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and it's always startling when you call me by my name

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Lan WangJi is used to not noticing Wei WuXian, to spending every ounce of restraint he has in his body to not notice him, his bright smiles, the ticklish sound of his laughter. How striking his eyelashes are, how lush the long length of his hair is as the end of his red-ribboned ponytail swishes against the center of his back. Lan WangJi has been told he’s a beautiful man, has always been, but the way Wei Wuxian moves, ever-animated, makes him sure that the others don’t know what they’re talking about. Lan WangJi is beautiful the same way a well-crafted statue might be: still, expressionless, admired for its craft and not its soul. But Wei WuXian is stunning because of who he is, the life behind it, his spirited essence. It is because he had so much practice at the Cloud Recesses not noticing how breathtaking Wei Wuxian is that he is able to keep a straight, impassive face as Wei WuXian asks him something that makes his heart stutter.

“Lan Zhan, will you pretend to be my lover?”

This question is very close to Lan Zhan, will you be my lover? which Lan WangJi presently pretends is not something he thinks about so deeply it upsets him. Lan WangJi’s chest tightens with how badly he wants to say Yes, Wei Ying, yes, but that would be an answer to a question he didn’t ask. The songbirds sing, their tunes a mocking romantic backdrop to something that isn’t happening, no matter how much Lan WangJi has dreamt of it. The wind whistles through the leaves, and Lan WangJi collects himself by letting his eyes linger shut a second too long between blinks.

Lan WangJi hasn’t seen Wei WuXian for five years since they studied at the Cloud Recesses together, but he’s been attuned to his every coming and going with a degree of dedication likely better spent doing quite literally anything else. Lan WangJi asks his brother for news of Wei WuXian whenever the Yunmeng Jiang sect even vaguely comes up in conversation, and Lan XiChen just smiles knowingly at him and indulges him this. So he knows it’s no coincidence that Lan WangJi has kept himself near enough to Wei WuXian that it’s possible their paths might cross, if Wei WuXian should ever seek him out. The thing is, Lan WangJi never thought he would.

The cicadas sing in Lan WangJi’s silence. Wei WuXian intercepted him on the way back to his inn from a night hunt, and now Wei WuXian stares at him pleadingly, his dark eyes wide and glittering. They’re at the mouth of the forest, Lan Wangji with his guqin strapped to his back and Wei WuXian with his flute hanging from his waist. The warm wind of summer sways the branches behind them and flickers the grass at their feet on this threadbare path. The moon shines above, luminous and watchful and sweet, a comfort illuminating every night hunt. Lan WangJi glances at the moon now for strength. He starts walking, blades of grass brushing up against his ankles, dirt softening his steps. Wei WuXian grabs his arm. Younger Lan WangJi would have given him a scathing look, but current Lan WangJi can’t quite hide how touch-starved he is.

“Lan Zhan?”

“I will do it.”

“What? Really? Hahaha! Great!” Wei WuXian beams at him. “I’ll tell you more on our way back. Where’re you staying?”

“In an inn nearby.”

“Then I’ll just stay with you!” Wei WuXian chirps and lets go of Lan WangJi’s arm, much to his regret. “So I bet you’re curious what the story is behind this, huh?”

Not particularly, as long as I can be close to you. “Mn.”

Wei WuXian laughs. “As articulate as ever, I see.”

“Mn.”

Wei WuXian laughs again. “I missed you.”

You have no idea how much I’ve missed you, Wei Ying. Lan WangJi’s heart clenches.

Wei WuXian takes a big breath. “Okay, I’ll just tell you anyway. It’s a big favor I’m asking, after all. I know you’re not a cut-sleeve.”

Wei Ying, you don’t know anything. Lan WangJi has, in fact, always been a cut-sleeve. Ever since he was young, he’s known that he was aware of boys in a different way, that he wanted more from them than they would ever want from him. He has always been aware of how beautiful men can be, beauty in a way that indicates a desire to have more than a desire to be. He didn’t look at men with the sense of wanting to be like them. He looked at them with the sense that he wanted to have a man be his and in turn belong to him. As an adolescent, this coalesced into his wanting to have Wei Ying in every sense of the word. He wanted to touch, hold, kiss. He wanted to adore, cherish, worship. But...Lan WangJi is what he is. And what he is is bad at being with people in any sense off the word.

He clenches his fist because he can’t tell Wei WuXian how wrong he is, Lan WangJi just doesn’t know how to make the words come out of his mouth, he’s never been able to before, and he won’t be able to now. He doesn’t realize he’s shaking until Wei WuXian takes his hand.

“Do you really hate cut-sleeves that much?”

“That’s not it,” Lan WangJi grits out.  

“What is? You know you’re going to be taken for one as long as you go through with this, right? I wasn’t really expecting the great HanGuang-Jun to stain his impeccable reputation for something like this, you know, but I wouldn’t rather ask anyone else.”

“I don’t hate cut-sleeves.”

“Me neither. It’s not like I am one or anythfing--” and Lan WangJi doesn’t hear the rest of Wei WuXian’s sentence because his chest is stinging with a truth that he already knew but still didn’t want to hear. He’s seen Wei WuXian flirt with girls, looked at Wei WuXian while Wei WuXian was looking at girls, but he thought, maybe, just maybe, he could have space in his boundless heart to like boys, too. In the end, this is just another one of Wei WuXian’s schemes, as shallow as his desire to sneak out of the Cloud Recesses for some jars of Emperor’s Smile. Then this will be all the more precious to have while I can, because it won’t be real at all.

“Lan Zhan?”

“I am here.” I will always be here for you.

“Good. Anyway, it looks like we’re at the inn, this one, right? I’ll tell you more once we’re inside. Let me order the room?” Wei WuXian winks.

It’s such a small thing, but something in Lan WangJi snaps even as he outwardly makes no expression of his inner turmoil. He absently hands Wei WuXian his purse while Wei WuXian orders their rooms. Something in him panics and screams at him that he has to go, now, he has to go far, far away and just forget about Wei WuXian because he’s said it himself, he’s not a cut-sleeve, not like Lan WangJi is. Wei WuXian will never want Lan WangJi the same way Lan WangJi wants him. It won’t happen, and no amount of silent wishing or helpless dreaming will do anything to make it true. Pretending like this, in the end, is only going to wound him so deeply he will never recover.

But Wei WuXian has already ruined him for anyone else.

Wei WuXian hands Lan WangJi back his coin purse, and he tucks it back in his white robes. Wei WuXian takes his hand and tugs him up the stairs.

“Which room will be mine?” Lan WangJi says.

“Oh, Lan Zhan, didn’t you hear? We’re sharing a room. And a bed.” Wei WuXian’s grin is wolfish.

Lan WangJi thinks he’s going to pass out. He doesn’t say anything, just follows Wei WuXian into the room. It’s a small room, humble, but perfectly suitable. There is only one bed that looks just big enough if the both of them are holding each other while they lie down, which makes Lan WangJi full of anticipation for the night at the same time that he thinks, again, after having this, there’s no way he’ll be able to go back to just hoping that this--whatever this is that he has for Wei WuXian will go quietly away and he can just stop thinking about it ever again. Once he knows what it’s like to hold Wei WuXian, to be by his side, a companion, a friend, a--he can’t even think of it, but he won’t be able to return to how it was before. He won’t even be able to look at Wei WuXian without thinking of it.

Wei WuXian pulls both pillows off the bed and puts them on the floor before plopping down on the crimson rug and sitting himself down on one pillow, patting the one closely set beside him. Lan WangJi doesn’t move it farther, so the result is that he and Wei WuXian are sitting with a handspan between them. Lan WangJi likes being this close, this comfortable beside Wei WuXian. From what he can tell, Wei WuXian likes it too. But chances are, Wei WuXian just thinks of it as some sort of--of game, something fun, meaningless. It hurts to know that, but not as much as it feels good and right to finally come one step closer to what he’s wanted since he first met the man, even if it’s not real. It’s real to Lan WangJi, and maybe, if nothing else, through this, he will be able to show Wei WuXian that, so at least--at least Wei WuXian knows how much he means to Lan WangJi. It’s enough that he knows. Lan WangJi tells himself this, and he is almost satisfied.

“What’s on Lan Zhan’s mind? You’ve been really caught up in your thoughts today!”

Lan WangJi doesn’t know how to answer that. “What is on Wei Ying’s mind?”

“You are!” Wei WuXian laughs. “You know why I chose you?”

Because you want to make fun of me. “No.”

“Jiang FengMian is willing to let Jiang Cheng take over as clan leader, but Madame Yu is convinced that I’m going to interfere with it, that I’m going to mess everything up for Jiang Cheng, because she doesn’t know me at all! So she wants to marry me off to some other cultivation sect, but if I have the esteemed HanGuang-Jun as my lover and husband-to-be, then that’ll satisfy her until Jiang Cheng takes over. You just have to keep up the ruse until Jiang Cheng is clan leader, and then you can do whatever you want.”

Except if whatever I want is to be with you. Lan WangJi nods.

Wei WuXian takes Lan WangJi’s hand and holds it, twining their fingers together. Lan WangJi’s hands are slightly bigger than Wei WuXian’s, but they fit well together. His hands are warm.

“So we’ll have to get used to doing things like this and just being close to one another if we’re going to make it convincing.” Wei WuXian gets a mischievous look in his eye. “Kissing, too.”

“I am fine with that.” More than, but Wei WuXian doesn’t really need to know that.

“Good, so--”

“It is bedtime.”

“What? Already? Oh, right, you Gusu Lan types.”

Lan WangJi disrobes for sleep, folding his white robes on the side table while Wei WuXian tosses his black robes on the ground in a crumpled heap. In only their pants and underrobes, they lie down on the bed together. Lan WangJi makes the first careful decision to lie down facing Wei WuXian, who tosses and turns a few times before he settles in under the blanket, also facing Lan WangJi. They just gaze at one another, Lan WangJi finally given the chance to look his fill at Wei WuXian’s clear, dark eyes, not particularly large but particularly expressive. They even seem to glimmer. Right now, Wei WuXian’s eyes are telling Lan WangJi that he is curious and intent on something, though what it is, Lan WangJi has no clue.

“You know,” Wei WuXian whispers, “your eyes are so light they’re like gold. I’ve always liked them.”

“Mn.” He’s always liked them. Lan WangJi has never been prouder of any one of his features.

The bed’s dimensions make it so that they are very close to one another, breathing each other’s air, such that it’d be more comfortable for them lying down if one of them would just make the first move and hold the other, but Lan WangJi wants it too much to make the first move. So it’s Wei WuXian who does, slipping his arms around Lan WangJi suddenly, like doing it quickly will make it so there’s less of a chance he’ll be rejected. Wei WuXian goes from tentatively distant to pressing his face against Lan WangJi’s chest, his arms tight around Lan WangJi’s waist. Lan WangJi can feel Wei WuXian’s breath against him, watches Wei WuXian’s eyes squeezed shut like he’s--afraid, somehow, of this going wrong. Because he wasn’t the one to do it first, Lan WangJi threads his hands through Wei WuXian’s hair, pulling out his red hair ribbon and letting his hair cascade down.

Lan WangJi combs through Wei WuXian’s hair with his fingers. He does this with one hand and strokes up Wei WuXian’s back with the other. He shivers in Lan WangJi’s hold.

“Lan Zhan, that feels good,” he mumbles into Lan WangJi’s chest.

Lan WangJi can feel the warm tenor of his voice. He wants to make him feel good. He knows he could, if Wei WuXian would let him. The thought makes his chest ache, and he stops running his hands through Wei WuXian’s hair to cup the back of his head and hold it to him, petting his hair, continuing to stroke his back. Wei WuXian still hugs him tight, like he’s scared Lan WangJi is going to go somewhere, like he could ever leave something like this. Lan WangJi doesn’t know why he’s acting like this, except he thinks maybe, just maybe, Wei WuXian is just as starved for touch as he is, so he’ll take it from anyone, even another man, even him. Wei WuXian might like teasing him more than he likes teasing anyone else, but Lan WangJi knows, now, that they’re not the same. So he knows not to hope, but--he can’t stop himself from rewriting reality with what he wants it to be.

Lan WangJi knows that right now, Wei WuXian would have settled for anyone, but he rewrites it in his mind to be that Wei WuXian is doing this because he wants him, that just anyone wouldn’t have done it, it had to be him. Because saying that he missed Lan WangJi meant more than just a casual thing, that it meant that he thought about Lan WangJi with the same kind of longing that Lan WangJi thinks of him. In this fantasy, Wei WuXian thinks about his eyes the same way that Lan WangJi thinks about Wei WuXian’s sunlit smile, the way it makes warmth bloom in his chest to be the subject of such affection, even if he twists it to mean something in his mind that he knows is a lie.

Wei WuXian settles down for sleep with a soft sound that breaks Lan WangJi’s heart.

It is going to hurt so much to lose this. It is going to hurt so much.