On the day that his life is altered forever, Lan Wangji was spending a typical morning recopying the clan texts in the jingshi.
The key word, as Nie Huaisang is fond of saying, being was— because at approximately three minutes after the stroke of wu shi, a young man Lan Wangji has never seen before enters his receiving room with two little children in his arms and freezes like a startled deer at the sight of him, gaping in what looks like stark terror as the young boy on his hip wriggles free and runs over to Lan Wangji instead.
“Papa!” the little boy cries, throwing himself into Lan Wangji’s lap and burrowing under his outer robe until his head pops out over the ruined collar. “Xiao-Yu didn’t mean to touch the talismans, I really didn’t! We can fix the jishi, right? It’s not really gone?”
Lan Wangji looks up at the older boy in front of him, opening his mouth to ask just how he broke the privacy seals that separate the jingshi from the rest of the Cloud Recesses before noticing the ribbon on the youth’s white forehead, because the ribbon is not made of white silk, but blue, with a silver cloud ornament at his brow—an ornament that no one in the clan has the right to wear, save the sect leader and the sect leader’s immediate family.
And if Lan Wangji were not part of the clan, and familiar with its members only from a distance, he would have believed this intruder to be a third jade of Lan An’s line, since the eyes beneath their feathery brows are Xichen’s, and the boy’s mouth and nose are near-perfect replicas of his own.
“Hanguang-jun,” the boy gasps, finally slumping to the floor with a yawning baby cradled in his lap. “You don’t know me.”
“I do not,” Lan Wangji says stiffly, holding his body so rigid that the child in his robes goes utterly still against him. “Who are you, and why is it that you wear a first-clan ribbon in your hair when you are no kin to me, or ot my brother?”
“We must go see Lan-zongzhu,” is all the answer he receives, before the boy comes over and drags the child away from him. “Something has gone terribly wrong.”
The little boy bursts into tears, at that, and the pitiful sobs feel like a deadweight on Lan Wangji’s heart as he leads the three strange interlopers to the hanshi. He does not stop his crying even when the older one pats his back and murmurs soothing words into his ears, all while carrying the baby under his arm, and Lan Wangji is curious despite himself; he had purposely not warned the boy about the many wards in this part of the Cloud Recesses, prepared to have to lift each one so he and the children could pass through, but the boy keeps pace with him all the way to the house where Lan Xichen lives and then bewilders Lan Wangji even further by walking right up the porch steps so his younger brother can bang on the door.
“Bobo!” the child wails, beating on the wooden screen with a pair of chubby brown fists. “Bobo, let Xiao-Yu in! Papa is being mean!”
Lan Wangji feels inexplicably hurt by that statement. “I am not being mean,” he objects. “I have not said anything to you at all, even if I am not your father.”
“Mean!” Xiao-Yu sobs, crying even harder as a set of hurried footsteps come towards the door from inside the hanshi. “You didn’t hug Xiao-Yu! And you promised!”
“...What?” Lan Wangji asks, feeling more at a loss than ever as his brother finally opens the door.
“Wangji! What is the matter here?” Lan Xichen is not looking at the newcomers yet, only at him, and the glance settles something deep in his bones before Xichen glances at Xiao-Yu’s elder brother before swaying back in shock. “And this...who are you, xiao-gongzi, and why is it that you wear a clan ribbon?”
“It is something of a long story, Zewu-jun,” the young man says wretchedly. “May I come in and explain?”
“Certainly,” his brother acquiesces, stepping back to allow them all inside before plucking Xiao-Yu into his own arms and bouncing him once or twice. “Oh, there’s no need to cry,” he soothes, stroking the little boy’s hair as Lan Wangji trails along behind him. “Will you drink some cold water for me, A-Bao? You mustn’t cry so hard on such a hot day, you’ll make yourself sick.”
Lan Wangji stares at him, somehow more bewildered than ever at the sight of his Xiongzhang comforting the child. He remembers being very small and very petted, once, before Xichen’s studies took him away, and being doted on just like this, and the memory reaches out from somewhere deep inside him and brushes a soft, warm finger against his heart as his Xiongzhang pours out a cup of water and makes Xiao-Yu drink it.
“Now,” Lan Xichen continues, “perhaps, young master, you would be so kind as to tell us your name, and how you came to be in the Cloud Recesses.”
The young man takes in a deep breath and nods.
“My name is Lan Yuan, zi Sizhui,” he says. “This is my didi, Lan Yu, zi Xiaohui, and our sister, Shuilan. Our father’s name is Lan Wangji, titled Hanguang-jun during the Sunshot Campaign, and my siblings and I have been displaced from a time at least twenty years in the future.”
* * *
“This is impossible,” is the first thing Shufu says, when he finally arrives about half an hour later. “Xichen, how can you entertain such nonsense?”
“You may ask whatever you like, for proof,” Lan Sizhui offers, making Lan Qiren’s face turn a shade of pale purple that looks rather unhealthy, in Lan Wangji’s opinion. “Recollections of my childhood will be of little worth, but there are many other things you could question me about.”
“Don’t be mean to Xiongzhang!” Xiao-Yu cries, so plaintively that Lan Qiren’s ears actually twitch. “It’s Xiao-Yu’s fault! I dropped the talisman, Shugong, not him!”
“Talisman?” Lan Wangji dares to ask. “What talisman?”
“A talisman in the jishi, ” Xiao-Yu says obediently, having been quieted with a soft doll which Xichen procured from heaven knew where before he gave it to the baby instead. “I’m not supposed to go in, but A-Die was gone, and…”
“Xiao-Yu was very naughty,” Lan Sizhui scolds, “and when we get back home, you’re going to be writing lines for a month.”
“Papa won’t make me!”
“No, but I will.”
“Yuan-gege!” the child wails. “No fair!”
“Perhaps you could tell us what kind of talisman this was?” Lan Xichen asks, intervening before Xiao-Yu can start crying again. “We have nothing related to the manipulation of time, as far as I know, but perhaps your father might have altered an existing array?”
“Why was Wangji handling such things, anyway?” Shufu grumbles, glaring at Lan Wangji as if this whole situation is his fault—which it might well be, since his future self will apparently leave powerful talismans unsecured where six-year-old children can get to them.
His six-year-old child in particular, as Lan Wangji realizes with a strange, swooping lurch in his stomach. None of the children have mentioned a second parent—no mother, for instance, which makes more sense than either Shufu or Xiongzhang can understand. He has only ever loved one person, and that person is very much a man, so the confirmation that he will raise three children on his own—since he must have cultivated Lan Sizhui himself, given how alike they look, and adopted Xiao-Yu and A-Lan—comforts him almost as much as it hurts.
After all, he might never be fortunate enough to marry Wei Ying, but at least he will not be compelled to marry another, either.
“Papa wasn’t!” Xiao-Yu cries, as A-Lan tries to eat one of her doll’s cloth feet. “It was A-Niang!”
The breath leaves Lan Wangji’s lungs in a choked-out gasp, and Lan Xichen immediately puts out a hand to steady him. A-Niang, Xiao-Yu had said, which meant that Lan Wangji had—that he had—
“Your A-Niang?” Xichen asks, grasping Lan Wangji’s arm so tightly that it starts tingling. “Perhaps we can go find her, then, and see if she might know how to send you three back home. What is your muqin’s name, A-Yu? What clan does she come from?”
Lan Wangji feels as if his head has been shoved into cold water, which is why he barely hears it when Xiao-Yu lifts up his little voice and squeaks,
“A-Niang’s name is Wei Ying!”
“What?” Lan Qiren thunders. “That troublemaker— Wangji, what were you thinking— ”
“Is it true?” Lan Wangji finds himself pleading, catching Lan Sizhui by the sleeve and staring into his son’s fine-featured face. He realizes then that there is something more than himself and Xichen about these eyes, and that rounded brow, but there is nothing of Wei Ying in Lan Sizhui’s face at all, which completely rules out the possibility of him being born as the result of dual-cultivation between Lan Wangji and the boy he already loves to distraction, and married in secret when they were only eighteen. “Lan Sizhui, please. What is—Xiao-Yu’s A-Niang, what is his name?”
Lan Sizhui’s face softens, then, and all Lan Wangji is aware of in the next instant is a flood of overwhelming relief as his lips shape the most welcome sentence he has ever heard in his life.
“This son begs forgiveness for not having made matters clear earlier,” he says. “Our names are Lan Sizhui, Lan Xiaohui, and Wei Shuilan, and we are the children of Hanguang-jun, Lan Wangji, and of the Lan sect’s Xinhua-jun, first of Yunmeng Jiang and once called the Yiling Laozu, Wei Wuxian.”