FANDOM: Mo Dao Zu Shi
NOTE: vignette from Lan XiChen’s point of view.
Before he’s the Sect Leader of Gusu Lan Sect, he’s Lan Huan, son of QingHeng-Jun and Madame Lan, nephew of Lan QiRen, and brother of Lan Zhan.
Since he started making sense of the world, he knew that his world was different from the others; he’s aware of the different kind of treatment that’s given to him as compared to the ones given to the other same-age disciples around him. He also knew that his position in the family was different, but above all, he knew that his parents were different; not the kind of different that he thought would be a default just because his father was Sect Leader, but a difference that was the kind of different that’s unlike any other parents a child normally should have.
The days he spent with his parents were lesser ー a lot lesser ー than the days he spent with his uncle. Every once in awhile, he’d meet his father, but he only saw his mother once every month, and every time when he saw them, there’s always a sort of veiled mood in them that he couldn’t quite pinpoint. He tried asking his uncle, but his uncle never told him too much about what happened to the parents, except for “they made a mistake, and they’re atoning on it, with their own ways.”
Lan Huan considered it as an “adult matter” that he had yet to understand, so he didn’t persist on it. He studied hard, he did everything the elders requested and expected of him. He wasn’t unhappy, he understood they were all obligations, they were all that he was born with. He had a family, he had parents; and they were all protective of him. They gave him home, taught him responsibilities, and raised him to be a decent person. But, if there’s one thing he wished to change, that was to wipe the woe off his parents’ face, just so they could be happy, just so they could live life the way they wanted too.
That’s why, he tried hard, he did his best with everything that was entrusted to him. He wanted to earn trust and assurance from the adults.
But despite the grief surrounding his parents, Lan Huan can’t help but be confounded by how similar they were ー the expression on their face, the light in their eyes, the way they lifted a thin smile ー even when they were staying apart like this, even when they hardly even saw each other.
Ah, Lan Huan thought. Perhaps that’s why they’re in love. Perhaps that’s why they’re together.
Because even when he’s still three and barely understood “adults matters”, he understood emotions. Because he knew how hard it could be to find a person who can be so similar to you in your life even when you didn’t spend a lot of time together; and when you find them, you cling onto them like your life depended on it, even when it might be the biggest mistake you’d commit in your life.
“A-Huan, you came.”
Occasionally, Lan Huan will drop by Han Shi to see his father. Not out of commitments, but out of concern. His father ー QingHeng-Jun ー was still in seclusion. He cooped himself up in the room at most times, doing his own things. He barely had visitors, perhaps only his brother, Lan QiRen, and his son, Lan Huan. Whenever Lan Huan visited him, he’d be reading, or writing, or drawing, anything that was tranquil, anything that would give him a peace of mind. But sometimes, like today, when Lan Huan dropped by, QingHeng-Jun gave him a smile before he stood from his desk and held Lan Huan’s tiny hand in his own.
“Let’s go outside,” he said.
Lan Huan was still small. He was still three and he still had a lot of things that he couldn’t understand. For example, he cannot understand why his father still smiled at him when he looked like his world his collapsing from within. He cannot understand why his father felt so warm despite the chilliness of his hand. He cannot understand how his father still stood strong despite looking like the entire world had betrayed him. He cannot understand a lot of things, but he remembered them.
So he smiled too whenever he came to see his father, even when his heart ached at the sight of him. He returned his father’s grasp with his own tiny clutch despite the iciness of his father’s hand, wanting to give his father at least some warmth from his vulnerable grip. He faced his father, wanting to understand his grief, even when he knew he was way too powerless to help his father.
His father brought them to a wayside pavilion just a few steps away from Han Shi. A silver moonlight poured into the pavilion; the field outside was nothing but moon-speckled darkness, but at least it wasn’t the kind of utter blackness that enveloped a person whole. QingHeng-Jun held Lan Huan closer when a frosty gust blew past them. He took his own outer robe off and draped it around his three-year-old son, smiling at him the entire time he did it, then carried him into his arms.
“Are you cold?” he asked, holding his son’s hands and blowing warm air into the tiny palms.
Lan Huan shook his head with a splendid beam, “I am not cold, father.”
QingHeng-Jun smiled at him and balanced him on his arm.
“How have studies been for you?” he asked.
Lan Huan answered, “I have been doing well. Uncle praised me yesterday.”
“Is that so?” QingHeng-Jun said. He patted Lan Huan on his hair, tidying up the unkempt strands of hair on his forehead for him. “You’re doing well, A-Huan.”
Lan Huan knew he was praised, but it didn’t make him feel as happy as he thought he should. He grabbed QingHeng-Jun on his sleeve, feeling like he should say something, but he can’t bring himself to speak, let alone asking a question.
His father was like an existence that’s far beyond his reach. He knew that his father was Sect Leader, and that the expectations were on him. As the sole son, many would expect him to be the next Sect Leader too, that’s why the strict education, that’s why the rigorous training.
He wondered, if he became Sect Leader, would his father be happy? Would that make his mother happy as well? If he met everyone’s expectations, would that make everyone happy as well?
“A-Huan,” QingHeng-Jun continued. He couldn’t read the expression on his father’s face, but he could sense the hint of concern in his father’s eyes. “No matter what you do, remember to always consider your own happiness. If you can, choose to do what makes you happy, and what you think is the right thing to do.”
Lan Huan had nodded back then. But he didn’t quite understand.
What will make him happy? What is the right thing for him to do? Can both of them exist at the same time?
“A-Huan, you have been progressing well these days, well done.”
“It is because uncle has been teaching me well.”
Lan Huan had never done any mistakes in his life. He picked up fast, he learned fast, he knew how to observe reactions around him, and he knew what were the right things to say and what were the right expressions to put on for different occasions. It’s impressive for a three-year-old like him to be able to progress in such an astounding way. But no matter how much people around him complimented him, he always thought that it’s only because his elders taught him well that he could achieve things like this. Lan Sect was his home; it was his family. The more he grew, the more he yearned to keep it safe and sound. This home was peaceful, serene, clean, and beautiful. He hadn’t been visiting the world outside many times but he knew that this home of his was different, it was a place that was meant to keep his family safe. In the Cloud Recesses, no one can harm his family, no one can attack them, no one can hurt them.
As time passed, he started to understand why his father brought his mother home and gave her a house of her own ー it’s so that no one can harm her, no one can attack her, and no one can hurt her.
“Uncle, if there is nothing else, I would like to request for my leave.”
These were words of courtesy, of sincere respect, and shouldn’t be said by a three-year-old child who was supposed to be innocently blurting casual words, even words that didn’t make sense. But when Lan Huan said it in such an adorable yet in a tone that’s filled with so much esteem, Lan QiRen couldn’t help but smile as he caressed him on his head.
“You are visiting your mother again, aren’t you?” he asked.
Lan Huan looked up, beaming with genuine delight, an expression that was fitting for his age, “Yes, uncle.”
“Sure. You may leave now,” Lan QiRen said.
With another bow, Lan Huan left.
The road leading towards his mother’s house was always quiet. It’s not a path many would walk on, it’s not a path many could walk on either. But it’s soothing and undisturbed; it’s what his mother would like. So even if she didn’t have a lot of visitors, that’s fine too.
Lan Huan came to stand in front of the house that was surrounded by gentians as he put on his best smile before he knocked softly on the door.
“Mother, it’s A-Huan.”
An ardent voice resonated from beneath the door, a kind of voice that could never be heard anywhere else in the Cloud Recesses but here. It’s the kind of voice that added a shade of vivacity into the vapid layer in the serene environment in the Cloud Recesses. And it’s a voice that would always effortlessly heighten Lan Huan’s mood, as if he was about to enjoy the best moment of his day.
“Come in,” she said.
Lan Huan opened the door. The moment he saw his mother, he bowed a tad,
The woman in the house was sitting by the table when he entered. A pot of tea was propped on the table, an incense burner lit up by its side, the wispy fragrance giving the room a restful atmosphere right from the second Lan Huan set foot in it.
The woman was smiling radiantly when they met eyes. His mother had a lovely pair of eyes. The colour of her eyes was a tad lighter than most people and when she smiled, her lips curved into a ravishing shape that would always remind Lan Huan of the curved moon in the night sky. When Lan Huan visited, she was knitting something that looked like winter clothing for a baby. And at this moment, she was pregnant too, with what Lan Huan knew would be his future sibling.
“A-Huan, come here,” his mother beckoned him over. Lan Huan obeyed. She’d put the piece of work on the table as Lan Huan walked closer. By the time he’s standing right by her side, she tugged him over and put his tiny hand on her bulging stomach.
“Can you feel it?” she asked excitedly.
“W-What am I supposed to feel…?” Lan Huan asked, sounding a bit awkward.
“Anything at all,” Madame Lan said.
Lan Huan tried. But he can’t feel anything. And he felt bad if he was to tell his mother seeing how thrilled his mother was. But Madame Lan seemed like she’d read his answers from her son’s expression before she broke into a chuckle.
“It’s okay if you don’t feel anything.” She took his hand off her stomach and wrapped the tiny hand in her own hands instead. “You don’t have to lie to make someone else feel better. Sometimes, people would rather know the truth than being lied to.”
Lan Huan blinked at his mother, trying to understand. “Even when it’ll make them unhappy?” he asked.
Madame Lan nodded, “Even if they’ll be unhappy knowing the truth, it’s only for a while. It’s better that way than being unhappy for a long time when they find out the truth for themselves.”
Lan Huan nodded, starting to understand what his mother was trying to tell him. As if trying to soothe the mood between them, Madame Lan pressed her palms on Lan Huan’s cheeks, squeezing him on his face.
“Since the baby is coming out soon, tell me, Lan Huan. Do you want a brother or a sister?”
Lan Huan grinned at his mother, cheeks plump and squishy as he answered with immense difficulties,
“It does not matter. Brother or sister, A-Huan will protect!”
The mother broke into a burst of laughter and hugged the son in an arm.
“Then I’ll count on you to look after your little brother, or your little sister, okay?”
“En!” Lan Huan answered enthusiastically.
For as long as he knew his mother, he’d never heard her cried and screamed this loud ever.
His father held his hand as they stood outside the mother’s house, watched as servants hurried in and out of the house. Lan Huan caught sight of pails of blood, his tiny hand clutched firmer on his father’s hand as his father returned with a tight grasp of its own. He didn’t know if he should feel scared, anxious, or… anything at all. He’d never seen anything like this ever.
His father’s hand was sweaty. He was trembling ever so slightly, breathing heavier than usual as his gaze stuck steadfastly on the house.
He’d never seen his father looking so apprehensive like he did now either.
“Don’t worry,” QingHeng-Jun spoke to him after what felt like hours had passed. “Your mother will be fine. She’s a strong woman.”
Lan Huan can’t bring himself to answer him. He had a brief idea about how painful it could be when a woman was to give birth but he never expected it to be this painful. He could never imagine how his bright, delightful mother could scream in so much pain like this, just to give life to his new sibling.
After a long while, the screaming stopped. Everything seemed to fall in perpetual silence, engulfed by the darkness around the place.
And then, a woman walked out of the house. She came to stand in front of both QingHeng-Jun and Lan Huan with a bundle of cloth in her hand. As she bowed a bit at the both of them, her tired face spread into a smile as she said,
“Sect Master, Young Master, it’s a boy.”
He’d never seen his mother looking so fragile either. After the servants were done cleaning her and the place up, QingHeng-Jun was finally able to bring him into the house, alongside his newborn brother, to visit his mother. The baby was sleeping soundly in his warm bundle when they paced into the house. He was just crying his lungs out when he was greeted into the world but now, he looked so peaceful, like he’d found comfort in his own new world.
QingHeng-Jun carefully placed the bundle into his wife’s hand after he’d supported her to sit up. She looked very pale, as if all the blood had drained from her body, but she was conscious. The fatigue on her face was vivid but the moment she touched the small bundle, the moment she caught sight of the baby in her arms, she smiled. It’s the same smile Lan Huan was so used to seeing on her, the same smile that she would show him whenever he dropped by for a visit. Instantly, he felt light spreading into the corner of his gloomy heart again, and finally, he was able to let his heart loose, knowing that his mother was safe.
“Look at him, he’s so cute,” Madame Lan blurted as she poked gently on the baby’s squishy cheek.
“He looks like you,” QingHeng-Jun supported.
“How do you know? He’s still so small,” Madame Lan refuted.
QingHeng-Jun simply smiled without saying anything. The baby moved a bit, as if woken up by the noise. And then, right at the moment when he opened his eyes, Madame Lan instantly understood why his husband would say that he looked like her.
The colour of the baby’s eyes was a lighter colour than usual people as well. When Lan Huan saw it, he’s reminded of his mother too. It’s a beautiful pair of eyes, still small and weak, but was enough to blink light. The baby stared at his mother in such an intense way it’s as if she’s some sort of uncanny existence that the baby had never seen before. His dazed expression was so adorable that it made Lan Huan want to touch his cheek too. Seeing his confused gaze, Madame Lan giggled and rubbed her finger against the baby’s cheek, her gaze on him was so tender like she’s holding the world’s most precious human in her hands.
“Zhan,” she said amidst the silence.
Lan Huan didn’t understand. Madame Lan looked at him then, smiling.
“Lan Zhan,” she repeated. “Your little brother’s name.”
Zhan, Lan Huan repeated the word several times in his mind. He had yet to learn a lot of words but he knew this one. It meant to own a concise conscience, to be clear-minded, and to be pure in heart. For some reason, when he looked at his little brother like this, he can understand why his parents would name him as such. It’s just a hunch, something that he couldn’t explain if someone was to ask. Then, his mother took his hand, just like how she did when she held his hand to press against her bulging stomach. She let him touch the baby on the face and then, as if triggered, the baby raised its tiny hand and grabbed Lan Huan on one finger. Madame Lan chuckled at the sight,
“He likes you,” she said.
Lan Huan was so stunned at the whole situation that he couldn’t bring himself to speak. The baby clutched him weakly on his finger, staring at him, looking like he’s talking to him with a language he cannot understand. The longer he made contact with the baby, the clearer his realization became.
This was his brother. This was the little brother he vowed to take care of.
“Lan Zhan,” he repeated the name in a small voice.
The baby giggled then, causing Lan Huan’s heart to skip a beat at the adorable sound.
“A-Huan, are you happy?” Madame Lan asked.
Lan Huan looked at his mother, surprised, then at his father, who was also smiling at him.
At that moment in time, with his brother clutching him on his finger as if he’s grabbing onto a straw of hope, Lan Huan came to a realization.
ー that while he was trying hard to make his parents happy all this while, his parents were doing the same for him. And the proof was right here in front of his eyes, when the parents had given him a little brother, a company to stay by his side, because they’d come to understand themselves how lonely it can be to face everything alone, and how miserable it’d feel like to be separated from their loved ones.
This little brother of his would not only be his company, but he’s also his family, tightly bonded by blood, and he’d be someone he’d look over for the rest of his life, as much as his brother would as he grew.
Lan Zhan wasn’t the same as how Lan Huan would imagine a little brother would be. At first, he thought he would have to get used to life with a bright existence like his mother, as he’d always presumed children to be like that. But Lan Zhan was different. The more he grew, the more reserved he became. Lan Huan thought it was his problem at first, that he wasn’t a good brother, that he didn’t know how to raise a brother properly. That’s why, he always tried as hard as he could to make Lan Zhan happy. He’s always tolerant, understanding, and observant. He always tried to understand his brother’s behaviour and personality. It’s something Lan Huan thought he should do because he’d promised his parents, and his parents weren’t always around. His uncle was often busy too, so Lan Zhan was often handed in his care. And Lan Huan was more than happy to be responsible for it.
They shared the same room when they were small. Lan Huan would always let Lan Zhan sleep in the inner side of the bed, fearing that he might fall off the bed when he wasn’t looking. They often went to bed early and for a long time, Lan Huan knew that his brother couldn’t sleep. It’s always at those times when Lan Huan would try to talk to him, trying to understand him better.
“A-Zhan, do you have anything you want to tell me?” he tried.
Lan Zhan was already three by that time, and as a three-year-old, he was extremely adorable and loved, yet the number of times when he ever smiled was… very few. It was very worrying, to be honest.
Lan Zhan shook his head at first. His sleeping posture was so neat and so upright as he faced the ceiling. And then, while Lan Huan was about to sleep himself, Lan Zhan’s voice echoed from his side.
“Brother, are father and mother not happy?”
The question startled Lan Huan. He remembered when he was three himself, he too had asked the same question. Not to anyone else; not to his parents, not to his uncle. But it was a question he’d been pondering for himself. Sure, his parents were always smiling when they met him, but somehow, he could tell that they weren’t very happy either. When he was three, he thought these were all adult matters that he wouldn’t understand so he tried as hard as he could to make them happy by doing all the things that were required of him. When they’re happy, he’d be happy too.
Yet now, when his little brother asked him the same question, he couldn’t answer. He didn’t know how to answer. And then, he thought, perhaps that’s why he didn’t ask anyone back then; not because he had no one to ask, but because he knew that even if he was to ask, they wouldn’t be able to answer him too.
“What makes you think so?” Lan Huan asked instead, using it as a chance to understand his brother better.
Lan Zhan turned his small face around ever so slightly, just enough to see his brother in the eyes.
“I can feel it,” he said, voice cute yet not losing the grave of the matter he was talking about. He raised a tiny hand and placed it on his own heart. “When they smile, here, it hurts.”
Lan Huan felt a clench from beneath his chest as he edged over to scoop his brother into his arm.
“A-Zhan, I don’t know if they’re unhappy but I know one thing,” he said, holding his brother in his embrace. “If we are happy, they will be happy too. So we have to stay happy and live properly. We shouldn’t worry them, alright?”
He wasn’t sure if his little brother understood what he was trying to say, but he felt a nod against his chest and he prayed, he prayed hard that Lan Zhan will get it, and that he too will grow happily and safely, for what the parents wished most of them.
Lan Zhan was an intelligent child growing up. He too, like Lan Huan, would occasionally visit his father, and then his mother once every month. His mother was always happy to see him. She always tried as hard as she could to make him smile but all Lan Zhan did was pouting, not giving a smile yet often sneaking a shy peek at his mother, a gesture that his mother always captured. Oftentimes, Madame Lan will sulk that her second child always looked sad and that it made her feel sad too that he’s like that. But Lan Huan would always comfort her, telling her that his little brother was only having difficulties trying to express himself.
Lan Zhan felt deeply, perhaps way deeper than him. But before he can learn how to express his emotions, he’d learned how to feel first, that’s why, unlike Lan Huan, he was overwhelmed. He needed time, Lan Huan told his mother.
But for some reason, his mother simply shook her head with a weak smile and said,
“I hope time is by my side.”
Soon, Lan Huan came to understand what his mother meant by that.
The news of her sickness came abruptly. He didn’t have time to consider things through before he and his brother were already by her sickbed as she called them over to talk to them.
“A-Huan, A-Zhan,” she spoke in a voice that’s so soft, melting right into the silence in her room as she looked at both her sons in immense fondness.
“A-Huan, take care of your brother,” her mother told him. He nodded, he promised. Even without her telling him, he’d take care of Lan Zhan, just because he’s his brother.
But he nodded with an ‘en’ nevertheless, giving his mother the assurance she needed.
With a feeble smile, Madame Lan stroke a weak finger against six-year-old Lan Zhan’s squishy cheek. Lan Huan thought he saw tears in her mother’s eyes, but they weren’t falling. She probably never wanted her sons to see her crying at her last moments.
“A-Zhan, I wasn’t able to make you smile but…” She inhaled deeply, breathing profoundly as she continued after a pause. “But I… I hope someone else can in the future.”
Lan Zhan stared at his mother without saying anything. He held his mother’s hand tightly, opened his mouth a few times, looking like he’s about to say something but then closed his mouth again. No words were being said. Seeing that, Madame Lan simply smiled and caressed him on his head.
He didn’t know what he can do either when he found his brother in front of his mother’s house again, at the same time, every month, waiting for a door that will never be opened again.
Lan Zhan would always sit there with his guqin, and when Lan Huan came to advise him, he’d always shake his head and say, “A bit more.”
Lan Huan didn’t know why Lan Zhan was so persistent at first. But then, as he grew, he realized that perhaps it was because of those words that he didn’t manage to tell his mother during her last moments, perhaps it’s because of that smile he wasn’t able to show his mother that was why he had to drop by every month.
Perhaps he’s using his guqin to tell everything and to show his mother everything, hoping that at the very least, those words and that smile he wasn’t able to say and show his mother will reach her this time.
It’s the least he can do now. Lan Huan can’t bring himself to stop him because he knew that this was what that will make his brother happy, and it’s what his brother thought was the right thing for him to do.
But despite how hard Lan Zhan mourned for his mother, he eventually moved on. He continued with his studies, he continued being a role model growing up. Yet, he never smiled. He never portrayed any hint of expression on his face too. If not because of how Lan Huan had been extremely observant towards his expressions and behaviours since they literally grew up together, he too wouldn’t be able to tell how Lan Zhan felt from the impassiveness on his face.
He’s starting to get used to Lan Zhan’s inexpressive personality. There’s no use trying to force his brother into becoming someone else if he’s comfortable with being how he was now. Sure, he might look cold and hostile from the outside but no one but Lan Huan understood that he’s not actually like that. His brother was compassion, considerate, and above all, he cared a lot about others. Perhaps a bit too much, in a way that many might not notice. Lan Zhan was a kind boy, then a wonderful man. He’s skilled and talented in all ways possible. He preferred quiet, he preferred not to mingle around with people he didn’t like. He wasn’t one who liked courteous events too. He was focused, and that’s all fine. Lan Huan thought it fit just nice for them, in fact. Because then Lan Zhan can live life his own way while he can carry over the Sect Leader title when the time came for it.
When he was three, he once wondered what it meant to be happy. But along the way, he realized that ‘happiness’ was something he already had for a long time; ever since he was born, actually. It’s his family, it’s seeing his family safe and happy, it’s being able to protect his family. That’s why, even if he was entrusted the Sect Leader position, he knew that it’d be what he wanted too. And at the same time, Lan Zhan can do what he’s more comfortable with. He can explore his own world, he can be friends with people he liked, and perhaps then, along the way, Lan Zhan too will also be able to find more reasons for him to be happy like him.
Lan Huan didn’t need to wait long for him to witness the moment though.
It’s one day when Lan Zhan was fifteen, on the day when classes started and on the day when he first came out of seclusion after a long period of self-training that Lan XiChen found Lan WangJi in a frustrated state, much to his own astonishment.
“WangJi, what’s the matter?” he asked, concerned.
“Brother,” Lan WangJi greeted.
“Does your apprehension concern the next batch of students?” Lan XiChen speculated.
Lan WangJi didn’t answer for a while before he nodded,
“There is one person,” he started. Then, much to Lan XiChen’s delight, Lan WangJi frowned a tad, an expression that was hardly seen on him.
“He is very annoying.”