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Sometimes, Lan Yuan wonders why he had to be introduced to his father, Hanguang-jun. Why he was allowed, for the first few years, to call him gege and not fuqin or a-die, and now why he can and should only call him Hanguang-jun.

Sometimes, Lan Yuan wonders why the healers at the Cloud Recesses had allowed his fever to burn so bright that his memories had fallen into the black hole left in its wake.

Sometimes, Lan Yuan wonders why Hanguang-jun’s fever and injuries did not take from him what Lan Yuan’s took from him. He thinks it might have been kinder.

Often, Lan Yuan wonders why no one else sees this. How the grief flows freely through Hanguang-jun’s veins. It is fainter every time Hanguang-jun returns, intertwined with renewed hope and enduring duty. It was almost banished after his first trip outside the Cloud Recesses in what seems to be Lan Yuan’s whole life, but it is still barely there.

He had asked Zewu-jun the question before about Hanguang-jun’s grief. Once when Lan Yuan had only been allowed to see his father monthly as he healed, and a second time when Lan Yuan had noticed how frequently Hanguang-jun would travel for night hunts.

Zewu-jun had turned pale, calmly placed down his tea cup, and smiled.

Neither time had Zewu-jun answered. Lan Yuan did not ask again after the second time. Those were the only two times Zewu-jun had ever not answered his questions.

Lan Yuan is embarrassed, sometimes, at how he had used to cry every time Hanguang-jun would leave him. He is less embarrassed about how easily he had been comforted by the warmth of Hanguang-jun’s arms around him and the softness of the bunnies around him as Lan Yuan waited.

It had taken ten departures and returns by Hanguang-jun before Lan Yuan’s tears did not discover new tracks on his cheeks. Lan Yuan is no longer worried about whether he will see Hanguang-jun again.

Hanguang-jun has been the only one that Lan Yuan has ever asked to promise that he will return. Somehow, Lan Yuan knows that he is also the only one who has ever kept that promise.

Today, after lessons and dinner are over, he walks quickly—no running!—from Zewu-jun’s Hanshi to the Jingshi. Hanguang-jun has come home today, and Lan Yuan will be meeting him.

There is some news, too, that Zewu-jun has said that Lan Yuan can be the one to announce!

“Hanguang-jun?” Lan Yuan asks after a polite series of three knocks, evenly spaced by two miao.

“Mn. Come in, A-Yuan.” It sounds like Hanguang-jun shifts to rise, stands, and slides the door open. Lan Yuan removes his shoes at the doorstep, makes his way in, and follows Hanguang-jun toward the desk, where the qin and a sheet of paper rest with freshly ground ink and a clean brush.

“Hanguang-jun? I would like to discuss a topic with you.” Lan Yuan says as he sits down, not across from Hanguang-jun as is proper and done at the Hanshi, but by his side. It is by Hanguang-jun’s request that he does this, but Lan Yuan makes sure to stay proper by speaking with the utmost articulation.

“Mn.” Hanguang-jun responds. His face turns toward Lan Yuan, the smallest softening of his constant frostiness indicating as well as anything spoken, go on, I’m listening.

“I can no longer stay with you in the Jingshi, because I am now of the age to live with the other disciples.” Lan Yuan pauses, searching for the words he had practiced earlier with Zewu-jun and Jingyi. “I was hoping I could share a room with Lan Jingyi? I like him, he’s a… good friend.”

Why is his voice fading at the end! He can barely hold eye contact. Lan Yuan promises that he has been learning etiquette.

“Of course.” Hanguang-jun nearly smiles as he responds.

Oh. “Will I still be able to visit you? Talk to you?” Lan Yuan’s volume is almost too loud for the Jingshi, but Hanguang-jun does not scold.

“Mn. I will still see you every day, if I am home. Perhaps more often, if you would like to study with me. If you are interested in learning the qin or practicing sword forms.” Something about his tone makes his statements sound like questions, almost as if Hanguang-jun is unsure of his place in Lan Yuan’s life.

“Yes, Hanguang-jun!” Lan Yuan nearly shouts. He would like to not admit that he was worried that he would be losing that right to see his father, but to hear those reassurances from Hanguang-jun himself, even with its own touch of insecurity, gives him confidence.

“You have eaten?” Hanguang-jun asks as he raises his hand and gently straightens Lan Yuan’s ribbon. Smoothes out the folds Lan Yuan did not even know he was making on his robes.

Lan Yuan smiles despite himself.

“Yes, Hanguang-jun. May I ask what you are playing?” Lan Yuan asks, eying the items on the desk with interest.

“I am composing. Would you like to listen?” Hanguang-jun says, but he does not touch his qin. Instead, he grabs his brush.

Lan Yuan nods. Hanguang-jun smiles. Just a little. Lan Yuan’s chest warms.

And so, Lan Yuan sits on the small cushion by Hanguang-jun’s side, his forehead ribbon and posture perfectly straight, and watches Hanguang-jun write words to the song he is half-singing, half-humming in his deep, soothing voice.

Youthful memories brimming with silent warmth accompany my vigil

I keep wishing I could hold your hand, just once more

He, with all of the conviction of a child, wants to ask Hanguang-jun whose hand he is waiting to hold, if this person is his mother or someone else that has earned his grief. Would this person be sad or proud to have inspired such an emotion?

Lan Yuan hopes that they are sad. Not because he wishes ill on them, but because he believes no one who would be proud of grief should ever earn it.

Often, Lan Yuan thinks of some things that he has never experienced at the Cloud Recesses. Of another family, another time that his fever took from him like a robber in the night. Of a time he did not need to understand the point of politeness or the value of titles.

Sometimes, when he plays with Jingyi on polished wood or trimmed grass, he feels dirt over his legs and under his palms. He must have been planted well, he thinks, since he has a sibling now, even if Jingyi has his own father who is not Hanguang-jun. He hears the whoops of triumph at a successful harvest, the sound of chopsticks in a thin hand pushing more into his bowl.

Sometimes, when he is in the Jingshi he sees another home, one where the paper is dirty on the floor and walls, no table in sight. Where he watches someone else write confidently in characters he cannot recognize, but with well-practiced messiness rather than fluid precision. Where his curiosity is not met by a lowered tea cup and polite smile, but by a pinch on the cheek and a wide grin.

Sometimes, when he sits like this by Hanguang-jun’s side, pressed close almost into his lap, he remembers a bright laugh and smile, a flicker of red among black, and two grass butterflies in his own hands, with his own voice, younger still, saying “I like you.”

I would spend a lifetime watching over you in exchange of a single glance back from you

As I wake from this dream, I do not want to be left with nothing