It takes five events, which Lan Sizhui has decided to collectively refer to as The Mo Xuanyu Incidents, for Lan Sizhui to realize what the fuck is going on.
A trail in Dafun Mountain
Master Mo calls Lan Sizhui’s father Lan Zhan, and he’s never seen this man before, and he is very, very confused. There’s something scared and nervous in the broken-minded man, so Lan Sizhui dismisses all of his questions - for the moment - and decides to be kind. He decides to be kind and courteous because that is what Hanguang-Jun tells him to do when these things happen, and he can just about hear the stern man’s voice in the back of his head saying Lan Yuan, be calm in his no-nonsense voice.
And then the man sees Hanguang-Jun, and Lan Sizhui looks over to see a star-struck expression on his face like the heavens have opened up and dropped something sublime on his doorstep. And then the man, swathed in black-and-red, runs.
Lan Sizhui does not see him again until the incident at Dafan Mountain. Master Mo plays a song that Lan Sizhui knows deep in his bones, and when his father materializes he has to look away for fear of being blinded by the sheer look of something on his face.
Hanguang-Jun is relieved and terrified and amazed and full of wonder. The students all exchange confused looks, especially when he jumps before Master Mo and defends him, but of course perhaps that is simply the Lan way, the cold kindness of Hanguang-Jun.
(But Lan Sizhui sees something in his father's eyes that he hasn't seen before. He doesn't mention it, he just settles into a calm, trained demeanor, and decides to ignore the situation for the moment.)
Of course, when he gets back on the road with the other students, the calmness evaporates and he turns to Lan Jingyi and says, panicked, “Did you see that, Lan Jingyi?”
His classmate looks at him with the same confusion mirrored on his face, but directionless and a little lost, “See what?”
“Senior Mo called Hanguang-Jun Lan Zhan”
“Maybe they’re friends.”
"He doesn’t have any friends. Except his guqin," another student says rudely. Lan Sizhui wants to defend Hangung-Jun, but, well, he's not wrong.
Lan Jingyi nods thoughtfully, brows furrowing as he watches Hanguang-Jun and Senior Mo argue wildly, the masked man waving his arms and slicing his flute through the air like a sword as he says, “There are too many rules there, Lan Zhan! I will not go back to the Cloud Recess. Lan Zhan, you must drag me there if you want me to go.”
Hanguang-Jun regards him calmly, but Lan Sizhui thinks he can see a bit of fear and - juvenile nervousness? - flicker across his face. Suddenly, Master Mo says, "I would rather die again than go back to that place!"
“A-Ying,” Hanguang-Jun says with a softness in his voice that Lan Sizhui has never heard before, like his father is melting away all the seclusion and worry and tightness in his face, “be serious.”
Senior Mo doubles over, laughing, one hand coming up to support himself on Hanguang-Jin’s forearm and Lan Sizhui winces, waiting for him to brush away the other man and leave him on the side of the road. But he - he looks down at the hand gripping his robe-sleeve and back up, meeting the masked man’s eyes, back down to his hand, and again the eyes, and he looks more open and afraid than Lan Sizhui has ever seen. He says, “A-Ying. That is not something to joke about.”
There’s a shattered look in his eyes. It reminds Lan Sizhui of the few times he has seen his father break: When his rabbit named Wei died in the middle of the night with an awful fever, shaking and hot and squeaking out those horrible, pained noises. Lan Wangji had cradled the small creature in his arms, stroking its soft black fur. He did not cry. He just watched, pressing his forehead to the whimpering animal, and whispered words that Lan Sizhui did not understand until Wei the Rabbit faded away.
Lan Wangji nearly cried again when Lan Sizhui was half-drowned from a water demon and coughed, sputtering on the shore and he thought he would die, he couldn’t breathe and his father looked so afraid, funneling blue energy from his own chest into Lan Sizhui's as he shivered, soaked wet from when he dove in the water after him. That day, Lan Sizhui learned to fear death.
One more time did his father weep, standing at the edge of the Nightless City before a meeting of Clan Leaders. Lan Sizhui watched Lan Wangji kneel before the drop-off, hand brushing over the rocks, and when he turned around his face was damp.
This is the fourth time he has seen such a broken look in his eyes, and Lan Sizhui feels like he will see it more often now. Although his father always looks a little sad, a little haggard, but Lan Sizhui thinks all adults are a little sad, like his uncle, or Jiang Cheng, or any other grown person he knows. They all have a sad look to them. That must be what happens when you grow up - you get sad.
Faced with that split-open look, Master Mo sobers quickly, "Lan Zhan, I - " he begins softly, but backpedals into saying: "Sorry, sorry, sorry. Oh! How can I apologize, it will never be enough. I will bow to you a thousand times. I will write your rules three thousand times. I will get on my knees and - "
“Aiyah! Lan Zhan, you speak too soon,” his lips quirk into a playful smile, “I will never get on my knees for you ever again, since that is what you want, mhm?” He taps his nose, fingernail rapping on the scratched silver mask.
Lan Sizhui winces at the innuendo, expecting Hanguang-Jun to finally ignore the other man in earnest. One of the students behind him makes an aborted laughing-snorting sound, and Lan Jingyi turns to Lan Sizhui with wide eyes, jaw halfway to the ground, “Did he - oh, no. He really is crazy, A-Yuan, to say that to your father.”
“Teacher,” Lan Sizhui corrects, trying to be stern. Right now, Hanguang-Jun is his teacher.
The laughing student whispers, “Lan Sizhui, spying and eavesdropping? That’s a sight to see.”
“I’m making observations.”
He turns his attention back to his father - his teacher. His teacher. Hanguang-Jun looks - somewhere between alarmed, suspicious, and annoyed. Lips parted, eyes narrowed, if he was anyone else he’d be on the verge of huffing out an annoyed sigh. Lan Sizhui waits for him to turn on his heel and stalk off, or to tell off Mo Xuanyu off for impropriety conduct. Instead, Hanguang-Jun straightens his posture and his eyes twitch imperceptibly, head tilting to the side. It's as close as he gets to an eye rolls - part affectionate, part annoyed, and Lan Sizhui is so very, very confused.
Mo Xuanyu grins again, fiddles with Hanguang-Jun’s sleeve, and steps forward, "Ah, you have convinced me. I will find time later to die."
“A-Ying,” Hanguang-Jun says with more feeling that Lan Sizhui has ever heard, but he turns to walk with the other man, shoulders brushing in tandem, “do not make fun.”
Lan Sizhui and the other students follow quietly, save for a pattering of whispers. He doesn’t dare speak for fear of saying something so stupid that his father would hear from that many paces ahead, so instead he exchanges wide-eyes looks with Lan Jingyi, and he watches as the two men walk ahead.
“I will not walk the entire way tonight,” Master Mo says adamantly, “we are making a stop.” He turns back to the students, “Children! Kids! We are stopping at an inn for the night.”
Lan Sizhui senses the confusion from his classmates, a feeling he is mirroring, but he steps forward and says, “Hangung-Jun, what - “
“We are stopping,” his father says with a sharp nod.
The two men turn back to each other, and Master Mo continues, “What will the cultivation world think,” he begins, “their prestigious Hangung-Jun taking some madman to a secluded inn, humm? Heads will turn, A-Zhan.”
Hanguang-Jun’s grip whitens around his sword, but he says, “Boring.”
The madman laughs, hiccuping giggles, “You talk so sweet, but Hangung-Jun will not get me on my knees. Aye, don’t give me that look! You said - don’t go back on your words now, A-Zhan, it is too late for that.”
“Lan Zhan never changes, humm?” He flicks at Hangung-Jun’s forehead - narrowly missing his headband! - and continues in the one-sided conversation, “Everything is boring!”
Hanguang-Jun turns, eyebrows ever-so-slightly raised, an imploring look on his face, and he says: "Mm."
"That is because I am so much fun, Lan Zhan."
An inn, on the way to the Cloud Recesses
It has been fourteen hours since what Lan Sizhui has began to refer to as The Mo Xuanyu Incident, and the students huddle in an inn around a meager table of food, picking at dishes of rice. His father is upstairs in one of the threadbare rooms, mediating or playing the guqin or something like that.
“So,” Lan Jingyi begins, a mischievous look washing over his face, “Lan Sizhui, would you like to explain that to us?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“He’s your father.”
The other students are listening in now, leaning towards the conversation. One of them says, frowning, “When we return to the Cloud Recesses, Mo Xuanyu will likely be punished for his behavior.”
“They know each other,” another student brings up, “he called Hanguang-Jun A-Zhan.”
“And he called Senior Mo A-Ying,” Lan Jingyi whispers across the table.
“I heard, when he was a student, he went around with the Yiling Patriarch - “
Lan Sizhui is instantly nauseated, “No, no, we’re not having this conversation. Hanguang-Jun is not a cut-sleeve like Master Mo.”
“How do you know that?” Lan Jingyi challenges him, “He’s never taken a wife.”
“Hanguang-Jun is only interested in his guqin,” one student laughs, “His guqin and his books - “
They cut their gossip short when they hear footsteps padding upstairs, and Lan Sizhui hushes the other students with a glare, finger on his lips. He turns around to watch Mo Xuanyu stumble downstairs, followed closely by Hanguang-Jun, who looks stern and cold as ever, but Master Mo has a tight, sad look on his face.
“For me, there was just nothingness, but how did Lan Wangji fare?” He asks softly, so whisper-quiet that Lan Sizhui can barely hear it over the dining-hall clamor. He talks like he is picking up the thread of an old conversation.
"Mm?" Hanguang-Jun asks, reaching into his robes for a pouch of coins. The students all watch as the pair step up to a server, sliding coins across the counter for a kettle, two cups, and a gourd.
“Lan Zhan,” Master Mo breathes imploringly, all of that wit and laughter from the mountain seems like it belonged to a different person, “after - “
“Drink.” Hangung-Jun interrupts, a little afraid, practically shoving the platter into Master Mo’s hands and effectively ending the conversation.
They turn back upstairs, never losing a point of contact, and the students all turn to Lan Sizhui, who is feeling horror for maybe the first time.
“You were saying?” Lan Jingyi says sagely.
“Hangung-Jun is sad,” Lan Sizhui whispers.
Collected observations regarding facial expressions
His father is more open, after whatever he and Master Mo said to each other over tea and liquor, and Lan Sizhui isn’t sure what to do with that. He thought he was good at interpreting the man’s emotions, filing them away in his mind - slightly raised eyebrows mean confusion, or bemusement if they’re mixed with a tilt of the head, but they are affection when he just barely smiles. When his eyebrows go down and his mouth opens, his father is afraid. If his mouth is set in a firm line, he is mad.
Now, though, he will sigh, he will do this thing where he half-rolls his eyes and swishes his robe sleeves behind him when he is annoyed, instead of the imperceptible twitch between his eyebrows that Lan Sizhui has been seeing since he was a child. He’s on the receiving end of that a lot, the aborted eye roll and the swishey sleeves replacing forehead twitch.
Lan Sizhui has started to catalog these moments, because his father seems like he’s shedding his restraint and it makes him happy, but mostly because he can relay every weird moment back to the other juniors and they can gossip.
He has discovered he likes doing that (even though gossip is against rule one-hundred and fifty-seven).
There have been many of the moments:
He gave Master Mo a little, soft look - a private smile with open eyes and slack eyebrows, all loose and relaxed and weird on the stern man’s face, and then Master Mo grinned so broadly Hangung-Jun said “Mm. Loud.” at the madman’s bright, overwhelming expressiveness. It’s jarring against the cold detachment of the Lan Clan, but he slots right into Hangung-Jun’s life - and, somehow, the lives of the junior’s - like a book sliding back into the dusty spot on a shelf it had been taken down from centuries ago.
Then there is another new expression, an imploring blink when he leans forwards and says nothing - although sometimes he’ll add “mh” - just looks with his eyes wide open. It happens whenever someone says something utterly banal: he says “..” when Mo Xuanyu asks if he likes the rabbit they walk by one morning, nibbling on the weeds. He says “mh” when one of the juniors gets overexcited about the budding Mo Xuanyu theories and asks why Hangung-Jun has taken no wife. He blinks twice - twice! - when Lan Sizhui makes an observation he thought was very astute about a spirit, when really it was so completely obvious that he wants to crawl into a snake-hole and die.
Lan Sizhui’s favorite expression is this: raised eyebrows plus slight smile plus head tilt. It’s the new-and-improved version of slow blink, like a cat, plus relaxed-eyebrows (different from normal eyebrows). Lan Sizhui gets the affectionate, warm look a lot. And so does Master Mo, who always responds by bumping up against Hangung-Jun’s shoulder and saying something like “Aiyah! Lan Zhan, the sun is out today” or “You just broke rule number two-hundred and twenty-two, Lan Zhan,” or “Shameless, shameless, shameless, hurumph.”
The sad look has changed too, it’s less and more all at the same time - his eyelids half-close and he looks down and his corners of his lips inch towards his chin. Mo Xuanyu is on the receiving end of this one - when he laughs and jokes about death, when he clenches his fingers around his flute and plays a melody, and one time when they reached the edge of a bluff on their journey back to the Cloud Recesses, Master Mo stood on the edge and Hangung-Jun looked all sad and afraid, then scared, then shocked. Lan Sizhui had to turn away because his chest got tight and he thought he might cry, but he didn’t know why he was getting sad too.
An inn, just outside Gusu
Lan Sizhui is following his normal morning routine - he washes his face, slips into day-robes, mediates, repeats the rules, stretches, and ambles downstairs for tea. The kettle is warm in his hands and it smells like oolong, honeyed and woody, like home.
This is the routine, and he thinks nothing of it - he knocks twice on Lan Wangi's door before pushing it open, because there is an open-doors rule in the household anyway, so there has never been a need to knock. Mere courtesy. He pushes open the door to a scrambling sound and a flash of white, and Lan Wangji is filling up the doorframe, hand clutching his sword, and he says: "A-Yuan."
"Good morning," Lan Sizhui begins brightly, but is interrupted by another voice, coming from the back of the room, behind his father's broad shoulders.
"Aiyah! Lan Zhan, send the child away. I am sleeping."
"Who - " Lan Sizhui begins, but the door is quickly shut, "Father! I brought - Hanguang-Jun, I have tea!"
"Tell the child to bring me liquor," the voice demands.
“Ah, you think you are still sixteen but you are old now, and you must use your words when you speak.”
“Do not make pretty noises at me, Lan Zhan, or I will start to think you actually like me.”
“Ah-Ah-Ah don’t tempt me Lan Zhan your student has brought you tea."
Lan Wanji flings the door open, "Thirty minutes," he says, and promptly closes the door again.
Sizhui sets the tea down and numbly walks back to the room he is sharing with the other juniors, flings the door open with all the cold drama of his father, and says: "Lan Jingyi, you were correct, and I want to die."
Lan Sizhui notices three things, in quick succession, when Hangung-Jun glides out of his room.
First, his robes are wrinkled.
Second, Mo Xuanyu follows close behind from around the turn in the hallway where the nice rooms are.
Third, there’s a blush high on Master Mo’s cheeks and Hangung-Jun has a weird, weird little smile on his face like there’s a secret bubbling in his chest that he just wants to shout.
Instead of shouting, though, Lan Sizhui’s father turns to him and says: “Sizhui. Sleep well?” as if nothing strange is going on.
“Yes!” he says, the words startled out of his throat, “Yes, Hangung-Jun. Thank you. And you?” he pours his father tea as he speaks, as per their ritual, passing the steaming cup of oolong to him as he sits down.
Mo Xuanyu follows, looking imploringly at Sizhui until he pours a cup for him, “Ah, children these days, no respect. The young generation will be corrupted, mark my words, Lan Zhan.”
Hangung-Jun gives Lan Sizhui a nod of thanks and one of those slow-blinks, and says “Mm,” to Master Mo before turning his attention back to Lan Sizhui, stares for a slow moment, then responds: “Well.”
Lan Sizhui nods and smiles brightly, sips his tea, and is delighted - really, delighted - that his father has found the time to sit down and talk like a normal person.
Sometimes Sizhui wonders where he gets that mean streak - certainly not his father, and he can’t vouch for the personalities of his birth-parents.
He turns to Master Mo next, “And you, Master Mo? Were your rooms sufficient? I’m afraid the Lan Clan cannot offer our full hospitality here, but when we get to Cloud Recesses - “
“Ah,” the man waves him off breezily, “the rooms were a pleasure,” he says with feeling, “and there is very little in Cloud Recesses that is.”
With that, he stands up, stretches his arms up above his head and yawns, looking very pleased with himself, and says, “It is too early to exist - “
“Five-o-clock is the time for rising,” Hangung-Jun chides halfheartedly.
“ - and I would not be up if not for Lan Zhan’s ridiculous schedule. Alas, children. I am off. To sleep. Farewell, infants. May I have many, many sweet dreams.” With that, he saunters off, flicking his hair over his shoulder as he goes. There’s the distinct slamming of a door down around the bend in the hallway, and Hangung-Jun purses his lips and mutters something under his breath.
The next day, Mo Xuanyu and Sizhui’s father buy a lantern with rabbits on it.
Mo Xuanyu is actually the Yiling Patriarch, as it turns out, and Lan Sizhui thinks he is probably supposed to be afraid of him but he can't muster anything - no anger, no fright, nothing of the sort. For some reason, he wants to cry. He wants to something, wants some way to let out all of the complicated emotions that are churning around in his chest, all bittersweet sadness and joy like honey in sharp black tea. Tea bought from the Yiling Markets, prepared for him by a man with black hair while the children eat lotus seeds and muck around in the dirt, nibbling on turnips and shiny apples. He remembers rough fabric, dirt on his nose, and pulpy potatoes that tasted like the earth. Red and black and brown, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, the delicate hands of a woman in red tying his hair up into a top-knot. He does not know where those memories are from or why they surge up in his head when he surveys the dirty cave and the dead lotus leaves.
He remembers his father in blue, because apparently he hasn't always worn mourning white (although blue is starting to make its way back into his robes, and Lan Sizhui thinks it's Hangung-Jun's own silent way of expressing joy).
Wei Wuxian and Hangung-Jun walk ahead with Little Apple, and Lan Sizhui trails along behind them with Wen Ning. Sizhui can't break his grip on the paper cicada he has been carrying as long as he can remember, his only memento of the time before (besides ringing laughter, memories of hunger, and the smell of grave dirt).
"Tell me about Wei Wuxian," Lan Sizhui asks A-Ning, "before he died."
Wen Ning looks surprised and confused, but that seems to be his permanent expression. His head bobs for a moment in an awkward nod, and he says: "Wei - Wei Ying? Oh. He - "
"I remember a man," Lan Sizhui interrupts him, "when I was young. He was kind." Wen Ning makes a giddy little sound, and Lan Sizhui continues: "He wore black and red and hated turnips. I . . . I miss him."
He looks over to Wen Ning, who is somewhat distracted, looking up at the flocks of birds that swirl overhead, but at Sizhui's confession he startles back to attention, "Talk to him."
"I can't - my parents died."
Wen Ning raises a hand, pointing forwards, down the road and past the berry bushes, where Hangung-Jun and Yiling Lazou have been swallowed up by the thick trees. He hears a bright laugh, a soft "Mmh, Wei Ying," that trails off into softer words, and the laugh continues to ring through the woods and tickles somewhere far back in Lan Sizhui's memories, and all of a sudden he knows, and he is running forwards, and he sees his father (really sees him, without foggy half-forgotten memories or false names) for the first time in sixteen years. His father in blue watches on as they embrace and cry and he smiles, the small private smile only for their little family, as they jump and tease and talk of turnips.
Lan Sizhui thinks, perhaps, for this one shining moment, he has it all figured out.