He takes each strike with an immovable grace. Hands fisted at his thighs, gaze straight ahead even as his back burns and bleeds. Each hit of the discipline whip is a line of fire that breaks skin and touches bone. He breathes through it, even as his body is rocked forward by the blows. Blood drips from his mouth and down his chin, a warm trickle that stings his lips with the coppery tang.
With each strike the blood accumulates, under his mouth, at the back of his throat, a constant trickle that threatens to drown him. A thick mix of saliva and blood. Then on the twentieth strike, an anxiety begins to simmer inside him. It quickens his heartbeat and shakes his breath.
He’s hit with a visceral fear that makes him inhale sharply. Through the haze of the pain, there’s only one thought in his head something is wrong. And then in delirium, the next strike pitches him forward and away from the whips, bending over on his knees so his forehead touches the smooth wood of the pavilion, splattered by his own blood. He’s drugged by the pain, driven down to a basic and primal instinct. His arms are wrapped tightly around his stomach.
“Wangji!” shufu yells. “Sit up.”
Lan Wangji does not sit up. He curls tighter around himself. He has not been feeling well the last few weeks.
“Give him the last twelve.”
Distinctly, Lan Wangji hears the disciple behind him step closer, the sound of the discipline whip coming down. He turns his body and holds his arm out, flicking the wooden whip out of the grasp of the disciple. The impact breaks a bone, sends a sharp pain up his arm.
The disciple looks at him in bewilderment. He must be a sight, an arm clutched around his abdomen, blood trailing down his chin, eyes wild and unfocused. “Do not touch me,” he growls. He needs to leave.
“No more, shufu.” Xichen is suddenly there by his side, arms wrapped protectively around him. “I will take him to the healers.”
Lan Wangji leans into his touch. He drifts after that, floating in and out consciousness when he’s jostled and the pain in his back flares. He wakes when the fabric of his clothes is peeled off his back and someone begins wiping the mess there. It’s agonizing, the drag of wet cloth against his wounds. He’s feverish with it, this pain, and it pulls low tortured groans from his throat.
“Wangji,” Xichen murmurs, voice close. “Didi.”
A hand cups Lan Wangji’s cheek and he opens his eyes into slits, tears flowing down his cheeks. He shivers. Feels feverish. Chokes and almost swallows his tongue when pain lances down his spine.
“Can you not give him something for the pain?”
The healer replies but their voice is muffled. The pain rises, it crests, washes over him. He drifts.
“You’re pregnant,” the healer says.
Lan Wangji inhales sharply. For a moment his mind is blank. The words ring in his ears and they make no sense, just a combination of sounds. You’re pregnant.
He flashes back to that night in the demon subdue cave. Wei Ying above him. A last and desperate coupling before they knew they would have to part ways. Lan Wangji hadn’t even considered contraceptives, had not considered asking a healer for some tea. Everything happened so quickly and then suddenly Wei Ying was gone.
But he had left a part of himself inside Lan Wangji.
To say that the next few weeks are difficult is a gross understatement. Pain follows him during wakefulness and sleep. The lashes on Lan Wangji’s back burn if he is awake. Every small shift of his body, every breath causes his back to seize up. The lashes are criss-crosses of fire, swollen and bleeding. The accompanying infection and fever make his waking moments hazy and filled with nausea.
What few moments of lucidity he has, he is drowning in a wave of a different kind of pain. A pain that makes his chest tight and shatters his heart over and over. The grief is a never ending shroud of darkness inside him.
When he is asleep he dreams. Sometimes his dreams are filled with Wei Ying’s voice and laughter in situations that never happened and his brain has created to torment him with.
Sometimes, he dreams of their night in the demon subdue cave after Lan Wangji delivered the letter. Of the feeling of Wei Ying above and beneath him, his kisses and his touch. That final sad smile he gave Lan Wangji before Lan Wangji departed the Burial Mounds. He dreams that he stayed that morning, ate whatever simple breakfast the Wens had. A-Yuan in his lap and Wei Ying smiling across from him. He dreams of Wei Ying in his embrace, held in his arms. But he can’t even turn to his side like this. His body is so numb from the pain, from the constant position on his stomach he can’t even remember the feeling of Wei Ying against him.
Sometimes, the dreams are nightmares. Wei Ying falling off the cliff. Wei Ying being torn apart in his descent. He wakes from them gasping with tear tracks on his cheeks. It’s misery.
There are always people in the jingshi with him. Doctors. His brother. Sometimes Lan Wangji thinks his uncle is there with him, cleaning the blood off his back and applying salves, but he’s never lucid enough to tell. In the rare moments he is fully awake and aware of his surroundings, he always asks about A-Yuan, always asks about the baby.
Is the baby alright, has it been harmed? He is constantly terrified for the baby’s health, no matter how much the doctor’s assure him there’s nothing wrong. I cannot fail Wei Ying in this, he thinks. He cannot lose the last he has of Wei Ying. Lan Wangji has his regrets, but this is not and will not be one of them. This child will live.
When the whip wounds have healed enough that he is able to sit and stand and his mind is no longer clouded by a fog of medication and pain, Xichen comes to tell him of the rest of his punishment for his actions in the Burial Mounds, for his misconduct.
“Seclusion in the cold pond cave,” Xichen tells him.
How shameful it is for the second young master of the Gusu Lan to be with a child out of wedlock. Better to hide him where no one will see his growing belly. It’s only for show. Everyone will still know, there will still be rumours when Lan Wangji emerges from seclusion with a child in tow. Nothing the elders can do will stop the gossip of people. Lan Wangji’s reputation will be ruined; he finds that he does not care.
He accepts. He does not want the world to see him either. The grief sits too heavy on his shoulders. He needs the time to process it alone, to grieve away from the eyes of those who don’t understand and would mock him for his tears and love for a man who they hated.
He only requests that A-Yuan may be allowed to visit him. The matter of A-Yuan was a great topic of debate among the elders, Lan Wangji knows. Lan Wangji was firm that A-Yuan be given the Lan name and be included in the family register.
What matters to him is that A-Yuan is safe. And he will be under the Lan name. And so will this child when they emerge. He will only care for the opinions of people if they bring harm to his children.
The first part of his seclusion is to be completed the cold pond cave, and after he has given birth, the rest will occur in the jingshi. Seclusion during pregnancy, and then later, with a child, is a difficult concept for both him and Xichen. It is too reminiscent of their mother’s seclusion, trapped in the jingshi during both of her pregnancies.
Lan Wangji does not wish for history to repeat itself, does not wish for another child to wait in the snow once a month. He does not wish the same for A-Yuan. He hopes that once he is back in the jingshi, that A-Yuan will be allowed to live with him. And then by the time his seclusion is over, the baby will be old enough that they will not remember Lan Wangji’s seclusion nor will they be taken away.
Seclusion in the cold pond cave may seem like an unjust punishment for a pregnant individual. But the waters are healing here, and Lan Wangji needs the healing properties for his back. His golden core is strong enough to keep him warm, and the doctors had confirmed this would bring no harm to the child.
Lan Wangji prefers the cold pond cave. It is quiet. The rabbits are here. Memories of Wei Ying are here. Seclusion for three years is not meant to be a punishment. Lan Wangji, at least, does not consider it so.
Seclusion allows the pain in his heart to fester. He does not need to hide his grief here. Alone, he can play inquiry over and over again, the sounds of the qin echoing against the walls of the cave as if they’re replies. Wei Ying never answers his calls.
Every night for a month, Lan Wangji plays inquiry and asks are you at peace. He does not ask or say anything else. The memory of Wei Ying’s last moments haunts him.
His anguished face. Let me go. The barest hints of a smile on his face as he fell.
His death threatens to tear Lan Wangji apart. The thought of Wei Ying suffering after death is agonizing. To have suffered in life, so much so that he took the fall of the cliff, only to suffer after death is—it’s difficult to imagine.
So Lan Wangji plays his qin and receives no replies, no reassurance that Wei Ying’s suffering has ceased. Perhaps this is Lan Wangji’s punishment, for not getting to Wei Ying quicker, for not holding him tighter, for not—
The first time inquiry makes his fingers bleed is the last time he plays it. Lan Wangji has a child growing inside him. Lan Wangji must live for what the future holds, for the lives that will come.
Living for the dead is no way to live.
Sometimes he thinks of whether he is making a mistake by keeping A-Yuan. The elders suggested he could be taken in by someone else. There are couples within Cloud Recesses that would be willing. Several families in Caiyi who would not mind another child to take care of. Lan Wangji is not ignorant of the parallels between him and A-Yuan in this instant. A child cannot follow him to the cold pond cave. While Xichen takes care of him for the next few months, A-Yuan will only be allowed to visit Lan Wangji a few times per week.
To give A-Yuan away feels like a betrayal to those who cared for him. He cannot say whether the Dafan Wen or Wei Ying would support this choice but Lan Wangji cannot fathom the thought of deserting A-Yuan. Lan Wangji is A-Yuan’s last connection to those who loved him. One day he will tell A-Yuan about his family. That connection to his roots would be lost if A-Yuan were taken in by strangers. Lan Wangji can hold the memories of Wei Ying and the Wens until A-Yuan is old enough to know them.
A-Yuan deserves to be raised as a cultivator. Lan Wangji cannot teach him the healing cultivation of the Dafan Wen, but he can make sure that A-Yuan gets the best education in the Cloud Recesses, and has the chance to achieve the best status as a cultivator. Lan Wangji hopes that A-Yuan’s safety will bring some peace to his dead family.
Shufu does not visit him in the cold pond cave. Lan Wangji is not allowed visitors during seclusion. Perhaps shufu is simply following the rules. Perhaps he does not want to see Lan Wangji. The nephew who veered from the right path, who associated with evil and now carries the child of the man shufu never liked. Lan Wangji cannot fault him for such thoughts, nor can he blame him for the discipline whip punishment. But still, he doesn’t think he’s ready to face his uncle, to look at the man who stood in front of him and watched him bleed.
Xichen visits him once a week to partake in the afternoon meal together. Lan Wangji is mostly silent and he allows Xichen to update him on sect matters and aspects of A-Yuan’s health. And every time, as his brother is about to leave, Lan Wangji murmurs, “Thank you.”
Thank you for visiting, thank you for stopping the punishment before it could do harm to the unborn child. Thank you for taking care of A-Yuan while I cannot.
Xichen always smiles back in answer, an expression of love and guilt. Lan Wangji cannot find it in himself to say do not feel guilty, I forgive you. How can he impart forgiveness on others when he has his own regret eating away at him.
A-Yuan is permitted to visit him three times a week. That is a bigger kindness than the number of visits Lan Wangji and his brother were allowed with their mother. He is always dropped off to the cave by a junior disciple and he always runs towards Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji watches him fondly as he trudges through the snow. Without a golden core yet, A-Yuan is unable to keep himself warm and so he is swaddled in heavy winter robes despite the warm weather outside. They make him look unbearably soft and round.
“Hanguang-jun!” A-Yuan exclaims with a bright smile. He does a little bow and seats himself across the low table.
“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says. Lan Wangji is no longer rich-gege to A-Yuan, A-Yuan having lost most if not all of his memories to his fever. Lan Wangji still has not decided how A-Yuan should address him, whether A-Yuan should call him something other than Hanguang-jun. “Tell me what you learned today in class,” Lan Wangji asks.
He listens attentively as A-Yuan tells him all about the rules he learned today. Despite what some may call his disadvantaged upbringing, A-Yuan is intelligent and quick to learn. He has already caught up to peers and from what Xichen tells him, has easily adapted to the classroom and strict operations of the Cloud Recesses.
He is only behind in his writing, which is why Lan Wangji helps him practice his calligraphy during their time together. For some time, A-Yuan copies the rules, while Lan Wangji repairs an old copy of qin scores.
“Hanguang-jun?” A-Yuan says, breaking the silence. “Is it true you’re having a baby?”
The question catches Lan Wangji off guard. He has yet to speak to A-Yuan about this matter, unsure of how to explain it. He opts for the straightforward answer. “Yes.”
A-Yuan’s face brightens and he leans forward. His sleeves drag across the ink on his paper that has yet to dry, but Lan Wangji does not reprimand him. “When will it get here?”
“Four more months,” Lan Wangji answers. He cannot help the way his expression softens in the face of A-Yuan’s excitement.
“Will it be my sister?”
Lan Wangji blinks, bemused. There are two things to address with that question. First: “We will not know the gender until they are born. Why do you think it’s a girl?”
A-Yuan frowns. Confusion stutters across his face. “I don’t know, but I would like a sister, please, Hanguang-jun.”
This is the second thing. “A-Yuan, if the child is your sister, you would be my son. Would you like me to be your father?” They have not explicitly had this conversation. He knows Xichen has explained to A-Yuan that Lan Wangji will be his caretaker, and that A-Yuan is listed as his son in the family register, but he is unsure of what A-Yuan desires.
“Yes?” A-Yuan answers, with another frown. “Bobo said that my parents aren’t here anymore, so Hanguang-jun will take care of me now.”
Bobo. Lan Wangji smiles. “If that is what you wish. You do not need to call me Hanguang-jun when we are alone.”
Lan Wangji watches A-Yuan go back to his writing, white sleeves now stained with black ink. I will take care of him, he promises.
His stomach gets bigger the more time that passes, and it puts a strain on his back. Most of the discipline whip wounds have healed, but the scars still twinge and ache. The cold pond water can only do so much, and it is unsafe to soak in it for too long. It means that the more weight he puts on, the more miserable he becomes.
Lan Wangji is adept at bearing pain without complaint but this—this is different entirely. His lower back and his ankles are constantly aching. Every part of him feels like a tender and bruised fruit. There is no comfortable position to sit or sleep in. Lan Wangji does not know how others deal with this multiple times. There is someone in Cloud Recesses who has had six children. Six. In moments of hysteria, Lan Wangji thinks he would rather take six strikes of the discipline whip than do this again another five times.
The one reprieve is that the child inside him has begun to move. He enjoys knowing when they’re awake. He plays music for them, and reads the rules, and speaks to them. One of the healers said at this stage they should be able to hear voices. It’s A-Yuan’s favourite activity too, to speak to the unborn child.
“You’re going to be a good brother, huh?” Xichen tells A-Yuan one day during a visit.
A-Yuan is seated beside Lan Wangji, his head pillowed on Lan Wangji’s stomach as he tells the baby about his day. A-Yuan nods. “Gege will take good care of the baby.”
Lan Wangji looks down at him fondly and runs a hand over the back of A-Yuan’s head. “A good brother, just like your bobo is to me,” he says.
Xichen looks his way in surprise. Lan Wangji knows he feels guilty for the discipline whips on his back, but Lan Wangji is not angry at him, nor does he blame him. He understands the consequences for his actions, and he understands why shufu ordered such a punishment. Besides, it was Xichen who finally put a stop to the punishment. Lan Wangji doesn’t like to imagine what damage could have occurred if it had been allowed to go on. The whippings have already made the pregnancy difficult.
“Your Hanguang-jun is the best brother I could have,” Xichen tells A-Yuan. To Lan Wangji he says, “Have you thought of a name?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. With another month until the child’s birth there is still time to think of a name. He does not wish to pick carelessly.
He’s with A-Yuan when his water breaks. It catches him by surprise, the quick rush of liquid that immediately cools. He gasps and clutches at his stomach, frozen to the spot where he kneels.
“A-Yuan,” he murmurs, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “A-Yuan, I need you to run to the healer’s pavilion and tell them they’re needed here.”
A-Yuan’s head snaps up. His brush drops from his hand and leaves a smattering of ink on his page. “The baby?”
Lan Wangji nods. “Go, be quick.”
Lan Wangji watches him run off, his little feet carrying him through the snow, and his heavy robes dragging behind him. Lan Wangji tries not to panic. His contractions are weak, he’s unlikely to give birth in the next few hours. It will be a long birth, if what the doctors have told him is anything to go by. Lan Wangji doesn’t expect this to go any differently. Almost fondly, he’s not surprised that Wei Ying’s child would not easily come out into the world.
He’s rooted to his spot. Irrationally afraid of getting up and leaving the safety of the cold pond cave. He has not left in months. But he cannot give birth here. His child must be born somewhere warm, in a place that has not been touched by his grief.
The birth is long, it lasts well past the evening, well past haishi, until the moon is at its zenith in the sky. The child is born on a night of a full moon, bright and pale in the sky. The same moon Lan Wangji met Wei Ying under all those years ago.
When she emerges into the world, she does so with piercing cries. So loud for such tiny lungs. Lan Wangji holds her to his chest and can’t help the hitches in his breath that turn into sobs, until both of them are crying in the jingshi. He doesn’t know if babies can be beautiful, with their red cheeks and scrunched up faces, but he thinks she’s beautiful. He doesn’t know what colour her eyes are or what her hair will look like and it’s difficult to say whether the shape of her nose resembles his or Wei Ying’s when she has yet to grow into it, but she’s beautiful. And she’s loud. And she’s alive. And her weight is such a lovely thing in his arms.
He wishes Wei Ying were here to see her, to hold them both, to cry with them. Instead such a happy moment is lonely, only for Lan Wangji and his daughter. But soon, they will both get cleaned up, and when she has been fed and sleeps, A-Yuan will come in to see his meimei. Xichen will come to see his new niece. Even shufu may come. And Lan Wangji will not be alone then.
But now he rocks her in his arms, touches a finger to her tiny, tiny clenched fist and cries with her. “Hello, beloved,” he says, “Lan Yue, A-Yue, welcome.”
The first few weeks after her birth are difficult. A-Yue sleeps at odd hours, and when she is not sleeping she is either eating or crying. Lan Wangji has a wet nurse with him for most of the day to feed A-Yue and change her. Lan Wangji can rarely get out of bed for the first few weeks. The birth was not easy and the recovery is tiring.
It does not get better. He was already living with an ache inside his heart. Seclusion did not stop his grief, only dulled it, and now it has been multiplied in the face of Wei Ying’s child. A constant reminder that he once existed and now he does not. Atop that grief now sits something he cannot explain, a surface sadness that cannot be abated.
“It’s common post-birth,” Lan-daifu says as she examines him. “You may feel irritable and sad, but the symptoms typically abate within a few weeks.”
Lan Wangji does not feel like himself. He likes to think that he is calm, that he is kind. But he has been angry and irritated with everything. He snapped at Xichen the day before, slapped his hand away when he tried to touch him and told Xichen to leave. I don’t want to see you! Not once in his life has he ever yelled at his brother, disrespected him in such a way.
“Have you been eating all your meals?” Lan-daifu asks.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Eating is difficult, I do not have an appetite.” He knows that part of the irritability and fatigue is due in part to his not eating.
“It’s important to maintain your weight,” she says. “I will request that food be delivered outside of mealtimes. Smaller meals throughout the day may be easier to handle.”
Lan Wangji nods from his recline on the bed. He has always been, in a way, proud of the way he carries himself, the way he holds true to what is written on the Wall of Discipline. He has always been able to trust his mind and his thoughts, his ability to maintain control. But everything feels frayed now. The only thing he is able to do clearly and without a doubt, is take care of A-Yue and A-Yuan. Everything else is in disarray, such a foreign state of mind and body he doesn’t know how to speak of it, let alone ask for help.
Lan Yue will not stop crying. She has been like this for hours. She has been fed and changed and no matter how softly Lan Wangji rocks her and murmurs comforting words, she does not stop. Her temperature is normal and she’s not sick, but she’s screaming her lungs out, face red and scrunched up, wet with a constant pouring of tears.
Lan Wangji walks back and forth across the jingshi, bouncing her gently, and feeling like he’s about to be torn apart. He’s alone today. A-Yuan is in classes. Xichen is in a meeting. The we nurse is not meant to show until later in the afternoon.
His back aches from carrying her. He is not meant to stand for this long. To carry her for this long. He cannot even carry his own child, cannot even calm her.
In a fit of helplessness, he drops to the floor and leans against a wall and the tears cannot be stopped. A mixture of pain and loss that eats away at him and shakes his breath. It’s not long before he’s sobbing, quiet tears juxtaposed against A-Yue’s loud cries. A father and his daughter miserably crying alone.
He barely hears the quiet “Wangji?” outside of the jingshi, and he finds he doesn’t even have the energy to reply.
When the doors slide open, it is shufu who steps in. And it makes Lan Wangji cry even harder, because the last he saw his shufu was when he was instructing the disciples to deliver his punishment.
Shufu is kneeling in front of him in an instant. Lan Wangji doesn’t think he’s ever seen him look so worried.
“I was walking by and heard cries,” shufu says. “What’s wrong, Wangji? Is the child alright?”
Lan Wangji’s breath hitches. “She will not stop crying.”
What a sight he must look. Only two layers of robes, the outer of which is wet with tears and spit. Huddled against a wall and looking like he has had no sleep.
“Give her to me,” shufu says. He holds his arms out.
Lan Wangji does not hesitate before passing A-Yue over. In the midst of his emotions, Lan Wangji does not realize that it is shufu’s first time carrying his grand-niece. Through wet eyes, Lan Wangji watches as shufu places A-Yue on her stomach on his forearm, with her head in the palm of his hand. He gently rubs her back and in a matter of seconds, A-Yue’s cries quiet down to little whimpers, her eyes blinking as if she’s surprised by this sudden position.
“You were the same as a baby,” shufu murmurs.
Lan Wangji wipes his cheeks with shaky fingers. “How did you know what to do?” His voice is hoarse and tired, the words shaky when they leave his lips.
Shufu transfers A-Yue so that she’s held against his shoulder. His hand covers her back as he gently rocks her. “Your mother was never well after pregnancy,” he says. “I assisted her.”
Lan Wangji has always thought shufu hated his mother, a thought that he realizes is something he fabricated himself and assumed. “Unwell like I am,” he says, staring at the back of A-Yue’s head.
Shufu nods. “I am sure the doctors have informed you already, but it is not uncommon after pregnancy.”
“I’m tired,” Lan Wangji admits. Despite their history, this is Lan Wangji’s uncle, who raised him and cared for him. No matter how their opinions may differ on certain topics, Lan Wangji does not doubt that shufu cares for him.
“I will put her to sleep and call for food. Go bathe,” shufu instructs.
His tone leaves no room for argument, and Lan Wangji is relieved to be unburdened from responsibility, even for a little while.
After he has bathed and eaten, he sits across from shufu and bows low.
“Wangji apologizes for being unfilial. I disrespected you the day of the punishment, and have broken contact with you since. Forgive me.”
Shufu lifts him from his bow and strokes his beard. Lan Wangji does not fidget under his gaze. His plea for forgiveness is sincere. He understands that were it not for shufu, he likely would have been banished from the sect. In a different sect where such punishments are allowed, he would have been executed. He does not regret his stand at the Burial Mounds, but he understands the position it put his sect in, and he understands why the punishment was necessary. He does not hate his uncle for this.
“You are forgiven,” shufu says finally. “We must be easy on others and hard on ourselves, and in this I have failed you. To dwell on the past is to lose sight of the future. I am glad you and the child are safe, that is what matters now.”
This is what Lan Wangji has been telling himself over and over. The past is irrelevant when A-Yue and A-Yuan are alive and healthy. “You are not”—Lan Wangji swallows—“disappointed? Will you recognize and care for Lan Yue and Lan Yuan as your grand-niece and nephew despite who A-Yue’s other father is, despite what A-Yuan’s origins are?”
Shufu’s hand pauses in his beard, and Lan Wangji is surprised to see there’s no hesitancy in his reply. “They are children, and the sins of a parent are not for a child to carry. I cared for you and your brother, and care for you still. I will do the same for your children.”
“Shufu,” Lan Wangji murmurs, overcome. For his uncle to not only accept A-Yue, but A-Yuan as well is a joy to Lan Wangji’s tumultuous heart.
“This also solves the matter of an heir.”
Lan Wangji freezes. This is something he has foolishly not considered. “You wish to recognize A-Yue as an heir?”
“Currently, it is Lan Jingyi. But a direct descendant is more appropriate.”
“Shufu, I do not know what rumours people speak of, but an illegitimate child will not have an easy path as heir. I do not wish to make my children’s lives difficult.”
Sect heirs have responsibilities. Sect heirs attend meetings. Sect heirs are seen by other leaders and heirs, and cannot be hidden from the public eye. Lan Wangji fears that someone will look at A-Yue and see Wei Ying. Not everyone is wise like shufu, not everyone is kind. If something were to confirm that A-Yue is the Yiling Laozu’s daughter, there may be people who would wish her harm.
“This is a matter the elders have brought up also. Even as your ward, Lan Yuan has a right to the position of sect leader. To discredit them as heirs is to further delegitimize them as your children, and sow the seed for more rumours.”
Lan Wangji clenches his hands in his lap and glances over shufu’s shoulder at A-Yue’s crib. His thoughts on the matter are scattered. He finds it difficult to think of A-Yue as sect heir, as an actual sect leader one day when she’s still so small, when the world is still so big around her.
Noticing his turmoil, shufu says. “Perhaps this is an issue to be discussed at a later time, when A-Yue is older and a disciple.”
Lan Wangji breathes a sigh of relief. “Thank you, shufu.”
“Gratitude is unnecessary. You must be careful to maintain your health, Wangji. Take the time in seclusion to recover and regain your cultivation.”
Lan Wangji acquiesces with a nod of his head. The return of his relationship with his uncle is a comfort that eases some of his stress. In such times, Lan Wangji cannot afford to be estranged from family. Shufu’s stable presence is much needed.
The next day, when A-Yuan returns from his classes he has a bag of assorted candies, two fabric hand puppets, a cloth tiger, and a puzzle. A-Yuan greets him and deposits them all on the table and plops himself down in Lan Wangji’s lap.
“A-die, shugong took me to Caiyi town during lunch today!”
Lan Wangji blinks. “Shugong?”
“Mn! He said if I can solve the puzzle he’ll take me again and this time he’ll buy me anything I want.”
Lan Wangji looks at the assortment of toys. This isn’t already whatever A-Yuan wants?
A-Yuan holds up the red cloth tiger. “This is for A-Yue.” He squishes it. “It’s soft, see, so A-Yue can’t hurt herself.”
“A very thoughtful gift, thank you A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says. “Did you enjoy your time with shugong?”
“I like him! Did shugong take care of you when you were small?” A-Yuan asks. He has a puppet on each hand now.
Lan Wangji is transported to another moment, A-Yuan sitting on his lap and playing with his grass butterflies. But Wei Ying isn’t sitting across from them now, and the longing aches in Lan Wangji’s chest.
“Mn,” he says when he can speak again past the ache of tears in his throat.
“Diedie’s parents are gone like A-Yuan’s parents?”
“Yes. But you and A-Yue have me, and your bobo and shugong, now.”
A-Yuan tilts his head back, staring up at Lan Wangji upside down. “You’re my favourite.”
Lan Wangji softens and leans down to kiss A-Yuan’s forehead right where the metal cloud of his ribbon lies. “You and A-Yue are the most important to me.” You were Wei Ying’s favourite, he thinks, you have always been loved.
He asks his brother to take A-Yue and A-Yuan for a night. His brother has always offered, but Lan Wangji hasn’t taken him up on it until now. The jingshi is quiet without the children; A-Yue’s cries and babbles and A-Yuan’s chatter and qin practice. Lan Wangji eats his dinner in silence, and then meditates. But he cannot bring his mind to focus. His thoughts, as they have been for the past few days, stray to the loose floorboard in the jingshi.
He stands up and moves to the floorboard before he can even think about the action. He pries it open. There are only a few items there. The drawing Wei Ying had given him that day during the summer lectures. A self-portrait of Wei Ying Lan Wangji had requested during that last meeting in the Burial Mounds. If it weren’t for the pain it brings him, he would not hide it here as if it’s something he’s ashamed of. But he is afraid that A-Yuan may find the drawing and recognize Wei Ying. Is it selfish that he is happy A-Yuan does not have his memories? Lan Wangji does not want those memories to cause him conflict and grief. He wants A-Yuan to grow up free of a past that will haunt him. And one day, Lan Wangji will tell him all of the truth. But he is a child still, and children should not be burdened with such pains.
Another item under the floor is a red ribbon. Lan Wangji does not touch it. The last items are two bottles of Emperor’s smile. They are old now, bought years ago when Wei Ying was still alive and Lan Wangji was possessed by fantasies of Wei Ying coming to Gusu. He pulls out the jars and slides the floorboard back in its place.
Seated on the floor in the middle of the jingshi, he considers the jars. The memories of Wei Ying are heavy under his skin tonight. He thinks of Wei Ying that first night, the way he had tilted his head back and poured the Emperor’s Smile into his mouth on the roof. Shameless and uncaring. The way he had angered Lan Wangji with his rudeness and undeniably attractive appearance. The way he had matched him blow for blow under the moonlight.
Lan Wangji wants to taste what Wei Ying tasted, as if the taste and smell of the liquor can connect them somehow. Before he can change his mind, he pulls off the wax seal and paper, and pours the liquid straight into his mouth. He chokes on it, and it spills past his mouth and down his chin in a disgraceful move. He doesn’t care. He swallows it, and pours more and more even though it stings the soft tissue of his throat and settles uncomfortably in his stomach.
He barely finishes the first jar before he passes out. He wakes up a moment later and the world is hazy around him. It spins and spins and spins. He blinks rapidly and licks his lips, chasing the remnant taste of the first jar. Fragrant and mellow. The second jar sits in front of him, waiting.
He reaches for it and misses. It takes him three tries to grab the jar and then a few more tries to pry the lid off. Drinking the liquor is a messy process. It spills everywhere. The front of his robes are wet with it and plastered uncomfortably to his chest. His chin is sticky with it. Probably only a quarter of it ends up in his mouth. He does not care.
On unstable legs, he moves to the table where his qin sits and collapses there. He puts his hands on Wangji but finds that he cannot remember the starting notes to inquiry. He frowns and stares down at the qin strings that are not making any noise. He slams his hand down. A little more force and he would have cracked the qin in half.
“Wei Ying,” he mutters. “How am I supposed to talk to Wei Ying?”
He stands up again. He is upset. And angry. There’s something lodged in his chest. Where is Wei Ying? Why does Wei Ying not answer him?
He leaves the jingshi. The air is crisp and cool. The wetness of his robes makes him shiver. He sways as he walks. More than once he stumbles and barely manages to catch his balance. There’s a full moon in the sky, a glow of soft white light.
Lan Wangji glares at it. “Where is Wei Ying?” he asks. “Are you hiding him?”
The moon doesn’t answer. Lan Wangji’s chest clenches painfully. He continues walking. He somehow finds himself in one of the storage rooms. Wei Ying’s dizi must be here.
“Chenqing,” he mutters. “Chenqing, Chenqing.”
Chenqing is not here. And just as he is about to leave the room, he notices the iron brand. The same Wen brand Wei Ying had been marked with. He wonders how it must burn if heated with enough spiritual energy. How it must hurt.
He grabs it without another thought.
He wakes up in the jingshi. The light through the window screen makes his eyes ache, and exacerbates the pounding of his head. He doesn’t feel well and there’s pain in his chest. When he touches the skin at his left pectoral he finds it covered with bandages. He cannot remember what happened last night.
It takes him a moment to open his eyes after he sits up without feeling nauseous. Lan Yue is not in her crib beside his bed. The panic that grips Lan Wangji’s throat is suffocating. His breathing comes out in small wheezes as irrational thoughts flood his mind. A-Yue has been taken. Someone has found out she’s Wei Ying’s daughter. The elders have taken her from him. Lan Wangji will be in seclusion forever. He will becomes his mother and A-Yue will only be allowed to visit him once a month—
“Wangji, breathe.” There are hands on his shoulders turning him away from the empty crib.
Lan Wangji matches his breaths to Xichen’s as best as he can. The moment his chest no longer feels tight, he asks for A-Yue.
“You left her and A-Yuan with me, remember?” Xichen says. The concern and sadness on his face is so strong it almost feels like pity, and Lan Wangji looks away and down at his knees. “Shufu is in the hanshi with them now,” Xichen continues. “Do you remember what happened last night?”
Lan Wangji is confused. The images in his mind are fuzzy, but the spot on his chest hurts, and the memory of the pain and the smell of burning flesh is clear and makes him gag. Chenqing. The Wen brand.
Lan Wangji refuses to look up, too ashamed to meet his brother’s eyes and face his worry. Lan Wangji is so tired of this festering pain inside his heart. He does not know why. Only that he wished he was closer to Wei Ying, to have a solid reminder of his existence. No one speaks of him kindly, and it feels like Lan Wangji is the only one who remembers him for who he was. Lan Wangji just wants to hear Chenqing again.
“I apologize for breaking the rules, xiongzhang,” he finally says. “I will accept whatever punishment you think is appropriate.”
“No punishment. I simply ask that the next time you feel like this you come to me.” Xichen’s voice is so kind. “I don’t wish to see you hurt again.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. There’s nothing Xichen can do, nothing anyone can do to heal the pains in Lan Wangji’s heart. This is a suffering he can only bear alone. Pain shared with another is pain halved. But there is no one to grieve with, no one to share the ache with.
When A-Yue is one month old, Lan Wangji wakes up in the middle of the night in a fit of panic. There is no rationality in his thoughts. Only a sense of impending wrong. His instincts say this is unsafe. The jingshi is unsafe. Cloud Recesses is unsafe. The paranoia is terrifying and makes his hands shake. He needs to take his children and go.
In a quick moment he is dressed. He wraps up A-Yue quietly and straps her to his chest, taking care not to wake her. Her cries will bring unwanted attention. He quietly moves to the side room where A-Yuan sleeps.
Gently, he shakes his shoulder. A-Yuan scrunches up his face and opens his eyes, blinking against the light of the candle Lan Wangji holds. “A-die?”
“Get dressed,” Lan Wangji whispers. “Can you be quiet, A-Yuan?”
A-Yuan looks bewildered but he nods. “Where are we going?” He asks once he’s dressed in his Lan robes. He clutches his forehead ribbon in one hand. “Can you put it on for me?”
“After, hold it for now,” Lan Wangji murmurs, as he leads them out of the jingshi.
As he walks the path that leads farther away from the jingshi, disorientation clouds him. He cannot remember which way leads to the gates of Cloud Recesses. It’s dark. And everything feels wrong, and Lan Wangji needs to take his children and leave but he does not know the way.
He finds that he can’t concentrate. All the paths look the same. All the pavilions. It’s terrifying. His chest squeezes painfully. His hand around A-Yuan’s begins to shake. A-Yue wakes up and begins to cry, sensing his distress.
“Diedie?” A-Yuan whispers.
Lan Wangji feels frozen. How can he protect his children if he can’t even focus, if he doesn’t even know where they are. If he can’t even calm A-Yue down. She’s always crying, always crying. Lan Wangji is a terrible father.
“Wangji? Is that you?”
Lan Wangji lifts his head. He had not realized they were standing in front of shufu’s home. Shufu stands by the door, lit by the candle he holds in his hand.
“Shugong!” A-Yuan whisper-yells and darts out of Lan Wangji’s grasp.
Completely lost and confused, Lan Wangji has no choice but to follow. A-Yue’s cries have quieted by the time he reaches the house and stands on the porch.
Shufu has one hand atop A-Yuan from where he’s clutching his leg. “Wangji, child, what are you doing outside past curfew?” shufu asks.
“I am not sure,” Lan Wangji says helplessly. Unbidden, his eyes water.
Shufu shakes his head and gently grabs him by the shoulder. “Come in.”
Shufu gets them settled inside his home. He puts A-Yuan to sleep and drapes a blanket over Lan Wangji’s shoulder where he sits and rocks A-Yue in his arms. He sits across the table and Lan Wangji watches his deft hands prepare tea.
The disorientation is less dizzying now. “I apologize for interrupting your sleep, shufu.” He feels embarrassed and ashamed. He doesn’t know what came over him.
Shufu sighs. He looks tired. Lan Wangji can’t remember the last time he saw his uncle in such a state of undress. “You are not well,” shufu murmurs.
It’s an echo of Lan Wangji’s own words weeks ago. I am not well.
“I have failed you in this,” shufu says, and he sounds so apologetic Lan Wangji’s eyes widen.
“We will speak to the healers tomorrow,” shufu interrupts. “I will spend the next few weeks in the jingshi with you. You should not be alone.”
Lan Wangji cannot even find it in himself to argue. He is so tired, so sad, so constantly unwell. “Shufu,” he says, and he’s suddenly bursting into tears, quiet hitches of his breath that he can barely contain.
Shufu takes A-Yue from his hands and cradles her in his arms. He gathers Lan Wangji against his side and Lan Wangji allows himself this moment to cry into shufu’s shoulder like he has not done since he was a child.
“I miss him,” Lan Wangji sobs, and shufu doesn’t even reprimand him or make any of his distaste for Wei Ying known.
His hand gently rubs Lan Wangji’s arm. “It will be alright, Wangji. Time heals all wounds.”
The addition of shufu to the jingshi is a large and positive change. He has sect duties to complete during the day, but the wet nurse is there with Lan Wangji during those times. Between the wet nurse leaving for the day and shufu returning to the jingshi, Lan Wangji only spends a few hours alone.
Nights alone with A-Yuan and A-Yue were difficult and shufu’s presence makes things easier. When A-Yue is particularly fussy and wakes up in the middle of the night, he helps calm her. He helps with A-Yuan’s homework and with breakfasts when Lan Wangji’s back is too painful to get out of bed. Lan Wangji is endlessly grateful for him. Xichen, though he’s more busy with sect leader duties, makes time to visit whenever he can, entertaining A-Yuan when Lan Wangji is busy with A-Yue.
Shufu is particularly smitten with A-Yue. He is as strict with A-Yuan as he was with Lan Wangji and Xichen when they were children, but he’s softer than he was with them. No matter how much A-Yue cries or screams, he is patient with her. Lan Wangji forgets sometimes, that shufu was also someone who was suddenly responsible for the care of two children.
With some time, his family’s presence, in combination with a tea concoction the healers give him, help Lan Wangji feel better. It’s not a sudden change, but as the weeks pass, the post-pregnancy fog and sadness wanes. It also helps that at two months old, A-Yue’s constant crying has stopped.
One afternoon, when he is alone with her, he stands on the porch of the jingshi and rocks her in his arms. He wonders if his mother ever stood like this and held him in her arms, stuck within the boundaries of this home that imprisoned her. He wishes his mother were here with him, he wishes so many things. But he has learned it’s useless to wish about past things.
A-Yue is quiet this afternoon, content to watch the world with him. With a hushed voice, Lan Wangji points out different parts of the jingshi’s surrounding area to her.
“There is the path that leads to the rabbit meadow,” he tells her. “When you are a little older, I will take you to meet the rabbits. You will like them.”
“There is your bobo and your xiongzhang’s garden, they are attempting to grow a type of flower A-Yuan saw in Caiyi.”
“There is the heron, it likes visiting this pond.”
There is the spot where I knelt and waited for my mother in the snow.
Lan Wangji gazes down at A-Yue’s face with love and smiles softly. “And here is your diedie, A-Yue. Diedie loves you.”
A-Yue blinks at him and suddenly she’s smiling, a gummy smile that makes her cheeks puff and her eyes squint and her tongue stick out. Her first smile. Lan Wangji laughs, a quiet and delighted sound, unable to hold back his joy in the face of A-Yue’s.
“Are you smiling for your diedie, A-Yue?” he murmurs. You have a face made to smile.
A-Yue keeps smiling and her arms wave in the air. Lan Wangji lets her take one of his fingers in her strong grip, and keeps rocking her in his arms. A new memory created where sad ones once stood before it.
A-Yue begins to grow. She is more expressive and interactive. She smiles so much, and every one of her smiles is a joy to Lan Wangji. She enjoys playing, in the simplest sense of the word, and A-Yuan has taken great delight in this development. He loves holding up ribbons and having her grab at them. He puts on little shows for her with the hand puppets shufu bought him. Her favourite toy is a rattle drum Lan Wangji adapted, with the strings cut off so they don’t hit her in the face and the pellets placed inside the drum so they make sounds when shaken. A-Yuan loves to help her shake it. The noise of the drum has given Lan Wangji headaches on multiple occasions, but he can’t bring himself to stop their joy.
One evening, shufu joins them for dinner. He holds A-Yue with one arm and uses the other to eat as Lan Wangji helps A-Yuan with his chopsticks. He’s busy placing more vegetables in A-Yuan’s bowl when he hears a sound of disgruntlement and looks up.
It takes all of his willpower not to laugh. A-Yue has a hand fisted in shufu’s beard as she stares up at him intently.
A-Yuan, of course, laughs. “Shugong, A-Yue likes your beard!”
“No speaking during meals,” Lan Wangji reprimands gently. He holds his hands out. “Here shufu, I will take her.”
With his free hand, shufu unfurls A-Yue’s hand from his beard. “It’s alright,'' he says, and then after a pause, “She is already displaying excellent Lan arm strength. She will make a fine cultivator.”
Lan Wangji dips his head and smiles privately to himself. “Thank you, shufu.”
Lan Wangji finds his seclusion is no longer seclusion in the strict sense of the word. With so many visitors, with A-Yuan and A-Yue living with him, he’s never alone. He’s thankful for it, for this period of time where he can focus his attention on raising A-Yuan and A-Yue, where he can be hidden from the cultivation world’s eyes.
Lan Jingyi becomes a common face in the jingshi. He’s…Lan Wangji struggles with the right word to describe him. Chaotic maybe. Excitable. The other day he proudly told Lan Wangji that one of his teachers called him the most un-Lan Lan. Needless to say, his presence in their lives is an interesting addition.
Jingyi is an only child and so he’s found a particular fascination with A-Yue. “She’s so small,” he says every time he holds her, to which A-Yuan always proudly replies, “She’s getting big! She was so small when Hanguang-jun first had her.”
One late afternoon, Lan Wangji is training with Bichen in the jingshi’s courtyard. His strength and cultivation weakened during pregnancy and thereafter; slowly he is working his way working himself back to optimal condition. He is in the middle of a particularly challenging sword drill when he hears a screech from inside the jingshi.
He rushes inside, fearing the worst. Jingyi is cross legged on the floor, A-Yuan beside him. Jingyi has A-Yue in his lap who’s innocently chewing on the hems of his sleeves.
Annoyed that there’s nothing wrong, Lan Wangji puts Bichen down and sits across from the two boys. He pulls Jingyi’s sleeves out of A-Yue’s mouth and takes her into his arms. “You should not let her put things in her mouth. Your robes may be dirty.”
“Hanguang-jun, she bit me!” Jingyi says, sounding absolutely scandalized. He holds his hand out where there’s a stark red mark in the shape of one tooth at the meat of his thumb.
“Ah,” Lan Wangji says, embarrassed on A-Yue’s behalf.
“She’s teething,” A-Yuan explains. “Right, die?”
Lan Wangji nods. He bounces A-Yue in his arms and gives her chubby cheek a kiss. “We do not bite our friends, A-Yue. She is sorry, Jingyi.”
Jingyi forgives easily, though from then on he watches his limbs around A-Yue, which endlessly amuses Lan Wangji. When Lan Wangji tells Xichen about A-Yue’s biting, he will be endlessly teased. Xichen will say she is just like her father.
When A-Yue begins to laugh, the sound becomes a constant in the jingshi. She’s a happy child, amused and delighted by every little thing. A-Yuan spends most of his free time playing with her and trying to make her laugh. The sounds of their giggling as Lan Wangji reads or meditates are a source of constant contentment to him.
One late afternoon, he leaves A-Yue in her crib and steps out behind the jingshi for a moment. He returns to two sets of quiet voices. Amused, he silently enters the jingshi, standing in a position by the bedroom that keeps him hidden but allows him to see inside.
On the floor by A-Yue’s crib, Jingyi, A-Yuan and A-Yue are all lying on their stomachs. Between the two boys and A-Yue is a small white rabbit. It sits peacefully eating lettuce from Jingyi’s hand and accepting A-Yue’s chubby hand in its fur.
“See, it’s a good rabbit,” Jingyi whispers. “Hanguang-jun won’t mind.”
Lan Wangji watches them fondly for a moment. A-Yue is too young for rabbits. Sometimes they bite and scratch, but this little bunny is quiet and content to eat and be petted. Lan Wangji has not seen his rabbits since he left the cold pond cave and he has missed them.
When he moves and enters the room, Jingyi and A-Yuan’s heads immediately lift up in his direction, looking startled. “No need to get up,” he tells them. He sits down and places A-Yue in his lap, supporting her in a seated position. “Did you bring the rabbit for A-Yue?” he asks, reaching forward to stroke softly over the rabbit’s back.
“Yes, Hanguang-jun! Please don’t be angry, it was my idea,” Jingyi explains, wide-eyed.
A-Yuan sits up on his knees. “It was my idea too! I wanted to show A-Yue the bunny,” he says, reaching across to shake A-Yue’s tiny hand. “We made sure to get a gentle rabbit.”
“I am not angry,” Lan Wangji says. The rabbit’s fur is so soft and soothing beneath his fingers. “But next time, ask me first.”
“Yes, Hanguang-jun! Do you like the rabbits?” Jingyi asks.
“Are the rabbits yours like everyone says?”
“The rabbits are not pets,” A-Yuan says, “and so they do not belong to anyone. Right, Hanguang-jun?”
Lan Wangji nods. “You must take this one back to the field soon, or it will miss its family and friends.”
Both boys nod. Lan Wangji sits with them, bouncing A-Yue in his lap as the rabbit grazes in the attention of three people. He knows that Xichen has a few senior disciples in charge of the caring of the rabbits, but he did not realize that other disciples visited them as well.
“Hanguang-jun, why does A-Yue only have one tooth?” Jingyi asks. He’s sitting up now, and Lan Wangji notices that the hems of his robes and ends of his forehead ribbon are muddied.
“She will not get her full set of teeth for another few months,” Lan Wangji answers. “You have lost your first tooth, Lan Jingyi.”
Jingyi smiles wide, showing off the gap where one of his front lower teeth should be. He pokes his tongue in the gap. “Yes! I have another one that’s moving. One of the shixiong said we could use his sword to—”
A-Yuan interrupts him with an elbow to the side, blinking innocently at Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji meets his gaze evenly, hiding his amusement. “Follow the rules and be safe.” To Lan Jingyi he says, “Do not be reckless. Make wise choices.”
Jingyi laughs nervously. “O-of course, Hanguang-jun!”
Later, after the rabbit has been returned, and the day has passed, Lan Wangji kneels behind A-Yuan and brushes his hair. The jingshi is warm, lit by the candles and quiet save for the rattling of A-Yue’s drum as she plays in her crib.
“Jingyi is a good friend,” Lan Wangji comments.
“He’s my best friend!”
Lan Wangji runs the comb through the ends of A-Yuan’s hair. It has been getting longer. “And you are a good friend to Lan Jingyi?”
“Jingyi does not always make good decisions. So you must help him make good ones, and support him when he makes bad ones.”
“Win friendships with kindness,” A-Yuan recites.
“Mn.” A pause. “A-Yuan, when your teeth begin to fall, please do not attempt to pull them out in a dangerous manner.” Tying a string between a tooth and floating sword was a common method even when Lan Wangji was young. Lan Wangji, of course, thought the act was uncivilized. He still does. The thought of A-Yuan participating in such a thing scares him into imagining the worst case scenario.
“I won’t. Jingyi is so brave, but I think it’s scary.” A-Yuan turns his head and peers up at Lan Wangji. “Will you help me pull them out when it happens?”
Lan Wangji pats his head, relieved at the response. “Yes.”
He is glad to see that A-Yuan does not seem entirely afraid of the thought of losing teeth. When Xichen had lost his first tooth, Lan Wangji had cried. It took shufu consoling him and Xichen repeatedly assuring him it didn’t hurt before Lan Wangji calmed down. Suffice to say, when Lan Wangji began to lose his own baby teeth, the experience was terrifying every time.
Soon A-Yuan will lose his teeth and get new ones. Lan Wangji has been focused so much on the way A-Yue grows so fast that he has missed the ways A-Yuan has changed. Children grow so fast, and it’s heart wrenching that Wei Ying isn’t here to see that growth. The only thing Lan Wangji can do is love A-Yuan and A-Yue enough for all the people who would have loved them.
The months pass and A-Yue grows, getting bigger and smarter. At nine months she hits some of the most exciting milestones. She begins to sit on her own and crawl. The first time Lan Wangji put her down and looked away only to find her gone, he froze with fear. But she had only crawled beneath the desk.
Now, on a day in the worst of the summer heat, they sit outside on the jingshi’s porch. In the privacy of their home, all three of them are dressed in minimal clothing. Lan Wangji and A-Yuan sit at a low table, A-Yuan working on his calligraphy and Lan Wangji reading a book on plant cultivation. A-Yuan and Xichen’s small garden patch is thriving, but recently there has been some sort of pest eating away at the leaves. Lan Wangji hopes to learn how to deter such insects.
A-Yue sits on a blanket by their table, playing with an assortment of the toys shufu brings every time he visits. At some point, A-Yuan gives up on his calligraphy and sits with her. Lately his mission has been to get her to say her first word, even though Lan Wangji has told him it may not happen for a long time.
“Die, say it with me, A-Yue,” A-Yuan encourages.
The affection Lan Wangji feels for both of them is insurmountable. His grief and seclusion have been eased so much in part due to A-Yue and A-Yuan. They are the best parts of his life, and every day he is thankful for them.
“A simpler word would be easier,” Lan Wangji suggests. A-Yue turns her head to look at him when he calls for her. “A-Yue, can you say gege?”
A-Yue blinks and babbles nonsensically, and Lan Wangji is prepared to explain again to A-Yuan that A-Yue is too young to speak, when A-Yue says, “Ge.”
It’s a garbled noise, and could be mistaken for any other similar sound, but she repeats again, bouncing in place.
A-Yuan gasps in delight. “That’s me! A-Yue, I’m your gege. Hanguang-jun, did you hear? She talked!”
Lan Wangji joins them on the blanket, pulling A-Yue into his lap so he can drop a kiss to the top of her head. “Good job, A-Yue. You’re right, that’s your gege,” he says, heart racing at the sound of her small voice. He knows that she may not be actually saying gege, just a repetitive set of sounds, but he can’t contain his pride.
“Next, she’ll say diedie,” A-Yuan promises.
Amused, Lan Wangji leans forward and straightens A-Yuan’s ribbon. “You will teach A-Yue many things?”
A-Yuan nods furiously, and begins a long winded speech on all the things he will teach his younger sister. In the heat of the afternoon sun and under the shade of the jingshi’s porch, Lan Wangji sits and listens, the most content he has been.
A-Yue’s next word is not diedie. Instead it’s bobo, and Lan Wangji has never seen Xichen smile so wide. By the time Lan Wangji’s seclusion ends, A-Yue has a store of words at her disposal. At just over two years old, she is a force to be reckoned with. Since she began to walk and run, she has been doing so non-stop. How such a small body holds such an endless amount of energy is astounding to Lan Wangji.
Leaving seclusion is a difficult adjustment. For so long, Lan Wangji has only had to deal with his close family. Now there are sect duties expected of him, night hunts to attend and classes to teach. The most difficult part is leaving A-Yue in the nursery when he has duties to attend to. Rarely was he separated from her for more than a few hours during seclusion, and this new adjustment is uncomfortable.
But A-Yue adjusts to the nursery easily, enjoying the presence of the other children her age and that eases Lan Wangji’s anxiety somewhat. But he always breathes easiest when he has both A-Yuan and A-Yue in the jingshi with him when the day ends.
A-Yue’s current favourite activity is copying A-Yuan in everything he does. Shufu says that Lan Wangji used to do the same with Xichen. Today it means that she’s scribbling with a brush as A-Yuan works on his homework beside her. This at least, means that she’s not running around and causing as much trouble as an almost three year old can do.
Every day, she seems to resemble Wei Ying more and more in appearance. While she has the same nose as Lan Wangji, her eyes and smile can only be Wei Ying’s.
“Here A-Yue, let gege teach you how to write your name,” A-Yuan says.
Lan Wangji watches warmly as A-Yuan guides A-Yue’s hand through the strokes a few times, leaving her an example to copy. When she’s ready to try on her own, she holds the brush with a fist. She’s chewing on one end of her forehead ribbon, and just as Lan Wangji is about to tell her to take it out of her mouth, she spits it out and says, “Fuck.”
Lan Wangji almost chokes. He doesn’t bother asking A-Yue where she learned such a word. A-Yuan’s guilty face says all he needs to know. “Bring Lan Jingyi to the jingshi after your classes tomorrow,” he tells him, and after a moment of horrified silence from A-Yuan, he adds, “Neither of you are in trouble.”
Later that night, when A-Yue and A-Yuan are both asleep, Lan Wangji sits at his table in the main room and pulls out a sheet of paper. Lit only by the low light of one candle, he grinds the ink and considers the paper carefully.
After a moment he begins to write:
Wei Ying, today your daughter said her first inappropriate word…
A-Yue’s first major tantrum occurs when A-Yuan prepares to move to the disciple quarters. It has already been a fraught few weeks for Lan Wangji. Despite A-Yuan’s eagerness to move into the dorms, Lan Wangji is not entirely comfortable with the idea. He understands that A-Yuan needs to spend time with his peers. It would not look good for A-Yuan to continue living in the jingshi when all other disciples his age no longer live with their parents. Lan Wangji does not wish to add any difficulties to A-Yuan’s life, but he has become so used to his presence that the idea of being apart is stressful.
How will Lan Wangji know if A-Yuan is hurt? If he needs care or a father’s hug? And A-Yue of course, will miss the constant presence of her brother.
They tell her A-Yuan will be moving away at probably the worst of A-Yue’s phases: her current favourite words are why and no.
“But why?” she cries.
Lan Wangji sighs. They’re sitting on his bed in the jingshi, A-Yue’s little legs kicking over the edge. A-Yuan kneels on the floor in front of them. He looks at Lan Wangji helplessly. Lan Wangji sighs again and wipes A-Yue’s tears with the hem of his sleeves.
“Your gege will not be far, you will still see him every day.”
“No! No leaving. Gege stay.”
Lan Wangji gathers her into his lap, and runs a hand over his back in a repetitive soothing motion. “A-Yuan is big now. When you are big, you will also leave to join your friends in the dorms,” Lan Wangji tries to explain, but it’s clearly the wrong to say because A-Yue immediately looks up at him with the most betrayed expression a child her age can muster.
“A-Yue will leave diedie?” Then she bursts into inconsolable tears.
Lan Wangji has long since passed the point where he wants to cry every time she does, but he finds himself wanting to do so now. A-Yuan’s absence from the jingshi is something that will be a difficult adjustment for the both of them. Lan Wangji does not want to imagine the day when A-Yue will also leave. For so many years it has been the three of them in the jingshi, and Lan Wangji has never found change easy.
Eventually A-Yue calms down after A-Yuan distracts her with a game. She cries again the day A-Yuan leaves, and after he’s gone, Lan Wangji silently cries with her.
Two days after A-Yuan has moved into the disciple dorms, the doors to the jingshi slide open past haishi, startling Lan Wangji awake. He grabs Bichen from its place by his bed and moves to see who the intruder is but it’s only A-Yuan, dressed only in sleeping robes and holding his boots to his chest.
“A-Yuan,” he murmurs, relieved. He drops to his knees and cups A-Yuan’s face. He does not look upset or hurt. “Is something wrong?”
A-Yuan shakes his head. “No, I just missed you and A-Yue.”
“We missed you too.” A-Yuan is too old to be picked up, but he’s still on the smaller side, and he does not argue when Lan Wangji picks him up and carries him to the jingshi’s main bedroom.
“I’m not sleeping in my room?” A-Yuan asks when Lan Wangji lays him down.
“You may sleep here tonight with me, A-Yue will be happy to see you when she wakes up.” Lan Wangji checks on his daughter in the crib by the bed, still sound asleep, before he lies down beside A-Yuan.
A-Yuan tells him about his day and his lessons until he’s petered out and fast asleep. He still has his ribbon on, and Lan Wangji gently unties it from his forehead and places it beside his own at the bedside table.
As he watches A-Yuan sleep, Lan Wangji considers how quickly his life has changed. A war. A child and then two. He’s not so young now. The past years have changed him, softened him in ways and hardened him in others. He has lived through loss and grief and life anew.
Had he ever imagined himself as a father? He finds it doesn’t matter. The world has a way of thrusting responsibility and change onto those who don’t expect it. But he has always been steadfast in his determination, steadfast in his love. And not once has he hated these changes, not once has he wished for a life where he’s not a father.
He wraps the blanket tighter around A-Yuan. He is not without his regrets. He is not without his grief. But he is also not without his happiness.
“Do I have another parent?” A-Yue asks as Lan Wangji brushes her hair.
Lan Wangji, who has been brushing her hair for a while now in an attempt to delay tying it up for her, almost drops the brush. This is not a conversation he has been avoiding, but he has been unsure of how to approach the topic. With A-Yuan, this was easy. A-Yuan knew from the beginning that Lan Wangji is not his father. Lan Wangji has taught him to be filial and to pay his respects to his deceased family. Lan Wangji has tried his best to keep them alive in A-Yuan’s mind.
They were healers, he told him, trying to be vague, I did not know them but I am sure they loved you. Your cousins and uncles loved you. He did not tell him he was a Wen. At such a young age, Lan Wangji does not think A-Yuan is prepared for the conflict that will come with that knowledge. One day the truth will come out, but for now Lan Wangji wants to shield him from the hurts of a world that did not value him.
And when inevitably, the topic of the Yiling Laozu came up during A-Yuan’s studies, Lan Wangji told him about Wei Ying too. This was also done in the briefest sense. I was his friend, and I knew his heart. And he was not a bad man. We must be careful before we inflict judgement on someone, A-Yuan.
But now, Lan Wangji isn’t sure what to say to his daughter.
A-Yue turns, so they’re kneeling face to face. She looks so serious, too serious of a face for someone so young. Lan Wangji resists the urge to pinch her cheeks. “I know I have another parent,” she says. “But where are they? Did they leave?”
Lan Wangji has to swallow. “No,” he murmurs. “Your father—he did not leave you. He passed away before you were born.” The words are like shards in his throat. He has never said them out loud. Never acknowledged Wei Ying’s death outside of his own thoughts.
“Oh. Did you love him?”
All Lan Wangji can do is nod.
A-Yue leans forward and cups his cheek with one of her small hands. “Are you sad?”
“Sometimes,” Lan Wangji tells her honestly. “But I am not sad now.” He pauses. “Would you like me to tell you about him, your father?”
A-Yue nods and turns to face away from him again. Gently, Lan Wangji runs the brush through her hair. “He was kind, and he loved to smile.”
“Yes, you have his smile. Like a little troublemaker I know, he loved to make harmless trouble, but he loved his family and he was a good man.”
“A good man,” A-Yue echoes.
“He wished to stand with justice and live with no regrets.”
A-Yue considers this for a moment, before she says, “Uphold the values of justice. You told me that’s one of the most important rules on the Wall of Discipline. I want that too! I’m going to be just like him and you, fuqin.”
Lan Wangji blinks back tears and kisses the crown of her head. “I do not doubt you will be better than the sum of both of us.”
A-Yue’s attention span for the conversation seems to run out because she starts squirming. “Die, you’ve been brushing my hair for so long. Can you tie it up now?”
“Ah.” A-Yue wants him to style her hair like some of the girls in Cloud Recesses have been doing. Lan Wangji, who is adept and skilled at everything else, has not been able to figure out how to do the complicated ties and braids the style requires.
He can hold a brush and repair books, but the fine motor control required for such a task evades him. He has always styled his hair in one way, and it took Xichen doing it for him every day for a month when he was a child before he learned.
“Why don’t we visit your bobo?” he suggests.
A-Yue turns her head to give him a pointed look that’s entirely too old for her little face. It’s so strange sometimes, when it feels like he’s staring at a version of himself. Shufu says A-Yue resembles him in most ways, but Lan Wangji, one of the only people who knew Wei Ying well enough, can see all the little ways she’s his daughter too.
Lan Wangji wishes Wei Ying were alive to see her.
It is a normal day when Jiang Wanyin finds out about Lan Yue. Lan Wangji and A-Yue are on one of their regular everyday walks when they meet Jiang Wanyin in the middle of one of the paths. Lan Wangji knows he’s here to discuss new trade routes with Xichen, but he had not expected to cross paths with him.
They both freeze. Without thinking, Lan Wangji pushes Lan Yue behind him. She clutches at his robes but her head peeks out curiously to look at Jiang Wanyin. Jiang Wanyin, in return, is looking at her with more than curiosity, with a look that is slightly bewildered.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji says, firm to pull his gaze away from Lan Yue. He does not bow.
Jiang Wanyin narrows his eyes. “Lan-er-gongzi. Who might this young guniang be?”
Lan Wangji tenses. He knows Jiang Wanyin suspects who Lan Yue is. She looks so much like Wei Ying if you know what to look for, if you were familiar with Wei Ying’s face. He doesn’t know what Jiang Wanyin’s reaction will be, to know that Wei Ying has a daughter.
Before Lan Wangji can respond, Lan Yue darts out from behind him and moves to stand in front of Jiang Wanyin. She bows down perfectly. “This one is Lan Yue, daughter of Hanguang-jun.”
She is so small and unafraid, even when Zidian begins to spark at Jiang Wanyin’s hand. Lan Wangji clutches at Bichen, prepared to strike the moment Jiang Wanyin steps out of place, but it never happens.
Instead, Jiang Wanyin bows back. “Well met, Lan Yue,” he says and then he walks past them with no further comment.
Lan Wangji is still frozen to his spot, hands shaking with adrenaline that never got used. He was expecting a fight. Jiang Wanyin is not known for his calmness. He is known for his hate of demonic cultivation, he is known as the man who killed his own brother.
“A-die, what was the sparkly thing in Jiang-zongzhu’s hand?” A-Yue asks, returning to his side.
Her question snaps him out of his thoughts. “Zidian, his spiritual weapon.”
“Can I have one?”
A-Yue tugs insistently on his hand. “Why not?”
“There is only one Zidian and it belongs to Jiang-zongzhu.”
“Do you think he’ll let me touch it if I ask?” A-Yue turns her head to glance behind them. “Let’s go ask—”
“No,” Lan Wangji interrupts, kneeling down so they’re face to face. “Do not speak to Jiang-zongzhu alone. He does not like to be bothered.” The thought of A-Yue all alone with Jiang Wanyin is not a good one. Jiang Wanyin is unpredictable. Lan Wangji does not like him, does not trust him.
A-Yue pouts and opens her mouth again. “But—”
“A-Yue, do not argue with me on this. Please.”
“Yes, diedie.” Then a moment later as they begin walking again, she says, “How come we don’t have anything like Zidian?”
Lan Wangji sighs. The last thing he needs is for his daughter to become obsessed with Jiang Wanyin’s spiritual weapon, or even worse, become obsessed with Jiang Wanyin.
“Our sect focuses on musical cultivation, you know this.”
“But our instruments aren’t purple and they don’t sparkle.”
This is true. Lan Wangji wracks his brain for something that seems more interesting than Zidian to a six year old who has the strangest interests. “If you do not speak of Zidian again, I will tell you about the chord assassination technique.”
“Assassination?” A-Yue gasps. She bounces on her toes. “Yes, no more Zidian, I promise.”
Relieved, Lan Wangji leads her to the backhill. The entire time he tells her off the chord assassination technique and the tortoise of slaughter, A-Yue listens with wide eyes and a parted mouth. It’s probably the most in awe and the quietest he’s ever seen her since she learned to talk. Meanwhile, he wonders whether this is an appropriate story for a child her age or if he’s somehow scarring her for life.
“Can I learn?” she asks when he’s done.
Lan Wangji’s response is immediate. “No.”
“But why?” she whines. She leans forward so her hands are on his thighs, a pleading expression on her face.
“There are no more tortoises to kill, so there is no need to learn.”
“But what if there’s another monster one day?” A-Yue says. “Learning comes first, fuqin.”
“Honor your teacher and respect his teaching,” Lan Wangji quotes back at her. When she doesn’t relent with her pleading, he sighs. “When you are older, and you master the art of the qin, I will teach you.”
A-Yue squeals in joy and wraps her arms around his neck. “Thank you!”
Lan Wangji huffs a soft laugh against her hair, hugging her back for a moment before he lifts her and lays her down on the grass. Immediately he begins piling rabbits on her, which makes her giggle.
“If you want to grow big and strong enough to learn the chord assassination technique, you must first be buried in rabbits.”
A-Yue wiggles. “They’re tickling me!”
“Mn, stay still,” Lan Wangji replies warmly. “I did this to A-Yuan when he was your age.”
“And now he’s big! I want to be like xiongzhang when I’m older.”
Lan Wangji strokes the back of one of the rabbits on her chest. “You don’t want to be like me?” He asks, teasing.
“Like diedie too,” A-Yue amends.
“You will be the best cultivator of your generation,” Lan Wangji murmurs.
He can imagine her older. A force to be reckoned with. At this age she’s already so intelligent, so quick-witted and razor-sharp. Her future will be a bright one, Lan Wangji will make sure of it.
Several weeks later, he receives a letter from Jiang Wanyin. It says:
I will be attending the discussion conference at Cloud Recesses next month. Jin Ling will be accompanying me. I request that you allow him the chance to meet Lan Yuan and Lan Yue. As cousins, they should be allowed the chance to form a relationship. Jin Ling is a child torn between two homes, and you must know what Lanling is like. Perhaps Lan Yuan and Lan Yue may be his good friends and cousins. I would not like to rob them of that potential, no matter what grievances we may have against each other and the history that lies between us.
Lan Wangji considers the letter carefully. He does not hold any affection for Jiang Wanyin, this is true. He dislikes him for what he did during Wei Ying’s last moments. Had it not been for his presence, there is a possibility Lan Wangji could have pulled Wei Ying up, could have saved him. He does not think he will ever like Jiang Wanyin. But he understands his position. Another man left to raise a child alone.
He thinks of what Wei Ying would want if he was here. Wei Ying would want their children to be familiar with their cousins. It would make him happy to have his own children be friends with his shijie’s son. Lan Wangji cannot deny Lan Yuan and Lan Yue the opportunity to meet more family.
But he must draw the line at Jiang Wanyin being their uncle. In part, Jiang Wanyin was responsible for Wei Ying’s death and Lan Wangji does not know how to explain this to A-Yue and A-Yuan when the day comes for them to know. A-Yuan is not even directly related to Jiang Wanyin. Lan Wangji does not even want to imagine what Jiang Wanyin’s reaction would be to learning that A-Yuan is a Wen.
Xichen has mentioned Jin Ling a handful of times. Lan Wangji had met the child once when he visited Cloud Recesses with Jin Guangyao. He was quiet. Lan Wangji cannot imagine a child growing up in the pit of snakes that is Carp Tower. That’s what makes his decision in the end. Jin Ling likely does not have many friends, and it’s good for A-Yue and A-Yuan to meet children from other sects.
He replies to Jiang Wanyin’s letter with his agreement. His non-negotiable request is that Jin Ling meet A-Yue and A-Yuan in the jingshi, under Lan Wangji’s supervision, without Jiang Wanyin’s presence. Surprisingly, Jiang Wanyin agrees.
When the time for the discussion conference and the agreed upon day arrives, Jin Ling arrives at the jingshi with a Jiang and Lan disciple. Lan Wangji dismisses them both at the door.
Jin Ling bows and greets him respectfully. “Hanguang-jun, thank you for inviting me to your home.” The words sound rehearsed.
Before Lan Wangji can reply, A-Yue suddenly appears at his side. “Hi! I’m Lan Yue, are you Jin Ling? You must be, you have the vermillion mark and your clothes are shiny.”
Jin Ling almost looks spooked by her excitement. Lan Wangji places a gentle hand atop A-Yue’s head. “Is that how we greet guests?”
She gives him a sheepish smile and looks back at Jin Ling, clasping a fist in her palm. “Hello Jin-gongzi, welcome to our home. My name is Lan Yue, I’m excited to meet you.”
“Lan-guniang, I’m excited to meet you too?” Jin Ling stumbles over his words.
A-Yue grabs Jin Ling’s hand. “Come inside and meet my gege, he’s the best.”
Jin Ling is wide-eyed as she pulls him inside. Lan Wangji follows them quietly. Sizhui is seated already, preparing tea. Lan Wangji sits beside him as A-Yue drags Jin Ling to sit across from them.
“Lan-gongzi,” Jin Ling says quietly.
“Jin-gongzi, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” A-Yuan replies.
Jin Ling flushes. “You can call me Jin Ling.”
“Mn, A-Ling then, are you enjoying your visit to the Cloud Recesses?”
Jin Ling glances at Lan Wangji before nodding. That amuses Lan Wangji. Jin Ling probably thinks Cloud Recesses is boring, and he likely does not like the food. “The three of you may go play in the garden,” he suggests.
From his seat on the porch he keeps an eye on them. A-Yuan and A-Yue are both friendly and within moments, Jin Ling seems to lose his awkwardness. Lan Wangji is glad to see the potential for friendship between the three of them is there.
He watches them run around the garden, playing whatever strange game has been concocted by A-Yue most likely. Jin Ling seems to hang onto every word A-Yuan says. A-Yuan tends to have that effect on children younger than him. At eleven years of age, he’s already cultivated a reputation for himself of being a kind and calm person. With every day that passes, Lan Wangji is more grateful that he gets to see him grow up, so proud of the young man he is becoming.
He’s in light meditation when he hears the sound of a splash, following immediately by yelling. The sight he opens his eyes to is not a welcome one, and has him rushing to his feet in an instant. A soaked A-Yue is tussling on the ground with Jin Ling, both of them yelling as A-Yuan tries to pull them apart.
When he reaches them, Lan Wangji picks A-Yue off Jin Ling, holding her in his arms as she struggles and yells. “He pushed me into the pond!”
A-Yuan helps Jin Ling stand up. His golden robes are muddied, wet in places. His face is scrunched up, flushed, angry tears falling down his cheeks. “She made fun of me!”
“This is inappropriate behaviour from the Jin sect heir and a Lan disciple,” Lan Wangji reprimands. “Both of you will quietly come inside and get cleaned up, understood?”
Jin Ling’s mouth trembles. “Yes, Hanguang-jun.”
In Lan Wangji’s grasp, A-Yue mutters, “Yes, Hanguang-jun.”
Lan Wangji puts her down, and the four of them return to the jingshi. A-Yuan helps Jin Ling clean up while Lan Wangji takes A-Yue to bathe. He helps her wash her hair, and gives her a new set of robes to wear. She’s grumpy throughout the entire process and doesn’t say a word. Similarly, Lan Wangji doesn’t speak. He knows that she feels his disappointment, and he trusts that she understands which rules she broke and how to fix it.
He helps her get dressed, at which point both of them realize her ribbon is not on her head. “It must have fallen off,” A-Yue says.
“Mn, I will go find it. Be good.” He leaves her with A-Yuan and Jin Ling. A-Yue and Jin Ling sitting on either side of A-Yuan’s side, refusing to make eye contact.
It takes him a few minutes to find the ribbon, at the bottom of the jingshi’s pond. Lan Wangji will likely spend the evening cleaning it. Dirty ribbon in hand, he returns to the jingshi. He can’t help the way his lips part when he sees A-Yue and Jin Ling. they’re both laying down with their heads in A-Yuan’s lap, fast asleep. Between their bodies, they’re holding hands.
“They made up,” A-Yuan whispers.
Lan Wangji smiles softly. He puts A-Yue’s ribbon off to the side and pours tea, passing a cup to A-Yuan.
“Can he visit again?” A-Yuan asks.
“It is up to his guardians, but likely yes.” Lan Wangji wonders what Jiang Wanyin’s reaction will be to Jin Ling’s dirty robes.
There is no reaction from Jiang Wanyin, only an apology from Jin Ling when he visits again the next day that sounds like Jiang Wanyin forced him to do it. And when the discussion conference is over, Lan Wangji receives another letter from Jiang Wanyin with details as to when his next visit to Cloud Recesses will be.
For a moment, Lan Wangji considers a visit to Lotus Pier. A-Yue would probably enjoy running around the lakes. But Lan Wangji cannot imagine walking the same paths Wei Ying once did without him. He’ll see the lotus lakes and remember Wei Ying saying maybe one day I can take you there. A boat, just you and me. I’ll pick and peel you the best lotus seeds. Put a flower in your hair.
Strange, how a place he has never set foot into can hold so many memories.
The years pass. A-Yue gets older and joins her peers in the dorms. Lan Wangji takes pleasure in teasing her about the way she cried when A-Yuan moved out of the jingshi. But she is excited to move, and unlike A-Yuan who had snuck back to the jingshi several times the first week he moved, A-Yue adjusts easily. The first few days without her are discomfiting but he too adjusts.
Now that she is old enough to be without his care for some time, Lan Wangji takes up night hunting more regularly, spending longer periods of time outside of Gusu. He sticks to smaller villages and towns, places that don’t tend to receive help from the larger sects. He never accepts payment. Instead he asks for a place to sleep, for stories, for songs. He tries new foods, burns his tongue on new flavours and asks for recipes. He brings back gifts and new tunes to play for A-Yuan and A-Yue.
Night hunts give him a new purpose. There’s nothing wrong with staying in the Cloud Recesses and raising his children, and he never thinks badly of the years he did, but he was a cultivator first. He can’t dishonour the promise he and Wei Ying made together so many years ago. Stand with justice and live with no regrets.
Lan Wangji is grading the junior disciples’ essays on a night hunt case study he assigned them, when A-Yue bursts into the jingshi and approaches his desk. Lan Wangji spares one glance at her flushed face and hand clenched at the sword by her side before he returns to his work.
“Die,” she says, “why did xiongzhang tell me I am not on the roster for tomorrow’s night hunt?”
Lan Wangji sighs. He puts his hands in his lap and looks up. “Because you may not go.”
A-Yue’s jaw clenches. “Why not? Da-shijie said that my skills are excellent.”
“You da-shijie does not decide who may go on night hunts.”
“Die, you’re being unfair.”
“A-Yue, at what age are disciples permitted on night hunts?”
A-Yue wilts. “Thirteen years of age.”
“Mn. This is the rule,” Lan Wangji says calmly. “Exceptions will not be made no matter how skilled you are, or whose daughter you may be.”
For a moment, A-Yue looks ready to keep arguing, a stubborn furrow between her brows that reminds Lan Wangji so much of his younger self. But then she sighs and bows. The ends of her forehead ribbon fall on either side of her head. “Lan Yue apologizes to fuqin for barging in and speaking disrespectfully.”
“A-Yue is forgiven. Apologize to Sizhui as well, I assume you gave him trouble.”
A-Yue’s ears flush. “Yes, diedie. And I will copy Virtue and Conduct for my troubles.”
“Good.” Lan Wangji pauses and gives her a careful look. “Please do not think of sneaking off to join the night hunt.”
“Of course not.”
Lan Wangji leaves for Mo village a day after the junior expedition. He doesn’t wish to undermine Sizhui’s abilities, but it’s his first time leading a night hunt and Lan Wangji wants to be close by in case something happens. He’s on his way to an inn near the village when he hears a rustle behind him. Instinctively, he pulls out Bichen and turns around, his sword coming to blows with none other than A-Yue’s blade.
He should not be surprised. He sheathes Bichen, as A-Yue does the same. She bows. “H-Hanguang-jun.” She is dressed practically. Vambraces instead of billowing sleeves, archery gloves that Jin Ling gifted her the year prior. Her bow and arrows are strapped to her back.
“Lan Yue, I explicitly remember stating that you may not sneak off.”
A-Yue straightens up. She gives Lan Wangji an innocent look that has not worked on him since she was a toddler. “It’s not sneaking off if I’m with you?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head, simultaneously amused and disappointed by his daughter’s actions. “We will speak of this at the inn. It’s too late to send you back now.”
Lan Wangji sighs. This child, he loves her dearly but she’s responsible for half his stresses. They walk in silence the rest of the way to the inn. There, Lan Wangji requests a room and for tea to be brought up.
The moment Lan Wangji finishes his dealings with the proprietor of the inn, A-Yue says, “I’m not getting my own room?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t bother with a reply. He simply gives her a look that means I cannot trust you not to sneak off again if given your own room. In their room, they sit at a low table and wait for the tea. A-Yue fidgets with the tassel of her xiao in her lap, sending nervous glances at Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji calmly stares back.
When the tea is brought in, A-Yue immediately reaches for the pot. “Ah, let me serve you.”
Amused, Lan Wangji watches her first attempt to get back on his good graces. To her credit, her tea etiquette is perfect, and not a single drop of tea is spilled. She slides the tea cup and saucer towards him with a bright grin. Her smile is all Wei Ying’s.
“You are just like your father,” he says as he accepts the tea.
A-Yue’s smile softens, her eyes wide. “Really?”
“Mn, I have told you this many times,” Lan Wangji points out. “Sneaking off is something he would have done.”
“So I’m forgiven?”
Lan Wangji takes a sip of his tea. “No. Sneaking off is inappropriate for a disciple of your standing. You have broken the rules and disobeyed me.”
A-Yue’s chin trembles. “You treat me differently than you do xiongzhang.”
“Did I allow Sizhui to join a night hunt when he was your age?”
“Sizhui is six years your senior. He is the head disciple. You cannot compare yourself to him,” Lan Wangji says gently. “You are growing, still, and as the years pass you too will become a senior disciple who leads her own night hunts. There is no rush.”
“Everyone sees me as a child, but I’m not,” A-Yue huffs. “I want to be called by my courtesy name from now on.”
Under the guise of drinking tea, Lan Wangji raises his cup so his sleeves hide his face as he smiles. At this moment, she looks so much like him. A splitting image of him sitting in front of shufu and Xichen and asking to be called by his courtesy name despite being so young.
Lan Wangji puts down his cup and folds his hands in his lap. “Mn, as you wish, Lan Zhixiao.”
A-Yue frowns and seems to consider this for a moment before smiling sheepishly. “Maybe not you, though.”
“A-Yue will always be A-Yue,” Lan Wangji replies softly, the love so clear in his voice. “You will report to your shugong for punishment when we return home.”
“Diedie,” she whines, “shugong’s punishments are always so harsh, I’ll be copying lines and doing handstands for months!”
“And kitchen duty as well for your whining,” Lan Wangji adds.
A-Yue looks ready to argue, so Lan Wangji says, “Shall I also add extra laundry chores to your punishment?”
“No!” A-Yue waves her hands frantically. “I apologize and understand why breaking the rules was bad and I accept my punishment.”
“Understanding and accepting your punishment should be an indication that the same rules will not be broken again,” Lan Wangji says. He is not angry that Lan Yue has broken the rules. He speaks out of concern. She has never been outside of the Cloud Recesses on her own and he is relieved that she found him before any harm came to her.
“I assume you did not leave without preparing,” Lan Wangji says, changing the topic.
He watches as A-Yue pulls out her qiankun pouch and proceeds to show him everything she packed. Talismans, signal flares, cinnabar sticks, a set of bandages and medicine—
Lan Wangji softens when he sees the grass rabbit A-Yue pulls out. She holds it defensively. “It’s for good luck.”
“I know,” Lan Wangji replies. It was the first thing he bought when he left seclusion and they made their first trip together to Caiyi. She takes it with her to every test, every punishment, and now, every night hunt.
“So what’s causing the resentful energy in Mo village?” A-Yue asks, putting the items back into her pouch.
Lan Wangji closes his eyes. “That is the juniors’ task. We will stay here and meditate unless they send a signal flare.” After a moment’s silence in which he’s sure A-Yue’s pouting, he says, “Do not sit improperly.”
Later, when the signal flares go off, A-Yue is asleep, and for a moment Lan Wangji considers leaving without her. And though he does not know what dangers lie ahead in Mo village, A-Yue is safest when she’s with him so he wakes her up.
They arrive at Mo manor at just the right time. A-Yue, standing beside him on one of the roofs, shoots an arrow at one of the corpses just as it’s about to grab one of the juniors. After that, Lan Wangji subdues the fierce corpses and the sword spirit.
Below the juniors whisper furiously about the tiger amulet. Lan Wangji’s heart beats furiously as he stares at the sword in his hand.
“Maybe the Yiling Laozu isn’t dead!” Jingyi exclaims and then yells, “Eh, Lan Yue, what are you doing here?”
“Where’s Mo-gongzi?” Sizhui says at the same time.
Lan Wangji sees someone move out of the corner of his eye, but A-Yue’s chasing after the individual before Lan Wangji can move. He races after her, the cool night air is sharp against his face. Hopelessly, desperately, he thinks, Wei Ying, is it you?
When he lands down, there’s a man in a mask yelling as A-Yue grips his arm and marches him towards Lan Wangji.
“Guniang! This is highly inappropriate.” The man laughs nervously. “You shouldn’t be walking around grabbing random men!”
“Hanguang-jun, this suspicious man was trying to sneak away,” A-Yue says.
“H-Hanguang-jun,” the man stammers. “I’m just an innocent bystander, please instruct your disciple to unhand me—”
“Quiet,” Lan Wangji orders. The blood is rushing in his ears, almost deafening.
He has not heard Wei Ying’s voice in 13 years. At some point, he forgot what it sounded like, lost to the natural rhythm and forgetfulness of time. Now, he doubts his hearing.
He barely manages to keep the tremor out of his voice when he says, “Take off your mask.”
“Ah, Hanguang-jun, so forward of you. Can a man not maintain some privacy? Some chastity?”
“If Hanguang-jun asks you to do something, you do it,” A-Yue snaps.
“Lan-guniang, who raised you? Is this how a young lady of your sect acts?”
“Let him go, A-Yue,” Lan Wangji says.
A-Yue releases the man—Wei Ying’s arm, and he immediately bows. “Ah, thank you, Hanguang-jun, for your mercy tonight.”
Lan Wangji watches him leave, eyes on his back until he’s out of sight.
A-Yue, standing beside him, crosses her arms. “Why did you let him go?”
Because Lan Wangji will always give Wei Ying a choice. He will never force Wei Ying’s hand. Their paths, always intertwined, will cross again.
“We will see him again,” Lan Wangji says.
They do see him again when they encounter Jin Ling and Jiang Wanyin.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” the Lan disciples greet Jiang Wanyin.
Lan Wangji stands impassive, in a staring match with Jiang Wanyin as A-Yue leaves his side and pokes at Jin Ling’s arm.
“Why are your clothes a mess? Who did you lose a fight with?”
“None of your business!” Jin Ling yells. “What are you doing here anyways?”
Jin Ling’s temper is something Lan Wangji has had the displeasure of seeing develop as he grew. Coupled with A-Yue own lack of self-discipline that shows up at the worst times, it’s not a combination Lan Wangji wants to deal with today. Though Jin Ling and A-Yue are friends, half of their friendship is defined by arguments and fighting.
Before this inevitable argument can start, Lan Wangji silences them both with the silencing spell, to their immediate disgruntled and muffled reaction.
Lan Wangji meets Jiang Wanyin’s eyes and dares him to speak. Though Lan Wangji will always dislike him, by virtue of the friendship between Jin Ling and A-Yue, a mutual agreement exists between them.
So Jiang Wanyin says nothing about the silencing spell, the only outward sign of his displeasure shown by the disgusted twist of his lips. He does, however, speak when a Jiang disciple comes to inform him of the cut nets.
Lan Wangji allows Sizhui to say what needs to be said. The juniors then depart, and Lan Wangji allows himself one look from the corner of his eye at Wei Ying attempting to hide by the tree. No matter how much Lan Wangji wants to take off Wei Ying’s mask, to gather him into his arms and look at his face, feel the weight of him, alive and real and here somehow, Lan Wangji doesn’t. He allows himself the one look, and moves toward where A-Yue waits for him ahead.
Through closed lips she makes muffled protests and pleas. Her eyebrows are furrowed, nose scrunched up in the same stubborn way it always is when she’s upset.
With a hand behind his back, he continues walking. “No, you may not join the others.”
A muffled yell. Beside him, A-Yue points at Jiang Wanyin’s back farther ahead and then back behind them. Her bow, gifted by Jiang Wanyin years ago, moves with her hands as she gestures frantically.
Lan Wangji just barely refrains from sighing. “What Jin Ling’s sect and guardians allow him to do does not apply to you. Do not misbehave in front of Jiang-zongzhu.” The or your current punishment will be increased tenfold goes unsaid.
At the roadside tavern, he sits with A-Yue in silence. Across the table, Jiang Wanyin glares down at the wood. Beside him, A-Yue attempts to catch glances of Zidian. This, Lan Wangji decides, has probably been Lan Wangji’s greatest failure as a father.
This is also of course, the moment the silencing spell lifts. A-Yue doesn’t hesitate before saying, “Jiang-zongzhu.”
Jiang Wanyin’s face softens infinitesimally. “Lan Yue. I thought Gusu Lan did not allow disciples your age to attend night hunts.”
“My daughter and the Lan sect are none of your concern,” Lan Wangji cuts off, hard. He takes immense pleasure in the fact that Jiang Wanyin has no room to argue. Here, they’re the only two people who know of A-Yue’s relation to Jiang Wanyin, and the secret gives him no claim to speak.
Zidian sparks in Jiang Wanyin’s hand, and without even looking, Lan Wangji can feel A-Yue’s excitement at the sight.
“Jiang-zongzhu, how far can Zidian hit?”
Lan Wangji knows the answer to this. He knows more about Zidian and Jiang Wanyin than he would like. Three months alone, searching with a common goal for a man who was important to both of them left him with a familiarity Lan Wangji is not fond of.
He allows A-Yue to ask two more questions, ignoring the barely concealed fondness on Jiang Wanyin’s face, before he interrupts their conversation.
He stands up and says, “A-Yue.” A clear signal they’re leaving. By the look in A-Yue’s eyes, she was one question away from her childhood dream of asking Jiang Wanyin if she can hold Zidian. Under no circumstances does Lan Wangji want to see Zidian on her hand. He does not want to know whether Zidian would recognize her and obey her commands. Some things are better unrevealed.
And then later, there’s a song on a flute. Lan Wangji’s song. Their song. And Lan Wangji’s hand on Wei Ying’s wrist. And eyes looking back at him through a mask.
They carry Wei Ying’s unconscious body on the donkey. Under Lan Wangji’s instructions, the juniors will fly ahead to Cloud Recesses with the cursed arm.
“Be careful,” Lan Wangji tells Sizhui.
Sizhui nods. His gaze keeps flicking to Wei Ying. “Will Mo-gongzi be alright?”
“Why are you worried about him?” Jingyi huffs. He pokes at Sizhui’s shoulder. “Worry about me. I'm the one who got strangled by the Ghost General.”
Sizhui flicks Jingyi’s hand away with practiced ease. “Hanguang-jun, how did Mo-gongzi—” He cuts himself off. “We will await your arrival at home.”
Lan Wangji nods. He’s sure Sizhui will be waiting for him with countless questions. Lan Wangji will need to figure out what to say. The situation is not so easily explained.
“Lan Yue!” Jingyi yells.
A-Yue, keeping watch over Wei Ying a little distance away, yells back, “What?”
Lan Wangji sighs. He does not even bother to tell them to quiet down.
“I hope you’re ready to face xiansheng’s wrath for sneaking away when you get home!” Jingyi cackles.
“Just leave already, shixiong, before you start annoying Hanguang-jun,” A-Yue replies, so used to Jingyi’s teasing.
The smile on Jingyi’s face disappears and he looks nervously at Lan Wangji, much to Lan Wangji’s amusement. “Sorry, Hanguang-jun, we’re leaving! Let’s go Sizhui, let’s go juniors. One cursed arm, ready for transport.”
Fondly, Lan Wangji watches all the junior disciples mount their swords, looking away only once they’re out of sight.
It leaves the three of them, Lan Wangji, A-Yue, and Wei Ying. A-Yue leads the donkey by the leash with Lan Wangji beside her, and for some time they walk in silence.
“A-die, who is this man?” A-Yue asks. “Why did Jiang-zongzhu whip him with Zidian? How did he know the song you taught me? Do you know him?”
This man is your father. My zhiji. The one I have grieved for and longed for.
“We will rest here for a moment,” Lan Wangji says instead.
While A-Yue goes to find a stream to refill their waterskins, Lan Wangji lifts Wei Ying off the donkey and gently places him on the ground and against a tree. Wei Ying makes a quiet groaning sound. One of his hands curls in the front of Lan Wangji’s robes. And Lan Wangji— Lan Wangji is only a man, only a body made out of thirteen years of yearning, helpless in the face of his beloved returned to him.
He can’t stop the way his hands shake when he lifts them to the ties at the back of Wei Ying’s head. It takes him two tries to undo the knot, and when the mask slips off, Wei Ying’s eyes are open and Lan Wangji makes some sort of choking noise.
It’s Wei Ying.
“Ah, Hanguang-jun,” Wei Ying murmurs. “Of course you knew. You would know me anywhere, wouldn’t you, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji’s trembling fingers touch Wei Ying’s face. His cheeks. Warm and alive beneath his touch. “Wei Ying,” he whispers. Wei Ying, Wei Ying, Wei Ying—
Lan Wangji jumps back slightly away. He turns his head, but A-Yue’s not looking at him, she’s not speaking to him. She’s staring at Wei Ying, mouth parted, face pale. The waterskins slip out of her grasp with a quiet thump onto the grass.
And—Lan Wangji has forgotten that A-Yue has seen the drawing of Wei Ying Lan Wangji keeps below the loose floorboard in the jingshi. Shakily she walks over to them and drops to her knees. She looks at Lan Wangji and he can’t bear the mixture of betrayal and confusion on her face.
“Diedie?” Wei Ying repeats, bewildered. But realization quickly dawns on him, and Lan Wangji sees the way his eyes widen, the way his mouth trembles as he looks at A-Yue. The way he must see himself in her face, a warped reflection.
It’s so jarring for Lan Wangji to see them side by side. In the dappled sunlight through the tree, they almost seem surreal.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “This is your daughter.” He places a gentle hand on A-Yue’s shoulder. “Greet your father, A-Yue.”
Almost clumsy, A-Yue bows. She sounds on the verge of tears when she says, “Lan Yue, courtesy Lan Zhixiao, greets fuqin.”
Wei Ying grabs her forearms and lifts her from the bow. He doesn't let go. “Lan Yue? A-Yue?” He laughs, tears slipping down his face. “Lan Zhan, a daughter? Our daughter?”
Lan Wangji nods. In this moment he wants nothing more than to gather them both into his arms and keep them safe. Wipe their tears and hold them. This is something he never imagined.
“Where were you?” A-Yue cries. “All this time, where were you?”
“I—I don’t know,” Wei Ying replies. His breath hitches. “I don’t—Lan Zhan, I don’t remember where I was. The soul summoning array, it’s why—”
“I believe you,” Lan Wangji murmurs. “A-Yue…”
A-Yue’s hands are clenched in the skirts of her robes. Her mouth trembles. “The Yiling Laozu? That’s you?”
Wei Ying meets her gaze and nods. Lan Wangji wants to interrupt. He wants to say that’s a name given to him by others. He’s just Wei Ying, your father.
“Everyone says you killed Jin Ling’s parents.”
Neither Lan Wangji or Wei Ying were prepared for those words. Wei Ying’s expression cracks, and Lan Wangji can’t bear to see the pain there. But A-Yue runs off before he can speak. Wei Ying lurches forward like he wants to chase after her, but Lan Wangji stops him with a gentle hand on his chest.
“Let her go,” he says. He finds he can’t take his hand off Wei Ying’s chest. Wei Ying’s muffled heartbeat beneath his palm is vivid proof that he’s alive.
“A daughter,” Wei Ying murmurs. He sounds stunned and then he’s curled down on himself and there are barely concealed sobs.
Wordlessly, Lan Wangji gathers him in his arms and Wei Ying willingly goes, tucking his face against Lan Wangji’s neck as his body shakes with the strength of his crying. There’s nothing Lan Wangji can do but hold him. He doesn’t dare imagine what Wei Ying must be feeling, returning to a world that has changed, finding out that he has a child. This is not, in the very rare moments Lan Wangji allowed himself, how he imagined the meeting between A-Yue and Wei Ying would go.
Wei Ying pushes away. He wipes his face with his sleeves, head turned away from Lan Wangji. He laughs. “I’m the worst father already.” The words are bitter, self-deprecating in a way that Lan Wangji hates.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji starts, but he finds himself at a loss for words. The situation is out of his control. How does he comfort a child whose parent has suddenly appeared into her life. How does he comfort a man, back from the dead and hit with the knowledge that he has a child. A child whose life he’s missed out on. How does Lan Wangji assuage the guilt and grief Wei Ying must be feeling. What words can bring enough comfort?
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says. He’s looking at Lan Wangji again, and the smile on his face is a fragile thing. “I’m sorry for that night in the Burial Mounds. What you must have gone through alone all these years—”
Lan Wangji grabs his wrist, and he finds that he can’t control how tight his grasp is or how his voice wavers. “No. No, that night is something I have never regretted.” He has to swallow before saying, “You left me with something precious. Forgive me for my selfishness, for finding that I do not care about the time you were gone now that you’re here. Thirteen years alone cannot compare to the sight of you here with me.”
Wei Ying stares down at Lan Wangji’s hand on his wrist. “I just wish—If I had know, maybe—” He shakes his head, frustrated.
“I did not know either, then,” Lan Wangji says. “The circumstances then—Wei Ying, I do not blame you.” The accumulation of events in those last days. So many deaths, so much grief. All of it centered on Wei Ying. How can Lan Wangji impart such blame on him?
Wei Ying sighs and sits back against the tree. He places his free hand where Lan Wangji’s hand rests. His voice is hesitant, almost shy when he asks, “Can you tell me about her?”
Lan Wangji nods. He doesn’t know where to start. Thirteen years of memory and growth is a long time. “She has your smile,” he says, and the words from there flow easily.
By the time A-Yue returns, Wei Ying has cried twice more and he has laughed and he has smiled and Lan Wangji’s heart has stitched itself back together. The sun is setting now, warm orange light lights up A-Yue’s robes as she walks towards them. Her eyes are swollen and half her arrows are missing and Lan Wangji aches to comfort her. But he knows by the stubborn furrow in her eyebrows that she has something to say.
When she reaches them she drops to her knees. She takes off her bow and arrows satchel and kowtows. Wei Ying opens his mouth to protest, but Lan Wangji puts a gentle hand on his shoulder and shakes his head.
“Die has always taught me that one must be careful with their judgement of others, that we must judge others by the intentions in their hearts and not by the opinions and thoughts of others. I have failed in this teaching. I ask both of you to forgive me for my disrespectful words earlier,” A-Yue says.
Wei Ying’s hands hover hesitantly over her shoulders. “Get up, please.”
A-Yue rises from her bow. Lan Wangji, kneeling to the side has a visceral moment of disbelief at the sight of Wei Ying and A-Yue staring at each other. Their side profiles are so similar. The same hair that becomes slightly wavy in the humidity of the summer, the same cheeks and— Not in his wildest dreams did Lan Wangji even think this moment would come true.
“A-die has told me so much about you,” A-Yue says, her voice trembles. “I’ve always imagined meeting you.”
“Lan Zhan, what terrible things have you been telling her about me?” Wei Ying jokes, but he sounds on the verge of tears again.
Lan Wangji smiles softly. “Always good things.”
Wei Ying laughs shakily and one of his hands goes to rest on top of A-Yue’s head. Lan Wangji sees the moment he notices the red ribbon in her hair.
With a smile, A-Yue says, “It’s yours. I found it and wouldn’t give up until diedie let me wear it.”
Lan Wangji remembers that argument. After A-Yue came across the loose floorboard and found its contents, after Lan Wangji explained to her who the strange man in the portrait was and who the ribbon belonged to, she asked to wear it. Lan Wangji refused, irrationally afraid that this would be one more thing that would lead her to being recognized as Wei Ying’s daughter. But A-Yue had argued with him. Jin ling wears a red ribbon in his hair, it’ll be like we’re matching. No one will suspect anything.
“You’re so—” Wei Ying shakes his head. Quietly, he says, “I must be the luckiest man in the world to get this second life.”
“A-die says I’m like you,” A-Yue tells Wei Ying. “You’ll come back with us, right? You have to meet xiongzhang.”
Wei Ying startles. “Another?”
Lan Wangji can’t help the frisson of fondness he feels at Wei Ying’s confusion. “She means A-Yuan.”
Wei Ying freezes. His face pales. “A-Yuan? Lan Zhan, you found him? He’s alive?”
Lan Wangji gives a simple nod of his head, and before A-Yue can voice the confusion that’s clear on her face, he says, “I will explain when we return to Cloud Recesses.”
“Was he one of the little Lan juniors?” Wei Ying asks eagerly. “Have I already met him?”
“Yes, his name is Lan Sizhui. The baby faced one always with the loud mouthed one,” A-Yue says, like this should be obvious.
“You will see him soon,” Lan Wangji promises.
Wei Ying swallows. Lan Wangji watches his throat bob, the way the golden light of the evening highlights his face. “Lan Zhan, Sizhui,” Wei Ying murmurs. The way his eyes study Lan Wangji’s face feels entirely too perceptive, like Wei Ying has categorized every change with just a glance, like he has seen and learned the very depths of Lan Wangji’s heart.
Lan Wangji doesn’t look away. He has nothing to hide. Everything within him, every part of the heart that beats steadily on inside him, is for Wei Ying to see. Lan Wangji will never look away.
“Are you going to kiss?”
Wei Ying yelps and tears his gaze away at the same time Lan Wangji feels his ears burn. Wei Ying tsks at A-Yue. “You—Lan Zhan, you raised her like this?”
“A-Yue,” Lan Wangji reprimands.
A-Yue crosses her arms with a huff. “Do I have to chaperone you? Is this allowed?”
“A-Yue, respect your elders,” Lan Wangji says pointedly. He stands up, still holding Wei Ying’s wrist which swings up with him, forcing Wei Ying to get up as well. He can’t bring himself to let go. “We will continue travelling until dark.”
A-Yue stands. She dusts off her robes, and toys with the jade tassel on her belt—a nervous habit she has never grown out of. Then in a sudden move, she steps forward and wraps her arms around Wei Ying in a hug.
Wei Ying freezes and he makes a small sound of wonder, a small oh. Lan Wangji lets go of his wrist and watches his arms hesitantly go around A-Yue. She only reaches his neck, standing on the very tips of her toes, but Wei Ying holds her and doesn’t let her lose her balance. Lan Wangji looks at them softly, allowing himself the moment to savour a sight he thought he would never see.
“A-Yue,” Wei Ying says quietly.
“Die was sad with you, he’s happy you’re here,” A-Yue says tearfully. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Wei Ying squeezes his eyes shut. “You silly child, don’t cry,” he replies with a half-laugh half-sob.
“I’m not crying! I’m going to get the donkey ready.” She escapes Wei Ying’s arms and grabs her things off the floor before running off to where Little Apple is grazing on grass nearby.
When Wei Ying turns to face him, Lan Wangji doesn’t stop himself from reaching up and wiping the stray tear on Wei Ying’s cheek. He keeps his hand there, caressing the skin beneath his thumb. Wei Ying tilts his head and rests his face in Lan Wangji’s palm.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs. The smile on his lips is sweet, and Lan Wangji touches his thumb to where the corner of his eye crinkles, a soft sign of his joy. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, so softly. “Won’t you give this poor man a kiss?”
Whatever you ask for, always, Lan Wangji thinks. He pulls Wei Ying closer by the waist and leans forward, letting their lips brush. Lan Wangji has not kissed anyone in over thirteen years, and neither has Wei Ying. It’s a little clumsy, but the way Wei Ying laughs against his lips is all that matters. The weight of Wei Ying’s mouth against his, Wei Ying’s soft sounds, the wetness between their lips, the warmth of Wei Ying’s cheek and the feel of his waist under Lan Wangji’s hands.
They pull apart and Wei Ying’s eyes are filled with mirth. “Not bad for an old man,” Wei Ying teases.
Lan Wangji pinches his waist. “Not old.” The thirteen years that have passed doesn't feel like a long time now that Wei Ying is here.
“Aiya, so rough with me. Won’t Hanguang-jun treat this weak man more gently?”
Lan Wangji kisses him again until Wei Ying shoves at his chest with a laugh. “Come on, let’s go before our daughter comes and embarrasses us again.” He says our daughter with such warmth.
They return to the road. A-Yue walks ahead of them with Little Apple. Neither Lan Wangji or Wei Ying speak.
Suddenly, Wei Ying breaks the silence. “A-Yue, stop for a second.”
A-Yue halts and turns to face them, waiting until they reach her before looking at them quizzically.
“Ah, would you be willing to indulge me for a moment?” Wei Ying asks her. He sounds a little embarrassed.
“Sure,” A-Yue replies, and Lan Wangji marvels at the easiness at which she’s accepted this new situation, her capability to love so easily.
Wei Ying says, “I want you to ride on Little Apple.”
A-Yue immediately makes a face, simultaneously annoyed and confused. “On the donkey?” She doesn’t sound pleased by the idea.
Wei Ying laughs. “She’s a good donkey, I promise. But if you don’t want to, I won’t force—”
“No, I’ll do it,” A-Yue interjects. In a smooth movement, she mounts Little Apple. She takes a moment to arrange her robes and pat Little Apple’s back. “I don’t see what the big deal is. Horses are better.”
But Wei Ying is looking at her like this is a big deal to him. He’s smiling at her with a soft adoring look on his face, and Lan Wangji knows that he’s seeing two scenes, two sets of families. I was riding a donkey with my mother by my side, my father was right in front of us, my mother cracked a joke and my father laughed.
Wordlessly, Lan Wangji takes Little Apple’s leash, and begins leading Little Apple forward. Wei Ying teases A-Yue to hold on tightly, walking by her side. He asks about her archery, you must have inherited those skills from me, I was the best archer. He jokes and A-Yue laughs. She always laughs easily, and she seems delighted by Wei Ying’s presence.
Lan Wangji smiles, a gentle turn of his lips and softening of his eyes that doesn’t disappear and he doesn’t bother to hide.
When A-Yue tells Wei Ying of her musical cultivation, he brightens. “A xiao? Play us something.”
Atop the donkey, A-Yue puts her xiao to her lips and Lan Wangji knows what she will play before she even begins. Wei Ying laughs when he hears it and Lan Wangji lets the sounds of his laughter and wangxian wash over him.
With the sun setting against their backs, they move forward. Wangxian’s melody sounds sweet in the evening warmth, made even sweeter when Wei Ying joins on his dizi.
There will be matters to deal with when they reach Cloud Recesses, things to explain and mysteries to solve. But with their song no longer played alone, no longer missing its second piece, Lan Wangji has never felt more content or grounded in a moment.
And every time Wei Ying turns to look at him, joy on every part of his face, Lan Wangji is already looking back.