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in case of fire, break glass

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Author’s note

This is a CQL-heavy multicanon post-canon mashup, where I have made a lot of assumptions and pushed some of the characters’ ages for increased clarity. Basic assumptions include the following:

  1. Mo Xuanyu was about 24 when he cast Sacrifice Summon. His mother was 16 when he was born.
  2. Mo Xuanyu went to Koi Tower at about age 14, which would have been 6 years after WWX died, and stayed until just after Jin Guangshan’s death, when Jin Guangyao kicked him out, say, five years later. He was at Mo Village for five years after that. 
  3. Wei Wuxian was barely 15 when he met Lan Wangji for the first time.
  4. Wei Wuxian was around 20 years old when he died at Nightless City, a la CQL.
  5. 16 years passed between Nightless City and the Summoning spell, so Lan Wangji was about 36 when Sacrifice Summon was cast.  
  6. Xue Yang was younger than he appeared in CQL but older than he was in the novel, about 4 years younger than Our Heroes. The original Chang clan massacre happened, but *waves hand* differently.
  7. They definitely got married, as often as possible, and at the start of this story, have been officially married for about 15 years.
  8. “Yin Iron” I’m calling “Stygian Iron” because it makes things more consistent with the tiger amulet and “Stygian” has a more sinister feel to it in English. I’ve seen multiple variations in the translations.
  9. I make a lot of assumptions for convenience about where the various pieces are, especially the mysterious fourth piece. I played off the Xue family name for the final answer I came to. 
  10. The Dancing Goddess, Goddess Statue, Dancing Fairy, Dancing Peri… my impression is that this translates inconsistently. Dancing Goddess implies more volition and was narratively useful.
  11. I’ve made some assumptions about where places are. If you think I’m wrong, just consider this an AU where those places are where I think they are. I spent way too much time trying to find more information.

I have named many unnamed characters. Some of those names I borrowed (with permission) from Sami’s And Time Is But a Paper Moon and sequels. Specifically, Lan Zhan’s mother is Tang Lijuan (and her backstory is assumed to be similar to Sami’s Coming Up With Love (But It's So Slashed And Torn .)  Jin Zixuan’s mother, likewise, is Duan Ai. 

Any differences are obvious within the text. You do not have to read those stories in order to understand this one, but you should read that whole series anyway, this is DEFINITELY influenced by the series, and I consider it an homage. (Seriously, I’ve read And Time Is But a Paper Moon four five many times. Our premises are different in many ways, but the spirit is similar, and I’d be lying if I said she didn’t influence me. I did talk with her before posting, she knows this exists and that I’m borrowing names and concepts. This is as close as I’m ever likely to get to writing a fanfic of a fanfic, I stg.)

Names I didn’t borrow but invented from name lists: Second Young Lady Mo is Mo Xiuying, her mother is a servant, Liu Yun, not Madam Mo’s mother, hence some of the family tension. Most of the characters who are close to Mo Xiuying call her Ying-jie, as distinct from Wei Ying, who starts out as A-Ying and then is called A-Xian by most of the big “sisters”.

Wen Qing and Wen Ning’s parents are Wen Jinjing (mother) and Wen Zemin (father). They are doctors, as are most of the cultivating Wens from that part of the family, including Wen Yuan’s parents.

Anywhere that doesn’t jibe with the book, the show, the donghua, or the manhua, just consider this an AU. I’ve closed some plotholes and skirted some inconsistencies, erring on the side of “what makes this story work better here” in all cases. (For example, the show claims that Wei Wuxian met LWJ 16 years before 2nd Dafan mountain, but also that the summoning spell was 16 years after Nightless City. I’m going with the timing that makes sense to me. The book says 13 years, but also takes more than the time difference to get from meeting to WWX’s death at the Burial Mounds. Also, I didn’t really like any of the explanations for the monster in Biling Lake, so I made my own.)

Most of the non-canon spells, devices, etc. are from my own head.

This is a time-travel, low-conflict (I’m playing limbo with the “how low can we go” conflict level) fixit. It is a denouement for after you’ve seen the show and maybe some of the other versions. It is not quite “everyone lives/no one dies” but it IS “everyone who should live, lives, and then some.” Lots of second chances happen for those who might have the capacity to benefit from them, given less shitty lives. 

One of the side effects of time travel for these two is that while they cannot bring their golden cores with them, the mere act of pushing their spirits “up the hill” of time (downhill is the easy direction, i.e. moving forward. They move back up a steep metaphorical hill) means that when they drop into their bodies they are carrying a tremendous amount of spiritual energy along with their spiritual cognitions, and the body’s natural place to hold that is the nascent dantian. 

Xue Yang, Meng Yao, and Yu Ziyuan get second chances, because my working hypothesis was that if the story changed at X point, it would fundamentally alter their worldviews. This does not mean I think they “deserved” second chances, or that I find any of their canon behavior remotely laudable, but simply that given who Wei Wuxian is and the decisions they make, he would 100% try to help them not become abusive, murderous, awful people.  Because his capacity for forgiveness is damn near infinite.

This story started out as an extremely flippant and silly set of bullet points. If you really want to see them, ask, but there’s a lot of them. I have included them after the main story. The point is that while I have taken the writing seriously with a reasonable amount of due diligence and proofreading, the underlying plot is deliberately ridiculous. 

Remember, kids, time travel is very difficult and linguistically awkward and no one should do it. (And yet somehow I have written four time travel stories.) I think my assumptions about time travel will become clear from the text, and make about as much sense as the magic system does. (IOW, it may be a lot of handwaving nonsense, but it’s canon-typical handwaving nonsense.)

Oh, and yes, this starts out with major character deaths, but it is canon-typical major character death, which means they get better. 

For a full list of relationship terms and titles used in this fic, please see Reference for Modao Zushi Writers: Chinese terms

I have mostly not added names for major canon characters whose birth names are not given, but some of the minor ones, for example, Cangse Sanren, NEEDED more given how much they show up here. Should be clear in-text. 

As usual, blanket permission for fanart, translations, and podfics. Please do send me a link on tumblr or twitter if you make something for this story.

Because it’s come up on other fics, if you see a fic that reads with similar plot points to mine, please do not @ me to tell me someone is “copying my ideas.” This is fanfic. This one is fanfic of fanfic. We are all borrowing ideas, characters, etc. As long as people are not straight up copy/pasting my words, I’m fine. It’s kind to give credit if I inspire you. I try to do the same. 

I do not pretend to historical or cultural accuracy here. This one is very much “for funzies”. 

I started writing August 14, and finished everything as of August 28, 2020. Beta reading was a four day process. Total word count of the main story is about 50k. 


It feels like some bizarre joke, as it happens. 

They’re tired from a night hunt, and the donkey* is tired and there is a town not too far away, but the path there is a narrow one on the side of a hill, and the animal misses a step in the deepening autumn twilight.
*not L’il Apple, but a descendant they’ve dubbed Haitang because he is if anything, smaller and more sour than his noble ancestor.

It all just happens too fast.

Wei Wuxian is riding on the donkey, drifting, almost asleep, when the world drops out from under him. He doesn’t even have time to cry out. Lan Wangji, who is leading the donkey, is slowed by fatigue and the complete lack of warning before the lead slips out of his hand.

Once he realizes his husband and their donkey are tumbling down the steep, rocky scree of the hillside, Lan Wangji flies without thought, down, trying to catch them.

They all reach the bottom at the same time. In the moonlight, there is a sheen of darkness over his husband’s cheek when he gently turns Wei Ying over.

He calls light to his sword without thinking about it and flinches at the amount of blood. It is too much for anyone, and far too much for Wei Ying. 

“Lan Zhan…” Wei Ying’s voice is so quiet. “Can’t move… how bad?”

Bones move under his hand, where it holds his husband off the loose rocks. 

“Bad,” Lan Zhan says.

“Feels… I’m dying,” Wei Ying says.

“Not acceptable,” Lan Zhan replies. 

“Talisman,” Wei Ying says, so quietly, each word a struggle. “Pouch. Blue ink. Circle paper.”

Normally sorting through talismans in a pouch would require either an act of will for the right one or flipping through many similar sheets of paper. There is only one round talisman. The ink shimmers oddly, though it might be tears distorting his vision.

“What is it?” Lan Zhan asks.

“I can go back,” Wei Ying says. “Fix it. Only works at the moment of death.”

It lands then, that his husband is dying, again.  

Lan Wangji finds this completely unacceptable and begins pouring spiritual energy into the man in his arms. 

“Won’t work,” Wei Ying says, softly. “Just let me go, the talisman will take me back, this won’t have happened.”

“Take me with you,” Lan Zhan says.

“You’re not dying. I don’t think it will work for someone who is alive. I have to activate it… with blood… last moment.” The words cost him, and he coughs.

“You have not moved your arms since you fell,” Lan Zhan says. “It would be better not to die.”

He pushes his energy into Wei Ying, pushes, and pushes, and as long as he does, his husband keeps breathing, his heart keeps beating. 

He feels himself weakening. He was already tired before the fall, he might keep this up for a week with full reserves, but his reserves are at low ebb. One thought keeps circling in his mind. Not again. Never again.

They’ve talked about it, the fact that in the decade and a half they’ve been together, Wei Wuxian has aged and Lan Wangji has not. That he could, theoretically, reach his immortality in this lifetime, but that it holds no interest for him without his husband. That they do not know if Wei Wuxian’s soul will reincarnate after all that has been done to it. 

This, perhaps, was his husband’s answer to it, an emergency option to allow him one more chance. 

But it is an untestable supposition, and in a life that has been filled with self-denial, Lan Wangji is unwilling to deny himself Wei Ying. He has known for years that his husband’s death would be his own. He’s tried it the other way and didn’t like it*. 

*This is an understatement. The world was intolerable without Wei Ying in it. He survived only because he did not die.  

He pushes energy into Wei Ying with a purpose, and the purpose is simple. They will go together, or they will not go at all. With one exhausted arm, he picks up his husband’s hand, and wraps the bloody fingers around the talisman, and then wraps his own hand around both, and pushes everything he has left through all of them before he falls forward and collapses across his husband’s body.

Their last breaths come at the same moment. As the sun comes up, the talisman flares, and the world stops.

Chapter 1

They both become aware of each other at the same time, hanging there in a static, blushing dawn. Their bodies are below, the donkey sprawled nearby, a strange array gleams around their earthly remains.

Lan Wangji becomes aware that the translucent form of his husband appears to be talking, but he can’t hear him.

Moving closer takes only a thought, and as their edges overlap and blur together, he can suddenly hear Wei Ying in full problem-solving mode. 

“… successfully separated body and spiritual cognition, that’s good, but can’t communicate… that’s bad.”

“We can communicate,” Lan Zhan tells him, and it’s not quite speech, though his mouth moves, and it’s not quite not speech. But it is communication, and maybe, just maybe whatever they’ve done will be enough if they can still talk.

Wei Ying’s shade beams at him. Although, shade is too dark a word. They’re not ghosts. They’ve both seen ghosts, this isn’t that. This is the shimmering light of their fundamental selves.

“Did you think about when you wanted to go to when you activated it?” Wei Ying asks.

“Just activated. The method was unclear.”

Wei Ying frowns, and then sighs. “I was just going to go back and maybe not go up the hill.”

The world goes dusk dark, and they are at the foot of the trail, hanging over their past selves discussing the idea of going on or camping out. 

“I want a bed,” the earlier Wei Wuxian whines from the back of the donkey.

Wei Ying winces. Above, Lan Zhan says, “I expected you would want to go back further.”

And they are hanging in the sky above Nightless City, watching Wei Wuxian clothed in darkness, searching for his sister on the field of battle while a flute plays from other shadows.

Wei Ying shakes his head and Lan Zhan hears him say, “No, no, no, never this, if I’m going farther back, I want something better.”

And with that, they hang over Lotus Pier, a Lotus Pier of long ago, covered in ripe pods and boats and it is unburnt, has never been burnt, and the children giggling as they run into the water are an impossibly young Jiang Wanyin, followed by Wei Wuxian and half a dozen shidis. 

“Stop,” Lan Zhan says, but Wei Ying is staring, mouth open, and they aren’t moving anywhere. Lan Zhan tries again. “We must reflect. Is there a time limit?”

“What?” Wei Ying asks, looking at him. They are still touching, have not stopped touching.

“Is the opportunity for exploration finite?” Lan Zhan asks.

Wei Ying concentrates for a moment, and the scene before them freezes. One of the shidis is midair, hanging. 

“I don’t think so. We’re not in time right now. Just, looking at it? I think we can rejoin it, if we choose, but only by joining our own bodies. Other than that, how would the time we spend this way be limited? There is no candle burning.”

“We should investigate,” says Lan Wangji. “It is a serious matter to alter fate. It would be rash to do so heedlessly.”

“Can we go forward from where we died?” Wei Ying asks him. 

And the question is enough to put them at that frozen dawn. They try, but cannot move forward from that moment. 

“That’s… awkward,” Wei Ying says finally, looking over their bodies. Lan Zhan is sprawled on top of him. It is undignified, but, in retrospect, probably not a position that would surprise anyone who knew them well. 

“How far back can we go?” Lan Zhan asks, and he is hanging, alone, over his mother, and it is very messy and he is shocked at how slimy his newborn self looks and then he realizes his husband is not with him and panics and thinks “WEI YING” with his whole being and he is there, with his husband, in a hut, hanging over the inlaws he never knew as they wrap an infant Wei Ying in a red blanket. 

They are overlapping, and Wei Ying says, “You disappeared and I couldn’t find you.”

“I was born before you.”

“I saw myself take my first breath,” Wei Ying says. “Who knew babies started out so messy?” 

“Agreed,” Lan Zhan says. “I saw myself, too. You were not there. I… panicked.”

“How did you get here?” Wei Ying asks.

“I thought about you.” This is insufficient. Lan Zhan elaborates. “I focused myself on Wei Ying. Completely.”

“So if we get separated, we can find each other again,” Wei Ying says. 


Wei Ying’s hand comes up to touch Lan Zhan’s face, but they have no physicality, just this translucent idea of their own shapes, and he pouts. “We should figure this out. I can’t stand not being able to touch you.”

Lan Zhan looks at him and says, “We are overlapping.” But it is not touch. They are, for now, beyond touch.

“How far back do you want to go?” Wei Ying asks. “How much do you think we can change?”

“I want to understand how things happened,” Lan Zhan says. “We have all the time we need.”

“Which things?” Wei Ying asks.

“All of them,” Lan Zhan says. “Only want to do this once.”

“Before Jiang Cheng lost his core,” Wei Ying says, and they are hanging over a Meishan street, watching Wen soldiers walk toward Wei Wuxian.

“Before I lost my father,” Lan Zhan says, and they are over Cloud Recesses, watching Wen soldiers break through the wards.

“I wonder what started the Wen aggression?” Wei Ying says, and they are in a place neither of them has ever been, but they recognize the Wen architecture. They watch Wen Ruohan pull a book off a shelf, and hover close enough over him to read the words in it.

“When is this?” Wei Ying asks. “How old was I?” and they hang over the streets of Yiling, watching his five-year-old self steal a bun off a cart. 

“How old was I?” Lan Zhan asks, and they are at Cloud Recesses, and he is asking Lan Huan when they can see Mother again, and Lan Huan gives a date and then tells him it is two weeks away, and he thinks about the cliff, and thinks about it being empty, and thinks about Wei Ying being with him, and they are there, between waterfalls, mist passing through them.

“I know how this works,” they both say. 

They know part of how it works. They can think about a place and be there. They try separating, and they can do it, but it’s terrifyingly alone. There is a subjective sense of time, to a point, where if they separate, and they return, it feels to them like a similar amount of time has passed. They appear to be bound by the timelines of their own souls, but not by the location of their bodies. 

“Will we be able to rejoin our bodies?” Lan Zhan asks. “When we are ready?”

Wei Ying shrugs. “I believe so. If I’m right, we should carry with us a large amount of spiritual energy. The weight of years unwound.”

“It will have to go somewhere,” Lan Zhan says, thoughtful. 

Wei Ying taps his ethereal nose. “Energy naturally flows to the dantian.”

“The golden core…” Lan Zhan says. “Will you…”

“You haven’t brought yours with you,” Wei Ying says. “If you will, I probably will. We can only wait and see. If we are young enough, we can form new ones. I wish I could take notes.” He is startled when ghostly paper and ink and brushes manifest near him. 

Lan Zhan wonders if he can affect the world, but when he tries to move a tiny pebble, he fails. He knows that spirit can manifest as energy in ways that can influence the world, but they clearly don’t have the trick of it yet. He tables the idea because there are other, more important things to concern themselves with.

After a discussion about whether the rule against eavesdropping applies, they study. Wei Ying makes lists of things that happened that could have gone better, things he is curious about, things which might be changed. Is it eavesdropping if they hope to change everything? To make those conversations never happen?

It becomes obvious very quickly that changing things at moments of stress would be very difficult. Preventing Jiang Cheng’s capture in Meishan would be very difficult given how very many Wen troops are in the city. Could they prevent Lotus Pier’s destruction? That would require going much, much farther back. And clearly, given a choice between “stopping an invading army” and “making it so the army never invades,” the latter option would be preferable. 

Saving the Wen branch family is another problem with deep roots. They follow Wen Ruohan for a long time, and it comes down to “He found documents leading to the Stygian Iron. He stole the Stygian Iron from the Dancing Goddess.” That started the destruction of Wen Qing and Wen Ning’s family. Of A-Yuan’s parents. Lan Zhan was six, and about to lose his mother when Wen Ning lost part of his cognition. They can see it so clearly as it happens, hanging back out of her reach; though they’re not sure even the Dancing Goddess could reach them now, they don’t want to take a chance. 

Wei Ying thinks of his family at Lotus Pier and they follow the Jiang family for a long time. 

He always felt like his presence was the reason everything was difficult between Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, was the reason Jiang Cheng struggled. 

He wasn’t wrong, although watching, he also realizes that it wasn’t his fault.

He sees himself, the tiny child, too tiny for his age, and how warm they were. He sees Sect Leader Yao come and visit and start a gossip that poisons everything. It makes him curious. He knows the man was always a gossip, but was it deliberate?

Wei Ying is unable to go to the time in which he was dead, which raises interesting theological questions. Lan Zhan limits his forays in that time period. He was there. Most of it doesn’t matter. 

They learn how their parents died, each of them. They do not watch every moment, because they can’t, but they discover that they can watch for each other, explain it at a remove. 

They learn that Lan Zhan’s mother killed herself rather than to submit to his father, that his father was drunk at the time, a rare lapse. 

They watch his father carve “Do Not Drink Alcohol” onto the stone wall and then go back into seclusion. They do not watch his end.

They learn that Cangse Sanren wanted above all to find a way to heal the Burial Mounds. That she herself was orphaned by it, then taken by Baoshan Sanren. That she thinks that if something happens to her, her son will go to her place of safety. That nothing her husband says will sway her from looking for the break. She won’t go in, she promises.

They learn that his parents had found the break, that they didn’t go in, that they died anyway. They see them attacked, and he can’t watch. They go back to his small self, not yet five years old, staying with a granny who died not long after. That no one really noticed the little boy who finally came out in search of food. 

“No more,” Wei Ying says. “Why didn’t Baoshan Sanren find me?”

They find Baoshan Sanren, who senses them. She asks the air, “Did I save you?” and puts a paperman on the table.

Lan Zhan is confused but Wei Ying gets a very concentrated look on his face, takes a translucent paperman out, puts it down on the paperman on the table, and then both of the papermen stand up, merging. Slowly, ungracefully, it shakes its head.

“You are choosing when to change your past,” she says. It is not a question.

The paperman nods.

Lan Zhan is perplexed by Wei Ying’s ability to affect the paperman.

“You used these often, did you not, A-Ying?” she asks.

The paperman nods. 

There is a guqin in the corner. Lan Zhan understands now. The guqin that shimmers in front of him is part of him, and he lets it overlay the real one. Then he plays. It sounds like the other half of Inquiry, the plucking faint but there. 

“I’m sorry, Bright One, I don’t remember your language well enough, but I hear you. Others will hear you, too.”

Lan Zhan knows where he needs to go in order to be understood. 

It could be months, it could be years of subjective time, that they follow the paths of their personal tragedies, looking for the root causes. 

They look at the wider tragedies, too. They follow Wen Zhulio back to Zhao Zhulio, and watch Wen Ruohan secretly rip the man’s life apart just so that he could “rescue” the man and “earn” his obligation and loyalty. 

They follow Jin Guangyao closely, all the way back to his early childhood. They watch a sweet boy hurt over and over and over again until he learns to hate. 

They watch Xue Yang, which is worse. 

It is easier than it might otherwise be to do this without their bodies, as their emotional responses are dulled. 

They talk about how far back they should go. Too far, and they might not be able to hold the information they need to hold in tiny bodies. It would be worse than pointless to go back and lose the knowledge they’ve gained. 

“Maybe I could save my mother,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying decides, on the spot, that this must happen.

“I’m afraid to even try to save my own parents,” Wei Ying says, because to try and fail would break him, and it is too hard to imagine that he might be believed. Four-year-olds are so rarely believed. If his own father could not stop his mother from trying, why would he be able to?

This, in the end, crystallizes their plans.