Lan Zhan was six years old when he met his soulmate, though he didn't know it then. What he knew was that they were in a strange town far away from home. That Mother hadn't let him inside last month even though Lan Zhan had been a good boy and knelt outside her door all day. That Uncle had taken him and Brother away from Cloud Recesses even though he was supposed to see Mother in two days.
"You will come with me to the Discussion Conference in Qishan," Uncle had said. "The two young masters from the Nie clan will be attending as well."
Brother's face, which had been set in a drooping expression for weeks, had brightened at that. Lan Zhan didn't care about loud Nie Mingjue or crybaby Nie Huaisang, but it hadn't mattered. Uncle had ushered them outside the gates after breakfast. He and the First Disciple had bundled the two of them on their swords and set off.
And now here they were, walking through the snow-covered streets of Yiling in their warmest cloaks. Lan Zhan didn't mind the wind rustling under his collar or the snow blowing into his eyes; the snow reminded him of home, of watching the dancing snowflakes outside the window from his mother's lap. He followed Uncle and Brother petulantly, twisting the rattle drum Mother had given him a few months ago, and wished that he was back at Cloud Recesses instead.
Tap-tap, tap-tap, went the little beads on the rattle drum. The streets were quiet, the stalls having retreated into buildings for the winter. Tap-tap, tap-tap, the beats echoed the quiet thumps of their footsteps on the cobblestones. Tap-tap—
A flurry of barks rang out behind Lan Zhan, making him jump. He turned to see two skinny dogs yipping and jumping over a lump on the ground. Lan Zhan stepped towards them and saw that the mass of brown fabric was actually a child, hunching over and letting out quiet mewls of distress.
A flash of anger rushed through Lan Zhan as he charged down the narrow alleyway and shook his rattle drum as hard as he could. The dogs startled at the noise, then were gone in the blink of an eye. Lan Zhan was left staring at the boy on the ground, who slowly unravelled himself to look up. They blinked at each other for several moments, as Lan Zhan took in the boy's ragged appearance — his torn robes halfway falling off his tiny body, his hair unkempt and chopped off sharply on one side, tear tracks visible on his muddy face. Lan Zhan's stomach dropped at the sight. He looked unlike any child Lan Zhan had ever seen, unlike anyone Lan Zhan had ever met in his short life.
Care for the young, Lan Zhan remembered from the sect precepts. He reached into his sleeves and pulled out the biscuits Uncle had given him for the journey. The boy grasped at them desperately and shoved them unceremoniously into his mouth. Before Lan Zhan could remind the boy to chew, the crumbs had already disappeared and the boy was grinning winningly at him, his earlier scare seemingly forgotten.
Lan Zhan reached into his sleeve again, but there wasn't nothing else there. The only other thing he had was the rattle drum. He held it towards the boy, who only blinked at him. "For you," he said.
The boy's eyes widened. "Really?" Lan Zhan nodded. "Oh! Thank you, Gege. You're so nice, you're the nicest!"
He took the rattle drum then, looked admiringly at the painted rabbits on the drum faces and the bright red handle with the flower Mother had drawn onto it. He gave his wrist an experimental twist, then another. Tap-tap, tap-tap, it went. Lan Zhan remembered then that he was supposed to be following Uncle and Brother. "Come with me," he said.
The boy scrambled up, but before he could take a step forward, he winced and collapsed back onto the ground again. Lan Zhan looked down, and saw streaks of blood mixing into the grimy robes. He swept them aside, gently like Brother always did, and gasped at the mottled skin beneath. Bright red imprints of teeth — from the dogs earlier — stood out amongst older purpling bruises.
"Stay here," Lan Zhan instructed. He took off his warm outer cloak and draped it around the boy, before hurrying back out to the main road.
By the time he found Uncle and Brother and returned with them, the alleyway was empty. A smear of red in the snow was the only proof that the boy had been there.
Lan Wangji was sixteen years old when he met his betrothed. He hadn't known it at the time either, making his rounds around the dark grounds of Cloud Recesses and seeing a figure perched on the wall. An impish smile, long hair flying, two rounded bottles of Emperor's Smile hanging from his fingers. He had been furious, both by the blatant disregard for Gusu Lan rules and by the way his heart thumped. No, he thought, and shut down that part of himself ruthlessly. He had a soulmate to find, and — unfortunately — a fiancé to meet.
"Breaking curfew is a violation of the Lan sect's principles," he said.
There was a flash of disappointment on the other boy's face. It was a familiar look on the faces of those who had not yet met their soulmates upon hearing the first words of a new acquaintance, though they usually concealed it better than this. To his dismay, Lan Wangji felt a mirrored disappointment in his own chest.
The next morning in class, Lan Wangji was introduced to Wei Wuxian, first disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang sect and ward of Jiang Fengmian. Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes. This was the boy he was to marry? This boy, with his irreverence, his rowdiness, and his sparkling eyes? There was only a quick moment of surprise on Wei Wuxian's face before it morphed into mischief.
"Ah, so this is the famous Lan-er-gongzi, the Second Jade of Lan. You're definitely as beautiful and righteous as the stories say! Come on, aren't you going to give your future husband a kiss?"
Lan Wangji trembled as Uncle and the other students gaped at the shameless words. The anger he felt at the news of his betrothal rose again. It was bad enough that his sect had abandoned him in his search for his soulmate and promised him to another; but for that someone to be so cavalier in his attitude about the matter was insult upon injury. Lan Wangji frowned at Wei Wuxian and pointedly ignored him, sitting down at his desk with a swish of his long robes to wait for the start of the lesson.
It wasn't long before Uncle threw Wei Wuxian out of the class with a book aimed at his head. Surely, Lan Wangji thought, that would be the end of the engagement. Instead, Uncle had sent him after Wei Wuxian, with instructions to oversee his punishment.
"It is your responsibility to ensure the correct conduct of your betrothed," he said to Lan Wangji's disbelief. "Wei Ying is evidently gifted, and you need to make sure he uses those gifts for the righteous path."
And so every afternoon, Lan Wangji sat with Wei Wuxian in the library, trying to ignore him as much as possible. It wasn't an easy feat, given that Wei Wuxian had honed in on Lan Wangji like a bird of prey, circling around him and picking on him at every opportunity. He talked incessantly of their future marriage, called him a stick-in-the-mud, delighted in provoking any kind of reaction from him. His brother was no help either, when Lan Wangji reported the situation to him.
"You should spend more time together so you can understand each other better," Lan Xichen said.
Shortly after their outing to deal with the waterborne abyss, Uncle left for Qinghe on business and classes were on break. Lan Wangji decided to take the opportunity to make his biannual trip to Yiling, which he had postponed due to the lectures. He said a silent apology to his soulmate for the delay as he wrapped the many layers of his wristband over his soulmark.
He had hoped to leave with only a quick good-bye to his brother, but Wei Wuxian found him as he neared the gates.
"Ooh, you're going out?" The other boy asked, bouncing around Lan Wangji as he walked. "I knew you weren't such a stick-in-the-mud! Come on, you should share with your future husband — where's a fun place around here?"
Lan Wangji glared. "It is not for fun."
"Sect business then?" If possible, Wei Wuxian seemed to perk up even more. "Night hunt? It's dangerous to night hunt on your own you know, you should bring someone to watch your back." He grinned and pointed both thumbs at himself.
"Well, you lost me then. What else can you be doing, sneaking out like this?"
He was leaving in broad daylight with his brother's blessing, Lan Wangji didn't say. He had no reason to explain himself to Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji gritted his teeth, wishing to just be left alone. "I am looking for my soulmate," he ground out.
It took Lan Wangji a few moments to realize that Wei Wuxian had stopped following him. When he looked back, the other boy seemed to be frozen to the spot, eyes wide and lips still parted. He quickly looked away when he saw Lan Wangji looking back. "I see. Well, have a good trip!"
There was a funny lilt to his words, and Lan Wangji realized how forced the cheerful tone was. Guilt tingled at the back of Lan Wangji's mind, telling him to turn back. To tell Wei Wuxian the circumstances under which he had found his soulmate the first time. That he had made the trip every few months since his soulmark had appeared at the age of twelve. That his leaving was not a rejection of Wei Wuxian himself.
But what would be the point? After all, Lan Wangji did not want to marry Wei Wuxian. He would not want to even if he didn't have his soulmate to consider. So Lan Wangji just nodded and stepped out the gate.
When he returned to Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian was different. Not drastically so, not in any way that any of the others seemed to notice. He still broke the rules flagrantly, still pulled the attention of the other guest disciples to himself like moths to a flame. He even still pestered Lan Wangji, sending papermen his way in class and throwing teasing remarks in his direction whenever they were in the same room. But he no longer sought Lan Wangji out. No longer called out after him, tossing his name into the breeze like a blooming bouquet. Lan Wangji told himself that he was glad, that he only noticed because of his gratefulness for his newfound peace.
After the fight with Jin Zixuan, Lan Wangji walked through the courtyard where Wei Wuxian was kneeling. To check that he was carrying out his punishment properly, he told himself. Later, after Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli's engagement had been dissolved and Wei Wuxian was on his way back to Yunmeng, Lan Wangji sat in Uncle's room, sharing a pot of tea.
"We cannot break the engagement," Uncle said to his unspoken question.
"Madams Jin and Yu grew up together. The alliance of the two sects will survive the engagement. Ours will not."
Lan Wangji tightened his fist in his lap.
"Wangji, you know why this is so important."
He did. Every day, the Qishan Wen sect gathered more and more power, became more and more belligerent. Yunmeng and Gusu bordered each other, yet their relationship had always been quite distant.
" 'Do not take your words lightly' ," Uncle quoted. "We made a promise."
Lan Wangji nodded. "I understand, Shufu." He did. But he couldn't help but think, I am not the one who made that promise.
The war with the Wen began sooner than expected, blowing in with the chilly northwest wind. Not long after the guest disciples returned to their own sects, a skirmish on the Qinghe-Qishan border escalated until floods of disciples rushed in from both sides. With no direct border with Qishan, Gusu's disciples either followed Lan Xichen to the Qinghe front, or Lan Wangji to the Yunmeng front.
When Lan Wangji saw Wei Wuxian again in the battle camp, their faces were grim and his old grievances seemed a world away. After all, to marry, they would have to survive this first.
Lan Wangji soon learned that Wei Wuxian fought well and had a mind for unexpected strategies. That he always kept an eye out for the other disciples, who got younger and younger as the months went on. He learned to trust Wei Wuxian to watch his own back on the battlefield.
When a plan was proposed that would lead Wen troops through a valley dotted with small villages, Wei Wuxian was quick to speak against it. There was a moment of tense silence, as everyone looked between the seasoned general and the young ward of the sect leader. Wei Wuxian looked at him, surprised, when Lan Wangji broke the silence to say that the Lan sect would not support the unnecessary risk to civilians. As they filed out of the tent after the meeting, Wei Wuxian flashed him a wide smile that made Lan Wangji's heart leap in his chest.
Lan Wangji started to watch Wei Wuxian after that, his eyes trailing after him whenever they were in the same room. That was how he noticed when Wei Wuxian slunk out of the camp after a battle, one arm clutched to his side. Lan Wangji followed him as he settled in the shadow of an outcropping of rocks, grimacing as he started to unwrap the layers of his robes.
"What are you doing?" Lan Wangji stepped in front of him, and watched as the pinched expression on his face smooth out like napkins carefully ironed before a banquet.
"Just looking for some peace and quiet," Wei Wuxian said airily, waving a hand around. "I was getting tired of everyone running around, you know?"
Lan Wangji didn't bother responding to such an obvious lie. Instead, he bent down to pry Wei Wuxian's hand away from his exposed stomach and check on the injury. He tutted in disapproval and began to feed him spiritual energy.
"Aiya, Lan Zhan, stop it! I'm fine, you don't need to do that!"
"No," Lan Wangji agreed. "There is a medical tent."
Wei Wuxian sighed. "My shijie is there. If I go, she'll fuss over me. There are lots of people who got injured worse than I did."
"You were stabbed in the stomach," Lan Wangji said flatly. After that, he made a mental note to check on Wei Wuxian after every battle.
Despite these newfound insights into Wei Wuxian's character, Lan Wangji found that he was not so different from the boy he knew from the lectures, after all. Most nights, Wei Wuxian skipped through the camp, inviting anyone he saw to spend the evening around Yunmeng's large campfire or, on rainy nights, in the tent he shared with his brother.
"Come for a drink?" He asked, poking his head through Lan Wangji's tent uninvited. He swirled a pot of wine around his fingers, which he must have picked up in the town they had passed by earlier.
"I am meditating," Lan Wangji said, opening his eyes for a blink before closing them again.
"Meditating, training, studying. Do you ever do anything fun?"
The comment didn't sound as barbed as it used to, back at Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji didn't know if it was Wei Wuxian who had changed, or himself. Either way, it was easy to let it slide off his skin and redirect his attention to his breath.
"Suit yourself." Wei Wuxian shrugged, and went on his way.
Autumn fell away to winter and opened into spring. The battle lines shifted, sometimes a few li to the east and other times capturing a hill or two to the west. Lan Wangji felt like an ox leashed to a stone mill, walking forever in circles.
One day, following a streak of successful battles, they followed the Yangtze River to the northwest and Lan Wangji found himself in familiar territory. He knew the shapes of these hills and the grey rooftops at the horizon. It had been over a year since he was last here, and his stomach dropped as he imagined what they would find here. At what they would have to do, if they found the town flying the Qishan flag.
As they neared the town, however, it became evident that something was wrong. There was smoke rising above the scattered roof tiles, and many of the buildings were missing their walls. Only a small trickle of people remained, civilians with large packs on their backs and on oxen-drawn wagons as they hurried away. Lan Wangji scanned their faces, looking carefully at the few young men. Was his soulmate still alive? And if he was, Lan Wangji suddenly thought, how would he recognize him?
They camped that night at the foot of a mountain overlooking the town. Unable to sleep despite his usually regimented schedule, Lan Wangji found himself at a quiet spot away from the camp, thoughts scattered as he looked at the ruins leaning into the river below. He didn't know how long he had been there when Wei Wuxian found him, drinking sloppily from yet another jug of wine. Lan Wangji eyed the bottle critically but did not say a word. After all, they were not in Cloud Recesses, and the scouts had not spotted any sign of Wen troops.
"Do you think they got away, before the Wens came?" Wei Wuxian gestured at the town beneath them.
Lan Wangji pursed his lips and did not answer. They had found freshly dug graves on their way through earlier that day, but Lan Wangji could not guess at how much of the town's population may be underneath. They sat in silence for several minutes before Wei Wuxian spoke again.
"The town had a name," he said. "There are people who think of this place as home. They have family who lived here. There's someone out there, in some big city —in Yunmeng, maybe, or Buyetian — who would say, 'I'm from—' "
Wei Wuxian looked at him, surprise evident on his features before melting away. "Ah, of course Hanguang-jun would have paid attention to the sign, unlike the rest of these boneheads." He waved a hand back towards the camp. His tone was light and joking, but there was an edge to his words.
Lan Wangji shook his head. The title, newly bestowed, settled strangely around his shoulders. "I have been here."
"You have? This little place in the middle of nowhere?"
"Mn." His soulmate's face appeared in Lan Wangji's mind, and he found that he couldn't look at Wei Wuxian any longer. He turned back towards the ruins of the town, heart aching. He was grateful when Wei Wuxian didn't ask anything else. Grateful and, after the past few months, only a little bit surprised. "Have you been here?" He surprised himself by asking.
"I have. Or at least that's what I've been told."
"What you have been told?" Lan Wangji found that he wanted to know the answer.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. "When I was little, before I started living with Uncle Jiang. I don't really remember. "
He must have travelled here with his parents, Lan Wangji thought, and nodded. Like the rest of the cultivation world, he knew the fates of Cangse Sanren and her husband. He gave Wei Wuxian the same courtesy he had afforded him, and did not ask about anything more. Instead, he pulled his guqin out of his qiankun pouch and started to play. It was Rest, ostensibly for the spirits in the town below. Lan Wangji tried not to think about how his soulmate might be one of them.
Wei Wuxian stayed with him, a warm and solid presence at his side, long after the camp quietened behind them.
In a miraculous turn of fate, the war ended as suddenly as it began. Wen Ruohan was dead — by illness or accident or murder, no one could say. His two sons fought each other for the succession, and the battle lines fell into disarray. Soon, both Wen Xu and Wen Chao were dead, and leadership fell to the young mistress of a distant branch of the family who quickly called for a ceasefire.
The end of the war was marked by a grand celebration by the four allied sects. "We must have something joyous after all that death!" Jin Guangshan announced from his seat at the front of the hall, as if he had anything to do with the victory. "I think a wedding would be just the thing!"
Four pairs of eyes looked up at the pronouncement, but only one couple was still engaged.
"An excellent idea!" Jiang Fengmian said, standing up to offer a toast. Lan Wangji's eyes found Wei Wuxian, who lifted one corner of his lips in a crooked smile that he didn't understand.
Later, when the speeches had concluded and the guests were milling around, Wei Wuxian found him in the gardens.
"Did you find your soulmate?" He asked.
Lan Wangji shook his head. Perhaps it was time to accept, as his brother had gently suggested and his uncle less gently so, that his soulmate was dead. That he had likely been dead for a long time. When he looked over, Wei Wuxian's mouth was set in a grim line. His thoughts ground to a halt, and he felt cold.
Was Wei Wuxian looking for an excuse?
"Have you?" He returned the question.
"No," Wei Wuxian said quietly. Lan Wangji looked at him. He looked sad, the way he had at the mountainside above Yiling.
"The war is over," Lan Wangji said, tentatively. Reluctantly. He found that he could not complete the sentence.
"If the engagement is to be dissolved, you'll have to be the one to do it." Wei Wuxian's tone turned suddenly sharp, and his eyes flashed. He turned and walked away, back into the revelry of the banquet hall. Lan Wangji stared after him, not understanding what Wei Wuxian wanted from him. Did he want the chance to look for his soulmate? Why did he not end the engagement then? Perhaps he did not think he could, being only the ward of the sect leader and not a Jiang by blood. There had been gossip that Wei Wuxian was reaching above his station; it would be an insult for the Jiangs to cancel the engagement now. Is that why he was so angry?
When he asked his brother later, Lan Xichen said, "You should tell him about your soulmate."
Lan Wangji frowned. He didn't think Wei Wuxian would appreciate hearing it, how, unlike him, Lan Wangji had the chance to meet his soulmate but still let him slip through his fingers. "Perhaps we should cancel the engagement," he said instead.
"Do you want to cancel it?"
Lan Wangji didn't respond. Did he? The longing for his soulmate, the guilt and concern he always carried with him, had not faded. But he also didn't like the idea of watching Wei Wuxian leave, waiting to one day hear news of another engagement.
"I don't think it's wise," Lan Xichen said, interrupting his thoughts. "The war may be over, but we still need allies."
Lan Wangji nodded, a sense of relief suddenly flooding through him. Of course. He had heard Uncle and Brother discussing the Jins with increasing worry. If this was what both their sects needed them to do, then surely Wei Wuxian would forgive him for not letting him go. Surely his soulmate, wherever he was, would as well. After all, they had made a promise, and Lan Wangji could not renege on it lightly.
And so, a few weeks after his eighteenth birthday, Lan Wangji sat meditating in his room on the morning of his wedding. Outside, the usual serenity of Cloud Recesses was overlaid by a gentle but constant hum of activity as elders and disciples alike got ready to welcome the party soon to arrive from Yunmeng. As the sun made its journey upwards in the sky, there was a knock at his door, which opened to reveal one of his aunts. She helped him to tie the stiff belts of his intricate robes, and to weave his hair through the golden hairpiece. Lastly, she handed him a thick red ribbon.
Lan Wangji looked down at his left wrist, at the band currently covering his soulmark. It hit him, suddenly, that this meant he had made his decision and there was no going back. That he was choosing Wei Wuxian, and turning his back on the soulmate he had searched for for the past twelve years.
"You tried your best," his aunt said softly behind him. "You have been a very devoted soulmate, but now it's time to live your own life."
Lan Wangji looked away. He hadn't, he knew. As in the years before, his mind replayed the scene in Yiling over and over, thinking of all the things he should've done. Stayed with his soulmate until his family came looking for him. Gotten help from a shopkeeper nearby. Promised his soulmate that he was coming back. Asked for a name.
"Soulbonds are complicated business," his aunt continued, drawing him back to the present. "Just look at your parents. This will be good for you, I know it."
It's not the same, Lan Wangji thought, but he unwrapped the white wristband.
Really? Oh! Thank you, Gege. You're so nice, you're the nicest!
The familiar words, inky black, stood out against the pale skin of his wrist and across the dark blue veins. In a soulbonded wedding, the wrists of the soon-to-be spouses were bared so that all those attending could bear witness. With one last look and a silent apology, Lan Wangji took the red ribbon and covered his soulmark.
The wedding day passed slowly. There were recitations of Lan sect precepts and speeches by both families. There was the handfasting ceremony and they performed their bows. It was followed by a banquet, louder than anything Lan Wangji could remember ever being hosted at Cloud Recesses, taking over the largest receiving hall and spilling into the courtyard. Whenever Lan Wangji caught sight of Wei Wuxian beside him, his heart rabbited in his throat. Sometimes, he would receive a small smile in return. He looked for that ear-splitting grin he had grown used to, and a hollowness settled in his chest as the day went on and it didn't appear.
That night, when they finally made it back to the Jingshi, alone, Wei Wuxian dropped onto the bed with a dramatic flop. "Thank heavens that's over." He sighed.
Lan Wangji's heart pounded as he carefully removed his robes, wondering how to approach the next part of the night. His hands shook as he smoothed them out and tucked them away. With a deep breath, he turned back to face his new husband.
Wei Wuxian was lying curled up on his side, taking up the inside half of the bed and facing the wall. His robes were thrown haphazardly over a low-lying table. Lan Wangji stopped and stared, willing him to turn around.
"Hm? What is it?" Wei Wuxian asked, throwing his head over one shoulder.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji started, then stopped. He had no words for what he wanted to say.
"You don't mind sharing the bed, do you? It's been a long day."
"No," Lan Wangji replied quickly, aghast. Before he could say anything more, Wei Wuxian turned back around.
"Okay, great. After the last year, I think I've had enough of sleeping on the ground for a long time," he mumbled as he buried his head into the duvet.
There was nothing more to say then, Lan Wangji thought. He climbed into the bed and laid down facing the ceiling like always. He urged his breath to slow despite the painfully sinking feeling in his chest, but he stayed awake long after haishi came and went.
After the wedding, Lan Wangji was gratified to find Wei Wuxian slotting himself into life at Cloud Recesses with relative ease. It was strange to think it was only two years ago that he had met Wei Wuxian on the rooftops on a moonlit night, the start of the latter's streak in breaking more Lan sect rules than he could count. The Wei Wuxian of two years later hadn't completed changed his ways; he still talked during meals, complained about the blandness of Gusu's food, and proposed unconventional solutions for night hunts that made some of the elders' eyes pop. But he no longer held illicit alcohol-filled gatherings or antagonized Lan Qiren for the fun of it. He was well-liked amongst the Lan sect disciples, many of whom he had befriended during the war, and the juniors jostled for space to accompany him on night hunts. Even Uncle had gradually come to receive his inventions with grudging respect. The war had changed them all, brought them together and forced the formerly young disciples to grow up.
And Wei Wuxian's adolescent obsession with Lan Wangji, it seemed, was one more thing he had outgrown. They had a perfectly amiable companionship marked by quiet evenings in the Jingshi and occasional sparring on the training field. But Wei Wuxian no longer trailed after him, badgered him until his ears burned red, or slung a casual arm around his shoulders. There was a polite distance in their interactions that left Lan Wangji feeling cold. No matter what he tried — pots of spices and lotus seeds, Emperor's Smile and crates of fruit, anything Caiyi Town offered and some that it didn't — Lan Wangji could not bridge that distance.
"Aiya, you're too good," Wei Wuxian would say with a small smile, "such a thoughtful husband."
As Wei Wuxian squirrelled the gifts away, Lan Wangji would sit silently and think, No, I am not. If he was good, he would have let Wei Wuxian go. He would have set him free to look for his own soulmate, as Wei Wuxian had wanted. And so, Lan Wangji had to swallow his guilt and settle for being a kind husband instead.
One of the new friends Wei Wuxian spent his days with was Lan Wangji's second cousin Lan Lingyuan, soulbonded to one of the outer disciples and a newly-wed herself. She had always had a lively spirit and was only too happy to traipse through the back mountains with Wei Wuxian, even as the months passed and her belly started to grow.
One afternoon, Lan Wangji went looking for Wei Wuxian before dinner and was directed to her quarters. As he stepped into the sitting area, he caught a glimpse of the two of them seated, with Wei Wuxian's bare wrist between them. It was too far away for Lan Wangji to read the characters, but Wei Wuxian seemed to follow his gaze.
"Lan Zhan, come in! We were just talking about the baby!" Wei Wuxian waved him over, and Lan Wangji watched his face rearrange itself into a grin as he covered his wrist again in a casual motion.
Lan Wangji felt a sharp pain in his chest, his breath escaping him as if from a punch. He remembered Wei Wuxian with blood seeping from his stomach, his lips turned up in a carefully nonchalant smile.
Wei Wuxian was hurt.
Lan Wangji knew, then, that he could not let this continue. That night in the Jingshi, Lan Wangji poured them each a cup of tea as he willed his heart to calm.
"I am sorry," he said.
"For what?" Wei Wuxian asked, brows furrowed from the other side of the table.
"For marrying you."
There was a clang as Wei Wuxian set his teacup on the table with too much force. Unable to look him in the eyes, Lan Wangji looked down and saw that his husband hands were shaking.
"I know you want to find your soulmate," Lan Wangji forced himself to continue. "I cannot undo our marriage, but I will not stop you."
The Jingshi was silent, more so than Lan Wangji could remember it being since they married. Then, there were quiet footsteps, a shuffle of cloth, the door sliding open and shut again. Lan Wangji was alone.
He left for a night hunt, the disciples at the gates told him the next day. On his own? That's dangerous, Lan Wangji thought, trying to quash the worry in his chest. He will let Wei Wuxian go this time, he told himself, let him do what he needed to do.
On the third day, Lan Lingyuan was waiting outside the classroom when Lan Wangji wrapped up his lesson with the junior disciples.
"Aren't you going to bring him back?" She asked, anger colouring her words.
Lan Wangji looked away. "He wanted to leave."
"I doubt that." She snorted. "I don't know what happened, but you need to fix it."
He shook his head. Remembering the conversation he had walked in on, he added, "He went to find his soulmate."
"No!" Lan Lingyuan yelled, drawing an admonishing look from a passing elder. She raised one finger and poked it harshly at his chest. "He never wanted to find his soulmate, he told me! It's been three days, you've had time to have your sulk. Now go find him!"
Lan Wangji did. He had intended to go to Caiyi Town as a starting spot, where he hoped one of the shopkeepers Wei Wuxian frequently visited could give him a hint as to which direction he went. Instead, he was pointed to the local inn.
Wei Wuxian was at a corner table in the dining area on the first floor, drinking directly from a jug of Emperor's Smile while another empty bottle laid beside him. It was early enough in the afternoon that Lan Wangji hoped that was all he had had.
"Wei Ying," he said, settling down in front of him.
"Lan Zhan." Wei Wuxian paused mid-swallow. He opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to change his mind as he surveyed his surroundings — a small, dark inn barely half a day away from Cloud Recesses, three days after his departure. He seemed to give up on whatever excuse he was about to make. Instead, he shrugged and let out a chuckle. "Care for some wine?" He asked, holding out the hand with the alcohol.
Lan Wangji covered the bottle, and Wei Wuxian's fingers around it, with one of his hands and set it down on the table. "Can we talk?"
Wei Wuxian sighed. He led him upstairs to his room, but not before buying another bottle of Emperor's Smile from the innkeeper and taking it with them.
"You did not leave to find your soulmate," Lan Wangji said once they settled in the small room, and wondered what it meant.
Wei Wuxian laughed. "Lan Zhan, I don't care about my soulmate."
"...I do not understand."
"Not everyone cares as much about their soulmate as you. I never put much stock in soulmates to begin with. Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu are soulmates, and you know how they are."
Lan Wangji's head spinned. "You asked me to dissolve the engagement. Was it not because you wanted to find your soulmate?" If Wei Wuxian didn't care about that, then that meant...that meant the problem was Lan Wangji. He thought of Wei Wuxian's friends, about the playful Nie Huaisang and spirited Lan Lingyuan. Even Jiang Wanyin, who was loud and critical but still followed Wei Wuxian in his antics more often than not. Of course Lan Wangji wasn't the spouse he wanted, especially not after how he had acted the first time Wei Wuxian had been in Cloud Recesses.
"When did I ask you to dissolve the engagement?" Wei Wuxian asked, interrupting his thoughts.
Lan Wangji frowned. "The banquet. After the war."
Wei Wuxian shook his head. "No, I never did that." Lan Wangji thought back to his words and, oh. Maybe he hadn't. Lan Wangji had thought so often of his own soulmate back then, mired in his own dilemma, and he had assumed Wei Wuxian had as well. "Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian spoke again, voice hesitant. "I never cared much about finding my soulmate. But I completely gave up on it after I met you."
The words stole the breath from Lan Wangji's lips. He stared at Wei Wuxian with wide eyes, not daring to believe what he had just heard.
Wei Wuxian sighed. "Never mind, I've known for a long time that you didn't want to marry me. I know you would rather have your soulmate. That's fine, you can keep looking for them, I won't stop you either. Just let me finish my wine and we can go back to Cloud Recesses."
Lan Wangji reached forward and caught his arm before he could reach the bottle. There was so much he was feeling, so much he wanted Wei Wuxian to understand, that he didn't know where to begin. In the end, he said, "I chose you."
"Your sect chose me," Wei Wuxian said with just the faintest touch of bitterness. "I bet I wasn't their first choice, either. They must have wished they had waited a few months, so they could've ask for my shijie instead."
"No. I chose you." Lan Wangji swallowed, hoping that would make the words come more easily. "I thought you had asked me to end the engagement, but I could not. I was selfish. I did not want to let you go."
It was Wei Wuxian's turn to stare at him, wide-eyed and mouth hanging open. Finally, after an eternity, a small, fragile laugh escaped his lips. "Lan Zhan, have we been the world's biggest idiots?"
"I believe so." Lan Wangji felt a corner of his mouth quirk up. He thought that perhaps, one day, they would be able to laugh about this.
But not today. Today, Wei Wuxian was throwing himself at Lan Wangji, his lips seeking his, pulling at him until it felt like they would melt together. It felt natural for Lan Wangji to respond in kind, parting his lips and pressing into him as if trying to literally take Wei Wuxian's breath away. It was a relief to finally close that distance, to wound his arms around his husband's waist and hold him so, so close.
"Wei Ying," he gasped when they part for a brief second. The words have barely passed his lips before Wei Wuxian dove back in and swallowed the sounds into his mouth. Lan Wangji felt dizzy with want, with relief, with the joy of having what he had been dreaming of, somehow. They pushed and pulled at each other, like the river rushing headlong into the sea until they were one and the same.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian breathed, the little quiver of air tickling Lan Wangji's cheek. They had found their way, stumbling, onto the bed. Lan Wangji felt his entire body burn, feeling the weight of Wei Wuxian above him. One of Wei Wuxian's hands reached between them and found the tie of his robes. He was shaking so much that he fumbled for a few seconds, and he laughed at himself in a breathy huff.
Lan Wangji gathered Wei Wuxian's hand with one of his own, stilling the trembles. Wei Wuxian looked up at him, eyes dark. "Not yet," he said. Wei Wuxian blinked several times before the meaning seemed to filter through. Lan Wangji ran his thumb over the pout starting to form on his husband's lips. "We have not christened the marriage bed yet," he whispered. Wei Wuxian laughed loudly at that. Lan Wangji marvelled that he could feel every shake of his body with the way they were pressed together. "Wei Ying deserves the best. Which is more than a narrow bed in an inn."
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian cried. With amusement, Lan Wangji noted the fresh flush of colour rising on his cheeks at the words, despite what they had just been doing. "You can't just say that! You have to warn me, or my heart won't be able to take it!"
"Mn," Lan Wangji agreed. "I am warning you now, for the rest of our lives."
When Lan Wangji woke, the faint light through the windows was just starting to inch towards sunrise. He looked back at Wei Wuxian, still dead to the world at this hour, his hair sprawled across the pillows where it's falling out of the neat braid Lan Wangji had put it in the night before. Every part of him was as animated as the man himself, Lan Wangji thought fondly as he swept a piece of hair away from his husband's face.
As was his routine these days, Lan Wangji cleaned himself up and went to the dining hall to gather breakfast for the two of them. He returned to the Jingshi with the tray and began to make tea. Usually, Wei Wuxian would start to drift slowly towards consciousness as the fragrant aroma filled the room.
Lan Wangji's eyes wandered around the room as he sipped and waited. When they had first married, Wei Wuxian had claimed a corner of the Jingshi as his own and kept his belongings strictly confined to it. After that day in the inn, Wei Wuxian had moved his desk beside Lan Wangji's, so that they could work side by side. Sometimes he would sprawl over Lan Wangji, reading at odd angles that both bemused and amused him. Over the next few months, the old corner dispersed and Lan Wangji found Wei Wuxian's things mixing amongst his own. He also realized how many things had been tucked away in the crates Wei Wuxian had brought with him from Yunmeng, and was glad to see them gradually overtake the room.
Now, Lan Wangji's eyes caught on a spot of red on a high shelf. A child's toy, he realized, as he walked up for a closer look. A rattle drum. His breath caught in his throat as he examined the lacquered red sides, the images of rabbits over the drumskin, and the chipped black paint of the flower on the handle.
"Hnghh, Lan Zhan..." Wei Wuxian's voice behind him broke the quiet stillness of the morning.
Lan Wangji clutched the rattle drum in his hand and stared at it in disbelief.
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian called again.
He turned slowly, holding the toy in front of him. "Where," he croaked. Swallowed, then tried again. "Where did you get this?"
"Hm?" Wei Wuxian looked up at him, bleary-eyed. "I don't know. I had it when Uncle Jiang found me. I guess it's probably from my parents."
"When he...found you?" Lan Wangji knew Wei Wuxian's parents had been rogue cultivators, but had never thought to wonder how he ended up at Lotus Pier. If asked, he might have assumed they had left him there before embarking on their last night hunt.
"Yeah. Why do you ask?"
"Where did he find you?"
"Yiling," Wei Wuxian replied, but Lan Wangji already knew the answer. He stumbled across the room and knelt down at the bed, his thoughts aswirl. "Lan Zhan, what's wrong?"
Lan Wangji's throat was closed with too many emotions, so he pulled at his wrist instead. The ribbons fell apart to reveal the familiar inscription, which he held up for examination. He watched as Wei Wuxian's eyes traced the words, but there was no recognition. But he wouldn't remember, would he? He had told Lan Wangji he didn't remember anything from before Lotus Pier, other than a single memory of his parents and an instinctual fear of dogs.
He looked at Lan Wangji now with a frown, confused. "Oh!" He said, and pulled at his own wrist. "Thanks for sharing that with me. I know it's important to you." Before the ribbon could fall open to show the words underneath, however, Lan Wangji reached over and closed a hand around his wrist.
"I met my soulmate at six years of age." He had finally found his words, and locked his gaze with Wei Wuxian's. "A snowy day on the streets of Yiling. Two dogs were attacking him. I chased them away. I wanted to make him happy, so I gave him a toy I was carrying. A rattle drum. I said—"
"For you," Wei Wuxian finished in a soft voice as Lan Wangji lunged forward to pull his husband — and his soulmate — into his arms. The ribbon dropped free from their hands and fluttered to the floor.
"You are safe. You are alright." Lan Wangji whispered, over and over, as tears dripped along his cheeks and seeped into Wei Wuxian's hair.
"Why are we going to see your uncle?" Wei Wuxian asked the next day as they walked towards the path to Lan Qiren's house.
"You will find out soon." Lan Wangji smiled as he watched Wei Wuxian stick his lip out in a pout. It hadn't taken as much convincing as Lan Wangji was expecting. Uncle had only sighed and asked for another day, saying that there was something he wanted to look for first.
Now, Lan Wangji understood. Lan Qiren held out a stack of papers, which Wei Wuxian took with a quizzical noise.
"These were your mother's," the older man said. "From when she studied here as a guest disciple."
Wei Wuxian's eyes lit up at the words, and started flipping through the pages. Looking over his shoulders, Lan Wangji was amused to see that they began as a copy of the Lan sect rules. Then, midway through the page, the words broke through their straight lines and burst into scribbles and ideas for some sort of array. When Wei Wuxian looked up at Lan Wangji, his eyes were watery but the grin on his face was blinding.
"I asked Uncle for stories about your mother, since your rattle drum is from mine."
He caught Wei Wuxian as he threw himself at him, while Uncle cleared his throat in the background. When they had separated and Wei Wuxian was leaning forward with his chin in his hands, Uncle began.
"The only student who copied the rules more times than you was your mother," he said, "and that was only because she stayed here for the entire year instead of three months like you."
That day, laughter rang out from Grandmaster Lan's rooms, and travelled down through the paths of Cloud Recesses.