Lan Jingyi knows, despite the fact that he was literally brought up by the man, that there are things about Hanguang-Jun that he would simply never know. And despite what people might like to say about the Lan Clan leader, it has nothing to do with his cold, jadelike facade - of which Jingyi feels he is pretty adept at dechipering - and everything to do with how some things Hanguang-Jun seemingly locks and guards within himself jealously.
But Jingyi also knows this :
Hanguang-Jun keeps a photo of a man close to his heart, inside a locket whose patina is smoothed over with touch, has a love and hate relationship with the scent of lotuses, and actually flinches whenever he’s offered an omega. And as Hanguang-Jun - Leader of the Lan clan, protector of Gusu, and the single most feared man in the South, Hanguang-Jun gets offered a lot of omegas - Pretty little things with wide eyes and tantalizing scents amplified with enhancers and incoming heats alike.
But every time, without fail, something in Hanguang-Jun’s expression would shutter closed, lips turning a thin line as he brushes off strategic proposals, tributes and personal solicitations alike with the same cold politeness as he does minor crew leaders clamoring for his attention.
And then Jingyi will remember the photo, a scrap of red ribbon tied at the clasp of the locket, remember the gentle way Hanguang-Jun traces the glass of the frame. And Jingyi wonders.
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“Ah Hanguang-Jun, really, at this rate, people will start thinking weird things,” Jingyi finally remarks one night, Hanguang-Jun deep into a bottle of Gusu’s own Emperor Smile and safe in the cocoon of Hanguang-Jun’s penthouse - The only place Hanguang-Jun would even consider imbibing the only form of alcohol he seems to approve of. His leader had turned down yet another tributary omega from some obscure crew family Jingyi barely remembers the name of. And really, there’s already ample talk of the Lan Alpha being sterile even without this added instance. Their clan rules might forbade petty gossip, but half the underworld runs by it, in some macabre attempt to soften the horrors and harshness they deal with everyday.
“Mn,” Hanguang-Jun hums, no real agreement nor reprimand in his voice as he fumbles with his cup. It is almost laughable how much of a lightweight Hanguang-Jun is for someone supposedly so powerful and so deep inside the ass end of the underworld. And he supposes it's also laughable, if not a boost to Jingyi's confidence, that the only person he'd trust to drink in front of and babysit him, as Wen qianbei often said, is a thirteen year old Lan Jingyi.
“I mean” Jingyi continues, carefully eyeing the older man, whose golden eyes had turned the glazed, faraway ones people would only have in their third bottle or so, “You know you can have almost anyone you’d like, right, Hanguang-Jun?”
And then, because Hanguang-Jun is sleepy eyed and pliant with the wine, and anyone who’s known him for at least an hour says he’s much too curious for his own good, he continues.
“Even if you want just one specific person, then you...could probably have them. I mean, I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re Hanguang-Jun, you know?”
Hanguang-Jun is silent for a long time after Jingyi’s question - So much so that Jingyi worries that he’s angered his leader, or that the older man has fallen asleep on him. When he finally speaks, it’s with a cast to his face that honestly unnerves Jingyi with how desolate it is.
“Not him,” Hanguang-Jun whispers, “Not after what I did. Not after I left him,” The man chuckles, actually chuckles, mirthless and dry and almost desperate, and Jingyi’s chest tightens. Barely ten minutes ago, Jingyi would have paid good money to even have a scrap of clue over Hanguang-Jun's mystery man. But now, now that Hanguang-Jun is actually talking about him, eyes pained like he's never seen the older man before, Jingyi's not so sure anymore. Not if even remembering makes Hanguang-Jun like this.
“Are you..are you sure?”
“I did what I had to do, Jingyi,” Hanguang-Jun says softly, “And this is the price I pay. As we all do.”
And then Hanguang-Jun slumps against his shoulders, dead asleep, the lines of his face sadder than he’s ever seen him.
Jingyi never brings up the man in the photo anymore.
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There are things lurking under his a-niang’s bright, constant smiles - Quick and fleeting, like skittish fishes under the surface of a rippling pond - And Wei Sizhui has learned, ever since he’s old enough to understand that you don’t always smile because you’re happy, that he might never know what exactly those things are.
But he also knows this.
Wei Wuxian has a painting of a man with Sizhui’s eyes, drawn carefully and lovingly in his a-niang’s hand, so different from his careless, chicken-scratch penmanship. Sizhui’s a-niang cries at the scent of sandalwood when he thinks no one is looking, and runs away from every alpha that lays their hearts at his feet.
It’s something that a-niang could easily afford, now that they have the protection of the Baoshan clan and all that entails. But Sizhui remembers a time in his childhood when it was a constant problem for a-niang, trying to dodge the attention of oftentimes aggressive alphas, changing jobs and apartments numerous times as he tried to survive in a world that doesn't look kindly on an unmated omega with a child. A-niang, who is bright and beautiful and smells like lotuses and springtime, who smiles despite everything as he tucks Sizhui on his hips and ruffles his hair.
Sizhui's great-grandmother finding them after what was apparently decades of searching at least put an end to them having to move every time an alpha showed too much interest, if not the number of alphas who still look covetuously upon his a-niang. Most alphas just do it more discreetly now, through carefully written proposals and formal solicitacions. As grandson and only heir to Baoshan Sanren, the number of alphas, or anyone, really, who dares force a-niang's hand is close to none - Not if they don't want the full might of the vast crime empire bearing down on them.
And nainai - who insisted he calls her that, because she's young enough to just be his grandma, thank you very much - would do anything for a-niang. He thinks it might be regret, for leaving a-niang out in an inhospitable world for so long after his parents were killed and he went missing, but Sizhui thinks nainai also knows something about how a-niang's heart was left somewhere he couldn't retrieve. That after everything a-niang went through, she won't let a-niang bound to someone he'd never love. And so every proposal, every offer of alliance, however strategic it is, has been rebuffed without even a look. The Baoshan clan is strong enough to stand alone, and with a-niang mapping their moves, his brilliant mind embracing the intricate web of the underworld like a duck to water, they are even more so.
Hence, it was a surprise to Sizhui, and perhaps to everyone else in the underworld, when nainai announced that Wei Wuxian, her grandson and heir, is looking for an alpha suitor.
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A-niang is deep into his numbers when Sizhui barges into his office, a stack of stock printouts spread out on the floor as he twirls a red marker absentmindedly in his hand. The marker slips as the heavy wooden door bounces back on the walls, and his a-niang blinks to stare owlishly at him as the plastic tube rolls and rolls between them.
"Aiyah, A-Yuan, I know I've always told you not to be so formal to your a-niang and do away with all the knocking and excuse mes, but the one time you do you gotta do it when I almost got my calculations right!"
Sizhui feels a warm flush spreading, slowly from the tips of his ears to his cheeks, and he closes the door of a-niang's office softly behind him, like a chastened child.
"Ah, I- Sorry, a-niang, I didn't mean to-"
"Aiyah aiyah, this child! You're too easy to bully, A-Yuan! You'll be thirteen soon, would you just let any pretty girl or boy bully you like this when you're even older, hmmm?"
It's Sizhui's turn to stare, drawing a deep breath to compose himself. A-niang has a way of making others slip and lose their footing, especially in the oftentimes rigid setting around them - Sizhui, sadly, is not exempt to it despite literally being his so, already he almost forgot what he came here for.
"I heard the announcement," Sizhui blurts out, before a-niang could cut him off again, "From Xiao shushu too. A-niang, what's happening? Why-"
Why didn't you tell me? Sizhui's mind laments, and he feels something catch in his throat, a wave of embarassed realization inside him that perhaps that's what made him run up all the way after school to the Baoshan headquarters. His a-niang, who smiles even through everything, who keeps his hurt close to his heart and never tells. Perhaps it was silly of Sizhui to think himself grown enough, big enough now for his a-niang to share his burdens, to tell him things before a-niang would somehow be embroiled in potential hurt.
"Oh A-Yuan, I'm so sorry-" the mirth in a-niang's eyes dissipates, and Sizhui almost yelps in frustration that of course his a-niang would think it's his fault, "I didn't think nainai would put out the announcement so quickly, but I suppose she's just excited. I really meant to have time to talk to you about it first."
"So it's…it's true?"
His a-niang doesn't answer right away, bending over to retrieve the fallen marker before he leans back on his large, messy table. There's something small and rueful in his expression, something Sizhui can't really identify.
"Yes. I am, indeed, in the lookout for a suitor."
It's not in Sizhui's nature to be confrontational, even after he presented earlier in the year as an alpha. And a-niang seems equally surprised at Sizhui's directness, before his face softens again.
“Aw, my little radish,” he smiles, "This is why I wanted to talk to you about it before, you know?"
For a moment, there is just the whirr of the air conditioning between them, a faint hint of his a-niang's soft lotus scent easing his discomfort despite the built-in filters put in the room.
"We both know she's the most badass person in existence, but you know that your nainai isn't going to get any younger, right?"
Sizhui blinks, then nods, his mind whirring to catch up with where a-niang is going with this.
"Strange as it is, I'm your nainai's only heir. Which is really a bit of a problem because I'm an omega-"
Before Sizhui could open his mouth, a-niang holds up his hand, "-I know, I know. I taught you myself that whatever your presentation should not matter as long as you do right by what you do. Aiyah, my A-Yuan, such a good boy."
"But being in the business that we are," at this, his gaze sweeps the papers strewn on the floor, "Complicates things a bit, because it is moved by power and force. Your nainai is an alpha, and has made countless crew leaders kneel to be her pack. It stands to reason that whoever takes on the head of the Baoshan clan next would have to be an alpha as well. Which is why I would need an alpha, you see?"
A-niang holds up his hand again, and Sizhui frowns, fidgets on his feet even as a-niang's smile gentles, "I know nainai's already teaching you stuff, and I know you’d be wonderful at it if you are to take over from her."
"But this is a lot of very heavy, very specific responsibility," a-niang sweeps his arm at the large glass window behind him, at the ridiculously opulent wood paneled walls around them, at the millions and millions of numbers scattered at their feet, "And I would rather you grow up some more and actually have a choice whether you want this or not. And if you don't want it, then there would be someone else still tied to me to make sure that your nainai's legacy continues well."
Sizhui feels his feet take him the last few paces to his a-niang's embrace before he even realizes it, sinking himself into the solid warmth that is his a-niang.
"You don't have to," he murmurs, burrowing into a-niang's already rumpled shirt, lest he look up and do something embarrassing like cry. Sizhui wants to ask, what of the man in the painting? What of his a-niang's own heart, left somewhere else he couldn't reach? What of his a-niang's own happiness? "A-Niang, you don't have to-"
"Ssssh, you silly radish, it's going to be alright, okay?" even without looking up, Sizhui could feel the smile on his a-niang's face. A-Niang, who always smiles through everything. "I'm doing this for me too, I promise. Perhaps it's time I do this too."
Sizhui tries not to perk up at the last sentence, whispered so low it's probably only half meant for his ears. Of course, his a-niang has probably had almost thirteen years to heal, to sort out his feelings and decide that he too, deserves happiness, even without the man in the painting - The man who has Sizhui's eyes but has never once deigned to lay them on Sizhui himself.
Perhaps things are really going to be alright.
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