Though Lan Wangji has a perfectly serviceable study in the jingshi, he attends to most of his official correspondence in the cottage where his elder brother lives.
As attached as he is to his husband’s side, doing any kind of work at home is nearly impossible unless Wei Ying is elsewhere. The work of being Excellency is forgotten when Wei Ying is with him, sacrificed to buy kisses from the Excellency’s beloved, and Lan Wangji has delayed this latest set of letters for so long that Wei Ying threw him out of the jingshi with them.
“Lan Zhan!” he cried, when Lan Wangji looked at him with betrayal-filled eyes; and oh, how lovely his husband’s pink cheeks were, and how it would be to kiss them—
Never mind that Lan Wangji spent the whole morning kissing them. Never mind that Lan Wangji took Wei Ying’s chopsticks away and fed him his breakfast himself, kissing him after every mouthful until A-Yu woke up and wondered aloud why his A-Niang was being fed breakfast while Xiao-Yu was hungry enough to “eat a great big lion, Papa!” Never mind that Wei Ying sat close beside him only two hours ago, holding Lan Wangji’s hand while he marked the juniors’ night-hunting reports, and resting his magnificent head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder so gently that he could scarcely feel it.
Never mind any of that, because Lan Wangji’s heart is so helpless with love for his sworn zhiyin that even a thousand treasured moments with him, even within a single hour, could never be enough.
And now Lan Wangji is separated from him by a grassy field—an unbearably wide field, he thinks, even if it is only about a hundred feet long—looking down through a row of bamboo stalks at the Jingshi and the jishi beside it, knowing that Wei Ying is there but still unable to go to him.
Lan Wangji is fuming. Being apart from Wei Ying for any length of time is intolerable, and he might very well die of longing for him before the gong sounds for luncheon.
“I know that, didi,” an amused voice says from the other side of the porch. “But the longer you delay your treaty letters, the longer your exile will last.”
Xichen’s baby daughter shifts in his arms, poking one tiny foot out of her nest of blankets as she snuggles closer to her father’s chest. Lan Xichen adjusts her sun hat, clucking anxiously as he pushes his chair backward to keep Jueying’s toes out of the light, and glances around him for a stray baby sock before Lan Wangji swoops down and hands one to him.
“Thank you, Wangji,” Xichen says gratefully. “Now finish your work, hm? I’m sure A-Xian is as eager to be at your side again as you are to return to him.”
Lan Wangji takes a long, heavy breath and lowers his eyes to his papers, only glancing up now and then to look at his niece and brother, or to see if Wei Ying might have taken his own work out into the Jingshi’s low-walled garden. But Wei Ying seems to be shut in his workshop, taking full advantage of their children’s absence to attend to a few questionable experiments, and shows no signs of emerging as the sun keeps climbing towards its peak.
It might have made for poor luck with his trade documents, to sit here and think of nothing but his beloved husband as the morning draws on. But Lan Xichen coughs quietly and begins to sing when his attention starts to stray again, as much for Lan Wangji’s benefit as the baby’s; because tiny Lan Jueying loves her late grandmother’s favorite lullaby above all others, and it is this that his Xiongzhang sings to lull his daughter back to sleep.
“The moon is bright, the wind is quiet,
The tree leaves rustle over the windows.
My xiao-baobei, go to sleep,
Sleep, and dream sweet dreams.
The stars are bright, the wind is weary,
And my little A-Ying’s cradle moves softly.
Jueying, qian jin, close your eyes,
Sleep, my heart, and sweet dreams.”
A-Ying takes the lullaby to heart, and goes to sleep so quickly that Lan Wangji knows the moment she drifts off. Lan Xichen follows suit, dozing with the baby fastened to his bosom in a sling, and Lan Wangji is left alone to finish a missive assuring Pingzhou Cheng that the Lan sect will gladly hasten its planned lecture courses next year so that the Cheng clan can hold a summer lecture of its own.
But before he has time to address more than half of Cheng-zongzhu’s worries, he hears a plaintive cry from down the hill; and then, as Lan Wangji pricks up his ears to listen more closely, four little white-clad figures come walking up the path that leads to the jingshi. A-Yuan is in the lead, holding small A-Yu by the hand, and Jingyi and A-Qing are bringing up the rear with mud splattered all over their robes.
Lan Wangji frowns. In fact, all of the children have mud on their robes; Jingyi’s outer layer is more earth than silk, and A-Qing’s coat is dappled with brown like the new baby rabbits in the back hills. A-Yuan seems to have escaped his cousins’ latest mishap mostly unscathed, save for his shoes and the very bottoms of his skirt-hems—but A-Yu’s tiny robe is plastered with mud, right from his collar to his little stockings, and his round face is just as dirty as his clothes are.
“A-Niang!” A-Yu cries, in the hitching whimper of a baby trying not to burst into tears. “A-Niang, Xiao-Yu is here!”
He would have moved, in that instant—would have stuffed his papers into his qiankun bag, and run down the mountain as fast as he could to take his child in his arms. He would have fallen on his way, perhaps, out of his desperation to make sure that Xiao-Yu was unhurt, that his dirty robes are not hiding bruises and scrapes and cuts from a fall or a poorly-handled toy sword`, or even that he hadn’t eaten something that might have hurt his little stomach, fed so carefully from babyhood with Wei Ying’s wholesome cooking. And above all, Lan Wangji would have wanted to be with his little boy, to comfort him and kiss his tears away, and yet...
And yet, in his mind’s eye, the warm spring morning has transformed into a wintry night, and A-Yuan and A-Qing and Jingyi have all melted into the shadows of the bamboo forest. More strangely still, the tiny child struggling up the Jingshi’s front steps seems to have grown a little taller, and a great deal cleaner, weeping as bitterly as little A-Yu as he falls to his knees on the doorstep.
That child was crying A-Niang, A-Niang, just like Xiao-Yu; but the door remained shut, standing firm against wind and snow and the small boy’s beating fists. In fact, it never opened again, not until the boy returned several years later, nearly a man, and walked through the dusty house to search for the palest, faintest trace of the mother who vanished without a word one day and never, never came back for him.
But then, somehow, the spell is broken. The sky pales, the snow melts away, and the whimpering child toddling across the Jingshi’s front garden is Lan Wangji’s four-year-old son, his own precious A-Yu, not the six-year-old Lan Zhan who only ever visited this place for a day every month in a time almost too distant to remember.
Chen Mingyan was bound to the Jingshi, chained there by warding seals that kept her from taking more than three or four steps into the garden, but Xiao-Yu’s A-Niang is running through the long grass as if a fire were behind him, and a priceless treasure ahead: as if the choice to run were no choice at all, but as inevitable as rain falling to earth, or the moon rising after sunset. Wei Ying is dressed in nothing but his zhongyi and trousers, and covered from head to toe in what looks like soot (his latest experiment must have gone wrong again, or at least resulted in an unexpected fire) but he is all the more beautiful for it, sweeping A-Yu up into his arms and cuddling him until his poor little sobs go quiet.
“My A-Yu, don’t cry,” Lan Wangji hears him say. “A-Niang is here, sweetheart! I’ll give you a nice warm bath to wash off all this sticky mud, and then Xiao-Yu can have brown-sugar douhua for lunch.”
Xiao-Yu sniffles into Wei Ying’s neck. “Can I have soup, A-Die?” he asks. “And onion pancakes?”
“ Baobei , I’ll cook anything you like. Now let’s get you washed up, ah?”
Wei Ying turns to A-Yuan, ushering him ahead into the house while he strips A-Yu’s jacket off to keep him from dripping mud on the floor—and then all five of them disappear, back into the welcome coolness of the Jingshi to wash and refresh themselves.
As for Lan Wangji, he finds that his feet are no longer rooted to the ground; and he abandons his papers on Lan Xichen’s tea-table and bolts, heading directly into the Jingshi to find his husband and children.
Finding them is the work of less than two seconds, luckily enough. All three of them are in the bathroom with Jingyi and A-Qing in tow, halfway through what looks like the world’s most complicated bath. Wei Ying and the boys are soaking in the tub, armed with sponges and cakes of lemon soap, and A-Qing is rinsing her feet in the washbasin that came with Wei Ying’s dowry set.
“Lan Zhan, you’re home!” Wei Ying calls, when Lan Wangji puts his head around the door. “Come see if you can get this mud out of A-Yu’s hair.”
A-Yu bobs up to the surface of the water and blows a few soapy bubbles.
“Papa!” he cheers. “Papa, Xiao-Yu was brave today. Yuan-gege, too!”
“You and A-Yuan are brave every day,” Lan Wangji reminds him, biting back a smile as Wei Ying hands him a washcloth for A-Yu’s fluffy head. “And I am very proud of you both. But what happened today?”
Xiao-Yu chooses that moment to disappear under the suds again, probably to search for one of his bath toys, and Sizhui helps Jingyi scrub his back before bringing Lan Wangji up to speed with the events of the morning.
As it turns out, A-Qing and the boys went down to Caiyi after breakfast to replace a broken calligraphy set, taking Xiao-Yu along with them so that Wei Ying could spend the day alone in his workshop. A-Yu wanted to watch the fish from Caiyi’s main bridge, Sizhui says, so the party split in two; Jingyi accompanied A-Yu to the bridge, and Sizhui and A-Qing went to the local brushworker’s shop.
“And there was a little dog on the bridge!” Xiao-Yu cries, trying to wriggle out of his towel while Lan Wangji rubs him dry. “A big man in a carriage tried to cross, and he shouted at the puppy to get out of the way—but Papa, the xiao-gou was so small, and she couldn’t move! But the man wouldn’t stop, so Xiao-Yu went to get her!”
Lan Wangji’s heart nearly stops beating.
“You ran out in front of the carriage?” he demands, giving A-Yu’s shoulders a soft shake. “Lan Xiaohui!”
“Mm, Xiao-Yu did!” his son beams, as the blood drains from Wei Ying’s face. “And it almost went over me! But Yuan-gege flew back so fast and saved me, and Jingyi-ge ran after him. And then Jiejie started fighting with the driver, so we all got splashed with mud.”
“There was mud in the street, Fuqin,” Sizhui tries to explain. “And the carriage—it was a large one, and we passed right in front of the wheels, so A-Yu got soaked.”
“ Tian’na,” Wei Ying breathes, sliding down to the ground with a bump. The ends of his hair are dripping onto his thighs, but he hardly seems to notice as he takes A-Yuan in his right arm and Xiao-Yu in his left, hugging them so tightly that their faces turn red for want of air before Wei Ying lets them go.
“Sizhui, Jingyi,” Lan Wangji says hoarsely. “Are either of you hurt? Or you, A-Qing?”
“No, Hanguang-jun. None of us were hurt, not even the dog.”
“You punched the driver in the jaw, Qingqing. That’s someone, right?”
“Well, you kicked his legs out from under him!”
Lan Wangji meets his husband’s gaze over Sizhui’s head, and the mingled fear and relief he finds there almost brings him to his knees. Another moment and Lan Wangji would have forbidden the juniors’ excursions entirely—would have wrapped them all up in soft blankets and tucked them away somewhere safe, where he and Xichen and the might of the clan at large could protect them—but then Wei Ying’s hands find his, and the gut-wrenching terror passes away like the shade of a cruel dream.
“You must be more careful next time,” he says instead, cupping Sizhui’s cheek in his palm. “And A-Yu must study summoning talismans until the end of the week, so he will know to protect little creatures in the road without putting himself in harm’s way.”
Wei Ying gives Xiao-Yu an indignant squeeze.
“Did you hear that, baobei? See how worried your father is! You nearly frightened us both to death!”
But their son is heartbreakingly earnest about the whole business, promising to study his talismans night and day so that any helpless dog or cat need not fear being harmed when A-Yu is nearby. Sizhui volunteers to teach him, still stricken by the memory of his baby brother running out in front of a pair of horses, and A-Yu’s first lesson takes place that very night over supper in the Jingshi’s kitchen.
“What happened to the dog?” Wei Ying asks, after Xiao-Yu dozes off at the table with a dumpling clutched in his tiny fists. “Did you find somewhere safe for it, A-Yuan?”
“En, we did. She was a pet dog who wandered out of her yard and got lost, so A-Yi and A-Qing flew her back home before...oh, Xian-gege, no! I can’t eat another bite!”
Wei Ying throws his head back and laughs, making the floor quiver with the sound, and Lan Wangji smiles like a fool at them both until A-Yuan returns to his own quarters in the students’ compound.
The house is always a little empty without A-Yuan, he thinks. If his son were only a few years younger, Lan Wangji would have begged him to leave the disciples’ quarters and return to the spare room he slept in when he was a child.
Lan Wangji blinks, carding his fingers through Wei Ying’s hair as he leans down to kiss him. “Mm?”
“You’ve been staring at me all night, xingan. What’s wrong?”
He kisses his beloved again, this time on the heel of Wei Ying’s left hand. “I am always looking at you.”
“It’s different this time,” his husband persists, wrapping his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist. “It was—like the way you used to look at me before we were married, when we were still traveling through the jianghu together.”
Those days were bittersweet to the utmost, filled with anguish upon learning how Wei Ying had suffered before his death and joy at his return, and Lan Wangji can never think of them without recalling the sixteen dark years he all but wiped from his memory.
“Perhaps I was looking at you as I did then,” Lan Wangji sighs; but he punctuates the sentence with another kiss in the heart of his husband’s palm, and then he kisses the tips of Wei Ying’s dear fingers, glowing golden and brown in the lamplight. “Come closer, and I will tell you why.”
Wei Ying nods and slides into Lan Wangji’s lap, shifting Xiao-Yu into the warmth of his own outer robes to keep him from rolling down to the ground.
“I’m listening, sweetheart. Now tell me.”
“I was up in the hanshi when Sizhui and Xiaohui returned home,” Lan Wangji whispers, kissing the shell of Wei Ying’s ear. “And I heard Xiao-Yu crying for you as he ran up the path. A-Niang, A-Niang, he called, as if there were no hurt in the world that could not be mended if only you were there to comfort him.
“Suddenly, my eyes went dark, and I found myself looking at the Jingshi as it was when I was a child. The lotus pond was gone, and the ground was covered in snow instead of grass, and the child calling for his mother was myself, knowing she would never reply...but then you answered, and I saw A-Yu smile when you opened the doors to the jishi, and his tears were gone the moment you took him into your arms.”
Lan Wangji’s breath catches in his throat. “Xiao-Yu has never known a closed door, or an A-Niang whom the wills of those more powerful could keep from him,” he says thickly. “He knows that he had a muqin who has gone on ahead, who loved him with all her heart and would have given the world for him—and that there was no cruelty that took her away, only an illness even cultivation could not heal. And he knows an A-Die who adored him from the moment of their first meeting, who is as heaven and earth to him—to him, xingan, you can move rivers and mountains for his sake, and he would not doubt it even if he spent a lifetime being told it was not so.”
Wei Ying is trembling in his arms, and his beautiful eyes are full of tears. “Lan Zhan.”
“And A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji continues, his voice breaking as he brushes his lips over Wei Ying’s. “You surrendered life and clan for him, and would have chosen him a thousand times over against the whole world. For the three of us—Sizhui, Xiaohui, and I—all the joy we have has come from you! I have always known it, but just now, when Xiao-Yu came running to the Jingshi like I used to, it washed over me anew, and I thought...”
“What did you think, my darling?”
He and Wei Ying are touching now, forehead to forehead, so that Wei Ying’s brow is pressed against the cool silver of Wei Ying’s mo’e. “I thought I could not love any more than I already did,” he sobs, straining his husband so close to his chest that their pulses meet, and beat together. “I thought I was full of love for you, in every nerve and sinew of my body, and still—!”
“I would say I thought the same,” Wei Ying chokes. “But I could never love my Lan Zhan enough, for every day I hold you dearer than I did the day before.”
Their lips meet again in the fading glow from the lantern, so desperately that Lan Wangji bruises himself on one of Wei Ying’s teeth, and in another moment he knows they will be closer still: or at least they would have been if not for the little bundle cradled between them, rubbing his eyes with chubby pink fists as he nibbles on the dumpling he saved from dinner.
“A-Niang, Papa,” Xiao-Yu yawns, kicking his feet in Lan Wangji’s lap. “Xiao-Yu is sleepy. Can we go to bed?”
Lan Wangji laughs and presses a kiss to the child’s button nose.
“Yes, we’ll go to bed,” he murmurs, lifting his husband and son in one long, fluid ripple of arms and legs before carrying them into the bedroom. “Under the blankets, like a good child. There we are.”
Wei Ying is already fast asleep, the side of his face flushed red where it rests against the pillow, and A-Yu looks so very precious under Wei Ying’s outstretched arm that Lan Wangji cannot quite keep himself from pecking him on the nose again.
“Sweet dreams, my jiaozi,” he yawns, dousing the lamp with a burst of spiritual energy. “Sleep well, and don’t be afraid. Your A-Niang and I are here.”
And then Lan Wangji drifts off, like a turtle cast into open water, and sinks into sleep with Wei Ying’s hand in his.
I want nothing more than this,
he thinks, before his eyes finally flicker shut. Nothing more than what I have, and cherish with all my heart.
And I will guard them, body and soul, for all the rest of my days.