The moment Wei WuXian returned from the night hunt he had been supervising, he was told to go see Lan XiChen in the Library Pavilion. The summons was unusual, and he hurried along, not even stopping by the jingshi first. When he arrived, it took him some time to find his brother-in-law, but eventually, he came across him in a section of the library that was off-limits to junior disciples, one that held information on various spells and curses and rare magics. He was seated at a table, pouring over an ancient scroll, expression unusually somber. Kneeling at his side was a child, silent and attentive, brows knit as he tried to read along with Lan XiChen. Staring at the child, who couldn't be more than six or so, Wei WuXian came to a complete halt with a faint gasp.
Looking up at him, Lan XiChen offered a grim smile. “You realized very quickly. As to be expected, I suppose.”
“Lan Zhan! Oh, look at you!” He hurried around the table and dropped to kneel next to the child who was most certainly his Lan Zhan and was currently regarding him warily. “Do you feel all right? Is your body okay?” His hands hovered out of an uncharacteristic uncertainty. There was no recognition in Lan WangJi's pale eyes.
“He's been cursed,” Lan XiChen said, somewhat acerbically. Wei WuXian winced.
“Obviously he's been cursed. That doesn't even merit asking.” He looked up, hands still not touching the child his husband had become as Lan WangJi shrank back toward his brother. “Is he all right, aside from that?”
Hesitantly, Lan XiChen nodded. “He seems fine. He is alert. The flow of his qi is undisturbed. Although he doesn't remember the details of his adult life, his mind doesn't seem to have been adversely affected. ...I should warn you, he seems to know people that were part of his life when he was this age, but he has yet to recognize anyone else. We've informed him that he's under a spell, but it's as if that information doesn't mean anything to him. Anything pertaining to his adult life seems to be entirely incomprehensible...although he apparently isn't bothered by how much I've aged.”
Wei WuXian released a huge sigh. “As long as he's all right, that's the important thing. We can figure out the rest.” He turned his eyes once more to Lan WangJi. “Just look at you,” he murmured. “Such an adorable child. Look at those round cheeks. I want to pinch them!”
Letting the impulse fly, he settled his hands on Lan WangJi's cheeks and pinched each gently. It brought a fierce scowl to Lan WangJi's face which remained even after he batted Wei WuXian's hands away.
“Come now, A-Zhan! Is that really any way to behave to your hus— to your Xian-gege?”
Lan WangJi looked to his brother, who nodded. “You can trust this person, WangJi.”
As he tried to grab Lan WangJi's hands, letting them slip free every time the reluctant child pulled back, Wei WuXian looked once more to Lan XiChen.
“ZeWu-Jun, what can I do?”
With a sigh, Lan XiChen rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Uncle and some of the elders are searching in the lower levels for any information that might be helpful in reversing this. I remained here, thinking I might find answers. If you would, please, keep an eye on WangJi. He was always a very well-behaved child, so I doubt he'll give you much trouble once he's used to you. ...And it is possible that spending time with you might help him remember.”
“Understood. Come now, A-Zhan. Let's go play while your brother works.”
He stood up and, before Lan WangJi had time to escape, scooped the child up and settled him on his hip. Immediately, Lan WangJi began squirming, trying to get down, but Wei WuXian merely bounced him, as if oblivious, and began to carry him away.
“My, you're a big boy! You'll be so strong when you get older! The very model of a cultivator! What are you struggling so much for? Do you know how many times you picked me up with no warning? Isn't this only fair?”
It was the first word he had spoken since Wei WuXian had arrived. In the lightness of his voice, Wei WuXian could hear an echo of his husband's tone, and he smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners.
“Down?” he asked. “You want to go down? Whoops!” Making as if to drop him, he ducked, firming his hold a moment after Lan WangJi's arms shot out to wrap around his neck.
“A-Zhan, you're so strong already! Clinging to me so tightly...aren't you happier being held, after all? Even as a child, you weren't honest about what you wanted, huh?”
“Down,” Lan WangJi repeated, frowning at him.
“Down? Okay....” He pretended to drop him again, delighted when he felt those small arms clutch at him. “Are you sure you want down?” he teased. “It doesn't seem like it! How about this? You just tell your Xian-gege where you want to go, and you'll be carried there, swift as a sword! How does that sound?”
Beaming at the child in his arms, Wei WuXian was unprepared for his response.
He froze, only keeping his smile in place through long years of habit. Lan WangJi stared at him, an all-too-familiar determination in his youthful face. Distraction was the key, here.
“You want to see your mother? Why don't we let her rest for just a little longer first? In the meantime, wouldn't you like to see the rabbits?”
Lan WangJi looked as if he wanted to say no, but his curiosity got the better of him. “Rabbits?”
“Yup! A whole meadow of them!”
“...Cannot have pets.”
“Who said they were pets? These are special rabbits. Do you want to go see?”
After a moment's hesitation, Lan WangJi nodded. He didn't even squirm as Wei WuXian set off again, still carrying him.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. A crisp, cool breeze was blowing, offset by the warm rays of the sun. The grass was vibrantly green, sprinkled with tiny white flowers. The rabbits were out, hopping contentedly around their meadow, practically begging to be picked up and cuddled. All of it was made surreal by the fact that a six-year-old Lan WangJi sat in the middle of the clearing, silently petting a black rabbit that had made itself comfortable on his lap.
Wei WuXian sat nearer the edge of the meadow, legs crossed at the ankles, chin in hand, and his elbow resting on his knee. He stared at Lan WangJi, searching for happiness in him. Lan WangJi almost never spoke of his childhood. Most of what Wei WuXian knew had come from ZeWu-Jun. It hadn't been a happy story. Having had a tough time in his own childhood, his heart had gone out to Lan WangJi. This...whatever spell had been cast upon him...was a chance to give him something that had been denied to him. At least for as long as Lan WangJi remained a child, Wei WuXian would do his best to be sure he was happy, and had a chance to have some fun.
Lan WangJi looked up at the sound of footsteps. Glancing back, Wei WuXian saw SiZhui coming up the path, looking concerned.
“Senior Wei,” he said, once he was close enough that he didn't have to raise his voice. “I heard from ZeWu-Jun. Is it true...?” Even as he spoke, he was staring at Lan WangJi, and when he trailed off, Wei WuXian knew there was no need to confirm it.
“He's all right,” Wei WuXian reassured him. “Just a little bit small at the moment.” He stood up, dusting grass off his robes. “Come on. He doesn't remember anything about being an adult, so I'll have to introduce you.”
Lan WangJi watched them approach, but there was none of the wariness in him that Wei WuXian had seen earlier. Obviously, he had gotten used to Wei WuXian, and he was probably reassured by the fact that SiZhui was clearly a member of his sect.
“A-Zhan? This is your SiZhui-shixiong. Say hello.”
Without taking his eyes off of them, Lan WangJi nodded his head and offered a soft: “Hello.”
“Good morning, ahh... WangJi...shidi....”
Wei WuXian snorted, then burst into laughter. “SiZhui! No need to be so nervous! Come now. Have you ever seen such a cute child before? I've only seen one even come close to being so cute!” Reaching out, he pinched SiZhui's cheek. The gesture left Lan WangJi staring at SiZhui with a look that clearly said: 'So you have to put up with that, too?' Wei WuXian doubled over laughing.
When he had himself under control again, he straightened, wiping tears from his eyes. “Oh, both of you are so good for my heart.” He glanced between the two, then felt his smile grow even wider as a thought occurred to him. “SiZhui. Help me with something. Grab as many rabbits as you can!”
The rabbits tolerated Wei WuXian, liked SiZhui well enough, but adored Lan WangJi. Apparently, they recognized him even in a smaller body, because as Wei WuXian and SiZhui brought them by the twos and threes to pile on top of him, few of the rabbits hopped far away. Soon enough, Lan WangJi was practically buried in them. Wei WuXian was giggling almost continuously. SiZhui was unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile, his eyes warm with nostalgia. Lan WangJi sat quietly, eyes wide with wonder, and hands busy gently petting every rabbit he could reach without disturbing them.
“A-Zhan! Look how much they love you! They never would have tolerated me like that! Ahh, I'm so jealous! I want them to love me, too!”
“Be still,” Lan WangJi said quietly. He turned his little face up, looking at Wei WuXian with an earnestness that went straight to his heart. Gently, Wei WuXian settled a rabbit on top of his head.
“Zhan-er...when you're finished becoming one with the rabbits, would you like to play hide-and-seek?”
For some reason, the question made him look uncertain.
“A-Zhan? Everything okay?”
“...Lessons,” he murmured.
“Ah, don't worry, don't worry! No lessons for today! Everyone's taking a day off! So? Do you want to play with SiZhui and me?”
He nodded, his head shaking so quickly it was as if he was afraid Wei WuXian would rescind the offer. Bowing his head, he closed his eyes and began counting, softly, so as not to disturb the rabbits.
Laughing quietly, Wei WuXian ushered SiZhui out of the clearing. “Hurry, hurry! Hide!”
Smiling at him fondly, SiZhui did as he asked.
Lan WangJi counted up to twenty, then called out, louder than Wei WuXian had heard him so far, yet still barely above a normal speaking voice. “Hidden?” When neither of them answered him, he called out again: “Seeking now.”
More silence was his only response. He opened his eyes, a faint frown on his face, and carefully moved each rabbit to the ground so that he could stand up. The meadow was empty, except for the rabbits. No one was in sight on the path back to the buildings. Turning to look into the woods, he decided that was most likely, and walked into the trees.
He found SiZhui first, catching sight of his white robes peeking out from behind a tree. Something in his little heart eased to see that he hadn't been left alone, and Lan WangJi reached out to hold his hand as they searched for Wei WuXian. It was SiZhui who spotted him first, and tugged on Lan WangJi's hand, pointing upward to where Wei WuXian was stretched out on a tree branch high above their heads.
“Found,” Lan WangJi declared, pointing up at him.
“SiZhui, you cheater!” Wei WuXian exclaimed, jumping lightly down. “Just who was supposed to be doing the seeking?”
“You should hide where children can find you.”
“I play to win! Besides, A-Zhan's a smart boy. He would have figured it out eventually, wouldn't you, A-Zhan?”
Lan WangJi looked away with a huff that puffed up his cheeks even further.
“All right,” SiZhui said, reaching over to knock Wei WuXian's hands aside before he could pinch Lan WangJi's cheeks. “My turn to seek. You two go hide.”
As he closed his eyes and began counting, Wei WuXian took Lan WangJi's hand in his and quickly led him away.
“Want me to bury you in the ground?” he asked once they were out of earshot.
Lan WangJi gave him a blank stare, then pulled his hand free and walked away. Chuckling to himself, Wei WuXian went to find another hiding place.
This time, Wei WuXian was the first to be found, but only because SiZhui intentionally walked right past Lan WangJi at least three times before he worked out where Wei WuXian was hiding.
“You're it,” he said, peering into the hollow of a fallen log with an infuriatingly sweet smile.
“Look at you,” Wei WuXian grumbled. “So smug. Where did you get that from, I wonder. Certainly not from your father.”
“No, Dad,” he said, still wearing that smile. “Certainly not.”
“Ahh!” Wei WuXian cried, striding away from SiZhui. “The mighty and brilliant Yiling Patriarch has lost! Where, oh where could that expert hider be? Xiao Zhan! Where are you?” He made a show of searching, peering high and low as he crept closer to the bushes where he could just barely see a hint of white. “Could he be up in the trees? I don't see him! Could he be...” He nearly passed the bush, but then turned back lightning quick and knelt to reach past the branches, fingers itching to tickle. “...down here?”
The tickle attack didn't make Lan WangJi laugh, but it did make him squeak, which was absolutely adorable. He swatted at Wei WuXian's hands, and scrambled out of the bushes on the other side, emerging panting and glaring, with stains on his knees and leaves and twigs in his hair. Wei WuXian merely grinned and waved at him.
“Guess I'm it, this time. You kids better run and find really good hiding places!”
Lan WangJi fixed him with a frown. “No cheating.”
“I would never!”
“No cheating,” SiZhui repeated, as he hurried away into the woods.
“I'll have you know, I could find the both of you while blindfolded!” He huffed, closing his eyes and muttering to himself: “No cheating.... Honestly!” Then began counting.
When he set out to search, he intended to look for SiZhui first. As he walked, however, the woods began to feel familiar. He'd been all over the Cloud Recesses, of course, but something about the area they had come to...
They had wandered quite a ways away from the rabbit meadow, he realized.
...seemed like a place he ought to remember. It wasn't until he spotted the first of the gentians—a bit of bright purple amid the green that drew the eye to more and more, growing thicker and closer until, in the distance between the trees, bright sunlight hit on a clearing flooded with their color—that he realized they had come around within reach of the gentian cottage. He approached silently until he saw a flash of white on the porch.
Turning back to the woods, Wei WuXian whistled two quick notes. In moments, SiZhui appeared, hurrying to his side.
“I think the game is over for today. Head on back. Lan Zhan and I will follow later.”
Although he didn't understand what was going on, SiZhui didn't argue, only left quickly and quietly. With a sigh, having hoped to spare him this, but knowing that it had been unlikely from the start, Wei WuXian made his way to the cottage.
Lan WangJi was kneeling in front of the door. He had taken pains to smooth out his hair and brush the dirt off his robes, but his appearance wasn't nearly as pristine as usual, although his posture was impeccable. He did not acknowledge Wei WuXian's approach.
“A-Zhan? Found you.”
He shook his head.
“What are you doing?”
“Waiting for your mother?”
This time he didn't even nod.
“Can I wait with you?”
For just a heartbeat, Lan WangJi's eyes slid away from the door to focus on him. His shoulders seemed to relax in that moment, but then he was staring straight ahead again.
“Mm.” he said, so quietly that Wei WuXian nearly missed it.
For once, Wei WuXian didn't try to fill the silence. He wasn't sure what to say. He couldn't sit completely still, either, though. As a compromise, he picked a handful of gentians then took a seat on the porch, within arm's reach of Lan WangJi, but facing out into the yard, and began weaving the flowers together into a crown.
Time crawled by. Even as a child, Lan WangJi was more patient than Wei WuXian. He knelt practically without moving, eyes trained on the door that would not open for him. Wei WuXian hoped that he was meditating, rather than being trapped in his head with his thoughts circling and circling. He knew what it was like for a parent to disappear without explanation.
Eventually, the time limit Wei WuXian had set ran out. The flower crown was finished. He placed it on top of Lan WangJi's head, and stroked his hair, picking out a few bits of leaves and branches the boy had missed. His hand paused mid-motion as he noticed a slight tremor in Lan WangJi's shoulders. Looking closer, he saw the way he held his fists clenched white-knuckled on his lap.
His voice was thick. Taking a closer look at his face, Wei WuXian saw the redness of his eyes and nose, the way his jaw was clenched and his lips quivered.
“No,” Wei WuXian said as gently as he could. “I don't think she's able to come see you right now.”
“Got dirty,” Lan WangJi said in a shaky murmur. “Skipped lessons. Was...loud.”
His voice cracked at the end, and with it, the grip he'd had on his tears. He hunched in on himself, shoulders shaking as tiny, squeaking sobs escaped him. He barely fought as Wei WuXian wrapped him up in a hug and pulled him onto his lap.
“Oh, A-Zhan, A-Zhan, no. No, it's not like that.”
“B-broke the ru-rules...!” he sobbed. He pushed his face against Wei WuXian's chest, smearing him with tears and snot, and Wei WuXian only held him closer.
“It doesn't matter, A-Zhan. None of those stupid rules matter. You're a good boy, and your mother loves you very much. She's so proud of you, and she would never, ever refuse to see you because of those dumb rules.”
“W-want m-my mo-mom!”
“I know, A-Zhan. I know. Go ahead and cry, it's okay. I won't tell anyone. It's okay.”
As Lan WangJi sobbed, still trying to muffle himself as best he could, Wei WuXian held him close and rocked him, heartsick over his pain. He stroked his back and hummed their song to him, and wondered why he had thought it would be simple to let him be a happy child.
Not once did Wei WuXian hush him. This pain wasn't one that he could heal, but at the very least, he could allow Lan WangJi to let some of it out so that it didn't fester. It took him a long while to stop crying, during which time Wei WuXian's anger toward his sect and those who had personally raised him only grew. Had none of them realized that Lan WangJi had blamed himself? That, somehow, this exemplary child could assume that his mother refused to see him because he had broken a few rules? The ease with which he had come to that conclusion left Wei WuXian convinced that it was not the first time such a thought had crossed his young mind. He hadn't asked if that was the reason, after all. He had automatically assumed.
“You're a good boy, A-Zhan,” Wei WuXian assured him, burying his face in flowers to kiss the top of Lan WangJi's head. “And you have a good heart. You're the best, most righteous person I know.”
Eventually, with a few false stalls, Lan WangJi stopped crying. He remained clinging to Wei WuXian, although by that point, the front of his robes was uncomfortably cold and damp.
“Are you all right?”
“Do you want your brother?”
“Mm-mm.” He shook his head, pressing his face firmly into Wei WuXian's chest.
“Are you hungry?”
Again, he shook his head, but his stomach rumbled, betraying him. Shyly, he nodded.
“They'll be serving lunch.... How about if I take you back to the jingshi, then sneak us some food out of the kitchen?”
Lan WangJi's hold on him tightened. “Stealing is forbidden.”
“Who's stealing? They make the food for you to eat, right? So if I'm only taking your portion and my portion, then it's not stealing.”
When Lan WangJi didn't respond, Wei WuXian bounced him gently. “Well? Sound like a plan? Or, if you don't want to eat in the jingshi, we can have a picnic with the rabbits. I'll ask if there are any spare greens to feed them. Which do you want to do?”
“Rabbits,” Lan WangJi whispered.
“Rabbits it is, then!” He stood up at once, adjusting his hold so that Lan WangJi was braced once more on his hip. “Letting me carry you, this time?”
In answer, he hid his face in the crook of Wei WuXian's neck.
“Ha ha! Zhan-er, you really are too cute! I'm glad I get to spoil you a little bit. It's only fair. All right, let's go get lunch. Should I drop you off with the rabbits?”
He shook his head, soft hair against Wei WuXian's cheek, and voiced a barely audible “No.”
“You want me to carry you all the way to the kitchens, then carry you and the food all the way back?”
Lan WangJi was quiet for a minute, then murmured: “Can help carry.”
“Ha ha! All right, all right. I'll carry you, you'll carry the food, is that it?” He laughed when Lan WangJi nodded.
The next few hours passed peacefully. Although the kitchen staff stared at Lan WangJi, none of them asked questions, and he was spared full awareness of their attention by simply keeping his face hidden against the crook of Wei WuXian's neck. After collecting their lunches and a small basket of greens for the rabbits, Wei WuXian carried Lan WangJi—who, as promised, held the food—back to the rabbit meadow. Settling on the soft grass, Wei WuXian served up lunch as the rabbits gathered around, perhaps curious, perhaps merely smelling that something had been brought for them. Still wearing his flower crown, Lan WangJi watched them with bright, avid eyes, so distracted that Wei WuXian had to encourage him to eat. Lan WangJi shot him a look and informed him that talking during mealtimes was against the rules.
“Lots of things are against the rules, A-Zhan. Don't worry so much about it. Life's better when you can just have fun!”
“Ha ha! You want to know a secret, A-Zhan?”
Although he didn't speak or nod, there was curiosity in the way he cocked his head to the side as he stared at Wei WuXian.
“I can say that to you because I know you'll still work hard and do the right thing.” He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the Wall of Discipline. “All those rules are just up there for people who need reminders outside their own moral compass. And...well...there's a few that are up there because your sect is full of fuddy-duddies.”
Lan WangJi's eyes narrowed. “Should not gossip. Should not ma...malign,” he said carefully, “other sects.”
Wei WuXian took a bite of rice and said with his mouth full: “Should not talk during mealtimes.” He laughed as Lan WangJi snapped his mouth shut with a look like he'd tasted something sour, then swallowed and said: “Besides, joke's on you. I'm a member of the Lan sect. I married in. Broke a ton of rules here when I was a kid, but they still took me in.”
Looking as if he wanted to say something, Lan WangJi stopped, then stared down at his bowl. Hurriedly, he gobbled down the rest of his food while Wei WuXian looked on, amused.
“Who am I married to? Ah, well, that's.... They aren't someone you've, uh...met, so.... Don't worry about it. You'll find out one day.”
Although he did not look at all satisfied with that answer, Lan WangJi did not ask again.
After lunch, they watched the rabbits. Lan WangJi knelt among them, paying rapt attention to every little ball of fluff that came within reach. Wei WuXian made himself comfortable leaning against a tree. He watched for over an hour, filling his heart with the sight of his Lan Zhan so small and innocent and content.
Eventually, though, the peaceful afternoon, the warm sunshine and soft, rustling sounds of the rabbits, the gentle breeze, all combined to lull him toward sleep. He was just drifting off when footsteps approached, so quiet and calm that Wei WuXian didn't immediately stir. He only opened his eyes when he heard Lan XiChen speak their names in greeting.
“It seems likely,” he said, kneeling down. He held out his hands toward his brother, who, instead of coming to be hugged or picked up, brought him a rabbit to hold. Lan XiChen stroked it absently, staring at the crown of flowers before shaking his head, banishing the thoughts they'd summoned. “I believe we found the spell that was cast upon him.”
“Spell?” Wei WuXian asked. “Not a curse?”
“So it would seem. The elders are still studying it, but it appears to be benign. Surprising, certainly, and inconvenient, but he should return to normal in a few days, and there should be no lasting effects.”
“A spell to turn a person into a child for a few days?” He laughed. “Whoever wanted to get out of classes that badly must not have heard that he'd been planning to go traveling! I really thought he had told everyone, though. We were supposed to have left today.” He turned his head to gaze back toward the buildings. “...Is there any way to find out who did it?”
“I'm not sure. To be honest, it seems unlikely. I'd like to ask you to leave the investigation to us, please.”
Surprised, Wei WuXian looked back to Lan XiChen. Slowly, he smiled. “What? Worried that I might call down the legendary vengeance of the Yiling Patriarch on the guilty party?” He shrugged and tucked his hands behind his head, leaning back against the tree once more and closing his eyes. “You said it shouldn't do him any harm, right? I'll wait till he's back to normal and let him decide about the punishment. I don't mind putting off the trip for a little bit.”
Everything was quiet for a few moments. Wei WuXian could practically feel Lan XiChen's attention on him. Then, finally:
“You seem remarkably calm about all of this, Young Master Wei.”
“Do I? I guess I could try to go help those geezers look for a way to undo the spell, but you and I both know they wouldn't listen to a thing I'd have to say. And who do you suppose would volunteer to have the spell cast on them so that I could test out a reversal? I'm not about to try something like that on Lan Zhan without knowing it's going to work first.” He opened his eyes and fixed Lan XiChen with his stare. “I'm staying close to him. If anything happens, I'll be the first to know. If he's unhappy, or if he needs anything, I'm here. If you have anything more useful I could be doing, I'd love to hear it, but Lan Zhan's been through worse than getting a second chance at childhood, and panicking never helped anything.”
Lan XiChen bowed his head in acquiescence. “It is as you say.” He drew in a deep breath and sighed it out, then smiled at his brother. “Is there anything you need?”
Lan WangJi glanced at Wei WuXian, then looked down, hands clenched around his robes. “Can look after myself,” he said quietly.
Wei WuXian sat straight up with a shout of surprise. Even Lan XiChen looked startled. “You dislike spending time with Young Master Wei?”
He shook his head, not looking up.
“WangJi...what is it?”
“...traveling,” he murmured, so quietly that Wei WuXian almost didn't hear him.
“Traveling? Oh! Because Young Master Wei said that he was supposed to be traveling?”
When Lan WangJi nodded, Wei WuXian scrambled to crawl across the small distance between them.
“Aww, A-Zhan! Are you trying to be considerate of me? You'd be lonely without your Xian-gege, though, wouldn't you?”
He pouted, cheeks puffing out so that Wei WuXian couldn't help but pinch them. “No.”
“No? Zhan-er, no? Really?” Every time Lan WangJi tried to turn away, Wei WuXian moved to be in front of him. “You wouldn't be lonely without me? You wouldn't miss me? Not at all?”
Lan WangJi turned imploring eyes onto his brother.
“I don't think I'm going to be much help to you, here,” Lan XiChen said apologetically.
Without warning, Wei WuXian lunged forward and caught Lan WangJi in his arms, dragging him back until the child was sitting on his lap, squirming in vain to get free. Laughing, Wei WuXian hugged him, and rubbed his cheek against Lan WangJi's head. The flower crown fell to the ground.
“A-Zhan! Let's you and me go on a trip together! Tomorrow, let's go to Caiyi Town! We can spend the whole day there—I'll take you out on a boat, we can walk around the market, find some good food to eat.... It'll be fun! What do you say?”
Lan WangJi didn't say anything, but he had stopped struggling, as if considering the suggestion.
“It might not be a good idea to take him out of the Cloud Recesses. We don't know when he'll change back.”
“You said the spell was meant to last for a few days, right?”
“According to the text, it can last up to a week. The speed of the recovery depends upon the spiritual power of the one affected.” He stared at Lan WangJi, now a calm, warm weight in Wei WuXian's lap. “My brother was always very strong.”
Wei WuXian considered that. “Will it be all right if I bring a change of clothes for him in case he goes back to normal?”
With a sigh, Lan XiChen looked at his brother. Lan WangJi was sitting contentedly in Wei WuXian's lap, his small hands resting lightly on the arms crossed over his chest. “WangJi. Would you like to visit Caiyi Town tomorrow with Young Master Wei?”
Hesitantly, Lan WangJi nodded.
“All right.” He smiled at Wei WuXian, although the expression was somewhat strained. “Please try not to let Uncle find out.”
“Thank you!” Wei WuXian hugged Lan WangJi tighter, grinning and rocking side-to-side in his excitement. “We're going to have a great time, aren't we, A-Zhan?”
“He must remember something,” Lan XiChen said as he watched them, “judging from the way he's taken to you.”
Lan XiChen left soon after that, returning to his duties as sect leader. His mention of Lan QiRen had put the old man on Wei WuXian's mind, however, and left him wondering when Lan WangJi's uncle would be putting in an appearance. Either he was furiously trying to come up with a counter-spell, or was rigidly continuing on with his scheduled classes. Either way, Wei WuXian wasn't entirely surprised that Lan QiRen had yet to show himself, but he felt that the peace couldn't last much longer. He'd been around long enough to realize that the man did genuinely care for his nephews in his own way.
Sure enough, shortly after the hour when regular lessons ended, who should appear in the rabbit meadow but Lan QiRen, barely sparing Wei WuXian a glance as he headed straight for his nephew.
Unlike with his brother, when Lan WangJi spotted his uncle, he immediately got to his feet and hurried to neaten his clothes. The flower crown he'd put back on as soon as Wei WuXian had released him earlier was quickly removed and set aside. He remembered too late about the stains on his knees, and flushed pink as he brushed uselessly at them. When Lan QiRen was close enough, he saluted, bowing his head and not meeting his eyes.
“WangJi. How are you feeling?”
“I am well.”
“What have you been doing? You look like he's rolled you down the side of the mountain.”
Lan WangJi flinched, and that was more than enough for Wei WuXian. He was on his feet in an instant, stepping in so close that he was practically between the two of them.
“We were playing hide-and-seek earlier, but SiZhui had to leave. Will you play with us? You can hide first. I bet you're good enough to keep both of us searching for hours!”
It anything, Lan QiRen's withering glares had only increased in power over the years. “You have always been a terrible influence on my nephew. He should be studying, not wasting his time with frivolity, and making more work for others by soiling his clothes. WangJi. Come with me.”
About to tell him that Lan WangJi was bright enough not to be called to heel like a dog, Wei WuXian closed his mouth when he felt a tug on his robes. Looking down, he saw that Lan WangJi had grabbed a fistful of fabric just below his sash.
“Xian-ge is minding me,” he said quietly.
“Wei WuXian has no business being around children.”
“Hey! I used to watch SiZhui all the time, and he turned out just fine.”
“From my understanding,” he retorted stiffly, “you buried him in a field, and watered him like a radish.”
“And he grew quite well, didn't he?” Even Lan QiRen shouldn't be able to find fault with SiZhui.
“That is due far more to my nephew's influence than yours. I should say he's lucky to have gained an appropriate role model to replace—”
“Should not speak ill of others,” Lan WangJi put in. His fist was practically trembling with the strength of his grip on Wei WuXian's clothes, but he stood straight and faced down his uncle with all the assurance his tiny body could muster.
Lan QiRen looked taken aback. “You....”
“Ha ha! He's right, you know! That's one of the rules up on that wall of yours!” Wei WuXian glanced down with a questioning tilt of his head when he felt a sharp tug on his robe.
“Do not plant children,” Lan WangJi admonished him.
“That's not a rule,” Wei WuXian shot back. He looked back up at Lan QiRen, determined to remain the victor. “That's definitely not one of your Lan sect rules.”
“Perhaps it should be,” he muttered.
With a sigh, Wei WuXian knelt down, gently loosening Lan WangJi's grip on his robes as he did. “A-Zhan? Your uncle and I are going to have a quick talk, okay? Wait here just a minute.”
Lan WangJi let him go, watching the entire time as Wei WuXian led a frowning Lan QiRen just far enough away so that they could talk without being overheard.
“Uncle.” Wei WuXian bowed his head. “Please go easy on Lan Zhan.”
Whatever Lan QiRen had expected to hear, that certainly wasn't it. He spluttered, searching for words, before he settled on a response. “I think not. It is not our way to be slack in our studies, or to cease striving to better ourselves.”
“But don't you see? That doesn't matter right now. He'll only be this way for a few days. This isn't a second chance for you to raise him so that he won't fall for a person like me. Lan Zhan's already grown up. This is nothing a dream. So what does it matter if you aren't so strict?”
“That's—! You're merely looking for an excuse to slack off,” he huffed.
It was lucky he'd had so much practice ignoring accusations and insults flung at him. He didn't even bat an eye at that. “I'm not. My word on it. All I want is for Lan Zhan to have a few days where he can be a happy child.”
The question sounded more like another accusation. Wei WuXian bit his tongue and didn't rise to the provocation. Instead, he asked: “What kind of child never smiles?”
That gave Lan QiRen pause. He peered around Wei WuXian to look at his nephew, and something softened in his flinty eyes. The six-year-old was kneeling patiently in the grass, hands outstretched to the rabbits that gathered around him. Although his eyes were wide, all of his feelings were locked up behind them—none showed through in his indifferent expression. Lan QiRen sighed shortly.
“He was a serious child.” Glancing at Wei WuXian, he asked: “You will not dissuade him from attending lessons if he wishes to?”
“I just want to see him happy.”
Lan QiRen nodded, then grimaced. “I'll leave him to you, then. Seeing you this serious ought to reassure me, yet....” He shook his head. “Take care of him.”
Wei WuXian bid him a polite farewell, then returned to Lan WangJi, dropping down to lay out on the grass next to him.
“Ahhhhh!” He groaned loudly once he was sure Lan QiRen would be out of earshot. “Even when he's no longer my teacher, dealing with him still makes me want to run away!”
Next to him, Lan WangJi shifted the tiniest bit. Reaching out, he plucked pieces of grass and bark off of Wei WuXian's clothes and out of his hair.
“Zhan-er, are you comforting me?”
“Ah, it's fine, it's fine. I'll take a bath later. Oh!” A thought had occurred to him, and he sat up hurriedly. “A-Zhan, is it all right if I stay with you tonight?”
The question seemed to surprise him. He stopped picking bits of debris off Wei WuXian to fix him with a wide-eyed stare.
“Yeah! Like a fun sleepover! Of course, if you'd rather not share your room, I can always go sleep with SiZhui—”
“No?” Wei WuXian grinned, amused by how emphatic his answer had been.
Lan WangJi shook his head. “Stay.”
ahaha more water imagery. MY BRAND XD
I will definitely respond to all the comments individually, but holy cow, you guys! XD this turned out a bit more well-received than I had expected. ^^ I'm really touched by the response, and I was so tickled reading through the responses! Thank you so much! haha I hope the rest of the story lives up to expectations. ^^
How is a six-year-old the most responsible here? Who raised him?? lol
Wei WuXian was shoved rather rudely into wakefulness. Grumbling, he cracked his eyes open and was greeted by the sight of six-year-old Lan WangJi staring at him, hands still firmly braced on his arm.
“Morning,” Lan WangJi said. It was more of a statement than a greeting, and held a note of accusation.
“Isn't morning till 's light out,” he slurred through a yawn. “Besides. 'S raining.”
“Get up,” Lan WangJi insisted. This time, instead of shoving him, he tugged at Wei WuXian's sleeve.
“Don' wanna. C'mere.” He caught Lan WangJi and dragged him back into bed, cuddling him as if he was a large and disagreeable stuffed animal. “Sleep s'more. 'S okay to take it easy....”
He was already drifting off again by the time he felt Lan WangJi stop fighting and relax in his arms.
The next time Wei WuXian woke up, it was because he was being pushed into a sitting position. He came to with a confused grunt, slumped over his outstretched legs.
“Breakfast,” he said shortly. With exaggerated care, the child picked up a lacquered tray table that held a bowl of congee, a dish of thin soup, a pot of tea and an empty cup, and brought it from the table to the bed where he placed it over Wei WuXian's lap.
“Aww, you do still love me! You—!” He broke off, staring down at the congee. It was snowy white, not a trace of spice to it. Lan WangJi really didn't remember him, after all. “Did the cooks make up this tray for you?”
He expected Lan WangJi's nod, but it still stung a bit. He'd gotten so used to eating his husband's just-for-him cooking. But Lan WangJi was only a child now, with a child's skills and abilities. It was foolish of him to have forgotten such a thing so easily.
“Ahh, I really am too spoiled!” Smiling, he dug in, pretending an enthusiasm for the bland food that he didn't feel. He ate every bit of it, however, making sure that Lan WangJi saw that his thoughtfulness was appreciated.
Lan WangJi knelt next to the bed, silently watching as he ate. When the dishes were empty and the tea had been drunk, Lan WangJi immediately got to his feet and whisked the tray away.
“Dress,” he ordered as he left to return it to the kitchen.
Shaking his head in amusement, Wei WuXian got up and went to look out the window. It was still raining. He'd been listening to it all throughout breakfast. Clouds walked the mountains, carding like wool through the trees. There was the occasional burst of movement as a bird darted from one tree to another, but for the most part, all was still, a world of soft greens and grays and the gentle rush and splash of constant rainfall.
The water called to him. Leaving the window, he stepped out onto the walkway, and held out a hand past the roof to let the rain collect in his palm. It was cool against his skin, tickling between his fingers and down his wrist where it spilled over. Lifting up his robe, he sat down on the edge and let his bare feet dangle. The overhang was enough to keep the rain off him, even like that, but if he kicked out, raindrops splattered over his shin before his leg fell once more.
That was how Lan WangJi found him several minutes later: swinging his legs out into the rain, watching the world with a smile as he hummed to himself. He was lost in the storm, and in hazy memories of sunlight and laughter where he had sat on the edge of a pier, legs dangling over the lake, or slung over the side of a boat to let his toes trail in the water. He was pulled from his reverie as Lan WangJi thrust his outer robe at him.
Turning to him, Wei WuXian smiled apologetically. “Sorry, A-Zhan. I think we're going to have to put off our trip for today. I don't want you catching a cold. If it's sunny tomorrow, we'll go.”
Barely stifling a sigh, Lan WangJi draped the robe over his shoulders, then knelt next to him.
“Ha ha...you're so well-behaved. Throw a tantrum, why don't you? You're such a reasonable child, just accepting things like that.”
Lan WangJi side-eyed him, not quite pouting, but certainly letting slip a hint of displeasure. Then he reached over and touched Wei WuXian's hand, pushing through a burst of spiritual energy.
“Won't catch cold,” he muttered, pulling his hand back.
“Woah, woah, woah! Wait a minute!” Wei WuXian grabbed for his hand and laid his fingers on Lan WangJi's wrist, ignoring the tension in his arm and the faint twist to his mouth. He felt for the flow of Lan WangJi's qi, and his jaw dropped at the state of his golden core.
“Lan XiChen really wasn't kidding when he said your qi was undisturbed! It's not diminished at all! Isn't this a bit much for a child to be responsible for?” Letting go, he chewed on his thumbnail as he thought it over, then shrugged. “Well...since it's you, I'm sure it will be okay. Even like this you're much too responsible. Break a rule every now and again. Have fun. Smile. It'll be all right.”
“Won't catch cold,” Lan WangJi repeated, more firmly this time.
“Hmm? So you said, but—” Realization dawned. “Oh! Ha ha...you're arguing with my reason for staying in today?” He laughed. “No, I guess you really aren't in danger of anything so weak as a cold! I'll tell you a secret, though. The one I'm really worried about catching a cold is me.”
He offered his own arm, wrist up for Lan WangJi to examine, and watched the little line of confusion between the boy's brows deepen with concern as Lan WangJi felt for his spiritual energy. When those pale eyes turned up to him in question, he grinned.
“Pretty bad, isn't it?” He pulled his arm back, tugging his sleeve down over his wrist. “I'm working on building my golden core, of course. One day, I'll be just as strong as I ever was. But for now...I'm really not that far off from a non-cultivator. And who would look after you if I caught a cold? Ha ha, can you imagine your uncle seeing me so inept? He'd snatch you up in a heartbeat!”
“Would not,” Lan WangJi replied.
He shook his head. “Brought me lessons. Said....” He glanced back inside, at a few scrolls Wei WuXian hadn't noticed before on the table, and tucked in his chin. “Said I could work on them here,” he finished, so quietly that his words were nearly lost in the sound of the rain.
Wei WuXian couldn't help but chuckle. “That was thoughtful of him. Have you made a start on them yet?”
After a pause, Lan WangJi shook his head, looking faintly guilty. A quick ruffle of his hair chased that away quickly enough, leaving him frowning at Wei WuXian as he tried to smooth out the damage.
“I think that's your uncle's way of telling you to take it easy. Do you want to work on them? Or do you want to play a game?”
“Ha ha! Such a serious student! All right, Young Master Lan, lessons first, then fun! Bring me my flute, won't you? I'll play you an accompaniment as you study.”
“Not necessary,” Lan WangJi said, but he went and got the flute anyway.
What remained of the morning passed them by calmly, shrouding them in the comforting sound of rain. The sandalwood scent of the jingshi mingled with the scent of storms and damp earth, and Wei WuXian relaxed, moving to where he could lean against the door frame as he played. His songs were unusually slow, mimicking the flowing melodies Lan WangJi would coax from his guqin. They wove into the sleepy feeling the rainy day carried with it, making it all seem like a dream. It left Wei WuXian almost in a trance, and by the time his mind surfaced enough to become bored with sitting still, Lan WangJi was already halfway through his work.
Lowering Chenqing, Wei WuXian went inside. He sat down at the table across from Lan WangJi and watched him work. It was bittersweet seeing the exact same expressions his Lan Zhan wore on such a young face. The familiarity combined with the strangeness of such seriousness in a child made him want to tease.
“A-Zhan...” he called softly, walking his fingers in a meandering path between them. “Zhan-er.... Xiao Zhan....” Just like in the days of his punishment in the Library Pavilion, Lan WangJi ignored him entirely. It made Wei WuXian grin, taking it as a challenge. “Lan WangJi,” he called again, snagging the end of Lan WangJi's sleeve and giving it a light tug. “Why won't you look at me? Second Brother Lan? Lan Zhan? I already know you like me, so there's no point in you pretending otherwise. Won't you look at me?”
To his delight, Lan WangJi did look, glancing up at him with a tiny frown on his face. “Too loud,” he said.
“But I'm bored! You've been studying for hours now!”
“Less than two.”
“A-Zhan, you're going to be the best cultivator of your generation! The stunning and righteous HanGuang-Jun, always where the chaos is! Surely, you can take just a little break from your studies?”
He let his eyes fall back to the scrolls before him. “Idleness is forbidden.”
“Everything is forbidden here!” Wei WuXian exclaimed with a sigh. “Did you know that speaking with me is forbidden? Does that mean you're going to stop?”
Lan WangJi narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Lying is forbidden.”
“Who's lying? They carved it into that wall when I left for a little while!” He hopped to his feet. “Come on! I'll show you.”
It nearly worked. Lan WangJi moved to stand, but then paused and settled back down. “Lessons first.”
With a prolonged groan, Wei WuXian sank back down to the floor. He wriggled and squirmed his way under the table, until he could peek out from the other side and grin up into the scowl Lan WangJi was directing down at him.
“A-Zhan! Play with me!”
There was no arguing with him. Wei WuXian sighed and crawled out from beneath the table to sit behind Lan WangJi. Reaching out, he began to gather his hair, intending to let it down and try different styles on him. As soon as his hands began to draw in, however, Lan WangJi twisted to bat his hands away. He grabbed the trailing ends of his forehead ribbon and pulled them protectively over his shoulder.
“Do not touch.”
“Take it off, then. I want to do your hair.”
“I want to do it differently.” When Lan WangJi still hesitated, Wei WuXian drummed his fingers on his back. “Come, come. How am I supposed to comb your hair and put it up with that ribbon in the way? I won't touch it. You can keep it with you on the desk. But please take it off. Just for a little while.”
Finally, Lan WangJi relented. Wei WuXian could picture the put-upon expression on his face, and stifled a laugh.
“Good boy, good boy.,” he said, slipping the jade hair pin free. “All right, you finish your work, and I'll keep myself occupied.”
It did not take Wei WuXian very long at all to realize that he did not know what he was doing. Although Lan WangJi's hair was smooth as silk and perfectly even, the ponytail he coaxed it into sagged, the braids he plaited were lopsided, the buns refused to stay coiled. He remembered his shijie's hair, braided and wrapped with a deceptive simplicity. Even Jiang Cheng, with his short temper, managed a pair of braids to go along with the bun he kept his tied up in. Unfortunately, however, it seemed that Wei WuXian simply did not have the knack for it. Foiled, he sat and finger-combed Lan WangJi's hair, consoling himself that perhaps he simply lacked the proper tools for the job. He felt certain there ought to have been more pins and clips and ribbons, but all he was allowed to touch was the jade hairpin. Even his own ribbon was out of reach, lying forgotten somewhere near the bed.
At last he managed something, although it was clumsy. He had pulled back the top layer of Lan WangJi's hair and braided it loosely, then wrapped it round and round in a bun which he secured with the jade pin. It hadn't stayed tight, slowly twisting loose as it began fraying. He was afraid for a moment that it would fall out completely, but it caught and held, hanging slightly lopsided and looking like a heavy-headed rose above the perfectly straight fall of the rest of Lan WangJi's hair. Afraid to touch it, afraid that if Lan WangJi moved it would tumble completely free, Wei WuXian slowly backed away. He sat at the far edge of the table, snagging a sheet of paper and and brush to capture the image before his hard work came to nothing.
As he drew, his eyes lingered on Lan WangJi more than the paper. Once, he had promised Lan WangJi that, from that point on, he would remember everything about him; all he said, all he did. Wei WuXian had vowed to burn it all into his memory, and he recalled that promise as he drew. He did his best to memorize the shape of Lan WangJi's childish face, how large his eyes seemed above his round cheeks, and how the light caught in them, making them shine like sunlight playing off a clear river. He took in Lan WangJi's slight frame, his small fingers wrapped around the brush, the careful way he moved which would eventually come to be the grace he was known for. When he finished his drawing, he propped his elbows on the table and settled his chin in his hands, smiling as he watched. Lan WangJi really had been an adorable child.
The weight of his stare must have finally gotten to Lan WangJi, because he lifted his head and turned it to regard Wei WuXian curiously. The movement was enough to upset the delicate balance that had kept his hair up, and the bun unraveled completely, slithering loose to hang as an uneven braid down his back. Wei WuXian laughed, and moved to sit behind him once again.
“Go back to your studies. I'll fix it,” he assured him.
Gently, he combed the braid out of Lan WangJi's hair with his fingers. He combed through all of it, spending much longer than he really needed to, but the repetitive motion, the touch, was relaxing. Eventually, however, he noticed that Lan WangJi had stopped writing. His hand was resting on the desk, the brush held loosely in his fingers.
“Ha ha, is this too distracting, A-Zhan? More than the flute? More than me calling to you?”
His grip on the brush tightened, and he moved his hand back over the page to continue writing. “Not distracting.”
“No?” Laughing to himself, he went about his task seriously, trying to fix Lan WangJi's hair quickly. The sooner he finished his lessons, the sooner he could have fun, after all. Unfortunately, Wei WuXian couldn't seem to manage his usual hairstyle. No matter what he tried, it unwound or came loose or didn't sit properly. Finally, he gave up. Retrieving his ribbon, he pulled Lan WangJi's hair back into a high ponytail and called it done. As long as it wasn't in his way, it should be fine, right?
While he worked, Lan WangJi paid no attention to what Wei WuXian had done with his hair. It was only after he set his brush aside and rolled up the scroll he had been working from that he reached back and ran his fingers through the ponytail. As he tied his forehead ribbon back on, he snuck glances at Wei WuXian, his expression unreadable.
“What's the matter?”
Lan WangJi shook his head, setting the ponytail swinging. He reached back and pressed it against his neck, looking as if the ticklish feeling had surprised him. Wei WuXian laughed.
“You'll get used to it! Or, you can put it back in the usual style. I don't mind. Turns out I'm not very good at doing hair, ha ha!”
“If you don't like it, complain. You won't hurt my feelings.”
“Still not dressed,” he said, looking Wei WuXian up and down with a six-year-old's disdain.
“Why should I be? We haven't even left the jingshi.”
“Dress.” From anyone else, the tone would have been one of only mild annoyance. From Lan WangJi, it carried the sense of a stomp and the beginning of a tantrum. “Or I will request more lessons.”
“Hey! A-Zhan, that's not fair! Wait, wait! How about this? If you catch me, I'll get dressed.”
The stillness held for one long moment. Then, without warning, Lan WangJi lunged for him. Wei WuXian only barely avoided his touch, yelping as he fell backward, then lurched to his feet.
“Zhan-er, you little cheater!” he shouted with delight. “I never said 'go!'”
Watching him intently, Lan WangJi rose and stepped forward. He advanced slowly, backing Wei WuXian up until there was no other option but for him to turn and move along the wall, then he darted forward. Again, Wei WuXian only just managed to stay out of reach. He spun away, moving back toward the center of the room and grinning teasingly.
“You'll have to do better than that, Xiao Zhan!”
Frustration pursed his lips, drew his brows in, puffed out his cheeks. Laughing, Wei WuXian ran for cover as Lan WangJi charged at him, little hands outstretched to grasp. They wound up circling the folding screen that stood near the bed. Nostalgia broadened Wei WuXian's smile, and curled up warm in his heart. He had done something very like this once, not long after being brought back to life, when he had gotten Lan WangJi drunk during their travels. Remembering how insistent Lan WangJi had been on playing tag, he was glad now that his love would get to enjoy the game as a child.
Any time they reached a stalemate, Wei WuXian would peek around the edge of the screen and make faces until Lan WangJi leapt to try to catch him. He laughed all through the game, but Lan WangJi, who surely wouldn't still be playing if he wasn't enjoying himself, was silent.
Just as Wei WuXian was beginning to wonder if he ought to make a dash for the bed or let himself be caught, Lan WangJi grabbed one side of the screen and shoved so that a few sections folded closed and it began to topple. He was too small to hold it up, and Wei WuXian lunged forward, steadying the screen and laying a hand on Lan WangJi's shoulder.
“Caught you,” Wei WuXian said with a grin once he was sure the screen was steady.
Lan WangJi's eyes narrowed. “Not it.”
“Looks like I'm it now.” He let go of the boy's shoulder long enough to move the screen so that it was leaning against the wall, then turned back with a grin. “Better run. When I catch you, I'm going to pinch your cheeks!”
He lunged, and Lan WangJi actually squeaked as he darted away. The game began again. Laughter and the pounding of footfalls over the wooden floor filled the jingshi, Wei WuXian called out and teased, reaching and always falling just short, as Lan WangJi huffed and kept out of reach. Unlike in the past, Lan WangJi didn't offer himself up to be caught. Whatever it was he remembered about Wei WuXian that made him comfortable in his company, it wasn't the intimacy adults shared, wasn't the desire for touches that strayed from innocence. This Lan WangJi, with his six-year-old mind and his six-year-old heart was happy with attention, with laughter, with kindness. He bore teasing and would let himself be held, but his affections were untouched by any thoughts of romance. He did not want to be caught.
Wei WuXian caught him anyway, tagged him on the back and reversed direction so quickly that he nearly fell over as he spun. He leapt onto the bed and would have crossed it entirely had Lan WangJi not been so quick to cut him off, disapproval clear on his round face. Wei WuXian laughed so hard that he fell over. Apparently unable to resist taking advantage, Lan WangJi clambered onto the bed to tag his shoulder. He should have stayed on the floor and stretched to reach. Before he could get away, Wei WuXian dragged him close, tumbled him onto his back, and tickled his sides until Lan WangJi shrieked at him to stop, red-faced and spilling broken, clumsy giggles. Gleeful, delighted with this side of Lan WangJi that he had never seen before, Wei WuXian kept up the attack until the door was flung open with a sharp crack.
Both of them froze, looking over to see Lan XiChen standing there, taking in the scene.
“ZeWu-Jun! When did your brother stop being ticklish?”
Lan WangJi wriggled out of his grasp, and hurriedly got off the bed. He straightened his clothes and greeted his brother only slightly breathlessly.
“I came in because I heard WangJi shouting,” Lan XiChen said slowly, looking back and forth between them. “Young Master Wei, perhaps it is time you were dressed for the day?”
Looking down at himself, Wei WuXian noticed how loose his inner robes had become. He had lost the robe Lan WangJi had settled on his shoulders long ago without noticing. He laughed brightly.
“All right, all right. He and I had a deal, anyway.” He winked at Lan WangJi. “You caught me, so I'm getting dressed now, like I promised.” Gathering his clothes, he pulled out the folding screen and stepped behind it to change as the brothers spoke in murmurs.
“Were you talking about me?” he asked when he emerged, properly dressed and grinning.
Lan XiChen stood up from where he'd been kneeling in front of his brother. “WangJi was telling me that he's been enjoying your company.”
Looking embarrassed, Lan WangJi yanked on his brother's sleeve. Lan XiChen simply smiled indulgently down at him and patted his head.
“I've informed him that he'll be...on holiday for a few days. No need to attend classes with the other children.”
The other children who he wouldn't recognize, Wei WuXian realized. Lan WangJi had taken a number of changes in stride, but there was no sense in testing the limits of what he could or could not deal with by dropping him into the middle of a room full of unfamiliar, curious faces.
“That means A-Zhan and I get to keep having fun together, right?”
Something flickered in his expression, too quickly for Wei WuXian to catch. “As much as the situation concerns me...he does not seem to be in any real danger, and I do have my duties as sect leader to attend to. Likewise, Uncle has his classes to teach. You are...an unusual choice to be the ward for a child of the Lan sect, but...WangJi trusts you. And I trust you to look after him properly.”
“Of course! I even behaved myself while he worked on the lessons your uncle brought him!”
Lan XiChen's eyes strayed to the table where—Wei WuXian remembered too late—the drawing he had done was lying in plain sight. “That is good to hear,” he said with a smile, turning his gaze to Lan WangJi's ponytail. He ran his fingers gently through the strands. “WangJi. Would you like me to help you fix your hair?”
Shaking his head, Lan WangJi took a step away from him and raised his hands protectively over his hair. That actually got a laugh out of Lan XiChen.
“All right, no need for all that. It isn't as if I'm going to force you to change it.”
Cocking his head to the side, Lan WangJi cautiously lowered his hands. He snuck a glance at Wei WuXian, then stepped closer to Lan XiChen. “Mother?”
Lan XiChen's smile was washed away like a leaf on a river. “You want to show her? WangJi....”
“She went on a journey, didn't she?” Both brothers looked at him, but it was Lan XiChen's gaze that Wei WuXian held. “I overheard yesterday. She hasn't been feeling well, so she's gone on a journey to visit a healer who can help her. She'll be back.”
Please, he begged silently. Please let him have this. At least for now, let his mother still be alive, even if she's out of his reach.
How many years of his childhood had Lan WangJi spent thinking that it was his fault his mother would no longer see him; that there was some rule he had broken, some fault in his behavior that kept him from her? Wei WuXian was certain that was the case, based on what Lan XiChen had told him, on the hints he had pried from Lan WangJi, on how ready little A-Zhan had been to assume that his own behavior—
The unforgivable act of a child playing hide-and-seek.
—had been why no one had answered the door when he had waited there so patiently yesterday.
At least for now...for the few days he had left before he would regain his adulthood...Wei WuXian wanted him to be able to believe that his mother was alive, and would have seen him if she could. He wanted Lan WangJi to know that she loved him, and that there was no fault in him that would make her turn him away.
No parent could dislike their own child. Lan WangJi had to know that.
Slowly, Lan XiChen nodded. “Yes. You...you heard correctly.” He put on a smile and offered it to his brother as assurance. “You'll have to be patient, WangJi.”
“In the meantime,” Wei WuXian said, kneeling next to Lan WangJi, “Why not write her a letter? If you like, I'll make a sketch of you just like this to send as well. You can tell her all about the rabbits and playing hide-and-seek.”
“...and Xian-ge,” Lan WangJi murmured.
“You want to tell her about me? Ahh, Zhan-er! I'm honored! Don't tell her anything bad, though. I want to make a good first impression on your mother!”
“Mm.” Satisfied, Lan WangJi returned to the table. He took out a fresh sheet of paper and a brush, then considered carefully before beginning to write. In no time at all, he was absorbed in his task.
“You lied to him,” Lan XiChen said under his breath as Wei WuXian followed him to the door. He so quiet that the soft sound of the falling rain nearly hid his words.
“He'll be back to normal soon. How could I break his heart now? Give him a few days to be happy, at least.”
Lan XiChen sighed. “I cannot tell if it was a kindness or a cruelty. I suppose we'll find out soon enough. Either way...thank you. I...did not know how to tell him.”
“No need for thanks,” he said hurriedly, waving off the words. “I couldn't have told him, either.”
In the not-quite-comfortable silence that fell, both of them looked back at Lan WangJi, sitting perfectly upright, meticulously writing out each character in the letter he was composing.
“He missed her so terribly,” Lan XiChen said quietly. “I hope the letters will help.” He nodded, entrusting his brother to Wei WuXian's care, and left.
Leaving the doors open to invite in more of the sound of the rain and the pleasant coolness it breathed over the mountains, Wei WuXian joined Lan WangJi at the desk.
“We should invite him to have dinner with us here in the jingshi. What do you think, A-Zhan? Would you like that? Just us and your brother sharing a meal together?”
Although he didn't lift his eyes from the letter he was writing, when Lan WangJi nodded, Wei WuXian caught the barest upturning of the corners of his lips. The faint smile was gone in an instant, but Wei WuXian had seen it. He grinned, heart overflowing until he felt as if he might burst. Lan WangJi, known to be one of the most serious children the Cloud Recesses had ever produced, was happy.
The next morning, Wei WuXian was woken once again by a pair of insistent hands shoving at him. This time, however, the smell of breakfast accompanied his wake up call the first time around. He let himself be pushed into a sitting position, and forced down another bland breakfast as Lan WangJi knelt next to the bed, silently eating his own. It was a little easier to swallow this time around. Through the open window, he could see the ripening dawn, rosy with sunlight and filled with birdsong. The rainstorm had passed. Today, they would take their trip to Caiyi Town.
All through breakfast, he talked excitedly about everything they ought to do. Lan WangJi seemed to be sharing in his enthusiasm in his own way. Though he said nothing, not once did he remind Wei WuXian that talking was forbidden during meals. Just as before, Lan WangJi collected the dishes when they were done, and took them back to the kitchen, leaving Wei WuXian to get ready. Unlike before, Wei WuXian was actually properly dressed when he returned, and eager to get going.
“SiZhui will be meeting us at the gate.”
They had run into him the night before on their way to meet Lan XiChen for dinner, and Wei WuXian had invited him to join them on their outing. He checked once more to be certain he had Lan WangJi's money pouch, grinning to think that it really was his now, by default. Today, he would be Brother Rich!
Laughing to himself, he ruffled Lan WangJi's hair, and opened the door, motioning for him to go ahead first. On impulse, he caught Lan WangJi around the waist and lifted him up, over his head, to settle him on his shoulders. Lan WangJi clung to his ponytail at first, pulling hard enough to make Wei WuXian yelp. Then, once he realized that he would not fall, his grip eased. Wei WuXian wrapped his hands loosely around Lan WangJi's ankles, giving them a brief squeeze, then set out, slowly at first. Once he was sure Lan WangJi was used to riding on his shoulders, however, he began to hurry his steps. Soon, he was dashing through the Cloud Recesses, ignoring orders to stop, and laughing as he carried off their precious Second Jade.
Sure enough, SiZhui was waiting for them just as promised.
“Run!” Wei WuXian called to him, delighting in the utter confusion that left him frozen, wide-eyed, as Wei WuXian raced past, trailing laughter in his wake. He felt Lan WangJi lean back, probably reaching out to SiZhui, or beckoning him to follow, but then his weight settled once again. The sound of SiZhui's footsteps as he dashed down the steps just behind them joined Wei WuXian's own, and he whooped, feeling free and enormously pleased with himself. The sun was bright, the breeze was gentle, and the world around them sparkled with dew. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Situated so near to the very heart of the GusuLan sect's territory, Caiyi Town had naturally taken on some similar aspects to their cultivators. Lively as the town was, it was slow to change. It looked very much the same that morning as it had two decades ago when Wei WuXian had accompanied the Twin Jades to investigate reports of unusual water ghoul activity. This, at least, shouldn't seem unfamiliar to young Lan WangJi, provided he had even been allowed out of the Cloud Recesses to see it before.
The streets were already busy, even at an hour that seldom saw Wei WuXian awake, much less out of bed. People were everywhere—selling their wares, buying breakfast, heading to work, or pausing to chat on the street. Wei WuXian was well-known, and several people—most of them pretty girls—called out to him and asked about the little one on his shoulders. Years ago, Wei WuXian had joked that SiZhui was his own son. The thought of saying such a thing about Lan WangJi didn't even enter his mind.
“Isn't he cute?” he responded to one girl with a basket of loquats balanced against her hip. “I'm taking care of him for the day! A-Zhan, say hi to the pretty sister!”
Lan WangJi did not speak to her. If he nodded, or offered any sort of acknowledgement, Wei WuXian could not see it. He spoke some more with the girl, full of smiles and compliments as he bartered with her for some of the fruit. He only broke off when he felt a sharp tug on his hair.
“Do not flirt,” Lan WangJi admonished him, sounding so serious with his soft, child's voice that Wei WuXian burst immediately into laughter.
“What do you know about flirting?” he asked as he paid for his loquats and waved goodbye to the girl. “Aren't you a bit young to know about that?”
“Married,” Lan WangJi said flatly.
Beside them, SiZhui made an odd noise. He raised a hand to his mouth, covering a laugh as Wei WuXian recovered from his momentary shock.
“Aha ha...I forgot I told you I was married. A-Zhan, have you appointed yourself my chaperone?” He got no response to that, and chuckled to himself. “Well, since we just had breakfast, I suppose we can wait a while before snacking. Let's rent a boat and go out on the lake! The sect got rid of the Waterborne Abyss years ago, right, SiZhui?”
“They did. The lake is perfectly safe.”
“Great!” Lifting his eyes to the perfectly clear sky, his smile grew. The day was already warming up. “It's going to be a perfect day to go swimming! We can get lunch afterward, and shop in the market! A-Zhan, SiZhui...is there anything else you two want to do while we're here today?”
“I'm really just tagging along on your plans.”
“A-Zhan? What about you?”
“Anything is fine.”
“Ahhh...! You two are so agreeable! Tell me if there's anything you want, okay? Be a little bit selfish! We're here to have fun today!”
For a moment, SiZhui seemed as if he wanted to say something. Instead, he simply looked fondly at Wei WuXian, then shook his head. “I'll go arrange for a boat.”
“Too responsible by half,” Wei WuXian murmured once he had gone. He clicked his tongue. “How is it he feels like the adult here?”
“What, you're bored with being so tall already? All right, down we go....”
As he reached up to take hold of Lan WangJi's waist, and leaned forward to lift him off his shoulders, however, movement in an alleyway caught his eye. His body went stiff with fear. The teeth were the first things he noticed; off-white and pointed, long rows of them set in an elongated jaw hanging open, tongue lolling as if it was tasting him on the air. The dog was a sandy gray, wiry, with black claws and bright eyes fixed on him. Its tail was standing straight up, its ears kept alternating between pricking forward and laying back. It whined and took a step forward.
With a shriek, Wei WuXian drew himself up to his full height and bolted backward, slamming into the side of a store before he knew what was happening. He shivered, gasping for breath, traitorous legs locking him where he stood.
“Lan Zhan....” The name emerged as a whimper, and he remembered suddenly that Lan WangJi wouldn't be coming to save him, that Lan WangJi was, in fact, already there, perched on his shoulders ankles held tight in Wei WuXian's sweaty hands. He had to stay upright. He couldn't run, couldn't turn his back had to keep A-Zhan away from the dog...!
“SiZhui...!” His voice shook, but had regained some of its usual volume. “SiZhui!”
Wei WuXian felt a wave of spiritual energy rush forth, driving back the dog. He couldn't tear his eyes away, staring after it until it was long gone. All at once, his knees turned as watery as the soup served in the Cloud Recesses. He sank to the ground, still trembling, and hid his face behind his drawn-up knees after Lan WangJi clambered off his shoulders.
“Ha ha.... Sorry about that, A-Zhan. Your Xian-gege isn't very good with dogs.”
To his great surprise, he felt a pair of thin arms—too short to wrap entirely around him—settle on his shoulders in an embrace.
“Gone.” Lan WangJi's voice was as soothing as the word. He had nothing else to say, but hugged him a bit tighter, as if to tell him that he would be there until Wei WuXian was over his fright.
Overwhelmed by a mixture of humiliation over his weakness, and a tender affection for Lan WangJi, Wei WuXian lurched forward, flinging his arms around the child and hugging him for all he was worth.
“Ahhh! A-Zhan! You were so cool just now! Definitely the best! The brightest and bravest of the Lan sect! My hero! A-Zhan, you're definitely my hero!”
Although Lan WangJi huffed and squirmed, it was obvious to Wei WuXian that he wasn't trying in earnest to escape the onslaught of affection. He bore it until SiZhui came to his rescue, having returned from renting a boat only to be utterly confused by the sight that awaited him.
“Ahh, it's nothing! Nothing! Don't mind it!” Grinning, he stood up and dusted himself off before offering Lan WangJi a hand. “Shall we go?”
Guiding the boat into the clear waters of Biling Lake, Wei WuXian felt a strange sense of nostalgia temper his excitement. True, his memory was not the best, but most of his recollections associated with boats were good ones. The sensation of motion beneath his feet, the sound of the water lapping against the hull, the feel of the pole in his hand were all pleasant, familiar stimuli. They brought back memories of sun-drenched lotuses, the thrill of stealing seedpods, and the way exhilaration made the taste so much sweeter. He remembered a day on this same lake years ago, a chance to show off, to prove that he had earned his rank as the Jiang sect's top disciple, a chance for some excitement after the monotony of weeks spent cooped up in the Cloud Recesses. He dimly recalled a crowded boat in another place, another year, another body: the weight of exhaustion, strong arms supporting him. And a night not long after that: Wen Ning steering the boat as he and Lan WangJi plucked seedpods in the moonlight with a childish thrill that revitalized his spirit between encounters with the mastermind that had been manipulating the cultivation world.
He closed his eyes and breathed deep, smiling so wide that his cheeks hurt. The sun was warm on his face, the breeze was gently ruffling his hair, and the water called to him, every sparkling wavelet a beckoning hand. He wanted to swim.
“A-Zhan, do you know how to swim?”
His Lan WangJi did—the grown-up version who could do anything—but this Lan WangJi shook his head. Perhaps the knowledge had been retained in his current form, something instinctual that would emerge as needed. There would be no telling until he was in the water. Wei WuXian grinned at him.
“Would you like to learn?”
There was only the slightest hesitation before Lan WangJi nodded. Wei WuXian found himself wondering if he had agreed out of interest, or the feeling that he ought to learn, or even if he simply wanted to learn because Wei WuXian would be teaching him.
“SiZhui, would you mind the boat, please?”
“Of course.” He took up the pole with a soft smile.
Untying the sash around his waist, Wei WuXian eagerly began to strip off his outer robe. He had to stop and laugh when he caught a glimpse of Lan WangJi's mildly horrified expression.
“What? Don't look at me like that! We have so much planned for today! Do you think I want to walk around town completely sopping wet? Maybe back at Lotus Pier I wouldn't have minded so much, but here I've got to be careful of my husband's reputation, too. I'm not completely shameless, you know!” When Lan WangJi still didn't move to undress, Wei WuXian made an encouraging motion. “Go on. Leave your pants on, but at least get rid of your outer and inner robes. It's only me and SiZhui here. It's okay to loosen up a little.”
Biting his lip, Lan WangJi looked aside. His indecision made Wei WuXian feel little better than those responsible for his strict upbringing. With a gentle smile, he knelt and rested a hand on Lan WangJi's head.
“A-Zhan. Would you rather stay in the boat with SiZhui? You don't have to swim if you don't want to. If it doesn't sound like fun any more, then it's fine if you don't do it. You can always change your mind later. For now, though, I want to swim. Watch me, okay? I'll show you how much fun it is!”
He eagerly stripped down to his pants, then, without a moment's hesitation, leapt into the water, making as big a splash as he could manage. When he surfaced, he sought out Lan WangJi immediately, laughing to see him brushing ineffectually at the droplets that had splattered over his robes.
“See?” he called. “Wouldn't it have been so much worse if you'd tried to swim in those?”
He struck out through the water, swimming laps around the boat as it drifted lazily on the surface. After the Lan sect had dealt with the Waterborne Abyss, the lake had been refilled, and was now as beautiful as Wei WuXian remembered from before the Abyss had made its presence known. More, it had been purified. The air was crisp, and the water was sweet. He felt renewed as he dove and spun, testing the resistance against his skin and reveling in the sensation of weightlessness.
As he swam, he was constantly aware of Lan WangJi's attention focused upon him. He listened to the hurried sound of his footsteps—the hollow echo of boots on wood on water—as Lan WangJi paced the edges of the boat to keep him in view. He kicked like a frog, rolled over to glide lazily on his back, let his legs sink so he could bob upright in the water and wave cheerfully at Lan WangJi and SiZhui. Paddling right up to the boat, he hooked his arms over it, ignoring the way his weight made it rock as he grinned up at Lan WangJi.
“Well? Still happier in the boat? If it's the lake you're nervous about, I can teach you how to swim in one of the ponds in the Cloud Recesses. Would you like that better?”
Lan WangJi didn't answer him. He simply stared at Wei WuXian, pale eyes large and solemn in his young face. The only hint of his indecision was the way his hands were clenched around the hems of his sleeves, pulling them taut along his arms. With a crooked smile, Wei WuXian reached out, wet fingers slipping over one of Lan WangJi's round cheeks too quickly to give it a good pinch. He laughed and pushed off the boat, sinking briefly before popping back above the surface to slick his bangs back off his face.
“SiZhui! Give me a shout if you need me!”
With that, he was off, speeding through the water like a fish. In no time at all, he was too far from the boat to have been able to hear Lan WangJi unless the boy worked up the will to shout. Somehow, although it wasn't as if the water was all that deeper or the shore all that much farther away, he felt freer, felt like a speck caught between the water and the sky. The world felt so vast around him, and he was cradled safely within it, content in the moment.
Wei WuXian dove, pushing himself to go as deep as he could, and stay under until his body was nearly desperate enough for air to wrench his jaws apart and fill his lungs with water. Vaguely, he recalled the last time he had been submerged in Biling Lake, the sensation of something vile, an amalgamation of death and resentment that had tried to slip into his skin. He shivered and shot to the surface. SiZhui's voice sounded in his ears as soon as he broke free, calling to him.
There was movement on the boat. As SiZhui steered it closer, Wei WuXian saw that Lan WangJi was removing his robes, folding them neatly and setting them aside. By the time the boat drew close enough that SiZhui no longer needed to shout to be heard, Lan WangJi was standing at the side, frowning at Wei WuXian even as he looked ready to jump in.
Wei WuXian didn't ask him anything. He merely held up his arms, and smiled. “I'll catch you,” he promised.
He didn't think Lan WangJi was afraid of the water. He didn't think Lan WangJi was afraid of drowning.
He'd just wanted to be able to say 'I'll catch you' to him. That was all.
Lan WangJi jumped from the side of the boat. He fell right into Wei WuXian's arms, knocking him momentarily under the water even as Wei WuXian made sure to hold him up above the surface. Lan WangJi settled against him as he came up, thin arms slipping around his neck, legs locked around his waist. Wei WuXian held him with one arm, using the other to tread water. Lan WangJi was warm against him, still carrying the scent of sandalwood even over the smell of the lake. Wei WuXian gave him a squeeze and kissed his cheek, then swam out further from the boat.
Lan WangJi seemed content to be carried through the water. It wasn't until Wei WuXian began to tease him about shirking his swimming lessons that he reluctantly stopped clinging. Wei WuXian held one arm up near the surface of the water, letting Lan WangJi hold on to him and paddle with his feet. It was entirely too basic a lesson, but he was so earnest about it that Wei WuXian couldn't help himself. He bit back a laugh, slowly turning in a circle as Lan WangJi kicked dutifully. Soon, Wei WuXian was supporting him as he learned how to move his arms. After that, it wasn't long before Lan WangJi was swimming on his own, albeit slowly. He paddled determinedly after Wei WuXian, who kept just out of his reach as he moved backward through the water, delighted by how quickly Lan WangJi had taken to it.
They spent a long time in the water. Wei WuXian showed Lan WangJi how to float on his back to rest, how to dive and race to the surface. They chased each other in circles, and Wei WuXian splashed Lan WangJi until he was forced to retaliate. It reminded him so strongly of growing up with Jiang Cheng that he almost felt as if he would cry.
This was what he'd wanted to give Lan WangJi a taste of—laughter and freedom and someone to enjoy it with. A few hours where there was no such thing as rules, only the vast, exciting world awaiting exploration. Whenever he got drunk, Lan WangJi's behavior became so childish. Considering how he was raised, and having heard a few stories of his past, Wei WuXian had come to suspect he hadn't had much of a childhood while growing up. The spell was a chance to give that to him. Wei WuXian wanted to fill Lan WangJi's heart with memories before he grew up again. He couldn't give Lan WangJi back the childhood he had missed, but he could at least do this for him.
Eventually, they returned to the boat. Lan WangJi let Wei WuXian carry him back and give him a boost up. Wei WuXian hauled himself out of the lake next, water sluicing off him as he slid over the side and rolled into the bottom of the boat.
They stayed out on the lake for a while still, letting the sun dry them off before they dressed. Wei WuXian took them back into town, letting SiZhui rest after he had so helpfully manned the boat since they had reached the lake.
By the time they made it back to town, all three of them were starving. They picked a restaurant almost at random, and maybe it was the company, maybe it was because he was already in high spirits, or maybe it was because he had been eating the bland Lan sect fare for the past couple of days, but it felt like the food was some of the best Wei WuXian had ever eaten.
It didn't hold a candle to his shijie's, of course, or Lan WangJi's, but...it was still good.
Wei WuXian chatted through the entire meal, telling stories of his childhood that adult Lan WangJi had already heard, but now listened to again as a child, hiding his interest by pretending absorption in his food. He was silent, but his head was turned ever so slightly in Wei WuXian's direction, and it was clear to see he was all ears for these tales of a childhood so far removed from his own.
SiZhui listened as well, and Wei WuXian wondered if he would have had fun had the spell been cast upon him. The Burial Mounds had been no place for a child to live. Although the scattered memories Wei WuXian had from that time left him with gaping holes in the events toward the end of his previous life, he knew that he had tried to make things more bearable for little A-Yuan. Really, it was a miracle that Lan WangJi had found him, just as much a miracle as the fact that he had been allowed to raise him. SiZhui had grown up well under Lan WangJi's guidance. Wei WuXian was sure he hadn't wanted for anything. He wondered, though.... Had Lan WangJi been lenient with him, remembering where he came from? Had SiZhui enjoyed growing up in the Cloud Recesses? Had it been fun for him?
Life was meant to be enjoyed. There were times to be serious, for certain, times to make hard decisions, times to mourn. But that made it all the more important to laugh and play, to be silly, when circumstance allowed for it. There had to be joy to balance out sorrow and hardship, or what was the point?
Sitting there, sharing a meal with his enspelled husband and the boy they considered their son, Wei WuXian felt warmth flood his chest until he was full to overflowing with it. There was love, too. Love certainly made it all worth it. And for his love of the two people with him, he was determined to make sure both of them were happy.
The day was idyllic and uneventful. They spent a couple of hours in the marketplace. SiZhui acted as the voice of reason, cautioning Wei WuXian not to spend all the money in the pouch when it started to look as if he might buy too much. As if he even could spend all of Lan WangJi's money, Wei WuXian had thought with a laugh. Besides, he always bargained to get good deals!
Most of what he bought that day was food—snacks to eat as they walked, despite having just had lunch, and some things to squirrel away to tide him over once he was stuck with what passed for meals in the Cloud Recesses once again.
Lan WangJi was frustratingly difficult to buy for. He barely glanced at the wooden sword Wei WuXian tried to tempt him with, and turned up his nose at toys similar to the ones SiZhui had played with as a child. He asked for nothing, and refused the few things Wei WuXian tried to buy for him.
“Xiao Zhan, just let me spoil you! How often do you think I get a chance like this? Isn't there anything you'd like? If there is, I'll buy it for you!”
“A-Zhan...!” Rolling his eyes in exasperation, he spotted something at a stall not too far ahead. “Fine, then. I'll buy it for you without your permission!”
Dashing up to the stall, he made his selection quickly, and was already paying when Lan WangJi and SiZhui caught up to him.
“Hold out your hands,” he commanded Lan WangJi as he drew close. He set the gift into his cupped palms, then rested his hands on his hips and grinned crookedly. “There. A gift from your dear Xian-gege. Be sure to treasure it.”
Mutely, Lan WangJi stared down at the small wooden rabbit figurine nestled in his hands. Tucking his arms in close to his chest, he looked up at Wei WuXian.
“For you!” He nodded, then squatted down to look him eye-to-eye. “Do you like it?”
Lan WangJi dropped his gaze to the carved rabbit and hesitantly nodded once. “...mm.” His little fingers closed over it, cradling it as if it was as delicate as a flower.
Beaming, Wei WuXian wrapped him up in a hug.
It wasn't long afterward that they returned to the Cloud Recesses. After passing beneath the gate, Wei WuXian paused, then pointed up at the Wall of Discipline.
“A-Zhan, look! There, see? Near the last section. I told you it was against the rules to speak to me!”
He laughed at the expression of shock on Lan WangJi's face, then laughed even harder when his brows drew in, and his lips pressed into a thin line. He looked as if he was personally offended by that rule, and Wei WuXian smiled to himself, thinking that he'd finally found a rule Lan WangJi would break gladly.
time to wrap this one up. haha thanks for all the comments on it. the amount of positive feedback I got kinda took me by surprise, tbh. ^^;; I still have to find time to get back to all of you one by one. In the meantime, thanks for all your kind words! <3
just a quick reminder--that 'M' rating is coming briefly into play toward the end of this chapter.
The next day, Wei WuXian was not woken by tiny hands pushing at him, but by a commotion.
In the Cloud Recesses.
He shoved away the tangled sheets, nearly falling face-first onto the floor as they caught around his feet. Hurriedly throwing on his outer robe, he dashed out of the jingshi, going in search of the noise. The sun had barely risen, and it wasn't hard to find the source of the shouting.
A group of elders was gathered before Lan XiChen's quarters. Lan QiRen was among them, face thunderous as he stared down his nephews. Lan XiChen stood before them, slightly stooped due to the fact that his hands were resting on Lan WangJi's shoulders. His brother stood as tall as his six-year-old frame would allow, chin held high in a startling pose of defiance. He clutched Bichen diagonally across his chest, looking small behind the sword that he would have to grow back into.
Without thinking, Wei WuXian hurried forward to put himself between six-year-old Lan WangJi and the circle of elders who had ganged up on him like a pack of dogs. He barely had time to ask what was going on before one of them pointed at him accusingly.
“You! It's all your fault! He was ruined from the day he met you!”
Wei WuXian blinked, taken aback. The sentiment was not one he was unfamiliar with, and it took some effort not to glance back at Lan XiChen. He was nudged from behind, then, a moment later, Lan WangJi stepped in front of him, having pulled free of his brother's restraining hands to stand between Wei WuXian and the elders. The determination on his face, cheeks round and soft with baby fat, was touching, yet it made Wei WuXian want to burst out laughing. Mindful of Bichen, Wei WuXian scooped Lan WangJi up and settled him on one hip so that both of them could look the elders in the eyes together—one grinning, the other coldly impassive.
“Does anyone mind filling me in on what happened? I've only just gotten up, so I'm a bit behind on the news for today.”
Lan QiRen drew in a deep breath. “WangJi has defaced the Wall of Discipline.”
Not even Wei WuXian was immune to the shock of such an accusation. His jaw dropped, and for a few seconds, he was stunned by disbelief.
“He what?” Turning to look, he saw that, just as Lan QiRen had said, there was a gap in what had once been continuous columns of text. “A-Zhan, why would you...? What rule did you—”
Lan QiRen answered the question even as realization of what it must have been made Wei WuXian break off mid-sentence.
“He carved away the rule that forbade speaking with you,” Lan QiRen said tightly.
For a moment longer, Lan WangJi stared at his uncle. Then, he turned his face to Wei WuXian and said, very deliberately to him: “Should not break rules.”
There was a light in his eyes that Wei WuXian rarely saw, and the tiniest quirk at one corner of his mouth. It was very nearly enough to make Wei WuXian burst out laughing right in the child's face. Lan WangJi was smug!
Wei WuXian was absolutely thrilled! He couldn't hold it in. Despite the tension and the circle of affronted elders and the threat of punishment, he nearly doubled over with laughter, squeezing Lan WangJi tight. There was a chorus of angry voices calling him shameless and a terrible influence and demanding that he stop laughing and take this seriously and set Lan WangJi down. Wei WuXian simply laughed all the way through it until he couldn't laugh any more. As he calmed down, Lan WangJi used the end of his sleeve to gently mop the tears from Wei WuXian's cheeks.
“Oh, A-Zhan, A-Zhan, my little Lan Zhan.... What am I going to do with you?” He bumped his forehead lightly against Lan WangJi's, delighted when the gesture of affection was allowed. He set Lan WangJi down after that, although he kept hold of one of his hands as he looked back at the gathered elders. “You all ought to thank him. He's trying to stop you from being a bunch of hypocrites. I married into the family. How can the sect be forbidden to speak to me?”
They didn't like that at all. A furious cacophony of voices broke out in protest, all speaking over each other. It took Lan XiChen stepping forward to quiet them.
“WangJi. Young Master Wei. Return to the jingshi, please. I will discuss the incident with the elders, and we will decide on an appropriate punishment.”
Wei WuXian saluted and Lan WangJi inclined his head to his brother before they turned away, leaving him to deal with the headache. Once he was sure they were out of sight, Wei WuXian altered his course. He felt a slight tug on the back of his robes.
“I'm just going to the rabbit meadow. If we do what your brother said, they'll find us right away once they're done. At least this way, we'll have a few extra minutes. Besides,” he added, yawning, “it's early and I'm still tired. A nap in the sun sounds nice.”
The sun was only barely over the horizon. Wei WuXian had to lie down in the center of the meadow to catch any of its weak, watery light. The grass was wet with dew which quickly seeped through his outer robe, and the morning was cool. He shivered as he lay there, eyes resolutely closed, as the rabbits came out to greet them, hoping for treats.
Lan WangJi's voice had come from directly above him. He grinned, but didn't open his eyes.
“It'll warm up soon.”
Silence met that statement. Then, he heard a shuffling, a rustling. A moment later, a warm weight settled on his chest. A rabbit. When he felt the second one, he cracked open an eye. Lan WangJi was busily gathering the rabbits one by one and bringing them back to arrange them on top of Wei WuXian like a fluffy, living blanket. It was difficult to contain his laughter so as not to disturb them.
The rabbits did not stay still. They walked on him, tumbled into the hollows between his arms and his body, into the crook of his neck. They snuffled at the exposed skin of his chest, and some hopped away. Enough stayed that he began to feel warm, and as his usual sleeping habits kicked back in, he started to doze off.
He thought he felt a hand on his stomach, and the warm influx of shared spiritual energy, but at that point, he was too far gone toward sleep to stir.
It was almost too hot when Wei WuXian woke up. He felt stiff, and the sun was shining down almost directly over his face. There was a warm weight on his chest pinning him to the ground. The sound of footsteps had woken him, and he opened his eyes to see Lan XiChen staring down at him.
“This does not appear to be the jingshi, Young Master Wei.”
Blearily, he looked around the clearing, then smiled up at him. “I must've been sleepwalking.”
“Hmm. And WangJi?”
Wei WuXian lifted his head to get a better look at Lan WangJi. The boy was sprawled on top of him, fast asleep. It was strange to see him napping during the day, but he looked so relaxed that Wei WuXian's heart squeezed with affection. Reaching up, he carefully brushed a lock of hair back from Lan WangJi's face.
“He's keeping me out of trouble. What was the verdict?”
With a sigh, Lan XiChen actually knelt in the grass next to him. A couple of curious rabbits came to sniff him, but lost interest when he had no food to offer them.
“You made a good point about the problem of that rule. Even so, it took a fair amount of effort to calm their tempers. What WangJi did was.... It simply isn't done. In the entire history of the Cloud Recesses, no one has ever taken it upon themselves to just carve away one of the rules. Frankly, I'm stunned that he was able to manage.”
“His spiritual power hasn't been diminished,” Wei WuXian reminded him.
“No. And my brother always has been stubborn.” His expression was fond as he reached out and tapped Lan WangJi's shoulder. “WangJi. Wake up, WangJi. The elders and I have agreed on your punishment.”
Lan WangJi stirred. He slid off Wei WuXian's body and knelt on his far side, facing his brother. He blinked sleepily in the sunlight, and balled his fists on his knees as if fighting the urge to rub his eyes.
“WangJi, you will copy down every rule from the Wall of Discipline.”
Remembering Lan WangJi's slow, methodical calligraphy, Wei WuXian groaned and pushed himself up into a sitting position. “That's going to take all day! ZeWu-Jun, his spiritual power is going to erode that spell any time now! Does he really have to spend all that time copying rules he already knows?”
“Punishments aren't meant to be fun or convenient. WangJi knew there would be consequences when he chose his course of action.”
Lan WangJi nodded. “Thank you, Brother.”
“Why are you thanking him?”
“Because it is a stunningly lenient punishment, given the gravity of what he did.” He got to his feet, dusting of his spotless robes, but paused before taking his leave. “I will tell you this, Young Master Wei. The copied rules are to be turned in directly to me. Considering how young WangJi is at the moment, and the effort it must have taken to fly up on Bichen and carve away the rock, it would not seem terribly odd to me should he become tired, and the handwriting in the latter half of the rules happen to appear far messier.” He smiled, nodded, and left them in the rabbit meadow as Wei WuXian gaped, speechless.
Lan XiChen was out of sight before Wei WuXian found his voice. He looked up at Lan WangJi, who was standing over him, holding out his hands to help him up. He placed his fingertips against those small palms without a thought, and got to his feet as Lan WangJi tugged at him.
“Did he.... A-Zhan, was your brother suggesting what I think he was suggesting?”
Lan WangJi said nothing, merely gazed at him impassively. Slowly, Wei WuXian's disbelief morphed into a smile, and then a full-blown grin. He threw his head back and laughed.
“Zhan-er, I think I must still be asleep! Is this a dream? Something this absurd has to be a dream, right?” He gave Lan WangJi's hands a squeeze. “Come on. Let's go get this copying done. We might even manage to still have an hour or two of daylight left to play tag, afterward!”
The spell upon Lan WangJi remained in effect the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Wei WuXian worried about it in a vague sort of way, but everything he and Lan XiChen and the elders had read all said that the spell was harmless and would lose effect on its own. The fact that it hadn't yet, considering it wasn't supposed to last as long on a person with strong spiritual power was strange, but Lan WangJi showed no signs of ill-effects, and Wei WuXian found himself thinking every night: One more day. Just one more day for him to be carefree.
They spent the days playing: swimming in the rivers and skipping rocks across ponds, catching bugs and making grass whistles, climbing trees and using fallen sticks for mock sword fights. SiZhui and JingYi joined them sometimes for tag and hide-and-seek. Lan QiRen seemed to have given up for the time being, and brought no more lessons. Aside from getting dressed in the morning, coming back for meals, and going to bed at night, they spent very little time inside. Every evening before bed, Lan WangJi would sit down and write another letter to his mother, telling her everything he had done. And he fell asleep every night listening to Wei WuXian tell him stories—old legends, embellished histories, or tales he made up on the spot.
Lan WangJi's eyes shone during those days. He began to smile. Wei WuXian even made him laugh once when he put himself into a paperman and flew around dancing and doing tricks to amuse him.
He had almost everything Wei WuXian wanted for him. It was the best he'd been able to manage in order to give Lan WangJi a taste of the happy, unburdened childhood he should have had.
Still, all good things had to end. When a week passed, and there was still no sign of Lan WangJi returning to normal, Wei WuXian brought Lan WangJi to his brother one morning. Lan XiChen gave him an odd look, but agreed to stay with Lan WangJi while Wei WuXian went to the Library Pavilion to read over the materials pertaining to the spell, and try to work out why it hadn't been broken yet.
He spent hours pouring over the notes, theorizing, scribbling out his own thoughts as they came to him and trying to put it all together so that it made sense. He could find no reason why the spell shouldn't have worn off on its own. It wasn't designed to be permanent.
Stumped, worry warring with curiosity, he eventually left the Library Pavilion and wandered slowly back across the Cloud Recesses, mind still turning over possibilities. He reached the hanshi before he knew it, nearly walking right past the door in his preoccupation. As he lifted a hand to knock, however, he paused upon hearing Lan XiChen speak.
“Why are you so curious about Young Master Wei's spouse, WangJi?” There was the warmth of a smile in his voice. After a few moments without a response, he asked: “Would you like to have dinner just with me tonight? I've missed spending time with you.”
“Should be here.”
There was another brief silence.
“Ahh...the situation is...complicated, WangJi. I'm sure he doesn't want to be apart from Young Master Wei—”
“Xian-ge does not like to be lonely,” Lan WangJi said, so softly that Wei WuXian almost couldn't hear him.
“Is that why you want to stay with Young Master Wei like this? To make sure he isn't lonely?” He waited for a response. “WangJi?” he prompted.
“...not lonely with Xian-ge.”
Lan XiChen seemed to need a moment to consider this. “Were you lonely without him?” he asked finally.
“WangJi...are you happy?”
Wei WuXian held his breath, heart squeezing in his chest. He'd been afraid to ask. There had been a small part of him afraid that maybe all his hopes were only his own conceit, that even as a child, Lan WangJi was simply being patient and putting up with him. He'd been afraid that he hadn't been able to bring him happiness.
“Mm. Xian-ge talks to me. We play. He.... He....”
Lan WangJi's words dried up, which was almost just as well, since Wei WuXian could feel a painful lump in his throat.
“You like Young Master Wei a great deal, don't you?” Lan XiChen asked quietly.
Wei WuXian's heart was too full. He snuck away, then made sure to let his steps fall more heavily as he approached again and knocked.
“I'm back,” he called out as he entered. Concern couldn't entirely erase the warm feeling in his chest as he went to kneel across the table from where Lan XiChen sat, and Lan WangJi immediately moved to sit close by his side. “I wasn't able to figure anything out,” he admitted, resting a hand on Lan WangJi's head and ruffling his hair.
“I may have an explanation,” Lan XiChen said, without a trace of concern.
Wei WuXian perked up at that, then immediately felt guilty. Yes, he missed his adult Lan Zhan, but how could that compare to letting little A-Zhan be happy for just a bit longer?
“When was the last time you checked his spiritual energy?” Lan XiChen asked.
“Not since that first morning. He seemed fine. And then there was the incident with the Wall, so obviously he's doing pretty well as far as that...goes....”
At the look on Lan XiChen's face, Wei WuXian took Lan WangJi's arm and laid his fingers across his wrist. After a moment, his gaze shot up in shock to meet Lan WangJi's cool stare.
“His qi is repressed,” he said, turning to Lan XiChen, bewildered by his composure. “Why? What's doing it?”
“Ask my brother,” he said. “As far as I can tell, the cause is internal.”
“You repressed your own qi? A-Zhan...!”
Lan WangJi set his jaw and stared straight ahead. It made him look like he was pouting.
“I believe,” Lan XiChen said slowly, “that my brother might have been having a bit too much fun, and is now reluctant to return to normal.”
“He was listening to us,” Wei WuXian said, feeling like an idiot. “He heard us talking about how the spell would be undone naturally by a person's spiritual energy.” He let his hands fall to his lap. “Lan Zhan...you want to stay like this?”
“Out of the question,” Lan XiChen said before his brother even had a chance to respond. “He has responsibilities.”
“Not for another few weeks. We— He was supposed to be traveling. What's the harm in letting him stay like this a bit longer?”
“The harm is that we don't know what harm it could do. This is all purely theoretical. The only details about the effects of the spell are generations old.”
“The theory is solid. I've been over it. You've been over it. Lan Zhan's been checked out by the healers, there's someone with him almost every minute of the day.... He's fine. He's just enjoying himself. He's getting to cut loose for once. Let him decide if he wants to keep it up or not.”
“Currently, he isn't old enough to make that sort of decision.”
“And how are we supposed to stop him? Do you know how to miraculously unblock a person's qi? I can think of a few situations where a technique like that would have been handy.”
“How can you be so unconcerned? We're talking about your—”
“We're talking about Lan Zhan, who is sitting right here, telling us that he's happy the way he is! How can you think of taking that away from him? Doesn't he deserve to be happy? Lan Zhan is so good. He's the best! If this is what he wants, let him have it! The spell can't last forever, no matter what he does. It wasn't designed that way! But even if it was, so what? I'd raise him in a heartbeat! Being a Lan, he got so filled up with rules that he ended up all alone by the time I met him. I died before I saw him smile! If this is what he needs to be happy...just a little more time like this...then I'll fight to let him have it.”
Lan XiChen met his eyes with a measuring stare. “You're serious.”
“Very. Nothing is more important to me.”
“Not even your happiness?”
He grinned, big and bright and entirely sincere. “If Lan Zhan's happy, then I'm happy, too!”
With a sigh, Lan XiChen's shoulders gained a faint slump. “You're certain that the spell will still fade on its own?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Yes. It's not set up to be self-sustaining. Unless Lan WangJi found some way to...to tie it to his core....”
“I'll thank you not to make such suggestions around him,” Lan XiChen snapped.
“Have a little faith in him. I might have spoiled him just a bit, but he's still your brother. He'll come back to us.”
A glance at Lan WangJi showed him kneeling with perfect posture, hands folded in his lap, and an unreadable expression on his face.
That night, after Lan WangJi had written to his mother, after Wei WuXian had blown out the lights and climbed into bed beside him and told him a story about cranes fishing for stars, he lay awake, watching Lan WangJi drift slowly into sleep. Faint moonlight spilled in through the open window, and Wei WuXian's gaze skated across the silver and shadow that shaped Lan WangJi's face. He compared the rounded curves of his cheeks and chin to the fine features they would grow into, and his heart ached.
“I miss you,” he whispered finally. “Lan Zhan, I miss you so much.”
Quickly, he kissed his forehead and drew back. Either the touch or his words had disturbed Lan WangJi's light sleep. Wei WuXian hushed him as he stirred.
“Shh, shh.... It's all right, A-Zhan. I'm here. Don't mind me, okay? Take all the time you need to grow up. There's no rush. I'm here for you no matter what, I promise. I love you no matter what.”
He waited a while longer, making sure that Lan WangJi was definitely asleep, then curled up next to him and drifted off.
Wei WuXian began to wake to the sound of birdsong, the warmth of sunlight on his face, and the feeling of a broad hand slipping beneath his robe to stroke over his ribs. Soft lips trailed kisses up the bared skin of his chest and along his neck. He pried open his eyes to see a welcome face, a few years older than his own in appearance, watching him with a warm, intent expression.
The name emerged as a sigh, and Lan WangJi followed it down, sealing his lips over Wei WuXian's and kissing him deeply. Wei WuXian melted into the heat of his affection, eyes sliding shut once more even as Lan WangJi's hands found the sash around his waist and pulled it away to open his robes.
The morning poured into the room around them, golden as honey, as Lan WangJi kissed him more than a week's worth of missed affection. He paid worship to Wei WuXian's body with lips and teeth and fingers, slowly, thoroughly, wordlessly, wringing gasps and pleas and pleasure from him until Wei WuXian trembled beneath him, limp with release, slick and stretched out and ready. Lan WangJi entered him then, fucked him through the afterglow and into a second orgasm that pulled hoarse cries from his throat and left him clinging weakly to Lan WangJi, nails sliding over his back without gaining purchase in the mass of scars. He held Wei WuXian to him, content to remain inside until the sticky heat of his own climax had faded.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian murmured into the crook of his neck. “Lan Zhan...are you happy?”
“Mm.” He hugged his husband tighter, and found that a smile came easily.
Hours later found them sharing a bath, blissfully fucked out after an entire morning spent making love. Wei WuXian was practically molded against Lan WangJi, pleasantly achy and ready to drift off in the steaming water. He wasn't prepared for the question Lan WangJi asked him.
“Who did you test it on?”
“Test?” His brain caught up embarrassingly slowly, and he pushed back, only to be held in place by strong arms locked around him. Looking up into Lan WangJi's eyes, he saw no anger there, only mild curiosity. “How did you know it was me?” he asked.
There was a very subtle shift in Lan WangJi's expression, one that told him he had been obvious, somehow.
“Ahh, well.... Ha ha.... Do you remember a few months back when I said I needed to take care of something with Wen Ning, and was gone for a couple of weeks?”
He waited, and knew the moment Lan WangJi realized that he hadn't gone looking for a volunteer.
“Wei Ying.” The arms around him tightened.
“I studied it really thoroughly before I tried it on myself! And Wen Ning did an excellent job babysitting. I only escaped from him three times during the whole week, and he caught me within an hour each time!”
Lan WangJi rolled his eyes, searching for patience, as Wei WuXian shrugged.
“Little me couldn't read the letter I wrote to explain. And somehow, didn't trust Wen Ning, even though there really isn't a sweeter fierce corpse out there. The point is, it was perfectly safe, and I made sure of that before testing it on myself so that I could use it on you.”
Shaking his head, Lan WangJi let that go with a sigh. “Why?” he asked instead.
“Why? Because.... Because you're so serious. Not as much now as when we were younger, but...sometimes when you drink, I catch glimpses of the child you didn't get to be, and I just thought...if I could give you a chance to experience a happy childhood—even if it was only for a week—then I wanted you to be able to have that.” He hid his face against Lan WangJi's chest, hugging him tightly. “Lan Zhan, I love you so much. There's so much I want to give you, and so much that I can't. I just.... It was important that you got to experience this. Do you understand?” He peeked up to see his expression. “Are you angry with me?”
“Not angry,” he said gently, placing a kiss on Wei WuXian's forehead.
“And did you have fun? Were you happy?”
He smiled, very faintly. “Always happy with Wei Ying.”
“Lan Zhan! You know what I mean!” With a laugh, he butted his head against Lan WangJi's shoulder, cuddling closer as his husband stroked his back.
“Yes. I was happy.”
Their talk turned to more mundane things as they finished their bath. Or, rather, Wei WuXian spoke of mundane things, things that had happened while Lan WangJi was a child, things he had thought of and managed to remember to tell him. He chatted as Lan WangJi scrubbed his body and washed his hair, helped him out of the bath and dried him off. Lan WangJi said almost nothing until they were nearly finished dressing.
“To my mother. I...would like to send them.”
“Oh!” Wei WuXian had kept them, of course, hidden them away on a high shelf where little A-Zhan hadn't been able to see them. He fetched them now for Lan WangJi, who looked them over with a complicated expression on his face.
“You want to burn them for her?”
He nodded. “I want her to know that I am doing well.” Looking up, he took one of Wei WuXian's hands and held it with the letters between his own. “That I am happy.” He smiled, and the expression made Wei WuXian's heart soar. “And loved.”