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So far, Wei Ying thinks that the over-the-top refreshments are the best thing about the Jin sect hosting this year’s tri-annual cultivation conference. (That’s every three years, not three times a year. If it was three times a year, someone would riot.) All of the trays being passed around Koi Tower’s gleaming outdoor pavilion are yellow; Wei Ying’s already eaten three fancy-looking egg tarts, an adorable little yuzu custard, and a couple of (four) (okay, five) pieces of prosciutto-wrapped melon. 

A yellow-clad waiter passes by with a tray of yellow spheres. A-Cheng caught her eye earlier and held one of those up, mouthing Try these, so she’s not the only one snacking, all right? She snags one and pops it in her mouth. She’d half-expected cheese; instead, it’s a fruity white chocolate truffle. Probably mango? Neat.

Wei Ying lets her gaze rove over the groups of cultivators milling about and idly calculates the time left until the conference’s only-semi-mandatory first day cocktail reception. 

Across the way, the Lan delegation practically sparkles in the sea air. They always dress formally for cultivation events, even the junior disciples shedding their training hanfu for immaculate white suits. Today, there are two Lan clan women in perfect pencil skirts, shell tops, and blazers, all blinding white, and there are Lan Huan and Lan Qiren in their three-piece white suits, and then there’s... someone else, someone Wei Ying doesn’t recognize. Someone new, whose softly shiny white three-piece suit has a narrower taper at the legs, giving it just a little edge, an appealing attitude. Someone Lan Huan’s height, but of a slightly slighter build, with maybe a rounder mouth, and hair that’s almost floppy, cute, carrying a sword that’s kind of familiar, and - oh, shit. Oh, holy shit. That’s Lan Zhan. 

Wei Ying remembers Lan Zhan as both achingly pretty and achingly plain. She’d been shy in high school, and Wei Ying… well, Wei Ying hadn’t been shy. They only met because Lan Zhan was some kind of class officer, tasked with personally overseeing most of Wei Ying’s detentions. 

Wei Ying couldn’t take the sight of Lan Zhan, flat-mouthed and stern and so closed off, sitting in front of her in detention day after day. She had to at least try to draw Lan Zhan out, and her best option for that was annoying her into a reaction, whether by drawing Lan Zhan’s portrait when Wei Ying was supposed to be copying lines or by sneakily swapping out Lan Zhan’s book for lit class with a trashy novel all about turgid, throbbing members. (Lan Zhan actually tore the book in half. With her bare hands. Wei Ying hadn’t known she was that strong. Nor so prone to irrational anger. Wei Ying left the original book in Lan Zhan’s bag! She still had everything she needed!) It was such a thrill getting under Lan Zhan’s skin. 

Truthfully, Wei Ying’s motivation for bothering her was only somewhat that staring at Lan Zhan’s stern face was a weird kind of insufferable. Mostly, by the end of that first semester, Wei Ying really did want to be friends. Lan Zhan was smart and a powerful cultivator - Wei Ying’s equal. It was hard to find other cultivators in their peer group who could rival Wei Ying for skill. And Lan Zhan didn’t hide her light under a bushel. She wasn’t flashy, not by any stretch of the imagination, but she never softened her victory in a practice duel against a boy by offering an apologetic laugh. Never pretended to be uncertain of the answer when she was called on in class. Never allowed a guy to flirt his way out of detention, either. 

Actually, she barely even seemed to notice it when boys flirted with her. Which wasn’t super often, or at least, not as often as it should have been, given how pretty Lan Zhan was. Lots of guys were intimidated by Lan Zhan, Wei Ying thinks. Lan Zhan could be so intimidating, and Wei Ying never knew when it was intentional versus just innate. Sometimes, she looked at you, and it was just like, Oh. Plus, like, Lan Zhan might not have noticed when boys were flirting with her at all? Wei Ying could be like that. She’d have fun talking with some guy, just being cute, and then he’d ask her to hang out, and it was like, What? Really? 

Maybe Lan Zhan was the same way. Or maybe Lan Zhan noticed when boys flirted with her and didn’t know how to flirt back. For Wei Ying, it was pretty instinctual - it actually took her until like sophomore year, when Nie Huaisang pulled her aside and told her to stop twirling her hair when she talked to Wen Ning, to realize that she was basically flirting all the time, with everyone - but some girls were kind of scared of boys. Afraid to talk to them, to play with them. It would make sense for quiet, pretty, sheltered, type-A Lan Zhan to be like that. 

Then again… maybe it wasn’t that Lan Zhan was scared of guys, or that she didn’t know how to talk to them. Flirting with boys, talking to boys (as in, not just talking to but talking to boys), concluding a duel you won by smiling and widening your eyes and saying Wow, Wen Xu, that binding talisman at the end was so amazing, what was its range, two whole meters? - it was possible that Lan Zhan wasn’t social around girls enough to know that those were things that girls did. She was raised by her uncle and her brother. It didn’t seem like there were any women in her immediate family. In terms of relationships with her peers, Lan Zhan was on fine terms with the Lan clan girls. Lots of them were kind of straightforward in the same way that she was, and no one avoided her during group projects or giggled when she walked past or anything. But she didn’t seem to have any close girl friends. Nor any particular boy friends. She was sort of solitary. Even at the time, Wei Ying felt bad for thinking this, but... look, Lan Zhan monitored lunchtime detention. You don’t monitor lunchtime detention if you have friends to hang out with during your lunch period. 

So, yeah, Wei Ying wanted to provoke Lan Zhan until she snapped, but she also felt for her. She was so quiet, such a stickler for the rules, always perfect, scandalized by the littlest things. Maybe she needed a friend. 

And, honestly, in high school, Wei Ying sometimes felt like she herself could use a friend who was a little different, somehow. She loved all of the girls on the archery team, but every once in a while she would wonder, just, did she actually want to do all of the archery team stuff? Wearing her team-issue windbreaker and track pants but spending a ton of time and effort to cover up her spots and shape her eyebrows and straighten her hair just to style it into the perfect messy bun, the end effect being that she looked nonchalantly cute, like she hadn’t tried at all - sometimes it was like… who was that for? Boys? Boys flirted back whether or not Wei Ying bothered with foundation. 

A-Cheng made fun of her for hogging the bathroom in the mornings and she stuck her chin up and said he wouldn’t get girls by not trying, but the truth was... she didn’t know what the truth was. Just that she spent a lot of extra time getting ready every morning. Time that she would have really liked to use to get more sleep. But she couldn’t just do that. Not when all the other girls on the team were also spending that much time on themselves before school started. Not when all the other girls were messaging and video chatting eight times over every morning to make sure that their hair was cute and their makeup wasn’t too obvious and they were all on the same page about ignoring that boy who stood up one of their second-year recurve archers for a study date the week before. 

Lan Zhan probably got up a full hour before school just to - to meditate, or study, or something, but she clearly didn’t start her day painstakingly shaping her bangs into the perfect side swoop, thinking tiredly, Third Shijie said something about toner, do I need to be using toner?, and Wait, are hair ribbons too young?, and I wonder how much my skin would clear up if I wasn’t layering a bunch of shit on it to keep it hidden all day. Maybe Lan Zhan desperately wanted to do all of that every morning and her uncle wouldn’t let her. Wei Ying didn’t know. She just knew that Lan Zhan never wore makeup. Didn’t even get her eyebrows shaped, which was like, the one cosmetic thing everyone could get away with per uniform standards. Kept her hair long and one-length, pulled back into a single low braid. She dressed super plainly, too, defaulting to her school uniform even outside of class. And even with all of that, it was hard not to notice her: her soft, round mouth, her unblemished skin, the strong cut of her jaw. 

Eventually, Lan Zhan would wake up and realize that she was beautiful. Wei Ying wanted so badly to be there when it happened. In the meantime, being around someone so plain and practical and non-nonsense was a breather for Wei Ying. 

She thinks they’d been friends by the end of school. It took work to get Lan Zhan to warm up, but it was worth it. 

The boys’ archery team practiced after classes let out, and Wei Ying had to wait until they were done to head home with her brother. Lan Zhan stayed late at school, too. Occasionally, they’d spar. Lan Zhan wore her sword on her back. It was deceptively light-looking, narrow, with this pretty, almost transparent blade and a pure silver hilt. 

Wei Ying was behind in a lot of stuff when she came to live with the Jiangs, swordwork being the least of it. She worked hard to catch up to her brother, who got a sword before she did: Sandu, a glimmering purple thing befitting a future sect leader. The blade was tempered or anodized or whatever into this really beautiful grey-lilac-amethyst-indigo ombre, with a purple lotus enameled up close to the hilt. Wei Ying knew that Madam Yu would give her hell if she got a fancier sword than Jiang Cheng’s. Even so, when it came time, Wei Ying was surprised at the design she was drawn to. The smith’s assistant talked about metallic inlay and mirror finishes and stuff - rose gold and crystal were all the rage that year - but something made Wei Ying refuse all the bells and whistles. Tarnish- and stain-resistant dark wood and metal, and some carvings for protection: nothing about Suibian was decorative. Every part of it meant business. 

She never regretted that, no matter how impulsive her choice was. But she was still impressed by Bichen’s sheer gravitas. Once, Wei Ying told Lan Zhan that her sword was pretty. Lan Zhan just said, “It’s not about how it looks,” like she got it, and attacked again.

Other times, Lan Zhan would let Wei Ying hang out with her in the library after school, studying to kill the time. Sometimes, Wei Ying needed both company and quiet. She didn’t have a way of explaining that to the other archery girls, but Lan Zhan got it. Wei Ying didn’t even really know that that was what she was looking for until the day Lan Zhan looked at her, bored out of her mind, and said, Sit. If you will not study, entertain yourself quietly. 

Even after Wei Ying shaped up and stopped getting detention so much, they’d hang out after school like that. Later, they aced a few partner projects. They even fought that waterborne abyss together. Oh, shit, and Wei Ying got Lan Zhan to come to that one (disastrous) birthday party, where Lan Zhan flatly downed a single shot and passed out. 

Wei Ying sought out that type of friendship, later. She sat next to Wen Qing in Elementary Obscure Cultivation during her second semester at university because she reminded her of Lan Zhan. The drive, the serious eyes. The look of someone who doesn't fuck around. Ha, and the shiny, silver, deadly sharp spiritual weapon you only got one warning not to touch.

As high school drew to a close, Wei Ying tried to get Lan Zhan to visit Yunmeng: “The food, and the festivals, and oh, Lan Zhan, the boys in Yunmeng are the cutest, nothing like Su She, and they’re nice, too, you’ll like them -”  

Lan Zhan evaded her wheedling, but Wei Ying was pretty sure that she could convince her eventually. On break from university or something. It’d happen. Wei Ying would make it happen.

And then Lan Zhan went and did a practical degree in cultivation, which barely anyone does anymore. While Lan Zhan spent years off the grid in who-knows-where, liberating the ghosts of disaster victims and stuff, Wei Ying got busy researching demonic cultivation and, later, handling the unexpected refugee relief efforts in Yunmeng. By the time Wei Ying could have a little fun again, it had been too long to just look Lan Zhan up without good reason. She thought about her sometimes, especially when she heard the stories about her exploits (which focused heavily on Lan Zhan’s good deeds and didn’t say nearly enough about the light-bearing lady herself), but she didn’t see Lan Zhan for, what, thirteen years? 

Not until she went to the cultivation conference at Koi Tower and spotted her across the way, just as unmistakably striking as she always was. Albeit in a very new way. Fuck. 

“A-sang,” Wei Ying hisses, rounding on the one close friend she still has from high school as soon as she gets the chance. (Her archery team friendships gradually morphed from messaging every day into something more like guaranteed wedding invites and heartfelt letters for important life milestones.)

“Wei Ying,” Nie Huaisang says. “You’re looking lovely today. Love those shoes.” He flutters his fan. They’re cute little wedges, sturdy but embroidered enough that she can get away with wearing them with her Jiang clan hanfu. (Conservative, traditional dress in Jiang clan colors is good for optics, makes her seem less occultish. There’re always politics to consider.) 

“Thank you,” she says. Of course Huaisang likes the shoes. He helped her pick them out. He has an eye for that stuff. See: his formal hanfu, all gold and green and shimmery, with subtle embroidery that she knows damn well he did himself. The Nie party wears plain black business wear to cultivation conferences; the hanfu is all him. 

He nods magnanimously. 

“Hey, quick question,” Wei Ying says. “Why didn’t you tell me that Lan Zhan…” she trails off, unsure how to capture it. “That Lan Zhan…”

“Would be here?” he asks. 

“Well, yeah, but also -” she raises her eyebrows - “also, you know. Right?” Wei Ying might kind of vaguely recall hearing that girls who do practical degrees have to cut their hair, but that suit can only be a deliberate choice. It must have been made for Lan Zhan. Wei Ying is tall, too; she knows what a pain it is to even look for jeans that’re the right length, let alone white… whatever you’d call suit pants, exactly. Slacks? Trousers, maybe. Wei Ying doesn’t know a lot about menswear. (Womenswear?) She’s never really cared. Anyway, Lan Zhan’s are cut - differently. Usually, when Wei Ying sees women in pantsuits - which isn’t often - the trousers are either super skinny - basically leggings - or that extra wide, floaty, is-it-pants-or-a-skirt style that compensates for being pants by being as ladylike as possible.

Wei Ying has a pair of those. She wore them to a wedding after her sister convinced her they were So elegant and sophisticated, perfect for tall women. I wish I could wear them! Wei Ying felt ridiculous in them all day. Simultaneously over- and underdressed. 

On the other hand, Huaisang’s worn that style a couple of times he’s invited Wei Ying out voguing. He’s a head shorter than Wei Ying, and he still makes his high-waisted emerald green satin trousers look graceful and avant-garde. Go figure. 

Wei Ying knows for sure that neither she nor Huaisang have ever worn pants like the ones Lan Zhan’s wearing. They just fit her like normal men’s slacks. Nice ones. 

Her blazer’s the right length, too. Something about it - the cut? shoulder padding? - draws attention to Lan Zhan’s delts, making them look thick, capable. And the grey vest under it coordinates perfectly, like they were made to go together. 

All in all, it’s pretty clear that the airport didn’t lose Lan Zhan’s luggage or something. Lan Zhan wants to dress like that. 

“I didn’t know you’d care if she came,” Huaisang says, with an artfully careless flick of his wrist, like he doesn’t know damn well that Wei Ying was obsessed with Lan Zhan in high school. “As for the other thing, I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“That she - she?” She looks to Huaisang, who blinks like yes, proceed, “- is. I don’t know?”

“I don’t know, either,” Huaisang says, which is such a fucking lie, he knows everything about everyone. “But, like, probably.”

Okay. Okay. So Lan Zhan is here, and Lan Zhan is rocking short hair and a suit, and Huaisang says that Lan Zhan is… something… probably. That’s cool. Good for her. Like, it’s definitely a surprise, but good for her. 

“You good?” Huaisang asks, with a vague, knowing little smile. 

“I’m great,” Wei Ying says. Her stomach feels weird. Maybe she’s hungry.

She crams three bright yellow macarons into her mouth from a passing tray. They’re lemon or orange or something. They taste like sunshine. She adds, “Great and normal and great.”

Before Wei Ying can even begin to think about what to do about Lan Zhan being right there, the day’s itinerary moves on. The informal mingling period is followed by a formal mingling period: the cultivators all have to circulate and greet one another. It’s ceremonious. Tradition. And Jin Guangyao will pitch a fit if they don’t. 

Wei Ying goes into full networking mode. She likes that. She’s good at it - figuring out what other people want, winning them over. She’s academic and curious with a Nie cultivator and archaeologist who could use some advice on subduing dormant resentful weaponry for preservation; she’s flat-voiced and businesslike with a Gan sect cultivator who works in fertility cultivation and is surely tired of people being unprofessional about it; she’s encouraging and gentle with a just-of-age cultivator from the Yao sect who’s about to start an internship with the department of health. 

Then she’s suddenly in front of Lan Zhan - Lan Zhan, with short hair and a tailored suit - and it all goes out the window. She has no idea what Lan Zhan wants her to be; she just knows she wants Lan Zhan’s attention, like always. 

Defaulting back to her old methods, Wei Ying exclaims too loudly, “Ah, Lan-er-jiejie, you look so - wow!” She laughs, because - she doesn’t know why, she’s just so excited to see this. Lan Zhan, grown up, in the flesh. Even if it’s not what she expected. 

Lan Zhan was quiet when they were kids. If she ever really did want to hang out with the in crowd, she buried it down deep. She was a hardass and an ice queen, and a flustered teenager underneath it, and underneath that, she was confident again, thrumming with a self-assurance that Wei Ying couldn’t match. It seemed like Lan Zhan knew her place in the world. Not many seventeen year olds do. Certainly not seventeen year old Wei Ying.  

The Lan Zhan of today is just like she used to be, but more so. Wei Ying can still see the hardass ice queen in how she carries herself, with perfect, elegant posture, standing tall, shoulders back. But the flustered, rigid, clenched vibe that Wei Ying remembers from when they were teenagers is entirely gone. That quiet self-assurance really shines through, now. She’s calm and collected and she looks... good. 

The sun catches in her hair. It has some volume, and it’s longer on top. It looks healthy and shiny and soft, so soft, like if Wei Ying ran a hand through it, it might flop into Lan Zhan’s eyes. 

Her mouth is round and pink, and her eyebrows are fucking immaculate, but like, masculine immaculate. She’s not wearing any makeup unless it’s the kind that’s too expensive to be seen, and Wei Ying doesn’t think she is. She thinks that Lan Zhan just came here bare-faced, except for maybe some lip stain or even just, like, lip balm, because she knew she looked good as she was. 

It’s not what Wei Ying imagined, when she thought about grownup Lan Zhan - who in her head had a killer cheek highlight and a closet full of stilettos and maybe, daringly, wore skirts that landed at the knee - but seeing her now, Wei Ying can’t imagine anything else. 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. Her voice still has that low, warm timbre. “You’re well?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m great,” Wei Ying says. “Especially now that I’ve run into you, Lan-er-jiejie, it’s been so long. You’re… back in the country? In Gusu?”

Lan Zhan says, “Mn. You’re still researching?”

Wei Ying laughs, even though no one made a joke, and nods, tongue-tied. Fuck, she doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. The sheer force of Lan Zhan’s focus was always a little intimidating. And her whole… like, energy, her vibe, is even less approachable now than it was in high school. Not unfriendly, just - untouchable.

If someone had shown Wei Ying Lan Zhan’s suit and asked her about the woman who wears it, Wei Ying could have guessed that she was a tomboy. She might have used one of those words that’re kind of complimentary, but utterly sexless. Like dapper. The kind of thing people say about a six-year-old in his first suit, pinching his cheeks and telling his mom, Oh, look at your dapper little guy, dressing just like the grownups. 

Standing right there in front of Wei Ying, kind of smiling, Lan Zhan doesn’t look like she’s playing a dress-up game. She looks almost - like. Weirdly, almost handsome? Like, almost definitely handsome. Capable and smooth and impressive. 

By the end of school, Lan Zhan’d tossed Wei Ying that secret, warm smile a few times, each one a thrill. Making friends with her had been totally worth it. Wei Ying never worried before about whether or not Lan Zhan seemed approachable. She just… approached. 

So Wei Ying swallows, tells herself to be normal, and rambles about her research. She explains some of the improvements she’s made and theories they’re testing and how rewarding it’s been. “But, anyway,” she wraps up. “I want to hear all about - about wherever you’ve been, how it was.”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying chooses to read, I absolutely agree, and also it’s been way too long, let’s go get a drink and catch up sometime into it. Bubble tea, if Lan Zhan’s still one of the Lans who won’t drink at all. 

The moment hangs. Wei Ying thinks, How good, she’s smiling easier these days. 

Then the moment ends, the line moves forward, and Wei Ying has to turn away. In her periphery, she sees Lan Zhan look at the next person she has to greet - A-Cheng. Her nice non-smile drops off into that same icy serenity she always had. 

Privately, selfishly, Wei Ying thrills. It’s like Lan Zhan brought out that little uptick of her lips just for Wei Ying.

Lan Zhan tells people about Wei Ying, occasionally. The aggressively friendly shitstirrer from high school whom Lan Zhan itched to correct. 

“She pestered me. Tried to provoke me into a fight, or friendship. The things I wanted to do to her,” she’ll say. As though she wouldn’t still do them in a heartbeat. (Perhaps not all of them. Some, though. Certainly some.)

At times, Wei Ying seemed to be desperately flirting with her. At first, by fluttering her eyelashes and pouting in detention. Later, by constantly telling her, apropos of nothing, that she was really so beautiful, Lan Zhan, you could have anyone you wanted. When Lan Zhan beat her soundly in matches, driving her to the ground, Wei Ying would go limp beneath her and breathe, Lan Zhan, Lan er-jiejie, you’re really so strong. A few times, Lan Zhan snapped at Wei Ying for trying to play with her hair, at which point Wei Ying flushed, lips parted, and protested, Lan Zhan, I’m just a weak and helpless girl, you have to be nice to me. 

But Lan Zhan, who definitely did not want to be Wei Ying’s friend, was not an unbiased observer. It’s possible that Wei Ying was a perfectly genial straight girl, who only needed a firm hand where student conduct was concerned, and not in any... interpersonal context. 

That mystery never resolved. The way Lan Zhan chose to do things for the decade or so following high school didn’t allow for much in the way of looking backwards or checking in. She had few opportunities to see her own family, let alone school acquaintances. Her brother mentioned Wei Ying exactly once over the years, to say that Jin Guangyao was interested in her research. Nie Huaisang mentioned her twice, from which she gathered that Wei Ying was somehow involved in the Wen resettlement and that, very unrelatedly, she had broken things off with a man she saw for a few years.

Then she comes home, gets dragged to a cultivation conference, and - sees Wei Ying again. Just looks up, and there she is. Cute as ever, in her hanfu, like a quaint little maiden. She greets Lan Zhan with excitement, almost shrilly. Wide-eyed. Her face is sharper, as though she had a lean year or two while Lan Zhan wasn’t around. There’s some embarrassment in her expression, but nothing awkward or uncomfortable. 

They exchange greetings and - oh, Wei Ying is blushing, lips parted, pink climbing up her cheekbones. Eyes flickering between Lan Zhan’s shoulders and mouth and jaw.

All right. Lan Zhan can work with that. 

Wei Ying can’t get too worked up about Lan Zhan’s sudden reappearance (or her appearance), because they all have to take a tour through the Jin treasure hold. (Or, excuse her, according to the Jin sect they’re “archives.” Archives full of gold shit that they happen to like bragging about a lot.)

There’s a bunch of cool stuff in there that Wei Ying would love to examine with forewarning and protective equipment. As it is, it… could go better. 

During the tour, Jin Guangyao takes special care to point out some resentful objects and beg everyone not to touch them. Wei Ying doubts he’d actually care if someone got a little cursed - it’s more about showing off the Jin sect’s expensive antique collection, making a thing out of how dangerous and powerful some of it is. It’s good that Wei Ying’s brother-in-law’s right hand man is so image-conscious, she guesses, since Jin Zixuan is, uh, lacking in the tact department. And that’s coming from Wei Ying, who got approximately a year’s worth of detention for punching him in the nose in high school. 

Some of the cultivators in the room are probably impressed by Jin Guangyao’s warning. Wei Ying, on the other hand, can tell from across the room that those artifacts are no big deal. If anything, she’d like to get a closer look at his cursed necklaces or whatever. She’s a resentful energy expert. A little old riled-up pendant can’t possess her. 

The actual problem is the collection of extremely yonic vases in one corner imbued with pure, untainted yin-qi. 

Wei Ying’s early experiments with resentful energy unbalanced her qi a little. It is what it is. In that first year, before she got it under control, it took a real toll on her body. Now, it’s mostly fine. She just gets kind of sick from close contact with objects that absolutely sing with yin-qi. And these vases are putting out a whole symphony of it.

Wen Qing hates that Wei Ying’s core is so easily unbalanced. She saved Wei Ying’s ass from total qi deviation, but she still thinks that, as the team’s doctor, she should have known exactly how their experiments were weakening Wei Ying’s meridians and stopped it before it started. 

She’s always giving Wei Ying a hard time about it, asking her to try a new breathing exercise or drink some weird concoction. Every once in a while, she even brings up dual cultivation. Usually Wei Ying can shut her down by hinting at Wen Qing’s obvious thing for Wei Ying’s brother - friends who want to get in Wei Ying’s little brother’s pants shouldn’t judge Wei Ying for her (current lack of a) sex life - but sometimes she can’t. It’s annoying. Wen Qing is all, Dual cultivation could balance your qi. It’d improve the strength of your traditional cultivation practice, give you more energy, and make you less prone to these bouts of pain, and Wei Ying is like, I’m not gonna have sex with some guy just so I can feel better, and Wen Qing will say, That’s why people have sex! To feel good!, and Wei Ying has no comeback for that, so she just stews in annoyance. 

By the time they’re halfway through the tour, she’s feeling kind of fatigued. And her stomach hurts. So, cramps, basically. A little worse than cramps. Shakier. It’ll go away on its own, but she knows it’ll hurt more before it’s over. Probably a lot more. 

As soon as the tour is led back out of the vault and another round of mingling begins, she asks a servant where a restroom is. The woman takes one look at her strained smile and shows her to something that’s either a private restroom, a fainting room, or maybe an unused coat closet that just happens to have its own attached bath? This place is ridiculous. Wei Ying is very fervent in her thanks. 

She hangs out, waiting for the discomfort to crest and break. Splashes some water on her face and fucks around on her phone, checking over some data and then, when she’s too uncomfortable to concentrate on anything real, watching stupid videos. 

The pain comes on gradually. Annoyingly so. Like something freezing over slowly. She knows it’s just about to hit its peak when her eyes glaze over and she ends up sitting on the floor with her back against the wall, staring at nothing, her hands over her lower dantian, alternately breathing hard or holding her breath. She fuzzily notices when the room gets dark, the light from the single high window receding. It doesn’t occur to her to turn on the lights. 

There’s a soft two-beat knock on the door. Wei Ying calls, “Yep.” She’s expecting A-Cheng, maybe Huaisang, but instead it’s Lan Zhan. 

“Oh, Lan Zhan! Hi!” she says. She hears a wheeze in her own voice “Um, what do you need? Are you leaving already? I’m... not sure what the... coat system is in here.” 

“Checking on you,” Lan Zhan says, voice low and soothing. She’s so tall. Well, they’re nearly of a height, but Wei Ying is on the floor right now. She doesn’t remember why. It’s probably not important. She blinks at Lan Zhan’s feet. She didn’t notice earlier that her white loafers look narrower than the loafers Wei Ying remembers seeing back in Cloud Recesses, snappy enough to merit the Huaisang seal of approval: white velvet with modest tassels and a tiny touch of silver hardware. No heel. Definitely proper loafers and not flats - the tops land close to Lan Zhan’s ankles. That must be cool, not worrying about them falling off if she needs to run. And not worrying that someone will notice how veiny the tops of her feet look after she’s been standing for eight hours. 

As Wei Ying tips her face upward, she’s reminded that Lan Zhan isn’t wearing a tie like lots of Lan clan men do. Maybe it looked too much like a costume, or maybe she just likes wearing her button-down shirt open at the throat. Two buttons, just enough for Wei Ying to see the soft dip between Lan Zhan’s strong collarbones. Wei Ying has the weirdest urge to blow cool air down the side of her collar, or to gently scratch her nails over Lan Zhan’s scalp, behind her ear. Bichen’s hilt glints from behind her shoulder. Wei Ying wonders if Lan Zhan ever tips her head far back enough for the nape of her neck to touch the cool silver. 

It seems like Lan Zhan’s waiting for Wei Ying to say something. “It’s just that - there were these vases in the archive, and - excess yin, you know, it kind of fucks me up. Which Jin Guangyao totally knows, the little shit.” Wei Ying laughs a little, like what can you do, but then another achy wave rolls through her core. She sucks in her teeth. “Haha, sorry. I’m not good, um, company right now. Thanks for checking on me. You’re so nice.”

Something works in Lan Zhan’s jaw. Wei Ying remembers that look from high school, a little flex that used to precede questions like, When you say that Wen Chao bothered you, what do you mean? “What do you need?”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. Her face is warm. “Um. Nothing, I guess. I’ll be fine.”

Lan Zhan looks at her, waiting. She never did bother to repeat herself, just waited for other people to work themselves out. It used to set something wriggling in Wei Ying’s stomach, the same puppy impulse that made her want to get Lan Zhan to notice her and play with her. Still kind of does. 

“Really, nothing,” Wei Ying says. “But, hey, distraction is nice. Look at you. You look so great. Did they - when did -” she swallows. “Your hair looks great,” she says weakly. 

“Thanks,” Lan Zhan says, a touch of dryness to it. 

Wei Ying gets lost again on a little wave of pain, staring into space and breathing shallowly. She lets out a single tight moan. 

Lan Zhan crouches to her level, looking more worried. Well, she’s kind of expressionless, but Wei Ying still can tell when she’s worried. That’s nice. Not necessary, but nice. 

Wei Ying laughs again, awkwardly. She feels hoarse. “It’s just - you know, an energy thing, my body’s very in tune with yin, needs to balance out.”

“Balance out.”

“You know, qi transfer, if it’s bad, but for something like this, my golden core can process it on its own, just... needs a few.”

Lan Zhan puts her hands forward. Wei Ying stares stupidly for a moment before she realizes that Lan Zhan means to help her up. Wei Ying doesn’t really want to stand, but she responds automatically, putting her slightly sweaty hands against Lan Zhan’s warm palms. She tugs Wei Ying to her feet effortlessly - she’s still strong, no surprise there - and asks, “Few what?”

Wei Ying sighs. “Oh, just - just a few hours.” She’s still leaning against the wall and holding onto Lan Zhan’s hands, steadying herself. She hadn’t noticed earlier that Lan Zhan’s wearing the traditional cloud-patterned Lan ring on her thumb. She wore it on her ring finger in high school, like an engagement ring. Wei Ying wonders if Lan Zhan got it resized to fit. She remembers how it would flash, simple and elegant and subtle, just like Lan Zhan. Wearing it this way makes her hands look larger, somehow. Blunt. Capable in a different way. 

“Hours,” Lan Zhan echoes. 

“Yeah?” She sees Lan Zhan’s no-bullshit expression. “It’s not that bad,” she tries to assure her. 

“But energy transfer would fix it,” Lan Zhan says. 

“Ha. Yeah.” She drops Lan Zhan’s hands and holds her lower stomach again. 

Lan Zhan steps forward a little, and then a little more. She’s close - oh, whoa, very close, and she - oh, that’s - “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. Their mouths are too close together. “Uh, Lan Zhan, I’m not - I don’t -“

Lan Zhan stares down her nose at her. “You do,” she says, less insistent and more sure, like she’s decided something. 

“No, that’s -” Wei Ying tries, but Lan Zhan takes her hip in one hand and her chin in the other. Gentle, gentle hands, but it shuts Wei Ying up anyway, making her hold her breath for whatever comes next. 

Turns out it’s a kiss. 

Their mouths brush together, a little damp and warm, giving Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy an opportunity to prod at Wei Ying’s meridians. 

Wei Ying’s hands flounder, caught between staying over her stomach and pushing Lan Zhan away. Pushing Lan Zhan away would be - rude, though. Harsh. She wouldn’t mean it the way it would come off. She’s not - grossed out by it, the thought of kissing a girl. She’s not - it’s not her, but she doesn’t have a problem with it. She sees all sorts of shit when Huaisang takes her out clubbing, and she thinks it’s great. In a way, it would be totally hypocritical of her to have a problem with it. She’ll kiss and hug her friends. A tight hug, a forehead kiss - that’s fine. In university, she’d even do it extra-flirtatiously, adding a peck on the corner of the mouth, as a fun way to play with boundaries. To get attention. Boys’ attention. 

“She likes it,” she remembers some guy saying while she hugged and laughingly kissed a short, pretty girl she didn’t know that well, gesturing at her and elbowing his buddy, a drink dangling from his hand. Wei Ying, specifically, he meant, like he saw something. Wei Ying shot him a wicked smile. When she went home that night, she touched herself thinking about it going further: the guy jerking off while he watched them, telling them to touch each other, first their faces and their boobs and then lower, lower. Wei Ying giving him a pleading look but then closing her eyes and shuddering when the pretty girl’s clever fingers felt good, too good to ignore, building and building and - Wei Ying would try to slow things down, but he’d tell the other girl to keep going, and she would, she’d keep touching Wei Ying, fingers on her clit soft and sure, and Wei Ying couldn’t help it, couldn’t help what was happening, he was making her, it felt too good to stop and -

She’s kissed girls before, is the point. 

But she’s never kissed a girl without anyone watching. Not just... alone with a girl in the dark, crowded in, Wei Ying’s back against a wall. Not a girl with short hair and strong hands and - Wei Ying had kind of forgotten this about Lan Zhan - devastatingly pretty eyes. 

And, fuck, Lan Zhan’s cultivation is so strong where it taps into Wei Ying’s meridians. Experimenting with demonic cultivation threw Wei Ying wide open, spiritually speaking. She takes in too much, now. Her core is easily flooded with yin-qi. She has to be careful, has to consciously cultivate her yang-qi. She used to think she understood the balance of energies, but that was before hers was thrown off-kilter. The association between yin-qi and cooling always made Wei Ying think of water. If she’d thought about it at all, she would have guessed that a yin-heavy core would feel overfull, flooded. But really, the excess of yin-qi makes her core feel… dry, in a way. Parched. Like everything’s gone cold enough in her meridians to freeze solid, leaving nothing behind for her to drink.

Lan Zhan extends a thin stream of yang-qi that trickles into Wei Ying’s thirsty meridians less like water and more like ice-cold liquor, sweet and burning. Something that doesn’t freeze. Oh, it’s good. 

“I don’t, that’s -” Wei Ying says, trying to - she doesn’t know, let Lan Zhan down gently? Only it’s hard, when her body keeps moving without her, pushing into the hand on her hip, letting the fingers on her chin tip her face up. “That’s, Lan Zhan, I don’t know -”

“I’ll show you,” Lan Zhan says, low-voiced, cutting her off. Like she knows what’s good for Wei Ying. Like she’s decided what’s good for her.  

Wei Ying draws in a sharp inhale. Her floundering hands find purchase on Lan Zhan’s shoulders. There’s a moment where she could politely but firmly push her away, but Lan Zhan’s qi nudges at her middle dantian, and she ends up sinking her fingertips into the silky suit fabric and holding on instead. (And, whoa, it wasn’t the suit, Lan Zhan’s arms are just... big.) That slow, steady drip of Lan Zhan’s yang-qi keeps working its way into Wei Ying, making her go still, focused on catching all of it. 

How fortunate that, in the years they spent apart, Lan Zhan also picked up an offbeat technique or two.

Wei Ying latches onto Lan Zhan’s yang-qi with almost no prompting from Lan Zhan herself. The moment Lan Zhan offers it up, Wei Ying’s meridians reorient towards it, seeking it out, opening up to it. Wei Ying herself clutches at Lan Zhan and lets out a short, quiet gasp. 

It’s a clear enough go-ahead for Lan Zhan, who wrestles with herself for only a moment about how to proceed. 

Years ago, she wanted to do many things to Wei Ying’s tits. Some kind, some… distinctly unkind. In her defense - not that she really feels she needs one - she met Wei Ying at an impressionable age, and one year later, at an age that was arguably more impressionable still, Wei Ying came to find her in the library during independent study and showed her the spiritual bondage tool she’d invented. 

(Months later, Wen Xu brought a binding talisman “of his own invention” to class, showing it off proudly. Lan Zhan didn’t make a habit of using family connections, but she found an opportunity to mention Wei Ying’s talisman, which predated it and had ten times the range, in the presence of their talismanic studies instructor. As a matter of principle.)

It was one of several such encounters, wherein Wei Ying would do or say something salacious and then deride Lan Zhan for her lewd-mindedness when she told Wei Ying not to be obscene. 

As though that was Lan Zhan’s most inappropriate thought. Wei Ying very clearly did not know the half of it. 

“Should I call it bonding or binding?” she asked that day. 

I don’t care what you call it, Lan Zhan did not say. I want to know what you want to do with it. Wei Ying was so proud of herself for ensnaring Lan Zhan’s wrist with it, for tugging her along a few steps. 

In a fit of meanspirited playfulness - Wei Ying brought those out in Lan Zhan more than anyone else could - Lan Zhan grasped the wire and gave it a short, sharp tug. Just enough to unbalance Wei Ying, who shrieked and fell. “Lan-er-jiejie!” she exclaimed from the ground, eyes wide, actually shocked. She recovered a moment later and stood, telling Lan Zhan off for her dishonorable conduct. 

Lan Zhan brought her to her knees again. 

“Lan-er-jiejie!” Wei Ying gasped. She was breathing heavily, despite having the superior respiration of a cultivator. Her mouth was open. Her eyes were dark. 

“On your feet,” Lan Zhan said, and Wei Ying scrambled to obey. 

Lan Zhan allowed herself a moment of victory over Wei Ying’s obstinance. Then she forcibly dispelled Wei Ying’s tool. “Use of unauthorized technology is prohibited,” she intoned. 

“Oh, come on, no -” Wei Ying started.

“Detention,” Lan Zhan said, face turned away so that Wei Ying could not see - whatever might be visible in her expression. 

Wei Ying groaned. 

Lan Zhan was not too proud to memorize the groan, nor the other sounds of the day. They all incorporated well into a fantasy life wherein a student disciplinarian - namely, Lan Zhan - could administer punishment to a troublemaker - i.e., Wei Ying - as she saw fit. Wherein Lan Zhan could keep Wei Ying on her knees at her feet during detention. Wherein Wei Ying wore only a disheveled hanfu, or a high skirt and partly-unbuttoned too-tight uniform shirt, or just the track pants the archery team wore, and no shirt at all. Wherein Lan Zhan bound Wei Ying’s arms together behind her back from wrist to forearm, forcing her shoulders back and her tits outward. 

Sometimes, she imagined the day that she destroyed Wei Ying’s book going differently. Imagined that when Wei Ying said, A lady uses her tongue, not her fists, Lan Zhan would be bold enough to say, I will use both. 

Lan Zhan, in her active teenage fantasy life, would use many things to her advantage and to Wei Ying’s (ideally pleasant) detriment. Against Wei Ying’s plush ass, the mean, snapping paddle strikes that the Lan sect stops doling out after a certain age. Those spiritual restraints, placed between Wei Ying’s teeth as a makeshift bit. The Lan sect silencing spell, just to hear Wei Ying’s indignant moans. All of those tools had their place. But Lan Zhan liked to imagine using her bare hands on Wei Ying’s tight little tits. 

Wei Ying often lamented their size. In detail. Lan Zhan did not sympathize. Wei Ying's chest held ample appeal to her as an onlooker, and personally, she would have killed for smaller tits at that age, back when her own dominated her frame, before she shot up that final half a hand and inherited Nie Mingjue’s old dumbbell set. 

Wei Ying did not experience a late-adolescence growth spurt. She is still small, and so are her tits. 

Lan Zhan still wants to hurt them. 

She knows Wei Ying would like it; she has lived with that torturous knowledge for several years. Once, Wei Ying came to the library pouting, complaining of an errant string slap to her breast during morning practice. She explored the bruise all day, pressing the flat of her palm to her chest first during class, then throughout lunchtime detention - that time, given by the archery coach for swearing loudly when her bowstring hit her - and then during class again. 

After school, in the library, it was just Wei Ying and Lan Zhan. Wei Ying was not careful to be subtle about her injury then. She continuously pressed her hand to her breast, hissed slightly, and pressed harder, before releasing herself with a gasp and a few ginger caresses. 

As the afternoon went on, the pressing became more exploratory and the caresses lingered. It was unbearable. Wei Ying’s lips trembling as she held her breath and practically pinched herself was not a sight to be borne when Lan Zhan could do nothing about it. 

Eventually, Lan Zhan snapped and told her she needed a chest guard. Wei Ying protested that she did not. (“Ugh, Lan Zhan, there’s no need. They’re mostly for like, a flat starting spot for the string, not protection, and I’m already so flat.”) After some staring, she divulged that it was embarrassing to ask her uncle, who gave her and Jiang Cheng identical equipment, for one.

Lan Zhan told her that if she did not tell Jiang Yanli, Lan Zhan would. It was not a wholly unbelievable threat, as Lan Zhan and Jiang Yanli had spoken twice before, both times when Jiang Yanli picked Wei Ying up from after-school detention. Wei Ying appeared delighted by Lan Zhan's attempt at underhandedness, and got a chest guard the next week. There were no more string slap episodes, but Wei Ying bare-chested but for the chest guard made it into Lan Zhan’s fantasy rotation. So much for Lan Zhan’s self-restraint.

Today, it is that same self-restraint that keeps her - just barely - from pushing Wei Ying’s hanfu off of her shoulders, leaving her exposed, wide-eyed, gasping. If she begins to do anything to Wei Ying’s tits now, she honestly fears that she will not stop. Lan Zhan recognizes the right time and place, and here - now - is not it. 

She must instead focus her attention on… the area of greatest need. And so she starts at Wei Ying’s belly and works her way down. 

Letting go of Wei Ying’s jaw, Lan Zhan takes her sword off of her back and lays it to the side. She doesn’t have to crouch. She touches it to the floor and lets go, and it falls slowly, landing without a sound. It’s not even a show of power, a flex. She just does it. Then she takes off her jacket, folding it in half - what a fucking dork - and dropping it, too, and oh, wow. So - it wasn’t her blazer drawing attention to her delts, making them look good. They’re actually built. Lan Zhan’s crisp white shirtsleeves pop against the soft grey of her vest (waistcoat? Is that what a waistcoat is?), making it pretty fucking clear that her arms are - defined. Wei Ying can’t be blamed for looking the vest over with interest. It’s not like - it doesn’t highlight Lan Zhan’s boobs, but it doesn’t squish them awkwardly into a shape that doesn’t work, either. It fits sort of like a breastplate, everything radiating out from Lan Zhan’s waist, comfortable and contained. 

If Lan Zhan is going for the whole… smooth, polished, well-off guy - gal - after business hours, seducing a girl in the coat closet, shouldn’t she have a deck of cards to shuffle idly, wrists exposed? Maybe a half-undone tie? “What’s next, are you going to roll your sleeves up?” Wei Ying asks, with an awkward, shaky laugh. 

Lan Zhan pauses and looks at Wei Ying far too closely. 

“You want me to,” she says. 

Wei Ying stammers, caught out. 

Lan Zhan sort of shakes her head to herself, but then she actually cuffs her sleeves to just below her elbows. 

Forearms, Wei Ying thinks, the single word quite distinct.

Then Lan Zhan comes back and slips her back hand into Wei Ying’s clothes and touches her stomach, which is nice because Wei Ying can’t keep her own hands there anymore - they’re busy with Lan Zhan’s shoulders. Uncovered by the jacket, they’re solid and shapely. Warm. The skin there is probably all smooth; Lan Zhan never had blemishes. It was so unfair. 

From Wei Ying’s stomach, Lan Zhan trails her hand downward, leisurely but without hesitation. Wei Ying honestly thinks she might be checking for something spiritual right up until her hand moves to the side and then slips into Wei Ying’s hanfu. It’s a smooth move. They can be tricky. But then again, Lan Zhan’s clan also puts girls into hanfus for cultivation training. Of course she knows how to peel one open.

Wei Ying inhales sharply when Lan Zhan’s hand touches her bare stomach. She’s surprised, is all. It’s - okay, Wei Ying’s boobs are fine, but nothing to write home about. She gets that. It’s not the first time someone’s decided not to bother with them. But still, she would have thought that a girl like Lan Zhan (it’s still weird to think that Lan Zhan is... a girl like Lan Zhan) would be - would go in for a cursory grope. 

Instead, Lan Zhan circles cool fingertips over Wei Ying’s navel, skin on skin, and then she smooths her thumb down until it’s over Wei Ying’s lower dantian, right at the edge of her underwear. (Wei Ying opted for something comfortable today, a dark purple pair made of that stuff that’s really skin-tight, stretchy and sort of slinky. She thinks of that kind of underwear as practical, foolproof, and it is - except she’s never been quite so aware of how thin it is before.)

Wei Ying’s not wearing leggings or anything. She’d known it was risky, but she just didn’t care, couldn’t be fucked to add yet another layer to the Jiang sect’s formal garb. 

Lan Zhan pulls back from Wei Ying’s mouth just long enough for Wei Ying to catch her slight smirk. 

“Shut up,” Wei Ying whines. 

Lan Zhan says nothing in a way that makes a point about not having said anything. 

Wei Ying holds her breath and hides her face in Lan Zhan’s neck, tries to take a break there. But Lan Zhan doesn’t slow down, doesn’t see or doesn’t care that she’s confused and overwhelmed at whatever’s happening here. 

It seems for a second like - like - but then Lan Zhan’s fingers go to the inside of her hip instead. 

Wei Ying protests, thoughtless but for the frustration of it. Lan Zhan shouldn’t be - teasing like this. That’s not, that’s not helping, Wei Ying doesn’t think. Unless that’s what Lan Zhan meant? That she’d show her some tantric dual cultivation thing. That could - that - it’s not that Wei Ying does this, is this, but -

Lan Zhan’s thumb slips under Wei Ying’s underwear on the flat of her hip. Wei Ying feels the metal of her ring, warm from Lan Zhan’s hand, and stops thinking. 

Lan Zhan’s qi is circulating through both of their meridians, pulsing steadily in a two-person circuit. Wei Ying can feel it. She’s attuned to her meridians right now in the same way that she became conscious of the bone break in her left arm as it healed, back when she was a kid without a core: a thorough, physical awareness. She hasn’t felt anything like it since her golden core developed. 

Lan Zhan asks quietly, “Remember when you distracted me and pulled up a piece about masturbation on my school laptop?”

Whatever Wei Ying would have expected her to say, it wasn’t that. “Lan Zhan,” she hisses, a futile admonishment. 

“Top 6 Ways to Please Yourself When Your Man Is Busy,” Lan Zhan continues, ruthless. “I don’t think you were teasing me. I think you were trying to show me something.”

“I -” Wei Ying protests, but the truth is, Lan Zhan is right. When she stopped antagonizing Lan Zhan outright and started trying to be her friend - still in an annoying way, but it counts - she realized anew that Lan Zhan didn’t have an archery team. Didn’t even have a sister. And she didn’t seem like the type to watch dramas or read novels or go on private mode and search illicit, embarrassing shit. So there was a chance Lan Zhan didn’t know how to touch herself, or didn’t even know she could. 

It just wouldn’t do, for Lan Zhan to be that sheltered. So, whatever, Wei Ying forced some listicles and trashy novels onto her. What else was she supposed to do? Just sit her down and say, Lan Zhan, you know what feels really good? She’s not that shameless. 

Lan Zhan’s lips ghost behind Wei Ying’s ear. “Wei Ying, you think I didn’t know how to get myself off? How to touch a girl? Who said I didn’t know, Wei Ying? Who says I don’t know how to stroke a girl’s clit until she comes?”

Flustered, Wei Ying tries to assure her, “No one, there’s weren’t like, rumors, I just…”

Lan Zhan huffs out a laugh that Wei Ying only detects because she’s so close. “I know better than you,” she whispers. 

“Excuse you, I know things,” Wei Ying protests.

Bone-dry, Lan Zhan says, “Mn.” Her low voice rumbles through Wei Ying’s throat. “I remember you and Nie Huaisang trading blowjob tips even though neither of you had ever given one.”

Wei Ying makes an indignant sound. It’s true, but it’s just a lucky guess. Lan Zhan has no way of knowing that Wei Ying didn’t lose her virginity until the end of senior year, when she panicked about going to university without any experience. 

Lan Zhan continues, “I think you don’t do this… right. I think you don’t have the patience to do it properly.”

“And you do?” Wei Ying asks. It comes out like a challenge. Whoops.

“Of course,” Lan Zhan responds. A dismissal without a hint of a boast. Her thumb skates in and down, brushing against wiry hair. She touches Wei Ying softly, maybe even too softly - skimming over her clit without dipping in at all. Wei Ying’s qi flutters. She feels swollen, antsy with how much her body keeps responding to Lan Zhan’s qi, her touch, all of her. Automatically, she opens her legs a little, putting one foot flat against the wall.

“What was that you said before? You don’t, huh?” Lan Zhan asks. It’s rhetorical. She traces down, thumb skating so softly that it’s like she’s not touching Wei Ying at all. She might not be. It could just be the heat of her hands. 

Lan Zhan stops at Wei Ying’s bare inner thighs, where she’s - oh, she’s wet. She’s definitely wet, and Lan Zhan can tell. Has incontrovertible evidence right on her hands. 

Worse, Lan Zhan talks about it. 

“Yeah, you don’t like this at all,” she says, deadpan. 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers. She squirms. She’s going to die if Lan Zhan doesn’t do something about the fire that she’s been steadily kindling in Wei Ying’s meridians, her body apparently unconcerned about Wei Ying burning up. 

Instead of doing something about it, Lan Zhan draws back. Wei Ying tries to trap Lan Zhan’s hand between her thighs, but she’s - it’s almost too mortifying to think - too slick to keep her there.

Lan Zhan brings her hand up to - to her own mouth for a second. Her fingertips are shiny. She taps her index finger to her own bottom lip. Her tongue slips out, tasting. “I can taste how you hate it,” she says quietly, dry. 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers again. “Why are you - why -”

“Because I want to, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, coming forward again. She opens Wei Ying’s robe but doesn’t delve inside. Doesn’t even look. Just stares Wei Ying down, in that way that always made Wei Ying want to rise to the occasion. “Shut up.”

Fuck. Being talked down to really does it for Wei Ying. She likes it when guys tell her she’s desperate, she’s a slut. 

She feels like Lan Zhan can tell.

Lan Zhan smirks and traces up again. It feels like a few fingertips this time. She follows the wet path up from Wei Ying’s thighs, delicately skating along until she comes to a stop just on top of Wei Ying’s clit. Over Wei Ying’s underwear, she traces one tiny, devastating circle. 

Wei Ying whines. 

Her spiritual energy, boosted by Lan Zhan’s yang-qi, follows her blood down to her clit. Lan Zhan helps it along somehow, almost beckoning down to Wei Ying’s lower dantian with the torturously slow circles of that one fingertip. 

Wei Ying doesn’t mean to participate, to make it easy for Lan Zhan, but it feels good. Relaxing and exciting at once. Her breath and her energy start to circulate in time with Lan Zhan’s hand. Lan Zhan goes slowly, her motions deliberate and gentle and maddening, building Wei Ying up and up. 

If Wei Ying shifted forward, she could try to get more pressure from Lan Zhan’s hand. Instead, she stays as she is, only taking what more she can get with these tiny hitches of her hips. It’s more dignified, she reasons, but truth be told, it feels - feels kind of embarrassing, in a heated way. Needier, maybe. Almost innocent, secretive. It’s the motion Wei Ying’s hips might make if she’s bored and horny in her office, waiting for data to compile. It doesn’t chase orgasm, it just… soothes. It’s definitely not for show, not meant to be seen, but - oh, Lan Zhan can see her do it, Lan Zhan knows Wei Ying is so - knows Wei Ying wants - must see Wei Ying’s squirming embarrassment about working herself against Lan Zhan’s hand, about Lan Zhan seeing her do it. 

Lan Zhan’s careful, clever fingers keep playing with Wei Ying’s clit over her underwear, rhythmic and delicious and maddeningly, achingly teasing. The tiny pulsing motions of Wei Ying’s hips bring her right up to the edge, so close, but never enough to satisfy, always just enough to make Lan Zhan’s touch electric.

Wei Ying can feel her orgasm - or something like it - more than she usually gets with someone else there - hovering right out of reach, shivery and eager and inevitable. Seconds later, Lan Zhan ducks in, takes her by the back of the neck, and kisses her. Wei Ying nearly comes from just that small extra stimulation against her mouth, but the hand Lan Zhan had on Wei Ying’s clit moves to her hip, nails biting in, too strong to avoid. Wei Ying’s orgasm recedes, leaving her clit suddenly sore. In Wei Ying’s lower dantian, their combined qi roils. 

Wei Ying fails to stay quiet. She just can’t. The sound she makes is ugly. A shrill cough. She knocks her head against the wall. 

Lan Zhan doesn’t seem put off by it, just shushes her. “That’s awful, isn’t it,” she says. It’s not really a question. Sort of condescending. 

Wei Ying whimpers. Nods. There’s an ache in her clit that she hasn’t felt since maybe that time with her second boyfriend when the fire alarm went off while they were fucking. She’d been on him in a second when they finally got back inside, touching herself and fantasizing about getting eaten out the whole time he fucked her. 

“You need it, though,” Lan Zhan tells her. 

Wei Ying moans, outraged. How dare Lan Zhan just - tell her that, like she knows anything, like she’s decided, like Wei Ying doesn’t know herself perfectly well, thank you -

Lan Zhan’s hand comes back and she circles her fingertip again, close and careful and precise. All of Wei Ying’s energy snaps to attention at once, awaiting Lan Zhan’s move. Her touch hurts at first. Wei Ying’s clit is sore, sensitive. But it quickly becomes the kind of painful that draws Wei Ying in, every wave of hurt followed by heat. It hurts and Wei Ying shouldn't like it, doesn’t want to give in as easily as that, but she really can’t help it; Lan Zhan strokes her, still over her underwear, and she just melts. 

Her lower dantian and her core feel more receptive this time, thirstier now that that drink of yang-qi was pulled away before she had more than a sip. She tells herself that this time, she’ll at least keep her hips still. 

She doesn’t last more than a minute before she’s helplessly rocking against Lan Zhan’s fingers. 

Her energy and breath rise and fall in time with Lan Zhan’s deliberate, even strokes. Her qi gathers in her stomach and pools lower. There’s a lingering soreness in her clit that needs Lan Zhan’s touch, that prompts her to move into Lan Zhan’s hand, wanting the ache soothed. In a way, that just makes it worse, the stronger pressure over her clit highlighting how empty she is. She gets so close, close enough that if Lan Zhan just pressed a fingertip against her entrance over her underwear, she’d probably come, she’s almost there, right there, yes -

And then, this time, right before Wei Ying comes, Lan Zhan doesn’t just stop moving and take her hand away. She also spiritually reaches into Wei Ying’s lower dantian and basically pulls their roiling energies to a stop, like she has Wei Ying’s qi on a leash. It hurts. Wei Ying likes it. 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whines, thumping the side of her fist into Lan Zhan’s solid shoulder. “How could you do this?”

If Lan Zhan is going to start something, it’s not fair of her to stop. She got Wei Ying hot and bothered. Worked her meridians open. Wei Ying is pulsing with want, now. How could Lan Zhan do that and then just leave Wei Ying hanging? (How could she be so good at it?)

“Please,” Wei Ying whimpers. 

“Mn. Since you asked nicely,” Lan Zhan says, and pushes Wei Ying’s flimsy underwear aside to slip a finger into her, easy as anything. 

Fuck. Wei Ying is so wet, letting Lan Zhan’s finger in like it’s nothing. It’s weird how wet, honestly, it must be Lan Zhan’s doing with all of this dual cultivation stuff, normally Wei Ying doesn’t get this wet unless she’s by herself.

Wei Ying used to stare idly at Lan Zhan’s hands during detention. She had elegant musician’s fingers, deft and graceful. She still does, apparently - skilled and clever and strong. Her long, strong finger immediately soothes that hot-cold ache inside of Wei Ying. It’s like water, again. Like liquor. Wei Ying hadn’t known she was so cold until Lan Zhan filled her up with something warm. 

Slowly, Lan Zhan pulls out and pushes back in. Just the act of it is enough to make Wei Ying’s toes curl. “Oh,” Wei Ying says under her breath, forgetting herself for a second. 

She peeks up at Lan Zhan through her lashes, trying to see if she - what she thinks, she doesn’t know. 

Lan Zhan is smirking in the completely flat way that Wei Ying learned a decade ago. Her face was fascinating to watch. (In detention, anything that wasn’t her own brush - they had to copy lines the old-fashioned way, it was such bullshit - was fascinating to watch.) She was so rigid and cold, like stone. Some girls called her a twin jade like it was a bad thing. Like she was frigid. It was pretty obvious they were just jealous Lan Zhan was - was pretty enough to be art. 

Wei Ying is so easy, working tight around Lan Zhan’s middle finger, gasping like she’s never felt anything so good. Drawing uncreative circles inside of her makes her shake and shiver. 

Were gambling not forbidden by the Lan disciplines, Lan Zhan would wager that Wei Ying has one of those cunts that get hungrier the more you put in it, up to a certain point. 

For now, her speculation will continue to go unconfirmed. In this dark little side room of Koi Tower, Lan Zhan lacks the resources necessary to get Wei Ying up to and then past that point. 

A shame. That was one of the many things Lan Zhan wanted to do to her back in high school. 

But she can still do some worthwhile work here. Worthwhile and… gratifying. 

Lan Zhan’s long, strong finger does something inside of Wei Ying that she’s absolutely never felt before. 

Wei Ying loves penetration. That’s part of how she knows that she doesn’t, that she’s not; she likes getting fucked too much. ( Don’t you think my friend is so pretty? I’d totally be into girls if I didn’t like… you know… so much, was always a good way to lead into giggling and flirting with girls at clubs. Got laughs and intrigued looks from guys.) Like, overall, she kind of feels like sex isn’t worth it, but penetration itself? Her orgasms are so much better with it. Whatever her worries or, or doubts, or something, about getting into bed with a guy might be, they do usually go away once he’s actually in her. Her mind goes blank, her anxieties dissipate. She’s fine. 

Not that girls who like girls can’t like getting fucked. Huaisang says you shouldn’t say that dick equates guy and vice versa, and she’s open-minded, she gets that. It’s just that, well, she really does love penetration. That just feels part and parcel with being straight, doesn’t it? (And if she occasionally thinks about a girl, it’s always in the context of a threesome or something. So.)

But whatever Lan Zhan’s is doing right now would make her rethink things, if she were more able to think at all right now. It’s a hot, sharp drag inside of her. “Oh, oh, fuck,” Wei Ying says, panting, as the sensation zings forward into her clit and ripples outward, down to her legs to her toes. 

Lan Zhan does it again, pressing the heel of her hand to Wei Ying’s clit at the end of it. And then she keeps going, rhythmic and sure. 

Fuck, it feels good. Wei Ying makes a wordless noise. The less-pleasant ache in her stomach is gone completely, and in its place is a kind of cool thirst. There should be more of Lan Zhan’s warm yang-qi in her meridians, more of Lan Zhan inside of her, more - more. She could definitely - if Lan Zhan let her - come from this. But she’d be left wanting, afterwards. It eases the tingling ache inside of her, the thirst in her meridians, without soothing them entirely. 

Lan Zhan pulls all the way out of Wei Ying. Wei Ying makes a sound. Lan Zhan hooks a hand under Wei Ying’s bent knee and pulls, opening her up more, making her a little bit more helpless; Wei Ying lets herself be posed, hoping that if she’s good she’ll get filled again. Like she read Wei Ying’s mind, Lan Zhan pushes all the way back in, mercifully giving her a second finger this time.  

Wei Ying gasps and shudders. Her qi floods down to her lower dantian, responsive, eager to take whatever Lan Zhan will give. She’s so wet she can hear it, and she feels stretched, which is crazy, because it’s just two fingers. That’s nothing. But she’s forced to keep her thighs spread so that Lan Zhan’s fist can fit between them. Her underwear is still on - Lan Zhan just moved it to the side like an annoyance. And they’re Lan Zhan’s fingers, crooked inside of her and holding her open. All of it compounds, making Wei Ying feel sexy and messy and so fucking glad for Lan Zhan’s expert qin-player hands that she could cry. 

“Please,” Wei Ying pleads against Lan Zhan’s ear, and Lan Zhan fucks her. 

The drag of her inside of Wei Ying is unreal. Her two strong fingers feel thick and relentless, but not blunt; they’re agile and devious and very slightly mean, insistent. Getting fingered has never felt like that, not even when Wei Ying’s doing it to herself. Her qi practically shivers at Lan Zhan’s intrusion, eager to welcome it in, to shape around it. 

She threads her fingers through the short hair behind Lan Zhan’s ear and, when Lan Zhan allows that, places her mouth against the side of Lan Zhan’s throat and worries at the soft skin there.  

Wei Ying really thinks Lan Zhan is going to let her come this time - she lets her get really, really close - surely she’s too close not to be allowed to come, she must be allowed, she must - and then at the last possible moment Lan Zhan pulls back on her spiritual energy, directing it back through Wei Ying’s meridians and away from her lower dantian, a breathtaking lurch that leaves her body achy, her clit sore, her core empty and thirsty. Again. 

“Don’t be a bitch, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying hisses when she’s caught her breath. Her heaving chest and open mouth - and the way she’s clenching around Lan Zhan’s fingers, reflexive and desperate - probably ruin the effect.  

Lan Zhan looks at her, unblinking. After a moment’s pause, she says, “We’ll have to do something about that mouth,” and then she does the fucking Gusu Lan silencing spell on Wei Ying. 

Wei Ying protests as best she can, but it’s muffled. 

At least the silencing spell means no one will hear them. If they were heard, if they were found, then everyone would see this. Everyone would think that Wei Ying - that she does this. No one would believe that Lan Zhan was so rude and insistent. They would think that Wei Ying asked for it. Maybe they’d think that, for someone like Lan Zhan, all bright and shining and notoriously good, to hook up with someone like her, Wei Ying must have begged for it. Must have dragged her in here and trapped herself between Lan Zhan and the wall, right where she wanted to be. 

If someone found them now, with Wei Ying unable to defend herself from any accusations, only able to moan - oh, it doesn’t bear thinking about. 

(But she’s thinking about it.)

She zones out on that thought for a while, enjoying Lan Zhan’s qi pushing through her meridians. If she surrenders to it, stops trying to come, it almost feels like a good massage, the painful kind, like a knot is getting worked out in her lower dantian. Long and slow and necessary. 

Lan Zhan gets herself off perfunctorily while Wei Ying is… somewhere else by drawing Wei Ying into a messy kiss, pulling her close and using her bony hip to her advantage. Lan Zhan doesn’t need to. Doesn’t feel the frenzied, insistent mood that tends to take over once she has a woman flat on her back. Here and now, coming is a pleasant means to an end: an easy way to access additional yang-qi, just enough to batter down the doors of Wei Ying’s lower dantian and throw it open wide.

Grinding herself to satisfaction against Wei Ying’s hip is a bit clumsy, but she’s not worried about Wei Ying’s opinion. For one thing, it’s clear that Wei Ying’s been salivating, in her own repressed way, over women since they were seventeen. She’s primed to be impressed by even the worst fumbling. 

For another, Wei Ying is obviously much too blissed out to form critical opinions. From just two fingers, too. Poor thing really needs it. Lan Zhan will happily oblige. 

“Now pay attention,” Lan Zhan says, like Wei Ying is supposed to be able to focus anything, anything at all, other than the delicious and vital drag happening inside of her.

Lan Zhan reaches out spiritually, her qi finally breaking into Wei Ying’s lower dantian. Okay, yeah, Wei Ying can spare some attention for that. 

It hurts, almost, like that first sip of water when she’s really parched, something in her resisting the change, and then - oh, oh, oh, it feels good, she wants more, she wants everything. And Lan Zhan gives it to her. Her yang-qi flows steadily into Wei Ying’s core in time with the strokes of her strong, long, clever fingers. 

Wei Ying only remembers how to gasp for a few long moments, and then she asks urgently, desperately, “Can I - can I please - please, will you let me, Lan Zhan, will you let me?”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying knows it means yes, knows Lan Zhan will let her, wants her to. She hangs off of Lan Zhan’s strong shoulders as she finally, finally comes, pulsing and bright and sharp in a way that’s all new. It’s so good and overwhelming that she only distantly notices her excess yin-qi washing out and dissipating with her orgasm, her energy gently settling more into place than she can remember it feeling in years. 

Things float, for a little while.

“Lan-er-jiejie, where did you learn -?” Wei Ying asks when she’s caught her breath and gotten back to herself. She’s still hanging onto Lan Zhan’s shoulders. She thinks, maybe, that catching her breath took a long time. Everything kind of slowed down there. Lan Zhan’s still in her. Focusing is hard. She doesn’t even know what she’s saying. (She doesn’t know what she just said. She thinks she remembers saying Lan Zhan’s name, probably a few times, and “I -” and “oh,” all of it pulled from somewhere deep.) She feels hazy. Good. 

Lan Zhan murmurs into her ear. The sensation registers first - warm, low. Lan Zhan’s words come second: “Experiential curriculum.”  

That pulls Wei Ying up short. “You didn’t learn this in school,” she says, not actually sure. 

Lan Zhan tilts her head, giving Wei Ying a slow, predaceous look. “You know what they say about women who do field degrees,” she says. She draws her fingers out of Wei Ying - Wei Ying whimpers quietly - and licks them. 

Wei Ying blinks at her. 

“Hands-on learning,” Lan Zhan finishes. 

“Oh,” Wei Ying says. She’s too out-of-steam to tell if she’s being messed with. She wouldn’t really mind if Lan Zhan messed with her. “That’s. Do you want... something?”

Lan Zhan swipes her thumb over Wei Ying’s lower lip. Wei Ying can smell herself on Lan Zhan’s hand. That’s always kind of… not grossed her out, but normally it’s embarrassing. A small turnoff. It’s never been - she’s never felt smug about it before. 

Now, she opens her mouth when Lan Zhan presses down. Sucks her thumb inside, lips meeting her ring. Lan Zhan threw a fit about Wei Ying trying on her Lan clan ring once when they were kids, but she must’ve gotten over that hangup - she rubs the pad of her thumb against Wei Ying’s tongue, pushing the ring past her lips. Wei Ying lets out a little wanting sound. When she lets Lan Zhan’s thumb go (reluctantly, and only because Lan Zhan is pulling it away), she leaves her mouth open slightly. She knows that’s hot. 

Lan Zhan laughs at her a little, maybe. Her eyes seem bright and amused. But not in a mean way. Or - a little bit in a mean way. But not... badly so. “I got mine,” she says. “You didn’t notice.” 

Oh, fuck. “Lan Zhan, Lan-er-jiejie, don’t make fun of me,” Wei Ying whines. “Can I - can I -”

“You don’t know what you’re trying to ask for,” Lan Zhan says. She slowly lets go of Wei Ying’s knee, hand sliding up to the outside of her thigh, and disentangles them. Wei Ying’s legs are shaky; Lan Zhan has to steady her, her hands strong and warm on Wei Ying’s shoulders, her waist. 

Once more, Lan Zhan’s not wrong. Wei Ying doesn’t know a bunch about… this. (Scissoring? Is that a thing?) 

“I can learn,” Wei Ying offers, not sure what exactly she’s offering, either. 

Lan Zhan crowds her in again and kisses her. It’s surprisingly chaste. “I don’t have time here to teach you properly,” she says.

Wei Ying shivers. Swallows. She asks, “But we’ll… see each other again? Right? Hang out?” 

Lan Zhan raises one eyebrow slightly. “That’s all it took?” 

“Well, it’s like you said,” Wei Ying tries. “I’m easy.”

Lan Zhan sighs and, in another little flash of effortless power, silently calls Bichen to her hand. It rises horizontally at first, waiting with patient servitude for Lan Zhan to take the blazer she dropped onto it earlier. She elegantly shrugs the jacket on and slides her sword into place on her back. 

Put back together, she looks Wei Ying up and down. “... I don’t do that,” she says. 

“Wh - women?” Wei Ying asks, incredulous. 

“Hang out,”  Lan Zhan quotes, eyebrow still up. She says it in a totally flat voice, but still somehow gives it the connotation of amateur hour shit. 

No fair. Wei Ying gestures to herself. “Don’t you?” she asks. 

Lan Zhan stares at her for a long moment, silent.

Wei Ying whines, “Cmon, ditch the stupid conference and hang - let’s go somewhere. Go somewhere with me.”

“You’re aware that the only item left on the itinerary is drinks,” Lan Zhan says. 

“I know.” Cocktail hour is the best part of these conferences, but: worth it. 

Lan Zhan shakes her head, mouth creased at the corners like she might be holding back one of her quiet, huffed laughs. “Mn,” she says, and turns to leave. Just like that. Like she’s not affected at all. 

Wei Ying leans back against the wall. “Lan Zhan,” she says softly, almost smiling to herself about it. That’s exactly as self-possessed as she used to think a grown-up Lan Zhan would be.

In the open doorway, Lan Zhan pauses, turns her head to the side so she’s silhouetted in profile in the hallway’s ugly seashell-shaped sconces. Bichen’s hilt glints again. When they fought in high school, Lan Zhan’s sword was an extension of her body; she was so in tune with it that she could call it into her hand. Wei Ying can’t even imagine how well she must wield it now. 

Lan Zhan asks - without really asking - “You coming?”

“Oh, oh, uh-huh,” Wei Ying says, and scampers to catch up.

On the way back to Lan Zhan’s room, they run into Jiang Cheng. 

Lan Zhan never cared overmuch for him, not least because when they were teens, he got into a sputtering fight with another boy about whether or not purple was “a gay color.” 

“You feeling okay?” he asks Wei Ying from a distance. 

“Yeah. Yeah, Lan Zhan helped,” she says in a slightly breathy tone. 

“Clarity,” Lan Zhan says, a lie by implication. She doesn’t say that she played it for Wei Ying. If that’s how Jiang Cheng hears it, Lan Zhan won’t bother correcting him. 

“I... see,” Jiang Cheng says. “So, drinks?” He nods in the direction of the cocktail reception. 

Wei Ying says, “No, Lan Zhan and I are gonna go… catch up.”

“For real?” Jiang Cheng asks, head turning as they continue to move in opposite directions. 

Lan Zhan looks at Wei Ying, who is pink-cheeked and starry-eyed. She knows her own mouth is a little wet. 

Lan Zhan doesn’t bother to resist her smirk when she throws back in Jiang Cheng’s direction, “Don’t wait up.”

She still has that mental list of the shit she wanted to do to Wei Ying back when they were teenagers, after all. She plans to take her time checking items off of it. 

All in all, this is shaping up to be a highly productive cultivation conference.