The first time he hears it, it's hummed, vibrating against a piece of grass.
It sounds terrible; Jingyi already has difficulty with focus, a fact Lan-laoshi has repeatedly taken him to task for. The buzzing seems specifically designed to draw him away from the important work of maintaining his point of the attraction array, and Jingyi is not going to be the one who messes this up, not this time. He's about to shout for the musician in question to knock it off, when Sizhui makes a soft noise next to him.
"Have we not heard this song before?" He ponders softly, still perfectly maintaining his part of the array, a cardinal coordinate, because Sizhui is so strong in his cultivation, and has no problem splitting his focus. "It sounds like a tune of Gusu."
Sizhui has a crease in his forehead below his ribbon and his large eyes are wistful. He's Jingyi's best friend. It's the first night hunt where Sizhui has been entrusted with leading the group, and while Hanguang-jun is only a few li away, the expectation is that they will be able to handle whatever is plaguing Mo Manor on their own. Jingyi has been hyper vigilant to ensure nothing goes wrong, from triple-checking his own supplies, to loudly supporting all of Sizhui's decisions. He's certainly not going to let some disgraced, crazy ex-Jin cultivator cause a distraction. He can just take his pretty face and his sad eyes off somewhere else, where Sizhui isn't, thank you.
"What tune of Gusu sounds so terrible?!" Jingyi retorts, loud enough that anyone in the manor still awake can hear him. "And played so badly, too?" He scoffs in dismissal.
"You're right," Sizhui smiles, and Jingyi has to work very, very hard not to preen.
It's the last moment of tranquility they have that night, before a cursed arm starts turning people into fierce corpses, before the fierce corpses start fighting each other, and Jingyi hardly has a moment to think about anything until Hanguang-jun shows up. He seems oddly interested in the shack Mo Xuanyu had been living in, but when they try to round him up for questioning, the man has disappeared.
Good riddance, Jingyi thinks, and sets off with Sizhui for the night hunt on Danfan Mountain, where his chagrin at running into that masked weirdo again gets superseded by a moving statue intent on murdering them all. It's the second time Jingyi hears the tune, trilling broken and reedy on a poorly made dizi. Jingyi, as all Lans do, has perfect pitch, and in any other circumstances the notes would have grated on his ears, except that at this particular time he's being strangled by the actual Ghost General, so his priorities are decidedly elsewhere. He's completely unaware that the song is what saves his life, so when Hanguang-jun grabs Mo Xuanyu by the wrist and cuts off that gods-awful racket, all Jingyi feels is relief.
It's not his business to question why Hanguang-jun brings Mo Xuanyu back to Gusu, although he does grow rather fond of the donkey.
He hears the song again, in the Cloud Recesses, played with skill and beauty upon Hanguang-jun's Wangji. As an inner-Clan member, Jingyi is often tasked with guarding access points to the more private areas of the Cloud Recesses, and the Jingshi is one of them. He thinks at first, that it's a song of healing; both times he hears it Mo Xuanyu, or, more accurately, Wei Wuxian, is convalescing in the Second Master Lan's home, recovering from the penchant of his family members to cause him fatal injury. It sounds infinitely better on the guqin than it had blown against grass or bamboo; it tugs at Jingyi's heart a little like the good, sweeping romances he buys from the bookseller in Caiyi in secret.
It moves him, but it makes Sizhui cry.
"Why don't you go rest," he tells his friend softly. They've had a long, strange bunch of days, and Yi City was draining for everyone. "It's nearly hai shi, and the shift will change. I can manage alone."
Sizhui shoots him a watery smile. "In the dark?"
"Lan Yuan," he hisses in betrayal, and sticks his tongue out at him. Sizhui has a quiet mischief to him that had instantly cemented their friendship as children. He's so kind, people forget he has such a razor tongue. But if he's picking on Jingyi, he's not crying over a melody, so goal achieved. He pokes Sizhui in the calf with the blunted end of his sheathed sword, and that sets off a series of jabs and slaps that quickly deteriorates into a wrestling match. Sizhui is better at hand-to-hand, but Jingyi is stronger; he gets his friend into a head-lock, and the only thing that stops Sizhui from sweeping Jingyi's legs out from under him is the crunch of approaching footsteps on the gravel path. Their robes are both in perfect order when two disciples round the corner to change the guard shift.
"Don't be worried," Jingyi tells him later, in the quiet dark of their room, after curfew has sounded and they've both climbed into bed. "The Little Mistress isn't good enough to hit something vital anyways. Imagine thinking you could kill the Yiling Patriarch!"
"I'm not worried," Sizhui murmurs. In the scarce light from the moon, filtering through their window, Jingyi can just make out his profile, an outline of silver in the proper Lan sleeping pose. Jingyi curls himself into a tighter ball on his side. Sleeping on his back makes him snore, and he's long abandoned proper posture as a favour to his friend. It has nothing to do with his need to keep his back to the wall.
"Lying is forbidden," Jingyi intones, and Sizhui's profile shifts a little when he turns his head.
"Not lying," he says, quiet and grave, sounding so much like Hanguang-jun it sends a shiver down Jingyi's spine. "It's just... that song. It makes me feel like I should be sad but happy at the same time. Like something's missing."
"Nothing's missing," Jingyi promises. All the pieces of Sizhui's life: Hanguang-Jun, Zewu-Jun, the rabbits, even Jingyi himself are all accounted for. They're even making new friends in Ouyang Zizhen and the Little Mistress – even the Ghost General seemed like a nice sort of guy, once you were sure he wasn't there to strangle you. But Sizhui has been more introspective lately, perhaps even a little despondent, when he thinks Jingyi can't see. Sometimes he takes a grass butterfly from his belt, and Jingyi wants to ask him about it, but isn't sure how.
"Mn." A non-answer Sizhui's fond of, when he doesn't want to confirm or deny something. He straightens back into his sleeping pose, and Jingyi won't be able to pull him out of it now unless a bad dream or spooky shadow necessitates Sizhui's sleepy reassurance. It's been years since Jingyi required a candle burning in the room to sleep, or Sizhui's comforting presence in the bed next to him, but for some reason tonight, he'd like both. He resolves, before the Lan breathing exercises manage to drag him into sleep, to pay closer attention to Sizhui's moods.
Jingyi hears the melody repeatedly, when they're tied together in the Burial Mounds, hummed under Sizhui's breath. It's oddly comforting, as though the song belongs there too. It isn't until after, when Senior Wei's name is cleared in Guanyin Temple, that Jingyi learns why.
"I have something to tell you," Sizhui whispers into his shoulder, after Jingyi has realigned Sizhui's spine with his hug on the temple steps.
"Don't you ever go off without me like that again," Jingyi scolds him, because ever since Senior Wei entered the picture, Sizhui has developed an alarming interest in rushing headlong into danger. "Stop being so brave on your own, Lan Yuan."
He expects the song to leave for good, once Senior Wei gets beyond the borders of Gusu. Whatever enchantment he'd put on his flute has caused the notes to ring along the back hill for days, which Jingyi could appreciate as a sweeping romantic gesture, but agreed was a little over the top. Especially when everyone was trying to sleep.
"At first I thought it was catchy," he complains to himself, climbing the steps to the field he has unofficially dubbed Rabbit Meadow. With Sizhui gone to Qishan, there is only Jingyi to feed the bunnies and convey them between hutch and clearing twice a day; it's a lot of work, but Jingyi can't really bring himself to enlist anyone else's help. Pets were prohibited within the Cloud Recesses, and Jingyi was taken into Hanguang-jun's confidence about their existence when he was only six years old. It's an honour he's always strived to be worthy of, and it's especially important to him now, with his parting promise to Sizhui still lingering on his lips.
I'll take care of Hanguang-jun, so don't worry.
It seems a little impossible to him, that Second Master Lan should have endured so much, should have missed Wei Wuxian for so long, only to be left behind in the Cloud Recesses. Sizhui is off rebuilding his family ties with his undead-Uncle, and Zewu-jun has entered seclusion. There is no one, as far as Jingyi can tell, there for Hanguang-jun. No one, except self-appointed Lan Jingyi.
If the newest Chief Cultivator has noticed Jingyi on guard duty outside his home or bringing him his meals more than any other disciple, he hasn't mentioned it. But Jingyi made a promise, and when a Lan swears an oath, he goes all in. Jingyi makes sure the missives for the day are always neatly prioritized on Hanguang-jun's desk, and that the sandalwood incense he likes is always burning in the Receiving Hall. He fetches and returns any materials the Chief Cultivator requires from the Library. Twice a day, he hauls four buckets of vegetable scraps up the back hill to the Rabbit Meadow, and tends to all his furry friends. He doesn't realize he isn't alone until he hears the soft pinging echo of a guqin string, and Jingyi looks up from where he is packing fresh straw into the last hutch to find Lan Wangji himself sitting in the meadow, surrounded by rabbits, his spiritual instrument across his lap.
Jingyi immediately snaps into a proper bow, flustered at being caught. "Hanguang-jun," he says, apologetic, but the guqin pings with another note, softer still.
"No need," he says quietly, in the tone that means Jingyi should straighten, and that he is welcome to join the Chief Cultivator on the grass if he wishes. Jingyi finishes with his straw and then settles himself in a meditative posture a few feet from Hanguang-jun's elbow.
When he and Sizhui were both very small, and learning to meditate, Hanguang-jun had carried them both up here, to sit in the meadow with him. Rabbits, he'd explained to them both, were timid creatures. Patience, stillness, and a gentle, open mind were required to earn their trust. Jingyi could barely keep still for longer than five minutes in class, but with the promise of a soft rabbit to pet, he became very good at freezing in place. It was immensely gratifying, when the rabbits chose Jingyi's lap first, before climbing into Sizhui's. Even now, more mature and slightly better at not flying into a frenzy every second, the Rabbit Meadow was still Jingyi's favorite place to meditate. It's easy, in the warm spring sunshine, to clear his mind and regulate his breathing.
He listens to the breeze in the grass, the hum of early insects, the clear notes of the dizi in the trees, and feels his mind empty of all his troubles, worries and regrets. Let all things come, and then let all things go. Jingyi misses Sizhui something fierce, but he understands. There is another life, another family, people who loved Sizhui and will want to know he grew up well. There is Uncle Ning, who spent years alone, thinking he'd lost everything, and looks at Sizhui like he's hope personified. There are places and things Sizhui needs to reconcile with the here and now, and Jingyi is not patient, but he's learned that you must let good things come to you in their own time. He will wait, and Sizhui will return, and he will have decided who he is and where he belongs. No matter the choice he makes, Jingyi will support him.
Thoughts in order, Jingyi comes out of his trance to find Hanguang-jun plucking at his guqin, notes that shape and bend around the dizi that refuses to quiet. Lan-laoshi thinks it was a horrible prank to pull on all of them, but Hanguang-jun has been so lonely, for so long, that Jingyi can't help but think it was meant as a kindness. He understands, with his own former tenant of the Burial Mounds off finding his own path, why Hanguang-jun let Wei Wuxian go. He understands, but it still hurts to be left behind.
"It was nice of him to leave the song for you," Jingyi says, because his mind-to-mouth filter is even thinner here, post-meditation in the Rabbit Meadow. He feels his face grow horrifically warm.
"Yes," Hanguang-jun agrees, and continues to choose notes. Each one is a perfect complement to the dizi, but Jingyi can't help but feel, with his Lan intuition for such musical matters, that there are more notes Lan Wangji is omitting on purpose, that there ought to be a broader harmony, when two instruments were involved. It's as though Hanguang-jun cannot, or is unwilling, to play the song in full. He thinks he should probably leave, and give Hanguang-jun privacy so he can play in peace, but then the Chief Cultivator speaks again, unprompted, which is rare and special. When the Second Master Lan chose to speak to you, it was important that you listen.
"Lan Jingyi has not chosen an instrument," Hanguang-jun states, not looking up from his guqin.
"No, not yet." Jingyi's face grows warm for another reason, guilt chewing his stomach. His lack of secondary spiritual weapon is a constant point of pain for Lan-laoshi. Jingyi has tried all manner of instruments, from gugin to xiao to yaogu, but none have responded to him the way a spiritual weapon should, and his talent for all of them is minimal at best. "Lan-laoshi says I must try harder."
"Perhaps," is Hanguang-jun's open-ended reply. He continues to choose his notes, and Lan Jingyi has the odd desire to sound out what he knows is missing. If he could hum it, maybe the harmony wouldn't feel so empty; Jingyi sits on his hands to keep himself from doing something crazy.
"This song," Hanguang-jun continues after a time, as though a normal conversation can carry over many periods of silences without both parties losing the trail of it entirely, "would Lan Jingyi like to learn the words?"
Sizhui has been gone for almost a year, when Jingyi crosses paths with the Yiling Patriarch. It's entirely happenstance; he'd been sent to Yao Sect territory to help them with what was described as an outbreak of zombies, but was actually a desecrated tomb. Jingyi turned the two robbers over to the Magistrate with a great deal of disgust and spent two days tracking down all of the grave goods before he could properly reseal the tomb. He's tired, he's disappointed in humanity, and missing the person who ought to be helping him with all these night hunts; Jingyi decided on a whim to fly over into Baling and visit Zizhen before returning to the Cloud Recesses, and as he strides down the main market road, on his way to pay his respects to the local Sect, Jingyi catches sight of a familiar red ribbon weaving through the crowd.
When the man in question fails to turn, Jingyi breathes deep down into his middle dantian and uses the full force of his newly developing voice cultivation.
It's pitched just right; no one else in the market notices, but Senior Wei stumbles forward like he's been shoved good-naturedly in the back. He pulls on his earlobes and shakes his head, and Jingyi smirks a little. The voice cultivation is still mostly a theory he's toying with, but he can't deny that the bit he's been able to figure out is effective. That's for the never-ending dizi, Senior.
"What was that?" Senior Wei laughs, already grinning before he's even turned around. "Is that... could it be a Lan Junior?!" He bounds up to Jingyi with the lightness of step that hides his real age, and when he stops an arm's length away, Jingyi realizes with some disorientation that he's grown, and Senior Wei is now looking up at him.
"Well if it isn't Lan Jingyi!" Senior Wei's eyes turn to crescents in his delight. "Aiyo, what's happened to you? Lans are all so tall!"
"Greetings, Senior Wei," Jingyi smiles, respectfully bowing. Wei Wuxian might have shown up and toppled the entire cultivation world, but Jingyi kind of likes the one with him in it.
"None of that, none of that!" Wei Wuxian pulls on Jingyi's elbows until he's standing upright, and then he taps his nose, face sly. "This Senior was about to look for an inn for the night," he laughs, already tugging Jingyi towards what looks like the nicest establishment in town. A flag outside is promising traditional dishes and local liquor. "And I never pass up an opportunity to enjoy the illustrious hospitality of the venerable cultivators of the Gusu Lan Clan!"
Jingyi lets himself be pulled along, laughing from both the joke and the giddy, bubbling feeling overtaking his limbs. Won't Hanguang-jun be happy to hear his night hunt report! Won't Sizhui smile, when he reads Jingyi's latest letter!
"Where have you been, Senior Wei," Jingyi asks as they're seated by the proprietor at the best table. It's a big question to start with, but Jingyi thinks it'd be rude to ask the one he most wants to know about, which is how Little Apple is doing.
"Here and there," Senior Wei says, motioning to the bartender with two waving fingers. He looks over his shoulder to wink at Jingyi. "I'll pay for my own alcohol; we can't have your Hanguang-jun thinking I'm a degenerate."
It sits entirely wrong, and it's such a lie that Jingyi reflexively straightens his posture. When the bartender hustles over with a dark clay bottle of Lotus Wine, Jingyi pushes a piece of silver across the table and tells him to make sure Senior's dish is never dry. Then he picks up the jar and pours the wine for Senior Wei himself.
"Oh, ho, what's this," Senior Wei mock-gasps, cheek smushed on his fist as he watches Jingyi slide the cup across the table to him.
"Hanguang-jun will want to know that I took care of you," Jingyi sniffs, and then raises his eyes to meet Wei Wuxian's, daring him to contradict him. It's another part of his promise to Sizhui, Jingyi supposes, and he ought to also be filial to the other man who raised him. "Nobody cares that you drink, Senior Wei."
"Well then," Senior Wei smiles, and takes up the jar to pour the barest splash into the second dish. He nudges it forward just a bit, close enough that it looks like it belongs to Jingyi, but still far enough away to hint that Jingyi doesn't have to touch it if he doesn't want to.
"To old friends and new memories," Wei Wuxian toasts, picking up his full dish and throwing the wine back in one gulp. He smacks his lips and points at Jingyi, fingers still curled around his cup. "Tell me all about the Cloud Recesses."
Senior Wei likes excruciatingly spicy food, and they serve that here, but also milder dishes too. He makes sure the numerous plates he calls for get laid out so the vegetables are on Jingyi's side of the table, and also that the illicit order of chopped fried chicken has pride of place between them. After Jingyi's told him all the news, he launches into a hilarious and entertaining account of his travels, embellished with gestures and voices, all the while tucking food in Jingyi's bowl and tutting about how this will be the only good meal Jingyi has this year, what with the food in the Cloud Recesses, and he'd better eat up. It's nice, to speak over a meal, to share rich food, to slouch a little. No one's ever put anything in Jingyi's bowl before, save Sizhui.
Gorged on what was probably more than three bowls, and warm from the carefully sipped consumption of what amounted to two dishes of wine – because Jingyi is a Lan, and he's learned, through careful experimentation with Sizhui in Caiyi, what his limits are – it feels only natural to drink the cup of water Senior Wei pours for him in their room, and to let him bundle Jingyi into bed.
"You've gotten so mature," Senior Wei tells him gently, patting his folded hands. "And night hunting on your own now. This Senior is proud of you."
"Thanks, Senior Wei," Jingyi smiles. The knot in his forehead ribbon is digging into the back of his head like this, but Jingyi is not allowed to remove it outside of the Cloud Recesses. "Hanguang-jun said he could trust me."
"He can indeed." Wei Wuxian gives his hands another pat and then gets to his feet. "Rest now, it's past your bedtime! But this Senior will be awake longer." He blows out the lantern with a flick of his wrist, and then clambers up onto the windowsill, pulling Chenqing from his belt. He plays Rest for a while, and then, probably thinking Jingyi is asleep, he slips into the song that haunted the back hill for so long Jingyi didn't even notice when it stopped.
"There's words, you know," Jingyi mumbles, rolling onto his side. In a rare bout of bravery he has his back to the window, but if Senior Wei is sitting in it, certainly nothing worse is going to climb through it.
The dizi cuts off mid-note. "Words?"
"Yeah." Jingyi yawns and snuggles deeper into his blanket. It's weird to be in bed with all his layers on. "Hanguang-jun wrote them. They're really good, because Hanguang-jun is the best."
The words were elegant and beautifully arranged, fitting of poetry penned by the esteemed Second Master Lan. Jingyi had been so proud to know of them, though he's never sung them anywhere save the Rabbit Meadow. They felt like another thing Hanguang-jun had taken him into confidence for, so Jingyi put the scroll of Lan Wangji's perfect calligraphy in the little box where he kept Sizhui's letters, and showed it to no one.
"Will you sing them for me?" There's something tugging and serious in Senior Wei's voice, but Jingyi won't let him win that easily.
"No," he scoffs, petulant like a child, and curls himself into a tighter ball. "You should come to the Cloud Recesses and hear them from Hanguang-jun yourself."
Senior Wei laughs, sounding a little incredulous, and Jingyi yawns into his pillow. "Whenever you're ready," Jingyi promises with the surety of someone also left behind and waiting, "Hanguang-jun will give them to you."
In the morning, or more accurately, the mid-afternoon, Jingyi rises blearily, throat dry and head full of sand, to find Senior Wei gone, and three things laid out on the writing table. The first is an intricately folded piece of paper, warded with some kind of array against opening, and addressed to Hanguang-jun with his private name. The second is a stack of five talismans, written on Jingyi's own paper with Jingyi's own cinnabar, and judging by their strength and type, worth more than Jingyi's weight in gold. The last is a hastily scrawled note:
Gone to deal with some water-ghouls, thanks for the meal! Don't think I didn't notice, naughty Junior, that you emptied your money pouch into my spirit bag last night. This Senior humbly accepts payment for his talismans, and in return for taking care of you while you were indisposed, asks that you run a little message for him to the Chief Cultivator.
Stay out of trouble!
It is with immense pride that Jingyi, upon returning to the Cloud Recesses, apologizes to Hanguang-jun for giving away all his money in Baling, and presents him with Wei Wuxian's note. It causes Lan Wangji to reach out and put his large hand on Jingyi's shoulder before he turns and walks up the path to the Jingshi, and Jingyi floats on the air of his achievement for days.
The Cloud Recesses in winter are an even quieter time than usual, everything muted and hushed under clear ice and heavy blankets of snow. It's beautiful in its intensity, in the extra care required to go about living. Music sits differently in air weighed down with cold, and most Sect members refrain from playing for leisure, saving warm breath and keeping fingers protected beneath heavy sleeves. Jingyi has managed, with diligent study of old texts in the library and hours of trial and error in the Rabbit Meadow, to convince the elders of the effectiveness of his voice cultivation, and there is talk – no promises, but talk is better than nothing – of allowing Jingyi to graduate into senior discipledom in the spring. All his other classmates have completed their schooling, save one.
He's no stranger to late blooming, so it doesn't bother him much that he's too old to be wearing his uniform without the fifth layer of an adult, though he is taller than all the juniors on night hunts, and more often than not, is typically facilitating the lesson, instead of learning it. Ever since his success in Baling, Hanguang-jun has let him handle more things on his own, as though Jingyi were a full-fledged cultivator, and he has yet to completely mess anything up in defiance of that trust.
The air is crisp and clear as Jingyi makes his way up the stone steps to the entry gate, returning from reinforcing some wards around Biling Lake. He's looking forward to a warm bath and a hot meal, and as he strides upwards, humming in counterpoint to the winter birdsong in the woods on either side of the path, he catches the apologetic voices of the Juniors on guard duty, politely refusing someone entry. Jingyi steals himself to be appealed to as he walks past, and then he steps into the clearing in front of the gate and freezes.
Standing there, is Wen Ning, and beside him, a sight for sore eyes, is Sizhui. He's wearing a deep, dark blue cloak, lined with some kind of fur Jingyi cannot recognize. The sight of it quiets the weeks-deep worry Jingyi has felt, every time he hung his white cloak on the hook by the door in their dorm room, next to where Sizhui had left his behind. The blue hood is thrown back, probably to show the Juniors his forehead ribbon, and Sizhui's hair has been intricately braided from brow to crown and then tidily down his back, the ends of his ribbon hanging to either side. Sizhui is holding out the jade ornament he wears at his waist, pale green and shaped like a cluster of gentians, which marks him as a member of Lan Wangji's immediate family, and also serves as his entrance token. From under the shadow of his cloak, held open by his arm, Jingyi can make out the familiar white and pale egg-blue of their uniform, and that, more than the forehead ribbon, loosens the tightness in Jingyi's ribs.
"This disciple must humbly ask you to appeal to Hanguang-jun," Sizhui is saying, his voice a little deeper than it had been when he'd left. "We are very happy to wait until his next convenience, here at the gate."
He sounds like a hero in a poem, Jingyi thinks, speaking so eloquently, with his sword and his cloth-covered guqin strapped across his back. He looks like a song, and Jingyi can feel it there, on the tip of his tongue, tucked behind his teeth, wishing to be let free of his lungs. The surprise of the sudden urge makes his lips part with too much intention behind them, and the quiet, wordless note vibrates in the air and draws the attention of the two Juniors on duty, who are clearly having a crisis of faith over this man who has all the trappings of a Lan disciple, but looks nothing like one, and thinks it's okay to invite in a fierce corpse.
"Senior Lan," they both bow, which happens to be the first time anyone ever calls him that. Jingyi feels his cheeks catch fire. As they straighten, the smaller one pipes "This young master wants us to appeal to Hanguang-jun – oh, it's you, Lan Jingyi."
"You don't need to go," Jingyi bristles. "That 'young master' is Lan Sizhui, and His Excellency granted Wen Qionglin free access to the Cloud Recesses. Let them pass."
Any last shred of euphoria he felt at being called Senior evaporates when the two Juniors share a doubtful look. Jingyi crosses his arms and sighs skyward. "Okay, then they are my guests. I'll take them in, and if anyone questions you, you can tell them it was my fault."
"Thank you!" the boys chorus, and Lan Jingyi grumbles under his breath about how Senior Wei is probably laughing somewhere as he steps around them to follow Sizhui and Wen Ning into the Cloud Recesses.
"I was never that self-important on guard duty," he mutters in disgust.
"Yes you were," Sizhui smiles. "Remember when you turned away that delegation from the Wang sect? Because you hadn't heard of them?"
"And! They aren't even a Sect now," Jingyi reminds him, vindicated. "Not worth knowing."
"It's so good to see you," Sizhui laughs. His cheeks are pink from the cold and his big dark eyes are sparkling in the winter sun. He looks so handsome, in a way Jingyi has never given himself leave to think much about, before. Jingyi wants to repeat the statement back to him, but it feels woefully inadequate. He wants to throw his arms around Sizhui, and never let go, but it's been over a year since their last hug, and he feels suddenly shy. Thankfully, Wen Ning is also there. So instead he gives Sizhui a little bow, and then Wen Ning a deeper one.
"Senior Wen, we have a residence prepared for you," he instructs. "I can show you the way."
"Ah, um. That's really… it's not necessary, I-"
"Come on, Uncle!" Jingyi grabs him by the arm and succeeds in not moving him at all. "I'll show you the rabbits!"
"Oh, well, if you… if you insist then…" Wen Ning stammers, and lets himself be led away from Sizhui, whose attention has been drawn further up the path, to where Hanguang-jun, alerted by Sizhui's token crossing the barrier, was walking down to meet him. Jingyi has missed Sizhui, but Hanguang-jun is always waiting, and missing someone else besides.
"Let's greet Hanguang-jun later, Uncle Ning," Jingyi says, leading Senior Wen away towards the back hill. "How was your trip?"
Jingyi gets Senior Wen comfortably installed in the one-roomed house they've built for him, up the back hill and along the path to the ridge out of the Cloud Recesses, a short walk from the Rabbit Meadow. It has a sloping grey roof, but the walls are decorated with bamboo groves instead of clouds, and it includes both a fire-pit and a comfortable bed, though Wen Qionglin needs neither rest nor sustenance. Jingyi had argued, and won with Hanguang-jun's support, that Senior Wen ought to be treated like any other housed guest of the Lan Clan's hospitality, namely, like he was alive. He gives Senior Wen a little tour; here, the shelf where he might keep books or scrolls or ancestry tablets, here the incense burner, here, the cupboard with dishes and cups, already stocked with a variety of teas and the ingredients to make several types of treats, should Senior Wen host guests.
"His Excellency and Zewu-jun both have a sweet tooth," Jingyi admits with a laugh, and lets Senior Wen inaugurate the tea set by making him a pot before he heads back down the hill.
It's already growing dark in the shortened hours of winter. As Jingyi walks past the Jingshi, he can make out two seated figures within its candlelit walls, both bent over their instruments and filling the chill, crisp air with the soft, sonorous notes of a familiar melody. Jingyi finally hears it played in full, beautiful harmony on the matched tones of two guqin. For a moment he stops on the path, listening to Sizhui and Hanguang-jun play together. His chest goes tight, and his eyes sting. He can't tell, in the grey-dark of twilight, if it's a song of Gusu, or a song of the Burial Mounds, brought home.
For weeks, it feels like he's holding his breath. It didn't matter that Sizhui had promptly reestablished their cohabitation in the dorm room they've shared since they were eleven, or that he arrived for breakfast in the Dining Hall, robes pristine, and with his hair once again combed into the elegant knot stone and waterfall they wear as junior disciples of the clan. There is a duality to Sizhui now, like he is two selves superimposed over the other. He moves about their room and through their days with the same familiar patterns, but he is at times slightly discordant with Jingyi's memory. It's there, in the answers he gives their seniors, the choices he makes night hunting, the books he borrows from the Library Pavilion. Before he'd left, Sizhui was their most accomplished classmate, and well on his way to being First Disciple. He's come of age and is well-respected both in and outside of the Sect; there's nothing to hold back his fifth robe save his final treatise, and Sizhui could debate the beard off Lan-laoshi's face – the fact that it's taking him so long is suspect.
Hanguang-jun does not appear concerned, and so Jingyi tries not to be. The Chief Cultivator has infinitely more experience with letting people choose their own way than he does. And besides, he likes these changes in Sizhui. He likes everything about Sizhui a little too much. If Jingyi distracts himself from his confusing feelings by going more often to the Rabbit Meadow to practice his voice cultivation, or disappearing into the woods for an afternoon to meet with Senior Wen, no one calls him out for it.
Senior Wen has been giving him pointers, because Jingyi has started, on the night hunts he completes alone, to carry his bow.
Zizhen had been the one to give it to Jingyi; a beautifully crafted Yunmeng weapon made of orange wood and quince, lacquered a deep brownish-red. Zizhen's father had it made for him for the archery contest at the Discussion Conference hosted by the Jiang Sect last year, but he would never be strong enough to string it, let alone pull it. It was with great relief and pleasure that he gifted it to Jingyi, whose natural Lan strength has been honed into something near-monstrous from all his disciplinary handstands. The quiver Jingyi carries his swan-fletched arrows in was a present from Jin Ling, the leather dyed to match his bow and subtly tooled with gold, clearly meant to complement Zizhen's gift in its craftsmanship. Jingyi likes to carry both, along with the sword Sizhui helped him name, to feel like his friends are near.
Jingyi has always been a talented archer, a well-kept secret held between him, Sizhui, and Sect Leader Lan. Zewu-jun had taught them both to shoot; all Lan disciples are required to master the six arts, but archery is considered more of a sport than a cultivation tool by the Lan Sect, who eat no meat and therefore do not hunt. Sizhui had tried to encourage him when it became obvious that Jingyi might one day outstrip Zewu-jun if he applied himself, but Lan-laoshi had forbade his dedicating any more time to it than necessary. He was already far enough behind in his cultivation without taking time away from his studies. Jingyi accepted this as law and continued to flounder along with more proper-Lan pursuits. But in the time since Senior Wei returned and shook apart the cultivation world, something in him has shifted too. He's coming to realize he may never be able to be the best Lan, but perhaps with time, he might become the best Jingyi.
In a book loaned to him by Hanguang-jun, Jingyi learned that of the five Sects, the Wen had been the most adept at archery cultivation, followed by the Jiang. A period of study under Sandu Shengshou would likely have resulted in Jingyi's quick death at the end of Zidan, a fact he'd bemoaned to his friends at the Discussion Conference. Two weeks later, he'd been in possession of his beautiful gifts, along with a note from Zizhen inviting him to come to Baling anytime to practice. A similar, slightly more formal message had come from Jin Ling, an open offer to the Junior disciples of the Lan Clan from the Jin Sect Leader. But practice can only get him so far, without proper instruction.
"Relax your elbow," Senior Wen instructs softly, from his position behind Jingyi's right shoulder. "Yes, like… like so. Try now." His steps shuffle backwards through thaw-damp leaves, and Jingyi measures the cadence of the sound, how it differs from leaves shifted by the wind. He breathes out as he pulls the bowstring taught, white feather pressed to the side of his lips. There's a trick Senior Wen has taught him, to linking your core to your eyes and the meridians in your palms; everything will fall away, and you will release the arrow without thought. There is only you, and the target, together in the air.
Jingyi inhales the scent of new spring buds, the wet wood of bare branches and the dirt-clean smell of new growth. Senior Wen has painted a knot on a tree bright red; it's the size of a peach, but from nearly a yin away it looks no bigger than the coins they trade in Caiyi. He focuses on the tune of the wind, on training the point of his arrow to match it, to sing in harmony through the distance. It's as he looses the arrow to its flight, exhaling his intentions, he hears it, notes so faint you might miss it, if you didn’t know what to look for.
The arrow lands with a solid thunk, perfectly centered in the tree knot, but all of Jingyi's focus is on the path leading to the ridge.
"You did it," Senior Wen congratulates, his stiff lips pulled back in what approximates a smile.
Jingyi brings his hands together and forwards in a deep bow, his heart thundering in his ears. "Thank you for the instruction Senior! Please excuse me but I need go. I'll be back tomorrow!"
He takes off running, without staying to hear Senior Wen's confused acceptance. Jingyi will make it up to him, both as a thank you for teaching him, and an apology for being so rude. The melody gets a little clearer when he breaks out of the trees, and Jingyi changes course with certainty, barreling down the back hill and through the Cloud Recesses, dodging scandalized disciples left and right. He throws open the doors to the Receiving Hall without announcement and bows nearly double, eyes on the floor instead of on the shocked faces of the Mei delegation and the impenetrable gaze of the Chief Cultivator.
"Forgive this disciple," Jingyi shouts, because he's going to get punished for rule breaking regardless. "From the back hill, Hanguang-jun, there is a song in the wind!"
"Be at ease," the Chief Cultivator says. "I will hear your report."
Jingyi snaps upright, unable to hide his highly improper grin. "This disciple can hear a dizi, Your Excellency."
Something changes in Hanguang-jun's face, something small and fragile. Jingyi beams at him with his heart in his eyes, with all the empathy of someone made to be patient, and still waiting. Go to him, he pleads. I promise I am not wrong.
"This meeting must continue at a later time," Hanguang-jun tells the Mei delegation, who scramble upright to bow. "Lan Jingyi," he adds, as he comes down the dais, and Jingyi bows too, deep and gracious and accepting of everything Hanguang-jun has wrapped around his name: a request to see the Mei Clan to the guest quarters, a forgiveness of his interruption, and an earnest, heartfelt thanks.
"Yes, Hanguang-jun," he smiles, and smiles again when the edge of Lan Wangji's long white sleeve brushes against his knuckles as the Chief Cultivator walks past.
By the time the Mei Sect are settled in, Jingyi is just in time to intercept the covered basket meant for Zewu-jun from the kitchen, and he slips a talisman inside when he sets it on the Hanshi porch, so that when Zewu-jun opens it, spiritual gentians will bloom amongst his dishes. He'd done the same, the day Sizhui came home. Even in seclusion, Sect Leader Lan should know of his brother's happiness.
He skips a little, down the path, and not even Lan-laoshi – red in the face over Jingyi's behaviour and horribly disinclined to be lenient with Senior Wei back on the premises – can dampen his mood. Jingyi is made to kneel in front of the Ancestral Hall, holding a stack of five discipline rulers aloft for the duration of the evening. It's a little bit cold, but there's a song in his heart to keep him warm.
A few days before Qingming, Sizhui once again braids his hair, and departs the Cloud Recesses with Senior Wen for Qishan. It's going to be a shorter journey this time, but perhaps more meaningful for them both; two weeks prior Sect Leader Jin had come to the Cloud Recesses with pomp and fanfare, bowed in greeting to the Chief Cultivator, and requested an audience with the Wen Remnants. Jingyi had been on duty in the Receiving Hall at the time, and since Senior Wei and Sizhui were having lunch with Senior Wen, all three of them arrived to meet the Jin delegation. Jin Ling had come to deliver what he called "stolen Clan treasures" consisting of several tomes of medical study, a red sword, and a small lacquered urn, containing the remains of Senior Wen's sister.
"It took a while, to go through everything in that room," Jin Ling apologized, either unaware or ignoring the fact that Senior Wen was making the face that indicated he would be crying grateful tears if he were physically capable.
It was Sizhui who bowed in thanks on his behalf; it was going to take a long time for Senior Wen to compose himself enough to speak. "We very humbly accept the return of these artefacts, Sect Leader Jin," he said, and when he straightened, his eyes were a little wet too. "Jin Ling, thank you."
Jingyi was impressed with the gesture, the type of subtle amends he would not have thought possible of the Little Mistress when they first met. It was not Jingyi's place; he was an outsider to all the intricate ways in which Jin Ling and Sizhui's family ties overlapped and pulled, but he believed the kindness to be the right thing to do. It was another step on the path Jin Ling was taking to improve the reputation of his Sect, to lead it in the direction, he'd told Jingyi and Zizhen, camped out under the stars together on their last night hunt, that he believed his father would have wanted it to go in.
So Jin Ling was being all mature and thoughtful, and he'd capped off the day by inviting Senior Wei to come back to Lanling with him, so he could pay his respects to Jin Ling's mother, like he was the model of filiality. Senior Wei was physically capable of crying, and he did so, pulling a squawking Jin Ling and a patient Sizhui into a group hug while he wailed about how good they were. It was ridiculous and heart-warming in the way only Senior Wei could achieve, namely, with the thickest face possible.
Jingyi spends Qingming in the same way he always does, with the rest of the inner clan members in the Ancestral Hall. In the Cloud Recesses it is a solemn affair, and largely silent. The hall is cleaned and decorated with willow and pomegranate, new offerings of tea and medicinal herbs are made, and they burn joss sticks at every tablet. Each of them burn two pieces of xiaoyin, as dictated in their rites by Lan An – who states that even in death one should not ask for more than what is needed – and then the rest of the day is meant to be spent in quiet reflection. When they were young, he and Sizhui would spend this time with Zewu-jun in the Hanshi, and then later Hanguang-jun would come and take them to Caiyi so they could see the singing and dancing, and all the festivities around the new courtships.
This year, Jingyi takes the path into the private part of the Cloud Recesses, where men and women are allowed to intermingle, and families dwell. There is a house there, called the Nuanshi, smaller than the Jingshi and barely remembered, his birthright as a Lan. Jingyi has not lived there since his parents died, but it's been waiting for him to come of age, graduate, and move out of the dormitory. There's still talk he might earn his fifth robe this year, and the Nuanshi has been shut up for a while; Jingyi spends most of the day with a cloth tied over his mouth and nose against the dust, setting everything to rights.
When it grows dark, he makes his way up the path to the back hill, to Senior Wen's house. He bows three times, joss sticks aloft, and then he sets them in the holder and burns two xiaoyin for Sizhui's ancestors.
Thank you, for saving us that one time. Jingyi prays. I know you don't know me, but please, watch over Sizhui, uh, your A-Yuan. He's… he's important to me, like he's important to you. Please know, that through him, I will also remember you.
There are candles burning in the Ancestral Hall tonight. On his way back to the Dormitory Jingyi sneaks inside to kneel by his parents tablets. Perhaps it is all the time he'd spent in their house today, but he just wants a little more time with them. He's already spoken the usual Lan prayers to them, so instead he sings. There's the softness in the air, and the little flickering noise of all the candles, the heavy sound of night-quiet that always settles over the Cloud Recesses, and that he misses when he is night hunting away from home. There's the not-sounds of the way he's feeling, here on the knife-edge between youth and whatever comes after, unsettled and excited and also a little alone. There's the song that always sits now on the tip of his tongue when Sizhui smiles, and Jingyi lets himself sing it here, for his parents and the ancestors, for Lan An and his most precious person, who surely could understand. He sings until it's too much, and he can't anymore, and when he opens his eyes he looks directly at Zewu-jun, standing next to the main altar.
"Don't stop, on my account," Zewu-jun murmurs softly, his voice turned to downy feathers from disuse.
He looks tired, and thin, weighed down by his loose hair and washed out in the plain grey robes they wear in seclusion. By Clan precept, Jingyi is not supposed to look at anyone wearing those robes; he's supposed to pretend Lan Xichen isn't there. But Zewu-jun taught Jingyi to read and to pull a bowstring, held his hand on those early night hunts when Jingyi was so terrified he could barely move. He'd been there, always, with a patient smile, a kind word, contraband sweets, every time Jingyi failed in the eyes of the elders.
"Shifu," Jingyi says, before he can even stop himself. "It's you."
A hint of a smile tugs at the corner of Zewu-jun's lips. "Lan Jingyi. I almost didn't recognize you, you've grown."
"Still four robes though," Jingyi smiles. "For now."
"Only for now," Zewu-jun agrees. "Wangji brought me your treatise, I enjoyed reading it."
"You liked it?"
Jingyi had pieced together something, with the help of Senior Wen and Senior Wei, on the uses of music theory as applied to conditional assessment for archery and spiritual attack, which came back heavily marked from Lan-laoshi with statements such as when would this be useful and why would you waste your spiritual energy on this and highly disappointing theory. Senior Wei had snorted and patted Jingyi on the shoulder.
"It was interesting; as I understand it, Lan Jingyi is developing two new methods of cultivating."
"Shifu." Jingyi thinks he might cry. He bows very deeply, kneeling on the floor. "Thank you."
"Ah, that is not necessary." Zewu-jun kneels down and lifts Jingyi up by his elbows, looking embarrassed. Jingyi is not supposed to be talking to a person in seclusion, let alone bowing to one.
"Have you come to pray, Zewu-jun? I'll leave you to it."
"No," Zewu-jun admits. "I wanted to hear your song."
"Oh… was I that loud?"
"Not at all." Zewu-jun's eyes crinkle at the corners as he smiles. He looks so much like himself, from before, Jingyi feels like the air is buzzing. "You are certainly not as loud as the musicians in the Jingshi."
For a minute, Jingyi stares at him, wide-eyed, mouth open. Every resident of the Cloud Recesses has become an unwilling victim of the constant earworm of the duet of Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun's love song emanating from the Jingshi, or been accidentally lured into a false sense of security by the eerie silence of its four walls under cardinal point silencing-talismans. It's even worse on a night hunt; Senior Wei has no shame and a frankly shocking vocabulary.
"Shifu..." Jingyi can't help himself, the buzzing in the air vibrates in his lungs until he's laughing so hard he can't see through the water in his eyes. "That was such… no one was even here, no one is going to believe me that you said that!"
"Please bear it," Zewu-jun says, and then he is laughing too, a soft fragile thing, but there. Jingyi is going to treasure the sound for months.
He wipes the water from his eyes with a smile. "Yes, Zewu-jun," he promises. "This disciple will come to the Hanshi porch and sing for you, when the other musicians are being annoying."
"That," Sect Leader Lan smiles, "will be a welcome change."
Any hopes that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei might settle down are quickly abandoned. As if once more enchanted to never cease, the harmony of dizi and guqin plague the mountain all summer, until every resident of the Cloud Recesses is forced to invest in earplugs, or endure an interrupted sleep schedule. At first, Jingyi was more sympathetic; he'd nod in sighing agreement with Zizhen on the romance of it all. Not even death could separate them, Zizhen had cried into his wine cup after a successful night hunt. Jin Ling had gone red in the face and snarled at them both to stop discussing his Uncle's love life, and the longer Jingyi has spent with the same melody stuck ricocheting around in his skull, the more time he's had to come around to Jin Ling's way of thinking. It'd be nice, just once, to not know how healthy Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun's relationship is – it's called the mysteries of the alcove for a reason.
All that racket has been detrimental to his ability to hone his voice cultivation; it's difficult to focus when one song is stuck on repeat in your mind. The song Hanguang-jun wrote for Senior Wei is a little too catchy, and it overrides anything else Jingyi wants to get past his lips. Fortunately, he has allies at his disposal.
A polite letter arrives from Sect Leader Jin, explaining that travellers on a stretch of road have been mysteriously disappearing. As the road forms part of the border between Gusu and Lanling, he suggests cultivators from both Sects should be sent to investigate. Sizhui is off running an errand for Senior Wei, so Hanguang-jun dispatches Jingyi with a smile in the edge of his mouth and tells him to give Sect Leader Jin his regards.
Jingyi suspects Hanguang-jun might know about the Jin Butterfly he received yesterday, but he takes off towards the border, alighting from his sword outside of the village and making his way on foot to the inn the message had described. He waves off the inn keeper's offer of a table and a room with a polite inquiry regarding Master Jin, and is shown upstairs to a modest, but neat set of rooms. Jin Ling is seated at the table, dressed plainly in white and pale yellow, his sword wrapped in cloth, and eating sunflower seeds. Jingyi slides into the spot adjacent with a nod in greeting.
It's more than half a tease, but Jin Ling is used to it, and doesn't rise to the bait the way he once might have. Before he became a Sect Leader.
"He'll be here at dusk, after the evening meal in Baling."
"Right." Jingyi pours tea for them both, orphans who don't have parents they need to eat with. Perhaps to make up for it, Jin Ling orders Jingyi's Lanling favourites to be brought up.
"Before I forget," Jin Ling says once the inn keeper has run off to get their food. He dips his hand into his robe and draws out a small purple silk pouch, embroidered with a lotus.
"Oh! You convinced him?" Jingyi grins and takes the pouch with a little bow. "Thank you, Sect Leader Jin! Truly, you are a master of diplomacy."
"Shut it," Jin Ling snorts, and slaps Jingyi's hands away. "When I told Uncle what it was actually for, he nearly went into qi deviation."
"Well, you can tell him I won't go flaunting it around, if that helps."
Jin Ling shakes his head. "It's been made for you, so wear it. I think we'll need it tonight too."
"Yeah?" Jingyi sweeps his little pile of sunflower seed shells to one side, straightening in his seat. "What have you found out from the locals?"
Over dinner Jin Ling talks about the eight people who've disappeared, all with little to link them besides their disappearance on the same stretch of road. This summer they've been experiencing some unusually cool evenings, and fog has been bad in low-lying areas. All eight disappearances happened in thick fog, to people travelling alone, or in one case, a group of two. Jin Ling had interviewed the survivor himself, who experienced a feeling of cold, and heard strange noises that he described as if two roof tiles were rubbing together.
"How does anyone know what that even sounds like?" Jingyi complains, as they are heading out of town with one lantern between them.
"Who knows," Jin Ling shrugs. "I thought it was a hungry ghost until he said that."
"It still could be," Jingyi muses, but Jin Ling isn't paying attention. There's a faint glowing light in the foggy distance ahead, someone approaching by sword with a fire talisman. Jin Ling raises his fingers to his mouth to whistle, and receives a matching one in return that causes a wide smile to break his usual resting bitch face.
Jingyi rolls his eyes. "As if I don't get enough of this mooning in the Cloud Recesses," he huffs.
"Shut it!" Jin Ling pinches his shoulder. "Been looking in the mirror, Lan Jingyi?"
Old habits, regardless of how many sects you lead, or how many robes you're trying to demonstrate you are mature enough to wear, apparently die hard. Jingyi shoves Jin Ling, and by the time Zizhen has landed, they've dissolved into full out wrestling in the middle of the road.
"Um… hi?" Zizhen calls. There's a fond smile on his face, and someone standing a few feet behind him. "You guys good?"
"Zizhen!" Jin Ling shouts, too high, because Jingyi has his arm pinned at a painful angle. "You're here!"
Jingyi lets him up because he's won the wrestle, and also because he doesn't want to embarrass Jin Ling too much and make him insufferable. He gets slowly to his feet and dusts himself off to show he's taking the moral high road while Jin Ling scrambles to his feet, glaring at him.
"Of course I'm here," Zizhen laughs, and reaches out to straighten Jin Ling's collars. "You invited me, silly melon. And look who I caught on his way up from Lotus Pier?"
The person standing behind Zizhen, robes white and perfect, sword at his waist, is Sizhui. Jingyi feels the weight of his gaze like stones. They've been going on a lot of these night hunts without him, on the mutual agreement not to distract Sizhui from finishing his treatise. Ever polite, Sizhui bows to them both in greeting, his eyes lingering on the Yunmeng-style bow peeking over Jingyi's shoulder.
"Hello," Sizhui smiles. "What's troubling enough to get Sect Leader Jin's personal attention?"
Zizhen is still fussing over Jin Ling's clothes, so it falls to Jingyi to fill Sizhui in. By the time they're all focused on the discussion, Sizhui has also reached the same hypothesis.
"A hungry ghost?" he suggests.
"But the noise," Jin Ling reminds them all, "it's not typical."
"Maybe the ghost was a roofer?" Zizhen offers. "Maybe he fell off a roof when he died?"
"Why would the ghost be on the side of the road then, Zizhen?" Jingyi laughs. "Come on!"
"It's a suggestion!" Jin Ling snaps, unfailingly loyal.
Before Jingyi can get a good retort in, Sizhui puts both hands out. "Ahhh, so, it might be a hungry ghost, or something else. Should we split up, and scout both sides of the road?"
"Good idea, Sizhui," Zizhen nods, suspiciously enthusiastic. "Jin Ling and I can take the east side, and you and Jingyi can do your Lan thing on the west."
"Do our Lan thing?" Jingyi hisses at him.
Zizhen turns so Sizhui can't see, blows a kiss and winks at him. "Have fun," he whispers, taking Jingyi's lantern. Then louder, he adds "Oh, Jingyi, here. I hope you like it!" He presses a hair stick into Jingyi's palm.
On their last night hunt, Zizhen had broken Jingyi's hair stick when they'd drunkenly attempted to re-enact a scene from their latest favourite novel for Jin Ling, in which a maiden throws her hairpin to defend her lover. Zizhen had been playing the role of the maiden, but his hair was held back by a comb. He'd grabbed Jingyi's hair stick, standard issue for a junior disciple, made of perfectly serviceable smooth sandalwood, and it immediately snapped under the duress of Zizhen's fervor. Lan-laoshi made him kneel all afternoon for arriving back at the Cloud Recesses with his hair loose, and has punished Jingyi with lines every time he's seen the shortened chopstick Jingyi's been using as a temporary replacement. Zizhen promised to get him a new one, but the hair stick in Jingyi's hand now is cool and glassy, made of white jade. The wider end has been carved to look like a magnolia bud.
"This is… Zizhen. Thank you, but–" The hair stick is beautiful, elegant and simple, something Jingyi would choose for himself once he was allowed to as a Senior. None of that can stop the sharp voice of Lan-laoshi in his head, repeating Be prudent. Do not be extravagant. Dress neatly and without excessive adornment.
"It's an early graduation present," Zizhen smiles. "Please accept it as a symbol of our friendship, and the ties between our Sects."
Jin Ling is glaring at him over Zizhen's shoulder as if he's daring Jingyi to be so rude as to refuse, so he sighs in defeat and tucks it into his robes, blushing a little. "Okay, but I'm going to have to get you something."
"I look forward to it!" Zizhen claps him on the shoulder. "Coming, Jin Ling?"
"Yup! Send a butterfly, if you guys find anything." The last sentence is called out through the fog, thickening around them as the lantern swings away. Jingyi conjures a small ball of spiritual energy and lets it hover above his head, casting cool blue light over Sizhui's handsome features, watching him impassively.
"Well, should we get started with our Lan thing?"
Sizhui doesn't move, or laugh at the joke. "Jingyi, you have a new tassel," he frowns.
All disciples wear two, made of light blue silken cord. One marks their rank and level, and the other bears their jade token for access into the Cloud Recesses. Like Sizhui, Jingyi's token is more ornate than a regular stone circle, his is carved with the osmanthus that represents his branch of the Lan family, and belonged to his father. Hanging next to it at his waist, on a shorter cord than standard so it doesn't click against his token, is his brand new Jiang Clarity Bell.
"What, this?" Jingyi laughs, patting it fondly. "It's a gift, from the Little Mistress."
"Jin Ling gave that to you?"
"Yeah, to help me study." Jingyi unhooks it from his belt and holds it out for Sizhui to inspect; he takes it with both hands, the furrow between his eyebrows deepening.
"If you're worried," Jingyi adds, "I explained the decorum." Technically extra waist accessories are strictly forbidden, but there are some allowable exceptions, namely to accommodate any traditions of one's spouse, or in Jingyi's case, when a cultivation aid is required. Jin Ling's had it made with that in mind; the silken cord is white, and so is the tassel below the bell, it's ends dip-dyed blue. Above the bell is a bead shaped like a cluster of osmanthus, too, which hadn't been necessary but was awfully classy of Jin Ling to include.
Sizhui hands the bell back, looking even more concerned. "I see," he says. "Let's get started, then."
They're used to night hunting in silence, clan precepts dictate only speaking when required, and concentration on the task at hand, especially in situations where risk is involved. Jingyi and Sizhui have hunted together so often that they often don't need to talk to communicate, but this silence feels different, weighted between the crunch of their footsteps.
"How was Lotus Pier?" Jingyi asks quietly, to relieve the itch between his shoulders.
"Warm," Sizhui admits. "I'm just glad Senior Wei wasn't with me, having to take a boat would have been awful."
Jingyi hums in sympathetic agreement. It rings too loud in the fog. "It's quiet," Jingyi murmurs.
"Can I ask you something," Sizhui says out of nowhere. He stops walking, and turns a little to halt Jingyi too. "You don't have to answer if it's private."
Sizhui's breath fogs the cool air, and his voice shakes a little when he asks "How long have Zizhen and Jin Ling been courting you?"
Jingyi goes stock-still in his shock. "What?"
"It's not traditional," Sizhui admits, "but I don't want you to think that I… you can tell me anything. I want you to be happy, you know that, right?"
"And whichever one you choose, they're both wonderful." Sizhui's smile is a little sad. "But you should stop letting them buy you all these things, and choose."
"You think… oh fuck." Jingyi rarely ever swears, and Sizhui, who never does, looks at Jingyi like he's stricken. Jingyi nearly keels over from his hysterical laughter.
"Sorry, sorry," he gasps, grabbing for the stitch in his side. "Sizhui, I don't mean to laugh…" Jingyi takes a deep breath and tries to get himself under control. "It's just that, those two idiots sent us off together so they could hold hands, and you think they're both interested in me?"
"Hold... hands?" Sizhui is frowning, his bottom lip stuck out a little, the way it does when he's actually mad.
"They're honestly probably kissing in a bush or something right now." Jingyi assures him, and wipes at his eyes with his hand, still giggling uncontrollably.
Sizhui gapes at him. "But… the bow and the quiver, and all those night hunts? Zizhen bought something for your hair! You're wearing a Clarity Bell!"
"Oh, no." Jingyi reaches out to set one hand on Sizhui's shoulder. He's somehow gotten taller than Sizhui, and he'd felt a little unsure about it, but it feels right now, to be able to look down at him fondly and offer his reassurance. "Zizhen broke my hair stick when he was drunk. And the bell really is just to help me study. I can't concentrate with Senior Wei… enjoying… uh…"
"Oh," Sizhui says, diplomatically letting him trail off. "Then, you're not, ah, entertaining offers? From either of them?"
"Sizhui," Jingyi laughs, giving Sizhui's shoulder a squeeze and then letting go. "Can you imagine if Jin Ling and I were in charge of a Sect?"
The corners of Sizhui's lips curl. "It would be interesting," he offers, and they both manage a few moments before they burst into laughter.
"Interesting!? We'd fight all the time! So messy. Hanguang-jun would hate it."
"Sect Leader Jiang would probably hate it," Sizhui admits. "I'm sure Baba would support you if it was what you wanted."
"Well, I don't, so, you don't have to convince him for me."
"Mn," Sizhui smiles, and then he laughs a little, falling into step beside Jingyi as they continue down the road. "So, Zizhen and Jin Ling?"
"Yeah," Jingyi laughs. "For a long time, I think. Zizhen spent a lot of time in Carp Tower when you were in Qishan."
"I missed it," Sizhui says quietly.
"No, going to Qishan was important to you. Don't apologize for that; it's your family. We understand."
"Jingyi," Sizhui smiles, and reaches over to put his hand on Jingyi's arm. "You always… thank you."
"Pfft, no need," Jingyi scoffs, but he reaches over to pat Sizhui's hand. Under his palm, Sizhui's fingers curl into the fabric of his sleeve.
"Jingyi," he whispers, earnest. "Jingyi, I–"
Jingyi grabs Sizhui's hand to stop him from walking, and presses the first finger of his other hand to Sizhui's lips. Sizhui blinks his big dark eyes, and Jingyi hears it again, quiet in the fog, off to the right. Clicking, like terracotta pots being stacked, or roof tiles slowly cracking. But that's not quite right either. It sounds cold, too, like the compacting crunch of hard snow beneath his boots in the winter. He takes his finger from Sizhui's lips to point in the direction the noise is coming from, and Sizhui nods once in understanding, his hand moving to grip the handle of his sword. It's the last thing Jingyi sees clearly before something pulls tight against his ankle, and he's jerked clean off his feet and off the road.
Jingyi gets dragged too fast to react. He shouts, in surprise, confusion, fear, and then in pain when something clamps down on his leg. He kicks with his free foot, flails his arms, and is vaguely aware, thanks to the branches and vines slapping his body and face, that whatever has him is pulling him deeper into the woods.
Sizhui sounds further away, and Jingyi manages to get two fingers together so he can shoot off a small beacon of blue light. He's dropped his sword like an absolute idiot, and Lan-laoshi's voice is ringing in his ears. Be respectful of decorum. Always carry your sword, making it a little hard to concentrate to summon it. His leg is a fiery burst of sharp pain, and Jingyi grits his teeth, pulls his spiritual energy away from the hurt where it wants to go, and focuses as hard as he can, until his blade is ringing in the air, rushing straight to him. As soon as it hits his palm, Jingyi raises it, scabbard and all, to hit at whatever is holding his leg. For his trouble, he gets violently shaken, flounced in the air and smacked against a few tree trunks.
"Great," Jingyi spits, right before the clacking noise turns into a splashing noise, and Jingyi is pushed underwater.
It's freezing, and Jingyi's whole body seizes, the water assaulting him on all sides like tiny knives. His lungs burn as he's dragged deeper, into darker water, and just when he thinks I'm sorry, Sizhui the water parts around him and he's being dragged up a rocky beach. It's pitch black, and Jingyi heaves air into his lungs that stings with resentful energy and malice. He nearly chokes on it, gasping, until a burst of blue light explodes out of the pool behind him, and Sizhui streaks upwards on his sword. He looks furious, righteous, beautiful like a martial god fallen to earth, with his hair streaking behind him and water scattering away from him like gleaming pearls. He has four talismans in his hand in the blink of an eye, and in the light of Sizhui's sublime anger, Jingyi comes to realize that his leg is currently in the jaws of something giant, judging by the two massive legs he can see.
"Great," Jingyi hisses again. When Sizhui's talismans hit their mark, they explode with a shattering, crystalline noise, and Jingyi gets spat out onto the ground with little regard for his landing safely.
"Alive!" he shrieks, and tries to haul himself to his feet. His leg is… bad. Broken, definitely in three places. Jingyi sits heavily on the ground, sets his sword to the side, and takes his bow off his shoulders. Jin Ling's so good, because Jingyi's quiver is enchanted to keep the arrows inside of it from falling out. He gets one notched, and finally has time to assess what's broken his leg.
Lumbering around in the blue light of Sizhui's sword is a bear-like creature with snapping jaws and long claws, and for some reason, it's tongue turned long and snaky. It has no fur Jingyi's ever seen before, made of sharp glassy points, longer and thicker on its back, broken and hissing dark energy where Sizhui's talismans have hit. It's at least as tall as the Library Pavillion is high, and it's beady red eyes are focused on Sizhui, soaring around its head in the air.
"On your left," Jingyi sings, pitched quiet and only for Sizhui to hear. The fur on the bear's back shakes slightly, in a path from where Jingyi sits to where Sizhui hears him in the air and banks right, out of the way of Jingyi's intended flight path. The air is humming, making it difficult to pinpoint; it's entirely different from what resentful energy usually sounds like. It's almost as if it’s refracting, breaking apart and bouncing back together in strange ways, and it's so distracting Jingyi nearly misses. Nearly, but never when it counts. Never, in defence of Sizhui.
The giant bear does not enjoy having an arrow embedded in its eye, it rears back and roars, swatting angrily with its huge paw. Sizhui loops under its arm and hits it with another talisman, which sends shards of the fur skittering down in front of Jingyi. They look like polished jade, like the hairpin tucked into his robes. The bear roars again, jaws snapping and tongue flying, trying to catch Sizhui and knock him down. Jingyi parts his lips with gathered intent and sings the opening notes for Rest, loud enough that a barrier of blue light should encircle the beast, but as soon as the notes hit the air near it they scatter, breaking apart within the spiny fur on the bear's back, bouncing along the tines which move and sway and then point towards him. Jingyi has a moment to realize what's about to happen, he throws himself sideways on the ground as the brunt of his command reflects back on him, and pins him in place.
It's ice! He understands frantically, but he can't call to Sizhui, can't move under the force of his own spiritual energy, and can't cry out when Sizhui spots him prone on the ground and summons his guqin with a determined look of fury.
No no no, Jingyi panics, and Sizhui's hands set themselves upon the strings, poised for Chord Assassination, an attack of his so strong it rivals Hanguang-jun's. Don't! Don't, Sizhui, WAIT!
The last part is a scream, lost in the thunderous vibration of Sizhui's guqin.
What happens next is a blur. Jingyi sees Sizhui fall backwards, limply, from his sword. It clatters to the ground, but Sizhui lands in Jingyi's arms, weight supported and safe, balanced on Jingyi's one leg on his sword. He sees the bear clap it's heavy front paws over its ears, but he doesn't hear the growls or whimpers, because Jingyi is screaming. Wordless, horrible notes of anguish and terror and a rage so huge it consumes him. Sounds of suppression and extermination so laden with intent, pitched so purposefully to meet the strange refracted acoustics that they pierce deeply into the bear's fur and set each tine vibrating, shaking, cracking and shattering, exploding in blue light until Jingyi comes back to himself, seated on the ground with Sizhui cradled against him, and the bear is nothing more than a heap of stone, blocking the cave entrance through the water.
He's shaking, breathing hard, and the absence of sound is ringing in his ears. He's aching all over and he can feel his heartbeat in his leg, thudding against the sharp pain there. Sizhui is bleeding from his ears, nose and mouth; Jingyi dispenses with propriety and sets his hand directly over Sizhui's lower dantian, to access his golden core. It's pulsing, strong still, working too hard to try to heal Sizhui's injuries. It's going to need Jingyi's help to slow it down and regulate it so Sizhui can heal himself properly, and gods, he has so many injuries, breaks and fractures everywhere, so much pain it makes Jingyi's feel like a bucket in an ocean. He sings a quick series of notes, looking for another exit, and the sound dies in the cave walls with nowhere for it to escape to. They’re trapped here, in a cave full of resentment, and no one knows where they are.
"Okay," Jingyi says quietly. His voice is rough and a little sore. He buries his nose in Sizhui's wet hair and whispers into his ear. "I'm sorry Sizhui. Please bear it, until I can get you out."
It takes time, with only one good leg, with pain trying to rob his focus, but Jingyi has the rules, the order in which things ought to be done, and it's easy to fall back on them in a crisis. Be logical in your actions. Ensure your safety, before taking a course of vulnerability. Exercise patience. With rational planning, a beneficial outcome is assured.
Their most precious resource, here with scant rations and water, and no medical aid, is spiritual energy, and the heavy resentment in the air is a threat to their reserves. It's too much to dispel without tremendous waste; Jingyi needs his golden core to stabilize Sizhui and heal his leg. Do not associate with evil, Lan-laoshi chastises in his head, as Jingyi presses his hand to the wound in his leg, wetting his fingers with his own blood. Lan-laoshi will forgive him, if it saves Sizhui's life.
Connecting the points of the array nearly knocks him over; the weight of all that resentment settling over him, bound away and over in a canopy by his blood. The barrier is only a few chi across and one high, and Jingyi feels it tied to his soul like a stone tied around his ankles, sinking him. He thinks of Senior Wei in his first life, binding down all that resentment in the Burial mounds in a series of huge barriers with his lifeblood, and how Sizhui has told him, in the few memories he's recovered of Senior Wei, that he was tall and pale and often tired.
"You bore all this for them," he whispers incredulously, splinting his leg with arrow shafts and torn strips of his wet robes. "Senior, help this Junior to bear it for him too."
It takes time, but eventually Jingyi gets their robes dried, their resources placed where they can all be easily reached, and then settles with Sizhui propped carefully against him, back to Jingyi's chest so he can align their meridians as closely as possible. He lets himself go limp between Sizhui's body and the rock face at his back; the fastest way to do this will be to go into a meditative state, so Sizhui's core will recognize Jingyi's actions as help, instead of a foreign intrusion.
"Okay," he whispers, lips against the side of Sizhui's head, their fingers loosely tangled over Sizhui's golden core. Jingyi breathes steady and slow, the way Hanguang-jun had taught them in the meadow, like Sizhui's heart is a skittish rabbit he needs to tame. Right before he tips over, hovering in semi-consciousness, he opens his meridians as wide as he can.
The pain is overwhelming. It threatens to pull him under, fold him over into himself until he is nothing but agony, but then, in his mind's eye there is Jin Ling, with a woman standing behind him, whose face Jingyi cannot see. She's holding Jingyi's Clarity Bell out over Jin Ling's shoulder, and Jin Ling nods, determined, and tells him You can go deeper. The Bell will anchor you.
So, Jingyi goes forwards, walking down an endless path for what might be minutes or hours or days. Each place he walks has no shape or feature, he only knows that what he leaves behind is made better by his walking, and that he must continue. It'd be easy to forget why he needs to, but he has the constant throbbing ache of his leg, and the shallow feeble sound of Sizhui's breathing to remind him, and the weight of his blood on the ground. He walks tirelessly through the nothing, until he looks over and realizes Sizhui is walking with him.
"This is how my parents fell in love," Sizhui smiles. His hair is pulled back into the intricate braid that makes it look like he's wearing a crown. Jingyi has not yet worked out how to tell him that it's beautiful, that it suits him, and that if Sizhui wants to, he should wear it always. If he wants it, he should stop buying time by delaying his treatise. He can still have all of them, and be a Wen, and honour his ancestors and his parents, the strangers who gave him life.
"Not them," Sizhui explains gently. "Baba, and Senior Wei. Baba loved him before the cave, but Senior Wei really knew his own heart when he heard the song." Sizhui hums it, the melody that's been the bane of Jingyi's existence for months, but Jingyi finds that here, he doesn't mind it.
"I'm a part of their love, too," Sizhui says. "I don't mind the song either. But I like the one you're singing better."
Am I singing?
"Can't you hear it?" Sizhui laughs, the sound that tears open Jingyi's heart and makes him feel unstoppable. The music that is his own, personal favourite. Sizhui reaches over and takes Jingyi's hand with a radiant smile.
"I want you to sing it for me," Sizhui tells him, thumb rubbing over Jingyi's knuckles. "Out there, where we are. I want you to, so you have to wake up."
Am I asleep?
"Wake up," Sizhui says with Senior Wei's voice.
Jingyi isn't walking anymore, he's sitting, something warm and heavy in his arms. It's still dark, still impermanent around him, and Sizhui is gone. He's been replaced by two Hanguang-juns, kneeling in front of him. Something's ringing somewhere, clear and crisp. Jin Ling is standing a little ways apart, and the woman he was with has been replaced by Zizhen, who is clinging to Jin Ling, his face turned away into Jin Ling's shoulder. Jin Ling is holding Zizhen and crying, and they are both shaking.
"Sizhui," Jingyi says. His voice sounds as raw and painful as his body feels. "Save him."
"A-Bao," one of the Hanguang-juns says in Jingyi's mother's voice. His face contorts with sadness, and that's how Jingyi knows he is not the real Hanguang-jun. Even when he was in seclusion, when Sizhui first came to the Cloud Recesses, and Hanguang-jun was injured, he never showed his pain or heartbreak.
"Save him," he repeats, to the real Hanguang-jun.
"You must let go," Hanguang-jun tells him, even and deep and so reassuring. Jingyi sighs and lets his eyes fall closed.
"Save him," he whispers.
"You've already saved him." Senior Wei's voice is warm and bubbly; it feels like one too many dishes of wine, like wind chimes in Caiyi in the summer. "You need to let go now, Jingyi."
"Mmhmm, come along with me, my little Lan. Aiyo, such heavy tricks, you must be tired." Jingyi feels slender fingers stroke his temples, rough with the callouses of playing dizi. "You did very well, so rest now."
"Senior Wei," Jingyi whimpers. "Senior Wei, will you play me a song?"
"Yes, child, this Senior will play for you. Of course, sweet one."
Jingyi sighs again, as the familiar notes wash over him, soft and lovely. He lets himself give in, and slip into the safety of the dark.
He wakes to the sound of rain. Soft, dense, the thick wet noise it makes, on sloped grey rooves and mountain trees, the small patter on wooden railings and white gravel. It's a sound of quiet calm that belongs only to the Cloud Recesses, to home, and it comes to him muted through paper walls, concentrated, louder, near his feet, where a window has been propped open to let in the cool wet air. The petrichor is a fine complement to the sandalwood incense burning somewhere, both scents a perfect note for the rain-dim light that greets Jingyi's slowly opening eyes. The walls and roof are familiar, the weight of the blanket over top of him. He's lying in the bed he prepared, all those weeks ago on Qingming, in the shelter of his parent's house.
He turns his head, just a little. "Shifu," he whispers, soft like the rain, slow, like the grateful tear that leaks from his eye. "You're wearing white."
Lan Xichen is sitting at his bedside, his robes a cool gleam in the grey light. All eight layers, and the guan of the Sect Leader adorning his hair. He reaches for Jingyi's wrist.
"How are you feeling, Xiao-yi?"
Jingyi feels his lips curve. With the Sect Leader's spiritual energy cool against his wrist, flowing softly through his meridians, he feels like a small child again, safe and sheltered by his formidable cousin, who had always made time to see to his hurts. Zewu-jun will know in a moment exactly how Jingyi is, better than Jingyi does himself, so he simply answers "Thirsty."
"Ah, yes. Just a moment."
The comforting shadow of his presence disappears for too long, it makes something forgotten and terrible twist in Jingyi's stomach.
"Sizhui," he says, suddenly overcome with an ache far too acute. It rattles in his bones and makes him grit his teeth.
Zewu-jun leans over him, the fall of his hair and sleeve blocking out the light and noise. "Shh, A-Bao," he soothes. "He'll be here, I'm sure, in minutes."
He reaches out to brush the tears from Jingyi's cheeks, his smile soft, but his eyes concerned. Jingyi gasps out a breath and feels his body try to seize up, and Zewu-jun frowns a little. His lips move, but Jingyi cannot hear him, and then there is nothing again, but darkness.
It's raining still, when he wakes again, or perhaps raining once more. The air is vibrating with the tail end of a note, the way it does when a gugin has just gone silent. It is Hanguang-jun, in the chair beside his bed now. Their eyes meet and he reaches for Jingyi's wrist, and before Jingyi can gather himself Hanguang-jun is already speaking in his deep and calm voice.
"You have been asleep for several months. You awoke, for the first time, two weeks ago. Sizhui is in perfect health; he recovered four days after we found you, thanks to your supporting his healing. Because of your support, your core was severely drained. Wei Wuxian needed to call you back before you could begin healing."
Jingyi blinks at him, tired and confused but oddly comforted. He has never heard Hanguang-jun deliver a night hunt report before, but he supposes they are given with the same succinct assurance.
"You are still weak," Hanguang-jun continues, "still healing. You must be careful not to excite yourself. Do you wish to drink some herbal tea?"
"Yes," Jingyi croaks. "Thank you."
Hanguang-jun sets Jingyi's wrist back under the blanket, smoothing it under Jingyi's chin, the way he'd used to do when he would rescue a crying Jingyi from the nursery, carry him to the Jingshi, and tuck him into bed next to Sizhui.
"I will go to the door, to ask the Junior there to go to the kitchens," Hanguang-jun explains, his hand resting over Jingyi's chest. "It will take less than an incense stick of time, and then I will return."
They sit for a moment, as though Hanguang-jun is waiting for his words to sink in. His amber eyes soften at the corners. "I am going now. It is likely Sizhui will be here before the tea arrives."
Jingyi closes his eyes, feeling peaceful. Hanguang-jun is with him. Soon, Sizhui will be here, and also warm tea. The rain beats gently on the roof and walls, and Jingyi drifts off, calmly, to sleep.
It's late, or later, when Jingyi wakes again. The rain has stopped and there are a few candles lit against the dark, filling the room with warm, hazy light. A flute cuts off when Jingyi blinks his eyes open.
"Hi there," Wei Wuxian smiles, and reaches out to feel Jingyi's forehead. "Welcome back."
"Senior Wei." Jingyi's throat feels not so dry as he remembers; perhaps they managed to give him some of that tea.
"The one and only," Senior Wei agrees. "It's well past curfew, Lan Jingyi. If you're going to break the rules like this, then you get stuck with me on night-shift. Let's sit up, hm? You need to take your medicine."
Senior Wei gets one of his noodlely arms under Jingyi's shoulders and helps him sit up, propped against several pillows. He puts a dish of something dark and bitter smelling in Jingyi's hands, and then helps Jingyi lift it to his mouth, holding it there for Jingyi to take his medicine. It tastes awful, but medicine is supposed to, to work properly.
"There we are," Senior Wei smiles, setting the empty dish on the floor. "Good little Lan, so dutiful. Do you want to lie down again?"
"Senior Wei," Jingyi says quietly, as they shuffle him back down into bed. Something Hanguang-jun said is tugging at his memory, about how he had to be called. "Did I die?"
"Were you trying to?"
"Shame then, because you came so close! Next time you decide to anchor your soul and give up all your spiritual energy, perhaps consult this Senior. I've already made those mistakes so you don't have to."
Hot tears blur Jingyi's eyes. "I didn't mean-"
"Ah, ah," Senior Wei waves a hand at him. "Apologize to Sizhui, but not for that. He's going to be so grouchy with me when he finds out he missed seeing you for a third time."
"How is he," Jingyi whispers, as Senior Wei fusses blankets around him. He's far too rough, but it's oddly endearing.
"Just fine. Or, hmm." Senior Wei taps the side of his nose. "He will be, if you wake up when you're supposed to. So, just go back to sleep like a good Lan."
Jingyi's eyes feel heavy, but something about Senior Wei always inspires him to be difficult. "I've already been sleeping," he grumbles.
"Mm, do you think the medicine is kicking in?"
"No." Jingyi still feels tired and achy, and now a little petulant, too. Senior Wei picks up the empty dish from the floor and gives it an experimental sniff, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
"I told Wen Ning not to make it so bitter," he mutters. His eyes go wide and innocent as he pouts. "I tried for you, Lan Jingyi."
"Not hard enough," Jingyi yawns, his eyes falling closed. He can hear the smile in Senior Wei's voice as he drifts back to sleep.
"You'll be just fine."
When Jingyi blinks awake again, it's in the ruddy light of new dawn, when the world is grey and bright and about to become burnished copper and then shining gold. It's the first time he wakes feeling completely in his skin, and free of pain. He breathes deep, just to hear it in his lungs; inhales the scent of sandalwood and good tea, the water-rock-pine smell of the Cloud Recesses. His hand is warm, warmer than the rest of his body under the blanket, and when he turns his head to the side he discovers it's due to the two hands clasping it, attached to the arms and shoulders and body of Sizhui, who's fallen asleep sitting on the floor next to his bed, with his head against Jingyi's thigh.
His breath leaves his lips in a soft, surprised note, loud in the early hush of the room. Sizhui's brow furrows, his nose wrinkles, and then his dark eyes open, bleary still with sleep.
It's you, Jingyi thinks, and then he's shaking, coming apart in this new morning through the window of Sizhui's impossibly large eyes; breath sticking in his throat because he's perfect, he's perfect, alive –
"Oh," Sizhui says a little panicked, hands clasping harder. "Don't. Don't cry, Jingyi…"
"You fell," Jingyi sobs, "you fell and you – you almost–"
"Shh." The bed creaks a little, under their shared weight, when Sizhui clambers on next to him, arms going around Jingyi tight, holding him like he spent years doing in their dorm, when Jingyi woke screaming in the night. "Shh, shh, please don't cry. Don't cry, love. You healed me. Jingyi, you saved my life."
"Sizhui," Jingyi sobs, clutching at his robes. For a long time, it's the only word he can say. Sizhui holds him, hands in his hair, stroking his back, whispering soothing promises, until Jingyi is just lying in his arms, breathing in the cedar smell of the incense Sizhui likes, hollowed out and quiet. Outside the Nuanshi, the sun climbs the sky and illuminates every mote dancing in the air, and Sizhui just holds him, cheek against Jingyi's hair. After a while, Sizhui starts to hum.
Jingyi knows this song. It's been locked in his heart since, well, probably since he was six years old, and Lan Wangji arrived at the Healing Pavilion with red-soaked robes, carrying a little boy who had lost his mother just like Jingyi had. It's the song of Sizhui's smile, and his laughter, his kindness and goodness and bravery. It's a song about the love Jingyi is always going to carry, because he's a Lan, and his heart has made its one and only choice.
Sizhui's cheeks are flushed pink when he tilts his head down to look at Jingyi. His fingers stroke slowly through Jingyi's hair, and he puts his lips against Jingyi's temple, breath warm and trembling.
"Are there words?" He asks softly.
There can be no other answer; Jingyi breathes in, down to his middle dantian where music lives, and sings.
There's an energy in the air, Jingyi thinks, when the visiting junior disciples arrive at the Cloud Recesses for their year of study. It usually takes a few days for things to settle down and for their new young guests to align themselves with the rules, and those few days are some of his favourites. The paths are filled with laughter and too-loud voices, the too-quick steps of unpracticed feet. It's a sound of beginnings, and Jingyi sings it to himself, on his way from the Nuanshi. The sun is sinking in the trees, bars of red-gold light that match the warmth in his heart. When he turns a corner and meets a group of children on the path, all in white but marked with different sect colours on their shoulders, he startles them with his smile.
"Young Master Lan," they all bow in near unison.
"Hello," Jingyi greets with a nod. "Welcome to the Cloud Recesses. Are you settling in all right?"
"Yes," a boy with Jiang lotuses on his sleeves answers for the group, straightening a little. His eyes land on Jingyi's Clarity Bell and widen. "Young Master Lan… Jingyi?"
"Mn," Jingyi smiles. "Please, call me Senior Lan, there is no need to stand on ceremony."
Jingyi's fifth robe is a soft silken weight, belted over his embroidered uniform. At his graduation ceremony, it had been Zewu-jun who placed it over his shoulders, an extreme honour that Jingyi had definitely cried during. In a gesture fitting of their Sect Leader's legendary kindness, Zewu-jun had specified that Jingyi's sleeves be shorter than standard, because he wore them bound from forearm to wrist for archery.
"Senior Lan," says another boy, slightly breathless. His shoulders are marked with a red willow branch; a sponsored, unaffiliated scholar from Qishan. There are six of them this year, up from the one they'd had to start. "Is it true," he asks, "that you fought in the second siege at Yiling?"
"I was there," Jingyi admits. Lying is still forbidden, even when you're a Senior, and what Jingyi had done in the Burial Mounds had been less fighting and more following Hanguang-jun's lead.
A frisson of a gasp goes through the group of boys, too fast for him to track whose lips it starts on.
"Is it true you killed the Ice Daemon of Peril?" asks a boy from Qinghe. "With nothing but your voice?"
"Ah, yes," Jingyi says sheepishly, "technically–"
None of them are listening though, talking excitedly over one another far too loudly for this time of day or part of the Cloud Recesses. You kill one legendary beast, and no one will ever let you forget it. Jingyi holds his hands out and makes a quieting motion, because it will be just his luck that Lan-laoshi will appear, think he's corrupting a new cohort of students, and sentence him to handstands in the Library Pavilion.
"Senior Lan," says the smallest boy, eyes wide and bright in his little face, and the Ouyang Sect's green swallows on his uniform. He clutches his hands together and breathes in awe "Is it true you walked into death for love?"
"Uh…" Jingyi's face is not thick enough for this. Thanks so much for your dumb romantic mouth, Zizhen!
"Yes," answers a new, patient voice. "That is true."
The boys turn in a flurry of white, and over the tops of their varied combs, hair sticks and guans, there is Lan Sizhui, gentle smile on his lips.
"Head Disciple Lan!" they chorus, bowing much deeper for Sizhui than they had for Jingyi. As they should; in his six layers of robes, wearing the head piece for his rank and the combs that signify his place in the Sect's succession as the son of Lan Wangji, his big eyes dancing with intelligence and playful mischief – he's a vision that commands admiration. Jingyi brings his hands together and bows along with them.
"Head Disciple, thank you for your clarity on this matter," he murmurs.
"It is my pleasure to instruct," Sizhui replies with a small nod. "Juniors, it will soon be you shi. In the Cloud Recesses, it is important you are punctual for meals."
There is an enthusiastic chorus of "Yes, Head Disciple Lan" and "Thank you, Head Disciple Lan" and even one squeaking sigh of "This disciple was honoured to meet Senior Lan" from the Ouyang boy before they all take off a little too fast in the direction of the Dining Hall. Jingyi winces a little, but doesn't have the heart to tell them to slow down. He has other priorities, with Sizhui standing on the path and looking at him with his secret smile.
"They're bold this year," Jingyi complains with a flustered blush. He'd learned very early, in his tenure as a Senior disciple, that if you didn't inspire the kind of upright, terrified respect in uninitiated children that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei seemed to command, it was best to keep a low profile until your first class. After that first year, Jingyi stopped waiting at the gate to greet the new disciples. There had been too many overexcited nose bleeds.
"You are too modest," Sizhui grins. "Where is the smirking boy I once knew hiding? Is he buried under that fifth robe?"
Jingyi sticks his tongue out at him, specifically because he doesn't want to discuss the weird hero worship he has to overcome with each new crop of visiting disciples, but also because it makes Sizhui laugh, and he loves to hear it. Sizhui obliges him with one as they fall into step together on the path; two sets of white boots in perfect sync against the gravel, so as to sound like one.
"You will have to get used to more of it," Sizhui reminds him. "In a few months, you'll have six robes too."
Six robes, and with them, more official duties as the Fourth Young Master in the sect. Jingyi hums in agreement and lets their knuckles brush together. "The reward will outweigh the inconvenience."
Sizhui flushes a pleased peony-pink, so Jingyi presses on with "And the Nuanshi will finally live up to its name."
As soon as Jingyi had been able to stand, he'd managed to stumble his way up the back hill to Senior Wen's house, where, conveniently for him, Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei all happened to be gathered for tea. He'd bowed so deep his head brushed the floor, and forgot most of his planned speech, overcome with the breadth of his emotion as he paid obeisance to the men who'd raised Lan Sizhui, and asked them for permission to court him.
"Are you allowed to be out of bed right now," Senior Wei had asked flatly, into the most panicked silence of Jingyi's life.
Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun were having a silent conversation with each other when Jingyi raised his head to answer, but Senior Wen, his eyes soft and his lips contorted into what would have been smiling tears, nodded and said "Yes, of course, Lan Jingyi."
"Ehhh, so hasty, Wen Ning!" Senior Wei shouted.
"Wei Ying," Hanguang-jun said quietly. "He is a Lan."
"Oh well fuck," Senior Wei wailed. "Fine! But no one is good enough for my A-Yuan! Even if they do die for him! And we have to have the wedding of the century."
Senior Wei's other condition had been that since Jingyi was clearly healthy enough to climb the back hill, Sizhui had to move out of the spare room in the Nuanshi and stop doting on him, which was pretty hypocritical, considering the type of premarital activities Senior Wei had famously gotten up to in the Jingshi.
"I'm going to sing forlorn lovesick songs under their window all night long," Jingyi had pouted, as Sizhui moved his belongings into the Hanshi. "Senior Wei will wish he was never reborn."
"Do not get into a noise war with my parents," Sizhui correctly cautioned. "You, and all of us, will lose."
It was both strange and unsurprising that Senior Wei would be the biggest roadblock to their intimacy; strange because he was shameless, and unsurprising given that many of the schemes invented by Sizhui – who was a dutiful son with a devious streak a li wide – Senior Wei had been perfecting before they were born. It became impossible to visit the Library, go to the Rabbit Meadow, or use the Cold Spring without Senior Wei appearing. They were forbidden from participating in guard duties or running errands alone together. It was Hanguang-jun's edict, after Sect Leader Jiang tore a strip off of Jin Ling for nearly getting them all killed, that all cultivators with less than five years of senior-level experience should travel in groups no fewer than ten, and Senior Wei took full advantage by volunteering himself for any and all missions that took Jingyi from the Cloud Recesses.
Still, he might be the Yiling-laozu, but Senior Wei could not be everywhere at once, and they fortunately had parties sympathetic to their cause. Senior Wei couldn't fault Zewu-jun for inviting Jingyi to share a meal in the Hanshi, who compassionately looked the other way when Sizhui would say his goodbyes on the porch. Uncle Ning had a good habit of calling them both up the hill for tea, and then shooing them along the path to the ridge with a basket of snacks, saying it was far too nice to be cooped up indoors. When Jin Ling came for Sect Leader business, he always orchestrated Sizhui and Jingyi both in his guest room at the same time to visit, and did not remark on the way they held hands under the table.
Their best and most effective ally however, was Hanguang-jun, who had a reputation for being cold and unyielding, but was known by all children of the Cloud Recesses to be an enormously indulgent push-over. Sizhui was his greatest weakness; it took only one well-timed melancholy sigh to spur Second Master Lan into action. He would drag Senior Wei off somewhere on a night hunt for a few days, enough time for Jingyi to take Sizhui to Caiyi for an afternoon and spoil him as he deserved. If Sizhui had business to attend to outside of Gusu, as the Head Disciple often did, the Chief Cultivator suddenly required a specific item from a specifically close location, which only Jingyi could be trusted to retrieve. Usually, it was some kind of dried pepper.
Once, it was a signature on a document from Sect Leader Nie, who kept Jingyi waiting so long for it that it grew too dangerous to fly back through the gathering storm. In the violent whipping of snow against the city walls, there had been a small and candle-lit inn room in Qinghe, with a warm bath and a soft bed, and Sizhui in only his pale egg-blue under robe.
"Have you done this before," Jingyi had whispered, proud his voice only trembled a little.
"No," Sizhui murmured into the skin of his throat, "but I trust you."
There had been tenderness, a little awkwardness, and love, and in the morning Sizhui had braided Jingyi's hair, and Jingyi had tucked a dried sprig of osmanthus between the second and third layers of Sizhui's robes, humming a song against Sizhui's lips until they were laughing into each other's mouths. Jingyi holds that memory like a treasure, and for it he always bows deepest, at Discussion Conferences, to Sect Leader Nie.
They have resigned themselves to a long engagement, to appease both the Sect Elders and Senior Wei – nearly sending all of them into qi deviation over the fact that they could agree on something. But it was reasonable; at the time of his asking for Sizhui's hand, they'd both been young, not yet graduated. Zewu-jun had only just come out of seclusion, and the topic of succession had been at the forefront of the Elder's concerns. Lan Sizhui was both heir to the Gusu Lan and the position of Chief Cultivator, and while by blood Jingyi happened to be next in line behind him to inherit the Sect, Sizhui certainly couldn't marry the unLanest Lan without everyone being given the time to warm up to the idea.
Well versed in the patience of waiting for good things, and used to being disregarded; Jingyi let Sizhui be righteously furious on his behalf, and worked hard to hone his cultivation and be worthy of the man he'd given his heart to. And now, walking along the gravel path, it feels like perhaps he is, or could be. Both the righteous, and slightly unorthodox cultivator of the Gusu Lan, and the Jingyi that knows of Sizhui's fondness for carrots and butterflies, who has asked Uncle Ning in secret what the Wen Clan marriage traditions are, and made arrangements for a second set of bows in Yiling.
"It will be nice," Sizhui agrees beside him, eyes sparkling with mischief, "not to have to sneak around anymore."
Jingyi snorts. "You mean, you're going to stop dragging me into every dusty and forgotten closet you can find?"
"Nope," Sizhui smiles. "We just won't have to use such out of the way closets."
"A-Yuan," he groans. It had taken forever to get all the cobwebs out of his hair last time. He'd missed one, and Senior Wei had thumbed it from Jingyi's ear with a slightly manic smile that has haunted Jingyi's frequent, persistent nightmares ever since. "We cannot talk about this on our way to dinner with your parents. They will see my face and know, and Senior Wei will kill me on the spot."
"It was Baba who gave me the list," Sizhui sniffs. "How else would I have known where half those closets were?"
They stare at each other, Jingyi with a mixture of horror and betrayal, and Sizhui with wide-eyed innocence, until they can't hold it in anymore and laughter has their lips curling, eyes shining. It's Sizhui at his most beautiful, when happiness bursts from every treasured line of him, paints his handsome face in gold. It tugs at Jingyi the way all strong emotions do, the urge to sing his heart song right there on the path to the Dining Hall.
"Ah," Sizhui smiles, and reaches out to take Jingyi's hand. "Please, don't hold back. I want to hear it."
Jingyi smiles down at him, this man who has been beside Jingyi for so long, he barely remembers what it was like without him. The boy who befriended him, saw beyond his shortcomings, encouraged him, understood him, and now, loved him. In Sizhui's large, dark eyes, Jingyi is always seen. There's a song that's been in Jingyi's heart since he was six, but there's another song too, born in the Cloud Recesses, shared in Qishan, played bravely, through circumstance and separation and even death. A song of Gusu, of the Burial Mounds, of home. It is not their song, but to sing it, here on the path for his most cherished person, is perhaps the most fitting conclusion of its story.
He sings the words softly, a promise and a pledge, his hand holding Sizhui's in the dying evening sun. They are alone on the path, and so he cups Sizhui's cheek when he finishes, and brushes away the tear there.
"You always cry," Jingyi whispers. "Even though you know the ending was a happy one."
"That's why," Sizhui smiles, and turns his face to kiss Jingyi's palm. "Whenever I hear it, someone is telling me they love me."