HanGuang-Jun began the long trek up Luanzang Hill. Along the path, skeletal remains occasionally jutted from the ground, haphazard and half obscured in the underbrush of the scrub forest. He could tell he was coming close to the summit as those were replaced by crude houses dotting the trail. Long since destroyed and abandoned, their sides were in shambles and the thatch was caved in. Lan WangJi’s mind wandered, uninvited, to recollections of his first visit to the Burial Mounds. He thought of Wen Qing, Wen Ning, and the small boy who clung to his leg. Like most unwanted thoughts, he would allow these to come, he would gaze at them from a distance, and then let them wash over him, and he left them behind in his wake.
Ah, here it is, the impenetrable barrier The Yiling Patriarch set up thirteen years ago. Lan Zhan dared not approach the high concentration of energy, but simply waited before it, knowing his arrival had not gone unnoticed.
Soon enough he was approached by a young disciple dressed in black and red, accompanied by a cloaked figure, black hood drawn over the face. The Ghost General and his master were nowhere to be seen. Stopping, Lan WangJi gave a respectful salute and announced himself, “I, HanGuang-Jun, seek audience with the Yiling Patriarch.” He pulled himself up straight again and waited.
The young boy, he must have been somewhere between fifteen and sixteen years old, gave the smallest of smirks, “Why should we grant you audience?” was all he asked, posture polite, but voice unrestrained.
“There have been reports of new ferocious corpses viciously attacking this area and beyond. It has garnered the interest of the cultivation world, and I come as a vanguard. There is no ill intent. I merely wish to discuss the matter with Yiling Laozu. Please grant me audience.” Lan WangJi addressed the young disciple.
The boy’s tone was stern. “And you assume this has to do with us? How do we know this is not a trap to lure my master out?” The disciple exhibited decorum, obviously an obedient and dedicated student. Yet there was something dangerous in his eye that gave Lan WangJi pause. It reminded him too much of someone else.
“Thirteen years ago, didn’t Lan WangJi decide to go against my master, to lay siege with the cultivation world?”
Lan WangJi did not reply.
“Qian-gege,” the old nickname stung like hell, “The last time I saw you, did you not come here to take him away to your Gusu? To catch him and lock him up?” this he said quieter, the danger in his eyes flickering. So this is the little one that used to cling to the thighs of those he liked.
“A-Yuan!! Watch your tongue! Address HanGuang-Jun properly now,” the man in the black hood reprimanded. The sound of his voice sent shivers down Lan WangJi’s spine.
“Please forgive my rudeness, HanGuang-Jun.” The disciple gave a proper salute then, with a smooth smile, echoing one Lan WangJi knew all too well. When the red edges of his long black sleeves touched, the pattern of fire stitched along them came together to make the shape of a butterfly. “However there’s really no need for you to stay here any longer. Allow me to escort you back.” Not waiting for an answer, he took a pace forward, ending the conversation.
“One moment A-Yuan.” The cloaked figure reached a hand out to grip one of the young boy’s shoulders, and Wen Yuan took two steps back. Though he obediently submitted, he did not drop his gaze from Lan WangJi’s. The cloaked figure took a slow step forward, slinking to circle Lan Zhan in a casual saunter, assessing him.
“HanGuang-Jun, HanGuang-Jun. What exactly are you doing here?” Lan Zhan felt his heart constrict at the sound of that voice. The dark figure threw back his black hood to reveal a familiar face. Lan Zhan’s breath caught in his throat.
“Wei Ying-“ he began and stopped.
How can it be, that Wei Ying looked exactly the same as he remembered him from thirteen years ago, and at the same time look so different? The Yiling Laozu was still a striking, proud figure in black and red, handsome face accentuated by slender features. But gone was the smile he knew from their youth, the one that clung to eyes and mouth. The smile that constantly threatened to widen into a laugh at a moment’s notice, and would call to him saying, “Lan Zhan, look at me!” Now those eyes where hard, and the mouth a flat line. Even when looking at him.
And there was something else. Age. Both men were in their early thirties now, but Lan WangJi was suddenly painfully aware of exactly how much the same he looked. His own smooth jade-like face barely looked a day over twenty, as if carved from ice. While the face looking back at him had certainly felt the passage of time.
His eyes darted to Wei WuXian’s waist to where the famed flute Chenqing was stashed in his belt. The flute said to have brought thousands of corpses and cultivators alike to untimely death. He still remembered the last time he heard Wei Ying play that flute. So much had happened on that day.
“Wei WuXian,” he started again, giving a proper salute. “There is a matter I wish to discuss with Yiling Laozu.”
“Oh?” Wei WuXian’s face carried cold amusement. “Is that right? And what, possibly, could the great HanGuang-Jun have to discuss with the Yiling Patriarch? Is it that you still wish to imprison me at your beloved Gusu? Why wait thirteen years just to try again? Have I not left your cultivation world alone long enough? I think you better mind your manners, HanGuang-Jun. Coming to someone’s domain uninvited is very unlike you.” His voice dripped cold condemnation. There was a time when these very lines would have been said flirtatiously, with a hidden laugh behind them. Those days felt like a lifetime ago.
Lan Zhan waited for the act to drop. Waited for Wei Ying’s face to suddenly open up and shine with a smile like the sun. He waited for him to jab at him, call him a fuddy duddy, to reveal that all along this too was a joke, and to invite him up the mountain. But that moment never came. Wei Ying’s eyes did not soften for him like they once had. He voice carried no laughter. Lan Zhan had thought he understood what heartbreak felt like after these past thirteen years. Apparently he was wrong.
In the absence of words, he maintained his bow, allowing Wei WuXian to circle him like a hawk.
“Hmmm. Stubborn as always I see. Well, I do not have the time to parlay with you today. Come back tomorrow and see if my temperament has changed. Wen Yuan! you may escort him out.” And with that, The Yiling Patriarch turned on his heel and walked back up the mountain, leaving the bowed Lan WangJi behind without so much as a backward glance.
The next day, at the same time, HanGuang-Jun was walking up the mountain pass. Today’s unwanted thoughts were not about the Wens, but were all about Wei Ying. He had spent the sleepless night mapping the older face upon the younger face, noticing the changes, the similarities. It was not until he crested the summit that he realized he had been clenching and unclenching Bichen relentlessly. Was he nervous to see that face again? Well, who wouldn’t be, in his position.
Today it was only Wen Yuan who met him at the barrier. Approaching, the two exchanged salutes, the wind catching ribbons and sleeves, tossing them in the breeze.
“Will he meet with me today?” Lan Wangji kept his voice low and even. His left hand clenched Bichen, his right arm steadied himself behind his back.
“Apologies HanGuang-Jun, but my master is busy and unable to come down from the mountain to meet you today. Please do try again tomorrow.” Wen Yuan bowed and wanted to turn to leave but hesitated when Lan WangJi said, “Then perhaps you can answer one of my questions. You are his disciple, are you not?”
A-Yuan smiled darkly at HanGuang-Jun, crossing his arms. He really has taken on so many of Wei Ying’s mannerisms, hasn’t he?
“Yes. But don’t get any ideas. I am also his only disciple. We are not amassing an army to reign down on the cultivation world, contrary to what you hear on the streets.” His look was pointed. After a moment, he began to turn again to leave.
“That was not the question,” HanGuang-Jun reigned him back in.
“Oh?” Wen Yuan turned on his heel to face Lan WangJi, the same way Wei WuXian had the day prior. The boy wore similar black robes, and even wore his hair in a similar style, swept back and up in a bright red ribbon. Lan WangJi catalogued these details and continued speaking.
“Wen Ning. His ashes were burned and scattered at Nightless City. Then seven years ago rumors began spreading of his return. Are they true?”
“What?” Wen Yuan obviously was not prepared for such a direct question. He threw his chin back a little, jutting his jaw out aggressively.
“Is Wen Ning still in service to The Yiling Patriarch?”
Wen Yuan’s brow furrowed a little, which is all Lan Wangji needed as confirmation. This was a truth he already suspected. Watching Wen Yuan's inner turmoil for a moment, he suddenly felt gentle towards this boy, the one who, so long ago, once clutched Lan Wangji’s leg and called him Baba in the middle of a busy street. Softening his face, he tried to offer reassurance.
“Do not worry, I already know the answer to this. You would not be betraying your master to tell me that Wen Ning protects the ground we stand upon. Why else would there be no foul creatures from here back to the town? Nor on any other part of this mountain?”
Lan WangJi watched Wen Yuan’s bravado fall for a moment. The boy seemed relieved he did not have to lie, or betray Wei WuXian. “It is true,” he spoke up, his tone dropping its harsh edges, “Master Wei is really a genius. He discovered that General Ghost had been imprisoned, not turned to ash, by the LanlingJin Sect. He managed to compose a tune on Chenqing to call him back us.” There was something so pure in the way he said this, Lan Wangji could almost see the small child he once was, running around with a straw butterfly on his head.
“Mn. I am glad of it. Wei WuXian needs a steady companion.” And with that Lan WangJi saluted once more and turned to walk away before Wen Yuan could decide what to feel about that.
It was later the same night. Lan WangJi was reading a book by the desk at his room in the hotel at Yiling. The window was thrown open to permit entrance to the cool spring breeze. The chirp of the crickets and spring frogs kept him company in his solitude, until they stopped. Glancing up from the page, Lan WangJi looked long and hard into the night beyond the window. Someone was there.
Lifting a perfectly flattened peony, fresh and fragrant as the first day he received it, Lan WangJi closed his book around the flower and blew out the candle. Approaching the window, he allowed his night vision to adjust as he scanned the ground, and then the branches of the trees beyond. There was nothing obviously out of place, but it was still too quiet. And there was a certain smell . . .
“Wen Ning,” he dared to hiss into the darkness. “Are you there?” He had hoped to speak with the Ghost General at some point during his stay in Yiling. If there was another person in this world as dedicated to the safety of Wei WuXian, it was Wen Ning. General Ghost should be informed of the new siege the cultivation world was planning against Wei WuXian. There was nothing like a common enemy to keep the clans from feuding too much among themselves. And what easier common enemy was there than the YiLing Patriarch, protector of the Wen dogs?
When no answer came, he frowned into the night, and pulled the window closed, latching it from the inside. It was nine o’clock, and time for sleep.
HanGuang-Jun put the previous night from his mind as he returned the third day to the top of Luanzang Hill. This time he took a different route and discovered a field of turnips and potatoes on the south side of the mountain, just outside of the protective barrier. He did not mean to eavesdrop on the people working there, but when he recognized it was Wen Yuan and his master he stopped to listen, keeping within the edge of the wood.
“Tell me again why you are caring for a field outside of the barrier?” Wei WuXian was kicking a small rock around, frowning at the newly tilled earth at his feet.
A-Yuan perked up, straight and a little nervous. “Master Wei. Don’t you remember? This is where we started the first field with Wen Qing and Granny. This is where you pretended to bury me in the ground like a turnip.” A-Yuan wore a flute at his waist as well, Lan Wangji noticed. He was gently stroking a light green tassel that hung from a circular piece of jade fixed to the end.
Wei WuXain thought for a moment, tapping a finger against his nose, “Hmm, I forgot that the village used to extend this far. This is very sentimental of you A-Yuan. Do you remember what I have taught you about sentiment?” He cocked a dark eyebrow at his disciple.
Nodding, A-Yuan stood stiff and faced forward as if he were reciting a creed, “Love without truth is sentimentality. Sentimentality keeps us in denial, keeps us rooted in the past. Leave the past behind. And never return for what is left behind.” When he was finished he kept his gaze forward, obedient and attentive.
Wei WuXian paced before his disciple, twirling Chenqing in one hand, and nodded approvingly.
“Correct. And what do we do when we find ourselves holding onto something we should have let go of a long time ago?” His eyes and mouth were flat, emotionless.
“We destroy it.” A-Yuan replied. The obedience and discipline on his face was not matched in his voice though. Lan WangJi watched his small hands clench momentarily at his sides.
“That is correct.” Wei WuXian paused in his pacing and looked at the boy, “By this time tomorrow I want all of these plants transferred inside the barrier or I will burn this plot to the ground.” Then his eyes narrowed and moved past A-Yuan, into the forest behind him.
“Yes Master Wei.” A-Yuan bowed in submission before catching his master’s gaze and turning to look into the woods as well. This is the moment when HanGuang-Jun chose to step clear of the scrub trees and approach them.
“You again!” A-Yuan’s eyes flared, dropping the manners of an obedient disciple, he sloped his shoulders and began to strut forward towards HanGunag-Jun. The dangerous grin was back, making him look more like one of the punk kids on the streets of Yiling than the disciple of a gentry family.
“Is it typical for HanGuang-Jun to snoop around in forests, Master Wei? Or is he merely seeking an audience with us again today? If so, he is early, and on the wrong side of the mountain.” A-Yuan crossed his arms in front of himself as he stood protectively in front of his master. His face was all bravado and dark charm. Wei WuXian looked away from the two and back to the tilled earth.
“Let him keep the garden.” Lan Wangji spoke to Wei WuXian and only Wei WuXian.
A-Yuan’s eyes narrowed, “Why do you talk to him, when it is me who is addressing you? Have I not told you already that he is too busy for you? If you wish to speak with him, you must go through me. Like every other cultivator and high-born wretch who seeks us out.” The boy’s tone had changed from what Lan WangJi just witnessed in the field. Now it was dark like the rest of him.
HanGuang-Jun ignored him. “Extend the barrier and let him keep the garden.” He spoke again only to Wei WuXian. Wei WuXian never even glanced in his direction.
“Wen Yuan, please escort HanGuang-Jun off the mountain. I do not have the time for him today.”
Someone was outside the window again that night. This time, in preparation, Lan WangJi had moved the desk to just beneath it, so he could listen while he read. He did not hear the approach of steps, but he did hear the difference in how the tree branches just outside swayed in the wind. He opened his mouth slightly, to let the night smells linger there while taking in a deep breath. Mixed with the arboreal silage of the forest, and the dust from the street, was a musk, topped with a sweet grass scent. Not a deer or bear, but something else.
Not right away, and not quickly, he cautiously lifted his eyes to gaze outside the window, making no other movement. And then his blood ran cold, like an animal caught in a hunter’s sights, his entire body constricting, making his heart pound in his chest. A pair of eyes stared back at him from the dark. They were grey, smoldering and simmering like a storm at sea. Never in his life had he seen eyes like those, until that fated day seventeen years ago. He could never forget them, even if he tried.
And so he stared back. He felt his lips draw inward, his face go sallow, could feel every ridge of his skull, the circles under his eyes, and he let his heart pump useless blood to his dizzy head and he just stared. Stared like he would never see those eyes again.
It was not until those eyes closed and the person in the tree floated to the ground and melted into the night that Lan WangJi realized his entire body was shaking.
“Don’t think this had anything to do with you! The plants were just in between being established and too weak to transplant. We would have lost them if the field was moved. We cannot fall short this winter like we did the last!”
This is how Wen Yuan greeted Lan WangJi the following day when he took the woodland path past the southern fields again. The boy was leaning on a hoe, pointed straw hat protecting his face from the high noon sun, rough-spun mauve robes muddied with soil. His face was cross.
“Mn,” was all Lan WangJi said in reply.
Instead of being destroyed overnight as promised by Wei WuXian, the field had in fact been extended, and what looked like radish, squash and bean seedlings had been newly added. The red film of the barrier had also been extended, and held the plot within its protective bubble. Wen Yuan stood inside the bubble, and Lan WangJi stood just on the outside of it.
“Do you tend all the gardens on Luanzang Hill?” Lan WangJi asked. He could not help but notice that this punk kid looked like he was in his element. At the question, Wen Yuan drew himself up a bit, losing the sloppy posture learned from his master.
“I do. It used to be Uncle Four. But now he is gone. He taught a few of us, and now I lead the others in crop propagation and field rotation.” He was obviously proud of this role. His entire posture changed while he spoke about the plants.
“Gone?” Lan WangJi was embarrassed at the stupidity of his own question.
Wen Yuan flashed him an expression that screamed Rude! “Yeah, gone, you know, like the way people go when they get too old for his world.” His lips made and exacerbated shape that reminded Lan WangJi of someone else. Yet again.
“Apologies,” he bowed deeply in memory of a man he never new. Rising, he began inspecting the new plants. Through the red of the membrane it was hard to tell if their color was healthy, but they did reach well shaped leaves up towards the sun, and the ground beyond smelled fertile and fresh.
“Squash, beans, do you have any corn in there?” He asked, thinking about how the three provided good nitrates to the soil, and the shade and height required for the others to grow. It was a perfect symbiotic relationship. Wen Yuan dropped his gloomy expression and perked back up answering the question, “Of course. They grow the best together you know.” He then looked down at his plants and beamed at them. Adorable. There was the kid he new from thirteen years ago.
“And did you make these as well?” Lan WangJi pushed his toe against a few nets and traps by the side of the road, outside of the barrier. They were small, and were obviously to be set for animals, not for monsters of the night hunt.
Wen Yuan had returned to watering his plants and pulling weeds, but he did not seem to mind talking while working. “Yes. They are for the rabbits.”
Lan WangJi choked a little, holding back his reaction. Luckily the boy did not see, so he could proceed with calm composure, even if it was pretend.
“Wen Yuan. Why would you need to trap rabbits?” He scolded in a light voice.
“It’s Wen SiZhui to you!” His voice shot across the field. “And because they are going to try to eat my vegetables, that’s why.” His face was dark and serious.
“Pardon. Wen SiZhui.” Damn that was an excellent name. “The rabbits are not going to come after your plants. That is not what they eat. Rabbits eat grasses, sedge, clover, and green leafy plants. It is integral to their digestion. Only occasionally can they have a root vegetable, and not just any at that.”
He kept his voice stern, but kind, like he would for his juniors back at GusuLan. He suddenly missed those children, the way they always traveled in a flock, running up to him, doing anything for approval from their HanGuang-Jun. Especially the loud mouthed Lan JingYi. So untamed, fearless except in the face of ghosts. Ridiculous. Exactly what Lan WangJi liked in a youthful person.
Wen SiZhui took a thoughtful moment, considering this new information, turning the grass he just pulled from the field over in his hand. Seeing this, Lan WangJi continued, “If you really want to protect your garden, make a space to be a field for the rabbits. Cultivate grasses and clover, and they will create a home for themselves there. Especially if you visit them everyday and feed them treats, and care for their well being. They can be quite the intelligent and loyal animal.”
“HanGuang-Jun, you sure know a lot about rabbits don’t you?” Wen SiZhui was looking at him differently than before. Lan WangJi was not sure what that meant, but decided not to be concerned for now.
The boy seemed to consider this a rather good suggestion, and seemed like he was about to concur, when his face fell. Tugging a little at his red ribbon to tighten it against his hair, he glanced at HanGuang-Jun, “But Master Wei, he likes rabbit stew so much. If I don’t bring some back at least once a week he will be angry with me.” Ah. There was the rub.
Lan WangJi almost wanted to laugh at how sweet this child looked. All hard lines and street slickness was gone, replaced by rolled up sleeves, legs covered in mud, frayed ribbon ends, and the normally hard face in a panic over rabbits. Instead of laughing, he started to nudge the traps gently over the line of the barrier, letting the red glow take them.
“Part of keeping a warren, or a flock, or a herd of any kind, is culling. It is needed to keep the numbers manageable in relation to the food source and land availability. If you were to keep rabbits here, Wei WuXian would still be able to have his stews.” He smiled on the inside at that, remembering a different sixteen year old boy crashing through the library window, two white rabbits in tow, because he needed his rabbit stew.
Something about how Lan WangJi said his master’s name made Wen SiZhui look up at him sharply, scrutinizing, which then changed to puzzlement.
Tonight Lan WanJi stationed himself by the window again. This time when the intruder came, he let them gaze upon him while he pretended to read. After it was clear they weren’t leaving, Lan WangJi spoke up, ”What is it you want?” He did not look up from his book.
“I could ask you the same thing,” a hard voice replied. “Why are you here?” He could practically hear the lips curl.
He let the stormy eyes watch him for a while more before he caught them in his. But this time when the dark man ran, he followed him, gliding down from the window. Not far, just into the garden below.
Double stepping through the grass, Lan WangJi reached out a hand and grabbed one leather bound wrist, pulling the arm back towards him. The body of the dark man spun with it, until the two were face to face.
“Not finished. Things to tell you. To ask you.” Lan WangJi stated, and resumed staring into that face. He watched the eyes change from wide, and almost hopeful, back to the turbulent storm from before.
“Stay.” Lan WangJi tried one more time.
“Whatever you have to say to me HanGuang- Jun, it’s thirteen years too late. Release me.” Grey eyes flared for a moment with a green fire.
As soon as Lan WangJi opened his hand, the Yiling Patriarch melted into the night once more, his black cloak billowing behind.
HanGuang-Jun knew he was running out of time. The cultivation world was growing uneasy, and last he heard, LanlingJin was planning to lead the four sects in an attack against the Yiling Patriarch on Midsummer. It had been almost a week, and he had made no progress with questioning Wei WuXian, or with warning him. He had less than a month to prepare him and the Wens for what was coming. While contemplating this, his feet naturally brought him back to Wen SiZhui’s garden. Today the bushes beside it, just outside the red film of the barrier, had been cleared and the earth was turned up. Wen SiZhui was bent over the new ground, transplanting a row of grasses he had pulled to make more room for his vegetable garden. He was spattered in mud and water, not a care in the world, whistling a tune while he worked. His pitch was surprisingly better than his master’s.
“Greeting, Wen SiZhui,” HanGuang-Jun bowed politely.
“Ah. HanGuang-Jun,” the teen called, straightening up and backing up until he was within the barrier. “You’ve come to disturb my planting yet again, I see. And yet again, I regret to inform you Master Wei is indisposed. Come back tomorrow. Though something tells me you would just be wasting your time.” He gave a little wave, as if to say good-bye, and returned to his work.
Lan WangJi moved to the edge of the barrier and watched the boy at work, admiring how fast the crops planted just the day prior were taking to their new home. Just like their loving master must have taken to these new surroundings when he was young. Turns out the soil of the Burial Mounds can not only sustain life, but does it well, for plant and person alike. Lan WangJi almost turned to leave, but at the last minute decided to try something new.
“What was it you said he did to you in this field? Bury you like a turnip?” He would not be faulted for being curious.
Wen SiZhui gave him a stern look as if to say, why was this guy always intruding on my thoughts like this? Out of trained politeness he started to form an answer. He leaned back on his hoe when he spoke, full of casual leisure, cocking his head to one side.
“This is where we first began planting. It was not long after we first moved here, when Master Wei freed us from the internment camp.” He was going to leave it at that. But then for the sake of remembering the dead, he continued.
“Uncle Four began this field. A-Qing and Master Wei would argue daily about what to plant here. I was too young to understand why there was not enough food, only that I was hungry all the time. I liked to cling to Master Wei's leg, he always gave me the most treats. Even more than Granny Wen did.” He turned his smile to the ground at that. His posture lost some of the casual defiance as he continued the memory.
“One day he threatened to bury me like A-Qing’s turnips if I didn’t let him be. So, as the story goes, I stomped over here,” he stood up and pointed with his hoe, “sat in the ground and started putting dirt into my lap. Everyone loved it. They thought it was the cutest thing ever.”
His smile while remembering loved ones lost melted the rest of the toughness he held in his shoulders. The words began to flow freely now.
“I wanted to grow bigger. I thought things would be easier to handle if I was bigger. I wanted to grow some new siblings too. I lost my sister in the war, and was missing her every day. Master Wei was also missing his sister all the time, so he played along and tried to grow me a new one. Of course that didn’t happen.” His voice trailed off as he continued to remember the rest of that time in silence.
Lan WangJi joined him in that silence, reflecting on the horrors of war; how those with no voice suffered the most during the power struggles of gentry families. He reflected upon all the innocents who were constantly victims to the greed and power wielded by others. He understood why Wei WuXian has stayed here all these years. Protecting the weak, eradicating evil, curbing violence. This was the same work HanGuang-Jun did as a wandering cultivator. Appearing wherever chaos was. Instead, Wei WuXian never left his mountain, and never let chaos enter.
“Mn. It is a noble act. What your master has done, making a home here for those with nowhere else to go. Sometimes violence is not the path to eradicating evil. Sometimes nurturing is the path.”
Wen SiZhui was giving him that strange look again. Somewhere between confusion, suspicion, and putting together a puzzle whose pieces had long since been lost.
“It sounds like you admire him,” he said at last.
“Mn. I do.”
“Then why did you join the siege against him, back then? Why did you turn your back on being his confidant? Why do you hate him so much now?” He hid no anger from HanGuang-Jun. It was clear he wanted to hate him, but was struggling to actually do so.
“Did not. Do not.”
“What?” The young boy’s face was layered with suspicion and disbelief. He drew back from Lan WangJi as if he was struck. “That is not my understanding of what happened. Not our understanding. What do you mean?” His eyes were dark again with that dangerous look. Lan WangJi narrowed his gaze, looking deep into them, searching for a hint of green fire. None was there.
“I could not take part in that siege, with it or against it. I was detained,” he continued.
“What does that mean?” Wen SiZhui almost spat, voice on guard. This was not making sense to him. He almost did not want to hear more.
“I was imprisoned for three years following the Massacre at Nightless City, for my actions against my clan and sect.” Lan WangJi stated.
“What does that mean? Wen SiZhui asked again.
“How do you think Yiling Laozu got from where he collapsed on the battleground, surrounded by thousands of enemies, depleted of spiritual energy, safely back to his Demon-Slaughtering Cave?” Lan WangJi eyed the youngster intently.
“Oh-“ Wen SiZhui did not know what to say. His brain wanted to reject this idea, but his heart did not. Brow furrowed, he looked at the ground for a long time, thinking it over.
“Why are you here then, if not to take him back to GusuLan?” he eventually asked.
“To warn him. The cultivation world has their eye on him again. He is being blamed for the evil deeds of others. Unless, of course, he is back to digging up graves and is creating an army,” he raised a questioning eye to the boy.
Wen SiZhui blew hot air from his lips in a huff. “He is not. He is only digging up carrots and working on his spiritual tools in the cave.” He said it with embarrassment, as if his master was not living up to his full potential.
“Mn.” Lan WangJi nodded.
Turning to look over the freshly cleared land he asked, “Wen SiZhui, may I accompany you again tomorrow? To work on your rabbit field? I could find grasses for you in the forest so you do not have to only rely on your transplanted weeds.”
Wen SiZhui thought about this for a moment, looking at Lan Wangji from the side of his eyes.
“You would just show up here tomorrow anyway, even if I said no, wouldn’t you?”
When Lan WangJi said nothing, the teen gave him a nod of approval. “Okay then,” he said. “See you tomorrow HanGuang-Jun.”
And so it began. Day after day, stretching into weeks, Lan WangJi would climb to the south side of LuanZang Hill and meet Wen SiZhui. Side by side one would tend rabbits, and the other his crops, one inside the barrier, one outside the barrier. The warren of the grey and black bunnies of the Burial Mounds grew quickly, as rabbit warrens do, as did the friendship between the two.
It continued like this, until one day Wen SiZhui interrupted a conversation to say, “A-Yuan. You can call me A-Yuan again, HanGuang-Jun,” with a smile like spring flowers. Lan WangJi nodded in acceptance.
“Mn. And you can call me Qian-gege again, if you so wish.”
A-Yuan’s bright face lit up even more. From inside his lapels he pulled a worn and old straw butterfly. It had a sloppy coat of red paint, obviously applied by a child’s hand.
“I kept this one, you know. Just in case you ever came back.” He reached up and put it on top of his Qian-gege’s head and laughed. It was a good laugh. The best laugh. It reminded HanGuang-Jun of someone else.
Lan WangJi felt good. It was a strange feeling. It had been years since he felt like this. He pretended to himself that he did not know why, but deep down he did. Getting to know Wen SiZhui, Wei WuXian’s disciple, has helped him feel closer to his old friend than he had in years. It had started to chip away at the hard shell that held his frozen heart. And it felt good. So good, that Lan WangJi ordered himself a jar of wine. He did not know what kind. He just chose what was expensive, because he was sure that would be the one Wei WuXian would have chosen. Now he was sitting alone in his room in Yiling, and had just finished tasting his first cup of it. He had woken up a moment ago from laying face down on the table. And now he felt good. It was time for a walk. So he went outside.
The night was beautiful! Why did he not let himself notice things like this more? The air seemed to vibrate with the life of so many insects, some glowed and blinked as they sped past him and up into the trees. He wanted to be in the trees too. He wanted to BE a tree. No, in them would be better. So he glided up into one, letting his spiritual energy carry him like a ghost bird. The tree was wonderful. There was a damp smell coming up from the grasses below it. The bark felt delightful under his skin. The way the stars looked through the boughs was like a shining river. The entire sky was bright with them in comparison to the darkness of the forest. The forest hummed. So Lan WangJi hummed. He did not even notice what someone else was humming, until stopped and the sound still came from the forest. Who was there? Were the trees humming? Was it the moon? Then he recognized WHAT they were humming.
Gliding down from the tree, he landed barefoot in the grass. The dew tickled his ankles and soaked between his toes. Normally he would have hated that. It normally felt awful, and he would have recoiled. The only thing worse on his feet than wet grass was mud. But now both were there and it felt okay. It felt better than okay actually. It felt good. What was he doing again? Oh yeah, he was humming. Then someone else was, and he was chasing them. They were humming HIS song. THE song. There was an intruder. Or course there was. It was a full moon. There was always someone, or most often something, sneaking about on the full moon. Time to catch it.
Following his nose, Lan Wangji picked the musk smell from the smell of the wet ground and followed the heat of it through the forest. He did not really need his eyes for this, his sense of smell had always been excellent, and it seems the wine had helped heighten it somehow. It helped heighten everything. No wonder that person liked it so much. This was so different from the first time he tried wine, how could it possibly be the same stuff he drank ten years ago?
Ah. There they are. It was a person. And they were just beyond the tree there, sprawled out like a cat across a low curved branch. It looked like they were about to play a flute. Like a sneaky child, Lan WangJi darted through the underbrush, and then sprung upon the person, declaring, “Found you. I will confiscate this now,” and took the black flute from their hands. When the person reached out to deck Lan WangJi he simply caught their fist in his hand and held it there, squeezing it tighter and tighter. The threat was clear. Move and this hand will be broken.
Grey eyes were looking at him in anger. The storm in them churned and tumbled, a threat all on its own. Then the eyes look down, and the voice says, “Lan Zhan, where are your boots? Your feet are bare.” Lan WangJi did not say anything back. His hand felt like it was on fire, where it held the other’s fist. It was all he could feel, and all he could think about. He even had even absentmindedly dropped the black flute from his other hand.
“Lan Zhan, you smell like alcohol. What is going on here?”
Again, Lan WangJi said nothing. He could not think straight, his brain distracted by the closeness of the other person. Then the other person moved in even closer. They used their other hand to touch the front of Lan WangJi’s robes. He shuddered.
“Lan Zhan, you even spilled some on yourself. How sloppy.” The voice was emotionless, not teasing like it would have been in the past. Though, not angry either. Neutral was a good step forward as far as he was concerned.
“Come on Lan Zhan, either say something or let me go, but stop staring at me like that. It’s creepy as fuck.”
He was so overwhelmed, Lan Wangji did not know what to do. What was he doing? How did this happen? How did he get into this situation? Since he did not know what to do, and wanted everything to stop right now, he just said, “No.”
“If you don’t let me go, I will have to make you.” The voice was starting to sound angry again.
“No.” Lan Wangji repeated himself.
“Fine.” Wei WuXian tried to struggle at first, and when he thought his fist really was going to be broken, he stopped, and smiled a dangerous smile.
“Fine. If force won’t work, this will.” In an attempt to disgust the ever so neat, so tidy, and touch adverse Lan Zhan, Wei WuXian flicked out his tongue and licked between the knuckles of the hand that clenched his fist.
It worked. Lan WangJi recoiled immediately, pulling the accosted hand to his chest. He stood there, blinking. Not only did his palm feel like it was on fire, but now the soft skin between his first two fingers tingled too. With what exactly? It felt like how his skin was tingling now from the wine. It felt good.
Ashamed, he looked at his bare feet, their white glow distracting him from the sense overload he was experiencing. Wei WuXian was laughing at him. It was not that laugh, but at least it was a laugh of some kind.
“What the hell is this Lan Zhan? Are you shy all of a sudden? You run drunkenly out into the night, attack me when I am minding my own business, and then you get shy? You really are out of this world aren’t you? What is going on in that ridiculous head of yours?” The tone oscillated from mild anger to sardonic amusement.
“Huh? You got nothing to say? Well, let’s see how far we can push this then, until you do have something to say.”
That is when the Yiling Laozu grabbed back the hand that Lan WangJi had been clutching so dearly to his chest, turned the wrist to his own face, and put his lips to it, like it was something sacred. Then he bit it like it was not. Lan WangJi felt his whole body shiver in response. This too felt good. Too good. He wanted more.
“Hmmmm, is this your first time drinking Lan Zhan? Is this your first time being drunk?” Wei WuXian asked, just before he moved his wicked tongue along the white hand and took the tip of one delicate finger into his mouth. Lan Zhan felt his chest lurch like it had received an electrical shock. As the next knuckle of his finger was sucked in, the electricity moved through his body like a wildfire, burning from his veins outward onto his skin. He could not find his voice at first, but eventually let out a strangled, “No.” The sucking stopped, and the finger was pulled out of the mouth, teeth grazing it, and holding it back at the last moment, before letting it pop from red lips.
“Is that all you know how to say these days? ‘No’? Or is that all you know how to say to me? You certainly seem to have more than enough words to say to my son everyday.” His voice was cruel when he took his mouth from Lan Zhan’s hand. It was better when it was sucking and not talking. Lan Zhan flashed Wei WuXian a hard look, furrowing his brow. That elicited another of those cold sardonic laughs. He wasn’t sure if he liked those anymore. They just sounded like a mockery of the one he missed.
“So, ‘No’ huh? What? You drank before now? How did things go for you that time? Ohhh, Lan Zhan, did you break the rules and drink at Gusu? That would be too delicious if you did.” Those grey eyes were judging him, they were loving the discomfort and agony they were causing. Those sunless grey eyes liked seeing Lan Zhan weak and confused. They were eating it up. For a moment it looked like they glowed with an inner green fire, as if to say, The worse I make you feel, the more power I gain from you. You know that, right?
Backing away from the Yiling Patriarch, Lan WangJi instinctively put his hand to his chest, just above his heart, as if to protect it. Saying nothing, he turned and ran into the black forest, a wicked laugh following on his heels.