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Nothing Endures But Change

Chapter Text

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—

“Senior Wei?”
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.

And waits.

And waits.

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?”

Chapter Text

He spends a very enjoyable hour with three small Lan juniors, going over their notes with them as they pepper him with question after question about their lesson—mathematics this time, not anything to do with cultivation, really. It’s not as much his wheelhouse as the talismans had been, of course, but damn it he had earned his spot on the list of young masters a lifetime ago. He is skilled in many areas. Children’s math is a trifle.

He quickly realizes that Lan Chenli understands the material completely, he just paces himself through it with slow, meticulous deliberation. Lan Mingzhe has some genuine gaps in his grasp of the lessons, but attacks his deficits with admirable determination, questioning and questioning until he gets it. Lan Xin…

Lan Xin must drive the his teachers to distraction.

The boy is quick. Quick and clever, leaping from problem to solution in great bounds that skip over several fundamental steps more often than not. Logic and intuition serve the boy well, but he has a hard time articulating what he’s done. The result being that, at best, Lan Xin looks like he’s guessing a lot of the time and, at worst, looks like he’s cheated. Wei Wuxian is almost painfully reminded of himself at that age.

He follows the child’s thinking with ease, gently reels him back into the steps he should be taking to arrive at his conclusions, shares a few tricks he remembers (vaguely) from his own school years. Some that had been taught to him by kindly tutors who understood how his mind worked…some he had had to learn in order to get by with the tutors who did not understand, and didn’t care to. Lan Xin fairly glows, his brush flying over his parchments as Lan Mingzhe smiles at him proudly, and Lan Chenli affectionately nudges his shoulder.

The three boys are part of the same branch family of the Lan clan, he learns as the children gradually realize he not only doesn’t mind a bit of chatter while they work…he encourages it. Lan Mingzhe and Lan Xin are cousins, and Lan Chenli’s mother is a childhood friend of Lan Xin’s, explaining the boys’ closeness. Lan Chenli and Lan Mingzhe feel a certain responsibility towards Lan Xin, especially as the younger boy has been having so much trouble in his classes.

“He’s so smart, Senior Wei!” Lan Mingzhe declares firmly, while Lan Chenli nods and Lan Xin blushes bright red. “Auntie had to wear him on her back all the time when he was a baby because as soon as she sat him down, he wanted to explore! He figured out how to unlock the garden gate when he was two!”

“Two!” Wei Wuxian repeats, pitching his voice to sound appropriately impressed. “I was almost four before I could unlatch a garden gate.”

“I know, right?” Lan Mingzhe says seriously.

Poor Lan Xin looks as though he is going to spontaneously combust, his cheeks are so red, but Wei Wuxian can tell he is biting his lips to keep from smiling. He finishes another problem on his notes and shyly holds it up for Wei Wuxian to look at. He makes a show of running his finger over the drying characters, nodding to himself and murmuring approvingly. When he’s finished he turns a dazzling grin on the boy.

“Excellent work, Lan Xin,” he says, and reaches for the other two’s parchments. He points out a few minor errors, reviews simple equations with them until even Lan Xin can recite the process backwards and forwards. It’s…nice. When the bells toll the beginning of afternoon classes, the three children gather up their notes and rise with evident reluctance.

“Thank you, Senior Wei,” Lan Chenli says sincerely. They give him a deep, respectful bow, and hesitate, exchanging nervous looks. Learning, Wei Wuxian just leans his chin on one hand, waiting for them to work up the courage to ask what they want to ask.

“If…if it’s not too much trouble,” Lan Mingzhe begins, shifting from foot to foot the way Lan Xin had been earlier. “Canyouhelpusstudytomorrowtooplease?” he finishes all in a rush. Lan Chenli and Lan Xin are nodding even before he finishes. Three pairs of shining, hopeful eyes pin Wei Wuxian into place, and he sighs, smiling a little.

“Boys,” he begins, and finds he is unsure how to finish. He presses his lips together a moment, before shaking his head. “If I’m in the library again, I would be happy to help you. I can’t promise, though…I’m not sure what I’ll be doing.”

It is not the answer the children want, and their disappointment shows clearly on their small faces. Lan Xin actually pouts, his lower lip pushing outwards and his dark eyes staring up at Wei Wuxian as though he has just denied him the greatest wish his young heart has ever conceived of. It’s unfair, really. His A-Yuan had always looked at him like that, when he wanted Wei Wuxian to come and play with him, and he’d never mastered the art of saying ‘no.’ It’s a good thing Yuan had been such a sweet child…otherwise Wei Wuxian would have spoiled him into a complete tyrant back then.

He finds the same desire to acquiesce to every demand put forth by an adorable child rising in him, and scrambles to harden his heart, focuses on a point just over Lan Xin’s shoulder to avoid looking at that trembling pout and begging doe eyes. He is strong. He is a fully-grown adult who is perfectly capable of telling a seven-year-old ‘no.’ He pats the boy’s head again and grits his teeth when Lan Xin sighs pitifully. Heavens. Is this how people felt around him when he was a child?

He feels like he owes some of the merchants in Lotus Pier an apology.

His crumbling resolve is spared when Lan Xin finally nods sadly. “Thank you for your help today, Senior Wei,” he says. He darts a look at his cousin and their friend. Then he runs forward and hugs Wei Wuxian around the waist the way he did a few days ago, digging his chin into his stomach as he looks up. The pout is replaced by that gap-toothed grin as he squeezes Wei Wuxian’s waist once before stepping back. Before Wei Wuxian can say anything, the three children bow to him again and retreat from the library, slipping out into the cold, snowy afternoon.

“A-Xin, you know the rules! Do not be effus—effess—do not be really loud in your affection. If we bother him, he won’t talk to us anymore!” Wei Wuxian snorts a laugh as Lan Chenli’s scolding voice carries back to him.

“He said we’re not bothering him!” Lan Xin protests immediately. “’Sides,” he adds, their voices fading as they head further into the compound for afternoon classes. “Senior Wei looks like his heart needs hugs sometimes.”

Said Senior Wei’s heart very nearly bursts then and there and he has to sit down a moment. What good children! What kind, sweet children, so gentle and caring…he can’t take it. How can he disappoint such wonderful children, especially if they are asking for something so simple as help with their lessons? Except…except he knows how.

If it were Sizhui or Jingyi asking, or anyone in the upper classes, he would have no problem saying yes. The past hour has flown. He loves supervising the juniors’ night hunts, and discussing high-level creatures and spellwork with the boys—but this was nice, too. These baby juniors are so open and honest in their desire to learn, easy to teach, the way… The way it has always been to teach young children. (He turns from the notion with the ease of long practice, blunting the edge of pain that always hovers over such thoughts before it can sink into him, draw more blood from wounds that may scab over but will probably never quite heal.)

If it were his son or one of his son’s friends, he would not hesitate. He doesn’t want to hesitate now, not with these trusting faces looking at him with such excitement and hope. But…

But he remembers how Lan Qiren had looked at him a few days ago, when he’d been forced to leave the children’s class in his care. The distrust and distaste that always lurks in the eyes of his husband’s uncle. That Sizhui and the others spend so much time with Wei Wuxian is already a thorn in the man’s side. If he catches wind of Wei Wuxian interacting with the Lan clan’s youngest children… Well. It might be a funny qi deviation, but Wei Wuxian really doesn’t want to deal with the fallout.

He would not have cared in his first lifetime. He would not have cared only a year ago. What did it matter to him what Lan Qiren, of all people, thought? If Lan Qiren would not approve of him helping these juniors?

Now, though…

Now.

He knows—he knows—his husband does not care a whit what his uncle thinks of them. What the rest of the cultivation world thinks of them. Lan Zhan had mourned him for far too long to care about anything other than their happiness together now. That does not mean that Wei Wuxian wishes to cause his husband problems. Lan Zhan is so damn good as chief cultivator. Not, perhaps, the more social aspects of the job—the politicking and the diplomacy and the, you know, interacting pleasantly with people who are not Wei Wuxian, Lan Xichen, or Sizhui and Jingyi. But he is good at the hardest parts of it—the wrangling a cohesive vision for the future, the settling of disputes, the dispensation of justice. Under his Lan Zhan’s leadership, the rot and corruption that had infested the cultivation world is withering away while the common peoples’ trust in the sects blooms.

Wei Wuxian’s heart quails at the thought of doing anything to jeopardize that, of jeopardizing the work that has become so important to the person around whom his entire world revolves. Tutoring children is hardly an earth-shattering action. Hardly something worth noticing, even if it is the Yiling Patriarch doing the tutoring.

His husband exerting his influence to shield him from any negative reactions that do occur, though? Asking for Wei Wuxian to be allowed to actually teach when he knows very well no one would dare deny His Excellency such a request? He knows very well there are elements in the sects who would like nothing more than to use such actions as evidence that he cannot be trusted. That he is only using Lan Zhan to elevate his own status and reputation. That Lan Zhan cannot be trusted, due to how besotted he is with him. The notion is ridiculous, of course. Lan Zhan indulges his whims, spoils him shamelessly, it’s true…but the idea that Hanguang-Jun would ever debase the title of Excellency in such a manner? Laughable.

Unfortunately, Wei Wuxian is well acquainted with how even laughable notions can gain traction with the right application. He refuses to put his beloved in such a position. To even risk putting his beloved in such a position.

In his first life, he would never have considered such things. Even a year ago, he would never have considered such things. Now, though…now he has to. He wants to.

Wei Wuxian has a lifetime of anguish behind him. The ghosts and memories that dog his footsteps far outnumber the faces of living friends and family before him. How much of that pain could have been avoided if he had just thought his actions through? How many scars on his heart would not be there if he had stopped to consider how consequences might ripple outwards? It is not just how he reflects on Lan Zhan’s position as Excellency that worries him. He…he had hurt the man he loves so much in the past. Lan Zhan is his heart and soul, his world, and he had hurt him. Over and over.

He never wants to hurt him again.

Wei Wuxian is not given to introspection. He may be a genius, but he knows his vast intellect does not always extend to himself. Even so, he can acknowledge that much of what had transpired in his past life was because of his own foolish arrogance. Foolish arrogance he cannot entirely blame on his youth, or his inexperience, or even the traumas he’d suffered. Not all of it. Not, perhaps, even the worst of it. But much of it.

He has learned from that.

He stares down at the notes he’s been working on the last couple of days without really seeing them. The Wei Wuxian of the past would have done what he pleased, but he is no longer that boy.

It’s a small thing, the idea of tutoring those baby juniors. A pleasant idea, something he knows would make him quite happy, and be useful for them as well. He is a genius, after all. As he gathers his notes and a few research scrolls he wants to take back to the jingshi for future reference, though, he decides it’s probably not an idea that will go anywhere. There’s too much potential for causing more friction between his husband and Lan Qiren, too much potential for causing problems.

It doesn’t occur to him that in trying to be more mindful of the consequences of his actions, he might be going too far in the other direction with such thoughts. (Of course it doesn’t.)

And the next day, six novice Lan disciples take the decision out of his hands anyway.

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren raises a cup to his lips, pausing a moment to inhale the light, floral scent of gently steaming tea. He enjoys the warmth seeping through the delicate porcelain, so fine it is almost translucent, endeavors to give the whole of the experience its proper appreciation. Across the low table, his companion chuckles lightly, though his own first sip of tea is no less reverential.

The healers pavilion is not Lan Qiren’s usual choice of venue for his midday meal—not least because of a sharp-tongued old woman who clucks her tongue over his stress levels every time she sees him and asks pointed questions about his meditation practices as though he is some recalcitrant child—but he is more than happy to make an exception for the man currently convalescing here. Lan Guihong is one of their eldest, most venerable teachers, second perhaps only to Lan Qiren himself in reputation. There are few members of the clan left who can remember a time when Lan Guihong was not an instructor in the Cloud Recesses…the man is nearly a decade past one hundred.

Time does not leave its marks on cultivators the same way it does commoners, though, and so despite his age, Lan Guihong’s wits and eyes are sharp, his body only within the last year or so starting to protest the demands of his rigorous teaching schedule. And really, those protests had been muted and easily accommodated until this bout of coughing sickness had taken hold of him last week.

It is a common ailment in the surrounding areas during Gusu’s cold, snowy winters, one that occasionally even finds a few victims among the Lan cultivators. For most, it is a matter of a day or two of rest and medicinal tea. Lan Guihong, though, while a gifted teacher and historian, has always been a cultivator of average ability. He had been hit hard with the sickness, hard enough that the healers had insisted he recover under their watchful eyes instead of his own quarters. Hard enough that the few vague notions of finding a permanent replacement for his classes and allowing him to retire to a life of individual scholarly pursuits and meditation have become rather less vague. He and Lan Qiren have discussed it on and off for several months now, but always in terms of the future.

“Lan Fang has been keeping me updated on the progress of the novice class,” Lan Guihong says, his voice still hoarse from days of coughing. “It sounds as though they will be in an excellent position for me to hand over instruction.”

The future, it seems, is now.

Lan Qiren cannot find it in him to protest. Lan Guihong has served his clan and his sect well, has dedicated himself to the children of Gusu Lan in a way that deserves only admiration and praise. There is not a single disciple among the main and branch families who has not taken their first steps into the world of cultivation under his kind, knowledgeable eyes. He had shepherded Xichen and Wangji through the formation of their golden cores. If anyone deserves a peaceful retirement, it is him.

He sips the fragrant tea. “I agree—they have been quite studious in your absence.”

“Has Teacher Fang expressed any interest in taking over my position on a permanent basis?” Lan Guihong inquires, setting his cup down on the table.

Lan Qiren makes a noncommittal hum, considering. Certainly, Lan Fang is a capable instructor, one of their best, and under most circumstances would be a natural choice. Lan Guihong’s unique position in their clan is not most circumstances, though. His replacement will be responsible for helping to shape the very youngest of their disciples, guiding the children of the Lan clan on the path of cultivation. It is not a position to take lightly, and Lan Fang, capable though he is, has worked almost exclusively with their older disciples since he took up instruction in the Cloud Recesses. Lan Qiren is not certain working with small children is the best use of his abilities.

Unfortunately, there are not many other candidates available. With the election of Wangji as Excellency, Gusu Lan sect’s influence and prestige has only spread. Lan Qiren had had his misgivings (many of them tied directly to his nephew’s cultivation partner), but Wangji has risen to the challenge admirably. His leadership has proven beneficial to the cultivation world as a whole, and Gusu Lan in particular.

Hardly a day goes by that Lan Qiren does not receive some message or missive from outlying sects and clans, asking permission to send their young disciples to study in the Cloud Recesses, even outside the traditional guest periods. Apart from their swelling student ranks, Wangji has enacted many plans and programs to try and get their disciples more involved in the surrounding territories. Educational exchanges, medical seminars, literacy outreaches…Wangji seems determined to erase the stain of corruption and complacency in the cultivation world as quickly as he can. There has been some grumbling among the elders of the clan that it is too much change, too quickly, but Wangji has thus far proven to be the more stubborn force. And one can hardly argue with the results. For the time being, Lan Qiren is content to simply monitor the situation, and ready himself to step in if Wangji gets too far ahead of himself.

However, with the increased numbers of disciples and guest disciples, as well as those assigned on educational and charitable enterprises, Lan Qiren has found his roster of available instructors stretching thin. They’ve had to combine a few of the upper classes while Lan Guihong has been ill in order to prevent too much disruption to the schedule.

As far as problems go, he supposes it’s a good one to have. But it is a problem.

He takes another sip of his tea, stroking his beard with his free hand in thought. “If Lan Fang does not wish to step into your role, there are other possibilities,” he says. Up to and including he himself taking over the novice classes until a suitable replacement can be found, though the option has little appeal for him. “Do not trouble yourself with anything beyond your health and recovery, old friend.”

They pass the rest of the meal in pleasant conversation, until the bell signaling the start of the afternoon study period tolls throughout the Cloud Recesses. At that point, the head healer respectfully ushers him out of the pavilion. He respectfully ignores her pointed questions about his stress levels and meditation practices (he can trace the exact origin point of his elevated stress levels to the moment when his younger nephew strode through the gates of the Cloud Recesses with a resurrected Wei Wuxian in tow, claiming that they were now married, of all things) and takes his leave.

The day is pleasant for this time of year—the cloudless sky a brilliant, sapphire blue, and the cold snap of the air refreshing—and he briefly considers taking a short stroll. He could check in with some of the younger disciples, ensure they are using their study period wisely. Perhaps visit Wangji and discuss plans for the discussion conference that will be held when the snows melt (without the unasked-for and unnecessary input of Wei Wuxian, as the troublesome creature usually secludes himself in the jingshi or the library whilst Wangji is working). Unfortunately, the pile of paperwork he has sitting on the corner of his desk in his own quarters is a greater priority right now. With Xichen still in seclusion and Wangji busy with far greater work, he has taken back the duties that fell to Xichen when he took his rightful place as sect leader.

It is not a burden—there is so little he can do to actually help Xichen. This is nothing, it is the least of what he is willing to do to support his nephews. However, he cannot deny that while he doesn’t think he is ready to retire to a life of study and private cultivation, there is a part of him that wishes he had the option to.

But such are unworthy thoughts, and useless besides. The situation is what it is, and he has long ago reconciled himself to sacrificing whatever is required of him in support of his brother’s children.

“Hurry up!”

“I am hurrying!”

“There’s no running in the Cloud Recesses!”

“How am I s’posed to hurry if I don’t run?”

“I don’t know…just walk really fast!”

Lan Qiren pauses mid-step as the furiously whispered conversation reaches his ears. Glancing to his left, he sees several of Lan Guihong’s novice students—almost the whole group—walking (indeed, very quickly) down one of side paths in the compound, heading towards a set of practice rooms that will be unoccupied this time of day. They are obviously trying to be stealthy and unobtrusive. In the manner of young children, even disciples of Gusu Lan, they are being neither.

Lan Qiren is struck with a sudden, overwhelming premonition that investigating will cause him nothing but cold, bitter regret.

He follows anyway.

Strangely, the children seem to be following the lead of the youngest novice—a boy from one of the branch families whose progress both Lan Guihong and Lan Fang have expressed concern over. Having worked with the class for several days when Lan Fang’s duties took him elsewhere, Lan Qiren has to say he shares their concerns. A disappointing case. The child clearly has potential, else Lan Guihong would not have kept him in the novice class this long…but not every child who comes to them with potential is able to cultivate. He believes Lan Guihong had been making quiet inquiries about possibly shifting the child’s studies over to the healers when he first fell ill.

In all of Lan Qiren’s interactions with the novice class, the youngest has been but a silent shadow of his cousin. He sits with his eyes averted and struggles through their lessons—obviously putting a great deal of effort into his studies, but not attaining the desired results. The mathematics class Lan Qiren had to take over yesterday had stretched the limits of his patience. Now, though, the nervous, silent boy walks confidently, his head held high and straight as he leads his classmates to the practice rooms. The children have not broken any rules (yet, the jaded voice of experience whispers in his mind), and as such, he allows them to continue towards their destination, curious despite himself. The sense of foreboding, though, does not grow any weaker.

As they turn a corner, Lan Qiren realizes two of the boys are carrying what looks like stacks of talisman paper, and a few tallow candles. He feels his eyes widen at that, and he quickens his steps. Even so, his presence goes unnoticed when the children stop in front of one of the empty practice rooms—one that has a small note tacked onto the door.

The smallest novice reads the note, and then raps firmly on the door. When no answer is forthcoming, he straightens his shoulders and knocks again, louder this time. Then…

“Senior Wei? Senior Wei, are you in there?” he calls, and Lan Qiren feels his blood thunder through his veins, a familiar mix of anger and irritation swirling sourly in his stomach.

Of course.

Of course it’s something to do with him.

The door slides open a moment later, and Wei Wuxian pokes his head out. He looks confused for a brief instant, but then he is smiling widely at the children.

“Boys,” he says, glancing around the small circle of faces he now finds himself surrounded by. “There’s…more of you today.”

“Brother Jingyi said you wouldn’t mind,” Lan Xin chirps.

Wei Wuxian snorts, crossing his arms over his chest as he shakes his head. “Oh he did, did he?”

Undeterred, Lan Xin bounces on his toes a little. “Do you have time to help us again today?”

Were he not sure it would immediately give away his presence (and equally sure the head healer’s questions about his stress levels and meditation practices would become even more pointed) Lan Qiren is fairly certain he would be spitting blood. There is not enough willow bark tea in the world to counteract the headache he can feel gathering behind his eyes.

Chapter Text

For a timeless instant, Lan Qiren is tempted to pinch himself. It’s childish, ridiculous, but surely…surely he must be asleep and having a truly terrible dream. A nightmare. Surely he is not standing here, hidden from sight by the snow-laden branches of a large bush like a thief in his own home, watching two-thirds of their youngest, most innocent, most vulnerable disciples ask Wei Wuxian for help. He is, though. He knows he is, and he feels his chest tighten, the light meal and tea he’s just shared with Lan Guihong suddenly sitting like a stone in his stomach.

Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian.

The bane of his existence, the only blemish on Wangji’s otherwise pristine reputation, the worst mistake his nephew has ever made (and what a mistake, what a blemish!) Perhaps the worst person the children could have chosen to seek assistance from! And assistance for what?!

He gathers himself to storm forward and demand an explanation (and further demand that Wei Wuxian stop corrupting the youth of Gusu Lan…bad enough that their senior disciple class trail after him like lost puppies rather than young men who will soon represent their sect to the world at large) when Wei Wuxian heaves a heavy sigh.

“Lan Chenli,” he says, clearly enough for Lan Qiren to hear a thread of amusement in his voice, “did you get permission to take that talisman paper out of the classroom?”

The boy in question, a fine, upstanding student who can already recite the first thousand sect rules with only a few vocabulary errors, actually ducks his head, stubbing his toes in the drift of snow that the wind has scattered on the walkway.

“It’s not against the rules,” he says, and Lan Qiren inhales, opens his mouth to announce himself. For the second time, his action is arrested, this time when Wei Wuxian speaks.

“Ah, ah, ah…someone not telling you ‘no’ is not the same as them telling you ‘yes.’ What if your teacher needed those supplies for your lessons today? I am happy to help you, but—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—I’m not interested in helping you get into trouble with your teachers. You should all know better.”

The boy’s shoulders slump, and were Lan Qiren less disciplined, he has the uncomfortable feeling that his jaw would have just dropped. That…that was not what he expected to hear. Did Wei Wuxian just scold the boy for doing something improperly?

Pinching himself begins to sound like a good idea again.

Wei Wuxian holds a serious expression for a moment, then squats down so he is eye-level with the novices. “I suppose it’s a good thing I have plenty of talisman paper of my own then, huh?” he says. The children brighten immediately, crowding in closer to him. “What do you need to practice today, then?”

The students all start talking at once, in direct opposition to their usual calm, ordered responses, and Lan Qiren narrows his eyes. Days. As far as he knows, these children have only known Wei Wuxian for a few days and already he’s been a bad influence. How is it possible for one person to be this much of a disaster? Does he ruin everything he touches?

It’s enough to break him out of his momentary shock at the sight of Wei Wuxian behaving like a reasonable adult, and he bristles. Takes a step forward again. Takes in a breath to call out again, to put a stop to this madness and…

“Grandmaster?”

And is interrupted. Again.

He startles at the voice behind him, covers it up by whirling on the new presence. Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi shrink back from him a little, and he belatedly realizes his anger must be showing on his face. He takes a calming breath, schooling his features as he flicks his sleeves into order.

“Grandmaster?” Lan Sizhui says again, his tone cautious, “Is there something we can assist you with?”

The two young men are each carrying an armload of what looks like the most random assortment of things Lan Qiren has ever seen. A set of Gusu Lan robes, brushes and inkstones, several qiankun pouches, and a jar of some kind of kitchen spice that has absolutely no business being in the Cloud Recesses, judging from the truly alarming shade of red that rims the lip of it where the lid has jostled loose. Lan Qiren is both desperately curious and certain that for the sake of his sanity he Does. Not. Want. To. Know.

“What,” he grits out, “is going on here?”

Lan Sizhui’s eyes flick to the scene behind him, where Wei Wuxian is still talking to the novices. An unreadable expression flashes across his face before he elbows Lan Jingyi in the side. Lan Jingyi sputters before he, too, glances further down the path. Unlike Lan Sizhui, his face is an open book of surprise, dismay, and finally panic.

“Uh, Grandmaster it’s not…they were just…uh…”

“Speak clearly!” Lan Qiren snaps.

“The novice class just wanted some extra help preparing for their final exam in a couple weeks!” Lan Jingyi gets out in a rush. “Lan Fang, uh, Teacher Lan told them they wouldn’t move on in their studies until they could demonstrate mastery over their basic spellwork and some of them freaked out. They liked Master Wei so much when he had to watch them the other day, and he’s been so helpful on our night hunts…” He trails off with a helpless shrug that threatens to dislodge the alarmingly red kitchen spice in his arms. “I didn’t see any harm in sending them to see if Master Wei could tutor them.”

“Didn’t see the harm?” Lan Qiren repeats, incredulous.

He whips back around in time to see Wei Wuxian usher the last of the novices into the empty practice room he’s been doing who knows what in, and this time he does not allow himself to be distracted as he strides down the path, determined that whatever madness this thorn in his side plans to perpetuate will not come to pass. He is nearly to the door when Lan Sizhui suddenly darts in front of him, his arms now empty of the things he had been carrying.

“Grandmaster, wait!” he says, spreading his hands as though he might try to fend Lan Qiren off physically. Almost immediately, he lowers them, pressing his lips together for a brief moment before drawing himself to his full height. A hard, determined light enters his eyes, and he sets his jaw. “Please. Just a moment.”

For a fleeting instant, it is as though the past and the present blur together. In that instant, Lan Sizhui looks so much like Wangji. Lan Qiren pauses, a strange feeling twisting in his chest.

Capitalizing on the hesitation, Lan Sizhui speaks again. “Grandmaster, please, I—I would ask that you not be so quick in your judgement. Master Wei hasn’t done anything wrong!”

“Yeah,” Lan Jingyi’s slightly strained voice sounds from behind him. When he glances over his shoulder, he finds the disciple making his careful way towards them, his arms now full of the things Lan Sizhui had been carrying as well. Why they had not just put everything into one of the qiankun pouches is beyond him. “There’s no rule that says who you’re allowed or not allowed to ask for help during the study period!”

“You presume to quote the disciplines to me?” Lan Qiren turns to glare at Lan Jingyi, who gulps audibly and scurries the last few steps to come stand beside Lan Sizhui. “There most assuredly are rules about associating with those who willingly turn from the righteous path!”

“Is that what you truly think of him?” Lan Sizhui questions, his voice low and calm, yet somehow more intense because of it. “That he willingly…” He cuts himself off, swallowing and shaking his head. “Do you truly believe Master Wei still cultivates evil?”

“Has he given me reason not to?” Lan Qiren counters, harshly. Even as he says it, his own conscience demands he acknowledge that he’s not being entirely fair. It sits heavy in his heart, twisting and slithering like a snake.

Lan Sizhui’s face grows somehow colder, and if his actions echoed Wangji before, now the resemblance is truly uncanny. Lan Qiren recognizes the expression that sits on his great-nephew’s features, intimately. Wangji has worn it many times before, though it had only appeared after Wei Wuxian came into his life.

Lan Sizhui is not backing down.

“Have you ever given him a chance to?” he demands. He demands it respectfully. Politely. But he does demand. Beside him, Lan Jingyi briefly looks as though he wants to curl up on the ground and die, but he stands firm beside his friend, lending silent support.

The sheer audacity actually stuns Lan Qiren into silence for a few heartbeats. That these disciples, these children would dare

He was wrong. Lan Sizhui does not remind him of Wangji in this moment. This? This is all Wei Wuxian. And Lan Jingyi too? True, the youth has never been a model of Lan decorum, but he has never been this defiant. This, this is what he feared when Wei Wuxian started spending so much time around their junior disciples…this is what he fears will happen to the novices, only so much worse because at least Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi have had proper instruction. Have had years of proper role models, have learned how to differentiate between right and wrong.

“Grandmaster,” Lan Sizhui says again, and for the first time there is a fissure of uncertainty in his voice. “That is all I ask—just give Master Wei a chance to prove himself to you. If you would just listen for a few minutes…”

“You are inviting me to spy?”

Lan Sizhui takes a deep breath. “I am inviting you to observe. Please. Great Uncle, just please listen to what Master Wei does—just for a few minutes. I will accept whatever punishment you deem necessary. All I ask is a few minutes of your time.”

Lan Sizhui has not called him “Great Uncle” since he was nine years old. It would not have been proper, once he officially moved into the disciples’ quarters and began cultivating in earnest. Lan Qiren is not entirely sure he’s aware he has done it, now. Lan Qiren glares at them, lifting his chin and huffing to himself. The two disciples meet his gaze steadily (if a little fearfully, in Jingyi’s case, but his refusal to allow Lan Sizhui to be the only one to face his ire is admirable).

“This is important to you,” he says, narrowing his eyes at his nephew’s adopted son. Lan Sizhui sighs, the tense set of his shoulders relaxing somewhat.

“It is,” he says.

Lan Qiren considers, some small part of him horrified that he is even doing that much. Still…perhaps there is merit in gathering more evidence. He does not need anyone’s permission to forbid someone from interacting with their students—education in the Cloud Recesses is his domain, after all—but perhaps this would allow him to do so without argument. Without causing more strife between him and Wangji. It will be hard enough to replace Lan Guihong without having to worry that the novices’ next instructor will have to undo bad habits and incorrect methods picked up from Wei Wuxian. If indulging Lan Sizhui for a few minutes lessens his stress later, perhaps it is worth it.

Lan Qiren heaves a put-upon sigh. “Very well,” he says. “Where shall I observe your Master Wei from?” Distaste curls through him at the thought of stooping so low as to spy upon a guest of the Cloud Recesses…even this guest. But he supposes he shouldn’t really be surprised. It is Wei Wuxian, after all. Of course anything involving him would be antithetical to the Lan disciplines.

Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi have a short, very intense conversation using just their eyebrows and a few exaggerated facial expressions. Lan Jingyi finally rolls his eyes and heads for the door of the practice room Wei Wuxian had led the novices into, juggling the supplies in his arms awkwardly. Lan Sizhui hesitates, then quietly gestures to the door of the adjacent practice room. Lan Qiren barely keeps his distaste from curling his lip, this time. So they will genuinely be spying.

He has agreed to this course of action, though, and so he swallows it, sweeps into the room behind Lan Sizhui and waits as the young man closes the door. This cluster of rooms is used for practicing advanced spellwork and arrays, the walls layered with countless protection charms and wards. It is often necessary to have a larger or smaller space available, though, and so the inner walls themselves are made of simple bamboo screens—easily collapsible and moveable to create the desired workspace. Naturally, there are also numerous silencing and privacy talismans that have been woven into the very walls…though if they are not activated it is easy to hear every word that is spoken in an adjacent practice room.

The silencing talismans in the workspace Wei Wuxian has commandeered have not been activated.

Lan Sizhui sinks gracefully to his knees against the walls separating them from Wei Wuxian and the novices, eyes downcast and hands folded neatly in his lap. Lan Qiren listens as Lan Jingyi clatters into the next room, greeting the novices and making some mumbled excuse for Lan Sizhui’s absence that just barely skirts the edge of lying without crossing over.

Another thing he would like to lay at Wei Wuxian’s feet, but honesty demands he admit that Lan Jingyi has been stepping up to the very edges of his boundaries and pushing his toes against them since he was a child. Perhaps that is why he and Wei Wuxian seem to get along so well. No matter. With another huff, Lan Qiren settles himself next to Lan Sizhui, staring straight ahead as Wei Wuxian’s loud, obnoxious voice fills the space. He breathes deeply, braces himself to listen (as he agreed to) to the man utterly botch whatever instruction he tries to give the novices.

Oh, Wei Wuxian doesn’t lack for knowledge. In the absence of any other choice, Lan Qiren will concede that Wei Wuxian is and always has been a prodigy. He is brilliant. That he had squandered so much potential with his crooked, disrespectful ways is no small part of Lan Qiren’s dislike of him. Being brilliant, however, is no guarantee of being able to share that brilliance with others. Whatever assistance he provides on the older disciples’ night hunts, Lan Qiren knows he will hear nothing here that will convince him Wei Wuxian should be allowed to tutor their novice classes! He adopts a comfortable meditation pose, certain he is about to listen to a disaster. He straightens his spine and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And slowly, with ever-dawning horror, he realizes that he will not be hearing a disaster at all.

Wei Wuxian…

Wei Wuxian

Wei Wuxian is not holding a mere study session, or providing some outside tutoring. Wei Wuxian, the bane of his existence, is teaching an engaging, competent, completely age-appropriate master class on talisman work. Lan Qiren sits frozen, listening as Wei Wuxian lays out clear directions for the exercise that the novices’ final exam will take the form of, fields question after question, reassures and encourages with every breath.

That hated voice is calm and infinitely patient. His corrections are firm, but never unkind. His every method is textbook correct, even as he occasionally branches out into how something can be adapted or repurposed, depending on the situation. And the novices…

Lan Qiren listens to the novices absolutely blossom. Their questions are eager and curious, bright with excitement and yet Wei Wuxian maintains order in a way he never even bothers to do for himself. The listen to his every word, and Lan Qiren does not have to use much imagination—if he were taken to such flights of fancy—to picture them staring at him raptly, following his every gesture like flowerheads following the sun. It is like listening to one who has done this all their life. It is like listening to one of Lan Guihong’s classes from years ago…though he doubts that even in his prime Lan Guihong bounced around the classroom quite so much as Wei Wuxian is doing, judging by the sound.

He listens, shock and disbelief warring inside of him, as Wei Wuxian actually guides the novices through their final exam exercise—inviting them all to try. The candle scenario is a test of control and application that these novices should still be weeks away from achieving, based on his own experience and observations, and yet…

“Hah! There Lan Xin, what did I tell you? You only needed some practice, and look at you! Just a bit more concentration…don’t worry about the force, just hold your intention clear as you can in your mind!”

Lan Xin. That was the youngest disciple’s name, wasn’t it? The one that he, and Lan Fang, and even Lan Guihong had all but given up on as a lost cause for cultivation. And yet Wei Wuxian is praising him as highly as the others, as though he—

“Excellent! Look at that everyone, the wick is still straight as an arrow! Well done, Lan Xin!”

Lan Qiren stands abruptly. He ignores Lan Sizhui’s startled exhalation, the questioning call of, “Grandmaster?”

He maintains a measured, unhurried pace—he is not retreating, not from this—as he exits the practice room and sweeps up the paths back towards the main part of the compound. He does not hurry. But nor does he stop. Not when he hears Lan Sizhui call after him. Not when he hears other voices addressing him. He does not stop until he is back in his own quarters.

He has a meeting with Lan Fang scheduled in a little under an hour, to discuss the problem of the novice class, and what can be done to find a proper replacement for Lan Guihong. He has an hour to get his thoughts in order, to calm the turbulent emotions churning through him, to set his world back to rights and get himself under control. He should only need a few minutes.

At the end of the hour, three messages are passed through the Cloud Recesses, from Grandmaster Lan Qiren. The first is to Lan Fang, apologizing and asking his indulgence in moving their meeting to the following afternoon. The second is to Lan Guihong, asking if he feels sufficiently recovered to join Lan Qiren for breakfast in his private quarters the next day.

The third is to Lan Wangji…and Wei Wuxian. Asking to meet with them privately during the dinner hour tomorrow.