The ring of steel on ivory and silver echoed through the air as the keen elegant white sword returned to its sheathe, its job finally complete.
Once it was finally over, Wei Wuxian poked his head out gingerly from the deep waters of Jimi Lake, and he stifled a gasp at what he saw. His beloved lotus flowers! Every single one was completely torn up or beheaded, their blossoming heads lying at broken angles, the round green pads of their leaves shredded like so much grass.
Wei Wuxian cried softly to himself, whimpering as he swam around, clawed hands cupping handfuls of water and trying to rescue every luscious lotus seed. They were still edible! Sort of. Some of them were too small and hard and wouldn't have the chance to ripen now. He scrubbed the tears from his cheeks and glared at the white-robed cultivator who was walking away from his devastated lake without even an apology! Or a look back.
Wei Wuxian glowered and vowed revenge. He marked the twin pale ribbon tails that draped down the long black hair and the flow of lace robes as their owner disappeared around the bend of the road. Gusu Lan, huh.
Lan Wangji rolled his right shoulder and frowned. He had thought that the minor ache he felt was from wielding his sword too fiercely against the drowned corpse that had been tormenting the villagers of Jimi Village, but now he was wondering if perhaps he had torn something.
Lan Xichen noticed his grimace and shooed away the rest of his report. "Wangji, you can tell me the rest later. Go to the Cold Springs and take care of that before it gets worse."
Lan Wangji bowed in acknowledgement of his brother's wisdom and left for the Cold Springs, which turned out to be empty of all other disciples. Lan Wangji relaxed greatly once he saw that he wouldn't need to bear with any company since he needed his solitude in order to heal properly.
He set his jade pass and his sword down onto a nearby flat rock and started removing his robes. His shoulder flared up in pain as he untied his inner robe, and he stopped immediately, hissing quietly as he tried massaging the tension away. Unfortunately, in his distracted state, he didn't notice the watery footsteps on the ground that didn't belong to him or the slithering form that was looming behind him.
But Lan Wangji definitely noticed being shoved off the rock ledge and into the ice-cold watery depths of the Cold Springs.
Wei Wuxian was just getting started with his revenge, but the look of utter shock on the Lan cultivator's face was too funny! He started laughing, just a giggle, and then the giggles grew into howls when he saw the other young man attempting to blow the strands of hair out of his face and failing because they were completely plastered against his skin.
"Hahahaha, I gotcha! I gotcha!"
Golden eyes glared fiercely at him, and if words could kill, he'd be worse than dead. "How did you get in here? Who are you?" the Lan cultivator demanded furiously.
"I'm Wei Wuxian! And I followed you, of course. You really weren't being very mindful of your surroundings, you know that?" Wei Wuxian teased. The long bout of laughter had done him a lot of good, and he was no longer as angry as he had been before.
"Get out before I make you," the Lan cultivator threatened, one hand already darting out of the water for his sword.
Lan Wangji could have spat blood when the disrespectful black-robed man stuck out his foot and toed Bichen a few inches away from his hand, just enough so that he couldn't reach it.
"Ah, ah, ah! Lan-gongzi, you really are rude! Trying to point a sword at visitors is against the Gusu Lan precepts, aren't they?"
"You're not a visitor; you're an invader," Lan Wangji retorted. He weighed the benefits of leaping out from the water and snatching up his sword. The only thing stopping him was that he was uncomfortably aware that he was soaked to the skin, and his inner robe was rather thin and sheer. It was helpful when he went to bed during a balmy night, not so much right now.
"Oh? Am I? Well, guess what, I'm also a homeowner, and you're a homewrecker," the other young man retorted, the grin on his face distorting as he stuck his tongue out at Lan Wangji, who stared at him, completely appalled at the lack of manners.
Then he registered the accusation. "What are you talking about? I haven't destroyed your home; I haven't even met you before!"
Wei Wuxian sniffed. "Aiyah, aren't you a precious young master? Just because you didn't notice this lowly person doesn't mean that I don't exist. Do you expect everyone to live up in the lofty mountains like you do? You tore up my poor lotus lake just yesterday!"
Lan-gongzi blinked at him confusedly before he very visibly tried to recall seeing someone living around the lake. Upon failing, to his credit, he still straightened his back and bowed his head in apology, as formal as if they were in a reception hall. "I didn't realize that the lake was home to anyone. I sincerely apologize for the harm that I've done you, and I can compensate you for your monetary losses. If it's labor that you require, then I can ask my sect leader for permission to return to Jimi Village and help you rebuild."
Now Wei Wuxian felt terribly awkward. He really wasn't expecting to receive such a pretty apology at all. The whole plan had been to take his revenge and to scold the cultivator for being an inconsiderate jerk, and now the situation was completely upended. "Uh, well, it's a little hard for me to use money, so yes, I'd rather get some help in fixing my lake, I guess."
He stared helplessly at Lan-gongzi, and Lan-gongzi just stared back at him, waiting for him to finish, so he just added, "Thanks."
Lan-gongzi nodded graciously, and Wei Wuxian rubbed his nose, confusedly, wondering exactly when it turned from revenge and well-deserved recompense to him asking for a favor!
Lan Wangji didn't want to bother his brother with something so minor, so he wrote a quick note explaining the situation and gave it to a passing junior disciple to bring to Lan Xichen the next time she happened to see the sect leader taking a break.
Jimi Village was not too far from Gusu Lan; in fact, it was a small village a few li from Caiyi Village, tucked under the lip of a valley. Lan Wangji had suggested that they ride their swords, assuming that the other young man ("Call me Wei Ying!") was also a cultivator, given that he was able to chase Lan Wangji all the way back to his sect. However, Wei Wuxian had seemed immensely reluctant and just laughed it off with some nonsensical words, like "Haha, it's kind of complicated right now" and "Ah, but I forgot and left it at home, hehe."
If Lan Wangji was head disciple of whichever sect once taught Wei Wuxian, he would have recommended remedial instruction.
As things were, Wei Wuxian walked closer to the river running past the outskirts of Caiyi Village, waved an energetic goodbye, and dove straight into the water, disappearing almost immediately, not even bothering to take off his black robes.
"Wei Ying!" Lan Wangji shouted, rushing to the edge of the water and searching for any signs of a messy ponytail.
Seeing that no air bubbles were coming up as a sign of a foolish desperate person who was drowning, Lan Wangji finally sighed heavily, shaking his head, and stepped onto Bichen, aiming for the direction of Jimi Village.
"Lan-gongzi! You made it! You didn't break your promise, thank you~!" Wei Wuxian said cheerily, popping his head over the lip of the lake. Lan Wangji really had to wonder if he should be insulted at the implication, or if he should feel very sorry for Wei Wuxian for meeting so many awful people with no integrity. Speaking of integrity...
"I'm actually the second son," Lan Wangji corrected. "I have one older brother."
"Eh, really? Lan-er-gongzi, hmm. Hey, that does sound better! Wait a minute, though, I let you call me by my birth name. What's with this discrepancy? Aren't you being too unfair?"
Lan Wangji opened his mouth to protest, and then he abruptly remembered that he had indeed called out the other man's birth name, just out of shock, and lack of another name to use, but it still counted, and one wasn't supposed to lie or take unfair advantage of others.
Forced into a corner, Lan Wangji answered begrudgingly, "Courtesy name, Lan Wangji." He deliberated for a moment longer and then decided to add, "Lan Zhan" and say nothing more.
Wei Wuxian grinned at him, and the brightness of his smile lifted the corners of his eyes in a way that Lan Wangji rarely saw at the Cloud Recesses. Even Lan Xichen himself, known far and wide for his becoming features, smiled in a far more decorous way. Lan Wangji averted his face from the uncomfortable sight and focused on the lake languishing in disrepair in front of them.
Wei Wuxian had to approve of Lan Wangji more and more as he got to know him. Yes, things had gotten off on the wrong foot when Lan Wangji had just left a mess behind after dispatching the water ghoul that Wei Wuxian had been planning to eliminate himself, but now Lan Wangji was sitting there patiently, legs crossed and arms resting against his knees, as Wei Wuxian argued with himself over the best way to put the lake back together. It had taken him almost a year to grow the lotus flowers, and he had done it alone. Now that he had a helper for harvesting, he wanted to take full advantage.
"Okay," Wei Wuxian finally announced, and Lan Wangji sedately opened his eyes, politely giving his full attention. "Okay, first of all, I want to collect all the water ghoul parts. They're nasty, and I don't want them decomposing in the water. I mean, who would want to eat lotus seeds grown from that stuff? And then I want to find all the cut off lotus blossoms and see if we can salvage anything. Most of the lotuses were getting kind of old, and I don't need those, but you and the ghoul also chopped up some young good ones I was planning to harvest."
Lan Wangji listened carefully and nodded once Wei Wuxian was finished with his explanation. "I will look for the ghoul's remnants," Lan Wangji said. "I remember where I cut it down." He tied up his long sleeves before ascending on Bichen again and flying across the lake.
"Fine with me," Wei Wuxian remarked to no one, and he pulled out several baskets he'd woven from older lotus blossom stalks and set them carefully by the lake side. He checked to make sure that Lan Wangji was occupied, and then he threw off the confining robes and slid into the nice cool water. He swam into the depths where he could easily see where the lotus blossoms had sunk, and he began his search.
By the time, Lan Wangji had rediscovered the ghoulish body parts and incinerated them with a talisman, Wei Wuxian had covered the bottoms of each basket with goodies and was propping his head against the silty edge of the pond for a breather, his black robes flowing like a swell of ink around the lines of his body.
Wei Wuxian might be a little strange and annoying, but Lan Wangji had to admit that he was learning an important lesson that honestly had never been mentioned during the night hunts he'd joined as a junior disciple. It did make a lot of sense to clean the area afterwards if possible and to make any needed repairs. Lan Wangji was a little ashamed to think that perhaps it hadn't crossed his mind because he had considered the lake uninhabited.
Lan Wangji checked the sun against its horizon, and he had a few more hours left before dinner time, so he drew closer to Wei Wuxian to watch as the other young man sorted the lotus blossoms. He frowned in confusion as he realized that Wei Wuxian seemed to be keeping the entirety of each plant and disassembling them into separate parts. "I thought only the lotus seeds and roots are edible."
Wei Wuxian looked up with surprise. "Doesn't the Gusu Lan Sect eat a lot of different vegetables? You're not familiar with eating lotuses?"
Lan Wangji shook his head. "There are no lotuses in Gusu. The temperature seems to be too cold for them. One of the senior gardeners attempted to grow them in his youth but couldn't, and no one else has tried since then."
Shaking his head in mock pity, Wei Wuxian explained something that every child above the age of four knew in Yunmeng Jiang: "If a lotus flower is young and tender, then you can eat the roots, the stems, the leaves, basically everything. The stems and leaves are really tasty in salads when the weather is hot. Here, try it." Wei Wuxian snapped off a bright green leaf and handed it to Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji accepted the offering, but he eyed it warily and made no move to eat it.
Wei Wuxian let out an exasperated huff, but the baby disciples at Lotus Pier could also be fussy eaters, so he was used to a particular trick. He stole back the leaf, his fingers brushing against Lan Wangji's, who tensed immediately at the touch, and he tore a healthy piece off and popped it into his mouth. He didn't chew exaggeratedly as he would with a child, but he chewed it slowly and then swallowed. He handed the rest of the leaf back and stared expectantly.
Having never before been given a piece of food that someone else had just eaten from, Lan Wangji sat there, frozen, until Wei Wuxian cleared his throat and said with a slightly sulky undertone, "Never mind. If you really don't want to try it, you can just give it back to me."
Lan Wangji pulled away from the hand reaching out, and he tentatively slid the leaf between his front teeth. When nothing offensive exploded on his taste buds, he pushed the leaf in further and began chewing carefully, and he was pleasantly surprised to taste a mild sweetness cut with a lightly bitter undertone. It actually reminded Lan Wangji of a tea that he had once tried and liked from the gifts that his brother had brought back with him from a visit to Lotus Pier.
"Good, right?" Wei Wuxian said, and he was clearly pleased with what he saw on Lan Wangji's face.
"Mm," Lan Wangji agreed, and he began to help with the sorting. This time, it seemed a little less strange for their hands to accidentally meet every now and then as they handled the lotuses.
Wei Wuxian dissected the last lotus flower with a satisfied "There!"
Lan Wangji peered down at the semi-filled baskets. "Is that all that needed to salvaged?"
"Nah, I started on the east side of the lake and got to about the middle. There's still the west side," Wei Wuxian answered. He stretched his arms above his head and relished the burn of tightening and loosening muscles. Lan Wangji looked away. Wei Wuxian sighed in satisfaction and patted his robes down. "It's not dark yet. I'll go ahead and finish, and you can--Whoa, what are you doing?"
Lan Wangji had removed his long white jacket as well as his boots, and his well-formed feet were pressing gently into the mud. "I will help to find the rest," he said simply.
"Okay, I appreciate the thought, but!" Wei Wuxian raised a few fingers. "Do you know how to swim? Won't you get into trouble if you dirty your clothes? Why the heck are you wearing white on night hunts anyway?"
"I can swim well enough," Lan Wangji said in response. "And Gusu Lan employs seamstresses who always embroider talismans to repel filth on the cloth we use for our robes." He didn't bother to answer the last question, which Wei Wuxian thought was fair enough. It couldn't be too fun to live in the sect that all the other sect disciples secretly teased for wearing mourning clothes. Not that Wei Wuxian had ever done that. Of course not.
"Well, okay," Wei Wuxian said reluctantly. Really, he was all ready to send Lan Wangji back home, but here he was, being overly responsible and letting Wei Wuxian overindulge in his craving for human companionship. "Hey, let's make it more fun! How about the person who finds the most gets to have the bigger bowl of lotus seeds?"
"Ridiculous," Lan Wangji muttered before he waded into the water and carefully transitioned into an acceptable diving form.
As it turned out, the bet was negated because Lan Wangji had no idea how to harvest the lotus seeds from their pods. Once again dressed in all his white layers, Lan Wangji sat stiffly next to Wei Wuxian's relaxed sprawl, and his long deft fingers fumbled over the bumpy surface of the lotus pod for a full minute while Wei Wuxian stared incredulously, and finally, Wei Wuxian had to pull the pod away and show him the steps.
First, dig your thumb close to the seed you want, pull away the green and white stuffing, pull out the little green ball, and STOP! Lan Wangji almost bit down on the seed that he had unearthed before Wei Wuxian waved his hands frantically to stop him.
"Hold on, don't be so impatient!" Wei Wuxian scolded, and he had the pleasure of seeing a rare flush rise across Lan Wangji's cheekbones. "Look, there's still two skins here, a thicker green one and a translucent thinner one. Yeah, see, you want to wait for the white flesh, and last step, you need to crack it open and pull out the little green sprout. Or not, I guess, maybe you'd like the bitterness. Personally, I like it better as pure sweetness."
Lan Wangji accepted the two halves of the lotus seed that Wei Wuxian had finished preparing for him. He regarded them curiously in the cup of his hand, and they winked like little pearls in the dying sunlight. Lan Wangji ate each piece slowly and marveled at the sweet nutty flavor. Unbeknownst to him, the corners of his stern lips lifted into a small smile, and upon catching sight of it, Wei Wuxian smiled right back and kept peeling more seeds for them to share in a common bowl.
"Mm," Lan Wangji said softly.
"Here, eat more," he offered, pushing the bowl a little closer to Lan Wangji. "They're best while they're fresh."
It felt nice, really nice, Wei Wuxian thought, sitting with a pretty young man and eating lotus seeds together. It was almost as nice as sitting and eating with shijie and Jiang Cheng. Or maybe just as nice, just in a different kind of way.
The lotus seeds were delicious, but they weren't enough to fully stifle the hunger pangs that began to plague Lan Wangji's stomach, and he stood up reluctantly, aware that he was likely to arrive late back at Gusu Lan and miss curfew and would have to risk alerting his uncle to his oversight or take a room at a nearby inn and pretend that his errand had taken more than a day. And that would be a blatant lie.
As Lan Wangji pondered his choices, he realized there was something he'd forgotten, "Wei Ying, where do you live?"
Wei Wuxian looked up at him with wide innocent eyes. "Eh, Lan Zhan, what are you talking about? I already told you that I live here."
Lan Wangji gave him a flat look. "Where is your house?"
Wei Wuxian continued to dodge the question. "Ah, Lan Zhan, didn't I tell you it's not good to make assumptions? Why would I need a house?"
The furrow between Lan Wangji's eyebrows deepened, and those lovely eyes grew troubled. "Do you--not have a home?"
This guy was too much! Wei Wuxian groaned and looked up to the Heavens for support before sighing and giving in. "Okay, you don't have to look so sad! I do have a home, thank you, and I'm actually the head disciple of Yunmeng Jiang, so I'm a bit of a young master like you."
Lan Wangji blinked. "Wei--Wuxian. You're Wei Wuxian."
"Surprise," Wei Wuxian said, making a little bow.
"Why is the head disciple of Yunmeng Jiang living so far away from Lotus Pier?" Lan Wangji asked suspiciously. Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli had attended lectures at the Cloud Recesses for the past three years until they became senior disciples and returned to Lotus Pier. Their adopted brother, Wei Wuxian, had apparently chosen to apprentice under Nie Mingjue and focus more on swordsmanship and more earth-oriented cultivation. Despite the difference in scholarly pursuits, Lan Wangji couldn't remember hearing about any sort of rift between Wei Wuxian and his foster family.
Wei Wuxian looked shifty, and he tossed the remnants of their snack into the bushes before standing up and wrapping his robes more tightly around himself. "No particular reason. Anyway, aren't good Gusu Lan disciples supposed to go to bed at 9:00? You better hurry before you break a rule."
Despite the instinctive twinge Lan Wangji felt at the thought of breaking a rule, he couldn't seem to let this conundrum go. "What reason?" Lan Wangji asked, following as Wei Wuxian backed away towards the lake.
"None of your business," Wei Wuxian snapped before turning to flee and tripping on an exposed tree root. He hit the grassy incline with a muffled thump, and he felt the crack of his flute breaking against the impact. "Damn it!" That was his second flute already, and Madam Yu would sooner tear him a new one than let him get a third one. He felt along Suibian's hilt and down the sheathe. Well, at least, he didn't break his sword; otherwise, Suibian would probably never let him fly on it again.
"Wei Ying! Show me the injury!" Lan Wangji was horrified. The crack of bone had sounded clearly through the night air.
"What?" Wei Wuxian looked completely dazed, and now Lan Wangji was afraid that he must have hit his head on the ground and gotten a concussion as well.
There was no time for hesitation with such serious injuries, so Lan Wangji reached out and pulled the heavy black robes apart to find the broken limb. A tiny kernel in the back of his mind accused him of filthy ulterior motives, but for the most part, he was genuinely concerned that he had caused the other man to injure himself. Wei Wuxian was spluttering and trying to push him off, but then he saw it.
Frozen in shock, Lan Wangji stared for a long moment, his hands loosening their grasp on the red inner robe, and Wei Wuxian smacked his hands away with an exaggerated huff. "You're unexpectedly forward, Lan Zhan! We've only known each other for a day, and you start something like this?"
Hearing those words, Lan Wangji snapped out of his fugue and threw himself back from the creature in front of him. He quickly pulled Bichen from its sheathe and pointed it at the throat of the being that called itself "Wei Wuxian." Anger infused him as he realized how easily he had been tricked.
"Aiyah! Now you're getting aggressive? Come on, Lan-er-gongzi, didn't we have a perfectly nice day together?"
"You're a water demon! What did you do to Wei Wuixan?"
"I am Wei Wuxian! And don't call me a water demon. I'm more like a sprite or something, I think," Wei Wuxian said exasperatedly.
Lan Wangji didn't lower his sword, but it wavered a little as doubt invaded his former conviction, and Wei Wuxian took the risk of pushing it farther away from his neck. "Why do you have a tail?" Lan Wangji demanded, his eyes flicking from Wei Wuxian's face to the large serpent's tail that took the place of his legs.
Wei Wuxian pursed his lips into a pout. "I got cursed, okay? I did a night hunt alone six months ago, and I got cursed by the village's water wheel. I managed to dispel the curse on the water wheel itself, but I'm still suffering from some lingering side effects."
"Why didn't you seek help from your sect?" Lan Wangji asked, taking his turn to feel exasperated. He sheathed his sword. "Your robes cover the worst of it, and you could have gone into the village to send a message."
"I'm one of the Twin Prides of Yunmeng Jiang. I don't need help with something as simple as this," Wei Wuxian boasted, and then silence fell between them as they both acknowledged the fact that he'd been under the curse for six months already. Wei Wuxian deflated and added sheepishly, "And I got into a stupid fight with Jiang Cheng. He said that there was no way to grow lotus flowers outside Lotus Pier, and if there were, they wouldn't be as tasty, and I was going to prove him wrong before I went home."
Lan Wangji couldn't even begin to understand that sort of foolish reasoning, so he bypassed it all to get to the heart of the matter: "Have you learned anything about how to break your curse?"
"Oh, yeah," Wei Wuxian said casually. "It's really not a big deal. It's one of those clichéd stories, you know? The previous owner of the water wheel fell in love with a girl in the village, but he thought he was too ugly for her, so he kept putting things off, and before he could confess his love, he tragically fell to his death while he was fixing a spoke. Really sad."
Lan Wangji had to admit that sort of story did seem to make the rounds in the villages that he had helped with various haunts, and he had probably read different versions of that same story in the cultivation history scrolls. Which meant...
"Does this curse require the traditional cure?" Lan Wangji asked diffidently, his eyes not quite meeting Wei Wuxian's.
"Huh? Uh, yeah, seems like it," Wei Wuxian said, also sounding rather shy, and he scuffed the tip of his tail against the ground awkwardly.
"Oh," Lan Wangji said faintly, and his heart began to beat so rapidly that he thought it might burst out of his chest. His ears flared red, and his temples grew sweaty, and he thanked the Heavens that the sun had set enough that the surrounding light was growing dim.
Wei Wuxian wasn't sure why he was blushing. He could feel it crawling up the back of his neck, and he felt immensely hot and spiky all over. What was wrong with him? They were just two cultivators discussing a curse and its probable cure, that's all. Nothing to be embarrassed about. They weren't virgins, hahahaha. Uh, well, actually, truth be told, he was sort of...inexperienced.
Lan Wangji was still looking off to the side, his long lashes casting faint shadows and his mouth set in a soft, thoughtful expression. He looked very touchable, and mesmerized by the sight, Wei Wuxian started leaning forward a bit and then jerked himself back. He cleared his throat.
"Anyway, as you can see, I'll be fine. My experiment with the lotus flowers was a success; I'm ready to make Jiang Cheng eat his words. The river over there goes all the way to Yunmeng Jiang, just with a few little detours, so I'll just swim down in a few more days, and everyone knows me there, so I'm sure I'll find a nice girl who won't mind giving me a kiss." Wei Wuxian rambled away, completely oblivious to the look of displeasure that was narrowing Lan Wangji's eyes and tightening his lips.
"I'll do it." "So, don't worry and just go home."
Wei Wuxian was sure he had to clean out his ears because he was hearing things really wrong, so he waved for Lan Wangji to go ahead and speak first.
"I'll do it," Lan Wangji repeated, his eyes nervously darting up and down before finally holding Wei Wuxian's gaze.
"Do what?" Wei Wuxian asked confusedly. Go home? He didn't think that Lan Wangji needed to announce it so passionately, but good to know. "Oh, okay, go ahead!"
Lan Wangji remained still for a long moment, and then he slowly leaned in closer and closer. Wei Wuxian stared at him with eyes that grew exponentially bigger as he realized that Lan Wangji wasn't going to stop, and their faces were going to touch. Lan Wangji paused a centimeter from the soft cheek in front of him and then gathered all his courage to give a quick peck, and then he withdrew, his lips tingling.
Wei Wuxian's mind was blown, and all thoughts whited out until only one remained. Lan Wangji just stole his first kiss! Wait, did it count if it was just on the cheek? He prodded his cheek and wondered at how such a simple thing could feel so delicate, so dear.
Lan Wangji was already taking several steps back, once again avoiding Wei Wuxian's eyes, and he was just too cute, too adorable, for words! He grabbed Lan Wangji by the shoulders and pulled him back before hastily letting go and giving him a few soothing pats when Lan Wangji jerked away, expression startled like a deer.
"Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan~. I'm pretty sure it has to be on the lips," Wei Wuxian said shamelessly. Lan Wangji's mouth dropped open briefly, and Wei Wuxian pouted, "No?"
Lan Wangji swallowed hard, the tendons in his neck holding tight before he took another breath. "Yes," he answered hoarsely.
"A-Cheng, let's go to the gate. I heard A-Xian's voice just now. He must be back from his trip," Jiang Yanli called happily to Jiang Cheng, who tossed his wooden sword to the junior disciple he'd been training and put back on his outer robe.
They walked together down the path that ran through the training yards to the front courtyard.
"It's about time he got back," Jiang Cheng grumbled. "Just because he sends a letter every month saying he's okay doesn't mean he can just run off for almost a year. He's lucky that he remembered to get back in time for the New Year's. Mother would whip him dead otherwise."
Jiang Yanli laughed sweetly. "But A-Xian sounds so happy in his letters. He never could sit still, so traveling so much is good for him. A-Cheng, maybe you should leave Lotus Pier for your own trip too."
"It was enough to study at Cloud Recesses for three years. I don't want to leave Lotus Pier again anytime soon."
"But A-Cheng, how will you meet people?" Jiang Yanli teased gently. "Didn't you talk to Father about wishing to marry?"
"A-Jie!" Jiang Cheng blushed and checked around to make sure no one was close enough to hear. "I just became of age anyway, so I have plenty of time. In fact," Jiang Cheng snorted, "I'll start looking in earnest once Wei Wuxian settles down. He keeps saying he's older than me, right?"
"Shijie! Jiang Cheng!" Wei Wuxian bounced over from where he'd been catching up on gossip from the sentries standing guard at the gate. "I'm back! And I brought Lan Zhan with me!"
"Lan Zhan?" Jiang Cheng repeated blankly.
"Oh, welcome to Lotus Pier, Lan-er-gongzi," Jiang Yanli said politely despite her surprise.
Lan Wangji looked the same as he did over a year ago when the Jiang siblings had formally thanked Lan Qiren for all his years of teaching and departed for Lotus Pier. Lan Wangji was still dressed in his usual white robes, forehead ribbon still carefully laid across his forehead, face still mostly expressionless as he bowed in return.
But as he stood there in Lotus Pier like a willowy but majestic tree, Wei Wuxian was hugging him from the back and chattering away about their adventures, all in all, being rather overwhelming and the complete antithesis to everything in Gusu Lan, and all Lan Wangji seemed to do about it was smile faintly.