It takes Wei Wuxian a day or two to notice his new shadows. Pleasantly, part of the reason it takes him that long is because the events of the last couple of years (or decades, depending on your point of view) have finally started to fade a bit. The itching, gnawing, grinding fear and paranoia, the sense of always having to look over his shoulder, anticipate the next attack…they are slowly giving way under the soothing warmth of his new reality. Less pleasantly, part of the reason that it takes him that long is that the events of the last couple of years (or decades, depending on your point of view) have not faded completely, and likely never will. Eyes follow him wherever he goes—not all of them as friendly as Sizhui and the other juniors. A few more people watching him hardly registers.
Eventually though, even he cannot be so oblivious as to miss the three tiny disciples appearing in the corners of his vision almost everywhere he goes within the Cloud Recesses, any time he happens to be out and about when the juniors are not in class. The library. The dining hall. The training fields. Even the edges of the meadow where Lan Zhan’s rabbits live.
He realizes his shadows are three of the baby juniors he’d watched a few days ago, and at first he feels a pang of hurt. It surprises him how much it hurts to think those small children might be watching him with suspicion or fear, now. He wonders what they were told about him in their classes the next day. Who warned them to be wary of him. Almost as soon as the thought occurs to him, though, he is forced to reject it. No one would have told children that young to watch him, they would have been ordered to stay away from him. Granted he knows perfectly well how such an order would have worked on him and Jiang Cheng when they were that age (how well such an order would still work on him). Still…the few glimpses he catches of them before they dart back out of his line of vision, the baby juniors don’t seem to be scared. Nervous, maybe, but not as though they’re trying to dare each other to go and steal his hair ribbon or something.
Would Lan disciples even do something like that? Probably there’s a rule against it.
He decides to ignore it until the children either get bored or come to actually talk to him. Which takes about four days.
He’s sitting in the library pavilion, as he often finds himself doing these days when Lan Zhan is busy. The Lan library is a treasure trove of informational texts, treatises, theoretical discussions, and historical documents—even more so than in his first life. Whatever was lost when the Cloud Recesses burned had evidently been replaced and expanded upon. Lan Zhan grants him unfettered access to everything but the most sacred forbidden texts (even then, Lan Zhan would let him read them if he asked, he knows), and he revels in it. It has been a long time since he had so much to occupy his agile mind; he can’t count the number of times he’s come here searching for some specific research scroll and lost himself in ten more completely unrelated books. Today, he’s brushing up on some of the theory behind the transportation talismans. He thinks he’s finally gotten the barrier charm functional, and he’s gotten permission to test it out in a few controlled conditions on the next night hunt Sizhui’s group is called on.
“Gotten permission” here having the meaning of: he told Lan Zhan he was going to play with corpse poisoning the next time he went out with Sizhui and Jingyi and his husband made increasingly distressed faces at him until he agreed to a series of safety measures.
But one of the early iterations of the barrier charm (before he got the permeability right) tickled something in his brain. He thinks he might be able to adapt it for use in transporting objects via talisman…something that is iffy at best. Generally, anything that is not directly in contact with the user’s body is ruined when it arrives at its destination; the intense focus of spiritual energy is just too much. However, if there were some way to shield what you were trying to take with—
He startles at the sound of his name, looking up and blinking stupidly as ink drips from the end of his brush onto the paper he’s been taking notes on. His shadows stand before him—three of the baby juniors from a few days ago. The one with the thick black eyebrows and the serious expression that so hilariously reminded him of Lan Qiren, the friendly boy with the chubby cheeks and the scattering of freckles, and the smallest of them, the one with the gap-toothed grin and the dimples that put him in mind of A-Yuan. He sets the brush down against the inkstone and grins.
“Lan…Lan Xin, right?” he asks, rising as the three hastily salute him. “And I’m sorry, I didn’t get your friends’ names last time…” he trails off with a hopeful tilt of his chin.
“This one is Lan Chenli, Senior Wei,” the mini-Lan Qiren says, straightening his shoulders.
“And this one is Lan Mingzhe,” the freckle-faced child says as he too straightens, reaching down to take Lan Xin’s hand in his own.
Wei Wuxian silently repeats the names to himself a few times, eyes flicking between the three boys curiously. Now that they’ve finally worked up the courage to talk to him again, he waits for them to enlighten him as to why they’ve been following him.
Lan Chenli seems to find the floor incredibly fascinating, and Lan Xin is picking at one of Lan Mingzhe’s fingernails, biting his lip as he shifts from foot to foot. Wei Wuxian does his best to look as nonthreatening and encouraging as possible, sinking back down into his seat so he’s not looming over them. Ah, they really are so tiny! He wants to squish their little cheeks and ruffle their hair and also maybe sit them down and feed them sweet buns and candy for a few hours. After a few more beats of awkward silence, he props his chin on one hand and tilts his head.
“Am I to guess what you wanted, then? I’m afraid we’ll be here a while…this poor senior is very bad at guessing games.”
At that, Lan Xin puffs out his cheeks in dismay. “We didn’t mean t’bother you, Senior Wei!”
Wei Wuxian gentles his expression still further. “You’re not bothering me,” he says, and means it. “If you need something, I will do everything in my power to help. I think you’ve been wanting to ask me something for a few days, yes?”
Lan Chenli and Lan Mingzhe glance up at that, their expressions turning sheepish. “You saw us?” Lan Chenli asks, mouth turning downwards in a rueful frown. Wei Wuxian winks at him.
“I think maybe a career in spying is not in your future.”
At that, Lan Xin sputters, the dismay giving way to childish indignation. “We weren’t spying on you!” he protests. He drops Lan Mingzhe’s hand and takes a step forward.
“Spying isn’t allowed in the Cloud Recesses!”
“And we wouldn’t do something like that anyway,” Lan Mingzhe adds, genuine distress pitching his voice higher. “You were so nice to us!”
“You helped me!” Lan Xin says.
Wei Wuxian is a little taken aback by how vehement the boys are. Even Lan Chenli, mini Lan Qiren that he is, looks upset. Wei Wuxian holds his hands up in surrender. “Aiya, boys, please I was only joking,” he says, biting down on the laughter that wants to bubble out. He can’t help it, he really can’t…he’s weak against Lan disciples apparently, no matter their age. They can turn him into a pile of helplessly fond mush with only a few words.
He accepts his fate as graciously as he can, and presses his hands to his heart. “I meant no offense, young masters.” Just for good measure, he prostrates himself over the table dramatically and looks up at them with the most exaggerated, beseeching pout he can muster. “Don’t be upset, it would break my poor heart!”
Lan Xin is the first to giggle at him, though the boy quickly presses his hands over his mouth, stifling the sound. The other boys’ lips are twitching like they want to join in, but at least a little of the Lan stoicism has been instilled in them already. Wei Wuxian sits up and very carefully does not let his face show how pleased he is with himself. “So…was there something you needed help with?” he asks at last, sitting up into a more proper position.
He’s not exactly sure what time it is, but he thinks they’re roughly halfway through the free period the disciples all have after lunch. It’s meant to be time spent meditating, or practicing sword work, or socializing with one’s peers (not that he can even imagine most Lan disciples socializing…what do they even do? Recite rules at each other? Challenge each other to posture contests? It’s going to bother him, now, until he can ask Lan Zhan about it later tonight). It’s flattering that the baby juniors would use some of their precious little free time to seek him out…also slightly alarming. Lan Chenli and Lan Mingzhe are probably old enough to be wandering the Cloud Recesses without constant supervision, but surely someone will come looking for Lan Xin sooner or later. The last thing Wei Wuxian needs is to have Lan Qiren breathing down his neck over his imagined “corruption” of the Lan clan’s youngest disciples. They’ve been having such a nice stay in Gusu, so far.
The three boys all look at each other nervously. Wei Wuxian looks to Lan Chenli, but surprisingly it is Lan Xin who steps forward and kneels down on the opposite side of Wei Wuxian’s table. “You go night hunting with Brother Sizhui and Brother Jingyi all the time,” Lan Xin says, his small mouth turning down at the corners in a serious frown.
Puzzled, Wei Wuxian nods. “When they want me to, yes.”
Which, honestly, is almost all the time. His son is an extremely capable cultivator—he and Lan Jingyi are some of the best in their generation, Lan Zhan has told him, and he has no trouble believing it. The others in their cohort are no slouches either. It could never be said that Gusu Lan does not train their disciples well. They don’t really need his help, but the juniors seem to value it all the same. It is rare that he is not invited when Sizhui’s group gets an assignment, even if Lan Zhan cannot attend.
A fact that had cause quite a bit of consternation for Lan Qiren and the elders. Had Sizhui and the others been a little younger, Wei Wuxian has no doubt he would have been absolutely forbidden from going anywhere near their night hunts, and the juniors forbidden from even thinking of asking him. As it stands, the elders of the Lan clan (begrudgingly) accept the juniors’ right to choose who they associate with, as young adults and cultivators. Especially with Lan Zhan’s support…not even the most suspicious elder would go against his Excellency in such a public manner.
Besides. There have been several incidents where he has been of immense help.
“Brother Jingyi says you teach them all sorts of stuff, and you’re really good at explaining things,” Lan Chenli says, coming forward to sit down beside Lan Xin. Lan Mingzhe follows.
“Ah, your Brother Jingyi is too kind.” Warmth blossoms inside him, though, soft and sweet as the spring sunshine. It’s nice to be appreciated.
“Nuh-uh,” Lan Xin says immediately. “You did! You helped me with th’talismans!”
Wei Wuxian smiles at the boy, and this time does not resist the urge to reach out and ruffle his hair a little, carefully avoiding the forehead ribbon. “You did well with the talisman all on your own, Lan Xin. All I did was show you a path forward.”
Lan Xin ducks his head, a pleased flush spreading over his face, but then he turns serious again. “So can you help us again?” he asks, his tone turning pleading.
Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “Again with what?”
At that, Lan Chenli pulls a small stack of notes out of one of his sleeves and carefully spreads them out for Wei Wuxian to look at. The boys all look up at him with identical hopeful smiles.
“We have a test in two days,” Lan Mingzhe says. “Can you help us study?”