After they’re safe in the depths of the Burial Mounds, after the first scanty talisman wards have been set around their camp to keep out the ghosts and resentful energy, after Wen Ning’s poor body has been laid out with even more talismans over him, Wen Qing, Grandma Wen, and Sixth Uncle sit down with Wei Wuxian around the campfire as he turns a scrawny rabbit on a spit.
“Don’t give me those faces,” Wei Wuxian says before any of them can speak. “Don’t.”
“You turned away from everything for us,” Wen Qing says, her face grave and serious. “They won’t let you come back from this.”
“I did what I thought was right, that’s all. It’s nothing.”
“Our lives aren’t nothing,” Sixth Uncle says mildly, and Wei Wuxian winces.
“That’s not what I meant. I don’t…” He shakes his head. “It was just the right thing to do. I don’t need to come back if what I’m coming back to is… them. People who’d take out their anger on the innocent and call it vengeance. I don’t want to be a part of that.”
“We owe you a debt,” Grandma Wen says.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, holding up his hands. “No. No, absolutely not. I didn’t do it for payment. You don’t owe me shit. It was just the right thing to do.” He manages a weak little laugh--he’s tired, they’re all tired, and he feels worn thin. His complexion is ashy, and his stomach lurches, nauseated, every time a distant howl rises above the ridges of the deeper part of the Burial Mounds. “I made a promise to someone once--protect the weak and live without regrets. You don’t owe me anything.”
“We do,” she insists. “We owe our lives to you.”
Wen Qing and Sixth Uncle nod in agreement.
“I won’t hear of this,” Wei Wuxian insists. “I won’t.”
“Hear it or not,” Wen Qing says. “ We know. We’ll keep knowing, even if you won’t let us do anything about it.”
Wei Wuxian sighs heavily. “Will you stop talking nonsense like this if I accept some token, then? All I want is your friendship as equals. I don’t want you feeling like you’re indebted to me for your lives. Your lives are your own.”
“What token do you want?”
Wei Wuxian rallies up a saucy smile and winks at her. “How about a kiss on the cheek, eh, Wen-guniang?”
Grandma Wen whaps him upside the head. “Ask seriously, boy.”
“Ow, popo! Ow!” He huffs a sigh. “Fine. Just--let’s just make it the law of surprise, shall we? That’s nice and simple, eh? Leave it up to destiny what will bring us back in balance. Let it drop something of yours into my lap, something small, and we’ll call the debt paid.”
The three of them hesitate, then nod. “The law of surprise,” Wen Qing says. “No going back on it, though, or I’ll have your hide, Wei Wuxian.”
“So scary!” he says, making his eyes wide. “Popo, she’s so scary! Protect me!”
Grandma Wen laughs at him and whaps him again, on the arm this time, and it warms his heart as much as a hug would have. They share the rabbit around, picking bits of meat off the bones and everyone claiming that they’re not that hungry, they only need a bite or so each, until there’s a single stringy leg left that everyone refuses to acknowledge.
Wei Wuxian shoves aside his sorrow, his fear, his anger--they need looking after more than he does. He tells them funny jokes and sweet stories of Yunmeng long into the night, until the moon rises over the tops of the trees. Wen Qing sings a few songs, once his voice runs out, and Sixth Uncle and Grandma Wen hum them along with her.
“Popo,” comes a little voice, and they all stop and turn towards the mouth of the cave where the others are sleeping. A-Yuan comes tottering out, rubbing his eyes with a little fist and frowning.
“Oh, baobei, did we wake you up?” Grandma Wen says, holding out her arms to him as he shuffles closer to the fire.
“I had a bad dream,” A-Yuan says, a wobble in his voice, and all four of them make sympathetic noises.
“Ah, little man, come here, come sit with popo,” she croons, and A-Yuan lets himself be bundled into her arms.
“Do you want to tell us about your bad dream, sweetheart?” Wen Qing asks, brushing a bit of his hair back from his face. He shakes his head.
“Do you want a bit of meat?” Sixth Uncle says, holding out the last rabbit leg. A-Yuan looks skeptically at it for a moment, then nods. He leans back against Grandma Wen’s chest and gnaws sleepily at it.
“Let’s have another song!” Wei Wuxian says. “Do you have a song you like, A-Yuan?”
A-Yuan makes an adorable thinking-hard face and says around a mouthful of meat, “The one about the frogs.”
“Frogs?” Grandma Wen says, looking down at him in surprise. “I don’t know any songs about frogs.”
“I don’t either,” Wen Qing says. She leans a little closer. “Which song is it, A-Yuan?”
“The frog song,” he says. “About frogs.”
“Where did you hear it?” Sixth Uncle asks.
“I made it up,” A-Yuan replies, as if this should be obvious to anyone.
“Ah, what a smart boy!” Wei Wuxian says. “He’ll grow up to be a poet or a scholar, I bet! Will you sing your frog song for us, A-Yuan?”
A-Yuan nods, carefully hands the rest of the rabbit leg to Grandma Wen, and pushes himself out of her lap, wiping his hands on the front of his tunic.
Apparently the frog song has a little dance that goes with it as well--the song itself is nearly incomprehensible, but it’s so unbelievably cute that Wei Wuxian laughs until tears run from his eyes and claps wildly with the others when the song is done, and they all say, “Again, again!”
And A-Yuan grins like summer flowers blooming, and sings it again, and… maybe he gets a little loud on the chorus, but who cares? It’s better at driving off resentful energy than all of Wei Wuxian’s talismans, like strong wind blowing the dust and ashes out of his heart until all that’s left is the ache that never really goes away, overlaid with a fierce happiness to be here, to be alive, to be with these good people.
The chorus of the frog song is, “Hop! Hop! Hop! Hop!” and the dance part is… well, hopping. Wei Wuxian is giggling so hard--they all are--that when A-Yuan’s hopping gets a little too enthusiastic and he tumbles right into Wei Wuxian’s lap, he doesn’t realize what’s just happened for a moment.
The Wens, one by one, stop laughing and stare wide-eyed at him--he doesn’t notice, he’s laughing and hugging the little boy in his arms, brushing the dirt off his knees, smacking a kiss on the top of his head, so by the time he looks up and meets their eyes…
He goes still very suddenly. He looks down at A-Yuan again.
He swallows hard.
“What… what was the exact wording?” he asks them tentatively, his voice very small. “Of what we said?”
“Something of ours,” Grandma Wen says.
“Something small,” Sixth Uncle adds.
“Which falls into your lap,” Wen Qing finishes. A soft smile breaks across her face. “I guess that’s destiny for you. Debt paid, then.”
Speechless for perhaps the first time in his life, Wei Wuxian looks down at the child in his lap. His. His child, by the law of surprise.
Lan Wangji looks down at the child hugging his leg in sheer panic. The boy is crying for his father, and Lan Wangji has never met a child before, and everyone around him is giving him dirty looks and muttering about what a bad father wouldn’t comfort his baby, but Lan Wangji has never met a child before and he doesn’t know how to tell them that he’s not this boy’s father, he’s not anyone’s father, they’ve got it all wrong--
And then Wei Ying appears out of nowhere with a smile like the sun breaking through the clouds, and Lan Wangji’s heart rolls over in his chest, and within a handful of moments, everything is alright again.
“Oh!” he says, in response to Lan Wangji’s pointed inquisitive look at the toddler clinging to Wei Ying’s hand. “This is my child! I gave birth to him!”
Lan Wangji only has an instant to be profoundly confused before Wei Ying bursts out laughing.
“Okay, that was a joke! He is mine by the law of surprise, though!” He turns that beautiful smile downwards. “Right, A-Yuan? You’re my little surprise!”
“I’m not little,” A-Yuan protests, still a little weepy. “I’m a big surprise!”
“Haha, that’s right!” Wei Ying says. He kneels and pinches those impossibly chubby cheeks, pets the boy’s hair, and has him smiling again within moments. Lan Wangji feels a little faint, overcome with some kind of huge feeling he doesn’t know how to name. He swallows hard. He can’t look away from them.
Wei Ying swings the little boy up onto his hip, and the two of them turn their smiles on him--if Lan Wangji were any less controlled, his knees would give out and he’d stagger a step or two, clutching at his heart which is suddenly beating wildly in his chest.
The afternoon whips by, and Lan Wangji feels like he’s stuffing stolen sweets into his mouth. Every moment with Wei Ying is a golden gift, a precious treasure, and somehow A-Yuan makes it even better--it’s impossible to think of sorrows or politics when all their spare attention is occupied with the sweet little boy bouncing around them, grabbing their hands, chattering loudly and cheerfully about everything he sees, squirming his way into Lan Wangji’s lap--
For a few beautiful hours, Lan Wangji doesn’t have to think of anything else. Nothing in the world exists outside Yiling today. It’s perfect.
And even when it starts going bad--the alarm talisman bursting into fire in Wei Ying’s hand, the resentful energy wreaking havoc when they run back to the Burial Mounds, the few terrifying minutes of subduing Wen Ning’s fierce corpse… It’s still perfect, because he is by Wei Ying’s side. It feels good to work alongside him, to protect the weak as they’d promised so long ago.
But all things end.
Wei Ying walks him to the gates. “Ah, Lan Zhan, thank you for today.”
“No need,” he says. “The pleasure was mine.”
“Too polite! Way too formal! We’re friends, aren’t we? Don’t tell me that shit.” They walk in silence for a dozen more yards. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you paid for lunch, didn’t you? Except I said it was my treat.”
“No need,” Lan Wangji says again.
“Yes need!” Wei Ying says, stepping in front of him. “My honor demands it! Let me pay you back.”
Wei Ying shakes a finger at him. “Don’t be like that. You’ve done too much for me over the years--even taking time from your night hunt today to run around with me! How can I live like this, knowing that Lan Zhan is so generous and that he must be thinking me so miserly, huh?”
“Wei Ying is not miserly.”
“That’s right, I’m not! So let me pay you back for lunch, at least.”
“I do not want your money. Or need it.”
Wei Ying puts his hands on his hips and pouts. Lan Wangji wants to clutch his heart and stagger again. “What do you want, then? What can I do?” He grins. “I once asked Wen Qing for a kiss on the cheek as payment for a debt. Is that what you want?” Lan Wangji feels only a moment of sheer panic about what Wei Ying could possibly mean by that--is he offering to kiss Lan Wangji’s cheek?!--before Wei Ying says, “I’ll go ask Wen Qing, I bet she’d be happy to kiss the handsome Hanguang-jun!”
“Wei Ying,” he says, exasperation swamped only by relief.
“I won’t let you leave until I’ve paid you back,” Wei Ying says. “I don’t want you to leave feeling burdened with me.”
“Wei Ying,” he says again.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying answers in the same tone. He levels a serious gaze on him. “Seriously. Do I owe you a favor? Tell me.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t know why he says it--perhaps it’s just the idea of A-Yuan in the back of his head: “The law of surprise, if you must.”
Wei Ying blinks, then grins. “Oh, sneaky! Isn’t it forbidden to gamble in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Zhan? You bad boy.”
“It is not gambling.”
“It’s a little bit gambling. It’s rolling the dice with destiny.”
“It is submitting to the will of fate. Not gambling.”
Wei Ying sighs and rolls his eyes. “Alright, alright, semantics. What do you want, then?”
Lan Wangji thinks--what does he want? He feels so far from Wei Ying these days. They’d once called each other soulmate, and now he has nothing of Wei Ying except a few small treasures he furtively squirreled away when Wei Ying was still at the Cloud Recesses. That portrait that Wei Ying drew of him. A frayed red ribbon. A copy of the precepts in Wei Ying’s surprisingly elegant and gentlemanly handwriting. The bunnies in the meadow. A few other odds and ends. He hoards them all like precious treasure, and the idea of having even just one more little piece to add to his secret collection is tempting.
“Wei Ying is messy,” Lan Wangji begins. “He leaves his things lying around carelessly.”
“Rude, but go on.”
“When next we are together, I’ll take something that Wei Ying leaves behind.” Not only a scrap to remember him with, but a promise that there will be a next time.
Wei Ying scrunches his nose. “That’s gonna be, like, a grubby handkerchief or a crumpled scrap of a talisman or something. You sure you don’t want to word it better than that?”
“No,” Lan Wangji says. “I need no more payment than that.”
“Well, whatever. It’s between you and fate now, I guess.”
Lan Wangji leaves the Burial Grounds, feeling like he’s leaving half his heart behind, and almost entirely forgets about this promise or its wording. He remembers from time to time, on the rare occasions when he allows himself to look at his little collection of mementoes. He wonders when he will see Wei Ying again, and in what circumstances, and whether Wei Ying might leave behind something for him on purpose--another portrait, perhaps, or a letter. A ribbon that smells like his hair.
When the Wen remnants are killed, Lan Wangji runs to the Burial Mounds to look for Wei Ying, and finds only A-Yuan, feverish and terribly weak. He needs medical attention, he will die without it--Lan Wangji does the only thing he can think of and carries him back to the Cloud Recesses at great speed.
And on the worst day of his life, wracked with grief, unable to see anything but the horrible image of Wei Ying slipping out of his grasp and falling, falling, falling, he stumbles into the Jingshi and sinks numbly to his knees in front of the cabinet where he keeps his little treasures of Wei Ying--proof that he was real, that he existed... That Lan Wangji had, however briefly, a soulmate.
Wei Ying fell into the lava. There won’t even be bones to bury. These scraps are all that’s left.
When next we are together, I’ll take something that Wei Ying leaves behind.
A throb of feeling tears through him like a scream and he’s on his feet again before he knows it, running--it’s prohibited in the Cloud Recesses, but what does it matter anymore, what does anything matter--running to the infirmary and shoving his way past the physicians who squawk with alarm--
A-Yuan lays on a neat little cot with a damp cloth across his forehead, asleep. He’s still sick--there’s a little bowl of medicine on the table next to him, but his color is better and his hands, when Lan Wangji touches them, aren’t as scorching hot as they’d been when he’d found him. He’s alive. He’s breathing.
Something Wei Ying leaves behind .
More than a scrap left, then. More than a grubby handkerchief. A windfall.
Lan Wangji sits by the bed and holds A-Yuan's little hands, silently begging him to get well and grow strong. Far too soon, his Uncle's men come to drag him away.
Lan Zhan is adorable when he’s drunk, but he’s even more adorable when he’s hungover, all squinty and distressed-looking, and Wei Wuxian tries valiantly not to think about how he wants to kiss the furrows out of Lan Zhan’s knotted brows.
“Last night,” Lan Zhan rasps, a little wild-eyed. “Did I…?”
“You were an animal,” Wei Wuxian pouts, leaning forward on the table with his chin in his hand, twirling a bit of hair around one finger. “A total beast. You were so rough with me! I didn’t know you felt like that, Lan Zhan, I didn’t have any idea you wanted to do those things to me!”
Lan Zhan looks even more alarmed. He’s stiff all over. His mouth goes a little soft in dismay. Probably nobody has a mouth that soft looking--is that a weird thing to think about your best friend? Well, maybe. But who could blame Wei Wuxian, anyway? Just look at Lan Zhan, he’s really too beautiful, anybody would think about how soft his mouth probably is. “Wei Ying, I…”
He looks so frightened and anxious, and Wei Wuxian is so unused to seeing actual emotion on Lan Zhan’s handsome little face that he can’t bear to keep teasing him any longer. He laughs aloud. “Lan Zhan! You just dragged me around the town and I had to pull you out of all sorts of mischief! You tried to steal chickens for me, and we did some minor vandalism, and you told me that you liked…” a pause, because maybe he can bear to tease just a little bit more; Lan Zhan’s face goes a little pale, “...bunnies!”
If Lan Zhan were anyone else, Wei Wuxian would swear he’d slump with relief.
“You were a very bad boy,” Wei Wuxian says, pouting again. “I had to babysit you all night!”
“I apologize,” Lan Zhan says, far too serious.
“You’ll have to make it up to me.”
Lan Zhan nods immediately, looking wretchedly embarrassed. “Yes. Of course.”
“Aw, don’t look so sad! Lan Zhan! You really ought to figure out when people are teasing you! It’s too easy, I can’t help it!”
“Nevertheless. I will make it up to Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes a little. “I’m not about to extort you for anything, Lan Zhan, you’re my soulmate! How about…” He taps his finger on his chin thoughtfully and gives Lan Zhan a sly look. “You really want to make it up to me? I was just teasing you but… Truly?”
Lan Zhan nods, miserable.
“So honorable,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “So upstanding and righteous, Hanguang-jun! Alright. For the terrible, enormous inconvenience of having to run around making mischief with you all night, during which time I definitely didn’t have even a little bit of fun at all, I will ask for… Mmm, how about…” There were bottles and bottles of Emperor’s Smile under the floorboards of the Jingshi the last time they were there, more than a dozen of them in their beautiful snowy porcelain. Wei Wuxian thinks it’s high time he claimed what is clearly rightfully his. He grins and leans forward, lowering his voice to be a little conspiratorial. “Something you’ve been keeping faithfully just for me?”
Lan Zhan jerks a little and his eyes go wide like a startled rabbit, frozen in alarm. “The law of surprise?”
“Eh?” Wei Wuxian bursts out laughing. “I guess the way I worded it, it did sound a bit like that, huh? We can do that instead if you like, but I meant it more as a hint--something really specific… It’s small, it’s white, it’s tied with a pretty ribbon…”
A strange look has come across Lan Zhan’s face, and a moment later it resolves into determination. “The law of surprise,” he says firmly. “Something I have kept faithfully just for Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian studies him, puzzled. “I just meant a couple bottles of Emperor’s Smile, Lan Zhan, I know you have some--”
Wei Wuxian pouts at him.
Lan Zhan relents immediately. “Wei Ying may have those as well. A gift, not repayment. But…” He trails off, looking away.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re being too mysterious!” he cries, flopping down onto the table to put his chin on his folded arms. “What else have you been keeping for me?” He grins. “Is it that book of dirty pictures I gave you? I suppose that could be small and white and tied with a ribbon of sorts. It had a twine binding, as I recall.”
“Tell me!” he whines. “Tell me, tell me!”
Lan Zhan hesitates, opens his mouth--
They’re interrupted by a knock at the door, and the idea of pursuing this line of inquiry goes right out of Wei Wuxian’s head.
He’s not even embarrassed of how he sobs on Sizhui--his child, his little one, alive! Alive, and safe, and beloved all this time. He weeps, and smiles so much it hurts, and weeps again, and then he has to sit in the grass and bawl while he blows his nose noisily into Lan Zhan’s proffered handkerchief and Sizhui pats his shoulder, also sniffling a little around his own dazzling smile.
“Do you remember how I got you?” Wei Wuxian says thickly, wiping his soggy face on his sleeve. Lan Zhan makes a disapproving noise and hands him a… a second handkerchief, what the fuck is wrong with this man, why is Wei Wuxian in love with someone who carries plural handkerchiefs? Absolutely intolerable. “I don’t remember if I ever told Lan Zhan.”
“You did,” Lan Zhan says.
“I don’t remember everything,” Sizhui says, laughing. “I was little, nobody remembers everything from when they’re little!”
“Fair,” Wei Wuxian says, scrubbing tears off his face and snot from his nose. “I don’t remember everything from last week, so.”
“Or this morning,” Sizhui says brightly, and Wei Wuxian has to swear a little and swipe half-heartedly at him, which Sizhui dodges with a laugh.
“Lan Zhan, you’ve done a bad job raising him!” Wei Wuxian wails. “He's come out rude and full of sass! No respect for his elders!”
“Mn. I felt Wei Ying would have wanted him raised with spirit.”
Wei Wuxian buries his face in the damp handkerchief again and just… takes a minute to be overwhelmed with--with love, and joy, and sorrow, and gratitude.
“So how did he get me, Hanguang-jun?” Sizhui asks.
“The same way that I did,” Lan Zhan says. “The law of surprise.”
Wei Wuxian lifts his head on a sharp inhale and screeches, “Fuck!”
“Do not swear,” Lan Zhan and Sizhui say in unison.
“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!”
“Wei Ying’s claim was whatever next fell into his lap. Mine was something that he left behind,” Lan Zhan said.
Wei Wuxian throws the handkerchief at him. It flutters to the ground between them, ineffectual. “Lan Zhan!!!”
Sizhui’s laughing. “So I’m a child surprise twice over?”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian howls.
“Three times,” Lan Zhan says calmly. “He is shouting because he just realized.”
“You bastard, Lan Zhan, you--you’re the worst! Something you kept just for me--Lan Zhan, I meant the Emperor’s Smile hidden in the Jingshi!”
“You said small, and white, and tied with a ribbon,” Lan Zhan says, his voice still perfectly even. He picks up the handkerchief and shakes the dirt and grass off of it, tucking it back in his pouch with no care for the tears and snot all over it. “Wei Ying must learn to be specific.”
Wei Wuxian hurls a dry leaf at him with all his strength. This too falls uselessly to the ground. “You did it on purpose!” he howls.
“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees. There’s a whisper of a smile around his mouth, but he’s lowered his eyes in a very adorable show of modesty. It’s outrageous. Wei Wuxian is outraged. He thinks he’s so tricky and cunning, does he? Wei Wuxian is going to kiss all that smugness right off this asshole’s face. “I wanted to give him back to you.”
Wei Wuxian buries his face in his hands and dissolves into tears again. Sizhui cuddles up against his side, leaning his cheek on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and curling his arms around his waist.
Lan Zhan hands him another handkerchief. He’s really the worst. Wei Wuxian is going to marry him so hard.