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Lan Wangji never believed the stories of the Lan family curse. 

He kept his face impassive when, as a young boy, Lan Qiren told him, "The rumors are true. If a Lan reaches thirty years of age with his virginity intact, he will be able to hear the thoughts of whomever he touches."

Ridiculous, thought Lan Wangji, even at such a tender age. What sort of curse was that? In many ways, such power could be an asset. And anyway— 

"What does it mean," he'd asked, "for virginity to be intact?" 

His uncle had been startled, a flush creeping up his neck. "Well, isn't it obvious?" he said, and explained no further.

Lan Wangji did not think it was obvious at all. He was an innocent, but not completely obtuse; he knew how animals gave birth to young, how men outside the sect spent their short lives chasing pleasures, and so the question remained. Would he have to lay with a woman as a husband does with his wife? What if no woman was available? What about other indecent acts? Surely there was some threshold that had to be crossed for the curse to be broken, so where was it? Since no one could tell him—or refused to—he had to conclude that the curse was a lie. It was only a tall tale, a way for the traditionally monastic Lan clan to save face while carrying out the carnal deeds that were required of them. After all, how else would their family line be assured? 

And so Lan Wangji put the stories of the curse out of his mind as he grew older, as he did with a thousand other things that were not useful or relevant.

Which is why, when he reached thirty years of age, he was shocked to discover the curse was absolutely real.  

 


 

Here is what you must know about Lan Wangji at thirty years of age:

It has been seven years since he watched Wei Wuxian fall to his death.

It has been six years since he drunkenly pressed a hot brand to his own chest.

It has been five years since he emerged from Cold Pond Cave.

It has been four years since he'd given up looking for a body beneath that terrible cliff.

It has been three years since he's stopped scanning the rooftops for a flash of red against the night sky.

It has been two years since he returned to Cloud Recesses after traveling the world in search of a special kind of chaos and finding only the usual sort.

It has been one year since he has last played Inquiry in the hopes of receiving an answer from a soul he cannot find.

Lan Wangji has been alive for thirty years, and the last seven have been hardly worth living.

 


 

Lan Wangji wakes on the morning of his thirtieth birthday and lays perfectly still in the early dark, staring up at the ceiling. He does not feel older. He does not feel any different at all. Not that he'd expected to; nothing really changes anymore. The years stretch on before him, a long, dull, unlit corridor, one that Lan Wangji is destined to walk alone. 

There is a tap at the door. "Hanguang-Jun?" a soft voice calls. 

He places a hand over his eyes, chastising himself for indulging in such maudlin thoughts. He is not alone, not truly, and there are still those that depend on him. He must remember this fact. 

"One moment, A-Yuan," he calls back, and rises from his lonely bed. 

Birth dates do not require elaborate celebrations in the Lan sect. Lan Wangji does not expect anyone to even acknowledge his thirtieth year save perhaps a brief greeting from his brother and uncle. And yet after he is finished dressing in his mourning whites and pinning his hair in his customary guan, he opens the door to find A-Yuan eagerly awaiting him, a basket of straw clutched in his hands. 

"I thought we could visit the rabbits at sunrise today," the boy says, hefting his basket. "It's getting cooler. They could line their burrows to keep warm." 

Lan Wangji feels quiet pride well in his chest. It wasn't so long ago that he'd sat at his qin with A-Yuan in his lap and placed his tiny fingers on the strings, guiding them along in a simple melody, the first one he himself had ever learned. Now A-Yuan is a boy of ten, and for all the strife he's survived, he is gentle and kind. There is much of Lan Xichen in him, Lan Wangji supposes. 

A-Yuan grins widely before tempering his expression into something more Lan-like. Still, he cannot completely douse the light dancing in his eyes. For a moment, Lan Wangji's heart stops. 

There is still much of Wei Ying in him too. Lan Wangji forgets sometimes just how much. 

Rabbits, he reminds himself. A-Yuan wants to visit the rabbits.

"A fine notion." He retrieves Bichen from its place by the door and hopes A-Yuan has not noticed his slight delay in responding. 

They make their way down the misty mountain path toward the meadow in silence. Lan Wangji walks upright, his sword in one hand, the other tucked neatly into the small of his back. A-Yuan toddles along the path in front of him. He tries to cultivate the characteristic Lan bearing too, but the basket he carries is large and unwieldy, making it difficult for him to walk with any grace.

"Here." Lan Wangji takes pity on him and reaches for the handle of the basket. "Let me."

But A-Yuan is stubborn—Lan Wangji refuses to consider from whom he might have learned that trait—and does not relinquish it. "It's not heavy," he insists. "I can carry it."

Their fingers overlap on the reed handle, and instantly something strange happens to Lan Wangji.

Hanguang-Jun shouldn't treat me like a little baby anymore , he hears in his mind as clearly as if A-Yuan were speaking aloud. He always does this!

Lan Wangji freezes, his hand still atop A-Yuan's. He does not know why he's hearing these things. Perhaps, after all these years of struggle, he has finally gone insane. He is imagining things, he must be.

"What did you say?" he whispers. 

"I said it's not heavy, Hanguang-Jun," A-Yuan says, his tone polite and even. He gives the basket a little tug. "Please, it's fine."

I only wanted to do something nice for him on his birthday. Hanguang-Jun is always so miserable, and I thought this would help. How stupid of me , says the voice in Lan Wangji's head that sounds unmistakably like A-Yuan. 

"Hanguang-Jun?" 

Lan Wangji feels sweat beading underneath his clothes. His heart races. A memory in the very back of his mind steps into a pool of light: a flash of his uncle stroking a hand over his dark beard, the rising frustration in a younger Lan Wangji, not much older than A-Yuan is now. An old wives' tale about the Lan family curse. No, it can't be.

"Hanguang-Jun." A-Yuan's voice jolts him back to reality. They are standing in a meadow. The sun is rising. He's just turned thirty. A-Yuan is staring at him with real worry. "Are you all right?"

He probably only agreed to come this morning to humor me; he doesn't want to do this, I'm such a—

Lan Wangji tears his hand away and the voice stops. He clears his throat, makes a small noise of assent. There's nothing he can say that won't frighten the boy, so he turns and continues down the path. Only a slight shake of his clenched fist belies his roiling mind. After a moment, A-Yuan follows with the basket.

The clutch of rabbits has grown in the years since they were first discovered by Wei Ying and released into the wilds of Gusu. Lan Wangji counts nearly three dozen hopping through the dew-flecked grass, their white fur making them easy to spot. A-Yuan sets down his basket of straw and begins scattering it in handfuls along the ground. One by one, rabbits approach to filch a mouthful of it before bounding away. After a moment of watching him in silence, Lan Wangji joins him, sitting in an elegant cross-legged seat with his white robes billowing around him. Once the straw is gone, Lan Wangji finds half a head of fresh cabbage sitting at the bottom of the basket.

A-Yuan doesn't meet his eyes. His cheeks take on a red flush. "I thought we might feed them," he says, "but I know that's wasteful." 

Lan Wangji thinks for a moment, then decides it's not a waste if it brings A-Yuan some joy. He reaches into the basket and pulls a cabbage leaf free. He offers it to the nearest rabbit, which sniffs it before taking the tiniest nibble. Soon, the rabbit tugs the entire piece out of Lan Wangji's hand and scampers off with its prize.

A-Yuan laughs, delighted. "They like it."

Lan Wangji dips his head at the basket, indicating that A-Yuan should try it as well, and the boy does. They sit there feeding the rabbits as the sun crests over the mountain and bathes everything in a watery winter light. A-Yuan's young face, lit golden, is smiling as he picks up a tiny bunny in order to feed it. Lan Wangji watches him. He seems content, so unlike his earlier thoughts, if that was what they'd been. Understanding others has never been Lan Wangji's strong suit; even Wei Ying, the person he knew best, had oftentimes been a mystery to him. 

Perhaps he'd just imagined those things he heard earlier; his mind might be playing tricks. 

There is only one way to find out.

Slowly, with infinite care, he places his hand on A-Yuan's slight shoulder.

Huge, dark eyes turn to him. "Yes, Hanguang-Jun?" 

Have I done something wrong?

His breath catches. Is this how A-Yuan always feels? Has growing up among the Lan made him so unsure of his place? Does he really not understand how cherished he is? It's enough to break Lan Wangji's heart into even smaller pieces than he thought possible. He lets his hand fall away. These are the boy's own private thoughts. He has no right to them.

Still, he can't un-know what he knows.

"Thank you, Lan Sizhui," he manages to say, "for bringing me here this morning." He needs to get used to referring to A-Yuan solely by his courtesy name. It has been a year, perhaps more, that A-Yuan has ceased to call him gege. Even in private, he is now always Hanguang-Jun.

"Really?" A-Yuan blurts out before his etiquette training takes over. "I mean, of course, Hanguang-Jun."

There's more to be said, so much more. Lan Wangji rolls the words around in his mouth before letting them go. "You're growing into such a fine young man. I'm proud of you."

A happy, dancing light comes into A-Yuan's eyes. He sobers under the weight of Lan Wangji's gaze, moving the rabbit off his lap to execute a hasty bow. "I will still rely on Hanguang-Jun to guide me," he says, his voice brimming with joy, "even as I get older."

Lan Wangji's throat goes tight. It is the greatest gift he could hope for, hearing this. 

They pass a pleasant hour in the early morning sunlight, stroking the rabbits and feeding them bits of cabbage until at last there is only the core left. As they walk back to Cloud Recesses via the narrow path, A-Yuan's arm nearly brushes Lan Wangji's in a companionable, easy way.

Lan Wangji, with an ache in his chest, ensures they do not touch. 

 


 

Curses, if they are real, should produce curse marks. So when Lan Wangji returns to the Jing Shi after parting from A-Yuan, he strips bare in an effort to find one. When he'd dressed that morning, he had done so in the dark and would not have been able to notice such a thing. There is still a chance he is going mad. A mark would be proof of his sanity. 

At first, Lan Wangji cannot spot any change on his skin. He stands naked before the small bronze mirror behind his folding screen, turning this way and that. It's difficult to see the entire expanse of his back, but when he twists his head over his shoulder to check the mirror, he sees only the usual criss-cross of scars. He inspects his long limbs, the valleys of his torso, even the soles of his feet, but finds nothing. He has almost made peace with the fact that his mind is breaking in two when he notices something in the reflection.

It isn't very obvious because of the scar over his heart—the brand he'd pressed into his own skin years ago in a fit of loneliness and sorrow and, if he's honest, liquor. The burn has long since scarred over in a puckered whorl. But now, nestled in the center of the brand, or a little left of center, is a perfect rendering of a cherry blossom, picked out in soft pinks amidst the scar tissue.  

Lan Wangji runs his fingers over the mark. It's not raised like the surrounding scar; it's strangely cool and smooth to the touch. Like a piece of lacquer had been set into his body by some careless artist while he slept. 

He's not going mad. He is truly cursed. 

"...fuck," he says in the privacy of his own rooms. 

There is really nothing else to say.




 

He goes to Lan Xichen because there is no one else who might understand. He finds his brother deep in discussion with a handful of disciples outside the library, so he waits, arm folded behind his back, until Xichen glances up and notices him. Something in Lan Wangji's expression must convey his distress, because Lan Xichen dismisses his juniors with a soft smile and a promise to continue their conversation later. 

He glides over to Lan Wangji with a furrow between his brows. "Has something happened?" 

Lan Wangji tips his head in the direction of the Jing Shi. What he has to say must remain private. They make their way to Lan Wangji's quarters in silence, their footsteps barely making a sound on the polished wood of the walkway. 

Once they are alone and the door is shut, Lan Wangji realizes he does not know where to begin. He stands there in the middle of the room, his arms at his sides, his gaze on the floor. Words have never come easily to him, least of all these.

"Wangji, what's the matter? You're beginning to frighten me," Lan Xichen says after a few long moments. He approaches with caution, ducking in an attempt to catch his brother's eye. "Is it because you've reached thirty years of age today? I know it's strange, but I promise you, aging is nothing to fear."

"No," Lan Wangji manages to say. "It's not that. Not—entirely."

"Then what is it?" Lan Xichen's face falls into despair. "Is it A-Yuan? Is he all right?" 

"Yes." There is a lurch somewhere in his belly at the panic in his brother's voice. As if he knows what losing A-Yuan would mean. As if he knows that the boy is the only reason Lan Wangji gets out of his cold bed some mornings. 

He needs to get to the point before all these confusing thoughts overwhelm him. He looks up into Lan Xichen's beseeching eyes. "Do you remember the old stories about our family curse?" he asks.

"Family curse?" Lan Xichen looks blankly into the distance, his handsome face smoothing with the work of recollection. "Do you mean that ludicrous tale Shufu would spout when we were small? Something about being able to read minds…? Ah!" He gives a firm nod. "I remember. But according to him, it would only happen if you were still a virgin by the time you turned—" 

He stops, staring at Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji endures his gaze, miserable.

Xichen watches him closely before breaking into a knowing smile. "Ah, Wangji." He shakes his head. "You almost had me there. What a terrible joke to play on your loving brother!" His laugh echoes off the walls. "Who would have thought you would develop a mischievous streak in your old age."

Lan Wangji's jaw tightens. "It's no joke," he says. 

Xichen peers into his eyes for a long moment, smile slipping from his lips. "Oh," he says, quiet. "Oh, Wangji, you really think—?" The pity in his voice is terrible. "It seems the pressures of life have begun to affect you, if you're hearing things in your head." 

Lan Wangji's patience is legendary, but even he can only barely resist the urge to roll his eyes and groan. "Not things ," he grits out. "Thoughts. Other people's thoughts."

"I know the past few years have been difficult for you," Lan Xichen says as if he hasn't spoken. "It's not uncommon for the mind to play tricks in such cases. It's trying to heal, just as your body did." 

The flinch at these words cannot be wholly hidden, not from his brother, who knows him well. "I'm not imagining this," he insists. He wonders if he should show Lan Xichen the cherry blossom over his heart, but thinks better of it. It is a very unusual curse mark, a pretty little thing instead of a grotesque injury, and Xichen might doubt its provenance. 

"Wangji." Xichen's tone is delicate, gentle, and it makes Lan Wangji's skin crawl. "There is no curse. And even if there were—" 

Lan Wangji's hand shoots from his sleeve and grasps his brother's. They stare at each other for a moment. A moment is all Lan Wangji needs.

I need to tell Shufu, comes the thought in Lan Xichen's own voice. He might know what to do.

"Do not tell him," Lan Wangji whispers. When Xichen just blinks at him, he adds, "Shufu. That's what you were thinking."

"Of course that's what I was thinking," Lan Xichen sighs. "What else am I supposed to think when you're acting like this?"

Lan Wangji stands straighter, his other hand tightening on Bichen at his side. "Think something else," he says. "Anything. Something I could not easily guess."

"Wangji—" 

"Think," he demands.

Lan Xichen is stubborn for a moment, his mind a complete blank save for the undercurrent of worry rushing through him. Then, slowly, a thought travels over the bridge of their joined hands.

The loquats from Caiyi Town are sour this year.

"Loquats," Lan Wangji murmurs. He watches his brother's eyes go wide. "Sour this year."

Lan Xichen's mouth falls open. "The curse is real?" he asks. Then, in his thoughts: You're a virgin?

"You're not?" Lan Wangji shoots back.

Xichen pulls his hand out of his grip as if burned. Bright strokes of color appear high on his cheeks. He opens his mouth to speak but, in the end, only looks away. Lan Wangji looks away as well. 

He's not exactly surprised. It's not something Xichen would divulge to him, necessarily. Some things are private, even between brothers. Yet Lan Wangji has noticed that missives from Lanling, marked with Jin Guanyao's peony seal, arrive at Cloud Recesses more frequently than any other addressed to Xichen. 

Lan Xichen clears his throat, speaking carefully. "I'm sorry, Wangji. I suppose I always thought—" He stops then, realizing there's no way to speak of this without invoking Wei Wuxian's name. It is an unspoken rule of Cloud Recesses never to say that name aloud, as if by doing so he might be summoned from beyond death. 

Lan Wangji knows better. He knows because he's tried. 

"Does everyone assume so?" he asks in a brittle voice. Did the entire realm think he and Wei Wuxian had been lovers when in reality, there hadn't even been tender words exchanged, let alone a touch? 

Lan Xichen nods, pained. 

At least no one would ever suspect Lan Wangji to be cursed in such a way. Small comfort. 

"This is unbelievable," says Lan Xichen, still looking a little flushed. "So our family really is beset by the curse." He tips his head to the side in thought. "Do you think Shufu…?"

Their gazes meet and they both recoil forcefully. Either Lan Qiren has been able to divine their innermost thoughts for some time with just a pat on the shoulder, which is terrifying, or he has at some point indulged in carnal pleasure, which is somehow even worse.

"Maybe it was just the once," Lan Xichen says hopefully.

Lan Wangji grimaces. "Not better." 

Lan Xichen closes his eyes and breathes deeply the way he always does when he wishes to remove himself from the ugliness of reality. When he opens them again, he is smiling, strained. 

"Right," he says. "Now. Have you decided how you will overcome this affliction? As I understand it, you have several options." 

"No option," Lan Wangji says. He tucks his hand behind his back. "I will not touch anyone anymore."

"Wangji," his brother sighs, "that is not feasible."

"It must be. To invade another's thoughts—" He shakes his head. "Unconscionable. I will not do it."

"It is noble of you to not use this power for ill," says Lan Xichen, "but you cannot go without human contact for the rest of your life."

"Why not?"

Xichen huffs out a breath. "Even the hardiest bloom will wilt without water. Can you really live without ever feeling a friendly touch again?" He must sense Lan Wangji's continued resolve because he tries another tack. "What about A-Yuan? He needs you at his side should he stumble or fall."

That makes Lan Wangji hesitate, but only for a moment. The memory of A-Yuan's thoughts flows through him. "No choice," he says. "If he needs me, I will be there. But I will not know his mind if I can help it."

Lan Xichen's eyes go impossibly soft. "We can make arrangements," he says in a whisper. "The curse can be lifted today, if you wish. You could visit a brothel, or—" 

"No." His answer is immovable. A wall of stone.

"There's no shame in it, not if it allows you to live normally. No one would need to know. If you're—frightened," Lan Xichen struggles to say, "I could accompany you, choose a suitable lady for you."

Lan Wangji's eyes harden. "No."  

Xichen frowns, like he too understands the absurdity of his words now that he has said them aloud. His sadness is like a veil over his handsome features. "But brother, there's no sense in remaining faithful to something that does not exist," he says. 

"Then I will be senseless," Lan Wangji declares. 

"He would not want this for you." Lan Xichen's words are like a fistful of arrows all shot at once, and all finding a mark in Lan Wangji's chest. 

He hurts, he bleeds, but he does not falter. 

"As you pointed out: he is not here," Lan Wangji murmurs. "He does not get a say." He sweeps out of the room, Bichen clutched tight in his fist at his side.

It's decided. Lan Wangji, the Second Jade, Hanguang-Jun, will remain chaste and untouched. The long, dim corridor of his remaining years narrows.

 


 

It is more difficult than he imagined, never touching anyone. Lan Wangji had assumed, given his lonely life, there would be little opportunity for him to come into contact with others. Yet he soon discovers that every time someone hands him a book or a talisman or a letter, there is a danger of fingers brushing. Every time he travels through a town, he is beset by the press of people in a marketplace, where shoulders might brush against his. Clothing, it seems, is no barrier to this curse. He can still hear thoughts through a sleeve, through layers upon layers of robes. Gloves are no obstacle at all.

And so Lan Wangji stops accepting the things people try to hand him. He nods instead to low tables. He stops traveling through towns during daylight hours. He does not stay in inns, where the owners invariably try to press hot cups of tea into his hands. When he must journey, he does so alone, passing through villages only at night, sleeping under the stars. 

Still, even with all of this caution, there are moments where his strategy fails, and someone touches him, and their thoughts come to him unbidden.

There goes the Second Jade of the Lan. Poor soul.

Ah, the cutsleeve who was seduced by the Yiling Patriarch!

He's as beautiful as they say, but so cold and bitter.

The war ended years ago. He should smile more.

Thinks he's so great; he's nothing special.

Are the rest of us so filthy in his eyes? Is that why he won't deign to eat with us?

He should have followed Wei Wuxian off that cliff if this is how he's going to act.

Lan Wangji has worn a mask of impassivity all his life. He wears it still, though it feels heavy on his brow. 

What else can he do but pull away a little further from humanity, year by year, until his life shrinks to his duty to his sect, his devotion to his adopted son, and nothing else. His qin plays only battle chords now, never simple songs for pleasure, for there is no pleasure to be had. 

 


 

A short list of ways that Lan Wangji endeavors to free himself from his curse without taking another into his bed:

He touches himself in every way he can think to do, but his hands and fingers produce no change. He is only left gasping and disheveled amongst the bed linens, tears pricking the corners of his eyes.

While traveling far from home, he ducks into a shop of ill repute and purchases a piece of lacquered wood shaped like a phallus. It's cold and hard and uncomfortable, but he uses it in place of a lover, hoping it will satisfy the curse. It satisfies nothing, least of all Lan Wangji. 

He goes into a deep meditative state where he can conjure the image of Wei Ying as clearly as he can. He imagines the weight of Wei Ying climbing into his lap, the heat of his arms winding around his neck, the sound of his voice whispering nonsense into his ear. This false Wei Ying rides him to completion, but when Lan Wangji surfaces from his trance, he's only sticky and alone, hands grasping at shadows. And he can still hear the thoughts of the disciples who brush by him in the courtyard as they hurry along to their lessons.  

After this, Lan Wangji accepts that he cannot break the curse alone, and that he must wear the pink blossom on his chest until the end of his wretched days.

 




Years pass.

He is escorting Lan Sizhui on a night hunt. They are walking through a thick wood with enough distance between them that their arms will not brush. Lan Sizhui is now a young man of nearly thirteen, and he does not question this long-standing habit of Hanguang-Jun's. The forest is dark and quiet, not even insects singing: a sure sign that their quarry, a ghost that has been reported by the locals, is nearby.

Up ahead in the distance, Lan Wangji sees a flash of dark purple against the starlit sky, so dark that for a moment he thinks it might be black. But of course it is not. It is only Sect Leader Jiang coming around the bend in the path, and at his side is his own charge, the young golden heir to the Jin clan. 

Lan Wangji comes to a standstill. At his side, Lan Sizhui also stops, noting the newcomers. "What shall we do, Hanguang-Jun?" he asks.

Jiang Wanyin does not notice them at first, occupied as he is with saying something in a faintly admonishing tone to his nephew. For a moment, Lan Wangji considers turning around and going back the way he came, but doing so would be rude at best and cowardly at worst. It's not as if this is the first time he's come face to face with Jiang Wanyin since that day on the cliff—there has been official sect business that required both of them to be present in the same room, the tedium of annual events. But those interactions were brief with few words exchanged. 

This is different. 

Jiang Wanyin lifts his head and spots the two of them easily, their white robes making them stand out in the wooded gloom. Even at this distance Lan Wangji can see his jaw go tight, can hear the sharp intake of his breath. 

Lan Wangji takes the initiative, calling out a mild greeting. "Sandu Shengshou."

Jiang Wanyin has never been one to stand on ceremony, so he ignores this in favor of demanding, "Are you also here on a night hunt?"

Lan Wangji glides forward so they do not have to shout back and forth. There is still a ghost to contend with, after all, and it wouldn't do to announce their presence so baldly. "As part of Lan Sizhui's training." He introduces the boy with a nod, and Lan Sizhui bows to an appropriate depth. 

Jiang Wanyin seems annoyed at this, his eyes a banked fire. "Guess we both had the same idea," he grumbles, gesturing more informally to the smaller boy at his side. "This was to be Jin Ling's first night hunt, and now you Lans are taking it for yourself."

The boy favors his father in his looks, Lan Wangji thinks. Unfortunate. His Jin nose is stuck in the air, his proud chin jutting out. Still, despite his arrogant bearing, Jin Ling cannot hide his fascination with Lan Sizhui. He stares openly at his spotless robes and the sword he carries, its pale sheath glinting in the moonlight.

"I have inherited my father's sword," Jin Ling says with a child's pride, raising the thing in its golden sheath before him. It is nearly as long as he is tall. "Who gave you yours?"

Lan Sizhui smiles and begins telling the boy how his sword was forged as all Lan spirit swords are, in secret by the master smiths of Gusu. Jin Ling listens, enraptured, his mouth falling open. 

Lan Wangji leaves them to their discussion, facing Jiang Wanyin once more. At least their wards are getting along. He senses from the look on Jiang Wanyin's face that he is one step away from throwing punches. 

"I had no way of knowing you would also be on a night hunt here," Lan Wangji points out.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Jiang Wanyin counters. "You're in Yunmeng territory." 

True, but the forest is on the very outskirts of Yunmeng Jiang land, closer in fact to Cloud Recesses than Lotus Pier. In years past, there existed an unspoken agreement that the Lan clan was responsible for this remote slice of wilderness. Of course Lan Wangji could have inferred that such an agreement no longer held these days given how much had changed, but frankly he had not bothered to consider such things. 

By rights, he should cede the hunt. He knows this. And yet some small spark of stubbornness still flickers inside him, loath to give in to Jiang Wanyin's wishes. As he is thinking this over, the boys' conversation floats to his ear.

"So this is your fifth night hunt?" Jin Ling asks breathlessly.

Lan Sizhui nods. "Although I only observed the first time and the second time, it turned out to be a hoax so there was no need."

Jin Ling considers this. "I am not scared at all of this ghost," he says at last. "You probably are, since you are so inexperienced. Don't worry." He thumps a palm against his own chest. "I will protect you."

Lan Wangji frowns at this impertinence, but before he can chastise the little Jin, Lan Sizhui laughs. It sounds of small bells.

"What a kind offer," he says. "I accept, but only if you allow me to watch your back in turn. Surely this ghost stands no chance against the both of us." Where he learned this sort of diplomacy, Lan Wangji can only wonder. It certainly wasn't from him.

"Jiujiu," Jin Ling says, turning to Jiang Wanyin with eager eyes, "can I hunt with Lan Sizhui tonight? Please?" 

"No," is the curt answer. 

"But jiujiu—!" 

Jiang Wanyin groans and looks to the sky as if praying for strength. Lan Wangji watches him closely, some of his own stubbornness subsiding. It seems senseless for two adults to remain so implacable when their young students are embracing the spirit of cooperation. 

"The ghost is weak," Lan Wangji offers. "We could allow the boys to pursue it together."

Jiang Wanyin's eyes flash. On his wrist, purple sparks crackle. "Or you and your disciple could go back to Gusu and let us handle the hunt. Since you have no authority here."

Jin Ling reaches out and rests his small hand in the crook of his uncle's elbow. Jiang Wanyin stops glaring at Lan Wangji long enough to look down at him. As hard a man as he is, he visibly softens at the look in Jin Ling's eyes.

"Jiujiu, I hardly ever get the chance to train with someone my own age," the boy says. "Can't I? Just this once?"

Jiang Wanyin's nostrils flare and he cuts his eyes at Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui as if it is their fault his nephew is so starved for the company of other children. Yet Lan Wangji sees in his expressive face the marks of sadness. Here is a man torn between his distaste for the Lans and his love for his late sister's child. 

"Fine," he grumbles at last. The sparks abate. "But you're not doing this alone. Two novice kids on your own? No way. I am going to be right behind you making sure everything's all right."

"As will I," Lan Wangji interjects, ignoring Jiang Wanyin's annoyed grunt. 

Lan Sizhui executes another textbook bow. "How lucky we are to have such teachers," he says.

"Yeah!" Jin Ling copies his movements. "Really lucky."

"Let's just get this over with," Jiang Wanyin says, and storms ahead on the path. He does not give Lan Wangji enough time to step aside, and so he knocks into him with the point of his shoulder rather purposefully.

A thought flows from him and into Lan Wangji. 

Look at him, still in those mourning whites, Jiang Wanyin thinks directly into Lan Wangji's mind. As if he is the only one who grieves.

 




Prior to this moment, Lan Wangji had incorrectly assumed the following about Wei Wuxian's brother: 

That his thoughts would be almost an exact copy of his speech.

That he blurted out whatever came to mind without thinking through the consequences.

That he felt only anger towards everything and everyone in the world.

That there is nothing worth knowing inside his mind at all. 

All incorrect.

 


 

Though the touch lasts less than a moment, a barrage of emotion accompanies Jiang Wanyin's thought, assaulting Lan Wangji's senses like a battalion. Images of Wei Ying flash and disappear like lanterns on the bow of some far-off, bobbing boat. His smile, his childhood, his death. There are memories of Lan Wangji too—seen through Jiang Wanyin's eyes, he is as cold as a slab of marble. And just as useful. 

Jiang Wanyin wears his anger as Lan Wangji wears his grief, it's true—an outer layer for all to see. But this cloak is not as simple as he'd assumed. It is like seeing an elaborate piece of embroidery up close for the first time: woven into it is all Jiang Wanyin's sorrow and all his love, all his hate and all his regret. It is a deeper well than Lan Wangji could have imagined, had he not seen it for himself. It is deep enough to drown a man.

Lan Wangji stumbles back a step, more from the shock of these overheard thoughts than Jiang Wanyin's light knock to his shoulder. Lan Sizhui catches him by the arm. 

"Hanguang-Jun?" he asks, darting a glance at Jiang Wanyin's retreating back. Should I demand the Sect Leader apologize for such disrespect?

Lan Wangji covers Lan Sizhui's hand where it rests on his elbow and gives it a squeeze that he hopes communicates his order to remain calm. Not for the first time, he wishes this curse worked both ways, that he could impart his own thoughts to those he trusts. But it is not to be.

He pulls away from Lan Sizhui reluctantly—he so rarely allows himself a kind touch these days—and nods to the boys. "Come," he says. "Time to hunt."

They leave the narrow path and head into the forest, where the shadows hang heavy from the trees. Lan Sizhui ignites a talisman in his palm to produce a soft blue light, the sort that will not disturb a spirit. He and Jin Ling strike out ahead, two small shapes with one only slightly taller, their heads bent close together as they share whispered strategies. Lan Wangji hangs back, not wanting to smother their excitement. It is good that they have this opportunity; Lan Sizhui is at an age where he should be fostering his independence. Jin Ling is, in Lan Wangji's estimation, still a bit young to be night hunting, but he's not about to question the way Jiang Wanyin chooses to train his own nephew. 

He glances over to Jiang Wanyin, who is giving Lan Wangji a wide berth, keeping pace many arm-lengths away. From time to time, Lan Wangji loses sight of him behind a thick tree. Just as well. They have nothing to say to each other. 

Up ahead, a twig snaps on the ground and a black shape flies out of the shadows toward the boys. 

It is not a ghost. At least, not any longer. 

Lan Wangji has only enough time to note the creature's size and the sharpness of its teeth before the thing attacks from the right. Jiang Wanyin is closer, so he reaches it first. Purple light illuminates his face, caught in the middle of a battle cry. He puts himself between the monster and Lan Sizhui, who, to his credit, has unsheathed his sword and placed himself in front of Jin Ling. Defend those smaller and weaker than you, Lan Wangji had always taught him. He's taken the lessons to heart.

"Get them away from here," Jiang Wanyin snarls in Lan Wangji's direction. He is occupied with the creature, the crackling arc of Zidian wrapped around the fan of its claws, keeping it immobile for the moment. 

Lan Wangji takes both boys by the collars of their robes and carries them in one graceful leap to a treetop, high above the fray. Jin Ling struggles against his grip; he can hear his racing thoughts, panicking.

"I can help," Jin Ling insists.

"Help by remaining here," Lan Wangji orders, and with a glance at Lan Sizhui to confirm his own wide-eyed obedience, he descends back to the forest floor, unsheathing Bichen as he goes.

Tales of this battle can be found in any middling storyteller's repertoire; we need not repeat it here. Suffice to say, the monster is a formidable one. The two cultivators fight with whip and blade, but in the chaos of the fray, Jiang Wanyin is swatted aside by a monstrous paw and falls into a steep ravine. Lan Wangji delivers the killing blow to the creature, but he does not linger over the carcass. He hurries to the lip of the ravine and scans the darkness for a flash of purple. 

"Jiang Wanyin?" he calls.

"I'm fine," comes the rather annoyed reply. "My arm might be broken." 

Lan Wangji fights the urge to roll his eyes. How could both statements be true? Ridiculous. 

"I am coming." He looks behind him into the gloom and sees the white shape of Lan Sizhui floating down from the treetops with Jin Ling well in hand. "Stay here," he tells them before disappearing over the edge in search of Wei Ying's brother. 

Jiang Wanyin looks as pleased as Lan Wangji feels when they meet in the bottom of the deep gully. He is sitting propped up against a rock, his arm hanging in an unnatural angle at his side. A scowl twists his lips.

"I don't need your help," he says. "Jin Ling can pull me out. The exercise would do him good."

"You are too heavy for him," Lan Wangji says reasonably, then hesitates. He does not want to touch Jiang Wanyin and divine any more of his private thoughts, but he doesn't see a way around it. "I can impart some qi. Heal you faster."

Jiang Wanyin struggles to offer his broken arm. "Get on with it, then."

Lan Wangji kneels beside him, his robes flowing around him. He takes Jiang Wanyin by the wrist and tries to ignore the onslaught of his thoughts—a mix of berating himself for getting into this situation, concern for Jin Ling's wellbeing, and resentment that Lan Wangji of all people is the one healing him. 

"Your nephew is unhurt," Lan Wangji says into the thick silence of the dark hole. It's a small kindness, but a necessary one. He can hear the relief in Jiang Wanyin's thoughts. 

"Good." He looks away, feigning interest in some shadow off to the side. Going soft in my old age , he thinks. Even Lan Wangji sees it. Bastard.

Lan Wangji does not care if Jiang Wanyin thinks him a bastard. But he does not think softness towards children is a moral failing, and he doesn't want anyone to think he does, even Jiang Wanyin. 

"Thank you," Lan Wangji forces himself to say, "for protecting Lan Sizhui from harm."

"He's just a kid." Jiang Wanyin sniffs. "Even if he is a Lan." He turns back to Lan Wangji, his gaze narrowing in calculation. "Since when do you personally train novices one-on-one, Hanguang-Jun?"

"Lan Sizhui is—" He does not owe Jiang Wanyin any explanation, but he feels the urge to share something of the truth since he is privy to so much of Jiang Wanyin's. "He is mine."

The bored raise of eyebrows belies Jiang Wanyin's turbulent thoughts. A child of his own? Am I that out of the loop? When did he—? "You didn't get married in secret or something, did you?" His emotions flare with righteous indignation at the thought, though Lan Wangji cannot fathom why he would care.

"No." Lan Wangji retrieves a poultice from his qiankun bag and applies it to the break. "I found him. Orphaned."

"Hm. Young?" Jiang Wanyin watches him tend to his arm with a sort of removed disinterest.

"Perhaps three years old." With no other recourse, Lan Wangji had estimated as best he could and treated the day he'd brought A-Yuan to Cloud Recesses as his birthdate.

"Lucky him," Jiang Wanyin murmurs. Lan Wangji gives him a sharp look of reproach, to which he elaborates, "It's better to be orphaned when you're young. Fewer bad memories."

Lan Wangji goes still. He thinks of snow, and of his mother. He cannot remember much else, so perhaps Jiang Wanyin is correct. He wonders if he should apologize for bringing up such a sensitive subject, but he was not the one who guided the conversation here. Under his hand, he senses a smug victory in Jiang Wanyin. Like he's been proven right by making Lan Wangji discomfited. 

Jiang Wanyin looks away again. Am I supposed to hide all emotion like a good little Lan would? Bullshit. This is the one thing I refuse to bury.

If Lan Wangji is meant to hide his emotions—and he would argue that Jiang Wanyin is misconstruing the Lan sect philosophies by thinking so—he is not doing a good job of it at the moment. His hand shakes where he holds Jiang Wanyin's wrist. The thin blue thread of spiritual energy wavers between them. It doesn't help that Wei Ying is present in every one of Jiang Wanyin's thoughts, a spectre lurking in the background. It has been so long since Lan Wangji last saw his face, and here in Jiang Wanyin's memories it appears with crystal clarity: the wry tilt of his mouth faithfully rendered against the backdrop of his brother's rage. 

He's never spoken to anyone about what happened that day on the cliff. He's never told a soul that Jiang Wanyin's sword didn't find its mark. He still does not know what it means, exactly, for Jiang Wanyin to have purposefully missed his strike. He didn't much care, before—Wei Ying was gone, with or without his brother's murderous intent. 

Now it seems imperative to know.

"Did you love him still," he asks, quiet in the dark, "in the end?"

Jiang Wanyin's breath catches. He looks at Lan Wangji in the low blue light, and for a moment, he looks as young as the day they first met. They had been mere boys, coltish and puffed up with their own brands of self-importance, desperate for a chance to prove themselves. From his thoughts, Lan Wangji knows he is remembering those days too.

Jiang Wanyin's nostrils flare. "Go fuck yourself," is what he says.

But what he thinks is: 

Of course I did. Of course I do. He was my brother. He did terrible things. I want him back, and I am so furious I could kill him all over again. 

Lan Wangji breathes heavily as these thoughts wash over him. 

Shouldn't anger be set apart from love? How can two such opposing things exist at the same time? It seems impossible, but then again, the man is a Jiang.

"Are you done?" Jiang Wanyin jerks his now-healed arm from Lan Wangji's slack grip. "Come on. I want to get out of this hole."

They climb out together, though Lan Wangji is distracted by thoughts he cannot marshal. As soon as he emerges, Jiang Wanyin is beset by a blur of gold. Young Jin Ling pitches himself into his uncle's arms, face wet with tears.

"I thought it had killed you, jiujiu," he sobs. "You fell and I didn't know what happened!"

Lan Wangji tenses, thinking Jiang Wanyin will scold the boy for such an unbridled outpouring of emotion, but instead he kneels in the dirt and pulls Jin Ling into a tight embrace. 

"Don't be stupid," he mutters, his chin propped on the boy's head. "I'm fine. I'm right here, A-Ling." He rubs his big hands up and down the child's shaking back. 

Lan Sizhui is a white shape in the dark, watching this display closely. When he turns his head and catches Lan Wangji's eyes, Lan Wangji cannot help but see the longing there. Yet he hides it quickly, executing a respectful bow in Lan Wangji's direction. 

"I am glad you are unscathed, Hanguang-Jun."

Lan Wangji nods, throat tight, and does not bother to correct him.  




 

It is a clear, moonlit night in the woods outside of Cloud Recesses. It is far past the hour that everyone should be in bed, yet Lan Wangji cannot sleep. It's been days since his encounter with Jiang Wanyin in the forest, and he cannot shake the thoughts he heard there. 

He sits on a flat rock and stares up at the sky. At his side are two jugs of liquor, the sort Wei Ying used to favor. He will not need two full jugs to get drunk; he won't even need one, but the symmetry of the pair had pleased him when he'd purchased them in town earlier that day. 

He opens one bottle and takes a small sip. The burn of the liquor travels down his throat and pools in his belly. It's painful but warming. Like anger. 

In the years since Wei Ying's death, Lan Wangji has contemplated his loss with layers of feeling. He has revisited his memories like one might re-read a cherished book of poetry. Sorrow, love, self-recrimination—he had felt all these things.  

But anger?

He'd been angry at the other players, the gossips and muckrakers, the petty bids for power using Wei Ying as a pawn. Though he'd accepted his punishment as necessary, he'd been angry at his uncle for rendering him practically bedridden for years in the name of justice; he'd been angry at Lan Xichen for not coming to his defense. Some of that anger has since faded into uneasy understanding; Lan Wangji has always thought it one of the more useless emotions anyway. 

But Wei Ying had been insulated from Lan Wangji's anger. There was only love, was his thinking, and it must remain pure and strong. Untainted.

Yet hearing Jiang Wanyin's thoughts on the matter has made him wonder.

He takes another drink from the jug, allowing a few stray drops to dribble down his chin. It reminds him of the sloppy way Wei Ying used to drink. He wipes at his face with his sleeve.

Wei Ying. Beautiful and imperfect. Brave, but reckless. He wasn't to blame for half of what he was accused of but—he had made choices. Terrible ones. Lan Wangji examines the smooth lip of the jug in his hand, considering. 

He's curious what might happen if he allows himself to be angry with Wei Ying. Just for a moment. Just a little.

Alcohol helps. It brings all his emotions to the fore, as it always has. He remembers the first time he'd ever had a drink—or, more accurately, been forced to drink. Wei Ying had never seemed particularly bothered by the distinction. He'd taken control of Lan Wangji's body as if he were a puppet, had made him say and do things that Lan Wangji couldn't really remember upon waking. It had terrified him at the time.

Wei Ying would never hurt you, though, Lan Wangji's thoughts chime in, always in a rush to defend Wei Ying's memory. That was nothing more than childish antics.

He knows that. But he also wonders.

He takes another drink from the bottle.

His tolerance is as low as it's ever been. One moment, Lan Wangji is sitting on his rock, staring up at the stars. The next, he is somewhere else, clutching the wine jug in one hand and carrying Bichen in the other. He staggers down a deserted mountain path he does not recognize, not sure where he's going. He glares at the liquor he holds, knowing it's to blame. 

Words tumble from his lips in a whispered slur, "Wei Ying did things he shouldn't have."

It's a simple statement. It's the truth. Treading the path of demonic cultivation, disturbing the rest of innocent souls, playing with the line between life and death as if it were nothing—he must face it now, the things Wei Ying had done. 

He tips his head back to face the night sky. This time, he shouts. "Wei Ying! You did things you shouldn't have!"

Nothing answers. Lan Wangji nods, continuing down the path, feet weaving beneath him. Walking is difficult. Thinking is difficult. But feeling is not—it's easy, with the liquor burning in his belly. He takes another drink, wiping his wet mouth on his sleeve. 

He would laugh if he could see me now, he thinks. Even that thought sparks anger inside his heart. He would find this very amusing. 

He stops short, vision clearing enough to see that his way is blocked by a huge boulder. He looks around, bewildered. He's no longer on the path, instead surrounded by thick trees. The thought of retracing his steps and finding his way again is too exhausting. Instead, Lan Wangji lets the liquor jug fall from his slack fingers, not caring when it shatters on the stones beneath his feet, and unsheathes Bichen.

The rock does not react to the implicit threat, which makes Lan Wangji's blood boil. He lifts the sword over his head and brings it down with all his strength. The boulder cleaves in two, the dust of it coating Lan Wangji's mourning whites. 

Behind that boulder is another, and another. Lan Wangji is cutting a new path and he does not care where it leads. He can only keep destroying the stones blocking his way, shouting with each strike. 

"You pushed me away when I only wanted to help you!"

A shattering.

"You insisted on doing everything on your own!"

A cracking.

"You made decisions for me, never with me!"

A breaking.

Lan Wangji cuts his way into the rock until his arm aches from it, until he is gasping for breath in the thick dust. 

Wei Ying does not deserve these accusations, the voice in his head says. He was accused enough by others while alive. You are supposed to be his defender. 

"He is not here," Lan Wangji mutters to himself. "What am I defending?"

The world tilts, then spins until he cannot remain upright. He gropes for a handhold in the stone and, finding none, sits down heavily on the ground. He blinks up at the starlit sky. There was another sky like this many years ago, when he was just a boy. When he'd met another boy who he thought would be his destiny.

"You told me to let go," he says, bereft. His head tips against the rock at his back. His guan rattles. He can feel his hair slipping loose from its careful arrangement, spilling over his shoulder. "How am I supposed to let go of Wei Ying?" he asks the uncaring sky. "How could you ask me to?"

Of course he receives no answer. He swallows, closes his eyes against the sensation that curdles in his stomach. Even sitting still on the solid ground, he feels like he's swaying in the belly of some storm-tossed ship. It makes him furious. 

He pictures that final moment in the Nightless City, Wei Ying's face pale and bloodied. How he'd caught Lan Wangji's eye. Saw him there, fighting and bleeding and killing to save him. And still—still Wei Ying had gone over the edge of that cliff. 

Wei Ying would never hurt you.

Except that he had. 

He'd seen what Lan Zhan was doing for him, and still he'd made the decision to die. 

"You left me here alone," he snarls into the dark. "You left A-Yuan alone!" In the distance, a flock of birds takes flight, startled by his shout. He is not sorry.

He feels wetness on his cheeks. It must be raining. He cannot see a single cloud.

This, too, must be Wei Ying's fault.

He sits there against the cool, smooth rock and lets his rage unfurl in his body like a wild animal long caged. His fingers, slow with drink, fumble under the folds of his robe and touch the raised ridges of his brand around his curse mark. He remembers the pain he had sought in the burning—because it reminded him of Wei Ying. Of the hurt he had caused, however inadvertently, whatever his motives. 

"You left." His voice wavers.

This anger is not an end to love; it is a reckoning. It is the thing that lives in Lan Wangji's chest right beside his heart. It is a pulsing heat in his blood. He has ignored it for far too long, pretended it was not his to feel. But it is more than bones at the base of a cliff. It is more powerful than memory. It's the truth. 

His eyes slip closed. He will sleep here, he decides, under the stars, and he will face any consequences with the morning sun. 

 




Lan Wangji wakes in his lonely bed on an unremarkable day. 

Wei Wuxian has been dead for sixteen years. 

Lan Wangji has been burdened with his curse for nine years.

These two things are as fixed in his mind as any law.

Yet on this unremarkable day, in a town far from home where Lan Sizhui happens to be traveling with a group of his fellow juniors, something strange happens in the Mo family manor that will rewrite these facts.

 


 

There is a man dressed in black playing a hastily carved flute. His face is covered by a mask, but that does not matter. Lan Wangji does not need to touch to know it is him. 

He knows before he ever meets the gaze hidden behind the silver mask; he knows before his fingers even close over the fine-boned wrist. By the first note of a song only they have played, he knows.

And yet that day, on that mountain path, surrounded by so many others, Lan Wangji cannot stop himself from touching to confirm. Because surely it is a dream. It is a conjured image like the ones he used to create in meditative trances. It is the harbinger of his final descent into true madness. 

But it's none of those things. It's only Wei Ying. 

Wei Ying, as he had been. Wei Ying, young and vital and whole and here . His eyes darting behind the mask, his mouth falling open his surprise. He is dressed much like he used to, shades of black and grey with a red ribbon trailing in his hair. How can no one else see it? Perhaps Lan Wangji is only seeing what he wishes to see.

But when Lan Wangji grasps him by the wrist, all doubt falls away. He hears a thought, strident and loud. Lan Zhan! 

Wei Ying's mind is like a cyclone. His thoughts come hard and fast, a frenetic night market filled with hawkers endlessly shouting about their wares. Lan Wangji tries to parse the deafening chorus, caught up in the turbulent spin of Wei Ying's mind.

There is a panicky chatter in the foreground—shit, shit, shit, he's here—that means Wei Ying has been hoping to avoid this confrontation. There is a roil of confusion behind it that feels almost comfortable, like it's been there for hours or even days: I'm still not sure what's happening, I still don't know why Mo Xuanyu resurrected me, I should probably figure that out at some point. Then there is their current predicament, Wei Ying's thoughts on the statue coming to life in the cave when Lan Zhan and I took care of that ages ago; why is it back again? There are thoughts, complicated ones, about seeing his nephew for the first time, seeing his brother— Jiang Cheng hasn't changed a bit. Where is he? Is he still—? 

And beneath it all, burning like a banked fire, is Lan Wangji's own name as only Wei Ying uses it: Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. An endless chant weaving with the sound of music, a secret melody for the two of them to share. A desperation that has no name, flanked by a thousand memories of Lan Wangji's face, his hair, his eyes, his voice speaking the name Wei Ying. 

That is how Lan Wangji knows, in the blink of an eye, that Wei Ying loves him. 

He knows what he should not know. He knows too much. He knows he's staring, but he can't stop.

There is a shout, and heads turn, Wei Ying's included. Lan Wangji is the only figure frozen in place, drinking in the sight of him. Wei Ying is here, and he loves him. He listens to his frenetic thoughts. They only get louder as Jiang Wanyin strides forth with his retinue and calls for A-Ling. Wei Ying's eyes track toward him.

Shit. Jiang Cheng. I hope he hasn't discovered how I had my golden core removed and given to him. 

Lan Wangji has never fainted in his life, but he nearly does now. His vision goes feathery at the edges; his head swims. Wei Ying's golden core? Gone? Placed inside—? 

Jiang Wanyin is shouting because that is his prerogative. Lan Wangji cannot hear him over the rush of Wei Ying's mind and his own thundering heartbeat. Wei Ying grasps his arm in turn, the two of them locked together in a loop of Wei Ying's swirling thoughts.

Things fall into place. The crux of it all, the answer to so many of Lan Wangji's questions: why had Wei Ying so stubbornly walked the path of demonic cultivation? Why hadn't he let Lan Wangji into the circle of his trust like the Wen clan remnants had been? Wen Qing, the girl well-versed in the healing arts—Wei Ying's three month disappearance—his refusal to carry Suibian when he returned—all of it.  

This whole time Wei Ying has been without his greatest strength. Vulnerable to the attacks of men and ghosts. And like a headstrong mule, he had refused to tell Lan Wangji. 

Lan Wangji feels his anger surge in time with the love in his heart. His foolish, clever Wei Ying. His beloved who loves him in return and never said.

His lips shape Wei Ying's name. He wants to tell him he knows. He wants to tell him so many things. But Jiang Wanyin's rage will have its day. He suspects; he notices the red ribbon in Wei Ying's hair; Lan Wangji can see it in the flash of his eyes. Jiang Cheng would know his brother anywhere. 

He is still holding onto Wei Ying's wrist. He does not want to let go. 

Even as Zidian crackles overhead, he does not let go.

 


 

He carries Wei Ying in his arms all the way to Cloud Recesses. Even in sleep, Wei Ying's mind does not stop working. He dreams of times past, years of memories whirling by in a storm of sound and color. Lan Wangji guiltily recalls his very noble goal of not intruding on the thoughts of others, the self-imposed rule he's lived by for the last nine years. He breaks the rule every moment he continues to hold Wei Ying's sleeping body. He considers handing him to Lan Sizhui—he's light enough, and Lan Sizhui is no weakling. But he cannot bear to stop touching Wei Ying now that he's returned. And a very selfish voice in the back of his head says he's entitled to Wei Ying's dreams after the nightmare of losing him. 

"Who is he, Hanguang-Jun?" Lan Sizhui asks on the journey back home. They walk most of the way, as some of the juniors are not adept at riding their swords over long distances. 

Lan Wangji looks down at the burden he carries. Wei Ying's face is slack in sleep, the mask removed now that there is no one nearby who could recognize his face save Lan Wangji. His cheek is pressed against Lan Wangji's chest, rubbing right against his burn scar through layers of white robes. Wei Ying snuffles in his sleep, nuzzles closer to the warmth of Lan Wangji's body. He is dreaming of his sister's soup.

He is dreaming of better days.

"Someone I'd thought was lost," is all Lan Wangji says in response. 

 


 

It's only natural to bring Wei Ying to the Jing Shi. Lan Wangji refuses to leave him in anyone else's care, as privacy is paramount; there are still some surviving members of the Lan sect who could recognize the Yiling Patriarch. So Lan Wangji carries him over the threshold and lays him down in his own bed, stark black against the crisp white of the bedsheets. He looks peaceful in sleep. He looks like he belongs there.

Lan Wangji considers undressing him, but he's not actually in need of fresh clothing. Besides a little travel dust, his robes are faultless. It's only that his hands ache to touch Wei Ying's bare skin. Though his body has remained chaste all these years, his mind has not, and the list of things he's fantasized doing with Wei Ying is as long as the Lan sect rules. But no, he must not treat Wei Ying as a prize to be fondled—as much as he'd like to.

He's waited this long; another handful of hours is nothing. Soon Wei Ying will wake from his dream and everything will be different. He will be permitted to have Wei Ying as he's always wanted. He loves this man, and Wei Ying loves him, and all will be well. 

He cannot stop himself from indulging in one last touch, though. He brushes a stray strand of hair from Wei Ying's brow, tucking it carefully behind his lovely ear. His fingertips linger on the shell of it. Wei Ying is dreaming of him again; he can see it as clear as day. 

He's dreaming of the time Lan Wangji had met Wei Ying and A-Yuan by chance in a busy market. Lan Wangji can see everything through Wei Ying's eyes, can feel what he felt. Wei Ying is amused by the sight of Lan Wangji doting on the little boy; he aches softly when Lan Wangji lets A-Yuan sit on his lap as they all share a meal. 

He will make a decent father someday, Wei Ying thinks, and even though it is only a dream and the events are years and years in the past, Lan Wangji can feel the sadness that weighs down Wei Ying at the thought. He is jealous, Lan Wangji realizes. Jealous of the nonexistent future wife who will give Lan Wangji children of his own. 

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji whispers. He strokes Wei Ying's smooth cheek, relaxed in sleep. He yearns for Wei Ying to wake so he can tell him the truth: that he had never married; that he had become a father regardless; that he had raised Lan Sizhui as best he could. That, in the end, Wei Ying had been the one to give Lan Wangji a child after all. Strange how that had worked out.

He arranges the bolster beneath Wei Ying's head, reluctant to leave him. But Wei Ying's dreams are continuing onward, treading the path of history, and Lan Wangji knows what happens next. He does not want to witness it again. Once was enough. 

He retreats to his qin and starts playing a simple melody meant to promote rest and soothe pain. He's not certain Wei Ying will hear it while he sleeps, but he thinks it good to try. If his fingers slip out of that song and into another, more private one, there is no one else around to note it. He plays for a long time.

"It's been sixteen years."

His fingers stop atop the strings. A shiver passes through his body, then another. He hasn't heard Wei Ying's voice in so long; hearing it now feels like a caress. His eyes slip shut for a moment while he tries to get his breathing under control. Beneath layers of clean white robes and scar tissue, his heart races. 

"Yes," he says at last, and abandons his qin on its low table to sweep closer to the bed where Wei Ying is laid out. Normally he might keep his distance, give Wei Ying space—coming back from the dead must be exhausting, however it was achieved—but he can't stop himself from seeking out Wei Ying like a flower turning toward the sun. He seats himself on the floor at the bedside, his eyes level with Wei Ying's as they stare across the bolster. There are tears on Wei Ying's cheeks. Lan Wangji aches to brush them away.

We love each other, he thinks, almost giddy with the knowledge. He does not know it yet, but he will soon. He will. 

"You haven't changed," he prompts, soft and leading. 

Wei Ying's hands come up to touch his own face, taking in the landscape of his youthful skin. He scrubs away the tears himself. "I guess not. Sixteen years. That's a long time." His hands fall away and he blinks at the silver mask on the bedside table, then at Lan Wangji. "You—oh." He gestures to his own temples. "You've changed just a bit, right here." 

Lan Wangji lifts a hand to brush the hairline at his temple, close to where his forehead ribbon disappears under the fall of his hair. He knows without clarification that Wei Ying is referring to the four or five silver hairs that have appeared there in recent years. Like most cultivators of his level, Lan Wangji does not tend to show most signs of aging, but his long convalescence coupled with the strain of years spent denying himself human touch has caused this minute change. Lan Wangji is not a vain man, or at least does not think himself so, but he had assumed no one would notice it.  

He wonders if Wei Ying finds his silver hairs distasteful. He is growing older while Wei Ying seems trapped in the amber of his youth and vigor. His gaze falls away, unable to hold the clever, searching one of Wei Ying. 

"Someday you'll have a head full of white hair," Wei Ying says, laughing. "It'll match your robes. Won't that be something?"

Lan Wangji ignores this slight—if it is intended to be a slight—and instead says, "Where were you, Wei Ying?"

Wei Ying's eyes are now the ones skating away to study the corner of the room. "If I told you I have no idea," he says, "would you believe me?"

Lan Wangji considers the thoughts he'd overheard in Wei Ying's mind earlier. His confusion was legitimate, that much is clear. "I believe you."

"And back then?" Wei Ying looks at him, his eyes burning with something unnameable. "Did you believe me then?"

Lan Wangji should not answer. He should hold his tongue and keep his peace. Wei Ying is still recovering from the ordeal of being remade and lashed by Zidian; they should not be discussing such heavy matters. 

And yet, if they are to confess to each other the heaviest matters weighing in their hearts, Lan Wangji thinks they cannot shy away from this. 

"Would it have been foolish to do so?" he asks, a question which contains his answer. 

Wei Ying stares at him. "I don't know. Probably." He shakes his head. "No. I don't know. Lan Zhan—" 

"Wei Ying." He reaches for Wei Ying's hand where it rests on the bed. He knows he shouldn't, but he cannot help himself. He's never been able to help himself when it comes to Wei Ying. And in this moment especially, when he's about to hear the words he's longed to hear for decades, he cannot stop himself from covering Wei Ying's hand with his own and threading their fingers together. He meets Wei Ying's startled gaze with his own steady one. "Is there something you want to tell me?" 

Tell me you love me, he thinks as his thumb brushes over the ridges of Wei Ying's knuckles. He knows Wei Ying cannot hear his thoughts, but he tries anyway. Please, give me one loving word. I could survive on that for another sixteen years if I had to.

Wei Ying's thoughts are a jumbled torrent—are they always this chaotic? Lan Wangji braces himself but is still shocked at the sheer volume of them, both in size and number and how loud they are.  

Tell you? What could I possibly tell you? I'm not lying, I really don't know anything. Lan Zhan, why are you holding my hand like this? Are you afraid I'll try to run? Did someone send you to question me? I don't know who I can trust if I can't trust Lan Zhan.

Lan Wangji rips away his hand as if burned. His throat is tight with shame. How selfish, to crowd Wei Ying like this. From Wei Ying's point of view, no time has passed at all since they were together last. Lan Wangji must be patient; he must not press Wei Ying too forcefully. They love each other—don't they? It's enough for now just to know it.

"Apologies," he whispers, far too late for it to be anything but awkward. "I—" He closes his mouth, unable to speak. 

"Ah, it's all right, Lan Zhan." He sits up a little on the bed and gives Lan Wangji's shoulder a perfunctory pat. Always so tactile, so generous with his touch. "I understand. This is a lot to take in."

His thought flows into Lan Wangji's shoulder and straight to his heart: 

Poor old Lan Zhan. The years have not been kind, have they? 

Lan Wangji stiffens as if pierced by a blade. It hurts, but so has everything else for the last sixteen years. Wei Ying is in his bed, a miracle, and yet he still will not give Lan Wangji a drop of his love. He has only pity for him. Lan Wangji had been a fool to think things would be different now. Nothing changes, not really, not in any way that matters. 

Lan Wangji rises to his feet, grateful for his many robes that hide how his legs shake. "I'll let you rest," he says, and retreats to the low table to recover his qin. 

"You're leaving?" Wei Ying sits up straighter on the bed. His tone is light but Lan Wangji can see the relief in his eyes. He wants to be left alone, so Lan Wangji will leave him alone. 

He must make sense of his own thoughts anyway. His mind is so disordered, and his heart is so heavy in his chest. He takes his leave with his qin under his arm.

 


 

It's a beautiful spring day, though Lan Wangji does not particularly enjoy it. He sits on a flat rock in the middle of a flowing river, a single point of stillness in the rush of his thoughts. He lays his instrument in his lap and plays the song that he hears in the background of Wei Ying's mind every time they touch. 

He knows Wei Ying loves him. But does Wei Ying know it? It's so crowded in Wei Ying's head, so many thoughts vying for his attention. It's a wonder he can think clearly at all about anything. And the impressions that Lan Wangji had gotten through their contact had hardly been concrete thoughts. They were soft visions of his own face, ephemeral, fleeting feelings. 

Perhaps, Lan Wangji thinks as he strums, it is not love, but something else, and I am only seeing what I wish to see.

But if that were true, then he wouldn't have seen all the ugly parts of Wei Ying's thoughts. He wouldn't have discovered his deepest secret: that he'd had his own golden core torn out and placed inside Jiang Wanyin. Lan Wangji strikes a discordant note on his qin. He pauses, breathing heavily. It's been many years since he's made a mistake in his playing. 

He cannot fathom the desperation which had pushed Wei Ying to do such a thing, and without his brother's knowledge or consent. If Jiang Cheng ever learned the truth—oh, Lan Wangji would not be surprised if entire realms were leveled in the resulting furor. He is reminded of the time he briefly spent as a puppet in Wei Ying's own control. Is this the price of Wei Ying's love? To give up all claim to one's self? He trembles at the thought.

 And yet for all of this, he cannot help but love this man. Even if his love is never let loose, it will not stop existing. He knows himself well enough to know that. 

But he also knows the temptation to learn Wei Ying's mind, to explore all the twists and turns of his thoughts, is too great. He cannot place an innocent hand on Wei Ying's arm and ignore the onslaught of his thoughts. And he certainly must not use his cursed powers to manipulate Wei Ying into loving him in return—Wei Ying had been manipulated enough in his first life, and Lan Wangji refuses to be another of that number. 

So, Lan Wangji realizes in the middle of a rushing river, Wei Ying has come back to me at last. 

And I cannot touch him.  

His eyes slip shut. His breathing deepens. This is cruel beyond measure, but Lan Wangji has survived cruelty before. He can survive this. 

He has no other choice. 

"Wangji!" 

He opens his eyes to see his brother's shape, all creams and sky blues, weaving through the thicket to arrive on the riverbank. There is a worried look on his brow. Lan Wangji waits, hands on his silent strings. 

Lan Xichen stares at him, then looks down to the water flowing past his boots. His voice carries over the sound of the river. "Lan Jingyi tells me you returned with a man named Mo Xuanyu. That he's resting in the Jing Shi."

Lan Wangji does not respond. There's no need. His brother suspects, just as Jiang Cheng suspected. Xichen does not need to see the red ribbon in his hair to know it is Wei Ying. Who else would Lan Wangji deign to bring home and place in his own bed? 

He dismisses his qin with a wave of his hand and stands. With one graceful, floating step, he is beside his brother on the riverbank. Xichen gives him a pleading look. 

"He is not safe here, Wangji," Xichen says. "News of this visitor will reach Shufu before long. What do you think he will do when he hears?"

"He can have me lashed again," Lan Wangji says blandly. "What's a few more scars?"

Xichen pales. "Be serious!" 

"I am."

His brother sighs in impatience, closing his eyes for a moment. They flash when they reopen. "Shufu is in the middle of teaching a lesson right now, so that buys us some time. Is your guest well enough to travel? We can provide him with a pony, a little bit of money—" 

Lan Wangji stops listening. Of course Xichen's first instinct is not to defend him from their uncle's anger; it is only to mitigate the disaster of Lan Wangji's unruly heart. As if sending away Wei Ying is even a possibility. He turns and walks away. His brother bites off the rest of his sentence and follows close behind.

"Wangji! This is not something you can just ignore," he says. "There will be questions, dire ones. How is this possible? Who or what brought him back to the land of the living?"

"Unclear," Lan Wangji says, not slowing his pace. "He does not know either."

"So he says. How can you be so certain?" Lan Xichen demands. 

Lan Wangji casts an unimpressed look over his shoulder. He holds up his hand in explanation. 

"You touched him?" Xichen breathes. "You know his mind?"

His faces forward again, his eyes on the mossy ground as he walks. "I know enough."

Xichen hurries to catch up so they are walking abreast. "You said you would avoid using your power unless absolutely necessary."

"This was necessary," Lan Wangji replies. Even to his own ears, his tone sounds defensive, like a child trying to plead his case for sneaking sweets.

"What else did you find in his thoughts?" Lan Xichen reaches out and almost grasps his brother by the arm, but Lan Wangji gives him a sharp look until he relents and curls his hand into a fist at his side. Even after all these years, Lan Xichen forgets the self-imposed boundaries around his brother. "Please, Wangji, there is so much we do not yet understand. Surely Wei Wuxian knows something vital, even if he does not yet realize it." 

Lan Wangji thinks of the secrets he now knows, secrets that are rightly Wei Ying's. A golden core pulsing in Jiang Cheng's body, far from its home. The reason behind the demonic path, the true danger of it: that anyone with enough hard-won practice could be as powerful as a cultivator of innate talent. But it is not his secret to tell, and so he does not tell it. He merely continues on toward the Cold Springs.

They come to the edge of the pool where mist gathers in the shadowy air. Lan Xichen steels his jaw and reaches out very deliberately to grasp Lan Wangji's elbow, arresting him before he can begin disrobing. "You have collected enough scars for this man," he says. "You don't need any more."

What he thinks is: He will hurt you again. He will disappoint you. Don't make me watch it happen; I couldn't bear it.

Lan Wangji takes a deep breath. He thinks about what brothers might bear for each other. About what Wei Ying had done for his own—foolishly, but out of love. 

He turns to Xichen and asks, "Would you cut off your right arm if you thought it might save my life?"

Xichen blinks once, slowly. He opens his mouth, then closes it. His eyes are kind as his hand gentles on Lan Wangji's arm. I would give up my entire life if it meant saving yours, Lan Xichen thinks across their shared connection.

Lan Wangji's eyes narrow. "Even if I did not wish it?"

His brother's thoughts turn amused, almost fond. Oh, Wangji, that is the very reason why I would do it anyway. But why are you wondering about such unlikely things?

Lan Wangji swallows. An arm is an arm. A life is a life. But there are worse things than dying, for them. "Would you destroy your golden core for my sake?" he says, low and quiet. It is a question so horrific he feels his whole tongue must be bathed in salt and scrubbed clean just for giving voice to it.

Xichen's eyes fly wide. His thoughts echo his alarm. "What?" What do you mean?

"If you thought it might save me," Lan Wangji whispers, his words an urgent hiss, "even if I begged you not to, would you do it?" 

Lan Xichen does not have to speak. He does not have to think. Lan Wangji can tell from the look on his face what the answer is.

"I wouldn't either," Lan Wangji says, and shakes off his brother's hand. "I'm going to bathe. Please leave me."

Xichen's handsome mouth thins into a line. "Wangji—"

"I know what I'm doing," Lan Wangji says, which is an outright lie, but for his brother's peace of mind, he'll tell it. "There's no need to worry."

Lan Xichen shakes his head and begins to glide away up the stone path, but pauses to say over his shoulder, "And your curse? It still afflicts you, but now Wei Wuxian has returned." 

Lan Wangji does not answer. How can he tell Xichen that he was right in thinking Wei Ying would hurt him again, that he already has? That Wei Ying saw the silver in his hair and the tiredness around his eyes and pitied him? He strips himself of his robes carefully and methodically, folding each piece on the stone bench beside the water. He hears Lan Xichen sigh, then his footsteps carrying him away, and then nothing but the sounds of the surrounding wood.

He slips into the cool water and sits on the shallow, sandy bottom, closing his eyes in relief. He gathers his hair over one shoulder to better feel the cold on his skin. The water's healing properties are a balm as always. These last nine years, though Lan Wangji could not enjoy the touch of any person, he could enjoy this: the soothing feeling of the water enveloping him, holding him in its grasp. It loved his body when no one else did.

"Lan Zhan!"

The cheery shout startles Lan Wangji. He opens his eyes and looks over his damp shoulder to see Wei Ying picking his way down the path toward the pool. He tenses, muscles going tight. There is nowhere to hide, and he sees the exact moment that Wei Ying's gaze falls to his bare back, to the mass of scars there. He sees the surprise and—his heart aches—how he recoils in what must be disgust. Foolishly, Lan Wangji's instinct is to turn so that his back is no longer visible. As he does, Wei Ying lets out a gasp.

Oh, yes. He glances down at the burn on his chest, the tight, pink cherry blossom in its center. Even worse than the whip marks. He can only hope that, given the distance, Wei Ying cannot make out exactly what it is. 

He moves swiftly, rising from the pond in a sluice of water. He does not care for his nakedness; he is only anxious to be clothed again. Wei Ying, for all his bluster, turns his head aside to give him some modicum of privacy as he pulls his clothes back on. They are both of them silent as Lan Wangji covers himself in layer upon layer until he is somewhat presentable. He stands before Wei Ying then, his hair damp and his breath coming faster than it should.

Wei Ying still will not meet his eyes. His gaze hovers somewhere at Lan Wangji's shoulder. "Those are lash marks," he murmurs. "What did you do to be punished so severely?" 

Lan Wangji considers outlining his various crimes, all thirty-three of them, but he finds the prospect too tiring. At its core, his transgressions are more easily distilled down to a single fact: that he loved Wei Ying. That he chose Wei Ying. That he still does, and will, and would even now. 

But how can he say that when Wei Ying will not even lift a finger to love Lan Wangji in return? How can he tell him that he raised their child in his absence, that he waited for him even though it seemed hopeless? 

Blessedly, they are interrupted so that Lan Wangji need not answer. One of the juniors runs into the glen, puffing hard, to tell them that Lan Qiren is being attacked by a spirit and no one can contain it. 

Another small favor, Lan Wangji thinks as they hurry to the scene. 

  




They leave Cloud Recesses together, much to Lan Xichen's relief.

Here are the ways in which Lan Wangji endeavors never to touch his traveling companion:

He rides or walks ahead instead of taking up the rear, knowing that Wei Ying will inevitably lag behind because of his preoccupation with smelling flowers, investigating interesting bugs, and looking at the sky as if he hasn't seen it in years—which, Lan Wangji will concede, is technically true.

When they stop for the night at an inn at Wei Ying's insistence, Lan Wangji suggests they get two rooms; it's not as if the cost is an issue for the Second Jade, whose purse hangs heavy, but he doesn't relish the thought of sleeping at Wei Ying's side. Wei Ying insists they not waste money on such unnecessary luxuries (though, confusingly, he had balked at the idea of spending no money at all and sleeping rough under the stars). "Don't you all have some rule about thrift, Lan Zhan?" he points out. And so when they share a room, Lan Wangji consigns himself to a night of sitting on the floor in a meditative trance so he will not have to share the bed. Wei Ying tries to protest, but the look on Lan Wangji's face must be enough warning for him to shut his mouth. 

When they cross paths with a dog, Wei Ying is sent into a terrified panic and hides behind Lan Wangji like a frightened child. But at the first clutch of those desperate fingers at his shoulder, Lan Wangji shrugs him off and shoos away the dog with a gruff expression that he hopes will be taken for anger at Wei Ying's cowardice and not at himself for wanting to feel the full weight of that willowy body pressed against his back. He would feel Wei Ying tremble, if only in fear, if only for a moment. 

But he must not touch, and so they don't.

 


 

 

They reach Lotus Pier long after sundown, when the moonlight is glancing off the black mirror of the lake and the night insects sing softly in the reeds. 

They have traveled far and seen much. The confrontation at the Burial Mounds especially has given them more questions than answers. Something is building to a head, that much Lan Wangji understands. Unseen hands are moving their pieces across the board, though what game they are playing remains a mystery. Whatever it is, it's very dangerous. And so he does not begrudge Wei Ying's desire to visit Lotus Pier and pay his respects. One of them, at least, should not have any regrets if they are killed. 

They stand outside the Jiang family temple. A faint smell of incense hangs in the air. In the low light, with lanterns flickering behind him, Wei Ying looks as young as when they first met on that rooftop. Lan Wangji aches as he gazes at that proud profile. 

Wei Ying turns to him, his smile tentative. It's a strange look on him, so unlike his usual open grin. "Will you come inside with me?" 

In another life, he wouldn't even need to ask. If not for this damnable curse, Lan Wangji would follow him into the temple and kneel before the name tablets of his adoptive family as if that were his rightful place. He wants that, desperately, the way he wants all of Wei Ying. But he cannot have it. He cannot kneel beside Wei Ying, sleeves brushing; he cannot wipe away his tears; he cannot hold onto anything, least of all Wei Ying.

"It would not be appropriate," he says, which is true. Outsiders have no place inside the temple. He is not of the Jiang sect; he has no filial connection to these honored dead. He thinks of Jiang Wanyin and his whirlpool of emotions. Even after all these years, he remembers the depth of it. He can't imagine how it would roil if the sect leader discovered him trespassing here. 

Wei Ying does not often wear embarrassment on his shameless face, but he does now. He looks away, hiding his blush by scratching at his cheek. "I suppose you're right," he sighs. "It's only, I don't want to go alone." 

Lan Wangji nearly breaks then. He nearly cracks in two and spills out the entire truth in that moment. But he cannot. He swallows down his desire. It's bitter work.

"I will be right here," he says, "waiting for you." 

Wei Ying looks at him, a thoughtful calculation in his eyes. Lan Wangji wonders if his beloved understands just how long he has waited already. There is a nod, absent-minded, and Wei Ying enters the temple alone. Lan Wangji stands like a sentinel just outside, one arm folded behind his back, and tries to calm himself by contemplating the stars. 

Heavy footsteps approach. "What are you doing here?" Jiang Wanyin's voice rings out. 

Lan Wangji should have known that Sect Leader Jiang would find something else to be angry about—though Lan Wangji waits at a respectful distance from the name tablets, he has still entered Lotus Pier alongside Jiang Wanyin's wayward brother without an invitation.

"Sect Leader Jiang," Lan Wangji says in greeting at the same time Wei Ying emerges from the temple. 

Jiang Wanyin stares at him, face going hard. "You."

Wei Ying must be distracted by grief, or else he is more exhausted by their misadventure at the Burial Mounds than Lan Wangji had realized, because he looks startled, as if he hadn't noticed his brother at all before this moment. "Jiang Cheng," he says reflexively, a hand going to his belly. He curls over into himself, his other hand seeking support on the temple wall. "We were just leaving."

"You think you can just waltz in and out of Lotus Pier whenever you like?" Jiang Wanyin barks. "Like this is your home?"

Wei Ying flinches. Lan Wangji floats closer to his side, hovering. He should not touch him, but Wei Ying appears near to fainting. He can't let him fall. "Wei Ying," he says. 

"What's wrong with him?" Jiang Wanyin points rudely. "He's gone all pale."

"I'm fine," Wei Ying says. He reaches out and clutches at Lan Wangji's arm, taking the decision out of his hands. "We're leaving now," he says again, but his thoughts say: He can't know, he can't know, I've got to get out of here before he sees how bad it is with me, he can't know. And then, as always, in the background of his mind, there is music and the soft chant of Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.

"Why are you acting like this?" Jiang Wanyin demands, though his loud voice seems very far away when Lan Wangji is surrounded by Wei Ying's thoughts. "Wei Wuxian, are you listening? Answer me!" 

"Tell him," Lan Wangji says. Wei Ying's head lifts and their eyes meet. Lan Wangji does not look away, even as Wei Ying's eyes fill with tears. (Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.) "He deserves the truth."

"What truth?" Jiang Wanyin says. "And why are you on my side, Lan Wangji? You're no friend of mine."

Lan Wangji ignores him. "Tell him," he says to Wei Ying, gently, softly, holding him even as he slowly collapses down to the ground. Lan Wangji goes with him, and they clutch at each other so that Wei Ying ends up half in Lan Wangji's lap with a sharp gasp. 

Jiang Wanyin starts forward, eyes wide, sword in hand as if this is something he can fight. "Someone tell me what is going on!" 

Wei Ying stares at Lan Wangji, his thoughts a torrent. How did Lan Zhan figure it out? Am I that obvious? Ah, Lan Zhan, please don't hate me.

Lan Wangji holds him tighter and hopes this says all he cannot say. I could never hate Wei Ying.

Wei Ying gives a small sigh, his gaze falling to where his hands are still clawed into the fabric of Lan Wangji's white robes. "Jiang Cheng," he says, "I don't have a golden core anymore. I gave it to you."

And before Jiang Wanyin can even react, Wei Ying faints against Lan Wangji's shoulder, leaving him to deal with the resulting explosion. 

 


 

When Wei Ying wakes, they are alone in a small boat, floating away from Lotus Pier. Wen Ning had parted from them, staying behind to explain all to Jiang Cheng. Lan Wangji is grateful for the intervention; he's not sure how he could explain how he knows what had occurred on that mountain top all those years ago, but Wen Ning had been there and was willing to testify. 

Lan Wangji only cares about getting Wei Ying to safety. 

He pilots the little boat through the water as Wei Ying groans and shifts where he'd been laid in the prow. Lan Wangji keeps his gaze on the water, though it's the middle of the night and they are the only boat as far as the eye can see. 

"Wei Ying?" he says. 

"I'm all right," is the answer to the unspoken question. Wei Ying sits up and holds his head in his hands. "Just exhausted, I think." He looks around, noticing the flat black mirror of the water dotted with pale purple lotus blooms. "Jiang Cheng—?" 

"Wen Ning is with him," Lan Wangji says. 

Wei Ying considers this, looking out over the water. "How did he take it?"

Lan Wangji does not bother answering him. He just gives him a look. They both know Jiang Wanyin could only take such news poorly, as anyone would. 

Wei Ying has the decency to look slightly abashed. "He'll have a few choice words for me when next we meet, I'm sure," he mutters. He picks up his head and looks to Lan Wangji. "And you?" he says. "What was it that tipped you off? Did you notice how I don't carry a sword anymore? How easily I get tired these days?" 

Lan Wangji does not want to lie, but he cannot tell the entire truth, so he doesn't respond at all. He watches the water as if it's the most interesting thing in the world. Though he is only separated from Wei Ying by the length of their little boat, he feels the distance as a horrible gulf, one he does not know how to cross. 

Wei Ying accepts his silence with a sigh. He leans over the side of the boat and trails his fingertips through the water. "It's been years," he says. "You'd think things would have changed a lot since I've been gone, but everyone still seems to hate me as much as they did back then." He grabs for a lotus flower as they pass it by, but it slips through his fingers. "What about you, Lan Zhan? Do you hate me now too?"

"No." Lan Wangji does not even hesitate in this. His gaze leaves the lake and fastens to him. "I have never hated Wei Ying."

"Hm." Wei Ying seems quietly reassured by this, the line of his shoulders relaxing a fraction. "You just seem so different from how I remember you," he says quietly over the side of the boat. "My memory is a little fuzzy, though, so maybe I've got it wrong. But back then, I thought…." He trails off.

Lan Wangji would give anything to hear the rest of that thought. He considers reaching out and stealing it for himself, but no. They are standing on a delicate knife's edge. He cannot falter now. 

"What did you think?"

Wei Ying huffs a laugh that sounds sad. "I don't know. You weren't so stand-offish. I don't mean at first; of course you were the most prickly back then, when we were kids. But as we got older—there were times where I thought maybe—" Wei Ying shakes his head. He pulls his hand out of the water and wipes it on the hem of his robes. "Now it's almost like we're back where we started, and you can barely stand to be near me." 

Lan Wangji's heart is choking him in his throat. He can't speak, he can't breathe. 

"I know you don't approve of the things I did," Wei Ying says. He stares down at his hands, resting in his lap. "Is it—the thing I did for Jiang Cheng, is that why you don't want to be as close as we once were?"

"Wei Ying—" His voice is strangled. He can't make it work properly.

"So I don't have a golden core!" Wei Ying explodes. His gaze finds Lan Wangji's, a burning, powerful thing. "So what? I can still protect the weak; I can still fight. I just have to do it differently, that's all. And I know there are consequences, I know there are ill effects, but what was I supposed to do?" His voice rings out over the still water. He gestures wildly. "Leave all this behind and—and live on a farm somewhere with my head in the sand? Pretend to be a normal person living a normal life? How could I do that, Lan Zhan?"

"I would never expect you to." Lan Wangji leaves the tiller for the moment—there is little danger of running ashore and the current is a gentle one. He slips forward until he is seated in the center of the boat, not quite close enough to touch Wei Ying, but closer than he had been. A compromise of sorts. He searches carefully for the words he needs to say. "I understand why you did what you did," he says at last. "I may not condone it, but I do not hate you for it." He takes a breath and allows one tiny fleck of truth to be shared. "I could never hate you."

"So why does it feel like we're sixteen years old again, with you keeping me at arm's length?" Wei Ying asks, swallowing. He reaches out as he did before when he'd first come back to Lan Wangji, his hand seeking a hold on his wrist. 

Lan Wangji moves out of reach, hating himself every moment, and hating the look of betrayal in Wei Ying's eyes. But he cannot allow himself to hear his thoughts now, when knowing might break him. 

"Forgive me," he says. Then, lacking anything else to say, he retreats to the tiller once more.

They float along in silence until the sun rises and their boat brings them to a small town of no real importance called Yunping.   

 


 

They take a room at an inn where the owner is happy enough to regale them with details of the town's history—and that of the mysterious temple, the deed to which Wei Ying had discovered among Jin Guangyao's private papers. A cursory visit to the site only produces more questions, but they agree to wait until the following day to continue their investigation. 

 In the meantime, the innkeeper has plenty of wine to bring to their room when Wei Ying requests it.

"You don't want to have a drink?" Wei Ying asks when Lan Wangji pushes the cup away from himself. "This is our first chance to unwind in awhile." The fact that it might be the last remains unsaid.

Lan Wangji just looks at him from beneath his lashes. "No."

"All right. More for me." He drinks straight from the bottle, his throat bobbing as he swallows. Lan Wangji follows the motion closely, his thoughts straying to how Wei Ying's lovely throat would feel under his fingertips, his lips, his teeth. 

He looks away, his ears burning hot. The owner enters the room along with a pair of maids, carrying a wooden tub with them. The tub is filled, one bucket at a time, with steaming water brought up from the kitchen. Lan Wangji watches this progress in silence while Wei Ying drinks his fill.

Once the innkeeper has departed, Wei Ying gestures to the folding screen which hides the tub. "Go on," he says. "I know how you hate being covered in road dust. Get clean."

Despite himself, Lan Wangji is touched by the fact that Wei Ying had requested a bath for his sake. He truly wants to bathe after their long ordeal. Also, he could use the time alone to gather himself; he must remain strong if he is to keep his hands off Wei Ying's body tonight. Why had he agreed to share a room again? He must love pain. 

He gives Wei Ying a nod, rising to go behind the screen, where he starts removing his outer robe. "Investigate the town while I bathe," he suggests. "Find out more about that temple."

Wei Ying's head pops over the top of the screen, nearly startling Lan Wangji into dropping his robe. "Oh, I thought I'd stay here," he says, grinning. "I could scrub your back for you."

Lan Wangji swallows. "No need."

"I insist," Wei Ying says. He waits there, chin propped on the top of the screen. "Well? Aren't you going to undress?"

When Wei Ying is in this sort of mood, relentless and flirtatious, the only recourse is to ignore him. Lan Wangji does so now, turning his back on his unwanted audience and stripping down to his bare skin. Wei Ying is the one to back down first; Lan Wangji can hear the rattle of the screen and his footsteps as he retreats across the room just before Lan Wangji unties the string of his trousers and steps out of them. 

It's too much to hope that Wei Ying will leave the room entirely, so Lan Wangji merely slips into the wooden tub as quickly as he can. He gives a near-silent sigh at the heat of the water, the way it works its way into his tired body. It's not the refreshing, bracing cold of the springs back in Gusu, but it will do. His eyes slip closed.

"Should I join you?" Wei Ying asks. 

His eyes open. He sees Wei Ying lounging against the tub, arms draped over its lip. He's toying with his hair ribbon as if considering whether he should remove it. 

"I'm covered in road dust too, after all," he adds. 

Lan Wangji can feel a tick working in his jaw. "No room," he points out. "This tub is not very large."

"It would be a tight squeeze, sure," Wei Ying says, "but possible." He squints at Lan Wangji as if measuring him. It makes Lan Wangji feel like curling up into something smaller. "Yes, completely doable. Shall I?" His hands go to his belt. 

Lan Wangji looks away, his face burning. He doesn't deserve this kind of torture. He's made mistakes, but surely this punishment outweighs his crimes. Wei Ying must have a heart of stone to mock him like this. 

"Don't," he manages to say. 

Wei Ying gives a pout, a childish thing complete with an undignified snort. "Fine. Have it your way. Selfishly taking up all the space in the bath, and after I went through the trouble of ordering it for you." He flops over the edge of the tub even more. 

Lan Wangji relaxes a little, disaster averted for the time being. He closes his eyes again. He's determined not to let Wei Ying rattle him. He's determined to ignore him and his own feelings. 

Fate has other plans.

"What is this, hm?" Wei Ying's hand trails over his skin, fingertips gently brushing over his heart, where the brand and the curse mark lay entwined. Lan Wangi jumps at the contact, however light, which brings along Wei Ying's thoughts. Ah, so it's not nothing. "I caught a glimpse of it at the Cold Springs, but you dressed before I could get a good look."

Lan Wangji doesn't answer, just plucks his wandering hand from his chest and pushes it away.

Wei Ying is undeterred. His light, teasing tone is at odds with the serious look in his eyes. "You know, it looks kind of familiar." He begins unbelting his robes. Lan Wangji's breath catches. He's thrown back many years into the past, when as boys they were trapped in a dark, forbidding cave. Wei Ying had started to strip to elicit some panicked response from Lan Wangji then too. But Lan Wangji is a man of nearly forty now and he will not blush at such foolish antics. His heart will race unseen in his chest, and he will sulk in his bath, but he refuses to let his true thoughts show. 

Wei Ying shrugs one shoulder free from his robes. Lan Wangji watches it emerge in agony. He wants to taste the skin there. He wants to sink his teeth into the meat of Wei Ying and leave a mark. But he forces such ideas away and focuses instead on the brand in the middle of Wei Ying's own bare chest, the twin to Lan Wangji's. 

"Even dying couldn't shake it, I suppose. I got mine at the hands of the Wen clan; do you remember?" Though his words sound careless, Lan Wangji senses an edge to them. "But the Wens are all gone now, unless you count Wen Ning, and he wouldn't put a brand to a person if you paid him in gold. So who gave you yours, Hanguang-Jun?"

Again, Lan Wangji does not answer. He shifts in the bath just slightly so that his naked chest is not in Wei Ying's direct line of sight. He curls over himself in a futile effort to protect it. A long strand of damp hair falls over his shoulder. 

Wei Ying heaves a sigh. "Then again," he drawls, "perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe it's not the same brand after all. Yours is just a little different, isn't it? Let me see." 

He reaches out an impertinent hand as if to sweep aside the curtain of Lan Wangji's hair, and Lan Wangji's own hand shoots out of the bath water with a loud splash. He captures Wei Ying by the wrist in a punishing grip. For a moment, he can feel the delicate bones grinding under his touch, then he blinks and forces his hand to gentle. Their eyes meet and Wei Ying's thoughts storm into Lan Wangji's mind, one louder than the others.

What are you hiding from me, Lan Zhan? Why won't you let me look?

"Do not touch me," Lan Wangji says, low and strained. He hopes Wei Ying can hear how serious he is. He drops his wrist before he can find out. 

Wei Ying props his forearm on the lip of the wooden tub, seemingly unconcerned that his sleeve is dripping wet from Lan Wangji's touch. His eyes are clouded with confusion. Lan Wangji can see how his gaze tracks along the scars that criss-cross Lan Wangji's back. "Was it part of the punishment from the Lan elders?" he asks.

Lan Wangji only jolts in surprise the barest inch, but the water betrays him with a slosh. "You know of that?" He is going to have strong words for Xichen when next they meet. Some secrets are not his to tell, if a very public punishment could count as a secret.

Some of his anger must be apparent on his face because Wei Ying's hands raise in a calming gesture. "If I hadn't been told, I would have figured it out. How else could Lan Zhan be injured so badly?" His eyes go soft with worry. "The brand—did they do that to you too?" He lays his arm back along the lip of the tub, his elbow grazing Lan Wangji's wet shoulder for just a moment. Long enough for Lan Wangji to hear him think: Is your sect that cruel, that they wanted you to be branded for life to match the Yiling Patriarch? To remind everyone of your biggest mistake? Is that why it's never been healed?

Without thinking, Lan Wangji brings his free hand up to his chest to trace the shape of the burn and the smooth curse mark within it. He could refuse to answer for a third time and let Wei Ying think what he likes. He could keep his love hidden for Wei Ying's sake—and the sake of his own foolish pride. He could do what's easiest, what's best. 

Instead he replies with a quiet, "No." 

He does not need to be reading Wei Ying's thoughts to know he's frustrated; his explosive huff of breath is enough. "Well, then who—?" Wei Ying stops, mouth hanging open, eyes lost in thought. He has always been too clever. 

But why would you do this to yourself?

Lan Wangji wishes he could sink below the surface of the bathwater and never return. 

"Let me see," Wei Ying demands, and he reaches for Lan Wangji as if that is something either of them can allow. Lan Wangji startles, water sloshing over the lip of the tub as he tries to flatten himself against the wooden slats as far from Wei Ying as he can get.

"Do not touch me," Lan Wangji says again, desperate this time. 

But Wei Ying is not listening. He often doesn't when it suits him; one of his many faults. His hand darts forward to graze the cool, lacquer-like shape of the cherry blossom before Lan Wangji slaps it away.

Not quick enough. One touch was all Wei Ying needed. His eyes go large with understanding, and Lan Wangji's stomach drops. There is no one in the world more familiar with curses than Wei Ying. He knows their energy like the back of his own hand.

"A curse mark?" His lips part as he stares at the innocent-looking pink petals that adorn Lan Wangji's chest.

He is still holding Wei Ying by the wrist, can hear the rush of his thoughts even through the haze of his shock. I don't understand. Who would curse you, Lan Zhan? As strong as you are—how have you not broken it yet? Did you burn yourself to try and hide it? What is it doing to you? Does it hurt? Are you hurting even now?

"Yes," Lan Wangji says, and drops his wrist. "Yes." It is an answer to his questions both spoken first and thought last. 

Wei Ying leans over the tub, his hands braced on the far edge. He has that sad, thoughtful look in his eye that Lan Wangji feared in their youth. His long hair trails in the water. His red ribbon, his sleeves, all become soaked. Lan Wangji watches it, pained. 

"Lan Zhan," he says, all merriment gone from his voice, "why didn't you tell me? I can help you get rid of it."

The irony is not lost on Lan Wangji. Sixteen years ago, he had been the one begging Wei Ying to let him help, to allow him to share some of his burden. Now their roles have been reversed, and he is the one who must walk the path alone. His eyes slip shut; he cannot look Wei Ying in the face right now. 

"There is nothing you can do," he says. 

"Bullshit." Wei Ying flaps a hand in the direction of the curse mark. "It doesn't look very dangerous. And for every curse, there is a method to break it. I just need to figure out what it is. How difficult can it be?" 

"I know the method." Lan Wangji shifts in the tub, water sloshing. "It is impossible." 

Wei Ying sticks a finger in the air. "Ah! You forget who raised me. I do impossible things all the time, Lan Zhan."

"Not this." He shakes his head, wet hair dragging through the water. His ears burn.

"Especially this," Wei Ying insists. "Tell me: what breaks the curse?" When Lan Wangji remains silent, he begins tapping his fingers against the lip of the tub. "Whatever it is, Lan Zhan is embarrassed," he murmurs.

Lan Wangji opens his eyes then, staring at Wei Ying across the bath water. He pleads with him silently, his gaze a heavy, warning thing. Wei Ying only grins. 

"I'm getting warmer," he sing-songs. He flicks his nose like he used to when deep in thought, and it's a gesture Lan Wangji knows so well and so lovingly that his heart nearly stops beating. "It reminds me of a story I read once; what was it? Ah, you know I have no memory for these sorts of things. It was so long ago. I think it was during my student days at Cloud Recesses. I was stuck in that library so much as punishment for my little missteps—do you remember, Lan Zhan?" 

Lan Wangji's tongue is thick in his dry mouth. He is watching his own doom approach, and there is nothing he can do to stop it. 

Wei Ying drapes himself over the edge of the wooden tub and sticks his finger in the warm bath water, making little swirls and eddies. "I would get bored of copying out the rules. The books in the library were much more interesting. There was one—I think it was a collection of folk tales, or maybe a Lan family history—that had some beautiful artwork in it. Is that where I saw your cherry blossom? Ah, what was that story?" 

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji chokes out. Contained in that name is a frantic hope that Wei Ying will let this be. But Wei Ying never lets anything be. 

He smacks his palm against the surface of the water, laughing in triumph. "I remember! Oh, it was a bit racy for the Lan library; that's why I was so intrigued. It was a fable about one of your ancestors. He'd been cursed because he'd never—" Wei Ying's voice dies before he can say another word. His mouth shuts with a click. He is looking at Lan Wangji with such wide, shocked eyes that Lan Wangji cannot bear it. He turns aside, his face flaming. 

"Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying whispers. "Hey, Lan Zhan. That was just a story. It's not actually— I mean, you can't really be—" 

This has become intolerable. Lan Wangji rises from the bath, water rushing off the planes of his body as he hurries to step out. He grabs his white inner robe from where it's draped over the screen and jerks it over his shoulders. He will simply not answer Wei Ying. He will simply not look at him. Possibly for the rest of his wretched life.

But Wei Ying, of course, has other ideas. He rushes to stand, rushes to Lan Wangji's side. "All right, so maybe you can be," he says. His chatter fills the small room, too loud, too much. "Oh, Lan Zhan, I don't mean to judge. I know you're a private sort of person. It just never occurred to me that you might—that is, you're how old now? Thirty-eight?" He counts on his fingers. "Nine. Thirty-nine. That's a long time to be, well. A virgin."

Lan Wangji lets his eyes close as he ties his thin robe. "Stop talking."  

Wei Ying does not stop talking. "Lan Zhan." He sidles closer. "It's all very simple, then. It's the simplest thing in the world. You can break this curse tonight. I can help you!"

"No," Lan Wangji growls. He stalks out from behind the useless privacy screen, his robes only half-secured.

"Listen to me." Wei Ying follows him like a persistent thought. "It wouldn't be a big deal. I'm sure the curse isn't fussy about how virginity is lost. It's a made-up thing anyway."

"Is it?" Lan Wangji busies himself at the low table, pouring tea he doesn't plan to drink. "Is Wei Ying such an expert?" He cannot help the caustic bite in his words, the jealousy that bleeds through despite his efforts to remain unmoved. 

"Ha! Maybe not an expert," Wei Ying says. He perches on the edge of the bed, feet kicking. "But I have been with a few people. Three, I think?" He counts his fingers again. "Yes, three. Two ladies and one man." He smiles at nothing as if remembering these encounters.

Lan Wangji could spit blood. He has the urge to grab Wei Ying by the shoulders and demand he provide the names of these three so that he might seek them out and get revenge. They had touched Wei Ying, had enjoyed his body, had given him pleasure, perhaps, when Lan Wangji could not, and this is the height of injustice. But he smothers this jealousy as he does all his other feelings regarding Wei Ying, shamed by the fact that these three are most likely dead as so many of their generation are. Besides, anyone who provided Wei Ying with a happy memory deserves Lan Wangji's thanks and not the edge of his blade—a difficult thing to remember. Both can be true.

"I see," is all he says in return.

Wei Ying brightens even more. "It could be just a small act, something that barely counts at all, and you'd be free. I could—with my hand. Or, oh, with my mouth! That's sure to do the trick."

Lan Wangji whirls on him, his eyes hard and his breath coming fast. His gaze falls unbidden to Wei Ying's lips. It is impossible not to imagine that mouth finally quieted, wrapped around his aching cock. He thinks of how it would be: Wei Ying kneeling at his feet, his huge wet eyes gazing up at Lan Wangji as he sucks him off. He would be messy about it, drool escaping the corner of his lips to trickle down his chin. Lan Wangji would try to restrain himself, but he doesn't think he could maintain his self-control for long. No, in no time at all he would have his hands buried in Wei Ying's hair, holding his head steady while he fucks his slick throat. What would Wei Ying think of that, he wonders. What thoughts would he hear just before the curse was broken?

"You would do that?" he asks, his voice quiet to hide its shaking. 

"Of course." He shrugs. "It's not like it would mean anything. It would just be a quick way to get rid of your curse."

Lan Wangji looks away. He cannot let Wei Ying see how his face falls at this. And to think he'd been so close to accepting Wei Ying's offer. Even now it is tempting, but the thought of taking Wei Ying to bed like this, under circumstances borne of pity rather than love, makes his weary heart break anew. How can he touch Wei Ying when every touch would slip a poison needle under his skin? How could he bear it, to hear in secret thoughts Wei Ying's disgust and disinterest in his person? He would rather die with the curse mark still upon his chest than to have their lovemaking mean nothing.

"No," he says. He shakes his head, the long, damp strands of his hair sticking to his neck and cheek. "No. We can't."

"Lan Zhan." Wei Ying slides off the bed to pool in a lazy sprawl at Lan Wangji's side. Too close, too close, their arms nearly touching. "I promise it won't be terrible. You might—it might even be fun. I wouldn't tell anyone, if that's what you're worried about. It could be our secret." He reaches out. His fingertips catch a strand of Lan Wangji's wet hair, brushing it away from his neck. 

No one would ever find out you'd debased yourself with the Yiling Patriarch, Wei Ying thinks. His thoughts sound almost amused. (In the background, the constant Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.)

They already think I have, Lan Wangji wants to tell him. But he cannot.

Lan Wangji should pull away. He should flee to the other side of the room. The other side of the world. But Wei Ying's fingers are gentle in his hair, and it has been so long since he's been touched with kindness. His eyes slip closed, his breathing erratic. He wants this. He wants it so dearly.

I'd barely need to touch him, Wei Ying thinks. His other hand creeps to Lan Wangji's knee, tentatively traveling up his thigh. A complete virgin like him. It would all be over in an eyeblink, probably.

Lan Wangji jerks away from Wei Ying's hands, face hot with shame. It is not kindness after all. It is mockery. 

Wei Ying freezes, eyes wide. "What—?"

"I don't need your help," Lan Wangji tells him. "Leave me alone."

"Come on, listen to reason," Wei Ying pleads. "Whatever that curse mark is doing to you, it must be painful. You don't have to endure it."

"I choose to endure," Lan Wangji snaps. He rises to his feet, pulling his robes into a better semblance of order. "I will take another room for the night. You can have this one."

"What?" Wei Ying stares up at him. "Lan Zhan, don't be stupid. We've shared before, haven't we?"

"Not anymore," Lan Wangji says, and with the tatters of his pride surrounding him, sweeps out the door. 

 


 

Lan Wangji cannot sleep that night. He lays in the narrow bed alone on sheets that smell of strange soap, thinking only of Wei Ying on the other side of the wall. Is he also awake or is he dreaming? He's probably cursing Lan Wangji's name. How foolish he must find him, a virgin of nearly forty who flees at the first touch. 

The air in the inn is stifling, at once too warm and too chill. Lan Wangji wraps himself in bed linens, then throws them aside, unable to get comfortable. He tries to meditate but his thoughts lead him back to Wei Ying, to his offer. To what could have been their one night together if Lan Wangji was just a little less stubborn and a little more hard-hearted. Here he is, starving, yet refusing a morsel of food. He is the greatest fool in the history of the Lan sect.

Sleep will not come. So he heaves himself out of bed and takes up Bichen. He may as well take himself on a nighttime walk. Some fresh air might clear his head.

He might even look in at the temple to see what he can see.

 


 

Lan Wangji may have miscalculated. 

He can admit that to himself, standing stock still in the middle of the temple courtyard, a deadly sharp string pressing against his neck. He can feel Jin Guangyao against his back, his harsh breaths in his ear, his thoughts a cool, collected checklist of what he must do. Lan Wangji has no doubt he will slice open his throat at the slightest movement from the assembled audience. He knows because it is item number fourteen on Jin Guangyao's list: kill Lan Wangji if necessary. 

He supposes he should be thankful it's only if necessary. 

There's quite a crowd. His brother is there wearing a look of dumbstruck distress. Lan Sizhui, too, is present, his fingers itching toward the hilt of his sword. Lan Wangji gives him a barely perceptible shake of his head, and Lan Sizhui, out of love and trust, lets his hand hang limp at his side. Jiang Wanyin has also arrived, and Jin Ling as well, and Nie Huaisang is there for some unknown reason. 

And Wei Ying. Oh, Wei Ying. He is there, eyes blazing, Chenqing in his fist. He stares murderously past Lan Wangji's shoulder at Jin Guangyao. He raises his flute the barest inch.

"Ah, ah, ah," says Jin Guangyao. The string around Lan Wangji's neck tightens. He can feel his blood welling to the surface of his skin in a hot, red line. "No music, please. The occasion doesn't call for it."

Lan Wangji sucks in a breath. The pain is minimal, but with his meridians blocked as they are, he can't heal the injury. It's an unsettling sensation, one he'd been forced into when he'd stumbled upon Jin Guangyao in the temple grounds. He'd had no choice; the man had threatened Lan Xichen and A-Yuan, and though now he can sense from his thoughts that Jin Guangyao would never actually harm Xichen, he doesn't seem to have any such qualms regarding Lan Sizhui or Wei Wuxian—or anyone else, for that matter. 

In fact, as the gears turn in Jin Guangyao's mind, it appears there are many inventive ways he could hurt the Yiling Patriarch who has so rudely reappeared to thwart his plans. A flash of an idea, cruel as a knife: Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying shackled like a captured animal, forced to call forth resentful energy for Jin Guangyao's needs. A conduit for nefarious means, scapegoated to the last, used until he is broken.

As others tried to use me, comes the thought from Jin Guangyao's racing mind.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, soft and quiet. The string cuts into his throat as it bobs with his words. "Go. Get away." 

"I'm not leaving you," Wei Ying says. His mouth is a tight, angry line.

You did before, Lan Wangji thinks desperately. You can again.

"A-Yao." Lan Xichen steps forward. "Please, this is madness. That is my brother you're threatening. Whatever you've done, whatever you plan to do—" He keeps talking. Xichen is very good at that, Lan Wangji thinks. But it doesn't matter what he says; he can feel Jin Guangyao's resolve as surely as he can feel the thud of his heart against his back. There is no path forward where everyone in this courtyard leaves with their lives.

This can only end in tragedy. 

Lan Wangji is not afraid to die. He isn't even afraid to die a virgin. But he is afraid of dying without telling Wei Ying the truth. He is afraid of leaving as Wei Ying had left him: without answers. Without comfort. Without knowing he was loved.

His own resolve is a powerful thing. It surges through him, making him bold. He strains against the garrotte at his throat, not caring how he bleeds. 

"Wei Ying!" he cries. He interrupts something Jin Guangyao had been saying—he hadn't been paying attention—and the man holding him hostage huffs against the nape of his neck.

"Hanguang-Jun," he says, strangely polite, "please don't fidget. I don't want to kill you if it can be helped."

Lan Wangji ignores him. "Wei Ying!" he calls again. His voice rings through the courtyard.   

Wei Ying starts forward as if he plans to run to Lan Wangji's side, but Jiang Wanyin sensibly holds him back by the arm. "Lan Zhan?" 

In this moment, there is no temple and no string around his neck. There are no onlookers and certainly no brothers present. There is no shame. There is no regret. It's only the two of them and the truth.

Lan Wangji says in a voice that does not shake, "I want. I wanted you. I still want you. I've only ever wanted Wei Ying." 

Wei Ying blinks at him. "You what?"

"Last night," he says, "I wanted you so badly. I left because I didn't know how to explain. I should have explained. I want to now. Wei Ying, this curse I carry—" 

"Excuse me," Jin Guangyao says, annoyance creeping into his voice, "is this really the right time for this sort of conversation?"

The other players in their strange scene come back into focus. Jiang Wanyin's face is screwed up like this is the stupidest thing he's ever heard in his life. Lan Sizhui's brows are climbing into his hairline. Nie Huaisang is hiding behind his fan, eyes visible just above the edge. And Lan Xichen is breathing deeply with his eyes closed as he often does when he wishes he were anywhere but his current location.

It begins to rain. 

Lan Wangji stares at Wei Ying as the raindrops fall, slow and fat at first, then harder, faster, until the ground is wet and slick. Wei Ying does not look away. His hair is plastered to his cheek.

"Why don't we go inside?" suggests Jin Guangyao with the same tone he might invite someone inside his quarters at Golden Scale Tower for tea. "Get out of this foul weather?"

He walks backward, the string still around Lan Wangji's neck pulling him along. The rest of the party follows uneasily. 

 


 

Lan Wangji leans back against the cool pillar and allows Wei Ying to examine the cut along his throat. His hands are careful at his neck, his breathing fast, his jaw set at that furious angle that means he's contemplating vengeance. His thoughts pour into Lan Wangji to confirm it—that, and the same song that resides in Lan Wangji's own heart. 

"So, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says. "Lan Wangji. Hanguang-jun. Last night?" His eyes and his thoughts are full of hope. (Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, I would kill him for you.)

Lan Wangji covers his hand with his own, allowing Wei Ying to feel the racing beat of his pulse in his throat. "The curse. I can hear the thoughts of the people I touch," Lan Wangji says in a whisper. "I can hear yours now."

They are off to the side and no one is paying them any attention—the others are embroiled in a series of discussions that Lan Wangji only half-listens to. They may as well be in their own little world. 

Wei Ying's eyes get even larger. "That's why you—?" Oh, Lan Zhan, my Lan Zhan. "You didn't want to break the curse at all. It's a useful skill to have, isn't it?"

Lan Wangji furrows his brow. He cannot believe how wrong Wei Ying is. He cannot believe he loves this absolute fool. "No, it's horrible," he says. "I don't want it." 

Thoughts as varied and loud as a whole pack of ill-behaved children go racing through Wei Ying's mind. "Then why?" Why did you push me away?

"I cannot have just one night with you," Lan Wangji whispers in the quiet of their little world. Just the two of them and their secrets. "And I cannot pretend it would mean nothing." 

Wei Ying goes still. And silent. So deathly silent, his mind for once a complete blank. 

Lan Wangji swallows. It hurts him to continue, but he must. "I know you have," he hesitates over the words, "some feelings. Perhaps. For me. And I know you also think I am—" His hand falls away. "Old. Pitiful. Would disappoint."

"What!" Wei Ying cries. Heads turn in their direction, but they ignore them. "I never thought that!"

"You have," Lan Wangji says, tired. "I know what I heard, Wei Ying. Your thoughts were clear."

"Were they?" Wei Ying rocks back on his heels, staring at Lan Wangji. "Then that is the first time they've ever been! Lan Zhan, my head is like a circus. Things flit in and out all the time." He flaps a hand beside his ear. "You can't listen to every single one of them; I certainly don't! Just because a thought crosses my mind doesn't mean I believe it!" 

For the first time in sixteen years—no, longer; perhaps ever—Lan Wangji feels hope taking root in his chest. "No?"

Wei Ying grabs his hand and holds it in his own. "Listen, Lan Zhan," he says.

What he thinks is: 

You're the most beautiful man I've ever laid eyes on and I love the silver in your hair and I want to be at your side when your hair matches your robes and should we be concerned about Jin Guangyao killing us all right now? It feels like we should be concerned and when I said last night that it wouldn't mean anything, that was because I thought it wouldn't mean anything to you and you have no idea what it would mean to me—Lan Zhan, let's survive this so I can touch you like you deserve.  

He thinks, Thank you.

He thinks, I'm sorry. 

He thinks, I should have said it sooner but: I want you too. I like you. I love you. I everything you. Am I too late, Lan Zhan?

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji murmurs. They are not alone. They are sitting in the midst of almost everyone they know. They are sitting in front of the goddess Guanyin. They are in the middle of an incredibly fraught stand-off laced with confessions and ploys. 

He kisses Wei Ying anyway. Gathers him into his arms and pulls him close until their mouths meet. Wei Ying sighs into him, happy, relieved. He melts against Lan Wangji like he belongs there. 

Their audience makes a series of varied noises at this development, but Lan Wangji cannot find it in himself to care. He is not an experienced kisser, not yet, and he needs all his concentration to kiss Wei Ying.

 


 

You know how the temple falls. You have heard this story a thousand times. 

What you have not heard is how afterward, in the courtyard, covered in a thick film of dust, Lan Wangji sees Nie Huaisang try to rise to his feet and stumble. Perhaps Lan Wangji is feeling generous now that he can claim Wei Ying as his own—perhaps he is still a bit dazed from the revelations and violence they'd all just lived through together, and he is not as cautious as he might've been. Whatever the reason, he reaches out a hand to steady Nie Huaisang. 

Large, dark eyes turn to him. What Nie Huaisang says is, "Ah, thank you. Thank you."

What he thinks is: Hello, Hanguang-jun.

Lan Wangji startles and tries to pull his hand away, but Nie Huaisang claps his own hand over it. His eyes are still wide and guileless, but his thoughts tell a different story.

"How?" Lan Wangji chokes out.

How do I know? I hear things. I remember things. I put things together. It's not that difficult. Nie Huaisang brushes his free hand down his robes, dusting himself off. Anyway, I'm glad we have a chance to talk privately.

His carefully ordered thoughts give way to a barrage of information. Lan Wangji can see every step that Nie Huaisang has taken to arrive here on the temple stairs. Every act of subterfuge he'd engineered to avenge his brother's death. It is terrifying in its scope, the things this one man had been willing to do. He had even arranged for Wei Ying's miraculous resurrection— though I couldn't quite manage to manifest his original body free of scars and marks; I did try, but these things are rather difficult. You don't mind, I take it? 

His eyes widen a fraction. Why would Nie Huaisang confess all this? And to him of all people?

Wei Wuxian is a clever sort, Nie Huaisang thinks before Lan Wangji can give voice to his questions. He will puzzle it out eventually if he doesn't already suspect.

Lan Wangji glances over to where Wei Ying is standing a short distance away, conversing with Jin Ling and Jiang Wanyin in low, tense tones. Distracted, for the moment.

Don't worry. Nie Huaisang offers him a smile that might look shy to anyone not privy to his thoughts, but Lan Wangji recognizes it for the mercenary thing it is. He can know. You can even confirm it for him, if you like. But I would ask you to do me a favor, Hanguang-jun, and persuade your Wei Wuxian not to make my involvement public knowledge. I have played the fool for a long time and I find it very useful to keep up the charade. 

He does not need to make threats. Lan Wangji can imagine what might happen if someone were to go against him. He's seen what happens when even the most clever try. People are dead; his own brother is still staring at the rubble with an empty, devastated look in his eyes. It seems wrong for Nie Huaisang not to take responsibility for what he's done.

His hesitation must make his thoughts obvious again, for Nie Huaisang gives a small sigh, tipping his head. His eyes are bright and clear as they regard Lan Wangji.

Who brought your Wei Wuxian back to you, Hanguang-jun? What is his life worth? Surely your silence is a small price to pay.

Lan Wangji considers this. It is true that he owes Nie Huaisang a debt. And after all is said and done, what does it matter? He nods, slow and deliberate so that his answer cannot be missed. 

Excellent. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter. Nie Huaisang flicks open his fan. It's funny, isn't it? The older we get, the more things get muddled. Right and wrong, truth and lies. We all make mistakes. His gaze falls to the ground. Lan Wangji follows it and sees a black shape—Jin Guanyao's ever-present hat, now crushed and bloodied. We all have regrets, thinks Nie Huaisang, quieter now in his mind. But we do what we must. 

He releases Lan Wangji's hand and stoops to pick up the hat, brushing away stray bits of dirt. Lan Wangji watches him for a moment before leaving him to his thoughts. He returns to Wei Ying's side in time to see Jiang Wanyin's retreating back disappear through the gate. 

 


 

Lan Wangji stands at a crossroads with the only man he's ever loved and watches as understanding comes into Lan Sizhui's eyes. The boy he'd helped raise is now a man grown. And he deserves the truth, too.

"Who are you?" Wei Ying asks Lan Sizhui.

Because Lan Sizhui does not know how to answer, Lan Wangji does for him. "Our child," he murmurs in Wei Ying's ear. "You gave birth to him yourself."

For once, the tears in Wei Ying's eyes are happy ones. "A-Yuan?" he whispers. He surges forward and catches Lan Sizhui up in a hard embrace, one that is returned with equal vigor. Wei Ying's laugh echoes through the woods surrounding the road. "A-Yuan!" 

Lan Wangji moves to give them space, not wanting to encroach on their joy, but they both reach out to grab his hand and pull him into the knot of their arms. Even Wen Ning cannot escape the indignity of being pulled into the embrace. Lan Wangji allows them all to hold him, and despite the tumult of three sets of thoughts, he finds that he can bear it. They are joyous ones. 

 


 

Later, they find themselves alone for the first time in many hours, waving goodbye to Lan Sizhui and Wen Ning as they depart on the road. It is a beautiful day and the sun is shining. Lan Wangji wonders if it's all a dream.

Wei Ying turns to him, smiling. He squints against the sun. "What do you think, Lan Zhan? What now?"

What comes next? Lan Wangji isn't sure. He is a virgin, after all. But he has an excellent imagination. He regards Wei Ying with anticipation building in his chest. After all this time, he can finally have what he wants, what he's waited for. 

"Wei Ying," he starts, then stops. He doesn't feel the need to elaborate. What comes next is Wei Ying: Wei Ying in his life, and in his bed, and at his side as they walk their path together. The empty, lonely corridor he'd thought was his to tread alone is no more. That is all that matters.

Wei Ying does not understand, though, and takes his silence for hesitation. "A lot has happened," he points out. "I get it; you—we both need time, probably."

Lan Wangji tilts his head, extends his hand. The palm of it is streaked in the dust from the collapsed temple. He waits. 

Wei Ying, always the brave one, realizes what is being offered and puts his hand in Lan Wangji's. Their fingers thread together.

"Do you want time?" Lan Wangji asks. "Apart from me?"

"No," Wei Ying says. No! his thoughts ring out. I do want to see the world, Lan Zhan. I want to see what I've missed. But if I can, I'd rather see it with you. Then, almost shy: Am I asking too much?

In another life, an uncursed life, Lan Wangji might think it more noble and right to do what is difficult. He might send Wei Ying off into the world alone, thinking that if he returns, then Lan Wangji will know his love is real. A test to ensure that this is not some fluke, some whim, a thing that will fade. 

But he already knows. He knows because even now, their song plays in Wei Ying's mind, a wordless melody rife with desire. It's louder now. It drowns out so many other thoughts of Wei Ying's, not all of them flattering, some of them senseless. Lan Wangji listens. And for once, he understands. 

"Where shall we go?" he asks.

"Anywhere," Wei Ying breathes. Wherever I can have you, he thinks. Right here. Against that tree. In the middle of the road. Call me shameless, I don't care.

A smile touches the edge of Lan Wangji's mouth. "There is an inn a short distance to the south." He's passed it before on one of his many journeys searching for Wei Ying. It is a quiet place away from the busier routes. 

An eager light comes to Wei Ying's eyes. His arms wind around Lan Wangji's neck. "All right," he says, and kisses him. Deep and daring, a giddy breath tickling Lan Wangji's lips with the ghost of laughter. "All right. If you're sure. What are we waiting for?"

 

 


 

 

Lan Wangji falls back on the mattress with a thud that nearly knocks the breath from his lungs. He's already panting for air, his bare chest flushed where his robes gape open, his mouth a little sore from all the kisses he's shared with Wei Ying. His hair is a mess. He can feel his guan slipping out of place. 

"Here, let me get that for you," says Wei Ying. He is naked already, has been from the moment the door of their rented room shut. He was eager to undress, and Lan Wangji was eager to help rid him of every scrap of clothing. It's like a dream, being able to see Wei Ying bare. He is slim and young and marked by scars old and new, and Lan Wangji has never seen a more beautiful sight. 

He stares up at him as Wei Ying hovers over his prone body. His pink tongue peeks from the corner of his lips as he struggles with the complicated pins of his guan before it releases under his touch. "Aha!" he says in triumph, unraveling Lan Wangji's hair. He holds the silver shape of the guan in the air like a trophy. "I did it, see? Lan Zhan, how do you arrange your hair like this every day? Does it take you hours?"

"It used to," he murmurs, and pulls Wei Ying down for another kiss. "When I was younger. Now, a few minutes."

"You should have had someone help you. A maid or a disciple or—" Wei Ying stops talking. A rare event. His cheeks go pink with something other than excitement. Oh, I didn't think. Of course you wouldn't want someone touching you. I'm such an idiot sometimes. 

Lan Wangji shakes his head, not in frustration, but in disagreement with what Wei Ying thinks of himself. "Here," he says quietly. He takes the sharp guan from Wei Ying's slack hand and places it safely out of reach on the bedpost. When he looks back up at Wei Ying, his eyes are serious and dark, staring down at Lan Wangji like he's a complicated talisman that needs to be redrawn.

"What do you want, Lan Zhan?" he asks. "How do you want me to—? I'm so nervous; I want to make this good for you. Your first time should be good."

Lan Wangji slides his hands over Wei Ying's bare hips, fitting his thumbs into their valleys. "Already good," he says.

A grin breaks out over Wei Ying's face. "Could be better." He wriggles atop Lan Wangji, his swift fingers making quick work of his layers and layers of robes. I wonder how much he knows about lovemaking, he thinks. Maybe we should keep it simple this first time. I don't want to overwhelm him or frighten him with— 

Lan Wangji captures one of Wei Ying's hands and brings it to his lips. He kisses the battered knuckles, the thin lines of his fingers. "I know little," he offers, "but I've imagined."

"Oh?" Wei Ying's thoughts turn into a riot of competing ideas. His excitement is as thick and sweet as honey. "What kind of things have you imagined, Lan Zhan?"

Words are not his strong suit, so Lan Wangji must mull them over, rolling them around on his tongue before deciding which to use. He wants to share this with Wei Ying. He wants to share the entire truth. 

"You, in my lap. Riding me," he says. 

Wei Ying goes still above him, his mouth open in surprise. His thoughts clamber and sing like a festival. "Really?"

Lan Wangji hums, his hands curving over Wei Ying's back. "You, on your knees, tasting me. You, facedown while I take you. You, blindfolded, allowing me to touch. You inside me." He curls one hand over the back of Wei Ying's hot neck, the other drifting down. "Just you. In every way."

Wei Ying shivers. His eyes slip closed. He is picturing the things Lan Wangji says. His thoughts are vibrant, painting each scene with sounds and color: a startled gasp of pleasure, a red bite on pale skin. 

"Oh, Lan Zhan," he breathes, "you have such a filthy imagination. I had no idea." He kisses him, hard and desperate. Lan Wangji returns the kiss with just as much passion. "And tonight?" Wei Ying pants as they part for air. "Which would you like to do tonight?"

"All of it." He is serious, but Wei Ying just gives a sparkling laugh.

"I'm not sure that will be possible, physically," he says. 

Lan Wangji cannot hide the disappointment that furrows his brow. "No?"

Wei Ying smiles and shrugs one deliciously bare shoulder. "I mean, we could try to, of course. I would definitely not mind trying at some point. But for tonight—" His face goes serious again. His hips grind down against Lan Wangji's, pressing through his clothing. They're both hard, both biting back moans at the simple contact. "Maybe—just like this," Wei Ying whispers.

His thoughts are still coming hard and fast to Lan Wangji. It's dizzying, intoxicating. It's like being drunk. It's like flight. Lan Wangji struggles out of his loosened robes, earning another laugh from Wei Ying. His gaze drags up and down his bare skin, stops and lingers on his curse mark. His fingertips follow. 

Lan Wangji's throat goes thick. It's been so long since he's been touched with want. And he's never been touched like this. "Wei Ying," he says, insistent. 

"Let's get rid of this for you, hm?" Wei Ying traces the shape of the cherry blossom, then slips his hand to one of Lan Wangji's tight nipples, pinching lightly. 

It's hard to categorize the noise that Lan Wangji makes at that. It's something of a growl and something of a whimper, his spine arching up into Wei Ying's touch. Wei Ying, delighted, plays with both his nipples, stroking his thumbs over the bud of them. 

"Look at that," he says. "Enjoying it, Lan Zhan?" 

Lan Wangji doesn't know what he's doing. He doesn't know anything here in bed with a force of nature like Wei Ying. It's a strange experience. Not necessarily bad. He has instincts; even animals know what they need. Lan Wangji feels more animal than man now, his hands tightening possessively on Wei Ying, using his strength to flip them so that Wei Ying is the one beneath him. 

The quickness with which he's moved seems to shock Wei Ying, his wide eyes staring up at Lan Wangji before curving into a smile. His hands move to Lan Wangji's waist to tug at his white trousers. 

"Off, off, off," he chants. His thoughts echo in counterpoint: Gorgeous, gorgeous, so gorgeous.

"Wei Ying." They scramble to rid him of his clothing, desperate to have nothing between them. It's warm inside the room. The windows are shut, and the heat of their bodies and their breathing creates a sort of cocoon here. Sweat beads on Lan Wanji's temple; he can see the sheen of it on Wei Ying's chest. Their cocks are hard and damp as they rub together between them. 

"Oh," Wei Ying breathes, pulling him closer. "Oh, Lan Zhan. Feels good. Does it feel good for you?'

It's indescribable. Lan Wangji can't even begin to say how perfect it feels, so he doesn't try. His hair falls loose over his shoulders, spilling to tease along Wei Ying's skin. He spots a flash of white among the inky black, and he pulls away. 

"Wait." He reaches back to undo the knot of his ribbon at the back of his head. The ribbon falls away, and Wei Ying watches, enraptured. His mouth is open. Lan Wangji can see the pink wetness of his tongue. 

"Lan Zhan," he says. He's seen Lan Wangji without his ribbon before, when they were boys, but now— Now I know what it means. I understand. Lan Zhan, are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? Because I don't think I could take it if you ended up regretting this.

Lan Wangji takes the white ribbon in one hand and lets it coil into a little nest in his other palm. He feels more naked than he's ever been, sitting astride Wei Ying's narrow hips without a single stitch of clothing. Without the ribbon across his forehead. He plucks Wei Ying's arm from where it's snaked around his waist.

"Here," he murmurs, and places the ribbon in Wei Ying's hand. He closes his fingers over it, as gentle as a breeze. "Hold onto this for me."

Wei Ying's thoughts are awash in music. Lan Wangji can barely hear their own rasping breaths over the melody. There are tears in his eyes. "All right." He swallows. "All right, I will." He clutches the ribbon in his hand, brings it to his chest as if protecting it, nestling it up against the burn mark there. 

Their bodies are moving together. Lan Wangji marvels at the ebb and flow of their hips, their wet cocks, the strange slap of skin. It makes him feel more like a feral animal than ever before. He kisses Wei Ying's neck, sloppy like he's drinking Wei Ying down like liquor. Wei Ying moans, tips his head to the side to bare more of his throat to Lan Wangji, gasps when his teeth sink into skin. 

Of course you're a biter. Of course you want to mark me. Lan Zhan, don't you see I'm already yours? Everyone knows it by now.

"Good," he growls, biting at Wei Ying's shoulder and leaving a perfect ring of red. "They should."

The laugh catches in Wei Ying's throat and turns into a whine as their cocks slide together more firmly. "I keep forgetting you can hear what I'm thinking," Wei Ying pants. "Sorry. I know it's a lot."

Lan Wangji kisses him before he can say any more nonsense. When they part, he looks down into Wei Ying's dazed face and says, "I will miss your mind. It's beautiful." 

Wei Ying huffs, tucks his face against Lan Wangji's shoulder. "No, it's not. It's a mess." You can't just say things like that. I might start to think you mean it. (Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, please mean it, Lan Zhan.) 

Lan Wangji makes a noise like pain and want intertwined. His hand slips beneath Wei Ying to hold him at the small of his back, lifting him up in a bid to get even closer, though it doesn't seem possible. The friction and heat between their bodies is reaching a fever pitch. He kisses Wei Ying's face, his hair, his neck, every part of him he can reach. He kisses his hand where it's clenched between their chests, ribbon spilling over his fingers. 

"I do not lie," he reminds him. "Beautiful."

Wei Ying's other hand, the one unoccupied with the ribbon, stops toying mercilessly at one of Lan Wangji's nipples and instead slides up to cradle his face. Wei Ying looks at him like he's precious. He looks at him like he can't believe they're here. 

"Is it working, do you think?" he gasps out between their thrusts. "Your curse, is it gone yet?" Can you still hear me? The thought is quieter, as if said from down a long hall. 

"I hear you," Lan Wangji pants. "But it's fading."

Wei Ying swallows, both hands coming up to cup Lan Wangji's face, the ribbon in his hand pressed against his cheek, trailing down his neck.

I want the last thought you hear to be something good. 

Wei Ying's thoughts seem to come from the bottom of a deep ocean, muffled and blurred. 

Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. I love you so much, I love you, I love…. 

Wei Ying fumbles, his hands darting between their desperate bodies. The ribbon falls onto his heaving chest as he takes hold of them both, one in each hand, stroked in time to the frantic pace of their hearts. 

Lan Wangji comes with Wei Ying's name on his lips and a blissful silence in his mind. 

 


 

They lay in bed, shivering every few moments as if their bodies are remembering the pleasure they just enjoyed. It's messy, the way the sheets stick to them with sweat and seed. Wei Ying has endured the worst of it, his entire torso and chest spattered with their combined spend. Lan Wangji stares at it as his breathing continues hard and fast. He trails his fingertips through the mess on Wei Ying's stomach, unable to stop himself. 

"How do you feel?" Wei Ying asks, still breathless. The forehead ribbon has fallen into the tumble of the bedclothes, and Wei Ying, with an apologetic grimace, bats it onto the floor. It will probably need to be washed. 

"Quiet," Lan Wangji answers. He gathers more seed on his fingertips. "Strange."

"Strange bad?" Wei Ying watches him lift his hand, and his mouth opens without being asked. Lan Wangji feeds him their spend, fingers stroking along his hot tongue. Wei Ying moans around the intrusion, suckles them clean. 

"No." Lan Wangji removes his fingers from Wei Ying's mouth, his thumb giving his lower lip a parting caress. "Good."

Wei Ying's face turns a belated scarlet. "Fuck, Lan Zhan!" He throws an arm over his eyes. "You—! That was filthy; what made you think to do that?"

Lan Wangji holds him closer. It shouldn't be possible, as tangled up as they are. "Wanted to." He hums, nosing under Wei Ying's arm to kiss his cheek.

Wei Ying removes his arm entirely. His eyes are dancing. "What else do you want, Lan Zhan?"

He opens his mouth to answer, then closes it. This close, he can hear Wei Ying's puff of breath. 

"Something wrong?" 

Lan Wangji touches his face. "I cannot hear your thoughts," he whispers. "I have to trust you to tell me the truth. If I want something that you do not—" 

Wei Ying cuts him off with a kiss. When he pulls back, a string of saliva drapes between their mouths, then snaps. 

"Try me," Wei Ying says with the widest grin he's ever worn. 

 


 

An incomplete list of things Lan Wangji learns that night:

The way Wei Ying's toes splay wide and then curl when his pleasure is at its peak.

The delicious sound he makes when his hair is pulled.

The particular color of the flush of his cock—a dark red, nearly purple—when it aches for release. 

The incandescent joy of feeling Wei Ying's lips on his chest, his neck, at his ear, on the underside of his chin.

How easy it is to lose his breath when he finally, finally stretches Wei Ying on his fingers and feels the burning heat of his willing body. 

How to do a thing even though he's shaking with nerves and with eagerness. 

How to accept what he never thought he'd have, and to hold it tight with both hands.  

 


 

 

Lan Wangji wakes up in a strange bed in a nameless inn far past his usual hour of waking. He smells of sweat and worse things; his hair is in tangles. The cherry blossom on his chest is gone, leaving only the brand mark in its wake. 

Wei Ying is in his arms. He's drooling. He snores. His knee is rucked up into Lan Wangji's ribs. Lan Wangji has never loved anything more. 

Last night he'd buried himself in Wei Ying's tight, eager body. He'd brought them both off one more time before Wei Ying, over-sensitive and unable to string together two words, had fallen asleep. 

Lan Wangji still wants. He wants something that he's not sure Wei Ying will want as well, but he must ask. He reaches out and brushes the messy fall of hair from Wei Ying's brow, smooth and peaceful in sleep. 

"Wei Ying," he says, quiet in the morning light.

Wei Ying opens his eyes, lifts his head. He sees Lan Wangji and smiles. 

Come home with me.