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to long for something that will not return

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“What will you name him?”

It's a kind way of saying what can't be said in full: the boy can't be left as Wen Yuan. Not now. Even bringing him home was a risk, but there was no choice in it. No choice in so much of this. Not in going to Yiling, not in earning the marks on his back, not in loving a man who was like a flame.

Wei Ying was always the brightest thing in the room and always a moment from burning out. Even if it had been a choice, it’s one he would have made a hundred times over.

Lan Xichen waits for an answer, but no name comes to him that won’t shame him. The wounds on his back are still tight, still aching, and no one wants this child to be what he is to Lan Wangji. Not a Wen, but something of Wei Ying’s. This last piece of his life recovered and kept safe and close.

He doesn’t reply.

The child shifts in his fever and Lan Wangji pulls the warm cloth off his forehead and wets it again, replaces it with deft fingers. Lan Xichen watches the motion and open his mouth as if he has more to say on the topic but shakes his head and departs without voicing it. If he’s disappointed, he’s never shown it. His patience for this has been infinite, and still, in Lan Wangji’s head, his world is colored with a thousand regrets. It’s ungrateful, but he wishes now he had left Gusu instead.

If he were braver, he would have stayed in Yiling. The image of that life makes him ache though, so he pushes it aside and hums when the boy shifts again and mumbles something in his restless sleep.

It would have been a sacrifice to leave Gusu, but no greater than the one he made later. That litany of get lost still echoes in his mind at night. The phrase was monotonous, but desperate. It hurt twice over. It made him grip Wei Ying’s hands tighter. He was leaking spirit energy like a sieve—something wrong with his core, maybe. Lan Wangji gave him all he had, unable to replace it fast enough.

He shakes himself and makes to stand, but before he can begin the arduous task of rising in a way that will hurt least, the child reaches out for the hem of his robe. His hand misses and gets the tail end of the forehead ribbon instead.

The boy’s dark eyes are open to slits, glassy with sickness. “Where are they?” he asks.

He can only mean the Wens, and Wei Ying.

Somehow, he hadn’t expected that piece of it. Wei Ying he was warned of—not a scrap left, he heard on the road, which was a contrast to Lan Xichen’s careful words. The Wens, though. There were scraps of them left aplenty, all of them dead, all left in desecration. What remained was grim and grotesque. The pool at the back of the cave where he left Wei Ying before was colored black with their blood, but he didn’t have the strength to pull them out and bury them. Nothing of Wei Ying remained. Not even a thread of the red ribbon he kept in his hair.

“Gone,” he replies.

The boy’s eyes close, but his fingers stay tight over the headband for minutes after. When his grip goes slack at last, Lan Wangji tucks the boy's hand back under the blankets and then tips on his side and eases himself to the floor to wait and watch.

 


 

Technically it will be weeks before he’s allowed to play the guqin again, but no one will stop him from trying. The first song that comes to the tips of his fingers is one he can’t play now. Maybe never again. Its notes were written for one man only and that man is long gone.

The second song is easier and almost as familiar.

He plucks out the first few notes aimlessly, and then with more drive, but there’s no response. It’s not as if that spirit would be in this place anyway, he consoles himself. Still, once he starts he can’t quite bring himself to stop trying. Are you here? he tries to make the notes ask without words, but what more he would ask he can’t begin to think. Inquiry isn’t made for confessions or apologies.

“I like that. What is it?”

Lan Wangji almost didn’t notice the boy was there. Since his recovery, the boy’s streak of curiosity has been on full display. He’s still kept to the Jingshi, still nameless, but once or twice he’s managed to wonder beyond Lan Wangji’s reach. He went missing for a brief few hours off in the forest and Lan Wangji felt the stress of a thousand years settle on his shoulders. That’s parenthood, his brother laughed and slapped his shoulder before he remembered the wounds on Lan Wangji’s back.

When they finally found him, he was playing with the rabbits, safe and sound.

“Inquiry,” Lan Wangji answers.

“Oh. What’s that?”

“A song for asking questions.”

“Oh. Asking who?”

“...The dead.”

The boy shuffles back and forth and then reaches out as if he’s going to pluck a string before he pulls back his hand. Lan Wangji holds it out to him in offer and he makes one hesitant note with his little finger before he asks, “Who died?”

Lan Wangji resists the urge to sigh though in that moment he feels more tired than he has since he woke up to Lan Xichen by his bedside with an apology and bad news.

“Do you remember anything? From before you came here?”

“No,” he says after a moment, as if he’s not sure Lan Wangji won’t be mad at him for it. He’s not. It's good if the boy doesn’t remember—better than the alternative. He writes that logic on his mind, even as the sense of loss renews itself.

He tilts the guqin toward the boy and shows him how to tease the first notes of Inquiry out of the strings. “It’s not important,” he tells the boy and himself, only half a lie. It will always be important. Until the day he dies, this will be important, but it isn’t the only important thing. Everything he wishes he had done, he’ll do. Everything Wei Ying did, he’ll do, too.

“Can you teach me to play it?” the boy asks.

He’ll raise this child, too. A new class of juniors will begin their training in the spring; he’ll be matriculated in as part of them if he shows talent for cultivation. With his lineage, it’s hard to believe he won’t—though more and more he catches himself thinking of the boy as Wei Ying’s heir in blood more than spirit.

Even if the boy never remembers, this is the last person alive who loved Wei Ying, too.

“I can.”

 


 

The issue of his name becomes paramount before the season has passed. Yuan will do, but they change the spelling. When he shows Lan Xichen, the frown on his face deepens a moment. “And what about his full name?”

The one the rest of the sect will use for him—those who aren’t his family, as Lan Wangji is now. There’s no other word for it. The child sits beside him in the evenings, plucking at the guqin, imitating notes. He has a talent for it. Sometimes they take meals together, too. That will end when he starts his training, but for now he relishes it more than he has anything in a long while. It still feels like there should be a third person, a space across from them at the table, someone to teach him foolish pranks and little tricks. How to sneak out at night, where to go for free food in the day. Lan Wangji can only be half of what he needs, but he’ll do his best.

“Sizhui,” he says softly.

Lan Xichen starts and then his frown changes. “That’s a heavy name for a child.” It is, but everyone who cares knows already what he is to Lan Wangji. He’ll become more in his own time. He doesn’t reply, so Lan Xichen sighs. “But I suppose it suits him. He’s happy. He’ll wear it well.”

After a moment, Lan Wangji nods. Embarrassment isn’t what he’s feeling—he can’t be embarrassed for this love—but it comes close.  

Lan Xichen is a patient man. It seems to come to him naturally, where Lan Wangji knows if he didn’t train himself to stillness and perfect composure, he would have none. Now he stands and makes an exaggerated groan as if he’s the old man he sometimes seems.

“I must say I expected him to be a bigger handful. Even Uncle can’t find fault with him.” He cocks his head. “Actually, I think he enjoys the company.”

Lan Wangji inclines his head in return. “The boy is a good student.”

That earns him a roll of the eyes. “Wangji. I don't think letting a child bury himself in rabbits counts as teaching.”

Lan Wangji colors, but the moment is pierced by a high scream. A white shape darts through the open doors of the sitting room and barrels into Lan Xichen's side. He latches on with both arms and the sound of his sobbing is almost enough to make Lan Wangji look for Bichen.

After a few seconds, the boy realizes he’s ran into the wrong brother, and then he looks up and gives a tiny, birdish scream and runs into Lan Wangji’s open arms. The white robes swamp him, so nothing is visible but a mess of black hair sticking up in every direction.

“What's wrong?” he asks in what he hopes is a kind voice.

The boy shakes his head and presses closer, making little sounds of distress.

“Ah,” says a voice from the doorway. “Pardon the intrusion. I was looking for Zewu-Jun.”

Jin Guangyao is an imposing figure, despite the easy smile. The white-on-gold robes are very fine for the occasion—which is none, and now the shaking of the little shoulders under Lan Wangji’s hands makes some kind of sense. Even if the boy doesn't remember the Wens or the Lanling Jin sect's part in that end—even if he doesn't remember the Burial Mounds or what was lost, something remains.

His eyes land on the boy and then slide to Lan Wangji's face, smile unfaltering. “I must confess, this is one sight I didn’t expect to see.”

Lan Xichen laughs. “Yes. Our youngest disciple has taken a liking to Wangji.”

There's no ridicule in the words, but he still feels a pinch of annoyance. Or maybe it's only the sound of that boy's sobs that makes his jaw tick and his chest clench.

“I didn’t know you took them so young,” Jin Guangyao muses, still watching them.

Lan Xichen’s eyes dart between the pair and then he waves his hand. “An orphan. The fire…”

He’s smart and deft with his words. Lan Wangji could find no such lie so fast, but Jin Guangyao takes it at face value, a shadow passing over his face. The burning of the Cloud Recesses is still an agony, even though the rebuilding is complete. He gives a tight nod, gaze finally falling from the boy, and the pair excuse themselves, leaving them in solitude. After a time, the boy's shudders subside, and Lan Wangji realizes he's been petting the boy's hair subconsciously. It's not enough to soothe him, and this time there's no one to laugh at him for the attempt.

If only he'd stayed, he thinks for the tenth, hundredth, thousandth time since he woke, before the thought ebbs back beneath the grief that fills all his edges now, as vast as the lake outside the city.

“He's gone,” Lan Wangji whispers, and nudges him. The boy doesn't twitch. “Would you like to read?” Still, nothing. It's been many years now, but maybe he remembers what it was like to see his mother after months apart, to want to run to her arms and cry for no reason at all.

Wordlessly, he leans over to where the guqin is resting, ignoring the ache and sting of his ruined back as he stretches it, and pulls the instrument towards him without dislodging the hands that are still dug into the cloth at his waist. The angle is off, the sound of the guqin stilted as a result, but at the first notes the grip starts to loosen.

Inquiry, once more. Its rhythms are more familiar to him now then the sound of his own name, though he's long given up on receiving an answer from anyone he wants to talk to.

After the song is finished and he's started it again, the boy turns in his arms and reaches out to help. Together they pluck out a butchered rendition that turns to nonsense halfway through, and then they waste the better part of an hour learning helping him learn to sound out scales, until the boy’s movements slow and his eyes get heavy.

If Lan Wangji is forbidden from doing more than sitting in place, being a pillow for a child is at least useful. Soon he'll join the other juniors and Lan Wangji's mandatory sentence of rest and voluntary mourning will end, and these peaceful days with them. Life stretches ahead of him, vast and long and lonely in ways that aren’t his to claim, but this is something.

By the time Lan Xichen returns, the child is asleep against him as he sounds out an aimless song. Not all of the notes are right. Not all of them are meant to be.

“Is that a lullaby?” Lan Xichen asks from the door.

Lan Wangji misses a note and then nods. For a while, Lan Xichen watches them in silence and then asks softly, “Do you want me to call someone to take him?”

He shakes his head and Lan Xichen settles across the table from them again, gaze intent. Lan Wangji could play the guqin blindfolded, but he finds suddenly he can’t look away from the strings.

“Why—why are you staring?” he asks when it becomes unbearable.

“Nothing.” Lan Xichen’s grin widens until it eclipses his whole face. “But It’s been so long since I’ve seen little brother smile.”