Lan Sizhui is mid-sentence when the resentful spirit that he and Lan Jingyi are tracking appears, howls in his face, and presses a spectral hand into his stomach, hand wrapping tightly around his core and squeezing, once. He thinks that he screams, because Lan Jingyi turns around, and then he also screams. Then the spirit disappears again.
If Father were here, he would not be pleased with their arrogance—thinking just because they were experienced cultivators they could let their guard down. Lan Sizhui imagines his frown, the subtle twist to the corner of his mouth and the way his dark eyes lose their warmth almost completely, and he frowns, too, his chest curiously hollow. Then he collapses from the weight of his sword in his hand. It is suddenly the heaviest thing he has ever felt, dragging him to the ground, and it feels like it would take immeasurable strength just to stand.
“Sizhui!” Lan Jingyi cries, nimbly dodging the ghost’s next swipe as it appears again, this time next to him. “Ah, Wei-qianbei, Wen-qianbei, come quick!”
“A-Yuan,” Wen Ning says, appearing by his side. Sizhui sees his eyes first and then nothing but his mottled, pale neck and his dark hair as he is hoisted onto Wen Ning’s back and the spirit vanishes.
“Sorry, Wen-qianbei,” he manages. “I feel—I don’t know what it did.” All his limbs are heavy, his mind sluggish. He is wracked with sudden chills.
Lan Jingyi takes his wrist and tries to give him spiritual energy, to help him walk. Lan Sizhui tries to bat him off: the ghost is still here, somewhere. He needs his strength. But then Lan Jingyi drops his wrist and frows, and then takes it up again, shifting his fingers with a horrible look of fear on his face to take his pulse.
“What?” Wen Ning asks, worried.
“I thought—” Lan Jingyi says, then frowns. “No, it’s still there. I was so frightened for a second, I thought his core was gone.”
Lan Sizhui shudders in spite of himself.
“It’s fine,” Lan Jingyi says, hands fluttering, and then he uselessly pats Lan Sizhui’s shoulder. “It’s there, you still have it. I don’t know what’s wrong. The ghost must have done something, I can’t give you any spiritual energy to use…”
Wei Wuxian, Jin Ling, and Ouyang Zizhen come barrelling around the corner then, Wei Wuxian’s face pale. “Sizhui,” he says, and then frowns and touches his forehead, carefully avoiding the ribbon. “You’re burning up. Oh, Lan Zhan’s going to kill me.”
“He won’t,” Lan Sizhui manages. “My fault, Wei-qianbei…”
Wei Wuxian takes his pulse in the same way Lan Jingyi did and frowns harder. “Did you try—”
“Giving him spiritual energy? Of course,” Lan Jingyi says indignantly.
“Isn’t there a rule against interrupting?” Jin Ling mutters, looking back at his uncle. “Wei Wuxian—”
“Hush, let me think,” Wei Wuxian says. “I think the ghost might have damaged the connection between his core and the rest of his body. You won’t die,” he assures him, “don’t worry. The core is still there. And your body is strong. But you’ll probably feel weak and dizzy until we can get you back to Cloud Recesses. Hopefully it’ll be a simple fix once we’re there.” His hand brushes at Lan Sizhui’s forehead again, not to check his temperature this time. “Is it all right if your uncle carries you?”
It is not all right, it is humiliating, but Lan Sizhui tries to tell himself no one will think less of him for it. The idea of walking also makes him feel worse. “Yes, Wei-qianbei,” he says, and betrays himself by letting his head rest back on Wen Ning’s shoulder.
“I would send you both back to town,” Wei Wuxian says regretfully, “but I think we should stay together. Any ghost that can do this shouldn’t be allowed to get near you again. Who knows what it’ll do.” He pats Wen Ning’s arm. “Don’t be reckless trying to protect him,” he warns.
“Of course not, gongzi,” Wen Ning says, hitching Lan Sizhui a little higher on his back and nodding. Lan Sizhui, weakly, pats his shoulder in thanks.
“You can just call me Wei Ying, you know,” Wei Wuxian says crossly. “Or something. We’re friends.” The argument is an old one; to hear it is, despite everything, comforting.
“I think if I started to do that your husband would kill me,” Wen Ning says, and Lan Jingyi gives a surprised chuckle, distracted from his worry for a moment.
“Not if I told him not to,” Wei Wuxian says, as if this is all that is necessary, which is not true, because Wei Wuxian is constantly telling Father to be polite to Jiang Wanyin, and Father always nods in agreement and then immediately treats Jiang Wanyin as if he is a particularly irritating fly. Lan Sizhui opens his mouth to say this, and ends up coughing into Wen Ning’s shoulder.
Five sets of worried eyes are immediately on him. He fights back a scowl. “I’m fine. Just cold.” And everything aches, a dull ache like he’s pulled all his muscles, and his ear keeps ringing, and it’s getting worse.
“You’ve got a fever, that’s no surprise,” Wei Wuxian says soothingly, more to the others than to Lan Sizhui, because they’ve all begun exchanging worried looks. “You just keep still as well as you can. We’ll have you fixed up soon.”
He recognizes his tone—this is the voice that Wei Wuxian uses on hurt people and young children, a very calm and no-nonsense voice that has none of the mischief and cheer of the way he sounds the rest of the time. Lan Sizhui looks up and meets his eyes, and they are dark, stormy gray, muddled and concerned.
“I’m all right,” he croaks.
“Hush,” Wei Wuxian says, in a low croon, like someone quieting a baby. Then he blinks, and looks away, awkward. “I mean—you shouldn’t speak. You’re tired. Rest if you need to.”
Lan Sizhui tucks his chin into his uncle’s shoulder, and lets his eyes fall closed.
“It doesn’t hurt too much, does it?” Wen Ning whispers to him kindly.
Lan Sizhui takes a deep breath, and takes stock of all his aches, his ringing ear, his hollow chest, the way he had selfishly wanted Wei Wuxian to keep speaking to him in that careful voice, like he was just a child to be soothed and there was no real danger. How dangerous, to pretend. “No,” he lies. “It doesn’t hurt that much at all.”
Later, when the ghost has been quieted, Wei Wuxian tucks his knees into his chest and looks at the fire calmly, reaching out to poke at it with his stick. Lan Sizhui should be sleeping, resting, trying to heal, but he is not; instead he watches him, the whole scene feeling distantly familiar. Wei Wuxian poked at fires like this sixteen years ago, too. Wen Ning usually sat next to him, head lolling onto his shoulder, half-asleep and half-alive and glad of the comfort. Wen Qing paced in circles beyond the edge of the fire, going from person to person, checking each one. Lan Sizhui remembers these moments in fits and starts, frustratingly blurry. When he tries to think of Wei Wuxian’s face, his first face, it is a mess of features that don’t belong together: Father’s strong nose and Uncle’s careful eyes, and an unfamiliar mouth and ears. It is as if Lan Sizhui invented a face from little parts of other people’s because he can’t remember what Wei Wuxian actually looked like, and he has tricked himself for months now into thinking he remembers something true.
Maybe he makes a noise, for Wei Wuxian looks at him. “Aiya, Sizhui,” he says. “I thought you were asleep, you startled me! Here, come sit by—by the fire. Your lips are blue.”
Lan Sizhui touches his mouth, and it is not cold. He figures that he had better do what Wei Wuxian says, though, as the uninjured person in the vicinity. He shifts, tugging his sleeping mat with him and shuddering with confused happiness when Wei Wuxian tucks the blanket up over his chin and smiles.
“Won’t you rest?” he asks him. The sentence is an effort; his body does not seem to want to listen to him when he tells it to do even simple things: move, speak, open your eyes. It has only grown worse since it began, and he is exhausted. Wei Wuxian must be tired too, though, because he has been sitting up tending the fire and waiting for hours now, ever since the others left for Cloud Recesses. Only Wen Ning stayed, and he keeps watch, now, pacing in circles around them like his sister did once.
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Your Hanguang-jun is coming,” he says, “soon enough, once the others can fetch him. I’ll last until then. I’m not the one who’s ill.”
Lan Sizhui accepts this. Wei Wuxian’s hand has found his loose hair, brushing through it carefully, and it feels nice, tender and comforting.
“Your ribbon,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’d be more comfortable with it off, and your hair down.”
“Ah,” Lan Sizhui says, and nods, sitting up sluggishly. “You’re right. Please help me.”
“Ah, ah, Sizhui,” Wei Wuxian says, with a nervous chuckle. “That’s for family, right? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
Lan Sizhui thinks of the way he tugs gently at the end of Father’s ribbon once in a while, faintly proprietary, or brushes the tips of his fingers over it; how in return he will receive amused looks and, on occasion, careful, small smiles. He knows what it means: love, in one of its many forms. It seems to take many forms, as many as possible, between Father and Wei Wuxian. It always has; it always will. Father’s playing in the night, sixteen years’s worth of music ringing out when he thought the world was asleep, Wei Wuxian’s chili oil and wine on the shelf in the Jingshi, Father’s amused indulgence towards the embittered old donkey that Wei Wuxian inexplicably loves.
Before going with the two of them to the Burial Mounds, he remembers being frustrated and horribly sad, not that Father was inexplicably and suddenly happy but because it was this half-mad, complete stranger who was making him happy. In a completely unfilial kind of selfishness, he had wanted to tug on his sleeve like he did when he was a child and say, don’t forget about me, or maybe, why didn't you ever tell me you were unhappy before? It had not been a nice thing to say, so he had not said it, and then he had felt ashamed of it once he realized how good Mo-qianbei was, how funny and kind and irreverent and clever, how Father settled in to watch him pace and talk like he was watching the sun rise over the mountains.
He had felt even more frustrated, then, for a while, that he could have somehow gone his whole life without noticing that Father was lonely, ignorant and content with the same mistaken assumptions everyone else made: that Hanguang-jun did not need companionship or want it, that he did not feel anything so earthly or grounded as loneliness. It was a strange and horrible thing to realize that your father was not just someone who had held your hand and taught you to read music but that he was a person, that he existed when you were not there, and had existed before you. That he was more than just your father; that he was, instead, suddenly and fiercely human.
He had told himself, then, that he could surely learn to care for anyone who made Father so happy. He wanted that look of contentment to stay fixed in his eyes, wanted to go a thousand nights without the quiet first bars of Inquiry spilling out into the darkness. But then—but then it had turned out that Mo-qianbei was Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian who had not only loved Father but loved him, loved Lan Sizhui, once. This made things infinitely more complicated.
There was one moment, when Wei Wuxian hugged him as he cried into his shoulder, as he told him what he remembered, and what he didn’t, and tried, without words, to tell him that he loved him, and he was glad, so glad, that they had found their way back to each other. His father and Wen Ning had been there too, and it was as if they were a circle finally completed, and the future stretched out before them, bright and promising. And then that moment ended, and Wei Wuxian touched the side of Lan Sizhui’s face and then it was as if he drew back into himself. Lan Sizhui remembers watching him do it, wanting to reach out again, to grab onto his hands and hold him still in the light, where he could understand him and be understood, where it was not a shameless and greedy thing to ask to be looked at and cared for.
He is very tired, and shivering with cold now that he is sitting up with no blanket to cover him. His chest is still hollow and his head still muddled and he is wondering why Wei Wuxian would ever think Lan Sizhui does not consider him his family.
“I don’t mind,” he says. “Please help me, Xian-gege.”
He thinks about asking the question he has longed to ask: please love me again. He has never tried asking it—it’s not fair. Lan Sizhui is too big now to be caught up, cradled on someone’s hip, buried in the dirt with careful hands. He cannot remember being a child, but he misses it all the same, and he is tired and cold enough at this moment that he wants to ask. Please love me again. I miss when you did. He cannot ever remember feeling less in control of himself. His heart beats sluggishly and then too fast; his fever makes him shiver, his ears ring stubbornly. His mind is a muddled, skittish thing.
He feels Wei Wuxian’s hand press, warm and careful, into the center of his back, rubbing up and down. “Sizhui?” he says gently. “Breathe. You’re all right. Just take a breath. You’ve got such a worried look in your eyes.” Wei Wuxian shifts so that he’s kneeling in front of him, his warm hand moving from his back to his shoulder. His eyes are wide and compassionate and kind. “What can I do?”
Being looked at like that feels so nice he wants to cry, weak from his illness and a little horrified with himself. He has sometimes wondered how the world would be different if Wei Wuxian and Father had not been separated by loss and war for sixteen years, even speculated on it with Lan Jingyi, once or twice—but always distantly, clinically, with an eye to history. Jin Guangyao's treachery exposed earlier, or the shattering of the Jiangs less dramatic. The survival of the Wens. He had to think of it that way, or he would be too angry. Too vengeful. Too cruel, too sad. Too—something, something that would mean he would never stop feeling it, that he would have to carry the truth of it forever.
For the first time, tonight, it is as if he lets himself think, he would have been with us. Wei Wuxian by his bedside when he was small, humming and stroking back his hair. The shadow from his memories made flesh, and he wants that, he wanted it even then, even if he could not remember it, it is not fair that neither of them had it, him and Father—
He shudders again, not with cold.
“Be still,” Wei Wuxian soothes, moving back around him, and begins to undo the tight bun at the crown of his head, working all his hair free and folding the ribbon carefully, tying it after a moment of thought to Lan Sizhui’s wrist: where it can be close to his skin, kept safe, but where it will disturb his sleep less. Then he guides him down again so he’s laying with his head on his lap and keeps working his fingers through Lan Sizhui’s hair, humming lightly as he does it. “Aiya, Sizhui, you worry me so much sometimes, you know...and now you call me Xian-gege, like no time has passed. Do you feel like a child, is that it? If it helps, I’ll treat you like my A-Yuan for a little while...”
His eyes well with tears, and he hides them in the blanket. Yes, it will help, he does not say. We’re by the fire just like we were then. I’m frightened, just like I was then. You always found some way to make my fear vanish.
“You were so small when I first met you, A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian continues, sober. “And then I came back and you were a man already.” His hand does not stop brushing. “Were you ill often, as a child? I hope not, I hate seeing children sick. Did Lan Zhan take care of you when you were ill, or was it doctors?”
“Him,” Lan Sizhui says, and the word exhausts him, and he endeavors to continue anyway. “He played for me.” He had brushed the hair off his forehead, too, though not like this. One touch, light and soft, the backs of his fingers feeling for fever, and then he had sat close and played healing songs, one after the other, and Lan Sizhui had fallen asleep while watching the dizzying movement of his fingers. Father would stay with him through the night, until the fever broke or the stomach pain subsided, or whatever other illness he suffered was gone. Sometimes he would come closer and hum, low and even, and sometimes Lan Sizhui would feel a cold brush of lips against his hot forehead if he pretended to be asleep. He is too old to want that now, he tells himself. He is too old. “I’m frightened.” He had not meant to say that.
“Of being ill?” Wei Wuxian says, and then soothes him, hand on his forehead, in his hair, on his cheek. “Hush. You’ll be all right.” That calm voice again, the no-nonsense soothing of a fussing baby. It should make him feel frustrated or embarrassed; it only makes him feel—something. Warm. Content, and sad, at the same time. It could have been like this always. The thought is traitorous, cruel. He has had a good life. He has been loved. Surely, surely it was enough. It would be selfish to ask for more.
“I feel dizzy,” he manages.
“I bet,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’re just staring off at nothing, poor thing. Just sleep. It will feel better when you wake up, A-Yuan.”
How to explain that he doesn’t want to miss anything? That he is afraid that this will all be a dream, a dream where he is loved by all the people he most wishes to be loved by, the small scattered pieces of his family all back in place? That he is frightened of his own weakness, his greed, his everything?
“Sleep,” Wei Wuxian says again, and begins to hum, low and soft. It is easier, once the air around them is full, to close his eyes. He sleeps, and Wei Wuxian hums for him.
The sickness, whatever it is, gets worse.
Lan Sizhui is sweating on the ground, his head now cradled in Wei Wuxian’s lap rather than on his sleeping mat. Wei Wuxian has not stopped combing through his hair, or humming: he does not have the spiritual power after banishing the ghost to do anything more to comfort him. It has been a while since Lan Sizhui has responded to any of the things he says, but Wei Wuxian speaks anyway, trying not to sound worried. The boy tosses and shivers, suddenly truly looking like little more than a boy—a young and tired boy. I’m frightened, he’d said. Of what, Wei Wuxian wonders. Of dying? Could he feel so awful? Could he have been so drained?
“A-Yuan, be good for me,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, and shifts to clumsily kiss his temple where the sweat beads most. “Help is coming, I swear. Lan Zhan will know what to do.”
“Baba,” Lan Sizhui mutters, a few seconds after the kiss, turning his head from side to side, eyes still closed; as if searching. Wei Wuxian has a sudden, vivid vision of him at nine or ten, arms folded, serene and sweet; sitting next to Lan Wangji at dinner. Baba in that child’s voice, high like running water. Lan Wangji’s indulgent half-smile.
He has only ever heard Lan Sizhui call Lan Wangji Father or, more often, Hanguang-jun, carefully proper and polite. He had only let himself imagine his childhood in vague ways, too sick at himself for having missed it. But he was a boy, once. He must have walked to see the rabbits, must have learned how to play guqin. He must have called Lan Wangji Baba until he learned from someone that he had to stop. Surely Lan Wangji would not have told him to—Wei Wuxian knows him better than that. If Lan Sizhui wanted to call him Baba still, in front of the whole of the cultivation world, he would smile and let him do it, the same way his eyes go warm when Wei Wuxian greets him with a kiss on the cheek and Lan Zhan.
He tries to imagine Lan Sizhui’s earnest face and gentle eyes on a series of progressively younger children. This is, perhaps, what he looked like at fifteen, at thirteen, at ten, at eight, at six. Here is what he looked like growing into his limbs and struggling to braid his own hair. Here is how your child changed, without you. Here is how he became this unfamiliar grown-up person with this kind smile and those wide eyes.
“Once we had a meal together,” Wei Wuxian tells Lan Sizhui, still combing mindlessly through his hair. “You adored him from the first second, your Rich-gege, do you remember? He carried you all the way up the hill because you complained. He bought you a butterfly. I only buried you like a radish and told you to grow. How was I to know you’d take my advice so well? You’re too tall for your own good.” The mindless talk makes him feel better. “You asked for him for weeks after. Where’s Rich-gege? He spoiled you, you know. I bet he always has—I think he has a weak spot for babies.” He pauses. “You missed him. I missed him too. I think about that day a lot, that meal we shared. I wished it could have gone on being like that.”
There’s noise from behind them, the rustling sound of leaves. Wen Ning, maybe. Wei Wuxian tenses up anyway, and then Lan Jingyi’s voice reaches him, scared.
“Is he worse?”
“He’s tired,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’ll wake him.” He turns around as well as he can with Lan Sizhui’s head on his lap. “Lan Zhan, your son gave me a scare.”
Lan Wangji’s face is paler than usual, his eyes too-bright, frantic. “Is he—?”
He gives up on the question and kneels, his fingers running over the back of Lan Sizhui’s forehead. Wei Wuxian thinks: this is what he looked like when Lan Sizhui was sick as a child.
“He’ll be all right if we can get him back,” Wei Wuxian says. “The ghost did something that disrupted the connection between his core and his body, but it wasn’t damaged. Just blocked. I’m sure the doctors can fix it.”
Lan Wangji looks at him, eyes still full of that strange, feverish brightness. He looks unfamiliar, for a moment, which is startling. Then he is Lan Zhan again, Wei Wuxian’s husband, the desperate sadness leaving him.
“Lan Jingyi said it was damaged,” he says.
“I thought it was,” Lan Jingyi says guiltily. The other two are standing next to him, Jin Ling glowering to hide his worry, Ouyang Zizhen twisting his hands together.
Ah, Wei Wuxian thinks. “Well,” he says, “you won’t have both a husband and a son without a golden core, don’t worry. Wouldn’t that be troublesome!”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and the tender exasperation in his voice replacing the fear is immediately comforting. He stands. “I will carry him.”
“I would expect nothing less,” Wei Wuxian says, and pats Lan Sizhui’s cheek a few times. He blinks, struggling to wake, and finally does—obedient Lan to the last.
“Father?” he says, uncertainly, something he doesn’t say, usually, unless he and Lan Wangji are by themselves. He blinks once, then twice. “Xian-gege?”
Something cracks in Lan Wangji’s eyes, then rearranges itself. “A-Yuan,” he says, “I am going to take you home.”
Wei Wuxian thinks, slightly more hysterically: this is what he sounded like, in the Burial Mounds, picking him up off the ground. When I left him. The thought is like cold water on his face; he steps back and lets Lan Wangji drape his son over his back, chin hooked over his shoulder, already falling back into sleep. Wei Wuxian watches from a distance, his arms wrapped around himself so his hands are tucked under his armpits, dying to reach out and trying to keep himself from it. He has been forgiven for leaving Lan Wangji, even if forgiving himself for that was difficult. He does not know how he could ever begin to absolve himself for leaving Lan Sizhui.
“Wei-qianbei,” Lan Jingyi says timidly. “If Sizhui flies with Hanguang-jun, then how will you…?”
“I’ll go back with Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says, but it comes out a question, a thin, reedy, worried question, his arms still wrapped tight around himself. The idea of leaving again rattles him.
“You can fly with me,” Jin Ling says.
“You don’t need to do that,” Wei Wuxian tells him.
“I’m not going to say it again,” Jin Ling says, mouth thinning. “He probably wouldn’t like it if he woke up and you were gone, it’d freak him out. So get on my sword, jerk.”
“Aiya, so respectful to your poor uncle,” Wei Wuxian sighs, his eyes still trained on Lan Sizhui’s slowly-moving back, draped over Lan Wangji’s. “All right, I will.”
When Lan Sizhui had been five years old his days had been filled with quiet and winter sunshine and Baba, and he had always been cold. Sometimes he shivered even under two blankets, and he did not understand at the time that he could ask for more if he needed them. Baba never left the Jingshi, but sometimes Lan Sizhui had, wandering into the garden to dip his fingers in the cold snow and to the dining hall to eat with Uncle and Great-Uncle.
He remembers: the angry red of Baba’s back, the storm in his eyes that only lifted when he looked at Uncle or at Lan Sizhui, the way he would play guqin, the way he would answer Lan Sizhui’s questions with a thoughtful pause, like each answer was very important. The way Uncle always blinked twice in brief confusion when Lan Sizhui asked for Baba, the way Great-Uncle stared at him sometimes like he had done something wrong before shaking his head and walking away, pulling at his beard. The way that, once, he had found a frog in the garden as spring was fading into summer, the air finally warm enough to sleep in at night, and brought it in to show Baba, who gave him a real smile, almost a laugh, at his glee—the first laugh Lan Sizhui had ever seen him give. The way that, when winter came again and Lan Sizhui lay in his bed, six and shivering, Baba had come to him and picked him up and carried him to his own bed for the night, sleeping on his stomach with one warm arm wrapped around him, and calling for more blankets the next morning.
He dreams of being five or maybe six in the winter air, in the garden of the Jingshi. He dreams of opening the door to an empty room. Of opening all the doors in an endless search, and travelling in a maze made of endless identical Jingshi rooms, and then twisting brown caves, and finding nothing.
They arrive back with little fanfare, and this time Lan Sizhui does not wake up when Wei Wuxian carefully pats at his cheeks. Only his eyelids flutter. Lan Wangji carries him into the healers, mouth thin, eyes bright, and Wei Wuxian does not follow, and goes with the other juniors and Wen Ning, instead, to the kitchen, where they all try to eat cold rice and vegetables that are left over from dinner. Jin Ling and Wen Ning keep sending Wei Wuxian careful sideways glances as he eats the tasteless food, but he doesn’t see the point in trying to find something nice to put on it when he couldn’t enjoy it anyway, and puts his bowl down after eating half.
“Da-jiu,” Jin Ling says, staring at his own bowl. Any other day he would have been called Wei Wuxian, and the words would have been snappish. Today it isn’t. Jin Ling is tired, too. “You need to finish eating.”
He picks up the bowl again. Lan Sizhui is two buildings over shaking with fever, calling for his father in his sleep. He eats a bite and does not taste it. He was hurt on a night hunt Wei Wuxian brought him on. He takes a third bite. He was so tired, and so scared.
He sets the bowl down again. This time, Jin Ling only shoots it an uneasy glance and does not tell him to finish, instead setting down his own empty bowl and beginning to pace in tight little circles, his hands gripping his elbows.
After a few tense, quiet minutes where they all stare at nothing and each other, Lan Wangji appears at Wei Wuxian’s elbow and then kneels next to him, offering his shoulder to lean on. Wei Wuxian squeezes his hand in exhausted thanks and is graced with a twitch of his husband’s mouth. “How is he?”
“Still asleep,” Lan Wangji says. “He was twitching. Dreaming.”
Wei Wuxian feels something strong and terrible, grief-like, closing in on him, burning in his chest like fire. Lan Sizhui is hurt and he can do nothing but wait. Shouldn’t he be able to do something more? “Then I will go to him,” he says, standing, swaying on his feet.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “You need to rest.”
“I left him once, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, voice cracking. “How can I now, when he needs me?” He realizes he’s holding onto his chest at the same time that Lan Wangji reaches out and places his hand over Wei Wuxian’s, as if his heart will burst out of it and run. Then he realizes that Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi are both staring at him. Ouyang Zizhen is looking away, embarrassed at the display of emotion. Wei Wuxian holds his own chest and thinks he does not know what to do with love like this, love he had thought unneeded. But maybe Lan Sizhui does need him, after all.
“I’ll go with you, Wei-qianbei,” Lan Jingyi says. “I want to wait for him, too.” His face is pale, his eyes determined.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “He may not wake for a while.”
“I don’t care, it’s nothing to me,” Wei Wuxian says, and laces his fingers through Lan Wangji’s, over his chest. “If he needs me, I’ll go.”
Lan Wangji’s face softens, and he tightens his grip briefly and nods. “We will go,” he says, and Jin Ling silently stops pacing and finds a place at Wei Wuxian’s other side, and they all walk together. Ouyang Zizhen, thoughtful boy, darts back and brings the last of the food with him on a tray.
Lan Sizhui wakes to the sound of guqin strings being plucked and the quiet sounds of chopsticks clicking against china bowls. He still feels weak and sweaty, like his body is working overtime just to exist, and it’s not a comfortable feeling. But he knows where he is, and when, and who. He opens and closes his fists, then his eyes.
“Sizhui!” Lan Jingyi says, and a bowl is set down. “You’re all right!” His friend appears in his line of vision, and there’s a hand on his back trying to help him sit up.
“Give him a rest!” Jin Ling, this time. “He can’t sit up yet! Hanguang-jun hasn’t even finished playing!”
“He can sit up if he wants to,” Ouyang Zizhen says. “Sizhui, do you want to?”
Lan Sizhui starts laughing. He can’t help it. He really does love his friends, so much. They’re so bad at this, but their earnest faces, their fierce eyes—it makes him feel better. They’re really trying.
He nods. “Help me, please?” he asks, and ignores how humiliating it is to have to ask. He wishes it was just him and Father—he never feels foolish asking him for help.
Father. He looks to the corner. There’s relief in Father’s body, his fingers still poised over the guqin strings. Next to him, Wei Wuxian’s hand is on his wrist.
When Lan Jingyi has finished helping him sit up, he raises his arms and bows, his whole body creaking and shaking. “Father,” he says. “I’m sorry to have worried you.”
“You do not need to apologize, A-Yuan,” Father says. Lan Jingyi is looking back and forth between him and Father like he doesn’t understand what’s going on.
“Lower your arms, for heaven’s sake,” Wei Wuxian says, “you’re shaking like a leaf. You’re going to be weak for a few days longer. Do you want some dinner? Or for us to leave so you can get some more rest?” His hands are twisting together. Lan Sizhui remembers Wei Wuxian’s hands in his hair, carefully removing his forehead ribbon. It’s still knotted on his wrist. He reaches over to touch it, automatic, and Wei Wuxian looks at it, too. He knows, then, that they are both remembering.
“Boys,” Wei Wuxian says, “go and tell Wen Ning that Lan Sizhui is awake, okay? And leave a message for Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren—they’ll want to know he’s all right. Then get some sleep yourselves.”
“You may come see him in the morning, Lan Jingyi,” Father says calmly.
He backs off. “Yes, Hanguang-jun.”
They go with only a little grumbling. “Thank you for being here,” Lan Sizhui calls, after them, which brightens them all a little.
Wei Wuxian kneels, when they’re gone, but he looks like he wants to pace. He keeps sending quick, nervous glances at Lan Sizhui, sitting up on his bed, who feels his heart sink.
“Do you—are you feeling better?” Wei Wuxian asks, finally, still twisting his hands together.
“Yes,” Lan Sizhui says, and it’s the truth this time. “Thank you for helping me.” He wills Wei Wuxian to look up, to meet his eyes again. He thinks of his head on his lap, his warm hand on his back: the miracle of receiving comfort just when he had needed it so badly. Please help me, Xian-gege. He had asked, and Wei Wuxian had helped him, surely—surely that meant—
But he looks so uncomfortable now, so nervous, unable to meet Lan Sizhui’s eyes. Had he been too greedy? Had he asked for too much? There had been a little boy once, four years old, that Wei Wuxian had loved. He was a man now, and a different person. Perhaps he was too different. Perhaps Wei Wuxian truly didn’t want—
If it helps, I’ll treat you like my A-Yuan for a little while—
If it helps. Oh. Oh, he had only been helping. Of course.
He ducks his head, embarrassed. He wraps his arms tightly around his middle and holds on, closes his eyes for just a second, to gather himself. So—so nothing has changed, really. He had wanted it to change, but he can try to be content even if it hasn’t. He tries to smile.
“Thank you for helping me, Wei-qianbei,” he repeats, and stretches his arms ahead of him for another shaky bow. This time Father’s eyebrows knit together, his gaze quiet and shrewd. “I think I would like to rest now, please.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, his twisting hands loosening around each other. “Ah, well, I expected that. All right, we’ll let you rest—unless you’d like your father to stay? I can spare him for the night.”
“No, go,” Lan Sizhui says. “Father, please. You look tired.”
Father acquiesces with a nod, standing and moving closer to his bed for a moment, to take his hand and press it, once. “I was worried,” he says. “I am glad you are well.”
Lan Sizhui does not look at Wei Wuxian, standing by the doorway, waiting. He squeezes his father’s hand back. “Good night,” he says. He waits until the room is dark to close his eyes and roll on his side. He thinks he might cry; he doesn’t. Neither does he dream.
“You said you wanted to be with him,” Lan Wangji says, when they have left the room. His tone is probing, but gentle. It’s the kind of tone that means Wei Wuxian is going to have to explain himself sometime before they go to sleep, but Lan Wangji will not mind if he has to bury his face in a pillow in order to do it.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Well, he said he wanted us to go.”
“He said he wanted to rest,” Lan Wangji says. “Not that he wanted you to go.”
Wei Wuxian notes that he has switched the us to you but refuses to rise to the bait. “Lan Zhan,” he says, quietly, “I’m very tired, you know.”
Lan Wangji does not speak again until they reach the Jingshi, which gives Wei Wuxian ample time to think about the sudden, embarrassed look in Lan Sizhui’s eyes when he had looked at the ribbon tied around his wrist, when he had seemed to remember all at once that Wei Wuxian had touched it. His quick, casual dismissal of that closeness. Thank you for helping me, Wei-qianbei. It hurts more than he had expected it to: he has told himself so many times over the past few months that it is all right if Lan Sizhui only ever calls Lan Wangji Father. It had helped that he hadn’t heard him say Xian-gege since he was four, and sometimes hardly remembered the way it sounded. Now he knows.
He takes off his outer robes in a daze. He thinks: if he does not want to be my son, that’s all right. And it is—it must be. He would never want to make Lan Sizhui nervous, or uncomfortable. But up until now they were both living with uncertainty, wondering what they were to each other. Now Lan Sizhui has drawn the lines, and all Wei Wuxian can do is reach out and hold close the sudden, curious grief he feels, knowing that his love is not needed after all.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. His hands find his waist from behind, and wrap around, his face tucking into the hollow between Wei Wuxian’s neck and shoulder.
“I’m all right,” Wei Wuxian says, “I’m all right, I’m just—I’m just glad he’s okay—”
“Tell me, love,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian smacks at him without energy.
“You can’t just call me love when you want something, Lan Zhan,” he scolds. “That isn’t fair. You know I have no defense against it.”
Lan Wangji kisses the side of his neck and says nothing, pointedly.
He sighs and draws away, sitting down on their bed. “I think he must,” he says, “be angry. That I left him.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, his voice less coaxing now, but no less gentle. He kneels before him, taking his hands.
“Oh, don’t,” Wei Wuxian says, distressed at his concern. “I’ll be all right, really. I knew he must be angry at me for something—I mean—I left him, and he was only a baby, and he’s never—he’s your son, so he’s sort of got to put up with me, right? Because I married you. I just don’t think I realized that he’d rather me be at a distance.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “Stop. He does not feel that way.”
“Well, he’s such a good boy, he’d never say so,” Wei Wuxian says. “I really will be all right. I just thought I could be another father to him, and I don’t think he wants that, really. But it’s fine. He’s already got the best father—he’s got you.” He musters a smile that is likely unconvincing. “And it—if that’s what he wants, that’s that.” He claps his hands. “Now! Let’s get to sleep. You probably haven’t had more than a few hours, poor Lan Zhan.”
“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji says, finally, standing up from the floor and taking off his own outer robes.
“I’m trying to be mature about this, you know,” Wei Wuxian says, “you could be nicer.”
“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji repeats, and kisses him on the forehead. “He loves you.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, and catches at his hand as he moves away, to give it a brief squeeze. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it.” He goes, then, to wash his face, and besides holding each other a little closer than usual once they lay down, they don’t talk about it any more.
Lan Sizhui wakes up the next morning still feeling cold and frustratingly weak, his head aching at intervals. But he gets up, because he’s far better than he’s been in days and he’s eager to see if his body will begin to listen to him again. And anyway, he doesn’t like the idea of taking up a space in the hospital, not if he doesn’t really need it.
He goes to breakfast, instead, after lying to the healers and telling them that Hanguang-jun said he could leave whenever he felt better. Lan Jingyi looks very surprised to see him, and Jin Ling squints at him with sleep-weary eyes before going back to attacking his congee.
“Why are you here?” Ouyang Zizhen hisses.
“No talking during meals,” Lan Sizhui says. He’s very hungry; they can interrogate him later. He fills his mouth with congee, warm and very faintly sweet, his head bowed over the bowl. He wonders if Father and Wei Wuxian will come in, or if they will eat in the Jingshi together as they usually do, because Wei Wuxian is horrible at remembering not to talk and Father is horrible at not indulging him. He is not technically doing anything wrong, but he feels like he should avoid them, or risk Father scolding him for leaving his bed too quickly.
He takes another bite and glances up at Lan Jingyi, who widens his eyes in silent question, enough that he looks like a frightened deer. Lan Sizhui smiles at this, and then his friend’s shoulders loosen, and he looks very relieved.
“Listen,” Jin Ling whispers, “I have to leave soon, now that I know you’re okay. Wei Wuxian, that lazy ass, he never gets up before noon—could you tell him goodbye for me?”
“You can’t talk, ” Lan Jingyi whispers back, shooting a frantic look at Great-Uncle, who has just swept into the room. Lan Sizhui makes an executive decision and pushes his bowl aside, standing and gesturing to the door. He doesn’t want Great-Uncle to see him, either. He doesn’t want anyone to see him. His head pounds, pain fierce behind his eyes.
“Come on,” he says, and his friends follow him.
“Are you really all right?” Lan Jingyi says, catching up to him and wrapping one hand around his elbow. “You can tell us if you aren’t, it’s fine, we don’t care.”
“I’m better now,” Lan Sizhui says. “I just didn’t—I don’t like just laying there.”
“We can go up to the waterfall,” Lan Jingyi says. “You can sit by the water. You can’t have healed completely yet.”
His face is very earnest. Jin Ling rolls his eyes.
“And what exactly do you think Hanguang-jun’s going to do when he stops in to see you before work and realizes you’ve both vanished?” he asks. “If you thought he was scary the other night—”
“Last night,” Lan Sizhui says.
“No,” Ouyang Zizhen says, “it’s been two days now. You just...kept sleeping.”
Lan Sizhui doesn’t remember that. He supposes it would explain why he’s so hungry.
“That’s why I’ve got to go home now,” Jin Ling says. “Jiujiu sent me a letter. He thinks I’m being irresponsible. He didn’t know you were hurt, he thought I was just here hanging out with Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Sizhui doesn’t comment on this. The dance that Jin Ling has to do between his two uncles is often ugly, and none of them envy him for it.
“Is he very angry?” Ouyang Zizhen asks.
Jin Ling shrugs. “I’ll explain. He won’t be mad once he finds out I stayed to make sure Sizhui was okay. He’ll just say something about writing to him next time and then he’ll go pace in the garden, and then we’ll have dinner.” He doesn’t give any of them the chance to make sympathetic noises, just fixes Lan Sizhui with an uncommonly fierce look. “You’re really fine?”
“I am, I promise,” Lan Sizhui says.
“Good,” Jin Ling says, crossing his arms. “You’re our friend, so. That was all kind of scary.”
“I’ve got to go, too,” Ouyang Zizhen says, regretfully. “Father hasn’t written to me, but he’ll be expecting me back soon.” He surprises Lan Sizhui by pulling him into a brief, friendly hug. “Write to us and let us know how you’re doing.”
It’s strange, Lan Sizhui thinks, how sometimes when something happens to you it becomes very quickly about other people. He wishes his head didn’t hurt quite so much, still.
Lan Jingyi might sense his weariness, because he doesn’t ask again if he’s feeling well. “Do you want to go sit somewhere?” he asks, as their friends walk off, talking quietly together.
“Oh, no, Jin Ling,” someone says from behind them, and Lan Sizhui turns, startled, to find Wei Wuxian standing a few feet off, looking tired, his hair unbrushed. “Wait! Don’t go like that without saying goodbye!”
Jin Ling makes a rude hand gesture and does not turn back. Wei Wuxian sighs in fond exasperation.
“Have a safe journey!” he calls, waving, then yawning. “Good morning, Sizhui, Jingyi.”
“Wei-qianbei,” Lan Jingyi says uncertainly, eyes darting back and forth between Wei Wuxian and Lan Sizhui. “You’re awake.”
“Yes, it’s Lan Zhan’s fault,” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully. “Sizhui, you’re feeling better, that’s good. You must be, or you wouldn’t be out. I’m glad, your father was worried.”
Lan Sizhui fights the urge to rub at his forehead or cross his arms over his chest, to try to ward off how Wei Wuxian’s cheer is making him feel. He had just been feeling irritable that his friends were fussing so much, and now he’s even more irritable that Wei Wuxian won’t fuss. He really had just been trying to indulge him, that night. He must have been. No wonder, if his friends were all so worried—if there’s one thing that Lan Sizhui does know about Wei Wuxian, it’s that he’ll gladly put his own comfort aside if those around him need something. After all—Lan Sizhui’s stomach drops—hadn’t he done that back in the Burial Mounds, when Lan Sizhui was a baby?
Wei Wuxian’s smile is tense, and he’s looking at Lan Sizhui, but he won’t quite meet his eyes. There’s something distant about him. Lan Sizhui’s stomach drops further. He wonders if he’s ruined everything, all because he was foolish enough to let his guard down and to get hurt, and then had even more foolishly shivered on the ground like a child, demanding comfort.
“I’m fine, Wei-qianbei,” he says. And then bows, because he’s not sure what else to do, and walks away, back to the junior dormitories, Lan Jingyi following behind him.
They manage to get inside before his friend speaks.
“So that was weird,” he says. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know,” Lan Sizhui says. “Not really.”
Lan Jingyi accepts this, shrugging. “All right,” he says. “I have some things to do in the library this morning, but I’ll be back later if you change your mind, okay?”
Lan Sizhui wants him to push, and force him into talking about it. He wants him to leave. He wants to rest, and he wants his headache to go away. He wants—he wants.
He says, “All right. Thank you.”
He tries to mean it. He does mean it. Lan Jingyi gives him a careful smile, and goes.
He makes it two days before Father corners him in the library. He went back because he could read again without his head swimming, even if he has to take breaks, and he’s not well enough yet for any work other than paper-pushing. But he needed something to do, or he thought he would go crazy, sitting alone in his room, with his thoughts. Or walking out to the waterfall, and trying to think about nothing, and thinking about everything, instead.
“I’m sure Wei-qianbei doesn’t feel that way,” Lan Jingyi insisted, when they were sitting there and Lan Sizhui finally told him about it.
“He married Hanguang-jun before he knew I was his son,” Lan Sizhui pointed out. “Maybe he just didn’t realize. And it’s not—I shouldn’t be so upset. He never made any promises to me, I just hoped.” He tossed a rock into the river, at the base of the waterfall, and stood. “Come on, let’s go back. It’s nearly dinner-time.”
“Sizhui,” Father says, today, because they’re in public, “you’re working.”
“Yes, Hanguang-jun,” Lan Sizhui says. Father sits down across from him at the desk, folding his legs underneath him.
“Stubborn,” Father says, kindly. “You don’t need to work yet.”
“I needed something to do,” is Lan Sizhui’s—admittedly bad—excuse. Something to do could be tending the rabbits, or going for walks, or something kinder on his healing body than hunching over tiny sheets of writing and straining his eyes.
“Mn,” Father says, and stands. “Come with me.”
“A-Yuan,” Father says, offering a hand. “Please.”
Father so rarely asks him for anything, and Lan Sizhui has definitely put him through a lot these past few days, so he swallows his protests and goes. They walk in silence for a while, Father’s hands clasped behind his back. Lan Sizhui waits for him to speak, and studies him out of the corner of his eye. He looks worried, his mouth flat and his nostrils flaring as he tries to decide what to say. Lan Sizhui prepares several apologies, in case he needs them: for walking all the way to the waterfall before he was fully healed, for leaving the hospital early, for going back to work. Instead, what Father says is, “you are upset.”
He ducks his head. “I’ll be all right.”
Father sighs. “You are upset,” he says again, firmly. “Wei Ying is also upset. I would like you both to be happy.”
“You want us to talk,” Lan Sizhui guesses, glancing at him sideways again. Father is no longer looking forward, so Lan Sizhui gives up on subterfuge and looks him in the eye. He really does look worried.
“Sizhui,” he says, “you are one of the most important things in the world, to me. He is the other.” He puts one hand on Lan Sizhui’s shoulder. “If you would like to talk to him, I would like that. If not, you may talk to me.”
He wavers, for a second, considering it. The few times he has come to Father with a real problem, he has left the conversation feeling comforted, and heard. But he shakes his head. He remembers thinking that for Father, he could learn to care about anyone; for Father, he can do this too, this thing that scares him and makes him sorrowful.
“Thank you,” he says. “But I’ll talk to him.”
Wei Wuxian ends up being outside, sitting sprawled with his hands behind him and his legs out in front. There’s a stack of books and some paper abandoned at his side—talisman work—but right now he’s just looking forward at some of the younger disciples training, lost in thought. Lan Sizhui takes a deep breath and kneels next to him, determined to work this out, and apologize if he has to, for Father’s sake, if nothing else—but for his own, too. He isn’t sure what really happened, between them. At least before there was closeness, and kindness, where now there is only void.
“Wei-qianbei?” Lan Sizhui asks, quietly. Wei Wuxian freezes, and then turns.
“Sizhui,” he says. Their eyes meet for a half-second, and then he looks away again.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Lan Sizhui says. “I just, I wanted to ask—” He forgets the question he had wanted to ask, and frustrated, says something else instead. “Why won’t you look at me?”
“I was only...I was trying to give you space,” Wei Wuxian says, after a moment of thought. The word tilts up at the end, like it was supposed to be a statement and, somewhere in the middle, became a question.
“Space,” Lan Sizhui repeats.
Wei Wuxian grins, brittle. “Sizhui,” he says, “you’ve just been through a lot, and I could see you were rattled by it—”
“Why would I need space?” Lan Sizhui interrupts him. “I don’t—I wanted—”
“Well, when you woke up, I could see you were upset by what had happened,” Wei Wuxian says, and he seems to be unconsciously using the soft, careful voice again, the one for soothing babies. It makes Lan Sizhui feel distinctly coddled, but it doesn’t make him feel better, like it did last time, because Wei Wuxian still won’t really look at him. “And I thought—well, I’ve just made him deal with me when he was ill, and on top of that, he doesn’t like me for leaving him when he was little, and I just acted like nothing was wrong—”
“You didn’t leave me on purpose,” Lan Sizhui says helplessly, “how could I resent you for it? That would be cruel.” He’s so confused.
Wei Wuxian’s mouth is hanging open. There is some peculiar emotion emanating from Father, a few feet behind them—it might be smugness.
“What on earth is making you look at me like that, then?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“Like I’m doing something you don’t want me to do,” Wei Wuxian says simply. Lan Sizhui doesn’t know what he means by it. The only thing Wei Wuxian does that he doesn’t like is when he stays far away with that detached look in his eyes, like he is trying hard not to move too close, lest Sizhui ask something of him that he does not want to give.
“I just—you don’t want me anymore, and I understand, I’m grown up and I shouldn’t need you to—but.” Here is the embarrassing truth of it. “I miss you.”
Wei Wuxian’s arms are around him before he can finish the thought, the two of them sitting there on the grass, Lan Sizhui frozen in the suddenness of the hug, in the sudden stream of words coming from Wei Wuxian.
“You silly boy,” he says, choked up. “Why wouldn’t I want you? You’re clever and kind and talented and funny—and even if none of that was true I’d still want to be around you. I just didn’t want to smother you. You hardly know me and I just marched in and married your father and said I knew you in a past life and I just thought that must have been a lot, and I didn’t want to make you feel like you had to like me, or make space for me, or do anything you didn’t want to do—“
“But I do like you,” Lan Sizhui says. He looks over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder at Father, for guidance. Father shrugs. There is endless compassion and faint amusement on his face at the same time.
Wei Wuxian pulls away from the embrace and throws up his hands. “Well, I didn’t know that, did I?”
“I thought you were supposed to be smart,” Lan Sizhui says, wiping at his face in embarrassment. It’s the sort of thing Jin Ling would say; he regrets it immediately and winces. “I’m sorry. I just—I thought you were just—when I was sick, I mean. I thought you were just indulging me until Father could get there.” He shrugs, trying to control the urge to cry. They’re relieved tears, not sad ones, but he’s still not very comfortable with the idea of letting them fall. “I let you take off my ribbon. I called you Xian-gege, and you didn’t push me away, and I thought—“
“Oh, shit,” Wei Wuxian says. His arms come up around Lan Sizhui again; he rubs his back this time, the comfort Sizhui has been wanting and waiting for for days, and he sinks gratefully into it and hugs him back.
“You’re my father,” he says, and his voice comes out small. “That’s how I think of you. Not just because you married Hanguang-jun. Because of you burying me in the dirt back then, and taking me with you to town, and letting me sleep in your bed when I was scared. Everything.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says. “And I left you.”
“You’re here now,” Lan Sizhui counters.
Wei Wuxian seems small when he looks back at him, but he finally meets his eyes squarely and holds them. He does not say anything. Lan Sizhui takes a deep breath.
“I don’t remember a lot,” he says. “I’ve talked with Wen-qianbei about it.”
Wei Wuxian inclines his head jerkily, his body tight.
“I don’t remember your face or some of the things you used to say,” Lan Sizhui says. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember you, Xian-gege. I didn’t miss you when I was little. I didn’t remember how. But I miss you now.”
He still feels guilty about that, about forgetting, only remembering now that he’s nearly grown. He is trying to let go of that guilt. Wei Wuxian should let go of his, too.
“Can’t we just,” he says, weakly. “Have now?”
Wei Wuxian gapes at him, the gape slowly turning to a trembling smile, the way it did when Lan Sizhui hugged him, that first day—the day he remembered everything. “You really are a smart kid,” he says. “Are you sure?”
Lan Sizhui nods, not breaking eye contact with him, and then Wei Wuxian leans over him to give him another tight hug. It hurts, a little. Everything still, faintly, aches. But it feels good, beyond the hurt. It feels, at last, like he has an answer to the question he has been asking: can you love me again? Of course. Of course, I never stopped.
“You’re a good boy,” Wei Wuxian says, after a long few moments lost in the hug. He wipes at his eyes and smiles. “Lan Zhan raised you better than I ever could have, that’s for sure.”
“Wei Ying,” Father says, exasperated.
Lan Sizhui feels conspiratorial, delighted, still a little teary. He is thinking: oh, I get to have this. He says, “I don’t know. He let me break a lot of rules when I was little.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, shocked and amused. “Oh, all this time and I never asked you for stories! I’m making up for that now. What rules did he let you break? I bet he let you talk at meals, he was never so nice to me when we first met—”
“I brought a frog into the Jingshi once,” Lan Sizhui says. “It lived in the bath for a day and a half before Uncle came to see us and saw it.”
“Bad timing,” Father says serenely.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, his smile stretching across his face. “A frog, in your bath? You didn’t tell me our son was such a troublemaker.”
Our son. Our son. Lan Sizhui beams before he can stop himself, and then covers his mouth with his hand, and then, helplessly, lowers it. He thinks, again, I get to have this. He says, “Jingyi was worse. He tried to hide one of the rabbits in the junior dormitories once.”
Father raises an eyebrow. Oh. Well, maybe he hadn’t known about that one.
“A pair of Lan troublemakers, I never thought I’d see the day,” Wei Wuxian remarks. “Next you’ll be telling me Jin Ling was very sweet and well-behaved as a child. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised—maybe he took after Shijie.” He flaps his hands at them. “All this has made me very hungry, you know. Should we go get something to eat?”
“Can we eat in the Jingshi?” Lan Sizhui asks. “I don’t think I’m really up to that many people. And I can show you where I caught the frog, Xian-gege.”
“Don’t go catching any more, though, I don’t want any frogs in my bed,” Wei Wuxian warns him, but his smile is bright and his eyes are wet again, and Lan Sizhui feels it, finally, like a lost piece sliding into a slot in his chest. Something shifting, and then, rightness. They really are just fine.
“I won’t,” he says. He looks at Father, who at last seems happy, and is watching them both the same way he watched Wei Wuxian when he first returned to them—a contented astronomer, seeing the moon rise. “I promise.”
In the end, things are not very different. Lan Sizhui had not thought they would be, really. But Wei Wuxian seems to breathe easier now, and reaches out more willingly. A hand on Lan Sizhui’s shoulder when they pass each other during the day, a knowing smile when the three of them eat dinner together, and Lan Sizhui takes just a little of Wei Wuxian’s chili oil to sprinkle on his own food. But Wei Wuxian keeps reaching out, day after day, the way he reaches out to Father, the way he tentatively, sometimes, reaches out to Jin Ling. And every time, Lan Sizhui answers him readily. Yes, you are part of my life. Yes, I want you here. Yes, I am happy. Yes. Yes.
“Xian-gege,” Lan Sizhui calls him.
“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian answers.
It turns out, sometimes, that this is all they need to say.