The people of Yiling know not to approach the boy.
He is hardly the only child on the streets of their city, but everyone knows who he is. They have seen him before, usually with his uncle or the Yiling Patriarch in tow, wandering the streets, and when he appeared after the siege on the Burial Mounds, thin, bedraggled and delirious from fever, talking to a person that wasn’t there… well, they are not too surprised. They have seen stranger things.
Mad, the townspeople whisper. Mad, and can you blame him, with what happened to his family?
They leave him be, expecting him to die, and so it takes them a while to notice that they are wrong on both counts. The boy is not mad, and he is not going to die.
The first time they have cause to notice this is when a group of men decide to rifle through the child’s clothes, looking for… well, it’s not like they know. The men certainly aren’t around to ask. The townspeople find the bloody scraps of what is left of them hanging from a tree near the street corner that serves as the boy’s bed. The boy himself, when they find the courage to look for him, seems entirely unharmed, if still a little feverish and miserable, but now they can see what wasn’t visible before: a mass of resentful energy that coalesces around him, curled around his shoulders like a parent slinging an arm around their child. The people of Yiling, raised in the shadow of the Burial Mounds, know a spirit when they see one. They retreat carefully.
After the incident, the villagers avoid the boy even more, too frightened to even try to help him. But as the years pass, and nothing else happens, slowly they begin to relax. It helps that the other street children do not seem afraid of him-- just wary, in the manner of people used to threats. Sometimes the villagers even see them scuffling, snatching at food or clothes or just out of a childish temper. Nothing ever seems to happen to those children, though the villagers still catch an occasional glimpse of the spirit, from time to time. Eventually, the novelty of the boy fades enough that he is only ever a topic of speculation during late nights in Yiling’s bars, when only regulars are left, and everyone is too drunk to be cautious.
“We should have driven him out of town when we had the chance,” murmurs a rich merchant, hunching over his drink with a shudder. “He’s not natural. Didn’t I tell you he wasn’t natural?”
“You told us,” the bartender says, with a roll of her eyes. “You’ve told us almost every day since he showed up, but have you done anything about it? No!”
He hunches some more while the others in the bar laugh, shaking his head.
“I don’t mind him,” the woman continues with a shrug. “The boy does his part, doesn’t he? He helped the Liu family out with that spirit that kept causing havoc on their farm.”
There are reluctant nods around the room. Perhaps in another town the child and his cultivation would be met with a lot more distrust, but the people of Yiling are as used to spirits as the rest of Yunmeng is to lakes. They had it easiest, they think, when the Yiling Patriarch was around, as he had drawn cultivators to them in droves, but that is over now. These days, they have only the boy. There are many who are grateful to him for that.
The conversation peters out not long after that, and one by one, the regulars stagger out of the bar and into the night, which, they do not realise, is exactly as safe as it was when the Yiling Patriarch was around. His student still walks the streets after all.
With time, the people of Yiling learn to appreciate the child, useful as he is. When cultivators come around, asking about strange occurrences, they keep their mouths shut, feigning ignorance until they are left in peace. After all, the boy and his ghost have caused them no harm. As far as they are concerned, it would be foolish of them to give them a reason to.
A-Yuan is hungry.
The good news is that he’s used to it; A-Yuan has been hungry so long he doesn’t even remember what it is to be full, but being used to something doesn’t mean it suddenly becomes pleasant and so he tilts his head to the sky and breathes, trying to do as Wei Wuxian always tells him: distance himself from the problem. Examine it carefully, from all angles, like a diamond held up to the light, and when he has finally found a flaw, shatter it to pieces.
Wei Wuxian has also told him, on multiple occasions, that he should bury himself in the dirt if he wants to become taller, but that seems like considerably worse advice.
He tilts his head up. “Xian-gege?”
There is a flicker, and Wei Wuxian comes back into view. He looks the same as he did the day he died, skin pale and dark hair in disarray, but he smiles as he meets A-Yuan’s eyes. A-Yuan can see the damp wood walls through his translucent lips, but he smiles back anyway. It had taken him a few months before Wei Wuxian had managed an actual form instead of hanging about as a misshapen blob of resentful energy with a voice, and A-Yuan hopes he won’t ever feel inclined to return to it. It had unnerved him.
Getting breakfast? Wei Wuxian asks. Good, you’re still growing. You need to eat more.
“I’m working on it,” A-Yuan says grumpily, always annoyed when someone mentions how small he is, and Wei Wuxian laughs.
A-Yuan had lived on the streets proper for the first few years of his time in Yiling, but as he’d grown stronger he’d started making himself a shelter, one of the first things Wei Wuxian had ordered him to do. In the start it had just been a few planks hammered together, but now, with the income from his tiny business of selling cultivation charms, it has grown to a decently-sturdy shack on the outskirts of town, tucked away from the other street children and the pests. The room is freezing in winter and stuffy in the summer, but miles better than living out on the streets, and A-Yuan is quietly proud of it.
Lately he has saved enough to start a garden of his own, but seeds take a while to flourish, and so A-Yuan is being cautious with his money-- not that he is ever anything but, of course.
“We’ll get rice and vegetables from the market,” he announces, although Wei Wuxian won’t be eating, of course. “Maybe radishes.”
Wei Wuxian makes a face, but doesn’t object as A-Yuan grabs his pack and heads out the door, stopping to check on his garden once he is outside. It’s not doing so badly, terrible as the soil of Yiling is. He should be able to sustain himself nicely in a few months time, as long as he is careful.
You’re doing so well for yourself, Wei Wuxian says fondly, as he abandons his inspection to head for the market. It’s amazing.
A-Yuan shoots him a smile, but he doesn’t say anything. They’re out in the open now, and Wei Wuxian does not usually put in the effort to appear to anyone else, which led in turn to A-Yuan learning from experience that holding conversations with someone no one else could see made everyone around him uncomfortable.
So we all learned something then! Wei Wuxian had said cheerfully, on the matter. A-Yuan had just sighed.
The general discomfort that most of the villagers harbor towards him has-- if not quite evaporated-- faded into the routine. He’s part of the background now, mistrusted, but familiar. A-Yuan tells himself it doesn’t bother him anymore, and it is almost true. In any case, he is so used to odd looks that it takes him until he is outside the market to realise that something is wrong. There’s an odd tension in the air, and the looks that people are throwing him are more tense and uncertain than ever.
“Wei-gongzi!” he hears someone call, and turns his head to see a middle-aged woman with a friendly face frowning at him. Wei Yuan is the name he gives to the villagers, Wen being still too dangerous to mention, and though it is a very thin piece of fiction, it is the name Yiling knows him by.
“Good morning,” he says politely, and bows to her in greeting. “Do you need something?”
“Gongzi,” the woman says again-- they all call him that, more out of fear than any real respect. “You shouldn’t be here. Haven’t you heard? Did no one think to warn you?”
“Warn me?” A-Yuan says, slightly disbelieving. No one in Yiling really considers him someone to protect. “Warn me about what?”
The woman’s forehead creases with concern. “There are Jiang cultivators in town, and they say they are looking for a demonic cultivator.”
A-Yuan’s stomach drops.
Stay calm, Wei Wuxian interjects. People don’t suspect a child of much, not even a poor one. No one here wants to give you away, so there’s no evidence against you. Just make yourself scarce, and you’ll be fine.”
He bows to the woman. “Thank you for the warning. I will be on my way now.” She replies with a faint nod, and he leaves her behind, walking away briskly but unhurriedly. It wouldn’t do to appear suspicious to any outsiders.
Don’t go home, Wei Wuxian instructs. They’ll be looking for people who are ostracized, who live on the edges of the community. You want to fit in. Try to find a merchant caravan heading out of town and blend in with them-- they don’t know who you are either, so that will help. The cultivators may not think to check those too thoroughly.
Merchant caravans are few and far between in Yiling; it’s not an important stop on any trade routes, but A-Yuan does not bring this up. Wei Wuxian already knows. He trails after a small family moving through the market for a few minutes, ducking behind their children any time a group of strangers passes, eyeing the merchants on either side for anyone looks like they might be leaving. Finally, after a long search, he spots a man packing his wares upon his covered cart. He looks to be a cloth merchant, and A-Yuan spends a few minutes watching him load large swaths of fabric into the cart with interest, thinking that it would be easy enough to hide under one of them.
He waits until the merchant is distracted, and then sneaks into the cart, diving under the cloth. His heart pounds for a few moments, half-expecting a shout, or to be dragged out from his hiding place, but nothing happens. Slowly, his nerves begin to calm, and he curls up on his side, slowing his breaths to help settle his nerves. Outside, there is the bustle of the marketplace, but it is muted and muffled through the cloth, and the sunlight turns pretty colours where it passes through the cloth. It is almost peaceful.
I’m sorry about the house. Wei Wuxian is very quiet. You worked so hard on it.
A-Yuan’s eyes sting, but he blinks furiously until they stop. “It’s a thing, Xian-gege. They’re all just things. We can build a better one.”
Do you want a castle? Wei Wuxian teases. The biggest one the cultivation world has ever seen! That should be our next house.
A-Yuan actually manages a smile at this. “How would we find a castle?”
Don’t be silly, A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says. We’re going to build it. With your skills it’ll be easy!
The cart begins to rattle as the merchant moves off, but A-Yuan shuts his eyes and lets Wei Wuxian tell him about the castle they are going to build, about how they are going to be the most envied people in the whole land. It’s just a pipe-dream, of course it is, but it's a pretty one, and he likes the sound of it.
A large thumping noise makes his heart leap, and he realises someone is pounding on the side of the cart. The horses slow to a stop, and he can hear the murmur of voices outside, the merchant’s low tones and three new voices, harsh with suspicion. A-Yuan creeps closer to the sounds, holding his breath.
“--We heard that someone in town was selling demonic cultivation tools,” one of the new voices is saying, sounding… menacing, but also bored. Like a cat lazily batting at a terrified mouse. “Some kind of cloth belonging to the Yiling Patriarch?”
The merchant does, indeed, sound terrified.
“Look,” he says, voice quavering. “Young masters, I don’t want to draw the wrath of Yunmeng Jiang. This cloth is all fake; I just thought there might be some business here. You can have them--”
You need to get off this cart, Wei Wuxian breaks in urgently. Now.
This is easier said than done. A-Yuan pulls up the blanket very slightly and peers outside. Three Jiang cultivators are grouped around the merchant, hands on their weapons. From what he can see, there are no others around. They’re outside Yiling by this point, though not by much. There are woods a little way away, and beyond that, the Burial Mounds rises up, dark as pitch, casting a shadow over the town.
I’m going to cause a distraction, Wei Wuxian says, having taken in the same sight. Wait for a sign, then slip down and hide in the weeds. They just want his money, I think, so they won’t be suspicious. He snorts with contempt. Greedy bastards.
A-Yuan cannot see Wei Wuxian leave, but he can feel it. It is like having a blanket yanked off in winter, a rush of cold air.
A moment or two goes by, while A-Yuan watches and waits, his breath coming quickly with the tension of the moment. Then, without warning, a rock comes out of nowhere and slams into the back of the tallest of the cultivators’ head. There is a loud round of swearing from the man, as his fellow cultivators turn to stare in the direction it had come from in surprise. Another moment goes by, and then a second cultivator is smacked in the head from the opposite direction. A-Yuan stifles a snicker as the Jiang cultivators shout in confusion, and crawls out of the cart, ducking behind it and making sure he is out of their sight. Then he slowly makes his way into the woods on either side of the path.
He is almost safe when there is a loud smacking sound, and the merchant cries out. A-Yuan freezes, then whirls around.
It appears that the Jiang cultivators have assumed the merchant is the one responsible for the rocks taking flight, and are advancing upon him with their swords drawn. He is crawling back frantically, one hand clutching his bleeding mouth, eyes terrified.
A-Yuan shouldn’t interfere. He knows that he shouldn’t-- he can’t--he--
A-Yuan, careful! Wei Wuxian says sharply, but that is all he has time to say, before A-Yuan sends a coil of resentful energy out to wrap around a nearby tree and shatters it, turning it into dust. For a moment, it chokes him and he croaks, coughing violently. Then he turns and bolts, trying to disappear into the trees before anyone spots him.
A-Yuan! Wei Wuxian yells, and the urgency in his voice is such that A-Yuan automatically drops to the ground. A sword goes sailing past him and impales a nearby tree, missing him by inches. He has no time to think about it, though. Instead he rolls to his feet and carries on running, ignoring the shouts that come from behind him.
Remember the cave from a few summers ago? Head there, it's hard enough to notice that half the villagers don’t know about it! Wei Wuxian orders. A-Yuan obeys. He can hear the cultivators following, but he knows the area and they don’t: he loses them by disappearing into the undergrowth at a convenient moment, and then crawls on his belly towards the mouth of the cave. He’s been using it as a storage area, of sorts, though not for food; there are too many animals who would wander in. No, this is where A-Yuan keeps his demonic cultivation tools, the talismans and books that would make the villagers wary to see, though of course they know what he is.
But he is not fighting, not now, so he doesn’t take any of them out. He just catches his breath, inhaling the musty scent of books and wood, and waits as an hou, and then two pass by.
I’m going to check outside, Wei Wuxian says finally. Don’t come out until I say.
He leaves and A-Yuan pulls his knees up to his chest, waiting, anxiety crawling through him. Another minute passes, and he finally breaks, crawling up to the entrance to see what is going on.
Wei Wuxian’s spirit whirls around at the sound of him coming up behind him, and darts forward, gesturing him even further downward. Didn’t I tell you not to come out?
There is an edge to his voice that is almost never there when Wei Wuxian speaks to him, and A-Yuan’s stomach drops. “What’s wrong?”
Shh, Wei Wuxian hisses. You can move forward, but slowly.
A-Yuan presses himself flat against the ground as he crawls to the small opening, thankful for his clothes, which are dirty brown and dull grey, and easily blend into the surroundings. When he finally reaches it, he sees what Wei Wuxian was looking at, and it sends a sick pulse of fear through him.
The cultivators of Yunmeng Jiang, easily discernible by their rich purple robes, are crawling through the forest, hands on the hilts of their swords and bristling with aggression. There must be dozens of them. More than A-Yuan has ever seen in one place before.
A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says evenly. Get out your flute.
Resentful energy comes far easier to A-Yuan and Wei Wuxian both, and it was easier, overall, to master those techniques instead of regular cultivation. He has still formed a golden core, at Wei Wuxian’s insistence, and he has to admit that inedia, at least, would prove to be a useful tool, as his added strength and resilience has. He has no sword, though, and no means to make one, and so A-Yuan mainly resorts to demonic cultivation in the rare moments he has to defend himself.
Well, sometimes, in scuffles with other street children, he uses his fists as well, but he doesn’t like to think about that. He’s stronger than them, and he always wins, but the way they look at him afterwards always makes him feel slightly sick.
“I’m sorry,” A-Yuan whispers to Wei Wuxian, fingers trembling on his flute as he draws it from it’s box in the back of the cave. He’d made it himself, after a great deal of practice and a lot of help from Wei Wuxian, but it is a last resort. A demonic cultivator controlling the dead with his flute in Yiling is not a memory anyone from the great sects is likely to forget, after all. Any whisper of a rumor could spell his death. “I know I shouldn’t have helped.”
A-Yuan, helping wasn’t wrong, you understand? Wei Wuxian heaves a sigh. It wasn’t wrong at all. But the way you did it was very reckless. Next time you’re in a situation like this, I want you to think it through before you take action. You have the control to have made a distraction much farther away, for example, and that would have bought you more time.
He doesn’t mention that there might not be a next time, and A-Yuan cannot find it in himself to bring up the possibility. It would only hurt him.
Be quick and quiet, Wei Wuxian says. And use whatever you need to stay alive, do you understand?
That, more than anything so far, shows how dangerous the situation is. Wei Wuxian normally prioritizes responsibility over all things when it comes to demonic cultivation. He never risks A-Yuan’s state of mind or his control. The fact that he has essentially told him to do whatever it takes is terrifying.
It will do him no good to dwell. A-Yuan steadies his breathing, centres his mind-- and then silent as a shadow, slips out from the cave and into the woods.
At first it seems easy enough. The Jiang cultivators are bright splashes of colour in the woods, so easy to avoid it's laughable. A-Yuan makes his way past the first dozen without them even turning their heads. But the closer he gets to the edge of the forest, the more cultivators there are. Eventually, he is forced to abandon the ground and jump from tree to tree instead, like some kind of oversized squirrel.
His mistake comes when he leaps from one tree to another, and his feet slip. He manages to catch the branch and pull himself back upon it, but for a few seconds, his entire lower half is dangling down, easily visible, and there are too many cultivators around to miss it. In seconds, he is surrounded.
He starts to pull out his flute-- no way to avoid a fight, not now-- but then a purple coil wraps around his ankle and jerks him down, hard.
A-Yuan pitches forward, slamming into the ground so hard that it knocks all the breath out of him. He tries to will himself upright, but all he can do is lie there and pant heavily.
A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says, leaning over him, voice thin and frightened. A-Yuan!
He manages to roll over onto his side and push himself up, but there are already footsteps coming towards him, slow and unhurried. He looks up, and freezes.
Oh. He knows this face.
The man who is approaching is grim and humorless, with an arrogant curling sneer of a smile as he gazes down at him. On his wrist, coiling and uncoiling restlessly, is a purple whip that crackles ominously with energy. A-Yuan has seen that whip before. He has seen it used before, wrapped around the jerking bodies of his family. He remembers the robes the man in purple is wearing, from that night his family was killed, remembers this man. He was there. He… he might be sick, actually.
“You thought you could escape?” Sect Leader Jiang laughs, voice low with scorn. “I don’t think so.”
He can feel the fear in Wei Wuxian now, dark and thick as smoke. Not for himself, but for A-Yuan. Run, he says, shakily. Please run.
But A-Yuan’s feet are rooted to the ground. He cannot move, much less run.
Stay quiet, he thinks desperately at Wei Wuxian. The spirit cannot hear him, but he prays he understands anyway. Don’t come out, it’s not safe.
It’s not safe for you! Wei Wuxian snarls, reading him perfectly. His fear is rapidly morphing into something darker, and A-Yuan is torn between being afraid of Jiang Cheng and for Wei Wuxian. He knows enough to know he won’t be hurt, not while Wei Wuxian around-- but a black haze settles over him, every time A-Yuan is threatened, and he never knows if Wei Wuxian will make it back to himself.
“Don’t,” he whispers.
“Don’t?” Jiang Cheng, who clearly thinks he is talking to him, readies his whip casually. “How many people have you killed who asked you the same thing? Where are your parents, hmm? Or did you kill them too? You’re all the same. You bite the hand that feeds, don’t you?”
“There’s only one murderer here!” A-Yuan shouts, with all the force he can muster, rage spilling out of him. The mention of his family, from this man-- “You helped murder your own brother!”
Jiang Cheng’s face twists, and beside him, his cultivators draw back, looking suddenly afraid. A-Yuan swallows hard, and glares up at him unrelentingly-- and then his whip is crackling through the air, and he has to scramble back, desperate to avoid being hit. If he gets injured, Xian-gege will show himself-- he normally struggles for it, but if A-Yuan is injured-- who knows if he will come back from it, this time?
The only person he has left, gone. The only person…
A flare of bright blue energy comes blasting towards the whip, knocking it aside easily, and a white-clad cultivator lands in front of him. A-Yuan startles back, but no one notices, all eyes fixed on the newcomer.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng snarls. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The man remains ominously silent. He stands before him, blocking him off from the crowd, somehow radiating violence despite his sword still being in its sheath.
A-Yuan doesn’t need to be told to take his chance. He flees.
They’re still hunting him.
A-Yuan shouldn’t be surprised, but he is. He is a demonic cultivator (suspected demonic cultivator, but he knows that doesn’t matter in the slightest), discovered close to the site of the Yiling Patriarch’s stronghold after there have been reports of strange activity within. Of course they are hunting him.
When he’d run, he’d run into the woods, figuring it had been the place he was safest, and he manages to avoid most of the cultivators for a while. But he can hear them in the distance, gaining on him, and there are so many of them.
Nothing for it, then. A-Yuan lifts his flute to his lips.
It is the easiest thing in the world to call resentful energy near the Burial Mounds. It is like trying to summon snow in the winter. A few short notes, and the energy is surging around him, drawn from the spirits that roam the forest, arcs of it reaching out to fling approaching cultivators around like rag dolls. One cultivator lunges towards him, sword drawn, and A-Yuan slams him to the ground so hard it knocks him out completely. He has had to use the flute only a few times before, and never this violently-- it makes him sick, as much as he dislikes these men.
Then he thinks of being hunted through these woods that he lives in, and Jiang Cheng’s face appears in his mind, and his temper surges.
The spirits surge with him.
It feels like hunger, almost, hunger and hate, and when next he lashes out, it is with real intent to hurt. The dark wave of energy passes through the cultivators that surround him, and within a second, they are writhing on the ground, screaming with agony as their skin blackens. For a moment, A-Yuan feels a rush of exhilarated joy at his own power-- but then the screaming breaks through the red haze in his mind, and he sees the carnage around him for what it is.
A-Yuan stumbles back, horrified with himself.
Don’t panic, just take control. You can do this. Wei Wuxian says sharply, and it is like a cold bucket of water dumped over his head. He’s gone too far. Of course he has, he’s never tried to use demonic cultivation while he was so angry before. There is a reason Wei Wuxian emphasised control to him, after all.
He needs the spirits to settle down. A-Yuan takes a deep breath, thinking calm, something calm, and then lifts the flute back to his mouth.
It’s an old lullaby that comes to him first, a wordless tune that Wei Wuxian would hum to him on dark nights, when he’d woken up from nightmares of blood and steel. He shuts his eyes as the familiar melody fills the air, and the spirits calm, the black energy subsiding and fading away, though the cultivators around him stay limp and still. As A-Yuan finishes the tune, he lets out a breath, listening to the final notes reverberate around the clearing.
Good, Wei Wuxian says in relief. Very good, A-Yuan. Now let's go--
A hand shoots out of nowhere and grabs his wrist.
A-Yuan nearly screams, managing to change it into a sharp hiss right before the sound leaves his throat. He twists desperately in the cultivator’s grip, but he is held fast, even as he kicks out helplessly. Next to him, Wei Wuxian inhales sharply, an odd gesture for a dead man, and it is this that finally has him going limp and looking up.
It is the white-clad man from before. He looms over him, impossibly tall, golden eyes piercing, and now that A-Yuan is close he can see that the man has a grim humorless expression on his face. He sets his chin and braces himself for pain.
“Who are you?” the man asks instead, his voice low. Distantly, he can feel Xian-gege’s distress-- and he is very distressed, so A-Yuan is pretty sure that he is in trouble, but for once, he ignores him and glares up at the man gripping his wrist, furious and exhausted.
“Who the hell are you?” he snaps back, trying to wrench his arm away. He might as well have stayed still, for all the good it does. The cultivator’s grip is like iron.
A-Yuan! Wei Wuxian hisses. A-Yuan, be careful, this is Lan Wangji, don’t antagonize him too!
A-Yuan doesn’t care. All the sects are one and the same to a Wen. What is one more murderer?
The cultivator stares down at him for a moment longer, brow creased slightly, and opens his mouth to reply, but a flicker of purple in the woods has them both turning, and Sect Leader Jiang emerges from the woods, reinforcements flooding the woods behind him. The man-- Lan Wangji-- immediately slides between them and A-Yuan, though his grip on his arm stays tight.
“Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng says, Zidian crackling violently on his hand. “Move.”
Lan Wangji says nothing, only stares Jiang Cheng down, in cold, immovable silence. A-Yuan shifts nervously, considering fleeing again.
No, Wei Wuxian orders, voice tense. Stay still!
A-Yuan hesitates again, but it comes to nothing, because Jiang Cheng begins to speak. “We are in Yunmeng, in Yiling. I cannot allow evil to take root here once more. Or have you forgotten what happened the last time that was allowed?” He spread his arms, gesturing towards the men on the ground. “Look at all he’s already wrought!”
“I have forgotten nothing.” Lan Wangji’s voice is made of ice and iron, and A-Yuan shivers slightly, grateful it isn’t aimed at him. “The boy will come with me, to my sect.”
“To your sect?” Jiang Cheng lets out a scornful laugh. “You think your rules are enough to correct this? To correct--” he makes a disdainful gesture at A-Yuan,“--that?”
“I will take the child,” Lan Wangji says again, his tone cooling even further. “The Cloud Recesses are better suited to him.”
“He’s a demonic cultivator,” Jiang Cheng snaps. His fist clenches compulsively, as though he aches to use Zidian. “What better place is there than the Lotus Pier?”
“He is a child.”
“I’m not going anywhere with either of you!” A-Yuan shouts, finally tired of the two of them speaking as though he isn’t here.
Wei Wuxian lets out an exasperated noise. A-Yuan, there’s a time to be stubborn, but this isn’t it! Be quiet!
It doesn’t make a difference in any case. The man only gives him an impassive, unreadable look, and turns back to Sect Leader Jiang. “The boy is coming with me,” he repeats, and even Sect Leader Jiang looks a little cowed by his tone. Then he turns and walks away-- not even waiting to see if A-Yuan will follow, although of course he does. He certainly isn’t going to take his chances with the Jiang cultivators, after all. No one tries to stop them, to his surprise. A-Yuan twists to look over his shoulder, but Sect Leader Jiang doesn’t seem to be following. He looks furious and thwarted, his face twisted in a scowl, but he appears to have given up, for now.
Even Jiang Cheng isn’t arrogant enough to pick a fight with Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian explains, faintly amused. He’d never win. Not a chance.
A-Yuan looks up at him, silently asking, He’s that good?
He’s that good, Wei Wuxian says. I fought with him in the Sunshot Campaign-- but of course, we were younger then. Who knows how strong he’s become since? Not that you need to worry, he adds, drifting alongside the two of them as they walk into the forest, and the other cultivators disappear behind the thick greenery. If I know anything at all about Lan Zhan it’s that he won’t hurt a child. He’s strict and stiff, but he has never been cruel. Don’t run, not for now. We don’t know who you might run into in Yunmeng.
Huh. Wei Wuxian tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to A-Yuan, and he cannot think of anyone whom he trusts absolutely with him. If he says A-Yuan is safe with this person, then he must be, but A-Yuan still remembers being four years old, stuck in a tree while his family screamed and died only a small distance away. It was Yunmeng Jiang and Lanling Jin who led the charge, he knows, not Lan Wangji’s sect. He saw, though he doesn’t remember much of it. Only-- only a few faces, and blood, and death. A-Yuan has done his best to forget those memories. But Gusu Lan had been there too, even if their forces were held in reserve. All their righteousness, all their rules, hadn’t stopped them from marching up a mountain to murder the sick and the old.
“Okay,” he whispers.
A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says, because he knows him. A-Yuan almost cracks a smile.
“Okay,” he says again, and shuts his eyes, blocking Wei Wuxian out.
His first escape attempt takes place a few hours into their flight through the woods. It takes about that long for A-Yuan to be certain the Jiang cultivators aren’t following them.
They’ve climbed onto Lan Wangji’s sword, and are whizzing through the air only a metre or so above the canopy. A-Yuan has never flown before, and despite how upset he is, it's still amazing. Still, he keeps one eye on the trees, and when he sees a branch close enough that he can reach, he makes his move, dropping straight off and onto it. A sharp inhale comes from above his head as he falls, and Wei Wuxian yells his name, but A-Yuan ignores them both, scrambling down to the ground, his clothes sticking on the branches.
He doesn’t know where he is, but he’d spotted a lake some distance behind, and he knows it will be easier to survive in the woods closer to water, so he starts in that direction. He hasn’t taken more than five steps before there is a rush of air, and Lan Wangji is landing beside him. His eyes are wide, but A-Yuan barely notices, kicking out at him as he comes closer. Lan Wangji neatly sidesteps him, and takes him by the arm once more, which is just infuriating.
“Leave me alone!” A-Yuan snarls, thrashing. “Why don’t you get lost?”
Abruptly, Lan Wangji’s grip loosens, and A-Yuan can wriggle free, immediately bolting away.
A-Yuan, stop that, he’s going to catch you. Wei Wuxian has taken in the situation, and his voice has gone very calm in the way it does when he is saying something important. The tone finally reaches him, and he slows a little, instinctively. We can look for a way to get you free, but for now-- stop fighting. You should try to convince him you’re just a boy who went down the wrong path, understand? Your parents were rogue cultivators who died and left you on the streets of Yiling, and you learnt demonic cultivation to survive. You don’t know anything about the Wens or Wei Wuxian. Don’t bring them up.
Hanguang-jun has caught up to him by now, and this time he lets the man take his arm, grudgingly. Surprisingly, he doesn’t get scolded for his escape attempt. Instead, Lan Wangji only looks down at him.
“It is unwise for you to run here,” he says, sounding for all the world like he is trying to reason with A-Yuan. “We have not yet left Yunmeng.”
It’s almost the same thing Wei Wuxian had told him, and A-Yuan glowers. He doesn’t appreciate that some… interloping kidnapper has the same opinion as his Xian-gege. But there is no point in bringing that up, so he decides to move on and put his irrational anger aside.
“You’re Hanguang-jun,” he says cautiously, eyeing him. The cultivator inclines his head.
“I do not know your name.”
A-Yuan has no idea what to tell him. Wen Yuan is out of the question, he has a sneaking suspicion that this time, Wei Yuan is just as unwise a reply to give… “A-Yuan,” he replies simply, finally. “My name is A-Yuan.”
“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji repeats, quietly. He has a careful way of speaking that A-Yuan doesn’t want to like, as though he thinks about every word before he says it. “I am… very glad to meet you.”
Courtesy demands A-Yuan respond in kind, and he is normally a courteous child, but now he bites down on his lip to stifle the instinctual response and just stares down at his feet.
Lan Wangji does not seem to take offense at this. Instead he nods briefly ahead of him, where his sword hangs in the air, waiting.
“Jiang Wanyin has not given up,” he warns, when A-Yuan only glares at him stubbornly. “We must resolve this at the Cloud Recesses. My clan will help.”
“Help?” A-Yuan snaps, taken over by a sudden sense of absurdity. “You want to help now? You’re six years too late to help anyone! I can look after myself, and I don’t need you around to do it!”
There is a long pause, wherein no one says anything. Lan Wangji looks as unmoved by his words as ever.
“I am not too late to help you,” is all the answer he receives to this diatribe. “Come.”
A-Yuan grits his teeth, but Wei Wuxian says nothing, and so he has to climb onto the sword. It puts him in a towering mood, and he glares at Lan Wangji’s back the whole way down the mountain.
A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says softly, but he will not acknowledge him, and Wei Wuxian does not press the issue. It makes him ache with guilt-- he doesn’t like being angry with Wei Wuxian, especially as he is the only one who can see him in the first place-- but he bites down on an apology, wanting to hold on to his bad temper. He hates everything at that moment. Yunmeng Jiang, who has stolen his home from him again, Lan Wangji, who has all but kidnapped him, no matter if it is for his own good or not, even Wei Wuxian, for not stopping them. He hates them all.
“I am sorry your life has been disrupted.”
A-Yuan blinks and looks up. Lan Wangji is keeping his gaze ahead of him, steering the sword as it hovers over the forest.
“Are you?” he asks.
A-Yuan does not know what to do with sincerity. Anger he could have handled, or even disdain, but not sincerity.
“But you saved me,” he points out. He doesn’t even know why he is so bitter, except that he is, and it eats away at him from the inside. “I guess Hanguang-jun is exactly what they say he is, right?”
There is a brief hesitation. “You need not call me Hanguang-jun if you choose.”
“Oh?” A-Yuan cocks his head, expression disdainful. “What else would I call you?”
Lan Wangji pauses, eyes flickering for a minute, and ends up saying nothing.
“That’s what I thought,” A-Yuan mutters.
A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian scolds from next to him. Don’t be so rude. He saved you from Jiang Cheng, you know. What is he going to think about the people who raised you? What is he going to think about your family?
That stings a little, as it was meant to. A-Yuan throws the spirit a sulky look. When he turns back, Lan Wangji is looking down at him with even assessment written across his face. A-Yuan schools his face frantically into indifference, trying to look innocent. He has no idea if it works or not; Lan Wangji only stares at him a few moments more in silence and turns away.
“There is a town only a few miles from here,” he says. “We will stop there to get food.”
A-Yuan keeps his head down the entire time they are in the town, uncomfortable with the scrutiny of the villagers. This is not Yiling, and their stares are not wary or suspicious, but they are curious. Several old women stop to coo over the cultivator and his ‘young son’, and he wants to correct them, but he is too anxious to do so.
Luckily, Hanguang-jun seems to understand his nervousness, or perhaps just isn’t inclined to stop, because they do not linger once they have their food in hand. Instead they fly some distance more, before finally pulling to a stop in a small clearing.
“We will continue our journey in the morning,” Lan Wangji says, and A-Yuan nods. He is more tired than he thought, the weight of everything that has happened today suddenly hitting him. A-Yuan has never been this far away from Yiling before, never been so uncertain of his future. He wants to talk to Wei Wuxian, but he can’t, and that hurts the most. There has never been so much silence between them.
Still, he has to protect his Xian-gege the way he protects A-Yuan, so he does not try to talk to him, trying to keep a stoic facade up about it.
Don’t worry, A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian whispers to him, not fooled in the slightest. That’s fine; A-Yuan never expected to trick him. I’ll be right here as long as you need me.
A fire flares in the centre of the clearing, and A-Yuan starts, realising that Lan Wangji had set up camp while he was distracted. He drifts toward the fire on instinct, and the man holds out a container of food to him.
“Here,” he says.
It’s… a lot. There’s even meat. A-Yuan has never had so much food at once, and it almost feels wasteful to eat it all instead of hiding it somewhere safe. Who knows when the next time he’ll see food will be?
But Lan Wangji is watching him from across the fire. It unnerves him enough that he picks up the chopsticks and starts to eat.
It has been a while since he has had the chance to use proper chopsticks, and he feels a flush of shame at how clumsy he is-- Lan Wangji is still looking at him, he can feel it-- but it dissipates as he starts to eat. The food is amazing, sweet pork mixed with rice, and A-Yuan takes one bite, and then another, and then almost inhales his meal, chopsticks barely pausing.
Hey, what are you doing? Wei Wuxian’s voice is alarmed, but A-Yuan doesn’t know how to stop. Not so fast!
A-Yuan cannot listen, stuffing food into his mouth. But as he continues to eat, his stomach roils violently, and he jerks to his feet, clutching at it.
“A-Yuan?” Lan Wangji’s voice is concerned.
“I have to--” A-Yuan whips his head around and starts for the bushes. “I--”
He manages to run into the words and duck behind the plants before he begins to throw up, bile searing his throat as he gags and heaves.
There, Wei Wuxian scolds, though his voice holds very little real censure. What did I tell you, hmm? He sends a gentle, cool breeze A-Yuan’s way, brushing the sweat-slick hair out of his face as he vomits. This isn’t the first time he has had to comfort A-Yuan while he throws up; far from it. Right after he had escaped the siege of the Burial Mounds, there had been a period of time when he’d thrown up after almost every meal, his body unable to adjust to the half-rotten food he’d been finding on the streets.
“Sorry,” he mumbles between heaves.
Shh, Wei Wuxian says tenderly. There’s nothing to apologize for.
A-Yuan shakes his head, fingers trembling. What a waste of food, he thinks miserably, and clenches them into fists on his thighs.
A gentle hand comes to rest on his back, and he startles, looking up to see that Lan Wangji has followed them, his eyes lit with concern. A-Yuan hunches his shoulders away from the touch, wishing he could disappear.
He feels disgusting, and humiliated, and the fact that Lan Wangji, who looks as though he has never had to deal with so much as an upset stomach in his life is there to pay witness only makes it worse. The man hesitates, then pulls away, and A-Yuan hates him, because he has to bite down on his sense of loss. He doesn’t like Lan Wangji, but it has been so long since anyone touched him. It might be the only thing Wei Wuxian cannot do.
Lan Wangji reaches into his robes and draws out a pale handkerchief, holding it out to A-Yuan. When A-Yuan only looks at him, blankly, he leans over, and carefully wipes the sweat from his face. A-Yuan holds still for it, too confused to kick up a fuss.
“I am sorry,” Lan Wangji says finally, withdrawing his hand.
A-Yuan stares at him. “You’re... sorry? For what?”
“I should have realised you would eat too much, and advised you accordingly,” he says. “I will endeavour to be more careful, in the future.” He passes A-Yuan water; blinking, he rinses out his mouth.
“O...kay?” A-Yuan doesn’t know what to say to this. Wei Wuxian, however, laughs, bright and easy.
Ah, Lan Zhan, always so proper! He laughs again, fondly. He hasn’t changed in the slightest since we were young.
A-Yuan throws him a grumpy look-- Wei Wuxian seems entirely too happy to see Lan Wangji, even though he has basically kidnapped A-Yuan. The spirit subsides a little, growing more translucent the way he does when he’s been scolded, and snuggles closer to his side.
This used to happen to your Xian-gege too, you know, Wei Wuxian informs him, gesturing at the food. The first meal I ate in the Lotus Pier, I threw up all over myself. I was so embarrassed, and Madam Yu shouted so much about the waste. His tone becomes wistful. I couldn’t keep anything down until shijie went into the kitchen and made me soup...
This actually does make A-Yuan feel a little better, and he knuckles his humiliated tears away. “Mm going to sleep,” he mumbles, half to Lan Wangji, and half to Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji nods, solemnly, and points to a sleeping roll that has been set up near the fire. A-Yuan blinks.
“I thought that was for you?” he asks.
“My cultivation level is high enough that I do not need to sleep often,” Lan Wangji informs him. “It will be an easy enough task for me to go without until we reach the Cloud Recesses.”
Oh. A-Yuan goes to lay down, curling up on the roll without hesitation. Many street children were wary of shutting their eyes at night, particularly around strangers, but that wasn't something that had ever affected him. After all, Wei Wuxian never needed rest, and under his watch A-Yuan had no reason to sleep anything but soundly.
A heavy robe settles around his shoulders. It smells faintly of sandalwood, and the scent strikes him as oddly familiar and comforting somehow. He breathes it in, trying to hide his reaction from Lan Wangji, but the older man only tucks it closer around him, giving no sign that he has noticed that A-Yuan is awake, and moves back to his place next to the fire.
He’s so warm. The robe is thicker than any blanket he’s ever had, and made of expensive silk that seems to trap all the heat within. This may be the most comfortable A-Yuan has ever been.
“Xian-gege,” he whispers, careful not to let Lan Wangji see. “Are you there?”
His hair is pushed back from his forehead, as though by the wind. I’m here. It’s been a long day. Go to sleep, okay?
He’s still there. A-Yuan goes to sleep to the sound of his gentle humming.
When he wakes the next morning, Lan Wangji is still sitting by the fire, looking as though he has not moved all night. It is dawn, and the early morning chill makes A-Yuan shiver as he sits up and the robe around his shoulders falls away.
Lan Wangji looks up at the movement and nods at him in greeting. “We will reach Gusu by today,” he informs him. “The Cloud Recesses in another two. I should let you prepare.”
He gets up, and A-Yuan hastens to his feet, shaking away sleep. He makes his way through his morning ablutions, and in a few minutes they are once again in flight.
As Lan Wangji mentioned, they reach Gusu by that day, and land in Caiyi Town sometime in the afternoon. The people here seem to know him, and Lan Wangji gets more than a few nods and greetings from the residents. They look at A-Yuan with some curiosity, but they are too polite to ask, especially since Lan Wangji is as laconic as ever, though he is considerably more relaxed than he had been in Yunmeng.
The first place Lan Wangji takes him to is a tailor, where he purchases new robes for A-Yuan, which are made of some of the softest cotton A-Yuan has ever felt, just as warm as Lan Wangji’s outer robe had been last night. A-Yuan cannot help but run his hands over and over it again in fascination.
Once they are back out on the street again, Lan Wangji leaves him for a few moments to speak to a vendor, and returns bearing meat dumplings. He hands one to A-Yuan, who reaches for them and then hesitates, uncertain if he wants to risk throwing up again. Then he feels a hand settle onto his shoulder, and he looks up.
“Slowly,” Lan Wangji advises. “Take small bites.” A-Yuan obeys, nibbling at the dumpling as they make their way down the streets together. Once the dumpling is gone, he feels a pang of wistfulness. Maybe he should have saved it.
Another dumpling appears in Lan Wangji’s hand, and he hands it to A-Yuan. “Is your stomach well?”
A-Yuan nods, hesitantly. When the second dumpling is gone, he is offered a third, which he takes. The dumplings are light, and the meat is not strongly seasoned. To his surprise, he turns down a fourth when it is offered, realising his stomach is full.
Lan Wangji nods, and holds the rest of the dumplings out to him. “Here,” he says. “The next time you are hungry, take one.”
A-Yuan takes them, and stashes them away in his qiankun pouch. He feels too warm, as though he is unused to the thickness of his new robes, and he ducks his head, scuffling his feet. Lan Wangji chooses not to comment on this, and leads him onwards.
He can feel Wei Wuxian there, his spirit almost vibrating with happiness, coiled around A-Yuan like a great cat. He giggles, and the sound has Lan Wangji turning in surprise. A-Yuan doesn’t meet his eyes, embarrassed, but Lan Wangji says nothing of it, and turns back around.
“Come,” he says. “We will spend the night in Caiyi, and move on to the Cloud Recesses in the morning.”
They reach the Cloud Recesses at noon.
A-Yuan had almost been getting used to Lan Wangji, though part of him still resents the man. His presence is quiet and unobtrusive, so he can almost pretend sometimes that he and Wei Wuxian are just taking a very long trip. And also, though he does not want to admit it, Lan Wangji does not seem like a bad person.
Once they see the Cloud Recesses though, it's impossible to ignore where Lan Wangji is from. The sect residence looms up over them the whole path up the mountain, and at the gates the guards straighten as Lan Wangji walks by, though they spare A-Yuan a curious glance or two when they think no one is looking.
A voice calls out Lan Wangji’s name, and he turns, eyes softening as a man who looks almost exactly like him comes up to them, smiling softly. “Wangji! How did the night hunt proceed? Is the situation resolved?”
“It has been postponed,” Lan Wangji says. “A...more urgent matter came up. I apologise, but you will need to send someone else to aid Baling Ouyang.”
“I… see. It must have been urgent indeed, if you were distracted. I assume it has something to do with him?” Lan Xichen turns his gentle smile onto A-Yuan, who considers shrinking away from him, but discards the idea. He isn’t a baby, and Sect Leader Lan hardly seems as though he’s about to whip his sword out and chop off his head, after all.
“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says simply. When his brother continues to look at him in askance, he adds, seemingly reluctant, “Jiang Wanyin wanted to take him to the Lotus Pier.” A look passes between the two brothers. “I did not think it would suit him.”
“He’s so young.” Lan Xichen looks deeply troubled, but then he heaves a sigh and smiles down at him. “So your name is A-Yuan?”
“Wei Yuan,” A-Yuan blurts out without meaning to, and both brothers freeze. A-Yuan freezes too-- stupid, stupid-- but Lan Wangji steps in front of him again, shielding him, and A-Yuan hates how it makes him feel better. The two brothers are looking at one another again, communicating silently, and finally, Lan Xichen shuts his eyes for a moment, as though processing it.
“Wei Yuan,” he says finally, and smiles again, though there is a sad tinge to it that hadn’t been there before. “Well, I will clear the matter up with the Jiang Sect, so you need not worry. In the meantime, Wei Yuan may sleep with the other disciples his age, if he likes?”
Lan Wangji looks down at A-Yuan, who shakes his head violently, heart thudding. Other children don’t like him, or at least the street children of Yiling never had. They’d thought he was strange, even after Wei Wuxian had learned to hide himself and let A-Yuan do most of the talking.
“No,” Lan Wangji says firmly to his brother. “He will sleep in my residence.”
Lan Xichen inclines his head in acquiescence.
“I should speak to Uncle,” he says. Then he turns to A-Yuan. “And… perhaps it would be best to refer you as A-Yuan during your stay here?”
A-Yuan nods, feeling shamed.
“I will take my leave then.” Lan Xichen nods briskly at them. “It was nice meeting you, A-Yuan.” He walks away, and A-Yuan cannot tell what he is feeling from the serenity he radiates. He may be even harder to read than Lan Wangji, he thinks, and he does not trust it.
Hmm, Wei Wuxian muses. You know, Zewu-jun doesn’t seem to have changed that much either. His tone is distant and wistful, gone to a time A-Yuan is too young to remember.
“Are you okay?” A-Yuan whispers worriedly. He is not as quiet as he should be, and Lan Wangji turns to him, eyebrows slightly knit. A-Yuan closes his mouth abruptly.
Fine, Wei Wuxian tells him, reassuringly, sounding as though he’s back in the present. I’m just fine. Don’t worry about your Xian-gege, he’s very resilient!
Lan Wangji is still looking at him, so he does not react, but his stomach unclenches a little. Then--
“You are talking to someone,” Lan Wangji says, and A-Yuan’s stomach clenches right back up again.
“What? No,” he hedges, too quickly. It’s a lie so bad Lan Wangji does not even deign to acknowledge it.
“What is his name?”
“None of your business,” A-Yuan snaps, curling his hands into fists.
Lan Wangji only keeps going. “Wei Wuxian?”
He rears back. It’s as good as an answer, because Lan Wangji stills, staring at him as though he is somehow surprised to have it confirmed. It doesn’t do anything to comfort A-Yuan.
Uh-oh, Wei Wuxian murmurs, tone uncertain.
“Come to the jingshi,” Lan Wangji says abruptly, and walks away. For lack of any better options, A-Yuan follows.
The jingshi is a house much the same as the rest of the Cloud Recesses-- delicate, refined and elegant. It doesn’t seem very homely, though, with few personal effects to be seen apart from a guqin set up next to the desk. A-Yuan wonders just how much time Lan Wangji spends there. Then again, perhaps the impersonal nature of the place suits him.
He glances at the man in question and finds him looking at A-Yuan with a clear, direct gaze. “You are speaking to Wei Wuxian.” This time it isn’t a question.
A-Yuan swallows hard, drawing himself up to his full height, which is pretty pathetic next to Lan Wangji, but the best he could do. “If you try to hurt Xian-gege, I’ll kill you,” he promises. Wei Wuxian lets out a soft, fondly exasperated sigh, but says nothing. “I’ll kill you, I don’t care how powerful you are!”
“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says, intently. “I don’t want to hurt him. I want…” He trails off uncertainly. “That is, I want…”
His eyes are very intense, full of a sorrow A-Yuan does not understand, and he looks away in sudden embarrassment, feeling as though he has intruded upon something private.
“I want to speak to him,” Lan Wangji admits, finally. “Should he permit it, I would like to speak to him.”
“Speak to him?” A-Yuan echoes, warily.
Lan Wangji nods, and gestures at his guqin. “Through Inquiry.” He turns back to A-Yuan. “Will he allow it?”
A-Yuan glances at Wei Wuxian.
Why not? Wei Wuxian asks cheerfully, though A-Yuan notices there is an odd quivering note of nervousness in his voice.
“Yes,” he replies to Lan Wangji, but he goes to stand protectively in front of Wei Wuxian while Lan Wangji kneels, fingers going to the strings. But before he can play, Wei Wuxian darts forward and plucks a short melody on them himself.
Hi, Lan Zhan! He translates over his shoulder, grinning mischievously. Then, with another short burst of notes, Long time, hmm?
Lan Wangji freezes, staring down at the guqin. His face is so blank that A-Yuan thinks that there has to be some deep well of emotion underneath it.
“Wei Ying,” he says very softly.
It’s me! comes the cheerful reply. Sorry for troubling you, but I’m glad you helped A-Yuan out.
Lan Wangji nods his head jerkily.
Wow, Lan Zhan, are you speechless? Wei Wuxian laughs. But you’re usually so talkative!
“How long…?” Lan Wangji’s voice trails off.
Since the siege, Wei Wuxian answers. He seems to understand what Lan Wangji is asking instinctively, though A-Yuan isn’t all that sure himself. It’s a little annoying, but I made a promise to look after A-Yuan here, after all.
Lan Wangji nods again. “Wei Ying keeps his promises.”
Well, I try, Wei Wuxian says dryly. Whether or not I succeed, that’s a different matter.
“There is no shame in doing your best and failing,” Lan Wangji tells him.
Wei Wuxian, awkward with praise, laughs again. Don’t flatter me too much, Lan Zhan, or you’ll regret it later. Now, enough about me, tell me what you’ve been up to for the last six years while we’ve been occupied with learning to garden! You must have been on some interesting night hunts, surely?
The conversation diverges off into a lively discussion (well, lively on Wei Wuxian’s part, which is strange considering he is supposed to be the dead man.) about names and people A-Yuan has never heard of, all of whom Wei Wuxian had apparently known before he’d died. Lan Wangji gamely updates him on all the information he’d missed-- some of which, like Jin Guangshan’s death, they’d heard of even in Yiling, and others, like the massacre of a minor clan by some demonic cultivator, which had never made its way to them. A-Yuan doesn’t miss that the topics of Yunmeng or the Jiang clan is never raised, but he does not particularly want to discuss it either, so he kneels on the floor while they speak, waiting with increasing boredom for the conversation to be over.
A-Yuan, you probably don’t want to sit around while we talk, Wei Wuxian says, finally remembering that he was there. Do you want to go look around the Cloud Recesses?
“Oh.” A-Yuan nods, relieved at having something to do at last, and gets up to leave. But at the jingshi’s entrance, something makes him halt and look back at Wei Wuxian hovering over Lan Wangji’s shoulder. He has never really been alone before. Wei Wuxian has never had a reason to leave him before-- has never, in the past ten years, even shown much interest in speaking to another person. There is something poisonous and black and hurt swelling in the pit of his stomach at the sight, and for a moment he doesn’t know what to do with it. Then Wei Wuxian looks up at him, smiling, and it drains away so suddenly A-Yuan is almost shaken by it.
Go on and explore, he encourages. I won’t go anywhere, I promise. I’ll be right here when you come back.
Lan Wangji is watching him now too, expression serious. “If you become lost, you need only ask someone where the jingshi is. It is common knowledge.”
A-Yuan nods again, feeling unaccountably close to tears, and not wanting to think about why. Then he drifts away down the paths, uncertain as to where he’s going, only knowing that he feels restless and uneasy, but it quickly becomes clear that walking is no help. It is a discomfort all on its own, being around people who see him as just another child. The villagers of Yiling treated him with fear and occasionally reverence, but they all thought of him as something separate. Here, several cultivators stop to ask if he is a guest disciple, or how his studies are going, or even, once, when a group of children a little younger than him passes by, to play.
A-Yuan doesn’t really remember playing, except with Wei Wuxian, who had insisted on coming up with little games for him while they were on the streets of Yiling. He remembers enjoying them, though he’d done his best in later years to prove he was too old and responsible for such things. Now, he shakes his head, too shy to speak, and the children pass him by, their merry laughter drifting up the path after they’re gone.
In the end, he moves away from the busier paths, unnerved and overwhelmed by all the social interaction. It seems ridiculous to him, since the people of the Cloud Recesses are as serene and polite as could possibly be, especially when compared to the blunt nature of those in Yiling, but A-Yuan has never had so many people talk to him before, and he desperately wants to be left alone for a while. He drifts to the back of the Cloud Recesses, where the buildings are set further and further apart, and small meadows peek through the trees beyond the path.
It’s in the middle of one of walking past one of these meadows that he hears weeping. A-Yuan pauses at the sound, looking around curiously. He thinks the noise is coming from a small clearing just off his side, and starts forward, then stops again. He is not usually someone people go to for comfort. Or go to at all, for that matter unless they have exhausted all other options. What could he possibly do to help?
Still, the sobbing is particularly violent and he is concerned, so against his better judgement he moves towards the sound. At the very least, he should make sure the person isn’t hurt. It sounds like a child crying, after all.
A few steps into the clearing he makes out a boy curled up on the ground, uncaring of the grass stains that have appeared on his pristine robes and weeping into his knees inconsolably.
“Hello?” A-Yuan says, cautiously stepping closer. “Are you alright? Do you feel sick?”
The boy’s head shoots up, a look of horror written across his face. “Go away!”
“Oh.” A-Yuan winces, feeling stupid. He knows he isn’t good around people. “Sorry, I just thought that you might be hurt or something.”
The boy’s face crumples in an awful sort of way, and A-Yuan nearly takes a step back, considering fleeing. But Wei Wuxian would want him to help, so he stays, hovering uncertainly.
“I’m not hurt,” is all the boy says in a cracked voice. “I’m okay.”
A-Yuan nods, searches for something to say. “What’s your name? I’m Wei Yuan.”
“Lan Jingyi,” the boy croaks, and scrubs at his cheeks, which are wet with tears.
A-Yuan nods again, awkwardly, then notices something protruding from underneath one of Lan Jingyi’s shoes. “What’s that?”
Lan Jingyi makes a face and pulls it out. It is a sheet of parchment, clearly some kind of exercise, and it is covered in corrections.
A-Yuan scans it. There are a lot of basic mistakes, and whoever the teacher is, he has made note of it at the end of the parchment that Lan Jingyi has not learned anything, and will have to copy out the Lan Sect rules five times in repentance.
“Five times isn’t so bad,” A-Yuan said doubtfully. He’d passed the wall of rules on his way in, and it had been more than a little intimidating.
Lan Jingyi sniffles. “I don’t care about the stupid lines!”
“Oh,” A-Yuan says, lost. “Sorry?”
Lan Jingyi’s face crumples even further, and he breaks out into fresh wails. A-Yuan, completely confused now, settles on patting the other boy’s head, the way he’s seen parents comfort their children. It doesn’t seem to help much, but the crying slows a little and eventually stops, to his relief.
“Don’t tell anyone I was crying,” Lan Jingyi mumbles, scrubbing at his face. A-Yuan only shakes his head.
“I won’t,” he promises. Then he hesitates, unwilling to do anything that might cause the weeping to start again. “Um… why were you crying, anyway?”
Lan Jingyi sniffles morosely again. “Because I keep messing up.”
“Messing up?” A-Yuan hesitates, then lowers himself down onto his knees next to him. He doesn’t particularly care about the mess, but he doesn’t know how Hanguang-jun will react to it. Still, this conversation seems like it might take a while. “Messing up how?”
“At school,” Lan Jingyi says. “In class. I try, but I just don’t… I can’t understand.” Fresh tears well up in his eyes. “I don’t want to be stupid.”
“If you don’t understand how to do something, can’t you just ask your teachers to help you?” A-Yuan wonders. He supposes, technically, that Wei Wuxian is his teacher, and that is what he does if he doesn’t know how to do something. It’s a method that has never failed him yet.
Lan Jingyi looks miserable. “But what if they yell at me instead?”
A-Yuan cocks his head. “Is that what happened the last time you asked for help?”
“I’ve never asked for help,” Lan Jingyi admits, kicking at the ground, as though embarrassed by the notion. “Won’t people think I’m stupid?”
“Well, they think you’re not listening on purpose now, so it can’t be worse than that,” A-Yuan points out, and is alarmed to see Lan Jingyi’s lip start wobbling again. “I mean-- even if they do think you’re stupid, at least being stupid is something you can fix, right? So asking can’t hurt?”
Lan Jingyi considers this for a long moment. “I guess,” he says finally, still a little doubtful. “Okay, I’ll try.”
A-Yuan pats him again on his shoulder, encouragingly.
“Hey, who are you, anyway?” Lan Jingyi says, as though he has just realised that A-Yuan is not someone he recognises. Well, A-Yuan thinks, eyeing his surprised expression, actually, that might be true. “Are you a new disciple? Which clan are you from?”
“No clan,” A-Yuan says. “I’m… Hanguang-jun brought me here.”
Apparently he needs to say no more. Lan Jingyi’s eyes go round and wide.
“You’re that boy?” he hisses in a scandalised whisper. “The demonic cultivator?”
A-Yuan supposes there is no lying about it, so he nods reluctantly, expecting the other boy will want nothing to do with him, now. Instead--
“Do you really do demonic cultivation?” Lan Jingyi demands curiously. “What’s it like? Does it really affect your mind? Does it make you evil?”
This seems like a strange question to ask; if A-Yuan were evil he would hardly admit to it. “I don’t think it does,” he says. “It makes me upset-- or, well, if I’m already upset it makes me feel worse. But I don’t think it makes me evil.”
Lan Jingyi mulls this over for a moment, then nods, as if deciding this is reasonable.
“Besides,” A-Yuan adds. “Xian-- I mean, I’m not really allowed to use the dangerous spells outside of emergencies. I only did this time because Sect Leader Jiang was after me.”
This makes Lan Jingyi perk up again.
“Did you really cross Sect Leader Jiang?” he asks in an awed voice. “And you’re okay? He didn’t hurt you or anything?”
“No,” A-Yuan says. “He just yelled a lot. And tried to hit me with his whip. But he missed.” “You got off lucky, then.” Lan Jingyi shudders. “They say no demonic cultivator who goes into the Lotus Pier ever leaves. He tortures them to death out in the open even, can you believe that?” A-Yuan remembers the cold fury with which Jiang Cheng had glared at him and feels a chill run down his spine. He has no trouble believing it in the slightest. “You’re lucky Hanguang-jun saved you.”
A-Yuan makes a face.
“You don’t like Hanguang-jun?” Lan Jingyi screws his own face up, greatly offended. “But everyone likes him! He’s my father’s youngest cousin, and he says…”
A-Yuan has to listen to stories about all the amazing things Hanguang-jun, apparent pride of the Lan sect, has accomplished since he was young for the next hour or so, and has to admit to Lan Jingyi that some of them really do sound impressive. He doesn’t mind, though. It seems to have cheered Lan Jingyi up tremendously.They end up talking until the sun begins to set, and Lan Jingyi walks him all the way back to the Jingshi, since A-Yuan has long since forgotten the way back.
By the time they reach the Jingshi, the sun has almost disappeared beneath the horizon,and the shadows have grown long. There are more people out on the paths, but they all seem to be heading to one place (The dining hall, or so Lan Jingyi tells him.) Lan Jingyi leads A-Yuan up to the door and knocks carefully. “Hanguang-jun?”
It takes a minute, but the door swings open to reveal Lan Wangji, who nods in greeting when he sees them.
“I apologise for intruding. A-Yuan didn’t know the way back, so I showed it to him.” Lan Jingyi bows low, eyes averted with shyness.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says, and then, as Lan Jingyi turns to leave, “Jingyi.” The boy blinks up at him curiously. “Uncle suggested you might benefit from more attention outside of class. It has been decided that I will work with you when I am not otherwise occupied by night-hunts.”
Lan Jingyi lets out a squeak of surprise, his face turning the red of a tomato. A-Yuan has to stifle a laugh, but he nudges Lan Jingyi when he continues to stare blankly.
“What? Oh, right!” Lan Jingyi bows again, hastily. “Thank you for your help, Hanguang-jun! I’m so grateful!” He comes out of the bow and waves at A-Yuan before running off down the path, beaming.
“He was upset,” Lan Wangji observes. A-Yuan nods uncertainly in agreement. “Thank you for your kindness.”
A-Yuan shrugs, uncomfortable. “I didn’t do anything.”
What’s this? Wei Wuxian drifts outside, grinning. Did my A-Yuan make a friend already?
“I didn’t,” A-Yuan says. “We were just talking, that’s all.”
That’s how friends get made, don’t you know? Wei Wuxian teases. Isn’t that how you made friends with me? I just talked at you until you gave up and liked me!
A-Yuan shakes his head seriously. “We’re family.”
Well, it’s how I made friends with Lan Zhan, here, when I was only a little older than you! He floats up to hover next to Lan Wangji. Isn’t that right, Lan Zhan?
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees.
A-Yuan looks between them, something occurring to him. “You can see him now?”
It’s harder to appear to two people at once, but I can manage, Wei Wuxian says. It gets easier with practice, so I should be used to it in no time.
Lan Wangji turns. “It is still safer inside.”
The two of them follow Lan Wangji back to the interior of the Jingshi, where he takes a seat next to the guqin and gestures for them to do the same. A-Yuan kneels very properly; Wei Wuxian sprawls carelessly across the floor which is strange considering he is still hovering.
“I have requested the services of a healer for you,” Lan Wangji says.
“For me?” A-Yuan blinks. “I’m not injured.”
“You have been living on the streets.” Lan Wangji’s voice is gentle. “You may be malnourished. It would be wise to have you assessed.”
A-Yuan looks at Wei Wuxian, who nods at him. “Okay, then.”
“She will be here soon.”
Lan Wangji pours him tea while they wait, and A-Yuan wraps his hands around his cup, enjoying the warmth of it. In a few minutes the healer is there, a calm, gentle woman who does not remind him in the slightest of the other healer he’d known, but the sight of whom made a lump grow in his throat anyway. He turns his head aside while she works.
“Slightly malnourished,” is her pronouncement, after a few moments of examination. “Probably the reason for his height.” A-Yuan tries not to scowl and fails; Wei Wuxian, well-used to his sensitivity about how short he is, sends him a gentle nudge. “It isn’t too bad, but he shouldn’t be following our diet; it would only make things worse. I will send instructions to the kitchens, Hanguang-jun.”
Lan Wangji nods, and sees her out.
Dinner, when it arrives some time later, is colorless soup and vegetables for Lan Wangji and A-Yuan, but A-Yuan also gets meat and rice which he gladly eats no matter how many disdainful remarks Wei Wuxian makes about the lack of spices. He is pleased to note he’s getting better at not overeating.
Still, the meal leaves him drowsy, and he heads to bed early. Wei Wuxian follows him and makes sure he is tucked in before leaving the little guest room he is sleeping in. A-Yuan is already half-asleep when his head hits the pillow, and he might have fallen asleep without ever overhearing anything, but the sound of Jiang Cheng’s name from the next room startles him, and he opens his eyes, listening with all of his might.
Tell me what he’s been doing. Wei Wuxian’s voice is quiet. Zewu-jun wasn’t surprised, when he heard. Neither were you, for that matter. This is something that happens often, isn’t it? Hunting demonic cultivators?
There is a silence. Then, “There is no gossip in the Cloud Recesses.”
A-Yuan knows evasion when he hears it. So does Wei Wuxian, who taught him how to see it in the first place. Lan Zhan, he says insistently. Please. If A-Yuan’s involved, I need to know.
The sound of shifting comes from the next When next Lan Wangji speaks, his voice has lost all its color. “He finds most in Yunmeng, takes them to the Lotus Pier. They do not come back. There have been reports of whippings.” He pauses. “There have been reports of worse. But he does not always involve himself. There was a matter with a demonic cultivator called Xue Yang… he left that to the Jin Sect.”
Children? Wei Wuxian asks.
“Not so far, but…” There is a sigh. “A-Yuan is old enough to practice demonic cultivation. It may be enough.”
Were they all… Wei Wuxian’s voice trails off.
“No.” Lan Wangji says it like a gavel falling. “They were not all dangerous.” He falters, just for a moment. “I attempted to reach them in time when I got word. I was late too often.”
Thank you, Wei Wuxian whispers. For being right on time for A-Yuan.
Lan Wangji produces the faintest of smiles. “I… had not known of his survival. I am glad.”
My A-Yuan is very hardy, Wei Wuxian says smugly, like a parent boasting of their child’s great achievements. A-Yuan shakes his head, amused. Everyone in Yiling had been hardy; he was nothing special. He doesn’t remember you, though. He had a terrible fever when he was young, and he lost a lot of his memories.
This is a surprise. Wei Wuxian hadn’t mentioned it before, but then he had probably realised A-Yuan had resented Lan Wangji pretty much on sight. A-Yuan shuffles through his memories, but he cannot remember ever meeting the man.
He is too tired to keep thinking about it, and the other two have moved to the other side of the Jingshi, where he cannot hear them, so he lets himself drift off to sleep to the distant murmur of voices.
When he wakes, his throat feels raw and painful, and when he struggles to take a breath, he starts coughing. It’s loud enough that there are immediate sounds of stirring, from within the jingshi, and Wei Wuxian, who’d been… somewhere, A-Yuan is never quite sure what happens to him while he’s asleep, appears at his side, looking down at him anxiously.
What’s wrong? he asks. A-Yuan just shakes his head, still coughing.
Lan Wangji appears at the doorway, unrumpled by sleep, forehead knit. He moves to enter, but A-Yuan burrows into the blankets miserably at the motion, and he pauses.
“You are sick,” he points out. A-Yuan, who feels too warm and freezing cold all at once, nods and starts coughing again.
He normally never gets ill, Wei Wuxian says thinly. He touches A-Yuan’s forehead with one translucent hand and it is as effective as plunging it into ice. A-Yuan whimpers and tries to move away, but Wei Wuxian makes a sound of protest, and he ceases making a fuss.
“I will summon the healers again,” Lan Wangji tells them. “Do not worry. No harm will come to him here.”
He disappears from A-Yuan’s line of sight. He is too tired to keep his eyes open, so he closes them and drifts for a little while. Wei Wuxian starts humming softly, and it is as comforting as ever.
The same healer who saw him before comes again, and does not seem overly surprised to see him in such a state.
“Sudden changes of diet and environment always cause children’s bodies stress,” she opines. “We will prescribe him the usual medications for a cold. I am certain he will recover in a few days.”
That’s it? Wei Wuxian says anxiously, though she cannot hear, of course. Lan Wangji repeats his words to her, and she smiles.
“Children fall ill all the time, Hanguang-jun,” she says. “Especially those without a strong golden core. It’s normal, and it usually isn’t serious. If he were weaker, it would be a concern, but he isn’t.” She is amused by Lan Wangji, A-Yuan can tell, but he is too exhausted to understand why.
“Just rest,” she tells A-Yuan briskly. “And you will get better in no time at all.”
She leaves, and Wei Wuxian sighs. Well, that’s good to hear, at least.
Lan Wangji nods, and carefully draws the covers up over A-Yuan. “I will wait here, if you prefer, to administer your medication at the appropriate times,” he says hesitantly.
“It’s okay,” A-Yuan rasps out. “Xian-gege is already here.” He doesn’t want them both hovering over him the whole time. It sounds stressful.
“Then, I will wait outside.” Lan Wangji turns. “Please let me know if you require anything.”
He leaves the room in a swirl of white robes and Wei Wuxian snorts, watching him go.
He’s so stiff, he says with gentle amusement. But he’s really worried about you, isn’t he?
A-Yuan hadn’t gotten that impression from him at all. He just shrugs uncertainly.
The medicine they give him is bitter and leaves a horrid residue in his throat that he has to swallow over and over again to get rid of. The first time he drinks it he actually throws up. Lan Wangji pats his back as he heaves over the basin, and he thinks mournfully that he can never seem to keep up any kind of front with the man. There really isn’t much to do when someone has seen you vomit.
He becomes accustomed to the medicine after a few days through sheer determination, and it proves effective. After a while, his fevers cease, and though his cough clings to him, slowly he begins to feel himself again.
His diet has been switched to porridge while he was ill, but now that he is starting to get better, it expands once again to solid foods, to his relief. A-Yuan rarely complains about food, but even he can only handle eating the exact same food for every meal before he becomes sick of it. But the best thing about falling ill, he comes to realise, is this: he gets dessert.
It’s medicinal, of course, snow pears with rock candy, but still. A-Yuan has rarely had the opportunity to eat dessert, and he has to struggle now for the willpower not to devour the entire thing every time it is placed in front of him.
Lan Wangji’s giving you dessert as well as meat now? Wow, he really likes you! Wei Wuxian teases, the first time this happens. A-Yuan, the Cloud Recesses doesn’t even treat royalty this well, you know? You should see the kind of food they gave me when I was studying here.
Lan Wangji looks deeply unimpressed when A-Yuan relays this comment to him in hoarse tones. “Wei Ying was neither a malnourished child nor ill during his stay,” he says. “If he had been, he would have been fed the same.”
“Mm,” A-Yuan says sleepily, and burrows his way into the pillows. They’re so soft it's as though they are made of clouds. He’s getting too used to this, and some distant part of him is worried for what will happen once this ends, but he is too tired to think about it now.
A-Yuan, are you agreeing with him? Wei Wuxian asks in horror. Has Hanguang-jun won you to his side with sweets? Are you going to abandon me forever for the sake of snow pears? Ahh, A-Yuan, your Xian-gege is so betrayed!
“No,” A-Yuan mumbles. “I still like Xian-gege best. He’s my favourite.”
He falls asleep to the sound of Wei Wuxian’s laughter, and just before he shuts his eyes, he thinks he sees Lan Wangji smile.
He has almost been cleared to come off of bed rest when Lan Xichen comes to jingshi. This is not a rare occurrence, of course not, but the second Lan Wangji lays eyes on his brother’s face, he stiffens warily. A-Yuan blinks up at the Lan Sect Leader in confusion.
“Sect Leader Jiang is here.” Lan Xichen’s voice is calm, but A-Yuan’s stomach lurches horribly. Wei Wuxian inhales sharply, curling around A-Yuan, resentful energy licking at his skin. “He wishes to speak with me about the boy you picked up a week ago. I thought you might like to be present.”
Lan Wangji rises, somehow managing to make the gesture intimidating in the extreme. Lan Xichen sighs.
“Please, brother,” he pleads. “I am not saying you have no reason to be angry, but a fight with Sect Leader Jiang will not solve any problems.”
“I will not fight,” Lan Wangji says firmly, and leaves, though not without pressing a gentle hand on A-Yuan’s shoulder in farewell. “Do not worry. It will not help your recovery.”
Lan Xichen, left behind in the room, shakes his head and sighs, though the tension has left his frame. “I should follow him,” he says to A-Yuan. “And he is right: there is nothing to concern yourself with. We cannot allow a sick child to be moved, and I am certain Sect Leader Jiang will see reason in this matter.”
His tone is as mild as ever, but A-Yuan is suddenly very certain that he would be willing to persuade Sect Leader Jiang with his sword as easily as his words. He nods meekly in reply, and watches in silence as Lan Xichen glides out after his brother.
....It’s nice to have people on your side, Wei Wuxian muses, and he cannot help but agree.
“I want to see what they say,” he rasps out, and sits up.
No, you will not, Wei Wuxian says, suddenly stern. Lie down, right now, and stop moving. You’re not going anywhere for another day at least.
Wei Wuxian so rarely gives him orders that A-Yuan subsides immediately. “But I want to see,” he complains forlornly.
You can ask Hanguang-jun about it later, Wei Wuxian promises. I’ll make him tell you, alright? I know you like to know these things, but you need to rest now.
“Okay,” A-Yuan mumbles.
Want to try Go? Wei Wuxian suggests, falsely bright. You seem interested.
A-Yuan blinks, then flushes. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had played a few games of it while he dozed over the past week he’s been ill. He supposes it's no surprise Wei Wuxian had noticed him trying to follow the game while they played. “I don’t understand the rules,” he admits.
I’ll teach you, says Wei Wuxian. The board’s on the floor, want to set it up?
A-Yuan nods and crawls over to do so, moving it over to his bed, where Wei Wuxian helps him set it up, and starts teaching him the basic rules of the game. A-Yuan has figured out most of it from watching Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji play, but it's still interesting to hear it all neatly laid out, especially since Wei Wuxian has a way of making things easy to understand.
They have tentatively begun their first game when the doors to the jingshi fly open with a tremendous crash. A-Yuan nearly jumps out of his skin, but Wei Wuxian immediately goes defensive, his spirit shooting forward to stand between whatever is coming through the door and A-Yuan.
It’s Sect Leader Jiang. A-Yuan doesn’t know why he even bothers with surprise. Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji hover behind him, looking concerned-- well, Lan Xichen looks concerned. Lan Wangji looks murderous.
“He looks very ill, certainly,” Jiang Cheng says sarcastically. “He’s clearly languishing here.”
“We did tell you he had started recovery, Sect Leader,” Lan Xichen reproaches, carefully sliding between him and A-Yuan. “But he has not left his bed for nearly a week. You can see how we would be concerned, turning such a young child over to your… care.”
“Leave,” Lan Wangji snaps. A-Yuan is not entirely sure Jiang Cheng is not going to be skewered on Bichen. “You did not have permission to enter my home.”
“As you did not have permission to spirit away a demonic cultivator on my territory,” Jiang Cheng snarls, jabbing a finger in A-Yuan’s direction. Wei Wuxian shudders with fury, and A-Yuan hastily puts out a hand, trying to make the gesture look subtle. He still sees Lan Wangji’s eyes flick to follow the motion, but Wei Wuxian calms, so it turns out well enough. “Your trespass was far greater than mine!”
Lan Wangji’s face contorts. “You--”
“We have decided to train him in cultivation for a time,” Lan Xichen cuts in. Everyone turns to face him in surprise, but he does not show so much as a flicker of uncertainty. “ We apologise for the trespass, but the boy has talent for cultivation, and we wish to make sure it is not wasted. Once we have turned him onto the correct path, he is free to do as he wishes.”
“And you expect him to stick to the correct path?” Jiang Cheng glowers. “As though he won’t go straight back to demonic cultivation the second you let him loose?”
“Either way, Gusu Lan will take responsibility for him.” Lan Xichen inclines his head slightly, his mild tone belying the steel in his eyes. “Therefore, if you find him outside of Gusu practicing unsavoury arts, I hope you will return him to us. For punishment, obviously.”
“For punishment,” Jiang Cheng repeats flatly in disbelief. But he cannot do much else; A-Yuan has been claimed, in a sense, and now it is not his place to interfere.
Lan Xichen smiles sunnily. “Quite so.”
Jiang Cheng snorts with disgust. “Fine. But,” he says to A-Yuan, eyes piercing, “Consider yourself exiled from Yunmeng. Come back, and you’ll be seeing the inside of my dungeons, understand?”
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen says sharply. “There is no need for threats.”
“I understand,” A-Yuan interjects. The men all turn to him, and he hardens his expression, trying not to show fear. “I’ll never go back.”
Jiang Cheng holds his glare for one more moment, then with a disdainful snort, he swivels on his heel and storms out of the jingshi. The rest of the room lets out a breath of relief as one, the tension draining away.
“You should be safe now,” Lan Xichen tells him. “He likely won’t interfere in another sect’s affairs. That is what they say about Xue Yang, after all.”
A-Yuan nods, and beside him Wei Wuxian sighs quietly, hovering over his bed.
Hear that A-Yuan? He asks with a faint smile. You’re safe.
But A-Yuan has just remembered one part of the conversation, and he turns to Lan Xichen. “Wait, what do you mean by training, exactly?”
“We’ve arranged for you to attend cultivation classes with my uncle,” Lan Xichen tells him, then adds cheerily, “You start next week.”
He is nervous when the day of his first class dawns, nervous enough that he barely touches his breakfast. Lan Wangji, well used to him eating his fill, eyes him with concern, but Wei Wuxian pats his shoulder, fingers drifting through his skin, and he says nothing.
“I’ll see you both later,” he says when he is done, and they nod.
He knows the way to the classroom by now, having lived in the Cloud Recesses for the past two weeks, so he makes his way there quickly enough. The other boys throw him curious looks as he slips inside the room, trying to be unobtrusive, and he struggles to ignore them until his eyes meet a familiar face.
“Jingyi,” he says in relief, when he sees the other boy, who waves at him. “Hello!”
“I saved you a seat,” Lan Jingyi says, pointing at the empty desk next to him. A-Yuan goes to kneel down at it, smiling at Lan Jingyi.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I heard you were sick,” Lan Jingyi whispers. “I tried to visit, but Hanguang-jun said I might fall ill too, so I wasn’t allowed in. How are you?”
“Better,” A-Yuan admits shyly. “They said I could attend class today to see what it was like.”
“Lan Wangji and my Xian-gege,” A-Yuan says, replying without thinking in his nervousness.
Lan Jingyi’s eyebrows knit. “I thought you were alone?”
“No.” A-Yuan shifts uneasily. “No, I… I was raised by Wei Wuxian. My Xian-gege.” He hopes that Lan Jingyi does not make the connection to the Yiling Patriarch.
“And you came here alone?” Lan Jingyi is stuck on a different matter entirely. “I never heard anyone mention your Xian-gege. But he’s in the jingshi? Are you hiding him?”
“He’s sort of…” A-Yuan hedges, then sighs and gives up. “He’s a spirit, actually. Lan Wangji is helping us both.”
“What, really?” Lan Jingyi whispers, but Lan Qiren walks into the room at that moment, so A-Yuan has no chance to elaborate, as the students all stiffen and straighten as one. Lan Qiren glowers at the sight of him. A-Yuan does his best to project an image of a good student. After all, the sooner they deem him reformed, the sooner he might be able to leave this place. And besides, he does not want to bring shame on the people who raised him either. He wants to give a good impression.
He pays diligent attention throughout the lesson, bending his head over his notes, and as it proceeds, Lan Qiren’s scowl begins to fade. It almost seems as though it might go well, for the first half-- but then, the students must split off to do their own work, and A-Yuan is called up to Lan Qiren to be given his assignment. When he gets back to his desk, he looks down to see that he’s been given a sheet of characters to copy of the easiest possible characters, the kind small children start off with. It’s a reasonable expectation that he doesn’t know how to read, A-Yuan knows. Most street children never learn, after all. It’s not even an insult, probably, but-- it reminds him of being a child, of Wei Wuxian leading him to shops and stalls in the Yiling marketplace to read their signs, of stealing books so he could practice even though he was bored by it, all because it made Xian-gege happy. And further back than Yiling were the Burial Mounds, where he had carefully, painstakingly scratched characters in the dirt while Ning-gege hovered over his shoulder, and Qing-jiejie’s tired eyes had brightened just a little when he’d gotten them right.
It feels a little as though Lan Qiren has struck him.
“You did not tell me you could read and write,” Lan Qiren says ominously, when he finishes his work in five minutes and brings it up to him to review.
“You didn’t ask,” A-Yuan snaps, clenching his fists. Behind him, Lan Jingyi pulls in a startled breath, throwing him an urgent look which he interprets as a signal to shut up.Well, he might be wearing Lan robes, but he is still Wei Wuxian’s at heart-- he is still Wen Yuan, at heart-- and so all he does is lift his chin and stare Lan Qiren down, trying to channel a little of the Yiling Patriarch’s temper into his gaze. “You assumed.”
“I assumed that you would have informed me if you had known how to read,” Lan Qiren snaps. “So as not to waste both of our time. Now, go back to your desk and wait to be called on again, or I shall throw you out!”
“You don’t have to,” A-Yuan swivels on his heel, his face flushed a furious red. “I’m leaving.”
He storms out, leaving the man spluttering angrily in his wake.
He ends up running all the way to the clearing he’d found Lan Jingyi in that first day in the Cloud Recesses, figuring that if someone born and raised in the sect thought it was safe from the adults, it was.
It says something then, he supposes, that Wei Wuxian finds him before any time at all has passed.
So, A-Yuan, is it true you decided to annoy Lan Qiren enough that he threw you out on your first day here? Wei Wuxian asks immediately, not at all troubled by it. Even I didn’t manage that. Good job!
A-Yuan scowls. “He didn’t throw me out. I left.”
Wei Wuxian looks delighted. Better and better. What happened. Was he being a grumpy old man, as per usual?
“He was…” A-Yuan bites his lip. “He wasn’t….”
He turns at the sound of Lan Jingyi’s voice, to find the other boy standing in the clearing holding a collection of dumplings.
“I thought you might want to eat,” Lan Jingyi says, holding them out. “I always do, when I’m upset. You like these, right? I asked at the kitchens. Who were you talking to?”
“Ah,” A-Yuan says, and then gives up. “You know how I told you about my Xian-gege?”
“Really?” Lan Jingyi blinks at him. “He’s here? Now?”
A-Yuan nods nervously.
“Ah…” Lan Jingyi looks around, eyes wide with curiosity. Then, to A-Yuan’s surprise, he dips into a bow that’s aimed at no one in particular. “It’s very nice to meet you, Senior Wei! A-Yuan spoke of you highly!”
Wei Wuxian laughs. What an interesting child. How did the Lans raise someone like this?
“He likes you,” A-Yuan says simply to Lan Jingyi, who flushes brightly.
I was just telling A-Yuan here not to worry so much about angering Lan Qiren, Wei Wuxian tells him. The old man will take any excuse to shout at someone he’s made up his mind to dislike, I’ve noticed.
“Lan Qiren is a venerable elder of the Lan clan,” Lan Jingyi interjects severely, with the attitude of a child parroting his parents. “He should be treated with the according respect.”
Of course, of course, Wei Wuxian says magnanimously. I’ll treat him with all due respect.
Lan Jingyi looks mollified, but A-Yuan shakes his head. “Xian-gege. Jingyi doesn’t know you’re joking.”
I was being perfectly serious! Wei Wuxian protests, then laughs. Alright, I’ll stop. But what happened, exactly?
“I got annoyed.” A-Yuan bites his lip and focuses hard on the bunny on his lap. It twitches its nose and stares back up at him, its eyes deep and unfathomable. “You know what he did. I just… I don’t want to be around him. I don’t want to be around any of them.”
Wei Wuxian is quiet for a long moment. You shouldn’t have to be, he says finally. I’m sorry, A-Yuan. But I think this is the safest place for you right now. You should try to make the best of it.
“But they murdered my family.” A-Yuan blinks back tears.
“Wait, what?” Oh. He’d forgotten Lan Jingyi was still standing there, listening to every word they’d said.
A-Yuan, startled out of crying, looks at him uncertainly. “I’m a Wen,” he informs him finally, too tired to think of a good lie. It feels good to finally say that to someone, anyway.
Lan Jingyi cocks his head to the side. “Wen? As in....” He searches his memory, clearly aware that it’s a name that ought to be significant to him. “Like Qishan Wen?”
“Yes.” A-Yuan says. “The Lan Clan helped to kill my family at the siege of the Burial Mounds.” He clenches his fists. “They weren’t fighters. They were just people, and your clan killed them. What do you think about your precious Hanguang-jun now?”
Lan Jingyi seems nonplussed by this revelation. “But Hanguang-jun didn’t though? He wouldn’t have done that, and anyway, it would be impossible.” “Impossible?” A-Yuan wonders, as Wei Wuxian echoes the same word, just a beat behind him. “What do you mean, impossible?”
“I mean, Hanguang-jun was in seclusion back when the siege happened.” Lan Jingyi blinks at them. “He was in seclusion for years after, too. I think he was injured or sick or something? No one would talk about it, and I was too young to remember what happened. It was bad-- Zewu-jun didn’t lead the Lan forces either, because he’d stayed behind to look after his brother. I think they were really worried he would die for a while.” He shudders. “But if he did get hurt, can you imagine the spirit or demon who did it? It would have to be so powerful!”
Oh. Wei Wuxian’s voice sounds oddly stricken, and A-Yuan tosses him a side glance in confusion. Oh, no. Back then, did I…
“What?” he asks, but all he gets is a stiff shake of his head in reply.
Never mind, A-Yuan, he says, and refuses to say anything else even when pushed. A-Yuan, puzzled, lets it go. The tension has dissipated out of the conversation anyway.
“Are you still mad at us?” Lan Jingyi looks anxious now. “I’m sorry about your family, I really am.”
A-Yuan considers this. “I’m not mad at you. Or any of the other children, not really. And you didn’t do anything, so you don’t have to be sorry.” He holds out one of his dumplings to Lan Jingyi, a peace offering, and he takes it, perking up. The noise he makes when he bites into it, though, is horrified.
“S’meat!” he exclaims in alarm, muffled through the food.
“Oh, no,” A-Yuan says, horrified. “I forgot-- I’m sorry!”
“No, I want to try!” Lan Jingyi takes another experimental bite, then splutters. “It’s weird.”
Wei Wuxian bursts into laughter. You’re an odd little Lan, aren’t you?
“I’ll get to eat meat once I go out of the Cloud Recesses.” Lan Jingyi shrugs and swallows. “I just haven’t had the chance yet.”
“Do you want to try another?” A-Yuan holds up another dumpling, and Lan Jingyi accepts it cheerfully, and they spend the rest of the afternoon munching in the clearing in a comfortable silence.
He gets no reprimand at all from Lan Wangji about his behaviour in class, just a calm pat on his shoulder and a declaration that he will be taking over A-Yuan’s classes instead. It’s easier for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Wei Wuxian can tell Lan Wangji what A-Yuan has already learned.
In the afternoons, when regular classes are over, he gets to see Lan Jingyi, who comes to the jingshi for his extra lessons. A-Yuan might not be as far behind as Lan Qiren had thought, but there are still plenty of gaps in his knowledge, so he attends the lessons too. They end up doing much of their work together, and it's more enjoyable that A-Yuan would have thought. He has a vast breadth of knowledge, but only in certain areas, and Lan Jingyi has a very good grasp of the basics, so they find it very easy to learn from one another’s strengths. Wei Wuxian ends up at their lessons more often than not, so Lan Jingyi ends up learning from him too. It is a bit of a struggle for him to appear to three people at once, but Lan Jingyi is with A-Yuan more often than not these days, and so he managed. Besides, Wei Wuxian had rapidly become fond of the other boy, and though Lan Jingyi blustered quite a bit, A-Yuan could tell that he was getting fond of him in turn. Strangely enough, he did not seem at all bothered by the fact that Wei Wuxian was a spirit. Wei Wuxian had even taken to calling him his successor in all things that were not demonic cultivation.
“Your successor in making things difficult for my uncle,” Lan Wangji had said, without any real censure.
Lan Jingyi had flushed, but Wei Wuxian laughed and ruffled his hair with a noisy gust of wind.
But Jingyi is just too good to be like me, isn’t he? he said. So dedicated! So hardworking! I bet he’s never run off to hunt rabbits in the forest! So my title is secure.
“You hunted the rabbits?” Lan Jingyi said in horror. “How could you do that?”
Lan Wangji shook his head at him, reassuringly. “Wei Ying did not hurt them.” To Wei Wuxian he adds, “Do not tease.”
I gave them to Hanguang-jun! Wei Wuxian cackled cheerily. So in a way I’m responsible for the rabbit explosion around here. What do you think of that, hmm?
Lan Jingyi looked caught between outrage and appreciation. “I guess that was good,” he decides reluctantly, in the end. “Hanguang-jun is the best at looking after things.”
Wei Wuxian laughs again. He is, isn’t he? That's why he’s looking after my A-Yuan right now! I was so impressed by what he did with the baby rabbits I decided to give him my own baby bunny!
“Xian-gege!” A-Yuan complains in protest. Lan Wangji shakes his head, though he is smiling.
“Wei Ying,” he says. “You are embarrassing them.”
But they’re so fun to bully! Wei Wuxian wails. Look at their cute red faces! I want to squeeze their cheeks!
“No,” Lan Wangji tells him firmly, and he subsides, pouting.
A-Yuan finds his behaviour around Lan Wangji strange, but not in a bad way. Wei Wuxian is normally given towards happiness, but now there is a lightness to him that has never been present before. A-Yuan supposes that being around people of his own age is good for him, though it sometimes leads to a melancholy he does not always understand. One such day, when Wei Wuxian is quiet and distant, A-Yuan is attempting to meditate in his room when he catches snach of a conversation from the other room.
We heard something strange the other day, Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian is saying, voice muted. We heard that you were in seclusion because you were terribly injured, around the time of the siege at the Burial Mounds. Is that true?
A-Yuan pauses. He has not forgotten Wei Wuxian’s strange mood when Lan Wangji’s injuries had been brought up earlier, and now he strains to listen harder.
“Mn.” Lan Wangji, as taciturn as ever.
Lan Zhan, the reason you were in seclusion back then… Wei Wuxian trails off. Was it because of me? At the Nightless City, did I…
“No.” Lan Wangji is certain. “You were not responsible for what happened to me.”
Oh. The relief in Wei Wuxian’s voice is immeasurable. Oh. I’m glad.
Well, that clears up nothing. A-Yuan sighs in frustration.
You’ve done so much for A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian continues. He’s safer here than he’s ever been, so I couldn’t stand it if…
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupts. “You owe me nothing.”
I couldn’t take care of him, Wei Wuxian admits, and his voice is low with a shame that pricks at A-Yuan’s eyes. Not the way he deserved. I promised his family that I would, but I couldn’t. I didn’t even have a body to protect him with.
“You did protect him,” Lan Wangji’s voice is low. “You protected him with everything you had. He is here and safe because of it.”
I just want him to not have to worry all the time, Wei Wuxian says. I want him to splurge on food or toys and forget to think about money because he knows he’ll always have enough. Or even because it's someone else’s job to worry about those things. I just want him to be a child for a little while.
“He will have whatever he wants,” Lan Wangji promises, with the gravity of someone carving it in stone. “He is with me.”
I meant to ask you why you were taking such an interest, Wei Wuxian says. You didn’t do this for the others Jiang Cheng tried to capture, did you?
Lan Wangji freezes over his guqin, one hand hovering in midair as he considers the question. Wei Wuxian let out a soft laugh.
It must be that he was a child, he says. You like children, don’t you? I remember how fond of him you were when you first met.
Lan Wangji swallows hard, looks away. A-Yuan thinks, suddenly, that perhaps it was nothing to do with being a child-- though he is certain Lan Wangji would have stopped it regardless-- and a lot more to do with whose child he was. He flushes hard and wills himself out of the room.
Thankfully, Lan Jingyi knocks on the door at that moment, here for his afternoon lessons, and Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji turn their attention to other things. A-Yuan breathes a private sigh of relief and gets up to join them.
The rest of the year is probably one of the hardest in his life, when it comes to cultivation at least. He studies and meditates and works every day until he drops off to sleep, exhausted but pleased. After a month of his staying at the Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji begins to train him in swordplay. He starts with basic drills, using a wooden practice sword, then moves on to more advanced ones, until finally he starts sparring with Lan Jingyi, who is miles ahead of him in this, having had the benefit of practice since childhood. Still, A-Yuan is slowly but surely catching up, and by the time a year has passed, he is allowed to practice sparring with Lan Wangji. Of course, he stands little chance against the older man, but it teaches him plenty. Wei Wuxian cannot help him much, of course, but he always watches and offers his advice… and teaches him a few sneaky tricks.
A year passes before they finally declare him good enough for his own sword. It takes a few weeks-- cultivation swords were slaved over, and imbued with all sorts of spells, but Lan Wangji eventually presents him with it in the jingshi.
The sword is of the Gusu style, slender and elegant but sharp as a needle. It is beautiful, with an elaborate hilt that gleams white in the sunlight, and it fits in his hand as… well, as though it is made for it. A-Yuan has never seen anything so perfect, and he cannot stop staring.
“I thought it better to have a notable appearance,” Lan Wangji says. “As you will be alone, much of the time. It is a very Lan sword,” he adds, with a flash of what looks like embarrassment. “I thought that would also be wise. People should know that you are not someone to be trifled with.”
That’s a good idea, Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian agrees. To A-Yuan he says, Do you have any ideas for a name? I know I couldn’t decide on one at all when it was my turn.
“So your uncle called it ‘Suibian’,” A-Yuan says, having heard the story. He laughs. “Please don’t be offended, but I don’t think I want you to choose my sword’s name, Xian-gege.”
That’s fair, even if you’re a cheeky brat, my A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says indulgently. Well, any ideas?
A-Yuan hesitates. He has had a few ideas.
“Gòngpǐn,” he says finally. “It’s name is Gòngpǐn.”
He hopes his family would be proud of it.
There is a long pause. Wei Wuxian’s lips curve faintly upward, but his eyes are sad. A-Yuan does his best to smile back.
“So it is,” Lan Wangji says.
Only a week or two after he receives his sword, he begins to itch to leave. He never meant to stay at the Cloud Recesses so long, after all. Wei Wuxian notices his restlessness immediately, and they discuss it frequently before finally announcing their intention in the early spring.
Lan Wangji accepts it with his usual reserve when he tells him, though his gaze lingers on Wei Wuxian as he does. A-Yuan politely averts his gaze and leaves them to it, knowing he ought to be the one to tell Lan Jingyi.
The other boy cries when he receives the news, which is somewhat horrifying, but A-Yuan finds it very difficult not to tear up too. They end up hugging each other hard and promising to write to each other once A-Yuan has an address for Lan Jingyi to send his letters.
Once he tells Lan Jingyi that he is leaving, it is as if the entire Cloud Recesses knows, and he gets a surprising amount of visits from people who want to wish him well on his travels. The healer he first met when he arrives stops at the jingshi to tell him to maintain his current standard of health and to keep eating well. Lan Qiren stops by for a supremely awkward visit in which he begrudgingly tells A-Yuan his cultivation has made great strides. Jingyi’s parents visit too, with an assortment of gifts, thanking him for being such a good friend to their son and insisting he visit when he gets a chance. Even Lan Xichen comes to see him at the gates of the Cloud Recesses, though the Lan Sect leader is almost constantly kept busy.
“Wei-gongzi is an excellent student,” Lan Xichen tells him. “We will be sorry to see you go-- even my uncle, though I doubt he will admit it.”
A-Yuan bows to him, very properly. “I had excellent teachers, Sect Leader.”
Lan Xichen laughs. “So you did. Well, I wish you luck with the rest of your studies, then. Remember that you are welcome here whenever you wish it.” He inclines his head towards A-Yuan in a goodbye, and then glides away, as calm as ever.
Wei Wuxian snickers, curling around him. You are the best student, aren’t you? Gusu Lan can choke on their envy, I got to you first!
A-Yuan looks up at him solemnly. “Gloating is not allowed in the Cloud Recesses, Xian-gege.”
Wei Wuxian outright cackles at this. A-Yuan! You’re picking up all the worst habits from Hanguang-jun! Shouldn’t you have my sense of humor and not his?
It is, A-Yuan realises, very much a joke Lan Wangji would have made. He pauses, surprised and uncertain how he feels about this, and does not notice the man in question coming up behind them.
“You said my name,” Lan Wangji says.
You’re a corrupting influence on the youth of today, Hanguang-jun, Wei Wuxian announces. Shame on you! Someone should complain to your uncle.
Lan Wangji blinks and looks at A-Yuan, who flushes and glares off into the distance. “...Mn,” he says, finally. “Are you ready?”
A-Yuan presses a hand to Gòngpǐn’s hilt. “Yes.”
He nods. “Look after your weapons. And do not tense up when you fight.”
“Listen to Wei Wuxian. Pay attention to your surroundings. Do not take on more than you can handle.”
A-Yuan blinks. He has never heard Lan Wangji speak so much, or so quickly. “Okay?”
Lan Wangji nods again, then gestures for A-Yuan to go ahead, which he does, bemusedly. Wei Wuxian hovers back, and the two of them speak in hushed tones that he cannot make out though they both look very intent. Then, Wei Wuxian drifts away from Lan Wangji’s side and rejoins A-Yuan, and their small group finally moves to the Cloud Recesses’ exit.
“Hanguang-jun,” he says, right as he is about to go. The man pauses, looking at him expectantly.
His gaze is as cold as the day they had first met, but A-Yuan fancies he can read more of his expression than he did back then.
“Hanguang-jun,” he repeats. “Thank you.”
“There is no need for thanks between us,” Lan Wangji tells him firmly.
A-Yuan shakes his head, but he knows by now that there will be no changing his mind. He leaves, Wei Wuxian hovering next to him as he makes his way down the winding mountain path. Once, when they are nearly out of sight, he turns back, just out of curiosity. The small white figure still stands at the entrance to the Cloud Recesses, watching as they go.
Come on, A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says softly, and he turns back around.
“It’s time,” he agrees, and does not turn again.
(From Wei Wuxian to Lan Wangji, transcribed by Wei Yuan; letter carefully rolled and stored in a desk in the Jingshi)
We’re alive and well! In a manner of speaking, that is. I know you were concerned, so don’t pretend. A-Yuan and I have been taking care of ourselves for years, you know, and we still have the money you gave us. I’ve left the address of the town we’re going to head to next, in case you want to reply to this.
A-Yuan’s been eating well, and I think he’s starting to shoot up again. It’s nice to see, right A-Yuan? (He’s making a face at me. It’s adorable. He’s so embarrassed about being pleased.) He also takes his sword practice very, very seriously, and now there isn’t a single day that goes by where he isn’t at the edges of the camp going through his drills. You might think that he doesn’t like you, but he’s definitely been listening. (This is A-Yuan. I still don’t like you very much. Don’t get any ideas.)
A-Yuan, don’t interrupt! If you want to write to Lan Zhan, get your own letter. It’ll make him so happy! (No.)
Pfft, children can be so stubborn. Do you know, he wants to start night hunting again? Nothing too dangerous, of course, and I’ll always be with him… but still, I worry. I can’t help it.
Is it strange if I like knowing you’re worried too, back in the Cloud Recesses? But it really is so nice.
(Letter from Wei Yuan to Lan Jingyi)
I know I said I wanted to leave, and I did, but I miss the Cloud Recesses a lot. I didn’t think I would, but I do. There were so many people to talk to back there, and I knew everyone’s faces. It was like having a home.
I miss you the most, of course! There isn’t anyone like you. Wei Wuxian says you’re unique. That’s true.
I do like travelling, though. There are so many new places and things to see, especially the further you go. Someday, we’ll go together, right? It’s going to be so fun!
(From Lan Wangji to Wei Wuxian, delivered along with a notebook full of research notes)
Here. It took me a while to find. So many of your things were lost, and many ended up with the Jin Sect, as the spoils of war. They do not allow other cultivators access, normally. I managed to convince them otherwise.
I trust you will worry a little less with it in your possession.
(A letter to Lan Wangji from Wei Wuxian, letter carefully rolled and stored in a desk in the Jingshi)
Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!
You’re the best, you know that? You’re really great. Ah, Lan Zhan, I didn’t expect you to do that at all.
I’ve forgotten a lot of the things I was working on before I died, but there are things in here that I can teach A-Yuan. I know you said there was no need for thanks between us, but really, Lan Zhan, thank you.
(From Lan Jingyi to Wei Yuan)
I found one of Hanguang-jun’s letters to Wei Wuxian in his study, and I read it. It was mostly by accident. Mostly. I just wanted to know how you were doing!
I wanted to ask… are they always, you know, like that? You do know what I’m asking about, right? You write Wei Wuxian’s replies?
Ugh, nevermind, it's kind of gross to think about. Adults are so gross. Let me tell you about some of the new boys that came to study here: they’re all jerks. Older boys think they know everything, just because they’ve gone on night hunts alone.
I wish you were here. You’ve been on night hunts. I bet you have better stories than any of them.
And if you don’t, Wei Wuxian would help me lie about it.
(From Wei Yuan to Lan Jingyi, in a positively violent hand)
Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and yes, they are always like that. Always. Just be glad Lan Wangji is corporeal, and you don’t have to write his letters for him. It’s sweet, I suppose, and I’m very happy Xian-gege is happy… but it’s also so embarrassing, listening to Xian-gege go on and on. I would hire someone to write them for me, but I would have to explain about Wei Wuxian, so it would never work.
(In a shaky hand upon a ripped off piece of paper, found in the Jingshi after Lan Wangji had flown from the Cloud Recesses in an alarming rush)
We are in Yi City in Shudong. Xue Yang is here.
(In tiny letters at the bottom of the paper)
(A hastily-written letter to Lan Jingyi, personally delivered by Hanguang-jun)
Thank you for the sharpening stone and oil cloths for my sword. Lan Wangji said you saved up for ages to buy them for me! I’m very grateful. He’ll be leaving soon and I wanted to get this letter to you, so I hope you’ll forgive that this is so rushed.
From what he said, his departure sounded very hasty, so I expect you’re wondering what was going on. Don’t worry, Wei Wuxian and I are both fine.
We were travelling through the Shudong area when we heard tales of a blind girl looking for help from cultivators. I don’t think most people were taking her very seriously, but we thought it might be worth looking into, so we tracked her down.
It was a lucky thing we did, too, I think it might have turned out very badly if we hadn’t. Her name was A-Qing, and we were surprised to learn that for a while, she’d been travelling with Wei Wuxian’s shifu…
(Letter goes on to detail the story of Xiao Xingchen’s last few years of life.)
… and anyway, the three of us ended up locked in a house in Yi City, defending it from a small siege’s worth of corpses for two days before Lan Wangji arrived. Well, A-Qing and I didn’t do much, honestly, Xian-gege was… I’ve never seen anyone fight like that, spirit or cultivator. I think Xue Yang really made him angry. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian ended up killing Xue Yang on the outskirts of the city, but obviously a lot of damage was done.
In the end, A-Qing and Song Lan went off to travel together with Xiao Xingchen’s spirit inside the qiankun pouch. Who knows if his spirit will ever reform? It’s in the worst condition I’ve ever seen, but Xian-gege says stranger things have happened, and A-Qing says she’ll hit me if I even think about it not happening. She says her daozhang can do anything. Song Lan didn’t say anything, but I think he agreed. If Xiao Xingchen is anything like Wei Wuxian, they’re right.
I hope they’re right. I hope we run into them again, someday.
I’m hopeful, anyway.
(To Wei Yuan, equally hastily-written, from Lan Jingyi)
YOUR LAST LETTER MADE ME CRY.
(A loosely sketched angry bunny face covers the bottom half of the scroll.)
(To Lan Jingyi, accompanied by a series of rare talismans)
I’m sorry about the tears, please forgive me! I know your birthday will probably be over by the time you get this, but here. Wei Wuxian taught me some really good talismans to send to you. You’ll be allowed to go on night-hunts with the other juniors now that you’re fourteen, won’t you?
Now you’ll be extra prepared! I’m sure you’re going to do amazingly.
Tell me how it goes, okay? We haven’t seen each other in forever. Lan Wangji joins us on night hunts sometimes now-- but you probably know that already. Still, I never get to see you. I’ll have to come back to Gusu Lan soon.
(Letters from Lan Wangji to Wei Wuxian and Wei Yuan)
You need not worry about your resentment. I have seen your rage before, and what I saw in Yi City was protectiveness, not vengeance.
I was glad to see you and A-Yuan safe.
I am grateful you reached out to me in Yi City. If ever you need it again, I would be glad to help.
Your form has improved considerably since last we met. Keep practicing.
(A letter to Lan Wangji from Wei Wuxian, letter carefully rolled and stored in a desk in the Jingshi)
On time as always! I know, I know, don’t thank you, but you’re always there for us when we need you, and I’m grateful. Also… if you say that I am safe, how can I disagree? Just promise you will let me know if I am slipping. The last time I lost control of myself, so many people died. You know my shijie… but never mind. I cannot do that again, not around A-Yuan. I won’t.
But enough about serious matters! Let me tell you about the places we’ve been. Let me also boast about the bold deeds A-Yuan has accomplished since you left! There are so many. Just last week…
(Letter trails off into highly embellished tales of Wei Yuan and the night-hunts he has been on, interspersed with embarrassed interjections from A-Yuan on what actually happened whenever Wei Wuxian became too flamboyant in his descriptions)
(A letter from Wei Yuan, carefully rolled up and saved with Wei Wuxian’s letters)
Thank you for coming. I’ll be better about letting you know where we are from now on.
Please don’t listen to what Wei Wuxian said about the evil spirit in Shuangfeng village. It truly wasn’t that dramatic.
(A letter on blotted and creased paper written in a childishly careful hand with several misspellings)
Song Lan is teaching me to write. This is your fault. You asked me to.
I hope your annoying Xian-gege bites his own tongue off.
(A letter from Wei Yuan to A-Qing, in calligraphy carefully calculated to be so beautiful it is offensive)
I am so happy to know you and Song Lan are getting along so well. Wei Wuxian and myself are, of course, as happy as ever. I heard you were headed towards Lanling Jin territory, what’s it like there? I’ve never been. I probably never will.
How are your cultivation lessons going?
(From A-Qing to Wei Yuan: Several scrolls filled with nothing but graphic doodles of animal dung, apart from a couple of lines at the top of the first)
Lanling is full of shit. It stinks worse than Yi City, and that place was full of corpses. Don’t bother coming here.
Once I learn to wield Shuanghua you’re done for!
(A letter to Lan Wangji from Wei Wuxian, letter carefully rolled and stored in a desk in the Jingshi)
I was looking at A-Yuan the other day, and he’s so tall now! Up to my shoulder at least! Where did my tiny precious child go? You know he’s almost fifteen now? What were we doing when we were fifteen? Running around causing trouble, no doubt. Well, I was causing trouble. I’m pretty sure you were studying cultivation and meditating. A-Yuan takes after you in that regard. He’s always so serious. Sometimes I worry about him. Shouldn’t children have more friends?
(I’m fine, Xian-gege! I have Jingyi! And also A-Qing now, I guess.)
I told you, A-Yuan, write to Hanguang-jun yourself since you have so much to say to him. In my day, we didn’t steal adults’ letters for ourselves.
(But you were just talking about all the trouble you caused?)
(In a far more elaborate scroll than usual)
I hope my letter finds you well. Enclosed is an invitation to study at the Cloud Recesses for the year alongside our other guest disciples.
I know several people here who would gladly welcome you back, myself included, so I pray you accept our invitation.
You really are the best. I guess we’ll see you soon.
It has been a very long time since they were in the Cloud Recesses, but as A-Yuan pulls up carefully to the entrance, he notices that it looks unchanged from five years ago.
The Lans only build extensions when its absolutely necessary, Wei Wuxian tells him. When it burned to the ground when I was young, they even rebuilt it exactly the same as before. Not a wooden panel out of place.
That sounds like a very Lan way of doing things, but there must have been some comfort in having their home back exactly the way it had been. He thinks he understands.
A-Yuan hops off his sword, pulling out his pendant. The guards at the entrance relax as he does so, waving him in without even checking his invitation.
A-Yuan, you’re an important man, Wei Wuxian teases. You can even make cultivators of one of the four great sects stand aside.
“Xian-gege,” A-Yuan protests, but they have reached the jingshi, and Lan Jingyi has bounded out with a whoop of joy.
“A-Yuan!” he cries, and throws himself upon him. A-Yuan actually staggers a little from the impact of it, laughing as he steadies them both. Wei Wuxian laughs too, hovering back.
“Jingyi,” says a voice from inside, and they look up to see Lan Wangji. “There is no running or shouting in the Cloud Recesses.”
“Sorry, Hanguang-jun,” Lan Jingyi says obediently, but he hugs A-Yuan again before finally releasing him, and he notes with some amusement that Lan Wangji says nothing of the rule on excessive affection.
Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian chirps. Did you miss me? It’s been so long without my company, you must have been pining away.
It hasn’t been more than a few months since their last night hunt together, but Lan Wangji nods seriously. “I was.”
Wei Wuxian squawks, gliding back and putting his hands to his cheeks in embarrassment. Don’t just agree with me with that solemn expression on your face, Lan Zhan! It’s too cute!
A-Yuan sighs. Not even five minutes here… He notes Lan Jingyi’s sickened expression and snickers. He clears his throat noisily, and the two of them actually turn to look at him. What a relief. “I wanted to tell you-- I think I’ll be staying in the guest disciple quarters this time. I’m far too old to be troubling Hanguang-jun by staying in the jingshi again. Xian-gege can stay here, though.”
Lan Wangji looks at him, and his eyes are gentle. “A-Yuan is no trouble.”
Honestly, Xian-gege is correct. This man is entirely too good; A-Yuan was doing his best to help him out! “I’ve missed Jingyi,” he explained. “It’s been a long time, and letters don’t do him justice.” He throws Lan Jingyi a look of desperation.
Lan Jingyi, thankfully, understands at once. “I’ve missed you too!” he says excitedly. “If A-Yuan sleeps in the guest quarters we would be able to talk more! I want to introduce you to some of the other boys; you’ll like them, they’re very nice!”
Anxiety makes his chest go tight for a moment at the mention of other people, but he is far more used to having to speak to strangers now, and he shakes it off to meet Lan Wangji’s gaze. “But Xian-gege should go with you, of course. I’m sure you two will want to talk.”
Ah, I don’t know about that, Wei Wuxian says uneasily, his spirit coiling and uncoiling tendrils of resentful energy. I’m sure Lan Zhan doesn’t want me around. I’d annoy him to death. I should just stay with you…
“Wei Ying is also no trouble,” Lan Wangji insists, his eyes, if possible, softening even further. A-Yuan wants to scream; a glance at Lan Jingyi’s face lets him know he’s feeling the same way. Are there no adults who will behave and do as they are told?
“A-Yuan and I don’t want you around, Senior Wei!” Lan Jingyi finally blusters, clearly giving up on subtlety. “We’re teenagers! We want to be alone!”
Horrifically, this seems only to make Wei Wuxian curious. Oh? he asks, and drifts closer to them. What kind of trouble are you and my sweet A-Yuan getting up to, hmm?
“Secret trouble,” A-Yuan insists. “It’s not for you! We’re leaving, go stay with Hanguang-jun, goodbye!” He grabs Lan Jingyi’s sleeve and they both scamper up the path as quickly as they are able.
Wait! Wei Wuxian calls after them forlornly, as they make their escape. Don’t you want my advice? I’m good at trouble! He sighs. Ahh, children these days, they never want to listen to more experienced folks.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees.
Once he and Lan Jingyi have finally absconded to the relative safety of the guest quarters, they make loud horrified noises at one another and collapse in exhaustion on the bed.
“Is there a Lan Sect rule for telling your elders they’re being stupid?” A-Yuan wonders, swinging his feet back and forth lazily where they hang off the side. The two of them have slipped back into their old friendship without missing a beat, and he feels warm all over at the thought.
“No,” Lan Jingyi says wistfully. “That would be so useful, though. I wonder if I should suggest one?”
“Lan Qiren would never listen,” he sighs. “Maybe Zewu-jun would, though, try him--”
“Oooh,” Lan Jingyi interrupts, sitting up. “Sorry-- you just have to meet the other guest disciples! I knew some of them already, their sects lie in Gusu-- come on, I promise you’ll like them.”
A-Yuan sits up too, his stomach lurching with nerves. “Do you think they’ll like me?”
Lan Jingyi pauses and throws him a keen look that seems to belong more to Lan Wangji than anyone. Maybe all that time he has spent assisting Hanguang-jun has caused him to rub off a little. A-Yuan shifts nervously under the gaze. “Yes,” he says firmly. “I think they’re going to like you a lot.”
He’s not wrong. The other boys are as friendly and easygoing as Lan Jingyi had promised. At first they are a blur of names and faces, but slowly A-Yuan begins to learn who belongs where. Baling Ouyang’s head disciple and heir, Ouyang Zizhen, is of particular note in that he has heard of A-Yuan as well, since his sect is located in Yunmeng-- but he says nothing of the matter to the other boys, or even to A-Yuan himself, who would not even be aware of it if Lan Jingyi had not mentioned it in a letter. He is grateful for the other boy’s discretion.
When classes start he half-expects to continue his abrasive relationship with Lan Qiren, but though the man glowers at him suspiciously, he does not treat him any differently from the other student. Lan Wangji has spoken to him, A-Yuan suspects, or Lan Xichen.
A-Yuan is glad for the anonymity. All he wants to do is become one of the crowd.
His birthday comes in winter, and it is the first he spends with so many other people. Normally Wei Wuxian insists on kicking up an enormous fuss over it, no matter how many times he tells him it isn’t necessary, but he is just a spirit, so the celebrations have always been low-key.
They still are, he supposes, at least by the standards of the Lan clan.
Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian plie him with sweets and cultivation materials with equal measure. Lan Jingyi gifts him a book from the Gusu Lan archives that he knows A-Yuan has been looking for. Ouyang Zizhen, inexplicably, copies a poem for him in beautiful calligraphy, though A-Yuan is unsure where, exactly, he is supposed to keep it. The rest of the students spend the day coming up to him and giving him small gifts, and in the evening they hold a small celebration. A-Yuan is grateful, of course he is, but he is also… a little overwhelmed with all the attention. It’s a lot more than he’s used to, so when the well-wishers have left and he and Lan Jingyi head up to the jingshi because he had promised to show Wei Wuxian his spoils, he feels somewhat relieved.
When I was your age, my friends and I would sneak alcohol in from Caiyi Town, Wei Wuxian tells him, when A-Yuan is done recounting what he’d done with his friends. Remember that, Lan Zhan?
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says with a faint quirk of his lips.
The two of you should be a little more wild, encourages Wei Wuxian. You’re young! It’s the best time to make foolish mistakes.
Lan Jingyi puffs up. “That’s against the rules!”
A-Yuan thinks about how much the day has tired him, and cannot help but give Wei Wuxian an apologetic shrug. “Sorry Xian-gege, but being wild is exhausting.”
I’ve raised a rule-follower, Wei Wuxian laments, but he is smiling. Though I hope you haven’t been completely tired out. We have one more gift for you.
“One more?” A-Yuan flushes. “Xian-gege, I’ve already gotten so much this year! I really don’t need any more, I promise.”
This one didn’t cost us anything but time. Wei Wuxian promises.
A-Yuan blinks at Lan Wangji. “Us?”
I’ve already discussed this with Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian tells him, But how would you feel about him giving you your courtesy name?
“You?” A-Yuan says, startled, to Lan Wangji.
He inclines his head. “If you would allow it.”
A-Yuan hesitates. As much as he has accepted Wei Wuxian’s fondness for the man in front of him, as much as he has chosen to rely on him… some part of him still thinks of his own family, their bodies littered across the ground of the Burial Mounds, no graves or tombs to mark their presence. He had a family. He had one, and it was taken from him, and he sometimes despises the fact that he cares so much about a clan who helped kill them, no matter how small a part they played. But he looks at Lan Wangji, and suddenly that matters a little less, because the man’s eyes are dark with something that looks a lot like nervousness.
His family would not want him to hold these kinds of grudges. A-Yuan nods. “I don’t mind.”
Lan Wangji’s shoulders relax, just minutely, and A-Yuan feels warm-- at least until Lan Wangji says, “Sizhui. Wei Sizhui.”
“Sizhui?” A-Yuan says in disbelief.
“Sizhui?” Wei Wuxian echoes, tilting his head. “Not bad, Lan Zhan! Did you think of that just now?”
Lan Wangji inclines his head, and A-Yuan’s forehead throbs violently.
“Sizhui,” he says. “As in... “ he trails off. Sometimes, just sometimes, A-Yuan really understands why Qing-jiejie hit people upside the head so often. Sizhui, honestly. He sighs.
“Wei Sizhui,” he says carefully, trying it out. “Wen Sizhui.”
“I like it,” Lan Jingyi offers. “It sounds nice.”
… It isn’t bad. And… he is a recollection in a way, of things-- of people who are no longer here. A-Yuan nods to himself.
“I like it too,” he decides. Then he chances a glance at Lan Wangji out of the corner of his eye. “Since you gave it to me, you might as well use it.”
At that, Hanguang-jun smiles with the briefest curve of his mouth, and he cannot help but smile back.
Ahh, my little Sizhui! Wei Wuxian pats him on his cheeks. It feels like a gust of cold air against his face. All grown up! I couldn’t be more proud.
He looks alarmingly near tears, so A-Yuan-- Wei Sizhui-- smiles back.
“Don’t worry,” he teases. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
As if I would want to! Wei Wuxian is indignant. I’ve raised the best child! You’ll stay and look after your Xian-gege when he’s old, won’t you Sizhui?
“Of course,” A-Yuan says loyally, no matter how nonsensical it is.
Such a sweet boy, Wei Wuxian beams.
The rest of the year passes in a warm haze of friends and classes. Lan Qiren seems to make his peace with Wei Sizhui’s presence once he realises he has no intention of being a disruption, and he does learn a great deal about cultivation. Not that Wei Wuxian isn’t an excellent teacher-- it is just a very different thing to be learning amongst so many different people, all of whom seem to have their own style of cultivation. It’s fascinating.
When it's finally over, he has half a dozen new promises to write, and his friends bury him with hugs before they go. Lan Jingyi makes him swear they’ll go on a night hunt together soon, and Wei Sizhui agrees. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji linger together until the very last second, seemingly unwilling to leave the other’s side, but eventually, they do leave.
It’s a much lonelier feeling, this time, turning back to the road, and neither he nor Wei Wuxian makes much conversation as they make their way down the mountain path.
This time, once they leave the Cloud Recesses, Wei Sizhui does not stray too far from Gusu Lan. He still stays away from Yunmeng, where rumors about Sect Leader Jiang do not grow any less dark, and he will not go to Lanling Jin, not unless absolutely forced-- but Gusu is welcoming enough, and Qinghe is always desperate for help these days, with Nie Huaisang at its helm. A-Qing and Song Lan are often there too, having decided they liked the place better than Lanling, so that is an added benefit.
But Gusu has become sort of a base for them, and they return more and more often as the year goes by. Wei Sizhui finds he becomes used to seeing Lan Jingyi’s face brightening when he sees him, to Lan Qiren’s thawing grumpiness and Lan Xichen’s unfailing kindness. And of course, to Lan Wangji, who remains a still point in the chaos, a steadfast presence even when Wei Sizhui cannot bring himself to rely on him.
After a while, he begins to find comfort in seeing the Cloud Recesses rise up from the mists of the mountain, like a signal fire leading him back to safety.
Back home-- but he’s afraid to even think of that word.
It’s during one of these visits that he first gets the inkling that something might be on Wei Wuxian’s mind.
He has reached the jingshi for his daily visit-- he stays at the guest quarters now by a matter of rote-- when he hears something that makes him freeze.
Is it true? Wei Wuxian is demanding. He sounds upset in a way he usually only hears when Wei Sizhui’s life has been threatened. Is what your brother told me true?
Wei Sizhui cannot imagine Lan Xichen saying anything to upset Wei Wuxian this much, not when he is normally so kind. Lan Wangji does not say anything, but he must make some kind of reply, because Wei Wuxian snaps, Don’t avoid the question, Lan Zhan!
Overcome with curiosity, Wei Sizhui inches closer to the entrance of the jingshi, peering within. Wei Wuxian hovers in the middle of the room, expression furious, Lan Wangji is kneeling at his guqin, but his fingers are still and his eyes will not meet Wei Wuxian’s.
Is it true? Wei Wuxian says again.
Lan Wangji’s gaze does not rise. “Yes.”
You told me it wasn’t because of me, Wei Wuxian says. He sounds horrified. You told me I didn’t… that I wasn’t…
“It was not your fault,” Lan Wangji insists. “I was my choice. I made it on my own.”
But I was the reason!
“You were not the only reason.” His voice is soft. “I did it because it was the right thing to do. And it was. Sizhui would not be here otherwise.”
Wei Sizhui presses closer, startled at the mention of his name.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says softly, and finally meets his gaze. “If you must hate yourself for something I would prefer it not be this.”
Wei Wuxian almost shrinks in on himself at this reprimand, as gentle as it is. That’s not what this is. Lan Zhan, it wasn’t your fight. You could have walked away.
“Your fight is my fight,” Lan Wangji tells him simply. Then he adds, with some regret, “I only wish I had realised that sooner.”
Thirty three strikes of the disciple whip, and you still don’t regret it? Wei Wuxian laughs sadly. You couldn’t even leave the Cloud Recesses for three years.
Wei Sizhui is still confused, for a minute-- but then he remembers that long-ago conversation with Lan Jingyi, about how Lan Wangji had been injured, confined to his house while he recovered. But the conversation has continued without him.
Lan Zhan, wouldn’t it be better for you to move on? Wei Wuxian is suggesting softly. You could find someone else, someone who isn’t dead. I know you… but I’m not… I can’t even touch you.
Lan Wangji’s response is immediate. “No.”
Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian says, but he does not respond. Lan Zhan, please.
“I don’t…” Lan Wangji starts, struggling. “I am satisfied with this. I do not want anyone else.”
But are you happy? Wei Wuxian asks.
“When Jingyi comes for lessons,” Lan Wangji says. “When A-Yuan told me to call him Sizhui. When you are here. Then I am happy.”
And that’s enough for you?
Wei Sizhui peeks around the corner again, unable to contain his curiosity. Wei Wuxian’s face is uncertain, wavering, and he wills him to say the right thing.
I wish… Wei Wuxian lets out a miserable laugh. I wish I’d known before I died. I wish I could have.... I don’t know.
“You are here now,” Lan Wangji says softly. “That has always been enough for me.”
Wei Wuxian smiles sadly and drifts closer, until their shoulders are almost knocking, but he says nothing. Wei Sizhui waits a moment more then enters the room as though nothing has happened, watching them both perk up.
The two of them never bring up the conversation to Wei Sizhui, and indeed, they even continue acting as ridiculous as always to one another-- but it leaves him with the faintest trace of uneasiness.
Only a few months later, it turns out that he was not wrong to worry. They have just completed a night-hunt in Qinghe, and are returning to Gusu. A-Yuan is flush with coin and delight, and when they make camp that day, he stretches out lazily by the fire like a cat. Wei Wuxian teases him for it for a while, then falls silent, watching him from across the flames. The fire highlights how translucent he is, his wispy body glowing a little from the light.
“What is it?” Wei Sizhui asks. He knows there is something on his mind. The silence is not tense, precisely, but it isn’t easy, either.
A-Yuan, Wei Wuxian says, softly. If the Lan Sect would take you, would you go?
The bottom drops out of his stomach. “What?”
Would you join their sect? Wei Wuxian tries to smile at him. You’re as good at cultivation as any of them, and better than most. And I…I am dead. We all know that. Holding on to me like this, I don’t know if it's healthy. Not for you, not for… anyone else. It was one thing to stay when you were a child, but you can look after yourself fine now. Maybe it would be better for you to surround yourself with the living.
There is panic welling in him, and he feels sick. “What do you mean? You want to leave?”
I could return to the Burial Mounds, Wei Wuxian says, and Wei Sizhui realises he has been thinking about this, that this is not a whim. I can’t seem to move on, but I can do Yiling some good by controlling the resentful energy there. And I am certain Lan Zhan will take you in. You have so many friends in the Lan Sect…
“No,” Wei Sizhui snaps. His fists are clenched, shaking. ”No, you can’t leave! Please, you’re all that I--” he chokes on the words as tears well up in his eyes. “You’re all that I have. Don’t go away.”
It’s a child’s plea, but Wei Wuxian does not call it such. Instead he softens immediately. A-Yuan, I wasn’t suggesting we never speak again. Of course not. I would never want such a thing. But even parents have to let their children go someday, you know. And most of your peers don’t have an adult looking over their shoulder all the time. You need some freedom.
“I don’t want it!” Wei Sizhui says, even though he has to admit, some of his thoughts have strayed towards it lately. “I don’t want it, please don’t go.”
Then I won’t, Wei Wuxian answers promptly. A-Yuan, it was only an idea. If you really hate it, we can continue as we were.
Some of the tension drains out of him. “Good,” he says, and that is the end of it. They spend the rest of the night in silence, though it isn’t as comfortable as usual. -
The next morning, he wakes up and Wei Wuxian is nowhere to be found.
He knows it has happened the second his eyes open. He is alone. He has never been so alone.
“Xian-gege?” he whispers, his fingers starting to shake, but of course there comes no reply.
The clearing is sunny, beautiful, and empty.
Wei Sizhui makes his way to the Cloud Recesses in what feels like a daze. He’s over a day away, but he pushes himself, and by the time the sun is setting, he is at their gates, swaying slightly with exhaustion. The guards at the entrance take one look at him and do not bother with asking to see his token of passage.
“Bring him to Hanguang-jun,” one says to the other, but Wei Sizhui barely notices as his arm is grasped and he is led quickly to the jingshi. It is dinner time, and so the paths are thankfully deserted.
Lan Wangji is where he always is at this time, bent over his desk, empty dishes of food laid neatly to the side. He looks up when the guard knocks, then freezes as he catches sight of Wei Sizhui.
He doesn’t know what he looks like, but he has been flying all day in a full-blown panic, so it must be bad. He cannot bring himself to care.
“Hanguang-jun,” he croaks. “Xian-gege-- he-- I can’t--”
Lan Wangji rises, throwing a sharp glance at the guard. “Leave us.”
There is a flurry of movement, and the guard leaves. Once he is no longer holding him up, Wei Sizhui finds it difficult to keep standing. He sinks to his knees instead.
“He’s gone,” he says blankly. “I woke up and he was gone.”
“Gone?” Lan Wangji kneels next to him.
Wei Sizhui presses the palms of his hands into his eyes, willing tears back. “He was talking about leaving. But, but he wouldn’t have…”
“He would not have left you without saying goodbye,” Lan Wangji surmises, and he nods. “Perhaps Inquiry…”
“Inquiry doesn't summon him like it does with everyone !” The tears he has been holding back finally spill, and Wei Sizhui lets out a harsh sob. “He’s gone.”
“Sizhui,” Lan Wangji begins, but he isn’t listening.
“I’m alone,” he says, and he is sobbing for real now, his body wracked with the force of it. Wei Wuxian hadn’t just been the only parent he’d ever known. He’d been the only other person who’d remembered the Wens, remembered his family. Now… now he will never hear from another person about Wen Ning and Wen Qing in their youth, or reminisce of his grandmother, who he remembers clearest of all his family.
It is like losing his whole family all over again; he can’t bear it.
Lan Wangji pulls him into his arms. Wei Sizhui stiffens in shock for a moment, knowing how rarely he touches anyone, and then his sobs render the issue unimportant. He’s probably getting snot and tears all over Lan Wangji’s robes, and for a moment he wonders, ridiculously, what Jingyi would say. The man doesn’t seem to mind.
“I am certain,” Lan Wangji says, “That no matter the circumstance, as long as he exists, Wei Wuxian will find his way back to you.” He says it as though this is an undeniable truth of the world, as though it is obvious. Wei Sizhui wants so badly to believe him it hurts.
“He’s gone,” he whispers instead, into Lan Wangji’s robes. “I’m alone.”
“You are not,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “You have me.”
And he does. He knows he does. He’s known for years, but he’d been too afraid to admit it. There had seemed something terribly frightening about Lan Wangji before, about his steadiness, at the fact that Wei Sizhui had wanted to trust him. It had seemed dangerous to rely too much on it-- but now the very last person he had is missing, and he cannot bear to face it on his own. So he twists his fists into Lan Wangji’s robes, uncaring of how he crumples them, and lets himself sob like a child. Lan Wangji only holds him, silently.
“You should rest,” Lan Wangji tells him finally, when his sobs have finally ceased, and he has pulled away to scrub at his cheeks. “I will look in the archives for something that may tell us what has happened. And Inquiry may yield information yet.”
Wei Sizhui nods exhaustedly.
“Tomorrow, I will have to leave to supervise some of our students on a night hunt, but I will be able to return and resume research quickly. You should come with me. Jingyi will be there, and the rest of your friends.”
Wei Sizhui nods again--they’d written to him about the night-hunt at Mo manor, what feels like forever ago-- and allows himself to be led to the spare bed, the one he had used when he had first arrived in the Cloud Recesses.
“Sleep,” he is ordered, and he goes to do just that. He expects Lan Wangji to leave him to attend to his research-- there is a tension around his eyes that proves just how the situation worries him, but instead, the man settles himself down next to him and places one warm hand on his back. It’s more comforting than Wei Sizhui would like to admit. He might be done with crying, but he would still prefer company.
Lan Wangji starts to hum, soft and steady, and A-Yuan nearly drifts off before he realises-- “That’s Xian-gege’s song.”
Lan Wangji nods. “He sang it to you, did he not?”
“All the time,” Wei Sizhui mumbles. “Whenever I had a nightmare. But how do you know it?”
“I wrote it,” Lan Wangji tells him, and he blinks in surprise, stirring a little.
“For Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji explains. And then, quieter, “I thought he had forgotten.”
Wei Sizhui stares up at him in the darkness, his face shadowed. With his hair loose around his shoulders, he looks softer and more vulnerable than usual.
“Xian-gege forgets a lot,” he says. “But he doesn’t forget people he loves. So you don’t have to worry. If he’ll come back to me, he’ll come back to you.”
He’d forgotten that, in his earlier panic, the fact that Wei Wuxian did not easily leave the people he loved. Now he remembers, and he lets it harden his resolve. Something or someone has forced Wei Wuxian to a place he doesn’t want to be. He will teach them why it was a mistake.
Speech done, he snuggles back into his bed. Lan Wangji says nothing, but after a while, the soft humming starts up again. The familiar sound lulls him slowly to sleep.
The signal flare lights up the sky while they’re only a few miles away from Mo manor, and it makes Wei Sizhui’s breath stop. Lan Jingyi is plenty competent on his own, he knows, and so are Ouyang Zizhen and the other boys. He doesn’t think anything but a real emergency would make them send out that flare.
He throws a look at Lan Wangji, and sees he is thinking the same thing. They move forward with purpose, their swords surging forward, and reach the manor in time to see three corpses surrounding the arm of a fierce corpse. The sight is so incongruous that Wei Sizhui stops to stare for a minute.
Then a demonic cultivator walks out into the fray, stance confident and easy, and whistles sharply. The corpses snap to attention, but Wei Sizhui freezes instead. That tune…
Beside him, Lan Wangji has not yet noticed anything amiss, because he swings his guqin off his back and strums a few notes with such power that Wei Sizhui feels it in his bones. A blast of energy stills everything in the area. The demonic cultivator stills, too, but not because of the spell. He is just listening, as though he recognises the player.
Another few notes, and the resentful energy of the arm has been suppressed, and Lan Jingyi is stepping forward to toss a qiankun pouch over it, the other juniors and Lan Wangji working together to keep it calm. Wei Sizhui forgoes this to search the crowd of faces for the demonic cultivator, who seems to have disappeared into the crowd. Finally, he spots a flash of black in a corner, half-hidden behind a pillar. He slips off after it.
It’s a man with dark hair and pale skin, wearing black robes with red accents. He is leaning back against the pillar insouciantly, not running or hiding, just-- waiting.
“You--” Wei Sizhui starts, and then stops. Lan Wangji drifts up silently behind him, throwing him a look of question. He shakes his head in reply. “Um, you--”
The man turns, and Wei Sizhui finds himself holding his breath. Beside him, Lan Wangji has stiffened, fists clenched. There’s something about the man’s smile-- it's so familiar, though the shape of his mouth and the crinkle of his eyes is wrong. He might be completely delusional, but--
“Xian-gege?” he breathes.
“My A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian greets, and beams as though he has never seen a better sight. “Look at you!”
Wei Sizhui finds himself choking on tears. “Xian-gege?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes.
Wei Wuxian holds out his arms, smile crooked. “Aren’t you two going to say hello?”
Wei Sizhui throws himself at him, and is caught, Wei Wuxian’s arms winding their way around him tightly as he burrows his way into his chest. His clothes smell of dirt and rot and blood, which should be concerning, of course it should, but he cannot bring himself to care.
“Xian-gege,” he whispers. “How…?”
“It turns out some of my inventions found their way into the possession of a bastard son of Jin Guangshan,” Wei Wuxian explains. He has buried his own face into Wei Sizhui’s hair, and his voice is muffled but distinct. “He wanted revenge and… well.”
Wei Sizhui knows it is wrong, but he barely cares how this happened. He hugs Wei Wuxian tighter, unwilling to pull back.
Wei Wuxian strokes his hair. “Did I scare you, A-Yuan? I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Wei Sizhui whispers, sniffling. He’d forgive him anything at this moment.
“Come on, let me look at you,” he says,and gently coaxes Sizhui’s face from out of his robes. He tsks when he sees the state of his face, and swipes at his eyes with his sleeve. “Don’t cry, now. Your Xian-gege is here!”
Wei Sizhui hugs him all over again, and he laughs. They stand like that for a few long moments more, neither of them willing to move. Then Wei Wuxian raises his hand to brush against his hair a final time, and gently nudges him away.
“I need to talk to Hanguang-jun, understand?” he says, and Wei Sizhui nods obediently, scrubbing his tears away as he turns to Lan Wangji, who has stood unmoving in the same spot while they hugged.
“Did I worry you too, Lan Zhan?” he asks, his smile suddenly nervous. Lan Wangji gives a jerky nod of reply. “Ah, well. I’m sorry about that.”
“Wei Ying did not have any control over it,” Lan Wangji answers, sounding distant. Wei Sizhui can see he is dazed from the shock of Wei Wuxian’s appearance, but when he looks back at Wei Wuxian, he does not seem to understand this, hovering a few feet away and too uncertain to move closer.
“I suppose it’s very strange,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. “I look like a completely different person.”
“Wei Ying is Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and are they really doing this? Why can’t either of them just come out with it? Wei Sizhui sighs, trying to subtly step away, thinking they might do a little better with privacy, when Wei Wuxian laughs, clear and bright.
“You’re always so good, you know?” He moves closer, his lips quirked, staring up into Lan Wangji’s face. “There’s no one like you anywhere else I’ve been, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji looks down at him uncertainly, golden eyes wide. “Wei Ying--”
Wei Wuxian kisses him, curling his hands around the back of his neck and dragging him closer. Lan Wangji actually gasps in surprise, shakily-- and then he is kissing back, wrapping his arms around Wei Wuxian to pull him close.
“Oh no,” Wei Sizhui says, and covers his eyes. This is much worse than the flirting. Still-- “Finally, Xian-gege!”
Wei Wuxian actually breaks away to snicker at him, breathlessly. “Are we embarrassing you, Sizhui?”
Wei Sizhui flushes. “A little.”
“Too bad,” Wei Wuxian declares, and throws himself back into Lan Wangji’s arms, Lan Wangji letting out what he feels is an unnecessarily smug, “Hm.”
Wei Sizhui groans, then sighs fondly.
Behind them, Lan Jingyi lets out a sudden shriek, making all three of them jump and turn, their little bubble of peace broken. Apparently he’d been standing and staring agape, though for how long, Wei Sizhui could not say. Maybe he’d just arrived? He chanced a look around the courtyard and found it empty of everyone else, the corpses cleared.
“Senior Wei?” Lan Jingyi cries, pointing his finger wildly. “Is it really-- but how?”
“It’s complicated,” Wei Wuxian says, half smiling. He holds an arm out to Wei Sizhui, and when he comes over, slings an arm around his shoulders. Wei Sizhui shifts closer, feeling the warmth of Wei Wuxian soaking through his side, and he gives him a little squeeze, as though he enjoys holding A-Yuan as much as he enjoys being held. Lan Wangji is still clinging to Wei Wuxian’s other hand, he sees with a sudden burst of amusement.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Lan Jingyi is still dumbfounded, but he seems to rapidly be moving towards annoyance. “You acted like a complete lunatic!”
“I thought it would be funny!”
“You--” Definitely annoyed, and going red.
“And it was,” Wei Wuxian adds, cheerfully. Lan Jingyi makes a wrathful noise, but he pauses when Wei Sizhui clears his throat.
“Thank you for keeping Xian-gege safe,” he says, and Lan Jingyi settles, mollified.
Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, looked deeply offended. “Hey, I kept him safe!”
“Thank you for that too,” Wei Sizhui said cheekily, and received a fond smack on the head in response.
“Jingyi,” Lan Wangji says, over their heads. “Prepare the other disciples; we are about to leave.”
Lan Jingyi starts. “Oh, right! Of course, you can count on me! I’ll do that right now!” He rushes off, eager as ever to fulfil an order from Hanguang-jun.
Wei Wuxian sighs, curling his arm tighter around Wei Sizhui. Suddenly near tears again, he buries his face into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, trying to hide his sniffles. Wei Wuxian wraps his arm around his shoulders even tighter, and turns so that he was pressing his face into his chest.
“Ah, Sizhui,” he murmurs. “Your Xian-gege owes you so many hugs.”
“Okay,” Wei Sizhui says, muffled through the cloth and his tears. A hand settles on his back, gently, and he knows it belongs to Lan Wangji.
“You both have time,” is all he says. “For now, let us go home.”
“Sounds good to me,” Wei Wuxian says, and Wei Sizhui, where no one can see, smiles.