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a paper friend

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He finds it on his way back to Gusu. 

Rested against a tree on the forest path with the next town more than thirty minutes away. The paper is weathered and browning, cut out into the shape of a figure. It's motionless and looks to be staring straight ahead, perhaps at something that Lan Wangji can not see. 

He doesn't give it any more thought and assumes that maybe someone left it here. A child who made a temporary doll to entertain themselves on a long journey. A cultivator who thought they'd need it but didn't so tossed it aside. Nothing worth Lan Wangji's attention and he has a schedule to keep if he wants to arrive back to the Cloud Recesses in time. 

But then it moves. 

The tiniest bit the moment Lan Wangji goes to turn away. It shifts its little head in his direction and Lan Wangji doesn't move any further. He stares at it from the corner of his eye and waits to see maybe it's a trick of the mind. But it isn't and the paper figure moves again. With a little more confidence this time and Lan Wangji can't help but feel a tiny bit stunned. 

An active paperman, here in the woods, in a very secluded area. It doesn't make any sense and it shouldn't and it makes Lan Wangji wonder what happened. Why would an active paperman be here? The problem being active because it seems like there's no purpose for it. Whenever someone used the paperman spell, it requires the caster's soul to be placed into the cut-out. To bring it to life in order for whatever duties to be carried out. 

But its dangers are as big as its advantages and if one were to be harmed or even ripped, they're gone forever. Their physical form becomes motionless and the person is no more. So to see a paperman here, moving and possibly far away from where it needs to be, it does bring cause for concern. 

Lan Wangji takes a few steps towards the paperman at the base of the tree. He's slow and cautious as to not scare whoever may be inhabiting this form. The paperman doesn't do anything, just tilts its head in his direction before flopping it back against hard bark. A few more steps and Lan Wangji crouches, his hands on his lap in a silent sign of peace.

The paperman looks at him again and shifts a little. Talking isn't an option but Lan Wangji needs to know at least a bit to help so thinks of simple yes or no questions. 

"Do...you need help?" He asks straight off the bat and waits for a response in movement. He doesn't get one even after waiting for a full minute. 

"I can help you," he says after a moment of silence passes. "I'm Lan Wangji and I'm from the GusuLan sect. You...do not have to worry though I understand if you have your doubts."

He keeps himself open to prove he's not a threat. His hands are still on his lap and while his sword and guqin are in easy reach, he does not make the attempt. Most would question his actions and tell him that this could be a trap. Maybe bandits using a spell to trick a well-meaning passerby. Maybe that soul in the paperman is evil themselves and is just waiting for the right moment to strike.

That doesn't seem to be it though.

First of all, if anyone was going to try and attack him, they would have done it the moment he left himself defenceless. Second of all, he would have felt them approaching, their energy alerting him. Third of all, he has felt the paperman's energy and honestly, there's no malice. No evil intent and no resentment. It's good but weak from staying this way for who knows how long. 

All the more reason to get this person back to their body. 

“I can help you.” Lan Wangji says once again and this time, reaches out one of his hands. It’s an offering that the paperman can and doesn’t have to take. But Lan Wangji isn’t going to leave here without trying as much as he possibly can. He watches as the paperman tilts its delicate head to look at the hand in front of it. He waits as the paperman deliberates, having gone still again in thought, only the occasional breeze rustling it. It takes a bit of time but not long as the paperman stands and walks towards Lan Wangji’s hand. 

It lies itself flat on his palm and allows Lan Wangji to keep it in the safe folds of his robes. Its small head pokes out once it’s secured and chances a look at him. Lan Wangji looks back at it before curving his lips into a faint but reassuring smile. 

It’s then that the paperman relaxes and burrows into the warmth of Lan Wangji’s chest. 

.

Lan Wangji has a plan. 

The plan being to return the soul in the paperman to their body so they’re not stuck like this any longer. It seems fairly easy as all it means is to locate the person’s body and deliver the paperman to it before things get too complicated. 

But there’s a problem here. 

A big problem which involves the fact that Lan Wangji has no idea where the paperman comes from. He has no idea in which direction it came or where to even begin. It’s made even harder because the paperman can’t talk nor really write due to its fragile form. Even holding an ink brush can cause rips and that is one of the last things they want. But the paperman can move so yes or no questions are his best bet. 

He finds an inn to rest in for the night and eats in the comfort of his room while the paperman familiarises itself with the surroundings. It then looks at him and looks at the food before rubbing its stomach pitifully. The action does sting Lan Wangji’s heart a little and he even finds himself cutting off a small piece of pork rib until he remembers. 

Papermen can’t eat. 

“I would feed you if I could,” Lan Wangji says earnestly and the paperman makes a movement to mimic laughter. It shakes its small body, obviously in amusement before coming to perch itself near Lan Wangji’s arm. “But I would just end up staining you.”

The paperman does something similar to a shrug as if to say, “I don’t mind.”

“But I do.” Lan Wangji replies before going silent so he can finish his food. It’s not something the paperman seems to be pleased about though as it tugs at his sleeve. Lan Wangji gives it a look before lifting some rice to his mouth. He chews as he watches, inwardly entertained as the paperman continues to pull at his sleeve. It then tries to stump its foot unhappily but ends up slowly falling down. 

Lan Wangji would have laughed but held it in. 

“No speaking while eating.” He recites the rule perfectly, should so after so many years of learning it and the other four thousand. The paperman manages to get up on its own and even without facial expressions, seems appalled by that fact. It gives a few more tugs (probably out of outrage) before relenting and wandering off to inspect the room some more. 

Lan Wangji is left to finish his food in peace. 

It’s ten minutes later that the paperman comes back to him and empty plates have been cleared away. The candles provide dim lights throughout the room, bathing it in a warm orange with hints of yellow. It reflects off the paperman as it stands in front of him and waits surprisingly patiently for Lan Wangji to ask his questions.

Yes or no questions, he has to remember. 

“I’m going to list the sects to see if you’re apart of any,” Lan Wangji explains. “All you have to do is nod yes or shake no. Is that understandable?”

The paperman nods. 

“Are you from LanLingJin?”

It shakes its head.

“QingheNie?”

Another shake.

Lan Wangji furrows his brow. “GusuLan?”

Another shake.

“So you’re from YunmengJiang,” Lan Wangji says and the paperman nods rather enthusiastically.  “Are you a cultivator?”

The paperman nods before attempting to place its hands on its hips in a boastful manner. It’s easy to see what the paperman is getting at as Lan Wangji can practically hear it. 

I’m one of the best among the disciples. 

Boasting is prohibited , Lan Wangji wants to say in a rare moment to tease but holds his tongue as the corners of his mouth twitch into a slight smile. It’s quite easy to smile around this paperman and that’s saying something considering it can’t speak or express facially. But it makes up for that in loud gestures that almost flawlessly relate an emotion. One would call it a skill as this person has taken what they’ve been given and making it work. 

He’s only known this paperman for barely a day but there’s just something about this person. 

“Will you be able to show me the way?” Lan Wangji asks and his smile widens by a tich when the paperman nods. It also places its arm over its chest as if to say, “ You can count me on .”

“You can count on me too.” Lan Wangji replies and the paperman gives a small shake of gratitude before jumping about in glee. Rejoicing in the reality of being able to finally go home. 

Lan Wangji says nothing.

Though his smile widens a little bit more. 

.

.

Yungmeng isn’t far from where they currently are. 

About a two-day journey.

It takes Lan Wangji off course as Gusu is in the opposite direction but his brother would understand his lateness. He’s never late without reason and would explain once he arrives back at the Cloud Recesses. 

The paperman stays in its spot within Lan Wangji’s robes and occasionally sneaks out to rest on his shoulder. It earns him a bit of attention from those who walk past and a question or two from people who stop to greet him. He doesn’t say much and keeps it simple, he’s just aiding someone in trouble who needs help. 

That’s where it ends. 

The paperman has also made travelling less lonely as Lan Wangji is almost always travelling alone. Sometimes his brother would accompany him and on rare occasions, his uncle but it was usually just him. He had places to go and people who called for his assistance in towns or small villages plagued with various evils. It’s a part of who he is, ‘always where the chaos is’ as many say because the chaos needs to be stopped. 

But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t and doesn’t wish for a companion. 

Someone to share the silence with or to fill in the space with chatter enough for both of them. He isn’t a big talker due to his upbringing and personal preference and does relish in his alone time but…

It would be nice sometimes. 

But somehow the paperman is doing all that and so much more. 

It's like a real companion with the only hindrance being the lack of a voice. It makes wide and sweeping gestures hold so much emotion that it amazes Lan Wangji to no end. It jokes with him, teasingly pulling at his clothes or climbing on top of his head so it can do a little dance to entertain small children who stare at it in awe. It listens to Lan Wangji whenever he speaks, blank face looking at him as it listens intently. Then it responds in various ways that it actually feels like they're having a conversation. 

Having the paperman here is like having a friend and Lan Wangji finds their trip to Yunmeng isn't tedious or lacklustre. It's full of memorable moments of a paperman making him laugh and smile almost openly for the first time.

A paperman who makes him forget about the forehead ribbon tied around his head. A symbol of his restraint to fades to the background even when the paperman playfully tugs at the end of it. 

There's something about this paperman and he still can't find out what it is. 

.

.

It's late when they arrive in Yunmeng and Lotus Pier is bright in the distance. Beautiful in its splendour and its flags floating prettily with pride in the breeze. The paperman rests on his shoulder and holds onto a strand of his hair gently, not making a single movement as it stares at the brilliant building.

It then points in that direction. 

"That is your home," Lan Wangji realises and the paperman nods. "It's beautiful." 

The paperman nods but this time, prideful. It gives a little shake, something that Lan Wangji has learned that it doesn't whenever it's happy and excited. They're almost there, just a little while away and Lan Wangji would have taken them right now but it's late. 

There's a small inn that he finds and the innkeeper treats him well as she offers him a delicious dinner with a pot of tea. The paperman doesn't attempt to take his food like it usually does and seems to be elsewhere in its thoughts. Probably thinking about its return home and to a body that can finally move properly with fingers as well as has a mouth. 

Lan Wangji doesn't blame it. 

He would have lost patience in such a body and he doesn't even know how long the poor soul has been in there for. He reaches out, a little tentatively, to softly pat at a paper shoulder and the paperman leans into it gratefully. 

The rest of dinner is fairly quiet aside from the gentle chatter of tired patrons. He finishes off his food and makes slow work of his tea as the restaurant around them begins to clear up. The gentle chatter fades into silence and soon it’s just him and the paperman having the space to themselves. 

He’s on his last cup of tea when the paperman wanders over to him to lean against his arm. It looks like it heaves a sigh before going completely flat on white cloth. Lan Wangji observes it for a moment before lowering his cup and tenderly pressing his pinkie finger against the paperman’s back. It earns him the paperman’s attention and it leans back to look at Lan Wangji with that blank face and he begins to wonder. 

What does the paperman actually look like?

Are they male or female?

Short or tall?

Fair or dark-skinned?

What kind of eyes do they have and what is their colour?

His mind can conjure up endless amounts of images to what he imagines but he’d never get it right. Not until he actually sees them so he can finally put a face to the vibrant personality that has been keeping him company all this well. But he has a guess about how they’d be from all their interactions and what comes to mind is bright eyes, wide and brimming with joy and mischief. 

Lips curled into a smile that can make anyone’s day so much better by just one look.

A laugh that’s boisterous and loud enough for those a mile away to hear. The sort of laugh that would earn them a glare from his uncle if it happened in the Cloud Recesses. 

It paints a clear image of the sort of person the paperman could be. One that’s completely opposite to Lan Wangji in every single way. The type of person that is supposed to drive Lan Wangji insane but instead...makes his day entirely worthwhile. 

And this person has managed to make him feel this way, without a word or a smile. All of this is done with only gestures and an energy that speaks volumes for who they are. It’s incredible, really, and suddenly, Lan Wangji can’t wait to meet them. To see them and hear them speak and see how they move about in a body that is human. 

The paperman continues to look up at him and Lan Wangji allows himself to teasingly poke at its forehead. It earns his finger being gripped (well, held) tightly (loosely) by paper arms as the paperman silently protests. But if it had a mouth, it would be smiling. 

.

.

The next morning comes and they’re out of the inn by seven in the morning. The paperman sits freely on Lan Wangji’s shoulder and even points out certain sights it wants him to see. It shows him a few stores and a few food stalls which surely have memories attached to them. It also points a black and red jar that has the words ‘Emperor’s Smile’ written on the label. It must be a favourite considering how the paperman seems to point at it with such passion. So Lan Wangji decides to buy a jar of it as well as a few steamed buns from the food stall that the paperman pointed out a few minutes ago. 

He says nothing when the paperman looks at him before pressing itself against Lan Wangji’s cheek in a thankful hug. 

They’re at the gates of Lotus Pier within ten minutes and Lan Wangji walks through the open gates. He’s saluted to by two disciples and nods in return before gesturing to the paperman on his shoulder. The paperman waves and it’s then the disciples’ eyes widen before they quickly lead Lan Wangji into the main house. He’s asked to wait for a brief moment in front of a room down a wide hallway, a lovely view of the lake just beyond bamboo railings and is left alone as both disciples disappear inside. 

Lan Wangji looks towards the lake and walks towards the railings to get a closer look. There’s koi swimming around along lotus flowers floating along the surface. It’s truly a beautiful place, surely wonderful to wake up to every morning. It’s surprisingly quiet even with the sounds of the town just beyond the gates and it shows off the best of both worlds. Having the peace of seclusion but also being able to access the town within a few footsteps. 

The paperman doesn’t do much, still sitting on his shoulder as they both gaze out at the water. Lan Wangji is used to the silence, always has been but it’s gotten a little bit harder to cope with ever since the paperman. Silence with the paperman is different because there’s something filling up that space. Just the energy that the soul gives off is enough to make it feel like someone is here. The vibrancy it radiates as well as the paperman’s continuous gestures and movements that are bigger than life. It’s like someone is talking, like someone is listening and telling him about all their thoughts and hearing Lan Wangji’s own. 

So to go back to the silence he had before...would be hard.

“...Are you excited?” Lan Wangji asks for the sake of breaking that silence down. “We’re here and you’ll be going back soon.”

The paperman nods but also holds onto Lan Wangji that little bit tighter. 

Lan Wangji tries not to think about it.

“You’ll have a stronger body again and will be able to talk,” Lan Wangji continues. “You won’t have to ride on my shoulder or in my robes anymore.”

The paperman nods again but holds onto Lan Wangji even tighter. 

This time, Lan Wangji wonders.

The disciples come out a minute later and they’re followed by another who looks fairly older than them. He’s youthful with a sharp and handsome face. His eyes find Lan Wangji’s before they go to the paperman on his shoulder and he reaches almost urgently. The paperman jumps and floats almost neatly into the man’s palm. It’s like all the tension built up within that tiny paper body vanishes, it’s like he’s home. 

“To think that the esteemed Hanguang Jun would be the one to find you and bring you home,” the man says, looking at the paperman before shaking his head. “You’re really one lucky son of a—”

One of the disciples coughs discreetly from behind and the man catches himself before he gets the last word out. He smiles, albeit flustered, and goes into a slight bow, the paperman secure in his slightly folded hand. 

“Thank you, Lan Wangji, for bringing my brother back,” The man says gratefully. “It has been over a week since we last saw him and I think it was a passing wind that must have swept him away.” He holds the paperman close. “We didn’t even know where to begin looking and feared the worst but then you found him and he’s home. We really appreciate your help.”

Lan Wangji nods his head. “It was truly no issue,” he replies. “I saw him on a barely used road and couldn’t leave him there without aid. It was my pleasure to help, ….?”

“Jiang Cheng.” Jiang Cheng fills in and smiles before looking down at his brother. “Okay, Wei Wuxian. Let’s get your back to your body, you haven’t eaten in a week and Shijie is worried.”

He’s about to turn and leave but is stopped when the paperman gestures towards Lan Wangji. Jiang Cheng peers down at him, questioning, but makes his way back to Lan Wangji. He lifts his hand until the paperman is close enough to him and then—

Lan Wangji feels it.

The soft brush of paper against his cheek and it’s gone instantly.

“Lan Wangji, I’m so sorry,” Jiang Cheng quickly says, a little bit shocked by the sudden action. He then turns around just as quick and Lan Wangji can hear him whisper harshly, “Why would you do that? Do you know how disrespectful that is?” 

Lan Wangji should have minded it.

He really should have. 

But his hand comes to touch the spot the paperman, no, Wei Wuxian kissed after the door slides shut and he’s left alone. 

.

.

Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to expect when he sees Wei Wuxian for the first time. 

He knows he’s going to see him because he can’t just leave without checking up on him first. He needs to make sure he’s okay and that not too much damage was done while his soul was away from his body for too long. They’ve been together for too long (only two days) for him not to know what happens and then he’ll leave. 

He’ll go.

After giving him his wine and steamed buns, of course. 

Which are hopefully still warm.

He waits and waits and refuses politely when a disciple comes to ask if he’s in need of anything or would like a place to sit down. He doesn’t wish to move for not wanting to miss the moment when Wei Wuxian comes out of that room in his body. 

Lan Wangji has thought about this moment, a frivolous thought which has no right occupying space but he’s curious. More curious than he’s allowed to be because these aren’t the types of mysteries he should be pondering. He should be focused and controlled, the forehead ribbon tight around his head as a symbol to that. But that paperman, Wei Wuxian has broken that down for him in the most casual of ways. 

So easily done that it frightens him a little bit. 

How could someone get through his defences without a single care? How could someone make him forget all that he’s learned to make him crack a smile or let through a laugh?

Just who is Wei Wuxian and why is he different from all the rest?

He’s pulled from his thoughts by the sound of the door sliding open. It happens a bit too slowly but Lan Wangji waits patiently, having already waited this long. The first thing he sees is grey eyes, slightly hooded but brimming with happiness all the same. Then he takes in the slope of his nose and the pinkness of his lips which look plump.

Lan Wangji can’t help but imagine those pressed against his cheek.

Dark hair is messily tied in a ponytail and a black and red robe covers up his slender frame while still giving a peek at a long neck and prominent collarbones. Wei Wuxian steps out of the room fully before looking at Lan Wangji...and breaking out into a smile.

Bright just like Lan Wangji had envisioned and it nearly takes his breath away.

Wei Wuxian is beautiful.

“Is that Emperor’s Smile for me?” Wei Wuxian asks, his voice playful and pitched slightly higher than his own. But it’s so wonderfully him and Lan Wangji finds himself a little entranced despite hiding it rather well. 

“Mn.” He holds it out with both hands for Wei Wuxian to take and watches as he holds the jar to his chest. Wei Wuxian looks happy, almost radiant at the sight of the wine but then turns his sights to him, to Lan Wangji.

He feels the tips of his ears warming up.

He also passes him the steamed buns before he somehow forgets it. 

“I...thank you,” Wei Wuxian begins, a little flustered himself. “For the wine and steamed buns and also for helping me when I really thought I was a goner.” He holds the jar a little closer. “So when I saw that it was you who had come to see me, I knew that I had a chance.”

Lan Wangji wills the warmth in his cheeks to vanish before it reddens them. 

“And you also bought me Emperor’s Smile and steamed buns!” Wei Wuxian exclaims happily and sighs contentedly. “You really are my angel from the heavens.” He smiles warmly, utterly pleased and Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to react. 

He has never felt like this before.

it was different when Wei Wuxian was simply paper with only a basic outline and no face. It was easier to deal with but now...Wei Wuxian was here. Beautiful and solid and able to withstand himself against a strong breeze and—

“You’re welcome.” is all he manages to say and Wei Wuxian’s smile widens.

“Not much of a talker now, are you?”

“Mn.”

“That’s surprising! You talked to me so much when I was the paperman.”

“...I needed information to get you home.”

“Oh really?”

Wei Wuxian is teasing him, playing with him and he’s enjoying it immensely if the grin on his face has anything to say about it. Luckily, this is when Jiang Cheng comes out and takes one look at the gifts in Wei Wuxian’s arms before rolling his eyes. 

“So not only did Lan Wangji bring you home but he also got you gifts?” Jiang Cheng questions, frowning and Wei Wuxian’s smile has the decency to turn sheepish. “You really are something else.” He then turns to Lan Wangji with a small but genuine smile. “Our jiejie made some really good pork rib and lotus soup. If you can, please join us for a meal as our way of saying thank you.”

He shouldn’t.

He really shouldn’t.

He has to get back on the road if he wishes to arrive in Gusu by tomorrow evening. He should apologise for having to leave so soon and tell them that there’s no need to thank him. All he was doing was just helping someone, that doesn’t require any gratification but—

Wei Wuxian looks at him and he seems hopeful, holding onto the jar of Emperor’s Smile and steamed buns that Lan Wangji got him like they’re something priceless. 

“You’re going to join us, right?” Wei Wuxian asks and…

He does. 

For he finds himself unable to give up his paperman now.