Wei Wuxian’s life takes strange turns sometimes.
For example, when he left Yunmeng for the Lanling crowd hunt two months ago, he never imagined that he wouldn’t be going home again, or that Wen Ning would die, or that Wei Wuxian would end up being a toddler’s primary caretaker. He never expected that he would have to secede from the Jiang clan, or that his own brother and sister would be placed firmly out of his reach because of the crimes of the Jin sect; and today, when he ventured out of the Burial Mounds with A-Yuan on his shoulders, he certainly never expected to end up with a tiny Lan child sobbing in his arms before he had the chance to buy even a single potato.
“There, there?” he says, tucking the little boy close to his chest and stroking his hair. On his other side, A-Yuan rubs his chubby fists into his eyes and starts to cry, too, so Wei Wuxian has no choice but to sit down in the middle of the street with both children cradled in his arms.
“A-Niang!” Lan Yu sobs, shoving his face into the crook of Wei Wuxian’s neck.
“Xian-gege!” A-Yuan howls, trying to do the same.
“Don’t cry,” Wei Wuxian says, rather nonsensically. “Ah—Lan Yu, was it?”
“Xiao- Yu!” the little boy insists, looking so offended that he actually stops crying. “A-Niang, you didn’t give me a kiss!”
Huh? Wei Wuxian thinks dazedly. But he leans forward and gives Lan Yu a kiss on the cheek all the same, and the child rubs his face and beams at him before staring down at A-Yuan.
“A-Niang, who’s that?”
“That’s...A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian replies. “Xiao-Lan, shouldn’t you be here with someone? Surely you didn’t come all this way by yourself, ah? Let’s go to the main street so we can find your mother.”
Around them, passersby are pausing to stop and stare. They clearly recognize the white robes and forehead ribbon as belonging to the Lan sect, but none of them appear to know the difference between the three different kinds of ribbons marking guest disciples, clan disciples, and disciples belonging to the zongzhu’s immediate family. From the snatches of conversation flying through the cloud, the townsfolk seem to think that Xiao-Yu is an outer disciple, returning to Yiling to visit his family, and Wei Wuxian even hears a couple of old grandfathers praising his own parenting skills.
“See how well he holds them,” one of them marvels. “And for such a young father, too! Look how big the child is.”
“And he’s so thin,” a fish-vendor frets. “I’ve been there, you know—but the children have such chubby cheeks, he’s taking good care of them even if it means he has to miss his meals!”
“Do you think he has to pay the Lan sect for educating the big one?” someone else frowns, clearly put out on Wei Wuxian’s behalf. “Those cultivators are no good, they must be fleecing the poor boy for all he’s worth—”
And finally, someone with a grain of sense: “Why did the older one call him A-Niang?”
“A-Yang! You can’t just say that?”
“Why not? He’s clearly a man, isn’t he?”
“What if he’s like your cousin? Then he would be A-Niang, wouldn’t he?”
“...I’m a man,” Wei Wuxian offers lamely, raising his voice in the direction of the last person who had spoken. But they ignore him, since gossip is more interesting than actually listening to the person in question, so Wei Wuxian holds Lan Yu out at arm’s length and looks at him instead of paying attention to the crowd.
“I missed you,” Xiao-Yu says tearfully, sticking himself to Wei Wuxian again like white on rice. “A-Niang, will you come home now? Papa missed you, and A-Lan missed you, and Xiao-Yu missed you so much— ”
“Xian-gege stay!” A-Yuan yelps. Xiao-Yu frowns at him, scanning his grumpy little face as if he were searching for the meaning of the universe in it; and then he nearly bursts Wei Wuxian’s eardrums with a cry of pure joy, grabbing A-Yuan and squeezing him like a ball of baozi dough until he starts wailing again.
“Yuan-gege!” Xiao-Yu exclaims. “A-Niang, it’s my Yuan-gege! He’s little!”
But then the crowd parts around them, and Wei Wuxian looks up to find a figure in pale blue standing over him—a figure that usually looks graceful and solemn and dignified, but is decidedly not any of that at the moment.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks, more confused than ever. The cultivator staring down at him is definitely Lan Zhan, since Wei Wuxian would recognize his jade-like face anywhere, but he looks like someone dragged him backward through a forest of thorns. “What are you doing here?”
In answer, Lan Zhan only goes to his knees at Wei Wuxian’s side.
“Xiao-Yu,” he rasps. “You must never let go of my hand in such a crowded place—what if someone other than Wei Ying had found you!”
“Papa!” Xiao-Yu cheers. “You found us! But Xiao-Yu had to buy groceries for A-Niang, so I had to run away. We don’t have enough beefs for A-Niang and Ning-shushu! Ning-shushu eats lots, even if he’s a little dead, so we need to feed him all the time.”
Only one word of the child’s piping speech sinks into Wei Wuxian’s mind.
“Papa?” he demands, poking Lan Zhan in the side. “What on earth is going on, Lan Zhan?”
Could Lan Zhan really be Lan Yu’s father? Wei Wuxian thinks wildly. That would explain a great deal, even if it certainly doesn’t explain why Xiao-Yu keeps calling him mother.
And I haven’t even bought any vegetables today, he realizes. Wen Qing is going to kill me.
“A-Niang has lots of vegetables!” Xiao-Yu chirps, tugging at the drawstrings of his space pouch and displaying a frankly dazzling array of produce of all kinds: green beans almost as long as Wei Wuxian’s arm, round yellow potatoes, shiny purple eggplants, and even chili peppers and clean white bamboo shoots—and plenty of meat, both dried and fresh, and a stack of cold mantou wrapped up in a cloth. “Xiao-Yu bought them for you! Can we have chicken soup now?”
But then the little boy pouts and shifts in Wei Wuxian’s lap, peering down into the space pouch with trembling lips as A-Yuan catches sight of the dried-meat snacks and tries to climb inside it.
“Little Yuan-gege can eat those,” the child says disconsolately, extracting a handful of meat snacks and tucking them into A-Yuan’s hungry mouth. “But I don’t have any chicken.”
“Hanguang-jun!” someone else shouts, before Xiao-Yu can run off to the butcher and buy a whole chicken carcass. “Hanguang-jun, did you find Xiao-Yu?”
“I did,” Lan Zhan says: not loudly, but his voice carries through the crowd, and a moment later another young Lan rolls into view, wearing the same style of ribbon that Lan Zhan and Xiao-Yu have. He seems to be close to Wei Wuxian’s own age, with a sweet heart-shaped face that looks identical to Lan Zhan’s from the nose down. The youth has a napping baby strapped to his chest, dressed in the pale blues and whites of the Lan clan, and Wei Wuxian begins to wonder if there are, in fact, three more jades of Lan than the world believes exist.
But then the baby stirs and wriggles around to look over the top of its wrap, and its round black eyes fix themselves right on Wei Wuxian. The child gives a sniffling whimper, like a kitten crying for food, and then it kicks its chubby little legs and strains toward Wei Wuxian with such force that he has to leap forward to catch the tiny blue bundle as it falls out of the boy’s arms.
“Lan Zhan,” he gasps—more of a plea for help than anything else, since he has three tiny children clinging to him now, and all of them except for Lan Yu are crying at the tops of their lungs. “What’s going on?”
* * *
“So you’re telling me that these—”
“All of them?”
Wei Wuxian rubs his eyes and stares at his friend, half-convinced that Lan Zhan brought Lan Sizhui and his two small charges here just to play a trick on him. They’re back in the Burial Mounds now, sitting at the table near Wei Wuxian’s bed while Wen Ning—newly reawakened, thanks to Chenqing and Lan Zhan’s qin —bustles about outside, preparing some kind of stew from some of the ingredients Xiao-Yu bought.
Wen Qing is with him, and so are the rest of the Wens. They were only too eager to leave Wei Wuxian alone with Lan Zhan after Wen Ning came back to himself, and his former zhiji took the chance to inform him that his three companions are apparently Wei Wuxian’s future children.
And furthermore, Lan Zhan insists that they returned due to one of Wei Wuxian’s own invented talismans, and as such, only Wei Wuxian can send them back.
None of this information included the reason why Wei Wuxian would marry into the Lan clan someday, or even who his mysterious wife is going to be. But he hadn’t pressed for an explanation; Wei Wuxian doesn’t know very many of the Lan girls, and Lan Zhan and Lan Sizhui are probably afraid that if they tell him who his wife is, he might ruin his future marriage and end up erasing his children from existence.
He wouldn’t erase Lan Sizhui, though. Because Lan Sizhui is his A-Yuan all grown up, which made Wei Wuxian so blissfully happy that he hardly held himself back from covering the poor boy’s face with kisses.
“Well, it doesn’t matter about my wife,” he says brightly, deciding not to question it for now. Lan Sizhui took him aside and told him a few things that no one knows at the moment but Wei Wuxian himself, to prove his identity, and Lan Zhan loves the Lan sect’s wall of rules so much that he might as well marry it— and one of those rules definitely forbids telling lies, both inside the Cloud Recesses and out. If any of this is false, he’ll deal with it later, after he gets some decent food and maybe a good night’s sleep.
Lan Zhan keeps on flinching whenever he mentions his future wife, though, and the sight sets Wei Wuxian’s teeth on edge.
Is his wife dead? That could be why poor Xiao-Yu keeps calling him A-Niang: perhaps his mother had passed away, and so the child began to look on his father as his mother, too. And perhaps Lan Zhan’s future self helps Wei Wuxian take care of his children, both out of respect for their friendship and for the sake of the deceased disciple-sister who bore A-Yu and A-Lan, which explains why Xiao-Yu calls Lan Zhan Papa.
Did Wei Wuxian’s wife die when Wei Shuilan was born?
He glances down at the baby in his lap (now fast asleep again after a drinking bottle of goat’s milk from the actual goat that Xiao-Yu stuffed into his qiankun bag before Wei Wuxian found him) and traces her tiny nose and cheeks with the tip of her pointer finger. Her skin is almost snow-white, like most of the Lan clan save for Zewu-jun, and her features are a good deal softer than his; it could be because she’s only a baby, of course, but it’s more likely that Wei Shuilan takes after her mother.
“Your A-Niang must have been beautiful,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, kissing A-Lan’s little forehead. “I’m sure I’ll know her when I see her, A-Bao, just because of you.”
Next to him, Xiao-Yu crosses his arms over his chest and makes an unhappy grumbling noise. Lan Sizhui put plugs of clay in his ears and sent him into a corner to play with A-Yuan the moment he entered the cave, and Xiao-Yu has been forced to sit quietly there ever since.
“You can’t take them out yet,” Sizhui says, when Xiao-Yu plucks at his xiongzhang’s gown with tears in his eyes. “Be good and wait a little while, A-Yu.”
“Aiyah, A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian scolds, as Lan Yu makes a beeline for his outstretched arms with Wen Yuan balanced on his back. “Isn’t that too harsh? He’s only six years old, and he didn’t mean to make any trouble.”
“I know, but it won’t be very long,” Lan Sizhui replies—rather mercilessly, in Wei Wuxian’s opinion, because Xiao-Yu’s eyes overflow all over again, and he hides his head on Wei Wuxian’s breast in a vain effort to escape his brother’s disapproving eyes. “And there are matters he must not mention, for fear of doing harm. He doesn’t know that, though, so he keeps saying things he shouldn’t.”
Wei Wuxian sighs and cuddles all three of the children close to his heart, rubbing his cheek against Xiao-Yu’s to cheer him up a little. He also removes the soft cylinders of clay in the little boy’s ears, and replaces them with two pieces of fluffy lint from his pockets so Sizhui and Lan Zhan won’t notice anything different.
“Shh,” he whispers, when Lan Zhan says something to Sizhui about Zewu-jun and a journey to Koi Tower. “Don’t tell me anything, all right? That’s all that matters, so it’ll be all right if you listen.”
“Mm!” Xiao-Yu whispers back. “Xiao-Yu will be good.”
After Lan Zhan finishes discussing their plans for dealing with the Jin sect, he raises the question of bringing all the Wen remnants to Gusu, and Wei Wuxian leaps on the idea like a cat lunging at a mouse. “Good!” he laughs, rocking A-Yuan and baby A-Lan from side to side. “I’m sure there’ll be enough room. There aren’t very many of us, and A-Yuan can stay with me...and Xiao-Yu might even get to see his mother, if she’s there now!”
“Ah—A-Die, Xiao-Yu’s mother isn’t—”
“Do you think I could meet her?”
Xiao-Yu looks up at Wei Wuxian and frowns.
“But A-Niang is A-Niang,” the little boy insists, as Sizhui finally spots the clay plugs in Wei Wuxian’s hand and gives a strangled gasp. “And Papa is A-Niang’s husband. Why does A-Niang want to meet anyone else?”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “I don’t know your mother yet, qian jin. But we’ll get married sooner or later, and then she’ll be your A-Niang again.”
“No!” Xiao-Yu yells, launching himself off Wei Wuxian’s lap. “You’re only allowed to marry Papa! You can’t marry anyone else!”
And then he runs over to Lan Zhan, and drags him bodily to Wei Wuxian’s side. “Why won’t you talk to A-Niang?” he begs. “Papa, A-Niang’s only allowed to marry you!”
“I can’t marry Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, astonished. “Aiyah, Xiao-Yu, I know you love Hanguang-jun very much, but—”
“But A-Niang’s always been in love with Papa!” the little boy wails. “You told me so! My A-Niang doesn’t tell me lies, he promised! If you don’t marry Papa, I—Xiao-Yu will run away!”
Sizhui makes a grab for his brother, but A-Yu sidesteps him and balls up his fists, rubbing them into his eyes as Wei Wuxian stares at him in complete bewilderment.
“A-Yu, we’re both men,” he says gently. “How could you and A-Lan be born if I married Lan Zhan, ah? And I do love Lan Zhan—he’s my bi sheng zhi ji, and my dearest friend, but I’m not in love with him. That’s a different kind of love.”
Across from him, Lan Sizhui blanches and casts the Lan silencing spell on Xiao-Yu, and Lan Zhan glances down at his hands and says nothing at all. Xiao-Yu tries to open his mouth and turns to Lan Zhan in desperation when he realizes that he can’t, and Wei Wuxian feels his heart sink with dread as he realizes what his friend’s strange melancholy must mean.
“No,” he whispers. “I—Lan Zhan? I married you?”
But that doesn’t make any sense. Wei Wuxian knows that Zewu-jun will never marry; Nie Huaisang told him once that Lan Xichen follows the chaste cultivation path due to its value in the healing arts, and power like that is far too valuable to surrender, so any direct heirs to the Lan clan will have to be Lan Zhan’s children—unless Zewu-jun gives up cultivating for a while to have children of his own, which doesn’t seem even remotely possible for a zongzhu still hard at work rebuilding his sect.
If the Lan Zhan of the future had married Wei Wuxian, how could such a marriage possibly be happy? The two of them would have faced opposition at every turn, from Lan Zhan’s own family, and Wei Wuxian nearly throws up his meager lunch at the thought of what Jiang Cheng would say if he wed into the Lan sect. Running away to fulfill a three-fold life debt was one thing, and even that had earned him a stab wound to the stomach; but leaving to marry Lan Zhan would be taken as a personal betrayal, and his brother was never very good at accepting those.
“A-Niang?” Xiao-Yu says timidly. Lan Zhan must have removed Sizhui’s silencing spell, and Wei Wuxian looks up just in time to see his friend sweeping out of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave with one hand behind his back and Lan Sizhui at his heels, leaving Wei Wuxian alone on his rocky bed with the babies in his arms. “Are you fighting with Papa?”
“No, I’m not. I was just—surprised, that’s all.”
Surprised that someone like Lan Zhan would willingly accept me as a bridegroom, Wei Wuxian doesn’t say. He must have done it to protect me and the Wens from Jin Guangshan.
Two tiny tears run down Xiao-Yu’s cheeks. “Is it my fault?”
“Oh, no!” Wei Wuxian cries. “No, A-Bao, you didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll call Wen Ning to keep an eye on the three of you, and then I’ll go after Lan Zhan—so be good for your A-Die and don’t cry, ah? I don’t think my heart can take it!”
A few minutes later, Wen Ning arrives with some of A-Yuan’s knitted toys and enough food to feed an army of children, and Wei Wuxian goes outside to look for Lan Zhan in the paved courtyard.
Here goes nothing, he thinks grimly, as he spots two figures dressed in white standing near the radish field.
He doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Wei Wuxian has no idea what offended Lan Zhan, or why Xiao-Yu cares so much about his parents being in love with each other when Lan Zhan would never marry Wei Wuxian out of anything but a sense of duty; but his friend must be as shocked by their children’s presence as he is, so perhaps he can begin there.
Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders.