Nightmares were not unfamiliar to him. They had never truly ended, only receded little by little like the tide. The tide had claws, sharp currents that tore bits of him away to feed into the ocean foam; he would gasp awake and each piece of him tried scattering to the winds, as if the seams of his body weren’t enough to keep a soul tied in place.
He gasped awake, drenched in cold sweat all over.
He gasped awake, pure panic replacing steady heartbeats with feverish frenzy, he gasped awake to black night and he was empty. Fires needed air to burn and so one burned in Lan Wangji’s rib cage, blackening bones as it fed on each breath he was supposed to take. He gasped awake and –
Wei Wuxian was gone.
The jingshi was dark and silent, the night moonless — and Wei Wuxian loved moonless nights, he claimed no one else did but they were special — and there was no warm weight on the other side of the bed, no sound of Wei Wuxian’s even breathing or the way it would stutter as he woke, ready to calm Lan Wangji’s heart and soothe a flood and where was he, where was he, where was he—
There was a horrible rasping grating nose reaching his ears, half a gasp and half a shill whine, not fully a cry. Lan Wangji crashed out of his bed when his legs didn’t support him as he tried to stand, and the horrible noise faltered — oh. The horrible noise was him, raw pain nesting in his throat.
He braced one hand on the table — it trembled, embarrassingly weak — and tried to make himself stop making that noise. Lan Wangji excelled at succeeding at nearly everything. He’d always thought he’d excelled even at grief, morbid as it was, but the more he tried to make himself stop these horrible dry sobs, the more panic beat in his chest, growing in every frantic heartbeat. The room was dark and Wei Wuxian was gone, it was quiet and there was no trace of him anywhere. The night was black and Lan Wangji could not know, not truly, if he ever existed at all.
Once, Lan Wangji had woken up paralyzed by the fear that Wei Wuxian would bleed to death again on the road. Now he knelt on the ground and wondered if Wei Wuxian had ever been alive, if this had all been just a sweet dream ripped away from him, like a knife carving him open.
His knee knocked into the table, fresh pain blooming atop the dull pain where his knees had hit the floor earlier, papers sliding to the floor with a rasp. Papers. Wei Wuxian’s papers. These were Wei Wuxian’s papers.
He groped around on the floor until his fingers hit a potential talisman. It crumpled under his hands. Wei Wuxian had been here. Left his things here. He was here. Something of his was here, crinkling and rough under his palm, so he was here too.
He lived. He returned. He sat at this table among messy papers and invented talismans to help with night hunts and talismans that made little kids laugh and blew kisses to Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji propped himself up on the table, fighting tears. This was not new. He should not have panicked. Breathe in. None of this was new. Breathe out. Sometimes, Lan Wangji woke up and found Wei Wuxian gone. White moonlight would paint the bed, the edge of Lan Wangji’s sleeve, but the rumpled sheets painted silver would be proof enough to reassure him. Lan Wangji did not need Wei Wuxian to be there, every night.
However, as he pressed a palm against his chest, heart racing, he had to begrudgingly acknowledge that it… helped. This was the first night he woken up alone with no moon with which to see discarded robes or talismans that he left sitting everywhere. That Lan Wangji loved that he left sitting anywhere. No, it was just dark and empty, and it felt like being twenty-one and Wei Wuxian was dead, like being twenty-three and he could still not leave the jingshi and thirty-four, when Lan Sizhui’s birthday turned him older than Lan Wangji had been when Wei Wuxian first came into his life.
On a moonless night, the nights that Wei Wuxian loved, there was hardly any proof Wei Wuxian existed at all.
Lan Wangji held out his arm blindly towards his husband and immediately Wei Wuxian’s fingers wrapped around his wrist, cool from the outside. “Shh, shh, I’m here.” His knees thudded against the floorboard as he dropped, his shoulder warm against Lan Wangji’s. “Can you look at me?”
Yes. Yes, Lan Wangji would like nothing more. He tilted his face up and — oh, he could see, Wei Wuxian had set a fire talisman to the candle and it kissed its way along Wei Wuxian’s cheekbones and caught in his eyelashes and reflected the concerned look in his eyes.
“Lan Zhan.” Voice soft, eyes wide. “Did you have a nightmare?”
Lan Wangji buried his face in Wei Wuxian’s chest. Proof, he thought hazily, breathing in the spring-rain smell of Wei Wuxian — of course he’d gone out in the rain, he loved to go out in the rain, and his robes against Lan Wangji’s nose were damp. The soft patter of raindrops sang to him. “Yes,” he managed to say, because Wei Wuxian liked to hear things out loud and because it was, technically, true.
“Oh, my poor Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, lips moving against Lan Wangji’s ear. His hands tightened around Lan Wangji’s waist, adjusting them until he was against the bed and Lan Wangji was cradled against his chest and they could breathe together. “I’m here, I’m here. Just go to sleep, hm.”
“No,” Lan Wangji managed to say, but he was exhausted, his strength exhausted from adrenaline, and he fell asleep anyways.
Wei Wuxian always woke when Lan Wangji woke, just for a moment. Some mornings, he was awake enough to do Lan Wangji’s hair and tie on the ribbon. Some mornings, he was even awake enough to cheekily press a kiss to the silver resting in the center of Lan Wangji’s forehead. This morning was no different. “Hi there, sweetheart.”
Lan Wangji peeled open his eyes, grimacing. He was draped over Wei Wuxian’s chest, his ear pressed against Wei Wuxian’s heart. After a moment, Wei Wuxian brushed the hair away from his temples, fingers cool against his flushed skin. Lan Wangji half-expected to wake up with his back aching and his neck crunched from sleeping on the floor, but there were no new pains to catalogue. Not even a persistent headache, like the ones he had become unwilling friends with in seclusion when he woke up, dizzy with grief. Instead he was comfortable, tucked against Wei Wuxian like this, and a little boneless. His left hand was trailing off the edge of the bed.
Lan Wangji propped his chin up on Wei Wuxian’s chest and Wei Wuxian beamed down at him as if he had accomplished a great feat. Wei Wuxian always smiled at him like that. “It’s early.”
“Mmm, yeah,” Wei Wuxian agreed, in the raspy tone of voice that meant he had yet to get any sleep. Dawn had barely broken its way through the clouds, but it was light enough now — or Lan Wangji was close enough now — to see the curl of Wei Wuxian’s smile, honey-sweet. He must have sat up all night, threading gentle fingers through Lan Wangji’s hair to keep him calm.
Lan Wangji was required to tell him to get some rest. Wei Wuxian always joked that was how marriages worked. But he butted his head up against Wei Wuxian’s hand, a silent request for more and Wei Wuxian’s laughter was a quiet rumble of his chest instead of a bright bell. Lan Wangji could — would — spend his whole life cataloguing different smiles and different laughs, the wry ones and the helpless ones and the ones that were dismissive and cutting. Learning when he could kiss them away and when he could swallow the sunshine of each giggle. This was an entire field of research to dedicate himself to. “You should sleep.” And he should get up.
Wei Wuxian’s free hand, the one not tracing hypnotic circles against his temple, smoothed up his back and settled at the nape of his neck, heavy, holding him in as if he knew what was going through Lan Wangji’s mind. Maybe he did. He always knew Lan Wangji so well.
Usually, Wei Wuxian would whine a little about how early it was, fingers tugging gently at Lan Wangji’s robe until Lan Wangji would kiss him apart. Wei Wuxian would fall back to sleep and Lan Wangji would start his day. Sometimes, though, Wei Wuxian did not let him leave. It was rare that he would say it, but some days his face was drawn and he needed the comfort.
Lan Wangji imagined that he looked like that, now. He tilted his head down, the comforting rhythm of Wei Wuxian’s heartbeat radiating out until he swore he could feel the song from his fingers to his toes. Wei Wuxian hummed a few bars of a children’s lullaby about frogs. “Go back to sleep.”
“You too,” Lan Wangji said stubbornly, but his eyes fluttered closed.
Most nights, Lan Wangji woke up and immediately knew everything was alright because Wei Wuxian was plastered to him. He’d apologized for it before, but Lan Wangji had never taken issue with his clinginess. Lan Wangji relished that he could hold on so tightly. Lan Wangji would trace up the hollow of Wei Wuxian’s spine — he always squirmed, even asleep — and settle his hand at the summer-sticky nape of Wei Wuxian’s neck, where his hair was a smear of black ink falling over Lan Wangji’s fingers. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian would murmur, breathing ghosting along Lan Wangji’s jaw. It’s too early! You’re cruel to me, hm, you’re so cruel to your poor husband! And then he would tangle their feet together, impossibly closer, and talk or sing or hum until Lan Wangji fell back asleep.
Tonight, he woke up and there was no weight. No heat. Panic caught under his breastbone, a fluttering thing beating frantic wings and—
Wei Wuxian had left him a note. It sat cheerfully at the base of his pillow, a little drawing of Wei Wuxian wearing giant boots next to a tree that, presumably, meant he’d gone for a walk. There was a full moon over the little Wei Wuxian figure, along with three messy stars. Lan Wangji touched a finger to each one gently, as if it was a little flame giving off heat, and breathed in and out with each tap.
Lan Wangji had not wanted Wei Wuxian to know, but sometimes, he panicked when the man left his sight. It was an understandable fear, hardly one that Wei Wuxian would laugh at, but not one that could be assuaged easily. Lan Wangji would never want a life in which they were always in arm’s reach of each other, never to leave a room without their shadow. It seemed an easy way to start to hate each other.
Besides, it hardly bore thinking about. It was a fear he could tamp down easily, shoved away against the shadow of his heart.
Unless he had just woken up from a nightmare.
And somehow, Wei Wuxian had known exactly the problem.
Lan Wangji sat up, bed linens falling into a rumpled pile, and crossed his legs on the bed, the note balanced on his left knee. The moon was full — Lan Wangji suspected that Wei Wuxian would have drawn the correct phases in his note no matter what — and from his angle, he could count their life together. One: the guqin table with the shared composition they were bickering over to both their swords in the stand, glinting in the soft moonlight. Two: the robe that Wei Wuxian had divested Lan Wangji of this morning. Three: there was too much of their life to enumerate, the whole jingshi was proof. Four: the rasp of the door when Wei Wuxian slid it open very quietly, because he thought Lan Wangji was still asleep.
“Lan Zhan! Ah, you woke up, I was hoping you wouldn’t—”
Lan Wangji tilted his head up for the kiss that Wei Wuxian gave him. It still left him breathless, somedays, how easy it was to come together even in the dark, even when only Wei Wuxian’s bare outline was visible. “You have leaves in your hair.”
“Fix that for me, hmm,” Wei Wuxian said distractedly, and instead of sitting on the bed, he knelt, his cheek against Lan Wangji’s thigh, and stared up at him winsomely. Even with only the slope of his cheekbone and the corner of his mouth touched by moonlight, Lan Wangji could tell it was one of his favorite smiles, cracked wide as he could barely help it. “Did it work? The note? You look alright, but sometimes I just don’t know, you know—”
“I’m fine, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said with some amusement. He pulled a twig from Wei Wuxian’s hair and tucked it into Wei Wuxian’s open palm.
“Good!” Wei Wuxian did not react to the leaf. Sometimes he would feign outrage about how he hadn’t been created to tote around Lan Wangji’s personal belongings, to which Lan Wangji would reply this is a leaf instead of the truth, which was that Lan Wangji did all the carrying. “I hope you would be — you were so upset last week, Lan Zhan, when I wasn’t there, so I thought maybe a note would work, so you could see that I’m still there even if I’m not here—”
“Wei Ying.” He never used to interrupt, but Wei Wuxian always beamed at him when he did, and besides, Wei Wuxian needed to take breaths. “The note was nice. Thank you. But there is no need.”
Wei Wuxian waved a hand through the air. “Of course there is!” To him, Lan Wangji’s comfort was never a hardship, it was as natural to him as breathing. Lan Wangji knew this because he felt the same. “You were upset. I don’t know why you just didn’t tell me.”
Lan Wangji paused, uncertain. “You like to go on walks.” He had meant it to be a statement, but it was a question. Lan Wangji still did not understand the practice, even though the second year of their marriage had swept away several weeks ago. Lan Wangji would be already divested of his robes and headpiece, even his ribbon, his hair tied back to sleep, but Wei Wuxian would get this look on his face, like he had to see the world, and he’d pull on his boots. It’s exciting, Lan Zhan!
“I do like to go on walks.” There was always something captivating about Wei Wuxian piecing a mystery together, a certain cunning light in his eyes that couldn’t be hidden by just moonlight. Going on walks. Being apart. Not wanting Wei Wuxian to be trapped in the jingshi or their bed or Lan Wangji’s arms. Sometimes, Wei Wuxian hardly needed any words from Lan Wangji at all. “But I think you’ll find that I’m a genius, Lan Zhan!” He tilted his head, hair spilling over Lan Wangji’s knee. “My idea was great.”
“Hm.” Lan Wangji set the note aside, to pack away later in the little rosewood box where he kept all of Wei Wuxian’s letters and silly drawings that he sent whenever he was out on night hunts and Lan Wangji was stuck inside Cloud Recesses dealing with politics. “Come to bed.”
Three weeks of dreamless sleep followed, tucked together until their breaths were the same. When he woke, the first thing he noticed was the slip of paper, folded and tucked between his index and middle fingers, not Wei Wuxian’s absence.
Lan Wangji unfurled the paper. His fingers only trembled a small bit. A donkey with a little smile beamed down at him.
Lan Wangji’s aim was perfect. “A loquat is not acceptable.” The offending fruit hit right on Wei Wuxian’s forehead and bounced off into his waiting hand.
A moment of outraged silence and then peals of laughter, bursting into existence like the sun breaking through clouds after a bout of rain. “It was within my reach!”
Lan Wangji closed his eyes, fighting hard against the smile threatening to emerge. Wei Wuxian’s laughter was contagious. “What if I had rolled over?”
“Lan Zhan, it took me a year to get you to hold me while we slept.” Wei Wuxian tossed the loquat back at Lan Wangji, who snatched it out of the air immediately. They’d ate a few last night after dinner, sitting on the porch and watching rain collected in puddles under their bare feet. The remaining one had been placed perfectly in the middle of the bedsheet, so out of place that Lan Wangji had been startled right out of his fear. “You Lans might as well be statues in bed for how little you move! You weren’t going to roll over.”
Lan Wangji bit into it, offering the second half back. “No loquats.” He would not have enjoyed explaining to the laundry why his robes and bed linens were stained with sticky brown loquat juice. “No fruits.”
The fruit ban emboldened Wei Wuxian. He returned to non-edible items but the gifts — they were gifts, really — got sillier after that. An ink brush, thankfully clean. Lan Wangji’s headpiece, which he was grateful not to have rolled over onto. Drawings, often. Most were of rabbits, leaping all over the page with characteristic poise.
Tonight, Wei Wuxian had left behind the belt he was wearing earlier this evening, stretched flat on the sheets. He was probably wandering around the mountain with his outer robe flapping in the wind and embarrassing the juniors on patrol.
Lan Wangji woke up crying.
Wei Wuxian was already awake, rolling onto his side and sliding both hands against Lan Wangji’s neck until his thumbs rested against his jaw. “Lan Zhan? Lan Zhan, shh, I’m here.”
He wrenched open his eyes, his face shadowed where the curtain of Wei Wuxian’s hair cut through the moonlight. The worried frown on Wei Wuxian’s face smoothed out into a hesitant smile when Wei Wuxian saw that Lan Wangji was awake. Bright eyes, full of emotion. A hint of worry. They always were. Because he was alive.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji choked out.
“Yes, I’m here,” Wei Wuxian promised. He brushed away the tears Lan Wangji was spilling, his thumb smoothing over his cheekbone again and again. Lan Wangji leant into it, needing the pressure. “Always, Lan Zhan. Want to talk about it?”
No. There was nothing new to say, there was never anything new to say. There were just the days where Lan Wangji’s dreams remembered thirteen years of missing a man with no promise of return. Not like missing him on a night hunt, or missing him when he had to share breakfast with annoying sect leaders, but missing him with no end like night without the promise of dawn.
Lan Wangji reached up, wrapping his arms around Wei Wuxian’s neck, and crushed him to his chest. He didn’t need to talk. Wei Wuxian didn’t need to talk at him. His warm weight was enough.
A jar of Emperor’s Smile was not technically a fruit, so it did not break the rules. Lan Wangji clearly should have expanded them to include food or drink. Lan Wangji huffed out a bit of laughter — Wei Wuxian was always so confident that Lan Wangji would never throw out an arm in panic. It hadn’t happened yet, but he could have easily sent precious wine and shards of pottery across the floor.
But here the jar was, nestled neatly in the crook of Lan Wangji’s elbow.
Sometimes, Wei Wuxian was very effective at getting what he wanted and what he wanted today was Lan Wangji’s company on a night hunt. Unfortunately, Lan Wangji couldn’t agree.
“You want to come with me,” Wei Wuxian wheedled, hiking his robes up so he could throw his leg over Lan Wangji’s and settle in his lap. Lan Wangji studiously pretended to read his book, even going so far as to prop the edge against Wei Wuxian’s chest, but his focus was entirely on the way Wei Wuxian hooked his leg around Lan Wangji’s waist. “Will my dutiful husband not give me his attention?”
“You have it,” Lan Wangji told him. The book was shaking in his hands because Wei Wuxian was laughing against it. “You make it impossible to read.”
“I think I’m much more interesting than the book.” Wei Wuxian tugged it out of Lan Wangji’s gras and — gently, so gently — placed it on the table instead of throwing it aside. He had to lean back to do so, his loose robes draping delicately around his bare collarbone and one hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder for balance. Lan Wangji trailed a finger across the tantalizing jut of bone there, revealing more and more skin until the robe slipped off Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. Wei Wuxian gasped, pulling it back up as if scandalized. “Hanguang-jun! You haven’t even listened to my proposal.”
“I have.” The proposal consisted of a night hunt on their own, a week of travel, and Wei Wuxian sitting in his lap with his fingers digging into Lan Wangji’s shoulders. It was the best proposal Lan Wangji had read today by a long shot. “But Yao-zongzhu is visiting.”
“You’re so boring now, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian complained, following the slight up with a kiss to soften the blow. “Are you going to miss me when I’m gone?”
Lan Wangji took his time considering and Wei Wuxian gasped dramatically, pushing out of his arms like a scorned lover. Lan Wangji reeled him back in by the collar of his robes. “Very much.”
Wei Wuxian sprawled against him, soft and warm, his thumb smoothing circles against the underside of Lan Wangji’s jaw, pausing against his pulse. “Hm,” Wei Wuxian said in between sloppy kisses along Lan Wangji’s neck. “That’s not fair.”
Lan Wangji was not in the business of calling things unfair. But he could, perhaps, be inclined to say that his position as Chief Cultivator grated on him. Especially whenever Wei Wuxian started to flit around faster than normal, needing space outside Cloud Recesses, and Lan Wangji could not accompany him. When they were young, he had wanted nothing more to be with Wei Wuxian on the road, always in constant motion like the river tide. He still dreamt of that, sometimes.
“Soon.” They both knew there was no easy way to get out of meeting with sect leaders, no matter how much Lan Wangji wanted to and no matter how much Wei Wuxian wanted to convince him to reschedule. Soon could mean in a few months, if Lan Wangji had time, but Wei Wuxian’s eyes went soft, because soon also meant that one day Lan Wangji could discard the mantle he’d never wanted.
For now, Lan Wangji tilted his head back to allow Wei Wuxian easier access. For now, he was willing to let Wei Wuxian continue to try to convince him.
So the next morning, Wei Wuxian was up at five alongside Lan Wangji, quietly whining about the early morning in such a soft, steady way that Lan Wangji’s heart felt overgrown with blooming spring flowers. So early, Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian mouthed against the nape of Lan Wangji’s neck. He always liked to press kisses there. He and Lan Sizhui set off early, Lan Wangji seeing them off at the gate with no small regret in his heart. Lan Sizhui had grown into such a talented cultivator, following his Hanguang-jun’s footsteps to be where the chaos was, now that Lan Wangji was politely locked behind stone walls. He didn’t need his family bothering him on night hunts, but Wei Wuxian joined him sometimes and Lan Wangji wished to join their little family too.
Wei Wuxian left his red hair ribbon tied to the headboard. When Lan Wangji woke up, trembling, he stretched out his hand and catch the end of the soft-worn silk, fluttering gently, and remember the way he’d tug on it in the golden-summer when he wanted Wei Wuxian’s attention all on him.
Wei Wuxian was not a particularly gifted tailor. His skills were limited almost entirely to stitching skin back together. Lan Wangji was not sure how, exactly, he’d managed to create a small plush rabbit, about the size of his hand, complete with a black stitched nose and eyes and a fluffy tail. The eyes were a little lopsided, but the effect was cute instead of laughable. The red fabric haphazardly lining the rabbit’s ears belonged to one of Wei Wuxian’s old robes. The rabbit itself might have been made from one of Lan Wangji’s old robes.
Lan Wangji tucked the rabbit under his arm and fell back asleep.
Wei Wuxian was, at his best and most natural, someone who could not sit still if his life depended on it. He was always moving, his fingers blurring as they tapped rhythms and songs against whatever surface they could find — the table, Chenqing, his pink lips once, when he was bored and they were in a meeting. It had been very distracting for Lan Wangji.
So Lan Wangji understood the errant nighttime walks that Wei Wuxian took, when he needed breath, space, the world. Sometimes there was an undeniable frenzy to him, an itch deep under the skin to move.
Sometimes he didn’t take walks at all.
“Lan Zhan.” His finger brushed once, twice, against Lan Wangji’s cheek, feather-light. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan whispered back, turning his head to look at Wei Wuxian. He’d been awake before Wei Wuxian had even spoken his name, blinking his eyes open sleepily and wondering what had woken him. Wei Wuxian must have shifted or murmured or curled his fingers tight in Lan Wangji’s sleeve. Lan Wangji had long since learned he was attuned to Wei Wuxian’s every motion; rising and falling like his chest with each breath.
When Wei Wuxian woke up like this, his breathing was slow. Like he’d forgotten he needed to.
“Oh.” A moment of silence. Wei Wuxian blinked, moonlight gone and then clear in his eyes once again. “I think I’m—” his mouth twisted down, cutting his words off. “Hungry.”
He wasn’t hungry. There were some nightmares he woke up from, ones that were heavy and clung like spiderwebs, nightmares that siphoned him away, bits and pieces until he was nothing left at all, and he could never say what he needed after them. Even now, he could not say, and the bitter twist of his lips promised that he was upset about that too, even after all these years.
Lan Wangji rolled over onto his side, throwing one arm heavy over him, settling his hand right in between Wei Wuxian’s shoulder blades. After all these years, he too had learned how to comfort and promise. “I’ll cook for you.”
“You always cook for me,” Wei Wuxian mumbled, which was true in the technical sense as well as the more metaphorical road they were wandering. He tucked himself up against Lan Wangji’s side, even though his was already warm. “That’s good of you.”
“I like cooking,” Lan Wangji replied. “Though a-Yuan did not enjoy my attempts at first.”
“Tell me.” Wei Wuxian always liked a story.
“He said it tasted like feet.” Wei Wuxian’s body was sinking into his, heavy and pliant. Closer to dreams than awake. “He liked the spicy dishes but I burned them too often. He made sure to tell me.” He waited a moment and received nothing but a snore in compensation.
It never took very long to coax Wei Wuxian back to sleep this way. Were it Lan Wangji, he would hate to receive childhood stories about a boy that he should have been the one to raise, but Wei Wuxian never dwelled on it. He was so proud of the boy and how tall he stood now.
Lan Wangji turned his head, just to the left, where the black sky was turning gray, a promise that it was almost time for him to wake. There was no sense in returning to sleep.
Entire seasons could come and go without a single nightmare for either one of them. Their fourth anniversary heralded in spring, which blossomed into summer. Summer faded into fall and Lan Wangji slept through each night until the dead of winter, startling awake like a crack of ice. Tonight, Wei Wuxian had left not just his belt, but his outer robe and inner robe, neatly tucked into each other, with his headpiece sitting atop the pillow as if it were the crown of Wei Wuxian’s head.
Lan Wangji laughed and ran the pads of his fingers against the embroidery, imagining the soft sigh of Wei Wuxian’s skin underneath them.
“Is that a list?”
Wei Wuxian immediately slammed a hand down on the piece of paper, which skidded under the weight and slid right off the table. Wei Wuxian looked thoroughly defeated by the whole process. “Don’t look!”
Lan Wangji raised an unimpressed eyebrow.
Wei Wuxian huffed, tucking the runaway paper into his robe. “Yes, it’s a list!” He wrinkled his nose up and Lan Wangji obligingly lifted his arm so that Wei Wuxian could collapse in his lap. “You don’t wake up every night, so I can reuse those ones! I’m going to run out eventually — hey, you don’t wake up and not tell me, do you?”
No. Lan Wangji studied the paper in front of him, instead.
Wei Wuxian feigned outrage at his lack of a response. “Hanguang-jun! Tell me right now, do you? I can’t reuse any gifts — Lan Zhan!”
“Lan Zhan, come with me, come with me!”
Lan Wangji let himself look up from the reports he was reading. His eyes didn’t want to focus and Wei Wuxian’s form blurred for a moment before he blinked, hard, and could see his husband again. “Where?”
“Caiyi Town, just for a drink.” Wei Wuxian was already holding out Lan Wangji’s outer robe, which had been shed in the last hour as Lan Wangji readied for bed, except tonight that had meant doing paperwork instead of reading, the way Lan Wangji liked and it was nearing nine, but — “Just a break. You haven’t left Cloud Recesses in forever! Don’t you want to see me be scandalous in town?”
“No.” Lan Wangji frowned, but then Wei Wuxian deflated, just a little bit, and Lan Wangji did not like to see that expression on his face. And it had been a long week full of paperwork and little else. Not enough time together. So he held his arm out so that Wei Wuxian could slide the sleeve up to his shoulder. He always made the act of dressing Lan Wangji so tantalizing, fingers dancing across his shoulder blades. “We could stay in,” Lan Wangji suggested hopefully, catching Wei Wuxian’s hand. He brushed a kiss along his knuckles, then turned his hand over and kissed his palm.
“Lan Zhan, you’re incorrigible,” Wei Wuxian scolded. He looked considering for a moment, fingers tap-tapping along Lan Wangji’s jaw, but from the rhythm alone, Lan Wangji knew it was a lost cause.
He leaned into Wei Wuxian’s touch just for a second then dragged himself away. “Let us go.”
Wei Wuxian beamed at him, darting around and sliding the door open. Lan Wangji picked up his money purse on the way out, since Wei Wuxian surely wouldn’t have one, then a cloak as well, since winter hadn’t quite turned into spring. They fell into step easily, Wei Wuxian’s fingers lacing together against his. He knew the path well, his steps sure after years of treading it in the dark.
It was peaceful, the half-moon peeking through the pines. Lan Wangji breathed in the night, the promise of snow from a still-cold spring in the air. Tomorrow, maybe. Their anniversary was soon.
“Do you always go to Caiyi Town on your walks?” It seemed absurd that Lan Wangji had never asked. All he knew was that sometimes Wei Wuxian needed air. Sometimes he needed to be held or to be talked to and Lan Wangji would provide that as well.
“Hm?” Wei Wuxian turned as the path got steep, his hand hovering at the small of Lan Wangji’s back to guide him. “No, no, sometimes I go and chat with the juniors on patrol, or sometimes I go to Wen Ning’s. Sometimes I just walk, I don’t know. Helps me think. You don’t have to worry.”
Wei Wuxian let out a startled laugh. “You don’t?”
Lan Wangji frowned, trying to untangle his thoughts. Wei Wuxian’s palm skated against Lan Wangji’s waist. “No. Not like what you are thinking of.” Maybe he should worry. But when he woke up scared, it wasn’t worry, because it wasn’t rational. It was pure panic laced through his body. But he trusted that Wei Wuxian trusted him. “I will always care for your wellbeing. But I know you will come back to me. So I do not worry.”
Wei Wuxian spun around, featherlight kisses landing against Lan Wangji’s cheeks and nose and jaws. Lan Wangji pressed back and Wei Wuxian surprised him, his hands tight on Lan Wangji’s waist lifting him right over a little rocky ridge, like a hero. “You romantic!”
Tonight was a paper man. Bigger than Wei Wuxian’s usual ones, at least two hands tall and one wide, and lying flat on the sheets in Wei Wuxian’s customary place. There was no qi in it, none of Wei Wuxian’s customary spark. Instead it had black lines for eyes, flat and lifeless enough that even the kissy mouth drawn underneath couldn’t save it. It crinkled whenever Lan Wangji moved.
“I did not enjoy the paper man,” Lan Wangji told Wei Wuxian the following night, after their bath.
“Shh, shh, I’m doing your hair,” Wei Wuxian said absently, the teeth of the comb gentle against Lan Wangji’s scalp. “Why didn’t you like my paper man? It’s a classic! I was planning on making them bigger and bigger, though you don’t always tell me when you wake up, so it would have been hard to gauge, it wouldn’t be as funny if they went from tiny to big really fast. Aw, are you sure? It would be really funny.”
“I got a paper-cut,” Lan Wangji told him seriously, holding his finger up. In truth, the crinkling of the paper had woken him up, but he had gotten a paper-cut and the paperman had stared at him too aggressively, despite being a piece of paper unable to move. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t like this gift, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it, staring with its dead eyes. “Very painful.”
Warmth blossomed in Wei Wuxian’s eyes, a little bit like laughter and a little bit like remorse, for taking the joke too far. “Sorry.” His voice was warm like firelight after a cold winter’s day, an apology and a promise all in one. He pressed a kiss to the tiny cut on Lan Wangji’s thumb, as if that was the true problem. It wasn’t important to him, the reason that Lan Wangji refused, only that he did. Lan Wangji’s fingers lingered, pressing against the quiet, contrite smile. “No more papermen. I’ll protect you from them.”
Wei Wuxian had not left behind a gift tonight because he was still working at the desk, his silhouette black against the light from the candle. His matching shadow on the far wall was sharp and thin, distorted. He did this, sometimes, threw himself into work instead allowing himself any mercy. So tense that Lan Wangji ached to look at him.
“Wei Ying.” Wei Wuxian’s back stiffened. “Come to bed.”
He was sure that Wei Wuxian would call cheerfully just a minute, Lan Zhan! And Lan Wangji would wake up in the morning with no proof that Wei Wuxian had been to bed at all. But then Wei Wuxian’s form blurred against the candlelight as he stood. No silhouette after he blew the candle out, then, just the weight of his frame on the mattress.
The doll sword was baffling. It was handmade out of cloth and plush, tiny, and tucked against the headboard like it was a sword stand. The stitching towards the pommel was knotted and messy.
Lan Wangji poked the doll sword through the center of Wei Wuxian’s topknot while doing his hair.
Wei Wuxian’s hand dislodged it immediately and sent it tumbling into his lap. “Oh!” He swept an arm towards to the top shelf, where the little white bunny sat next to Lan Wangji’s favorite novels. “For the rabbit!”
Lan Wangji was holding a comb in one hand and Wei Wuxian’s hair in the other, so he didn’t pinch the bridge of his nose. Objectively, it was funny that the rabbit got a sword. Except Lan Wangji wanted to leave his position of chief cultivator so badly that the joke seemed cruel. Wei Wuxian knew how much he didn’t want the title. He was usually so good about not pushing the issue.
“Lan Zhan? I can take it back, I thought it would be funny. Um, because we’re in this together. But… maybe it’s not?”
Lan Wangji dropped a kiss to the crown of Wei Wuxian’s head. “It would be cruel to deny him the sword,” he allowed, suddenly feeling very ridiculous that he’d been jealous of a stuffed animal going on adventures. Wei Wuxian wasn’t making fun of him. He was making fun of the situation, they were both in, together. Because they loved each other and had decided to do this together. “Will you take him with you on night hunts?”
Wei Wuxian leaned back, his hair sliding through Lan Wangji’s fingers as he tilted his face up for a kiss. It always took longer than it should to do his hair, because he never sat up straight, but his weight was comfortable against Lan Wangji’s legs, his arms draped over Lan Wangji’s knees. “I prefer the real thing.”
The book Lan Wangji had been reading before bed was balanced precariously on the pillow. It was a romance novel that a bookseller in Caiyi Town had coaxed him into buying, and Lan Wangji had been so invested that for once, Wei Wuxian had pulled it out of his hands, because he was a terrible husband, and ushered him into bed.
The book slid off the pillow, the sharp corner hitting his temple.
For a while, it was errant talismans, whichever ones Wei Wuxian happened to be working on. Lan Wangji swore that one day one of them was going to do something ridiculous, like turn his hair green.
“You’d look very handsome with green hair,” Wei Wuxian joked, tugging on a black strand as he was braiding it into two twin plaits. “So cruel, this is my life’s work, you know!”
Yes, he knew. Four days ago, some of the juniors had messed around with Wei Wuxian’s talisman and turned all their robes blue, which was at least better than their hair or their skin. “I have implicit trust in you.” But he was not willing to test the heavens or his uncle’s patience with green hair. “Not your unfinished talismans. Find something else, please.”
“What about pink hair, then, would that be alright?”
Wei Wuxian left behind a textbook that he reluctantly used while teaching some of his classes, but his humming floated in through the window. The jingshi door was open, and when Lan Wangji padded onto the porch, he found Wei Wuxian sprawled across the floorboards, a lantern at his side, and grading papers all held safe from the wind with small rocks from the garden. He’d pulled his hairpiece out and tucked the twist of his hair into the collar of his robe to keep it out of the way. It spilled out, though, when Wei Wuxian looked up, the end draping in the inkstone. “Lan Zhan, did I wake you?”
Lan Wangji shook his head. It was early, early enough that Wei Wuxian hadn’t come to bed yet. He must have left behind the book just in case Lan Wangji woke up and rolled over and found the table where he liked to do work empty. He assumed that the heat from the jingshi door got to be too much under the blanket and he’d blinked awake.
Lan Wangji gestured at a spare patch of floorboard, near Wei Wuxian’s waist. “Can I?”
“Yes, sit, but don’t mess up my rocks! I had to go chase all my papers earlier, it was terrible.” This was Wei Wuxian’s first year teaching and it suited him well. He had two classes, one for talismans and one on archery, and he took it very seriously. Having something to do in Cloud Recesses, a scheduled reason for being, had served to quell a little of the restlessness that bubbled up in him sometimes.
Years ago, it had done the same for Lan Wangji after his seclusion.
Lan Wangji settled with his back against the wall of the jingshi and then, after a moment of thought, settled his legs over the small of Wei Wuxian’s back. Wei Wuxian grunted from the weight, half-breathless laughter, then reached back and awkwardly patted Lan Wangji’s knee. “You came out here specifically to weigh me down like I’m a paper?”
Lan Wangji adjusted his legs just slightly, so his knees settled in the dip of Wei Wuxian’s spine. “Yes.”
“I won’t fly away!”
Years ago, Lan Wangji had thought he would. He had; they’d been separate entities for several months; only Wei Wuxian’s letters as relief. I love you, Wei Wuxian had written at the end of each one, and Lan Wangji had known that. Always had known that, even though Wei Wuxian had been a flyaway paper wanting to see the world after his death. Lan Wangji had tried not to take it personally then, but he had.
“I know,” and it was the truth. Wei Wuxian flitted away, on night hunts and visits to other sects, and occasionally, rarely, just the urge to see a change in the scenery. He was never meant to be still, but neither was Lan Wangji — he’d just been trained to stay in one place, a rock instead of a breeze.
Wei Wuxian rolled over, displacing Lan Wangji’s legs a bit until his calves were on Wei Wuxian’s stomach. Lan Wangji reached out automatically, Wei Wuxian’s hand meeting his in mid-air. He had a small cut bisecting his forefinger, from where he’d showed off talismans earlier.
Wei Wuxian’s face was painted gold from the light of the lantern. “Be my breeze soon, hm?”
Another rabbit, in a pale gray this time instead of white. Another of Wei Wuxian’s old robes. It was much more neatly done this time, the stitches in an even row and the seams tight. It even had black embroidered eyebrows making a silly face. Lan Wangji tucked this one under his arm too, resolving to put it up on the shelf next to the other one in the morning.
Wei Wuxian smiled when he saw them up there together.
“I think it’s time.” Lan Wangji wrapped his arms around Wei Wuxian’s waist, fingers folded together over his stomach. Wei Wuxian’s hands settled automatically over his. “Next year by our anniversary.”
Wei Wuxian stiffened in his hands. “Don’t rush yourself, Lan Zhan.” Lan Wangji had never actually committed to giving a deadline, so Wei Wuxian surely believed him, but this position had defined their married lives. Lan Wangji looked forward to seeing what they could be, outside it.
“It is not a rush. I’m overdue.”
It was not always Wei Wuxian leaving Lan Wangji silly gifts. Lan Wangji tried to leave the same when he could — not always silly, because Lan Wangji wasn’t a silly person by nature, but he knew Wei Wuxian was delighted when he tried. Instead he left peeled oranges in a bowl on the table early in the morning, when he knew he had a meeting and couldn’t return for Wei Wuxian’s customary late breakfast. White jars of Emperor’s Smile, always, though that was more habit than gift. Once, a lopsided set of clay bunnies, painted pale green and yellow, made by the daughter of a stall owner who demanded her mother sell them alongside the finely painted bowls and cups. Lan Wangji bought a set of red bowls, which he thought Wei Wuxian would like, and the bunnies, which he knew We Wuxian would like.
Wei Wuxian had delightedly called them the ugliest things he’d ever seen and displayed them on the shelf, near their books.
Sometimes, of course, Wei Wuxian ruined all his plans. Like now, when Wei Wuxian was supposed to be fast asleep in their room in the inn upstairs. That was where Lan Wangji had left him, carefully disentangling them as the early morning sunshine melted through the window, and gone to find them breakfast.
Wei Wuxian, instead, found Lan Wangji waiting at a food stall for jianbing.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, exasperated, as Wei Wuxian’s hands wrapped around his waist. The chef at the stall gave him a look that was too close to laughter for his comfort but at least continued to focus on finishing Wei Wuxian’s portion of the meal, which was bright red because Lan Wangji had requested extra chili oil. More please. Yes, more. Yes, my husband loves spicy food, I — come again? Yes, I find it terrifying. The chef had laughed. “I was going to bring you breakfast.”
“Mm, I know.” Wei Wuxian hooked his chin over Lan Wangji’s shoulder as his horribly spicy food cooked. His cheek was cold from the winter air. “I can’t sleep without you!” He dropped a kiss against Lan Wangji’s jaw. Lan Wangji leant back subtly; his spine aligned with Wei Wuxian’s right shoulder until they were pressed together in one solid line. “You mad at me?”
Wei Wuxian nodded sagely, eyes sparkling. “I know.” He leaned closer to the stall and took a deep breath in, eyes closed in bliss. “Oh, that smells so good.”
All it smelled like to Lan Wangji was spice, a thick cloud of steam coating them until Lan Wangji swore he could taste heat in the air. His nose itched. But Wei Wuxian hummed happily, watching his food sizzle, so even if he was actively seeing it being made, it wasn’t such a bad gift.
The chef gave them two bundles of food. “Very very spicy,” he said, holding one up. He passed this one to Wei Wuxian immediately, correctly assuming he was the husband with the iron stomach. He gave the other one to Lan Wangji with a grin. “Not spicy. And!” He lit up, rooting around under the counter for a small bowl of a thick dark-red sauce. “Extra spicy sauce, for you. My daughter makes it but no one else can handle it.”
Wei Wuxian undoubtedly could. He crowed in delight, tucking the paper-wrapped jianbing under his arm, where it would surely smear oil across the inside of his sleeve, and cupped the little bowl in his palms as if it was precious.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said to the chef, tugging the jianbing out from under Wei Wuxian’s arm. He steered Wei Wuxian over to a few tables in the street, dotted here and there with sleepy diners.
Wei Wuxian took a huge bite of the jianbing Lan Wangji held out for him, red sauce coating his bottom lip. “That’s really good,” he mumbled, tearing up little bits of his food to sop up the sauce with. He let out a full, happy sigh, propping his chin up on his hand. “Did you ask for anything special?”
Lan Wangji delicately shredded his own jianbing, passing little bits over to Wei Wuxian, since he was clearly very hungry this morning. “Peanuts,” he said after a moment. He didn’t particularly remember the rest, but he had thought Wei Wuxian would enjoy the peanuts. “Chicken?”
“You don’t know, huh.” Wei Wuxian bumped his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s. “Too bad. I was going to ask if you knew how to make it.”
Lan Wangji had never made jianbing. “I could learn.”
Lan Wangji nodded. “It might not be good at first,” he warned. Jianbing would be a new dish entirely — his usual repertoire tended towards full meals, things he’d learned to make for Lan Sizhui growing up, or a few spicy dishes from Yunmeng that he’d taught himself in the memory of Wei Wuxian’s taste.
Wei Wuxian stretched his arms across the table, fingers now warm again from the heater, and poked at Lan Wangji’s wrist. He was wearing the hairpin that Lan Wangji had bought for him last night, silver with tiny wrought flowers.
For our anniversary, Lan Wangji said. Whichever one you used to get me to come on this night hunt with you. Because it was late summer and their anniversary was in spring and at this point, they celebrated their anniversary whenever Wei Wuxian felt inclined to annoy the cultivation world by monopolizing their chief cultivator. Lan Wangji suspected no one would be very surprised when he stepped down next year. Wei Wuxian had tucked the pin into his pocket, smiling. We’ve been married a hundred years by now. Lan Wangji smiled too. Not quite.
Wei Wuxian was staring at him now, head tilted so that the bead at the end of the hairpin sloped with him. “You never told me when you learned to cook.”
Lan Wangji blinked at him, searching his memory, but he couldn’t remember once covering the topic. It fascinated him how each day, they crept towards the marker where they had known each other longer than they had been apart, and yet they could still find new things to talk about. “I taught myself in seclusion.” He had never tried it before Wei Wuxian’s death. “I — wanted to learn Yunmeng dishes, to keep you close.” He’d cooked endless spicy dishes — he’d burned them all — and ate every bite, tears streaming down his face from the burn on his tongue, the kiss of bloody lashes on his back, or the gaping hole of regret in his chest. He could not recall why he’d cooked so many dishes, why grief had decided to engage in this bizarre penance, but he had been grateful.
Wei Wuxian frowned at him. “And you liked it? After… that?”
“Not the spice,” Lan Wangji disagreed lightly, and it cleared up a little bit of the storm of Wei Wuxian’s face. Some things were still delicate, but Lan Wangji rather thought they were getting stronger. “But … yes. It was a way to keep me grounded while I worked through my grief.”
While he remembered what life was, once the pain was time-worn and aching instead of sharp frozen water in his lungs. As if a pot of soup could paste him together, until he had seams instead of lashes, until he could take each step forward to a new day with Wei Wuxian’s memory carried against his heart.
“Hm,” Wei Wuxian mused, eating the last bit of his jianbing and sucking the sauce off his fingers. He had a little red spot at the corner of his mouth, tantalizing. Lan Wangji knew better than to kiss it away. “I’m glad. That you had something like that.”
He shuffled along the bench, resting his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. The sun was soft against them; it was early enough that most of the people awake were working the food stalls or owners sweeping out the floor of their restaurants. Lan Wangji let them sit for a while — they needed to visit a few families today, to check in about the ghost haunting new brides, but none of them would be up yet. It was just them. On their “anniversary” night hunt while the chief cultivator duties were far away back in Gusu.
Just Lan Wangji was here, with his husband on an early morning.
“You got enough sleep?” He meant for the night hunt, technically, but in general. Wei Wuxian’s face was clear of dark circles under his eyes and he looked alert, but Lan Wangji wanted to make sure. He’d asked some heavy questions this morning. “You woke early.”
“Yes yes,” Wei Wuxian said obediently, leaning into Lan Wangji’s palm. “Just didn’t want to stay in bed without you there.”
Lan Wangji stirred, confused. “Wei Ying?” He blinked sleep away from his eyes a few times, trying to make out Wei Wuxian’s muted form, but it took a minute: he’d been dead asleep. He could not even remember if he’d been dreaming.
A soft rattling noise, then, “Oh, no, Lan Zhan, go back to sleep!” Wei Wuxian’s form bent over him; left hand cradled to his chest. His fingers were coated with the blue-black of blood at night. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
Lan Wangji had not woken up panicked, but it was building now at the sight of his hand. “You’re injured.”
“What? Oh! No, no, I, uh. Stuck my hand in one of the gifts I left you.” Lan Wangji started to sit up, but Wei Wuxian held out his free hand immediately. “Nope! You stay right there, like a Lan, and don’t move.”
“Wei Ying.” As requested, Lan Wangji did not move. He heard more than saw the sounds of Wei Wuxian collecting whatever the gift was and placing it on the table. Then the quiet splash of water in the basin as Wei Wuxian cleaned off whatever his gift had been. Lan Wangji cleared his throat, tried for something strict. “What was this gift, tonight.”
Wei Wuxian let out a hesitant whine. “Uh. A bowl of chili oil.”
Lan Wangji’s nose itched as if on command. He could smell it now, making him want to sneeze, but he would give no one the satisfaction, least of all a spicy sauce. “An open bowl?”
Lan Wangji stared up at the ceiling, unable to muster up any anger, because this was the man he had married. He’d married this man, willfully. This man who had woken him up on a dreamless night with machinations that he could not understand. “Why,” he said hoarsely.
Wei Wuxian considered that for a long moment, clearly not having much of an answer, and then a smile crept over his face. “Well,” he said cheerfully, as if dunking his hand in his joke of chili oil meant nothing. “I thought it would be really funny.”
So simple. So easy. He did ridiculous things just because he could, because they might make someone laugh, because it was funny as well as stupid. Funny because it was stupid. No one else had ever been able to scoop out Lan Wangji’s soul like that and make him see the beautiful ridiculousness of the world, of silly people and chili oil.
Laughter bubbled up out of Lan Wangji, helpless laughter. “You thought it would be funny?”
“You’re laughing, aren’t you!”
After the chili oil fiasco, Wei Wuxian reverted to notes for a while. Three nightmares in a row, on the first of each upcoming month, Lan Wangji found drawings of himself folded on his pillow. He tucked each one into the same small box where he kept letters and curios. A drawing of him doing paperwork, with a frowny face slapped on the corner. A drawing of his profile against green ink, as if silhouetted against pine trees.
One of him smiling over a cup of tea.
Lan Wangji was on a night hunt for his next gift. Lan Wangji wasn’t technically supposed to be there at all, having stacks of paper awaiting him back in his office, but a very simple reburial was needed in a village barely an hour’s ride from Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian had meant to go, until Jin Rulan had written him requesting his help with an actual cultivation problem, and Wei Wuxian never denied Jin Rulan anything. Since it was too late to get another cultivator on it, Lan Wangji had gone. It was barely a day of work, and pettily, Lan Wangji was tired of the stacks of papers sitting on his desk.
Wei Wuxian’s story was a lie, because Lan Sizhui was sitting in the inn.
It would not be accurate to say that Lan Wangji did not recognize him; he had raised the boy and would know him no matter what. Sometimes, though, it was as if he’d caught a glimpse of the little boy first before remembering that Lan Sizhui had not been a boy in some time.
Lan Sizhui’s eyes lit up. “Hanguang-jun?”
“Sizhui,” Lan Wangji replied, stopping him before he stood to bow and joining him at the table, their swords parallel to each other against the edge. Lan Sizhui had ordered a few spicier dishes, an indulgence that he blushed about when Lan Wangji asked the waiter for more tea and a blander meal. “I did not realize you would be here.”
It took a moment to note the differences — it had been several months now since Lan Wangji had seen Lan Sizhui at all. A new scar bisected the back of his left hand when he reached to pour the tea, likely from a knife. A jade hairpin replaced the traditional piece juniors wore, and he was wearing a charcoal gray outer robe over the blue, a color that Lan Wangji had never seen him in wear. It suited him well.
He had sauce on his fingers, a childhood habit he’d never managed to eradicate. Still the boy that Lan Wangji knew.
“I was supposed to be meeting Wei-qianbei — oh.” Understanding bloomed in Lan Sizhui’s eyes, then a wide, mischievous smile that he must have learned from Wei Wuxian. “Did he convince you to take a break?”
Wei Wuxian’s machinations to get Lan Wangji to leave Cloud Recesses for the first time in — Lan Wangji calculated — seven months and meet the boy he’d raised could be construed as a break. “Yes.” It was not technically untrue. “You being here was a surprise.”
“I’m on my way back to Cloud Recesses! We can travel together.”
Lan Wangji smiled down at his tea. Lan Sizhui had found his own path, one so like a rogue cultivator these days that Lan Wangji did not know if he still considered Cloud Recesses home. Wei Wuxian often brought letters and well wishes back from Lan Sizhui when he joined him on night hunts, but they could not capture everything.
“You look well,” Lan Wangji elected to say, knowing that Lan Sizhui would understand. I miss you often. I am glad you have been happy. Wei Wuxian had been surprised at Lan Sizhui’s path, but Lan Wangji had not been able to find it in himself. Lan Sizhui had always been more like Wei Wuxian than he’d expected. “I am proud of you.”
It was, after all, the truth.
Lan Sizhui ducked his head, clearly a little embarrassed. “You look well too, Hanguang-jun,” he said formally, as if polite words would stop the blush on his face. “Have you been enjoying your break?”
Lan Wangji pressed his lips together against his smile. “Very much,” he admitted. Even the simple act of walking out the front gate had thrilled him, to say nothing of the easy, quick ride to the small town where all anyone knew of him was that he would help. That was all he’d ever needed. “I will be grateful to step down as chief cultivator this spring.”
Lan Wangji nodded. “It’s time,” he said simply. It was long past time, really.
Lan Sizhui tilted his head thoughtfully. “I would like to go on a night hunt with you and Wei-qianbei.” Quiet words, but he had always been much better at asking for things than either Wei Wuxian or Lan Sizhui.
This request was one that Lan Wangji wanted to fill more than anything, his family together for once. It did not need to be forever, but the promise of it would be more than enough. “I would like that too.”
Chenqing, tonight, the tassel tickling his cheek.
The rabbit left behind this time was a pale blue instead of a white, which was probably one of Lan Wangji’s old robes. It was much smaller, too; Lan Wangji almost hadn’t noticed it at first. He’d sat up, frowning, sure that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t have forgotten to leave him a gift, and then found it squished between their pillows.
“This is Sizhui?”
“Yes! See, he’s still so small!” Wei Wuxian set the baby rabbit up on the shelf next to its parents, nestled against their legs. Lan Sizhui (the person) could not be called small. He was taller than Wei Wuxian, even. But he made for a very adorable baby rabbit. “He wants to go on night hunts with us once you retire.”
Lan Wangji did not like the implication here, one that Wei Wuxian was clearly making because he had that smile on, the one that meant he was feeling devilish. “I am not old.”
Wei Wuxian tweaked the little Bichen on the Lan Wangji rabbit. Over the years, it had gained a tiny white forehead ribbon and a molded jar of liquor. “Of course not, sweetheart.”
A lotus seed pod, small and scrawny, from the pond outside the jingshi. Wei Wuxian had claimed it for his own a few years ago as the night hunts he went on began to recede, little by little. It had taken him a few years to cultivate the mass that stood outside their window. They tasted a little crisper than Yunmeng lotus, but Lan Wangji didn’t mind them that way.
There was a boot on the pillow. One black boot, in the dead of winter, which meant Wei Wuxian was wandering around outside in his bare feet, courting frostbite.
Lan Wangji shot out of bed, throwing his own cloak and boots on haphazardly. Wei Wuxian never wore his cloak, always pretending he was too strong to catch a cold, and Lan Wangji always pointed that Wei Wuxian was sick at least once a year, and Wei Wuxian pointed out that Lan Wangji was always sick twice a year, how about that! As if he didn’t go around giving his colds to Lan Wangji in the first place.
Lan Wangji wrenched open the jingshi door awkwardly, one boot clutched in each hand as flurries of white snow drifted in.
Wei Wuxian was coming up the path, wearing a heavy winter cloak and a confused look. “Lan Zhan?” He quickened his pace, hands already reaching out, but the snow had built up and each step was slow and cloying. “Are you alright? Did you have a bad dream — did the gifts stop working, I—”
Lan Wangji shook one of the boots in his face. “It is winter!”
Were Lan Wangji not so panicked, he would have taken the time to bask in the completely dumbfounded look on Wei Wuxian’s face. It was not often that Wei Wuxian was stopped in his tracks.
Lan Wangji was panicked, though, so he was remarkably dumbfounded himself when Wei Wuxian started laughing, completely helpless laughter that he couldn’t control.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said in between bursts of laughter. He sank into a crouch, cackling, his hands upstretched to where Lan Wangji held them. His eyes were watering from laughing so hard and something tight around Lan Wangji’s heart eased, a knot pulled free in one easy motion. “Lan Zhan, I wore your shoes.”
“Lan Zhan, come on a walk with me!”
Lan Wangji turned the direction his hand was being pulled and found it already tucked into the crook of Wei Wuxian’s elbow. “Wei Ying,” he said, a little scolding. “I can’t leave.” This was his own party, technically, even if he didn’t want it. But all the sects had insisted on one last good-bye event. Technically, Lan Wangji was no longer chief cultivator. His last day had been yesterday.
“Sure you can. You don’t mind, do you, Nie Huaisang?”
Nie Huaisang snapped his fan open in one smooth clean movement. He’d been very kindly entertaining Lan Wangji with jokes that were actually funny, so that Lan Wangji did not have to converse with any other sect leaders that he had already spent far too many years conversing with. “Not at all. I suspect you’re very glad to be rid of this duty, hmm?”
Lan Wangji nodded. “We are planning a trip.” An extravagance he couldn’t wait for. Just another week now, because Wei Wuxian had convinced him that a week of lying around and waking up later and fucking in the morning — his own words — was necessary. “For our seventh anniversary.” With luck, they wouldn’t return to Cloud Recesses for several months.
“It’s our sixth.”
Lan Wangji frowned at Wei Wuxian. “Seventh.”
Wei Wuxian frowned right back and had the gall to count the years on his fingers out loud, on one whole hand. Lan Wangji counted along in his head and — Wei Wuxian counted six, waggling his pointer finger in joy. “Ha!” He grinned, not at all offended by Lan Wangji’s faulty memory. Lan Wangji felt horribly wrong-footed — it was usually Wei Wuxian forgetting things. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you love me so much you don’t even know how many years it’s been since you married me!”
“You did this,” Lan Wangji complained as Wei Wuxian tugged him to his feet. “You keep creating new anniversaries.”
Wei Wuxian steered Lan Wangji out of the hall, towards the gardens. Soft lanterns floated atop the ponds on the gardens, illuminating each gentle step. His cheeks were flushed from the wine and from teasing Jin Rulan, who he hadn’t seen since his twenty-first birthday last November. Lan Wangji curled his fingers around the crook of his elbow, carefully, just in case — Wei Wuxian was remarkably good at leaving the past in the past, but slipping into self-deprecation was easy as slipping under the surface of water when your limbs weighted you down.
But there was none of that, today. Just Wei Wuxian’s pure, palatable joy coming off him in waves. “Every day with you is a day I should celebrate.”
“Thank you.” Wei Wuxian leaned down, hiking his robes up to avoid the water, and splashed a hand against the surface, sending the lanterns bobbing away. He created water patterns of droplets, no real rhyme or reason to it, but Lan Wangji watched him unabashedly. He must have been more subtle about it in the past, but he no longer had patience. He no longer cared who might be gossiping about the chief cultivator, Hanguang-jun, watching his husband.
Lan Wangji wanted more days with him, to forget how long they had been together because it seemed like an eternity stretching forth in either direction, past or present. He was going to get them.
Two boots, a set. Lan Wangji dearly hoped that Wei Wuxian had not been placing them here every night, since it had been months, now, since the last one.
They often traveled in the fall and spring, and spent the summers in Cloud Recesses. The winters they traded off, between Yunmeng Jiang and Lanling Jin, which Wei Wuxian always claimed was because family was important but realistically was because he had never learned to weather the horrible biting wind on the mountain.
The summers were cooler on the mountain than anywhere else, but they were still hot and sticky, always making Lan Wangji languid and useless, and Wei Wuxian laughing. I’m a Yunmeng boy, this is nothing, he’d tease, rolling his sleeves and pant legs up. He had done this now, bare elbow propped up on bare knee as he sat at the table, the end of the brush tucked in his mouth as he thought.
Lan Wangji had allowed himself to be stripped down to just his trousers, which Wei Wuxian had rolled up for him with a neat flash of bare wrist. He was lying in the shade of the jingshi, the doors half-open to let the cool breeze through, but sweat had collected at the base of his neck and the waistband of his pants and his temples. He was curled up on his side around Wei Wuxian, a half-moon that didn’t touch the stars, and waiting for the thunderstorm outside to break into crisp raindrops, so he could breathe.
He may have been asleep, even.
Wei Wuxian’s voice was soft against the breeze, hot a muggy with just a sharp undercurrent of cool air. “You haven’t had so many nightmares, lately.”
It took a minute before Lan Wangji’s tongue cooperated. Slow in summer. “We travel more.” When they traveled, he was tired — the rewarding type of tired that came from a job well done, from a long day’s walk, from sweet honeyed kisses and hot fingers that dipped beneath his waistband when he was just on the cusp of sleep.
Wei Wuxian’s voice was thin, pointed. Wounded. “So your nightmares are worse when I go on walks.”
Lan Wangji opened his eyes, staring at Wei Wuxian’s hip for a moment. It shifted while he was watching and he turned his head up, a few strands of hair catching on the floorboards, to find Wei Wuxian’s face, carefully arranged into neutrality. “I’ve never considered it,” Lan Wangji said honestly. “Perhaps.” He chanced settling his hand on the dip of Wei Wuxian’s waist, thumb on the jut of his hipbone. “Does it matter?”
“I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian said tightly. His eyes were distant, seeing much more than the darkening skies outside. “Maybe. If I’ve been — hurting you, and you never even said, it would.”
Lan Wangji dug his thumb into the skin, a pinch to bring him back. Wei Wuxian yelped, and Lan Wangji smoothed apologetic circles onto the faint red mark. “It does not matter to me,” he said firmly. “Maybe I noticed your absence when you left at night. But you left at night because you needed to.”
“I never thanked you,” Wei Wuxian said softly, placing his hand on the floorboards just behind Lan Wangji’s back. His hair brushed the bottom of Lan Wangji’s ribcage; his arm almost unbearably close. “For not asking me to stop.”
Perhaps everything was cyclical in nature. Lan Wangji had needed to remain in Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian needed to be able to leave. His night time wanderings had been necessary too. Perhaps Lan Wangji had woken up more often when the bed was empty. If he had asked Wei Wuxian to stay, perhaps the bed would be empty always, a life together suffocated. “I did not want to.”
Instead, now, they have this.
Wei Wuxian’s fingers lingered on the raised skin of the brand on Lan Wangji’s chest. “I always got so restless, it just — it helped me breathe.” His face twisted immediately, worry hitching in his voice as he said, “Oh, Lan Zhan, not — you weren’t trapping me or anything, I wasn’t unhappy—”
Years ago, this would have been painful. Such a simple sentence would have been too much weight to bear. Lan Wangji can hardly remember being that person, so unsure of himself, of his choices. “Wei Ying,” he interrupted, hand circling Wei Wuxian’s wrist. Always connected. “I was restless too.”
Outside, the sky broke, sunshine and rain kissing dry earth.
Lan Wangji blinked open his eyes — no moonlight tonight, so the action made barely any difference. He was alone, the jingshi dark. Wei Wuxian must be on a walk, he loved moonless nights even still. Lan Wangji drew his arm back in, tired. They’d only just got back home last night.
Sleep quickly dragged him back under.
He did not understand the majesty of his simple action until the next morning. “What did you leave me last night?”
Wei Wuxian stared at him for far too long, hand poised in mid-air because he’d been in the middle of serving their breakfast. Long enough that Lan Wangji almost succumbed to the urge to fidget. “You don’t know?”
“I fell back asleep.” Lan Wangji took the spoon from Wei Wuxian’s hands to serve then froze too. He’d fallen asleep. No panic, no worry, no blind searching. He had known that Wei Wuxian was gone. He had known he would come back. He went back to sleep. “Ah.”
Wei Wuxian beamed at him, rivaling the morning sun. “Oh, I’m going to save that one. It was a really good one.”
“Nope! You’ll just have to wait.”
Lan Wangji slid the bowl over to Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian who had made lists and gifts and thanked Lan Wangji for not stifling him. Wei Wuxian who cried at night sometimes and sometimes wandered away and always wandered back. His husband.
Lan Wangji could wait. They had time.