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Generated: Mar 07, 2021 1:13 AM
Post last updated: Feb 20, 2021 2:55 PM
talk less, smile more
we'll explain how f!wei ying became an adopted wen later
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The Wen Sect contingent is approaching the Cloud Recesses, and Wen Chao has a smirk on his face that's even stupider than average for a Wen Chao facial expression. 

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Two Lan disciples stand before the gates of the Cloud Recesses. They look unnerved seeing Wen Chao's approach; the one on the right smiles tersely. "Sir, please present your invitation."

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"My invitation?"

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"An invitation is required for entry into Cloud Recesses. No invitation, no entry. No jade token, no entry. Arriving late, no entry."

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Wen Chao thrusts out a hand to force-choke the Lan disciple, smoke rising from his collar. 

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He gasps, hand flying to his throat. His companion guard starts forward, alarmed.

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One of the other members of the contingent hastily steps between him and the Lan disciple. 

"Cousin, cousin, there's no need to sully your own hands with the likes of such as they," she assures him. 

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He drops his hand, releasing the disciple. "What do you suggest, then?" 

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She bows to him. 

"If you will but give this one a moment," she says, and turns to the wards. Her eyes narrow, and she chews on her lip. After a moment, her hand comes up and she traces a bright orange talisman in the air, which rushes forwards and impacts the barrier at the gate. It ripples and shatters. 

"After you," she says, gesturing. 

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He nods and sweeps past her, giving the Lan disciples an imperious look. "As you can see, the Wen sect needs no invitation to go wherever we please," he sneers. 

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The Lan disciples gape after them in mingled fear and shock, the one on the right still clutching the smoking collar of his white robes.

No one else impedes their path.

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Did the Lan disciples say something about their being late? Well that would explain why all these people are already gathered. 

He breezes in, shoving past the guy who was already at the front. 

"You know, it was unnecessarily difficult to get in." 

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"...The Lan sect apologizes, then, for not having anticipated your arrival. It's only that nobody from the Wen sect has come to attend our lectures for the past hundred years. Are we to be honored with your presence, then?" 

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"Absolutely not. I'm only here as an escort. Besides, how could the Lan sect possibly have anything to teach the Qishan Wen?" 

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How dare he.

She starts fiercely forward, hand gripping Bichen's hilt, but catches herself. Glances at Brother for permission. Let me demonstrate what the Lan can teach him.

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Headshake. He REALLY REALLY REALLY DOES NOT NEED THAT POLITICAL HEADACHE RIGHT NOW. 

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"Gongzi, that being the case--we're here, you've escorted us, you can go now, surely you have more important things to do than loiter around here." 

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"Hn. Indeed." 

As he turns to leave, he grips her arm and says, low and in her ear, "Don't spend so much time having fun that you forget why you're really here." 

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She nods stiffly. 

Once it's only her, Qing-jie and Ning-di, she drops to one knee on the floor and bows deeply. 

"This one apologizes for not having been able to restrain Wen-Gongzi. To defy the will of the main house is not safe for oneself or one's loved ones, in the Qishan Wen sect. Myself, Wen Ying, my older sister, Wen Qing, and my younger brother, Wen Ning, have been ordered to attend these lectures by Sect Leader Wen. We swear that during our stay we shall do our best to follow the Lan strictures and redeem ourselves for this failure." 

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Interesting. 

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Hmmmmm. It cannot be a good thing that the Qishan Wen are here, but it seems as though they at least want to avoid outright conflict. Qiren also wants to avoid conflict. Turning them away feels safest, but ultimately wouldn't be.

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Part of their redemption will be abiding by the protocol of the opening ceremony, as much as they still can after barging in two hours late. Wen Qing motions for A-Ning to hand her their gift, then steps forward to offer the large, polished mahogany box in a bow to Sect Leader Lan. "Please forgive us for the commotion. Wen-er gongzi was not familiar with the rules of Cloud Recesses, but we will learn quickly."

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"If they have spoken truly," says Lan Qiren slowly, eyeing the box like it might explode, "Then we will accept it."

To the extent that they spoke truly, he is saying, the Lan Sect welcomes them. And no further.

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Damn it, she is actually going to have to follow the Lan sect's absurd number of rules, fuck you Wen Chao. She adds this to the bottom of her very, very long list of reasons why Wen Ruohan and his sons Must Go. 

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He accepts the box and eyes the three of them critically. "The opening ceremony is over. You may retire to a guest house. Please be on time to classes tomorrow." 

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She watches them Suspiciously. Lan Zhan isn't going to follow them, exactly, but she is going to eye them judgmentally and make sure they're walking in the right direction without any rulebreaking as everyone files out of the mansion

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No rulebreaking! Only quickly walking towards the guest houses. "You did well," she tells A-Ying in a low voice as they walk. "Uncle should not have sent him along."

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"He really shouldn't have. I'm going to have to actually follow all three thousand rules to be able to operate in any kind of good faith, that arrogant asshole, ugh." 

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"D- do you know what the rules are, Ying-jie? Should. Should we already know what the rules are?"

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"Nnnno, no I do not. Mrrrrngh this is going to be unnecessarily hard, fuck Wen Chao." Sigh. "They're probably written down somewhere, I'm gonna ask permission to use the library." 

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"Good idea. A-Ning and I will put our stuff down in a guest house and then make a pass over the grounds. You haven't noticed anything yet, have you?"

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"Well, I might've if I wasn't so busy doing damage control on Wen Chao, we may never know." Sigh. 

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Yeah.

A-Ying gets a sympathetic shoulder pat before they split up.

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She goes looking for the nearest Lan disciple, which...turns out to be the Sect Leader's sister. Who does not look happy. Well, fair. 

She bows. 

"This one requests permission to access the library." 

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Glare. Seems SUSPICIOUS. "Reason?"

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"Finding out the Lan sect rules so as to be able to follow them." 

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"The Lan sect rules were read at the beginning of the ceremony. You were late." Which is Very Offensive no matter how otherwise polite this girl may seem. Lan Zhan is very personally offended that the prettiest girl to ever set foot in Cloud Recesses showed up late.

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"This one would apologize for the behavior of Wen Chao, but an apology implies the intention to change in the future, which Wen Chao lacks and this one lacks the ability to effect. This one wishes to avoid compounding this failing by inadvertently breaking any further rules." If she was going to break any rules she was going to do it on purpose, dammit. "If the library is not available this one will find another way." 

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"Available with supervision."

She turns on her heel towards the library pavilion. The Wen girl can follow if she wants.

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She follows. 

Lan-guniang is so pretty and thinks she's just another arrogant Wen and she can't blame her for that. She can blame Wen Chao for that. Curse you, Wen Chao

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They arrive at the library. Lan Zhan strides directly to one of the tall shelf and plucks out a book with dark blue covers.

She hands the book of rules to Wen Ying without a word and then retreats to her favored desk in the center of the room.

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"Thank you." 

She finds another desk nearby enough that Lan-guniang won't have any trouble keeping an eye on her and takes paper out of her sleeve and starts reading and taking notes. 

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Lan-guniang sits primly at her desk, copying poetry in her perfect calligraphy. She looks up at Wen Ying often through her eyelashes.

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This is SO BORING and Wen Ying can't even flirt with the incredibly pretty girl to break the monotony because the incredibly pretty girl thinks she's lower than dirt. This is so unfair. 

 

Eventually she finishes. She organizes her notes into two piles, rises from her desk, and offers Lan-guniang the book and one of the piles of notes. 

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She blinks at the note pile and then up at Wen Ying. This is for her?

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"Um, in order to get into Cloud Recesses without an invitation, it was...necessary to break through the wards. These are my notes on how I did it and other ways I would have tried if that one hadn't worked. So you can fix the weaknesses I used." She ducks her head. 

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"Sorry.

She hurries off back to the guest house where her siblings are waiting. 

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What the fuck.

 

Why is she smart. Why is she so smart she was already pretty and it was already unfair this is TERRIBLE. And she is using her intelligence to BREAK RULES? Using her intelligence for CHAOS?

But then she gave Lan Zhan notes on how to prevent chaos and protect rule-following. After breaking the wards. On her first try.

 

What the fuck.

 

Lan Zhan's face is very hot (with Righteous Anger, presumably) and she feels like she's been punched in the stomach. She notices belatedly that her fists are clenched; the notes have become all crumpled. This is also Wen Ying's fault. 

She squeezes the crumpled notes tight and storms off to go find her brother. 

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Siblings: haven't found anything. Wen Ning is practicing sword forms. Wen Qing is sorting her medicine kit, occasionally looking up and correcting her brother.

Keep the arm higher during the -- yes, like that. Good. 

Watch your feet. They should be parallel in this stance.

-- I said parallel, A-Ning.

When A-Ying enters, she looks up and smiles tiredly at her. "We didn't find anything, still. Did it go alright?"

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"Yep. They have way too many rules. I have notes on the ones that aren't the kind of commonsense 'don't be an asshole' stuff only the likes of Wen Chao would have trouble following." She brandishes the notes. "Alcohol is forbidden, annoyingly; I've heard good things about Gusu's Emperor's Smile and it looks like I'm going to have to wait to snag some on the way out if I want to try it. Also their sleep schedule is mildly insane. And you can't run. Or yell." 

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"Were you hoping to run around and yell?"

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"Running is very useful for getting from point A to point B in the minimum amount of time, Jiejie!" 

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"Mhmmm. I'm sorry there are so many rules to follow, A-Ying. Hopefully we'll get what we need quickly."

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She sighs. "I wouldn't have minded coming here for real. Lan Qiren is supposed to be a remarkable teacher for all that he's an old fuddy-duddy. Uncle ruins everything." 

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"It's not a bad idea for one of us to attend the actual lecture. That will be better for appearances. You can -- A-Ning parallel! -- you can go tomorrow. There will still be time to search."

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"You're not coming? You don't think it'll blow our cover if we don't all attend the classes?"

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She sighs. "I don't honestly think Sect Leader Lan believes our cover. I think they are going to go along with it as long as we don't make trouble or start obviously doing something else. I am not going to make trouble. A-Ning is a little too young to attend the lecture anyway, technically. I can officially be busy looking after him."

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"Okay. I'll bring you guys notes if there's anything especially interesting." 

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She finally tracks down Brother, and restrains herself from tossing the notes at him. She feels uncomfortably immature, like a child about to throw a tantrum. Lan Zhan never even threw tantrums when she was an actual child; she hates feeling this way.

"Wen-er guniang broke the wards," she tells him, brandishing the crumpled notes. Her face warms further with embarrassment.

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"...Well, that's mildly terrifying. But better than having coerced our disciples into letting them in, I suppose. What's this?" he asks, taking the papers and smoothing them out. 

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"Wen-er guniang made notes," she grits out. "On improving the wards."

Lan Zhan doesn't know the words to adequately convey how terrible this is. Hopefully Brother will just Understand that this is the most terrible thing ever. 

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"...I see. That was helpful of her." 

He skims through the notes. 

 

"Either she is a genuinely good person constrained by a terrible sect leader, or she very much wants us to think she is," he concludes. 

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Lan Zhan looks infuriated by both of these possibilities.

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"A-Zhan, I trust you completely. But I don't think you've ever felt this way before, and feelings like this can be difficult to handle. Please don't say anything unwise in front of the Wens because you have a crush on Wen-er-guniang." 

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WHAT THE FUCK

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"Absolutely not."

She absolutely does not have a crush on anyone and especially not a Wen and especially not a really really pretty and clever Wen who arrived late and broke the wards. That's Absurd.

She has been betrayed. Time to storm off AGAIN.

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The next day only one of the Wens shows up to class, but she is definitely not late and she is very attentive. She takes lots and lots of notes and knows the answers to all the "gotcha" questions Lan Qiren throws at her. 

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Why did she agree to attend this lecture. This is the worst thing that's ever happened to her. Lan Zhan struggles to pay attention in class for the first time in her life, which is terrible. She wants to do well in class, and even moreso she wants to hit Wen Ying.

 

 

And then she wants Wen Ying to hit her back. And then maybe knock her over and sit on her and pull her hair.

Just. Because challenging duels are fun and rare. This is the only reason.

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Lan Qiren is cautiously impressed by Wen Ying, although he continues tossing "gotcha" questions her way. Most of his students seem to be doing well, in fact, except for Nie Huaisang. He is mostly very pleased with the group of disciples.

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She approaches Nie Huaisang after class. 

"Nie-xiong, it seemed like you were having some difficulty keeping up. I was wondering if you wanted help?"

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"Oh, Wen-er guniang!" Hasty bow. "Wow, would you really want to spend all the time to help me catch up? You seem really really advanced, I w, wouldn't want to bore you..."

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"It's not boring! Besides, after the way Wen Chao barged in here like that, it's really the least I can do to be as helpful as I can." 

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“Okay! Can we study somewhere outside? There are interesting birds here.”

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"Sure! I don't know much about birds, can you tell me about them?"

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He would love to!!!

They can sit outside on some rocks on this nice sunny day, and Huaisang can tell Wen-er guniang about birds and Wen-er guniang can tell him about scholarly things! Huaisang really isn't very fussed about learning the scholarly things but this is a fun and friendly way to spend time. He's interested in what education is even like for Wen disciples; it seems even more daunting than the instruction in Gusu or Qinghe. 

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It varies depending on the situation. She and her siblings have had tutors since their parents died and Wen Ruohan took them in. Disappointing their tutors never seemed...safe. At least in Gusu or Qinghe you know that any unpleasant consequences to failure have your ultimate well-being in mind. 

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Insofar as being a good swordsman is actually good for your well-being, sure.

He's heard that Wen Ruohan is really scary! Is he worse than Lan Qiren? Uh, ah - no disrespect towards Grand Master Lan intended. Of course.

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"I'm pretty sure even if I show lots of blatant disrespect the worst Lan Qiren would do is have me beaten, not throw me in a lava pit. Or, like, off a cliff? Whatever the equivalent of lava pits would be here. Or, like, things that are slower or worse than falling off a cliff or into a pit with lava at the bottom without your sword." 

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That all sounds REALLY HORRIBLE, Huaisang flutters his hands about it! "Do- does anyone really get thrown in a lava pit? That sounds like it would be dangerous for -- I mean, everyone involved."

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"I mean, there's like, walkways over them and stuff, you're not gonna end up in a lava pit without someone putting you there on purpose," she assures him. "They're mostly for people who have to report their own failures in person and the failures are bigger than their position within the sect, or for murders of people who are high enough in rank that you don't wanna get caught with their blood on your hands."

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"How often do important people get murdered??"

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"...Define important?"

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"Ahh, important enough that murdering them would get you thrown into lava?"

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"Well, that depends on who's doing the murdering! And it's sort of hard to tell the difference between lavamurder and other kinds of murder that also don't end up with anyone identifying the body for whatever reason and just running away and not getting caught, you know?" 

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"Wow, Wen-er guniang. If there are these many categories of murder that you need to pin down to figure out the right number of important murders, it sounds like -- that sounds like a lot, a lot of murder? In general?" He shudders.

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"Granny says there used to be a lot less murder but Wen Ruohan sucks. Which, can confirm the bit about Wen Ruohan sucking, so I guess it's nice to know that previous Wen Sect Leaders have sucked less." 

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"That does sound nice! Maybe that means there will be nicer ones in a little bit. Oh - oh no, but Wen Ruohan is going to be Sect Leader for a while, isn't he?" He drops his voice to a whisper. "I heard that Wen Ruohan's really powerful."

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"He is, but he's also, like, nuts, so who knows." 

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"Hmmm." Nie Huaisang certainly doesn't know! It would probably be a good thing if someone ever figured that out, though.

Ooo, look at that bird over there. Here are some facts about that kind of bird!

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Ooh, bird facts. 

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It's a nice way to spend their afternoon! And he does even learn some things for class, despite not being particular worried about that.

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Lan Zhan doesn't care at all that Nie Huaisang and Wen Ying are spending all this time together today. She barely even notices. And to the extent that she does notice, she's actually definitely glad to see that Wen Ying is doing something other than sabotaging her home. Nothing but good news to be found here.

 

 

 

Even though Nie Huaisang isn't smart or self-disciplined enough to keep up with Wen Ying, let alone rival her, and Lan Zhan has no idea what Wen Ying would even see in him when she is so much brighter than him and also than everyone else here and actually the only person who performed as well as her in class today and answered as many questions correctly was Lan Zhan and so clearly she's a much more fitting and interesting person for Wen Ying to spend time with -- not that she wants to spend time with Wen Ying, but just, if Wen Ying insists on being here and spending time around anyone it should at least be someone with basic competence--

 

These are uncharitable thoughts. While there is nothing wrong with honest evaluations of a person's academic merit, the Lan sect rules forbid contempt.

The Lan sect rules also forbid pride. Many people assume that Lan Zhan is ever prideful and haughty, but she actually finds the emotion unfamiliar and unpleasant and shameful. She kneels in the courtyard for an hour in penance. The punishment fails to banish either jealousy or Wen Ying from her mind.

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The next day after another class in which Wen Ying continues to ace every gotcha question thrown at her and fidget only a small rules-abiding amount, she ends up hanging out with Jiang Yanli. Jiang Yanli is from Yunmeng, which is very exciting because people in Yunmeng have ever heard of spicy food and Jiang Yanli likes to cook. 

Jiang Yanli's problems are a lot less actually dangerous than Wen Ying's, but she does have some. Like her fiance who prefers to pretend she doesn't exist. Wen Ying drags her off to go scoop up a girl from the Jin sect to interrogate about said fiance. 

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Jin sect girl very cheerfully bubbles away about said fiance! He's really shy about the engagement, it's honestly adorable. He's sort of bad at talking in general, even though he's a really good disciple actually! And she thinks he's a good person. He's just -- sort of a little bad at not being obnoxious to people sometimes! She doesn't think he's doing it on purpose!

Actually Mianmian thinks, in a conspiratorial whisper, that Jin Zixuan is a lot nicer than either of his parents. His parents are just a lot better at the outside part of being nice to people, but she thinks he's better at the inside part! He does actually like Jiang Yanli. At least, Mianmian assumes he does? I mean, look at Jiang Yanli. The odds of anyone not wanting to be engaged to her appear incredibly small. Also he was all flustered when they ran into each other in Caiyi Town, she could tell, it was pretty cute.

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"Oh. That's good. I thought he was--well, I didn't know, really, it was sort of hard to tell. There was a lot of room for hope but also for fear." 

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"I really do think he likes you, Jiang-guniang! I think maybe it will just take him a while to remember that words are a thing you can use to express your feelings to other people instead of, uh, just bossing them around."

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"Oh no. Well, I can be patient, it's not like I'm in a hurry to get married or anything." 

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"Everything you say makes me concerned about Sect Leader Jin. Not that I have room to talk." 

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"Sect Leader Jin isn't - a bad person, really, I think? He's a really good sect leader and he's made a lot of people prosperous and happy. Having a sect leader who can do that is pretty important, I think, in general. But he's -- just -- also. You know. A Way. I think you'll still be happy living in Lanling, Jiang-guniang, it's nice there!"

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"That's good..."

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"What way is he, exactly, I haven't exactly--Wen Ruohan doesn't care much about what the other sects are doing unless it's directly relevant to something he wants, I've had to spend a lot of time keeping him happy, I'm not up on all the gossip." 

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Ahahahaha Mianmian you were really not supposed to talk about this stuff to other sects oops!!!

But also, like, Jiang Yanli completely has a right to know? She doesn't really regret bringing this up, even if she's a little sheepish about it.

"Ah, well. Like -- when I first went to Koi Tower to continue my studies, my sister told me not to, uh, get alone in a room with him? And that's generally pretty good advice for your reputation?"

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"Ohhhhhhhh, that kind of way. Okay, that's so much less worrying than Sect Leader Wen, yeah." 

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"Yeahhh, he doesn't, like, randomly kill people. Uh, no offense. What's Sect Leader Wen like in person?"

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"Well, he doesn't randomly kill people, he kills people who displease him. In person he's--uh, I don't know if intimidating is the right word, but it might be for someone who wasn't me? It's like being on a night-hunt, but with different kinds of weapons and you can't actually kill him." 

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"Wow. That sounds very intense! You're really cool, Wen-guniang, I feel like you must have done so many interesting things already!"

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"Enh, don't look at me admiringly for being able to handle Wen Ruohan. Keeping him happy isn't always compatible with doing the right thing. Like, I can apologize as much as I want, but I still came in with Wen Chao like that, you know?" 

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She shrugs. "I think it still means you're a strong person, and I think it still makes you interesting. You seem like you want to be a good person anyway, don't you?"

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"I mean--I do. But I can't expect people to just believe that, the way our sect has been acting." 

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"Well, I believe you! I think I'm a pretty good judge of character."

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"I believe you too." 

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"Aaaaaaaah you guuuuys." She presses her hands to her cheeks. "I really appreciate it."  

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Friendly shoulder-pat. 

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Wen Ying... sounds like she may actually care about being a good person. And may actually choose to be aware of the moral weight of evil actions that she takes, even under duress?

This is objectively a good thing.

 

This is also objectively terrible. Lan Zhan considers it an important responsibility to monitor Wen Ying and make sure she doesn't go around breaking any more wards, but also - following Wen Ying around is so bad for her health, probably, her head hurts.

Maybe she should check in on other Wens instead. Are the other Wens doing anything interesting or suspicious if she vaguely follows them for the rest of the day?

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Nope! She can follow them around on their walk - they go on lots of walks, but never do anything improper or destructive on them.

Lan Zhan can watch Wen Ning practice archery, and then practice his swordwork, and then get scolded for imperfections in his form by Wen Qing. Wen Ning displays talent for his age, but nothing seems menacing about the practice. Wen Qing's scolding sounds a lot more like an exasperated older sister than a commanding officer.

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Part of her wants them to start sabotaging her sect already so that they can drive them out and she never has to think about Wen Ying again. (Or about her long fluffy hair, or about her laugh, or about the very cute way she blushed and touched her cheeks when Jiang Yanli complimented her, or about the way her eyes sparkle, or --)

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Wen Ying continues to excel in class and to follow the rules even when it makes her physically twitch and to be outgoing and friendly with the rest of their class. Lan Zhan is not the only one who rebuffs her overtures and apologies, and she is politely respectful of their rejection. 

She also attracts a handful of would-be cronies who want to get in with the Wen sect, but after the third time she makes it clear she's not interested in that 

("Wow, if everyone in your sect is like you, Wen-er-guniang, it's no wonder they're considered the highest!" 

"No, I'm a fluke, Wen Ruohan is a madman, don't you have anything better to be doing?")

most of them learn to be at least a little bit subtle about it. She consistently prefers the company of people who actually just like her, anyway. 

She goes on walks too, sometimes with her siblings and sometimes by herself. Jiang Wanyin asks her about it at one point, in a clumsy attempt to change the subject from her interrogating him about his intentions towards Wen Qing, and she says that Cloud Recesses is beautiful and completely unlike Qishan and who knows when or if they'll ever get a chance to visit again, after classes are over. 

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Cloud Recesses is indeed very beautiful! Pretty mountainside, pretty waterfalls, pretty forest. Except -- whoops, looks like this part of pretty forest and mountainside in the backhills is behind another ward. Mysterious.

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Ooh. 

This ward is significantly more complex than the other one but not, like, enough to keep her out. If the outer ward had taken this long Wen Chao would probably have lost his patience and gone back to setting people on fire but fortunately she does not actually have that incompetent hindering her this time. 

Time to go see what they don't want her to see. She strolls along and starts writing down her notes on that one. 

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Here's this very nice bamboo forest with a very pretty and neatly maintained path leading downhill to a pretty white bridge. And there, beyond the little bridge, are pools of clear water in the dappled shade, steam misting above them.

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And here she is in the water, undressed but turned away, hair unbound and clouding in the water around her. She is singing quietly, eyes closed, trying to center herself. Meditation has never been as difficult for her as it has become this week of lectures, but the Cold Spring always helps.

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--Oh. Pretty girl who justifiably hates her. Naked pretty girl who justifiably hates her. Eep. 

Fortunately (no, unfortunately) (down, libido) she's turned away and Wen Ying hasn't actually seen anything she shouldn't. Wen Ying can just shut her eyes and throw an arm over them and back away slowly. 

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Lan Zhan will probably benefit from this decision, but the sticks Wen Ying promptly tramples on do not.

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-- she's going to die. She's going to die. Either Wen Ying is about to assassinate her in the Cold Springs -- fuck, that means she broke through the wards AGAIN, that's -- way more distracting from the imminent murder than it has any right to be -- and infuriating -- 

or Wei Ying is not here to kill her and Lan Zhan will instead die of EMBARRASSMENT and PANIC because oh god she's naked and Wen Ying is right there and they're ALONE and Wen Ying broke through powerful Lan Sect wards AGAIN and now Lan Zhan has accidentally envisioned Wen Ying pouncing on her (for EVIL ASSASSIN REASONS that would be BAD AND NOT GOOD) and the Cold Springs don't feel cold at all anymore oh NO --

This is the exact opposite of the outcome she wanted in coming here this is terrible -- 

She lunges for her clothes because that will make sword fighting a lot more comfortable and because dying naked would be very embarrassing and undesirable and because AAAAAAAAAAAAAA

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"I DIDN'T SEE ANYTHING," she yells when it has become apparent that Lan Zhan has noticed her presence. Her arm is still in front of her eyes. 

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"How did you break the wards? Announce your purpose!" She yanks her inner robes on (and does not announce this development, because if Wen Ying ever looks at her again in any amount of clothing Lan Zhan is going to explode).

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"I was going for a walk! You guys's wards are interesting! There isn't actually a rule against it! I have more notes!" she yells, still covering her eyes but fumbling in her sleeve with the other hand to produce and hold out the notes. 

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"I have dressed," she snaps, before Wen Ying can do something like drop the notes into the water. She yanks her robes tight and glowers at Wen Ying. 

"The wards are there for a reason. You should understand the spirit of the rules and not create disorder. What did you design your walk to accomplish?"

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She lowers her arm and opens her eyes but looks down at her feet. 

"I didn't. Design it, I mean. I was wandering around and I found the wards and I wondered if I could get through them and it wasn't against the rules and I was curious and they were interesting and I--I had no idea they would be hiding bathing people but you're right, I have no excuse, wards are obviously meant to hide something." 

She steps forward, ankle-deep in the water to hand over the notes. 

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Lan Zhan slowly reaches out to accept them, eyes narrowed. "What did you design your presence at Cloud Recesses to accomplish?"

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--Lying is against the rules and she promised to obey the rules--

"I didn't design that, Sect Leader Wen did."

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She throws up her hands.

"I just wanted to get out of Qishan for a while and also maybe cement Sect Leader Wen's trust in me some more so when I overthrew him later he wouldn't see it coming. That's what I wanted to accomplish." 

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"Overthrow him?"

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"The man's an evil megalomaniac! Someone's going to take him down, and I'm a genius who he mostly trusts, I can do it sooner and cleaner than anyone else." 

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(She knows she's a genius oh no that's hot.) 

"You are trying to win my trust," Lan Zhan accuses.

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"No? Obviously you shouldn't trust me?"

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"Why tell me that? Any of this?"

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"Because I hate it when people I respect look at me like I'm lower than dirt for good reasons! It makes me feel like I--" 

She breaks off and looks away. 

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"Also, you asked me a direct question and lying is against the rules and I promised to follow the rules." 

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"I," she starts. She sounds unsteady; she doesn't like it. Doesn't like trying to speak when she's this - destabilized. Lan Zhan feels very destabilized. There are -- too many feelings, about everything Wen Ying just said (she promised to keep the rules, that mattered to her, she meant it) but one of the feelings is -- something like pain, that Wen Ying could think that Lan Zhan doesn't know that she is the most terrifyingly brilliant person in the world, that Lan Zhan could think of her like dirt. This must be fixed right away, even if words are difficult.

"I - do not think. That you are --"

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-- and then without warning something yanks her beneath the water and she vanishes from sight, sword and ward-breaking notes and all.

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Alarmed: "Lan Zhan!?"

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Wen Ying has approximately twenty seconds to evaluate Lan Zhan's alarming disappearance before something sharply pulls her ankles and she finds herself underwater as well.

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-- and then not. Wen Ying tumbles downward in a rush of splashing water that deposits her in what appears to be a large, frigid cave. Lan Zhan is already standing there, breathing heavily and blinking water out of her eyes.

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She splutters and rights herself enough to at least be supine and stares around. 

"Lan Zha--Lan-guniang," she corrects herself, "do you have any idea what just happened?"

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She shakes her head, distracted, gazing around in wonder at the cave before them.

Lan Zhan wades forward through waist-deep icewater, eyes wide. In the center of the domed cave rises a broad plinth of white rock, and upon it -- what looks like a guqin.

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Wen Ying stands up and looks around and doesn't touch anything. 

This sure looks like a place where you'd hide some kind of weird magic treasure, but absolutely nothing about this place suggests "Yin" or "Iron." 

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There's a lot to look at! Icicles glitter from the roof of the cave and the cold blue water glitters up beneath it. The pool appears to grow more shallow towards the guqin's platform, lowering to Lan Zhan's knees and then her ankles as she moves forward. Layers of pale, frosted rock build up like rough steps to the guqin and its pedestal - in fact, this shelf of rock reaches the back of the cave and wraps around its edges.

On the rock shelf against one side of the cave shuffle at least a dozen snow-white bunnies, each adorned in their own tiny silk Lan ribbons.

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Something resembling snow begins to drift down in the center of the cave as Lan Zhan ascends the platform. It dusts over her hair and clings to her eyelashes.

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"--Bunnies! In tiny Lan ribbons! That's so cute, oh my gosh--"

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-- !!! Oh, that's very distracting, they ARE cute -- what on earth are they doing here --

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Before either of them can further reflect on the cuteness of these bunnies, a low chord sounds and a glowing shockwave blasts outward from the guqin. The force passes over Lan Zhan like nothing but wallops Wen Ying off her feet unless she dodges very quickly.

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Well maybe she COULD have but when it passes through Lan Zhan harmlessly she doesn't think she needs to! SPLASH

"Urburble," she splutters indignantly, surfacing again. 

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Lan Zhan blinks at her, then blinks down at the guqin and the glittering blue carving inscribed upon it.

"It bears the Lan seal," she observes. "You are unwelcome."

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"Then maybe it shouldn't have GRABBED ME IN HERE." 

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"Assumptions."

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The guqin strikes another chord, as though to rebuke her.

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Down she goes again. Splorfle. Hack. 

"You're right. I apologize. I do wish it would pick a fight with whatever did grab me here instead of with me," she grouses. 

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Well it WON'T. 

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-- this time, Lan Zhan interrupts the chord attack. Bichen soars through the air and plunged downward into the blast's path, dispersing its force in a flash of blue.

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"--Wait wait wait, you shouldn't fight your own sect's stuff for a suspicious Wen girl!" Wen Ying protests. "I'm fine, it's not like getting wet or lying down is gonna kill me!" 

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"Your spluttering is distracting."

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"Oh. Sorry, I'll be quieter." 

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She doesn't re-summon her sword. 

She does circle the guqin and kneel before it, fingers hovering above its strings.

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She floats face-up in the water and tries not to provoke the musical instrument. 

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She strums delicately over the strings and listens to the arpeggio ring throughout the cave.

Lan Zhan closes her eyes and focuses. Her fingers flutter; she plays a few bars of Inquiry. Is anyone out there? Is anything in here?

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This is not the best possible vantage point from which to observe this but it's good enough and holy shit, Lan Zhan looks gorgeous like that. 

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After a moment, the strings ring out notes by themselves, as though plucked by an unseen hand. 

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Something is here. Someone.

She sinks deeper into her meditation, plays on. Who are you?

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A booming voice calls out: "Qishan Wen sect!" 

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"--Hello, yes, what?" Wei Ying asks, lurching to her feet. 

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Her eyes snap open. That's -- neither the answer nor the form of answer she was expecting to receive; she isn't sure what's happening.

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The moment her fingers leave the guqin unattended, it lashes out at Wen Ying to smack her back off her feet.

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She is REAL DISTRACTED. Bloosh. She doesn't audibly sputter when she comes up for air this time though. 

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"Gusu Lan sect!" the voice booms. "Yunmeng Jiang sect! Lanling Jin sect! Qinghe Nie sect! Kill all of the cultivators, and destroy the Yin Iron!" 

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"Wait, what," she gapes, sitting up enough to be able to like talk without actually standing into a position where the guqin could Get her again. 

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The refrain of "Kill the cultivators and destroy the Yin Iron" is repeated several times, as though by a great host, before the original voice says, calmer but still commanding, "Xue Chonghai. Hand over the Yin Iron." 

Voices continue to echo less distinctly. 

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"Hey, Lan Zhan, do you have any idea what that was about!?!?"

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"No. I have never heard of a Yin Iron before." She has risen to her feet with her sword brandished, clearly unnerved.

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"Good," says another voice, this one female and not coming from nowhere. From around a corner in the stone of the cave, a female figure emerges. 

"The Yin Iron is a cursed thing. It is better not to speak of it." 

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"So if, hypothetically, an evil and megalomaniacal sect leader sent some distant relatives of his here under false pretenses in order to steal it, that would be super bad." 

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"--Very much so, yes." 

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She flops backwards splashily, as much as she can from her current position. "Welp, time to start coming up with excuses for why we 'failed,' I guess." 

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A lot is happening!!!

Firstly, one mystery has been at least partially solved. Lan Zhan is still very confused about what the Yin Iron is, and what it has to do with this unexpected cave, and why it has anything to do with Cloud Recess, and why, given that it does have anything to do with Cloud Recesses, Lan Zhan knew nothing about it but Wen Ying — Wen Ruohan — did.

Secondly, Lan Yi is just here, this is — this is all a lot to take in.

Lan Zhan pushes aside the revelations about Wen Ying for now and kneels, bows. “Great Master Lan Yi,” she murmurs reverently. “This one would benefit from your explanation.”

 

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"The Yin Iron was a horrible artifact, created hundreds of years ago by Xue Chonghai, the most powerful cultivator of his time. Why he chose to pursue such a dark path when he already had so much power from benign sources is unknown, but he killed many to infuse a piece of powerful metal with their resentful energy. So much blood was spilled that what was once a highly spiritual place became the Yiling Burial Mounds. It took all the great sects banding together to defeat him, and when they did, they divided the Yin Iron into pieces, each one hidden away separately." 

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"Then a piece is hidden here. That Wen Ruohan desires."

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"It would seem so. Tell me, who are you?" 

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"I apologize for not standing up and introducing myself properly, but your guqin hits me back down every time I stand up. My name is Wen Ying, of the Qishan Wen sect." 

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"And yet you intend to defy your sect leader in this matter?"

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"Being part of his sect doesn't make me blind. Him having more power, especially that kind of power, is bad news. Besides, I'm a distant cousin; I don't owe him any filial piety or anything."

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"I see." 

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"Do Wen-guniang and Wen-gongzi agree?"

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"My brother and sister know my ultimate goals and they're on board with it. Jiejie is more cautious about not taking risks in the meantime than I am, because she has two little siblings to look after instead of one. A-Ning will do what Jiejie says but he's very good. Jiejie won't be happy that I've decided to abort the mission but she won't tell or sabotage me or anything." 

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Those are certainly convenient expectations.

"Qianbei, is the Yin Iron protected?"

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She frowns. 

"Yes, but...the protection is weakening. I have been guarding it with my own power for a long time, but my power is weakening. For the two of you to be brought here at this time...I suspect that if your companion were untrustworthy, she would not be here." 

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"Do you have, like, evidence for that? Because, like, most of my sect is pretty untrustworthy, right now, and it sounds like Wen Ruohan getting this thing would be real bad news." 

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She smiles slightly. "I like to think that my instincts have improved, while I was here." 

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"Can we reinforce the protections? What must be done?"

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Her smile dims. 

"This was the best idea I had, and my time is coming to a close. I'm afraid that may be for your generation to determine."

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She bows. "Lan Zhan will do her best. I promise to protect the Yin Iron and our sect."

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"I'm glad that the next generation has one such as you in it." 

She turns her gaze to Wen Ying again. 

"Young one...come here." 

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"If I try, I will definitely get blasted." 

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She smiles, and places a stilling hand on the guqin. "You won't." 

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She scrabbles to her feet and sloshes over to stand beside Lan Zhan. 

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Lan Yi places a hand under her chin and gazes deeply into her eyes. 

After a long, intense moment, she blinks and the weight of her stare dissipates. 

"Swear," she says, "to me, and to your friend here, that you will never willingly allow the Yin Iron to come into the hands of those who would misuse it." 

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She's not going to swear something the instant someone tells her to, she has to think about it for a moment first, she does not give her word lightly--

But, really, it doesn't sound like letting the Yin Iron fall into the hands of Wen Ruohan or anyone like him would be...at all okay. Ever. 

She bows to Lan Yi and then to Lan Zhan. 

"I swear," she says, "that--as long as I have not been lied to, about it, up until now--I won't allow Wen Ruohan or anyone else like that to get their hands on the Yin Iron if I can stop it. I take my word seriously, I won't pledge it only to find out that this is all some kind of deception and I've been cornered into something I didn't intend." 

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"Do you know to whom you speak?" She hisses, cheeks warming. Such disrespect is... a welcome distraction from how frighteningly sincere Wen Ying is behaving. "Master Lan Yi would not lie."

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"No, I don't know to whom I speak! Because almost everything I learned about the other sects before coming here, I learned through a lens of my tutors caring more about pleasing the megalomaniacal Wen Ruohan than giving me accurate information!"

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"Master Lan Yi was the Lan sect's first and only female Sect Leader." A genius, by all accounts. More clever than even Wen Ying. Surely. "She invented our Chord Assassination Technique. Be respectful."

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She bows to Lan Yi again. 

"I apologize for my disrespect. But I do not amend my oath." 

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Lan Yi covers a laugh, eyes sparkling. 

"Since I'm not lying, I suppose it doesn't matter either way." 

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Hhhh Wen Ying appearing to have Integrity is very stressful. (And not just integrity, is the thing, but this weight behind it, the passion around it, it's -- too much. She's too much.)

"Do you will us to carry the Yin Iron from this place?"

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She nods and holds out a hand, and a chunk of curved and broken metal rises from it. 

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And Wen Ying shrieks and staggers backwards, falling to her butt in the water before scrambling upright again. 

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She whips around, alarmed. "Wen Ying!"

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"Bad news: Wen Ruohan definitely already has one of those, also, it killed my parents." 

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"Your parents?"

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Nod nod. 

"Our branch of the clan lives somewhere called Dafan Mountain. I mean, me'n Qing-jie and A-Ning mostly don't, Wen Ruohan mostly keeps us at Nightless City, but before our parents died--anyway, there's this goddess statue thing and then one day it went berserk for some reason and a bunch of people including our parents died dealing with it and Wen Ruohan sent people to investigate and--there was a chunk of metal like that one."

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"I see. I'm very sorry." 

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"Thank you, Lady." 

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"Qianbei, what does it mean that Wen Ruohan already has one? Are other sects endangered?"

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"It's hard for me to say...you're the first visitors I've had since I first came here. I don't know anything about this Wen Ruohan besides what the two of you have said. But yes, if he is the type to actually use the Yin Iron as Xue Chonghai did, I would say that we are." 

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"He's so extremely the type." 

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Lan Zhan takes the piece of Yin Iron from Master Lan Yi; it burns under her fingertips, colder and more unpleasant than ice.

She shivers and tucks the Iron away into the depths of her sleeve. "We must tell Brother right away."

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"Yep. Ugh, Jiejie is gonna freak out so much." 

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"I can keep the guqin from attacking, but that won't let you through the wards again, unless whatever brought you here acts again, Wen Ying." 

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"Are you saying I have to stay here forever because I'm not a Lan?"

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"No. The clan adopts sometimes, after all. It's not tied to the bloodlines. It's tied to the ribbon." 

She quirks a very subtle eyebrow and twitch of the lips at her descendant. 

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Is. 

Is she really allowed -- supposed to -- 

Is Master Lan Yi going to officiate -- 

 

Lan Zhan spreads her arms and glides through the air, descending back into the freezing water beside Wen Ying. She gives Lan Yi plenty of time to leave, or to change her mind and order Lan Zhan to stop, or to -- start instructing them through marriage rights --

She isn't thinking straight. This is inappropriate on so many levels. Lan Zhan isn't dressed appropriately at all in only her sopping wet inner robe. (Wen Ying's robes are also wet, and also white, and Lan Zhan is very very very carefully not looking anywhere near her chest but she can feel her ears burn all the same.)

(She doesn't avoid looking at Wen Ying's face, which is a mistake. There's snow on her eyelashes and her lips are dark from cold. Lan Zhan can't breathe.)

 

Master Lan Yi isn't stopping her. Lan Zhan pulls her headband loose and loops it around her wrist, once, twice, three loops.

Three loops of the other end around Wen Ying's wrist.

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"Ah! Thanks!" she says brightly, COMPLETELY OBLIVIOUS to the context. 

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Lan Yi takes her hand off the guqin. It does not wallop Wen Ying again. 

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Good, because Lan Zhan is busy being walloped enough for the both of them.

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"Kinda wish I'd thought of this earlier, I could've saved a few dunkings," she says cheerfully. "Which way is out?" 

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She points. 

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"Thanks!" 

Possibly this smile isn't going to help Lan Zhan's wallopedness quotient. 

"C'mon," she says, making her way in that direction and tugging on the ribbon to get Lan Zhan to follow her. 

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That smile doesn't help at all and the tugging on her bound wrist helps even less and it's all that Lan Zhan can do to stumble dazedly after her.

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The passage turns out to be narrow enough at the other end that some pushing is needed to get through, pushing that ends with Wen Ying falling on top of Lan Zhan as they make it out. 

"Ah! Sunlight!" 

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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

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"Lan Zhan...the sun is higher in the sky than it was when we went in," Wen Ying says slowly. "Is my time sense completely off or were we not in there long enough that it should be morning again." 

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Lan Zhan fails to process a single one of these words.

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"-- Wen-er guniang?

Oh - Wen-er guniang! Lan-guniang! You're okay, are you okay!" Mianmian dashes down the path towards them.

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oh no

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"We're fine!" she says, getting up off of Lan Zhan and starting to unwind the ribbon from around her wrist. "How long have we been missing?"

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(Oh no she isn't supposed to unwind it yet! What about -- Lan Zhan is really unsure about when and how the deflowering is supposed to transpire under these circumstances but the ribbon is definitely supposed to still be on --

-- what is she thinking, there isn't going to be any deflowering, Wen Ying is either clueless about the ribbon or she doesn't care at all, but either way -- they didn't even do their bows, is this a real marriage, why didn't Lan Zhan ASK MASTER LAN YI FOR CLARIFICATION -- 

-- is this what being drunk is like, this must be what it's like, Lan Zhan has never felt so stupid and dizzy at once in her entire life --

-- Focus -- 

Wen Ying's breasts were just right on top of hers and her body was warm --)

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"All night and morning!! Classes were cancelled when you didn't show up so that everyone could search around, Grand Master Lan seemed really worried -- everyone was really worried! Where did you both go, Wen-er guniang?"

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"We accidentally got stuck in a weird cave and it took us a while to get out." 

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"Huh, really? I didn't even know Cloud Recesses had caves, that's -- really weird, actually, that nobody's mentioned that?? Especially if it's dangerous enough that people could get stuck there overnight - unless no one knows about it yet? You should tell Sect Leader Lan. If he already knows about it then you should tell him to put signs up, honestly."

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"It was really weird and Lan-guniang didn't know what was going on either, we're super agreed that telling Sect Leader Lan is a high priority."

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"I'll walk back to the main house with both of you! If you wanted, anyway?"

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"Lan-guniang?" 

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"Mn."

They can go. She's fine.

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"That sounds great, then." 

They make their way back to the main house. Wen Ying briefly considers the tradeoff between getting there slightly later but in dry clothes and decides it's not worth it. 

They part with Mianmian at the door and go inside. Wen Ying manages to prod Lan Zhan into bringing her to where, apparently, Sect Leader Lan and Lan Qiren are apparently having tea and discussing something, concerned. They both look up when the two girls enter. 

Wen Ying falls to her knees and presses her forehead against the floor. 

"Teacher Lan. Zewu-jun. This one must apologize for the deception. This one does not think it qualifies as lying, since this one has never stated any outright falsehoods, and you were of course aware that there is no way Sect Leader Wen would actually send even branch relatives for innocuous purposes, and if he did, he definitely wouldn't send his son with them. The fact of the matter is that I have now learned that the Yin Iron, which he sent us to steal, is enormously important and must never fall into his hands." 

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Qiren chokes on his tea. "Pffwh -- WHAT.

Sent - sent you to steal the Yin Iron?"

Deep breaths. D e e p breaths. He tugs at his beard.

"Wen Ying -- you may rise. Clearly you have described a severe breech of trust between our sects. However, you are correct. We surmised this upon your arrival, despite not understanding its full extent. If your confession proves to be completely honest -

We appreciate that course of action, without pardoning your intrusion or allowing it to continue. We would prefer assisting you and your siblings to safely defect and counter Wen Ruohan, if that is indeed your intention. A-Zhan. Is what she says true?"

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She bows. "Master Lan Yi appeared to us. She believed so."

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"That is our intention, but--I mean, if you took in A-Ning, that would be great, but--letting him know that I've defected seems like a bad idea. He thinks I'm loyal to him, he at least sorta trusts me--I can get close to him. I can take him out without anyone else having to get hurt. I mean, probably something would also have to be done about Wen Xu and Wen Chao, but they're not as powerful as he is, and--" 

She swallows. 

"And he already has a piece of Yin Iron. I didn't know that's what it was called, but--it killed our parents. And a lot of other people in our village." 

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Xichen's face is pale. "Are you certain?"

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"Very, very certain. I had flashbacks when I saw the thing." 

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"Lan Yi entrusted hers to me. I have it, unsealed. Two others remain; what should be done?"

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"Give it to me for the moment, I'll see what I can do about it." 

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She gives it to him, hand tilted so that Wen Ying needn't see the thing again and suffer any more flashbacks.

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"Where are Jiejie and A-Ning? If I've been missing, I'd like to reassure them I'm alright." 

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"Ah. Well, given how suspicious we were of all of you, when you and A-Zhan disappeared at the same time, we put them under house arrest. I can have them brought here now if you like." 

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Nodnod. "Yes, please." 

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He calls over a disciple and sends for the other Wen siblings. 

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Wen siblings arrive shortly, both looking concerned!

"Jie!" Wen Ning hurries over, barely remembering to bow to the assembled Lans. "Ying-jie, are you okay!"

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"Wen Ying, where were you! What have you been doing, are you hurt?" 

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"I'm fine, I'm fine! I was accidentally sucked into a weird magic cave with some kind of weird time effect. Speaking of the cave, there's good news and bad news. The good news is I know where the Yin Iron is now. The bad news is it's another piece of the same thing that made the goddess statue go berserk and Wen Ruohan definitely cannot be allowed to get his hands on it," she says in front of all assembled Lans like it's not even a secret anymore. 

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So many levels of WHAT THE HELL are happening right here at once.

"A-Ying -- what are you talking about?" she hisses, eyes darting to Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren. Wen Qing drops to her knees, holding her arms out in a bow. "Sect Leader, Teacher Lan -- I take responsibility for my sister. She has never been in favor of causing the Lan Sect harm. Please do not punish her before I have a chance to explain."

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"I already explained! They offered us sanctuary if we wanted to defect and I said that would make overthrowing Wen Ruohan more difficult." 

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Wen Qing can't yell at A-Ying in front of Lan Xichen for these Decisions, but she stares at her furiously.

Why would A-Ying tell them? Why would she tell them without asking Wen Qing first??? This is the exact sort of thing that Wen Qing is always saying A-Ying needs to tell her about first, ask her about first -- how could she jeopardize the entire mission and their safety so thoughtlessly! What if the Lans had gone and caught her or A-Ning in a lie afterward before they knew? Why is she LIKE THIS.

She grits her teeth. Looks cautiously at Zewu-Jun. "You... offered us sanctuary?"

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"I did. As Wens, you are spies and thieves and a threat to my sect. As defectors, you would be valuable to ensuring the safety of countless innocent lives. We find the latter preferable to executing or imprisoning you."

Not that they would execute children anyway, they aren't monsters. But they will suffer more as pawns of Wen Ruohan whether or not the Lan punish them.

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"I can't accept that, for obvious reasons, but...I was thinking maybe A-Ning could." 

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"We're not leaving A-Ning alone here."

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"I don't think they'd hurt him! People who don't have Wen Ruohan at the top live really differently, Nie-gongzi was really surprised when I talked about the lava pits and other kinds of murder." 

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what

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"We're not leaving him. A-Ying, we will discuss this later."

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"Why can you not accept?" she addresses Wen Ying softly.

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"Because if I accept Wen Ruohan will know I'm not loyal to him and I'll never get close enough to kill him and then he'll keep on being Wen Ruohan at everybody else! It's no good for me to be safe if it means everyone else isn't! Even if he weren't being really aggressive at all the other sects, I won't leave the rest of the Wen sect to deal with him. Not everyone is Wen Chao or Wen Xu, there are plenty of people just trying to keep their heads down and survive and they don't deserve to have to deal with him!" 

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"Sect Leader Lan," she says tightly. "Would you allow us some time to discuss these terms privately."

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"--Yes, alright." 

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"S-sorry for lying to you, Sect Leader Lan, we really didn't want to. I don't think we're going to do it again?"

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"Let's go, A-Ning."

Time to drag the siblings back to their guest/prison house and NOT yell until they get there.

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They get there. A-Ying immediately hugs A-Ning. 

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"Er-jie, are you really okay?"

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"Uh, I'm wet and I'm a little freaked out and da-jie is definitely about to yell at me, but aside from that I'm okay." 

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"What were you thinking!!!"

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"--See, there's the yelling. Da-jie, Lan-guniang was there in the cave with me, I couldn't lie to her brother and uncle when she knew the truth, it wouldn't work." 

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"There is a difference between not lying and telling them everything! Why did you tell Lan-guniang anything about the Yin Iron, why did -- is our safety here a joke to you? How can you go confessing to everything while we're still in the dark, A-Ying!"

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"I. I'm not used to--people here aren't afraid all the time, jiejie. But they're afraid of us. And I hate it so much, and I--I can't let Wen Ruohan get his hands on another one of those, I kept seeing what happened back then and imagining it worse--"

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She covers her face with her hands. "A-Ying, I know you're sensitive about other people like this, but you can't -- this family's safety has to come first, A-Ning's safety has to come first, you can't make these decisions by yourself.  What can we do to stop him? If he tell him we failed, he will send someone else -- if he doesn't attack Cloud Recesses right away!"

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"They know now. They can prepare, now. They can--jie, I won't let what happened on the mountain happen again, A-Ning could have died then, do you think toeing the line is safe? It's not, you and I both know that, and when you're up against the wall with fire in front of you pressing against the wall isn't the right choice, you have to go through the fire to the other side. I know I need to prepare more before I can take Wen Ruohan on but if he just gets stronger in the meantime that won't help, and letting him go on forever isn't an option, it's not safe for any of us!"

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"You need to tell me first. A-Ying, how can I be responsible for both of you when you do whatever you feel is right the moment you feel it's right? I -- I. You have a point, but -- I can't do what's best for all three of us if I don't know what the hell you're doing, do you understand? Just because countering Uncle might be the best thing to doesn't mean that the first opportunity that appears is the best one to take." 

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"I couldn't tell you first! I was just looking for it like we'd agreed on and then I stumbled across Lan-guniang and we both got dragged into a cave where there was loads of water and bunnies in Lan headbands and a guqin that attacked me and, also, previous Sect Leader Lan Yi guarding the Yin Iron! That's not the kind of thing I can anticipate to discuss with you first!" 

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"You didn't have to tell any of them anything!!! You could have watched and waited, the way we were sent here to do, and - why were there bunnies in the water cave?"

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"I assume Lan Yi put them there to keep her company or something. Uh, in retrospect 'say nothing' would probably have been a good idea if I could pull it off but I...freaked out when I saw what the Yin Iron was and they asked me direct questions and lying is against the rules here and I promised to follow the rules here and I sort of wasn't handling the situation with the most grace I have ever had." Sigh. "I'm sorry, Jie."

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She hugs her sister. “We’ll deal with the situation. I still don’t want to be separated from A-Ning if there’s going to be a war.”

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“I think I, I would be okay? But I would rather be with both of you too. I think I can help, Er-Jie..”

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"Sorry, A-Ning, I just worry." Hug. Hugs for everyone. "I guess it's kind of hypocritical. It's not that I don't think you can help." 

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Hugs are so much better than yelling!

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While the Wen siblings discuss strategy, the Lans are left to deal with their side of the aftermath. 

"Well. That was unexpected." 

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“Apologies for worrying Brother. You... already knew of the Yin Iron?”

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"It is a matter of which the Sect Leaders of the Great Sects are kept aware. So that if it should ever be necessary, someone would know to take action." 

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“What must we do?”

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"Finding a way to re-seal the Yin Iron is of paramount importance. But, also...if Wen Ruohan is after our piece, then he's going to go after the rest, too. We should speak with the other Sect Leaders and recover any shards not currently under someone's protection." 

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“Will you summon them here?”

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"I'll ask them to come personally to pick up their children when the classes end. That won't be suspicious, and nobody will wonder why I didn't make the same request of Wen Ruohan." 

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"We will do nothing in the meantime?"

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"I didn't say that." Sigh. "I'll see what I can do about suppressing the piece we have now, and we can see if any of the books in the forbidden chamber have anything to say on the subject, and...we're going to have to do something about those Wen siblings. It would be easier if they would accept sanctuary, but..." 

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Does it help if she's accidentally married to one of them. That probably doesn't help.

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"If they do not... we need to know everything we can about their plans, about Wen Ruohan's plans. Perhaps we can still aid their sabotage of him in ways that will not be traced." He grimaces. "I don't like it. We are absolutely in our rights to imprison them there, but that would be an escalation."

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"Also, I suspect it wouldn't work. Wen Ying has already broken through our wards once." 

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"Twice."

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"Twice?" 

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"A-Zhan, what did she do." 

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"Cold springs."

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"She broke through the wards on the back mountain in order to peep on you in the Cold Springs?"

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"She WHAT?"

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Lan Zhan shakes her head fervently, turning pink. "Said she didn't look. Accident."

Wen Ying hadn't taken advantage of her at all. Not when Lan Zhan was naked in the springs and not even when Wen Ying landed directly on top of her (and their breasts touched), which -- shouldn't be disappointing or surprising. Why would another girl ever want her, no matter how compromising a position she found herself in?

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"She broke through the wards looking for the Yin Iron and ran into you while you were at the Cold Springs? And...the Cold Springs were connected to the cave?" he hazards a guess. 

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Nod. She still can't stop blushing. "We were pulled under."

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"Pulled you both under? How did Wen Ying get in the water with you?!"

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"I'm sure there's as innocent an explanation for that as there was for the other, Uncle; Wen Ying came back fully dressed, which would be unlikely if she were trying anything untoward when she was grabbed." 

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Yes everything was very innocent and Lan Zhan is never ever going to get to have sex with her wife she would like to leave this conversation now.

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"...Why was Wen Ying in the water, though?"

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"She had more notes on breaking the wards."

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"Ah. Of course she did." He shakes his head slowly. "That girl is terrifying. I'm very glad she's probably on our side." 

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That's great can she leave now. She doesn't request this out loud but she projects the desire to be elsewhere as loudly as possible.

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"--Uncle, if you don't mind, I'll walk A-Zhan back to the Jingshi," he says, getting to his feet. "She's had a very long day and isn't currently wearing as many clothes as would be ideal." To A-Zhan, more quietly: "I can help deflect anyone who gets close."

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"-- yes, very well. I'll send someone to fetch the other robes later. Rest well, A-Zhan."

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"Thank you, Uncle." She bows to him and nods appreciatively to her brother as she turns to follow him out.

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They've gotten a ways away from their uncle when he asks, "So did anything happen with Wen Ying?"

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Accusatory stare. "No!"

 

 

...

"She would not think so."

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He processes this. 

"Did she touch your forehead ribbon?"

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WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT

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"It's the only obvious thing that would mean something to a Lan and not to an outsider." 

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"A-Zhan...I still think you should be careful with her. But you can be careful and do other things at the same time." 

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What.

What does that mean.

Do things like what. Do things like marry her KISS her??? Surely not.

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"I would never suggest you do anything you weren't perfectly comfortable with and ready for, but--there are perfectly reasonable interpretations of the rules other than Uncle's," he says carefully. "The rule against promiscuity, for example--there are things in-between promiscuity and perfect absolute monogamy where you never touch your spouse before your wedding day. I wouldn't repeat that to Uncle, because Uncle--is wrong about many things as an extension of the way he's wrong about Mother."

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"How... how do you. Know. What is not too far?" Also how do you do that. How does she ask Wen Ying to do that. How does she convince Wen Ying to do that without asking, asking sounds horrible.

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"To a certain extent, that's something everyone has to figure out for themselves. But...I think the key is to ask yourself what something you're considering means. If it doesn't mean anything but fun, if it's just--like things you can do by yourself but with another person--I think that's the kind of thing the rule warns against. If what you're doing is more like a duet, or a sparring match, a good one, something where the other person matters and something beautiful happens, then that's fine." 

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"Mm."

In the end it won't really matter, because Wen Ying is not going to care for duets or sparring matches or - anything else, with Lan Zhan. Wen Ying needs to care. Lan Zhan definitely shouldn't be picturing anything that would require Wen Ying to care, because it is never going to happen.

She's blushing anyway.

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They reach the Jingshi. 

"I very much hope she turns out to be worthy of your feelings for her," he says gently. "Not that anyone could be truly worthy of my baby sister, but still." 

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"Thank you, Xiongzhang."

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Hug. "I love you so much, A-Zhan." 

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H u g. She loves him too, very much, but this has been FAR too many feelings in one day and she is unable to say anything about it properly.

 

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The next day Wen Ying approaches Lan Zhan before class. 

"I re-wrote my notes on the inner ward, since the first ones got all soggy," she says, thrusting a sheaf of papers in the other girl's direction. 

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What an unorthodox dowry.

"Thank you." She takes them, not meeting Wen Ying's eyes.

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She bows. 

"It's the least I can do, Lan Zh-Lan-guniang." 

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Ow.

 

She whisks away to her desk before her eyes can betray any emotions about the 'Lan-guniang' correction.

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Wen Ying continues excelling in class and hanging out with classmates who definitely don't hate her and taking walks, although now more of the walks are with people. 

Slightly less than a week later, she approaches Lan Zhan again. 

"This one was--wondering if you would be willing to provide library supervision again," she says. "Since supervision is required." 

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This prompts an intense face journey utterly imperceptible to anyone but her brother.

 

 

 

 

 

"Yes. You may follow."

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She smiles shyly. "Thank you." 

She follows. 

This time she seems to want to do research on the history of the other sects in a way 0% informed by Wen Ruohan being terrible. Especially the Lan Sect. Since she already had that faux pas about Lan Yi. Definitely that reason and not any others. 

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Lots of historical Lan Sect information exists in the Lan library! Most of the information is about the history of rules, and arguments over the rules, and events that served as the inspiration for introducing new rules. 

There are also books with stories of Lan heroes: scholars, warriors, philosophers. Characters of legend who sacrificed and suffered greatly to uphold their rules and values, etc. There are several books dedicated to Lan Yi and her time as Sect Leader. Her teachings, music, and innovations. Nothing to do with the Yin Iron is contained in this section of the library.

This one scroll on the sixth Sect Leader of the Gusu Lan has an illustration of his wedding.

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Iiiiiiis that a forehead ribbon wrapped around his and the bride's wrists. WOW OKAY that's. That's something to bring up absolutely never. 

The obsession with rules makes her want to giggle but she does not, that would be rude and she doesn't want to be rude. Not when Lan Zhan already has such good reason to dislike her, not when her infractions carry the shadow of Wen Chao's arrogance. 

"Lan Yi really is amazing, Lan Zh--Lan-guniang. I had no idea," she says softly. 

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(Ow.)

“You came here to study her?”

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"Well, not just her. What you said back in the cave made me realize that I ought to do what I could to learn more about all the other sects while I was here, and could do it without getting any of Wen Ruohan's terribleness in my academics."

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“That is admirable. You may alert me if you have questions.”

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"Thank you so much!" 

She has questions! Some of them have to do with rules--some of them she doesn't understand the purpose of and would like to--some of them have to do with perspectives on this or that historical event--some of them have to do with interpretations of unclear passages in the books. 

They are all intelligent and many of them are insightful. (She's so earnest.)

She continues to address her as Lan-guniang. Sometimes she slips and almost calls her Lan Zhan before correcting herself. 

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After an hour of these corrections (and her terribly clever questions and her terribly sweet sincerity and her smile and the way her eyes shine), Lan Zhan reaches her breaking point.

 

 

"Call me by name."

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"Really?"

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OH NO THIS SMILE IS EVEN WORSE THAN ALL THE OTHER ONES LOOK AWAY

"Mm," she manages, glaring down at her books.

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"Thank you, Lan Zhan, I'm honored." 

There is at least 20% more bounce as she moves around looking at history books now. 

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This was perhaps a mistake.

Her chest warms, watching Wen Ying move about the library. Her ears tinge pink.

When she answers Wen Ying's next question, she addresses her as Wen Ying in turn.

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If her intention was not to get more of that dazzling smile she definitely miscalculated there. 

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Is this the duet? Is this the sparring match?

Lan Zhan wants -- more. Than this. She wants the duet to turn fiercer and closer and more tangible. She wants to touch. 

She still doesn't know how to ask, or how to not-ask, and if she gets any more than this it might simply kill her. Maybe this is ideal.

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Over the rest of the term, Wen Ying continues making careful, respectful overtures. Occasionally she requests an escort to the library; on several occasions she has a sheaf of talismans she invented that Wen Ruohan doesn't know about (they're quite good) or further thoughts on the wards, or similar practical items. 

Explaining the situation to dajie would be awkward and she can't confront Lan Zhan about her feelings. But she can scream into a pillow in Jiang Yanli and Mianmian's company about it. It turns out that Jiang Yanli's soup is the BEST COMFORT FOOD EVER, WOW. 

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The soup is very tasty!!! Mianmian is extremely invested in Wen Ying's not-actually-romance, it's so cute. What if she wrote Lan-guniang an anonymous love letter? Mianmian thinks leaving people love letters is really fun even when you're not actually able to court them.

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"Mianmian you're a genius." 

Disguising her handwriting is tricky but doable. Composing the letter itself is harder. It ends up with a lot of flowery language, comparing her beauty to the moon, something something Chang'e the moon goddess, something something Tuyu the jade rabbit who helps her create the elixir of immortality, something something Twin Jades, something something strong cultivation immortality etcetera. 

Sneaking it into the Jingshi without actually breaking any rules is the hardest part for sure though. 

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Lan Zhan is completely flustered by the note! It -- irritates her, to receive something so touching and flattering and nicely written in not Wen Ying's handwriting. It infuriates her that anyone else -- no, that anyone might have crept into the Jingshi to leave the letter there. This is not what she wanted from the universe.

But she must appreciate well-crafted poetry. The words of that letter could be woven into a gorgeous song, Lan Zhan decides, but only in Wen Ying's voice. She has no interest in hearing from any other admirers. 

Still, she can't bring herself to discard the silly note. She tucks it neatly inside the wooden box beneath her bed and lays above it to swoon and mope over the actual object of her desires.

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Fighting is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses. Sparring is not, and in fact sometimes is actively required in training students; they're supposed to be learning to be cultivators, after all, and cultivators night-hunt. 

Not long before the end of term, Xichen arranges for Wen Ying and A-Zhan to be assigned as sparring partners. 

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Ooh!

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Aaaaaaaa the betrayals never END.

Okay. That's fine. Lan Zhan is excellent at sparring. All she needs to do is beat Wen Ying very quickly and then she can go dunk her head under cold water and be fine.

She bows neatly to Wen Ying and then dives at her with Bichen, graceful and lightning-quick.

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Wen Ying is, it turns out, just as good at this as at classwork. Duck, dodge, parry, strike--

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Oh no.

This is a horrible and INFURIATING development. Lan Zhan dodges, whirls on her feet and strikes again from a different angle, eyes flashing. Wen Ying is smiling, which is unfair and incomprehensible, how can she be so calm about this -- spin, sweep, stab -- 

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--Dodge, stab, slice--

Calm is maybe not the best word for this. Euphoric might be better. 

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That's worse. Lan Zhan is burning, burning, burning --

This is good, is the problem, this is the most she's ever enjoyed or hated a sparring match in her life and it is perfect, Wen Ying is perfect and that is the problem. This makes her want too much.

The way they match each other and move so perfectly against each other. The perfect slender angle of Wen Ying's wrist as she wields the sword. The fire consuming Lan Zhan's body to its core, burning hotter every time their eyes touch. It is too much and it is too little and it is going to kill her. She wants, she wants, she wants.

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The match goes on for a long time. 

Eventually, though, Wen Ying pulls a trick involving reflecting the setting sun off the shiny edge of her blade, and in the fraction of a second that Lan Zhan is blinded, Wen Ying has her disarmed and on her butt. 

"Yield," she says, breathing hard enough to do interesting things to her breasts, robes plastered to her body with sweat, the tip of her blade millimeters from Lan Zhan's nose. 

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She panics and snaps her eyes shut the moment she notices that she's staring. (Where she's staring.) She can't breathe enough to speak. 

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She waits patiently.

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Lan Zhan wrestles herself under control enough to open her eyes without fainting. "I yield." Her voice comes out unusually rough.

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She lowers her sword immediately and bounces back on her heels. 

"That was awesome," she enthuses. 

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"Hhwh??"

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She bends over and offers a hand to help Lan Zhan up.

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She accepts the help to her feet. Touching Wen Ying's bare hand feels like being electrocuted; she lets go the moment she can.

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"That was really good. I hope we have the chance to do that again sometime. Uh. In similarly friendly circumstances." 

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"Mm.

You demonstrated merit. It was engaging." Way way too much merit.

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!!!!!!

"Thank you!" 

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Okay that's enough pleasantries time to go shove her head in a waterfall. Lan Zhan sweeps away.

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That night there is a lanterns event. Students construct and paint lanterns in pairs. Wen Ying successfully schemes with Mianmian to pair up Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan and is about to suggest that they do theirs together when Mianmian almost physically throws her at Lan Zhan, who doesn't have a partner yet. 

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Eep.

Sure. Lan Zhan can handle that. Calmly.

She kneels down on the rock and hands Wen Ying some lantern paper.

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Wen Ying works carefully on the lantern's construction, occasionally glancing up at Lan Zhan and blushing before re-focusing her attention on the lantern. 

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Lan Zhan focuses wholly on the lantern making and does not look at Wen Ying at all. She takes the precision of this lantern structure Very Seriously and will allow No Distractions.

There are brushes and ink set out for the disciples to use for decorating. Lan Zhan passes a brush to Wen Ying without looking at her.

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Wen Ying concentrates fiercely, the tip of her tongue sticking out of her mouth and her off hand coming up to rub her nose occasionally. 

She ultimately completes a scene of a bunny nibbling on grass in a field; in the sky the sun peeks out from behind a cloud. 

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Wen Ying is adorable when she’s painting. Lan Zhan looks up at her once and immediately regrets it. (TONGUE. Tongue!!!)

Her eyes dart back down.

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Wen Ying turns the lantern around when she's finished. 

"What do you think?"

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!

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Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee she likes it. 

"I thought it was--fitting," she murmurs. 

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Fitting...?

Oh, and now she processes the sun and the clouds above the bunny. Oh. Oh.

“It is drawn well,” she murmurs. 

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"Thank you." 

When they release the lanterns, it's--beautiful. Wen Ying gazes at the sky and NOT at the girl beside her and wonders why everything in Gusu is so beautiful. 

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The lanterns are beautiful, soaring up into the sky. Even on the verge of war, with this terrifying girl beside her, she can feel at peace for a moment.

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All around, disciples clasp their hands together and make wishes.

Wen Qing closes her eyes. “I wish that my little brother could be safe and sound and my little sister could stay out of trouble more than she does and never be hurt. I wish I could look after them well their whole lives.”

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“I wish that all my silly friends will stop being adorably bad at their romance lives and start instead being adorably competent at their romance lives and kiss each other finally please!”

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"I wish that from now on I can always do what's right, and live a life without regrets." 

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oh

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As the lanterns float off into the sky, some people start murmuring not nearly as quietly as they thought about why hadn't Jin-gongxi released their lantern together with Jiang-guniang. They're engaged, after all! Wouldn't it be so auspicious to wish for a happy marriage together?

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Those people can mind their own business and never mention his """auspicious marriage""" ever again, how about that!!! He snaps at the Jin disciples around him to drop it.

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Ah huh. 

She walks over to him and folds her arms. 

"You're hurting Yanli's feelings," she informs him coolly. 

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"It's none of your business. Who gave you the right to approach me about this?"

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"But Jin-gongzi, you were both so cute working beside each other! You were having fun, don't think I didn't see that you were having fun! You can't say it didn't make you even a little excited to --"

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"Drop it, Mianmian. Never bring it up again!"

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"How is it that I'm the one related to that boor Wen Chao and yet you're the one who has no manners?"

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"How dare you! Where are the manners in you inserting yourself into the Jiang Sect and Jin Sect's private affairs?" He scoffs and yanks his sleeves indignantly. "I have no interest in you speaking to me ever again!"

He storms off, Mianmian frowning and fluttering after him.

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She follows him. "There's nothing unmannerly about defending my friend when someone is rude to her! Whatever issues you have with your parents arranging your marriage without consulting you, Jiang Yanli is a fine young lady and does not deserve your misplaced scorn!" 

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"Leave me alone! I didn't say anything scornful to Jiang Yanli at all, I have no interest in saying anything to her!"

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"Talking about someone like they're not there when they are is even ruder!" 

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He flushes. "Fine, then I'll never talk about her again! Go away!"

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"So are you planning to actually try to break the engagement, or just have the world's most awkward marriage ever?" 

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"Leave me alone!!! I don't care!!!"

He DOES care, but he hates this conversation so much and he hates having it in front of all these people even more and he hates tripping over his own tongue in front of Jiang-guniang like this and he wants it to be OVER. Zixuan turns on his heel and runs away from the group as fast as he can.

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"Gongzi -- wait, gongzi --!!" A decent portion of the group promptly dashes after him.

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"...I hope I didn't make that worse," she sighs. "I'm sorry you're engaged to an emotional dunce," she pats Yanli's shoulder.

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"Thank you for trying to stand up for me, anyway." 

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"You're welcome. If we all meet up again sometime when I'm not constrained to follow a promise to follow rules that prohibit fighting and he's still being an idiot then I'll beat him up for you," she offers. 

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Tiny chuckle. "Please don't." 

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"I won't hold you to that if you change your mind, but I also won't beat him up without your permission." 

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"He deserves it." 

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"If you want him beaten up without your sister's permission you can do it yourself." 

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Scowl. Headshake. "We're both sect heirs, it'd be a bad idea." 

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"Yeah, politics sucks," she says sympathetically. She turns to Lan Zhan and pats her shoulder. "I hope your brother has loads of kids and nobody cares what you get up to," she says sincerely. 

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Yeah, of course Wen Ying doesn't care whether or whom Lan Zhan marries. Lan Zhan jerks her shoulder out of reach and doesn't say anything.

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Wen Qing approaches her sister.

"I suppose I should be thankful you waited until the end of term to pick a fight like that with the heir of our strongest ally," she says dryly.

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"He was being mean! I was just calling him on it! I never get to call anybody on their terrible behavior at home!"

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"Yes, because of consequences. Do you think Qishan is the only place that contains consequences?" Her tone is exasperated but fond, not very serious.

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"There's consequences and there's consequences! Not calling people on things is bad too, jiejie." 

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"And it's so necessary to call people on being clumsy at romance now? My little sister is such a hypocrite."

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Her face turns bright red. "I have no idea what you're talking about," she says through her teeth, her eyes darting at Lan Zhan. 

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"Uh huh."

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"Da-jie, I am not refraining from making overtures out of incompetence," she hisses under her breath. "Or at least not only incompetence. I'm not going to put anyone in a position of having to say yes or no to me until Wen Ruohan isn't making everything weird!"

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She pats her shoulder. "I am not criticizing your decision-making on the matter, A-Ying. I'm only teasing. You're just adorably flustered about her, it's unusual!"

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"She's incredibly good and also the prettiest person on the planet, it's not fair," she pouts. 

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"She is quite pretty," Wen Qing concedes, patting her sister on the shoulder. "You've been very strong. Have you ever liked someone this much before?"

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"No, never." She'd never met anyone who was so good and smart and elegant and charmed by adorable bunnies before. 

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“Are you going to get engaged to Lan-guniang, Er-jie?”

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"I wish. She probably wants someone who's a boy and, you know, not a Wen." 

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“Maybe.”

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The lantern festival marks the closing of the lecture as well as the summer.

Within a week, the leaders of other sects arrive. They come officially to collect their disciples and, much less officially, meet with Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen about the Yin Iron.

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The talk is...more productive than it isn't. Everyone agrees that Someone Should Do Something about the Yin Iron, and maybe the Wens, but nobody except Nie Mingjue is all that enthusiastic about doing anything proactive about the latter, although everyone agrees to be on alert for Wen misbehavior. The Lans are given blanket permission to do whatever is necessary with the Yin Iron, which is...nice? 

After having to deal with Sect Leader Jiang and Sect Leader Jin, (who are, in Nie Mingjue's words, "a spineless, conflict avoidant twit" and [swearwords redacted for lack of compliance with the rules of Cloud recesses] respectively) the two younger sect leaders/secret boyfriends/open friends retire to the Hanshi for tea and unofficial diplomacy (which, unlike its close counterpart, gossip, is not forbidden in the Cloud Recesses) and makeouts. 

Lan Xichen tells Nie Mingjue about the three probably-not-evil Wens, and Nie Mingjue is skeptical until Lan Xichen fills him in on the details, at which point he agrees that there is at least a reasonable chance that they are non-evil as opposed to good actors, and also if so he likes the balls on Wen Ying (breaking through the wards and then handing over notes on it how to prevent that! Nice!)

Then makeouts go farther and there is much less discussion. 

The next morning Nie Mingjue goes off to see if Baxia has any opinions on the Wens and Lan Xichen goes off to find his little sister and tell her she's going questing for Yin Iron apparently.  

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His little sister is very glad that she gets to do something helpful. Will she be going alone?

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He's sure Wen Ying would love to go with her. 

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And he thinks that that's a good idea?

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He wouldn't suggest letting her be the one to carry the Yin Iron, but otherwise yes. 

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What about the other Wens?

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The vibe he gets from the Wen siblings is that you can trust or distrust them as a group but Wen Ying is the most proactive of them; if Lan Zhan wants to ask all three of them to come she's welcome to but Wen Qing might say no, whereas he's confident that if she approaches Wen Ying alone she'll say yes. 

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Lan Zhan agrees with that assessment. 

Would Brother like for her to approach Wen Ying about this mission herself?

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He can if she would rather.

(He has that much mercy, at least.)

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Yes Please. Going on a quest with Wen Ying is terrifying enough without having to interact with her about it.

 

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Meanwhile, Baxia has no immediate objections to the Wens.

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In that case Nie Mingjue will simply loom ominously in their general vicinity for a little while and leave. 

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"Huh. So that was Nie-gongxi's brother." 

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"They are quite different, aren't they? But Chifeng-zun matches the stories."

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"It seemed like he... really didn't like us." It felt angrier than the usual levels of dislike they receive from Non-Wens, but maybe that's just who Chifeng-zun is as a person and not because they'd done something specifically wrong.

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"Yeah, uh, according to Nie-gongxi Wen Ruohan probably murdered their dad." 

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Oh no...

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"Do you think he would try to convince the Lans to execute us?"

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"...Probably not? Nie-gongxi also said he cares a lot about justice." 

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"Mhm. He didn't seem like he wanted to murder us either, I'm just... on edge. 

 

Even if we are permitted to depart Cloud Recesses smoothly, we will be returning to Qishan empty handed."

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"I have been very assiduously preparing excuses. A couple of them involve murdering particularly loathsome retainers and hiding the bodies before we see Uncle. A different bunch involve me acquiring a handful of injuries for plausible deniability but I figured you would probably veto those." 

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Yeah no shit. 

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"D-do we, need our own excuses, Da-jie?"

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"No. A-Ying will share the excuses she decides on and we'll all coordinate around them."

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Hmmm. All three of them are together, which makes plan: ask Wen Ying by herself somewhat more difficult. And if he tries to get her alone to ask her without her siblings around on purpose, she might figure it out and get suspicious of why. 

Oh well. He approaches the three of them. "Wen-guniang. Wen-er-guniang. Wen-gongxi." 

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She rises quickly. "Sect Leader Lan. You just missed Sect Leader Nie, if you are looking for him."

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"Not in this particular instance. I was...wondering if it would be useful to your cover if you accompanied Lan Zhan as she seeks out the remaining Yin Iron shards." 

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Wen Ying leaps to her feet. "Would it! Oh man, that sounds awesome--can we, Jie? Please?"

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"Sect Leader Lan, you aren't concerned that we would pose a threat?" She hadn't thought Lan Xichen trusted them that much, but she can't think of what the trap might be, here.

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"I have advised my sister not to let you carry the Yin Iron, and to keep an eye on you. But honestly, at this point, if the three of you are pulling a long con, it is a very good one. And Wen Ruohan is not known for his subtlety." 

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“Well then, it would be very useful to our cover. We would like to assist Lan-guniang as well. Have you found out where any more shards are located, Sect Leader Lan?”

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"Not for certain, although we have a general idea of area." 

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“Alright. How soon does Lan-guniang expect to depart?”

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"Tomorrow morning." 

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“We will be packed. Thank you, Sect Leader Lan. Is there anything else?”

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Headshake. "Thank you," he says, and leaves. 

He informs A-Zhan that Wen Ying's siblings will be coming along after all and then goes to do sect leader things in his office. 

That evening Wen Chao shows up to be an absolute creep, deliberately wiping his muddy boots on Lan Xichen's floor, and making various ominous threats if the Lan Sect doesn't turn over their piece of Yin Iron. It's very upsetting but while Xichen doesn't have his little sister's omnipresent poker face he can do a good one when he needs to. 

On the plus side, nothing he says indicates that he knows any of the MANY things Wen Ying would probably have told him if she was untrustworthy, and while Wen Ying is plausibly smart enough to be a good actor, Wen Chao is not. 

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Wen Ying has to get up in the middle of the night and go outside when she senses something wrong so that Wen Chao will only be a creep at her and not her siblings. He questions her loyalty; she questions his intelligence and threatens to blame him for the failure of the whole operation if he blows her cover. He departs. 

She doesn't sleep well for the remainder of the night. 

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Lan Zhan knocks on the Wens’ guesthouse door in early Lan fashion the next morning.

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Wen Ying answers the door fully dressed but ever-so-slightly disheveled, yawning and rubbing her eyes. 

"G'morning Lan Zhan." 

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(Oh no her disheveled hair is cute oh no Oh No panic)

"Are you ready?"

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"Yep. A-NING! QING-JIE! LAN ZHAN'S HERE!" 

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"We're right here A-Ying, you don't need to shout!" calls a voice from the next room.

Wen Qing and Wen Ning appear in the doorway behind her, both more neatly presented. "Lan-guniang, good morning. We are ready."

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Nod.

She waits for them to step out of the guest house before turning and leading the way through Cloud Recesses to its gates.

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And when they pass through the gates Wen Ying grins and rolls her shoulders and does a cartwheel and yells whatever the ancient Chinese equivalent of "OLLY-OLLY-ENFREE!" is. 

"No more rules," she says, bouncing on her toes and grinning at Lan Zhan. "I tell you, it's a lot less obnoxious to have to obey way too many rules than to have to step lightly around Wen Ruohan's idiot ego but it was still starting to chafe." 

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"Remain decent."

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She rolls her eyes. "I'm not going to take off my clothes, Lan Zhan. But I do want to stop in town before we leave Gusu entirely, I have heard amazing things about the local Emperor's Smile liquor and it's not like I could try it before now." 

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Lan Zhan is too busy not reacting to the notion of Wen Ying taking of her clothes to object to this plan.

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"Which town are we passing through? Where are we going?"

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Focus. "Pass through Caiyi Town. Acquire a boat. The Yin Iron wants to travel Southwest."

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"--Wants to? Wants like how. Should we be giving that thing things that it wants." 

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"Wanting to reconnect with its other parts. Our shard responded to movement in that direction."

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"Oh. Okay, that makes sense. Just--wanting to be careful." She shivers. 

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Nod. It's good to be careful, although Lan Zhan is indignant that Wen Ying thinks she would just allow the Yin Iron to compel her towards its bidding.

It not a very long walk downhill from Cloud Recesses to Caiyi Town. As they move through the cheery town streets towards Biling Lake, they will pass many vendors selling food, trinkets, and alcohol.

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Wen Ying finds a shop selling Emperor's Smile and disappears inside, coming back out a few minutes later with whatever she purchased stowed discreetly in her sleeves. 

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Lan Zhan is occupied with purchasing a boat. They can all file onto it, no questions asked about the contents of anyone's sleeves.

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Wen Ying immediately occupies herself trailing her fingertips in the water and admiring the fish and water plants. 

"Gusu is truly beautiful," she sighs. 

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"I think that the fish are cute! Do you like the fish, Ying-jie?"

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"They're so cute!!! The bunnies inside the cave were even cuter, though." 

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"Am I ever going to get to see the bunnies too?"

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"Hey Lan Zhan when this is all over can we show A-Ning the bunnies???"

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"Yes."

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"Oh, th- thank you, Lan-guniang! Qishan doesn't have any bunnies."

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Nod.

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"Next time I won't promise to follow all the rules and then I won't have to worry about the bunnies counting as pets. Jiang Cheng couldn't bring his dogs, he was sad about it." 

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It is pretty sad that the bunnies aren't supposed to be kept as pets.

Although. Lan Zhan doesn't thing there was anything wrong with moving the bunnies to a nice warm forrest. That isn't keeping them as pets, necessarily, when there are no rules against animals living in Cloud Recesses by themselves. 

And maybe she feeds them sometimes but they aren't dependent on her for food, which a real pet might be.

And they are really really cute and good.

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"Please don't go causing trouble even when you haven't expressly promised not too, A-Ying."

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"I won't! But I can follow the important rules like not lying without worrying about whether or not I'm technically breaking the rules by doing something innocuous like playing with bunnies or working off energy by running around in the forest or something." 

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"Can you not concentrate energy into meditation?"

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"Meditation reliably increases the amount of energy I need to work off, not lowers it." 

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"Hm."

 

An hour into their boat ride a dark bird swoops overhead, trailing wisps of black smoke.

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She scowls at the bird. 

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Questioning look.

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"Uh, Wen Chao broke into Cloud Recesses last night to creep on me and your older brother about the Yin Iron, and I'm pretty sure that thing is his." She shifts uncomfortably, having hoped to leave her siblings in the dark about why she hadn't slept well the night before.

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"What? A-Ying, why didn't you tell me! You need to tell me these things! What did he say? What did you tell him?"

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"We were busy getting ready to leave in the morning! Uh, he said he'd warned Zewu-jun that he'd better hand over the Yin Iron or...something unpleasant might happen to Lan Zhan. And, uh, that I had better be willing to do what he said if he decided to follow through on that threat. I said I had the situation in hand and what was the point of having undercover agents if you were just going to blow their covers when you felt like it and that if my mission failed because he was clumsy at it I was going to put the whole thing at his feet in front of his father." 

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"With this bird, he is following us?"

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"Apparently yeah."

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"He does not trust you to bring him the Yin Iron. Will he try to interfere before we find it?"

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"Well, if he does, I can definitely blame him for the fact that I 'failed.'"

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"Mm."

The bird appears several more times over a period of hours, but never causes them any trouble directly. 

It gets dark before the Yin Iron is satisfied with their progress. After the first dozen stars become visible, Lan Zhan steers over to the riverbank to set up camp.

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Wen Ning very earnestly volunteers to set up the tents while they get out food!

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Everyone helps set up camp. 

When everything is set up and they're all seated around a merrily crackling fire, Wen Ying draws a jar of alcohol and a set of cups out of her sleeves and starts pouring, handing a cup to each of her siblings. 

She hesitates over a fourth cup. 

"Do you want some, Lan Zhan? We're not in Cloud Recesses right now, and it seems like a shame to grow up your whole life so close to such a famous specialty without ever trying it." 

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Wen Ying in the flickering golden firelight is something terrifying. Her eyes sparkle too beautifully to look at directly.

"Drinking alcohol is forbidden." 

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"In the Cloud Recesses, yeah. If you say it's the kind of rule you'd rather follow even while not in the Cloud Recesses you can do that, but I didn't wanna assume." She sips from her own cup. "--Oh, this is really good though." 

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"I have more if you change your mind." She sips some more and sighs happily. "Lan Zhan, you're really good, I like you a lot," she confesses, relaxed enough for some of her filters to drop. 

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She blushes, staring intently at the fire. The fire is quite warm.

Part of her wants to take the cup away from Wen Ying and sip right where Wen Ying's lips have been. What a ridiculous impulse.

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She keeps sipping, slow but steady, thoroughly enjoying the flavor of the drink. At one point her tongue darts out of her mouth to chase a stray drop that spilled from the side of her mouth. 

She pours a second cup when the first runs out.

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That's unfair and hazardous.

 

 

Lan Zhan takes the cup from away her. "Moderation."

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Giggle. "Lan Zhan, I am not going to get drunk off two cups." 

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She wriggles over so she's sitting right next to Lan Zhan and Leans towards her. "I know my limits." 

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PANIC

 

"Indecent," she rasps, uncomfortably hot all over.

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She pouts and tilts her head. "What's indecent?" 

She reaches for her cup. 

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WEN YING DRINKING WINE BY A FIRE AND LICKING HER LIPS IS INDECENT

In a lurch of panic at the prospect of Wen Ying licking her lips any more, Lan Zhan throws the entire glass back herself.

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"Oh! If you changed your mind and wanted some you could just say, you didn't need to steal mine!" But the giggle that accompanies the statement doesn't make her sound very upset. 

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Her throat burns, the silky sweet fire of the Emperor's Smile still dancing on her tongue. Lan Zhan has never tasted anything like it before.

She blinks at Wen Ying, trying to think of an excuse for her behavior. Static buzzes in her ears.

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B E A M

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oh no

 

The beaming is far too much for any person to bear. Lan Zhan faints.

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"Eh!? Lan Zhan???" 

She bends over her friend to check her breathing and pulse then gets the hell out of Qing-jie's way, Qing-jie will be able to do things other than confirm that Lan Zhan is alive. 

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"A-Ying what did you do?" She darts forward, reaching out with her spiritual energy as she touches Lan Zhan's wrist.

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Concern!!!

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"Her pulse is steady, qi feels normal -- what on earth --"

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"I poured myself a second glass of wine is all! She took it and I told her two glasses was fine and she drank it!"

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She taps her fingers to a different pulse point, putting her other hand beneath Lan Zhan's nose to quickly check her breathing. "Oh -- her eyes are open a crack, look. Lan-guniang, can you hear me?"

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"...she... appears drunk. I cannot detect anything else wrong with her. But that shouldn't be possible, it is literally impossible for anyone to respond to alcohol this quickly, I do not understand."

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"I don't either! Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan are you okay???"

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... one of Lan Zhan's hands bobbles up in the air and pokes Wen Ying's cheek.

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She covers her mouth with her hands and giggles wildly. That is so cute. 

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giggling. wow.

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She slowly lets out a breath. "Okay. That is not how alcohol is supposed to function, but - aside from the speed, this matches. I think we're okay."

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Wen Ying pats Lan Zhan's cheek. "Sorry. If I'd known you'd get this drunk this fast on one cup, I wouldn't have encouraged you. On the other hand, this is medically implausible. Jiejie is the best doctor and she says so." 

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cheekpats.................. wow

 

".......Wen Ying," she mumbles.

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"That's me!" 

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Wow.

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"I'm going to tease you about this tomorrow," she giggles. "I was going to have two cups of wine, which I could absolutely handle, and you told me no and proceeded to get drunk." 

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Pout. Lan Zhan doesn't want to be teased, Wen Ying is too cute and effective at teasing.

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She pats Lan Zhan's cheek and puts the wine away in her sleeve. 

"No more alcohol tonight, though, if something else does manage to go horribly wrong it's the most likely and if I do manage to get drunk jiejie will be disappointed with me." She attempts to tug Lan Zhan back up into a sitting position. "Maybe I won't tease you, it's not like you could anticipate this either. Probably. I will have some questions for Zewu-jun later." 

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Lan Zhan sways in her upright sitting position for a few seconds before toppling forward against Wen Ying's shoulder. Her face lands in Wen Ying's soft, fluffy hair. Lan Zhan finds this quite acceptable.

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Must not snuggle must not snuggle MUST NOT SNUGGLE--

Qing-jie will probably not let her live it down any time soon if she gives into her snuggle-related impulses. 

She caaaarefully takes Lan Zhan by the shoulders and tries to push her upright again. 

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...

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...okay she'll try flopping into Wen Ying's lap instead this time.

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Good enough. She pets Lan Zhan's hair because she is only human. 

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Contented humming.

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The obnoxious bird passes overhead. Wen Ying pauses in her petting to make a Face at it. 

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She hisses through her teeth, narrowing her eyes at it.

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He huddles closer to Da-jie beside the fire.

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Lan Zhan does not notice any obnoxious birds. She is floating in Wen Ying's lap, the world light and easy all around her. This is the most comfortable she's ever been, probably. Wen Ying is beautiful like the sun and moon, and hairpets are excellent.

 

 

 

 

 

oh no why has the hairpetting stopped oh NO. UNACCEPTABLE.

Lan Zhan nudges against Wen Ying's hands like a needy cat.

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...Aww. Wen Ying sort of hopes for Lan Zhan's sake that she doesn't remember this in the morning, it'd probably be really embarrassing. 

She goes back to petting her while she plots horrible demises for Wen Chao. 

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Suddenly Lan Zhan becomes aware that it is Time For Bed.

She sits up, lurches to her feet, and starts stumbling in a random direction away from the fire.

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"Lan Zhan!? Where are you going!?!?"

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Lan Zhan bumps into a tree. She pauses, wrinkles her nose, and redirects in another random direction. "Bed."

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"You're walking away from your bedroll, Lan Zhan," she says, scrambling to her feet. 

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Lan Zhan bumps into another tree. Disappointing.

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"Lan Zhan!" She rushes over and grabs the other girl's wrist to guide her to bed. 

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WOW. 

Lan Zhan lets herself be dragged, blushing, in the proper direction. When they reach her tent, she wraps her arms solidly around Wen Ying's shoulders and tumbles them both into her bedroll so that Wen Ying lands snugly on her chest.

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Um??????

"Um??????"

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"It is nine in the evening. Let's rest." 

She nuzzles into Wen Ying's neck, sighs happily, and conks out.

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Uh. What happens if she tries to. Get up. 

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No.

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"Er-jie, are you..... uh, okay? Do you need help?"

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"Uh, yeah, I'm kinda...stuck." Not that being stuck is unpleasant, but. 

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"Do you want us to get you out?"

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"I think in the long run that would be the least embarrassing option for everyone." 

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Wen Qing comes over and makes a good try of prying Lan-guniang's arms away from her sister.

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No.

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This isn't working. "I can use my needles."

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"Iiiiii'm not sure what happens if a drunk impulsive Lan Zhan wakes up to being stabbed but I'm not sure it's worth it." 

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"Are you sure?"

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"She could actually hurt you! She's disoriented enough she had no idea which direction the tent was in despite the fact that it was plainly visible from where she was!"

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Sigh. "Alright. Sleep well, then. A-Ning and I will take care of watches."

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"Thanks. Sorry."

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"Goodnight, Er-jie!"

 

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They split two shifts for keeping watch, but the night passes uneventfully. 

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She wakes at dawn with her face tucked against something soft and warm.

 

Lan Zhan stiffens in shock. She backs away slowly, staring at -- skin, and then someone's neck, and then -- Wen Ying's sleeping face.

She releases her and scoots three feet away across the tent in a single instant, gasping. What happened??? How -- she doesn't remember. She doesn't remember last night at all, not after -- the fire, and Wei Ying's lips, and wine.

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Wen Ying makes an unconscious little noise of protest and snuggles in closer. 

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AAAAAAAAA

Oh god how did this happen what did she do? What does she do. Wen Ying's hair smells so nice she cannot survive it.

 

Okay. Okay. She will just - meditate, until Wen Ying awakes, as she often does in mornings. Whether Wen Ying is snuggling her and making endearing noises or not is Completely Immaterial.

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She wakes a few minutes later, yawning. 

"--Hi. Sober now?"

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She releases her lightning-quick. "I --

 

 

Last night, what did I...?"

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"You got drunk in seconds on one cup of wine. Qing-jie is the best doctor ever and she was baffled. You were completely out of it, you couldn't sit up straight and when nine o'clock came and you decided it was time for bed you walked off in a random direction. I had to grab you and pull you to your tent and then you wouldn't let go of me." 

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"I apologize. I have never..."

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"Hey, when a doctor like Qing-jie has no idea how something is even possible, you don't have to feel guilty for not having anticipated it." 

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"It's quite unprecedented," says Wen Qing from the center of their campsite. "I believe the Gusu Lan alcohol restriction may be a matter of self preservation, if this is how a single cup can affect you!"

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"Well. Time to pack up the tents, no?"

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Yes absolutely she will happily focus on tents and anything other than her Shame.

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"--Seriously, it's alright," she murmurs after a little while. "I've done sillier things while drunk than walk in the wrong direction and hug people, and I drank a reasonable amount of alcohol to get there." 

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It's fine. They don't need to discuss it.

Working all together, the campsite gets packed up quite quickly. They set off downriver again as the sun crests bright over the hills.

Hours later, they reach a sharp bend in the river. The Yin Iron still wants to travel onward straight ahead, southwest. Lan Zhan guides the boat to dock, and they can continue through grassy meadows on foot.

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It's pretty! There are no bunnies but Wen Ying manages to point out several adorable small animals anyway. 

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Cute!!!

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They are, indeed, pretty cute. Lan Zhan does not acknowledge this.

Soon they reach a lively town! Tanzhou's marketplace is bustling and colorful. A massive tree in the center of the city is visible over rooftops from blocks away.

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Oh, lovely. 

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"Oh - oh, heyheyhey! Wen-er guniang!"

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"Eh? Nie-gongxi? What are you doing here?"

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"Ahh, yknow! Just hanging around. I wanted a rest after surviving those terrible lectures before going home, don't you? Is that why you're here - oh, oh, with your siblings! Hi Wen-gongzi, Wen-guniang." Hasty little bows in their direction.

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"Your brother came to pick you up, we saw him, he glowered in our vague general direction. Did you just vanish on him?"

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"Ahhhh, aha, well, Da-ge doesn't really need me in the Unclean Realm really, I promise I'm not very useful to him at all! Besides, a- aren't you the same, Wen-er guniang, aren't you supposed to be back in Qishan now?"

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"Sect Leader Wen doesn't really care about us or anything, he won't worry." 

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"So then we're all good! Tanzhou is a really beautiful town, don't you think, Wen-guniang? I only just got here but everyone seems really nice." 

He smiles around at the shuffling marketpeople, and then does a large doubletake. "Oh, is, uh -- is Lan-guniang here with you?"

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"I managed to convince her of my good intentions enough to make friends by the end of classes!" 

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"Wow! Where are you guys going?"

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Lan Zhan is already walking ahead of them towards the town square.

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Wen Ying starts walking to follow her, not so suddenly that Nie-gongxi will have to exert himself to catch up. "Lan Zhan has sect stuff. I'm tagging along, and then Qing-jie didn't super want me unsupervised and of course we couldn't send A-Ning back to Qishan alone." 

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Lan Zhan draws up short once she reaches the square. A large crowd of people has assembled, clustering excitedly around a man beneath the big tree.

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"Is this where you're being drawn?" she whispers. 

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She hesitates, assessing, and shakes her head. “Close.”

She doesn’t believe the Yin Iron fragment is close enough to be in this square, but possibly whatever phenomenon the crowd has gathered around could be related. Brother said that the fragments would be stored in places of great positive spiritual power to keep them contained.

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“Is there a reason we shouldn’t go closer and see what this gathering is about?”

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“Crowded.”

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"Crowded like that would confuse the signal somehow or crowded like something bad would happen or crowded like crowds are unpleasant?"

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“Unpleasant.”

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"Well, let's just go up to the very edge and ask, then. C'mon!" she says, taking her by the wrist and tugging her toward the crowd. 

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Eek

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He jogs along beside them, making an earnest effort to peer over the crowd's heads. 

"Sir, sir," he says, tapping the nearest person with his fan. "What are you all looking at? What has happened?"

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"You don't know? The seclusive Lady Florist has put up an invitation, welcoming all cultivators to her mansion up in the hills for a poetry competition. Any cultivator who is worthy -- who is especially elegant and versed in poetry, has the opportunity to be greeted by the Lady Florist in person!"

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"Lady Florist..." she muses, trying to remember anything about such a person. 

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"Hmm, I remember that I read about her in 'Lady Florist and the Flower Phantom'," he muses, fanning himself. "In a beautiful garden in Tanzhou lives a lady florist, who often recites poems by moonlight. Anyone whose poems move her will be granted a magical flower. The flower lasts three years, and its aroma lasts forever..."

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That sounds vaguely familiar. A cultivator, then, and a powerful one. Surely her magical gardens will be a place of great spiritual power? And long seclusion could even be explained by the task of guarding the Yin Iron shard. It's an encouraging lead, at least.

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"Ah, Nie-gongxi, it's true that how well you remember something is directly proportional to how aesthetic it is," she teases. 

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“Ah, Wen-guniang, things are worth remembering in direct proportion to how aesthetic they are!”

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Suddenly, gasps and awed murmurs rise from the crowd. Flower petals of all colors drift down overhead, blown down from the direction of the treetops.

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Ooh! 

The flower petals against the blue sky are gorgeous. 

And Lan Zhan amidst a flurry of petals is even more gorgeous than regular Lan Zhan, which Wen Ying had not previously been confident was possible. 

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Lan Zhan, gazing up in peaceful awe at the beautiful petal shower, does not notice Wei Ying staring. 

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But Wen Qing does. “Nice flowers, hm?”

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"Yep. Gorgeous flowers." 

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Something passes overhead that is not a gorgeous flower and is, in fact, an ominous spooky bird. The Yin Iron pulses colder in its pouch, grabbing Lan Zhan’s attention away from the flower show.

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"Let's get to the Flower Lady's house now." 

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They definitely should. Wen Qing quickly asks someone for directions; the house is just up those hills right over there.

Lan Zhan leads the way, Yin Iron pouch clenched tight in her fist.

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A servant greets them when they arrive. 

"Are these ones here for the poetry reading?"

"No," Wei Ying says firmly. (Alas) "We need to speak to the Flower Lady urgently about the Yin Iron." 

The servant blinks. "I...will inquire of her." 

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A few minutes later a slightly older woman comes to the door, eyeing their group critically. 

"You all seem a bit young to be sect leaders," she observes. 

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Deep bow. "It is an honor, Lady Florist. Are we supposed to be sect leaders?"

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"That's who was supposed to know about the Yin Iron, last I heard." 

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"We were sent by Sect Leader Lan."

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"Master Lan Yi's protection over the piece in Cloud Recesses weakened. Sect Leader Wen seeks the other fragments."

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"We are trying to collect the remaining two pieces before Wen Ruohan can."

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"And yet three of you are Wens." 

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"We're double-agenting. I'm planning a coup." 

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She laughs. "Well, alright then. Come inside and we can talk." 

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A coup???????

Nie Huaisang doesn't have the necessary context for any of this, but it all seems quite exciting to hear about and he really wants to see the pretty gardens, so of course he'll stick with them for now.

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She bows and leads everyone else through the doors.

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"Wow, your gardens are amazing! No wonder they call you the Flower Lady." 

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"Oh, it's, you know, something to pass the time. Nobody needs to know as much about flowers as I've figured out," she laughs softly. 

She leads them to a receiving room with a table and pours everyone tea. The tea is very fragrant and might smell just a little bit like some of the flowers. 

"Now. Tell me everything that's happened so far." 

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Wen Ying considers that she and Lan Zhan are the ones who were around for most of what happened at Cloud Recesses, and considers Lan Zhan's taciturn nature, and the fact that she was around for the incident on the mountain all those years ago, and launches into an expository narrative that catches the Flower Lady up with everything anyone who's reading this thread would know. 

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The Flower Lady sips her tea. 

"Interesting. That would explain the owl." 

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Huaisang appreciates being filled in!!! Now he can stop pretending that he knows what the fuck is going on when he does not, and instead focus on pretending that he is absolutely supposed to be here and on this mission and knowing these things when he is not.

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"The owl means that Wen Chao is near. He might soon come here and attack you."

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"Hmm." 

She studies the five of them. 

"And you can confirm that to the best of your knowledge, this account matches reality, Lan-guniang, Nie-gongxi?"

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"Yes."

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"Me too," says Huaisang, like someone who totally already knew all of this information and has lots of confidence in it.

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"Alright. Follow me. You can bring your tea if you haven't finished it." 

She leads them to a garden at the center of the complex. 

Walking up to the single largest bloom in the place, she extends her hand, and the piece of Yin Iron materializes above the flower and then floats over to hover above her hand. 

"If you've lied to me--about anything important, I won't care if I somehow learn that there weren't actually bunnies in that cave--I will hunt you down and make you regret it," she says levelly. "Clear?"

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"Clear." 

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"Lying is forbidden." She steps forward to accept the Yin Iron. 

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She hands it over. "I understand, but this world contains plenty of hypocrites. Ask your friends in red about the Wen precepts sometime." 

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Nod. "We here are truthful. Thank you, Lady Florist."

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She cracks her knuckles. "You're welcome. Now get out of here before that impolite boy shows up and wants to know why the three of you didn't try to stop me from kicking his ass." 

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"Yes, Ma'am!" He would really like to spend longer looking around these beautiful gardens but he would Really Really like to not get murdered by the Wen Sect. He's already on his feet and ready to go.

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"Assistance is unwanted?"

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"At the moment, yes. But it's sweet of you to offer." 

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They all bow and thank her and depart. Both Yin Iron pieces are securely stowed in Lan Zhan's pouch, informing her that they would like to travel west.

Perhaps they take shelter for the night at the next town they find, going that direction?

 

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"...Wait," she says, halting and looking around at the forest they're passing through. "I know where we are. I didn't realize--I wasn't looking at a map, but--"

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"Yes."

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"Where are we?"

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"Home, A-Ning." 

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"When have you last come here?"

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"A few months before classes started." 

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"Do you have family here?" Surviving family.

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"Yes. Not our parents, but - broader family."

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"Most of the village is extended family in some way." 

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Slow nodding. "You have a place where you normally stay in the town?"

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"Yeah. We visit when we can, and--well, nobody needed our parents' house for anything else." 

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“I’m sorry about you parents, Wen-guniang.”

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"I'm sorry about your dad too." 

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“Yeah.”

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They reach the Wen’s home on Dafan mountain about an hour before the sun sets. Lan Zhan won’t personally initiate any conversation before they get there.

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There is an elderly woman sweeping a shrine in view as they reach the village. 

"Granny!" Wen Ying calls out. The woman looks up and Wen Ying runs forward to hug her. 

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“Granny!” He bounces over to join the hug. 

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Wen Qing follows them, smiling fondly but not running.

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The old woman hugs her younger grandchildren, pressing a kiss to each of their foreheads and then holding out her arms to Wen Qing when she reaches her. 

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She hugs her tightly. “Granny, have you been well?”

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"Well enough. Things have been quiet since your last visit. How have you been? Who are these ones?" she asks, nodding to Nie Huaisang and Lan Zhan. 

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“These are A-Ying’s friends, our classmates from the Lan lectures. Lan-guniang, Nie-gongzi.”

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“It is an honor.” Bow.

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“Hi, Wei-guniang’s grandmother! It’s nice to meet you.”

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She gives them a cautious, lopsided smile back. "The Lan lectures? That sounds like a story." 

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"Sect Leader wanted us to steal something but instead we did not. The situation is complicated but, uh--Lan Zhan, it doesn't feel nearby, right?"

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Headshake.

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“We might not be able to stay in town very long, Granny, but I’m glad we get to visit. Overnight, at least.”

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"We're handling something dangerous--um, really dangerous, but it's not here." Hug. "It's good to visit as long as the danger doesn't come here." Again. 

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"Well. You do what you have to." Squeeze. She lets go. "There's nothing much to eat in that house, and there isn't much point changing that if it's just overnight. You'll all have supper at mine," she says, and it isn't a question. 

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Yay! He bounces on his heels excitedly.

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