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Love, in all its small pieces

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Lan Sizhui is four when he comes to the Cloud Recesses under a different name, and a fever burns him like the sun that was once stitched unto his sleeves.

Wen Yuan is four when he loses everything but his life. His memories of old, shining eyes, calloused hands, and creaky laughter alongside howling winds, death, and despair are among the merciful casualties of his fever. Wen Yuan is four when a dead man walking with an ever-present smile leaves him in a cave with an apology and a fervent wish for the protection he had tried and failed to give.

Ah Yuan is four when he is rescued by a man he will no longer remember but who will always remember him. He is rescued by a man he once called “gege”, who carries in him a reverence and devotion and yearning that is unparalleled.

Wen Yuan is four when he is renamed Lan Yuan for his protection, removed from a garden of radishes and instead given to hope and wishes that will never come true. Ah Yuan is four when he becomes Lan Sizhui, the son of he who brings light but whose origins are kept in the dark, raised in silent remembrance of the one that the world cursed and wished they could forget.

Lan Sizhui is four when love leaves him, finds him, and raises him again.

****

Lan Wangji comes home with a feverish bundle in his arms, gives it to a clearly shocked Lan Xichen and asks for his protection before collapsing from the wounds on his back. When he comes to, the child he brought home is sick with fever, hunger, and dehydration. Lan Wangji lies next to him on the bed in Jingshi, delirious with pain.

Lan Qiren is furious when he hears. He storms into the Jingshi a few days later, thunder in his footsteps.

“Wangji! Did you not think of what would happen if they find a Wen child here!?” Lan Qiren demands. “Who is this child, and where did he come from!?”

“Shifu, he is the last of the Wens,” Lan Wangji replies with great difficulty. “No one will claim him for none are left.” He was also expected to perish, he does not say, because the thought of losing Ah Yuan to the same emptiness to which he lost Wei Ying is too much to bear.

Lan Wangji’s wounds ache at the memory of finding a crying child in the back of a cave. He had come to find Wei Ying but found a child instead. It is almost tempting to think Wei Ying led him to the child who once clung to his leg, the child who Wei Ying clearly loved as his own. The child with whom he shared one of his last and dearest memories of Wei Ying; the child who loved Wei Ying with him, when no one else did.

Lan Qiren’s face softens marginally as he hears the words Lan Wangji does not say. “I understand you wish to protect the boy, Wangji, but who is he that you call him your son?”

Lan Wangji does not answer but instead says, “He is my son, and I will give him my name.” His tone invites neither argument nor further comment. He attempts to sit but his wounds do not permit. Instead he lowers his head, gaze centered at the space between his uncle and brother and says, “Shifu, Xiongzhang, Lan Yuan is my son. Please allow Wangji to raise him as his own; please treat Lan Yuan as your own with the care that you have given Wangji.”

Lan Qiren remains stone-faced and Lan Wangji sees the weight of guilt hanging heavy on Lan Xichen. But he knows that when faced with the plea of a beloved nephew, a beloved brother who has so rarely asked for anything, who risked life and limb for this one child sleeping restlessly by his side—what choice have they but to agree?

****

Lan Wangji wakes from delirium to look for the child he brought home. Though he received no small amount of rebuke from both Lan Qiren and his brother for venturing into the Burial Mounds before his wounds had the chance to heal, as he looks at the sleeping, feverish boy lying on the bed next to him, he cannot bring himself to regret it. His back is burning from the pain, his body is burning from the fever, there is a hole in his chest where his heart used to be, and the world seems so terribly bleak — but looking at the child he found amidst the desolation and despair, the child who is his last connection to Wei Ying, remembering Wei Ying, remembering the promise they made before, before, before —

Lan Wangji brushes stray hairs from Ah Yuan’s face and renews that promise again. Protect the weak, vanquish evil. And today, he promises to always remember.

****

Lan Yuan knows many things: that he is five, that he likes rabbits, that Great Uncle frowns when he is running and calling “Gege!” at the top of his lungs in the quiet house which his father never leaves. Great Uncle is happier instead when he whispers (even if he is told his whispers are loud) and walks to his father, who looks less sad than usual today. Lan Yuan knows that the man he calls father is not actually his father, but he also knows that this is the same man he saw upon waking from his fever and that he is safe with him. He knows this man takes him to see the rabbits he loves, who brushes his hair and feeds him and bathes him, so who is to say Lan Wangji is not his father? Lan Yuan calls him baba, and that is what matters.

Today Lan Yuan is five, and they are in the Jingshi with his Uncle and Great Uncle. Father has a ribbon in his hand, and while his face remains blank, Lan Yuan thinks his face is softer today instead of merely sad. Great Uncle, who is normally stern and whose face reminds Lan Yuan of thunderclouds, sits behind his father and watches them wordlessly; next to him sits Uncle, smiling, smiling like always.

He knows that the ribbon in his father’s hand is Important. They have not said why yet, but Lan Yuan feels it in his five-year-old heart, feels its weight in him next to the weight of the words “baba” and “Hanguang-Jun.” As his father beckons and Lan Yuan quickly walks (just under a run, Great Uncle will be pleased) and sits down before him, he can feel that what his father will tell him today is equally important.

“Lan Yuan,” his father begins, and Lan Yuan straightens where he sits, because his father never uses his full name without reason. Lan Wangji unfurls the pale blue ribbon in his hand, the small metal piece in the shape of a cloud nestled in his palm. “Do you know what this is?”

Lan Yuan nods quickly. “Great Uncle says it is a mark of a Lan disciple, to practice restraint with one’s self,” he recites obediently, and Lan Wangji nods.

“It is a mark of a Lan disciple, which you are now. As you wear it, remember the rules that govern our sect.”

Lan Yuan nods. There are over 4,000 rules but he will remember them all. His father beckons him to turn around and he does so, hands on his lap as cool metal touches warm skin and deft hands tie a knot behind his head. The weight is alien but comforting. His father speaks again, voice softer than before, and Lan Yuan thinks it sounds sad.

“No one is to touch this ribbon but yourself, your parents and —,” a hitch, almost unnoticeable, “your partner. Only remove it when you are with those whom you trust with yourself.”

Lan Yuan turns to look at his father. Somehow it seems that though his father is looking at him, his mind is elsewhere entirely. Where it goes at times like this, Lan Yuan does not know. Finally, Lan Wangji picks up a brush from the table nearby and dips it in ink, carefully writing measured strokes on blank parchment. Lan Yuan peers over as two characters, both unfamiliar, are written before him in measured, elegant strokes.

“Today you become a full disciple of the Lan Sect. Today you are Lan Sizhui, my son.” At this, Lan Yuan sees his Uncle stir.

“Sizhui?” repeats Lan Xichen.

The question hangs in the hair for a breath too long. Lan Yuan looks at the characters again and tries to remember their meaning. To recollect, to remember, to yearn for, to long for.

Lan Wangji only nods. Behind him, Great Uncle’s face resembles stone.

“Sizhui.”

Lan Yuan startles, because this is his name now and he must start answering to it, turning his attention to his father.

“This ribbon marks you as a disciple of the Gusu Lan Sect. I give you the name Lan Sizhui as your father. Should anyone doubt your place here, remember the ribbon across your forehead and the name I give you today. Let no one cause you to doubt the place you hold here as a disciple, and as my son.” Lan Yuan straightens his posture at this.

“So Hanguang-Jun is really my father now?” He asks. Lan Xichen smiles as Lan Qiren moves to speak.

“Yes. Lan Wangji has formally adopted you into the Gusu Lan Sect, and your name has been included in our family register. Obey our rules and obey your father, do not dishonor your sect, family, or name. You will begin your lessons with the rest of the disciples this coming term. Welcome, Lan Yuan, Lan Sizhui.”

He says nothing else, the expression on his face is inscrutable, but as he notices the child’s attention on him, Lan Qiren allows a small smile.

Lan Yuan’s face breaks into a bright smile in return. He stands on and moves to hug his father (his father!), who catches him and returns it, albeit somewhat stiffly, and clumsily bows to Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen the way he was taught. With an indulgent smile, Lan Xichen returns the child’s bow with an elegant one of his own; Lan Qiren simply watches and nods in acknowledgment.

Lan Yuan is five and today he knows he is Lan Sizhui, knows he has a father and a family, and knows he has a home.

****

Lan Sizhui is learning his father’s moods, learning to read the arch of his eyebrow, the thin movements of his mouth, the tightening of his eyes. He learns to recognize the sadness in his father’s eyes that sometimes surfaces, but loves more the small smiles that his father gives him.

Sometimes, in the quiet, Lan Sizhui thinks there should be a sound of a flute playing a sorrowful tune. This yearning comes unbidden when his father is resting or meditating, or simply staring out of the Jingshi, his mind a million miles away. Other times, it comes when all is silent before bedtime, nothing but stillness in the evening making him restless. Sometimes, Lan Sizhui wonders what is it that caused his father to mourn so quietly and for so long, why his father looks at him as if he is something that is infinitely precious and yet lost to him at the same time. Sometimes, his father plays the same notes on the guqin, over and over, searching and searching and never finding.

Sometimes he wonders who his father is looking for. Sometimes, sometimes.

Sometimes, when Lan Wangji is lost in his thoughts where Lan Sizhui cannot follow, Lan Sizhui wishes he could put his small hands on his father’s larger ones and tell him I’m here, baba. Sometimes he does, and his father will correct him and say, “father” instead, and say, “you are here, with me,” and his eyes will look a little less lost, at least for a while. But Lan Sizhui will always wonder who his father is thinking of in times like these, and will lay his head on his father’s lap, reminding his father in his own way that he is here too.

****

Lan Sizhui asks about his parents one evening as Lan Wangji brushes his hair. It is something that Lan Wangji knows is inevitable, yet he can’t help feeling resigned when Lan Sizhui broaches the topic before dinner. Lan Sizhui is his son in all but blood, and it is clear to all in the Cloud Recesses that Lan Sizhui adores Hanguang-Jun. And so, Lan Wangji brushes Lan Sizhui’s hair patiently, waiting for the questions he knows will come.

“Father?”

Lan Wangji hums in response.

“Why don’t I have a mother?” Lan Wangji’s hands still in their movements. After a slight pause, the gentle brushing resumes.

“She has passed,” is the reply that is given. Lan Sizhui releases a small sigh of disappointment.

“Is she the one you look for when you play your guqin?” he asks.

“No,” is the reply, the brushing undisturbed. Lan Sizhui is quiet for a while.

“Did you love her?”

Again, the brushing pauses.

“I did not know her,” is the truthful reply when the brushing resumes. “But I knew one who loved you as I do, if not more, if that were possible.” Lan Sizhui turns to face him, surprise evident on his face. Lan Wangji runs slow, gentle fingers through his hair.

A blush climbs up Lan Sizhui’s cheeks before he nestles in Lan Wangji’s lap, arms coming around his waist as he buries his face in his father’s stomach. Lan Wangji’s arms wrap around him tenderly, stroking his hair gently, a small smile on his face. After a few minutes, Lan Sizhui looks up at his father again.

“Who is the one you look for?” He asks. The smile on his father’s face falters, hands around him tightening.

“The one who loved you as I do,” is all his father says. He studies his son’s face, scrunched deep in thought. “Why do you ask?”

“Jingyi asked me why I don’t have a mother today,” Lan Sizhui answers, eyes sliding to the floor. Lan Wangji frowns.

“Should I have a word with Lan Jingyi?” He asks gently. Lan Sizhui shakes his head.

“It’s okay, he said sorry after he gave me his congee. Then we went to see your rabbits so I feel better,” he says and turns the full force of his half-moon smile at his father before continuing, “but I wanted to ask you anyway.”

Lan Wangji knows that smile, the one that Lan Sizhui uses to charm Lan Qiren. In it is a ghost of another’s smile, and his heart aches for a moment.

“You are sure?” he asks anyway, and Lan Sizhui nods earnestly. Lan Wangji scoops his son up in his arms, noting a little forlornly that it won’t be too long until he can no longer carry him this way. Lan Sizhui nods and embraces his father again, muffling a soft “yes” into Lan Wangji’s hair.

After a moment, Lan Wangji pulls away, looks at his son with a serious expression on his face.

“Sizhui,” he says, hesitant, “is what I give you enough?”

Lan Sizhui nods earnestly, hugging his father tightly. “When father is with me, I know I am safe and things are alright. Father is my favorite in the whole world!” Lan Sizhui releases a soft “mm” in contentment, a smile on his face.

Lan Wangji feels his heart stop and start again. If before his heart stopped and only began to beat again out of discipline and habit, this time it stops and starts out of love for the child in his arms. For the first time since that dreadful day, Lan Wangji feels the stirrings of hope that maybe things will turn out alright.

****

Lan Sizhui is a happy, serious child, as happy as one can be in a life lived in solemnity and careful discipline. At age six he moves into the dorm with all the other disciples on the mountain; thus begins the arduous task of memorizing over 4,000 rules. He moves from the Jingshi to the dorms and joins the other disciples with some sadness; the nights by Hanguang-Jun— father’s— side were always filled with comfortable silence and the sound of the guqin, but nevertheless it was comforting to be by Hanguang-Jun’s side as he adjusted to life in the Cloud Recesses.

He doesn’t remember the life he lived before he came here, only that there was one. He sometimes feels like it was a noisy one, always seeking out sounds in a quiet, sleepy town in the mountains. He’s learning how to be quieter now, to modulate his voice; how to stop scurrying and walk swiftly and silently down the corridors and stone steps instead; how to call his father “Hanguang-Jun” in public instead of “father”.

He doesn’t remember his previous life or the people in it, but sometimes Lan Sizhui remembers the ghost of a warm touch around his shoulders. In his dreams he thinks of warm hands cradling him and calling “Ah Yuan, Ah Yuan, stay away from the pond,” or of strong arms around him and threatening to bury him with the radishes.

Sometimes Lan Sizhui wakes and yearns for those same arms and does not find them; he no longer knows who they belonged to. He sometimes has an urge to cling to the legs of his father, a habit he outgrew on the gentle instruction and command of his uncle, and sometimes on rainy, cold days, he misses the old lady in his dreams.

But while he does not remember his past, he is constantly learning about his present. Though he has moved to the dorms, Lan Sizhui still goes to the Jingshi whenever he can, spending time with the man he calls father at dawn and at night, before the day begins and before it ends.

He is learning that Lan Wangji does not touch or give praise often. Instead, his father will ensure that Lan Sizhui’s ribbon is tied perfectly every morning, sitting straight across his forehead, cloud motif visible for all to see. He will ensure that Lan Sizhui’s hair is neatly brushed and tied back, his robes immaculate, posture straight.

Lan Sizhui is learning that though his father may not hold him like the people he sees in his dreams, his comfort is given in other ways instead. At night before the bell rings for curfew, his father brushes his hair, slowly untangling the knots that made their way into his hair through the day with a comb or with long, calloused fingers. His father brushes his growing hair with patient strokes, listening to him telling stories that he kept to himself through dinner and can now tell before bed, gesturing as Lan Wangji listens and offers the occasional “mn” or comment.

Lan Sizhui is learning that though his father is not one for hugs, when the bell rings to signal mealtime there will be food to eat in the Jingshi, and a listening ear afterwards. After his lessons there is always a steady hand to guide him, precise words to help him improve or warm words of approval for a job well done. Though his father cannot be with him as he walks through the Cloud Recesses, he has never felt anything akin to absence.

This is especially true when the shadows come and refuse to leave. On the days he is overcome by an alien sorrow and longing for those that he does not remember, Lan Sizhui knows there will be strong arms to hold him and assure him that he is not alone.

He is learning that though his father is secluded away in the Jingshi, permitting no visitors save for Lan Xichen, at any time of day or night and for any reason, when he knocks at the door of the Jingshi and calls out “baba?”, the door will always open.

****

The day he promised to remember, Lan Wangji made a series of promises to himself that were smaller, but no less important: his child would always have food to eat, that they would eat together regardless of how much the wounds on Lan Wangji’s back would strain, or whether or not Lan Wangji’s appetite has returned. He will rise with the sun to greet the child he has given name to; he will raise his child so no one will ever find fault in him or question his lineage and place in the Cloud Recesses. He will raise him in Wei Ying’s memory and teach him what is right, what is fair, and what is just. He will protect him with his own life. He will love this child, whoever he turns out to be.

Lan Wangji promised himself that his son would not want for attention, a promise that was almost immediately tested before he went into seclusion. He accepted the punishment of three years in seclusion, but also requested that Lan Sizhui have access to the Jingshi at any time of the day for any reason. Though it was met with disapproval from the elders and his Uncle, Lan Wangji held firm in this demand.

“Would Wangji’s son be denied his father? Would Wangji’s son kneel before doors that will not open? Would Wangji’s son know the pain of absence so young?” Lan Wangji had asked quietly and firmly as the son in question lay sleeping on his bed, invoking painful memories they all would rather forget.

His uncle’s disapproval was evident, and showed in his face. “Years ago, you would have trusted in our wisdom; you would never have thought to doubt that we wished for anything but your well-being. Wei Wuxian truly has been a bad influence on you, Wangji.”

“It is said it was Wei Ying who has influenced Wangji away from what is right. Yet it was not Wei Ying who wishes to close the doors to Wangji’s son, even though he found all doors closed to him,” Lan Wangji replied, his gaze even as he looked at his uncle and brother. For a moment, the pain of loss was clear in his eyes before it was wiped away again, replaced by blankness.

In the end, Lan Qiren had no response but to give in to Lan Wangji’s demand.

And thus, Lan Wangji upheld the most important promise that he made that day: that Lan Sizhui would never have reason to doubt his father’s love.

****

After Lan Wangji’s seclusion is over and his duties have been attended to, he accompanies Lan Sizhui to the field of rabbits. As father and son settle down into the grass, the rabbits hop towards them, greeting them with curious sniffs and nuzzling at their legs. The rabbits crowd around them in greeting; they had missed Lan Wangji.

Delighted, Lan Sizhui picks one up and places it on his lap. Lan Wangji takes another two in his arms and places it on the boy’s lap as Lan Sizhui launches into a story about what Lan Jingyi did today to annoy Shifu.

As Lan Sizhui continues to tell his father about today’s lessons and Lan Jingyi’s objections (especially to the rules pertaining to voice modulation), Lan Wangji continues to pile rabbits onto his lap and behind him, rabbits jumping over themselves to climb up the little human. Lan Sizhui, overcome by the number of rabbits, gives in and lies on the grass, giggling as more and more come and sniff at him. Lan Wangji places more rabbits on Lan Sizhui’s small chest, burying him in balls of fluff.

“Baba! Baba!” Lan Sizhui all but shrieks, giggling as Lan Wangji holds a carrot in his hand to tempt the rabbits to climb on his son. “They’re tickling me!” Lan Sizhui devolves into another series of giggles as more rabbits hop on him, curiously studying the little human.

Deciding his son was buried in enough rabbits, Lan Wangji leans back and watches them scamper all over Lan Sizhui, his heart full of fondness. He picks up one of the older, calmer rabbits and lays it on his lap, content to watch his son play.

Finally, when Lan Sizhui is out of breath from laughter and tired, dozing on his lap, Lan Wangji picks his son up in his arms to carry him back to the Jingshi. Lan Sizhui stirs awake as they walk, yawning widely.

“Is playtime over, Father?” He asks sleepily.

Lan Wangji hums, wiping sweat off Lan Sizhui’s forehead and sweeping his fringe to the side. Lan Sizhui looks a mess today, his white robes dirtied with paw prints and ribbon askew, his hair wild and top knot hopelessly tangled. Like this, he reminds Lan Wangji of the first time had seen A-Yuan, and for a moment he feels the ghost of a memory lay a cold hand on his heart.

But no, here and now, Lan Sizhui’s chubby cheeks are pink with laughter, hair sprinkled with grass and rabbit fur, heavy and sun-warm in Lan Wangji’s arms, head resting on his shoulder, carried like he used to be when he was four years old.

Awash with affection, Lan Wangji straightens his son’s forehead ribbon and smiles at him, patting his head gently the same way he knew Wei Ying used to do. Lan Sizhui returns his smile with a blinding one of his own.

In this moment, Lan Wangji knows that he loves no other being alive like he loves his son.

“Thank you for playing with me today, father!” Lan Sizhui says brightly. “Can we play more every day now that you’re out of the Jingshi?”

Lan Wangji feels a little pang of guilt at that, but knows the seclusion was a necessary punishment. Three years have hardly eased the pain of loss, but he knows that the meditations have made his mind clearer, his resolve stronger. If three years of isolation is the price to see his A-Yuan smile like this every day, Lan Wangji will pay it over a thousandfold.

“When you don’t have lessons,” he allows, and Lan Sizhui cheers. Lan Wangji presses a gentle finger against his lips and Lan Sizhui covers his mouth with his hands.

“Yaaay!” he whispers, and Lan Wangji smiles at him, indulgent. He sets Lan Sizhui down but keeps his hand in his as they walk down the mountainside together. Disciples do a double-take as they see Hanguang-Jun walking hand in hand with his chattering son, offering the occasional murmur to show he is listening. Word has not spread that the polite, respectful and studious Lan Sizhui that suddenly appeared is Hanguang-Jun’s son; Lan Wangji supposes that will change now.

But as his son tells him all about the rules he learned in lessons today and asks him why they cannot speak at dinner (or why there are over four thousand rules baba? Who made them? Did someone make Shifu mad?), he finds that he does not care about their opinions. Instead, as he walks with the chattering boy through the Cloud Recesses and into the jingshi, as he unravels his son’s hair and nudges him into the bath, as he gently washes his hair and bathes him like he used to when Lan Sizhui was younger, he finds his heart full of a quiet joy and an overwhelming love he had thought was long lost to him. Though the light in his life was now lost to darkness, he thinks that maybe it will not always be dark, not with his son at his side.

And so, like a small seed planted in a garden, life and hope begin to grow again in Lan Wangji. The dead may never return, but Lan Wangji can raise the living in hope, love, and remembrance – and as he bids goodnight to his son, he knows that this is enough.