Taxian-jun woke on the third day to a room dark and quiet, bereft of any evidence that Chu Wanning had slept beside him the night before. The bed he laid on was softer than the one he had woken up in for the last few years. When he reached out for another body, to feel proof that it was only the early morning confusion clouding his mind and that Chu Wanning was just at the end of his fingers, he felt nothing but an ocean of empty silk.
He retracted his hand as though stung. A whirlpool of chaotic thoughts brewed in his mind.
Could it be that these last few years building a life (even if in begrudgingly shared thirds) with Chu Wanning were nothing more than a fever dream? Would he go back to being a cold corpse—forcing servants to drink plum blossom wine, chasing white-robed specters that floated in the corner of his eyes, tearing through the library Chu Wanning had left behind in search of anything in those pages that would keep the voice in his memory from slipping further away?
Were those happy memories nothing more than some part of an enemy’s revenge, giving him a taste of something he had not known he had wanted before ripping it from his grasp and smashing it into pieces? The hand he pressed against his chest (warm, corpses were not warm, remember that, Mo Ran) revealed a heartbeat thumping an erratic and panicked rhythm, but he could not find it in himself to believe the story it told.
The shuffling noise of someone at the door followed by the clattering of a tray as whoever it was tried to enter the room was enough to break him out of his panic. Taxian-jun started to order the servants to leave him in peace. Surely this was a sign that he had returned to his nightmare. Before he could, the door opened, and Chu Wanning appeared behind it, mildly ruffled and scowling.
Taxian-jun bit the treacherous tongue that had tried to order him away. Chu Wanning was alive. Chu Wanning was alive and looked like he hadn’t slept in ages. Despite that, in the morning light that trickled in from behind him, he still seemed all the fearsome and elegant grandmaster that Taxian-jun had both loved and loathed for years. When he caught sight of Taxian-jun awake, the scowl melted from his face. He granted Taxian-jun a soft look that made him feel as though he were something precious to Chu Wanning. It was a gift he still did not know how to accept.
He attempted to sit up, but the motion sent him into a coughing fit that left his throat raw and his ribs aching. Belatedly, he realized that he could not breathe through his nose. This made biting his tongue a terrible idea. Even worse, everything from the food Chu Wanning carried to the smell of haitang blossoms that always followed him around was muddled and faint.
What on earth had that Mo-zongshi done to their body?
“Mo Ran?” Chu Wanning called. With far too much grace for how quickly he moved, Chu Wanning appeared at Taxian-jun’s side. The bowls and cups on the tray clattered—but did not spill—as he placed them on the ground by the bed. He watched, curious, as Chu Wanning lifted his sleeve up past his wrist like he was about to pull out a brush. Images of lectures that had begun in a similar fashion flittered through his mind, and the way such lectures usually ended followed suit. Taxian-jun’s grin at the idea faded, however, once Chu Wanning placed his palm flat against Taxian-jun’s forehead.
It felt like heaven against feverish skin. True, Taxian-jun found pleasure in Chu Wanning’s touch most of the time, but today it felt like he could continue living with only that to sustain him. He leaned closer, reaching weakly to pull Chu Wanning to him. His body turned itself into a furnace that even Mo Ran’s penchant for higher temperatures could not withstand.
He kicked away the blanket that had been thrown over him and tried his best to shrug free of the loose sleeping robes he wore. He was a greedy man. Chu Wanning knew this. Touching his forehead alone could not appease him, especially if Chu Wanning promised the same cool relief to other parts of him.
Unfortunately, whatever illness had befallen him made him weak. Chu Wanning had no problem fighting off the wandering hands which tugged at his robes. Adding insult to injury, he readjusted Taxian-jun’s own sleeping robes and threw the blanket back over him.
Taxian-jun blinked up from beneath his eyelashes and stuck out his bottom lip in a pout. He’d heard it worked well for that other version of him; though he was loath to stoop to the levels of that bastard, sometimes one had to admire an enemy's tactics when they were brilliant.
Chu Wanning, heartless and cold-hearted man that he was, remained unaffected in the face of such a powerful sight.
With a sigh, Taxian-jun let his hands fall and leaned into Chu Wanning's palm. “Think I’m dying,” he murmured. No one in the world would say he did not deserve it, and he certainly felt like he was. As a practical scholar in the art of it, he should know.
“You aren’t, Mo Ran.” The cool hand pressing against his face slid down to cradle his cheek. Its twin joined it on the other side and the two together led him to look up so that Chu Wanning could place a kiss against his forehead. He felt a small chuckle as Chu Wanning pulled back. “Shizun has not given you permission yet.”
“This venerable one did not realize he needed Shizun’s permission,” he replied, though it came out raspy and weak. Shizun did not ask for mine, teased at the tip of his tongue; he shoved it back into the same corner he shoved most thoughts that he no longer needed.
Chu Wanning’s hands lingered. A careful gaze caressed the curves of his face, across the sturdy brow, down between those dark eyes which struggled to stay open in the comfort of Chu Wanning’s attention, past the fever-blush splashed across his nose dotted with sun-kissed freckles, settling onto pale and chapped lips still pulled into a pout.
“What are you looking for, Wanning?” Taxian-jun wanted to ask, but another part of him wasn’t sure he wanted the answer.
Perhaps Chu Wanning had found it in the pitiful melancholy that pulled Taxian-jun’s lips from a pout into a full frown, as he finally let his hands fall. He would deny the whine that left his lips at the lost touch even if Chu Wanning were to bring out Tianwen to interrogate him.
“You have a small cold. It shouldn’t have gotten as bad as it was, but… the other you chose not to tell anyone. Had he not fallen off his sword, he might have continued to hide that he was ill. I only barely…” Chu Wanning trailed off, a familiar crease appearing in his brow. The bowl of congee he’d picked up from the tray received the full force of his scowl.
Searching the fuzzy bank of memories that he and Mo-zongshi shared, Taxian-jun attempted to pluck out what wasn’t being said. Instead, he received an image of Chu Wanning’s wide-eyed terror as that bastard Mo-zongshi urged him to fly higher and higher up into the air.
Ah. Well, Taxian-jun would certainly be a better instructor than that fool. When he wasn’t suffering from said fool’s own mistakes, he’d have to prove it.
The scrape of the spoon against the edge of the bowl tore Taxian-jun away before his fantasy could take a turn for the lurid. Chu Wanning had not escalated his glare to the point of simply discarding the food as Taxian-jun had hoped he would, and now he seemed to be intent on feeding it to him. “Thankfully, there was an open room at a nearby hotel. If you can bear with it for today, you’ll be back home when you next return.”
A spoon full of congee, silky and smelling of ginger and green onion, was pushed towards his mouth. Taxian-jun eyed the small, unburnt chunks of meat with no small amount of venom.
“Why were we traveling?” He kept his tone carefree, though he made sure to turn his face away so that Chu Wanning could not take advantage of his open mouth.
The proffered spoon did not tremble even under Taxian-jun’s rebuff. When he peeked up at Chu Wanning, he found an expression frighteningly close to one Taxian-jun recalled from his years as a disciple.
He shrunk. “It’s not Wanning’s.”
“I didn’t want to make you sicker.”
Sicker? Never. If anything would make him sicker, it was being forced to eat anything that wasn’t made by the hands of his beloved Chu Wanning.
Opening his mouth to argue this incredibly valid point only led to a full-body coughing fit that left him wheezing by the end of it. He couldn't even argue when Chu Wanning pushed the spoon into his mouth, allowing the unworthy congee to soothe his ravaged throat when he swallowed.
It was delicious. He hated it.
Finally getting his way, the stern expression slid from Chu Wanning’s face. Taxian-jun was granted the softening of phoenix eyes and the uptick of his lips for just a moment before they were turned back to the bowl. “…I’ve never asked you how many memories you share.”
“You asked why we were traveling.” Another spoonful was pushed against his lips. Taxian-jun resisted just a bit less this time, if only for another chance to steal a glimpse of that pleased expression. “I was curious how much you remembered… of the years he spent with me before you merged.”
Taxian-jun rolled over onto his side, ignoring the sharp pain that flared to life behind his eyes. The correct answer was that he remembered quite a bit. Though, perhaps “remembered” wasn’t the right word for it. He recalled those years of Mo-zongshi and Chu Wanning more like a story in a book, even if it was one that elicited far more emotion than he would spare for such a thing normally. Like the fluttering of pages, pictures of the two of them shifted behind his eyes, familiar and achingly not his to claim.
He could remember almost everything; he chose not to most of the time.
“Wanning, what’s this about?” He reached out, lacing his fingers together with Chu Wanning’s free hand. The callouses and scars of hands familiar with constructing grand machines out of delicate parts squeezed against his own rough from work that he was still unfamiliar with.
The red on the tip of Chu Wanning’s ears betrayed the lie of his, “It’s nothing.”
The crash of an upturned bowl made a duet with a startled yelp as Taxian-jun tried again to pull Chu Wanning into the bed with him. Perhaps the element of surprise was his ally in this battle; by the time Chu Wanning had realized what was happening, Taxian-jun had curled an arm around his waist and rolled him over until he couldn’t escape unless he tried to crawl over Taxian-jun.
The action left his ribs aching and the pain behind his eyes feeling like it wanted to kill him. Being able to hold Chu Wanning close enough that he could feel the sturdy thump-thump-thump of his heart when he pressed his ear against Chu Wanning’s chest was worth any pain, though.
“Mo Ran,” Chu Wanning hissed with no bite. Contrary to the harsh tone, Taxian-jun felt a hand smooth his hair down and push it back from where it clung to his soaked brow. “Do you want both of us to get sick?”
“I want Wanning to tell me what’s wrong,” he demanded, though the layers of Chu Wanning’s robes muffled the sound and made him less the grand emperor he’d once been and more like a petulant child begging for attention.
He followed the rise and fall of Chu Wanning’s breathing. Steady and sure, it lulled him into a half-asleep state that he would have fallen deeper into had Chu Wanning not interrupted with the rumble of his voice pressed into the crown of his head.
“Nothing’s wrong.” A hand soothed like a balm, trailing down his scalp, his neck, his spine--settling to match another hand rubbing soothing circles into his back. The two hooked together and pulled him closer to Chu Wanning’s chest. “It’s not that anything’s wrong.”
“It’s just.” Fingers dug into his back as though they could find the answer between the folds of sweat-soaked robes, then seem to catch themselves and let go. “Today was…” Chu Wanning’s voice grew softer, hesitant.
What was so special about today? Taxian-jun wracked his mind for when he'd last appeared. It wasn't easy; there were usually better things to remember than a date when he was granted his hours with Chu Wanning. Eventually, he found it tucked away and added three days to find-
“We thought we might-”
A sudden flow of memories answered before Chu Wanning could finish. The image of Chu Wanning’s startled expression as Mo-zongshi lead him to fly a sword higher and higher up perhaps never quite leaving his mind from where he’d called it forth. Instead, the image appeared once more, uninvited, to play a scene of the two of them together above a sea on a moonlit night. A confession that he could not claim as his own spilled forth, assuring the trembling man that sat together with him that the person he loved was Chu Wanning, no matter what the man’s insecurities tried to argue.
His hands, curled around Chu Wanning’s waist, slackened. A coldness settled into his veins; he would blame the tremors that wracked his body on that alone if asked.
“It’s…” Sharp and acrid on his tongue, he spat out. “What’s wrong is that I’m not the one you want here.”
Of course, there were memories, times Chu Wanning spent with Mo-zongshi worth recalling, revisiting. What else would urge the two of them from their home, important enough for Mo-zongshi to hide that he was ill until he physically couldn’t anymore?
What else would it be but some desperate little pull of nostalgia to visit a place where they had allowed themselves a chance to admit feelings it had taken years to accept were shared?
What else could ruin that memory but waking to find an intruder who had no right to something so soft and pure when all the ones he shared with you were worth forgetting rather than memorializing?
The arms wrapped around him, pulling him tighter to Chu Wanning, were not a comfort anymore. A chill that snuffed out the last of his heat soaked into his bones, extending out until he was nothing more than a shaking body in arms that felt distant. The fiery bravado he wielded as a shield could not ignite, leaving only the brittle fragility that served as a reminder how tenuous his place in Chu Wanning’s heart was, even as Chu Wanning encompassed his entirely.
Chu Wanning's lips moved, the breath of spoken words hot against his skin, but they never reached past the buzzing in his ears. He felt Chu Wanning’s grip tighten on his back, then his arms as he tried to resist Taxian-jun’s effort to push away and off the bed.
“Mo Ran!” Chu Wanning’s shout stung like the bite of Tianwen against bare skin.
“This venerable one… is going outside,” Taxian-jun said. He couldn’t bear to look back at what expression Chu Wanning wore. He didn’t know what he wanted it to be, and so he chose instead to settle for not knowing at all.
He pushed on to his feet and felt the world sway beneath him. His eyesight dimmed for just a moment, though it came back quick enough that it could have been his eyes adjusting.
He took a step forward. Well… He tried to take a step forward. His body, feeling eager for overachieving, pitched towards the floor. He had only just a second to think, “I don’t want to bust my nose,” before Chu Wanning’s arm wrapped around his waist and yanked him back.
Mo Weiyu, Taxian-jun, former Emperor of the Cultivation World and one of the most powerful Butterfly Bone Beauties still in this world yelped like a terrified child.
He’d landed roughly in Chu Wanning’s lap, a pleasant place to be if his head wasn’t swimming and he was pretty sure he’d collided with Chu Wanning’s face.
“You foolish man,” he heard from behind him. It didn’t sound like he’d busted his nose, so perhaps there was some hope. “What part of being sick do you not understand?”
“I thought you'd prefer it if I left."
Chu Wanning’s forehead rested on his shoulder; the warm breath of a sigh tickled his neck. When he shivered, he felt an arm loosen from where it was wrapped around him. Before he could wiggle free, Chu Wanning had thrown a blanket across his lap, tucking him in until he was nestled in tight against him.
“Why would you think that?”
Taxian-jun opened his mouth, closed it. His vision dimmed once more, and he slumped deeper into Chu Wanning’s arm until they were the only thing keeping him from slipping onto the floor.
“Mo Ran?” Nervous, though still gentle, Chu Wanning’s voice buzzed in his ears. He felt hands adjust his head until it rested comfortably on Chu Wanning’s shoulder.
“Why would you want me here?” Taxian-jun finally answered. The syllables slurred into each other, nonsense sounds tainted with just the edge of a sob. “I’m not him. Today was when he confessed to you, wasn’t it? You wanted him, but you got me instead.”
Chu Wanning’s silence filled the air. It was confirmation enough for Taxian-jun to make another attempt at leaving. He managed to move just enough to slide down to the floor.
“Is that what you thought?” Chu Wanning looked down at him with an amused expression, before sliding off to sit on the floor next to him. Like Taxian-jun weighed as little as a doll, he found himself being maneuvered once more until his head was in Chu Wanning’s lap instead of the floor.
"Don't make fun of me," he growled… or tried to. Growling was apparently an excellent way to aggravate his throat for another round of coughing. Chu Wanning soothed along his neck and down to his shoulders like he could trick Taxian-jun into forgetting his grievances.
(It might have worked.)
“I’m not.” Chu Wanning’s smile said otherwise. His fingers brushed through what he could reach of Taxian-jun’s loose hair. “If you’re going to remember that time, then can you remember another?”
Taxian-jun turned to the side, but certainly not so that Chu Wanning could better reach more of his hair without pulling. The way his eyes drooped had nothing to do with how comforting it felt as Chu Wanning gathered his hair together and tried his best to comb out any knots with only his fingers. “What time?” He asked, definitely not sounding like he was about to fall asleep again.
It was an awkward angle to attempt it, but Chu Wanning began to braid his hair. “Do you remember the last time we were here?”
“Here? Wasn’t it when he-” From the corner of his eye, he watched Chu Wanning unfasten the ribbon holding up his own hair. It fell free, framing a face filled with enough tenderness that it hurt to take it in. He tried to bury his face into Chu Wanning’s lap to spare himself the sight, but a gentle tug on the hair still held within Chu Wanning’s hands stopped him.
“Not that time.” The hand holding the ribbon disappeared from his vision, and Chu Wanning resumed braiding. “I mean the last time you rested your head in my lap like this.”
“From our last lifetime, yes.”
The shiver that rippled through Taxian-jun’s body could not be blamed on sickness this time. “Why would you even want to remember that? Anything from that time?”
Chu Wanning hummed. “You’re right that it was painful, that we hurt each other so much in that time that it feels like we should just throw it away, but there are moments from that life that I treasure. I wouldn’t want to forget them so easily.”
“And that one-?”
“Is one of them, yes.”
Though Taxian-jun could hardly remember those times Chu Wanning spoke of, the one he mentioned now came to him in a hazy, half-muddled daze. If it could be blamed on the alcohol in his system or the flower in his chest, he could not say. He’d been bloody and raw, had crawled into Chu Fei’s lap like he was some pathetic child. What part of such a memory was worth remembering? He asked as much to Chu Wanning.
“When you came to me like that-” a gentle tug indicated Chu Wanning was tying off the end of his braid “-it hurt that I couldn’t do anything to help you. I thought that I was a failure. You were hurting and I could do nothing.”
A weight settled on his shoulder. When Taxian-jun peeked down, he found that Chu Wanning had tied his own ribbon into his hair and finished it off with a lopsided bow. "But somehow, despite that all, we’ve been given a second chance. If there’s anything to be sad about today, it isn’t that you’re here with me. It’s that you’re so sick we’re stuck inside. This is an important day between me and Mo-zongshi, but why wouldn’t I want to share that with you?”
Taxian-jun turned over, exposing himself fully to the pure and unfiltered light of Chu Wanning’s adoration. He pushed himself up, not to run away, but to catch his breath in place free from such a sight.
Chu Wanning had no mercy for him. “I love you, Taxian-jun, and I would not say such a thing lightly.”
Again, Taxian-jun found his face cradled in the palms of calloused and comforting hands. He was denied his cowardice and led to meet Chu Wanning's eyes.
This time, when Chu Wanning studied him, he felt inclined to place a kiss everywhere his gaze landed: One against his brow scrunched up with confusion, two above his eyes cast low as though he could ever ignore Chu Wanning, several for every freckle dotting a fever-blushed nose.
He paused at the mouth, pulled into a frown, hesitant and unsure.
“But you’ll get sick,” Taxian-jun said when every better excuse for why Chu Wanning should not love him shriveled on his tongue.
Chu Wanning rolled his eyes. "Then my emperor must take care of me when I do," he said and smothered any further argument Taxian-jun could have mustered against his lips.