Actions

Work Header

The Trouble with Talismans: a Treatise on Time-Travel by Young Master Lan Xiaohui (Age 6)

Chapter Text

“You truly are your father’s son, Lan Yu. You give me the same joys and the same headaches, twice over, and sometimes I look at you and see the little A-Zhan I used to carry to Caiyi on my shoulders, or the Xiao-Ying who threw flowers at Wangji during discussion conferences every time Xichen looked the other way.”

“Which one is Xiao-Yu more like, Shugong? A-Die, or Papa?”

“Mm...I think you take after your A-Die more.”

“What was he like when he was small like me?”

“When your A-Die first arrived in Gusu all those years ago, he broke about fifty sect rules right in front of Wangji, and then…”

*     *     *

The very first thing Lan Xiaohui remembers his great-uncle ever telling him is that he takes after his father. 

The question that came next, of course, is which father he takes after. Most children only have one, but Lan Xiaohui has two—he has his A-Die, who dresses in red and deep blue and purple, most days, and sometimes light blue and Lan white when the mood strikes him, and his Papa, who wears thick gowns the color of soft clouds blending into the sky, and one outer-robe over everything that is only for Xiao-Yu (because he still likes his little name, even if Xiaohui makes him sound so much bigger and more important than he really is) to cuddle into when he gets cold. 

A-Die is his first father, the one who found him in a place called a brothel when he was very small and carried him away to live at Lotus Pier. Xiao-Yu’s A-Die always smiles, and covers him in smacking kisses that smell like lotus cakes and hot peppers, and when Xiao-Yu tries to climb into his robes he has to fight his way out, because A-Die never lets him go unless A-Yu’s baby sister Xiao-Lan is there already. 

Xiao-Yu’s second father is Papa, his Fuqin, even though he never calls him that. Papa smiles too, but his smiles are small and soft instead of big and beautiful like A-Die’s, and whenever Xiao-Yu sees one he knows that everything is perfect, instead of just good. He smiled when A-Yu’s baby sister came, and when A-Yu’s cousin Jueying said dada for the first time and made Uncle Xichen cry, and he smiles every time he wakes up and finds Xiao-Yu on his chest instead of in his own bed on the other side of the jingshi, so Xiao-Yu sneaks in every night instead of when he has a nightmare. 

But even though he adores both of his parents, the one everyone says he resembles most is his A-Die, Wei Wuxian. He has the same tanned skin, and the same little mole beneath his lips, and their laughter sounds just the same—and they have the same nose, too, because both of them are Southerners by blood even if they’re not related. “It isn’t only that your face looks like his,” Papa said once, while he was giving Xiao-Yu a bath with A-Lan splashing beside him. “You like to play like your A-Niang, and sometimes you like to misbehave, too.”

Lan Yu can hardly deny that last, especially when it was his misbehaving that got him into this predicament in the first place. 

The way it started was this; A-Die went to teach the senior disciples while their usual teacher was away on an emergency night-hunt, and Papa went to do Chief Cultivator things—but six or seven minor sect leaders had come to see him in person, so Xiao-Yu and baby Shuilan couldn’t go along to keep him company. In the end, they had to stay in the jingshi with Yuan-gege looking after them, which was when Xiao-Yu got so terribly bored that he decided to sneak into the jishi. 

A-Die’s jishi is where he works and does all his experiments, and Xiao-Yu is never allowed to even cross the threshold because it’s supposed to be dangerous inside. The workroom was built about forty feet behind the house to stop the jingshi from catching fire if anything went wrong with the jishi, because A-Die usually sets two or three little fires every month, and then he comes home all wet after putting them out. All in all, the jishi is a very interesting place, and Xiao-Yu is counting down the days until he turns ten, which is when A-Die and Papa say he can go inside with supervision. 

Xiao-Yu isn’t ten yet, and he certainly doesn’t have supervision, but A-Die isn’t there—which means there won’t be any fires—so all he’s going to do is take a quick look around and then leave before Yuan-gege has time to finish feeding baby A-Lan. 

But of course, Lan Yu is his A-Die’s son, so his marvelous plan goes wrong about two seconds after he sneaks away and undoes the warding charms on the doors. He was going to look around without touching anything— really, he was!—but then he finds a pile of neat talismans sitting on a desk, and all of them are the same, so A-Die won’t mind if he touches just one. He picks up the slip of paper lying next to the writing-brush and holds it up to the light, trying to read the ten neat characters spaced evenly between the top and the bottom—which is when Yuan-gege forces his way into the room with A-Lan wailing in his arms, and pales at the sight of Xiao-Yu standing in the middle of the jishi. 

“Xiao-Yu!” he shouts, eyeing the laden shelves with something close to panic as he reaches towards his little brother. “Lan Xiaohui, put that down and come here this instant!”

Yuan-gege never raises his voice, so Xiao-Yu goes to put the talisman away without even thinking about it—but then he catches his foot on the leg of the chair by the desk, and falls flat on his face with the bit of yellow spirit-paper pressed between his cheek and the floor. 

And then the world seems to shift around him in a blur of sound and color, and when he looks up, the entire jishi is gone. Instead, he appears to be standing in a dense thicket of bamboo, and Yuan-gege is lying a few feet away from him with A-Lan sitting on his stomach, so shocked by whatever just happened that her sobs have completely stopped. 

It must have been a transportation talisman, Xiao-Yu decides. Hopefully, Papa will be so surprised that Xiao-Yu was strong enough to use one that he won’t make him write the rules too many times, but...

“Where are we, Yuan-gege?” he asks, padding over to Xiongzhang’s side and plucking at his robes. “Are we near Ning-shushu’s house?”

Yuan-gege opens his eyes and squints at him. He looks utterly miserable, A-Yu thinks, even though all the talisman seems to have done is throw them a hundred yards into the bamboo forest. 

“Why did you go into the jishi, Xiao-Yu?” he says sorrowfully. “I only looked away for a moment, and you took the first chance to do it.”

“I only wanted to look!” Xiao-Yu cries, as tears well up on the corners of his eyelids. “I didn’t mean to touch the talisman!”

“You did touch it,” his brother points out, getting painfully to his feet with their bewildered baby sister tucked under his arm. “Come on, let’s go home. We shouldn’t be far away from the jingshi, even if I don’t remember seeing this part of the forest before.”

Xiao-Yu sniffles and rubs his eyes. “Are you angry, Xiongzhang?”

Yuan-gege elects not to answer that, but he takes Xiao-Yu’s hand all the same and leads him up the shallow slope that should lead back towards the rest of the Cloud Recesses. They walk for less than a minute before they find themselves staring at what can only be the jingshi, but the jingshi looks so very different that Lan Yu and Lan Sizhui only gape at it for a moment before turning to gape at each other.

“What happened to our house?” Xiao-Yu asks in a small voice, clinging to Yuan-gege’s sleeve. “Did Xiao-Yu break it?”

Yuan-gege rubs his eyes and stares a little harder. On his shoulder, Shuilan coos and chews happily on her fist, already content to ignore all affairs but her own as her brothers exchange glances of pure terror. 

“That’s how the jingshi used to look before you and A-Die came to live here,” Sizhui says slowly. “That patch of gentians is where Father built the new kitchen, and that koi pond is where the second half of the main bedroom is supposed to be. And there’s no jishi, so...we must have landed where the jishi was.”

“Why’s it gone?” Xiao-Yu whimpers, beginning to cry. “Yuan-gege, what did I do?”

“Don’t cry,” Lan Sizhui soothes, stooping down and lifting him up onto the hip not already occupied by a wriggling infant. “Don’t cry, A-Yu. We’ll go find Father and A-Die, and figure out what went wrong, and then A-Die will find a way to put the house back to the way it was. All right?”

Xiao-Yu nods against his brother’s neck and tries not to cry any harder. 

He definitely won’t be going into the jishi ever again—that is, if their house ever goes back to normal in the first place. 



Chapter Text

On the day that his life is altered forever, Lan Wangji was spending a typical morning recopying the clan texts in the jingshi. 

The key word, as Nie Huaisang is fond of saying, being was— because at approximately three minutes after the stroke of wu shi, a young man Lan Wangji has never seen before enters his receiving room with two little children in his arms and freezes like a startled deer at the sight of him, gaping in what looks like stark terror as the young boy on his hip wriggles free and runs over to Lan Wangji instead. 

“Papa!” the little boy cries, throwing himself into Lan Wangji’s lap and burrowing under his outer robe until his head pops out over the ruined collar. “Xiao-Yu didn’t mean to touch the talismans, I really didn’t! We can fix the jishi, right? It’s not really gone?”

Lan Wangji looks up at the older boy in front of him, opening his mouth to ask just how he broke the privacy seals that separate the jingshi from the rest of the Cloud Recesses before noticing the ribbon on the youth’s white forehead, because the ribbon is not made of white silk, but blue, with a silver cloud ornament at his brow—an ornament that no one in the clan has the right to wear, save the sect leader and the sect leader’s immediate family. 

And if Lan Wangji were not part of the clan, and familiar with its members only from a distance, he would have believed this intruder to be a third jade of Lan An’s line, since the eyes beneath their feathery brows are Xichen’s, and the boy’s mouth and nose are near-perfect replicas of his own. 

“Hanguang-jun,” the boy gasps, finally slumping to the floor with a yawning baby cradled in his lap. “You don’t know me.”

“I do not,” Lan Wangji says stiffly, holding his body so rigid that the child in his robes goes utterly still against him. “Who are you, and why is it that you wear a first-clan ribbon in your hair when you are no kin to me, or ot my brother?”

“We must go see Lan-zongzhu,” is all the answer he receives, before the boy comes over and drags the child away from him. “Something has gone terribly wrong.”

The little boy bursts into tears, at that, and the pitiful sobs feel like a deadweight on Lan Wangji’s heart as he leads the three strange interlopers to the hanshi. He does not stop his crying even when the older one pats his back and murmurs soothing words into his ears, all while carrying the baby under his arm, and Lan Wangji is curious despite himself; he had purposely not warned the boy about the many wards in this part of the Cloud Recesses, prepared to have to lift each one so he and the children could pass through, but the boy keeps pace with him all the way to the house where Lan Xichen lives and then bewilders Lan Wangji even further by walking right up the porch steps so his younger brother can bang on the door. 

“Bobo!” the child wails, beating on the wooden screen with a pair of chubby brown fists. “Bobo, let Xiao-Yu in! Papa is being mean!”

Lan Wangji feels inexplicably hurt by that statement. “I am not being mean,” he objects. “I have not said anything to you at all, even if I am not your father.”

“Mean!” Xiao-Yu sobs, crying even harder as a set of hurried footsteps come towards the door from inside the hanshi. “You didn’t hug Xiao-Yu! And you promised!”

“...What?” Lan Wangji asks, feeling more at a loss than ever as his brother finally opens the door. 

“Wangji! What is the matter here?” Lan Xichen is not looking at the newcomers yet, only at him, and the glance settles something deep in his bones before Xichen glances at Xiao-Yu’s elder brother before swaying back in shock. “And this...who are you, xiao-gongzi, and why is it that you wear a clan ribbon?”

“It is something of a long story, Zewu-jun,” the young man says wretchedly. “May I come in and explain?”

“Certainly,” his brother acquiesces, stepping back to allow them all inside before plucking Xiao-Yu into his own arms and bouncing him once or twice. “Oh, there’s no need to cry,” he soothes, stroking the little boy’s hair as Lan Wangji trails along behind him. “Will you drink some cold water for me, A-Bao? You mustn’t cry so hard on such a hot day, you’ll make yourself sick.”

Lan Wangji stares at him, somehow more bewildered than ever at the sight of his Xiongzhang comforting the child. He remembers being very small and very petted, once, before Xichen’s studies took him away, and being doted on just like this, and the memory reaches out from somewhere deep inside him and brushes a soft, warm finger against his heart as his Xiongzhang pours out a cup of water and makes Xiao-Yu drink it. 

“Now,” Lan Xichen continues, “perhaps, young master, you would be so kind as to tell us your name, and how you came to be in the Cloud Recesses.”

The young man takes in a deep breath and nods. 

“My name is Lan Yuan, zi Sizhui,” he says. “This is my didi, Lan Yu, zi Xiaohui, and our sister, Shuilan. Our father’s name is Lan Wangji, titled Hanguang-jun during the Sunshot Campaign, and my siblings and I have been displaced from a time at least twenty years in the future.”

*     *     *

“This is impossible,” is the first thing Shufu says, when he finally arrives about half an hour later. “Xichen, how can you entertain such nonsense?”

“You may ask whatever you like, for proof,” Lan Sizhui offers, making Lan Qiren’s face turn a shade of pale purple that looks rather unhealthy, in Lan Wangji’s opinion. “Recollections of my childhood will be of little worth, but there are many other things you could question me about.”

“Don’t be mean to Xiongzhang!” Xiao-Yu cries, so plaintively that Lan Qiren’s ears actually twitch. “It’s Xiao-Yu’s fault! I dropped the talisman, Shugong, not him!”

“Talisman?” Lan Wangji dares to ask. “What talisman?”

“A talisman in the jishi, ” Xiao-Yu says obediently, having been quieted with a soft doll which Xichen procured from heaven knew where before he gave it to the baby instead. “I’m not supposed to go in, but A-Die was gone, and…”

“Xiao-Yu was very naughty,” Lan Sizhui scolds, “and when we get back home, you’re going to be writing lines for a month.”

“Papa won’t make me!”

“No, but I will.”

“Yuan-gege!” the child wails. “No fair!”

“Perhaps you could tell us what kind of talisman this was?” Lan Xichen asks, intervening before Xiao-Yu can start crying again. “We have nothing related to the manipulation of time, as far as I know, but perhaps your father might have altered an existing array?”

“Why was Wangji handling such things, anyway?” Shufu grumbles, glaring at Lan Wangji as if this whole situation is his fault—which it might well be, since his future self will apparently leave powerful talismans unsecured where six-year-old children can get to them. 

His six-year-old child in particular, as Lan Wangji realizes with a strange, swooping lurch in his stomach. None of the children have mentioned a second parent—no mother, for instance, which makes more sense than either Shufu or Xiongzhang can understand. He has only ever loved one person, and that person is very much a man, so the confirmation that he will raise three children on his own—since he must have cultivated Lan Sizhui himself,  given how alike they look, and adopted Xiao-Yu and A-Lan—comforts him almost as much as it hurts. 

After all, he might never be fortunate enough to marry Wei Ying, but at least he will not be compelled to marry another, either. 

“Papa wasn’t!” Xiao-Yu cries, as A-Lan tries to eat one of her doll’s cloth feet. “It was A-Niang!”

The breath leaves Lan Wangji’s lungs in a choked-out gasp, and Lan Xichen immediately puts out a hand to steady him. A-Niang, Xiao-Yu had said, which meant that Lan Wangji had—that he had—

“Your A-Niang?” Xichen asks, grasping Lan Wangji’s arm so tightly that it starts tingling. “Perhaps we can go find her, then, and see if she might know how to send you three back home. What is your muqin’s name, A-Yu? What clan does she come from?”

Lan Wangji feels as if his head has been shoved into cold water, which is why he barely hears it when Xiao-Yu lifts up his little voice and squeaks, 

“A-Niang’s name is Wei Ying!”

“What?” Lan Qiren thunders. “That troublemaker— Wangji, what were you thinking—

“Is it true?” Lan Wangji finds himself pleading, catching Lan Sizhui by the sleeve and staring into his son’s fine-featured face. He realizes then that there is something more than himself and Xichen about these eyes, and that rounded brow, but there is nothing of Wei Ying in Lan Sizhui’s face at all, which completely rules out the possibility of him being born as the result of dual-cultivation between Lan Wangji and the boy he already loves to distraction, and married in secret when they were only eighteen. “Lan Sizhui, please. What is—Xiao-Yu’s A-Niang, what is his name?”

Lan Sizhui’s face softens, then, and all Lan Wangji is aware of in the next instant is a flood of overwhelming relief as his lips shape the most welcome sentence he has ever heard in his life. 

“This son begs forgiveness for not having made matters clear earlier,” he says. “Our names are Lan Sizhui, Lan Xiaohui, and Wei Shuilan, and we are the children of Hanguang-jun, Lan Wangji, and of the Lan sect’s Xinhua-jun, first of Yunmeng Jiang and once called the Yiling Laozu, Wei Wuxian.”

 

Chapter Text

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!




Chapter Text

When Lan Wangji drags himself out of bed at mao shi, he carries Xiao-Yu to Lan Sizhui’s bed and finds his oldest son midway through his morning toilet, slowly brushing his hair out in front of the little mirror. 

“Your hair is...quite long,” he remarks, for want of anything better to say. The observation is perhaps unwarranted, but most cultivators restrict the growth of their hair to waist-level. Any longer and it proves cumbersome during night-hunts, which is why his elder brother’s hair is so much longer than his; Xichen rarely night-hunted after his ascension save upon invitation by Chifeng-zun, and even Chifeng-zun has little time for night-hunting these days. “It matches mine in color.”

He skirts around the question he truly wants to ask: that is, the manner of blood relation between Sizhui and himself. The boy can’t be much younger than he is now, and Sizhui mentioned that they were from a time at least twenty years into the future; most likely, he guessed the current year by virtue of his own absence in the Cloud Recesses, which means that Sizhui would have been living here in a matter of months. 

And that must mean that a young Lan Sizhui is alive somewhere in the world at this very moment, despite the fact that Lan Wangji is decidedly childless and nowhere near powerful enough to bring forth new life with his golden core, either.

Perhaps Wei Ying had cultivated him? It isn’t impossible, Lan Wangji thinks; he gave Wei Ying a tremendous amount of spiritual energy when they were in the Xuanwu’s cave, and the one or two cultivated children that appear every other generation or so are usually born after nine full months absorbing their mothers’ spiritual energy. Wei Ying would have been at Lotus Pier nine months after the Wen indoctrination, so perhaps he had Sizhui in secrecy and left him in his family’s care before traveling to Yiling.

But if that were the case—and that really is the only possible scenario Lan Wangji can think of, since Sizhui looks like a slightly softer-eyed version of himself—then why had Wei Ying not told him about the child?

Lan Yuan must be the reason he gave up the jiandao, Lan Wangji realizes, in a fit of desperation that nearly sends him running out of the jingshi. Individuals who choose to cultivate children rather than bear them have to give up all cultivation until the children grow strong enough to manifest bodies of their own, and Wei Ying developed a form of cultivation that did not rely on his jindan mere weeks after Lan Wangji infused him with as much power as he could spare—had that all been for Lan Yuan’s sake, since he needed to find a way to fight without harming their unborn son?

“It does!” Lan Sizhui says cheerfully, blind to his father’s turmoil at the thought that he might have four children now instead of three. “A-Die always says so.”

Lan Wangji nods and closes his eyes, steeling himself to hear the truth from his son’s own lips. “You have already been born, have you not? You realized you had journeyed no less than twenty years because your young self is not yet living here, but you were not born to me. My golden core is incapable of bearing children, and will remain so for at least the next several years.”

“Ah—yes, I suppose,” the young man admits. “I had not meant to hide anything, but I began living here two years after the Sunshot Campaign, when I was about three. I am twenty-two now, so I decided we must have traveled at least twenty years, given my absence here and your youth.”

“Then how am I related to you?” Lan Wangji asks, giving up all pretense of delicacy. “I have never fathered any children, so how were you born?”

“You and A-Die both raised me as your son, but neither of you have had any children of your own,” Sizhui says. The thought hurts, since Lan Wangji managed to grow attached to the idea of Sizhui being conceived out of his love for Wei Ying in under ten seconds, but he nods and lets the boy go on without interruption. “But we are related, Hanguang-jun. You and I are first cousins by blood, through my father and your mother.”

“You—on my mother’s side?” It shouldn’t surprise him as much as it does, since he and Xichen know nothing about their mother but her name and what she looked like. “Then—you are my biao-di?”

“And you’re my tang-ge,” Sizhui smiles, fastening his forehead ribbon and tucking Xiao-Yu under another blanket to guard against the early morning chill. “But my father never knew your mother, since he was only a baby when she left home to become a rogue cultivator.”

“Cousin,” Lan Wangji murmurs; and yes, he can see his mother’s features in Lan Sizhui’s face, including some that neither he nor Lan Xichen inherited from her. “Then your original family name must have been Chen, with the Chen for candor.”

“Our grandmother’s family name was Chen,” the boy corrects him. “Da-guma took her name when she became a rogue cultivator, since she didn’t want to be associated with any of the major sects.”

Lan Wangji blinks. He hadn’t known that, and it feels very strange to hear someone he met only yesterday tell him so. “Then what were you called before Wei Ying and I adopted you?”

Sizhui looks away, glancing at the floor for a moment before meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes again. “I was called Wen Yuan. And da-guma was called Wen Mingyan before she began her travels.”

The pieces fall together so quickly that Lan Wangji staggers back to the foot of the bed and sits down beside Xiao-Yu’s sleeping figure. “You were at the Qiongqi camp,” he gasps, gazing up at Lan Sizhui until he replies with a hesitant nod. “And your young self is in Yiling now with Wei Ying. Is it not so?”

Lan Sizhui nods again. “Yes, but—”

“Then we must go at once,” Lan Wangji vows. He spent the last night stewing in guilt, so humiliated by Xiao-Yu’s boundless faith in his Papa’s love for his A-Die that he dreamed of walking into the Burial Mounds at Wei Ying’s side, ready to defend the Wen prisoners at his side for no reason save that he could do nothing less for his sworn zhiji. “We can be there in two hours if we fly.”

“We must speak to Lan-xiansheng and Zewu-jun first,” Lan Sizhui says soberly. “There is more at stake than my welfare and A-Die’s, and neither of us are in any danger just now.”

Lan Wangji feels his blood run cold. “At stake? What do you mean?”

But Sizhui refuses to say anything more until Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen arrive half an hour later with breakfast: a pot of sweet congee topped with dragonfruit and youtiao sticks and soymilk on the side, which Lan Wangji quickly supplements with cups of hot tea for everyone but A-Lan. Xiao-Yu climbs into Lan Wangji’s lap to eat, lolling against his chest and begging to be fed every few mouthfuls, and Sizhui feeds the baby while eating his own meal left-handed.

While they eat, Lan Sizhui informs them (in no uncertain terms, and without any concern for what his presence here might change) that the Lan clan must limit its ties with Lanling Jin in every way possible, since Jin Guangshan will eventually succeed in claiming the title of Chief Cultivator and slaughtering all of the Wens in the Burial Mounds except for Sizhui himself. After that, he goes on to explain that Jin Guangyao is not to be trusted either, and Lan Xichen takes it so badly that he weeps into his hands for a full five minutes before drying his eyes.

“I must ask for proof,” he beseeches, while Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren try to come to terms with the revelation on either side of him. “I know you believe it must be so, but—”

“Bofu,” Sizhui says softly. “He assassinated Chifeng-zun upon his father’s request. You nearly died of grief after falling into a qi deviation, twice.”

Lan Xichen buries his head in his arms and sobs, but he seems to believe it; especially when Sizhui explains how Chifeng-zun was killed, and how Jin Guangyao fooled Xichen into easing the way for his crimes, and then what the Jin clan was doing with the prisoners in the first place.

And then Lan Wangji’s own turn to cry arrives, because Xiao-Yu throws himself into the conversation and tells them that his father had raised Lan Sizhui alone.

“A-Niang was dead,” he declares, before his brother can clap a hand over his mouth. “The mean man told everyone that A-Niang killed someone, but A-Niang didn’t hurt anyone! But then there was a big battle and everyone wanted to kill him, so A-Niang’s jiejie tried to save him—”

“Xiao-Yu!”

“—and she died too, so A-Niang jumped off a mountain, and Papa couldn’t find him anymore,” Lan Yu says, his little lips trembling like crimson maple leaves as Lan Wangji’s chopsticks clatter to the floor. “And Yuan-gege cried and cried, but A-Niang never came back. He couldn’t, ‘cause he died.”

Lan Wangji feels his heart stop beating. 

“What?”



Chapter Text

Three hours after Xiao-Yu’s horrible declaration that Wei Ying had taken his own life before being summoned back by a soul-sacrificing rite sixteen years later, Lan Wangji finds himself flying towards Yiling with Lan Sizhui at his side, balancing Xiao-Yu in front of him on Bichen while Sizhui carries the baby in a sling tied to his chest. Their departure had been swift, since the knowledge that his inaction would lead to Wei Ying’s death shook Lan Wangji so much that he began to weep, and then he packed an emergency kit and set off with his children as quickly as he could. 

“What must we do to pass the wards at the Burial Mounds?” he asks tersely, his knuckles turning white on Bichen’s scabbard. “I have heard it said that Wei Ying keeps a barrier of corpses to guard the perimeter, so perhaps there might be a way to send a message ahead?”

“We won’t need to,” Lan Sizhui assures him. “I checked the date with bofu before we left, and in my time, A-Die brought me into Yiling to buy potatoes today. With any luck, we’ll get there before he leaves.”

That is an odd stroke of luck, Lan Wangji muses. “So this was the day that you and I first met?”

“I suppose it will be, if everything goes well,” his son replies. “You went to Yiling for a long-distance night-hunt, though I think you were really there to visit A-Die and tell him about his shijie and Jin Zixuan getting married.”

“I had forgotten that,” Lan Wangji frowns. Lanling Jin announced its heir’s engagement a week ago, and Lan Wangji spent the next couple of days wondering if anyone would send word to Wei Ying about it; but then Xiao-Yu stumbled into the jingshi, and Lan Wangji became a father to two tiny children and a boy a few months older than himself, and amid all the chaos of the past twenty-four hours, he had not thought of Jiang Yanli’s betrothal at all. “Does Wei Ying know?”

Sizhui shakes his head. “No, he doesn’t. He never got to go to the wedding, as far as I remember, but he did tell me that his shijie came to visit once to show him her wedding robes.”

Inwardly, Lan Wangji wonders why Jiang-zongzhu and Jiang-guniang would take the chance of tying their sect (already considered the least powerful of the four great clans, though by no means the poorest, due to the spoils Wei Ying claimed for Yunmeng by virtue of his contribution to the war) to one that thrives upon gold and corruption, and only grows richer in both by the day. 

During the banquet that marked the end of the Sunshot Campaign, no one had taken Jin Guangshan’s public offer to renew his son’s troth with Jiang Yanli as anything save what it was: a clear attempt to gain the Wen wealth and treasures that his sect had not been allotted, due to the greater involvement of the other three sects in the war. After all, Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin walked away with a full half, and no one had been able to argue with the distribution because the campaign would never have succeeded without Wei Ying. 

Even Xichen remarked upon the tastelessness of Jin-zongzhu's proposal, since speaking of an engagement before the end of the Jiangs’ mourning period was an open insult to their deceased parents. Weddings following a death in a family must be carried out within the first hundred days after the deceased was buried or after the completion of a three-year mourning period, and Jiang Yanli’s mother and father were killed a little over a year ago; any astrologer worth their salt ought to have warned against wedding before the three years were up, because such marriages are said to end in sorrow, and bring forth only a few children if they should prove to be fruitful at all. 

“The elders used to say that Father only reaped what he sowed when he married Mother twelve months after his own father died,” his brother told him. “I wonder that Jin-zongzhu is permitting the marriage now, when he must have been warned that doing so might bring bad luck to the couple.”

But Lan Wangji cannot blame Wei Ying’s shijie, or even Jin Zixuan—for would he not do the same if he were in their place? He very much doubts that he could wait three years to marry Wei Ying even if tradition called for him to do so, and certainly he could never blame Wei Ying for accepting him; the only one at fault here is Jin Guangshan, who is clearly taking advantage of his son’s love for his intended to seize power and spoils not rightfully due to him. 

“In your time, what happened to Jiang Yanli?” he asks, after a brief pause. “You said Jin Zixuan was murdered, but surely his widow would have posed no threat to Jin Guangyao?”

“She died too, actually,” Sizhui says sheepishly. “It’s why A-Die—well, you know what I mean.”

In his arms, Wei Shuilan squeals and begins butting her face against his soft robes, and the young man shifts her up a little higher before wincing at his sister’s restlessness. “We’d better go down, Hanguang-jun,” he suggests, pointing down at a small village about forty-five minutes north of Yiling. “A-Lan needs to be fed and changed, and Xiao-Yu should have some lunch.”

Much as he did yesterday, Lan Sizhui attends to Shuilan’s needs without any help from Lan Wangji. After their little party lands in the village, Lan Wangji hires a room in a tiny inn for half-price (since they only expect to be there for about two hours, by his reckoning) and Sizhui changes the baby’s smallclothes and feeds her from a bottle of transformed goats’ milk before singing her to sleep. Meanwhile, Lan Wangji orders lunch for himself and his sons, and stares at the innkeeper’s greasy meat and mantou for less than five seconds before replacing Xiao-Yu’s food with the packed lunch he brought along from Gusu.

“But I want the beef,” Xiao-Yu protests, eyeing the steaming bowl like a small, half-starved animal faced with a succulent bone. “We never get beef, Papa, please—

“Pack it in your qiankun bag for A-Die,” Sizhui offers, suddenly sounding so much like Lan Xichen that Lan Wangji’s jaw drops open. “You know where we are, don’t you?”

“We’re in the before time,” the child says obediently. “Yuan-gege is little here, and I’m not born yet, and A-Niang and Papa aren’t married.”

“That’s right,” his brother praises him, tying baby A-Lan back into her sling. “But A-Niang is very poor, so he doesn’t have enough to eat sometimes—and he can’t buy beef at all, so we should save this for him and Uncle Ning.”

Xiao-Yu looks rightfully flabbergasted. “A-Niang has lots of money!” he cries. “He bought Ling-gege a new jade brush last week. And Ling-gege said that was enough silver for—for a hundred beefs! Xiongzhang is tricking me!”

“Lying is forbidden,” Lan Sizhui reminds him. “And we have to follow that rule always, not just when we’re in the Cloud Recesses. A-Niang isn’t rich yet, so listen to fuqin and let him pack the meat.”

Puzzled, Xiao-Yu chews on his lip and glances up at Lan Wangji. “Why doesn’t Papa give A-Niang money?” he asks, his high-pitched voice quivering a little as he picks up the vegetable jiaozi with his chubby little hands. “Isn’t Papa supposed to look after A-Niang? Everything is shared half when A-Niangs and Papas get married, right? Jingyi-ge said it was the rules.”

“But they’re not married yet, Xiaohui,” Sizhui says—very patiently, while Lan Wangji debates the merits of dying of shame before they can even reach Yiling. “Father and A-Die are younger than xiongzhang is, just now. So let Hanguang-jun put the meat away, and eat your jiaozi like a good boy. They’re better for you anyway, remember?”

The little boy puts a dumpling in his mouth and chews on it, grinding the carrot filling into mush with his small white teeth before swallowing it down. “So A-Die doesn’t get meat ever?” he says, when Lan Wangji offers him a drink of cool water. “But doesn’t he like it, Papa?”

“Well, he—”

“A-Yu will help Papa pack,” Xiao-Yu declares, pushing his tiny plate away and standing straight up in Lan Wangji’s lap. “Bobo always says that A-Die needs to eat properly ‘cause he doesn’t have a jindan like you, so—”

For the second time that day, Lan Wangji feels his world fall out from under him. “What did you say, Xiao-Yu?”

Across the table, Lan Sizhui puts his head in his hands. 

“No more talking until we get to the Burial Mounds,” he scolds, plopping another dumpling into Xiao-Yu’s open mouth and following it up with a dab of chili sauce. “In fact, Xiao-Yu, I think you’d better not speak at all until I say you can.”

“What did Xiao-Yu do wrong?” Xiao-Yu asks, bewildered. “I was only being good, like Yuan-gege said!”

“Sizhui,” Lan Wangji chokes, barely refraining from reaching out and grasping his son by the arm. “Is it true? Is Wei Ying—did the huadan shou take his golden core?”

“I think that’s a story best left to him,” Sizhui says quietly. “And I won’t say anything about it if he doesn’t tell you himself, so—”

“But A-Niang gave his golden core to Jiang-jiujiu,” A-Yu pipes up, more confused than ever. “Everyone knows that, even A-Ying! Did Papa forget?”

Lan Sizhui drops his chopsticks and shrieks . “Xiao- Yu!”

*    *    *

When Xiao-Yu finally finishes his lunch (without any more dreadful revelations, though that probably means that Lan Wangji will find himself learning even worse things about his beloved’s suffering later on) the four of them pack their things and travel on towards Yiling, though it is all that Lan Wangji can do to keep himself and Xiao-Yu balanced on his jian without dropping his sleepy son. According to Sizhui, Xiao-Yu usually naps after lunch, and by the time they come within sight of the Burial Mounds, the child is as deeply asleep as his six-month-old baby sister. 

“Will you not explain?” Lan Wangji asks, after Xiao-Yu’s big eyes are safely closed. “How could a golden core possibly be given away?”

At last, Sizhui relents with a sigh, and stares out over the shadowy trees slipping by beneath them. 

“Wen Zhuliu melted Jiang-zongzhu’s golden core after Lotus Pier fell,” he admits, wrapping his arms more tightly around Shuilan. “Wen Qing—my aunt—she wrote a treatise suggesting the possibility of transferring golden cores from one cultivator to another, and A-Die found it while he and Jiang-zongzhu were hiding from Wen Chao with her. Jiang-zongzhu was wasting away without his jindan, and A-Die thought he would just let himself die that way, so....so he lied, and said that Baoshan Sanren could restore Jiang-zongzhu’s core for him, but then he just knocked Jiang-zongzhu out and had my gugu take his core instead. 

“The transfer worked, so Jiang-zongzhu went to the front, and A-Die…”

“Wen Chao caught him when the transfer was complete, and threw him into the Burial Mounds,” Lan Wangji says hoarsely. “So all this time—he was in the Burial Mounds with nothing to eat, and no jindan to warm him or heal his wounds, and in that place—”

A horrible thought strikes him so forcefully that he nearly falls off his sword, and Lan Wangji nearly claws out his own eyes with the need to wipe it away from his brain. “What—if he was truly thrown into the Burial Mounds, what did he eat?” Rumor says that the Burial Mounds are filled with the rotting remains of dead cultivators, so if Wei Ying could no longer perform inedia, than perhaps—perhaps, out of desperation, Wei Ying would have had to—

“He didn’t eat the corpses, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Sizhui soothes him. “The demonic energy in Luanzung Gang did strange things to his body while he was in there. It should have killed him, but he was already exposed to it by the sword from the false Xuanwu’s cave, and he didn’t eat or drink at all until he found his way out. He doesn’t even need to eat now, technically, since he can do inedia with resentment if he tries. But it’s not very pleasant, and he still gets sick if he skips his meals.”

Immediately, Lan Wangji swears to himself that Wei Ying will never skip another meal again while he still draws breath. “Is there anything else I should know?”

Lan Sizhui shakes his head. “No, there isn’t. That’s why A-Die gave up the jiandao, and why he couldn’t go to anyone for help—but you’ll help him now that we’re here, and he can find a way to send us home again.”

“I will not let him down again,” Lan Wangji murmurs, so quietly that none of his children seem to hear it. “Never again, never.”

In the end, they land in Yiling about two hours after noon, and Sizhui begins asking directions to the farmer’s marketplace the second he jumps off his sword. “We have to find Xian-gege as quickly as we can,” he explains. “I got lost while he was buying food, and you were the one who found me—but I don’t remember where that was, and we might not be in the right place this time.”

“Your young self is here?” Lan Wangji asks, his heart beating fast at the thought of it. “How old are you now?”

“I’m almost two in this time, I think,” Sizhui frowns. “I’m a few months older than I grew up thinking I was, since you never knew my real birthday until A-Die had a chance to tell you. But I was old enough to escape on my own two feet, so...too old, probably.”

A small smile twitches at the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth. “Then if your young self escapes from Wei Ying again, where will you go?”

“My father always said I ran into him in front of a toy stall, so perhaps one of us can go search for the toy-vendors,” muses his son. “And one of us should go to the farmers’ quarter to look for A-Die. Oh, look over there!”

Lan Wangji turns around and spots a particularly large toy-stall, which seems to have everything from wooden swords and miniature lanterns to plush dolls and bins of straw butterflies. “Is that the place?”

“Yes, it is!” Sizhui laughs, swinging A-Lan onto his hip. “I could never forget that, at least, even if I was just a baby!”

He hurries towards the stall, looking so much like a young father with a baby that the laoban begins showing him infant toys without waiting for an introduction. Relieved that something seems to be going right today, Lan Wangji holds out his hand and waits for Xiao-Yu to take it—but no tiny fingers reach up for his, and Lan Wangji glances down in surprise to find the space beside him empty. 

“No,” he hears himself whisper, suddenly even more terrified than he was when hearing of Wei Ying’s missing jindan. “Xiao-Yu—Lan Xiaohui! Come back this instant!”

But no one answers him, and Lan Wangji nearly faints on the spot—because his six-year-old son is lost and alone in an unfamiliar marketplace, and Lan Wangji has no idea where he could have gone. He screams out for the child again, and again, and his heart sinks into his stomach when he receives no reply.

Xiao-Yu has disappeared, and it’s all Lan Wangji’s fault. 

*    *    *

Despite Wen Qing’s efforts to the contrary, Wei Wuxian detests radishes. He never had a strong preference either for or against them before relocating to the Burial Mounds (if fleeing from Qiongqi Road in the dead of night could really be called relocation ) but eating the wretched vegetables at every meal for two months straight does terrible things to a young man’s will to survive, so he took an extra copper piece from the communal money-box that morning and decided to buy some potatoes as well.

“We can have at least a few potatoes,” he tells A-Yuan, as the two of them wander through the streets in search of someone selling potatoes cheap enough for the leader of a refugee settlement with no fixed income to buy. “Surely your guma can’t kill me if I buy a few. Maybe ten.”

Wen Yuan squeezes his hand, but otherwise ignores him. Wei Wuxian takes it as encouragement, though, so he keeps strolling up and down the street until something bright catches his eye near a stand of fresh-looking cabbages. 

A second glance proves that the something is actually a someone: a very small someone dressed in pure white, clearly trying to haggle with the cabbage seller before making a purchase. Amused, Wei Wuxian lifts Wen Yuan into his arms and edges a little further up the lane, watching as the child buys fifteen beautiful cabbages and puts them into a qiankun bag as fast as the vendor can pass them to him. 

“The Lan clan will remember your kindness,” the little boy declares, and Wei Wuxian blinks in surprise—he hadn’t known of any children this young within the main Lan clan when he was studying in the Cloud Recesses, save for a few that were newborns or just learning to walk. “Thank you, kind sir. I must take these cabbages to my father now, because Gege said he’s very hungry.”

“And who should I remember when I need such good business again?” the vendor jokes, tickled half to death. “This one is called Cao Xi, if the little master wants more cabbages tomorrow.”

“This humble disciple is called Lan Yu, courtesy Xiaohui!” 

For some reason, Wei Wuxian feels his stomach clench at the sight of the small boy’s grin. He can’t be more than five or six, or seven at the oldest, but he moves with all the assurance of a little prince as he makes his purchases: buying dried-meat snacks at one stall, more fresh produce at the next, and even stopping at a butcher’s table before he asks for a few pounds of sausages.

“Go fetch your parents,” the butcher urges him, clearly reluctant to give such a heavy package to a wealthy young master whose head barely reaches the counter. “You won’t be able to carry it, xiao-gongzi.

“I have a magic bag,” Lan Yu says proudly, holding up the expensive-looking qiankun pouch at his waist, which contains at least fifteen cabbages, four bags of apples and tomatoes, and about a dozen eggs wrapped in paper, by Wei Wuxian’s tally so far. “I can even fit a person in here. A-Niang told me so.”

Wei Wuxian laughs out loud, suddenly very curious about what Lan mother could have borne such a sprightly son. He had seen a couple of jovial Lan cousins from afar during the lectures, and they were both too young to have a child this big—but then the little boy turns around, and Wei Wuxian freezes with A-Yuan clutched tightly to his chest at the sight of the silver cloud ornament sparkling on the child’s forehead.

He’s not just part of the inner clan, Wei Wuxian realizes dizzily. He’s part of the main family. 

But how could that be possible? Lan Zhan isn’t married, and he’s too young to have a six-year-old, even if he had been married—and Lan Xichen isn’t married either, though Lan Yu looks too old to be his son, too. In theory, Lan Yu could be Lan Qiren’s child, but Lan Zhan never mentioned a first cousin, and that seems like the kind of thing his friend would have told him about. 

Wei Wuxian stops wondering when he notices that Lan Yu is looking at him. 

“Oh!” the child cries, smiling from ear to ear as his eyes meet Wei Wuxian’s—and oh, his heart aches at the warmth in that smile, even though Wei Wuxian could bet his nonexistent jindan that he’s never laid eyes on Lan Yu before. “Excuse me for a minute, gongzi! Xiao-Yu has something to do!”

And then he rushes across the street and leaps up into Wei Wuxian’s arms, working his little fists into his shabby black robes before bursting into tears. 

“A-Niang!” Lan Yu cries, almost knocking A-Yuan to the ground as he wails at the top of his lungs. “Xiao-Yu is back, A-Niang! You found me!”

Wei Wuxian stares at the child in sheer befuddlement. 

The child gulps down another sob, and stares back.

“Never let it be said, A-Yuan” Wei Wuxian sighs, looking between the two small boys with a burgeoning headache at his temple, “that my life has ever been boring.”

 

Chapter Text

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—”

“Yes.”

“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.

"Lan Zhan!"

Chapter Text

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.”

“Really?”

“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—”

“Wei Ying!”

“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.”

“But A-Niang…”

“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. 



Chapter Text

After matters come to a head at the Jinlintai, Jin Guangshan is denounced and dethroned within a span of only three days. 

Jin Zixuan replaces him as Jin-zongzhu on the fourth morning, looking so young and nervous on his father’s throne that Lan Xichen’s heart aches with pity for him, and Jiang Yanli remains at Lotus Pier; Madam Jin thought it would be unwise for her beloved daughter-in-law to enter a sect so fraught by its master’s crimes, and so advised her to delay her wedding another year. It was also hinted (very gently, by none other than Jin Zixuan himself) that she might regret leaving Lotus Pier so soon, so she decided to stay and help rebuild Yunmeng Jiang at least until the next summer. 

The sect that the Jin had nearly ruined would have to be brought to rights by the Jin themselves, and such a household would be nothing but a danger for Jiang Yanli until Jin Zixuan can drag his clan firmly under his heel. 

And after Jin Zixuan’s ascension ceremony, Lan Xichen found himself alone on a balcony with Jin Guangyao, wondering how the peace that followed the Sunshot Campaign could have gone so completely wrong within a bare year of Wen Ruohan’s death. 

All it takes for evil to triumph is for good to sit by and do nothing, he thinks, as Jin Guangyao stands beside him with his arms folded on the railing. And by so doing it would no longer be good at all. That old saying would have spoken of me, if I never met Lan Sizhui. 

“What made you think of it?” Jin Guangyao asks, staring straight ahead at one of the tinkling fountains. “Searching the room in my chambers, I mean.”

Lan Xichen blinks. “Ah?”

“What made you so suspicious of me?” There are tears in his friend’s eyes, but Lan Xichen finds that he can no longer trust them. “That you would come to the Jinlintai under the guise of comradeship, and search through my rooms for—I cannot tell what you expected to find!”

“Mingjue-xiong knew that you collaborated with Xue Yang,” Lan Xichen says dully. “That captain was a bully and a boor, but loyal to his master. He would have cut off his own hands before freeing a prisoner that Mingjue-xiong had condemned, so if it was not him who let Xue Yang out of that cell, whom could it be but you? And those letters asking him to work for your father...who but you could have sent them?”

“So just because of Da-ge’s grudge against me, you did such a thing?” Jin Guangyao sobs. “Er- ge, I thought we...but I should have known that no matter what I did for you, I could not hold a candle to him in your heart, even if I saved your life when the Cloud Recesses were in ashes.”

He took a page from the song of Turmoil, and sang Nie Mingjue to death with his guqin, Sizhui told him. You tried to save his life, and nearly killed yourself doing it. 

“Do you know the difference between you and Mingjue-xiong, A-Yao?”

Jin Guangyao’s eyes are swimming. “Of course I do! In his eyes he is righteous, while he looks down upon me when I must take actions he dislikes, and never bothers to think about why I must do them, or that I might have been dead if I had not disposed of his clansmen at Nightless City—and he will hold that against me until the end of my days!”

Lan Xichen shakes his head.

“I dare not judge a person’s heart,” he says slowly, “or what drives them to act, especially if they have suffered if you have. Mingjue-xiong believes that righteousness takes only one form no matter the circumstances, and in that he is mistaken.”

“But you still—”

“It is true that the war might have been lost if Wen Ruohan suspected you too soon, but the lives of the Wen prisoners you had tortured for knowledge of the yintie were not a just price for your father’s approval,” Lan Xichen sighs. “Clearly you thought otherwise, or we would not have been here.”

“Er-ge!” 

“I know your friendship for me is true, A-Yao,” he whispers. “But if even Da-ge had been party to this, I would not have helped conceal it.”

“You would have!” Jin Guangyao insists, weeping harder than ever. “Lan Xichen, how can you stand before me and claim that there could be a thing you would not do for Nie-zongzhu? Was I ever of any importance in your eyes, beside him?”

“If one day you drew Hensheng and attacked me, I would defend myself,” Lan Xichen replies, instead of giving him a straight answer. “But if I were bleeding to death with a wound Mingjue-xiong dealt to me, I would have smiled and kissed his hands upon Baxia as I died. If he turned his saber upon me, I would consider it justice.”

He turns around and leaves the balcony, bowing to Jin Guangyao before he goes, and turns his thoughts back towards the family still waiting for him at the Cloud Recesses.

“I am half a Wen, by the way,” he calls, as A-Yao’s slim figure dwindles from view. “Had Wangji and I not put a stop to this, our silence would have been taken as a warrant for our own grandmother’s execution.”

*     *     *

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says helplessly, as the two of them sit in the jingshi with their children clustered around them. “May I hold A-Lan, sweetheart? Please?”

“One more minute, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying coos, nuzzling the baby’s little round head with the tip of his nose. “A-Lan, do you know who I am?”

Shuilan squeals and kicks her feet up into the air. “Ma!”

“And who’s this?” Wei Ying points to Lan Yu. “You know him, right?”

“Ge!”

Lan Wangji blinks in astonishment. “She is very bright,” he notes, as A-Lan burrows deeper into Wei Ying’s arms and sucks greedily at the spout of her milk bottle. “Those were proper words, my heart.”

Xiao-Yu climbs into Lan Wangji’s lap and dives in between the two outermost layers of his robes. “A-Lan is the best baby,” he says proudly, after his little body is safely bundled up in a thick layer of cloud-embroidered silk. “She knows everything. One time, A-Niang set a big fire in the jishi in the middle of the night, and meimei cried as loudly as she could until Papa woke up and saved him!”

At this, Lan Wangji casts a despairing glance at his beloved and kisses his hand. “Wei Ying.”

“That was another me!” Wei Ying protests, hitching A-Lan up higher against his stomach. “I promise I won’t set any fires after we’re married, Lan Zhan! I wouldn’t dare damage anything you built for me that way! Xiao-Yu, your A-Niang sounds very ungrateful to do such a thing.”

“I don’t know what that means, but my Papa has a calendar for fires,” Xiao-Yu says serenely. “Every time A-Niang goes one week without a fire, Papa lets A-Niang ride on his back.”

Wei Ying bursts out laughing. “Really?”

“Mm!” the little boy pouts. “But A-Niang always sets fires, so Xiao-Yu never gets to watch.”

Lan Wangji feels his heart quiver at the thought of Wei Ying being hurt in a fire, so he wraps his arms around Xiao-Yu and squeezes him as tightly as he can. “There will be no fires,” he promises. “Your A-Niang will always be safe from now on, A-Bao. I will build him a workshop just behind the jingshi, and outfit it with wards to make sure it does not burn.”

They have lunch after A-Yu gets tired of talking, and then the little ones go down for their naps in Lan Wangji’s room. Lan Xichen is still traveling between Qinghe and Lanling, taking part in the trials of Jin Guangshan’s clansmen and aiding in the resettlement of the Jinlintai’s last political prisoners, and Sizhui is in the meishi with Lan Wangji’s uncle, so he and Wei Wuxian pile into the double bed and rest beside their children while they wait for Sizhui to return. 

“How are you going to send the children back home?” Lan Wangji whispers, after Xiao-Yu falls asleep. “Do you know anything about the talisman that brought them here?”

Wei Ying nods. 

“I’m going to send them back tomorrow,” he says quietly. “Sizhui took me to the spot in the woods where they first arrived, and I found the talisman still lying in the dirt. There was a line of sigils preventing it from moving once it had been activated, so it fell from A-Yu’s hands and remained behind when he left.”

“So if you activate it once again, then…”

“It should bring all three of them back to where they began, and when,” Wei Ying mutters, turning his face away to hide his tears. “We can’t keep them too long, Lan Zhan. Every day they spent here is another day they’ll age in their own time, and A-Lan is so little that every day matters.”

Lan Wangji reaches out to take his hands, determined not to let the man he loves suffer alone for something like this. “We will have A-Yuan. He will grow up into Lan Sizhui, only a Sizhui who did not have to suffer as this one did, and Yu’er and A-Lan will come back sooner or later. All we must do is remain patient, and trust that if they found us once, they will find us again.”

A tear runs down Wei Ying’s cheek.

“How are you so good, sweetheart?” he sniffles. “Of course, there’s no need to worry about it. The Wens will be safe, and so will A-Yuan, and—Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji springs upright in a flash. “What is it?”

“I’ll be able to go to my shijie’s wedding,” Wei Ying cries, throwing his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck. “And I can help her get ready for it, since Jin-furen had it delayed! Xingan, after we send the children back—let’s go to Lotus Pier and visit her, ah? Jiang Cheng probably won’t want to see me, but he’ll have to put up with it. Shijie will want me there, and I’m not going to stay away!”

“He has not forgiven you for agreeing to marry me,” Lan Wangji observes, returning the hug with all his might and squashing poor Xiao-Yu between them. “I fear that my presence at Lotus Pier might make things difficult for both of you, if he finds the idea of you marrying out of Yunmeng so unthinkable.”

His zhiji waves a dismissive hand. “If we’re going to get married, then he’ll just have to get used to it,” he shrugs. “I’m not part of the Jiang sect anymore, but I’m still Shijie’s didi, and I’m going to be your husband. He’ll want to make up eventually, so I don’t mind.”

“Does it not trouble you, that your brother would treat you thus? That you gave back his jindan and his sect only to be repaid with exile?” 

Lan Wangji’s opinion of Jiang Wanyin sank several levels after A-Yu revealed the truth about Wei Ying’s golden core, and dug itself into the ground when Wei Ying fainted from pain on the journey to Gusu due to the wound Jiang Wanyin dealt him, which never properly healed, and reopened when Wen Ning struck it during his return to consciousness. 

And Wei Ying might have broken Jiang Wanyin’s arm during their staged duel, but there was no risk of infection with such an injury, and Jiang Wanyin had every comfort of Lotus Pier at his disposal while he recovered; but Wei Ying had no food to nourish his healing or even a warm bed to lie down on while Wen Qing treated the wound in his belly, and Jiang Wanyin knew such would be the case and stabbed Wei Ying anyway. 

Lan Wangji will never forgive himself for leaving Wei Ying alone on Qiongqi Dao, but his bitterness towards Jiang Wanyin runs even deeper than his own miserable regret—a fact that was not helped when his soon-to-be brother-in-law flew to Gusu to upbraid him for stealing Wei Ying away, and then for daring to love him when all the world had spurned him and cast him aside. 

Swords were drawn, and matters escalated. Lan Xichen was not there to mediate, what with everything that had taken place in Lanling, and Shufu had to be called out of the meeting chamber to make Jiang Wanyin listen to reason. The resulting argument ended with Wei Ying in tears, Lan Wangji furious, Shufu and Jiang Wanyin barely less so, and little A-Yu declaring that his jiujiu had clearly not been kissed by his shenshen that day, and ought to behave properly lest the future Jiang-furen find someone else to kiss instead. 

Lan Sizhui managed to clap a hand over A-Yu’s mouth before he could identify Jiang Wanyin’s future wife by name, but A-Yu’s timely arrival surprised the fight right out of him, and Jiang Wanyin spent the next hour asking Wei Ying why Xiao-Yu called him jiujiu until the child wriggled out of Sizhui’s restraining arms and answered the question himself. 

“A-Niang is Xiao-Yu’s A-Niang,” Xiao-Yu explained, patting Wei Ying’s tears away with one of Lan Wangji’s handkerchiefs. “And jiujiu is my A-Niang’s didi. Auntie is jiujiu’s wife, and—”

“Lan Yu,” Sizhui began, clearly preparing to cast a silencing charm on his indignant baby brother. “What did I say about telling people—”

“And Xiao-Hua is jiujiu’s baby!” Xiao-Yu finished, brightening up at the thought of his little cousin(?). “But she’s bigger than A-Lan, so she’s not a baby anymore. Jiujiu, you and Auntie should hurry up and give A-Hua her own meimei.”

Jiang Wanyin glared at him. “I’m not married, and I certainly don’t have a baby. Who are you, anyway?”

In answer, Xiao-Yu pointed to Lan Wangji. “I’m Lan-xiao-gongzi,” he said, puffing out his little chest with pride. “My name is Lan Yu, and I’m your zhizi!”

That began another outcry, one that ended in laughter over Jiang-zongzhu’s confusion rather than tears, but Lan Wangji could not quite forget the man’s accusations of betrayal: as if the lives of the Wens meant nothing to him, or that nothing was truly at stake even with all Wei Ying had suffered to rescue them from the Jins.

“Jiang Cheng is the way he is. It doesn’t bother me,” Wei Ying says now, shaking Lan Wangji out of his gloomy reverie. “How else could it have been between us? I’ve spent all my life consoling him, and mincing my words to comfort him, and he’s taking it badly now because I won’t go on like we used to.”

“I never thought you would mince your words with anyone.”

“I know, Lan Zhan, but it was different with Jiang Cheng. Whenever Jiang-shushu praised me, I had to tell Jiang Cheng that he could afford to indulge me because I wasn’t his son by blood, and I always pretended that there was nothing to praise no matter what happened, even after we killed the Xuanwu. And Yu-furen wouldn’t praise anything Jiang Cheng did unless he surpassed me, and then she insisted that Jiang-shushu’s kind words for him were insincere, so…”

“So Jiang Wanyin grew up in two minds, inherited from both Jiang-zongzhu and his mother,” Lan Wangji surmises. “His head took his mother’s words for truth and his father’s for a lie, but his heart chose differently, and the clash between them only angers him further.”

Wei Ying only shrugs again. “It’s always been that way. He was jealous and not jealous, and angry and not angry, and trying to clear his head made it worse. But he’s the master of Jiangshi now, so this can’t go on forever.”

And then, very quietly:

“I’ve never been able to bring him any peace,” Wei Ying murmurs. “Even my jindan couldn’t do it. Everything was all right for a while after the war ended, but you know what happened then.”

“Peace is only found within one’s own self. If Jiang Wanyin cannot find it there, then he will never have it.”

“En, that’s true enough.”

He punctuates the sentence with an enormous yawn, so loud and breathy that the three little faces lined up between them wrinkle their chins up and yawn, too, and Wei Ying throws his head back and bursts into laughter at the sight. “Aren’t they adorable, Lan Zhan?” he giggles, kissing A-Yuan’s button nose and then baby A-Lan’s. “Aiyah, I wish we could keep all three of them.”

But they cannot keep Sizhui, or Xiao-Yu, or even A-Lan; and the realization sombers them both, bittering the sweetness of this last precious day all six of them will have together.

Wei Ying falls asleep first, and Lan Wangji presses his zhiyin’s hands to his lips before following him into slumber. 

If either of them had realized what Jin Guangyao’s demotion would mean for one of the children in their arms, the thought was wholly forgotten, and would not return or be spoken of until it was far too late.

 

 

Chapter Text

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…”



Chapter Text

In the end, returning to their own time takes no longer than it did to travel backwards to the Cloud Recesses of twenty years ago. One minute, Lan Sizhui is standing in the middle of the bamboo forest, with the jingshi barely visible in the distance; and the next, he finds himself slumped over on a hard wooden floor with A-Lan babbling in his arms and Xiao-Yu sprawled a few feet away with his eyes tightly closed. 

“A-Yu,” Lan Sizhui gasps, scrambling to his brother’s side and turning him over. “A-Yu, wake up!”

Xiao-Yu remains as still as a statue, lying flat on his back with the dirty time talisman clutched between his fists, and Sizhui’s voice cracks in agony—because A-Yu isn’t moving, and Sizhui’s fingers are trembling so badly that he can scarcely make out a pulse. “Xiao-Yu!” he screams, dragging his brother into his lap. “Lan Xiaohui—!”

But then he feels the dusty bundle of white robes begin to squirm, right before A-Yu’s mouth opens wide in an enormous yawn. 

“Sleepy,” A-Yu mumbles, smacking his lips as he burrows deeper into the warmth of Sizhui’s gown. “Yuan-gege, can you make milk pudding for A-Yu and A-Lan?”

Lan Sizhui bursts into tears. 

“How could you be so naughty, A-Yu!” he sobs, holding his didi out at arm’s length and shaking him. “If A-Niang told you to keep out of the jishi once, he’s told you a hundred times! Do you even know what he works with in here, Yu’er? Do you see all of those cabinets on the wall? Half of them are filled with poison, and what if—what if you’d touched one of A-Die’s bone knives? What do you think would have happened then? And what if that talisman had been half finished? You and A-Lan could have died, all because you couldn’t listen to a rule you’ve known since you were a baby!”

“But I didn’t mean to do wrong,” Xiao-Yu protests, so blatantly unrepentant that Sizhui starts crying even harder. “And Papa said we fixed everything by going to the before time! A-Niang isn’t all alone anymore, and little Yuan-gege has all the peanut snacks he wants, and—”

“Sizhui, what’s all this?” 

Sizhui blinks and turns around, rubbing tears out of his eyes as his A-Die steps into the jishi. “A-Yuan, A-Yu, what are you doing here?” A-Die demands, staring between them both with his arms crossed over his chest. “A-Yu, you know you’re not supposed to come inside.”

“A-Niang!” Xiao-Yu howls, springing away from Lan Sizhui and barreling straight at A-Die—because this A-Die is their A-Die, with warm, sun-tanned skin instead of bone-white like the Wei Wuxian of the past, and Xiao-Yu has never been away from him for so long before. “A-Niang, you’re back! You’re my A-Niang!”

“What do you mean?” Xian-ge sighs. “And of course I’m back. Xichen-ge came to bring you lunch and sent word to me and your fuqin that the house was empty.”

Xiao-Yu pushes his face into A-Die’s red robes. “Mm! A-Niang, carry me?”

But A-Die’s gaze has drifted back towards Lan Sizhui, lingering over his swollen eyes and the tear-tracks on his cheeks; and then he kneels and wraps Sizhui up in his arms, lifting A-Lan onto his shoulder and Xiao-Yu onto his back. 

“Let’s go home,” he says quietly, smoothing his hand over Sizhui’s forehead. “You can tell me and Lan Zhan all about it there, A-Yuan.”

*    *    *

Xiao-Yu is sent to bed early that night, after spending the full afternoon in either Wei Wuxian’s lap or Lan Zhan’s. Sizhui has been out of sorts all day, and A-Yu kept clinging to both of his parents until he fell asleep—which only served to convince Lan Zhan that the children had gotten into trouble in the jishi, and ought to be taken to see one of the healers as soon as possible. 

“It’s not that,” Sizhui blurts out, when A-Yu and Shuilan are finally asleep. “A-Die, Xiao-Yu got hold of one of your time-traveling talismans, and—”

“Time traveling?” Wei Wuxian frowns. “A-Yuan, those talismans were only meant to increase one’s own speed, so that time seems to be passing more slowly to the cultivator using them. I’ve tested them on night-hunts, and your bobo cleared them for entry into the standard emergency talisman kit for junior cultivators.”

“But that’s not what happened!” his son cries, so distraught that he tears at his own hair for a moment, before pulling his hands away when Lan Zhan reaches out to stop him. “A-Die, I really mean it! Xiao-Yu activated the talisman somehow—and I don’t know how, since he hasn’t even developed his jindan yet—and then we were here, in the Cloud Recesses, as it was twenty years ago! I met you, and Fuqin—and people who have been dead for so long that I never even knew what they looked like! I met Popo, and Uncle Four, and Qing-gugu as she used to be, and—and Chifeng-zun was there!”

Wei Wuxian frowns harder. “I don’t see how such a thing could have happened,” he mutters, poking at the dusty talisman Xiao-Yu was clutching in the jishi. “But this soil didn’t come from outside the workshop, and there wasn’t any on Xiao-Yu’s hands, or his robes. How long did you say you spent in the past, A-Yuan?”

“Only a few days,” Sizhui says, exhausted. “I think I changed everything that went wrong, before.”

Lan Zhan glances up. “What do you mean?”

“The former Nie-zongzhu will live, because Uncle knows how Lianfang-zun tried to assassinate him, and so will my family. Jin Guangshan was deposed by the time I left, and Jin Zixun had been sent into seclusion, so I think Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli will live, too.”

Shijie. 

Wei Wuxian feels a gust of cool air brush the tips of his ears, as if someone’s fingers were trailing through his hair, and he puts up his hand to stop them in their tracks; but then the ghostly touch disappears, and leaves him grasping at nothing.

He chokes for a moment, overcome by the old, aching grief that never quite left him after Bu Ye Tian, and leans gladly into Lan Zhan’s embrace as his husband shifts a little closer to him. 

“That’s not all,” A-Yuan goes on, looking thoroughly wretched. “If that time continues, and Jin Guangyao remains under Jin Zixuan’s watch, then Yang Xin will never leave the Chrysanthemum House in Yunping, and she’ll never have Xiao-Yu. A-Yu’s not going to exist in that world, and it’s all my fault.”

*    *    *

Lan Sizhui is fairly certain that his parents don’t believe a single word about the week that he, A-Yu, and A-Lan spent in the past. 

They don’t say so, of course, but the evidence for it is clear. A-Die vanishes back into the jishi with a tray of glass mixing bottles soon after dinner, evidently keen on testing his time-slowing talismans for hallucinatory effects, and Hanguang-jun hugs him very tightly for a long while before asking him to sleep in the Jingshi tonight instead of going back to the cottage he shares with Lan Jingyi. 

“I’d like that,” Lan Sizhui croaks, when his father smooths his hair back like he used to do when Sizhui was a very small child, still little enough to fit in the Jingshi’s then-single bed at Hanguang-jun’s side. “I’ll sleep in A-Yu’s room, Fuqin.”

Hanguang-jun pats his cheek. “No need,” he says gently. “I will carry Xiao-Yu’s bed into my room, and make it up with fresh linens. You have been through a terrible ordeal, keeping your brother and sister safe all the while, and it would do both me and your A-Die good to have you and Xiaohui near us tonight.”

So he helps his father bring A-Yu’s little bed into his parents’ bedroom, tucking it close beside the pillow where A-Die sleeps, and then A-Die comes back smelling of soot and camphor smoke and shuts himself into the washroom for a long, hot bath. 

“There was mojing in the talismans,” Sizhui hears him whisper, long after hai hour. Sizhui is pretending to be asleep, though that technically breaks the sect precept against falsehood, but he very much doubts that his parents would speak so freely in front of him, even though he came of age nearly three years ago. “I must have tempered it too long before mixing the leaves with the bamboo pulp.”

Father rustles the blankets a little. “I thought mojing had to be consumed, to cause such effects.”

“Mm, that’s what I don’t understand. But Xiao-Yu shouldn’t have been able to activate a fourth-standard talisman at his age, and I don’t understand that, either.”

There is a brief lull after that, interrupted only by A-Lan’s snuffling and another yawning plea for lotus milk pudding from Xiao-Yu. 

“A-Yu, this A-Niang of yours can only cook so much,” A-Die laughs softly. “Your appetite could wear Hanguang-jun out at a cauldron, if it got any bigger.”

“Wei Ying.”

“Hm?”

“How did Sizhui know that he saw Jiang Yanli, if he and A-Yu only fell into a dream caused by the mojing?”

“He didn’t say he saw her, sweetheart. Only—” A-Die’s breath catches. “—only that he knew she would live. And if he was running about with us in Yiling, when would he have had the chance to meet her?”

His father sits up, a long ripple of white in the darkness of the bedroom, and leans over to kiss A-Die on the cheek. 

“Perhaps it really happened,” he suggests. “Mojing or not, perhaps their spirits were briefly transported away, and returned to us when their duty was finished. Your soul was called back from the realm of the dead, so could the children not have been drawn to another time?”

“I suppose it doesn’t sound so strange when you put it like that. But why now, and not earlier? And why them?”

The conversation continues in the same vein for a little while longer, until his fathers’ replies come further and further apart, and then both of them drift off to sleep with their hands clasped over Xiao-Yu’s chubby knees. 

Sizhui is still wide awake, with the look of pure pain on his Xian-ge’s face—the Xian-ge from the strange past that might not even have been the past at all—stamped on the insides of his eyelids, as it was when Sizhui revealed that putting an end to Jin Guangyao’s crimes would prevent Xiao-Yu from ever being born. 

A-Die knew Xiao-Yu for less than a day before loving him, in this time. And as for Lan Sizhui himself, he knows that he won his A-Die’s heart by the end of that long, cold ride in the rain that ended in the Yiling Burial Mounds, and that he slept and ate in the shelter of his A-Die’s cloak for weeks before he would allow anyone to take him away. 

What will A-Die and Father do, knowing that one of their children is gone forever—as surely as if he was dead, with no hope of ever finding his soul through Inquiry, or seeing him safe and happy with the parents who bore him?

Suddenly, the mere thought of it nearly stops his breath, and Sizhui is up on his feet and running out of the house towards the jishi before he has time to think. The wards to the jishi are keyed to his spiritual energy, since A-Die often asks for his help providing lingli, due to his own lack of cultivation, and Lan Sizhui is through the doors and into the main workroom so quickly that he nearly trips over the hem of his gown. 

The time-slowing talismans were neatly piled on the desk this afternoon, but A-Die must have moved them somewhere safer, and a short search reveals a new locked box in the attic storeroom. Sizhui hacks it open with a knife and lifts out a single slip of paper, funneling as much spiritual energy into it as he can summon up. 

“Take me back,” he whispers. 

Nothing happens. Sizhui tries again with more spiritual energy, but the jishi remains right where it is, and all that changes is a sudden spell of dizziness that nearly brings him to his knees. 

He is still in his own time, with the talisman lying quiet and still in the hollow of his palms, and Sizhui tries to activate it again before turning around and trudging back towards the door. He pushes it open, lifting his hands to shield his face from the sudden wind, and then he jumps right off the front step when the door bangs shut behind him. 

I forgot to put the talismans away, he remembers. He puts his hand on the doorknob, trying to twist it back so he can slip back inside to return the box of talismans to the attic; but the door refuses to budge, and Lan Sizhui is left gaping at the smooth expanse of wood with an irritated twitch in his eyebrow. 

At least keeping him out would keep Xiao-Yu away and out of danger too, Sizhui reflects, as he pads back to the house on bare, grass-stained feet. 

He is quite certain that he didn’t lock the door to the Jingshi behind him on his way out—his parents rarely lock it themselves, since the plot of land the Jingshi sits on is surrounded by so many wards that not even a rabbit could cross the boundaries undetected—but the door is locked and bolted by the time he returns, and prying it open requires a great deal of of patience, a small stick he found on the ground, and no small amount of dexterity. At last, the lock gives, and the door creaks open: as if it were granting him entry reluctantly, despite the fact that Sizhui lived here for the better part of his childhood, and visited the Jingshi several times a week after he moved into the disciples’ compound with Jingyi. 

The receiving room is still pitch black, just as he left it; but he can’t see his way back to his parents’ room, even though the partition should be no more than a few steps away from where he stands now. 

“Where is it?” Sizhui mutters to himself, feeling his way through the darkness. “Did A-Die move the screen?”

“A-Yuan?”

A lantern flickers to life behind him, and Lan Sizhui turns around to find his father standing in the kitchen doorway with an oil-lamp in his hand. 

“A-Die,” he exhales, relieved. “I only went outside to...well, I didn’t want to wake you, so—”

But his father only takes a few steps closer, his eyes filled with a kind of hopeful wonder, and reaches out to touch Lan Sizhui’s face.

“You’re back,” A-Die murmurs, as a tear rolls down his cheek. “I’ve missed you so much, Yuan’er. What are you doing here?”

“I slept here,” Sizhui says, bewildered. “Fuqin told me to stay in the Jingshi tonight, remember?”

A-Die studies him for a moment, taking in his bare feet and rumpled hair. “Did you not mean to come?” he inquires. “Aiyah, the Wei Wuxian of your own time must not have changed at all, if you didn’t recognize me!”

“You— what?” 

Sizhui blinks, turning from side to side to study the Jingshi’s receiving room. Upon further inspection, none of the furniture is the same as it was when he left the house less than half an hour ago, and the floor is scattered with little toys that look like the kind of playthings a much younger A-Yu would have loved, but which Sizhui’s own six-year-old didi put aside in storage years ago. 

“It’s been over three years since you visited,” A-Die informs him, stepping forward to clear some of the toys out of the way. “Our A-Yuan is five now, and Lan Zhan and I were married not long after you left.”

So he had returned to the past, Sizhui realizes. He just hadn’t noticed it before now, because Hanguang-jun would surely have built a jishi for A-Die in any timeline, and A-Die, being A-Die, would have equipped it in a similar way to his own beloved Xian-ge. 

“It’s only been a day, for me,” he says slowly. “Less than a day, actually. We came back to the same afternoon we left, and now it must be early the next morning.”

“Did you come back by mistake again?” A-Die’s brow furrows. “Is Xiao-Yu all right? Did he send you?”

At the mention of his baby brother, Sizhui feels his throat swell shut, and he spends an embarrassing minute trying to find his voice again before A-Die takes his hand. 

“I know,” A-Die sighs: though the sigh sounds more fond than sad, and Lan Sizhui isn’t sure why A-Die is trying to comfort him when A-Die is the one who had to lose Xiao-Yu, and Sizhui still has his sweet, troublemaking didi safe at home. “Come through to the bedroom, A-Yuan. I have something to show you.”

Lan Sizhui follows him, taking care not to step onto a tiny stuffed doll sewn into the shape of a ladybug, and almost goes to his knees at the sight of his Fuqin sprawled across the bed with two little boys cuddled up against his stomach. 

One of them is clearly his own younger self, bundled up in a knitted blanket and holding on to a corner of Hanguang-jun’s sleeve: and the other is still round and chubby with babyhood, with a tiny black mole under his lips, and his features are a perfect blend of A-Die’s and Fuqin’s. 

But Sizhui would recognize him anywhere, and in any body: even a shape much smaller than Sizhui has ever seen him, and even one whose face is so very different that looking at him is like something out of a dream.

“Xiao-Yu,” he gasps. “It’s—Xian-gege, how—”

His father leads him into the kitchen, and heats a pot of water for tea; and then he gives Sizhui a short summary of the last three years and the changes they wrought upon the cultivation world. According to A-Die, The Dafan Wen clan was given the necessary materials and coin to build a settlement between Caiyi and the Cloud Recesses, and Sizhui’s family has been living there in peace ever since with the exception of Wen-popo, who chose to live near her long-lost grandsons and moved up into the mountains to a house close to Zewu-jun’s hanshi. Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan are newly married, having delayed their wedding until Lanling could be brought to order under its new zongzhu, and Sizhui’s aunt Wen Qing has been rumored to be courting Sect Leader Jiang. 

“They’re only rumors, so far,” A-Die says slyly, as Lan Sizhui covers his mouth to hide his grin. “But Wen Ning says it’s only a matter of time, and he knows more about Qing-jie’s feelings than any of the rest of us do.”

“And Bobo and Great-uncle? Are they well?”

“Lan-xiansheng is so pleased with his grandchildren that he can’t help being well,” laughs A-Die. “He would have been happy enough with our Xiao-Yuan, but then Xichen-ge married Nie-zongzhu and gave him a pair of granddaughters!”

This is news to Sizhui, who has long since believed that his uncle remains unwed out of an aversion to marriage, and not because he never found a cultivation partner that suited him. “Truly? Uncle and Chifeng-zun are married?”

“Mm, they are. They can’t live together, but Chifeng-zun spends a fortnight here every other month, and of course Xichen-ge visits him whenever he can. He went to live in Qinghe while he was cultivating Ying’er, though, and then Lan Zhan and I had Xiao-Yu the year after she came along.”

Sizhui leaps on the subject of his brother like a cat leaping at a mouse. “How did you and Father cultivate Xiao-Yu? Father doesn’t have the right kind of jindan, and you don’t have one at all.”

In answer, A-Die holds up his fingers and sends a burst of lingli at the lantern on the table, brightening it until the windows burn gold before he turns the flame back down again. 

“I didn’t have one,” he replies, as Sizhui’s jaw drops open. “But Wen Qing found a way for me to cultivate one again. And Xiao-Yu just... happened. It was strange, now that I think about it...Lan Zhan and I could have had any child, but it was Xiao-Yu, and we knew it the moment we first laid eyes on him.”

“How?”

“Well, I knew right from the beginning. But Lan Zhan was sure the first time A-Yu tried to crawl up the front of his robes."

He pauses, and then:

“When he’s a little older, we’ll see about A-Lan,” A-Die smiles. “But Yuan’er and A-Yu are still little, so it might be another three or four years.”

They talk of this and that for a while, sipping their yuntaishan tea until the water goes cold, and Sizhui finds himself rubbing his eyes to ward off his sleepiness as Xian-ge’s voice grows softer; and then he comes back to full awareness with a jolt, because all the breath has been knocked out of his lungs by a heavy blow. 

“Yuan-gege!” his brother chirps. “Yuan-gege, you slept at home last night!”

“I...did,” Sizhui mumbles, trying to massage away a sudden headache. “A-Yu, what are you doing here?”

“Waking you up! Papa’s getting breakfast ready,” Xiao-Yu tells him, before jabbing at something stiff tucked into the lining of his shirt. “Yuan-ge, what’s that?”

Puzzled, Lan Sizhui fumbles at his collar and pulls out what seems to be a piece of white talisman paper. He stares at it in wonder, turning it this way and that to inspect every fold and corner, but it seems to be completely blank. 

“What did we do yesterday?” he asks, after spending a good five minutes trying to recall where the talisman might have come from. “Do you remember, A-Yu?”

“We stayed at home,” Xiao-Yu reminds him. “Yuan-gege marked Qing-jie’s class reports, and I practiced my writing! And Lan-mei slept, but she does that all day anyway.”

Lan Sizhui frowns. 

Was that really all that had happened?

“A-Yuan!” he hears his A-Die call, followed by the unmistakable hiss of a cauldron blazing up in the kitchen. “Oh, no, not the porridge— put it out, Lan Zhan!”

Suddenly, Sizhui is very sure that he must be forgetting something important. 

But with his parents and baby A-Lan close by, and the steady buzz of Xiao-Yu’s voice in his ears, it hardly seems to matter.