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Blossoms of Yunmeng

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Yunmeng in the winter did not get as cold as the mountain into whose side Cloud Recesses nestled, but the air held a chill nonetheless, intensified by the damp air from the famous rivers and lakes. Lan Wangji's cultivation level was such that he did not really feel the cold. Most of the others on the crowded streets, however, cultivators and townsfolk alike, were wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves. In his layers of fine, white Gusu silk, Lan Wangji could not help standing out.

Conversations petering out on either side of him was something he'd become used to, since the Sunshot Campaign—since well before it had ended. Lan Wangji heard his own title being whispered instead, passed between the gossiping cultivators as a mark of their knowledge of current affairs. He kept his eyes forward, lowered to a point some ten chi ahead of him, and walked in measured footsteps.

"Hanguang-jun," came a voice from his left, louder and nearer than the others. Flicking his gaze up to the man who spoke, he recognised the sect colours of an outer Yunmeng Jiang disciple but not the face. Lan Wangji spared him a nod, the exact degree of politeness necessary.

He supposed they were all outer disciples at Yunmeng Jiang, these days. Practically all.

From his consultation of the map over lunch, this busy street, lined with inns and food stalls and hawkers, was the most efficient route to the river port, where he could hire a boatman to pole him the short distance to Lotus Pier. He was beginning to wish he'd spent the time looking for the quietest way, rather than the fastest. Once the first man had greeted him, others were emboldened to do so. They stepped rapidly out of his way when he failed to break his stride for them, but every time, he had to lift his eyes, compare the voice and the face to the ones he was hoping to encounter, and be disappointed.

The young woman who approached him from further up the street drew nearly as many gazes as he did. Between the straight collar of her bright blue blouse and the long skirt secured across her chest, an expanse of pearl-white skin was exposed that couldn't be comfortable in this weather. She moved quickly, almost skipping, the gauzy layers of the skirt swinging where they were weighed down with embroidery.

Lan Wangji turned his eyes respectfully away before she came close. Unanticipated, the brush of an arm against his sleeve was as shocking as a whip crack. He half turned, Bichen alert at his waist, only to meet a pair of eyes shining with private humour.

"Gongzi!" she sang out. Something flew towards his head; he snatched it from the air. When he looked up again, the woman had vanished.

In his hand was a white rosebud, just beginning to unfurl. Its petals were soft and unmarked.

Tucking the rose into his sleeve, Lan Wangji turned back to his path. He had barely walked five steps, however, when a giggle in front of him drew his attention to another young woman, this one wearing a coral-coloured blouse with a deep neckline. An artificial flush of a not dissimilar shade graced her round cheeks. There was something in her hand—she tossed it at him, flicking upwards from hip level, and pressed her fingers against her mouth to stifle her laughter when the throw went wildly off-target, the item wheeling over his shoulder.

This time, he watched as the girl spun around, her skirt and long scarf rippling gracefully in the air, and ran away. Only once she'd disappeared between gawking pedestrians did he examine the thing he'd automatically caught: a pale blue bellflower, its delicate petals veined with indigo. Dew seemed still to be caught in the well at the centre of the flower.

He straightened his shoulders and hid this flower, too, in his sleeve. Allowing his face to become colder than it already was, Lan Wangji glanced around at the passers-by who had stopped to enjoy the display. They moved out of his way without a word.

He did not walk any further.

Revealed in the newly-cleared space in front of him was yet another young woman, this one, truly speaking, barely more than a girl. Her hair was twisted up in two buns on the top of her head, with multicoloured ribbons drifting gaily down from them, and against her chest she clutched a whole bunch of brilliant red pomegranate flowers, clinging onto twigs covered with green leaves. Lan Wangji felt a strange sense of resignation as she ran towards him on tiptoes. The flowers pattered against his chest and, mostly, dropped to the ground. It was impossible to catch them all this time.

He was still deciding whether it was worse to bend and scoop up the blossoms from the ground or leave them where they were when there was a soft, resounding collision with the side of his head.

Lifting one hand, he felt another flower there. It was a huge peony blossom whose petals were streaked pink and white, and it had landed as precisely as if he, a courtesan, had tucked it into his hair as decoration for the night's performances.

Into the silence of the fascinated crowd rang a voice—oh, he should have known, should have expected this—the voice, the one he'd been listening out for all day. "Lan Zhan!"

Wei Wuxian's pointed face looked down on him from an upper floor of the building Lan Wangji had stopped outside. A teasing smile played across his lips, there one moment and vanished the next. "Ah, no, Hanguang-Jun," he corrected himself. "What a coincidence!"

"It is you," Lan Wangji murmured.

"Who else would do something so ridiculous?" Wei Wuxian grinned. He saluted Lan Wangji with the liquor jar in his hand. He was leaning out through a gap in some filmy gauze curtains, layers and layers of them overlapping like the petals of the peony Lan Wangji still held up to his face. It wasn't a proper room in the building, after all, but some kind of pavilion set up on the flat roof. Coloured shadows moved behind the fabric, indistinct.

"So what are you doing in Yunmeng, anyway?" Wei Wuxian continued, apparently happy to lead their conversation by himself in front of the whole city. "Official business, or pleasure?"

"Will the young master come up and drink with us?" asked a feminine voice. The familiar faces of one, two, three young women pushed through the curtains to either side of him. They cast coquettish smiles down to him just as they had thrown the flowers before.

"What a good idea!" Wei Wuxian somehow contrived to sound joyously surprised at this. "What about it, Hanguang-Jun? Do you have time, or will you disappoint the ladies?"

Lan Wangji looked away and began walking without a word. Above him, he heard Wei Wuxian's dramatic groan of disappointment, and the whisper of the sheets of gauze settling back into place.

The lower floor of the inn was dim, despite the lanterns that hung at frequent intervals from the ceiling, and almost empty. A short, stocky man ran forwards to greet him as he entered, asking what he could bring for the honoured cultivator, but his face fell as Lan Wangji continued to stride towards the stairs he saw at the back of the room.

"Your upper pavilion," he said in a low voice.

"Ah—of course, of course, but—surely the honoured cultivator would prefer—"
Lan Wangji ignored him. The handful of customers, visibly ill at ease, turned their faces away when he passed them.

Upstairs, a curtain of multicoloured beads clattered at the entrance to the pavilion. The space was warmed by two iron braziers and lit hazily by what little light filtered in through the curtains from outside. Lanterns were set up in each corner, but the light they shed seemed to spread no further than their own bases. Enough cushions and tables were set up to accommodate twenty or thirty people. The only guests present, though, were Wei Wuxian himself and five beautiful women—the three he had already ‘met’ as well as two others, all now fixing him with dark eyes under heavy lids. The effect was presumably supposed to be sensual. It reminded him more of lizards staring at potential prey.

Wei Wuxian was lying on a patterned divan, one foot propped up on the end, the other hanging down to the floor. His head lay back against a hard cushion. At the noise of the curtain, he startled and the arm holding the liquor jar above his face jerked, sending a stream of clear liquid onto the front of his black robes.

“Hanguang-jun, you actually came!” he spluttered.

“Mm.”

“Well, take a seat!” Wei Wuxian pushed himself more upright and waved one arm at the women. “Make space for the Second Jade of Gusu, won’t you!”

Lan Wangji took four steps forward, enough to get to the low table in front of Wei Wuxian. “Your flowers.” It took a while to pull them all out of his sleeves. Last of all was the enormous peony.

“They’re yours. I gave them to you, didn’t I?” His broad smile didn’t reach his eyes. He finished shifting position on the divan, settling back with his legs spread. One of the girls slipped over to perch by his side.

“Wei Ying. It is winter.”

That got through Wei Wuxian’s facade. He looked up in surprise and a genuine smile broke across his face. Seeing it, a bolt of pain shot through Lan Wangji’s heart. He pressed down his response as hard as he could. This was not the moment to be seen to flinch.

Fortunately, Wei Wuxian didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve been working on some experiments in preservation,” he said. “Would you believe that some of these flowers have lasted more than half a year already? The pomegranate blossoms are the hardest, for some reason… look, some of these are already wilting at the edges.” He glanced up, meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes through his lashes. “Not really good enough for the esteemed Hanguang-jun, is it? I should apologise.”

“No need.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, you don’t know your own worth,” he said, and it was a tease, still, but the older kind of teasing, not whatever spectacle he had been trying for earlier, taunting Lan Wangji in front of a whole street of cultivators. Wei Wuxian shook his head. “One thing—don’t try eating these, okay? I was originally trying to find a way to keep food for longer, but the talismans I’ve got so far are not… really sufficient.”

Lan Wangji waited, two breaths, to see if he would continue by himself or whether he was waiting for a prompt. He was still standing in front of the table, looking down at the man he’d been searching for. The glittering eyes of Wei Wuxian’s companions hadn’t left his face.

“What is the problem?” he asked, at last.

“I’ll show you.” Wei Wuxian started to pat around himself on the divan, searching for something. One of his hands landed on the lap of the girl beside him, who let loose a high giggle and a breathy, “Wei-gongzi!” Lan Wangji turned his eyes away.

“Oh, of course, it’s here, it was here the whole time.” When he looked back, Wei Wuxian was fumbling with a black qiankun pouch that hung from his belt. He pulled out a pale yellow chrysanthemum, two talismans fluttering from its long stalk. The lines seemed to have been sketched and corrected multiple times; Lan Wangji’s eye could pick out cinnabar markings augmented with the brown of dried blood. The flower itself had been cut in full bloom. Even over the other airs of the room—liquor, perfume, smoke from the brazier—the delicate scent of its petals reached him.

“Do me a favour, A-Fen?” Wei Wuxian asked, turning to one side. The women who hadn’t managed to insinuate themselves next to him made soft protesting noises as A-Fen, the one whose cheeks were painted up to the edges of her finely plucked eyebrows, leant her head forwards to take three of the petals between her teeth and pull them into her mouth.

An instant later, her lips parted and a shower of white ash fell silently between them, onto the hollow of Wei Wuxian’s lifted palm.

“You see, Lan Zhan?” he said, his smile lopsided. “It’s getting better—my first efforts stank, gods, I thought Jiang Cheng was going to throw me out of Lotus Pier for that alone—“ A shadow passed over his face. “Well, never mind about that.”

A-Fen and all four of the other women pressed in towards him, skirts brushing past Lan Wangji as they moved. The attention that had been fixed on him so oppressively was suddenly pulled away and redirected to Wei Wuxian, who leaned slowly down onto the divan, all but vanishing behind a whirlwind of embroidered silks and ribbons. One of them was sitting on his lap, another supporting his head and stroking his hair back with soft, white fingers, her scarf obscuring his face.

Lan Wangji’s body felt heavy, stiff, thoroughly in the way. Although he hadn’t moved a muscle, he was suddenly uncomfortably aware of the arrangement of his face and the tension in his shoulders, his balanced stance behind the table: all useless.

One black-clothed arm reached out from the jumble of multicoloured fabric and solicitous limbs. Wei Wuxian couldn’t reach the pottery jar from where he was, and before any of the women could lay their hands on it, Lan Wangji had snatched it up. He held it to his chest, nose wrinkling at the fumes that rose from it.

“Wei Ying,” he said.

Wei Wuxian blinked up at him, pushing the scarf out of his way.

“This will not help.”

“Nothing will help, Lan Zhan.” The words came out through his teeth, and this time Lan Wangji did flinch, away from the pain Wei Wuxian had let show. They stared at one another for a moment that stretched miserably out. Then, horribly, Wei Wuxian laughed.

“You know, when I invited you up here, I was thinking we could reminisce about the old days back in Cloud Recesses?” he asked. “Maybe that was stupid. Obviously it was. Everything’s changed so much since then, why even bother talking about how things used to be? But this—“ He waved one hand in Lan Wangji’s direction, not following it with his eyes. “This is exactly the same, isn’t it?”

Soft giggles came from the girls. One of them captured his hand and pulled it playfully against her own cheek.

Lan Wangji felt the sudden urge to get closer to Wei Wuxian—at least, to get on the same level as him. He wished he could sweep the women aside like so many dolls. A chord from his guqin would send them flying off the roof and leave Wei Wuxian without this strange defense.

Instead, he whisked his sleeve over the tabletop with just a breath of spiritual energy in it. Flowers rained across the pavilion’s woven silk rugs. Lan Wangji sat down, setting the liquor jar outside of Wei Wuxian’s reach.

“Me playing the fool and trying to have fun, you turning up and confiscating my wine,” Wei Wuxian continued, ignoring him. “You probably have no idea the things we used to get up to in the dormitories. Once Nie Huaisang got out his book collection… ah, sorry, Nie-xiong, that was supposed to be a secret.”

Anger flared within Lan Wangji, a flame that licked all at once from his heart to his throat and made his forehead burn. He didn’t bother trying to trace its source. “Is that where you got all your experience with kissing, then.” The question snapped out before he could think too hard about it.

Looking genuinely confused, Wei Wuxian started to sit back up. “Lan Zhan, what, hah…?”

“When we met last, at Phoenix Mountain, you said you had ‘lots of experience.’” His jaw felt stiff when he spoke. “So was it from the other boys at the lectures? Or is it all with this kind of inhuman creature?”

The light within the pavilion altered, as if oil had been thrown onto the brazier coals. In his peripheral vision, Lan Wangji saw that the women’s faces had all turned back to him. Their pallor no longer looked fashionable and delicate but unnatural, eerie. He had the impression of sharp teeth, of a sickly glow rising in their shadowed eyes; still, he kept his gaze focussed on Wei Wuxian alone.

“Stop that,” Wei Wuxian muttered. One hand rested upon the black flute stuck through his belt. Slowly, the illusion of health and beauty returned to the faces of the women who stared at Lan Wangji, though they still scowled suspiciously.

“Hanguang-jun, do you have to upset them?” Wei Wuxian stroked the hair of the nearest girl, the one who had curled up on his lap. His hand tangled in her ribbons. She narrowed her eyes confrontationally at Lan Wangji, leaning closer against Wei Wuxian’s chest. The silver flower between her eyebrows glinted as the skin there wrinkled.

Lan Wangji did not respond. He refused.

“Besides…” Wei Wuxian bent forwards, conspiratory. He whispered, as if the creature on his lap wouldn’t hear it. “It’s not as though it really counts, with my girls.”

What did it mean, for a kiss to count? Lan Wangji was reluctant to betray his ignorance by opening his mouth. He waited, with anger still flickering in his throat and behind his eyes, for Wei Wuxian to continue trying to talk his way out of this.

“Lan Zhan, you know what I mean, don’t you? I love my girls, but they’re not… real.” His mouth twisted in a conciliatory expression, head tilted to one side to mime, we are two men of the world sharing a confidence, but the blush high up on his cheeks was more honest than his playacting. Wei Wuxian really was flustered. “They’re nineteen parts out of twenty resentful energy, to be frank with you,” he said. “And the rest is… mostly me, plus whatever ghosts are passing through and feel like playing. So when I kiss one of them, it’s not as though I’m…” His voice fell to a mumble. “Kissing someone else.”

“Mm.” Lan Wangji sat up straighter, pulling away from the bubble of tense air that had formed between him, the other man and the ghost girls. Outside, the sun had already faded from the day; if not below the horizon, it had certainly sunk beneath the rooftops around them. Was it his imagination that blurred the women’s outlines, frayed their silk skirts into trembling gauze, softened their already rounded profiles? The landlord ought to have sent a servant up, before now, to check on the braziers and bring Wei Wuxian more liquor, but it seemed that this pavilion was their domain entirely for as long as Wei Wuxian wanted it. The girls met each other’s eyes and tittered, like birds heard from too far away to make out the song.

He should leave. He knew he should.

Suddenly, the ghost woman closest to him stood up. She was the one with the bright blue blouse, its straight collar vanishing beneath the band of a deep crimson skirt, fastened above her breasts.

Wei Wuxian’s mouth dropped open. “Er, A-Ju, what are you—“

Through a sweep of coal-black lashes, A-Ju’s gaze turned decisively from him to Lan Wangji. The tiny pearls dangling from her hairpins clicked together. Lan Wangji felt his mouth suddenly dry up as she bent at the waist, slowly lowering her face to his level. Only a chi separated them—then, somehow, half a chi.

“Hanguang-jun may kiss this servant, should he wish,” she murmured, eyes dropping to his lips and remaining there.

He didn’t intend to kiss her. He didn’t realise quite what was happening, just that he had long since lost his chance for the conversation he’d intended to have with Wei Wuxian, here in Yunmeng, and that his anger had not died down but set sparks to some other emotion he couldn’t identify, and that the air in the pavilion was fogged with warm, damp breath despite its emptiness. He didn’t even realise that he was moving, until his lips brushed against A-Ju’s.

For a long moment, they both simply held there, their mouths resting against one another. The ghost woman’s lips were smooth and very soft; although they were cooler than he’d expected, the contact built a heat within his own skin, as though she were burning him. At some point, he’d closed his eyes. This single touch was the only thing he could feel.

Lan Wangji moved his head gently to one side, and then to the other, dragging his closed lips slowly against A-Ju’s mouth. She made the smallest of noises in response—barely an exhalation—and Lan Wangji realised that no one else in the room could have heard it, not even a cultivator of Wei Wuxian’s level. If A-Ju was only a spectre of resentful energy, did she breathe, did she need to? One part of his mind tried to chase the chain of technical questions, seeing an escape from this all-too-physical predicament, but he stopped it in its tracks in the quickest way he could manage. Lan Wangji parted his lips and, after the briefest hesitation, leaned upwards into the kiss.

Now they were shifting against one another in more complex patterns, mouths gradually opening. A-Ju pressed both her lips around his upper one, then the lower; he chased the pressure when it retreated. Compared to his first kiss, this one was just as bewildering, but less overwhelming. He didn’t know any better than last time what he should be doing, but at least he wasn’t kissing the boy he’d been so desperately in love with for years, only… whatever A-Ju was. This was easier. He was more rational.

His lips continued to burn, not painfully, but in a strange contrast to the other sensations he felt. When her breath mingled with his, he tasted resentful energy and, for one awful moment, flew back to the battlefields of Sunshot: that biting smoke that had hung over the li of dead Wen cultivators, the cold tang of the black vapor shrouding Wei Wuxian back at camp, after combat, when Lan Wangji had railed and berated him about the damage caused by demonic cultivation—and begged him to stop, and stormed away to hide the tears in his eyes—

He choked.

A-Ju pulled away, and he blinked up into her incurious dark eyes. He was sitting on a low table, in a makeshift room on top of an inn, in a city he didn’t know. The cold of evening was beginning to steal into the pavilion. Somewhere near him was Wei Wuxian, at least halfway drunk and watching him embarrass himself in a way that Lan Wangji would never have been able to predict when he awoke this morning. The creature before him had been conjured by forbidden techniques. She was repulsive. But—nevertheless, there was something—

Crushing his eyes shut, ignoring the tears that seeped out of them, Lan Wangji pushed back up into the kiss. A-Ju’s mouth opened onto his and he pulled together the courage he needed to slide the tip of his tongue just inside it.

Yes, he tasted the resentful energy again. It brushed against him, tried to slither inside him; he had to force himself to keep breathing and to hold firm against its intrusion. Beneath that all-too-familiar, acrid taste, though, was the sweet anaesthetic note of cloves—and underneath that, something indescribable. It was the taste of Wei Ying’s mouth.

Before Phoenix Mountain, he’d never considered that people’s mouths might have a flavour to them, something additional to whatever they had eaten or drunk, to tooth powders and cosmetics. Afterwards, he could barely think about anything else. He should never have stolen that taste of Wei Ying. He was going to die without ever experiencing it a second time, and though that was far from sufficient punishment, it still felt too cruel.

(Lan Wangji had punished himself at the Cloud Recesses, as best he could, with handstands and drills and extra hours spent recopying the texts that had survived the burning of the Library Pavilion. Submitting to the Lan Sect’s discipline rulers would have required a confession he had not been able to make.)

Though he was shuddering and could feel more tears rolling down his cheeks, Lan Wangji couldn’t bring himself to break away. His tongue pushed into A-Ju’s mouth and hers crept into his, shyly at first but then more daring. And then it vanished.

Once again, he found himself back on the table in the pavilion, horribly self-conscious. The ghost woman had stood up fully and turned, deferential, towards Wei Wuxian, who was regarding him with an unreadable thoughtfulness.

“Lan Zhan,” he said slowly. “May I… I’d like to try something. Just something quick, a small idea.”

Lan Wangji stared back at him, wordless. Only after a long while did he realise that Wei Wuxian was asking his permission.

“Lan Zhan, do you trust me?” Wei Wuxian’s voice was low, sincere. There was no sign of the aggressive jest he’d wielded at the start of their afternoon.

At least this was an easy question to answer. Perhaps it should not have been. Nonetheless, Lan Wangji nodded. “Mm.”

On some unseen signal, the rest of Wei Wuxian’s ghost women surrounded him. A-Fen was at his right hand; the girl with the high buns stood to his left. Behind him stood a plump, buxom woman with golden combs pushed into her bouffant hair. The fifth ghost crouched down in front of Wei Wuxian’s knees, in between the divan and the table. She cocked her head to look at Lan Wangji sidelong, just as her master was doing.

“Trust me,” Wei Wuxian murmured, and the world went dark.

The woman behind him had covered his eyes with her fingers. Cold and smooth as porcelain, they pressed gently against his eyelids, and once again he felt that strange juxtaposition of sensation, a burning inside his flesh and a coolness outside it. The drying tears on his cheekbones itched under the touch. Automatically, he raised his hands to his face, but before he reached her, both of his wrists were caught and drawn back.

Two sets of slender fingertips collided with his upper chest and pushed him irresistably backwards, until he felt the back of his head bump into the soft bosom of the woman who was blindfolding him. The long silk sleeves of her outer robe rustled around his shoulders.

Lan Wangji tensed against the hands holding him. He sensed that he could break free, but only with a considerable effort—once again, images from the Sunshot battlefields flashed in front of him, hollowed-out bodies and weirdly twisted limbs in robes of Wen red and white. That damage had been done by the same energy that now formed the silken skin of these creatures. His own breath rasped in his ears; his chest tightened.

Wei Wuxian had said to trust him.

Wei Wuxian was here, close enough to lay his own hands on Lan Wangji, should he choose to do so. He was here, with his smile and his thoughtful eyes, and the bold heart Lan Wangji had tried to stop him destroying, and the flute that could banish all of these ghosts in an instant—or summon a hundred times more. He was here, and that was not, entirely, a comfort.

When a pair of dry lips touched his mouth out of the darkness, Lan Wangji jolted away with his whole body. He was caught tightly at the shoulders and wrists, guided back towards the kisser, who held against him, barely pressing into his lips. Someone was shaking—was it him?—and their two mouths fluttered against each other, like a butterfly landing again and again on a flower, never quite trusting that its footing was secure. The chilly grasp the ghost women had on him had not diminished: he was held in place, presented like tribute.

This wasn't A-Fen. He'd known that from the first touch, and now, as the person kissing him parted their lips against his, not even enough to take a breath through, he realised why. The heat rising in him was equalled by the warmth of this other mouth, the mouth that could only be Wei Wuxian's.

As the kiss deepened, Lan Wangji struggled against the ghost women's hands again, this time trying to draw closer to Wei Wuxian. Once more, he was denied movement. With her fingers still pressing his eyelids shut, the woman behind him had his head immobilised between her palms. He couldn't even tilt his face up to offer Wei Wuxian a better angle to kiss him at. Wei Wuxian seemed unperturbed by this. There was a rustling of fabric, a shift in the wooden surface of the table Lan Wangji was sitting on, and finally a weight on each of Lan Wangji's thighs as Wei Wuxian set his hands there and leaned further in.

Lan Wangji's heartbeat thudded painfully through him, over and over again. He could feel the blood surging into his cheeks, his ears and somewhere lower and even more urgent. Wei Wuxian's tongue was deep in his mouth, now, tasting of liquor and spices. There was resentful energy in him, too. It spilled into Lan Wangji under cover of the kiss, an intrusion that he fought to bear because of what it couldn't conceal: the taste, the warmth, the physicality of Wei Ying. The fact that he was still here, however much damage he had done to himself.

Nonetheless, he was finding it hard to breathe under this onslaught. His head was starting to spin. Lan Wangji wrenched his head to one side, but took in only one shuddering gasp of air before Wei Wuxian's deft fingers took hold of his chin and pulled him back into position.

Wei Wuxian laughed, softly, against his mouth. He pushed forward one last time, sinking his teeth delicately into Lan Wangji's lower lip and releasing it before the bite could register as pain.

The hands over Lan Wangji's eyes were abruptly pulled away. His wrists were dropped and his arms fell limply to his sides as he blinked into the face of Wei Wuxian, now sitting demurely back on the table, not touching him at all. The nonchalant pose was belied by the rapid rise and fall of his chest and the intensity of his dark eyes.

"Forgive me, Lan Zhan," he said. "I just had the irresistible idea of seeing what my first kiss must have been like, from the other side."

There were giggles around them. The woman-shaped spectres of resentful energy were flitting through the dim pavilion as though they were the ones who'd been forced to be still for too long, and now needed to move freely. Embroidered skirts and jewelled hairpins shimmered as they spun in the gloom.

"It was—" He had difficulty forming the words, his tongue suddenly unaccustomed to speech. "On Phoenix Mountain, that was your first kiss?"

"I guarded it for twenty years, only to lose it without ever knowing who my admirer was!" Wei Wuxian lamented. Stars danced in his eyes. "How could I ever have guessed that the honourable Hanguang-jun had such intentions towards me?"

Lan Wangji pushed himself unsteadily upright. He felt ungraceful, his limbs not heavy but seeming to float somehow. Beneath him, Wei Wuxian's face shifted from laughter to uncertainty.

"Ah, Lan Zhan, I didn't mean—what I meant to say was—" One hand clutched automatically for Chenqing.

He silenced Wei Wuxian by taking his free hand in both of his own and then pulling him upwards, into his arms. Wei Wuxian's body obeyed with a worrying lack of resistance, scarcely even the drag of gravity. For a moment, he stiffened in Lan Wangji's embrace. Then he sagged against him, a warm and pliant weight.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji murmured into his ear. "Wei Ying, take me back to Lotus Pier with you."