One morning, Jin Yanli discovers that her son has eloped with another boy, so she calls in a servant to prepare some tea for the maelstrom that’s about to envelop Carp Tower.
The first one she tells is A-Xian, since the boy in question is his. It takes quite a long time for her maid to return with him, and when he shows up on her veranda he’s barely awake and dragging his feet, but he’s in good enough spirits that she isn’t worried about his reaction to her news.
“Oh,” he says, sounding about as unsurprised as she felt. He casts his eyes toward the sky for a moment, and it’s as entertaining as it always is to watch his lightning-quick mind at work, even when he’s barely conscious. When he seems to decide how he feels about it, he gives her a sleepy grin. “What naughty children we’ve raised, shijie.”
It seems convenient on the surface that A-Xian and his family are staying at Carp Tower for the month, but it likely isn’t a coincidence that their sons chose to elope during one of the most hectic local festivals of the year. She last saw A-Ling yesterday afternoon in the archery fields with A-Yuan and their other friends, and then for the remainder of the day when he didn’t turn up again she assumed he was enjoying various foods from the street vendors outside. She expected to see him at breakfast, however, and when he didn’t turn up, his recent threats to elope surfaced as the most probable explanation.
There’s also the note he left.
“Has your son mentioned anything recently?” she asks A-Xian.
“Yes,” A-Xian confirms. “Well, in a roundabout way. He asked us why we eloped. We figured he was considering it.”
Her smile is slow and fond. “You realize that certain parties will hold you and your husband responsible for this,” she says.
This gets his nose to crinkle in feigned offense. “It’s not like we’re the only couple in the history of the world to have eloped, shijie!”
“Mm, but perhaps you’re the couple most likely to influence your son and nephew.”
“Ahh,” A-Xian wails, dropping from his slouch to lie flat on his side. “What scandal! Cousins eloping! There’s no more face for us left to save, shijie!”
It’s far from the first time A-Xian has made this joke about their sons’ involvement, but his theatrics still make her laugh. She’s glad she told him first. Her few concerns have shrunk to almost nothing seeing his cavalier acceptance of the situation.
Her son will always be very young in her heart, but she can’t pretend she isn’t relieved that he’s chosen someone as reliable and sweet as A-Yuan to be his cultivation partner. Much in the same way she was relieved when A-Xian chose Lan Wangji to be his.
“We probably shouldn’t tell anyone else until we’re certain,” she says.
“On the contrary,” he says with mischief, “the uncertainty is what makes telling people fun, shijie. Think of the mayhem we could brew with such an elite scandal going on within these hallowed halls.”
She picks up her fan and taps him on the nose. Mildly, she admonishes, “Bad A-Xian.”
With great docility he clearly doesn’t mean, he covers his face with both hands curled up into paws and whines.
It’s rather clear which parent A-Yuan takes after in times like this.
In a commendable show of willpower, A-Xian seems only to tell his husband and no one else. It’s even possible that he didn’t tell Lan Wangji, since his husband’s expression is as placid as ever when they all sit down to breakfast, but she knows A-Xian is a sieve when it comes to his Lan Zhan. There’s little chance he kept it to himself.
She also informs her husband of the circumstances, but she has to wait a little longer to do so. Her husband always eats early and alone to focus his mind before starting on his duties as sect leader. She finds him in the garden reading over reports of potential threats against the LanlingJin Sect, and she sits in the shade next to him to deliver the news.
“Eloped?” he says, frowning. “He wouldn’t really. What makes you think so?”
Yanli takes from her sleeve the note she found on their son’s bed and hands it to her husband. He manages to read it from start to finish, needing only two deep breaths to calm himself. When he’s done, he returns it to her and back it goes into her sleeve.
“So,” he says in a sigh, “when are we to expect them?”
“You know as much as I do now,” she says.
The note isn’t especially informative.
It’s only after much consideration and discussion that I have decided to carry out my desire to pursue a marriage to the suitor of my choice. Namely, Lan Sizhui. Please understand my decision and do not attempt to stop us.
She chose not to share the letter’s existence with A-Xian since it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll memorize it and then perform it from the tallest point of every sect, but she does think the stilted formality is rather cute. She also finds the contrast between his flagrant rebellion and his description of his own filial piety a point of amusement.
“As far as I’m concerned, he isn’t married until he does it properly,” her husband says.
“That’s reasonable,” she says. “As long as you don’t fight him on his choice of partner.”
Her husband eyes her from the side in mild offense. “Have I ever objected to Lan Sizhui?” he asks.
“Well,” she says, “you’ve never given them much encouragement.”
Years ago, their son picked his chin up at dinner and announced in a voice just this side of too loud that he’d taken up romantically with Lan Sizhui. He seemed to channel the spirit of a younger A-Cheng in his delivery, belligerent and furious while projecting the aura of a tiger cub.
Silence immediately followed.
In Yanli’s opinion, the way in which he made that initial announcement contributed significantly to their current situation. If A-Ling had chosen a different tone or more respectful words, he might have gotten a warmer reception and wouldn’t have felt it necessary to elope years later. Instead, his father raised an eyebrow at his outburst and only hummed to prove vaguely that he’d heard.
This began a ridiculous campaign wherein her husband and son regularly locked horns and sniped at each other over A-Ling’s various personal choices, not limited to Lan Sizhui.
A-Cheng didn’t assist either side with his side comments.
“You’re twelve,” A-Cheng snorted once during an official visit from Lotus Pier. “Who pursues romance at twelve?”
“I’m sixteen, uncle!”
“Even worse. Do you know what your idiot uncle was like at your age?” Without pausing for breath, he jerked his chin at Yanli’s husband and added, “Your father wasn’t much better.”
The air in Carp Tower worsened every year, father and son routinely spouting poisonous words they didn’t mean, until finally A-Ling started to insist that he would take the matter into his own hands and marry Lan Sizhui without adhering to the proper way of things.
Now that he’s followed through on his threat, the whole ordeal can finally be put to rest.
With luck, that is.
When A-Ling and A-Yuan don’t appear for lunch, A-Cheng is the first to point out their absence. Their seats are conspicuously empty when the other disciples are all present. They all shift uncomfortably and avoid the eyes of anyone above them in seniority.
A-Xian shares a quick glance with Yanli across the table, but it isn’t quick enough to escape A-Cheng’s notice, and he says, “You can’t be serious,” with wide eyes.
Then everyone knows.
Yanli sighs and drains her soup. She’ll need the energy today.
A-Cheng has at least enough decorum to wait until they’ve dismissed the majority of the room’s occupants to have his full explosion.
“That little brat! How dare he behave this way?” He stabs a finger against A-Xian’s chest, points at Lan Wangji, and says, “This is your fault. Both of you.”
A-Xian bats A-Cheng’s hand away with an exaggerated pout and says, “That hurt, Jiang Cheng. Don’t you think this has wounded us also? That we’re just as distraught for our son’s reputation and future?“
“Of course you’re not! Who do you think you’re talking to?”
Lan Wangji hasn’t moved from his seat at the table, and he doesn’t react outwardly whatsoever to the accusation. Yanli pours more tea for him, feeling a familiar kinship with him as the rest of the room rises in volume without their assistance.
“Thank you,” he tells her.
She demurs with a smile.
“If he were my son, I would’ve broken off one of his legs and beaten sense into him with it!”
“Would you perhaps consider calming down, Jiang Cheng?” A-Xian wonders. “Neither of them is your son or even part of your sect. What do you have to be upset about?”
“He’s family, and I’ll react however I damn well please considering how regularly that little brat behaves without impunity and stains the reputation of his seniors!”
Yanli and A-Xian have learned over the years to not take most of what A-Cheng says to heart, but it’s a skill her husband has yet to master, and he always prickles at slights against their parenting.
“What are you implying about my son’s upbringing, Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin?” he asks with a dangerous drop in register.
A-Xian makes a small ‘o’ with his lips and takes a long, exaggerated step out of the way. He’s wise to do so, it turns out, as within minutes of barbed remarks, Yanli’s husband and brother are toe-to-toe snapping at each other like angry cormorants.
Occasionally, A-Xian will seem tempted to add his opinion like oil to a fire, but he manages to hold himself back. He stands perfectly neutral between his brother and brother-in-law, apparently content to watch the two men before him shout ever more personal attacks at each other. Once or twice he catches Yanli’s eyes across the room and raises his eyebrows with comical shock at an insult or string of profanity.
Yanli wonders if A-Ling has come home yet.
Ten minutes later, lunch finishes on the punctuated notes of two screen doors slamming on opposite ends of the dining hall, leaving Yanli alone with A-Xian and Lan Wangji.
“Well,” A-Xian says, seated serenely at his husband’s side with a beatific smile, “it’s a wonder why our children didn’t choose to spend their first blissful hours as a wedded couple with their doting family members, isn’t it, shijie?”
Lan Wangji covers A-Xian’s hand and says, “Finish your tea.”
A-Ling and A-Yuan don’t come home until late in the evening, and it seems that A-Ling has returned at least somewhat against his will. Yanli watches from her place in the garden as A-Yuan tugs A-Ling forward by the wrist.
They’re not wearing anything extraordinary, nothing to mark them as newlyweds, but Yanli notices a difference in the way they’re carrying themselves. She’s never seen A-Yuan touch her son in public before, and even if they aren’t technically in front of people—they haven’t registered her presence yet, it seems—it’s still a bit of a revelation to see how comfortable they are sharing each other’s space. As they reach the center of the garden, very near to the spot beside the pond where Yanli has spent the last few hours on her own, A-Ling turns his wrist with an impatient twist and interlaces their fingers.
“Don’t walk so fast,” A-Ling chides. “You’re making too much noise.“
In truth, Yanli sensed her son long before they even entered the garden. He’s exuding a vast aura of displeasure to be home, and his grumbling preceded him.
A-Yuan ignores the complaint and starts them down the path that leads to the guest hall. “Hanguang-Jun will be asleep, but we can still greet Senior Wei,” he says.
A-Ling stops, his expression obstinate. “My mother first,” he says.
Through her surprise, Yanli smiles.
“What if your mother is with your father?” A-Yuan says.
“She isn’t,” Yanli calls.
Their hands detach like they’ve been struck apart by Zidian.
A-Ling gives A-Yuan a sharp glance and hisses, “She’s your mother too now.”
“Technically, she’s your aunt and your mother! You should give her double the respect!”
Yanli hides a smile and lifts her eyes to where A-Xian is sitting on a bough in the tree beside hers. His hair sways behind him, pushed from side to side by the amicable swinging of his legs.
A-Ling jumps at his voice, but A-Yuan only smiles.
“Technically,” A-Yuan says, “Madam Jin is neither. Not by blood, at least. I feel most comfortable addressing her by her title.” He gives Yanli a salute, which she returns with fondness. He’s always been such a sweet child.
A-Xian, however, grips his chest with an exaggerated expression of pain. “A-Yuan!” he gasps. “You deny your family! First you deprive us all of the respect to which we’re owed, and now you insist that we’re nothing more than strangers to you! Can my heart endure such sorrow? Such misery? What a hateful child you turned out to be!”
While A-Yuan’s smile widens, A-Xian neatly dodges the stone A-Ling throws at him by dipping backward and hanging from the bough by his legs. There’s no sound of the stone itself landing, and a moment later it’s clear why when A-Xian lets his arms dangle, the stone loosely clasped in one fist.
“Your aim is terrible, A-Ling,” A-Xian sighs. “Never tell anyone I helped teach you archery. It would disgrace my reputation.”
Yanli warns, “A-Ling, remember yourself.”
Years ago, when A-Ling began training as a cultivation disciple in the LanlingJin Sect, Yanli and her husband established the condition that should he pick fights with any of his uncles, he would have to handle the consequences on his own. There are only so many jobs a parent should do once one’s child reaches a certain age and level of cultivation skill, and this seemed like a good place to toe the line.
A-Ling backs down with a roll of his eyes.
Once A-Xian leaves his tree, the three of them gather around Yanli beside the pond where she has been waiting for her son and his chosen partner. The hallways that line the garden glow by candlelight and occasionally the silhouette of a servant or official will pass by a paper-lined window, but the garden itself remains undisturbed. Yanli made several specific requests for it to remain that way.
“So,” Yanli says. “If you have a plan for diffusing the situation, I’d be agreeable to hearing it.”
A-Ling frowns. “What situation?”
“I think you’re going to the wrong newlywed for the art of diffusing,” A-Xian whispers.
Yanli sighs. He isn’t wrong. She’s already listened to five potential arguments between her husband and son in her mind. Yanli makes her expression stern until her son ducks his head. “You’ll go to your father in the morning and mend what needs mending.”
Part of why Yanli’s relationship with her son has flourished in his more difficult years is that she’s given him the same treatment she gave A-Cheng when he was the same age. She chooses her battles wisely, and she makes few demands, and as a result she always wins.
“Fine,” he mutters.
Almost imperceptibly, she lifts her fingers, passing the responsibility for A-Cheng to A-Xian.
He takes it with enthusiasm. “Hey,” he says. He’s propped himself up on his elbows, and he’s the picture of indolence when he reaches his leg out to poke A-Yuan’s stomach with his foot. “A-Ling’s father will recover if you apologize, but A-Ling’s uncle may hunt you down to the end of your days. You’d better go to him, too.“
“I’m not afraid of you or him,” A-Ling says with false bravado. “I’m taller than he was when he was my age, anyway.”
A-Xian tips his head to one side. “I think you should focus on what height he is and not what height he was,” he suggests. “Besides, Jiang Cheng fights dirty. He used to throw sand and mud into my eyes when we fought as teenagers. I still won’t fight him.”
As A-Ling opens his mouth to argue some more, A-Yuan lifts his head with concern written across his face. “What about Hanguang-Jun?” he asks. “Is he upset?”
Yanli watches with keen interest how her son absorbs A-Yuan’s words and then softens a little. When he returns his attention to A-Xian, he seems much less combative.
She recognizes A-Xian’s impulse to tease, but he visibly resists. “Lan Zhan’s not upset,” he tells his son. “He’d be a bit of a hypocrite if he were, wouldn’t he?”
“The circumstances between the two elopements are different,” A-Yuan points out. “One could argue that it wasn’t as necessary for us as it was for you….”
He doesn’t look at A-Ling when he says it, but A-Ling still shrinks into himself a little once it’s said. That confirms whose idea this elopement was, if not from the very beginning, then from its actual implementation.
A-Xian pokes A-Yuan with his foot again, this time closer to his chest. “Listen to you. Talking like you were there for our elopement. We only did it to avoid one difficult family member. You had two.”
“A-Ling, your father doesn’t oppose your choice,” Yanli says, then gives A-Xian a quelling look to ensure he stays well-behaved. “Neither does your uncle. They only oppose your demeanor and perhaps the age at which you made your choice.”
“Weren’t you our age when Father asked you to marry him?” A-Ling asks. He doesn’t sound snide when he says it, though, only beseeching. As if he’s wanted to ask the question for a long time and could only force himself to do it now. “Why is it different for us?”
She smiles, acquiescing the point. “Because he’s not your age anymore.”
“Small mercies,” A-Xian mutters.
Yanli bats his arm without looking away from her son.
When she has A-Ling and A-Yuan’s word that they’ll sort out the worst of the damage first thing tomorrow, Yanli allows them to leave. She doesn’t comment when they disappear around the far wall in the direction of A-Ling’s room, but A-Xian hums with keen interest, his smile mischievous. “Well, that’s convenient,” he says. “Two nights of undisturbed privacy. And A-Ling’s room is quite far from the guest hall, isn’t it, shijie?”
Yanli covers his mouth with her hand. “It’s time for you to go back to your husband, A-Xian.”
He winks at her and springs to his feet. “How right you are, shijie! Then I’ll bid you goodnight, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the continued chaos of the newlywed nightmare.”
She says, “Good night, A-Xian,” with great affection.
The following morning’s events would be anticlimactic for A-Xian if he were awake to see it, but he doesn’t end up showing his face until almost noon and even then he looks like he barely slept. He sits next to Yanli at the dining table and yawns, “What happened?”
She slides some of her uneaten side dishes before him and while he gratefully eats, she explains, “This morning, they approached A-Ling’s father and apologized for their rashness and promised to accept whatever punishment he saw fit for causing a scandal.”
“Sounds like my son,” A-Xian says.
“They decided to leave A-Cheng alone.”
“That also sounds like my son,” A-Xian snorts.
All the doors lining the wall of the dining hall are opened wide, and vast volumes of sunlight warm the room. It might explain why, little by little, people start to congregate in the large room. Lan Wangji arrives with A-Yuan at his side, and conversation smoothly turns to A-Xian’s favorite childhood foods and how much he misses his shijie’s cooking. Shortly after that, Yanli’s husband and son enter from the garden, the air between them strained but somewhat peaceful.
Preceded by a dreamy sigh, A-Xian asks, “Has my shijie ever cooked for you, Jin Zixuan?”
“You know she has, Wei Wuxian.”
“Aah, I miss food with substance.” A-Xian drops his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder and whines, “Lan Zhan, why can’t we add ‘eat food with substance’ to the wall of rules?”
“It’s already there,” Lan Wangji says.
“You can check for yourself when we go back.”
“Aah. I’ll…take your word for it.”
In the brief pause that follows, everyone busying themselves with the snacks and tea brought into the room, Yanli meets her husband’s eyes across the table. With great dignity and discomfort, he asks their son, “So…which of you…cooks?”
A-Yuan’s eyes go wide, his hesitance clear from the way his mouth has parted without a single word dispatched from it.
With pride and awkwardness equal to his father’s, A-Ling says, “We’re both sort of good at it.”
“Ah,” says the father.
“Yeah,” says the son.
From the way A-Xian is clearly bursting to comment, Yanli suspects he’s been sworn to good behavior by his husband. When the strained silence has stretched on for a full ten seconds, A-Xian hides his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder and muffles his snickering.
Lan Wangji strokes his hair without the slightest change in demeanor.
A-Cheng, lying on the porch just barely within Yanli’s line of sight, rolls his eyes at the roof.
Yanli calls out for A-Cheng to join them, and as A-Xian stands up to make the invitation more physical, A-Yuan smiles across the table at A-Ling, and A-Ling blushes when he notices.
That evening before dinner, Yanli leaves a note for her son on his bed.
My sweet A-Ling,
The world you want to live in is yours, and I will always accompany you on the way there.
I love you.
Beside it, she leaves one for A-Yuan as well.
Family is chosen, and A-Ling’s family chooses you, too.