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Tricks and treats

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It all starts when a group of disciples returns from their patrol with the small form of a child struggling within their hold.

A child of about five or six who is certainly not of their sect, robes ragged and dirty, even if the characteristic Wen colors and embroidery on its hem are still easy enough to make out, hair matted with leaves and dirt, speaking of several days spent in the wild. There is blood streaking the boy’s hands, his fingers bleeding from unidentifiable wounds, deep gashes in his skin, sending their healers into an instant flurry of activity, furious but intent to soothe the child’s pain.

The child who is clearly terrified of them all, eyes wide and frightened, darting around, desperately looking for a way out, no matter how carefully the disciples or the healers are trying to handle him.

Lan Zhan only hears about it all later, after the child has already been settled in a small room in the healers’ wing, under near-constant watch due to the boy’s continued attempts at escaping.

Xichen is the one to tell him about how a group of their more senior disciples had come across the boy in the back mountains, the child trying to make off with one of the rabbits from their meadows, the rabbit still unharmed, despite the bloody streaks in its fur having suggested otherwise at first.

Xichen frets that it might have been the disciples’ initial somewhat harsher reaction to seeing a creature harmed in Gusu Lan territory which might have frightened the boy so. Right until the disciples had realized it was the boy’s own blood, fingertips dripping red with small cuts and tears along the child’s fingers, staining the rabbit’s formerly pristine fur.

Lan Zhan doubts the child’s terrified fear to stem from something as simple as a couple of harsh words spoken to him.

There is something honestly terrified in the child’s eyes, something desperate and implacable, something that would not be drawn forth from a mere instance of being scolded or even yelled at by towering white-clad figures.

The boy’s honest fear whenever anyone bearing the Lan crest walks into his sight speaks of something far deeper, far more founded in true terror than a simple scolding could ever cause by itself.

Which doesn’t change the fact that they are all stumped by the boy’s continued and desperate struggles to get away.

It also gives Lan Zhan pause.

Throughout the cultivation world and even amongst common folk, the Gusu Lan stands for justice and righteousness. They are known for their kind treatment of anyone not of their sect, especially children. So, for a child to sneak onto their grounds all the while fearing them so terribly, he must have reasons very much separate from the rabbit he wasn’t allowed to steal from their meadows, the Gusu Lan’s home.

The home of Lan An’s line.

The home of the dragons.

Dragons who are known for treasuring their young, never willing to harm those unable to protect themselves. It is in their very nature to protect anything they consider precious and children very much fall under that category. 

Of course, it has been generations since a Lan was born with the ability to manifest as much as the antlers of their true form, much less since one of Lan An’s line was able to fully shift, the dragon blood of their clan long since diluted to the point of barely manifesting itself even in the main line anymore. However, the immutable protectiveness of anyone’s young so characteristic to their kind still roars within their blood all the same.

No dragon would ever harm a child. It is unthinkable to Lan Zhan. And he is furious at the thought that anyone might, that anyone might have caused those wounds on the boy’s hands, might even have done so deliberately.

Enough so that it has Lan Zhan is more than willing to follow the healers’ request of different clan members visiting the boy, hoping to soothe the child in some manner by showing him that no one here means him any sort of harm at all.

The healers are at a loss of how to get the child to settle down, to make him trust them enough to let them help him heal, to let the Lan clan take care of him, for the child to at least go to sleep without flinching upright at the slightest disturbance. The healers are helpless in the face of the child’s obvious desperation to escape, eyes darting about and looking for a way out no matter who might be talking to him, his uncle, his brother, any of the elders or other disciples.

No one knows what to do with the boy’s unceasing attempts to flee their care, despite being treated just like any other child who might ever make their way into dragon territory, kept perfectly warm and safe and well-fed, unpunished for the attempted theft of the rabbit. The three disciples who first found the boy and then brought him to the Cloud Recesses are desolate at the thought that it might be due to them that the child is so afraid of their entire sect now.

Although, Lan Zhan suspects something else to be behind the boy’s continued attempts to escape. Based on the child’s increasing desperation he has been told about and the boy’s growing desolation at his every thwarted attempt of getting away… Lan Zhan suspects it might be less a case of wanting to get away, but rather a case of needing to.

It is with that thought in mind that Lan Zhan approaches the room the healers set aside for the boy on the second day.

Because, he wants to help, wants to chase that desolation from the boy’s eyes who has yet to speak so much as a single word to anyone, terrified and alone, but unwilling to ask any of them for aid, too horrifically frightened not only of his situation in general, the unfamiliar people and unfamiliar surroundings, but rather that the child seems to be terrified of them, of anyone bearing the Lan crest, in particular.

Even Lan Zhan doesn’t know what to do with that.

So, Lan Zhan approaches the boy, worried and heart heavy with seeing a child so afraid of them. He has always liked children, far more than their adult counterparts. And ever since the child had been carried past him the day before, desperately struggling in their healers’ holds, their eyes briefly meeting, Lan Zhan thinks there might be something about this child in particular drawing him in.

Maybe something about the uncompromising desperation in the child’s eyes, maybe something about the boy’s scent…

Lan Zhan isn’t certain, but he has never been one to ignore his instincts. His very nature would never allow him to.

+++

When Lan Zhan steps into the room, the child reacts to him in much the same way as he has everyone else.

Namely, with fear and eyes darting desperately towards the door closing behind Lan Zhan. It is that last emotion, so very out of place on a child’s face, that had given him pause yesterday and which gives him pause now. Because, no child should be that desperate to get away from a place that has so far proven itself to be perfectly safe.

There is no reason for this child to fear them so. At least, there shouldn’t be.

Lan Zhan voices none of his thoughts, makes no attempts at conversation, instead he settles a little ways away from the door, close enough to easily prevent an escape but not quite in the way of it, hoping to put the boy at ease by not directly blocking the exit. And then, he brings out Wangji to play.

Something soothing. Not quite yet Rest or any of the other songs imbued with magic that are the trademark of his clan, not wanting to risk stressing the boy further by forcing him to calm down, but something that should make Lan Zhan’s friendly intentions clear.

First a children’s song, then a somewhat slower melody, another that Lan Zhan has only heard once or twice on his travels, then a lullaby he remembers from his own childhood, so often played to him by his mother when he refused to go to sleep no matter how tired, if only because sleeping would cut his time with his mother even shorter than it already was.

Music has always been Lan Zhan’s main mode of communication. Words tend to be more… difficult, having a tendency of abandoning him whenever he tries to speak on something specific, even more so if he tries for a softer sentiment.

Instead, he plays.

The child doesn’t calm. At least not at first.

The boy’s eyes remain scared and suspicious and continuously darting towards the door, though not attempting an actual escape, clearly aware enough to know that he would never make it past Lan Zhan, no matter how calm he might seem.

But regardless of his fear and determination to get away, the boy is also exhausted. Two days of being confined in a place that clearly terrifies him, surrounded by people he refuses to trust, unable to leave as he so clearly wants to and growing ever-more desperate because of it, are taking their toll on the boy.

Over in the little corner the child has chosen as his almost-hiding place, the boy’s eyes slit open less and less frequently in a fight to remain awake, until they close entirely. And remain closed.

The boy dozes.

Lan Zhan doesn’t stop playing, even once it is apparent that the child has truly fallen asleep, his heart hurting with the thought of how terrified the boy must be to refuse sleeping for two days in a place that certainly means him no harm.

Instead he continues to play, even as he observes the child from his spot a few feet away.

If Lan Zhan were to guess, he’d say the boy is around five or six, seven at most, and he doesn’t seem malnourished as such despite his appearance suggesting an elongated stay in the wilderness by the time the disciples found him. He looks well taken care of, even. If one ignores the formerly dirty robes, the matted hair, and the bleeding fingers.

It is those wounds that truly have the healers baffled, unable to entirely make sense of them, except for the fact that they aren’t ordinary wounds, that they are far too sharply cut, far too imbued with spiritual energy to have been made with anything other than some sort of spiritual tool.

That fact alone has the entirety of the Cloud Recesses up in arms, furious at the thought of anyone deliberately using spiritual power to harm a child, even more so for such a thing to have happened so close to their home, possibly within their territory.

The healers mentioned that the child doesn’t seem to be injured anywhere aside from his hands, that some of the wounds on his fingers are fresh and deep while others seem partially healed, though torn open by newer wounds cutting across those already healing…

Which does seem notable. Because, for the wounds to be solely concentrated on the child’s hands… it almost seems like the child might have been deliberately touching whatever spiritual attack or tool caused his injuries. Like he did so repeatedly. Willingly.

Lan Zhan lets a slight frown creep upon his face.

Because… Maybe not willingly as such. But rather like the child hadn’t had a choice but to do so, risking injury repeatedly rather than not touch whatever caused his wounds.

It is an unsettling thought. For what could make a child do such a thing, what sort of desperation could have driven the boy to injure himself so.

A soft knock on the door draws Lan Zhan from his dark thoughts, trying to make sense of what little information he has about this child he feels so inexplicably drawn to.

Then, one of the younger disciples appears, a tray of food for the child still sleeping over in the corner in her hands. Lan Zhan softly shakes his head at her, although careful to not interrupt his playing. The disciple blinks at him wide-eyed but then nods, bowing briefly, before she withdraws once more, softly closing the door behind her.

Best to let the boy sleep for now. Lan Zhan can tackle the task of getting the boy to eat something later, once he is awake.

By the time the boy blinks awake once more, eyes darting around wildly to land on Lan Zhan, several hours have passed. It is a little heartbreaking to see the obvious fear in the child’s eyes, although he seems somewhat reassured at seeing Lan Zhan still in the exact spot as he had been when the child had finally surrendered to sleep.

Some of that fear briefly returns when Lan Zhan stops the soothing melody he had been playing, instead rising to open the door. As expected, he finds the food the disciple brought earlier on a covered tray right beside the door, including a second tray for Lan Zhan himself.

He brings the food inside, offering one of the trays to the boy, even as Lan Zhan calmly proceeds to eat his own meal.

He doesn’t make a show of watching the child, the nervous glances, the longing looks at the food, the way his bandaged fingers once more unclench after watching Lan Zhan eat for a while. The child hesitates for a while longer, before he finally begins drawing a little nearer to his own tray, not truly close enough to sit at the table with Lan Zhan, but enough for the child to be able to reach the food as his eyes flit towards Lan Zhan, then the guqin still settled by the door, then the food once more.

Before the child finally, hesitantly reaches out for the steamed bun and the bowl of soup.

Lan Zhan is feels something within himself relax as soon as the first spoon of soup makes it past the boy’s lips. The healers had been worried at the boy’s refusal to truly eat.

Although, Lan Zhan has to fight down his frown when the boy attempts to surreptitiously let the steamed bun vanish into his sleeves instead of eating it, all the while glancing desperately at the small window leading to the outside. Almost like he longs to bring the bun somewhere else.

Or maybe rather… to someone else.

Lan Zhan blinks once, expression unaltered even as he finds some of his darker suspicions seemingly confirmed.

However, it would make sense…

Because the child is desperate to escape, but he might just as much be trying to get back to somewhere as he is trying to get away from them. Then, there are the wounds, injuries entirely restricted to the inside of his fingers and palms, like he might have been grasping something, tearing at something, something spiritual but a hurdle to get past all the same. And finally, there is the caught rabbit, the boy having been desperate enough to risk coming so close to the Cloud Recesses despite his fear of anyone bearing the Lan crest, refusing to let go until he was forced to by one of the disciples having thought the rabbit injured at that point. Like the boy might have been trying to bring the rabbit somewhere else. Like he might have been desperate to.

Maybe the boy hadn’t been as alone as they had thought due to his appearance. Maybe the child’s desperation to get away is about returning somewhere else. To someone else. Someone who might need the food the boy is clearly trying to stow away in the hopes of finding an opening to escape. Someone who might be waiting for the boy to return.

It would make sense, even if Lan Zhan still hasn’t managed to fit all of the puzzle pieces together quite yet.

However, if the boy hadn’t been as alone as they’d thought, if there is indeed someone waiting for the child, that would at least explain the utter desperation still shining at him from within the boy’s eyes even now.

Lan Zhan meets his gaze calmly, determined to figure it out. And to then do anything he possibly can to help.

+++

In the coming days, Lan Zhan spends most of his time with the child still locked away in the healers’ wing.

Lan Zhan goes to visit, plays soothing lullabies until the boy falls asleep, shares meals with the child and only leaves to sleep at night or for his most pressing sect duties. Not that there are many. Everyone at the Cloud Recesses doing their best to take over his usual load of duties to leave him free to soothe the child instead.

The child who has now moved on from constant, paralyzing terror to refusing to fall asleep unless Lan Zhan is there, refusing to eat unless Lan Zhan eats with him, refusing to speak to anyone but Lan Zhan.

Lan Zhan is fine with it. Even more, it settles something within him to see the clear trust the child extends to him in particular. He doesn’t know what exactly draws him to this child… Maybe something about that scent clinging to him, almost overpowering the child’s own, something soothing and soft and strangely playful.

Like thunderstorms in summer, like the scent of fresh flowers carried by spring winds, like the muted ice-cold freshness of mountains covered by fresh snow, like the soft echo of rain disturbing calm autumn lakes. The scent of open skies and untamable nature, of ancient forests and everything made forever anew.

+++

The healers are delighted with the child’s progress, trying to leave the boy alone as much as their conscience will let them considering the wounds on his hands, now that he seems to have found a person to put at least parts of his trust in. They are unwilling to stress the boy further while he is still recovering.

It is on the third day of this that the boy finally tells Lan Zhan his name.

“Wei Yuan”, he murmurs shyly in response to Lan Zhan having introduced himself, eyes still cautious but also so very clearly exhausted that he cannot really hold out any longer, his desperation unchanged.

Desperate for someone safe, someone to trust, someone to help.

Lan Zhan doubts it will be much longer before the boy will break down entirely. He finds no joy in the thought.

Admittedly, the family name ‘Wei’ does give Lan Zhan pause for a moment. The child’s robes when he was found rather clearly identified him as a Wen, a member of a dying clan, the clan of the phoenixes, majestic and powerful and so convinced of their own infallibility they had ultimately brought about their own end, dabbling in celestial magics that were never theirs to wield and promptly paying the price.

Alas, claiming a different surname would also be a strange sort of subterfuge for a child to create, so Lan Zhan is willing to believe the claim.

He is far more concerned with other things.

For, if only he knew what the problem was, the reason behind Wei Yuan’s desperation, Lan Zhan would be helping already, would have done all he could to help the moment he was told. Alas, he has no other choice than to wait the child out, unable to do anything but wait until the boy tells him how he can help at all, cannot in good conscience let a child run away into the wilderness on his own, no matter how desperate the boy may be to do just that.

+++

It is only a day later that the boy finally breaks down, crying silent, desperate tears as he begs Lan Zhan to let him go find his baba. His baba who is injured and can’t get food by himself and needs A-Yuan to come back because everyone else is already gone. His Xian-ge who sent him to go to the Cloud Recesses despite not wanting to in the beginning, but then his baba couldn’t get up anymore, so he told A-Yuan to go alone, to find someone safe, but then A-Yuan saw the rabbits and thought that if he maybe caught one and brought it back to his Xian-ge then maybe he wouldn’t be so hungry and he’d heal and everything would be fine after all and Baba would stay and A-Yuan wouldn’t have to leave at all.

It takes Lan Zhan a little while to make sense of it all, but since he already guessed at most of the main aspects of it, he isn’t too surprised by the revelation of there being someone else hiding out in their back mountains.

Then again, as much as Wei Yuan’s story finally confirms some of Lan Zhan’s thoughts, it also brings up even more questions at the same time.

The main one being, why A-Yuan and his father – or maybe his uncle, going by the different ever-changing terms of address – had seemingly been willing to enter Gusu Lan territory, seeking refuge in their mountains but then so determined to not approach Cloud Recesses for help.

However, that is a question for a different time.

For now, Lan Zhan is willing to focus on the far more pressing task in front of him.

If there is truly someone injured in Gusu’s back mountains, has been for at least a week considering that A-Yuan has been with them for several days now, and likely beyond that, considering that the child had been driven to try and find food before he had been found by the disciples, then helping the man in question needs to take precedence above everything else.

He can ask his questions later.

+++

“You cannot come,” A-Yuan whispers, urgent and assertive but so incredibly scared as he stares up at Lan Zhan. “Promise you won’t come inside.”

Lan Zhan watches him back calmly.

They are standing in front of a steep, rocky incline, the opening of a cave cutting into the rock a little ways ahead, apparently the place where A-Yuan and his father had sought refuge a while ago. However, there is also no telling whether Wei Yuan’s father is still alive or what sort of creature or animal might have taken up residence in the cave since the boy was gone.

“You can’t come inside,” the boy insists again, eyes large and frightened, like his entire world rests upon Lan Zhan’s agreement.

It is still a promise Lan Zhan is simply unable to make.

“I will remain here unless I think you might be in danger,” he finally permits, which the boy appears to take as enough of a promise for him to hurry away with a last desperate glance at Lan Zhan, scurrying towards the cave, disappearing into its dark maw within moments.

Lan Zhan remains where he is, poised for immediate movement as he strains his ears for any sounds that might indicate a threat within the cave.

There are none.

Not until he hears the ever-more-desperate calls of, “Xian-ge! Xian-ge! Please wake up!” A-Yuan’s voice clogged with tears and terror, “A-Yuan is back now! You have to wake up now. Please, Baba, please.”

Lan Zhan is already making his way a little closer towards the cave. His heart hurts with the emphatic pain of witnessing a child losing their family, even if he had already expected to find little but the remains of A-Yuan’s father. It has been at least a week since the man must have received that injury that was apparently grave enough to keep the man from moving. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Wei Yuan’s father might have succumbed to his wounds by now, as much as Lan Zhan might have hoped differently, if only for the boy’s sake.

The trail of darkened blood at the cave’s entrance, leading inside, is almost expected. Like someone of rather large stature might have dragged themselves through despite their injuries. Considering the simple amount of blood clearly lost just during their way inside, Lan Zhan only thinks it rather impressive that the man managed to drag himself inside and remain conscious enough to send his son somewhere safe, towards the Cloud Recesses, no matter what it might mean for the man himself.

“A-Yuan,” Lan Zhan announces his presence calmly from the outside. He will enter either way if he must, but after the boy’s insistence he stay outside and his tenuous, hard-won trust, Lan Zhan would rather A-Yuan ask him to.

And then…

There is a growl. From within the cave.

It is soft, not truly threatening, but the dark sort of subvocal rumbling that only a truly large predator would be able to make.

Lan Zhan is already moving, darting past the cave entrance, finds himself swallowed in darkness, sword raised, willing his eyes to instantly adjust to the changed lighting inside, determined to protect the boy from whatever predator might have settled into the cave in the child’s absence, likely drawn by the scent of blood.

What he finds is not the feral beast Lan Zhan was expecting.

At least, not quite.

The sight in front of him is surprising enough that it takes him a second or two to fully make sense of what he is seeing. A-Yuan kneeling by the furred form of something rather massive, small hands buried in black fur, far too close to what is clearly a predator.

It is the mass of barely twitching tails stretched out behind the creature that ultimately gives Lan Zhan pause, makes him stop in his tracks, makes him reevaluate. Makes him reevaluate everything.

Because, multiple tails are a rather distinct mark of one particular creature, a creature long-since thought just as extinct as their other magical brethren.

A fox, Lan Zhan thinks a little hazily from where he has come to a stop, Bichen still raised but no longer intent on attack, halfway between the cave’s entrance and the position of the fox by the wall, eyes caught on the tails. Several of them, to be exact. At least six, as far as he can see.

Two of which aren’t moving with the others. Held down by golden netting as they are, forced still by the spirit net caught around the fox’s hind legs, blood dripping steadily along its golden threads to the cave’s floor underneath.

It is the sight of that netting that makes everything slot into place. Spirit netting. Bearing the crest of his own clan.

Fury suffuses him.

A-Yuan is staring at Lan Zhan, then at the fox again, back and forth. And then he promptly bursts into tears, incoherent in his tearful entreaties for Lan Zhan to not take his baba away from him and to please help and A-Yuan had meant to come back sooner and he is so sorry for taking so long. The small shaking hands reaching into white Gusu Lan sleeves, offering the saved steamed buns to the fox, dropping two of them in the process, as though a little bit of food might just fix everything, are heartbreaking to watch.

All the while the fox rumbles deep in his chest, soothingly, either not quite having noticed Lan Zhan’s presence or too weak to care at the moment.

There is a pool of partially dried blood beneath the creature, the gold-glowing netting cutting into his legs and two of his tails, preventing him from truly moving, cutting deep through fur and into flesh, wounds unable to heal as long as the net remains. It’s a devastating sight.

A celestial fox in Gusu’s mountains, injured, clearly having been caught in some sort of trap, a spiritual one at that, the spirit net wound around the fox’s leg bearing the Gusu Lan crest on its edges, saturated in his sect’s magic, impossible to remove by anyone not of their sect, only cutting ever-deeper with every attempt to do so.

Nets that are supposed to have been destroyed more than two centuries ago, after the last war between the creature clans.

Lan Zhan knows better than to think such a powerful artifact to have been forgotten in their own territory. No, his ancestors would have made sure to find every single one and remove them. For one of those nets to be set out now… It cannot be anything other than deliberate.

Lan Zhan is furious.

+++

Lan Zhan has heard the stories before. Of course he has.

Stories about how the only way to trap a fox is to injure them gravely, wounding them to the point of making them unable to turn into any of their other forms, their magic trapped with their inability to change forms. And once caught, foxes will promise to grant your every wish in their desperate attempts to regain their freedom.

Foxes who cannot break their promises, bound by the very powers that usually ensure their freedom.

Foxes who are celestial magic given physical form.

Foxes who can share their magic to elevate anyone’s cultivation towards immortality so much faster.

Foxes who are the only kind of magical creature to never suffer from dilution of their lineage, only ever producing trueborn children, of their own blood or that of their mates.

Foxes who everyone has mostly assumed to have died out, mainly due to having been hunted mercilessly by various clans in their greed for power, uncaring if a fox chose to rather die at their blades than grant them whatever they might have wished for.

Foxes are tricksters, free-spirited, part of the skies’ maelstroms as they are of the forests’ mythical secrets. They have always been nature’s favorites.

And men’s envy and greed is ever-devastating.

+++

Lan Zhan hesitates.

The fox is clearly awake, though barely so, teeth bared in a snarl at Lan Zhan but chest rumbling soothingly as A-Yuan desperately clutches at his fur, mumbling apologies about not being able to come back before and having brought someone else to see Baba and he is sorry and tired and also hungry and he has missed Xian-ge and he wants to go home and he is still so sad because there won’t be anyone there even if they did go back home.

Lan Zhan listens, even as he carefully keeps his distance, uncertain what to do.

‘Baba’ and ‘Xian-ge’, both titles A-Yuan has used for the fox. It speaks of family but maybe not quite a direct blood relation.

It is clear that the fox is dying as he is, who knows how many days of his wounds steadily deepening with every movement instead of healing due to the impossibility of removing the spirit netting he is caught in. The spells once woven by Lan Zhan’s own ancestors make sure of it.

Those nets are meant to be used for catching unsuspecting creatures of magical blood. They were always intended as means of catching creatures of resentment, not magic.

And Lan Zhan is furious at the thought of someone abusing them so.

In the end, the decision of what to do is made for him, when the fox tries to move so as to better comfort the little boy clutching to his fur, a pained drawn-out yelp, more of a moan of pain as the netting tightens with the movement, fresh blood bursting forth to join the ever-growing pool beneath the celestial creature.

But even the pain of the reopened wounds aren’t enough to truly rouse the fox. He is already too far gone.

Lan Zhan isn’t certain whether he will be able to save him at all, whether it might not already be too late after all. He will still try.

For A-Yuan’s sake, if nothing else.

And his sect certainly owes help to their creature brethren, if only to make up for their own weapons being used in peacetimes so insidiously.

So, Lan Zhan turns around and leaves without a word, quickly rushing towards his home to gather some fabrics, one of his sturdier outer robes, a bedspread, fabrics large enough to hide the fox’s form while Lan Zhan is carrying him. He cannot let anyone see the celestial creature. Especially not while the fox is still so grievously injured, unable to protect himself with his kind’s usually so fearsome magic.

It barely takes him a few minutes to return to the cave.

Everything is as he left it, A-Yuan seems to be now sleeping curled up against the fox’s chest, the pool of blood beneath the fox still as worryingly large as it seemed before, the fox himself barely twitching an eye towards Lan Zhan when he enters once more, apparently no strength left in him to try and defend his territory, his pack, his kit.

Lan Zhan steps closer, more into the fox’s sight.

“Safety,” he promises, lowly, voice a mere murmur but perfectly firm. Because that is the only thing he can offer at the moment. Safety for the child, safety for the fox, safety from whoever set out this net and might come looking for their potential catch at some point. A place to rest and recover and let Lan Zhan try to remove the spirit net to give the fox a chance to heal.

He doesn’t get any sort of reply, the fox’s mind clearly too hazy from the extended and ever-worsening blood loss, the exhaustion and lack of nourishment or anything to drink. The creature’s eyes remain slitted, a soft rumbling growl echoing in his chest, but whether it is meant to be a threat or meant to soothe the child still clutching to him, Lan Zhan doesn’t know.

Then again, Lan Zhan has already proven himself to at least mean no harm to the child the fox is so clearly protecting. So maybe, the fox’s lack of reaction is more about his resignation regarding his own fate, just as long as his son is safe. Lan Zhan has no doubt that the fox would usually tear him limb to limb if he were to give the slightest indication of meaning A-Yuan harm.

As it is, the fox doesn’t even blink when Lan Zhan reaches out to wake A-Yuan, unwilling to attempt carrying both the fox and the child at once.

“Home?” A-Yuan asks him when Lan Zhan declares his intention, the boy’s eyes still bleary with sleep.

“My home,” Lan Zhan returns. “You will be safe.”

There is doubt on the small face staring up at him, but in the end, another look at the celestial creature that is likely such a formidable protector usually, the boy nods in agreement. “Okay,” he says, biting his lips in his anxiety. “Lan-ge’s home. Where Baba will be safe.”

The last part comes out more like a question.

“Mn,” Lan Zhan confirms.

And then, he finally reaches out for the fox, movements slow, so as to not startle the celestial creature, but determined. The fox only sighs out in resignation and exhaustion, barely conscious at this point. The creature knows it wouldn’t have the strength to defend himself anymore even if he wanted to.

Then again, harming this fox further is the farthest thing from Lan Zhan’s mind at the moment.

+++

They quickly make their way across the Cloud Recesses, back towards the jingshi.

The fox in his arms is massive, probably standing at hip height or waist height for Lan Zhan if he were able to rise, but, considering its size, the creature is also surprisingly light, beyond lean, almost gaunt in a way Lan Zhan doubts is part of the fox’s natural built and rather due to something else entirely. He can feel the creature’s individual bones underneath the thick fur, ribs and joints standing out. It has an primal sort of fury, a protective wrath rising up within him to think how determinedly the fox must have held on to still be alive at this point.

Most likely, the kit as his sole motivator.

The thought of that protectiveness thrills something in him. It speaks to that darker part of him, the part that roars within his blood, the creature of wild, open skies and protected dens of personal treasures.

As it is, the sheer size of the fox’s body is more of a hindrance than the actual weight. The creature also appears to be entirely unconscious now, body utterly lax in Lan Zhan’s arms, the tips of his tails dragging along the floor beside them where Lan Zhan simply cannot fit them into the fabrics he had brought.

A-Yuan is darting a little ways ahead of them, still within sight, but the child so desperate to have something to do, something to contribute in keeping his father safe, that Lan Zhan asked him to watch the path ahead for anyone potentially spotting them.

There is no one, of course.

Lan Zhan knows his own sect’s patrolling schedules well enough to be able to time their quick crossing of the patrol’s path accordingly, so they reach his home without incident.

And then, they are in the jingshi. Lan Zhan and little Wei Yuan and a celestial fox.

Admittedly, for all that Lan Zhan had expected there to be a less than ordinary explanation regarding A-Yuan’s situation, he still hadn’t expected anything quite like this.