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Wen guards escort Lan Wangji to his quarters—his comfortably appointed cell, in effect—at the end of the day’s indoctrination. Every step is painful. Lan Wangji devotes all of his attention to walking smoothly, gaze straight ahead, steps perfectly even. He will display no weakness.

So focused is he on this task that he does not notice that, this evening, Wei Wuxian has followed him to his quarters, branching off at the last moment from the path to the building in which the Jiang disciples are lodged.

The higher-ranking guard frowns and draws in a breath, likely to protest; Wei Wuxian holds up his hands to stave it off, tilting his head and pouting and otherwise putting on a shameless performance of helplessness.

“We’re all prisoners here either way,” he argues, with a disarming smile. “What does it matter which building I’m imprisoned in, eh? It’s cramped over there with the rest of Yunmeng Jiang, and Lan-er-gongzi has this whole building all to himself!”

As he speaks, he backs into Lan Wangji’s quarters; now, if the guards want him out, they’ll have to drag him. Lan Wangji can see the guards exchange a glance and decide it’s not worth the trouble. They slam the doors in Wei Wuxian’s face.

The two of them are now alone. Lan Wangji gives Wei Wuxian a hard look.

“Can’t I just miss your scintillating conversation?” Wei Wuxian attempts, with something approaching his usual glibness. But the spark that animates his mischief is missing. He looks, suddenly, exhausted.

Before Lan Wangji can respond, Wei Wuxian walks to the corner of room farthest from the door and folds down to sit, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them.

“Lan Zhan,” he says lightly. “What do you think Wen Chao and his henchmen would do, if I went into heat here?”

Lan Wangji feels the muscles of his body lock.

He can answer the question, of course. Some of the disciples here might equivocate, might cling to a dogged belief that there are some bedrock standards of behavior among cultivators that even the Wens would not breach. Lan Wangji knows better. The Wens as a sect, and Wen Chao as a man, have passed beyond the point where they respect any restraint.

But Wei Wuxian did not ask the question because he needed Lan Wangji to tell him the answer.

Lan Wangji stares at Wei Wuxian. At the way Wei Wuxian’s fingers have gone white on his own arms. Lan Wangji’s heartbeat sounds unnaturally loud. He can barely hear anything else.

“Are you—”

“Yes,” says Wei Wuxian. He doesn’t look up.

Lan Wangji asks, “When?”

“Tonight. Any time now, really.”

Lan Wangji draws in a breath. His eyes travel the room, looking for anything that might be of use as a weapon. The lamps hang from chains; the table could be dismantled, some pieces long enough to serve as crude spears.

“We can improvise weaponry,” he says. “I remember the route by which I was taken from Gusu—”

But I am injured, he thinks, tasting bitterness in the back of his throat. Qi drained, useless—

It kills Lan Wangji to think it, even to himself, but Wei Wuxian would be better off going to almost anyone other than Lan Wangji for help with his escape – particularly Jin Zixuan, if they can overcome their mutual antipathy.

But when he tries to explain this, Wei Wuxian shakes his head.

“Fight our way out?” Wei Wuxian’s face flickers with a grim smile. “How do you think that would go, Lan Zhan?”

It wouldn’t.

Lan Wangji knows it.

With no swords, they can’t. And even if they could…

Except for Lan Wangji himself, they are all here as hostages for their sects’ submission. Even if Jin Zixuan were willing to risk the lives of his entire sect to keep Wen Chao from—

Wei Wuxian couldn’t ask him to. Neither could Wei Wuxian endanger Yunmeng Jiang in that way.

But then why did Wei Wuxian come to Lan Wangji if not because Lan Wangji has no sect left to endanger?

Lan Wangji stumbles through the question, painful to say aloud, and Wei Wuxian immediately winces. “No. Not—”

He breaks off, and hugs his knees more tightly. He still won’t look at Lan Wangji.

“Jiang Cheng is my brother,” Wei Wuxian says. “Jin Zixuan… Shijie still—she still likes him. It would break her heart if… and you—you think I’m a pain, I know, but… but we’re very compatible. I know you can sense it, too.”

It is shocking, briefly, to hear Wei Wuxian speak of such a thing openly – but time is too short for adherence to niceties, so Lan Wangji confines himself to a swift nod. He had noticed that very first night, on the roof, sword-to-sword—there was no way not to notice—the way Wei Wuxian’s scent felt immediately, impossibly familiar. Like something he had known from birth. It meant nothing. Purely a matter of biology – his body informing him of an omega with whom mating was especially likely to be productive, and no more.

But for Wei Wuxian to mention it now…

The thought has been dawning on Lan Wangji for some time, in the back of his mind, since the word “heat” first fell from Wei Wuxian’s lips, and now he brings it into the light: that Wei Wuxian is asking Lan Wangji to cool his heat. That is why he has come to Lan Wangji tonight.

It is strangely difficult to draw a full breath. But there is no hesitation, now that he understands what is being asked of him.

“Wei Ying. I am willing.”

More than willing—but with long practice, Lan Wangji turns his mind away from that, toward practical matters.

“But the scent will spread,” he points out, kneeling beside Wei Wuxian, “the guards will smell it, and then—”

“Not if—not if the heat ends quickly enough.”

Lan Wangji blinks, taken aback.

“There’s one way to end a heat pretty quickly,” Wei Wuxian says, avoiding Lan Wangji’s eyes. “And like I said, we’re—we’re very compatible.”

Lan Wangji tries to think of anything else Wei Wuxian could mean. Nothing comes to him. But what Wei Wuxian is suggesting is—

“Speak plainly,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Heats are meant for breeding,” he says. His face is nonchalant, but his hands are trembling where they grip his elbows. “If you—” He has to pause, has to gulp a breath. “If you get a child on me,” he says, voice shaking, “the heat will end.”

It is what Lan Wangji suspected he meant, but he was not prepared for the impact those words, spoken into the air between them, would have. He feels—he doesn’t know what to feel. He has never found himself so unequal to the task of delving into his own mind.

“Wei Ying,” he says—for once, speaking without thinking, “you cannot want to—”

“I don’t. I don’t want to. I’m eighteen, I don’t—”

Wei Wuxian presses his lips together, forcing himself to calm. “Speak plainly,” he echoes. Then he looks Lan Wangji in the eye. “I’d rather be knocked up by you,” he says, with a half-smile, “than raped by Wen Chao and his cronies. You know they would, Lan Zhan. It would be all the excuse they needed. They could say they were…” His mouth twists. “Just trying to help. They could say I begged them to, and everyone would believe it, or pretend to. I might beg, if I was deep enough in it.”

Lan Wangji’s hands clench; it feels as if his knuckles will punch through his skin. “I will not allow that,” he says. But he knows it’s an empty promise. He would die trying, without regret, but that would not be enough to keep Wei Wuxian safe.

Wei Wuxian ignores his outburst, as he should. Instead, still watching Lan Wangji’s face, he asks, “Will you do it?”

Lan Wangji thought he knew, as he was dragged away from the burning wreckage of his home, the deepest powerlessness he was capable of feeling. He was wrong.

“Wei Ying. You should not have to—”

“No. I shouldn’t,” Wei Wuxian says sharply. Narrow-eyed anger breaks through his mask of calm. “None of us should have to do—any of this, this is so fucked-up – you shouldn’t be walking around on a broken leg and Wen Qing shouldn’t be trapped into helping these monsters and Mianmian shouldn’t have to humiliate herself just to keep her stupid friend from getting their whole sect killed, but this is where we are, so if you have any better ideas, now’s the time to share.”

Lan Wangji hesitates, then begins, “If I claimed you—”

“Do you really think that would be enough to keep them off of me?”

“There is a chance,” Lan Wangji says. He knows how thin an argument that is. “Some sects consider it a higher crime to trespass on a claimed omega than to violate an unwilling one.”

Disgusting, but true.

Wei Wuxian inclines his head, but replies, “I’d rather not wait around to find out how many crimes Wen Chao is willing to commit. Better if he never knows I’m in heat to begin with. And… I don’t…” Wei Wuxian pauses, and gnaws on his lip for a moment. “I don’t know how long we’ll be here.”

Lan Wangji’s face must betray his incomprehension; Wei Wuxian says quickly, “A mating claim won’t stop me from going into heat again. If we’re as compatible as I think, it might even make it worse. A—well.” He coughs. “If my solution works, I won’t have to have another heat for—for at least nine months.”

Lan Wangji stares at the floor, unseeing, as his mind works to confront the enormity of that thought. When he can again bear to look at Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian looks similarly blank. Then, with visible effort, he shakes it off.

“We can try both,” Wei Wuxian allows. “The claim and the—the getting. We should. That’s smart. But…” He looks away, shoulders hunched. Haltingly, he says, “I know you don’t—that I bother you. And I’m sorry for all of this. I just—I couldn’t just do nothing. I couldn’t just let them have me.”

“Do not apologize.” Lan Wangji’s palms are flat against his thighs, and steady. When he is sure he can say only what he means to say and no more, he says, “You do not bother me.”

Wei Wuxian smiles, somehow. An off-kilter curve of his lips. “There’s a rousing endorsement.”

Lan Wangji had said he was willing—willing, a cruel joke—to cool Wei Wuxian’s heat. He is no less willing to do the rest: to claim him, and to—

The thought refuses to complete. He pushes it to the side.

“I will do it.”

Wei Wuxian takes a long, shuddering breath in, then slowly lets it out. “Thank you,” he says.

Lan Wangji shakes his head. To be thanked for this makes him feel ill.

“I ask,” he says, “that if we are… successful, Wei Ying accept my proposal of marriage.”

“Marriage!” Wei Wuxian’s head whips around, his whole curled-up posture unraveling into a sprawl as he gapes at Lan Wangji.

He has not immediately rejected the proposal, which is encouraging. Lan Wangji explains, “If we are successful, certain facts will become widely known.”

“Right,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. “I… yes.” His head tips to the side and his lips purse slightly—an expression with which Lan Wangji is very familiar. It means Wei Wuxian’s gleaming labyrinth mind is at work. “I mean, not necessarily – if we can escape or we’re rescued soon enough, it could—”

He breaks off; Lan Wangji waits.

“I want children someday,” Wei Wuxian says, to the tangle of his own fingers in his lap. “But not like this. Not now. Not in the middle of a hostage situation – a fucking war, when I’m eighteen and the sire doesn’t even like me that much and—”

Lan Wangji aches to touch him.

“If we get out of here and it’s not too late, I wouldn’t…” Wei Wuxian pauses, and meets Lan Wangji’s gaze. “There wouldn’t be anything to be public knowledge,” he says carefully.

Lan Wangji understands him immediately.

“That is Wei Ying’s decision.”

Wei Wuxian nods, solemn. “I guess I’ll—I’ll promise you this. I won’t drag you into scandal. If anything does become, ah, widely known, then yes. We’ll—I’ll marry you.”

Lan Wangji considers this answer. He refuses to examine it from the angle of sentiment—to acknowledge the disloyal and delusional piece of his heart that has been longing to hear those last words since he bound their wrists with his ribbon in Cold Pond Cave. This is a matter of principle – of ethics. Viewed from that angle, he cannot profess himself completely satisfied with such a conditional promise – after all, Lan Wangji will still feel responsible for… for engaging in—relations—with Wei Wuxian even if no one else knows of it. But he understands Wei Wuxian’s desire not to bind himself permanently to an alpha whom he sees as simply the least offensive of a limited set of unsatisfactory options. And Wei Wuxian’s desire must be the deciding factor.

So, he inclines his head in assent. “I understand Wei Ying cannot speak for Yunmeng Jiang—”

Wei Wuxian snorts. “Don’t worry about Yunmeng Jiang – they’ll say yes in a heartbeat. Madam Yu is dying to get me off her hands. She’d marry me off to a pig farmer if she could. No offense. To you or to pig farmers.”

He sighs. “I—”

He rolls out his shoulders, too fast to do any good. “I’ve been trying to hold it off, but. It’s coming. We should… get ready.”

Lan Wangji swallows. He understands the theory of what will take place, but he has never given or received pleasure from any source but his own body; never even kissed or been kissed. He had assumed he would save those acts for a future spouse. He had assumed he would have time to… undertake research.

But there is no time for any of that, and no excuse for delay, or for drawing attention to his own awkwardness. Wei Wuxian needs him – needs to have confidence in Lan Wangji’s ability to do what has been asked. It would be intolerable for Lan Wangji to add in any way to Wei Wuxian’s burden.

So he attempts to follow Wei Wuxian’s lead, silently watching and matching Wei Wuxian’s actions as if learning a new sword form for the first time. When Wei Wuxian walks to the side of the bed, Lan Wangji rises and follows, keeping his gait steady so as not to draw attention to his injury. And when Wei Wuxian begins to remove his robes, Lan Wangji does the same.

Once Wei Wuxian is down to his trousers, he bites open the tip of his finger and starts drawing a talisman on his own abdomen in blood.

Lan Wangji watches, bemused. “What is that?”

“Madam Yu made me learn all the contraceptive talismans – you know, so I wouldn’t bring shame on the family any more than I already do just by existing. It’s not so hard to modify this one to do the opposite.”

It is not, in Lan Wangji’s experience or training, in fact easy to modify an existing talisman pattern to create an opposite effect. To the contrary, Lan Wangji is unaware of anyone ever successfully doing such a thing without months or years of work. Moreover, talismans affecting the workings of the human body are notoriously difficult – more difficult than anything but portals.

“Wei Ying is brilliant,” Lan Wangji says softly, without truly intending to.

Wei Wuxian looks up at him, startled.

This is Lan Wangji’s opportunity to correct a misapprehension, and he takes it. “It is not true that I do not like Wei Ying,” he says. “Or that Wei Ying is—a pain. A bother.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows fly up. He lies on the bed and starts sliding his trousers down; Lan Wangji hastily averts his gaze.

“I thought I was shameless and ridiculous.”

“Yes,” says Lan Wangji, removing his own trousers and repressing the urge to cover his nakedness with his hands. “Also principled. Talented. Creative. Courageous.”

Wei Wuxian is silent. When Lan Wangji looks up, worried that he has offended, he sees that Wei Wuxian’s cheeks are flushed—so his heat is indeed very close. He must be distracted.

Lan Wangji attempts to minimize his own distraction—to prevent his eyes from lingering on the wealth of golden skin bared to his view, the graceful lines of Wei Wuxian’s limbs, the dark kisses of his nipples. He does not entirely succeed.

He sits on the bed, and Wei Wuxian drags the quilt to cover them.

“You can—you can pretend it’s someone else,” he says softly. “I don’t mind. I know what this is and isn’t.”

“Boring,” says Lan Wangji, with what little courage he has to spare.

Wei Wuxian looks startled again, then laughs. “I can’t believe you made me laugh,” he says. “Now. Here. Ah, Lan Zhan. You’re too good.”

The movement of his body as he laughed had sent something through the currents of the air, something new. Lan Wangji is very familiar with Wei Wuxian’s scent: lotus blossoms, pepper, freshly cut bamboo, baijiu. Those notes are still there, but for the first time, Lan Wangji detects the green, wet, rain-scent of heat stealing among them: fresh and rich and intoxicating.

He has one more thing he needs to say, before the heat-scent becomes strong enough that Wei Wuxian will doubt he’s speaking from his right mind.

“Wei Ying is beautiful,” he says. “I will think of no one else.”

Indeed, he could not if he tried.

“Lan Zhan—”

Wei Wuxian stares.

Then his hands spasm on the quilt, clenching and unclenching in an instant. Voice rough, he says, “Lan Zhan, it’s—come here—”

Lan Wangji reaches for Wei Wuxian. He shivers as soon as his hands touch Wei Wuxian’s naked shoulders and slide down his arms, shocked by the warmth of Wei Wuxian’s skin, the aliveness of muscle and sinew and scars under his palms. There’s so much of Wei Wuxian to touch, and each hands-breadth different from the last, something new to explore—

But there is no time to dwell on that, no time to savor: Wei Wuxian did not come to him for pleasure. This is not something for Lan Wangji to enjoy.

Having accomplished the goal of touching Wei Wuxian somewhere, he doesn’t know what to do next – suddenly all elbows, mortified.

But on his next inhale, he gets a lungful of that rich heat-scent, fully developed now, and it turns out his body knows exactly what to do in response to that smell.

He’s on top of Wei Wuxian in an instant; Wei Wuxian’s legs spread as Lan Wangji moves over him, parting around his hips like the petals of a flower.

“In me,” Wei Wuxian pants, but Lan Wangji can’t it’s—so much, it’s too much, it’s too sudden. His body is ready, cock hard, heart pounding, but his mind is reeling: he thought there would be something—gradual about this, something softer and sweeter, he needs to—

“Are you wet?” he asks, only realizing once the words have left his mouth what a shameless thing that is to ask. But he has to ask. He refuses, refuses to cause Wei Wuxian pain – he knows time is of the essence, but Wei Wuxian’s heat is just barely begun, he can’t—

In me,” Wei Wuxian insists, single-minded, tugging on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, his hip, wrapping his legs around Lan Wangji’s sides. He’s strong – heat takes many things from an omega, but strength is not one of them. Still, Lan Wangji resists, though the effort makes him shake.

Lan Wangji supports himself on his left arm and sends the other downward. His fingers stroke a line along Wei Wuxian’s sternum, over the soft skin of his belly, the wiry hair, his half-hard cock, the delicate roundness of his balls, to the opening just behind. It feels—so small, too small, thinks Lan Wangji, fear sizzling down his spine, but when he slips his fingers inside, he finds a rich, hot slickness, and his fingers move easily.

I’m inside him, thinks Lan Wangji, marveling, crushed by the magnitude of that touch, and then has to put the thought aside as a luxury.

“Lan Zhan, fuck me,” Wei Wuxian whispers – something sharper than mere desire pressing behind his words.

“Don’t let me hurt you,” Lan Wangji murmurs, terrified, as he lines himself up; the head of his cock kisses that wet entrance and he has to bite down on a moan. “Please, Wei Ying—”

“You won’t, you won’t, now—

Lan Wangji gives in and slides home. It feels…

Nothing has ever, ever, ever felt like this. Nothing has ever reached down inside of him with ruthless hands and shaken him violently like this feeling: this sensation, this pleasure, this possessiveness and greed. He has more than he’s ever wanted, and not enough.

Instinct carries him through, his hips snapping forward: once, then again, then three times, and a rhythm develops, without any conscious thought of his own. Wei Wuxian clings onto him, meeting his thrusts. Soft, filthy words stream from his mouth.

“See, I—I promised you, it wouldn’t hurt, I’m—ah, ah, yes—made for this, mm, this, f-for your cock, for your knot, give me your knot, you said you would—oh, fuck, please, please don’t stop, Lan Zhan—ah fuck, ah, ah—I’ll do anything, anything, give you anything, please, nn-ah, I need it…”

They could say I begged. Maybe I would, says an echo of Wei Wuxian’s voice, and a flare of fierce, protective rage burns through Lan Wangji, makes him want to engulf this whole place in flames. No one should hear Wei Wuxian beg; no one who doesn’t see his vulnerability as the precious and solemn charge that it is. No one who doesn’t love him for it. No one who would take it as an excuse, rather than a responsibility.

“May I kiss you,” Lan Wangji asks, in a ragged voice. Instead of answering—or, as its own answer—Wei Wuxian pulls him down and presses their mouths together, frantic, graceless. Perhaps he’s never kissed anyone, either. Perhaps that’s another gift sacrificed on the altar of necessity.

Lan Wangji can’t do any better, but he can lose himself in the unpracticed sweetness of those kisses, bury himself again and again in the heat of Wei Wuxian’s body, until his hips stutter and his knot swells and he comes apart.

For a few distant moments, he’s embarrassed to have climaxed so quickly; then he remembers that speed was the goal, and is grateful. He holds himself up on his forearms and tries not to rest too heavily on Wei Wuxian, still hazy-eyed and panting beneath him.

We can do both – the claiming and the getting, he remembers Wei Wuxian saying, and he can feel his jaw itching to bite down, to make his mark. The neck is traditional, but he must respect Wei Wuxian’s desire to keep this as private as possible. So he sets his teeth over the slight swell of pectoral muscle on the left side of Wei Wuxian’s chest—Over his heart, you pathetic fool, says a voice in his head that he ignores, over the heart of someone who considered his own brother and a man he calls ‘the peacock’ before he turned to you, pathetic, pathetic—and slowly begins to bite down.


Wei Wuxian feels something sharp, and whimpers. He looks down, and—

That’s good, he thinks indistinctly. It’s good for Lan Zhan to use his teeth. To make a claim. He promised he would, thinks Wei Wuxian. Lan Zhan always keeps his promises.

There isn’t a lot of Wei Wuxian that can think about things like promises. Things like fear, and plans. Most of him is bent on simpler needs: touch me, fuck me, fill me. He’s full now. That’s what he tells Lan Zhan when Lan Zhan asks him how he feels.

“Does it hurt?” Lan Zhan presses.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how to answer that. “Yes,” he says, helpless. “No. I don’t know. It’s good. I want it.”

He squirms, so he can feel it even more deeply: feel how tightly Lan Zhan’s knot fills him, how thoroughly it locks him in place. He likes that, wants that—he wants to feel it move, though, too. “Fuck me,” he whispers.

Lan Zhan won’t. He says it would hurt Wei Wuxian. He says wait until his knot goes down.

“But then?” Wei Wuxian pleads.


Lan Zhan’s hand is around Wei Wuxian’s cock, now, and that feels even better – every stroke makes him clench, makes the knot feel even bigger inside him, makes Lan Zhan groan.

“Fuck me,” Wei Wuxian says again, restless. He knows there’s something they’re supposed to be doing. He knows lying here tied isn’t it.

Lan Zhan still won’t.

Wei Wuxian tries to do it himself, rocking his hips; Lan Zhan pins him down. He can’t move.

“Lan Zhan,” he moans, “please, please—”

“I will,” Lan Zhan says. His voice is so beautiful. Wei Wuxian wants to drink that voice. He knows just how it would taste. “I will.”

He kisses Wei Wuxian, and kisses him, and after some immeasurable span of kisses, Wei Wuxian feels it – Lan Zhan’s knot slowly deflating inside his body. It’s the strangest thing. But it means he doesn’t have to wait anymore.

“Now?” he begs.


But then Lan Zhan betrays him, Lan Zhan pulls out of Wei Wuxian, separates them—

“No!” Wei Wuxian gasps, empty, so empty, and a sliver of fear from that tiny part of his mind that’s still capable of such things—

But Lan Zhan is good, Lan Zhan is giving: he nudges Wei Wuxian onto his side and tucks himself up to Wei Wuxian’s back, curving around him, close once more. He takes Wei Wuxian’s top leg in his hand and pulls it up, out, open – exposes him, the place where he’s empty and wet, the place where he needs, and then fills it with his cock.

Wei Wuxian bites down on a loud cry; he doesn’t know why. Lan Zhan likes it when he makes noise – he can tell. But there’s also something telling him he shouldn’t be loud.

There are other people in the world, that little voice is telling him, and they shouldn’t know what Lan Zhan is doing to him. They shouldn’t know that Wei Wuxian wants it.

Wei Wuxian is sore, he realizes, as Lan Zhan pants into the crook of his shoulder; not necessarily a bad feeling, but one he was happier not having. He’s sweaty, sticky. He pushes those feelings down. Lan Zhan is moving inside him, so deep and good – that’s all he needs. That’s all he has room for.

In time, he feels Lan Zhan’s knot starting to swell inside him again; desperately, he grinds himself down against it, onto it. “Fill me,” he whispers, “Lan Zhan, I need it…” and then blushes – shameless, indeed. Nothing Lan Zhan doesn’t know, but still, still. Wei Wuxian isn’t used to being this person. It’s one thing to murmur hot-eyed filth into his pillow all alone, cooling his heats with his own fingers in a locked room, but this—I’m embarrassed, he realizes, and then: I’m capable of feeling embarrassed.

At the same moment, Lan Zhan freezes. “Wei Ying,” he breathes, “your scent…”

But Wei Wuxian can’t be sure, can’t be steel-sure, granite-sure, river-to-the-sea sure, can’t know in this instant whether this is just a passing moment of clarity – can’t let himself be wrong about this, and lose his best chance…

“Knot me,” he demands, fingers digging into Lan Zhan’s hip, “Do it, I know you’re close, don’t stop—”

Lan Zhan holds him tighter for one, two thrusts. And fills him again, deep and thick and wet.

They breathe in tandem, perfectly still, tied together. Lan Zhan’s body is taut against Wei Wuxian’s back.

He noses against the side of Wei Wuxian’s neck. It tickles.

“Your heat-scent is fading,” he tells Wei Wuxian.

It’s not easy for Wei Wuxian to discern, past the cloud of heat-scent already surrounding them. “Are you sure?”

Lan Zhan hesitates.

There’s a way to know for sure. Or so Wei Wuxian thinks. Slowly, he drags his hand to his lower abdomen.

His fingers hover over the skin.

He can’t. He’s a coward, but—

“Lan Zhan,” he says quietly. “Can you—”

Lan Zhan nods, his ear brushing against Wei Wuxian’s cheek. “Mn.” He’s so good.

Carefully, gently, he slides his hand to cover the place that Wei Wuxian couldn’t touch. His fingers are splayed wide. We’re the same height, Wei Wuxian thinks. How can his hands be so much bigger?

He senses the exploratory touch of Lan Zhan’s qi. Wei Wuxian holds his breath.

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Wuxian breathes out.

That’s what he wanted.

He’s relieved.

Among the tangle of other things he’s feeling, ugly or bright or neither or both, he’s relieved.

He slips his hand under Lan Zhan’s to feel for himself, closing his eyes to focus on his spiritual senses.

Yes. There it is, a seed-case barely cracked; something that could grow, in the right conditions, or fade.

Wei Wuxian exhales again. The movement makes him aware of certain other conditions, and his cheeks burn. Lan Zhan’s knot is so tightly pressed against his inner walls that he can feel Lan Zhan’s pulse.

“I’m sorry,” he blurts out.

Before he can even say what for, he feels Lan Zhan shake his head. “Wei Ying needed to be sure.”

If he’d been wrong, if they’d stopped and lost precious time before trying again, it could all have been for nothing. He couldn’t risk that. Of course Lan Zhan, so good, always so good, understands.

Lan Zhan’s hand presses down on Wei Wuxian’s, where they’re nested on Wei Wuxian’s belly.

“Wei Ying did not finish,” he says, as if he’s just noticed. He sounds upset.

Wei Wuxian shrugs, careful to keep the movement isolated to his upper body. “That’s not what this was about.”

As if he didn’t even hear Wei Wuxian, Lan Zhan says, low, “This mate asks Wei Ying’s forgiveness for his neglect.”


Wei Wuxian swallows and carefully doesn’t think about that word, or the bite mark on his chest—so thoughtful, Lan Zhan is, to hide it there instead of flaunting it on Wei Wuxian’s neck. “Aiya, Lan Zhan, you didn’t have to—”

“If it would please Wei Ying, this alpha asks permission to satisfy his mate.”

“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian whispers – without his conscious volition, he clenches in helpless arousal, and there’s something thick and hot inside to clench around. It feels decadent, rich. He can feel his cock filling again.

He’s made it through this whole unfair and desperate undertaking without the slightest hitch in his breath or wetness in his eyes, but something about Lan Zhan’s stupid, noble, and hopelessly Lan way of saying, Let me jerk you off…

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian breathes, eyes burning. “Yeah. You can. Please.”

He’s very glad, afterward, that he said yes; partly because it was the least awkward possible way of passing the time until Lan Zhan’s knot went down and slipped out of him; partly because it takes his mind off of the flickering scrap of potential he asked Lan Zhan to plant inside him, which fills him with such a mass of tangled emotions that it’s hard to breathe; but mostly because, he thinks, lying in Lan Zhan’s arms when he’s spent and empty again, it reminded him what his eighteen-year-old body is supposed to be for: pure, pointless pleasure with no endgame, he thinks; the touch of a boy I like, who said I was beautiful, and wanted to make me feel good.

When they’re done, Lan Zhan meets his gaze: wounded, angry, too grown-up for his age. Wei Wuxian knows his eyes must hold the same. But they can look softly at each other. They do. There was something more between them, tonight, than desperation and pragmatism. Wei Wuxian is very grateful for that.

“Thank you,” he whispers. “For all of it.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head slowly. “Do not thank me.”

Wei Wuxian is spared the responsibility of cleaning them both off, stripping off the bedding; Lan Zhan does all that, then hands Wei Wuxian his clothes and dons his own. In the morning, when the scent has dissipated, Wei Wuxian will slip out behind him with no one the wiser. He’ll have an explanation for Jiang Cheng. After that, he doesn’t know. But one way or another, they’ll get out. He knows that. If tonight proved nothing else, it proved that: that he’ll do whatever it takes. And Lan Zhan will, too.


When A-Xian begs Jiang Yanli to go out in one of the boats with him, of course she asks him why; and when he says, “To enjoy the sun, Shijie! Before it gets too hot!” she doesn’t question him further.

She knows there’s something on his mind. He’s been distracted since he returned from the Wen indoctrination camp and the Xuanwu cave. Withdrawn, even. She hopes this will be the opportunity he needs in order to confide in her.

It is a lovely day, with a soft breeze. She trails a hand in the water as A-Xian paddles, and closes her eyes to let the sun bathe her face in warmth.

She hears A-Xian set the paddle down, and thinks he’ll speak. But the silence stretches on.

Just when she’s starting to wonder if she should prompt him, A-Xian asks her, “Shijie… do you ever think about… children? Having children?”

Well, that’s not what she expected at all – but it’s an easy question to answer. “Yes. I’ve thought about it.”

“Do you want children?” he asks, watching her carefully.

“Mn.” She nods, smiling. “Someday. Yes. Of course.”

“Someday,” A-Xian repeats, as if it’s significant. “But what about—now?”

Jiang Yanli’s brows draw together. “Now? A-Xian—”

“If you could have children, right now,” he says, leaning in, strangely insistent, “would you want…”

“I don’t have a spouse, A-Xian,” she says, a little flustered. It’s an improper question even to consider, and she doesn’t understand why he’s asking.

A-Xian heaves a sigh and sits back. The strange intensity washes out of his face, and he rubs the side of his nose – her sweet didi, familiar again. “I know. I just—”

“Xianxian,” she says, indulgent, “Why these questions, hm?”

He doesn’t reply. His gaze is aimed out, over the water. Looking at something that isn’t there.

“What do you have in your hand there?” she asks, noticing for the first time that he’s fiddling with something.

“Medicine,” he says, evasively, as if that will do anything other than worry her.

“Medicine for what?”

His eyes flick up to her face, then down to his own hands. She waits.

“Shijie,” he says softly. “While I was at the Wen indoctrination. My—I went into heat.”

Jiang Yanli blinks, and when she opens her eyes, her hands are curved around A-Xian’s shoulders and her vision is blurry with tears. All the questions about children, the medicine—

“We will wipe every trace of their sect from the face of the earth,” she says. She barely recognizes her own voice.

“What—Shijie, no, it wasn’t—no one hurt me,” he tells her, eyes dark with urgency. “Not like that. They didn’t, Shijie.”

She wants to believe him. “Then—”

He draws a quick breath. “But I needed to end the heat before the guards could smell it.”

She understands him immediately.

It’s a terrible choice to have to make; but yes, that would be the swiftest way to bring the heat to an end.

“Oh, A-Xian. My A-Xian.” She cups his face, mourning the loss of her brother’s childhood. “Then who—”

She’s sick with fear, suddenly, that he’ll say it was A-Cheng—cannot even imagine, truly, the kind of destruction that would wreak on their family—but he smiles a little, and says the name she’s secretly hoping he will: “It was Lan Zhan.”

“Ah. And was he good to you?” She knows A-Xian is infatuated with Lan Wangji, but Lan-er-gongzi can be cold and standoffish, and she worries—

“Yes,” A-Xian mumbles, ducking his head.

Jiang Yanli exhales. It’s still a terrible choice to have had to make. But she feels a tiny bit better.

“I don’t… I don’t know what to do, Shijie.”

He’s fiddling with the medicine packet again.

She considers.

“Well, what about your questions?”

He blinks at her. “What questions?”

“The ones you asked me. But it’s not my answer that matters, A-Xian.”

“You can’t tell me what to do?” he whines.

She shakes her head. “No, this one is for you, A-Xian.” When he does nothing but fiddle with the medicine packet, worrying at it with his fingernails, she prompts him, “Have you thought about having children? Do you want children? Do you want them now?”

They’ve drifted closer to shore; she can hear a few birds singing.

When A-Xian speaks, his voice is quiet but sure. “I have thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot, since… since then.” His smile flickers for a moment, wry. “More than I wanted to. And I… do want children. Maybe even…” He blushes and tilts his chin down. “Maybe even with Lan Zhan. Someday, when we—when I’m older. When I’m ready. But I—no. No, I don’t want a child now.”

Gently, she says, “Well. There you go.”

She doesn’t see any reason it needs to be more complicated than that. She tries to put that in her eyes, and she thinks it gets through. He nods.

A-Xian unfolds the packet of paper and tips the powder down his throat. He grimaces at the taste and scoops up a handful of lake water to wash it down. He looks at her; takes her hands, smiling shyly. “Thank you, Shijie.”

“Of course.” She squeezes his fingers and promises, “I’ll make you soup tonight.”

“My Shijie takes such good care of her Xianxian.” He folds forward to press his forehead to their joined hands; her heart brims with fondness.

“That’s because Xianxian is so brave.”

After a moment of stillness, A-Xian picks up the paddle again, and sets off back toward Lotus Pier.

As he paddles, something occurs to Jiang Yanli.

“Shouldn’t we have received a marriage offer from Gusu Lan?” With growing indignation, she continues, “What kind of alpha is Lan-er-gongzi, to—to deflower my brother and then not take responsibility—”

“He offered, Shijie—”

“And you turned him down?” she asks, aghast.

A-Xian protests, “He doesn’t even like me—”

“He said that to you?!”

“No…” A-Xian admits, avoiding her eyes.

Jiang Yanli has a secret weapon: a tone of voice that has never failed to make her brothers come clean – to make them scuff their feet and hand over the day’s purloined prize, or confess to the day’s scheme.

In precisely that tone, she says, “A-Xian.”

Immediately, A-Xian folds. “He said I was beautiful.”

“A-Xian!” She snatches the paddle from his hand – this is far more important than returning to Lotus Pier.Then why—Do you not like him?”

“Lan Zhan is very good,” he mumbles, head hanging.


“Xianxian is only three years old!” he wails, wide-eyed. “He’s too young for marriage!”

“It could be a long engagement! A-Xian, I can’t believe the person you—like—offered to marry you and you turned him down—

“I don’t want him to only marry me out of obligation!”

For a moment, that makes her pause—how could it not, when she knows that feeling so well?

But… “He said you were beautiful.”

A-Xian looks pained. “Shijie…”

He reaches for the paddle; she refuses to relinquish it. “He cooled your heat.”

“Ah, Shijie…”

“Tell me what other nice things he said to you,” she demands.

“What makes you think there were any?”

“Tell me.”

A-Xian buries his head in his arms. “Shijie is so cruel to poor Xianxian,” he moans. Then, after a long pause: “He said I was brilliant.”

“A-Xian!” she exclaims, delighted.

Feebly, he protests, “Gusu Lan Sect barely exists right now—”

“Then he should have come in person! But it’s sweet that you want to defend him…”

“Shijie, please,” he moans.

“Perhaps I will send Zewu-jun a letter. Wherever he is,” Jiang Yanli muses, tapping her finger against her chin and smiling as A-Xian performs his embarrassment on the bottom of the boat.

He’s had to grow up so fast – faster than she knew before today. Let him be a child for a while.

Let him be a child for as long as he can.