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spring (and it’s starting again)

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I’m saying I know all about you, whoever you are, it’s spring 
and it’s starting again, the longing that begins, and begins, and begins.

Kim Addonizio, “Onset”

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Lan Wangji has two papers due next week and twelve essays to grade, ranging from merely acceptable to thoroughly appalling. Spending the morning tagging along on his brother’s errands isn’t getting him any closer to getting any of that done. 

Still, if he were being strictly truthful, it’s nice to see the sunlight. It feels as if he only sees lecture halls and library desks and clinic rooms these days, along with the night sky that ushers him from apartment to campus and back again. In the full regard of a near-noon sun, he’s quite nearly too hot and probably is wearing too many layers.

“It’s spring already, isn’t it?” he asks. An easy topic; something to lead them through the minefield that conversations with his family are these days. Even with Lan Xichen, by far the most understanding of Lan Wangji’s small and large rebellions.

Lan Xichen, perfectly dressed for the weather and probably nowhere near breaking a sweat, smiles at him. “You’d have noticed if--” He cuts himself off there and Lan Wangji is grateful. “If you ever got a break,” his brother finishes, a graceful recovery from blame. “Thank you for coming with me today.”

Lan Wangji nods and looks down at the bag in his hand. It’s bulging a bit with the morning’s purchases, but not truly groaning under its own weight yet, which surely means they’re nowhere near done. “What’s next?”

Lan Xichen consults his list. It’s immaculately penned on a Lan Law Offices notepad, but at least it’s in his own handwriting. He hasn’t been submerged so far in the family business yet that he has staff at his beck and call to run his personal errands.

“Greens,” he says, with a small nod that suggests he’s mentally ticked the next box on the list even though he hasn’t physically done it. Saying it makes it as good as done, in Lan Xichen’s world.

It had been lovely to live in that world, Lan Wangji remembers, barely suppressing a sigh. No amount of announcing it so is going to get his papers written, essays graded, laundry done, or clinic hours completed. Sometimes, when he is feeling less than charitable toward himself, he wonders if he would have done it - walked away, disappointed his uncle, given up on the grand principles of The Law in favor of the smaller everyday justices of keeping a child nominally fed or her parents barely housed - if he’d had any idea how easy his life had been made for him before he gave it up.

No use thinking about it now. That bridge is thoroughly burned, even if Lan Xichen continues to make the effort to wave at him from the other side of the chasm. Lan Wangji appreciates it; he does. It just also makes him want to claw his face off, a little.

But no Lan makes it to the age of ten without learning to wear a neutral face. He fixes his firmly in place, hands over the bag, and follows along behind Lan Xichen as he glides toward a table piled with baskets of leaves and tendrils. As his brother launches into some sort of interrogation of the farmer regarding the state of her chrysanthemum greens, Lan Wangji eyes the bunches of hollow-heart stems and tries to convince himself that he might actually cook dinner if he bought them. A little freshness and crunch might prevent him of dying from some horrible student’s disease brought on by too little sunlight and too many instant noodles.

The rabbits might like them as well, he thinks, reaching for a bunch before he can think too hard about the state of his bank account. They get by on pellets and hay and pallid supermarket greens, but Lan Wangji suspects them of being as hungry for something else as he gets sometimes. Even if it was only their ancestors that were wild, there must be something in them that remembers the taste of leaves chewed fresh from the source under an open sky. Some sleeping wildness in their hearts that belies their small, furry circumstances.

Thinking of them, surely, and not his own rarely-indulged sweet tooth, he reaches again for a small melon from the towering basket off to one side. It feels good in his hand; solid but not yet ripe, so he’ll be able to stretch it out for days, giving them only small healthy amounts. When it’s nearly overripe he’ll have whatever’s left for himself.

It’s thinking of that, already anticipating the cool flesh of the melon dissolving between his teeth, that distracts him enough so he doesn’t see it coming when there’s a sudden thud against his leg and OH FUCK THERE'S A CHILD.

Lan Wangji’s OH FUCK THERE’S A CHILD reflex isn’t great. He’s aware of that, and of the irony of his chosen profession, but it’s something he handles at work. He does like kids, after all.  He wouldn’t be dedicating his career to helping them if he didn’t. It’s just that they require a certain mindset that can be hard for him to slip into. He spent so much of his own childhood trying to be a miniature adult, calm and still and unnoticed, that it takes him a few breaths to remember how to relate to children who weren’t raised in a maze of unspoken but fiercely-enforced rules.

At work he can take those breaths before he steps into a room and becomes Your Friend Lan Wangji, Just Here To Play And Talk, Not Scary Or Anything. And it works, mostly.

But he doesn’t have those breaths here before his leg is being tightly clasped by someone whose head barely reaches his knee and who’s screeching “APPLE!” at the top of his lungs.

Lan Wangji blinks down at the child, who’s waving one chubby arm up at the melon still clasped in his hand.

“APPLE,” the little boy says again, loud and firm.

Wangji hands the melon over. It seems like the only thing to do. “You can hold it,” he says, “but it’s not an-”

“Apple.” The kid clutches it tight, two small hands around its diameter.

The stall owner snorts melodically and waves her hand at the little boy. “You’re wasting your time with that one,” she says. “He knows about twelve words and half them are just different kinds of apples.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji mutters, nonplussed. It’s not the weirdest form of early speech development he’s run across. But it’s going to make it hard to figure out where the kid belongs, and at a quick glance around, he doesn’t see anyone obviously missing a child.

The vegetable stall owner seems to know him, though. Maybe he’s her son. Lan Wangji pays for the melon, which seems too thoroughly handled at this point to not purchase. 

“You don’t have to stay with him,” she says. “He never goes far, and no one here’s going to let him get into trouble. They’ll be by looking for him soon.”

He  tests the waters, taking a step away. Another step. He gets three steps before the little boy hurls himself at Wangji’s leg like a rubber band snapping into place. Somehow he doesn’t lose the melon along the way, and when the dust settles - and Lan Wangji nearly fancies he can see a dust cloud flying, like an action sequence in a cartoon - the little boy has one arm hooked tight around Lan Wangji’s left calf, the melon safely tucked into a pocket in his tunic, and he’s gearing up for an epic shriek.

Lan Wangji stops trying to get away. He’s not a monster.

“Hey,” he says, and crouches down a little, careful not to shake off the little boy’s grip. “It’s okay. I’ll stay with you for a bit. Can we go over there, though? So I can sit down?”

He waves toward a log a few feet away. It is, not coincidentally because Lan Wangji is not stupid, a few feet closer to a stall that’s selling some sort of spun-sugar confections, all color and sparkle and delicious smells. He has techniques for helping children feel comfortable and happy, and “stuff the kid full of sugar” is one they’re pretty strictly not allowed in a professional capacity. But this isn’t work. Wangji just wants his foot back, and maybe also to make sure the kid has parents.

The little boy stares at the log, and at Lan Wangji, and clutches at his pocket as if making sure the fruit is still there. And then he nods.  Slowly, and with eyes narrowed in suspicion, but it’s a nod anyway. Communication established. Lan Wangji breathes a little more easily.

When they’re settled, Lan Wangji’s legs stretched out in front of him and the little boy cheerfully sitting astride his calves tossing the melon up and down and singing some tuneless song to himself, he starts looking around for someone who might belong to the stray child. He doesn’t find that but he does find Lan Xichen, several stalls away now, on his phone but staring back at Lan Wangji with one eyebrow raised as if to question everything about his little brother’s life choices. 

Lan Wangji often bristles at that expression but at the moment it seems justified. He shrugs and bounces the kid gently, scanning the horizon, looking for a commotion to match the one he’s already found.

It doesn’t take long for the commotion to find them.

At the first call of “A-Yuan!”, the apple kid starts to giggle so hard he nearly falls over. 

Lan Wangji catches his attention and asks, “Are you A-Yuan?”

“Apple,” Apparently-Yuan agrees with a vigorous nod, and Lan Wangji figures progress is being made. Yuan has a name, and whoever’s calling for him sounds not particularly frantic. Still, the sooner Yuan can get reunited with his father, the quicker Lan Wangji can go back to his brother and get on with the nearly-pleasant morning they were having. 

So he stands up to see better in the crowd, and scans the faces looking for Yuan’s dad. Who turns out to be easy enough to spot, a splotch of spilled ink in a sea of color, weaving lithe and swift through the crowd in a way that something buried in Lan Wangji knows even before the rest of him really knows. He’s been the tail to that comet before, held and pulled by one firm hand, struggling to keep up in a crowd, to not lose sight of Wei Ying.

Wei Ying who skids to a halt in front of them with eyes only for Yuan.

Wei Ying who gets several sentences into a scolding before he catches up with what Lan Wangji has already figured out.

“A-Yuan,” he says, a laugh perched behind his voice, “can’t you stay where I put you for five minutes? I’ll plant you again, see if I don’t, and Wen Qing won’t stop me this time. You can’t run off after every pretty man who-”

Lan Wangji is having some kind of out of body fit, he thinks faintly. 

Wei Ying has been missing for years, has never answered a letter, and he’s...here at Lan Xichen’s weekend market? With a child?

His hair is in the messiest braid, flyaway bits every which way. Lan Wangji’s traitorous fingers want to tame it. He makes some sort of noise, he thinks, but it’s not precisely a word.  It’s enough, anyway, to draw Wei Ying’s attention. Lan Wangji watches as Wei Ying’s smile breaks open like a flower.

“Lan Zhan!” he says, and oh, when was the last time anyone called Lan Wangji that? “You’re here,” Wei Ying says. It sounds like surprise and delight, and Lan Wangji also can’t remember the last time anyone sounded like that at the sight of him. Surely it’s happened, since Wei Ying. It can’t have been that long.

Lan Wangji swallows against an inexplicable lump in his throat and nods, hums an agreement, doesn’t trust his voice to more. He reaches vaguely down to pat at Yuan’s head, mostly to keep his hands from doing anything unwise.

Wei Ying’s gaze follows the gesture and he smiles at Yuan, squatting down to eye level.  “This once, I guess you’re not in trouble,” he says. “Since you found Lan Zhan for me.”

Yuan giggles and clamps harder onto Lan Wangji’s leg.

“He’s got you now,” Wei Ying says apologetically to Lan Wangji, and shrugs as he stands up again. “Sometimes he just picks people. He’ll make a fuss if we try to pull him off you before he’s ready. Can you stay for a little while?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says before he can even think about it. Yes, this is where he wants to be, and Xichen can take care of himself for a while. “Wei Ying, what are you doing here? Who is this? Where--” Where were you? Why didn’t you answer my letters? He bites every question about the past back. He’s good at that.

Wei Ying flips his awful messy braid back over his shoulder and makes a face at Yuan. “A-Yuan is my terrible, awful son and business partner,” he says.

Lan Wangji can’t help himself from doing the math. It’s impossible, or near enough so. Technically possible that Wei Ying could have somehow fathered a child so young, but not at all possible that Lan Wangji wouldn’t have heard about it every day if that had been the reason for his disappearance. It would have been an endless series of reminders from Lan Qiren about that boy, the terrible influence, and the shameful no-good end he’d come to. Instead of the cold silence of a stone dropped so far down a well no splash comes of it, no mention of Wei Ying at all, gruff rebukes the few times Lan Wangji had dared to mention him.

Wei Ying watches the numbers churn in Lan Wangji’s head and shakes his head. “I picked him in the turnip patch,” he offers instead, a theory just as outlandish but somehow one Lan Wangji can just about picture. “Found him there one morning, covered in dew and crying like a demon. Didn’t I, A-Yuan?”

Yuan keeps one fist balled up in the leg of Lan Wangji’s jeans and reaches the other out to grab Wei Ying’s pants. “Cake, please,” he says, clear as a bell, glancing back and forth between them to make it clear either of them is welcome to provide the cake.

“You do know more words,” Lan Wangji says to the boy, distracted and amused by his mercenary charm. 

“He had a rough start,” Wei Ying says with just the slightest edge of defensiveness. “He’s catching up. Which does not mean he gets cake just because he asks for it.” He leans down and scoops Yuan up in his arms in a sudden motion designed to startle the boy into releasing Lan Wangji, which he does, clasping Wei Ying instead. 

Lan Wangji feels oddly abandoned.

“Let me get him something,” he says, gripped with a sudden fear that if he doesn’t say something now to keep them, they’ll vanish back into the crowd and he’ll have no proof they were ever there. “A treat. To keep him busy. You can tell me…” Everything. Where you’ve been. How to keep you here.

“Oh!” Wei Ying nods and hoists Yuan a bit more firmly. “Yes, about the farm. We should go back. Wen Qing gets very cranky if she has to watch Apple for too long. But if you want to walk with us, you can. You should! Please do. It’s so lucky A-Yuan found you!”

After that things get a little blurry. Lan Wangji insists on buying Yuan a treat, although it ends up being an elaborately frosted cookie with a butterfly on it, rather than cake. Wei Ying thanks him very solemnly and then turns around and insists on buying a second one for Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji tries to share it with him in protest, but by then Yuan has scampered across the pathway to grasp at a display of colored paper fans, and he’s so bright-eyed Wangji can’t not hand him one.

Somehow by the time they arrive at what turns out to be a market stall Wei Ying is somehow responsible for, Yuan’s capacious pockets are weighed down with treats and his hands are full of toys. He’s been transferred to Lan Wangji’s arms and feels heavy and sleepy there, and slightly icing-sticky in a way that should be disgusting but somehow isn’t, entirely.

The young woman minding the stall levels all three of them with an absolutely withering stare and then sighs loudly enough to wake the dead but not, apparently, to wake Yuan. “You’re handling him when the sugar kicks in,” she says. “I absolutely refuse.”

This would be Wen Qing, Lan Wangji assumes. Wei Ying had mentioned her on their way back. Some sort of magician with herbal salves and tonics, he’d said, and the array of bottles and tubs in front of her looks impressive. That leaves Wen Ning to be the young man completing a transaction with a customer.

The donkey standing behind him appears to be blithely making its way through a basket of unattended fruit. There’s no way Wen Qing doesn’t see it happening from where she’s seated, but she has a firm set to her shoulders that says she absolutely refuses to engage with the situation.

He can’t offer a polite handshake with his arms full of the near-dead-weight of a sleepy Yuan, but he nods toward her and introduces himself. “I’m Lan Wangji,” he says. “Yuan found me, it’s nice to meet you.”

She’s clearly still considering whether he merits a response when Wen Ning looks over from his customer and says, “Oh! You’re Lan Zhan!” As if that means something to him. 

Perhaps it does. Wen Qing narrows her eyes at him slightly.

Wei Ying, beside him, is practically bouncing on his toes. “He is,” he announces gleefully. He takes Yuan back from Lan Wangji at the same time, the transfer jostling the boy into a faint disgruntled murmur. Lan Wangji shoves his hands in his pockets to keep himself from doing something terrible with them. “Lan Zhan from my old school!” Wei Ying goes on, breezy like it’s nothing, like they’re old school acquaintances and aren’t - never were - anything else. Like it was all in Lan Wangji’s head. 

“You should,” Wen Ning says with what sounds like a hint of a stammer, “y-you can sit here! I was just. Helping Wei Wuxian. Here.”  He waves at an empty chair and then goes back to his customer.

Wei Ying settles Yuan into a sort of nest in the back of the stall, made of empty cotton sacks that the produce must have traveled in. Lan Wangji looks at the display while Wei Ying is busy. The orchard they’re representing seems to be in spring bloom; it’s early in the season but there are cartons of berries, bushel baskets of apples and loquats, neat rows of canned fruits and some sort of baked pastries with colorful fillings peeking out.

It all looks very grown-up, very successful, and Lan Wangji still can’t quite wrap his head around any of it. He’d wondered often what had become of Wei Ying, and somehow “fruit hand pie magnate” hadn’t ever ended up on his list of suppositions.

“Wei Ying,” he says. There’s not really a plan for what comes next; he just wants to say and hear the name again. “This is all beautiful,” he says, and he supposes it is, even if what he really means is you are still beautiful

Wei Ying glows. Lan Wangji’s treacherous heart does something small and complicated and unfamiliar.

Wei Ying flings himself into one of the chairs and waves Lan Wangji down into the other. He keeps looking at Lan Wangji even while he leans back and, not looking, hooks a finger in the donkey’s bridle to drag him away from the fruit basket. The donkey lets out an irritated bray that makes Yuan mumble and stir and subside.

“Tell me everything,” Wei Ying says as if it’s simple, which makes Lan Wangji feel like it could be.

He thinks about what the important thing to say is but it all feels equally momentous, and equally trivial, compared to the simple fact of the two of them sitting there at all. Finally he just says, “My brother lives nearby; I’m helping him shop for a dinner party. I’ve never been to this market with him before. Are you always here?”

“Most weeks. When the harvest holds. Some weeks Wen Qing makes me stay home.”

Wei Ying winks at her and she stares levelly back.

“You give away half of what we make to anyone with a sad story or a pretty smile,” she says. “Sometimes we actually need to be able to pay the bills.”

“Ah, Wen Qing. The apples will always grow again! We can make more money! I can’t turn away a hungry face!”

“You could turn away a pretty girl once in a while.” She eyes Wangji. “Or a pretty anyone.”

It has the cadence of a well-practiced song and dance, more a familiar path than an actual argument. There’s no heat behind it. Wen Ning has finished with his customer and is now studiously doodling a flowering vine on a scrap of paper and avoiding the accusations flying past him about Wei Ying flirting them out of house and home.

Lan Wangji leans over to him to get out of the line of fire.

“You’re the artist?” he asks Wen Ning. The vine has the same sense of movement and detail as the labels on the jars and boxes piled around them.

Wen Ning blushes lightly, his pen jumping and spoiling the line of a leaf. Under Wangji’s eye he skillfully twists the vine around itself to cover the blemish.

“Yes. I do the paintings and help with the sales when things get busy. And I take care of Apple,” he adds, waving at the donkey. “At home. Not here.”

No one takes care of Apple here, apparently. He’s chewing on the basket again. No one else seems to mind, so Lan Wangji lets it go.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Wen Ning says. He’s soft spoken; Lan Wangji thinks he must have to work hard to be heard in this trio. “Wei Wuxian always says good things about you.”

Wei Ying’s name seems to draw his attention and he breaks in.

“Of course! Lan Zhan is the best,” he says, like it’s nothing. Like it’s self-evident. The easy sincerity of it scrapes against Lan Wangji’s skin. “You must be bringing terrible shame to your family these days, though. Look at you. Jeans,” Wei Ying stage-whispers. “And your hair’s so short! Can you even make a ponytail? Does Lan Qiren have twelve seizures every time you leave the house?”

Lan Wangji is very nearly startled enough to laugh. The list of ways he’s bringing shame to his family is so long these days that his hair - which brushes his shoulder blades and can absolutely be a ponytail - barely registers.

It doesn’t feel like a conversation for this place, full of people he doesn’t know. But who knows if he’ll see Wei Ying again? If this is all there is, he wants to say everything. 

He balances his thoughts carefully against each other.

“I moved out,” he says finally. “It had become difficult to be the nephew my uncle wanted. And he has my brother for that. So. I live on my own now. I do my own laundry but no one has even one seizure when I wear jeans. It’s a fair trade.”

Wei Ying’s brow furrows. He seems offended on Lan Wangji’s behalf. Wangji isn’t sure if it would be better or worse if he explained it was always going to happen, you were just one of the catalysts. He leaves that secret buried. Perhaps there is only so much radical honesty a market stall can stand.

Oh. I didn’t know,” Wei Ying says. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have joked. Do you hate him now? Do you want me to hate him for you?“

Lan Wangji doesn’t. It’s peaceful now, mostly, as long as he doesn’t go to family dinner too often or stay away from it too long, a precarious dance that sort of works if no one talks about it. But the offer is sweet in an odd way.

“It’s okay. It’s better this way. I see Xichen a lot, I’m not-” totally estranged, he wants to say, but nearly bites his tongue off in his haste not to. Someone in this conversation is totally estranged and it’s not him. “I have rabbits. In the apartment,” he blurts out instead, a desperate grab at another conversational direction.

Fortunately, it lights Wei Ying up. 

“Rabbits!” he exclaims.

That carries them safely through the awkwardness. He tells Wei Ying all about the rabbits and Wei Ying tries to make him take a basket of fruit home for them despite his explanations that rabbits shouldn’t have all that much fruit in their diet. Wei Ying is about thirty seconds from deciding to turn over part of the farm to the production of more rabbit-friendly foods when he gets distracted by an actual paying customer. It’s probably best for everyone.

Lan Wangji turns away - maybe to be polite, maybe to avoid watching Wei Ying shamelessly flirting with the woman, two dark heads bent together over the loquats - and reaches for his phone to text his brother. 

   LWJ: Sorry. I ran into an old friend. Can you get everything home if I stay here a while? I will owe you. I’ll come to two family dinners in a row.

Lan Xichen’s response is prompt.  There’s only a small pause in which he is probably juggling sacks of vegetables to get his hand free because Lan Wangji is a terrible brother who abandoned him. 

   LX: It’s fine. See your friend. Come to dinner next week. Who did you run into?

Lan Wangji hesitates. If he tells his brother, it will turn into a thing, because Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng are still friendly. Xichen will tell Jiang Cheng that his missing foster brother is not missing anymore. Jiang Cheng will yell. Wei Ying may not want to be found.

His fingers twitch. He types out the name and then deletes it. Finally just puts the phone away.

Wei Ying is watching him, curious, his important loquat transaction completed. Wen Qing doesn’t look angry; it must have been a full-price sale.

“My brother,” Lan Wangji says, waving vaguely toward his phone. “I was letting him know that A-Yuan kidnapped me. He still talks to Jiang Cheng, so I didn’t tell him about you. Do you want me to? I won’t,” he hurries to say, as a flinch ripples across Wei Ying’s face, “if you don’t want me to. I know it wasn’t great, when you…” He trails off, uncertain. “Left” isn’t the right term. They’d been too young for Wei Ying to decide. Got kicked out. Taken away. Wangji isn’t sure even now he knows the real story, only that it was bad.

Wei Ying’s expression is heavy with some emotion that Lan Wangji, raised in a family with few words to spare for feelings, can’t identify. He glances away and fidgets with the edge of a basket. Lan Wangji waits. 

“It’s fine,” Wei Ying says after a few moments. “He might not care anyway, but you can tell him if you want. It wasn’t his fault.” Another pause. “Do you know how he’s doing? Is he well? Is Yanli?”

Lan Wangji listens when his brother mentions them. He always thought maybe he’d hear something about Wei Ying someday. But he doesn’t ask for information and suddenly he’s furious at himself for not knowing more. If he had the right answers, maybe he could drive the sorrow from Wei Ying’s face and replace it with something better.

“I think they’re well,” he offers. “I haven’t seen them but I hear about them sometimes. I think Yanli’s engaged. I don’t know much more than that. Do you want me to ask? Do you want me to find out how you can reach them?”

Wei Ying’s expression goes somewhere far away. Lan Wangji feels a small, petty stab of jealousy even though it’s been a long time since Wei Ying’s undivided attention was anything he could lay claim to.

“If your brother would share their phone numbers,” Wei Ying finally says. “I don’t know how that would go, but it would be good to know how to reach them. I could think about it.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t actually know if Lan Xichen has Yanli’s number. He’s never gotten the impression that they were close. It seems more that his brother admires her from afar as the only person in her family who could sit calmly through a Lan family meal without breaking four rules before the second course. But if he doesn’t have it, Lan Wangji can get it. He will get it. It’s something he can do, a pebble on the scale to balance against his failures.

He nods and takes his phone back out.

   LWJ: Can you send me Jiang Cheng’s number? And Yanli’s if you can get it. I’ll explain later. Three dinners.

The little indicators that Lan Xichen is responding appear and disappear, and pause, and do it all over again. Lan Wangji can practically feel the phone vibrating in his hand with the intensity of his brother’s determination not to overstep his boundaries.

When it finally appears, the message just says:

   LX: I can find her number. Give me a minute.

Lan Wangji can breathe again, but everything has suddenly resumed being awkward. His competing urges - to respect Wei Ying’s privacy and to claw underneath his skin and learn everything about who he is now - are hard to reconcile. 

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” he says. “But if you want to. Why didn’t you look them up before?”

Wei Ying picks up an apple and tosses it from hand to hand, like a magic trick with no grand finish, all distraction. “I moved around a lot for a while,” he says, and something in his tone warns Lan Wangji that he is not invited to ask more. “I didn’t end up with Granny Wen right away, and when I did...eh. There was so much to do and it had been such a long time.” He smiles in a tight, thin way that doesn’t quite reach his eyes and adds, “Besides. You said they’re doing well! And I’m fine too. And you have your rabbits! So it all worked out.”

Wen Qing is staring daggers at Lan Wangji. He can only see it out of the corner of his eye but that’s enough to convince him not to press the question. He opens his mouth to ask about the farm instead, Yuan, anything to bring Wei Ying’s real smile back. But before he can, Wei Ying’s pocket starts shrieking. It sounds like some sort of resentful demon.

Wei Ying pulls out his phone and silences the unholy wail before glancing down at it and frowning.

“Shit fuck dogshit motherfucker,” he says all in one breath with barely a pause between words, his tone very nearly cheerful, and his thumbs start to fly over the keyboard.

Wen Ning, who has been studiously avoiding getting involved in their conversation, says, “You make peace with the ring tone once you realize it’s the only thing that gets his attention when he’s really deep in a project.”

That tracks with what Lan Wangji remembers. He nods and tries to look as if his ears aren’t still threatening to bleed from the sound. He glances over at Yuan, who has slept right through the cursed phone. Apple has his nose deep in one of Yuan’s pockets and is extracting a cookie slowly, seemingly intent on not waking the boy. It appears to be a well-practiced heist.

“DOGfucker,” Wei Ying says, very precise, glaring at his screen.

Laughter tries to bubble up helplessly in Lan Wangji’s throat at the improbability of everything about the day. What is happening.

Wei Ying smacks his phone down on the rickety table with an aggrieved sigh and a shake of his head.

“The blood pool,” he says, and Wen Qing and Wen Ning groan in unison. “It’s overflowing again.” His eyes flick back and forth rapidly between the stall and Yuan and Lan Wangji, and then he puffs a short, frustrated breath. “I should go. If we let it go until tonight it’ll be even worse. Can you--”

Wen Qing flaps a hand at him dismissively. “Go. We’ll get everything home. We don’t want to deal with the blood pool. It’s definitely your turn.”

Lan Wangji is trying to act as if this makes sense. He suspects that he is failing.  Even studied Lan neutrality can be stretched beyond its limits.

Wei Ying turns back to him and his face falls. “Oh,” he says, less genial now. “Shit. Can I - can we trade numbers? For when you hear back from Lan Xichen. I mean, we don’t have to, if you’d rather not, I’m sure I can look him up online if I ever--”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji doesn’t mean to be rude and cut him off. It’s just. He’s leaving. And Lan Wangji is suddenly desperately afraid this is it. This is all he gets, and he’s wasted it talking about rabbits and painful memories. “Yes. You can always call me.” 

“Oh. Good,” Wei Ying says, and there it is, the real smile that goes all the way to his eyes. Something tight in Lan Wangji’s chest uncoils by a fraction.

They trade contacts in a blur and Lan Wangji silently curses that they didn’t drive so he can’t offer to take Wei Ying home, and Wei Ying hugs him so fast and fierce that he barely has time to register it much less hug back, and then Wei Ying grabs one of the mini-pies to stuff in his pocket and is off and running. 

He cuts a swift line through the crowd and is gone, and Lan Wangji has no idea what to do with his arms or his face or the next ten minutes or the rest of his life.

Wen Qing’s voice is not entirely unkind when she says, “You look a little pale around the edges. Maybe you ought to sit down.”

“She’s half a doctor,” Wen Ning says proudly, and Wen Qing scoffs but also smiles fondly at him. 

Lan Wangji sits down.

“I’ll finish training one day,” she says. “When A-Yuan’s a little older and doesn’t need us all around so much. Doesn’t take a doctor to tell you’re wobbly, though. You can stay for a while. Yuan likes you.”

That burst of friendliness seems to be all she has in her for the moment. She turns back to the table and busies herself organizing the merchandise. Wen Ning looks kindly at Lan Wangji but he doesn’t try to make conversation.

Lan Wangji sits and breathes and makes lists of the things he can see and hear and touch, and he does not panic, not even the quiet kind of panic that feels like dying but is apparently invisible to everyone around him. He just lets himself be blank for a few minutes. Wen Ning helps a customer and Apple brays and no one tries to make Lan Wangji be okay. 

It occurs to him that they are, carefully and kindly, giving him space. That this may be a little family of people who are very used to a certain amount of not being okay.

He is glad to know that Wei Ying has that.

He only moves when his phone buzzes in his pocket, twice in quick succession. He pulls it out and secretly hopes it will be Wei Ying, but of course it’s Lan Xichen. Lan Wangji notes the name and puts the phone away without actually opening the messages. It will be the numbers; his brother wouldn’t have said he’d do it if he wouldn’t succeed. But he can't respond now; it’s too much to explain. He’ll try later.

He shoves the phone back in his pocket and stands up.

Wen Qing clears her throat and for all that he doesn’t know her at all, Lan Wangji has a sudden feeling he’s in trouble. She sounds like Lan Qiren, if he were half the size and twice as scary.

“Lan Zhan.” Her voice is crisp and no-nonsense now, and she stands up too, slightly too close. “This was a good day for Wei Ying. He’s not always like this. We have to be careful with him.”

Lan Wangji can’t tell if she’s threatening or offering him something precious or, somehow, both. But he can tell she’s serious, and he wants to explain that he always meant to be careful. That he knows things now he didn’t know as a teenager, about how the world treats those who are not born with the right name and the right connections. 

But that is a lot to admit to someone he doesn’t know, even someone who has Wei Ying’s trust. He nods and tries to convey wordlessly that he understands. That he will be careful with any scrap of Wei Ying that is entrusted to his care.

“We need him,” she goes on. “Yuan needs him. If you’re going to ignore him, just don’t start something. Find someone else to play games with.”

Lan Wangji realizes belatedly that this was about the phone. That she thinks he’s ignoring Wei Ying. A small flame of anger tries to blaze up but he squelches it ruthlessly. It’s good that Wei Ying has people to protect him. He has done nothing to earn this woman’s confidence.

“I will not play games with him,” he says. He’s been told that his voice is hard to read emotions into, but he hopes - he tries - to sound as if he means it.

She stares him down for several long beats and then nods, nearly imperceptible.

“Wen Ning,” she says, still holding Lan Wangji’s gaze for a moment before she finally breaks it to look at her brother. “Get his number. We may need to yell at him.”

He gives his number to Wen Ning with a sense that he has passed one test and found only another series of them waiting beyond it. Wen Ning seems unperturbed by any of this, as if Wen Qing threatens people on Wei Ying’s behalf on a regular basis. Maybe she does. Lan Wangji would, if Wei Ying were his to protect.

He offers to trade numbers with Wen Qing as well and she laughs, but the set of her shoulders has loosened. “Not yet,” she tells him. “You’re going to have to earn that one. You can make a start at it by helping us pack Wei Ying’s stuff, if you want.”

He does want. He doesn’t want to leave this space yet, that so recently held Wei Ying and still seems to hold so much of him. He lets Wen Qing direct him on how to pack up what remains and starts with the bruised fruit from the bottom of the basket so that Wen Ning can try to unload what remains of the pastries at a discount. Apparently they aren’t worth saving for another day.

Wen Qing tells him he can take a few home. He does not ask whether Wei Ying made them. Tries not to imagine Wei Ying with his hair curling damply from the steam of a hot oven, dappled with flour, at home and happy somewhere Lan Wangji has never been. He pays double for them. It’s more than he can actually afford, but then apparently he’s going to be saving money by going to more family dinners than usual in the upcoming weeks. 

Eventually, he’s lingered as much as he can without it getting weird.

It gets weird anyway; Wen Ning stares at him with wide eyes for several awkward moments and then says, “Do we hug? I never know when to hug.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t always know when to hug either, and as part of his new effort to demonstrate his sincere and heartfelt intent to not be whatever sort of awful person Wen Qing suspects him of being, says as much. 

“We can, if you want,” he adds. “But we don’t have to.”

Wen Ning looks relieved. He bows in Lan Wangji’s direction, old-fashioned and sweet, and Lan Wangji nods back. Wen Qing, bouncing Yuan on her hip where he demanded to be lifted after they woke him up to get the sacks out from under him, does not offer Lan Wangji a hug. He is not surprised.

Yuan fusses but only a little, quieting quickly when Wen Qing tells him Lan Wangji will be back next week. For someone with a reputation for opaqueness, it seems that Lan Wangji has been shamefully transparent this afternoon. Or perhaps Wen Qing is just that perceptive.   

He nods to her, too, and then walks off. Fast toward the metro, hands in his pockets, head whirling.

He gets off several stops early to walk the rest of the way home. It’s a nice day and his world has turned itself inside out and he just...needs a few minutes, to put space between everything that just happened and his orderly life.

Except that something happens as he’s walking.

He sees a cat and he thinks, Maybe Wei Ying still likes cats, and he keeps walking. And then a block later he sees a peony in riotous scarlet bloom and he thinks I could send a picture to Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji pauses. He thinks the words again, deliberately, tasting the possibilities in them: I could send a picture. To Wei Ying. He takes his phone out again and frames the photo carefully, then snaps it before he can think about it too much.

He retraces his steps to the wall where the cat was basking in the sun and approaches her cautiously. The cat blinks at him, unbothered, and sniffs with mild interest at his fingers. The fur on the top of her head is sun-warmed, and his fingers sink into the longer fur at the back of her neck. He’s not quite bold enough to pet under her chin and see if she’s purring, but he takes several seconds of video of her smug, pointed face and the pink of her tongue when she yawns at him.

He types quickly and sends the message before he can think too hard about it:

   LWJ: I hope the blood pool is not as bad as it sounded. If you need encouragement here is a friend I made on the way home. 

He pets her again and then turns for home. When he gets there, if Wei Ying answers him, he’ll send the peony. He’ll send his best picture of the rabbits. He’ll send anything that might make Wei Ying smile.

He makes it past the peony this time, all the way to the next corner and nearly home, before his phone vibrates. 

He doesn’t break into a run -  he is still the person he was raised to be and he feels like his ancestors would just know and curse him from beyond the grave if he ran through the streets without regard for the people in his way - but he barely feels his feet touch the ground, he’s walking so fast. It feels like flying the whole way.

In his head he’s already composing the next messages he will send once he’s home.

Wei Ying, he might say, this peony reminded me of that ribbon you used to wear. Or Wei Ying, after you left, Apple ate the cookie I bought Yuan, can I come back next week and bring him another?

Maybe Wei Ying, it was so good to see you today or Where were you really or - oh, a dozen things. Things he’s written before in letters sent and unset. Things he was never brave enough to put down on paper at all.

And then he’s running after all, several years behind, rushing like he always did to catch up with Wei Ying, but apparently not too late. It seems that he's - improbably, miraculously, with a bewildered wonder that blooms in him with each step - just in time, after all.