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“--and really it wasn’t so much that it hurt, it’s just that the spicy candies were so tasty, so I asked for more, and they gave me more, and I ended up eating half the bag all by myself while all the other kids got red in the face and spat them out or cried, haha!” says the insufferable young man with whom Lan Wangji has been saddled. “I don’t really think giving out spicy candy is a great aptitude test for House Valerian? Because I’m definitely not that into pain, actually. I just like spicy food! Everybody yells at me and throws things and says I should have gone to Orchis or Eglantine--” He has not stopped talking since they sat down in the library to study, and Lan Wangji is beginning to get a piercing pain right behind his eyes. 

“Anyway!” says Wei Wuxian, putting his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. “Tell me about you! How did you end up in Mandrake? You were born in Gentian, right?”

Lan Wangji debates, momentarily, whether it would be rude to simply ignore this boy. They are supposed to be working. Wei Wuxian was assigned to copy out a text for his House. Lan Wangji has an essay due at the end of the week. He does not have time to waste on idle chatter.

On the other hand, Mandrake House has made very clear the importance of establishing a rapport with one’s subject, and this young man... is his subject. Or will be, eventually. Right now he is simply Lan Wangji’s assigned study partner. All the Valerian and Mandrake students get paired thus, and Lan Wangji is beginning to suspect that he’s been given the troublemaker.

He mentally heaves a sigh and lowers the book he is failing to read. “In Gentian, I was appointed to monitor the halls at night. I was granted the privilege of assigning punishments for infractions.”

“Oh,” says Wei Wuxian, eyes bright. “And they thought you were so good at it that you ought to be in Mandrake, giving out punishments all the time?” 

Lan Wangji turns his attention back to the book.

Wei Wuxian laughs. “It’s a good thing we didn’t grow up in Gentian together! I break rules constantly, you would have hated me!” When he doesn’t react or respond, Wei Wuxian scoots a little closer to him. “Do you… y’know. Like it?”

Lan Wangji can’t help but glance at him. “Like it?” he repeats slowly.

“Yeah. Like… Hurting people for fun. Do you like it? Are you glad Mandrake bought your marque?”

Lan Wangji turns to the book again. “Liking it is irrelevant,” he says.

“Why? Because someone else thought you’d be good at it, so now it’s your solemn duty to live up to what they thought was best for you?” 

“Yes.”

“But--” 

“Study,” Lan Wangji says sharply.

Wei Wuxian levels a pout at him. There are a lot of things that the Mandrake teachers have told him about Valerians and clients with the Valerian inclination. There is, he has been told, a certain kind of Valerian who wants to play head games. They’re as slippery and cunning as cats, and their idea of fun is to win control of the situation by charming you into going easy on them. He has been told it takes a great deal of discipline not to descend to such petty games.

He meets Wei Wuxian’s pout impassively, making his face as blank and unassailable as the sheer wall of a cliff. 

He turns back to his book.

 

*

 

Wei Wuxian is the worst study partner ever, but Lan Wangji is strangely grateful that he is the one who was paired with him--anyone else would have been swayed already. Anyone else would simply let him run amok, causing chaos with nothing to restrain him. In the few weeks since they met, Wei Wuxian has already broken curfew and snuck out into the city three times, played a number of pranks on his fellow Valerian students, and been disciplined with the most boring punishments that Valerian House can conceive of: Copying textbooks.

It means he’s spending a lot of time in the library while Lan Wangji is trying to study, heaving huge gusty sighs every thirty seconds until Lan Wangji is fully prepared to jump straight into the more advanced arts of his house, such as strangulation--but without the sensual aspects. He just wants to wring that infuriating, obnoxious neck for its own sake.

The text he is studying today is a dry medical treatise on the subject of nerves and muscles and qi meridians, and the various methods of inflicting careful and controlled pain thereupon. There are several diagrams and illustrations, but Lan Wangji finds them needlessly dramatic and over-sexual, so he ignores them. Most of the texts in the library are needlessly over-sexual, he has found, and most of his age-mates in Mandrake are far too affected by them. It is unseemly. They are educational texts. They are not intended for titillation.

He suspects he might be the only person who holds this opinion. The other students give him strange looks from time to time, and he’s heard the whispers: He should have gone to Dahlia, he should have gone to Camellia, should have stayed in Gentian--

He thinks of what they say about Wei Wuxian--should have been Orchis, should have been Eglantine--and refuses to feel any kind of kinship or fellow-feeling. They are where their duties have led them to be, and the only thing to do now is to make the best of it. People wiser than he have decided that he will cultivate this talent, rather than his others. He is not so arrogant as to think he knows himself better than they do.

Wei Wuxian comes over to his desk and sits down. “Hey.”

Lan Wangji ignores him. 

“Hey. Hey. Lan Wangji. Young Master Lan. Lan Zhan.

Lan Wangji shoots him a single sharp look, and Wei Wuxian (Wei Ying--Lan Wangji is not going to be polite to him if he's behaving like a child) beams at him.

“I made you a present. I drew this for you,” he says, and pushes a piece of paper across the table. 

Lan Wangji blinks down at it. It’s a drawing of him. He looks so… composed. Wei Ying has rendered his hands in particular with such delicate care, such grace, that he finds himself wondering, Is that how he sees me?

It makes him feel… uncomfortable. It’s too intimate. They’re not supposed to be intimate like that. They’re not even required to be friends. The study schedule doesn’t even have them practicing anything from the curriculum with each other for another half-season.

It’s too much. He feels himself shying away from it. More confusingly, he finds that he wants to reach out and pull the portrait closer. Look at it. Keep it. 

“Also,” Wei Ying continues, his eyes sparkling. “I found something neat. Do you wanna see?” 

All in a rush, he remembers what he’s been told about A Certain Type of Valerian. This is slippery cunning, this is charm. He is being charmed. So:

“No,” he says. “I am studying.”

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cries. “I’m not even breaking any rules right now! Don’t you want to reward me? How will I reform my terrible ways if I don’t get any positive reinforcement when I behave nicely?”

That is a core principle. Punishment is only meaningful if it is balanced against reward. The carrot and the stick. 

“I will not leave this room,” he says. “I will not get up from this desk.”

“You don’t have to,” Wei Ying says cheerfully, and then he pulls something out of his pocket and, with a surreptitious air, scoots closer to Lan Wangji until their arms are almost touching. Beneath the edge of the table, he turns his hands up to show Lan Wangji what he has.

It’s a book. 

Lan Wangji frowns down at it. What could be so salacious and forbidden that (firstly) it would hold any interest for Wei Ying and (secondly) that it would require being hidden from anyone who might wander in? 

“Have you read this?” Wei Ying whispers.

“I do not know what text it is.”

“It’s not a text. It’s a novel.”

Lan Wangji turns back to his own book. “You waste your time.”

“It’s good,” Wei Ying says. “It’s a romance. You know. About people falling in love.”

The bottom drops out of Lan Wangji’s stomach and he jerks away from Wei Ying, looking at him with-- with-- 

Wei Ying holds out the book. “You should read it. Don’t worry, it has a happy ending! They run away together! Here, read this bit where they kiss--”

Wei Ying!

“What?” Wei Ying says insolently, grinning back at him. “You’re not interested in love?”

“And you are?” 

“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. He looks down at the book, smiling at it, rubbing the cloth cover with his fingertips. “I wanna be in love with somebody one day.”

Lan Wangji is too gobsmacked to speak for a moment.

“What’s with the angry face?” Wei Ying says, pouting. “Lots of people fall in love.”

“Selfish,” Lan Wangji snaps. Turning away from duty, from your destined path, simply for the sake of your own petty desires? It is the very definition of selfishness.

“No it isn’t,” Wei Ying replies, unruffled. Unexpectedly and ever-mercurial, he gets very serious, his tone shifting into a more formal register as if he’s presenting an academic argument. “In fact, I think it’s the opposite. Falling in love means thinking about someone else instead of yourself. It means putting someone’s well-being and happiness above your own. Being in love, really in love, is an act of radical selflessness. Isn’t that something to aspire to?” And all at once, he drops back into that sparkling sunshine grin, as if inviting Lan Wangji to consider everything he just said a big joke. 

Lan Wangji can only stare at him. He feels like he’s floundering, like the world has just been tipped sideways.

He doesn’t even have any counter-argument. He’s too shocked--who knew that Wei Ying had any kind of philosophical ability? Who knew he was capable of any kind of formal debate?

Lan Wangji knows that isn’t what tipped him sideways. It has nothing to do with the way that Wei Ying said it. It’s what he said, and the way that Lan Wangji can’t unhear it. It’s how it’s something big and true and sure enough that Lan Wangji, who has never second-guessed himself or his beliefs in his life… hesitates. Just for a moment, he questions.

 

*

 

Wei Ying sits too close to him. Even when they’re on opposite sides of the desk and Wei Ying is in one of those rare moments of quiet focus over his own work, he is too close.

Even when he’s at the opposite desk, he’s too close. Lan Wangji can’t shake this… this awareness of Wei Ying. He’s painfully aware every time Wei Ying fidgets, tucks his hair behind his ear, scratches his nose, breathes. He is exhausted with awareness.

 

*

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, bumping their arms together as they walk to class one day. “Do you want to practice kissing?” 

Lan Wangji feels, immediately, sick with panic. “It is not on the syllabus for two months.”

“Exactly,” Wei Ying chirps. “That’s two months of practice we could get! Don’t you like being top of all your classes? Isn’t that your whole thing? Don’t you want to show off for the teacher? It’s okay, we won’t tell anyone, we’ll pretend we’re naturally just that good--

“I have no wish to show off,” Lan Wangji says. He feels like his whole body is on high alert. He doesn’t know whether to run away or--or grab Wei Ying and--do something with him--shake him, probably, shake him so his teeth rattle in his awful little head--

He is excruciatingly aware of Wei Ying. He does not allow himself to even glance at him. He takes a step aside, putting a foot of space between them. All that he has left to him is his pride and his discipline, and pride in his discipline: Wei Ying is the worst study partner ever but he hasn’t once wished to have a different one, he hasn’t once even thought about abandoning his duty.

 

*

 

He can’t stop looking at Wei Ying’s mouth when he talks.

 

*

 

“Can I do you next?” Wei Ying asks, watching with interest while Lan Wangji ties a perfect ladder pattern in rope down his calves. The teacher is on the other side of the room, helping one of the other dozen pairs of students with their knotwork. Wei Ying keeps wriggling his toes--his feet are bare, and Lan Wangji can’t stop looking at the fine bones of his ankles, the delicate white arch of his instep.

Wei Ying is undeniably pretty, every bit of him, and Lan Wangji despairs of him. Lan Wangji despairs of him every day. He feels worn thin, bone tired. He has been keeping a white-knuckled grip on himself for weeks now and he doesn’t know how anyone expects him to keep enduring this. “Why would you?” 

“For my education!” Wei Ying says cheerfully. “And yours! Don’t you want to know what it feels like?”

“It is not part of the lesson,” Lan Wangji says, for the thousandth time since he has met Wei Ying.

(He is so, so tired. He hasn’t been sleeping well. Every night, he lies there and stares at the ceiling for hours and thinks about how annoying his study partner is. Sometimes he hears Wei Ying’s voice saying I wanna be in love with somebody one day, and then he has to fume in frustration and disbelief and… And he just hopes Wei Ying isn’t so foolhardy as to go around saying something like that to just anybody, because if it got back to their teachers, they’d sit Wei Ying down for a kindly talk about how he’s not at liberty to be thinking about being in love at least until he’s made his marque, and how if he chooses to stay on with the House, he’ll have a duty to set that sort of thing aside, except for the pale, obliging sort of love he will be expected to extend towards his patrons.

But the first precept, argues the Wei Ying that lives in his brain--though Lan Wangji is extremely dubious that the real Wei Ying would ever go so far as to quote scripture or Court precepts, even for the sake of formal academic argument. Love as thou wilt, doesn’t that mean I can do as I like with my heart?

Is your heart more important than your House and family? reason the voices of the kindly teachers. Does your heart take precedence over the oaths you’ve sworn, the promises you’ve made, the obligations of duty?

He cannot conceive of how his mental Wei Ying would reply to that, though the real one would undoubtedly have a fountain of things to say.)

“Come on,” Wei Ying says, wriggling his toes again as Lan Wangji ties the last knot in the ladder and sits back in his heels to assess his work. “After class. Don’t you trust me?” He pouts. “I don’t want to practice knots on someone else.”

Lan Wangji feels something twang in his heart. “Fine.”

 

*

 

Wei Ying’s knots, in a neat ladder binding Lan Wangji’s legs together from knee to ankle, are perfect and even. He checks every rung of the ladder with two fingers between the rope and Lan Wangji’s body, and although he’s wearing all his clothes, he feels Wei Ying’s touch like a burning brand against bare skin. 

“There,” says Wei Ying, sitting back just as Lan Wangji had in class earlier, smiling in satisfaction at the neat pattern he’s made. “That wasn’t so bad, was it? I feel like I’m learning a lot! Is Lan Zhan learning things too?” 

No. 

Yes. 

Maybe. 

No. 

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. It takes a moment before he can move his hands, reaching down to his ankles to pull the quick-release on the last knot. The rest of the ladder unravels with a few tugs. 

“Do you--” Wei Ying pauses for some reason, and Lan Wangji looks up just in time to see him wet his lips. “Do you want to practice on me again?” 

“No need,” Lan Wangji says, efficiently looping up the rope into a neat, perfect bundle. “My proficiency is acceptable.”

It isn’t until he’s lying awake again that night, staring at the ceiling, that he wonders with no small alarm and confusion that Wei Ying might have wanted him to say yes.

 

*

 

They don’t share all their classes, of course. The Valerian students join Mandrake for all the core-curriculum classes--safety, ethics, consent, anatomy, first aid, basic terminology, rhetoric, mathematics, accounting--but there are some things they face on their own. 

The only reason Lan Wangji knows that there’s an endurance exam scheduled for the Valerians of Wei Ying’s year is because Wei Ying spends a whole afternoon teasing him relentlessly about how much Lan Wangji will miss him the next two days, how he must be sure not to pine away too hard, how Wei Ying will expect at least thirteen wistful poems in his honor--

Lan Wangji’s fends off his own begrudging curiosity until midafternoon--he just wants to know what an endurance exam involves, that’s all. He could ask, but… It’s easier to just go across the shared courtyard to Valerian House, coincidentally by a circuitous route that means very few people see him. 

He is not sneaking. There’s no reason for him not to be in Valerian, after all. Half of his teachers’ offices are here. One of his classrooms is here. He’s not breaking any rules.

He goes to the exam hall and listens intently outside the door.

There’s a few noises inside--someone’s crying softly. Someone else sounds like they’re breathing through clenched teeth. As he stands there, he hears a voice gasp, “Enough--I can’t--enough!” followed by swift footsteps. The voice whimpers for a moment and, seconds later, gasps in relief. 

“There, you’re free,” someone says softly. 

“Ow, fucking ow, ow ow ow--

“Let’s get you up.” 

A door slides open a little ways down from Lan Wangji and someone sticks their head out, looking first up the corridor and then down towards him. It’s one of the senior students of Mandrake, four or five years above Lan Wangji. She’s half-carrying the Valerian student with an arm around his waist, one of his arms around her shoulder. He’s wincing and grimacing, but supporting most of his own weight. “Oh,” she says, her face clearing in a smile. “You. Are you busy?”

He shakes his head.

“Can you watch them for two seconds while I get this one into the recovery room? We just got a big run of watchwords, so we’re a bit short staffed. One of the other proctors will be back any second.”

Lan Wangji nods once--of course it is not done to leave any exam completely unattended, and as soon as he opens the door next to him, he sees that this exam in particular is definitely not one to leave without a proctor.

There are four students remaining, all blindfolded. Each of them is identically tied to a wooden post with a crossbar at shoulder height, to which their wrists are bound with their elbows comfortably bent. They each stand barefoot on a neat square yard of cloth, on which is scattered a handful of rice. It’s simple and standard--the first hour or so will be entirely bearable. The second will be uncomfortable. The third, the fourth, the fifth, increasingly excruciating as the rice digs slowly into the bottoms of their feet and their joints get stiff. It’s the blindfold that will really get to them, though--removing sight heightens the other senses, emphasizing their inability to shift or fidget for comfort. The feeling of isolation will, like a slow trickle of water, draw them into a feedback loop, perhaps convincing the weaker-willed ones that the pain is worse than it is.

Wei Ying is, surprisingly, one of the four students. Lan Wangji wouldn’t have expected the whiny, lazy, undisciplined flirt that he knows from exasperating study sessions in the library to have stuck it out this long. He is more still than Lan Wangji has ever seen him, breathing deep and slow and steady. The only movement is a slow, dreamy flexing of his hands, open and closed, keeping the blood flowing. 

Before he knows what his feet are doing, Lan Wangji has drifted across the room to stand right in front of him.

The blindfold is stark black against his skin. Lan Wangji cannot look away from his mouth. 

Lan Wangji notices his own body shaking. He’s--furious, and confused, and his heart is pounding in his chest, and he is so excruciatingly aware of Wei Ying’s body right now, and his nerves are prickling the longer he stares at Wei Ying’s soft mouth, and he can’t wrench his thoughts away from memories of Wei Ying’s voice: Do you want to practice kissing?

For weeks now, he’s felt like he’s been bracing his shoulder against a door to hold it closed as something huge tries to batter it down from the other side. 

Abruptly, the hinges burst. Lan Wangji snaps.

One moment he is standing two steps away from Wei Ying, the next he is taking his mouth, kissing him hard--it’s clumsy and frantic, the culmination of months of tight suppression of every idle thought that might have strayed out of line. 

Wei Ying gasps, his mouth falling open a little, and Lan Wangji grabs him by his hair and the fabric over his hip and pushes farther, licking into Wei Ying’s mouth, biting at his lips--

He is aware the whole time of what he’s doing, but he can’t seem to stop himself. He’s shaking. He’s being too rough. All he can think is Finally. Finally.  

He wrenches himself away, stumbling back two steps. He wipes his hand on the back of his mouth, staring at Wei Ying again--he’s leaning forward a little against the ropes around his chest, as if he’d started trying to chase the kiss. He’s trembling as hard as Lan Wangji is. His mouth is so red. Wet. 

Shame finally catches up to Lan Wangji, crashing over him in a wave. He should not have done that. 

But I wanted to, snarls some selfish, animal part of him. I want to do it again.

He forces himself to turn his back on Wei Ying just as the door opens and three proctors come into the room, including that girl who had spoken to him before. He nods briskly to her and leaves before she can say anything.

He goes back to Mandrake, towering with rage at his loss of control, with frustration, with want, want, want. He goes to his room, shoves down his pants, takes himself in hand, and thinks about Wei Ying’s mouth, the silk-softness of the inside of his lip, the heat of his breath, that little gasp. He comes harder than he has ever come in his life.

When the starbursts clear from his vision and he can think coherently again, he feels sick--hollow, empty, shaky, like he hasn’t eaten all day. He is, apparently, the sort of person who would kiss someone without their consent, without them even knowing who he was. Perhaps he frightened Wei Ying. Perhaps he--

He shouldn’t have done it. He knew he shouldn’t have done it at the time, and he knows now, and he feels utterly sickened with himself for it. He sees now that he has only been giving himself airs about being any better than anyone else, any more disciplined or controlled. It’s a humiliating thing to realize.

In three weeks, they’re due to begin lessons in kissing, and he will have to do it again. 

Somehow, he’ll have to do it again. Somehow, he’ll have to keep from ravishing his study partner right on the classroom floor. Somehow, he will have to maintain control.

 

*

 

Two days later, he hears Wei Ying call brightly, “Lan Zhan!” and appear at his elbow, right on schedule. “Hi! Did you miss me?”

Lan Wangji has jerked off more in the last thirty-six hours than he has in the last four months. He has thought about holding Wei Ying down, tying him up, taking him until he cries, making him beg, making him come. At some point in the small hours of the morning after the incident in the exam hall, he suddenly had the epiphany, Ah, this is why they sent me to Mandrake, and didn’t know really how to feel about that, so he just screwed his eyes tight and jerked off again, thinking about Wei Ying’s mouth.

He gives Wei Ying a sidelong glare and then forces himself to look away, because he is seriously in danger of shoving that infuriating boy into an empty classroom, tearing his clothes off, and having his way with him, and Lan Wangji cannot allow himself to lose control ever, ever again. 

Wei Ying laughs. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re too dignified to pine after anybody, I should have known! Aren’t you interested in hearing about my exam?”

“Only if you excelled,” Lan Wangji grits out between his teeth.

“I did,” Wei Ying says, very pleased. “I was the last one standing.”

Why does that make Lan Wangji’s blood go hot? “When did you call off?” As soon as he speaks, he feels a pang of panic--how would he know what the Valerian endurance test is like? Will Wei Ying notice his slip?

He doesn’t. “I think it was around two in the morning,” he says, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his chin. “A while after midnight, anyway. I heard the bells chime.”

Lan Wangji does have to look at him then, a sense of horror trickling through the relentless lust and self-abnegation he’s carrying for this whole situation. “Your exam began at ten in the morning,” he says.

“Yeah, the proctors were kind of... unsettled by the end, I think. They wanted to test me as an anguisette, but I said no sir, no thank you sir, don’t want any part of that, thanks.” He stretches hugely until Lan Wangji hears a couple of his joints pop. 

“Sixteen hours.”

Wei Ying drops his arms, swinging them a bit to loosen them, and shrugs. “Yeah, it’s not that much. I could have gone longer if I had to. It’s just endurance. They had me tied to a post, standing on rice. I can endure worse than that. I have endured worse than that.”

“You… have?” 

“Yeah. I lived on the street until I was seven. I used to go days without eating. Had to sleep on bare cobblestones more often than not, or rags.” He shrugs. “And one time I let somebody break my arm so he wouldn’t go after my brother.”

“But you don’t like pain.”

“I don’t think anybody really likes pain,” says Wei Ying, which is a ridiculous thing to say considering that they are members of two houses that are self-evident proof of the existence of people who like pain one way or another. “It’s not about liking it, it’s just about… Y’know. Deciding that it doesn’t matter. Anyway, it wasn’t that long. Sixteen hours isn’t anything to brag about.”

“Hm,” says Lan Wangji. He wonders, vaguely, how long he could last. It’s easy to think Oh, sixteen hours, I could never, but endurance in practice is rather different. He suspects that in the right circumstances, and given the right reasons, a person could endure far longer than they ever thought they could. In the right circumstances, not just hours, but days. Weeks. 

Longer, maybe.

 

*

 

After class later that day, they’re in the library again, and Wei Ying is blathering thoughtlessly about other details of the exam. He doesn’t… seem to be traumatized by it, but Lan Wangji refuses to feel comforted by this, refuses to let himself relax. Whatever Wei Ying’s opinion of them, Lan Wangji’s actions were objectively immoral and unforgivable, and he will give himself the proper discipline and punishment for them.

Wei Ying’s favorite part of the experience, Lan Wangji learns, was the recovery room afterwards. He reports in great detail that they gave him the softest feather bed, with the squishiest pillows, and a tray of sticky honeycakes, and sweet wine, and a soft bunny to snuggle, and then they rubbed warm oil into his sore muscles, and offered him a hot bath, and he was allowed to lounge in bed the next morning for as long as he wanted, and there were no classes.

“It was almost the perfect day,” Wei Ying sighs blissfully. “A couple more jars of wine and my good friend Lan Zhan to sit decoratively in the corner and it would have been perfect.”

A whole diatribe follows on the exact sort of wine he would have liked, and how he lazed in bed eating cakes for so long that one of the attendants muttered about how he should have gone to Jasmine House, which is a first.

“Oh!” Wei Ying says suddenly. “Also! I think I have a secret admirer.

Lan Wangji has been lulled into a resting state by the familiar sound of Wei Ying’s chatter, so he says, “Is that so,” in a skeptical sort of voice before he realizes with a sick jolt that Wei Ying is talking about the kiss. 

“Yeah, someone kissed me when I was tied up and blindfolded! I would have thought it was one of the test proctors, but I overheard one of them talking to someone right before and asking them to watch the room while she was gone.” He draws his knees up and wraps his arms around them, rocking thoughtfully. “I thought to myself, What a bold and forward sort of Valerian this is! I can’t think of who it might be.”

“Hm,” says Lan Wangji, wondering where all the air in the room has gone.

Wei Ying pouts at him. “You’re so unromantic, Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji forces his eyes to stay fixed on anything but Wei Ying.

“They ran away before I could say anything,” Wei Ying says mournfully. “I was too startled to kiss back. Lan Zhan, are you sure you won’t practice with me? What if they thought I was a bad kisser?”

Lan Wangji wonders if he is getting ill. Are these hot and cold flashes normal? Is this just what intolerable lust feels like? Perhaps this is what the Mandrake endurance test looks like--how long can you keep from defiling your study partner? One, two, three, go.

He is annoyed with himself. He is annoyed with Wei Ying for poking holes in all his supposedly-unwavering self control. He sets his book down more sharply than he means to and looks directly at Wei Ying. “Do not tease,” he snaps.

“I’m not teasing,” Wei Ying says, pouting again.

“You truly want to practice?”

Wei Ying’s slouch straightens up, his eyes brightening suddenly. “Uh, well,” he says, cheeks pink. “Only if you want to.”

If Lan Wangji cannot control himself, which he self-evidently cannot, then he will have to build external systems of restraints. “Rules,” he says. He sounds angry. “It is for class. It is only for class.”

Wei Ying nods. “Right, yes.”

“We will not do anything else beyond kissing. We will begin on page one of the assigned text. We will not touch. You will not tease.” And then, before he can talk himself out of it, “You will focus. Do not think about your… admirer.”

“Lan Zhan doesn’t want me thinking about anyone else?” Wei Ying asks, leaning forward with a grin, then stops. “Oh. That was teasing, wasn’t it? Hm. I’m going to be very bad at this, Lan Zhan, I hope you know that!”

Lan Wangji attempts to ignore all of this. “I want you to think about our studies.”

“Right. Because it’s for class.”

Lan Wangji gives him a single sharp nod.

Wei Ying wriggles a bit. His cheeks are very, very pink now. “Okay,” he says. “So… Can we start now?”

“No.” Lan Wangji braces himself. “The watchword will be ‘stop’.” Keep it simple. Nothing complicated, nothing advanced, nothing that could tempt him into going any further. He keeps thinking about Wei Ying begging for mercy when he jerks off. A valuable part of this study session for him will be the reminder that stop means stop. Clearly he is not proficient enough with the concept to be qualified to move on to more… advanced variations, where something else means stop, and stop itself means keep going.

For some reason, Wei Ying is blushing harder. “Uh--right, yep, okay.” He clears his throat. “So. Now? Is that all?” 

Lan Wangji reins in his anger, digs in his heels even harder. He will not be budged, either by his own treacherous lusts or by anyone else, least of all Wei Ying. He will endure. He will be perfect. He was sent to Mandrake because his elders thought his control could be trusted. He will not disappoint them. “Does Wei Ying have any rules?”

Wei Ying licks his lips. His eyes are wide and dark. He hasn’t looked away from Lan Wangji in… a while. “For kissing? Uh. Don’t think so.” He laughs. “Haven’t I complained enough about Valerian stuff that you know what I don’t like?”

“Wei Ying should not assume that a partner will remember all he says,” Lan Wangji says, still sharp.

Wei Ying blinks for the first time in what seems like minutes. His focused, intense expression turns wry. “Well, partners, sure, but not Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan remembers everything I say, right?”

Lan Wangji’s heart catches. “Hm,” he says. He thinks his ears are burning.

“Are we done now?

Lan Wangji doesn’t want to be done now. When they’re done, he will have to kiss Wei Ying and not fuck him senseless on the library floor. He wants to keep delineating rules until the curfew bell rings and he has to go to bed. He briefly wants to run away and join the Cassilines and take vows of celibacy--except he really doesn’t want to do that, because he very badly wants to fuck Wei Ying senseless on the library floor.

They’re not supposed to do anything with each other outside a teacher’s supervision. Even as study partners, even under supervision, they will only get, ahem, hands-on experience with a very limited survey of the material. The kissing, the knotwork. A module for the purposes of honing their acting and elocution, for role play and bedroom talk, hosted by guest teachers from Eglantine House who specialize in theater. Later, or so the curriculum outlines, a module on impact play. (Lan Wangji is dreading that one. Wei Ying doesn’t like pain.)

And then, in another year or so...

Mandrake House, valuing gradual, highly-supervised experience and long apprenticeships, does not sell its adepts’ virgin nights. Valerian very much does.

Lan Wangji cannot bear to think of that, or he clenches his jaw and his fists so hard that he nearly cracks his teeth and does draw blood on his own palms. 

None of these thoughts help his current circumstances. He will just… delay as long as possible. “Go fetch the textbook.”

“Why?”

“For reference.”

“I memorized it,” Wei Ying says, scooting closer to him.

Lan Wangji resists the urge to lean away. His heart rate picks up, stuttering in his chest like a butterfly. Wei Ying memorized the textbook. He swallows hard.

“You wanted to start on page one, right?” Wei Ying asks. “Except page one is boring, it’s just an introduction--philosophy and history and background stuff. Lots of poetics. Establishing a foundation of rhetoric, that sort of thing. That goes on to page twenty-six before it gets into anything interesting. Don’t make me recite it, this isn’t recitation practice, right?”

Lan Wangji swallows again. “No,” he says, feeling like he’s signing his death warrant. “It isn’t.”

“So page twenty-seven is the beginning of, um. Courtly kisses.” 

They are both blushing now. Lan Wangji steels himself. Discipline. He has come this far.

“Are you--” Wei Ying says suddenly. “Ha. I mean. Lan Zhan, are you sure you want to do this? It’s just a dumb suggestion from your friend Wei Ying, after all, you should know better than to listen to me! Um.”

“I have not said stop,” Lan Wangji says. He’s dug in his heels too far to be budged either backwards or forwards. “Continue, if you wish.”

“Ahaha. Ha. Right. Right. So. Courtly kissing. The first is a kiss on the hand.” And, bold and brazen, he picks up Lan Wangji’s hand and presses his lips softly to Lan Wangji’s knuckles, the picture of gentlemanly comportment.

Lan Wangji is… paralyzed. He cannot move. He cannot speak. His heart is racing. He feels as if he ought to snatch his hand away and clutch it to his chest. He feels… tipped-sideways again.

He wants to see if Wei Ying will keep kissing him. If Lan Wangji can manage to be kissed instead of to do the kissing, he has a hope of making it out of this with his honor and self-discipline intact.

At the same time, it feels--strange. Wrong, somehow. Backwards. Isn’t he supposed to be the one doing this? Isn’t Mandrake about taking action and Valerian about being acted upon? He doesn’t know which way is up anymore. He can’t think.

Wei Ying seems to be holding his breath. He’s very still, nearly as still as he’d been when he was tied to that post in the endurance exam. “Hm,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Ying exhales slowly. “Right,” he mutters. “Right. Okay.” In a stronger voice, he says, “The textbook says a kiss on the hand is appropriate for… acquaintances. It is a kiss of respectful greeting.”

That is what the textbook says. Wei Ying has indeed memorized it, it seems. Lan Wangji wants to squirm. He has never squirmed once in his life, and he is not about to start now. “Continue,” he says.

He means continue with the next kiss, but Wei Ying straightens his back and rattles off all of the facts about kissing-the-hand that the book outlines--the delicacy of the kissing one’s hold, the closed and dry lips, the ways the kissed one may signal approval or rejection or neutrality.

“I did all those things, right?” Wei Ying asks. He sounds a little breathless.

“Yes. Acceptable.”

“Shall I--the next one?” 

Lan Wangji nods once.

“I’ll have to be… closer.” Wei Ying says, even as he moves closer. “It’s, uh--a kiss on the cheek.” And he leans in and kisses Lan Wangji’s cheek, just like that, quick as a sparrow. Lan Wangji tenses every muscle in his body and just barely manages to keep himself from shoving Wei Ying onto the floor and devouring him.

Wei Ying pulls back just enough to look into Lan Wangji’s eyes. “Another kiss of greeting, appropriate for friends,” he says. “In some places, they greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, or three kisses on alternating cheeks for good luck, or--wait, shouldn’t we be taking turns?”

Lan Wangji’s brain clangs a carillon of warning bells. He cannot avoid this question. He cannot dodge it or be noncommittal about it. He has insisted that this ridiculous situation is for the sake of their education, and that excuse falls to shreds if he doesn’t make an effort to learn anything himself.

He takes Wei Ying’s hand and kisses his knuckles. He tries as hard as he can not to think about anything but the mechanics of it. He keeps his grip light and loose, he makes sure his mouth is dry and closed. The hand he’s holding (he will not think about whose hand it is) tightens around his--that is a signal of acceptance, just as the book says. 

The book also lists variations. A kiss on the fingertips just above the nailbed, versus a kiss on the knuckles, versus a kiss on the back of the palm, versus on the soft part above the web of the thumb.

He restrains himself. Drops Wei Ying’s hand. 

Next, then. Wei Ying is still very close. Lan Wangji could feel his breath on the top of his head as he bowed over Wei Ying’s hand. He lifts his head, doesn’t think about it, does not think about it, leans forward, and kisses Wei Ying’s cheek.

“Acceptable?” he asks. His voice comes out lower than he expected it to be.

“Uh huh,” Wei Ying says. His voice comes out a little high. “You’re a natural. Typical Lan Zhan, so good at--at everything, right away.”

“What is next?” Lan Wangji asks. As if he doesn’t know. But he can’t think, and he can’t let himself think, and even if he could, he doesn’t trust himself, so the only thing to do is to trust… Wei Ying. Who is probably better at stopping than Lan Wangji is, because Lan Wangji is demonstratively terrible at it. Wei Ying will encounter a boundary of his own before he encounters one of Lan Wangji’s, so it is better to let him set the pace.

“Uh,” says Wei Ying, who knows just as well as Lan Wangji what comes next. Except when he moves so suddenly, he darts in and plants a big wet smooch on Lan Wangji’s forehead, and then cackles impishly at Lan Wangji’s expression.

“That isn’t in the book,” Lan Wangji says, trying to be stern. Wei Ying laughing at such short range is… doing things to him. It gives him a strange fluttery feeling in his chest.

“It should be!” Wei Ying objects. “I should write a new edition. They missed out on lots of things, I bet.”

“Disrespectful.”

“What, you think that just because someone wrote a book about kissing, they must know everything about it?” Wei Ying scoffs, but he’s half-smiling, and his eyes are narrowed in that way he has when he’s about to tell a joke. “People are discovering new ways to kiss every day, Lan Zhan. Aren’t you going to take your turn, though?” He gestures at his own forehead.

Lan Wangji sighs, then leans in and takes his turn with the kiss. It’s… difficult not to linger. He wants to do it again, then kiss both of Wei Ying’s cute, expressive eyebrows, his temples, the outer corners of his eyes, his cheekbones, the spot just by his ear, the corner of his jaw, his chin, the tip of his nose… 

He draws back. “Is that acceptable?”

“It wasn’t that slobbery,” Wei Ying says. He’s biting his lip, his eyes dancing with merriment. “I feel like a forehead kiss should be a little slobbery. It’s a kiss of affection, right? Affection is messy. Try it again.”

Lan Wangji does not want to try it again. Except he does. He wants to wrap his arms around Wei Ying’s shoulders and kiss every bit of his face, big wet sloppy kisses and tiny light dry kisses, lingering ones and quick ones, sweet ones and rough ones--

That’s not the textbook. They’re supposed to be following the textbook.

He licks his lips so they're damp, dips forward, and kisses Wei Ying’s forehead again. “Focus,” he says, sitting back. He feels like he is about to explode out of his skin. “What is next?”

Wei Ying’s eyes drop instantly to Lan Wangji’s mouth. “Ah. Well.” 

Slowly, Wei Ying shifts forward. Lan Wangji holds very, very still. He will not flinch away. He will not grab Wei Ying and sweep all the books off the desk and bend him over it.

Wei Ying’s lips, when they meet his, are hot and dry, a little rough because he chews them all the time. Lan Wangji stops breathing entirely. He keeps his eyes open--Wei Ying’s are closed. 

A moment later, Wei Ying draws back, but only an inch. “That’s, um. The last of the courtly kisses. That’s. That’s kissing the mouth chastely.” Lan Wangji can’t say anything. Wei Ying clears his throat and continues. “It is a kiss of greeting for your lover or most intimate friend.”

Lan Wangji does not wait to be invited this time. He leans in and kisses Wei Ying’s mouth, chastely. 

Wei Ying’s breath catches. When Lan Wangji moves back again, Wei Ying follows his mouth, just as he had tried to do when Lan Wangji kissed him in the exam hall. Heat flares down Lan Wangji’s spine, and (horribly undisciplined of him) he lets Wei Ying catch his mouth again, just briefly.

When he pulls away, he sees Wei Ying’s hand, frozen in the air, an inch away from grabbing his sleeve. 

Wei Ying blinks his eyes open and pulls his hand back, red faced. 

“Adequate?” Lan Wangji asks. His voice is rough.  He is distantly aware that he is furiously aroused, his cock achingly hard.

“Ah, uh. Yes, I think we’ve got that one down.” Wei Ying swallows hard. His eyes are huge and dark. He’s not looking anywhere, and Lan Wangji in that moment is certain down to his bones that Wei Ying isn’t thinking about any secret admirer. He is illogically, jealously pleased about it, though that doesn’t make a whit of sense, considering that he is the secret admirer. “I. I think we should move on to some of the trickier ones.”

“Mn,” says Lan Wangji. “If you like.”

Wei Ying blushes and his eyes cut away for a moment. “Don’t say it like that,” he mutters. “Uh, right. Do you… want me to keep stopping and naming all of them?” 

He should say yes. It is studying after all. It is reviewing the text. 

He does not care about the text. He should care, and he doesn’t. He aggressively, ardently does not care about the text. He cares about Wei Ying’s mouth, and he cares about not moving a single muscle out of line. He cares about listening to Wei Ying talk, because he is surprisingly smart. He cares about the tingle he gets up his spine when he thinks about how casually Wei Ying memorized the text. But he does not care about the text itself.

“If you feel confident in your understanding…” he begins, and Wei Ying stops fidgeting and watches him, intense and hungry. “Then it is not necessary.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying breathes. “Okay.”

Between one heartbeat and the next, he’s kissing Lan Wangji again, their knees knocking together awkwardly. Wei Ying kisses him chastely again, two or three times, finding the angle and the pressure, and then Lan Wangji closes his eyes and something melting and sweet happens to deepen the kiss, and he is kissing Wei Ying back properly without consciously intending to, and he can taste him. He tastes like long, lazy summer days lying in golden sunshine, warm and bright.

Wei Ying makes a soft little noise, kissing him and kissing him and kissing him, and Lan Wangji is clinging desperately to the rock of his control in the middle of this tempest, and he will not survive this, he cannot survive this.

He wants to slide his hand around the back of Wei Ying’s neck to steady them, but no touching was one of the rules, and he needs the rules more than he needs air.

Wei Ying breaks off first and Lan Wangji just barely stops himself from seizing him and dragging him back in, kissing him hard, biting marks into his neck and shoulders--

“I,” says Wei Ying. “How. Was that?” Lan Wangji needs a moment to collect himself and find where he put all his words. He is about to choke out, “Acceptable,” after which he will hurl himself out the door to find the closest empty broom closet, but then Wei Ying continues, voice a little reedy: “Ah, you aren’t impressed, no, yeah, you’re right, it was a shameful effort. Really tricky subtle stuff, this kissing business. You know how bad I am at subtle. Ahaha. Ha. Still, I feel like I learned a lot, maybe you learned something too--of course Lan Zhan is perfect at everything, I’m not saying your effort was shameful--I guess I’m just saying that Lan Zhan will definitely have to help this pathetic one study and practice a lot or I will embarrass both of us in class--”

Lan Wangji manages to nod. “Yes.”

“--what? Yes what? Yes, you’ll practice with me again?” 

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Wei Ying laughs, breathless and delirious. “I hope I’m not so bad of a kisser that it’ll be an imposition--”

“Not an imposition,” Lan Wangji says. “Practice is the better part of discipline.”

“Ha. Ahaha. Yes. Exactly. Practice. Discipline. Absolutely. Will you excuse me? This has been so great--such a productive study session, I mean--I just remembered a thing I have to do. Over in Valerian House. Right now? And I will see you tomorrow and--and then we can study again, if you want. Maybe.”

Lan Wangji swallows the urge to catch Wei Ying in his arms and pin him to the ground so he can’t leave at all. “Of course,” he says, and as soon as Wei Ying scrambles out the door, Lan Wangji collects the books into a tidy pile, flies back to his room as quickly as decorum allows, shoves off his clothes, bites into the meat of his forearm and barely gets two strokes of his cock before he’s coming so hard his ears ring.

 

*

 

They practice so much that sometimes Lan Wangji’s lips feel chapped and sore. They practice so much that they nearly get walked in on three times, but it doesn’t do anything to discourage them. 

He… appreciates… how much Wei Ying is applying himself to his studies. If he showed as much focus on all his other classes as he does on practicing this one thing, Lan Wangji would have no complaints about him as a study partner whatsoever. 

And really, perhaps he was a little quick to judge about all the rest. Wei Ying’s chatter often leads to him saying something truly clever and insightful, and once Lan Wangji has gotten used to his sense of humor, he’s… kind of funny. He becomes aware, gradually, that Wei Ying mostly doesn’t study because he mostly doesn’t need to, which leads to the confusing realization that Wei Ying might be smarter than him: They get roughly the same grades, but Lan Wangji reviews texts exhaustively and takes copious notes and works hard, and Wei Ying just seems to be naturally, effortlessly brilliant.

It colors the low background simmer of arousal which is becoming so familiar to him with a fluttery, squirmy sort of shy feeling. A crush. He has a crush on his study partner. 

He tries not to think about it. He really shouldn’t be having a crush on anyone. It’s undisciplined to waste time daydreaming, and it’s selfish to want to indulge those feelings, and it’s unrealistic to think that anything can ever come of it.

When their actual classes officially move on to the topic of kissing, it is… anticlimactic. He and Wei Ying spend upwards of two hours a day with their tongues down each other’s throats these days for practice; by comparison, the class is handling it dreadfully slowly. They spend five full days on the courtly kisses alone. Lan Wangji would consider it all a horrible tease and definitely would have broken all his rules about defiling Wei Ying on the classroom floor if the teacher hadn’t managed, somehow, to make the subject incredibly, incredibly boring. Every kiss on the hand is scrutinized and exhaustively critiqued, every kiss on the cheek is discarded with a scoff. 

They all, the whole class, are made to repeat the same dull thing again and again and again until they reach some arbitrary standard of acceptable performance that the teacher has not bothered to explain sufficiently, and all the while Lan Wangji has to sit there and think about the way that Wei Ying shivers and melts when Lan Wangji sticks his tongue down his throat, the way he hums a little right before he takes control of the kiss, the way sometimes he catches Wei Ying clenching his fists into the fabric of his clothes to keep himself from reaching out and touching. 

The no-touching rule becomes a problem when they move on to the section of sensual kisses, because the first time they kiss properly in class, the teacher barks at them that they look like a pair of awkward baby seals, picks up Lan Wangji’s hand, and sets it firmly on the back of Wei Ying’s neck with a snippy, “Like this. I expected you at least to be competent, Lan Wangji.” 

He feels singed around his edges with embarrassment, but it’s a distant concern, because Wei Ying’s skin is hot under his hand, and Lan Wangji can feel his pulse. Wei Ying’s eyes are wide and dark.

“Try again,” the teacher says impatiently, so Lan Wangji has to try again.

She scoffs immediately, accuses Wei Ying of suddenly growing a sense of prudishness which will not be tolerated in this classroom, and spends an excruciating five minutes giving a loud and passionate lecture on the essential art of touch. “Kissing is done as much with your hands as it is with your mouths, got it?”

“Teacher, do you mean like this?” Wei Ying says, and then he runs both of his hands into Lan Wangji’s hair and pulls him into such a kiss that Lan Wangji has this moment of blankness, this existential stutter, and fills up with a feeling like ten thousand stars shimmering to light in a clear, dark sky.

The teacher grunts and begrudgingly stomps off to harass someone else.

 

*

 

Lan Wangji is… maybe a little obsessed? With his study partner? He’s maybe constantly obsessed all the time? He can’t think of anything or anyone else. He wants to fill up his whole life with nothing but Wei Ying. He wants to paper the walls of his heart with him, and eat him, and drink him, and breathe him, and sleep wrapped up in him, and tuck him secretly between his skin and his clothes and carry him around. 

Weeks pass and the obsession does not fade. It cycles through phases like the moon--sometimes he is frantic with it, needing Wei Ying’s presence at the very least, and better still his proximity, his laughter, his mouth hot and slow and wet. Sometimes the obsession is... still. Enduring. This is a much more terrifying prospect, because Lan Wangji can begin to map the shape of his heart, the breadth and depth of emotion that he never knew he was capable of, and he knows with a unshakable certainty that makes him feel very small and very frightened that this isn’t something which is just going to conveniently go away.

In the dark one night, when his stomach is already clenched with fear at the sheer scope of what he’s feeling, the knowledge that he is dooming himself to heartbreak, a thought comes to him: They were wrong to send me to Mandrake.

He lets out his breath, long and slow, and has to reorient everything he thought he knew about himself yet again. Wei Ying is a horrible influence--a lifetime of quiet, disciplined obedience and now Lan Wangji’s dismissing the decisions of his elders and he’s not even a little repentant about it.

Because they were wrong to send him here. They were wrong, and all those other people were wrong too, the people who said Should have stayed with Gentian, should have gone to Dahlia, to Camellia.

He knows where he should have been sent, now that he knows all these things about himself. It should have been Heliotrope. The house whose only canon is devotion: Thou, and no other.

He closes his eyes on the velvet darkness of his room and makes himself slow his breathing, accepting and embracing the throb of pain, the lingering ache with the controlled equilibrium of the best of Valerian House.

 

*

 

“No, I don’t want to be hit,” Wei Ying says to the teacher the day that they’re supposed to begin the section on impact play. Lan Wangji is still staring at the table of implements (crops, whips, paddles, switches of both wood and metal, canes, floggers, spiked gloves) and unexpectedly, panicking down to the foundations of his soul for reasons which he will need a moment to untangle, but at Wei Ying’s words he relaxes in a grateful rush.

“Really?” the teacher says, quizzical. “I know it’s a little intimidating, but we’re not doing anything intense today. I’m not even lecturing. You’re just getting a handle for the instruments, seeing what you like.”

“Oh, I know what I like,” Wei Ying says readily. “None of them. I don’t want to be hit.”

The teacher puts his head on one side as if fascinated by some strange thing he’s never seen before. “Not even a bare hand?”

Wei Ying thinks about it for a long moment, openly dubious. “I suppose once, just to see. As long as it’s Lan Zhan.”

The Mandrake students have had their own more intensive classes on this for two weeks now. Lan Wangji is too disciplined to allow himself to be bored to tears, but there are only so many times he can whack a pillow with a crop or a flogger until the charm is lost. The physicality is rather pleasant--it feels good to work, to push his body until his arms and shoulders ache with strain. It feels good to have forms to perfect, to bring artistry and grace to simple movement, and it is meditative in a way. So that’s not why he was panicking a moment ago.

He never minded whipping rulebreakers in Gentian House. That was another reason he was packed off to Mandrake--his aim and judgment of force was already excellent. He never hurt anyone more than precisely how much he intended to. He likes using his body, and meting out punishment felt… clean, in a way. It was a ritual of transition, a way of guiding a situation from one state, where wrong has been done, to another, where forgiveness is earned and given. He thinks of the use violence in pursuit of justice in other contexts--the execution of a murderer, the defense of one’s home and family against a threat: All of those are right and just. Violence has its uses, as do all things. So that’s not why he was panicking either.

But it’s not just about righteousness and justice. It’s not that he only wants to reserve pain for punishment, because he definitely wants to hurt Wei Ying. Just a little, just… just enough that he gasps in that way he does when Lan Wangji bites his lip, or when Lan Wangji sinks his teeth into his shoulder, or when Lan Wangji shoves him hard against a wall, or drags his fingernails down Wei Ying’s back (over his clothes, always over his clothes--they touch now, but there are rules still). He wants to bite him all over, he wants to grab him and shove him and yank his hair. His go-to mental scenario when he’s alone in bed at night involves visiting some very rough treatment upon Wei Ying’s person right on the floor of the library while Wei Ying begs beautifully for mercy and, eventually, for pleasure.

But those aren’t hitting, and perhaps it’s just that he knew before Wei Ying said anything that he wouldn’t want to be hit--he did know that Wei Ying doesn’t like pain, that had been one of the first things Wei Ying ever told him, but… Well, there are different kinds of pain, and Wei Ying very much seems to like the sort of just-a-little pain that comes from being handled roughly. 

The source of his panic seems to be… the instruments themselves. When he punished someone in Gentian House, he obviously never used his bare hands--he used a switch or a cane. It put the distance of formality between himself and his subject. 

There is no distance between him and Wei Ying now, no formality, and he doesn’t want there to be. So that’s part of it. And the other part is that he wants to hurt Wei Ying; he doesn’t want some impersonal instrument to do it--or anyone or anything else, for that matter. He wants to be close to the pain, and to Wei Ying.

So instruments and implements--extremely no. Bare hand--yes, if Wei Ying is willing. 

They settle on cushions on one side of the classroom, against the wall, leaving the rest of the students to pick through the implements with interest and whistling swishes of displaced air and sharp cracks against their palms or the floor cushions as they get a handle on the tools. “Where shall I hit you?” Lan Wangji asks, and is surprised to see Wei Ying’s face flame red. 

“Uh. Actually, on second thought... Nowhere.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and turns to watch the class, his hands resting flat on his thighs.

Wei Ying fidgets and squirms. Lan Wangji has grown accustomed to this, over the months. His annoyance is tinged with fondness--besides the moment of panic earlier, he’s having a fairly steady day.

The teacher makes the rounds, supervising the pairs--there are Valerians with their hands outstretched to be struck across the palms, Valerians with their thighs bared to be struck across the flanks, with their heads bent to be struck across the shoulders. He gives Wei Ying a strange, concerned look as he passes, but doesn’t say a word to him. To Lan Wangji, he says softly, “If you wish to try something out, I can find you another partner--”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. Then, embarrassed by his snappish tone, “No thank you.”

The teacher nods and continues on. 

“I’ve been caned before,” Wei Ying says softly. “A friend of my parents took me in off the streets; his wife didn’t like me.”

“You will not be forced into anything,” Lan Wangji says, which is a core tenet of Valerian and Mandrake--no patron will ever be allowed to demand something that Wei Ying does not consent to. There are contracts about it that every client has to agree to, delineating limits and watchwords. Just as Lan Wangji will have an older supervisor for roughly the first year of his service with clients, Wei Ying will be offered one as well, if he feels he needs an extra safeguard. He will never, ever be forced.

“You don’t need to just sit here with little old me, you know,” Wei Ying mutters. Lan Wangji glances over at him, frowning--he’s crossed his arms, hunched his shoulders. “You can go if you want to.”

“I am aware,” Lan Wangji says, turning back to watch the class again. He doesn’t like seeing Wei Ying’s face like this--it’s a face made for smiling. Lan Wangji has never been any good at making anyone smile.

“I mean,” Wei Ying says, even quieter. “You’d better go. They already think I’m a bad Valerian, you don’t want them to think I’ve… corrupted you, made you into a bad Mandrake.”

“You have not.”

Wei Ying sighs, annoyed. “Just for appearances. Go.”

“There is no need.”

“There is.”

“You have been whipped enough to know you do not care for it. I have whipped enough people to know my own thoughts on the matter as well.” And he doesn’t want to leave Wei Ying’s side, especially when he’s in a mood like this.

Wei Ying mumbles something under his breath. When Lan Wangji gives him a dutifully inquisitive look out of the corner of his eye, he sighs and repeats, “I’m supposed to think that bare-handed is different.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it?”

A pause. “Yeah.”

“Why?”

“I dislike it for different reasons. Children get spanked, and I’m not a child. I’ve never--been hit like that. It’s embarrassing. Humiliating.”

Lan Wangji turns to him again, genuinely shocked. “Wei Ying is embarrassed about something?”

“Ah, shut up. I know, I know, you’re too polite to clutch your heart and gasp about how the world must be coming to an end. I’m allowed.

“It is only unexpected.”

“Said shut up, didn’t I? Could have sworn I heard myself say ‘Shut up, Lan Zhan.’”

Lan Wangji has a thought and frowns over it for a moment. “Has Wei Ying ever whipped someone?”

Wei Ying splutters on a laugh. “I’ve whipped my little brother’s ass in wrestling and street games and math, does that count? And races. And drinking games. And card games. Most games, actually.”

“Hm,” says Lan Wangji.

He does not speak again until they have parted after class, and then reunited later that afternoon in the library for… practice. Before Wei Ying can even move close enough to kiss him, Lan Wangji asks, “Would Wei Ying like to try today’s lessons on me?”

Wei Ying gives him an absolutely astounded look. “You want me to whip you? Good heavens, who’s the Valerian here now!” Then, with a second look at Lan Wangji, “Wait, are you fucking with me? You want me to?” 

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “I have never been whipped, so I have no thoughts on it.”

“So you think to yourself, Oh, here’s a great idea, I’ll ask my favorite pal Wei Ying, who doesn’t have any training or practice whatsoever-- ” 

“The experience of being caned is probably a good beginning to learning how to do it oneself,” Lan Wangji says. “Would you like to try?”

Wei Ying is still highly askance. “I...can, I guess.”

There are, of course, no proper canes or whips or floggers in the library, but there are rulers in the cabinet with the spare paper, notebooks, inkbottles. Lan Wangji gets one, kneels by the table, and starts pulling his robes off his shoulders.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, strangled. “What are you--doing--”

“It is easier to judge your force with skin. It allows you to see the impact marks.” Never mind that he wants Wei Ying to see him like this.  Never mind that he’s been thinking of baring himself to Wei Ying in more vulnerable ways than this--not his body, but his heart. He hands the ruler to Wei Ying. “Please begin.” 

He pulls his hair forward over his shoulder, puts his palms flat on his thighs, and waits, gazing straight ahead. 

He can’t even hear Wei Ying breathing, but he sees him slowly shift into position. He feels the cool flat of the wood touch his upper back. “You,” Wei Ying says, quiet but not low enough to be a whisper. “You sure you want this?” 

“I am not sure,” Lan Wangji says, perfectly honest. “That is the purpose of the experiment.”

Wei Ying still doesn’t hit him. A long moment later he says, “Lan Zhan.” And then, “Lan Zhan, I’m really not sure either. About this. If you don’t want it, I--”

“I am sure that I want to know what it is like.”

“I can just tell you. Here, why don’t I just tell you? It hurts. It hurts like a motherfucker, Lan Zhan, it doesn’t feel good, it hurts and it makes you feel bad, and it doesn’t fix anything, it doesn’t make anyone feel better, it doesn’t even make the person hitting you feel better--”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying stops talking in the middle of a word. Lan Wangji closes his eyes and listens to his breathing. It’s unsteady. Lan Wangji spares a moment of fury to think of how, exactly, Wei Ying came to end up in Valerian--he was on the streets. A family took him in. The lady of the house didn’t like him, but there was a brother, a sister--Wei Ying mentions them occasionally, and Lan Wangji suspects that’s who he goes to see when he sneaks out from time to time. And somehow, in the vast gulf between being taken in off the streets and being here in this room with Lan Wangji, Wei Ying had been given into the keeping of a House for which he was an imperfect fit.

Should have been Eglantine. Should have been Orchis. Should have been, perhaps, Jasmine.

But instead he’s here, standing just behind Lan Wangji and to one side with a wooden ruler in his hand, as if they were always meant to make it here, to be each others’ equals and opposites.

“Wei Ying,” he says again, softer. “You are not angry with me. I have done no wrong that needs to be corrected.” He pauses, waits for any objection. None comes. “This is only curiosity.” A small lie--it isn’t just curiosity. He’s trying to say something to Wei Ying, something that cannot be spoken in words, only pantomimed in actions until meaning becomes clear.

“Weird to pick me, then, if that’s all you’re doing,” Wei Ying retorts, abrupt. Then, lighter and more teasing. “Lan Zhan is too shy to find anyone else, huh?”

“I only trust Wei Ying,” he says, and it’s easy. It’s so easy to just say it, and he can’t even regret letting it slip, because it’s such a relief to say things simply and honestly. 

“Lan Zhan, ” Wei Ying yelps. “Aiya, you’re the worst! You’re the worst, do you know that?”

Lan Wangji suppresses a small smile. “Hit me a few times, and then we can set it aside and practice something else.”

Wei Ying pokes him sharply with the end of the ruler, which Lan Wangji interprets as the only symbolic punishment he is due, and then he takes a breath, and he does it. A handful of strikes, all on his upper back, with a medium force--not too heavy, not too light. Sharp and definitive, like Wei Ying knew that Lan Wangji would want them to count as proper strikes, but no more than that. 

“There,” Wei Ying says, and Lan Wangji hears the ruler clatter on the floor as he drops it. “There. How do you feel? How was it?”

Lan Wangji considers this. “It hurts,” he says.

“Yeah, dumbass, it does. I told you.”

His skin where the strikes landed feels glowing-warm, and it twinges a bit when he shifts his shoulders. “I do not see the appeal.”

Wei Ying lets out a gust of breath and then laughs, and then Lan Wangji hears a thump--Wei Ying has fallen to his knees and he’s draped over Lan Wangji’s back, hugging him from behind, hard enough to make Lan Wangji’s ribs creak, and then he’s kissing very, very gently across the marks, far more gently than they really require. He is not injured. They only sting a bit, and likely he won’t even have bruises to show for it tomorrow, just a bit of a tender ache. 

Lan Wangji pats Wei Ying’s arms, tight around his stomach.

Wei Ying kisses his shoulders again and drops his forehead to bump against the nape of Lan Wangji’s neck. “Is this okay?” he asks plaintively. “If I’m hugging you like this? Do you want to put your robes back on?”

“It is okay,” Lan Wangji says. “Did Wei Ying see any appeal?”

Wei Ying shakes his head silently. A moment later, he adds, “Other than the usual. Lan Zhan is really too handsome to be allowed out in public. Shoulders like these shouldn’t be allowed.”

Lan Wangji huffs a small laugh before he can stop himself--he feels Wei Ying go very still.

“Did you just laugh?” Wei Ying says, stunned. “Lan Zhan, did you just laugh!” And then he’s pulling Lan Wangji around by his shoulders and looking into his face with eyes shining like daybreak. “Lan Zhan, do it again, I didn’t see!

“I cannot laugh on command,” Lan Wangji says. “If Wei Ying wants to see it, then it is his own responsibility.”

Wei Ying’s hand darts out, minnow quick, and pinches at Lan Wangji’s sides, dancing up and down--Lan Wangji looks down at it curiously. “Damn,” Wei Ying says, leaving off his attempt. “Of course someone like Lan Zhan isn’t even ticklish.”

Lan Wangji pokes one finger at Wei Ying’s side in retaliation, and Wei Ying yelps and jolts away so hard he falls over, and Lan Wangji snorts again. Wei Ying’s automatic pout melts away and then he just… stares at Lan Wangji. He stares so long it starts getting uncomfortable. 

“Wei Ying?” 

Wei Ying shakes himself and sits up. “Ha. Sorry. Don’t know where my mind went.” 

Something is… off. “Would you like to leave off studying for the rest of the day?” 

“No,” Wei Ying replies instantly with a huge, ridiculous, adorable pout. He adds in a childish, sulky sort of voice, “Wei Ying has had a very trying day. Wei Ying wants to be petted and told how brave he is. Wei Ying wants a kiss for a reward.”

That’s… not exactly allowed under their rules and plausible deniability. Kissing has only ever been under the auspices of “studying”, never for rewards. But Wei Ying is giving him that cute, cute pout, and Lan Wangji’s heart squeezes in his chest every time he looks at it, and unfortunately his strength and self-control does not include an ability to deny Wei Ying anything, especially when he’s asking like this.

So Lan Wangji nods, and pulls him close, and strokes his fingers through the whole length of Wei Ying’s hair, and says, “You were brave. You did well,” and when Wei Ying sighs and goes lax and easy, half-lying in Lan Wangji’s arms, Lan Wangji gathers him up and kisses his mouth three times: chastely, chastely, and then slow and deep.

Wei Ying’s eyes drift closed, and Lan Wangji feels him smile into the kiss, and for a lovely quiet moment, all is well. Perfect.

 

 *

 

No one has ever suffered as Lan Wangji suffers. They have worksheets--homework. They have been explicitly instructed to review their worksheets together with their study partner and… discuss them.

There is no getting out of this. 

Wei Ying is lying on his stomach on the floor of Lan Wangji’s room, which would be bad enough, but he’s chewing the end of his writing brush as he reads over his copy of the packet, which is worse, and then… well. There’s the packet itself. 

It’s ten pages long, double-sided, and lists an exhaustive array of the range of acts that their eventual clients may request. The worksheets, when complete, will go into their personal files with their respective Houses, to be referenced when matching them with clients, and they will be expected to review and update them at least once annually until their service to their House ends.

That’s still not the worst thing.

The worst thing is that Wei Ying, kicking his heels in the air as he makes notes on the pages, keeps muttering to himself things like, “Hm, maybe, but only if it was Lan Zhan.” 

Lan Wangji is going to burst into flames unless he knows exactly which items Wei Ying is saying that about. 

Wei Ying sits up abruptly. “I’m bored. Do you want to make it a game?”

Lan Wangji weighs his instinctive suspicion against his agony to know anything about what Wei Ying has written on his worksheet. Slowly, he says, “If you like.”

Wei Ying grins and wriggles into a more comfortable position. “Great! Here’s the game. Let’s take turns guessing each other’s answers for all of these, whether it’s yes or no or sometimes or negotiable.”

Lan Wangji, flustered and agonized, weighs this too. Is whatever he gives away about himself worth whatever he finds out about Wei Ying? He wants to groan and cover his face. He feels the heat of embarrassment in his face, but since Wei Ying doesn’t comment about it, he doesn’t think he’s blushing yet. “Mn,” he says.

“Great!” Wei Ying flips back to the first page and says, with a huge grin, “Number one: Kissing. I think you said a big yes to that.” 

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Negotiable,” he says. “Leaning towards no.” This is his secret Heliotrope tendencies coming up again--thou and no other, thou and no other; he only wants to kiss Wei Ying and no other--but realistically he will probably have to kiss someone else at some point. He can imagine a situation where it wouldn’t be terrible, but he has a very strong imagination, so the point is moot.

“Ah, is Lan Zhan being shy again? You like kissing with me.”

“Wei Ying is Wei Ying,” he says, which is supposed to be a noncommittal response, but Wei Ying seems to hear the underlying meaning and wriggles with a pleased little smile on his face. “Wei Ying answered yes.”

“It’s a complicated sort of thing, isn’t it?” Wei Ying says, which sounds like the beginning of a ramble that could last upwards of five minutes if he’s given free rein. “Because, you know, we’re supposed to answer about what we like, but it really is what we’d be willing to do with some stranger, right? Do I want to kiss everybody? I don’t know, maybe, it depends on a lot of factors. Like, are they as handsome as Lan Zhan? No, because Lan Zhan is the prettiest, so am I fine with kissing somebody kind of plain in comparison? Maybe they have bad breath. Maybe they’re not good at kissing. Maybe--”

“Wei Ying,” he says.

Wei Ying laughs and rubs his nose, a little abashed. “I’ll just put negotiable too, I guess.”

Lan Wangji foresees the rest of how this afternoon is going to go, if he lets Wei Ying continue in this vein. Wei Ying will have a verbose, circuitous non-answer for everything, with a dozen angles of complication. “Wei Ying,” he says, trying very hard to be patient. “It is understood that the answers are situational. We are being asked to consider these in the abstract.”

“Ah, I guess, but how can you think of any of these abstractly? I just keep thinking of the person who would do them to me.” He scrunches his nose. “No consideration about whether I might want to  be the one to do some of them. Tsk! Valerian.”

“Do not overcomplicate it.”

Wei Ying sighs gustily. “Yes, alright, you’re right,” he grumbles. “I’ll try.”

“Would you like to pick things randomly instead of going in order?” Lan Wangji offers, as a treat. Wei Ying always perks up when there’s an opportunity to do things messily instead of systematically, and he does so now.

“Sure, that’ll liven it up!” Wei Ying closes his eyes, flicks to a random page, and jabs his finger onto it. Cracking an eye open to read, he says, “Bondage; ropes; partially immobilized. For you I’m guessing… sometimes?” Lan Wangji shrugs, nods. He does sometimes have fantasies about tying Wei Ying up. Close enough. “Hah, okay, guess mine.”

“Negotiable.” 

Wei Ying glances down at his page. “Well. Yes, but that’s only because I was still thinking about it in the old way. You know, not… in the abstract. I think… Yes, leaning towards sometimes.” He nods firmly. “Okay, you pick.”

A few more minutes of this back and forth, Lan Wangji does have to admit that it’s kind of fun this way--when his random selection turns up “impact play; floggers” and he can answer “no” immediately for Wei Ying, it gets him a brilliant sunshine smile in reply--each correct answer he gives gets a smile like this, as if Wei Ying is surprised and pleased to be known so well. Wei Ying’s guesses for him aren’t nearly so good, which on one hand is a great relief; Lan Wangji’s careful restraint is evidently serving him well. On the other hand, it leaves him wistful, and that wistfulness perhaps makes him a little more forthright than he would have been otherwise.

Example: When Lan Wangji reads off, “Praise, verbal validation, affection,” Wei Ying laughs aloud.

“I can’t see you doing that or caring when someone does it to you,” Wei Ying says, through his sniggering. “Negotiable? I don’t think you’re against it, I just can’t see you wanting to or enjoying it. You barely react when the teachers say you did a good job, and the best anyone gets from you is, Hm. Acceptable. ” This last is, evidently, supposed to be a funny imitation of Lan Wangji’s own voice, stern and flat.

He wants to keep so much of himself secret from Wei Ying--he has to, or everything will fall to ruin. But… There’s part of him that aches and yearns towards Wei Ying like an unruly horse pulling against the reins, and right now all he can think of is the other day in the library, a few murmured words that had Wei Ying going limp and boneless in his arms, smiling into a kiss. “I enjoy it,” he says in a low voice. “I have marked it ‘yes.’”

“Oh,” says Wei Ying. He puts his head a little on one side, a bemused expression on his face. “Well, you should do it more often, then! People like it when you say nice things to them.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “Wei Ying marked it ‘yes’ as well.”

“Ha! Wrong! I know I’m pretty shameless, Lan Zhan, but I’m not about to get all hot and bothered just because someone said--”

Lan Wangji reaches out and runs his fingers through Wei Ying’s hair, just as he had the other day. “Wei Ying is working very hard,” he says in a low voice, and Wei Ying freezes, stone-still and wide-eyed. “Wei Ying may have a reward when we have finished.” 

Wei Ying goes brilliant red, makes a teakettle noise, and curls in on himself like an injured bug, hiding his face under his arms and sleeves. After a few moments, his muffled voice said, “Very rude, Lan Zhan, but point--point taken, I guess.

“Hm,” Lan Wangji says, squashing a surge of smug pleasure. “Continue.”

Wei Ying emerges from his cocoon of embarrassment still red-faced. It takes a couple more rounds for him to collect himself again, helped along by a few really ridiculous items from the worksheet that make him howl with laughter and Lan Wangji purse his lips with distaste.

“Okay, next: Roleplay of sexual coercion, dubious consent, or rape,” Wei Ying reads, and then he clears his throat, his cheeks pink again.

Lan Wangji, feeling suddenly very hot and fidgety, considers everything he knows about Wei Ying--likes praise, doesn’t like pain--and guesses, “No.”

There’s a pause just a little too long to avoid being incriminating. “It’s complicated,” Wei Ying offers weakly, and Lan Wangji’s stomach swoops with nerves and confused arousal.

“You do not need to explain,” Lan Wangji says, his eyes fixed solidly on his own worksheet.

“I mean, I kind of do, don’t I? We’re supposed to discuss some of them. It’s about… saying things out loud, getting used to talking about them, figuring out what we both like and why. So.” Lan Wangji risks a glance at him; Wei Ying is looking everywhere but back at him. “It's... It's like when someone offers you the last bite of something nice, and you have to say oh, no, I couldn't possibly impose to be polite, but they say no, really, you must, take it, and insist and insist until you accept the nice thing. And besides that, I just… think sometimes about how nice it would be to be wanted.” His eyes flick to Lan Wangji briefly; Lan Wangji makes an inquisitive sound and wills his heartbeat to slow from it’s rabbit-wild pace. “Like… Really wanted, wanted so badly I could try to push someone away and they’d still want me, wanted beyond all reason and straight into madness.” He smiles, but it is watery and forced. “It’s one of the cliches that the masters always talk about in class, isn’t it? That sometimes a person is compelled by a particular kind of love because they sense that it’ll feed a hunger or heal a hurt that maybe they don’t even consciously know they have. And me, well…  Nobody’s ever really wanted me, have they. So… I think that’s why.”

I want you, Lan Wangji doesn’t say, his heart hammering against the back of his ribs. I want you beyond all reason, I want you straight into madness, I want you, I want you.

“Does it make sense?” Wei Ying asks, once again not looking at him. His eyes are lowered. He picks at a loose fiber in the carpet.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. 

There is a moment of silence. Wei Ying shifts. “For you, though, I really have no idea.”

Lan Wangji swallows hard and, as carefully as he can, says, “I have wanted like that before.”

A corner of Wei Ying’s mouth quirks up as he looks at Lan Wangji. “Yeah? Badly enough to pretend to break the rules?” 

Lan Wangji gives one small nod, and Wei Ying’s little half-smile grows into a full-blown grin. “Ah, amazing, I never would have thought Lan Zhan would break a rule even for pretend!”

“I have broken rules for real,” he says. “Practicing kissing with you before it was assigned in class was rule-breaking.”

Wei Ying scoffs. “Rule-bending, at worst. Rule-denting, maybe. Rule-scuffing. ‘Lick your thumb and rub the mark a bit and it’ll come right off’ rule-scratching.”

“I have broken other rules,” Lan Wangji says, turning back to his worksheet. The kiss in the endurance exam, for instance.

Wei Ying squawks. “Lan Zhan!” he cries. “When! When did this happen! Why didn’t I know about it?” 

“Irrelevant,” Lan Wangji says. “Focus on the work.”

“But I want to know this! Lan Zhan! This is so much more important than the worksheet! Which rule did you break!”

“Focus,” Lan Wangji says again, prim. “Or Wei Ying will not have a reward after.”

Wei Ying makes a strangled noise.

 

*

 

They kiss and kiss and kiss, and Lan Wangji keeps his head, somehow, though he knows now that his heart is long since lost. They go to classes and sit together, and learn, and things seem so peaceful and bright, and Lan Wangji realizes that he’s happy, and that he hasn’t felt alone for… a while now. 

They’re assigned essays and projects and they complete them--they’re given back the worksheets that they turned in weeks before, and told to swap them, and to come up with scenes for one another based on the answers listed therein and write an essay about it--either one they would enjoy, or one they would turn down at the proposal stage of contract negotiations, and why. Lan Wangji writes about tying Wei Ying up and feeding him cakes and petting his hair and telling him he’s good, he’s wanted. He receives full marks from the teacher, including a very positive and enthusiastic note scribbled in the margins. 

He wonders what Wei Ying wrote for him, and wonders and wonders and wonders , and finally he asks--

And Wei Ying makes a ridiculous face and takes Lan Wangji back to his room. It looks like a hurricane has gone through it. He rummages through the mess of papers on his floor until he finds the essay, and hands it to him.

30% , says the teacher’s note on the front. Creative and insightful, but does not follow the assignment’s instructions. Please see me in office hours.

“May I read it?” Lan Wangji asks.

“If you want. She thought I misunderstood the brief. I explained to her that I didn’t, and she explained that it was supposed to be an exercise in building scenes for our clients one day, and I told her that I got that, and told her why I’d written in this way, and--well, she agreed that I didn’t have to redo the essay. She said she’d raise my grade to a 60%. Barely passing, but I'll take it.”

Lan Wangji sits on the edge of Wei Ying’s bed and reads the essay. 

It’s written in a much different style than he’d been expecting. He’d written his own essay as a psychological profile, explaining that he had selected a handful of Wei Ying’s interests and built something simple and straightforward that Wei Ying specifically would enjoy and find pleasant and pleasurable. (He had intentionally avoided bringing the coercion play into it--what Wei Ying had told him about it felt too personal and intimate to share even with a teacher, and thinking about blending that with the praise and the rewards made him feel… a little feral. Jittery and hungry, restless, his hands itching to grab and yank and hold.)

Wei Ying’s essay is written as a story in two parts, in Wei Ying’s signature terrible handwriting. The first part is titled “what he’d like”, and it is a whimsical little paragraph about a quiet day in the library, the hissing rain outside, the scent of incense, a pot of tea, and Wei Ying himself working studiously in the corner with focus and discipline: And I don’t bother him or distract him, and I do all my homework without annoying him, and then I leave him alone with the books, and nobody else comes to annoy him either.

The second half is titled “what’d be good for him”. It’s… It’s about him and Wei Ying sneaking out at night to explore the city, to drink, to eat street food, to visit Wei Ying’s brother and sister and his horrible brother-in-law and his baby nephew, to visit Lan Wangji’s own brother in Gentian House. He’d hate it, of course, he’d sigh and scold me the whole time, he’d say Wei Ying! so I’d know I was in trouble, but I really think he’d be happier afterwards. I think he should be allowed to relax. He’s wound so tight all the time, it can’t be healthy. I want to buy him a spun-sugar bunny on a stick, and then I want to steal it back from him and eat it myself, and then, while my mouth is still sweet, I want to kiss him in a dark alley where anyone could catch us.

“Ah, you’re frowning so hard, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying gives a rueful little laugh and takes the essay back when Lan Wangji hands it to him. “You’d give me worse than a 30%, huh? But I stand by it! I stand by it, though!” He shakes a finger at Lan Zhan. “You spend too much time frowning! You should do something fun once in a while!”

“The first part is wrong,” Lan Wangji says.

“...Eh?”

“The library. I would not like that.”

“What are you talking about? Of course you would--you’re so annoyed when I make noise in the library, you love studying.”

But he wouldn’t love being left alone. He’s had enough of loneliness to last the rest of his life. He doesn’t know how to explain this to Wei Ying.

“Don’t try to tell me the second part is any better,” Wei Ying scoffs. “It’s healthy for you, but we both know that you don’t have any practice at having fun so you’d hate every second of it--”

Lan Wangji seizes him by the wrist, drags him out into the corridor, and pushes him against the wall. He glances up and down to make sure there’s no one around, and then he grabs Wei Ying’s face and kisses him, hot and hard, right there where anybody could catch them. Wei Ying doesn’t taste like spun-sugar--he doesn’t taste like anything but Wei Ying--but drinking the little gasp from his mouth is nearly as sweet.

He bites Wei Ying’s lip when he pulls away, and Wei Ying just stares at him, flushed and wide-eyed, his mouth red and wet. “So,” Wei Ying says. “Does this mean you’ll sneak out with me?”

“No,” says Lan Wangji.

 

*

 

Lan Wangji can’t pinpoint the moment that the tides change, but over the next weeks, Wei Ying grows... moodier. He is ever like the sun, bright and shining, but something has shifted and it seems somehow like the days are growing shorter, Wei Ying’s light less warm, less intense. Lan Wangji can’t figure out why, and he doesn’t know how to ask--he doesn’t know if Wei Ying would even want him to ask.

They’re studying in the garden when it comes out--or at least, Lan Wangji is pretending to study while he secretly watches Wei Ying, and Wei Ying is lying on his back in the grass nearby, staring up at the dappled sunshine coming through the leaves of the tree they’re sitting beneath. 

“I really am a bad Valerian, aren’t I,” he says out of the blue.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, because there’s no point in lying. “But you could be worse.”

“Nah. I should have gone to Eglantine. Learned to make things, make art. I’m good at drawing.”

“Yes.”

“And music.”

“Yes.”

“I snuck out the other night,” Wei Ying says. “Two days ago. Nobody caught me. Just… left and came back.”

Lan Wangji puts down the book he was pretending to read. “Your family?”

“Walked past the house, yeah,” he says. His voice is all dull and expressionless and… it makes Lan Wangji’s skin crawl. “But Madam Yu--my siblings’ mother--was shouting inside, I could hear her. So I left. Seeing me would have only made her angrier.” He rolls onto his stomach and pillows his chin on his arms. “Wanna guess where I went?” 

“I cannot.”

“Found a print shop.”

Lan Wangji blinks at him.

“Yep,” Wei Ying says. “I told them I was from Eglantine, that I had an assignment for class. Told them I was supposed to research an industry of artificing somewhere in town and asked nicely if I could look at their presses.”

“Why?”

“I just wanted to see how they were made. The… gears and levers and things. How they apply the ink. The boxes they keep all the type in.” He lifts his head, rising up on his elbows and looking down at his open palms. “I keep having ideas for things and not having anything to do with them or anywhere to put them.”

“What things?”

Everything.” The leaves above them rustle in the breeze. There’s a scent of flowers from the other end of the garden, and the dark, damp, water-smell of the pond. “Inventions. Machines. Things to do little jobs.” He looks at Lan Wangji under his lashes. “I’ll tell you a secret, if you want.”

Lan Wangji nods.

“You have to ask,” Wei Ying says.

“Please tell me a secret, Wei Ying,” he says, and Wei Ying gurgles a bit of a laugh and, to Lan Wangji’s relief, looks terribly pleased.

“Sometimes when I really can’t sleep, I stay up all night and build these… these chain-reaction machines, like a book tips over and knocks a ball into a glass, which rolls across the floor and--you see? I filled up my whole room one time. Made my brain quiet. That was before we were study partners.” His expression grows distant and strange again, a cloud coming over the sun. “Lan Zhan is going to say ‘ridiculous’, huh? I can’t help it. I had to get it out somehow. Even with useless toys like that.”

Lan Wangji does not say ‘ridiculous’. “Eglantine would have been lucky to have Wei Ying,” he says quietly.

A watery smile from Wei Ying. “Ah no, Wei Ying must be truly pathetic today if Lan Zhan feels obliged to be so kind.” Lan Zhan hears an echo in it--oh no, I couldn't possibly impose, denying the last bite of the nice thing. Wei Ying pushes himself up, brushes the bits of grass and leaves off his clothes. “It’s no use thinking of what might have been, is it. Like you said, someone thought we’d be good at this, and so we must dedicate ourselves to it earnestly and try not to disappoint them.”

Well… Yes, true, but… “Why do you think of this now?” 

Wei Ying’s masks are all securely back in place, he waves this off with an airy laugh. “Oh, nothing, I’m just pitying myself too much--the Valerian masters are very impatient with me these last few weeks, I keep turning down clients--”

The bottom drops out of Lan Wangji’s stomach. “What clients.”

“Ah… Ah, I guess I forgot to tell you. Sorry, Lan Zhan! You know I’m a mess! I really thought I’d mentioned it, but maybe I just dreamed about it, or maybe I thought so much about how to say it that I tricked myself into thinking I already had--anyway, don’t be mad at me, I meant to say something!”

“It’s early,” Lan Zhan says. A wave of panic is settling low in his gut.

“To take clients? Yeah, I know.” Wei Ying sighs gustily. “But only by six months or so.” He pouts a little. “It was the endurance exam, I think. Got everybody all excited. Ridiculous.” As soon as he says it, he laughs aloud, bright and glittering and too-sharp. “Ah, listen to me, I sound like Lan Zhan now.”

“You have turned them down.”

“So far,” Wei Ying says with a shrug. “There’s… interest, I guess. The masters keep bringing up things from my worksheet, all the negotiable things.”

“And?”

“Well, what do you think? They have clients who want those things, and they think they’re negotiable, so they want to negotiate about them with me!” There’s a flash of annoyance, but just a flash. “And then they’re annoyed with me because I marked a lot of things as ‘negotiable’ when really I meant, ‘no, unless it was someone like Lan Zhan, and then maybe’.”  Wei Ying sighs and makes a face.

“What would… you accept? From a client’s proposal?”

Wei Ying sighs again. “Ah, I don’t know, maybe if they just wanted to cuddle? Or if they wanted to play games with me--”

“Games.”

“Games, you know, games. Game-games. Like the endurance exam, that sort of game. Get me and one of the other Valerians and see which of us can stand on one leg the longest--don’t give me that look, Lan Zhan, I’ve seen some of the client proposals! People ask for the oddest things!” He forces a laugh. “I guess I’m just waiting for somebody who at least sounds nice, which I don’t think is unreasonable of me, considering that it’s my virgin-night, but... Well! They keep saying ‘Nobody’s going to force you into anything, Wei Wuxian,’ and it’s pissing me off! What do they think I am, some kind of delicate wilting flower from Cereus who has to be coddled? Like I’m going to be traumatized just by doing something boring or dull, or kissing somebody who isn’t--” He shuts his mouth with a snap. “Kissing a stranger, I mean. Or sleeping with a stranger. Do they think that about me?” he demands. “Do they all talk about me over in Mandrake like they do in Valerian? Laughing at me behind my back just because I don’t like being hit?” Wei Ying pauses to fume. “Nobody’s going to force you, Wei Wuxian,” he says again, his voice sharper than Lan Wangji has ever heard it. “Fuck them, I’ll show them, I’ll take the next proposal they hand--”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, a little frantic.

All the indignant fight goes right out of him. “Fine, I won’t do that,” Wei Ying says mulishly. “But I’m going to have to do something, if I keep refusing to work then they’ll turn me out on the street, won’t they. ” They won't, Wei Ying has to know they won't, there's five or six other things that would happen before anyone decided to take it to that extreme. Wei Ying shakes his head. “It’s my own fault, really.”

“Why?”

“For reading all those silly books! For getting all those ideas into my head about--about romance and falling in love one day. Instead of just listening obediently to the stern wisdom of my study partner when he talked about duty and selfishness and so on.” Wei Ying gives him a smile that glitters like the edge of a knife. “Aren’t you happy, Lan Zhan, to hear me say that you were right?” 

 

*

 

Lan Wangji has no need to sneak out at night to visit his family. He can just go in broad daylight with the permission of his teachers. They don’t even ask him why he wants to go to Gentian House so urgently, even though he has an excuse prepared--something about asking his brother for advice about guided meditation that might assist with calming nervous clients.

His brother meets him in the beautiful, familiar forecourt of Gentian House with a warm, soft smile. “Wangji, welcome home.” With a teasing tip of his smile, he adds, “It’s not a festival or holiday, but you don’t visit lightly, so there must be some other special occasion…?”

“Xiongzhang,” he says, and then stumbles to a stop. He needs-- he wants-- 

He feels very small. He hasn’t felt so small since their mother died. 

“Xiongzhang,” he tries again.

Lan Xichen’s expression shifts from inquisitive to sympathetic, a little concerned. “Oh dear,” he says. “It’s something important, then.”

Lan Wangji nods, lowering his eyes.

“Well, come inside. Let’s talk about it. I’m sure we can find a way forward.”

“I want to buy someone’s virgin-night,” Lan Wangji says.

Lan Xichen pauses, and the inquisitive look comes back, even keener this time. “Come inside, Wangji,” he says. “You have my full attention.”

 

*

 

He returns later that evening, laden with money and advice on contract negotiations, and goes straight to the Head of Valerian House. 

“What price has been set for Wei Wuxian’s virgin-night,” he asks, and when the Head names her price, he nods to himself and says, “I will double it.”

She is too experienced to choke or splutter, but she does grace him with a minute quirk of one eyebrow. “I see. And did you bring a proposal?”

Lan Wangji nods and hands her his essay. “Please give that to him directly, when you inform him of my offer.”

 

*

 

 He’s not even surprised when Wei Ying bangs on his door twenty minutes before curfew. “Lan Zhan, what the fuck?” he demands, as soon as Lan Wangji opens the door.

“Please be more specific,” Lan Wangji says evenly. He does not feel even. He is gripping the edge of the door so hard his knuckles ache. He doesn’t think Wei Ying notices.

Wei Ying splutters at him, flails accusingly at him, and fumbles in his robes for--ah. Lan Wangji’s essay. Wei Ying shakes it at him. “Lan Zhan, what the fuck!”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says. “What is your question?”

“What is this!”

“My essay. My proposed scene for a contract with you.”

“What the fuck!”

Lan Wangji still doesn’t know what question that means, so he waits. He feels a bit ill.

“You don’t--Lan Zhan! If this is pity or--”

“It isn’t.”

“Where did you even get the money?” Wei Ying whispers furiously. “What the fuck, they told me how much cash you dumped on the House Head’s desk, what the fuck.

“It is mine,” Lan Wangji says, which is really all Wei Ying needs to know. “If you do not care for the proposal, then turn it down.”

Wei Ying groans and rubs his hands over his face. “Lan Zhan, I told you I’m not some fucking Cereus wimp. You don’t have to--to save me or any of that shit!”

“I am not.”

“Then what the fuck are you doing?”

“Being selfish,” Lan Wangji says, and shuts the door in Wei Ying’s face.

 

*

 

“Don’t fucking laugh,” Wei Ying says as he charges through the door without ceremony. “I know I look ridiculous, I heard your voice saying ‘ridiculous’ the whole time they were putting me in this getup.” 

Lan Wangji takes one look at him and his mouth goes dry. They’ve put Wei Ying in thin robes, only two layers, blood-red satin within, three shades too dark to be wedding red, and a very sheer black outer robe of veil-weight silk that floats and clings and begs to be torn. They’ve cleaned and brushed and oiled his hair, and tied it up with a red ribbon, and they’ve touched his eyes with kohl. 

They’ve also given Lan Wangji a luxurious private room, befitting an expensive contract, just as if he were a real client which… he supposes he is. There are soft cushions on the floor, a huge bed, a brazier of embers that’s made the room blood-warm. There’s a low table bearing great deal of food--Lan Wangji had not trusted that House Valerian would cook as extravagantly as he requested, so he had ordered more in from a bakery in the city, and now there’s rather too much. It doesn’t matter. The spices sting his nose even from halfway across the room. 

While he’s still trying to find his tongue again, and to not look at the peek of Wei Ying’s collarbone he can see below the beautiful line of his throat, Wei Ying pauses and says, in an entirely different tone of voice, “I smell chili oil.”

“Yes.” Lan Wangji gestures to the laden table. Helplessly, he says, “Please eat.”

Wei Ying is already diving towards the table, the skirts of his robes whirling around his legs. “Lan Zhan! You should have mentioned this in the proposal! I wouldn’t have thrown nearly such a tantrum about it!”

Lan Wangji joins him, hesitantly. He feels terribly, terribly shy. He fetches out the jar of wine he’d ordered specially and sets it by Wei Ying’s elbow. Wei Ying looks at it and his eyes gleam.

“I thought you said you were being selfish,” Wei Ying says, yanking the stopper out of the jar and pouring a generous slosh straight into his mouth.

“I am,” Lan Wangji says.

“It’s selfish to spoil your pal Wei Ying with wine and spicy food and--wait, wasn’t I promised honeycakes?” Lan Wangji wordlessly gestures to a cloth-lined covered basket at the other end of the table. Wei Ying almost purrs. “Oh, very good. Hey, if you wanna call this selfishness, I won’t even complain!”

Wei Ying packs away a truly astounding amount of the food and wine, and eventually topples onto his side with a contented little groan. “Feel better?” Lan Wangji asks.

“Mmph,” Wei Ying agrees, clearly contented. “Sorry for the tantrum, Lan Zhan,” he says in a sleepy voice. “I was too proud. And confused. You were just being nice, huh?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “Selfish.”

“Oh right right, right. Yeah, so selfish, truly shameful behavior.”

“May I continue now?”

Wei Ying goes still, but it’s not a fearful sort of still--just the curious sort, when Wei Ying has spotted something he doesn’t understand and gets fascinated despite himself. “What, the--the tying me up and feeding me cakes?”

“Mn,” he says. And then, “Wei Ying should wait a little, for the cakes. He will be sick otherwise.”

“Good point. Uh. Sure.” Wei Ying rolls onto his back and looks up at him. His shining hair is pooled all around him. Lan Wangji pulls the red satin ribbon out of his hair, slowly, and Wei Ying just keeps watching him with deep, dark eyes. Lan Wangji takes his wrists and loops the ribbon around them, far too loose to be any kind of effective restraint.

“Will you lay your head in my lap?” he asks, and Wei Ying’s expression shimmers through a dozen different expressions before he laughs and nods, and scoots closer so he’s pillowed on Lan Wangji’s thigh. Lan Wangji’s fingers, quite without his conscious intent or instruction, wind through Wei Ying’s beautiful hair. “How do you feel?” 

“Dunno,” Wei Ying says. “Feel like I missed something, or got tricked somehow.”

“Not a trick.”

“Well, I don’t mind if it is. If I get fed like that every time--” Wei Ying pauses to yawn hugely, “--then I could stand to be tricked more often.”

“Not a trick.”

“Sure,” Wei Ying agrees. Lan Wangji rubs and scratches little circles across Wei Ying’s scalp with his nails, and Wei Ying makes a noise of utter relaxation as his eyes drift closed. His voice, when he speaks again, is very woozy. “Dunno what this is. Lan Zhan’s somehow-selfish not-a-trick. Too complicated for the likes of me.”

“Not complicated.”

“Mhm,” Wei Ying says, breathing slow and deep. “Whatever you say, my lord.”

That’s what the Valerians are instructed to call their clients and patrons, and Lan Wangji feels a thread of heat down his spine in response, but Wei Ying has such an edge of wry amusement to his voice that Lan Wangji cannot help but share that amusement. “It is simple.”

“‘Splain it to me, then,” Wei Ying mumbles.

“I wanted this.”

Wei Ying’s eyes open. He looks up at Lan Wangji curiously through that haze of well-fed drowsiness. “You want to watch me eat until I pass out and then give me the best scalp massage ever?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “It is the same as you said about me in your essay. You are wound too tight. This cannot be healthy.”

“Now, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, attempting to hold up one finger in protest. “You said this wasn’t about saving me.”

“It is not. It is a gift.”

“Still too complicated.  Use smaller words.”

Lan Wangji does not roll his eyes. “Wei Ying’s essay,” he says again. “Wei Ying wrote that it would be good for me to go out and have fun.”

“It would.”

“But Wei Ying was also there having fun. Gifts can be shared.”

Wei Ying frowns a little, thoughtful, and Lan Wangji begins to comb his fingers through the heavy silk of Wei Ying’s hair. After a long time, Wei Ying asks slowly, “Lan Zhan. Were you the one who kissed me at the endurance exam?”

The honey-slow moment shatters in a heartbeat, and Lan Wangji freezes.

So does Wei Ying, but only for a moment, and then he’s laughing. “Ha! Just joking, of course! Of course. Lan Zhan isn’t a person who would--” 

“I was.” He takes his hands out of Wei Ying’s hair.

Wei Ying stops on an inhale. “Oh.” And then, sitting up and turning to face Lan Wangji: “I knew--I didn’t know, but I knew--I wanted--and I didn’t think that--and then we started kissing for practice, and--it wasn’t the first time or the tenth time but somewhere in there, I thought maybe--but then I decided that it couldn’t have been--except who else would--and I just…” He swallows hard, as if his mouth has gone dry. His hair is loose and mussed. “Why did you?”

Lan Wangji is silent. It is just as Wei Ying says: He doesn’t know, but he knows. He wants, and he didn’t think, and then he thought. It couldn’t ever happen, except who else could it ever be but Wei Ying?

Wei Ying is staring at him again with that worried, expectant, inquisitive look. He has to say something. He cannot just sit here in silence with his hands on his knees. “I apologize for my behavior. I regret...” He can’t say that, actually, because it’s not true.

Wei Ying’s eyes narrow, confused. “If you regret it, why have you been practicing with me since then?” And then, “Are you… blushing? Lan Zhan, holy shit, what is your face doing right now?”

He doesn’t know. There’s no mirror. His ears feel hot, though, and he can’t meet Wei Ying’s eyes anymore. 

“Lan Zhan, were you just experimenting to see if you could stand me enough to practice with?”

It would be a convenient little lie, wouldn’t it? And Wei Ying has already provided it, all tied up with a neat little bow. But he can’t stop himself from shooting Wei Ying an exasperated look, and he feels the heat in his ears spread to his cheeks. 

Wei Ying blinks at him. “Did you… want to kiss me?” he asks, his voice almost a whisper. “Not for practice reasons, but…?”

Lan Wangji nods once, stiffly. 

Wei Ying looks taken aback, as if he hadn’t expected Lan Wangji to answer, but he looks… almost pleased. A little incredulous, a little wondering, like he can’t actually believe this is true. He’s starting to blush now too. “Oh.” A moment later: “That day outside my room, when you pushed me against the wall. That was just because you wanted it too?”

This is too much. Abruptly, it is overwhelming, more than he can bear, more than anyone has ever borne-- 

The blood is roaring in his ears. With some difficulty, he nods. “If--if you wish to call this off,” he begins. “There is another gift. On the bedside table. For you to keep.” A love-gift, as a patron might bequeath if they’d been particularly pleased, a personal thing from which the House cannot subtract its heavy percentage, unlike the contract-price. This one is a set of white jade bangles, hair ornaments, and crown with pin. Not quite a king’s ransom, but more than enough for a scion of the Court to buy their marque entire and have enough left over to… leave. If they wished. 

“I’m sure it’s a lovely gift, I’ll go look at it later,” Wei Ying says, flapping his hand dismissively. “Thanks, I mean, that’s nice of you--I just. I’m trying to… You wanted that. And you want… this.”

“Yes.” Is Wei Ying not calling this off? The loops of the satin ribbon still bind his wrists, but they’re loose enough that he could just pull them off if he wanted to. He’s not truly bound.

Wei Ying’s eyes are dark and hot. He licks his lips. “You could have said, you know. That would have been a fun rule to break, wouldn’t it?”

“No.”

Wei Ying snorts. “Lan Zhan, give me something to work with.” 

Lan Wangji gets up from the table and fetches the box from the bedside table. He brings it back to Wei Ying, sets it in front of him. “Yours. A gift.” The jade set was once his mother’s, but Lan Wangji thinks of Wei Ying selling them off to buy freedom and an inventor’s studio or an apprenticeship somewhere he is more suited than Valerian House, and finds that his heart is untroubled. She wouldn’t have minded, he thinks. She would have liked it used for this.

Wei Ying opens the box, looks into it for a long time, and closes it carefully. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he says with a weak little laugh. “You can’t just go around giving people love-gifts like that!”

“You refuse it?” 

“How can I possibly accept that? It’s too much, it’s--” 

“It’s freedom. It’s the choice to do whatever you like, and be happy. Take it.”

Another nervous little laugh. “You’re gonna give me the wrong impression if you keep talking like that.”

Lan Wangji gives him a flat stare.

“Where would I even go, eh?” Wei Ying demands.

“Wherever you want.”

“Jasmine House? Orchis? Eglantine?”

“If they suited. If they agreed to accept you. They would be lucky to have Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying huffs a little and stares across the room. “If you’d gotten to choose for yourself,” he says, low and pensive, “would you have gone to Mandrake?”

“No.” He pauses. Perhaps it’s just the situation, the intimacy, but this moment seems to demand honesty.

“So which would have been the right house for you? If you’d gotten to choose.” 

“Heliotrope,” Lan Wangji answers, and Wei Ying’s eyes flick to him in surprise.

“Seriously? Heliotrope? Thou and no other? You?” 

Thou and no other,” Lan Wangji says softly. He can’t quite manage to maintain eye contact. 

He can feel Wei Ying staring at him. Hears a soft huff of breath. Sees, just out of the corner of his eye, Wei Ying turning to look at the food, the room, the gift of jade. 

“But,” Wei Ying says. He sounds lost. Helpless. “But… But you said it was selfish.”

“It is,” Lan Wangji says. His hands, lying in his lap, tighten around fistfuls of his robes.

A long, long silence. At last, Wei Ying says, “Yesterday, I asked what you were doing, and you said you were--”

“Being selfish. Yes.”

Oh.

In one heartbeat, Wei Ying tears off the red ribbon binding his wrists; in the next, he’s throwing himself at Lan Wangji, scrambling into his lap, seizing his face in both hands, crashing their mouths together. Lan Wangji’s hands grab him by the waist and the hip by reflex more than anything as he topples backwards, Wei Ying following him down and making sharp, desperate noises into his mouth. His hands are suddenly everywhere--in Lan Wangji’s hair, clutching at his shoulders and sides, and then he’s tearing open Lan Wangji’s robes, baring his skin to the air--

Lan Wangji spends the last thread of his self-control to say, “The contract didn’t say we’d--”

Fuck the contract,” Wei Ying bites out, rolling them, pulling Lan Wangji on top of him, and--Lan Wangji loses track of himself.

He wants so badly that it’s almost like he’s seeing it from outside his body: His hands, ripping Wei Ying’s sheer black layer to shreds, tearing the red underlayer open too. Wei Ying’s bare skin revealed to him, the gasp as he bites sharply at Wei Ying’s ribs, his shoulder, his neck, his nipples. He’s shuddering all over, mindless and inflamed with desire, and Wei Ying is laughing breathlessly under him and whispering nonsense: “Wow, Lan Zhan, wow, yes--I mean--fuck--I mean no, don’t, stop, you can’t, don’t--oh, oh--oh, don’t stop--or stop, don’t--Lan Zhan, help, help me, it’s too much, I like you too much--” as his hands rub up and down Lan Wangji’s back and he bares his neck and smiles like sunshine. 

Lan Wangji shoves Wei Ying’s thighs apart, ruts against him even as he’s fumbling at the ties of Wei Ying’s trousers, and Wei Ying just laughs again around a whimper and shoves the cloth aside, shoves his own hands down Lan Zhan’s pants. He plants a sweet little kiss against Lan Wangji’s cheekbone at the same moment he gets his hand around Lan Wangji’s cock and strokes, and Lan Wangji shudders and groans against his neck, snatches Wei Ying’s hands away, and slams them to the floor above his head. 

Wei Ying whines high in his throat and wraps his legs around Lan Wangji’s waist, rolling his hips up with stuttering little hitches. “My lord,” he gasps, “aren’t you--oh, fuck--aren’t you being too rough with this poor helpless virgin?”

Quiet.”

“I can’t, I really can’t, I’ll go mad if I have to stop talking--” He yanks his hands free and grabs for Lan Wangji’s waistband again, shoving the fabric down his hips. “Off, off, take it off--need to--just--”

There’s nothing like this in their classes--they’re trained to be graceful and deliberate, to serve their patrons with beauty and poise. This is none of those things. They’re both trembling and desperate--Wei Ying’s hands are shaking as hard as his own, and Lan Wangji feels hot all over, and Wei Ying’s skin scorches him when he touches him. They flail and kick out of their trousers, and Lan Wangji cannot speak, cannot stop kissing Wei Ying, cannot think of anything but the wordless animalistic hunger for touch.

Wei Ying swears and shudders again when Lan Wangji presses up against him, skin to skin--he’s so hard Lan Wangji can feel him throb against his hip as he grinds down, and his grip on Lan Wangji’s shoulders has gone weak and watery. His mouth is red and wet, kiss-bruised, and there’s marks coming up on his neck and chest already, and looking at them sends Lan Wangji a little further out of his mind. He growls and thrusts harder against Wei Ying, grabbing for him, devouring him with his hands. 

They’ve rolled off the cushions and onto the hard floor, with only Wei Ying’s open robes beneath them, pushed off his shoulders and hanging from his elbows. He only stops talking when Lan Wangji is kissing his mouth and sometimes not even then, spilling words in muffled torrents between them, begging for more in the same breath that he claims it’s too much, whimpers of please, you can’t interspersed equally with oh, good boy, yes, don’t stop, all while he wriggles and bucks his hips and digs his nails into Lan Wangji’s shoulders, and Lan Wangji grinds and thrusts ferociously against him, consumed with a burning need to just--get--a little--closer-- 

He pins Wei Ying’s wrists again, holds them in one hand, and yanks him by the hair with the other. The babble of words increases in pace and volume, and Lan Wangji bites sharply on Wei Ying’s lower lip and says through his teeth, “Mine.” 

Wei Ying shouts and bucks so hard against him that Lan Wangji would have been thrown off if Wei Ying’s thighs hadn’t been vice-tight around his waist, and then Wei Ying is spilling hot and wet between them. 

He’s still shivering in the last of the aftershocks, limbs limp and boneless, when Lan Wangji releases him, swipes a hand through the come on his stomach, slicks his own cock with it, shoves Wei Ying’s legs down and together, and thrusts into the space between them. Wei Ying groans again, as if he could come again just from that, and Lan Wangji bites just under his ear and rasps, “Tighten up.” 

Wei Ying does his best, clearly fighting against his pleasure-weakened muscles, and Lan Wangji’s breath catches sharply in his chest at the feeling. The skin of Wei Ying’s inner thighs is slick and silken and hot, and Lan Wangji tucks his face against Wei Ying’s neck and works feverishly towards his own end. Wei Ying’s arms come languid and heavy around his neck and shoulders, and he becomes distantly aware, through the static buzz in his ears, of Wei Ying laying kisses against his temple and his cheek, whispering, “Yes, good boy, good boy--keep feeling good--oh, you’re perfect, next time I want you inside--come on, you can do it, yes, just like that--” and when Lan Wangji finally spills between his thighs, shaking so hard he thinks for a wild moment that he might just fall to pieces in Wei Ying’s arms, Wei Ying hugs him tight and groans louder than he does with a final, “Oh, yes, yes.”

He collapses on top of Wei Ying, chest heaving, and Wei Ying just keeps hugging him, rubbing his face in Lan Wangji’s hair and laughing again under his breath, and it’s loveliest thing Lan Wangji could possibly imagine. Wearily, he turns his face enough to kiss the corner of Wei Ying’s jaw and, a few moments later, somehow finds the energy to prop himself up on his elbows and kiss the rest of Wei Ying’s face too. 

“Lan Zhan, it’s really not fair,” Wei Ying says drowsily. His eyes have fallen closed. “How am I supposed to run away in the dead of night now? I’m going to have to keep sneaking back in to kiss you again, how am I supposed to live without it now?”

He replies before he can think twice about it, mumbling directly into the sweat-salt, sticky skin of Wei Ying’s collarbones: “I will go with you.” Selfish, he thinks. Selfish, selfish, abandoning duty like that, selfish--but he doesn’t feel a jot of shame about it, just the golden shimmer of pleasure glowing from beneath his skin.

Wei Ying turns to look at him, surprised and still adorably hazy. “Will you? Will you really?” 

Lan Wangji hides in his neck and nods. “Cannot live without kissing Wei Ying now either,” he mumbles, and then adds: “Take responsibility,” and there must have been something in his voice because Wei Ying bursts out laughing.

“Alright! Alright, I will! We’ll run away, and I’ll kiss you every single hour and sleep with you every day, and I’ll have a workshop and make things, and you’ll--what will you do?” Lan Wangji pauses to think just a little too long; Wei Ying rolls them onto their sides and props himself up on one elbow to look down into Lan Wangji’s face, frowning a little. “Do you even know? Has Lan Zhan ever dreamed of something?”

“Just you,” he whispers, feeling open and raw and honest but… safe. Wei Ying’s frown melts immediately into a blush. 

“Besides me! Ah, but wanting things is selfish too, isn’t it? So I bet you don’t have much practice--you’re really too much of a good boy, Lan Zhan! Too obedient to your elders!” He drops a series of tiny kisses along Lan Wangji’s forehead and the corners of his eyes. “Ah, don’t make that embarrassed face at me. We will find something for you. You have lots of skills. You can play music, and write poetry, and you have the prettiest handwriting… Actually, that’s useful for a lot of things. You could set up a stall in the marketplace and take dictation when people who can’t read or write want to send letters to their grannies.” He grins and kisses Lan Wangji’s nose. “Think how happy all those grannies would be when they see the letter and think their grandchild writes so elegantly! Though I bet they’d be even happier if they could see the real scribe’s handsome face. You wanna make lots of little old ladies happy, Lan Zhan?”

“Shameless,” Lan Wangji scolds and, thinking vaguely of fetching the honeycakes, sits up. This is a mistake, because he immediately has a better view of Wei Ying’s whole body--the ruined robes, the messy hair, the come still dripping down his thighs and tacky across his belly, the marks. He looks like he’s been mauled. Lan Wangji reaches out before he can stop himself and touches one of the bruises, a pang of concern going through his chest at the same time as a wash of heat and renewed desire courses all the way down his body. Wei Ying catches his hand, kisses the tip of his finger. “Wei Ying doesn’t like pain,” he says softly, but before he can apologize, Wei Ying blinks in surprise and looks down at himself.

“What, these? Nah, these didn’t hurt a bit. It’s…” He grins and kisses Lan Wangji’s knuckles, courtly and textbook-proper. “Spicy candy,” he declares. “You got any more? I’ll take the whole bag.”