Wen Ning comment on. Neither of them check to see if the talismans are what he says they are, either.
Wen Ning sends them on their way first, despite Wei Wuxian offering to ride with him in the wagon, but Wen Ning gives him a knowing look, gaze going to Lan Wangji and Sizhui before back to Wei Wuxian, and assures him that he'd rather Wei Wuxian be with A-Yuan right now.
“I know A-Yuan is safe when the young masters are with him,” he says with a gentle kind of certainty.
A complicated look flashes in Wei Wuxian's eyes at that. Then he blinks and it's replaced by a smile. “Then we'll entrust you with this!” he says and holds out Sizhui's sword (which had been located in another room) to him. “Sizhui will want it back after all and we don't have the room on Bichen.”
Wen Ning nods and tucks the sword under the wagon seat with great care.
“See you back home,” Wei Wuxian salutes before running over to where his husband waits with their son.
The way back is slow. Three grown people isn't exactly typical for a sword to carry, so Bichen is slowed down a little by the extra weight. Combined with Lan Wangji being extra cautious and flying lower then usual, by the time they return to Cloud Recesses it's well past curfew.
Lan Wangji carries Sizhui all the way, the boy curled up tight against his chest. Sizhui's trembling had thankfully stopped by the time they reach the Cloud Recesses gates and he's in a deep, no doubt exhausted, sleep.
Three forms are sitting at the gate when they arrive. Two are slumped against each other while the third sits ramrod straight, hands fisted in his robes as he stares out into the night, ever alert and watchful. As soon as Wangxian spots them, he scrambles to his feet with a shout of “A-Yuan!” that jolts Jingyi and Jin Ling from their half-asleep states. The two knock heads as they get up, relief evident in the slump of their shoulders when they spot their friend safe in the arms of the seniors.
Wangxian latches on to his father's arm with a desperate need to confirm – needing to see for himself, to quell the panicked thoughts that have been stampeding through his mind – that his brother is fine. When he sees blood on Sizhui though he turns panicked eyes to his parents, mouth already opening to ask.
Wei Wuxian pulls his son into a hug. “He's alright. He just needs rest.”
Only then does Wangxian bury his face in his mother's shoulder.
Jingyi and Jin Ling both volunteer to alert Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren of their return before sprinting off to do just that while Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian settle Sizhui in the jingshi for the night.
A medic comes by, sent by Lan Xichen no doubt, bowing before them as she asks to check on the young Lan. She does so with a kind of quiet sureness to her actions and once she finishes, she assures them with a gentle smile that Sizhui will be fine, he just needs the energy seal to fade and let the drug work itself out of his system.
“I've seen this before,” she explains. “It only takes a day or two, even for multiple dosages. Let him rest and give him some broth when he wakes. He shouldn't have solids until the drug is completely out of his system. And have him drink plenty of water. He will be back on his feet in no time, young masters.”
With that she takes her leave and the jingshi is quiet except for the soft sounds of Sizhui sleeping.
Wangxian hovers by the bed until Wei Wuxian forces him to lie down as well. His son only relents once he's curled up beside his brother and holding one of Sizhui's hands between his own.
The sight tugs on Wei Wuxian's heart. They're going to have to sit down and talk about the guilt Wangxian must be feeling after this incident, Wei Wuxian knows his son well, but that can wait until morning. Maybe even a day or so. For now he lets both his sons sleep.
Lan Wangji sits on the floor beside him and Wei Wuxian slumps against him, burying his face in his husband's shoulder. Lan Wangji takes one of his hands to hold between his own and it's only there that Wei Wuxian can feel the tremors (of adrenaline, of relief) that makes both their hands shake.
“He's fine. He's fine, we found him, he's fine, they both are. Everyone is fine.” Wei Wuxian mutters, as much to reassure himself as his husband. Lan Wangji hums and presses a kiss to his hair.
“We found him.”
Wei Wuxian huffs a laugh.
The rest of the night passes quietly for the most part. The slightest sound from Sizhui has both Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian jolting awake, rushing to his side – to remind him where he is, who he's with – and it only takes a few whispered words and soft touches to send the boy back to sleep. Wangxian only stirs once in the night, when his hand slips out of his brother's and he wakes in a dazed panic to find it again.
Lan Xichen brings them breakfast when the sun rises. He lingers just long enough to confirm with his own eyes that his nephews are safe and sound before retreating, a relieved smile on his face. Jingyi does the same a little later, stopping by to peer in on his friends before having to run off to class.
Jin Ling comes by with Jiang Cheng both to check in and say goodbye. Sizhui is still asleep and since Wangxian is tired himself, the goodbyes are brief. Jin Ling makes his cousin promise to inform him right away as soon as Sizhui wakes, his demanding tone softened by the worried furrow of his brow.
Wei Wuxian shows them to the door after, both so Lan Wangji doesn't have to get up from where he's settled by their sons, gently carding his fingers through Sizhui's hair as he sleeps, but also...
“Thank you, A-Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng just grunts. “Idiot. I didn't do anything.”
Jin Ling shakes his head and mutters something about telling his mother.
Sizhui sleeps late into the afternoon. There's a brief moment where he'd stirred earlier, shifting to lay his head in Lan Wangji's lap before settling there while Lan Wangji continued to stroke his hair and hum softly to him.
Other then that, though, Sizhui sleeps peacefully. The medics say this is a good thing.
When Sizhui does wake, he's quiet about it, because of course he is. He only blinks tiredly at the sunlight that's pouring into the room from the little windows. The movement alerts his father though, who hasn't moved from his position for hours now, Sizhui's head still comfortably in his lap.
His son squints at him. “Pa...papa?” he tries, his voice hoarse.
Lan Wangji's breath leaves him in a shudder. He nods. Sizhui smiles softly at him as he leans down to nuzzle Sizhui's hair, dropping a scent mark on him, and then a second one just for good measure. Sizhui chirps, a pleased little purr in his throat that his father answers in kind with his own rumbling one.
Wei Wuxian's voice draws both their attentions. He'd only just managed to persuade Wangxian to go change into a fresh set of robes (he'd still been wearing the ones from the night hunt) by taking him himself.
Upon seeing his brother awake and trying to sit up, Wangxian leaps onto the bed. Sizhui yelps as the force of his brother all but tackling him sends him flat on his back. Wangxian's not quite crying but he is holding Sizhui awfully tight and muttering apologies into Sizhui's (damp) shoulder, so Sizhui hugs him back and pats his brother's head like he used to when they were little. He tries to speak but his throat is still sore so it doesn't quite work. Later then.
Wei Wuxian joins them on the bed and wastes no time pulling both his sons into a fierce hug. Sizhui clings bodily to him, inhaling the comforting scent of spice and lotus with a sigh.
Wangxian wriggles free after a moment to go sit by his father and let their mother focus all his attention on Sizhui. Wei Wuxian cradles Sizhui's face in his hands and presses kisses all over it while muttering violent threats of bodily harm to anyone who thinks about touching either of his sons ever again.
“I won't need Chenqing to control their corpse because there won't be a corpse to control,” he says with a deep scowl as he holds Sizhui tightly against him. “Right, my sweet, beautiful Lan Zhan.”
It's hardly a question but their father responds anyway.
“Oh A-Yuan, my precious little lotus,” Wei Wuxian coos, kissing Sizhui's hair. “I'm not letting you out of my sight for a week. No, a month! Three months! You too A-Li, you're not going anywhere either! I'm declaring it a rule: Lan Sizhui and Lan Wangxian are not allowed out of either Wei Ying or Lan Zhan's line of sight. I'll carve it into the wall myself! Just watch Old Man Qiren try to stop me!”
The look Wangxian and Lan Wangji exchange says they can't tell if he's serious or not.
“I'll do it, Lan Zhan, I swear!”
Sizhui can't help but smile, just a little, and nuzzles into his mother's shoulder.
Wei Wuxian abruptly stops talking to return the gesture, nuzzling Sizhui under the ear and purring loudly like he used to when Sizhui was little and it'd make the boy giggle. It garners the same reaction now and Sizhui catches Lan Wangji watching them with soft eyes.
Then Wangxian is being pulled back into their mother's arms and their father wraps his own arms around all three of them and—
Sizhui sighs contently as he's surrounded by his families warm embrace.