Wei Ying wakes up all wrong. Lan Zhan's side of the bed is long cold, which isn't unusual. But this morning her absence feels like an abandonment, even as Lan Zhan’s soft domestic clinkings float in from the kitchen.
Wei Ying rolls over and buries her face in Lan Zhan's pillow. Something inside of her feels rotten, stretched out, the pain of an old wound in her hip flaring irritably. She'd landed badly on it during their last night hunt, rolling onto the subway platform to duck a yaoguai's claws at the last moment so that Lan Zhan's guqin blast could hit home. Lan Zhan hates when she uses herself as bait, but it works well, their partnership. Wei Ying is the lure, twisting and diving until the beast can't tell which way is forward, and Lan Zhan is the strike. She always cuts right to the heart.
The hip is bad– she must have rolled onto it in the night– but mostly she just feels a sense of creeping and directionless disgust. She’s tired of herself. She’s tired of the world. She can’t go back to bed, because Lan Zhan will worry, and she’s tired of that too. Not of Lan Zhan, but of the responsibility of caring for herself, in order to care for another person.
When Wei Ying emerges from the bedroom, she finds Lan Zhan has indeed made breakfast, fresh congee and youtiao from the stall down the street. She sits there sipping her tea and doing puzzles on her phone, looking untouchable and well-rested, and when she sees Wei Ying in her ratty weekend clothes her face is like sun on the water.
Wei Ying can’t look at her. She bangs her bad hip on the cabinet when she gets a cup of water and snaps at Lan Zhan when she tries to give her an extra youtiao. The instant and dreadful rush of guilt only makes her sourer.
Lan Zhan's mouth tightens at the corners, a face Wei Ying mostly sees on night hunts. It's the expression she makes when she's trying to solve a problem.
"Wei Ying," she says, slowly, rolling Wei Ying's name like a taste she can't quite place. Usually, Wei Ying's name in her mouth is a sticky fruit, ripe and easily savored. Wei Ying wriggles under the scrutiny.
"I'm going to train," she says, bustling with her gym bag, and pretends she cannot feel Lan Zhan's gaze heavy on her all the way out the door.
Usually when she feels this itch, training is exactly what she needs. She’ll fall into the familiar rhythm of the forms, the hot blood rush under her skin pumping away all of the crawling petty muck of her. She’ll feel scoured.
Today, she feels like a damp and grimy rag. And her hip hurts even worse after her session, to the point that she finds herself, ridiculously, tearing up at the thought of the walk home. She should have brought a backpack, not the gym bag, which will either slam against her leg with every step or force her to put extra weight on her bad side.
She sits on the bench staring at her phone, a water bottle cold from the decrepit vending machine sandwiched in the crease of her hip. She is working herself up to the ache of standing when her WeChat lights up.
lan zhan 🍊👅🌺💕
are you still at the gym?
yeah, Wei Ying responds. She doesn't want to admit that her hip hurts, doesn't want to admit that she made a mistake coming, that she pushed herself too hard and is paying for it now. She grits her teeth. She's going to have to get up soon, or she'll get stiff and then it will all be worse.
just finishing up but ill be home soon 😊
unless you want me out of your hair? are you recording?
not recording, Lan Zhan replies.
But she does not answer whether she wants Wei Ying to come back. Wei Ying deserves that, she knows, after being on edge and snappish all morning. Maybe she can take a bath, and stay out of Lan Zhan's way until she feels less raw. She has just pulled her gym bag onto the bench and pushed herself to her feet when her phone buzzes again.
I'm outside in a didi.
Wei Ying almost drops the gym bag to the ground. She hadn't realized Lan Zhan even knew the gym she went to; it's not the fancy cultivator center where most of the sects train, but a small basement space. Half the regulars are civilians, wiry old men with no talent for cultivation but plenty of spry muscular power, perfectly capable of slamming her into the mat even with her crafty tricks.
"Welcome to Yiling Training– oh! Lan laoshi!" A-Yuan, the teen who usually mans the door on weekends, looks up from his phone and hurries to open the door for Lan Zhan.
"Hello, Wen Yuan," Lan Zhan says. "I didn't know your family ran a training center."
"And I didn't know you were a cultivator!" A-Yuan is beaming. "Laoshi, you're so talented!"
"I'm just here to pick up Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says, gracefully omitting the fact that she is one of the best cultivators in her generation.
"Wei Ying!" A-Yuan says, waving, although Wei Ying is about five feet away from him and has heard the entire conversation. "Lan laoshi is my guqin teacher. How great that you two know each other!"
"Yes," Wei Ying says, a little weakly. She hadn't expected these two parts of her life to collide in this way. She is different at the gym, sharp-edged in a way she tries her best not to be around Lan Zhan.
A-Yuan calls out more cheerful goodbyes as Lan Zhan takes her bag and they go out to the Didi idling by the curb. The AC in the cab is blasting despite the unseasonable chill in the air, and Wei Ying feels all the fight go out of her. She slides into the middle seat so that she can lean on Lan Zhan's shoulder.
"I'm sorry I was so awful this morning," she says, half into Lan Zhan's coat. It's oversized, clean wool a little scratchy against her cheek.
"You weren't awful," Lan Zhan says. "Why didn't you tell me your hip was hurting?"
Wei Ying avoids the second question. She hadn't wanted to admit it to herself, never mind Lan Zhan, and she doesn't want to have that conversation right now. "I was a little awful. You made breakfast and I was rude to you. And I didn't even thank you."
"You don't need to thank me," Lan Zhan says. "I like making sure you're fed."
They had lost touch during the disastrous years right after college, so Lan Zhan hadn't seen Wei Ying subsisting mostly on cup noodles and spite. But Lan Zhan takes great pride in feeding her every delicacy she can get her hands on anyway.
"I know you do," Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan has tucked an arm around her, wrapping her up like something precious. Wei Ying isn't sure how she feels about it. It's been almost two years with Lan Zhan, and she still isn't used to this feeling of care that suffuses their daily interactions.
"I don't want to take you for granted," she says, instead of any of the other things she doesn’t have words for. She can feel Lan Zhan frown against the top of her head, where she's pressed her cheek against Wei Ying's hair, which is probably all sweaty from her workout.
"I want you to take me for granted," Lan Zhan says.
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying protests, pulling back. How can Lan Zhan devalue herself like this! If Wei Ying has to submit to the mortifying ideal of being cared for, so does Lan Zhan!
"No, no." Lan Zhan tightens her arm around Wei Ying. "I don't want you to ignore the ways I care for you." She pauses, clearly sorting through her words. "I want you to feel secure in them."
"I don't doubt that you love me, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying wishes they weren't having this conversation in a Didi. The driver has put an earbud in, dangling from his headphone. She can hear the tinny strains of Teresa Teng coming from the front seat. "Look, we're almost home,” she says, as the cab turns onto their street and pulls up in front of their complex.
Lan Zhan carries her bag again. She looks at Wei Ying with a little frown the whole time they’re in the elevator, and as they walk down the hall, and while Wei Ying fumbles with her keys and gets the door open. But it's not until they're in their entryway toeing off their shoes that Lan Zhan says, "You look surprised every time." She reaches for Wei Ying's coat, tugging it off her shoulders, and Wei Ying relaxes her arms automatically. How many times has Lan Zhan helped her with her coat? How many times has she smoothed Lan Zhan's lapels?
"Well, you don't want me to get spoiled, do you?"
"Yes," says Lan Zhan, a little smugly. "Wei Ying should be spoiled. You deserve it."
Wei Ying has to bite back the instinctive protest. Lan Zhan, with the unerring precision of a scalpel, has cut right to the heart of it, hasn't she? That Wei Ying does not feel as though she deserves Lan Zhan's steady and unassailable devotion.
Lan Zhan's love, in the abstract, was easy to lay claim to. Easy to pout and flirt and cajole, when Wei Ying did not know the size of that vast affection, how the day to day motions of it would permeate her life. The pot of coffee in the morning, though Lan Zhan only drinks tea; the shopping basket stocked with Wei Ying's favorite kind of oranges; ice cream bought on summer days simply because Wei Ying complained of the heat– these are harder to accept with an open palm.
"Lan Zhaaaan," she whines, resorting to exaggerated protest in defense against this honest discussion of her feelings.
"I want you to take congee in the mornings for granted," Lan Zhan says. "I want you to grow so used to it that you don't think to thank me because you don't remember any other way."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says, gently. Lan Zhan's jaw is set. God, she's so stubborn. "You can't erase the things that have happened to me. No matter how many bowls of congee you feed me." Her hip twinges, and she grimaces and turns toward the couch. "I wouldn't want you to."
She can feel Lan Zhan at her elbow. "Don't you dare pick me up," she adds, knowing her girlfriend too well. When she looks over at Lan Zhan settling beside her on the couch, Lan Zhan's expression is exactly the same one A-Yuan makes when he's denied a treat. Wei Ying can't help it. She bursts out laughing.
Lan Zhan smiles, slightly, and leans her forehead against Wei Ying's shoulder. "You shouldn't be hurt," she says, and though the pout has faded from her face the stubbornness is still there in her voice.
"But I have been," Wei Ying says. "And so have you." She takes Lan Zhan's hands in hers. "Not even you can love that away."
Lan Zhan’s fingers are tense, and Wei Ying rubs at the muscles of the base of her thumb. "I wish I had been there," Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying wants to laugh at the incongruous image of self-serious college Lan Zhan knocking at that one place with the black mold and discovering that the door didn't actually open, and Wei Ying had been entering and exiting through the window. And then she wants to cry, a little, at the image of Lan Zhan climbing through that window into Wei Ying's perilous stratigraphy of instant noodle wrappers, Red Bull cans, dirty clothes, and talisman papers.
"I'm glad you weren't," Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan looks at her, startled, and she explains. "I was half feral back then. I was so sure everyone hated me, I would have been awful to you." She plays with Lan Zhan's cuff, where there's a button loose. She'll have to sew it back on; for all of Lan Zhan's careful guqin practice, she doesn't have the patience for sewing.
“I wouldn’t have cared,” Lan Zhan tells her.
“Well,” Wei Ying says. “I would have. I don’t want to hurt you either.” She tucks the button, which has fully unraveled, into the pocket of her shorts. “And anyway, you're here now, aren't you?"
"I am," Lan Zhan tells her, and smiles with that sincerity that makes Wei Ying’s teeth hurt in the back of her mouth. Lan Zhan always blinks when she smiles, slow and trusting, like a cat. Wei Ying nudges her leg with her knee, affectionate, then stretches, shattering the moment.
"I'm going to go take a bath," she says. "Want to come?"
Lan Zhan's ears turn red, and Wei Ying peers at her. "Lan Zhan, have I embarrassed you?"
"No," Lan Zhan says. "I, ah." She clears her throat, and follows Wei Ying to the bathroom, where the reason for her embarrassment is obvious: the tub is already out, sitting on the bathroom floor full of lukewarm water.
"I thought you might want a bath when you came back," Lan Zhan says. And of course, in the time they had spent talking about their feelings on the couch, it had grown cold.
"You ridiculous woman," Wei Ying tells her, laughing as she bends to drain the tub and refill it. "This is why I'm allergic to serious conversations. I could have been in the tub the whole time. Why didn't you say you had a bath waiting?"
Lan Zhan mutters something about not wanting to be distracted.
"Am I distracting?" Wei Ying asks, looking up at her over her shoulder. She waggles her ass invitingly.
"You know you are," Lan Zhan says, fondly, and runs a palm over Wei Ying’s good hip, turning her and pulling her up to kiss her.
"Lan Zhan." Wei Ying pulls back after a bit, breathless. Lan Zhan, undaunted, moves down to bite bruises into her neck. Wei Ying pushes a bit at her, and then looks over her shoulder and becomes much more alarmed. "Lan Zhan, stop, stop, the tub!" The water is splashing near the rim.
"That's what the drain is for," Lan Zhan says, eyeing the bathroom floor speculatively, but she releases Wei Ying to go turn off the water.
It seems wasteful to let two hot baths go down the drain, and Wei Ying does think it'll help her hip. She climbs in, enjoying Lan Zhan's eyes on her as she undresses. "Enjoy it while you get the chance," she says with a grin. "I'm about to be underwater."
"I can still see your tits underwater," Lan Zhan says, drily, and Wei Ying splashes at her. "Let me wash your hair?"
"In the tub? Lan Zhan, we have a shower!"
"Let me?" she repeats, and Wei Ying relents, sliding down to wet her hair. She stays under for a moment; her heartbeat is loud down here. She wonders, if Lan Zhan was in here with her, if she could hear both their heartbeats together.
When she breaks the surface, Lan Zhan is looking at her. Lan Zhan is always looking at her, sometimes desperately soft and sometimes hard with intent. But right now she just looks like Lan Zhan, her eyes warm and dark, her hair curling a little in the humidity of the bathroom. This is the way she looks when–
"You love me," Wei Ying says, settling back against the tub.
"Yes," Lan Zhan tells her, lathering suds into her hair. She's using her own shampoo, which has all sorts of fancy ingredients and smells clean and herbal.
Wei Ying hums at the pressure of Lan Zhan's fingers against her scalp. "Good," she says. "I love you too."
Lan Zhan's fingers dip into the water, then move from Wei Ying's hair to her temples, and then along the places where tension gathers in her face. Her fingers run firmly along Wei Ying's browbones out to her temples, then ghost down to her cheekbones. She presses at the hinge of Wei Ying's lips, and Wei Ying resists the urge to turn and take her fingers into her mouth. When Lan Zhan moves to rub slow circles into the hinge of Wei Ying's jaw, her mouth does fall open, and she opens her eyes to see Lan Zhan smiling down at her.
"Feels nice," she mumbles, and Lan Zhan shushes her.
"Don't undo my work."
Wei Ying hums. She feels loose, sloshy, like Lan Zhan could pour her from the tub into a little jar. She imagines being a little snowglobe girlfriend, going to all Lan Zhan's lessons in the travel mug Lan Zhan usually fills with tea, then realizes Lan Zhan is nudging her forward to rinse the suds from her hair.
"Would you still love me if I was liquid?" she asks idly, as Lan Zhan cups her hand over Wei Ying's eyes and rinses her hair clean. "Like if you had to carry me around in a glass or something. You could put me in a bottle and carry me in your bag."
"I don't think you'd enjoy that," Lan Zhan says, considering. "You'd get jostled on the subway."
"I'd get bored, probably," Wei Ying admits. "But Lan Zhan, you've stolen my bones. I think you should take some responsibility!"
Lan Zhan, smoothing conditioner over Wei Ying's hair, only hums at her. It's silly to use Lan Zhan's fancy conditioner on Wei Ying's hair, which is about three inches long at its longest point, but it smells nice and it does make Wei Ying's hair impossibly shiny, so Wei Ying doesn't complain.
When Lan Zhan is satisfied with the state of Wei Ying's hair, and all the conditioner is out, she moves to rubbing circles into Wei Ying's neck and shoulders. Wei Ying relaxes even further under her hands. She feels both adrift from and very present in her body, like a small bundle of nerves floating in the center of a lotus pond. She is, she realizes, wet, just from Lan Zhan rubbing her shoulders.
Lan Zhan must sense the change in mood, or maybe this was always her intention. She gives up on massage to ghost her fingers across Wei Ying's collarbones, trailing water up Wei Ying's neck and down to the tops of her breasts. Wei Ying's arms have fallen away from her body, and Lan Zhan rubs abstract patterns down the sensitive insides of them. She moves back toward Wei Ying's breasts.
"We are not fucking in the tub," Wei Ying says, but her voice is too breathy to be particularly effective.
"Hmm," Lan Zhan says, sliding her hands down from Wei Ying's nipples to her stomach, where it curves under the surface of the water. Wei Ying shivers, her knees falling apart.
"No," she says, firmly, though she can feel herself hot and sensitive all over. "Lan Zhan, this is an expandable tub that absolutely cannot hold two people, and my hip would give out five minutes in. And anyway, I want to kiss you without getting a neck cramp."
"Fine," Lan Zhan says, pulling away. She bends, and Wei Ying shrieks, suddenly in Lan Zhan's arms, soaking her clothes and clinging to her neck.
"Lan Zhan!" she protests, as Lan Zhan carries her across the hallway and drops her, still dripping, onto the bed. "So impatient! You couldn't even wait for me to towel off?"
"No," Lan Zhan says, fumbling under the bed for their wedge pillow. She flips Wei Ying onto her front, with the pillow under her hips, and then she's nudging Wei Ying's legs apart and diving in.
"Oh my god," Wei Ying says faintly, and then she doesn't say much of anything intelligible at all. Lan Zhan loves eating her out, would happily spend hours between Wei Ying's thighs. Wei Ying had asked her why, once; she herself has always enjoyed giving head more for a sense of pride in pleasuring her partner than the intrinsic joy Lan Zhan seems to take in the act itself.
"There's nothing there but Wei Ying," Lan Zhan had said. "Just the very heart of you, all around me." And then she had smirked, and continued, "and also I can usually make you come about three times before we even get a dildo in you."
But tonight, Wei Ying realizes, Lan Zhan has no intention of rushing her towards an orgasm. She kisses her way up Wei Ying’s thighs, licking up the drops of water that run down towards her knees. She spends what feels like hours licking around her opening, sucking on her lips, avoiding her clit entirely. Wei Ying tries to rock back against her, push her hips up into Lan Zhan’s hot mouth where she wants it, but Lan Zhan puts a hand on her back and holds her still.
“Relax, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, pulling off with a wet sound, and Wei Ying whines at the loss of her. “Let me take care of you.”
Wei Ying sags back down against the pillow. She feels arousal wash over her like a wave, her limbs growing lax and heavy. The sensations of her body are intense and slightly distant: the rough press of her nipples against the sheets, dragging when she shifts; the cooling dampness of water on her back; Lan Zhan's thumbs, pressing into her thighs where she holds them apart; the wet pant of her own breath coming in little moaning gasps.
Lan Zhan's tongue against her is an anchor in her gut, and when her orgasm comes, it almost takes her by surprise for how slowly it’s built in her. Her vision goes dark for a moment, her ears ringing as she sags. She can feel Lan Zhan pulling away, and she's glad— she couldn't take another orgasm tonight. She feels wrung out, as floaty as she usually is after round five.
Behind her, she can hear Lan Zhan getting a soft cloth. She wipes Wei Ying down and slides the pillow from under her, sliding beside her in the bed. Wei Ying makes a muffled grumble and rolls over enough to bury her face in Lan Zhan's chest.
"Give me a second," she says, trying to pull together the energy to return the favor, but Lan Zhan just laughs and pulls her closer.
"I don't want anything tonight. I'm taking care of you, remember?"
Wei Ying grumbles again, but subsides back into Lan Zhan's chest. Lan Zhan laughs a little at her sleepy, dopey noises, and pets her damp hair affectionately.
Eventually Wei Ying's limbs solidify enough to walk to the bathroom, and she pulls on a t-shirt and scurries down the hall. At the entrance to the bathroom, she stops. By the front door, the closet is still open, and she can see her own ratty windbreaker hanging beside Lan Zhan's woolen coat on the nice cedar hangers, as though it was just as deserving of care.
They look nice together, she thinks. Her jacket is all colorful crinkles against the smooth tan wool of Lan Zhan's coat. A set that doesn't match, but suits each other anyway.
She'll make Lan Zhan some tea on her way back, she thinks, as she pisses and brushes her teeth and fixes her hair where it sticks up in the back. Lan Zhan can drink her tea and Wei Wuxian can drink her terrible sports drink, the one that turns her tongue blue, and Lan Zhan will complain about the taste but kiss her anyway. And later they will make dinner– soup, maybe, to use up the greens that are starting to wilt in the fridge— and Wei Ying will chop while Lan Zhan stirs, and then they will go to bed together and wake up next to each other to another day in the life they share.