Sometimes a beginning is also an ending.
Life can be cruel in its game of give and take, caring little of what it leaves behind. In a bare, cold room, copper tang and anguish turn the air into something stifling, something malignant that permeates the body and leaves a brand on one's very soul. It signals of misplaced intentions and dark misdeeds. A decision made by ones with power, free of will or mercy.
Entering the world in such chaos is hardly an ideal beginning, but there is worse to come. Greater horrors that lie beyond.
“Please!” a young woman begs, wild with pain and delirium. “Please…”
“Hush, child,” another scolds by her face. “Stay quiet, lest you wish to invoke every evil spirit in the forest. Soon it will be over.”
“Don't,” she wails, but it fades to a whimper.
Someone applies a sponge to her forehead, pushing away the hair that sticks to her forehead.
“Stop! Get away from me! I—”
Her words die with a cry, and she hunches forward, gripping the swell of her stomach as another wave of agony rushes through her.
“Be still. Be silent…”
The command is steady, tender even. Wei Wuxian tries to roll his eyes, but they only roll to the back of his head with a muffled moan. The hand over his mouth releases to slide an arm under his knee and hike his leg and robes a little higher. Behind him, the tree he's pinned against digs a little more into his back as breath ghosts over his neck, hot and wet.
“I wouldn't have to be-ee, ah, be quiet if you could just wait,” Wei Wuxian tries to chastise. Instead, he's the one punished by a forceful snap of hips and teeth buried into soft skin.
“There might not be time tonight,” Lan Wangji answers, as if stating simple fact. If it weren't for the heat against his neck and between his legs, Wei Wuxian could easily believe he was totally unaffected, even at a time like this. But he knows better. Even if Lan Wangji's breath comes measured and quiet, his heart always gives him away. It's evident in the way it thunders against his chest, and the way his grip grows tight and his claim more forceful. With a grin, Wei Wuxian tries to scrabble his pristine clothes askew, to tug at his forehead ribbon, and only finds both hands pinned helplessly above his head with just one of Lan Wangji's.
“We could have done this in the inn, before - hh, slower Lan-Er Gege, slower - before we left. Instead, mmph... of on the open path.”
“You slept too late.”
Categorically unfair. For once, Wei Wuxian was up before nine this morning. Granted, perhaps only five minutes before nine, but the before was the important part. A ridiculous hour, really. He had already been feeling quite partial to a quick nap to recharge before Lan Wangji had swept him up and pinned him down.
“Then tomorrow, Lan Zhan,” he whines, without any true feeling behind it. “Anyone could see us here!”
Lan Wangji gives just the smallest shake of his head as he presses into him again.
Putting up only a token struggle for a moment longer, Wei Wuxian switches gears with a wicked grin. With a clever little roll of his hips, he finally hears his husband's breath hitch quietly in his ears.
“That was what was promised, wasn't it?”
Lil'Apple is as ill-tempered as ever when Lan Wangji lifts Wei Wuxian onto its back, eyeing him with complete disdain. Wei Wuxian can't help but feel as though the donkey passes judgement on him for their little pitstop. It huffs its displeasure, stomping when he slaps its behind.
“Oh be quiet you silly donkey,” he laughs. “All this time to rest and chew on the best grass you can find… You should be thanking me!”
Lil'Apple flicks its tail, as if ready to throw him off, but it stills when Lan Wangji takes the rein, going docile immediately. Grinning, Wei Wuxian grabs a fistful of the mane at the base of the its neck and tugs.
“So, Qing village, huh?”
“Wherever there's chaos?”
It's a task hardly befitting a skilled cultivator like the Second Young Master Lan. Just a single corpse, terrorising a small village to the west. Most would find it beneath their station to even consider travelling out. But not Hanguang-jun. Beneath a cold jade exterior, beat a heart warm and compassionate. For him, duty and love were not always so different. No matter how insignificant, he would always be there for those in need.
Wei Wuxian never needed convincing when it came to Lan Wangji. It was more than the will of some greater force — Wei Wuxian would always long to be by his side in this second life. But before they had set out from Gusu, he had uttered a single sentence that only tempered his resolve further.
“It's taking the children.”
Dusk creeps in softly as they reach the village gate. It casts a sense of peace over the place, deceptive or otherwise. Despite sitting atop Lil'Apple all day with Lan Wangji walking alongside, Wei Wuxian exaggerates his woes.
“Lan Zhan, I'm so hungry,” he whines, slumping sideways melodramatically. A strong arm wraps around him without fail, holding him close for a moment, before setting him down on his feet tenderly.
“We will eat shortly,” Lan Wangji promises, unerring even as Wei Wuxian immaturely leans his weight against him.
Lil'Apple snorts derisively when Wei Wuxian clings a little tighter, doing his best to hinder their journey. But Lan Wangji doesn't stumble a single step or scold. Wei Wuxian wonders if maybe he's become too used to his antics, perhaps just a little desensitised to his teasing and childish behaviour. It makes him pout, disappointed at how hard it is to get a rise out of him.
Too tolerant, he thinks. I miss getting under his skin.
When Lan Wangji glances down to him, Wei Wuxian sees a flicker of concern, so he turns the pout into a ridiculous kissing gesture, expecting him to sigh and move on. Instead, he dips to close the distance with a faint brush of soft lips, leaving Wei Wuxian momentarily stunned.
“I'll find a stable,” Lan Wangji says quietly, as he stops them in front of an inn. Reaching into his robe, he places his money pouch in his hand.
“Order something. I'll be back in a moment.”
Wei Wuxian pouts again, and this time there's no worried pause before Lan Wangji swoops down to kiss it away, humming quietly against his lips.
“I'll save a jar of wine for you,” Wei Wuxian grins when he pulls back, but Lan Wangji only hums again before departing.
Wei Wuxian wastes little time finding a table and ordering for them both, and Lan Wangji arrives just as their soup and shuizhu and drinks arrive. Placing down his sword and guqin, Lan Wangji simply pushes his jar to Wei Wuxian's side without a word.
“You're no fun.”
“No talking while eating.”
Wei Wuxian is too hungry to argue, wolfing down his meal while Lan Wangji eats delicately opposite him.
“I heard they've taken an offering into the forest tonight.”
Wei Wuxian pauses at that, half-drained jar of wine stopping at his lips.
“Maybe finally we will have some peace again,” says another voice. “We've been afraid to let the children out of our sight since this all began. But now that spirit has what it wants, maybe it will leave us alone.”
There's a crease between Lan Wangji's brow, and so Wei Wuxian drains the rest of his drink, swivelling in his seat.
“Leave you alone?” he asks, paying no heed to the startled looks as he slings his arms over the shared backing of their chairs. “What will leave you alone?”
Wei Wuxian can see the annoyance in their faces at being disturbed, but he speaks cheerfully, so they seem reluctant to make a scene.
“How could you not know?” one of the men grumble, but Wei Wuxian simply smiles, and so he continues, tugging at his beard. “The corpse belongs to a widow who lived in the forest.”
“Her only son was hunting duck with some of the other village boys,” the companion cuts in. “But there was… an accident.”
He's not a pretty man to look at, Wei Wuxian thinks. Not like his Lan Zhan. All crooked nose and thin hair and missing teeth. Wei Wuxian feels sorry for any wife he might have, and doubly as sorry for the children.
“After he was buried, she went mad with grief. Her husband passed years before, so that boy was everything to her. It was days before they found her body. Died of heartache, if you believe that kind of thing.”
“How terrible,” Wei Wuxian gasps, as if he hasn't heard the story already. “Lan Zhan, isn't that terrible?”
“That's not even the worst of it,” the bearded man says gravely. “We tried to bury the body by the house, but it rose from the grave before we could cover it. Ever since then, it has come into the town, stealing children and taking them back into the forest.”
Wei Wuxian has heard this much too. That the lonely corpse was trying to replace what she had lost in an attempt to mend her broken heart, no matter how still it lie in her rotting chest. At first, the boys had been of a similar age to her son, old enough that they could escape when the corpse would lay down to rest. But this had only upset the widow. Eventually she had learned to take the younger children, ones that couldn't run away at dawn, and the village had been forced to mount rescue missions to take back their sons.
“So the nuns came up with a solution,” the bearded man says, taking a swig of his drink.
He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Give the corpse what it seeks. Leave a child out in the forest to please it. Then maybe it will leave our village alone.”
It's not at all what he expects. Wei Wuxian feels poison crawl through his flesh at the reveal.
“And just how would the nuns choose such an offering? Surely no mother would wish to give up her child, just to keep the children of others safe.”
“There is a girl in the brothel,” the ugly man answers. “I doubt she knows who the father is. If she produced a son, the nuns believed it would satisfy the spirit.”
“They plan to whisk a babe fresh out of the womb to the forest like a sacrifice?”
This part, Wei Wuxian hasn't heard, and all trace of the cheer from before vanishes like smoke.
“It's just a prostitute's bastard,” the bearded man says defensively. “Poor child probably would have had a miserable life. It's a mercy for all, really.”
Wei Wuxian feels a dark intent rise from his belly that he last felt a lifetime ago. Suddenly Chenqing feels unbearably heavy at his side. His blood chills in his veins and he feels something hideous split across his lips as he stares at the men.
Lan Wangji cuts through it all with just his name. Wei Wuxian knows he can't see his face while he's turned in his seat, but it's as if he senses the change. As if he can hear the terrible thoughts that fly through his mind in that instant. Slowly, he turns back into his seat properly, pushing away his bowl.
“Lan Zhan, I think I've lost my appetite,” he says evenly. “Should we take a walk instead?”
“At once,” comes the steady reply.
An arm goes firm around his shoulders when he stands, as if preventing him from lashing out as they pass. It almost annoys him, until Lan Wangji aims a cold look at the two men that has them quaking in their seats. Good. They should be afraid. Them, and every person complicit in such a grave transgression.
“A baby,” he whispers when they are clear of the noise of the inn. This time, his distress isn't an act. “How could anyone agree to this?”
“They're afraid,” Lan Wangji murmurs.
“Afraid?” Wei Wuxian laughs bitterly. “They do not know the meaning.”
The darkness swells again, cold and consuming and furious. It colours his vision red and narrows his senses down to the racing of his own heart as he clutches Chenqing.
“I could show them what it is to be afraid. To wake from nightmares only find worse horrors in the real world. To live always conscious of what could be over their shoulder, or behind the door, or under their bed. I would show them true fear…”
Warm palms and long fingers bracket his face, and when Wei Wuxian looks up, he sees a clear message reflected in golden eyes.
Come back to me.
Heat seeps back into his blood and it's as if the lamps around them have been relit, chasing away the shadows. With a sigh, Wei Wuxian relents to the touch, and he can see the brief flicker of relief in Lan Wangji's expression. He feels a wave of guilt, remembering everything his love suffered in his last life because of his sole focus and ignorance. He doesn't want to mar their second chance with more of the same. And so he presses an apologetic kiss into his palm, lowering his voice.
“Circumstances of one's birth shouldn't be what defines their life. Let alone how long they live it.”
Wei Wuxian can't help but think of Jin Guangyao at such a time. About how he had risen above his birth, but had let bitterness fester inside his soul for years. Despite ascending to sect leader, Jin Guangyao had never truly been able to escape the scorn of being the son of a prostitute, and it had led him on a path of vengeance and terrible misdeeds. It feels a little like history repeating now, if only with a far more sinister beginning. Maybe this is a chance to set things right. To rewrite the narrative. He barely finishes the thought before lips brush against his forehead, bringing him back to the present.
“Come,” Lan Wangji says softly, unsheathing Bichen, and Wei Wuxian goes easily when he pulls him close to ascend together.
In the air, they can see a small congregation entering the temple at the village centre. Wei Wuxian can only assume that they are returning from a journey into the forest. It makes him want to call out to all of the resentful energy in reach to unleash hell upon those who would choose themselves over the most vulnerable in the world. But there is also fear in his heart for a child he's never met, and that trumps his fury. He forces his focus forward.
“We'll follow the path,” Lan Wangji says when they land at the forest's edge, helping Wei Wuxian down gently.
“They wouldn't have strayed too far.”
The passage of time as they wander feels like a burden. The night is cold, even with a body as warm as Lan Wangji's beside him. With every second that passes, Wei Wuxian imagines sand slipping between his fingers, marking the moments they have until it will just be too late. Even if the corpse beats them to the child, treats it with love and care, it won't be able to keep it alive for long. It will need food and warmth and clean swaddling. Nothing a dead creature can provide.
Lan Wangji stops still suddenly, and takes his hand to urge him to do the same. Wei Wuxian looks to him with confusion, but then he hears it too: a soft, faint cry on the wind, coming from the south. Bichen hurries their pace, gliding them low across the forest floor just fast enough that the wind doesn't rush in their ears and bury the quiet sound. Wei Wuxian is the first to see a bundle of red amongst the fallen leaves.
“There, Lan Zhan,” he says urgently, tugging his sleeve and pointing. He doesn't wait for Bichen to come to a halt, jumping from the blade to rush to the babe's side. He's still birth-bloodied, blue from crying or the cold, Wei Wuxian isn't sure. His umbilical cord lays long across his pale belly, and Wei Wuxian wonders if he even had a chance to latch onto his mother's breast before he was snatched away.
“There, there, little one,” he coos, choking back on his anger as he kneels to scoop him up.
“Be brave, don't cry. It will be alright.”
The weak bleating from the infant could hardly constitute as crying, and when Wei Wuxian tugs at his own robes to hold him close, he feels cold against his skin. Too cold. They need to get him back to the village immediately.
A crack of a branch underfoot has him jumping to his feet, holding the infant tucked in his robes protectively. Lan Wangji is already facing in the direction of the disturbance, his guqin off of his back and in his hands, Bichen hovering by his shoulder. There is a beat of unnatural silence, then a swaying creature emerges from the trees. Its robes are ripped and dirty, hair loose from its ribbon and wild around an ashen face. It could only be the corpse that has been terrorising the Qing village. She pauses, as if uncertain, while Lan Wangji holds his ground, standing protectively in the centre. But then a feeble whimper comes from against Wei Wuxian's chest, and a supernatural kind of focus comes to the corpse's eyes. She steps toward him, intent, but Lan Wangji simply moves between them again.
She doesn't like that. Saliva drips from black, cracking lips as she snarls, eyes snapping back to Lan Wangji. She lunges toward him, as if to eliminate that which stands in the way of the offering made to her. There's violence in the way her arms swing in front of her, and Wei Wuxian can tell that the child has become her only goal. She will kill to get to him, desperate in a way that makes Wei Wuxian pity her. She only wants to fill a hole in her heart. A cold, grey corpse with an aching soul.
A single, sure stroke of the of the guqin's strings pins her down. The sound reverberates around them, rustling the trees above and scattering the sleeping birds. The child sobs again, and the notes waver for a moment, much to Wei Wuxian's surprise.
“Focus, Lan Wangji,” he scolds, and it would be gleeful were it not for their circumstances. “He will cry whether or not you play.”
It's a little sweet, seeing how the child's distress hampers him, but it's not the time for the stoic cultivator to go soft. Wei Wuxian watches his shoulders stiffen and he strums again, a little louder, forcing his will on the dead widow. She screeches when the baby cries again.
“Hush, little one,” Wei Wuxian soothes, juggling his hold and pulling an arm free from his sleeve to begin fashioning it into a crude sling together with the tattered red blanket. Lan Wangji may be able to subdue the widow, but Wei Wuxian knows he would rather not destroy her. She's not an evil being. She just needs to be put to rest after being left to rot alone so long without a family left to bury her.
There may be something he can do to help, but he needs use of both of his hands. Only once he's certain the infant is cradled securely below his ribs, skin to skin with his head and neck carefully supported, does he reach for Chenqing.
Stay still, little one, he thinks. Just for a little while.
With a breath, trying to steady the patter of his heart, he brings the flute to his lips, playing as the last note of the guqin fades. The widow staggers to her feet, but stays still, tamed by the song — at least for now. The baby goes quiet too, and Lan Wangji moves swiftly to his side to place a hand over the bundle in his robes. Wei Wuxian hears the soft sigh of relief in his ear as the child swells with a tiny breath under his palm.
“We need to find her son,” Lan Wangji murmurs, just loud enough to be heard over Chenqing. “We'll bury her with him.”
The hand on the child doesn't move, and Wei Wuxian feels his lips curl against the flute. He wants so desperately to tease him, but his current occupation makes it a little too hard. He'll just have to save his words until after. Lan Wangji holds them both secure as he steps onto Bichen, carrying them away slowly with the widow stumbling along beneath them. The song falters for a moment when the infant shifts against his belly, and he hears Lan Wangji hum quietly.
Wei Wuxian can hear the smile in his voice, and he shoots him an affronted look. But despite the tease, Lan Wangji seems entirely unmoved, much to his chagrin.
Their arrival back into the town is quick to attract attention. The sight of the cultivators flying together and the obedient widow trailing behind them is enough to bring the frightened folk out of their homes and onto the street. It doesn't take them long to realise who is in their midst.
“That's the flute Chenqing…”
“It's the Yiling Patriarch! The demon leader!”
“And Hanguang-jun… I heard rumour they were cultivation partners, but I never believed it could be true!”
Lan Wangji cuts through their chatter with a cold voice.
“Where was this woman's son buried?”
For a moment, there's silence but for Chenqing's song, then one of the braver villagers speaks.
“He's in a plot behind the temple. Where the earth is still turned.”
“And the mother of the child sent into the woods?”
Somehow, Lan Wangji's tone becomes icier.
No answer comes, and so Wei Wuxian removes Chenqing from his lips. He knows he already cuts a fearsome figure, with the famous black flute in hand and eyes illuminated red with vengeful energy. But cutting his tune short inspires a new kind of terror, and the villagers’ eyes go immediately to the widow. She's still docile - for now - but already she looks around in confusion, as if searching for the missing music.
“Where is the child's mother?” he demands.
He spies the garb of a temple nun and, remembering the words of the men in the inn, singles her out.
“You. Tell me, or Chenqing won't play a single note more.”
The villagers, motivated by panic, push the woman forward to stand before them. She looks up, trembling, before casting her eyes down, uttering words too soft to be heard. If it weren't for the baby, he would raise his voice. Instead, he stays steady as he speaks again.
“Speak up and look at me when you talk,” he says, with a coldness to rival Lan Wangji's.
“She… she passed,” the nun repeats timidly.
“She tried to follow us out into the forest, but… she bled…”
Wei Wuxian can feel a rage building inside of him that he's all too eager to release. But the voice beside him brings him clarity.
“Find a milk mother and bring them to the inn,” Lan Wangji instructs. “We will put the corpse to rest.”
Wei Wuxian takes his cue. Still scowling, he raises Chenqing to his lips and plays a slow, soothing tune once more. He can see the collective relief in the eyes around him as the widow trundles forward again, toward the temple cemetery.
Some of the villagers follow to watch at a distance as the trio come to a stop by a fresh grave, and the widow kneels before it while Bichen carves out the earth beside it. When Chenqing changes its song, the corpse gets to her feet and calmly lowers herself into the pit in the ground, laying perfectly still as Lan Wangji covers her. Wei Wuxian waits until all the earth is replaced before he lowers his flute, crouching to place a hand on the mound.
“She's at peace with her son. She will rest now.”
Lan Wangji is looking at him strangely from over the grave when he straightens, a hand bracing the baby bundled at his midsection.
“... Why did you swaddle him so low?” he asks with a small frown, eyes locked on his hand.
Wei Wuxian blinks.
“Well, I didn't want him to get in the way of Chenqing. Can you imagine if I elbowed a newborn in the head? It would be a disaster!”
But Lan Wangji seems to think better of the sentence.
“Look?” he prompts, glancing down at himself.
A sudden understanding comes to him, and with a wicked grin, he turns his profile to Lan Wangji, running a hand very deliberately over the baby wrapped to him.
“Lan-Er Gege, are you picturing me with child?”
Lan Wangji's expression doesn't so much as twitch, but his ears turn a delightful shade of pink that has Wei Wuxian breaking into peals of laughter. He can tell his husband is taken aback, and it reminds him so wonderfully of the fifteen-year old boy who used to oversee his punishments in the library of the Cloud Recesses. One who used to get flustered over rabbits and picture books and his incessant teasing. Maybe he can still get under his skin. His laughter is cut short by a yelp though, and suddenly Lan Wangji is by his side with an open look of concern.
“Is everything alright?”
“Fine, fine,” he dismisses with a wave of his hand, the gesture aborted when he squirms on the spot. “He's, uh, just trying to suckle. Ha.”
Lan Wangji makes a quiet sound, and Wei Wuxian can see the mirth in his eyes when he looks up.
“Don't you laugh at me, Lan Zhan!” he grumbles, without any real feeling. “He is going to find himself very disappointed in just a moment.”
As if on cue, the babe starts to shift and whimper, and Wei Wuxian carefully fishes him from his makeshift sling. Already he feels far warmer in his arms, with a touch more rose in his lips and cheeks. His little limbs flail before Wei Wuxian cradles him tight to his chest. Without a word, Lan Wangji wraps an arm around his waist so the child rests between them, ready for one last journey on Bichen for the evening. Wei Wuxian shamelessly huddles closer to tuck his head under his chin, leaning to let Lan Wangji take his weight until they touch back down in front of the inn.
They find a woman waiting nervously at the door, and she's quick to avert her eyes. Knowing that she doesn't deserve the brunt of any feelings he holds for the village, Wei Wuxian does his best to put her at ease.
“Are you here for us, sister?” he addresses, as kindly as he can muster.
She glances up, locking eyes with him briefly, before bowing her head.
“They told me you needed a rumu,” she says softly.
“Come,” Lan Wangji instructs. “I will arrange for a room.”
She follows as obedient as the widow as Lan Wangji pays the innkeeper and they are led to a room upstairs. She gives her name - Xu Shufen - when Wei Wuxian inquires and sits as Lan Wangji directs. Wei Wuxian feels an odd sense of reluctance as he hands the baby over to her. He likes to think the child is unhappy at he separation too when he whines, but he's a quick learner, and he goes quiet when he latches. Wei Wuxian breathes a sigh of relief as Xu Shufen swiftly covers his head while he feeds.
“Thank you sister,” he says gratefully, turning back to Lan Wangji where he sits by the window. He seems oddly busy as he tends to Bichen and his guqin. Wei Wuxian frowns, confused, but as he finally approaches, after shedding his outer coat and boots, he spies the pink in his ears again. Grinning, he throws his arms around him, leaning into his back.
“Are you embarrassed, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks quietly, barely able to conceal his glee.
“It's a natural thing.”
“Wei Ying…” he warns, reaching up to grip one of his wrists.
“Baby's gotta eat. You don't have to be so bashful.”
He laughs when Lan Wangji pulls on his arm to make him tumble into his lap.
“Ooh, you are too easy to tease this evening.”
“Enough,” he says quietly, but it might as well be a thunderous command in the severity of his delivery. It's a pity for him that Wei Wuxian has spent lifetimes ignoring his orders. He grins wider, ready to provoke him a little more, but a sudden cry stops him short. Lan Wangji lets him go when he springs to his feet again.
Xu Shufen offers the child to him without a moment's hesitation and he's quick to settle with his head tucked carefully into the join of Wei Wuxian's head and shoulder while she adjusts her clothes
“Heh, you're going to behave for me, little one?” he grins, rubbing the infant's back.
“He will need to feed again anywhere between two to four hours from now,” Xu Shufen says, smiling at the two of them as she stands.
“How will I know?”
She gives a soft laugh at that.
“You will know. He will let you know.”
Wei Wuxian can't help but feel a little apprehensive about that. He decides ignorance is bliss and moves on.
“What about his birth cord? Should it be so long?”
“Let me see?”
Carefully, he leans the child back, laughing when he grumbles a protest.
“Mm… you may shorten it if you wish. It seems hastily done. Here.”
She unfastens a pendant from around her throat, placing it in his hands once the baby rests against his shoulder again.
“Use a clean blade or a cauterising instrument and place this around his neck. I fear those who delivered him may not have observed the proper practices. They certainly didn't bathe him. You should do that soon too.”
“Your guidance is much appreciated, sister. I'm glad they sent you. We are very fortunate.”
She smiles again, pretty and humble.
“I think the fortunate one is the one you hold. He is very lucky you came to Qing village, or he would most certainly have been a meal for worms.”
The words make Wei Wuxian hold on a little tighter. Lan Wangji joins them now that Xu Shufen is covered again, and she goes shy at his approach, casting her gaze away.
“I have requested the room next door for your convenience. If it is not to your liking, request whatever you need from the innkeeper. We will cover the costs.”
“Thank you… You may knock when he needs milk again. Until then, I shall bid you both good night.”
“Good night sister,” Wei Wuxian grins. “At least for now.”
Lan Wangji ushers her out, but he doesn't move from the door once it's closed, watching him strangely with fingers on the handle.
“... Do you want to hold him?” Wei Wuxian asks, nodding down to the child shifting against his shoulder.
For the first time in a long time, Wei Wuxian sees uncertainty in Lan Wangji's eyes. He stands still, eyes still fixed to them both, but he doesn't say a word.
“Come sit on the bed.”
He hears Lan Wangji follow him as he turns, but even as he sits beside him, Wei Wuxian can see a stiffness in his posture that belies his hesitation. It stirs fresh amusement in him.
“Is the great Hanguang-Jun, fearless Second Young Master Lan, scared of a helpless baby?”
Lan Wangji's lip twitches in displeasure, before he sighs.
“I haven't held an infant before,” he admits softly, as if it is something to be ashamed of. Wei Wuxian is quick to reassure him.
“Neither have I,” he says cheerfully. “Wen Yuan was already walking when I first met him.”
Lan Wangji looks more alarmed than reassured, but at least it's a step better than self conscious. He says nothing of the slip of the name. In fact, he says nothing at all, and Wei Wuxian's desire to tease immediately vanishes.
“Lan Zha—” but his attempt to comfort him stops short when a tiny fist curls around a loose lock of hair and pulls. “Ow, ow, stop that please!”
Lan Wangji's expression softens, and he reaches to gently free the strands from the infant's grip.
“We should bathe him, before he sleeps. And cut his birth cord.”
It's only after Bichen is re-sheathed and he's holding the infant in the basin while Lan Wangji gently sponges him clean of dried blood and birth that Wei Wuxian suddenly understands his apprehension.
“Lan Zhan… did we unwittingly adopt a child? Again?”
His pause to answer isn't terribly reassuring.
“... We will enquire about other family at the brothel in the morning.”
The child refuses to settle unless he's atop Wei Wuxian's chest. Wei Wuxian can't really begrudge him when he himself struggles to sleep without being sprawled across Lan Wangji's form in some way. So they lie together, Lan Wangji with his arms around his waist, and Wei Wuxian cradling the newly swaddled infant close. It's hard not to marvel at him — the tiny fingers that hardly wrap around one of his, the wisp of dark hair that covers his head, the womb-fresh smell at his crown and the heat that now radiates impressively from his small body.
“We should give him a name,” Wei Wuxian says suddenly, just as Lan Wangji's breaths begin to even out behind him.
“Mn?” he murmurs, barely awake. “He is not yours to name.”
That stirs a complicated set of emotions that Wei Wuxian would rather not address. The thought of caring for a newborn is terrifying… but he knows handing him back just might break his heart.
“Nearly a day old. He deserves a name,” Wei Wuxian argues, and this time, Lan Wangji stays silent.
“Hm… maybe Fai?”
He pauses a moment, frowning.
“On second thought, perhaps not. He does not look much like a Fai. WangXian then?”
He feels Lan Wangji go tense behind him and he laughs.
“It is time to sleep,” Lan Wangji answers.
“Put him down on the bed now that he's quiet.”
“Let me watch him a little longer.”
The body behind him heaves ever so slightly with a sigh.
“It will soon be time for him to wake and feed. Sleep now.”
But Wei Wuxian can sense he won't force him, and so he takes full advantage of his weakness, nestling in a little closer.
“In a moment, in a moment…”
For the first time in his life, Wei Wuxian wakes at five in the morning. The dim light of dawn is disorientating, but the absence of a warm body holding him and the sound of someone crying stirs him enough to open his eyes blearily for just a moment, before they fall shut again.
“Lan Zhan… the baby is hungry…”
The bed dips with weight and the crying comes a little closer.
“He just nursed. You missed two feeds during the night.”
Wei Wuxian blinks up sheepishly at that, greeted by the sight of Lan Wangji already dressed, with the infant whimpering against his chest.
“You're holding him,” he smiles sleepily.
“Not so scary after all, huh?”
Wei Wuxian starts to doze again, until the child picks up in volume again.
“Is he wet?” he grumbles, frowning without opening his eyes.
“Then why is he crying?”
Lan Wangji pauses a moment.
“... I think… he just wants to be held,” he murmurs.
Wei Wuxian opens his eyes again, seeing that same uncertain look on his husband's face from last night. With reluctance, going against every instinct ingrained in his biology that dictates he should sleep for another four hours at least, he pushes himself up to sit back against the pillows with heavy lashes and hair in disarray.
“Pass him here.”
The baby still cries when Wei Wuxian takes him into his arms, but the sound peters to a soft grizzle as he pats his back.
“I'll draw you a bath,” Lan Wangji says, moving to stand, but Wei Wuxian quickly reaches out to grasp his wrist, holding him still.
“Cuddle with us,” he pouts, and he sees a flash of concern cross his expression.
“You are getting too attached, Wei Ying,” he says, as if trying to break it to him gently.
Wei Wuxian releases him suddenly, and he stands to make his way to the bathroom. Wei Wuxian stares in stunned silence, trying to ignore the gravity of his husband's words. As his attention draws back down to a shift against chest and tiny puffs of breath against his skin, he fears he may be right.
The brothel madam hardly seems surprised to see them when they arrive on her doorstep. She serves them tea that Wei Wuxian is too nervous to drink, even with both hands free while the child sleeps strapped to his body, and so Lan Wangji quietly swaps their cups once his is drained as not to be rude. He doesn't know what he wants to hear at this table, doesn't know what to brace for. He knows he should be hopeful for the existence of the little one's family, but his heart protests, standing in the way.
The madam wastes little time in breaking the news when she sits with them.
“Ru Shi was like most of the girls here. No family to speak of. As for the father… he would deny the child as his. There is little to be gained in pursuing him.”
Wei Wuxian frowns, looking down at the sleeping baby nestled against him. How could anyone turn away something so precious and good?
“We could take him to the temple to be raised by the monks and nuns—”
The answer is automatic, and comes out a little more forceful than he intends. A protective hand comes up to the newborn as he begins to stir and cry.
“You can't be serious? After what they tried to do?”
“The child is an orphan,” the madam states, unruffled. “And this is not an orphanage. My girls cannot be expected to look after one that is not their own, no matter their feelings to his mother. The temple will gladly accept him. And with the vengeful corpse gone, there is little reason to fear for his safety.”
But that's not acceptable to him, and Wei Wuxian feels his face harden.
“I refuse to hand him over to the same people that abandoned him to demons in the forest.”
The madam doesn't so much as blink in the face of his outrage.
“Then you are welcome to find a solution that better suits you,” she says mildly. “These are sad circumstances, but we can only do the best with what we have.”
“Your best isn't good enough,” he growls, slamming a hand on the table. Lan Wangji silences him by covering his knuckles with gentle fingers.
“Thank you for your assistance, madam,” he recites in an emotionless voice. “We shall not hold you up any longer.”
Wei Wuxian makes no effort to hide his displeasure, nor does he bother for propriety when Lan Wangji helps him to his feet, holding the arm around his waist with a needy grip that Lan Wangji doesn't fight. He stays quiet though, mostly for the child that shifts restlessly in his sling, and lets himself be led back outside once more. He grits his teeth as they walk back to the inn, but Lan Wangji places a hand on the sling to stop him short before he can begin to vent his frustration. When he looks up, the uncertainty is gone, and instead he sees golden contemplation focused on the little one he carries.
“... We will take him back to Gusu.”
It takes a moment for the words to sink in.
His eyes meet Wei Wuxian's face with a very serious expression.
“If that is what you want.”
Wei Wuxian can only answer him with a kiss.
“Xu Shufen says we should find a new rumu as soon as possible,” Wei Wuxian says as Lan Wangji lifts them both onto Lil'Apple's back. “Goat's milk will keep him fed for now, but he will grow better if he has a milk mother.”
He's met with silence and when he glances up, Lan Wangji is looking at him strangely, just as he did at the widow's grave.
“You've swaddled him low again,” he mumbles, and Wei Wuxian watches the pink spread in his ears with glee.
“It's for Chenqing!” he declares, taking up the flute on his hip to bring it to his mouth and swing his elbows.
“See? Out of the collateral damage radius. Nice and safe.”
The colour doesn't disappear.
“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji mutters. “You won't even need it for the ride.”
“Untrue!” Wei Wuxian says at once, grinning widely. “Watch this!”
With a breath, looking down to the baby wriggling in his sling at the commotion, Wei Wuxian starts to play softly. Beside them, Lan Wangji goes still as he hears the notes of the song he first played for him in the Xuanwu cave. The song that had brought them together again after Wei Wuxian woke in his new body. He glances up, seeing Lan Wangji’s eyes on him with a look that makes his heart feel like it's singing along too. With a wink, he nods down to the bundle tied against his belly, and watches as the infant yawns and blinks slowly. After a moment, a hand reaches into his vision, stroking tenderly at a pink, chubby cheek, and Wei Wuxian smiles against mouthpiece. He closes his eyes when he feels Lan Wangji reach up to kiss his brow and take Lil'Apple's rein.
As he leads them down the path, Wei Wuxian can't help but think of journeys in days past where he would ask Lan Wangji to indulge him. To take the rein even when he didn't need to. It's just the same as the day when he led him back to his home in Yiling.
Only this time, it's to his home in Gusu.
Only this time, he thinks, with a little one in tow.
Even with Lan Wangji setting their pace, they only make it just over half of the way back to Gusu before night falls. It's well past nine when they stop at an inn, and the old lady of the house fawns over the baby in Wei Wuxian's arms as she has her husband fetch rice and broth for them both.
“He sleeps so well,” she gushes.
“Like his mother,” Lan Wangji murmurs, only loud enough for Wei Wuxian to hear. It takes him a moment to realise he is referring to him, and he throws him a put-upon look.
Why am I always the mother?
There's a shimmer of amusement in Lan Wangji's eyes, so Wei Wuxian pulls a rude face in response.
“What’s his name?” the innkeeper's wife asks, unaware of the exchange as she pokes at his cheeks.
“Oh,” he says, quickly looking back at her. “Ah, well… we haven't decided yet…”
It leads to Wei Wuxian revisiting his musings as they make their way up to their room.
“Lan Lian? Lan Fei?… Oh, I know! Lan Wei! No, that's terrible. Gege, this is so haaaard…”
Lan Wangji lets him ponder aloud until he opens the door to let him in first.
“Why Lan and not Wei?” he asks curiously.
“Well, since I am mother and you are father…” Wei Wuxian huffs, moving to place the baby in the soft woven basket laid out by the bed. He stirs, but thankfully he doesn't wake. Wei Wuxian watches him a moment before a new name comes to mind.
“Wait, I have it!” he declares triumphantly. “Lan Ning!”
The force behind the sudden objection takes Wei Wuxian by surprise, and he spins around to face him.
“Why not? It's a perfectly nice name.”
“Not Lan Ning.”
Wei Wuxian huffs, folding his arms petulantly.
“Then what do you suggest?”
Lan Wangji shrugs unhelpfully, so Wei Wuxian turns around to lean over the basket again.
“Well then, Ning it i—”
He's cut off by a possessive grip around his waist, pulling him flush to a firm body.
“No,” Lan Wangji growls in his ear, quiet and dangerous. “Not your Ghost General. I will not allow it.”
But then his voice softens.
“I… will think of something.”
Wei Wuxian sighs melodramatically, reaching up to pat his cheek as he leans back against him.
“I guess for now, we'll just have to keep calling you little one, little one,” he tells the sleeping child.
He hears Lan Wangji hum quietly behind him, but after a moment, his fingers dip in under the cloth of his waistband, and he grins.
“What a shame it is long past your bedtime, Lan Zhan,” he teases. “Everyday will have to wait a day. I guess it's true what they say about parenthood. Doomed to a sexless marriage forevermore.”
Lan Wangji doesn't respond in words, but Wei Wuxian finds himself bouncing off the bed with wandering hands in his robes before he can blink. He can't help but laugh as lips seal over the pulse in his neck, biting and kissing in equal measures.
“Sleep can wait,” Lan Wangji murmurs, shrugging out of his coat. “You, first.”
“So intent Er Gege,” he teases, pretending to squirm away, even as he spreads his knees to make room for him. “Are you trying to give the little one a sibling? You know I can't, no matter how valiantly you try.”
“Don't be absurd,” Lan Wangji growls, pink ears betraying a passive face as he makes short work of his clothes too.
“It wouldn't be for lack of enthusias-ah!!”
His breath hitches as his husband enters him without warning or mercy. It takes a moment for his sense to return and his tongue to obey.
“If you make me scream, you'll wake the baby,” he warns, clinging to his shoulders to try to hold him still.
The child stirs from sleep just as the Cloud Recesses come into view on their path. It's barely mid-morning, but already they've been travelling for a few hours. Wei Wuxian can only muster the energy to pat the sling sluggishly when he starts to cry. Rather than wait to cover the last few li to make it through the walls of their home, Lan Wangji stops Lil'Apple and fishes through the ever expanding belongings they carry for a little terracotta jar of goats milk. Wei Wuxian barely notices as he takes the baby from him, but he does notice when the crying stops. It's as if someone strikes an acupoint for instant sleep, and Wei Wuxian immediately starts dozing upright on Lil'Apple's back.
Far too soon for his liking, he's kissed awake by soft lips and gentle touches. Reluctantly, he opens his eyes, but the sight that greets him is more than worth it — Lan Wangji, smiling and doused in dappled sunlight, and the little one nestled and sated in the crook of his elbow.
“Almost home, Wei Ying.”
“What are you talking about?” he murmurs sleepily, and he sees the query in his eyes as he touches the hand on his cheek.
“My home is right here.”
Lan Wangji's expression goes perfectly soft, and in that moment, Wei Wuxian feels a renewed rush of undying love flow swift through the channels of his soul. He slides off the donkey's back to receive another kiss that his husband is all to willing to give, then helps him tuck the newborn back into his sling.
“I hope A-Yuan won't be too jealous of his new baby brother,” Wei Wuxian grins as the child grabs at his fingers.
“... Lan SiZhui will always be our first son.”
Wei Wuxian gives an over-exaggerated gasp.
“A joke? From the Second Young Master Lan?”
“Only half a joke,” Lan Wangji muses. “He is ours too, in a way.”
With a bright laugh, Wei Wuxian leans into his side, coaxing Lan Wangji to wrap an arm around him.
“Imagine the look on A-Yuan's face if he heard you say so much. His face would go so red, I fear he would start bleeding from his qiqiao immediately!”
Lan Wangji hums quietly, that faint, beautiful smile still on his lips, but he doesn't make any move to start their journey up to the Cloud Recesses. His eyes are fixed to where he plays absently with the baby, and for once, Wei Wuxian finds the patience to wait for his thoughts to surface.
“I thought of a name.”
Wei Wuxian blinks, but then grins broadly.
“Oh? Do tell. It better not be something old and stuffy…”
“Yanlin,” he says quietly, looking up.
Remembering the birds that had scattered at the first strum of Lan Wangji's guqin, Wei Wuxian smiles.
“Yes, I suppose that's fitting. Let's try it on,” he decides, looking down at the infant. He clears his throat to enunciate the syllables.
The child gurgles in his arms, and Wei Wuxian huffs a laugh.
“I think that's a yes from the little one. Very well. From now on, you are Lan Yanlin,” he says, tapping his nose.
Somehow it's a little more real, a little more tangible, now that he has a name. Their son, Yanlin... Lan Qiren is going to throw a fit.
“Heh, you know Lan Zhan,” he ponders aloud, “that name sounds very similar to Yanli. What a happy accident.”
He's met with silence, and with a sudden flood of understanding, he realises it is no accident. His gaze snaps up to Lan Wangji with wide eyes, meeting a patient face and contemplative look. He can hear his heart in his ears as he swallows.
“For my shijie?” he whispers.
Wei Wuxian's vision swims at that, and he can only just make out the shift in Lan Wangji's expression to concern behind the ripples.
“Wei Ying?... Xingan?”
Wei Wuxian chokes a laugh, because how could he possibly deal such rare endearment at a time like this?
“I didn't mean to upset you,” he continues, sounding increasingly distressed as he wipes at his cheeks with a white sleeve. “I'm sorry. I will think of something else.”
“No!” Wei Wuxian interrupts, voice cracking over the word. “No, it's perfect. It's perfect. You're perfect, I'm—”
He interrupts himself by sealing his lips to Lan Wangji's, tasting salt mingled with ever-present sweetness.
“I love you,” he whispers between one kiss and the next, hearing the words repeated back to him, just like the first time. “Want you, cannot leave you… don't want anyone but you…”
“Cannot be anyone but you,” Lan Wangji answers, soft as a song.