Lan Wangji has always known that Wei Ying would be a wonderful father.
He often dreamed about what their children might be like, in the first dizzy, triumphant days after the war was over—that is, after Wen Ruohan was dead and burned, and before the grief of laying his own sect brothers and sisters on funeral pyres truly set in. Back then, he only dared to hope for two little ones: one son, who would come to them first, and a tiny daughter whom all the family would dote upon. Lan Wangji used to lie awake at night and think of them, dressed in tiny Lan sect robes with miniature forehead ribbons to march, and filling the Cloud Recesses with Wei Ying’s sweet laughter from mao hour to hai hour.
They were precious dreams, so dear that he shed tears upon waking from them, but even his most beautiful visions never came close to the one before him now; for Wei Ying is sitting at the foot of his bed with baby Shuilan cradled to his breast, singing to their daughter in the Yunmeng fangyan to soothe her back to sleep.
“A-Lan,” he hears Wei Ying whisper, after the cradle song reaches its end. “My good Lan-bao, are you hungry?”
The baby makes a snuffling sound and roots into the front of Wei Ying’s gown, bringing a peal of mirth from his beloved’s lips as he carries A-Lan to Sizhui’s room. “A-Yuan,” he calls, as Lan Sizhui appears on the threshold of the guest chamber. “Yuan’er, how much rice milk should Lan-bao have for breakfast?”
Lan Wangji feels himself tremble, gathering little A-Yuan into his arms while Xiao-Yu flops onto his stomach, and weeps with mingled joy and despair—for Wei Ying will still be beside him tonight, and so will Wen Yuan, but Lan Sizhui and Lan Yu and Wei Shuilan will have passed beyond his reach within the next six hours.
“A-Yu will come back to Papa,” Xiao-Yu yawns, as if he had read Lan Wangji’s mind. “Papa only needs to wait, and Xiao-Yu will find him again!”
His heart skips a beat.
“En, I know,” he murmurs back, settling both children comfortably on his lap. “Fuqin will wait for you, A-Bao. And so will your A-Niang.”
* * *
“So that’s how you feed Lan-bao?” Wei Wuxian gapes, staring into the smallest cauldron in the Cloud Recesses’ communal kitchen while A-Lan grizzles on his shoulder. “I thought she could have congee with goat’s milk in it.”
“Meimei is young,” Lan Sizhui explains. He makes a shallow cut on the inside of his arm and squeezes a dash of blood into the pot, turning the milk porridge pink for a moment before it settles back into a smooth, creamy white. “Babies need wet nurses until they’re a year old, and A-Lan only passed her six-month birthday two weeks ago.”
“But what does the blood talisman do?”
“It alters the goat’s milk to make the curds softer, like a mother’s milk. You invented the talisman when bofu adopted Jueying-meimei.”
“Zewu-jun has a daughter, too?”
“Two,” Sizhui says cheerfully. “A-Qing is a little younger than I am, and Ying-meimei is two. But A-Ying was ill for the first ten months after Uncle brought her home, and she wouldn’t let him put her down or let any of the nurses touch her. So you found a way to turn goat’s milk to mother’s milk with some of bofu’s blood, and then you and Fuqin started using the blood talisman when A-Lan came along, since it was easier than having a rumu come to the jingshi during the night.”
“Aiyah, how clever! Do you know how I invented it?”
Lan Sizhui shakes his head and pours a spoonful of honey into the pot. “You shut yourself up in the jishi for three days, and when you came out for breakfast on the fourth morning the talisman was finished. It’s always that way, Xian-ge.”
“How did you and Yu’er end up in my jishi, then?”
“You and Fuqin went out, and Xiao-Yu broke into the workshop while I was watching A-Lan,” Sizhui sighs, clearly holding himself at fault for Xiao-Yu’s mischief. “He misbehaves, A-Die, but he always means well.”
“Of course he does,” Wei Wuxian smiles. “With such a good xiongzhang to look after him, Xiao-Yu must be the best little seedling in the Cloud Recesses.”
Sizhui’s ears turn crimson, and he finishes off the congee with another few ladles of cold water before pouring some of the thin porridge into a nursing bottle for A-Lan. The baby eats her breakfast greedily, sucking at the stopper without even stopping to breathe, and Wei Wuxian tugs the bottle away from her so she can swallow properly.
“You’re twenty-two now,” he muses, as A-Lan lets out a furious shriek and yanks the bottle back. “And Lan-bao is six months old, so that means Lan Zhan and I have to wait twenty-one years for her to arrive.”
Wei Wuxian looks down at his daughter, and her puffed pink cheeks stuffed full of porridge, and wipes a smear of milk off her chin with his heart almost breaking in two. “Oh, qian jin, ” he says quietly. “It’s going to be a long while until we see you again.”
He and Sizhui sit together without speaking for the next half-hour, watching A-Lan drain her bottle drop by drop and running for cloths and water when she spits into Wei Wuxian’s hair; but at last A-Lan is comfortably full, and Wei Wuxian’s stomach sinks once again with the dread of losing her.
“How will A-Lan come to us?” he asks, in a desperate effort to distract himself. “Did we find her on a night hunt, A-Yuan?”
“Oh, no. She was left at the gates of the Cloud Recesses about four months ago, in our time, and you decided to look after her. By the time Father came home, she wouldn’t leave your side.”
Wei Shuilan twitches her little nose before sneezing all over Wei Wuxian’s neck, as if she could tell somehow that her A-Die and xiongzhang are talking about her.
“And Xiao-Yu?” Wei Wuxian wonders, shifting the baby into a more comfortable position. “How did we find him?”
“Well, I wasn’t there,” Lan Sizhui begins. “You adopted Xiao-Yu when you were still living in Yunmeng, so—”
Suddenly, Lan Sizhui’s face goes white, and A-Lan’s empty bottle falls from his hands before shattering on the ground. An oddly vacant look passes over his eyes, and his mouth twists into a horrified grimace as he falls to his knees on the stone floor: as if he had remembered something terrible, or forgotten something terrible, or perhaps, somehow, both—
“Xiao-Yu was born in a brothel,” Sizhui whispers, shaking from head to foot as Wei Wuxian drags him away from the broken bottle. “His mother was a courtesan’s daughter, Yang Xin. She grew up serving in the Chrysanthemum House in Yunping, but then…”
He takes the baby from Wei Wuxian’s arms and cries quietly into her hair, covering her tiny black head with his tears while Wei Wuxian sits by his side, bewildered.
“Why are you crying?” he demands. “Did A-Yu suffer when he was living there?”
Wei Wuxian was certain there could be nothing worse than the thought of A-Yu suffering—or the thought of leaving him to suffer—but Lan Sizhui shakes his head and sobs all over A-Lan’s little shirt, pouring out a story of Jin Guangyao’s grudge against the place where he spent his childhood, and against the madams and jiejies who had tormented his mother, and how he acted upon his bitterness one day by burning the Chrysanthemum House to the ground with fifty women and children still inside it.
“A-Yu’s mother was one of the only survivors,” Sizhui chokes, as Shuilan starts to whimper against his chest. “She had nowhere to go, so she found work with a lotus farmer after she was old enough to shift for herself, and that’s how she met Xiao-Yu’s father.”
Wei Wuxian’s head is swimming. “So unless Jin Guangyao burns down the Chrysanthemum House, our Xiao-Yu will never be...”
Sizhui’s anguished silence is answer enough, and Wei Wuxian’s heart crumbles within him like the porcelain shards beneath his feet; for A-Lan might return to him someday, and his A-Yuan will grow up into the Lan Sizhui who stands before him now, but Xiao-Yu is forever lost, and wishing keep him would be to wish the worst suffering upon a woman who is nothing but a child yet, perhaps no older than Xiao-Yu is himself.
Perhaps Wei Wuxian could have borne the knowledge that Xiao-Yu would never be his and Lan Zhan’s, if only he could rest assured that his tiny son would have a warm bed to sleep in, and wholesome food to eat, and all the love his heart could hold until the end of his days.
But to know that Xiao-Yu will never exist at all, that his parents’ fate has been altered so the two will never meet—
“It is better so,” Wei Wuxian hears himself say, as A-Lan’s whimpering gives way to loud, heaving sobs. “If A-Yu’s father was the kind to make false promises to a maid and throw her aside, it is better that Yang Xin never crosses his path. Now that we know about Jin Guangyao and the brothel fire, all of the ladies there can be spared, and I will go to Lanling myself to make sure that he never touches them.”
A-Yuan’s breath hitches. “Xian-gege, I never meant to—will A-Yu still be with me, when we go back to our own time?”
“I would put a great deal of money on it,” Wei Wuxian assures him, trying in vain to quiet Shuilan’s wailing. “Your time should remain unchanged. Unless I am greatly mistaken, ours diverged from yours the moment you appeared here.”
The walk back to the jingshi is a somber one; A-Lan is still fussing in her wrap, and Sizhui’s face is so red and swollen that he stops to put his face in the cold spring on the way. “Wait,” he whispers, as Wei Wuxian perches on the table in the nearby pavilion. “What can we tell—Xian-gege, what are you going to say to Hanguang-jun?”
“I’ll tell him after you go.” Wei Wuxian gives him a bitter smile. “A-Yu shouldn’t be frightened, so you three go on, and I’ll tell Lan Zhan later. Tomorrow, maybe.”
* * *
“We’re never going to have him,” Wei Wuxian sobs, curling around A-Yuan and gazing at the spot where Sizhui and his two siblings vanished with tears pouring from his eyes. “Lan Zhan, we’re never going to see Yu'er again.”
Immediately, Lan Zhan rushes to his side, taking him and A-Yuan into his arms together. “There is no reason to think so,” he says, smoothing Wei Wuxian’s hair back from his hot forehead. “He will not be born for more than ten years yet, but in time–”
“He’s never going to be born!” Wei Wuxian screams. “That brothel in Yunmeng, it’s never going to burn, and he–A-Yu can’t–”
The realization strikes Lan Zhan so hard that he actually falls backward onto the ground, and then he begins to cry so hopelessly that A-Yuan finally wakes up and starts crying, too.
Come back, Wei Wuxian wants to beg, to the sweet, smiling little boy who wept at the thought of his A-Niang going hungry, and refused to go to sleep without the comforting scent of sandalwood close by. I can’t live without you now that I’ve known you, come back–
But his baby is already gone, far into the future with half of Wei Wuxian’s heart still clutched in his chubby fists, and their future has been changed so that Xiao-Yu will never get to steal chili oil from Wei Wuxian’s plate at mealtimes, or feed mashed fruits to his babbling baby sister, or sneak into A-Yuan’s lap to read when he should have been safe in his bed.
Wei Wuxian had been destroyed in that other time, and spared a terrible fate in this one–but his life has come at the price of Xiao-Yu’s very existence, cheerfully offered up in exchange for the A-Niang and Yuan-gege that A-Yu held so dear.
“A-Yu,” he whispers, reaching into his pocket for the little silk qiankun pouch A-Yu left behind. “Come back to your A-Niang, baobei. Come back…”