The first time Wei Wuxian had entered the Burial Mounds, he’d fallen. He remembered the terrifying weightlessness, his hands scrabbling for purchase in the empty air, the howling winds shrinking back in the face of something older, angrier, hungrier.
The second time Wei Wuxian entered the Burial Mounds, he walked.
It felt, strangely, like coming home: stepping off the boat and slipping neatly back into the throbbing heartbeat of Lotus Pier. Like walking the familiar corridors to his room and finding it untouched, as though suspended in time awaiting his return — his unfinished book still opened to the page he’d last read, his desk littered with half-made talismans.
He’d spent those three months in a delirium of terror, rage, and pain. He didn’t think he’d be able to recognize the way up the winding mountain path; or be able to pick out individual, familiar voices among the cacophony of the dead. He didn’t think he remembered enough.
But, perhaps, the Burial Mounds remembered him.
Are you there?
Please, are you well?
I’m fine. Quit pestering.
No, wait. I apologize.
I didn’t mean that.
I’ve just been busy.
Ran out of paper.
Where are you now?
I can’t tell you.
It’s still not safe.
I am not offended.
Only relieved you’re well.
Do you need help?
What can I do?
You’re really too good.
I’m fine. We’re fine.
What’s happened since I
Jin sect cultivators returned.
As you had predicted,
their report was dishonest.
Jin Guangshan denounced you.
So did Jiang Wanyin.
Can’t say I’m surprised.
There was only one
who spoke for you.
Tell me you didn’t.
Lan Zhan I told you
not to say anything.
Shamefully, I did not.
It was Luo Qingyang.
Oh, I remember now.
She’s always been too
good for Jin sect.
She has since defected.
What? Because of me?
Why would she do
something so incredibly foolish?
She has no regrets.
I thought it brave.
Being homeless isn’t brave.
I have to go.
Take care of yourself.
I was informed that
Jiang sect expelled you.
Are you all right?
Are the rumours true?
Are you in the
Burial Mounds? Please respond.
News sure travels fast.
Wei Ying, are you
in the Burial Mounds?
You can’t live there.
It’s an inhospitable place
teeming with resentful energy.
A perfect place for
someone like me, then.
This is no joke.
Who says I’m joking?
It’s not that bad.
No busybody neighbours around.
No rules to follow.
May I visit you?
I wish to help.
Are you safe there?
Do you need anything?
We’re safe, don’t worry.
I’ve warded the mountain.
We don’t need anything.
Besides, it’s filthy here.
Hardly a suitable place
for the pristine Hanguang-jun.
I would not complain.
I would. Lan Zhan,
I appreciate your concern
but really, I’m fine.
Resentful energy and I
are old friends now.
I’ve never felt—
Sharp pain flared beneath the bones of Wei Wuxian’s hand like splintering shards of ice. The writing brush tumbled from numb fingers. His other hand shot up to wrap around his wrist, an instinctive but useless gesture. His hand hurt too much to pick up the brush again. Gritting his teeth, he dipped his finger in the ink — cheap, lumpy stuff — and eked out the final word before he activated the talisman. Within heartbeats, it was devoured by greedy tongues of flame.
Wei Wuxian leaned back against the stone wall of the cave and breathed in the stale, dusty air, tinged with iron from the blood pool. A welcome change from corpse smell, at least.
His hand still felt like he’d plunged it into a frozen lake. He tried flexing his fingers, and nearly cried out when that just made the pain spike teeth and claws all the way up his arm—
Wei Wuxian jolted upright, head snapping toward the source of the sound. Wen Qing, shadowed by the morning sunlight shining in from the mouth of the cave, limning the flyaway strands of her hair and the tired lines of her face.
He hadn’t heard her coming.
“Nothing!” He laughed, curving his mouth into a well-used grin. “I just got a hand cramp. You know, because I’ve been working so hard.”
“Yes, you have,” she said simply, turning his mock pout into something honest and true. His smile snagged, caught, and slid off his face as she approached. “Give me your hand.”
For a mulish moment, he contemplated saying no, and just shoving his hand behind his back. But Wen Qing wasn’t Shijie, who was amused by his childish antics. Wen Qing would simply insist, and that usually involved needles.
He held out his hand, and tried to think qi-calming thoughts as she placed two fingers on his pulse. After months of being in her care, the touch of her spiritual energy had become familiar — the neat slide of it into his meridians, the precise way it wended through his channels like a narrow mountain stream. He didn’t need to wonder what she felt in his qi. Her frown when she lifted her fingers from his wrist said enough.
“See?” he said weakly. “I’m fine.”
Her answering glare could have withered a field. “Strip. Lie on your back.”
He couldn’t help the twitch in his lips as the urge to tease welled up again, an echo from the boy he used to be — Wen-guniang, please, have a thought for my virtue — but it subsided, sinking back into the dark well of who he’d become. Wei Wuxian stripped until he was clad only in loose trousers and lowered himself onto his makeshift bed.
This part had become familiar too.
Wen Qing’s acupuncture needles were too fine to hurt on entry. He felt their effects though, blooming pinpricks of light that broke up the dark clot of yin energy in his hand. More needles opened certain channels and closed off others, guiding the yin energy to circulate throughout his entire body. It was what she’d done for Wen Ruohan during his experiments with the Yin Metal pieces, until his madness and paranoia had driven him to send even his trusted physician away.
Slowly, as she worked, the frostbitten agony in his hand began to ease.
“Your qi imbalance is worsening,” she said.
He sighed. “I know.”
It was to be expected, considering how much yin energy he had coursing through him these days. When they’d first arrived, Wei Wuxian had spent a solid week driving back enraged spirits while the Wens huddled together in the cave he’d found during his first stay in this place. It had been harder work than he’d expected, considering the ease with which he’d controlled a battlefield full of corpses, freshly dead and brimming with resentment. But those dead had wanted to be used, and offered themselves freely for blood and vengeance. The residents here did not wish to be moved, or to move on. They fought him. Only with the Yin Tiger Seal could he command souls to return to decaying bodies and trudge down the mountain; force tree yao to vacate their gnarled wooden homes; soak up centuries-worth of loathing from blood-drenched earth. Those he could not liberate or eliminate, he could only suppress, imprisoning them in the cave pond until the water turned to blood.
Months later, he had managed to wrest a decent-sized settlement, but every new water source still had to be purified before it could be used; every new mu of land had to be cleared of resentful energy before it could be cleared of debris and tilled. He ran out of cinnabar for talismans after two weeks; Wen Qing healed his bloody hands for another week after that, before she taught him an anticoagulation spell so that he could bleed into a bowl instead.
And, of course, there was Wen Ning, who had yet to wake.
“You haven’t been sleeping,” she added.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he said with a shrug, then cringed a little. “Sorry.”
“You should be,” she said coolly. “I’ve worked hard these past few months to keep you alive.”
Wei Wuxian nodded, ducking his head. He knew that, too. Here, far from her books, herbs, and tools, Wen Qing’s hands had eked out miracles, carrying their community through fevers, infections, cuts and bruises — all the ways that daily life wore away at the body. She reminded him of Shijie during the war, tirelessly tending the sick and wounded with a seemingly endless supply of warmth and kindness. Only once during that war had he seen Shijie succumb to exhaustion — when he’d found her tucked away in a corner, head drooped above a cloak that some thoughtful Nie sect disciple had used to cover her.
Wen Qing did not show weakness where he could see, eyes fiery despite the shadows lining the edges, hands steady despite their increasing thinness. And here he was, being yet another burden for her to bear.
“If yang energy deficiency is the problem,” Wen Qing continued, “we still have some money. Probably not enough for meat, but some eggs—”
“It’s not just that,” Wei Wuxian said, shaking his head. He’d thought it was, too, and had snuck away to break his own — admittedly childish — vow and sun his perineum. But even two solid hours beneath the ultimate source of yang had gotten him little more than a mild sunburn on his inner thighs. “It can’t be a passive transfer. Yang energy needs to be actively infused into my meridians, ideally from a compatible source, while my own qi system is in a receptive state.”
Wen Qing looked thoughtful for a moment. Then she sighed. “It’s a pity you can’t try dual cultivation.”
Wei Wuxian’s next inhale caught in his throat. He coughed, winced when that jostled a few of the needles, and stared incredulously at her. “What?”
“I know people think it’s a myth that only works in pornography, but the theory, at least, is fairly well-documented.”
He blinked. “It is?”
Her brows lowered with disapproval. “Wei Wuxian, I should think that you of all people would not be shocked by alternate forms of cultivation.”
“What?” he said again. “No! It’s not — I do know about dual cultivation.” He could feel his face heating up, but he powered through. What was the point in keeping secrets from someone who’d once been red to the elbows with his blood? “I — during the war. My… partner and I only attempted a few times, but the results seemed promising.”
“Who was your cultivation partner?”
Wei Wuxian gasped. “Wen Qing!”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t care about your sex life! But if this person is still alive and willing to keep dual cultivating with you—”
“You can’t be suggesting I bring him here.”
“I’m suggesting,” she said, with the pointed patience of someone speaking to a very dim child, “that you could meet in Yiling.”
Something in him balked at the thought of that. “No,” he said.
Her brows furrowed. “He’s unwilling?”
“It’s not that.”
“Do you think he’ll betray us?”
Memory bloomed, like ink in water — Lan Zhan’s horror that night in the rain when Wei Wuxian had raised Chenqing against him, Lan Zhan's mouth tasting of rain and salt when they’d kissed, Lan Zhan’s eyes downcast and sad as they’d parted. “He’d never,” Wei Wuxian said. “He’s… he’s the best man I know.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Wei Wuxian looked away. The acupuncture had done its work; he could feel energy flowing cleanly from meridian to meridian, the life-giving circuit of his qi smooth and uninterrupted. The pain was receding too, back to its usual dull ache, an ever-present buzzing in his blood. He was getting used to it. He could get used to anything, with time and practice. He always had.
“This isn’t his to deal with,” Wei Wuxian said, slowly. “I chose to be a demonic cultivator. I chose to bring us all here. I knew there would be consequences and I chose to bear them. If there’s a problem then I’m the one who should fix it. That’s my responsibility.”
His head snapped up. “No—”
“Your pride then,” she continued, ruthlessly. “There’s no problem that the great Wei Wuxian cannot solve. He’d rather die of a qi deviation than let someone else help.”
“No!” He struggled to sit up. Wen Qing pressed two fingers to his sternum and forced him back down. He burned with frustration under her touch, a snarling echo in the hollow where his golden core used to reside. “No,” he tried again. “You don’t understand.”
She lifted her chin, dark eyes piercing. “I don’t understand?”
He froze. His heart dropped like a stone in the pit of his gut. “I didn’t mean—”
“I don’t understand what it’s like to have lives resting on my shoulders? To need help, but have no one I can trust? No one who could care about my people as much as I do. No one who could understand.”
Shame flared hot on his face. Her gaze cut into him, knife-sharp, slicing through layers of skin, muscle, and bone to expose the frightened flutter of his rabbit heart. “Wen Qing.”
“Only I could protect my family, my brother—” Her voice cracked, a fault-line running all the way to her heart. Grief bled from her expression as she dropped her gaze. “It was my responsibility. My duty.” She looked back up at him. “My failure, in the end.”
He recognized her regret. It lived in him as well, a constant companion that always spoke too quickly and acted too late. He wondered which paths Wen Qing paced in her mind, decisions that led to happy endings forever out of her reach. Perhaps it was one where she’d accepted the help he’d once offered, during their hunt for the Yin Metal, even though she’d had no reason to trust him then.
“I can’t force you,” Wen Qing said. “You have to make your own choices.” She took his pulse again, then began to remove the needles, cleaning their tips and putting them carefully back into their pouch. “Just keep in mind that it’s not only your life I’m trying to save.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. He said nothing more as she walked away. The sun had risen higher in the sky, bathing her in a pool of light as she exited the cave. Then it swallowed her and left him alone in the candlelit dark.
He shoved himself upright, and went to work on Wen Ning.
That evening, after his daily inspection of the wards, he stepped off the path he usually took back to the cave and instead walked through the settlement that the Wen fugitives had built. He had been absent for most of the construction, sleeping during the day so he could work at night when the Yin Tiger seal was at its strongest. Thin, tired-looking men and women smiled and bowed as he walked past, before returning to their conversations about digging canals for irrigation, harvests for the next year and the year after that. He stopped by one of the dozen or so squat houses that now surrounded the clearing in front of the Demon Subduing Cave, and was quickly joined by a middle-aged woman who beamed with pride when he complimented the strong walls and tightly thatched roof.
“It was months of hard work,” she said, running work-roughened hands along the rammed earth. “But this house will last for years to come.”
In this place of screaming dead and bone-deep resentment, these people were laying the foundations of a home.
He knew he was weakening, each month more spent here wearing away at him, spreading him ever thinner. Wen Qing could keep him alive, but these people needed him strong. And for that, he’d need help.
That night, he took out a fresh sheet of talisman paper, and wrote:
Hey Lan Zhan,
Your offer to visit
Did you mean it?
In some ways, Yiling felt like home. It neighboured Yunmeng closely enough to share its accent, its taste in food, its boisterous cheer. Walking through its noisy, busy streets, Wei Wuxian could almost close his eyes and be in Lotus Pier again. He bought a fried pancake from a street stall, ate half of it, and gave the other half to a scruffy street urchin who was hungrily eyeing a merchant’s plump purse.
The inn was a nice one, clean and well-kept. Wei Wuxian, wearing his best clothes and his old Yunmeng Jiang swagger, asked the innkeeper for their best room and was quickly granted it. The room was spacious, outfitted with a low table and seating cushions, as well as a bed easily big enough for two. A decent enough artist had painted the hanging scrolls decorating the walls, and there was a vase of cut chrysanthemums by the open window.
The cost of a room like this was more than he could afford, these days, but Lan Zhan had offered to pay, and well — Wei Wuxian couldn’t make Hanguang-jun stay in any inn’s second best room.
He sat at the window, drummed his fingers on the wooden frame, and tried to quell the nervous fluttering in his stomach. It was ridiculous; he was just meeting Lan Zhan. They were just going to dual cultivate. Admittedly, they hadn’t parted on the best of terms, but if Lan Zhan still held any grudges then surely he wouldn’t have agreed to come in the first place.
The glint of sunlight on metal caught his eye first, drawing his attention to the tall figure approaching the inn. He was on foot, one hand wrapped around the sheath of his sword, the other tucked behind his back.
Wei Wuxian laughed, exhaled relief and inhaled delight. He propped his chin on his palm and just watched Lan Zhan for a while — the straight line of his back, the grace in his stride, the way the bright midday sun shimmered in his hair. The townspeople had clearly never seen a man so beautiful; they parted around him like water falling away from the prow of a boat, and stared after him as he passed, their faces lit with awe.
Not that Lan Zhan noticed, of course, cruelly denying his admirers even a nod of acknowledgement. Wei Wuxian sighed and shook his head. Then, on impulse, he plucked a chrysanthemum from the vase, imbued it with a spark of spiritual energy, and tossed it out the window.
The flower floated gently on the breeze, and landed unerringly on Lan Zhan’s head. Lan Zhan stopped, as the chrysanthemum tumbled down his shoulder and onto his open palm. He looked down at it, then looked up.
Wei Wuxian waved at him.
Lan Zhan didn’t wave back, but he did tuck the chrysanthemum into the folds of his robes, before heading into the inn.
Wei Wuxian went to the door and opened it, then sat down at the table and listened, grinning, to the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan said as he came through the door.
Up close, he was even more handsome than he’d been out in the sunlit street — his travelling robes pale blue and immaculate, his sleek hair crowned with silver. Wei Wuxian was suddenly grateful that he’d let Wen Qing bully him into washing his hair.
Lan Zhan had the chrysanthemum in his hand, and held it out. “You dropped this.”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Keep it. It’s yours now.” He gestured to the empty seat cushion across the table. “Come sit.”
Lan Zhan sat, placing the flower on top of his sword at his side. “Why did you throw it?”
“Does there need to be a reason?” Wei Wuxian countered lightly. He’d forgotten how easy it was to smile at Lan Zhan. “Maybe I just wanted to give my friend a gift.” He let his smile turn coy, the old motions of teasing returning to him with easy familiarity. “But don’t worry, I’m not expecting anything in return. To be in the company of Lan Er-gongzi’s renowned beauty is already more than this humble man can hope for—”
“I have a gift,” Lan Zhan interrupted.
Wei Wuxian stopped, mid-word, and blinked. “What?”
“I have a gift,” Lan Zhan repeated. He reached between the folds of his robes, pulled out a qiankun pouch, and pulled out from that pouch—
“No,” Wei Wuxian gasped, awestruck, as Lan Zhan placed two jars of Emperor’s Smile on the tabletop. “You didn’t.”
Lan Zhan raised an eyebrow. “It is customary to bring a gift on the first visit to someone’s home.”
Home, beat Wei Wuxian's heart: sun-warmed water, a chorus of crickets, a gentle hand on his hair. His smile faltered, weighed down at the corners. He caught himself before Lan Zhan could notice, and distracted them both by unstoppering one of the jars of wine and taking a long drink.
Sweetness filled his mouth. Even after everything, Emperor's Smile still tasted the same, delicate and mellow, warm with the memories of simpler, happier times: a moonlit duel with a partner who met him parry for parry, an evening of laughter with dear friends. He sighed and cradled the jar close, licking his lips to chase every drop.
Lan Zhan was staring at him oddly when he opened his eyes again. Wei Wuxian tilted his head quizzically. Lan Zhan blinked, then smoothed his expression so quickly that it looked almost furtive, like a child stuffing stolen treats into his mouth before his parents could catch him.
“Well, thank you for the gift, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, to fill the silence. “You really didn’t have to, you know; coming here on a day’s notice and paying for the room is more than enough.”
“I wanted to,” Lan Zhan said, simple and honest, as if he hadn’t cast aside his duties and flown across the cultivation world at Wei Wuxian’s behest. “You’d always refused before. What changed your mind?”
Ah. He’d expected that. Setting aside the wine, he unlaced the vambrace on his left forearm, pushed up the sleeve, and laid his arm palm-up on the table. “Just so you know what you’re dealing with.”
Lan Zhan’s skin felt fever-hot when he touched Wei Wuxian, two fingers pressed against the pulse point of Wei Wuxian's wrist. He watched Lan Zhan frown as his spiritual energy pulsed, heat blooming under Wei Wuxian’s skin for just a moment, before Lan Zhan snatched his hand back.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said, meeting Lan Zhan’s wide-eyed alarm with a crooked smile. “A bit like touching a corpse, right?”
“A fierce corpse,” Lan Zhan corrected, sounding almost angry. “Wei Ying, you—” He stopped, as though he’d just cast his clan’s silencing spell on himself, and lowered his gaze. Breathed slowly. “I thought you said Wen Qing was helping.”
“She is. But there’s only so much even she can do.” Wei Wuxian withdrew his hand, pulled back down the sleeve. He’d expected this, too, though Lan Zhan’s obvious horror still hooked claws into his heart. This was why he hadn’t wanted Lan Zhan to come to Yiling, to see what Wei Wuxian had become.
He eyed the unlaced vambrace, then sighed and looked back at Lan Zhan. “If you don’t want to dual cultivate, we don’t have to. We can just — sit here and talk.” He tried another smile. “You can catch me up on all the gossip that I’ve missed.”
For some reason, that made Lan Zhan look even more stricken. “No,” he said, and rose to his feet. “We will dual cultivate.”
The nervous fluttering came back, a whole flock of winged creatures inside his stomach. Wei Wuxian reminded himself again that they weren’t doing anything they hadn’t done before, and that more wine was probably a bad idea. He stood up, wiped suddenly damp palms on the skirt of his robes, and led the way to the bed.
Lan Zhan followed him, hands already loosening his belt. Wei Wuxian turned away to give Lan Zhan privacy while he changed, and saw that Lan Zhan had left Bichen by the table in the center of the room. Whatever else Lan Zhan thought of Wei Wuxian, however monstrous, it wasn’t enough to make him want his weapon at his side. That was something, at least.
When the sound of rustling fabric stopped, Wei Wuxian turned back around. Lan Zhan was standing beside the bed, stripped down to his underclothes, with the rest of his layers folded in neat squares on the floor. His hair was loose and his feet were bare. Wei Wuxian looked away, undid his own belt and tested the mattress with his fingers. After sleeping on a straw-covered rock for months, this mattress was almost startlingly soft, with a silk comforter that he pushed over to the foot of the bed.
“It’ll be easiest if I’m on my hands and knees, like last time,” Wei Wuxian said. He kicked off his boots and moved to kneel on the bed — only to be stopped by Lan Zhan’s hand on his shoulder. “Something wrong?”
Lan Zhan was frowning, lips tight in a way that meant he was confused as well as unhappy. “You do not intend to undress?”
Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow. “Why would I need to do that? I can just shove my clothes out of the way.”
The crease at the corner of Lan Zhan's mouth deepened, confusion edging out the unhappiness. “Effective dual cultivation requires considerable skin-to-skin contact.” He hesitated, then said, “Wei Ying, if you do not wish to dual cultivate—”
“No, I do, I.” Wei Wuxian sighed again, feeling impatience tug at him. He’d forgotten Lan Zhan’s damnable inability to just leave well enough alone. “Look, I’m doing you a favour. I can’t imagine you’d be too eager to touch me, considering.” He gestured to himself in a way that he hoped encompassed the slow corruption of my body and spirit from overwhelming amounts of resentful energy.
“Considering,” Lan Zhan echoed quietly, carefully. His eyes were uncomfortably keen, penetrating too deep, seeing too much. Lan Zhan always saw too much.
Wei Wuxian looked away, forced lightness back into his voice. “Besides, I get cold a lot easier now, so this works for both of us.”
He saw movement flicker at the corner of his eye, then felt a hand close gently around his bare wrist, fingers covering the back of his hand, thumb pressed against his pulse. He followed the hand back up the white-clad arm, to Lan Zhan’s distressed, determined face.
“I have no aversion to touching you,” Lan Zhan said, framing each word deliberately in his mouth, giving them shape and depth. The sincerity in his eyes hurt to look at. “And I will ensure that you stay warm.”
It felt like an offering, or a promise. A plea, almost, as though Lan Zhan had been the one to summon Wei Wuxian here. As though Wei Wuxian’s touch, his continued presence, was a privilege that Lan Zhan had to earn. The thought made Wei Wuxian’s gut clench.
“All right,” he said, and slid his wrist out of Lan Zhan’s grip.
Lan Zhan watched him as he took off his clothes: boots first, then the heavy outer layer, and the lighter middle layer. The intensity of that gaze made Wei Wuxian’s skin prickle, made him wish that he’d taken in his underclothes a bit so that they didn’t hang quite so loosely off his shoulders and hips.
“What now?” Wei Wuxian asked, when he was in his thin shirt and trousers.
Lan Zhan stepped closer, enough for Wei Wuxian to see the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the uncertain bob of his throat. It helped, a little, that Lan Zhan was nervous too, even though neither of them had any reason to be, even though this was a familiar transaction now, nothing more than a kindness between friends—
He still shivered when Lan Zhan’s hand cupped the back of his neck, fingers sliding beneath his hair, thumb resting against the hinge of his jaw. Like before, it was a measured move, deliberate, making a point. I have no aversion to touching you, Lan Zhan had said. Clearly, he was determined to make Wei Wuxian believe it.
“You are cold,” Lan Zhan murmured, concern once more creasing his brow. His lips stayed parted on the last word, offering just a glimpse of white teeth.
“I’m undressed,” Wei Wuxian replied; still a truthful answer, and an easier one to give than, y es, always, some days I feel like a guttering candle.
Lan Zhan nodded, leaned in the last breath of distance between them, and kissed him.
There was a hitched breath at the moment of contact — him, Lan Zhan, maybe both. Then spiritual energy was flowing into Wei Wuxian, strong and familiar, a broad river flooding arid plains. Wei Wuxian opened his mouth and kissed back. It was so easy; every time they did this it felt easier, as though his body was a stray animal that only knew one set of kind hands, and came obediently and trustingly, waiting to be fed.
Lan Zhan fed him, offered up the inexhaustible well of his spiritual energy for Wei Wuxian to glut himself, not seeming to care that it all just ended up leaking out of the ragged remnants of his core. So Wei Wuxian took, hooked his arm around Lan Zhan’s neck and kissed deeper, groaning when Lan Zhan flattened his other hand against Wei Wuxian’s spine and pulled him close.
This was something else he’d forgotten, how good it felt to kiss, to touch and be touched for a reason other than just to alleviate pain. They were still too new at this to be skilled, their mouths relearning each other’s shape, tongues remembering to take turns. There was heat and sensation everywhere, stirring flesh that had lain cold and dormant for months.
“Bed,” he whispered, against the corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth.
Lan Zhan’s ragged exhale rippled across Wei Wuxian’s face. “Yes.”
They lowered themselves onto the bed, Wei Wuxian on his back, Lan Zhan on top of him, hips cradled between Wei Wuxian’s spread legs. His weight pinned Wei Wuxian to the mattress, which should have felt confining, but instead was comforting, grounding, good. He arched his back and lifted his hips to get his trousers off and—
Felt the weight lift off him, Lan Zhan’s mouth pulling away.
“What’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian asked, propping himself up onto his elbows and trying not to feel self-conscious about having his trousers around his knees and his dick exposed and… frowned at.
“You are not aroused,” Lan Zhan said, still frowning at Wei Wuxian’s — admittedly, only half-hard — cock.
Oh. That. “I am, I swear. It’s just… like that, now.”
Lan Zhan looked up at him. “You have not released? At all, in recent months?”
Wei Wuxian grimaced. He’d had a similar conversation with Wen Qing, when he’d gone to her in a panic after several fruitless attempts at ejaculation management. Though that conversation hadn't involved his naked dick as an active participant. “As it turns out, resentful energy isn’t great for one’s libido. The last time I was able to get fully hard was probably when we were on Phoenix Mountain.”
He thought about that day often — the last time he and Lan Zhan had been able to share the same path, before the ground had fissured and Wei Wuxian had turned away to walk the single-plank road alone. He didn’t think about whether Lan Zhan regretted his choices, on Phoenix Mountain, and later, at Qiongqi Pass.
Lan Zhan nodded, looking thoughtful. “May I try?”
“Sure,” Wei Wuxian said reflexively, still half-caught in memory. Then he blinked. “Wait, try what?”
“Increasing your arousal,” Lan Zhan said calmly. He tugged Wei Wuxian's trousers off as he slid farther down the bed, until his shoulders were between Wei Wuxian’s thighs. His ears were flushed, as if they’d rubbed some colour off a ripe peach. “If you do not object, I would prefer to use my mouth.”
Wei Wuxian gaped at him, stunned silent. Then came the rush of blood, half to burn hot in his cheeks, half down to his cock, making it twitch, just a handbreadth from Lan Zhan’s — wet, pink, and apparently willing — mouth. “Uh,” he managed, before more words came to fill the dry well of his vocabulary. “I mean, you don’t have to; it’s not like we need me to be hard anyway, but… I guess if you really want to.”
“I do,” Lan Zhan confirmed, and promptly took Wei Wuxian’s cock into his mouth.
Oh. Wei Wuxian remembered the last time Lan Zhan had done this, had tried pleasuring himself to the memory and despaired afterward when even that couldn’t make him hard. But perhaps he had simply forgotten the details — the slick pressure and dazzling suction, the occasional, glorious stroke of tongue, the heat that made his toes curl and his hands fist desperately in the bedding. He could feel his cock hardening in Lan Zhan’s mouth, the way it stretched his lips wider, made his brow furrow in concentration as he worked—
Oh fuck, worked to take Wei Wuxian’s cock into his throat. Wei Wuxian’s hips surged, sinking his cock deeper, and Lan Zhan — Lan Zhan let him, pulling off only when the tip of Wei Wuxian’s cock hit the back of his throat and made him choke.
“Shit, are you all right?” Wei Wuxian yanked his hips back and struggled to sit up, only to be pinned flat again by the combined force of Lan Zhan’s hand and the wet slide of his mouth back onto Wei Wuxian’s cock. “ Fuck. I’m — I’m hard, wow, good job. We should — ah — continue?”
Lan Zhan hummed agreement, sending vibrations through his cock that whited out all thought for several breathless heartbeats. When he could think again, there were slick fingers at his hole, rubbing small circles around the rim and pressing gently at the furled entrance. Wei Wuxian moaned, spread his legs wider, and let Lan Zhan’s fingers push inside him, one at a time.
The intrusion still felt strange; Lan Zhan’s fingers were longer than his own, and at a better angle to find all the sensitive spots inside him. The first brush against his Hui-yin acupoint had his back arching clean off the mattress — or it would have, had Lan Zhan not kept him pinned. Then Lan Zhan did it again, rubbing his fingers back and forth over that same spot, slow and careful and intensely good. Too good; Wei Wuxian could feel his thighs start to tremble, his weak, greedy body so starved for pleasure that it forgot what this whole endeavour was for.
He cried out, a drunkard’s jumble of Lan Zhan and stop, and whimpered when Lan Zhan pulled off his cock with an obscenely wet sound.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asked, sounding worried. “Was that… not pleasurable?”
Gods, Wei Wuxian couldn’t listen to Lan Zhan say words like ‘pleasurable’ when his fingers were still buried knuckle-deep in Wei Wuxian’s ass and his lips still swollen from sucking Wei Wuxian’s cock. He shook his head and struggled back onto his elbows, wincing when Lan Zhan’s fingers slid out of him. “No. It’s just — I was about to come.”
The worried expression cleared, turned satisfied, almost pleased. “Yes,” Lan Zhan said, and leaned down again, tucking a wayward lock of hair behind his ear.
“Wait!” Wei Wuxian jerked away, scooting higher up on the bed. “We… uh… don’t you need to be inside me? Dual cultivation needs penetration, right?”
Lan Zhan nodded. “It does. But since you have not released in the past few months, you may ejaculate once now and then again when we dual cultivate.”
Fuck. The way he said that, ‘you may ,’ as though Wei Wuxian’s orgasm was Lan Zhan’s to command, to give or take away as many times as he wished. A shudder rippled through Wei Wuxian, part revulsion at being controlled, part… something else — hotter, darker, like rich honey almost too sweet on the tongue. He shelved the thought for scrutiny later, when he didn’t have Lan Zhan staring at him, and met Lan Zhan’s gaze with a wry, crooked smile.
“I’m honestly flattered that you think we share the same godlike stamina,” he said, “but I don't have it in me to come twice. And I think I’m ready enough now, so let’s keep going?”
That just made Lan Zhan look disappointed, probably at Wei Wuxian’s diminished physical state. You and me both, Wei Wuxian thought, and tried to turn over again — and was stopped, again, when Lan Zhan tightened his grip on Wuxian’s hip.
“Do you prefer to be on your front?” Lan Zhan asked.
Wei Wuxian blinked, mostly at the assumption that he’d done this enough to actually have preferences. “Not really? I just think this way’d be easier for you.”
Lan Zhan dipped his head, long lashes veiling his eyes. Then he let go of Wei Wuxian’s hip and rose to his knees, crawling forward to kneel between Wei Wuxian’s legs again. He leaned in and placed his hand on the mattress beside Wei Wuxian’s head. “I would prefer you like this.”
There suddenly didn’t seem to be quite enough air in the room. Fresh heat bloomed up the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck, licked down his spine, pulsed low in his belly. Lan Zhan’s eyes were dark and intent, turning his already unearthly beauty into something utterly captivating. Wei Wuxian couldn’t look away. “All right,” he heard himself say, and lay back.
It was… different, like this. Being able to watch Lan Zhan and having Lan Zhan watch him in return made everything feel viscerally real, made him acutely aware of where he was and whom he was with. There was no hiding; Lan Zhan saw every minute shift in his expression, every wince of pain and gasp of unexpected pleasure. But the same was true in reverse, giving Wei Wuxian new additions to his well-curated collection of Lan Zhan expressions: the crease in his brow from the strain of holding himself still, the helpless part of his mouth when Wei Wuxian finally took him to the root.
Lan Zhan still felt excruciatingly, exquisitely big inside him though; that part was the same.
“I’m good,” Wei Wuxian panted, carefully adjusting the clutch of his thighs around Lan Zhan’s hips. “Just give me a — there.” He smiled up at Lan Zhan, then caught a thread of memory and added, “No counting this time, all right?”
Afterward, they walked through the town, with Lan Zhan setting a deliberately sedate pace. Wei Wuxian let him, in too pleasant a mood to even fake indignation. With the afternoon sun beaming amber warmth on his skin and the echoes of their shared energy thrumming inside him, it was easy to forget that he’d ever been cold. Even the lingering soreness felt good, a burn in tired muscles that reminded him of a time when pain had meant nothing more than the satisfaction of hard work.
They stopped at the marketplace. Before leaving the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing had given him a shopping list, organized in order of need out of consideration for their meagre funds. Lan Zhan stayed wordlessly patient as Wei Wuxian went from stall to stall, even holding Wei Wuxian’s outer robes when Wei Wuxian realized that his haggling had greater success when he wasn’t dressed like a wealthy young master.
“I can pay,” Lan Zhan said, the third time he handed Wei Wuxian his robe back.
“You already paid for the room,” Wei Wuxian replied, waving a dismissive hand. “And the bath afterwards. Besides, it helps me stay sharp. Haggling’s a valuable life skill, you know — well, you probably don’t, but trust me, it is.” At Lan Zhan’s continued frown, he grinned and leaned in, lashes demurely lowered. “Unless Lan Er-gongzi likes the idea of… rewarding this one for his performance?”
Lan Zhan skewered him with a frosty glare, and flounced away at a deliberately faster pace. Wei Wuxian laughed and jogged after him, offering apologies and reassurances of Hanguang-jun’s unassailable honour, until Lan Zhan thawed enough to at least accept Wei Wuxian’s recommendations for Yiling snacks that he ought to try. Though he didn’t seem to like most of what he bought, and ended up giving it to Wei Wuxian instead.
As they left the town, Lan Zhan asked Wei Wuxian about the Wen settlement. Wei Wuxian gave short, surface-skimming answers about their living conditions in the Burial Mounds, and steered the conversation to safer harbours, such as Fourth Uncle's most recent foray into wine-making, and everyone’s attempts at coaxing a smile out of quiet little A-Yuan.
Lan Zhan listened, gave his usual succinct replies when prompted, but otherwise seemed content to just let Wei Wuxian ramble.
Maybe he missed me a little, after all, Wei Wuxian thought, and hid a grin behind his sleeve.
By the time they reached the base of the mountain, the sun was a fiery marble burning orange and purple streaks in the western sky. In Gusu, it would already be twilight, the first stars blinking themselves awake.
“You should get going,” Wei Wuxian said, feeling reluctant and slightly ashamed of himself for it. “You’ll be in trouble if your ‘night hunt’ lasts too long, right?”
Lan Zhan lowered his gaze. He didn’t seem eager for their parting either, in a way that Wei Wuxian felt – hoped – was more than just courtesy. “It is of no matter.”
Wei Wuxian knocked the side of Lan Zhan’s shoulder with his own. “Where was this attitude when we first met?” he asked, laughing, and warmed when Lan Zhan’s lips tipped upward at the corners in response. “Seriously though, thank you for today.”
“Unnecessary,” Lan Zhan said. He met Wei Wuxian’s gaze and held it. “I wanted to.”
There, again, words with weight, heavy against the bars of Wei Wuxian’s ribcage. He let the words envelope him like a cloak, and drew enough strength from their warmth to say, “Then, until next time?”
A small, soft smile lit Lan Zhan’s face, silver moonlight on calm water. “Until next time.”
Something eased in Wei Wuxian’s chest. He gave his own smile in return, and stepped back to let Lan Zhan unsheathe his sword and mount it. He watched Lan Zhan go, waving as he rose into the darkening eastern sky. When even his pinprick shadow had disappeared, Wei Wuxian turned, made his way to the set of giant stones that marked the outermost set of wards – untouched, good – and followed the signal-fire trail of his wards up into the heart of the mountain.
The two-hour climb felt easier, with his new supply of spiritual energy. It was still tiring, aching legs and burning lungs, but it wasn’t the bone-quaking exhaustion that would force him to his knees, shaking and gasping like a man drowning. The rest of the Burial Mounds noticed the change, too. Spirits steeped in resentment circled him like a predatory animal, sharp-toothed and hungry for the life energy glowing in his veins. Wei Wuxian whistled a firm warning, and they slunk away, clearing the path for him to continue.
At the end of the path was Wen Qing, her features ghostly in the light of her hand-held lantern. She scrutinized him – panting but not trembling, posture slumped but not bowed – and held out her hand. Wei Wuxian placed his wrist obediently on her palm, and let her take his pulse.
“Better?” he asked, after a moment.
“For now,” she replied, gaze turned inward as she continued to thread her mountain-stream spiritual energy through his meridians. “How long do the effects last?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I don’t know.” He’d worked with resentful energy during the war as well, but that was like comparing the clean slice of a sharp blade to the inexorable grind of a millstone.
Wen Qing frowned, but let go of his wrist. “Is he willing to cultivate with you on a regular basis?”
He didn’t know that, either. Lan Zhan had agreed to a next time, had even looked pleased about it, but that was still a far cry from any sort of arrangement. And even Wei Wuxian could admit that a few hours of pleasure and a minor boost to his cultivation was a poor use of Lan Zhan’s time and spiritual energy.
Though Lan Zhan certainly hadn’t seemed reluctant, while they were together. And there had been that smile, before they parted.
Heat crept up Wei Wuxian’s neck, making him suddenly grateful for the concealing dark. “I’ll ask him.”
She nodded. “Good. I recommend at least twice a month, if not more.”
More? The heat spilled into his cheeks and the tips of his ears. “I’ll… keep that in mind.”
Lan Zhan, did you
make it home safely?
I did. Thank you.
That’s good. Is it
too soon to talk
about a next time?
It is not. When?
Two weeks? It’s fine
if that’s too soon
or if you’re busy.
I don’t know how
long the effects of
this session will last
but Wen Qing recommends
once every two weeks
I will see you
in two weeks’ time.
Their second session, two weeks later, started with dinner – at Lan Zhan’s insistence – and ended with a truly spectacular orgasm that rendered Wei Wuxian useless for almost half an hour afterwards.
Which was why, as they left the inn together, it took him a while longer than it should have to register the fact that Lan Zhan had goats.
Three, in fact: a white, shaggy-haired nanny goat on a rope lead, her udder still heavy with milk. Two fluffy white kids trotted along after her, darting away occasionally to explore nearby stalls and wooden doorposts, before running back to their mother’s side. One of them eyed the hem of Wei Wuxian’s robe with what he suspected was chewy intent.
“Why do you have goats?” Wei Wuxian asked, when Lan Zhan didn’t immediately provide an explanation.
“I had a night hunt,” Lan Zhan said. “This was my payment.” He held out a hand to the nanny goat keeping pace alongside him, and rubbed her head when she leaned against his palm.
It was adorable. Wei Wuxian valiantly suppressed the urge to clutch his chest and coo, and dragged his attention back to the topic at hand. “They paid you in goats?”
“I was on a farm,” Lan Zhan said, dipping his head in what was probably the closest he could come to a shrug. “The family was insistent. It seemed impolite to refuse.”
Wei Wuxian grinned, delight like a stolen sunbeam in his belly. First rabbits, and now goats – if only people knew that beneath Hanguang-jun’s aloof, wintry beauty, there lay such a wonderfully soft heart.
“Well, they look healthy,” he said, bending down and examining. Their coats were sleek and unmatted, and their eyes bright and alert. The kid that had been eyeing his robe started nibbling the hem, and complained at him when he shooed it away. “They’ll fetch a good price when you sell them.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Wei Wuxian stood up, groaning a little at the protest of well-used muscles. “Goats are very useful, especially in these parts. There’s the meat, if you slaughter them, and leather if you can find someone to work it. Or you can keep them for milk, or even fertilizer.”
“Hm,” Lan Zhan acknowledged, and… just kept walking, even when their path took him away from the marketplace and toward the edge of the town instead.
Surely Lan Zhan wasn’t planning on bringing these goats back to the Cloud Recesses. Walking would take weeks, but the alternative would be to fly them on Bichen, and Wei Wuxian could just imagine that: serious, dignified Hanguang-jun, flying straight-backed and stoic-faced, with a flailing, bleating goat under each arm and a third strapped across his back.
The hilarity of that mental image, and Wei Wuxian’s subsequent battle to not burst out laughing every time it popped up in his head, kept him occupied for the rest of the walk.
At the base of the mountain, Lan Zhan stopped, turned to face Wei Wuxian, and held out the rope lead. “For you.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. He’d thought as much, though he’d been happily hoping otherwise. “Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan.” He rested his hands on his hips and gave Lan Zhan the Raised Eyebrow of Da-shixiong Disapproval that he’d used on his shidi whenever one of them tried – badly – to get away with misbehaviour. “You just happened to have a night hunt in Yiling, huh? Where they just happened to pay you in goats?”
Lan Zhan’s expression wavered, a fallen leaf rippling a still pond, then firmed into something stubborn and unrepentant. “Yes.”
Fine. “Then these are your goats, given to you fairly in payment for your labours.” He straightened his back and crossed his arms. Months of lean living had stripped him of the stamina and muscle mass that had once allowed him to fight Lan Zhan to a standstill, but they were still of a height, their eyes perfectly level with each other. “I don’t need your charity, Lan Zhan.”
For a long moment, Lan Zhan just looked at him, and said nothing. Wei Wuxian fought the urge to squirm under the force of that stare, uncomfortably aware of his faded and fraying cuffs, and how tightly his belt now cinched above the jutting knobs of his hipbones.
Then Lan Zhan blinked and turned his head, the sweep of his eyelashes a scissor-snip cutting the thread of tension between them. He looked up at the mountain instead, its summit shrouded in deeper darkness than just the encroaching night. “Do they?”
Something tightened in Wei Wuxian’s chest. They. Perpetually cheerful Uncle Liu, who smiled even on rainy days, when the pain of his limp etched new lines between his brows and beside his mouth. Granny, who mended tear after tear in everyone’s clothes even though her aged eyes could barely thread a needle. Wen Qing, always the first to wake in the morning, and the last to sleep at night. Her words came to him again, filling the guilt-sour silence: It’s not only your life I’m trying to save.
He took a deep breath. His pride, a lashed and wounded creature, snarled bitterly at him from the hollow depths of his belly. But pride wouldn’t keep his people fed, and he had other priorities now, other responsibilities. “All right.” Then, on another breath, “Thank you, Lan Zhan.”
He took the goats.
You’re probably still flying
but I wanted to
thank you again for
I have arrived safely.
No need for thanks.
They were well-received, then?
They were extremely well-received.
Everyone was so excited.
Fourth Uncle has already
started work carving spindles.
Also, do you remember
A-Yuan? He was sitting
watching the goats, and
one of the kids
just went over and
sat in his lap!
He was initially startled
but then started petting
the goat and laughing!
It was the first
time I’d ever seen
him laugh. Can you
imagine, a child laughing
in the Burial Mounds!
I’m glad. Is there
anything else you need?
Please let me know.
Actually, if you really
don’t mind, Wen Qing
has a list. Naturally,
I’ll pay you back
for everything you get.
I really don’t mind.
Give me the list.
The third time they met in Yiling, Wei Wuxian actually managed to pay for their meal, by employing the simple but reliable method of pointing over Lan Zhan’s shoulder and saying, “hey, what’s that?” and using the moment of distraction to shove money at the bewildered owner.
Lan Zhan got his revenge, though. He pinned Wei Wuxian to the bed and besieged him with kisses — butterfly-soft on his forehead, eyelids, the tip of his nose; long and lush on his mouth; rough and hungry on his neck. Wei Wuxian retaliated as best he could, twisting in Lan Zhan’s grasp and whining filth until Lan Zhan finally granted him the mercy of a thigh between his legs. He came almost immediately, so fast it made his head spin, hips bucking as he stained his trousers because Lan Zhan hadn’t even let him undress first.
Then, when he was still dazed from orgasm, Lan Zhan stripped him down, opened him up, and fucked him, and Wei Wuxian discovered that he could, in fact, come twice in one session.
“Huh,” he said afterward, once the golden glow of bliss had receded enough to let his mouth make words again, “that… hasn’t happened before.”
Lan Zhan gave a pleased-sounding hmm, and continued wiping Wei Wuxian’s thighs.
Surprisingly improved sexual performance aside, Wei Wuxian did appreciate the usual post-cultivation sense of well-being, as well as purchases that Lan Zhan had made from Wen Qing’s list.
All the purchases, it seemed – Lan Zhan emptied a qiankun pouch to reveal packets of herbs wrapped in leaves and tied to each other like beads on a string; small bags of seeds for hardy, fast-growing plants; a sharp knife; and several tightly wrapped bolts of cloth. Then he stuffed it all back into the pouch, sealed it, and handed both the pouch and an unsealing talisman to Wei Wuxian.
The bag hummed with spiritual energy as it sat in his hand, beautifully embroidered and probably worth more than the entirety of its contents. “I’m giving this back, the next time we see each other,” Wei Wuxian said warningly.
“If you must,” Lan Zhan said.
Lan Zhan did, at least, accept payment, after quoting a price so ludicrously low that Wei Wuxian made a mental reminder to trick Lan Zhan into letting him pay for their meal the next time, as well.
Though he’d clearly underestimated Lan Zhan’s skill at subterfuge; when he and the Wens unrolled the cloth, they found nestled in the fabric a stack of blank talisman paper, a pair of exquisitely forged scissors, and a merchant’s ransom in tiny sachets of precious Gusu salt.
“Goodness me, even my wedding gifts weren’t this fine,” Third Auntie said slyly, and giggled like a maiden when Wei Wuxian blushed.
Wen Qing, practical as always, just shrugged. “Well, it’s not as if he can’t afford it.”
Really, Lan Zhan?
I have no idea
of what you speak.
Lying is forbidden in
the Cloud Recesses.
I’m still in flight.
I can’t believe this.
Who even ARE you?
Nevermind. Just — thank you.
There is no need.
The next day, he woke up hard, the first time it’d happened in months. He immediately told Lan Zhan, who sent back his congratulations and a suggestion to resume ejaculation management exercises. He also – albeit with considerably more reluctance – told Wen Qing, who also offered her congratulations and deemed him healthy enough to help out with the work around the Burial Mounds.
He spent the rest of the week working on the roofs, and eliminating any lingering sense of awe that the Wens might still have felt towards him by being utterly useless at thatching. They laughed, and made him a runner instead, clambering up ladders to deliver armloads of thatched reeds to the people perched on the roof.
The following week, he was on digging duty, helping sun-browned men and women carve trenches in the dry earth for irrigation canals. It was hard work, leaving his muscles watery in ways he hadn’t experienced since before the war. He relished it, warm soreness instead of ice-water agony, and cheerfully accepted the ribbing from the older folks when he joined in the complaining about aches and pains.
When he wasn’t working, either helping the living or suppressing the dead, he took his turn looking after A-Yuan. Wei Wuxian’s experience taking care of small children was, admittedly, limited, but it seemed to largely involve ensuring that A-Yuan didn’t eat anything he wasn’t supposed to, and keeping him from wandering off and getting eaten by resentful spirits. Xiao Bai, the goat that hadn’t left A-Yuan’s side since it had first sat in his lap, romped around them, munching contentedly on dry grass and weeds.
It felt good to be part of a community again, to tell jokes and make people laugh, to be useful in ways beyond just chasing away ghosts. It almost made up for the fact that he still couldn’t wake Wen Ning, or the way starvation still skulked like a predator, lean and hollow-eyed at the edges of their existence.
“Stop it,” Wen Qing said, the third time she caught him taking only a half portion of the meal — watery porridge with pickled vegetables and a luxurious single egg, courtesy of the extra money they got from selling the sachets of salt. Wen Qing snipped her own egg in half with her chopsticks, and placed one half pointedly into Wei Wuxian’s bowl. “Do you think that just because you’re cultivating again, you can mistreat your body? Are you trying to undo all my hard work?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian muttered guiltily, and ate the egg.
That night, he attempted the ejaculation management exercises again, sitting cross-legged with one hand stroking a nipple and the other on his soft cock. He closed his eyes, leafed through his mental library of erotic scenes, and then discarded them all and thought about Lan Zhan instead — the bright sting of teeth on Wei Wuxian’s neck, the unyielding grip of fingers around Wei Wuxian’s wrists, the hot, heavy pressure of being so full that he could hardly breathe. His cock hardened under his touch, straining eagerly upward. His hips followed, a wave building momentum on its way to shore, riding the memory of Lan Zhan’s mouth, his hands, the stuttered gasp of Wei Ying on his lips as the wave rose to a crest—
Wei Wuxian yanked his hand off his cock, biting back a groan as his hips bucked, fucking futilely into empty air. He forced himself into a straight-backed meditation pose, both hands clutching his knees, and directed his attention inward to the riotous tangle of energy between his legs. The research had said to rhythmically clench the muscles of the jaw and buttocks and imagine pumping energy upward to the top of the head. Wei Wuxian imagined instead a tall tree, its roots drinking deep from the earth to quench even the highest branches.
He did feel better afterwards, which meant that research on ejaculation management wasn’t entirely a lie. Still nowhere near the sunned-cat contentment from dual cultivation, though, and the ache in his balls was… not fun. A whisper of cold air spurred him to close his robes back up – yet another way in which this was inferior to dual cultivation; no warm Lan Zhan to curl up against while they both panted themselves down from climax – and stretch, before getting up and checking on the spelled candle by his workstation.
The flame was crackling, sending up firefly sparks as though sprinkled from above with black powder. Wei Wuxian grabbed a blank sheet of talisman paper and passed it over the flame, grinning when characters began to singe themselves onto the yellow surface:
List of purchases complete.
Is there anything else?
No, though I suspect
you're going to sneak
more things in there
than what we asked,
Your silence is telling,
Hanguang-jun. At least
let me buy you
lunch again? It’s the
least I can do.
I will consider it.
Liar. Also, I should
have asked this sooner,
but you don’t mind
me thinking about our
dual cultivation when I
practice ejaculation management, right?
I do not mind.
I do the same.
Oh. That’s good. Anyway,
the exercises remain unpleasant,
but I will continue
because they are beneficial.
Wen Qing says I
shouldn’t mistreat my body.
Wen Qing is right.
She always is. It’s
an older sister thing.
Shijie is also always
right. Hey, Lan Zhan,
if I do exercises
every night from now
until we meet again
in three days, what
will you give me
for a reward?
Reward should be unnecessary.
These exercises are beneficial
to body and spirit.
Nevermind. You’re right. I
was just being silly,
as always. You shouldn’t
take anything I say
seriously. Anyway, see you
in three days!
Two jars of Emperor’s
Smile. Will that suffice?
What? Oh, Lan Zhan,
I said I'm just
being silly! It’s really
not at all necessary!
I see. Three jars.
Lan Zhan! Stop encouraging
my bad behaviour!
Don’t give me any!
How would you know
if I kept my
end of the bargain?
I trust your integrity.
Because Wei Wuxian was a man of his word, he did keep his end of the bargain. Which meant that by the time he and Lan Zhan met up again, he and his aching balls had well and truly earned those jars of wine. With effort, and out of respect for Lan Zhan's sense of propriety, he did not immediately tug Lan Zhan into a secluded alleyway and climb into his lap. Instead, he let Lan Zhan present the four jars of Emperor’s Smile — one of which he traded with a restaurant owner of discerning taste in exchange for a free lunch — and made polite conversation through the meal and the walk to the inn.
Only when there was a locked door between them and the rest of the world, did Wei Wuxian grab Lan Zhan’s shoulders, back him against the wall, and seize his mouth. Lan Zhan kissed back with gratifying hunger, his elegant, well-bred mouth thrillingly rough and delightfully filthy. Warm hands cupped Wei Wuxian’s face, then gripped fistfuls of hair at the base of Wei Wuxian’s skull and pulled.
Wei Wuxian tipped his head back and moaned, breaking the kiss to gulp ragged lungfuls of air. Lan Zhan’s mouth gave chase, sucking a burning column of bites onto Wei Wuxian’s throat. Wei Wuxian’s legs parted, and Lan Zhan’s thigh slid between them. There was a glorious moment of friction on his cock, before Lan Zhan was moving, pushing himself off the wall and reversing their positions, cradling Wei Wuxian’s head protectively as his weight pinned Wei Wuxian to the wall in a solid wall of heat.
“What would you like?” Lan Zhan asked, breath like a caress on Wei Wuxian’s unbearably sensitive skin.
Wei Wuxian keened, rutting up against Lan Zhan’s thigh. “Anything, ah — please, I haven’t come in ages.”
“Three days,” Lan Zhan corrected, so unfairly coherent that if Wei Wuxian didn’t have ample evidence pressing against his hip of just how turned on Lan Zhan was, he’d think they were just having a casual conversation in the street.
Wei Wuxian laughed, more air than sound. “Yeah well, it feels like longer when you’re doing ejaculation management exercises.” He rolled his hips again, and cried out when one of Lan Zhan’s hands came down to grip the back of his thigh and haul him even closer. “Fuck, fuck, Lan Zhan come on, are you going to make me beg?”
The words sent a spark racing down Wei Wuxian’s spine, a spark that caught tinder in Lan Zhan’s startled-wide eyes, and turned them molten. Lan Zhan's next exhale shuddered out of his lungs.
Inside Wei Wuxian, a nameless, formless desire slowly began to take shape.
“Please, Lan Zhan,” he whispered. “Please, make me come?”
Lan Zhan nodded. He held Wei Wuxian’s gaze for a long, considering moment, and then slid to his knees.
Arousal slammed into Wei Wuxian like a physical force, a wave splintering against a cliff. “Fuck,” he breathed, and — dug his fingernails hard into the meat of his thigh and absolutely did not come, untouched and in his trousers like a boy whose balls had just dropped. “Oh my — Lan Zhan.” He bit back a whimper as Lan Zhan undid his belt and parted his outer robes. “I didn’t mean — are you sure? You really don’t have to.”
“I know,” Lan Zhan said, and Wei Wuxian almost came again when Lan Zhan looked up, the demure veil of his lashes a shockingly erotic contrast to his red, kiss-swollen mouth and the obscene jut of Wei Wuxian’s clothed cock in front of his face. “You said, anything I want.”
He had said that, though he distinctly remembered saying it to Lan Wangji, the austere and untouchably beautiful Hanguang-jun, not this vision that seemed to have stepped directly out of a pornographic novel. “I’m, uh, not going to last long.”
Lan Zhan raised an eyebrow, and dropped his gaze deliberately to — oh fuck — the growing wet spot darkening the front of Wei Wuxian’s trousers. “Do your best,” he said , and Wei Wuxian almost gasped out loud at the insult — except then Lan Zhan tugged down Wei Wuxian’s trousers and closed his lips over Wei Wuxian’s cock.
Thought went away like paper boats on a fast-moving current. Sensation rushed into the void, sharpening everything into crystalline focus. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He couldn’t watch; it was too much, but closing his eyes was even worse. It amplified the slick heat of Lan Zhan’s mouth, the unbearable suction as he slid deeper, until the tip met the back of Lan Zhan’s throat with a wet, glottal click.
That knocked some sense back into him, even as his balls drew tight and his spine arched. “Lan Zhan,” he managed. “Lan Zhan I’m close!” He bit his lip and forced enough control to shove Lan Zhan away, so that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t come in his mouth or worse, on his face—
Lan Zhan knocked his arm aside and slammed Wei Wuxian back against the wall. He was panting, his eyes feverishly bright. “In my mouth or not at all,” he said, voice so low it was almost a growl, and sucked Wei Wuxian’s cock back into his mouth.
It wasn’t until later, much later, after he’d come his brains out and left Lan Zhan to carry his limp noodle of a body to bed, wipe him clean, redress him, and tuck him against Lan Zhan’s front – that Wei Wuxian blinked a realization and said, “Oh, we didn’t exchange energies.”
Behind him, Lan Zhan went still. His fingers, which had been stroking Wei Wuxian’s waist like a brush on paper, paused and curled slowly into a loose fist. “We did not,” he said, voice stilted. “Apologies. I… forgot.”
It was so abrupt a response, so utterly unlike the poetic grace of Lan Zhan’s usual speech, that Wei Wuxian couldn’t help laughing. He felt Lan Zhan stiffen and begin to pull away. “Aiya, sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, between stifled giggles, and turned over to his other side to face Lan Zhan. “It’s just — you don’t have to apologize. If anything, I should apologize to you, for not reciprocating.”
Lan Zhan flushed. “Unnecessary.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. It was terribly unfair; when he blushed, he went bright red all over. Lan Zhan, on the other hand, blushed like a winter dawn, pink blooming from his ears to just touch the snowy expanse of his cheeks. “Yes, yes, Hanguang-jun’s precious seed must be reserved only for cultivation purposes, not wasted in pleasure.” Another bit of realization dropped. “Oh, is that why you uh, swallowed, earlier?”
He allowed himself a moment to remember that, the way Lan Zhan’s pale throat had worked as he’d swallowed every pulse from Wei Wuxian’s cock, how he’d licked his lips afterward, as if he hadn’t wanted to waste even a drop of Wei Wuxian’s spend. Then Wei Wuxian folded that moment away and tucked it into a corner of his memory, to be revisited the next time he did ejaculation management exercises, and returned his attention to the conversation at hand.
Lan Zhan’s flush deepened, reddening his ears endearingly. “Some cultivation texts support an initial ejaculation to precede cultivation, as a method of increasing endurance and delaying subsequent ejaculations.”
Which didn’t… actually answer the question. A surprisingly evasive move, for someone as direct as Lan Zhan, and paired with the blush, as well as his earlier confession about forgetting, Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but wonder—
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said tentatively, testingly, “did you like—”
Heat flared on his chest, like a candle caught too close to skin. For a confused moment, he thought it was Lan Zhan’s doing, that Wei Ying had somehow annoyed him into retaliation — then realization slammed into him, sending him jolting upright with one hand already digging through the folds of his robes. His fingers met hot, brittle paper and yanked out a talisman, the edges curling as black char ate its way toward the center.
Blood beat like a war drum in his ears. “Fuck.” He scrambled to his feet.
Wei Wuxian barely heard him, didn’t bother to respond. He shoved on his boots, yanked open the door, and took the stairs at a gallop. Someone was in his way; he swerved hard, knocking his shoulder painfully against the wall, ignored their startled shout, and kept running.
Lan Zhan caught up to him as he burst out into the street. “Wei Ying, what has happened?”
“Danger in the Burial Mounds.” Distantly, he registered that Lan Zhan was keeping pace with him, running alongside, hair and robes fluttering like banners behind him. Wei Wuxian had never seen Lan Zhan run before, and felt the sudden, absurd notion to remind him that running was not permitted in the Cloud Recesses.
“An attack?” Lan Zhan asked, voice tight. “Jin sect?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Perimeter wards intact. Danger inside the Burial Mounds.”
It had happened before, once. A month after their arrival, a rare burst of sudden, intense rainfall had swept through their settlement. The rushing water had washed away everything in its path, including one of Wei Wuxian’s warding stones, leaving a gap in the wards. The next day, Wei Wuxian had woken to screaming, and rushed out just in time to keep a fierce corpse from biting off Third Auntie’s legs.
He’d given everyone the warning talismans after that, and remade the wards, and checked each ward every day on patrol. But somehow he still must have fucked up, must have overlooked something, or maybe he was just stupid —
“—ing? Wei Ying!”
Bichen’s sheath shot into his field of vision, barring his path. He stumbled to a stop, suddenly aware of how winded he was, already, and he hadn’t even left the boundaries of the town. “What?”
Lan Zhan, of course, didn’t look winded in the least. It was probably against the Lan sect precepts to even sweat. “I said, let me fly you back. You cannot run the whole way.”
Defiance and refusal came instinctively to his tongue. But the base of the mountain was another half an hour away, and there would be two hours worth of climbing after that. Running the whole way would get him there faster, but who knew what shape he’d be in by the time he got to the top?
Lan Zhan, on Bichen, could make the trip in a fraction of the time. And if he was willing to trust Wei Wuxian to guide him through the centuries-old death trap that was the Burial Mounds, then surely Wei Wuxian could trust him in return.
“Fine,” Wei Wuxian said. “But you’ll have to go where I tell you.”
“I will,” Lan Zhan agreed, and unsheathed Bichen.