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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.

Chapter Text

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.