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Living On (Deep and Long)

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Voices rise and fall, soft, worried, fast-paced. Lan Wangji doesn't open his eyes. The space he is in smells faintly of sandalwood, of ink. He is home. His back is a solid wall of pain, individual lash-strokes subsumed into a nearly-overwhelming whole; his palms spike in hotspots where his fingernails pierced his own skin during his punishment. He kept silent. He kept silent for the whole thing. He knows that much.

A voice rises, and is shushed hurriedly.

"Don't wake him," a second person says. Lan Wangji doesn't open his eyes. He tries to think around the shape of the pain: he can do this. He can attempt the impossible, in memory of -- he shies away from that thought. He needs to do this, to remember something.

A hand touches the back of his neck and he startles, whole body shivering, and gasps at the wave of pain it presents. His mind goes away for a time.

"He's awake," a deep voice is saying, when he comes back, when the tide of sensation lets him up to the surface again. It sounds worried, not angry. Lan Wangji doesn't open his eyes. He needs to remember something.

"A-Yuan," he says, and feels relief. That was it: he went to find the child. He did. He has to have done so. He promised himself he would.

The hand on his nape is cool. Lan Wangji doesn't open his eyes. He takes another breath, and even that movement hurts. His palms are sharp points of pain, discrete, grounding, something he can focus on, something more manageable than the flood of his back.

"The boy?" The voice is concerned. "He is well enough. Wangji, who is he?"

That's a hard question. Lan Wangji doesn't open his eyes. Right now, he doesn't know who is here; he can't think clearly; he has to protect the boy. He promised. He promised himself. He promised Wei Ying, who is dead. He takes a breath. He takes another breath.

"A-Yuan," he says, finally. Then, in case that isn't enough. "Mine."

Someone takes a sharp breath.

"All right," the voice says, and the cool fingers pet at his nape, ruffling the short hairs just a little bit. Lan Wangji doesn't open his eyes, doesn't move into the touch. It hurts less if he stays still. Not much less, but anything is a relief.

"Xichen," another voice says, deeper, sterner. "He needs treatment."

The cool hand lifts. Lan Wangji doesn't open his eyes. He doesn't protest the loss of touch. He has not protested a lack of touch in years: it is, by now, habitual to deny the want, the feeling of loss.

A brisk voice starts narrating medical detail, and chill hands touch his back. Someone gasps, and it is not him: it would hurt if it were him. The next touch is pain: Lan Wangji allows himself to be swept under, this time.

* * *

When Lan Wangji wakes next, he opens his eyes to dim lamplight.

His brother is sitting by his bedside, kneeling, dressed simply, hair in a plain guan. He looks like his childhood self again, despite his broad shoulders, despite his height. He looks as he did after their mother died, and this time Lan Wangji can read the fear, the loss, the dread in his brother's expression, and knows he is the one who put them there.

"Brother," he says. His voice rasps. His mouth is dry.

Lan Xichen startles, and something in his posture eases.

"Wangji," he says, and there is relief in his voice. "How are you feeling? Wait, I'll get you water."

A cup is held to his lips; Lan Wangji drinks, swallows, makes a face when he is done. He doesn't dare move yet: the pain is low enough to think around it. He doesn't want that to change, not yet.

"A-Yuan," he says.

Lan Xichen puts the water aside, and gives a small, sad smile.

"The child will be well," he says. "He was half-starved."

There is a question in his voice, but he does not press.

Lan Wangji closes his eyes in relief. He thinks his way down his body, testing his condition. His left hand is bandaged and hurts only slightly; his right is grasping something, and aches, throbs, pulses in low pain. His back -- he doesn't think about his back. He will worry about his back later. The discipline whip poses a danger to cultivation from even a few strokes; Lan Wangji received more lashes than anyone in recent memory. The injuries would have been hard to recover from had he been compliant; instead he rose from his sickbed to save a child.

He doesn't think about it. He can't think about it yet.

His legs are stiff, his feet are sore. He wants to move; he wants to stand, to pace, to stretch. He doesn't try.

"Thank you," Lan Wangji says, eventually. The silence sits heavy in the room, full of unasked questions. His brother does not ask, and Lan Wangji does not offer.

"I'll fetch the healer," Lan Xichen says, eventually, when the silence stretches too far for comfort.

Lan Wangji does not watch him leave.

* * *

His right hand is infected. The healer takes away the red ribbon; Lan Wangji attempts to sit up, grabs for it, and hears something tear open in his back. He grits his teeth as the pain hits and keeps moving even as his vision goes white and sparkly at the edges.

"Mine," he grates out.

"It's filthy," the healer says. "It should be burned."

Lan Wangji makes an involuntary noise, almost inhuman, protesting, small.

"We'll wash it carefully," his brother says.

He must have come back with the healer, then. Lan Wangji hadn't noticed him, too focused on the ribbon, the impending loss. Wei Wuxian was real: he existed. Wei Ying was more than the myths of the Yiling Patriarch. The ribbon is his reminder of the grinning boy. He needs it, even if he should not.

"Fine," Lan Wangji says, and watches his brother take the ribbon and put it in his sleeve. He does not lie down again.

The healer says something under his breath about stubbornness. Lan Wangji does not correct him, though he is not staying still out of a desire to be intransigent. He simply cannot stomach the idea of moving again, not when his back is still radiating sharp, searing pain, not when his hand is echoing each throb with a duller, hotter kind of pain.

Lan Wangji had never been beaten with the discipline whip before this series of events. He has often been injured in battle, occasionally hurt on night hunts. He has never faced pain this strong, this enduring. This pain is sharp when he moves, which is a kind of pain he knows. But now, even lying here, it never leaves him, never subsides entirely as his previous injuries have done when he holds still. If he grants it hold over him, he does not know that he will gain control over it again.

The healer makes disapproving noises over his hand, lances something. Lan Wangji watches, because the visual warning allows him to keep from tensing when the pain spikes in his hand.

"I will return tomorrow," the healer says. "Make sure he rests."

Lan Xichen comes to sit on the edge of the bed, moving carefully, quietly, as if Lan Wangji is a feral animal, liable to startle at a sudden movement.

Perhaps he is.

"Do you want to lie down?" His brother asks. He doesn't look like he thinks Lan Wangji is being stubborn, but he has always seen Lan Wangji more clearly than others -- everyone until Wei Ying, at least.

Now it will only be his brother who sees him. The grief is a wave, and Lan Wangji swallows it back. He had only his brother for years. He excelled. He has survived loss before. He will survive again.

"Yes," Lan Wangji admits. His voice is soft. "A-Yuan?" he asks, as his brother's warm hands help lower him to his front, to rest in the position that hurts the least.

"Is well," his brother says. He does not ask about the boy's origins. His silence is clearly a gift he is granting, a concession, an act of grace.

"Good," Lan Wangji says. "I am tired," he admits, and his brother leaves.

Dreams take him, eventually.

* * *

Lan Wangji is at Nightless City again.

He is on the cliff's edge, but this time Jiang Cheng stabs his sword not into the cliff face, but into Lan Wangji's hand. When Lan Wangji leaps for the edge, trying to reach out towards Wei Ying's smiling, grief-stricken face, he is pulled to a halt.

This time is different: he cannot even catch Wei Ying's hand, because he is pinned to the ground by Sandu Shengshou's downthrust sword.

This time is the same: there is nothing he can do but watch his love fall to his death.

* * *

Lan Wangji wakes with a gasp, without moving. He opens the fingers of his right hand, which he clenched in his sleep, re-opening the wound despite the bandages.

That explains the dream.

He does not call for help. The pain, when he pushes to his knees, when he breathes carefully, when he moves to stand on his own, is not worth mentioning, not really. He is re-learning how to move.

The deepest lashes have not healed yet, but he can feel them healing, can feel the scar tissue settling in, pulling tight, binding his body together, keeping him alive.

A knock on the door startles him, and Lan Wangji looks over, quickly, and stifles a hiss.

The scar tissue does this. It breaks, sometimes. He has not yet learned, entirely, how to move properly, and if he moves too freely, it pulls. It breaks. It pains him.

He does not call for help: the pain is not worth mentioning. There is nothing more to be done for it, nothing he is not already doing, nothing the healers can help with. He will not lose the use of his arm, or his hand; he will not be unable to cultivate.

Instead he calls a greeting, pulls on a thick robe to cover his sleeping clothes.

"Wangji," his brother's voice calls. "I brought you a visitor."

Small feet echo his brother's quieter steps, and Lan Wangji turns carefully to see them. His neck is screaming from the pulled adhesion; it will do that for some time yet. He keeps the pain off his face: it distresses his brother.

The child -- A-Yuan, in Cloud Recesses robes -- pauses very slightly.

"He remembers nothing before waking up here after his fever," his brother says.

Wangji feels a wave of grief roll over him, collide with a flood of relief. This is one fewer person in the world who remembers Wei Ying's smile. But this way the boy cannot incriminate himself, cannot expose his origins, cannot come to harm.

"Mm," Lan Wangji says. He kneels carefully, and looks at the child. "I am Lan Wangji," he says. "I knew you before you were sick."

A-Yuan, Lan Yuan now, looks at him, nods, and smiles.

"I know," he says. "They said so."

"What did we practice?" Lan Xichen asks. It's so familiar from his own childhood, from the days before their visits to their mother, that Lan Wangji's heart aches.

"Thank you for bringing me back," Lan Yuan says, and bows, very proper except for how he's still holding onto Lan Xichen's hand. That, too, is familiar, though Xichen was smaller when Lan Wangji did the same thing.

"You're welcome," Lan Wangji says. "No need to be so formal, A-Yuan."

The child straightens, and smiles. He is chubbier than he was before, in the Burial Mounds. The sight is a knife to Lan Wangji's heart.

Then he flings himself at Lan Wangji, and gives him a tight hug, little arms gripping hard, little hands hitting barely-healed scars.

Lan Wangji exhales hard, but does not pull the boy away. Xichen freezes when he shakes his head, brings a hand up to pet the child's hair.

Xichen sinks to the floor right there, allowing them to stay, preventing Wangji from having to stand, to move, to lift the child, who will not let go. Standing would be too painful, right now, with the boy clinging. Just holding himself still is an effort.

Joining him here is a small grace; Lan Wangji is grateful for it. It is a small acknowledgement of his changed needs, of his weaknesses; Lan Wangji hates it.

* * *

The visits continue.

His brother brings A-Yuan every other day, and after some half-dozen visits, Lan Wangji dares to pick up A-Yuan, though it strains, it stretches, it burns.

After that first time, he has blood on his inner robes and is scolded by the healer. It was worth it for how A-Yuan melted against him, he thinks, but does not say.

After the fourth time, he thinks he has learned how to adjust to the pain in his shoulders, in his upper arm. It hurts, but he does not bleed, and surely, surely that is progress, that is healing, that is a good sign.

But after the tenth time it still aches, still pulls, still hurts deep inside. It is three weeks out from the first time he picked the boy up in his arms and bled, more than two months out from the whipping. He has never healed so slowly before. He has never feared not healing.

Lan Wangji weeps.

It is weak, and he feels shame even as he gasps in silence. The body is a tool, and no more: he is more than his ability to lift a child, to lift a sword.

But his body has never betrayed him before. He was not prepared for it to continue to do so now.

He allows himself a brief stretch of ugly, muffled sobbing, and then rises, washes his face in chill water, and begins his recovery stretches again.

* * *

Months later, the first frost falls on the first full winter after his punishment. Lan Wangji wakes knowing in his sinews that it will be a bad day, that he did not layer enough quilts on the bed, was not prepared for the cold.

He stretches, and something in his upper back, near his right shoulderblade, pings pain down his nerves.

So, he thinks. It will be one of those days.

He stretches, and he does sword forms, and he practices qin, and he supervises lessons, and he shows A-Yuan the rabbits. His scars ache and pull in the chill that lingers in the clearing's fresh air.

Lan Wangji will be sent out on a night hunt again in the spring, he knows. He will lead junior disciples who have never fought in a war, who have never faced a resentful spirit, who will need his help. He will wield a sword and his qin, and he will move without thought, and his long months of careful exercises and new training will not have been enough. It will hurt, and he will not show the pain, lest he alarm the juniors.

It will not be the same as that shining, sunlit trip to find the Yin Iron, as fighting in a fog with a brilliant, bright-eyed boy. It will not be the same as the battle to take Nightless City, or the desperate campaigns during Wei Ying's months-long absence.

Nothing will ever be the same again: Lan Wangji's body is proof enough of that, aching in the cold as it does. The cold used to be so easy to ignore, before. He reminds himself that it still is, if he concentrates hard enough. He can concentrate hard enough: he has always been determined, strong-willed, persistent in the face of challenges. If his body is one of those challenges, now, he can meet it. He will meet it head-on, and win.

He carefully doesn't consider that he has no choice. After all, there has always been a choice. Sit outside his mother's empty rooms, or allow himself to be moved. Follow Wei Ying, or leave him abandoned. Continue living, or retreat like his father before him.

Lan Wangji grew up without a father, with only an uncle and an older brother; A-Yuan will grow up without a father, without an uncle, without an older brother. But he will not grow up alone. That's the choice: that's the balance. If Lan Wangji's body defeats him, if he retreats, if he gives in, he will fail the child. It will all have been for nothing.

So he ignores the ache in his scars. Instead he picks A-Yuan up, places the boy in his lap before he can start shivering, and offers him a small piece of lettuce for the rabbits, feeding him a tiny bit of spiritual energy to warm his tiny, chubby hands.

His back aches with the movement, the pain a reminder that A-Yuan is bigger now, sturdier, heavier, healthier.

Look, he thinks, speaking to the dead as he so often does these days. Look at your boy, at our boy. He is well. I did that much.

Nothing will ever be the same again: Wei Ying is gone, and the Wen are all dead, farmers and artisans and cultivators alike, good and evil consigned to the grave, with no one to remember them, not even A-Yuan himself.

Here and now, the rabbits munch, bruxing softly.

Here and now, A-Yuan tires and snuggles against him, and Lan Wangji gathers the boy into his arms and stands, feeling his right arm protest, a hot line of pain down his bones when he moves too swiftly.

Nothing will ever be the same again, not in his body, not in his mind, not in the world around them.

He shifts A-Yuan slightly, and the pain recedes to a bearable level, to its usual background thrumming. He heads for home, cradling the boy in his arms.

Good, he thinks as he walks, nothing should be the same.