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Invisible Smoke

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For years, grief is Lan Wangji's constant companion.

It's a heavy blanket pressing him into the bed as he recovers from his wounds, almost physically present in the way it covers every inch of him. It clings to him as he pulls himself up, pulls himself together so he can be the father A-Yuan needs. It's a weight, but an oddly welcome one, as he slowly makes his way back out into the world.

Sometimes grief makes it feel impossible to rise in the mornings, while other times it keeps him from his sleep, memories and what-ifs warring for dominance in his mind. Sometimes it's a tightness in his chest, like vines winding their way between his ribs and squeezing until drawing a breath seems nearly impossible.

Once, it's the call of a bottle of Emperor's Smile, then waking to the dull ache of burnt flesh, and the expression of disappointment on his brother's face.

The grief never fades, but over time it becomes more manageable. It never contributes anything to Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui's small household, never tidies the sparsely decorated rooms or makes dinner, but it at least takes up less space and becomes easier to work around.

Lan Sizhui never mentions it, but Lan Wangji knows he's aware of the grief's presence. It's in the way he learns to see the signs. Even when he's young, he somehow notices the dark circles under Lan Wangji's eyes or realizes how stiffly he's moving when the grief is weighing heavily on him. On those days, A-Yuan is a little more affectionate, clinging to Lan Wangji's legs or clambering into his lap, singing nonsense songs while small fingers work messy braids into Lan Wangji's hair until, somehow, it feels a bit less stifling.

Those are the days he reminds Lan Wangji of Wei Wuxian the most. He's not sure if that helps the grief or makes it stronger in the long run, but he wouldn't change it for the world.

While the grief becomes easier to work around most days, sometimes it swells, emerging from the corners of the room to fill every nook and cranny of space with an invisible smoke, choking Lan Wangji even as everyone around him seems to breathe with ease.

Even as his grief brings him to his knees, years after Wei Wuxian's death when everyone thinks he should have moved on already, Lan Wangji clings to it. It's one of the last pieces he has of Wei Wuxian. He will not let it hold him back; too many people need him for him to completely succumb to it, but this grief is his and he will not let the world take it from him.

When Wei Wuxian breezes back into Lan Wangji's life, all bright smiles and sparkling eyes and an astounding lack of personal boundaries, Lan Wangji can't quite bring himself to let go of his grief. It's hard, after all, to convince himself that this is real — or, more accurately, that it's permanent.

There's too much danger, too much uncertainty. Then there's a rainy night full of shining wire pressed against far-too-delicate flesh, fierce corpses, and almost too many revelations to handle, and all through that long night, Lan Wangji thinks this is it, this is where I lose everything again, this is why I've held onto my grief for so long.

But then the sun rises, and though he's had to watch his brother's world crumble before him, Wei Wuxian still lives, and the cut on his arm is healed, and Lan Wangji has never been so selfishly grateful for anything in his life. His grip on his grief loosens a bit, but he still holds onto it, still expects Wei Wuxian to leave him behind with a smile and a wave and never look back. It will be a different sort of grief, a lesser grief, knowing he's out there, safe and happy; he'll be grieving loneliness rather than loss, and that's a trade he is more than happy to make.

For a while, it seems he was right. After a brief stay in Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian leaves, and Lan Wangji feels the grief step closer, looming over him, casting a bittersweet shadow over home in Gusu. His room feels cold and lifeless, and Cloud Recesses seems oddly empty with Wei Wuxian and Lan Sizhui gone and Lan Xichen in seclusion, but it doesn't last for long. After several long months, Lan Sizhui returns, Wen Ning trailing behind him, and soon after that, Lan Wangji finds Wei Wuxian playing the flute on a ridge in Gusu, all warm smiles when Lan Wangji helplessly follows the sound of their song to him.

It's been some time since then, and he finally, finally believes that Wei Wuxian, his husband, is here to stay.

So, it seems, is his grief.

He tries to let it go. He has no need for it anymore; his love is here with him, alive and safe and whole and here.

He releases his grip on his grief and embraces his happiness with open arms. And yet, sometimes, the grief slips back in.

The first time it happens, he wakes from an all-too-realistic dream, one in which Wei Wuxian never returned. When he wakes to an empty bed, it's as if the dream is bleeding into reality, and for a moment he panics, the grief rising in an all-encompassing wave as he stumbles from the bed and around the screen to where Wei Wuxian sits reading in the dim candlelight.

"Wei Ying," he breathes, falling to his knees by Wei Wuxian's side. "You're here."

Wei Wuxian looks up from his reading, his brow furrowing at what he sees on Lan Wangji's face. He sets the scroll aside and takes Lan Wangji's hand, squeezing his fingers before lifting them to press them to his lips.

"Of course," he says softly. "Let's go to bed, ok?"

Lan Wangji nods wordlessly, and Wei Ying leads him back to bed. He sprawls across Lan Wangji's chest, too warm and too heavy to be comfortable, chasing away Lan Wangji's grief with every breath he takes.

The grief's spectre lingers the next day, but Lan Wangji has years of experience working around the emotion, and so he pushes through until he can barely feel its presence anymore.

Weeks later, Wei Wuxian wakes him with wide, concerned eyes.

"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan," he says, fingers running over Lan Wangji's cheeks. "Why are you crying? Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine," he says instinctively, raising a hand to his own face as if to confirm the tears. It takes a moment for him to recognize the grief, the oppressive weight of it, the cold fingers pressing against his ribs and making it difficult for him to draw a breath. It feels wrong, out of place when Wei Wuxian is there, right next to him.

"I'm fine," he repeats, wiping the tears away and pulling Wei Wuxian closer.

"You're not," Wei Wuxian protests, his fingers moving restlessly on Lan Wangji's chest.

"I will be," Lan Wangji corrects himself. He presses his nose into Wei Wuxian's hair and takes a deep breath, as if he can force the grief to lessen its hold.

It works, a little.

The next morning, Wei Wuxian watches him carefully over breakfast, his too-clever eyes picking out the signs of Lan Wangji's fatigue with ease.

"You didn't sleep last night," he says bluntly. "Are you sick?"

Lan Wangji shakes his head, slipping some of his food into Wei Wuxian's bowl. It's always been difficult for him to eat on days like this.

"It is nothing," he says, because it's true. He is there with Wei Ying, with his husband, and this grief has no place there. He sits up even straighter in defiance of the weight trying to press him into the ground.

The grief stays with him throughout the day, dogging his steps and making every action feel more burdensome than the last. The only bright spot is that Wei Wuxian doesn't leave his side all day, helping and hindering his work in equal measure but always, always welcome. By the time dinner rolls around, he's exhausted, and only his strict sense of propriety keeps him from skipping the evening meal altogether.

As soon as Lan Sizhui lays eyes on him, he knows — Lan Wangji can see the concern in the pinch of his brow. He glances at Wei Wuxian, as if wondering, before looking back to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji gives the smallest shake of his head; no, he doesn't know, and he doesn't need to know.

Lan Sizhui presses his lips into a thin line; he doesn't like it, but he's always been an obedient child, so Lan Wangji knows he'll listen. Still, he continues stealing glances at Lan Wangji throughout the meal, as if checking on him, and when he walks with them back to the Jingshi after dinner, he gives Lan Wangji a lingering hug before they part ways.

It's not something they do often anymore, but with his son wrapped in his arms, Lan Wangji can't really imagine why they ever stopped.

He isn't sure if it's the hug from his son or his husband's arms around him, but he sleeps well that night, and when he wakes the next morning the grief seemed to be gone. He hopes this is just its final farewell.

It isn't.

The grief mostly keeps its distance after that, as if it knows it is no longer welcome, but every once in a while it seeps in around the shutters and under the eaves, filling the jingshi with its presence, like a thick smoke that no one else can sense, capable of knocking the breath from Lan Wangji's lungs.

It rarely lasts more than a day, though on one memorable occasion it lingers for nearly a week. On day five of that bout, Wei Wuxian finally breaks down, begging Lan Wangji to tell him what's wrong.

"You keep saying it's nothing," he says, clinging to Lan Wangji's hand, "but it's not. I can see it, something's wrong and it's scaring me," he admits.

"You're scared?" Lan Wangji repeats, surprised. Wei Wuxian, the man who'd single-handedly gone against the entire cultivation world, the one who'd survived living in the burial mounds, is frightened?

"I am," Wei Wuxian says. "Something is hurting you, and whatever it is worries you enough that you don't trust me to tell me what it is."

"Of course I trust you," Lan Wangji says immediately; the very thought of not trusting him is ludicrous. "It is only that I do not wish to burden you."

"But if I cannot help you carry your burdens, what kind of husband am I?" Wei Wuxian asks, smiling a little sadly.

Lan Wangji isn't good with his words; he never has been. It's part of why he and Wei Wuxian work so well — Wei Ying has gotten very skilled at interpreting Lan Wangji's minute facial expressions, and is more than capable of filling the silence with his own chatter without needing very much from Lan Wangji in return.

In this moment, though, Lan Wangji can tell his husband needs an explanation. And honestly, if anyone can help him, it is his Wei Ying. He takes a moment to gather his thoughts, and Wei Wuxian, to his credit, tries to wait patiently, though Lan Wangji can see how much he longs to ask more questions.

"I loved you long before you… died," Lan Wangji says after a moment, forcing the last word out, though it feels sour on his tongue. He watches Wei Wuxian's face soften at that as he squeezes Lan Wangji's hand. "I didn't know how to go on when I lost you, but I had to. A-Yuan needed me."

"He was lucky to have you," Wei Wuxian says firmly.

"Perhaps," Lan Wangji allows. "But I was also lucky to have him. He became very good at recognizing when my grief was dragging me under, when it was so strong that I was finding it difficult to carry on."

Wei Wuxian's brow creases briefly before his eyes widen in realization. "That's why he's been around so much the last few days. You're… sad?" Lan Wangji inclines his head in agreement. "But why?" Wei Wuxian asks, baffled. He raises Lan Wangji's hand to his lips and presses a lingering kiss there. "I came back. I'm here."

"I know," Lan Wangji says, his lips turning up slightly. He leans in to kiss Wei Wuxian, getting lost for a moment in the soft warmth of his lips. When he pulls away, he's a little gratified by the way Wei Wuxian sways ever so slightly after him. "I know," he repeats. "And I am beyond grateful. I do not know why this keeps happening. Sometimes I think something in me is broken."

Wei Wuxian makes a wounded noise at that, reaching out with his free hand to cup Lan Wangji's face. "Lan Zhan, no. You're not broken. You're perfect."

"I am mourning you when you are here beside me," Lan Wangji points out, though he leans a bit into Wei Wuxian's touch. "It makes no sense, but I do not seem to have any control over it."

Wei Wuxian withdraws his hands, and is quiet for a long moment before he speaks again.

"Do you know," he starts slowly, "why I smiled when I fell?" Lan Wangji goes stiff as he is confronted with a memory he always does his best not to think about, even on days like this. He shakes his head, and Wei Wuxian continues. "It was because you were there, and you cared. That was the worst day of my life, and I'd just lost more than I could even fathom, but knowing there would be at least one person who cared that I would be gone made those last few seconds far more peaceful than they would have been otherwise."

Wei Wuxian looks down at his hands where they are clasped in his lap. "Sixteen years is a long time to grieve," he said. "Maybe it's a habit that's hard to let go of, or maybe it's just a part of you now. Either way, I want to help."

"This is not your fault," Lan Wangji protests.

"That's debatable, but it also doesn't matter," Wei Wuxian says matter-of-factly. "I don't want to help because of some sense of responsibility. I want to help because I love you." He smiles, and the warmth of it seems to reach to Lan Wangji's very core. "So tell your husband how to help, okay?"

Lan Wangji reaches out, helpless against the force of nature he married, and draws his husband into his lap, wrapping his arms around him. He isn't good at asking for things, not when it is for himself, but Wei Wuxian always somehow makes it feel easier. "Just be here," he says, letting out a long, shuddering breath into the crook of Wei Wuxian's neck. "Just be with me, and remind me you're here. That's all."

"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says, and Lan Wangji can hear the smile in his voice even if he can't see it. "Of course I'll be here. Where else would I want to be?"

They stay wrapped up in each other like that for nearly an hour before moving to the bed, where Wei Wuxian curls around him as if to protect him from the weight of his own emotions. He's not sure how effective that is, but the grief has retreated a bit by morning, as if repelled by the presence of the very man whose absence birthed it.

He doesn't know if he will ever truly be free of his mourning, but when Wei Wuxian smiles at him, brighter and more welcome than the morning sun, he knows that its weight is much easier to bear with his husband's help.