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Lan Sizhui returned to Cloud Recesses on a day in early winter, the first snow crunching under his and Wen Ning’s shoes as they climbed the winding path up the mountain. As always when he’d been away for a while, Lan Sizhui was struck by the breathtaking beauty and tranquility of his home.

The moment they were in sight of the gate, however, the calm was unexpectedly shattered when one of the disciples on guard duty pushed himself off the rock he’d been lounging against - in a borderline rule-breaking fashion - and came barelling towards them. Knowing only one person this could be, Lan Sizhui laughed and called out in lieu of a greeting, “No running in Cloud Recesses!”

“No shouting either,” Lan Jingyi shot back, skidding to a stop in front of them. “Also, technically we’re not in Cloud Recesses. Sometimes you really are too much like Hanguang-jun, Sizhui, and I don’t know why I missed you.”

“I missed you, too, Jingyi.” Smiling fondly, Lan Sizhui gripped his best friend’s arm before subtly nodding towards Wen Ning. “Uncle Wen and I have had quite an exciting time, I’m glad to be home.”

Catching the hint, Lan Jingyi bowed in greeting. “Senior Wen. You’ll have to tell us all about your adventures. If you can get a word in edgewise, that is, because Hanguang-jun brought back Senior Wei last week, and quiet is kind of hard to come by ever since – even during mealtimes. You should see Old Man Lan’s face when all Hanguang-jun does is nod indulgently.”

“Don’t call shifu that,” Lan Sizhui admonished automatically in light of Lan Jingyi’s familiar irreverence. He was much more interested in the rest of the information that had poured out of his best friend’s mouth. “Were they gone the entire time we were?”

“Oh no, it’s just Senior Wei who was gone so long, Hanguang-jun only left a month ago, after Zewu-jun came out of seclusion and took over as Chief Cultivator and sect leader again. They probably would have stayed away for longer, except Hanguang-jun is still worried about Zewu-jun, I think.”

Even Lan Jingyi had to stop eventually to take a breath, and Lan Sizhui used the opportunity to steer them all gently towards the gate. It was almost dinner time, and while Lan Sizhui couldn’t say that he’d exactly missed the food – lying was forbidden, after all – he had missed his fellow disciples and the peaceful atmosphere. Also, he couldn’t wait to see Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian again.

It was still a bit strange to think that the feared Yiling Patriarch was the gege who’d buried him like a turnip when he was little, but then no one would ever believe that Lan Sizhui had also been buried in a pile of rabbits by none other than Hanguang-jun, famously cold and withdrawn. Lan Sizhui was one of the few people who knew this to be a lie - or rather, a carefully cultivated mask - and now he quickened his pace towards the two very different men who’d raised him.

Wen Ning and Lan Jingyi trailed after him, Jingyi peppering Wen Ning with questions. Hearing the easy way in which Wen Ning answered made Lan Sizhui smile. His uncle Wen really had grown in confidence since their first meeting. He hadn’t even hesitated to enter Cloud Recesses, where previously he would probably have hidden somewhere until Wei Wuxian coaxed him inside.

Speaking of, it was most certainly Wei Wuxian’s voice Lan Sizhui could hear from the dining pavilion, sounding clear and loud over the background noise of people eating. Pausing at the entrance to take in the scene Lan Sizhui’s eyes first fell on Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen, seated as usual at the top end. There were stress lines around Lan Qiren’s eyes, but he didn’t make any move to enforce the rule of silence, which was astonishing enough.

Even more surprising, though, was the fact that Lan Wangji wasn’t sitting with his uncle and brother. Instead Lan Sizhui discovered him at the side, sharing a table with Wei Wuxian and apparently listening intently to every word the latter was saying, eyes openly fond in a way Lan Sizhui had only witnessed a few times before. Wei Wuxian in turn kept smiling at him widely and, in a complete breach of etiquette, was in the process of offering his neighbour something from his plate that looked completely unlike the bland food everyone else was eating.

Lan Sizhui shuddered in sympathy. If it was anything like the congee Wei Wuxian had made in Yi City, there was no way Lan tastebuds could possibly enjoy it. Still, Lan Wangji only hesitated a second before nodding. Instead of setting it down on his plate, however, Wei Wuxian proceeded to lift his chopsticks to Hanguang-jun’s lips. Lan Sizhui could barely believe his eyes when Lan Wangji immediately opened his mouth and accepted the morsel. All the while the two men were looking into each other’s eyes, as if no one else existed, which Lan Sizhui realised was nothing new but had never been expressed quite this openly before.

“Shocking, isn’t it?” Lan Jingyi whispered loudly. “They’ve been like this ever since they came back.”

His voice carried through the relative silence, everyone’s eyes turning towards them. Unsurprisingly it was Wei Wuxian who jumped to his feet and hurried towards them, smiling in a way that warmed Lan Sizhui from head to toe.

“Ah Yuan, Wen Ning!” he exclaimed, pulling both of them into an embrace.

Ignoring the voice in his head that was reciting all the rules they were currently breaking, Lan Sizhui wrapped his arms around him and just let himself be held for a moment. Wen Ning stepped away first and bowed towards the rest of the room, stiff with embarrassment from all the attention, and Lan Sizhui followed his example, apologising sincerely, “Shifu, Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun, please forgive the disruption.”

Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, doubtlessly to protest, but it was Lan Wangji who replied first, “No need.” He’d gotten up at some point during Wei Wuxian’s enthusiastic greeting and added now, “Lan Sizhui and Wen Qionglin are always welcome.”

“Indeed.” Although he remained seated, behind his brother Lan Xichen nodded, his smile almost as bright as it had been before Guanyin Temple, although a few shadows remained. It was his eyes, Lan Sizhui thought, they looked older. Still, there was no doubting Zewu-jun’s sincerity as well as the gentle teasing when he added, “Although maybe it would be best if you postponed your reunion until we finished eating. I’m sure we can make room for you both.”

Once they’d sat down, it became clear that the food was still as bad as ever, but they dug in nonetheless, both of them observing the rule of silence, which made Wei Wuxian pout until Lan Wangji produced a spice jar from seemingly out of nowhere. Face brightening, Wei Wuxian immediately sprinkled whatever it was liberally over his already red rice, exclaiming happily, “You’re the best, Lan-er-gege, you’re spoiling me!”

Hearing the intimate form of address Lan Sizhui almost choked on his boiled vegetable. No one else seemed shocked, however, although he was sitting closely enough to see Lan Wangji’s ears turn pink. So this was how it was. Growing up Lan Sizhui had witnessed some of his adoptive father’s grief, his ceaseless searching for someone, only to realise that he’d found this person, unlikely as it seemed, when the supposed Mo Xuanyu had appeared out of the blue and attached himself to Lan Wangji’s side. Smiling to himself, Lan Sizhui returned his attention to his dinner.

Afterwards Wei Wuxian pulled him and Wen Ning away, Lan Wangji following after them. They had to account for all their adventures, and while Lan Sizhui did most of the talking, Wen Ning interjected quite frequently to add to the story. When they were done, Wen Ning presented the Ying metal they'd acquired to Wei Wuxian. The latter only shook his head, however, and nodded towards Lan Wangji. “Give it to Hanguang-jun. I’ve been trying to rebuild my golden core, it’s better if I stay away from such things until I’m stronger.”

“A core? Oh, that’s great news, young master Wei,” Wen Ning exclaimed while Lan Wangji put the metal into a protective pouch, and Lan Sizhui promised himself he’d get the story behind this sometime.

“What did I tell you about calling me ‘young master’?” Wei Wuxian scolded Wen Ning fondly. “But the two of you have really achieved a lot, I’m so proud of you!”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed, and Lan Sizhui felt his cheeks heat up with pleasure. Next to him, Wen Ning fidgeted, suddenly shy again. Looking at him kindly, Lan Wangji suggested, “It is almost bed time. Why don’t you show our guest his quarters, Sizhui, and then go join the other disciples.”

“But Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whined. “I haven’t seen Wen Ning and our son in forever! Surely he can stay up late this once.”

Lan Sizhui had to blink away sudden tears, throat closing up at this casual acknowledgment, especially when Lan Wangji caught his eyes and gave the smallest nod. Typically, there was no trace of the warmth Lan Sizhui could see in his eyes in his voice when he replied firmly, “Sect leader Jiang and sect leader Jin will be here tomorrow, there will be plenty of time to catch up then.”

“Just admit that you want me to yourself after helping Zewu-jun all day,” Wei Wuxian teased shamelessly, the prospect of his brother and nephew arriving apparently enough to cheer him up. Lan Sizhui, too, was looking forward to once again seeing Jin Ling – or rather, Jin Rulan, now that he had succeeded Jin Guangyao. He wondered how the younger man, barely more than a boy, was faring with the responsibilities so suddenly thrust upon him.

He wasn’t too distracted, however, to miss Lan Wangji’s quiet hum of agreement, which was accompanied by what could only be called a heated look. Suddenly Lan Sizhui wanted very much to be elsewhere, so he grabbed Wen Ning by the sleeve and hastily took their leave. This would take some getting used to.

“They’ve been like that since Hanguang-jun brought Senior Wei back,” Lan Jingyi repeated his earlier words later, after Wen Ning had retreated to the guest pavilion, to do whatever walking corpses did at night, and after Lan Sizhui had been properly greeted by the other junior disciples. “I expected the Yiling Patriarch to be shameless, but Hanguang-jun doesn't just indulge him, he seems to like it. We’re all betting on an engagement announcement any day now.”

“Don’t call Wei Wuxian the Yiling Patriarch, he doesn’t deserve it,” Lan Sizhui admonished sternly, gratified when Lan Jingyi dropped his head. There was no malice in his friend, just no filter between his brain and his mouth, despite Lan Qiren’s best efforts. “And betting is against the rules.”

It was almost reassuring to know that Lan Jingyi was as tactless as ever, which he proved with his next words: “So you don’t mind them making fools of themselves? It’ll be the talk of the cultivation world if Hanguang-jun marries the Y- Wei Wuxian.”

“No, of course not. I’m happy for them. And who cares what others say, we know the truth.” Smilig at his friend, Lan Sizhui slid into bed, still instinctively knowing that it was 9 pm, despite his time away. It felt good to be home.

He got up easily at 5 am the next morning and joined the other disciples for meditation, breakfast and training. He wasn’t surprised not to see Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, expecting the former to follow his own, separate routine and the latter to still be sleeping. Therefore he lost his concentration for a moment when Wei Wuxian appeared in the training grounds, looking remarkably awake and with a sheathed Suibian at his side.

This made Lan Sizhui realise that he hadn't carried his previously ubiquitous dizi the night before - another sign that he was in earnest about abstaining from demonic cultivation, although Lan Sizhui wondered if he’d tried using music the way the GusuLan sect did. Maybe that was another reason why Wei Wuxian had accompanied Hanguang-jun to Cloud Recesses, so he could train among people who understood musical cultivation. In any case, none of the juniors seemed surprised to see him, and he immediately made a beeline for Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi.

“Let me guess, you’ve been up and about since five,” he greeted them without preamble. “Lan Zhan still wakes at that ungodly hour, although I’m proud to say I’ve managed to convince him to at least stay in bed for a bit longer.”

“Senior Wei, you can’t say such things, it’s not decent!” Lan Jingyi protested, and for once Lan Sizhui appreciated his bluntness, feeling his own cheeks burning.

“I can’t, huh?” Wei Wuxian laughed, undaunted, and unsheathed his sword. “Why don’t you fight me, maybe that will shut me up.”

It was obvious from the start that his cultivation wasn’t very strong, but his technique was excellent as he joined them in training. True to form he chattered pretty much throughout, which proved so distracting that he managed to fight to a draw even after Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi joined forces.

“That was great, Senior Wei,” Lan Sizhui complimented, truly impressed. If it was true that for some reason Wei Wuxian had only recently begun to cultivate a new golden core, he was making great progress.

“Don’t forget that I trained with Hanguang-jun himself when I was your age.” Eyes dancing, Wei Wuxian wiped the sweat off his brow and took an exaggerated bow. “The secret is to throw your opponent off-balance by any means necessary.”

“You mean you flirted shamelessly with him, don’t you? That’s cheating!” Lan Jingyi accused him heatedly.

Wei Wuxian just burst out laughing and agreed, “Absolutely. Heh, even back then he was so handsome, so strong, everything a GusuLan disciple should be – and so adorable when flustered.”

“Wei Wuxian, you really have no shame!” an angry voice bellowed across the training ground, causing everyone to turn and see Jiang Wanyin making his way towards them. Next to him was his nephew and around them a flurry of disciples in YunmengJiang purple and LanlingJin gold, some GusuLan white mixed in as everyone tried to accommodate the two sect leaders. Remembering their manners - and how displeased Lan Qiren would be if they disgraced their sect - everyone who’d been training bowed in greeting, Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi included.

Only Wei Wuxian didn’t, instead jogging to join them. In lieu of a greeting he punched his brother’s shoulder lightly, only grinning harder when his hand was shaken off with a growl. “Oh, Jiang Cheng, still as grumpy as ever. If Lan Zhan doesn’t complain, then why should you?”

“Because I’m a decent human being who’s been raised to be polite,” Jiang Wanyin shot back.

Unfortunately, this only made Wei Wuxian laugh out loud. “Polite? You? Ah Cheng, then you’ve really changed.”

“I’d break your legs,” the YunmengJiang leader threatened, purple lightning crackling aroudn his balled fist, “but you’d probably like the excuse to have your precious Lan Zhan carry you everywhere.”

Despite the tension between the two brothers and the insults they exchanged, Lan Sizhui had the strange sensation that there was no real hostility there, that they were instead carefully feeling their way around each other. He felt similar when Jin Ling piped up for the first time, face drawn into a scowl, as it tended to be when it came to Wei Wuxian: “You really have no manners. Can’t even greet your nephew.”

“Nephew!” Wei Wuxian immediately exclaimed exaggeratedly, but with a genuine warmth underneath. “I am delighted to see you again. I hope traveling with Mr. Sourpuss here hasn’t been too painful.”

Sect leader Jiang growled in warning, but before any more attacks – be they verbal or physical – could be performed, they were interrupted by the arrival of Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji. As expected, the Twin Jades were perfectly poised and polite as they greeted their guests, yet while Lan Xichen’s manner showed genuine warmth, Lan Wangji’s behaviour towards Jiang Wanyin could only be called icy.

Therefore it was no big surprise when Lan Xichen soon led the YunmengJiang leader away to talk over the sect business that had brought him here. Jin Ling remained behind, and Lan Sizhui greeted him happily, even more so when Ouyang Zizhen appeared, who’d been with his father in Carp Tower and had decided to join Jin Ling on this journey. For a while everyone was talking at once, the normal quiet of Cloud Recesses thoroughly disrupted.

After a while, Lan Wangji, who’d so far watched them indulgently – or rather, he’d watched Wei Wuxian watching them - cleared his throat pointedly, which was all that was needed to shut them up. The sudden silence was interrupted by Wei Wuxian clapping his hands in amazement. “Ha, you really are too much, Lan Zhan, you didn’t even need the silencing spell!”

“It’s nothing. Just discipline.” The reply was curt, but Lan Sizhui could tell Lan Wangji was pleased by the compliment.

Wei Wuxian chuckled and played along: “Sure, sure. Still, before we give Lan Qiren an apoplexy, how about an archery competition in the back hills? It doesn't look like snow today, and my nephew’s quite talented if I remember correctly.”

Jin Ling preened visibly, and Lan Sizhui joined the others in agreeing to this plan, content to be beaten if it meant his friend was happy. They sent off a couple of servants to fetch bows for everyone except Jin Ling, who’d of course brought his own, and picked up Wen Ning from his quarters. Remembering Wei Wuxian mentioning Wen Ning's talent with the bow, maybe Jin Ling wouldn't win so easily.

Discussing everyone's chances and not at all betting on the outcome - gambling was forbidden after all - they all followed Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, who walked so close together, their arms brushed with every step. Lan Sizhui wasn’t in the least surprised when Wei Wuxian grabbed Lan Wangji’s hand, nor when Lan Wangji allowed it without hesitation, the look in his eyes as he gazed at the man beside him content in a way that warmed Lan Sizhui’s heart. Jin Ling, on the other hand, squawked with disapproval and hissed, “What are they doing?”

“Oh, they’re in love, how romantic!” Ouyang Zizhen exclaimed simultaneously, his face lighting up as he doubtlessly imagined the epic love story of the Yiling Patriarch and Hanguang-jun. Lan Jingyi happily recounted all the moments of shameless behaviour he’d witnessed in the past week, the others listening breathlessly.

Ahead of them, Wei Wuxian turned to grin over his shoulder. Catching Lan Sizhui’s eyes, he winked before nudging Lan Wangji and whispering loudly, “Look, Lan Zhan, they’re following us like little ducklings.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed amiably, promptly bringing all conversation to a shocked halt by pressing a kiss to Wei Wuxian’s cheek before continuing onwards as if nothing had happened. Smiling at his gaping friends, Lan Sizhui wondered if any imagination could ever come close to the truth.