In October, Lan Wangji attends the National Championships for ballroom dance and mechanically wins gold in nearly every category in which he’s entered. Luo Qingyang is his partner again this year, has been for the last seven. She is very good. They are both very good.
However, there were two categories this year in which they fall short: Quickstep and tango.
The reasons for this are likewise twofold.
The first is quite reasonable: Lan Wangji doesn’t like those dances. Luo Qingyang does--she has the bright, lively energy required for them--but Lan Wangji wouldn’t even bother entering those categories if they weren’t required to qualify for the championship title. He has memories of enjoying other dances, a long time ago. These days, the waltz is the only one he still likes. Sometimes, for variety, the Viennese waltz is acceptable. On very good days, the slow foxtrot.
The second reason follows logically from the first: He doesn’t like those dances; other people do; other people have more expertise. Other people should have won, not him and Luo Qingyang.
Weeks after the competition, he still knows who should have won, and it still makes him furious to remember that they didn’t, and sick to his stomach to think of what they’d done.
Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan had entered the competition. As a pair.
Lan Wangji still remembers what it felt like to hear their names announced, to spot them across the floor, standing together. It had been a lightning strike. He’d wanted to stare at them--he had stared, every chance he’d gotten. Luo Qingyang had too.
Two men, dancing in championship competition together. Lan Wangji still gets hot and cold flashes to remember it. They’d been beautiful--perfectly polished, not a toe or a finger out of place, full of energy, the flow of their movements both graceful and strong… Lan Wangji wants to distill that into a tincture and force-feed it to his students. He wants to shake his students by the shoulders and point to that pair and say: Look, don’t you see? This is what it’s supposed to be like. This is how it’s supposed to look.
But more than that, the thing that had struck him most… They’d both had this lightness in their expressions, this shining joy that makes Lan Wangji’s heart ache when he thinks about it. He’s never felt like that. He’s certainly never felt like that in competition.
By the end of the first elimination round of the first dance, he’d known that they should win the category. And at the end of the first elimination round of the first dance, the judges had announced their disqualification.
Lan Wangji had been too stunned to react. By the time he turned to look, they were walking away, and he couldn’t see their expressions.
But the same thing had happened again with the second dance, and then the third, and every time, Lan Wangji had thought They ought to win. And, every time, they’d been politely and firmly turned away, simply because the championship rulebook doesn’t have anything in it that says two men are allowed to enter as a pair--or two women for that matter.
That night, he goes up to his hotel room, sits on the edge of the bed, and stares at the wall for a while, trying to parse through it all. Luo Qingyang arrives from her room next door wearing flannel pajamas, the makeup scrubbed off her face, her hair taken out of her severe competition style and hanging around her face in damp clumps still dripping from the shower.
She has a bottle of wine in her hand. She doesn’t offer any to him. She shoves her way in when he opens the door for her and drinks from the bottle. “That was fucked up,” she says. Her voice is uneven. “We shouldn’t have won.”
Lan Wangji agrees, but he can’t say so aloud.
He sits on the bed again and stares at his hands in his lap.
“Don’t you dare,” she says, “give me some bullshit about--about how the judges are judges because they’re fair. Don’t say anything about the rules . Don’t say anything about how we can’t question--fuck. Fuck,” she says. “We shouldn’t have won those.”
“I know,” he says.
“Someone ought to do something.” She takes another long swig from the wine bottle. “Fuck it. I’m still dancing with you tomorrow no matter what. But at the end of the night, if we’re supposed to go up to get another fucking trophy? I’m not doing it. I’m boycotting. I didn’t earn that.”
Lan Wangji wishes, not for the first time, that he was as brave as her. “And me?”
“Did you earn it?”
“No,” she agrees. She sits heavily on the edge of the bed, next to him. “But it’s different for you, isn’t it.” She shakes her head. “Do whatever you need to do. Accept for both of us. Tell them I’ve twisted my ankle, I don’t care. But I won’t smile at the people who made that choice, and if they hand me a big, heavy, blunt object, I’m just going to use it to bludgeon them.”
“Don’t,” he says. She’s a very good dance partner, probably the closest thing he has to a friend. He’s not good at making friends, and it would be very inconvenient to have to make a new one if she were to go to jail.
“Do you think they’ll be banned?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Three categories,” she says. “They kept coming back. They had to be doing it on purpose, didn’t they?”
Maybe. Maybe not. They’re not well-known enough for it to make any difference: Not allied with any particular school, not seen often in competitions… It won’t matter. It’ll be a minor scandal at this competition and then it’ll be forgotten by the next one.
After another long silence, Luo Qingyang says again, quietly, “Someone ought to do something.”
She’s right. Someone ought to do something. Someone with more cachet than Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, because then that someone would not be so easily dismissed. Someone with, perhaps, two and a half decades of presence in the competition circuit, whose face is known and whose reputation is sterling, who has won more medals and trophies than he would have space for in his house, if he had any interest in keeping them there.
Someone like Lan Wangji.
(He keeps his trophies in the proper, designated room of the Cloud Recesses. He hates the sight of them. He always throws out the minor medals as soon as he gets home from a competition.)
There are several problems with wanting to be the one to do something.
He is not good at politicking. He is very bad at talking to people. The thought of presenting a petition to the national board of the organization in order to get the rulebook changed is… ridiculous. They’d turn him down, and then he would have to talk to more people to find supporters, and convince everyone and… No, it is outside his abilities.
The problem sits in the back of his mind for weeks, as autumn fades into winter. It becomes a weight on him that he carries constantly, until he’s sore in his mind, in his heart, in his sense of justice. He cannot allow an unjust thing to stand, but he does not know what he, Lan Wangji, can do to stop it.
The biggest obstacle is that there are very few public statements that he could make without harming the reputation of whoever he is partnered with at the time. The idea of hurting Luo Qingyang’s career or her standing in the field is unconscionable. Lan Wangji could probably recover from nearly anything--his own reputation could take a few hits without much of an effect--but it’s different for women. Harder. She needs to be more careful than he does, because people will judge her more harshly and hold her to a higher standard. He cannot ask her to put herself on the line like that.
Thinking of putting his reputation on the line naturally leads to thinking of Wei Ying.
Thinking of Wei Ying in any context is not an unusual occurrence.
He hasn’t seen or heard from Wei Ying in… years. No one has, as far as he knows. After all those horrible things that happened so long ago--Jiang Yanli’s accident, the exposure of Wei Ying’s… extracurricular activities, his family’s public disowning of him and the national committee’s even more public censure--he’d just vanished. No more competitions, no more exhibitions.
Wei Ying was once the most brilliant person Lan Wangji knew, and the most infuriating. The way his heart aches sharply when he thinks about Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan is identical to the way it aches when he thinks about the way Wei Ying used to dance, as if his whole body were a laugh of pure delight given movement and form.
That, perhaps, was the thing Lan Wangji had admired most about him: the way he was so unafraid to express himself, either in words or in actions. He’d made a fool of himself dozens of times in the few years Lan Wangji had known him--introducing unconventional steps, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable and appropriate in competition, stepping in when a fellow competitor was rude or exploitive or abusive to their partner. He’d even argued with judges when he felt his competitors had been scored unfairly--Lan Wangji had seen him, on more than one occasion, bounce up to the panel’s table to bicker with them, had overheard him citing a dozen precedents and reams of information from the rulebook's delineation of standards.
That's how Lan Wangji remembers him. The poetry of him in motion, the fire that burned even when he was standing still. He would have known what to do, if he'd been there to see Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. He would have just done the necessary thing, whatever it was.
Lan Wangji searched for him after he vanished. He still looks regularly--he has Google alerts for Wei Ying's names, he looks through social media several times a year. He checks obituaries, even, because there seem to be no limits to his desperation and pessimism.
He's just gone, and Lan Wangji knows that the world is the worse for it. Darker, quieter, lonelier, more unjust.
In the darkest part of the night, sometimes Lan Wangji even thinks about that afterparty he'd been dragged to at the International Open the year they'd been eighteen. The whole group of them had gotten roaring drunk (except Lan Wangji, of course) and made a wreck of the place, and Wei Ying had danced with Jiang Yanli around the raised edge of a fountain in the hotel courtyard like silver screen movie stars, and when he'd tripped and literally fallen on Lan Wangji, barely rescued from bashing his brains out on the concrete because Lan Wangji had been staring at him so intently, Wei Ying had hung there in his arms and burst into the prettiest smile Lan Wangji had ever seen, all the lights reflected in his wide eyes, and said, "Wow, Lan Zhan's reflexes are so good! I want to dance with Lan Zhan one day, can I? Promise me!"
It is the greatest regret of Lan Wangji's life that he had shoved Wei Ying back onto his feet, snapped, "Don't be so careless!" and walked away. In the darkest part of the night, he thinks about saying Yes, and I promise, and Right now, and Always.
And then a year later, Wei Ying had gone away, and there had been no more beautiful dark eyes and no more lights reflected in them. No more light at all, it had sometimes felt like.
Just before New Year’s, he goes to Yiling for a charity exhibition event. He dances a waltz, a Viennese, and a slow foxtrot with Luo Qingyang so that all the rich people in the audience, too stingy to donate out of the good of their hearts, will feel like they got something worth their money. After it’s over, he refuses invitations to the gala and goes out into the city. Yiling has, he remembers, a very good night market, and he still needs to buy gifts for his uncle, his brother, and Sizhui.
On the streets, amongst regular people, no one knows who he is. They do not care about competitive ballroom dance, nor should they. It is a ridiculous occupation.
He doesn’t pay particular attention to where he’s going, just… walks. No one speaks to him. No one touches him. No one asks his opinion or looks at him for approval.
He gets lost. Not very lost, because his phone is in his pocket with 81% charge. He can un-lose himself the moment he decides to. The streets here are narrower, the shops tiny and crammed to the brim with things, garishly lit. People pass by in ones and twos and small groups, their noses tucked down into their scarves, their hands crammed in the pockets of their coats.
There is a man on the corner handing out flyers--or failing to hand out flyers, mostly--and shouting about some big performance that can’t be missed. Lan Wangji doesn’t want a flyer, and doesn’t care about whatever the man is talking about. He wants to walk past and get himself more lost. He wants to drop his phone in a storm drain.
But the man turns, and Lan Wangji accidentally makes eye contact with him, and the man shoves a flyer into his chest before he can turn away, and it’s pure reflex that makes Lan Wangji take it and say, “Thank you.”
It’s night, and the flyer is mostly dark ink, so he can’t immediately see what it’s a picture of, or what the writing says. He means to just ball it up and throw it in the first trash can he passes. He isn’t sure what makes him glance down at it in the eye-wateringly colorful light of the next shop.
But he does.
And the world stops.
By the time he remembers to take another breath, his lungs are burning for air and he feels lightheaded. His hand, holding the flyer, is trembling.
Wei Ying. Wei Ying.
He forces himself to keep breathing. He forces himself to look again, just in case he’s wrong.
It’s a picture of a man, facing mostly away, his face turned just enough to show the line of his jaw and the hint of a smile, the corner of an eye. His hair is long and black. His back is bare.
There is nothing about it which says with undeniable proof: Yes, this is Wei Wuxian. But it is. Lan Wangji would recognize the set of those shoulders anywhere, the trimness of his waist, the posture which is both cocky and charming at once.
He turns around and goes back to the man with the flyers. “Who is this,” he demands.
“Eh?” says the man. “Says it right on the flyer. The Yiling Patriarch! He’s at a club over in the Burial Mounds.”
The bad side of town, Lan Wangji infers. ‘Where? Directions.”
“It’s on the flyer,” says the man, and--yes, fine, yes--Lan Wangji is already whirling away, whipping out his phone to stab the address into navigation. An hour and a half away by foot. Twenty minutes by car. He calls a taxi, waits on the curb with his heart in his throat, and when the car arrives he slides into the backseat and says, “You will receive a two hundred dollar tip if you can get me there in ten minutes. Don’t speak to me.”
The driver gapes for a second in the rearview mirror, nods energetically, and proceeds to break some traffic laws.
Eleven and a half minutes in the car--the driver really had done their best, and Lan Wangji gives them the money anyway--was enough time for him to get himself under control, read the flyer more carefully, and come to several conclusions.
The club is a strip club. Wei Ying is one of the dancers. Lan Wangji takes in this information with a certain equanimity--it isn’t entirely a surprise. That’s what everyone meant thirteen years ago when they referred so delicately and euphemistically to Wei Ying’s “extracurriculars.” That’s what had gotten him in so much trouble--combined with all his other little annoyances and outbursts over the years, they finally had a good enough reason to throw him out. He’d been “damaging the reputation of this fine and upstanding organization,” they’d said. An embarrassment, they’d said. A filthy stain on otherwise perfect white satin.
Lan Wangji hadn’t seen the sense in it then, and he can’t see the sense in it now. Wei Ying was beautiful in motion; what did it matter what sort of motion it was, or what the audience got from it?
He does not hesitate on the threshold of the club. He pays his entry fee, goes inside, realizes he does not know what the etiquette in such situations is, does a quick internet search on his phone about it, orders a nonalcoholic drink from the bar, and asks the woman there, “When does the Yiling Patriarch perform?”
She checks the clock. “About forty-five minutes.”
He thanks her. He takes his drink. He sits. He waits.
The club seems to cater to everyone--men and women and whatever’s in between. It smells better than the few other bars he’s ever been forced to visit, though there’s a faint underlying smear of cigarette smoke, as if it used to be much dirtier and can’t ever be fully cleaned, and of course there’s still the tang in the air of spilled drinks and the performers’ sweat.
Forty-five minutes passes incredibly slowly. Lan Wangji tells himself he is patient. He grinds his teeth. When performers approach him, he shakes his head and they leave him be.
Every dancer is applauded when they come on stage, and when they go off again. The same thing happens when Wei Ying comes out at last--the audience claps and cheers no louder and with no more ardor, as if he is just another performer. Lan Wangji clenches his fists on his knees. Wei Ying is not just another anything.
Then Wei Ying dances, and the music, audience, the room, and the world might as well disappear.
Wei Ying had always been prolific in the breadth of his interests--he was in love with movement. That much was obvious to anyone. Always fidgeting, always tapping his feet. Always grabbing onto people, swinging them around, running and running and running. Besides that, he was something of a genius--a jack of all trades and a master of none, Lan Wangji had fumed to himself all those years ago, because Wei Ying couldn’t pick one thing or even a handful of them to pursue. Forget about choosing between Latin and Standard categories, he wouldn’t even choose just ballroom, or just social dances. He danced everything.
Lan Wangji, watching like Wei Ying will disappear again if he blinks, sees that he still does dance everything. He can see it in Wei Ying’s footwork, his body flight, all of it. In the gestures of his hands, Lan Wangji can see that at some point in the last thirteen years, someone has taught him a little ballet. In the crispness of his isolations, bellydance. In the long lingering steps, tango--that’s from years and years and years ago, Lan Wangji knows, when they were still at school together. In the flick of his hips, he sees influence of the other Latin dances.
He is too good to be here. Not here in a strip club--here in this club, this cramped little space with barely seventy people to watch him. He’s dancing to be looked at, and he’s worth more attention than a mere seventy pairs of eyes. Moving like this, he could have the world at his feet, if the world only knew how to value something like this. It’s subtle--too subtle for most people to understand what it is exactly he’s doing and why he’s doing it. It’s elevated through his expertise and then gently self-deprecated again by the casual grin on his face that lights up the room and seems to say, We’re all just having fun here, eh? It is at once both an incredible work of artistic expression and a filthy, scandalous display of raw sexuality that is making Lan Wangji want to hide in the bathroom and splash cold water on his face and neck.
It all ends too soon. The music fades into something new, there’s another round of applause--louder this time, he’s savagely gratified to notice; at least these people can recognize brilliance when they see it. A group of young women are screeching at Wei Ying, brandishing money at him, and Lan Wangji sees him toss his hair and laugh and bounce towards them to flirt.
Lan Wangji can feel every pulse of blood rushing through his whole body. He gets unsteadily to his feet and crosses the room. Wei Ying is laughing and joking with the group of women, turned away from Lan Wangji.
He means to touch Wei Ying’s shoulder. Instead, he finds himself seizing his wrist as Wei Ying gestures grandly about something.
Wei Ying turns, meets his eyes. The world stops again, but only for a few seconds.
“Oh,” says Wei Ying. His pulse is thundering strong beneath Lan Wangji’s fingers, his skin hot and a little clammy with sweat. He lost most of his clothes during the performance. It makes no difference. He could be wearing six layers and a parka, and it would make no difference.
Wei Ying’s eyes are huge and dark and so beautiful it hurts.
He remembers, from checking on his phone, that it is considered poor etiquette to touch the performers in a club like this. He makes the barest motion to release Wei Ying’s wrist and draw back, and Wei Ying seizes his wrist in return, his fingers clamping into Lan Wangji’s skin so hard that it feels like his bones are grinding together.
Wei Ying is still staring at him. Lan Wangji cannot look away. Distantly, he’s aware that the group of women Wei Ying was talking to have fallen silent.
Abruptly, Wei Ying seems to come back to himself. He turns to the women with a bright smile and says, “Ah, pretty ladies, you’ll have to forgive this humble one! I just unexpectedly met a friend I haven’t seen in a long time--will you allow me to return to this conversation a little later?”
They are very gracious young ladies and allow it without hesitation. He doesn’t know how to apologize. His tongue is wooden. For lack of anything else to say, he bows to them as they’re handing Wei Ying his shirt, which they had come into possession of during the dance, and then Wei Ying is hauling him off by his wrist, just like he used to do when they were teenagers, and it makes Lan Wangji hurt again in a way that is somehow both good and very bad at the same time.
Wei Ying takes him to one of the private rooms--Lan Wangji read about these on the etiquette guide too--and hasn’t yet let go of his wrist.
They spend another moment just staring at each other when the door closes and blocks out most of the noise from the club. Wei Ying’s mouth is soft, open a little like he might be about to speak. He has a frown line between his eyebrows, and he seems to be studying Lan Wangji’s face intently.
At last, Wei Ying licks his lips and says softly, “Are any of the others here with you?”
Lan Wangji isn’t sure who he means exactly, but… “Just me.”
Wei Ying’s eyes glitter, his mouth twists into a wry half-smile. “Hanguang-jun, coming to a strip club in the shitty part of Yiling, all by himself? What’s the world coming to?”
“Came to see you.”
“Oh.” The smile falters for a second, but only a second. “My fame has spread so far, if even Lan Zhan knows where to find me.” There’s a strange note of emotion there, but Lan Wangji doesn’t know what it means.
“Wei Ying,” he says softly.
The complicated expression on Wei Ying’s face melts into a soft grin. “Lan Zhan. I’m happy to see you.”
Where have youbeen? he wants to demand. But, more than anything else, why? Why leave like that? Why didn’t you come back? You could have found me, if you’d wanted to--why didn’t you want to?
It’s none of his business, of course. He doesn’t ask. Wei Ying has his own reasons.
“I am happy to see Wei Ying, too,” he says quietly, and watches Wei Ying’s expression wobble again.
“Missed me that much, did you?” he chirps, as if it’s a joke. Lan Wangji can only stare at him, too confounded to reply.
Of course he has missed Wei Ying. Shouldn’t that be obvious? But no, perhaps it isn’t--back then, Lan Wangji had felt too much, and been too frightened of feeling, to let Wei Ying get close. What reason has he ever given Wei Ying to think that he’s been missed? If Wei Ying didn’t come back and didn’t reach out to him, it was Lan Wangji’s own fault for pretending too hard that he didn’t long for him. It had once been enough to convince even himself, so of course it had been enough to convince everyone else, even Wei Ying.
“Yes,” he says. “A great deal.”
“Eh?” says Wei Ying, caught off-guard. “Ha…” He rallies. “Hanguang-jun has learned to tell jokes now? Always so talented, just as expected!”
“Wei Ying,” he says again. He despairs, a little. Of course. Of course. He pretended so well back then that Wei Ying doesn’t even believe him now.
But Wei Ying cocks his head. He’s heard something in Lan Wangji’s voice, though perhaps it’s not the right thing--if he’d just had more time to prepare, he could have thought of something to say, something that would make him understand. “Why’d you come see me, anyway? Something you want?”
Lan Wangji is nothing but wants, enough that Wei Ying would be made uncomfortable to know about them. He’s never been as interested in Lan Wangji as Lan Wangji was in him, after all. So he shoves aside every part of himself that is selfish and hungry and longing, and what’s left is… “I need Wei Ying’s advice.”
“My advice?” Wei Ying says. “My advice? Why?”
“I want to do something. I don’t know what. Wei Ying will know.”
Wei Ying shakes himself, releases Lan Wangji’s wrist at last, and gestures to the couch. Lan Wangji eyes it suspiciously before he sits, but it seems clean enough. Wei Ying perches at the other end, pulling his shirt on but only doing up a couple of the buttons. It’s crooked--the buttons aren’t in the right holes. “Okay,” Wei Ying says. “I’ll help you. Of course I’ll help you. What’s going on?”
Wei Ying listens carefully. He asks a few questions. At last, he sighs, leaning back on his hands. It pulls the half-buttoned shirt askew and exposes the planes of his stomach. Lan Wangji tries not to look. He’s been trying not to look at Wei Ying’s thighs for what feels like hours now.
Wei Ying thinks hard for a minute. “All right,” he says. “That’s worth it. We’ll have to take a few precautions, but… Yeah, that’s worth it.” And then he says the most beautiful words Lan Wangji has ever heard. “Take me back to Gusu, Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying’s idea of precautions is apparently that he’s going to go incognito the whole time for fear of being recognized. Lan Wangji thinks this is a ridiculous scheme and he doesn’t know why it’s so important that no one knows who Wei Ying is, but Wei Ying is coming back to Gusu with him, and it was his own idea so Lan Wangji is prepared to accept without reservation, hesitation, or question whatever ridiculous schemes Wei Ying comes up with.
Wei Ying is coming back to Gusu.
It only takes two days to arrange it all--Wei Ying had already been planning to move on from Yiling. That night had been his last at the club, he’d already given up his space in the sublet he’d been living in. There were only a few small belongings to pack. They fit into four battered cardboard boxes which look like they’ve been used for a few moves already. Lan Wangji thinks of how close he had come, at so many points, to missing Wei Ying entirely--what if he hadn’t gotten lost in the night market? What if he hadn’t taken that flyer? What if he’d thrown it away before he looked at it? What if the taxi driver had gotten lost, or their car had broken down? It makes Lan Wangji feel tense and anxious and hypervigilant. He wants to stand over Wei Ying even while he sleeps and make sure that there’s no way he can disappear again.
He’s overreacting. He’s being paranoid and obsessive and the worst part is that he doesn’t care. Wei Ying is right beside him, and Lan Wangji doesn’t have a single fuck to give about propriety or boundaries or self-respect, except for the fact that if he reveals too much too soon, Wei Ying might be frightened off like a skittish, half-feral cat, and who knows if he’ll ever come back a second time?
So he says nothing, and reveals nothing.
And Wei Ying comes back to Gusu with him.
Lan Wangji takes two seconds away from staring hard at Wei Ying to watch out the window, as he always does, as their train rounds the curve of a hill, revealing Caiyi Town and beyond it the mountain where halfway up sits the Cloud Recesses: the most prestigious academy of performing arts in the country, cool and distant and haughty.
Wei Ying is sitting across from him in their private compartment, playing some game on Lan Wangji’s phone which he hadn’t even known was installed. Wei Ying doesn’t have a phone of his own. He doesn’t have a laptop. He doesn’t have social media--which Lan Wangji already knows from years of dismal, wistful searches across the internet. He apparently does have an email address, but by Wei Ying’s own admission he only checks it about once every four or five months.
Lan Wangji doesn’t mind Wei Ying appropriating his phone. It stops the restless fidgeting and most of the chatter, and it means that Wei Ying’s attention is occupied and therefore Lan Wangji is free to look at him, drink his fill of the sight of him.
Wei Ying has a frown line of concentration between his eyebrows. His eyes flick back and forth across the screen quicker than his fingers follow. He’s been biting his lip wet and red.
Wei Ying cackles suddenly at something in the game. “Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, look! High score!”
Lan Zhan does not understand games like this one, but he looks at the screen dutifully. It really is an impressive number. “Well done,” he says, and Wei Ying beams at him. It makes him rather light-headed and glad that he’s sitting down.
As the train pulls to a stop, Wei Ying looks up again, slips the phone into the pocket of his jacket. That’s mine, Lan Wangji doesn’t say. There is something very good about Wei Ying carrying some of Lan Wangji’s personal effects. It makes something in his stomach turn over like a drowsy cat and settle properly.
Wei Ying pulls up the hood of his jacket over his hair and shoves a pair of big sunglasses onto his face. It looks ridiculous. Lan Wangji has told him that it looks ridiculous. Wei Ying only insisted that it’s necessary--no one can know that he’s back, he said. Despite that, he talks the whole way up from the train station to the Cloud Recesses, calling Lan Wangji’s attention to street vendors with tasty-smelling food, interesting rocks and trees, vague memories of their time here as teenagers, and so on. Lan Wangji could listen to Wei Ying talk for weeks if he were allowed.
Just before they get to the gate of the Cloud Recesses, inside which it would be forbidden, Lan Wangji tells an almost-lie. “It is inconvenient, but Wei Ying will have to stay in my residence.” He’s implying, of course, that there is some external reason for this, and there isn’t. There is just his own horror at the idea of letting Wei Ying out of his sight. He knows he will have to, eventually, but not yet.
“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “Sure! No problem! I bet Lan Zhan’s rooms are really nice!”
“Mn,” says Lan Wangji.
“And,” Wei Ying says, “it’s better for keeping me secret if I can just hide out with you.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says again, relieved that Wei Ying does not seem to be resisting. If he resisted, then Lan Wangji would have to force himself to stop and be… reasonable. Collected. Restrained. Courteous. A good host. But he is not resisting, so Lan Wangji is free to continue being secretly, selfishly greedy for his company.
That night, about an hour before curfew, Wei Ying is sprawled out on the floor, half dressed, biting the end of a pen between his teeth, with dozens of pages of things strewn around him--mostly books for the National Dance Federation’s rules and standards, now annotated with Wei Ying’s messy handwriting all through the margins.
“Okay,” he says at last, sitting up. “I have a plan. I’m going to need to find a partner, first of all.”
Lan Wangji hears suddenly an echo of Wei Ying’s voice from thirteen years ago--I want to dance with Lan Zhan one day, can I? Promise me!
Wei Ying doesn’t mean him. Wei Ying needs a competition partner--a woman, in other words, according to the current rules. Lan Wangji’s stomach lurches unpleasantly. “What is the plan?”
“Win everything,” Wei Ying says firmly. “Win it all, perfectly, and then when they hand me the award I’ll reveal my identity. Probably make a speech. They’ll be horrified, and it’ll upset everyone. You know,” he concludes brightly. “A scandal.”
“I see,” says Lan Wangji.
“Your problem was that you didn’t want to drag your partner into it because it might be a worse result for her, right?” Wei Ying asks, tapping his chin with the end of his pen.
“Did you ask her, by the way? Whether or not she wanted to be dragged into it?”
Lan Wangji is silent for a long minute. “No,” he admits.
“She will say no.”
“Maybe. But maybe she’ll say yes. It’d be good to have someone else in the know.” He frowns thoughtfully. “What’s her name? Luo Qingyang? That’s familiar, why is that familiar…”
“In school, you called her Mianmian,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying gives him a blank look for a moment and then sits up. “Oh!” His shirt collar is open. Lan Wangji can see his collarbones. “Oh, Mianmian!Yes, I remember Mianmian!” He gives Lan Wangji a knowing smile. “So you ended up partnered with her, eh?”
“We are colleagues,” Lan Wangji says. Technically, they’re probably friends by now, but Lan Wangji isn’t good at friends, so he’s not quite sure.
“Is she good? In competition?”
“Yes. She is very disciplined and serious.”
“Ha. Yeah, that sounds like Lan Zhan’s type.” Lan Wangji can only blink in confusion, and then Wei Ying is turning away and it’s too late to object. That’s the opposite of Lan Wangji’s type. He likes un disciplined and unserious. He likes someone who dances like he’s laughing, and laughs like he’s dancing.
Over the next few days, Wei Ying eats all Lan Wangji’s food and borrows Lan Wangji’s phone, computer, clothes, bath soaps, towels, hairbrush, and bed, and Lan Wangji refuses to let himself actually purr with pleasure. It still doesn’t feel real. How could this have happened? How was it that he went to Yiling and came back with Wei Ying, who is now lying on his stomach on the floor with Lan Wangji’s laptop, waving his feet in the air, peeling and eating a bowl of lychees, absently licking off the trickles of juice from his fingers and wrists (Lan Wangji watches), and watching the last dozen years of competition videos for research.
He makes comments now and again on their colleagues. Sometimes these are insightful remarks on their forms, sometimes hilarious ones on their costume choices.
Wei Ying’s slender, deft fingers peel the papery-leathery skins from the lychees, slow and careful. His lips are very red as he bites into the milky-translucent flesh of the fruit. Lan Wangji sits very, very still.
“What happened to Wen Qing and Wen Ning?” Wei Ying asks abruptly. “I haven’t seen them in any of these videos.”
“Stopped competing,” Lan Wangji says. He thinks for a moment. “It was just after you left. She went to medical school. I don’t know about him.”
“Huh. Weird. She was good, wasn’t she.”
Wei Ying seems quite happy to stay in Lan Wangji’s rooms and do his research for now, but Lan Wangji does have other obligations. He called off from his teaching duties the first day or two that he was back, claiming he had returned from the charity gala with a slight cold that he did not want to pass on to his students, but now there is no more dodging it. He’s going to have to leave these rooms and hope that Wei Ying is still here when he gets back.
He does not want to be teaching today. He does not want to look at anyone’s face but Wei Ying’s, or hear anyone else’s voice, let alone their opinions. He thinks this must be obvious to his students, because they all look a little terrified and they snap to attention at everything he says.
Even if he were in a better mood for teaching, in thirteen years he has never once been in the mood to teach a roomful of teenagers how to tango. It is always a headache. It is always, always painfully awkward. It always reeks of panicked teenage hormones going haywire as every last one of them valiantly tries to hide the fact that they’re all having inner meltdowns or crises of sexuality or both. It is Lan Wangji’s least favorite class to teach, and seven times out of eight he gets stuck with it anyway.
There are certain coping mechanisms he has developed over the years to deal with it.
It all comes down to the teaching method. In every other class he teaches, he reminds the students that there are competition points for expressiveness--he usually scores poorly on this, but he can fake it through exhaustive practice and perfect precision of form. In every other class, he adjusts posture and frame, tells them in which direction to look, tells them what the dance is for.
In the beginning and intermediate tango classes, on the other hand, he flattens his expression as far as it can go, makes his voice a toneless drone, and leans as hard as possible on the phrase accuracy of footwork before expression. He chooses dull, antiquated music. He does not correct them when they stand too far apart, and pretends to ignore it when they wipe their gross, sweaty little palms on their shirts. He maintains a pretense of absolute ignorance to any of the more sensual embellishments available to followers, particularly caricias and lustradas, and if any of the dreadful teenagers miraculously work up the nerve to try them out with their partner, he ignores that too. In short, he goes out of his way to make the tango as unsexy as possible for them, because otherwise it’s just dreadfully embarrassing for everyone, and he does not have the option of drinking afterwards.
He suspects these effective survival techniques are exactly why he keeps getting stuck with this class.
“Good morning,” he tells the class. “Today we will be focusing on accuracy of footwork.”
Jingyi raises his hand.
Lan Wangji thinks briefly about going into seclusion so he never has to do this again. “Yes?”
“Zewu-jun said you had a cold, but we heard you snuck someone into the Cloud Recesses, what is the truth?” Jingyi says.
“I have a friend visiting. I was not feeling well.” It’s not a lie. He does feel like he’s dying all the time, especially when Wei Ying starts getting vehement about Federation rules-lawyering or the unbearably stagnant state of modern competitive ballroom. “Please focus on accuracy of footwork today.”
They focus, as directed, on accuracy of footwork.
Lan Wangji generally tries to slip into a fugue state for this class, the final piece of his strategy for surviving this hell he keeps finding himself in. He is having trouble with it today. His mind keeps drifting to Wei Ying, and even the very dull, unsexy music he’s chosen makes him think of Wei Ying dancing, and then of Wei Ying dancing tango, and then of being in this very classroom while Lan Qiren stood exactly in Lan Wangji’s own place, trying his damned best to teach this same dance to a roomful of hormonal teenagers. There had been very few girls in Lan Wangji’s year. They’d had to trade around, and some of the boys had to partner with each other and bicker in furious whispers about who was going to lead and follow.
Wei Ying had of course danced with whomever he was assigned, cheerfully and with good humor and enthusiasm for whichever part he was asked to take. And, when he inevitably caused mischief or joked too loud or didn’t pay attention, Lan Qiren had dumped him on Lan Wangji--a vast and profound annoyance at the time, because that would spell the end of the day’s useful practice for him. Wei Ying’s behavior would inevitably get worse and worse the more Lan Wangji ignored him, needling and teasing him, all but tugging his hair to get his attention.
He has a vivid sense memory of Wei Ying murmuring, “I saw the seniors rehearsing something the other day, let me show you--like this--” and doing something with the instep of his foot up the outside of Lan Wangji’s calf which had promptly thrown him into both an inner meltdown and a crisis of sexuality, whereupon he had flailed himself out of their frame, shouted, “Wei Ying!” and promptly been thrown out of class for disruptive behavior.
He shakes it off. He focuses on the students. Jin Ling’s frame is too stiff, as usual; Jingyi’s, too sloppy. He turns his back firmly on Zizhen and his partner, a pretty Jin girl-cousin whose name Lan Wangji can never remember--they are starting to get brave enough to explore embellishments and he doesn’t want to see it. Sizhui is nearly perfect as usual, crisp and precise, clearly focusing on the accuracy of his footwork above all else.
Over the music, Lan Wangji hears the door open and, turning, sees Wei Ying settling crosslegged by the door. He gives Lan Wangji a little wave, laces his hands together in his lap, and seems to be prepared to watch attentively.
Lan Wangji eventually has to pause the music to drone about their frames, and keeping their core muscles flexible but strong (he will notuse the word “rigid” while Wei Ying is in the room; too many nightmare flashbacks to Wei Ying being immature and shameless), and the alignment of the active leg and so forth.
Wei Ying, unsurprisingly, pipes up, “What’s with the grandpa music?”
“It’s the music we use,” Lan Wangji says sternly. He shoots Wei Ying a warning look.
“It’s bad,” Wei Ying says. “Tango’s fun. Why not use fun music? It’s worse than Lan Qiren’s.”
“Tango is about accuracy of footwork,” Lan Wangji says. “The music is unobtrusive so the students can concentrate.”
Wei Ying scoffs. “Concentrate? For tango? You just feel a tango, you don’t concentrate on it.”
This is getting into dangerous territory. This is going to give Lan Wangji’s dreadful teenagers all sorts of ideas that he does not want to deal with--they’re already eyeing him with curiosity, glancing back and forth between him and Lan Wangji. He turns away from Wei Ying, tells the students to find new partners, and turns the music back on. He stands in the center of the room, pacing slowly back and forth and between them, murmuring corrections here and there.
He feels a presence at his side. Wei Ying has ambled up, hands behind his back, watching curiously and listening. “Wow,” Wei Ying murmurs to him. “Their footwork. It’s so accurate.” His tone is mild but Lan Wangji knows sarcasm when he hears it, especially after a few days shut away in his rooms with Wei Ying.
“They will not be competing in this category for another year,” Lan Wangji says. “Accuracy before expression.”
Wei Ying hums dubiously, then tsks loudly and steps forward. “No, no, not like that, what do you think this is? This isn’t waltzing.” He slaps Jin Ling heartily on the back. “Relax! What in the world are you doing with your arms? Soft hands! Soft!”
“What,” Jin Ling squawks, stumbling to a halt. His partner, Luo Qingyang’s daughter Mianmian, who is several inches taller than he is, steps back with her hands on her hips. The rest of the room grinds to a halt too, everyone pausing still in their frames, craning their necks to see what in the world is happening.
“I told you,” Mianmian says, sniffing. “You grip too hard.”
“You can’t grip too hard,” Wei Ying says immediately. “You have to hold them like a bird. Like this,” he says, and Lan Wangji is too stunned to realize that something dreadful is going to happen until it happens--
Wei Ying turns to him, steps into closed position, and puts his hands on Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji’s traitorous muscle memory just obeysbefore he has time to think, which is exactly what he has trained it for all these years. And there he is, standing with one hand in Wei Ying’s, one on his shoulder, in the position to follow because Wei Ying had stepped up as lead. Wei Ying effortlessly turns them so that he doesn’t have to crane his neck to talk to Jin Ling, and just keeps chattering while Lan Wangji silently has an inner meltdown. “You see?” Wei Ying is saying. “Like this. Like holding a bird.”
“How the fuck is that like a bird,” Jin Ling demands. “That’s not how you hold birds.”
“It is too,” Wei Ying retorts. “Delicate bones, birds have. You grip them too hard, you hurt them. Soft hands. Or--okay, fine, not birds. Like you’re holding a treasure made of very thin jade.”
Oh no. Wei Ying is going to give them ideas. Lan Wangji is going to have to deal with the consequences. Why can’t he move his body? Why can’t he make his tongue speak? Why is he frozen, right here in Wei Ying’s frame? He attempts to move; Wei Ying, still bickering over his shoulder with Jin Ling, stops him instinctively with an infinitesimal pressure of the hand on his back, a tightening of their joined hands.
“And you,” Wei Ying says, moving them both through another effortless turn that leaves Wei Ying facing Jingyi and Lan Wangji’s inner meltdown intensifying a thousand-fold. “Are you following or leading? Do you know?”
“I’m leading,” Jingyi objects weakly.
“Then you have to tell your partner where you want them to go. With this,” Wei Ying says, giving Lan Wangji’s back a little pat with that hand. “And this,” he says, brandishing their joined other hands. “You ought to know that by now. You can’t just yank them around and expect them to know what you want.”
I don’t know what you want, Lan Wangji manages to think, weakly. He is having trouble stringing a coherent sentence together even in his head.
“And you,” Wei Ying says--that slight pressure on Lan Wangji’s back changes, and his balance is already shifting, and his feet already moving to follow Wei Ying’s cue for another turn. Damn it. His heart is thundering in his chest again; this isn’t even dancing, not really, but it’s as smooth as thick satin. “You, what’s your name?”
“Lan Sizhui,” Sizhui says, wide-eyed. “Who are you?”
“Call me Mo Xuanyu,” Wei Ying says. “You, though. Do you mean it?”
“What?” says Sizhui, which is just how Lan Wangji feels.
“Your footwork is beautifully accurate, but do you mean it?”
Stop giving them ideas, Lan Wangji prays, as fervently as he has prayed for anything.
“Yeah. Mean it. Feel it. Have any kind of emotion about it.”
Sizhui blinks twice. “I guess? We’re not focusing on expressiveness for several more months, though.”
“That’s--bullshit, okay, don’t listen to this old grandpa who’s teaching you, listen to your new senior!”
Sizhui is a good and sweet boy, and Lan Wangji treasures him above all else, but he has a streak of sass running through him. He puts his head a little on one side and says, “Well, Senior Mo? Aren’t you going to demonstrate that too?”
Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying’s eyes narrow, and then--
He has no words for what happens to him. Wei Ying just… moves him, and it is like music comes silently from nowhere, though there’s not a sound in the room besides the scrape of their shoes on the floor and Wei Ying’s breathing. Wei Ying moves him--soft hands, like he’s offering cues instead of giving them--and Lan Wangji follows like he’s tidal waters and Wei Ying the moon.
It lasts perhaps ten seconds. “There, do you see? Do it like that,” Wei Ying says. He hasn’t let go of Lan Wangji yet. “Do it like you mean it.”
Fuzzily, Lan Wangji wonders if Wei Ying means it. He wants to bite him. He wants to demand for Wei Ying to take responsibility for--for whatever this is that just happened.
“Now, go ahead and practice again,” Wei Ying says, stepping back and dropping Lan Wangji’s hand. He feels cold and bereft, unanchored, as if he’ll drift away without Wei Ying’s solid frame to direct him.
“Lan Zhan, what have you been teaching these children?” Wei Ying mutters to him as the students begin to shuffle through the room again, muttering to each other under their breath. “They know steps, but they’re not dancing, why not?”
“Accuracy,” Lan Wangji manages, barely.
“I won’t stand for it,” Wei Ying tells him seriously. “How dare you do this to them?”
“There are reasons,” he says.
Wei Ying makes a scrunchy face at him and angry-pouts.
Lan Wangji feels his resistance crumple like tissue paper. “Fine,” he says, gesturing to the sound system. “Nothing inappropriate.”
“You’re the best, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says with a big smile over his shoulder, already bouncing away.
Wei Ying whips Lan Wangji’s phone out of his pocket and pokes around on it for a moment, muttering to himself, before setting it on top of one of the speakers.
He’s halfway back to Lan Wangji’s side when the first throbbing chord echoes from the speakers, and Lan Wangji sees the moment that the music hijacks Wei Ying’s muscles, slowing his pace, forcing his gait to change from a simple walk to the slide-drag of tango. He’s not looking at Lan Wangji, a small blessing. Instead, his gaze is directed curiously around at the students, his hands clasped behind his back, turning in rhythm with the movement as he comes to stand next to Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan doesn’t mind, right? I haven’t gotten to teach in years. I used to like it.”
Even without the wistful note in his voice, Lan Wangji wouldn’t be capable of denying him anything. Besides, Wei Ying is a genius. He’ll give Lan Wangji’s students ideas, but they’ll probably be good, beneficial ones. And really, if Wei Ying wants to be the one to teach a bunch of teenagers how to dance like they’re not a pack of hormonal virgins, he is welcome to it with Lan Wangji’s full blessing, preferably from a couple miles away.
“I don’t mind,” Lan Wangji says quietly.
Wei Ying gives him another brilliant grin. Lan Wangji feels like he’s on the edge of something, about to tip over with the slightest push. If Wei Ying holds out his hand, Lan Wangji will take it. If Wei Ying offers him a cue, Lan Wangji will follow whatever step he leads them through.
Wei Ying doesn’t hold out his hand. He turns, still in time with the music, still with the slide-drag tango step, as if he’s dancing with an invisible partner. “Mean it, Sizhui!” he shouts over the music. Lan Wangji can’t look away from him, so he can’t see whether Sizhui obeys. It doesn’t matter whether he can see--Wei Ying will see, and either be satisfied or offer further corrections. The situation is in good hands.
Wei Ying darts away from his side a few times to offer corrections to the students. Eventually he fetches one of the sticks that’s leaning in the corner--Lan Qiren had loved a stick as a teaching tool, the better for measuring whether a student’s posture was perfectly straight, the better for prodding a misaligned foot into position or raising a lazy, sloppy frame. Wei Ying takes to it like it’s an extension of his arm.
Eventually he pauses the music, standing in the middle of the room with one hand on his hip and the other resting on the top of his stick. “Right. Everybody pair up again. Boys with boys, girls with girls.”
The whole class pauses. “What?” Jin Ling demands, a little choked.
“It’s good for you,” Wei Ying says. “It’ll make you dance differently.”
“How is that good?” Jin Ling fumes.
“I’m going to dance with Sizhui!” Ouyang Zizhen shouts, throwing himself across the room.
“Oi, no you’re not!” Jingyi snarls in response, intercepting him and grappling him to the floor. “He’s my cousin, I get first dibs!”
Things are derailed while a minor brawl breaks out over who is going to dance with Sizhui. Sizhui stands well back from the pile of several tusselling boys on the floor, seeming chagrined but not displeased, his hands tucked behind his back, looking carefully away and doing a poor job at keeping the smile off his face.
Lan Wangji gives Wei Ying a flat, unimpressed look and takes away his stick. He needs something with which to prod the dreadful teenagers.
“Ah, youth,” Wei Ying says, unrepentant, and wanders out of Lan Wangji’s field of vision.
He hauls horrible teenagers apart, scruffing them by the backs of their collars like kittens. “There will be no fighting,” he snaps at them. “Jingyi, you know better.”
“Sorry, Hanguang-jun,” Jingyi mutters, staring at the floor.
“Sorry, Hanguang-jun,” echoes Zizhen and the other students who had thrown themselves into the brawl.
“Are we punishing them, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying calls brightly from the other side of the room. “None of them get to dance with Sizhui, right? It’s fine, my grouchy little friend here is going to!”
“What!” Jin Ling squawks. He was the only boy who hadn’t flung himself into the fray. When Lan Wangji looks over, he’s standing well back with his arms crossed tight over his chest, Wei Ying beside him, still beaming.
“Yes,” Wei Ying said brightly. “And after that, you’ll dance with--whosits, that one,” he says, gesturing vaguely at Jingyi. “You’re too stiff, he’s too sloppy; you’ll balance each other out. First, though, dance with Sizhui and show him how to mean it. You mean it, don’t you,” Wei Ying says. “You mean it without even trying.”
Jin Ling splutters, his face tomato-red. Wei Ying laughs and seizes him by the shoulders and steers him over to Sizhui.
When Lan Wangji manages to tear his eyes away from Wei Ying, he sees Sizhui giving him a strange, curious look. None of the others have noticed, he thinks, but Sizhui knows him, and sees things. “Okay?” Sizhui mouths to him. Lan Wangji nods, and Sizhui nods slowly back and turns his attention to Jin Ling. As soon as Wei Ying is within range, Lan Wangji solemnly returns the stick to him. The gesture feels… weighty. He wonders what else he’s handing over without fully intending to.
When they all get to dancing it is, of course, disastrous. But Wei Ying stands in the middle of the chaos with his arms folded and a smile across his face, chuckling under his breath as he turns and turns. “Good,” he says. “Lan Zhan, this is so good.”
Lan Wangji gives him an incredulous look, and Wei Ying laughs again. “Gotta shake ‘em up to make them learn. What other classes do you have with them?”
“Waltz,” Lan Wangji says. “And mixed rehearsal.”
“Hmm. Be right back,” Wei Ying says, and flits away again. “You! Kid! What did I say? I said, show Sizhui how to mean it! Where’d all your meaning-it go?”
“I’m too busy trying to figure out how to dance backwards,” Jin Ling hisses. “Leave me alone.”
“Switch with Sizhui, then--Sizhui, let him lead.” A fumble while they awkwardly rearrange themselves, and just as awkwardly totter through the steps. It’s difficult for Sizhui to dance backwards too, it seems, though he’s making a better show of it than Jin Ling did.
Wei Ying pokes them with the end of his stick. “Engage your core muscles,” he says, then makes a face over his shoulder at Lan Wangji. “Gods, I sound like your uncle.” To the pair of them, he says, “You look like a pair of ducklings trying to dance. Cute and clumsy.” He looks around the rest of the room. “I have a piece of good news for everyone,” he says loudly. “I am reasonably sure that the person you’re partnered with right now does not have the plague . Hooray! That means it’s okay to touch them, you’re not going to fucking die.”
Lan Wangji wonders dryly if Wei Ying remembers what it was like to be sixteen.
Wei Ying stops the music after another minute or two. “Right, let’s walk before we run. Beginner exercises! Lan Zhan, am I taking over too much?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head immediately. He’d leave the room and leave the whole class to Wei Ying if it wouldn’t make him feel like he was slacking off on an obligation. He’d give Wei Ying the whole rest of the semester of this class, if he wanted it. Why not? He’s having a good time.
Wei Ying strides over to a pair of girls, that Jin cousin and Mianmian. “Drop your arms, just stand chest to chest, cheek to cheek, like you’re hugging,” he says, nudging them together.
“We did this in basics,” Jin Ling mutters. “This is baby stuff.”
“Oh, you’re familiar with the exercise?” Wei Ying says sweetly. “Let’s see you do it with Sizhui, then.”
Jin Ling turns red again, but he shuffles in close to Sizhui, too brash and full of bravado to shy away. Slowly, the rest of the pairs do the same.
The exercise is about cuing and attunement, teaching leads and follows to feel for direction without their hands or eyes. Theoretically, a well-attuned pair can walk backwards and forwards, left and right, and turn in a circle just with cues from the core muscles, without ever breaking contact.
The students are not, of course, well-attuned to each other, but Wei Ying doesn’t seem to mind that either. “See? No one’s dead,” he sings, twirling the stick between his fingers as he paces the room. “Cheek to cheek, chest to chest, it’s just a hug. All of you got enough hugs when you were kids, right?” This gets a faint laugh through the room. “It’s normal. Healthy. You can hug your friends. I used to do that all the time when I was your age. Just run up out of nowhere and bam! Hugged! Lan Zhan used to hate it.” Another laugh, a little louder. Lan Zhan mentally sighs with exasperation--even in this, Wei Ying has missed his meaning. He only hated it for the first few weeks, and then he hated Wei Ying a little for making him long for it, and then he just… longed.
Still pacing, still twirling the stick, Wei Ying makes a thoughtful, pouting face and uses a childish voice: “This dance is scary, isn’t it. Lan Zhan, isn’t it a scary dance?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, because he knows his job now--Wei Ying’s trying to make a point, and he needs a partner in his rhetoric, just like dancing.
“Very scary!” Wei Ying says through his pout, his voice ridiculously babyish. “Too much touching!”
“Oh my god, be serious,” Jin Ling mutters under his breath.
Wei Ying shoots Lan Wangji a sly smile. In his normal voice, he says, “Touch is just for special people, right? Your family or your very best friend. It’s weird to touch somebody who you don’t know that well.” A significant pause. “Even weirder to touch somebody you really really want to touch, we might as well admit that out loud.” Another laugh from the students, this one embarrassed and--wonder of wonders--a little relieved. Like they’re starting to relax.
Lan Wangji is… impressed, and surprised, and also completely unsurprised. Just as expected from Wei Ying. All that charm gets the better of people, sooner or later. It puts them at ease. It even worked on Lan Wangji himself, sooner than he had wanted to admit to himself.
“All of you probably have one or two people in the room who you could touch and it’d be fine, and it wouldn’t matter. Right?” A murmur of acknowledgement. “And with everybody else in the room, it would definitely matter, one way or another. You’d have some big feelings about it, good or bad or both. So!” Wei Ying concludes, with a final twirl of his stick, driving the end of it down with a sharp clack and folding his hands on top of it. “We’re all vulnerable here, eh? Everybody’s thinking really hard, it’s not just you.”
Lan Wangji looks around. He sees straight postures, relaxed shoulders, loose hands. He sees smooth steps, backwards and forwards. He sees a few smiles here and there. Closed eyes. Most of the pairs aren’t just stiffly cheek to cheek, they’re leaning their heads together, side by side like little turtledoves.
Wei Ying walks silently around the room for another minute, letting them practice. Lan Wangji has not moved from his spot in the center of the room except to turn, keeping Wei Ying in his sight like they’re tidally locked.
“Right,” Wei Ying says at last, very quietly. “Let’s go back to the dance again, and we’ll try it with music. Stay with your same partner, let’s see how this goes.”
It’s still not great, but it’s better. Toes get stepped on, and there are collisions, but it’s all accompanied by little squeaks of laughter and whispers of, “Okay, it’s okay, try again.” That’s… a marvel. Usually the students are stiff and silent, obedient and disciplined. Right now they sound like they’re having fun.
The person having the most fun is Wei Ying, of course. He shouts criticisms with increasing confidence, as if it really is his class, and they really are his students. And maybe they feel like they’re his too, because even when he starts threatening to break their legs if they don’t get it together, most of them only laugh and correct themselves rather than wasting any time apologizing.
“Sizhui, do you wanna die?” Wei Ying bawls from across the room. “I’m going to come over there and murder you unless you start meaning it.”
“What does that even mean?” Jin Ling howls back, dropping his frame and stepping away from Sizhui to yell at Wei Ying. He’s the only one who’s had his feathers ruffled by Wei Ying’s criticisms. “I don’t know what I’m doing to mean it, he doesn’t know what he’s doing to not mean it, whatever ‘mean it’ means! Why don’t you start explaining instead of just yelling at us?”
“You just mean it,” Wei Ying says vaguely, with a broad gesture of his stick. “You know?”
“No!” Jin Ling shrieks. “That’s the point!”
“Right, okay,” Wei Ying says, tapping the stick on the ground and scratching the back of his head. He crosses to the sound system and pauses the music. “So. You’re dancing, right? Right?”
“Yeah,” Jin Ling says, still challenging. “Then what?”
“And then,” Wei Ying says, and pauses dramatically. “You just... mean it.”
Jin Ling nearly tears his hair out. Sizhui puts a hand on his shoulder, murmuring something to him under his breath.
“You mean it really hard,” Wei Ying says, looking thoughtfully upward. “Like… You know? You know how sometimes you’re doing a thing, and you just really, really mean it? Like that.”
Lan Wangji knows exactly what he means, but this is also a ridiculous explanation that nobody should be expected to follow. It is something of a relief to know that Wei Ying is merely a very good teacher, rather than a complete savant at it. He’s just about to step in and quietly get the class back on track when Jin Ling says, “How can you call yourself a teacher if you can’t even show us what you’re talking about?”
“Oh!” Wei Ying says, lighting up. “Yes, I can show you.”
He restarts the music, drops his stick with a clatter and crosses the room to Lan Wangji in a few strides, just enough time for Lan Wangji to think oh noand brace himself. Wei Ying steps into close embrace, wrapping an arm all the way around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, tucking his face against Lan Wangji’s neck and ear, pressing their chests together. He’s positioned himself as the follow.
“Lead,” he whispers.
For a split second, Lan Wangji isn’t sure he can do this. Wei Ying doesn’t know the magnitude of what he’s asking for. Thirteen years he’s been waiting on Wei Ying’s promise. Thirteen years of wondering and missing him and feeling cold and empty and alone, with no light left in the world. And now here Wei Ying is in his hands, and Lan Wangji barely dares to touch him. Like a bird, he hears Wei Ying’s voice echo in his head. Like a treasure of thin jade. Lan Wangji knows exactly what he means with that too.
He doesn’t know if he can do it, but then he does it.
This, too, is effortless--Wei Ying is as good of a follow as he is a lead, if not better. Lan Wangji barely has to cue him. It’s like telepathy, like Wei Ying knows where Lan Wangji wants him to go, and he’s moving there the same nanosecond that Lan Wangji directs him. Lan Wangji can feel Wei Ying’s heart beating against his chest, can feel their breath syncing as they move across the floor in simple figures. Nothing complicated or showy, and Wei Ying is barely adding any embellishments or flourishes.
Lan Wangji can feel the heat of him. His nose is full of the scent of Wei Ying’s hair and skin--it smells familiar, partly because Wei Ying’s been borrowing his soaps, but it’s more than that. Underneath it all, he just smells like Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan closes his eyes. He doesn’t need to see for this--he knows the room like the back of his hand. He could probably navigate through it by echolocation alone, if he had to. Wei Ying moves with him as sweet and smooth as cream, and it’s so lovely that it hurts. Lan Wangji wants to cry, and to kiss him, and to shake him by the shoulders and demand to know why they had to wait thirteen years for this.
Wei Ying turns his face against the side of Lan Wangji’s jaw, and Lan Wangji can feel his own heart beating in every part of his body. He can’t bear to move them through any figure that’s going to require Wei Ying to step back from close embrace. He can’t even bear it when Wei Ying has to swivel to one side or the other so only half of him is touching Lan Wangji.
He wants to clutch Wei Ying tight, but that is poor form and a bad example to the students. He does not do it.
He wants to throw all of the teenagers out of the room and have him right here on the scuffed hardwood. He doesn’t do that either.
He holds him like a treasure of thin jade, precious and delicate. He holds him like a bird, with the knowledge that Wei Ying is going to fly away when this is done.
All things end. This ends like a soft, extended sigh, an exhale clouding in cold air and then dissipating. Lan Zhan would draw the last moment out--and then probably draw it out, and out, longer than is normal or appropriate, and then everyone would see exactly how much he actually did mean it, and that would be dangerous--but all too soon, Wei Ying is dropping their frame just enough to shout with laughter and fling his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck.
“Lan Zhan! That was so good! Wow, you’ve gotten so good!”
Lan Wangji concentrates very, very hard on not clutching Wei Ying too tight now, either. Like a bird, he reminds himself, and then he lets go and allows Wei Ying to flutter his wings and hop out of his hands. It hurts. It is a real, physical blow.
He opens his eyes.
The first thing he notices is that Jingyi and Zizhen, directly in front of him, are clinging to each other like they’re both in danger of falling over. Zizhen is crying.
Oh no. Oh no, how much did he give away?
“You see?” Wei Ying chirps, turning to Jin Ling, whose jaw is on the floor. Sizhui, next to him, is wide-eyed and biting his lip on a smile.
“Senior Mo!” Jingyi wails. “Why did you stop?”
Wei Ying blinks at him. “The music ended? It was over?”
Zizhen collapses slowly to his knees, outright weeping.
Wei Ying scuttles over and squats beside him, patting his shoulder. “You’re gonna be a romantic one when you grow up, eh?” he says, not unkindly.
Zizhen, through hiccuping sobs, says something half-incoherent that Lan Wangji can only make sense of after a moment of puzzled thought. Something about most beautiful thing he’s ever--
“Oh, pfh,” Wei Ying says, a little taken aback. “Don’t say that. Lan Zhan will definitely scold you. Hyperbole is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, probably.”
Most of the girls in the class have gathered around Zizhen, patting his shoulders and petting his hair. They’re all sweet on him. A few of them are also sniffling.
The rest of the boys seem to collect themselves suddenly and, as one, mob Wei Ying. “Teacher! Teacher, I want to dance like that! How did you do that, show us!”
“You just mean it really hard,” Wei Ying says with the assured, iron-bound confidence of someone who has no idea that they’re talking nonsense.
Lan Wangji turns away from this. Wei Ying seems to have it under control. Lan Wangji needs to go stick his head under the cold tap in the restroom.
He doesn’t actually stick his head under the tap, but he does splash his face and wipe the cold water over the back of his neck, and then he stands there with his wrists under the faucet as ice sinks into his skin, willing his heart-rate to drop back to normal.
The door opens behind him. He glances up in the mirror and sees Sizhui come in and lean against the wall.
He takes a single paper towel and starts drying off, avoiding Sizhui’s sharp eyes.
“Father,” Sizhui says after a moment. “Who is that?”
Lying is forbidden, of course, so Lan Wangji words his response carefully: “He told you what to call him.”
“Yes, but… who is he?”
“An old friend.”
Sizhui hums and nods. After a moment, he looks down, scuffing his shoe against the floor. “Respectfully, I didn’t know Father had any friends.”
He doesn’t. Well--Luo Qingyang, maybe. Just barely. “Mn,” he says.
“I like him,” Sizhui says, glancing up again with a smile and meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes in the mirror. “He’s funny. And he’s very good.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
“You like him too.” Lan Wangji does not need to answer this, because it is not a question. “I hope he comes to class again.”
“If he wants to, he will come.” Really, there will be no stopping Wei Ying if he wants to come, and Lan Wangji doesn’t have the ability to deny him anything anyway. He gestures to the door. “Back to class.”
Sizhui slips back out with a last curious, lingering look, and then Lan Wangji leans on the counter and stares into his own eyes in the mirror.
He is going to go back into that room, and he is going to watch Wei Ying teach a dozen teenagers to tango like they mean it, and somehow Lan Wangji is going to hold himself together.
There is a part of his mind which is screaming, which has been screaming since Wei Ying wrapped his arm around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, took his hand, and whispered, Lead.
He is going to hold himself together. Somehow.
“Oh,” says Wei Ying as the last student shuffles out of the class. “I nearly forgot! I came here to tell you something.”
“Yes?” Lan Wangji says. His heart catches in his chest, which is a very stupid sort of reaction to have, given that Wei Ying has not hinted that what he has to say is at all to Lan Wangji’s benefit.
“I tracked down Wen Qing earlier! You were right, she went to medical school--she’s a doctor now, isn’t that amazing? Wen Qing and Lan Zhan, the two smartest people I know!”
Lan Wangji thinks it is extremely generous for him to be filed in the same category as a doctor, considering that his useful skills include “knowing where to put his feet” and “championship-winning posture.” He gives Wei Ying a flat look to that effect, but Wei Ying doesn’t notice.
“Anyway,” he continues cheerfully. “I got in contact with her and told her everything, and--guess what!”
“What,” says Lan Wangji obediently.
“She’s agreed to be my partner for the competition.” Wei Ying puffs up his chest up like a proud cockerel. “Lucky me, yeah?”
Lan Wangji carefully keeps all expression from his face. “Lucky,” he agrees. The distantly-screaming part of his brain is louder now, and it feels like, instead of being splashed in the face with cold tap water, he’s been dumped into a snowbank.
He doesn’t know why it’s a shock. He knew this was coming--if Wei Ying wants to compete, to advance far enough to grab a platform for himself and shout the heavens down on the judging panel and the whole Federation, then he needs a partner. Specifically, a woman partner, or else he’ll be unceremoniously disqualified in the first heat, just like Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan.
Lan Wangji doesn’t have to like it, though.
He forces his jaw to unclench. “How did you convince her?”
“Well, first I hacked into your email to pretend to be you, and I sent her a message asking for her phone number, and when she replied, I called her up and I said, ‘Hi Wen Qing! It’s your old friend Wei Ying, remember me?’ Then she shouted at me for half an hour.” He pouts. “Then I told her about everything, and I said I needed her help, and she said that she is a doctor and doesn’t have time, and then I whined and begged and cried, and she said she’d think about it, and then I said pleasepleasepleaseplease,” Wei Ying says these words in a whiny tone that does things to Lan Wangji. “And then she said we could talk about it. So she’s coming to visit this weekend!”
Lan Wangji remembers Wen Qing as a very promising competitor, one of the best women dancers of their generation until she’d left abruptly just after Wei Ying’s downfall. He will not be jealous of her. She hasn’t even said yes.
Even if she says yes, he will not be jealous. She is likely just as talented as she always was, even if she needs a little remedial practice to catch up. As a doctor, she is likely intimately acquainted with hard work and intense study. She will be a good competition partner for Wei Ying. Lan Wangji will hold only respect for her as a colleague and gratitude toward her for her assistance in this scheme of theirs. He will not be jealous.
He is still telling himself that he will not be jealous of Wen Qing when they’re getting ready for bed that night. Lan Wangji’s bed is large, more than spacious enough for two people, and every night Wei Ying has crawled in on one side without waiting for invitation.
There was no discussion of someone taking the couch or an air mattress on the floor. Wei Ying had simply appropriated half the bed, and Lan Wangji hadn’t known whether he was teasing or not, so he’d cautiously, suspiciously, stubbornly taken the other half, feeling like he was calling Wei Ying’s bluff, except apparently Wei Ying hadn’t been bluffing. And that had been that. Wei Ying brought Lan Wangji’s laptop into bed every night and stayed up who knows how late, watching competition videos with the sound turned very low, and Lan Wangji had drifted off to sleep watching Wei Ying in the bluish light from the screen with the sound of ballroom music ghosting faintly from the speakers and Wei Ying radiating warmth just inches away.
Wei Ying hogs the blankets. Wei Ying is messy and undisciplined even in sleep, sprawling out across far more than his share of the bed, muttering to himself all night, snorting and twitching and wriggling about, as if even in unconsciousness he wasn’t capable of being still.
Just as all the previous nights, Wei Ying flops onto his side of the bed in shorts and an old shirt, rolling onto his stomach and making himself comfy with the laptop. Lan Wangji pretends like he’s not staring at Wei Ying’s legs--the impossible delicacy of his ankles, the perfect curving musculature of his calves, the soft tender-looking backs of his knees just below the hem of the shorts, the strong columns of his thighs half-hidden by fabric, the swell of his ass which frankly defies description.
Lan Wangji puts on his own pajamas and gets into bed, arranging the blankets neatly. Wei Ying eyes him. “How many sets of white flannel pajamas do you have?”
“Four,” says Lan Wangji.
“Such variety,” says Wei Ying.
“I have cotton sets for summer,” Lan Wangji sniffs.
“You should get ones with little bunnies printed on them,” Wei Ying says with the same confident authority with which he’d told the students, You just have to mean it really really hard.
Lan Wangji does not roll his eyes. “They do not make those in my size.”
“What, bigger than children’s sizes? Bet they do.”
“All right. Prove me wrong.”
“If I find them, I’m buying them for you.”
“Fine. Use my credit card,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Ying makes a soft pleased sound, and Lan Wangji folds his hands on his stomach and closes his eyes.
He is not going to be jealous of Wen Qing. She is not the one who is lying next to Wei Ying in the dark every night, letting Wei Ying slowly creep into her whole life like ivy growing over a ruined building. Lan Wangji can’t imagine that such a building would be displeased to be clothed with ivy. Better to be green and lush and full of life than dry, crumbling, and dark.
He will not be jealous, and if this is all he can have, then he will be content with this, no matter how much he burns and yearns for… everything.