The thirty-three lashes had taken months to heal, and even longer to scar over solidly enough that strenuous activity wouldn’t reopen them. This was an obvious, and expected course of events. Wounds afflicted that deeply, with such strength, could not heal over within a day—with just a moment—regardless of how strong a cultivator was.
Lan Wangji thought perhaps matters of the heart would be different.
It certainly felt that way, when he found his arms filled with Wei Wuxian, on a stormy night, inside that fateful temple—when he felt something like desperate, absolute relief course through his body, as if he was breathing again for the first time in so, so long. It felt as if every crack, every gaping abyss, every fissure and cut and break in his heart had healed over in just that singular moment.
Lan Wangji is wrong.
Over the course of those thirteen years, he’d become closely acquainted with the sensation of being shocked awake in the middle of the night, his sleep interrupted by nightmares that left him with cold perspiration beaded on his forehead—with screams of regret and grief caught in his throat before he remembered where he was.
Recalling that he was in the jingshi, Wei Wuxian already long since dead, soul lost and with no hope of ever returning, Lan Wangji having failed to protect him, of course did nothing to comfort him from the nightmares. The reality was just as terrible as his dreams—but it was still reality. He had A-Yuan to live for still, as well as his brother and his uncle, and those were responsibilities to this life he could not ignore.
When Lan Wangji returns to Cloud Recesses with his heart beating again after thirteen years—with his soul breathing when he thought it never would again—he assumes that it will be an end to that.
His heart has been healed, after all, he thinks.
For a while, with the exception of the events surrounding the incense burner, Lan Wangji sleeps dreamlessly for the first time in thirteen years. It isn’t until perhaps a month after he and Wei Wuxian have truly completed their three bows—a month after he can call Wei Wuxian husband by name—that the nightmares return, with no rhyme or reason or discernible impetus at all.
He is as confused by it as he is shocked. Through the years, fortunately, he’s become accustomed and practiced at swallowing any gasping—at forcefully regulating his breathing before it becomes noticeable. Especially when Sizhui had begun living with him in the jingshi, some nights even when the little boy’s own nightmares had surfaced from his locked memories and they slept in the same bed, Lan Wangji had learned intensely well to silence himself.
It’s only because of this that he manages not to jerk or twist involuntarily beneath Wei Wuxian. Even in his original body, Wei Wuxian had been narrower than Lan Wangji, just slightly—an almost unnoticeable bit below Lan Wangji’s height as well—he would’ve fit into his arms in sleep regardless. Mo Xuanyu’s body is even smaller, even slighter, soft and missing all of the wiry muscles from Wei Wuxian’s previous life. This way, now, he can sleep completely on top of Lan Wangji, in his arms, light and pliant.
This also means that if Lan Wangji moves with the force of a terrible dream waking him in the middle of the night, Wei Wuxian will feel all of it. Most likely, he would even feel if Lan Wangji’s heartbeat races or if his breaths quicken.
His nightmares used to rotate, and this one is the most prevalent of the recurring ones—those last moments at the Burial Mounds, leading to the last battle, leading to the last time he ever held or saw Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian’s hair—a paler shade of dark brown, with more wave to it than his original body—lies loose and flowing over Lan Wangji’s collarbone and shoulder. It covers the side of Wei Wuxian’s face, the strands in front of his mouth fluttering with every breath he exhales steadily in sleep. He’s warm, so, so warm against Lan Wangji’s body. Lan Wangji can feel his heartbeat against his own chest.
He forces himself to close his eyes again, blocking out the moonlight sifting into the jingshi. Wei Wuxian is not dead. He is not in danger. He is not injured. He—he does not hate Lan Wangji. He is not pushing him away, he is not telling Lan Wangji to leave.
Wei Wuxian is alive, and he loves Lan Wangji—he has said as much, several times. He has married him.
Lan Wangji times his breaths with Wei Wuxian’s soft, even ones.
It feels like an eternity before he slips back to sleep.
The nightmares persist.
Lan Wangji deals with them accordingly, meaning he deals with them in the same manner as he had in the past. It had worked seamlessly before, and it works seamlessly now. Wei Wuxian is as deep of a sleeper as Sizhui had been, and the nightmares do not occur every night anyway. There are even some nights when Wei Wuxian is out late enough nighthunting that Lan Wangji, with his Lan Sect curfew, has the nightmare and tamps it down before Wei Wuxian even comes to bed.
Some nights, when Lan Wangji can feel that nothing good awaits him if he gives way to unconsciousness—when memories of an empty gaze, and harsh words, and something cold and bottomless (and no matter how much spiritual energy he pours and pours, it doesn’t feel like Wei Wuxian is absorbing any of it, he isn’t getting better and Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to do because he needs him to be well enough to run before they are caught—)
Those nights, Lan Wangji will push past the curfew.
It isn’t as if he hasn’t broken rules before, at this point. He fills the time productively, anyway, grading reports, while waiting for Wei Wuxian to return if they had separate duties for the day.
Wei Wuxian never sees it as odd—those random nights when Lan Wangji isn’t in their bed by nine. Perhaps already too used to seeing Lan Wangji awake late at night while they’d been on the road—through necessity when they solved cases or hadn’t yet reached a town with sufficient accommodations.
His smile brightens, if anything, when he sees Lan Wangji still at his desk, sifting through papers or practicing scores. If Lan Wangji is doing the former, as he is tonight, Wei Wuxian will go on and bathe first, listening to Lan Wangji play while he takes his hair down and washes. Lan Wangji finishes just as Wei Wuxian comes back around the privacy screen, already wrapped in a white robe for sleep, hair tumbling damp around his shoulders, skin flushed, soft and warm from the bath water.
Lan Wangji rests his hands over the strings to silence them, glancing for a short moment to see that Wei Wuxian is wearing one of Lan Wangji’s sleep robes tonight. He slides slightly away from the desk in time to catch a lapful of Wei Wuxian, deft hands already up in Lan Wangji’s crown, loosening the pins and combs. “Lan-er-gongzi,” he atones solemnly, eyes dancing in contrast to his tone. “Let’s go to bed.”
Those nights, when he sleeps later than he has in all the years of his life before, when he holds out until Wei Wuxian is the one to undo his hair, wrap him up in clean robes after he’s bathed himself, pull him to their bed—those nights somehow fend off the nightmares.
It was not only nightmares—during those thirteen years.
There was Inquiry, that he had played until his fingers bled and his hands shook—wounds he inflicted on himself in addition to the ones dealt fairly to him by his sect. There was Emperor’s Smile, that he brought in from Caiyi, jugs upon jugs of it, smuggled into his own home, hidden beneath a floorboard—there were nights he couldn’t bring himself to put the liquor away yet, would simply set it on his desk and stare at it until the hollowness in his chest choked the tears out of him.
There was Sizhui, who—despite being raised completely underneath all three-thousand Lan Sect rules, and was not remotely biologically related to Wei Wuxian in any way—smiled and laughed more and more like him with each passing day that he grew. Sizhui, whose brightness and quiet tenacity and intelligence and steadiness caused the pieces of Lan Wangji’s shattered heart to ache every time he watched the boy.
There were the whipping scars themselves, that Lan Wangji did not care to let his cultivation heal—nor did he care to seek out any of the lower disciples to tend to them for him even after the requisite time passed after the punishment. His own brother had to nearly force his way into the jingshi for Lan Wangji to allow himself to be tended to.
There were the moments that snuck up onto Lan Wangji, no matter how long it had been—whether it had been a year or five or twelve—when the despair and loss and anguish would seize him all over again, and he wanted nothing more than to let himself cease to exist just to be done with the pain.
Surely, he thinks, now that Wei Wuxian is alive again—that the unspeakably miraculous had happened—everything else would resolve itself accordingly. All of the vestiges of Lan Wangji’s desperate regrets and mourning would resolve themselves accordingly with time, so long as he kept it hidden—away from Wei Wuxian, away from everyone.
A year passes, and they do not.
More often than not, when Wei Wuxian sets out to spend days at Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji does not accompany him the entire time. There are duties that Lan Wangji would prefer to finish all together so that he might save the time he can spend away from Cloud Recesses for when Wei Wuxian wants to travel indefinitely in that wandering way of his. There is also the matter of Lan Wangji preferring not to be in the same room as Jiang Wanyin, nor the same building—possibly not even the same region.
They can be civil now, a year in, for the sake of politics and Wei Wuxian, but Lan Wangji still can only grasp in theory why even Wei Wuxian still wishes to spend time with his brother—the reconciliation between them seems to be prickly on the best of days, with absolutely no thanks to Jiang Wanyin. Nevertheless, it’s what Wei Wuxian wants, and Jiang Wanyin strangely sends fairly frequent missives requesting Wei Wuxian’s presence at Lotus Pier—usually using some odd nighthunt case or another as an excuse, as if Jiang Sect wasn’t competent enough to solve their own cases.
Jin Ling had been spending the past week at Cloud Recesses, on the premise of attending to intersect Sect Leader duties, even though he mainly spent it with the Lan Sect juniors and Wei Wuxian—more adventuring around Caiyi than true nighthunting. He is also headed to Yunmeng next, rather than Lanling, and would take Wei Wuxian there by sword. Lan Wangji would only need to come in three days’ time to accompany Wei Wuxian back.
Lan Wangji likes this part least of everything—standing at the entrance to Cloud Recesses, waiting for Jin Ling to arrive so that he and Wei Wuxian could descend the mountain before taking off on Suihua. He has too many memories of parting with Wei Wuxian, only for further misfortune and disaster to befall either of them following.
Watching him return for Yunmeng in their youth, leaving him at Qinghe, parting with him after slaughtering Xuanwu, letting him go at Qiongqi Way, walking away from him at Yiling, being dragged away from him at Burial Mounds—
Lan Wangji forces the exhale of breath to leave him normally, rather than in the shuddering way it wanted to. He glances down at Wei Wuxian, who is looking up at him peculiarly, brows furrowed slightly.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian repeats, blinking. One of his hands is wrapped around the crook of Lan Wangji’s elbow. His other hand is against the side of Lan Wangji’s face.
Lan Wangji closes his eyes and hums, angling so that the corner of his mouth brushes against Wei Wuxian’s palm. Wei Wuxian’s thumb brushes over Lan Wangji’s cheekbone in response, and Lan Wangji hears him huff out a small laugh. “I’ll miss you, too, Lan-er-gongzi.”
“How much?” Lan Wangji says, opening his eyes slightly. He brings his own hand up and wraps it around the hand Wei Wuxian uses to cup Lan Wangji’s cheek. An entire year, and Lan Wangji’s heart still thuds as loudly and desperately as it had the first time he realizes he can touch Wei Wuxian as much as he wants now—however he wants, without stuttering out for permission or forgiveness.
The smile that stretches over Wei Wuxian’s face is blinding, a flash of teeth, and Lan Wangji feels the breath knocked out of him as Wei Wuxian fills his senses—fills his arms—and presses close against his front, kissing him open-mouthed and unabashed. “This much,” he pulls back from Lan Wangji’s mouth just enough to say, eyes crinkled up in something that might be a wink.
Lan Wangji is already leaning in again, arms pulling him close once more, when a startled scream sounds from behind them.
“I will drop you into the sea!” screeches Jin Ling, hands pressed over his eyes in horror as he skits away around them.
Wei Wuxian sighs, as Jin Ling shoves past them and starts down the mountain without waiting for him. The laughter is barely contained in every line of his body as he looks back to Lan Wangji. “Don’t worry,” he says, patting Lan Wangji’s chest, “I can swim.”
Lan Wangji feels the corners of his own mouth tug upwards slightly, and the tips of Wei Wuxian’s ears suddenly flare pink. “Hanguang-jun,” he whines—abruptly, with no conceivable purpose at all except to make Lan Wangji’s heart beat even faster. “Don’t smile like that at anyone while I’m gone!”
“I have no reason to do so if you are gone,” comes out of Lan Wangji’s mouth before he realizes. Wei Wuxian’s ears turn from pink to red. Lan Wangji feels something pleased and warm erupt in the pit of his stomach at the sight.
“Don’t say things like that either,” Wei Wuxian chides, pressing another kiss—brief and chaste this time—to Lan Wangji’s mouth. “Now, go on, I’ll never leave if you’re still here—and Jin Ling will reach Yunmeng alone before I get down the mountain. Go on,” he says, tone absolutely fond and familiar and affectionate, “get lost now!”
Fond, and familiar, and affectionate, but—
This is not unfamiliar. It would not happen nearly as often as the nightmares—but perhaps once or twice, each year, mostly on the anniversary of the siege at Nightless City or around that time. Sometimes there was something to set it off—Sizhui uncannily echoing a phrase or sentiment that Wei Wuxian once had said, hearing whispers of his name on the lips of cultivators who still hate him—and sometimes it was nothing at all but Lan Wangji’s own masochistic reminiscing. Lan Wangji wasn’t certain of what exactly it was—he’d never let anyone know, not even his brother, and certainly not Sizhui.
His breaths would shorten until it felt as if he would definitely suffocate—his entire body would seize, control slipping through his fingers, all of his spiritual energy suddenly growing cold and unresponsive inside of him for just that moment. No matter how short these episodes were, they would always feel like eternity slogging by, draining him and draining him. If he was holding something at the moment, it would undoubtedly end up on the floor—in shatters if he’d had the terrible luck of holding something made of glass. The tremors that came over his entire body, and particularly his hands, would always make certain of that.
Somehow, he would always be able to contain it until he was in private—most times, it was rare enough that he just happened to be in the jingshi anyway when it happened.
He wonders, faintly in the background of his mind, why his luck had to end now.
In the forefront of everything, he hears—foggily, as if his ears are plugged with water—Wei Wuxian calling his name, the sound of a sword rushing overhead and landing, and then Jin Ling’s voice suddenly returned to the ruckus. He doesn’t know what he sees—the ground, is his best guess. His vision is a blur of colors and shapes, and all he feels is what he supposes are the hard, stone steps of the Cloud Recesses entrance.
He can’t breathe.
He feels two pairs of arms, each on either side of him, propping him up between them. He hears Sizhui’s voice—Jingyi’s voice—Jin Ling’s voice again—then—
“Let’s walk, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian’s voice is soft, an underlying panic detectable but Lan Wangji’s mind is too hazy to do anything about it. His body isn’t moving the way he needs it too. He wants to tell Wei Wuxian to let him go, leave him be, this will pass on its own—but his voice doesn’t seem to exist right now, his throat won’t even allow air to pass. “That’s it—good boy—good boy, Lan Zhan—let’s walk and then you can rest—”
Lan Wangji wakes up in the jingshi.
He’s lying flat on his back in the bed. His hair has been taken down, but his clothes haven’t been changed. There is still daylight streaming through the windows. He supposes he can’t have been out for any more than an hour or so, if even that. The times when he was alone, these episodes would pass in just that amount of time, and he would come to curled on the floor of the jingshi, surrounded by whatever he had dropped or broken or knocked over.
He has barely blinked his eyes awake more than twice before Wei Wuxian’s terrified, worried face appears over him—hands holding his face. “Lan Zhan,” he says hoarsely, eyes wide and frightened. “What happened?”
“You should be in Yunmeng,” slips out of Lan Wangji’s mouth, made loose by what he’d just gone through, before he realizes that is the worst thing he could say at this very moment.
Wei Wuxian’s expression crumples somewhere between indignation and hurt. “Yes—when my husband can’t even breathe and starts shaking on the ground, the thing to do is definitely to hop on the first sword that passes by and just fly on out to Lotus Pier—that’s precisely what I should’ve done!” He takes his hands away from Lan Wangji’s face.
Lan Wangji swallows, casting his eyes away. He waits for Wei Wuxian to stand up from the bed and walk away—perhaps he’s been waiting ever since he realized that the nightmares were not fading in frequency, that the moments the grief snuck up on him were still present even with Wei Wuxian returned to him.
He sits up slowly, prepares to frame an apology, but his mind is still sluggish—his throat still feels thick and sticky, and he doesn’t want to open his mouth and say something else that upsets Wei Wuxian further.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian’s voice is soft again, and part of the ache in Lan Wangji’s chest subsides just at the fact that Wei Wuxian is still sitting on the bed—that he has not yet walked away. With what feels like an enormous effort, Lan Wangji meets his gaze.
His breath is knocked out of him, slightly, at the intensity in Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
A tiny crease appears between Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows. He reaches down to the nightstand and presses a cup of hot tea between Lan Wangji’s hands. “Drink,” he says quietly, “please.”
It becomes apparent that whatever is in the cup is not normal tea. The bitterness stings the back of Lan Wangji’s tongue, even though he swallows easily—far accustomed to the medicinal broths that his sect was known for. He’s just finished the contents when Wei Wuxian suddenly presses something small and hard against Lan Wangji’s lips. Lan Wangji opens his mouth and tiny, crystals of sugar melt onto his tongue. He moves it around his mouth in surprise. This—he is not accustomed to—not after bitter medicines.
“Sizhui said whatever he boiled would make you feel better,” Wei Wuxian says, “Jingyi said that it’d taste like dirt, though. I have rock candy from Caiyi.”
Worse than dirt, to be frank, Lan Wangji wanted to say. “Thank you,” is what he murmurs instead.
Wei Wuxian slides closer, close enough that Lan Wangji can feel his warmth just out of reach. He watches as Wei Wuxian strokes the back of his hand up and down Lan Wangji’s cheek. “What happened?” he repeats once more, gently—pleading, almost. “Please—Lan Zhan—let me—at least tell me, so I can help or I can find someone who can help—”
No matter how Lan Wangji phrases and rephrases the words in his mind, it sounds as if he is blaming Wei Wuxian. It sounds as if he is blaming Wei Wuxian for something that happened when he was out of his mind—it sounds as if he is blaming Wei Wuxian for dying.
“It—it is not your fault,” Lan Wangji decides to begin with.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, faintly, with an utterly humorless smile.
“It is not your fault,” Lan Wangji repeats, this time louder—this time squeezing Wei Wuxian’s hand insistently.
Wei Wuxian still wears that self-deprecating little smile. “But?” he prods quietly.
“My brother,” Lan Wangji hears his own voice slowly fall to a whisper, “he told you what you couldn’t remember at Burial Mounds. There were words you said to me then.”
Wei Wuxian frowns, confusion as the thoughts visibly raced through his mind, no doubt. Lan Wangji watches as it dawns on him—watches as the realization shifts immediately into shock, then agony, then—then—
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, desperate, and takes both of Wei Wuxian’s hands in his. “You don’t remember, and they are just words.”
Wei Wuxian stares at their joined hands in silence that stretches on for far too long. Lan Wangji’s heart speeds right back up to how it’d felt when all the air left his lungs, when his throat had constricted and his body had trembled so violently his legs gave way.
Lan Wangji registers what follows now in increments:
Wei Wuxian throwing one leg over Lan Wangji’s lap, settling himself over his thighs, warm weight spreading over Lan Wangji’s body like a balm he didn’t know he needed. Wei Wuxian slipping his hands out of Lan Wangji’s hold and resting his palms against the sides of Lan Wangji’s neck—soothing and gentle. Wei Wuxian gazing right into Lan Wangji’s eyes with determination and conviction spread over the sadness and remorse in his eyes. “Even if they’re just words—they caused you pain. Even if I don’t remember, you’re still hurting.”
Lan Wangji’s hands are visibly shaking again as they come up to touch Wei Wuxian’s waist, shaking too hard to truly hold.
Somehow, after Guanyin Temple, Wei Wuxian had seemingly gone overnight from being unable to read even the most purposefully displayed of Lan Wangji’s feelings to easily catching the emotions Lan Wangji tries actively to hide away. Right now, Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrow, that crease above the bridge of his nose deepening. “There’s more,” he says, a statement and not a question and this is dangerous. His tone is not accusatory, but there’s a soft certainty to it that has Lan Wangji reeling. “There’s more, isn’t there, Lan Zhan?”
The shaking becomes so terrible that Lan Wangji has to pull his hands away before Wei Wuxian notices. Except Wei Wuxian catches him without even glancing down—grabbing Lan Wangji’s hands and pulling his arms fully around Wei Wuxian’s waist. Lan Wangji is startled enough that, for a moment, even his hands are still. His chest remains tight, his lungs still feel as if there’s no air in them.
Wei Wuxian leans forward, pressing their bodies together and burying his face where Lan Wangji’s neck and shoulder meet. Lan Wangji lets his eyes close at the sensation of Wei Wuxian’s scent and hair tickling his skin. “I’m here now, right?” he whispers, voice so close to Lan Wangji’s ear that it feels as if Wei Wuxian is speaking directly into Lan Wangji’s mind. “I’m here. If it hurts, tell me. Please, tell me.”
Lan Wangji takes a shuddering inhale and expels the breath as he tightens his arms around Wei Wuxian’s body, finally giving in and presses his own face into Wei Wuxian’s hair. He wants this comfort more than he thinks he should be allowed to want it. Wei Wuxian was the one who lost his family—twice—lost his core, lost his home, lost his life. He should be spending this second chance at all of that—his much deserved, overdue second chance at happiness—worrying about nothing, having no sadnesses, no more burdens.
He shouldn’t be spending it comforting someone else’s failures—someone else’s regrets. Lan Wangji had made his own choices, after all, and the consequences were all his to bear.
“It will stop soon,” Lan Wangji says, slowly. “There is no need.”
Wei Wuxian’s gaze is steady and relentless. “But you don’t know when soon is, and in the meantime, you’re still in pain—you’ve been in pain,” he deciphers, and Lan Wangji almost desperately wishes to return to a time when he could propose marriage from the mountaintops and Wei Wuxian would still consider it an overture of friendship.
Lan Wangji glances away.
Wei Wuxian’s fingers pull through the ends of Lan Wangji’s hair—gentle, but with an insistent enough tug that Lan Wangji has no choice but to gaze back. Even those who knew Wei Wuxian closely and well before this death—Jiang Wanyin, Wen Ning—had expressed in one way or another, at one point or another, how it was still odd to see him and know him but in a body that was not his own. Lan Wangji doesn’t understand it. The expression Wei Wuxian wears right now—the look in his eyes—an intense, and irreplicable, mix of apology and affection, determination and adoration and concern—it is so Wei Wuxian that Lan Wangji had never, for a moment, felt the discrepancy.
“There’s so much I wish I’d been here for,” Wei Wuxian murmurs sadly, fingertips tracing the skin beneath Lan Wangji’s eyes. “You—Lan Zhan—you waited for so long. Now that I can be here, won’t you let me do what I wanted to do for you?”
Lan Wangji is so utterly distracted, so taken, by the intensity and sincerity in Wei Wuxian’s gaze—regardless of how often it has been directed at him now, he still finds himself swept away—that he doesn’t realize until that very moment that his hands have stopped shaking. He breathes in and feels his lungs easily, steadily, fill with air—his throat does not hurt.
He imagines a night when he doesn’t have to swallow down the bitter, acrid taste of loss—of rejection and grief. He imagines a night when he wakes up with tears against the backs of his eyelids being wiped away by slender fingers, of the heartbreak in his heart eased by warm laughter beside him. He imagines a day when he is overcome by the sorrow of the past, and is not alone—a day when he can break the silence of that pain and have it soothed by thin arms around his neck and a smiling mouth pressed over his own.
“If you wish,” he whispers, because he is weak, weak, weak when it comes to Wei Wuxian.
Yet, the feeling of Wei Wuxian’s breath mingled with his own when he surges forward and kisses Lan Wangji—he feels strength, sunshine bright, burst from his heart.