“Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.”
― Chuck Klosterman
Lan Wangji is running late.
His patience is also, in a strong and direct correlation with the prior point, running thin.
“I want it to be alluring, but appropriate,” Mr. Ouyang tells him, a repeat of what he said exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds ago. Lan Wangji has been looking to the clock with increasing frequency throughout the meeting, watching it tick closer to four, but Mr. Ouyang has not seemed to notice.
“Of course,” Lan Xichen says, all smiles and polite nods. It is rare that Lan Wangji wishes that his brother were more brash, but right now he would gladly compose a thousand extravagant ballads for him if it would entice him to speed this conversation along.
“And it has to be grand, of course, but not too grand. Grand, with a homey feel—”
“I assure you that my brother will do just that, Mr. Ouyang.”
It’s rare for Lan Xichen to interrupt; his patience must also be ebbing. Lan Wangji glances at the clock again: it is 4PM, and he is now officially late.
“Are we done?” he asks, earning a sympathetic look from Lan Xichen and an annoyed one from Mr. Ouyang.
“What? Of course not, we haven’t even discussed which orchestra I want to use—”
“We only work with Gusu Orchestra.”
When Lan Wangji stands, carefully straightening his slacks and button-up, Lan Xichen makes no move to stop him. Instead, he follows Lan Wangji’s pointed gaze to the clock. His eyes widen.
“Lan Wangji has another engagement,” he says quickly, drawing Mr. Ouyang’s attention back to him, “but I assure you, if you provide me with further details of your preferences, I will pass them along to our Orchestra manager. And, of course, you may tell me more about how you wish the song to sound…”
Lan Wangji has never been so grateful for his brother. He sweeps out of the room without looking back.
To say that he runs to his car would be incorrect, as he is a Lan, and running is both undignified and unnecessary unless in immediate danger. Nor does he slam his key into the ignition, or aggressively swerve around the cars on the freeway, or have a mild panic attack at the fact he is picking A-Yuan up late from school for the first time ever.
He comes close, though.
By the time he arrives at the school, it’s 4:35PM, and he has imagined about fifty different worse-case scenarios.
“It’s fine, Mr. Lan,” says the kind receptionist, when he very quickly walks (not runs) into the main building and apologies profusely for his lateness. His hands may or may not be shaking.
“I am sorry for not calling ahead. It was unexpected.”
“Please,” says the man, and waves a hand like it’s nothing. “It happens all the time! We didn’t know what to do when you didn’t answer your phone, but lucky for you, Mr. Wei was staying late today and offered to keep A-Yuan company. They’re in room 104B.”
Lan Wangji does not bolt to room 104B.
It is not a long walk, but by the time the door is in sight Lan Wangji has added twenty new scenarios to his horror list. A-Yuan is a sensitive child; not nearly as sensitive or fearful as when Lan Wangji adopted him two years ago, but enough that Lan Wangji worries. He has read enough childcare books to know that reliability and emotional trust are key to the development of a healthy parent-child relationship, and strives to uphold both.
But Lan Wangi had promised he would pick A-Yuan up at 4PM, and now it is 4:37PM.
Therefore, Lan Wangji is no longer reliable or trustworthy, and he is a bad father, and A-Yuan may or may not be permanently traumatized.
He walks quicker.
The door is partly open when he gets to it, a messy label of 104B—Art Room scrawled with chalk on a placard hanging on the door. He resists the urge to burst into the room, instead carefully pushing it fully open so he can see inside. He expects a wailing, terrified child, or perhaps a scene of utter misery and betrayal.
What he finds is his son, hands covered in paint, being sung to by a beautiful, dark-haired stranger.
Lan Wangji stops in his tracks.
“Ducks live in the pond, yellow ducks, happy ducks!”
A-Yuan giggles as the man keeps singing to him, both of them oblivious to their new company. They’re sitting crisscrossed on the floor next to each other with a rainbow of fingerpaint colors in tiny cups spread out on either side of them. In front of them is a huge slab of off-white paper, crinkled at the edges from what must have been a hasty tear-off from one of the large rolls on the wall.
“So many ducks, so many ducks!” the man continues happily, still sing-song, and grins as he dips his fingers into a pot of yellow. His hands are equally as covered in paint as A-Yuan’s, if not more so, and he hums delightedly as he draws said ducks on the paper. “One duck, two ducks! Quack, quack, go the ducks!”
“Quack quack!” A-Yuan repeats, and giggles again. The man laughs too. “Bunnies next! One bunny, two bunnies.”
That earns a fond, “You and your bunnies!” but the man starts drawing what looks like rabbit ears on the paper. Lan Wangji stares, entranced and slightly horrified, at the way the tip of his ponytail hovers dangerously close to one of the bowls of paint.
“Alright, alright,” the man says, clearing his throat, and starts to sing again. “So many bunnies, so many bunnies! One bunny, two bunnies. Er—ok, I don’t know what noise they make, so… hop, hop, go the bunnies!”
He looks away from the drawing and to A-Yuan, giving Lan Wangji the first glimpse of his face, and—
He is, Lan Wangji thinks distantly, simultaneously the most handsome and disorderly person that Lan Wangji has ever seen. Pieces of inky dark hair slip across the man’s forehead as his head turns; a few strands are out of place, dangling onto the wrinkled collar of his shirt. There’s a playfulness to his face, the curve of his lips; when his grey eyes narrow in happiness looking at A-Yuan, they’re so inexplicably warm that Lan Wangji momentarily is struck dumb.
Inconveniently, those same eyes widen when the man finally catches sight of Lan Wangji, standing frozen in the doorway.
“Oh!” he says, right as A-Yuan turns to follow his gaze and cries, “Baba!”
Lan Wangji is still reorienting himself, staring at the man while he stares back, when A-Yuan scrambles up from the ground and darts over to him. The first smear of red paint all over his white slacks jerks him back to reality, but not in time to stop the second, third, and fourth smear.
“Oh nooo,” the man—Mr. Wei, he assumes—says, and jumps up as well, knocking over a few cups of fingerpaint in the process. Meanwhile, A-Yuan gazes up at Lan Wangji, grinning, little arms wrapped firmly around his leg. “Oh geeze, that will wash out, I promise!”
Lan Wangji doesn’t care about that; he’s focused on the warm weight of A-Yuan on his leg, trying to gauge if he’s totally failed as a parent today. A-Yuan looks happy, which is a shock, as Lan Wangji fully expected him to be sobbing.
He’s also covered in paint.
“Baba!” A-Yuan repeats, beaming, and all of the fear rushes out of Lan Wangji at once.
He exhales, shaky, scooping A-Yuan into his arms before he can do any more damage to his slacks. It’s only when A-Yuan brings his hands to his shoulders instead, smearing more bright red paint into his blue dress shirt, that he realizes it was an equally bad idea.
Mr. Wei winces loudly.
“Oh,” A-Yuan says, looking between his hands and Lan Wangji’s shirt.
Instead of scolding him for the mess –Mr. Wei said it would wash out, and even then, it is only easily replaceable clothes— Lan Wangji tilts his head down so he can look A-Yuan in the eye. He says, very seriously, “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“I missed you,” A-Yuan tells him, which makes Lan Wangji feel like his heart is being ripped out of his chest, even though it’s not said with any resentment or sadness. He takes another deep breath to steady himself.
“I am sorry.” His throat feels too tight. “Someone made my meeting too long. Were you scared?”
“I was, but it’s ok now!” A-Yuan says, bright. “We were drawing!”
“I hope you don’t mind,” Mr. Wei chimes in, and Lan Wangji looks away from A-Yuan’s face to see him smiling at the two of them. “He was a bit weepy when you didn’t show up at first, and he loved our finger paint project last month, so I thought we could just relax in here for a little bit until they managed to get ahold of you. Uh, I swear that will wash out!”
Lan Wangji looks back down at A-Yuan. Regardless of the mess, whatever Mr. Wei did clearly worked: if he had not just been told A-Yuan cried earlier, he would not have known.
He is immediately, pathetically grateful.
“I do not mind,” Lan Wangji says quietly, and swallows. “Thank you.”
Mr. Wei’s already cheerful face somehow brightens further. “Ah, no need to thank me, it’s my pleasure! A-Yuan is a great student, so it wasn’t a bother. He really shows an affinity for the subject, once you get him started, and he’s so polite! Oh, but I’m sure all the teachers tell you that! Wait, hold on, I should introduce myself, I just realized you don’t know me at all, whoops.”
Lan Wangji blinks, taken aback by the speed of the words and how quickly Mr. Wei switched topics. He talks in presto, moves the same: it takes only a few seconds before he’s stepping forward, tossing aside a wet rag that he was using to wipe off the paint from his fingers, and holding out his hand to shake.
“Anyways, I’m Wei Wuxian. I teach art here. From A-Yuan’s reaction, I’m assuming you’re Mr. Lan?”
Without the panic thrumming under his skin, Lan Wangji finally can think clearly enough to put it all together. Wei Wuxian is the Wei-gege that A-Yuan talks excitedly about whenever he brings home a new drawing or craft. His son has been singing this man’s praises since the first day he started Kindergarten here a few months ago. The unconventional name has stuck, no matter how gently Lan Wangji tries to get him to stop using it.
Carefully, Lan Wangji shakes his hand. The tips of Wei Wuxian’s fingers are slightly calloused, his skin pleasantly warm to the touch. It reminds him of a musician’s hands, in a way: strong, clearly used to creating. They are, Lan Wangji thinks distantly, rather nice.
As soon as the thought crosses his mind, his ears start to burn. He draws his hand back quickly.
His voice comes out stiff and cold, tongue tied up in the unexpected shamelessness of his own errant thoughts. Wei Wuxian smiles at him, tilting his head slightly to the side.
“So formal! Well, it’s nice to meet you.”
He knows that Wei Wuxian is just saying that because it is polite, not actually anything true. Lan Wangji very much doubts anyone has ever felt it was nice to meet him. Considering Wei Wuxian stayed late to look after his son, it makes the sentiment even less likely.
But it truly is nice to meet Wei Wuxian. A-Yuan adores art class, has taken to it with such delight that there is no doubt it is his favorite subject. Wei Wuxian has done him a large favor, by keeping A-Yuan in a place where he could feel safe while he waited.
Lan Wangji should say so, right? Even if it is awkward, even if the way Wei Wuxian is looking at him makes him feel strange.
Right. He opens his mouth, fully intent on saying something about how grateful he is—but right as he does, Wei Wuxian smiles again.
It is a very good smile. Distracting.
And Lan Wangji is very stupid.
“Does everyone call you Wei-gege?” he blurts, instead of an appropriate comment on Wei Wuxian’s teaching effectiveness, and immediately wants to die.
The name makes Wei Wuxian bark out a noise that is half surprised laugh and half a choke, and Lan Wangji draws back like he’s been burned. He looks away, wondering if he can get the ground to swallow him up and spare him.
His ears flame. Foolish. Embarrassing.
“Wei-gege?” Wei Wuxian asks, grinning. His cheeks are dusted with a light pink when he sends a mischievous look to Lan Wangji. “Well, Mr. Lan, I’m just shocked! How forward of you! I’m very flattered, you know, all the others tend to stick to Mr. Wei, but if you want to ramp things up between us already—”
Oh god. Oh no. Lan Wangji is actually going to die.
“My son,” he interrupts quickly, wanting to correct the misunderstanding. “He—calls you that. When he brings things home.”
Wei Wuxian blinks, then chuckles. He turns to A-Yuan, who is still sitting contentedly in Lan Wangji’s arms, watching them talk. “Aww, A-Yuan! You’re such a sweet boy. I’ll be you and your father’s gege as much as you want, ok?”
He winks at Lan Wangji as he says it. Lan Wangji goes stiff and shocked.
“Shameless,” he manages after a few beats, because no other words are coming to him.
Wei Wuxian laughs again. It reminds him of windchimes: unpredictable in rhythm, yet no less pleasant-sounding because of it. “I’m not the one calling nicknames already! Really, Mr. Lan, it’s so unfair of you. I don’t even know your childhood name, and you’re already calling me gege, so bold!”
Lan Wangji focuses on keeping his face composed. Inside, he is panicking. What does he do? He hasn’t had anyone outside of his brother tease him for years, not in a way that isn’t laced with something sharper, like cold pinpricks after a limb falls asleep. Not like he feels now: warm, shivery in a way that is unfamiliar and not fully unpleasant.
Wei Wuxian, oddly, doesn’t seem to mind his inability to come up with a response. He waits, head tilted, still grinning.
A-Yuan saves the day.
“Baba,” he says quietly, and Lan Wangji drags himself out of his embarrassment so he can fully pay attention. “Can I show you my drawing, please?”
A-Yuan could show him a murder scene, and it would be better than being stuck in this situation. Lan Wangji nods, relieved.
After making sure A-Yuan still remembers his manners about being asked to be let down instead of wriggling (and he does, of course—he is, Lan Wangji thinks with no small amount of pride, a very good boy), he allows himself to be led over to the opposite wall, where an even larger sheet of paper hangs by the window.
Wei Wuxian follows like a butterfly flitting from one flower to the next.
A-Yuan excitedly points at the still-wet piece of paper hanging there. It’s nearly as tall as Lan Wangji. “Look!”
Lan Wangji looks. The paper is, he thinks privately, an absolute mess. There is no order, just lines and blobs and colors thrown together in a whirlwind of complete chaos. It is clearly the work of multiple students, maybe even a full class, but the exact point or theme of the exercise evades him.
Wei Wuxian must sense his confusion. He rocks forward on his feet, coming just a tad more into Lan Wangji’s space. It takes a great deal of effort not to flinch away, but A-Yuan is still relaxed and happy in his arms, so Lan Wangji does not move.
“So,” Wei Wuxian starts, drawing out the word in a way that should be unpleasant, but instead has Lan Wangji’s stomach wriggling, “we’re learning about shapes and colors still.”
He pauses, like he’s waiting for something. Lan Wangji tears his eyes away from A-Yuan just long enough to look over at him with a raised eyebrow. He’s rather sure there are shapes in front of him that do not exist in any textbook, and the paint shades are mixing together into alarming new creations.
At his look, Wei Wuxian grins. “And as you can see, at least the paper is a rectangle! So that lesson plan was a success!” He laughs loudly, delighted at his own joke.
Lan Wangji blinks at him. What a strange person.
A-Yuan tugs on his sleeve to get his attention, showing Lan Wangji two blobs that he thinks might be eyes, or trees. Lan Wangji never knows until A-Yuan tells him.
“Look,” A-Yuan repeats, proudly this time, and points to the blobs again. Lan Wangji nods.
“Very good,” he says, which he hopes is both vague and encouraging enough to cover up that he still does not know what they are. A-Yuan blooms under the praise nonetheless. In his periphery, Lan Wangji is hyperaware of Wei Wuxian smiling at them.
“Here.” Wei Wuxian crouches down, grabbing a corner of the paper. There’s a ripping noise, and moments later, Wei Wuxian hands the section with two blobs to A-Yuan. “The ink should be dry by now—er, mostly, at least. Actually, maybe don’t press it against anything for a bit. Anyways! Take this home so you can tell your baba your story about it, ok?”
“His story?” Lan Wangji asks, confused, as A-Yuan takes the paper like it’s the most precious thing in the world. Wei Wuxian straightens up, nodding.
Without further explanation, Wei Wuxian crosses back across the room and starts gathering up the various fingerpaint cups, stepping in some of the spilled puddles in the process. Lan Wangji watches with fascinated horror as he walks over to the sink, a trail of blue footprints smeared across the floor in his wake.
This man is a disaster.
“I can go ahead and clean up, part of the job,” Wei Wuxian says over his shoulder, as he starts to open up larger jugs of color and pour the extras in the cup back into them. “You seem like a busy person, Lan-gege, wouldn’t want to keep you from the rest of your day.”
Lan Wangji’s ears, which had gradually returned to a normal temperature, run hot again.
Wei Wuxian laughs, batting his eyes at him. “Alright, alright, Mr. Lan it is. You’re no fun.”
Lan Wangji tenses all over again. It is not the first time he has been told such a thing, but it’s oddly infuriating coming from Wei Wuxian.
“Wen Ning will have his things behind the front desk,” Wei Wuxian adds, and waves at them with the tips of his fingers, like they’re old friends. He’s now in the process of filling the sink with water; bubbles cling to his hands, and he’s managed to get some soap in his hair.
Still tongue-tied, Lan Wangji takes A-Yuan’s hand and stands. “Mn.”
“See you around, Mr. Lan!”
Lan Wangji power walks out of room 104B.
“Bye A-Yuan,” the receptionist says after they grab his backpack, raising a hand in farewell. A-Yuan smiles shyly at him, and Lan Wangji beelines out of the building without looking back.
After A-Yuan’s bag is loaded into the car and he has been buckled safely into his car seat, Lan Wangji finally has a moment to process. He sits in the driver’s seat, unseeing, trying to figure out what on earth just happened. It feels, oddly, like he was just picked up and spit out by a tornado.
A-Yuan’s concerned voice breaks him from his thoughts. When he blinks up to the dashboard clock to see the time, five minutes have passed since they got in. Startled, he twists the key in the ignition, the familiar hum of the engine grounding him pack in the present.
“I am sorry, A-Yuan. We will go.”
As he transitions the car into reverse, he glances around perhaps a bit more than strictly necessary, hoping against hope that no one saw them. More specifically, that Wei Wuxian did not see him lingering, doing breathing exercises in his car like a delinquent.
There’s no one to judge, thankfully—just their car, an empty lot, and the soft glow of lights from the art room window.
Lan Wangji is a man of routine.
His days, always, go something like this:
He gets up in the morning at five on the dot. Meditates, makes tea, prepares breakfast. At seven-thirty he wakes A-Yuan, helps him brush his teeth and get changed, and ensures he is well-fed and happy by eight. At nine, he drops him off at school, and then heads to Gusu headquarters, where he settles peacefully in his office and composes music in silence and solitude, save for his brother swinging by to chat.
Then he picks A-Yuan up at exactly four and brings him to their home. They play a game –educational, thought-out, a different one for each day to provide a balance of skills—and eat dinner. Lan Wangji fills the tub while A-Yuan lays out his pajamas, and then they have a bath and story time and bed.
He enjoys it. His brother and uncle visit enough to stop him from becoming lonely, and one of the women in his neighborhood, Mianmian, occasionally invites A-Yuan over for playdates with her daughter. She called them friends about two months ago, which made Lan Wangji both very nervous and very grateful, and it has kept his brother off his back about “branching out” for some time.
All in all, it is a peaceful life. Predictable, but no less enjoyable because of it.
But tonight, Lan Wangji stares at the drawing of two blobs on his fridge and knows that he has a problem.
“Baba,” A-Yuan says from where he’s sitting at the table, “milk, please?”
He starts. Right.
“My apologies,” he tells A-Yuan, reaching for the milk and carefully shutting the fridge door behind him. He resolutely does not look at the painting from yesterday, which A-Yuan helpfully informed him in the car was two bunnies.
His entire routine has felt thrown off ever since he ran into Wei Wuxian, covered in paint and singing and telling him things like it’s nice to meet you. His mind keeps replaying that smile, and the warmth in his eyes, and his long fingers covered in color. It is as if there is an insistent buzzing in the back of his mind, a soft whisper of Wei Wuxian that has not ceased.
He is so…different, than anything Lan Wangji has seen. Worse, Lan Wangji cannot seem to stop thinking about him.
It is a very distressing development. He does not know what to do about this newfound interest.
A-Yuan waits until Lan Wangji has finished filling the glass with milk before saying, “Thank you!” and also waits until Lan Wangji has sat down to take a sip. “Today was really fun!”
“Yes! I played with Jingyi, we were dogs. Mr. Mo taught me letter X.”
Jingyi is his new friend at school, and also the child of a very distant cousin. They’re also the only two children in the family who are being educated at a public school. Theoretically, these two things would make it easier to arrange a play date between them. It has not. Lan Wangji is not particularly good at talking to other parents (or anyone, really), even if they are distantly related by blood. He is trying to be better at it, for A-Yuan’s sake.
“I am glad.”
“Mm! You like my bunnies?”
A-Yuan hums, clearly content with that. It feels inadequate anyways; Lan Wangji is still not fully used to talking over meals, even after two years of doing so. It was never something that they did growing up, but the books told Lan Wangji that family dinners and discussions are important for healthy emotional development and bonding in children, so he does his best.
So when he abruptly asks, “What is your story?” it is only because he is thinking about his son’s well-being and the stages of childhood emotional intelligence.
Not because his brain has been replaying every single word Wei Wuxian said to him, and not because he has been dying of curiosity for the past twenty-four hours.
No. That would be foolish, and also strange, and Lan Wangji does not want to be either of those.
“Oh!” A-Yuan says, and pauses with broccoli halfway to his mouth. At Lan Wangji’s gentle look, he quickly sets his fork down. “The bunnies!”
“Yes!” A-Yuan brightens. “The bunny was lonely, but then he found another bunny. That bunny made him so, so happy. Now they love each other very much. They cuddle and snuggle all the time. And hug. And then they have a baby bunny, and love him too.”
“I see,” Lan Wangji says after a moment, even though he does not. Both of their bunnies are male and could not make a baby bunny; given that A-Yuan is five, that does not seem like a necessary detail. “That is very nice.”
A-Yuan finishes chewing his broccoli before replying, enthusiastic. “Yes! Wei-gege said so.”
At his name, Lan Wangji’s stomach flips. “Mn?”
“All art has a story.” A-Yuan tries to make his voice sound like Wei Wuxian’s; all it does it make Lan Wangji’s lips twitch up in amusement. “Wei-gege told me. First lesson.”
Then he smiles and goes back to his broccoli.
Lan Wangji gazes into his glass of water. That did not help in the slightest.
It’s fine, he thinks later, as he washes dishes and tries desperately not to think about tan hands covered in bubbles, the smear of soap across ink-black hair. Their entire meeting was a fluke, just like whatever weird emotion has been running through him when he thinks about Wei Wuxian. Who, he reminds himself firmly, is likely totally indifferent to Lan Wangji’s existence. As he should be, because they do not know each other, and have only met once.
He must have just been surprised to see A-Yuan so comfortable around another adult, he tells himself, drying his hands on the nearby towel. Of course it stood out. But this is just another positive step in his son’s development, and Wei Wuxian happened to be the one who was there for it.
That is why he’s thinking about him so much. No other reason.
So. He’ll just—wait, for things to return to normal. Which they will.
There’s not, Lan Wangji thinks with a twisting in his chest, any reason to think they’ll see each other again.
They see each other again.
The fault, Lan Wangji maintains, lies completely at the feet of the increasingly needy clients his Uncle has assigned to him.
Gusu Lan Orchestra & Music is one of the premier bastions of musical talent in all of mainland China. His family’s legacy is built on their ability to play, compose, and teach music across all different genres. Ever since he was a child, Lan Wangji has been expected to participate in some form.
Thankfully, he showed both an interest and a skillset in it. Composition, in particular.
Truthfully, it is the perfect career for him. Composition allows him to hide behind the family brand more so than if he were expected to teach or if he were playing on stage for the world to see. He finds contentment in the hidden process of creation, a steadiness. The guqin is his specialty; it is his favorite instrument, both to play and write for, and he is lucky that he gets to do the latter for his job. Any actual playing is done privately with family or in the comfort of his own home.
He is fine with that, being tucked away from the spotlight. All his pieces are well-acclaimed, of course –he ensures that everything he composes is of high quality—but very few outside of the industry actually know his name.
Why would they? Lan Wangji is not special. He is just another face in the Gusu Lan label.
Generally, he has significant control over what he chooses to compose. But there are still requests that get sent to his family, ones that usually stem from one of his Uncle’s necessary contacts, as he calls them. Lan Xichen tends to these most days, as he is more friendly and flexible, but lately there has been higher demand, and Lan Wangji has needed to step in.
He is not enjoying it.
“Brother,” Lan Wangji says quietly, as 4PM once again ticks close. He halts the notes of the gugin drifting through the air, trying to signal the urgency of the matter.
Lan Xichen lowers the xiao that he was using to provide a preview of what they have so far, frowning just slightly. His eyes go to the clock as well; and just like the last time, his mouth twists into an apologetic line.
Unfortunately, the momentary pause of the music means that the other two men in the room think it is their turn to talk.
“A bit too homey, still,” Mr. Ouyang says thoughtfully, despite the fact that he considered their last draft not homey enough. “I want big city, but with small town flavor.”
In the seat next to him, Mr. Yao looks over and huffs. “Well wait a second!”
Lan Wangji is about ready to flip over the table. This is the third time in a week that Mr. Ouyang has come to “check in” on their progress, but this time he also brought his colleague, Mr. Yao. He is, somehow, even more opinionated that Mr. Ouyang. That would be tolerable, were it not for the fact that they have vastly different visions for the piece.
And were it not past 4PM. Again.
“No, no, no,” Mr. Yao continues, as Lan Wangji wonders if it is possible to deviate in modern times. “You don’t want that! What this piece needs is small town, with big city overtones! Really, you expect the playwright to work with anything else?”
Another argument starts up, like the five that have occurred in the past hour and delayed this visit well past its normal time. Irritation bubbles under Lan Wangji’s skin, fraying his patience; he is precariously close to telling them just how much their voices sound like five-year-olds given free range over recorders, no matter how important these men are to Uncle’s social circle, when Lan Xichen catches his eye.
Subtly, he inclines his head to the door. Go.
The best brother.
Mr. Ouyang and Mr. Yao are so busy debating the merits of what size town they are envisioning that they do not even notice him flee from the room as quickly as his principles will allow.
“My sincere apologies,” he says ten minutes later, as he navigates through the ever-busy freeway lanes. This time, at least, he’s in the proper state of mind to call the school and let them know what’s going on. “I am on my way.”
“It really is no trouble, Mr. Lan,” the receptionist –Wen Ning, Wei Wuxian’s voice whispers in his head— reassures him, just like the last time. “A-Yuan is a very good boy. He was quite calm today, and even told us not to worry.”
“Please tell him I will be there soon. He has a book he can read in his bag.”
“Oh!” Wen Ning sounds surprised. There’s an audible swallow over the phone. “Oh, Mr. Lan. Um, of course we could arrange that, if you would prefer. It’s just—I hope you don’t mind, but A-Yuan specifically asked to stay with Mr. Wei while he waited for you to come get him.”
Lan Wangji almost careens into the vehicle on his left.
A-Yuan asked for Wei Wuxian? His son has never asked for another person in his life, not outside of Lan Wangji or his brother. Even that took time.
“Mr. Wei said it was fine,” Wen Ning adds, when Lan Wangji doesn’t reply right away. “He always stays late, even though I tell him he needs to take better care—I mean. He tends to stay late working on things. So he has A-Yuan right now. But I can fetch him?”
“No.” The word comes out quick and a bit desperate. Lan Wangji’s coughs, embarrassed by the roughness in his voice. “No. It is fine.”
If A-Yuan asked to spend time with Wei Wuxian, then Lan Wangji is not going to go against his son’s wishes. Learning to ask for what he wants is good, a sign of healthy communication. Besides, he thinks, with a pleasant, anticipatory twist in his stomach: Wei Wuxian was very helpful last time.
“Oh, alright.” Wen Ning sounds markedly relieved. “Well, then, I’ll just put him down as doing some after-school art for right now! See you soon, Mr. Lan.”
Lan Wangji hangs up without replying. His insides suddenly feel like they are trying to crawl out of him.
A-Yuan is with Wei Wuxian.
He’s going to see Wei Wuxian again.
By the time he arrives at the school he is in a full-blown state of panic, but for entirely different reasons than the last time he was late.
“104B again,” Wen Ning tells him, smiling politely when he walks in. “Oh! I’d be careful, though. They started doing chalk and charcoal today, so there’s going to be dust all over the floor. Mr. Wei told me to warn you ahead of time.”
Lan Wangji blinks, taken aback. That is surprisingly considerate, for someone who seems so scatter-brained.
“Mn,” he says, and races off to the room.
His heart is pounding as he goes. It’s only been a week since Wei Wuxian scrambled his thoughts, and Lan Wangji feels like seven days is not nearly enough time to prepare for it to happen again.
When he opens the door, that feeling is brought to center stage.
The room has been haphazardly rearranged so that all the chairs and tables are pushed to one side, leaving a giant open space in front of two of the classroom walls. Wen Ning was right about the mess. There are sticks of chalk and charcoal everywhere—some broken, some whole, some crumbled into dust, scattered across the floor like fallout from a mini explosion.
The scene is so visually loud, so much color and brightness, that it takes him a moment to find who he is looking for.
A-Yuan and Wei Wuxian are standing at the wall furthest from him, drawing. Directly on the wall. There’s no paper, or covering, or anything to protect the stone as both of them drag small sticks of chalk across it.
“Ooh yeah, that one is really good!” Wei Wuxian is telling A-Yuan.
Even facing away, he looks…great. His hair is pulled up into a messy bun that is barely holding itself together; Lan Wangji’s eyes are drawn to long strands of black hair that are stuck to the back of his neck. He’s wearing dark jeans today, not the black ones from before, and a bright red T-shirt that hugs him very nicely.
Lan Wangji does not have to see his face to know he is smiling.
“It’s us,” A-Yuan tells Wei Wuxian, and he hums in response. Lan Wangji’s mouth feels dry.
“You and your parents?”
“Me and Baba! The other one is Uncle.”
“Ah, I see, I see.” Neither he nor A-Yuan have noticed him still; they’re so engaged in drawing. “Are you all a happy bunny family?”
A-Yuan giggles. “No! We’re people! Not bunnies.”
Wei Wuxian turns to him, putting his hands on his hips. They’re coated in chalk, and bright pink smears all over his jeans at the motion, adding to an already expansive technicolor, messy rainbow. Lan Wangji watches, breathless, as he crouches down and waves a finger at A-Yuan.
“Well that doesn’t seem right! Are you sure you’re not a bunny? I thought I saw some suspicious ears going on somewhere here!” He tugs on one of A-Yuan’s ears, playful.
Instead of flinching away like Lan Wangji expects, A-Yuan… laughs.
It’s such a small noise, but it’s happy and carefree in a way that Lan Wangji has rarely heard outside the comfort and security of their own home. A rough exhale escapes him as he stares, shocked, at the openly pleased look that comes over his son’s face at the touch.
Wei Wuxian put that expression there. Wei Wuxian made his son laugh.
Oh no, Lan Wangji thinks distantly. This is not good.
He clears his throat, because if he looks at this moment for even a second longer he is going to combust, and two heads turn in his direction.
“Baba!” A-Yuan cries, overjoyed. If Lan Wangji weren’t already warm all over, that tiny voice would do it.
A-Yuan starts to bolt towards him, but Wei Wuxian darts forward and catches him before he can.
“Ah, ah! Little bunny, just a second, white clothes, white clothes on your Baba.” He glances at Lan Wangji, a small smile on his face. Clearly, he remembers the last time. “Come here, let me clean your hands!”
“It is fine,” Lan Wangji says, stepping forward to join them. The sight of Wei Wuxian holding his son gently around the waist and wiping his little hands on his T-shirt is doing something to him. He needs it to stop immediately, or he will die at the tender age of thirty.
A-Yuan wriggles away, earning a few grumbling protests from Wei Wuxian, and latches onto Lan Wangji’s leg. Lan Wangji picks him up, and soon his entire white dress shirt is smeared with colorful powder.
“Aiya! Let it be known to the world that I tried,” Wei Wuxian laments, shaking his head. He points up at Lan Wangji. “Don’t send me the dry cleaning bill, Mr. Lan!”
“I will not.”
He means it quite sincerely, but Wei Wuxian blinks at him, then laughs. It is just as wonderful as the last time Lan Wangji heard it: free, untamed. Inviting him into the joke, even if Lan Wangji does not see it yet.
It’s addicting. When A-Yuan giggles too, Lan Wangji thinks that he is possibly in trouble.
“I was kidding, but it’s good to know you don’t charge by the garment,” Wei Wuxian says, and stands up. “Although, if that was the rule, all of you parents would owe me money! Do you know how many of my shirts are an entirely different color than when I bought them?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t doubt that. Not all of the chalk on Wei Wuxian was put there by him: Lan Wangji can see distinct, child-sized handprints on his jeans. Still, Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem bothered. If anything, he sounds delighted about it.
“Baba,” A-Yuan says, drawing his attention back and pointing to the wall. “Do you see? Wei-gege said it is very good.”
Too embarrassed to look at Wei Wuxian after that name being used again, Lan Wangji steps closer to the wall and examines it. A large portion is covered in drawings, all different colors and shapes and styles blending together into a makeshift, unorganized tapestry.
A-Yuan is pointing to three wiggly shapes in an otherwise empty area, all done in white. Lan Wangji notes the extreme difference in height between the figure in the middle and the ones flanking it, and makes an inquiring noise.
“It’s Baba and Uncle!”
“I told him to draw his favorite things,” Wei Wuxian interjects. His cheekbone is smeared with charcoal, and he’s looking between Lan Wangji and A-Yuan with a tender, soft gaze. “So, y’know…”
Lan Wangji stares at the three white smears, throat suddenly tight. Crying over a chalk drawing would be quite foolish, but he wants to very badly.
It takes some time before he manages, “That is very nice A-Yuan.”
A-Yuan beams up at him like he hung the world. Lan Wangji’s heart is trying to burst out of his chest, it’s so full. He turns to Wei Wuxian, who has been humming under his breath to himself as he tries to wipe some of the chalk off his hands. Based on the amount that remains there, it’s a largely fruitless effort.
“What lesson is this?”
Wei Wuxian steps forward to stand next to them, into the carefully crafted bubble of space that Lan Wangji maintains around himself at all times. The late afternoon sun streaming in through the window highlights the subtle lines of his cheekbones, the stormy grey of his irises. This close, Lan Wangji can smell something like lotus flowers on him.
He should really move back. No—he should really want to move back. This is an invasion of space, after all.
He doesn’t even move a millimeter. He’s frozen.
“So,” Wei Wuxian starts, oblivious to the tumultuous whirlwind he’s creating inside Lan Wangji’s body, “you know what they say about coloring in the lines! Figured I might as well just address that sooner rather than later. I obviously couldn’t use paper –way too restrictive— and I’ve been asking Principal Nie if I could do some type of a mural for ages, so I thought eh, why not just go for it? The kids might as well be the ones to do it. Plus, once they’re done, we can take a picture in front of it and send it to the parents! Cute, right?”
Lan Wangji is struggling to follow the logic. The entire wall is just a blank canvas. There are not any shapes or outlines for the children to fill in.
Hesitant, he says, “But there are no lines.”
“Exactly!” Wei Wuxian grins at him, wide and earnest. “You’re so smart, Mr. Lan. Isn’t it great?”
He does not sound like he is making fun of him. Lan Wangji does not understand at all.
“Second lesson,” A-Yuan pipes in. He’s able to read the confusion on Lan Wangji’s face, even if Wei Wuxian is not. “Coloring in the lines is boring. We do not do it.”
“Yes!” Wei Wuxian claps once, delighted, as Lan Wangji blinks. “Aww, A-Yuan, you are such a good boy, you pay such close attention. Why color in the lines when you can make your own? Sometimes you just have to venture outside your boundaries, right? Including paper! And rules.”
He’s looks at Lan Wangji as he says it, eyes alight. Lan Wangji is transfixed by the dark sweep of his eyelashes, the light pink curve of his smile.
It is an absurd, unusual lesson. Wei Wuxian is so strange.
So lovely. So interesting.
Lan Wangji tries to make it sound as neutral as possible; after all, rules are important. But Wei Wuxian beams at him like it was an endorsement and starts picking sticks of chalk up from the floor.
“I knew someone would appreciate it! Anyways! Here I am again, chatting your ear off about my lesson plans. Sorry for keeping you late again when you were already behind, I’m sure you’re in a rush. It’s a Friday, you two probably have fun plans, right Lan-gege?”
His eyes have turned mischievous. Even though Lan Wangji was expecting the name at some point, it still makes his ears heat up. He does, in fact, have about fifteen things he needs to do tonight—but faced with Wei Wuxian’s teasing, he can’t think of a single one.
“Awww, Lan-gege, don’t be mad! Actually—given your stickman Uncle, maybe Lan-er-gege is better? I wonder, does he look as nice as you do too? Tell me, Mr. Lan, does this,” he makes a vague motion to all of Lan Wangji, “just run in the family, or are you unusually blessed?”
Lan Wangji once again wishes the floor would swallow him up. How is Wei Wuxian so shameless?
He refuses to address such a blatant attempt to fluster him. “May I take a picture?” he asks instead, and Wei Wuxian pauses in his teasing to tilt his head. He motions to the three white shapes that A-Yuan drew. “For—my fridge.”
He does not know whether to be embarrassed about the question, or if it is normal to want to do such a thing. Thankfully, Wei Wuxian does not seem bothered by it.
“Ohhh!” He grins. “Yeah, go ahead. I mean, he created it, so if anything, I’m the one stealing it by keeping it on my wall!”
As he crouches down, Wei Wuxian turns his gaze to A-Yuan. Lan Wangji is not sure if he is relieved about that or if he wants it back on him immediately.
“Don’t sue me, ok A-Yuan?” he asks, and A-Yuan giggles, uncertain. “When you become a famous artist, I can say I have an original work and we’ll split the profits, how does that sound?”
A-Yuan nods, hiding his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder with a blush. Lan Wangji, meanwhile, tries not to be too enamored by how openly Wei Wuxian is doting on his kid. Instead, he takes out his phone and captures a single, well-framed photo of the drawing.
It makes his throat tight to look at it again, even on the small screen. He will have to show it to his brother.
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, as soon as Lan Wangji stands back up. “Speaking of fridge art. Hold on one second, let me grab something.”
Lan Wangji and A-Yuan watch, curious, as he scuttles over to his desk, grabbing a key and sliding open a drawer. Truthfully, Lan Wangji had not realized it was a desk at all until that moment; it’s so covered in art supplies, stacks of drawings, and assorted pieces of paper that he assumed it was just another worktable.
When Wei Wuxian crosses back to them, he has an 8x11 piece of thick, off-white paper in his hands.
He holds it out for Lan Wangji to take. There’s an odd look on his face that Lan Wangji does not know how to read. Had Wei Wuxian not already proven himself to be impossibly thick faced, he would call it hesitance, but that cannot be right.
Lan Wangji glances at A-Yuan, who is openly interested, and accepts it.
His breath catches.
“Oh wow!” A-Yuan gasps. It is the appropriate reaction.
Looking up at them from the paper are two watercolor bunnies, snuggled against each other and wearing matching red ribbons around their necks. One is black, the other white, and their ears are perked up, showing pastel pink interiors. They’re sitting in a field, the sun shining down on them, the epitome of a perfect day. Whoever painted this has impressive skill: it’s so realistic-looking that Lan Wangji actually does a double-take, eyes catching on all the tiny details, each shadow and tuft of fur.
It’s very clearly their bunnies. But how…
When he looks up, stunned, Wei Wuxian is watching him.
“Okay,” he says quickly, like he needs to get all of the words out before Lan Wangji reacts, “so A-Yuan is always talking about your bunnies in class, right? I mean it’s either the bunnies or you, and so I thought—well, I was bored a few days ago, I needed a mental break grading the sixth grade clay projects because let me tell you those things can get pretty abstract, and A-Yuan’s told me so much about them that I thought I would give it a go. At painting them.”
Lan Wangji is openly staring. He forces his gaze back down to the bunnies. They look so soft.
“You painted this?”
Wei Wuxian laughs and looks away, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I like doing watercolor a lot. And animals are good practice, fur tends to give people trouble. I mean, not that it really matters, it’s just a small piece, but! I hope you don’t mind! I was going to give it to A-Yuan after class but Jingyi smeared charcoal all over Zizhen’s face and I had to—”
“It is beautiful,” Lan Wangji tells him, even though it is rude to interrupt. He’s floating. Wei Wuxian drew them their bunnies. No one has ever done something like that for them.
To his surprise, Wei Wuxian blushes. Lan Wangji watches, fascinated, as red flares across his cheeks.
It’s a very good look on him.
“Oh no, it’s—really not that special, it’s just a small thing, there’s tons of mistakes, I messed up the initial water outline and so you can see that the white bunny’s ear is just a little too—”
“I love it!” A-Yuan pipes in, enthusiastic. Lan Wangji thinks about scolding him, but then remembers that children model the behavior of their parents, and he did just interrupt Wei Wuxian earlier. Hmm. They will need to talk about it over dinner.
Wei Wuxian smiles at them, looking a little lost and more than a little pleased. “Well, thanks, bud. Uh—but, no pressure to take it or anything! I mean, you probably have a lot of nice art up, you seem like the type, it’s totally fine if you want to toss it.”
The thought is appalling. Lan Wangji holds the paper closer to himself, guarding it.
“We will keep it.”
“Can’t account for taste,” Wei Wuxian sighs, but he’s smiling in earnest now. The curve of it lights up his face. “Um, I hope I didn’t overstep. Your bunnies just sound very cute!”
“They are!” A-Yuan agrees, covering for the fact that Lan Wangji is having a hard time forming words. Overstep? This is the nicest gift he has gotten in ages, even if it’s clearly for A-Yuan. “Baba, can we take it home and show them?”
Wei Wuxian laughs, without the nerves this time. “Oh, you’re so cute. Your Baba is so lucky to have such a good boy, A-Yuan.”
A-Yuan glows at the compliment. Wei Wuxian’s smiles back with so much warmth that Lan Wangji’s brain just stops functioning.
What a beautiful person.
Quickly, he shakes himself from such a thought. Inappropriate. This is A-Yuan’s art teacher, someone who is just trying to do their job. Lan Wangji should not be thinking such unprofessional things.
“Time to go,” he murmurs to A-Yuan, who looks at him with disappointed eyes but does not complain. Lan Wangji is very lucky, indeed. He turns to Wei Wuxian and adds, “Thank you for today. I am sorry for the trouble.”
Wei Wuxian quickly waves him off. “Please, I was going to be here late anyways. I enjoyed the company! Both of your company. Whoever is making you late is doing me a favor, honestly. Er, oh wait, not that I want you to have to run late, I’m sure it’s a huge hassle for you and you don’t like it! But it’s just—it was nice to see you again, Mr. Lan.”
He stops talking after that, which is unfortunate. Lan Wangji misses his voice immediately.
Slowly, he inhales, trying to get himself back on track. He manages a stiff, stilted, “You as well,” before he sets A-Yuan down and gives him the drawing for safekeeping. Lan Wangji has been told it is good to give children moments to practice age-appropriate responsibility, and this seems like such a situation.
Also, it stops Lan Wangji from staring at it.
“Treat it gently,” he advises, and A-Yuan nods, very serious. Wei Wuxian chuckles.
As they walk to the door, Lan Wangji’s tongue tied up with his brain on what just happened and if he should say something more, Wei Wuxian goes back to cleaning up, humming. Lan Wangji pauses in the doorframe, caught by surprise.
He recognizes the song: it’s one of the early compositions of Xiao Xingchen, before he and Song Lan got popular and started touring. It is one of his favorites. He’s never known anyone else who was even familiar with it, let alone liked it enough to memorize the notes.
But there is Wei Wuxian, casually humming it.
And Lan Wangji has always appreciated a thoughtful composition.
“Lan Zhan,” he says into the space between them, heart beating wildly once more. The humming abruptly stops; when Lan Wangji looks back, Wei Wuxian has turned his attention to them again, clearly confused.
Lan Wangji takes a deep breath, voice oddly shaky. “My—name. Lan Zhan.”
“Ohh,” Wei Wuxian says, eyes widening. The smile that spreads across his face soon after is stunning, like concentrated sunshine, and he laughs. “Alright, then. Took you long enough to tell me! Lan Zhan: you can call me Wei Ying.”