Nie Huaisang's greatest contribution to the Cloud Recesses Study Program is an anonymous advice box.
In a last-ditch attempt not to fail the toughest assignment of the school term, he wrote a note offering good snacks in exchange for essay help, and floated it surreptitiously across the classroom's central walkway to the Gusu Lan side while Lan Qiren's back was turned.
He got his help, and much more besides; the note became a sheet, which became a sheaf. Time passed and the assignment faded from mind, but questions and answers kept circulating in Lan Qiren's classroom: pop quiz answers, last year's exam solutions, how to survive a month stuck in a room with Lan Zhan, what to do when homesick...
Later, Nie Huaisang got a small wooden crate, filled it with two-way paper, tied a pen to one corner with a red hair ribbon, and placed it outside the shared study hall. Thus was born the Cloud Recesses Study Program Advice Box: peer tutor, insider trader, and agony aunt in one.
The night before the end-of-term exams, an irate Lan Wangji confiscates the advice box from the study hall and drops it in Lan Xichen's hands to be dealt with.
Bemused, Xichen looks through the contents of the box. A messy pile of letters, handwritten in various shades of illegible, asking about everything from the quickest way to cram the 3000 Lan sect rules, to which restaurant in Gusu has the best Emperor's Smile, to directions to the top-secret Cold Spring rumored to increase cultivation tenfold in a night...
Lan Zhan, yes I know you're reading this, now please give the advice box back or the whole year is going to fail and I want to believe you still have a conscience.
The note is dated three months ago and signed with a drawing of a rabbit.
Wangji takes the note from Xichen's hand, folds it up into a small neat square, and pockets it.
Xichen puts the rest of the letters back, takes the box back to the study hall, and hands it to the student who answers the door. "Make sure to answer everything tonight," Xichen says. "Once the visiting students go home, you might never see each other again."
Back in his quarters, Xichen notices a paper scrap by the door. One of the notes must have fallen out of the box. He picks it up and turns in the direction of the study hall again, then decides that he doesn't need to disturb them further; he can answer it himself.
He unfolds the note. Then he unfolds it again, and again.
This 'TriedMyDoggoneBest' seems to have written down his whole life story.
(Xichen thinks, sympathetically, that he probably has no other outlet to vent his troubles.)
From the details, Xichen surmises that TriedMyDoggoneBest is from a fairly prominent family. He seems to have a rather abrasive personality, worries a lot, and holds himself to high standards...
It takes a while, but Xichen reads it all. Then he turns the paper over, picks up a pen, and starts writing back.
... was it only about giving up your dogs, or is it also that your new brother has taken up space in your family's life that up till now has been yours alone? No matter what, being family is a rare fate to come by, and I hope you both will come to treasure it.
And don't worry about grades. What's much more important is what you learned here.
Best of luck tomorrow,
Mr. Paper Rabbit
Wangji asks Xichen, just once, why he returned the advice box that day.
Xichen thinks about the note signed with a rabbit, which Wangji now uses as a bookmark. Then he says, "Sects from all over send their disciples to the Cloud Recesses not only to study, but also to learn how to live as cultivators. If they have questions, why not let them ask?"
... Besides, if all the visiting students have to repeat the term twice like Nie Huaisang, Gusu Lan will have to start collecting for room and board.
Wangji's cohort has reached the age when cultivators pick up their swords and venture out into the world to make a life of their own. Even out of school, the Gusu Lan Sect is still a wellspring of good advice, and so when cultivators pass through Gusu on sect business or for personal errands, they sometimes also drop a question or two into the advice box. Now, the inquiries in the advice box also include what kind of business is good to start, how to meet a future spouse, or how to choose gifts for future in-laws without breaking one's bank...
TriedMyDoggoneBest still writes in, and he still writes letters like a personal diary.
This time, his troubles are romantic: he had recently gone on a blind date, and thought everything went fine, until he heard the next day from his irate mother that the girl had cried all night and then told her parents that she never wanted to see him again.
Xichen is already formulating the words Sometimes people just don't click well. Why not try again? in his mind, but then he reads the next line:
This is the third time this has happened...
The pen Xichen is holding snaps in two.
He starts three different replies, then he realises just how out of his own depth this is, tosses all his drafts out, and sends back several book recommendations instead.
Wen Xu burns the Cloud Recesses, the world turns upside down, and Xichen loses track of the advice box for a while.
But Xichen finds TriedMyDoggoneBest's last letter under a pile of other salvaged paperwork, and now by the steady light of Meng Yao's oil lamp he clears away his last reply and writes:
Hello? Are you all right?
It's a long shot. That guy has no reason to expect a message. For all Xichen knows, people throw away their side of the two-way note after getting a response.
For a week, there is no reply. Another week passes, and Xichen stops checking.
He doesn't think about it again until he receives the all-clear from Uncle to return to the Cloud Recesses. While packing his things, he finds the sheet again, and notices that the narrow writing on the flip side has changed.
TriedMyDoggoneBest is having a rather tumultuous time of his own: his home was confiscated and demolished by the local Wen magistrate, he has had to take over the family business after an unexpected series of tragedies, and his brother has gone missing...
He's heard the great sects, Gusu among them, are mounting an offense against Qishan Wen and he hopes they win, or he's ruined.
... I have good reason to believe Sunshot will succeed. Take heart. We will live through this and we will win.
Mr. Paper Rabbit
They keep missing each other, after that, replies separated by weeks or months when Xichen loses the two-way paper under another mountain of paperwork or that guy forgets to check back.
Gusu Lan rebuilds, and soon the Cloud Recesses start taking visiting students again. The faces change, year on year, but the questions in the advice box are often the same: places in the Cloud Recesses to go on a first date, how to memorize the now-3500 sect rules, or where in Gusu to find the best Emperor's Smile...
TriedMyDoggoneBest still writes, too, but just to Xichen now.
His brother returned home safely, but he changed very much during his time away, and after a series of quarrels he leaves the family again to seek his fortune. His sister is finally marrying that rich dandy who doesn't deserve her in the least...
He says nothing about himself, and Xichen has to wonder if he still has not managed to land a date, or is simply too busy these days to think about such things.
His business is doing fine (which Xichen takes to mean 'is doing very well, but he always holds it to a higher standard'.) He still doesn't talk about the details, but from bits and pieces, Xichen surmises he's running a trade school of some sort. Over several more letters they exchange advice - there seem to be many similarities between running a schoolhouse and running a sect.
More than once, Xichen has wondered about the person behind the narrow, angular writing. From the mentions of rivers, a warm climate, and spicy food, Xichen surmises that he is likely from somewhere in Yunmeng. But he had said he was taking over a family business, and as far as Xichen can recall, none of the Yunmeng cultivators in Wangji's year had been schoolteacher's children.
... I hear from a friend that snow dogs are popular in Lanling right now - they have black backs, white bellies, and eyes like ice.
Have you considered getting another dog?
Mr. Paper Rabbit
Jin Guangyao, huh. Who would've known.
But I was writing to ask some advice. My nephew has recently had to take a leadership position, but he is still
very young and his position in the community is unstable. I want to support him, but I am not sure how...
Hey, thought you might want to know. I did get a dog.
Just a puppy now, but it'll get big. Floppy ears, fluffy tail. It livens up the place.
Took a long time to accept, but that guy—he's really not coming back any more...
Mr. Paper Rabbit? Are you still there?
The public word in the cultivation world is that the Gusu Lan Sect Leader is still in seclusion, but in more recent months, the only real difference is the location of Xichen's office.
He has delegated most social invitations and sect responsibilities, but his time is still largely consumed with administrative duties: approving applications, going over event agendas, and signing off on various day-to-day sect matters. Every afternoon, a disciple stops by to drop off a box of paperwork and collect the previous day's one.
Today, among the pile of scrolls is a sheet of two-way paper. It must have gotten mixed in with the rest of the paperwork. Xichen considers putting the advice box note back into the pile, then decides he doesn't need to disturb the disciples further; he can answer it himself.
So Xichen unfolds the note. Then he unfolds it again.
That person signs his letters differently now, but the narrow, angular handwriting is unmistakable.
'DoTheImpossible' writes that a son of a friend will be joining the Cloud Recesses Study Program soon, and might the advice box have any tips for memorizing the now-4000 Lan sect rules?
There is a FAQ pasted on the side of the advice box, on which is written the Cloud Recesses Study Program's official answer:
5) There is no trick. The record time is 3 days, by copying them out by hand.
In the advice box's first year, Xichen had passed by the library and glanced through the open window, and saw Wei Wuxian doodling rabbits while Wangji read quietly.
Now Xichen turns the paper over and writes back, See part 5 of the FAQ.
He pauses, then adds, Also, tell him or her to ask seniors about a copy of 'the book'.
In place of a signature, he draws a little paper-folded rabbit.
That afternoon when Lan Jingyi comes by to pick up paperwork, he pauses with his arms full of scrolls, smiles, and says, "Sect Leader, you look better today."
The first thing Xichen notices upon arriving at Lotus Pier is the barking.
A big golden dog barrels through the doors, makes a beeline for Xichen, and runs far too many circles around him before Jiang Wanyin finally emerges and rescues him. "Sorry about that, Sect Leader Lan," Jiang Wanyin says, ruffling the dog's fluffy golden head before looking back up at Xichen apologetically. "He's excitable but he doesn't bite. I promise."
He looks well, Xichen thinks. The last time they had seen each other, in Yunping, neither of them had been.
"How old? Xichen asks, indicating the dog.
"Two years," Jiang Wanyin replies.
Xichen is in Lotus Pier on sect business, but the other leaders will not be arriving until that evening, so Jiang Wanyin offers to show Xichen around the pier for the afternoon instead. Summer in Yunmeng, there are ships in every dock, and the streets are packed with passersby and vendors hawking wares. Even the brightest and busiest of Gusu's towns can't compare to this.
One of the roadside shops is selling live rabbits, and Xichen stops to look at them huddled in the back of the wooden cage: white fur, upright ears, and pretty red eyes, not unlike the ones back in the Cloud Recesses.
Seeing Xichen pause in front of the stall, the hawker opens the top of the cage and hands him one.
"Sect Leader Lan, you like rabbits?" Jiang Wanyin asks, leaning in to peer at the fluffy white ball.
"Mn," Xichen nods. The rabbit moves in the crook of Xichen's arm and he absently smooths down the long ears, then is suddenly very aware of how close Jiang Wanyin is.
On Jiang Wanyin's other side, the dog is also eyeing the cage with a worrying intensity, so Xichen hands the rabbit back to the shopkeeper with a word of thanks and keeps walking.
... Two years, Xichen thinks.
Big dog. Floppy ears, fluffy tail.
Jiang Wanyin is about Wangji's age.
He's forthright, sharp, and doesn't hold a single word back.
Some things are starting to fall into place.
Xichen glances at Jiang Wanyin, who is unexpectedly also looking thoughtfully back at him, and they simultaneously avert their gaze.
The dog runs at Jiang Wanyin's other side, tail waving happily through the air.
At the next intersection in the street, Jiang Wanyin stops and turns to him. "Sect Leader Lan," he says. "This might seem a little strange, but can I ask you something?"
Xichen nods. "Mn?"
"... Do you fold paper rabbits?"