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even in death (it's always you)

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He’s fifteen when he feels the searing, burning, pain in his shoulder blade. He knows what it is, despite the phenomena happening less and less through the generations. A soul mark. It’s supposed to signify where his soulmate will touch him for the first time, which would be funny if it didn’t hurt so much. XiChen is concerned, of course, as he often is with him, but he tries to play it off.

He doesn’t tell him about the mark that's burnt itself into his skin, how it takes the shape of two fingers pressing in. (Why two?) He tries not to dwell on it, either. He knows how rare it is for people to actually find who the soul mark belongs to, and often times the relationships didn’t work out.

Not that he was inclined to worry about it. He’s not interested in women, and he’s not interested in the idea of getting married. He’s fifteen, of course he’s not. (Somewhere else, his soulmate’s mark burned into his skin, a hand print on his chest.)

And then when he’s older, when the disciples of the other dominant clans come to study in Gusu, things change as they often do in life. 

Wei WuXian didn’t so much as walk into his life as he did break into it, a thief in the night stealing what he can— stealing the most valuable thing he locked in his chest to avoid getting hurt.

He doesn’t realize that what he feels for the other isn’t frustration and contempt, rather something more intense and crushing his lungs. 

It’s then when the Wei boy is breaking another rule, drinking, when WangJi threatens to turn them in. Wei WuXian, in retaliation, pushes something onto his back and before he can respond to the burning pain that accompanies it his mind blanks.

He’s dragged out of his drunken coma and beaten for breaking the rules. (Wei WuXian insisted he not get punished since he did it against his will. He didn’t say anything, simply accepting the punishment as it is. Back straight and stiff despite the incessant pain.)

He goes to the cold spring to heal, his mind drifting to the night prior, the burning in his shoulder he’d felt similar to the first time his soul mark appeared in his skin.

The Lan Sect didn’t put much stock in finding soulmates, his Uncle beat it into him that romance was to be his last concern, anyways. For is that not what drove his father to isolation? His mother to her eventual demise? So romance and soulmates wasn’t something discussed much, least of all the fact he has one. He doesn’t want his Uncle to be given any more stress than he already deals with on a regular basis.

And in accordance, Lan WangJi doesn’t give it much thought.

So why now does he find his gaze catching on that troublemaker, restrained yearning in his heart. (Wei WuXian has something he does not, a sort of freedom that he cannot taste in the life he was raised in.)

 

The word soulmate is stuck in the back of his throat like a barely suppressed cough. 

 

Wei WuXian leaves, he moves forward. The Wen Sect declares Lan Gusu rebels. The Cloud Recesses burn, he moves forward. They break his leg, they break his spirit, face stricken with grief of his brother missing, of his home destroyed. It’s only then that he sees him again, Wei WuXian somehow able to hold his spirits high despite the dire situation they’re in. Going so far as to start quoting Lan Gusu rules.

His heart races each time Wei WuXian looks at him with those tender eyes, a soft “Lan Zhan,” on his lips, asking incessantly if he’s okay, his concern about his well being unending.

Later, despite everything, his own injuries from a vicious dog, from the beating he took from the Wens, he still offers him everything. It’s overwhelming, so he says nothing and tries to move away.

When they find themselves alone in the Xuanwu Cave he finally understands the lengths he would go through to ensure Wei Ying’s safety. (He doesn’t realize the extra pain Wei Ying feels when he presses his hand against his brand with the little medicine he has. That searing pain only love can have.)

It scares him, mostly, when he realizes just how much he stares at him, just how much his simple presence eases him yet all the same panics him.

He plays a song for him, humming in a baritone, almost shy. (There are words he already has in mind, and yet he knows it would be too much to even speak them.)

 

The word soulmate blooms in his lungs, suffocating him as he finally leaves once they’re safe.

 

They don’t talk for a long time. Lotus Pier burns. He can’t play with thoughts of rushing to find if Wei WuXian is okay, if he’s alive. Not when they have a war in the entrance of their home, passing the threshold of the doorstep. He learns when Jiang WanYin shows up one day, that Wei WuXian went missing. 

His mouth dries and he instinctively reaches for his soul mark, but stops himself just short. They’ll find him. He will find him  

He plays Inquiry at the location he supposedly last was, having met XiChen along the way.

(“I’m happy to see you too.”

“Mn.”)

Have you seen this man? He asks.

No.

There was a man here a couple of weeks ago, do you know where he went?

I don’t know.

Always those answers. No, and I don’t know. How could he have just… Vanished?

He checks, one morning, in his reflection at his shoulder blade and is filled with a sense of relief knowing it’s still there.

He learns Wei WuXian was dropped in the Burial Mounds. Not dead repeats in his head like a broken record.

Three months pass.

 

Wei WuXian returns, the light smile and bright eyes he once had all but gone. WangJi feels a stabbing pain in his heart when he looks at him, confusion, pain, hurt roiling under his skin.

“Wei WuXian-” he bellows, gaze hard, grip on BiChen even harder.

“Lan WangJi,” Wei WuXian mocks.

Come back to Gusu , he pleaded. I want to protect you, he leaves out the words stuck in the back of his throat because he knows he cannot. He knows that Wei WuXian cannot be controlled, cannot be tamed. He will not repeat his father’s tragedy, he will not.

He won’t stop. He won’t stop asking. He won’t stop worrying. Come with me, come with me, come with me.

Wei Ying thinks he hates him. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

He departs that night, eyes red, squeezing shut when he knows no one will watch him.

 

The Sunshot Campaign is at full force, he’s offered his help to Wei Ying, they make up for the most part. The war ends. It passes by in what feels like an instant.

Time passes. 

He breaks rules.

Time passes.

He kneels.

Time passes.

He learns.

Time passes and passes and passes. 

Everything changes.

 

It’s when they’re at the tea house in YiLing that Lan WangJi finally brings it up. The words twist up in his mouth, his tongue tied and his throat closing, still, he tries to force himself to speak. “Do you believe soul marks can be trusted?”

A-Yuan, sitting in his lap, is playing with one of the toys he bought the child earlier. Wei Ying pauses in taking a swig of his drink. “Soul marks…” He sounds almost bitter as the words leave his mouth.

He smiles that fake smile of his and downs the rest of his drink, “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he singsongs, “What brings this up? Doesn’t the Lan Sect have a rule against finding soulmates?”

“No.”

“I know I know. I copied them three hundred times.”

“So do you?”

He pauses again, this time considering his words carefully, “I think that soulmates are made not because of soul marks, but because of how we as people are. I believe soulmates are made through our own efforts, not created by a predetermined mark.”

Lan WangJi stifles a sigh. Now he’s not quite sure what to think of this.

“Ah, does Lan Zhan bring this up because you have a special friend in mind?”

“Shameless.”

 

He’s in bed on his stomach, blood soaking the bandages on his back, when he feels a searing, painful burn he’s all too familiar with on his shoulder blade. The soul mark that was there before getting disfigured by the wounds, scorching away. He stifled a scream as it feels as though his heart is being ripped from his chest, still beating.

No. No no no. Tears start to fall from his eyes finally, ugly and messy and he can only stare at the wall, the ache in his heart worse than the injuries on his back tenfold. Wei Ying, he whispers over and over again, as if him speaking his name enough times will bring him back.

He couldn’t protect him.

A couple of days later his brother enters the JingShi, a solemn air around him, his signature smile absent from his face. “WangJi,” he starts softly.

“I know.”

“Who told-”

“He was my soulmate, XiChen.” He finally admits, uncharacteristically cutting his brother off. Tears stinging the corner of his eyes.

Lan XiChen is quiet at this revelation, then he sighs, “I suspected as much.” There’s a hidden resentment in his tone, and Lan WangJi shuts his eyes.

When XiChen leaves and it’s past nine, WangJi gets up, a pained gasp leaving him as he struggles to get on his shoes and a robe. He mounts his sword to YiLing.

 

When he returns, he’s barely standing, a fever attacking him from infections, and a bundle of an even more feverish child in his arms. Lan QiRen is too shocked at the reopened and puss filled wounds soaking his nephew’s white robes to be too mad at him, doctors immediately rushing to the pair.

He’s brought back to the JingShi where his wounds are treated along with his fever, as is the child’s.

Lan QiRen sits in silence until they’ve done their job, his teeth grinding in barely subdued rage. “What were you thinking?”

“Had to see for myself.”

“And nearly get yourself killed again?” He sighs, closing his eyes, “You are just like your father. That man never did anything good for you.”

WangJi is stubborn in his silence, cold gaze meeting his uncle’s, challenging his uncle. “You do not have a soulmate.”

You-!” he bites. Then exhales, trying to dissipate his anger, “And the child? What do you intend on doing with him?”

“I will raise him.”

“You are in no condition to raise a child. He is a Wen child, isn’t he?”

“Lan now.”

That challenging look in his eyes tells Lan QiRen everything he needs to know. There’s a resigned sigh, “I will allow it if he forgets his life prior to coming here.”

“I will keep him even if you do not allow it.”

Grit teeth.

“He is only a child and should not be blamed for his parent’s mistakes. I will raise him, and he will be a Lan, and he will follow the sect rules, and he will be my son.” Lan WangJi says with finality before he passes out from the strain again.

Lan QiRen has much to ponder.

Just like his father.

 

WangJi gets drunk one night, the taste of Emperor’s Smile reminding him of a different smile. The tears roll down his cheeks as he feels the spot on his shoulder where his soul mark should be and he stumbles out of the JingShi.

He wants a flute. No, he says to XiChen, not that one. Not that one. 

He leaves his brother and stumbles his way to the treasury in search, maybe, of the one Wei WuXian used. His eyes instead land on the iron brand that’s been used on his soulmate so many years ago now. His mind wanders back to when he was fifteen, his soul mark searing itself into his skin. He wants to feel that burn again, that ache of love.

He presses the brand into the same spot Wei WuXian was branded and he cries out, dropping it to the floor and weeping.

Lan XiChen finds him like that. (Internally he scolds himself for not noticing just how much his brother has been hurting. But of course he does. love to Lan WangJi is too big, too vast, too grand to fit all into one body. Both of them love too much, and maybe that’s their father’s legacy.)

His uncle decides he doesn’t need to be punished, the brand in itself enough. (Lan WangJi can still hear the bitterness in his voice, that he’s a disappointment. And maybe he is.) He punishes himself, nonetheless, kneeling for hours despite the wounds in his back throbbing and the brand still burning.

 

A-Yuan’s older now, older and smarter and infinitely kinder. It makes him proud in his own subdued way, knowing that a small part of Wei Ying lives on through him. He did the best he could raising him, given his very limited experience in dealing with children. He wanted him to have a childhood better than he had, one with open doors and gentle expressions and the sound of the guqin being one of welcoming.

He may not have been able to care for him those three years he was bedridden, but unlike his father and his mother and his uncle, he tries his best to be there every moment after. So that one day if something unfortunate were to happen, SiZhui would not have to face the closed doors of the JingShi, wondering if they’ll ever open again.

Lan WangJi stops him before his very first night hunt, a grave look on his face. “There will be people in your life, SiZhui, that will confuse you. You will wonder what is black, and what is white, but you cannot assign these principles to people. There will be things out of your control, and there will be a crossroads between what everyone else thinks is right and what you know to be right.”

 

The Juniors have a mission at Mo Manor, he’s trailing behind them, intent on letting them complete this mission alone but nearby in case he’s in need. He’s playing his guqin when he feels a sudden, burning and searing pain in his wrist. No.

No it can’t be.

A new soul mark? That never happens, when one has a soul mark or -in some cases soul marks- they only appear once, and disappear once with death. He tugs at his sleeve and gazes upon the new mark, red hot and angry. It’s a hand, clasped around his wrist, tightly and securely.

His throat goes dry. 

Unless…

Unless unless unless.

His attention is elsewhere in a moment when he sees the signal in the night sky, requesting for aide.

 

On Dafan Mountain, that’s when he sees him. His face is different, but he’d know those eyes anywhere, the tune he’s playing the one he hummed to him all those years ago in a cave on the brink of death. When he backs into him guiding Wen Ning away from the juniors he freezes, and their eyes meet. Lan WangJi grabs his wrist in an instant, grounding him that this is real, that he’s here. It’s him. That he’s solid and here and alive.

Wei Ying stares up at him for a moment more, before he goes back to playing and Wen Ning vanishes into the night.

He’s still gripping his wrist, tightly, knowing that if he lets go for even a moment he’ll disappear into the night as well. Wei Ying grabs his wrist and he feels it. That burning searing pain of love. He almost gasps.

It’s him.

It’s Wei Ying.

Even in death it would be him. It will always be him.

 

“How long?” Wei Ying asks with a soft smile on his lips as he teases at Lan WangJi’s headband, head resting on his shoulder as they lay in bed.

“Hm?”

“You knew we were soulmates. For how long?”

“Mn…” He pauses for a moment to think. “The beginning.”

“Where was your first soul mark?”

“Shoulder blade.”

Wei Ying shifts to lean his cheek against his hand as he looks over his husband, “Your shoulder blade? Really? I don’t recall…”

“You made me drink.”

Wei Ying gasps in mock shock, “Me? Making the esteemed HanGuang Jun drink alcohol? How shameless!”

“Shameless,” he echoes sleepily with a smile, then pauses, “Did you know?”

“Mn… I was afraid, for the most part, so I denied it.”

“Where was..?”

“You know where I got branded?”

Lan WangJi’s eyes widen.

“It’s funny now that I think back, of course it would be more difficult to make out it was you when I was hurting so much from the brand already.” He traces his finger around the scar on WangJi’s chest from his own brand. A half laugh, as he does so.

They drift into a comfortable silence. It surprises him, sometimes, as they lay in each other’s arms. Cultivation partners. Husbands.

“Wei Ying,” he breathes.

“Lan Zhan?”

“I love you.”

Wei WuXian grins ear to ear, “I love you too.”