Classes had just begun. Once again, the Cloud Recesses were hosting some Juniors from the other sects, so the first day was to acclimate all the other students to the Lan sect atmosphere. The esteemed Hanguang-Jun was to be their mentor for the duration, as Lan Qiren had begun to hoist more leadership duties onto the younger Jade. Perhaps he was thinking about retirement - but none of the disciples dared to voice such hopes out loud.
Lan Wangji nodded, nearly imperceptibly, at Jin Ling - an invitation to speak. The disciple cleared his throat, suddenly more than a bit nervous.
He gestured with a careful hand to the object behind his teacher. “What is… that ?”
A few other disciples piped up, voicing their agreement and confusion. Lan Wangji turned around to get a better look at what Jin Ling had pointed at. An odd move, all things considered - certainly Lan Wangji should have known that he was talking about the ugly porcelain turtle that sat on his desk. There was absolutely nothing else like it in the entire room - no, in the entirety of the Cloud Recesses. It had apparently been some time since the turtle was placed there, but Sizhui and Jingyi had never asked about it up front. They hadn’t wanted to. At least, that’s what they had told Jin Ling when he’d asked them about it earlier.
“I bet Senior Wei put it there as a joke,” Jingyi had theorized, “Hanguang-Jun is just too nice to move it.”
Sizhui frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe Hanguang-Jun likes it.”
Jin Ling snorted and shook his head. “There’s no way. That thing is disgusting to look at.” Then he tapped his chin as he thought a little more. “Well, he likes Senior Wei. You may be on to something, Sizhui.”
“Gossip is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Sizhui said kindly, with a hint of a mischievous smile on his face, “So the only way we’ll find out is if we ask him ourselves.”
“Why haven’t you asked already?” Jin Ling raised a brow. “It can’t be that you’re afraid he’ll punish you.”
Lan Jingyi shook his head. “No, no, nothing like that. Just…” He smiled sheepishly. “It’s kind of embarrassing?” He shrugged. “I was so shocked the first time I saw it that I forgot to ask.”
Sizhui nodded solemnly. “I don’t think anyone wants to bring attention to it.”
“Yeah!” Jingyi nodded enthusiastically. “It’d feel really awkward if we did it now!”
“That’s stupid. You’ll never find out why it’s there, then.” Jin Ling rolled his eyes. “I’ll ask when we go back to class.”
“You’d really do that?” Jingyi jumped up excitedly, as if someone had just offered to make him immortal right then and there. “You’re the best!”
Jin Ling huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s not a big deal.” He begrudgingly denied the warmth in his chest that came with his friends’ smiles.
And so there he was, a few hours later, asking Lan Wangji why he had an unsightly, misshapen turtle on his desk.
The older man turned back to face him with a carefully calm expression. If Jin Ling knew any better, he may have noticed the way Lan Wangji’s lips had curled up ever-so-slightly, only to quickly settle back down to smooth indifference. However, he did not know where to look for those cues, so he missed it completely. “That is the Xuanwu of Slaughter.”
“Why does it look like that?” Jin Ling made a face that was much more easily deciphered as disgust.
It was only then, with Lan Wangji’s gaze focused on him in that moment, did he remember that he was absolutely terrified of the Second Jade of Lan. “Do you not appreciate its craftsmanship?”
The other disciples that had spoken up in agreement suddenly went dead silent. Jin Ling was stranded on a boat in the middle of a lake, and only just now did he realize he was sitting right on top of a Waterborne Abyss. “Uh,” he said eloquently.
When he offered no other explanation, Lan Wangji continued. “It is meant to motivate our disciples to strive forward.” He walked over to Jin Ling’s desk and looked down at him. Jin Ling felt very, very small. “Do you not consider the story of the Xuanwu of Slaughter to be inspiring?”
Jin Ling looked away, sweat trickling down the back of his neck. He caught Jingyi’s eye - his friend looked apologetic for one moment, then stared straight ahead, like any good Lan disciple. Jin Ling had never hated another human being more than in that exact moment, and as soon as class was out, he’d make his friend pay .
“My apologies, Hanguang-Jun,” Jin Ling stammered, “I had no idea.”
Lan Wangji nodded once. “Now you know.” With that, he walked back to the front of the classroom and began the lesson.
“Actually,” his words came of their own accord, thoughts completely disregarding his mental filter before they slipped from his mouth, “Who created that figure?” And suddenly, in a burst of angry, petty energy, he added “I might like to get in touch with them.”
Lan Wangji stared at him, a cool, unreadable expression on his face. Jin Ling remembered all of Jiang Cheng’s horror stories about Wei Wuxian’s time in the Cloud Recesses. Perhaps this was what he felt like.
Well, it didn't feel all that great!
“I do not know where he’s from or what he’s called,” Lan Wangji answered calmly, “Perhaps that is something you should look into on your own. Delaying class is against the rules.”
A few chuckles were murmured from the disciples behind him. Jin Ling turned around to fix everyone with a hot glare. He could tell he was flushed pink, but to save what little face he had, he said nothing else.
He hadn't been punished, exactly, but the embarrassment he felt was more than enough to count as one. Why would Lan Wangji treat him like this? Wasn't he technically one of Jin Ling’s uncles? It wasn't fair!
The rest of the lesson passed in a slow blur of information that he already knew. He would have been bored (and still embarrassed) to tears if not for an interruption at the very end of class.
“Lan Zhan!” A knock at the doorway interrupted the monotone serenity of the classroom. “Are you done yet?”
Lan Wangji, who had been in the middle of explaining the habits of the nearby mountain demons, simply nodded.
All the disciples looked at each other in quiet confusion. Was he really going to end class? The lesson wasn't over yet…
Wei Wuxian strode inside and waved at all the students. “Hello!” He smiled cheerfully. Not for the first time, Jin Ling wondered how someone so expressive got along with Lan Wangji, who was about as forthcoming as a particularly unfriendly rock. “You’re all so lucky to have Hanguang-Jun as your teacher. Isn’t he cute?”
All of the Lan disciples smiled politely, which almost directly translated to heavy, exasperated sighs.
“Class is dismissed.” Lan Wangji announced, not even looking at his students. Nobody needed to hear that twice. Everyone gathered up their things and hurried outside.
Jin Ling lingered just a little bit, as did Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi. While the adults’ public displays of affection were just as grating to witness, it was something the three of them were long since used to by now.
This did not go unnoticed by said adults, however. Wei Wuxian sat on Lan Wangji’s desk and ran a hand over the grotesque turtle’s head. “You still have this here?”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “I was sure someone would have complained by now.” Jin Ling froze. Sizhui and Jingyi looked stricken with fear.
“Someone did.” Lan Wangji was as stringent as possible with his words, as per usual. His eyes slid over the juniors who were still in the room with them. “It interrupted class.”
“Now, that’s not true,” Jin Ling spoke up before he could stop himself, just like before. Damn it! “I asked about it before class had started.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes nearly crinkled in what almost seemed like a smile, if it weren’t so minute. “Your questions ate into my meticulously planned lesson schedule.”
Jin Ling pouted. “Then you shouldn’t have ended class as soon as Senior Wei showed up.” Everyone else had already left, so it wasn’t like Lan Wangji could change his mind and call everyone back inside. Except he probably could, since he was the Second Jade of Lan, and pretty much nobody said no to him these days.
But Wei Wuxian just laughed and leaned in to Lan Wangji’s side. “So you were the troublemaker!”
“I thought it was a fine question.” Lan Sizhui spoke up quietly. “Nobody knew what it was doing there.”
“Yeah, if that thing is supposed to instill bravery in us or whatever, why didn’t you tell us before?” Jingyi rolled his eyes. It seemed the death of the stuffy school atmosphere gave the two Lan disciples their ability to talk back to their seniors.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji shared a look. If any one of the disciples had brushed up on how to read silent conversations, they might have been able to translate what the two were talking about:
We should tell them.
What, and ruin the fun?
They’re going to figure it out either way.
You’re right… Damn. I wanted to play the game a little longer.
… They might be able to keep a secret.
You think they’d play along? Oh, Lan Zhan, I love it!
But none of them were particularly good at reading silent conversations, so they had no idea what had just transpired. All they knew was that Hanguang-Jun and Young Master Wei had been staring at each other for perhaps a moment too long. The three were just about to leave them to it when Wei Wuxian laughed out loud and slapped the desk he sat on. “Okay, okay! Let’s give it a shot.” He fixed his attention to the juniors. “We’ve got a big secret to tell you.”
Jin Ling’s throat suddenly felt very dry.
Wei Wuxian patted the turtle on its misshapen head. “This is just some trinket I picked up on one of our dates.”
Sizhui and Jingyi’s polite smiles looked kind of painful. “So it’s not meant to motivate us?” Jingyi asked hopefully.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Did you really tell them that?”
“It was your idea.” Lan Wangji put a hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, who leaned into the touch and grinned at the three juniors.
“So now you know. You kids’ll keep the secret for us, won’t you?” Wei Wuxian pleaded, but it didn’t really sound like he was begging for anything. He asked it with the smooth confidence of someone who knew they would be listened to. “Jin Ling, you love playing tricks on the other kids. Remember Yi City?”
“Shut up!” Jin Ling barked. “Fine. I’ll keep your stupid secret.”
Wei Wuxian hopped up from the desk and ruffled Jin Ling’s hair. “Thanks! If Lan Qiren ever finds out then we’ll have to get rid of it.” Jin Ling ducked out from under his uncle’s hands and grimaced as he tried in vain to fix his appearance.
Sizhui tilted his head. “Why not put it in the Jingshi?”
“It’s so ugly!” Wei Wuxian made a face. “Why would we put it in there?”
Lan Wangji nodded in agreement.
Jingyi and Sizhui shared a look with Jin Ling.
There was no denying that Lan Wangji had undergone some sort of change when Wei Wuxian had exploded back into everyone’s lives. Before, he had been strict, as one would expect from the one in charge of discipline, but there had always been an underlying softness to him. At least, that’s what the Lan disciples said. Jin Ling had always been terrified of him. But after Wei Wuxian, it was odd. He almost seemed playful at times.
Times like that exact moment, where he looked at his husband with eyes that could almost be described as sparkling.
Sizhui frowned. “But lying is forbidden.”
“It’s not lying if it’s for a prank,” Wei Wuxian waved him off, “Trust me. Would Hanguang-Jun allow me to break the rules?”
Yes , everyone thought to themselves.
“Well… It’s not like it’s hurting anybody.” Jingyi pursed his lips. “I’ll do it.”
It was Sizhui against the world, for one long moment. He looked between the stoic Lan Wangji and the amused Wei Wuxian, deliberated on his choice, and then finally sighed in defeat. “I won’t go against your teachings, Hanguang-Jun.”
Wei Wuxian lit up excitedly and wrapped his arms around Lan Sizhui. The junior turned a bright red in the hug. “You’re the best!” Wei Wuxian crowed.
Jin Ling tried to pretend he wasn’t a little bit jealous. “Come on,” he spat out, “We can’t be late for dinner.”
It took Sizhui a moment to untangle himself from Wei Wuxian’s embrace, but soon the three were out of the Lanshi and on their way to the rest of the evening.
For the first night, the Lan sect held a banquet in honor of all the disciples that were there to train. Unlike any banquet Jin Ling had ever been to, this one was… quiet. Not to mention, the food was bland and colorless, much to his disappointment. He had known that Gusu cuisine wasn’t exactly ripe with flavor, but knowing something was different from experiencing it firsthand. He wasn’t even a huge fan of the Yunmeng spices, but he’d even take mouth-burning pain over this… joyless sustenance.
He had caught Wei Wuxian’s eye in the middle of it. His uncle had simply winked at him and pointed to his own plate. He grabbed an eggplant in between his chopsticks and casually placed it on Lan Wangji’s plate. Lan Wangji picked it up without even looking at his husband and ate it. Wei Wuxian stuck his tongue out at Jin Ling, who looked down at his plate in dismay. The rule “One must finish all the food on his plate” flashed through his mind in big, obnoxiously red letters.
This was going to be a long year.
The next morning, Lan Qiren made a not-so-surprise visit to the classroom. He watched all of the students carefully, no doubt keeping his eye out for any “Wei Wuxian”-type student of the new generation. Everyone in class greeted him courteously, as was expected.
But that was not what caught his eye when he first entered the Lanshi. “What is that ?” He was, of course, referring to the sinfully repugnant turtle that still sat at Lan Wangji’s desk. “Wangji, that’s not…”
Perhaps it was because of the food last night.
Perhaps it was because he had gotten up at five, which was just, the worst time to wake up probably ever.
Perhaps it was because he was still a little angry at how embarrassed he’d been in front of the entire class yesterday.
Or, most likely of all, perhaps it was because Jin Ling knew the rest of this year was going to be hell on him if he didn’t have a little fun with it.
Before Lan Wangji had a chance to respond to his uncle, Jin Ling spoke up. “Didn’t you know?” He stated loudly, “That’s the Xuanwu of Slaughter.”
Lan Qiren’s full attention diverted to him. “Is it now?”
Having been the focus of Lan Wangji’s full attention once before, he found the ire of the acting head of the Lan sect to be a little less terrifying. After all, he was practically the leader of the Jin sect himself, so why should Lan Qiren have any power over him? He crossed his arms over his chest and nodded. “Yeah. It’s meant to inspire us.”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the classroom as everyone else digested what had just happened. “I see.” He narrowed his eyes. “Is this true?”
He clearly didn’t want to hear another word from Jin Ling. Silence descended in the classroom once more, near-deafening. Why wasn’t Lan Wangji saying anything?
“That’s what Hanguang-Jun has taught us, sir.” Sizhui spoke up softly from next to Jin Ling. Jingyi, on his other side, nodded in agreement.
Lan Qiren stroked his beard slowly and turned to Lan Wangji. “Well?”
Their teacher faced Lan Qiren stonily. “Lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
That seemed to pacify the older man, somewhat. He inspected the porcelain mistake a little closer, as if he hoped it would speak up for itself, but of course no such thing would happen.
Lan Qiren’s face turned a soft shade of pink as he looked over it, no doubt repulsed by its poor craftsmanship, but he could find no lie hidden within its cheap, sloppily-painted eyes. He stood up straight and cleared his throat. “Very well. Don’t forget to dust it.” With that, he seemed to have had enough of the classroom for one day. He offered a simple goodbye and legged it out of the Lanshi as fast as possible for someone who took the “no running” rule seriously.
That got Jingyi to snicker. “That’s about as fast as he goes when he sees Senior Wei around.”
Jin Ling smiled at that, but his laugh died in his throat when he noticed the look on Lan Wangji’s face.
He was… smiling. He was looking right at Jin Ling with a smile on his face. Not anything insanely bright or shining, like one of Wei Wuxian’s smiles, but stunning in its own way.
It made him look soft.
“With that out of the way, I believe it’s time to begin the lesson.”
Maybe this year wouldn’t be so bad after all.