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never look away

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Sometimes, when he's drowsy, Wei Wuxian wonders if this is what death feels like when it isn't sudden.

Lan Wangji has used a talisman to keep the bath water warm, and it pools around him like blood. An encompassing embrace.

It must be comfortable in a womb.

"It sounds unpleasant to me," Lan Wangji says, amused but clearly sincere.

Wei Wuxian blinks his eyes open. He hadn't realized he was speaking out loud. It's so quiet. He can hear his own breathing. "Lan Zhan, do you dislike closed-in spaces? Or the dark?"

"No. However, the thought of living within and surrounded by another person's organs sounds unpleasant." Lan Wangji uses the edge of his palm to keep the water out of Wei Wuxian's eyes as he washes his hair for him. His fingers are terribly careful with the last of the grime and blood matted in his hair. "Don't you think?"

"When you position it that way, yes." Wei Wuxian laughs, but that hurts, so he stops laughing and closes his eyes again.

He feels Lan Wangji's breath close to his face. He doesn't have to look to know his eyes are pinched with concern.

"You're in pain," Lan Wangji says.

"Let me be." He doesn't mean to sound cross. But maybe he does. Maybe if he could — if he could simply hurt, the hurt would eventually pass. "Let me be in pain," he amends. Because he doesn't want to be fixed, but he doesn't want to be alone either.

The inside of his eyelids begin to sting. He considers sinking under the surface of the gently scented water that holds him. Instead, he asks, "Were you a quiet baby?"

"No." A thoughtful hum. "I cried often. I've been told I had to be carried every day of my first 100 days. Worn by my mother and my nurses. And if anyone set me down, my cries could be heard all the way down the mountain."

This sounds exaggerated, but Lan Wangji seems to believe it. Wei Wuxian wants to ask him who told him this story, and how often he heard it, but he doesn't.

"I think you appreciated the comfort of the womb after all, and regretted being cast out into this world," Wei Wuxian says, his intended lightness falling flat. He can't recall how their conversation drifted onto this topic. He never asks Lan Wangji about his mother. He never presses on the bruises. He would never. "I'm sorry. I'm tired."

"Wei Ying," comes the concerned response. Always this. Always such patience.

Patience only lasts so long. Eventually the bite happens. So why does he always feel for the edges of patience, why does he need to know where the boundaries lie? What the bite feels like?

"It's all right, the water is far too hot," Lan Wangji says, making an excuse for Wei Wuxian's rambling — deflecting with expertise that feels like polished bronze held up to show Wei Wuxian his reflection.

That is my line, Wei Wuxian thinks. My line. He opens his eyes and sits up abruptly, making the water splash, making his hair drip cold down his back. A dozen individual hurts scream in protest, but not as loudly as the ripping feeling in his chest. "Why did you do that?"

Lan Wangji has his sleeves tied back. His hands, left empty, hang over the edge of the bath, wet and soapy. He blinks once, still in the way he gets when he's measuring something. A challenge. An opponent. The impact of a mistake. "Wei Ying," he says. And that's unfair. That's stalling.

"You're making excuses for me now? Is that how this will go?"

"You're exhausted. You said so yourself." There's a satisfyingly frayed quality to Lan Wangji's voice now.

Wei Wuxian admires his handiwork. He's never known when to stop. "Why don't you ask me why I did it?"

Watching him, unflinching, Lan Wangji asks, "Why did you do it?"

But Wei Wuxian wants to see him flinch. Wants to know if it would show in his eyes, or on his mouth, or if his fingers would twitch or his shoulders would tighten.

"I don't know!" Wei Wuxian says — hears that it's actually a shout. Feels it in his throat like a scab dislodging. This would be much better if he had clothes on, or even sheets. He can feel his soft bits swaying in the water as he shifts, adopting some mimicry of a fighting stance in the cramped quarters of the cedar plank bath. "I don't know why. I don't even have a reason."

Lan Wangji gets his robes fully soaked when he drags him out of the bath. It would have been a fairer fight any other time, but as things stand, Wei Wuxian sags before he's even been swung up into Lan Wangji's arms.

"You are humiliating me," Wei Wuxian says mildly.

Lan Wangji doesn't answer him, his heart pounding so fast and hard that it feels like it's reverberating into Wei Wuxian's shoulder and down his arm. Wei Wuxian knows that even vigorous sex doesn't have this effect on Lan Wangji.

Having found this edge doesn't feel satisfying anymore.

On the other hand, Lan Wangji seems to derive just a little satisfaction out of dropping him into the bed hard enough to make the ceiling spin.

"I cannot believe you'd torment a fragile, injured man," he whines.

Lan Wangji says, voice too low, "You didn't dodge."

They both knew it. They knew it from the moment Lan Wangji dug Wei Wuxian out from under the stinking corpse of the demon that took the shape of an ox with more legs and more horns than an ox should have.

It is another thing entirely to say it.

Another to hear it spoken.

Wei Wuxian drags a heavy blanket over his damp, naked body and makes enough room in the bed for Lan Wangji to fit without touching him. He is startled to find that he does not feel comfortable being exposed. His bare shoulders feel raw. It has been a long time since he was last stripped to the waist and made to look his failures in the eye.

"I didn't," he finally acknowledges.

Lan Wangji has busied himself using spiritual energy and more focus than necessary to dry his robes. He is slow to respond. "Do you wish that you'd never returned?" This soft, wretched question. It is too much.

The blanket falls to Wei Wuxian's waist as he reaches involuntary, cut to the marrow by the sorrow that lines Lan Wangji's face. Lan Wangji has lowered his gaze. He stands beside the bed like a boy awaiting punishment. Out of reach.

Oh, it is difficult to walk alongside pain with no measure against it. Understanding better than he did before, Wei Wuxian releases a tight breath, chuckles once. Flinches, of course, because he's bruised a rib or two.

He realizes, belatedly, that he has not answered Lan Wangji's question. Will he ever stop leaving marks on this man? "I never wish that." It is the truth. But when Lan Wangji turns a questioning gaze on him, the answers are further from his grasp. Still, he reaches. He ought to. After all, Lan Wangji had to scrape demon ox entrails out of his hair.

After all, after all.

Rubbing the back of his wrist across his eyes, he says, "It feels inevitable. That I will let you down, you know?" He raises his hand, gently implores Lan Wangji to allow him to keep speaking. Lan Wangji doesn't look happy about it, but he sits at the edge of the bed. Their bed. He wears the expression of a man listening to something he doesn't want to hear. That's fair. "It feels like—"

"I dream that you've gone," Lan Wangji says abruptly. He's looking at Wei Wuxian's bare foot where the blanket has fallen away in his restless shifting. His fingers are trembling. "You're not always dead." His voice breaks. "Sometimes you've left with your things. You've gone away."

"Lan Zhan—"

"I don't know where you go. You don't have many things. You don't have many things here."

"I have you," Wei Wuxian attempts. It isn't that he doesn't mean it. It's true. He wants for nothing here. Wants only to begin each day with a fresh opportunity to deserve all that he's been given. It's only that, well, how can he say this and expect it to mean something when he didn't dodge, he didn't dodge. Death was barreling at him, eyes rolling around with unspeakable, mindless rage, and he froze. He wasn't afraid. He should have been afraid.

He is afraid now.

"I don't know why I did that," he whispers. "Will you forgive me, Lan Zhan?"

"Stop that."

It's forceful enough that Wei Wuxian startles. He cannot bring himself to bridge the gap between their bodies. He knows, perhaps, that if he did he could find a way to end this conversation, to make Lan Wangji forget, to make Lan Wangji make him forget. "Stop what?" he asks carefully.

"You said that you do not know why you did that, that you did not have a reason. So you have nothing to apologize for."

"I make you worry. You just told me that you worry I'll leave you. It plagues your dreams, Lan Zhan. I did that to you."

"And this," Lan Wangji says, gesturing vaguely at the purpling flesh at Wei Wuxian's ribs. At his swollen-split lip. At his hair like wet rope down his back. "Did I do this to you?"

"Of course not," Wei Wuxian says, too quickly to see that he's neatly stepped into a trap. He smiles ruefully.

Lan Wangji's fingers find his ankle and hold it. They both stare at the place where calloused hand meets sinewy tendon and sharp bone.

A terrible sigh shakes loose. Wei Wuxian shudders with the force of it. "You're taking advantage of my weakened state."

"It made you angry when I made an excuse, as you said, for your behavior in this weakened state. Now I am holding you accountable for your behavior in this weakened state and you're not satisfied. Which is it, Wei Ying? Which do you desire?"

Deflated, Wei Wuxian allows himself to curl down onto his side and draw his knees close. When he has finished nonsensically grumbling about how infuriating it is when Lan Wangji adopts a formal tone with him, he is in just enough pain to admit, "I don't have nightmares that I've gone or that you've gone. I only dream of all the reasons why you should have made me go long before now. I'm afraid that when you realize you've made a mistake, you won't do it. And you'll grow to hate me, and even then, you are so good, Lan Zhan, you are so good, that you won't tell me." His voice has become a whisper, a confession, his eyes closed, the blanket drawn to his ears, because he is beyond caring what an intolerable child he must sound like. "That's what I'm afraid of. And wouldn't it be easier, wouldn't it be easier if—"

He cannot finish. How could he say these things, how could he, how could he.

It takes very little effort for Lan Wangji to pull him up into his lap. He does not make an effort to stop his crying. He only holds him, his fingertips stroking circles over his spine, at the spot that gives him phantom pains sometimes, the spot that shattered once, a lifetime ago, the first time he fell.

"Ah," Wei Wuxian gasps, hiding his face. "You were right, the bath was too hot, the demon was too smelly, I have a fever, most likely, I am addled with it."

"Don't be foolish," Lan Wangji says, too heartfelt by far.

Wei Wuxian's breath has gone ragged, and he feels heavy and broken open, a little like he does after they've made up a game and battered each other to sticky exhaustion with the Jingshi sealed tight and all of their rawness hidden away from the world they must exist in by the light of day.

He presses his face to Lan Wangji's shoulder, and then his throat. He doesn't kiss him. He gathers his thoughts until they make this shape: "I don't know how to be better."

"At what?" Lan Wangji asked, his unhappiness bared.

"Better, just. Better. For you. At this. Inside. I suppose you were right, all those times. About my temperament. But it wasn't the best to begin with, you know. It wasn't the best."

"You make my stomach and my head hurt, occasionally," Lan Wanji murmurs.

Wei Wuxian snorts a wet laugh. "Only occasionally?"

"Only occasionally, Wei Ying."

"Wouldn't you rather I never caused you hurt?"

"The alternative would be that I had never known you, or you had never returned." Those last few words are spoken carefully, as if they will shatter in his throat if he isn't careful with them. "I prefer you here."

"Giving you headaches."

"Yes. Here, giving me headaches. Talking to me. Angry or scared. Happy." Lan Wangji's brief silence implies a frown. "You're happy? Sometimes?"

"Ah." The tears return, slow and wrung out of him painfully. Hot down his cheeks. "Yes, you baffling man. Of course I am happy. Often."

"I feel the same." There's no doubt he intends the ambiguity. Wei Wuxian can feel the shadow of a smile without looking at Lan Wangji's face.

"Thank you for telling me what you're afraid of," Wei Wuxian whispers hurriedly. "If it's okay, I don't want to talk anymore." He lifts his face to show Lan Wangji that he's sincere this time, sincerely tired, sincerely scraped too close to the bone to carry on.

"Not tonight," Lan Wangji agrees, while clearly believing that this tedious act of cleaning one's own ugly wounds must continue at a later date. He shifts their bodies around, makes the room dark, and cradles Wei Wuxian close — and only a shade too tightly.

They find the soft, shared sound of breath and blood and fabric dragging over skin and skin dragging across skin and exhales that become lingering, satisfying yawns.

The secure embrace feels, Wei Wuxian imagines, as it must have felt in the womb. A time he cannot recall any more than he can recall the time he spent dead, and no more than he will have awareness of the time after the next time he dies. There is comfort in that, along with grief, along with the awareness that loving someone as much as he does means having everything to lose, some day.

Lan Wangji, clearly more exhausted by all this than he allowed himself to let on, has already fallen asleep, clutching Wei Wuxian as if, even in rest, he fears he will slip away. So Wei Wuxian will wait until the morning to tell him that maybe everyone is always a little bit afraid. That he is happy, more than occasionally. That if anyone is going to look his pain directly in the eye, he's glad it's Lan Zhan, who will never look away.