The first time that Lan Wangji confesses, it's not with words. It’s whispered between the strings of a makeshift guqin , threaded within the soft notes swallowed in the darkness of Xuanwu Cave.
It's in the way his voice trembles and how his fingers burn wherever they touch the strings. He doesn't realize it's a confession until Wei Wuxian is asleep and the final note echoes in the hollowness of the cave and it finally, finally hits him --
The love he feels, how it deep it runs, it scares him more than anything else he's ever felt. It rises in his chest, thick and heavy, and he chokes on it as he stares down at his sleeping figure in silence.
I love him, he tries it out, but it feels crooked and imperfect and not how he expects love to feel. I love him?
Wei Wuxian's expression shifts in his sleep, brows furrowing slightly and lips parting around a silent gasp. Something about it is incredibly vulnerable, which Lan Wangji has never seen on him before. It tugs at something in his heart and shatters it into pieces.
Gently, as if scared to break something fragile, he brushes his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s hair. His touch soothes him almost immediately, and whatever it was that broke inside of him crumbles into dust at the sight of it.
I love him .
A few hours later -- Lan Wangji loses count -- he hears Wei Wuxian mumble something in his sleep. It sounds a little bit like his name, and for a moment he lets himself pretend it is. He continues to thread his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s hair as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, even though his legs are cramped from sitting still for so long as to not disturb him. It’s better than the pain from before, anyway.
I love him, he thinks, and then he swears to never play that song for anyone else.
The second time he confesses, it comes out wrong.
It's rushed and frantic and senseless, because nothing makes sense right now. Because Wei Wuxian is alive, when only minutes ago he had known him to be dead. Because he held his cold sword in his hands and he had felt it — locked up, never to be used again.
Wei Wuxian wears black, but it suits him in the same way the red curls around his body like blood does. It suits him in a way that shows his fierceness and makes him untouchable. But it doesn't suit him in the way the Gusu robes did. He can’t figure out why.
He wants to see Wei Wuxian wear those robes. Hell, he would even settle for him in the Jiang sect robes. But not these ones. These ones are drenched in blood.
"Come to Gusu with me," he says.
It isn’t what he wants to say. He regrets it the instant sees Wei Wuxian's face twist slightly, like he's tasted something bitter.
It isn’t what he wants to say, but there are a million things he means to say -- I love you, I thought you were dead, please do not let me see you die again -- but it is not his place.
Neither, he realizes belatedly, is this. And Jiang Cheng tells him so:
"Wei Wuxian is a part of the Jiang sect. It is not your place to discipline him."
It's not discipline, he wants to say, it's nothing close. It's protection.
But the words never make it past his throat, because as they always do, they fail him when he needs them most.
Wei Wuxian doesn't say anything, and something about that burns more fiercely than anything that could have been said.
The third time Lan Wangji confesses is an accident. As far as confessions go, this is by far the worst of them.
It starts with Wei Wuxian blindfolded and relaxed against a tree, infuriatingly vulnerable -- as if asking somebody to come and take advantage of him. Because deep down, he believes he's untouchable.
Something about it infuriates Lan Wangji, unreasonably so. He does not remember approaching the tree, he does not remember grabbing Wei Wuxian by the wrists and pinning him against the trunk or what pushed him to do so.
He does remember the way Wei Wuxian does not fight back; he struggles, but not seriously. If Wei Wuxian really wanted free, it would not be difficult to do so. But he doesn’t.
Why don't you fight back? Lan Wangji growls at him in his mind as he tightens his grasp on his wrists. Why don't you push me away?
The distance between them is minimal.
Push me away , he begs.
Wei Wuxian does not push him away.
He waits, as if taunting him closer. Lan Wangji can feel the warmth of Wei Wuxian’s breath against his lips. It shatters his self-control them.
The distance between them, as much as it may have waxed and waned, is so thin he could break it.
So he does.
Lan Wangji kisses Wei Wuxian as if he can show him what he feels rather than tell him. He kisses him until he feels Wei Wuxian stop weakly struggling and go completely still beneath him. His easy defeat makes something bitter and angry well up in Lan Wangji’s chest.
As far as confessions go, this one feels like a lie.
He does not find the answer that he wants in Wei Wuxian's lips or in his stunned silence as he pulls away. He does not give himself the chance to, either -- he flees, as he always does, gets as far away as he can. He's long gone by the time Wei Wuxian manages to catch his breath.
It feels like cheating and it feels like stealing, because really, that’s what it is. The burn of Wei Wuxian's lips on his lasts for the rest of the day. He ignores Wei Wuxian's taunts and teases, later on, because he doesn’t deserve that kind of closeness.
If he knew, he thinks bitterly. If he knew what I’d done, he would not approach me so casually.
Later that night, he can still feel the ghost of Wei Wuxian’s lips on his as he washes his face, no matter how hard he tries to scrub it away. It clings to his skin even as he falls asleep and dreams of wrists pinned to tree limbs and blindfolds and wicked smiles.
The next morning, he wakes up vomiting. It takes a week to recover, and even then, just thinking about it makes him nauseous.
As far as confessions go, this one is by far the worst of them.
The fourth time, Wei Wuxian interrupts him.
Lan Wangji goes to the Jiang sect, searching -- for what, he doesn't know -- and finds Wei Wuxian sprawled on the second story of some nondescript inn, the sun casting shadows across his face and light into his eyes. Something about him immediately is wrong .
"Come drink with me," Wei Wuxian says, casually.
The moment Lan Wangji joins him, the chatter of the ghost girls around him grates on his nerves. Even as he makes Wei Wuxian send them away, he can feel the burn of their gaze on his back, and it makes him want to prove something to them. That he's different, maybe. That he can fill spaces in Wei Wuxian's eyes that they can't.
But that’s not true , he realizes, because he can’t either. So really, what’s the difference between them?
Lan Wangji wants to tell him, then, as an act of desperation. He wants to grab him by the chin and force him to see what he feels -- to feel what he feels, just a fraction of it. The way it burns inside of Lan Wangji’s chest when he's gone, how it hurts to see him waste his life away like he’s no different from a walking corpse. How he feels watching Wei Wuxian slowly kill himself and how it feels to be completely incapable of stopping him.
Lan Wangji wants to show him how much he loves him, but the words bubble up wrong in his throat as they always, and instead he finds himself repeating what's already been hashed out a hundred times before: “ Come to Gusu with me. ”
If eyes are windows, then he can see the moment the shutters close in Wei Wuxian's. Lan Wangji bites down on his worthless tongue until it bleeds.
Again and again, it comes out wrong.
Again and again, where he means to comfort, he insults.
"You should leave," Wei Wuxian says, stiffly. "As I've said before, I'm not a disciple of Gusu. I can make my own decisions, and you are in no place to discipline me."
That's not it, Lan Wangji thinks. He tries to convey it with his eyes, but Wei Wuxian isn't looking -- isn't listening. He’s lost whatever audience he had.
Lan Wangji leaves, defeated, his own blood bitter on the back of his cursed tongue.
The fifth time Lan Wangji confesses, he finally finds the right words to do so.
But the fifth time he confesses, Wei Wuxian is dying in his arms, and no matter how desperately he cries out to him, there is nobody to hear him.
In his arms, Wei Wuxian is weak, so much more fragile than he ever remembers. The demonic energy surrounds them both in a thick miasma, pushing and pulling and winding around Wei Wuxian’s limbs like the strings of a marionette only to dissipate the moment they touch his skin.
Lan Wangji presses his fingers to Wei Wuxian’s wrist, sends spiritual energy to him in waves, and watches it tear to pieces the moment it reaches his skin.
I can't save him, he thinks. After all this time, all this training, and I cannot save the person who means the most to me.
Wei Wuxian stirs, barely, and Lan Wangji feels hope rise in his chest as it has so many times before -- but the light behind his eyes is still gone.
"Get lost," Wei Wuxian rasps. His fingers wrap tight around Lan Wangji's wrist as he regains consciousness, his pupils blown wide and lips curled in disgust. "Why are you here. Get lost. Get lost!"
It's not the first time he's heard it since he brought Wei Wuxian here. It's not going to be the last. He can see it in Wei Wuxian's eyes and in his words, how far gone he is. But a small, desperate part of him wishes he could dive down with him and drag him back up.
Why are you here? It’s something Wei Wuxian asks him over and over -- less so, the longer this lasts. He wants to tell him. Wants it to reach him, somehow. Selfishly, he wants it to save him.
"I won’t leave." Lan Wangji's voice is hoarse from disuse.
"Get lost," Wei Wuxian spits at him again, over and over like it's the only phrase he knows - “Get lost, get lost, get lost!”
He doesn’t know where he finds the strength to say it. Maybe it’s because he can feel the way Wei Wuxian’s soul is slipping through his fingers, and it gives him a sense of urgency. The words he spent so many years biting down finally bubble up in his chest, tumble out of his mouth --
"I love you."
-- and it's a plea. Without realizing it, he's reduced to begging, begging for Wei Wuxian to stay with him. To cling onto whatever vestige of his own life he has left. But it's a plea that falls on deaf ears, because it always has.
"Get lost," Wei Wuxian says again, as if he never heard him, and something inside of Lan Wangji breaks.
"I love you," he says again, because once he's started it's impossible to stop. "I'm sorry. I’ve always loved you. Please don’t leave me."
Wei Wuxian doesn't hear him. He can't hear him. But he says it, and then he sobs it, again and again, until Wei Wuxian once more falls unconscious and Lan Wangji’s cries echo in the silence between them. He says it like a prayer, even when his voice is hoarse and broken and the words come out without sound.
When his people come for him, he doesn't fight them. They demand an answer, but he has none for them that they cannot see themselves. He tells them as much.
When he’s dragged back to Gusu, the words still burn on his tongue. With every lash of the whip against his back, he feels them bubble up in his throat again -- I love you, I've always loved you, don’t leave me -- until eventually the world goes black and he's carried away by his brother.
Too late , he thinks, lost somewhere between conscious and unconscious, I've found the words and it's too late.
Wei Wuxian dies, and when Lan Wangji breaks out of his seclusion to find him, there is nothing left of him to mourn.
When he hears the broken cry of a flute across the notes of a song he buried in Xuanwu cave, he thinks at first that he's hallucinating.
It isn't a stretch. He's heard the cry of Chenqing in his sleep and in his awakeness before, always when he feels his resolve slipping between his fingertips and when he misses Wei Wuxian the most.
He follows the instructions his elder brother gave him for when the noise becomes unbearable -- he counts the years, presses his fingers into his own wrist and feels the pulse there and counts that, reminds himself Wei Wuxian is dead and he’s been dead for thirteen years and nobody could find him. Not even the strongest of cultivators; not even the broken strings of his guqin. He reminds himself he's not surrounded by feral corpses and he reminds himself he is not twenty years old and he is not bleeding across the strings of Wangji and crying himself sick as the spirits around him echo nothing, nothing, there is nothing, there is nothing left of him .
But even after all of that, he can still hear the flute, like a cruel summoning. So he follows it, because the second best option for him is to disprove it, and instead he finds himself frozen as he watches a vaguely familiar form retreat towards him, a poorly-made bamboo flute between his fingers.
He sees Mo Xuanyu, but he hears Wei Wuxian, and he hears the broken notes of the song he played for him when he first told him, even if Wei Wuxian never heard it. As if he had never gone. As if the person in front of him was saying, come find me , but he couldn’t know.
Mo Xuanyu -- Wei Wuxian? -- backs Lan Wangji's chest, and before he can think about it, he wraps his fingers around his wrist and holds him in place. The skin is warm beneath his fingers. He can feel a pulse, hammering frantically as two wide eyes meet his, and if eyes are windows, Wei Wuxian's are wide open now.
The words catch in Lan Wangji’s throat. Suddenly he's seventeen in a burning cave fighting for his life. Suddenly he’s begging Wei Wuxian to come to Gusu with him after holding the cold hilt of Suibian in his palms only hours before. Suddenly he’s kissing Wei Wuxian blindfolded against a tree and then fleeing before he can catch his breath. Suddenly he’s drinking with Wei Wuxian and watching his eyes shutter like windows. Suddenly he’s bent over his broken form in a cave and sobbing that he loves him even though he knows he can’t hear. Suddenly, he doesn't even remember his own name.
Wei Wuxian breaks the silence first, breaks their gaze and turns his attention to whatever he was playing his flute for before, and time snaps back into place. What happens next passes in a blur -- it's Wen Ning appearing and then consequently disappearing; it's Jiang Cheng climbing out of whatever hole he buried himself in and lunging for Wei Wuxian with that forsaken whip and Lan Wangji cutting him off with one sharp note from his guqin before he can even think about it. It's watching that weapon strike Wei Wuxian anyway and then it's Wei Wuxian getting up as if nothing happened.
If this is a dream, it's a fairly sickening one, and Lan Wangji desperately wants to wake up. Every inch of his skin crawls. Wherever he is now, whatever he did to deserve it, he wants to be free of it.
It isn't until he arrives back at Gusu and he sees the familiarity of his own home that it finally hits him that this isn’t a sick dream or a game or death. He doesn’t have time to let it sink in, because after that it's dealing with Wei Wuxian fighting tooth and claw to escape, because he's always hated the Cloud Recesses, but Lan Wangji doesn't have the will to let him go this time. This time, Wei Wuxian doesn't have the protection of the Jiang sect, and he knows it, because he cedes fairly easily, all things considered.
This is real, he thinks, but it doesn’t feel like it.
They finally make it to the jingshi and the door shuts behind them. The silence that yawns between them stretches longer than thirteen years ever could have.
Lan Wangji has questions -- why, how, when, who -- but none of them make it past his throat. Wei Wuxian is still playing ignorant, because he always thinks more of himself than he is capable of, but he knows it won’t last long. He knows better.
“Ahaha, already taking me to his private quarters, Hanguang-jun is not as uptight as they say he is,” Wei Wuxian is saying as he sprawls across his bed, rolls around like he owns the place. It’s an odd sight. “You know, I really won’t be able to control myself like this, ahaha….”
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji finally says, because he knows if he doesn't this is going to last longer than he has the patience for. “You can stop acting.”
Something about the way he says it finally gets through to Wei Wuxian. He goes quiet.
Lan Wangji turns to face him from the door, and Wei Wuxian is staring at him from where he’s propped up on his elbow, still laying across his bed. His mouth is parted, as if he was about to say something and decided against it. Lan Wangji sees him weigh his chances and fall short.
"Lan Zhan, ah, I can never hide anything from you," Wei Wuxian says with a defeated smile, sitting up. "You always manage to catch me where I fall short."
It's meant to be self-pitying, but Lan Wangji hears something else in it. It makes something inside of him that's been long dead flicker to life. And finally, finally , everything else manages to catch up to him.
"You were dead," Lan Wangji says quietly, because he doesn’t know what else to say. Because he was .
"I've come back from death once before," Wei Wuxian reminds him.
"I -- " the words catch in his throat. "Searched for you."
"Searched?" Wei Wuxian frowns. "For my body? There’s no way to -- "
He catches on a beat too late.
"Every night, for three years, I searched for you and heard nothing." Lan Wangji cannot stop the words now that he's started, now that Wei Wuxian is finally listening. "Where did you go?"
Wei Wuxian goes silent again. He looks at Lan Wangji like he doesn't truly recognize him; or, maybe, like he finally truly does.
"I don't know."
The way he says it is quiet, and frustrated, and reminds Lan Wangji of when he was feverish and wrecked with nightmares that first night in Xuanwu cave.
"I don't know, Lan Zhan, I really don't know." Wei Wuxian stands up, restless as he begins to pace before him. He looks exhausted, as if he spent the last thirteen years running from something instead of buried underground. "It was dark, and it was cold, and it was death. I don't know why you couldn't find me. I never heard a thing. I'm sorry."
Something is stuck in Lan Wangji's throat, so he steps forward until Wei Wuxian turns and nearly walks into his chest. The other man recoils back, but Lan Wangji catches him by the wrist.
"Wei Ying," he says again, and his voice sounds unfamiliar.
Wei Wuxian looks up at him then, and Lan Wangji sees past the carefree smiles and the laughter and the lying. He sees through all of it and finds somebody who is afraid of living, because of the hurt it's caused him. Because he's died twice before and now he can die once again. He sees somebody who's grown tired of the tricks fate has to play on him, but is powerless against it.
"You aren't alone," Lan Wangji says, and he means it. "Not anymore."
Something inside of Wei Wuxian breaks open. If eyes are windows -- if eyes are windows, then his have shattered against the wind.
"You’re wrong. I wasn't alone, was I? You never did leave," Wei Wuxian says after a weighted pause. "No matter how many times I asked, or told, or begged, you were always there in the end. You Lans are so… stubborn."
Lan Wangji doesn't say anything. He can feel Wei Wuxian trembling where his fingers meet his wrist. Wei Wuxian takes a breath and looks at him, really looks at him, like he can’t read him at all and he’s given up trying, and he asks him:
Lan Wangji opens his mouth, and the words don’t come. Out of all the times to go silent, this has the be the worst of them. His fingers slip from Wei Wuxian’s wrist, drop down to his side in defeat.
Once again he’s fifteen in a cave, drawing out notes that he doesn’t know the words for.
Wei Wuxian stares at him, silent as he watches Lan Wangji search for the words and fall short, and then something shifts behind his eyes.
“You love me,” he says, like it’s a revelation, like it’s the surest thing in the world. “You — You’ve told me before, haven’t you?”
Lan Wangji can’t speak. Somewhere in his chest, the words he wants to say have become thick and worthless. But Wei Wuxian meets his eyes, and he sees right through them.
“That night, in Xuanwu cave, the song you played -- that’s how you knew it was me,” Wei Wuxian continues, almost frantic. “And when we first met after I fell into the Burial Mounds, every time you told me to come to Gusu with you. It wasn’t meant to be a punishment, was it?”
“No,” Lan Wangji forces out. “Not punishment.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him, and finally, finally sees him. And he hears him, every word Lan Wangji can’t say, and every time he’s loved him in the past.
“I am so stupid,” he says. “This entire time I thought —“
He doesn’t say hate , but Lan Wangji can hear it in the beat of silence between them.
“Never,” Lan Wangji whispers, and he means it.
There’s a moment of silence between them, and Lan Wangji wants to kiss him. He really, really wants to kiss him but he’s terrified of taking more than he deserves. He’s terrified of Wei Wuxian backing away and telling him he doesn’t feel the same even though he’s still inches away and hasn’t made any effort to put space between them. He curls his hands into fists at his sides instead.
Wei Wuxian moves first, raises his hand to Lan Wangji’s cheek and rests it against the warmth of his skin. Lan Wangji can’t look away from him, even as he yearns to lean into his touch — he stays as still as a statue, holding his breath like if he exhales whatever this is will break underneath of it.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “I want to try something.”
Lan Wangji can feel Wei Wuxian’s palm trembling against his cheek. The space between them is fractional.
“Is that okay?”
Lan Wangji’s throat is dry. He nods against his palm, closing his eyes because he’s afraid and the weight of it overwhelms him.
And he waits, and he waits. He waits until he can’t bear it anymore because Wei Wuxian hasn’t moved in nearly a minute and opens his eyes, confused.
“Finally,” Wei Wuxian says, and then he closes the gap between them and kisses him.
It steals all of the air out of Lan Wangji’s lungs, not because it’s forceful but because never in his thirty-three years of life did he think he would have the opportunity to be kissed by Wei Wuxian. His lips are warm, and gentle, just like the weight of his palm against Lan Wangji’s cheek.
Wei Wuxian only kisses him for a moment before he leans back, just enough that he can meet Lan Wangji’s wide eyes.
“Can I try again?” Wei Wuxian’s voice is barely above a whisper.
Lan Wangji nods again, and this time when Wei Wuxian kisses him he kisses back, until the palm against his cheek slips behind the nape of his neck and tangles in his hair. The room spins as Wei Wuxian’s mouth moves against his and his tongue darts across the bottom of Lan Wangji’s lips teasingly before he pulls back once more, slightly breathless.
And then Wei Wuxian smiles at him, as playful and open as he was when they first met, and something inside of Lan Wangji breaks at the sight of it.
“Can I —“
Lan Wangji doesn’t let him finish, surging forward and covering Wei Wuxian’s mouth with his and kisses him the way he did against the tree, like he wants to bruise all of his adoration and devotion into Wei Wuxian’s lips. Wei Wuxian gasps into his mouth and his free hand grabs onto Lan Wangji’s hip to balance himself, and the sound makes warmth bloom in his chest.
Wei Wuxian kisses back almost feverishly, because even though he teases, Lan Wangji can feel the trembling of his hands wherever they meet his skin. And the intensity of it makes his head spin, because Wei Wuxian wants him and Wei Wuxian is kissing him and tugging him back until they topple over onto his bed in a heap of tangled limbs and desperate mouths.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers as he breaks away to breathe, reaching up to brush the hair out of his face almost reverently. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. I missed you.”
Lan Wangji’s breath catches in his chest as Wei Wuxian’s knuckles graze against his cheekbone and jaw, his eyes never leaving Lan Wangji’s.
Lan Wangji grabs his hand suddenly, slides his fingers between Wei Wuxian’s and moves their joined hands to his chest. His heartbeat hammers against their joined hands, and Wei Wuxian’s breath catches in surprise as he hears the words Lan Wangji can’t say out loud.
“Oh, Lan Zhan,” he says, and Lan Wangji could get drunk off of the way he says his name, like it’s a prayer. “I love you, too.”
When Wei Wuxian kisses him this time, it’s featherlight, barely brushing his lips against Lan Wangji’s before he suddenly flips them both over and buries his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder with a frustrated noise, fingers digging into Lan Wangji’s robes.
“Agh, I really love you!” Wei Wuxian’s voice is muffled into his shoulder, breath warm against his skin. “I mean it. I fancy you, I love you, I want you, I whatever you. I want to stay by your side.”
The weight of his words almost overwhelms Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian loves him, wants to stay with him — every word he says makes his chest ache with want.
“Love you,” Lan Wangji repeats, and once he’s said it he can’t stop. “Fancy you. Want you. Need you. Want to be with you. Only you. Always you.”
Wei Wuxian raises his head, and his eyes are shining with something Lan Wangji’s never seen in them before.
“Only you,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning down and kissing him briefly. “Always you.”
The sixth and final time Lan Wangji confesses, Wei Wuxian hears where he can’t say it and meets him halfway, and it makes all of the other confessions worth it.