No one survives the Burial Mounds.
A howling wind rips through the mountain, beating him to the ground whenever he tries to stand. It lashes his skin, strips moisture from his hands and lips until they crack like parched earth. There is no soil, only arid dust that chokes the air. There is no light, only swirls of resentful energy that stick to him like a shroud.
There are, however, the dead. So many dead. Some are little more than piles of brittle bones, their marrow long sucked dry, crunching like autumn leaves under his feet. Some resemble the picked-clean carcass after a feast, all the soft flesh gone, leaving only ragged ribbons of sinew.
Others have not rotted at all, preserved by the unrelenting wind as shriveled husks, their sunken, skeletal faces silent and screaming.
His first few days in the Burial Mounds, he clings to life, to sanity. He makes promises to himself about what he will not do, will not allow.
Will not eat.
By the end of the first week, he has broken most of those promises.
By the end of the first month, he has broken them all.
Some days are harder than others. Pain, hunger, and thirst have become his constant companions, but sometimes they turn into tormentors that claw at his insides and muddle his mind. He is always cold now, a barren, desolate cold that no fire can warm.
Some days, the dead are too deafening to ignore. The dead scream curses at him, whisper lies, call to him in voices that sound cruelly, deceptively familiar.
He clasps his hands over his ears, squeezes his eyes shut, and hums as loudly as he can — half-remembered lullabies, bawdy riverboat tunes, Yunmeng festival chants.
And… one particular song. He does not know its name, or where he’d heard it. But it soothes him, makes him think of moonlight and clean air, a sweetness on his tongue…
“Wei Ying, can you hear me?”
The dead are alive in the Burial Mounds.
Their voices carry on the merciless wind, calling, cursing, crying. Some still remember that they were human once, still remember words; others have forgotten everything except pain, rage, and a hunger without end.
It’s so loud. When he first arrived, he tried stuffing wads of fabric in his ears, but the sound just rattled his bones instead. Now, he’s more or less used to it. It’s just noise.
He carries the Xuanwu sword and walks unmolested among the dead. Perhaps it is because they have accepted him as one of their own — a hollow, mutilated thing, made monstrous by the resentment coursing through his veins.
“Do you want revenge?” they ask.
“Yes,” he answers.
“Then you must survive.”
And so he does.
“Wei Ying, you are safe”
He starts with meditation. But where spiritual energy is docile, resentful energy is wild, and — without a golden core — untameable.
Next, he tries talking. After days of shouting his voice hoarse, of doing everything from politely introducing himself to hurling insults, he admits defeat. Only the Lans, it seems, have the skill to speak with spirits.
Only, the Lans don’t speak either; they play music, and the spirits reply in kind.
He has no musical instrument, and his singing voice is mediocre at best, but… Pursing his lips, he whistles an inquiry into the endless cacophony of the dead—
And receives a response.
Later, he carves a flute out of a slender stalk of black bamboo, one of the few plants hardy enough to survive in a place like this. Using the flute, he riles up the spirits with fierce battle songs, then soothes them with tender lullabies.
It’s not enough.
“Wei Ying, come back”
Near the summit of the mountain, there is a cave. He sweeps it as best he can, tying a rag over his nose and mouth to keep from breathing in corpse dust. Then he draws the sword from the Xuanwu Cave, bloodies his hands on the blade, and begins to paint an array.
Every spell begins with a word. For this spell, the word is ‘iron,’ a character written as elemental ‘metal’ bracketed with ‘battle.’ It’s a strong word, a sturdy word. His spell would need to be stronger.
He draws a circle for containment, then a base layer of elemental balance seals. In the generating cycle, Metal is born from Earth and bears Water. In the destruction cycle, Metal cuts Wood, which feeds the Fire that melts the Metal.
The cuts on his hands clot before he can continue; he should have bled into a bowl instead. He grabs the blade and bleeds himself again.
The next layer of the array is more difficult. Iron is stubborn; the sword was forged for battle and balks at any sign of change. Wei Wuxian draws the lines for these seals as powerfully as he can, a command for the sword to cleave itself in two and take on a new shape.
It's agonizing, exhausting work. Infection, which hasn't touched him in years, besets him with fever. Sometimes he wakes up in a small puddle of congealing blood, and gets up, and keeps going.
The final layer is the binding. If it succeeds, all of the power in the sword will be at his command. If it fails, a backlash of equal magnitude will devour his body and obliterate his soul.
He takes a deep breath, and keeps painting.
“Wei Ying, wake up”
Jiang Cheng had said once that Wei Wuxian lived a charmed life.
He supposes that's true. He should have died as a child alongside his parents, or starved in the unforgiving streets afterward.
Or been torn to pieces in the Xuanwu Cave.
Or bled out with the rest of his sect in Lotus Pier.
Or died of his own choosing, under Wen Qing's steady, precise blade.
Perhaps if Wen Chao had known all of this, he would have killed Wei Wuxian on the spot instead of simply tossing him into the Burial Mounds.
A fatal error, on Wen Chao's part; one for which he'll pay dearly.
Wei Wuxian will make sure of that.
“Wei Ying, please”
He woke with windburn on his face and the taste of grave dirt on his tongue — and opened his eyes to stark white walls and deep red furnishings. A bedroom.
A dream, then. It hadn’t felt like one.
Slowly, the rage and fear that had followed him out from the dream loosened their claws. The hunger and thirst remained, though. He tried to move, and flinched as a red-hot spark of pain made itself known as well.
Shijie was asleep beside him, propped up against the edge of the bed. She jerked awake as he turned his head, and the tired smile that lit her face when she saw him was worth everything in the world.
“A-Xian!” she cried, pushing herself up to sit next to him on the bed. “Oh A-Xian, you’re finally awake!”
“Shijie,” he croaked, his throat drought-dry. A crack in his lower lip stung; he grinned through the pain anyway. “I’m hungry.”
She brought him bowls of clear broth, dismissing his piteous whine for meat on the (frankly unfair) basis that his stomach needed to recover after being empty for three days. She also called for a bath, and filled him in on what he’d missed during his coma.
Which was a lot, as it turned out — though fortunately not much of the battle, which had effectively ended with Wen Ruohan’s death. The few puppets that remained were being looked after by the healers, as were the captives back at the encampment. Once Jin Guangshan had gotten word of their victory, he’d hurried over to Nightless City with a group of disciples, stopping by the encampment to ferry over the rest of the noncombatants — including Shijie.
And here I thought Jin Guangshan had sent ‘every cultivator he could spare’ for the Sunshot Campaign, Wei Wuxian did not say, because Shijie had already chided him once for badmouthing.
Once the bath was full and covered with a wooden lid, the servant — a boy in Yunmeng Jiang colours whom Wei Wuxian vaguely recognized — bowed and left. Wei Wuxian dragged himself upright, and then fell right back down on the bed when his legs turned traitor and crumpled beneath his weight.
“A-Xian!” Shijie was at his side in an instant. “Don’t get up too quickly. Lan Er-gongzi said that you expended too much spiritual energy using the Yin Tiger seal.”
Wei Wuxian froze.
“Even after you wake up,” she continued, “you should rest for a few more days.”
She knew. Of course she knew; even if Lan Zhan hadn’t told her, someone else would have. “Shijie,” he began, and stopped when she brushed a strand of hair off his forehead.
“Who knew our Xianxian was so strong,” she said.
The warmth in her voice thawed the shard of ice that had lodged itself in his chest. He laughed, helplessly relieved, and nodded obediently when she cautioned him to not overuse the Yin Tiger seal, because Lan Er-gongzi had told her that it used up too much energy and harmed his temperament.
“Lan Er-gongzi, Lan Er-gongzi,” he said teasingly, “everything is Lan Er-gongzi today. He’s so stuffy; surely he wouldn’t be so talkative.”
“There you go, being rude again,” she scolded. “These past few days when you were unconscious, Lan Er-gongzi came every day at dawn and dusk to play qin for you, to clear your mind and spirit. Otherwise, I fear you would not have woken so quickly.”
Wei Wuxian dropped his gaze. He thought he’d heard Lan Zhan’s voice in his dream; he’d just ignored it. In the real Burial Mounds, he’d heard Lan Zhan’s voice too, always lingering just long enough for hope to flutter fledgling wings in his chest — before it vanished into the howling wind.
The thought that Lan Zhan had actually been here, this time, that he’d spent his time and effort and spiritual energy on Wei Wuxian for three whole days… made something else flutter in his chest, that he didn’t dare try to name.
Lan Zhan had caught him in the battle too, when he’d collapsed. Those white-clad arms were beginning to feel embarrassingly familiar.
A gentle rapping on the door tugged Wei Wuxian out of his thoughts.
Shijie turned her head toward the sound and smiled again. “That must be Lan Er-gongzi right now.”
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, then closed it again, feeling strangely like he’d been caught out at something. He watched silently as Shijie stood up and went to the door, and tried to remind himself that he was the cultivation world’s first and foremost in absolute shamelessness.
“Jiang-guniang,” he heard Lan Zhan say, in his low, soft voice.
“Lan Er-gongzi,” Shijie replied, and stepped aside to allow Lan Zhan entry.
Lan Zhan looked just like he had that first night in the Unclean Realm: dressed in purest white with his qin strapped across his back, his jade-like beauty all the more striking against the dark wood in the room. His usual stoic expression changed the moment he caught sight of Wei Wuxian, unfurling like a flower into something that made Wei Wuxian flush and want to look away.
“Sincerest gratitude to Lan Er-gongzi for looking after A-Xian,” Shijie said, with a polite bow. She looked at Wei Wuxian, then at the lidded tub of still-steaming water, then back at Lan Zhan, and bowed again. “But if I may impose upon Lan Er-gongzi once more?”
Lan Zhan inclined his head.
“A-Xian needs to bathe,” she said, eyes demurely downcast. “I was going to call on a male servant or disciple, but since Lan Er-gongzi is already here…”
Had Wei Wuxian been more alert and less groggy from three days locked in a horror-filled dreamscape, he would have seen Shijie’s betrayal coming and cut it off at the conversational pass. As it was, he could only gasp out a shocked, “Shijie!”
“It’s for your own good, A-Xian,” Shijie said, traitorously.
Lan Zhan looked as though someone had taken his appellation of Second Jade literally and re-made him in carved stone.
“That’s not—he doesn’t—I can—” Wei Wuxian snapped his mouth shut again, realizing that this gibbering was perhaps not the best evidence of him being of sound mind and body, and bolted to his feet instead.
For a moment, he stood tall and straight-backed. Then he swayed, and tilted, and fell again — into Lan Zhan’s arms. Of course. Clearly the universe was conspiring to get him to do… something.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, looking alarmed. Even through four layers of clothing, Lan Zhan’s body radiated heat.
Wei Wuxian was suddenly extremely conscious of the fact that he was only wearing a thin underrobe.
“Well, it looks like A-Xian is in good hands,” Shijie said cheerfully. “I must go tend to the wounded. Thank you once again, Lan Er-gongzi.” With a final smile that Wei Wuxian would have considered sly on anyone other than his perfect shijie , she slipped out the door and slid it shut behind her.
Silence reigned in her wake.
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian said weakly, belatedly. “Really, Lan Zhan, I can walk on my own. You don’t have to—” bathe me. He couldn’t even make himself say the words.
Lan Zhan’s grip did not so much as loosen. “Jiang-guniang entrusted you to me,” he said, with a stubborn set to his mouth that Wei Wuxian knew well from their school days. This one meant I will tell on you to your shijie if you refuse to cooperate, because Lan Zhan was a shameless tattle-tale.
Wei Wuxian sighed, and prepared to bargain.
By the time they’d made it across the room to the bath, Wei Wuxian had managed to talk Lan Zhan down from carrying him to the tub and bathing him to letting him walk — with support — and letting him bathe himself — as long as Lan Zhan was right on the other side of the privacy screen, ready to spring into action if needed.
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian insisted, taking off his underrobe and draping it over the top of the privacy screen. His shoulder ached as he lifted his arm to untie his hair, a reminder that he’d spent the last three days completely immobile, and the weeks before that running himself ragged.
“Hn,” said Lan Zhan, from the other side of the screen. It was a very eloquent Hn.
Wei Wuxian sighed, braced himself against the edge of the tub, and swung his leg over and into the hot water. Or he would have, if his legs hadn’t trembled alarmingly when he’d tried to lift one foot higher than knee level.
He sighed again, then sat on the edge of the tub and tipped himself backwards until the water engulfed him with a splash.
“Still fine!” Wei Wuxian shouted, spitting out a mouthful of wet hair.
But Lan Zhan was already moving, coming around the privacy screen. He froze in place when he saw Wei Wuxian, and immediately looked away, his face as pained as if he’d just taken a bite out of something horrendously bitter but was too polite to spit it out. His ears were sunrise pink, the colour spreading down his neck.
Laughter bubbled up inside Wei Wuxian, tickling his throat and threatening to spill out the sides of his mouth. Half a dozen teasing remarks jostled for position on the tip of his tongue — Ah Lan Er-gongzi, how bold of you, and, To think that even the great Hanguang-jun can blush.
He bit the inside of his cheek instead. The trust between them was still a fragile thing, a single lit candle where there had once burned a bonfire strong enough to defeat a centuries-old monster. He didn’t want to test it now, not when Lan Zhan was so clearly trying to mend things between them, undo the damage that Wei Wuxian had dealt after he’d returned from the Burial Mounds.
“Lan Zhan,” he began, “You really don’t need to stay if you don’t want to. I promise I’m fine, just a little sore.”
Lan Zhan’s dark gaze lifted from the floor and met his. “Then I will stay.”
Wei Wuxian stared at him. It had only been six months ago that Lan Zhan would spit blood at the sight of Wei Wuxian even pretending to disrobe. What on earth had happened to change him so much in such a short period of time?
“If you stay, I’ll make you wash my hair,” Wei Wuxian said warningly. “And you’re not allowed to silence me, no matter how much I talk.”
Lan Zhan nodded. “Hn.”
The last time someone had washed Wei Wuxian’s hair for him, he’d been just shy of eleven, gangly and awkward with feet like too-large shoes. He’d climbed a tree to rescue an abandoned bird’s nest and fallen on the way down, breaking his arm in two places and scraping his hands bloody.
Madame Yu had been furious at his carelessness, but had still allowed the healers to tend to him and a servant to wash away the dirt and debris. It had not been a pleasant washing; Wei Wuxian remembered rough hands tugging at his limbs and snagging in his hair, the stinging of harsh soap in his eyes and in his wounds.
This time, it was not a servant but the incomparable Hanguang-jun kneeling behind him. Lan Zhan had tied back his outer sleeves and unwound the bindings of his inner sleeves, baring his arms from fingertip to elbow. Wei Wuxian stared helplessly at the moon-pale expanse of Lan Zhan’s forearms, leanly muscled with strong tendons and a surprisingly delicate network of veins that branched beneath his skin like an exquisite watercolour painting on fine rice paper.
He looked away, feeling suddenly warm, and focused on washing himself with the washcloth that the servant had left when he’d filled the tub. He kept Lan Zhan in the periphery of his vision though, watching Lan Zhan lather up his hands with soap and apply his fingers to Wei Wuxian’s hair.
Lan Zhan’s touch was firm and efficient, which Wei Wuxian had expected — and gentle, which Wei Wuxian had not. His fingers worked patiently through days’ worth of tangles, tipping Wei Wuxian’s head back to prevent suds from dripping into his eyes, cupping a hand over his ears to keep out the water during the rinse.
It was… nice. Soothing in a way that Wei Wuxian had almost forgotten touch could be, with a seductive undertow that coaxed the tension out of his muscles; invited the wheels and gears that never stopped turning in his mind to stop, just for a little while.
“Washcloth,” Lan Zhan said, after Wei Wuxian’s hair was rinsed clean. “To wash your back.”
Wei Wuxian passed over the washcloth wordlessly. A flicker of memory tugged up the corner of his mouth, and he huffed a quiet laugh.
“Hm?” Lan Zhan asked, running the wet cloth across the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck.
“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head, still smiling. “It’s just — I remembered when we fought the Waterborne Abyss; you said that you don’t touch strangers.”
The movement of the washcloth paused, then resumed. “We are so familiar now; are we still strangers?”
The smile drained from Wei Wuxian’s face like water from a leaking gourd. When Wei Wuxian had said those words, they'd been a complaint, born of frustration that he’d been competent and clever and useful and Lan Zhan still hadn’t been impressed with him. The same words from Lan Zhan sounded almost plaintive, sliding past all the layers of his defenses to press achingly against his heart.
“Ah, Lan Zhan has learned to tease me now,” Wei Wuxian said weakly, because that was better than letting the blow strike true and spill out the rest of his secrets. “What have you been doing these past few days, anyway? When you weren’t serenading me back to health, that is.”
For a moment, Lan Zhan was silent. Then, he said, “I have been researching why our previous attempt at dual cultivation was unsuccessful.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. “What? You’ve been what? How?”
“Qishan Wen has a comprehensive library,” Lan Zhan said.
Wei Wuxian tried to imagine Lan Zhan, virtuous and — and prudish, reading dual cultivation books with the same diligence that he applied to every other aspect of his life. The idea refused to stick, sliding off his brain like rain from oil-paper umbrellas.
“How do you know it was unsuccessful?” he asked instead.
“You should not have been so weakened after using the Yin Tiger seal,” Lan Zhan said. “Our methodology was… incorrect.”
“Incorrect how?” Wei Wuxian frowned, turning around to face Lan Zhan and ignoring the way Lan Zhan’s face reddened in response. He’d been the one who’d insisted on staying, after all.
“We did not—” He broke off, before visibly rallying himself, spine as rigid as when he’d borne Lan Qiren’s punishment the time Wei Wuxian had gotten him drunk. “We did not engage in penetration.”
Wei Wuxian lifted an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure we did, unless I imagined my jaw being sore for hours after—” Then he stopped, realization stinging like a fingernail flick against his forehead. “You mean…”
Lan Zhan nodded stiffly.
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian swallowed, feeling suddenly a little lightheaded. “I see.”
A distant, analytical part of his mind pointed out that he should have expected this; in his research, characters pleasuring each other with their mouths was always a prelude to that kind of penetration. Another, slightly more hysterical part of his mind brought back the thought he’d had weeks ago about him and Lan Zhan in the Soaring Phoenix position, though given how big Lan Zhan’s cock was, perhaps Fluttering Butterflies would be a better option since that’d let Wei Wuxian be on top and control the pace—
“Does it hurt?” he heard himself ask, and then immediately wanted to slap his own mouth shut.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan managed, with effort. “Though not… unbearably. With proper preparation. And supplies.”
Lan Zhan’s gaze slid over to the bench by the bath, which had held the soap and washcloth, as well as a stack of folded towels… and an assortment of oils meant to be rubbed onto the skin and hair after bathing.
Oh, supplies. Well. That also made sense, what with Wei Wuxian being a man and all. “I see,” Wei Wuxian said again. “That’s… helpful.”
“Wei Ying, we need not conduct further experimentation right now,” Lan Zhan said, sounding alarmed. “You are still recovering. We should not further tax your body.”
The thing was, had Lan Zhan not said anything at all, Wei Wuxian would have been happy to shove this entire conversation into a far, dusty corner of his memory, to perhaps be re-examined when he had more mental capacity and also legs that worked. But if there was one thing that Wei Wuxian knew was incontrovertibly, devastatingly true about himself, it was the fact that the moment someone told him he couldn’t do something, he would be filled with the irresistible urge to prove that person wrong.
“We should absolutely do it now,” he declared, even as a small voice in his head beseeched him to reconsider his life choices. He was used to ignoring that voice, anyway. “When else are we going to find the time? Shijie said we have a banquet tonight, and then we’re all leaving tomorrow.”
Lan Zhan frowned at him. “Wei Ying, you can barely walk.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “Then I’ll lie on my back and you can do all the work.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, Lan Zhan looking like he was fifteen again and wondering how a person like Wei Wuxian could even exist.
Finally, Lan Zhan sighed. “Fine.” He reached over to the bench by the tub, and grabbed a bottle of oil and two towels. “Dry off,” he said, passing the towels to Wei Wuxian before rising to his feet and stepping back out behind the privacy screen.
Victory felt like fine river silt, filling his palms under the water but slipping away between the crevices of his fingers as soon as he lifted his hands out into the air.
He hadn’t really expected Lan Zhan to say yes.
But then again, he hadn’t expected Lan Zhan to consider dual cultivation in the first place, or to help him research, or to initiate their previous — and apparently incorrect — attempt in the forest.
Wei Wuxian considered the possibility that Lan Zhan might actually not be a rigid, rule-abiding prude, and felt irrationally betrayed.
In any case, they were doing this.
He levered himself up onto the edge of the tub, feeling pleasantly syrupy and infinitely better than he had when he’d first woken up. His shoulders still ached a little when he reached up to wrap his hair in one of the towels, but when he stood, his legs were reassuringly steady. A second towel went around his shoulders to dry his arms and torso, then around his hips to dry his legs. He’d regained most of the weight that he’d lost in the Burial Mounds, but his abdomen remained stubbornly undefined, and his limbs were lean instead of muscular.
Idly, he wondered where he’d place now, in the rankings of young male cultivators — though honestly, he questioned the validity of any ranking system that placed him below Jin Zixuan, and Lan Zhan below anybody.
More pressing than Wei Wuxian’s physical appearance, which Lan Zhan probably wouldn’t care about anyway, was the line of scarring that bisected his navel. Even the best doctor of Qishan Wen — the best doctor in the world, in Wei Wuxian’s eyes — could not perform core-removal surgery without leaving a scar.
If Lan Zhan saw the scar, he’d know.
Wei Wuxian put his underrobe back on, gave his hair a last rough scrub with the towel, and went around the privacy screen.
Lan Zhan looked up at the sound of Wei Wuxian’s footsteps. He was sitting on the bed, wearing only his undershirt, trousers, and forehead ribbon.
Wei Wuxian tripped.
In an eyeblink, Lan Zhan was pressed against Wei Wuxian’s side, a bulwark of firm muscle under a single layer of fine silk. “Wei Ying!”
“I’m all right,” Wei Wuxian said, before Lan Zhan could do something mortifying like carry him to bed. “Let me walk, I can walk.” His entire face burned like someone had lit braziers under his skin, but hopefully Lan Zhan would attribute that to being flushed from the bath.
It was absolutely ridiculous. Wei Wuxian had already seen Lan Zhan’s cock, for heaven’s sake; there was no reason for him to lapse into temporary insanity at the sight of Lan Zhan’s underclothes, even if they did leave his throat and ankles shockingly bare.
Lan Zhan frowned, but stepped back, hovering like a worried dragonfly as Wei Wuxian made his way to the bed and sat down on the red bedspread. The bottle of oil that Lan Zhan had taken from the bath lay beside the red pillow.
Red pillow, red bedspread, Wei Wuxian’s red underrobe — all of it the wrong shade of red, of course, but still close enough for laughter to well up in his throat and burst from his lips.
“Nothing, it's nothing,” Wei Wuxian said between giggles, as Lan Zhan raised his eyebrows at him. “It's just — I feel like I should be waiting for you to lift my veil. Or you should be waiting for me.”
It took a moment, and some eyebrow-waggling, for Lan Zhan to get the joke. “Be serious,” he said sternly, his cheeks tinted lotus-pink.
“I am being serious,” Wei Wuxian said, and swung his legs up onto the bed, making sure that the parting of his skirt over his thighs still kept his abdomen covered.
Lan Zhan’s eyes widened comically at the reveal of all that bare skin; he turned away, ears scarlet.
Wei Wuxian grinned. “What, we’re going to dual cultivate and you’re not even going to look at me? Am I that ugly?”
He’d meant for that to be a joke too, something to loosen the tightness in Lan Zhan’s shoulders, perhaps even earn himself a snide “boring” for old times’ sake. But Lan Zhan’s expression firmed, his head turned back, and he looked — slowly, intently, defiantly, from Wei Wuxian’s bare feet up his bare legs, his clothed torso, to his face.
Wei Wuxian’s breath caught, feeling the weight of that dark gaze like a hand upon his throat.
Then Lan Zhan blinked, and the hand was gone. “No,” he said. “Not ugly.”
Words returned slowly, a trickle at a time. “Oh.” He was blushing again. “Uh. Well, good. I’ll be in your care, then.”
Lan Zhan nodded gracefully, as though he hadn’t just ground Wei Wuxian’s brain to a complete halt with a look, and said, “You will be more comfortable if you are reclined.”
Wei Wuxian reclined, propping himself up on his elbows so that he could watch Lan Zhan spread his bent knees and sit between them. “So,” he said, to distract himself from how embarrassing it was to have his everything exposed, “do you just… penetrate?”
“No,” Lan Zhan said. “First, you must be aroused.” Then he lowered his head, parted his lips, and slid his mouth down onto Wei Wuxian’s half-hard cock.
All thought fled. He hardened instantly in the wet heat of Lan Zhan’s mouth, at the sight of Lan Zhan’s perfect lips stretched wide over his length. This couldn’t be real. It had to be a dream, spun out of some perverse, depraved part of his mind that dared to—
“Fuck,” he gasped as Lan Zhan hollowed his cheeks and sucked. His hips bucked, and were pinned down by a steel-firm arm across his abdomen that shocked another shout from his lips, stiffened his cock even more. Lan Zhan didn’t try to take Wei Wuxian’s cock deep; he focused on the head and stroked his free hand stroke along the shaft, and it was unbearably, agonizingly good. Even the occasional scrape of teeth just added a darker, deeper flavour to the pleasure. “Fuck, what are you— why are you good at this?”
Lan Zhan looked up at him through dark lashes, mouth still wrapped around Wei Wuxian’s cock. Wei Wuxian could feel the sight sear itself into the bedrock of his memory. He’d never be able to pleasure himself again without seeing this image emblazoned in his mind. His thighs twitched when Lan Zhan pulled off him, hips straining fruitlessly upward to chase Lan Zhan’s mouth.
“The books were instructive,” Lan Zhan said. There was a rasp of smoke in his voice, and his lips were red and shimmering-wet. “As was Wei Ying’s previous attempt.”
Before Wei Wuxian could wrap his mind around that statement, Lan Zhan looked down at Wei Wuxian’s cock, fully hard now and saliva-slick, and nodded. “You should commence channeling your yin energy. Focus on your Hui-yin accupoint.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, tried to remember if his research had ever mentioned something like that, and came up empty. “My what?”
“It is here,” Lan Zhan said, touching his fingertip to a strip of skin behind Wei Wuxian’s balls that he’d never put much thought into before — until Lan Zhan applied pressure and he jerked.
“Oh, that Hui-yin accupoint,” Wei Wuxian said breathlessly, shuddering at the sudden burst of pleasure. Clearly Nie Huaisang’s books had missed some very important content. “Right, I can do that.”
It was easier said than done, especially when Lan Zhan took the bottle of oil and started to slick up his fingers. And then rub those fingers against Wei Wuxian’s hole.
“Exhale and try to relax,” Lan Zhan said, before sinking one finger slowly inside him.
Wei Wuxian’s laugh stuttered into a gasp at the not-quite-invasion. “Did those books teach you that too?”
Lan Zhan looked at him, his eyes unreadable. “No. I learned through practice.”
Wei Wuxian gaped at him. He couldn’t have meant — surely Lan Zhan wasn’t implying — had he fingered himself? Wei Wuxian couldn’t even picture it — except that he could, and then he did, and found that his red face could get even redder. “Why?”
“Research,” Lan Zhan said simply, and brushed against something that felt blazingly good, lighting Wei Wuxian up from the inside and forcing his spine to arch.
That made his shoulders ache, a sour note that snagged his attention. “Wait, Lan Zhan,” he panted, as Lan Zhan slid in a second finger alongside his first. “Let me turn over.”
Something flickered across Lan Zhan’s face, like a cloud briefly dimming the sun, before he inclined his head and pulled back. Wei Wuxian flipped onto his front, braced against the bed on his knees and forearms, and nodded over his shoulder at Lan Zhan.
It was easier this way, and harder. There were fewer distractions in this position. His senses all redirected to touch: the rasp of fabric over his skin, the firmness of the bed beneath him, the heat of Lan Zhan’s body against the backs of his thighs. His breath caught when Lan Zhan’s hands — firm and warm and wide — cupped his ass, fingers stroking briefly in the cleft before entering him again.
The angle was better like this too, especially when he could rock back against Lan Zhan’s fingers and get them to the right place inside him. He flinched when that made Lan Zhan’s other hand tighten on the flesh of his ass, but it wasn’t — bad, and a little part of him felt disappointed when Lan Zhan immediately loosened his grip.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan prompted, so quietly it was almost a whisper. “Channel your yin energy.”
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and focused, feeling the now-familiar meridians well up and overflow, into his channels, down to the Hui-yin accupoint between his legs. He wondered if Lan Zhan was channeling his energy too, if he was pleasuring himself, filling his cock to hardness in preparation for—
A third finger joined the previous two, tipping the stretch just over the edge of bearable to too-much. Wei Wuxian hissed sharply, muscles tensing.
Lan Zhan stopped. “Wei Ying?”
“I’m fine, just… give me a moment.” Wei Wuxian took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, until the sting flattened into a dull ache. “All right, keep going.”
Lan Zhan hesitated, but resumed the motion of his fingers. Wei Wuxian focused on relaxing a set of muscles that he’d never used for this particular purpose. Perhaps he should have done his homework the way Lan Zhan had and actually practiced.
“You should get on with it,” Wei Wuxian said, when the stretch no longer made him wince. “Put your cock in me.”
“Are you certain?” Lan Zhan asked.
No, but it’s not like your dick will get smaller the longer I wait, Wei Wuxian thought, but said, “Yeah. I can take it.”
There was another moment of hesitation, then Lan Zhan’s fingers slid out. He heard a faint rustle of fabric, before the blunt head of Lan Zhan’s cock was pressing into him.
It hurt. Wei Wuxian dropped his hand between his bent arms, bit his lip, and tried to breathe.
On a purely objective level, this pain was barely worth a mention in his lifetime collection of hurts, a mere raindrop compared to the monsoon horror of seeing Lotus Pier’s heart-blood beneath Wen boots. But this was a new pain, different from all the other ways his oft-battered body had hurt, and the part of him that was insatiably curious couldn’t help prodding at it like a child picking at a healing scab. He pushed back against the intrusion, forced Lan Zhan’s cock a little farther into him, and cried out as the ache spiked into a sharp throb.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s hands gripped his hips, holding him in place. “Exhale and try to relax.”
“I’m trying,” Wei Wuxian gritted back. “There’s just — a lot to relax around, all right?”
Absurdly, he was reminded of a scene in Pearls of the Dragon, where Jia Xiao was being enthusiastically deflowered by Zhang Ming:
“Jia-guniang,” Zhang Ming gasped, his magnificent jade pillar clutched in her vermillion cave, “I wish not to cause you harm!”
But Jia Xiao had been waiting too long for her beloved to pluck her maidenly flower. “Worry not, Zhang-gege,” she assured him, wrapping her snow-white legs around his hips and urging him deeper inside her moon grotto. “It does not hurt. I need but look at Zhang-gege’s handsome face, and all the pain becomes pleasure.”
Jia Xiao, you are an absolute liar, Wei Wuxian thought, and wondered why he hadn’t suggested reversing positions. He, at least, had a normal-sized cock — which had softened since Lan Zhan had started entering him. His yin energy, likewise, flowed sluggishly through its channels. He reached between his legs and took himself in hand. The angle was a little awkward, and it was difficult to balance on one arm, but the pleasure helped distract from the pain, at least.
“Let me,” he heard Lan Zhan say, before Lan Zhan’s hand was nudging his hand off his cock and taking its place. Lan Zhan’s hand was bigger than his own, slick with oil, and the sight of those long elegant fingers wrapped around his cock did as much to reawaken his erection as the touch itself.
Lan Zhan’s touch was a little clumsy, clearly inexperienced, and rougher than Wei Wuxian would have expected from someone so refined. It was still good though, especially when he figured out that Wei Wuxian liked a firm hand, and plenty of attention to the tip.
When Wei Wuxian was hard again, yin energy surging, he said, “All right. You can move now.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan said. Instead of pushing forward, he pulled back until his cock was almost out entirely. Then he thrust in again — but shallowly, barely deep enough to brush against the sweet spot inside Wei Wuxian. A second thrust, still shallow, followed by a third, then a fourth.
Wei Wuxian grimaced as the shallow thrusts continued. He tried to press back, only to be held in place again by Lan Zhan’s hands. “You can go deeper, you know,” he said over his shoulder. “It doesn’t even hurt anymore— ah!”
His back bowed, nerves sparking fireworks as Lan Zhan thrust all the way in, a hot, throbbing pleasure-pain that seared all the way up Wei Wuxian’s spine. He felt achingly, gloriously full, almost breathless with it, as though there wasn’t enough room inside him for his lungs to inflate.
And then Lan Zhan was pulling out again, returning to the infuriatingly shallow thrusts that taunted him with whispers of sensation.
It took Wei Wuxian a moment to catch his breath. He turned his head and glared at Lan Zhan, who was gratifyingly flushed and panting, but also… muttering to himself?
Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrowed. “Are you counting?”
Lan Zhan looked up, startled. He was still almost fully dressed, trousers pulled down just enough for a glimpse of narrow hips above pale, muscled thighs. “Yes. Nine shallow thrusts and one deep, in the Two Tigers position. It builds energy within oneself to strengthen the spirit.”
Admittedly, that did sound familiar from his own research. “Well, can you not do that? The nine shallows, I mean. Just do the deep ones.”
Lan Zhan frowned. “The research dictates—”
“My body dictates that my arms and legs are starting to get sore, and I’m starting to get annoyed. Neither of which is conducive for dual cultivation.” He shoved his ass insistently against Lan Zhan’s hips. “So if Lan Er-gongzi could find it in his heart to put aside his scholarly sensibilities, Wei Ying would be eternally grateful—”
Lan Zhan fucked him, forcing a moan out of Wei Wuxian’s throat that nearly drowned out the sharp slap of flesh as Lan Zhan’s hips met his ass. “You’re welcome,” Lan Zhan intoned impassively, and fucked him again.
Oh, Wei Wuxian had almost forgotten that beneath Lan Zhan’s veneer of exquisite manners and well-bred civility there was a petulant, petty brat. Even time and tragedy and an illustrious title hadn’t ground that out of him. Wei Wuxian laughed, delighted, and moaned again when Lan Zhan thrust harder in response, relentlessly and breathtakingly deep.
For a string of rabbit-quick heartbeats, there was just heat and pressure and fullness. Even pleasure was a distant second, but catching up quickly as Wei Wuxian worked his hips forward and back between Lan Zhan’s hand and his cock. Then Lan Zhan’s yang energy was pouring into him, sunlit heat against his Hui-yin accupoint, and it was fucking transcendent.
His arms gave out. He dropped face-first onto the bed, and the change in angle made everything somehow even better. He sobbed into the pillow, grabbing double handfuls of bedding as each thrust hurtled him toward the edge.
“Lan Zhan,” he managed, almost voiceless, half-muffled by spit-slick fabric. “Lan Zhan, I’m—”
“Wei Ying!” Lan Zhan rasped, sounding just as wrecked, and Wei Wuxian came.
Dimly, through the torrent of sensation coursing through his body, he heard Lan Zhan cry out. Felt Lan Zhan’s hips stutter, his cock pulse, his weight fall against Wei Wuxian’s side.
It was a long time before either of them moved.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said, when his mouth was capable of something other than just gasping for air, “that happened.”
“I can’t believe you’re sulking just because we both climaxed.”
“I am not,” Lan Zhan said, sulkily, before returning to fuss with his already perfectly draped sleeves.
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes. “Then what, are you mad at me? Because I laughed at you?”
In Wei Wuxian’s defense, Lan Zhan had pulled out and then stared down at his cock with an expression of utter betrayal, as though this previously obedient appendage had been swapped out for its evil orgasming twin without Lan Zhan’s knowledge. A rock would have laughed at him.
Lan Zhan gave him a cold, haughty glare that was made considerably less effective by the blush on his face. “I am disappointed that due to our flawed experimental procedure, the results are invalid.”
“Invalid doesn’t mean useless,” Wei Wuxian pointed out, as he stripped the soiled bedding and bundled it for washing. “In fact, I think we should revisit some of our assumptions. I was always told that spending my seed would result in a loss of vitality, but I feel great.”
Lan Zhan looked skeptical, which Wei Wuxian thought was a little unfair; he hadn’t lied to Lan Zhan about his well-being in… days. Possibly even a week, at this point.
In any case, it was true. When the initial post-orgasmic lethargy had ebbed, all of his fatigue had gone with it. Granted, he now had new and different aches, but even those just felt like the aftermath of vigorous exercise, not the bone-chilling numbness of resentful energy overuse. He’d suggested that perhaps this was due to Lan Zhan’s seed having some heretofore unknown divine properties.
Lan Zhan hadn’t found that amusing either.
“The Library Pavilion in the Cloud Recesses has been restored,” Lan Zhan said. “Upon my return, I will study the contents of the forbidden section.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. “I’ll look through Lotus Pier’s library. See if we have any dual cultivation texts.” He frowned. “It’s a pity we don’t have any conferences or joint night hunts scheduled anytime soon. Any chance I can convince you to visit Lotus Pier after all?”
Lan Zhan shook his head, but looked thoughtful. “We could write letters. Wen sect has a fire-reading spell that they used to communicate over long distances.”
“And you’re only telling me about this now?” Wei Wuxian grabbed Lan Zhan by the wrist and hauled him over to the writing desk. “What does it look like? Is it talisman-based? What’s its limit on distance?”
Lan Zhan sat down at the desk, wetted a brush and inkstone, and began to draw.