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the caterpillar's patience

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All of the Wens die and the world calls it justice. The Yiling Patriarch dies and the world rejoices. His soul responds to neither summoning nor Inquiry. A shattered soul, not enough to linger. The war is finally over—history rewritten.

We called it a siege, Lan Huan tells his brother, who lays sprawled on his stomach. He sits at his bedside in the jingshi and stares into empty eyes—glassy with more than pain relieving medicine. Lan Zhan says nothing but Lan Huan watches the flex of his brother’s bare but bandaged back. There is pain beyond the physical and Lan Huan does not know what to do. He never does.

Abruptly, Lan Zhan stands up and red blooms on his back through the bandages winding around his torso.

“Wangji,” Lan Huan says. It is an inquiry and a remonstration.

Lan Zhan ignores his brother to painstakingly pull on an opaque layer of robes.

“You need to rest,” Lan Huan says as his hands wrap around his brother’s wrists. His brother is hurting himself and Lan Huan cannot abide by that.

Lan Zhan stops and looks at Lan Huan for a long, long moment. His tongue darts out to wet his dry, cracked lips. He had passed out after the last strike of the whip. The healers had ministered to his unconscious body as Lan Huan looked on and Lan Qiren had stared at his work.

“Let go,” Lan Zhan says.

Lan Huan frowns. His amiable features contort as he stares down his foolish younger brother. “You need to rest,” he repeats.

The problem is that Lan Zhan has always been the stronger of the two. It had never bothered Lan Huan before but still, he resents the strength that allows his injured brother to break free from him. He watches uselessly as his brother summons Bichen. It is futile to stop Wangji when he is this determined.

Lan Huan can only hope that Lan Zhan will find what he is looking for.

Ever the watcher of his family, he observes Lan Zhan’s wobbly departure.

Uncle will not be happy.

He is not.

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren says, “why did you not stop your brother?” He has stern eyes and an even sterner mouth. The color to his skin is an off-white, remnants of what he had witnessed earlier. His family is too stubborn to take care, Lan Huan knows for certain.

“I tried,” Lan Huan says calmly.

“You let him go,” Lan Qiren surmises. His nostrils flare in an anger he will never admit. They never do. Gusu Lan does not forbid emotions but merely the expression of them. Yet, Lan Huan continues to watch his family conflate the two notions. is not as if he is any better at parsing out his own emotions. Duty smooths out his features and represses turmoil.

“We whipped his back, not his legs,” Lan Huan says. He still smiles, a grim sort of smile that makes distaste cross his uncle’s face.

Lan Qiren shakes his head sharply and departs to who knows where. Lan Huan is not concerned. He knows patience. Wangji will return. He is not built for anything else. Little boy kneeling in front of Mother’s cottage. Wangji knows patience in a method Lan Huan does not prescribe to. Lan Huan also had to wait every month but he vaguely remembers when it was just him and Mother. She was sad even then.

Lan Huan knows sadness. He had seen it in his brother today at the news he had told him. Poor Wangji. Whipped for a dead man who will never love him back. The cruelty of Wei Wuxian will never be forgotten and Lan Huan finds that he cannot heed the precepts of his sect with regards to ill will.

Wangji returns.

He is not alone.

Lan Huan wants to retch as he watches the ghost of a Wen boy follow his brother into the Cloud Recesses. He listens to the high, piping voice of a child call out, “Rich-gege! Where is my family?” Tiny translucent hands ghost through the fabric of Lan Zhan’s robes. It does not bother the boy because he continues to reach out.

Patiently, Lan Zhan tells the boy, “They are far away, A-Yuan.” Something soft and serene crosses his face as he stares down at the boy. A-Yuan cannot help but be soothed by such calmness and his building tantrum dissipates into the wind.

“That’s what Xian-gege used to say too,” A-Yuan murmurs. Then he freezes (no, no, that would imply that there was anything to freeze and may the heavens forgive him, but the boy has no substance to him) in place.

Lan Zhan pauses too in the courtyard. He stares down at the still boy failing to cling to his leg. A terrible emptiness resurfaces in his eyes when the boy begins to move again.

“Rich-gege! Where is my family?” A-Yuan calls out.

“They are far away, A-Yuan,” Lan Zhan says. The script is always the same but Lan Huan watches his brother whisper these words: “But I am here and you are here. We are family.”

It is a Wen boy clad in tiny Wen robes and Lan Huan dreads the sun as much as he dreads the fire. He flicks a look at his uncle beside him. There is a brittle stiffness to the line of his back that makes his own back ache in sympathy. Uncle had never found sympathy useful—too afraid of emotions to succumb and to understand that which he has never yearned to understand.

Uncle is afraid of becoming like his own brother. He is afraid of Wangji becoming like Father. Wangji only understands Uncle’s fear for him and not Uncle’s own fear for himself. Lan Huan knows his brother better than that.

Lan Huan and Lan Qiren approach Lan Zhan and the Wen boy. Lan Zhan watches them approach with anger lining his face. His flat expression does not deter Lan Huan’s instinctive smile. “You’ve returned, Wangji,” Lan Huan says pleasantly.

Lan Qiren scowls briefly.

“I have returned,” Lan Zhan affirms coolly.

“Who is your companion?” Lan Huan says. Finally, he stares directly at the Wen boy who circles his brother’s legs like an unruly cat. His sun-emblazoned robes are slightly oversized on his frame, as if he did not have the time to grow into it yet. The hem of his robes cover his feet and his tiny hands peek out from his sleeves. The boy has wide eyes and chubby cheeks. A red ribbon ties his hair up. He looks like any other child.

“His name is Wen Yuan. He likes butterflies and he has only ever lost one of his milk teeth. He was proud. He thought he was a big boy but he was still a little boy. It must have been easy to cut him down,” Lan Zhan says with a brittle sort of dignity. Wen Yuan once again pokes his head playfully through Lan Zhan’s leg.

Lan Huan stares and Lan Qiren looks away for a moment. The carefully measured formality of Lan Zhan’s usual speaking style melts beneath the heat of his own anger and Lan Zhan—he is so very angry, Lan Huan knows for certain. Lan Zhan had never been able to understand the mutability of injustice. He has never been noted for his people skills.

“We do not allow ghosts in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Qiren says sharply.

And Lan Zhan—Lan Zhan does not know respect as he stares at Uncle. “No,” he says, “we only allow their creation by our hands.”

“Wangji,” Lan Huan says softly. He does not want his brother to say words he will regret later. Already, Wangji questions the rules of the Cloud Recesses and their Uncle cannot abide by that, not when he has known the rules for so long and cannot see outside the structure of it all. Lan Huan—well, Lan Huan had never adhered so strictly to the rules as his brother and uncle do.

Lan Zhan is supposed to be in seclusion but Wen Yuan does not leave Lan Zhan’s side. There had been murmurs amongst the clansmen to exorcise the soul but Lan Zhan had always directly shut down such talk. Lan Huan had even tried to persuade his brother otherwise. He had said, “Will you not let the boy go? The dead are not meant to linger.”

And Wangji had said, “A-Yuan has no desire to leave. He is waiting.”

He had not elaborated.

The years that pass are not ones that Lan Huan wishes to remember.

Some part of A-Yuan must understand that he is dead because there are times his hands skim across his unmarked neck. In those times, he is quiet and confused. He will touch his throat and then look at Lan Zhan with a furrowed brow and a pursed mouth. But then he will say, “Rich-gege! Where is my family?”

And Lan Zhan will always say, “They are far away, A-Yuan. But I am here and you are here. We are family.”

Lan Huan watches Wangji and his little ghost cross the courtyard. It is time to eat and there other disciples mingling in the courtyard as they finish their studies for the day. Wangji had more often than not eaten alone in the comfort of his jingshi but now he joins the rest of the clan in the public hall. A-Yuan likes people even if he cannot speak to them properly outside of his script.

It makes Lan Huan’s heart clench as he watches A-Yuan scare older disciples by sticking his head through their bodies and smiling sweetly up at them. It bothers Uncle too. He watches A-Yuan flit from disciple to disciple with a severe frown on his face.

“Uncle, what troubles you?” Lan Huan says once they are finished eating. The frown has not left his uncle’s face even though Wangji and A-Yuan have already left to retire to the jingshi.

“He will never forgive us,” Uncle says quietly. “As long as that ghost follows him around…”

Lan Huan smiles, staring ahead and away from his uncle. “Do we deserve absolution?”

A-Yuan likes to play with the younger disciples of the sect. When Lan Zhan is occupied with his own class, A-Yuan wanders off to join his age cohort. He is always their first exposure to ghosts. They know better than to think of him as another classmate but they still greet A-Yuan back when he asks them where his family is.

This year, one particular boy, Lan Jingyi, spends the most time with A-Yuan. They like to play hide and seek, even if Lan Jingyi loses more often than not. A-Yuan has the advantage of hovering off the ground for a bird’s eye view. Whenever he finds Lan Jingyi, he happily exclaims, “Where is my family!” It is enough for Lan Jingyi to understand A-Yuan.

Whenever he can, Lan Huan makes sure to watch over the pair. The breaks the younger disciples have conflict with that of Lan Zhan’s class. And Lan Huan, well, being sect leader affords him a certain flexibility to his schedule and venue of his work.

Lan Zhan starts going off on night hunts. A-Yuan does not understand why he cannot follow his Rich-gege. “Rich-gege! Where is my family?” he says as talismans bind him to the barrier of the Cloud Recesses. Betrayal sets an incorporeal shine to his eyes.

A sad tenderness always resides in Lan Zhan’s features whenever he interacts with Wen Yuan. It is this tenderness that makes him smile a small, gentle smile at the little ghost boy reaching out. “A-Yuan,” he says, “needs to stay here and be safe for gege.”

A-Yuan nods. Some part of him understands family and safety. The other part of him is stuck. He says, “Rich-gege! Where is my family?”

Lan Huan walks up to the pair of them. “Do not worry, Wangji.”

Lan Zhan hesitates and Lan Huan wants to crumple inwards.

This is how the years pass by:

A-Yuan trailing behind Lan Zhan.

Absolution far away.

Lan Zhan teaching disciples.

Lan Zhan setting off on night hunts and A-Yuan left behind.

(He is always so betrayed and confused.)

A-Yuan playing with the other disciples; his playmates changing every so often when they outgrow him.

Lan Jingyi still playing with A-Yuan but with a new sadness lining his face when he learns what made A-Yuan a ghost.

It has been thirteen years since Wei Wuxian and Wen Yuan died.

“A-Yuan, my A-Yuan,” Mo Xuanyu chokes out. He stares past the entrance of the Cloud Recesses and gazes at the tiny ghost waving frantically. Mo Xuanyu, Lan Zhan, and Lan Huan listen to a sweet voice chirp, “Rich-gege! Where is my family?”

Lan Huan watches heartbreak shadow the planes of Mo Xuanyu’s face. He turns to look at his brother—his brother who has brought back a man with a curious sort of grief.

Mo Xuanyu no longer protests his entrance into the Cloud Recesses. All of his wailing about the thousands upon thousands of rules of Gusu Lan is incomparable to his grief.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan finally says. “A-Yuan has been waiting.”

And Wei Wuxian collapses in on himself for a long moment before he starts to smile a wide, wide smile. Sedately, he accompanies Lan Zhan into the Cloud Recesses, his donkey quietly trailing after them.

When the pair finally enter, A-Yuan moves quicker than the eye could ever see to stick his head happily through Lan Wangji’s leg. His hands pass through as he smiles what should have been a gummy smile but is more of an empty smile. “Rich-gege? Where is my family?” he says.

Wei Wuxian kneels down on the ground as A-Yuan continues to repeat his question to Lan Zhan.

“We are here, A-Yuan,” Lan Zhan says.

And A-Yuan turns to look at the pair.

For the first time in thirteen years, A-Yuan does not repeat his same bit of dialogue. Lan Huan wants to cry at the sweet words he hears from the boy. The guilt will never leave him for participating in the siege but he starts to think that maybe those closest to him can move on.

“Xian-gege, A-Yuan was a good boy. A-Yuan waited.”

“Xian-gege is sorry for making A-Yuan wait for so long...It’s time to go home, A-Yuan.”

A-Yuan smiles a wide, wide smile. Sunlight peeking through the clouds—a shimmer of light and energy as A-Yuan goes home. Then, there are only the three of them left in this entryway. Wei Wuxian, still kneeling; Lan Wangji, still staring down; and Lan Huan, still watching.