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“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says, bursting into his apartment at some truly atrocious time in the morning. Wei Ying is, of course, approaching it from the opposite side. He needs to sleep, but if he does then he’ll miss Lan Zhan and it’s very important they talk.

Lan Zhan blinks at him, once, slowly, over the rim of his perfect teacup. He puts it down. “What is it?”

“Can’t I just want to chat with my favourite neighbour?” Of course, now that he has Lan Zhan’s attention, and after he went to all that trouble to get every speck of glitter off of his face, neck, and wrists, he isn’t just going to handle business and leave.

He’s expecting a barely suppressed eye-roll, or a dismissal. Possibly even some sort of koan about chatter cluttering the mind, but the true delight of Lan Zhan is that he never does what Wei Ying expects and simply says. “Very well. The gerberas are blooming nicely, I think re-potting them has had a beneficial effect, though that may, potentially, be due to the new soil composition.”

Wei Ying claws his face. “All right, fine. I found a restless spirit that should be cleansed. You know we’re not allowed to do any spiritual work alone so I would like to formally ask you to be my buddy.”

“Formally,” Lan Zhan says with a quirk of his head which takes in Wei Ying’s hoppy bunny pajama set, which excuse him, was a gift from Lan Zhan so if he doesn’t approve that is his own fault.

Wei Ying will not be deterred.

“Please assist me in my cultivation duties, Hanguang-jun!” Wei Ying calls out and executes a perfect bow. He looks up at Lan Zhan a little to judge his reaction.

Lan Zhan looks at him for a moment, his lips very slightly parted. “Very well.” And then he turns back to his tea.

***

“I believe you failed to communicate some important information,” Lan Zhan’s voice is tight over the phone and Wei Ying has a second to think, whoops, before his mouth is rushing in.

“I may… have forgotten to mention the location of the resentful spirit, yes.” He’d sent Lan Zhan the link to a Facebook event with a little note that said ‘sign up here!’ without really thinking. His phone ringing less than a minute later is probably justified. It isn’t every day that your neighbour sends a link to a fetish party and a command to attend. Even if it is softened with an exclamation mark.

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says and Wei Ying winces. That’s an ‘mm’ with a world of promise in it.

Wei Ying sits up in bed and smooths the blanket around himself. He will be awake for this conversation if it’s the last thing he does.

“Uh, Niche -- the party that I linked you to -- just switched locations to this private hall, and when I went there, I definitely sensed some stuff.” Stuff. He cringes. He’s so tired. Nie Huaisang had dragged him out to IHOP afterwards and Wei Ying is just getting too old to be sitting in a crinkly IHOP booth at 4 in the morning trying to understand why it’s cheaper to get two pancakes than just one. Lan Zhan should take pity on him.

“When you went there,” Lan Zhan repeats and Wei Ying’s stomach sinks a little. He was kind of hoping they could just slide past that.

“Yes,” Wei Ying says, and stares at the wall.

“And we cannot go another time,” Lan Zhan says. It’s dangerously close to being a question.

“Well, we’d have to break in, and your uncle told me that I couldn’t commit any more crimes, even if it was for cultivation business, so I thought since we could just get an invite to this, that would be the easiest way?” This had really made sense on no sleep. And while technically he still hasn’t gotten any sleep, that ‘mm’ woke up the parts of Wei Ying’s brain that are capable of self-preservation.

“So you want me to go to a sex club.” Wei Ying takes a second to marvel at the sound of Lan Zhan’s voice when he says the words ‘sex club’. He makes a really firm click on the ‘x’, but the ‘b’ is so soft. He makes it sound poetic, somehow. It’s wild.

“No, no, no,” Wei Ying reassures. “This is a fetish party. Totally different. It’s mostly just a dress up party with a specific atmosphere. Actual sex is frowned on in the public spaces.” Lan Zhan does not look reassured. “I can ask someone else?” he offers.

“No.” Lan Zhan says, very firm. Wei Ying starts a little in surprise. But he’s not going to kick that gift horse, or whatever.

“Ok, then! This is good.”

***

This is not good. Wei Ying sleeps, and after he wakes up a series of realisations crash into him.

1) he invited Lan Zhan to a sex -- well, technically not -- party, where there will be several people Wei Ying has had sex with and

2) this is absolutely going to be a lot more information about Wei Ying than Lan Zhan wants to know. Wei Ying only got Lan Zhan to tolerate him recently, after years of after-school cultivation classes where Lan Zhan had been in charge of his punishments and never spared him a single glance outside of them. He doesn’t want to go back to the no-looking.

Wei Ying is also worried about the amount of looking Wei Ying is going to be doing, particularly because

3) they’re going to have to dress up. And yes, he wants Lan Zhan to look at him, but not when Wei Ying is looking back.

That last one is the worst one. Niche has a strict dress code to keep out gawkers. Which, Wei Ying thinks the fact that it’s a splinter off-shoot of the city’s main fetish party, locked behind an invite-only facebook group, and hosted in some random converted Victorian mansion, should already be enough security through obscurity. But no, apparently not.

What is he going to wear? He covers his face and groans a little. What is Lan Zhan going to wear? He realises whimpering and rolls over to smother his face in his pillow.

He can do this. He is a professional. A professional engineer, but still, he can break this problem down into chunks and work it through.

He gets on the internet.

He messages Lan Zhan. Sooo there’s a dress code

I am aware. It was in the instructions

I was thinking this, maybe, for you? And sent a link to a long-sleeved mesh shirt and a pair of those wet-look leggings, the really tight black kind. The whole look is way more goth than Lan Zhan is, but the point is, it’s covered. Wei Ying, who has never seen Lan Zhan in fewer than three layers, is already having a palpitation about the suggestion of skin that the mesh shirt would show.

Lan Zhan doesn’t reply for a while. You could wear an undershirt

Purchased, Lan Zhan sends back, with a screenshot of the confirmation. That’s… good, Wei Ying thinks. Maybe everything will just be this easy.

***

Because he was only looking at a piece at a time, dealing with it, and moving on, he never took a second to think about the whole picture, and now Mianmian, working check-in, is taking Lan Zhan’s expensive camelhair coat and Wei Ying’s cheap bomber to tuck them away for later. He thanks her, turns to Lan Zhan and is momentarily blindsided -- Lan Zhan is not wearing an undershirt.

He has a nipple.

Everyone has nipples. Wei Ying read books as a child that said so. So the fact that Lan Zhan has nipples should not be anything, really. It is though. It is something. Before he can fully lose his grip on reality and do something obscene like mutter the word ‘nipple’, Mianmian leans in to kiss both of Wei Ying’s cheeks. She turns to Lan Zhan, expectantly, and he introduces himself with just his name.

The conversation drops, and her grin becomes fixed.

“So, where’s your husband?” Wei Ying asks, deciding to continue not dealing with this. He is just going to pretend everything is fine and his worlds aren’t colliding into what is sure to be a horrible trainwreck. It’s normal for him to ask after the Mian-man, so that’s what he’s going to do. They can let this small talk carry them past Lan Zhan standing there like a marble pillar and twice as cold. Wei Ying sneaks a glance at Lan Zhan, who is gazing at nothing in particular with his usual impassivity. Maybe Wei Ying should have prepped Lan Zhan more, given him something to talk about, but the idea of having a conversation with Lan Zhan about this was so far beyond that Wei Ying hadn’t even really considered it.

Mianmian looks at Wei Ying, one eyebrow slightly raised, like, is this guy for real? and somehow it never occurred to Wei Ying that Lan Zhan could be the embarrassing one between them. Gamely ignoring the iceblock in the see-through mesh shirt, Mianmian says, “He’s supervising the play area while I’m on check-in.”

Wei Ying nods, that makes sense. They’re inseparable otherwise. Another group comes in and Mianmian is busy checking them against the Facebook RSVP so Wei Ying gestures for Lan Zhan to head up the stairs.

“Play area?” Lan Zhan asks quietly. Wei Ying takes a moment to imagine slamming his own head against the wall. He really should have sent Lan Zhan something to read.

“So it’s still not a sex party,” he starts, and Lan Zhan’s whole faces twitches, “but there’s a couple of places where people can uh, hit each other, and stuff.” Wei Ying has a horrible thought. “You’ve heard of BDSM, right? This isn’t all new to you?”

“I have heard of it,” Lan Zhan says, which could mean anything, but at least Wei Ying isn’t responsible for explaining the wide variety of things people can be into.

Another thought occurs to him. “Oh, so usually I just say that you and I know each other from World of Warcraft.” How else to explain the complete mismatch of disaster cave dweller and ethereal being of pristine mountain air that was the Wei Ying and Lan Zhan friendship? He can’t tell anyone that they were forced into after-school magic class, what with cultivation being a secret and all. And everyone seems to rightfully recognise that some sort of forced proximity must have been involved to make Lan Zhan put up with him. “But unfortunately there is an unusually high concentration of people here who will know things about WoW.” Wei Ying chews his lip, considering.

“Maybe they will not ask,” Lan Zhan offers.

“No,” Wei Ying says absently, “they’re going to.” These are the nosiest people on earth, all of whom have sat through at least one workshop on ‘good communication.’ They’re menaces. Menaces armed with ‘I’ statements.

Speaking of.

“Wei Ying!” Nie Huaisang calls out and Wei Ying turns with a smile. As usual, he looks amazing, this time dressed in perfect winged eyeliner, spike heels, and a rope harness knotted across the chest of his vinyl slutty nurse’s outfit. He’s matched the reds perfectly: little crosses, lipstick, and ropes. The man is really an artist. It makes Wei Ying feel frumpy, a feeling that gets worse when Nie Huaisang looks him up and down.

“What is this?” he asks, gesturing up and down and encapsulating Wei Ying’s, well, everything. Wei Ying spent a long time in his costume closet figuring out what to wear. Everything he owns is cute, obviously, but he needed an outfit that somehow would match Lan Zhan and also not freak him out. It felt a lot like dressing for a job interview, like he wanted to match the vibe but also make a good impression. He’s wearing PVC shorts, because shorts are standard, right? Lan Zhan probably owns a pair of those for sports somewhere, presumably in a fabric that doesn’t squeak. He’s paired the shorts with a red and black waist-cincher. The whole look is understated, it makes him look available but not obscene. He probably could have worn this to a regular gay club -- he’s not even wearing any makeup.

Wei Ying crosses his arms over his chest defensively, which is useless when Nie Huaisang hooks a finger behind his back and into his laces, pulling on them sharply until Wei Ying gasps against the burn of rope on skin.

Nie Huaisang tuts. And then his eyes cut to the side, where Lan Zhan’s weight is so far forward onto the balls of his feet that he almost looks mid-flight.

“Oh, I see what’s happening here,” Nie Huaisang says, and uses his already-hooked finger to pull Wei Ying off to the side. Normally Wei Ying likes that they don’t really play music in the casual parlor area, leaving it clear for couches and armchairs. The whole effect is cosy, it’s all soft light and vaguely chintzy furniture. Wei Ying assumes they come with the whole converted Victorian mansion aesthetic, lots of differently sized rooms and inexplicably tiny hallways. It lets the party divide itself into spaces, dance party one floor up, supervised and unsupervised play nooks. Wei Ying tends to spend most of his time down here though, draped on a chaise, because that’s where his friends are. He likes his friends.

But he doesn’t like his friends or the quiet when Nie Huaisang hisses at him, “I can’t believe you brought your vanilla boyfriend here.”

If this had been a regular club, the syncopated house beats would have drowned that right out. Here, though, he can’t even pretend he didn’t hear it because in the cozy quiet of this fun off-beat fetish party, it carries.

Wei Ying glowers.

Nie Huaisang raises an eyebrow.

“Vanilla?” Lan Zhan asks.

This provokes hoots of laughter from the people around them and Nie Huaisang just stares, mouth open slightly. “This is worse than I thought,” he mutters.

Wei Ying can feel Lan Zhan’s stare on the side of his neck like it’s a heat beam. Deciding to ignore Nie Huaisang, he turns to Lan Zhan. The small quizzical furrow in Lan Zhan’s brow nearly undoes Wei Ying. What has he done? Why did he think this would be fine?

“Get us some drinks?” It’s an excuse to get Lan Zhan away. Lan Zhan nods and turns to go, but before he can go far, Wei Ying grabs his wrist. “Just coke for me,” he says.

“Oh, you really think you’re going to get lucky,” Nie Huaisang says. Lan Zhan’s step pauses and Wei Ying bites his lip. He knows the advice -- don’t drink and play, like anyone has ever listened to that, and he knows that’s what it sounds like to Nie Huaisang.

He hopes that Lan Zhan remembers that this is a cover, that they’re here for a good reason, and that he’s not drinking so that he will be clear-headed for the cleansing. That Wei Ying isn’t… implying anything.

The problem is that it isn’t a cover, or not just a cover, really. These are his actual friends. This is his actual lifestyle. These people know him and they have interpretations of his actions based on years of experiences seeing the exact type of dom that Wei Ying goes for, the exact level of messy Wei Ying can get. They look at Wei Ying and they look at Lan Zhan and they overlay all of that history and see things that aren’t there. And right now Nie Huaisang is seeing things so loudly that Wei Ying is worried he’s going to conjure them up for Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying stomps his foot a little as he turns back to Nie Huaisang. “Leave him alone, ok? He’s not --” Wei Ying doesn’t know how to finish that sentence. Not here for that, here with me, mine.

There is a damning hint of sympathy in Nie Huaisang’s eyes. “At least let me fix you up a little,” Nie Huaisang says, and twirls his finger.

It’s a change of subject and there’s something in Wei Ying still geared up for the fight, hot and scratchy underneath his skin and this approach hits him from his uncovered left side. And it lands.

Nie Huaisang wasn’t wrong when he critiqued Wei Ying’s outfit. Wei Ying has been so caught up in what Lan Zhan thinks, in how to make Lan Zhan comfortable, but this is his space, damn it, his friends. He doesn’t like looking frumpy in front of them, doesn’t want their looks of judgment. He’s already fielding looks of pity, he doesn’t need any extra. If the evening is going to be awkward -- and he knows now that it definitely will, then the least he deserves is to dress up and feel pretty. He gets so few chances.

Wei Ying thinks: why not? He nods.

With no warning, Nie Huaisang pulls on the strings of his corset.

Wei Ying giggles. “Hey!” It’s tight now, and Nie Huaisang keeps pulling. Wei Ying has a moment of disorientation, like when he dives into a pool, a small gap before he remembers the new rules for breathing.

“You can take it,” Nie Huaisang says, and that settles Wei Ying down. He breathes into the top of his chest, feels his collarbones lift with it. After a moment he barely notices the difference, body adapting. The only way to tell that something is different is for Wei Ying to look down and see how his body is no longer a flat line from his chest. There’s a gap now, between the top of the corset and the jut of his hips, his stomach gone concave as a result of Nie Huaisang’s work. He runs a hand down to feel the curve of it. Nie Huaisang slaps it away. “I’m not done.”

Nie Huaisang takes the excess rope, the lengths that Wei Ying had simply shoved into the lacing, an unsightly bulge when he hadn’t been thinking about his lines, just about what was covered. Nie Huaisang takes it and crosses the ropes at the back and around Wei Ying’s front and then around the back again before he loops them down between his thighs and up. He ties them with perfect little clovers equidistant from Wei Ying’s belly button. The effect is of a belt around Wei Ying’s waist and then two descending ropes, almost like garters, except they don’t go down to his thigh. It frames, well, everything.

Nie Huaisang tuts. “Can’t do much about how plain the shorts are, and there isn’t enough rope to really work up anything aesthetically pleasing.” He spins Wei Ying once. “It’s a crime to bisect your ass like this. You couldn’t have added a choker at least?”

For a moment Wei Ying is caught on the image of Lan Zhan hooking a finger into the gap between choker and throat, maybe tugging Wei Ying forward by it, so he can better place exactly where Wei Ying’s head -- “No,” Wei Ying says.

“Hmph,” Nie Huaisang grumbles, but steps back just in time for Lan Zhan to return with the drinks.

Wei Ying gives Lan Zhan a blinding smile, more confident now that his outfit has been upgraded from total disaster to not shameful. “Thanks, Lan Zhan,” he says.

Nie Huaisang chokes. Which is funny, because he doesn’t even have a drink. “Lan Zhan?” he repeats. “As in, Lan er-gege?” and Wei Ying feels his blood run cold.

How could he have forgotten that he’d talked about Lan Zhan with Nie Huaisang? And how? At some point everyone has the ‘What was your kink awakening?’ conversation, and Wei Ying, somehow not foreseeing this moment, had cheerfully talked about his discipline sessions with his teacher’s nephew. It had been nothing, at the time, to talk about how it had felt to desperately want Lan Zhan’s attention, to knock him off his calm and see what he would do. At the time, he hadn’t know exactly what he wanted, just felt that breathless sense of anticipation, a tingle in his fingers and behind his knees every time Lan Zhan lost his temper. Lan Zhan would react and Wei Ying would giggle, which was a wholly inappropriate and random response, but his body didn’t know another way to release that mixture of expectation and wanting. It was like he was a kettle and the steam built up in his until it burst out in helpless laughter. His reactions only made Lan Zhan’s rage tower higher and the cycle began again. It had been a lot for a teenaged Wei Ying, who’d leave his punishments red-faced, twitching, and confused -- full of energy he couldn’t burn off no matter how much he ran.

He’d told Nie Huaisang this, embarrassed by how long it had taken him to figure out what he wanted, a feeling that only got worse when Nie Huaisang told his story. Nie Huaisang’s story was just ‘I had to do martial arts as a kid and discovered I liked getting pinned way too much.’

“Yes, I have an older brother,” Lan Zhan says simply. He’s speaking to Nie Huaisang but his eyes keep cutting back to where Wei Ying is trying to keep his shoulders down and not up at his ears where they want to go.

“Oh, honey,” Nie Huaisang says to Wei Ying. The pity is back full force. Wei Ying squirms.

“Um,” he starts, and wilts under the combined looks from Lan Zhan and Nie Huaisang. “Let me… show you around.” He just needs to get them back on mission. Then they can leave. And Wei Ying can just dodge everyone forever so he never has to talk about this.

Lan Zhan nods and reaches for Wei Ying’s elbow like it’s a steering wheel. Wei Ying barely manages to put down his drink before Lan Zhan can sweep them off. It’s not very friendly to whoever will have to clean up after this, but Lan Zhan seems like he’s ready to bodily haul Wei Ying away, so. Options are limited.

Wei Ying walks forward, feeling the ropes as he walks, they’re fine in the front, lying nicely on his hip flexors, but they pull against the flesh of his butt, a small tension he feels with every step.

They make it up the stairs but there’s a small group chatting in the hallway right below the attic access. Wei Ying doesn’t recognise anyone -- maybe Niche is expanding its popularity? But he doesn’t want to get dragged into any more conversations so he tugs Lan Zhan’s wrist to pull him into the next available room.

Wei Ying realises his mistake immediately. Sure, he’s avoided that group, but only by taking Lan Zhan straight into the supervised play area. Song Lan is supervising now, and Mianmian has her husband up on the cross. It’s nothing heavy, they never are. All she’s doing is using a mini flogger to make an infinity pattern across his chest and nipples while he keeps his arms up and chest open. Wei Ying knows that the thin strips of leather are soft, it’s the repetition more than anything that drives the sensation, makes the skin raw and hot.

Lan Zhan makes a sound.

“Sorry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says quickly, “we can just go.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “That’s Song Lan.”

Wei Ying didn’t know they knew each other. Small world, sometimes. Wei Ying tilts his head. “So… you want to say hi?” If Lan Zhan didn’t want to leave, then?

Lan Zhan shakes his head and they stand there in silence.

Lan Zhan keeps staring. The Mian-man -- his name is Li Xin but Wei Ying never calls him that -- brings his arms down in an x across his chest. They kiss, his arms still between them and then he pulls back and puts his arms up again. Wei Ying counts and, sure enough, there’s a pattern. She does ten passes, and then he brings his arms down. Wei Ying knows that, for them, his ability to count and take breaks is just as thrilling as the implements and being on display.

“You like this?” Lan Zhan asks out of nowhere. He’s looking at Wei Ying’s face.

Wei Ying checks his expression. He doesn’t look disgusted or weirded out -- it’s subtle but there’s a specific downwards turn that Lan Zhan gets on the left side of his mouth when something displeases him. Right now he looks like he already knows the answer to his question. But Lan Zhan never asks without a reason.

Wei Ying can’t lie very well and Lan Zhan tends to see through him, so he says, “Not really? I’m not great at staying still and, you know.” Wei Ying is sure that the Mianmians carefully talked about every single moment of what they’re doing right now. How long it would be, what she would use. If Wei Ying wanted to paint by numbers he’d get one of those adult colouring books. Having an expectation and doing that expectation does nothing for him. Plain obedience isn’t in his toolbox.

“I don’t know,” Lan Zhan says.

“Oh,” Wei Ying feels an itch at the back of his throat. Li Xin brings his arms down again. “It’s just boring, the um, doing what you’re told?” He wishes that wasn’t a question. “Like, Li Xin is being very good right now and doing exactly what Mianmian wants.”

“You don’t want to be good?” Lan Zhan’s eyes are clear and open on his face. Wei Ying tries not to choke.

“I do. I mean. I can be.” Wei Ying wishes that was true, he knows that at best he can be entertaining. Wei Ying is fun! He doesn’t need to be good. But for some reason he doesn’t want to say that to Lan Zhan and let him down. “You know me, though, I like to try new things.”

Lan Zhan’s eyes flick back to the stage, where they’re continuing their rhythmic flogging and kissing pattern. “I see.”

Wei Ying kind of hopes he doesn’t. Wei Ying looks out at the hallway. “Okay,” he says, “I think the coast is clear.”

They go back into the hallway. Wei Ying looks around again. No one is nearby. He pulls a talisman out of his corset, careful not to tear it, now that there’s less clearance in his chest area. Wei Ying throws it up at the attic access and the door opens. He pulls the ladder down. “Let’s go,” he says, and waves Lan Zhan up the ladder.

***

The rest of the house has that faux-Victorian style, with its chintz and hardwood floors, but the attic doesn’t match. It has a charm all of its own, which comes from it looking exactly like a really generic attic. An attic so generic it belongs in a commercial for healthy cereal. This is a house that is owned by no one, so there are no personal trinkets here, no detritus of a life that grows too big to fit the confines of the main floors. There’s just boxes clearly labeled with things like ‘holiday decoration ‘ -- not specified but obviously Christmas, an expectation reinforced by the box next to it that says ‘Halloween.’ Surely Halloween is also a holiday that needs decorations? There’s a broken looking ping-pong table, which Wei Ying cannot imagine dragging in here, and various other dilapidated furniture that has clearly come here as an intermediate ground before the dumpster.

This attic is a way-station, a pause point. It’s a fitting locale for a spirit to be stuck.

Lan Zhan turns on the light, gently tugging elderly pull chain on a long-lasting halogen spiral bulb, lest it be suggested that this building is not complying with city regulations. The light catches in the swirls of dust, and Wei Ying feels like he can taste each particle of vaguely wood flavoured dust that he inhales.

It’s a misconception that a place has to be old for a spirit to be present there. Wei Ying understands why; old places have their own imbued energy from the passage of people wearing grooves of personality into the bones of the place, feet travelling regular paths like a human powered prayer wheel. But that doesn’t have anything to do with whether a specific person’s resentment will linger and build.

Time, as with all things, wears down a lingering spirit, eroding off the edges of them, smoothing away the parts that are distinctively them, the parts that want and hold a true grievance. So it is more true that spirits manifest temporally close to when the aggrieved party died. That could be a brand new building just as easily as an ancient forest grove. There does seem to be a specific period, post-death, where the spirit ‘decides’, as it were, to linger in a problematic fashion, sometime around seven days after death. Some amount of time after it becomes clear that their rites were not done properly, that their grievance is not going to be solved early. When, exactly, is discussed heavily in many of the ancient documents, but a lot of them tend to get pretty metaphorical. Wei Ying has been compiling a database that he can hopefully do some machine learning on in an attempt to get a bit more predictive about where the cultivators will need to go.

To get it populated he’s needed to pull in a lot of historical data, which means digitising it. Somehow he never imagined that he’d spend so much of his adult life carefully handling old books and scrolls. It’s been the only thing that Lan Qiren has ever approved about him, his sudden drive to preserve these documents and make them accessible. They’ve had several very pleasant conversations about scanning equipment and cataloguing.

Underneath the wood sharpness of the dust up here in the attic, there’s that faint acrid taste of spiritual energy. It’s not a lot -- yet. If they get these things early, they don’t have the chance to escalate. A lingering spirit won’t become a vicious ghost.

Really, Wei Ying thinks as Lan Zhan pulls out Wei Ying’s dizi from his qiankun pouch and hands it over, I could have done this one alone. He’s done it before. Even for the more complex melodies, all he needs to do is clip his trusty yellow Sony Walkman to his waist and then he can play in duet with it. Wei Ying had discovered that the music had to be analog for the spiritual energy to be imbued, and it wasn’t practical to carry a whole turntable with him. He smiles, remembering the suspicious look Lan Zhan had given him when Wei Ying asked for a cassette recording -- of all things -- of him playing Rest. He’d done it though, sat in front of Wei Ying’s ancient tape deck and its boxy 90s microphone and given Wei Ying what he needed. Afterwards, he’d asked Wei Ying if it was enough and of course it was perfect. Wei Ying shouldn’t admit this, but he’d kept a copy of the tape that includes Lan Zhan’s question at the end, the little hint of the human behind the magic.

Even though it works a treat, heading out with chunky yellow plastic earns him a lot of looks. From those in the know, like Lan Qiren, he mostly gets eye rolls. He still hasn’t recovered from the time Wei Ying brought in a theremin to prove that the instrument type didn’t matter. And it didn’t! Well, not to a spirit, but everyone’s eyes had been a little twitchy after that demonstration.

For anyone else who gave him a side-eye, Wei Ying has a ready set of outrageous go-to explanations.

“Oh, I’m cosplaying Fern Gully,” which has the added bonus of allowing him to describe, in great detail, the environmentalist masterpiece that is the early 90s animated classic.

“You still listen to vinyl? Cassettes are the next wave in the audiophile revolution.” He’s gotten several people with that one. And also several ghosts! So it’s all a good day’s work.

And really, could Lan Qiren have caught him if he’d done this one solo? Maybe. If he had, would he have barred Wei Ying from the library? Yes. But at least Wei Ying could have avoided every interaction he’s had with Lan Zhan this night. He’d never have had to hear Nie Huaisang insinuate… things.

Then he hears Lan Zhan pluck a single note on his guqin. Quiet, like the guqin always is whenever Lan Zhan isn’t using it with intent to kill. The note shivers in the room, casting a spell of stillness over everything. Even the dust motes stop their brownian motion. Wei Ying picks up his dizi, smooth and slow, Lan Zhan’s spell working on him too. Wei Ying’s arm brushes against his corset as he draws it up, a faint rustling that accentuates the silence.

He wets the seam of his lips and then sets his mouth to his dizi.

Wei Ying looks over at Lan Zhan, who looks back at him. Lan Zhan nods and they start to play.

The music lifts Wei Ying up. It hooks something behind his belly button and pulls his spine straight. It rolls through him and around him and his shoulders unknot. He wants to sink into it. He has to focus on keeping his stream of air even and constant, can’t let the notes die. It’s hard to focus though, harder than normal to keep his half of it up. He’s not sure if it’s the restriction in his breathing, the way he can’t store as much air as he normally would, or if it’s the way that Lan Zhan is still watching him, eyes fixed on Wei Ying’s face, his neck, his chest as it works to expand and contract.

He can’t hold all of that in his mind so he… lets go. Lets the music come from him, let it make him feel like he’s floating on top of it. What Lan Zhan is looking at is not his concern. He only has one job, which is to complete this song, to listen to it, and let his energy carry through to the lingering spirit.

Fortunately, this spirit seems to want the normal things: to be seen, listened to, acknowledged. Well, Wei Ying is looking. He can’t make whatever went wrong for this person not have happened, but he offers respite.

He blows a question to the spirit: are you ready? And receives his answer in a sigh and an absence.

After, he holds his dizi up at his lips for a long moment, unwilling to let the feeling fade away. He’s not ready to come down. Lan Zhan, for his part, has his hands hovering over his strings, letting the final note ring out, not silencing it yet.

Eventually it, too, dies, and then there is only the silence.

Wei Ying forgets himself, tries to take in too much air. His chest stabs him back for the effort, capillaries registering their protest and he stumbles, world spinning briefly. He puts out a hand, to focus, to catch himself, and makes contact with Lan Zhan. His arm? Wei Ying sips his air, regular, even, reminding himself that he can, there’s nothing stopping him.

Lan Zhan is very strong and stable under his hand. “Sorry,” Wei Ying says, but doesn’t move his hand away from Lan Zhan’s arm.

Lan Zhan tilts his head. “This is why I’m here. To take care of you.” Wei Ying’s heart clenches. Wei Ying can’t take those words right now.

Wei Ying still isn’t breathing right, so he can blame his flush on that. Not much he can do about whatever is happening on his face, and it must be something because Lan Zhan’s brows come together. Wei Ying pulls away.

He wobbles over to the trap door, gets everything extended and breathes in again before he climbs his way down. He also misses the last rung on the step, ladder thing, but that’s ok, that’s fine, there’s no reason for Lan Zhan to float his way down and ask, “Are you okay?”

“Yep, let’s go home,” Wei Ying says.

Lan Zhan looks at him again. “Won’t it look suspicious? For us not to… socialise?” he asks, and Wei Ying flushes again. To sneak off and then to leave so soon. Wei Ying knows what he’d think, if it was one of his friends. Lan Zhan continues, “Your friends might think we came here for other purposes. We’re trying to keep a low profile.”

Low profile. Wei Ying has clearly made Lan Zhan watch too many heist movies. “Right,” Wei Ying says. He just wants to go home and get under his blanket and play Fire Emblem to see what the kids the game will give him look like. He wants to burrow in deep. But he can’t. It would look suspicious.

Wei Ying leads them back down the stairs.

He’s about to take them back towards the chintzy lounge area but before they can get far, Wen Qing beelines towards them and gives Wei Ying’s nipple a fierce pinch. Wei Ying squeaks.

Immediately, Lan Zhan is between them, a tall, iron-jawed, black clad wall of a man.

Wen Qing raises an eyebrow. She maintains eye contact with Lan Zhan. Wei Ying has never seen Wen Qing back down from anything, and so a distant corner of his mind is interested in how this is going to go down, but the rest of him is thinking: what happened to don’t be suspicious? Wen Qing isn’t a combat threat and giving her the Terminator glare isn’t appropriate. As with many things, he suspects that this is his fault.

“Was I supposed to ask your permission before touching your sub?” Wen Qing asks in a friendly way, but Wei Ying can hear the edge under her words.

This is exactly the sort of thing Lan Zhan hasn’t been exposed to. But this is salvageable. Wei Ying can, and will, make a joke so funny that it’ll get everyone out of this.

Wei Ying takes a breath.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, voice set and stable. He doesn’t sound weirded out by the idea, or offended that Wen Qing suggested Lan Zhan is his dom -- and really Lan Zhan has had a lot of chances to have both of those reactions. Instead he just sounds confident, like he was asked a question in class to which he already knew the answer. Wei Ying almost can’t believe that a moment ago Lan Zhan looked like he was going to whip out his spiritual weapon and create a Wen Qing sized crater.

“Really?” Wen Qing asks Wei Ying, which is unbearably rude, but she does know him and one time she’d seen Wei Ying emotionally eviscerate a dom for daring to try to feed him by hand. So.

“Yes, really,” Lan Zhan repeats, and then turns to Wei Ying. He steps in closer and his gaze is direct and locked onto Wei Ying’s face. Wei Ying imagines he can feel the heat of Lan Zhan’s torso. The barest corner of Lan Zhan’s lip is turned up. “Right, Wei Ying?”

Lan Zhan is staring at him, and Wei Ying is looking back. There’s something to Lan Zhan’s gaze right now. It feels like the floor is sliding somehow, pulling Wei Ying in towards him, and Wei Ying doesn’t quite remember what the question is but he knows the answer. He nods to the best of his ability.

Wen Qing snorts. “I see,” she says, and in his peripheral vision Wei Ying can see her walk off.

What the heck was that? He almost wants to make eye contact with Wen Qing to confirm that what just happened, happened. But that will just open him to a whole other set of questions he can’t deal with right now. So he keeps his eyes straight forward even though he can almost sense people staring at him. Maybe that’s paranoia.

“Why did you do that?” Wei Ying doesn’t stomp his foot, but it’s close. There’s a heat now, up behind his eyes.

Lan Zhan’s eyes cut to the side. “It seemed to be -- is that not an accepted convention? For someone to grant consent for someone else?”

Wei Ying wonders how he picked up on that, how he came up with that so fast. The whole night Lan Zhan’s been able to stay cool and adapt to everything. Way more than Wei Ying thinks is normal. Wei Ying’s first fetish party, he was a blushy wreck until Mianmian boxed him in against a wall and made him breathe.

“No, it is,” Wei Ying says slowly. He’s not going to lie. “But she’s going to think…” Lan Zhan raises an eyebrow and Wei Ying shakes his head.

Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised? Lan Zhan did like to tease him. He’d argue with Wei Ying about cultivation methodology until Wei Ying was frothing like a rabid raccoon, and then as soon as Wei Ying dragged someone else into the conversation, he’d immediately switch to agreeing with Wei Ying, which made Wei Ying look like an utter lunatic. Lan Zhan never had a good reason for it either. He’d just shrug with a small tilt of his head and say he was interested in Wei Ying’s argumentation strategies. As if!

And there were the bunny pajamas, which Lan Zhan bought for him after the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night one time and Wei Ying had to go outside in his ratty sleep pants, which had a huge rip along the bottom of the ass. A week later the package appeared outside of his apartment door with the note ‘So next time you will be wearing something less embarrassing.’

This is just more of Lan Zhan’s teasing.

Wei Ying can handle teasing. He can’t let Lan Zhan know he got to Wei Ying. Wei Ying remembers his ludicrous display from moments ago and revises the thought: can’t let him get to Wei Ying more than he has already.

Lan Zhan steps in closer, mouth slightly parted like he does when he’s tasting the outline of a sentence. Wei Ying feels the moment, a string trying to pull words out of Wei Ying’s mouth, and knows he needs to cut this off right now. They need to shake this off. Wei Ying flexes his fingers in a flicking motion, form following intention, belatedly realising they’re trembling a little. That’s strange. Because this is not a big deal. They’re pretending right now, and that’s why Lan Zhan said what he said to Wen Qing.

He reaches up and presses his fingers a little into the skin right below his nipple where Wen Qing pinched him. It doesn’t hurt enough, but it’s slightly sensitive, a sensation that Wei Ying uses to ground himself.

“You know,” Wei Ying says, swallowing and trying to pull some cheerfulness into his voice, “if you can’t handle a little physical contact, it’s good you never went with me to the clubs. At least Wen Qing asked first.”

He risks a glance at Lan Zhan, whose gaze is a little less intense but still just as focused on Wei Ying. “Is that why you come here?” Lan Zhan asks, “to be in an environment where others seek permission?”

“Oh.” Lan Zhan is so cute. Wei Ying wants to pat his cheek. “No, of course not. Randomly getting shoved up against walls is basically the reason to go to those places, you know? Don’t worry about me.”

Wei Ying smiles at Lan Zhan and Lan Zhan’s face softens back at him. Wei Ying needs to stop staring at Lan Zhan’s lips. He’s not letting this get to him.

“Then why do you come here?”

“To see my friends, mostly.” It’s true, and if Wei Ying is dodging a creeping sense of foreboding, then that’s his business.

“No, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and reaches out to touch his wrist. He doesn’t grab but it’s enough to foil Wei Ying’s attempt to float out of this conversation. Wei Ying should have just said yes, why didn’t he say yes? “You don’t like what the couples do, so why --”

Nie Huaisang appears. Lan Zhan spins to face him and Wei Ying gives in to the impulse to sidle slightly behind Lan Zhan’s back.

There you are,” Nie Huaisang says. “You won’t believe what Wen Qing just told me.”

It’s Wei Ying’s turn to reach out, a fierce grip on Lan Zhan’s shirt. His fingers stretch the mesh, distorting the moire effect.

Nie Huaisang blinks at them. “Or… maybe I would?” He tries to peer around Lan Zhan’s body to see Wei Ying better, but Wei Ying is already horribly on display. He digs his nails in.

“We’re leaving,” Lan Zhan says. He starts walking forward and Wei Ying, warned in just enough time, manages to keep up with him, hand still tangled in his shirt like a kitten who hasn’t figured out how claws work yet.

“Wei Ying,” Nie Huaisang says to Wei Ying’s retreating back. “Safety call.”

Wei Ying blushes. He doesn’t -- he wants to say he doesn’t need one, because Lan Zhan is his friend and this isn’t what it looks like. They’re not going to scene. Lan Zhan is reacting to Wei Ying’s distress, and like a good cultivation partner, responding. But that’s more humiliating than what Nie Huaisang thinks. He still wants to shout it out. He holds it back and instead manages an, “Okay.” He can always tell Nie Huaisang later, when he calls to check in on Wei Ying.

***

Wei Ying clips himself into his seatbelt, managing it on his third try. “You know, you shouldn’t just let me drag you around like that.”

Lan Zhan’s brow furrows. His gaze drops down to Wei Ying’s hands, still lingering on the buckle. “You didn’t drag me anywhere.”

Wei Ying laughs, high and loud. “I dragged you out tonight.”

“No,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Ying presses his lips together. “I did. I know I did. And,” he hesitates, but presses through. “You shouldn’t say things… you shouldn’t say any of that stuff about taking care of me.”

“Why not?” Lan Zhan asks. Wei Ying says nothing. “I want to.”

Wei Ying closes his eyes against the way they itch. Then he turns to look out the window.

***

When they get to their building, Wei Ying bounds up the three flights of stairs, already anticipating the shower and fluffy bathrobe he’s going to experience in his near future. He’ll wait a decent interval, and then he’ll call Nie Huaisang and deal with whatever combination of ‘I told you so’ and ‘oh sweetheart’ that he decides to dish out. Wei Ying is focused only on that. Well that and on not hurting his ribs from panting too hard.

Which is why he almost accidentally slams the door in Lan Zhan’s face.

Instead, he swallows and waves Lan Zhan in. He realises why this feels so strange: Lan Zhan never comes to his apartment. It’s always Wei Ying pushing his way into Lan Zhan’s, demanding food, attention, gossip. Lan Zhan doesn’t come to his space. Wei Ying looks it over with an outsider’s eye, but he thinks it’s pretty inoffensive, as far as apartments go. Where Lan Zhan’s apartment is clean woods and warm minimalism where even the coffee grinder probably costs two hundred dollars, Wei Ying is doing the more standard Ikea kit out. It’s fine, everything vaguely matches. He’s got his spider plant, slowly working on its plan for world domination, draped over his bookcases and up and around the curtain rod. The books aren’t alphabetised, but surely Lan Zhan isn’t looking that closely. And he has a very comfortable couch set-up, if he does say so himself. It’s got a snuggie and everything, for when he’s playing games late into the night and wants to feel warm down to his wrists.

Still, it gives Wei Ying that same strange feeling he had when Lan Zhan walked into Niche. He fights the urge to explain why he has three separate guides to Skyrim on his coffee table.

Lan Zhan clearly came in here with something on his mind, yet strangely now that he’s inside he’s silent. Wei Ying licks his lips, trying to decide what to say.

“Why won’t you answer my question?” Lan Zhan says, finally. All Wei Ying can do is blink at him in confusion.

“I don’t remember you asking me a question?” The drive was silent, and Lan Zhan is accusing him wildly.

“Why do you go to Niche?” Lan Zhan repeats.

Ah. That question. “I told you --” Lan Zhan glares. It’s small, but it’s all there in the nostrils. “Aiyah, why does anyone go anywhere? Because I like it.”

“But you said you don’t.” Lan Zhan has his quoting voice on but Wei Ying doesn’t remember. Then he does. He said he didn’t like what the Mianmians were doing.

Wei Ying stares at him.

Lan Zhan keeps going. “Why can’t I say that I want to take care of you?”

“Why, why, why, is this the only word you know?” Wei Ying bursts out. “Let me ask you then, why do you want to know so much?”

Lan Zhan is quiet for a long moment and the sound of Wei Ying’s harsh breathing echoes against the exposed brick.

Lan Zhan’s voice is steady when he says, “Because if there’s something you like, something that makes you feel good, I want to do it.” He looks hard, into the middle distance, before turning his gaze back to Wei Ying. Wei Ying is caught in the look there, the shining intensity. “Don’t say I can’t take care of you.”

Wei Ying feels like the room is spinning suddenly, the familiar contours of his space suddenly foreign. He might have gasped because a moment later Lan Zhan is holding his wrist again.

“But,” Wei Ying manages. Thinks, you don’t even like me. But that’s not true, is it? Hasn’t been true for a while. It’s a thing he says to himself as a reminder not to push too hard. Not that it’s been useful enough to ever stop him. “Why?”

“Why does anyone?” Wei Ying can’t believe Lan Zhan is mocking him right now. Wei Ying is having a crisis, or a revelation here. A revelation crisis. Then Lan Zhan says, “So you have to tell me.”

“But you don’t -- you think I’m annoying.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, pained, his eyebrows coming together in the middle.

“Oh,” Wei Ying says.

Lan Zhan leans in close, brings a hand up to cup Wei Ying’s jaw. Wei Ying leans up, lips parting slightly, ready. Lan Zhan doesn’t kiss him. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying hums, feels the way it resonates against Lan Zhan’s hand. “I asked you a question.”

Wei Ying laughs. “You’re ridiculous.”

The corner of Lan Zhan’s lip twitches.

“I like kisses?” Wei Ying tries hopefully.

“That’s good to know,” Lan Zhan says, and doesn’t kiss him. “What else?”

Wei Ying feels like squirming again, as the initial shock of Lan Zhan liking him wears off and the full depth of the question Lan Zhan is asking him settles in again. But then again, Lan Zhan did very well at Niche. He didn’t freak out even once. And if Wei Ying says something he doesn’t like, well, it’s not like Lan Zhan has given him anything to miss. Liar, Wei Ying’s brain says, but he’s never listened to his brain before.

Brain is right though, even without a kiss, the promise of one drives him to speak. “You know how Su She says you let me get away with everything?”

Lan Zhan’s eyes flash, impossibly sexy, and, wow, Wei Ying wants to see that again. But he has to focus. Wei Ying decides to table that for another moment. “Yes,” Lan Zhan says, inflectionless, not an agreement, just an acknowledgement.

“I don’t want you to let me get away with anything.” His eyes flutter closed when Lan Zhan makes a sharp sound, straight from the gut.

Lan Zhan steps in even closer, slides his hand up from Wei Ying’s jaw into Wei Ying’s hair and tugs. It’s light, just enough to get Wei Ying to tip his head up, but Wei Ying imagines that Lan Zhan pulled harder, lets himself gasp like he did, like Lan Zhan put some of his impressive strength behind it.

Lan Zhan’s eyes are searching Wei Ying’s, looking for something.

“You won’t be good for me?” Lan Zhan says and tugs again.

Wei Ying shakes his head to feel the pull against his roots. Lan Zhan, perfect man, doesn’t let go. Wei Ying is feeling dreamy already. They stand there for a long moment.

Eventually Lan Zhan steps back, carefully detangling his hand from Wei Ying’s hair. Wei Ying mourns the loss. Lan Zhan smooths his hands down his shirt, just once, like that gesture makes any sense when the garment in question is soft mesh and not a silk blend. “I don’t understand. Wei Ying. I --” and he looks at Wei Ying, imploring, and it all rushes back. Fuck. Lan Zhan is new, he’s not into this, he’s trying though, probably Nie Huaisang got to him with all of that ‘you brought your vanilla boyfriend here’ bullshit.

Wei Ying spreads his hands, look, no challenge here. But before he can back down, offer to blow him or something, tuck all of these messy edges away, something sparks in Lan Zhan’s eyes and he pushes Wei Ying back against the door. Hard. Wei Ying moans again. Maybe someone in the hallway could hear, if they were out there. It’s just him and Lan Zhan on this floor though. He wonders if the sound transfers all the way into Lan Zhan’s empty apartment.

“Make me understand. I want to,” Lan Zhan says. “What else. What…” Lan Zhan looks at Wei Ying and his eyes are wild, faint colour staining his ears.

Ok, ok, and that’s fine. Lan Zhan wants to know what to do to him. That’s normal. This is negotiation. Wei Ying negotiates all the time. He never has any issue telling some inevitably-disappointing dom exactly how hard he wants to get fucked and how many times and what he wants him to say while he does it. Negotiating is clinical. There’s nothing sexy about saying ‘you can hit me, but only with your hands, and you have to stop shortly after I start crying.’ But he does it and it’s fine. It’s fine.

Why isn’t this?

But then he doesn't usually have Lan Zhan staring at him, eyes implacable but still so hot, waiting for him. Wei Ying feels like that heat is under his skin too, buzzing at him, making it hard to focus.

He shakes his head, trying to clear it. Breathes in, but that just reminds him of how little he actually can, the way he’s tied up and now caged in by Lan Zhan’s hands.

How is Lan Zhan doing this to him? He’s only asked him a few questions, pulled on his hair a little bit, and Wei Ying already feels like he’s floating away. His whole cred is ruined. Wei Ying knows he’s notoriously difficult to dom. Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang talk about it all of the time. They detail the inadequacies of various lacklustre doms, all of whom are probably perfectly competent at whipping their beds with their belts but as soon as they’re faced with another human questioning their orders they crumple like pop cans. Petty tyrants who can only complain and appeal to a greater authority when they’re supposed to be the ones in charge.

Lan Zhan isn’t flimsy at all. He feels immovable, solid, pressed up against Wei Ying.

So Wei Ying tries. He tries to explain. “I want you to hold me down.” There’s a light in Lan Zhan’s eyes and he’s still there, still making Wei Ying feel held with his stare. “I,” he licks his lips again, thinks through his list. “I like it rough, I like to feel it. I want you to fuck me like you don’t care what I want, like whatever you want is all that matters.” Wei Ying lets his eyes fall shut. Lets himself imagine. “You could hold me against the wall,” he says, dragging his hand up his side, over the tackiness of his shorts, the rough embroidery of the corset, the heat of his skin, until it reaches the base of his throat. He doesn’t press down the way he wants Lan Zhan to do. “Until I can’t stand anymore and have nothing left to give and you’re done with me.”


Lan Zhan’s hand is so big and warm and Wei Ying gasps, eyes snapping open, when Lan Zhan cups his throat. Wei Ying lets his own hand fall to his side, loose, and tips his chin back to give Lan Zhan better access, and absolutely does not break eye contact.

“You’re not telling me everything,” Lan Zhan says, and just how many details does he want? “All of this, you could get at the clubs.” Lan Zhan says the word ‘club’ the way others say ‘rat infestation.’ “Surely it is trivial to find someone to selfishly fuck you up against the wall of a filthy restroom.” ‘Someone’ Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying hears it as ‘anyone.’ Like Wei Ying doesn’t care who brings him low. Some random stranger could use him and let him crumple to the ground when they were done. Wei Ying flushes from the roots of his hair down to his chest. It would be one solid colour save for Lan Zhan’s hand, a band of pale skin that interrupts the evidence of his humiliation.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whines, hands flexing down by his sides.

“Shh,” Lan Zhan says, absent-minded, like Wei Ying has interrupted him studying a cultivation text. It’s so familiar from hours in the library that Wei Ying has to bite the inside of his lip, hard, to keep his eyes from rolling up in the back of his head. He shouldn’t be getting off on this, on Lan Zhan’s disapproval and implacable grip.

Wei Ying whines again, and writhes. “Shh,” Lan Zhan says, and squeezes once with his hand, gently. It doesn’t impact his breathing -- shouldn’t -- Wei Ying’s gasp is entirely cut off and he can’t help the way his hips roll up, seeking friction that does not exist. When he comes back to himself, Lan Zhan’s pupils are blown wide and he’s staring at Wei Ying’s face. Wei Ying knows he can’t look attractive right now, blotchy and sweating as he is.

“You do like this,” Lan Zhan confirms, and Wei Ying tries to nod, the smallest hint of movement against Lan Zhan’s implacable fingers. “But it’s still not why you dress like this, why you go to that place. You were bored, watching. I saw.”

Lan Zhan did see. And it’s true, most of the trappings are not for him. He could get most of what he needed from shitty people in dark corners, but it’s the bit that comes after that makes him stay in the scene.

“It’s… the aftercare,” he admits, voice just above a whisper. Doms don’t like mumbling.

Lan Zhan tilts his head. “Aftercare?”

And, oh fuck, he has to tell him, he has to, because he’s new and he doesn’t know. If Wei Ying doesn’t ask for it, he’s not going to get it.

Wei Ying can’t breathe and it has nothing to do with Lan Zhan’s hand, which has moved to cup the back of Wei Ying’s head now. Lan Zhan’s cradling him like a baby. Like someone who can’t take it. He feels tears pricking up behind his eyes. “Oh God,” he hiccups. He can’t tell Lan Zhan about aftercare, that’s too much, that’s so embarrassing. Who wants someone who just wants a hug and to be told they did well? It’s the opposite of sexy, it’s clingy and childish and Wei Ying wants it so desperately. He chases it like a tongue seeking out the last hint of sugar after the candy is gone. That was what was so good about this whole lifestyle. He had to ask for everything else, but the cuddles and pets came for free, expected. He could be as needy as he wanted and it was indulged.

He’s crying now, and so hard in his shorts, they’re stretching in an unsightly way, almost pinching. The ropes are sliding a little to the sides to accommodate.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and his voice is just as gentle as his hand. Lan Zhan moves -- not away, but like he’s going to give Wei Ying a hug and that’s unbearable because he hasn’t earned it, hasn’t done any of the things Lan Zhan wanted. He couldn’t even answer one question.

“Um,” Wei Ying says, wiping at his eyes. “Aftercare, it’s, it’s what it sounds like? That after -- after I make you feel good, then you look at me and say you still want me.” He swallows. He can’t quit now. Lan Zhan is rubbing his thumb in soothing circles on the back of Wei Ying’s head and listening, patient. He’s so patient as Wei Ying cracks his ribs open and puts all of his ugliest bits on display. “That, even if I was difficult -- like we talked about? Not being good?” Lan Zhan nods, and Wei Ying sighs, relieved, that he doesn’t have to explain again. “That even if, that I still did enough, and it’s ok to rest now.”

Wei Ying’s breath is shuddering out of him now, painful. “That’s aftercare.”

Lan Zhan nods and Wei Ying… crumples. Just a little. Lan Zhan’s hand on his hip steadies him. “Thank you,” Lan Zhan says. He looks uncharacteristically hesitant. Then Lan Zhan says, “I still want you.”

The words hit Wei Ying like a sip of hot soup after coming in from the cold. His whole body jerks in Lan Zhan’s hold. “I told you,” Wei Ying chides, “that’s for after. That’s for when…” I deserve it.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says and, oh no, that’s his disappointed eyebrow. “What did I ask you for?”

Wei Ying thinks back, trying to gather his scattered thoughts. “Um,” Wei Ying says. “To, to tell you what I wanted.” Wei Ying checks Lan Zhan’s face and he nods slightly. “And to explain what aftercare is.” How could he ever forget. Lan Zhan nods again and the relief is like a blanket holding him together.

“And did you do it?” Lan Zhan asks.

“I…” he wants to say yes, he does. But he’s not sure. He was wrong before. “Did I?”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying beams. He did it! “You did exactly what I wanted, even though it was hard.” Lan Zhan’s gaze turns inward. He mumbles slightly, “How could anyone say you’re not good?”

“Well,” Wei Ying says, too busy floating on the praise to care about whatever semantics Lan Zhan is caught up on now, “I’m not always this easy.”

Lan Zhan’s fingers tighten in Wei Ying’s hair, just a little and he rolls Wei Ying’s head on his neck. “Hm,” Lan Zhan says, “You seem pretty easy to me.”

Wei Ying pouts while his traitor body yearns towards Lan Zhan’s. Wei Ying’s dick is still hard but Wei Ying notes it in an absent-minded sort of way. It’s not as important as having Lan Zhan hold him right now. “You can’t be mean to me during aftercare. That’s a rule.”

Lan Zhan looks doubtful, but joke’s on him, there’s only one expert here and it’s not him. Wei Ying can say whatever he likes and Lan Zhan can’t argue with him. “Very well,” Lan Zhan says. “What about kisses? Are those allowed during aftercare?”

Wei Ying squeaks. He tilts his chin up.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and his eyes are dancing even as he is making a heroic effort to keep his face still, “That’s not an answer.”

Wei Ying’s cheeks burn again. Didn’t Wei Ying just tell him not to be mean? And here he is, cruelly torturing Wei Ying, making Wei Ying ask for things. That monster. “Yes,” Wei Ying says, grabbing for scraps of dignity that do not exist. “Kissing is acceptable.”

The end of the word is swallowed when Lan Zhan presses his whole body against Wei Ying’s and finally, finally leans in to take that kiss.