“I want Xian-gege!” The boy screams, tears pouring down his face. Wangji holds himself as upright as his back would allow and looks at him with the barest hint of tiredness.
For the past five hours, this child has sat in a corner of the Jingshi and cried himself hoarse, kicking and pulling and scratching at anything in his reach—for the safety of the priceless artefacts in the room, Wangji has managed quite painstakingly to create an area of void around him, though he has had to sacrifice his robes and a bookshelf in the process. The child plays with a broken end of wood. “Bring back Xian-gege!”
“Xian-gege cannot come back,” says Wangji, and though he must be three times as old as the child his heart still swells and explodes into small pieces when he says the words. The child cries harder. “Lan Yuan,” he says, feeling so very beat down, like a piece of parchment paper in the rain, and not just from the ear-splitting pitch of the child’s broken screams. Wangji wishes he could cry like him. Wishes he could beg the Heavens to give him back, get on his knees and sob for the loss of a man he loved more than life. “A-Yuan, he didn’t want to leave you behind, I promise. He sent me to come get you. Please stop crying.”
“My name is not Lan Yuan! It’s Wen! Wen Yuan! Stop calling me Lan Yuan!” The boy puts his fists in front of his eyes and then sticks one into his mouth. “Why can’t I see him?” He asks, around the hand. His teeth leave marks on his skin. “Where is my grandma? My uncle? Wen-jie! Wen-ge!”
“You must be a good boy and come live quietly with me now,” says Wangji. He crouches down to his height, still a safe distance away. “Please, A-Yuan.”
“But Xian-gege,” the boy sobs, heartbreaking, a blow to the stomach. Wangji had hoped the years would dull his heart, turn it as cold as his expressions, and it had almost worked. Suddenly, the boy stops crying to look at him through bloodshot eyes—and Wangji is not twenty years old, in pain and in mourning, he is six and he’s sitting outside his mother’s house, trying not to cry when the door fails to open. A-Yuan takes a shuddering breath and Wangji is seven, knuckles red and bruised from knocking for five hours. A-Yuan pulls his fist out of his mouth and Wangji is eight, cross-legged outside the house, knowing in his heart that there’s nobody inside to open the door, yet unable to get up and leave.
A-Yuan stares vacantly off into the distance. When he opens his mouth, he sounds far older than his age. “Are they dead?”
In spite of himself, Wangji’s fists clench.
“Nobody talked about it but Grandma would pray,” he says, voice hoarse. “Every night. For my jie. For my mama n’ papa. They’re dead, right? Xian-gege can’t come because he’s dead.”
In a world which Wangji builds, a five-year old child would never have to tell him that his family is dead. He’d never even need to know the words. In a world which Wangji builds, Wei Ying is alive, and A-Yuan’s family is alive, and the two of them have never met because there would be no war. There would be no strife.
The child has finally stopped crying. He stares at a wall, and does not seem to need an answer. Yet there is no reason to hide the truth from a child who knows all too well what death is. This is not a world that Wangji built. In this world, this child will have to learn to dance with death. He will have to take it by the hands and be comfortable walking with it in his arms.
“Yes,” Wangji whispers. “He is dead.”
“Are they all dead?”
A-Yuan is quiet now. Then he asks, voice cracking at the end, “am I alone?”
The words make something crack almost audibly within Wangji, something viscerally raw and throbbing, like running an open wound under alcohol. Without thinking, he crosses the gap between them in a bold stride and comes to crouch beside him In a swift, quick movement, pulls the child onto his lap, tucking his head against his shoulder. The boy is warm, he smells like snot, tears and sweat, and he weighs almost nothing in his arms. They haven’t been able to get him into a bath for four days, or to eat properly without throwing it up again. A part of Wangji curls in disgust at the state of him. The bigger part of Wangji feels as broken as he does, smashed into pieces, cracked in half. His back aches and throbs. His vision swims. Everything about him feels so torn and hurt.
“You are not alone,” Wangji says, voice low, rumbling comfortingly through his chest. The child sniffles and cries again. “I am here.”
“What if you die too?”
Wangji’s grip tightens on the small body in his arms. He has only ever wanted to protect two people in his life.
He still only has two, he supposes. He failed one.
“I will not die,” he promises, with the gravitas of an adult a child resonates with. It is the truth. He will make it a reality; Wei Ying is gone, but he will remain. Making the decision does not make existing without him—he says that like Wei Ying was ever his, perhaps, he thinks dryly, in another lifetime—any easier. There’s a smile-sized hole in the middle of his chest, and he feels as impermanent as mist; like he’ll disappear under a strong wind.
But A-Yuan is here. A-Yuan, who Wei Ying loved so much. A-Yuan, who was taught to laugh just like him. He hugs him to his chest and curls over him, ignoring the way the wounds on his back pull and tear. “I have to take care of you,” he says. “I will not leave you.”
The child cries himself to sleep on Wangji’s chest, quiet, body-wrecking sobs that settle into a disturbed, rough breathing. Carrying him carefully, he stands, taking him over to his bed, and laying him in it gently.
He’s started his fever again, Wangji notices with a wince, putting a fresh cool towel on his forehead and wiping his face with another, cleaning his grubby hands and wiping the mucus from his nose. Lan Qiren is going to have his head too, for letting a child he barely approves of scream his way into the early morning. In two hours, he still has to get up, get dressed, and go about his daily routine. A daily routine without Wei Ying.
Wangji straightens as much as he can. This child will not follow the same path as he did. Although the Gusu Lan Sect’s rules are absolute, he will do everything, anything, he can to make sure the child gets to be a child. That for a brief, shining moment, he gets to laugh when he wants to laugh, and cry when he wants to cry, and make friends when he wants friends.
“Wei Ying,” he says, to the draft in his room. “Would you like that for him too?”
The hole in his chest only grows wider. Wangji gets up five and goes to bed at nine. He cleans and clothes Lan Yuan, who sleeps in a small bed he had moved into the Jingshi. After an intense fever that reached such a deadly high it took round-the-clock care from Wangji and Xichen, Lan Yuan can barely, if at all, remember anything about his time before Cloud Recesses. Despite that, Lan Yuan has an almost crippling fear of being alone. He won’t sleep if he’s by himself, or without Wangji or Xichen beside him. After a week of Lan Yuan crying by himself, he was moved into the Jingshi, and now he’s been here for nearly a month.
Lan Qiren denies his existence. Lan Yuan isn’t allowed to leave the outer areas of the Jingshi. He’s not allowed to interact with the other disciples.
He’s not allowed to have friends.
Wangji’s blood boils when he thinks about it. A child forced to bear the sins of people he’s never met, people who he’s only had the misfortune of being distantly related to. People who used and abandoned his closest relatives.
Tonight, Lan Yuan is fast asleep in his bed, thumb in his mouth. Wangji has tried to break the habit, but he does not seem to have had much impact. He pulls it out with a soft pop sound and turns away from the child.
There is a clay jar on his table. Dark, with a red top. He turns it around in his hands, surveying it, giving it a tentative sniff. Then he uncorks the bottle and pours out a glass.
It tastes a bit bitter, yet also sweet and clear. There’s a slight burn as it goes down his throat and he resists the urge to cough. He’s not too sure what Wei Ying found so delightful about it. It is, objectively, not bad, it is also, objectively, not that great. Despite his misgivings, he pours out another cup. Then another, then another, then another. There’s a brief blank here where he’s not sure what happens, then somewhere among the fifth and sixth cup, Wangji has found himself outside.
Snow falls into his hair. He remembers black on red, red on black, a smile over tears. A flute. He hears a flute. He wants a flute. He needs a flute. Taking a step, he slips on the snow, but manages to catch himself with grace.
He doesn’t remember how he got there, but somehow he’s gotten to the treasure room. Taking a minute to pride himself on his expert sense of direction and sheer navigational skill, he walks into the treasure room with a dignified swish of his robes, then barks, “FLUTE!”
Xichen doesn’t startle easily. In fact, he doesn’t startle at all, but someone barging into a treasure room and yelling flute at the top of his lungs is probably cause for a small intake of breath and wide eyes.
“Wangji,” he chastises, worry knitting his brows together as he stares a Wangji, who steadies himself with a hand against a wall. “Noise is forbidden.”
“Flute,” Wangji whispers.
“Flute?” Xichen asks. “You want a flute?”
Wangji nods so vigorously his forehead ribbon slips and becomes crooked. Xichen turns around and reaches up into the shelves, pulling down a sleek silver box. He holds it for a moment, then looks over at Wangji with an expression that makes him recoil, eyes focused on the dark wood floors.
“Are you okay, Wangji?” Xichen asks, voice soft, like he’s speaking to a spooked animal. Wangji makes a noise of noncommittal discontent. “Have you been drinking?”
“Drinking is forbidden.”
“Mhmm,” Xichen holds the box and crosses the room to him, surveying him with a gentle glance. He’s always been like this. The more compassionate of the two. The warmer of the two. Quick with a smile and a comforting word. His brother.
“If you were,” Wangji blurts, hands coming up to grab at his brother’s shoulders. “If you were, if you were, if you were the one talking to Wei Ying, would he have stopped?”
Xichen’s eyes go wide.
“Would he?” Wangji shakes him, hands tightening to an almost painful pressure. “Would he have stopped? Would he have learnt? Would he have heard what I wanted to say? Why can’t I say anything? Why do I never make sense?” He pushes Xichen, making him take a graceful step back, before grabbing the box from his hands and throwing the lid off into a corner.
Inside rests a beautiful jade flute on a bed of white silk. It’s almost translucent with how thin the material has been wrought, delicate and almost god-like in its glimmering beauty, like it has absorbed light straight from the stars. Wangji’s mouth twists in an ugly, cruel manner, and he throws the box too, but Xichen just manages to catch it before the flute shatters.
“Not this one,” he puts his hands in front of his eyes and sinks into a low squat. “Not this one.”
“Wei Wuxian’s flute is not with us,” Xichen says, putting the box back onto the shelf.
“Where is it?” He demands. “Where?”
“Not here,” Xichen says carefully. He turns to look at Wangji. “You did everything you could to stop him. It is not your fault.”
Wangji moans, low in his throat, an anguished cry that Xichen’s face crumples at. “Wangji,” he says, coming to crouch beside him. “Wangji, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry,” Wangji spits, so vehement it hurts even his lips to say it. “Sorry, sorry, where was sorry when all he wanted was to love? Where was sorry when all he wanted was to be loved? That man,” he gasps, sucking in air, his lungs burning, “he was so kind.”
For once, Xichen does not seem to know what to do. His hands hover uncertainly in the air, like he’s torn between touching Wangji and giving him space. Wangji heaves a dry, shaking sob, trying his best to curl into as small a ball as possible.
“I don’t want to be here,” Wangji admits, voice shaking. “I don’t want to be here.”
“Where would you go?”
“Anywhere. To him.”
Xichen purses his lips. Then he picks Wangji up by the scruff of his robes, forcing him to stand. With his other hand, he pulls his face to him, and makes him look him in the eyes. “Lan Wangji,” he orders, dark eyes flashing. “You cannot go to him.”
“You have unfinished business here. You have a child who loves you and depends on you. Are you going to leave him alone again?”
Lan Yuan. Lan Yuan, who has a smile like the sun, constant and ever-rising. Lan Yuan, who seems to have been born to smile. Lan Yuan, who Wangji doesn’t know how to care for, doesn’t know how to talk to, doesn’t know how to love.
“I can’t care for him.”
Xichen’s grip tightens, then he lets go of Wangji’s face, considers him carefully. Wangji registers the pain before the blow, the slap tingling across his cheek. For a moment he’s so shocked he doesn’t know quite what to do with his entire body, and there’s a distant pounding in his head he’s beginning to realise is not from the slap.
“Ow,” he eventually says.
With uncharacteristic fury, Xichen breathes, “how dare you? You took that child in and you gave him love. You gave him hope. You gave him food and roof and a warm embrace. Now you say you cannot care for him? Are you even the brother that I know?”
Wangji feels awful. He feels like everything he’s ever tried to hold back in his life is suddenly exploding, bursting out of him like a broken dam. He can’t breathe, he can’t speak, and the entire room swims. Wei Ying. Wei Ying!
“I don’t know how,” Wangji gasps. “I don’t know what to tell him or how to speak to him.”
“Do you believe that people are born knowing how to speak to children? How to be a father?” Xichen seems to realise the strength he’s exerting and lets him go all of a sudden. “You are grieving, in pain, and in mourning. You’ve lost someone you love. It is hard. It is difficult. I will not pretend to understand. But Wangji—you are all Lan Yuan has. It does not matter if you do not know how to speak to him. You need only look at him and he smiles.”
Wangji’s head hurts so badly. “The flute,” he says morosely. “I want—“ He staggers from the walls, looking around the room, and as though by fate his eyes land on a hot iron, carefully wrapped in cloth.
He lunges for it so quickly Xichen only has time to shout, “Wangji!” before he’s pressing the iron into his chest and crying out softly, so softly he almost said nothing at all. It hurts. It hurts so much. It doesn’t hurt as much as the thing inside him does, the growling, cursing beast that curls over his heart and whispers terrible things in his ears.
He doesn’t remember anything after that. When he wakes up, he’s lying on his side in the Jingshi, fresh bandages over his back, a new poultice over his chest. His face is damp.
Sitting beside him and holding his hand is Lan Yuan, who grins in excited delight when Wangji opens his eyes and says, “gege, you were crying.”
“I was?” He mumbles. Lan Yuan’s small hand comes to touch the side of his face.
“Please be careful, gege. Uncle Xichen said you got hurt last night. Does it hurt? Is that why you cried?”
“Yes. It hurts,” he says. Lying is forbidden.
Lan Yuan chews on his bottom lip, then leans forward and presses a small, little kiss over the sterile bandages. He watches with barely concealed surprise—something in him twists and throbs, like welded metal rapidly untwisting. “There,” Lan Yuan says, sounding very satisfied with himself. “It will heal faster now!”
A warm fire suddenly alights in the base of Wangji’s spine. “Where’d you learn that, little one?” He asks, dazed and exhausted.
“A doctor taught me!”
“A doctor,” Wangji is slipping back off into sleep. His grip tightens on Lan Yuan’s hand. Something in him feels overwhelmingly guilty that he doubted caring for the child, but Xichen was right, as he usually is. They have each other. “That’s nice.”
Wangji takes a straw butterfly out from Lan Yuan’s hair and pinches a grubby cheek. “Where have you been the whole day?” He asks, trying to wrangle him out of his clothes. Lan Yuan giggles and resists him; Wangji has to focus on his strength so he doesn’t end up ripping them. “How did you get so dirty?”
“Getting fruits!” Lan Yuan cheers. Wangji has about a second to think about the implications of that statement before he undoes the last sash and a tumble of longans fall out of his robes and spill all over the floor.
A pause. Lan Yuan giggles again as Wangji takes in a deep breath.
“Is this from Lan Qiren’s prized longan tree?” He asks, his voice so scarily neutral Lan Yuan immediately knows he’s in trouble.
“No,” he clams up, kicking at the ground sheepishly.
“Lying is forbidden.”
“It’s from a longan tree, I don’t know whose it is,” Lan Yuan bends to pick up a longan in a small hand and holds it out for Wangji. “I took it for gege.”
“For me?” Wangji takes the longan. “Why?”
“Gege didn’t eat today,” Lan Yuan’s pout is audible in his tone. “I heard Uncle Xichen say.”
Wangji looks at the longans on the ground. They’ve already been picked, and he got them for him—he might as well eat them. Carefully, he pops the one in his hand into his mouth and bites off the shell. Lan Yuan sucks in an excited gasp and claps his hands together, running off to take a bowl from a cupboard so that Wangji could put the shells and seeds in it. Already so helpful, Wangji thinks fondly. A good kid, even if he does steal longans.
They sit together, eating the longans. They’re definitely from Lan Qiren’s prized longan tree—the fruits are soft and springy, but the shells firm, with a satisfying crack as their teeth bite into it. “How did you get past the guards?” Wangji asks, dusting off a longan and handing it to him.
Lan Yuan sticks his fists up in the air. “I ran very fast!”
“Very fast?” Wangji’s lips twitch. “How fast, little one?”
“This fast!” Lan Yuan jumps to his feet and sprints to the end of the room, arms pinwheeling as he tries to come to an abrupt stop, failing, and knocking his head into the wooden frame. He still turns around and grins cheekily at Wangji, rubbing the sore spot.
“That’s very fast,” Wangji agrees quietly. Lan Yuan beams at him. “But running is forbidden.”
Lan Yuan pouts.
Wangji ignores it. “Come, let’s get you into a bath.”
When Lan Yuan is clean and clothed again, Wangji settles him into the small bed he had moved into the Jingshi, where he’s been for nearly a year.
“Listen, Lan Yuan,” he says, smoothing down his hair, patting his cheek gently. “You cannot steal fruits. It is against the rules. Particularly against the rules is stealing from Lan Qiren. I can protect you from ghoul and demon; I cannot protect you from lawlessness.”
Lan Yuan’s eyes turn sad. “What if I want to eat fruits?”
“You can ask for them, little one. If your request is refused, then you will have to accept it. We follow the rules here. It is how we live.”
“Why?” Lan Yuan pouts. “The rules are boring and hard to follow. I don’t like them.”
Wangji does not know how to explain concepts to children. It has been a year, sure, but it does not feel like it has become any easier—he usually left this part of parenting to Xichen. Maybe he should ask for more lessons from the nurses. “Do you remember when Uncle Xichen brought you a kite to practice your archery?”
Lan Yuan nods excitedly.
“The kite was tied to your arm. It was under your control. If you wanted to set if free, what would you do?”
Lan Yuan hmms for a while. “Cut the string?”
Wangji pats his head. “Yes. But if you cut the string, the kite would be uncontrollable. It would fly away, and maybe it would land in water, or get torn on a tree branch, or maybe it would never be found again. Would you like that? Would the kite like it?”
Appearing to think about never finding the pretty kite Xichen brought for him, Lan Yuan pouts hard. “No.”
“The string is the rules we follow here. It helps us to stay focused and in control. It sets our limits. Test the limits too hard, the string will snap, and you will be all alone and forced to navigate terrain you cannot navigate by yourself. You will get hurt. Do you understand? The rules protect and guide us.”
Sticking his tongue out from between his lips, Lan Yuan stretches and says, “I don’t understand.”
Wangji will never have another child. Never. This one is more than tiring.
“I don’t understand, but if gege says so, I’ll do it,” Lan Yuan says sincerely, smiling at him. “I won’t steal anymore fruits.”
“And you’ll obey all the rules.”
“All three thousand?” Lan Yuan’s eyes go wide.
“Three thousand and five hundred,” Wangji corrects. “Yes.”
A noise of discontent from Lan Yuan. “I-I’ll try,” he says, uncertainly. “Are you sure there’s three thousand and five hundred?” He holds out his hands. “That’s more than my fingers and toes,” he looks very concerned at this number.
“You will become used to it. Have you not been obeying most of them this year, Lan Yuan?”
“Then there is no problem.”
Lan Yuan chews on his bottom lip, then nods.
Wangji nearly smiles at him. “Good boy,” he praises. A flash of red through his mind. A note from a song he’s tried to forget. “Lan Yuan,” he whispers. “This is a secret. It is only for gege and you to know.”
His eyes widen excitedly.
“There is only one time it is acceptable to break the rules.”
“I can break the rules?”
“Only,” Wangji’s sure to emphasise the only. His force seems to startle the child a little. “When you’re trying to protect someone you love. You will still be punished for the deviance, Lan Yuan. Your punishment might be painful. But if you are trying to protect someone you love, even the Heavens can find no fault in you.”
The conversation peters out after that, Lan Yuan closing his eyes in bed, tired from his escapades, and falls asleep just after the curfew bell tolls. Wangji cups his face in his hand, just for a bit, then rises and crosses to his desk.
Wei Ying, he writes. Your influence on the boy is obvious. Today he stole longans from Lan Qiren…
Wangji will never say it out loud but he’s beyond impressed with his child. He’s only ever seen Lan Qiren make that face twice in his life, and both times the full fury of that expression had been directed at Wei Ying.
The two younger disciples cower before him.
“Lan Qiren,” Wangji bows his head. “What has Lan Yuan done?”
“What has he not done?” Lan Qiren rages, then smooths the front of his robes and pulls at his goatee. “He was an accomplice. An accomplice to a crime.”
Wangji looks over at him—he stares at the ground, refusing to meet his eyes, as does the boy next to him, Lan Jingyi. Lan Yuan talks about him all the time. Cheerful, bold with his tongue, slightly incompetent. A good friend. “Crime?”
Lan Jingyi has never been afraid to voice his opinions, no matter the attempts of the Lan elders to punish it out of him, as a result becoming quite the master at one-handed writing, a punishment invented specifically for him. At ten years old, he’s already made quite the indelible mark on the Gusu Lan sect.
And on his Lan Yuan too, it seems.
“It’s Hanguang-jun’s birthday tomorrow,” Lan Jingyi blurts. Lan Qiren looks like he’s about to burst a vein in his temple. “We were trying to make him an ointment.”
“An ointment?” Wangji asks. He wants to know how they learnt it was his birthday. There’s a nagging suspicion in the back of his mind that directs him in Xichen’s vicinity. “What for?”
“Your hands,” Lan Yuan finally looks up at him. “You’ve been in,” a funny look crosses his face. “You’ve been playing the guqin for many days now. Your fingers are all torn and shredded,” he says softly. “I heard from a medicine man in town that there’s this ointment that could soothe the—“
“Using the kitchens past curfew! Setting fire to the curtains! Putting a hole in a wok!” Lan Qiren folds his arms across his chest. “Lan Yuan. I expected so much better of you. And you! Lan Jingyi! Corrupting the goodness of this clan with your uncouth ways! You are a stain upon our disciples! A vial of black ink!”
“It’s not terrible if I’m trying to make him a gift,” Lan Jingyi argues. “When was the last time Hanguang-jun received a birthday gift? Do you not love him? I look up to him tremendously!”
Xichen closes his eyes. Wangji would too, but he’s too busy trying to figure out if he’ll need to block a sword coming for Lan Jingyi’s throat anytime soon. Lan Qiren goes a sort of purple, opening and closing his mouth like a fish.
Lan Jingyi continues blithely, like he hasn’t realised how much trouble he’s in, “and isn’t do not use bad words to hurt others one of the three thousand five hundred and sixty rules? Calling me a vial of black ink! A stain! I’m very hurt right now. I might even start crying.”
Wangji decides that there is no way he can help Lan Jingyi now. He should just take Lan Yuan and flee. A quick glance at Xichen tells him he feels the same. Lan Jingyi is dead, Lan Yuan is now his only priority. A disaster-zone of here to Qinghe has been established. He’ll have to run to Yiling.
Lan Qiren slowly exhales, his grip on his sword tight. Lan Jingyi does not look scared at all. “Lan Yuan, you may leave. Wangji—you will watch him copy Virtue and Conduct ten times. He will spend the next week doing nothing but meditating for his golden core.”
Lan Yuan opens his mouth to argue on his friend’s behalf, but a small shake of Wangji’s head and he pauses, mouth curling into an unhappy frown.
Lan Jingyi raises his head.
“Because you know our sect’s rules so well, you will assist the carvers carving the newly added rules into the mountainside in moving stone from the rock face to the quarry. You will do this for three weeks.”
Lan Jingyi’s eyebrows furrow together. He opens his mouth again, the epitome of not learning from one’s mistakes. Wangji silences him before he can say another word and Lan Qiren actually ends up kicking him out of the sect.
They’re allowed to leave soon after, Lan Yuan dragging his feet and Lan Jingyi looking like he’s about to lose his mind, but Wangji refuses to lift the silence spell and they walk in relative calm towards the Jingshi.
At nine, Lan Yuan had moved out from the Jingshi and into the communal dorm where all the younger disciples of the sect studied, washed, ate and slept. “Lan Yuan,” he says. “Were you going to lie to Lan Qiren?”
Lan Yuan jumps, looking guilty.
“You know that is forbidden.”
“I didn’t lie,” he says weakly.
A hum. Wangji thinks this over. “But you did not tell the truth. You will spend one more day in secluded meditation,” he decides. “Lan Qiren already knows that I go to Yiling,” he closes his eyes for a moment then looks at his son. He has grown up well. A good kid, with a good head on those shoulders. “I have told him this. You have no need to hide it from him.”
Lan Yuan’s face falls and he nearly aims a kick at a stone on the ground before remembering his place and straightening his back. “We only did it because we wanted to give you something.”
Wangji stops walking. “You were not punished for your intent, nor your love.”
Lan Yuan stops too, and Lan Jingyi, who has been kicking at the ground, bumps right into his back.
“You were punished for not doing it the right way. Instead of sneaking, you should ask. Instead of being rude to your elders,” this is pointedly directed at Lan Jingyi, who manages to somehow look slightly sheepish, “you should accept your punishment.”
“Hanguang-jun,” Lan Yuan says. Wangji finds he kind of misses when he used to call him gege. He supposes he is too old for such improper words. “Lan Qiren was quite mean to him.”
“A reputation he has done naught to assuage,” Wangji deadpans. Lan Jingyi makes a muffled noise. “Lan Jingyi. I have been told that you have potential.”
Nearly splitting his lips against the spell, the boy tries his best to gape at him, then remembers the rules quite abruptly and draws himself up straight.
Wangji gives him a stern stare. “Do not waste it.”
Lan Jingyi has never looked this desperate to say something in his life. Feeling an irrational pity for the boy, he releases the spell. Lan Jingyi sucks in a deep breath, then sinks into a low salute. When he rises, his eyes are shining.
“I will make you proud, Hanguang-jun.”
Wangji bows his head slightly. “See that you do,” he says.
Lan Jingyi beams at him, grinning, then pulls out from his sleeves a small claypot. He holds it out for Lan Yuan and they cup it in both their hands. “We’ll be busy for the next weeks,” Lan Jingyi says, quite the understatement. “We managed to make it in the end. Please use it for your fingers.”
Wangji takes it from them. The pot is warm from being in Lan Jingyi’s sleeve. Weathered, and slightly chipped. He must’ve dropped it.
“Happy birthday,” Lan Yuan whispers. He doesn’t say more, but Wangji hears it anyway. Happy birthday gege. I love you.
Wei Ying, I’m teaching him the guqin. He has a real talent for it.
Wei Ying, the rabbits like him.
Wei Ying, he drew a picture of me today. I have kept it in this book.
Wei Ying, he’s decided he doesn’t like peppers. It is forbidden to be picky with food, but I see his face change when he eats them. I shall put in a note with the kitchen.
Wei Ying, sometimes he asks about you. He’s never entirely conscious though; he sleepwalks to the Jingshi and asks where you are.
Wei Ying, I’m at a loss as to how to discipline him. He is a good child who does not get into trouble. When he does, my heart is torn.
Wei Ying, he went on his first nighthunt today. Lan Jingyi cried the entire time. Lan Yuan was very brave.
Wei Ying, he’s been injured. It’s not serious. He was protecting a mother.
Wei Ying, today I saw him in the dawn coming back from a competition. I knew he must have won, because his face was brighter than the sun.
Wei Ying, the stress of his studies is getting to him. I have taken him for a weekend trip with me on a nighthunt. He doesn’t talk as much to me about what he’s feeling, but I hope he will come back rejuvenated.
Wei Ying, today is his sixteenth birthday. I’ve named him Lan Sizhui, in hopes that he will remember you one day. Not as the Yiling Laozu, but as Xian-gege, a man who was kind and who loved him.
Wei Ying, welcome home.
Cast in brilliant shadows of red and orange, Wei Ying sits beside the fireplace and plays with a straw butterfly. In front of him are papers and pages of Lan Yuan’s, dating back to his first time in Cloud Recesses to as recent as several months ago. Wangji keeps an eye on him, but most of his attention is directed to the papers he is marking, a distraction from the tight ball of anxiety he has found knotted inside of him.
Wei Ying laughs at an entry in the diary. If Wangji were the type to blush he would now, overwhelmed with the thoughts of what his beloved thinks of the way he raised the boy.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, tilting his head to look at him.
“You are an excellent father.”
Wangji nearly snaps his brush in half. “I did what I could.”
Wei Ying puts down the papers and pulls them away from the fireplace, arranging them tenderly into a pile. Wangji watches from out of the corner of his eyes.
“A-Yuan has really grown into a fine young man. That’s what I thought when I first met him. I wondered, what kind of Gusu Lan sect cultivator brought up someone as gentle and firm as he?”
Wangji hums under his breath. “Were you surprised when you learnt the truth?”
Wei Ying puts a finger to his lips and walks over to him, dropping to curl beside him and lean his head against his shoulder. “You know, I thought I would be, but then I looked at him and then at you and thought actually, that seems right. Of course it’s Lan Zhan. Who else would it be?”
He preens under the praise, and of course Wei Ying notices. He laughs and pokes his cheek and says, “don’t act so smug. I could’ve done a great job too.”
“I am sure you would,” he says honestly. “You can start now.”
He hands him a stack of papers. “Essay on ghouls.”
“You want me to mark these?”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay!” Cheers Wei Ying, jumping on the task with the enthusiasm of someone who has never had to mark anything in his life. Wangji watches him fondly, tenderly. Sometimes he can’t really believe he’s here. He doesn’t look like the Wei Ying he remembers, but he smiles in the same way, big, toothy. His hands are warm and gentle. His voice is kind. Looking at Wei Ying, sticking his tongue out with concentration as he tries to decipher a disciple’s handwriting, he feels a sense of peace.
“I love you,” he says.
Wei Ying looks up at him and smiles, a small, loving one that Wangji has noticed with some pride that he reserves only for him. “I love you too,” he says, hand reaching up to brush the side of his cheek. “My Lan Zhan.”