For a timeless instant, Lan Qiren is tempted to pinch himself. It’s childish, ridiculous, but surely…surely he must be asleep and having a truly terrible dream. A nightmare. Surely he is not standing here, hidden from sight by the snow-laden branches of a large bush like a thief in his own home, watching two-thirds of their youngest, most innocent, most vulnerable disciples ask Wei Wuxian for help. He is, though. He knows he is, and he feels his chest tighten, the light meal and tea he’s just shared with Lan Guihong suddenly sitting like a stone in his stomach.
The bane of his existence, the only blemish on Wangji’s otherwise pristine reputation, the worst mistake his nephew has ever made (and what a mistake, what a blemish!) Perhaps the worst person the children could have chosen to seek assistance from! And assistance for what?!
He gathers himself to storm forward and demand an explanation (and further demand that Wei Wuxian stop corrupting the youth of Gusu Lan…bad enough that their senior disciple class trail after him like lost puppies rather than young men who will soon represent their sect to the world at large) when Wei Wuxian heaves a heavy sigh.
“Lan Chenli,” he says, clearly enough for Lan Qiren to hear a thread of amusement in his voice, “did you get permission to take that talisman paper out of the classroom?”
The boy in question, a fine, upstanding student who can already recite the first thousand sect rules with only a few vocabulary errors, actually ducks his head, stubbing his toes in the drift of snow that the wind has scattered on the walkway.
“It’s not against the rules,” he says, and Lan Qiren inhales, opens his mouth to announce himself. For the second time, his action is arrested, this time when Wei Wuxian speaks.
“Ah, ah, ah…someone not telling you ‘no’ is not the same as them telling you ‘yes.’ What if your teacher needed those supplies for your lessons today? I am happy to help you, but—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—I’m not interested in helping you get into trouble with your teachers. You should all know better.”
The boy’s shoulders slump, and were Lan Qiren less disciplined, he has the uncomfortable feeling that his jaw would have just dropped. That…that was not what he expected to hear. Did Wei Wuxian just scold the boy for doing something improperly?
Pinching himself begins to sound like a good idea again.
Wei Wuxian holds a serious expression for a moment, then squats down so he is eye-level with the novices. “I suppose it’s a good thing I have plenty of talisman paper of my own then, huh?” he says. The children brighten immediately, crowding in closer to him. “What do you need to practice today, then?”
The students all start talking at once, in direct opposition to their usual calm, ordered responses, and Lan Qiren narrows his eyes. Days. As far as he knows, these children have only known Wei Wuxian for a few days and already he’s been a bad influence. How is it possible for one person to be this much of a disaster? Does he ruin everything he touches?
It’s enough to break him out of his momentary shock at the sight of Wei Wuxian behaving like a reasonable adult, and he bristles. Takes a step forward again. Takes in a breath to call out again, to put a stop to this madness and…
And is interrupted. Again.
He startles at the voice behind him, covers it up by whirling on the new presence. Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi shrink back from him a little, and he belatedly realizes his anger must be showing on his face. He takes a calming breath, schooling his features as he flicks his sleeves into order.
“Grandmaster?” Lan Sizhui says again, his tone cautious, “Is there something we can assist you with?”
The two young men are each carrying an armload of what looks like the most random assortment of things Lan Qiren has ever seen. A set of Gusu Lan robes, brushes and inkstones, several qiankun pouches, and a jar of some kind of kitchen spice that has absolutely no business being in the Cloud Recesses, judging from the truly alarming shade of red that rims the lip of it where the lid has jostled loose. Lan Qiren is both desperately curious and certain that for the sake of his sanity he Does. Not. Want. To. Know.
“What,” he grits out, “is going on here?”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes flick to the scene behind him, where Wei Wuxian is still talking to the novices. An unreadable expression flashes across his face before he elbows Lan Jingyi in the side. Lan Jingyi sputters before he, too, glances further down the path. Unlike Lan Sizhui, his face is an open book of surprise, dismay, and finally panic.
“Uh, Grandmaster it’s not…they were just…uh…”
“Speak clearly!” Lan Qiren snaps.
“The novice class just wanted some extra help preparing for their final exam in a couple weeks!” Lan Jingyi gets out in a rush. “Lan Fang, uh, Teacher Lan told them they wouldn’t move on in their studies until they could demonstrate mastery over their basic spellwork and some of them freaked out. They liked Master Wei so much when he had to watch them the other day, and he’s been so helpful on our night hunts…” He trails off with a helpless shrug that threatens to dislodge the alarmingly red kitchen spice in his arms. “I didn’t see any harm in sending them to see if Master Wei could tutor them.”
“Didn’t see the harm?” Lan Qiren repeats, incredulous.
He whips back around in time to see Wei Wuxian usher the last of the novices into the empty practice room he’s been doing who knows what in, and this time he does not allow himself to be distracted as he strides down the path, determined that whatever madness this thorn in his side plans to perpetuate will not come to pass. He is nearly to the door when Lan Sizhui suddenly darts in front of him, his arms now empty of the things he had been carrying.
“Grandmaster, wait!” he says, spreading his hands as though he might try to fend Lan Qiren off physically. Almost immediately, he lowers them, pressing his lips together for a brief moment before drawing himself to his full height. A hard, determined light enters his eyes, and he sets his jaw. “Please. Just a moment.”
For a fleeting instant, it is as though the past and the present blur together. In that instant, Lan Sizhui looks so much like Wangji. Lan Qiren pauses, a strange feeling twisting in his chest.
Capitalizing on the hesitation, Lan Sizhui speaks again. “Grandmaster, please, I—I would ask that you not be so quick in your judgement. Master Wei hasn’t done anything wrong!”
“Yeah,” Lan Jingyi’s slightly strained voice sounds from behind him. When he glances over his shoulder, he finds the disciple making his careful way towards them, his arms now full of the things Lan Sizhui had been carrying as well. Why they had not just put everything into one of the qiankun pouches is beyond him. “There’s no rule that says who you’re allowed or not allowed to ask for help during the study period!”
“You presume to quote the disciplines to me?” Lan Qiren turns to glare at Lan Jingyi, who gulps audibly and scurries the last few steps to come stand beside Lan Sizhui. “There most assuredly are rules about associating with those who willingly turn from the righteous path!”
“Is that what you truly think of him?” Lan Sizhui questions, his voice low and calm, yet somehow more intense because of it. “That he willingly…” He cuts himself off, swallowing and shaking his head. “Do you truly believe Master Wei still cultivates evil?”
“Has he given me reason not to?” Lan Qiren counters, harshly. Even as he says it, his own conscience demands he acknowledge that he’s not being entirely fair. It sits heavy in his heart, twisting and slithering like a snake.
Lan Sizhui’s face grows somehow colder, and if his actions echoed Wangji before, now the resemblance is truly uncanny. Lan Qiren recognizes the expression that sits on his great-nephew’s features, intimately. Wangji has worn it many times before, though it had only appeared after Wei Wuxian came into his life.
Lan Sizhui is not backing down.
“Have you ever given him a chance to?” he demands. He demands it respectfully. Politely. But he does demand. Beside him, Lan Jingyi briefly looks as though he wants to curl up on the ground and die, but he stands firm beside his friend, lending silent support.
The sheer audacity actually stuns Lan Qiren into silence for a few heartbeats. That these disciples, these children would dare…
He was wrong. Lan Sizhui does not remind him of Wangji in this moment. This? This is all Wei Wuxian. And Lan Jingyi too? True, the youth has never been a model of Lan decorum, but he has never been this defiant. This, this is what he feared when Wei Wuxian started spending so much time around their junior disciples…this is what he fears will happen to the novices, only so much worse because at least Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi have had proper instruction. Have had years of proper role models, have learned how to differentiate between right and wrong.
“Grandmaster,” Lan Sizhui says again, and for the first time there is a fissure of uncertainty in his voice. “That is all I ask—just give Master Wei a chance to prove himself to you. If you would just listen for a few minutes…”
“You are inviting me to spy?”
Lan Sizhui takes a deep breath. “I am inviting you to observe. Please. Great Uncle, just please listen to what Master Wei does—just for a few minutes. I will accept whatever punishment you deem necessary. All I ask is a few minutes of your time.”
Lan Sizhui has not called him “Great Uncle” since he was nine years old. It would not have been proper, once he officially moved into the disciples’ quarters and began cultivating in earnest. Lan Qiren is not entirely sure he’s aware he has done it, now. Lan Qiren glares at them, lifting his chin and huffing to himself. The two disciples meet his gaze steadily (if a little fearfully, in Jingyi’s case, but his refusal to allow Lan Sizhui to be the only one to face his ire is admirable).
“This is important to you,” he says, narrowing his eyes at his nephew’s adopted son. Lan Sizhui sighs, the tense set of his shoulders relaxing somewhat.
“It is,” he says.
Lan Qiren considers, some small part of him horrified that he is even doing that much. Still…perhaps there is merit in gathering more evidence. He does not need anyone’s permission to forbid someone from interacting with their students—education in the Cloud Recesses is his domain, after all—but perhaps this would allow him to do so without argument. Without causing more strife between him and Wangji. It will be hard enough to replace Lan Guihong without having to worry that the novices’ next instructor will have to undo bad habits and incorrect methods picked up from Wei Wuxian. If indulging Lan Sizhui for a few minutes lessens his stress later, perhaps it is worth it.
Lan Qiren heaves a put-upon sigh. “Very well,” he says. “Where shall I observe your Master Wei from?” Distaste curls through him at the thought of stooping so low as to spy upon a guest of the Cloud Recesses…even this guest. But he supposes he shouldn’t really be surprised. It is Wei Wuxian, after all. Of course anything involving him would be antithetical to the Lan disciplines.
Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi have a short, very intense conversation using just their eyebrows and a few exaggerated facial expressions. Lan Jingyi finally rolls his eyes and heads for the door of the practice room Wei Wuxian had led the novices into, juggling the supplies in his arms awkwardly. Lan Sizhui hesitates, then quietly gestures to the door of the adjacent practice room. Lan Qiren barely keeps his distaste from curling his lip, this time. So they will genuinely be spying.
He has agreed to this course of action, though, and so he swallows it, sweeps into the room behind Lan Sizhui and waits as the young man closes the door. This cluster of rooms is used for practicing advanced spellwork and arrays, the walls layered with countless protection charms and wards. It is often necessary to have a larger or smaller space available, though, and so the inner walls themselves are made of simple bamboo screens—easily collapsible and moveable to create the desired workspace. Naturally, there are also numerous silencing and privacy talismans that have been woven into the very walls…though if they are not activated it is easy to hear every word that is spoken in an adjacent practice room.
The silencing talismans in the workspace Wei Wuxian has commandeered have not been activated.
Lan Sizhui sinks gracefully to his knees against the walls separating them from Wei Wuxian and the novices, eyes downcast and hands folded neatly in his lap. Lan Qiren listens as Lan Jingyi clatters into the next room, greeting the novices and making some mumbled excuse for Lan Sizhui’s absence that just barely skirts the edge of lying without crossing over.
Another thing he would like to lay at Wei Wuxian’s feet, but honesty demands he admit that Lan Jingyi has been stepping up to the very edges of his boundaries and pushing his toes against them since he was a child. Perhaps that is why he and Wei Wuxian seem to get along so well. No matter. With another huff, Lan Qiren settles himself next to Lan Sizhui, staring straight ahead as Wei Wuxian’s loud, obnoxious voice fills the space. He breathes deeply, braces himself to listen (as he agreed to) to the man utterly botch whatever instruction he tries to give the novices.
Oh, Wei Wuxian doesn’t lack for knowledge. In the absence of any other choice, Lan Qiren will concede that Wei Wuxian is and always has been a prodigy. He is brilliant. That he had squandered so much potential with his crooked, disrespectful ways is no small part of Lan Qiren’s dislike of him. Being brilliant, however, is no guarantee of being able to share that brilliance with others. Whatever assistance he provides on the older disciples’ night hunts, Lan Qiren knows he will hear nothing here that will convince him Wei Wuxian should be allowed to tutor their novice classes! He adopts a comfortable meditation pose, certain he is about to listen to a disaster. He straightens his spine and waits.
And slowly, with ever-dawning horror, he realizes that he will not be hearing a disaster at all.
Wei Wuxian is not holding a mere study session, or providing some outside tutoring. Wei Wuxian, the bane of his existence, is teaching an engaging, competent, completely age-appropriate master class on talisman work. Lan Qiren sits frozen, listening as Wei Wuxian lays out clear directions for the exercise that the novices’ final exam will take the form of, fields question after question, reassures and encourages with every breath.
That hated voice is calm and infinitely patient. His corrections are firm, but never unkind. His every method is textbook correct, even as he occasionally branches out into how something can be adapted or repurposed, depending on the situation. And the novices…
Lan Qiren listens to the novices absolutely blossom. Their questions are eager and curious, bright with excitement and yet Wei Wuxian maintains order in a way he never even bothers to do for himself. The listen to his every word, and Lan Qiren does not have to use much imagination—if he were taken to such flights of fancy—to picture them staring at him raptly, following his every gesture like flowerheads following the sun. It is like listening to one who has done this all their life. It is like listening to one of Lan Guihong’s classes from years ago…though he doubts that even in his prime Lan Guihong bounced around the classroom quite so much as Wei Wuxian is doing, judging by the sound.
He listens, shock and disbelief warring inside of him, as Wei Wuxian actually guides the novices through their final exam exercise—inviting them all to try. The candle scenario is a test of control and application that these novices should still be weeks away from achieving, based on his own experience and observations, and yet…
“Hah! There Lan Xin, what did I tell you? You only needed some practice, and look at you! Just a bit more concentration…don’t worry about the force, just hold your intention clear as you can in your mind!”
Lan Xin. That was the youngest disciple’s name, wasn’t it? The one that he, and Lan Fang, and even Lan Guihong had all but given up on as a lost cause for cultivation. And yet Wei Wuxian is praising him as highly as the others, as though he—
“Excellent! Look at that everyone, the wick is still straight as an arrow! Well done, Lan Xin!”
Lan Qiren stands abruptly. He ignores Lan Sizhui’s startled exhalation, the questioning call of, “Grandmaster?”
He maintains a measured, unhurried pace—he is not retreating, not from this—as he exits the practice room and sweeps up the paths back towards the main part of the compound. He does not hurry. But nor does he stop. Not when he hears Lan Sizhui call after him. Not when he hears other voices addressing him. He does not stop until he is back in his own quarters.
He has a meeting with Lan Fang scheduled in a little under an hour, to discuss the problem of the novice class, and what can be done to find a proper replacement for Lan Guihong. He has an hour to get his thoughts in order, to calm the turbulent emotions churning through him, to set his world back to rights and get himself under control. He should only need a few minutes.
At the end of the hour, three messages are passed through the Cloud Recesses, from Grandmaster Lan Qiren. The first is to Lan Fang, apologizing and asking his indulgence in moving their meeting to the following afternoon. The second is to Lan Guihong, asking if he feels sufficiently recovered to join Lan Qiren for breakfast in his private quarters the next day.
The third is to Lan Wangji…and Wei Wuxian. Asking to meet with them privately during the dinner hour tomorrow.