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If Wei Ying—with his shameless rulebreaking, his gleeful laughter, and his unreasonably beautiful smile—does not drive Lan Wangji mad, the dreams certainly will. Dreams of pinning Wei Ying down and reducing that laughter to helpless begging. Lan Wangji always awakens from those dreams paralyzed by shame and desire.

He hopes the madness will end when Wei Ying leaves Cloud Recesses. He wants no memory of that horrible boy except the two bunnies he can’t help but love.

Instead, Lan Wangji dreams of a different, older Wei Wuxian. This one teases him about liking the bunnies and talks nonsense about them being married. He kisses Lan Wangji lightly on the cheek and laughs at his shock.

Lan Wangji awakens with his face burning, Wei Wuxian’s laughter ringing in his ears.

**

By the time Lan Wangji is eighteen, he knows he loves Wei Ying. Hates it, but knows.

So it is much, much worse when the older Wei Wuxian saunters back into his dreams, calling Lan Wangji handsome and calling himself his husband. He doesn’t stop with a kiss this time; he whisks Lan Wangji to the back mountain of Cloud Recesses, pinches his cheeks like a child, and touches him everywhere.

In most ways, it’s every filthy dream Lan Wangji has ever had: Wei Wuxian taunts and torments him until Lan Wangji snaps and takes him by force. In other ways, it’s the most unbearable, humiliating, delicious dream Lan Wangji has had. This Wei Wuxian torments him not only with smiles but with horribly skillful hands and an even more skillful mouth. This Wei Wuxian knows his body and its desires in a way Lan Wangji himself does not. This Wei Wuxian requires no force; he is eager to be taken.

Lan Wangji wakes up with his fists clenched and his sheets ruined.

**

And then Cloud Recesses burns, and Wei Ying—sweet, stubborn, stupid Wei Ying who refuses to leave him alone—scars himself to heal a girl he barely knows, saves healing medicine for Lan Wangji when his own injuries need tending to, and falls asleep to the sound of the song Lan Wangji wrote about him.

Because he is asleep, and because he is pale and shivering, Lan Wangji takes Wei Ying into his lap and strokes his hair until he is asleep as well.

In his dream, the adult Wei Wuxian is grinning at him, delighted. “So you did put me on your lap!” he cries. “And here you acted so cold when I asked. You really are soft-hearted, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji presses his lips together and looks down at the younger, thinner Wei Ying in his arms. “Leave me alone,” he says. “You’ll wake him.”

The adult Wei Wuxian makes the exact whine Wei Ying makes when Lan Wangji denies him attention. Lan Wangji marvels at his own lack of creativity, to imagine an older Wei Wuxian will be just as much a brat.

A thought pokes at the back of his mind, something about Wei Wuxian naked and throwing his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck as Lan Wangji drove into him, something about the brand on Wei Ying’s chest...

“You won’t even stay with me,” Wei Wuxian complains. “You’ll leave me to wake up without you, just wait.”

“Not until he’s safe,” Lan Wangji insists.

To his shock, Wei Wuxian sighs, “oh, fine.” He flops to sit next to Lan Wangji. “You told me to have whatever fun I wanted with you, you know, before we went to sleep. But I see you won’t be any fun at all.” He gently runs his knuckles beneath Lan Wangji’s chin.

Lan Wangji flinches away.

He chuckles. “So unkind, husband! You kissed me last time, won’t you kiss me again?” 

That is one of the many ways his dreams lie to him: no matter how brutal the fantasy, it always ends with him and whatever version of Wei Ying he’s dreamed of embracing, kissing softly. 

Lan Wangji stares down at the Wei Ying in his arms.

“You loved me this early,” Wei Wuxian says, voice full of marvel. “I thought you hated me.”

“I do hate you,” he says. He doesn’t try very hard to be convincing—it’s his dream, after all—but he doesn’t look up either.

“Such a terrible liar you are,” Wei Wuxian says fondly, and kisses Lan Wangji’s cheek. Lan Wangji looks away, but doesn’t try to stop him.

**

His subconscious is right: he leaves Wei Ying (safe, he believes, in the care of his shidi and Jin Zixuan.)

And then Wei Ying is gone.

He is gone, and his sword is sealed.

Lan Wangji spends three terrible months traveling with Jiang Wanyin, who cannot even bear to look at Suibian, whose face shows all the rage and desperation Lan Wangji can only lock in a pit in his stomach. Jiang Wanyin was never a friend, but for three months they are like brothers, united in the shared prayer. The shared conviction.

Wei Ying cannot be dead.

When Wei Wuxian visits his dreams, Lan Wangji has no restraint left. He embraces him, kisses him without being forced or teased, and Wei Wuxian laughs in delight and shock. “Happy to see me?” he asks, wrapping his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist. Lan Wangji has grown; Wei Wuxian is shorter than him now. “Goodness, if you’re going to start behaving like my Lan Zhan, I may actually be able to leave you alone.”

“Don’t,” Lan Wangji gasps, unable to stop clinging.

The laughter fades, Wei Wuxian stilling beneath his arms. “Oh little Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, and Lan Wangji clings to that too, to the fact that this Wei Wuxian is older, though not by very much anymore. “What has past me done, to haunt your dreams even now? I’m being a terror, am I?”

“You’re gone,” he says. “Where did you go?”

Wei Wuxian strokes his hair. “My memory never was good,” he says. “But I’m here now. Kiss me again, Lan Er-gege.”

They kiss.

When he finds his Wei Ying, Lan Wangji promises himself, he will take him to Gusu. He will tell him the truth. He will not push him away again.

**

Wei Ying is back, but he isn’t.

Wei Ying is back, but his smiles don’t reach his eyes. He is cruelly polite. He mocks Lan Wangji, with bows and smirks and poetic diction, but he does not laugh or joke. He does not want Suibian.

He calls him Lan Wangji.

When Wei Wuxian visits his dreams, Lan Wangji lunges at him, pins him down and kisses him with heat, with teeth. Wei Wuxian laughs, a real laugh, because he is just a dream, because this is just a game to him. Wei Wuxian laughs, and lets Lan Wangji kiss him, lets Lan Wangji strip him, lets Lan Wangji open him and take. He gives happily and enthusiastically, all sunny smiles and crinkled eyes, and holds Lan Wangji as tightly as Lan Wangji holds him.

Lan Wangji wakes up alone, and very cold.

**

Wei Ying apologizes within days. Wei Ying has always been quick to apologize, from the day they met—even Wei Wuxian, in the earliest and harshest dreams, dropped a light kiss on the edge of Lan Zhan’s mouth and said, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have bullied you.

But Wei Ying’s apologies never come with changed behavior.

They fall back into friendship effortlessly, but Wei Ying still won’t use his sword. He still cultivates resentful energy. Still carries it in clouds when he walks. He’s so much thinner now, and he seems older—older even than Wei Wuxian, though his body is still a year or two younger.

He’s drinking too much. He isn’t sleeping enough.

Lan Wangji has never been so scared.

Kissing Wei Ying is a terrible idea. Kissing Wei Ying when he is blindfolded, and fleeing before the blindfold is off, is so much worse.

Lan Wangji is not surprised when he dreams of Phoenix Mountain, with Wei Wuxian standing in front of the tree where he had kissed Wei Ying.

Wei Wuxian beams at him. “Sweetheart!”

“Leave me alone,” Lan Wangji snarls, and Wei Wuxian laughs.

“Always hot and cold,” he says, and glances about, unconcerned. “Let’s see, when is this—oh.” He laughs again. “Of course. You were so upset about that, weren’t you? That poor tree you chopped to pieces. No one could guess the esteemed Hanguang-Jun would be so dramatic.”

He had called him Hanguang-Jun before, Lan Wangji remembers, back before he had earned the title.

“That was my first kiss, you know!” Wei Wuxian says. Lan Wangji had not known. The knowledge makes him feel even worse, though he is aware, at the edges of his mind, that he is dreaming. “And I already know it was yours. You mustn’t mind me, by the way, when I say terrible things about no one ever wanting to kiss you or marry you. I’ve always been very silly. A shame you weren’t kissing me quiet from a much younger age! I wish you had. Or that early fantasy of yours, the one you’re so embarrassed by, when you fucked me in the library—I wish you had done that. So much time we wasted, Lan Zhan.”

“Shut up.”

“I love when you’re angry,” Wei Wuxian says, with relish. He approaches Lan Wangji; Lan Wangji backs away. “What’s the matter, Lan Zhan? Won’t you take your anger out on this humble Wei Ying instead of helpless trees?”

Desire trembles through Lan Wangji’s body. He hates it. It feels so much more dangerous, now that he has lost control outside of his dreams.

He backs into a tree. Wei Wuxian chuckles, and Lan Wangji hates that, too. He prefers the bright, unrestrained laughter that drives him mad. The chuckles are too close to the bitter way his Wei Ying has laughed lately.

Lan Wangji glares at the grass.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to take me when you know how much I want you?” Wei Wuxian croons. “Or do you want me to take you instead? Do you want to be punished for misbehaving?”

His breath goes raspy. That’s exactly what he wants.

Wei Wuxian makes a triumphant noise, and a few more soft noises, and then thin strands of blue light bind Lan Wangji’s wrists and pull them overhead, leaving his body vulnerable. Wei Wuxian’s deft fingers make quick work of untying the layers of Lan Wangji’s robes, eyes raking hungrily over his body. “You look so good in blue, Lan Zhan, so much less like you’re in mourning. You know, many years from now you’ll bind my wrists with your forehead ribbon just like this, and show me off to a bunch of Lan juniors—they’ll be shocked! Your face is so thick in the future, I never get to have this kind of fun with you anymore.”

Lan Wangji pays little attention to his nonsense. He remembers Wei Ying, younger and happier, gleefully demonstrating the binding talisman. He had been infuriating, yanking Lan Wangji’s arm back and forth, but so full of light and pride and ingenuity. Lan Wangji should have told him, back then, that he was impressed.

Wei Ying was so certain, then, that they were friends.

He was right, but he had no reason to believe it.

Wei Ying now believes Lan Wangji hates him.

He’s wrong, but he has no reason not to believe it.

“Ah, it’s such a shame that old incense burner doesn’t let me pick what memories to enter; I’ve been visiting at times you’re truly unhappy, haven’t I?” Wei Wuxian asks, mockery and lust gone from his tone. Lan Wangji raises his gaze to see Wei Wuxian looking sad, even sympathetic. Wei Wuxian starts to refasten Lan Wangji’s robes.

Lan Wangji glares. He wonders when he fell so low that even his fantasies pity him. “Don’t be kind to me,” he says, all sharp frost.

Wei Wuxian tries to smile at him and doesn’t quite pull it off. “Oh?” he asks. “Do you want me to be mean to you?” He draws Lan Wangji’s robes apart once more and runs his fingers up Lan Wangji’s ribs, feather-soft, just the whisper of a tickle. Just enough to set Lan Wangji’s nerves on fire.

It has been so, so long since any hands have touched him, even his own.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji chokes out.

This earns a real grin and a brief but ferocious flurry of tickling under his armpits. Lan Wangji clenches his teeth to hold back a scream. He yanks at the binding charm; it offers no give at all. “Yes?” Wei Wuxian prompts. He presses a kiss to Lan Wangji’s neck. “You want me to be mean?”

“Yes, I want to forget.” He doesn’t bother to keep the sob out of his voice.

Wei Wuxian’s expression softens, and Lan Wangji is ready to roar in frustration when Wei Wuxian’s hands wander further down. “I think we can arrange that.”

Blessedly, the softness in his eyes in no way translates to mercy. He teases Lan Wangji for hours, holding him on the edge of relief until there’s no space for grief or guilt left in his mind. No space for anything but white-hot yearning.

“Lan Zhaaaan,” he sing-songs against Lan Wangi’s ear. He nips at the lobe. “You’re so beautiful when you’re desperate like this. Don’t you want me to let you go? Don’t you want to release all that beautiful desperation inside of me?”

That had always been the game, after all. But Lan Wangji doesn’t want that tonight. He just wants to be taken apart and put back together, and Wei Wuxian does it expertly.

Lan Wangji wakes up hard, aching, and breathless.

**

Wei Ying leaves.

He puts his life in Lan Wangji’s hands, with a shaking voice and tears that say he truly believes Lan Wangji could hurt him if he needed to. He asks Lan Wangji to kill him, because he has no idea. He will never have any idea.

Lan Wangji lets him go.

He waits, in his dreams, for Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian does not come. Even in his deepest and most shameful subconscious, Lan Wangji has given up on fantasies.

**

Wei Ying is so good, and so full of love. Wei Ying creates love. Creates a farm in the Burial Mounds. Creates a refuge for the clan that killed his family. Creates increasingly powerful and terrifying magic, defying every natural law Lan Wangji knows, all to protect those who had been strangers.

He welcomes Lan Wangji easily. Invites him to a meal. To his home. Smiles real smiles, and more amazingly, cries real tears, and lets Lan Wangji see them. Lets Lan Wangji hold the precious, beautiful, smiling child Wei Ying declares his son.

Wei Ying is playing with fire. Dancing at a cliff’s edge, waving as he dances closer and closer to the point of no return. Wei Ying insists he can control it. When Lan Wangji questions him, he closes off. Dismisses him, dismisses the idea of a future visit, even as precious little A-Yuan clings to Lan Wangji’s leg and asks him to stay.

And Wei Ying does it all so kindly. There is no more bitterness between them, just a sweet and final goodbye. “Thank you,” Wei Ying says, before he walks away.

Lan Wangji returns to a home that feels colder and emptier than it ever did. A home he has loved, a home he was proud to rebuild. He kneels in the snow, holding bamboo, and knows he would have visited again and again, if Wei Ying would have welcomed him.

But he is so very scared for him, and he would have voiced that fear, every time.

In his dream, he is still kneeling in the snow.

Behind him, Wei Wuxian cries out like he’s in pain. Lan Wangji dimly notes that he had never heard him in real pain before, however rough Lan Wangji has been with him. “You’ve been punished?” Wei Wuxian demands, a note of horror in his voice, and then he’s next to Lan Wangji and, without preamble, removing Lan Wangji’s clothes.

Lan Wangji lowers the bamboo and lets him. Snow pelts his bare skin, melting immediately. 

The strange terror on Wei Wuxian’s face drains as he runs his fingers over Lan Wangji’s bare back, his chest, up his arm. He sighs in relief and sits back on the snowy ground. “Okay. A different punishment then. Such a rebel! What rule did you break, ah?” He slides the robes up Lan Wangji’s shoulders.

“You’re not here to torment me?” Lan Wangji asks mildly. He doesn’t feign hostility, but he refuses to show disappointment. He had forgotten what desire felt like, in the months since Wei Ying left. He expects to forget again.

“In this snow?” Wei Wuxian asks, scrunching his nose even as his mouth spreads into a pleased smile. “Take me back to the Jingshi, then we’ll see about torment. Don’t look so skeptical; I’ve slept in the Jingshi hundreds of times, you know. Or we can try a bathtub, see if I can get you to break it.”

Lan Wangji scoffs and ties his sash, not bothering to fasten the layers of his robes properly. Because it’s a dream, he feels warmer than he’s felt since leaving Wei Ying. 

**

And then Wei Ying is gone, and he will never be warm again.

His uncle and brother tell the world he is in silent meditation. Truly, he is just recovering from the discipline whip. He kneels in silence, even in his dreams.

“Lan Zhan,” whispers Wei Wuxian in a terrible, tattered voice.

Lan Wangji doesn’t look at him. Can’t bear to look at him, for his Wei Ying will never grow older.

Wei Wuxian comes to kneel beside him. “I wondered,” he says, in that same terrible voice, “why you kept wanting to light that incense burner, when you didn’t seem to be having as much fun anymore. I understand now. You’re still dreaming of this time, when you were so alone.”

He isn’t quite alone. Lan Xichen visits him.

Lan Xichen is the only one who visits him. His loneliness gnaws in his chest.

Wei Wuxian rests a head against his shoulder. Tears spring into Lan Wangji’s eyes immediately. He blinks them away and shoves Wei Wuxian off. “Stop.”

“Stop what?” Wei Wuxian asks. He doesn’t look angry or surprised, merely deeply sad and full of love.

“Stop acting like you love me,” Lan Wangji snarls, struggling to hold back the tears.

He frowns, having the absolute gall to look confused. “You’re my husband, of course I love you.”

“How can you love me?” Lan Wangji shouts. He tries to rise, but even in his dreams, his back hurts so much. “How can we be married?”

The words you are dead catch in his throat and choke him. He cannot speak them out loud, even in a dream.

A tear snakes down Wei Wuxian’s cheek.

Lan Wangji cries then, puts his head in his hands and lets the tears fall. “You. Are Not. Real,” he gasps out. It’s an absurd thing to say to a dream, but.

But the dream called him Hanguang-Jun, before he was Hanguang-Jun.

The dream knew every inch of his body and exactly what it enjoyed, before his other dreams did.

The dream had seen him kneel in the snow and checked for marks from the discipline whip, before he imagined he would ever commit a serious enough crime to earn a whipping.

Somewhere down the line, Lan Wangji let himself hope it might be real, and it isn’t.

It can’t be.

“My sweet Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “I left you for so long.”

Wei Wuxian holds him. Lan Wangji lets him.

Wei Wuxian’s fingers rake through his hair. “You won’t be alone for long, even without me. When I see you again, juniors will follow you like ducks, chirping, Hanguang-Jun, Hanguang-Jun and looking at you like you hung the moon in the sky. You’ll be an amazing father to our son.” Somehow there is a smile in his voice even now, and endless adoration and amazement. “He’s going to be so good, Lan Zhan. He would never have been that good, if I were the one who raised him.”

“Wei Ying is good.” He sobs the words into Wei Wuxian’s chest. Sobs because they are true. Because he never told him.

“It always amazes me that you think that,” Wei Wuxian says. There are tears in his voice, too. “And it always amazes me that you never gave up. That you were still looking for me after all those years.”

“Shut up,” Lan Wangji rasps, clutching him tightly. “Shut up.”

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, still stroking his hair. “Okay.”

He holds Lan Wangji all night, long after their tears have dried.

Lan Wangji wakes up with a damp face and the certainty that the dream was right about one thing: he will never give up. He will never stop searching for that smile.