They had tracked the strangely elusive fierce corpse to the foot of a mountain. What they had not expected was to find a swarm of people milling around in the inns that circled it.
With some asking around (and some of Wei Wuxian’s skill at coaxing people’s tongues to wag with the strategic use of alcohol), dinner was spent discovering that the mountain had recently turned into an up-and-coming hiker’s paradise and people had come in droves to spend their festival weekend climbing it.
“My daughter loves running around all these old scenic paths,” said Mr Cong, waving a hand at the teenaged apple of his eye, who was digging into her mother’s pack to ask why there were so many snacks squirrelled away when she had specifically said to pack light. “So with the longer holiday and everything, we decided to spend some family time huffing and puffing up a beautiful riverside gorge together, and then prune ourselves in the springs at the top of the mountain after a hot day’s climb.” Despite his frivolous air, Mr Cong’s face lit up as he waxed on about the beautiful bamboo forest path they planned to take on the way down the mountain.
Lan Sizhui judiciously tipped more wine into his cup as the daughter marched over to commandeer her father’s belongings and redistribute nine kilograms of fruit into three packs instead of one.
Before they met up with Wen Ning outside to discuss, they were already agreed. As there were four paths up the mountain, it was only logical for the party of four to split up in search of the fierce corpse’s traces, and make sure to be on hand as the holiday tourists got on their way with the dawn.
Although Wei Wuxian had all but implied that Lan Wangji, who was taking the second most difficult trail (leaving the steepest one to Wen Ning), would be taking advantage of Bichen to make his way to the top, Sizhui found himself reluctant to do the same.
Surrounded by wide, jade-green trunks of bamboo, with the quiet hush of the forest broken by distant shouts of people encouraging each other up the winding slope, there was a strangeness in the spaces between the thick bamboo stalks. It felt nearly like a living presence.
The fierce corpse they were tracking was unlikely to have chosen this path. Though it was the easiest trail of the four and one of the more popular for that reason, this particular fierce corpse had so far been bent more on going undetected rather than feeding her own hungers. She went out of her way to detour around places with too many people, where most fierce corpses were drawn to the energy of the living. While this was good for the people she avoided, it did make it difficult to run her to ground, which was why Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had come to help. As far as Sizhui could sense, there was no sign she had come this way last night.
If there was anything spiritual on this side of the mountain, it was nothing that drew power from the dead. The essence of it seemed to weave itself into the air. A reverence for simply being within the bounds of the bamboo path; a joy that didn’t bubble close to the surface but burrowed deep across the sunless earth. A foundation stone, not a mere patina.
No, it would be a pity to steal people’s attention from the attractions of the bamboo forest trail by leaping flashily onto his sword.
Ahead of him, someone stumbled on the path, only for her friend to catch her. They shoved at each other in an affable way, and their laughter floated back down to his ears.
To his left, a soft sound drew his attention and he met eyes with a quiet family of wild boars, their eyes glinting soft and curious in the shade of the trees, before they melted away into the shadows, the little ones trotting frantically after their mother.
This was something that would bless bonds that were already rooted, Sizhui realised as the path suddenly widened into a stone-paved plateau of little stalls for food and drink. He thought of the Cong family and their mountain of fruit, and smiled to himself as he decided that they would enjoy leaving the mountain by this trail.
They had begun lighting lanterns in the street when he finally emerged from the bamboo path into the town where the four mountain paths converged. Amidst the wash of red and yellow, he could see where people were leaving the river gorge path -- and there waving at him, was the familiar figure of Wei Wuxian.
Sizhui only realised a smile had broken over his face as he hurried over. “Wei-qianbei!” While it was no hardship to climb the bamboo forest trail, being surrounded by people travelling in family or friend groups had been a bit lonely.
“Not a hair out of place on our Sizhui,” Wei Wuxian observed. “I take it your journey here was as boring as mine, eh? No sign of our good friend?”
When they had first begun hunting this fierce corpse, Sizhui had asked why Wei Wuxian liked to call their quarry a ‘good friend’.
“As I am on good terms with more than one fierce corpse -- and for that matter, so are you -- I try not to rule out the possibility of making yet another good friend,” Wei Wuxian had replied.
“No sign,” Sizhui admitted now. “Although I wouldn’t say it was uneventful, I think I did learn a lot from running around on this scenic old route.”
Wei Wuxian held up his hands in surrender, laughing. “Far be it from me to speak carelessly in front of Hanguang-jun’s prize pupil!”
Sizhui eyed his senior. “Wei-qianbei… was it really that boring for you on the river gorge trail?”
“Hmm?” said Wei Wuxian, his eyes glinting. Sizhui was suddenly reminded of the forest boar and the hidden danger that he might have walked past sight unseen. “Why do you say that?”
The question was simple, but Sizhui felt as though he’d been plunged into an examination hall, the kind where the questions were conducted aloud, in front of an audience, and where it was imperative to have memorised all four thousand and nineteen of the rules on the wall of discipline.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s nothing. Only that Qianbei is in surprisingly good spirits for a journey that was so boring.”
Wei Wuxian chuckled, and the dark feeling receded. “Congratulations, Lan Sizhui. You’ve caught me out.” He plucked Chenqing from his waist and waggled it about. “Don’t tell your Hanguang-jun, but I may have startled some of the merry holidaymakers when I wandered into the trees to see if I could draw our good friend out. If you hear anyone muttering about creepy disembodied music from the river gorge trail, do me a favour and pretend not to hear it.”
Sizhui coughed into his fist to hide his smile. “What music?”
Wei Wuxian winked. “That’s our Sizhui. Now,” he put Chenqing away and swept an arm around. “I’ve done the rounds and neither Lan Zhan nor your uncle have finished their routes yet. I think you and I had better find somewhere to stay for the night before all the acceptable places get snapped up. They’ll find us when they’re done. Sound good?”
By the time they secured a room at an inn that wouldn’t make Lan Wangji icily inform the both of them that the Lan family coffers were in good enough shape to afford better, full night had fallen.
The innkeeper, who could now happily say that the rooms were fully occupied, was in the mood to be chatty. “What brings you two young masters up the mountain? Did you meet on the way here?”
The fey mood hadn’t quite left Wei Wuxian yet, and Lan Sizhui could somehow, without looking, sense sharp mischief in the air. A gentle zing like lightning hummed, a forbidding omen. These were the signs Sizhui had learnt to notice, when he was out and about with this particular senior, so he had time to brace himself before Wei Wuxian slung an arm over his shoulder.
“No, no, we didn’t meet on the trail. Can’t you see the resemblance? This is my kid!”
The innkeeper’s jaw dropped at the audacity of this pronouncement. Wei Wuxian continued on, “This handsome boy with the refined manners and brilliant mind? No doubt about it, this is my own true son.” A deep rush of emotion surged through Sizhui and coloured his cheeks.
“Err…” said the innkeeper, who seemed unsure if it was alright to laugh and partake of the joke. “No offence, sir, but I’d never have pegged it! You look far too young to be a father.” Let alone the father of such a polite young man who seems to be humouring your antics, went unsaid.
“You’re too kind, too kind,” said Wei Wuxian, warming to his role. “For so long, this old man spent his time digging holes, planting radishes to sell, only to do it again the next year… You see, when he was just a baby, I took one look at this boy and I knew he had it in him to live more than a radish-planting life.”
Sizhui did his best to look modest and self-effacing as Wei Wuxian hauled him closer.
“Now look at him!” he demanded. “A young man so clever and hardworking that he caught the eye of a good sponsor, so that he’s now a genius in imperial law, the guqin, and the art of the sword, just like a proper gentleman! And even though he has better things to care about, he’s made the time to arrange everything just so he can take his old dad out for the weekend.”
“I see now,” said the innkeeper. To Sizhui’s alarm, he seemed to be knuckling a tear away. He knew his own face was very, very red, and he couldn’t open his mouth to defend himself. Anything that came out would sound fatuous and… lacking. “I understand completely. This young man’s love keeps his father youthful.”
“You have exactly hit the nail on the head,” Wei Wuxian agreed. “I like how you put it: my son keeps me young. Ah, look at him, he doesn’t understand it. Never mind, I never would have understood it at his age either.”
Ah, Sizhui thought to himself, that’s not right. The deep-buried joy from the bamboo forest plucked at him. He had recognised it in the forest because he had known something very similar before.
He said to the innkeeper, “Uncle, you’re very kind to say such things. Though my father likes to make a joke of it, Sizhui knows the hardships he’s borne on Sizhui’s behalf.”
He turned to beam gently at his ‘father’, who now seemed to be having his own difficulties holding his smile. “When I was very small, there were many things I didn’t understand. Now, I have a small idea of the bitterness my father swallowed for me without complaining. Even though we were parted for so long, I hope my father knows his sacrifices did not go unnoticed.”
To his delight, Wei Wuxian was blinking very hard.
He added, “Sizhui intends to take care of Father properly for the rest of his life.”
Wei Wuxian coughed loudly. “Look at this brat, trying to do everything! Let’s bring an end to this melodrama in someone else’s house, hey? Boss, how about some dinner?”
As he assured them that only the finest the kitchen had to offer would be sent to their room, the innkeeper swept away. Wei Wuxian removed his arm from around Sizhui’s shoulders to elbow him in the side.
“Who taught you to fill your mouth with that kind of honey, huh?” he said, almost accusing. “My goodness, your family will be proud to hear such things from you.”
“Wei-qianbei,” said Sizhui, smiling. “You know I meant it, don’t you?”
Wei Wuxian dropped his eyes and cleared his throat, noisily. He took a breath and let it out, also noisily. Then he said, “Sizhui knows I meant what I said too, yes?”
“Sizhui knows,” he said. “Xian-gege, I hope what I say isn’t a burden to you.”
“‘Xian’--!” Wei Wuxian put his hand over his eyes. “Ah Yuan, ah, do you think it’s funny to make your Xian-gege cry?!”
He started forward, avoiding Sizhui’s laughing gaze, and groused all the way to dinner.
In the early pre-dawn hours, Lan Sizhui came quietly awake at the sound of the window drifting open. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whisper-cried happily, for once aware enough of the hour to keep his voice low.
“Wei Ying,” returned the soft reply, and Sizhui kept his face politely averted as he swung out of bed.
“Hanguang-jun,” he greeted as Lan Wangji came properly into the room.
“Sizhui,” he replied. “Here, for you.” A lumpy, cloth-wrapped bundle found its way into Sizhui’s hands and he opened it to find a set of ripe yellow pears. The little glow in his chest intensified.
“Thank you, Hanguang-jun.” Sizhui set the bundle on the table and inspected the spread of utensils for a clean peeling knife.
“Did you find our good friend?” demanded Wei Wuxian. “Sizhui and I have a bet on whether you or Wen Ning found her first.”
Lan Wangji glanced at Wei Wuxian. “Who did you bet on?”
“Need you ask? Of course I bet on Lan~er~ge~ge~!” He flicked Lan Wangji’s nose on each exaggerated syllable.
“Then Sizhui won,” said Lan Wangji, placid as a mountain lake. Over Wei Wuxian’s vocal disappointment, he said, “I heard them at the top of my path, so I assisted by going the other way down Wen Ning’s route. Wei Ying suspected right; she’s as Wen Ning is. He watches her, for now.”
“Aha,” said Wei Wuxian. “If Wen Ning is there then that will be alright. Lan Zhan, you’d better rest for a bit first. Have you eaten? We kept some dinner for you, all stuff that doesn’t taste too bad when it’s cold. Let me tell you what this Lan Sizhui said to me last night. Did you know this child is a menace? He-- Ow! Hanguang-jun, did you just pinch me?!”
“Calling our Sizhui a menace is forbidden,” said Lan Wangji.
Feeling very full and very loved, Sizhui swallowed down a giggle as he began slicing pears to offer to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian.