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Tricks and treats

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That first night, Lan Zhan doesn’t sleep at all, too focused on trying to still the fox’s bleeding, so many of the wounds having reopened during their quick journey from the cave to the jingshi.

Lan Zhan is determined to do all he can but he is still not sure whether he will be able to save the celestial creature, whether the exhaustion and blood loss and starvation might not demand their price after all. The thought that the celestial fox might yet die is infuriating, devastating, heartrending.

A death that will be on Gusu Lan’s head, if only due to the spirit net that caught the fox being theirs to keep safe, away from the wrong hands, away from anyone who might ever dare make use of it. A task in which Gusu Lan has clearly failed.

However, the thought of consequences are for later. For now, Lan Zhan focuses on trying to save A-Yuan’s father.

He works through the night, mostly focused on stilling the bleeding from the many wounds cutting so deeply into the fox’s flesh, not quite daring to start removing the netting yet. Even a brief test earlier showed him that he will not be able to simply cut the gold-glowing twines apart for easier removal, the power held within the net’s strings ancient, draconian, the sort of magic Lan Zhan himself does not hold. If he has to remove the spirit net as a hole, reopening some of the wounds to extricate the individual strings might be inevitable.

Lan Zhan worries that the additional strain of reopened wounds and pain and even more blood lost might have the fox injured beyond that which he can recover from, despite the creature having managed to hold on until now, far beyond that which most creatures would ever manage.

It is breathtaking, that sort of determined inner strength, uncompromising will, if only for the sake of the kit the fox calls his own. If only because there was no one else around to see to his son’s safety.

Within his chest, Lan Zhan feels the first stirrings of protectiveness, possessiveness, a claim not yet made, something yet soft, not quite defined, too little to go on beyond the near-instantaneous draw he had felt towards the fox’s claimed son, beyond the uncompromising protectiveness for his kit he has witnessed from the celestial creature, even while barely conscious and too weak to move, much less to defend himself or his family.

It speaks to that darker, more primal part of him, the part that rumbles contently at the thought of treasures found and claimed, to be kept safe within his own den, untouchable to the rest of the world and anyone who might ever dare reach for either of them.

It is unfamiliar, his inner creature laying such claim to anyone not already of his blood, not already part of his hoard. However, Lan Zhan has never been one to ignore the instincts of the powerful creature slumbering within his blood.

Still, for tonight, Lan Zhan focuses on the fox’s wounds, stilling the blood flow, even as he feeds as much of his own energy into the fox as he is able to despite their so differing magics in their so differing forms.

He hopes it will be enough, hopes the fox’s strength will hold out just that little bit longer.

Even if, all throughout, the celestial creature doesn’t wake. Not even once.

+++

The fox doesn’t wake over the next few days either, a spill of midnight black fur beside Lan Zhan’s own bed, the celestial creature settled on the sleeping mats Lan Zhan had set out, the creature simply too large to fit on his bed while still giving Lan Zhan room to work.

Lan Zhan spends most of his time in-between his most pressing clan duties trying to extricate the netting from the fox’s fur and flesh, proceeding slowly and carefully in loosening individual strings and knots, plucking apart threads and tangled netting from matted fur and partially healed wounds.

It is slow-going work, especially since Lan Zhan does his very best to not injure the fox further in the process, still hoping he might be able to free the celestial creature without adding to his wounds.

A hope that quickly proves futile.

Once he has extricated part of the netting from the blood-clotted fur, he quickly realizes that, as he had initially suspected, attempting to remove the net without injuring the fox in the process will be plainly impossible. Not with Lan Zhan incapable of rending the net itself to pieces, unable to cut or even unlink into its individual strands, glowing with ancient power, far beyond that which Lan Zhan’s line has been capable of in centuries.

Draconian enchantments, as this spirit net is drenched in, can only be undone by draconian magics, can only be undone by another Lan capable of a full shift into their trueborn form. The magics of one dragon can only be undone by that of another.

And while Lan Zhan may have made it further down the path towards his line’s so powerful full shift than anyone of his clan has done in centuries, the collection of his trueborn shift’s features which he is able to manifest during meditation denoting that fact, he also cannot shift fully, a feat still far beyond him. And thus, true draconian magics are not within his reach.

It leaves him with little choice than to remove the netting as it is, fully intact, and thus far more difficult to disentangle. Far more difficult and far more harmful to the creature caught within its tangled strands.

It has Lan Zhan furious.

+++

The first day after he and Wei Yuan bring the fox to the jingshi, Lan Zhan visits the healers alongside the boy.

For one, A-Yuan own wounds certainly require more care, the wounds along his fingers and cutting deeply into his palms in no way healed yet. And secondly, he needs aid for the fox’s treatment as well. Both injured by the same means.

It still has Lan Zhan furious to think that it was one of his own clan’s tools that ultimately caused both of their injuries.

He already notified the healers and his own brother about A-Yuan now staying at his place, all of whom are delighted about the progress Lan Zhan had been making with the boy over the past few days, as exclusive as said focus may be. Still, everyone at the Cloud Recesses is rather happy at the signs of the child finally opening up to someone. Thus, no one even thinks to protest the child more or less moving into the guest room of the jingshi, happy the boy seems to be settling at long last.

To a certain degree, at least.

Considering that, during their visit to the healers’ wing, A-Yuan remains silent throughout, not speaking a single word to anyone, eyes still scared even while the wounds on his fingers are being treated, distrustfully peeking out from his hiding place halfway behind Lan Zhan’s legs the rest of the time they are there.

The boy’s distress is obvious and, having seen where A-Yuan’s distrust of the Gusu Lan stems from, Lan Zhan will be the first to confirm his fear to be justified as well. They have not yet talked of it, but he can only imagine the desperate terror the boy must have felt as his father remained caught within the netting bearing the Gusu Lan’s crest, hidden away in a cave, bleeding and unable to move until he would not wake fully anymore at all, the boy himself incapable of helping, even if the wounds on his hands prove his desperate attempts at doing so repeatedly.

Yes, Lan Zhan finds the child’s distrust of them more than understandable, especially with the fox still caught within the spirit netting even now, grievous wounds still barely healing.

Which is also one of the reasons Lan Zhan decided to join A-Yuan during his visit at the healers' wing. To request some of the salve the healers have been applying to A-Yuan’s fingers to help the boy’s wounds heal.

The extra salve is not for A-Yuan, of course, Lan Zhan not planning to interfere with the healers’ treatment of the child’s wounds. No, the salve is for the fox. He is still worried that the fox’s strength might give out sometime soon, especially now that the fox might feel assured in his kit’s safety, so Lan Zhan is intent on aiding his healing in any way he can. Without also letting anyone in on the fox’s presence in the jingshi.

Although, when Lan Zhan asks for some of the salve without also giving an explanation for his request, Lan Xu, one of the eldest amongst their sect’s healers focuses an intent look on him. Before the old healer hands over the remainder of the salve he had been applying to A-Yuan’s fingers. Which isn’t much, barely enough to let Lan Zhan cover the deepest of the still unconscious fox’s gashes along his upper left leg, the many other wounds going untreated.

However, the next day when Lan Zhan once more visits the healers’ wing alongside A-Yuan, Lan Xu presses a far more substantial vat of salve into his hands, freshly prepared, with an intent reminder to not apply it more than once a day, no matter how bad the wounds may seem. All the while the old healer unwinds the bandages from around A-Yuan’s fingers which he himself had applied yesterday, clearly aware that Lan Zhan hadn’t attempted to remove them or apply any of the salve he had requested yesterday to A-Yuan’s wounds at all.

Lan Zhan nods once, calmly, like he and Lan Xu aren’t having a secondary conversation about a different patient that the old healer clearly realized must be somewhere close by but unwilling or unable to visit the healers’ wing.

He reaches out to lay a soothing hand on A-Yuan’s shoulder when the child continues to stare at the healer in fear, apparently understanding that they are indirectly talking about his father, and still not over his terror at someone trying to take his Xian-ge away from him.

Admittedly, A-Yuan isn’t wrong in his fears.

Not about someone at the Cloud Recesses actually daring to trespass upon that which Lan Zhan has claimed for himself, officially or unofficially so, permanently or transiently, even if they knew of the treasure hidden away in the jingshi at the moment.

But the child is also correct in fearing the temptation other people might feel, especially outsiders, those too concerned with the power and standing which a direct association with a known celestial fox would give them. Suffiently so that even the promise of a dragon’s wrath might not be enough to stop them.

A fully grown, celestial fox, injured to the point of being unable to defend himself and easily made to bend by threat to his unprotected kit. It is the sort of scenario entire clans once used to invest their all into creating, greed driving them to commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of power.

For, catching a fox is the closest most cultivators nowadays will ever get to true celestial magic. An easy path towards immortality, towards having your heart’s every, most dearly held wishes answered.

An injured fox, unable to quite protect himself or his kit. And all the more vulnerable for it.

If his presence became known, Cloud Recesses would be swarmed with cultivators attempting to gain the fox’s favor and, when failing to do so, might either attempt to gain such allegiance by force or even decide to attempt killing the celestial creature, rather than let anyone else profit in the way they themselves might have hoped to.

It certainly has happened before. There is a reason why foxes, despite their true-breeding, have become almost as rare as shifters of the other lines, why those foxes that might still exist have long since hidden themselves away amongst the ordinary population. If only to reduce the inevitable threat being known as a celestial fox would bring to anyone of their own line.

No, A-Yuan isn’t wrong to fear men’s greed and envy at all.

There is a reason why Lan Zhan himself has yet to tell anyone of the celestial creature resting within his home either.

+++

To Lan Zhan’s relieved surprise, the fox’s condition doesn’t deteriorate much further over the next few days despite the many gaping, bleeding wounds still remaining, so easily brought to bleed anew. Too many wounds partially healed but having done so on top of deeply burrowed strands of the spirit net, glowing golden with ancient power from within the fox’s flesh.

It leaves Lan Zhan little choice but to re-open some of the fox’s deepest wounds in order to extricate the spirit netting having dug itself so deeply into flesh.

It is gruesome work. However, in order for the fox to heal, Lan Zhan cannot see a different option.

He takes care not to touch the worst of the fox’s wounds whenever A-Yuan is awake, the little boy sticking to his father’s side with fierce desperation while awake. Only once the child is asleep, Lan Zhan is able to settle the child in the guest room he set aside for the boy and then once more start on disentangling the spirit net.

He knows that, by morning, A-Yuan will have returned to his father’s side, the boy waking during the night at least once and then immediately making his way to his still unconscious father’s side. Like that is the only place anywhere on this earth where the child truly feels safe. It speaks of unquestioning trust between the two of them.

Within his blood, the creature of open skies and hoarded treasures rumbles contently.

During the day, A-Yuan’s presence has Lan Zhan spend most of his time soothing the fox’s wounds, feeding him energy and bandaging wounds, while spending his nights trying to free the fox from the spirit netting still cutting so deeply into his flesh.

Throughout, he can barely contain his own, ever-rising fury, mainly due to the fact that, as he had quickly come to realize, this is not just a spirit net left over from the last creature clan war. If it were, Lan Zhan wouldn’t struggle so in trying to remove it. If this net had been enchanted by a partial shifter such as himself, he would have been able to simply cut through the threads, would have been able to extricate most of the netting without having to re-open so many of the fox’s most grievous wounds.

No, this net was not enchanted by anyone alive today or even anyone alive in the past few centuries. It is imbued with ancient, draconian magic, the sort which even he, as someone of dragon descent but not trueborn himself, cannot wield and, thus, cannot recant.

Lan Zhan suspects this net to be one of the few heirlooms passed on through centuries from Lan An herself, woven by the last trueborn dragon of their line .

He suspects that, if he weren’t a direct descendent of Lan An’s, he might be bearing the same injuries as A-Yuan.

Even now, the net’s magic barely yields to his own and his fingertips oftentimes bleed by the time he is done for the night, feeding his energy into the fox to help him heal and also to declare this creature under the protection of the Gusu Lan, hoping it might help in keeping the netting from burying ever-deeper into the fox’s flesh.

It seems to work somewhat.

By the time he manages to extricate one of the fox’s hind legs, the one that was barely caught within the netting, just enough to prevent the fox from moving freely, some of the wounds Lan Zhan freed first have already begun to heal.

It is a relief.

Because, for the fox to have enough energy to expend on healing instead of just trying to survive, the creature must have some strength to spare at this point.

It’s a good sign. It has Lan Zhan hopeful that he will not have console A-Yuan from losing his father after the boy’s murmured stories have made it more than clear that his ‘Xian-ge’ is the only family he still has, no one else remaining, the reason why A-Yuan is alive at all.

Lan Zhan is determined not to have the child lose the last of his family.

+++

There are seven tails. Just two steps below the power of the Huli Jing himself.

Seven tails.

When the last famously known fox in their world – who died more than four centuries ago – never made it past three.

+++

During the days, Lan Zhan and A-Yuan spend quite a bit of time meticulously cleaning the fox’s fur of dirt and leaves and clotted blood, the boy seeming so relieved at having something to do, at being able to help his baba in any way at all.

Lan Zhan leaves the child to direct him as they clean the fox’s fur as best they can, water running a reddish brown for countless basins.

Until, finally, the midnight-black fur is once more glistening and clean, a little shabby in places around the harsher wounds but no longer looking nearly as bad as before.

Lan Zhan, as all dragons, appreciates beauty, appreciates power, appreciates all which might distinguish a creature from the dully grey masses surrounding them.

Even while unconscious and so clearly weakened, the celestial creature is still breathtaking. All the more beautiful for the way A-Yuan, the fox’s kit, immediately takes the chance of his father’s clean form to burrow himself into the fox’s chest, easily falling asleep within the perceived safety within the curve of his father’s sheltering body. Assured of his own and his father’s safety while in the den of a dragon.

It is quite the sight, the boy, hands still bandaged even as his wounds are healing well, and clad in Gusu Lan’s clan colors, curled within the midnight black fur of his father’s form.

Within Lan Zhan’s chest, possessiveness stirs. Primal and soothing, a claim of protection and safety, inviolable and uncompromising.

+++

A-Yuan is crying, desolately. Not because of his father’s condition having worsened or anything of the sort, but solely because it is lunch time and Lan Zhan only brought two servings of food for them to share at the jingshi.

The little boy seems devastated that there isn’t any food for his father.

“But w-what if Baba gets h-hungry,” A-Yuan demands pitifully, barely able to get the words out past his sobs, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Lan Zhan feels helpless, not at all having intended – or expected – this sort of reaction to the two trays of food he brought with him. Then again, maybe he should have expected A-Yuan to break down at some point, to simply lose the fierce composure he has been carrying himself with since Lan Zhan first met the child.

Maybe, with his father finally safe and getting the help he needs, it was inevitable that A-Yuan’s fierce front would collapse at some point.

“What if Baba wakes and he is hungry and there is no food for him?” the boy sobs desolately.

Lan Zhan knows that, even if the fox were to wake right this moment, the likelihood of him instantly demanding food, grievously injured as the creature regrettably still is, is unlikely. If the fox were to wake, Lan Zhan would be surprised if he manages to stay awake for more than a few minutes and even then, likely unable to ingest anything beyond some water.

Still, he knows better than to think that his reasoning will do anything to soothe A-Yuan at the moment.

“It is forbidden to waste food,” he repeats his earlier words. The words that had sent A-Yuan into desperate tears a few minutes ago. “If your father wakes, I will get more food for him.”

A-Yuan sniffles, eyes red and something so exhausted about him it hurts Lan Zhan’s heart to see it, much less in A-Yuan, the boy who has grown on him so quickly, so easily inserted himself into Lan Zhan’s life fully.

“But what if Baba wakes and he is hungry right away,” A-Yuan insists, eyes still large and red-rimmed but Lan Zhan is getting the feeling that the child might now be arguing at least partially for argument’s sake.

He still gives that protest due consideration before he replies, “Then we will share our food with your father, while I get more.”

A-Yuan watches him, eyes reddened but no longer crying. Before he finally nods, apparently satisfied with the solution, though his lower lip still trembling the slightest bit with his earlier desolation.

Lan Zhan is relieved when the boy finally makes his way over to join him at the table to eat.

+++

While the fox seems somewhat stable, with his fur now clean and his wounds slowly healing, Lan Zhan also doesn’t want to risk reopening too many of the creature’s wounds at once, uncertain how much more blood loss the fox can take in its current state.

In addition, with him still only able to extricate the netting from the fox’s deepest wounds while A-Yuan is asleep, it is a slow-going process.

Still, he is making progress and, reassuringly, while the fox doesn’t seem to be recovering as such, the creature’s state also doesn’t seem to be worsening either.

Lan Zhan takes it as an encouraging sign.

+++

Even days later, the fox has yet to wake fully at any point.

There are moments where the creature rouses slightly, chest rumbling and gaze hazy as he tries to make sense of his surroundings, eyes slitting open the barest bit, a chittering sort of noise cutting through its growl, reliably calling A-Yuan from wherever he might have been at the moment, scrambling towards his father with teary eyes and small hands clutching at black-as-night fur, tucking himself in close.

The fox always goes right back under just as soon as he has confirmed the boy being near and being safe. Like that is all he is concerned with.

It thrills something within Lan Zhan whenever he is near to witness it. That obvious protectiveness and uncompromising focus on his kit’s safety. It speaks that dark part of him, the part that is more instinct than rational thought, the part of himself he always knew he had but hasn’t had much reason to feel so starkly until now, marked by its need to own and possess and keep safely tucked away for no one else to so much as glance at aside from himself.

He is not nearly as successful in pushing those thoughts aside as his own clan’s more civilized guidelines would dictate him to.

Lan Zhan neither minds nor does he care to force such civility upon his own thoughts either.

With the fox’s softly rumbling breathing beside his own bed at night, A-Yuan more often than not sneaking to settle with his father, sleeping curled against the warm, soft fur of the celestial fox, Lan Zhan cannot help but want to keep, to protect.

A treasure found, kept safe within his den.

+++

Lan Zhan feels relieved when, after nine days of gruesome work, he finally manages to extricate the netting from the fox’s worst wounds along his second leg, the wounds that had worried him most, so deep he’d almost had to cut to the bone to reach the netting healed into the wounds.

His fury at the injuries themselves and the inherent betrayal of one of his own clansmen by abusing his ancestor’s heirlooms so, is unabated.

The wounds that now remain are smaller, more gashes and irritation from the netting constantly straining at them. They certainly add to the fox’s general weakness but Lan Zhan is certain that, if the celestial creature only manages to survive the healing of these deep wounds, he will also make it through the entire healing process.

He checks the state of the fox’s wounds every morning, right after waking, before A-Yuan is awake to bear witness to what hides beneath the bandages. During those checks, Lan Zhan liberally applies the healers’ salve to the wounds, though the vat he got from Lan Xu has run out twice since he started applying it. Then again, the old healer always seeming to know when to supply him with another batch.

Lan Zhan does not question the old healer’s instincts, even when concerning a patient Lan Xu has never had a chance to examine himself.

Still, beyond that, there is little Lan Zhan can do to aid the healing, not while the celestial creature is still in fox form.

Never has he wished more ardently for the ability of his ancestors to shift into his trueborn form, the majestic form of a dragon. If he were able to shift, passing the fox spiritual power to aid the healing would be simple. As it is, the few marks of his celestial heritage which he is able to manifest while meditating might set him somewhat apart from most of his clan, but it is truly nothing to speak of while compared to a full shift, his spiritual power still flowing as a humans, maybe a little wilder, a little less contained, but human nonetheless.

If the fox were only partially shifted instead of in his trueborn form, then Lan Zhan might have been able to offer his own spiritual power more efficiently in healing the creature’s wounds.

Alas, the differences between partial shifts and trueborn shifts are too vast, their magics incapable of mixing fully. It is a simple fact that mortal and celestial magics do not mix well. He knows better than to attempt forcing more of his own spiritual power into the fox’s meridians than the celestial creature willingly absorbs. The backlash of attempting to do more might kill Lan Zhan and, considering the state the creature is currently in, might do the same to the fox.

As it is, the only thing Lan Zhan can offer to aid the fox’s healing beyond bandaging his wounds is the healing powers contained within his nightly guqin playing. Which does seem to help somewhat.

As does the providing of safe place for the fox and his kit to hide and recover on his own.

+++

The fox’s wounds are healing. Slowly but surely.

The shallow gashes first, irritated skin and superficial wounds healing quickly. Almost like the fox’s body, even while unconscious, knows to first remove the mass of wounds, before attempting to heal the truly grievous injuries. The ones that will require the most time, likely days or even weeks to fully heal.

Still, the fox is healing and, as Lan Zhan moves on to remove the netting from where it still remains tangled with two of the fox’s tails, no longer cutting deep but most likely still hampering the creature’s powers, he can only hope that the fox’s stubborn strength, which carried him through blood loss and pain and days without nourishment while in a cave and no aid whatsoever, will be enough to carry him through the healing process as well.

Lan Zhan can only hope that the fox’s strength and will to live and clear determination to protect his kit will hold out for its recovery.

He hopes.

+++

The fox still remains in his fully shifted form, a mass of sleek, black fur, either unaware or still too weakened to attempt shifting to any of his other forms, or possibly prevented from even attempting as much by the spirit netting still tangled around two of his tails.

A-Yuan takes painstaking care to bring his father food, rice and vegetables and bread soaked in broth, torn into small enough pieces they barely require chewing. It is impressive, the creature’s determination to live, to make it past this, if only for his kit.

A survivor. A fighter.

Notably, the few times Lan Zhan is present to witness the fox rousing from his exhausted, though healing sleep, the creature does seem to register his presence beside A-Yuan, but he merely flicksa glance his way before once more focusing fully on his kit with what little strength he has.

Not enough strength to expend on paying much attention to Lan Zhan, but clearly also not seeing him as a threat. Apparently believing in the safety Lan Zhan promised to provide to the fox and his kit.

Within Lan Zhan’s mind, the dragon rumbles contently, possessively at the sign of trust.

+++

Lan Zhan finally manages to untangle the last of the netting from the fox’s tails.

With its removal, the fox immediately seems to fall in a deep, exhausted sleep, like the tangles of golden twines of another’s magic had continuously kept him on the edge of alertness, draining ever-more of his strength.

Lan Zhan weighs the lightweight netting in his hand, heavy with his own ancestor’s magic, still perfectly intact even after the many hours Lan Zhan has spent desperately wishing he could simply cut through the individual twines. If only to make its removal easier.

This spirit net should never have even come in contact with another celestial creature. It should never have been anywhere near their back mountains, and certainly not set up in a way that would have had another creature at risk of unknowingly stumbling into it at all.

He wants to demand answers, wants to gather his clansmen and demand who dared misuse his ancestor’s relics in this manner. For, only Lan Zhan, his brother, and his uncle should have the right to make use of Lan An’s heirlooms, and Lan Zhan knows better than to even suspect Xichen or Shufu of ever doing such a thing.

Alas, as much as the dragon within his blood is furiously roars its demands for answers, he cannot do so for now. Not yet.

While he knows that most of his clan would be just as furious as he himself is if he were to bring the net’s abuse to their attention, doing so would inevitably bring about questions. Questions regarding how Lan Zhan himself might have come across the net, scrutiny he cannot afford quite yet.

He at least needs to wait until the fox is healed from the worst of the wounds, until the fox is awake and capable of defending himself, once more the powerful, unbendable creature his kind is known as.

Only once the fox has returned to his full strength, then Lan Zhan will be able to demand his answers.

It is too dangerous to do so now.

Lan Zhan is patient. He can wait.

+++

“I’m glad you have managed to get through to the child, Wangji,” his brother smiles at him in that soft but delighted way of his, clearly glad for the connection, mainly for A-Yuan’s sake but likely also for Lan Zhan, he knows. His brother always worries about his lack of friends and people he wants to spend time with.

Lan Zhan thinks that, considering that he is currently hiding a celestial fox and kit in his private rooms, he is rather more… adventurous where his social connections are concerned than his brother likely assumes.

“Mn,” he returns, as always remaining silent and letting those around him draw their own conclusions.

His brother, usually so good at reading him but for once unable to, if only due to missing quite a few rather important pieces of information, frowns the slightest bit, before adding hesitantly, “Maybe you could bring him to dinner with Shufu tomorrow?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t reply, which he knows his brother will recognize as the refusal it is meant to be.

He doubts A-Yuan will want to spend dinner with anyone from Lan Zhan’s clan while his own father is still regularly bleeding through the bandages Lan Zhan has been painstakingly applying to the wounds caused by the spirit netting bearing the Lan crest.

He cannot blame the boy for his hesitation. Maybe once the fox returns to full consciousness, maybe once his father wakes and shifts back, maybe then the boy might be willing to start trusting the Gusu Lan beyond just Lan Zhan and the safety of his home.

He truly hopes that A-Yuan and his father will be able to trust Lan Zhan and his clan enough to be willing to make their home here. To remain within the home Lan Zhan has offered them, even. To remain within his den.

+++

Lan Zhan returns from the meeting with his brother to find the jingshi mostly silent, A-Yuan not at the desk where Lan Zhan usually finds him drawing pictures for his Baba, usually images of things that have happened to A-Yuan during the day, which the child finds notable enough he wants to tell the fox about once he wakes.

Lan Zhan has been meticulously keeping track of the images, keeping them in order for A-Yuan to show to his Baba once he wakes. Even if he doubts that A-Yuan will be able to still distinguish them all.

Still, it is unusual for the jingshi to be this silent so early in the day.

It is only once he rounds the screen shielding part of the jingshi from being immediately visible from the outside that he finds the reasons for the unusual quiet.

He almost loses his breath at the sight.

A-Yuan is curled against his father’s chest, face reddened and barely dried tear tracks still visible on his cheeks, but now sleeping peacefully, covered partially by one of the fox’s tails, like the celestial creature is attempting to hide his son even while asleep.

It is, however, the fox himself who has Lan Zhan breathless.

A fox, who seems to have shifted while Lan Zhan was away from the jingshi, shifted into his trueborn halfway shift, human except for the fox ears on top of his head, the elongated nails on his fingers and toes, and the seven sleek, midnight-black tails curving along and across his form.

The fox must have woken while Lan Zhan was away and then, quite possibly in reaction to A-Yuan inevitably distressed relief at his father’s return to consciousness, shifted in order to better soothe his kit. Or something along those lines.

The fox is stunning, enough so the mere sight of him has Lan Zhan captivated.

Fine features, somewhat shadowed with exhaustion and ongoing recovery but still beautiful in a way that is mesmerizing, smooth skin and long dark hair pooling around him.

Lan Zhan’s eyes helplessly track down his mostly bared form, slender and long-limbed, only parts of him obscured by his own hair and sleek tails.

He will copy the rules of conduct later for the transgression of not immediately having averted his eyes.

As it is, he cannot help himself, is unwilling to force his eyes entirely away, too focused on the sight in front of him to consider much else. A gorgeous fox, sleeping mostly bared within Lan Zhan’s home, his kit tucked against his chest, kept warm and safe within the curve of his father’s body.

It is everything, a soothing sight as much as it stirs something deeper, darker, primally proprietary within his chest. The sight of this small family within his den.

A family Lan Zhan would rather like to claim as his.

He makes himself think past those thoughts, hand reaching for the sheet on his own bed, to provide warmth and cover to both father and son.

Still, even once the sheet has settled to cover the fox more fully, Lan Zhan still cannot help but let his eyes trail along the form in front of him. Trailing upwards.

For all that it has been generations since anyone of their clan was able to even manage a notable halfway shift, those of Lan An’s line are still taught the ways of trueborn creature mating.

Lan Zhan’s lets his eyes trail upwards, coming to a stop at the fox’s neck. The spot where a mate would surely have sunk their teeth during more intimate moments, enough so for the marks to scar, enough to possess, to claim, to keep.

The fox’s neck is smooth, unblemished, unmarked.

Something darkly satisfied purrs within Lan Zhan’s chest.

A treasure found, indeed.