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A Mad Emperor's Smile

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As the days pass, Wei Ying gets worse and worse, something jittery settling in underneath his skin and making a home in his bones, hollowing him out. He used to smile without a care in the world, and it used to remind Lan Zhan of sunlight, and larks in the sky, and the sound of rushing water going still. Now he smiles like midwinter, still sunlight, but broken and jagged over shards of ice.

"Did you know?" he asks, one day. "My shijie is getting married today."

He is leaning against the table between them, its surface scattered with half-filled cups and empty plates. Lan Zhan watches him smile, and wonders if he has ever seen Wei Ying cry. It must be a terrible thing, to feel like you must smile when you want to cry.

"Congratulations," Lan Zhan says carefully.

Wei Ying favors him with a small, bitter smile. His eyes are permanently tinged with a backlight of red, now, a result of his overuse of demonic cultivation. His skin is pale. He looks tired and worn down. The sight of him makes a part of Lan Zhan's chest ache.

He used to think that Wei Ying would never change, that he would always be this wild, bright thing, always frustrating, infuriating, and out of reach. But that was when he had been a child, and neither of them are children anymore.

"I'll be sure to pass that on to her," Wei Ying murmurs.

Lan Zhan waits for another cutting comment, something like that peacock doesn't deserve her, or if he ever makes her cry, I'll make him pay

But Wei Ying is more silent than talkative these days, as if the weight of the world had finally succeeded where Lan Zhan could not. All he does is tip back his head and swallow down the last of the wine.

Lan Zhan follows the motion helplessly, his eyes fixed to the bob of Wei Ying's throat. It can't be healthy, he thinks, to drink so much alcohol and eat so little. But he can't bring himself to think further than that, not when Wei Ying has just caught the last few drops with the tip of his tongue swiping across his bottom lip.

"Have you ever thought about marriage?" Wei Ying asks suddenly.

Once, the question would have locked him up completely. Once, he might have gone red to the roots of his hair, might have forgotten how to speak. He has spent so long trying to avoid thinking of Wei Ying and marriage in the same sentence together, has spent so long trying not to write down Wei Ying and love on the same page.

But right now, Lan Zhan feels like he's in a dream. He is sitting in a black, empty void, with a table and no chairs, with the only man he has ever loved.

So instead, he looks at Wei Ying and lets the truth spill from his lips as easy as breathing.

"Yes."

"Really?" Wei Ying sounds surprised.

Lan Zhan doesn't think reiterating would add anything to the conversation, so he doesn't.

Instead, he reaches out across the table, his sleeves dragging dangerously close to spills. He pushes at the downward curve of Wei Ying's mouth with his thumb. He goes lightheaded when Wei Ying doesn't move away.

"Why ask?" Why does it make you unhappy?

"I'm just curious."

Lan Zhan lets his hand trail down from Wei Ying's face, and lets his fingers tug on a lock of his hair.

"I think it would make me happy," he confesses. "Happier than anything."

He thinks that it would make Wei Ying smile, bring back some of the carefree joy he used to have as a child. He thinks he would just be content with knowing that Wei Ying belonged to him, in some form.

All that time spent, trying to keep Wei Ying away from anything soft and vulnerable inside him, and instead he had ended up with that name carved into his heart instead.

Wei Ying follows the motion of his fingers, coming closer. His eyes are half-lidded and his mouth is still drawn down in a pained, reluctant expression. He reaches out, fingers trembling, and sets his palm against the side of Lan Zhan's neck. His fingers brush into Lan Zhan's hair.

Lan Zhan flinches, a whole body shiver. Wei Ying scoots closer, careful, until his body heat is all Lan Zhan can feel on his skin.

"I'm sorry," Wei Ying says softly. "But for now, you're stuck with me."

Lan Zhan stares at him, dizzy, wondering why he suddenly can't seem to breathe.

There's something wrong.

He can feel holes in his memory. Large holes, gaps in time, and half-empty cups on the table between them. A heavy taste in his mouth, sweet and painful, like something weighing down on his tongue.

And there's guilt in Wei Ying's expression, in the dark of his eyes and the soft turn of his lips, the way his fingers curl against Lan Zhan's skin as a silent apology.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan asks softly. He has to struggle in order to speak clearly. "How long have I been here?"

"You're my guest," Wei Ying says. "You can stay here for however long you like."

Lan Zhan catches Wei Ying's wrist before his hand can move any further into his hair. Their faces are inches apart.

"I came here to tell you something," he says.

It had been a warning. It had been important. Something about Wei Ying needing to change his ways, how things were getting dangerous for him. But then -

"You already told me."

He can't remember. He can feel the delicate bones of Wei Ying's wrist underneath his thumb, the way his pulse is right underneath his fingertips. It feels like the heat is infecting him, tracing up his arm, warmth blooming down his back.

Wei Ying closes his eyes, shivers. Lan Zhan feels the motion run through his entire body like lightning, stinging, sweet, too much to bear all at once. He lets go.

Wei Ying lets his hand fall to the floor. He looks up at Lan Zhan, expressionless.

"Then I shouldn't impose on you any longer," Lan Zhan says.

"Lan Zhan."

"Mn."

"Do you hate me?"

"I do not."

"Do you hate spending time with me?"

"No."

"Are you afraid of me?"

Lan Zhan hesitates, taking in the new tension underneath Wei Ying's skin, that same jittery unease that makes him feel like a spell about to go wrong. But it's not fear, digging underneath his skin and setting his nerves on fire.

"No," he says softly. "I don't feel anything negative for you at all."

"You keep saying that," Wei Wuxian says, his fingers curling, his expression changing. "But then you keep asking to leave."

Lan Zhan freezes, shocked by the sudden anger in Wei Ying's voice. Something cold hits him and sinks deep into his stomach, curling up in his gut. Wei Ying's eyes are glowing red, somehow gathering light and making his expression hard to read. There's an oily black aura surrounding him now, some precursor to madness, and the sight of it sends thorns down Lan Zhan's chest.

"I have to go back," Lan Zhan says quietly, his heart thudding his throat. "There are people waiting for me. I -"

Wei Ying smiles at him, something bitter, something that cracks his face in half and makes him seem like a monster.

"So you're going to leave me too," he says. "Just like my parents. Just like Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli."

Something opens up in Lan Zhan's chest, and it chokes off the words he had been about to say. Wei Ying leans forward, invading his space, his eyes fixed on Lan Zhan's face.

"Did you know, Lan Zhan? I thought I liked you. I would do anything to get your attention, so that's why I acted the way I did. I kept trying to enter your field of vision, just so I could exist somewhere, if not in your thoughts, then at least in your memories."

"Wei Ying -"

"So that's why I was so happy when you came. Even if you came to take me away, throw me in some dark room, even if you bared your sword against me, I was happy, because I thought - ah, at last, he came for me."

He reaches forward and seizes Lan Zhan's face in his hands. His eyes are a little wild, like there is something breaking inside him, and he doesn't know how to fix it.

"I realized that I was wrong," he says. "I don't deserve to exist, not even in your memories."

Lan Zhan stares up at him. The taste on his tongue is suddenly familiar now, spicy and bitter and that strange sweet aftertaste. It's Emperor's Smile, not that he has ever remembered tasting it before. But he grew up around it, and once watched Wei Ying drink it right in front of him right on the border of the Cloud Recesses. He has never gotten close enough to smell it on Wei Ying's breath before, but he must have imagined it enough times to recognize this taste.

He wonders how pathetic he must be, to be poisoned so easily, and worse, how glad he is that Wei Ying was the one who poisoned him.

"Do you understand?" Wei Ying says lowly, his little finger tracing against the underside of Lan Zhan's jaw. His voice lowers to a whisper. His fingers curl, and the extra pressure hurts. "This is who I am. I want things I should not want, and do things that I shouldn't do. The whole world sees me as a villain. Fine, then. I have learned that if I don't get what I want, then I can just take them by force."

His hand drags down from Lan Zhan's shoulder to his hand, their fingers intertwining. A thumb presses into the inside of Lan Zhan's wrist. Lan Zhan can't move. He can't even breathe.

"Like this," Wei Ying breathes, and something in Lan Zhan goes still with utter disbelief as Wei Ying drops his head, pulls Lan Zhan's hand up, and presses a reverent kiss to the inside his wrist.

His mind goes completely, totally, utterly blank.

When he is able to think again, Lan Zhan wonders if he had ever imagined this, when he had thought of the eldest Jiang disciple, alone in his thoughts, thinking of the sound of laughter that pierced through him and smiles that scrambled his head. He wonders if he has seen this kind of hesitation from Wei Ying ever before in his life.

Wei Ying draws in a ragged breath, his shoulders trembling. Every motion he makes is careful and tentative, pushing at boundaries as if he expects to be slapped away at any moment.

"This won't hurt," Wei Ying promises in a low whisper, but it's a lie, because right now Lan Zhan's skin is prickling with awareness so intense that it's unbearable, painful, too-much and too-little. He's frozen to the spot as Wei Ying drags his lips from his wrist to his elbow. A hot wave runs through him.

"I - Wei Ying -"

Wei Ying closes his eyes in an instinctive flinch. It's as if the sound of Lan Zhan's voice is a dagger breaking through his skin. Lan Zhan falls silent, blood roaring in his ears, his whole body going numb.

"Please," Wei Ying says in a near whisper. HIs fingers are trembling where they touch Lan Zhan's skin. "Please, let me - you won't remember this, and what you won't remember won't hurt."

He reaches to the side for one of the cups, takes another swallow of wine. His red eyes slide over to Lan Zhan's face, intent and strangely wary. Then he lunges forward, and all of a sudden, Wei Ying's lips are on his, and there is something hot and cool spilling into his mouth.

Lan Zhan gasps, almost chokes, and swallows the alcohol that had been in Wei Ying's mouth. It burns his lungs, going down. He had been confused before, but he's totally lost now. He can't react fast enough, his limbs too heavy and his mind too slow, and Wei Ying has always been good at setting the pace.

Wei Ying leans forward, making a strained whimpering sound. Lan Zhan loses his mind for the next few moments, because suddenly Wei Ying is in his lap, their legs tangled around each other. There's skin underneath his fingertips, blood humming in his ears. A sharp thrill goes through him at the way Wei Ying gasps at his touch. All of it combines to make the rest of the world fade out. He feels waves of something slow and warm working him apart from the inside, and it makes everything seem blurry.

Wei Ying is breathing hard, an edge of fear in it, but an edge of something else too. His hands trace slowly down Lan Zhan's robes, working underneath them.

"You won't remember this," Wei Ying is saying, or perhaps is still saying. He has his forehead pressed against the side of Lan Zhan's neck, and his hands are kneading and pinching and touching freely now. There's a hunger in his movements, a thrumming need that Lan Zhan can feel under his skin and fingertips.

Lan Zhan tries to move his lips, but Wei Ying covers his mouth with his own. The world spins, and they both go crashing to the floor, the cold stone a counterpoint to the way Wei Ying cries out softly above him.

He tries to reach out, to touch Wei Ying somehow. His mind is all fogged up, but he wants Wei Ying to know -

Wei Ying catches his wrist and slams it back down onto the hard stone, fear catching in his breath.

"Don't try to run away," he says.

Lan Zhan wants to say I won't, wants to say you've got it wrong. The last thing he wants is for this to stop. But before he can even try to speak, Wei Ying has crushed their mouths together in an approximation of a kiss. It's all pressure, no gentle movements, just pressure and teeth, and all Lan Zhan can do is make a muffled, overwhelmed sound in response.

Wei Ying closes his eyes, shudders.

Then he grits his teeth, boldly presses a hand down below, in a place that makes Lan Zhan stop breathing completely.

Wei Ying holds himself there for a few moments. He's trembling, his whole body warm and jittery and alive. Lan Zhan wants to put his mouth to his skin, wants to bury his hands into Wei Ying's hair and pull. He feels like he's going insane.

"Don't move," Wei Ying says in a harsh whisper. Lan Zhan goes still.

He doesn't move as, slow as a glacier, Wei Ying traces the outline of his length underneath his robes. He doesn't move as Wei Ying gasps for breath as if he is being chased, wraps his fingers around him, buries his face in Lan Zhan's neck, and strokes up.

Lan Zhan convulses, turning his head to one side, and finds that one of Wei Ying's arms is wrapped around his head, cushioning it against the stone floor. A particularly harsh stroke destroys whatever reason he has left.

"Wei Ying," he gasps, his voice breaking. "Wei Ying - "

"Don't say anything."

Lan Zhan feels a spike of warm heat tear through him, almost painful, tearing him apart. But he obediently falls silent. He drags his teeth across his bottom lip, biting down a whimper. His skin feels flushed with heat, until he's beginning to feel sweat gather in the dip of his spine and on the back of his neck. There is a heavy sweetness to the air now, something cloying. The taste coats his tongue and makes it feel hot and wet in his mouth.

Above him, Wei Ying drags his fist up and down, his breathing coming in harsh gasps. His clothes are becoming dishevelled - the collar pulling open, the neckline pulling free, shifting the material down to reveal his shoulder.

Lan Zhan is still staring by the time Wei Ying pulls away from him.

"Don't look," Wei Ying says instantly, his eyes meeting Lan Zhan's and then flinching away. He closes his eyes in a grimace of despair, says: "Please, don't look at me, Lan Zhan." 

Something solid lands in Lan Zhan's chest, shackling him to stillness. It isn't magic, or at least he doesn't think it is. Every part of his body wants to throw all restraint to the wind, reach up and drag Wei Ying's mouth to his, wants to pull him close and bury into him as deeply as he can. He wants Wei Ying more than he wants air, more than he wants to breathe.

But suddenly, a thought cuts across the fog that has taken over and filled up his brain.

Wei Ying is afraid of him.

The thought chills him to the bone, digs metal blades into his joints and locks his breath somewhere in between his chest and his throat.

Wei Ying looks like he will fly away at the slightest movement, looks like he will flinch at the slightest sound. He is in worse shape than Lan Zhan had originally thought. Gone is the steady confidence he used to have as a youth. He is a leaf in the breeze, trembling and ready to break apart at a touch.

Lan Zhan struggles and struggles to find the right thing to do. But he knows by now: with Wei Ying, sometimes, nothing he does is ever right.

"Close your eyes," Wei Ying pleads with him, and his fingers come up to press against Lan Zhan's eyelids. Lan Zhan closes his eyes, and hates himself for doing so.

"Tell me, did you ever think about me?" His hands are tracing down Lan Zhan's body, brushing over sensitive nipples, learning every curve of his hard abdomen. "About touching me."

Lan Zhan is unused to being touched so intimately - every sensation is something new, something that sends alternate burst of panic and sparks of heat through him. He has always been complimented for being stoic, but Wei Ying's words drag a moan out from him. He shifts and tries to squirm free, only for Wei Ying to dig his knee into Lan Zhan's thigh and pin him down even harder.

His head goes blank.

He used to lie awake at night, remembering all the secret glances he had stolen during the daytime, taking them out like treasured memories until time had worn them down into fuzzy impressions. He used to hold his hand over his mouth to stay silent, used to put his fingers in his mouth and think about what Wei Ying's lips would taste like, how wet it would be if that mouth opened up for him; think about Wei Ying opening up underneath him, how slowly he's go, how carefully he would press his fingers inside, gentle, until Wei Ying couldn't take it any more, with Lan Zhan kissing him and touching him and telling him how well he was doing, how good it felt, how much Lan Zhan wanted him even though he knew it would never happen.

He would squeeze his eyes shut, closing them so tightly that he could see stars behind his eyelids, clutching his cock as the memory of Wei Ying's voice rang in his ears, and he would do it over and over and over again, as many times as he needed to, so that he wouldn't be distracted when daytime came, and so he wouldn't have to think about it then.

He never thought that it would be like this - something that burns with how cold it is - Wei Ying pressing his fingers to Lan Zhan's face and covering his eyes, his body grinding softly against him, not nearly enough pressure, not with Wei Ying holding himself up like that.

Each sensation burns him like an itch, tickling at the edges until he is gasping and squirming while desperately trying to move. Whenever he moves too suddenly, he can feel Wei Ying jolting away from him, and only coming back once he has gone still. It's torture, worse than having to watch Wei Ying strip in front of him every day, worse than stealing a kiss and then running away.

Wei Ying breaks his silence to make a ragged, desperate sound. His fingers clutch against Lan Zhan's hip as he thrusts his hips forward. Lan Zhan chokes on an inhale.

"Lan Zhan -" Wei Ying says brokenly, his fingers dragging down from Lan Zhan's face to his shoulder. Lan Zhan's eyes fly open.

He is met with the sight of Wei Ying, his hair cascading down his face in a black wave. There's a bright red flush high on his cheekbones, and Lan Zhan fixates on it, wonders what he can do to make it permanent. Wei Ying looks beautiful despite the disarray of his clothes and the tear tracks on his face. He looks like some kind of dark angel, all shadows in his mouth and his eyes, and the sight of him steals the breath away from Lan Zhan's lungs.

He watches, fuzzy, as Wei Ying presses his hand lower and wraps his fingers around his cock, or as much of it as he can. Lan Zhan shudders and closes his eyes, his skin going tight. When Wei Ying starts to move, his wrist loose and practiced, like he had done this a thousand times before, Lan Zhan nearly goes insane.

"Hey," Wei Ying gasps. His forehead dips down, presses against the side of Lan Zhan's face. He feels flushed, warm, his forehead damp with sweat. His breath is hot against Lan Zhan's collar. "Would you ever fuck me, if I asked you to? Or would you hate me forever?"

He laughs, presses his mouth against Lan Zhan's lips. His tongue swipes boldly in, warm and invasive. He does it again, deeper, and it's almost violent, how hard his teeth scrape against Lan Zhan's lower lip.

"I used to think about you all the time," he whispers. "But now nobody will ever know."

His fist is reaching a crescendo now, moving back and forth so fast that Lan Zhan can feel his back arching, his skin tightening. He pushes against Wei Ying as a warning, but it's already too late.

"It's okay if you forget," Wei Ying says, his eyes a mad demonic red, desperately fixed on Lan Zhan's face. "It'll be okay. After you forget, I'll come find you and remind you again. I'll poison all your cups with wine. I'll tell you to drink or watch all your friends die."

His fingers curl into Lan Zhan's hair, gentle at first, and then he yanks hard. Lan Zhan's head goes back. His head spins. Impossibly, his cock jerks in Wei Ying's hand, aching and sore and hot, as if the slightest touch will set him off. Wei Ying squeezes hard and the touch is too much, too warm, Lan Zhan is too sensitive -

"You'll never forget me then, my love," Wei Ying breathes, "Just like I'll never forget you."

He presses down hard - everything goes hot and slick and for a perfect, blessed moment, Lan Zhan stops thinking of anything at all.




.




Afterwards, Wei Ying kisses him softly, over and over again, like he is unwilling to leave and let this end. Lan Zhan opens his mouth willingly, and loses himself to a dream of warm lips and soft sighs, lets himself pretend that this is what it could really be like, between them.

"I didn't really mean it," Wei Ying whispers, and then bites his bottom lip so hard that it draws blood. Lan Zhan tastes it on his tongue, and desperately tries to soften the kiss into something comforting. "Don't hate me for this."

"I won't," Lan Zhan whispers back. Wei Ying flinches, just like Lan Zhan knew he would, and he hates himself for talking just as much as he had hated himself for not saying anything earlier.

He feels weak and his limbs are trembling, but his mind is starting to clear. With it, his memory is starting to fade.

"I'm sorry."

Something in Lan Zhan's chest zings with pain.

"Don't be." He moves up to reach for Wei Ying's face, and Wei Ying pulls away faster than a breath, separating their bodies entirely. Lan Zhan goes still, his veins going cold.

Wei Ying buries his face in the palm of his hand. His clothes trail off of him onto the floor, open and messy and disheveled, and the strip of skin that shows from his shoulder to his chest is marred by a black brand.

"Go to sleep," he says, still breathing harshly. His fingers curl, and he laughs - a bitter, despairing sound. "I'm apologizing to someone who won't remember me in the morning."

"That's not true."

Wei Ying moves his hand away to smile at him. Something inside him softens, and he sighs, looking at Lan Zhan. He reaches forward to brush his knuckles fondly against Lan Zhan's cheek.

"You're so beautiful, you know," Wei Ying says quietly. "Inside and out. I wish I had a fraction of the strength you had, Lan Zhan."

Lan Zhan stares at him, uncomprehending. He is the weakest man he knows. The person he loves is right in front of him, and yet no matter what he does or what he says, he cannot make them happy. He can't even remember why they are in this state.

"If I asked you to stay -" Wei Ying begins to ask, then cuts off, crumpling to the floor.

"I'll do anything you want me to," Lan Zhan says desperately.

"I know," Wei Ying says, and then breaks down. His smile disappears, he crumples down on top of Lan Zhan. For a long time, he just clutches at the front of Lan Zhan's robes, buries his face in them, and cries.

When they go to sleep, Lan Zhan drifts off to the sound of Wei Ying curling up around him, his fingers brushing into his hair, saying don't leave, don't leave, don't fall asleep, not yet, please.

In his dreams, he hears Wei Ying tell him I'll let you go. One day, I promise, I'll let you go. I'll ask Wen Qing to make sure you get back safely. I'll send an apology, too, and I'll never - I'll never seek you out again. You've been good to me, Lan Zhan, you've indulged me with more than I ever could have asked for.

"Tomorrow," he says, burying his face in Lan Zhan's chest, his voice muffled and small and weak. "I'll let you go tomorrow. But until then, stay with me, and don't leave."