After he comes back from the catastrophe and takes his punishment, Lan Xichen looks at him prostrate on the floor and asks - “Brother, what will you do if you cannot bring him back?”
Lan Wangji purses his lips, and tries to think past the pained gasps that rip through him every time he feels the splitting skin on his back.
“I have yearned for longer than you realize,” he says.
Patience is a virtue, he has been told. The rewards are sweet.
Weeks have blended into each other since he went into seclusion - he knows it is for his own benefit as much as it is to give the clan elders some face. He needs to recuperate, to heal. He is allowed to walk the halls but only rarely, and he is not allowed out of the Cloud Recesses until he has managed to cultivate himself further for the next three years.
He does not feel healed, however. All his anxiety channels into his cultivation, making it impossible for him to get past the bottleneck stage, all his powers pent up with no release and nowhere to use them in a way that does not hurt his own spiritual reserves.
The anxiety today hangs over him like a cloud - like an anticipation of something terrible. There is an inexplicable dread in him that wells with every step he takes, past the safe boundary of his room.
“Finally dead, and good riddance at that,” he overhears an elder say. “Can’t believe it’s been a week.”
Lan Wangji’s heart stops.
He runs all the way from his pavilion to the main hall, where the rest of the elders have gathered. The door is open and they freeze when they see him, the boxes in the hall still left open. A Wen banner sticks out of one, tattered, like an afterthought, and Lan Xichen is there.
Lan Xichen is the first to move. “Brother, I -”
He has heard enough. He runs, faster and faster, until he reaches the spring. It does not soothe him. He shivers, clothes still on, as the water grows hotter and hotter. He wonders in a daze if this is what a Qi deviation feels like - if this is what he had felt when the Xuanwu -
Wei Ying. Wei Ying is dead. Wei Ying is dead and he stands in a hallowed centuries old place where people murdered him still walk.
Wei Ying is dead.
He finds himself in the study pavilions. The students are absent. Missing. Wei Ying is dead.
Wei Ying is dead and he’s -
His feet drag towards the Library Pavilion. All the letters he kept are safe, safe beneath the floorboards of the rebuilt place. His hands bleed when he cuts them on the sharp edges of the floorboards getting them out. It is a reminder that he is alive. Wei Ying is not.
Wei Ying drew so much, back when he was here. A wolf looking at a rooster. Flowers blooming around the Lotus Pier. A beautiful girl standing with ducks surrounding her - Jiang Yanli - her bell tinkling in the wind. A picture of him - side profile - how long had he had to look at him to get it perfect? That first drawing, of how to channel resentful energy. Lan Wangji trembles, picking that up.
He can’t be. He can’t. He was stronger than this, stronger than - Lan Wangji had kept him alive for this, because he deserved to survive, to live out his entire life without someone who would only hold him back and drag him down. He knew this. He knew -
“Brother,” a voice says, and there are arms around his waist and shoulder. “Brother, your spiritual energy -”
“Is he -” Lan Wangji stops, and looks at his elder brother, at the face that never stopped smiling during hardships - oh, would he ever stop seeing him in everything? Would he be able to look at the sun again, or the magnolia tree outside his window or the rabbits -
“I don’t know,” Lan Xichen says, and it is the gentle misery in his words that opens the floodgates.
Like the massacre at the Nightless City, everything afterwards is a blur - one he will barely recollect years later, when he tries to remember everything that happened in order.
He knows this - he runs in the middle of the night to the Burial Mound, nothing but his guqin in his hand and a money pouch under his sleeve. He finds neither the Stygian Tiger Amulet nor its owner. Not a trace of him remains in these devastated lands. He looks for weeks, until his feet start to bleed, until he thinks he hears a mirage, a dizi softly playing a dirge.
He finds a child, sleeping, emaciated, in the hollow of a tree. A-Yuan, he remembers - now a husk like himself, shaking with hunger pangs like he shakes with grief - how many times must I love him and lose him -
The night after he brands himself, Xichen carrying away the child he had brought back before he accidentally harms him too, Lan Wangji sits down with his guqin near the spring, cloth bandages over his heart still rustling, half healed. The elders titter among themselves, wondering if he has finally decided to let his emotions settle, if he still holds a grudge over a righteous punishment. He hears very little of them, honing his instincts to focus on the song.
He strums the first notes of Inquiry. The water dances under his command, and he listens for whispers, for a sign. Rabbits leaping past him do not stop to wait, to listen.
No one answers.
The third month, he wakes up to quiet sobbing, and finds A-Yuan burning up outside and sleeping near his door. He has no idea how he had managed to get here, considering that he is supposed to sleep in the inner halls with the smaller disciples.
A-Yuan is barely three, and he has a fever, and Wangji, who cannot remember the last time he was ill, is suddenly catapulted back into reality, disorienting in all the worst ways.
Lan Wangji has no idea what infant care entails except changing his smallclothes. Lan QiRen is more experienced in this regard, having seen him being taken care of, but his wet-nurses left a long time ago, and A-Yuan is a quiet baby on even the worst days. Lan Wangji does not even realize he is suffering until he sees his fluctuating aura.
He is hopeless at this. Perhaps, if he had someone - but no. It is not an option.
The women in the clan are few and far-between, and the ones who have not married out of the clan prefer to live apart from the men. Lan Wangji doubts that they would have any particular affinity for children, but Lan Qiren is out of town, and it is his last choice. He grits his teeth, and goes to them.
Lan Shu is older than him and Lan Qiren put together, and lives at the very edge of the Cloud Recesses, in one of the old stone cottages that had not been destroyed during the Wen raids. She is also apparently an expert at taking care of children, having been a wet-nurse for many of the clan children growing up.
“Your mother always insisted on nursing you herself,” she tells him disapprovingly, patting A-Yuan’s back after she dresses him. Lan Wangji blinks. “See what happens when the mother doesn’t eat enough! You’re lucky he’s at least trained in how to relieve himself.”
He does not counter her, considering that they both know she’s ancient and doesn’t have a chance to nurse children anymore.
“His mother is dead,” he says instead. A-Yuan gurgles, holding out his hands, and Lan Wangji picks him up, as gently as possible, hand braced on his back as he holds him to his chest.
“Of course, Xiao Zhan, do you take me for blind?” She squints at him, eyes sharp. “Why else would you go around looking like you lost your wife?”
Lan Wangji inhales. “Pardon me, Aunt Shu. I must go.”
“Remember to change his clothes every half-an-hour!” she calls after him as he stumbles away, A-Yuan clutching at his ribbon as he holds him tightly. The description does not leave his head, his ears growing hot. Shameful. Is that what all the elders think?
It’s not far from the truth. Lan Wangji would weep, but it would be so hollow. So pointless. His reputation has been ruined for years. What’s a little more?
It’s not like he could save him anyway.
A-Yuan makes a soft noise, and chews down on his ribbon. He pats the child, half-hesitant, a high fever still wracking his forehead, and makes a decision.
“Sleep with him in the same house while in seclusion?” Great-uncle purses his lips. “Wangji, he is not even your own child - and even our own children are not given the privilege.”
“Until he is old enough to sleep elsewhere, I want to keep him safe,” Wangji says. He does not contest the claim - and he can feel all the eyes of the elders sharp on him. Great-uncle sighs and acquiesces. It is, all things considered, not a boon. They know how unstable he is.
He swears Aunt Shu winks at him when he is on his way out.
A week later, A-Yuan wanders towards the spring in the middle of Inquiry, and claps his little hands over his mouth in horror. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Lan Wangji pats him on the head with the hand that is not on the guqin . “We should not be loud in the Cloud Recesses,” he says, and pats the ground beside him with the same hand. “It hurts the spirits that haunt here. Would you like to learn to play instead?”
The spirits make the water ripple for the child like they do for him, and for a second, Wangji sees another person’s awe in his face.
As Wangji discovers soon, A-Yuan looks even happier when he has a guqin made for him, and being the diligent child he is, he starts to accompany him to the spring.
He finds that he is not at all averse to this development, not when the spirits sound happier when he is nearby.
(He has always played better when it is for people he has loved.)
Wangji starts to write.
He has not touched any form of calligraphy in a long, long time - afraid that his mental instability following - that - would affect his ability to coherently express himself. His brother still watches him warily, careful for any signs of Qi deviation. He has started taking meals at the right times again, knowing of his patience and his anxiety. He thinks Xichen worries for nothing.
There is a little one to dedicate himself to. He will not falter.
Now that he takes meals again, having finally gotten rid of practicing inedia out of schedule, he can see the way A-Yuan winces away every time someone tries to feed him something. The child has potential, but not enough to practice inedia now.
He finds a way to ask what he wants to eat after the dishes have been filed away, the expression on his little face of distaste not easily hidden, even with such a polite facade. He is too young to know.
Wei Ying had never learned how to do the same.
“I like... spicy congee,” A-Yuan admits, after coercion. Looks down, almost scared, before he quietly comes to hug his leg. “It is all right, I can eat this too.”
Wangji goes to Aunt Shu, afterwards. She snorts at him and sends him away with a carefully handwritten recipe that he will no doubt botch several times over.
It is worth it, when he makes somewhat spicy congee, the kind that makes his eyes water, but makes A-Yuan's face brighten when it is served to him at dinner. He clings to him like a tiny adorable parasite, and hides and makes faces whenever the elders shoot questioning looks their way. Wangji realizes that this is very good immunity against them the moment he sees Lan Qiren melt when he innocently blinks back at him during a period of time that he is being reprimanded.
Wangji writes as much on the thin paper, and files it away into a casket. This is one of many, many scrolls to come. They will be hidden underneath the floorboards again, never to be read, while he practices Inquiry over and over on the guqin.
He wakes up one morning to see his guqin packed away properly, a blanket over him while he slept at the desk, and little A-Yuan asleep next to him, hands a little red - no doubt from the weight of the instrument.
He writes about that too.
He writes - one line, something he will look at later, and remind himself why he needs to keep going.
The fifth month, he tells Lan Qiren of his decision to adopt A-Yuan when he comes to visit.
“That was not framed as a question, Wangji,” his uncle says. They stand in the foyer of the main hall, the same place he had seen the Wen banner and run away.
Wangji’s gaze doesn’t waver. “No, uncle. It was not.”
Lan Qiren stares at him. Lan Wangji wonders what he sees - the errant child in his mother’s arms? A toddler? The teenager who had himself whipped while he was away and never elaborated on why? Does he see the lashes he had taken, thirty-three for every single person dead because of him?
“You are an adult, after all,” Lan Qiren mutters. He looks much older, for a second, almost ancient. “It is your decision. You will be the one to name him when he starts his studies.”
Lan Wangji knows the repercussions. They are worth it, when he thinks of a conversation years ago.
The second year, A-Yuan finally becomes a Lan in name.
His writing and reading is progressing by leaps and bounds. His naming day is soon. Lan Qiren reprimands him in front of the elders for waiting this long, telling him that it would affect his cultivation.
“What will you name him?” Great-uncle asks, in the middle of the ceremony, before he has to say it.
Lan Wangji thinks of his heart wrenching, a split second of doubt - is it his son? Is it not -
He thinks of the poem in his study, written with strokes that flayed the paper open like a festering wound. bone-deep yearning I long for you to heal my aches. I am broken and you will be the salve on my wounds.
“Sizhui,” he says. Traces out the character for yearning for his son - his son - to write, and watches in pride as he copies it expertly.
At night, he dreams of a dark cave, and faint warmth behind him.
Lan Zhan, a voice says, gentle and teasing. Lan Zhan, look at me!
Lan Wangji turns and meets thin air. He wakes up.
No one is there.
The third year begins, the ceremonies as solemn and understated as ever. He hears that Yunmeng has started to do their New Year’s Festival again.
He remembers Wei Ying's talk of mooncakes, in one of their conversations back in the Library Pavilion. It is what starts the spiral downwards.
Time is not - a fixed thing. He loses the trail of it, sometimes, after days go by without an answer. Grief is not quantifiable, either. It does not increase or decrease - it just stays, like a leaden weight that binds him down. Some days it just feels heavier, because he is so tired. Some days he lives and breathes and eats, and some days he forgets. The one time he forgets to breathe Sizhui comes in and cries and cries until his brother comes running and starts to channel his own spiritual energy into him, at which point he realizes days have passed since he ate or left his part of the Cloud Recesses, or even his bed.
“Don’t leave me, Father, don’t, don’t,” is what he comes back to - the first time Sizhui has called him that and not gege and he holds Sizhui tightly and presses his face into his hair, unheeding of how the child's tears leave his robes wet.
“I won’t,” he says, barely-aware of his surroundings, but horrified all the same. “I’ve returned.”
His brother watches warily as he starts to understand what had nearly happened.
How could I? After my own father -
He is confined to bed for a month, after which he throws himself into his work again, all the while consumed by guilt. He encourages Sizhui to make friends within the sect, and sees him come back with a new friend to play with the rabbits when he returns from an exorcism that takes him a week to complete. With the necessary supervision. He does not deny his need to be watched over, at least not after what happened.
Watching them play leaves him with a strange sense of loss. Perhaps he needed friends, but Wangji is selfish, and he has lived for so long for reasons unknown to even him sometimes. He turns away from the horde of rabbits and the two children playing in the midst of them.
That is the only warning he gets before he gets arms full of an excited boy, rabbits clinging to the sleeves of his robes. “Sizhui?” He picks him up in one arm, settling him into the crook of his elbow, while he crouches down to greet the other child. Son of a distant cousin, he recalls. Lan Jingyi. The little boy nervously paws at his hair, and he has a makeshift ponytail holding most of it back.
“Have you been studying well?” he asks, half-awkward in the face of his adoration. “I hope you have as well, Jingyi?”
“Yes, Hanguang-jun!” the child says with dignity - as much as he has with a rabbit on his shoulder nibbling his hair. Sizhui motions at Jingyi, who startles back and shakes his head rapidly, before running off with the rest of the rabbits. Lan Wangji sighs. Apparently it’s only his son who has not learned to not accost him.
He finds that he does not mind.
“I wrote sixty whole pages,” Sizhui says earnestly. “We can go sword-riding now, right? Jingyi said that it wouldn’t be allowed, but you promised!”
“I did?” Lan Wangji plays along, widening his eyes. Sizhui’s face grows distressed.
“Yes you did!” And then, quieter. “And you promised to come back, so I know you always keep promises.”
A beat passes. Wangji hears nothing but a far-away dizi, the sounds of a battlefield being laid to waste. Oh.
“I try,” he says finally.
Lan Qiren does not, in fact, reprimand either of them over him carrying a very small excitable child on his sword around the Cloud Recesses, because he does not find out.
Somewhere, he believes, Wei Ying is smiling.
He gets the invitation to Lotus Pier for New Year’s along with his brother, the kind of a peace flag that would have been appreciated before the events that had taken place recently. No doubt it had been sent out before it had happened. Xichen is still grieving when he gets it, and he sees it appropriate to send back a denial in his place, now that he is officially out of seclusion. It is strange, how circumstances change, and it is him holding his brother together over the loss of someone who had probably never valued Xichen the way he was meant to be loved.
Lan Wangji had expected Sizhui to be at least mildly upset, given that he had been promised a visit and special Yunmeng food, but he displays a maturity present beyond his years.
“It’s not the same,” he confides, when he is asked about it after practice, when they are both at the spring. He can join him less often these days, his cultivation being more important than Wangji’s fine-tuning of his musical skills.
“Why not, do you think?” Wangji asks. He does not often tell Sizhui what to do. The child figures out things by himself fairly often, and asks him to confirm.
“Because you can always feed me their food later,” Sizhui says wisely. “But uncle and his friend won’t get to eat it.”
Wangji tries his best to not laugh and fails, even in the middle of his horror at exactly how Sizhui’s mind seems to work.
The fourth year, they are practicing music on one of those full-moon nights that everyone locks their children inside the house when Sizhui puts down his newly-made qin and asks - “Can you tell me what was my mother was like?”
“Your...mother?” Lan Wangji says. It is a startling question for a boy so young - no doubt he had been overhearing gossip. As much as he tries to protect him from vicious words, Lan Wangji knows his reputation will cast a shadow over Sizhui until he comes into his own. It had been much the same for him, after all.
Ah, history, repeating itself so callously.
He does not answer for a while, Sizhui patient but expectantly looking at him. They are sitting under the tree next to the spring, on top of the bare rocks, and he can hear the nature spirits crowd around them, glittering like fireflies in the late afternoon as the sun dips below the horizon. The last notes from his guqin echo back and forth in the silence.
It feels less lonely, sitting here with Sizhui, who is always so obedient and easy to please, but Wangji cannot help but think someone is always watching over their shoulders, laughing in the distance at the prim, proper way they sit and play, dancing to their tunes.
“He was beautiful,” Wangji says finally. He looks down at his guqin , and plays the same note again. The water rises at his command. “The most beautiful person I knew.”
The moon casts her light over the spring as he admits it, and for a wild moment, Wangji can see a figure in the shadows of the magnolia trees on the opposite bank.
He nearly drops his instrument in shock. It moves across the water, shimmering brightly until he can barely look at it. Sizhui’s hands slowly come up to cling to his robes.
“Is - ?” the child asks, unsteadily. “Is that - ?”
Wangji’s hands can barely keep a single tune steady. The figure dances on the water, long, long hair streaming behind. Bare feet, a tiny bell tinkling at his waist. Grey eyes that stare directly at them, and lips that curve into a smile, so distant and yet so close.
Wangji stops the music. The figure shatters into tiny water droplets, collapsing into the spring, creating ripples that break through the smooth surface of the spring.
A petty illusion. A child’s trick.
“Beautiful,” Sizhui repeats, and Wangji looks back down at him. The child’s eyes are wide with wonder. “Thank you, Father.”
Lan Wangji’s hand trembles at the title, as he brings it down to smoothen Sizhui’s hair.
“No,” he says, his heart steadier than it has ever been in a long, long time. “This is my pleasure, Sizhui. You do not need to thank me.”
It is the truth.
The marriage proposals start to arrive again when it's been five years - the proper time according to the cultivational world, considering that both he and Xichen have mourned their closest for at least two years and been out of seclusion the whole time.
Great-uncle is most displeased when he refuses to go. Lan Qiren will not talk to him, so it falls to Xichen to deliver the unpleasant news to Lan Wangji.
“I will not go,” Wangji says. “You know why. Ask anyone in the clan.”
“Wangji -” his brother says, concern seeping into his tone. “You can’t live your life alone. Even if it’s -”
“I am in mourning , brother. I cannot marry until my son is of age, unless he himself is old enough to approve of a match.” Lan Wangji does not meet his eyes, hands strumming out experimental notes that would probably horrify anyone else nearby.
“So if Sizhui agrees -” Xichen trails off, and then sighs. “You’ve planned this well.”
“I have done nothing. If he desires a mother, he will have one.”
“How long will you be like this?” his brother asks, unable to stop himself. “Is it so -”
Yes, Wangji thinks. It is.
“Brother,” Wangji says calmly. “How can I make false promises to a wife, when my heart belongs to another? Is it not against the clan rules?”
His brother does not answer.
Wangji is used to questions ending in silence. He goes back to his strumming. Within a few minutes, Sizhui comes outside, his own guqin in his hands and sets it down while he sits down beside him, waiting patiently for him to finish.
“If I start calling you Hanguang-jun or Shifu,” he says speculatively, once he is done, “will they stop talking about me needing a mother less?”
Wangji almost shakes his head. He should reprimand him, but he is far too amused to do so. “Do you need a mother, Sizhui?”
“I already have all the mother or father I could need,” he says stubbornly. “I won’t call you Father in public anymore. It’s annoying how they stare at you.”
Wangji hides his smile in his sleeve. “Very well, then, disciple.” He motions for Sizhui to pick up his instrument. “Shall we begin our lesson?”
The sixth year, Wangji realizes exactly how much Sizhui has grown.
His posture is beautiful, his cultivation is progressing at an enormous rate, even without him applying himself in seclusion, and he is polite and respectful and obedient - and the very embodiment of what a Lan should be.
The boy is a prodigious talent, Lan Qiren says. His uncle heaps praises on him as much as he treats him sternly, and Lan Wangji wonders when he stopped being the favorite. Was it when he had finally come home, disgraced, skin stripped off his back after the whips had done their job? Was it at the Qishan Wen conference, when he had been unable to meet his eyes, his hands shaking from tying back a loose ribbon that meant nothing without warm hands pulling it away from his forehead?
Maybe it was when he was fifteen and the first time he had come out of seclusion in a year, when he had run into a boy with moonlight eyes who laughed audaciously at his talk of abiding rules, pouring Emperor’s Smile down his throat, glistening with every gulp, and how Lan Wangji had frozen in his steps at the sheer want he had felt in that second - that he had never felt before.
Will never feel again.
Even now, when he talks to his friends, when he talks to him - Lan Sizhui has a light in his eyes that brings other people to life. Wangji vows again to never let it go out.
This time, he will not fail.
It is worse, sometimes, knowing that there is no memory of Wei Wuxian on a night-hunt in the wilds around the Cloud Recesses, except for the one time the corpses got free. Knowing it makes him blank, makes him seek things that do not exist.
It is while musing upon this that Lan Wangji runs into Young Master Jin near Carp Tower. His scowl is a perfect replica of the sour expression that his uncle constantly sports. He looks old - and Lan Wangji thinks of another distant time, a bright-eyed man who had only wanted to attend his shijie’s wedding. They are on a night hunt, and the boy sneers in a way disturbingly reminiscent of Jin Zixuan at his worst - and Lan Wangji wonders, has Sect Leader Jin - or Jiang Cheng - truly been this neglectful towards his upbringing?
He flinches at the harsh words that aim to hurt, as Jin Ling’s eyes fill with tears, and then watches as he trots after his uncle anyway.
“Father,” Sizhui says softly. Lan Wangji turns to face him. In the last year he had learned to use only honorifics in public, so as to conceal his status and uphold Lan Wangji's better, but it still slips out sometimes. “Will Jin Ling be all right?”
Wangji has to consider this for a second. He thinks of Sizhui at barely two, with two butterflies in his hand, clinging to Wei Wuxian one second, and crying at him the next.
The Jiangs have always had...peculiar methods of raising their unusually resilient children.
“I believe so, yes.” He places a hand on his shoulder as they turn away. Sizhui looks back in doubt and concern at the tiny boy chasing after his uncle, and Wangji has a bad feeling about what the look in his eyes means.
Perhaps he’s overthinking it. Jiang Cheng and he have never liked each other - tolerated each other, at best, for Wei Ying's sake, even when they were on the same side. It makes sense that he would not send the child to the Cloud Recesses, and it makes sense that Sizhui would be curious about him.
The eighth year, when he realizes Sizhui is making moon-eyes at Jin Ling over dinner at the disciples’ table, when Jin Ling is finally sent to the Cloud Recesses for training, he realizes he was not overthinking it. It is almost painful to watch. For someone not a Lan by blood, Sizhui has certainly inherited their taste for terribly-advised affairs, even in the making.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. He’s beginning to sound like his uncle.
Besides, the Wei Ying in his subconscious says, don't you want a happy ending for them?
“I want them to stay alive,” he mutters, and ignores the looks sent his way. He is surely on the path of turning into his uncle, driven to distraction by worrying over a single child.
The single child in question fusses over Jin Ling's ponytail getting in his food, and Lan Wangji’s headache grows. At least he hasn’t turned into Jiang Cheng. Yet.
He does not look forward to explaining this to Jiang Cheng. Ever.
Inquiry still yields him no answers. A helpful spirit offers him tips on how to meticulously poison a traitorous lover over forty. Wangji swears he can hear Wei Ying laughing.
Some days are harder than others.
The ninth year, Lan Wangji realizes it’s been over sixteen years since a boy jumped onto a fence with two jars of Emperor’s Smile, and cocked his head and smiled at him.
He had realized he was in love when he was sixteen. He has loved Wei Ying longer than he has known Wei Ying alive.
He’s dead. He’s dead. Lan Wangji hears his voice with every step he takes in the long wooden corridors, his laughter like a ghost of itself floating in the air around the corner where he used to sit with his entire posse of admirers. There are other disciples there now, bare-faced and solemn, and Wangji’s heart splinters whenever he sees a face and finds him in none of them.
“Someone said they wanted alcohol the other day,” one of them whispers. “Can you imagine? I’d never dare.”
No, Wangji agrees. You wouldn’t.
No one ever did before him.
He speaks too soon.
“Hanguang-jun!” Sizhui says, and runs in a lightning streak right across the corridor, right across to him, Jin Ling and Jingyi in hot pursuit. “Does the rule about alcohol not in the Cloud Recesses apply to us or just the elders?”
He raises an eyebrow. “It applies to everyone, of course.”
Jingyi leans up, conspiratorial. “Hanguang-jun, the disciples keep saying they have seen an elder buy wine from outside.”
Lan Wangji stiffens, and leans away. Jin Ling and Sizhui both look scandalized by it all, taking his silence as confirmation. “I know, I know, we should refrain from gossip, but -!”
“It is probably medicinal,” he says, blank-faced.
“I am sure you will find it in your texts. It can be used to heal wounds of various kinds, and even for exorcisms.”
“Oh.” Jingyi frowns. “Wait, is that a discovery by the Pat-”
“It is time to leave! We have lessons!” Sizhui urges them before he finishes, and his meek smile before they race off into the other direction leaves Lan Wangji with more questions than answers, his earlier hurt forgotten.
But more importantly, he admits wryly, thinking of the pots of wine in his room, at least one other person has dared.
The tenth year, some of the cultivators at the Burial Mound finally give up.
They still keep the stone statues around, or so the gossipers say in Caiyi Town, when Lan Wangji stops by to buy a pot of wine. He overhears only bits and pieces - Jin Guangyao had been the one to call them away. Something about new Conferences, and new troubles.
He does not manage to hear enough, as the tavern falls a bit silent when they spot him. The young Second Master of Lan sect has a reputation every bit as notorious as Wei Wuxian's in these areas - where the people had been subjected to much more good than harm. The tavern owner, beautiful woman in her thirties, gives him a flustered, nervous expression. “Second Master Lan! Here for our specialty?”
Lan Wangji has done business with her before, and she usually packs the pots tight enough that no one can tell he is here for wine. “Yes. Another jar, if you will.”
The whispers start up again when they see that he pays them no attention. It is funny how the world works that way, waiting for no one else to catch up.
“Think about it,” one of the tavern regulars says, “if he had wanted to be reborn or be recalled, he would have responded, right? One can only assume there is nothing that ties him to this world any longer.”
“He did love our Emperor’s Smile, though,” the tavern owner says with a laugh, from where she is packing Lan Wangji's wine. “I remember that little one, when he used to come in and drink two, even three at a time. Was one of our best customers. Gives us a bit of a notorious reputation, it does, but wine strong enough for the Yiling Patriarch is good advertisement!”
“The Yiling Patriarch returns only to sip the finest wine, that would be a riot,” one of the more drunk people says affectedly, and raucous laughter echoes in the tavern. Lan Wangji does not notice his fingers digging into his palm until they turn wet with his own blood.
It matters not. He takes his wine, and retreats in the silence of his own head, which beats a dead horse's carcass and begs for answers.
Sizhui is surprisingly unrepentant when he catches him, Jin Ling, Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Jingyi picking loquats for the maidens in Caiyi Town. Even Jingyi looks more horrified than him - which is amusing, given that it is a fairly innocent activity, only out of their given duties, which they have no doubt finished. It is however undignified, and it falls to Lan Wangji to explain why.
“In a year, you will be a teenager,” Wangji tells him, and only gets a puzzled look in response.
“But Father, I will still want to pick loquats when I am a teenager.”
His logic is so blinding and straightforward that Lan Wangji blinks in response, unable to find words. Sees another teenager, red ribbon in his beautiful hair, like an overlapping image over his smile.
“Very well, then if you want to pick them after you are of age and have all those responsibilities besides loquats, we shall see,” he says dryly in the end.
(He has absolutely no doubt he will. He is his father's son.)
The children, before they hit their teens, had one set of white ribbons that they could wear in their hair or around their head. Sizhui had opted to wear his in his ponytail, until this year, when he finally came of age.
Lan Shu nudges him gently, having found a way to miraculously stand next to him when the children trot out in their new sect robes, and Wangji has to maintain his blank face, to not show the burst of pride as Sizhui's eyes brighten and he waves at him.
Wei Ying would be proud, he thinks.
No, most of all - he is. Lan Wangji is proud of his son.
It feels oddly liberating to admit, even to himself, as Lan Qiren starts to correct all their postures and finds nothing to criticize in him.
The dreaded question comes in private, in the twelfth year, on a completely innocuous night when they are both playing by the spring.
“Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui says hesitantly, following the rhythm Wangji sets for him, “have you fallen in love before?”
Lan Wangji almost stops. He has no idea where to begin.
“Yes,” is what he opts for. The spirits shiver when he plays a new tune, emotions connecting all too clearly with them. He does not elaborate.
“Was it with my -”
Sizhui does not pause, waiting to finish the tune, waiting until the water droplets all collapse into the lake, unwilling to have a repeat of the time with the water spectre. “Father, how many years has it been?”
He has counted it down to the minute he knew. “Several.”
“Is it - that bad?” he whispers. He looks lost in thought. “The students, - all the stories about going into seclusion, even our clan founder - then why fall in love at all?”
He is the exact age Wangji was when he fell in love. He has to take a minute to compose himself.
“It is a kind of strength,” he says finally, starting to play again. A song that he has not played in a long time, and remembers clearly. Sizhui will probably not understand the significance. “It can be destructive, and send sects up in flames. It can be the one thing that holds it together.”
He lets the crescendo build, and the air glitters slightly. He wonders if the spirits were here when he composed it for the first time, if they know what he is thinking.
“Most of all, it is a reminder.” He looks up from the instrument and towards the lake, and then back at Sizhui's questioning face. Yearning, he thinks. It never goes away.
It is a reminder of what he has lived for - and how it is worth it, to see something you have fiercely loved for someone else's sake, become something you love.
That night is the last time he writes a letter, packing it away into the jade casket.
Love is not something that stops when a person stops existing, but those capable of love have a lot of affection to give. Lan Wangji has learned, over the years, to compartmentalize. He is getting better at it.
He only hopes his son - his own son - will never have to do the same.
Wei Ying, you would be proud of him, he thinks. Wei Ying -would you be proud of me?
Lan Wangji does not realize how terrifying it is to be a parent until he sees the fireworks light up that night in Mo Village.
He had promised himself to not hover during their missions, to let them handle things themselves, but logic and rationality went out of the window when he realized his son - his son could be in danger.
He has not a single clue as to how this one night will change his life, but he runs blindly. My son. My stupid, self-sacrificing noble son.
He understands, suddenly, how his father must have felt.
A year later, the fearsome Yiling Patriarch creeps up behind Lan Wangji as he copies scrolls, and holds him by the waist as he buries his beautiful face in Wangji's hair. Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow before he sees the pile of letters tucked under his arm that he had set down on the ground just now, instead of the jade casket he had used as a storage.
“You found them, then,” he says.
“So these are - you really wrote to me? Lan Zhan, my heart, have you no concern for what your words can do to me?” Wei Ying demands, - softly, into his neck, and Lan Wangji sighs and peels him away, turning to face him. Wei Ying is blushing, right down to the roots of his hair. Wangji is delighted. He tries to show it on his face, and probably fails.
“Yes, I did. Every week. Sometimes I considered burning them, like paper money.” So they would reach you, goes unsaid.
“It’s likely I would not get them, since I wasn’t looking,” Wei Ying says somberly, before looking out at the gorgeous sunset outside. “But this - what does this mean, Lan Zhan?” He waves the letter on top of the pile. “I didn’t realize they were addressed to me, or I would not even have read them.
“It is no matter,” Lan Wangji says, but his voice catches in his throat. The first letter he had ever written is on top of the pile, a confessional rather than a poem.
bone-deep yearning I long for you to heal my aches. I am broken and you will be the salve on my wounds.
He has not thought about this line in a long, long time.
“It also makes me think,” Wei Ying says hesitantly. “What would you do, had I not come back?”
A few years ago, he would not have been able to answer this question.
“Wei Ying,” he says seriously hand slipping to Wei Ying's waistline as he pulls him closer. “If I told you that I would die for you, what would you do?”
Wei Ying, to his credit, doesn’t even blink in response. “I would ask you that I would rather you lived, for all the people we have both loved.”
Lan Wangji nods, and breathes him in, nosing along his neck. “And I would do the same.”
“But you already have, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. They lean into each other, the inkbrush and pot and scrolls forgotten in the dusk. “You should tell me, sometime.”
“I will let Sizhui know he needs to be present for that conversation,” he says dryly, and Wei Ying's eyes widen in sudden realization and delight.
“I can't believe - Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, I love you! I love you, I love you I love you -” he does not finish, breath muffled by a pair of insistent lips, but Wangji lets him babble nonsense into his mouth all the same. He wonders - of all the potential missed chances. If he had ended his life, like Xiao Xingchen, would he have ever managed to meet Wei Ying again? Would it all have been for naught, if he had found it within himself to move on? Some people are built for one love in a lifetime, one soulmate in existence - but they can still meet their end in the worst ways.
If he had never raised a living embodiment of his yearning for a man long dead, would it have made a difference?
But Lan Wangji does not deal in bygones anymore. Everything he has ever wanted is currently within his arms, and the other piece is away practicing archery in the fields with the rest of the disciples.
“I yearned for you,” he says. “I do not regret it.”
Sizhui puts a bit of the newly made fish soup in his mouth, and makes a face. The people hurrying around doing wedding preparations ongoing in the background do not seem to notice his grimace, but Jin Ling does. He nudges his fiance, concerned.
“Is something wrong?” Jin Ling asks.
Sizhui shakes his head, and then turns to his parents who are - as usual - wrapped up in each other.
“Father,” he says, as gently as possible. “This makes me yearn for the early years of the Yiling Patriarch.”
His father, the esteemed Second Master of Lan, the great Hanguang-jun, looks away from making the most besotted face in history at his husband. “Is there something wrong?”
He shakes his head gently. “You -” he points at the way Wei Wuxian, the great Yiling Patriarch, his unofficial other father, is wrapped around him, “have spoiled the taste of this dish, by interfering with it.”
Wei Wuxian puts a finger to his own lips - he has not even tasted the dish - and smiles. “I only told Aunt Shu that Jin Ling could not handle the spice - she is the one who prepared it.”
Sizhui raises a hand to cover his face, and Jin Ling asks, in mild disgust, “why does that sound inappropriate? That was inappropriate, right?”
“Not at all,” Wei Wuxian says mischievously. “After all, the fruits of yearning are sweet.”
Jin Ling goes red in the face, and Sizhui groans out loud. “Please stop talking.”