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The Meaning of Family

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It's five minutes past nine when Lan Qiren is jolted back from the edge of sleep by hurried footsteps approaching his home. The sound would be quiet by anyone else's standards, but in the tranquility of Cloud Recesses it echoes in his tired mind. Irritated, Lan Qiren throws back the covers, yanks on an outer robe, shoves his feet into his boots and goes to throw open the door. Before he can, he catches the tail end of something one of the disciples is saying, "-Lan-gongzi said it was urgent."

Lan-gongzi. Sizhui. A cold feeling settles in the pit of Lan Qiren's gut. He had never even considered turning Wen Yuan away as a disciple when Wangji brought him back all those years ago, but he had, admittedly, strongly objected to Wangji adopting the boy. Looking back on it now, he's grateful that Wangji's stubbornness won out. That boy means the world to his nephew and is perhaps the main reason they didn't lose Wangji to grief after Wei Wuxian's death. If anything happens to him...

Lan Qiren opens the door of his home with a little more force than necessary and the two disciples outside startle.

"What is it," he demands.

"Lan-gongzi and Wei-qianbei have returned," one of the disciples says. "They just landed near the Lanshi-"

"They landed inside Cloud Recesses?" Lan Qiren interrupts. He doesn't wait for the disciples' explanations before making for the Lanshi. It shouldn't surprise him. Lan Qiren can admit that Wei Wuxian hasn't been nearly as disruptive an influence in Cloud Recesses as he feared, but he is still his mother's son. Rules are not nearly as optional as Wei Wuxian would like to believe. It doesn’t help that Wangji turns a blind eye to his husband’s rule breaking more often than not.

When he arrives at the Lanshi, the sight gives Lan Qiren pause, halting the angry tirade he had ready to throw at his nephew's husband. There are a few concerned disciples hovering around, some with lanterns that cast a glow on the scene. Sizhui is bouncing anxiously on his feet, a frightfully still baby cradled in his arms. Beside him, Wei Wuxian looks on the verge of collapse and is only still on his feet because he's holding an equally still toddler. Suibian lies unsheathed at his feet where he no doubt dropped it after flying all the way here. Wei Wuxian has made great strides with cultivating a core in the last year, but it's still weak. Long journeys are supposed to be out of the question. Lan Qiren isn't even sure how Wei Wuxian made it here without dropping out of the sky, but he must grudgingly admit that Wei Wuxian has always been good at achieving the impossible.

Quiet murmurs fall silent as everyone takes note of Lan Qiren. Wei Wuxian meets his eyes, none of the usual cheer or mischief in them. He just looks tired. And afraid.

"They're very sick," is all Wei Wuxian says. Lan Qiren nods and looks at the hovering disciples.

"Well?" he barks at them. "There are sick children. Wake Lan Yu." Then he starts herding Sizhui and Wei Wuxian towards the medical pavilion.

Lan Yu is already waiting when they arrive. She takes one look at the situation and carefully takes the baby in her arms while instructing one of her assistants to take the toddler. Wei Wuxian looks like the last thing he wants is to let go of the little girl, but he doesn't protest when the assistant takes her. Sizhui, hands free now, grabs hold of Wei Wuxian's arm as he sways.

"You should go get some rest, Xian-gege," he says. Wei Wuxian shakes his head. He drudges up the most exhausted, wan smile Lan Qiren may have ever seen.

"Ah, I'm fine, A-Yuan," he says, patting Sizhui's hand. Then he gently pries his son's fingers off and follows Lan Yu and her assistants inside. Sizhui frowns after him. Finally, he seems to remember that Lan Qiren is there and turns to give him a hasty and belated bow, nearly falling over from exhaustion. Lan Qiren grabs his arms and lifts him out of it. Sizhui's core is stronger than Wei Wuxian's, but he's still young and lacking in experience. It's almost odd to consider sometimes. Wangji had only been about Sizhui's age when they were at war with the Wens, Xichen only a few years older. But Sizhui was raised in a time of peace, not on the razor's edge of a war they all used to pretend they couldn’t see coming.

"Don't be ridiculous," Lan Qiren scolds his great nephew. "Go to your room and rest. It's past curfew." Sizhui wants to argue. Lan Qiren can see it in the way his brow furrows and his jaw tightens stubbornly. It's a rebellious streak that Lan Qiren long ago had to admit didn't just come from Wei Wuxian, though since he settled in Cloud Recesses it's certainly become more pronounced. In the end though, Sizhui bites back the arguments. He doesn't try to bow again, just offers a salute, takes one more worried glance at the medical pavilion, then heads towards the juniors' dorms. Lan Qiren watches him go until he rounds a corner. Then he looks at the medical pavilion and lets out the barest of sighs. After a moment, he turns and goes back to the Lanshi's courtyard. There are no more hovering disciples, but Suibian still lies abandoned on the ground. Lan Qiren picks it up and sheathes it, then stands there for a long moment, staring at the characters engraved on the sheathe.

That lecture feels like a lifetime ago. In a way it was. Certainly for Wei Wuxian, who was dead for sixteen years before being brought back in a body not his own. Lan Qiren remembers when his greatest concern was keeping order in a classroom filled with guest disciples. A challenge even without the whirlwind that was Cangse Sanren's son. A day hadn't gone by back then without Wei Wuxian causing some kind of trouble. Pranks in the classroom, arguments with Jin disciples, sneaking into the back hill, smuggling alcohol in after curfew. The list went on. It had been like Cangse Sanren was back in Cloud Recesses herself as a guest disciple of Yunmeng Jiang, making Lan Qiren tug at his newly grown beard in distress while his older brother took amusement at his inability to cope with such a wild personality. Lan Qiren had not been sad to see Cangse Sanren leave. He hadn't been sad to see Wei Wuxian leave either. Until he'd learned that instead of going back to Lotus Pier with Jiang Fengmian, Wei Wuxian had gone after Wangji on his quest to track the remaining shards of Yin Iron.

Simpler times. Before war. Before Wei Wuxian went missing for three months and returned cultivating his dangerous heretical path. Lan Qiren returns to the medical pavilion. Lan Yu meets him at the door.

"I'm not too worried about the toddler," she says without preamble. "She's no worse off than our Sizhui was when Wangji first brought him back. Her fever is mild and will likely break in the next few days, if not tomorrow, after which she just needs plenty of rest and a good nutritional diet. The baby, however..." She sighs. Her mouth draws into a tight, thin line. Lan Qiren remembers that look from when his sister-in-law had fallen ill one winter and never recovered.

"I see," Lan Qiren says. He wants to ask how long, but the question sticks in his throat. Instead he asks, "Where did they come from?"

"Orphans from a town near where Wei-gongzi and Sizhui were night hunting," Lan Yu answers. "Wei-gongzi noticed them and took them to a local doctor, but he didn't have the means to treat them, so Wei-gongzi rushed to get them back here." She sighs again. "When is Wangji expecting to return?"

Lan Qiren doesn't like that question one bit. He likes it even less when he says, "Four days," and Lan Yu's frown deepens. He doesn't ask if he should send his nephew a message telling him to return early, regardless of whether the situation in Yueyang is settled or not. From what he’s seen so far, Wei Wuxian would need the support if the worst happens.

"Is there nothing you can do?" Lan Qiren finally asks. He's thinking about when Xichen was two and developed a bad fever. Lan Qiren had been certain for a while that his nephew wouldn't survive it.

"Her chances aren't zero," Lan Yu says. "But they're not great. I'm not- I'm not sure she'll make it through the night." A look of grief passes over Lan Yu's face before her professional mask is back in place. "Wei-gongzi is in with the children. I'm going back to bed, but my assistants are on hand if anything happens and I'll return first thing in the morning to reassess the situation." She gives him a respectful nod and leaves. Lan Qiren stands rooted to the spot for a moment before looking into the room Lan Yu indicated. Wei Wuxian sits on the floor beside the crib, leaning against it as he fights against exhaustion. Lan Qiren enters quietly, placing Suibian beside its owner. Wei Wuxian blinks, then slowly draws his eyes up to Lan Qiren.

"You left it outside," Lan Qiren says gruffly.

"Ah. Thanks." Wei Wuxian's eyes return to the baby. Her little chest rises and falls too rapidly and there's an unhealthy flush to her skin.

"Go get some sleep," Lan Qiren orders. Predictably, Wei Wuxian does not obey him. He shakes his head, eyes still focused on the baby.

"If this is her last night on this earth, then she won't be alone," Wei Wuxian says with quiet conviction. Lan Qiren watches him for a long moment. He recalls that Wei Wuxian was once an orphan, alone on the streets after his parents died on a night hunt before Jiang Fengmian took him in and gave him a home. It's no surprise that he would want to do the same for other orphaned children. For all Wei Wuxian's faults, there is no denying that he is a compassionate man. Lan Qiren has seen the way he interacts with the young disciples of Cloud Recesses. He listens attentively to them, responds seriously to every request they bring to him, no matter how inane, how senseless. Lan Qiren wonders if this compassion is what Wangji saw even back then, if that was why he had so stubbornly clung to his belief in Wei Wuxian's goodness.

The baby lets out a tiny noise, little face scrunching in her fevered sleep. Wei Wuxian reacts immediately, on his feet and leaning over to smooth back her little wisps of hair, murmuring soft, soothing words. Lan Qiren is struck again with the memory of Xichen's fever when he was two. Lan Yu had repeatedly urged him to get some rest, but Lan Qiren had been unable to bring himself to leave his nephew's side. He leaves now, catching hold of a patrolling disciple. He instructs a cot to be brought to the medical pavilion. The disciple blanches when he also instructs her to retrieve a change of robes for Wei Wuxian from the Jingshi and Lan Qiren recalls that his nephew has always kept his private residence off limits to everyone but family. Extenuating circumstances. Wangji will be willing to overlook it.

With that done, Lan Qiren stands for a moment in the midst of Cloud Recesses at night, unsure what to do next. He cannot fathom going back to sleep, not while the life of an infant under the care of his nephew's husband hangs in the balance. He considers spending the night grading assignments, but quickly dismisses that as well. He won't be able to fully focus on it tonight. Another memory comes to him, this time of when Wangji had been four and caught a cough so bad sometimes he couldn't breathe. He remembers the rattle of Wangji's chest as he sniffled miserably in bed, tears rolling down his cheeks. The knowledge that there was nothing he could do to take away the pain and discomfort had eaten away at Lan Qiren even after his nephew was healthy again. The only thing that had seemed to stop Wangji's tears was when Lan Qiren had put him in his lap and played qin for him. Nodding once to himself, Lan Qiren heads to his home.

By the time he returns to the medical pavilion a cot has been set up in a corner of the room. Wei Wuxian is standing by it, no longer in the red and black robes he wore night hunting. Now he's wearing a white inner robe with a light blue robe over the top, tied with a white sash. It's one of the few sets of robes he owns in Lan colors and it still gives Lan Qiren whiplash every time he sees Wei Wuxian wear them. In his hands he holds another robe, white, and looks bemused.

"This isn't mine," Wei Wuxian says when he notices Lan Qiren watching. Wangji's, then. No doubt the disciple he sent had been in such a rush to get in and out she hadn't paid too much attention to who's robes she was grabbing. Sure enough, when Wei Wuxian puts it on, the robe trails on the floor and sits too wide on his shoulders. At Lan Qiren's raised eyebrows he says, "His robes all smell like the sandalwood incense he always burns. I like it." Rather than comment on that, Lan Qiren sits himself on the floor, qin laid out on his lap. Wei Wuxian watches him curiously.

"I used to do this when Xichen and Wangji were sick as children," Lan Qiren explains, tuning the instrument.

"I used to play for A-Yuan when he had nightmares," Wei Wuxian says. He twirls Chenqing in his hand, so tired he almost drops it.

"Nightmares about what?" Lan Qiren asks. He knows Sizhui had them when he was little, remembers how many sleepless nights Xichen had endured while caring for the child during Wangji's seclusion, how many sleepless nights Wangji had endured after Sizhui moved into the Jingshi with him.

"He never really described anything distinct," Wei Wuxian says. "Mostly just feelings, sensations. He was too young to really understand what happened to his people at Qiongqi Pass, but that doesn't mean it didn't leave its scars." They fall silent after that. Lan Qiren finishes tuning his qin and begins to play, soft gentle notes meant to soothe and comfort. After a moment, Wei Wuxian sits beside him. Chenqing is halfway to his lips when Lan Qiren darts him a disapproving look.

"Do not waste your spiritual energy," he instructs.

"I'd hardly call this a waste," Wei Wuxian argues and begins to accompany Lan Qiren. Chenqing is a fierce and mighty tool with a reputation of death and destruction. Lan Qiren did not spend much time on the battlefield himself, but he has heard countless stories of the shrill, haunting call of the Ghost Flute. It shocks him into almost missing a note when the harmony that falls into place alongside his melody is warm and calming. He can detect the barest thread of spiritual energy in it, all Wei Wuxian can manage to spare with a young core already pushing its limits.

He discovered the core issue by accident. Lan Qiren had found himself happening upon Wei Wuxian leaning heavily against the wall of a building on one of the pathways a few months after settling in Cloud Recesses, clearly unwell. Lan Qiren isn't sure he'll ever really approve of Wei Wuxian's presence in Cloud Recesses, but he isn't needlessly cruel. He'd grabbed Wei Wuxian's wrist, feeling for his meridians to see what was wrong and been baffled to find that, despite doing nothing but teaching that day, Wei Wuxian's spiritual energy was low. So he'd traced the problem to its source. Facing an oncoming fever, Wei Wuxian hadn't realized until it was too late, until Lan Qiren had felt the empty space where he expected a core. Wei Wuxian hadn't explained where his core had gone, though based on memories of Jiang Wanyin's frantic actions at Lotus Pier just before the fiasco at Guanyin Temple, Lan Qiren has his suspicions. He had simply said that the damage to his dantian in his old body meant he couldn't support the formation of a new core. Lan Qiren had thought about that for a week before tracking Wei Wuxian down during one of his classes to point out that Mo Xuanyu's body had no such issue and that if he intended to form a new core, the sooner he started the better.

They play together for an hour before Wei Wuxian's head dips, Chenqing falling from his hands. He blinks at where it lands in his lap. Lan Qiren ceases playing long enough to level Wei Wuxian with his most authoritative look.

"Sleep," he commands. Wei Wuxian blinks owlishly at him. "I will wake you if anything changes." Wei Wuxian looks at the two children he brought back, the toddler sound asleep in her bed, the infant fighting for her life in her crib. He bites his lip. Then, finally, he gets to his feet and stumbles over to collapse on the cot. Lan Qiren returns to playing and doesn't stop until his fingers ache too much to pluck the strings.

-

When Wangji returns four days later Wei Wuxian is still living in the room in the medical pavilion. Lan Qiren is still spending much of his time there as well, his qin taking up residence on a table he had brought after that first night. The toddler is sitting in Lan Qiren's lap, watching with a concentrated frown on her face that reminds him of his nephew as he slowly demonstrates the different notes that can be played on a qin. The baby sleeps cradled in Wei Wuxian's arms where he sits leaning back against the crib.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian's exclamation is soft, mindful of the sleeping baby and the shy, nervous toddler. "Lan Zhan, I think we should adopt these two!"

"Okay," Wangji says almost before Wei Wuxian can even get the full sentence out. His eyes have already gone soft as he takes in the children, mouth turned up in a warm smile. He took readily to being a father to Sizhui and Lan Qiren has no doubt the same will hold true for his new daughters. His eyes shift to what Wei Wuxian is wearing and Wangji sounds amused when he points out, "That is mine." Wei Wuxian glances down at the robe accidentally delivered to him four days ago and grins.

"I think you'll find you're mistaken, Lan Zhan," he says. "It's definitely mine now." Wei Wuxian rises and Lan Qiren politely turns away while he welcomes his husband home. When Lan Qiren looks again, Wangji is holding the baby. A lump forms in Lan Qiren's throat and he puts his focus back on his qin. A moment later there's a soft rustle of fabric and from the corner of his eye he sees his nephew sit beside him. His relationship with Wangji has not been great for a while now. He’s not sure what to expect, but patiently waits while Wangji sorts out his words. He's been like this since he was young, always thinking carefully before speaking. With Wangji, the key is patience.

"Wei Ying said you have been a great help these past days," Wangji says softly. Lan Qiren looks over and sees one of the baby's hands curled around Wangji's finger as he lightly bounces her. Wangji glances up at him as he says, "Thank you." Lan Qiren has to take a moment before he can respond. His eyes move to where Wei Wuxian is standing, watching his family with a soft, warm smile.

The words slip out before he can think too hard about them, "Family must look after each other." He clears his throat and looks straight ahead, but he hears Wei Wuxian's sharp inhale. When he rises, he feels Wangji's hand brush his sleeve and pauses for a fraction of a second before gathering up his qin. He'll leave Wangji to get acquainted with his new daughters.

There's a large stack of ungraded assignments calling Lan Qiren's name.