The night hunt starts as it always does: uninteresting and with Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi’s chattering in the background.
“If you put that trap there, it won’t catch shit,” Lan Jingyi tells Jin Ling, pointing at it with the tip of his sword.
“Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui calls patiently, turning his head. “Language.”
“I’m just saying the truth,” Lan Jingyi retorts, crossing his arms. “Look at it, Sizhui. Even you can tell that it’s not a good spot.”
Jin Ling furrows his brows and readjusts the bow on his back. “Are you done? I’m not going to move the trap from there, just so you know.”
“That’s because you’re dumb,” Lan Jingyi mutters. It draws an audible gasp out of Jin Ling, and a sigh from Lan Sizhui.
“How dare you, Lan Jingyi!”
“Be honest with yourself! It’s too close to the tree like this, the best it can hope to catch is a squirrel, or… or a hedgehog, I don’t know! Surely not a ghost!”
Jin Ling’s frown deepens and he slams a hand against his chest, his fingers curling around the white peony on his robes. “I’ve put more traps up than you’ve ever seen in your life.”
“Oh, sure, I remember the ones we cut down on Dafan Mountain that night,” Lan Jingyi retorts with a grin, and Jin Ling steps forward. “Why, you —”
“Guys,” Lan Sizhui calls exasperatedly, turning his head back. “Will you two please stop arguing?”
“He started it!” Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling say at the same time, pointing at each other. They exchange a glance, then, and both turn their head to the other side, hands crossed and identical pouts on their faces.
Lan Sizhui sighs and shakes his head, focusing again on the tracks they had been following in the first place. They’d been clearer at the entrance to the forest, big hoof marks with burnt edges. They’d initially thought it could be a Bull Demon, but now the traces have gone smaller, less clear.
It makes it just that much harder to figure out exactly what it is they’re trying to hunt, and his two friends bickering in the background aren’t exactly helping.
“I think it might be a shapeshifter,” Lan Sizhui says, in a weak attempt to distract his two friends enough to make them stop arguing. It works, somehow; Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling still don’t look at each other in the eye as they kneel next to him, but at least they’re not bickering anymore.
“A shapeshifter, you say?” Lan Jingyi asks, leaning against Lan Sizhui’s shoulder to get a better view. Jin Ling does the same, just on the other side, and Lan Sizhui finds himself squeezed in the middle and almost regrets saying anything in the first place.
“Yes. Look at that,” he points at the imprints on the ground and moves the soil with the tip of his finger. “They’re smaller than the ones we found earlier. Maybe it can change the way it looks?”
“I’ve never seen any shape-shifting ghost,” Jin Ling replies, furrowing his forehead. “Are you sure it’s the same one we were following earlier?”
“It’s not like it could be anything else,” Lan Sizhui replies with a sigh. “I’ve been careful not to miss the imprints. It has to be the same.”
“Sizhui wouldn’t get it wrong, either,” Lan Jingyi interjects, wrapping his hand around Lan Sizhui’s forearm. “He’s always been the best at following traces. Even Hanguang-Jun said it once.”
“Jingyi…” Lan Sizhui reprimands him, but his cheeks are dusted pink. Jin Ling huffs next to him and stirs the soil some more. “Maybe he’s wrong this time.”
“Should we go back at the entrance of the forest and follow them back once again, then?” Lan Jingyi asks, and Jin Ling raises his arms. “Maybe we should. Maybe that’ll shut you up.”
“As if, little mistress. Why don’t you call your dog and let it follow the traces, then? I’m sure it will be much more useful.”
“Fairy can’t come to the Cloud Recesses because of that senior of yours , Jingyi. Maybe you could attract the ghosts, though. They love fear, don’t you know?”
“Alright, that’s it,” Lan Sizhui mutters, standing up abruptly and causing both Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling to fall on their butts. Lan Sizhui turns and puts his hands on his hips, not bothering to hide the exasperation from his face. “That's not important right now. Whatever it is, we'll follow it.”
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi look at each other in distaste, and Lan Sizhui sighs. “Let’s choose positions, shall we? Jin Ling will stay on the ground and follow the tracks, while Jingyi and I will be up on the trees. Should anything happen, we have our code and we’ll run immediately to the one calling for help.”
“Let’s see if it’ll be the little mistress here again,” Lan Jingyi snickers. Lan Sizhui elbows his side and Jin Ling throws him a dirty look. “Yeah, let’s see. If a ghost comes for your head, Jingyi, I’m not coming to your help.”
“Let’s just go for now,” Lan Sizhui sighs.
They split up immediately, and as promised, Jin Ling stays on the ground, his hand securely wrapped around his bow with an arrow already notched. Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui position themselves up on the trees instead, each with talismans ready at hand and fingers curled around the hilt of their swords.
“Still nothing,” Lan Sizhui hears Lan Jingyi mutter under his breath. He sounds disappointed and tired, and to be fair, Lan Sizhui feels the same. This night hunt is revealing itself to be more of a waste of time than expected, the monsters few and far between, and even then easily defeated. This Bull Demon would have been the perfect chance to obtain more points, but if they ended up losing it… or if it was something else…
“We’ll find something,” Lan Sizhui murmurs then, turning his head. Lan Jingyi looks his way and nods softly, tightening his hold on his sword.
On the ground Jin Ling starts to walk, his head always low and the tip of the arrow grazing the tracks on the ground. Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui exchange a glance and move across the branches, following Jin Ling from above.
Jin Ling starts running, his feet light and soundless on the ground.
“He found something,” Lan Jingyi mutters under the creaking of branches beneath his feet. Lan Sizhui nods and tightens the grip on his sword, drawing it out of its sheath. “Let’s not lose him.”
“As if we could,” Lan Jingyi laughs under his breath. “His robes aren’t exactly easy to miss.”
They run for a few minutes, Jin Ling a bright spot between the dark bushes. He stops then, his head high to listen for any noise coming from around, and he slightly pulls on the cord on his bow.
“What is it?” Lan Sizhui mutters under his breath. He raises his head and tries to look past the tall bushes before Jin Ling, squinting his eyes.
“I can’t tell,” Lan Jingyi replies, squinting as well. “I can’t understand what it is.”
Lan Sizhui climbs higher, sword now strapped tight to his hip and talismans back in his sleeve. Up here, the light of the moon shines a little brighter, the shadows down below a little less dark. It’s easier to catch every little movement Jin Ling makes as he tugs at the string of his bow. It’s easier to catch the other thing moving in the shadow, and that is…
Lan Sizhui’s eyes go wide. “Oh no.”
He jumps down to the branch he was standing on earlier and gestures at Lan Jingyi with his arms wide open. “We need to stop Jin Ling,” he hisses, and points at their friend on the ground. “We need to stop him now .”
Lan Jingyi nods quickly and brings his hands to his mouth, whistling lowly — first two long whistles, then two short. Jin Ling immediately whips his head up and runs back to climb their trees, still keeping low to the ground to avoid being spotted.
“What is it?” he hisses once he reaches them. There are small branches and leaves tangled in his hair; he pushes them out quickly in a single fluid motion, scowling at the ones that stick.
Lan Sizhui points at the shadows moving behind the bushes. “Look at that,” he mutters, and presses a cautionary hand against Jin Ling’s shoulder. “And don’t raise your voice,” he warns, “Both of you.”
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi both squint through the hazy dark, trying to see what Lan Sizhui is pointing at. Lan Jingyi even leans forward, and it’s only because of Lan Sizhui’s hand on his forearm that he doesn’t fall face first to the ground.
No one would be happy with that outcome.
“What the fuck,” Jin Ling mutters after a few minutes. Even Lan Jingyi has noticed it, now, and his eyes go wide. “Are you serious .”
Lan Sizhui nods briefly, and withdraws further into the dense bushes in front of them when the shadow moves closer.
A black, red-threaded robe comes into sight, and both Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi’s jaws drop.
They exclaim at the same time, and on any other occasion it might have struck Lan Sizhui as funny. Right now, though, it only makes him want to cry.
“What did I say about not raising your voice ,” he hisses, pressing his hands against his friends’ mouths. It doesn’t do much, though; Lan Jingyi’s eyes are wide, and Jin Ling’s muffled protests are still so loud .
Jin Ling pushes his hand away at a certain point, eyes still fixed on Wei Wuxian. He’s accompanied by someone else, a cultivator with pale green robes none of them have ever seen before.
Jin Ling raises his hands to the sky and hisses a hushed What the fuck.
“What is so weird about Senior Wei being here?” Lan Sizhui mutters, finally removing his hand from Lan Jingyi’s mouth. Lan Jingyi gently kicks his ankle, and points at what is happening in front of them. “ Why would Senior Wei be here?”
Lan Sizhui arches a brow. “To check on us? We’ve been out for the night hunt way longer than we ever had before.”
“That’s irrelevant, for once, and look at that.”
Lan Jingyi’s pointing becomes more deliberate. The man walking next to Wei Wuxian diverts his gaze at one of Wei Wuxian’s jokes and covers his face with a fan.
Lan Jingyi’s look is pointed. “Just who is that guy? Has anyone here ever seen him?”
“Definitely not me,” Jin Ling grumbles, hugging his bow. “And if I haven’t seen him, I’m pretty sure you guys haven’t either. I’ve met more people at conferences in the last three months than you have in probably all of your lives.”
“Jin Ling has a point,” Lan Jingyi nods. “Plus, look at his robes. I’ve never seen them!”
Lan Sizhui sighs and looks past the branches. Wei Wuxian and the stranger are walking towards them. He tugs on Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi’s sleeves. “They’re coming this way, hide! And shush!”
They all huddle close, which, Lan Sizhui thinks, must look really dumb from an outsider’s point of view.
He can only hope and pray that Wei Wuxian and that weird cultivator won’t see them.
They don’t, luckily. Lan Sizhui, Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling watch with wide, wide eyes as the two cultivators walk to their tree and then turn to the left, taking another route into the forest with Wei Wuxian cheerily dragging the other cultivator away by the wrist.
Lan Jingyi takes a deep sigh and leans against Lan Sizhui, almost making him lose his grip on the branch. “Well. That was close.”
“Way too close, and all for something stupid” Jin Ling grumbles, sitting with his legs on either side of the branch. “Why are we even hiding?”
“Because,” Lan Jingyi starts, and points at the direction Wei Wuxian and the mysterious cultivator just disappeared in. “There is something going on here, and we need to figure out what.”
“So, what exactly are we doing now?”
Jin Ling hugs his pillow against his chest, hair untied and messy on his inner robes. He’s sitting cross-legged on Lan Jingyi’s bed, and looks just this close to murdering him.
Lan Sizhui can only pray that he won’t shed too much blood. That thing is nasty to clean off robes, and as much as he loves his two friends and would gladly hide a corpse — someone else's corpse — for them, he’d rather not spend his last happy days at the Cloud Recesses cleaning bodily fluids off the floor and their clothes.
Lan Jingyi ignores Jin Ling’s pointed look at him and stands from his bed. “So, we have some sort of a thing going on right now,” he says, walking back and forth through his and Lan Sizhui’s room.
He’s so similar to the way Lan Qiren acts during class right now that Lan Sizhui almost starts laughing to his face. He doesn’t, but only because he loves his best friend too much.
“Oh, do we,” is Jin Ling’s flat reply, at which Lan Jingyi finally sends him a dirty glare. “ Yes , we quite do, obviously. Didn’t you see what happened in the forest?”
“Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui calls weakly, and stretches from his bed to grab Lan Jingyi’s wrist. “I think you’re making this bigger than it is.”
“I’m not so sure,” Lan Jingyi replies, crossing his arms. “And I also have an idea about what could be going on.”
“And, pray tell, what is this idea of yours?” Jin Ling asks sarcastically. “That Wei Wuxian is dating that weird cultivator? I’m curious about what hysterical theory you have.”
Lan Sizhui lets out an amused snort, quickly covering his mouth with his sleeve. Jin Ling, too, is grinning, but he doesn’t hide it.
The one that’s not laughing, though, is Lan Jingyi.
After a moment or two of dead silence, Jin Ling’s grin dies slowly, mostly out of pure shock than anything else. “You’re kidding,” he deadpans, and Lan Sizhui drops his arm in his lap, looking at the one person he thought he could trust in this mad, mad Sect.
“Why should I be kidding?” Lan Jingyi bites out. He lightly stomps a foot on the ground. “You’ve seen them. And the way they acted. Senior Wei made that cultivator laugh, all while Senior Wei was grinning himself.”
“That probably was nothing,” Lan Sizhui says weakly. “Maybe he was someone sent from some smaller Sect to ask for help.”
“But why would he walk around the forest with Senior Wei, then?” Lan Jingyi claps his hands together a couple of times, his face still deadly serious. “If he really were a cultivator sent from another Sect, then he’d go to Zewu-Jun or Teacher Lan, not — not Senior Wei!”
“Maybe he’s involved with demonic cultivation and… wanted to talk with an expert?” Lan Sizhui tries again. Next to him, Jin Ling has gone silent.
“No one clever enough would get close to Senior Wei to discuss demonic cultivation. Everyone knows how excited he gets.”
Lan Jingyi turns around and joins his hands behind his back. He looks older than his age like this, almost like a teacher delivering a lecture to his class.
Lan Sizhui almost reflexively straightens his back when Lan Jingyi turns to face him.
“Also!” Lan Jingyi points at him. “Have you ever seen Senior Wei holding someone’s hand?”
“Well,” Lan Sizhui stiffens, his cheeks taking a shade darker. “He holds Hanguang-Jun’s hand all the time...”
“Now you’re being ridiculous, Sizhui,” Jin Ling retorts, and Lan Jingyi nods his support. “Of course they hold hands all the time. They’re married, as they've made everyone and their mother aware of it in the past year. Wei Wuxian is as shameless as you can find them.”
“Exactly,” Lan Jingyi nods again. “Which is why it’s so weird that Senior Wei grabbed that man’s wrist just like that.”
“Maybe he’d seen something and wanted to show him?”
Lan Sizhui is close to desperate at this point. Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling look at him with the same, unamused expression that practically screams, “It’s so easy , why can’t you get it?”
“I just don’t like to think that Senior Wei would betray Hanguang-Jun just like that,” he says in the end, his voice small. Lan Jingyi sits with his legs crossed next to him and puts a hand on his shoulder, his face severe. “I know it’s not a nice thought. You're basically their son, and this thing affects you more than it does us. Which is why we need to intervene. To see if it actually is the way we think it is, and in case it is, to help Hanguang-Jun deal with it.”
Lan Sizhui sighs and lowers his gaze. He shakes his head and sinks his fingers in his hair. “It’s… it’s not really something we should interfere with.”
“Alright, you are hereby demoted from your position as brain of the group,” Jin Ling deadpans, and lies down on Lan Jingyi’s bed. “It’s too late to talk about this stuff. We’ll discuss this further tomorrow morning. Let me sleep now.”
“Hey, not on my bed!”
Lan Sizhui wakes up with a pounding headache and Lan Jingyi jabbing an obstinate finger against his cheek.
“Five more minutes,” Lan Sizhui grumbles into his pillow, turning on his side and giving him the shoulder.
“It’s breakfast time,” Lan Jingyi replies. He jabs a finger between Lan Sizhui’s shoulder blades and pushes him back and forth on the mattress. “Wake up. We’re gonna be late.”
“Shut up,” Jin Ling grumbles from the other side of the room. Lan Jingyi rolls his eyes and leaves Lan Sizhui’s side. From Jin Ling’s offended squawk, Lan Sizhui can guess that Lan Jingyi has thrown himself on top of him.
“Wake up,” Lan Jingyi says, voice just a tad louder than what is allowed by the Lan Sect Rules. “We’ll be late for breakfast.”
“Get lost,” Jin Ling grumbles. “You’re always the one sleeping late. Let us be the ones oversleeping for once.”
“No can do,” Lan Jingyi returns to Lan Sizhui’s side and shakes him. “We have to investigate, remember? We can’t be late. Sizhui ?”
Lan Sizhui groans and sits up, Lan Jingyi tugging on his arms. “Do we really have to do this?” he asks as Lan Jingyi throws him his robes.
“Yes we do,” Lan Jingyi replies with his arms crossed. He’s already perfectly dressed. It’s a first; Lan Sizhui doesn’t even have his forehead ribbon on.
“Wei Wuxian doesn’t even eat with the other Sect members,” Jin Ling grumbles, pulling his hair up from his face. He almost — almost , but Lan Sizhui doesn’t have the courage to tell him — looks like a wet puppy.
“Maybe he doesn’t, but we might still catch glimpses of him, or of his mysterious friend ,” Lan Jingyi replies. He throws Jin Ling his socks, then, and Lan Sizhui his pants. “Well? How long are you guys going to wait?”
“I swear to the gods, Jingyi, if it wasn’t forbidden to bring dogs inside the Cloud Recesses, I would’ve had Fairy eat your face right now,” Jin Ling grumbles, putting his socks on.
“Just hurry up,” Lan Jingyi hisses.
They reach the Banquet Room just in time for breakfast, and Jin Ling heads toward the table for the guests while Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui sit among the other disciples. Lan Jingyi keeps his eyes on the people around them, his back ramrod straight, looking for either Wei Wuxian or the strange cultivator.
“They’re not here,” he mutters, sinking down again. Lan Sizhui shoots him a glare and puts down his chopsticks. “We told you. Hanguang-Jun brings Senior Wei his breakfast every morning, we won’t find them here.”
“Shut up,” Lan Jingyi grumbles, picking up a mouthful of food. “We’ll just have to walk around for some time later. We don’t have classes anyway today.”
Lan Sizhui shakes his head and goes back to eating.
The thing is, Lan Sizhui has truly underestimated just how involved Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling are in this whole thing.
Jin Ling is waiting for them outside Lan Jingyi’s room, arms crossed over his chest. “So, what are we doing?” he asks as soon as Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui reach him.
Lan Jingyi looks around, holding onto Lan Sizhui’s shoulder as he stands on his tiptoes. “We didn’t see them at breakfast. What about you?”
Jin Ling shakes his head. “Neither did I. But that was to be expected.”
“We need to find a new plan,” Lan Jingyi says, and tugs on Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling’s arms. “C’mon.”
He drags them on the shadier, darker side behind their room, and they crouch on the ground between the bushes.
For the upteenth time in those couple of days, Lan Sizhui wonders just how the fuck he’s been dragged into this thing.
“I suggest we walk around the Cloud Recesses,” Jin Ling mutters under his breath. “We look for them and as soon as we spot them we follow them. We collect as much information as we can and then we report back to Hanguang-Jun.”
“Too time-consuming,” Lan Jingyi shakes his head. “We might never catch them like this. I suggest we split and each of us look for them in different parts of the Cloud Recesses. As soon as one of us finds them, he contacts the others.”
“And how do we do that?”
Lan Jingyi pulls out three pieces of paper and puts them down in front of Lan Sizhui. “We were taught how to draw Communication Talismans some years ago. I don’t remember how to draw them, and my handwriting is absolute shit , but I’m sure Sizhui will remember how.”
A brush and an inkwell are pressed in Lan Sizhui’s hands, and he sighs. “What the hell.”
“You’re the only one who knows how to draw them,” Lan Jingyi insists. “It’ll be better for everyone if you’re the one to do it. That way nothing will, like, explode or cause bodily harm.”
Lan Sizhui sighs again, and grips the brush tighter between his fingers. “I’m only doing this because you’re my friends.”
Lan Jingyi grabs his shoulder, the grin wide on his face. “Love you too!”
The talismans are easily done, and Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling grab them with the same enthusiasm.
It’s not even chenshi and Lan Sizhui is already tired.
They split up as planned, each going to check a different part of the Cloud Recesses — Jin Ling around the borders, Lan Jingyi around the different halls. Lan Sizhui, mostly to preserve whatever is left of his dignity, goes to check around the burrow for the rabbits.
And, also for his dignity, maybe he lies down on the ground with the rabbits piling up on top of him and screams his frustration into the ground.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asks a baby rabbit, pulling it up to his face. The rabbit doesn’t exactly reply, but it presses a paw to his nose and it does give him some hope.
Lan Sizhui sighs again and turns on his side, completely mindless of the way dirt and grass sticks to his robes, and prays for the ground to devour him whole.
TIme passes, and though he knows he should Lan Sizhui doesn’t move. The baby rabbit falls asleep in his lap and he almost dozes off, his gaze distant. Another rabbit hops onto his knee and Lan Sizhui rubs behind its ear, smiling.
Then Wei Wuxian comes out from the forest in front of him, and Lan Sizhui sighs.
“Sizhui!” Wei Wuxian calls, raising his arm in greeting. Lan Sizhui prepares himself for his definite death and grins weakly. “Senior Wei. Good morning.”
Wei Wuxian reaches him and his smile grows. “What are you doing here? No classes today?”
“Not today. I’m just...” Lan Sizhui’s fingers run frantically through the rabbit’s fur, and he looks down in utter despair. “Spending time with the rabbits.”
“Hm, so like our Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian laughs and ruffles Lan Sizhui’s hair with a grin on his face. “Just make sure to study some later, yes? We wouldn’t want the old Teacher Lan to have a stroke because his most diligent student is slacking off somewhere.”
“I’m not slacking,” Lan Sizhui mutters under his breath, and Wei Wuxian’s grin grows. “Oh, of course you’re not.”
Lan Sizhui’s cheeks burn and he lowers his head, fingers sinking just slightly in the soft fur.
Wei Wuxian looks up back at the forest, and his smile shivers just so. He grins down at Lan Sizhui and ruffles his hair again. “Well, Sizhui, ah. I need to go right now.”
Lan Sizhui blinks. “Oh. Alright then. I will see you later?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his hand and walks away. Lan Sizhui watches him go and cuddles the baby rabbit closer to his chest.
He stays like that for some time, running his fingers through the soft fur of the rabbit’s back and presses a gentle kiss to its tiny head. Wei Wuxian disappears inside the forest, but just a second before he vanishes from sight, Lan Sizhui catches a glimpse of a man in light green robes falling into step beside him.
Lan Sizhui sighs, and the talisman in his sleeve burns.
Sizhui , he hears Lan Jingyi’s voice in his head. Have you found anything?
Lan Sizhui’s sigh deepens. Slowly, he puts the baby rabbit down and pulls out the talisman. “I… yes. I have.”
You have? Great! What have you found?
Lan Sizhui furrows his brows and raises his head. “I’m at the burrow. Senior Wei just walked into the forest.”
He hesitates. Then, “He’s with that cultivator again.”
Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling reach him in just a couple of minutes, and judging by the sweat on their foreheads, they’ve definitely walked way faster than it’s allowed by the Lan Sect Rules.
“Why are you still here?” Jin Ling asks between pants, pointing a finger at Lan Sizhui. “You should be following them!”
“That wasn’t part of the plan,” Lan Sizhui replies, and Lan Jingyi dismisses him with a wave of his hand. “Okay, whatever. That’s not important now. Let’s just go and find them.”
It takes them… an awfully short amount of time, to be honest. They’ve barely walked deeper into the forest before they hear Senior Wei’s loud voice echoing between the trees, making them all jump.
Lan Sizhui has never seen Lan Jingyi climb a tree so quickly.
Wei Wuxian and the stranger cultivator are chatting beneath a tree, the smile still big and bright on Wei Wuxian’s face. Lan Sizhui sees the way Jin Ling’s eyes narrow at the scene unfurling in front of them and diverts his gaze in soft, exasperated boredom.
“Just so you guys know,” he starts, just to be sssst -ed by both of his friends. Jin Ling even goes as far as to press a sweaty palm against his mouth, and Lan Sizhui has to fight with all of his might not to lick his hand.
“Shut up,” Jin Ling hisses next, and okay, he has no right to tell him to shut up when he ’s the one making the most noise right now.
Lan Sizhui licks his palm and basks in the disgusted yelp Jin Ling lets out.
Wei Wuxian turns his head towards them, then, and Lan Jingyi presses both of their heads further down between the fronds. “If you two children will make some goddamned silence,” he says under his breath, but doesn’t press his hand against Lan Sizhui’s mouth. For that, he’s very grateful.
“Sizhui started it,” Jin Ling hisses back as soon as Wei Wuxian has diverted his gaze, and Lan Jingyi hits the back of his head. “Shhh. Look, they’re walking away.”
“What’s in that direction?”
“Nothing that important,” Lan Jingyi mutters, letting his leg dangle off the branch. “Just… I think there are a few pathways? Like, shortcuts to Caiyi Town. Hanguang-Jun told us once.”
Jin Ling’s eyes go wide. “Does that mean they’re going on a date ?”
“Oh good gods,” Lan Sizhui mutters under his breath.
Lan Jingyi claps his hands together, and grabs Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling’s shoulders. “My friends, we have to follow them. To protect Hanguang-Jun’s honor.”
“Can’t we let Hanguang-Jun protect his honor by himself?” Lan Sizhui tries one last time.
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi both shoot him a glare, and that marks the end of Lan Sizhui’s attempts.
Caiyi Town is as colorful and crowded as it always is, and as always, Lan Sizhui loses himself for a bit before he steadies himself and remembers why they’re there.
It’s more than enough time for Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling to make a run for it and hide in the first tea house they find.
“Can you see them?”
“Not at all, it’s as if they vanished in the air.”
“AH! Wait, is that Senior Wei?”
“Absolutely not. He’d never wear a color so vivid if he’s trying to be discreet. Plus, he’s not that tall.”
Lan Jingyi snickers. “You’re one to talk, shortie.”
Jin Ling kicks Lan Jingyi’s ankle and puffs his chest out. “Not my fault if you decided to have your growth spurt in the last ten minutes.”
Lan Sizhui sighs and orders a cup of tea for himself.
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi turn to face him. “What are you doing?”
Lan Sizhui shakes a hand in the air, completely ignoring the thousands of rules imprinted in his blood.
Damn, these two will really be the end of him, someday.
“Aren’t you two just snooping around? You can’t see them from here, it’s probably too low. You two should either wait some more or go to a higher place.”
“And you only tell us now, because...?”
“Because you two are being annoying and I’m gonna need my tea to let you live until sunset,” Lan Sizhui mutters against the rim of his newly gained cup of tea, and at least that does shut Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling up for a bit.
Jin Ling sniffs and steals the cup from Lan Sizhui’s hand. “Whatever. Just try to be less of a party pooper the next time, and get tea for us as well. Or some decent-tasting wine, at least. Just because you two can't drink, it doesn't mean that I can't either. ”
Lan Sizhui almost replies. Almost , because Lan Jingyi chooses that moment to let out a squeak and tug on Jin Ling's sleeve, shaking his arm and spilling Lan Sizhui's tea onto the ground and Jin Ling's robes.
"I see them!" Lan Jingyi hisses, tugging harder on Jin Ling's sleeve.
"My fucking clothes," Jin Ling bites out, looking at the growing wet patch on his knee.
"My tea," Lan Sizhui mourns, pressing a hand against his face.
"Shut it about your tea, look at my robes!" Jin Ling tugs at his trousers, putting the cup down with a disgruntled face.
"Can you both shut it?" Lan Jingyi mutters, "I'm trying to focus here."
"Try to follow them and see where they're going," Jin Ling replies, grabbing a silken tissue from one of his qiankun bags and dabbing it angrily on his knee. "Isn't that why we came here?"
"It's what we're trying to do, but it's really hard with your whining."
Lan Jingyi looks outside the window once more and curses. "Oh gods, they're coming this way."
Jin Ling pushes past him and looks outside the window, with just his forehead and eyes peeking over the edge. "Shit, it's true."
"What do we do now?" Lan Jingyi mutters, his leg jumping restlessly. Lan Sizhui looks at him, unaffected, and presses a hand down on his knee. "This, may I remind you, is all your plan."
“Mine and Jin Ling's, " Lan Jingyi makes sure to retort. Jin Ling turns his head to throw him an offended look. "Shut up."
“This isn’t going to work,” Lan Jingyi mutters under his breath. He stands then, and points a finger at Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling. “Take all of your stuff and move to a more hidden table. I’m going to see if they’re coming this way.”
“Be quick,” Jin Ling replies. He’s already picking up his sword and bow and thrusting them into a qiankun bag. Lan Sizhui glares at the wasted tea and sighs, taking his teacup and teapot and following Jin Ling just a couple tables away, right next to a balustrade with a view of the first floor but still hidden enough thanks to a few fortunately positioned plants, screens, and so forth.
“I swear, this thing is stressing me out,” Jin Ling comments as he sits down with a clatter. Lan Sizhui raises an eyebrow and glares at him, and Jin Ling glares back. “What. It’s not my fault if your oh so precious Senior Wei can’t keep it in his pants. And now we’re here forced to follow them so Wei Wuxian doesn’t do anything stupid, like cheat on Hanguang-Jun.”
“I kindly remind you that our oh so precious Senior Wei is your oh so adored Uncle,” Lan Sizhui retorts. “And that you willingly chose to follow him to solve whatever ploy you might think he’s up to.”
“Whatever,” Jin Ling sighs and tilts his head, watching as Lan Sizhui runs back to their table. “We’ll see how it goes. Your idiot friend is coming back.”
“He’s also your idiot friend,” Lan Sizhui reminds him as Lan Jingyi sits down at the table.
“They’re just beneath us,” he mutters under his breath. He points past the balustrade with a finger. “Right there.”
Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui look past the balustrade, and indeed Wei Wuxian is there, sitting at a table with a steaming teapot and a jar of Emperor’s Smile between him and the green robed cultivator.
They’re talking amongst themselves with not a care in the world, and Wei Wuxian’s face lights up at each and every word the other man says.
“What are they talking about?” Lan Jingyi whispers loudly, prompting Jin Ling to push him away. “Lower your voice! They’re going to hear us like this.”
“They’re going to hear us anyway if you don’t stop pushing me — ouch , Jin Ling !”
“You started it!”
“I’m telling you right now, if you start fighting and bring attention to yourselves, I’m doing nothing to help you get out of it,” Lan Sizhui mutters under his breath, filling a new cup of tea and putting some distance between himself and both his friends.
“We had no doubts about that,” Jin Ling says sarcastically. “Jingyi, what do you see? Are they still talking?”
“Of course they are! Can’t you see them?”
“Oh wait, what — what are they doing .”
“Don’t push me, I can’t — what the fuck , Jin Ling!”
“I know, you don’t have to yell in my ear!”
“Wait they’re looking this way — crouch!”
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi rush to hide beneath the table, away from suspicious eyes, and once again Lan Sizhui is grateful that their table is so hidden — makes it way easier to conceal his mortification.
He makes a mental note to slip one or two more gold pieces to the tea house, for the noise and the secondhand embarrassment they’re forcing upon every single, oblivious customer currently enjoying their time. And that includes Wei Wuxian and his mysterious guest.
“Are they still looking at us?” Lan Jingyi whispers from beneath the table, somewhere close to Lan Sizhui’s knee. Jin Ling jabs his thigh and the tea cup trembles in Lan Sizhui’s hand. “What are you waiting for, go check!”
“If you make me spill even one drop of tea, I’m pouring it onto your hair next,” Lan Sizhui threatens, but still strains his neck to look past the balustrade.
Wei Wuxian and the cultivator have their gaze low, pointed at some sort of — book? he thinks — that Lan Sizhui is pretty sure he’s never seen. Maybe it comes from the Room of Forbidden Books, or maybe it’s the green robed cultivator who brought it.
“Are they looking up here?” Lan Jingyi hisses again. Lan Sizhui kicks his knee lightly and shakes his head. “You’re safe, for now. They’re just looking at a book.”
Both Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi let out a relieved sigh and come out of their hiding space. They’re quick to push Lan Sizhui back and return to their original position, heads close and shoulders tense.
“What are they looking at?” Jin Ling asks. Lan Jingyi pushes him a little to the side to see better. “I don’t know… I can’t make out what’s on the pages.”
“It’s probably bullshit,” Jin Ling mutters under his breath. “No book that Wei Wuxian has an interest in is a safe book. We might as well leave before he makes the whole place blow up.”
Lan Jingyi laughs nervously. “Come on. I mean. He wouldn’t blow up the place, right? Right?”
He turns his head to Lan Sizhui, and he sighs despite himself. “He did almost blow up the Jingshi once… remember? That one time he was busy with that experiment. Hanguang-Jun had to throw everything out before it exploded.”
Lan Jingyi becomes comically pale after that, and Jin Ling sighs. “Let’s just… keep an eye on him, and when we start seeing smoke, we run out. I don’t know about you guys, but I have a Sect to run.”
“And still no heirs,” Lan Jingyi grins. “When do you intend to get married? Time’s ticking, before you know it you’ll be eighty.”
Lan Jingyi’s grin grows and he leans further into Jin Ling’s side. “Still haven’t found anyone suited to your liking? What about that girl from the Shi Sect? She’s pretty, isn’t she, always with flowers in her hair and stuff. You can tell she’s from the south.”
Jin Ling’s face turns red, and he pushes Lan Jingyi away. “Shut up.”
Lan Sizhui shakes his head and looks past the balustrade. “Hey. Something’s happening, I think.”
“What are they doing?”
“I can’t see — stop pushing!”
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi look down, and after a few seconds of stunned silence they both suck in a huge breath, turning to face each other with the same look of disbelief on their face.
“Did...” Lan Jingyi swallows, his voice rough. “Did you see what I saw?”
Jin Ling nods, and he’s pale in the face. “I did.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I!”
“What happened?” Lan Sizhui tries to look past their heads and Jin Ling grabs his arm, dragging him forward between himself and Lan Jingyi.
“Look at them!” they both hiss at him.
But Lan Sizhui is already watching.
They are holding hands.
Wei Wuxian — his Senior, his Teacher, his father figure , out of everyone — has one of the cultivator’s hands in his, carefully looking at it and then back at him with a smile.
Lan Sizhui’s breath stops in his lungs, and his two friends look at him with the same heavy look of disappointment on their faces.
“Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi rests a hand on his shoulder and squeezes, his eyebrows drawn in. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Lan Sizhui looks past the balustrade once more. Wei Wuxian has let go of the cultivator’s hand, but he’s still grinning. Lan Sizhui’s heart pangs somewhat painfully, and he diverts his gaze.
“I’m going to kick that asshole’s butt into the grave once again,” Jin Ling moves to stand up, but Lan Jingyi grabs his wrist. “Where are you going?”
“To kick his ass.”
Jin Ling tries to free himself from Lan Jingyi’s grasp, but everyone knows a Lan’s strength is nothing to ignore.
Lan Jingyi drags him down again and puts both hands on his shoulders, holding him still. “Not now. We still have something to do.”
Jin Ling glares at him. “And that would be?”
Lan Jingyi sighs, and glances at Lan Sizhui’s blank face from over his shoulder.
“We go capture the other cultivator.”
They return to the Cloud Recesses to have dinner and make up a plan.
“Maybe we should tell Hanguang-Jun,” Lan Jingyi mutters once they’re back in his and Lan Sizhui’s room, an arm around his best friend’s shoulders.
Jin Ling shakes his head and stomps his foot on the ground. “There’s no time for that. Who knows when that cultivator will leave? We need to capture him tonight.”
“I don’t think he’s staying here at the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Sizhui murmurs, hugging his legs. “We would have noticed if an envoy from another Sect arrived.”
“Wei Wuxian wouldn’t be so stupid as to bring his lover inside the Cloud Recesses,” Jin Ling retorts. Then his face twists, and he looks the other way. “Although I’m having a lot of second thoughts related to my uncle’s intelligence.”
Lan Sizhui sighs and leans his head against Lan Jingyi’s shoulder. “What should we do, then?”
Jin Ling bites his lip, and sits on the ground with a clean sheet of paper and a brush ready in his hand. “I saw Wei Wuxian leave for the forest not half a shichen ago,” he says, drawing something on the paper.
“Alright, what’s your point?” Lan Jingyi asks. Then he furrows his brows. “Is that a sock?”
Jin Ling flicks some ink in his direction. “It’s the forest , you ass. Pay attention for once!”
“Not my fault if your drawings suck,” Lan Jingyi mutters, and with a small smile Lan Sizhui elbows his side.
Jin Ling rolls his eyes and returns to his drawing. “We need to intercept them. We’ll bring my spiritual nets. Once they’re trapped in one of those, not even Hanguang-Jun would be able to do much.”
“And then what do we do?”
“Then we drag their sorry asses in front of Hanguang-Jun and watch as my dumb uncle and his companion beg in tears.”
Lan Jingyi hums and knocks his head against Lan Sizhui’s. “What do you think? Might work?”
Lan Sizhui sighs and thinks for a few seconds, before raising his head. “I think it might. But we’ll have to be quick, we all know that Senior Wei’s ears are sharp.”
“My arrows are sharper,” Jin Ling replies. Then he groans and leans his weight back on his hands. “If only I had brought Fairy, all this would be much easier.”
They rest for a couple hours in Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui’s room. Then, when the moon is almost at its highest and curfew has long since begun, they easily sneak out and run into the forest, spiritual nets thrown over their shoulders.
"I see them," Jin Ling murmurs about half a shichen into the forest, pointing at two figures, one in black and the other in pale green, walking in the distance in front of them.
Lan Jingyi nods and tightens his grip on the spiritual net. "Let's go."
The plan goes, as Lan Sizhui would later describe it in the night hunt report requested by Hanguang-Jun, as badly as it can go.
The situation starts a little like this: Jin Ling, Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui and cuddled together on a tree branch, nets ready in their hands and eyes cast low on the dark ground beneath them.
"Do you see them?" Jin Ling mutters. Lan Jingyi shakes his head. "Not at all. I think we lost them."
"How could we lose them so easily? We made sure to always check on them," Jin Ling groans, sitting back on the branch.
Lan Sizhui lays a hand on his knee and smiles faintly. "We’ll find them. We just need to be patient."
"Damn, I wish I was as positive as you," Jin Ling replies, and Lan Sizhui's smile turns bitter.
"It's to make things right," he mutters, lowering his gaze. "just like you said."
“You guys, be quiet for a second.” Lan Jingyi raises a hand, the spiritual net shifting on his back. “I think I hear them.”
Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling direct their gazes to the place Lan Jingyi is pointing at, and indeed they do see something moving between the brushes and the trees — something vaguely resembling the green robes worn by the cultivator.
“I see him. He’s coming this way,” Jin Ling mutters, tightening his grip on the net. Lan Jingyi grasps his wrist. “We wait until he’s beneath the tree, and then we’ll attack him.”
Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui nod and raise their nets higher.
“Hold it,” Lan Jingyi whispers, the net shimmering between his fingers. “Steady...”
Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling jump off the tree with a shout, and Lan Sizhui makes to follow them.
And this is where, according to Lan Sizhui’s report, things start to go wrong.
In the hurry of jumping off the tree, Lan Jingyi doesn’t notice his net getting stuck in a branch. He remains halfway in the air and tumbles into Jin Ling in his fall, knocking him to the side with a squawk.
Lan Sizhui jumps off, net forgotten in his hand, and turns towards his friends; one crouched on the ground, and the other still hanging from the tree.
That is when he first hears the growl.
Lan Sizhui freezes. In front of him, Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling’s faces are pale as sheets.
“Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi calls, the hand still around the net shivering. “Don’t… don’t move.”
Lan Sizhui turns his head, slowly. Something’s breathing behind him. Something huge.
Something that shouldn’t be there.
“Jingyi,” he mutters. “Jin Ling.”
His two friends look at him with despair in their eyes, and Lan Sizhui already knows what they’re going to tell him.
“The Bull Demon...”
“... We didn’t kill it.”
The Demon lets out a loud grunt and Lan Sizhui turns around just in time to see it charge towards him. With a shout he stumbles aside, the net falling from his hand, and watches as the Demon Bull shreds it to pieces with its horns and runs into the tree the three of them had climbed onto.
Lan Jingyi falls down from it with a shout, still trapped in the net.
“RUN!” Lan Jingyi shouts, tugging at the net. “Don’t think about me! Run away!”
“We’re not leaving you!”
Jin Ling runs to him, frantically trying to disentangle him from the net. His sword has fallen out of his reach; Lan Sizhui makes a run for it and grabs it, unsheathing his own sword.
The Demon Bull turns around to face him, threads of the destroyed spiritual net still hanging from its horns. Lan Sizhui’s grasp on the swords is slippery; he knows he’s not going to win if he’s alone.
“Jin Ling, your net!”
“Come and take it!”
The Demon Bull shakes its huge head and roars. Lan Sizhui starts running.
“I’m here, I’m here —”
Jin Ling throws his net and —
— it lands on Lan Sizhui’s head, making him slip and fall on top of Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi and effectively trapping all three of them.
The Demon Bull snorts, and its gaze meets theirs. Jin Ling, Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi exchange a glance, and start screaming.
“Senior Wei, please come help!”
“Someone help us!”
The Demon Bull starts running, its head low and horns looking sharper than ever, and they scream louder.
Then the trill of a flute cuts through the air. They stop screaming, and the Demon Bull startles and stops, a breath away from Lan Sizhui’s cheek. It shakes its head, groaning loudly, and falls back.
A swing of a sword and a flash of light later, the Demon Bull’s head falls to the ground, its massive body still shivering with pent-up resentful energy.
Jin Ling squirms beneath Lan Sizhui and pushes him to a side, still shivering. “What the fuck was that...”
“ That , kid, was how you deliver a kill.”
The green-robed cultivation steps into sight, his sword still gleaming with the Demon Bull’s blood. Seen closer like this, Lan Sizhui can make out his sharp face, the elegant cut of his eyes, and the sleek fan peeking out of his sash.
He looks handsome, Lan Sizhui thinks, and his heart aches a little.
Lan Jingyi’s eyes go wide, and he actually tries to stand up from beneath Jin Ling despite the spiritual net still wrapped around his legs. “You — !”
“Well, well, well, what do we have here?”
Their heads whip to the side where Wei Wuxian walks into sight, arm around Lan Wangji’s waist and… some other guy following after them.
The new stranger’s eyes go wide, and he immediately runs to the green robed cultivator, gentle hands rising to touch his cheeks, his neck, the hand still grasping the sword. “ Shizun , are you injured?”
The cultivator smiles at him and holds his hand back. “I am fine, Binghe. Do not worry.”
The three young disciples watch flabbergasted as the new guy — Binghe ? — clings to his teacher’s arm and doesn’t let go. Next to them, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian fix their gaze upon their students, both their expressions of mild interest and mischief equally terrifying.
“What the hell is going on here?!” Jin Ling blurts in the end.
Wei Wuxian chuckles and steps forward. “That’s what we should be asking you.”
In a single fluid motion, he removes the spiritual nets from over them, his grin promising trouble. “So. Mind telling us what the three of you were doing, this deep into the forest at this hour of the night?”
Three cultivators, the Yiling Patriarch and their students sit on the forest soil. The situation could only have been less awkward if Wei Wuxian wasn’t there, spread out across Lan Wangji’s lap as he laughs his lungs out.
“You three thought what ?” he asks through his tears. A new bout of laughter overtakes him, forcing him to curl up on himself. Lan Wangji pats his back comfortingly and raises his gaze to direct it towards their students, currently squirming where they’re seated.
Lan Jingyi, the brave, self-preservation-less disciple he is, is the first one to raise his voice against this form of outright bullying. “What else could we think! Senior Wei was always around this other cultivator we’ve never seen before, and acting all sneaky for what it’s worth!”
Wei Wuxian’s laughter grows louder, and Lan Wangji has to actually support him as he falls backwards.
“Ah, children,” Wei Wuxian mutters, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. “Always so quick to jump to conclusions.”
He points at the couple sitting not too far away from them: the green-robed cultivator with the fan opened in front of his mouth and his — student? Relative? It’s so hard to tell, Lan Sizhui thinks — sitting right next to him with a hand on the cultivator’s knee.
Actually, Lan Sizhui isn’t sure if he needs more information about their relationship. It’s so clear , almost as clear as…
“These two esteemed masters are Elder Shen Qingqiu and Young Master Luo Binghe, from the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. They came here to visit and offer their help regarding how to better control resentful energy.”
Jin Ling, Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui exchange a confused look. "EH???"
Wei Wuxian laughs again, but with Lan Wangji’s soft coaxing he finally sits somewhat straight. "It's true! Have you not ever heard about the Demon King and his spouse roaming about the mortal and cultivational world? It was too good a chance not to meet them and find out more!"
Wei Wuxian sighs happily and bows his head towards Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe. "The books you've brought me are so very useful, I still don't know how to repay you."
"There is no need," Shen Qingqiu replies, fanning himself. "It was a pleasure to discuss new theories with you."
Lan Jingyi shakes his head and leans forward, his cheeks red. "B—but we've seen you! You were sneaking around with all this secrecy and flirting — and you held Elder Shen's hand in the teahouse!"
Wei Wuxian arches an eyebrow. "You three really followed us everywhere in the past two days, didn't you?"
Lan Jingyi's mouth shuts suddenly and he folds in on himself, suddenly shameful. Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui also bow their head.
They'd really done it this time, huh.
Wei Wuxian looks at them thoughtfully and smiles.
"We were being secretive because the topic of our conversations isn't exactly… accepted if discussed freely. We're talking about demonic cultivation here; even after all I've done, there's still so much left to uncover."
"And the hand holding?" Jin Ling asks immediately, fists clenched on his knees.
"I’m afraid that is on me," Shen Qingqiu sighs, raising a hand. There's an ugly scar in the middle of the palm, something unlike anything the three disciples have ever seen.
"A demonic creature attacked me some time ago, and when I introduced the topic Master Wei asked if he could see the scar to study it."
Wei Wuxian nods. "It would’ve been such an interesting study. Too bad you didn't keep that creature."
"It would have been useless. Binghe destroyed it."
"It shouldn't have hurt Shizun ," Luo Binghe mutters under his breath. Shen Qingqiu grabs his hand and squeezes it softly, right in front of Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi's shocked eyes.
"So…" Lan Jingyi starts, his voice small. "There was no cheating? No secret lover?"
"Nope," Wei Wuxian replies. "Nothing at all."
Lan Jingyi lowers his head, his shoulders sagging with relief, and Wei Wuxian grins.
"Plus, Jingyi,” Wei Wuxian says, draping himself against Lan Wangji’s side and a teasing grin on his lips as he wraps his arms around Lan Wangji’s. “Did you really think I would cheat on Lan Zhan ? Look at him, where else could I find a man so fine and strong to protect this one’s frail, mortal body...”
Lan Wangji grips his hand with a warning look that is still unmistakably fond. “Behave.”
“I will, Lan Zhan, let me just — haha, no I can’t do it, just the idea is too much fun! Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.”
That makes Lan Wangji smile a little. But when he turns to face his students, there's none of that fondness in his eyes. Instead, they find the gentle coldness of their teacher, and all three straighten their backs.
"I want you two to write a report on the night hunt," Lan Wangji says to his disciples, "Starting from your failure to capture the Demon Bull two nights ago."
"Yes, Hanguang-Jun," Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi reply immediately.
"And," Lan Wangji continues. "Since Young Master Jin is visiting and must respect our rules, he will be punished alongside you."
Jin Ling's shoulders sag, but he says nothing.
Lan Wangji wraps his arm around Wei Wuxian's waist, thoughtful. "You three will copy the rules two times," he says. "Paying particular attention to the rules you have broken in following Wei Ying and Elder Shen around. Copy those two more times."
Lan Sizhui sighs, already feeling his wrists hurt. "Yes, Hanguang-Jun."
It's morning. Lan Sizhui, Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling sit in the library, a towering stack of paper in front of them and brushes scattered across the table.
"This is the last time I follow one of Jingyi's plans," Jin Ling mutters, putting his brush down. "Damn, my wrist hurts."
"Maybe the next time you’ll both listen to me instead," Lan Sizhui replies with a grimace. "At least the tea was good."
Lan Jingyi hums, his cheek pressed to the table and a smudge of ink on his cheek. He sighs and raises his head. "I saw Zewu-Jun and Sect Leader Jiang walk around the Cloud Recesses, earlier. Do you think they're…"