Lan Sizhui noticed it first. “Baba, what’s wrong with your eye?”
Wei Wuxian trailed off in the middle of his sentence, confused. “What, I don’t know.” He blinked both eyes. “What’s wrong with my eye?”
Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow at Lan Sizhui, gently scolding for the interruption. Despite Wei Wuxian’s campaign to get him to talk during family meals, now that they could genuinely share family meals, he had yet to break. It had taken several months to train him out of talking at meals when he was younger, Wei Wuxian’s influence strong.
“It looks… dark.” Lan Sizhui frowned, his brow furrowing. “Let me see.”
Wei Wuxian shot Lan Wangji an amused look, as if saying can you believe this kid? But he obligingly put down his chopsticks and tilted his face towards the candlelight. Lan Sizhui scooted close, trying to get a good look. Wei Wuxian clearly was trying hard not to blink, but —
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian cried, trying to hold in his laughter and utterly, abysmally failing. “It’s not my fault, how can a man not blink!” He pinched Lan Sizhui’s cheek, grinning. “You’re so cute, you know.”
“You’ve said,” Lan Sizhui said, tugging at Wei Wuxian’s arm. Lan Wangji liked the warm exasperation in his voice. No politeness, just a boy talking to his father. He’d imagined this many a time before, but it was still nice that it was truth now. “Hanguang-jun, please come look at his eye.”
Lan Sizhui was not a young man prone to dramatics. So Lan Wangji set his bowl down, ignoring the small quivering worry springing to life in his chest. He knelt beside Wei Wuxian, fingers tipping his chin towards the candlelight, Lan Sizhui’s gaze bouncing between the both of them.
“I can see just fine,” Wei Wuxian was saying, still talking even with Lan Wangji’s fingers on his chin. “Look, I can prove it, hold up your fingers and I’ll count them.”
Wei Wuxian had gray eyes, not necessarily light themselves, but here in the candlelight, the iris of his left one was unmistakably dark. A dark brown, almost black. Neither eye was bloodshot, and he followed Lan Wangji’s finger left and right with ease, his gaze flicking up to meet Lan Wangji’s after a few rounds as if to say well?
“It’s dark,” Lan Wangji told him, like Lan Sizhui hadn’t told him the same thing just a minute ago. “The iris is dark brown.”
“It feels okay,” Wei Wuxian said, batting his eyes ridiculously to prove his point. Lan Wangji put his thumb carefully just under Wei Wuxian’s eye, pulling gently at the skin to see more, but there was nothing. The whites of his eyes were still white; not red or yellow as evidence as sickness. He appeared to be completely fine. “I can see fine!”
“But it’s weird,” Lan Sizhui said worriedly.
It was strange. Eyes didn’t change colors like that. Lan Wangji frowned and Wei Wuxian mimicked him, the both of them considering. Wei Wuxian was always too cavalier with his health, but Lan Wangji could find no real reason to drag him to the healer. He could sense no resentful energy in either eye and a curse mark required those. He could see fine. It apparently did not hurt.
“Your vision is fine?”
“It doesn’t hurt at all, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian promised, and he was wearing the easy smile he wore when he thought Lan Wangji was being overprotective and found it adorable. Not the half-smile he pasted on when he was lying. It had taken Lan Wangji a rather long time to tell the difference between all his smiles, and he’d used to be upset that he couldn’t, but now he knew better. Now he knew he was one of the only people who could.
“Tell me if it gets worse.” Lan Wangji dropped his thumb from Wei Wuxian’s chin, letting his hand fall back into his lap. “I will watch it.”
“Well I certainly won’t.” Wei Wuxian clicked his tongue. “Can we be done eating now?”
“You’re the one taking longest,” Lan Sizhui said primly, because he was already done with his meal, and Lan Wangji was nearly done too. Wei Wuxian always talked and talked, and it always meant he finished later than everyone else.
“So cruel to your baba!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, picking up his chopsticks with his left hand and wrapping his right one around Lan Sizhui’s hand, giving him a gentle squeeze. Despite everything, Lan Sizhui couldn’t help but smile at him, fond. Wei Wuxian continued talking but Lan Sizhui caught Lan Wangji’s eye. Smiled, just so.
In the morning, both his eyes were unmistakably dark.
“Stop watching me!”
Lan Wangji startled, blinking at his husband who — yes, he was watching. Wei Wuxian propped his hands up on his hips, expression dancing around fond exasperation. He was knee deep in the lotus pond he carefully tended every morning; his robes were completely soaked through even though he’d tied the ends up. There was even a growing, muddy splotch on his shoulder.
“It’s not going to change just like that, you know.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji said, instead of what if something does? “I should have noticed.”
“That my eye was getting dark? Don’t be silly, Lan Zhan.”
The sticky sensation cloying his chest was not embarrassment. It was rather like shame. “I thought you were tired,” he heard himself say, dragged out of him — not quite unwillingly, really, because he was never unwilling when it came to Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian could draw truths from his more easily than he could draw a bowstring.
Wei Wuxian picked his way carefully around the edge of the lotus pond, balance precarious, to drift between Lan Wangji’s legs where he sat on the edge of the porch. “What’s all this now?” He put a hand on either side of Lan Wangji, not touching, and leaned forward, lips curling up. This close, the new color of his eyes was unavoidable as the sun caught them. Warm brown. Captivating.
All the other bits of Wei Wuxian’s face were still the same — the scar on his temple just under his hair line, from a stray claw two years back. The way he wrinkled his nose and squinted against the sunlight. The smear of mud under his eye after a long day of coaxing his lotus to life. Lan Wangji had spent three years of marriage now, gazing at him among the lotus he brought back to life after every harsh winter, and every time, Lan Wangji’s breath caught.
Selfishly, Lan Wangji missed the gray. Wei Wuxian’s face had become a painting slightly awry, as if the lines had smudged. When he blinked, the sunlight caught the familiar angles of his face with perfect clarity, and when he opened them again, each time, it was like Lan Wangji had found a stranger in his home, even if the eyes still twinkled.
“I noticed,” Lan Wangji said haltingly, “I had thought you weren’t sleeping well. It was subtle.” It had been a fleeting thought, that Wei Wuxian’s eyes looked a little tired, and then he had kindly bullied his husband into lying down earlier with him last night. He was supposed to notice these things.
The smile on Wei Wuxian’s face as he shook his head was unbearably fond. “Sweetheart.” He stopped a tiny bit closer, splashing a bit of pond water against Lan Wangji’s bare feet. Lan Wangji adjusted his legs, just slightly, to make room for his husband between them, and Wei Wuxian clearly thought that was its own reward. “It’s fine, it really is.”
That was all technically true. They’d gone to the healer that morning, at Lan Wangji’s mildly terrified insistence. Wei Wuxian, never one to practice prevention, only went because Lan Wangji was worried, but the healer had found nothing wrong either. No curse, no resentful energy. I feel completely normal, Wei Wuxian had told her, blinking as instructed. There was no evidence of how he’d spent a fearfully long time this morning peering at himself in the mirror, blinking one eye, then the other, as if they would change the next time he opened them.
They did not.
“You wouldn’t have noticed,” Lan Wangji said, brushing away the dirt gracing Wei Wuxian’s face. His cheek was summer-warm, freckles already forming. “You never look in the mirror.”
Wei Wuxian laughed, slapping his hands against the wooden boards of the porch so that mud splattered. “No, I wouldn’t have.” If Lan Wangji closed his eyes, his laughter was still the same; low and clear. “I was going to say I know what I look like, but!”
He leaned up for a kiss — happy, bright, expression clear as water. Untroubled and yet Lan Wangji turned his face away. Wei Wuxian’s lips found his cheek instead, an arrow missing its target.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian didn’t move closer, didn’t allow Lan Wangji to sink into his featherlight touch. Lan Wangji knew that this was for his benefit — he did not like to be touched when he was upset. And he was the one who turned his cheek, created the rift. “Why is this bothering you so much, hmm? I know it’s strange, but it’s not harmful.” He slowly closed his eyes. Opened them. Brown.
Lan Wangji could search the hidden corners of himself for an eternity and not find the answer. “I don’t know,” he whispered, another truth unspooled from him by Wei Wuxian’s gentle gaze. He did not know why it unsettled him so much, this minor change. It felt monumental, even if their day had not changed, even if they were taking a rare day together to garden. As if all the days before yesterday had been simple and easy, carried along by the fickle wind, and today everything had stopped.
Or maybe, before this everything had been frozen, and now Lan Wangji was confronted with the reminder that nothing was permanent. Not the seasons, not the weather, not his husband in his arms.
Wei Wuxian’s hand rose slowly, the possibility of contact stretching out between them. Lan Wangji let him — wanted him. Wanted to sink against his husband, his heartbeat soothing the panicked rattle of half-formed thoughts. Wei Wuxian smoothed a thumb under Lan Wangji’s eye, where there were surely purple circles lingering.
“You didn’t sleep well last night,” he chided. “Ah! I got mud on your face.”
Wei Wuxian was always smudging mud or ink on Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji liked the imprints. The mud on his cheek was cool as he smiled. “Mm, a little mud is alright.”
Wei Wuxian grinned at him. Lan Wangji knew this smile, as surely as he knew seasons change. The quiet one, when he was feeling especially protective of Lan Wangji; it spread across his face slow, warm flickering candlelight until all the jingshi and Lan Wangji with it, glowed. “Ah, Lan Zhan,” he said, voice entirely besotted. “You know, my hands are still the same.” He traced one across Lan Wangji’s jaw, rough palm cradling his cheek. “And my voice, hm. Close your eyes.”
“I know,” Lan Wangji told him, doing as suggested. He would know Wei Wuxian’s touch at the end of the earth, if it came to that.
“Oh, my husband is so smart, hmm,” Wei Wuxian mused, pressing a little closer. “It’s alright, Lan Zhan.”
“It’ll be alright.” Like this, Lan Wangji’s knees bracketing his waist, sweat already collecting where callous hands curled around the nape of Lan Wangji’s neck — Wei Wuxian could speak anything into being. Lan Wangji opened his eyes, found Wei Wuxian’s. It didn’t sting so much to see the brown, this time, with the familiar way Wei Wuxian’s body curved against his at the same time.
“The brown is quite beautiful,” Lan Wangji told him, draping his own hands loosely around Wei Wuxian’s waist, and was rewarded by the surprised look on Wei Wuxian’s face, the way he always was when Lan Wangji payed him an unexpected compliment. Lan Wangji lived for that smile as a flower lived for sun.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whined, burying his face in the crook of Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “I suppose you’re feeling okay if you’re capable of making jokes!”
“I never joke about you.”
“Ha,” Wei Wuxian snorted, the half-moon of his smile hidden against the cloud of Lan Wangji’s collar. “Well, are you?”
He didn’t need to think about it. “No.” Wei Wuxian in his arms, heartbeat against heartbeat, was a powerful deterrent; it seemed a failure to admit that it had not fixed the problem. But discomfort stirred in his chest, hot and sticky. The pressure was almost unbearable, pressed against his ribs until they threatened to crack.
“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian replied. Clearly he had not thought a comforting hug would fix things, but he tightened his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck all the same. “Well, that’s okay. Take your time, Lan Zhan, and when you figure it out — if you do. Just let me know. Until then… well. Until then.”
Summer swelled, cicadas buzzed, the plants wilted in the summer heat. Wei Wuxian aggressively kicked the blanket off every night, and his eyes when he opened them, every morning were deep brown. Lan Wangji grew used to the way they looked in his face, warmer than the unsettling gray that had been there before. His gray eyes had been a little flat, had never caught the light and shone the same way before. After enough mornings and evenings and nights, Lan Wangji became used to It. Until it took a moment to recall they had ever been gray at all.
Lan Wangji had been right, when he’d told Wei Wuxian that the brown was beautiful.
They had found themselves with a habit of combing each other’s hair. In the morning, Wei Wuxian would wake up and comb out Lan Wangji’s hair and put his hairpin in. Then he’d go back to bed, content to sleep through mid-morning, when Lan Wangji brought him breakfast at what he considered a reasonable hour.
At night, Lan Wangji would untangle the mess of Wei Wuxian’s hair and comb through it. He liked this ritual, starting the beginning and the end of each day together.
In the middle of a hot soupy summer, with Wei Wuxian’s hair cascading over his palm he realized the next change: Wei Wuxian’s hair was two different colors. It wasn’t obvious; his attention had been concentrated on a particularly stubborn snarl, and just as he’d succeeded in smoothing it out, the difference had struck him. There were two inches of hair growing from his scalp that were completely black, like someone had poured ink over it. The rest of his hair was a dark brown. In the soft light of the jingshi, it was hard to tell, but in the sunlight, Lan Wangji imagined the difference would be stark.
Lan Wangji startled, realizing he’d been holding the comb out in the air for several minutes now. Wei Wuxian had twisted around to stare at him, concern heavy in his eyes. Lan Wangji, stupidly, was thankful he could still recognize it, now that he was faced with another change.
He dragged his fingers through Wei Wing’s hair. He almost didn’t want to say it, but what use would it be to pretend? “Your hair is changing color.”
“Two is a coincidence,” Wei Wuxian told him confidently. He’d coaxed Lan Wangji off the bed, wincing when Lan Wangji’s knees hit the floor with a thump. He expected more from his Hanguang-jun, Lan Wangji knew that, and then he’d arranged Lan Wangji against him, head in his lap, so gently. “I’m a scientist, I’d know. We don’t need to get worried until three. Three is a pattern.”
“What if I have missed it,” Lan Wangji asked, muffled where his mouth moved against Wei Wuxian’s stomach. Wei Wuxian’s hands scraped at his temple, undoing his ribbon so that Lan Wangji could fall to pieces in his lap.
“What would you possibly have missed?” Wei Wuxian didn’t bother to pretend that he might notice it first. Lan Wangji had the privilege of staring at him every day; Wei Wuxian hardly considered a mirror worth his time. “Am I not as beautiful as ever?”
“Your hair is two different colors.”
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said calmly. He’d taken the news much more calmly than Lan Wangji, who still could not give voice to the cruel threatening thing building a home inside his ribcage. “It’s not hurting me, though.”
“So could many things,” Wei Wuxian countered, and he didn’t say it be cruel or funny: it was fact. They had trod this path many times before. Wei Wuxian, reckless. Lan Wangji, paralyzed by it. “Mm, Lan Zhan, I promise to tell you if anything else happens, I do. Sweetheart, it’s okay. It’s just different.”
From here, Lan Wangji could see every freckle gracing Wei Wuxian’s cheeks. Summer was ending soon. Could this freckle, on the side of his nose, be new? What about the one on his upper lip, did it belong to him or was it something else, unknown and nameless. He didn’t know. Could that be three, four, five?
He was being foolish, he could tell. No trace of fear crept into Wei Wuxian’s voice; there was only worry there for his husband. But the thing about this worming quiet fear — he couldn’t help it, yet.
Wei Wuxian, for all his posturing, was actually the next person to realize something had changed.
It was not for lack of attention — Lan Wangji had been watching him, but it was hard to notice a change from one day to the other. Wei Wuxian’s eyes were still brown and the black ink of his hair was close to his chin now, spreading day by day. He was too good-natured to truly be annoyed by it, and like summer, when nothing else presented itself, he relaxed.
They had only been home in the jingshi for a day — barely that, after an overly long night hunt that neither of them could bring themselves to regret. It was only supposed to be three days, but Wei Wuxian was very thorough and it had taken much longer. Lan Wangji’s heart sank like a stone to think about the papers that would have piled up on his desk after an additional week and a half away.
None of that, Wei Wuxian crowed, dragging him away before he could think about heading to his office. Don’t you miss our bed?
Yes. Very much.
But first there was a bath to be had, luxurious, and then:
Wei Wuxian wrapped himself in just his red inner robes, small patches of damp spreading on his shoulder blades and at the dip of his waist as he tied them, too impatient to dry off properly. His tangled hair clung to the back of his neck, strands kissing his cheek. Lan Wangji, still soaking up the last of the bath’s warmth, smiled at a habit he was gifted with every night.
Wei Wuxian flipped his hair over his shoulder to comb the entire tangled nest at the bottom. By the time he picked himself out of the bath, body already craving the familiar soft comfort of his bed, Wei Wuxian had unraveled the entire thing without any input whatsoever.
“Lan Zhan, come here,” Wei Wuxian called, waving him over.
Lan Wangji went, thinking he was going to get a good-night kiss, but Wei Wuxian made no move to kiss him.
“Lan Zhan,” he said slowly, hands framing Lan Wangji’s face. His thumb pressed against the center of Lan Wangji’s lip; his own mouth twisted into a frown. Lan Wangji leant down to kiss it away, a trick that usually was quite successful. But it remained when he drew back, stubborn and insistent, like Wei Wuxian himself. “I think I… grew.”
Lan Wangji blinked down at him. Not as far as he usually had to look, he realized then. Before, Wei Ying was able to tuck against him, now Wei Wuxian’s forehead was level with his eyes. “You grew.”
“I grew,” Wei Wuxian repeated, brow furrowed, and he didn’t need to lean up to kiss Lan Wangji, nor did Lan Wangji need to tilt his jaw down. Lan Wangji stepped back, Wei Wuxian’s hands falling from his face to hover awkwardly at his sides, and surveyed the hem of Wei Wuxian’s robes. They were a good inch or so too short, hovering around his shins, though some of that could be to do to the way the robes stretched tight over his shoulders, as if they too were broader.
Lan Wangji’s hand found the seam of the shoulder, twisting it so that it sat properly — how often did he adjust Wei Wuxian’s robes, with a quiet smile on his face and a similar smirk on Wei Wuxian’s? — but it changed nothing. Wei Wuxian’s eyes flickered down, assessing Lan Wangji’s hand on his shoulder, at the way the robes puckered.
It was not a huge change. But it was seemed impossible that Wei Wuxian’s silhouette could twist and stretch and grow like a shadow cast against the wall. “I thought it was just the training.” Wei Wuxian tugged helpless at the chest of his robe, as if it could be fixed by belting it properly. But the fabric that used to drape elegantly now strained just a tiny bit at his shoulders, gaping to reveal collarbones.
Barely noticeable. But there.
“But maybe it’s not,” Lan Wangji finished for him, adjusting his robes once more. Nothing.
It seemed impossible that a grown man could grow again. They didn’t know exactly how old Mo Xuanyu had been, but he’d certainly been grown. Not grown in the way Lan Sizhui was, still adjusting to the way his shoulders were broadening, but grown. “I — maybe Mo Xuanyu’s body is finally getting nutrients?”
“That would have stunted his growth, not delayed it.”
Wei Wuxian’s hands reached for his shoulders — movements tight where the slightly too-small robe restricted him — and he clenched Lan Wangji’s robes with one hand, the only indication of the stress he must be feeling. Lan Wangji remained very carefully still even as the collar of his robes cut against his neck a bit. He didn’t know how to proceed. He knew his husband but this was uncharted territory. “Well, what else is there?”
Lan Wangji didn’t know. He was thinking of broader shoulders and a husband stretched thin and of freckles in autumn that he had not known, for sure, were not important. New. He was thinking of all the ways that Mo Xuanyu’s face was dissimilar to the one Wei Wuxian had been born with, of how he’d had to learn to read each expression so carefully — the way his mouth laughed, the way he slouched against the table, insouciant in his desire for attention, the way the corners of his gray (brown) eyes crinkled when laughing. For months, Lan Wangji had compared it to the fading memory of a teenage boy in the library, dissecting it as if it were a piece of music: its rises and falls, its themes, the way it rang out so easily the same as before. He was thinking how he would have to do it again.
Two is a coincidence, Wei Wuxian had said. Three, now, that’s a pattern.
What will they do with four? Five? A battalion of changes, uncountable?
Wei Wuxian was a born inventor. It stood to reason that his first tactical move was research. He threw himself into the library every second he wasn’t teaching or on a night hunt — even when the students were learning or workshopping, Lan Wangji could find him with a book in his hand. He’d even snuck a few out of the restricted section of the library, which he adamantly wasn’t supposed to do, and spent a night or two reading during dinner instead of talking to his husband, who kept nudging the dinner bowl towards him.
“Is now really the time to eat,” Wei Wuxian said helplessly, though he did pick up his chopsticks, which was a win. “You know I can’t stand a mystery!”
“Eat first,” Lan Wangji told him, because he did know that Wei Wuxian could not stand a mystery. It was how all their night hunts managed to grow from something simple, it was how Lan Wangji knew that Wei Wuxian would forget to eat if he got too invested.
He wasn’t sure, yet, if Wei Wuxian was trying to invent something. Something to stop the wheel of time from rolling forward, something to freeze him place, where he should be.
“I’d know if it was a curse,” Wei Wuxian told him, finally taking a bite. “You’d know if it was a curse.”
“It could be happening very slowly,” Lan Wangji countered. “We did not notice your height or your hair immediately.” They had crept on them, under the cover of familiarity.
“No, I suppose that’s true,” Wei Wuxian mused, tapping the end of his chopsticks against his chin. He pointed at his stack of notes. “Will you—”
Lan Wangji dutifully picked up the brush and wrote his observations down, Wei Wuxian narrating. “Eyes — not slow, those were very immediate, but as far as we can tell, the start. Hair next, also spreading. Continuing to spread. Hm — one month, down to my shoulders. Height and weight next, though mark next to weight that this factor can’t be quantified, since I’ve been doing training.”
Mo Xuanyu had been a thin thing with a gaunt face, roughly healed injuries, and no golden core. On Wei Wuxian, he had filled out into a stronger man with a bright, round face, complete with thin eyebrows and dimples. Lan Wangji was not sure Mo Xuanyu had ever had a chance to smile with those dimples, but Wei Wuxian did, all the time. He had worked hard to build up Mo Xuanyu’s golden core, and he’d been working on a paper to publish relating to the golden core and the physical body. He could wield his sword long enough now that he reached for it first instead of Chenqing, and the blade and his face both sang.
If only they could know those merits rested solely on his shoulders.
“No, we don’t know what it is,” Wei Wuxian was saying, bright words floating through the open door as Lan Wangji approached the jingshi, three stacked trays held in his left hand. “Ah, Lan Zhan! Look who came to greet his parents!”
He tugged Lan Sizhui into a hug, messing with his neatly tied hair and tugging at his cheeks. Lan Sizhui’s cheeks colored a bright red and Lan Wangji let a small smile tug at the corner of his lips. Lan Sizhui traveled so often, now. It was not often that he was home for family dinners. He wasn’t supposed to arrive for another week.
“You’re early,” Lan Wangji told their son, unstacking the trays. The cook today had given him three with a knowing smile, so he’d suspected that he might have a guest, but he’d thought it would be his brother, who had only recently begun to return to light duties.
Lan Sizhui always returned to the jingshi first thing after his night hunts, so Wei Wuxian could coo over him. Lan Wangji always subtly checked Lan Sizhui over for injuries — Wei Wuxian insisted that counted as cooing too. Lan Wangji didn’t agree or disagree. He was more than content to let Wei Wuxian talk over the comfortable silence that had permeated all Lan Sizhui’s dinners, growing up. Lan Wangji did not miss those days — he remembered them fondly, remembered all of Lan Sizhui’s childhood quirks and games, the way he refused to stay inside during a thunderstorm. But he liked this better.
Lan Sizhui had never admitted, either, the comfort he found in this routine, but sometimes Lan Wangji found his — their — son happily dazed while Wei Wuxian chattered at him, as if he was still in a dream. Lan Wangji must have passed this habit down to him too: some mornings, he woke up sure that this was all a dream, only for Wei Ying to murmur under him as he sat up.
“It ended up being two ghosts wanting peace.” Lan Sizhui poured three cups of tea. “And I was close by.” He blinked at Lan Wangji, expression a little shuttered. “And Baba was telling me about his ankle.”
Lan Wangji paused. Turned to Wei Wuxian suspiciously. “Your ankle?”
Wei Wuxian smiled winsomely; a smile that meant he was feeling mischievous. “Mm, I noticed this morning.” He kicked his foot out — Lan Sizhui dodged, alerting Lan Wangji to the fact that this was Wei Wuxian’s second time showing off. Unfortunately, it was a choice between dodging and spilling the soup in his hands. Lan Wangji weathered the storm even as a few bits of orange soup splashed against his thumb. “Lan Zhan, you were supposed to move!”
“I have soup,” Lan Wangji told him, pinning Wei Wuxian’s foot under his elbow. “What happened to your ankle?”
Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow and Wei Wuxian kicked at him again. “I mean it, it’s fine. And it’s my bad ankle!”
“Your bad ankle is fine,” Lan Wangji repeated. He glanced over at Lan Sizhui, who wore a slightly ill expression, and then back at Wei Wuxian. He wished, suddenly, that he could have seen the reaction to the myriad changes Wei Wuxian had been subjected to over the past few months. His changing hair had continued to spread past his shoulders, and it certainly looked a little odd, the top half a silken black and the bottom a wavy brown. He was still not a stranger, yet. But still — to see all these changes behind a door that you thought had your family, your childhood… it must feel strange. A fish caught a hook, surprised at the change in scenery as it was pulled up.
“Yes, I noticed this morning.” Wei Wuxian passed Lan Sizhui his bowl. “You know it always used to ache when it was about to rain. It doesn’t anymore.”
Lan Wangji glanced outside at the rain-wet world. The intermittent echo of rain hitting the pond as droplets lost their hold on tree branches kept him company the entire walk here. “That is strange,” Lan Wangji replied, because he could not say that this was an unappreciated change. Wei Wuxian did not complain about Mo Xuanyu’s body ever. But along with the gaunt face and fading sword callous, Mo Xuanyu had broken his ankle, once, and it had needed to bear his weight too soon.
It ached, in the rain. No longer. Lan Wangji ran his thumb across the ankle, where there had been a slight divot against the bone. It was smooth now.
Lan Sizhui frowned. “So your eye ended up being something after all?”
Wei Wuxian caught Lan Wangji’s glance. “Yes,” he replied, curling his hand around the tea. He took his ankle back, curled his knees to his chest. “I suppose it did.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan! Your chin!”
Lan Wangji raised a hand to his chin, bloody red flowers staining the edge of his white sleeve. “Ah.” Wei Wuxian, in grand fashion, had taken to his increase in height with all the aplomb of a teenager: coltish and prone to accidents. He kept clipping the door with his shoulder as he turned to exit the jingshi. And, apparently, had sliced Lan Wangji’s chin open during a sparring session.
“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian said, cool hands already dotting at the blood with a handkerchief. He tilted Lan Wangji’s chin down, just slightly, and Lan Wangji stared at the crown of his head, at the perfect black hair in the topknot as if someone had cracked open the night sky. Wei Wuxian’s height was steadily increasing, slowly but surely. “Oh no, I really got you! I don’t think I knew my arms were this long.”
Lan Wangji didn’t particularly feel sorry. He never did, when Wei Wuxian tended to and cared for him. It was a deep cut, stinging even under Wei Wuxian’s careful ministrations, but it was just a cut. “Did you never have a growth spurt as a teenager?”
Wei Wuxian put his thumb on Lan Wangji’s chin, assessing. “You might need this stitched,” he mused. He sent a tiny curl of spiritual energy towards Lan Wangji, which was silly because Lan Wangji had immense reserves of his own. This is the sort of thing that Lan Wangji fell in love with. Falls in love with, all over again. “No, I sort of just grew gradually, I didn’t just — wake up, and become tall.” He grinned, sheepishly. “This is new for me. You?”
Lan Wangji should have suspected this would be the next question. “Yes.” It had been terrible. He hadn’t been short before, but for six months straight he had been horrified and angry that he was a full head taller than most of the other disciples and that seniors kept telling him he was likely to grow more even as his ankles were exposed by too-short robes. It was a minor flaw in his perfection that had horrified him and angered him in equal turns.
Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had already been of a height, at Cloud Recesses. Silly enough, Lan Wangji wished he could have known the ganglier teenager too, before he’d become self-assured enough to fight a disciplinarian on the rooftop in moonlight. “So you were not as clumsy a teenager as you are now?”
“Hm, no, I — hey!” Wei Wuxian stuck his tongue out, which did not do much to dispel the teen commentary, but Lan Wangji loved him for it. “You’ll pay for that, mark my words, Hanguang-jun!”
“I already did.” Lan Wangji probed at his lip with his tongue, then winced — he hadn’t realized the blade had sliced directly through and it stung. He arranged his face into something like a pout, which was not effective on anyone but his husband, who always thought it was cute how much it didn’t work on his face and fell for it. “It hurts very much.”
“Oh, it does not, asshole,” Wei Wuxian said, already starting to laugh. Lan Wangji drank in the sight, mismatched hair and brown eyes and broad shoulders. The touch of sunlight on his throat as he threw his head back in laughter. “I am not kissing your split lip better! You’re getting stitches!”
It was Wei Wuxian’s turn to be hurt next time, with a dagger to the shoulder.
This did not seem to bother him, and as such, it took Lan Wangji far longer than it should have to realize that there was a genuine dagger stick through his husband’s shoulder blade, like the mishappen wings of a baby bird gleaming under moonlight.
Sometimes panic overwhelmed him. Today it welled up slow, reverberating throughout his body until it hollowed him out. When he was younger, he used to train to so long with his sword that when he put set down, his arms felt swollen and weightless. His entire being was weightless, now. “Wei Ying, your shoulder!”
“Mm,” Wei Wuxian agreed absently, staring down at the body of the man who tried to kill him with remarkable nonchalance. At this point, neither Lan Wangji or Wei Wuxian was unused to assassination attempts. Lan Wangji, however, did not take them in stride the way Yiling-laozu did. Nor did he take in stride the knife. “Yeah, he grazed me. It’s not too bad.”
“Not too bad,” Lan Wangji echoed, turning Wei Wuxian’s back towards him. “Wei Ying, there is a knife sticking out of your shoulder blade.” He traced the edge of the dagger, light from the lantern catching on the blade as Wei Wuxian kept moving. He crouched down, peeling up the dead man’s eyelid with curiosity, and the blade arced upwards with him, wings unfolding. Wei Wuxian didn’t even seem to notice, he kept moving even though the blade was stuck deep enough that they should worry about damage to the muscle. “Stop moving.”
Wei Wuxian stuck Chenqing in his belt, rolling his eyes and reaching up to feel the wound as if Lan Wangji was making a fuss. Lan Wangji thought he was making rather an appropriate amount of fuss to his husband being stabbed.
“Nah, don’t worry, it’s just—” Wei Wuxian’s hand found the dagger, his jaw dropping. Somewhere, under the dull panic, vindication flared up bright. “You really weren’t kidding.”
“I would not joke about this.”
“No, I know.” Wei Wuxian’s hand was still curled around the handle of the blade. He fingered the hilt thoughtfully, expression shadowed.
Lan Wangji swallowed. Wei Wuxian would not pull the blade out now, of course. Despite the blade, the night remained warm, Wei Wuxian’s body remained relaxed, not a trace of tension in the air. They were both used to being injured. But it was remarkably too similar to how, once, Wei Wuxian had taken an arrow directly to his heart. He’d ripped it out, tip simmering with resentment, laughing against the moon, and Lan Wangji’s heart had been ripped out the same. He had wondered if there was anything left of Wei Wuxian that resentment was not holding together.
This time, Wei Wuxian didn’t tear out the knife, sending red-black blood across the roof. He kept it in, moving himself slowly and carefully so as not to destroy the muscle. Maybe resentful energy could keep him together, this time, but that was not a body Wei Wuxian had dragged around in battle all those years ago. It was something akin to a corpse. Something that Wei Wuxian had given freely, and it destroyed him even as if knit bones and stitches wounds into scars. He did not give himself, again.
“There should be a healer in town,” Lan Wangji hinted meaningfully, his hand cupping Wei Wuxian’s good elbow to help him rise.
Wei Wuxian gave up on investigating the dead man, who would surely be there once metal and flesh separated. “Yeah, okay. But don’t worry, Lan Zhan, it really doesn’t hurt that much!” He pat Lan Wangji’s cheek clumsily with his good hand. “Just a little.”
Wei Wuxian, of course, was a liar when it came to his own pain. He’d hide every bit of it if he thought it would help, and Lan Wangji would coax it forth, again and again, so carefully. Not insistent, not begging, but steady to that Wei Wuxian may see him as safety instead of another doubter.
In this, they share their pain. Wei Wuxian, hurting, Lan Wangji, hurting to shoulder it alongside him.
The healer in the village had Wei Wuxian lay flat on his stomach, carefully working the blade out. Lan Wangji watched, of course. The healer’s hands were steady even coated in blood, and she did not seem to find his presence threatening. She may have seen too many other terrified spouses in Lan Wangji’s position to wilt against his glare.
It made Lan Wangji only a little cross, and Wei Wuxian laughed. “Lan Zhan, surely Deng-daifu does not need you to keep watching her. Can’t you pay attention to me, instead? I’m in pain!”
He squeezed Lan Wangji’s hand gently, reassuring. Lan Wangji was not reassured. It was not the knife that brought about this frailty in his chest; it was almost gone and Wei Wuxian had barely lost any blood and he was laughing, even still. No. Lan Wangji had studied Wei Wuxian’s face and found barely a trace of it; there was no ache hidden in the tight corner or a mouth, he met Lan Wangji’s gaze without avoidance. None of the signs of displeasure or pain that Lan Wangji had fought to recognize were present.
He’d barely even realized he’d been hurt.
Lan Wangji tucked a bit of hair behind Wei Wuxian’s ear carefully, thumb lingering. He had yet to wash the blood off and it stained his nail red. There was a basin in the corner but despite — or perhaps because of — Wei Wuxian’s lack of pain, he did not want to step aside for the moments it would take to remove. “She is almost done.”
Wei Wuxian hummed, hardly bothered. The healer had given him a bit of medicinal tea, to numb the pain, but he’d already said it made no much difference. He didn’t even wince when the knife finally left his shoulder. He did wince when the doctor slathered on a foul-smelling salve, though from the disgust in his face, it was more to do with the smell and the cold than the pain.
She released them, warning them to take it easy. Wei Wuxian lit up at that.
The walk back, the bandages were neatly hidden by the collar of his robes, but they were still a little tight around his shoulders and as such, the rip had stretched so that nearly a hands-width of white bandages could be seen peeking out from between the black cloth.
Back in the room, Wei Wuxian curled up against Lan Wangji’s back. “I’m sleepy.” He was just wearing his trousers — he’d taken all three layers of his robes off, needle in hand to stitch them back together. “Hanguang-jun, sew my robe for me!”
“Wei Ying, I cannot,” Lan Wangji replied, hand moving steadily across the paper. These are their places — Lan Wangji wrote the letter to his uncle, explaining that Wei Wuxian’s injury would keep them in town for several more days (the truth, stretched a tiny bit. It was not so bad an injury that he could not ride the donkey. But it had shaken Lan Wangji more than Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian had offered, with that quiet smile on his face, to stay a little longer. To keep his Lan Zhan away from bearing the yoke of His Excellency another day or two.) His letter was courteous, to the point, and did not allow room for objection.
Similar, Wei Wuxian’s place was wrapped around Lan Wangji — it is not always like this, sometimes Wei Wuxian climbed into the space between Lan Wangji’s legs and settled there with his spine against Lan Wangji’s chest. Tonight, with Wei Wuxian’s back bandaged, Lan Wangji had Wei Wuxian’s cheek against his shoulder, as his husband held his hands out to the side to sew his robe back together. It could not be comfortable.
Wei Wuxian did not write the letters. Lan Wangji did not sew. He sealed the letter and sent it off using one of Wei Wuxian’s own talismans, and out of the corner of his eye, the needle flashed in and out of black robe like a silvery fish leaping out of night waters, cloth carefully written back together. In, out. In, out. The needle going through Wei Wuxian’s skin, closing up his shoulder blade had been the same, in, out, in out, in—
“I didn’t feel any pain.” Wei Wuxian’s words were quiet and low like the candles dimmed for sleep. Lan Wangji felt more than heard his voice against his back. “I mean, a little, I suppose. Nothing like I used to.”
Lan Wangji hummed, quietly, in the back of his throat. “You used to hurt?”
“I mean, not really.” Wei Wuxian he carefully shook the robe out, inspecting the seam that Lan Wangji could no longer see. “Or I did, but I could handle it. You know what I mean.”
Pain was simply part of life as a cultivator, from aching calves and blistering palms as a child just learning to hold a sword to the first swipe of claws that drew blood on a night hunt. It happened. It hurt. They continued on. And despite the tiny bit of worry that clung to Lan Wangji’s heart — whispers about how Wei Wuxian had died once before — Wei Wuxian had always known how to keep pain at bay, as if holding off darkness and wolves with naught but a torch. He shoved it deep down. He worked through it.
He did not give voice to it, no matter how Lan Wangji longed that he would.
“I know,” Lan Wangji replied softly, not wanting to interrupt. He did not like to interrupt, when Wei Wuxian talked about his pain. He had come to learn that anger on his husband’s behalf got them nowhere but an argument. So when Wei Wuxian’s voice was low like this, quiet, Lan Wangji said nothing at all. And Wei Wuxian would let him know that his ankle hurt, or his neck. That he’d bruised his side in training, the other day, Lan Zhan, Jingyi is really getting to be amazing with a sword!
He spilled little bits of himself, splatters of ink across white paper — or perhaps, white sleeves. Lan Wangji listened, memorizing each word until it was written against his bones, and pressed kisses along Wei Wuxian’s spine, quiet thanks.
“I was fine, before.” A bit of iron entered his voice. His fingers found the edge of the bandages again; his eyes found Lan Wangji’s. “But not like this. I don’t think I could have taken a shoulder to the knife before and not felt a thing.”
Lan Wangji kissed him, soft. “Very brave,” he said, instead of the myriad of worries lodged in his throat.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian murmured. “Maybe that’s it.”
Lan Wangji could not avoid sect meetings or visitations. If it were up to him, he’d never leave his husband’s side. But Lan Wangji spent far too much time on the road in between different sects now as opposed to on the road between night hunts. Night hunts had always been well-worth bearing, made even more exhilarating and sweet by his husband as his side, the both of them working in tandem as if they were one mind.
Visits to other sects were not as pleasant.
Jin Rulan, however young, was an excellent host; that was not the issue. It was a simple problem than he could not circumvent. Lan Wangji hated politics. He always had, even when he was young — well, perhaps then, he had envied his brother more for being so adaptable, for fitting so easily into a world that Lan Wangji did not want to comprehend, a world where they did not follow the rules. He hated that he was not perfect in this regard. He hated that his brother’s smile was so often fake, as if he was losing little bits and pieces of him to the pressure of his future position.
How his younger self would be unable to comprehend him now. Flouting rules. Understanding politics. He did not smile, so his could not be fake, but his countenance certainly was, when lanterns lit the long road with harsh light and long shadows, and he could not be home with his husband. Or could not be at home on the well-traveled path, with his husband.
The jingshi, as always, was bathed in soft light, stuttering gently though the open door. Wei Wuxian always left it open in the autumn, as long as he could, as if to soak in the last warm air before he buried himself in heavy robes and blankets and pleaded come on, Lan Zhan, warm me up! Yunmeng winters are so mild!
Wei Wuxian’s back was to him as he entered, bent over the table pouring over a letter. Lan Wangji couldn’t tell if it was received or meant to be sent, but he was so focused that he did not hear Lan Wangji come in. Lan Wangji took a step forward, the candlelight outlining the corner of Wei Wuxian’s mouth and the shape of his nose in quiet gold.
Lan Wangji did not recognize him. The curve of his jaw was wrong. From this angle, Wei Wuxian did not look like himself at all.
Even his voice was cautious.
Wei Ying whipped his head around, grin growing. “Lan Zhan!”
Just like this, his face was his again, of course it was Wei Wuxian’s; who else would be in the jingshi pouring over letters? But something about it was not quite right, as if he was seeing a reflection in a still river instead of what was real, in front of him.
Lan Wangji knelt down at Wei Wuxian’s side, folding their fingers together. He cupped Wei Wuxian’s jaw, something in his entire being rattled. He wondered. Did he always look at me like this? Did the angles of his face feel familiar against Lan Wangji’s palm? Had it been this angular, has his cheekbones been this high? There was a slight bump in the bridge of his nose, had that always been there?
Lan Wangji smoothed his thumb over Wei Wuxian’s bottom lip, knowing the tantalizing bow of his lips had not always been so pronounced.
Under his touch, Wei Wuxian tilted his head. Confused. “Lan Zhan?” The head tilt was familiar, as was the downwards pull of his lips, but his face was not quite the same. A slightly smudged drawing, maybe. Not all together unfamiliar, at all, just enough that Lan Wangji second-guessed his own memory. “Something else changed?”
Lan Wangji did not want to admit something else had changed. The curse — the condition, as Wei Wuxian had taken to calling it — had been moving fast, but after only a week away and to have changed this much? Or perhaps… maybe it was only with fresh eyes.
He’d said he was fine with it; he’d tried to make peace. And he had, when the changes had been small. But how could he make peace with the fact he had been unable to see that Wei Wuxian had been changing all along?
Sleep did not steal either of them away easily, that night. They’d climbed into bed, early, and together for once. Wei Wuxian had shoved his letter away and asked quiet, tentative questions about the trip — how was Jin Ling, was the food alright, did you solve that land dispute? — and Lan Wangji has answered — the food was fine, the issue is resolved, Jin Rulan would not admit it, but he wished you had been able to attend with me — and neither of them talked about the real problem.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian groaned now. “I can feel you staring from here! What about my ear is so enrapturing?”
Lan Wangji paused, no answer readily available.
Wei Wuxian knew it anyways. “My dear husband worries my ears will change shape.” He draped a dramatic hand across his forehead, sighing. He had spent a few minutes poking at his own face in the mirror before bed but he could not tell the change, the way Lan Wangji could. He did not spend every day seeing his own face. Maybe that was why he was so much less bothered. “You know, you probably wouldn’t notice if they did.”
No, Lan Wangji probably wouldn’t. Until the past hour, he hadn’t spent much of his life looking at Wei Wuxian’s ears, but it was the part of his husband that he could see, his ears and his new cheekbones kissed by the faint sliver of moonlight that came through the window.
Already Wei Wuxian’s body fit against him incompletely, knees knocking and arm heavy where before he fit perfectly, key against Lan Wangji’s lock. His smile had started to skew a little crooked on certain smiles, endearingly so. His eyebrows started to grow thicker.
“The last time you changed…” Lan Wangji chanced reaching out to trace the shell of Wei Wuxian’s ear. Under his touch, Wei Wuxian shivered. “I lost you.”
Lan Wangji remembered being twenty and seeing Wei Wuxian in Yiling, holding the hand of a young boy and so hungry that Lan Wangji could imagine bones under paper-thin, translucent skin. And before that… Lan Wangji remembered being eighteen and seeing Wei Wuxian’s smile for the first time in three months and how it had been wide and cruel. He had never seen it cruel before.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian said, voice suspiciously bright and close to tears. He tugged at the collar of Lan Wangji’s robes, pulling them both up into a sitting position. Lan Wangji could only see a sliver of one eye in the darkness; the left half of his face was completely shadowed. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you know I wasn’t… happy then. Or in good health. You would have — that would have happened regardless of how thin I got.”
He had not been just thin. He had been skeletal, his eyes and grin too wide to fit onto his face. “I cannot help but worry,” Lan Wangji said quietly. “That I will wake up and your face will be something new.”
That was not, really, what he was saying. It went deeper than that, somewhere. What if I wake up, he was asking, and I was not able to help you again? What if I wake up, and you are someone else?
“Well, you know.” Wei Wuxian pressed his palm flat against Lan Wangji’s heart. There was truly no answer for the question, Wei Wuxian must know that. He was promising the same in return. “People change. Both inside and outside. You did. I did.” He hummed, quietly. “We will, together. And we have been, together.”
Lan Wangji knew this, intellectually. Knew that they would continue on, growing together and apart and back together, like gnarled old trees, uncaring of their space in the forest. He knew. But to hear it from Wei Wuxian’s lips, a promise that no matter how the path changed, they would walk it together — it was such an easy sentence. But to heard it promised… he was coming to learn that was all the difference. “Alright,” he said quietly, stunned by such a simple promise.
“If you woke up one day, and my face was something new…” Wei Wuxian pressed their foreheads together, his hand warm on the nape of Lan Wangji’s neck. “You’d recognize me, wouldn’t you?”
“I think I fucked up my hand a little on that night hunt,” Wei Wuxian speculated, switching his brush to his other hand and shaking out the other. “Ooh, my handwriting is terrible, Lan Zhan, look at this.”
Lan Wangji could not care less about the paper. Instead he turned Wei Wuxian’s ink-stained palm over, tracing heartlines. “Tell me.”
“Mm, my fingers are stiff.” He curled the fingers on his right hand into a fist, the tendons in his wrist jumping under Lan Wangji’s touch. Both his ring and pinky fingers moved a little slower. Didn’t curl all the way in.
Lan Wangji ran his thumb over the knuckles, tucking the fingers in carefully. They close the gap neatly, with no issue. They could move, it was just that Wei Wuxian could not completely move them. “When?”
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “I don’t really remember,” he admitted. “It kind of just happened. Remember, I kept missing those high notes?”
Lan Wangji remembered. Chenqing had long been a comforting sound at his back, a battle cry as they worked together. Wei Wuxian usually improvised more than followed any direct scores, but he had the Gusu Lan battle songs and techniques memorized, or course. He missed a note at the end, overly shrill. It ensured that the ghost Lan Wangji dispatched died with a confused grimace on his face, to match the sword through his chest.
Lan Wangji had raised an eyebrow at his husband, gently mocking.
“Oh, like you’ve never played a note wrong,” Wei Wuxian had complained, shaking his flute back and forth like it was a rattle drum instead of a powerful cultivational tool.
“Never,” Lan Wangji agreed, and was rewarded for his insolence with a kiss.
He wasn’t entirely sure what would have hurt Wei Wuxian’s fingers so — he was fastidious about his hands, as was Lan Wangji. An instrument required careful maintenance, and a flute or a guqin was nothing without a set of hands to play it.
The last two fingers were crooked — they fit against each other neatly, like they might have been broken and splinted together at one point, but his ring finger did not lay flat against his middle finger. He hadn’t broken anything; he hadn’t so much as smacked his hand against anything. There was no bruise or scrape, no singular indication as to why his fingers were injured. It was just that his fingers appeared to have broken, long ago. “Any pain?”
“None,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’m not sure what I did to fuck with them, but no, no pain.”
Lan Wangji inspected his hand. “Is this…” he started uncertainly. He almost just shut his mouth, faced with the realization that this change was highly specific. Not a mere change of color, but that Wei Wuxian’s hand had become previously broken? “This is…”
Wei Wuxian crumpled the paper underneath his free hand. “Yeah. It’s not… stopping, I guess. Or it’s… well, this is a negative. As opposed to something neutral.”
“This is rather precise,” Lan Wangji agreed. “As if these fingers belong to someone else.”
“That was very creepy, thanks, Hanguang-jun.” Wei Wuxian cast his eyes down to the table. The paper he’d been working on early was a mess, each character drawn with a trembling, unsteady hand. “To think I was so excited about how much easier it was to play Chenqing now that my hands were a little bigger,” he said, voice defeated. He dropped the brush back in the inkwell with a final-sounding clatter. “Now I’ll have to relearn it all over again.”
Lan Wangji often found the push and pull of their relationship beautiful. When he was upset, Wei Wuxian would tug him back towards warmth and safety. Now that Wei Wuxian’s shoulders slumped with a tense, miserable defeat, Lan Wangji found comfort right at hand, instead of the cruel worry that he’d first been confronted with, back in the beginning of summer. It had dissipated somewhere in autumn, when every new change promised that Wei Wuxian was just himself as ever.
“It will not take a skilled player such as you long to learn.” Lan Wangji pressed his thumb against the inside of Wei Wuxian’s palm, opening his fingers back up gently. Wei Wuxian made a derisive noise, in the back of his throat, and Lan Wangji looked up, searching his eyes. “It is an adjustment, that is all.”
There was a smear of ink against the knuckle on his pinky, which smeared down his finger as Lan Wangji traced across the rough skin and bumps. A thin scar snaked down the center of his ring finger, as well.
“Ugly, aren’t they,” Wei Wuxian commented.
“Beautiful,” Lan Wangji countered. The skin was rough, and the pinky bone more crooked than would be easy to play — no wonder he had been missing notes — but Lan Wangji loved everything about his husband. Ever-changing eyes, possibly broken fingers. He pressed a kiss to each finger, lingering on the angry pinky joint. “My husband is beautiful, always.”
“Found something new, er-gege.”
Lan Wangji paused for just a second, tray hovering above the table, before he put the feet decisively down. The words still sent something a little uncomfortable in his chest, but his fear was ebbing, after since that night when he returned home unable to recognize his husband. Since his husband had promised him, always, to bring him along no matter how they changed. Since he’d had to comfort him in return.
The sheets trailed behind Wei Wuxian as he rolled over, eyeing the breakfast tray. Sometimes he would refuse to get up, slender hands reaching out until he caught Lan Wangji’s sleeve, reeling him in for a kiss. It took a very long time to coax him out of bed on these mornings, but Lan Wangji liked them the best for all the honeyed, sunlight kisses. He’d always known that Wei Ying would be hard to wake, impossible, but he’d never imagined being able to slide his palm against the back of his neck and tilt him up for a kiss.
If the mornings were still the same, if his husband was the same, well. Lan Wangji had adjusted to a new face, a new body. So had Wei Wuxian. They may weather it again. Maybe the rest of their lives, they’d be finding things new, but Lan Wangji was determined to get used to it.
Wei Wuxian waggled his fingers at him, gesturing him a little closer. “Aren’t you curious what it is?” He slid out of bed, the sheets wrapped around his shoulder and the sleeping robe falling off his shoulder. He kept trying the too-small ones loose and sloppy, smirking at Lan Wangji like he knew exactly he was doing.
He did, of course. So did Lan Wangji, when he smoothed his hands over those wide shoulders, divesting them of robes like they were offensive. He Lan Wangji pressed a kiss to the curve of his bare shoulder, lingering there and breathing in deep before he pulled the sleeve back up, set back to rights. “Do tell.”
Wei Wuxian grinned at him. Something about it was slightly off, and Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, trying to find the difference. He found it just as Wei Wuxian leaned close and tapped his chin, just under his pink bottom lip. “I’ve a freckle right here, Lan-er-gege.”
Indeed he did. “I see.” Lan Wangji leaned even closer. He was not so much focused on the freckle as the way Wei Wuxian’s lips curved as he smiled. “Very notable.”
Wei Wuxian snorted. “I used to have a freckle right here too,” he mused, pressing his thumb against it. “Do you remember?”
Now that Wei Wuxian had mentioned it, he did remember. He leaned over and kissed it the way he’d always wanted to as a teenager but hadn’t let himself admit until many years after Wei Wuxian had been gone. “I didn’t forget.”
“You did so,” Wei Wuxian teased, tilting his head up for easier access. “You forgot.”
“Never.” Lan Wangji kissed his lips then. “I just did not need to remember.”
“I have you now,” Lan Wangji explained. He had spent thirteen years thinking about Wei Wuxian in his old body — the curve of his smile, bright, and the way he wrinkled his nose when he found something particularly funny. The brand he bore on his chest, and the white scar gracing the back of his hand, and the freckles that had developed during the Sunshot campaign. Lan Wangji remembered sneaking glances at him, at the freckles, and wondering at how young they made him seem in the middle of a time that had stolen all their youth anyways. And he remembered that mole.
And yet, it was hard to remember that face. He had Wei Wuxian now — no matter how short or tall he was, or if his hair curled around the temples. He had Wei Wuxian when he was slimmer, none of the tanned leaned muscle from Yunmeng summers, and he had Wei Wuxian after months of training high on the mountains. He smiled the same, big and bright until his eyes crinkled up, like he did now. “Charmer,” he teased, tugging at the end of Lan Wangji’s ribbon. “You don’t miss my old body?”
“Wei Ying is not in it,” Lan Wangji said clearly, leaning up. Wei Wuxian obligingly dipped his head for a kiss, a dance they knew by heart no matter the situation. Lan Wangji smoothed a hand over Wei Wuxian’s bare shoulder, the lack of burn there on his chest, and marveled at the difference. “This is your body.” He had long since stopped thinking about it as Mo Xuanyu’s. Every part of it was Wei Wuxian, from the nimble footwork to the hair that Lan Wangji brushed for him every night.
“Mm, no matter how it changes. It’s strange, isn’t it?”
“My husband is very strange, yes.”
“I thought I was done with this,” Wei Wuxian said contemplatively to the ceiling. Lan Wangji dug his fingers into the soft meat of Wei Wuxian’s calf and Wei Wuxian groaned, shivering. “Fuck. This is so unfair!”
“You have been growing quite rapidly,” Lan Wangji noted, massaging his calf a little more gently. Wei Wuxian pushed against his hands. “It’s only natural that you experience growing pains.”
“I did already,” Wei Wuxian hissed, kicking at him half-heartedly. Lan Wangji caught his ankle deftly. “Between this and my shoulder, I think you might have to let me retire.” He rolled his shoulder, too, which he’d been complaining about being tight in the few days of heavy rain, an onslaught during a week of unnatural warm winter. The hot water bottle on it fell to the floor with a wet thump. “Agh.”
“We could retire to the countryside,” Lan Wangji suggested, flexing Wei Wuxian’s foot. “You could garden.”
“I hate gardening.”
“You hate radishes,” Lan Wangji disagreed, because Wei Wuxian liked very much the lotus pond and encompassing flowers he’d built in the corner of the yard. He tended to forget about it every winter and then spent a few weeks trimming all the dead branches back and yelling We’re never doing this again, these plants can stay dead this time— and a few months later they’d be all abloom, climbing up the fence.
“I’d be bored.”
“Mm, probably,” Lan Wangji agreed, setting Wei Wuxian’s leg down gently and tugging the pant leg down. Wei Wuxian glared at him, then opened his good arm, welcoming a kiss. “You might blow something up.”
“I would not.” Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow at him and Wei Wuxian relented, throwing his good arm over his shoulder. “I guess retirement is out of the question. And soon I’ll be too tall and strong for you to carry me, it’ll be terrible!”
“I can carry you,” Lan Wangji said, offended. “How tall are you going to become, that I cannot carry you?”
Wei Wuxian peeked up at him through his fingers. “Really,” he said, almost shyly. “You’ll keep carrying me?”
Lan Wangji nodded, solemnly. “If you’re tall or old or your knees ache—”
“They do ache, and my hip keeps popping—”
“I will carry you, if you want me to.” Lan Wangji pat Wei Wuxian’s poor aching knee, unbearably fond. “Always.”
Lan Sizhui was more than a capable cultivator. He was the best Lan pupil of his generation, a face that Wei Wuxian flaunted everywhere even though, as he privately told Lan Wangji in the comfort of their own home that he’d had very little to do with the fact. Lan Wangji disagreed — Wei Wuxian had been the one to foster Lan Sizhui’s creativity and innovation, long before and long after he’d learned the rules.
Sometimes, though, he still occasionally wrote to his parents and asked for advice or even their company on a particularly troublesome night hunt. He always made sure to specifically ask for both of them, because he’d cottoned on to the fact that Lan Wangji would not refuse to come help if asked, despite the duties piling up on his desk.
“Ah, there he is! Sizhui!” Wei Wuxian waved dramatically with his free hand, as if he was worried their son might miss them.
Lan Sizhui, on his part, looked very startled when Wei Wuxian threw his arms around him, hand on his sword tight. Lan Wangji blinked at him and then — recognition flooded Lan Sizhui’s eyes, warm as he threw his arms back around Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian drew back, still chattering, and tucked Lan Sizhui’s hair behind his ears gently. Talking about how it was too long to go without seeing each for a few months, and won’t Sizhui come home more often, and ah! Sizhui! Let your doting parents buy you dinner!
Lan Sizhui led them to a small inn, a pink flushed smear high on his cheeks. Not embarrassment — he had never once been embarrassed by the devotion Wei Wuxian piled on him. In fact, he had always enjoyed it.
No, this was something else entirely. Lan Wangji had not been looking for it. But his eyes had never fooled him before, and he had seen the truth: Lan Sizhui had not, at first, recognized Wei Wuxian in his arms until he saw Lan Wangji standing behind him.
The quiet truth about seeing someone, day in and day out, was that it you hardly noticed they were changing. It happened so slowly and easily that it became impossible to divide up into days, no matter how diligently Wei Wuxian tried to track movement on a scroll of paper.
Lan Wangji had had enough panic in just the momentary instance he’d stepped into the jingshi and found a stranger. For all his worries, it has not been easy to tell the differences, because he kissed those lips and caressed the purple circles under his eyes and cradled that jaw every day.
Lan Sizhui had followed in his fathers’ footsteps. Always moving, always finding new night hunts. Lan Wangji had always expected this, had been filled with more pride at his son’s decision than was strictly advisable, and yet.
He could not imagine the horror Lan Sizhui felt, failing to recognize his own father at first. Lan Wangji caught the quick, sidelong glances that Lan Sizhui sent Wei Wuxian. Only letting his eyes rest for an instant, drinking in the tiny changes and the similarities. All-black hair. Larger nose. Same black robes, still a little too short but hastily tailored to fit him better in the shoulders now. The eyes that Lan Sizhui had noticed first, before anyone else.
It was not so noticeable, yet. Wei Wuxian’s face remained much the same shape still. He didn’t even seem to notice Lan Sizhui’s momentary hesitation. But just for an instant, it had been different enough. Lan Wangji remembered two months ago, Lan Sizhui in the jingshi with his lips pressed together, displeased that his father’s ankle had been healed somehow. Lan Wangji feeling the same.
A fish caught on a hook, Lan Wangji had thought then. Now he thought it was more akin to a fish being released back to the river only to find it was a different river than the one it had built its home in.
Lan Wangji blinked, hard, he was being ridiculous. Fish did not have homes and their son did, both in the jingshi with them and outside in the world beyond, making his way. It had only been a moment of hesitation — Lan Wangji had had the same one, stepping into the jingshi to find a stranger.
He felt it now, even, realizing — “You’re taller.”
Both his husband and son turned back to him, confused. When Wei Wuxian had first come back to life, he’d been taller than Lan Sizhui, but Lan Sizhui had still been growing, imperceptibly, as teenagers were prone to. When Lan Sizhui settled into his new position as a young man instead of a teenager, he’d been just a little bit taller. They had grown used to Wei Wuxian being the shortest of their small family, tilting his head up just a little bit when his son spoke to him.
They would have to grow used to a new normal, because now that Lan Sizhui and Wei Wuxian were standing together again… “You’re taller than Sizhui.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, swiveling back around to stare at Lan Sizhui, then back at Lan Wangji. His arm was still hooked around Lan Sizhui’s shoulder; the both of them had been step in step on the way to the inn. Their footsteps trailed in the dust. And, almost perceptibly, he had a centimeter or two on his son, disguised only barely by Lan Sizhui’s tall silver headpiece. “Ah, I am,” he said blankly.
Lan Sizhui tilted his chin up, just a slight bit. “I like it better this way,” he declared, pressing himself into a hug again.
“Aiya, you like being the shortest? A-Yuan, you are so strange sometimes!”
“Like you.” Lan Sizhui pressed his face against Wei Wuxian’s shoulder like he was just a three-year-old boy again. Wei Wuxian caught Lan Wangji’s eye, bewildered even as he wrapped his arms around Lan Sizhui’s shoulders.
Lan Wangji did not have parents the way Lan Sizhui had them. His mother had been gone long before he ever had to face her growing old, and his father’s removal from his life was so permanent and clinical that Lan Wangji had never expected to see old age on him at all. But maybe, had they been some semblance of a happy family, he would have done the same. Burying his face in his mother’s shoulder, hoping for her to take care of him once more even though he was far too old for these antics. Knowing that one day, it would all change. That he would have to face his parents, not being the same as they once were.
At least, in this, Lan Wangji can protect him. He was not old; Wei Wuxian would certainly protest classification as such. He thought they would not be old for some time, together.
“You are not at fault for being conflicted,” Lan Wangji told Lan Sizhui at night, quietly. Ostensibly, he’d followed Lan Sizhui to his room to meditate; something Wei Wuxian was happy to avoid. On the other side of the wall, they could both hear the sounds of Wei Wuxian rummaging around, always so loud. There was a loud scrape against the floor as Wei Wuxian, presumably, moved the table into a better position and then the sound lapsed. Lan Wangji picked the thread back up. “It is… strange.”
Lan Sizhui’s hand stuttered where he was lighting the candle; wax splattered across the tabletop and his thumb. He did not notice and when he looked up, he had become impossibly young. “Do you hate it too?”
“No,” Lan Wangji conceded, carefully wiping the wax of Lan Sizhui’s hand. It left behind a soft red burn, tender but easily fixed, the same kind as the ones that burnt his feet in the summer when he was six and refused to wear shoes. “Not anymore. But I was not comfortable with it, at first.”
Lan Sizhui, who knew his father well, snorted. “You took it really badly, a-die, I could tell even that one night I was back.”
Lan Wangji flicked at his cheek, gently scolding. “I thought I was losing him. But he is just the same.”
Confusion crossed Lan Sizhui’s face. “Well, I know that.” He succeeded this time in lighting the candle. This may have been an inn, but truthfully every night they sit together, separated by a table and a candle and a pot of tea, it became home. “But… I don’t really remember Baba’s face, from before. I don’t want to lose this one either.”
Ah. Lan Sizhui had always carried guilt for this. He had been three. He had been ill, so feverish that the healers worried he would not last the night. Of course he would not remember Wei Wuxian’s face. He remembered grass butterflies and gentle hands and a flute lullaby, one that he hummed on his own long before Lan Wangji had been well enough to play it for him.
When he had been in seclusion — right after Wei Wuxian’s death, he forced himself to think. He had shied away from it for so long, sometimes the thought of it still tore the air from his lungs and sent him adrift. He spent so long refusing to think of a thing that had shaped so much of his life. “After your baba’s death,” Lan Wangji said carefully, and Lan Sizhui did not flinch. “I promised myself I would never forget his face.”
“Ah,” Lan Sizhui said, face twisting into something like fear. Pain. “A-die, I’m—”
“No apologies,” Lan Wangji interrupted quietly, shaking his head. That was now what he needed Lan Sizhui to hear. “It was inevitable. The memory of his face started to fade years ago. It was… very hard, but I do not remember his old body very well at all.”
An understatement — he had made himself ill and bed-ridden for another two months, fingers trembling where they lay folded across his chest, even as he told himself he was too old, now, for such dramatics. When he tried to picture Wei Wuxian’s face, it was an incomplete picture, a hazy golden memory smeared at the edges with time. He could remember the brightness of Wei Wuxian’s smile, but not each angle. He could remember that Wei Wuxian had been taller than him, enough that Lan Wangji had dreamed about Wei Wuxian’s fingers tipping up his chin for a kiss, but not his exact height. Not the exact timbre of his voice, only the cadence of it, quick and bright.
There had been several times over the years, where Lan Wangji had heard a stray laugh or see the corner of someone’s face and thought, wildly, heart stopping and restarting in his chest, that it was Wei Wuxian, once again.
“But I did not forget him. Or his kindness, or his strength. His will to do good. And that was what I needed to remember, not exactly what his face looked like.” He smoothed his thumb over the back of his son’s hand, the redness from the wax already gone. “You will know the important parts, too.”
“His laugh is still the same,” Lan Sizhui mumbled, but the tight set of his shoulders released, the collar of his robe unruffling. Still young-looking, but then, to a parent, a child was always young. “Isn’t it?”
Lan Wangji smiled. “Yes,” he said truthfully. “Yes, he talks and laughs just the same.”
Lan Sizhui insisted on returning home with them when their night hunt was over. Lan Wangji was sporting a cut on his temple, from an over-zealous ghost, and Wei Wuxian was flexing his two fingers, which had continued to plague him in the quiet way most old injuries promised to. Lan Sizhui had been hurt the most, a broken leg that was splinted and already mending, and so he was sitting on the donkey despite his protests.
The donkey, of course, loved him more dearly than she loved anything else, including annoying Wei Wuxian and chewing on the edge of Lan Wangji’s sleeve.
Wei Wuxian had already given Lan Sizhui an update on his current status: his pain tolerance was a new one, and he’d had great fun detailing the story of Lan Wangji’s newest scar through his chin and lip, though it was fading fast with help from his golden core. In return, he needled Lan Sizhui into telling him stories about night hunts. And Jin Ling, since it had been a few months since he’d seen his wayward nephew. And how was Ouyang Zizhen, that romantic boy, was he still courting that girl in Lotus Pier?
Yes, apparently. Yes he was.
This was gossip, technically. Lan Wangji made a cursory attempt at reminding them of this fact; one that he suspected they would both ignore. They did.
“A-Ling wants you to visit, you know,” Lan Sizhui said, kicking his good foot out in the air a little bit. “I stayed with him this winter, for a bit.”
“This whole winter?” Wei Wuxian whistled, low and appreciative. “Very presumptuous!”
“He offered,” Lan Sizhui protested. “Besides why shouldn’t I stay with him?” He twined his fingers in the donkey’s mane, petulant.
Lan Wangji tsked at him. “There is no need to be defensive, Sizhui, your father is only asking you a question.”
“A-die,” Lan Sizhui protested, and Lan Wangji hid his smile, turning his face towards the sun. He had not imagined this before, not really. He had imagined how Wei Wuxian would react to Lan Sizhui’s various misdemeanors. (He had not, in his wildest dreams, imagined that Wei Wuxian could be sterner than him, but he saw it in action, with their juniors, every night hunt.) But he had not imagined the two of them, together, teasing their son. Together.
There was something a little sweet, earnest, in Lan Sizhui’s voice as he rallied, though. “Why shouldn’t I — aren’t we cousins, ba?”
Lan Wangji watched Wei Wuxian’s face turn immediately tender. “Oh, you are good,” he said, voice too sappy to be chiding. He skipped a step, falling away from Lan Wangji’s side and joining Lan Sizhui’s. “Ah, you are, you are! You know, I never thought — well, I suppose I assumed I’d have a kid one day, but I didn’t really think about the specifics. But I wanted, so badly, for my children and their children to be cousins.”
“We are, ba,” Lan Sizhui said quietly. Before this, Jin Rulan and Lan Sizhui had met twice. Lan Wangji had always regretted that they could not be closer. He always thought that Jin Rulan needed a cousin, especially after Jin Rusong. “A-Ling is family to me.”
“Ah, family.” He sounded a little dreamy, patting absently at Lan Sizhui’s good leg. “My parents used to have a donkey too, you know! And I would ride on him just like you do, and my mother would sit behind me and my father would hold the reins.”
Lan Sizhui was quiet a moment. “You don’t talk about them much.”
“Hm? No, I don’t remember very much about them besides the donkey. I barely even knew my own name when Jiang-shushu found me.”
Lan Sizhui’s face twisted into something again. Wei Wuxian wasn’t paying attention, only staring ahead at the open road. Lan Wangji can’t be certain. But he was sure that Lan Sizhui was thinking about how just last night he had been so frightened of not recognizing his father’s face, and Wei Wuxian did not have any memories of his parents at all.
Lan Sizhui stayed at Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji liked it, relishing a bit of time to spend with the boy after he’d been outside of Cloud Recesses for months at a time. He was proud of Lan Sizhui for his ambitions and, perhaps, a little understanding of how hard it had been to return home. Lan Wangji still felt like that some days and his son’s presence soothed the ache, a bit.
Wei Wuxian, surprisingly, did not enjoy it.
“He’s watching me, Lan Zhan,” he growled, voice sour. He was wrapped up in the quilt from the bed, a heavy pale blue, which had only been placed on the bed last week to ward off the oncoming cold.
“Our son,” Lan Wangji clarified, and was bolstered by the slight twitch of Wei Wuxian’s lip, the tiniest bit of a smile at the mention. It smeared out into a thin line all too quick.
“Yes. It’s horrible, he keeps — watching me!”
“Watching you,” Lan Wangji repeated and Wei Wuxian let out a rough sound in the back of his throat, an annoyed growl. A misstep, on Lan Wangji’s behalf. When Wei Wuxian got like this, repeating his sentences back to him — a habit he found cute in a better mood — only served to upset him more. “I admit I am not sure where the issue lies.”
But there was an issue, crackling just underneath Wei Wuxian’s skin. He ran his thumb and forefinger against each other, over and over, rubbing them together in a nervous gesture.
Lan Wangji had arrived home to the jingshi today, with dinner, only to find that Wei Wuxian had not left it all day. More accurately, he was slumped against the bed — not in it, but against the frame, the quilt wrapped his shoulders as he shredded talisman paper absently. He’d clearly made a game out of trying to score; tiny paper balls littered the table where an empty teacup sat. There were a couple of soggy papers among the tea dregs. He had clearly given up the game; his empty hand rolled and unrolled a piece of torn paper, over and over again in his lap.
Let’s eat on the porch, Lan Wangji said, trapping the worried questions he wanted to ask behind his teeth. Just as Wei Wuxian had learned how to let himself be angry and still be loved, Lan Wangji had learned that waiting patiently is another way to express love too.
Wei Wuxian hadn’t eaten yet, though Lan Wangji had — do not waste food, precept three hundred and twenty-two. Eat neatly and concisely, precept eight hundred and forty-six. Wei Wuxian’s tray was still at his side, pushed a little farther towards the edge. There had been a moment there, when Lan Wangji nudged it gently towards him, that he’d been sure he’d pushed too far, as Wei Wuxian visibly resisted the urge, fingers shaking, to swipe it off the edge of the porch.
He’d gripped the quilt Lan Wangji had wrapped around his shoulders, crushing the fabric. Hair down, cloak wrinkled, face angry — he hadn’t even put on shoes. The world outside of the porch was calm, soft. It had started snowing, soft little flakes that wouldn’t stick to the dirt for more than a day.
On the porch, under the warming talismans that hung from the porch eaves all winter, Wei Wuxian was smoldering. He always burned slow, flames licking at grass.
Lan Wangji started to clear the tray.
Wei Wuxian snatched his cup up before it could go. It was the only thing he deigned to touch on the tray; he’d swallowed the tea as fast he could before padding over to the chest at the foot of the bed and producing a jar of liquor. Not Emperor’s Smile, but something cheap from Yunmeng that he could throw back fast. The only reason he’d used the cup was because Lan Wangji had gently tugged the jar from his hands and poured it himself.
Wei Wuxian lifted his cup, face horrifyingly blank. “Can I?”
Lan Wangji did not have the faintest idea what he wanted the teacup for. But there was very little he would not give to Wei Wuxian and a teacup hardly was worth anything at all, so Lan Wangji nodded.
A brittle snarl crossed Wei Wuxian face. He drew his hand back, knuckles white, and flung the teacup across the yard. It sailed in a perfect arc and smashed against the wooden fence, just to the left of the gate.
“My own fucking son,” Wei Wuxian said, voice dark and oily, “Didn’t even recognize me. This bullshit —” his words choked off, strangled as he curled his hands into fists. Lan Wangji spared a moment to be grateful the teacup was long gone, instead of crushed in his palm, bleeding out. “Why can’t I control anything,” and with that his voice broke and hot, furious tears rolled down his cheeks.
Lan Wangji folded his hands together, the fingernails of his left digging into the soft side of his right. He’d find little halfmoons there later, but this was the only way he could stop himself from reaching out. He had made this mistake before, trying to sooth and neaten and clean, to tamp down on Wei Wuxian’s nervous energy and Wei Wuxian had thrown him off. When he got like this, buzzy and vibrating and angry, ink-smeared outline against the setting sun, Lan Wangji knew not to touch. He would wear himself out of it eventually, as terrifying as it was to wait, so Lan Wangji said nothing.
He should have known better. He should have known better that Wei Wuxian always hid the truth of the dark things behind his smiles. He should have known that Wei Wuxian wasn’t as fine with this as he pretended to be — of course he wasn’t.
Lan Wangji had let himself be swept away. Wei Wuxian had let him.
Wei Wuxian threw the cloak off behind him, hair wild without his headpiece to tame it, and started stomping around the garden, arms gesticulating in the cold air. “How is this fair?” His foot came dangerously close to the thorny vines that made up the garden in the spring. Lan Wangji winced, but Wei Wuxian didn’t even notice, even though his feet were bare. He didn’t seem to feel much of anything, not the ice-cold stones of the path or the dead remnants of the grass. “If the gods think I have not made enough amends, would they make me so happy and take it away?”
This startled Lan Wangji in speaking. “You are not happy anymore?”
“Of course I am, that’s not the point!” Wei Wuxian howled, tears dripping off his chin and his nose and fire wild in his red eyes. He took another teacup and tossed that one too; it went wide and landed a great deal further left than the other, on the other side of the gate so that whoever entered would ground the ceramic into the dying grass. “It’s just not fair — my last body, I never even got to touch you, and now the only one that ever has is being taken away too! Fuck!”
He collapsed in on himself, sinking down and burying his face against his knees. “My own son didn’t even know me,” he sobbed, his voice cracked and ruined just the same as the teacup lingering near the gate. “What use am I, if I can’t even stop this?”
Lan Wangji knelt next to him, cold seeping through the knees of his robes. He chanced putting a hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and Wei Wuxian did not shrug him off. He dug his fingers into the small of Wei Wuxian’s back, against his spine, and Wei Wuxian shivered, suddenly grounded. Perhaps it was the weight of the argument talking, but Lan Wangji wondered, for the first time, if that would work on Wei Wuxian’s first body as well.
He never knew what to say, when Wei Wuxian got angry like this. Although he had carried anger in him for a long time, so ingrained in him from birth that he sometimes wondered if he inherited it from his mother, his anger was slow. It was not wild, it did not pace circles around the garden, it did not ask for pain just to feel things.
He wouldn’t know what to say even if Wei Wuxian was the sort of person who wanted to be calmed. No one had ever done this before. Wei Wuxian, as always, was a singular exception. So Wei Wuxian cried even as Lan Wangji carried him back to porch, twisted in his grasp like he didn’t want to seek too much comfort in it, and slumped against the porch wall tangled up in the cloak. He hid his face, making himself so small it was as if he took up no space at all.
Lan Wangji coaxed him into the bathtub first, citing that he needed to warm up. He waited as long as he could, until Wei Wuxian had cried every little bit of anger out and he was running on empty. Lan Wangji waited until hand that wiped at his eyes was shaking and weighed down by the loss of emotion from crying.
It helped that he was mostly asleep by the end of it, cold and exhausted, so that he had no room to argue.
“Gege, are you supposed to take care of me when I’ve thrown a temper tantrum,” Wei Wuxian mumbled, once the water had heated up and Lan Wangji had eased him into the bathtub. The heat made red rise on his cheeks, and he shivered, all-over, as he was reintroduced to warmth.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said firmly. He moved down to the end of the tub, reaching into the water for Wei Wuxian’s feet. It made him giggle, ticklish as Lan Wangji inspected each foot for thorns. He hadn’t been out in the cold long enough for frostbite, but still. He had gone outside without his shoes in the middle of winter. “But it was not a temper tantrum. You were upset.”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t throw teacups when you were upset.”
Lan Wangji gave him a displeased look. “I am not the one in a different body,” he said eventually, running his fingers through the tangled mess of Wei Wuxian’s hair. He worked slowly, from the bottom up, focusing on each individual snarl. “Another different body. My reaction doesn’t matter.”
“It matters a little bit,” Wei Wuxian mumbled, tilting his head back. His hair trailed against his shoulder, sticking to the unblemished skin and — wait. There was supposed to be a scar there, a white pockmarked shape. But Wei Wuxian’s bare shoulder was perfectly smooth. “Lan Zhan?”
The weight of it now was different, and Lan Wangji did not want to say. The worry was coiling up in him, snaking up his spine, and if he said anything, anything at all, the Wei Wuxian he knew could disappear, just like his face.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian twisted his head around to catch Lan Wangji’s eye, craned over that newly perfect shoulder. Lan Wangji saw the realization settled over his face; his lips pursed and his brow furrowed. Vacant displeasure overtaking any other reaction, because he had already cried everything out. “Ah.”
“Ah,” Lan Wangji agreed. He nudged Wei Wuxian’s head back around, gathering up his hair.
“You can tell me.” Wei Wuxian bowed his head forward over the water so that the steam clung to his cheeks. “You’re a terrible liar. I won’t — I won’t freak out.”
Lan Wangji hummed. Under his hands, under the lather of soap, Wei Wuxian’s hair was entirely black. Lan Wangji did not expect it to be dark brown and slightly wavy anymore, he looked down and expected what he found. Proof in context that he would get used to it. And maybe, perhaps, Wei Wuxian need to be reassured of it. Needed to hear a little more. “The scar here—” he touched his pinky to the location “—is gone.”
Wei Wuxian slapped his hand to his shoulder blade, blindly searching. “Oh, it is. That’s… alright.” He took a steadying breath, twirling an absent hand in the soap surface of the water. Little circles rippling outwards. “Sure, that’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Are you?” Lan Wangji ran their rosewood comb through the last of the tangles, silky-smooth hair splaying across his palm. “I miss it.”
Wei Wuxian let out a startled laugh. “You miss it? It didn’t even belong to me!”
That was true; it was a scar that belonged to Mo Xuanyu first. They had never been sure what had done it; they had never been sure of most things, when it came to Mo Xuanyu. “It was yours too,” Lan Wangji said, cupping water to pour over Wei Wuxian’s head. “I will get used to your new face as well, but I had long stopped thinking of your body as Mo Xuanyu’s.” He rested his hands against the curve of Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. “It was… simply yours.”
“I mostly had too,” Wei Wuxian mumbled. “I mean I guess sometimes I forgot, but mostly I was just… used to it.” He sighed; a tremulous shaky motion belaying just how torn apart he was from an entire day of vibrating out of his skin. “I guess I was more used to the way I was used to it not being mine, if that makes sense.” He wiped his face with one wet hand, removing all traces of snot and tears. “Is it that way for you?”
“No,” Lan Wangji replied, because it wasn’t, at all. He wasn’t the one who had to wear the body like a mask or a second skin, the edges of it pinched a little even if they were familiar. He could not navigate the differences by feeling them out. “Your old face sometimes feels as if it was a dream. I know you used to be different.” He wiped an errant tear away from Wei Wuxian’s cheek, one that had snuck out without him knowing and mingled with the bathwater. “But it is hard to remember. It seems you have always looked like this.”
Wei Wuxian sat up with a start, water sloshing against the side of the tub. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I didn’t realize it was so hard for you—”
Lan Wangji held up a hand, stopping him. “This is not about me,” he replied gently. Too easily Wei Wuxian could get distracted from his own grief by Lan Wangji’s feelings; it was far too often that Lan Wangji accidentally created an opening. Trying to navigate Wei Wuxian when upset was like trying to catch a fish with a ripped net. “I only meant — it must be hard.”
“It is.” Wei Wuxian hiccupped, slumping against Lan Wangji again. Lan Wangji reached for a towel, helping him up and gently drying him off. “My old face was beautiful, you know.”
“It belonged to you,” Lan Wangji replied. How could he explain that the face didn’t matter, that beauty was not an appearance but something that ran deep in blood in bones, something like golden sunshine that peeked out on dark days when Wei Wuxian smiled. When he got distracted. When he tripped, when he laughed, when he threatened someone on a night hunt; that beauty of Wei Wuxian was not created from his appearance. “And everything you do is beautiful.”
It made a fleeting smile cross Wei Wuxian’s face.
“I don’t think I remember either,” Wei Wuxian sighed, slipping his hands into the sleep robes Lan Wangji held out for him. His palms did have red marks on them, from his fingernails, but then, so did Lan Wangji’s. “I don’t think I could draw it if I tried. Could you?”
Lan Wangji considered. “I don’t think so,” he said eventually. He could remember little things — it was easier now that Wei Wuxian was alive again; things like his smile or the way he tilted his head were the things that been lost first. The little mannerisms that had made him a person. But the memory of him was more submerged in water, half-frozen and waterlogged, than anything resembling who he used to be. “Even in my memories you look like this.”
Wei Wuxian blinked at him, caught. Even after the bath, his eyes were still a little puffy and red. “Really?”
“I know it is still you.” Lan Wangji shook his head; that was not the problem. Memories and dreams often blended together into nightmares for him; Wei Wuxian always coaxed him through them. Sometimes in his nightmares Wei Wuxian drowned or spat in his face or simply wasted away, but it was always this face. The heavy gray eyes that would tint red, the slender shoulders under a robe slightly too large. Mo Xuanyu’s small hand holding Suibian as they sparred, Wei Wuxian’s favored bow slightly too tall against his shorter frame as he drew the bowstring.
He vaguely remembered in the beginning blinking awake to be confused by the face hovering above him, a stranger. Not the way his face was supposed to look, compared to his blurry memories. Over time, his faces had bled together, a curious mixture with Wei Wuxian’s eyes but Mo Xuanyu’s nose. Now when he woke, he would see the same face over him, concerned, and would be instantly comforted.
“I know, in time, memories will be replaced.” Lan Wangji curled his free hand around the edge of the comb, the teeth raking against his palm. “But for now, it feels… it feels as if I am losing the husband I have known.”
Wei Wuxian buried his face in Lan Wangji’s neck, sinking deep into the circle of his arms. “I’m tired,” he mumbled, and it was on the tip of Lan Wangji’s tongue to say let’s go to bed when Wei Wuxian added, the words slurring together, “I’m tired of losing things.”
The teacup shards gleamed in the morning light. Lan Wangji stooped to gather each other, carefully, so that no one would step on them. It was such a pale blue it was almost impossible to see against the snow, each shard sinking down into the powder, but eventually, Lan Wangji’s left palm held two complete teacups, albeit in the form of blue ceramic shards.
There wasn’t much use in putting them back together, Lan Wangji knew; he tied them up in a handkerchief and left it on the tray of food, for one of the servants to dispose of. They would get two new teacups. If Wei Wuxian decided he wanted to throw those too, maybe a brighter color would serve them better.
“Jiang Cheng is coming to visit in two weeks,” Wei Wuxian said during lunch, effectively ruining the meal.
Lan Wangji looked down at his perfectly suitable rice and gently placed the eggplant he was about to eat back down on top of it. “Why.” He could not make himself excited for it.
Wei Wuxian traced a finger in a circle around his own face. “Why do you think?”
Lan Wangji could see the point. For all that Jiang Wanyin had handily discarded any right to care about Wei Wuxian sixteen years ago, when they were twenty and freshly smudging the lines between brothers and disciples, Jiang Wanyin — and Wei Wuxian — did not see it that way.
Lan Wangji squinted at Wei Wuxian. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I told you I was sending the letter, last week. Remember? Right here, in your office? You were there, I recall.”
It was not unlike Wei Wuxian to recall things that had never happened or, similarly, to say things that had never happened as if they speak them were to make them so. But in this instance, Lan Wangji did know what he was talking about. Both of them, in Lan Wangji’s office, a room that he disliked fervently and tried to avoid being in as much as possible. Wei Wuxian had said something like would you send this along with your invitations to the discussion conference and then passed the envelope over to Lan Jingyi immediately, instead of Lan Wangji. It’s a letter to Jiang Cheng about my face.
Lan Jingyi, behind Wei Wuxian’s back, raised his eyebrows sky-high, as if to make clear when he thought of that idea. Lan Wangji could relate.
Jingyi! Stop making that face!
“I had not realized you invited him.” Jiang Wanyin was a notoriously horrible guest to host, but Lan Wangji could admit that some of that may have been, in part, due to Lan Wangji refusing to talk to him for thirteen years. His visits in the last three years had been more tolerable to the disciples taking care of him but far more intolerable for Lan Wangji, who was now required to have tea with him.
“You get this terrible look on your face when I mentioned Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, which was definitely not true. He folded his arms over his chest, tightly. “Like you want to throw up. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. Why, do you disagree?”
Technically, no. As for all other facets of the question, yes, vehemently. “No,” Lan Wangji said, which was, again, still technically true, and because he had long since learned that his opinion when it came to Jiang Wanyin hardly mattered. “It is wise. I… am glad you did it.” That, technically was true. Wei Wuxian brought himself such pinched misery some days, dealing with Jiang Cheng delicately and himself less delicately, trying to fix something that could not be fixed all that well. “I wish you had told me.”
Wei Wuxian puffed his cheeks up in thought. Slight annoyance, maybe. “Well, have you told Xichen-ge?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji replied, cupping the tea in his hand. It is still too hot but he drank it anyways, to avoid answering the real question. He had kept it short and to the point, careful to toe the line of here is what you are missing in a factual manner and not I am begging you to leave seclusion. “Several months ago.”
“Hm,” Wei Wuxian replied, gaze discerning. He did not say anything about brothers or how to manage them, how it felt when one relationship had exploded bright in the night sky like fireworks and how one had splintered so slowly under pressure that it had been impossible to discern. Marriage, sometimes, was learning how to set the possibility of an argument aside. “Too bad, it was gonna be really funny when he got out of seclusion and thought you were cheating on me.”
“You look great today, Wei-qianbei.”
“You’re a terrible child, Jingyi, thank you.”
Wei Wuxian re-invested himself in research, as if to find answers before Jiang Wanyin could descend and demand answers. The table in the jingshi was piled high with papers — papers that Wei Wuxian had already read, months ago, when they had first realized this was happening. So they were papers that, despite fluttering everywhere across the ground, had little use.
“I was thinking,” Wei Wuxian said without turning around. He always started his most meandering queries like this; these always turned into the most innovate talismans. He also always started by refusing to turn around, which meant that sometimes he caught Lan Jingyi or Lan Sizhui at the door instead of Lan Wangji, and sometimes Lan Wangji would come home after class to find Wei Wuxian and the disciples deep in the middle of invention. Lan Jingyi showed a particular knack for it.
“You were thinking,” Lan Wangji prompted when Wei Wuxian didn’t finish. He often forgot his sentences, when he was in the middle of something.
“Right! Yes.” Wei Wuxian spun around in his seat, a few of the papers on the table fluttering off. He knocked his elbow into the table and winced, face twisting up with a flare of pain and then added, “Those actually aren’t part of what I was thinking about.” He shoved them to the side and produced a piece of paper from under the entire stack. “I was thinking, you know, I should be keeping track of these more often. I haven’t been updating my list but now I did, see?”
Lan Wangji took the piece of paper. “Yes,” he said after a moment. It was a little out of order, due to Wei Wuxian’s dislike of remembering things. It started with the eyes and worked its way … well, it didn’t work in any particular which way. Things just happened with no rhyme or reason. To Wei Wuxian, a born researcher, this had to be incredibly annoying. “This is the order they came in?”
“I think,” Wei Wuxian said. “Come sit, did I miss any? Things I wouldn’t have noticed.”
“We noticed this mole—” Lan Wangji poked it— “After we noticed your height. But you should divide this list to include things that are on-going, like your height.” Wei Wuxian’s ankles were still bare under his too short robes, even though they’d bought him new ones just a few months ago.
“Right, right.” Wei Wuxian jotted that down on a second sheet of paper. “Anything else? Things I wouldn’t have noticed?”
Wei Wuxian nodded, chewing on the end of his brush, looked up, and did a double-take. “Hanguang-jun has noticed something, hasn’t he.” He narrowed his eyes. It wasn’t a question.
Lan Wangji fixed his gaze somewhere above Wei Wuxian’s left shoulder, near the shelf where he kept his romance novels. “No.”
Lan Wangji did not lie often. But he considered himself very So, good at it whenever the occasion called for it, which was a point of pride that he, also, did not allow himself to have.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to lie to his husband, and Wei Wuxian threw the brush at him. “Tell me!”
“I have ink on my face.”
“Yeah, and nowhere else if you don’t tell me,” Wei Wuxian threatened. Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow and him and he deflated a little. “No, I have no idea what that means, I wasn’t thinking about it. It was the heat of the moment!” He shook an appropriately disapproving and ink-stained finger at Lan Wangji’s face. “Come on. What is so terrible that you would lie to your adoring and somewhat fragile husband about it?”
Lan Wangji considered for a moment.
Wei Wuxian’s grin faded a little bit. “Is it bad? It can’t be bad because you promised you would love me anyways no matter what, so—”
“It is not bad,” Lan Wangji said immediately, and Wei Wuxian’s grin immediately reappeared. “And I will love you no matter what.”
“Sounds like there’s a but coming.”
“Not a but,” Lan Wangji insisted. He restrained from fidgeting with his robes, and Wei Wuxian’s grin grew even bigger as he scooted a bit closer. “But… your backside…” he struggled to find the right words. He could feel his ears burning. “Is less…”
He did not finish the sentence.
Wei Wuxian’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me?” He opened and closed his mouth a few times, shocked making him look rather akin to a goldfish, before saying, “You think my ass got flat?”
Lan Wangji chose, wisely, not to say anything. He did not just think it; it was, objectively, true. Wei Wuxian sat on his lap enough times for the new boniness to be unmistakable.
“You do! You miss my old ass.” Wei Wuxian covered his eyes with his hand, caught between outrage and hysterical glee. “You really know how to romance your husband, Hanguang-jun, I can’t believe — do you stare at my ass enough to notice?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji protested, and now his whole face was flushed. It was somewhat of a stupid reaction, considering the man in front of him was his husband, who he’d seen all of, many times over. It was still a lot harder to say just sitting at the table, theoretically discussing scientific research than when they were actually being intimate.
“You do!” Wei Wuxian howled with laughter, pounding his hand against the table. “I have to say, gege, you better think of something really sexy and new about me that you like, or your poor husband may never recover!”
“I like all of you,” Lan Wangji protested mulishly, but considering he had already dug this entire hole and then effectively buried himself, there was no sense in it. It did not stop Wei Wuxian from laughing.
“My ass, especially.” Wei Wuxian twisted around to look, as if he could tell under the robes or from this angle and then said, almost contemplative but eyes still full of mirth, “You know, I really wasn’t that attached to it, but now I feel quite betrayed! You only like me for my ass.”
Lan Wangji decided to employ his favorite tactic of stopping Wei Wuxian’s teasing by kissing him, yanking him into the intersection of his legs. Wei Wuxian came willingly but he was still laughing into the kiss, open-mouthed and knocking their teeth together. “You are being ridiculous.”
“It’s going to be terrible having sex with me, now,” Wei Wuxian informed him, breaking apart from their kiss. His eyes twinkled as he arranged himself to his liking, draping his hands around Lan Wangji’s neck. “You’re never going to recover. I’m never going to recover!”
“I’m sure Wei Ying can make up the differences,” Lan Wangji mumbled, exasperated and run through from the fondness of it. Wei Wuxian swatted at him, face comically betrayed, his eyebrows high in shock.
“Terrible! You’re terrible. You better find something new to be overly emotionally invested in!” Lan Wangji considered that. Hardly a threat, he decided, returning his attention to kissing his husband. Wei Wuxian moaned, a cut-off noise in the back of his throat. “Hanguang-jun already has something, doesn’t he?” Intrigue colored his tone, the sly smile settling into his place. Wei Wuxian leaned a little closer. “Hanguang-jun has been looking.”
He was not wrong on this case, not at all. Of course Lan Wangji had been looking. “You are mine to look at,” Lan Wangji agreed, busily undoing the tie of Wei Wuxian’s robe.
Wei Wuxian batted his hands away. “Ah! Not until you tell me!”
Lan Wangji gave him a look: Patience. Wei Wuxian stilled, lit up like a lantern. He liked being told to wait. He shivered as Lan Wangji slid the robe off his shoulders. It, like all the others, was sloppily tied, to account for the way Wei Wuxian’s shoulders were broadening and, more importantly, the new breadth of his chest. He was no longer slender and malleable; instead, the fabric stretched with each motion, exposing the newly well-defined muscle peeking out from the deep v of his robes.
He used to wear his robes like this too, sloppy and loose, and Lan Wangji had not been able to watch him too closely, because he was unable to draw his eyes away from the tantalizing slip of skin. And now — Lan Wangji ran his hands lightly down Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, resting them on each pec.
Yes, he had been looking. He leaned down and licked a stripe up the center of Wei Wuxian’s thick chest, muscles jumping under his touch towards the hollow of his throat. Shoulder wide under his hands, filled out and substantial. Strong. Yes, he could touch.
“You really did have something,” Wei Wuxian said, dazed delight clear in his voice. He cupped his hands around the back of Lan Wangji’s neck, holding him place. “Ah, Lan Zhan, that tickles — oh — this is what you’ve been looking at?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said, voice rasping. He slid his hands down, across the hard planes of Wei Wuxian’s stomach — his waist was still so trim — and back up, hands skating Wei Wuxian’s ribs. Tanned and wide, the comfortable bulk that came from hard work. Wei Wuxian had filled out so nicely, settling easily into his new strength. He could hold Lan Wangji down.
“Alright, this almost makes up for thinking my ass is flat,” Wei Wuxian said. “See if I ever sit in your lap again — ah! That wasn’t a challenge—” then, as he situated himself in Lan Wangji’s lap where Lan Wangji had pulled him. “I think you love me, what do you think?” He wiggled around in Lan Wangji’s lap. “Is that uncomfortable, now that my ass is so bony—”
“Stop talking now.”
There was a moment, in the marketplace. Wei Wuxian had put on Lan Wangji’s robes this morning, hints of white peeking out from underneath his black cloak. In return, Lan Wangji was wearing his black. He suspected that Wei Wuxian liked to steal his clothes so that he could see Lan Wangji in blacks and reds; it had happened more and more frequently now that they were nearing the same size.
Lan Wangji liked the crispness of white against black, a smooth line as he stretched out his hands.
Wei Wuxian darted off to look at something, taking Lan Wangji’s money purse with him because he always thought Lan Wangji took much time to deliberate each purchase. He was long gone by the time Lan Wangji finished examining a teapot painted with delicate plum blossoms.
“My apologies,” he said to the stall tender, his finger hovering over the lid; the handle decorated with a neat little branch around it. It would make a fine gift for his uncle. “I will come back for this one; my husband seems to have stolen my coin purse.” He loved to say this to people, to shape his mouth around the words my husband so they were warm, so that anyone who heard them would know how in love he was.
“Ah,” she said, grinning. He thought that perhaps people loved to hear it, to know that love existed. “Go track him down, then, I’ll save that one for you. You have good taste!” She called the last part after him, voice ringing in the cold winter air.
Lan Wangji caught a glimpse of the black cloak, the winter-white silhouette of Wei Wuxian’s face as he laughed. “Wei Ying,” he called, reaching for his elbow.
The man looked over and he was not Wei Wuxian. They had similar cheekbones, similar eyes, but this man was too short and thinner, with a crooked nose. He smiled at Lan Wangji, kind, eyes crinkling in a way that wasn’t familiar whatsoever.
“Apologies,” Lan Wangji managed to say, folding his hands back under his white cloak, shuffling the black away. “I mistook you for someone else.”
The man waved him off, turning back to his own family, repositioning his daughter on hips. Lan Wangji turned away, to find another glimpse of his husband.
“Lan Zhan!” And suddenly he was there, throwing himself against Lan Wangji’s arm, shoving a bit of candy in his face. “Look, this one’s shaped like a cat — why do you look like that?”
Suddenly Lan Wangji could not bear not holding his husband; he wrapped his arms around him immediately in the middle of the street. Wei Wuxian yelped, wiggling to avoid smearing the candy on their robes, and Lan Wangji breathed in deep, remembering that he knew exactly the way Wei Wuxian moved.
“What is it,” Wei Wuxian was saying, “I swear, this year has been really emotionally taxing, let’s not do this again next year, okay. We can get married again and have our second first year of marriage, and next time, we’re skipping four. Lan Zhan, what is it, tell me.”
Lan Wangji pressed his lips against Wei Wuxian’s cheek, comforted by his babbling husband. “I mistook someone for you on the street.” Wei Wuxian shuddered against him, the both of them on the precipice of something bigger and gently called away into each other’s grasp. “Yes, let’s get married again.”
If there was a way to hide Wei Wuxian from the world forever, Lan Wangji would have done it. In the hour awaiting Jiang Wanyin’s arrival, Lan Wangji contemplated simply leaving the cultivation world forever; he and Wei Wuxian finding home elsewhere where no one would ever know either former face of Yiling-laozu.
He would not say so to Wei Wuxian — it would be cruel. But Lan Wangji was of the formal opinion that the only truly good thing about Wei Wuxian’s face morphing day by day was that no one holding a grudge would be able to recognize him, again. It was the truest form of safety either of them could ensure. Though of course Wei Wuxian had plans to ruin that beautiful safety by showing up at the next discussion conference, by Lan Wangji’s side. Aiya, I’m your husband, I’m not going to run away from you!
If Lan Wangji could hide him forever, he would, but that has never been Wei Wuxian’s nature.
They met Jiang Wanyin on the steps up to the Cloud Recesses, past the gate but far enough into the climb that no errant disciples would hear Jiang Wanyin’s explosion. Wei Wuxian always insisted on walking Jiang Wanyin to his guest rooms himself instead of having a disciple do it. That’s family, he said, every single time. Lan Wangji privately thought Jiang Wanyin preferred being shown around by disciples but then, he was angry no matter what.
Lan Wangji saw the exact moment Jiang Wanyin realize — his foot slipped on the step; his face turned an excruciating shade of white as if he too had become jade. “What,” he managed to say, the word rasping out, and then his cheeks flushed dark red with anger, his gaze darkening. “What the fuck is this?”
“It’s me, Jiang Cheng, it’s your brother!” Wei Wuxian hopped over to his side, always too eager to rush to his brother’s side. They had yet to really figure out a good way to tell something that it was, in fact, Wei Wuxian. Everyone thought they were seeing a stranger. “It’s me, you remember I told you my face was doing something funny—”
“You specifically said something funny.” Jiang Wanyin stepped back before Wei Wuxian could hug him. He cast his gaze over Wei Wuxian’s person; his black robes and red hair ribbon could belong to no one else. They were of the same height now, though of course Jiang Wanyin’s robes fit better. They did not look any more like brothers. “You did not say what.”
Wei Wuxian’s face did something complicated, bypassing outrage and guilt and settling, firmly, somewhere around a bone-weary regret. “I did say my face changing,” he said quietly, twisting his fingers absently in the fabric of his robes. “I guess it’s not that funny.”
Jiang Wanyin stared at him, long. Lan Wangji always remembered him with the angry explosions of their youth, words bursting forth like a river splitting a poorly-built dam. He forgot, often, that Jiang Wanyin had learned a quiet type of anger too, ice-cold stares and gritted teeth. “Just,” he said, and his jaw tensed. He looked away. “Take me to my room.”
“Room — ah. Yeah, come on, it’s this way—”
Wei Wuxian made awkward small talk on the way there, asking about Lotus Pier and Jin Rulan and other various things. He asked about the planning for the spring festival, set for a matter of weeks, and Jiang Wanyin answered all in his customary tone — curt, a little biting — but he would not look at Wei Wuxian.
It wore Wei Wuxian down with every loping step.
“Uh, here you are.” Wei Wuxian slid open the door to the guest quarters. “Um, I’m sorry, Jiang Cheng, I should have explained it better, I thought — I guess I thought it was best done in person. I suppose it must be weird, not being able to recognize me instantly anymore.”
Jiang Wanyin gaped at him as if he were absolutely insane. It was not an uncommon sort of look, on Jiang Wanyin’s face. “No,” Jiang Wanyin said finally. His face did the same complicated thing, as if his regrets and Wei Wuxian’s were the same, as if they shared the same set of bones to imprint it on. Lan Wangji supposed family was like that. “I recognized you instantly.”
It was all together a very awkward visit, which was saying something considering the numerous other terrible interactions they’d all had. Wei Wuxian tried too hard to act normal and Jiang Wanyin, at least, got better at looking at him.
“Is it weird,” Jiang Wanyin interrupted once. He gestured his cup towards Wei Wuxian’s face. His was slightly flushed; they had been drinking for ages. Lan Wangji was supervising, technically, but really, he was reading a novel Wei Wuxian had bought him in town last week and making sure nothing happened. Wei Wuxian let him sit in, for peace of mind, though he wasn't happy about it either. “I mean. How could it not be?”
Wei Wuxian sprawled across the table. “Yes, very,” he said eagerly, wanting to spill it all out now that his brother wanted to hear it. “I don’t know what’s doing it, which is really bugging me. I just —” he wrinkled his nose. “My fingers got broken.”
Jiang Wanyin sighed, world-weary. “What.”
“My fingers!” Wei Wuxian showed his off, wiggling them in Jiang Wanyin’s face. Jiang Wanyin grabbed them and shoved them away and Wei Wuxian fell against the ground, laughing. “I woke up one day and they were… I guess broken is the wrong word, it was like I’d broken them years ago and they were improperly set?”
Jiang Wanyin wrinkled his nose. “That’s freaky.”
Wei Wuxian toasted his cup. “Yeah!” He liked it better when people just acknowledged that it was odd; Lan Jingyi was the best at this. “It is. It’s — I don’t know, it’s like I’m turning into someone else, I’m not just… changing.” He squeezed Lan Wangji’s knee under the table; his smile a little sad. “Lan Zhan sometimes can’t recognize me.”
Jiang Wanyin’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh,” he said dumbly, “You’re seriously — you mean? You don’t know?”
Lan Wangji had no idea what to do with that question or what it meant; Wei Wuxian ignored it all together.
“I think my alcohol tolerance has gotten better,” he mused, sloshing his own cup around. He was remarkably clear-eyed for someone well into his second jar. Usually by now he would be appealingly flushed. “Lan Zhan, make note of that for me, I’m totally keeping up with Jiang Cheng.”
“You are not.”
“I am!” He hiccupped. “Don’t be mean to me, it was devastating when I found out Mo Xuanyu didn’t have my alcohol tolerance. Barely a jar of Emperor’s Smile would make me pass out!” He threw himself against Jiang Wanyin, crying fake tears. “I’d never be able to beat shijie like this.”
“No one could beat a-jie, are you stupid,” Jiang Wanyin muttered. “Get off me.”
“No.” Wei Wuxian made himself comfortable, pushing his shoulder against Jiang Wanyin’s. “Ugh. I miss the wine at Lotus Pier.”
“You should come for the festival,” Jiang Wanyin said abruptly, and Wei Wuxian’s eyes went wide. He stilled, as if Jiang Wanyin would break under any movement. “You always miss it and the summer fireworks. You love those.”
“Ah, I do,” Wei Wuxian said carefully. He traded a glance with Lan Wangji, tentative, then added, “But it’s too much to travel for both.”
“Oh, your room isn’t good enough for you anymore?”
“No! It’s good enough, it’s good enough!” Wei Wuxian poured another cup of liquor into his mouth, beaming. “By summer I’m totally going to beat you in the summer drinking games.”
Wei Wuxian did not stop keeping track of his list and neither did Lan Wangji, but it lapsed into a sporadic thing, updated whenever there was a spare moment instead of nightly. Wei Wuxian still grew and changed but it was easier now to recognize him in the day to day, as opposed to those frequent mornings months past when he had changed so quickly it was as if he was waking up to a stranger. It was little innocuous things now, like:
“Ah, Lan Zhan, my knees hurt!” Wei Wuxian rubbed at his kneecaps, mouth forming a pout. “I thought spring was supposed to make my joints ache less?”
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I keep sneezing! Am I — I think I’m allergic to spring. What about my garden—”
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian cheered, mouth curving into a smile as Lan Wangji caught him by the waist, ankle-deep in the mud. “See something you like?”
“Always,” Lan Wangji said, allowing Wei Wuxian to latch onto him with muddy fingers. The beginning of spring was always so bright; Wei Wuxian sitting on the edge of the lotus pond with his sleeves and robes rolled up, revealing winter-white skin that would tan and freckle under the sun. Though he’d had far less freckles last year, maybe this year he wouldn’t have any. A new mystery to be solved.
“Something in particular, them.”
“Wei Ying is always particular.”
“Ha!” Wei Wuxian tilted his face up for a kiss and Lan Wangji noticed something else new, heralded in with the spring sun. Clearly Wei Wuxian hadn’t, yet, because this was what he was used to. Slanting his head up for a kiss, waiting for Lan Wangji to meet him halfway. Lan Wangji pressed his lips carefully but insistently against the underside of Wei Wuxian’s jaw, easily exposed to him.
Wei Wuxian laughed, turning his head more. “Lan Zhan,” he laughed, dropping his hands to Lan Wangji’s shoulders. He opened his eyes and looked — down. Just the slightest amount, almost negligible, but his gaze hovered around Lan Wangji’s headpiece for a second before it slid down to Wangji’s meet Lan Wangji’s eyes. His own widened. “Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji had never given much thought to his height. He stood taller than most people and it did not matter much, besides an ability to see his wayward disciples over the crowd. Now that he had lost it to his husband, standing nearly a half-inch taller than him, he suddenly did not care about his height at all, not with Wei Wuxian gazing down at him, enveloped him, surrounding him. “Congratulations,” Lan Wangji told him, voice a little breathless. It was almost foolish, it was barely any height at all, and yet the mere distance between his upturned lips and Wei Wuxian’s was intoxicating.
“What — I didn’t think —” Wei Wuxian craned his head down, as if to make sure he wasn’t accidentally standing on a step. “I never thought I’d be taller than you.”
“You used to be taller than me,” Lan Wangji reminded him, heat trickling down his spine at the memory. Wei Wuxian, after a year apart, had suddenly been tall and broad and elegant. It had been a very… strenuous year. Wei Wuxian could have splayed a wide hand across his hip so easily; ever time he’d veered close, his long shadow cast across Lan Wangji’s shoulder, it had been impossible for Lan Wangji to think clearly.
“Huh? Was I?”
“Huh.” Wei Wuxian considered that, the lines of his face painted soft in the pale spring light. “Come stand on tiptoe and give me a kiss, then.”
Lan Wangji considered him and then did what he had always wanted to do as a teenager: he fisted his hand in Wei Wuxian’s collar and dragged him down, lips crashing together. Some reminders were not so bad after all.
Later, Wei Wuxian folded his hands atop Lan Wangji’s chest and propped his head up, his smile wicked. “You like that I’m taller than you.”
Lan Wangji saw no shame in admitting it. “Yes.”
“You like it,” Wei Wuxian said, delighted. “You like me on top of you, looking down on you. I could carry you now, I bet, would you like that?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said, voice rasping out.
“Now that you’re short, I suppose it’s my responsibility to carry you instead. Perhaps Zhan-er is too little to carry his husband.”
Lan Wangji remembered this conversation from months ago and his answer was the same: he pinched the soft skin at Wei Wuxian’s, making his husband yelp. “He is committed.”
Lan Wangji did not particularly enjoy meetings with other sect leaders. He did consider Nie Huaisang to be the most palatable of all of them, largely because he was most concerned with making the meeting as short as possible. That was not Lan Wangji’s primary concern, though he could not deny the urge to simply leave undercut every single action, a burgeoning flood that swelled in his chest.
He never allowed himself to consider it, not truly. Not even now, as he unfurled paper and ground ink, to explain to his husband that he would be here an additional three days on top of the six he had already given. My Wei Ying, he wrote. I am required to stay another three days. I plead, as always, for you to create a talisman capable of capturing the sound of your voice. So your poor husband does not forget while he is busy carrying out his duties.
These days, Lan Wangji had no need to write long, detailed reports of his days or descriptions of the way the top of the mountains smudge against the dusk sky, outside his window. When Wei Wuxian had been traveling, weeks on end of travel that wore him down like a river against stone, he would write letters, sent expressly to the jingshi. Lan Wangji tucked away every single one under a paperweight on a shelf near his bed. He would send his own back, ahead to towns that Wei Wuxian mentioned he was going to, and in the winters, when it became cold and the hunts were scarce, Wei Wuxian returned to him.
He was supposed to take the carriage back. But then there was a burst dam that needed a night to be fixed, and they would be stuck two additional days, and Lan Wangji could not wait. They were barely a day outside of Cloud Recesses, and he wanted to be home.
He left behind the rest of his group, their blue and white robes fading as he rose into the air, facing the mountain, towards Wei Wuxian in their home.
He forewent the front gate and instead alit in the center of the courtyard outside the jingshi. Night had fallen; the candles were still burning inside, sending soft golden squares across the grass and the tips of Lan Wangji’s shoes. He heard the rattle of the door, which Wei Wuxian always threw open too heartily, and then his husband stepped out onto the porch, his shadow slow against the grass as light flooded the yard.
Wei Wuxian was always striking at the best of times, his jaw tilted up and proud. He leant a hip against the open doorframe, arms crossed across his chest to ward off the cold. His hair was down, black shadows against the pale blue robe he was wearing — one of Lan Wangji’s, and it draped over his shoulders, swirling around his ankles. It fit more properly than his other ones. Lan Wangji could not tell, from here, if his shoulders were wider or his silhouette taller, only that he looked like home.
“Hello there, stranger,” Wei Wuxian said, tucking his hair behind ear, and Lan Wangji could not stop his jaw from dropping at the sound of his voice. Low, a little husky. Three days ago, his voice has been smooth and bright. Bells, the sound of spring. This was the sound of autumn. “What brings you around these parts?” He couldn’t quite hide the smile blooming on his face, he never had been able to. “Won’t you come in? My husband isn’t home, you know.” He shrugged his shoulder, deliberately, slowly, as if he knew — no, he must have known — that the robe would slip down, revealing bare skin. “I’m all alone, out here.”
Lan Wangji was over to him immediately, hand out to touch. Wei Wuxian danced just out of reach. “So forward! My handsome stranger, surely, knows how to speak?”
Lan Wangji slid cool fingers under his robe anyways, which was tied so loose that the fabric draped around his chest. “Won’t your husband be home soon?”
Wei Wuxian beamed up at him, always so thrilled when Lan Wangji played along. As if he had been given a gift, instead of the truth, as if Lan Wangji was not carried along in with the tide. “Maybe,” Wei Wuxian said slowly, running his tongue over his lips, “He can’t please me.”
Lan Wangji paused, his hands still on Wei Wuxian’s lips. He cast Wei Wuxian an affronted look, to mark his clear displeasure in the game, but couldn’t step away. He never could, and Wei Wuxian knew it. He was biting down on his lip, trying so hard not to laugh.
His hands found Lan Wangji’s, keeping them in place so they were locked together. His eyes were twinkling. He always knew what he’d done. “My husband pleases me fine,” he said softly, voice warm. “Best be quick then, before he comes home and I change my mind.”
Lan Wangji kissed that smiling mouth first, biting down on the laughter.
“Really, though, Lan Zhan, it was so embarrassing, my voice kept cracking — I already went through puberty! Sizhui kept laughing at me. You would never love me again if you heard how ridiculous I sounded — hey! You can’t just kiss me every time you don’t agree with what I’m saying, stop that — mmph.”
The spring festival for Lotus Pier was beautiful. There were dozens of lanterns lit out on the water, sending gold scattering about until the river ran gold. It was late, the night crept in, and just on the side of too humid, promising summer’s arrival.
“Try this.” Wei Wuxian held out a bit of red candy. “It’s spicy, but normal person spicy.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji said, because Wei Wuxian’s definition of spicy was somewhere akin to I am burning alive from the inside out, but he obligingly let Wei Wuxian pop it into his mouth. “Not terrible,” he decided, chewing thoughtfully. It was warm without being burning, though it tasted a little too much like peppers to be enjoyable. “I do not want another.”
“Coward,” Wei Wuxian said and leaned back up against him happily. “Ah, this is the best festival, they have the best food, I wonder if — oh, my favorite chicken place is here, come on, come on—”
Lan Wangji let Wei Wuxian tote him around the pier by the sleeve, stopping at random stalls to try chicken, liquor for Wei Wuxian, and a bit of spun sugary candy for Lan Wangji, since Wei Wuxian didn’t like sweet things. This was the home Wei Wuxian had always wanted to show him but had never been able to especially well, given how things were with Jiang Wanyin.
“Stop being so gloomy, I’ll write you every day,” Wei Wuxian scolded. He shoved a bit of sugary candy into Lan Wangji’s mouth and followed it up with a kiss. “Stop it. You want your goodbye to me to be with such a sad face?”
Lan Wangji captured him around the waist, one of a dozen couples on the pier in love. “I wish it were not good-bye at all.”
“Aiya, you can’t take a break from your duties for that long,” Wei Wuxian said gently, which was the truth. “Also you and Jiang Cheng will murder each other. It’s only a month!” That was also the truth. Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji could not be left alone in a room for an hour. A month was unthinkable, but then, so was a month apart from Wei Wuxian.
“And two weeks.”
“You are always so pedantic when you’re being a baby,” Wei Wuxian mused, draping his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck. He had this new habit of slouching, so that he and Lan Wangji were just the same height, and Lan Wangji was trying very hard not to find it adorable. It was not working. “Do you want—”
Lan Wangji blinked, confused, and then turned his head to see Jin Rulan standing near him, eyes wide. “Jin-zongzhu,” he said mildly. In his arms, Wei Wuxian brightened at the sight of his nephew.
Jin Rulan was already spluttering and angry. It usually took him a few hours with Wei Wuxian or Lan Jingyi to get to this point; the latter was standing at his shoulder completely confused. He usually looked smug at this point.
Lan Wangji could not figure out what was so insulting about Wei Wuxian this time; he was not being loud, overly embarrassing, and his robes fit. Mostly because Lan Wangji had put his foot down and demanded that if Wei Wuxian were going to spend a month at Lotus Pier, he was going to be properly attired. This new set of robes was a sleek black silk, finely embroidered, and surely something Wei Wuxian was going to destroy on a night hunt.
“You!” Jin Rulan pointed his finger directly at Lan Wangji’s face instead of Wei Wuxian’s. Lan Wangji stared down at it, mildly perturbed. “Hanguang-jun, are you being unfaithful to my shishu?”
Lan Wangji felt his jaw drop. There was a moment of tense silence until Wei Wuxian said, “A-Ling, it’s me, are you — I’m your shishu!” He reached and flicked Jin Rulan directly on the nose; the boy yelped in protest. “Didn’t your jiujiu tell you?”
Jin Rulan swatted at him. “No! What happened to your face!”
“I got a curse or something, I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning. Jin Rulan clearly calculated the way it was somewhat familiar, as if working through a difficult mathematics set. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Not a big — you look like a completely different person!”
“I’m just as wise as I’ve always been.” Wei Wuxian punctuated the statement with a pinch to Jin Rulan’s cheek, as if to prove he had not become less annoying in his ‘growth.’ “You’ll get used to it, don’t worry.”
“I won’t,” Jin Rulan said, but truthfully, he probably hadn’t met Wei Wuxian enough times for the old face to stick in his brain. Wei Wuxian grinned obligingly at him, passed both him and Lan Jingyi a piece of spicy candy.
“Do not eat that,” Lan Wangji told Lan Jingyi. “It is very spicy.”
“Ah, you cowards can’t handle a little heat,” Wei Wuxian said lazily, slouching against him. Lan Jingyi eyed the red candy dubiously and passed it off to Jin Rulan, who ate both at once without so much as a wince — the Yunmeng palate, at work — and gave Wei Wuxian a tentative smile. Wei Wuxian smiled back. “You kids go have fun!”
Lan Jingyi’s voice floated back to them as he tugged Jin Rulan away by the arm. “I can’t believe you thought Hanguang-jun would be unfaithful to Wei-qianbei!”
“What was I supposed to think—”
“Ah, kids,” Wei Wuxian said fondly, grinning. “You gonna get yourself a new husband while I’m gone, Lan Zhan? A beautiful one?”
Lan Wangji coaxed his face back around, to look at each other again. “One with dimples, now that yours are gone.”
“What.” Wei Wuxian’s hands flew to his face in outrage. “Aw, no — now Jin Ling and I don’t look alike at all.” He also didn’t resemble Jin Guangyao anymore, which Lan Wangji privately thought was a good thing. It would be easier for his brother to see him, if they didn’t all share their adorable dimples. “I liked those.”
“Smile extra big, to make up for it,” Lan Wangji said seriously, pressing his thumb to where one used to be. Wei Wuxian pouted to spite him. He had liked those dimples, even if the way they linked him to Jin Ling, marked them as family, was a rather shady one. “If you do not smile, I will have to kiss you.”
“As punishment,” Wei Wuxian said seriously, melting under Lan Wangji’s hands. “Well, that’s not romantic at all.”
“Prepare yourself,” Lan Wangji said solemnly, and he spent the rest of the evening pressing lazy kisses to the corner of Wei Wuxian’s mouth, biting against his lip so that the month they were apart he’d have the memory of how Wei Wuxian kissed. Alongside the tingling in his tongue the morning after still, from all the spicy candy Wei Wuxian had eaten.
“Hanguang-jun, Wei-qianbei just arrived,” Lan Jingyi called.
Lan Wangji blinked, dropping his brush onto the inkstand. “He’s early.” His heart was singing. Wei Wuxian had been at Lotus Pier two months now, extending his stay past the summer fireworks, and Lan Wangji had been truly happy for him but he has missed his husband. “Where is he?”
“He’s heading to the jingshi, I think he thought you’d be there.”
He should be there. It was late in the evening; past time when Lan Wangji sat down for dinner. Without his husband to chide him, he has been staying in his office terribly late.
Not today, though. Today he will find his husband.
It is not difficult to find him, after all. Lan Wangji could follow the sound of his laughter, catch sight of his black shoulders amid the tree branches. “Wei Ying,” he called, and the man turned around, smile already on his face, but it wasn’t his smile. He turned around and suddenly it was the old him again, smile bright — and the smile had never changed, but the rest of him had.
Lan Wangji stumbled — he never stumbled, but he stumbled — his hand clenching at the white rail of the bridge until he could feel the pinprick of a splinter digging into his palm. He focused on that, because if he focused on the ghost of Wei Wuxian, he was going to splinter apart himself, like the wood under his hands.
It was Wei Wuxian’s face.
Not Mo Xuanyu’s face, no, but his old face, the face that had captured Lan Wangji immediately, the face that Lan Wangji had not seen for almost twenty years now. The face that was classically handsome, that spoke of mischief, and he was wearing it so easily that he must be a ghost.
Lan Wangji sank down, thoughts discordant. Wei Wuxian had never come back. Wei Wuxian was here, standing in front of him, shoulders and smile wide, and he was a ghost, an apparition, he had not been alive.
“Lan Zhan?” Worry. Worry in the ghost’s voice. It was almost laughable. Lan Wangji wasn’t laughing. “Lan Zhan, you’re pale — hey!”
Lan Wangji flinched back from the cool hands. They were clean of blood, though he had dirt under his nails — he always had dirt under his nails! But he didn’t, because he was a ghost. Lan Wangji could not bear to see them pass through his own palms. “Don’t touch me.”
Wei Wuxian jerked his hands back immediately. “It’s me,” he said, as if that meant anything. Lan Wangji would know him anywhere. Lan Wangji would not forget him. His hands kept fluttering out in the air, not sure what to do, but he didn’t touch. His ghost was politer, than. He wasn’t the rambunctious youth but the man that Lan Wangji had been dreaming about for years, for years, the man who Lan Wangji had thought shared his bed and meals with their son and it had all been a horrible dream.
Had people tried to tell him, then, about his ghost? His hallucination, haunting him with a particularly stubborn sort of cruelty that Wei Wuxian had never had. Lan Xichen must have. Lan Xichen would have told him. Unless Lan Wangji had mentioned nothing. Simply conjured up a truth that was impossible — a sacrificial summon! — and believed. Perhaps if he took his sword to Mo village right now, he’d find the real Mo Xuanyu. The face that Lan Wangji had come to know as his husband would be only wrinkled with confusion.
Because they wouldn’t know each other. Because Wei Wuxian was dead. And this was his ghost.
He let out a horribly weak noise, saw Wei Wuxian’s beautiful face twist with panic, and heard his own son in response. “Hanguang-jun?”
“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian said in relief, reaching up to their — no, not theirs, not really — son. “Go get the healer, something’s wrong, he won’t—”
Lan Wangji interrupted. It was rude to interrupt even a ghost, but this was his son. “A-Yuan.” Lan Wangji reached out for his son so that his sleeve formed a barrier between him and Wei Wuxian. He smoothed a thumb over his cheek. There were tears in his eyes. “Don’t look at him.”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes were horrified and wide. “Don’t — why can’t I look at baba?” He tried to turn towards Wei Wuxian, but Lan Wangji held him firm. This, he would save his son from. “Hanguang-jun, what’s wrong? Let me help you up. Let me take you the healer.”
Lan Wangji shook his head. “I’m fine.” The healer could not tell him anything about ghosts. Then, blinking, “Baba?”
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, you might not look at me, but I still exist,” Wei Wuxian said, voice high and concerned. Turning towards him took so much effort that Lan Wangji slumped to the side against Lan Sizhui even as he took Wei Wuxian in. He seemed fine. There was no blood on him at all. He did not look dead; he looked very, very worried. Lan Wangji imagined that the same grim expression had been present on his face all those years ago, when he’d tried to save the man from his injuries and had been screamed at inside a cave, heart breaking with every shout. “What is going on? Tell me, Lan Zhan!”
Something was wrong. Lan Wangji frowned. “You see him?”
“Of course I see him.” Lan Sizhui’s brow furrower. “A-die, please—”
“I’ll go get the healer,” Wei Wuxian said, standing up. “He doesn’t want to see me, I—” his hands fisted in the dark blue of his robes, and Lan Wangji had always liked the blue, a perfect mixture between Gusu Lan and the whirlwind his husband was. Had he been married? He didn’t know what was real anymore, this ghost was too real, maybe it was his husband, but the face— “Lan Zhan, I’ll fix it, whatever it is, I’ll fix it, please—”
“That’s very like you.” Lan Wangji nodded to himself. If he could just focus — not think. Focus. He was married. He knew that. Did he know that? “Perhaps you are not a ghost after all.”
“You — what?”
“I had forgotten your old face,” Lan Wangji murmured, reaching up to touch. His fingers halted just above Wei Wuxian’s lips, still a little unwilling. Wei Wuxian grabbed them, dragging them up to rest on his cheek. Real under his touch. Warm.
Lan Wangji’s fingers trembled. His head swam. “Oh,” he managed to say thickly before his vision went black.
Wei Wuxian knew when Lan Wangji woke up. He always did, even when he was dead asleep; his fingers would curl in Lan Wangji’s sleep robe or tangle in his hair the second Lan Wangji thought about getting up. As if they were connected so deeply they could not be separated. Now, he opened his eyes and saw the afternoon light fading and his husband’s back as he sat on the ground next to the bed.
Wei Wuxian shifted, just slightly, his hair sliding over the quilt. It was all black now, spreading out from the top of his head as if he’d poured ink all over it. “Lan Zhan?” His voice was completely flat. “Should I get a-Yuan? He’s asleep in the other room.”
Lan Wangji swallowed. “No.” It wasn’t necessary but he hated to think of his son, tired and exhausted from stress and curled up in the other room, which had been his for his childhood and still held many of his old toys. “Did I scare him?”
“Aiya, you scared us all.” Wei Wuxian couldn’t quite manage his usual disaffected tone. “I didn’t — we thought he should stay, in case you don’t —” Wei Wuxian trailed off, maybe not sure at all “I guess I can’t say recognize me, can I.”
“I know what is real,” Lan Wangji reassured him.
“Aiya, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, and if Lan Wangji squinted, if he pretended, Wei Wuxian still could look like his old self. The old new him. Like Mo Xuanyu, before everything. In the light, his hair could be the same brown, his shoulders could be thinner. “Tell me if you’re alright, okay, because I don’t want to look at you.”
It made sense. The last glimpse of Wei Wuxian’s face had practically broken Lan Wangji, that was why he was in bed in the afternoon in only a thin sleeping robe. Wei Wuxian must have had to disrobe him and pull off his boots, hands shaking because his husband had said not to touch him. Perhaps Lan Sizhui had done it.
Lan Wangji reached out, hand hovering just above Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. They had been tied together long enough now that Wei Wuxian’s own hand rose automatically, his fingers twining them together comfortably, but he still did not turn.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji tried, but he found his tongue too thick and the words were trapped in his throat. He closed his eyes, hoping that Wei Wuxian would understand him. After nearly five years of marriage, Wei Wuxian was well-versed in his silences and the space between his words, though Lan Wangji tried to say the important things for him anyways.
But tonight the words would not come. Lan Wangji did not know if Wei Wuxian understood.
“I’m here, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said freely, and at least his tone was no longer the light one that he used to pretend everything was fine. But he still did not turn. He continued to stare down at the — Lan Wangji shifted, a tiny bit, to see that Wei Wuxian was holding his silver headpiece in his lap, thumb errantly swiping over the back, where he’d carved a protection rune and his own name right where the marks would be hidden by Lan Wangji’s topknot. “Don’t worry.”
Years ago, this would have been impossible to admit. Even right after their marriage, Lan Wangji would have had trouble even under Wei Wuxian’s careful ministrations. But tonight, he found the words steady and unyielding. “I wish to see your face.”
Wei Wuxian let out a horrible half-sob, the ones that Lan Wangji had tried his best to eradicate, and caved, turning towards Lan Wangji as easily as it was nothing at all, the ways flowers always turned to face the sun. The way Lan Wangji always turned to face him in return.
It was still his old face. Proud and handsome, though devoid of the cavalier smirk it had always worn in youth.
“It’s my face,” he said morosely, sitting himself at Lan Wangji’s bedside. The head piece went tumbling to the ground with a dull metallic clatter, but Lan Wangji did not care about the headpiece so much as the man who had dropped it. “You obviously see it, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji managed to say, catching Wei Wuxian’s wrist as he tried to dab at his face with a damp cloth. Wei Wuxian’s old face frowned in concern, so familiar and yet so out of reach. It was not unlike a reflection of yourself in troubled waters — you knew it to be familiar but you were still caught a little off-guard by the ripples. Lan Wangji had thought of this face endlessly but now that it was in front of him, he could only realize that he hadn’t quite remembered it right.
Thirteen years was a long time. He’d known it so well, once. Still knew it well enough to recognize it. But now it was like looking at a hazy, warm memory, tinted with summer sunlight and the ring of laughter.
Lan Wangji tugged Wei Wuxian a little closer. “I’m looking.” Wei Wuxian hadn’t worn his hair like this when they were children and it slid over his shoulder now, midnight and silken where it fell against Lan Wangji’s cheek, gentle as a summer rain shower. Mo Xuanyu’s body had a charming face, a little round with a dimple that showed up when he smiled — and it had suited Wei Wuxian well, whenever he grinned. But his face now was no longer round. The slope of his nose had a slight bump where he’d broken it as a child, his jawbone was more pronounced. The pink curve of his mouth, the plush lower lip, was not smiling at all. They had similar eyes. So funny that Lan Wangji had forgotten already the heavy, startling gray that had belonged to Mo Xuanyu. “I see you.”
Wei Wuxian let out a small, bitter laugh. “Could you tell me what you’re thinking, while you’re at it?”
It wasn’t perfect, yet. There were still bits and pieces missing, a portrait not quite complete. Lan Wangji distinctly recalled a small white scar just on the underside of Wei Ying’s jaw that had always taunted him until he’d dreamt of pressing his lips there, and from here he could clearly see that it was missing. There was also a tiny burn scar just at Wei Wuxian’s temple, almost under the hair, that he could still see, despite the hair spilling over his shoulder with elegance and grace that Mo Xuanyu’s body had ever been afforded. He looked the way Lan Wangji remembered him, mostly, and Lan Wangji suspected that in a matter of months, he would be exactly the same.
But Lan Wangji had never seen age on Wei Wuxian’s old face. He’d never seen what Wei Wuxian might look like at thirty, at forty. But he could see it now — old faded scars, the faint laughter lines at the corner of his mouth. He would always have been laughing. He was always laughing. His expression now wasn’t unfamiliar either, Lan Wangji had seen this concern on his husband’s face a thousand times. When Lan Wangji was having a nightmare or when Lan Wangji didn’t eat enough or when Lan Wangji was a little too distant and needed Wei Wuxian to tether him to this world.
The twist of his mouth, not quite a frown but tight like he was trying to pretend to Lan Wangji that it wasn’t affecting him very deeply. Lan Wangji knew that frown. He knew that mouth, held tightly or held smiling. He knew that freckle just under the bottom lip, too. Wei Wuxian’s face, regardless, belonged wholly to him. No one else could captivate him so easily.
Lan Wangji reached up and curled his fingers against the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck, tugging him down. “Are you,” Lan Wangji said hesitantly. “Happy about it?”
“I don’t know.” Wei Wuxian lay himself flat against Lan Wangji’s chest. He was heavier, broader now, but Lan Wangji didn’t hate that either. It wasn’t familiar, but it was a comfortable weight pressing Lan Wangji down, reminding him where he was. “I missed my old body, it was so much stronger. But — I can feel I’m stronger now too, I was fine with just that, but—”
Mo Xuanyu’s body, despite careful training, would always have a poorly healed ankle and get headaches when it rained. They would never fully be able to overcome how little Mo Xuanyu had been allowed to eat. This body, despite being nearly forty, was strong. Wei Wuxian’s arms were as long as Lan Wangji’s. He didn’t fit so well curled up on top of Lan Wangji anymore, but Lan Wangji didn’t mind so much. They’d find new ways to fit together. A new familiar. “Your core?”
“I can still feel it,” Wei Wuxian said softly, pressing his hand against Lan Wangji’s stomach as if to prove his point. Lan Wangji raised his hand to cover Wei Wuxian’s. “Feels the same. But maybe it’ll fade away the more I change, right?” He huffed out a bitter laugh. “You’ll have to protect this fragile body again, Lan-er-gege.”
Lan Wangji huffed. “You are not fragile.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. “Of course I am,” and his voice had slid somewhere from teasing to insecurely sincere, and Lan Wangji blinked.
“Where?” He demanded. Wei Wuxian was a lot of things. Bright and kind, prone to teasing and dramatics, knowledgeable. Kind to their son. Never knew when to stop talking, too spoiled by how Lan Wangji never wanted him to stop now anyways. Kept his head in a crisis, cared about people. There was a long list of things about Wei Wuxian, but he would never have put fragile on it.
“Right now,” Wei Wuxian said, muffled. “You’re the one who nearly passed out in the pavilion and I’m the one who is having a breakdown about it.”
“Sorry to have worried you.” He carded his hand through Wei Wuxian’s hair, which slid through his fingers like river water. “I missed you. Both this you and the old you. The other old you.”
“Hmph,” Wei Wuxian mumbled sleepily. “Charmer.”
Lan Wangji was content to lie together, catalogue the similarities and memorize the differences. How Wei Wuxian’s elbows weren’t pointy anymore, and neither was his chin. His breathing, even and steady as always. It was strange to feel hurt that his old body had changed into his older body; it was an awkward betrayal that would need time to smooth the edges of.
Lan Wangji had almost drifted off to sleep when he realized something else was missing. He prodded Wei Wuxian off his chest until he rolled over.
“Lan Zhan, it’s been quite a busy day,” Wei Wuxian pleaded, covering his face the way he always did in the mornings, to block out the sun. “Let your husband sleep.”
“Soon,” Lan Wangji promised, pulling aside Wei Wuxian’s robe. He hadn’t shed off his outer robe yet, so Lan Wangji did that for him, Wei Wuxian a heavy, unhelpful weight in his hands. Then he pulled aside Wei Wuxian’s inner shirt, revealing — still smooth skin.
“It’s not there yet,” Wei Wuxian said immediately, covering Lan Wangji’s hands with his own. His heart beat under them, pulsing against his fingers. “I’m not sure what that pattern is — I have some scars, but not others. I checked.”
“You kept the ones you earned on Mo Xuanyu’s body.” Lan Wangji pressed a thumb to the hairline scar on his temple. “This is how you would look if —” his voice caught. He’d gotten so much better at saying it, at talking about it, in the past years of their marriage. He’d had to. These days, he never woke up to an empty bed and assumed that Wei Wuxian was dead again. “If you hadn’t died. You have laughter lines.”
“Ah?” Wei Wuxian blinked. “Am I pretty, gege?”
“Stop fishing for compliments,” Lan Wangji admonished, as if he did not love to give them. “You have always been beautiful.”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth curved into one of those wide smiles. “Really? You always thought I was beautiful?”
“This body or the last or the next.”
Wei Wuxian collapsed against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “There better not be a next!” Lan Wangji continued to trace the delicate necklace of scars he’d gotten some three years past. It was strange to think that he was able to keep them. “What do you think, is it everything you dreamed of?”
“Yes, being with Wei Ying is everything I dreamed off.”
“That is not what I meant,” Wei Wuxian said crossly. “I mean… do you like that body better? Or this one?”
Lan Wangji could not pick a favorite, of course. “I like whichever body Wei Ying is in best.”
“But you’re used to my old body.”
A rather silly question, since his body had been changing for the last year and so now all Lan Wangji remembered was change. “I’ll get used to this one.” Lan Wangji walked his hand across Wei Wuxian’s back, wondering. He had never been allowed to touch this body, before. The Wei Wuxian of this face had long since been unreachable. He curved his hand to steady Wei Wuxian’s neck. “You could change every day and I’d still be with you.”
Lan Wangji considered. “So long as I knew it was you,” he amended, because he truly had no desire to ever search for Wei Wuxian across the earth ever again. “But yes. I love you. I want you to love yourself.”
“I do,” Wei Wuxian said, muffled. He dropped a kiss to Lan Wangji’s mouth. “I think — I really missed this body. I felt terrible thinking it, but I know it so much better still than I ever knew Mo Xuanyu’s.”
The differences had hovered between them, constantly. Wei Wuxian’s look of surprised annoyance when his reach with his sword wasn’t as long, how he’d tire picking things up that he’d have no trouble with in his youth.
“I think I am happy,” Wei Wuxian decided, voice trembling. “You know, I didn’t think I’d ever get to be this happy like this, not really.”
It was telling, that he had only achieved this after so much hurt. He’d confided in Lan Wangji, once, that if their lives had been on track — no wars, no golden cores to be lost, no death — that he believed that this future, the one where they were intertwined on their shared bed, would never come to pass. Some small part of him believed that the old him could never have achieved this.
And now, here the old him was, the smile and the smirk and the infuriating way he licked his lips, and all of it belonged to Lan Wangji and Lan Wangji belonged to all of him, too. Together, facing each change, the happy ending they had both always wanted so long ago that neither of them could believe.
Lan Wangji believed in it now, whole-heartedly.