“So you say this has been going on for a few months now?” Wei Ying asked, not unkindly, of the young woman sitting across from them in a small tea house. He had dragged all of them there after she’d crashed into them on the street and, upon recognizing them as cultivators, started begging for their help. Her face was still streaked with tears, although she’d made a valiant attempt to wipe them away as she sipped at the tea hesitantly.
Wei Ying smiled at her again, that light smile that softened all hearts when turned upon them. “What was the first incident you recall?” Subtly beneath the table, he reached down and ran his fingers over the back of Lan Wangji’s hand, both reassuring and also encouraging him to listen closely.
The girl, who introduced herself as Bo Fang, held the cup tightly in both hands, as if she would lose grip of it were it only in one, and swallowed hard before beginning. “Ah, it was early spring, I believe -- the snows had only just melted away. My da-jiu went out to select a tree for a commission, a good one.” Her eyes turned away from Wei Ying’s smile to look off into the distance as she searched her memory for details of the event. “He found a good tree near the center of the forest, but when he went to cut it down, he was attacked.”
Wei Ying’s brow creased slightly, but his smile only turned sympathetic, it did not dim. “He was attacked? Do you know by what, meimei?”
She shook her head slightly. “He said it was like a swarm of birds or bugs or something else strange. He was all turned about when we found him and seemed to be seeing things we could not. My father and brother went out later and found his ax lying at the base of the tree he tried to cut down and the wood itself untouched.”
That narrowed down the options only slightly. "Has the experience remained consistent across attacks?" Lan Wangji asked. Malicious spirits had some ability to affect perception, but it was often tailored to the victim.
The young woman lifted a hand to shake it uncertainly. "Sometimes," she replied. "My family has claimed to encounter several swarms, though we could not find any nests when we searched the forest later. Some, though, have also said that tree branches have moved to whip them, while others saw large animals driving them away."
"Have there been injuries?" Wei Ying asked, eyes intent. Lan Wangji could already see that this hunt caught his interest.
The girl kept her composure well as she explained, "At first, mostly bruises. As it's gone on, though, my san-jiu broke his leg, he said running from an animal when a hole in the ground opened up beneath him. Two of my cousins have raised welts on their arms, and my er-ge got a concussion from running into a tree."
The broken leg and concussion could have resulted from altered perception, but the welts seemed less likely to come from any accident. "Were your cousins the ones claiming the branches whipped them?" Lan Wangji asked, sharing a glance with Wei Ying.
She nodded. Lan Wangji took a sip from his tea as he considered for a moment. It was possible that tree branches attacked those young men, but it was also possible that they were led to believe it was the trees while something else attacked them.
“Bo-guniang,” Wei Ying stepped in smoothly, “would your family be all right with us coming to talk to them before we investigate your woods? There might be more we can learn by speaking to them directly.”
The young girl paused, then nodded with more hesitation. “My brothers and cousins will speak with you. My san-jiu as well.” She then paused and looked down into her cup again. “If you need a guide through the woods, my brothers will help as well. But Fuqin will not allow you two into the woods if he knows you are cultivators. He says that it is all a coincidence and no interference is needed.”
Lan Wangji understood well what she meant. In his years traveling wherever the chaos took him, he had met many who dug their heels in when a problem arose and insisted it would clear itself out in time. Regardless of what they had to say, he always looked into it without hesitation. Sometimes they were right and it was a simple matter, one that required no outside interference to resolve peacefully.
Oftentimes they were not.
Wei Ying’s eyes narrowed slightly as he considered the matter before them. “Is your father at home right now?” he asked brightly, voice light and confident. When she nodded again his smile grew. “You said your family works with cedar? Then perhaps we are in the market for a new instrument. Traveling musicians may have a speciality, but there’s no harm in having options.”
Her face brightened at the simple lie. “San-jiu is an instrument maker. He would believe you would have a reason to speak to him in particular and not the rest of our family.”
Wei Ying laughed warmly and leaned over to refill her cup. “Well that makes it much easier then. Lan Zhan and I can ask to speak to your san-jiu when we arrive and not bring your father into it at all.”
Despite the warmth and easy grace about him, Lan Wangji could see that Wei Ying suspected they could not avoid him entirely, and he agreed with that assessment.
Bo-guniang glanced about the tea room somewhat shyly, ducking her head. “Would you be willing to arrive a little later? Then he -- they might not suspect I sought out cultivators for help.”
"Of course," Wei Ying agreed. "We'll do our best not to get you into trouble."
She pointed out where their family's storefront stood before the two of them left her to finish their teapot and collect herself. As agreed, they did not immediately head for the store. Instead, they collected Lil' Apple from where it'd been tied up near the tea house and headed for an inn. It seemed they were no longer simply passing through this town.
"What are your first thoughts, Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying asked as they strolled leisurely along the street. They had to turn away from a route with several food stalls, as Wei Ying looked from a tanghulu stall with apples among its other fruits to his donkey and back again. Lan Wangji calmly produced an apple of his own, so Lil' Apple did not complain of the change in direction.
"Too early to tell." Bo-guniang's description did not point towards a fierce corpse, but it still could be some sort of spirit or yao. Perhaps, once they reached the inn, they could inquire of the innkeeper about strange deaths in the woods.
Lan Wangji's heart warmed as Wei Ying thought along the same lines. "Not enough information yet, I agree. But if we're going to be staying here, we should ask the innkeeper if anyone died or is buried in that forest, since we can still be cultivators for that."
“Mn.” He added his assent to the task at hand, keeping one eye on the street ahead and the other on his husband, who seemed content with the silence for the time. When he had more to share, Lan Wangji would be ready to hear all he had thought of.
They ended up selecting an inn near the edge of town, one that was perfectly content to stable their donkey for what could be several days. Lil’ Apple was a solid, dependable donkey, but it also had many opinions on the situation and rather less tact than the situation seemed to call for.
“Don’t bite anyone,” Wei Ying scolded it, tugging his sleeve out of nibbling range as it hung its head over the door with a morose expression. “I promise Lan Zhan will feed you more apples when we come back.”
The donkey grumbled again, but merely watched them go with a baleful look in its eyes. Wei Ying laughed when he glanced back and saw its face. “That’s the same look it had when we met,” he explained, eyes full of mirth. “Right before I stole it off a millstone back in Mo Village so we could go explore the world outside the jianghu.” He chuckled and his eyes warmed. “How fortunate that we ran into each other when we did.”
Lan Wangji nodded slightly, allowing the soft sound in the back of his throat to convey what it needed to his husband. So often he found himself unable to give word to the great emotions within himself that this joy was his life now. That so suddenly Wei Ying had returned to the world, and then chose to remain at his side again and again.
Some days it still did not feel quite real when he woke up to Wei Ying peacefully sleeping in his arms. It felt as if it were a dream that would shatter with the slightest movement. But that feeling lingered less and less with time.
A light tug on his forehead ribbon brought his attention back to his husband, who had a knowing look in his eyes. Wei Ying brought the tails of the ribbon up to his lips, surreptitiously kissing them before flashing a brilliant smile and heading inside.
Lan Wangji took another moment to close his eyes, breathe, and marvel at his luck, before he once again followed his husband's lead.
The two of them easily obtained a room and secured their belongings before returning to the innkeeper. An older man, he was cleaning the main room when Lan Wangji and Wei Ying came up to him, but he turned to face them politely.
"Is there something I can help you with, gongzis?"
Wei Ying sat down at one of the nearby empty tables. He gestured at another empty seat for the innkeeper as Lan Wangji sat down next to Wei Ying. "Nothing is wrong, we just had a few questions," Wei Ying told him cheerfully. "Shushu, we're cultivators passing through. Have you heard of any problems in the area?"
"Cultivators?" The innkeeper leaned back in his seat, looking wary. "Is there something going on? Our town has been pretty peaceful. Did something bring you here?"
Wei Ying quickly shook his head. "As I said, we're just passing through," he assured him. "But we've found that it's a good idea to ask around to find out about even small problems. Those small problems can become much bigger if not taken care of quickly."
"Ah." The innkeeper relaxed. "You know, that's a good idea, gongzi. Most of the time, cultivators don't bother coming and asking about anything except big problems. Not enough glory in the small problems, I suppose, though it's far better to take care of issues early. I like your attitude!"
"I take inspiration from Hanguang-jun," Wei Ying said solemnly, winking surreptitiously at Lan Wangji. "No hunt is too small for him!"
"That's true, more cultivators should be like Hanguang-jun," the innkeeper agreed as Wei Ying beamed. "But like I told you, our town has been pretty peaceful lately. I don't know of any problems."
"Not even in that forest near town?" Wei Ying continued, tilting his head as if in simple curiosity. "No strange deaths recently, or any discoveries of bodies or graves?"
The innkeeper began to shake his head, and then frowned. “Not that I’ve heard of, but then the Bo family doesn’t let anyone in their woods without their say-so. According to Master Bo, his grandfather’s grandfather was a young boy when they came to this area, before anyone else was here, and it is their forest.” He leaned in slightly as if to hide his words from other prying ears. “While I’ve not heard of any deaths, who’s to say what’s been happening in those woods. A family that won’t let anyone else in for any reason is a family with a secret to keep.”
Wei Ying nodded solemnly before smiling. “Thank you, shushu,” he said warmly, evidently satisfied with the information he’d gotten. “I hope your wine is as good as your knowledge.”
The innkeeper almost leaped to his feet at the subtle hint, bowing with a pleased smile. “Please allow me to bring you a cup so that you may determine for yourself, gongzi,” he said, eyes flicking over Lan Wangji as if he were trying to determine if he would like a cup as well.
He shook his head slightly. “Tea would be preferred.”
The innkeeper bowed again and hustled off to a doorway screened by fabric strips. Now that there was no one to listen in on them, Wei Ying leaned in closer, tapping on his chin in thought. “Very curious indeed. Whatever is happening in these woods must be new, not just to Bo-guniang, but everyone.”
Lan Wangji nodded. “There is only superstition. No singular story.”
"And if they don't let anyone else into the woods, that means several things." Wei Ying tapped his chin again. "First, our main source of actual information will likely be a family that may not want to work with us. Second, it's hard to tell if whatever is going on would happen to anyone in the woods or if it's targeted at the Bos."
"This family has some degree of power and respect in this town, if they control who enters the forest," Lan Wangji added. That might mean that anyone who went against the Bo family would find less cooperative townsfolk as well.
Wei Ying nodded, then tilted his head and blinked sparkling eyes at Lan Wangji. "What do you say we check out this forest for ourselves before we meet with Bo-guniang's san-jiu, Lan Zhan? We'll be able to see how they respond to outsiders trying to come in, and since they won't have met us yet, it'll be less suspicious for us to be warned away and then go to their store and meet them the right way."
"They are also one family, and it is a big wood. If they do not catch us at all, we can first investigate the situation for ourselves."
Wei Ying leaned forward to give him a smacking kiss. Lan Wangji returned it automatically before he pulled away -- the innkeeper was returning with their tea and wine. As the man once again left, Wei Ying scooted his chair around so he could lean against Lan Wangji's side as they both sipped their drinks.
They were in public, and Lan Wangji should maintain a respectable distance...but they were also alone aside from the innkeeper, and he didn't want to. Instead, he let Wei Ying lean against him, and subtly leaned back.
Wei Ying made a pleased noise in his throat at their closeness, swirling the wine in his cup contentedly. “This wine is pretty good. Mellow and soft on the swallow. The perfect thing to warm me up before we go traipsing around the woods for mysteries.”
“Mn,” he agreed, sipping at his own tea. “We will leave soon, then.”
Wei Ying nodded, but nestled closer still as if he were perfectly content not getting up for hours to come.
The forest definitely had a strange aura about it, as if something were watching them from the moment they passed the first of the narrow trees at the edge, branches stretching out wide overhead to drink in the late afternoon sunlight. Above he could hear birds chirping and scolding each other, and squirrels ran up trees to disappear among the leaves the second they caught sight of the two of them.
As far as his senses could tell, there was no more resentful energy here than in any place without a cultivator regularly cleaning it. Certainly not enough to have walking corpses stumbling about the giant roots that sprawled between the trees, ready to trip unwary travelers.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help laughing when he glanced back to see Lan Zhan lift his robes slightly so that he could step over another large root that seemed to have appeared right in front of them. “I think the forest has opinions about us wandering around in it,” he joked as Lan Zhan came to join him. “Maybe the reason why the Bo family keeps people out of here is because the trees don’t like others wandering beneath them.”
“It is a possibility,” Lan Zhan conceded, looking around. “Have you sensed anything?”
"I feel like I'm being watched," he replied cheerfully, "but I feel no notable concentrations of resentful energy. Why don't you try Inquiry?"
The large protruding roots were difficult to walk around but easy to sit on. Flicking his sleeves out of the way, Lan Zhan pulled his qin into his lap and set his fingers to the strings. Calmly, assuredly, he played the opening measure of Inquiry, inviting any nearby spirits to respond.
He took his hand away after the measure, and the both of them watched the vibrating strings. Nothing happened, though. No spirit came to answer their call.
Lan Zhan played Inquiry again, to the same result.
"It's a big forest. Could any spirits be out of range?" Wei Wuxian suggested.
"My range is large," Lan Zhan replied, swiftly standing again and stowing away his qin.
Enough to cover the whole forest, he clearly meant. Considering something was going on in this forest even now, it seemed likely that human spirits weren't at the center of it. There might still be some involved, if they were following around any of the Bos, but there was something strange about the forest itself.
Just to be sure, Wei Wuxian pulled Chenqing from his belt. No spirit could deny Lan Zhan, but that didn't rule out fierce corpses.
Just as he put his dizi to his lips, though, a sharp voice called out, "You two! What are you doing here?"
He lowered his flute just in time to see two men, one with his hair tied and pinned up in accordance with his status as master of the house. The other one seemed to be barely of age, closer to Sizhui than them. It was the older man who had shouted. “Don’t you know that these woods are off limits to outsiders?”
Wei Wuxian smiled as disarmingly as he could, offering Lan Zhan a hand to his feet and bowing. “Unfortunately no, we were completely unaware,” he said, lying as easily as he breathed. “We came into town earlier today and were awed by the vast trees and simply had to look closer.”
Lan Zhan said nothing, but lowered his head in appropriate contrition, as if he were admitting to the guilt of having no idea where they were rather than helping sell Wei Wuxian’s lie.
And it did help; the man looked slightly less irritated and slightly more mollified. Only slightly, though, because his mustache still twitched. “Well, these woods belong to the Bo family, and as the head I must request that you leave immediately.”
“Of course, of course,” Wei Wuxian agreed, and then made a show of looking around and frowning. “If it is not too much, could we trouble you to show us the way out, Master…?”
The man crossed his arms and sniffed, but gestured with hands roughened by years of woodworking for them to follow. “I am the head of the family, Bo Fengmeng. And you are?”
“Two wandering musicians,” Wei Wuxian dodged again, quickly catching himself at the name. Even with it having been many years, it sounded too similar to Jiang Fengmian at first note. “We’re not planning on being in town very long, Master Bo.”
“We heard of a woodworker in this town who specializes in instruments,” Lan Zhan stepped in smoothly for him, the only suggestion of his worry for Wei Wuxian being the subtlest flutter of an eyelid.
"We saw the woods on our way into town and just had to come back to explore once we settled in," Wei Wuxian continued, to preserve his Lan Zhan from attempting to lie. "I'm sure you've been told they're beautiful, Master Bo. Very inspiring."
Bo Fengmeng eyed them, but it was the younger one who said, "Inspiring, Master...?"
"I'm Wei Ying, and this is my husband Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian replied, still getting a thrill at the introduction. "As for inspiring..."
Chenqing was still in his hand. He brought it up to his lips again and started playing as they walked, a quick melody evoking a forest full of age and life, but trailing off into mystery. As he played, the two woodworkers beside him seemed to relax a little more.
The younger Bo clapped a little when he finished. "You got that from our woods? Very pretty!" he praised. Then he turned to Lan Zhan. "What instrument do you play, Master Lan?"
Without speaking, Lan Zhan once again pulled his qin off his back. He did not start playing, but this seemed to raise no suspicion.
"And what does your family do, Master Bo?" Wei Wuxian happily took on the role of an innocent babbler making conversation. "You said you own these woods?"
"We're woodworkers," Bo Fengmeng said, shortly but easily. "As it happens, my wife's brother owns the instrument shop you mentioned. I can show you the way."
"Then we'll trouble you!" Wei Wuxian saluted a little bit. "Are your instruments made out of the trees in this forest?"
"Our cedar stringed instruments are famous!" the younger Bo cut in. "I'm not surprised you've heard of them. San-jiu's are perfect, and very popular. You should make sure to get one before they're gone!"
Bo Fengmeng coughed, cuffing his son lightly on the head. "Masterpieces do take time to create, of course, and as my son said, they're popular."
“Ah of course,” Wei Wuxian said, scratching at his chin thoughtfully and nodding. “Such work would take much time and care to produce the quality of instruments we have heard you sell. It would be this one’s humble hope that we could meet the crafter indeed.”
Now thoroughly mollified, Bo Fengmeng nodded. “Such a meeting could be arranged. But do keep in mind that these woods are off limits for the future.”
Wei Wuxian nodded eagerly, with absolutely no intentions of staying out. Between what Bo Fang had said and the curious sensation of being watched that had not ceased with their discovery by the Bo family, it was certain that they’d found a true mystery.
With a half skip over a root, he wrapped his arms around Lan Zhan’s arm, for all the part a whimsical man clinging to his husband. Which was absolutely the truth, but it had the side effect of causing Bo Fengmeng and his son to look away awkwardly as he leaned up to whisper in Lan Zhan’s ear, “Let’s see what we can get from inside the house first before coming back after chou shi when they’ll all be long asleep.”
Lan Zhan looked at him through half-lidded eyes that were warmer than sweet wine. Wei Wuxian’s smile grew. Anyone looking at them would suspect nothing of their plot for sneaking into a forest well after dark.
Taking advantage of their proximity and the single ear he could see easily, he whispered, “Hanguang-Jun, we should make sure to leave time to go back to the inn. I know the best ways to fill the hours until then,” with several traces of wickedness leaking into his voice.
He was rewarded with the subtle pinking of that one white ear and a much more baleful glance that left him cackling as he let his poor husband go to continue making simple conversation with Bo Fengmeng and his hopefully more loose-lipped son.
Unfortunately, he did not end up getting much else of use out of them. When the young Bo mentioned not being able to go into the woods by himself, the elder added a gruff, "He's still young." By the time they broke through the trees back towards the town, Wei Wuxian got the sense that further inquiry would only invite the suspicion they had just managed to dispel.
Master Bo Fengmeng obviously had no intention of letting others know of his family's troubles.
The Bos delivered them straight to the instrument store. All Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan could do was bow in gratitude, then head inside. Thankfully, at that point, the cautious patriarch finally seemed ready to leave them alone.
"Welcome!" a cheerful voice said. It came from a man sitting behind a desk with his wrapped leg propped up on a stool. "Please forgive me for not getting up to assist you, but I am here if you have any questions."
"Are you the maker of these fine instruments?" Wei Wuxian asked, gesturing at the walls of hanging instruments, including pipa, erhu, liuqin, zheng, and more. Wei Wuxian had actually only seen a better selection in Caiyi, whose residents took after their nearby sect with their affinity for music.
"I am indeed, along with several of my family. Song Bolin, at your service. Can I help you two find an instrument today?"
Wei Wuxian exchanged a glance with Lan Zhan. Bo Fang had pointed her san-jiu out as someone willing to speak to them. Should they be upfront with him, or continue their current ruse?
Whatever you decide, Lan Zhan's eyes seemed to say. As always, he was ready to follow Wei Wuxian's lead. Really, this man. Wei Wuxian would never stop loving all that he was.
“Maybe,” he said, wandering over closer to look at the instruments. “I’m better with woodwinds, but I like looking at stringed instruments. But then cedar isn’t the best wood for dizis,” he said with a smile.
Song Bolin chuckled warmly. “No, certainly not. Unfortunately my family has always specialized in woodworking, so bamboo is rather too delicate under my hands.”
Wei Wuxian seized the chance to naturally lead the conversation towards the woods. “So your family has also been in woodworking? I thought the woods belonged to the Bo family.”
Song Bolin shook his head with a smile. “Fengmeng is rather stubborn about it, but the Song and Bo families have both been working with the forest for several generations now. Our grandfathers’ fathers used to argue over who could work with the wood, but the forest is vast, and grudges are not so important that two families cannot work together.” He let out another chuckle. “The whole matter started longer ago than anyone can remember.”
“Then the woods are off limits due to tradition?” Lan Zhan said, coming over to stand with him. “There is nothing strange that has occurred within them?”
Song Bolin began to speak again, then closed his mouth and looked more closely at the two of them before smiling. “Did my niece request that you two help?”
"You caught us," Wei Wuxian agreed, encouraged by the smile. "She said her father would not be willing to accept cultivator help, so she didn't want us to make it obvious, but she did think you would speak to us."
The smile on Song Bolin's face slowly faded. "She's been very concerned, but none of us have thought it worth igniting a big argument. It's still possible that Fengmeng's right, after all, and it all is a big coincidence."
"And what do you think?" Wei Wuxian asked. Behind him, Lan Zhan pulled over the two chairs and tables meant for trying out instruments like the qin and zheng. He also carefully lifted down a zheng to lay on his table before he and Wei Wuxian sat down.
"In case Master Bo returns," Lan Zhan said briefly, seeing Song Bolin's curious look.
The man nodded, then took in a breath and exhaled quickly. "To be honest, I don't know what to think," he replied. "I don't want to think there's something we can't handle anymore than Fengmeng does, but something has changed in the woods. I've been feeling like something's watching me, and while there are predators in there, we know how to avoid them. I've never been chased like that before. But even then, it's not deadly yet. Even when I broke my leg, nothing came to hurt me further."
Wei Wuxian tilted his head, drumming his fingers briefly against the desk. "Can you tell us about your family's and the Bo family's history with the forest? How long have you been harvesting wood from there, and when and how did things change?"
"The Bos would tell you they were here first, and, well, they were," Song Bolin told them, flashing a small smile. "They settled here for those woods five or six generations ago, I think. My Song family came a generation or two after that. Both families are woodworkers, so at first we competed for the woods. That's what started the Bo family's insistence the forest was theirs. But then my grandfather married a Bo cousin, and now Bo Fengmeng married my sister, so for the past couple generations, we've cooperated more than competed. After all, there's plenty of wood still, and they focus on furniture while we do finer things." He gestured at his walls of instruments.
"So there wasn't initially a big secret in the woods?" Wei Wuxian prodded, remembering the innkeeper's judgment. "Nothing you were hiding?"
Song Bolin shook his head. "Not until the last few months."
Lan Zhan and he exchanged a glance before he leaned forward with elbows on the table. “Bo Fang said the first thing that happened was your older brother being chased out of the woods by a swarm of what he thought to be bugs or birds. Was that it?”
Song Bolin pursed his lips and shook his head again. “That was the first time those of us who go into the woods were unable to conceal it from the others,” he confessed in a low voice, looking cautiously towards the door as footsteps from outside came by at a rapid tap.
Only when they died away entirely did he continue. “The first one I saw was the roots moving behind me as I went. The path I knew to the heart of the forest disappeared, and when I tried to retrace my steps, the way I had come was gone.”
Lan Zhan lifted his eyebrows slightly. So it hadn’t been their imagination that the roots seemed to always be in their way.
There was something important in this. Someone in the forest was trying to keep intruders out, including the family. And it was escalating.
“What did you do when you discovered the roots moving?” he asked in a low voice. “Did you tell anyone?”
Song Bolin smiled again, but it was definitely a thinner smile than his former welcoming grin. “I told my brothers. Da-ge thought it was something I’d seen after too many drinks, but Er-ge believed me. He tested it by going out with a piece of charcoal and marking his path behind him. Sure enough, when he attempted to retrace his steps, there was not a single charcoal mark on any of the trees around.”
"And the same sorts of things were happening to the Bos?"
"Yes." Song Bolin's voice was definite. "Fengmeng kept dismissing it as coincidence, but my nephews, on both sides of the family, agree that there's something there. They're scared now."
Wei Wuxian nodded slowly. "Would you characterize these incidents as attempts to attack you?" he finally asked. "Or to drive you away?"
"I...oh." Song Bolin blinked several times. "I've been thinking of them as attacks, since there have been several injuries, but now that I think about it, that's a good point. I think...the effort has been in driving us away. Our injuries have been more incidental, and only after we persisted."
Wei Wuxian exchanged a glance with Lan Zhan and could tell they were on the same page. "Thank you, Master Song," he said. "This was very helpful. I think we have a better idea of what we're facing now."
He made to stand up, but Lan Zhan put a hand on his arm. "A moment," he said, and then put his hands on the strings of the zheng in front of him. He began plucking out High Mountain and Flowing Water, the traditional song symbolizing the cherished friendship between Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi. The notes were clear and resonant, and Wei Wuxian closed his eyes as he listened.
When Lan Zhan finally stopped, he removed his hands from the strings only to pull his money pouch out of his sleeve. "I will purchase this," he said. Glancing at Wei Wuxian, he added, "This instrument is as fine as any in the Cloud Recesses. I will add it to our teaching collection."
Wei Wuxian just managed not to bury his face in his hands and scream with how powerfully he loved his husband in that moment.
With the instrument purchased and safely tucked away in the pouch at Lan Wangji’s waist, they returned to the inn for dinner and to while away the time until the family would be certain to be asleep and they could sneak back into the woods again.
Wei Ying remembered his whispered intentions earlier and now his neck was freshly marked in bites that would become more prominent as the night went on. Lan Wangji had seen him out of the corner of his eye running his fingers over the marks with a rather dreamy smile before tying his hair back up in its usual high ponytail.
Making sure the door to their room was locked, they leapt down from the window near chou shi, when the only lights left were the silver half-moon glowing above them and a few lantern lights of those on their way home at last. It was easy to disappear into the shadows and creep back towards the cedar woods at the edge of town.
Somehow even at the very edge of the woods the moonlight did not seem to touch the ground. There were a few whispers of the nighttime animals he knew to prowl when all else had gone to rest, but otherwise the world seemed silent and the trees a dark, intimidating mystery in front of them.
Slender, strong fingers sought out his hand in the darkness, grasping on tightly. “These woods were tricky enough by daylight,” Wei Ying said quietly, gently leading him forwards. “I suspect they will try to separate us very quickly otherwise.”
Lan Wangji gripped his hand all the tighter for that.
However, as they wandered deeper into the forest, they encountered no extraordinary obstacles beyond what they'd seen in daylight. Many protruding roots, which required more care to navigate in the dark, but no swarms of bugs or birds, no attacking animals. The forest watched them warily, but did not try to drive them away.
"If it's a yao, then has it gained enough intelligence to distinguish between people?" Wei Ying commentend, in his 'thinking out loud' voice. "On both visits, it's been far less active with us than it seems to have been with the Bo and Song families."
"Perhaps they offended it," Lan Wangji agreed.
But what was it? A tree yao would be able to control roots, but not for so many different trees, and unless it was powerful enough that they might have heard of it before now, it wouldn't be able to control animals or insects.
"I still don't feel any resentful energy, so I don't think it's a guai." They paused, and Lan Wangji could barely make out the downward turn of Wei Ying's eyebrows under the obscured moonlight. "But I'll try Chenqing to make sure."
Wei Ying let go of Lan Wangji's hand. Even though he knew it was necessary, Lan Wangji still felt a small pang of loss. He was not yet so used to holding Wei Ying's hand that he could take it for granted.
This time, Wei Ying was able to play his dizi without interruption. Chenqing's haunting notes rang out amidst the trees, coaxing and calling. They were only answered, though, by the soft hoots of owls and the noises of other night life.
Wei Ying sighed as he let Chenqing drop from his lips, the faintest glimmer of moonlight shining on the black flute. “Nothing,” he confirmed, tucking the flute away into his belt again and taking back his hand, to his private joy. “Whatever it is, it isn’t corrupted by anything.”
“It is alive; it moves the trees,” Lan Wangji added, listening to the world around them. “Yet the animals that live here are not disturbed by it.”
Wei Ying tugged him forward, deeper into the darkness. “It’s strange, but it almost reminds me of the goddess back in Dafan Mountain,” he mused out loud. “She had an entirely different energy to her too.” He let out a chuckle that echoed strangely in the woods, bouncing back at them. “None of the juniors had any idea what they were dealing with there, but fortunately I was around to help them out.”
“They were fortunate indeed,” he responded as memories of that day came back to him as well.
The stone goddess had not lingered in his memory beyond the wondering reports the juniors had written. That day shone brightly in his mind for a very different reason.
Wei Ying squeezed his hand lightly and guided them over another protruding root, tapping his hand against the tree as they crossed it. “We must be getting closer to the center,” he said with a smile in his voice. “There’s moss on the trees here.”
The older trees at the center of the forest were the most likely to cultivate a consciousness, but it was yet unclear how conscious this yao actually was. Would they even be able to communicate with it, once they found it?
Wei Ying squeezed his hand again as they reached a slowly burbling stream. "Are you concerned about what we'll do once we find it?" he asked, beginning to step carefully on rocks protruding from the water. "So am I. Everything it's done so far has indicated limited consciousness. Hopefully we won't have to eliminate it--whoa!"
As Wei Ying spoke, a rock beneath him moved. Holding onto his hand, Lan Wangji was able to pull him upright and keep him from falling, but the lower half of his body was soaked. Taken aback, Wei Ying blinked for a few seconds before he started laughing.
"Or maybe it's smarter than I thought!" The two of them successfully made it to the other bank before Wei Ying let go of his hand again to squeeze some water out of his robes. "That timing was too coincidental otherwise."
Lan Wangji had a spare set of robes in his qiankun pouch, though unfortunately his spare boots were too big for Wei Ying to wear comfortably. As Wei Ying changed, he turned his attention to the rest of the forest. The noise of the water was not loud enough to obscure the approaching footsteps.
"--still go back!" a girl hissed.
"Fuqin won't let us investigate during the day, so we have to go at night," a boy replied wearily, as if he'd said it many times before.
Lan Wangji exchanged a glance with Wei Ying, and the two of them moved behind a tree. From downstream emerged two familiar youths -- Bo Fang and her brother, who they'd met with Bo Fengmeng earlier that day.
“What if it’s dangerous?” Bo Fang said, looking out into the darkness with a wary look on her face easily apparent under their single lantern. “Not everything can be fought off with a hammer.”
The boy looked mutinous in response. “Meimei, whatever it is, it’s preventing us from being able to do our work. San-jiu hasn’t made an instrument since before he fell because he can’t get the wood.” His sister opened her mouth to respond but he cut her off. “I know, those nice men bought something and that helped, but also how long will that last?”
Bo Fang made a sad sound before stepping on a branch and ducking behind her brother. He swung his hammer out dramatically before realizing that it was just his little sister and sighed. Next to him Wei Ying muffled a chuckle and leaned over to whisper into his ear, “Oh Hanguang-jun, we’ve found some lost ducklings.”
Watching the way that they cautiously walked with Bo Fang clinging to her brother as he swung his lantern and hammer at every shadow, Lan Wangji could not deny that it was clear they would need help. Their hearts were very much in the right place, full of concern for their family, but it was obvious that they were out of their depth.
The stream splashed along as the children crept forwards with the boy tapping his hammer on some of the wood around them to spook any strange animals from their slumber, and Wei Ying put a finger to his lips as he began to sneak out from behind the tree, presumably to spook them instead and get them under his wing.
Then a deep groaning sounded all around them. It rumbled on and on, echoing through the wood and making his teeth hurt with the tone of it.
“Fuhao,” Bo Fang said in a bare hiss of fear, “what is that?”
Next to him Wei Ying’s eyes went wide before he abruptly knelt down and scooped up a pebble from the stream next to them.
The woods went silent as death, the very air around them seeming to still in trepidation. Holding its breath… but for what?
Instincts honed in war tensed as the previously dark but calm woods suddenly took on an aura that reminded him of the enemy lying in wait, the trap sprung.
He made sure Wei Ying’s hand was still firmly twined in his own and rested his other on Bichen’s hilt, ready to draw it the second it was needed. Wei Ying let the pebble in his hand fly to land right next to the children. “Over here, now!” he called in his most commanding voice.
The children were still splashing through the stream over to them when the swarm appeared out of the darkness.
Barely even thinking about it, Lan Wangji drew a sword seal to let Bichen hover at his side while he pulled his qin from his back. Wei Ying let go of him to put himself in front of the children as they ran past, so Lan Wangji thrummed the strings to let loose a wave of energy at the approaching swarm. The energy dispersed some of the mob, but not all of it.
The rest of the swarm hit them. Wei Ying pulled the brother and sister down, sweeping his oversized Lan robes over their ducked heads. Lan Wangji directed Bichen to guard them against direct attack, but his own tall, white-garbed figure seemed a better target. Dark wings buffeted him and claws slashed at him, some tangling in his hair and robes, but Lan Wangji strummed out another wave of energy to knock what he could now tell was a murder of crows away from them.
Whatever drove the crows into frenzy didn't last very long. Lan Wangji had only repelled the mob a few times when they seemed to wake up and fly away in several directions on their own. Only when he could see no further hint of glossy feathers did he bid Bichen to return to its sheath and once more holster his qin on his back. Beside him, Wei Ying stood up again, the brother and sister he was sheltering following slowly.
"Thank you, daozhangs," Bo Fang said, bowing towards them.
She nudged her brother until he bowed as well, but he only dipped his head for a moment before he exclaimed, "But you're those musicians!"
Wei Ying laughed and put his hands on his hips. "We are musicians, but thankfully for you, we're more than that as well."
"But Fuqin wouldn't..."
Bo Fang put a hand on her brother's arm. "Fuhao, I'm the one who found them and asked them to investigate," she said softly. "I know Fuqin wouldn't want it, but you said yourself that something needs to be done. It shouldn't be us doing it, though. These cultivators are the experts, and we should leave it to them."
Bo Fuhao opened his mouth, then nodded with a sullen look on his face. “There really is something happening here. I don’t know why Fuqin won’t acknowledge it.”
Wei Ying reached out and clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Sometimes when it’s something important to you that has been in your family for a long time, it’s hard to let go and accept that you need help from outside. But we don’t mind helping out anyway,” he said with a grin before looking around the woods. “And this has been an interesting mystery indeed.”
“Have you discovered what is happening in our woods, daozhangs?” Bo Fang asked, eyes hopeful in the lantern light. “Is it something you can take care of?”
Wei Ying looked at Lan Wangji with a glow in his eyes and a slight shift to his smile. He had a theory, but he was not ready to speak of it in front of the children.
Lan Wangji shook his head. “We will need more time to be certain,” he told them instead. “You should return home.”
“Yes,” Wei Ying agreed, gently nudging them roughly the way they had come from, speaking slightly louder than needed for the situation. “Children should not be out this late, so we will take you out of the woods and then return to looking around.” Their eyes met again and Wei Ying briefly winked before looking at the trees overhead.
Ah, whatever it was in the woods was listening to them then. Wei Ying was testing his theory out without giving anything away to the children. He thought he might know what it was that Wei Ying had noticed.
Taking the lantern from Bo Fuhao, Lan Wangji led them back the way they’d come, not along the stream, but through the twisting roots and bracken. It did not escape his notice that somehow there were fewer roots reaching up to trip them, nor did they have to go well out of their way to find a path out.
Both of the Bo children let out a sigh of relief as the trees began to thin and moonlight streamed through stronger. At the edge he returned the lantern to them. “Go home,” he told them again. “Do not worry your family unnecessarily.”
Wei Ying grinned and leaned against him, waving at the two of them. “We’ll be watching to make sure you don’t sneak back in.”
Bo Fang took her brother's wrist and pulled him along. Only when the two of them disappeared into the cluster of nearby houses did Wei Ying turn back to him. In Lan Wangji's spare robes, he glowed under the moonlight, his coy smile giving him an edge of mystery and excitement.
"Well, Lan Zhan?" he asked, tilting his head becomingly in a move that also showed off his marked neck. "Shall we confirm our theory?"
"Do you wish to change?" Lan Wangji asked in return. Entirely for Wei Ying's comfort, and not at all because Wei Ying in his clothes was distracting. "We are not far from the inn."
But Wei Ying shook his head. "We can do this final thing tonight, I think."
So the two of them headed back into the woods. Wei Ying found a large rock with a top flat enough for the two of them to sit on it. He clambered up, though Lan Wangji chose to stand next to him instead.
"They're gone," Wei Ying told the woods when he had settled in. "And so is that hammer."
The woods, already watchful, took on a listening air. Even the animal noises died down slightly.
Wei Ying nodded. "You're becoming conscious, and what's one of the deepest instincts of consciousness? Avoiding pain. I bet a couple families regularly chopping down your wood hurts. You want them to stop."
Branches rustled above them until a beam of moonlight broke through, gently illuminating Wei Ying on his rock.
Wei Ying smiled. "They don't understand, though. They don't see that you're trying to tell them something. So I hope you'll accept the two of us here to mediate."
Late the next morning, they left the inn. Talking to the woods had taken a while in order to make sure they were comprehending each other, and then Lan Zhan had to show him exactly how seeing Wei Wuxian in white robes made him feel right out on the grass in front of the woods, so they had to bathe for several reasons when they made it back to the inn.
He’d fallen asleep in the tub, and there was only a dim fragment of memory of Lan Zhan picking him up and carrying him to bed, then an even dimmer sliver of rolling to rest his head on Lan Zhan’s chest and letting the steady sound of his heartbeat lull him into good dreams.
But now they were left with the dilemma of how to get the family to listen and come talk to their living woods. It had already agreed to a few concessions, especially once he’d figured out that it really didn’t want to hurt the family outside, only to have them stop cutting down the heart of the forest over and over again.
It was rather like a small child -- it wanted to be taken care of and keep growing without being stabbed. Much more reasonable than the soul-eating goddess.
“We should start with Song Bolin,” he mused out loud. “If we can get him on the forest’s side, Bo Fengmeng would be more inclined to listen to him than us.”
Lan Zhan nodded, looking serene and beautiful as an immortal in the sunlight. Not a single sign of their late night showed on his face or in his bearing.
Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, had to cover a yawn here and there. He’d forced himself up out of bed early to hopefully start the mediation before someone else went in and provoked the forest again. Right now it still seemed willing to listen, but it could easily grow angry if its continued warnings were ignored.
“Maybe we should see if we can meet with Bo-furen as well? She’s Song Bolin’s sister, so perhaps if she’s more amenable she may have some sway. It seems like from what the children were saying last night that he’s the largest holdout in the family.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan said, glancing over at him.
And so the two of them headed once more to Song Bolin's instrument store. Another customer was inside when they arrived, so Wei Wuxian started examining the pipas and liuqins once again. Soon enough the customer left, and Song Bolin perked up as they approached.
"Good morning, daozhangs. Is there something else I can help you with?"
"We know what's going on," Wei Wuxian replied. Song Bolin closed his eyes and let out a relieved breath. Understanding, Wei Wuxian gave him a moment before saying, "It turns out your forest is...rather more alive than most forests are. It's cultivated a consciousness, and we've determined that it wants your Song and Bo families to leave the heart of the forest alone. My husband and I, of course, cannot speak for your families, so we hope you can help convince them."
"The forest wants...?" Song Bolin said, with audible confusion and uncertainty. "Ah, daozhangs. I know you're the cultivators, but that sounds a little beyond belief."
"More so than all the strange things that have been happening to you?" Wei Wuxian prodded gently. He did understand the man's confusion, though. It was certainly unusual for a whole forest to cultivate a single spirit.
Song Bolin shook his head. "You've got me there. But you want me to convince both my family and Bo Fengmeng's to leave the central trees alone? I don't know about that, I'm afraid. For those of us reluctant to even admit there's a problem, like Fengmeng and my da-ge, they're not going to put up with any kind of restrictions on what wood we can take."
Wei Wuxian sighed and shook his head. “It isn’t up to us,” he said, starting to pace back and forth. “When your families first encountered trouble, no one was hurt. It just scared you out. But you kept going back, right to the center of the woods again and again. So it hit you a little bit. Not enough to cause serious damage, some bruises, some welts.”
“And still you kept coming back.”
Song Bolin’s smile had disappeared entirely. Almost unconsciously he ran a hand over his leg stretched out on the stool. Wei Wuxian smiled thinly and nodded in confirmation. “The more that any of you continue to go to the heart, to cut down the trees it wants to protect, the more it’ll escalate in return. And why wouldn’t it? It’s trying to protect itself.”
“A wild animal will first try to flee, but will bite if cornered,” Lan Zhan added, his voice low and even. Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but grin at him and Lan Zhan lowered his eyes demurely in pleasure.
“So what you’re saying is…” Song Bolin trailed off, the lines around his mouth deepening in displeasure, “eventually it will strike back fatally if this is not stopped at all.”
“Correct!” Wei Wuxian pointed at him, returning to his pacing back and forth. “It is willing to compromise. Your families have been around it for generations. It knows you. It offers the wood at the edges for your work. But not the oldest trees at the center.” He crossed his arms in front of him and drew to a stop next to Lan Zhan. “Eventually if you persist, someone will lose their life, and there will be no going back once that happens.”
Song Bolin sighed and drummed his fingers on the table, lost in thought. Lan Zhan reached out and ran his fingers over the back of Wei Wuxian’s hand, a gentle comfort as they waited.
So far he had proved to be a reasonable man. Hopefully that would remain true.
After several long minutes in wait, Song Bolin sighed again. “Daozhangs, would you be willing to explain your findings to my family? I fear my voice alone will not be enough to sway them.”
Wei Wuxian nodded and leaned against his husband with a sigh. “Who do you want us to talk to first?”
Song Bolin’s smile returned, albeit smaller than it was before. “You have not had the opportunity to meet my sister yet, have you? I think she would have some concerns about how our business is handled if she knew her sons would be in danger should we not change our ways.”
Madam Bo came quickly once they’d requested one of the boys trying to peek in on them to fetch her, with Bo Fang trailing behind her. She was already frowning when she entered the shop, but forced a smile and a polite bow for them. “My son mentioned that there were cultivators here about the state of our forest?”
Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan bowed politely to her. "We understand that some members of your family think your recent troubles in the woods are coincidences and active imaginations, but we've investigated your forest, and there is indeed something there. As we were telling your brother, the forest has been cultivating a consciousness, and it objects to some of the trees your families have been cutting down. There is still a chance for a peaceful resolution, but that will depend on all of you," Wei Wuxian explained.
A wry smile crossed her face. "And you come to me because you know what my husband's opinion is and want me to change it?"
"They said it will escalate," Song Bolin interjected. "A-Jie, you know as well as I that there's something in that forest. We can stubbornly pretend it's not there and watch our work get harder and harder until that spirit, or whatever it is, seriously hurts or kills someone, or we can see if we can talk to it."
"And you can trust these daozhangs, A-Niang," Bo Fang added. "They protected Fuhao and me last night and the forest didn't faze them at all."
Madam Bo frowned at her daughter. "I'm still not pleased with you and your brother. We told you not to go into the forest by yourselves, especially at night."
"But it'll be much safer if we can resolve this!" Bo Fang continued, though she subsided at a sharp glance from her mother.
"You said we can talk to it?" Madam Bo asked, returning her attention to Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan. "What does it want?"
"It wants you to leave the trees at the heart of the forest alone," Wei Wuxian replied. "There's still plenty of wood outside the heart it's willing to let you have, but the heart of the forest is the heart of this emerging spirit, so it wants to keep that safe."
Madam Bo leveled them with a steady gaze, before shifting her eyes to her brother and then her daughter. Finally, she said, "We'll need to talk to this forest ourselves. If it really can communicate, I'd rather not go through an intermediary. We don't need it starting to attack us again if it changes its mind and we can't understand it."
"Then we'll do what it wants?" Bo Fang asked, her face lighting up.
"I said we'll talk to it," Madam Bo replied firmly, and Bo Fang closed her mouth.
Song Bolin lifted himself carefully, reaching for a pair of wooden crutches leaning against the wall and maneuvering himself with relative ease over to the group. “Daozhangs, would one of you be willing to accompany me and some of my nephews? I will need more time to traverse the woods than these strapping boys.”
Lan Zhan looked at him for a second, then nodded. “I will accompany you, Song Bolin,” he said calmly, walking over to stand next to the man as if they were going for a stroll.
Wei Wuxian waved at the two of them and then moved to stand with Madam Bo and her daughter, smiling at them. “I’ll be happy to come with you and answer any other questions from those you’d like to come along to the forest for negotiations.”
Madam Bo pursed her lips slightly, but nodded. “That seems wise. Come.” She beckoned the two of them with her. “We will want to travel by daylight, so no time must be wasted. Not when I must make my brother and husband see reason.”
She drew her head up like a general and started at a smart march, with Bo Fang following at nearly the same pace as if she were used to her mother’s stride. Her energy left no room for argument.
She reminded him just a little of Wen Qing. Wei Wuxian decided he liked her just a bit. She seemed like she had a good head on her shoulders.
They stopped along the way to collect two boys who addressed her as auntie and one of her sons, then a man who looked enough like Song Bolin to be his brother, who didn’t argue when she told him that they were going out to negotiate with the woods. Likely the er-ge they had mentioned before.
Their first hurdle lay in the back of a workhouse, in a room that smelled strongly of cedar and dust. Madam Bo’s eldest brother sat in a corner, carefully working from a block of wood on what he could tell would be the back of a pipa. Glancing around, he could see few wood blocks left to work, and most of them too small for furniture or instruments.
Hopefully they would be willing to negotiate with the forest and leave the heart of it alone. Otherwise he thought neither forest nor family might survive the outcome.
“Song Yichen,” Madam Bo said clearly, obviously eschewing family titles for proper names to impart the severity of the situation. “We must talk.”
The man looked up and raised his eyebrows. "Song Guiying," he replied sardonically. "And who's this?" He jerked his head at Wei Wuxian.
"He is a cultivator who has been investigating our forest situation, and he has a solution," Madam Bo announced, drawing Wei Wuxian forward. The others hung back.
Song Yichen frowned. "Meimei, I thought we agreed that there is no situation and no need for cultivators. How do you know this isn't some charlatan wanting to make money off your gullibility?"
"He'd be the only person making money recently," Madam Bo retorted, gesturing at the mostly-empty workshop.
Wei Wuxian coughed. "As it happens, we're not asking for money. We were traveling, encountered the strangeness in the forest, and decided to investigate," he said, fibbing a little to keep Bo Fang's part out of it. "We just want to work things out before they get worse."
Song Yichen snorted and went back to his carving. "There's nothing to get worse. I'm sorry, daozhang, but it looks like my family has troubled you with their wild imagination. You don't need to keep playing along."
"...Think of it this way," Wei Wuxian suggested. "If I'm right and you cooperate and play along with the rest of us for the day, we'll be able to solve your problem and you should get more wood to work with soon. However, if you're right and there's nothing in the forest, then all you'll lose is a little time." He also made a show of looking around the workshop. "I think you might have some time to spare?"
The man's face reddened, but he stood up. "You think your husband will put up with this?" he complained to his sister. "If Fengmeng goes along with it, I will too, but I do not have so much time that I like it being wasted." He glared at Wei Wuxian even as he shouldered his way past the others out the door.
Madam Bo glared back just as fiercely. Wei Wuxian could see why Song Bolin began with her; she definitely had the sort of core to keep up with the men in her family. He covered the grin on his face before anyone else could see it.
“My apologies,” she said, turning to him. “My husband will be no less stubborn.”
Wei Wuxian laughed lightly, unconcerned. “Madam, this truly is not a new sort of situation for me. I appreciate your help in getting your family to at least stop and listen.”
She nodded briskly and set the pace for a tall building that must have been the main house, with only the briefest flash of her eyes towards the horizon suggesting that she was worried about the time that it would take to convince him.
Wei Wuxian wasn’t worried in the slightest. Lan Zhan was already out in the woods with Song Bolin, waiting for them to come and speak with the forest. He couldn’t break a promise to his husband.
So if it became necessary, he would simply sling Bo Fengmeng over his shoulders and carry him out himself.
The master of the household was sitting in his office, pouring over a book with a cup of tea long gone cold next to his elbow. Judging by the lines on his forehead and around his mouth, he was struggling with balancing accounts frozen by their inability to obtain the materials they needed to work with.
Madam Bo strode confidently into the room, Bo Fang hovering just behind her with her hands clasped nervously. Wei Wuxian hung back in the doorway, waiting for them to request his aid, whether it be words or manhandling him out of his office. “Fengmeng,” she said, not waiting for him to look up. “We need to talk.”
“Not now, my dear, can it wait till later?” Bo Fengmeng said tiredly, rubbing at his forehead. Then he actually looked up and noticed not just his wife, but his daughter and several others of his family members all clustered around his desk.
Wei Wuxian almost felt sorry for him.
To his credit, he wasn't thrown for long. His eyes fixed on Wei Wuxian, he put his hands on his desk and levered himself up. "Not a musician, then?"
"I am a musician," he corrected, "but I'm a cultivator too. And I understand that you don't believe there's an actual problem in the woods and you don't want any cultivators wandering around, so can we skip past all that and get to something productive?"
Bo Fengmeng crossed his arms over his chest. "If you know all that, then you know I don't agree that whatever you're suggesting is productive," he retorted. He turned to look at both his wife and his brother-in-law. "The two of you bought into this?"
"You are not stupid, Bo Fengmeng, no matter how much you're trying to convince me otherwise right now," Madam Bo said tartly. "If you want to keep covering your ears while stealing a bell, you will bring both our families to ruin!"
"Just listen to him." She gentled her voice slightly. "Think of him as another expert. It's not losing face to listen to what an expert says about a problem in his field, is it?"
Bo Fengmeng sighed. "Then explain," he said tiredly to Wei Wuxian. "What do you think is in our woods?"
Wei Wuxian again explained his and Lan Zhan's findings, but Bo Fengmeng was frowning again when he finished.
"You want us to go talk to this forest spirit?" he asked dubiously. "Can't you just kill it? Isn't that what cultivators do -- kill the weird things to protect the rest of us?"
"Bo Fengmeng!" Madam Bo's voice rose sharply. For a moment, Wei Wuxian's breath caught as Madam Yu's voice shouting Jiang Fengmian echoed through his memory, but the next words dispelled it. "That spirit is a living thing, and if this cultivator is right, it's done us no harm even as we've been hurting it! You want to repay that with death? We will not simply kill it!"
Bo Fengmeng reeled back, but gained his ground again quickly. “Done no harm? Our nephews have been whipped by wild branches -- your brother has a broken leg. Can you truly say that this is not an act of aggression already?”
Wei Wuxian gave him a pitying smile. “And all of them went out to try and cut down the trees within the very center of the forest. You seek to protect your family. It wants the same. Can you say you would not strike out if someone walked into your home and threatened your daughter in front of you? The forest has done that only in response to repeatedly bringing axes to cut down the trees that make up its spirit.”
Bo Fengmeng’s eyes flashed in anger, but as he looked at his family surrounding him and his daughter hiding behind her mother, Wei Wuxian could see it soften and fade. It was only reasonable that he wanted to protect his family. But he needed to be reminded that his family was not the only one in their world here.
He sighed and slumped into his chair. “It would seem I have no choice but to go along with this. I have been outnumbered. When must we go talk to this forest?”
Madam Bo crossed her arms. “Song Bolin is already on his way out, as well as some of the others. We leave as soon as you are prepared.”
The sun was directly overhead by the time Lan Wangji and Song Bolin reached the rock where Wei Ying had sat and spoken with the trees the previous night. He had thought perhaps Wei Ying and the others would have caught up with them in the meantime, since it had not been the fastest journey, but it seemed convincing some of the other members of the family to come along had taken more time than he preferred.
Song Bolin sat down on the rock with a winded sigh of relief, leaning his crutches on them. “It must be wonderful being a cultivator, I hear you can heal even broken bones on a simple day’s rest.”
Lan Wangji hummed politely in response and did not continue the conversation. He could converse if necessary, but he had never developed a taste for it.
Not unless Wei Ying were the one who wished to talk to him. He could talk all day if Wei Ying wished. It all seemed so easy and pleasant when they were talking at the paces they were comfortable with.
Behind him, Song Bolin began conversing with the nephews they'd picked up along the way, Bo Fuhao and a son of his er-ge called Song Yun. Bo Fuhao seemed to be describing his encounter the previous night. He seemed disappointed that he hadn't been able to see very much, but he had the good manners to speak highly of Wei Ying.
Finally, the approaching murmur of voices and the soft trudging of feet on the ground announced the arrival of Wei Ying and his companions. Soon his husband stepped into view, followed by Bo Fengmeng, Madam Bo, their daughter, and two men and a woman he presumed to be from the Song family.
"Well?" Bo Fengmeng planted his feet and crossed his arms. "We're here to...talk to the forest."
"And so we are!" Wei Ying came to stand in front of them. He put his hands on his hips and lifted his face, saying, "And we might want to begin with an indication that the forest is indeed listening and can respond!"
The forest did. Branches that had once whipped the young men there rustled harder than the gentle breeze could manage. Large tree roots lifted from the ground, providing enough seating for everyone there. A number of birds called out at once and then were silent.
"Well, that's a response," Wei Ying said cheerfully, attractively smug. He found a large root and sat down, beckoning Lan Wangji over. "It seems that negotiations may begin once everyone takes a seat."
For a long moment, no one moved other than Lan Wangji. The members of the Song and Bo families exchanged nervous glances, until finally Bo Fang and Bo Fuhao moved to two roots near each other. The adults began to move after the children were safely settled. Wei Ying took the moment to tug Lan Wangji close and murmur new names in his ear.
Eventually, everyone was sitting down. Wei Ying looked at them all across the small clearing and asked, "I hope everyone is now clear that there is indeed a spirit in these woods, and we all can discuss how to move forward with it from here?"
Bo Fengmeng huffed and steadfastly avoided looking in their direction. His wife, apparently rather displeased with his attitude, glared at him before choosing to fix her eyes on one large bough overhead. “So is it correct that this…area of the forest around the stream is where you want us to stop coming for wood?”
Above them the branches rustled again and the air seemed to warm slightly. A yes.
Madam Bo paled slightly at the reaction, but stood her ground. Song Bolin tapped one of his crutches in sight. “How will we be able to tell if we are coming too close to where you do not wish us to go?”
A loud groaning split the air as it demonstratively lifted roots up to form a barrier. A warning, but a polite one. Go no further.
Bo Fang’s and several other of the children’s eyes went wide as they watched the forest -- a place they had always known as something that belonged to them and their family, where they no doubt had played in the outer rings -- move and communicate in turn with them. “How long have you been awake?” one of the boys blurted out, flushing in embarrassment even as one of the branches moved to reveal a number of birds clearly meant to add up to a number of years.
Somehow that seemed to open some of the quieter members of the family to asking their own questions, ones that while obvious to the two of them, were a world new to this family.
Wei Ying squeezed his hand and flashed an appreciative smile as he saw some of the family around them beginning to lose tension as they put together the play of conversation.
Bo Fengmeng raised a hand and the light talking back and forth died down. “What happens when you change your mind?” he asked the woods. “What happens when you decide this circle is no longer enough and we are just a nuisance you don’t want to deal with?”
The silence stretched. The longer the forest went without an answer, the more Bo Fengmeng began to scoff. "No response to that? Well--"
A loud buzzing filled the clearing. A swarm of bees streamed through the trees, surrounding Bo Fengmeng. Madam Bo and Song Yichen leapt to their feet as Bo Fengmeng began to swat at the swarm, shouting and shaking his hand when one stung him.
Then the swarm abandoned him. Instead, it came to surround Lan Wangji and Wei Ying, who remained still as the bees landed directly on them. They remained there peacefully for several heartbeats before lifting off again with renewed buzzing. They circled the clearing, and the Bo and Song families, who watched them in frozen shock.
The swarm left the clearing as suddenly as it came. Bo Fengmeng, his face red, sat down hard on his root again as his knees seemed to collapse underneath him. Madam Bo and Song Yichen, their own faces pale, slowly resumed their own seats.
"You can't know," Wei Ying said softly into the stunned silence. "You can never know for sure that something with a power you don't understand will attack you, any more than you can ever know for sure what someone else will do. But if you start from the assumption that something is a threat, it's more likely to become one."
Even though they were in public, Lan Wangji reached out to take Wei Ying's hand. He spoke calmly and evenly -- none of the people present, other than Lan Wangji, would understand Wei Ying's personal experience with being treated as a threat.
Lan Wangji couldn't take him into his lap and hold him close right now, but he wanted to.
"So," Wei Ying continued, when no one there managed to respond to him. "You can't know that the forest will keep its word, but you can decide to believe it. You can decide to trust it, and learn to communicate with it. If you build a good relationship, maybe you'll even get more than you ever thought you could."
The clearing grew quiet again as they all thought through his husband’s wise words. It was good to for once see a group stop and listen to him alone.
“Ah, what does the forest get from this?” A small voice broke the silence at last.
All eyes turned to Bo Fang, who shrank in on herself as she was suddenly under the weight of her family’s gaze. Yet she did not falter entirely. “What we have been asking is for us. Where we can take wood from, how can we tell if it’s a danger. But we haven’t stopped to ask what the forest wants.”
“It’s a forest, what could it possibly--“ Song Yichen began before he was cut off by the trees beginning to rustle again. This time the rustling went on for a long time before a single pale flower bloomed next to Bo Fang’s hand.
Next to him, Wei Ying blinked and started to beam. “You clever girl, you can understand what it’s saying, can’t you?” he said in a breath too low for anyone but Lan Wangji to understand.
Timidly, Bo Fang plucked the flower, turning it about in her fingertips. “I think I understand. You want us to bring you things? Things you can’t see here?”
The branches rustled again and parted to let the sun shine down brightly on her face. She smiled up in response and set the flower down on the root next to her, returning it to the forest. “We can show you things, and keep others away from your heart. And you can let us come in for wood on the outside and continue to make our ancestors proud. We can grow together.”
In truth, that would be very good for the forest spirit. A yao's cultivation could be boosted by offerings of the type Bo Fang was suggesting. If the families continued supporting it and it diligently continued cultivating, then perhaps in time it would even be able to take a human form. If the forest in turn supported the families in new ways, then it would become a highly mutually beneficial relationship.
Off to the side, Bo Fengmeng exchanged glances with first his wife and then his eldest brother-in-law. "You're sure about this?" he asked, a little helplessly.
It was Song Bolin who answered, "Fengmeng, what do we have to lose by giving it a try? We can't go on as we are, and this gives us a way forward."
Madam Bo came forward to stand next to him. "This is unexpected, but that doesn't mean it will be bad. Look at the children."
The families' youths clustered together, chattering excitedly to the trees. The forest was less responsive now -- it must have used a lot of energy in this discussion -- but the wonder shone on each young face every time the forest answered them.
Eventually, Song Yichen sighed. "As long as I finally get some wood again, I don't really care about the rest," he announced. As if on cue, the protruding tree roots began sinking back beneath the soil. Sunlight illuminated a path out of the clearing. Bo Fuhao helped Song Bolin up off the rock, and the two families slowly began to follow the path.
Left ignored in the back, Lan Wangji caught Wei Ying's eyes and lifted the hand he still clasped to his lips. "Well done," he said, voice low, enjoying Wei Ying's resultant shiver.
Then Bo Fang came running back to beckon them forward and thank them, and the two of them followed the families out of the woods.
They parted ways with the families at the edge of the forest, with Lan Zhan clearly relieved for it to be just the two of them again. And if he were to be honest with himself, Wei Wuxian was as well. The forest had been a fun diversion and the children had been sweet, but he found himself ready to get back on the road.
Little Apple was as happy as it ever was to see them, sticking their nose out of the stable and letting out a whuff of air as if Wei Wuxian had personally betrayed it by leaving it in here while exploring the area.
The donkey sweetened up a little bit when Lan Zhan produced an apple from his sleeves that he must have taken from breakfast, and the three of them set out towards the open road.
Wei Wuxian leaned down on Little Apple’s neck a little to get a better look at Lan Zhan walking next to him with eyes lowered in thought. “So,” he drawled, waiting for Lan Zhan to look up at him, “a forest that’s developing a spirit. Have you ever seen something like that in your travels?”
Lan Zhan shook his head. “It is new to me.”
Wei Wuxian beamed. “It’s new to me as well. I knew something like this could happen, but it’s different getting to actually see it.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan said succinctly, gently pulling Little Apple to the side so some other travelers could pass by more easily.
They went on for a little longer before Wei Wuxian spoke again. “I really like that we’re getting to see these things together. There’s so many interesting things out here for us to explore.”
Lan Zhan said nothing, but he could see the softness blooming in his eyes and the faintest curve of his lips, the bare glimpse of a rare smile. It warmed his heart as thoroughly as the afternoon sun above them.
The road stretched on before them. With Lan Zhan at his side, Wei Wuxian felt ready for whatever they found next.