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below the clouds, above the lakes

Chapter Text

It rained that day, torrential, until the streets of the habitat swam over with it. There was a problem with the regulatory system, Wei Ying’s escort told him, voice raised to carry over the rattling sluicing sound of water across the terminal’s arched glass roof. It would certainly be in order again before the ceremony.

It made the Lan capital feel nearly like home, Wei Ying thought, wry: the air close and thick, water and water and water, each building temporarily an island. What sort of omen was that? He could argue for at least four readings, if anyone had felt like asking him. Had he really been at home, half the palace crèche would have been demanding he read omens for them around now, fond of the game despite a series of official reprimands. Prediction was one of Wei Ying’s favourite forms of play: a sort of confidence trick, a way to practice reading a room.

They would find other entertainment; they would have the peace to. Wei Ying was buying that for them, and maybe for the children of this city too, although he was uncertain—irony of ironies—of what children in a place like this could possibly grow up to become, surrounded by all this rigidity. Did they even play games? Ah, that was low. Of course they did. But were they meant to?

I’ll call the rain a good omen, he decided, as the car skimmed over the surface of the flood towards a new and unknown palace complex. Confidence tricks could be with advantage practiced on oneself. I’m bringing the outside with me, climate control be damned.

I wonder if my fiancé is as pretty in the flesh as he is on video? Everyone from the Lan family always looks perfect. Genetics and good styling? Touch-up?

Probably both.

I wonder if my fiancé is kind, in person. I wonder if I want him to be—imagine me as Madame Yu, being condescended to.

Yikes.

In the rain, the unfolded spires of the Cloud Recesses gleamed, white as old bone but slick-surfaced. The car, past the entry checkpoint, drifted sedately across the final distance to the complex, and deposited Wei Ying in a remarkably dry reception area, where a group of servants waited with their heads respectfully inclined to the depth which indicated not so much a difference in hierarchy as an acknowledged difference in the worlds to which he and they belonged. That was going to give him some kind of a rash. He was a servant’s child himself, and he had long since been elevated to a position of some authority, but had all the same been told and told that he would always be a servant’s child—until his service had required, abruptly, that he become a minor prince.

It remained service. He came with no lands; was instead a symbolic representation of the Jiangs’ commitment to union; was instead something adjacent, in fine Imperial tradition, to being a hostage. In his own right he was as he had ever been: a maker, an inventor, a fighter, an occasional creative heretic. And I’m brilliant at all of those, he thought, and straightened his shoulders properly. I didn’t let anyone beat them out of me. I’ll be fine.

 

 

 

 

He had so rarely travelled, and had always claimed he would. Jiang Cheng, sour about endless events and too-long spaceflights, had laughed at him for it—Like you want to! You’d die of boredom!—but it was laughter that papered over the other things, all of the places where their lives weren’t allowed to meet. Permission denied, schedule conflicts engineered. A bad influence, that Wei Wuxian, if he isn’t showing you up.

Here I am, little brother. Travelling. I liked the flight, actually. The ship was cool. The engineer showed me all kinds of shit.

And now, arrival. Arrival to what?

Marriage to a man who allowed himself to be unknowable, visible but silent at a hundred formal gatherings, forever slightly out of focus in the back of a frame if there was a crowd—standing apart. Distant, in more intimate footage. Correct. A bit of a bastard, maybe—maybe shy—maybe something else.

This was one story Wei Ying had heard: Lan Zhan, the honourable Lan Wangji, had been married once before. It had remained unconsummated. An unfortunate accident.

Will he poison me if he doesn’t want to fuck me, then? Wei Ying wondered, as he allowed his new attendants to dress him. It was an absurd thought to be allowing himself to have, no matter its level of plausibility, and Wei Ying felt in turn absurdly charmed by it, by the idea that he of all people would buy easily into the rumours which circulated between palaces, shuttled back and forth on pleasure-liners and freight vessels. Rumours were always his companions. Which of his personal retinue was Lan Wangji just now trying to decide the truth of? What would he ask about first? Parentage, maybe? Criminal record? Neither of those had true answers that were exciting enough for most people—parents exactly who it said on his papers, criminal record non-existent—although he could put a fun spin on them if he felt like it.

There was more Jiang purple in his clothes than he had worn in his life, for the signing of documents. Later it would be red for both of them—ah, no need to think about red yet. Wei Ying turned his head to inspect the neat twist of his hair, pinned as precisely as anything he’d seen his siblings wear—was stabbed lightly with the lotus hair-pin the chief attendant was trying to set correctly in place at the base of the delicate piece he was crowned with, her expression when he met her eyes in the mirror reproachful.

They crowded him along through the palace, when his clothing was settled; drew him along passages which were all white walls and dark wood, windows which opened onto dense greenery, soft glowing light. Disorienting, compared to the open spaces of Lotus Pier, its clear lines of sight. His sense of direction was a joke to begin with.

In a small office, he was offered a sip of the drink he and his husband would be invited to share after the final public ceremony, a drug used to seal marriage agreements in its blank version, disconnected from pacts—No surprise allergies, if you please. Interesting. It only settled in him with the burn of good liquor, and then began gently to intensify where alcohol would trail off. A second cup was held out to him, and he swallowed it down—grew cooler again, pooling heat dispersed.

He put the way the thing had felt very carefully aside. That was for later. It was amazing how much could be put aside for later, really. If you tried.

 

 

 

 

The rain didn’t stop. The spires of the Cloud Recesses bloomed a broad shield between themselves to protect the courtyard which was to be used for this first part of the marriage, but beyond it the rain sheeted and sheeted, drenched the delicate gardens. It became a veil around the edge of the new roof, water sliding from the sides of a flat world. The trees in the courtyard were still shivering wetly as Wei Ying stepped between them, and was met, from the opposite doorway, by a man dressed from head to toe in white and the very lightest of blues.

Half-mourning, Wei Ying’s mind supplied, helpfully. You’re going to fuck a man who’s in half-mourning. Won’t that be fun for everyone! Nobody had told him that the man was in mourning. Nobody had told him half of what he needed to know, it felt like.

They exchanged bows, and Wei Ying briefly resented the neatness of his hair—wanted to feel it shift across his shoulders as he moved. See it flutter at the edge of his vision. His neck felt bare.

He thought of guillotines. Of something which looked like a clean piece of work, but only from the outside. Of cutting yourself on such a sharp blade that the blood told you it had happened before the pain did.

They straightened.

And:

So he’s hotter than he looks on film, Wei Ying thought. Well. Great. That’s great for him. Good work, Lan Zhan. Nice face, congratulations. He clenched his jaw against the kind of hysterical laughter which had been getting him into trouble on a daily basis for as long as he could remember. Across from him, Lan Zhan looked every bit the Jade he had been named, still and poised. His eyes really are sort of amber, Wei Ying thought. That’s not touch-up either. I hate that I noticed that. Who even notices that kind of thing right off? He was pretty sure the last time he’d instantly noticed the colour of someone’s eyes it was because they had been so shockingly and artificially pale as to make their owner’s face seem hollow, almost dead, and it had been weirdly fitting. He really hadn’t liked that guy at all. Too into mods by half—and this from, of all people, Wei Ying.

It took effort to rein in the wild spin of his thoughts. It was some sort of a relief to find, when he returned to himself, that his body was standing where it was meant to be, in the middle of the courtyard, one pace too far from Lan Zhan to be able to reach out and touch him. A camera drone circled them slowly, at a distance. The audience in attendance right here, in this space, was small, and made up largely of formal witnesses. The Jiang ambassador. Lan family members. Politicians. Each state had a representative, and almost all of them were proxies. Nie Huaisang, himself a junior prince, was the person with the highest nominal status here who didn’t belong to the Lan inner family. He seemed incongruous, among serious blank faces and idle half-interest; Wei Ying could feel his attention, itchy on his skin. The man was meant to be too lazy to pay attention to anything. Wei Ying, attuned to bullshit through personal accomplishment in the artform, wondered.

He had been drilled in the forms of the ceremony, and followed along mechanically. I haven’t mouthed off in maybe three hours, he thought, as he took the contract and signed it in quick lively strokes—Wei Ying, the Esteemed Wei Wuxian, Fourth Rank of the Jiang Dynasty. I haven’t mouthed off in so long. It’s going to kill me.

He managed a flourish in taking the Jiang seal from his finger and pressing it to the screen, letting its validation of the contract between their states spread its petals there—it’d look good on camera. It’d make Jiang Cheng roll his eyes.

It was Lan Zhan who was fumbling, in this, although he wrote beautifully, in a conservative sort of way. A line of titles that made Wei Ying’s name shrink beside it. But it took him, Wei Ying thought, longer than made sense, for all it mostly just looked deliberate, motion to motion. It was only when Lan Zhan went to twist his own Lan seal from his finger that Wei Ying noticed the reason. The barest tremor, well-concealed, revealing itself when doubled in the contact between fingers. He wanted, for a terrifying moment, to reach out and help. Still Lan Zhan’s hands, slide the ring carrying the seal loose and press it into Lan Zhan’s palm. It wasn’t—he wasn’t sure what it was.

Lan Zhan had managed the thing by himself, mercifully, before Wei Ying could figure it out. Maybe some sort of protective impulse wasn’t the worst thing to feel towards the man you were in the middle of marrying, but it felt—risky. Lan Zhan trembling could mean anything. Wei Ying didn’t know him. He didn’t let anybody know him. Apparently.

So:

Cloud and lotus.

It rained and rained, and Lan Zhan turned to face Wei Ying. Bowed to him for the second time, bent over his hands, which touched only at their fingertips. Wei Ying returned the gesture. They looked at one another in silence, suspended between the wild heavens and this cultivated earth. Wei Ying felt fidgety with it, with that suspense, with eyes on them and the weight of too-formal clothes and Lan Zhan’s unsettling beauty. Why can’t we just fuck now? his scrambling mind asked. They want to know we’ve fucked, there’s an audience right here. They could at least be open about the watching.

The air lacked the heat of Lotus Pier. Mist was clammy against his hands. His too-bare neck. He thought of the unfading burn of the drink he had been fed, just to test.

He watched Lan Zhan’s lips form the appropriate final words of consent to political union, and did not hear them. He repeated them in turn, and did not hear them. Everything was a little bit staticky at the edges as they turned and walked, side by side, towards the third door.

The sound of the rain cut off as the door clicked closed behind them, like the stop button had been hit on the audio. They were severed from the outside world. Their attendants stood precise and still by the door; Wei Ying looked sidelong at the man he was now half-married to, and found that he was staring resolutely ahead, gaze steady on some unseen point along the corridor.

Wei Ying’s head went quiet, like the internal static had only, after all, been the sound of rain.

“So what now?” he asked, inane. “We’re alone together except for—”

He gestured at the attendants and then upward, in a sign which could indicate the sight of the divine if one’s culture happened to be so inclined—what are security cameras but the eyes of the Emperor, after all? And is the Emperor not divine?

Creative heresy.

Lan Zhan didn’t answer him, although his gaze flicked at last sideways to meet Wei Ying’s, cool and unreadable—he just waited a breath, and then began to walk.

 

 

 

 

What was next was a small room, with four other occupants. The Jiang ambassador, with assistant; and the Honourable and Illuminated Lan Xichen, more intimately called Lan Huan, who was the older brother of the man at his side and who would in the future become the ultimate ruler of Lan space, who already did much of the work of ruling it—with an older man at his side who Wei Ying supposed was the uncle to the Twin Jades who Jiang Cheng had spent a solid year complaining about. He had forgotten the man’s name, although he’d been told it enough times since the marriage had been agreed. He looked displeased. That might have been a special treat for Wei Ying, or might have been completely natural. Neither Lan wore mourning colours, their blues rich and deep. Weird that Lan Huan was filling in for his father even when it came to a son’s marriage ceremony. What did that mean?

Even without the presence of the Lord of Lan the imbalance was so funny, civil servants beside royalty as though they were equal representatives, that Wei Ying could barely keep himself in check—thought maybe by the looks Lan Huan and his uncle threw in his direction that he hadn’t completely succeeded.

Further bows. Tea was placed upon the low table between them by new attendants, who entered the room silently and withdrew with amazing speed. The tea service was a delicate blue, glittering purple in small details. Wei Ying was not in this room: nothing black, nothing red.

There would be enough red later.

They served one another tea. Served their families, or the proxies who had to represent family.

“Welcome, then, formally,” Lan Huan said, and the corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled—and Wei Ying, against his better judgement, was charmed. “I believe our city has decided to make you at home. If you agree with that reading?”

Wei Ying—stared.

“Brother,” said Lan Zhan, with a startlingly human undertone of betrayed familial feeling, like a minor confidence had been broken or a favourite book lost.

Lan Huan smiled again, mildly. At his elbow, his uncle looked off to one side, but said nothing. These things Wei Ying saw only in his periphery. He wasn’t sure it would even be possible to look away from Lan Zhan.

The tips of his ears were pink.

“Uh,” Wei Ying said. “We don’t actually—do that, for real. No turtle shells or anything either!”

“That I am glad to hear,” Lan Huan said, “if only because I imagine my brother would find it distressing.”

Wei Ying only managed by a narrow margin to avoid protesting: it was only ever the shells of dead ones, what the fuck?

Lan Huan laughed at his expression. The Jiang ambassador was looking pained, and Wei Ying honestly had no idea if the expression was meant for himself or for Lan Huan.

“I apologise,” Lan Huan said. “But this is where we are to get to know one another, and address any personal concerns, now that the political ones have been decided.”

“No omens, then,” Wei Ying said, untruthfully. “Promise.”

“That isn’t why I raised the topic,” Lan Huan said. “Oh dear. I meant to indicate that you are welcome to personal practices which do not violate any of our laws.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying said, rather thrown. “Then—yeah, that’s what I decided, too. About the rain.”

Lan Zhan was so stiff at his side. His hands were curled tight on his lap. The clench of them looked painful.

“Do you have any concerns about the final two ceremonies, Masters?” the Jiang ambassador asked, glancing between them, clearly deciding it was necessary for her to say something—to fulfil the appearance that this was a discussion between two families, and not one family bickering elegantly in front of some outsiders.

Wei Ying trawled through his memory, lined up everything he could remember, tried to come up with some kind of genuine question. The Jiang ambassador would have looked imposing in most company, strong-featured and stylish, her well-cut suit at the soft dove grey end of the spectrum of Jiang colours but highlighted at the edges with a more emphatic purple; her posture had the sort of loose-limbed but proper balance which would be the envy of any comportment class back home. Here, she looked a bit lost, playing a role which hadn’t been made to fit her. It made him like her. Want to help her out.

“I, uh, understand tonight,” he said, because he did have a few questions, actually, but he wasn’t entirely into the idea of asking them in front of the Lans, which was a piece of squeamishness he hadn’t expected in himself. It was only ritual. People did rituals without any clothes on all the time. Still: sorry, exactly how much time am I going to spend needing to fuck my husband? How much sleep should I be counting on here? No chance. “But tomorrow morning—”

Tomorrow there was a dressing ceremony, as though today wasn’t full enough of people putting clothes on him and taking them off again. It had a symbolic weight which Wei Ying’s mind kept catching on, the deliberate framing of his new life for public consumption, a statement of who he would now be.

“Of course,” the Jiang ambassador said, and gestured for him to continue.

“I was just told robes had been commissioned for me,” Wei Ying said. “I wasn’t told in whose colours.”

It felt, once he’d said it, like such a weirdly petty thing to care about. Not that the colours didn’t matter, everyone cared so fucking much about them all the time—but the thing under it, the thought he’d had when he entered the room, seen the tea service. That he wasn’t even here. But why should he be? His colours were no state’s colours. If anything, they were too close to those of the Wen, with whom nobody liked being associated, as a rule.

And still:

“Wei colours,” Lan Zhan said, not looking at him.

“Oh, good,” Wei Ying said, trying to turn the flip of his stomach into being flippant. “I don’t think I could do this every day.”

The wrong thing to say, but although the Lan uncle glared at his lack of piety he was not corrected.

“Wangji commissioned them personally,” Lan Huan said. “He was very particular on the topic. The poor tailor has been feeling quite harassed.”

The use of Lan Zhan’s formal name confused Wei Ying, briefly—distance? A dislike of his intimate name on his husband’s part? He’d been practicing thinking Lan Zhan. And then the content of Lan Huan’s words caught up with him, and that was—that was even more, even more baffling. Wei Ying blinked at Lan Zhan, who was still pink-eared and betrayed, still not looking at him.

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he said. “That’s too much! You can’t annoy the staff, you know. But, ah—this one humbly thanks you for your consideration.”

He had spoken too freely—flushed, himself, to realise it. He had been so definite on the fact that he was going to behave, today of all days. He really could behave.

Lan Huan looked delighted. Lan Zhan looked still more pained.

Wei Ying didn’t understand him, couldn’t get a read on him. His angry silences, his flushes, his trembling hands. His strange consideration and his discomfort at having it discussed.
Who was Lan Zhan mourning, and why were the rest of his family not sharing in his show of grief?

No way to ask.

They drank their tea.

 

 

 

 

Red.

The robe cinched in close around his waist, with a cut he might even have chosen for himself, although all the gold was so-so. His first crown of a hairpiece was lifted free, leaving his scalp aching strangely as his hair shifted—was replaced with another, heavier, his hair divided just slightly differently around it in a way which left him very aware of that soreness in his scalp.

No more cosmetics than he’d usually wear.

Alone, he took stock. He looked—like himself, but dressed up. It was more unnerving than finding himself a stranger in the mirror could have been.

It was—he would have liked—he and his siblings had always said they would—

But he’d thought he’d marry someone in Lotus Pier. A regular marriage. He hadn’t had the kind of status that would make political marriage a thing. This wasn’t what he had—it wasn’t—

He closed his eyes, and felt someone take his elbow as he swayed—wanted to flinch from it, bat the hand of whichever assistant had come back into the room—restrained himself with the fact that if he fell they’d fuss over his clothes all over again, and it’d be unbearable. Just—it was just—he wanted people to stop touching him. For a minute.

He was lowered onto a chair—sat there, eyes still closed, until the ringing in his ears faded.

“Are you well?” asked Lan Zhan, softly.

Wei Ying blinked his eyes open in shock, met that striking gaze—Lan Zhan looking at him fully, from so close, was almost too much to take. He’d already felt so unstable, so balanced on the edge of—of something.

Lan Zhan, too, was dressed in the day’s final outfit. Red and gold looked strange on him, this man who suited silver.

No trace of mourning remained. Had that been his final display of it, earlier?

The thought didn’t help at all. Lan Zhan might as well have been mourning some kind of freedom, if it was like that.

“Lan Zhan,” he said, uneasily. Was the one to look away first; could feel Lan Zhan’s attention lingering. Everything felt so intense today. Everything scratched at his skin. He didn’t understand why. “Why are you here? Did you want to, ah—before we’re—?”

Lan Zhan jerked back, as though from a flame.

“I have no dishonourable intention,” he said.

Shame, Wei Ying thought—the part of Wei Ying which had been scrabbling at the walls, wanting to just get it done, thought.

“Oh?” he asked. Looked at Lan Zhan through his lashes, smirked.

Lan Zhan looked pained, and that—ugh. Wei Ying might have played it up, teased. Except for the fact that it really was going to happen, this wasn’t for fun, and that he didn’t actually want it to suck. They probably weren’t going to have great sex, but they could have okay sex, if he could just not be an asshole about it. He could feel himself fold.

“If that would make you feel better,” Lan Zhan said, carefully. He was pink-cheeked, again, again, the flush spreading from his ears across his soft cheekbones. As strange a match as ever with his expression, which had once more turned impassive.

“I don’t want to fix my clothes again,” Wei Ying said. He sounded oddly morose, even to himself. It really might have been better, actually. A bit. Lan Zhan really was hot. Wei Ying would’ve fucked him, if they’d just been two people who met at a party or something, probably. He seemed stuck up, or disdainful, or something. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t have had fun. Wei Ying could have prodded, just a bit, to see if there was anything interesting under the surface. “Seriously, why are you here?”

“I was concerned,” Lan Zhan said.

Ah. “I’ve been looking that bad?”

“Not—bad.” Lan Zhan looked down. “Tense. If you are not willing—if you have been in some way coerced—”

Wei Ying had to laugh at that. The sound came out mirror-crack sharp.

“Haven’t you been? Isn’t that what it is to be from a royal family? To not have this one choice?”

Lan Zhan was silent. They looked at one another. Ah. That wasn’t quite true, was it? Almost, almost. But not quite.

“I’m willing,” Wei Ying said. Sighed. “It’s just a lot to adjust to, right? It’s a lot. Not what I thought I’d get. I thought maybe someone would—”

Want me. He looked away again. Not want to have sex with him—obviously people wanted to have sex with him, he knew he looked good, he knew he was good in bed. But want him, in particular, to keep. Want him that much, choose him. It felt too childish to say, to this man who had already married once, no matter that it hadn’t lasted a day.

“Breathe,” Lan Zhan said. “It would be inconvenient if I were to be associated with a second death.”

He gave Wei Ying such a level look as Wei Ying stared. Just—just too absurd. “You made a joke,” he said, accusing, shock cutting through the tumbling panic. “You made a joke in bad taste.

Lan Zhan’s gaze remained flat. But there was something there, maybe, in the eyes. There was definitely something in the lack of denial. Who are you? Wei Ying thought, and there was the edge of the panic again. Who are you? What does all this mean?

“I am willing,” Lan Zhan said, when Wei Ying failed to find any further words. He stood, a graceful unfolding which left his clothes sitting perfectly. He brushed them down with a quick flick of his fingers anyway—held out his hand to Wei Ying.

It felt—

This will be the first time we touch, Wei Ying thought. The first time skin to skin.

It felt—

Lan Zhan’s skin was cool and very smooth, except for the places where it was thickened by use—a familiar and unexpected work-pattern, sliding against Wei Ying’s own as he helped Wei Ying to his feet. Touching him was—nothing much. Wei Ying touched people all the time. Nothing much at all, not until he felt another faint tremor in Lan Zhan, this one not even visible, and then it was—it was—

Their hands tightened around one another. Wei Ying’s pulse did something strange at the base of his skull. Lan Zhan’s lips parted—so, so slightly.

They stepped apart at the same moment, Wei Ying nearly stumbling against the chair—and then Lan Zhan had, abruptly, turned on his heel. Fled?

Maybe fled.

Alone again, Wei Ying sagged. No order to his thoughts at all, now. Just everything being too loud, all at once.

He wished that his sister was here. Wished and wished, and then had to re-apply the soft touch of eyeliner that had been smudged carefully into his skin. Had finished, thankfully, before his attendants returned to usher him on to the next room, next ceremony, next awkward intimacy.

His hand couldn’t seem to forget the press of Lan Zhan’s fingers. That impassive face of his was one thing, and his touch was something else, and where was the line of connection? How did he fit together? Wei Ying, good at people, didn’t get him. Dangerous, dangerous.

 

 

 

 

This room was soaring. One of the spires, which from the outside seemed as though they could contain a hundred rooms each, was hollow, and looking up into it produced a dizzy orbital feeling, the world spun out of all proportion, gravity flipping. Wei Ying snapped his eyes back down, away from the heights which felt like a drop into infinity—took in, instead, the smaller central spire hidden within the spire, names of Lan ancestors curling around it, row on row on row. These ancient lineages. He didn’t know where his parents’ bodies lay; the thing had been a mess, and he’d been so young. His mind had always blurred itself around the memories, tucked them away from him. He only remembered the after.

He tried desperately not to hate the Lans for knowing themselves, for a tight-throated moment. Managed it, more or less; swallowed his quick sharp sorrow down, although it scraped at his insides.

Lan Zhan stood already at the foot of the spire, back to Wei Ying, face turned upward. The height must be familiar to him. Feel normal.

There were more people present now, to watch them take these personal bows and swear themselves to one another; more of an ordinary marriage in its form, hybridised a little between the Lan and Jiang rites. But still there were circling camera drones again, also. A public event.

Lan Zhan turned.

Wei Ying’s hand felt unsteady from a phantom touch, remembered.

He was so fucking beautiful. It—it was good, wasn’t it? To get to fuck someone you were attracted to.

But he wanted someone he liked.

Maybe they could like each other. It was just that he didn’t know.

Breathe, he remembered Lan Zhan’s voice saying.

He breathed.

This part, like old memory, blurred. Wei Ying blinked his way through disjointed moments. He would remember this: the high ceiling, the grave-cool air. The fact that Lan Zhan’s hands shook slightly in his again, even though this wasn’t the first time, even though his expression was cool and focused. The strange claustrophobia of draping fabric, and the restless clawing in his stomach. The need to get it done, just get it done. There were charts, the Imperial auspices for their marriage read—not the same, of course, as Wei Ying’s petty and dubious divination. Proper, necessary, fully sanctioned. There were ceremonial words. There were—

At the banquet, he picked at his food, and so did Lan Zhan. He could have eaten more, scratchy though his insides were, but they were going to have sex in another hour or two, and he wasn’t sure who was going to fuck who, or if they were going to fuck each other, and it made the idea of a full stomach feel risky.

There was no alcohol. There was a known interaction between it and the drug they would be taking later, he’d been told, or else a concession would have been made for him. It would have been a concession. The Lans had some prohibition or other. Had so many prohibitions.

Lan Zhan grew stiffer and stiffer beside him, their tension shared. He was entirely silent; nodded or shook his head minutely in answer to questions. Wei Ying talked, but wasn’t sure from moment to moment what he said.

The world, disjointed.

 

 

 

 

The banquet, a passage, a room.

Two men, in the room. Official observers, one from each state, in neutral suits of identical cut but with tokens pinned over their hearts by way of identity marker. They wore gloves. Was that some kind of a thing? It seemed like it must be a thing.

“We will monitor the rites from this room,” the man with the Lan token said. “The monitors are here, and here. You will be informed when we leave.” Explanations. The intensity that could be expected from the drug. The circumstances under which the observers were permitted to intervene.

The doorway into the room beyond was covered by a thin silk screen—an illusion of privacy. Wei Ying wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be better to have the men stand in that room with them. Just be honest about the watching, he thought again. Wouldn’t it be better, to know where the men were more exactly, what they were doing? This watching by proxy made him uneasy, made him feel as though he was losing some piece of control rather than gaining some fragment of privacy. He thought of piloting examinations carried out in simulators, the examiners outside, no gauge for how they thought you were doing; and that made him think of getting a failing grade at sex, like the time he’d failed hazard awareness thanks to a stupid phobia; and that made hysteria bubble up in him again, slipping this time beyond his control.

Lan Zhan’s hand at his elbow steadied him again, though it took some time for Wei Ying to be able to speak—he just had to shake his head at Lan Zhan’s alarmed expression. Threw an apologetic smile to their—fuck, not examiners, he couldn’t start calling them examiners—their observers. The two men looked disinterested. Probably they’d seen too much to be thrown by Wei Ying’s little out-of-nowhere fit.

They sat, the four of them. An attendant brought in a single cup on a tray.

This is happening, Wei Ying thought. The restless anxiety had left him all at once at the sight of the cup, only more ordinary nerves lingering. The moment having arrived, he knew pretty much what the deal was.

Lan Zhan, in contrast, looked pale, washed out against all the red and gold.

Oh.

He was such a private person.

He was such a private person, and he’d already steeled himself for this once before, and then it hadn’t happened. Accident or design. And this time he had come to his husband before the last ceremonies and, he had said I am willing, and maybe that had cost something Wei Ying couldn’t quite understand. But it made him feel solidarity, of some sort. That was good, maybe, in a backwards way. They were in this together.

He felt, for the first time, really bad for Lan Zhan. Not curious about his state of mind, but—

Experimentally, he lay his hand on Lan Zhan’s knee, and felt those tremors, signs of something deep and tectonic and unknowable. And Lan Zhan was so stiff under his hand—and then relaxed. Minutely.

Wei Ying let his hand remain—reached out with his other to take the cup. This time the drink was not the blank version. Swallowing it, their sincerity in the contract would be measured. With it in their systems, sex would seal it. Old traditions, antique, but enshrined in law where others had been called superstition. Imperial sanction.

Wei Ying was all superstition, by that measure. Knew the Imperial star-charts and hated reading them; knew the approved theories of causality and found them incomplete. Found the auspices clinical and rigid. Fucked with things, by superstitious means, to see what would happen. Put his weight on levers to see if they’d move.

And here he was, enacting tradition.

He drank. Held out the cup, without turning it, so that Lan Zhan wouldn’t have to drink from the place his mouth had touched.

Lan Zhan, taking the cup, met his eyes—touched his fingers—

Turned the cup before he drank, without hesitation to either motion.

Wei Ying, already hot inside but not yet strangely so, knew he must all the same be looking at Lan Zhan in—some kind of way. Wide-eyed.

Lan Zhan, swallowing hard, closed his eyes for one heartbeat, two, three. His throat was fascinating. A long vulnerable line. His robe was folded so high and close against his neck that not even his collarbones were visible. But—that throat.

A new sort of fidgety feeling.

Nothing bad happened. No rejection of their intent.

They stood, Lan Zhan taking his hand again, gentlemanly except for the way their breath caught at the same moment. Okay, Wei Ying thought. Okay, okay. Maybe being watched won’t matter so much like this. Maybe poor Lan Zhan can forget it.

Wow, I really hope we don’t suck at this.

The screen door closed quietly behind them.

 

 

 

 

It was a nice enough room, in a really dull way. Like a hotel, Wei Ying thought. Like a hookup in a hotel, but a weird kinky hotel where there was someone looking at you all the time. Security cameras over every bed.

Not that he’d ever actually hooked up with anyone in a hotel. Had Lan Zhan?

Asking was probably a bad idea.

Breathe.

The heat, which had sunk slowly down through his body, had settled low in him now, just below the navel. It was a tight ball, a miniature star, radiating. He could imagine himself glowing, golden, from within.

A dizzy thought, the way looking up into the vast heights of the spire had been.

Beside him, Lan Zhan was just—standing there. He looked almost completely unaffected, until you noticed the beginning of a flush—until you noticed the slight lack of focus in his gaze.

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said. Plucked restlessly at his own sleeves. The gold hairpiece was so heavy, and his scalp felt way too hot under it. “We should—the bed? Yeah?”

“Mm.”

Lan Zhan’s gaze barely flickered in his direction, but he walked to the bed, slow and deliberate. Wei Ying trailed after him; stood before him as he sank to sit on the edge of it.

Another still moment, everything between them suspended. The awkwardness made Wei Ying want to claw his skin off. The awareness of being watched. The not knowing how to start.

“Let me—let me take your hairpiece off,” he tried.

Lan Zhan gave a tiny nod, and Wei Ying, relieved to have something to do with his hands, reached for him; felt around the edges of the elaborately twisted gold for the pins which held it in place. It came free surprisingly easily, and Wei Ying smoothed his fingers unthinkingly over Lan Zhan’s hair, evening it out. It was soft, and he sunk his fingers into a loose section, idly fascinated by touch, hot satisfaction—

Ah.

Well.

Lan Zhan blinked slowly up at him. Wei Ying flashed him a quick smile, awkward, horribly aware that he was half-hard from the feeling of stroking the hair of a man he’d only met maybe seven hours ago. He wasn’t—used to that. He touched people all the time, but not really with—well—intent. Mostly. He liked to go with things, let other people make the first move.

“You too,” Lan Zhan said, and reached out for Wei Ying—tugged at him, graceless, until Wei Ying went to his knees in front of him.

Oh, Wei Ying thought. Okay. I could suck his dick. That works—

But Lan Zhan didn’t pull him in—just reached for the pins in Wei Ying’s own hair, worked them free—seemed to find it difficult. Wei Ying tried not to wince at the small tugs, too sharp and localised—but then when Lan Zhan pulled the thing away too soon, one pin still in place in a raised fold of his hair, the tug was full-scalp, and that felt different.

Lan Zhan went wide-eyed at his groan.

“Ah,” Wei Ying said, trying to laugh.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan looked—intense. He looked like someone who wanted—

And Wei Ying’s name in his mouth was—

Wei Ying closed his eyes, and let Lan Zhan untangle the last pin. He felt shaky and strange, but not bad. Just—strange. A lot. Cameras on them. The gaze of the divine, he’d told himself earlier, and thought he was so funny. That had been in another world.

He had no idea what to do with Lan Zhan saying his name in a way that made it sound precious. This man he didn’t know. Who was he to say—but at the same time, wasn’t that exactly what Wei Ying had been longing for—?

Okay, he told himself, and leaned forward, pressed his shoulder to the inside of Lan Zhan’s thigh, pushing his robes askew. Leaned there, as Lan Zhan stroked his hair, worked his fingers across Wei Ying’s aching scalp. Okay. He can say my name like that. Tender is probably good right now, isn’t it, if we can do it. Just—focus on each other, and not—

He was whining softly, he realised, at the drag of Lan Zhan’s nails. The drug made it easy to get lost in sensation, and that was good too, that helped.

He thought about Lotus Pier, the floating city around it. He thought of a sea of lotus flowers, and standing with Lan Zhan in hot darkness, looking out at the drifting lights of boats and fliers beyond. He thought about how nice it would be if that could feel nice—it was so easy to picture.

He kept his eyes closed as he untied the first layer of cloth at his waist, felt it snag a little and really didn’t care. He was never going to wear it again. It might have been fun to rip it open, delicate as the fabric was, but—the cameras. So he undid fastenings, even though it took more time, even though he was feeling impatient and restless again, the feeling growing with the heat. Shrugged his outer robe, the gauzy irritating one, off his shoulders—pressed his face into Lan Zhan’s leg as he undid the next.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said again, more softly, with no less care. “Come here.”

It took a moment for Wei Ying to collect himself enough to manage it, but Lan Zhan grasped him by the forearms as he began to rise, helping—and then Lan Zhan pulled him in and over, not settling him into his lap but rolling him down onto the bed, spreading him out on his back. Wei Ying blinked up at the ceiling, then at Lan Zhan, who still had an intensity to him that Wei Ying didn’t quite get, but didn’t mind at all. The weight of Lan Zhan’s gaze demanded his attention, demanded, demanded, needed. It focused him, that Lan Zhan seemed to need something, need him. Being needed was good—meant he could do something, be useful.

Lan Zhan, kneeling, leaned in over him. Studied him. Wei Ying tipped his head back, felt how Lan Zhan’s gaze dragged itself down his throat, his chest, to the remaining fastenings at his waist.

“You can,” he said. His voice sounded breathless, but he didn’t think it was panic this time. “Go ahead.”

Lan Zhan shifted carefully, eyes going to the room around them, a quick scan—found a position he liked, and undid those fastenings, one-handed, with a deliberate slowness which implied a desire for something else entirely.

Lan Zhan’s outer robe draped around them, a fine screen.

Lan Zhan’s hand found Wei Ying’s bare skin, found the soft hollow of his stomach—Wei Ying bit his lip on a cry, bit it against the wild surge of heat which seemed to rise up and meet Lan Zhan’s palm where it lay flat against him, right over the place where he had burned hottest to begin with. Lay gasping, eyes closed again, feeling frantic with a need of his own—for more, for privacy, for—things he couldn’t name.

He was bare in a strip along his front, exposed to the air, to Lan Zhan’s eyes, but—

Lan Zhan was shielding him from the cameras. Wasn’t he? Oh. Oh. He was. The careful positioning. The robe.

Not privacy. But—a small moment. Lan Zhan, seeing him bare before anyone else here got to. It felt—possessive. Why was it comforting that the moment felt so possessive?

“Hey,” Wei Ying managed. Reached up with an unsteady hand to touch Lan Zhan’s cheek. “You want to kiss me, or—?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan said, and swallowed. Turned his face, lips brushing the tips of Wei Ying’s fingers as Wei Ying let his hand fall. Leaned in, slow and deliberate—

His mouth was so hot, hot the way Wei Ying felt inside. Kind of dry. His lips dragged against Wei Ying’s, careful, careful. But it didn’t—feel quite right. Felt good, connected to all the strange pleasure in him. But felt too nervous, too shy, and if there were no fucking cameras maybe one of them would dare do something about that.

But.

They leaned together, breathing unevenly.

“We should, ah—we should work out what we want to—do,” Wei Ying said, into Lan Zhan’s hair, which was spilling over his shoulder, long and dark. He pulled Lan Zhan down against him, gasped at the feeling of Lan Zhan’s robes sliding against his dick—which was apparently, despite personal feelings of awkwardness, having a great time. Lan Zhan, too, was hard. His answering whine caught in his throat, vibrated through his chest. He ground down, seemingly without thought, and they both groaned. “You can’t leave this up to me, I suck at, ah—ah, ah. At being in charge.”

He arched under Lan Zhan, the heat in him demanding. More contact, closer, please. Did it feel the same for Lan Zhan?

Lan Zhan was breathing with a horrible evenness.

“This is hard for you, huh?” Wei Ying said, stilling the movement of his body as best he could, though it left him feeling shaky again. He sorted with effort through the scatter of his thoughts. “Ah, brave Lan Zhan, doing it anyway. It’s just sex, it’s just sex, we’ll figure it out. Take your time.”

So much easier to be needed. Maybe he could be in charge. If that was what Lan Zhan needed.

He stroked Lan Zhan’s back, waiting. I hope they’re bored shitless out there, he thought. I hope this is the least fun they’ve had all week.

He turned his face against Lan Zhan’s neck, close to his ear, when Lan Zhan still didn’t speak. “We can probably fake it,” he whispered, so low that he could barely hear himself, “if you don’t want to actually—”

He wasn’t sure they could, not entirely. There would be samples taken in the morning, and there was a certain amount of—charming phrase—fluid exchange required. But if they could fake it well enough for their audience, they could—work something out, privately, after. Maybe. It would be a kind of uncomfortable, to just ride out the heat of the drug for long enough. But maybe a more manageable kind, for Lan Zhan.

A lot of maybes. Still, it seemed to do something—to get Lan Zhan to relax slightly, his body sagging fully against Wei Ying’s where it had been held taut and trembling with the effort of not sliding into intimacy before.

“No,” Lan Zhan said. “No, I can do it. I need to.”

A pause. Wei Ying Scratched his fingers lightly across the back of Lan Zhan’s neck. Felt Lan Zhan shiver in a way which was maybe mostly actual pleasure.

“I—want to,” Lan Zhan said. “I told you I am willing, and I meant it. And—it—must be soon, if it is to—work. Sincerity of intent is—a requirement.” He spoke with increasingly long pauses, hazy, shivery. His hips were shifting slightly, just slightly, against Wei Ying’s.

Ah, this isn’t fair to you, Wei Ying thought, even as his body reacted. It really isn’t fair. I know this is normal for people who grew up with it or what the fuck ever, this is just how it’s done, and it’s okay for me, I don’t mind it, everyone knows I’m shameless. But even if you’re a Lan you’re so—ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.

Maybe we’ll hate each other when we know each other, but I can like you right now. You’re so sweet, under all that ice. Let me like you.

He pressed a kiss to Lan Zhan’s cheek, fleeting, hopefully reassuring, and watched Lan Zhan flush deeper.

“May I be inside you?” Lan Zhan asked, painfully careful and formal. His hips were moving more and more restlessly, the need in both of them after all the same.

“Uh,” Wei Ying said, blindsided by how much he wanted that, as soon as Lan Zhan had asked for it. How he wanted Lan Zhan as close to the golden heat at the core of him as possible, wanted it now, now, please please please. “Yes,” he said, a bit strangled. Laughed unsteadily, spreading his legs—made bold by the way Lan Zhan’s body, settling there, kept him hidden from sight even as his robes slid aside, left his hip and leg bare.

Lan Zhan’s hand touched his hip, too-light and still trembling, and Wei Ying, mind still full of please and let me like you, lay his own hand over it, pressed it down firmly, encouraged Lan Zhan to curl his fingers. His body was into that, the heat in him was into it. Lan Zhan, of his own accord, dug his thumb in just inside the long bone arch of Wei Ying’s hip as his fingers, outside, dug into the muscle of it. There was the shadow of a different kind of lover in the gesture, of the same person who covered Wei Ying possessively to have him for a moment to himself. Something harsher, pushier, definitely more confident. The kind of thing Wei Ying could really, really go for—if there was another time, a normal time. If they weren’t going to spend the rest of their lives sleeping in adjacent bedrooms and pretending not to notice if one of them had someone else, someone for real.

Stop that, he told himself, annoyed at the sting of the thought, at how much he didn’t want it, didn’t want only sincerity of commitment to form but rather—

There had been a bottle, hadn’t there. He’d seen a bottle. Oh, there—a ledge behind the head of the bed. Reaching for it moved him under Lan Zhan, more pressure on his hip, more pressure against his dick, and he groaned, a hitching sound—fumbled the bottle, so that Lan Zhan had to grab for it himself before it slid away out of reach. It should have just been funny. It should have just been funny. Wei Ying wasn’t easily humiliated, and it was nothing, just a clumsy moment in a situation where clumsiness happened. He’d broken a lamp trying to get hold of lube before. He’d almost followed it up by falling off the bed laughing. But this time it burned, a different heat, painful, charring the insides of his ribs, the smoke of it clogging his throat. He closed his eyes, swallowed against it, swallowed again when that didn’t quite work. I’m going to fail my sex exam, he thought, and the ridiculousness helped a tiny bit, but—

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said. “Wei Ying, look at me.”

“Ah, sorry.” Wei Ying blinked his eyes open carefully, gave Lan Zhan a lopsided smile. “I’m back! Let’s have sex.”

Lan Zhan’s eyes did something then that—maybe wasn’t bad? Was maybe—interest, or amusement, or relief. That made Wei Ying think, dizzily, that maybe this whole thing would be alright—that there might be a normal night, another time. That there might be something here that was more exciting, sharper, looser.

“You don’t want to undress,” he said. Not really a question. That part, Lan Zhan had been radiating all along.

“Mm,” Lan Zhan agreed. “I will—open my robes. Enough.”

Looked to Wei Ying, like that part was something Wei Ying got to have an opinion about, like if Wei Ying said some asshole thing like no, you have to be naked he’d just do it. Wei Ying could say a dozen things to that, about the lurch of awareness as he understood that he had some sort of power here and how much he didn’t want to have it, any of it, how Lan Zhan should just—be allowed to do what he wanted, how he wanted it. Don’t, don’t let me dictate things, not when you’re already having shit dictated—

But everything was fragile, this balance they were finding was fragile, so he just nodded, quick and emphatic.

An awkward shuffle between them to work out whose fingers should spread Wei Ying open, absurd enough and with enough need behind it that when Wei Ying curled his hand around Lan Zhan’s and guided it, pressed Lan Zhan’s slicked fingers against his entrance—when he did that, they did that, it was good. Barely a thought of anything else, for a breath or five. There was just the tangle of their fingers, the always-odd first stretch that Wei Ying was enough of a weirdo to be kind of specifically into—the look of focus on Lan Zhan’s beautiful face. So sweet. Not only that—probably still all the things Wei Ying had speculated, or a lot of them—but sweet, too.

Impatient in pleasure, he dragged his own fingers through the mess of lube they’d gotten all over Lan Zhan’s hand, worked one alongside Lan Zhan’s, shoulder twisted awkwardly down to find a good angle, body curling up to meet Lan Zhan’s. A bit of a strange catch to getting it to work, but then Lan Zhan spread his fingers inside Wei Ying, just a little, and it made Wei Ying whine and it made a space in him, and then he was, ah, really stretched to the point where there was a burn to it, oh good, good, and they were moving their hands together, moving their fingers against each other inside him. He had to close his eyes again—whined, whined, whined, needy little noises pressed up against the roof of his mouth, vibrating there. Lan Zhan’s other hand was against his back, helping him keep the right angle, helping him reach, elbow on the bed for leverage. He couldn’t fuck his finger as far into himself as Lan Zhan’s fingers were reaching, but that was okay, that was okay, he was getting the stretch of it, he was getting the touch and heat.

And being watched.

But—

Ah, he didn’t want to break the moment. Fragile, fragile. Lan Zhan was being good to him, was trying to be good to him. The heat in him became waves, rippled outward, inward, and that let him relax into it—they were being watched—let him arch and gasp again, again—they were being watched—

“Okay,” Wei Ying said, burning. “Fuck me. Can you fuck me now, is that okay—I only want to think about you for a bit now—I think if you can fuck me—”

Lan Zhan nodded, a tiny little gesture compared to any of Wei Ying’s, but clear. Wei Ying helped him with his robes, feeling really exposed as they shifted apart to manage it, too aware of—they were being watched—how hard he was, how they’d gotten lube all over the insides of his thighs, how he felt kind of open and how that wasn’t as nice a feeling as usual, although it was alright—it was just that they were being watched, fuck, he wasn’t thinking about that.

He let Lan Zhan show him where the edges of the cloth were and lifted them aside for him, using his leg against Lan Zhan’s hip to keep them out the way. Lan Zhan had a nice dick, a thicker one than Wei Ying would have expected from how fine-boned he was, and it was wet, foreskin only half drawn back so that the head of it was visible as a darker circle, deep red. Lan Zhan hissed when Wei Ying touched it, knuckles brushing it as he arranged fabric, and Wei Ying froze, waited for Lan Zhan to remember to breathe.

“Don’t stop,” Lan Zhan said, in a small voice, once he’d swallowed and taken a shuddering breath. “It’s good.”

Wei Ying dragged his fingers lightly along Lan Zhan’s length, careful, feeling tender about the way it twitched under even that touch. Lan Zhan’s lips parted as Wei Ying stroked his foreskin, drew it all the way back, and he made a small sound which might have been relief, deep in his throat—rolled his hips down against Wei Ying’s hand.

This was going to be a bunch of kinds of different all at once, wasn’t it, Wei Ying thought, suppressing the reflexive urge to reach for a condom. He didn’t let people fuck him raw, that was one of the few things he was really definite on, but testing had been a part of the wedding preparations, and the point was, oh fuck, still just such a cute phrase, oh so sexy, not at all gross: fluid exchange.

Romantic.

There was so much lube spread between his legs that he didn’t bother reaching for the bottle again, just dragged his hand across the inside of his thigh before wrapping it properly around Lan Zhan’s dick, which made Lan Zhan’s eyes widen the tiniest bit, darken. That felt good, felt a bit like being wanted.

“Let me,” Lan Zhan murmured, and curled a hand around Wei Ying’s thigh, lifted it, turning his body, making a space that Lan Zhan could shift into, getting him to an angle where it was easy for Lan Zhan to just—press his dick against Wei Ying’s hole, against the loose space he’d made. Wei Ying hadn’t quite expected it, somehow, and hadn’t expected his relief. It wasn’t the easiest thing, fucking face to face, and he’d have been fine with being flipped over and taken from behind, but—yeah, to be able to think about Lan Zhan’s face—that was good. That was good. And the blunt pressure of Lan Zhan’s dick was good, the way it felt like it’d just slip inside him so easily until the moment Lan Zhan actually started pushing, and then it burned in the right way. He wasn’t sure he was capable of feeling tense any more, the golden heat in his body making the edges of his mind glow and soften. But there was still the stretch, the one he needed.

“Uh,” he tried, moaned. “Yeah, that’s—you can, ah, a bit faster—”

“I cannot,” Lan Zhan said, and he sounded so apologetic that Wei Ying had to reach up and touch his cheek—winced as he realised how sticky his hand was.

“That’s okay, that’s okay,” he said. “I’ll, ha, I’ll try not to be—a brat—”

Lan Zhan’s eyes did something interesting again, but only fleetingly. He closed them as he came to rest in Wei Ying, bowed his head. Wei Ying, feeling the strain of the position, feeling full, feeling pretty good, reached out with his less sticky hand this time—combed through the spill of Lan Zhan’s hair—they should have tied it back, it was going to get everywhere—oh well. It was—obscuring. So.

He rolled his hips experimentally, with the limited movement Lan Zhan’s hand on his hip allowed him. Bit his lip as he found the advantage of being held like this, found how easily he could get Lan Zhan’s dick against his prostate. Pushed into that, just pushed, kept himself pressed there until it felt uncomfortable and only then rolled his hips again, a bit of a drag across it, a moment of harsher pressure. He had to concentrate on it, couldn’t just let it happen the way he usually would—had to work to keep his mind on it. They could have leaned into the aphrodisiac thing a bit more, he thought, momentarily irritated again even as he panted with need. They could have just made it so we didn’t have to think.

That would have been bad, though, honestly. Good in the moment and a good way to make mistakes, to end up somewhere that would be—be difficult to walk back from. He wasn’t quite that stupid. This was still them, they were still choosing how to do this, choosing to do this, just—in a floater way than without the drug.

He shifted again, the same drag of Lan Zhan’s dick inside him, the same slightly-too-much pressure. Tasted iron, teeth too harsh on his own lip, and dragged his tongue across it to smooth away the blood. Lan Zhan’s eyes were open again, and they tracked the movement. Lan Zhan’s lashes fluttered at the next roll of Wei Ying’s hips, and he seemed finally to remember he could help, could move too. Held Wei Ying and rocked experimentally into him. Ah, yes, yes, there was another little shift in the angle, there was Lan Zhan sliding a tiny bit deeper, there, there. Lan Zhan, fucking into the core of him, tentative but in the right place. Everyone could definitely see, like this, but—but that meant there’d be no question, right? Right.

He clutched at Lan Zhan, at red and gold, fingers sliding on loose fabric. Something on Lan Zhan’s sleeve tore as Wei Ying hunted for purchase, and Wei Ying tried to laugh. Couldn’t get it past his throat.

“I will not—last very long,” Lan Zhan said. He sounded uncertain if that was a good thing or not. Wei Ying wasn’t sure either, honestly. Lan Zhan was big and hot inside him, hotter than he was used to, the feeling of forming himself around a body more distinct than he was used to. It was so intimate and so awkward at once. Distance between them, unfamiliarity, but also—they were in this together, they were doing this together, they were allies and they were into each other enough for this. A part of him wanted to keep that, draw it out, the closeness of protecting each other. But that meant he wanted, after all, to protect Lan Zhan, and that meant quick was good—

“That’s okay,” Wei Ying said. His whole body was hot now, all the way to the tips of his fingers. “You should just do it, and then we can, ah, get you covered up again. Get me off after.”

Lan Zhan searched his face, gave another of his tiny nods. And then Wei Ying was really being fucked, quick deep thrusts, Lan Zhan’s balls against the curve of his ass, the sound of it wet and obscene, until Lan Zhan made a pained little noise between clenched teeth, jerked hard against him and inside him, and ah, ah, the heat in Wei Ying loved that. He didn’t know what it would normally feel like to have someone just come inside him without a condom, but like this at least it felt—a lot. Felt like a desperate need in him being eased. It felt like it took a long time for it to stop, too, like Lan Zhan’s orgasm just kept going, tiny little pulses that sunk deep into Wei Ying.

He petted Lan Zhan’s hair clumsily as Lan Zhan whined through it, felt how his toes curled at the feeling, felt how wet his own dick was.

They both winced a little as Lan Zhan slipped out of him.

“Good boy,” Wei Ying said, curling his fingers against Lan Zhan’s scalp, and immediately felt like a complete idiot. It was the kind of thing he’d say to tease affectionately, a normal sex thing. But Lan Zhan made another tiny noise, like he was grateful. Buried his hot face against Wei Ying’s neck as he lowered Wei Ying down fully onto the bed again.

Okay then.

“I can use my mouth,” Lan Zhan said, into Wei Ying’s sweaty skin.

Wei Ying thought about it, shivered. It would leave so much of his body bare, but it was the easiest thing, wasn’t it. And he wasn’t going to last long either, not even with the heat in him less acute than it had been. And he liked it, liked people sucking him off. Liked doing the sucking off even more, but he was flexible.

“Yeah,” he said, encouraging Lan Zhan to shift down his body with a hand on his shoulder. “Do that. Good boy, good boy.”

He closed his eyes against the exposed feeling, even though Lan Zhan’s mouth was so nice and full and would look so good stretched around him. It really was quick, though, in the end. Lan Zhan bent over him, took him deep all at once—sucked at him, tongue insistent against delicate skin—efficient, almost perfunctory. But when it was over, when Wei Ying’s own strange drawn out orgasm had finally faded and he was done swallowing it all down, he rested his head on Wei Ying’s hip—just leaned there, breath hot against skin. Tender, or needy, or both.

A tap on the screen door made them startle, identical nervous twitches. Wei Ying managed a laugh, weakly.

“You will be left alone now,” one of the men said—the Jiang observer. “The monitors are disconnected.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying said, because Lan Zhan didn’t seem inclined to say anything at all.

He expected a congratulations on your marriage or something. You will receive your exam results within three working days, maybe. Oh, oh no, he wasn’t going to have hysterics again. Lan Zhan almost definitely needed him to not have hysterics. But there was just the sound of footsteps, the outer door opening and then closing.

He was going to have to get up and make really sure they were alone. His brain wasn’t going to shut up about it, otherwise.

“Give me a moment,” he said, nudged Lan Zhan gently. “I just need to—I know it’s stupid, but I need to check.”

“That isn’t stupid,” Lan Zhan said. Shifted to let Wei Ying get up, and then a little more so that Wei Ying could extract the most comfortable layer of his robes and wrap himself in it.

The room beyond the screen was empty, the monitors dark.

“Yeah, we’re good,” he said, although a part of him was into the idea of breaking the cameras just to be sure. Probably not a great start to his life here, though. He needed to try and trust it.

“Thank you,” Lan Zhan said, quiet and earnest. He was lying on his side, his hair a tangle under his head, his robes closed but thoroughly messy. “You are as good as I would have expected. Better, even.”

“Eh?” Wei Ying said, thoroughly taken aback. He went back to the bed, sat. Lan Zhan looked up at him, reached out to touch his hip.

Oh, that was—good. Yeah, it was good. He’d thought maybe Lan Zhan would just draw in on himself, now it was done. But Lan Zhan was touching him, willingly if tentatively.

“You were careful with me,” Lan Zhan said. Was silent for a while, like he had to really think about what he wanted to say. “I have dreaded this. When I was first married, I dreaded it. But I thought that if it was you, I would—be safe.”

“Why would you think that?” Wei Ying asked. He had legitimately no idea what part of his personal reputation would lead anyone to that conclusion. Obviously he cared, but people didn’t think that part was interesting, most of the time. They called him brilliant and they called him trouble. Kids liked him. Kids weren't a notable source of inter-system gossip. “I mean, I’m glad you trusted me. But—”

“You know why,” Lan Zhan said, and the thing was, Wei Ying really didn’t.

They watched one another, both unsure.

Lan Zhan shook his head slightly. No, Wei Ying thought, no, no, just tell me, I did something right, I need to keep doing it. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, come on.

But he couldn’t quite make himself push, tonight. Lan Zhan had done so many things already. Looked so weirdly vulnerable, in his messed up robes, sweaty, hair everywhere. Human in a way he never, ever looked in public. More human, even, than he’d looked when his brother was offending his sensibilities.

Wei Ying reached out to brush some stray strands of hair back from Lan Zhan’s forehead, and Lan Zhan relaxed under his hand, which was wild, it was wild, that there was any kind of easy comfort to it.

“Ah, I really need to wash,” Wei Ying said, apologetic, after a few more moments of that strange peace. He was too slick between his legs for comfort. His own hair was a disaster, had been snarled around itself as he twisted against the bed. “Sorry, I’m not trying to run off, I swear.”

“I could help,” Lan Zhan said. Tentative, tentative.

Pride and need were caught between them, caught up with each other in Wei Ying’s head.

“That sounds great, actually,” Wei Ying admitted, finally. He felt sore and stiff, not even so much from sex as from a day of carrying tension. His mind was turning sluggish, and he actually really didn’t want to let go of Lan Zhan yet. If he was marrying for love, his spouse would definitely help him wash his hair. They’d definitely look after each other, fall asleep curled around each other.

 

 

 

 

In the bathroom, Lan Zhan put his hands on the fastenings of his robes. He was blushing again, but he was meeting Wei Ying’s eyes. Daring him to comment, as he stripped himself out of his clothes.

It wasn’t sexy, exactly, except for the fact Lan Zhan was apparently fine being undressed if the only audience was Wei Ying. Conceptually sexy, even if he was just quick and efficient about it. Wei Ying would have pinned him as the kind of person who always folded his clothes, but he dropped everything to pool on the floor around him, nudged the whole tangle away into a corner with his foot. Disdainful? Disdainful. Or just relieved to be done.

“Hi,” Wei Ying said, with a little smile. He felt a bit shy in the face of so much skin, which was ridiculous when Lan Zhan had just fucked him.

Lan Zhan had some scars along one side of his body, none of them large but all similar, in a way which made Wei Ying think of glass blown out by an explosion. He tried to remember if there was anything about an accident or attack in the things he’d read about Lan Zhan, and came up blank. But there was nothing on record about the bite marks on his own leg, so what did that mean? Not much. There was no flinch when he reached out and brushed his fingers across one of them.

“This is truly something you are comfortable with?” Lan Zhan asked.

Wei Ying nodded. Flattened his palm against Lan Zhan’s side. It didn’t feel like a very sexual thing to do, for some reason.

They stepped in against each other, just rested together.

“I hope I don’t annoy the shit out of you,” Wei Ying said, with a little laugh. “I’m really annoying, Lan Zhan.”

“You will not,” Lan Zhan said. Weird certainty again.

“Okay,” Wei Ying said, too tired and too hungry for reassurance to argue it. “Shower.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan agreed, and was the one to do the actual shepherding of Wei Ying under the water.

His fingers in Wei Ying’s hair felt really nice.

“I think I like you,” Wei Ying said, as Lan Zhan worked conditioner through the tangles so gently that it barely tugged at all.

“That is convenient,” Lan Zhan said, very seriously. Took a slow breath. “I know that I like you, Wei Ying. I am certain.”

“You can’t possibly,” Wei Ying said, because that was a bit much for him, even in this state.

“Hm,” Lan Zhan said.

Water sluiced over Wei Ying’s scalp. It made him feel young and safe. His sister had washed his hair for him sometimes, when he hadn’t even been her little brother for long. He couldn’t remember anyone else doing it.

“Let me do you,” he said, unthinking, and only caught up when Lan Zhan made a slightly choked noise. “Did you—was that laughter? Are you laughing at me? I’ve spent all night worrying about you and you’re just—your hair, asshole. Let me wash your hair. I can’t believe you.”

“I can be far more annoying than Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said.

“Clearly,” Wei Ying muttered, reaching for conditioner—Lan Zhan’s hair was clean, but there was no way they were getting a brush through it without some help. “Ah, Lan Zhan. Where are we? We’re really okay?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan said. “I think so.”

“And the other bit? We’re married now, do we—fuck, I don’t know how to ask this.”

Lan Zhan was silent as Wei Ying worked on his hair.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying said, wry but aching a little, feeling like he was failing some whole other test right now, had missed a part of the question. “Maybe that’s not a thing to figure out tonight. So long as we’re okay. You know, though, I think we could be good at fucking each other. If we wanted to.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan said. Wei Ying leaned against his back under the water, sighed, let the shower’s miniature replication of the rain-noise which had defined the day swallow the sound.

“I’ll shut up.”

“No need,” Lan Zhan said. But Wei Ying wasn’t sure what else to say, what he could prod at without making an idiot of himself.

The water shut off. Lan Zhan draped a towel around his shoulders, wrapped another around his hair. Wei Ying felt heavy with exhaustion now, but not really like he could sleep yet. He watched Lan Zhan silently, watched him drying himself off, squeezing water out of his hair, and Lan Zhan just let him. This is my husband, he thought, experimentally. I think I might really like him. Maybe I’m just still slightly high. But I think I really like him. I think I could really like him.

Lan Zhan made a soft noise Wei Ying couldn’t quite parse, and then there were firm hands guiding him through the same drying off process he’d just watched Lan Zhan do.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, half a question.

“Mm,” Wei Ying said. “I’m good, I’m good. You’re nice. People say you’re so mean, but you’re being nice. If you killed that other guy I bet he deserved it. Who was he, a Wen? I can’t remember—”

Lan Zhan’s hands paused, then picked up their work again.

“Why did you marry me, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asked. “You’re in mourning. They can’t make someone in mourning marry.”

“I could not let it be anyone else,” Lan Zhan said.

“Okay,” Wei Ying said. There was something missing in that answer. But he was so tired.

Lan Zhan’s lips brushed his forehead.

“You seemed so independent,” Lan Zhan said. “Bright. Everything I learned about you. I could not let it be anyone who would crush that.”

“You’re nice,” Wei Ying said, although there was still something he wasn’t quite getting. He thought again of lotus flowers, the warm dark, the distant lights. Of being allowed to just talk and talk and being listened to like he was the most interesting person imaginable. “I’m onto you.”

Dream and memory felt like they were sliding together. Maybe he could sleep after all. Maybe he was already asleep, dreaming kindness. It was a pretty good dream.

Yeah. It was a pretty good dream. He could stay in it for a bit. A warm body, hands helping him into pyjamas.

Was there a blade at all? he wondered, and wasn’t sure where the thought even came from. I thought about being cut, didn’t I? But there’s no blood. No, that was earlier—I was thinking about something else.

 

 

 

 

Settled in bed, the world resolved itself slightly, slid back into some sort of alignment. I’m going to have questions, he thought, watching Lan Zhan lying beside him. I’m going to have so many questions. He’ll be sick of them before I’m halfway done.

But here I am. And I really do think I might like him.

Chapter Text

When Wei Ying woke for the first time that morning he was alone, lying in a pool of light so grey that it might be natural. It filtered down into the room from above, the ceiling funnelling sharply up towards what looked like skylights at its distant highest point. The sun rising behind clouds, or good quality daylamps beginning their rotation into use? Windows, probably, and real daylight.

The night’s chemical heat had ebbed from him, and everything it had submerged lay bare.

He pulled the duvet close around himself, shivering, and thought about etymology.

These unthinking things, in Imperial Standard, had eyes: cameras; buildings; projectile weapons. The same central component to the glyphs for lense, and window, and barrel. An aperture, but with a specific implication of perception. In poetic form, the presence of any of the three might be felt as a weight on the back of the neck.

Why the barrel? A kind of deliberate displacement, again poetic, taken into general use—a person aimed a gun using the sight, but the weapon had a vision of its own—? He had read that in something, he thought, but things tangled themselves around each other in his brain without actually belonging together pretty often—

He was cold. Too tired for any of it.

 

 

 

 

He woke for the second time mid-flinch, mind full of the dream of piercing pain, all thought compacted into a tight loud mass at the base of his skull.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, quick and alarmed—

They stared at one another. Lan Zhan’s hand, which had hovered just where Wei Ying’s shoulder must have been, lowered slowly. The duvet, still pulled in around Wei Ying, seemed to be shaking.

“Ah,” Wei Ying said. “Lan Zhan! You made me jump. Did I oversleep?”

“No.” Lan Zhan’s gaze dropped. The lowering of his eyes made him look—young. Not less severe, really—except Wei Ying had seen him stripped down. Wei Ying knew the flutter of those delicate lashes against his skin. Could see just the edges of something else in Lan Zhan’s face. “It is still early. I—presumed. I thought you might wish to eat something, before it is time for more formalities.”

They were in alliance, the two of them, Wei Ying reminded himself. And he was hungry. He couldn’t start acting spooked. Couldn’t let the way he’d lashed out against Jiang Cheng, sometimes, after their worst year, become a habit he carried with him.

“No, no, you’re right,” he said, struggling up to sit cross-legged on the bed but not relinquishing the sheltering cave of the duvet. There was a little trolley beside Lan Zhan, flasks and containers lined up neatly on it. “Food sounds great. I can be awake for food. Hey, is that coffee—?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan confirmed. Wei Ying watched his hands as he picked up the coffee flask and a cup, poured.

“Nothing in it,” Wei Ying said, at a questioning look, and was glad, when passed it, to wrap his hands around too-hot porcelain.

Lan Zhan, given something to do with his hands and a lack of Wei Ying actively freaking out at him over nothing, was looking very poised again—especially for a man wearing only pyjamas with a thin robe over them, and with his long hair in a slightly sleep-skewed braid. It was—surprising, maybe, that Lan Zhan had been out of bed for long enough to arrange breakfast but hadn’t spent any time on hiding himself away, armouring himself in clothes. Wei Ying was glad of it—of the lack of distancing. Maybe he was an idiot who didn’t know where he was on waking, who never had been good at remembering what was and wasn’t a threat. But Lan Zhan was being good enough to pretend they were on equal footing, and right now that felt nice.

Yes. They were allies.

He shifted on the bed experimentally, taking stock of his body. Not really sore from being fucked—just the general ache of muscles held too tense for too long. Thinking of being fucked, though, came with a stab of sense-memory—a phantom heat. He felt like everything inside him had been overturned in the night, all his reactions too close to the surface. His nose was full of the intimate smell of Lan Zhan’s skin during sex, and inhaling brought with it further flashes of memory—of a hand on his hip—of fingers in his wet hair.

His body still liked the idea of being touched by Lan Zhan, outside of its sleeping dislike of being touched by anyone at all.

Lan Zhan finished pouring himself tea from another flask. Touched something on the side of the bed, out of Wei Ying’s line of sight, and drew a padded bench out from under it, which he seated himself on, facing but not too close to Wei Ying. The casual ease of someone who knew how a place worked, could read something as obscure and specific as the signs indicating hidden functions in the construction of furniture. What to expect.

“So we’re married,” Wei Ying said, just to try saying it, sober and in daylight.

“Yes.”

“Fully. The whole thing. I’m more married to you than anyone else has ever been.”

“Yes.”

“Wow,” Wei Ying said, pointlessly. He drank his coffee, letting the mug and the steam mask his face while he sorted through how he felt about any of that. It was good coffee, the right kind of bitterness, not acidic or burnt. A round deep taste that settled on his tongue and stayed there. It would be good with spices added during the brewing, he thought—

And he still had no idea what to do with himself. With any of it. He finished his coffee and sank instead into the mechanical process of eating: going through the containers to find things that looked appetising, making a new line out of them. the lid of each could be flipped over to become a plate if a dish was being shared—unnecessary economy, like a twee copy of a shipboard solution. White rice, a fragrant yellow curry. A small jar held spiced algae flakes, the same mix with chilli and dried fish that Wei Ying had tipped over his breakfast more days of his life than not. That made him look up, startled—but Lan Zhan wasn’t looking at him at all.

It was a common seasoning back home. Not a stretch to think he might want it around. Calm down, Wei Ying told himself. Calm down, calm down.

They were nearly through this period of ceremony. Nearly into the part of this where he’d find out what he had to work with, in terms of a new home. He could feel it opening up ahead of him, beyond the end of this narrow passage they’d pushed their way through. But he couldn’t see it yet.

 

 

 

 

Their attendants announced themselves before Wei Ying was done eating. It was strange, the persistent hungover feeling he had—hollow and hungry. If Lan Zhan had just let him sleep, let him go into this unfed—well—

He wanted, suddenly, to ask about Lan Zhan’s first marriage. To ask when it had gone wrong, if it had been before or after he’d taken the drug, if he’d had enough of the experience to know how Wei Ying would feel in the morning or if he’d just done his homework.

But there were four other people in the room. There were boxes of cosmetics, brushes, clothes hung on free-standing rails. There was activity. So much to have done.

“If you have no objections, we’ll prepare you both in here,” one of the attendants said. Wei Ying hated not knowing their names. It sat wrong—itched. None of them ever introduced themselves.

“I have no objections,” Lan Zhan said, although his voice was a little tight, and Wei Ying nodded quickly. A lack of distancing. Yes.

Lan Zhan held himself still. He was treated with quick efficiency. He was barely touched. Hands that let down his hair didn’t brush his neck. Where Wei Ying was prodded into the position the attendants needed him in, Lan Zhan was directed with gestures and the occasional word. He bowed his head to allow his hair to be fastened in a high coil, and the work of placing it was done, for the most part, with combs and pins, not fingers.

A hand on Wei Ying’s jaw turned his face to the side, and the attendant in front of him gave him a meaningful look.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “My husband is distracting.”

The man who had put him firmly back in place softened, and, although Wei Ying desperately wanted to check Lan Zhan’s reaction, he decided not to waste this fragment of goodwill quite yet, keeping his eyes ahead and his chin raised so that his hair could be captured in its own arrangement.

“Sorry,” he said again, wincing, as the attendant behind him started over for the second time. “It does that. It doesn’t like being told what to do. I keep trying.”

There was still a crawling feeling to being touched. He didn’t mind touch at all, in the usual course of things. But to be master and object at the same time—

He sometimes thought that if he lost the fact that he was the son of a servant, he might not be anything at all. He had planned to be a servant of a sort all his life; he had planned to stand at Jiang Cheng’s side. He had planned and planned—had a plan for everything, always, but all of it had been predicated on the fact of his service, and that his service would revolve around Lotus Pier, however loose the orbit.

To marry had been service.

And what was he now?

“A moment,” Lan Zhan said.

Hands fell away.

Wei Ying blinked, a quick series, until he was sure his eyes would cooperate. Looked up.

An empty room, almost. One attendant remained, by the door. Lan Zhan, looking at the man, seemed—regal. Of course he did. There was something so casual about the way in which he spoke commands. Something self-evident about his station.

“It is tradition to dress one’s spouse entirely,” Lan Zhan said. “Wait outside.”

Wei Ying wasn’t sure, suddenly, what he was feeling. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to be feeling. What did he do with the fact that Lan Zhan said wait outside in that way which expected obedience, and a small part of him, a small but insistent part—thought it was a command for him to obey?

Okay, there it was:

He was angry.

He was angry.

The scale of it, once he’d found it, was staggering.

He was angry that he didn’t know the servants’ names. He was angry that he was being dressed by other hands again and again. He was angry that he was the one who knew best what Jiang Cheng would think was important in a given moment and that someone else was probably messing up preparations for some meeting of his right now and that he didn’t know that person’s name, either, because it was none of the people he’d recommended.

He wanted, desperately, to be helping Jiang Cheng into one of his stupid beautiful too-tight too-fancy coats and giving him shit about it. He wanted to be throwing on workout clothes and heading for the shooting range to terrify everyone, casually, because that was his kind of easy display of power—look how good the Jiang dynasty’s personal household is. Go on. Try to do better. To follow it by helping the kids who were learning, hoping they’d only ever need to use it for just that kind of showing off.

He wanted to dive into cool green water and stay down in that muffled world until his ears hurt and surface as himself.

Just Wei Ying, with no other name or title.

Lan Zhan was watching him.

“Go ahead,” Wei Ying said, and felt the dangerous curl of his mouth, and was afraid of it. But he was still angry, and fear couldn’t tip that balance. “Make me suitable. Put me in my place.”

Lan Zhan’s expression turned very still, and cold. Good, Wei Ying thought. Good. Fight me. He was itching for a fight. He felt vicious, or as though viciousness was a creature that lived inside him, a restless and demanding thing that lay coiled in his stomach.

“What is your place, precisely?” Lan Zhan asked.

“I,” Wei Ying said. Swallowed, and turned his face away. His whole skull felt tight with his anger. “I’m pretty sure you’re meant to tell me that. You’re the one who belongs here. Who do you think I am, huh?”

“A person,” Lan Zhan said. “With whom I am in partnership.”

He sounded so dispassionate, as though the words didn’t matter at all—were only facts. But Wei Ying, turning back to spit venom, caught the unhappiness that sat at the corners of his mouth—the tiniest downturn—and that was—

I’m still angry, he told himself.

But he didn’t want to fight. The viciousness which had felt so solid and present a breath before was just—gone.

Fuck the dizzy flip of his moods. He was acting weird. There were things here he wasn’t going to solve in one hungover morning while making them late for official ceremonies.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, softly.

“I know,” Wei Ying said. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. You’re just trying to help, and I’m an asshole. Let me put everything on myself and then you can fix the bits I’ve messed up.”

Endless, endless dressing and undressing. They were being dressed here only for the sake of formally removing the outer layers in half an hour or so, and they would be doing that in order to dress each other, and it never ended—only then it would end. And he wouldn’t even have a script.

What was his place?

Lan Zhan stepped away, into the bathroom. Wei Ying, alone, dropped the dressing-robe from his shoulders—looked at himself in the free-standing mirror that had been brought in. His almost-neat hair, his made up face, his bare skin which carried no marks from the night before. He felt as though it should. It seemed impossible that it didn’t. He touched his hip, remembering Lan Zhan’s hand grasping him there—the way his thumb had slotted along the crest of Wei Ying’s hipbone. He looked at his soft dick, which had been inside Lan Zhan’s mouth. His lips had touched Lan Zhan’s. They had—he could feel himself flush—touched each other’s fingers inside the hot tight space of Wei Ying’s body. He could feel the residue of the sex they’d had mostly in sense-memory, but if he thought about how his body felt there was a slight tenderness between his legs now that he was on his feet, wasn’t there—not soreness, still not that, but an awareness of a body part which had been used in an only half-accustomed way.

He focused on that, as he pulled on underclothes. The way his spine ached slightly from the previous day’s tension as he bent meant that he knew where he was.

This morning’s clothes were a soft blue-toned grey which wouldn’t have been completely out of place in either Jiang or Lan contexts. They had fewer layers than anything from the day before, in a parody of casualness. The fastenings were unforgiving—everything wrapped and tied, and any clumsiness in the process of draping and knotting became ugly. He wasn’t even bad at dealing with this stuff, but to dress himself was—

Was pointedly not how it was meant to be done. Deliberately awkward.

The arms went fine, and the sash around his waist, the two layers of it folded together neatly enough that he’d have let Jiang Cheng leave the house in it. But there was a complicated trick to the neck.

He let go of the set of ties for the third time, and breathed very deliberately so he wouldn’t scream, and tipped his head back so that he didn’t have to look himself in the eye, and called for his husband.

Lan Zhan had cleaned away the makeup from around his eyes, and his eyelashes were damp. Someone was going to be really annoyed about that, probably. Wei Ying, remembering having to fix his own eyeliner the day before, wondered—but there was no redness to Lan Zhan’s eyes, and his face was calmly passive as he looked at Wei Ying, with just a raised eyebrow standing in for a question.

“The neck needs to fold right,” Wei Ying said, gesturing—there was an asymmetrical rise to the neckline where it sat close against his throat, made up of three folds, and they shifted easily out of place when he let go of them to tie them off against his shoulder.

Lan Zhan stepped into Wei Ying’s space, careful, and ran his hand along the folds—the backs of his fingers dipped under the fabric, the flats of his nails sliding across the side of Wei Ying’s neck.

Wei Ying shivered. He thought of the neat moons of those nails. He was sure Lan Zhan would have strong nails. That he would be able to dig them in hard, if he wanted to. Even though they had no uneven edges, he could draw blood. If he wanted to.

He thought about being held by the throat, and wasn’t sure if what he felt was arousal or panic.

Maybe both.

He closed his eyes.

“Give me your hand,” Lan Zhan said, close to his ear and so matter of fact that Wei Ying just did it without remembering to feel irritation.

Lan Zhan’s fingers were water-cool, not exactly damp but very newly dry.

“Here,” he said, and pressed Wei Ying’s fingers against the fold that had given Wei Ying so much trouble, keeping it in place while Lan Zhan worked deft knots. His knuckles brushed back and forth over Wei Ying’s neck. The shivery feeling didn’t settle. It wasn’t crawling in the way the touch of strangers’ hands had been. Just—

He was still angry. But the feeling turned more and more tired with every breath, settled into his bones. Other feelings could be layered over it.

Lan Zhan’s hands fell away.

“There,” he said. “You are dressed. May I help with your hair?”

Wei Ying kept his eyes closed, nodded carefully.

Unlike the night before, Lan Zhan’s hands were exact. No elaborate hairpiece today, but jewelled pins, sitting in a curved line along his scalp, holding the twist of his hair in place. Lan Zhan pulled two of the pins free, shifted Wei Ying’s hair gently, and replaced them—and that was it. All it had needed.

“Your makeup,” Wei Ying said.

“Too heavy,” Lan Zhan said. “I will apply something lighter. It will not take long.”

Not I’ll have the attendants apply something lighter.

“I could,” Wei Ying said, not sure where the sentence would lead him.

“No need,” Lan Zhan said, and picked up an abandoned case of makeup, and retreated again to the bathroom.

 

 

 

 

In an antechamber attached to the temple room with its spire, they were shown the clothes they would change into. The Jiangs had been responsible for Lan Zhan’s, and their choices had been conservative—stayed close to the types of formal clothing Lan Zhan apparently favoured in public, and wove their family symbols together in subtle embroidery. Lan Huan had already said that Lan Zhan had personally commissioned Wei Ying’s robes—another imbalance. But seeing them—yes, he could be grateful for this much. For the fact that the colours were exactly right for his favoured style of formal dress, blood red and black and a deep charcoal grey—that the cut looked like it would suit him. He had always been popular at Lotus Pier, but he wasn’t—hadn’t been—a public figure in the way Lan Zhan was. To understand him required a more specific kind of attention, and the fact that it was Lan Zhan who had apparently paid that attention—helped. More, maybe, than it should.

“No, no,” one of the attendants said, to a question from Wei Ying as tables were arranged, low chairs set out. He was an older man, square-chinned, his hair thinning but not grey. “We will be in here for the entire ceremony, not in the temple hall. This is only a small event, and not filmed.”

Lan Zhan seemed to be looking into space again, disinterested or impatient. It made Wei Ying want to prod him, flick at the space between his eyebrows, tug lightly on the nest of jewellery that coiled around the ear of every significant member of the Lan family. Anything that would make him be present, in this with Wei Ying, the way he was meant to be.

Childish, he thought, in Jiang Cheng’s voice. And, in Jiang Yanli’s: is A-Ying three years old again?

Xianxian, she’d called him, the day he left—like his new formal name was a point of pride, the way it would be for most people. Like she was trying to help him break it in, tell him he owned it. And then, more tearfully, my little A-Ying

Brother and sister by blood oath, old oath, oath that belonged more to Wei Ying’s mother than to the world of palaces and empires. It hurt Jiang Cheng, didn’t it, that he fought to be formally titled Wei Wuxian—not Jiang. That it was the only thing he’d fought for. But maybe Jiang Yanli had understood.

They wouldn’t have changed their family names for him.

There was nothing wrong in that. And then—

He looked sidelong again at Lan Zhan. At the honourable Lan Wangji, the Second Jade of Lan, who carries starlight in the palms of his hands. Wangji, to his brother, in a strange solemn tone which Wei Ying had been turning over since he heard it and which he felt was—off, in some real way. Jiang Yanli just disliked her birth name, and everyone said Yanli to her in easy speech. Lan Zhan—he wasn’t sure.

Wangji, Wangji. The weight of it.

Whatever, he thought. Whatever. I’ll figure it out. Right now I want to stay just a little bit angry, and if I feel sorry for him I’ll lose it. If I don’t have a bit of anger—

Anchors are necessary things.

There was a palace, once, where it was a privilege to watch the king be dressed. The sort of story that seems so weird and funny—all the makings of a comedy, or a drama. A closed room, an audience of significant figures, the avatar of god in his shirtsleeves. Roll cameras. The sort of thing that didn’t sound like it could have been real even then—although it was enacted, still, in its way, now.

No cameras, today. Almost, Wei Ying thought, with the humour of a strange night survived, a shame. A show for only—ten places set at low tables. Ten people, then—if you discounted attendants—which of course you were intended to.

 

 

 

 

Twelve people, once you had counted in the two attendants. The doors slid closed, opened again on another guest. A murder mystery, Wei Ying thought. It could be a murder mystery, couldn’t it. Locked room. No cameras. The fact that no cameras had been a specification ahead of time would then be—some kind of foreshadowing. Close the doors on the scene. Reveal—what?

The human mind loved to find stories. Significant events. What was this kind of narrativizing if not another form of looking for omens to read? Funny. Which stories could be assigned to what categories.

He hadn’t even tried to play a game of omens since he woke, Wei Ying realised, and twisted strangely inside himself

“Congratulations, then, on your marriage,” Lan Huan said, smiling with one corner of his mouth, searching Wei Ying with his eyes until Lan Zhan made a minute noise that might not even have been meant for Wei Ying to hear, a wordless protest—and Lan Huan’s eyes crinkled, and his smile shifted into one that must hold a different meaning. Wei Ying couldn’t read his smiles yet. Didn’t have the measure of them.

“Brother,” Lan Zhan said. A pause, communicative in its silence. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Wei Ying echoed.

The doors closed with finality on the heels of the last guest—Nie Huaisang, fluttering away from them like an alarmed bird.

You all know that we fucked last night, Wei Ying thought. Do you want to know how it was? A review? Have any of you done the same? I don’t know who most of you are.

Be curious if you like. It won’t get you anywhere. You don’t know who I am either.

Layer on layer of ritual, still, again. Words said and cups raised. Wei Ying, close to Lan Zhan but not so close as all that, imagined that he could feel that tidal heat between them; that they still resonated in that way, pulled at each other like orbital bodies; that he wasn’t only feeling a ghost under his skin.

He wanted it back and he never wanted to feel anything like it again. The glowing star-birth togetherness. The raw-edged heat. To exist in relation to—the desire and horror of that relational position—

They stood. The attendants framed them, ready to take robes, present new ones. Only the outer layers, Wei Ying reminded himself. This is a superficial cut.

Ah, did I think this would be absurd and awkward? It’s worse.

The shifting flow of voices. Heads turned towards each other, although their gazes remained angled towards Wei Ying and Lan Zhan—sidelong looks, their pupils dark shadows in the corners of their eyes. Ink-drops. Absurd, absurd, absurd.

He ducked his own gaze away, tucked it into the space between Lan Zhan’s feet. The sides of his low boots, fine patterns stitched and cut into stiff fabric, illegible from a distance—nothing but texture, of the kind that made a thing feel expensive—lent it weight through the implied hours of labour required to produce it. Luxury of this kind, considered ultimately, reduced itself to time and access. The rarest materials, the skills which took a lifetime to perfect and months to exercise—

Stop, he told himself. Jiang Cheng’s voice. Exasperation at the way his mind twisted and skidded, the things he grasped at and the way they sounded when he said them.

Here. The room. The voices. Expensive shoes. Between them, Lan Zhan reached out.

Fingers against the hollow of Wei Ying’s palm. A gentle press. I’ll come apart, Wei Ying thought. I knew I needed to stay angry.

His hand curled, seeking comfort without his permission. To jerk away now would be to make a scene. If he was younger, he might have done it anyway.

He lingered in the moment of contact. He let Lan Zhan be the one to pull away.

Lan Zhan, waiting, raised his chin—an invitation. Go ahead.

The memory of fabric draped around them, shielding, caught him in the stomach—ached there. So many things lived in a body. The strange ecosystem of sense and recollection and feeling.

He set his hands at Lan Zhan’s neck and felt vulnerable with it.

A knot of fabric. A row of buttons. No shortcuts, no conveniences. Luxury, reduced to time: the extended periods necessarily spent on dressing and undressing, and the work hours of staff employed to reduce the personal effort involved. Lan Zhan’s eyes were half-closed. Wei Ying could feel, under his fingers, each time Lan Zhan swallowed. The catch of his breath as Wei Ying inadvertently tugged a piece of fabric tight instead of loosening it, constricting for a moment. The robe Lan Zhan wore below this outer piece was much lower in the neck, and Wei Ying watched the rounded heads of his collarbones shifting as he breathed, the small movement of fabric back and forth across them. It felt too intimate to show anyone. Too intimate for Wei Ying himself to see.

Wrists. The fabric here was gathered with pins, a row of them lying along the outside Lan Zhan’s forearms, glittering like raindrops—a mirror of the pins in Wei Ying’s hair. Wei Ying’s thumb grazed the side of Lan Zhan’s hand, and the touch became a shiver, rippled out through both of their bodies. So.

The magic trick of choreography: here, an attendant with a tray for Wei Ying to lay the pins onto, gone the moment the last one was set down. The act of drawing the robe from Lan Zhan’s stiff shoulders shifted smoothly into his being relieved of the weight of it.

A ritual act of devotion: these hands that had undressed Lan Zhan, taken between Lan Zhan’s own palms, one after the other—lifted to his lips—kissed in blessing before new fabric could be allowed to touch them.

The fabric, when it followed, felt too delicate to be handled—partly an illusion, perhaps—or perhaps not. It would have been an illusion in the palace of Lotus Pier, all delicate fabric reinforced with unseen mesh, barely evident even to the touch. In the Cloud Recesses, a different weight was placed upon a particular screwed up idea of authenticity, of—verisimilitude. And which convention had the Jiangs followed? He held to caution, glad for the neatness of his nails. Draped Lan Zhan in blue with all the care of a devoted worshiper or husband, and barely shook.

It didn’t hurt so much, in the end, to allow Lan Zhan to undress him and dress him in the same way. It had become abstract—it had become theatre, become a dance performance of the kind which took centre stage in a certain class of dining establishment back home. It was the attendants, he thought, that he should thank for it—however it would feel later, there was a rhythm to their movement through this little performance which he could follow. Be pulled along by and guided by. To be a part of a strange machine. (The horror and the desire of it—)

Lan Zhan’s hands were smooth and warm against his lips. He kissed the palms, felt the topography of them shifting. Sighed against the right, let his eyes fall shut for just that breath, and had made himself pliant by the time he opened them again.

Someone laughed softly in response to a murmured comment. Nie Huaisang had a fan in his gloved hand, and each measured flick of it was a beat, as though he thought he could set the tempo of the whole affair.

Grey and black and red.

Lan Zhan, fastening a pin at Wei Ying’s throat and finding that this was the last of it, seemed not to know what to do—stood with his hands raised, just above Wei Ying’s chest, not quite touching. He was being pulled along too, Wei Ying realised. The last step of the dance—and then what?

Now that we are two people, dressed for what’s meant to be a life together—

Now what?

 

 

 

 

Dispersal was a gradual process. The doors opened on nothing more complicated than the thing they had closed on—people of note, conversing—the players left the stage in twos and threes. The light outside the door had a brittle coldness to it after the closed space of the chamber, stinging the eyes. Even without seeing the soaring sweep of the spire, Wei Ying could feel how it loomed over them—the vastness of the space, pressing in through a narrow opening. The bright floor and dark heights.

Lan Huan lingered. Go, Wei Ying thought. In front of only Lan Zhan, he could have slumped—had earned that possibility. Lan Huan was the smallest of steps from being a head of state, and he’d been welcoming in his way, but Wei Ying didn’t understand him—didn’t understand the balance of the brothers’ relationship—didn’t trust any of it.

“There,” Lan Huan said, as the last of the company left the room, followed by the attendants. “That’s done. You did very well, Wangji.”

Lan Zhan didn’t answer. Lan Huan’s smile was softly indulgent.

“I don’t get praised?” Wei Ying asked. “Ah, have pity on your newest brother.”

In the corner of his eye, he saw Lan Zhan shift—couldn’t read the shape of his reaction. But he couldn’t stand in silence, just sit with tension he hadn’t caused.

Lan Huan laughed—this, too, soft and indulgent. “Wei Ying, naturally, is also very accomplished. But you see, Wangji has little taste for company, and less taste for ceremony than you might believe.”

Than I might believe. Wei Ying might believe a great many things. He had only theories, scraps of information. He had only a mind that forgot itself at inconvenient moments, and a dossier that had very little to say about personality.

“I see, I see,” he said, with a play at solemnity, trying to keep to the humour of the exchange. The next thing should be a glib comment—my husband has to have some kind of failing, huh—?

He faltered. Fabric shielding him. The press of fingers into his palm. A flush spreading on pale skin. An anxious question in a stolen moment. Painful sincerity. Unearned trust.

Drifting dream-memories of the lakes at night.

Too long a silence, after all, in this small room. Lan Zhan was turned half away from them, gaze fixed in the middle distance. The nested jewellery around his ear glimmered—was a cloudhook, Wei Ying realised, in a distracted way, seeing how the glimmer became a spread of blue light across the soft curve of Lan Zhan’s cheekbone, the line of his brow. Not just an interface but a symbol of belonging, a device which connected the wearer practically and symbolically to the heart of the palace. The unfurled display itself was invisible, seen only as a change in shadows and highlights. It must have been inactive, all this time. Lan Huan’s still was, if it came to that. The elaborate coil of it appeared to be only jewellery—cast no light, held no glow.

“You must let Wangji know if you find yourself in need of anything,” Lan Huan said. “Or myself, for that matter. You are, as you say, my newest brother, and I take family seriously.”

Wei Ying bowed thanks—a jerky stop as he remembered the proper depth. Family. An older brother, and not one’s lord.

“I hope I’ll be of help here,” he said.

“I hope you will be happy here,” Lan Huan responded, and it sounded—different—off—it had something hidden in it, under the surface, deforming his tone of voice.

It didn’t feel like a lack of sincerity. This family. The strange tension, and then—

“Oh,” Wei Ying said, slightly helplessly. “Ah. Thank you.”

“Your luggage has been taken to our home,” Lan Zhan said, with the awkward snap back to attention of someone who had been deep in a separate activity, very nearly speaking across Wei Ying. He blinked once, a slow silent apology.

Wei Ying quirked a corner of his mouth, dismissing the need.

Lan Huan looked back and forth between them. Curiosity, half-masked.

“Then I shouldn’t keep you,” he said.

Lan Zhan flicked the expanded display of the cloudhook away, light retreating, although it remained active, flickering against his ear. It was called a cloudhook, but in this form it made Wei Ying think of something deep-sea. Bioluminescence. There were so many things that dreamed of light. Bioluminescence had evolved independently at least seven hundred times, across the catalogued habitats of human-occupied space. Sparking insects. The waving edges of soft gelatinous bodies in cold water. Spores shimmering in cave air. All these beautiful unnerving lives. Dreaming, dreaming, in the dark.

“Here,” Wei Ying said, to Lan Zhan, offering his arm as they turned to leave. “Escort me.”

He was too tired, but the play of it kept him upright, kept him moving. Lan Zhan gave him a skeptical look—and then—obeyed.

“Good boy,” Wei Ying said, thoughtlessly, and Lan Zhan—stiffened.

Ah.

The night before—his hands in Lan Zhan’s hair—

“Hm,” Lan Zhan said, although his arm was still rigid against Wei Ying’s. He didn’t scramble away. There was no anger. “Come.”

 

 

 

 

The palace complex, much like Lotus Pier’s, was vast enough to require its own internal transit system. Capsules slid along a network of magnetised pathways, frictionless and near-silent, directed by the central AI of the habitat in a neat dance. They were each large enough for a group of five or six, subtly cloud-like on their translucent upper curves and fading to a deep blue at their bases, the mechanics concealed. Wei Ying watched them with a tired sort of interest, feeling hazy and distant, detached from himself but not incurious. Watched the flicker of Lan Zhan’s cloudhook as he called one in.

They were without attendants as they made their way between spires. They were moving through the world like people did, although they were overdressed for it. There had been ceremonies for every stage of this thing, and now they were cut loose, maybe just slightly too soon. Anchors are necessary things. He didn’t have any anger left to stabilise himself with. There was no choreography.

He had longed for this. And he had known, too, how it would actually feel.

They leaned against one another on the capsule’s bench, two unstrung marionettes. Enough solidarity for shared exhaustion. It was still morning, bright, the dome structure of the habitat visible in the sun, the joints between its sections turning to threads of silver and gold. Real sun, real earth, but artifice in air composition, in the circulation of water, in the maintenance of a biome in which humans had a place. The management of radiation. A harmonious system—now that the excess of rain had been dealt with.

Unseen from the heart of the Cloud Recesses, habitat domes spread out from them across the surface of the planet, a net of blue-green jewels. Nature caught in glass. He had seen them on his approach to the spaceport, watched the distant glitter of the world resolve itself into bright points of life and expanses of dusty quiet.

Around them, water flowed. Plants cascaded down the sides of buildings from a height of two storeys, creating the impression of a sort of treeline—making the spires seem more mountainous than ever, with their bare upper reaches. Tall grasses screened walkways. Trees were in blossom, although the rain had left petals scattered across the ground below them—small cleaning units were gathering them. Were raking the gravel sections of the gardens back into orderly sweeping patterns. It was so easy to look at the Lan, their affectations, and imagine disciples at work in monastic silence, growing moral character in the orchards. But there were robots to carry out the most everyday tasks, just like in any other seat of wealth.

“Here,” Lan Zhan said, nudging him gently as the capsule halted. “There is still a little way to walk.”

Not one of the great doorways into a spire; not even the entrance to any of the lower buildings that formed passages between many of them or rested in their shadows. Just a walkway, wooden planks stretching away from them and around a corner, the way shielded on both sides by dense bushes and a spreading arch of trees.

This is a door to another world, Wei Ying thought, looking at the beginning of the walkway—the arch that framed it. Symbolic delineation. Different materials. Different trees.

In the opening, Lan Zhan looked back over his shoulder.

Okay, Wei Ying thought. Okay. What’s one more world? He’d dreamed of seeing so many, once. Every place his parents had ever touched.

He flashed Lan Zhan some sort of a smile, and took three quick steps to join him.

 

 

 

 

It was a strange building. It must at one time have been a passage between the two spires that crowded in on either side of it—an in-between place, a nowhere place. It had been filled in since, given definition, and a narrow strip of balcony half way up its plant-thick face indicated that it had two floors inside rather than the cold height it would originally have boasted.

No windows overlooked it. The spires were blank above on their near sides, turning their backs on it. But there was a green space in front of it—an ornamental pond—a bird clattered back and forth between the branches of a tree, revealing itself in a quick flash of blue-yellow as it took to the air.

A stable habitat. Living things which moved just slightly beyond the control of the people who maintained it—for verisimilitude. Wei Ying thought of the clouds of biting insects that gathered around the lakes back home—the fine nets and barriers that were necessary to keep certain places habitable. The smell of algae, of rotting water-grass, clogging the summer air. Nothing so inconvenient here, surely. But a bird could be allowed to fly as it wished. Shit on things a bit.

Good.

I’ll sit here and read fortunes in the stuff before it’s cleaned away, Wei Ying thought, with a twist of unfunny humour, if they keep me too idle. I’ll be a pain in the ass about it. Call it religious practice when they complain.

They had reached the door. Lan Zhan held his hand out, and light wound across the surface to meet it. The softest hiss as the door, unlocked, slid aside for them.

“Biometric lock?” Wei Ying asked. It was a sort of stalling, wasn’t it. The moment before Lan Zhan stepped forward and the inside of the house lit up and he knew what it was like, what he had to work with.

“No,” Lan Zhan said. “A code. I will show you.”

He, too, seemed to be hesitating. A nervous edge to the way he held himself that Wei Ying only knew in this subdued form because he had seen a more extreme version the day before.

Two adults, afraid to step over one more threshold.

“Okay,” Wei Ying said. “Okay, cool. Hope you’re ready to explain things to me for the rest of the month.”

There was no way to make these steps feel casual, so he just took them. Past Lan Zhan, still hesitating in the doorway. Into cool darkness—into the warming dawn of the lights, waking up as he disturbed their peace.

An open room, with lines on the floor and ceiling where screens could be raised—some were in place, framed fabric woven to show ghostly suggestions of birds in flight, turning what lay beyond into blurry colour-blocks. The room wrapped around a central courtyard, a narrow rectangle cut from its heart. Even now, the sun barely touched any of that space, leaving it murky and dim.

Art on the walls, stark, near-brutal. Stringed instruments. The smell of a home was always particular, a mix of materials and cleaning products and people. Lan Zhan’s—theirs—was fragrant with young timber, somber with the fading remnants of mourning incense.

His own belongings were a small stack of cases by the stairs, carrying the residual anonymity of the spaceport with them.

“Wow,” Wei Ying said. “This is—”

He trailed off.

“Mm,” Lan Zhan said, as though he’d completed the thought—as though there were something there to agree with.

They took their shoes off. A space by the door for Wei Ying’s, ready and waiting—ah—he breathed slower, measured it. Okay. There was a space. There was a space, already there.

They circled through the house. Low seats in the open main room, shelves filled with a mixture of blocky data storage units and rolls of infofiche behind a screen near the door. In a side room which must be Lan Zhan’s office, mobile displays sat quiet against the wall, waiting to be of use. It had looked at first as though there was no life here, as though Lan Zhan himself barely existed, but there were reassuring traces. The slight disorder of stacked documents. There was a zither standing out on a table, and, passing by it, Wei Ying could see its age—not in the sense of antiquity but of heavy use, a surface worn smooth here and scratched lightly there. It was reassuring, too, when Lan Zhan, seeing him reach out to touch it, gave him an affronted look. A person did live here. Difficult, to move into someone’s home—maybe even worse to be in a place like this and find it without personality, to see something weird and blank and still not know how to break its surface.

“Lan Zhan,” he said, at the foot of the stairs, as their circuit completed. “How are we doing this?”

Lan Zhan looked away—turned his face towards the courtyard, its dim garden. Turned inward.

“I have no particular expectations of you,” he said, at length. “Personally speaking.”

“You mean romantically.”

He shrugged his beautiful shoulders.

“You said you liked me,” Wei Ying tried. He wanted to wince at his tone—lost—surely not actually pleading. At least not that.

“I do,” Lan Zhan said. “That does not mean I wish to be—”

He stopped himself, abrupt. Visibly, he calmed himself.

“My first marriage,” he said, in the same sort of coldly fastidious tone Madam Yu used to refer to unsatisfactory fashion choices, “was intended to see me living in the Palace of the Sun. I am not unfamiliar with the anxieties attendant on leaving one’s home to marry a near-stranger.”

And in the end, he’d still returned to where he had begun.

“You asked about it,” Lan Zhan said. He still wasn’t looking at Wei Ying, but that was—okay, maybe, for now.

Wei Ying sank himself down onto one of the lower steps. “Did I?”

“Last night.”

Memory fluttered and struggled—emerged reluctantly. If you killed that other guy I bet he deserved it—

“I was just too tired,” Wei Ying said, reluctant, obscurely ashamed. “I did know about it. The Wen heir. Ah—”

“Wen Xu,” Lan Zhan said. Distaste, distaste. “Yes.”

They were an unpleasant family, from everything Wei Ying knew—personally unpleasant, as well as politically. Unpleasant in a way that people talked about—people, not only nobles.

“Guess you didn’t kill him, then, since you’re standing here,” he said—did wince, this time, at his bluntness.

Lan Zhan sighed, but he didn’t seem angry—just—tired, maybe, in the same way Wei Ying was tired—drained enough to stop trying to hide it. He’d been fortunate, probably, not to have been kept as a hostage no matter what Wen Xu’s cause of death had been. He had been fortunate to be stuck with rumours and not a public circus of a trial. There were stories there—a whole mess of them. Political tensions had shifted, since that attempted marriage, but at the time—

Things hadn’t looked good. For the Cloud Recesses.

“I am not unfamiliar,” Lan Zhan repeated. “This house has two bedrooms. Use them as you wish. You live here. If you dislike the house, we will live elsewhere.”

It could mean a lot of things—to be liked.

“So many words, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said.

“You were angry, earlier.” Lan Zhan did look at him, then. It was—a lot. A lot to take, that weight of his attention. The seriousness, bordering on severity. “I must be clear on this: I am not interested in deciding your place for you.”

“But your family is.”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan agreed—shockingly readily. “That is the nature of this arrangement.”

They looked at one another for too long, until the corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth quirked—minutely—only minutely.

“Oh,” Wei Ying said, breathless, feeling laughter gathering itself in his chest—unsure what kind of laughter it would be, but hopeful. “Lan Zhan. Okay. Yeah. Sure. Fuck, we have so much to do.”

 

 

 

 

He took off his robes alone—a strange new luxury. No attendants, no drones, no men watching through a lense. No Lan Zhan, hotly unsettling presence that he could sometimes be. He didn’t calculate angles. He did hang the robes neatly instead of letting them fall, because he hadn’t been raised to be careless with truly expensive things and, more importantly, because Lan Zhan had commissioned them himself—had understood. He opened the case with the clothes and small comforts he’d figured he’d want to be able to find quickly, and sat near-naked and unobserved on the floor to dig through it.

In a sleeveless high-necked top and loose trousers, he could breathe. He pulled his hair free from its elaborate pins, brushed it out until it spilled over his shoulder in a smooth fall—pulled it up into a ponytail high on his head, with only a simple tie looped around it. He scrubbed his face clean, sluicing away the need to lie down and sleep with splash after splash of cold water—and then, seeing how blotchy it was from feeling and exhaustion, covered it with a lighter layer of cosmetics again. Lined his eyes lightly, and left his lips alone, naked without lacquer—a risqué choice for him now, he supposed, if he’d been planning to go out. A person of standing should make it clear how little they were touched by the world. Even cosmetics, unwrinkled clothes. Wei Ying had never been good at leaving his face alone—the last day had been a particular kind of trial.

Lan Zhan, when Wei Ying found him again, was wearing no cosmetics at all—was looking soft-edged in a blue shift dress that fell to his ankles and a long grey cardigan, his hair braided over one shoulder.

There were so many kinds of intimacy to be navigated in sharing a life. The warm pink of Lan Zhan’s lips, the bones of his wrists. The slight curl of the wisps of hair that framed his face where they were damp from showering.

Lan Zhan’s hands on Wei Ying’s belongings as they unpacked.

The list of accesses and the set of keycards provided for him, letting him into a dozen parts of Lan Zhan’s secretive life.

Two bedrooms, and being handed the freedom to choose how many of them saw use. He didn’t know if he wanted the choice—if he wanted to be responsible for all the nuances of desire and dependence that hid in it. It made him a little angry again, although less angry than having the choice made for him—

The impossibility of it. His mind twisting in on itself, looking for somewhere to sink its claws in—its teeth.

He had made the choice to marry Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan was choosing to be cautious in interpreting that decision. There was no point being angry, after all. Not really. It was just difficult to be a person, sometimes—to be an animal out of context. Star-scattered, released from gravity.

Distracted, in the middle of the afternoon, he watched Lan Zhan handle his life—lift a box from a larger case and open it, blink at the contents. Instruments for planetary navigation—coordinate systems, a wheel-and-needle compass calibrated to the magnetic field of another world and which stood, here, stubbornly still. Pieces of sentiment.

“That case isn’t important,” he said. “It’s just—stuff I wanted to keep around. Nothing useful. Do it last. I need to find the snacks I know my sister snuck in here before I die.”

But he didn’t snatch the box out of Lan Zhan’s hands, slam it shut, shove the case away. He let Lan Zhan keep looking. Lan Zhan’s worn zither was right there on the table, after all.

 

 

 

 

Casual touch in the way of two people sharing a space, but no kissing. No deliberate suggestion. Wei Ying found he was thinking a lot about kissing, by the time evening arrived—pressing his fingers into a bruise and not knowing if the ache felt good or not. Did he wish Lan Zhan would kiss him? Maybe he wished Lan Zhan would kiss him.

Lan Zhan liked him. Somehow, for some reason, he had already decided.

Did Lan Zhan think about kissing him? That kind of like?

I couldn’t let it be anyone else—

But that could mean a lot of things too.

It was cold in the house’s tiny courtyard, in the gathering dark. The day had been warm, but the sun had never touched the ground here.

Damp stones. Vines curled around rough pillars. Ferns nestled in the corners. The light from the house was filtered through a living green curtain, and Wei Ying followed Lan Zhan’s movement though that little world by the shift of lamplight—motion sensors let the light trail him and surround him, although he was invisible, from here, to Wei Ying.

Certain phenomena could be observed only indirectly.

The cool air raised the hairs on Wei Ying’s arms, his body clutching warmth to itself as best it could. The boundary of the body was not the skin alone. Like a celestial body it had atmosphere, air-space. Like a celestial body, the limit of what belonged to it could be calculated in a dozen different ways.

At his feet, blue glowed, faint, faint—

He crouched to look, expecting lamps hidden near the ground, and found instead bioluminescence waiting for him. Small blue flowers, secretive—no bright glow, but a faint wavering presence that might get stronger with the night.

He brushed his fingers across one, felt the thick velvet of the petals. It swayed and bowed under even that light pressure.

“Wash your hands after touching them,” Lan Zhan said, from the doorway. “They are only mildly toxic, but they leave a very bitter taste on the skin.”

“I’ve never seen anything like them,” Wei Ying said. He bent closer. Heard Lan Zhan approaching—felt his physical closeness without skin touching skin. The boundary of the body was not the skin alone—

“My father bred them,” Lan Zhan said. “He was—is, I suppose—a talented horticulturalist. A gentleman’s hobby.”

“Like music.”

“Mm.”

“He didn’t come to your wedding,” Wei Ying said—carefully. Things felt delicate again, a new nuance of delicate, another kind of intimacy.

“He does not attend functions,” Lan Zhan said.

“Why?”

Silence. Wei Ying shifted his weight. His knee pressed against Lan Zhan’s thigh—a shock of heat.

“He bred these for my mother,” Lan Zhan said. “I believe she detested them, although I do not remember with any certainty.”

“Oh.” Wei Ying waited, but this seemed to be the end of Lan Zhan’s confidences on the topic.

He sighed, went reflexively to scrub at his face—

Lan Zhan’s hand wrapped so easily and encompassingly around his wrist. A shiver spread from it through Wei Ying’s arm, catching in his elbow and then his shoulder, prickling up the back of his neck—

“Wash your hands,” Lan Zhan said, not ungently. “Come. Food has arrived.”

The flicker of light in his cloudhook. Flowers hiding in a courtyard. Deep-sea things.

Wei Ying straightened with a groan. The flowers could dream light by themselves, he supposed. Bitter and hidden. Only mildly toxic—there was a part of Wei Ying, the part that didn’t just press on bruises but dug his nails in too, that wanted to lift his fingers to his mouth, so that someone would ask him what he’d thought would happen.

He followed Lan Zhan inside.

He washed his hands.

 

 

 

 

The house was a world apart, but it was in a world. The sky was there, glittering with aircraft and satellites. The garden outside moved with the breeze, with unseen night-creatures. It wasn’t an anonymous room in the depths of a spire with only a strange funnel of a window to let in the light. It was somewhere.

How will I feel about this tomorrow? Wei Ying wondered. Next week, a month, a year from now?

Which bedroom am I meant to use?

Which one do I want to?

He knew which. He’d never wanted to marry just to live in parallel. And he’d—not liked the sex, not really not exactly—the sex had been—awkward, frightened—but he’d liked—

He’d liked the care. He’d liked imagining what sex could be like. If.

Fabric shielding him. To wash Lan Zhan’s hair for him.

Lan Zhan had retired upstairs, was getting ready to sleep. It was early, for Wei Ying—but he’d come off a spaceship a day before, he’d been moving since. He’d thought he might record a message home. He’d thought he might make use of Lan Zhan’s network connection to start looking for the places in this habitat where he could anchor himself, where he might meet people and find things to do. But the overwhelming sense of tiredness had found him again.

Lan Zhan had left his bedroom door half open. Inside, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, absorbed in something on his cloudhook—but he dismissed it easily enough on seeing Wei Ying. Deactivated the hook entirely and unfastened it from his ear with care.

“I will have one made for you,” he said, following Wei Ying’s gaze to where it lay.

Wei Ying hesitated, looking for the meaning behind Lan Zhan’s deliberate tone. “Thanks,” he said, not finding it. “You’re not really—set up that well for people without one, huh? None of my comms implants like the network here.”

Lan Zhan lifted one shoulder slightly. “Elitism,” he offered, simply.

Wei Ying, braced to listen to a defence of the system, blinked in surprise.

“Belonging and exclusion,” Lan Zhan said, when Wei Ying didn’t respond. “I am aware. It is not conventional to grant cloudhook access immediately. But I will give you one.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying said, helpless again in the face of sincerity.

He lingered in the doorway. He had thought he might just—not make a big deal of it. Climb into bed with Lan Zhan without comment. It felt more difficult now, with acknowledgement of the balance between them right there.

“Can I,” he said. Hesitated again. “I mean—”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan said.

“Okay,” Wei Ying said. Yet another threshold. There were somehow always more.

 

 

 

 

There was still a gap. Wei Ying, under his covers, felt—distant. From himself or from where he was meant to be or from Lan Zhan. But it was better to hear another body breathing than not. It was better for the world to be there.

The sheets were cool and smooth under his palm—whispered as he slid his hand out away from his side.

Fingertips found his in the dark. The slightest touch. An anchor other than anger. Necessary.

You like me, Wei Ying thought, tentative. He couldn’t make it anything other than tentative. It felt, in a way, more fragile than the night before—harder to reach for, when there were fewer excuses. But it was there.