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Unstrictly Ballroom

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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.”

“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. 

“Mn.”

“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. 

“You should.”

“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.”

“Mn.”

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.

“Mean… it?” 

“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.

Chapter Text

They meet Wen Qing at her hotel down in Caiyi Town. Wei Ying is wearing his ridiculous incognito getup, and he hurls himself onto Wen Qing the moment he sees her, hugging her so hard she grunts.

“All right, all right,” she says peevishly, pushing him off. “That’s enough, you irritating little twit. We all thought you were dead, you know.”

“Did you?” Wei Ying says cheerily. “Did you burn paper money for me? If you did, you have to give me the same amount in cash now, that’s the rules.”

Wen Qing silently opens her purse, and Wei Ying laughs and holds out his hand. Wen Qing finds a one-yuan coin and puts it in Wei Ying’s palm. The answering pout is spectacular even by Wei Ying’s standards. Lan Wangji finds himself biting back a smile and suddenly discovering it much easier to not be jealous of Wen Qing. 

She makes polite greetings to Lan Wangji as well, then leads them back up to her suite. She gestures for them to sit and sprawls elegantly in the armchair by the window, legs crossed, tapping her fingers slowly against the armrest. “So,” she says. “Wei-gongzi has a cunning and nefarious scheme that somehow requires me to come out of retirement to help.”

Lan Wangji sits neatly on the edge of the couch. Wei Ying stays standing, clearly too full of restless, excited energy to sit. “Yes,” he says grandly. “Now that you are here, I will reveal the rest of my excellent plan to you.”

“Hooray,” she says in a flat tone, one eyebrow arched. Lan Wangji decides that since Wei Ying likes her, he will like her too.

“It goes like this,” Wei Ying says. “We’ll bust our asses to be ready for the next big competition--that’s the National Open, two months from now--”

“You were banned from competition,” she says crisply.

He waves this off. “I’ll enter with a secret identity. I’ve already come up with one. My name’s going to be Mo Xuanyu, a distant cousin of the Jins--they have so many cousins that nobody will notice one extra--”

“A secret identity,” she says, incredulous.

“Yes! Anyway, then we’ll just win everything, and when we go up to receive the award, I’ll reveal my true identity and--”

Wen Qing has dropped her head and is pinching the bridge of her nose. “Your whole plan hinges on winning everything?”

“Yes?” Wei Ying looks over at Lan Wangji, puzzled. “What’s the issue?”

“It’s a stupid fucking plan.”

“It is not. Wei Ying can win,” Lan Wangji says firmly.

“So you’re both morons, then,” she says, raising her head and glancing between them. “That’s not a plan, boys.

Wei Ying sniffs and flounces to the couch, sitting beside Lan Wangji. “She’s being so mean to me,” he says, putting his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “So mean.”

“You got a better plan than that one? Something that isn’t entirely dependent on things that are out of your control?”

“Wei Ying can win,” Lan Wangji says again. Maybe he doesn’t like Wen Qing after all, if she has so little faith. 

“Fine, doctor,” Wei Ying huffs, sitting up straight. “You’re the one who went to medical school and got all smart, what do you think we should do?”

“Who else is involved in this?”

“Just us. That’s it.”

She frowns. “Doesn’t Hanguang-jun have a partner?”

Wei Ying turns to him. “Did you ask her yet?”

No, because he’s been too busy being jealous and possessive. Lan Wangji purses his lips. “My phone, please,” he says. Wei Ying rummages in his pockets and hands it to him. Wen Qing raises her eyebrows, watching them. Lan Wangji ignores her and sends a text to Luo Qingyang. 

“If you’re going to be sneaky and underhanded, you might as well go all the way. Or at least as far as you can,” Wen Qing says.

Wei Ying tilts his head. “Okay, I’m listening.”

“How many of your peers are angry about what happened? How many of them are willing to do something about it? How many of them are willing, perhaps, to throw one competition for the sake of justice?”

Wei Ying sits up very straight. “Oh,” he says. “Oh, that’s good.” He nudges Lan Wangji’s arm. “See? So smart! And she’s already keeping me from making an idiot of myself.”

“Nothing in the world could keep you from doing that,” she says without missing a beat. “Tell you what. Get at least three-quarters of the competition allied with you and I’ll be your partner.”

In Lan Wangji’s hand, his phone vibrates. He reads the text and gives the phone back to Wei Ying. “My partner has agreed.”

Wei Ying’s eyes shine with anticipation.

 

*

 

Luo Qingyang gives Lan Wangji exactly one stern lecture about keeping things like this from her and lets it go. She turns out to be an invaluable resource--her people skills are much better than either his or Wei Ying’s. She knows everyone, she’s on reasonably good terms with most of them, and she tells Wei Ying in no uncertain terms which ones they can trust not to go tattling on them to the Federation. Within hours of being brought in on the plan, she acquires Xiao Xingchen’s phone number and calls him.

“What did he say?” Wei Ying asks, when she arrives at Lan Wangji’s rooms.

“He is very, very politely confused as to why we’re bothering,” she says. “Says that he and Song Lan are perfectly happy to keep peacefully showing up to competitions and peacefully being disqualified. He said, and I quote, ‘Hanguang-jun and Luo-guniang must not trouble themselves on this humble one’s account.’”

Wei Ying frowns. “You argued with him, I hope.”

“I told him that it wasn’t just his account, and maybe that there are other people like him and Song Lan who would like to compete together,” she says. Her voice gets a steely edge, “I told him I hadn’t even imagined the possibility of being allowed to compete with a female partner until I saw the two of them dance together. I told him it’s my account too.”

“Oh,” says Wei Ying.

“Yeah,” she says. Her jaw is set in a stubborn way that Lan Wangji recognizes from long hours in the rehearsal studio, nights when they just couldn’t get a sequence of steps to work as it should. It is a strange comfort to think that maybe she had been wanting, even unconsciously, to dance with someone else, just as he had. Just as he still does.

“Luo Qingyang,” he says softly. When she looks at him, a fierce challenge ready in her eyes, like someone resting a hand on the hilt of their sword, he says, “If you speak to him again, you may tell him it is also my account.”

She blinks at him, the challenge dying out. “Oh,” she says. A moment later, she offers him a flicker of a smile, and he thinks that perhaps from this moment forward, they really are friends.

Wei Ying, after a beat, gasps hugely. “Wait! Wait, Lan Zhan wants to dance with a boy?

Luo Qingyang, without breaking eye contact and without speaking a word and with only the slightest change in expression, somehow manages to say paragraphs to Lan Wangji. He looks away first. “Yes,” she says. “He does want to dance with a boy.” The emphasis on a is barely noticeable.

“Lan Zhan! I can’t believe you never told me this! Do you have someone in mind? Do I know him? Does Luo Qingyang have a brother? I bet Lan Zhan would like Brother Luo, if there is one!”

Luo Qingyang catches Lan Wangji’s eyes again and speaks another paragraph without making a sound or, indeed, moving. He tries to speak back: What do you expect me to do about it? You see what I’m dealing with.

The look he gets in response is neither impressed nor sympathetic.

 

*

 

Professional athletes are busy people, and schedules are extremely difficult to manage, but somehow Luo Qingyang and Wei Ying arrange a conference call between sixteen people on video chat. She sits beside Lan Wangji. Wei Ying, still cautious of being recognized, is sitting out of the view of the camera. 

“You want us to do what?” Jiang Wanyin shouts. “Are you insane? What the fuck?”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Nie Huaisang replies dubiously, his tone clearly indicating that it’s not a particularly good idea either.

“What about the money?” says someone else--the internet connection is not nearly good enough to keep up with sixteen video feeds, so Lan Wangji doesn’t see who talked and can’t recognize her voice. There’s an immediate chorus of indignant agreement--what about the money, does the winning pair expect that they’ll get to keep the seventy-thousand-yuan prize, that’s not fair, what about sponsorship deals--

Luo Qingyang tries her best to get the conversation under control but five minutes later everyone is still yelling and the argument has expanded far past money.

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Wei Ying bursts out. "Will all of you shut up? Of course we aren't keeping the money, we'll split it between everyone and you can keep it or donate it, whatever you want."

Silence.

"Is there someone else there?" Jiang Wanyin demands. "I know that voice! Show your face!"

"It's our colleague Mo Xuanyu," Luo Qingyang replied. "He's an old friend of Lan Wangji--"

“Friend? That guy doesn’t have--” Jiang Cheng turns purple. "Wei Wuxian!" he bellows. Wei Ying flinches and puts his face in his hands.

"Jiang-gongzi, calm yourself," says Lan Wangji.

“Mo Xuanyu is a colleague,” Luo Qingyang says firmly. “He will likely be partnering with Wen Qing, who is considering coming out of retirement for this.”

“Bullshit! I recognized that voice!”

“It was Mo Xuanyu,” Luo Qingyang says firmly.

“Make Hanguang-jun say it,” Jiang Wanyin hisses. “You’re in the Cloud Recesses, aren’t you? Make him say, ‘It wasn’t Wei Wuxian’.” 

Wei Ying peeks out from between his fingers, all mirth gone from his eyes. He just looks cold and empty, and Lan Wangji wants to reach out and wrap him up in his arms. Lan Wangji gives Jiang Wanyin’s tiny icon a cold glare. “You are not qualified to make demands of me.”

“Fuck!” Jiang Wanyin shouts. “Wei Wuxian, show your fucking face! How long has he been there? Wait--” He whips out his phone and jabs angrily at it.

Everyone else is frozen in shock. A few people seem to be typing frantically in the text chat sidebar. 

“Nephew!” Jiang Wanyin shouts into the phone. “Is Wei Wuxian at the Cloud Recesses? ...What do you mean who? Just answer! Is there a weird asshole with a bad attitude following Lan Wangji around and whining for attention like a fucking--What!” he yells. “Yes! Describe him!” A pause. “That’s him! Motherfucker, that’s him! What did he call hims-- Mo Xuanyu, I fucking--he did what?” Jiang Wanyin’s face gets even more purple. Lan Wangji wonders if Wei Ying would be upset if his brother died of an apoplexy. “He’s been teaching your classes-- pack your things! Pack them! Don’t you backchat me, young man! I’m coming to get you! You’re not going to be in that damn school a single moment longer!” 

Wei Wuxian’s face has been crumpling into misery all through this tirade, but it’s this last point that seems to break him. He dives across the table, seizes the laptop, and spins it around to face him. “Yes, all right, it’s me! Don’t punish him--I don’t even know which one he is! I don’t know anyone’s name!”

You named him!” Jiang Wanyin shrieks. “How dare you, Wei Wuxian?”

Wei Ying looks up helplessly. “Lan Zhan, which--which one is Jin Rulan?” 

“The one who means it without trying,” Lan Wangji answers softly. Wei Wuxian’s expression does something complicated that hurts Lan Wangji’s heart--it’s pride and delight and profound sorrow all at once. 

“Jiang Cheng, don’t pull him out. He’s good. Too good to be anywhere else. Let him stay. I won’t--I won’t go near him, I promise.”

Jiang Wanyin has been furiously hissing into his phone at Jin Ling during the past few moments, and now he looks up with a venomous look in his eyes. “What classes have you been teaching, Wei Wuxian? Pole-dancing?”

Lan Wangji seizes the laptop and pulls it out of Wei Ying’s suddenly unresisting fingers. “Enough.”

“You’d let a person like that near children, Lan Wangji?” Jiang Wanyin demands.

“He said enough,” Luo Qingyang snarls, taking the laptop from Lan Wangji. “If you don’t want to be involved, you don’t have to be, but don’t you dare go around implying anything about Wei Wuxian that you’re not prepared to back up with fists, because I will be waiting here for you when you come to pick up your nephew.”

Wei Ying’s eyes are shiny in a way that Lan Wangji does not like at all, but he’s looking at Luo Qingyang with a thunderstruck expression, as if he’s never seen someone defend him so vehemently.

Lan Wangji has abruptly had enough of this. Luo Qingyang can more than hold her own against Jiang Cheng and whoever else; Lan Wangji needs to get Wei Ying out of this room. He gets to his feet, steps to Wei Ying’s side, tugs him up by his arm, and offers Luo Qingyang a deep bow. She nods sharply in reply and looks pointedly at the door. Lan Wangji takes Wei Ying by the arm again and pulls him out.

Luo Qingyang starts shouting again as the door shuts behind them. Lan Wangji can’t remember the last time he felt so… positive and impressed and grateful and full of respect and kinship for someone who wasn’t Wei Ying. He will be friends with Luo Qingyang, he decides firmly. Just as soon as he figures out how.

“Ha, Lan Zhan, where are we going?” Wei Ying says.

“Anywhere.” Anywhere but in there. Anywhere, as long as it took that hollow, gutted look out of Wei Ying’s eyes.

Lan Wangji’s feet take him to the studio. He leaves the lights off, so the room is lit only by the dim, diffused twilight haze trickling through the windows--later, the courtyard’s floodlights will come on and spill golden syrup and inky shadows across the hardwood. It is the most peaceful place Lan Wangji knows, especially when it’s empty and echoing like this. As one, they kick off their shoes and shuffle to the middle of the room, sitting on the floor with their backs to the mirrored wall. “Wei Ying,” he says.

“Ha, I’m all right, Lan Zhan, don’t worry about me.”

“I worry.”

Wei Ying’s smile has no warmth or joy to it. It doesn’t look like it’s his. It looks like a smile he borrowed from some stranger on the street like he might borrow a lighter. “Everyone knows it’s me, now. You should just… kick me out. It’ll go better if everyone knows I’m not involved. They won’t want to be associated with me.”

Anger rises in Lan Wangji like the swelling spring floods until he is too furious to speak. 

“I won’t cause trouble,” Wei Ying says, more softly. “I’ll leave.”

“Where?” Lan Wangji demands.

“Back to Yiling, I guess.” He sighs and leans back on his hands. “Sorry, Lan Zhan.”

“Do not.

“Do not what?” Wei Ying sounds very tired.

“Do not say sorry. Do not leave.”

“How many students do you think will be pulled out when people find out that I’m here? That I’ve taught them?”

“Wei Ying is a good teacher.”

“Wei Ying might be a good teacher, but Wei Wuxian is a stripper who disgraced his family, caused the accident that forced his sister into retirement, and was disowned by his family and then banned from the Federation. Everyone knows it.”

Lan Wangji often has trouble with words. Sometimes he is just empty of them, like groping for something in the dark that he can’t quite lay his fingers on. And sometimes, like now, he is full of too many words, brimming with the thousand things he wants to say to Wei Ying until they all get tangled up in his throat, words jostling each other for priority and choking him until he can’t say anything at all. 

He leans forward and grips Wei Ying’s hands. Wei Ying clings back, and Lan Wangji is pathetically glad of it.

“Throw me out, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers. “Tell me to go.”

“No.”

“It’s alright. Remember, I’ve been thrown out of the Cloud Recesses before. I’m used to it.”

No.”

Wei Ying makes a soft huffing sound, like a laugh that’s dancing with a sob. “I shouldn’t have come in the first place.”

“I asked you to,” Lan Wangji insists. “Wanted you to. Want you to stay.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan is too sweet, I can’t bear that,” Wei Ying says, with a valiant attempt at the usual flirtatious tone he adopts sometimes. “Lan Zhan is too patient with me, letting me put my sticky fingers all over his perfect life, mess up his house, take all the blankets, be an immoral influence on his students--”

“A good influence. You taught them, they learned.” The tango class these last few days has been… a revelation. Lan Wangji has found himself standing back, ceding more and more of the teaching to Wei Ying. Under his instruction, the students have suddenly started accomplishing incredible things. They’re thriving, flourishing. They smile in class now. Their eyes shine.

“You heard Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying says softly. “Asking what I taught them.” He’s stroking the backs of Lan Wangji’s hands with his thumbs, and it is an unbearably gentle counterpoint to the furious, vicious rage that wells up even stronger in Lan Wangji’s chest. “You’re going to be noble and virtuous now,” Wei Ying continues, still sounding so tired. “You’re going to tell me that it doesn’t matter, that I’m not a stripper now, so who cares--”

“It matters,” Lan Wangji says. He can’t remember the last time he interrupted anyone, but this is important. “I care.” Lan Wangji tightens his grip on Wei Ying’s hands until he squeaks. “Wei Ying can do anything he wants. Wei Ying is good.” He means good in both ways: virtuous and talented. Wei Ying dances like he’s laughing, and it matters because it’s beautiful. It matters because Wei Ying worked hard to become so skilled and loves what he does so vibrantly. It matters because it would hurt Wei Ying if he were required to chop off bits of his love because of what people like Jiang Wanyin think. It matters because Lan Wangji wants to spend the rest of his life watching Wei Ying in motion, and he’s not picky about what sort of motion it is.

If he were a different person, he might be able to say some of that aloud. He might be able to turn it into a flirtation, make Wei Ying laugh with some kind of tasteless joke about how much Lan Wangji does not mind seeing Wei Ying taking his clothes off. Except he isn’t that person, and even a silly joke like that is insultingly reductive of Wei Ying’s profound skill.

“They should not think less of Wei Ying for that. For anything.”

“Sure, fine, but--you have to admit, you wouldn’t be happy if I went back to it--”

“If Wei Ying was happy, I would be too,” he says firmly. “That is what matters.”

Wei Ying collapses forward slowly until his forehead is resting on Lan Wangji’s arm. Lan Wangji’s heart is pounding in his chest, but he frees a hand from Wei Ying’s to wrap his arm around Wei Ying’s shoulder and pull him closer. Outside, the streetlamp flickers on, spilling amber light that makes strange shadows in the rest of the studio. The edge of the window-shaped pool of light on the floor is only a foot or two away from them.

“Thought you didn’t like touching anybody,” Wei Ying mumbles into his sleeve, eventually.

It’s fine if it’s Wei Ying, he doesn’t say. “Mn.” He squeezes Wei Ying’s hand. 

“No one will help now they know I’m involved.”

“We will find another way.”

“Like what,” Wei Ying says dully.

“We will found a school with Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan.” And--Lan Wangji barely dares to even fantasize about it--he will enter competitions with Wei Ying, and they will gracefully allow themselves be disqualified again and again, because it really isn’t the win that matters. 

Wei Ying sits up again, looking right into Lan Wangji’s face, right into his heart, it feels like. For once, Lan Wangji doesn’t mind. He’s gripped with terror about what Wei Ying might see, and at the same time he longs for Wei Ying to know that here, at least, is certainty. Here, at least, is someone who will never voluntarily leave his side. Here is someone who has loved him for more than sixteen years, and will go on loving him until the stars fall and the seas rise. 

Wei Ying smushes Lan Wangji’s cheeks with his palms. “Too cute! So Lan Zhan wants to have lots of students and make them all champions, eh? Too cute, Lan Zhan!” The teasing tone rings a little truer now, at least. Wei Ying is so resilient. He always springs back.

Lan Wangji gently takes his wrists and pulls Wei Ying’s hands off his face. He wants to say, Only if you’re with me, but it reveals too much. "Do not leave."

"Ah, Lan Zhan, are you sure?" Wei Ying gives him a reproachful little pout. Lan Wangji wants to bite it. "I'm only going to get more annoying, you know!"

Lan Wangji thinks of the behaviors Wei Ying is classifying as annoying--appropriating all of Lan Wangji's things, sprawling in his bed, nosing into his business, taking over his classes, traipsing through his whole life with a blithe disregard for whether there are any boundaries (there aren't, not for Wei Ying). Lan Wangji would be fine with it if Wei Ying did more of that. He wants more of that. “Wei Ying is Wei Ying,” he says. “Anything is fine.”

Before Wei Ying can reply, the door bursts open and someone slams on the light switch. They both flinch from the sudden fluorescent glare as a voice screams, "There you are!"

Lan Wangji is on his feet before he notices he's moving. Jin Ling is standing in the doorway, furiously red and heaving for breath. "No yelling," Lan Wangji says warningly. 

Jin Ling strides forward, glaring daggers at Wei Ying. "You bastard, how dare you? How dare you come back? You hurt my mother! You're the reason she had to retire!"

Lan Wangji puts a hand on the center of the boy's chest, stopping him from advancing any further. "What happened to Madam Jin was an accident."

"No, he's right," Wei Ying says softly, behind him. "An accident, but one that was my fault."

"You're a disgrace," Jin Ling snaps. He sounds too much like Jiang Wanyin. Lan Wangji doesn't need to be looking at Wei Ying to know that it hurts him.

"You can tell your uncle I won't be coming to classes anymore," Wei Ying says. He sounds calm, as if being shouted at by family members is familiar to him. "And your grandmother, if she asks."

"She'll kill you if she sees you. She told me, just now," Jin Ling says. He's ignoring Lan Wangji's hand on him, now pushing him back towards the door. "She said she'd call her lawyers and get a restraining order."

"She doesn't need to. I won't come near you."

A commotion at the door, and Sizhui, Jingyi, and Mianmian tumble in. “Jin Ling!” Sizhui pants. “Please calm down!”

Jin Ling whirls on him. “How can you tell me that?” he screams. He’s starting to cry, his face going red and crumpled. “How can you tell me to calm down when that man,” he jabs his finger at Wei Ying, “has been--he’s--” 

Jingyi tries to take hold of Jin Ling’s elbow, speaking quietly, and is shaken off. Sizhui holds up both hands. “Please come with us, leave them be. Hanguang-jun wouldn’t be friends with him if he weren’t a good person.”

“He’s a stripper,” Jin Ling snarls.

“So what?” snaps Mianmian--she sounds and looks so much like her mother in this moment.

“Yeah, so what?” Jingyi echoes, seizing Jin Ling’s elbow in a grip that’s harder to shake. “Bet he’s better at it than you would be.” 

“Jingyi,” Lan Wangji says sharply. Jingyi doesn’t even flinch, too busy tusselling with Jin Ling, who is red-faced and trying to escape his grip. Sizhui, though, does grimace.

“Sorry, Hanguang-jun,” he says with a little bow as Jingyi and Mianmian frog-march Jin Ling to the door. “Sorry, Senior Wei.”

“Don’t worry about it, Sizhui,” Wei Ying says tiredly. 

Sizhui pauses at the door and waits until Jin Ling and the others are a little ways down the hall, then turns back and bows again, deep and respectful. “Thank you for the lessons, Teacher Wei. This one sincerely hopes to attend more of your classes.”

And then he’s gone, and the fluorescents are still glaring overhead, and Lan Wangji is still shivering with rage, though it’s tempered with a surge of fierce pride for Sizhui--how did he come to be surrounded by so many people as willing to take Wei Ying’s side as he is? It makes his eyes sting to think about how much he would have valued that, thirteen years ago. Perhaps then it would have made a difference.

“Who is that boy?” Wei Ying says weakly. “Where’d the Lan School find someone like that?”

Lan Zhan swallows and turns back to him. “My son,” he says simply.

“Your what?” 

“Sizhui is my son.”

This seems to be enough of a shock to shake Wei Ying out of despondency. “Where the hell did you get a son?

“I adopted him.” Lan Wangji pauses. “Because of you. Your program.”

“My--what? Wait, the… my program? For the foster kids?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. 

They’re just babies, Wei Ying had pleaded, hanging from his sleeve. They don’t have families, they don’t have anybody, let’s teach them something really fun, you don’t even have to come every week, just once in a while--

It had only lasted a couple months, and then Wei Ying had gone and the whole world had fallen to pieces in Lan Wangji’s hands, and he hadn’t been able to keep any of it together.

Wei Ying stares at him helplessly. “You adopted one of the kids. One of my kids, from my program.”

“Yes.”

“Why?” 

“Wei Ying should have a legacy,” he said simply. It had first come as a fierce thought, late one night so far past curfew that his eyes had been gritty and sore. “I could not help all of them. So I helped one.”

Wei Ying has tears in his eyes again, but they’re not spilling over. “Which--which one… There wasn’t one named Sizhui--”

“Wen Yuan. A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Ying huffs a wondering, incredulous laugh. His voice thick, he says, “He was my favorite, you know.”

“I know.”

“I thought about adopting him myself,” Wei Ying says, which Lan Wangji had not known. “I would have, if--” His voice cracks, and Lan Wangji can’t bear to be apart from him a moment longer. He sweeps back across the boards and bends down to take his hand. 

“Let’s go home,” he says, and Wei Ying allows himself to be pulled to his feet and bundled against Lan Wangji’s side, right where he belongs.

 

*

 

Luo Qingyang is waiting on the doorstep when they return. She shoves Lan Wangji’s laptop bag into his arms and pulls Wei Ying into a hug. After a moment of startlement, Wei Ying’s arms come around her tentatively. 

“Jiang Wanyin is a fucking asshole,” she mutters into Wei Ying’s hair. She only comes up to his shoulder. “And I told him so, and several other people told him so.”

“Thank you, Luo Qingyang,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Ying pulls away from her. His eyes are red again. Lan Wangji suppresses the urge to haul him inside and lock all the doors and pull the blinds over all the windows to block out the whole world and everything that might make Wei Ying look like that. He reflects that he’d better not run into Jiang Wanyin any time soon, because he will not be held accountable for his actions.

Luo Qingyang grips Wei Ying by his upper arms. She glares at him for a moment, as if she’s searching for something in his face. In a low voice, she says, “You’re still in, right?” 

He pauses. “Until someone says they don’t need me,” he says.

“Good.” She slaps him manfully on the arm. “I’ll tell you about the rest tomorrow. Hope you don’t start making a habit of listening to assholes.”

That gets a smile out of him. “Ah, Mianmian, tell me who I should listen to, then.” He leans a little closer and gives her a flirty smirk. “You?” 

Luo Qingyang’s hand shoots out, viper-quick, to give him a sharp tweak to the ear. He yelps. “You’d better listen to me,” she scolds. “Me, Wen Qing, and Hanguang-jun.”

“Oww, Mianmian,” he whines, his hand pressed to his ear. He pouts at her. “Of course this one will be very obedient and well-behaved for jiejie.”

“I’m younger than you,” she says, stepping around him and walking off.

“Yeah, but you’ve got jiejie energy, so!” he shouts after her. She gives him a rude gesture over her shoulder, and Lan Wangji opens the door and steers Wei Ying inside.

 

*

 

The rest of the evening is routine. Lan Wangji showers first, as usual because otherwise Wei Ying uses up all the hot water. He brushes his teeth and hair, flosses, changes into pajamas, slips into his side of the bed and picks up a book.

Wei Ying goes into the bathroom and uses up the rest of the hot water. He comes out with his skin all pink and soft, rubbing his hair dry with a towel, the shorts he sleeps in slung so low that Lan Wangji can see his hipbones, as per routine. Lan Wangji’s mouth goes dry, also according to routine. Wei Ying drops his wet towel on the floor (routine, and annoying). 

Then the routine starts to diverge, because instead of getting Lan Wangji’s laptop and flopping onto his side of the bed to watch competition footage, Wei Ying crawls into bed, crawls across the no-man’s-land of the middle, nestles in close to Lan Wangji’s side where he’s sitting up against the headboard, and bumps his head against Lan Wangji’s arm like a cat asking for attention.

Lan Wangji blinks down at him. “Wei Ying?” 

“Hug me again,” Wei Ying says, bumping his arm once more. He doesn’t sound as sad as earlier, but it’s not the shamelessly wheedling flirtation that it could have been, so Lan Wangji lifts his arm enough for Wei Ying to wriggle underneath, then lays it down again around Wei Ying’s warm shoulders.

Wei Ying burrows his face between Lan Wangji’s side and the pillows at his back and settles with a small sigh. “What are you reading?” His voice is muffled, his breath hot through Lan Wangji’s shirt. His skin is just as soft as it looked, and he smells like Lan Wangji’s soaps. His face is hidden, so Lan Wangji takes the opportunity to gaze down at him, his heart aching a little.

“Poetry,” he answers. If Wei Ying would just say Lan Zhan, read to me, then Lan Wangji would obey, and then he could use someone else’s words to speak the feelings that he wants Wei Ying to understand. Wei Ying does not ask him to read. Lan Wangji flips back a few pages to the right poem and stares at it hard, as if he could project the feeling he means directly into Wei Ying’s head: I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

Wei Ying gives another small sigh and burrows a little more, his hand holding the hem of Lan Wangji’s shirt. Lan Wangji pets his shoulders a little, softly, lays his palm flat in the middle of Wei Ying’s back, right below his shoulder blades where his hand would rest if they were dancing and Lan Wangji was leading. He closes his eyes and feels Wei Ying’s breath under his hand, steady and deep, feels his heartbeat--is it a little quick? His own heart catches at the possibility. Is Wei Ying touching him and… reacting? Is he nervous? Why? Surely he must know that Lan Wangji is only ever standing in front of him, waiting for Wei Ying to name his slightest whim. 

Wei Ying’s arm sneaks across Lan Wangji’s waist and tightens. Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to say, barely dares to breathe.  He wants to stroke Wei Ying’s hair, but it’s tangled and damp and cold. It will not be very pleasant, and if it tugs uncomfortably then Wei Ying might think he is being pushed away. Lan Wangji contents himself with feeling Wei Ying’s breath rise and fall under his palm. 

Wei Ying is being… uncharacteristically quiet. Perhaps the rabbit-quick beat of his heart isn’t from touching Lan Wangji at all. Perhaps he’s upset again, and this very cute and silly play for attention is hiding an actual request for comfort. “Wei Ying,” he says quietly. “Are you alright?”

“Mm,” Wei Ying says, sounding a little sleepy, and nods against his side. “Am now. You’re so warm, Lan Zhan. Smell nice.”

“So do you.”

Wei Ying unburrows himself and Lan Wangji has just enough time to think no, please don’t go, before Wei Ying is squirming up to press his nose against Lan Wangji’s neck and breathe. 

Close embrace. Lan Wangji’s heart is thundering again. Slowly he lets the book fall closed in his lap, not even caring to mark his place with his finger. His eyes, too, fall closed and it takes all his strength not to turn his face to Wei Ying’s, to rub his cheek against Wei Ying’s jaw. Wei Ying breathes him, and all the hairs on that side of his body stand up straight, his whole being orienting itself towards Wei Ying like a compass needle to magnetic north.

“Lan Zhan definitely smells the nicest,” Wei Ying declares around a yawn. He must be feeling better if he can flirt half-asleep.

“Just soap,” Lan Wangji says, feeling supremely awkward. He feels like he can only take a quarter of a breath at a time, shallow and quick. But he hears his own voice too--his tone, well-practiced, is flat and unruffled. “It is time for bed.” 

“Oh. Yes, alright,” Wei Ying says. He moves back to his own side of the bed as Lan Wangji turns the lamp off and settles down, flat on his back. His nerves are singing. His hands are almost trembling with the desire to reach out and seize Wei Ying--in this moment it feels absolutely necessary to survival, as necessary as air.

Lan Wangji wonders if they’re back to the routine now. Every night, Wei Ying builds himself a little nest of pillows around his head and shoulders, with another one hugged in his arms. It doesn’t ever stop him from sprawling around, tossing and turning and wrecking the sheets and sometimes even waking Lan Wangji up, but it’s at least a good-faith attempt to keep himself neatly on his own side of the bed. 

They’ve never intentionally touched in the dark before.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says quietly. This does not break routine. Sometimes Wei Ying needs to mutter himself to sleep, telling Lan Wangji whatever springs into his head. 

“Mm,” he says. He turns towards Wei Ying, gazes into the impenetrable dark between them, wanting so keenly he is surprised that he’s not glowing with it. 

He feels a touch. A brush of fingers against the back of his hand. His heart stops. Maybe this isn’t routine after all. Daring, he touches back, turns his hand up so Wei Ying’s fingertips fall on his palm. 

Somehow their hands just… fit together, gripping each other, though Lan Wangji didn’t consciously intend it and he doesn’t think Wei Ying did either. Wei Ying’s hand is hot and strong, his grip sure. Lan Wangji’s heart pounds so hard he can feel it against the inside of his ribs.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “You really don’t care? About the stripping?”

“It is just dancing. Wei Ying is a good dancer. Talented, disciplined, strong. Good form.”

Wei Ying snorts, then bursts out laughing. “Good form? Lan Zhan, good form? You’re so smooth, oh my god.”

Lan Wangji frowns into the dark. “Wei Ying does have good form,” he says, injured.

“I’ve got a pretty good figure too,” Wei Ying says. His voice is so serious, but Lan Wangji can hear the laugh hiding in the corners of it. He doesn’t mind being laughed at if it’s Wei Ying. 

“Mn,” he says. “Yes.” He rubs Wei Ying’s knuckles with his thumb.

There is a beat of silence and Wei Ying splutters spectacularly. “Lan Zhan, you can’t just agree like that!”

Wei Ying cannot take teasing nearly as well as he can dish it out. Lan Zhan nods into the dark, though Wei Ying can’t see him. “Good figure. Good form. A performance of great artistic merit. Worthy of thoughtful and respectful appreciation.”

“Oh my god, Lan Zhan, you--” There’s a few words muffled into the pillows, and then he hears the rustle of cloth as Wei Ying lifts his head again. “Why are you like this? Really? Seriously?” 

“Yes, Wei Ying, really seriously,” Lan Wangji says. If the lights were still on, Wei Ying would know immediately that Lan Wangji is laughing at him too, but he thinks his voice can hide most of it.

“Of course the great Hanguang-jun looks at a striptease and doesn’t have anything to say about anything except great artistic merit,” Wei Ying mutters, but he rubs Lan Wangji’s knuckles in return, squeezes his hand a little. It makes Lan Wangji’s heart beat even faster, makes him ache all over. He hasn’t felt this mad with wanting since he was a teenager and Wei Ying was bright and beautiful and untroubled, smiling and laughing in the sunshine. He had forgotten what it was like to feel this alive, this awake, this present in his own body. “Typical. Just sees good form, doesn’t even think it’s sexy…” 

Lan Wangji thinks for a moment about not saying That too, but if he does then Wei Ying will splutter again, and then he’ll realize that Lan Wangji has been teasing him, and then he’ll laugh and be pleased. He’s always pleased when he catches Lan Wangji in minor acts of affectionate disrespect. So: “That too,” he says.

“Oh god,” Wei Ying groans, and then he pulls his hand away and muffles the rest of whatever he was going to say in the pillow again. 

Lan Wangji pats across the sheets to find Wei Ying’s hand, and lands on a shoulder instead. That will do. He leaves his hand there. Wei Ying’s bare skin is so warm.

“You’re being so mean to me!” Wei Ying yells into the pillow. “On purpose! My poor heart can’t take it.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. He thinks he might be openly smiling. His face hurts in a strange way. He’s… he feels too many things. He is desperately happy to be with Wei Ying, and desperately grateful to be allowed to touch him even this little bit, and… just desperate, plain and simple. He doesn’t know how a single person is supposed to contain all this feeling. “I will only say such mean things when asked, then.”

“Yeah?” He feels Wei Ying’s shoulder turn under his hand, hears Wei Ying’s voice closer. “Do it. Say ‘Wei Ying is the best ever.’”

“Wei Ying is the best ever,” he says. It’s very easy. Wei Ying is the best ever, and Lan Wangji is hopelessly in love with him.

Wei Ying laughs a little gurgle of a laugh. Lan Wangji is fiercely pleased--with himself, with this situation… Wei Ying doesn’t sound like he even remembers what happened earlier. “Okay. Okay. Say ‘I thoughtfully and respectfully appreciated Wei Ying’s sexy dancing.’”

“I thoughtfully and respectfully appreciated Wei Ying’s sexy dancing,” he says. And then his tongue, loyal and disciplined for all his life, betrays him: “Both times.”

“Both?”

Lan Wangji presses his mouth closed. His thoughts whirl. Is there any way to get out of this without clarifying what he meant? 

But Wei Ying takes his hand again and laces their fingers together, and then Lan Wangji’s heart is in his throat, and Wei Ying asked, “Both which? Dancing at the club and…?”

Lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. He swallows hard. “Wei Ying had good form for the tango as well.”

Something shifts. 

“You thought that was sexy?” Wei Ying’s voice is low and rich, and it sends a shiver of heat through Lan Wangji’s veins. 

Lan Wangji stays very still, and very quiet, and keeps a firm hold on himself. He cannot lie. He cannot refuse to answer. He could, perhaps, scold Wei Ying for asking impertinent questions. He wants to throw caution and self-control to the wind. He wants to surge forward and kiss the living daylights out of him, tear off his clothes and get his hands on him, spread him out across the bed and just fuck him until they’re both too weak and over-satiated to go on. He wants to gorge himself on Wei Ying’s pleasure. “Tango is meant to be, when danced well. That is its designed purpose.” 

“...Ah. Ah, right. Of course.” That isn’t Wei Ying’s flirting voice. 

He said something wrong. What did he say? All the singing tension of his half-aroused alarm sours into anxiety.

He has to say something else, but he can’t think of anything, and the longer he is silent, the more that warm, close moment seems to ebb away like the falling tide. He manages, barely: “Did you think it was sexy?”

There’s an awkward pause, and Lan Wangji wishes he hadn’t asked. “Yes, of course,” Wei Ying says at last. “Just like you said, it’s supposed to be.”

“When danced well,” Lan Wangji says, because that was the important part.

“Right. Because,” Wei Ying says, and his voice is amused again--he’s moving far too quickly for Lan Wangji to keep up with him, and it’s frustrating, “Because those students of yours are good, but they wouldn’t know sexy if it stuck its foot out and tripped them.”

“Thank goodness,” Lan Wangji mutters, and Wei Ying cackles. And then everything seems… normal. Normalcy: Wei Ying is relaxed and smiling and laughing, and Lan Wangji feels like he’s carrying a burning sun in his chest.

And he’s still holding Wei Ying’s hand, because Wei Ying doesn’t seem to have noticed.

He’s still holding it when he falls asleep.

 

*

 

“So,” Luo Qingyang says the next morning. “There’s some concerns about the plan, naturally, because everyone thinks they’re so smart and ought to be in charge of everything.” She rolls her eyes. “I did make it very clear that I’d start breaking legs if anybody tried to pull another Jiang Wanyin at you.”

“What are the concerns?” Wei Ying asks. He is sitting at the kitchen table, bleary and sleep-rumpled still, and he looks so warm and sweet that Lan Wangji wants to drag him right back to bed and kiss him while his mouth is still soft and sleepy. “They’re about me, I guess?” 

“Not only you. They asked why they’re supposed to trust you to distribute the prize money, and why they ought to agree to throw the competition on your behalf rather than someone else’s. Someone tried to suggest we vote for the winner. I shut that shit right down too.”

“Good,” Lan Wangji says. There’s pillow-creases on Wei Ying’s cheekbone. He is trying not to stare at them.

“But I had to compromise on something, because otherwise they were going to mutiny,” she continues. “So we’re going to meet up in secret and have a little competition for the honor of winning.”

Wei Ying frowns and looks a bit more awake. “But it’s supposed to be me--it’s supposed to be a scandal. It’s supposed to be loud and noisy, and when it all comes out, the winner’s going to get in trouble--doesn’t matter if I get in trouble. I’m already--”

“I know,” she says. “I tried to tell them. But…” A huge shrug. “Dancers. What are you gonna do? Show them an opportunity for the spotlight and they all wrestle each other to the ground to get to it. They don’t think the consequences are real.”

Lan Wangji huffs in annoyance. “And do any of them have personal investment in the actual issue?

“Not that anyone mentioned,” Luo Qingyang says. “It’s too much of a headache to argue with that many stupid people at once. It’s easier if we just hand them their asses and say that Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing are going to do it.” 

Lan Wangji nods sharply. “True. That is easier.”

“Cool,” she says cheerfully. “Let’s make them cry for their mommies.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.

“The secret competition is next week,” she says, turning to Wei Ying again. “Can you and Wen Qing be ready by then?”

He’s sitting there a little shell-shocked--though maybe that’s just what his face looks like when he’s dragged out of bed too early in the morning. For the last week or so, Lan Wangji’s favorite part of being a morning person has been waking up to see Wei Ying all cute and cozy. It makes Lan Wangji ache all over with want and fondness, even when Wei Ying has stolen the blankets and spread his limbs over every available inch of free space.

“Uh,” says Wei Ying, blinking owlishly. “What are the categories?”

She launches into an explanation that even Lan Wangji isn’t quite awake enough to follow, but Wei Ying squints at her and nods along. It sounds like it’s a pared-down version of the classic championship structure--waltz, tango, foxtrot, with some adjustments here and there. “Still open for tweaks, though, so if you have any ideas, I’m happy to try to throw this competition in your favor too.” 

Wei Ying squints into the middle distance for a minute, yawning hugely and then smacking his lips. He turns back to Luo Qingyang. “Convince them that it’s a good idea to add swing. West Coast, for preference.”

Luo Qingyang blinks back at him. “Swing?” 

“Wen Qing does swing socially, when she has a spare evening,” he says around another yawn. “Hasn’t kept up with ballroom, so she’ll be a bit rusty. So swing, please, if you can… swing it.” An impish smile curls around his mouth.

“Do you do swing?” Luo Qingyang asks dubiously. “That’s a pretty different skill set to ballroom--”

“Eh. Enough that I don’t fall on my face,” Wei Ying says, pushing himself up from the table. “But I’ve got a week. Once learned tapdance over a long weekend, so.”

Luo Qingyang gives Lan Wangji a helpless, panicked look as Wei Ying shuffles out of the kitchen, but he nods firmly. Of course Wei Ying can do it. Wei Ying can do anything.

 

*

 

Wen Qing, of course, is too busy to just drop everything and come to Gusu for a week of rehearsing for a secret impromptu competition. Lan Wangji listens to her shout on the phone at Wei Ying as they walk to the studio. Wei Ying, with the phone pinned between ear and shoulder, nods and makes notes in one of Lan Wangji’s notebooks and says things like, “Yes, of course I know more steps than just sugar-pushes, I’ll learn whatever you want,” and, “What about two days in advance? We can make it work with two days-- yes, I’ll be ready by then, I already said!”

He eventually bids her goodbye and shoves the phone in his pocket with an exasperated but not unsatisfied expression. He eyes Lan Wangji. “Do you know swing?” 

“No,” says Lan Wangji. It has, historically, been in the category of dances he does not care for. He curses himself viciously for that piece of foolishness now. If he hadn’t been so picky, he could have had the competency now to teach Wei Ying--in other words, an excuse to dance with Wei Ying again. Damn him for a fool. 

“What about Luo Qingyang?” 

“I don’t know.”

Wei Ying sighs loudly just as Lan Wangji pushes open the door to the studio and walks in. “Well, I’ll figure it out.”

Sizhui is sitting in the middle of the floor, doing warm-up stretches. He’s early, but then he usually is. “Hello Hanguang-jun. Hello Senior Wei. What are you figuring out?” He shifts his legs straight in front of him, and stretches towards his toes.

“You know anybody who knows swing?”

Sizhui raises his head and blinks curiously. “Uh, depends. Do they have to be any good? Like, competition good?”

Wei Ying eyes him, very similar to way he’d eyed Lan Wangji earlier. “Not necessarily.”

“I know a bit. A few of the others do too.”

Lan Wangji eyes Sizhui too. “When did you learn?” 

Sizhui freezes and looks supremely awkward. He gets to his feet and dusts his pants off. “Uh, well, Jin-er-guniang’s mother taught her, and she taught some of us one time.”

“Which time?”

“Um.” Sizhui’s voice gets very small, and his eyes get very big. The cute act stopped working on Lan Wangji a decade ago. He tells himself this every day, very firmly. It never seems to help. “At one of the competitions last year. It was just a few people in one of the empty green rooms, and I wasn’t out that late after curfew…”

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cries. “Don’t make that grouchy face! It’s lucky, right?” He turns to Sizhui. “Out of all of you, then, who’s the best at it?” 

“I don’t know, we were all interested for a couple months, and we learned a lot more from internet videos, and then everyone else sort of… stopped?” He shrugs. “Jin-er-guniang is definitely the best of the girls, and uh. Not to be arrogant, but…”

“You’re the best of the boys?” Sizhui shrugs and nods in reply. “Great!” Wei Ying says. “This Jin-er-guniang, is she in the class? Would she teach me?”

Sizhui blinks. “Teach you? What for?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. Jin-er-guniang is a gossip, and she spends too much time on social media--Wei Ying should not tell her anything about the secret competition or the Scheme, or else it will be out in minutes.

Wei Ying subsides immediately. “Ha. Right. Probably not a good idea for me to even speak to the students right now,” he says, falsely cheery.

Sizhui’s expression goes stony and determined. “I’ll teach you, Senior Wei!” he declares, bowing respectfully. “If you need to be taught! I’m not very good, but I’ll do my best!”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, what a sweet and generous boy you’ve raised! Surely you have better things to do, though?” 

Sizhui sets his jaw in a stubborn way--Lan Wangji’s heart catches. He hadn’t ever noticed until they were standing right next to each other, but that stubborn expression looks just like one of Wei Ying’s. “Nothing, Senior Wei! Please tell me how I can help!”

Wei Ying pulls the phone out of his pocket. “How long until class?”

“Half an hour,” he and Sizhui respond in unison.

“I’ll leave in twenty minutes, then, so nobody faints from the scandal of seeing me around kids,” Wei Ying says. 

Sizhui’s eyes flash with righteous anger before he looks away and smooths his expression. “What is this for, anyway?” 

Wei Ying gives him another speculative look. “You trust him with secrets, Lan Zhan?” 

“Of course,” he replies, and Sizhui ducks his head on a smile. 

“Short version is: We’re causing trouble,” Wei Ying says. “And part of causing trouble involves me needing to be reasonably good at swing by next Thursday, so that a nice lady doesn’t break my legs and stick needles in me as retribution.” 

Sizhui nods. “Yes, Senior Wei!” he says.

“Good.” Wei Ying holds out his hand, palm up, with a grin. “So do you lead or follow?”

It’s a little slow and gawky--Wei Ying is evidently more than a bit rusty, but by the end of the twenty minutes, he’s already settling in. Sometimes he dances the follow, watching Sizhui’s feet; sometimes he stands beside him instead of opposite and lets Sizhui demonstrate a step until Wei Ying can copy it perfectly as the lead before switching over to the follow’s position again. They mutter softly to each other, and Sizhui is a patient and kind little teacher even as he tries so hard to be respectful and deferential to Wei Ying. Towards the end, they’re starting to have fun too, laughing and… playing.

The twenty minutes have almost passed, and the other students are due to start arriving soon. Lan Wangji hates to interrupt this. Sizhui and Wei Ying are the two people he loves most in all the world, and they’re so clearly having a good time, and they already seem to like each other immensely… Lan Wangji can’t help but think that if things had been different, Sizhui might have been Wei Ying’s son instead of his. 

(If things had been very different, if Lan Wangji’s ill-fated teenage crush had come to anything, Sizhui might have belonged to… No, he won’t even think those words. It is too presumptuous.) 

“Nearly time,” Lan Wangji says, hating to say it.

“What, already?” Wei Ying says, dismayed.

“You don’t… have to go,” Sizhui says. “No one here minds about… about all that, you know. We gave Jin Ling a good talking-to last night. He won’t cause any trouble.”

Wei Ying gives him a fond little half smile and reaches out to ruffle his hair. “You really got a good one here, eh, Lan Zhan?”

“Yes,” says Lan Wangji.

“Maybe next time, kid,” Wei Ying says, kind and soft. “I’m causing a really specific kind of trouble later on, you see, so I gotta behave myself now.” 

 

*

 

The week whirls by. Lan Wangji invites himself to every one of Sizhui and Wei Ying’s practices, but neither of them seem to mind. 

Wei Ying quickly catches up to Sizhui’s level of expertise, and then Lan Wangji has the soft, warm pleasure of watching them learn together, instead of one teaching the other. It strikes him again and again how strangely alike they are--perhaps Wei Ying was a bigger influence on little A-Yuan than Lan Wangji ever expected. Sizhui’s got the same love of movement, the same lively grace and quick smile, the same indiscriminate delight in learning new things. The same sass too, which initially surprises Lan Wangji--he’s always seen and loved Sizhui’s streak of sharp wit, but he has never heard his son giving backchat like this before. Every time, he nearly scolds Sizhui for it, but Wei Ying always just laughs, or taunts him back, giving as good as he gets. 

Wen Qing arrives two days before the secret competition, and Lan Wangji attends those practices too--so does Sizhui, sitting beside him with his hands clasped neatly on his knees, watching Wei Ying and Wen Qing bicker companionably and dance across the floor--it’s slinkier when Wen Qing does it, smoother and sleeker, nearly as sexy as tango, though this dance is more about flirtation than an expression of passion.

Sizhui keeps shooting him little glances out of the corner of his eye. It’s not until late on the second day that Sizhui says something about it, a simple little murmur: “You could learn too.” 

“No need,” Lan Wangji says, because there really isn’t. He is the first to admit that he is too rigid and inflexible in his tastes and preferences. If there were no other mitigating factors, he could be quite content dancing nothing but waltz, polishing his ability to the level of divine mastery. It’s only when Wei Ying blows into his life, a tumble of autumn leaves dancing and twirling across the street, that Lan Wangji turns his face to the wind and thinks of trying anything else. He looks at Wei Ying sometimes and feels… small. Small in comparison to Wei Ying’s great breadth of talent and ability, cold in comparison to Wei Ying’s warmth, unyielding in comparison to Wei Ying’s infinite versatility, bleak and dull in comparison to Wei Ying’s vibrancy. 

“There!” Wei Ying shouts, laughing, as the music ends. “We did it! Lan Zhan, did you see?” 

“Yes,” he says, because he hasn’t taken his eyes off Wei Ying in minutes. Wen Qing, barely winded, puts her hands on her hips and doesn’t look as grim as she had at the beginning of the session. “Well done.”

“We’re not done yet,” she says, imperiously gesturing Wei Ying back to her. “Waltz and tango still to go.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Wei Ying says, gathering her into a nearly-perfect waltz frame. He shoots another grin over his shoulder at Lan Wangji. “Come coach us, Teacher Lan!”

Lan Wangji gets up and carefully keeps all his emotions at bay. He is discovering, every day, new ways to ache. 

 

*



The secret competition happens in a shabby building in Caiyi Town, some ramshackle old community center that has seen better days. There’s cobwebs in the corner, the sound system is on its last legs, and the floors are scuffed, but there’s space enough for a dozen pairs to slink in, peel off their winter coats, mill around, and mutter to each other under their breaths. 

Lan Wangji sits on one side of the room by himself, his hands folded on his knees, and says nothing, and tries to feel nothing. But there are people in this room who are only here because they hate Wei Ying. There are people in this room who are only here because they think it’s an opportunity to seize some personal glory and throw themselves into the spotlight.

He breathes, slow and deep. He does not need to pay attention to those people. They are not worth even a second of his time. 

The front door opens and another pair comes in--it’s a cold, grey, blustery day, and everyone is unrecognizable until they shed their scarves and hats and gloves. He doesn’t know why he recognizes these two so much more quickly.  Perhaps it’s just the way they’re oriented towards each other, the way they move. 

Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. 

Lan Wangji is out of his chair and halfway across the room before he notices what he is doing.

Xiao Xingchen looks up from unwinding his scarf as Lan Wangji approaches and gives him a polite smile and a little bow. “Hanguang-jun,” he says. “Hello.” 

“Thank you for coming,” he says, stiffly. His heart is pounding in his chest, his stomach feels a little ill. It’s another one of those moments where he wishes ferociously that he had words to express what he means. “You honor us,” he says, but that’s not quite right either.

Song Lan finishes wriggling out of his coat and makes his own bow. “Thank you for all your efforts on this matter,” he says. “We are the ones who are honored.”

“I have a personal investment,” Lan Wangji says.

Song Lan ducks his head on a little smile, and Xiao Xingchen basically twinkles at him--he’s really lovely, though not nearly so lovely as Wei Ying, of course. Xiao Xingchen is a cool breeze, a sliver of the moon seen through a wisp of clouds; Wei Ying is a burst of fireworks, a glorious, riotous spring day after a long winter, all light and heat and blazing warmth.

There is a sudden presence behind him as a pair of beloved arms are flung about his neck and Wei Ying hangs from Lan Wangji’s shoulders. “Song-gongzi! Xiao-gongzi! You came!”

They bow to Wei Ying too, but Lan Wangji loses track of the next few moments of polite conversation--there’s no way it could be as important or interesting as the heat of Wei Ying pressed against him, the weight of him on Lan Wangji’s back…

He shakes both it and Wei Ying off, though he’s gentler with Wei Ying than he is with himself, just in time to hear Wei Ying saying seriously, “--means a lot to Lan Zhan, you know, what you did. Right, Lan Zhan?”

“Yes.”

He isn’t quite sure what Wei Ying has been saying, but Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen look… a little embarrassed, a little abashed. “It wasn’t meant to be a political statement,” Song Lan mumbles, clearing his throat. “It wasn’t for anyone else.”

Wei Ying blinks at him. “Wasn’t it? Aren’t you here to compete, then, for our scheme?” 

They shake their heads. “To be frank, we don’t really care about the national Federation or their rules,” Xiao Xingchen says.

“Or the international Federation, for that matter,” Song Lan adds.

“Or them,” Xiao Xingchen agrees with a nod. “Or competitions in general.” Lan Wangji exchanges a look with Wei Ying. “We simply felt… obligated to attend. Everyone is going to so much trouble, and we feel responsible.” Xiao Xingchen gives them a small, apologetic smile. “Simple courtesy demands that we attend this at the very least.”

“But… why do you enter competitions if you don’t care about them?” Wei Ying asks, clearly intrigued.

“Our teacher’s suggestion,” Song Lan says. His voice is very respectful, but there’s something to it which just whispers the barest suggestion that perhaps he has reservations about his teacher’s instructions. “To be seen. To make contacts.”

“We are following our teacher’s wisdom and good advice,” Xiao Xingchen says. He gives Song Lan the tiniest glance out of the corner of his eye, and Lan Wangji realizes that the two of them are having an entire silent argument right in front of him--and not the first round of this argument, he guesses. He is both deeply impressed with their grace and restraint and also wildly envious--he wants to have arguments like that with Wei Ying. He wants to be able to speak to Wei Ying with just a glance.

“So what’s the goal, then?” Wei Ying says, putting his head a little on one side and peering at them. 

“We’re opening a school,” Xiao Xingchen says.

The envy blooms through Lan Wangji’s whole body until he aches again. There it is--just the words he’d said to Wei Ying. He thinks of Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan with their teacher, with their packs of students trailing around after them… He thinks of the two of them dancing in a dark studio after all those students have gone, and he can’t help but superimpose himself and Wei Ying on top of all these images.

He wants it. He wants that, and he wants Wei Ying.

His eyes drop, for some reason, and he sees that Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are just… quietly holding hands, mostly hidden by their clothes, and his heart catches. 

He wants so much. He wants what they have together--the school, and the silent arguments, and the way they move in concert even when they're not dancing, the way they hold onto each other. The way they don't give a single lukewarm fuck what anyone says or thinks. 

He wants.

He looks at Wei Ying, chattering excitedly about their school, saying something about Oh, Lan Zhan and I were talking about that the other day!

He feels like he’s in danger of bursting open and spilling all his secrets and wants across the floor at Wei Ying’s feet, in front of all these people. This cannot happen. Even Wei Ying, as shameless as he is, would be humiliated about this--Lan Wangji cares more about that than he does about saving face for himself. 

So he says, “Excuse me,” and walks away. He goes back to his chair, folds his hands on his knees, and uses every bit of his self-control to keep his outward appearance composed and serene, like an eggshell covering a hurricane.

 

*

 

The competition, such as it is, is tedious. Luo Qingyang has devised a system in which all the participants judge each other, and when it is their turn to dance, Lan Wangji has never been more uncomfortable in his life. There are so many eyes watching him. He’s used to the eyes of the audience, but those are different. These eyes scrutinize him far more closely than any competition judge has ever done. They are all around the room, too--there is nowhere to hide a mistake. He feels his posture growing ever more rigid in response, feels even the small flickers of expressions vanishing from his face. 

Luo Qingyang says nothing to him, of course, only squeezes his shoulder a little when she steps into their frame and turns her head aside, baring the graceful swan-curve of her neck.

They dance, as they’ve danced a thousand times before. Everything is familiar and known--the steps, the music, the scent of Luo Qingyang’s perfume, the sound of their shoes against the floor, the warmth of her hand in his, the curve of her back beneath his palm.

He tries to block everything else out, and is almost successful. He remains, as ever, acutely aware of Wei Ying, seated in one of the chairs against the wall, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees to watch. Lan Wangji glimpses him once or twice as he turns Luo Qingyang across the floor--Wei Ying looks… conflicted. Lan Wangji shoves the thought away--he is concentrating on the dance, his partner.

The music finishes. They bow. Their peers applaud begrudgingly, and Lan Wangji turns to Wei Ying, who stands slowly.

Wei Ying isn’t looking at him, and he isn’t smiling. He’s fiddling with one of the cuffs of his coat, and it looks like he’s clenching his jaw. Lan Wangji is helpless to do anything but drift over to him--it will be a moment before the next pair is ready. 

“Wei Ying?” he says softly.

Wei Ying clears his throat, swallows, looks up at Lan Wangji. There’s something in his eyes that Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to name. “You, ah…” Wei Ying forces a smile onto his face. “You did great.” He laughs a little--it does not sound like dancing. It’s confusing. “I think I know how Zizhen felt. Really just… Really beautiful. Really.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to say when Wei Ying talks like this, using strange kinds of conversational harmonics to hide his true meaning beneath layers and layers of other words. He’s all backwards and twisty, and Lan Wangji wants to ask what’s wrong, except that Wei Ying would say that nothing is wrong, because he is a liar. And Lan Wangji would know then that it was something that he did that is making Wei Ying’s voice sound like that. All he can say is, “Wei Ying,” and--in Wei Ying’s own words--mean it really, really hard. 

“Luo-guniang is a wonderful partner for you,” Wei Ying says, attempting an airy tone. 

“I didn’t want to be dancing with her.”

The corner of Wei Ying’s mouth quirks unpleasantly. “Yeah, I know. Brother Luo or whoever.” He shakes himself, clears his throat. “The next pair’s about to go,” he says, his voice firmer. “We’d better sit.”

He seems startled when Lan Wangji sits right beside him, but where else would Lan Wangji go? He thinks--fantasizes--about reaching out to take Wei Ying’s hand. He keeps his own hand loose and relaxed on the sliver of seat between the two of them, just in case Wei Ying wants to take it. 

Wei Ying doesn’t take it, doesn’t even look at it. 

Lan Wangji tries and fails to watch the dancers. He is hyperaware of Wei Ying’s every breath and twitch and fidget beside him. There is nothing else in the room.

 

*

 

Luo Qingyang has really outdone herself, Lan Wangji realizes. She’s cleverer and sneakier than he ever gave her credit for--she’s rigged the whole game, and beyond that she seems to have independently, covertly convinced several of their peers that Wei Ying really would be the best person to pull this stunt off. It helps, of course, that Wei Ying and Wen Qing dance like starlight and running water, with an energy and enthusiasm that many of their peers forgot a long time ago. 

But when it comes right down to it, it’s the same argument that they had on the video call, except now it’s in person. Except now Luo Qingyang knows the lay of the land, has mapped the difficult terrain, has prepared counterarguments for everything and, moreover, has her covertly-persuaded supporters to back her loudly and enthusiastically:

Surely we can’t have someone as scandalous as Wei Wuxian--Yes we can, and here are five good reasons why his experience and history are beneficial. 

Surely it would be better to have someone more well-known--No, it wouldn’t, and here are six good reasons why a dark horse is the way to go.

But why can’t someone like Hanguang-jun--Because. Now shut up and vote correctly (for Wei Wuxian) so that you can feel like you’ve made your own mind up. That’s why you’re really here, isn’t it? Because you wanted to be able to decide for yourself. Because you wanted to feel important, like you’d done something.

It makes Lan Wangji feel cold and sick and empty. He glances at Wei Ying, still sitting next to him with his arms crossed tight over his chest, and Lan Wangji feels the guilt like a weight in his stomach. These people are all… awful. This community is worthless and vain. There is no sense of justice here, no moral imperative, no duty to stand up for what’s right and make the world better in this small way. It’s just a room full of self-absorbed, useless people. Wei Ying had escaped from it, had been free-- so had Wen Qing. She has an entire life outside this shallow, pointless crowd of twits, and it involves saving people, healing them, doing something real. But Lan Wangji has dragged them both back, right into the middle of this toxic quicksand, and now Wei Ying is unhappy.

What is the point of all of this, anyway? What is the value of dressing in fine clothing and moving ritually around a room for the purposes of finding out who does the best job of it, based on arbitrary, antiquated standards? What is the point? 

Luo Qingyang is excellent in all things, of course, and she does an excellent job of browbeating the crowd into agreeing with her. She, at least, can speak passionately about what is right and just. She stands in the middle of the room and exhorts them all to envision a better world. She is fiery with it, and Lan Wangji finds his heart clinging to that fire as the only thing to stave off that sickening empty feeling inside him. He wonders if she knows how much and how sincerely he admires her--the things she’s doing and saying in this moment are unfathomably far beyond what he would think himself capable of.

In the end, there is an agreement: They will throw the competition in Wei Wuxian’s favor.

The energy of the room shifts as soon as it’s made official--those holdouts who had been quibbling sigh and begin to resign themselves to it; those fence-sitters begin convincing themselves it was a good idea after all; and those supporters smile and shake each others’ hands and congratulate themselves on their good sense.

“Great,” Wei Ying says. He sounds tired. He looks tired. He does not look like a man who has just had any kind of triumph. “Let’s go now. I want a drink.”

“Agreed,” murmurs Wen Qing. “Let’s rescue Mianmian and abscond as quickly as possible.” Luo Qingyang is surrounded by a small group of people who all seem to want to talk to her at once. 

Lan Wangji walks into the crowd, takes her hand, tucks it around his arm, and pulls her out of the mess. She heaves a relieved whuff of breath, and wordlessly they get their coats and scarves and file out.

Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen are sitting on a bench just outside, holding hands and looking up at the dark sky. They glance over at their little group and offer rueful smiles. “All sorted out, then?” Xiao Xingchen asks. 

“Without even a single murder,” Luo Qingyang says. Her hand slips off Lan Wangji’s arm and she turns to Wen Qing, leaning her head on Wen Qing’s shoulder. “I’m so tired. I hate all of them. Take me to where the alcohol is.” 

Wen Qing laughs and slings an arm around Luo Qingyang’s waist. “You’ve earned it.”

“Coming with us?” Wei Ying says to the pair on the bench. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan glance at each other, shrug, and nod. “Smart of you, to duck out early like that,” Wei Ying says as the two of them fall into step with the group. There’s an edge of envy in his voice. “Wish I was that smart, but that’s the story of my life, eh?”

 

*

 

There is a bar. It is dim and cramped and loud and there’s a DJ playing some of that terrible popular music that Lan Wangji does not understand or find appealing. They pour Luo Qingyang into a booth seat, grumbling and snappish, and Wei Ying, Wen Qing, and Song Lan work on pouring a couple drinks into her. 

“How did you manage that, anyway?” Wen Qing asks, when Luo Qingyang is working through her second drink--the rest of them have only just gotten their first round. Lan Wangji is drinking soda water. 

“Took a lot of advice from my cousin,” she says in a bleary, toneless voice. “Don’t know if you remember him--the awful one? Meng Yao, otherwise known as Jin Guangyao? He left the competition circuit fairly early, never amounted to much of a dancer. Got a law degree and then worked himself pretty high in the Federation’s board of administrators.” Before any of them can say anything, she waves dismissively. “Didn’t tell him any details, of course. Just asked him how to get a room full of snobbish, self-centered assholes to do what I told them to.” She snorts. “He did warn me it wouldn’t feel good to win, the first few times.”

“You did well,” Lan Wangji says. 

She gives him a tired half smile in reply and drains her drink. “I did enough,” she says. “For today, at least.” She sits back abruptly and looks around. “Okay, these drinks are going to start hitting me in a minute and I don’t want to be mopey. Who’s going to come dance with me?”

Wei Ying throws his head back and laughs, and obligingly bounces out of his chair and drags her to her feet. Wen Qing follows at their heels, and they all but disappear into the crowd.

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan take the vacated seats, and the three of them sip their drinks in companionable silence for a time. They’re holding hands again, Lan Wangji notices, swallowing a lump in his throat. They have an exit plan. They’ve nearly escaped.

He tries not to look at them, though he wants to stare at them and try to eat up everything with his eyes as if it might reveal some great epiphany. He wants to beg them for advice. He wants--anything.

He’s never felt more alone than he does right now, with the two of them right across from him and Wei Ying dancing somewhere on the other side of the room, out of his sight.

“So,” Xiao Xingchen says. “Wei Wuxian mentioned you had plans for a school too?”

“Not plans. Just… ideas.” Wishes. Dreams which would vanish like mist upon waking. He is under no illusions--Wei Ying won’t want to stay if it’s always going to be as horrible as it was tonight, and Lan Wangji is in too deep to escape. “Nothing will come of it.”

“Why not?” Song Lan asks, curious but not impolitely so. 

Lan Wangji has no answer, so he only shakes his head. 

There is silence at the table again. The two of them murmur to each other a little, check the time. Eventually they finish their drinks. “We’ll be leaving now,” Xiao Xingchen says with a smile and a little bow. “Please feel free to… reach out. If you need anything.”

“Thank you,” he says.

“Give the others our regards,” Song Lan adds, with a bow of his own, and Lan Wangji nods at this too.

And then they just… collect their things and walk out. It’s simple and quiet. He feels like their leaving should thunder, feels like the temperature of the room should change, or the world tilt into a new angle. He feels like he missed some great chance to understand something important, some deep secret of the world.

He is alone again, even more than before. 

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying throws himself into the seat beside him, collapsing onto his shoulder with a breathless laugh. He’s glowing with happiness, perspiration, and a little tipsiness. He’s radiating warmth, and Lan Wangji wants to gather it up in armfuls and hug it close to the coldest, emptiest parts of himself. “Where’d our friends go?”

“They give their regards,” he says.

Wei Ying pouts, and it is somehow enormously comforting. If Wei Ying is pouting, then he’s playing, and if he’s playing, then everything will be alright, somehow. “Those guys! Too aloof and mysterious, aren’t they!” 

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.

“And they stole our idea,” Wei Ying says. “Now if we have a school too, we’ll look like copycats.” He sighs hugely.

“It does not matter,” Lan Wangji says.

“It does,” Wei Ying replies, very matter-of-fact. “Because then people will think you’re not cool, and I can’t be having that. I need to be able to stand next to you and be cool by association, otherwise everyone will realize I have no redeeming qualities at all.”

“You do,” Lan Wangji says. “Many of them.”

Wei Ying pauses, his cheeks pinking just a little, and then he laughs. “See? Too cool and generous, Hanguang-jun! Too tolerant!” He’s still half-leaning against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and now he snuggles a little closer in. “Hey,” he says in a lower voice. Lan Wangji tries not to look at his mouth--it’s so soft, all bitten-red, and Lan Wangji could lean in and just… taste it. “Hey, I’m guessing I can’t talk you into getting up and dancing with us, huh?”

Lan Wangji gives him a look, and Wei Ying laughs so hard that tears stream down his face. He rocks with mirth, holding onto Lan Wangji’s arm and dropping his forehead against his shoulder.

Chapter Text

 

All four of them pile into a taxi to get back up to the Cloud Recesses--Lan Wangji has to sit in the front because his legs are so much longer, and even this little separation from Wei Ying’s warmth makes him feel shaky and frantic and painfully lonely again. He lets himself glance back just once on the drive up--Wen Qing and Luo Qingyang are slumped against each other, dozing, but Wei Ying is wide awake, gazing out of the window while the passing streetlamps light him amber and indigo.

The women are solidly tipsy. Lan Wangji sees the two of them safely to Luo Qingyang’s rooms, and then walks back to his own quarters with Wei Ying ambling in his wake, humming to himself--he’s even further gone than tipsy, Lan Wangji thinks.

He wants, badly, to be touching Wei Ying like they were earlier. He wants to reach out and take his hand, or put an arm around his shoulder. Just… closeness.

He doesn’t know how. Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult. 

“Lan Zhan ah,” Wei Ying sighs, almost whining. “Do we have to go straight home? It’s not that late.” 

It’s nearly eleven. Lan Wangji is exhausted down to his bones. But it makes Lan Wangji’s blood surge to hear Wei Ying call it home. He stops walking and turns to Wei Ying. “Where do you want to go?” 

Wei Ying pouts at him. “Not home. I’m not tired, and if we go home, you’ll just go right to sleep and then I’ll be bored and awake for hours.”

“I will not go right to sleep.”

Wei Ying considers this with a theatrical air. “Promise?”

“Yes.”

So Wei Ying follows him home, still humming under his breath. “Ha,” he says, breaking the silence as Lan Wangji unlocks the door and lets them in. “I’ve had this song stuck in my head all day, can’t seem to shake it.”

“What song?” The humming up to this point has not been particularly tuneful--he hasn’t been able to identify it. 

“Oh hell, I don’t know the name of it. Has words, I think. Don’t ask me to remember those when I’m drunk.” Wei Ying hums a few more bars as he kicks off his shoes, and in a sudden jolt, Lan Wangji recognizes it. “Nice song, though. If you have to get a song stuck, you want it to be a nice one. Can’t remember where I ever heard it, either,” he says with a laugh. “Can’t remember more than bits and pieces.”

Lan Wangji knows exactly where Wei Ying heard it. It was one of his own exhibition songs, back when they were young and very stupid, back before he hadn’t realized that there was a freezing loneliness crushing against him from all sides. He hangs up his coat, kicks off his own shoes. He swallows, and without looking at Wei Ying, he hums the next few bars.

“Mm?” says Wei Ying, and then, “Oh! That’s it!” When Lan Wangji falls silent, he says, “No, wait, keep going!” so of course Lan Wangji does. 

He hums as he helps Wei Ying with his coat. He hums as he herds him through the entryway into the living room and into the kitchen. He hums as he gets Wei Ying a glass of water and hands it to him. He stops humming to say, “Drink.”

Wei Ying pouts magnificently at him. “Only if you keep singing to me, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji feels his ears growing hot. “Drink first,” he manages, and Wei Ying gives him a beautiful smile and takes the glass. Drinks. Lan Wangji tries not to stare at his throat. 

Wei Ying sets the empty cup aside and drapes his arms around Lan Zhan’s shoulders, hanging from him with all his weight; Lan Zhan staggers a bit before he recovers. “Lan Zhan, sing again,” he wheedles. He really doesn’t need to. “You promised,” he adds.

“How drunk are you?” 

"Oh, solidly,” Wei Ying says, blinking up at him with big innocent eyes. “Floaty. Comfy. Just in that really nice spot where everything is okay. You know what’s okay? Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan is the most okay. More than okay, even. Lan Zhan is the best. Sing again! You promised! Oathbreaking is forbidden!”

Lan Zhan sighs and puts his hands on Wei Ying’s ribs to support some of his hanging weight, and he hums that song again. Wei Ying’s eyes close on a soft smile and he makes a pleased noise. Lan Zhan can’t help but draw him closer, tucking Wei Ying’s head against his shoulder and swaying them a little. 

“Heh,” Wei Ying says, turning his face against Lan Wangji’s neck. “You can tango to this.”

This does not seem to require Lan Wangji’s input. He keeps humming, as commanded.

Even just this is helping so much. The shivery, frantic feeling in his chest is calming. The cold is pushed back. He can feel Wei Ying’s heart beating under his hands, and it seems so strange and surreal to think that he’s holding a whole, precious life in his arms. 

Wei Ying begins humming back. One hand slides down Lan Wangji’s arm to twine their fingers together; the other moves around his waist and then up his back, and suddenly Wei Ying has him in a frame and that idle, soothing swaying is shifting into something more deliberate. 

Wei Ying is leading him, and Lan Wangji has ever been helpless to do anything but follow.

It doesn’t matter that the kitchen is far too cramped for this. There’s no need for anything showy or elaborate. It is small, and quiet, and intimate. It is simple--just the song, and little steps, and Wei Ying’s hands telling him where to go. 

It has been a long, exhausting, tedious day, and he still doesn’t know what the point of it all is or why he’s been wasting his life doing anything but standing in his kitchen with Wei Ying in his arms, tracing out something small and perfect on the cold tile.

Even for close embrace, they are very close. Wei Ying presses his forehead against the side of Lan Wangji’s face, and Lan Wangji’s eyes fall half-closed as he turns into it. Wei Ying’s mouth is an inch away. They’re breathing the same air. Lan Wangji looks at him. Wei Ying’s eyes are closed--he doesn’t look upset now, like he had earlier. He looks calm and relaxed and happy, and Lan Wangji is so grateful that he is here, and so, so grateful that not every moment of this is miserable for him.

He wants to kiss Wei Ying. He feels like the doors of his heart are thrown open as wide as they can be, that he’s standing on the threshold and holding out yearning arms as far as he can reach, and he is full of a starving patience that could endure silently for another decade, if it has to. Longer than that.

They’ve mostly stopped humming. The dance has slowed, their movements grown even smaller. Lan Wangji’s pulse is pounding, and he wants and wants, and longs, and yearns, and murmurs, “Wei Ying.”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying whispers without opening his eyes, and turns his face a little more, his soft lips landing just on the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth.

The world stops, but only for a heartbeat, and then he’s kissing Wei Ying, or Wei Ying is kissing him, and he’s dropping their frame to pull Wei Ying as close as he can. Wei Ying's mouth opens to him and his hands tangle in Lan Wangji's hair, and he's already making these shocked, desperate little noises in his throat that send shivers of heat and lightning down his spine.

He pushes Wei Ying against the counter, kissing and kissing like he could swallow him up. He presses his mouth clumsily against Wei Ying’s jaw, his ear, his neck--and ah, so that’s what he tastes like, and that’s what he sounds like, and that’s what the vibration of his voice feels like under Lan Wangji’s lips.

“Oh fuck, take me to bed,” Wei Ying gasps, his hands clutching the back of Lan Wangji’s shirt, his hair.

Fire courses through all his veins, and he comes within a hair’s breadth of just turning Wei Ying around, bending him over the counter, and having him right there, but--

He feels like he sprains his self control with how hard he wrenches it back into place. He pulls back. “No,” he chokes out. He retreats even farther, a few steps away. He’s shaking--with lust, with nerves, with the thrill of adrenaline, with the sheer effort it takes not to step back in and eat Wei Ying alive.

Wei Ying’s mouth is red and wet. He has a pink mark on his neck, and his clothes are rumpled, and he’s panting for breath. “W-what?”

Lan Wangji can’t even look at him, or he’ll forget himself. Wei Ying is drunk. He’d admitted it himself--in that really nice spot where everything is okay, he’d said. Even, presumably, things that won’t be okay tomorrow when he’s sober. “No,” he says, swallowing hard, shoving away all his frantic hunger.

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. He’s leaning on the counter as if he doesn’t quite trust his own legs. “Okay.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t trust himself to speak. “Drink another glass of water,” he says. His voice sounds thick and unfamiliar. He risks one glance at Wei Ying--poor timing, Wei Ying is licking his lips, and his eyes are wide and bright and--

Lan Wangji forces himself to turn away, forces himself out of the room. Mechanically, he brushes his teeth, changes into nightclothes, and climbs into bed. 

Wei Ying doesn’t join him by the time he falls asleep, and he can’t help but feel just a little relief mixed in with his disappointment--his resolve and self-control is already being tested to the bleeding limit of his ability, and it feels less lonely, somehow, to think that perhaps Wei Ying needed a little space to cool off too. 

Still. It takes him longer to fall asleep without Wei Ying’s furnace of body heat warming the whole bed.

 

*

 

The next morning, he finds Wei Ying asleep on the couch, crammed under a blanket much too small for him. He makes a grouchy sound when Lan Wangji moves quietly around the house preparing for the day, and he pulls the blanket over his head--hungover, no doubt. Lan Wangji puts a glass of water and a pair of aspirin on the coffee table next to him and leaves for class. Lan Wangji has two early ones, and then rehearsal with Luo Qingyang, and then another two classes, and then another session with Luo Qingyang. The competition is less than two months away.

The day is grey and spitting rain when he leaves his house, and it’s only gotten heavier by the time he arrives at his first rehearsal. Luo Qingyang is barely hungover physically, but emotionally? Very much so. She does her best, of course--she is incredibly disciplined and hardworking, which is the foundation of everything Lan Wangji respects about her as a competition partner and as a person--but she’s just as distracted as he is.

When they stop for a water break, she turns to him sharply. “Hey.”

“Yes?”

“If we make this work,” she says, and then stops. She gets an expression of firm resolve, sets her shoulders, and looks at him boldly. “I’ve really liked being your competition partner.”

Oh. He doesn’t know what to say. “Thank you.”

“But,” she says, and then at least he knows what she’s going to say. “If we make this scheme work, if the rules get changed, I might want to compete with a woman.”

He nods and sips his water, not quite meeting her eyes. “I understand.”

“I really like being your partner,” she says again, more passionately, as if he does not in fact understand what she is telling him. “I’m not--Ugh! Why does this feel like I’m dumping you!”

“You’re not dumping me,” he says. “You just want us to…” How do people usually word this? “See other people.”

“I just really want to dance with a girl,” she says miserably. “Girls are great. Like… Wen Qing. Wen Qing is really, really great.”

“You may dance with anyone you like,” he assures her. “There is no need to take notice of my feelings.”

“Shut the fuck up, of course I care about your feelings,” she says. “I’m not completely ditching you! I want to still compete with you sometimes.”

“Then we will.”

“Good. I really like winning, and we’re very good at it.”

“We are.”

“I just…” She makes a noise of discomfort. “I’m not dumping you. As a partner or as a...” She waves vaguely. “You know.”

“Friend,” he supplies, and she looks a little taken aback.

“Yeah,” she says slowly. “We’re friends? You consider us friends?”

He gives her a small nod. Is this right? Is this how one does it? He’s not good at friendship. “I respect Luo Qingyang a great deal.”

She squirms with embarrassment. He sympathizes--this is far more sincere and heartfelt of a conversation than they’ve ever had in the fifteen years of their partnership, and he is hoping that they can go another fifteen years before having a second one.

The sound of the rain hisses through the open window, and occasional trickles of breeze wash cool, damp air through the room. Luo Qingyang screws the cap back on her water bottle and sets it aside, putting her hands on her hips. She wrenches the conversation onto a new topic, for which he is very grateful. “Who will you dance with, if I’m competing with someone else?”

His first thought is: Wei Ying

His second thought is: At home. We will have no reason to go to competitions. 

At home, where he can kiss Wei Ying against the kitchen counter and every other flat surface in the house. At home, where he can drag Wei Ying to bed when he asks for it.

“We’ll see,” he says.

 

*

 

Wei Ying doesn’t come to hijack his classes. He doesn’t meet him for lunch. He doesn’t crash his rehearsal.

Lan Wangji is faintly concerned by the end of the day, but… Wen Qing is only here for another day or two, and then she’ll have to return to her life and her (real, important, useful) job. She and Wei Ying are probably doing the smart thing and getting in as much rehearsal time as they can before they’re separated by a five hour train ride--the commute, these next two months until competition, is going to be irritating.

He arrives back home an hour or two before dinner, opens the door, and sees one of Wei Ying’s battered suitcases in the entryway. 

He frowns at it for perhaps a solid minute before a trickle of uncertainty curls in his stomach, dripping through his veins as the half-furled umbrella in his hands drips steadily onto the floor.

He finishes pulling the umbrella closed, sets it aside against the wall.

“Wei Ying,” he says aloud. There’s a thump and a curse from a couple rooms away, and then quick footsteps, and then there’s Wei Ying in the doorway, looking rumpled and flushed and… panicked. Like he’s not happy to see him.

Lan Wangji promptly begins to panic too.

“Ah,” says Wei Ying. “Hello. Hi. I’m just finishing up.”

“Finishing up,” Lan Wangji says.

“Packing.”

“You’re leaving.”

“Yeah, I thought…” He clears his throat, laughs nervously. “Thought it might be good for me to get out of your hair for a bit. And--Wen Qing’s job, you know. She can’t just leave it, and I’m not really doing anything, so I might as well go along so that we can rehearse, and she said I could crash with her...” He trails off.

Lan Wangji spent the great majority of his adolescence absolutely dying to sleep with Wei Ying, and he has never been so abjectly thankful to have not done that. Wei Ying didn’t want it after all, last night. If this is the situation from just a single kiss… The panic redoubles at the thought of what it might be, if Lan Wangji hadn’t stopped things. Maybe Wei Ying would already be gone, with no note or explanation, and he would have been absolutely right to do so. 

His throat feels tight and thick. “That is sensible,” he says, because it is. He’s been selfish.

Something in Wei Ying’s expression breaks, and his eyes get shiny. He swallows hard. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “So. I’ll just go. And then I won’t be here to bother you all the time.”

Lan Wangji is holding himself still only by dint of decades of practice. He wants to fall to his knees, press his forehead to the floor, beg forgiveness. But Wei Ying has already decided to leave, and Lan Wangji will not try to keep him. Like a bird, he remembers Wei Ying saying. You grip them too hard, you hurt them.

“You have not been a bother,” he says, stiff and careful. “But if I have, I apologize.”

“No,” Wei Ying says quickly--Wei Wuxian, he corrects himself. He has no right to use his familiar name now. “No, no. Not at all. No.”

The thing about Wei Wuxian is that sometimes he lies. Sometimes he lies without thinking, just to protect someone else’s feelings, because he always thinks other people’s feelings are more important than his own. Five denials in a row suggests that he may be protesting too much.

Lan Wangji looks at the suitcase. “I see,” he says quietly.

“I’ll just… go. Finish packing,” Wei Yi--Wei Wuxian says.

Lan Wangji stands there in the entryway, empty-handed and empty-hearted, until Wei Wuxian comes back with his second bag. One wheel is broken, and it drags unpleasantly. Lan Wangji had noticed it when Wei Wuxian came back to the Cloud Recesses with him. He’d meant to buy him a new one.

“How are you getting to the train?” he finds himself asking.

“Taxi,” Wei Wuxian says as he puts his shoes on. “Leaving from Wen Qing’s place. Luo Qingyang’s, I mean.”

Lan Wangji swallows the painful lump in his throat. “It is raining. May I walk you there?” Please, he wants to say. Please, let me help with this one thing, let me do something to mend what’s gone wrong .

Wei Wuxian looks up at him from where he’s kneeling to tie his shoelaces. His expression is fierce. “You don’t have to. You really don’t have to, I mean it.”

“Please,” Lan Wangji whispers. “Allow me.”

Wei Wuxian studies him for a moment, that fierceness fading from his eyes, then stands up. “You’re not angry at me?”

“No,” he says. Never. How could he be angry? What is there to be angry about?

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. “Okay, sure. Only if you want to.”

 

*

 

Lan Wangji holds the umbrella while Wei Wuxian wrestles the suitcases along the wooden boardwalks of the Cloud Recesses. The rain is coming down steadily now, rattling on the roofs and hissing on the plants and flowers. It’s brought an early twilight, and the lamps begin to come on as they walk to Luo Qingyang’s quarters, the light twinkling off the pavement and the rippling puddles. 

The umbrella isn’t big enough for both of them and the suitcases. Lan Wangji elects to prioritize keeping Wei Wuxian dry--it’s mostly just clothes in the bags, things that can be dampened without harm, but if Wei Wuxian is wet, he’ll be miserable for his whole journey.

They don’t speak.

The taxi is already waiting by Luo Qingyang’s apartment, and as they approach, two figures dart out into the rain, haul a small suitcase into the trunk, and hug quickly before one of them ducks into the taxi and the other back into the building.

Wei Wuxian takes a shaky breath and turns to Lan Wangji. “I’ll see you,” he says. “Won’t I?”

“Yes.”

“At the competition,” Wei Wuxian says. “I hope--if you think it would be alright, tell the kids I said goodbye.”

“I will.” They’ll be so upset. Wei Wuxian is so much better of a teacher than Lan Wangji is. 

There’s something horrible clawing in his chest. He wants to reach out and take Wei Wuxian’s hands. He has a terrible suspicion that Wei Wuxian will take this opportunity to vanish again--oh, he will come to the competition, and he will fight for justice and righteousness, but after that? Lan Wangji will turn his back for ten seconds and Wei Wuxian will vanish again, as if he’d never come back at all. 

Lan Wangji fumbles in his pocket for his phone. “Here,” he says, holding it out. “Here. Take it.”

“It’s yours,” Wei Wuxan says.

“I don’t need it. Take it.” At least then he’ll know that Wei Wuxian isn’t completely cut off from the world. He’ll be able to call someone if he needs help, or find his way when he’s lost.

Wei Wuxian takes the phone and tucks it into his pocket. He stares at Lan Wangji for a long minute, looking right into his eyes as if he wants to say something else, and eventually just murmurs, “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Lan Wangji says, because there isn’t anything else to say.

Wei Wuxian drops his eyes and nods. “Bye then,” he says, turning away without looking at Lan Wangji again. Lan Wangji holds the umbrella over him as he loads the suitcases into the trunk of the taxi, as he climbs inside. Wen Qing peers out curiously at him before the door closes.

He steps back onto the sidewalk. The purr of the taxi’s engine changes as the driver shifts gears. Lan Wangji watches them drive away, hoping to see Wei Wuxian glance back at him one more time, but the tint of the windows and the gloom of the rain make it too dark to see.

Slowly, he lowers the umbrella. The rain falls on his skin and hair, sinking into his clothes. It is bitingly cold, but at least cold is something to feel. Something besides the hollow numbness that’s spreading through the core of him.

 

*

 

He teaches class. He rehearses with Luo Qingyang. He eats. He sleeps. He keeps breathing.

He dreams of Wei Wuxian.

Most of them are innocuous--a sensation of warmth and contentment, a beloved presence on the other side of the bed. He dreams of waking, opening his eyes to see Wei Wuxian still sleeping beside him. He dreams of dancing with him, of Wei Wuxian’s brilliant smile like the sun breaking through clouds, of his glittering laughter. He dreams of Wei Wuxian’s hand in his, his back under Lan Wangji’s palm, the brush of their legs together as Wei Wuxian follows his cues impeccably, his eyes shining, a smile hiding just inside his mouth.

He dreams of kissing that mouth. He dreams of Wei Wuxian’s unbuttoned shirt, his collarbones, his thighs, the planes of his stomach. 

He wakes, desperate and longing, his body singing with arousal. A moment later, he jerks sharply, as if he could recoil from himself in disgust. His body and his sleeping mind are traitors conspiring against him. This is not the first time he has had dreams like that about Wei Wuxian, and there was a time he would have-- could have--done something about it, taken himself in hand and shamefully allowed his thoughts to drift where they would. Now the very idea makes him feel sick, an echo of the moment he had realized that Wei Wuxian hadn’t wanted that kiss after all.

He rolls out of bed, careful not to touch himself, and goes straight to the shower, setting the water as cold as it can go, and he stands under it long past the time that his erection has wilted and his skin has gone icy, more angry with himself than he can ever remember being.

In one thoughtless, stupid, selfish moment, he lost the friendship of the one person he cares about more than anything else in the world, except his son. All that cozy, warm intimacy, the shared whispers in the dark, the laughter and happiness filling the house--gone, the price paid for a single kiss.

It isn’t worth it. What is the use of kissing, if it costs this much? And he is not the only person who has lost something--his students, too, will suffer for his misstep. All the benefit they could have gained from having Wei Wuxian as a teacher, all the joy and brightness and insight he would have brought to the studio--that’s gone too. 

Belatedly, he realizes… that was it. That. That’s what he would have wanted to do for the rest of his life. To hell with competitions, to hell with championships. He just wants to stand in a room with Wei Ying and the wood beneath their feet, and the mirrors on the walls, and an untidy pile of outdoor shoes and backpacks against one wall by the door, and a scattering of students, and a long stick with which to poke their feet and frames and posture into position, and good music on the sound system, and… that. Just Wei Ying, and a stick to share between them.

But, all unknowing, he made a deal with his fate: One heart’s desire in exchange for another, only to discover that the one he’d had before was the one of real, lasting value.

 

*

 

“When is Senior Wei coming back?” Jingyi asks in class a week later.

“He isn’t,” Lan Wangji says. “Today we will focus on accuracy of footwork.”

 

*

 

“Are you alright?” Luo Qingyang asks later that day. “You seem off.”

“Fine, thank you,” he says.

 

*

 

“Father... Do you need anything?” Sizhui carefully asks one night as they’re clearing the dinner dishes. Sizhui has slept in the student dormitories rather than Lan Wangji’s quarters since he was twelve, the better to bond with his peers without making them feel uncomfortable about befriending the teacher’s son. When the dishes are finished, he will go back there, and the house will be empty and cold and lonely again. More than anything, Lan Wangji wants to ask him if he’ll stay, if he’ll sleep in his old childhood room tonight so that Lan Wangji can know that there’s a second, beloved heartbeat under this roof.

“No, thank you,” he says, and he expects Sizhui to blink and accept it, just as everyone else has when they’ve reached out. 

“Okay.” Sizhui chews on his bottom lip, his brow furrowed with concern. “If you’re not too busy, then, could you help me with my homework?”

Sizhui has the best grades in his year. He hasn’t needed help with his homework since he was nine. Once, while setting the table for dinner, he’d told a rambling story about how he’d figured out a rubric for remembering some obscure rule of English grammar, and Lan Wangji had been the one to learn something.

Clever, cunning little thing. He’s always been that way, but it’s only ever for sweet and kind motives. Lan Wangji’s brain idly offers the comment, He gets it from Wei Ying-- before he conclusively shuts down that line of thought.

“Yes, of course,” he says, and when they settle down at the table in the living room, he can’t help but feel small and pathetically grateful to have such a good and affectionate child.

 

*

 

With or without Wei Wuxian, linear time progresses apace. The students who are entered in the junior division of the competition refine their routines as close to perfection as Lan Wangji can drive them. He and Luo Qingyang, competing in the championship division, have done the same. The aching hollow in his chest feels like a dull, days-old bruise, and Lan Wangji keeps sharply prodding it to feel the hurt spike up. Once he loses that hurt, he won’t have anything left of Wei Wuxian at all.

He gathers up his students, his partner, and the mountain of luggage they’re collectively bringing, and herds them to the train station. In Lanling, he gives Jin Ling over into the care of his parents, who live in the city, and takes the rest of the students to the hotel.

As with most hotels the day before a competition, it is abject chaos. He gets through it mechanically and doesn’t really come back to his own body until he’s safely alone in his room, which is just as nondescript and soulless as every other hotel he’s ever been in.

He sits on the edge of the bed and stares dully at his suitcase. He ought to unpack it into the dresser. He’s suddenly furiously angry at the idea of ought to , and so in a rush of resentment and spite, he just… doesn’t. He scoffs at himself for feeling so rebellious about it. 

He tries to center himself and thinks the words he has been repressing all day: I’m going to see Wei Wuxian today.

It still hurts. Good.

 

*

 

He doesn’t see Wei Wuxian when Sizhui comes to ask whether he’s ready to go to dinner. He doesn’t see Wei Wuxian when they’re eating at the restaurant across the street from the hotel, or when Jingyi and Sizhui suggest exploring with a walk around the area, or when they get lost and have to call up navigation on Jingyi’s phone. At the end of two and a half hours of hypervigilance, snapping his gaze onto every flicker of movement in his peripheral vision and expecting-dreading-hoping to see Wei Wuxian around every corner, the actual event is… anticlimactic.

He doesn’t see him first--he hears him. Or rather, he hears Jiang Wanyin shouting, makes a deduction in a flash, and only then hears Wei Wuxian replying heatedly.

“How can you show your face here!” Jiang Wanyin roars.

“You knew I was coming!” Wei Wuxian replies. “You were involved!”

“I didn’t think you’d actually dare--”

“I can go where I please, can’t I?”

“You’re happy swanning around and embarrassing the family?”

Lan Wangji’s blood heats to the boiling point. “Oh dear,” says Sizhui, looking towards the noise--it’s in the courtyard of the hotel, just on the other side of a tall wall of hedges which they’re passing by. “Should we go help?”

Should is a complicated sort of concept, and if Lan Wangji were any less furious, he’d stop and give more thought to whether an intervention would be welcome--whether Wei Wuxian even wants to see him, let alone be defended by him.

With Sizhui and Jingyi in his wake, he strides to the arched wrought-iron gate and into the hotel’s courtyard. On this side of the hedge, there’s a metal fence with sturdy, wrought-iron bars topped with decorative spikes, and Wei Wuxian is leaning against it with his hands in the pockets of his jeans while Jiang Wanyin stands in front of him, red faced and gesticulating.

“Of all the things!” Jiang Wanyin is shouting. “Of all the things in the world, you had to take up pole dancing. What were you thinking? Why would you even--”

“Because,” Wei Wuxian says peevishly, “it seemed cool.

Jiang Wanyin nearly has a stroke. Lan Wangji and his students are nearly upon them now, but the two of them are so focused on the conversation that they haven’t noticed. “It seemed cool?” Jiang Wanyin shrieks.

“Yeah. Look,” Wei Wuxian says, and then the wrought-iron fence immediately becomes relevant to Lan Wangji’s life, because Wei Wuxian takes hold of one of the uprights and just--somehow, in a single smooth movement--turns himself parallel to the ground, as if gravity has turned ninety degrees and the fence is now up.  

Lan Wangji’s mouth goes dry. The muscles in Wei Wuxian’s arms are all he can look at--he imagines that if he touched any part of his body, it would all be tensed hard. He wonders how long Wei Wuxian can hold himself like that before his muscles start to tremble with strain.

He doesn’t find out, because Jiang Wanyin, too embarrassed and furious to keep gawping at Wei Wuxian, looks straight at Lan Wangji instead and squawks his name.

“Eh?! Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian says, and his grip must falter, because suddenly gravity takes notice of him again and he falls to the ground with a yelp.

Lan Wangji falls to his knees by Wei Wuxian--he missed catching him by half an inch, only because he hesitated. “Are you all right?” 

Wei Wuxian sits up, hissing and clutching his hand to his chest. He looks down at his palm--there’s an angry red score right across it, from the edge of the upright he was holding. It’s bleeding a little, but not very badly. “Ow,” Wei Wuxian says conversationally. He turns his other arm at an awkward angle and cranes his neck, trying to look at his elbow, which is also scraped. “Ow, ow,” he adds in a thoughtful tone. “Ugh. I’m fine, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji helps him up with a hand under his uninjured arm and glares at Jiang Wanyin.

“What’s that look for?” Jiang Wanyin demands. “He was the one showing off!”

Lan Wangji has nothing to say to him. Haughtily taking no further notice of Jiang Wanyin, he fusses with Wei Wuxian’s clothing, brushing dust and bits of grass and leaves off of him, and Wei Wuxian submits to this attention without complaint. 

“Teacher Wei was only trying to demonstrate his admirable skill,” Sizhui says politely. “He must be terribly strong.”

Jiang Wanyin gives Sizhui an incredulous look. “Strong?” he says. “He does that in public and all you can comment on is how strong he must be?”

“I don’t think I could do that,” Sizhui says, his polite, neutral tone not wavering in the slightest. Lan Wangji wants to gesture to him to back down, murmur that he doesn’t need to get involved--that he shouldn’t get involved, because he is a child and this is not his fight--but then it’s not Lan Wangji’s fight either, is it? In a voice absolutely dripping with innocent curiosity, Sizhui says, “Do you think you could do that, Jiang-gongzi?”

Jiang Wanyin’s face turns as purple as his shirt and he stomps away.

“Heh,” Wei Wuxian says, a wry half-smile tugging the corner of his mouth. “You’ve raised such a polite boy, Hanguang-jun. He is a credit to you.”

Lan Wangji yearns sharply for a world where he could open his mouth and say, To both of us. “The hotel will have a medical kit,” he says.

“Jingyi’s already run to fetch it,” Sizhui says, and then, “Ah, he’s coming back.”

Jingyi is flying across the courtyard, and he skids to a stop at Wei Wuxian’s side. “Are you alright, Teacher Wei?”

“Yes?” Wei Wuxian says, baffled. “It’s only a couple scrapes.”

“You’re bleeding,” Jingyi says. Lan Wangji takes the kit from him, finds the disinfectant, and--feeling terribly ashamed of his behavior but still too angry to successfully repress his possessive impulses--takes hold of Wei Wuxian’s hand.

“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian protests. “I’ve had worse just by--ow, Lan Zhan, ow! That stings!” His whine now is more plaintive than when he was actually on the ground, freshly injured. Lan Wangji does not stop dabbing on the disinfectant. “Is this revenge? Ow ow ow--”

“It is not revenge,” Lan Wangji says. There is a roll of gauze in the kit--he tears off a length and wraps it neatly around Wei Wuxian’s hand, but then hesitates at last. Wei Wuxian hasn’t pulled away from him, and doesn’t seem to be upset with him… 

Wei Wuxian turns and twists his arm so that Lan Wangji can reach his scraped elbow, giving him a wobbly pout. “Don’t make it sting so much this time, okay?”

Lan Wangji cannot make it sting less. That is the nature of disinfectant . Still, he tries to be as gentle as possible, working carefully while Wei Wuxian peers down over his arm at Lan Wangji’s work. 

“I don’t think this one needs to be bandaged, my elbow will stay clean on its own until it scabs,” Wei Wuxian says. Lan Wangji nods and packs everything away. “Well! We haven’t said hello yet!”

“Hello, Teacher Wei,” Sizhui says, Jingyi echoing. Sizhui’s smile is so bright that he twinkles with it like starlight. “Are you well?”

“Up until five minutes ago, yes,” Wei Wuxian says with a rueful look in the direction that Jiang Wanyin left. “Have you been training hard?”

Jingyi and Sizhui nod enthusiastically.

“Have you been kind and respectful of your Hanguang-jun? Have you listened to all his lessons?” Wei Wuxian asks, his voice mock-stern.

“Yes, of course,” Sizhui says.

“Our footwork is so accurate you would not believe it,” Jingyi adds in a mutter under his breath.

Wei Wuxian turns immediately to Lan Wangji and clucks his tongue disapprovingly. “Really, Lan Zhan.”

“Accuracy of footwork is important,” Lan Wangji says. 

Wei Wuxian only gives him an unimpressed look. “What are you all doing out and about, anyway? Other than hanging around waiting to rescue me from annoying little brothers. Have you eaten? I was just going to dinner, would you all like to join me?” The offer is made with a bright, friendly smile, as if nothing whatsoever is wrong. 

It’s enough to spark a ember of hope in the dry tinder of Lan Wangji’s heart. Perhaps Wei Wuxian doesn’t consider him entirely unforgivable. Maybe there is a way back from… that incident in his kitchen, all those weeks ago.

“Oh, we already ate,” Jingyi says immediately. Lan Wangji fantasizes briefly about gagging him and throwing him in the hotel’s swimming pool.

“If Wei Wuxian would like company,” Lan Wangji says, not glaring daggers at his thoughtless but otherwise innocent student, “I will join him.” Something in what he said makes Wei Wuxian’s easy smile falter and grow twilight-like, halfway to sad. 

“I’m tired, actually, I’m gonna go up to my room and play video games,” Jingyi says. “Thanks for the invitation, Teacher Wei. Sizhui, you coming?”

Lan Wangji isn’t sure whether he wants Sizhui there or not--it might be easier if he were. Sizhui’s more talkative, and he’s so clever besides. There won’t be any awkward, uncomfortable silences if he is there, and then Lan Wangji can just watch the two people he loves most in all the world chatter happily and eat their fill, nourished in body and soul.

“Um,” says Sizhui, glancing between him and Wei Wuxian and Jingyi. “Actually I… am still a little hungry. Is it okay…?”

“Of course it’s okay!” Wei Wuxian says, a burst of noise that sounds just a little forced, as if he’s turning up the volume on his enthusiasm to conceal something else. “You’re a growing boy! You should eat well every day! I tell you, when I was your age, I was starving every single hour. Let’s go feed you!”

 

*

 

Wei Wuxian talks incessantly all through the meal. He talks about the last two months of rehearsal with Wen Qing, about the food she’d cooked for him, about how nice it was to see her little brother again, who has taken a nice, quiet job at an animal shelter. “And!” he says, setting down his giant bowl of soup. “Wen Qing took me to contra dance! I’d never been before, but apparently, besides swing, that’s the only other thing she’s stuck with since she left the competitive ballroom circuit. We had a very good time, but contra, you know, it’s not particularly challenging, just repeating patterns. Stilt, there was something special about being in a room full of a hundred people all doing the same thing… Anyway, Wen Qing, she dragged me to it, and she was yelling at me for being restless and fidgety, said she wanted to tucker me out so I’d stop annoying her at all hours of the night. Gotta admit, it did do that--” On and on in this vein, and Lan Wangji is more than content to listen to him talk, the rise and fall of his voice, the warmth of his laughter as he jokes with Sizhui.

Sizhui, being a teenage boy and an athlete, packs away an astonishing amount of food considering he had just eaten an hour ago, and Wei Wuxian keeps admonishing him about it and putting bits of his own food in Sizhui’s bowl, which both warms Lan Wangji’s heart to bursting and makes him feel very, very sad.

On the short walk back to the hotel, Sizhui hangs back several paces, his attention evidently fully absorbed by fiddling with something on his phone, and Wei Wuxian sticks his hands in his pockets and gives Lan Wangji a glance out of the corner of his eye. They’re not even walking close enough for their elbows to brush--Lan Wangji is being very careful about that.

“So. Wei Wuxian , huh? You won’t even call me Wei Ying anymore?” His voice is no louder than a murmur. Sizhui probably can’t overhear them. Lan Wangji cannot determine anything from Wei Wuxian’s tone.

“Do you still want me to?”

“Do you still want to?”

You were the one who wanted distance, he thinks. You needed to get away from me. I’m only trying to give you what you want. “Anything is fine.”

Wei Wuxian huffs. “Clearly not anything is fine. Can you just--” He stops himself, hunches his shoulders. “Never mind. Shouldn’t have asked, probably. Wen Qing told me a million times not to be pushy about it. Sorry.” His voice lowers even further. “Really. Sorry. About all of it.” A hesitant pause. “Do you want me to use your courtesy name now too?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says sharply. Wei Wuxian slumps a little, as if in relief.

“Okay. Okay, good.” 

They don’t speak again until they get to the doors of the hotel, where they both slow and then stop. Sizhui passes them silently, disappearing inside. 

They don’t say anything. Lan Wangji wonders why Wei Wuxian is lingering like this. He wonders how long it will take him to say something.

Not long. “You can call me whatever you want,” Wei Wuxian says suddenly. “Wei Ying, or Wei Wuxian, or you fucking idiot, or stupid asshole.”

Lan Wangji nearly flinches. He stares at Wei Wuxian, sick and horrified and confused. “Why would I call you those?”

“I’d deserve them.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “You wouldn’t.”

Another of those rueful looks, just like Jiang Wanyin had gotten from him. Lan Wangji hates that expression on that face. That face was made for smiling and laughing, not… this. He swallows hard. “Wei Ying,” he whispers.

Wei Ying’s expression clears slowly--Lan Wangji hadn’t seen how much tension was in his face until it isn’t there anymore. He scuffs his shoe against the ground. “Wanna be friends again?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says immediately. “Please.”

Wei Ying lets out his breath, and a proper smile spreads across his face. “Okay.”

 

*

 

It doesn’t just fix things, of course. There’s still an awkwardness between them, a strange tension, like they both backed off too far and now they have to trudge through miles of swamp to get anywhere near each other. Before, Wei Ying would sprawl next to him, uncaring where his limbs landed. Before, Wei Ying was all casual touches--a hand on Lan Wangji’s arm or shoulder, or poking his face with a fingertip when he was making an expression that Wei Ying thought was “too grumpy”. Now, he is so careful not to touch Lan Wangji even a little, even by accident. 

Lan Wangji reminds himself to be grateful for even this much, for Wei Ying’s presence at his side, and the attestation of their friendship, even if it’s not… quite as it was. But that’s for the best, perhaps. It had gone too far. Lan Wangji had gone too far.

The next day is the junior level competition. The students of the Cloud Recesses school all make admirable showings, with representatives among the top three in every category, and roughly three-fifths of them winning. Sizhui and Mianmian, his partner, cap off their excellent run by dancing an exquisite waltz which bags them the overall championship for the junior division, and Lan Wangji is almost vibrating with pride. He feels like he is probably radiating smugness at the other parents, but that is allowable within the bounds of tradition as long as he is tasteful and restrained about it. 

Wei Ying, of course, is falling over himself with delight. “That boy!” he gasps. “Lan Zhan! Did you see that? How’d he do that? Fuck! That was beautiful, Lan Zhan, who taught him that!”

“You did,” Lan Zhan says. “You taught him how to mean it.”

Wei Ying’s eyes get all shiny with tears, and when Sizhui bounds over to them with his medal swinging on its ribbon in his hand, Wei Ying engulfs him in a hug, smacks a kiss on his temple, pinches both his cheeks until they’re pink, says, “That was pretty okay!” and then immediately begins babbling critique and constructive criticism about elements of Sizhui’s performance which could be improved. Sizhui melts under the first half of the attention and then straightens up, bright eyed, and listens attentively to the second half.

Lan Wangji silently continues to radiate smugness. When Luo Qingyang approaches with her daughter, Lan Wangji gives her a polite nod, and she radiates smugness back at him too. It feels very companionable.

He takes them all out to dinner, and Wei Ying has just about finished comprehensively analyzing every part of their championship routine by the time the entrees arrive, and then he’s too busy eating to speak. Sizhui turns to Lan Wangji and offers him the medal with a little bow. Lan Wangji takes it, admires it for a moment, and slips it into his pocket. “Do you have anything to add to Teacher Wei’s wisdom?” Sizhui asks. 

“No. I agree with his assessment.”

Sizhui’s eyes glint a little. “Even the part about how it was pretty okay?” he asks, sly.

“Be guarded against arrogance,” Lan Wangji quotes from the Lan precepts.

“Of course,” Sizhui says, grinning, and turns to his food. 

When they return to the hotel, Wei Ying is so distracted by his gleeful pride over the day’s results that he follows Lan Zhan all the way back to his rooms, gesticulating wildly and brimming over with effusive praise first for Sizhui and then for the rest of the Lan students, one after another--how much Jin Ling has improved, and how expressive Ouyang Zizhen was, and what energy Lan Jingyi had, and and and… 

Lan Wangji hums in agreement with all of it and unlocks the door to his room, wondering how far Wei Ying is going to follow before he notices where he is. Wei Ying kicks off his shoes just inside the door, flops onto the bed, and continues gesticulating directly up at the ceiling as he holds forth. 

Lan Wangji sits neatly on the chair facing the bed and listens, feeling… better than he has all day, actually. It had been so strained and strange all day, but this is easy and comfortable. He feels properly close to Wei Ying, like they’re both pointed in the same direction again, and that direction is Let’s be so terribly proud of little A-Yuan together.

And then--

It’s only because he’s watching so closely that he sees the moment that Wei Ying notices where he is. He sits up, his face white and horrified. “Oh shit,” he says. “Uh. Fuck. You should have said something--fuck, but of course you wouldn’t say anything--” He’s scrambling off the bed and over to the door, shoving his feet into his shoes. “I’m the worst, I’m sorry, you ought to know by now that I’m the worst--you know you could have thrown me out--”

“It’s fine,” Lan Wangji says, rising but… hanging back, though his impulse is to go to Wei Ying immediately, grab his hand and tug him back into the room. “Anything is fine.” 

That makes Wei Ying’s expression twist like he’s heard an unpleasant joke that he’s nevertheless required to smile at. “Well, anyway, big day tomorrow. I ought to let you get your rest. Goodnight.” And then he’s hurling himself out the door and slamming it closed behind him.

Lan Wangji just stands there for a long time, staring at the door, trying to untangle how he feels--frustrated, irritated, confused. They’d been having a nice evening, he’d thought. Comfortable, friendly. He’d been careful. What had he done wrong? Nothing, surely--he had barely spoken.

He clenches his jaw so tight his teeth ache and wishes that Wei Ying could for once just say what he means.

 

*

 

“You ready?” Luo Qingyang asks the next day. She’s wearing a new competition dress, cream chiffon and glittering gold sequins, which seems to float lighter than air as she turns and moves. 

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.

He doesn’t allow himself to grow more nervous than is normal for competitions, but he can’t help worrying--he hasn’t seen Wei Ying all morning, and their peers seem restless and on-edge.

Not all of the competitors are in on it, of course. There were some whom Luo Qingyang hadn’t even attempted to approach--most of Wen Qing’s relatives, for example, are either bigoted, untrustworthy, or both. Fortunately, the few pairs the Wen School have sent to this competition are not very talented, so Lan Wangji expects to see them knocked out in the first or second heats of their categories.

He remains nervous, fighting restlessness, growing ever more tense as the championship-level opening speeches are made by local dignitaries, politely ushered on and off the stage by Luo Qingyang’s awful cousin Jin Guangyao. Wen Qing appears at Luo Qingyang’s elbow halfway through the speeches, resplendent in a dress of deep burgundy trimmed with black and white and covered in sparkling silver beads. Her sleeves have streamer-like ribbons trailing to the floor, also black and white and red. Seeing her without Wei Ying makes Lan Wangji even more jittery--where is Wei Ying--though she does not seem to be bothered in the slightest. She gives him and Luo Qingyang a warm, relaxed smile.

“How are you feeling?” he hears Luo Qingyang whisper to her.

“Fine,” she says. “It’s not open heart surgery, after all.”

Luo Qingyang hides a smile behind her hand. 

Wei Ying appears as if by magic right at the tail end of the speech--in one moment, the space beside Wen Qing is empty; in the next, there he is, offering her his arm with an elegant and dignified air, which she takes with a roll of her eyes. Usually the leads wear plain and understated formal dress, the better to keep attention fixed on the peacock-glory of their partners and their gowns, but Wei Ying’s clothing is just as beautiful as Wen Qing’s--more black, where hers is more red, as if they are mirrors of each other rather than a perfect match. The fabric is covered with hidden twinkling glimmers, invisible until he moves and they catch the light. He--or possibly Wen Qing--has lined his lashes with kohl, and his eyes gleam out past the mask he’s wearing to conceal his face. He is serious, solemn, more beautiful than Lan Wangji has ever seen him. Lan Wangji’s heart catches and pounds hard once in his chest. 

He forces his gaze away as the first heat of the first category is called. As they line up at the entrance of the dance floor to be announced, Luo Qingyang takes his hand, tips up her chin, and murmurs, “Here we go.”

Chapter Text

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work. In the first heat, half of the pairs participating in the scheme intentionally make minor mistakes--they are not invited to progress to the second heat. It is presumed that the few pairs not involved in the scheme will not be nearly as good as Wei Ying and therefore will not make it to the final heat of the category. Lan Wangji and Luo Qingyang dance as normal until that final heat, as they are too well-known and well-decorated as champions to be plausibly knocked out before then.

The ideal progression is that Wei Ying and Wen Qing end up in the top three of the category, and that Wei Ying’s blistering natural talent carries them to take first or second.

It goes reasonably well. There are a few distasteful people competing--the dreadful Wen Chao, for example, who always appears slightly greasy, and his equally dreadful partner Wang Lingjiao--but Lan Wangji has never had attention to spare for them on any previous occasion, and even less today. 

In the first heat of every category, he dedicates his full attention to Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen, beautiful in white and black like a pair of magpies. They dance exquisitely, smiling the whole time, and are summarily disqualified, still smiling the whole time. They are grace and graciousness personified. They do not touch except during the dance itself, but there is an energy running between them, even when they’re standing still, like a silk ribbon tying them together. It hurts him bone-deep to watch them bow to the judges and leave the floor when their number is called. 

Afterwards, Lan Wangji blocks out everyone’s existence but his own, his partner’s, and the pair in red and black swirling across the other side of the dance floor.

After hours and hours, the adrenaline and nerves have all drained out of him, and the latest in an unbearable string of stuffy, disgustingly rich, hobbyist philanthropists bustles onto the stage to amateurishly announce the names of the pairs who will be invited to advance to the next heat (a privilege for which the hobbyist-philanthropists have “donated” tens of thousands of dollars to the Federation, a significant step up from merely having their name on the list of “honored sponsors” in the back of the program booklet). 

This particular one is a tiny old lady with an extravagant diamond necklace. She holds up the card from the judges’ table with a smug little expression and says: “Lan Wangji and Luo Qingyang. Mo Xuanyu and Wen Qing. Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao.”

Luo Qingyang purses her lips. “Hm. Jiang Wanyin and Yu Jinzhu were supposed to be the third pair,” she mutters. “Did they seem… off?” 

“They were fighting,” Lan Wangji says, because Jiang Wanyin always fights with his partners--that’s famously why he hasn’t been able to keep any long-term. The only women who vaguely tolerate him now are the Yu sisters, and Lan Wangji suspects that’s only because they’re such devoted and loyal students of Jiang Wanyin’s mother.

“Shit,” Luo Qingyang hisses under her breath. “Great timing, Jiang Cheng.” She chews her lip, eyeing Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao across the dance floor. “It’s probably fine,” she murmurs. “Wen Qing’s much lighter on her feet than that woman is, and Wei Wuxian could dance circles around Wen Chao any day of the week.” She lets out a long breath. “It’s fine,” she says, and turns to Wei Ying and Wen Qing, who are approaching with carefully-disguised expressions of concern. “It’s fine,” she says again. “It’s fine.” 

Wei Ying’s eyes flick from her to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji nods firmly at him. “It’s fine,” he says, and Wei Ying relaxes a little, nods.

 

*

 

There is an hour’s intermission before the final dance, and Lan Wangji retreats to the relative quiet of the green room. Green rooms at every competition look mostly the same--chairs scattered in messy small groups across the floor of a room much too big, a paltry folding table bearing paper cups, water, juice, and half-eaten vegetable tray which is never quite fancy enough to qualify as crudités. 

Lan Wangji takes some water and a few spears of carrot and sits in a chair against the wall. He eats, drinks, and practices some breathing exercises to center himself--though perhaps it’s not necessary, as he intends to go out there and lose. He wonders if Wei Ying ever got around to writing that speech he mentioned, or if he’s planning to wing it. If he had to gamble, which is of course prohibited in the Cloud Recesses, he’d bet on the former. Wei Ying makes such a good show of meandering whimsically through life, but Lan Wangji knows him better--he practices, rehearses, works. Underneath all the laughing and joking and flirting, he’s always prepared.

Lan Wangji is thinking so hard about him that it’s not even a surprise when Wei Ying comes into the room, comes straight over to Lan Wangji, pulls a chair over, and sits next to him, his head thumping back against the wall behind them.

“Wei Ying?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” he says, smiling without looking at Lan Wangji. He’s not fine. He only smiles like that when he’s not fine. “Just my brother. Again.” He takes a breath and, before Lan Wangji can storm out of the room to murder Jiang Wanyin, he adds: “And my sister. She’s here. Of course she’s here--this is Lanling, and Jin Ling is competing--of course she’d be here.” He laughs shakily. “I don’t know why I thought she wouldn’t be.”

Lan Wangji silently offers him a spear of carrot. Wei Ying takes it and crunches it, staring at the opposite wall.

After a minute of silence, Lan Wangji says, “Did you speak to her?”

Wei Ying nods, swallows. “She can walk, a little,” he says softly. “They said--back then, after the accident--they said she wouldn’t ever again, if she survived at all. They said she definitely wouldn’t dance again.” Under the edge of the mask, his smile mask widens, but in a twisted, painful sort of way. “Nobody even told me she’d pulled through. I had to find out through back channels, months later.”

“Nobody could find you,” Lan Wangji says softly. You didn’t want to be found, he thinks. I should know--I looked harder and longer than anyone else.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. He closes his eyes. “She’s grown so much like Madam Yu,” he says around another shaky laugh. “All the best parts of Madam Yu. She scolded me and Jiang Cheng for fighting just like when we were kids, and then she scolded me for vanishing into thin air for thirteen years, and then we sniffled on each other, and then--” His voice cracks a little. “Long story short, I’m invited to visit.”

“Good,” Lan Wangji says. He’s terrified of saying too much, or the wrong thing--Wei Ying being genuinely raw and honest and vulnerable like this happens once in a blue moon, and he’ll be damned if he missteps and sends him running off into another taxi in the rain again.

“Is it?” Wei Ying says. “I don’t know. There were only two things I really wanted when I was gone, and one of them was to have my family back. Seems like every time I really want something, I screw it up.”

Lan Wangji’s heart catches a little. “You won’t screw it up.”

“Ha. Watch me.”

“What was the second thing you wanted?”

Wei Ying gives that twist of a smile again which looks so wrong on his face. “Nothing you’d care to hear about. It’s in the past.”

“I do want to hear it,” Lan Wangji insists. “We are friends.”

Wei Ying rolls his eyes--he’s already drifting back into that camouflage of half-theatrical careless frivolity. “I screwed it up. But I’m attempting to make amends, and I think I might have been forgiven, or at least I’m partway through the process. It’s hard, but it matters.”

Lan Wangji pauses, thinks about what could possibly matter so much to Wei Ying besides his family and dancing--

Wei Ying glances at him out of the corner of his eye, and Lan Wangji realizes in a jolt, Oh, he’s talking about me. 

It knocks the breath out of him. 

He stares so hard at Wei Ying that he gets a second little glance back from him. Wei Ying blinks, and pauses, and turns to him with an expression of uncertainty that’s already being covered over with a smile, like someone drawing the curtains over a window, but the expression in Wei Ying’s eyes is still so… intense, so searching--

And in a second jolt, Oh, he thinks the kiss was his fault.  

And before there is time to say anything, to even open his mouth on words in a language he doesn’t know, spoken with the breath that isn’t in his lungs, before there’s time even for a third jolt--

There’s a commotion from outside. Someone shouts for help, shouts for a doctor. 

A heartbeat later, Wei Ying is halfway to the door with Lan Wangji only a step behind him.

 

*

 

Things move too fast for Lan Wangji to remember anything afterwards but snapshots--the rush down the hallway; the gathering crowd at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to the competition floor; Wen Qing already flying down the steps as they approach, shouting in her most doctorish voice for everyone to stand the hell back and let her through. 

He finds, later, that his mind has blacked out almost every image of Luo Qingyang lying there on the floor. It papers over the interminable seconds of horror between recognizing his partner and Wen Qing saying, “Right, call an ambulance, tell them it’s a bad blow to the head and a broken wrist from a fall down the stairs; Lan Wangji, stop looming over me, she’s going to be fine once I get her to the hospital, calm down.” 

It’s another long blur of snapshots from there--Wen Qing cursing and ripping the trailing ribbons off her sleeves so they won’t get in her way, shoving them into Wei Ying’s hands; Luo Qingyang shifting and moaning softly and Wen Qing diving back to her side to touch her face gently and murmur, “Softly, sweetheart, you’ll be fine. Just stay still for me, okay?” in the tenderest voice Lan Wangji has ever heard from her; the arrival of the ambulance team, hauling Luo Qingyang onto a stretcher as Wen Qing, in full control of the situation, rattles off a list of instructions and strides alongside them.

Just before she gets to the door outside, she turns and grabs Wei Ying’s arm, hisses something in his ear. He goes still, tense with anger, and she whirls off again after the team--and then they’re gone.

Lan Wangji takes a breath for what feels like the first time in several hours. Time begins to slow back to its normal pace. He notices his hands are shaking, his fists clenched so tight his nails are digging into his palms. He notices that they’re surrounded by people--several of Luo Qingyang’s friends, all of them peers and colleagues who had been in on the scheme.

Wei Ying turns back, his face dark.

“What did she say?” Lan Wangji asks.

“Just, and I quote, Sabotage .” They gaze at each other for a long moment. 

“Fuck,” says Jiang Wanyin, somewhere behind him.

“Yep,” says Wei Ying. He turns to the group. “Did anyone see--anything?”

“I bumped into Wang Lingjiao,” Song Lan says. “It was maybe three or four seconds before I got to the stairs and saw Luo-guniang at the bottom.”

“She’d have motive,” Wei Ying says. Lan Wangji’s heartbeat is thundering in his chest--fury or fear or both. “Luo Qingyang was the favorite to win. Of course she’d be a target. Fuck.”

“You’ve got to hand it to Wang-guniang,” Jiang Wanyin says, scathing. “One push down the stairs and she disqualified both pairs of her opposition? She just won this championship.” He takes a deep breath. “And it was all because of you idiots and your stupid scheme--you swore this would work--she swore this would work--”

Yu Jinzhu, his partner, smacks him upside the head. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll tell your mother,” she snaps.

“Your sister is prettier than you,” he snaps back.

A stricken look has bloomed slowly across Wei Ying’s face over the past few moments. “Oh damn.” He looks off down the hall in the direction that Wen Qing and the ambulance team had rushed off. “Oh damn, I don’t have a partner either.” He makes a hopeless gesture. Wen Qing’s ribbons, still clutched in his hands, flutter through the air.

“Are they already gone?” asks someone who is too minor for Lan Wangji to bother remembering her name or her partner’s. “We could run after them--”

“She’s a doctor,” Lan Wangji says flatly. “She’s not going to abandon her patient.”

“But the competition--

“Luo-guniang’s life and health are more important,” Song Lan says, gentle but firm. He checks his wristwatch. “They’re about to start again. We should go up.”

Yu Jinzhu groans. “Surely there’s some kind of solution! Don’t tell me we wasted all this effort--Madam Yu is already going to kick my ass! At least give me something so I can explain that it was for a good cause! What are the rules? Can I dance with Wei Wuxian instead?”

“You’ve already been disqualified,” Lan Wangji and Wei Ying say in unison. Wei Ying adds, “It’s in the rulebook, you can’t switch partners to advance to the next round.”

“Every other woman in the building has been disqualified too!” she says, throwing up her hands. “I guess we’re just fucked, then!”

“Shut up or I’ll tell my mother,” Jiang Wanyin sneers in a mocking voice. 

Song Lan pauses, cocking his head, and glances between Lan Wangji and Wei Ying. “A thought,” he says, slow and careful. “Would you rather be disqualified now, or immediately after this round? In other words… For having no partner, or for having the wrong partner?”

Lan Wangji feels both like there are iron bands around his chest and like there is a spotlight on him. He feels horribly exposed, like he’s been stripped bare in front of everyone, and--

“Well, that’s a political statement if ever I heard one,” Wei Ying says. He is looking at him again, hesitant, and he says, “If Lan Zhan doesn’t mind…?”

And then there’s that third jolt, the one that had been averted earlier in the green room, and this one is just pure, choking feeling: Maybe--maybe --

“I don’t mind,” he says. He swallows hard. “Would Wei Ying prefer me to be the follow?”

“No,” Wei Ying says quickly. “No, I’ll do it.” He looks down at himself. “Fuck. Fuck, this is lunacy. What are we doing?” 

One floor above them, the distant rumble of voices quiets like the falling tide. “Run,” Song Lan says, and Wei Ying is flying past them all and up the stairs, and--Lan Wangji doesn’t know what they’re doing, and maybe they’re just winging the whole thing now, maybe the stupid scheme, such as it was, falls apart without Luo Qingyang to mastermind it anyway, maybe it’s just--

Maybe it’s just about saying something true, out where everyone can see it. Out where even Wei Ying can’t miss his meaning. Wei Ying, who thought that kiss was his fault, who thought--

“Wei Ying,” he gasps at the top of the stairs. “My phone.” 

Wei Ying stumbles to a stop, shoves his hand into his pocket. “Why?” he says as he fishes it out.

Lan Wangji snatches it away and is already charging into the ballroom. He hears Wei Ying behind him say, “Uh, someone… try to delay it a minute, I guess?” and Jiang Cheng reply instantly, “On it.”

Where is Sizhui? Lan Wangji scans the crowd, and has never been so thankful for the neat white-and-blue uniforms of the Lan school, and for this class’s tendency to go everywhere together in a little pack: It makes them easy to spot instantly. They’re in the raised seating on one side of the ballroom. Sizhui is near the center of the group, several rows back. Lan Wangji strides across to them and up the steps to their row and stops, stabbing at his phone to open the long-ignored music app. “Sizhui,” he says sharply, and the whole group snaps to attention. “You are teenagers. Would you like to commit a small crime?” 

What?” says Sizhui.

“What the fuck?” says Jin Ling.

“Oh my god yes,” Jingyi whispers, covering his mouth with his hands. His eyes are wide and bright. “This is the moment I’ve always been waiting for. I’m ready. Hanguang-jun! I’m ready!”

Lan Wangji thrusts his phone at Sizhui, who fumbles to take it. “Break into the sound booth. Lock the door. Play this song.”

Jingyi is nearly weeping, raising his eyes to the heavens. “Thank you for this gift,” he whispers.

Lan Wangji turns away as the three of them scramble to their feet, the other Lan students murmuring in bewilderment. He makes his way around the huge ballroom again; Jiang Wanyin and Yu Jinzhu are hanging off the sleeves of one of the judges, making a nuisance of themselves. Jiang Wanyin is shouting, of course--at the judges, at his partner, at the assistants who are trying to drag the two of them away so that things can proceed.

Lan Wangji is going to say it right out, as clearly as he’s able to, in a way that will work even if the words get tangled in his throat. 

Behind one of the pillars at the edge of the room, several of the other dancers are feverishly working over Wei Ying. They’ve used Wen Qing’s ribbons to adorn him a little more flashily--his hair, his neck, his arms, his waist. He’s not glittering as jewel-bright as the other follows, but the ribbons will swirl from the edges of his clothes as he moves, like smoke or wraiths. Lan Wangji brushes aside a few of the attendants and snatches the last few ribbons from them, tugs Wei Ying’s wrists up. “It’s supposed to be a waltz,” he says, tying one of the white ribbons onto Wei Ying’s wrist.

“I know,” Wei Ying says breathlessly, craning his neck to look around the pillar to where Jiang Wanyin and Yu Jinzhu are being bodily hauled off the stage. 

“We’re not dancing a waltz,” Lan Wangji says.

“Eh?” Wei Ying says, turning back to him.

“We will be disqualified anyway. It does not matter what we do.”

Wei Ying blinks at him. “What are we dancing, then?”

“Tango,” he says, and he sees Wei Ying’s breath catch. He ties the last ribbon onto Wei Ying’s other wrist and, without letting go of it, tugs him along. “Come.”

“But they’ll play waltz music,” Wei Ying objects.

“No,” Lan Wangji says, as the announcers apologize to the crowd and begin to announce the competing pairs for the final round. “They won’t.”

He hopes. He hopes Jingyi’s apparently much-yearned-for life of minor crime is beginning auspiciously. He didn’t give them much time.

“Wen Chao and Lingjiao,” the announcer says. Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao are walking out into the middle of the floor, showy and theatrical, too flashy. “Lan Wangji and Luo Qingyang.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying begins, but he shakes his head. “Alright. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I do. Exactly.”  

“--And Mo Xuanyu and Wen Qing,” the announcer barely says the last word before there is a click through the audio system, a moment of feedback. 

“Take off your mask.”

Wei Ying gives him a strange look, but pulls loose the ribbon, lowers the mask, drops it to the floor with a clatter.

The announcer says something into his microphone. It is dead, the power cut. 

Clever boy, his son. Takes after all the best parts of Wei Ying.

Without waiting an instant more, he takes Wei Ying’s hand and leads him out to the middle of the floor, the lights glaring bright on them, the space around them and above them sickeningly vast and empty, but Wei Ying is beside him, his hand gripping Lan Wangji’s. There is a murmur through the audience, and Lan Wangji distinctly hears Ouyang Zizhen whimper, “Oh no.”

Lan Wangji draws Wei Ying closer and says, “Listen to me.” 

 And just like that, like magic, the song begins over the speakers, and then it’s cranked louder. Wei Ying’s grip becomes bruisingly tight for a moment, his breath stuttering, and then he swallows hard, staring into Lan Wangji’s eyes, and he steps in, raising his arms to join their frame.

 

*

 

When Lan Wangji teaches the younger classes, the ones who are just beginning to get good enough for competition, he tells them, A dance is a conversation. There are certain kinds of conversation he feels comfortable in--waltz is his favorite, of course, because of how polite and clean every movement has to be. 

Dancing with Wei Ying is merely picking up the threads of conversation that ended so abruptly in Lan Wangji’s kitchen, the one he should have picked up the next day in the entryway of his house with the umbrella dripping water on his shoes, or beside the taxi with the rain pouring around them, or any time during the last two months of missing Wei Ying so keenly. This, though, is… better.

They’re close enough that he can feel Wei Ying’s chest expand every time he breathes. Wei Ying begins carefully, his eyes closed and a line between his eyebrows as if he’s concentrating hard, as if he really is listening.

Lan Wangji tells him what he means with the pressure of his hand against Wei Ying’s back, the warmth where they’re pressed together, the push and pull of his other hand in Wei Ying’s, directing him where to go and how to move. Wei Ying is as brilliant of a follow as he is a lead, and Lan Wangji once again almost reels at how easy it is, how Wei Ying seems to know what he’ll ask for a microsecond before Lan Wangji asks for it. 

I want you, Lan Wangji tells him, which is just what the tango is for. I want you, I’ve always wanted you, don’t leave me again. If you want me back, I’m yours.

And then, slowly, Wei Ying stops merely listening. His hand slides further around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, he makes close embrace somehow even closer, plastering himself against Lan Wangji, turning his head so his forehead is pressed against Lan Wangji’s cheekbone. Lan Wangji gives him time to add embellishments and Wei Ying seizes on them, makes it something scintillating and breathtaking. 

He isn’t certain what Wei Ying is saying in reply, but he thinks--he’s almost sure--

Halfway through the song, Wei Ying’s eyes open and he pulls just far enough away to look straight into Lan Wangji’s heart. His gaze very serious and penetrating, Wei Ying dares an embellishment he hasn’t tried with Lan Wangji since they were seventeen--lustrada, the instep of his foot dragging up the length of Lan Wangji’s calf.

I do want you back.

Lan Wangji’s heart throbs in his chest, a rush of fire coursing down his spine, and from there the conversation gets… Well. Lan Wangji never actually forgets that they’re in front of a thousand people, but he does abruptly stop caring. The conversation becomes almost feverish, their footwork as desperately complicated as they can make it without having rehearsed this, but it just… happens. It just happens on its own, without Lan Wangji having to think about anything other than saying, I want you, I want you, as loud as he can without ever opening his mouth.

His pulse is thundering when the music ends, and Wei Ying is all but gasping against his neck. The heat of exertion is blazing off Wei Ying’s skin like a furnace, and he is gripping Lan Wangji too tightly for either of them to pull away, and Wei Ying just says, “Oh.” A moment later, accusing and plaintive, “You never said .”

Lan Wangji is fairly fucking certain he did say, at least to the best of his scant ability, and that it’s on Wei Ying for not paying attention, not believing that Lan Wangji could be saying these things to him--

But that is an argument for another time.

The rest of the huge room begins to come back into focus, his attention widening from his laser-focus on Wei Ying, and he hears first the applause, mixed with noises of incredulity and confusion, and shouting from the stage where the judges’ panel is, and a commotion from the sound booth. Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao, both red-faced, charge up to the judges to contribute to the shouting, glaring daggers at Lan Wangji as they pass.

There is another click over the sound system, and then, a moment later, “--ing, testing, testing, there it is. Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the confusion.” There’s someone speaking on the stage. Lan Wangji does not look at them, does not even let go of Wei Ying. He drops their frame, only so that he can wrap both his arms around Wei Ying, and Wei Ying buries his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “We will beg your indulgence for a few minutes,” the announcer is droning in a very carefully civil tone. “While the Board and the judges discuss how to proceed. Unfortunately a few young pranksters changed the--” Another commotion, and someone is wrestling him away from the microphone. 

A new voice, younger and smoother, takes over. Jin Guangyao, Lan Wangji recognizes. No one is as diplomatic and politic as him. “The Board will require a moment to consult the Federation rulebook. Please indulge us with your patience.”

“They’re going to discuss whether it even counts,” Wei Ying laughs against his shoulder. 

“It will not matter. We will be disqualified anyway,” Lan Wangji says against his hair. He has never felt so placid about losing. He has never felt so much like he’s won.

Wei Ying finally lets go and steps back, tugging at the ribbons at his throat, his arms. The delicate fabric has snagged on the glittering sequins in a few places, and the more he wriggles, the more tangled he gets. “Get these things off me,” he whines. “Off, off, off.”

Lan Wangji leads him off the floor to where their peers are all waiting, in various stages of elation and meltdown, fully intending to tear the ribbons off Wei Ying immediately, but Wei Ying is snatched away from him for hugs and congratulations, everyone declaring in loud voices that they should win, that it’s a crime if they don’t win, that they’ll burn the whole hotel down if they don’t win. Even Jiang Wanyin offers a begrudging little bow to Lan Wangji and grunts, “Hanguang-jun.”

Wei Ying is looking increasingly distressed with his snarly tangle of ribbons as they catch on the sequins of other people’s costumes and are tugged inadvertently when people hug him, and Lan Wangji pulls out his very best glare and turns the full brunt of it on the people around Wei Ying. “Stand back.

They scuttle back from Wei Ying, and Lan Wangji steps in and tries to rip the ribbons, but his grip is too weak and watery with adrenaline to be very effective, and the few ribbons that tear do so below the knot, leaving it even more tightly tied. Wei Ying is in no better of a state than Lan Wangji is. He’s wavering on his feet and he keeps clutching at Lan Wangji’s arms and shoulders for balance, as if he’s the only steady thing in a world that’s whirling around them. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan. Oh my god. Really? Really, though? That wasn’t--I didn’t imagine that--Lan Zhan, did you mean it?”

Lan Wangji levels a look at him. “Did you?” 

Wei Ying wobbles visibly and opens his mouth to say something.

“Excuse me,” Jin Guangyao says politely, off to one side. “May I interrupt a moment?” 

Lan Wangji seethes and just barely stops himself from turning the glare on him as well. “Yes?”

Jin Guangyao’s expression is smooth, his smile warm and courteous without giving a single thing away. “The judges have asked me to inquire as to the whereabouts of your partners and whether you are responsible for the young men who raided the sound booth, as they are students of the Lan School.”

Wei Ying is making little annoyed sounds and still tugging ineffectually at the ribbons. “Yes, they’re ours,” he says absently. “Our students, I mean.”

“Ours,” Lan Wangji agrees.

Wei Ying flails in frustration with the ribbons. “I want these off!” he snarls again, and then looks over his shoulder at Jin Guangyao. “Luo Qingyang was pushed down the stairs by Wang Lingjiao and was taken to the hospital. It was sabotage.”

“Ah,” Jin Guangyao says. “This is not the first such report we have heard during this competition. And Wen-guniang?”

“Wen Qing is attending to her as her doctor.”

“I see,” Jin Guangyao. “So. You didn’t have a choice? No other partners left who qualified? May I tell the judges that? It may persuade them to extend leniency to you--”

Wei Ying snaps, “You can tell them whatever you want if you stop standing there and get these things off me!”

Jin Guangyao blinks at him, smiles, and steps forward to help. His nails are very well-manicured, which should make it easier for him to unpick the knots, but he works slowly, as if Wei Ying’s rudeness has not particularly motivated him to be efficient. Lan Wangji eyes him suspiciously and tries to squash down the surge of jealousy that someone else is touching Wei Ying. It’s more important to get the ribbons off. Wei Ying is becoming nearly frantic, squirming around and making it even harder for Lan Wangji to free him easily. 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again, sounding almost panicked. 

“Be still,” he says. “You are alright.”

“I’m not! I’m not alright! You never said !” His voice cuts out as Jin Guangyao, with that same mild expression, begins attending to the ribbon around his throat. He seems to be tugging it more than necessary, and Wei Ying whines and tugs. “Ow--careful--ggkk--choking!”

“The knot is tight,” Jin Guangyao says very pleasantly, smiling in a way that is almost sincere. “Please be patient, Mo-gongzi. Or, rather Wei-gongzi, isn’t it?” Wei Ying coughs pitifully, and Jin Guangyao’s smile widens. “Sorry,” he says sweetly. “The knot is very tight.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, flailing to grab Lan Wangji’s hands. Lan Wangji gently shakes him off and keeps removing ribbons one by one, untangling them from around his legs and arms. “Lan Zhan.

“Nearly done.”

“Lan Zhan, pay attention, I’m trying to--”

“Jin Ling!” Jiang Wanyin shouts. “What’s with the guilty expression! What did you do!”

“Oh, the kids,” Wei Wuxian says weakly. Lan Wangji turns--the three of them are being dragged over by furious-looking officials. Jin Ling does indeed look guilty as hell, wincing as Jiang Wanyin bellows; Sizhui seems anxious, but there’s a glittering edge of mischief hiding in the corner of his mouth; Jingyi is delirious with giggles. 

“Ah, Hanguang-jun!” Jingyi calls, waving energetically. “You were so cool! Congratulations! You were so cool, Hanguang-jun! Senior Wei!” 

“Are these your students?” the official says darkly. Lan Wangji nods, untying the last ribbon besides the one that Jin Guangyao is having such suspicious amounts of trouble with, and turns to the official. 

(He hears Wei Ying make a sad little noise behind him and feels his little raccoon hands scrabble at his sleeve, followed by another light choking noise and Jin Guangyao’s simpering apology. “Oh, there it goes, you’re free now,” Jin Guangyao says. “I hope I didn’t hurt you.”)

Lan Wangji bows to the official. “The children are my responsibility, yes.”

“There will be disciplinary action,” the official snaps, shoving Jingyi at him.

“They were acting according to my instruction,” Lan Wangji says. “Therefore, I will accept whatever disciplinary act the Board deems fit.”

“So cool, Hanguang-jun,” Jingyi says again, gazing at him rapturously. Jiang Wanyin collars Jin Ling roughly and mutters something about telling his mother, which makes Jin Ling’s face go white and sets him to wriggling like a hooked fish.

“It was for a righteous cause!” Jin Ling protests. “You heard Hanguang-jun!”

Sizhui bows deeply to Jiang Wanyin. “It was a righteous cause! We couldn’t have done it without Jin Ling! He was amazing.” Jin Ling’s face goes from white to red in seconds. 

Lan Wangji puts a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder. To Jiang Wanyin, he says, “I will take all responsibility for their actions.”

Jiang Wanyin does not look placated, but it’s difficult for Lan Wangji to pay him any more attention, because Wei Ying is suddenly hanging from his sleeve. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “Lan Zhan, I’m dying, I have to tell you--”

Lan Zhan’s heart skips a beat and he is already turning to Wei Ying, his focus honing to a laser point and his hands reaching out to touch Wei Ying’s arms, to pull him close--

“Hanguang-jun! Wei-gongzi!” another person calls, and Wei Ying groans and clutches Lan Wangji’s hands. It is Xiao Xingchen, rushing up with Song Lan right behind him, his eyes bright and cheeks flushed. “Hanguang-jun, Wei-gongzi, that was--” Xiao Xingchen shakes his head. “Song Lan told me what was happening right before you went out on the floor and--you won’t win, you know that, yes?”

“Yes,” says Lan Wangji. He is getting impatient, restless to the point of madness--he’s been pushed to the edge too many times today, and now Wei Ying clearly has something to say, and--why are there so many people here? But these two, at least… Well. They’re the reason he’s here at all. The reason Wei Ying is here, that they’re here together, that any of the rest of their peers came together. They are that righteous cause, and as much as he longs to take Wei Ying’s precious face in his hands and listen to nothing but whatever words are about to come out of his mouth… There is duty to attend to. Obligations. He squeezes Wei Ying’s hand tight and hopes that will do.

“But you know that you should have won,” Xiao Xingchen is saying. “And everyone will know you should have.” He’s not quite smiling, but his eyes are shining. Song Lan, by comparison, is beaming outright. Xiao Xingchen bows deeply. “I hope one day for the honor of competing against you.”

“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says. He bows in return, as much as he can without letting go of Wei Ying’s hand.

“Thank you, very kind, we should all go out for dinner later,” Wei Ying babbles wildly. “Exchange phone numbers, that sort of thing; I’m so sorry but could you excuse us for, um, two seconds--”

“Eh?” says Song Lan, surprised. “Is something wrong?”

“Nope!” Wei Ying says. “Nothing’s wrong! I just--need to borrow Hanguang-jun for two seconds, maybe ten seconds maximum--”

There’s a buzzing noise and Sizhui jumps and fumbles in his pockets. “Oh--Oh, Dad, it’s your phone.” He pulls it out, peers at the screen. “Oh! Wen Qing.” 

Wei Ying makes a complicated noise and snatches the phone away when Sizhui holds it out. He answers the phone like it has personally offended him, and says in a voice of such forced merriness that it’s showing cracks all the way to the center, “Doctor Wen, as I live and breathe! How is she? What’s happening? There are fifteen things happening here right now and I need fourteen fewer.” He goes to put a palm over his free ear to block out the noise, and Lan Wangji can see the moment when Wei Ying realizes with dismayed consternation that he’ll have to drop Lan Wangji’s hand to do it. Lan Wangji helpfully puts his own free hand over Wei Ying’s ear. The manic glint in Wei Ying’s eyes melts a little into relief and gratitude. “What, say again? Oh, good.” He mouths to Lan Wangji, She’ll be fine, and Lan Wangji feels a little of his own manic edge melt too. “No, yeah, everything’s fine here, we’re about to get spectacularly disqualified, don’t worry about us!”

Lan Wangji takes the phone away from him. “Wen-guniang,” he says.

“Uh--Hanguang-jun?”

“Will Luo Qingyang want visitors?” 

“Absolutely not,” she snarls, suddenly fierce. “Whatever drama you’re stirring up over there, you keep it there. Nothing stressful or exciting until tomorrow morning at the earliest. Midmorning. Lunchtime for preference. I have a variety of sharp implements here and I will be guarding the door to her room.”

“Mn,” he agrees. “Thank you.”

He hands the phone back to Wei Ying, and Lan Wangji notices that they’ve gathered even more of a crowd now--they all jostle closer, hopeful-eyed, as Wei Ying mutters into the phone. He despairs.  “Is that Luo-guniang?” they all clamor. “Is she alright? It’s not too serious, is it?”

“She will recover,” Lan Wangji says.

“Right, okay, bye!” Wei Ying says into the phone and shoves it unceremoniously into his pocket. “We can’t just leave, right?” he says in a low voice to Lan Wangji. “We have to stay.”

“It would be dishonorable to leave before the judges make a decision,” Lan Wangji says. 

Wei Ying groans. “You’ve really got some sadistic idea of timing, Lan Zhan, do you know that? Fuck it--fuck it, listen to me, I just want to say--”

A crackle over the sound system, and then, “Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the delay.”

“Dammit,” Wei Ying says conversationally. “I’m going to kill everyone in this room. Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, I’m going to kill them.”

He squeezes Wei Ying’s hand. “Do not,” he whispers back. “A little more patience.”

Wei Ying snarls silently, but he does not begin a murder spree, so that’s probably fine. Lan Zhan changes the grip of their hands so he can lace their fingers together, and all the fire goes out of Wei Ying at once as he looks down at their joined hands with surprise and incredulous delight.

“The judges have reached a decision,” continues the announcer, and only then does Lan Wangji recognize Jin Guangyao--when had he slipped away? 

On the stage, standing at the podium before the judges’ table, Jin Guangyao makes an elegant and apparently extemporaneous speech about the noble and upstanding history of the Federation and the championships. Lan Wangji ignores all of it and strokes Wei Ying’s knuckles with his thumb. Wei Ying leans a little closer to him, their arms pressed together.

The speech goes on far longer than necessary. “Come on,” Wei Ying whispers, a minute or so into it. “Just disqualify us already, we won’t even have to start the riot ourselves.”

“Shh,” Lan Wangji says.

“How can I shh? Lan Zhan, how can I shh at a time like this?” Wei Ying hisses back. “I’m going to tell you something after this and you’re going to be shocked. Shocked, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji’s stomach swoops. “Yes.”

“They could at least do us the courtesy of being efficient about it. Just throw us out on our asses! Took them seconds to do it when it was just me.” 

Lan Wangji squeezes his hand again. “Today, it is not just you.”

Wei Ying turns to face him. Lan Wangji faces him too. “You really are okay with it, aren’t you?” he murmurs. His eyes are piercing into Lan Wangji’s heart. “You’re not even a little bothered about the idea that they might throw you out like they threw me out. I thought you were just being noble, but--you really don’t give a shit.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says.

“Why?”

Lan Wangji sometimes has trouble with his words. Perhaps it is that they’re whispering to each other in a room full of people, none of whom are paying them the slightest attention; perhaps it is Wei Ying’s warm hand in his; perhaps it’s just luck--right now, when it matters, he has the words when he reaches for them. “Because I will be standing beside Wei Ying,” he says.

Wei Ying gazes at him for a heartbeat more and abruptly all the stress and tension and mania is overcome by a smile that blazes out like sunshine and seems, at least to Lan Wangji, that it could light up the whole city, let alone the ballroom. Lan Wangji’s heart aches in his chest and he smiles back.

“In conclusion,” Jin Guangyao says placidly. “We acknowledge that many of you, ladies and gentlemen, may disagree with the judges’ decision, but we ask that you respect their ruling with the dignity and grace that befits this organization and its history. With that in mind…” He pauses for the first time in several minutes. “The judges have chosen to disqualify Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, who was earlier competing under the false identity of Mo Xuanyu.” There is a rumble of outrage from half the room, a smattering of applause from the other half, and a scream of glee from Wang Lingjiao.

Jin Guangyao holds up a hand for silence. “The judges will remind everyone that switching partners in the middle of a competition is explicitly disallowed in the official rulebook. If one partner of a pair is unable to compete, the pair is disqualified as a unit. Additionally, Wei Wuxian received a lifetime ban from the Federation thirteen years ago and, while banned persons are welcome to attend as members of the public, they are prohibited from entering Federation-associated competitions.”

Lan Wangji hasn’t taken his eyes off Wei Ying--he’s still smiling, and he looks… centered. Serene. Like standing beside Lan Wangji is where he wants to be too, and to hell with anyone else.

“On that subject,” Jin Guangyao continues. “The judges regret to announce that Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao are also disqualified.” Another, second surge of noise runs through the hall, and now Wei Ying breaks their long gaze to frown at the stage. “We have received several corroborated reports that they have been involved in ungracious behavior unbecoming of the Federation. They are henceforth banned from competition.” 

The incredulous rumble bursts into a torrent of noise, and Wei Ying turns back to him, wide eyed. “Oh, shit. It’s going to be--oh. Oh, I have an idea.”

He lets go of Lan Wangji’s hand and turns, craning over the heads of the crowd around them to look for something, or someone. He dives between people, wriggling through like a minnow, and grabs Jiang Wanyin by the arm, whispering something frantically into his ear. Lan Wangji is at the wrong angle to see what Jiang Wanyin’s face does, but he sees it when his shoulders straighten and he pulls back. There’s a stubborn expression set on his face and he nods firmly. Wei Ying claps him on the shoulder and dives for someone else. 

Jin Guangyao has been asking, politely, for silence again, and the noise is only just beginning to die down. “The judges have reviewed the scores for the rest of the competitors in order to determine this year’s champion. Congratulations to Jiang Wanyin and Yu Jinzhu.” 

Lan Wangji just hears Wei Ying shout, “Told you!” over the noise of the applause ringing through the room. He sees Jiang Wanyin roll his eyes and stride out onto the floor, Yu Jinzhu beside him. He’s whispering to her all the way, and she nods along as he speaks. 

They stop and bow to the judges, to Jin Guangyao. The applause dies down and Yu Jinzhu raises her voice. “We thank the judges for this honor. However, we would not feel we have truly earned it without competing in a final round. We cannot accept a championship that has not been fairly won.”

There is a long moment of silence. “Ah,” says Jin Guangyao. “How noble of you.” He looks towards the judges, who are all frowning and flicking through the pages of notes in front of them. They whisper to each other--much like how Wei Ying is whispering to all the dancers around Lan Wangji, flitting from one pair to another like a moth. He’s already covered nearly half of them. Some of them nod immediately; some of them frown and listen intently to his explanation before relenting. 

The judges eventually look up from their discussion and nod to Jin Guangyao, holding out a slip of paper. He reads it out at the podium: “For the new final round, then, the judges will invite Zhou Zishu and Xiao Qing.” 

Lan Wangji turns towards them in the crowd--they’d been the next ones that Wei Ying had approached after Jiang Wanyin. The pair take several steps onto the dance floor, bow, and in unison say, “We humbly cannot accept.”

Lan Wangji turns immediately to Wei Ying, off now towards the back of the crowd but pausing to look over his shoulder with a glittering grin, and he sees exactly how this will go.

The judges, flustered, come up with another name--Nie Huaisang and his partner, one of Ouyang Zizhen’s older cousins. This pair, too, declines the invitation to compete in the final.

Another pair. Another refusal. 

Another. 

Another.

All of them, Lan Wangji notes, are people who were among the inner circle of the first scheme. Wei Ying is moving quicker now through the crowd, but the judges are calling names quicker too, and Lan Wangji is watching him intently--it is just the same as a dance, Wei Ying keeping on his toes and flying here and there across the crowd, and the judges keep calling names and the pairs keep refusing. 

Lan Wangji sees in a sudden flash what the endgame is, and he turns to Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan who are standing nearby. “Be ready,” he says. “Don’t refuse it, when it comes to you.”

They give him identical thunderstruck expressions. “It should have been yours,” Xiao Xingchen says firmly.

“Perhaps next time,” Lan Wangji replies, and turns his attention back to Wei Ying.

 

*

 

The judges don’t have a choice. They call out the names of every single other pair who had registered in the adult category before they reach Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. Whether because of Wei Ying’s pure charisma, or superstition, or a horror of sticking out as the first pair to arrogantly accept the invitation to compete when their betters had all declined, every other pair refuses when they’re called up. 

Wei Ying, breathing heavily and flushed pink and a little sticky with sweat, returns to his side as Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan walk out onto the floor, and as they announce that they will accept the invitation, Wei Ying’s face breaks out into another of those brilliant grins. “Got ‘em,” he whispers to Lan Wangji. 

They could leave now--slip out while no one is paying attention. No one will care. No one will even remember that they exist in a minute or two. But… 

But as much as he wants to drag Wei Ying off somewhere and find out what precisely he has to say, there is a part of him that wants to stay for this too. Watching this--witnessing this--feels like duty, but one that he is pleased to perform. 

Wei Ying, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, takes his hand again just as the music starts. Waltz music, the correct music.

Jiang Wanyin and Yu Jinzhu don’t even need to throw the competition. Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen dance, as achingly beautiful as they’ve ever been, like they’re lighter than air. They are immaculate, so immaculate it hurts to look at them, but Lan Wangji just keeps looking, and finds himself squeezing Wei Ying’s hand hard. 

But, just to be on the safe side, it seems, as soon as the music ends, Jiang Wanyin and Yu Jinzhu bow deeply to the judges and, loud enough for the whole room to hear, express their gratitude for the honor of losing to Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan.

 

*

 

Of course they are not allowed to escape after that either, but Lan Wangji is beginning to become accustomed to being thwarted. He knows what it is to wait better than anyone else. He has waited for thirteen years. He manages, somehow, to wait another two hours.

Wei Ying is not helping. Wei Ying keeps giving him these shining-eyed looks, more frequently than is socially appropriate. First, there’s dinner, and somehow Wei Ying ends up in a different taxi on the way to the restaurant, and then at the opposite end of the table, and whenever Lan Wangji looks up, Wei Ying’s eyes are there, warm and dark and shining, and Lan Wangji would have exploded in frustration by now, patience be damned, except that Wei Ying intersperses all these hot, wanting looks at Lan Wangji with making ridiculous, grotesque faces at Sizhui, Jingyi, and Jin Ling, who are sitting a few seats closer to Wei Ying. He sticks his tongue out at them and twists his face into wretched shapes until they laugh and throw wadded-up napkins at him, and Lan Wangji feels like he’s filled with warmth all the way up to his throat.

What has he to be impatient for? He is here, with his family and the quiet contentment of having done a small good and made the world, even briefly, just a little better than it was. He’s here with Wei Ying, shining-eyed and laughing.

 

*

 

They are alone, at last, when they make it to the elevator, heading back up to Lan Wangji’s hotel room. They don’t touch. They don’t speak. Wei Ying shoves his hands in his pockets and ambles along in Lan Wangji’s wake as they go down the hall, as Lan Wangji opens the door. It’s an odd kind of deja vu, an echo of the previous night. 

The door clicks closed behind them as Lan Wangji flicks on the light switches, and Wei Ying plasters himself against Lan Wangji’s back. “Should I risk it now? Trying to talk?” he whispers theatrically. “Who’s going to charge into the room and interrupt me this time? How many more urgent crises can do you think they can come up with?”

Lan Wangji turns in his arms and silently flips the deadbolt on the door. “No one will come in.”

Wei Ying’s eyes gleam at him. 

There is a long silence in which they just look at each other, and then Wei Ying sighs and slips his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist, burying his head against Lan Wangji’s shoulder when Lan Wangji wraps his arms around him too. He hears Wei Ying swallow, hears him open his mouth and take a breath, but it still takes another moment or two before he speaks. “Earlier I said, did you mean it? And you said, Did you?

A thrill runs up Lan Wangji’s spine. “Yes.”

“I meant it,” Wei Ying says.

“So did I.” He feels Wei Ying shiver in his arms and tightens his hold. Wei Ying drops his forehead onto Lan Wangji’s shoulder again.

He could now, he suspects, turn his head and kiss the edges of Wei Ying’s hairline without being rebuffed. He could kiss the corner of Wei Ying’s eye, his cheek, his mouth. He imagines Wei Ying sighing into the kiss and getting his hands in Lan Wangji’s hair to drag him closer. 

Somehow, it would be no more intimate than what they’re doing now. It would bring them no closer together than they already are, and so he finds, strangely, that he can wait a little longer still. 

Whatever Wei Ying was trying so desperately to blurt out in the middle of the ballroom with Jin Guangyao possibly-a-bit-on-purpose strangling him, he doesn’t seem to be in any rush to say it now. It’s harder to speak without thought when you’re all alone in a quiet room, after all, without the adrenaline driving you towards recklessness. And besides that, Lan Wangji knows all too well what it feels like to be so full of words and immense, immeasurable wants that he cannot begin to express them aloud.

Against his shoulder, Wei Ying mutters, “Encouraging children into a life of crime, Lan Zhan, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” 

“No,” he says.

“Not even a little sorry? Tsk!”

“I am unrepentant.”

“How dreadful to witness the downfall of the noble and righteous Hanguang-jun,” Wei Ying says mournfully. “Even such a virtuous person descends into wickedness eventually, is that it?”

Lan Wangji snorts a little, and he feels Wei Ying grin against his shoulder. 

“Oi, speaking of wickedness, you ought to give a man some warning before you go cuing lifts and things that involve both his feet off the floor,” Wei Ying scolds. “I haven’t done that much following that you can throw just anything at me! You set up that sentada and I nearly tripped before I remembered what I was supposed to do. Villain.”

Lan Wangji has only hazy memories of the dance itself, but he can’t remember a moment of hesitation from Wei Ying at any point, even for the sentada--one moment Wei Ying had been at his side, the next perched neatly on his thigh with an effortless twirl of limbs, as if he was lighter than air. Lan Wangji could probably pull him to the bed and have him perch in his lap again. He doesn’t.

But he notices, with a hazy swirl of pleasure, that they’re swaying a little, and when he experimentally cues a little cadencia, he feels Wei Ying’s smile again as he shifts to follow perfectly.

His mouth goes a little dry, and he begins to rethink whether he really is fine with not kissing Wei Ying at this moment. 

“Oh!” Wei Ying says in a completely different voice. “That reminds me! We really ought to teach Sizhui and Mianmian some of the more obscure waltz steps, I’m sure they can handle them--there’s one that goes like this, I don’t know its name--” With a bossy sort of air, he gets them into a semblance of a proper frame, if a very lazy one, and leads Lan Wangji through it. It’s an elegant step but… very obscure, yes. He’s never seen it danced in competition, and he’s not sure it would be worth the points.

“Hm,” he says, disapproving. “No, this one is better.” Wei Ying yields to being led again, and Lan Wangji guides him halfway through the step before Wei Ying is throwing his head back and laughing.

“So restrained, Hanguang-jun!” he cries. “You just want him to showcase the accuracy of his footwork, eh?”

Lan Wangji gives him a prim look and is met with a grin. “He has very good footwork,” he says.

“Yeah, sure does, he has a good teacher,” Wei Ying says. “Hey, do you know this one, though?”

They trade back and forth like that, trading off the lead to show each other steps, both real ones and made-up ones, bickering companionably in between. It’s… playing. It’s fun. Lan Wangji can’t remember the last time, before today, that dancing was fun.

Wei Ying’s smile is easy and unguarded, his eyes bright and sharp when Lan Wangji shows him a new step he doesn’t know. He picks them all up as quickly as anything, never needing to see it more than once or twice at the most. There’s not really enough space in the hotel room for anything dramatic, but there’s a pathway from the door to the window that’s wide enough to work with, barely. Lan Wangji keeps having fantasies of tripping Wei Ying onto the bed and saying, “Oops,” as if that would be convincing in the slightest. He wonders if Wei Ying would keep smiling if he did that. If he’d laugh. If he’d let go of Lan Wangji’s hand or pull him down too. This play-dancing is fun, but it would also be fun to slide his hand up Wei Ying's bare waist as he breathes and looks up at Lan Wangji with those pretty, dark eyes.

“I missed you,” Wei Ying says around a laugh. “All that time I was with Wen Qing and Wen Ning, I kept thinking, It’s stupid that I’m here and he’s there, I should just call him, I should say sorry, I wanna help with the classes and steal the blankets at night and fuck up the laundry sorting system and dance with him every day.”

Lan Wangji feels his ears go hot with a blush. “There was nothing to say sorry for,” he says.

Wei Ying pouts at him. “Too reserved, Lan Zhan! I’m certain I ought to say sorry for the blankets and the laundry at least!” 

“I will not accept such an apology.”

“Because you know I’ll do it again,” Wei Ying says soberly, but his eyes are full of merriment, and Lan Wangji’s heart is full of a fluttering excitement--Wei Ying is planning to be around? He’s planning to steal the blankets again? “So you won’t accept it until I truly repent and reform my dreadful behavior.”

“No. I will not accept it because Wei Ying is welcome to make any changes he requires,” Lan Wangji manages, almost levelly. “Laundry, blanket allocation, or anything else.”

“Hm,” Wei Ying says, pensively cuing Lan Wangji through a twirl before pulling him back in sharply, possessively. Lan Wangji thrills at being so possessed. He wants to kiss Wei Ying. He wants to yank him in and never let him go again. “You know, there are several other small reforms I have often thought about putting before the Federation’s Board.”

The words themselves are something that Wei Ying could, plausibly, say in seriousness, but the tone makes Lan Wangji suspicious. “Such as?” 

“So you know the tango categories?”

“Yes.”

“I think there needs to be more specificity of distinction with the nomenclature,” Wei Ying says earnestly, eyes wide. Lan Wangji grows more suspicious.

“What further distinction should be made?” he asks carefully.

“Well, I’ve been thinking of telling the Board that really, by all reasonable standards, they should specify that all the current subcategories are variations of vertical tango.”

Lan Wangji gazes at him. Wei Ying’s eyes are sparkling and he’s fighting to keep a straight face. “Wei Ying.”

“I’m just saying, someone could be confused one of these days,” Wei Ying says, eyes even more wide and earnest, and his expression right on the cusp of shattering into wild hoots of laughter. “You know, because they could get it mixed up with the horizontal tango. Such fine and subtle distinctions, you know. The Board should hear about this.”

Lan Wangji will not abide puns even from his life’s beloved, and so he will not give Wei Ying the satisfaction of receiving validation either through laughter or groans of disgust, though there is a war inside him between the two impulses. Even scolding him for shamelessness has not, historically, been effective. He gives Wei Ying a flat look and says, “Hm.”

But not receiving the reaction he was hoping for always and only makes Wei Ying push harder. “Don’t you agree, Lan Zhan? Don’t you think that should be an important distinction? An allowable competitive dance? Picture it! Are you picturing it? Championship horizontal tango? Lan Zhan, conjure the image of it in your mind, I dare you--”

“I am picturing it,” Lan Wangji says. He doesn’t like it, and his face must say so, because Wei Ying stumbles back a step, clutching at his stomach and laughing until he cries. Lan Wangji watches him, fond and irritated and amused despite himself--Wei Ying is always joking and playing, dodging the important things. He’s joking about sex, and they could have been having sex by now if Wei Ying had just… said what he had to say. He abruptly loses the last threads of his very frayed patience. “An allowable competitive dance, you think?”

Wei Ying gasps for breath around his laughter. “I’m morally--ah, god--opposed to the sort of exclusionary, um, thingy, that the Board has been doing. You agree, Lan Zhan, don’t you?”

“And who will Wei Ying’s partner be?” he asks sharply. He sounds jealous, which makes him think of what he might have to be jealous of, which makes him think of Wei Ying competing in such a ridiculous thing, and then he really is jealous. 

“Eh?” Wei Ying says, wiping the tears from his eyes. It smudges the kohl still lining his lashes. “Oh, for--uh.” He laughs again, awkwardly. His cheeks are pink. “Don’t need to compete in every category, do I?” he says vaguely, his eyes darting away from Lan Wangji. 

“Don’t you?” Lan Wangji takes a step forward. “Is there a kind of dance Wei Wuxian isn’t interested in?” 

Wei Ying laughs again, shaking his finger at Lan Wangji. “Ha, you’re just trying to embarrass me now because I got you to blush! It’s a joke, Lan Zhan, don’t be so serious--”

Lan Wangji has had a very, very long day, the last in a very, very long weekend, the culmination of a very very long two months, the bookend on a very, very, very long thirteen years. “Wei Ying,” he says.

Wei Ying, who, to be fair, backed himself into this corner without any assistance from Lan Wangji whatsoever, scrambles to escape again. “Competitions are worthless anyway! Didn’t we just prove that! I don’t think I’ll ever bother competing again! Total waste of time and money, right? I won’t even attend another competition, except maybe to see Sizhui, and that’s only if I’m allowed in the front doors! No, I’m lying, I’ll sneak in through the kitchens. Of course I’ll be there to support him. Other than that, what reason do I have to care about competitions? I only came back to this one because you asked me to--”

“And if I ask again?”

“Obviously I will go wherever you call me, Lan Zhan, I should have thought that was obvious--”

“Here.” 

“I--what?”

“Come here.”

Wei Ying’s soft, sweet mouth opens as if he’s about to say something. Lan Wangji waits just long enough to see Wei Ying’s eyes flick down to his mouth as he sways forward half an inch--

“Come here,” he says, lower, and yanks Wei Ying into his arms, into a kiss, and Wei Ying just--just follows the cue, and grabs at Lan Wangji’s clothes, the back of his neck, his hair, breathing in sharply and making a high little whine in the back of his throat that Lan Wangji wants to sink his teeth into and hear again and again and again--

He’s kissing Wei Ying so hard that Wei Ying is almost bent backwards, halfway into a dip, and Wei Ying is just making that sound and kissing back, moving and wriggling because even now, even here, he can’t just be still--

Lan Wangji bites sharply at Wei Ying’s bottom lip and pulls back for air.

Wei Ying wobbles in his grip, seemingly losing communication to his knees for a moment. Still, he doesn’t lose his tongue: “Oh my god, Lan Zhan, I can’t even deal with you--again, do it again, come back here.”

“Tell me what you were going to tell me,” Lan Wangji says.

“What thing? I don’t remember. Lan Zhan, you can’t just stop kissing me, it’s not fair--”

 “Earlier. During all the interruptions. After the dance. You were trying to get my attention.”

“Oh, that? Ha, uh... Maybe later! Kissing is better than talking anyway, right?” Wei Ying says airily. “Hey, you know, we have enough space here for swing dancing, do you want to learn? I’ll teach you West Coast, it’s dignified. I’ve been practicing with Wen Qing all this time--”

“No. Say it.”

“You can’t make me,” Wei Ying says, but it’s in his cute, pouty voice, the one that means please make me, I need that help to actually do it.

“Tell me, or else,” Lan Wangji says, which is the sort of vague threat that Wei Ying would let himself be baited by even in normal conversations.

And so he does: “Or else what?” he says. His eyes are bright, his color is high. 

“Or else I will kiss you until you talk.”

Wei Ying draws a sharp breath, chokes on air, splutters. But he doesn’t pull away, and then Lan Wangji is certain--like playing a game of chess and knowing you’ll win in three moves. 

Wei Ying is speechless for a full ten seconds. “Lan Zhan!” he wails.

“Choose,” Lan Wangji says, merciless and (to his chagrin) rather enjoying it. He is holding Wei Ying snugly, but not so snugly that Wei Ying couldn’t wriggle away if he really wanted to--and he is not making a single move to try. If anything, he is burrowing closer into Lan Wangji’s neck, which seems to be a safe place to hide from the unspeakable embarrassment of being forced into talking about his feelings. If Lan Wangji had been offered the choice to speak or be kissed into submission until he spoke, he would have chosen the latter without a moment’s hesitation, but he has a much more straightforward relationship with honesty than Wei Ying does. 

Wei Ying, who is not good at asking for things for himself. Wei Ying, who plays expertly at being open and forthright at all times, shamelessly so, yet actively conceals and disguises his true feelings, rather than simply withholding them as Lan Wangji does. Wei Ying, who is now being given the choice between two different kinds of asking, two different kinds of forthrightness, and finds them both, apparently, equally and profoundly alarming, as if Lan Wangji had offered him the choice between two venomous snakes.

Lan Wangji turns his head and kisses his hair, a warning shot. Wei Ying’s hands, which he slipped up the back of Lan Wangji’s jacket minutes ago, clench in the fabric of his shirt.

He swallows hard. His mouth is wet and red, kiss-bitten. “I just,” he says softly. His voice descends to a whisper, “I just think you’re too good, Lan Zhan, doing all that for a righteous cause, getting disqualified, maybe punished--what if they really throw you out, huh? But you don’t even care about that, because we did something good, and that was worth it. That’s what you think, right?” He doesn’t even wait for Lan Wangji to acknowledge it. “And--and down in the ballroom, I was just gonna babble something ridiculous at you, and you would have scolded me and told me to stop joking around, except I would have really meant it, Lan Zhan, I just--I loved you so much at that moment I had to say it or I thought I was gonna die, except then people kept getting in the way, and I didn’t die, so I figured it was fine if I didn’t say it, and there you have it.” 

Lan Wangji’s heart is in his throat, and he feels for a moment like he is going to burst into his component quarks. 

There is a beat of silence, and Wei Ying adds, satisfied and brilliantly illogical, “So now I don’t have to say it!” Lan Wangji snorts a laugh into his hair, which makes Wei Ying jerk his head up to look at him, wide-eyed, his mouth soft and open in surprise. “Lan Zhan! You laughed! Oh my god, do it again, I didn’t see properly--”

Lan Wangji does not allow himself to be distracted. He pushes Wei Ying back against the desk. “You do have to say it,” he says, and leans in to rub his nose against Wei Ying’s cheekbone.

“I don’t have to say shit,” Wei Ying says, breathless. His hands are flexing against Lan Wangji’s back, opening and closing around fistfuls of fabric. Lan Wangji noses down to the corner of his jaw and Wei Ying’s breath catches, his head tipping aside by half an inch, the smallest baring of his neck. Lan Wangji doesn’t kiss him. He hugs him tight, and he rubs his forehead, his cheek, his nose against Wei Ying’s skin.

The heat is blazing from him again, just as it had in the ballroom, and Lan Wangji yearns toward it, feeling cold and hungry. It’s heady, to be allowed so close to Wei Ying, headier still to imagine getting closer. He pushes as close as he can get, until Wei Ying has to perch up on the edge of the desk and brace himself with one hand behind him or risk being tipped over. Lan Wangji nudges his thighs apart with a twist of his hips and presses closer still, and Wei Ying’s breath catches, stuttering, his calves wrapping around the backs of Lan Wangji’s thighs and drawing him in, slow as thick syrup.

“Say it,” Lan Wangji says.

“Or else?” Wei Ying says, laughing a little. His hands on Lan Wangji’s back are shaking--his whole body is shaking under the barest brush of Lan Wangji’s lips. “Say it or else you’ll kiss me?”

“Say it or I won’t kiss you.”

Another thin little whine wells up from the depths of Wei Ying’s throat and, a moment later, resolves into words: “I meant it.” Lan Wangji immediately presses his mouth to the closest piece of Wei Ying’s skin, the spot just beside the apple of his throat, and Wei Ying’s breath catches. “Of course I meant it, how could I not? I like you so much, I’ve been in love with you for years, don’t you know I love you? Lan Zhan, I’m the least subtle person in the world, what the fuck, I love you, I missed you, I want you so fucking bad, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want you, don’t let go of me--Lan Zhan, don’t let go.”

“I will not,” says Lan Wangji, and stops Wei Ying’s quick, lovely mouth, kissing him like the stars are about to go out, and Wei Ying’s fingertips dig painfully into his back, his mouth opens on a gasp, he squirms when Lan Wangji licks into his mouth. 

“You can’t,” Wei Ying pants between kisses, “say things like that, you can’t say them and kiss me, I’ll think you mean it and then you’ll never get rid of me--”

“Good. Stay,” Lan Wangji says, and he’s startled by how low and rough his voice sounds. He yanks at Wei Ying’s clothes, pulling his shirttails free so he can run his hands up and around Wei Ying’s waist, the humid heat of his skin shocking against his palms.

Wei Ying shudders all over, laughs breathlessly, pulls him impossibly closer. “You say it too--Lan Zhan, you have to say it too, it’s not fair--say it--”

“I meant it,” Lan Wangji says obediently against the arch of Wei Ying’s neck, his hands working down his buttons. Wei Ying’s whole body relaxes into him, a long line of yes. “Meant it, love you, like you, missed you, want you, don’t let go,” and Wei Ying catches his face in his hands and kisses him until Lan Wangji’s knees turn to water, kisses like he’s laughing, like they’re dancing, tracing something small and perfect on a wide and empty floor.