When hai hour finally descends upon the jingshi, Lan Wangji finds himself facing the near-impossible task of putting his children to bed in the spare chamber next to his.
Lan Sizhui, of course, is past twenty and perhaps even older than Lan Wangji is himself, so all Lan Wangji has to do for him is ensure that his elder son has a set of clean robes to wear in the morning and an extra bed to sleep in: and as for the baby, it seems that Sizhui does not expect him to help tend her, even though Lan Wangji ends up hovering around him like an anxious bat while he bathes the child and dresses her in one of Lan Xichen’s old baby gowns.
“She gets fussy when A-Die isn’t here,” Sizhui explains, patting the infant’s back until she blinks herself to sleep. “He hasn’t been on a single night-hunt since she came, and you’re away so often with your duties as xiandu, so A-Lan can’t sleep by herself without him. But you can help A-Yu get ready for bed if you like, Hanguang-jun.”
Little Xiao-Yu takes his bath easily enough, splashing gloomily in the tub at Sizhui’s side and submitting to his brother’s sponge and washcloth with nothing but a tiny sigh until Lan Wangji deems him clean enough. But after that, he bursts into tears when Lan Sizhui tries to tuck him into the new second bed, and refuses to be consoled no matter what Lan Wangji does.
“Xiao-Yu won’t!” the little boy wails, sobbing at the top of his lungs until Shuilan starts to cry, too. “This isn’t my bed! I’m going to sleep with Papa!”
“No, you won’t,” Sizhui says decisively, heaving Xiao-Yu back into the spare bed and bundling A-Lan in beside him. “You’ve misbehaved enough for today, Lan Yu. Now you are going to close your eyes like a good boy, and go to sleep so Hanguang-jun can get some rest.”
“No, Xiao-Yu won’t! It’s only hai shi! I’m not sleepy!”
Lan Wangji feels his mouth drop open.
“Only hai shi?” he protests, resisting the impulse to level one of Shufu’s gimlet-eyed stares at the child—more specifically, the one his uncle reserves for Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang, even though neither of them have been under his care for the better part of five years. “A-Yu, all Lan disciples ought to be in bed by hai hour every night, and one hour earlier if they are younger than twelve. Which you are, so close your eyes and lie still like your Xiongzhang told you to.”
“ My A-Die lets me stay up past hai hour,” Xiaohui says obstinately. “And so does A-Niang.”
I would never, Lan Wangji thinks dazedly, before stumbling away to find a new willow stick for Sizhui to brush his teeth with. And nor would Wei Ying—just how much will I change in the future, that I would permit such a thing!
In the end, it takes another fifteen minutes of cajoling and strict orders on Lan Sizhui’s part and several helpless glances from Lan Wangji before Xiao-Yu is safely stowed away under a thick blanket, lying with his eyes tightly shut and his cheeks still stained with tears even after Lan Wangji tries to pat his face dry with a handkerchief.
“Good night, Hanguang-jun,” Lan Sizhui tells him, climbing into bed next to Xiao-Yu. “A-Yu and Xiao-Lan won’t wake up until si shi, so we can speak to Zewu-jun and Lan-xiansheng again in the morning.”
Lan Wangji gives him a stilted nod before retreating to his bedroom, where he stretches himself out on his own bed and stares up at the ceiling in a strange mixture of elation and bewilderment as he reflects on the events of the day. The most doubtful thing about it was certainly his children’s assurance that he was married to Wei Ying in their time, and that the two of them were completely happy together—or that they will be happy, Lan Wangji supposes. Xiao-Yu kept up a constant commentary all through lunch, and then through dinner, telling Lan Wangji that his A-Niang always kissed his Papa before meals, and then again when they were clearing away the dishes, and that Xiao-Yu himself would receive a kiss from both of them after they were done kissing each other.
“Three kisses,” Xiao-Yu said solemnly, holding up three pudgy fingers while his long-suffering brother fed A-Lan a bowl of congee—a bowl of congee liberally flavored with Yunmeng-made chili oil, since Xiao-Yu seems to carry some with him wherever he goes. “One for Xiao-Lan, one for Xiao-Yu, and one for Yuan-gege. If Jingyi-ge is here, Xiao-Yu gives him one, too.”
A tear escapes from the corner of his eye at the thought of it, and he bites his lip to hide the hitch in his breathing as two pattering feet make their way across the house towards him. Lan Sizhui must have fallen asleep by now, so perhaps Xiao-Yu woke up to ask for a glass of water—but then Lan Wangji turns his head a little to the left and sees his son standing by the bed with a quilt bundled around his shoulders, and his small brown arms outstretched in a silent plea.
“Can Xiao-Yu sleep here with Papa?” he whispers. “Please?”
Lan Wangji feels his heart melt. This little boy—his son, his own child with his only beloved, with Wei Ying —takes so much from his second father, from his gap-toothed smiles to his easy pouts, and his way of making Lan Wangji want to laugh with him when he laughed, and weep with him when he cried. The two even look alike, since Xiao-Yu’s skin is tanned golden like Wei Ying’s instead of white like Lan Sizhui’s, and they have the same sweet freckle on their chins—right in the middle of the soft shadows beneath their lips, as if the kiss of some benevolent spirit had marked them both in their infancy.
How strange it is, that Lan Wangji took nearly a full season to realize he loved Wei Ying, when this chubby, cheeky baby of theirs has won his very soul simply by virtue of existing!
“You may,” Lan Wangji whispers. “Now, go to sleep. We have a long journey to Yiling in the morning, so you need your rest.”
Xiao-Yu cheers up immediately. “Will A-Niang be there? We’re going to see A-Niang, aren’t we?”
“Mm, we will. We will find your A-Niang and ask him to make a new talisman, so that you and Sizhui and Shuilan can go safely home to your own parents.”
“But why isn’t A-Niang here?” Xiao-Yu protests. “A-Niang never leaves you, Papa! Why is he in Yiling? What’s over there?”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes to hold back a sob, at that—because Wei Ying had been forced to leave him behind, because Lan Wangji was neither brave enough nor strong enough to protect him, and he is somehow horribly certain that he will never have the chance to redeem himself for his weakness if he lives to be a hundred.
But the child in his arms is proof that he will, no matter what lengths he must go to prove it, or how long it will take him to atone for that night at Qiongqi Dao, when Wei Ying took the Wens and rode off into the darkness to shelter in the very place that nearly took his life during the Sunshot Campaign—with the whole of Lanling Jin gnashing their teeth for his blood, their pride so grievously wounded that even Lan Xichen’s pleas for the case to be reconsidered had been dismissed out of hand.
“I left your A-Niang alone,” he murmurs against his son’s fluffy little head. “I wasn’t strong enough to keep my vows to him, and now he is in Luanzung alone with no one to speak for him, or fight on his behalf.”
“Then we’ll go find him, and you can tell him that you’re sorry!” Xiao-Yu chirps. “A-Niang won’t be angry at you. If you say you’re sorry and promise to be good, A-Niang will come home, won’t he?”
Xiaohui falls asleep only a minute later, leaving Lan Wangji to contemplate his words in silence; for he has had apologies in plenty from Wei Ying from the very day they met at the gates of the Cloud Recesses, but never given his zhiji a single one in return.
That will change, he vows to himself, hugging Xiao-Yu closer to his chest as his eyes finally slip closed. I will mend this, for Wei Ying’s sake, and for theirs!