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His Merit All My Fear

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Lan Jingyi has been making his own fun for his entire life. He doesn’t need much -- the Grandmaster once took away every possession he owned and Lan Jingyi still ended up causing a commotion with only his forehead ribbon and an under robe -- but it does require one thing: an audience. And not just any audience.

Fun cannot be had without Lan Sizhui.

Lan Jingyi comes to this crushing realization exactly three days after they all shuffle back to Cloud Recesses following a frankly exhausting series of events. Admittedly, it makes a great story, the kidnapping and the murder and the betrayal, but right now things are a little too fresh, too raw. If it all happened to another sect, that would be one thing, but it’s Lan Jingyi’s sect leader who slips into seclusion. It’s Lan Jingyi’s favorite teacher who gets appointed Chief Cultivator. It’s Lan Jingyi’s best friend who disappears with the Ghost General.

It’s Lan Jingyi left in the aftermath, alone.

On the fifth day, he volunteers to deliver laundry to the Jingshi in hopes of running into Hanguang-Jun -- if Lan Sizhui told anyone when he would be back, it would be him. But when he knocks the toe of his boot against the Jingshi door to announce himself, it’s Wei-qianbei who slides the door open.

“Oh. Lan Jingyi,” he says, voice unusually flat. He blinks, like Lan Jingyi’s the surprise here. Like he’s not standing in the Jingshi in his under robes with one of Hanguang-Jun’s snowy outer robes hanging off his shoulders.

Lan Jingyi makes a noise that, if Lan Sizhui were here, would earn him a sharp elbow in the ribs. As it is, he just stands there, sounding, he knows, a bit like a dying goose. Wei-qianbei only stares, eyebrows slowly creeping up, with apparently no plans to put him out of his misery any time soon.

“Laundry,” Lan Jingyi manages to croak eventually, lifting the basket in his arms for emphasis. Wei-qianbei hums an acknowledgement and steps aside to let him in. Lan Jingyi spares exactly one second to consider telling Wei-qianbei that no one is allowed in the Jingshi before his raging curiosity gets the better of him. He’s not going to pass up his one chance to snoop around Hanguang-Jun’s home.

Inside, everything is made of the same dark wood and fine trimmings as the rest of Cloud Recesses, but that’s Hanguang-Jun’s guqin sitting on the table and that’s Bichen’s sword stand and -- oh gods -- that’s a scroll of shaky characters on display from when Lan Sizhui was learning to write his courtesy name. Suddenly, it’s all too much. Lan Jingyi’s going to die, right here on the spot, and Hanguang-Jun is going to find his body and know that he was trespassing.

He’s wrenched back into the world by Wei-qianbei tugging the laundry basket out of his arms and setting it on the table to dig through.

“Don’t have any of my robes in here by any chance?” he asks, pawing through the carefully folded white robes. “I’ve been stealing Lan Zhan’s ever since I spilled chili oil all over mine.”

Lan Jingyi is fully aware that his mouth is hanging open. He waits for Lan Sizhui to reach over and close it for him with a gentle hand under his chin, but right now he’s alone with Wei-qianbei, so he snaps it shut on his own, so fast his teeth click.

Wei-qianbei barely spares him a glance, still digging through the laundry. “Eh?”

“Why would they send your laundry to Hanguang-Jun’s rooms?” Lan Jingyi asks, trying and failing to wrangle the incredulity in his voice. For a moment, his brain stutters to a halt and he panics. Wei-qianbei does have a room in the guest quarters, right? He’s not been sleeping in the Jingshi? Before hysteria can fully sink its teeth in, a calm, patient voice in the back of his head says, of course he does. And -- right, of course he does. Lan Jingyi had been the one to bring fresh bedding for his guest room.

Wei-qianbei, blissfully unaware of the maelstrom of emotions he’s causing, only shrugs. “Right, right. I’ll check my room next.” He gives up on the basket and blows out a breath, hand absently wandering to rub the healing cut on his throat. It looks way better than it had at Guanyin Temple, nearly faded now. “I suppose it’s my own fault for talking during a meal.” Before Lan Jingyi can ask exactly what sort of conversation caused Wei-qianbei to douse himself thoroughly in chili oil, he’s moved on. He’s always like that, flitting through ideas too fast, never pausing long enough. “Well, as long as they’re clean by tomorrow.”

“What’s tomorrow?” Lan Jingyi asks, trying to keep up.

Wei-qianbei blinks at him. Gods, it’s weird. That’s usually a Hanguang-Jun thing. Wei-qianbei pointedly looks around the Jingshi: Lan Jingyi supposes it is messier than he thought it would be. There’s stacks of papers everywhere, some darker colored clothes tossed over the furniture, and it looks like someone’s only half-packed for a night hunt, talismans and deity-binding rope and flares still sitting by an expectant qiankun pouch.

Lan Jingyi makes a so what? expression.

“I need my robes to pack them,” Wei-qianbei says, a little too slowly, like maybe he thinks Lan Jingyi has lasting brain damage from the corpse poisoning. He pinches at the fabric of Hanguang-Jun’s robe. “Do I look like the kind of person who can travel in white?”

Once, Lan Jingyi bit into a piece of meat and found an unexpected bone. It crunched horribly between his molars before he spit it out. The same grinding, crunching noise fills his brain now.

“What?”

“I’m leaving soon,” Wei-qianbei says, like it’s simple. Like that’s a reasonable thing to do.

What?” Lan Jingyi screeches. Volume, Lan Sizhui’s voice murmurs in the back of his head. Wei-qianbei opens his mouth to say something, but Lan Jingyi plows on, “You’re leaving, too?” Is that just… a thing people are doing now? Bailing out of Cloud Recesses like the place is on fire? Should he be leaving? Is -- “Wait, are you eloping with Hanguang-Jun?” he asks, voice far too loud for this kind of discussion. He doesn’t care. “Are you sneaking away with the brand new Chief Cultivator?”

Lan Jingyi has heard a lot about the Yiling Patriarch -- he considers himself a bit of an expert, really -- but this. This is an entirely new level. Lan Jingyi is almost impressed --

“No,” Wei-qianbei says firmly, shutting him down. “I’m not.” There’s something in his expression that makes Lan Jingyi regret voicing that particular thought. The Grandmaster is always telling him to imagine the words before they just fall out of his mouth, but his brain moves too fast for that. On the heels of regret comes anger, hot and fast.

“What do you mean, no?” he snaps. “You’re… what? Just going to leave Hanguang-Jun here?”

“He has work to do,” Wei-qianbei says. There’s no room for argument in his voice, but it’s oddly brittle. “So do I.”

What?

“Okay, question time time is over now,” Wei-qianbei says with surprising authority. “Out, shoo. On with your duties.” He herds Lan Jingyi to the door of the Jingshi, pauses, and then darts back inside. Lan Jingyi watches him dump the well-folded laundry into a pile on the table and return, pushing the basket into Lan Jingyi’s hands. “There you are. Have a good morning.”

“But -- ”

Out,” Wei-qianbei says with a surprisingly firm push, and then the Jingshi door slides shut behind him.

Cloud Recesses, practical and prudent on principle, sleeps four novices to a room. Lan Jingyi doesn’t remember much about the three disciples he shared a room with between the ages of six and eleven: two were guest disciples, twins from a warmer region who were always cold in Gusu. Lan Jingyi often envied the kind of mischief you could make with someone who looked just like you, and was bitter that the pair never took full advantage of it. The fourth member of their quartet was Lan Shen, unassuming and uninterested in cultivation -- he left the sect a few years later to pursue a quiet life as a tradesmith.

None of them really stuck with Lan Jingyi, because when he turned eleven and moved into the wing of the dormitories reserved for junior disciples, it became very difficult to remember that he hadn’t always lived with Lan Sizhui. Junior disciples slept two to a room, so it was just the pair of them, basking in all the new space, all the new freedom. Against the rules requiring -- recommending, Lan Sizhui had corrected with an innocent smile -- sparsity of unnecessary worldly possessions, they filled the extra space. Lan Sizhui had a beautiful guqin, a recent birthday gift, that they crafted a stand for in one corner. Lan Jingyi found them each a small writing desk. Lan Sizhui surprised him with a dual sword stand where they could place their weapons.

It didn’t occur to Lan Jingyi that their room was different from the others until he passed an open door in their wing and saw nothing but beds and meditation mats. Somehow, in a handful of months, he and Lan Sizhui had filled their room to the point of clutter -- incense burners and wall-mounted bows and painted scrolls and figurines. While everyone else was fumbling to break the tension of sharing a space with a stranger, he and Lan Sizhui had already made a home.

Said home has remained largely unchanged in the intervening years. Lan Jingyi stares up at the ceiling and can still make out where he carved a message into the ceiling above his bed. Lan Jingyi was here, it reads, visible in the dark only because of the moonlight filtering in through the window. It was meant to be a joke for the next disciple who inherited their rooms -- he’d tried to convince Lan Sizhui to do the same, and, after a lot of blushing and glances at the door, he’d more or less succeeded. Welcome, Lan Sizhui had written, absolutely refusing to incriminate himself by leaving his name.

“It’s creepier without it,” Lan Jingyi had told him seriously, surveying the finished result with a contemplative air. “Welcome. People will think this room is haunted.”

Lan Sizhui had visibly wilted.

“No, wait, it’s -- that’s perfect,” Lan Jingyi hurried to say. He grinned at Lan Sizhui. “Ten years from now, we’re going to sit in the courtyard and watch them exorcise this room. It’s going to be hilarious. I’m going to bring snacks.”

At that, Lan Sizhui had brightened.

Now Lan Jingyi glances to see if he can spot Lan Sizhui’s message, but the shadows fall just wrong. Instead, he’s left staring at the empty bed, still perfectly made from the morning they left. Lan Sizhui always makes his bed like someone is coming around to check. But it’s been weeks since they last left Cloud Recesses and two more weeks since Lan Jingyi returned without him, and dust is starting to gather on the blankets, the pillow -- the room feels too big, even with all of their things in it.

Lan Jingyi turns away from Lan Sizhui’s side of the room and stares at the wall instead. It doesn’t help. He tosses and turns, seeking a position, any position, that doesn’t feel like there’s something digging into his chest. It’s stupid. At this rate, they’ll both become senior disciples in a year or two, and seniors have their own rooms anyway. This is just… practice. For that.

Finally, Lan Jingyi gives up and shrugs on the bare minimum number of layers to be considered decent for when he inevitably gets caught and disciplined. Socked feet are shoved into boots, his forehead ribbon is tied and probably crooked, and then he’s ready to go.

Curfew really is a pity, since Cloud Recesses is so beautiful in the moonlight. All the dark wood and silver look bleached until it feels otherworldly. Lan Jingyi wanders aimlessly, keeping well away from any of the sleeping places, and ends up near the back mountain. It’s too late for any of Hanguang-Jun’s rabbits to be awake -- one of the sundown chores for young disciples is to herd them back into their hutch -- but the rabbit field is as good a spot as any for quality sulking, so Lan Jingyi makes his way there.

Someone has beat him to it.

Lan Jingyi stares at Hanguang-Jun. Hanguang-Jun stares passively back.

He’s sitting beneath one of the large trees, his guqin laid out before him. Two rabbits, favorites among the warren, Lan Jingyi assumes, are huddled up next to him. Hanguang-Jun looks older in the moonlight, more tired. Lan Jingyi has barely seen him since he began work as Chief Cultivator.

It’s too late to turn around and bolt, and besides, Lan Jingyi feels too exhausted, too resigned to try. Instead he approaches and bows.

“Hanguang-Jun.” He pauses. Ah, shit. “Sorry, ah… Excellency.”

“Hanguang-Jun is fine, Jingyi,” he tells him, voice low and quiet. He gathers one of the rabbits trying to burrow into his robes and sets it in his lap, petting it with a careful hand. After a moment, he says, “It is after curfew.”

Lan Jingyi nods, not even trying to fight it. He knew he’d get caught when he left -- if anything, he’s lucky it’s Hanguang-Jun. Of all his punishments over the years -- and it’s a truly staggering variety -- his favorites are always when Hanguang-Jun oversees them. Usually it’s copying rules, but only specific ones, after which Hanguang-Jun asks him what he thought about while he was copying. They discuss the rules broken, why those rules are important, and what’s lost by breaking them. When Lan Jingyi breaks the same rules twice, Hanguang-Jun always says, without a lick of judgement, “You have chosen to break these rules. I will assume you have your reasons. Do you accept the consequences?” As long as Lan Jingyi says yes, Hanguang-Jun is satisfied, and sends him off to kneel or scrub pots or do whatever undesirable chore needs doing.

Basically, they have a good arrangement. So it surprises him when Hanguang-Jun says, “Would you like to join me?”

“Uh…” Lan Jingyi’s brain stalls. “Is this a trick question?”

There’s some like amusement, or at least amusement-adjacent, in Hanguang-Jun’s eyes when he asks lightly, “Is it?”

Oh, so Hanguang-Jun’s in a weird mood tonight. Lan Jingyi can work with that. He’s feeling a little off-kilter himself. Hanguang-Jun says nothing as Lan Jingyi sits down in the damp grass a respectable distance away, and then takes the rabbit in his lap and places it in Lan Jingyi’s. The sudden presence of something warm and alive and squirming is a lot, but after some arranging, the ball of fluff seems happy enough. Hanguang-Jun picks up the other rabbit to fill his vacated lap.

Lan Jingyi’s never been good with quiet: he’s fully expecting to break the silence as soon as any near-coherent thought floats across his brain. So it catches him off guard like a blunt hit to the stomach when Hanguang-Jun speaks first.

“There is something on your mind.”

“No, not really,” Lan Jingyi says too quickly. Hanguang-Jun’s eyes slide to meet his, brows rising a small fraction. It’s enough to communicate a staggering amount of disbelief. Lan Jingyi ducks his gaze to stare resolutely at the rabbit in his lap. It’s nibbling on his sleeve. He takes a long breath and then says, “Unless… you’ve heard anything from Sizhui?”

Lan Jingyi isn’t so self-absorbed to think that just because he hasn’t received any letters, Lan Sizhui hasn’t written at all. Hanguang-Jun is his… well. He’s never heard Lan Sizhui call Hanguang-Jun anything but his title, but it’s an open secret that Lan Sizhui never bunked with three other novices in a cramped disciple dormitory. Hanguang-Jun trained him personally until Lan Sizhui achieved junior disciple status and moved from the Jingshi to the dormitories.

“I have not received any letters from him,” Hanguang-Jun replies softly, “but he is in safe hands.”

Well, Lan Jingyi can’t exactly fault that logic. Lan Sizhui seems to be in the Ghost General’s good graces for one reason or another -- Lan Sizhui is objectively great, so Lan Jingyi doesn’t question it too hard -- and he’s seen the Ghost General in action. Someone would have to be seriously stupid to try and touch a hair on Lan Sizhui’s head.

The problem, though, is that Lan Jingyi knows exactly how stupid the average cultivator is. And they only get worse the more power they get. In a letter sent to Jinlintai last week, written in a fit of loneliness, Lan Jingyi advised Jin Ling -- sorry, Sect Leader Jin -- to keep a close eye on his precious few wits and write immediately if he felt them starting to fade. I’m beginning to worry that being sect leader is an ailment to the mind, he’d written. Only after he’d sent it off did Lan Jingyi realize it might be a poor joke to make to a sitting sect leader, especially one whose notoriously angry uncle is also a sitting sect leader. He’s not expecting a reply.

“Did he say when he’d be back?” Lan Jingyi asks, his eyes fixed so solidly downwards that he might be addressing the rabbit in his lap.

“He did not,” Hanguang-Jun replies. Then, after a short pause, “I have asked Wei Ying to write if their paths cross.”

Lan Jingyi catches something in his tone and perks up like Jin Ling’s stupid wonder dog. “Has Wei-qianbei written?”

It’s Hanguang-Jun’s turn, now, to pay extra attention to the rabbit in his care. “He has not been gone long.”

So no, then. Lan Jingyi thinks of Wei-qianbei’s weird mood in the Jingshi and compares it to Hanguang-Jun’s silence now. Why did Wei-qianbei have to go? Why did Lan Sizhui?

“I miss them,” Lan Jingyi admits, letting his eyes fall away from Hanguang-Jun. If Lan Sizhui was here, he would smile and bump shoulders and say that there must be some kind of record being set, that this is the quietest Lan Jingyi has ever said a sentence. But he’s not here, and that’s the problem.

Lan Jingyi settles into a new normal. He rises and makes himself more presentable than usual, since Lan Sizhui isn’t around to be neat enough for the both of them. He trains and carries out his duties around Cloud Recesses, moving through the usual rotations of laundry, armory maintenance, cooking. He only gets assigned discipline when he mindlessly reaches for a fourth bowl of rice at dinner, like that might fill the weird empty space in his stomach, and even then the Grandmaster’s usual frustration feels a lot more like concern. He goes back to his too-big room, where he sets his sword in the half-empty double stand by the door. He tries to sleep, and manages it sometimes, as long as he doesn’t catch sight of the empty bed before his eyelids get heavy.

On the nights he can’t, Lan Jingyi picks his way to the rabbit field. Sometimes, Hanguang-Jun is there, and sometimes not. When it’s just himself, he sulks for a bit, tries to meditate, and then leaves. But on nights when Hanguang-Jun is already waiting --

It’s weird. Hanguang-Jun has been Lan Jingyi’s teacher for years -- he’s pretty sure his class on the basics of guqin was one of the first lectures Hanguang-Jun taught after coming out of seclusion. They’ve night hunted together more times than Lan Jingyi can count. Hell, they’ve had dinner together. Being friends with Lan Sizhui meant getting to know Hanguang-Jun, too. They’re hardly strangers, even distantly related by blood, but during their evenings in the rabbit field, Lan Jingyi feels like he really starts to know Hanguang-Jun. As it works out, Lan Sizhui’s absence makes Lan Jingyi quieter, and this new flavor of melancholy makes Hanguang-Jun almost chatty by his usual standards, so they balance each other well.

After the first night, Hanguang-Jun comes prepared. His guqin is more or less a constant. Often, he brings a small tea set, too, the temperature of which is directly correlated to how long Lan Jingyi tosses and turns before giving up on sleep and wandering to their meeting place. On one occasion, catching Lan Jingyi completely off guard, he even brought a selection of small cakes leftover from a sect leader’s visit.

Lan Jingyi tries to contribute, too, in his own way. After a bit of wheedling, he finds out that the day-to-day paperwork of being Chief Cultivator is downright appalling, so he wears Hanguang-Jun down with offers to help. In the end, a combination of his excellent handwriting (so many years of copying rules under the Grandmaster’s watchful eye) and his attention to detail (for every rule he’s broken, Lan Jingyi has found a corresponding loophole) finally convinces Hanguang-Jun. Lan Jingyi’s writing board and inkstone join the guqin and the tea set and together they work in companionable silence, answering correspondence as sleepy rabbits sniff at the letters in a hilariously suspicious fashion.

It’s one such night, six weeks out from the events at Guanyin Temple, that Lan Jingyi sets down the letter before him with a sigh. Hanguang-Jun looks up from his own stack. Despite being the middle of the night, he still looks impossibly put together, from the silver in his hair to the spotless white of his robes. Only in his face does his exhaustion peek through.

“This is ridiculous,” Lan Jingyi says bluntly, setting the letter aside and pulling a blank sheet towards him. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response. I’m just going to write a letter to Zizhen-xiong and tell him to slap his dad upside the head.”

It won’t be the first letter he’s sent to Ouyang Zizhen. A few weeks ago he responded to a particularly lengthy letter he received from Baling, in which Ouyang Zizhen more or less asked if he was well and had he seen Wei-qianbei and how was Zewu-Jun and had Lan Jingyi forgotten him and could they maybe go night hunting soon? Please? It had been nice, the earnestness. They have a night hunt tentatively scheduled for the start of autumn, which Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling are welcome to attend if they’re around. Who knows where Lan Sizhui will be then, but Jin Ling will probably bow out. From his letters -- to Lan Jingyi’s immense relief, Jin Ling responded quite well to the sect leader joke, asking how Lan Jingyi was doing with being able to borrow wits from Lan Sizhui all the time -- it sounds like Lanling Jin is a bit… on fire right now. The metaphorical, political kind. Jiujiu’s here every other week, Jin Ling wrote. We’ve banished more people than I even knew we employed.

So anyway, Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen already have rapport. (He’s pretty sure that’s just adult-speak for friendship, but it makes it sound more official.) Just for the catharsis of the thing, he pens out the first line -- Dear Zizhen-xiong, please tell your dad to fuck right off -- before pausing to look at Hanguang-Jun.

“Aren’t you going to stop me?” he asks, brush hovering over the paper.

Hanguang-Jun makes such a show of considering it that Lan Jingyi can’t help but laugh. It’s a good, deep laugh, one that he hasn’t had in a while, and he ends up brushing away a tear or two. That’s the truly beautiful thing: Lan Jingyi has finally found the one thing that Hanguang-Jun despises enough to openly be petty about. The righteous war hero and upstanding Second Jade of Gusu despises inter-sect politics. This isn’t strictly new information -- he and Lan Sizhui have been talking to Sect Leader Jiang on Hanguang-Jun’s behalf for years -- but the true extent of it is inspiring. After all, Hanguang-Jun can’t exactly stand up and walk away from annoying questions anymore, especially when said annoying questions arrive in writing. He’s still too good to outright gossip, but these days Lan Jingyi can get away with saying a lot about different sect leaders, as long as it’s only the two of them.

“Perhaps you should not,” Hanguang-Jun decides at last, once Lan Jingyi has composed himself. “What did Sect Leader Ouyang write?”

“He wants to dip into the emergency fund -- you know, the one Lanling Jin seeded, specifically for cultivation-related incidents -- because a river flooded, which -- ” Lan Jingyi takes a deep breath. “ -- who in their right mind would consider flooding a cultivation-related incident -- ugh, anyway. All that aside, he’s trying to claim damages when I know for a fact the part of the river that flooded is Yunmeng Jiang property -- ” Here, he rifles through a set of documents and pulls out the letter he’s looking for. “ -- because Sect Leader Jiang sent this last week asking us to hold off on that joint night hunt until the rainy season finishes.” Lan Jingyi takes a long, steadying breath. “Basically, he’s being stupid on top of being a liar, and frankly I’m offended that he thinks so little of Gusu Lan that we wouldn’t notice.”

Thankfully, Hanguang-Jun is used to his rapid-fire speech patterns from years of hearing it in class, so he follows along well, nodding at all the right parts. He considers the issue for a moment before weighing in.

“We should stop for tonight,” he says, glancing eastward. It will be some still before the sun rises, but even with their new flagrant disregard for curfew, they do need some sleep.

“I can keep going,” Lan Jingyi assures him. He likes to work until the characters start blurring together -- only then does his brain quiet enough that he can drift off to sleep.

“I know,” Hanguang-Jun replies, not unkindly. “But if we continue, I may allow you to write to Ouyang Zizhen, which we will regret when Baling Ouyang visits next month.”

Lan Jingyi has to wrestle down a smile. “Will we, though?”

“Mn,” Hanguang-Jun says, already gathering his papers. He pauses. “Most likely,” he amends.

Lan Jingyi snorts, but leaves it at that. They organize everything in silence, blowing out the candles and returning the rabbits to their hutch. Only when Hanguang-Jun finishes securing his guqin to his back does he stop and look at Lan Jingyi.

“I think,” Hanguang-Jun says, watching his expression closely, “Sizhui may be returning soon.”

The empty spot in Lan Jingyi’s stomach he tries not to poke suddenly fills with warmth. He can feel his mouth splitting into a wide smile he has no hope of controlling.

“Did Wei-qianbei write to you?” he asks, suddenly full of excited energy and feeling more awake than he’s been all night. He knows immediately that it’s the wrong thing to say when Hanguang-Jun’s face smooths out, retreating to expressionlessness. Six weeks, and Wei-qianbei hasn’t written once. It’s a sore spot. Lan Jingyi had hoped that his good news might be Hanguang-Jun’s, too, but --

“No,” he replies, “but I have received several reports of Wen Qionglin moving east.”

At that, Lan Jingyi frowns. “Reports? Are we… supposed to be tracking the Ghost General?”

Hanguang-Jun shakes his head. “I replied to each report personally, making it clear that Wen Qionglin is free to move as he wishes.”

“I’m sure they loved that,” Lan Jingyi says with a rueful grin.

“Mn,” Hanguang-Jun hums. “Regardless, I believe we will see him soon.”

“Maybe Wei-qianbei will show up next,” Lan Jingyi offers. If he can have something to hope for, Hanguang-Jun should, too. He’s a little dismayed to see Hanguang-Jun shake his head again.

“Wei Ying will return if he wishes,” he says softly, sounding very tired, “and when he is ready.” He lets the words settle like falling snow before he says, like he does every time, “Goodnight, Jingyi. Thank you for your help.”

And then he’s gone, picking his way back down to the Jingshi, leaving Lan Jingyi in the dark rabbit field, straightening from a hasty bow.

Two weeks later, Lan Jingyi wakes up certain something is wrong. He bolts upright in bed, hand already outstretched to grab the hilt of his sword as it flies from its stand into his grip. It’s unsheathed before his brain has a chance to process that something isn’t wrong -- it’s just different.

There’s someone in Lan Sizhui’s bed. Someone sitting up slowly after the racket Lan Jingyi’s sword has made, someone blinking in that slow, sleepy way that once used to melt every adult heart in a half li radius. His hair is loose and long, wavy as if recently braided, and his skin is darker from the sun and he’s wearing a red under robe instead of his Lan-issued sleeping whites but it’s definitely --

Sizhui!” Lan Jingyi shouts at the top of his lungs. Is it five yet? Does he care?

Lan Jingyi positively launches himself across the room, throwing his sword down in the process, utterly unconcerned by the clang it makes as it falls on the floor. He tackles Lan Sizhui with a hug that sends them both sprawling onto his bed. Lan Jingyi’s heart squeezes when he hears Lan Sizhui’s quiet laughter by his ear, and a pair of arms wrap around him to return the hug.

“Wait!” Lan Jingyi shouts, pulling back so he can see Lan Sizhui’s face. He’s lost some of his baby fat and -- oh, are those freckles? “When did you get back? Why didn’t you wake me up?

Lan Sizhui is obviously still a little asleep, but his smile is soft and he looks happy to see him. “I got back a couple hours ago. I didn’t want to wake you. You looked comfortable.”

“Well that was stupid!” Lan Jingyi tells him loudly. “Next time, throw water on me or something!”

That earns him another soft smile, this time with an eye roll. “What if I just poke you in the face instead?”

“Fine, fine, I’ll leave the specifics up to you.” Lan Jingyi pauses. “Wait. Shit. You just got back -- you’ve got to be exhausted.” He extracts himself from the embrace and squints out the window. Close enough to five. He turns back to Lan Sizhui and points a stern finger. “Back to bed with you. I’ll go steal you some breakfast for when you wake up later.”

Lan Sizhui rubs at his eye. “If it’s five I should just -- ”

“Heavens and Earth,” Lan Jingyi interrupts, “if you say that you’ll just get up now, I will bind you to that bed.” When Lan Sizhui gives him a look, he scrambles for his qiankun pouch and pulls out a length of deity-binding rope. Lan Jingyi holds it up, eyes narrowing. “Try me, Lan Sizhui.”

Something in Lan Sizhui’s expression goes funny, and not in a way that suggests he’s having a good time. It’s almost like a wince, but with fewer muscle movements. Before Lan Jingyi can ask what’s wrong, Lan Sizhui looks away and says:

“No, you’re right. I think I’ll sleep a little longer.”

He pulls the blanket back over him and burrows deep, eyes falling shut without looking at Lan Jingyi once. Something sinks in his chest. Did he -- was that wrong? The rope was just a joke, but maybe it hadn’t been funny. They had been kidnapped and tied up with deity-binding rope not long ago, maybe it was too soon --

“Jingyi?” Lan Sizhui’s voice is tiny, but enough to pull Lan Jingyi out of whatever path his thoughts are taking him.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t let me sleep past ten, okay?” he asks. “Wake me up.” A pause, then, “Without water, please.”

Something in Lan Jingyi’s chest rights itself, just a little, though the uneasiness remains. This is still Lan Sizhui -- he still jokes. Lan Jingyi forces a small smile even though Lan Sizhui can’t see it.

“You got it.”

He’s tiptoed out of the room (stopping only to re-sheathe his sword and set it back on its stand, next to Lan Sizhui’s) before he teases out part of the weird feeling: not once did Lan Sizhui remind him to lower his voice. Lan Jingyi pauses, halfway to the baths, before shaking it off and chalking it up to exhaustion.

In the pale dawn, he moves quickly through the morning rituals, the routine helping settle the uneasy feeling in his stomach. Everything seems a little better today: the soap smells nicer, the bath water is warmer, the breakfast tofu is tastier. True to his word, he takes a tray back to their room and sets it on Lan Sizhui’s writing desk, careful not to wake him again. From there, he heads out to complete his morning duties before volunteering to take Hanguang-Jun his lunch.

“By all means,” says the disciple who is supposed to do it. She shoves a tray at him with a surprising amount of force. “Sect Leader Zhang finally left this morning, but Hanguang-Jun’s still in a mood.”

Sect Leader Zhang is an asshole with poor penmanship, so Lan Jingyi thinks Hanguang-Jun’s mood is more than justified, but he keeps it to himself. His help with the correspondence is technically under the table, after all. He carries the tray to Hanguang-Jun’s office, knocking gently with the toe of his boot.

“Enter,” says Hanguang-Jun’s low voice, slightly pinched. Definitely a Sect Leader Zhang-related mood.

Lan Jingyi slips into the small office -- Hanguang-Jun doesn’t style his space for comfort, not one to encourage people to linger -- and sets the tray down. When he straightens, he finds Hanguang-Jun looking at him.

“I volunteered,” Lan Jingyi explains, trying not to bounce out of his boots. “Ah, you might already know -- Sizhui is back?”

Hanguang-Jun looks like something is positively hilarious -- indicated by a small crease near his mouth -- but all he says is, “Mn.”

“Maybe he’ll join us some evening,” Lan Jingyi says. “He’s a nerd, he would love all this paperwork stuff.” Ah, fuck. It’s one thing to call Lan Sizhui a nerd to his face, but he is Hanguang-Jun’s ward. “Nerd in the best way,” he hurries to add. “Respectfully.”

“Sizhui may appreciate some parts of the work,” Hanguang-Jun agrees, entirely unfazed. “I will speak to him about it. Will you ask him to have dinner with me this evening?”

“Of course, I -- oh, shit.” Lan Jingyi had gotten so caught up in Lan Sizhui being back that he’d forgotten his one request. “I need to go, I told him I would wake him up at ten.”

Hanguang-Jun nods, already looking back to his half-finished letter. “Thank you for lunch, Jingyi.”

Lan Jingyi executes a sloppy bow and ducks out of the office, setting a brisk (but technically allowed) pace to get back to the dormitories. He bursts into their room, ready to poke Lan Sizhui in the face until he wakes up, only to find him already awake and bathed.

He looks more like himself than he did this morning: his hair is half-dried and combed straight, pulled back to hold his ribbon in place. The red robes are gone, replaced with crisp Lan whites, which he’s in the process of tying shut. The white hanfu is a stark contrast against his new, deep tan, but it suits him. Plus, the look he gives Lan Jingyi is so Lan Sizhui that Lan Jingyi has to bite back a smile.

“Ten sharp, I said,” Lan Sizhui deadpans, tying the last knot.

“You just looked so comfortable, I didn’t want to wake you,” Lan Jingyi simpers, pouting for full effect.

Lan Sizhui rolls his eyes and manages to pretend he’s upset for three whole seconds before snorting, which quickly dissolves into a bright peal of laughter. It fills up the room in a way no amount of well-loved clutter can. Lan Jingyi finds himself laughing too, just because he can. When they finally settle, Lan Sizhui is looking at him with an appraising quality. The ghost of his laugh still on his mouth, he reaches out and tugs on a strand of Lan Jingyi’s hair.

“Your hair’s gotten so long,” he says. It’s true: Lan Jingyi generally can’t go more than a few weeks without cutting some amount off, usually because something gets stuck in it or he’s too close to an open flame or -- well. He attracts trouble. But it’s been a quiet few months without Lan Sizhui.

“You’re one to talk,” Lan Jingyi replies, reaching out to poke one of Lan Sizhui’s cheeks. “I woke up thinking we had an intruder! I asked myself, who is this freckled, curly-haired person in red robes who thinks they can sleep in Sizhui’s bed? I was ready to take your head off!”

“So quick to defend my honor,” Lan Sizhui says with a smile. There’s some of that uneasiness again, but Lan Sizhui hides it better this time, and it flits behind his eyes before disappearing from view. “But speaking of my bed -- did you put out fresh linens for me?”

Lan Jingyi blinks. “Of course I did. Did you want to sleep in dust?”

“But how did you know when I would be back?” Lan Sizhui presses. He’s being weird about sheets. This is so Lan Sizhui, it hurts. Lan Jingyi loves him.

“I didn’t,” Lan Jingyi shrugs. “I changed them every few weeks just in case.”

Lan Sizhui is looking at him way too hard, and maybe he realizes it, because he’s the first one to look away. His eyes fall on a saddlebag tossed beside his bed and he perks up.

“Hey,” he says, turning back with a small smile. “Want to see the souvenirs I brought you?”

Lan Jingyi’s answering grin feels too big for his face. “Hell yes I do.”

Lan Sizhui returns from dinner with Hanguang-Jun in… well. There’s no other term for it. A bad mood.

The door of their room slides open with a bang, startling Lan Jingyi where he’s laid out on his bed, trying out the new set of brushes Lan Sizhui picked up for him in Qinghe. In the interest of saving paper, he’s painting on his arm, although what was going to be a mountain now looks like a foot. Oh well.

“Sorry, sorry,” Lan Sizhui mutters, sliding the door shut much more gently. Poor kid doesn’t even know how to be angry right. Lan Jingyi thinks they should spend more time with Jin Ling once all his political shit settles -- if anyone can teach another person how to be properly pissed, it’s a kid raised by Sect Leader Jiang.

“You okay?” Lan Jingyi asks as Lan Sizhui puts away his sword and immediately beelines for his bed, throwing himself on it face first. A muffled groan. “Was Hanguang-Jun mean or something? He’s been hosting Sect Leader Zhang for three days, so if he was kind of on edge, it’s not your fault.”

Lan Sizhui flips himself over so he can stare at the ceiling. He’s probably looking at the characters for Welcome that he carved so long ago.

“No,” he says at last. “Hanguang-Jun was fine. It was good to see him.”

“Something else, then?”

Lan Sizhui reaches up and digs the heels of his palms into his eyes. Another groan. “Not really.”

“Did you get possessed on your way from the Jingshi?” Lan Jingyi asks with mock seriousness. “I can exorcise you if you want. Might tingle a little.”

Without looking, Lan Sizhui reaches over to grab his pillow and throws it at Lan Jingyi with surprising strength and accuracy. It nails him in the head.

Lan Jingyi immediately tosses it back with much less force. “Hey. Talk to me. What do you need?”

Lan Sizhui sticks the pillow over his face and groans again. “A simpler life.”

This is familiar, well-trod ground. Banter is a good sign, like how when someone shivers it means they don’t have hypothermia. Or the hypothermia isn’t bad enough for them to die yet? Lan Jingyi forgets, but it’s not important. He can work with this.

“I’m fresh out of simpler lives,” he tells Lan Sizhui, “but I do have three jars of Emperor’s Smile under my bed.”

Lan Sizhui moves the pillow off his face and cranes his neck up to glare at Lan Jingyi. “Do you know how many rules I’ve already broken today?”

He does, actually. Seven. No one knows the rules like Lan Jingyi, because no one has broken nearly as many.

“Excellent point,” Lan Jingyi says, already standing up to rummage underneath his bed. He hooks a finger under the loose floorboard and emerges with the jars. He grins down at Lan Sizhui. “So what’s one more?”

“The Grandmaster is right,” Lan Sizhui deadpans. “You’re a menace.”

He takes a jar.

Lan Jingyi will be the first to admit he has a Lan alcohol tolerance. Many generations of repressed monks have decimated his genetic ability to handle alcohol and that is hardly his fault. That said, he has a reputation for being a Lan only in name, and it’s a duty he takes seriously, which is why he spent most of his teenage years building up a respectable tolerance sip by sip. It wasn’t pretty. Throughout it all, Lan Sizhui was there to drag him into bed after a mouthful of rice wine put him out, or to slap a well-timed hand over his mouth as the nightly patrol passed their window. Their inside joke is that the only other thing Lan Jingyi had ever spent this much time and energy on was his golden core.

The greatest irony is that, as Lan Jingyi slogged through years of getting blackout drunk just to handle a cup or two, Lan Sizhui -- who doesn’t even like to drink -- can put away that much without even blinking. Whatever freakishly strong Lan branch his birth parents are from, they could handle their liquor. Lan Jingyi thinks maybe there’s some Nie blood in there or something.

In the spirit of not making Lan Sizhui drag his unconscious body to bed when Lan Jingyi is supposed to be the one comforting him, they split a jar and neither comments on the fact that Lan Sizhui takes three sips for every one of Lan Jingyi’s. It’s a fine arrangement. They settle onto Lan Sizhui’s bed, passing the jar back and forth, until Lan Sizhui is apparently drunk enough to talk about his feelings.

“So,” he says, his baby face going all serious. It’s cute, but Lan Jingyi forces himself not to laugh, because this is serious and he likes to at least try to be a good friend sometimes. “So.”

“So,” Lan Jingyi agrees, mostly to show support.

“We were having just -- a nice dinner,” Lan Sizhui says, and Lan Jingyi continues nodding along. “It was nice. And then, after -- we’re having tea and -- ” He stops and makes a vague gesture. Lan Jingyi repeats it with his own hand and Lan Sizhui nods, like this is some form of call and response, or even a valid form of communication.

“What’s this mean?” Lan Jingyi asks after a moment, making the gesture again.

Lan Sizhui’s frown deepens. “You know how Zewu-Jun is in seclusion?”

“I have heard of this,” Lan Jingyi replies diplomatically.

“Hanguang-Jun is acting sect leader.”

“Last time I checked.”

“There are no heirs, Jingyi.”

Lan Jingyi opens his mouth to refute that, but even struggling through the buzz of alcohol, his brain is way ahead of him. Zewu-Jun doesn’t have kids. He doesn’t have a wife. He did have a lot of sworn brothers at one point but now he’s fresh out of those, too. Technically, his heir is Hanguang-Jun, hence the acting sect leader thing. And Hanguang-Jun definitely doesn’t have a wife. But he does have -- oh.

“There’s no heirs but you,” he says quietly.

“I’m not even officially an heir,” Sizhui says quickly. “I’m not Hanguang-Jun’s by blood, so I don’t know why -- it was dumb he even mentioned it -- ugh, but it wasn’t, it was nice, he was trying to be nice and it’s -- it’s an honor…”

“But?” Lan Jingyi asks. “I hear a but.”

“I don’t know if I… can,” Sizhui says, wincing like the words are painful, like they’re scraping the inside of his throat on their way out.

“You’d be a great heir,” Lan Jingyi says honestly, “but only if you want to.”

“I don’t know,” Lan Sizhui groans, turning and burying his face in Lan Jingyi’s neck. “If he’d asked me six months ago I would have said yes, but… so much has happened.”

Lan Jingyi can’t blame him there. It’s not just Lanling Jin that’s on fire right now: the entire cultivation world is shaky on its feet. It’s being held together with a bunch of century-old treaties and the sheer willpower of Hanguang-Jun. Hell, even he’d only been appointed as Chief Cultivator because the pickings were so sparse: the major sect leaders right now are, in no particular order, a man at constant risk of either a qi deviation or an ulcer, an underhanded actor with literally no cultivation to speak of, and a sixteen year old kid. (Seventeen? Had they missed Jin Ling’s birthday already? Lan Jingyi files that away for later.) The point is, it’s not great. Lan Jingyi wouldn’t want to ferry Gusu Lan through this shitshow. But if it was Lan Sizhui at the helm, he would help try.

“What did you tell Hanguang-Jun then?” Lan Jingyi asks.

“Told him I was grateful, that I understood this meant something to him, too,” Lan Sizhui lists off tonelessly. “Told him I was tired and needed to think about it.”

“What’d he say to that?”

“It’s Hanguang-Jun,” Lan Sizhui sighs. “He’s a big fan of thinking things over. He told me to take my time, but I still feel like I… I don’t know. Disappointed him?”

“You could never disappoint him, Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi says with utter certainty. Now might not be the perfect time to tell Lan Sizhui that Hanguang-Jun and him have been meeting semi-regularly to do paperwork in the dead of night, but he feels confident in saying that much. Still, on the off chance more words try to follow, he bites his tongue. Literally, until he can taste a bit of iron. Half his battle for a reasonable alcohol tolerance involves actual drinking, but the other half is learning how to manage his own embarrassing drunkenness. Rule one is to bite one’s tongue, since Lan Jingyi’s thoughts become even slippier when he’s drunk and the odds of words just falling out increases tenfold.

It occurs to him that Hanguang-Jun might be out in the rabbit field tonight, working through a stack of correspondence alone. Lan Jingyi should have told him he isn’t coming now that -- well. Lan Sizhui being back doesn’t guarantee his sleep schedule will return to normal, but the odds are pretty good. He’ll ask tomorrow about maybe starting to help during the actual day.

Lan Jingyi blinks back into focus when he feels Lan Sizhui move his head off his shoulder. He watches as Lan Sizhui scrubs a hand over his face before turning to him with a small, empty smile. “Thanks for listening, Jingyi.”

I missed listening to you, Lan Jingyi thinks, and promptly bites down on his tongue hard. He settles for a much safer nod before saying, “Time for bed?”

Lan Sizhui pauses for a second before shaking his head. “No, I… I, ah, think I’ll go for a walk.”

“It’s almost curfew,” Lan Jingyi warns, watching him get up and track down his boots and sword.

“Like you said,” Lan Sizhui says with a hollow laugh. “What’s one more rule?”

“You sure?” he asks, brow furrowing. “You’re drunk.”

Lan Sizhui laughs a little at that, and it’s a happier sound. He wanders back to the bed and ruffles the top of Lan Jingyi’s hair. “No, you’re drunk.”

He bats away the hand, but Lan Sizhui is faster than him, and Lan Jingyi finds himself being gently pushed down into the bed. Lan Sizhui tucks him in. “This isn't my bed,” Lan Jingyi tries to point out. That’s not necessarily the issue here -- usually when they drink, or stagger home after a long night hunt, they pile into one of the beds together and fall asleep in a mess of limbs like when they were boys. So the problem isn’t that this is Lan Sizhui’s bed: it’s that Lan Jingyi is in Lan Sizhui’s bed without him. A small part of Lan Jingyi had been quietly looking forward to this.

But Lan Sizhui just squeezes his shoulder and says, “Don’t worry, just sleep. I’ll be back in a bit.”

The door slides open and closed, and then Lan Jingyi is alone, drunk and a little sad, left in a bed that hasn’t had time to start smelling like Lan Sizhui again.

That first night isn’t the last time that Lan Sizhui leaves for walks in the evening. After the third time in a week, Lan Jingyi stops asking if he wants company. (He never does.) The fifth time Lan Sizhui ducks out of their rooms just as curfew is about to fall, Lan Jingyi puts on his own boots and makes straight for the rabbit field.

He’s sitting under the large tree, hugging his knees, when Hanguang-Jun arrives a few hours later with only his guqin. Hanguang-Jun blinks when he spies Lan Jingyi in his usual spot, but doesn’t say anything. He simply takes Lan Jingyi’s usual place and removes his guqin, unwrapping its cloth in slow, precise movements. When it becomes clear Lan Jingyi isn’t ready to talk yet, he begins to play: it’s a slow, thoughtful song, with no spiritual energy behind it.

Hanguang-Jun finishes that song, then another, before Lan Jingyi says, “Sizhui’s back. So why does it feel like he isn’t?”

The hands on the guqin still, coming to rest over the strings. Hanguang-Jun is quiet for a moment before he asks, “How so?”

“Like… you know!” Lan Jingyi says, hugging his knees a little tighter. “You had dinner with him.”

Hanguang-Jun waits patiently, watching Lan Jingyi.

“He -- ”

How does he even explain it? He shouldn’t have to explain Lan Sizhui to his own… whatever. Lan Jingyi wants to say: You know how Sizhui walks into a room and everything settles a bit? Like no matter what happens, it’s okay, because you’ve got Lan Sizhui on your side? But Hanguang-Jun probably doesn’t feel that way and it would be weird to just -- say it.

There’s no normal way for Lan Jingyi to say: Lan Sizhui hasn’t corrected me once since he got back. Not when I’m loud or when I’m running or when I’m slouching. Or to say: He hasn’t hugged me since I hugged him. Or: Sometimes he tenses at weird times and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong and it’s killing me.

So instead he says, “I missed him so much, but now when we’re together… I’m still lonely.”

Hanguang-Jun hums thoughtfully and plucks out a handful of notes. When they fade, he asks, “Have you spoken to Sizhui about this?”

“Of course not!” Lan Jingyi snaps a little too loudly. Hanguang-Jun pauses and Lan Jingyi clears his throat, adding, a little desperately, “Sorry, Hanguang-Jun. No. I haven’t.” He takes a deep breath. “I just… I don’t want Sizhui to feel like it’s his fault.” Then, quieter still: “Especially when I think it might be mine.”

“In what way?” Hanguang-Jun asks with the same gentle nudging that he uses when they discuss rule-breaking.

“He won’t tell me what he needs from me,” Lan Jingyi says, glaring at the grass. “I don’t know what I’m doing that’s making him uncomfortable or -- or -- how to help him. I should just know, but I don’t. I feel useless.”

Some small part of Lan Jingyi is certain that if he can figure out just the right words, Lan Sizhui will stop flinching and deflecting and just… come home. He’ll put cabbage into Lan Jingyi’s bowl at dinner because he hates it and Lan Jingyi hates it less. He’ll stop flinching when Lan Jingyi drapes himself over Lan Sizhui’s shoulders. He’ll laugh and smile and this time, he won’t catch himself and look away.

“If his needs have changed,” Hanguang-Jun says, “it is not your fault for failing to anticipate them. Sizhui knows he needs to communicate.”

“But…”

He doesn’t, though. They don’t. Talking is what other people do, people who aren’t effortlessly in sync like Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui are. The two of them can and do talk about anything, but the joy of it is that they’ve never needed to. While those awkward junior disciples were fumbling through introductions, they were already chattering while they built Lan Sizhui’s guqin stand. They share everything -- or at least, they used to. Combs and robes and -- in a mix-up both of them swore never to mention -- forehead ribbons. There’s an effortlessness to being with Lan Sizhui, a quiet understanding that’s disappeared, the absence of which aches fiercely.

“I’m not so sure,” Lan Jingyi replies, something inside him caving in at having to say it out loud. “Sizhui’s not been very… talkative since he got back.”

Hanguang-Jun is quiet for a moment before he says, “I think Sizhui may surprise you. There are many ways to communicate.”

Lan Jingyi wrangles his manners just in time to avoid telling Hanguang-Jun that it doesn’t matter. There might be a thousand ways to communicate, but Lan Jingyi needs Lan Sizhui to talk to him. Unfortunately, getting him to do so since his return has been like drawing blood from a stone. He’ll answer, of course, he’s still Hanguang-Jun’s ward and he’s too polite for his own good, but it’s short, clipped responses that don’t invite further questions. If Lan Jingyi presses -- because he’s too rude for his own good -- Lan Sizhui will supply a perfectly adequate non-answer and immediately redirect the conversation. He doesn’t want to talk about the specifics of where he traveled or what he did or what the Ghost General is like. If Lan Jingyi didn’t know Lan Sizhui better, he would say his friend hated the entire trip and didn’t want to think about it. But, no matter the rift that’s grown between them, Lan Jingyi does know him, can still read his face, and he knows Lan Sizhui had the time of his life while he was away. He catches Lan Sizhui smiling at the woven necklace he brought back and lovingly folding the red robes he returned in and cleaning the red Qishan dust from his sword without a single word of complaint.

So it’s not that Lan Sizhui doesn’t want to talk about his travels. It’s that he doesn’t want to talk about them to Lan Jingyi.

Maybe Hanguang-Jun can read the doubt on his face, because he says, in an apparent change of subject, “I received a request for aid in Tangjing.” Then, after a brief pause, “I could send a larger group of juniors, but perhaps you and Sizhui might be interested in handling it yourselves.”

Lan Jingyi’s heart squeezes at the gesture. He arranges himself in a better position to bow and says, “Of course, Hanguang-Jun. This disciple accepts.” And then, softer, “Thank you.”

They both know he means for more than the night hunt.

“Not at all?” Lan Sizhui repeats, the disbelief palpable in his tone. “Not even once?

They’re just outside Tangjing, having spent the better part of the day on swords. It’s considered rude to fly directly into a town, though, so they take the last half-li on foot. Lan Jingyi’s grateful for the chance to stretch his legs and give his spiritual energy a chance to catch up, though he kept pace with Lan Sizhui better than usual.

“Well,” Lan Jingyi says with a heavy frown, “there was one outing, but I refuse to call it a night hunt. It was a disaster.”

Five other juniors, all with much lower cultivation than his own. It should have been a straightforward suppression, but it turned into a three-day slog. Two disciples broke bones and couldn’t fly, and the others weren’t able to carry passengers on their swords, so the entire group returned on foot. When they arrived at the cusp of curfew, covered head to toe in mud, there was a second where Lan Jingyi wasn’t sure the sentries would let them in. There had been something incredibly embarrassing about coming up to the gate and having to find a clean patch of his robes to wipe the muck off his jade token to make it recognizable.

“That still counts,” Lan Sizhui decides. “I knew they wouldn’t let you get away with avoiding night hunts for two whole months.”

“Still,” Lan Jingyi grumbles.

“But…” He looks over to see Lan Sizhui frowning, looking at him with concern. “Only one night hunt. Hasn’t that put you behind?”

One of the requirements for senior discipleship is a certain number of successful night hunts. He and Lan Sizhui usually keep above the curve, meeting the season’s quota before midseason: their hunt at Mo Village was meant to satisfy the requirement for the winter. It’s true that Lan Sizhui’s travels have put them a little behind for spring, but it won’t be a problem.

Lan Jingyi relays all of this with a heavy shrug. “What can I say? You’ve ruined me for other night hunting partners.”

Lan Sizhui blushes a little bit -- he’s always been an easy blusher, and his new tan does even less to hide it -- before clearing his throat.

“Well, we’ll make up for it,” he says firmly. “I heard Hanguang-Jun talking about sending a group to Jiangzou next week. I’m sure he wouldn’t say no to a few extra disciples.”

“Hey, hey, slow down,” Lan Jingyi says with an easy laugh. “Let’s get through tonight first. We’ll both be a little rusty, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Lan Sizhui opens his mouth, then closes it before looking away. He can’t slouch exactly, not with his guqin strapped across his back, but he seems to curl in on himself a bit.

Lan Jingyi blinks, trying to trace back over his words. Then: “Oh. Oh, I’m stupid. Sorry, Sizhui. I didn’t mean to assume that, ah, just because I can’t stand night hunting with other cultivators doesn’t mean you -- you don’t. You must have night hunted on your travels, right?”

“Not officially or anything,” Lan Sizhui hurries to say, looking at him with a small amount of desperation in his eyes. “Nothing that will count towards my rankings.”

“It’s okay,” Lan Jingyi says automatically, because of course it is, because Lan Sizhui is allowed to night hunt with other people. They both are. Lan Sizhui doesn’t look convinced, though, so he says with a bit more conviction this time, “No, it is. I’m glad you did! Now you can carry me through this night hunt.” That earns him a small smile, which makes him bold enough to add, “Besides, how many people can say they’ve hunted with the Ghost General? You have to tell me what that’s like!”

Lan Sizhui’s expression shutters immediately and Lan Jingyi feels his heart drop.

“It was fine,” Lan Sizhui says, already looking away. Then, “Let’s keep going.”

They walk the rest of the way in silence. Lan Jingyi can’t stop thinking about what Hanguang-Jun said about asking Lan Sizhui what he needs. Sizhui knows he needs to communicate.

Could have fooled me, Lan Jingyi thinks as Lan Sizhui speaks with the village magistrate.

The needling feeling of unease follows Lan Jingyi as they make their way to the location of the unquiet spirit, a wood on the southern edge of town. He tries to push it down as he sets up a perimeter of talismans to protect the nearby villagers, hoping that the usual sounds of Lan Sizhui tuning his guqin will settle him, but if anything, the normalcy makes it worse. What if Lan Sizhui fights completely differently now? The Ghost General is almost certainly a better partner than Lan Jingyi, having both age and experience on him -- does Lan Sizhui wish he was here hunting with his traveling companion instead of Lan Jingyi?

He makes his way back to where Lan Sizhui is seated with his guqin, watching the area with careful eyes for any sign of their unquiet spirit. In the fading sunlight, he looks just enough like his old self that Lan Jingyi can almost pretend he never left at all. But he did, and more than that, he hadn’t come back the same.

The unsettled feeling reaches something like a fever pitch as Lan Jingyi thinks, I can barely talk to you anymore -- how am I supposed to fight with you?

“Sizhui,” he says suddenly. The sun is rapidly setting now, and the spirit could arrive at any moment, but that’s all the more reason to sort this out. If their effortless chatter is no longer possible, then it’s way too likely that they’re usual hunting synchronicity is gone, too. And if that’s the case, carrying whatever weird baggage they have into a night hunt is going to get them both hurt or possibly killed.

Lan Jingyi can’t let that happen. They need to settle this. Preferably before their unquiet spirit turns up.

Lan Sizhui, of course, is privy to none of this logic, but turns to look at him with his full attention nonetheless. “Yes?”

“We need to talk,” Lan Jingyi says with a lot more confidence than he feels. Now that he’s realized Lan Sizhui’s safety is on the line -- and his own, too, but that’s less of a pressing concern -- he can’t back down.

He can just make out Lan Sizhui’s startled blink in the fading light. “About the night hunt…?”

“No,” he says. “About you. Well, no, not you, us, I guess, it involves both of us -- ”

“Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui interrupts. “Right now? The spirit -- ”

“I know!” If Lan Sizhui’s ignoring the rule about interruptions, then so is he. They’re tight on time, anyway. “It’s related, just -- I know I’ve been bothering you since you got back and I need you to tell me what I’m doing wrong so I can stop! So we can fight together again, like we used to!”

“What?” Lan Sizhui says, too loud for the eerie silence of the woods. “Jingyi, what are you -- no, you’re not annoying me, I -- I’ve just… had a lot on my mind, and -- ”

“Is it the heir-apparent thing?” Lan Jingyi presses. “Are you still stressing out about that?”

“No! Well, sort of, but that’s not -- ”

“Was it that I ate all your sweets while you were gone? They were going to go bad and I bought you new ones!”

“You ate -- what -- no!”

“Well then what is it? I can’t be less annoying unless you tell me, Sizhui!”

Jingyi -- ”

Whatever Lan Sizhui means to say, he doesn’t get the chance. They’re interrupted by the sound of something moving through the underbrush far too quickly, with enough killing intent to make Lan Jingyi’s teeth ache. They barely have time to spring into action before a dark shape separates from the shadows and lunges.

That’s not a spirit!” Lan Jingyi shouts, sword already unsheathed. He lands lightly on a tree branch as Lan Sizhui does the same, guqin poised.

“I know! What do you think? Zhujian Leopard?”

Lan Jingyi squints at it in the last vestiges of the sunset. It does look like some sort of leopard, with shiny fur and a distinct prowl to its four-footed gait, but --

“No, it has two eyes,” he calls back. Two bright eyes, shining with hunger. It begins to circle the tree where Lan Jingyi is perched and then promptly sinks its claws into the trunk, preparing to climb. “Maybe we kill it first and identify it later?”

“Right!”

Lan Jingyi jumps down to engage on the forest floor, sword already flashing. He manages to catch the beast off-guard while it’s still trying to climb and lands a neat blow to its back. Unfortunately, this only seems to enrage it further. He catches the monster’s first swipe with his sword, its claws ringing against the metal of his blade, and quickly readjusts to account for the creature’s speed.

From somewhere behind him, he hears Lan Sizhui begin to play, stringing together notes to form a proper attack. The first blast of spiritual energy from his guqin nearly takes Lan Jingyi’s head off: he dodges at the last possible moment, alerted only by the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.

“Ah, sorry, sorry!” says Lan Sizhui’s voice from whatever tree he’s in.

Lan Jingyi doesn’t have the chance to reply, too busy leaping out of the way as the monster takes another swipe. He lands lightly, but with a kernel of dread in his stomach. This is a well-practiced battle pattern -- Lan Sizhui on guqin, covering him from above, while Lan Jingyi engages in close combat -- but tonight it feels wrong, like a dance missing a step. Surely, a few months isn’t long enough to have totally ruined a pattern they’ve spent years perfecting. If Lan Jingyi can just keep the beast occupied long enough for them to fall into harmony again --

“The angle’s wrong! I’m coming down to get a better shot!”

Well, fuck.

Lan Jingyi opens his mouth to tell Lan Sizhui to keep his high ground when he hears the soft sound of Lan Sizhui touching down on the forest floor. The creature takes notice as well, and suddenly it becomes a new kind of battle: Lan Jingyi has one job, and it’s to keep the monster away from Lan Sizhui until he’s prepared an attack. This is easier said than done, since whatever this thing is, it hates the sound of the guqin. With every note it growls a little louder, eyes darting around Lan Jingyi to the source of the noise. Worst of all, it’s smart, quickly learning Lan Jingyi’s patterns and finding new ways to break his line of defense. The first time it feints to the side, he barely has time to get a sword in front of it.

Sweat pours off him, though Lan Jingyi attributes this more to a clever opponent than months spent doing secretarial work instead of night hunting. A distant part of his brain is a little saddened at the thought of killing the creature: it’s truly impressive and obviously more sentiment than most of their usual prey. Perhaps if it had less killing intent, suppression or cleansing would be possible, but as it stands, either they will walk out of the forest, or the creature will.

More out of luck than actual skill, Lan Jingyi finally lands a decent blow as the monster makes another lunge for Lan Sizhui. His sword slides into a soft spot just beneath its ribs and the beast roars in pain and rage. In a desperate bid, it swats at him and -- sword still stuck inside it -- Lan Jingyi has no other choice but to take the hit with his left side. Claws cut through him, hot and sharp, and he must make a sound because he vacantly hears Lan Sizhui cry out. Lan Jingyi wrenches his sword free at last, only to realize that Lan Sizhui is shouting, “Duck!

He does as he’s told, more falling to the ground than anything else, just in time to watch Lan Sizhui’s guqin bodily collide with the monster. It clangs horribly with a pulse of spiritual energy, almost loud enough to cover the sound of splintering wood, and then the creature goes down hard.

Hand clamped to his side -- warm, his slow brain process, sticky -- he croaks, “Holy shit, Sizhui, where did you learn that?

And then promptly passes out.

Lan Jingyi’s favorite part of a night hunt is the trudge back afterwards, when the adrenaline settles into a heady buzz and everyone’s laughing and they get to go tell a village they’re safe. He likes it because Lan Sizhui isn’t like Hanguang-Jun: he still emerges from most night hunts a little worse for wear. His hair coming a little loose, a bit of dirt or blood on his robes, a scuff of dirt on his cheek. But no matter how tired he is, Lan Sizhui always finds Lan Jingyi’s eyes and gives him a small, satisfied smile. It’s Lan Jingyi’s primary marker for a job well done.

When he wakes up this time, there’s no tired smile. It’s midday, judging by the sunlight pouring in, and Lan Sizhui is kneeling by his bed, chin propped on the mattress. His eyes are glassy and distant, his mouth settled into a small frown.

Lan Jingyi wants to reach over and poke him in the cheek, but his arm feels weird and heavy, so instead he settles for saying, “Sizhui?”

It comes out as a rasp.

Lan Sizhui’s attention snaps to him and then all at once there’s a hand on his wrist, checking his spiritual energy, and another on his forehead, checking for fever. His eyes remain on Lan Sizhui’s face, which looks drawn and pale.

“Sizhui, did you sleep?” Lan Jingyi croaks. When Lan Sizhui ignores him in favor of reaching for a small teapot, Lan Jingyi snags his wrist. “Hey. Sizhui. I’m okay. You need to rest.”

“I’m fine,” Lan Sizhui says, weakly tugging at Lan Jingyi’s grip. He’s got dark circles under his eyes. “Let go. I have tea brewing for you.”

“Did you sleep?” Lan Jingyi repeats. He scans the room. It’s a simple inn, and the room doesn’t have any other beds or sleeping rolls. He turns and tries to glare at Lan Sizhui. “You didn’t, did you?”

“I had to pack your wound,” he says quietly. “You lost a lot of blood.”

Lan Jingyi looks down to see the pale flash of bandages around his torso. His left arm is wrapped similarly. Against Lan Sizhui’s small sound of protest, he tries moving it a bit. There’s a stiffness, but he’s had worse.

“Since when are you the best medic in the sect?” Lan Jingyi jokes with a tired smile. When Lan Sizhui doesn’t smile back, he adds, “I’m serious. You did a good job. It doesn’t even hurt.”

Lan Sizhui doesn’t say anything, just pulls his arm away and comes back with a cup of tea that smells unfortunately medicinal. Lan Jingyi makes a face but drinks it anyway, swallowing all of it in one large gulp that scalds his throat. Passing the empty cup back, he searches Lan Sizhui’s face.

“You’re being really quiet,” Lan Jingyi says, reaching out for him again with his good arm and managing to grab his sleeve as he sets the cup aside. He tugs gently. “I promise, I’m okay.” He pauses. “Is it… are you mad at me? About last night?” Lan Sizhui turns to him sharply. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought that stuff up during a night hunt, I just -- ”

You’re sorry?” Lan Sizhui repeats, eyes widening. “Jingyi, I -- I was the one who was distracted -- ”

“Because I brought it up -- ”

“ -- only because I’ve been a jerk these past few weeks!” Lan Sizhui says over him. Oh. Oh no. Lan Jingyi stops short. Lan Sizhui’s eyes are shiny with unshed tears. A tearful Sizhui is one of the rare and most heart-wrenching things on Earth. Without fail, if Lan Sizhui cries, Lan Jingyi is sure to follow.

Like clockwork, he feels the sting behind his own eyes. “No, Sizhui, no, you haven’t...”

“I have,” Lan Sizhui says firmly, sinking to sit by the bed. Lan Jingyi keeps a hold on his sleeve. “I’ve been so caught up in my own problems that I didn’t even realize I was being unkind.”

“It’s -- ”

“Don’t say it’s fine,” Lan Sizhui says, face set and determined. “You deserve an apology. I’m sorry, Jingyi.”

“I’m not mad,” Lan Jingyi feels the need to say. “I just wanted to help. I -- I still want to help.”

“I know,” Lan Sizhui says, looking genuinely distressed now. “I know.”

“Will you -- Sizhui, will you let me?” Lan Jingyi asks, sounding small. “Or teach me how to help?” When Lan Sizhui bites his lip, Lan Jingyi amends, “Or just… talk to me. I don’t even have to help, I might not be able to but… I could listen. You’ve always been there to listen to me.”

“What if…” Lan Sizhui hesitates. “What if it’s not something you want to hear?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Lan Jingyi says immediately. “If you want me to listen, I will.”

Lan Sizhui buries his head in his hands and makes a pained noise. When he talks, his voice is muffled by the fabric of his robes.

“This is all my fault,” he groans. “I didn’t want to tell you because I -- I was worried you would see me differently, but then I ended up pushing you away.”

“No matter what it is,” Lan Jingyi says resolutely, “you’re still my friend. You’re still Lan Sizhui.”

“That’s the problem,” Lan Sizhui says, voice terribly quiet. When he raises his head, the tears have spilled over. He sounds immeasurably young and sad when he says, “Jingyi, I’m… I’m not Lan Sizhui.”

Lan Jingyi blinks. “What?”

“I’m not a Lan,” Lan Sizhui says tearfully, forcing the words out with great difficulty. “My parents weren’t Lans who died in the war.” He takes a deep, shaky breath and squeezes his eyes shut. “They were Wens.”

Stupidly, and Lan Jingyi is going to blame his injury for his clouded brain, his first thought it: no wonder you can drink me under the table. His second thought is: it doesn’t matter.

When he lets out a shaky laugh, Lan Sizhui’s eyes fly open. At the pure shock in his expression, Lan Jingyi can’t help but laugh again.

“Jingyi -- what -- ”

Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi gets out between bouts of laughter that are definitely not doing his wound any favors, “of course you’re a Lan.” When Lan Sizhui opens his mouth, he clarifies, “Okay, so you’re a Wen, too. You’re both. You’re still you.”

“But -- ” Lan Sizhui seems to be faltering.

“Is this what you’ve been worked up about since you got back?” Lan Jingyi laughs, tears running down his face. “Heavens above, Sizhui, you’re the most Lan of anyone besides the Twin Jades! You beat out the Grandmaster most days!”

“But by blood -- ”

Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi says with feeling. The laughter settles and he smiles at him, inordinately fond. “You want to talk about blood? The Grandmaster reviews my genealogy every year in case he missed something. He’s convinced there’s no way I could be a Lan.”

Lan Sizhui’s expression finally softens a bit at that, sagging towards relief. His eyes are still shiny, but not in a miserable way.

“I guess…” Lan Jingyi thinks for a second. “Do you want to still be a Lan?”

Wen Sizhui, he thinks. It’s different, but for Sizhui, he could get used to it.

“No, I…” Lan Sizhui reaches up and mops up some of his tears with his sleeve. “I do. I do want to be a Lan. It’s just… these past weeks, traveling with -- with Wen-qianbei, I… I got to learn so much about my family. My first family. And about the Wens.” His voice turns even softer. “When I was with him, it felt like I was Wen Yuan. And I liked parts of it. But when I came back, I had to be Lan Sizhui again, and the entire experience felt like… like something I had to pretend never happened.”

Lan Jingyi thinks of the boy he found in Lan Sizhui’s bed his first morning back. Wavy-haired, well-tanned Wen Yuan, wearing red robes and a woven necklace. In some ways, he gets it. Hadn’t he basically told Lan Sizhui that he thought there was a stranger intruding?

“Sizhui,” he says, because he’s an idiot and this is weeks overdue, “I should have told you that first day. I don’t care what you look like or what you call yourself. You’re you. Your travels were important to you and you should never have to pretend they weren’t, especially around me.”

Lan Sizhui gives him a watery smile. It’s bright and clear, even through the tears, filling up the whole room. Lan Jingyi’s heart squeezes and he reaches out to poke Lan Sizhui’s cheek.

There you are,” he says, not even trying to hide his relief. “I missed you.”

Lan Sizhui lets out a laugh this time and, mindful of Lan Jingyi’s injuries, he pulls him into a hug. Lan Jingyi only has one arm to lend, but he wraps it around Lan Sizhui and doesn’t let go first. He won’t, not now, not ever. When they finally do break apart, Lan Jingyi says, after clearing his throat to chase away any hoarseness:

“Now. I’m assuming we’ve got this room until tomorrow, and I know you haven’t slept. As it so happens, I’m gravely wounded and would like to be held, since the person normally responsible for doing so has been away recently.”

Lan Sizhui looks a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I thought -- it felt wrong to be so casual when I felt like I was lying to you about who I was.”

“No apologies,” Lan Jingyi says firmly. “Only cuddles. Hurry up.”

It takes some arranging, a few sharp intakes of breath from Lan Jingyi, but the two of them finally end up in the bed with Lan Jingyi curled up on his good side, head pillowed on Lan Sizhui’s chest. In the quiet of the inn room, his friend’s heartbeat steady underneath him, Lan Jingyi can’t help but marvel that he gets to have this again. Gets to hold Lan Sizhui and be held in return. Gets to night hunt with him. Gets to share the precious knowledge of his family. The Grandmaster has always said that Lan Jingyi’s nature demands discipline, requires punishment, but he can’t help but feel that he’s done something right if the Heavens have given him Lan Sizhui.

A week after the events in Tangjing, Lan Sizhui still hasn’t run out of stories from his travels. Lan Jingyi doesn’t mind in the slightest.

His soft voice, recounting a particular night hunt on his travels, fills the quiet evening as they approach the edge of Caiyi. He only falls silent when they arrive at a small house set slightly apart from the others.

“So, what should I call him?” Lan Jingyi asks as they follow the stone path to the front door. They pass a small garden, already tilled for the upcoming summer.

“Ah, well…” Lan Sizhui’s expression turns thoughtful. “I call him Wen-shushu, but Wen-gongzi should be fine, I think.”

There’s no way Lan Jingyi is going to call the fucking Ghost General something as simple as gongzi, but before he can comment, they’ve arrived at the doorstep. Lan Sizhui knocks lightly.

The man who opens the door looks nothing like the stories Lan Jingyi heard of the Ghost General growing up. Sure, even when they met a few weeks ago he seemed… more normal than the legends suggested, but now he looks downright average -- like he’s able to blend into any crowd, which maybe is the point. His robes are simple and black, high-necked, with a red under robe that looks suspiciously like Lan Sizhui’s. There’s a similar braided necklace around his neck, too, distracting from the black veins creeping up from his collar. His hair is tied back, revealing a gentle and eager face, even if it is a bit stiff.

“A-Yuan!” he says, the warmth in his tone conveying what his face no longer can. His eyes move to Lan Jingyi, no less kind. “And Lan-gongzi.”

They both make their bows. When they rise, Lan Sizhui says, “Wen-shushu, this is Jingyi. He was one of the kidnapped disciples at Burial Mounds.”

Lan Jingyi bobs his head. “Hi, Wen-qianbei.”

Wen-qianbei seems a little flustered by anyone calling him senior, but he doesn’t seem displeased. At his side, Lan Jingyi can feel Lan Sizhui beaming.

“Please, come in,” Wen-qianbei says, moving aside and opening the door further. The house is small and obviously recently settled, but it’s cozy. There’s a fire in the hearth and he’s set out tea that Lan Jingyi is almost certain he can’t drink himself, since he’s dead and all.

(Lan Jingyi has made several oaths to himself not to grill Wen-qianbei with any of his burning questions about being dead until at least their second meeting. He’s doing it for Lan Sizhui.)

They settle before the fire and Lan Sizhui pours everyone tea. Lan Jingyi catches Wen-qianbei staring at him several times before he says, sounding embarrassed, “Lan-gongzi… did I, perhaps, attack you at Dafan Mountain during a night hunt once?”

“You did strangle me a bit,” Lan Jingyi says, utterly unconcerned as he accepts a cup from Lan Sizhui. Before Wen-qianbei can open his mouth to apologize, he continues, “It was kind of the coolest thing that ever happened to me. And I did pull a sword on your first. Sorry about that.”

Wen-qianbei glances at Lan Sizhui like he’s not sure what to do with that information, and Lan Sizhui just smiles back with a helpless shrug. Wen-qianbei turns back to Lan Jingyi and says, “Still, I apologize. I was not myself that day.”

“Water under the bridge,” Lan Jingyi says with a confident wave of his hand. “Now, please tell me you have embarrassing baby stories about Sizhui.”

They settle into an easy rhythm after that, two of them drinking tea while Wen-qianbei, his cup untouched, tells them stories. Lan Jingyi finds himself thoroughly enjoying them, even the ones he’s already heard from Lan Sizhui. After all, Lan Sizhui’s stories tend to sound more like reports: what kinds of creatures they hunted, how they fought, their eventual victory, all the while downplaying his own efforts. In Wen-qianbei’s retellings, though, his focus is always on Lan Sizhui: what techniques he used, his clever deductions, his bravery and kindness and skill. It’s obvious how much he adores him. Lan Sizhui blushes more than once and every time, Lan Jingyi smiles wider and presses for more details, which seems to make Wen-qianbei happy.

Stories from their travels flow seamlessly into tales from the past, fewer of which Lan Jingyi has heard from Lan Sizhui. It soon becomes obvious why: they carry a special weight coming from Wen-qianbei that can’t be replicated. He speaks with a quiet tenderness about his family’s specialization in medicine -- “Oh, so I have your teachings to thank for the excellent bandage job Sizhui did on me!” -- and of the people who, had they survived, would have called Lan Sizhui A-Yuan. Aunts and uncles and grandmothers, all lost. It’s like peeking behind a veil and finding an entire world of what might have been. Lan Jingyi understands wholeheartedly why Lan Sizhui’s late night walks after his return always brought him here, to his uncle’s home, and why he wanted to come alone. Lan Jingyi finds himself close to tears more than once, still trying to grapple with the fact that Lan Sizhui is sharing this with him now.

More than once, Wei-qianbei comes up, both in stories of the past and discussions of the present. Wen-qianbei seems hesitant to say much about him during their stay in Burial Mounds, but he does lament that they failed to run into him during their travels.

“I think he was trying to give us space,” Wen-qianbei says with his stiff approximation of a smile.

“He probably thinks he’s giving Hanguang-Jun space, too,” Lan Sizhui says with a small frown.

“Don’t be too upset with him,” Wen-qianbei advises. “When it comes to Hanguang-Jun, he was this way in his last life, too. If anything, this is an improvement.”

Both Lans groan.

They’re well into their third round of tea, idly discussing night hunts in the area, when Wen-qianbei turns to Lan Jingyi and says, “A-Yuan and I have a night hunt planned for the first day of summer. You should join us, Lan-gongzi.”

Lan Jingyi’s brain splits neatly in half at his words, one part immediately vibrating with the utter joy of being invited night hunting with the Ghost General, and not even just that, but Lan Sizhui’s uncle. The other part, though, catches on a detail like tripping over a rogue stone, and his brow furrows. He looks to Lan Sizhui, who’s suddenly gone very pale.

“Oh,” Lan Sizhui says faintly, the same way he did when he once broke one of the strings on Hanguang-Jun’s guqin.

Wen-qianbei doesn’t say anything, just blinks as he looks between the two of them.

“Ah…” Lan Jingyi’s heart jumps at the gentle tremble in Lan Sizhui’s voice. He watches him look desperately to his uncle, panic visible in every line of his face. “Wen-shushu, I… oh, I’m so sorry. I told Hanguang-Jun that I would -- I can… I can ask someone else -- ”

“Sizhui’s been asked to help the conservator this year,” Lan Jingyi explains, since it’s apparent Lan Sizhui is quickly losing the ability to do so. Wen-qianbei turns to him with curious eyes. “It’s... ah… how should I describe it? Every year the sect hires a conservator to repair the old books in the library.” That makes it sound too simple, so Lan Jingyi adds, “Like, the ancient texts. Sacred ones, under lock and key. Usually Hanguang-Jun oversees it, and he won’t let anyone else do it -- like, it was such a big deal that back when he traveled, he used to come all the way home just for that. But this year he’s finally passing it off to Sizhui!”

“It’s an honor,” Wen-qianbei summarizes in his soft, kind way. He looks back to Lan Sizhui, who looks like he’s slowly deflating, but still manages to nod.

“But I can ask him to consider someone else!” Lan Sizhui hurries to add. “We planned this and I forgot and -- ”

“A-Yuan,” Wen-qianbei says, gentle but firm. Lan Sizhui winces slightly, but stops talking. His uncle reaches out a hand and sets it on his shoulder. “It’s okay. There will be other night hunts.” When Lan Sizhui opens his mouth like he wants to protest, Wen-qianbei just laughs softly and shakes his head. “I may be able to steal A-Yuan for night hunts whenever I want, but Lan Sizhui is an important disciple of Gusu Lan.”

“I…” Lan Sizhui looks distraught. “But…”

He looks like he needs a hug. Is it weird if Lan Jingyi hugs him in front of his uncle? He hugged Lan Sizhui in front of the Grandmaster once and got three days of handstands and rule-copying as a result, but that might have been because of all the running and shouting prior to the hug. (In his defense, Lan Jingyi hadn’t seen Lan Sizhui in two weeks, the latter being restricted to the medical pavilion while he fought a nasty cough.) Right as Lan Jingyi decides that Wen-qianbei seems cool enough not to mind, though, Wen-qianbei says:

“You aren’t choosing one family over the other.” He smiles at him, or at least, Lan Jingyi thinks that’s what he’s trying to do with the remaining muscles in his face. Regardless, it seems to comfort Lan Sizhui. “There’s only one family, your family, and it’s all the Wens and the Lans who love you.” He pauses, considering, and adds, “And all the Weis. He would want to be included.”

That earns him a shaky laugh from Lan Sizhui, who thankfully hasn’t started properly crying: Lan Jingyi would hate to cry in front of Wen-qianbei during their first meeting.

Wen-qianbei withdraws his hand and pours them more tea while Lan Sizhui collects himself. Lan Jingyi proposes a new night hunt for some time in midsummer, Wen-qianbei asks more about the book conservation work Lan Sizhui is now in charge of, and the moment passes like a held breath released. The evening slips back into something easy, conversation flowing until it’s time for all good Lan disciples to be in bed. They bid their farewells to Wen-qianbei, who seems touched when Lan Jingyi asks if he can visit again.

“Oh man,” Lan Jingyi says, nearly bouncing as they walk back. Once they clear the town limits, they can mount their swords. “I knew he was going to be cool, Sizhui, but he was so much cooler than I expected.”

Lan Sizhui’s laugh is bright. “I think he likes you, too.” He pauses, glancing over his shoulder to Wen-qianbei’s small house, smile fading slightly. “I’m glad you like him. He needs more friends.”

Poor Wen-qianbei, living on the outskirts of town. Is it because he’s a corpse or because he’s a Wen? Lan Jingyi had asked on their way down. Lan Sizhui’s expression had been enough. It makes Lan Jingyi furious. Who cares if he’s a Wen? Every sect has good people and bad people. Look at Lanling Jin! Most of them are garbage, but then there’s Jin Ling, who’s… slightly better garbage. (He means this with all the love in his heart.)

“We should visit again soon,” Lan Jingyi says firmly. “Is tomorrow too soon? Maybe. Two days? Do you think we could set up something regular, like lunch every week? Wait, shit, he doesn’t eat -- he doesn’t, right?”

“Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui says. He looks over to see Lan Sizhui watching him with a small smile. “We’ll see him again soon.” When Lan Jingyi nods, Lan Sizhui looks away, distantly scanning the forests that surround Caiyi. “He gives good advice, don’t you think?” he says thoughtfully.

Lan Jingyi thinks about how Wen-qianbei explained (in detail, per Lan Jingyi’s request) how to kill a Feiyi Snake with its own fangs. “Yeah, he does.”

“It got me thinking,” Lan Sizhui continues, his free hand fiddling with one of the ties on his robe. “Well, I’ve been thinking. But… after what he said about families…” Lan Sizhui meets his eyes. “I think I’m going to accept Hanguang-Jun’s offer. To be heir-apparent.”

They’ve stopped walking. Lan Jingyi stares at him. Blinks. “Because you want to?”

Tension bleeds out of Lan Sizhui and his responding grin is wide and bright, like sunshine. “Because I want to. I really do.”

Sizhui!” Lan Jingyi crows, all decorum lost as he surges forward and grabs him around the waist, lifting him off his feet to spin him around.

“Jingyi! No! Your injuries!”

It’s true that there’s a slight twinge and he’ll probably regret it a bit in the morning, but right now Lan Jingyi can’t be bothered to care. “Lan Sizhui! Heir-apparent to Gusu Lan!”

Lan Sizhui shushes him frantically, but he’s laughing at the same time, hitting his good shoulder. “Put me down!”

He does, if only because of a sharp pain in his side. Still, they stay right there, Lan Jingyi beaming at him. The best part is that Lan Sizhui is smiling right back, utterly at peace. Happy with his decision, which is all Lan Jingyi has ever wanted him to be.

“Sizhui,” he says, heart feeling way too big for his chest. “I’m going to be so proud to serve under you as sect leader someday.” Before Lan Sizhui can say anything, Lan Jingyi continues, “But for tonight, as your first act as heir-apparent, I’m going to need you to help comb my hair, because I think I just reopened three stitches.”

Jingyi!

He loops his arm through Lan Sizhui’s. “Let’s go home.”

Hanguang-Jun looks up from his guqin, eyes moving from Lan Jingyi to Lan Sizhui. Both bow and take a seat before him, the grass cold and damp beneath them. The new moon leaves the rabbit field in darkness, the only light coming from a small lantern beside Hanguang-Jun, bathing the three of them in a soft glow.

A curious rabbit approaches Lan Sizhui immediately, and Lan Jingyi decides not to feel betrayed. Instead, he focuses on the mission at hand.

“Hanguang-Jun,” he says in his most formal tone, “as you know, these humble disciples are behind in their night hunts for the season.” He pauses and Hanguang-Jun blinks, which he assumes is a sign to continue. Beside him, Lan Sizhui calmly pets the rabbit in his lap. “As such, these humble disciples ask for permission to leave Cloud Recesses for the remainder of the season to night hunt in the area. These disciples will send reports back as needed to document the hunts and will not wander aimlessly, but with purpose, aiding those they can along the way.”

It’s quiet for a moment before Hanguang-Jun asks, “The purpose of this night hunt?”

Lan Jingyi looks to Lan Sizhui, whose posture straightens reflexively.

“Hanguang-Jun,” Lan Sizhui says, “these disciples wish to track the nefarious Yiling Patriarch, with the intent to return him to Cloud Recesses for questioning regarding certain incidents in the area.”

“It’s unclear how long such questioning will take,” Lan Jingyi adds.

There’s a shine of amusement in Hanguang-Jun’s eyes. “Incidents?”

“The Yiling Patriarch is well-known for causing such problems as flooding and poor crop yield,” Lan Sizhui says, perfectly serious. “We wish only to question him on his involvement. If he is innocent, we will release him.”

That’s definitely the tick of a smile being repressed. Lan Jingyi is sure of it.

“The Yiling Patriarch,” Hanguang-Jun says softly, “is difficult to catch when he does not wish to be caught.”

Don’t bring him here against his will, he means. Don’t interrupt whatever business he’s in the middle of.

“Of course,” Lan Jingyi says. “These disciples will do their best. There is certainly potential that they may not succeed. After all, these disciples must return by the start of summer for the conservator’s arrival.”

“That said, these disciples feel he can be baited effectively,” Lan Sizhui says with confidence.

“Baited,” Hanguang-Jun repeats.

Lan Sizhui nods. “Yes. These disciples will tell him they bring letters for him from Hanguang-Jun.”

Lan Jingyi holds his breath as Hanguang-Jun looks between the two of them, appraising. They both knew the risks before they decided to move forward. It’s very possible Hanguang-Jun will see this as needless interference from well-meaning, but nonetheless nosy juniors. It is, Lan Sizhui had said, a risk I’m willing to take. And if Lan Sizhui was willing, how could Lan Jingyi not be? He’d follow Lan Sizhui to hell if he had to. The risk of offending a senior is nothing compared to that.

Finally, Hanguang-Jun says, “Then it seems I should prepare a set of letters for you.”

Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui both let out a breath and exchange small smiles. Lan Sizhui, ever the bolder of the two of them despite what others might think, adds, “Hanguang-Jun.” Hanguang-Jun turns his gaze to Lan Sizhui, who pauses, then says, “Father. Forgive me, but… when you write your letters, please consider that Wei-qianbei may not know what you want from him unless you ask.” He glances at Lan Jingyi with a small smile, blissfully unaware of the panic stirring in Lan Jingyi’s chest, then back to Hanguang-Jun. “I spent a few weeks miserable because I didn’t ask. If you could learn from my mistake, I would be grateful.”

Hanguang-Jun regards both of them, eyes lingering a second longer on Lan Jingyi, who is definitely starting to sweat. Giving a senior their own advice isn’t technically against the rules, but he still feels decidedly caught. He probably should have told Lan Sizhui where the advice came from to avoid this exact situation, but, as in many situations in his life, Lan Jingyi’s hindsight has a much sharper eye.

“It is after curfew,” Hanguang-Jun says at last, voice calm and unaffected as always. “Return to bed. Copy the rules pertaining to care of the mind and body tomorrow.” He pauses. “When you bring them to my office, I will have your letters ready. You will leave in a week.”

They both prepare to bow and leave, but then Hanguang-Jun adds, “Sizhui.” Lan Sizhui straightens even further if it’s possible. There’s the ghost of a smile on Hanguang-Jun’s face. “Your advice is noted.”

“Thank you, Hanguang-Jun,” they chorus, bowing low, then make a break for the dormitory. Lan Jingyi, filled with something so bright that it feels like a small sun inside him, puts in a burst of speed that blows past Lan Sizhui’s brisk walk.

“Jingyi!” Lan Sizhui’s voice hisses. “No running!

The warmth inside of him grows.

His audience is home.