((4.4k Wangxian meeting as kids! This is Part 3, the final chapter. Thanks this time to @shineefan101amg for bringing this back to my attention and giving me motivation to finish it! I had more of it done than I anticipated, just needed some polishing and an ending, enjoy!))
[Masterpost] [AO3 Link]
Wei Ying only moves from his spot when the trio is long gone and someone finally tires of him blocking the way and bumps him to the side. He trudges his way through the market, head down and no urgency left in his movements with no one to try to catch up to anymore. He stops when he gets tired and plops himself down on the steps of an inn, tucking himself near the wall of the building and hugging his knees to his chest tightly enough that if he closes his eyes he can almost pretend he’s hugging a person. It’s a good night - no one chases him away from his perch and he’s allowed to sleep until he’s well rested enough to wake and clamber back up onto the nearest rooftop in the moonlight.
He spends the next couple of days feeling glum. He keeps to himself and tries to steal what food he can without having to expend too much of his precious energy. Sometimes he begs for his food but he’s learned that no one wants to see a crying child begging and he can’t seem to stop crying so he must steal.
He wanders. He keeps away from the docks and the boys who like to beat him silly. He doesn’t feel much like arguing with them and he doesn’t have the energy to run from them so he just stays away from the area altogether. He finds himself back in the alley where he had taken shelter to eat a few days earlier, the same stack of crates still there against the wall. It’s early in the afternoon but he tucks himself into the stripes of shade the slats of wood offer and he curls up to take a nap.
Dusk is falling when he opens his eyes again, blinking blearily against the setting sun and the salt of his tears dried in his eyelashes clumping them together. He looks around in confusion only to find the boy from the other day kneeling in front of him, reaching into the pile of crates to tug carefully on his sleeve and Wei Ying’s exhaustion slips away as something shivery and full of anticipation takes root instead. He scrambles out of his hiding place to stand in front of the other boy, practically vibrating with excitement to see him again so soon.
“It’s you! Are you lost again? Do you need help finding your family?” he can’t keep the hope out of his voice even though he knows it’s bad to hope that this boy is scared again. But the hope disappears quickly when he shakes his head no and Wei Ying deflates. “Oh. Okay then. Do you want to play? It’s getting dark soon but we can play for a little bit probably.”
“Young master,” a kind voice says behind him and Wei Ying doesn’t even realize the address is for him until a hand slips onto his shoulder and he turns to look, blinking up at the older boy, the one who had called him the same thing once before years ago when he had offered to help him. The one who had looked like he’d been given the whole world when he’d spotted his little brother a few hours ago. “Are you the one who helped A-Zhan find us in the market the other afternoon?”
Wei Ying nods after a moment, eyes wide and his mouth hanging open a little as the older boy grins at him just as warmly as he’d smiled at his brother.
“Thank you for your help and guidance. We were very worried about A-Zhan, it was a relief to find him again so quickly, and unharmed,” he says with a bow and Wei Ying doesn’t know how to take that, being bowed to, so he hurries to brush it off.
“It’s okay, it was easy, I know how to get anywhere! Bringing him back to the market was nothing!”
“We still owe you a debt of gratitude. Will you come and eat supper with us so we can thank you properly?”
Wei Ying’s mouth falls even wider and he looks at A-Zhan for guidance only to find the other boy already looking at him with a determined expression on his serious little face. He’s at a loss for words so he nods and does his best to dust himself off and try to straighten out his clothes a little so the owner of wherever they’re going won’t try to throw him out.
The brothers turn to begin walking down the alley towards the closest main thoroughfare and Wei Ying nearly trips over himself following in their wake.
“Are your parents going to worry when you don’t return home to dine with them?” the older boy asks as he reaches out a hand to steady him with a grip on his elbow and Wei Ying grins up at him with a shake of his head.
“My parents aren’t here, they won’t mind!” he’s quick to reassure, not wanting this very kind boy to worry. He looks the same age as the boys who like to hurt Wei Ying but he’s so different from them, all gentle smiles and a soothing voice. Wei Ying can understand easily why A-Zhan had been so happy to see him after being lost and afraid.
“Oh, I see. Well I am glad you are able to eat with us. Are you hungry, young master?”
Wei Ying nods enthusiastically and giggles a little. “Why do you call me young master?” he asks around his giggling. “It sounds so silly! No one else calls me that.”
“What would you like to be called?” the boy asks with another smile.
“Well A-Ying, I am Lan Xichen, and my didi is named Lan Wangji.”
“Not A-Zhan?” Wei Ying asks in confusion, wondering why Lan Xichen had said both names.
“A-Zhan is the name our parents gave him for family to use,” Lan Xichen explains patiently as they walk. “Wangji is the name for other people to call him, that is the one you should use for him, A-Ying.”
“Oh okay,” Wei Ying accepts easily, though he pauses when Lan Wangji reaches out to pull on his brother’s sleeve, a frown on his face. He waits until he has his brother’s attention and only then does he reach out with his other hand to grab Wei Ying’s fingers like when they’d been walking together the other day when they were trying not to get separated.
“Ah...didi,” Lan Xichen says and Wei Ying can’t quite understand the look on his face but Lan Wangji apparently can as he frowns harder and pouts. “Ah...it seems A-Zhan would prefer it if you called him by his family name as well.”
“Really?” Wei Ying asks, startled, and A-Zhan nods firmly, fingers still wrapped around his. Wei Ying’s answering grin is wide and unrestrained. “Okay A-Zhan!”
“Xichen,” a low voice calls from up ahead and Wei Ying’s gaze snaps forward again, a gasp leaving him as he spots Lan Qiren waiting for them a few paces ahead. He hadn’t realized that the man would be included in the “we” Lan Xichen had said.
“Master Qiren!!” he shouts, waving furiously with his free hand. “Master Qiren, you came back!”
Both of the Lan brothers are staring at him with wide eyes but Wei Ying can only watch Lan Qiren as the man does a double take and stares at him, his eyes going wide as well after a long moment in which they finish approaching him.
“A-Ying?” he asks as if he can’t believe it and Wei Ying grins up at him.
“It’s me, you remember me!! You came back! I tried running after you the other day but there were too many people in the market and they wouldn’t let me through so I got stuck but you’re back! I lost the bandages you let me borrow last time I’m sorry Master Qiren I was going to give them back the next time I saw you when I was done with them but they’re gone now because it’s been such a long time since you gave them to me.”
“Breathe, child,” Lan Qiren admonishes and Wei Ying sucks in a sharp breath to fill his lungs again, still grinning from ear to ear and practically vibrating with excitement all over again.
“He’s the one who helped A-Zhan the other afternoon when he was lost,” Lan Xichen supplies, having apparently pushed past his surprise and Lan Qiren looks down at Wei Ying again as if studying him.
“You were out wandering unsupervised again?” Lan Qiren asks and Wei Ying frowns at that, confused as he tips his head to the side.
“What does ’unsupervised’ mean?” he asks, sounding the word out carefully.
“You were not being watched over by an adult or older child responsible for keeping you safe.”
“Oh - no Master Qiren! A-Ying is very grown up, I don’t need to be watched over anymore!”
“Where are your parents, A-Ying?” Lan Qiren asks next and Wei Ying’s smile fades a little as he scuffs the toe of his shoe against the ground, a pebble sneaking into the hole over his toes.
“They’ll be back soon,” he replies. It’s still the only answer he has, though he still doesn’t know how soon is ‘soon’.
“Have you seen them since you last saw me?”
“No, Master Qiren.”
Lan Qiren takes a deep breath in, lets it back out slowly, and Wei Ying wonders if he’s in trouble.
“Xichen, please take Wangji inside. We have a table in the back where it’s quiet, you may begin eating your supper.”
“Yes Uncle. Come on, didi,” Lan Xichen says quietly and A-Zhan holds his hand for another long moment before he allows his brother to pull him away and into the teahouse. Wei Ying ducks his head as Lan Qiren squats down in front of him so that their eyes are on the same level.
“A-Ying, do you know your family name?”
“It’s Wei, Master Qiren. My name is Wei Ying.”
“Do you have any other family besides your parents?”
“No, it’s just us. Do you know where they are? They’re cultivators too, just like you and the important family that wears purple! But we didn’t live with any big important family, we just rode our donkey and went anywhere we wanted.”
“Wei Changze? Cangse Sanren?” Lan Qiren suddenly asks and Wei Ying’s head snaps up again, his eyes wide.
“You know my parents! Do you know where they are? I miss them, Master Qiren!”
Lan Qiren looks at him for a long time without saying anything, his expression sad. He looks for long enough that Wei Ying’s eyes start to grow wet and his lower lip wobbles ever so slightly, scared of what that look and the accompanying silence mean.
“Master Qiren where are my parents?” he tries again, and Lan Qiren sighs heavily.
“I don’t know, A-Ying. I haven’t spoken to them in a very long time. I can take you with me, though. Would you like to come with myself and my nephews to our home?”
Wei Ying sniffles a little as he thinks about it. He’s already wandered far away from where his parents left him, and they haven’t found him yet. If he goes with Lan Qiren it sounds like maybe he won’t have to steal food anymore, and that sounds nice. He nods and he can feel hot tears starting to slip down his cheeks so he stumbles forward without thinking to throw himself into Lan Qiren’s arms. It takes a long moment but the man’s arms wrap around his small frame in return and Wei Ying feels like he can finally relax.
Lan Zhan eats slowly and steadily, feeling calmer than he has for days now that they know where his cheerful little savior is. He doesn’t understand how the boy knows Uncle but it doesn’t matter. A-Ying is safe now that they’ve found him, which means that all the people Lan Zhan cares about are where he can find them and protect them, where they can’t disappear right out from under his nose again.
Brother is next to him eating silently as they wait, and they’ve finished half of their meal by the time Uncle returns, A-Ying trailing along after him looking like he’s been crying but that he’s happy. Uncle brings him to the table and sits him down across from Lan Zhan before serving him a bowl of rice that he promptly digs into. He eats as atrociously as he had before and Lan Zhan wrinkles his nose a little as he watches, but a glance up at Uncle in expectation of a reprimand proves he just looks...sad as he watches, and Lan Zhan freezes. He’s seen Uncle look like that every time he had come and found him kneeling outside of Mother’s door, the same reminder that she's gone on his lips. He looks at A-Ying again and sees his skinny limbs, his filthy clothes that are falling apart, the hungry look in his eye as he glances at all the dishes of food spread out on their table even as he eats his plain rice without complaining, and he thinks he understands.
The meal is silent, the three Lans following the rules of Cloud Recesses and A-Ying too busy eating his fill of everything Uncle puts into his bowl to top his second helping of rice for him to speak. When they have all finished, Uncle fixes him and Brother with a look that makes them both sit up straighter.
“We will be returning to Cloud Recesses in the morning. A-Ying will be joining us. Do you have questions?”
“Is it because he helped A-Zhan?” Brother asks and A-Ying raises his head from where it had been drooping tiredly onto his chest to look at Uncle for the answer as well.
“It is because he does not have a safe place to go, and it is the right thing to do to help him when we have the ability to do so.”
Lan Zhan looks across the table to A-Ying again only to see him looking at Uncle with wide, shining eyes, his wonder bordering on disbelief written so clearly on his face that Lan Zhan feels like he needs to look away to give him privacy. He’s never seen someone wear their feelings so obviously on their face and he’s not sure if it’s polite to look or not when everyone around him - even Brother - has always hidden their true feelings behind something else.
“Wangji,” Uncle starts and he guiltily tears his gaze away from A-Ying to look up at him. “You and A-Ying are of a similar age, and you are already familiar with each other. It will be your responsibility to keep an eye on him and ensure that he becomes accustomed to life in Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Zhan nods his solemn agreement to accept the responsibility and he’s only just completed the gesture when A-Ying gasps loudly across from him.
“I get a place to stay and I get to stay with A-Zhan?” he exclaims, sleepiness clearly forgotten for the moment in his excitement. Lan Zhan watches with wide eyes as he leaps up from his spot to dart around the table and...hug..Uncle. “Thank you Master Qiren!!” he chirps and Lan Zhan can’t take his eyes off of him clambering into Uncle’s lap to hug him tightly around his neck in a rambunctious show of affection the likes of which Lan Zhan has never seen before. A glance to his left at Brother shows that he’s looking just as nonplussed as Lan Zhan feels and that, at least, is comforting.
The walk back to Lotus Pier only offers up more opportunities for confusion as Uncle deigns to physically carry A-Ying in his arms, the little boy completely limp on his shoulder. He’d started stumbling and rubbing at his drooping eyes as they’d left the restaurant behind, and after the fifth time he’d nearly tumbled to the ground Uncle had turned to scoop him up in his arms without a word. It didn’t seem wise to question it so Lan Zhan had kept his mouth shut as had Brother, but the guards at Lotus Pier apparently have no interest in sharing their reticence.
“Grandmaster Lan,” they salute in unison. “Ah...May this one inquire as to who you are bringing into Lotus Pier?” the braver of the two asks and Lan Zhan can practically feel the indignation radiating off of both Uncle and Brother for the impertinence.
“A patient for your healers,” Uncle replies brusquely and Lan Zhan follows along in the swishing wake of his robes as he strides past the guards and through the gate. He and Brother aren’t dismissed to their rooms and so after a shared glance they silently agree to continue following behind Uncle as he strides through the maze of Lotus Pier’s boardwalks and courtyards until they reach the healing pavilion.
It has been explained to him now that in the heat of Yunmeng it is easier to do some work in the evenings after the sun has set, and while he still privately thinks that it would be just as easy to wake early to accomplish the same tasks, tonight he’s grateful as the lanterns are still lit and the healers are still moving quietly about the space preparing medicines and restocking their supplies despite the hour. Their happy chatter quiets as the Lans approach and Lan Zhan subtly tucks himself closer to Brother’s side as a pair of them come out onto the path to salute them.
“Could I trouble you to examine this child?” Uncle asks, voice pitched low. Lan Zhan watches as the adults quickly take A-Ying inside the pavilion as he sleeps on, unaware. A surge of protectiveness propels him forward and he slips away from Brother’s side to hide behind the skirts of various robes until he finds himself positioned next to the examination table where A-Ying is laid out. One small hand is draped off the edge of it and Lan Zhan reaches for it without thinking, A-Ying’s small, bony fingers fitting easily into his palm as he curls his own fingers tightly around them. Uncle does a double take when he spots him standing there a couple of moments later but he says nothing, which Lan Zhan is willing to take as permission. Uncle asked him to care for A-Ying, after all. He’s just starting early.
“Xichen, stay with Wangji,” Uncle sighs and Brother steps into the room to step unobtrusively to the side as Uncle sweeps back out with no further explanations. Brother answers the healers’ questions dutifully with what little information they do know about A-Ying and Lan Zhan holds his hand throughout it even as the smaller boy is poked and prodded and examined. The healers are just beginning to attempt to rouse him to see if they can get him to drink a restorative tea when raised voices can be heard on the path outside.
“You brought that child into our home?!”
“We will be returning to Cloud Recesses with him in the morning, however he requires medical attention before we travel. You would rather I leave him to sleep in the streets for another night and retrieve him in the morning?”
Lan Wangji’s hand tightens instinctively around A-Ying’s fingers, a scowl on his little face at even the idea of doing what Uncle had just suggested, even though he understands immediately that it was rhetorical. Madame Yu, it seems, does not understand similarly.
“He has been taking care of himself just fine, likely stealing and lying his way into purses and kitchens! Fengmian, what are you going to do about this?!”
There is a response that is too low to hear and then a frustrated, wordless snarl from Madam Yu followed by the quick tap of shoes on wood as she retreats too quickly to be polite. The healers had paused at the first sound of trouble, but now they return to tending to A-Ying with the momentary distraction gone. Lan Zhan looks back down at his charge and blinks in surprise to find him already looking up at him with wide, watery eyes.
“Was that about me?” he asks in a whisper and Lan Zhan hasn’t yet learned to withhold information to soften blows so he nods, because it’s clear to him that it’s the truth. “Oh,” A-Ying says softly and something about it makes Lan Zhan’s heart ache in his chest, or that might be from how much A-Ying winces as the healers help him sit up so he can drink from the cup one of them is holding to his lips.
Uncle strides into the room again with his expression set in the kind of mask that Lan Zhan knows typically precedes a correction in his or Brother’s behavior but he says nothing, he simply steps aside to let the figure behind him step forward. Lan Zhan looks up just long enough to see that it’s Jiang Fengmian before he returns his steady gaze to A-Ying drinking, dutifully ensuring that he doesn’t choke as he guzzles the tea like it’s the sweetest spring water even though Lan Zhan can smell the bitter tang of medicinal herbs from where he’s standing.
“A-Ying?” Jiang Fengmian asks quietly once the cup is drained and A-Ying dutifully turns that wide, quicksilver gaze on the master of Lotus Pier. “Do you remember me?”
A-Ying blinks long and slow and then shakes his head with a little wince. Lan Zhan squeezes his fingers and A-Ying blinks down at their joined hands for a second before he offers him a grin, the same happy one he always has even if it’s tinged with tiredness.
“Do you want to go all the way to Cloud Recesses with Grandmaster Lan and his nephews?”
Lan Zhan frowns at the wording of that, the fact that Jiang Fengmian had made home sound like it was a long journey from Yunmeng not lost on him, but he says nothing. Uncle shifts his weight next to him and Lan Zhan knows that they’re at least thinking the same thing.
“Where else would I go?” A-Ying asks with innocent confusion. He opens his mouth to let the healer hold up a cup of fresh water to it and he drinks greedily even as Jiang Fengmian answers.
“You could stay right here in Lotus Pier. You already know Yunmeng very well, I hear, and I have two children as well. One of them is a boy your age, A-Ying, he could be your friend.”
Lan Zhan’s free hand tightens into a fist, a bit of his sleeve crumpled in his grip, but he stays silent, of course. Uncle puts a hand surreptitiously on the middle of his back between his shoulders and presses his broad palm and fingers flat against him, steadying him and soothing him without a word.
“Can A-Zhan stay too?” A-Ying replies once he’s finished guzzling the water.
“Second Young Master Lan must return to Cloud Recesses in the morning with his family, he won’t be able to stay.”
A-Ying frowns at that and Lan Zhan finally relaxes when he shakes his head and holds their joined hands up for Jiang Fengmian to see. “I go where A-Zhan goes. He gets scared sometimes and I like to help him, I can’t do that if I don’t live with him. He’s my friend already.”
“Do not separate them, Fengmian,” Uncle interrupts (interrupts!). Lan Zhan is shocked that Uncle would be so rude but he heartily approves. He doesn’t like that Jiang Fengmian is trying to talk A-Ying into staying where he doesn’t want to be - i.e. somewhere that doesn’t involve him. His heart feels warm in his chest for the first time in a long time at that thought. A-Ying wants to go with him wherever he goes. The feeling is certainly mutual.
“You have had years in which to find him running amok in your own city, and you did not. He wants to come with us to Gusu. A-Ying?” Uncle turns his attention to A-Ying and the boy instantly smiles up at him.
“Yes Master Qiren?”
“Sleep well, I will return to fetch you in the morning so we may begin our journey home together.”
“Okay Master Qiren,” he agrees easily, reaching out with his free hand towards the man. Lan Zhan isn’t sure what he’s doing but then Uncle steps in to draw the boy into a tight embrace. Lan Zhan’s chest burns with something he can’t name, but it must show on his face because when Uncle turns to look at him he pauses and then...reaches for him. Pulls him into a hug of his very own. Lan Zhan buries his face in Uncle’s robes and trembles slightly as he clings like he hasn’t been allowed to since he had been very small.
“Xichen,” Uncle calls and Brother steps forward dutifully, cautious hope on his face. Uncle pulls him in as well, tucking him into his chest for a moment before he withdraws and reaches out to take Brother’s hand. “Come with me, it is time for rest. We will leave Wangji and A-Ying with the healers for the night.” Brother nods and follows Uncle from the healing pavilion, Jiang Fengmian following after them a handful of moments later.
And then, thankfully, it’s just him and A-Ying and the healers. The adults bustle around the pair of young boys, tending to every scrape and bruise that they can spot on A-Ying’s scrawny limbs as they ply him with more cups of tea and water and even some rice until he’s falling asleep again while they tend to him. Once he’s asleep they take him away just long enough to bathe him and dress him in some spare Jiang clothes that are too big on him but, mercifully, aren’t full of holes or covered in dirt and stains.
They allow Lan Zhan to stay at his side for the rest of the night, a silent, steady presence as he lays perfectly on his back, A-Ying warm, safe, and sleeping soundly pressed up against his side.
In the morning, they will leave for home.
There will be further hurdles for Wei Ying to face - and for Lan Zhan as well - but they will face each of them together, utterly inseparable as they walk their paths that have become one and the same so early in their lives that to see them veer away from each other again is already unthinkable. Their short pasts are full of pain, but the uncertainty of the long future set before them is at least already full of the promise of each other, and that’s enough.
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