It all begins quite pleasantly. He's on a path in the middle of a small wood, having a protracted disagreement with Little Apple about whether or not she'll be moving again today, when a gaggle of white-draped Lan disciples appear around the nearby bend in the road. He has a moment of instinctively wondering if he should hide before-
"Hay, is that Senior Wei? Senior Wei, is that you?"
-tells him that it's Jingyi, and a flurry of fast-but-not-quite-running footsteps signals Sizhui breaking out ahead of the group to come greet him. He comes to a stop and sketches out a neet bow.
"A-Yuan" he bows in return, smiling widely.
He's seen Sizhui with Wen Ning a few times in the months since Guanyin temple, but last time he'd seen Wen Ning the man was traveling alone, Sizhui seen safely back to the Cloud Recesses.
They’re still finding their footing with each other. Wei Wuxian was a comparatively brief presence in Wen Yuan’s life, but at the time a very significant one, and what he represents is… complicated. Safety, but chaos. Conversely, A-Yuan’s presumed death was bloodstained foam on another wave of devistations, and finding him alive, alive , is a gift from the heavens, but finding him alive as a Lan disciple on the cusp of adulthood what feels like scant months after Wei Wuxian last saw him as the youngest Wen remnant is a very unsettling gift from the heavens. They both need time, together and apart.
Lan Jingyi catches up and gives him a pofunctory greeting, which he returns, before giving Little Apple a much more involved greeting, scratching her ears and calling her the best donkey, which is an obvious falsehood. Behind Sizhui and Jingyi, three younger disciples hang back cautiously, two girls and a boy. He doesn't think he recognises them, but that doesn't tell him anything for sure. They don’t look outright hostile though, which is a good start. He decides to ignore them until they decide he’s not a threat, like he would feral cats. Which is when Sizhui starts introductions.
“Senior Wei, these junior disciples are accompanying us to observe a night hunt. This is Lan Lihua-” the tallest girl bows “-Lan Zhurong-” another bow “-and Lan Biming.” a final bow, from the boy. He's reminded of a stormy sea, all that white and black going up and down.
“Disciples, this is Wei Wuxian.”
He bows, schooling his features so he doesn't laugh at the baby juniors, who all look a little faint.
“Night hunt?” He asks.
“Yes. A village along the border requested help. There were strange occurrences in the nearby woods, and when they went to look they found some woodsmen had died in a rockslide.”
“Ahh. Did they bury the bodies properly?”
“They were unable to retrieve them.” Sizhui reports. “Unnatural sounds and movements threatened another rockslide when they tried.”
"Screaming. A lot of screaming."
“And what could cause that?”
“We suspect their spirits are restless.”
“Why suspect? Violent death, no burial, strange happens around the bodies, what else could it be?”
Sizhui gave him a smile that was disconcerting reminiscent of Lan Xichen, and turned to the younger disciples.
“Who can answer Senior Wei’s question?”
They freeze and very carefully don’t look at him or each other, until Lan Liling steps forwards and bowes nervously.
“It is unwise to draw a conclusion from the reports of non-cultivators, who may miss or misrepresent important evidence. If you draw the wrong conclusion you may be unprepared for the situation you find yourself in.” She recites in a rush.
“Precisely. Once, when I was the senior disciple at Lotus Pier, we got called to deal with what we concluded , from reports, was restless spirits. It was very obvious. Drowning victim, body not found but strange sounds and sights, unexplained damages. I took some juniors along, had them all rehearse how to settle the spirit, took all the right talismans, and we got taken completely unawares when it was something else.”
“And what was it?” Sizhui asks.
“Squirrel… yao?” Lan Liling asks, confused.
“No, just squirrels. Who are surprising vicious if you disturb the nice warm loft where they're raising their babies."
There's an amused (Sizhui and Jingyi) and incredulous (the baby Lans) silence.
"It turned out the victim hadn’t actually died, we found him in a village a few miles down the river recovering from nearly drowning. The messenger they sent to his mother had gotten lost on the way. Quite embarrassing for everyone involved, really.”
The babies all have a look that Wei Wuxian is beginning to recognise, the look of people meeting the notorious Yiling patriarch of childhood horror stories and realising that he's a slightly ridiculous person with a recalcitrant donkey. It's sometimes followed by a different look, when they realise he's a slightly ridiculous person with a recalcitrant donkey and the power to command the dead , but they don’t have it quite yet, and so he might get lucky this time.
While their worldview is recalibrating, Sizhui bows formally, then nudges Jingyi until he bows too, and they offer a very polite invitation to join their night hunt. Wei Wuxian bows back. He’s not going anywhere in particular, just wandering the world, trying to find a space to slot back into.
"This humble one would be honoured"
And so he lets Jingyi turn Little Apple around and follows along, trying to look non threatening and knowledgeable to the younger disciples as he swaps news and stories with the older two.
Hanguang-jun is settling into the roll of Chief Cultivator by annoying sect leaders in new and more obstructionist ways then he could before. Wen Ning is finding that if he’s quiet and friendly, most people more than a day’s travel from a major town care more about his medical experience and willingness to carry very heavy objects than his vital status. Jin Ling is taking to the responsibilities of his new position like a duck to water, while many of the Jin elders are taking to the situation like ducks to high level politics. Wei Wuxian has befriended a household of Meishan natives on the border of Gusu who make the hottest pepper oil he’s found outside of Yunmeng. Lan Xichen is technically in seclusion, but is receiving regular visits from Lan Qiren, Lan Wangji, Lan Sizhui, and whoever Lan Sizhui decides to bring with him. Wei Wuxian is so proud.
The babies gradually relax, and Lan Biming even starts asking questions about night hunts past. Lan Lihua won’t take her eyes off Chenqing whenever it’s in his hands, but she’s perfected the Lan blankly placid expression so he can’t tell if she’s intrigued or terrified or both, no matter how much he waves it around.
They reach a market town as the sun is beginning to sink. The plan is to stay at an inn tonight, make the final push through to the village and night hunt in the morning, and be back here for another night afterwards. If all goes well. If it doesn't, they'll make it up as they go.
The inn is simple but clean, and seems quite content to have five Lans and a dishevelled miscellaneous cultivator staying. Lan Biming looks momentarily horrified at the notion that he might have to share a room with the Yiling Patriarch before Sizhui gets them three rooms. Then all the babies look horrified that Sizhui plans to share a room with the Yiling Patriarch, before Jingyi and Sizhui march them off to get settled in and cleaned up, while Wei Wuxian starts haggling for donkey storage. Sizhui has quietly assured him that Gusu Lan will be picking up the tab of his detour, but it's the principal of the thing.
The babies are more cautious when they come back down for dinner, giving Wei Wuxian as wide a berth as they can and making meaningful eye contact with each other when they think he’s not looking (he's always looking. Too many people have tried to stab him recently). The conversation is rather one sided, five of them forbidden from talking during meals, but Wei Wuxian has never let a total lack of response deter him from a conversation, and Sizhui and Jingji are content to bend the rules enough to nod and “mn” appreciatively where appropriate.
After they’ve eaten, Jingji offers to take the babies out to see the night market. The accept readily and file out while Sizhui smiles indulgently and reminds them to have Jingji back by curfew. The more he relaxes, the less he feels the need to prove himself, the more Sizhui becomes the sort of little shit Lan Zhan would be if he ever let himself say all the things he thought. It’s kind of great.
“So how have you been, really?” He asks once they’re back upstairs.
“I’m…. I’m not sure.” Sizhui says quietly, sitting on one of the beds.
“Oh?” Wei Wuxian sits opposite him.
“It’s been strange, being back in the Cloud Recesses now I know what I know. It’s my home and I love it, but it’s only my home because of… everything.” he bites his lip, frowning. He looks frustrated, and Wei Wuxian wonders if this is the first time he’s tried to put any of this into words. Finally he bursts out “People talk so casually about- about killing my family . They boast about it. They always have and I never- I never knew . I know why the sunshot campagne happened, I know why Wen Rouhan had to be stopped, but afterwards…” he trails off, looking lost.
“The afterwards was bad” Wei Wuxian agrees softly.
“And nobody but you tried to fix anything. Nobody but you cared and people still act like it was you that did something bad, not everyone who stood by, or that actually- that actually did - And Lan Qiren is still really cross about your… everything.”
“He’s remarkably consistent in that.”
“But a week ago he said that nothing good can come of your demonic cultivation, and all I could think about was that you tried to save us with demonic cultivation, you saved me , that me being alive is because of your demonic cultivation. How is that bad. How is me being alive bad.”
“Oh A-Yuan, you being alive is the best thing I ever did.”
“I was so angry, all I could do was stand up and leave the class. But now he’s all…. ugh.”
“Let me guess, now he’s mad about me corrupting the youth?”
Sizhui laughs. It’s a mirthless sound.
“He was already mad about it, Senior Wei, but now he's loud about it. The others who were with us in Coffin Town, they argue in favor of you. The burial mounds too. Everyone who actually meets you likes you.”
“Everyone reasonable who meets you likes you.”
“The babies didn’t seem to like me at dinner.”
“Oh. Lan Lihua told the others she could see human teeth marks on Chenqing and they all freaked out a bit. I told them that was silly, but she’s convinced.”
“You want to know what’s silly? What’s silly is that you decided it was the only thing you were going to teeth on!”
“Look! Right there!” He holds Chenqing out, pointing to the tiny indents on one end. Sizhui takes Chenqing, he’s always been one of the few people it tolerates being held by, and looks at the marks. Then he bursts out laughing.
“Really? This was- this was the second most feared tool in the cultivation world! You let me teeth on it?”
“I didn’t let you, I couldn’t stop you! For six months, every time I put it down you tried to run off with it. You tried to chew on it when it was in my belt more than once! You were incorrigible, I’m just lucky you never wanted to play catch with the tiger seal.”
"I've seen you block sword blows with this, and there's not even a scratch on it. How did I ever leave teeth marks on it?"
" I have no idea ."
Sizhui turns the flute in his hands, looking at the polished wood, the carvings, the tiny inexplicable marks where he cut his teeth. Physical proof of a life he barely remembers. He hands it back to its master.
"Play something for me Xian-gege?"
Wei Wuxian smiles, takes Chenqing, and plays until falls asleep.
The baby Juniors seem less worried by him in the morning. He suspects Jingyi spent the night market trip waging a campaign of cool stories about Senior Wei , because they ask him about Mo Manor, Coffin Town, using himself as a lure on the Burial Mounds, using musical cultivation in close quarter combat, and that time Lan Zhan got drunk and tried to steal him some chickens .
They seem to have replaced their fear of Chenqing with a fear of his cooking, which is both insulting and hilarious, and a strategy that will only ever work on Lans. They also get very giggly about the chickens, especially when they realise he’s embarrassed .
He’s getting laughed at by teanagers.
It absolutely will not stand, so he starts firing questions right back. He finds out that Lan Biming is Jingyi’s first cousin. He’s showing promise with protective arrays. He and Lan Zhurong are 14, Lan Lihua is 15. Lan Zhurong is the best in her class at swords. They’ve all observed on night hunts before, but this is their first time without a teacher. They are expected to stand well back and watch, and then write about it extensively. Lan Lihua is learning musical cultivation with the guchin and is expected to observe Sizhui closely if-and-when he settles the restless spirits. He exchanges a quick look with Sizhui, who nods permission.
“You’ve seen it done before?” He asks Lan Lihua.
“Yes, senior Wei. Twice. One time was Hanguang-jun, it was amazing .”
“He is, isn’t he.” he agreed, and tried to ignore the giggling in the background. “You know the songs to play?”
“Yes, I’ve studied the scores and I can infuse them with spiritual energy. Teacher Lan said I’m learning well.”
“I see. What else do you need to learn?”
“Oh, well, mostly I need to watch and practice. And then, you know. Do it.”
“Do you want to do it?”
“Yes? That’s… why I’m learning.”
“Good. You can do it today.”
“It’ll be good practice.”
" That's not how you practice "
"Sure it is. Don't worry, I'll be there if you need help"
She looks imploringly at Sizhui and whispers “ Da-shixiong, help!”
"Don't worry, Shimei. Senior Wei's teaching methods are very different to Cloud Recesses', but he's very competent. I wouldn't let him suggest this if I didn't trust him."
Lan Lihua seems to realise that she’s not been privy to the full conversation and nods slowly.
“I suppose it will be- a good- opportunity? Learning experience?” She sounds uncertain. “I’m not going to get in trouble right?”
“No.” Sizhui reasures her, “Teacher Lan might shout a bit, but I’ll take responsibility. Hanguang-jun will back me up.”
“Shouting is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.” Wei Wuxian recites cheerfully.
They take the road out of the town and to the village. Then the dirt path out of the village to the woods. Then it’s just dirt, except it’s been raining on and off, so it’s more mud than anything else. Sizhui sighs dramatically about it.
“It’s not that bad.” Wei Wuxian says. “You should see Yunmeng in flood season.” He says it lightly, trying to ignore how much he wants to show Sizhui Yunmeng flood season and every other season, show him all the places he grew up in, after Yiling. He’d thought, once, madly, that he might get to take A-Yuan there and teach him to swim.
"Sizhui doesn't like walking on mud," Jingyi explains, breaking into his thoughts before they can become a spiral. More of a spiral.
"I don't like how it sticks to my feet," Sizhui says primly, which makes a kind of sense and is very Lan, so Wei Wuxian doesn't think any more about it for hours.
They get to the site mid morning. It’s a tidy little dwelling, a small courtyard in a clearing, low house on one side, a shed on the second, a half filled charcoal kiln on the third, and the fourth open to the forrest. Very picturesque.
Nobody answers when they call out, so they poke around a bit. Everything’s in good repair, but dusty. Like it was well cared for until it abruptly wasn’t. The charcoal kiln is damp where it caught the rain. The ground around the courtyard is mostly undisturbed. Deer tracks maybe day old, but nothing since. No human footprints.
Then things get weird.
First, the charcoal kiln explodes, which ok, dramatic , then the wind whips up like a storm from nowhere. The Lans all duck, quick reflexes; Wei Wuxian summons up a repelling barrier. He’s not showing off, per say, just… demonstrating what’s possible.Setting a good example.
Then the disembodied screaming starts.
They group up in the middle of the courtyard. Jingy and Lan Zhurong have swords drawn, Lan Biming has a talisman out but keeps throwing distracted looks at Wei Wuxian’s barrier (it’s new, he’ll wright it down for them later). Lan Lihau has her guqin out and looks like she can’t decide between hiding behind it or throwing it at the next thing that moves (he’s seen Sizhui bludgeon things with his own surprisingly sturdy guqin, so who knows, maybe it’s a recognised technique in the Lan sect). Sizhui is light on his feet, poised with one hand on his sword and the other ready to summon his guqin, scanning the courtyard for visible threats. He’s very good. Wei Wuxian is very proud.
“Thoughts?” he calls.
“It’s not squirrels!” Jingyi shouts.
“You don’t say.” When nothing else explodes and and ghostly voices don’t get any more coherent, he pulls chenqing from his belt and plays a few low, soothing bars. The wind drops a little and the voices don’t dissipate, but the wordless screeching gets quieter. “Ok, I can keep them calm, who can play Inquiry? Lan Lihua?”
“Nope, no I can’t do that! We don’t learn that until we’re older than me! Please don’t make me do it!” Lan Lihua squeaks, as if terrified Wei Wuxian might try to teach her the score on the spot. Really, these Lans need more hands on lessons if this is how they react to a bit of practical learning.
Shizhui nods, produces his guqin, and starts inquiry. He plays more confidently than he had in Coffin town, which is nice to see, but doesn’t relay what the spirits say till he’s finished, which is odd. Unless he thinks what they say will unsettle the babies more than Wei Wuxian already has. He does seem increasingly upset with what they say, tightness in the corners of his eyes, in the cords of his neck, staccato notes on his fingertips.
“They died in the rockslide during a storm, both of them. One crushed, the other drowned in the- in the mud. Their bodies were left too long. They… think they were abandoned. Angry at being left so long.” He disappears the guqin. “This way”
They find the bodies. They have to move the rocks around a bit first. It’s not pretty, and the babies balk a little, but they’re cultivators. They’ll see worse.
“So. Settling?” he asks. Sizhui nods vaguely. He looks like he’s not paying attention, and Wei Wuxian wonders if he just hasn’t got the Hanguang-jun everything that’s happening is uninteresting look quite right yet.
Then Lan Lihua gets out her guqin again and the next twenty minutes are intense . They probably don’t look that way to anybody else, but Lan Lihua is setting real live (dead) spirits for the first time, and all the theory in the world can’t really prepare you for the reality. Wei Wuxian is watching, eyes flickering over shadows only he can see, prompting her to use more or less energy, redirect here or there, wait, wait, now , and only occasionally bringing Chenqing to his lips to help her out of a tricky spot.
When they’re finally done, Lan Biming and Lan Zhurong manage to catch Lan Lihua by the elbows before she sits down right in the mud.
“Oh wow,” she breathes, “Oh fuck . Oh! Sorry da-shixiong. Oh wow I really did it. Teacher Lan is going to be so mad .”
“Aiya, don’t worry so much about Teacher Lan. He used to shout at me all the time, and I’m fine.”
“All respect, senior Wei,” Jingyi says “you’re not fine, you’re crazy.”
“Jingyi, be nice. Now, grave digging.” Lans Biming and Zhurong look at Sizhui to check this latest development. Sizhui nods vaguely. “Who's done this before?"
It turns out that Wei Wuxian's suspicions at Coffin Town were correct, and nobody is teaching today's future cultivaters the practicalities of burying bodies, which seems deeply irresponsible given A , the frequency of dead bodies, and B , the consequences of not treating dead bodies properly, see for example the last twenty minutes . He launches into a spiel he thinks of as introductory corps disposal .
He makes it as far as the bit about water table contamination before one of them cracks. It’s Lan Biming, who’s relation to Jingyi is plainly obvious when he shrieks “How do you know all this?”
There’s a horrified silence. He remembers that since the last time he gave this speech, he’s been revealed as the terrifying Yiling Patriarch who will definitely come curse you/eat you/desecrate the graves of your ancestors if you don’t finish your dinner/go to bed/listen to your elders.
“Not because I dug people up! Much. I mean, just, you know, there was a war. We all learnt. We all had to.”
There’s an even more horrified silence. Lan Zhurong makes a little “oh on” sound and a vague motion kind of like she wants to- pet him?
“Ok, lets just… lets just get this done. Do you have shovels? Thought not. I think I saw some in the hut. You should really add them to your night hunting kit though.”
Lan Zhurong helps Lan Lihau find somewhere a bit less muddy to sit. Lan Biming goes to get the shovels. Sizhui and Jingyi go to- he’s not sure actually. Really, if they’re trying to set him up as a figure of respect and scholarly authority, he’s not sure that grave digging is necessarily the activity to leave him supervising alone. Then again, maybe they just don’t want to dig the graves.
They're almost done when Jingyi reappears looking worried and pulls him aside. He glances questioningly at Lan Biming, filling in the last of the holes, who nods and waves at him to go. Lan Zhurong is scouting for good marker rocks. Lan Lihua is still sitting on a tree stump still looking stunned and occasionally poking her guqin. She’ll be very good, he thinks, in a few more years. She respects the magnitude of what she’s done.
"I need- you need to come help me with Sizhui," Jingyi murmurs once they're out of earshot.
"what do you mean? What's wrong with Sizhui?"
"He gets- it's not often- it's like nightmares but he's awake. Not usually, I don't think it's happened for- for a while- he's not crazy! And he's not week. It's just-"
He squeezes Jingyi's shoulder, trying to project 'responsible senior'. He’s… he’s pretty sure he knows exactly what Jingyi’s talking about.
"I know. I've seen it happen to people. What helps?"
"I just- I talk to him? About anything. He normally comes back pretty quickly if someone's talking to him, but he's not- he's not coming back. You two- I don't know, he likes you, you're good at people, I thought-" he comes to a stop and gestures inarticulately.
Wei Wuxian nods and makes what he hopes is a reassuring noise, before they come around the side of the house and he finally sees Sizhui. He's at the edge of the rough-paved courtyard, right up against the side of the house, crouched down with his back against the wall, arms around his knees. His sword is sat down beside him. He's perfectly still, except for his hands, which are shaking, and his eyes, which flicker back and fourth, searching and unseeing. For a moment Wei Wuxian can almost see a small, rumpled child, crouching against the wall of a cave, awake but unable to throw off the night terror, whimpering when anyone comes too close. Ok , he thinks, I know how to do this .
He walks firmly, making sure his footfalls are audible, puts himself in Sizhui’s field of vision, calls out:
“Sizhui?” no response. “A-Yuan?” his eyes stop flickering. He’s not looking at anything specific but he’s not looking at whatever he was seeing before. Wei Wuxian crouches down a takes Sizhui’s hands. They’re trembling. His pulse is racing like a startled rabbit.
"A-Yuan, are you hurt?" he asks softly.
Sizhui's head twitches, not quite a shake but close enough.
"Are you sick?"
This time, a proper shake.
"Are you cold?" Sizhui hesitates, then his head dips, just a little, but enough. Cold. It's a warm day, for all it's rained recently, and they're in direct sunlight. Still, it's a response. He fishes a warming talisman from his robes, activates it, and pushes it into Sizhui's hands, then he sits at his side and pulls him closer, rubbing his hands briskly up and down Sizhui's arms to warm him up. He did this before, on the burial mounds. He thinks sometimes A-Yuan complained of being cold just to get Xian-gege to rub his arms and pull faces.
Jingyi settles down on A-Yuan's other side. Wei Wuxian smiles at him, but is privately glad he's not sat too close. The priority is grounding Sizhui, and the presence of another warm body would probably help, but for all he's probably reliving a time he was a terrified, defenses child, Lan Sizhui is currently a highly skilled disciple with a very sharp sword, and if he remembers that before he remembers that he's safe, things could get very tricky very fast. Wei Wuxian would really rather nobody get stabbed today. Especially since its usually him getting stabbed, and if he let's that happen to his dear sweet little A-Yuan he'll have to put himself in exile in a cave or something. Again.
"Do you know where you are?"
A frown. An abortive shrug.
"Do you know when you are?"
There's a pause, but his eyes look like they're focusing on the real world again, so Wei Wuxian just waits.
"We're in the woods. Near the south border. A village asked for help after some nearby woodsmen died. Restless spirits. We got here this morning. Buried the bodies. You helped Lan Lihua settle the spirits. She did well. It's Orchid month. You've been, been back , for most of a year." He slumps a little, his body loosing some of the rigid tension, head falling back. "I'm sorry, that hasn't happened in- I don't know. Years."
"You don't have to apologize," Jingyi says fervently, and Sizhui twitches a little, probably only just realising that his friend's even there.
"I know. I'm still sorry to make you worry."
"Do you know what- did something happen? I've not seen it that bad for- maybe ever"
"The bodies. The mud. How they- how they died. Made me think of the- place. The camp. Think I was back there."
"What camp?" Jingyi says, and Wei Wuxian feels Sizhui's shoulders to tense up again under him arm. Jingyi looks confused but not horrified. Not yet.
Sizhui sighs. He looks exhausted. He looks like Wei Wuxian feels on the nights when he can't close his eyes without seeing every mistake he ever made, every bloody consequence and ruined life. He can't help himself, and Sizhui goes easily when he tugs at him into a hug, tucks his head into the crook of Wei Wuxian's neck, face and forehead ribbon and unsteady breaths pressing into Wei Wuxian's skin.
Now Jingyi looks startled as well as confused. He can't know what sort of relationship Sizhui's claiming by doing that, and he looks like he can't decide between joining in with the hug or challenging Wei Wuxian to a duel. Possibly for Lan Zhan's honor. There's probably a rule against parenting someone's kid before you marry them. Well, joke's on Jingyi, Wei Wuxian was here first. That's sort of the issue.
"Can you explain?" Sizhui murmurs, "Xian-gege, I'm so tired. Can you explain?"
"Of cause. Of cause I can.”
He takes a moment to think, petting Sizhui's hair absentmindedly. There a lot to this story, and he doesn't want to push Sizhui back into a waking nightmare, but the better he explains the quicker it's done, and the less chance of Jingyi freaking out even more.
“I… found Sizhui at Qiongqi prison camp, the night I went looking for Wen Ning. Wen Yuan was the youngest one there. It was a very rainy season, there was a lot of mud. And a lot of bodies. There weren’t many prisoners left, you understand.” He glances over. Jingyi looks absolutely horrified, so yeah he probably understands. “This, the waking nightmares, it happened a few times when we lived on the burial mounds. After… after everything happened, he was the only one left alive. Lan Zhan found him and kept him safe, but by the time he found him he was so sick that the fever burnt out his memories.”
“I remembered though.” Sizhui objects. “After you came back.”
“Yes, you did, cleaver boy. But it took a while, and I already thought he was dead, so we didn’t work out that Lan Sizhui had been my little A-Yuan until after what happened at Guanyin temple. The truth is… politically delicate, so we’ve not been sharing it widely.”
“Qiongqi prison camp.” Jingyi says.
“A prison camp . When he was a baby .” He looks absolutely outraged and a little bit like he might cry. “What the fuck .”
“Language” Sizhui says, and that seems to push Jingyi over the edge, because he joins the hug in the most Lan Jingyi way possible, lunging at them and practically landing on Sizhui, who yelps but doesn’t object further. Wei Wuxian pats him on the back.
After a while, Jingyi says:
“ Oh, the whole thing with the Ghost General. That makes more sense now.”
The walk back the village, then the town, is a little awkward. Sizhui is subdued, Jingyi is paying more attention to him than the babies. The babies can tell something’s wrong but can’t work out what, so Wei Wuxian talks loudly and asks them complicated questions and tells them outrageous stories and is his most Wei Wuxian at them until they forget the odd behaviour of their seniour disciples and Lan Lihua forgets to fret about what Lan Qiren might say.
Half way there, a messenger talisman finds them. It tells them that Hanguang-jun, attending a matter as chief cultivator, will be traveling through the area and can stop briefly if they require any guidance or assistance with their night hunt. Jingyi sends a message right back explaining that they’ve finished the hunt with Seniour Wei’s assistance and would Hanguang-jun like to meet them at the inn to discuss anything.
Wei Wuxian spends the rest of the walk back telling increasingly scandalous (by Lan standards) stories about Lan Zhan so he can see what the babies look like when they’re trying to keep a straight face in front of the man himself. He thinks they’re getting an inkling of why Hanguang-jun’s ward behaves so familiar with Wei Wuxian. They’re wrong, but it’s a helpful sort of wrong, so he doesn’t correct them.
The man himself is waiting outside the inn when they get there, a pillar of pale jade until he realises he has company.
Wei Wuxian stands close enough for Lan Zhan to wrap a proprietary hand around his elbow and squeeze gently. It’s not much of a touch, but it makes his whole side light up warm. Lan Biming hisses “Did Hanguang-jun just smile?” . He’s been smiling the whole time, just the smile that never reaches past the almost-relaxing around his eyes, until he turned towards Wei Ying.
“You are well?”
“Yes! Are you?”
“Mm. The night hunt?”
“Went well. Lan Lihau got to settle some spirits. She did very well for her first go.”
“Good work. I look forwards to your reports”
Lan Lihau looks like she might faint.
“But I really must register concerns about whoever’s arranging their practical training.” He puts a serious hand on Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “Do you know, Lan Zhan, not one of the junior diciples from I’ve met since coming back to life knows how to bury a body? Very worrying.”
“I will speak to their instructors.”
“You do that. How long are you here? Are you staying for dinner? The night?”
“A few hours. I have further to travel. Appointments in the morning.”
“A minor matter. Two smaller sects making it a point of pride. I will attend to assure it stays a minor matter.”
Wei Wuxian considers the geography.
“Sect leader Yao?”
“Fucking Yao,” he signs
The babies look positively scandalised .
“Well, if there’s nothing pressing lets get inside, most of us could use a wash.” It’s true. Digging six foot holes in the mud is messy work, to say nothing of moving less-than-fresh bodies around. Wei Wuxian, benefiting from years of practice and a predominantly black wardrobe, got away mostly unscathed, but the Lans are all the little worse for wear around the hems. They herd the juniors inside and order baths up to the rooms. Lan Biming, bless him, looks like he’s gamely suppressing some sort of internal crisis every time Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian stand close enough together that their hands brush, which is to say at least once every twenty seconds.
When the juniors have disappeared upstairs, Lan Zhan touches his arm again, softly, like he’s something delicate.
“Well, the night hunt was fine, and I really do have concerns about what the younger generations is being taught about proper burials. And then Sizhui had some sort of waking nightmare memory episode-” Lan Zhan nods once “-which Jingyi couldn’t bring him out off. I could, but only because I know what worked when he was young. I don’t think the others noticed.”
“I did not think he had those still.”
“He said they haven't happened for a while.” He confirms. “But I think, everything getting stirred up by, you know, me . And then traveling with Wen Ning. Uh, Jingyi knows, now. Sizhui got me to explain, afterwards.”
“How did he react?”
“Horrified on Sizhui’s behalf. He’s a good kid. They both are.”
“You did a good job. I can’t beleave how much he takes after you, some days.”
"He takes after Wei Ying too," Lan Zhan says, and Wei Wuxian had to hold back a flinch.
"But he's so polite and well behaved! How could you slander us both like that?" he objects. Sizhui doesn't really take after him. Why would he? For a small handful of years he was one of several exhausted adults passing A-Yuan's care between them as needed, but compared to the whole rest of his life before and after, Wei Wuxian didn't really have the chance to do much. He was just one in a long line of people who left, notable only in that he was the first to come back.
"He is kind," Lan Wangji insists. "He cares more for justice than propriety. He will do what is right not what is expected"
"He could have got that from anywhere"
"He got it from you." Lan Zhan insists, and. Well. Ok. Wei Wuxian remembers being oddly charmed by the pleasant young disciple who spoke kindly to the lunatic of Mo village, who frowned when his fellows laughed, listened when they scoffed, explained things patiently to people who weren’t, it seamed, important. Maybe he hadn't thought that's what I'd be like if I was a tiny polite Lan , but he'd thought I like that kid .
That he lives. That he lives and is healthy and happy and so good is the best thing Wei Wuxian has ever achieved. Nothing else in the world will ever come close to this.
" Maybe he got some of that from me." he conceded.
"He doesn't have your sense of mischief," Lan Zhan allows.
"Yes, somehow that went to Lan Jingyi."
“Come one, lets go make sure nobody drowns.”
Lan Zhan leaves before dinner. The juniors are all exhausted, and retire to bed quietly, even Jingyi.
Sizhui is exhausted but slow to sleep, fretful and restless. Wei Wuxian plays quietly on Chenqing until his eyes finally drift shut and then sits for a while, making sure. Even then, he’s woken in the night by someone tugging on his sleeve.
“Nightmare,” Sizhui whispers. “Xian-gege, can I-”
Wei Wuxian holds the blanket out and tucks Sizhui into his chest. He wakes up alone, but Sizhui seems more settled at breakfast, as they gather their things and round up the babies.
They part ways just outside of the town. The Lans headed to the Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian continuing his slow meander south. The babies bow very politely and thank him for his tutelage. It’s very cute. Lan Lihau asks shyly if he’ll visit gusu soon. He’s non-committal, but Lan Zhan has been asking him to come for the winter, live on his kindness, maybe teach a few classes and help advance his campaign to annoy some of the more obnoxious elders into voluntary seclusion.
“Thanks for, you know, everything,” Lan Jingyi says when the babies have been sent on ahead. “You should definitely come visit. Or at least come on some more night hunts, you’re a really good teacher. And you’re good for- people.”
“Aiya, Jingyi, you’re too nice. What would teacher Lan think if he heard you talking so freely. Now go pet Little Apple while I say goodbye to Sizhui.” Jingyi obediently pulls Little Apple to the side of the road to scratch her sides and give them the illusion of privacy.
“It’s been good to see you again, senior Wei, even with-” Sizhui waves nebulously, “circumstances.”
“It’s always good to see you, A-Yuan. You grew so much when I wasn’t here but, it’s good that I can still see you growing. See you learning, becoming whoever you’re going to be. I-” he takes a steadying breath, rubs the back of his neck. “I think I’ll probably come to gusu for the winter. See how much trouble I can cause, make sure you don't get too tall.”
“Good! That’s good, I’ll tell Hanguang-jun. You- be safe. I’ll miss you.”
They don’t hug. They don’t, not in public. Not yet. It’s easy to be A-Yuan and Xian-gege away from the eyes of the world, but here in sight of the town, with the baby Lans waiting just down the road, they’re still Lan Sizhui of Gusu Lan and Wei Wuxian of notoriety. He thinks a winter in the Cloud Recesses might begin to change that though. He hopes it will. He thinks Sizhui does too.
So they bow, and smile, and Wei Wuxian takes his donkey back from Lan Jingy and walks south, and the Lans reconvene and walk north. All on slightly surer footing than before.