Two hours after Wangji leaves the Cloud Recesses with Lan Sizhui, Lan Xichen sets off for the Jinlintai alone.
“Be careful,” his uncle frets, as Lan Xichen goes through the motions of getting ready to leave—dressing, packing an overnight bag, and holding iced handkerchiefs over his eyes until they stop looking so swollen—and tries to stop himself from crying every other minute or so. “I have my reservations about all this, but if Lan Sizhui was telling the truth about Jin Guangyao…”
“He was,” Lan Xichen says dully. “But I do not believe I am in danger, Shufu. I must believe that he will keep me alive, at least, or I will go mad before I get there.”
He makes the journey to Lanling in just under an hour, since Shuoyue’s speed is unmatched in flight by any other blade he knows except for Young Master Wei’s Suibian, and then he hides in a copse of trees about a mile away from the Jinlintai and tries to work out a solid plan. Lan Sizhui had suggested gathering evidence of Jin Guangshan’s treachery, and Wangji thought it might be prudent to get a message to Jiang Yanli, or find a way to persuade her to return to Lotus Pier without arousing suspicion.
It would make sense, Lan Xichen thinks. Jiang Wanyin is known to be overprotective of his sister, and this is the last month the two can spend together before her allegiance is transferred to a new clan; Jin Guangshan might protest his son’s bride leaving the tower so soon before her wedding, but he is not yet her zongzhu, or her father-in-law, and no one can truly say anything about Jiang-guniang coming and going as she sees fit until she takes her marriage bows.
In the end, he makes the last mile of his journey under an invisibility talisman and slips into the tower through a servant’s entrance, keeping close to the walls until he makes his way up to Jin Guangyao’s bedroom on the third floor, on the same level as Jin Zixuan’s and Jin Zixun’s and one floor below Jin Guangshan’s. Lan Xichen’s target is the secret chamber in Jin Guangyao’s room, accessed by an oval mirror in the corner; the hidden room held confiscated Wen swords and spoils when Lan Xichen saw it last, but Lan Sizhui had told him that in his time, it contained extensive correspondence from Xue Yang, whom he said was in hiding until Jin Guangyao should call for him, and that one day it would serve as the resting place for Nie Mingjue’s head.
Jin Guangyao never told Lan Xichen how to enter the room, and the one time he glimpsed the interior, he was brought in by holding onto the hem of his younger sworn brother’s sleeve—but he is not the master of the Lan sect for nothing, and it takes only six or seven minutes for him to disable the wards and slip through. All will be for nothing if either A-Yao or his father happen to be here, but both of them are busy with the preparations for Jin Zixuan’s wedding; so Lan Xichen searches through the shelves in relative peace, accompanied only by the desperate pounding of his heart as he passes peony-shaped branding irons made after the fashion of the Wen sect and finds what must be Jin Guangyao’s letters from Xue Yang. He takes one of the branding irons, just in case, and duplicates any suspicious correspondence before packing the originals into his qiankun bag and leaving the copies behind.
Some of them were stamped with Jin Guangshan’s seal, after all, and the seal’s authenticity could not be proved with a copy. But he very much doubts that anyone will look at the papers until they should be needed, and by then it will be too late—for the Jin clan, that is, and not for the rest of them.
Lan Xichen had hoped, if rather foolishly, that he would not have to participate in overthrowing two sect leaders before turning thirty—because Sizhui had insisted that Jin Guangshan must not be allowed to remain in power, if only so that Jin Guangyao would no longer have any motivation to serve him. But Lan Xichen has enough evidence to throw the Jin sect’s integrity into question, so he swallows the lump in his throat and absconds as fast as he can before searching the tower for Jiang Yanli. He is nowhere near familiar enough with her lingli to send a messenger talisman right to her, and someone else might be with Jiang-guniang when it finds her; the only solution he can employ is one of the Jin sect’s messenger butterflies, bespelled to appear before Jiang Yanli the moment she is alone and instruct her to return to Yunmeng as quickly as she can, for the sake of preserving her brothers’ lives.
He also writes a message to Qin Cangye, informing him of Jin Guangshan’s assault upon his wife and the truth of Qin Su’s blood relation to Jin Guangyao.
She was one of your best friends, Sizhui told him, while Wangji went into the next room to gather himself over the prospect of losing Wei Wuxian. You attended her when she gave birth to her son, and loved her child like your own; and when he died, you nearly killed yourself trying to save him.
Qin Su and I are already friends, Lan Xichen had replied, because it was true. Qin Su is closer to his own age than Wangji’s, and they were classmates before the war. She was in his domestic studies class when she came to study in Gusu, and Lan Xichen often went to her, shamefaced, with a piece of ugly embroidery he had done and asked her to teach him how to do it properly. In turn, he gave her extra music lessons when she asked to learn the erhu, and Lan Qiren was so delighted by their friendship that he asked if Lan Xichen could see himself asking for her hand in marriage someday.
If Lan Xichen had not been what he is (a yi xin yi shen, unsuited ever to marry except to another like him) he would probably have said yes, and then A-Yao would never have suffered the agony of marrying his own sister, and Qin Su would never have lost her only son.
But Nie Mingjue would still have been killed, and would be even now if not for Lan Sizhui’s arrival in this time, and the thought sickens Lan Xichen so badly that he changes his course from Gusu to Qinghe and sets off for the Unclean Realm.
Wait for me, Mingjue-xiong, his half-broken heart cries, as the cooling wind whips past his cheeks and blows his tears away. Wait for your sworn zhiji, please—I am coming!
* * *
“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, please don’t be angry with me!”
In a remote corner of the reclaimed section of the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji’s eyes have long since overflowed, sending twin streams of tears down his cheeks as he stares down at one of Wen Qionglin’s radish patches in a hot mixture of humiliation, frustration, and pain. He has spent the last day or so walking on air at the thought of Wei Ying returning his love, even if he was equally anguished at the thought of what he left his beloved to suffer alone, both in this timeline and the one Lan Sizhui and his siblings came from; but it is one thing for a child like Xiao-Yu to believe that his parents are in love, and quite another for such a thing to actually be true.
There is no reason for Wei Ying to love him as anything more than a friend, and Lan Wangji is so embarrassed at having realized it so late that he nearly digs himself into the fresh-turned earth to get away from his own stupidity. The Wei Ying of Sizhui’s time likely had no choice but to marry him for their sons’ sake, and surely he never forgot that Lan Wangji had abandoned him, or that Lan Wangji allowed the cultivation world (or rather, just Lanling Jin) to malign him without saying a word, and then had the face to ask for Wei Ying’s hand in marriage sixteen years later without doing anything to prove his worth as a husband.
Lan Wangji wants to wring his future self’s neck. Or his own neck, rather, since his present self was apparently where everything began to go wrong.
Foolish, he chides himself, dimly aware of Wei Ying’s voice calling his name—in concern for him, as always, despite Lan Wangji’s completely inability to ever do the same for him—and Sizhui’s hand patting anxiously at his shoulder. Did he not find delight in the beauty of every pretty maid in Gusu? Was he not thrilled at the thought that Mianmian would remember him all her life, and keep the image of him protecting her close in her heart until her dying day? Why should he have ever married me, when I am—when I am silent, and dour, and poor at speaking, and cold to Wei Ying’s warmth where he shines like the sun in all its radiance, even when his heart is breaking?
I am not worthy of him, he thinks, as Sizhui’s touch disappears from his arm. I am not, and never have been, and my future self is a halfwit who does not know the worth of what he has!
I am the same, and it took such divine intervention for me to realize it.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying puffs, finally coming up behind him and poking the small of his back. “Why did you run away, ah? I know you don’t like talking very much, but this is a special circumstance!”
Lan Wangji feels his heart wither away into dust all over again. He has managed to disappoint Wei Ying less than five minutes after his zhiji discovered that they were to be wed, without even trying.
“Oh, don’t look like that,” his friend fusses, grabbing Lan Wangji by the shoulders and turning him around to face him. A little betrayed, Lan Wangji looks up and discovers that Sizhui has gone off to join Wen-guniang and the rest of his family, leaving Lan Wangji alone with Wei Ying and approximately two hundred radishes for company. “What’s wrong, Lan Zhan?”
I love you, and you do not love me, Lan Wangji wants to scream, only keeping himself from sobbing by clenching his jaws together as tightly as he can. And there is far worse at stake than my heart, but I still cannot forget that it is breaking, even though I have done nothing to deserve yours in return.
“I am sorry,” is all he manages to say at last. “I did not mean to make you uncomfortable, or...or upset you.”
Wei Ying’s labor-calloused palm finds its way to his cheek, and Lan Wangji almost stops breathing. “Why would you think I’m upset?”
“At the thought of us marrying,” Lan Wangji croaks. “I...Sizhui and Xiao-Yu led me to believe it would be a happy marriage, or I would never have told you about it. Forgive me.”
His beloved withdraws his hand and shakes his head.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispers, “Lan Zhan, you—do you want to marry me?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji hears himself cry, as if Wei Ying had willed the word from his lips; because denying this love is not in his power, and never will be, and Lan Wangji would rather disgrace himself in a thousand ways than let Wei Ying believe that Lan Wangji did not love him. “I love you, Wei Ying. I have loved you since—since that first night on the roof in the Cloud Recesses, though I knew not what it was then, and I believed for a little while that you felt the same. That is all, and it—it is nothing for you to concern yourself with, or fret over. They are my feelings, and you are not responsible for them.”
The effect of his speech is somewhat ruined by the fact that he is crying again, but Lan Wangji only remembers that when Wei Ying leans forward and wipes the tears off his face.
“You know,” his friend says quietly, glancing down to observe the wet spots on his sleeves, “I thought I would rather you say that I had gone too far on that night at Qiongqi Dao, and kill me, than ride off with all the world howling for my head on a platter and know that you weren’t going to come with me.”
Lan Wangji takes the rebuke for what it is. “I am here now,” he chokes. “And I would not leave your side unless it was intolerable for you to suffer my presence. And even then, I would find some way to help you from afar. Somehow.”
“I know that,” Wei Ying says, with a strange hitch in his voice that makes Lan Wangji more miserable than ever—but then Wei Ying is laughing, full-throated and bright like a nesting bird in the first sweet days of springtime, and Lan Wangji is so hopelessly entranced that he scarcely registers it when his zhiji steps forward and wraps his arms around his waist.
“You’re going to have to win me, Lan Zhan. Woo me,” Wei Ying tells him. “Xiao-Yu said we had some kind of grand love story after I came back to life, and that you spent a whole year courting me under Jiang Cheng’s nose without asking him.”
“Yes, really! And I didn’t know it was happening until two months before our wedding day, apparently. I said he had to be wrong about that, but then he made a face at me and said that you flew all the way to Yunmeng to name him Lan like you and Sizhui, and hoped I would realize what you meant by taking my children into the Lan clan.”
“....Did you realize?”
“No, I didn’t! A-Yu says you slept in my bed every night, and kissed me to sleep after dark and kissed me awake in the mornings—and I thought you were giving me friendly kisses, Lan Zhan! Can you believe it?”
Despite himself, Lan Wangji feels his lips twitch. “What else did I do?”
“You kissed me for the first time in front of your Shufu! And before that, you called me your xingan in front of everyone at a discussion conference, and we shared a bridal bedchamber there even though we weren’t married yet—”
“And Huaisang dressed me up in wedding robes and sent me right into your arms, and I still didn’t figure out what he was doing!” Wei Ying snickers, giggling helplessly into Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “He even wrote a book about our courtship after everything was over, and made enough money to buy all the fans and paints and birds he wanted. It’s the great romance of their time, Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji’s heart beats a little faster. “Xingan,” he tries, trying not to swoon as the breath catches in Wei Ying’s throat. “My heart seeks only to—to prove its worthiness to you, and spend the rest of its days adoring you. Does it have your leave to do so, Wei Ying?”
In answer, Wei Ying ducks his head and presses his cheek to Lan Wangji’s chest: right over the spot where his heart is beating a love-drunk drumroll behind his ribs, dancing on tenterhooks while it awaits Wei Ying’s reply.
“Yes, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs. “Yes, a thousand times over.”
Half an hour later, Lan Wangji and Wei Ying go back to the Demon-slaughtering cave with their fingers entwined together, blushing helplessly as the Wens spot their joined hands and burst into raucous laughter. Everyone from the old uncles down to little Wen Yuan wants to give them congratulations first, and discuss the particulars of their removal to the Cloud Recesses later, so that evening they dine on a feast prepared by Wen Qionglin and A-Yuan’s grandmother: Lan Wangji’s grandmother, he realizes belatedly, watching Granny Wen go about her duties with a weathered smile which reminds him so much of his own mother that he nearly bursts into tears.
The longer he watches, the more he spots pieces of himself and Lan Xichen in the smiling faces around him: he can see his own soft mouth and nose on Wen Qing and Wen Qionglin, and Granny Wen has Xichen’s eyes, and the way his mother’s eyebrows arched is all Uncle Four, though neither Lan Wangji nor his brother inherited that particular trait from her.
At last he can bear it no longer, so he rises from his seat at the table—right beside A-Yu, who was filling his little stomach at such a pace that Wei Ying took over the duty of feeding him to keep him from getting sick—and asks to speak to Granny Wen for a moment, drawing her about thirty feet away from the others before sinking into a low bow and freezing that way until she touches the top of his head.
“Child,” she scolds gently—and that is his mother’s accent, unshared by Wen Qing or Wen Ning or even Lan Sizhui, falling upon Lan Wangji’s ears for the first time in fifteen years. “Do not make such obeisances to me. What is the matter?”
“Madam,” he stammers. “Furen—forgive me for asking, but was A-Yuan’s father your only child?”
A shadow passes across Wen-popo’s eyes, and she shakes her head. “No. I had a daughter, sixteen years older, who left our clan when my son was only a baby. Why do you ask?”
“I am Wen Mingyan’s son,” Lan Wangji says. “She passed away many years ago, but my elder brother and I—”
Wen-popo gasps, and her eyes fill with tears as she takes a step backwards. “Mingyan’s children?” she sobs. “All I ever—after her letters stopped coming, we were certain she had been slain during a hunt, and all this time—”
Lan Wangji falls to his knees. “Furen—”
“Let me look at you,” she whispers, taking his face between her rough hands and tracing the curves of his cheek and jaw. “You have—she had another child? You have a brother?”
“En. His name is Xichen, and he—he inherited her healing cultivation, if—if you would like to know for certain—”
“Tell me about her,” his grandmother pleads. “You—my grandson—!”
And with his heart in his throat, Lan Wangji does.
* * *
That night, Lan Wangji goes to sleep on Wei Ying’s rock bed, newly-padded with soft blankets from the Caiyi market and just wide enough for himself, Wei Ying, A-Yuan, A-Yu, and little A-Lan. As for Lan Sizhui, he made up a bed on the floor with his emergency bedroll, and fell asleep less than three seconds after Wei Ying promised to look after the baby.
“He is very tired,” Lan Wangji whispers, after Sizhui drifts off. “Xiao-Yu and A-Lan have been wearing him to the bone, and I was of little help.”
“Xiao-Yu was good!” their second son pipes up from between them, so indignant at the mere thought of causing trouble for his beloved Yuan-gege that A-Yuan opens his eyes and yawns before dozing off again. “A-Niang, are you going to marry Papa now?”
“Yes, little cabbage,” Wei Ying murmurs, stroking Xiao-Yu’s chubby little cheek. “As soon as we get all this figured out, and bring everyone to Gusu, we’re going to get married.”
Xiao-Yu looks so supremely satisfied that Lan Wangji could have sworn that joining his parents in marriage had been the child’s plan all along. “Can Xiao-Yu stay for the wedding?”
“You have to go home as soon as we get there, A-Bao. Your own A-Niang and Papa must be worried sick about you.”
“No buts,” Wei Ying lectures. “You need your parents, and poor Sizhui needs a rest. Now be a good boy and close your eyes, so you’ll be rested for the trip in the morning.”
The little boy seems intimately familiar with the reproof in Wei Ying’s voice, so he closes his eyes and goes to sleep with one arm wound around A-Yuan and one around A-Lan, leaving Wei Ying and Lan Wangji to squeeze as close to their children as they can without suffocating them and get some sleep themselves.
“Wei Ying is a wonderful father,” Lan Wangji mumbles, slinging one arm over Wei Ying’s waist. “Always knew you would be.”
Wei Ying laughs and kisses the tip of his nose over Xiao-Yu’s fluffy head.
“Oh, my good Lan Zhan. So are you.”
* * *
Nie Mingjue has just seated himself for dinner when Nie Zonghui bursts into the refectory and announces that he has a visitor. Dinner is roast boar with savory vegetables, and a particularly toothsome pheasant soup made from all the birds Huaisang catches when he’s supposed to be training, so Nie Mingjue is even more loath to leave his food than usual; but then Nie Zonghui tells him that his guest is none other than Lan Xichen, and Mingjue is out of the dining hall and jogging towards his reception chamber before A-Sang has the time to say much more than “Xichen-ge? At this time of night?”
He finds Lan Xichen standing against the glow of the yellow lanterns in the entrance hall, glittering like a sculpture carved from jade and blue topaz as the light catches the tiny mirrors woven into his skirts—and then he turns and meets Nie Mingjue’s eyes, and Nie Mingjue feels all the breath rush out of his body at the sight of Xichen’s dear face surrounded by the loose, windblown fall of his hair.
Even after twenty years of knowing him, Mingjue is still a fool in love, and every time he crosses Lan Xichen’s path, it feels like the first time all over again.
They stand on opposite sides of the room for a moment, just looking at each other, and then Xichen is running, flying over the cold stone floors like an arrow flying from its string until he collides with Nie Mingjue’s chest so forcefully that he nearly knocks them both off their feet.
“Lan Huan?” he murmurs, holding Xichen as tightly as he dares: almost tightly enough to crush him, if not for the fact that Lan Xichen is clutching him back just as hard. “Are you all right, Xichen?”
Nie Mingjue feels him nod, and hugs him more tightly still. “A-Huan?”
“I’m with you,” Lan Xichen sighs at last. “I—Mingjue-xiong, suddenly I—I couldn’t bear to be parted from you, and I had to—”
I love you, I want you, an eighteen-year-old Nie Mingjue whispered once, speaking beside his sleeping friend’s ear before that fateful tournament in Qishan that brought disaster to them both, though they were both too young to realize it until the Sunshot Campaign began. I can’t bear to leave you.
I want to night-hunt with you for the rest of my life.
But Lan Xichen only woke in time to hear the last few words of his vow, turning his face up to Nie Mingjue’s to say:
“I wouldn’t have anyone else,” he smiled, soft and sweet-smelling with sleep as Nie Mingjue lay back down at his side. “Who could stand beside me, if not you?”
“I’m here,” Nie Mingjue says now, his heart nearly breaking in half as Xichen sobs against his cheek and winds his fists into Mingjue’s hair. “You have me, A-Huan. For as long as you want me, and after.”
He never makes it back to dinner that night, but he has two servings of food sent up to his bedroom, and listens as Lan Xichen lies in his arms and tells him the most fantastic tale he has ever heard: something about a time in the distant future, and a child (three children, in fact, and all of them Wangji’s) who came back to warn them about Jin Guangshan’s plans to command the void in power Wen Ruohan left behind, and all the tragedies that befell the ones who tried to stand in his way.
“Do you believe me?” Lan Xichen asks, after he finally reaches the end of his story. “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, even I...”
Nie Mingjue lays a finger across his mouth.
“I would believe anything from your lips, A-Huan,” he says, very seriously. “Even if you told me that A-Sang had decided to give up his birds and his paintings, and start practicing the saber.”
Xichen stares at him for a moment before snorting into his pillow.
“What are we going to do?” he murmurs at last, after his shoulders stop shaking. “Shufu and I have a plan, but A-Yao—”
“We’ll figure it out,” Nie Mingjue soothes. “I’ll always be on your side, no matter who dares stand against you. It could be the whole world, or the gods themselves, and I would fight in my A-Huan’s name until I drew my last breath.”
Xichen starts to cry, at that, and the tears don’t stop once they start coming; at least not until much later, when Lan Xichen has wept himself to sleep in Nie Mingjue’s embrace, and wrapped himself around Nie Mingjue’s body so tightly that he can scarcely breathe.
It is the sweetest slumber that he has had in years, tears and prophesied corruption and all, and Mingjue would rather shatter his own saber than change a thing about it.
Everything he shares with Lan Huan is perfect, and it always will be.