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Lan Wangji knows his brother has the utmost faith in Jin Guangyao. The two are sworn brothers, and it was indeed Jin Guangyao who pierced Wen Ruohan’s heart and ended the war even as Wei Ying commanded an army all on his own.

Jin Guangyao is a placating, soothing presence. He exudes righteousness and morality.

He remains virtuous and serene even in the gilded maw of Carp Tower where every Jin and servant looks down on him.

Though he is barely given the courtesy of a servant, Jin Guangyao tends to the every whim of the father who kicked him down hundreds of sparkling steps.

Lan Wangji does not trust him in the slightest.

That is why, when Jin Guangyao proposes that Lan Wangji be the one to write a letter inviting Wei Ying to Jin Ling’s one month celebration, Lan Wangji knows something is afoot.

There is some play here. Some gain that he knows must come at Wei Ying’s expense.

Wei Ying is clever. He would be able to know what is amiss and see a dizzying array of paths stretched like an infinite horizon.

Lan Wangji knows his own cleverness can never compare to that of Wei Ying nor Jin Guangyao. He simply trusts his instincts which scream that there is something wicked tucked into the corners of Jin Guangshan’s and Jin Guangyao’s smiles.

Young Madame Jin is too distracted by the promise of seeing her brother once more to question anyone’s motive.

Jin Zixuan possesses eyes, but they are largely incapable of seeing anything but his glowing wife and gurgling son.

Even Jiang Wanyin appears appeased with this plan.

Lan Wangji is grateful for his uncle’s influence as his own face stays perfectly blank. He will give away nothing.

“I will pen the letter,” he enunciates after a long moment.

And he will. If he delivers the letter by hand rather than by courier, no one in this room yet needs to know.

“Wonderful,” Jin Guangyao says, smiling placidly. “When you are finished, please allow me to send your message to Young Master Wei.”

Bad. No message will be safe if it passes through another’s hands.

“No need.”

“Hanguang-Jun,” says Jin Guangyao as he bows, “with the utmost respect, Jin messenger talismans are faster than Lan messenger birds. I do not wish to presume, but I suspect Young Madame Jin would be heartened to see Wei Wuxian as soon as possible.”

Lan Xichen smiles. “How thoughtful of you, A-Yao.”

Trapped by the confines of etiquette, Lan Wangji does not sigh, but it is a near thing. “Very well. Your courtesy is appreciated.”

That night, he sits at a low table in the guest room.

He wishes to think he is merely being paranoid, yet the unsettled feeling remains.

The churning of his stomach feels like the moment the tide draws back before the tidal wave comes flooding in. Wei Ying is the fulcrum in some unseen play, and, doubtlessly, it is his power they seek.

The Stygian Tiger Seal is too powerful an artifact to exist in a peaceful world.

Not for the first time, Lan Wangji sits with his perfect posture even though he feels like bowing his head to the table. If only Wei Ying had come back to Gusu with him. If only Lan Wangji had left with him that night as the rains soaked into the bloodied earth of the Wen prison camp.

His history with Wei Ying is always one of them walking away. One of them turning their back on the other.

Lan Wangji will not turn his back again. He must protect Wei Ying, even if it means drawing the man’s ire.

If Lan Wangji’s parents have taught him anything in their lives and deaths, it is that he would rather sit outside a locked door every day than sit beside a grave.

Lan Wangji selects a sheet of parchment scented with a fine perfume he knows Wei Ying will crinkle his nose at. He then grinds his ink stone and dips his brush.

Years ago, Wei Ying sprawled lazily near him in the library and invented a new cipher based on a tome of Lan An’s poetry. It had taken the better part of an afternoon when Wei Ying was supposed to be copying the rules and etiquette.

Lan Wangji draws his own well-loved copy of the poems from his sleeve and begins to pen a letter.

Not for the first time, he reaps the benefits of Wei Ying’s clever mind.

It has been a long year since Lan Wangji last visited the Burial Mounds.

At the base of the barren hills, Yiling still bustles with that sort of humble urgency that Cloud Recesses is so removed from. Peddlers and merchants see his embroidered robes and rightly assume the weight of his coin pouch.

He lightens his pouch passing bits of silver to the rag-clad children on street corners. He thinks, not for the first time, of the little boy he had seen a lifetime ago on these streets. He wonders what became of that winter-chilled boy; he wonders if the rattle drum he had given the boy had provided any comfort and chides himself for not offerings something more useful than a toy.

He fills a pouch with bags of rice and hearty food that will keep through the coming winter. He fills another pouch with treats to lighten heavy souls.

Idly, Lan Wangji purchases a few small toys in case he sees little Wen Yuan on his errand.

During his shopping, Lan Wangji notes that there are a few men dressed in black on street corners. They claim to be disciples of the Yiling Patriarch. They ply civilians with talismans that promise protection and good health.

The work of their cinnabar is sloppy at best, Lan Wangji thinks with distaste.

Wei Ying would likely laugh at them and test their knowledge before sinking his teeth in and tearing them to conversational shreds.

Lan Wangji’s lips twitch at the thought.

The smile slips away as he remembers himself.

He takes a few deep, settling breaths as he approaches the road where Wei Ying found him last time.

His eyes sweep the dust-covered shops and he quashes the disappointment he encounters when his eyes fail to spot the red ribbon tattooed behind his eyelids.

No matter. He knows where else to find Wei Ying.

When he reaches the wards of the Burial Mounds, Wen Ning is there to greet him.

Wen Ning bows. “Second Young Master Lan. This one is honored to see you again.”

Lan Wangji returns the bow and searches for a greeting. “The same to you. You are well?”

Wen Ning nods. “I have you and Master Wei to thank for that.”

Wen Ning is kind, but Lan Wangji does not miss the steel-edged warning. He approves of Wei Ying being defended so loyally. “May I see him?”

“Of course,” Wen Ning begins. “He received your letter and spent the better part of the other night decoding it. He’s waiting for you, now.”

Lan Wangji suppresses his surprise that Wen Ning is privy to such things. He nods once and allows Wen Ning to lead him up the hill.

Halfway up, he cannot contain his question, but he poses it as statements. “Your wards. They did not stop me.”

Wen Ning pauses and glances back at him. “Of course they didn’t. Master Wei made them.” There is an emphasis placed on Wei Ying’s name, but Lan Wangji finds that paradoxical. Wei Ying could hold the entire cultivation world at bay with his wards for the better part of a day if he so desired.

The answer remains opaque, but Lan Wangji has nearly exhausted his desire to speak to anyone but Wei Ying for the day.

The Wens throughout the camp glance at him, but they do not stop their efforts other than to bow in greeting.

“A-Yuan?”

“He is taking his afternoon nap,” Wen Ning offers, seeming a little startled.

“Mn.” Lan Wangji tries not to feel disappointed. He will have to inquire after the child before he leaves, though if things go well— No. that is a line of thought he cannot afford to entertain yet.

Wen Qing waits like a sentry. “Lan Wangji”

“Lady Wen,” he says with a deeper bow than their current stations demand.

Lan Wangji fears very few people; Wen Qing is one of the few. He holds himself still as her mistrustful gaze sweeps over him. “What are your intentions?”

“To help.” To prove his point, he offers her the qiankun pouches of food and silver.

“We did not ask for charity,” she says, pride stung.

“It is not charity. It is what is owed to you and to Wei Ying.” At her skepticism, he forces himself to add, “Your expertise saved the lives of my clansmen. His inventions are being used on night hunts.”

Wen Qing’s eyes narrow. Her pride wars with the knowledge that they need the aid.

“A-jie,” Wen Ning begins, “there is enough rice here to last through the winter if we are careful. We will not need to tighten our belts.”

At last, Wen Qing sighs and bows. “Thank you, Hanguang-Jun.”

“No thanks are necessary. I apologize for not repaying you sooner.”

Finally, the Wen siblings deposit Lan Wangji at the threshold of the Demon Subdue Palace.

“If you hurt him…” Wen Qing warns, flashing her silver needles.

“I will not.”

“Very well.” Her look lingers before she leaves with Wen Ning on her heels.

Inside the earthen palace, every surface is strewn with talismans and sketches and notes and small, glowing arrays. Picking his way through the clutter draws memories of recovering the Lan Library after Cloud Recesses had been reclaimed. Lan Wangji resists the impulse to tidy the scraps of Wei Ying’s brilliance just as he resists the urge to tuck the painted portraits and landscapes into his sleeves to stare at on the nights he longs for Wei Ying most.

It is as he dislodges those shameful thoughts from his mind that he sees the subject of them.

Wei Ying is leaning against a desk. Chenqing spins in one hand as the other furiously draws characters across a length of parchment. He stands at such an angle that his backside is the center of Lan Wangji’s attention.

Heat steals across Lan Wangji’s ears, and he prays his ears are the only place the blood rushes to. “Wei Ying.”

The man startles, knocking his elbow against the ink tray and hissing out, “Shit!” He just manages to catch the chaos and sighs.

When nothing else is at risk of being dyed black besides his fingertips and now-removed bracers, Wei Ying turns to Lan Wangji and crosses his arms. His sunken silver eyes are narrowed with an appraising look.

Neither of them know what to say at first. Lan Wangji chides himself for misplacing the words he practiced on his travels here.

Conveniently, Wei Ying has always been one to fill silences.

“You’re so damn lucky I’m a master of poetry,” he says, jabbing a finger in Lan Wangji’s direction. “I didn’t have the poems here to reference, y’know.”

“Wei Ying is clever,” he says.

The blush that darkens Wei Ying’s cheeks is gratifying, but it disappears into his pallor all too soon. “Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, what does your letter mean? You wrote that you were coming and there was danger, but the original text is an invitation to see my nephew.”

There’s a ray of hope behind the clouds of mistrust on Wei Ying’s face.

“Am I really invited to Carp Tower to see Jin Ling and Shijie?”

A question he knows the answer to. Lan Wangji opens his mouth. “Young
Madame Jin and Jin Zixuan do indeed want your presence at their son’s celebration. It is others who reside in Carp Tower whom I believe wish you harm.”

Wei Ying sighs and taps his nose. “Because of the Stygian Tiger Seal, no doubt. Your letter said they expect me to hand over the seal before seeing Jin Ling.”

“Mn.”

Wei Ying is pacing now, but his feet are clearly slower than his mind. “Yeah, so they can take over the other sects? I mean you’re all still recovering. Trade is still weak, and negotiations are stagnant last I heard. It’d be easy.” Wei Ying scoffs to himself. “As if I would ever trust Jin Guangshan with that kind of power. That asshole is just like Wen Ruohan.”

He thinks of the way the Jin sect leader risked the least and gained the most in the Sunshot Campaign. “Mn,” Lan Wangji says in agreement, letting distaste color his tone.

Wei Ying startles, but then he laughs and gives Lan Wangji a brief grin. It feels like the comfort of a hearth.

“So, the question now, Lan Zhan, is what I should do.” Wei Ying plops himself onto what Lan Wangji only now realizes must be his bed. The surface is covered in scrolls and candle stubs.

“On the one hand, if I give them the seal, I won’t have the power to protect the Wens here. On the other, if I don’t, they will take it as a sign that I am a threat who refuses to give up power. And if I don’t go at all, they’ll probably come here— not to mention that it would hurt Shijie’s feelings.”

Wei Ying seems to give this last point equal weight, and while Lan Wangji cares for Jiang Yanli’s happiness, he certainly does not put her emotions on level with the safety of Wei Ying and these powerless civilians.

Still, Wei Ying’s love is never something he can begrudge, even if it is not directed where he most wants it.

“Can the seal be destroyed?” Lan Wangji finds himself asking.

Wei Ying’s posture somehow worsens. Lan Wangji half wants to scold him to sit upright. His back aches just watching Wei Ying.

“I refer you to the part about how the seal is the only thing keeping the cultivation sects from attacking. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be enough to defend the Burial Mounds alone.”

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes. Not enough? Impossible. “Your golden core is more than strong enough to maintain these barriers even if you were away.”

Wei Ying does not flinch, but something in his eyes gives that impression anyway.

Unease steals its way through Lan Wangji, twisting his stomach. No. It cannot be. He would have noticed. He would have known.

But then… but then…. Where is Suibian?

“Lan Zhan, you flatterer.” Wei Ying laughs, and if he didn’t catalog every wonderful, terrible laugh that left that mouth, he might have missed the theater of it. He might have accepted it as true. It is not.

In a split second, Lan Wangji snatches one bare wrist, and Wei Ying snarls, yanking free. It’s too late.

The floor falls away and Lan Wangji sways, collapsing against the wall. “Wei Ying.”

“Don’t!” Wei Ying snaps. His eyes flicker red as panic and anger war there. He stumbles backward, and it’s impossible not to picture a wounded, wild creature in his place.

But the words are already falling out of Lan Wangji’s mouth. He is off balance. He is dreaming. A nightmare. A horrible, horrible epiphany unfolds. “Your core. Where is your core?”

“Shut up! Shut up! Go away!” Wei Ying shouts, slamming his hands over his ears like a child.

“No.” He steps closer, and Wei Ying steps back.

“Lan Wangji!” His courtesy name is nearly spat, but Lan Wangji is already bleeding, so the bladed word can do no worse. Wei Ying shoves at him. “Get out!”

Another step closer. Another step back. “No,” he repeats, softer. “Wei Ying, please.”

“No,” Wei Ying insists, but the red light has died in his eyes, and a single tear slips down his cheek to answer the ones already on Lan Wangji’s. “No.”

Lan Wangji closes the space between them and rests his forehead against Wei Ying’s.

Wei Ying is perfectly silent as he cries, and that is worse than the anger and the screaming. It speaks to practice in hiding pain, something he hadn’t even realized Wei Ying excelled at.

“The Core Melting Hand?” he asks.

Wei Ying starts to nod and then folds in on himself. “They caught me. Threw me into this godforsaken pit.”

“This whole time,” Lan Wangji realizes. “The entire war.”

Wei Ying nods. “This is the only path I had left, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying sounds weary. So bone-tired in his ill-fitting robes that Lan Wangji wants nothing more than to scoop him up and carry him to the Jingshi where he can safely rest.

“It still harms you,” Lan Wangji says.

“I know,” Wei Ying admits. Lan Wangji knows this is said in confidence, but he would take the admission to his grave regardless. “I can hear the seal talking to me. Some days, all I see is blood and death.” He scrubs a hand down his face and groans. “But I’m only one man and I couldn’t keep the Wens safe without it. I couldn’t have ended the war without it.” Wei Ying heaves a laugh that makes Lan Wangji want to cry more. “Without demonic cultivation, I’m nothing.”

Lan Zhan takes the calloused hand Wei Ying is staring at and clasps it between his own. He catches those dull eyes with his own fierce gaze. “Wei Ying is everything.”

Taken aback, Wei Ying murmurs, “Lan Zhan?”

“Wei Ying is righteous and good and capable.”

“Telling lies is forbidden.”

“I do not lie.”

“I cannot possibly be called good,” Wei Ying says, rolling his eyes.

“You are.”

“I am not.”

Lan Wangji huffs. No one can draw out his stubborn streak quite like this man. “You saved Su She from the waterborne abyss. You saved the disciples from the Tortoise of Slaughter and Wen Chao. You saved me.”

“That was before.”

“You saved them,” Lan Wangji adds, gesturing in the direction of the Wen settlement. “You saved A-Yuan; you brought Wen Ning back from the edge of death.”

“I also got Lotus Pier massacred, abandoned my sect, and spat in the faces of every sect in the cultivation world!”

Lan Wangji almost growls in frustration. “Not your fault!”

He can hear the bitter eye-roll in Wei Ying’s voice even before he sees it. “Oh sure—“

Lan Wangji interrupts him with a hand over his mouth. He will copy the rules later. This matters. “The Wens would have targeted Lotus Pier whether you provoked them or not. Control of the waterways was crucial to the war. You are no fool; you know this.”

Wei Ying shakes his head and looks desperately sad for a moment, as if Lan Wangji is exhuming the spirits he’d laid to rest.

“Wei Ying,” he says, brokering no room for argument, “those deaths are not your responsibility to bear.”

Wei Ying’s eyes go wide and then narrow as he tugs the hand off his mouth. “What do you want?”

“Come back to Gusu with me.”

Wei Ying snorts. “I should have known.” His voice is cruel and it brings back some of the worst of Lan Wangji’s memories of the war. It’s the tone that means he’s about to lose Wei Ying again. “I know you Lans don’t approve of demonic cultivation, but I’m not going back to Gusu to be punished and caged.”

Lan Wangji flinches. “…What?”

He must sound as desperately baffled as he feels because Wei Ying is looking at him again and some of the mistrust has ebbed. “Y’know, Cloud Recesses, the place where I was punished daily as a guest disciple? The place with 3,000 rules, most of which I’ve broken. You can’t expect me to believe you’re not bringing me to Gusu to punish me, right, Lan Zhan?”

No words form, but he shakes his head slowly. Then again. “No.” He frowns and finally finds Wei Ying’s eyes again. “Not to punish. Never to punish.”

Wei Ying sits silently for a long minute, blinking at him as his lips move silently. “Then why?”

Lan Wangji clasps Wei Ying’s hands again. “To protect you. To help you.”

“To protect me?” Wei Ying laughs, but this one, though brittle, is genuine. “Lan Zhan, I’m not a maiden in distress.” His hands squeeze Lan Wangji’s. “I’m not your responsibility. You don’t need to take care of me.”

“Want to,” he insists, terrified and relieved to be this honest about his feelings.

Wei Ying gives him a wry smile. “You are too good, Lan Zhan. So good and righteous and selfless.”

“No. Selfish,” he corrects.

“Are you?” Wei Ying arches one brow and looks at him with an emotion he names fond exasperation. “I won’t have anyone slandering my Hanguang-Jun, not even you.”

“I am selfish,” he insists, though he has no idea why. He is still reeling from the realizations. He knows Wei Ying’s secrets and maybe it is time he returned the favor. A loud part of him wants to voice all the carefully compartmentalized feelings he has guarded deep in his heart since they were fifteen. “I want.”

“Want?” Wei Ying strokes the backs of his fingers and he shivers, closing his eyes for a moment. Wei Ying makes him want to kowtow and confess everything. Every shameful thought and dream and yearning tucked behind more layers than he wears. “What does Lan Zhan want?”

His mind is a chorus singing Wei Ying. Wei Ying. Wei Ying. His eyes snap open and trace over Wei Ying’s face. The dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, the sallow tone of his once-golden cheeks, and the bitten lines of his lips. Even like this, coreless and steeped in resentment, Wei Ying is beautiful.

For the second time today, Lan Wangji lunges forward. He pins Wei Ying to the stone wall and seals that clever mouth with his own.

This isn’t the first time he’s stolen Wei Ying’s lips like this. It feels much like he remembers from the Phoenix Mountain hunt. Wei Ying is too thin, but he is so strong. He is sinew and steel beneath Lan Wangji’s hands; he bends like bamboo, but he never breaks.

If Wei Ying were to paint him with those nimble hands, he’d use shades of shame and relief and fear and devotion. It’s terrifying, but he cannot regret the clarity he feels to finally put his feelings to action in a way Wei Ying cannot misconstrue.

Wei Ying gasps into his mouth when Lan Wangji traces his thin lips with the tip of his tongue.

Lan Wangji allows himself a few selfish seconds to pour out his emotions through his lips in case he never gets to do this again. Oh. Oh no. What has he done?

The shame takes over, and he yanks himself off of Wei Ying and stares at the floor. He’s breathing hard and he doesn’t know what to blame it on.

All the sect rules he just violated swim to the surface of his mind.

Wei Ying is silent, and that is rarely good. He braces for the blow. He deserves it.

“Lan Zhan.” He flinches at the strangled note of Wei Ying’s voice. “What… what was that?”

His ears burn. He refuses to answer.

Wei Ying grabs his collars and shakes him. “Lan Zhan! What the fuck was that?”

“…I….you…” Lan Wangji cannot find words, nor does he want to. He tries to glance at Wei Ying, but it’s a mistake because now he can see the kiss-bruised redness of Wei Ying’s lips and, oh, how he wants to bruise them further.

The lips twitch, and Lan Wangji watches the realization cross Wei Ying’s face. “It was you,” he murmurs, blinking slowly. “You… You were the strong maiden…”

“Strong maiden?”

Wei Ying’s cheeks flush, and he coughs to hide clear embarrassment. Lan Wangji is sure they make quite a pair. Though now that he has violated Wei Ying (twice), he does not deserve to be grouped with him.

“It was you,” Wei Ying says again. “My first kiss at Phoenix Mountain. I… I thought whomever kissed me must be shy. I… I assumed it was some Jin girl.”

Lan Wangji levels him a flat look.

“What! Female cultivators are definitely strong enough to pin me to a tree, too!” Wei Ying looks a little dazed at the idea, and Lan Wangji fails not to feel jealous of a nonexistent woman.

“It was me,” he confirms, carefully tamping down his emotions to prepare for whatever Wei Ying’s reaction will be.

“Why?”

‘Don’t make me say it,’ he thinks. ‘Please.’ His heart is already threatening to crack open at Wei Ying’s feet. So full that there’s no room left to breathe or beat.

Wei Ying is speaking softer now, like he’s a scared animal. Wei Ying cups his cheek with one hand. “Lan Zhan. Why did you kiss me?”

Lan Wangji does not sob. “Want you.”

“You want me?”

He nods. “Like you.”

Wei Ying softens further. “You like me?”

Lan Wangji takes a breath and looks straight into Wei Ying’s sweet silver eyes. “Love you.”

And then his back hits the wall as Wei Ying captures his lips in a kiss that feels as desperate as a drowning man fighting a river for air.

Wei Ying is kissing him. Willingly. Openly. Hungrily. It’s unpracticed and messy and absolutely the best thing that has ever happened to Lan Wangji because Wei Ying is here and does not seem to hate him.

As good as kissing Wei Ying was, being kissed by Wei Ying is even better.

Lan Wangji slips one hand into Wei Ying’s hair as the other grabs Wei Ying’s hip. He grounds himself with the touch and kisses back as good as he gets.

Wei Ying is fire, pressed against him and blazing so bright the sun might well be his shadow. He has one hand fisted in Lan Wangji’s silk collars and the other on his side. Wei Ying is shorter, if only just, so Lan Wangji angles his head to meet him better.

Hands roam as they kiss. It does dangerous things to his mind. Wei Ying is here, pressed against him and there is nowhere to hide as his body reacts predictably.

There is laughter against his lips as Wei Ying murmurs, “Is that for me, Lan Zhan?”

Wei Ying slips a knee between his legs, and Lan Wangji ruts against it before his brain even registers the motion. He moans wantonly and finds that he wants to bury himself in the soil outside to escape this shamelessness.

Utterly delighted, Wei Ying does it again, drawing hissed moan. “Who knew Hanguang-Jun could get hard for the Yiling Laozu?”

“Wei Ying,” he gasps, clutching bony shoulders. He doesn’t know if he’s begging for more or less. He leaves the power in Wei Ying’s hands.

He hears a gravely chuckle that does not help the tenting of his robes at all. “I’m glad it was you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs. His breath ghosts Lan Wangji’s ear and makes him shiver. “I’ve wanted your attention— wanted you— for so long.”

“Wei Ying,” he breathes. It’s a confession and a plea at once.

He is heard, and then Wei Ying’s hand is sliding lower, lower. It strokes him carefully through too many layers of fabric. It’s maddening and he never wants it to end. He recalls nights of shame with his own hand in his loosened trousers. He remembers the burning arousal and equally burning shame as he stroked himself to completion with Wei Ying’s name on his silent lips.

This is better.

He barely has time to orient himself before Wei Ying is kneeling. He glances up as Lan Wangji with a little smirk that ruins his affected pout. “May I?”

As if he could deny Wei Ying anything. He nods.

Wei Ying’s nimble fingers navigate his robes open and loosen the strings of his trousers until his erection hits the lukewarm air of the cave.

“Heavens,” Wei Ying breathes, quiet enough that Lan Wangji thinks it wasn’t meant to be heard.

Lan Wangji is achingly aware of his arousal as Wei Ying stares at his flushed cock. Years of strict doctrine make him want to throw himself in a cold spring and repent. Another part of him also wants to push himself into Wei Ying’s throat until he gags. Wrestling for control of himself, he ultimately does nothing.

“Lan Zhan.”

He glances down to meet Wei Ying’s eyes.

“You okay? You seem like you’re freaking out a bit.”

He nods and then realizes he could be responding to either of Wei Ying’s concerns. “I am alright. Nervous; not reticent.”

Wei Ying takes one of the hands he hadn’t even realized was fisted in his undone robes and squeezes it before guiding it to his unruly hair.

“I’ve only ever seen this in spring books,” Wei Ying admits, “but I’m going to try something. If you don’t like it, don’t just sit there and bear it, okay?”

Lan Wangji must nod because then Wei Ying, still glancing up at him from under his lashes, opens his beautiful, devious mouth and licks a wet, filthy stripe from base to tip.

It is a wonder he doesn’t come just from that. He feels feverish. Is he feverish? He certainly feels sweaty and shivery and faint.

Wei Ying does it again and Lan Wangji hisses through his teeth and grasps harder at Wei Ying’s hair. Pleased, Wei Ying wraps his mouth around the head and starts to suck.

He hears an animalistic groan and it takes his lust-addled brain too long to recognize the voice as his own.

Wei Ying’s mouth is as clever at this as it is at drawing people into his orbit.

He watches as Wei Ying sinks lower. He feels the slick heat of Wei Ying’s mouth and hears the lewd sound of spit on skin. He smells sweat and soil, and he, ludicrously, wants to lick the sweat off of Wei Ying’s skin and then taste him with his teeth.

Wei Ying is bobbing his head now, humming around the cock in his mouth.

Without thinking, Lan Wangji finds his hand threading deeper into Wei Ying’s hair, wrapping around loose strands and red silk.

Wei Ying laughs and he bucks at the vibration. Apologies spill from his mouth as Wei Ying chokes.

He is terrified and petrified. He should not like the wrecked look on Wei Ying’s face this much. He should not like the drool caught in the corner of Wei Ying’s mouth. Wei Ying can probably see it on his face.

Wei Ying must hate him now.

“Are you…?”

“Fine. Fine,” Wei Ying wheezes. Lan Wangji watches him swallow hard and breathe. Wei Ying’s cheeks darken. “What if I asked you to do it again?”

“Again?”

Wei Ying buries his face against Lan Wangji’s thigh and groans. “That was weird. Ignore me.”

Lan Wangji considers his words and then tugs on the hair in his hand until Wei Ying jerks up to face him with a high, breathy gasp. “You want me to be rough?”

Wei Ying’s blush deepens, and he’s looking over Lan Wangji’s shoulder rather than in his eyes. “Yeah.”

Still anxious, but eager to chase satisfaction for them both, he tugs Wei Ying closer to his cock again and orders, “Suck.”

Wei Ying opens his mouth obediently and sinks low. It is overwhelming. Lan Wangji keeps a firm grip in his hair. He can feel the movements of Wei Ying’s throat as he works his way down.

They find Wei Ying’s gag reflex a moment later. Tears appear in the corners of Wei Ying’s eyes, but he holds himself down while Lan Wangji watches.

Up and down. Hot and wet and wonderful. Wei Ying takes him deep, and when he realizes that Wei Ying is comfortable with the gagging, he begins to match Wei Ying’s motions with his own.

They find a rhythm together. Together. It’s a novel concept and Lan Wangji cradles it carefully in his eggshell heart even as he fucks into Wei Ying’s open mouth and pulls on his hair.

“Beautiful,” he murmurs, watching spit trail down Wei Ying’s chin.

Tongue swipes agains the slit of his cock and he groans. His eyes almost slip closed, but he wants to brand every moment of this into his mind beside the memories of Wei Ying’s laughter and smiles and the way his eyes turn into crescent moons when he’s pleased.

Wei Ying’s face is as red as his underrobes. His hair is a mess under Lan Wangji’s hand. He’s perfect and handsome and beloved. Lan Wangji wants to marry him.

Oh.

He pictures Wei Ying in his bed, half-naked and attired in Lan white. He can almost hear Wei Ying’s rough Yunmeng accent forming around, “Husband.” It fills him with a dizzying wave of pleasure just to imagine, even if he thinks it an impossibility.

Still lost in daydreams, he almost misses it when Wei Ying’s nimble hands glide from his thighs to cup his rear.

Lan Wangji startles and barely manages a questioning noise before Wei Ying has grabbed him hard. Wei Ying pulls him closer until he feels Wei Ying’s nose hit his pelvis, and Lan Wangji sees stars.

“Hn!”

He cums. Hard and fast and unexpectedly with nothing more than a choked gasp of warning.

His mind is a white haze. He convulses as Wei Ying makes pleased noises and swallows everything his body offers. It is obscene and absolutely one of the greatest things Lan Wangji has been fortunate enough to witness.

When Wei Ying sits back and wipes his mouth with the back of one hand, he looks cocky enough that any other Lan might scold him about conceit. “How was that?” Wei Ying asks, clearly fishing for compliments.

Lan Wangji opens his mouth, and what tumbles out is, of all the options, “Marry me.”

Wei Ying’s face goes slack with surprise, and then he laughs, blushes, and looks away. “Ah, Hanguang-Jun, you can’t just marry anyone who gives good head.”

“I would not,” he states. “I only wish to marry Wei Ying.”

“No you don’t. I would make a terrible Lan,” Wei Ying counters, still staring at the hems of their robes. “Did you forget the three months I spent under your discipline in the library?”

“Could not forget. Would never forget.”

Wei Ying looks smoother around the edges when he chuckles. His voices remains raspy. Would it be wrong to keep him like that? “Who knew Hanguang-Jun was such a softie?”

Lan Wangji kneels. “Only for you. For me, there has only ever been you.”

“Not Mianmian?” Wei Ying teases.

“No.”

“Ah, you don’t want me, Lan Zhan. Not now. I cannot be your cultivation partner. I cannot reach immortality. I will grow old and die.”

It is a blow, but it does not hurt as much as expected. “Then I would grow old at your side.” He wants it so, so deeply that it aches like a broken bone. “One lifetime with you is worth more than an eternity bereft.”

“Foolish man,” Wei Ying chides. The fondness fades from his silver eyes. He already knows that whatever Wei Ying says next will hurt.

“I cannot bring you down like that. I’ve desecrated graves and destroyed souls. I’ve killed hundreds, if not thousands.”

“I know. It was war.”

Wei Ying gives another dry laugh. “You have no idea the things I’ve done, Lan Zhan.”

“I do not care. Wei Ying is Wei Ying.” He means it.

“Lan Zhan. Oh, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying does not grimace, but this particular smile is akin to a frown. “Think about it. Those three months I was here, how did I survive?”

Inedia is on the tip of his tongue in answer. But no. Wei Ying was already coreless when he was cast into this arid land. Before Wei Ying settled the Wens, there was nothing here but resentment-steeped corpses and barren trees.

Slow horror dawns. His stomach twists.

Wei Ying withdraws now that this terrible revelation has been bestowed upon Lan Wangji. Wei Ying sounds so tired when he says, “Go home, Lan Zhan. I’ll be alright. I promise.”

That is not a promise Wei Ying should make. It is not one Lan Wangji can trust him to keep. Not when the cultivation world has their blades at his throat.

Before Wei Ying can stand, Lan Wangji grasps his hand. “No.”

Wei Ying snorts. “No?”

“Please, Wei Ying. Do not push me away.” He cups one sunken cheek in his hand and thrills when Wei Ying allows it. “Those three months, I could not rest in your absence.” He strokes Wei Ying’s cheekbone and forces himself to continue. He owes Wei Ying this much. “When Wen Chao told me that they had thrown you here to your death, I was fully ready to die avenging you.” His voice breaks at the confession, and he feels warm tears on his thumb where he glides it across Wei Ying’s cheek.

“But you lived,” he continues. “You survived. That is more than I dared hope for.” He rests their foreheads together once more. The metal of his ribbon is a spot of cool reprieve. It should remind him of the rules he is bound by; it does, but not in way the elders would approve of. “Please, Wei Ying. I cannot lose you again. I want you as you are. And I do not care what others may say.”

Wei Ying laughs, and it’s a watery, broken thing. “Lan Zhan. Oh, Lan Zhan.”

“I am here.”

Wei Ying’s fingers dance across his face and sweep up the tears there. “You are, aren’t you?”

He does not know who initiates it, but one moment they are looking at each other and the next their lips are moving together. Gentle, but still urgent with years of withheld feelings.

Wei Ying’s arms wrap around his shoulders, and Lan Wangji leans him back against the cluttered floor. The smile against his lips ignites something in his belly.

This time, it is his leg that slips between Wei Ying’s.

Wei Ying laughs and groans into his lips. It is a perfect sound— far better, even, than the dulcet tones of a guqin.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mumbles into his mouth. “Let me make room. I’m laying on candle stubs here.”

Lan Wangji huffs, lifting Wei Ying just enough to sweep an arm across the mess and clear space. “Done,” he says and resumes kissing.

Wei Ying is giggling into his mouth now, and it is the sweetest taste.

It almost seems like a dream, but Wei Ying is so real beneath him. Thin, but warm and fluid. Lan Wangji feels enveloped, and he never wants to let go. Never wants to give Wei Ying up again.

Abruptly and most unwelcome, remembers his father’s transgressions and freezes. But Wei Ying is not cooperating with his internal crisis. Wei Ying’s tongue is in his mouth, and he can taste the bitterness of himself there. Wei Ying wants him. Wants this. And if Wei Ying asks him to let go, he will find a way to obey.

He lets himself be calmed and thinks, idly, that he would eat anything from Wei Ying’s mouth.

When Wei Ying breaks the kiss to breathe, Lan Wangji’s mouth trails kisses down his jaw and neck, sucking gently at the skin.

“My Lan Zhan is so sweet,” Wei Ying murmurs into his blushing ear. Wei Ying takes an earlobe in his mouth to nibble. He blows across the dampened skin when he releases it. “Lan Zhan, Lan-er-gege, will you have your way with this one if he asks nicely?”

His ears are on fire, and a second erection is already forming. “Mn.”

And then they’re moving together. Wei Ying shifts as they each kiss any patch of bare skin they can reach— cheeks and ears and necks. Lan Wangji strips his lover with brisk efficiency, but he pauses to kiss the scars.

Gently, carefully, he kisses around the raised edges of the sun-shaped brand. Softly, worriedly, he kisses sword-width strip a hand’s length above Wei Ying’s left hip. Reverently, lovingly, he kisses every tiny scar until all that’s left is the line bisecting Wei Ying’s stomach.

“What is this?” he wonders, tracing the line and forcing down the anxiety.

Wei Ying rubs a thumb across the Lan ribbon, and Lan Wangji relaxes into it. “I will tell you someday. Let me keep a few secrets for now, hm?”

As much as he wants to press the subject, he is distracted when Wei Ying instead presses his clothed erection to Lan Wangji’s naked hip.

When Wei Ying’s trousers are gone, he recalls the few spring books he has read in moments of weakness. As much as he wants to ruin Wei Ying like he has in adolescent dreams, he will endeavor not hurt him unless asked. “Oil?”

Wei Ying blinks at him with a furrowed brow. “Oil? What do you want- oh!” Wei Ying flusters briefly. “Hmm. I think there’s a pot on the desk.”

He is loathe to leave Wei Ying at all, so he fetches the oil quickly and returns.

Wei Ying is spread out and bare atop his nest of unfastened robes.

He is resplendent in the flickering candlelight. The playfulness dancing in Wei Ying’s silver eyes only grows as he opens his legs invitingly to Lan Wangji. “Enjoying the view?”

“Hmph.” Lan Wangji coats two fingers in the oil and leans down to kiss Wei Ying again. He wants to spend the rest of his life kissing this insufferable man. He wants it like he has never wanted anything before.

In one motion, he pulls off his forehead ribbon and wraps it thrice around Wei Ying’s wrists.

“Stay,” he orders, pushing Wei Ying’s wrists against the floor.

Shocked, Wei Ying’s mouth remains open for a long minute before he finally nods. “What are you going to do to me, Gege?”

Rather than answer, Lan Wangji massages one fingertip against the pink ring of muscle between Wei Ying’s soft buttocks. The muscle flutters and then gives, accepting his fingertip. Wei Ying shivers, and Lan Wangji is so overwhelmed that he could pass out.

He allows Wei Ying to dominate their next kiss. Wei Ying makes small, desperate sounds into his mouth, and he pulls Lan Wangji even closer with his legs.

Everything is burning hot.

One finger slides fully into Wei Ying’s tight, warm body. They both gasp, though one is reverent and the other is wanton.

When his head falls back, Wei Ying’s blush spreads down his throat and chest; Lan Wangji descends to rake his teeth across the dark spots of Wei Ying’s nipples.

“Lan Zhan! Ahh! Fuck, yes, yes.”

Wei Ying writhes, so he presses him down to the hard floor and wrecks him.

Salt and sweat greet his tongue as he sucks and bites his way across Wei Ying’s chest. “Lan Zhan, oh! Oh, yes, so rough! Who knew Hanguang-Jun was this kind of man? So shamele—ahh!” The sharp cry meets his ears when he slides a second finger into Wei Ying’s body.

“Oh! Oh, gods, Lan Zhan! So good for this humble one.”

Encouraged, he cants his fingers in and out of Wei Ying and listens to the harmony between Wei Ying’s moans and the squelching of his fingers. Wei Ying’s hips move with him, and it’s like sword fighting or dancing. Wei Ying is graceful in any motion.

“Lan Zhan. I want to touch you,” Wei Ying whines.

“Later,” he says, and chomps down on one stiffened nipple.

“Hah!”

Wei Ying’s cock is hard and dripping between their stomachs. He wants to lavish it, tease it, suck it until Wei Ying is dazed and ruined. Next time, he decides. There will be a next time.

He stretches his fingers and Wei Ying keens, curling forward to cry “Fuck! Lan Zhan! Er-gege, please! More!”

Lan Wangji cannot resist such an invitation.

He withdraws his fingers and lets his robes slide off his shoulders. Wei Ying is gasping for air as he looks up him with clear desire.

He presses lingering kisses to every inch of searing skin his mouth can reach. His breathing has never felt this erratic before as he aligns their bodies.

He is eager and terrified, and Wei Ying looks much the same as he picks up his hips and nudges the ring of muscle with the head of his oil-slicked cock.

They each take a deep breath, and then he moves.

It is incredible.

Wei Ying makes a small, pained noise when Lan Wangji presses down and into him. The sound gives him pause even as his baser instincts beg for him to make Wei Ying take all of him now.

“Wei Ying?”

“I’m, hah… I’m good,” he moans out. “Just never done anything like this before and you are quite endowed, Hanguang-Jun.”

Lan Wangji manages to hide his pleasure at the statement, though his fingers tighten possessively around Wei Ying’s hips until he squeaks.

“More,” Wei Ying mumbles against his lips.

So he gives.

“Lan Zh-ahh!” Wei Ying cries out.

Between one second and the next, he is fully sheathed; feeling the way Wei Ying’s lithe form struggles to accommodate him is terrible for his self control.

Tears are gathered in the corners of Wei Ying’s unseeing eyes. He bends to lick them away and nuzzles gently against Wei Ying’s neck in askance.

Wei Ying shudders and gasps when Lan Wangji twitches inside him. “Er-Gege,” he chokes out. “Move.”

Like this, obeying is easy. He begins slowly, drawing back and then watching between their bodies so he can see his cock filling his beloved.

Wei Ying obediently keeps his wrists above his head, but his hands twitch as he whines.

“Lan Zhan is so cruel. Too cruel, Gege. You’re fucking me so hard, bruising my hips, and I can’t even touch you. Can’t even kiss you.”

Wei Ying is playing a game. Lan Wangji does not know the rules, but he makes an educated guess. “Earn it,” he breathes, letting his mouth linger above Wei Ying’s.

When Wei Ying lunges for a kiss, Lan Wangji retreats with a small smirk.

“Lan Zhan.”

“Wei Ying,” he returns, placidly as he punishes Wei Ying with the pace of his hips.

“Fu-uuuuh!” Wei Ying throws his head back, and Lan Wangji barely manages to get a hand between him and the hard floor. “Fuck!” Wei Ying nearly shouts. “That spot! Hit it again!”

Clumsily, he manages. He knows because Wei Ying bends in half and howls. Wei Ying’s bound hands shoot out to hook around Lan Wangji’s neck.

Lan Wangji is too entranced to even scold him.

He has just enough presence of mind to be grateful for the sound-dampening talismans on the cave walls before Wei Ying is pulling him down like an undertow into a kiss. Their skin slaps together. It is wet and debauched and something he could easily do every day if Wei Ying let him.

With every thrust, he hits where Wei Ying wants him most. Behind his head, Wei Ying’s hands have knotted in his hair and pulled. The prickling tension across his scalp enhances the coil of pleasure burning through his core.

“Er-Gege,” Wei Ying gasps out, rocking down to meet his thrusts. “Please, please. I’m so close. Touch me.”

Lan Wangji wraps his hand around Wei Ying’s dripping cock and begins jerking him off to the pace of their hips.

Each breath burns his lungs. His self restraint is long gone. Wei Ying’s skin is bruised under his grasp, but it only heightens his arousal to see Wei Ying claimed and bitten and bruised in the shape of him.

“Come for me,” Lan Wangji orders. His hand hits the base of Wei Ying’s cock at the same moment his cock grazes that sensitive spot.

“C-close!” Wei Ying is breathless, drawn tight like a bowstring. He pulls so hard at Lan Wangji’s hair that it verges on pain more than pleasure. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zha-Ahn!”

The arrow is loosed. Wei Ying’s orgasm sounds like choked silence as he bucks hard in Lan Wangji’s lap.

White fluid paints his stomach, and his insides clench around the shape of Lan Wangji’s cock.

One last thrust has Lan Wangji burying his face in Wei Ying’s shoulder and biting down as he follows Wei Ying over the edge.

They both tremble in the candlelit aftermath.

Lan Wangji finds himself first, settling beside Wei Ying and tugging him close.

Wei Ying’s eyes are glazed. He blinks slowly, lazily, and looks lost to the world for a long few minutes. There is a mess between his legs and across his stomach, but he looks too blissful to care.

Lan Wangji strokes his hair into some semblance of its usually disarray rather than the sex-mussed halo they created. A familiar melody hums across his lips as he waits.

At last, Wei Ying stirs in his arms with a groan. “That was… That. Lan Zhan, what the hell?” Wei Ying’s grin is a crooked, genuine thing. “To go from the youth who threw a tantrum over a spring book to such a sexual man, Hanguang-Jun is indeed impressive. How long have you been wanting to do that to me?”

His ears heat, and Wei Ying delights at his embarrassment.

“A long time, then? Who knew I was so seductive?”

“Since the lectures.”

“Hm?”

“That is how long I have desired you.”

Wei Ying barks a laugh and strokes cloud patterns on his chest. “What was it? My fiendish good looks? My complete disregard for Lan Doctrine? Or maybe this?” he asks, wiggling his ass.

“Yes.”

Wei Ying laughs harder and buries his face in Lan Wangji’s neck. “Oh, Er-Gege, I love you.”

“Mn. Love Wei Ying, too.”

Wei Ying’s laughter subsides, but the silence, for once, is not fraught.

“Lan Zhan. What do we do next?”

“Brother has given his permission for you to come to Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Ying props himself on his elbow. “I won’t leave the Wens alone.”

Lan Wangji takes his hand and kisses his wrist just above the loosely tied Lan ribbon. “We will bring them, too.”

“Lan Zhan, you beautiful man, I really do not see how you intend to hide fifty people.”

“Not hide. Resettle. Enfold.”

Wei Ying gasps. “”You would do that? Accept them into your clan?”

“All who would join.”

“And those who wouldn’t?”

“I will give them the funds to make their own way in this land.”

Wei Ying folds into his arms. “You really are too good, Hanguang-Jun.”

“I can be good because you have been better.”

Wei Ying’s smile now is the gentlest he has ever seen outside of those directed at little Wen Yuan or Jiang Yanli. It feels like an accomplishment. “You really won’t regret marrying me?”

“I would never regret time spent at your side.”

“You’ll get in trouble.”

“I know.”

“It will be difficult.”

“It will be worth it,” he returns, cupping Wei Ying’s cheek. “Everyone should know you are mine.”

“Yours, huh?” Wei Ying taps his nose and pretends to think. “I could get used to the sound of that.”

“Good,” he says and kisses Wei Ying’s bruised lips once more.

Two weeks later, Lan Wangji once again finds himself on the gilded steps to Carp Tower.

This time he is not alone.

His brother waits atop the stairs with a broad smile that would look so out of place on his own countenance despite their similarity.

Lan Wangji feels a mixture of smug satisfaction and barely leashed distaste when he spots Jin Guangyao in his brother’s shadow.

For a brief, flickering moment, Jin Guangyao’s pleasant mask slips when he realizes who is walking arm-in-arm with the Second Jade of Lan.

“Young master Wei,” Jin Guangyao beings in his sleek voice, “you are earlier than we expected. Had I known you were arriving a day early, I would have had your chambers prepared.”

There is a cruel edge to Wei Ying’s intellect that Lan Wangji loves dearly. He hopes to witness it now.

Wei Ying inclines his head and bows to indicate their status as equals. It is more gracious than Lan Wangji would be in his place, but this is how Wei Ying acknowledges the game being played. “You honor this one with your consideration. However, no trouble is necessary on my account. I will share rooms with Hanguang-Jun.”

Jin Guangyao’s sharp smile does not waver. “It is no trouble, Young Master Wei. Surely you do not wish to inconvenience the Lan delegation. We have plenty of rooms here at Carp Tower. Perhaps you would like one near to the Jiang delegation?”

Salting the wound between Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin is low, but Wei Ying shows nothing.

“I am most grateful to see your consideration for my sect’s comfort, however I will not be imposing.”

“The Jiang will surely find it no imposition—“

Wei Ying’s smile is bared fangs. “You misunderstood, Lianfang-Zun. I belong to the Lan Sect.

The abject surprise on Jin Guangyao’s face is almost worth the trouble.

When his face smooths, Jin Guangyao turns to Lan Xichen. “Er-Ge, I had not heard such wondrous news. When did the Yiling Patriarch join your sect?”

Lan Xichen pats Jin Guangyao’s shoulder. “When he married Wangji, of course.”

As if in proof, Wei Ying holds up their joined hands. The loose sleeve of his robe slips down to reveal the knotted Lan ribbon on his left wrist.

Continuing mildly, Lan Xichen adds, “And worry not, A-Yao; the Stygian Tiger Amulet is being safeguarded by the Lan Elders.”

When Lan Wangji and Wei Ying walk past Jin Guangyao toward the entrance of the great hall, Wei Ying stops and taps his nose. “Lianfang-Zun, if I may make a request?”

“Of course,” the snake says smoothly.

“Might we request your largest tub for our chambers? Lan Zhan here keeps breaking the ones at the inns.” He winks for good measure.

Lan Wangji has never before been so embarrassed and aroused in public.

Jin Guangyao grimaces and swallows audibly. “I shall see to it.”

Wei Ying gives a careless smile over his shoulder. “Thanks! You’re the best. See you at the banquet.”

That evening when he watches Wei Ying cradle Jin Ling for the first time as he bickers with Jiang Wanyin about their elopement and hides behind a laughing Jiang Yanli, Lan Wangji feels something quite akin to victory.

It is good.