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Something Yet to Learn

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Spending the winter in Gusu had seemed like a good idea at the time of proposal.

Granted, there was little that did not seem like a good idea when his Lan Zhan was wrapped around him so tightly he could feel their heartbeats thundering in tandem, buried inside him and thrusting against that spot that made him see stars. He dared any person alive or dead to be able to refuse Lan Zhan anything while in such a state. Certainly Wei Wuxian had only been able to sigh, “Yes, yes, whatever you want, please…” when his husband whispered the request against his kiss-swollen lips.

Truthfully, there was no reason to use such underhanded methods to wrangle Wei Wuxian’s agreement. They are often at the Cloud Recesses, for weeks at a time. Lan Zhan’s duties as chief cultivator hardly allow for him to live a nomad’s life, and just because Wei Wuxian can fall asleep anywhere up to and including the bare, hard ground doesn’t mean he particularly likes to. The warmth and comfort of their home in the Cloud Recesses is very much appreciated. He has no problem wandering on his own (or with Sizhui and the others) when he gets to feeling stifled. It doesn’t even happen that often. The disciplines of the Gusu Lan sect still chafe, but his husband’s warm embrace is a balm that counters much irritation.

Besides.

The list of things he would deny Lan Zhan is just as comically small (nonexistent) as the list of things Lan Zhan would deny him. If Lan Zhan wants to spend the winter months in Gusu, spend the winter months in Gusu they shall.

All of which Lan Zhan is perfectly aware of. Really, he probably only did it to avoid Wei Wuxian’s (admittedly theatric) token protests and having to promise something extravagant in return. Such shamelessness! Such dastardly tactics! Driving him incoherent with pleasure before making such a request of him! Taking such advantage of him in a helpless state, totally at his husband’s mercy!

Wei Wuxian is so damn proud of him.

It hasn’t actually been as bad as he’d feared. He’s not ashamed to admit he’d been a little dismayed once he’d curled, sticky and sated, against his husband’s broad chest and realized what exactly he had just committed to. He doesn’t like winter—and even the height of summer in Gusu was cooler than it ever got in Yunmeng. And Gusu got snow almost every year. Still, despite the snow, and the eternal quiet, and the food…he can’t say he hasn’t been content these last couple months.

Sizhui and Jingyi are frequent visitors, despite both having increasingly busy schedules as their sect duties expand. Night hunting with his husband and their son (sons? He certainly hopes those strange looks on Jingyi’s face lately are him silently trying to muster the courage to ask the esteemed Hanguang-jun about courting his adopted son, otherwise the boy might need a visit to the healers for what must be truly terrible indigestion) is one of this life’s great pleasures. There are towns and inns aplenty in the area, and Lan Zhan never begrudges him a night out, whether he can attend or not. After the first time he came strolling back to the Cloud Recesses well after curfew, none of the guards bothered to make a fuss.

The guard who had made a fuss still won’t quite meet his eyes, even weeks later. He’s kind of curious just what Lan Zhan said to the poor thing, but he’s not sure he was supposed to realize his husband stepped in at all.

Still—curfew-breaking aside—he’s found ways to entertain himself while Lan Zhan attends to his duties. He’s been drawing and painting again: portraits, landscapes, silly little doodles he’d pushed aside for schematics and array designs in his desperate bids to make the Burial Mounds safer. He had almost forgotten the pleasure he took in painting. The rabbits are almost as affectionate with him as they are his husband these days. And there have been a number of very interesting cultivation treatises published in the years he was…you know…dead. Some of them have been extremely helpful in his efforts to start properly building up this body’s woefully neglected golden core. He’s spent almost as much time in the library in the last few weeks as he did in his entire stay at the Cloud Recesses as a teenager.

If only Lan Zhan were able to join him more often. A small, slightly wicked smirk curves his lips. Wei Wuxian would love to revisit some of those old attempts to fluster him to distraction. Alas, in the absence of his Lan Zhan, he’ll have to content himself with the new protection charm he’s working on. He shifts on the mat, slumping over the table in front of him to prop his chin up in one hand. It’s an idea that’s been knocking around in his head for a while now, something that had occurred to him on a night hunt.

An unfortunate group of travelers had been set upon by bandits and murdered, their corpses massed in a shallow grave on the outskirts of a far-flung farming village. Naturally, the poor souls had come back, clawing their way out of the sad excuse for a grave and seeking revenge. The bandits were long gone. The villagers had no idea what had been left on their borders. A tragic tale, but nothing they had not heard before, and nothing that was particularly challenging. He and Lan Zhan had used it as a training exercise for some of the juniors a few years behind Sizhui and Jingyi. Had the whole situation not been so unfortunate, it would have been a fun night, just lounging against his husband under the trees in a moonlit clearing. Calling out instruction and encouragement to the juniors. He hadn’t even had to pull out Chenqing. Then one of the juniors had lunged too close to a collapsing corpse, not covering his mouth when the thing started spewing out noxious fumes and corpse powder.

It had been a very near thing, but one of the other juniors had yanked their comrade back in time to avoid inhaling a healthy lungful of the poison.

Wei Wuxian chews on the inside of his cheek, tapping the end of his brush against his lips, considering. The table is scattered with reference books, scrolls, and piles of talismans. Some blank, some covered with his scribbles and symbols. He’s been trying to perfect a way to charm an item of clothing to create a barrier over the wearer’s nose and mouth, to prevent such accidents in the future. Or rather, the barrier is easy enough to create—the challenge lies in making it selectively permeable. It will do no one any good to slap their sleeve over their face and have it choke them unconscious for lack of air.

He thinks he’s almost got it…but he’s going to need to try a few different versions of the charm, see where the barrier needs fine-tuning. He’s sure Sizhui and Jingyi will be happy to help, and maybe they can test it out on a few hunts before the snows melt, and he and Lan Zhan start traveling again.

So absorbed is he in his plans, it takes him a few moments to register that he is no longer alone in the library.

A cold gust of air shivering against his face and his wrists where his sleeves have ridden up finally alerts him to the presence of other people. He looks up from his papers, blinking owlishly as the last of a small group of disciples file in, each clutching a writing set and a stack of talisman paper. They’re staring at him uncertainly, a group of nine of the Lan sect’s youngest disciples. The oldest one looks like he can’t be more than ten.

Wei Wuxian can’t help but grin—they’re so cute! Starched white robes and tiny forehead ribbons, those adorable cheeks still chubby with baby fat! He wants to pinch them. A few give him tentative smiles, before quickly schooling their expressions as a final person sweeps into the library, shutting the door firmly behind them. Instantly, the grin slides off Wei Wuxian’s face.

Lan Qiren stares at him, the snowflakes quickly melting in his hair doing absolutely nothing to lessen the severity of his appearance.

Inwardly, Wei Wuxian winces. Lan Zhan’s uncle does not like him, had not liked him even a little bit even back when he’d been a student here. Now? Now, the most that can be said is that Lan Qiren is no longer obviously fantasizing about running Wei Wuxian through with his sword every time he lays eyes on him. He knows that’s probably the best it will ever be.

‘Mutual pact of non-aggression’ is likely the best he will ever get from a lot of people. He’s accepted that. He can’t even blame them. A lot of the mud has been cleaned from his name, but he's never claimed to be completely innocent. And some things can't be forgiven.

He meets Lan Qiren’s eyes steadily, a thin thread of amusement shooting through him as the man’s clear desire to order him to leave wars with his ingrained sense of courtesy. After all, Wei Wuxian was here first, and he is not currently doing anything that would warrant him being kicked out. His supplies are even neatly stacked.

Well.

Compared to his usual mass of ‘organized chaos.’

Even so, he has no desire to sit in silence while Lan Qiren attempts to glare smoking holes in his head. He sighs and rises—a touch gracelessly, one of his legs has fallen asleep. “Master Lan,” he says, saluting with a bow that not even Madam Yu would have been able to find fault with, just because he knows it will annoy the man. “Forgive me, I was just leaving.” He sinks back down, begins gathering his notes.

Lan Qiren hrmphs to himself. “Unnecessary,” he says, in a tone that suggests the exact opposite.

Wei Wuxian bites his lips to hide his smirk, and continues shuffling his belongings. Lan Qiren does not protest again. He stacks the books and scrolls he’s been using up into perfectly neat piles, well aware that the servants prefer to re-shelve research materials themselves—particularly where he is concerned. You put a forbidden tome back in the general area once and you’re branded for life.

The small juniors have all arranged themselves at tables and are busily putting out their papers and inkstones. One of them, though, is watching him intently, a tiny thing that can’t be more than seven or eight. He flashes the boy a bright smile. He’s almost done straightening his work area when the door slides open again, and a harried-looking (as much as a member of the Lan sect ever looks harried) disciple almost dashes to Lan Qiren’s side.

The two confer quietly for a moment, Lan Qiren’s brow furrowing deeper and deeper as they speak. Wei Wuxian finishes collecting his notes and stands, quietly heading for the door while the whispered conversation reaches a fever-pitch. Lan Qiren makes a strangled noise in his throat, huffing out a breath of air as though he’s in pain.

“Wei Wuxian,” the man grits out, and he pauses with one hand reaching for the door handle. The disciple who had come in to speak to Lan Qiren brushes past him and exits the pavilion without a backwards glance. Wei Wuxian turns back to Master Lan, one eyebrow tilting up in question. “An urgent matter has come up,” Lan Qiren says, every word sounding like it’s being forcibly dragged from him. “His Excellency requests my presence.”

Instantly, Wei Wuxian straightens. “Lan Zhan? Is everything all right?” He takes a step forward, worry spiking through him, hard and cold, but Lan Qiren just waves him off.

“Nothing to concern yourself with.” His lips go thin and bloodless, but then he grudgingly says, “A diplomatic matter only, no one is in danger.” Wei Wuxian heaves a sigh, his shoulders relaxing. Lan Qiren watches him a moment more before actually reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Their current instructor is ill, I was meant to take over classes for today,” he continues, gesturing towards the tiny juniors. He swallows heavily, and the next sentence sounds bitter. Choked. “I cannot leave them unattended.”

Wei Wuxian just blinks at him.

Lan Qiren sighs, and Wei Wuxian is suddenly quite sure that were the old master a lesser man, his eye would be twitching. “Would you…supervise the students until I can send someone to collect them?”

Wei Wuxian freezes, then slowly glances over his shoulder, searching for whoever has entered the library without him noticing because there is no way his husband’s uncle just asked….

“Please.”

Idly, he wonders if that was as painful as it looked for Lan Qiren.

There was a time when he would have played into every expectation he can see dancing in the old man’s eyes, drawn things out as long as he could just to get him worked up. He can’t help it! Needling people comes so naturally, and he’s never gotten such amusing reactions as he did in the Cloud Recesses. There’s just something about these Lans...and Lan Zhan is hardly ever even fazed by anything he says anymore. However. Lan Qiren said his husband has requested his presence, for a diplomatic matter. That means whatever is going on, it revolves around Lan Zhan’s position as Excellency. And Wei Wuxian would sooner cut out his own tongue than deliberately make trouble for his love in that arena. The work is too important to Lan Zhan, even if getting him to admit it is an exercise in frustration.

Besides…

Wei Wuxian chooses his battles carefully where his husband’s uncle is involved.

Even nearly a year after the events at the temple, after Jin Guangyao’s crimes have been laid bare for all the cultivation world to see, Wei Wuxian knows there are those who regard him (and especially his relationship with the illustrious Hanguang-Jun) with suspicion. Are waiting to throw anything back in Lan Zhan’s face as evidence of his terrible, terrible choice in partner. Lan Qiren is one of them. Not the loudest of the critics, not the most obvious in his desire for some crack to appear in the foundation of their relationship. But he is the only one whose attitude actually causes Lan Zhan pain.

In another life, Wei Wuxian would hate him for that alone.

In this life, the knowledge that people and their motivations are never simple and straightforward has been beaten into him down to the marrow of his bones. And much as he hates to admit it, Lan Qiren’s discontent stems from his love of his nephew. So, Wei Wuxian swallows the impertinent remarks that jump to his lips, and gives another textbook-perfect bow. “Of course, Master Lan.”

He cannot hate the man. However, part of picking your battles is knowing when to remind the enemy that you still have teeth. He widens his eyes and lets his smile go guileless. “Would you like me to review anything with them while we wait?” He turns to the nearest junior (ah, they’re all so small! Baby juniors!) and reaches for their neatly-stacked notes.

“You...” As expected, when he turns back to Lan Qiren the man is stabbing a finger towards him with a thunderous frown. “Absolutely not. You are not to review anything with them. These students are copying talisman strokes from prescribed texts. You will watch them until someone comes to relieve you. Is that clear?”

Lan Qiren does not raise his voice, though he looks like he dearly wants to. Out of the corner of his eye, Wei Wuxian sees some of the baby juniors exchange startled glances.

Satisfied for the moment, he hides his amusement by inclining his head. “Perfectly, Master Lan.” Lan Qiren narrows his eyes...suspicious, always so suspicious and seriously, does he think he will start teaching the children how to summon fierce corpses the instant his back is turned?

Probably. After all, it had not been that long ago that he had tried to forbid people from even speaking to Wei Wuxian.

Whatever Lan Zhan needs help with, though, it apparently cannot wait any longer. With a final, warning glare and a swish of wide sleeves, Lan Qiren sweeps out of the library. Wei Wuxian rocks back and forth on his heels a few times as the door closes, tucking his hands behind his back as he turns to face the baby juniors. The children stare back at him with varying degrees of curiosity, nervousness, and uncertainty. It’s...awkward.

He likes children. He’s good with them, too, whatever anyone else might say. It’s been a while since he’s been confronted with so many small faces, though, and he’s not sure if he should even say anything. A substitute teacher will surely be along as soon as Lan Qiren passes the message for one. They’ll probably break the rules against running in the Cloud Recesses in their haste to get these impressionable disciples away from his clutches. Which is a shame, really, because he could probably be of help. Talismans? Kind of a specialty of his.

For a moment...just a moment...the figures in front of him seem to blur, wavering into other features, different faces he can no longer quite recall the shape of. For a moment, he thinks he can hear the slap of water against docks, sees deep purple robes instead of stark white, remembers bright eyes that looked up at him with trust and adoration, and it aches. He swallows against the knot that wants to rise in his throat, resolutely refuses to blink until the sudden sting in his eyes subsides. Then he smiles his brightest smile at the children.

“So, what are you working on?” he asks, crouching down in front of the nearest junior’s table. The boy hesitates, shooting a questioning look at some of the others, who just shrug helplessly. Wei Wuxian tilts his head, makes an encouraging hum. Finally, the little Lan holds out one of his papers, upon which the outline of a simple talisman is taking shape. Wei Wuxian hums again, tapping his finger in the center of the paper once. “Wind gusts, very useful,” he says.

They’re not, really. A trifling trick; he and Jiang Cheng had mostly used them to dry their clothes faster when they were young, and a bout of wrestling had ventured too close to the edges of one of the lakes. What they are, though, is easy to make. Uncomplicated strokes, easy to memorize form. They take barely any spiritual power to activate, and it’s hard to do any damage with them.

Not impossible, Wei Wuxian may or may not know from experience (oh Shijie had laughed, and laughed, and laughed and he skitters away from the memory before it can fully form, before it can bite). But it’s hard.

They are almost universally the first talisman a disciple learns to create, an easy introduction to the things a cultivator can do with just a brush, some paper, and enough will. He nods and pushes the paper back towards the boy. For a moment, he considers introducing himself, asking their names. But honestly...there’s no way they don’t know who he is. And he will not be supervising them long enough for their names to stick to their faces with his sieve of a memory. He settles for smiling as he plops down on the floor in front of all of them.

“Well, you heard Master Lan. Does everyone have the text you’re meant to copy?”

A round of affirmative nods and a chirped, “Yes, Senior!” quickly shushed by one of the older children, and Wei Wuxian props his chin in his hands and settles down to watch them copy. He expects to be there for a quarter-hour, at most.

After twenty or so minutes, he bounces back to his feet and opens the door a crack to glance outside.

After half an hour, he finds himself pacing.

At forty-five minutes, he has the unthinkable thought that Lan Qiren had forgotten to send someone to collect the juniors, and wonders if he’ll be blamed for it. He dismisses the thought as preposterous in almost the same instant...but that makes room for him to wonder what could have delayed the old master in passing his orders. Has the “diplomatic matter” become worse than Lan Qiren thought? Has something happened to Lan Zhan?

Ruthlessly, he cuts that line of thinking off before scenarios can start occurring to him. They are in the Cloud Recesses, and there have been no major catastrophes, political or otherwise, for months. If something had happened, someone would have come and told him.

Well. Sizhui or Jingyi would have come and told him.

Another fifteen minutes crawl by, and Wei Wuxian sinks back down at the desk he had abandoned when Lan Qiren first swept into the library. He casts another look at the baby juniors as he drums his fingers on the stack of reference materials. Most of them are running out of paper, dozens upon dozens of perfectly-copied wind talismans stacked up on their desks. They are getting fidgety, shifting back and forth on their knees, tapping their fingers against their tables. The older ones (if you can call them that, the oldest can’t be more than ten) are doing a passable impression of the famously unbreakable Lan serenity, but the youngest faces are glazed with boredom.

For the past hour, the only sounds in the library have been the barely-there shhhh, shhhh of brushes smearing ink on paper, but now a few whispers reach Wei Wuxian’s ears. He rolls his neck a little, spots the culprits instantly, and nearly bursts out laughing when they immediately go ramrod-straight and focus back on their work with guilty flushes. The very idea that he, of all people, would inspire such a reaction…

He does laugh then, and barely covers it into a not-very-convincing cough. The baby juniors all look up, startled by the noise, and he clears his throat. “Ha, uh, uhm, yes...so...is everyone pretty sure they could write that talisman in their sleep, now?” he asks, and one of the juniors giggles before they can stop themselves. He flicks his eyes towards the boy, the smallest of these very small, baby juniors, and grins.

“Yes, Senior!” the little one says, and dares to return his grin with a smile of his own. The boy’s still in the process of losing his milk teeth, several gaps in the charming expression, and Wei Wuxian wonders if this is what his A-Yuan looked like at that age. White robes and tiny forehead ribbon and gaps in his teeth when he grinned.

He hopes his little boy smiled often.

For a moment, the air in the library seems to crackle with tension. The oldest children exchange wary glances again, and Wei Wuxian is sure Lan Qiren’s parting instructions are ringing through their heads. Baby juniors they may be, but they are Lan baby juniors. He can practically see the conflict playing out on their little faces.

In the end, though, they are children. The smallest is the first to get up and bring a few of his papers forward, holding them out shyly for Wei Wuxian to look at. Apparently emboldened by their tiniest comrade, the others hold the best of their copies up for him to examine. He leaps to his feet again and obliges, clicking his tongue and exclaiming over the drawings as though they are the very best he’s ever seen.

“Nice, very nice. Good, clean linework there,” he says, and “Ah, do you see where you made this character thicker than the others? Most of the power will be channeled there...good, strong gust, but it won’t last as long as you think,” he says, and “Very nice, come look at this one everyone! See how even the strokes are?”

It takes all of ten minutes for the children to completely forget any nervousness or trepidation, and soon he is fielding question after question. He plants himself on the floor right there in the middle of the library and one by one, the children gather closer to him. Their questions are simple, naturally, but it quickly becomes obvious that their instruction thus far has been entirely on the how, and not the why of talisman construction. Copying the form is all well and good, and really for a wind talisman, form is all you need. Still...the children are curious! They’re interested! He gives each question due consideration and a thorough answer, and soon the little ones are poring back over their work, searching for flaws or redoing lines after Wei Wuxian has explained something.

Another half hour passes, and Wei Wuxian finds himself with nine very enthusiastic students, each of whom holds a stack of perfectly done, ready-to-activate wind talismans. They are beaming at each other and at him, and something warm settles into his chest. He’d forgotten this...the simple pleasure of sharing knowledge and watching little faces light up with understanding.

It has been over two hours since Lan Qiren left, and Wei Wuxian is starting to think they really have been forgotten here. The thought is still preposterous, but there’s no other explanation he can think of. And that’s a problem, because the baby juniors are completely out of talisman paper now, and he honestly has no idea where to get more. Even if he did, he can’t possibly make them go back to copying the same lines over and over...it’s a purposeless exercise at this point. They’ve got the wind talisman down.

He supposes he could teach them a few others...but Lan Qiren would probably spit blood, and he doesn’t feel like antagonizing his husband’s uncle to that degree. Yet. Besides, he has no idea the level of spiritual energy these children can produce, who among them has actually formed a golden core and whose energy is still shaping itself. More advanced tricks and talismans might prove dangerous. There is a reason people start with something as simple as these. He is about to reluctantly suggest they gather their things so he can start leading them around the classrooms until he finds someone he can turn them over to when another idea occurs to him.

He shouldn’t.

He really shouldn’t.

Lan Qiren may not spit blood, but it will definitely antagonize him. Wei Wuxian will have to hide in the jingshi for days.

He looks over the baby juniors’ faces, bright and happy and interested, and sighs. Ah well, it’s not like Lan Qiren isn’t aware that about ninety percent of Wei Wuxian’s impulse control is entirely bound to his husband. Surely, he’ll be expecting something like this once he realizes how long he has actually left these students in Wei Wuxian’s care.

“All right, you’ve done an excellent job copying these,” he says brightly, and gets to his feet with an expression that the citizens of Lotus Pier had once known to fear. “Who wants to go try them out?”