"Gege!" A-Yuan laughs in delight at the sight of Lan Wangji, who is actually out of bed and seated at his desk for this visit. The Jingshi is brighter than he usually keeps it now, the shutters and shades pulled open to let in the light for his guests.
"A-Yuan," Lan Wangji greets him, inclining his head a bit as A-Yuan stumbles to a stop beside him. Lan Xichen has brought him to visit twice a week, like clockwork, as soon as Lan Wangji was well enough to hold a conversation, and A-Yuan had learned early on that he couldn't cling to Lan Wangji like he once had — not without hurting him. A-Yuan lays a small hand on Lan Wangji's knee, seeking some sort of contact in an area previously established as safe. Even that small touch would have earned anyone else a glare, but from A-Yuan it was welcome. "Brother," Lan Wangji adds, looking over to acknowledge his other guest.
"It's good to see you up," Lan Xichen says, settling opposite his brother. "How is your pain?"
"Bearable," Lan Wangji answers simply. It's the same answer he's given every time he's been asked. It's slightly less of a lie, this time.
Yuan has perched on his knees beside Lan Wangji, leaning forward to see what he's working on.
"It's calligraphy," Lan Wangji explains. A-Yuan nods, grinning.
"Uncle showed me how to paint with the inks!" Lan Wangji spares his brother a look — they'd never been allowed anything as frivolous as painting with expensive inks as children — but he doesn't hesitate to set out a fresh sheet of paper for A-Yuan and hand over the brush he'd been using.
"Sleeves, A-Yuan," Lan Xichen warns.
Yuan pouts, but sets the brush down and attempts to push his sleeves back. After a few futile tries, he thrusts his arms at Lan Wangji. "Help?"
Lan Wangji's movements are stiff; he can feel the pull of his healing wounds as he moves, the tender, healing skin and atrophied muscles protesting the motions. He pushes through, though, his only tell a tightness around his eyes that his brother must notice, but doesn't comment on.
Once A-Yuan's sleeves are rolled up and tied in place, he sets about painting… something, his arm bumping Lan Wangji's elbow as he drags the brush in wide arcs. Lan Wangji can't quite tell what it's meant to be, but he's sure A-Yuan will be happy to explain it in short order.
They watch A-Yuan paint for a moment, until Lan Wangji looks over at his brother once more. Usually by now he would have brought up some anecdote about the local sect leaders, or asked for Wangji's opinion on some mostly-inconsequential decision that needed making — obvious attempts to keep him engaged with the world. It's something Lan Wangji tries to appreciate the sentiment behind even if the follow-through leaves him feeling as empty and disconnected as ever.
Today, though, Lan Xichen does not speak, instead watching A-Yuan paint as if his mind is somewhere else entirely.
"If you have duties you need to attend to, Brother, A-Yuan can stay here for the morning," Lan Wangji finally says.
Lan Xichen's eyes snap to Lan Wangji's. He looks vaguely guilty.
"Actually," he says slowly. "I wished to speak with you about that." He hesitates, then says, "A-Yuan, you're being a little messy on Wangji's desk. Why don't you go paint outside, then come show us when you're done?"
Yuan pouts a little, as if he wants to protest, and leans into Lan Wangji's side.
"Find something outside to paint for us," Lan Wangji suggests. "There are many interesting things in the garden. I will be here when you return."
That last bit of reassurance seems to convince him, and he hurries outside, carrying the sheet of paper in one hand and the pot of ink and brush in the other, his brows furrowed in concentration as he works to carry it all. The brothers watch him go, a faint smile on Lan Xichen's face as he watches over his shoulder. Once he's out of earshot, Lan Wangji speaks up.
"Is something wrong with him?" he demands. "Something to do with his illness?"
"No," Lan Xichen assures him quickly. "No, he's fine. His memory of the time before the fever may never return, but otherwise he's as healthy as any other boy his age."
Lan Wangji feels something in his chest ease, and he releases the grip he doesn't remember having on the robes in his lap.
"I did not mean to frighten you," Lan Xichen says, his brow pinched. "This is… a good thing, actually. I think it is time for A-Yuan to come live here with you."
"...with me?" Lan Wangji suddenly realizes that he'd never thought past save Wei Ying's child. He'd never considered that he might end up raising said child. That he would survive to do so. That anyone would give him a duty so important, so unlike anything he's been trained for.
"Do you not think you are well enough yet?" Lan Xichen asks, raising his brows. "He is a spirited child, but a well-behaved one, and I would of course make sure you have help."
"Is he— has there been trouble?"
"No," Lan Xichen replies, and this time he's smiling. "He's a delight to have around, honestly. But you brought him back — he's your ward. It's how I was able to approve making him a Lan; in the family records, now, he's your son. And he misses you," Lan Xichen adds gently. "He knows who saved him. He should be here with you."
Lan Wangji's head spins; he knows Lan Xichen had likely relayed this information to him in the past, but he'd been too fevered and out of his mind with pain to process it. A-Yuan is his son. Wei Ying's son is his son.
It's simultaneously the heaviest and most welcome duty he's ever been handed. He's not at all prepared for it, and that inner conflict must show on his face.
"Wangji," Lan Xichen says gently. "You will not fail him. You're the only one alive who never has."
Lan Wangji may never complain about his upbringing, but he's at least somewhat aware of its shortcomings, and he's determined to not allow A-Yuan's childhood to be any more difficult than it already has been.
At the age of seven, A-Yuan has already survived the deaths of his immediate family, then his clan, then his first adoptive father. He's lived in extreme poverty in the burial mounds, has known hunger in a way Lan Wangji can only imagine. He may not remember it, but his history has imprinted itself on him. It's evident in his small stature, in the way he clutches at food and tends to overeat if not stopped.
Despite all of that, he's a happy child, and doesn't hesitate to form attachments. He loves Lan Wangji openly and without reservation, and for the first time Lan Wangji is determined to return that.
It shouldn't be. He's aware of that. Giving a child hugs and returning sticky kisses shouldn't be difficult, but for someone who was never shown physical affection, it's more of a struggle than he'd like to admit.
He starts with rules, because he's good with those. Two hugs a day, minimum, and no shying away when A-Yuan initiates contact.
Lan Wangji is still too injured to pick A-Yuan up or play anything more physically demanding than finger games with him, but he has made friends quickly with the other children in Cloud Recesses, so the sound of shrill laughter becomes common outside the Jingshi.
Occasionally someone will shush one of the other children A-Yuan plays with, but they never, ever scold A-Yuan, not with Lan Wangji watching serenely nearby.
Rules are important, and he'll teach A-Yuan each of the Cloud Recess' laws with time. But for now, he still hears Wei Ying in A-Yuan's bright laugh, and he'd rather carve out his own heart than silence that.
"I never would have imagined you with a child, but you're doing well."
Lan Xichen had just watched with a small smile as A-Yuan had run up, clinging to Lan Wangji's waist and asking if he and Jingyi could go play with the rabbits. Lan Wangji had reached down, petting his hair, brushing it back into some semblance of neatness before telling him to stay together with his friend and be back before the sun sets.
Lan Wangji pours the tea, passing his brother a cup. "I can only try."
"You're doing well," Lan Xichen says firmly. "He's good for you."
Lan Wangji goes still, then very carefully sets the tea aside. "A-Yuan is not a poultice to be placed on a wound that cannot be healed."
"Of course not," Lan Xichen says placidly. "You are as good for him as he is for you. You're more free with him than I've ever seen you with anyone." There was, perhaps, once an exception to that, but neither of them mention it.
Lan Wangji's lips tighten slightly, but he picks up his tea. "It is selfish of me to keep him here," he says after a moment. "He should have a family."
"He has one," Lan Xichen asserts. "He has a father and an uncle who love him," he says. "A father," he adds carefully, meeting Lan Wangji's eyes, "who is one of the few who both knows and can empathize with what he's lost."
A deep, steadying breath later, Lan Wangji deems it safe to open his eyes again.
"With luck," he says, eyes on the table, "he will never remember, and never need that empathy."
Lan Xichen frowns, his brow creased. "Do you really think that's for the best?" he asks. A moment later, he adds, quieter, "Would you choose to forget, if you could?"
"Never." Lan Wangji answers without hesitation.
They finish their tea in silence, and then Lan Xichen watches as his brother stands, still moving like a puppet on strings, lacking all of his characteristic grace, to watch out the Jingshi's back window for A-Yuan's return.
A year and a half later, Lan Wangji is far more mobile, and his eyes keep straying to the northwest. He longs to go, to look, to see for himself what is or is not left at the foot of that cliff.
He's considering bringing it up to A-Yuan, to suggest he stay with his friend Jingyi or perhaps Lan Xichen for a few days, but the day he plans to discuss it, A-Yuan comes home with red eyes.
"What happened?" Lan Wangji demands, his hands already skating over A-Yuan's shoulders and arms, fingers brushing lightly over his hair searching for any sign of injury.
"I'm not hurt," A-Yuan says, though the set of his jaw says he's still fighting tears.
"Why are you upset?" The careful rewording gets a sigh out of A-Yuan.
"Some of the others were asking me questions about where I came from," he says, "and they laughed at me for not knowing."
Lan Wangji scowls, his hand tightening slightly on A-Yuan's shoulder. "I will speak with their parents," he says darkly.
"No," A-Yuan protests. "Jingyi yelled at them and they stopped. They're right, though, aren't they? I should remember." His lip is quivering again, and the sight of it makes Lan Wangji want to tear apart anyone who has made his A-Yuan doubt himself.
Yuan has grown a lot in the past year, gained at least four inches in height, but he's still as sweet and affectionate as ever, going along easily when Lan Wangji sits on the edge of the bed and pulls the gangly boy into his lap. It's a level of casual touch and easy contact that once would have made his skin crawl, but this small boy, his boy, has become the exception to all of those personal rules.
"You had a fever that clouded your memory," Lan Wangji explains. "That you survived at all is a miracle, something more impressive than any of them have claim to."
Yuan turns his head into Lan Wangji's neck, shifting easily into a position that had terrified Lan Wangji the first time it had happened, but had now become as comfortable as breathing. "They said I came from somewhere else," he says, his voice muffled. "That I'm not a real Lan. That I'm not really yours."
Lan Wangji makes himself take a deep breath, forcing an air of calm into his next words. "Are you happy here?"
Yuan sits back, his eyes wide and dark. "Gege, yes! I love you, and Uncle, and the rabbits, and Jingyi. Even the other kids, usually. You let me play and teach me things." He pauses. "You talk to me different from everyone else. They're all scared of you, but that's silly. You're so nice."
"Hm." Lan Wangji nods slowly. "Do you ever see me like this," he asks, slightly tightening the arms he has around A-Yuan to demonstrate what he means, "with anyone else?"
Yuan giggles a little. "No," he admits. "Just me. And sometimes the bunnies," he adds, almost as an afterthought.
"That's because you are mine," Lan Wangji says firmly. "And you are a Lan, for as long as you wish to be." He reaches up, tapping at A-Yuan's forehead. "How could you have the ribbon, otherwise?"
Yuan's smile is small, but there, and Lan Wangji takes that as a victory.
"I want to be a Lan forever," A-Yuan says firmly, moving to wrap his arms in a tight embrace around Lan Wangji's neck. "Even with all those rules. I want to stay here with you, Gege."
Lan Wangji turns his head, pressing a kiss to the top of A-Yuan's head.
If you could only see him, Wei Ying, he thinks, clenching his jaw against the wave of emotions that wash over him at even thinking about the other man. So small still, but so full of love, and so strong. So like you.
He puts off his planned trip for a few more weeks. He knows, in his heart, what he'll find at the bottom of that cliff, anyway — and for now, his son needs him.