Chapter 1: Make an observation
“I’m just saying,” Li Baoyang argued, holding up a pacifying hand, “you don’t know that dual cultivation isn’t a real thing. I mean, it’s everywhere in the literature.”
“Only if by ‘literature,’ you mean Nie Huaisang’s porn collection,” Jiang Cheng retorted. “No offense, Nie-xiong.”
“None taken,” Nie Huaisang replied easily. “Believe me, I also wish dual cultivation was real. Then maybe I’d be able to develop my golden core as quickly as the rest of you.”
“I’m not sure you and your right hand count as dual cultivation—” Li Baoyang teased, and immediately ducked to avoid being swatted by Nie Huaisang’s fan. “But seriously though, there’s so much of it in ah, Nie-xiong’s quality literature—”
“You’re welcome, but you’re not forgiven.”
“—that maybe someone actually did manage to dual cultivate, and that’s how the idea got passed down.”
“I once heard a rumour that this is how Lan An and his cultivation partner did it,” Ma Qiao piped up. “Which, I mean, if anyone could…”
“The Lans are far too boring and repressed for something like this,” Wei Wuxian said, with the authority of one who had been resoundingly ignored by a Lan for the past month. “Can you imagine Lan Wangji dual cultivating? Or Lan Qiren?”
There was a long and uncomfortable silence where everyone assembled imagined just that, and immediately wished they hadn’t.
Even Wei Wuxian winced. “Sorry.”
“And with that bit of nightmare fuel,” Jiang Cheng said, glaring at Wei Wuxian, “we should probably turn in. It’s almost hai hour, and my knees still haven’t recovered from the last time we were caught out after curfew.”
Later, as Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian headed back to the Jiang sect quarters, Wei Wuxian turned to him and said, “Hypothetically, if dual cultivation was possible, would you do it?”
Jiang Cheng considered it. “No. I don’t want to rely on someone else for my cultivation. Any power I achieve, I want to know that I did it on my own.” He glanced over at Wei Wuxian. “Would you?”
“Maybe.” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “I think it’s kind of romantic — sharing my spiritual energy while sharing my body and growing together as a couple. I guess it would depend on my cultivation partner.”
“No one would be crazy enough to be your cultivation partner, anyway.”
Wei Wuxian gasped. “How dare you? I’m a great catch! I’m charming, handsome—”
“Incredibly annoying, a complete slob—”
Wei Wuxian whacked Jiang Cheng with Suibian. Jiang Cheng kicked him in retaliation, just as the door to their house slid open.
“What are you two fighting over now?” Shijie asked, with an amused, fond smile.
“Shijie!” Wei Wuxian whined, taking shameless advantage of her presence to hide behind her shoulder. “Jiang Cheng is bullying me.”
“He deserved it,” Jiang Cheng said, unrepentant.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t argue with that. He stuck out his tongue at Jiang Cheng anyway.
The sky is a monstrous, spinning maw above him, ringed with cragged teeth. Shrieking wind deafens him, claws at his hair and skin, rips away every scream, every thought, every breath.
He’s going to die.
And then something swells up beneath him, immense and ancient and always, always hungry. Resentful energy spews out of it like blood from a gaping wound, an endless howl of death and despair. It reaches for him, burrows its way under his skin and deep into his flesh. He struggles, but he has nothing left to fight with, no weapons, no spiritual energy — nothing but pain and fear and a singular, devastating thought:
Please, please let me die.
Wei Wuxian bolted upright in bed, gasping for air, flute brandished before him like the sword he no longer carried.
Dark, intricately carved wood rose in slender beams around him, held together by metal brackets at the ceiling and floor. Silk banners hung from the rafters, embroidered with a black, snarling beast: the sigil of the Nie Clan.
He was in Qinghe, in the Unclean Realm.
His pulse was rabbit-quick, his skin clammy and cold. Resentful energy seeped out of him in curling wispy swirls, taking advantage of his lapse in control to slither along the floor and crawl towards the windows and doors. Caged in his qiankun pouch, the Yin Tiger Seal throbbed like a beating heart.
Slowly, he lowered Chenqing and folded his body into a cross-legged meditation pose, hands on his knees, eyes closed. With his gaze turned inward, he focused on the riotous tangle of resentful energy churning in him, barely contained by skin and will. He tightened his grip, and it fought him, straining at the seams of his control. Breath by breath, he dragged it back, forced it down into the hollow where his golden core used to reside.
Eventually, the resentful energy settled, and Wei Wuxian opened his eyes.
Silence greeted him, and the deep blue gloom of pre-dawn. He sighed and scraped himself off the bed, feeling somehow more tired now than before he’d fallen asleep. His body ached like he’d just been beaten, but he was starting to get used to the low thrum of pain that accompanied his waking hours.
He’d been fighting this battle for months now, nearly constantly. It wasn’t getting any easier. Resentful energy swarmed around him, eager to be used, even more eager to use him. The Yin Tiger Seal helped a little, acted as a sink for the resentful energy to channel into, but it still felt—
“Like snatching a grain of rice from a fire,” he quoted, and laughed. It sounded brittle and hollow in the empty air. “Lan Zhan was right. As always.”
At least Lan Zhan was speaking to him again, though he could have done without the uncomfortably probing questions. It was ironic, really — when they’d first met, he’d clamoured for even a sliver of Lan Zhan’s attention like a sapling starving for light. Now, when he was stuffed full of secrets, Lan Zhan’s focus blazed down on him with the intensity of a noonday sun, scorching away any concealing shadows.
He rubbed his eyes, licked dry lips. The jar of wine he’d picked up from dinner last night was empty, and it was still too early for the kitchen staff to unlock the stores. Even the Lans wouldn’t be stirring for another hour. And he didn’t want to go back to sleep.
There were books he could read. The Nie sect had been generous in allowing the Jiang family — and by extension, Wei Wuxian — access to their library. Unsurprisingly, most of the collection favoured military history, though there were a few interesting selections about the Nie clan methods of cultivation by sabre. Wei Wuxian picked up one of those books, lit a few candles, and sat back down on the bed.
He was just getting acquainted with the narrative style — which was clear and concise, if a little prosaic — when a soft knock sounded on his door.
Wei Wuxian looked up. No silhouette was visible through the paper screen, but he would know Lan Zhan’s voice in a thousand other voices.
He put away the book and went to open the door. “You’re awake early.”
Even at this hour, Lan Zhan looked impeccable, an ethereal vision clad in gleaming white, with a white-wrapped package strapped across his back. “As are you.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged, taking a step back to allow Lan Zhan entry. “Couldn’t sleep.”
Lan Zhan nodded. His dark eyes swept over Wei Wuxian, keen and piercing. “I want to play for you,” he said, and slung the white package off his shoulders. “To calm your spirit.”
The white wrapping fell away as Lan Zhan set it on a low table: a qin, well-used, but beautifully carved and maintained. Wei Wuxian fought the urge to groan.
Something of that must have shown on his expression anyway, because Lan Zhan frowned. “You said you would let me help you,” he reminded.
In hindsight, Wei Wuxian supposed he really should have expected this, after their rooftop conversation just a few hours ago. In his defense, that conversation had literally happened just a few hours ago, which wasn’t nearly enough time to think of either an excuse to avoid Lan Zhan for the rest of the war, or a convincing enough reason to make Lan Zhan give up on him.
“I didn’t mean right now,” Wei Wuxian protested tepidly. “Besides, I thought such techniques are a closely-guarded Lan clan secret.”
Which was not a concession, though Lan Zhan seemed to think otherwise, as he sat down at the table and nodded for Wei Wuxian to take his place back on the bed. “Some are,” he said. “Others, we may share with those whom we trust.”
A knot tightened in Wei Wuxian’s chest, then loosened all at once. He swallowed hard, opened his mouth, and closed it again before it could betray him. Wordlessly, he drew a silencing spell on a blank talisman, and sent it off to seal the door. Then he returned to the bed, sat back down in the cross-legged meditation pose, and closed his eyes.
The first note of Lan Zhan’s song rang bell-clear in the silence, infused with so much spiritual energy that it cut through the air like a ray of sunshine through dense stormcloud. Wei Wuxian hadn’t entirely been deflecting when he’d said, yesterday, that Lan Zhan’s cultivation had improved in their time apart. He’d heard that they were calling him Hanguang-jun now — a fitting name.
“It’s pretty,” Wei Wuxian murmured, as Lan Zhan continued to play. “Does the song have a name?”
“No talking,” Lan Zhan responded shortly, but then relented enough to add, “Its name is ‘Cleansing.’”
Another fitting name. Wei Wuxian remembered from his lessons at the Cloud Recesses that Lan Sect had a collection of music that could affect the spirit and temperament. This must have been a song from that collection. Wei Wuxian could feel the way it was supposed to work — the music sank into him, spiritual energy clearing away any resentful energy in its path as it gathered in his meridians and concentrated low in his belly.
And then slid off his empty core like raindrops on polished stone, and dissipated into nothingness.
That particular wound was old now, its pain beginning to fade. Wei Wuxian opened his eyes again.
Lan Zhan was still playing. A slight furrow of concentration marred the jade-like expanse of his brow, though his hands remained graceful and sure on the strings. Golden candlelight gilded his skin and painted deep shadows along the curve of his throat and the undersides of his wrists.
Wei Wuxian’s hands itched for paper and ink, a familiar desire that brought back memories of a peaceful, sunlit library. Back then, his most pressing concern had been getting Lan Zhan to look at him.
As though attuned to his thoughts, Lan Zhan lifted his head and looked at Wei Wuxian. “You should concentrate,” he said.
A small, shameful part of Wei Wuxian urged him to just play along, snatch every shred of Lan Zhan’s presence while it was still on offer. And the music did help, a little — he felt as if he’d spent a day in meditation instead of an hour. But after months spent soaking in the resentful energy of the Burial Mounds, this was still like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a rice bowl.
“It won’t work,” he said, as gently as he could.
Lan Zhan stopped playing, and dropped his gaze down to his hands. “‘Cleansing’ is a difficult song. I lack practice. I will—”
“It’s not about the song, or about your playing.” Wei Wuxian stood up again, and shook his head. “But it’s fine. I’m fine.”
Lan Zhan stood up as well, his mouth thinning into something hard and stubborn. The furrow between his brows deepened. “Cultivating with resentful energy harms the body and spirit.”
Wei Wuxian sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face. “This again? I told you, I know, and I’m controlling it.”
“If you choose to continue with this method of cultivation—”
“I have to—”
“Then let me help you.”
“How, exactly?” Wei Wuxian demanded. He knew he was getting annoyed, and he didn’t want to be, not with the resentful energy barely leashed within him. And not when Lan Zhan was so clearly trying to be kind. But he was tired, and arguing with Lan Zhan was like trying to swim against a fast-flowing current. “Your music doesn’t work. And even if it does, will you follow me around with your qin so you can play for me every day?”
“Then come back to Gusu with me,” Lan Zhan said, stepping closer.
Lan Zhan froze. He stepped back, and something in his expression shuttered.
Wei Wuxian took a deep breath. Eased down his hackles. “We’re in the middle of a war right now,” he said, when he was sure that his voice no longer sounded like an unsheathing blade. “Neither of us can go to Gusu anyway. Besides, what can the Cloud Recesses offer me that its preeminent disciple cannot?”
He tried a smile, and made himself hold it until some of the tension bled out of Lan Zhan’s shoulders. His eyes were faintly red-rimmed. Wei Wuxian had thought that he’d simply risen unusually early, but now he wondered if Lan Zhan had perhaps not slept at all.
“The library,” Lan Zhan said.
Everyone knew that Gusu Lan had the most extensive library in the cultivation world; it was one of the reasons why their lectures were so sought-after. Wei Wuxian, of course, had not been permitted access to any of the more interesting books except when under the hawk-like scrutiny of Lan Qiren.
He had heard that during Wen Xu’s attack, while Lan Qiren and Lan Zhan had led their disciples to safety, Lan Xichen had personally rescued centuries-worth of priceless texts before going into hiding.
“I doubt even your library would have books about demonic cultivation,” Wei Wuxian said. “Remember Old Master Lan’s reaction when I brought it up in class? Though that might have also been because I was the one who brought it up. I never knew what his problem was with—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said quietly. “Why won’t you let me help you?”
Wei Wuxian smiled again, somewhat less successfully this time, given the way Lan Zhan’s jaw clenched. “What do you mean? I let you in, didn’t I?”
The weight of that fathomless gaze was suddenly unbearable. Wei Wuxian looked away. “Lan Zhan, I appreciate you trying, but you can’t help me.”
There was no reply. Wei Wuxian considered the possibility that he might have actually won their argument, finally convinced Lan Zhan that he was beyond saving. The victory felt as hollow as he’d expected.
“I can’t help you,” Lan Zhan said, slowly, deliberately. “Just as you have to continue with demonic cultivation.”
Panic crept its tendrils up the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck, closing his throat. He swallowed hard, tried to think of something to say, anything, to get Lan Zhan to stop staring at him like this—
Well, the best military strategists would say that sometimes, the best way to mount a solid defense was to attack.
Wei Wuxian met Lan Zhan’s gaze squarely. “No. Like you said, resentful energy harms my body and spirit. So unless you’re willing to dual cultivate with me and share yours, there’s nothing you can do.”
He braced himself for Lan Zhan’s fury, for disgust, for Lan Zhan to sweep out of his room and never so much as glance at him again.
Instead, Lan Zhan’s eyes sharpened, his beautiful face lit with surprise. “What do you know of dual cultivation?”
Chapter 2: Do background research
There had been only a handful of moments in Wei Wuxian’s life that left him truly speechless: being adopted by Uncle Jiang, seeing the ruined husk of Lotus Pier, waking up after the golden core transfer. In such company, a conversation with Lan Zhan about dual cultivation seemed paltry by comparison — or it would have, if not for the fact that this was a conversation with Lan Zhan about dual cultivation.
“Uh,” he said, then remembered that he was supposed to be a genius and added, “what do you know about dual cultivation?”
“Lan An and his partner used this method,” Lan Zhan replied.
Wei Wuxian stared at him.
Lan Zhan sighed. “Lan An was the founder of the Gusu Lan sect, who—”
“I know who Lan An is! It’s just — look, everyone thinks that dual cultivation is a myth.”
“Why?” Lan Zhan asked, tilting his head slightly. “Lan An’s methods are well-documented in his poetry.”
His pornographic poetry? Wei Wuxian did not say, with difficulty. Though knowing the Lan sect, it was entirely possible that Lan An’s poetry was more metaphorical than actually informative. That would explain Lan Zhan’s reaction the time Wei Wuxian had showed him real pornography.
“To be clear,” Wei Wuxian said, just in case Lan Zhan thought dual cultivation simply meant cultivating side by side in a field of flowers, or something, “you are aware that dual cultivation with me would involve sex, right? As in, you would be having sex, with me.”
Colour bloomed across Lan Zhan’s cheeks like a ripening peach. “I am aware.”
For some reason, that made heat start to creep up Wei Wuxian’s neck as well. “I need some time to think about it,” he said, and turned his gaze meaningfully toward the paper-screened door. “Besides, it’ll be sunrise soon, and you wouldn’t want other members of your sect to find you in my room.”
Or catch him leaving Wei Wuxian’s room, which would be even worse. This conversation was making Wei Wuxian aware of all sorts of implications that he’d never even considered before.
Lan Zhan gave him a long, searching look, as though they were students at the Cloud Recesses again and Lan Zhan was scrutinizing his homework for spelling errors. Finally, he gave a single accepting nod.
Relief trickled like melting snow down Wei Wuxian’s spine. “All right, then.”
As befitting a good host, even in someone else’s house, Wei Wuxian waited politely for Lan Zhan to re-wrap his qin and escorted him to the door.
On his way out, Lan Zhan fixed him with another long, implacable look. “We will discuss this another time.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. “Another time.”
The next few days passed in a flurry of activity, as all the sects prepared for the final campaign against Qishan Wen. Sect leaders huddled over maps and formations as high-ranking disciples trained their shidi and shimei. Those whose skills lay elsewhere wrestled with the logistics of feeding, supplying, and transporting a sizeable force on the month-long trek from Qinghe to Qishan.
Wei Wuxian made himself useful by organizing supplies, drawing copies of maps, and — occasionally — breaking up fights between cultivators more accustomed to seeing each other as rivals than as allies.
Jiang Cheng found him in the armoury, surrounded by racks of swords. “What, Suibian isn’t good enough for you anymore?”
Wei Wuxian fixed a broad grin in place before that particular thorn could catch and tear. “Qinghe’s smiths are amazing, you know. Even their inert swords are well-made and perfectly balanced.”
“I’m sure Nie Mingjue is delighted to have the admiration of Yunmeng Jiang’s first disciple,” Jiang Cheng said pointedly. “Wei Wuxian, it’s bad enough that you’re not carrying your sword, but you’re the only lead disciple not conducting training. Do you know how that makes us look?”
The grin fell from Wei Wuxian’s face. “I know.”
Of course he knew; inter-sect politics were as obvious as posturing peacocks and twice as obnoxious. Yunmeng Jiang had never had the wealth of Lanling Jin, the renown of Gusu Lan, nor the martial reputation of Qinghe Nie, but they had still been a large and powerful sect. Now, even with the remnants of their subsidiary sects all banded under Jiang colours, they were still by far the smallest of the four great clans.
This was why Jiang Cheng volunteered for the most dangerous assignments, despite being a sect leader. Why Shijie wore humble hemp robes and worked herself to exhaustion tending to the sick and wounded.
“If you know, then why are you here?” Jiang Cheng demanded. “Don’t tell me you’re still moping over your fight with Lan Wangji.”
“I wasn’t moping!” Wei Wuxian protested. Which was true; in fact, he’d taken great pains to not think about Lan Zhan at all.
“In any case,” he continued, before Jiang Cheng could ask more uncomfortable questions, “I think you should train the disciples. The older ones already follow you, but the new recruits barely know who you are.” He tensed his right arm and punched Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as hard as he could. “Show them that Yunmeng Jiang is a force to be reckoned with.”
The impact of his fist barely made Jiang Cheng sway, as though he’d just poked Jiang Cheng with a finger. He swallowed down the aching knot in his chest.
“I’ve been doing that anyway,” Jiang Cheng retorted. “And stop drinking so much. A-jie is starting to worry about your health.”
Wei Wuxian clasped his hands in front of him and bowed deeply. “This humble Wei hears and obeys Sect Leader Jiang in all things, for Sect Leader Jiang is wise and valiant—”
“Never mind, go die.” He levelled a sneer at Wei Wuxian, looking — just for a moment — so like the sulky boy he used to be that Wei Wuxian almost smiled. Then Jiang Cheng’s expression darkened, grew serious. “What you said at the meeting last time, about countering Wen Ruohan’s Yin metal… can you really do it?”
He sounded skeptical, but Wei Wuxian could hear the thread of hope in his voice. Today’s scouts must not have returned with good news.
“Our sect’s motto is Attempt the Impossible,” Wei Wuxian said. “I can do anything.”
The dead find him in his dreams.
“Wei Wuxian,” they offer, as sweet as clear water, “stay with us.”
“Wei Wuxian,” they entreat, kind and cruel and desperate, “let’s be together.”
“Wei Wuxian,” they promise, with bared, bloody teeth, “do you want revenge?”
“Wei Wuxian,” they call, in a thousand different voices. “Wei-xiong! Wei-gongzi! Shixiong! Da-shixiong!”
He gasped awake.
Blood pounded in his ears. His fingers were trembling. He’d once again sweated through his inner layer of clothing, leaving his skin chilled. His insides seethed with resentful energy.
His joints ached as he sat up. A quick wipe of his hand across his nose and mouth came back flaky with dried blood, which meant that he’d probably passed out while meditating. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The Yin Tiger Seal lay on the bed next to him. Wei Wuxian glared at it balefully.
He knew what the problem was, of course. The Yin Tiger Seal wasn’t like Suibian, which had been his from the beginning. He’d blooded the blade on his own flesh and refined it with his own qi as it grew with him over the years. The Yin sword that he’d found in the Xuanwu had spent centuries drenched in slaughter. Reforging it into the Yin Tiger Seal had allowed Wei Wuxian to access its immense well of power, but controlling that power was like trying to fill a cup with a waterfall.
And he had to control it. When he was hunting Wen Chao across the land, he’d poured resentful energy into every Wen supervisory office he passed and turned them into charnel houses. He couldn’t unleash himself like that on a battlefield without risking the lives of his own people. Resentful energy didn’t discriminate between friend and foe. It just devoured.
Lan Zhan must have known that too; Jiang Cheng had told Wei Wuxian that he’d cast a barrier when they’d found Wei Wuxian torturing Wen Chao. It made sense — even by Lan standards, Lan Zhan’s qi was unusually clean and pure. Just standing near Wei Wuxian when he was filled to the brim with resentful energy must have felt like wading through a cesspit.
And yet Lan Zhan still wanted to dual cultivate with him, to somehow save Wei Wuxian from his headlong plunge into darkness.
There were moments when he considered the possibility that Lan Zhan was somehow being forced into offering to dual cultivate with Wei Wuxian. Only, Lan Zhan was far too righteous to be blackmailed, far too powerful a cultivator to be cursed, and far too stubborn to be persuaded. But the elimination of those impossibilities left only the highly improbable option that Lan Zhan’s offer had been genuine, which… well. He didn’t know how to feel about that.
Still, he had to admit that Lan Zhan’s unwavering certainty was making him curious. He remembered from Lan Qiren’s lessons that Lan An had been the most powerful cultivator of his generation, that he might even have ascended to immortality had his cultivation partner not died. And since Lan clan rules strictly forbade both idle fornication and falsehoods — rules three and fifty-two, respectively — perhaps there was some grain of truth to all of this.
According to the stories, dual cultivation was a miraculous, almost divine technique that could heal any wound, cure any ailment, and increase a person’s spiritual energy a hundred-fold. Of course, those same stories also featured magical pollen that induced a deadly, lust-crazed frenzy curable only by frantic copulation, or characters whose qi imbalance caused them to go into heat like animals.
In any case, Wei Wuxian should at least do some research.
A quick glance outside at the position of the moon told him that it was shortly after chou hour, but Wei Wuxian didn’t want to go back to sleep anyway. He tucked Chenqing into his belt and went to find Nie Huaisang.
The Nie family quarters lay deep in the heart of the Unclean Realm, braced by ancient stone and heavily guarded against potential assassins. None of the guards so much as twitched when he leapt over them to land on the roof of Nie Huaisang’s residence, resentful energy muffling his steps and shrouding what little spiritual presence he still had.
Even Wei Wuxian wasn’t shameless enough to go pounding on a friend’s door in the middle of the night. He sent a paperman instead, imbued with enough of his consciousness to hop onto Nie Huaisang's bed and tug at his ears until he woke up. It was the sort of childish trick Wei Wuxian used to love playing on his junior disciples, before.
Nie Huaisang looked distinctly grumpy when he came out into the courtyard, wearing an unbelted robe over his inner clothing. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked, glaring at Wei Wuxian on the roof. “Wei-xiong, what do you want?”
Wei Wuxian jumped down to the ground, and smiled. “Your books on dual cultivation.”
For a moment, Nie Huaisang just squinted at him, as though straining to hear his voice from a great distance. Then the fog of sleep seemed to lift, and he blinked rapidly. “Why?”
“Research,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Wei Wuxian let his smile widen. “Secret.”
They stared at each other. A cool night wind rustled through their hair and clothes.
“Never mind, I don’t want to know,” Nie Huaisang said finally, and shook his head. “All right, I’ll show you what I have.”
The books, disappointingly, all involved men with women. Well, he could extrapolate.
“Thanks, Huaisang-xiong,” Wei Wuxian said, tucking them under his arm.
“Don’t mention it,” Nie Huaisang muttered. “Please.”
Wei Wuxian laughed, and left as silently as he came.
Back in his room, he stacked the books on the bed and made himself comfortable next to them. The topmost book on the stack was called Peach Garden Serenade, featuring the exploits of Tao Zheng, a young male cultivator cursed with an overabundance of yang energy. Wei Wuxian had read this one before, when he was a student in the Cloud Recesses, though admittedly, back then he’d been more interested in the myriad beauties Tao Zheng encountered than the dual cultivation.
He picked up Peach Garden Serenade and flipped to the first page.
A dozen chapters in, he came to a couple of realizations. The first was that erotic literature became a lot less erotic when surveyed under a critical, analytical eye; clearly the writer of this book had cared little for detail continuity, much less historical and geographical accuracy.
The second was that he should probably be taking notes.
He moved the books to a table, and rifled through the shelves in the room until he found a writing kit and some paper. Brush in one hand, book in the other, he continued reading.
Three books later, Wei Wuxian was full of questions and out of paper. Outside, the sky was starting to brighten, grey dawn encroaching on the edge of night like dust on the hem of a gown. Mao hour then, or close enough. He gathered his books, brush, and paper, and headed out in the direction of the Lan quarters.
Lan Zhan was already awake. Wei Wuxian could feel his spiritual presence, as bright as the morning star shining above. The rest of Lan sect, however, was mostly still asleep; it seemed not every Lan adhered to the strict sleep schedule outside the Cloud Recesses.
Wei Wuxian grinned, and rapped his knuckles on Lan Zhan’s door.
There was a faint shuffling of footsteps, then the door opened. “Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan said, sounding surprised. He was clearly just getting dressed — his outer robe hung open, his collar was rumpled, and his sleep-mussed hair draped in inky rivers over his shoulders with a few wisps falling around his face.
It took a moment for Wei Wuxian to remember why he’d come.
“Uh,” he said, when Lan Zhan started to frown, “I’ve been doing some research on dual cultivation. And I still think it’s ridiculous, but I have some questions I’m hoping you can answer.”
The wariness in Lan Zhan’s expression softened. “I will try,” he said, quietly and earnestly. An almost-smile unfurled at the corner of his mouth like a flower bud on the cusp of bloom — and then faded as he caught sight of the books tucked under Wei Wuxian’s arm. “Are those—”
Wei Wuxian held up his armload proudly. “Reference materials! I even took notes.”
Lan Zhan skewered him with a piercing look of disbelief, which he felt was a little insulting. Wei Wuxian was not the sort of person who repeated tricks. Finally, Lan Zhan sighed. “Come in, then.”
“When she welcomed his magnificent sky pillar into her eager jade gate, their energies surged and mingled together. She cried out in ecstasy. He did not stop but continued to bring her again and again to that peak of sensation, until finally at dawnbreak she begged to receive his release.
As his essence flowed into her fleshly cauldron their combined energies cultivated into a pure and refined elixir of immortality—”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan sounded deeply pained. “Must you — out loud?”
“You’re the one who refused to touch any of the books,” Wei Ying reminded him, but closed Secrets of the Jade Gate and placed it back on the table with the others.
“These books,” Lan Zhan said, as though forced at swordpoint by semantic accuracy to use that word, “lack literary merit. And realism.”
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes. “It’s porn, Lan Zhan, it’s not meant to be realistic.” He leafed through his notes and showed the relevant pages to Lan Zhan. “In any case, the stories are fairly consistent in what happens during dual cultivation. Yin and yang energies combine to form jing — that’s what they mean here by ‘elixir of immortality’ — which replenishes the partners' lost essences and increases their level of cultivation. Problem is, I haven’t found any references to exactly how that happens. Does the jing energy just form on its own, or do the two partners have to make it? The position must be important; it’s always described in such detail, but why? They keep talking about ‘affinity of qi,’ do you know what that means? How replenishing is the jing anyway, relative to the energy expended? And how long does the man have to refrain from ejaculation, because that seems incredibly unpleasant.”
He looked over at Lan Zhan. “Well? What do you think?”
Lan Zhan had gone very still, his eyes slightly widened. “I do not know.”
Wei Wuxian frowned. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Didn’t you read Lan An’s poetry?”
“I did,” Lan Zhan said. “But his poems are not… instructive.” His posture straightened, expression smoothing like a river-polished stone as he recited, voice as clear and precise as if they were in Master Lan’s classroom again and he’d been asked to give a demonstration.
“With heaven above and earth below
Together we ascend the mountain
Climbing peak after peak, ever higher
Each more beautiful than the last.”
It was an easy enough poem to understand: yin and yang were earth and heaven, respectively; the peak was — well, climax, and many climaxes, which was clearly the goal. Wei Wuxian scribbled a few words in the fresh notebook that he’d gotten from Lan Zhan, and waited for more.
Lan Zhan gazed expectantly back.
In the ensuing silence, Wei Wuxian said, tentatively, “That’s it?”
Lan Zhan nodded.
“Are all his poems like this?”
“That I have read, yes.”
Wei Wuxian rubbed his temples and took a slow, bracing breath. “So you’re telling me that the only couple in recorded history to have successfully dual cultivated didn’t leave behind notes of any value?”
Lan Zhan looked deeply offended. “The literary importance of Lan An’s work—”
“Any scientific value, then,” Wei Wuxian corrected impatiently. “Lan Zhan, when you said that his methods were ‘well-documented,’ I was expecting something like detailed instructions, preferably with helpful diagrams! Not metaphors about mountain climbing.”
He didn’t know why he was so annoyed; it wasn’t as if he’d been seriously considering dual cultivation anyway. Perhaps it was because the last time he’d done research was after Jiang Cheng had lost his core, when he’d spent long days chasing flickers of hope, with despair constantly snapping at his heels.
Lan Zhan gave no response. Head lowered, he looked disappointed — at himself, Wei Wuxian realized, feeling guilt curdle in his belly.
What had Wei Wuxian been expecting, really? Of course Gusu Lan’s Hanguang-jun, as pure and untouched as the snow atop the highest mountains, wouldn’t actually know anything about dual cultivation.
He sighed. “Look, Lan Zhan—”
“The forbidden section of the Lan library,” Lan Zhan said suddenly, lifting his head.
“What?” Wei Wuxian asked, startled. “There’s a forbidden section in your library? How long has it been there? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about this?” He had spent a month in that library and if he'd managed to distract Lan Zhan, even for a moment…
Lan Zhan blinked at him, pointedly.
“…Oh. Right.” Wei Wuxian nodded. “Fair point.” Clearing his throat, he added, “So what’s in that forbidden section?”
“I do not know,” Lan Zhan said again, because forbidden, right, Wei Wuxian had almost forgotten who he was talking to. “Perhaps more texts. When I return to Gusu, I will check.”
Wei Wuxian stared wordlessly. Somehow the idea that Lan Wangji, the peerless Second Jade of Lan, who was so uncompromisingly virtuous that he’d once insisted on being beaten for something that wasn’t at all his fault — that he was now offering to break his own family’s rules, was even more unthinkable than his offer to dual cultivate.
“Sure,” Wei Wuxian said, instead of asking why are you doing this? What am I to you that you would do this? He busied his hands with shuffling the pages of his notes. “Well, I guess there’s not much we can do until then.”
“There is.” Lan Zhan tugged the papers from Wei Wuxian’s grip, put them down on the notebook, and held out his palms. “Qi affinity.”
Wei Wuxian looked down at Lan Zhan’s outstretched hands, back up at Lan Zhan’s face, then remembered. “Oh! You mean you want to test our qi affinity? Uh, right now?”
Since Wei Wuxian’s return from the Burial Mounds, he’d allowed few people to touch his bare skin, and never with their spiritual energy. He didn’t dare take the risk; if the wrong person probed too deeply, discovered the diminished state of his qi, and word got back to Jiang Cheng…
But Lan Zhan would not gossip, would not betray him, might not even know what it meant that the rushing torrent of Wei Wuxian’s former spiritual presence was now reduced to a slow trickle. More practically, they were at war, and healers were trained to transfer spiritual energy as the first response to any injury — strengthen the patient’s qi enough for the patient to heal themselves. At the very least, he should find out what would happen.
Wei Wuxian placed his hands on top of Lan Zhan’s, palm to palm, and closed his eyes. “All right.”
Nothing happened at first. Lan Zhan’s hands were callused and surprisingly warm. The wave-like ebb and flow of his breath was calming, almost hypnotic. Wei Wuxian matched his own breathing to Lan Zhan’s rhythm. He could feel himself slowly start to relax.
The first touch of Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy was soft and tentative, a polite request for entry. Wei Wuxian’s body instinctively resisted the foreign presence, but he knew from previous experience with spiritual energy transfers how to suppress that response and open himself up. Permission granted, Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy flowed into him.
He and Lan Zhan had done this before — in the Xuanwu Cave, five months and a lifetime ago. They’d both been exhausted, cored hollow by days of pain, hunger, and thirst, not to mention a gruelling battle against an immortal beast. Still, Lan Zhan had insisted on giving Wei Wuxian spiritual energy, stubbornly scraping the dregs of his reserves for every drop that he poured into Wei Wuxian. It had felt good, clean and bright, as comforting as the first sip of Shijie’s soup on a cold winter’s day.
This felt completely different. At full strength, Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy was like liquid sunshine, a river of pure light coursing through Wei Wuxian’s body. His qi surged in response, parched meridians greedily drinking in Lan Zhan’s radiance even as they opened further, eager for more. He felt warmer than he had in months.
He was also, to his utter shock, getting hard.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes snapped open. Lan Zhan still had his eyes closed, long lashes like inky brushstrokes against pearl-pale skin. His cheeks bore the faintest touch of red, and his soft, lush mouth was slightly parted, showing the white edge of teeth and a hint of pink tongue.
A sudden flare of heat spiked low in Wei Wuxian’s belly, making him gasp. At the sound, Lan Zhan opened his eyes.
Wei Wuxian snatched his hands back, breaking the connection between them. Lan Zhan pitched forward just a little, as though wanting Wei Wuxian’s return, before he righted himself and dropped his hands. His eyes were wide and confused and very, very dark.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said rapidly, “I think we can count this test a success. Not that there was any doubt that we’d have affinity, of course.”
Lan Zhan opened his mouth to speak.
Wei Wuxian bolted to his feet, too quickly for grace. “This was… interesting, and I learned a lot, but I have to go.” He had just enough presence of mind to grab the books and notes, before dashing toward the door.
“Let’s talk later bye!” Wei Wuxian called over his shoulder, and ran away.
Chia, M., Winn, M. (1984). Taoist Secrets of Love: Cultivating Male Sexual Energy. Santa Fe: Aurora Press.
Taoist Sexual Practices. Retrieved 2020, January 25 from Wikipedia
- Chou and Mao hour are about 1AM and 5AM, respectively
- The rules WWX cites do not correspond perfectly to those numbers, but they were the closest equivalent I could find, using the list of rules here
- Peach Garden Serenade is a reference to the fact that "peach blossom garden" is a Chinese euphemism for the vagina
- I will be taking fairly significant liberties with the timeline and the events of the Sunshot Campaign, and the general war with Qishan Wen. This is because in the drama, the entire war happens over the course of like, three episodes, which is understandable given their limited budget but unforgiveable otherwise. There will be zombies. There will not be orcs.
- In a departure from novel!canon, I will be expanding on the fact that in drama!canon, WWX has a lot of trouble controlling the Yin Tiger Seal. Mostly because it raises the stakes for him, and that means greater potential for angst! *licks chops*
Chapter 3: Formulate a hypothesis
Three chapters in and STILL NO SEX? I know, I'm disappointed in myself, too.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The thing was, Wei Wuxian thought, once he’d returned to his room, it wasn’t as though he had forgotten that the reason for his research was potential dual cultivation with Lan Zhan. It was just that for the sake of maintaining his own sanity, he had carefully focused exclusively on the dual cultivation aspect and relegated with Lan Zhan to a distant, dark corner in his mind.
Which had worked until this happened. Now, instead of picturing faceless, impersonal bodies writhing together in the Soaring Phoenix position as described in Journey to the Vermillion Cave, it was him and Lan Zhan — fingers entwined, hair in disarray, lips parted and panting as they drove each other towards—
He stood up, face aflame. The heat in the room was stifling.
A long walk in the damp morning air helped cool his blood. He procured a jar of Qinghe’s best wine from the storerooms, found an unoccupied rooftop, and drank until his thoughts no longer thrashed about in his head like wind-blown leaves.
Perhaps he was overthinking things. Of course he found Lan Zhan appealing; it would be stranger if he didn’t. Lan Zhan was, after all, a flawless pearl of a gentleman: master of all six arts, one of the best cultivators of their generation, and so beautiful that even the legendary Pan An and Lanling Wang were but dull sparrows to his regal crane. It was simply a matter of Wei Wuxian having eyes and good taste.
Admittedly, his recognition of Lan Zhan’s appeal had not previously manifested in the form of arousal, but it was also the first time in months, since before the destruction of Lotus Pier, that he’d felt well. He’d read in Wen Qing’s medical texts that sometimes the body could confuse cessation of pain with pleasure. Surely this was what had happened in Lan Zhan’s room.
Besides, there were more important things to consider. From a purely objective and scientific standpoint, the fact that their test had worked at all was fascinating. Even if Wei Wuxian’s qi wasn’t now irrevocably tainted with resentful energy (which Lan Zhan should have found repulsive; why hadn’t he?), spiritual energy transfers in general tended to be inefficient and even unpleasant if the recipient’s qi fought the foreign intrusion. Wei Wuxian had seldom needed one since he’d developed his golden core, and it had always felt like forcing his feet into ill-fitting shoes.
But his qi had welcomed Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy, as eager as parched earth for rain. His hands still tingled with the memory of that liquid light, tiny firefly sparks where Lan Zhan's fingers had touched. Was this what the dual cultivation stories had meant by affinity of qi? If so, he could see why it would be so important.
And so, uh… nice. Perhaps the descriptions of overwhelming pleasure and heartrending passion were not entirely unrealistic exaggerations.
Heat prickled in his cheeks. Lan Zhan had been blushing too, at the end.
Clearly another long walk was in order, possibly to a cold spring this time, or whatever the Unclean Realm had that was closest.
“Never thought I’d ever miss the Cloud Recesses,” Wei Wuxian muttered, and leapt from the rooftop.
The next day, Nie Mingjue announced the battle plan. The allied cultivators would split into a vanguard and a main force. The vanguard would clear a path through Wen-occupied lands to an outpost on the north bank of the Yellow River, liberating the smaller sects and recruiting any willing fighters to join them in forging ahead and establishing a foothold on the opposite bank. The main force would escort the supply train and noncombatants to that same outpost. From there, they would scout the best approach into Nightless City.
With a departure set, their days in Qinghe turned into a mad scramble of activity. Everything had to be recounted, people who fell ill had to be replaced, damaged equipment had to be repaired. Wei Wuxian, who’d spent his childhood lazing amidst calm water and sun-warmed lotuses, marvelled at the chaos and efficiency of it all.
The last night before their departure, Jiang Cheng found him in one of the caves that dotted the mountain surrounding the Unclean Realm. Unlike the Cloud Recesses, which was almost eerily pure, there was no shortage of resentful energy here. Wei Wuxian suspected that it had something to do with the Nie sect style of cultivation, but even he wasn’t so churlish as to ask.
He put down Chenqing as Jiang Cheng approached, releasing the spirits he’d summoned to practice his control. “So, what’s happening?”
Jiang Cheng snorted and crossed his arms. “You could always attend the strategy meetings and find out for yourself.”
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes. “It’s not like I have anything useful to contribute to the conversation anyway. Besides, if I wanted to spend my days getting glared at, I’d go bother Lan Zhan. He’s at least prettier than that peacock and his cousin, what’s-his-name.”
“Jin Zixun,” Jiang Cheng answered, to Wei Wuxian’s dismissive wave. “They wouldn’t glare at you if you’d just carry your sword.”
“And let them win? No way.”
Jiang Cheng heaved a long-suffering sigh and shook his head. “Fine, do what you like, it’s what you’ve always done anyway.” He turned and left, adding, “Jie wanted you to know that she made soup, but I’ll just tell her you’re practising inedia and that I can have your share.”
Wei Wuxian bolted after him. “Jiang Cheng, don’t you dare!” Jiang Cheng walked faster; Wei Wuxian broke into a run. “You brat, where’s the respect for your da-shixiong?”
They bickered their way down the mountain. Jiang Cheng shoved Wei Wuxian into several bushes. Wei Wuxian stripped the leaves off the bushes and shoved them down the back of Jiang Cheng’s collar.
They found Shijie sitting at the table in her room, with three bowls and a covered pot laid out on the tabletop. She raised her eyebrows as they entered, Wei Wuxian still brushing leaves from his clothes, but rose to ladle steaming soup into one of the bowls.
“For Sect Leader Jiang,” she said, with delicate pointedness.
Jiang Cheng flushed scarlet and took it sheepishly.
She turned to Wei Wuxian next and filled another bowl. “For Jiang sect’s First Disciple.”
“Thank you, Shijie,” Wei Wuxian said, and pouted at her from beneath his lashes until the smile hovering at her lips broke across her face. He grinned, drank a hearty spoonful of soup, and — frowned.
There were goji berries swimming in the fragrant broth, like tiny goldfish in a pond. Almost as tiny were the pieces of pork, completely dwarfed by considerably larger chunks of lotus root. Wei Wuxian cast a surreptitious glance at Jiang Cheng, whose bowl was just as tragically lacking in meat. Jiang Cheng shrugged back at him.
A truly horrible thought slid into his mind. “Shijie,” Wei Wuxian said, in tones of most profound betrayal, “did you give all the pork to someone else?”
Shijie laughed. “No, silly boy. Men should eat yin-natured food before a battle to balance their yang energy. It’s good for your qi.”
Wei Wuxian’s breath hitched. He slurped down more soup before she could notice.
“Besides,” she continued, addressing Jiang Cheng now, “you should both be grateful — the Lan sect men are eating bitter vegetables.”
“That’s what they always eat,” Wei Wuxian muttered, but smiled winningly when she pursed her lips. “If Shijie says it’s good it’s good for me, then I’ll drink all of it!” He finished his soup as diligently as the most obedient disciple, then put on his most pitiful expression and nudged his empty bowl back in her direction. “But Shijie, couldn’t Xianxian have just a little more meat? You see how thin I am.”
“Let him starve, A-jie,” Jiang Cheng said heartlessly, and ducked the swipe Wei Wuxian aimed at his head.
Later, while recovering from his nightly struggle with the Yin Tiger Seal, Wei Wuxian thought about what Shijie had said. He did know about yin-natured food, of course; he had paid attention during his lessons, no matter what everyone used to say. Cultivation was a process of internal alchemy where one nurtured the Three Treasures: jing, the essence of the body; qi, the balance of yin-yang energy that powered all life; and shen, the spirit or the mind.
Shen was cultivated through meditation. Qi was cultivated through sword training, which created spiritual energy that was then stored in the golden core. Jing could either be nourished by having a clear shen, balanced qi, and an otherwise healthy regimen of diet and exercise; or conserved by refraining from self-pleasure.
Dual cultivation, however, could apparently create jing.
He had no illusions about his fate. Without his golden core, he would never be a true cultivator again. When he was hunting Wen Chao, he’d had to anchor his talismans in his own blood, because he couldn’t infuse enough spiritual energy into the cinnabar ink. After he’d been reunited with Suibian, he tried using it once, moving through the familiar forms of Yunmeng Jiang’s sword style. He’d lasted barely half an incense stick’s time before the hilt had fallen from trembling fingers, before he had fallen to his knees in exhaustion.
Resentful energy was wild and fiendishly difficult to control, but it was all he had. And if dual cultivation really could replenish his jing, keep him healthy even if it couldn’t prolong his life, then… maybe it was worth pursuing, after all.
Of course, there was the other issue of the fact that dual cultivation required both yin and yang energy, and neither he nor Lan Zhan was a woman. Even if Wei Wuxian knew a female cultivator whom he would trust enough to engage in this endeavour, he was barely producing enough yang energy to sustain his own qi.
He really ought to talk to Lan Zhan again. Though considering how their previous two conversations had gone, Wei Wuxian should probably plan for a time when he'd be less prone to saying and doing stupid things.
He didn’t talk to Lan Zhan again. Not for a lack of opportunity — they’d both volunteered to escort the supply train and noncombatants — but leading a large group of people through unfamiliar territory occupied all of their time and attention. Food got wet and spoiled, water got fouled, swords got rained on and rusted.
At least he didn’t have to deal with the petty squabbles anymore; Shijie had worked her magic on the entire host by the end of the third day, bending even the most mulish to her gentle but implacable will.
No one attacked them, which was fine — a relief, even — until word came from the vanguard that they weren’t being attacked either. Every minor cultivation sect reported the same story: the Wens had swept through their lands like the receding tide, taking every able-bodied fighter with them.
The people here believe that the Wens took hostages for ransom, Jiang Cheng wrote. Or that they are the hostages, to force those who were taken to fight for the Wens. Jin Zixuan and I feel that using them as human shields is more likely, though some of the others from our side have already started bragging that the Wens are running away.
Wei Wuxian remembered Wen Chao turning the Wen civilians into puppets when he and Lan Zhan had gone searching for the missing pieces of Yin metal. Grimly, he wondered if they were being led into a trap.
His fears were confirmed when they reached the encampment. The vanguard had won their foothold on the other side of the Yellow River, but they’d faced a fearsome enemy: Yin metal-controlled puppets, not just hapless villagers this time but actual cultivators. The missing cultivators, who attacked with mindless ferocity and infected anyone they touched.
Wei Wuxian caught up with Jiang Cheng as the vanguard brought in the last of the infected Jiang sect cultivators. “How many did we lose?”
“Too many,” Jiang Cheng said, mouth tight and tired. “We tried to fly, but…” He held up his arm. A ragged tear slashed through the fabric of his sleeve, exposing a thin sliver of skin.
“Archers,” Wei Wuxian realized.
Jiang Cheng nodded. “We took as many prisoners as we could, without further endangering ourselves. The rest…” He swallowed hard. “We had to kill them so they’d stop attacking. Even when we cut off their arms, some tried to bite.”
Wei Wuxian swept his gaze over the cultivator puppets, pausing when he caught sight of a girl in Jiang sect purple: Li Hong, a third-year disciple. She’d been visiting her grandparents in Yiling when the Wens had attacked. Her two older brothers had fallen along with Lotus Pier.
He cursed, quietly and viciously. “That’s why there weren’t any Wen cultivators on the way here. Why risk his own people when he can make us kill each other?”
Jiang Cheng followed the direction of his gaze, and grimaced. “I know. Look, I need to report in, can you—”
“Go,” Wei Wuxian urged. “I’ll take care of things here.”
When Jiang Cheng found him again, an hour later, Wei Wuxian had isolated the infected cultivators in a tent on the outskirts of the encampment. He’d come up with a suppressing talisman to keep them dormant, and had also chained them to metal spikes driven deep into the ground.
“What’s the plan?” Wei Wuxian asked, tucking his bloody hands carefully behind his back as Jiang Cheng approached.
“Zewu-jun, Jin Zixuan, and I will lead a three-pronged assault on Nightless City while Chifeng-zun sneaks in and assassinates Wen Ruohan,” Jiang Cheng said. He looked less strained than he had earlier. “We have a map of Wen sect’s formations. Zewu-jun has someone on the inside.”
“Who?” Wei Wuxian asked sharply.
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “He wouldn’t tell us. Apparently the spy’s information is accurate, though.”
Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes, but decided not to press. He tilted his head at the rows of unconscious cultivators. “What about these people? Lan Zhan says it’ll take at least three months of spiritual energy transfers to heal them.”
“We’ll leave some cultivators here to guard the wounded and protect the noncombatants.”
Probably not the best cultivators, who’d be needed in the attack on Nightless City. If that attack failed, Qishan Wen would descend like a hammer on anyone who was left.
They couldn’t fail, then. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow. We attack Nightless City in seven days.” Jiang Cheng gave him a long, searching look, then added, “We can’t defeat Wen Ruohan unless we can counter his Yin metal.”
Wei Wuxian met his gaze squarely. “I know. I’ll figure it out.”
They left early the next day, in three divisions of Jin sect, Nie sect — led by Lan Xichen in Nie Mingjue’s absence — and a combined force of Jiang and Lan sects. This close to Qishan, the air was perpetually choked with volcanic ash, turning the sky dishwater grey. Jin Zixuan’s gold-clad contingent looked almost jaundiced. Even Lan Zhan’s radiance was slightly dimmed by the unrelenting gloom, though he still looked impeccably handsome.
The divisions’ paths split shortly after crossing the river. It was a risky tactic, to further reduce their numbers, but the craggy forest that studded the mountains around Nightless City would be more easily infiltrated by a small, swift-moving force. With luck, they would all reunite at the base of Nightless City for the final assault.
For the first three days, Wei Wuxian saw no one. The few villages that they passed had been reduced to barren husks, probably to prevent attacking armies from pillaging for supplies. They’d expected this, and brought along as much food and water as they could comfortably carry. Their golden cores would have to sustain them the rest of the way.
Shijie had fretted over their meagre rations. “Are you sure you have enough?” she’d asked, cramming his and Jiang Cheng’s pockets with extra packets of salt and dried meat. “It’s so many days of travel; what if you get hurt?”
Wei Wuxian had thumped his chest proudly. “Don’t forget, Lan Zhan and I killed a Xuanwu even after four days without food or water. What are a few puppets compared to an immortal monster?”
That had made her laugh. Wei Wuxian smiled at the memory. He didn’t have enough, of course; he could hardly raise suspicion by bringing more food than expected for a cultivator of his level. But he trusted that Jiang Cheng would share if he whined enough.
In any case, he was no stranger to hunger.
On the evening of the fourth day, they were attacked.
Wei Wuxian sensed it first when a strange energy shivered under his skin, like the pressure of an oncoming storm. The Yin Tiger Seal, tucked away in his qiankun pouch, began to pulse. He squinted at the gaps between the black spindly trees for movement, but found nothing.
He stopped anyway, and grabbed Jiang Cheng’s arm to make him stop as well. “Something’s wrong.”
Jiang Cheng’s arm went iron-tight under Wei Wuxian’s grip. He followed the direction of Wei Wuxian’s gaze, sword-hand clenched on Sandu’s hilt. “What is it? I don’t see anything.”
Dusk stripped colour from the world, leaving only murky shades of blue and black. Wei Wuxian had fire talismans, but the smoke might give away their position. If only there was some kind of tool that could tell you where things were—
Cool blue light caught his eye. Wei Wuxian turned and saw Lan Zhan, sword unsheathed. The bare blade glowed with his spiritual energy like a lamp in the darkness. The light painted deep, eerily shaped shadows in the forest around them.
They watched and waited, silent and still, holding their breaths.
Nothing charged at them from the shadows, but the strange feeling didn’t fade.
And then someone screamed, a sudden burst of sound that cut off in a wet gurgle. Wei Wuxian spun around. A puppet crouched over the body of a Jiang sect disciple, lifting its bloody face from the gory ruin of the disciple’s throat.
Jiang Cheng swung, and cut off its head. “Where the fuck did it come from?”
The hairs on the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck prickled. He looked up, just as Lan Zhan lifted Bichen high above his head.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened. “They’re in the trees.”
The battle was bloody and brutal.
Countless puppets threw themselves from the trees, slashing and tearing at any cultivator they could reach. No injury short of death stopped them; they attacked with blood gushing from gaping wounds or white spikes of bone poking out of mangled limbs.
Wei Wuxian blew a shrill command on Chenqing, but that only froze them for a moment. Then they remembered that they were bound to an older, stronger power and tore off the cobwebs of his control. He switched to talismans instead, flinging spells for light, distraction, paralysis, binding — anything for even a moment of advantage. Chaos raged around him, swords clashing, flesh rending, people screaming as they bled, rose as infected puppets, and were cut down.
By the time the last puppet fell to the ground, Wei Wuxian was exhausted. A pale orange moon hung high in the sky, casting sallow light upon the other, similarly exhausted cultivators. They leaned against their swords or tree trunks, many wounded, all panting harshly.
Nine of their own people lay dead among the puppets.
They didn’t have time to bury everyone. The best they could do now would be to cast a barrier seal around this place, to keep away scavenging animals until they returned from Nightless City.
A flash of white snagged Wei Wuxian’s gaze. Lan Zhan, somehow still looking as pristine as fresh snow, sat down in the dust. He drew out his qin from his qiankun pouch, and began to play.
The melody was unfamiliar, slower and simpler than the one he’d played for Wei Wuxian in the Unclean Realm. It soothed instead of cleansed, calming and quieting even the air around him.
He tilted a questioning look at Jiang Cheng, who leaned in close and whispered, “It’s one of their Lan songs, used to put spirits to rest. I heard him play it when we were clearing out the Wen supervisory offices.”
Wei Wuxian frowned. Freed from Wen Ruohan’s control, the puppets’ spirits should have welcomed this musical escort into the afterlife. Instead, they resisted, twisting like caught fish in the net of Lan Zhan’s power.
It would be futile, of course; Hanguang-jun’s will was unconquerable, and some of the weaker ones were already beginning to settle. But the freshly killed still snarled, voiceless and furious: revenge.
“Hey!” a voice called, interrupting the song. “This puppet is still alive!”
They all turned to see a Lan disciple point shakily at a body — no, not a body, a living puppet , half-disemboweled but still moving. It lifted its blood-splattered face and let out a howling wail, inhumanly loud and teeth-grindingly shrill. Wei Wuxian could hear the thing’s vocal cords strain and shred as the sound echoed through the forest, until a sword flew through its open mouth and impaled it to a tree.
For a moment, there was only silence.
Then Wei Wuxian felt the thunderstorm prickle again as low growls answered from the dark forest surrounding them. Like before, the Yin Tiger Seal pulsed to life.
More puppets. The disciples staggered to their feet and lifted their swords with hands that trembled. Their faces were ghostly in the pale moonlight, grim and frightened.
They were still three days from Nightless City, and every person they lost here was one person fewer to stand against Wen Ruohan.
Wei Wuxian brought Chenqing to his lips.
Do you want revenge?
He didn’t command, this time. He didn’t need to; the spirits cried out for the injustice of their deaths, their lost dreams and lost loves.
Then stay with me, he offered. I will give you revenge.
This was harder than when he was directing the slaughter in the Wen supervisory offices. There, he’d just needed to call out to the resentful spirits of Wen victims, gather them to him, and give them a target. But resentful energy alone wouldn’t be enough against Yin-manipulated puppet cultivators. Wei Wuxian needed flesh. He needed more.
The Yin Tiger Seal’s power swelled like an overflowing river, flooding his hands, his lungs, his bones. Chenqing's song made the air shiver as one by one, the spirits returned to their former bodies.
I know who you need to kill, he promised, and ordered the attack.
The dead heaved themselves up from the ground and ambled towards the oncoming puppets. Jiang sect cultivators screamed and slashed at them with swords. Lan sect was still, wide-eyed but unmoving, held back by Lan Zhan’s outstretched arm. Wei Wuxian didn’t try to decipher the expression that was on Lan Zhan’s face. He turned to Jiang Cheng instead, and shot him a sharp, meaningful look.
Jiang Cheng’s eyes flicked between Wei Wuxian and the newly revived corpses. He nodded once. “Stay calm!” he shouted at the disciples. “Wei Wuxian’s controlling them. They won’t hurt you.”
Wei Wuxian dipped his head in gratitude, and continued to play. The corpses broke into an unsteady, lurching run, utterly uncaring of the condition of their bodies. Those without feet ran on bloody stumps. Unnaturally angled heads swayed above throats slit almost to the spine. The corpse of the puppet who’d summoned the reinforcements trailed a long rope of intestine behind him as he ran.
The corpses slammed into the puppets and tore them apart. It didn’t matter that the puppets outnumbered them four to one; the Yin Tiger Seal gorged the corpses with resentful energy, giving them unnatural ferocity and strength.
On Wei Wuxian’s next pause for breath, he said, “Go. I’ll catch up.”
Jiang Cheng glared fiercely at him for a moment, before his gaze slid to his disciples. “One hour. If you’re not back by then—”
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes and jerked his head. Just go already.
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng said. He raised Sandu and began to run, yelling for the rest of the cultivators to follow. Jiang and Lan sect ran after him, and were engulfed by the deep shadows of night.
Lan Zhan lingered, expression still unreadable. Wei Wuxian stuck out his chin confidently and raised an eyebrow, until Lan Zhan also turned and left.
Alone, Wei Wuxian could focus on controlling the corpses. Not that much control was needed; the spirits wanted this, delighted in the destruction of their enemies. The resentful energy responded to even the smallest touch of his will, as eager as well-trained horses.
As the last of the puppets collapsed, so did the corpses. Their resentment finally spent, most of the spirits dissipated of their own accord, content and satisfied. A few still wanted to stay, but he tightened his control and they obediently sulked off into the afterlife. When the forest was silent and empty once more, Wei Wuxian lowered his flute.
It was stunningly, exhilaratingly easy, in a way that nothing had been since the loss of his golden core. His mind was calm and clear. His fingers and lips felt numbed by the cold touch of resentful energy.
He flexed his fingers, licked dry lips, and tasted blood. Wei Wuxian touched his upper lip; his hand came away wet. He stared silently at his red-stained fingers.
It was suddenly very cold. Wei Wuxian tried to shiver, but found that he couldn’t. There was an icy numbness growing inside him, like the sprawling spread of frost, until the only warmth he could feel was the blood spilling from his nose. Chenqing tumbled from his grasp. He couldn’t stop it. He tried to walk, and stumbled.
White-clad arms caught him. He blinked blearily up at Lan Zhan’s face, so beautiful in the moonlight. Lan Zhan was saying something, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t hear. Why did Lan Zhan look so worried? Wei Wuxian had defeated the enemy. Maybe Lan Zhan was worried about him? But he was fine, just a little tired, Lan Zhan-ah, you wouldn’t mind just letting me lean on you for a moment, would you?
A hand touched his face, and heat was flowing into him, chasing away the cold like Shijie’s soup on a winter day. He pressed his face into Lan Zhan’s palm, wanting more.
Darkness welled up around him. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes, and sank down into the dark.
Awareness seeped in slowly, an unwelcome intruder to the comfort of Wei Wuxian’s sleep. He kept his eyes stubbornly shut, but couldn’t stop the rest of his senses from awakening. Chenqing was quiet at his waist; that was good. There was movement, but he wasn’t moving. There were arms around him, tucking him securely against a warm chest that smelled somehow familiar—
Wei Wuxian jerked awake, eyes flying open, and almost tumbled out of Lan Zhan’s arms before Lan Zhan tightened his grip. “What are you — why are you carrying me?”
Lan Zhan gazed impassively down at him. “You were unconscious,” he said, as though that was sufficient explanation for carrying Wei Wuxian like a maiden in a romance novel.
“Well, I’m not unconscious anymore so put me down!” Wei Wuxian looked around frantically. Fortunately, they were alone in the forest. “Can you imagine if someone saw? I’d lose face forever!”
“You offered to carry me once,” Lan Zhan said.
“I have no memory of this,” Wei Wuxian declared. “Seriously, put me down.”
Lan Zhan looked like he wanted to say something in response, but sighed instead. He stopped walking, bent at the waist, and carefully lowered Wei Wuxian to his feet.
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said primly, and almost immediately fell when his legs buckled beneath him.
Lan Zhan caught him again, though this time he had mercy on Wei Wuxian’s bruised dignity and only braced his arm behind Wei Wuxian’s back. “You’re welcome,” he said coolly.
It was slower going with Wei Wuxian walking on his own, but if Lan Zhan objected to the pace, he didn’t show it. A smear of red marred the immaculate white of Lan Zhan’s robes — probably from Wei Wuxian’s bloody nose, he realized guiltily.
His nose wasn’t bleeding anymore though, and the icy numbness was gone. That inner frost had never happened before, though admittedly he’d had also never drawn so heavily from the Yin Tiger Seal.
Wei Wuxian stopped. Yin metal — he’d always thought that the name was a coincidence, or some dusty, esoteric reference that he wasn’t learned enough to understand. But if it was actually yin energy…
It would explain why he always felt cold now. And why Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy was so warm, because of course he’d be brimming with yang; that was probably why that bone-chilling Cold Spring hadn’t even fazed him. And if dual cultivation really did work, and required a yin and yang contributor, then technically—
Wei Wuxian blinked, then realized that he’d just been standing there for — a while. “Oh, sorry, let’s keep going.” He took a step forward, but Lan Zhan’s arm tightened around his back, keeping him in place.
“I… I have a question,” Lan Zhan said, sounding uncharacteristically hesitant. “Will you answer me truthfully?”
“Will you know if I don’t?” Wei Wuxian asked, and snickered when Lan Zhan glared at him. “I’m joking, I’m joking. Go ahead and ask.”
Lan Zhan took a deep breath, and met his gaze steadily. “What has happened to your golden core?”
Chia, M., Wei, W. (2002). Sexual Reflexology: the Tao of Sex and Love. Chiang Mai: Universal Tao Publications.
Three Treasures (Traditional Chinese Medicine)." Retrieved 2020, February 10 from Wikipedia.
Vegetables of China. (2019). Cleaver Quarterly.
- Ming dynasty field rations consisted mostly of rice or millet, hard bread, and meat and vegetables if you were lucky and/or of a higher rank. Salt was hard to come by and therefore precious.
Wei Wuxian froze. The bottom dropped out of his stomach. It felt like he was falling again, plummeting wildly into a gaping maw that reeked of terror and despair.
He looked at Lan Zhan, and for one monstrous moment, saw not the familiar face of his friend but a collection of weak points to target. He was tapped out of both physical and spiritual power but his best weapons against Lan Zhan had always been his words. They’d defeated Lan Zhan before, when Lan Zhan had confronted him after his return from the Burial Mounds. Now they came again, filling Wei Wuxian’s mouth with poisoned barbs ready to hurt.
Except, if he did, Lan Zhan would know that his question about Wei Wuxian’s golden core had struck true. Lan Zhan would have more questions, and if Wei Wuxian refused to answer them he’d go to someone else until he dragged out the full truth, naked and screaming, into the light.
He had to say something. The longer he stood there in silence, the fewer options he’d have for his response. Denial was out of the question; Lan Zhan clearly knew something — How? Was it the qi affinity test? Or had Lan Zhan suggested the qi affinity test because he’d already had suspicions? No, Lan Zhan would never stoop to such subterfuge. Lying was an option, but Lan Zhan would see through an attempt at bravado, and Wei Wuxian barely had enough strength to stay on his feet, much less think of a clever lie.
The truth was, of course, unthinkable.
What Wei Wuxian really needed now was time to re-gather the thoughts that had scattered like a flock of birds at Lan Zhan’s question. “Let’s focus on getting back to the others first,” he said, and started walking again, forcing Lan Zhan to either keep up or let go of him.
Lan Zhan kept up. “Wei Ying. Your core—”
“Not now,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. It was as good as a confirmation that something was wrong with his core, but anything else would just make Lan Zhan dig his heels in harder. “Get back first. Then we’ll find some time alone and talk.”
As he’d hoped, the hard line of Lan Zhan’s mouth softened. “Very well,” Lan Zhan said, and they kept walking.
It didn’t take long for them to find the others. The moon overhead gave just enough light to see the trail markings that Jiang Cheng had carved into the trees, leading them to a cave tucked behind the protective curtain of a waterfall.
A Lan sect disciple was guarding the cave entrance, her hand tight on the handle of her sword. Her head snapped up like a wary fox as they emerged from the trees; her sword bared a sliver of blade.
“It’s all right,” Wei Wuxian said reassuringly, shrugging off Lan Zhan’s supporting arm. “It’s just us.”
She did not look terribly reassured, at least not until her gaze slid past him to Lan Zhan. Then she dipped her head in a bow and stepped aside.
“Well, that was a little insulting,” he murmured to Lan Zhan, as they walked past her. “Especially since I just saved everyone.”
For a moment, Lan Zhan said nothing. Then, quietly, he asked, “Can you not feel it?”
Wei Wuxian paused. “Feel what?”
“You’re back!” Jiang Cheng said, striding towards them. “About time. The puppets?”
“Taken care of,” Wei Wuxian replied, as Lan Zhan’s expression smoothed to its usual impassivity.
“Good,” Jiang Cheng said. He gave Lan Zhan a polite nod and then hauled Wei Wuxian by the arm into the cave, past the disciples huddled around two campfires, into a secluded corner in the back. “What the hell was that back there?”
Well, at least this question was one that he'd anticipated. “Wasn’t it obvious? I told you I’d find a way to counter Wen Ruohan’s Yin metal.”
“By using demonic cultivation to raise the dead?”
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “It worked.”
Jiang Cheng gave him a skeptical look. “You’d better know what you’re doing. Demonic cultivation isn’t safe. Have you forgotten everything Master Lan taught us?”
“Have you been talking to Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked suspiciously. “Look, Lan Qiren said that demonic cultivation is only dangerous when the resentful energy goes out of control. I’m controlling it. Besides, what better weapons do we have against those puppets? At least this way, we’re not risking any more of our people.”
Jiang Cheng failed to look any less skeptical. “We’ll talk about this later.” He swept his gaze down Wei Wuxian’s body and back up. “Get some rest first. You look exhausted, and we’re leaving at sunrise.”
Well, that was probably the best that he was going to get from Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian nodded, patted him on the shoulder, and headed back out to the waterfall. A line of Jiang disciples stood there holding bamboo water tubes under the silvery spill. Joining them, he took his own water tube out from his qiankun pouch, and—
The disciples startled, eyes darting to him and skittering away like frightened rabbits. Even little Mu Binbin, whom he’d comforted just a week ago after one of Jiang Cheng’s post-training diatribes, edged a step back from him.
A new knot of cold twisted in his stomach. He remembered, suddenly, what Lan Zhan had said when they’d entered the cave: Can you not feel it?
Wei Wuxian left the cave.
The Lan guard watched him warily as he passed, but didn’t try to stop him. He didn’t go far, still within shouting distance, and found a tree that had an invitingly splayed branch. It took his weight with ease, the bark cool and smooth under his hands. He rested his back against the trunk and closed his eyes.
The slumbering forest murmured quietly around him as night creatures, sensing the impending dawn, hurried back to their burrows and dens. A brisk wind ruffled through the leaves, cooler and sharper than the lazy, sweet-scented breezes of Lotus Pier. It caught in the damp collars and cuffs of his robes, and chilled the skin there. Wei Wuxian shivered.
He opened his eyes, unsurprised. There was the wing-beat sound of rustling fabric, and then Lan Zhan was standing before him, luminous in the waning moonlight.
The echo of a childish impulse welled up in him, painting his tongue with some teasing remark about how even the drudgery of war could not dim Lan Er-gongzi’s divine beauty. In the past, it would definitely have won him a scowl, perhaps even a blush, and he would have laughed as Lan Zhan stalked off in a huff.
Now, he said, “What do I feel like right now, to you?”
If the question caught Lan Zhan by surprise, he didn’t show it. He sat down on the branch at Wei Wuxian’s outstretched feet, graceful as a bird folding its wings, and said, “Unsettling.”
Wei Wuxian glared at him.
“Resentful energy has no life,” Lan Zhan elaborated. “But you are alive. The combination feels unnatural.” His dark eyes narrowed. “Jiang Wanyin has not—”
“Jiang Cheng has more important things to worry about,” Wei Wuxian interrupted.
Lan Zhan held his gaze. “As do you.”
Ah. There it was. Wei Wuxian sat up straighter. “How did you find out?”
“Resentful energy is yin in nature,” Lan Zhan said simply, as though this wasn’t something that had taken Wei Wuxian literal weeks to figure out. “Too much of it imbalances your qi. Your core should be able to correct this imbalance by releasing more yang energy. It has not. I sensed this during the qi affinity test. Then earlier tonight, you almost experienced a qi deviation.” A thread of frustration cracked through the ice-smooth tones of his voice. “You said my music cannot help you. That you must continue with demonic cultivation. Why?”
It was the most words Wei Wuxian had ever heard Lan Zhan say. For a moment, Wei Wuxian just stared at him. A small part of his mind thrilled at how clever Lan Zhan was, delighted in the reminder that here was the one person who could not only keep up with him, but run ahead and make him chase.
The rest of him grimly evaluated his remaining options. He couldn’t risk Lan Zhan going to Jiang Cheng, which meant he had to tell Lan Zhan something. If he had no way of avoiding this battle, then he had to at least control it.
“If I tell you,” he said, voice steadier than the hands clenched tightly against his thighs, “You must swear not to tell anyone what I’ve told you. No matter what happens. Even after I die you’ll keep this secret. Do you swear?”
Lan Zhan said nothing. Good; Wei Wuxian wanted him to feel the weight of this promise, to make sure it was something he could bear.
Finally, Lan Zhan nodded. “I do.”
“On Heaven and Earth,” Wei Wuxian said.
“On Heaven and Earth,” Lan Zhan echoed.
“All right,” Wei Wuxian said, and swallowed down the tangle of nerves that thrashed like a caged animal in his chest. “I’ve lost my golden core.”
He’d never said those words out loud to anyone, even Wen Qing and Wen Ning. He’d just lived with the truth of it, day after day, until he’d more or less gotten used to it. But the horror in Lan Zhan’s face brought back the memory of those first few days after he’d woken from the surgery, when everything had felt alien and painful and wrong.
“How?” Lan Zhan demanded.
“When Lotus Pier was attacked, Wen Zhuliu was there.” The words came more easily now, like mountain streams that knew their way to the river. There was enough truth that a gentle misdirection was all it took to nudge the river to safer channels. “The Core-Melting Hand lives up to his reputation.”
The horror changed to dawning realization. “That is why you no longer carry Suibian.”
Wei Wuxian’s gaze flicked down to Bichen, straight and strong in Lan Zhan’s hand. His own hand ached with emptiness. “Yes.”
“Does Jiang Wanyin know?”
Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. Why do you think I’m here and not at the camp with Shijie and the others?”
“You intend to continue with demonic cultivation? Even now?”
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian met his gaze. “How many of our people would we have lost tonight if I hadn’t summoned those corpses?”
“Many,” Lan Zhan acknowledged, mouth tightening. “But without your core, the damage to your body and spirit will be even greater.”
It was… unexpectedly sweet that Lan Zhan would care about Wei Wuxian’s well-being when there was so much else at stake. When he was sixteen, he’d tried everything to get Lan Zhan to so much as glance in his direction, with only minimal success. Apparently, the secret was just to sacrifice his golden core and take up demonic cultivation.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said, “isn’t that why we’ve been researching dual cultivation?”
“You still wish to—” Lan Zhan asked. He gave Wei Wuxian a long, searching look, before his gaze softened to something that felt uncomfortably like pity. “Wei Ying. Dual cultivation will not restore your core.”
Wei Wuxian already knew that. It ached a little, all the same. He forced his mouth into a smile. “I know it won’t. But I can’t be having a qi deviation after every battle, either — not that I have enough qi to deviate, but you know what I mean.” He shrugged, and reached up to tug a damp collar away from where it was sticking to his skin. “It’s at least worth a try.”
Lan Zhan went still. “All right,” he said, after a moment, and stood up. “Not here.”
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes and pushed to his feet as well. “Well, of course not here, what kind of barbarian do you take me for—”
“There is a stream half a li away,” Lan Zhan added, and then immediately had to grab Wei Wuxian’s arm to keep him from falling out of the tree. “Wei Ying!”
“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian said hastily, wobbling himself back to steady footing. “I just — misstepped.”
And possibly also misheard? But Lan Zhan just nodded and leapt from the tree and looked expectantly back up at Wei Wuxian, clearly waiting for him to follow.
Wei Wuxian followed.
Lan Zhan was silent as they walked. Wei Wuxian snuck glances at him, fighting the urge to stick an exorcism talisman to his back, just in case. If it were anyone else, Wei Wuxian would also consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, but Lan Zhan had neither a discernable sense of humour nor any tolerance for pranks. Which meant, improbably, that this was actually happening.
It shouldn’t be as astounding as it was. Lan Zhan had, after all, been the one to suggest dual cultivation in the first place. He’d even sat through Wei Wuxian reading excerpts of pornographic texts as research for said dual cultivation. In all their discussions, there had never been even an implied drawing of lines to constrain this solely to the realm of academia.
Possibly the shock was due to their surroundings, which were a far cry from the silk-laden bed and incense burners that Lan Zhan probably expected and most certainly deserved. Or the fact that Wei Wuxian could not have chosen a less erotic setting than immediately after confessing his spiritual amputation.
Not that eroticism was the goal here, of course. This wouldn’t be lovemaking, it would be dual cultivation, which was a well-documented, Lan-approved method of joining bodies and spiritual energies.
Hopefully Zewu-jun would be convinced by this line of reasoning should he ever find out and decide to decapitate Wei Wuxian for deflowering his beloved younger brother in a forest. Though perhaps he’d be mollified by the fact that it was a mutual deflowering?
Wei Wuxian startled, and realized that they’d arrived at the stream. “Oh.”
Lan Zhan stood motionless beside him, as rigid as a statue. Wei Wuxian squinted, but with the moon hidden behind the trees, there wasn’t enough light to discern Lan Zhan’s expression.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian began tentatively, “if you’ve changed your mind, we can just go back.”
“I have not,” Lan Zhan said. He took a deep breath, and continued, more softly, “I am… unsure how to proceed.”
Relief bloomed in Wei Wuxian’s chest, loosening the tight knot of nerves. He smiled reassuringly, then remembered that Lan Zhan couldn’t see his face either, and tugged on one of Lan Zhan’s sleeves instead. “Just follow my lead. I know what to do.”
He didn’t, of course; for all his flirtations, he’d never so much as kissed anyone. But at least he’d read books and knew the general theory of things. All Lan Zhan had was poetry about mountain climbing.
Wei Wuxian led them to a large weeping willow by the bank of the stream, with cascades of pendulous branches that trailed along the surface of the water like unbound hair. He parted the leafy curtain and pulled Lan Zhan after him, sitting them both down on an exposed arch of root. Hidden from view, Wei Wuxian pulled a light talisman from between the layers of his robes and stuck it against the tree trunk. It dissolved into a candle-like flame that burned without heat, gently illuminating the underbelly of the willow tree.
Lan Zhan blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light. His eyelashes were long and dark against the pale gold skin of his cheeks.
Wei Wuxian swallowed around the sudden dryness in his throat. “All right. So, I have some thoughts.”
There were some things they couldn’t do, for obvious reasons; Wei Wuxian might have an abundance of yin, but he was still distinctly lacking in a Hidden Palace or a Moon Grotto. There was a scene in Peach Garden Serenade where devious fox spirit Hong Xiu tries to steal Tao Zheng’s essence by massaging her fingers against his… insides, but that had required quite a bit of oil, which they didn’t have.
There was also the issue of time. The sky had still been dark when they’d snuck away from the cave, but the band of grey on the eastern horizon meant that it wouldn’t stay dark for long. And they were all leaving at sunrise.
“Since we’re a little short on time and uh, supplies,” Wei Wuxian said, with confidence that he didn’t quite feel, “I think using my mouth on you will be the best option.”
Lan Zhan sucked in a quick, harsh breath, but he didn’t immediately jump to his feet and storm off or punch Wei Wuxian in the face, so Wei Wuxian continued.
“I don’t think it’ll be that dissimilar to what I do with Chenqing — it’s even called ‘playing the flute’ in Pearls of the Dragon. I’ll still need to channel the yin energy into my mouth, but instead of releasing it into my flute I guess I’ll be releasing it into your—”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan gave him the slightly pinched look that meant he was profoundly annoyed. It was one of Wei Wuxian’s favourite Lan Zhan expressions.
Wei Wuxian grinned back helplessly, the warm glow of nostalgia chasing away the rest of his nervousness. “Nevermind. Let’s get started, shall we?”
Lan Zhan’s throat bobbed as he swallowed, but he nodded. “What should I do?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Wei Wuxian said, sliding down to his knees in front of Lan Zhan, until he was at eye-level with Lan Zhan’s elaborately layered belt. “Well, maybe you can help me get your clothes out of the way.”
He considered the mechanics of the “flute playing” as Lan Zhan’s deft hands undid his belt and parted his robes. The relevant scene from Pearls of the Dragon had been written from the woman’s point of view, which was useful for instructional purposes, though Wei Wuxian was already planning on disregarding the bits where Jia Xiao gasped and cooed over the size of Zhang Ming’s heavenly shaft—
Lan Zhan pulled his cock free of his inner trousers. It was already hard.
Wei Wuxian stared at it.
Objectively speaking, Lan Zhan’s cock didn’t look all that different from his own; perhaps a shade or so paler, curving straight up instead of leaning slightly to the left. Non-objectively speaking, Wei Wuxian was deeply grateful that it was going inside his mouth and not… elsewhere.
Speaking of which… he placed his hands carefully on Lan Zhan’s clothed thighs, spreading them apart to make room for his shoulders. Lan Zhan’s breath quickened, abdomen heaving. He was still almost entirely dressed, but that just made his bared cock look all the more vulnerable. Irrationally, Wei Wuxian wondered if it was cold. He looked up at Lan Zhan and waited for him to nod his consent, then leaned in.
In the book, Jia Xiao had wet her lips and kissed the crown of Zhang Ming’s cock before closing her mouth over it. Wei Wuxian wet his lips and pressed them against the tip of Lan Zhan’s cock, darting his tongue out for a tentative lick.
Lan Zhan’s hips bucked; his cock jerked and knocked against Wei Wuxian’s nose. “Apologies,” he said, voice rough, as Wei Wuxian glared up at him. “I will keep still.”
As a precaution, Wei Wuxian grabbed hold of Lan Zhan’s hip with one hand and wrapped the other around Lan Zhan’s shaft before bringing his mouth back to his cock.
It was… different than the scene in the book. For one thing, Lan Zhan didn’t smell intoxicatingly of masculine musk. He smelled like sweat and skin, and tasted largely the same. It was also a lot wetter than the novel had suggested; saliva kept leaking out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth and dribbling down his chin. He tried to mimic Jia Xiao’s trick of hollowing her cheeks and fluttering her tongue, but that made his jaw ache too quickly to keep up for long.
Lan Zhan, to his credit, stayed as still as he’d promised, his thighs trembling from the effort. A gentle suck on the head of his cock won Wei Wuxian a choked-off cry. Wei Wuxian looked up to see intense focus on Lan Zhan’s face: brow furrowed, eyes squeezed shut, lips tightly sealed to prevent another shameful loss of composure. Wei Wuxian sucked again, and grinned around his mouthful when another sound shook itself loose from Lan Zhan’s lips.
This was something he knew how to do — tease Lan Zhan, poking at that expressionless Lan shell until he got a reaction. He abandoned Jia Xiao’s technique and studied Lan Zhan instead, experimented with hands and lips and tongue until Lan Zhan was shuddering, hands clenched on his thighs, radiating so much heat that he was probably flushed down to his navel.
Wei Wuxian drank in the sight greedily, savouring the knowledge that he was the one making Lan Zhan like this. His legs cramped but he ignored it; same with the growing crick in his neck and the soreness in his jaw — what was minor discomfort in comparison to the chance to unravel Lan Wangji with his touch?
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan rasped, more breath than voice. He tried to move, but Wei Wuxian tightened his fingers around the base of Lan Zhan’s cock before he could slide it out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth. “You—you must— channel yin energy.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. Oh, right.
He closed his eyes and focused on the yin meridians in his body, channeling energy to his hands and mouth. Unlike all his previous attempts, the energy resisted, wanting instead to flow down and gather between the junction of his legs. His hard cock — when had that happened? — throbbed as pressure built and built, like the tension in a drawn bow.
A light touch caught his attention. Lan Zhan’s fingers, limned with spiritual energy, cupped the side of his neck and pressed against the acupoint at the top of his spine. Yang energy spilled down his back and met the yin energy pooled between his legs, and — oh.
He cried out, muffled against Lan Zhan's cock as a full-body shiver rippling through him. His entire meridian system was a blaze, a bundle of kindling meeting a lit match. Lan Zhan’s thighs tightened around Wei Wuxian’s ribs, his cock hot and leaking. Wei Wuxian sucked harder, feeling his own cock throb. His other hand slid down to the rapidly dampening front of his trousers, palming hard fast and hard as he chased the rush of his climax—
“Stop,” Lan Zhan ordered, and pushed Wei Wuxian away, breaking the spiritual energy transfer.
Wei Wuxian didn’t fall over, but only because Lan Zhan’s thighs were bracketing him upright. “What?” he demanded. “Why? I was—”
“We must not ejaculate,” Lan Zhan explained, voice tight. “Ejaculation results in a loss of vitality.”
Wei Wuxian gaped at him, because technically, that was true, but— “Only for the old and infirm! Are you implying that I’m—” Then Wei Wuxian blinked. “Wait, ‘we’?”
He looked down, but Lan Zhan had already tucked his cock back into his trousers. “There will be more battles today,” Lan Zhan said, his ducked head doing nothing to hide the flush darkening his ears.
Oh, ‘we.’ Wei Wuxian allowed himself a brief moment to preen.
Lan Zhan took that moment to swing one leg over the arched root, away from Wei Wuxian, and stand up, tugging his disarrayed clothing back into its proper place. “We should meditate to re-balance our qi.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. “What, right now?”
Lan Zhan nodded. “You especially, in your current condition.”
Out of deep respect for their friendship and his own profound sense of generosity, Wei Wuxian did not voice his retort of you sure as hell weren’t complaining about my ‘condition’ a few moments ago. Instead, he said, “Aren’t we at least going to discuss the results of this experiment?”
“Afterwards,” Lan Zhan said, and sat down in a meditation pose on the other side of the willow branch dome, hands on his knees, eyes shut.
Well. Fine, then. Wei Wuxian could take a hint. He shoved awkwardly to his feet, wincing a little at the ache in — and between — his legs. In a flesh of pettiness, he snuffed out the light talisman, leaving Lan Zhan meditating in darkness, before shouldering his way through the willow leaves and back into the cool morning air.
The grey in the eastern sky had given way to dull pink, edged with gold at the horizon in anticipation of the rising sun. Still another half hour or so before Jiang Cheng would send disciples out looking for them.
More than enough time to bring himself to climax; he considered it, if only to spite Lan Zhan — ‘ current condition,’ honestly; this was why he didn’t want people to know about his missing golden core. But his qi was flowing a little uneasily in his body, so perhaps Lan Zhan was right about the meditation.
He went to the stream, and dipped his fingers into the water. It was as cold as he’d expected, but sweet and clean, well-suited for rinsing the taste of Lan Zhan out of his mouth and scrubbing the stain out of the front of his trousers. He laid his trousers out on a flat rock to dry, then found a soft patch of grass to sit and meditate.
Closing his eyes, he focused on the vast, life-giving network that lived beneath his skin. He found the problem quickly — his body was hoarding its qi in his belly, overburdening the channels and meridians there. Wei Wuxian breathed deeply and eased the energy outwards, urging warmth to all his extremities.
He honestly hadn’t expected the dual cultivation to work. Admittedly, he still wasn’t sure if it had worked; in the books, dual cultivation was generally used to cure an incurable illness (which he didn’t have) or greatly increase one’s cultivation (which he… also didn’t have). There was also the fact that he had an innate distrust for things that appeared too good to be true. If dual cultivation was actually this easy, then more people should have been doing it. If dual cultivation was supposed to be this intensely pleasurable, then cultivators would never get anything else done.
But he’d definitely felt the merging of yin and yang energies that the books had described, and he did feel somehow better, like he’d been basking in the warm sun for a full day.
He finished his meditation just as Lan Zhan emerged from behind the willow tree, expression serene, hair and clothes pristine as always. Wei Wuxian caught his gaze, and had the singular pleasure of watching the unassailable Hanguang-jun blush — just for a moment, before Lan Zhan walked briskly past him, back in the direction of the waterfall.
Wei Wuxian grabbed his still-damp trousers from the rock and jogged to catch up. “So, about what just happened—”
“Conjecture without sufficient experimentation is meaningless,” Lan Zhan said.
“And interrupting someone while they’re talking is rude,” Wei Wuxian replied. “Anyway, I think our experiment has at least achieved proof of concept. You felt it too, right? How did it compare to what you know of Lan An’s experience?”
Lan Zhan was quiet for a moment. “There are points of similarity. Although…”
“You also think it’s too easy?”
Lan Zhan nodded.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “Well, I feel better, at least. Do I feel better to you?”
Lan Zhan glanced over at him, and nodded again.
Possibly Lan Zhan had expended his daily supply of words. Magnanimously, Wei Wuxian remained silent for the rest of the walk.
Jiang Cheng’s familiar scowl was waiting for them by the mouth of the cave. He stared at Lan Zhan, who looked perfect as always, and then at Wei Wuxian, who was damp down his front and holding equally damp trousers in his hands. “Do I even want to know?” he demanded.
“Probably not,” Wei Wuxian said easily. “Everything all right here?”
“No thanks to you,” Jiang Cheng retorted. “We’re moving out once everyone’s packed. I hope whatever you were doing, you got some rest — our scouts have reported that there are puppets all over this mountain.”
Wei Wuxian lifted Chenqing from his belt and spun it between his fingers. “Not for long,” he said, and grinned.
Beside him, Lan Zhan stiffened.
Jiang Cheng snorted. “Just give some warning next time, so our own disciples aren’t wetting themselves when they see corpses come to life.”
“Terror builds character,” Wei Wuxian informed him, and laughed when Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and headed back inside the cave.
He made to follow, but Lan Zhan stopped him with a hand to his wrist. “Wei Ying,” he said quietly, “until we can confirm the efficacy of dual cultivation, you should limit your use of resentful energy.”
Wei Wuxian sighed, and tugged his wrist gently away. “Look, it’s not like I’m trying to have a qi deviation. But we’ve got a war to win.” He looked over at Jiang Cheng, standing amidst a knot of Jiang sect disciples, and thought of Shijie, waiting a week’s journey away at the encampment. “I’ll do what I have to.”
The battle at Nightless City that ended the Sunshot Campaign would be remembered in the annals of history as the most significant military event of that generation, marking the end of hundreds of years of Wen dynastic rule over the cultivation world. Scores of songs, poems, and paintings would be made in commemoration, and the heroes of that battle would be elevated to almost mythical beings in the eyes of the common people.
Wei Wuxian, one of those heroes, only remembered three things about that battle. First, the days of almost continuous running as hordes of puppets harried them through the mountains. The puppets didn’t attack, just pursued with the relentlessness of creatures who neither ate nor slept, herding the cultivators like sheep into the jaws of Nightless City.
Second, the city itself, which reeked of sulphur and soot and seethed with so much resentful energy that it felt like a physical presence, sticking to their skin and sliding down their throats. They were the only living things in that place, surrounded by dead-eyed puppets and new monsters so horrifically corrupted by the Yin metal that they barely even resembled humans.
And third, using the Yin Tiger Seal at full strength, for the first time. Gorged to bursting on the city’s teeming resentful energy, Chenqing sang out to the dead, and the dead woke — not only the freshly killed puppets and cultivators but also corpses that had been thrown into the jagged volcanic rocks that formed the foundations of the city. An army of unkillable dead rose at Wei Wuxian’s command, bending to his will, his power.
And then it was over, ended by a strangely anticlimactic thrust of a traitor’s sword. Wen Ruohan fell, a corpse like any other in death. Wei Wuxian was almost disappointed.
He didn’t feel the encroaching numbness until it was too late.
Familiar arms caught him before he hit the ground. The fall broke his concentration, his control over the corpses; they shuddered and lurched toward anything living. He clenched his fingers, but they were stiff and unresponsive. He whistled instead, sharp and piercing across the quiet battlefield, all his will behind a single command: leave.
The spirits fled, leaving the bodies, which crumpled like broken toys to the ground.
Wei Wuxian exhaled relief, even as darkness swam across his vision. Distantly, he heard Lan Zhan’s voice calling his name, but it was so far, too far away…
Chia, M., Wei, W. (2002). Sexual Reflexology: the Tao of Sex and Love. Chiang Mai: Universal Tao Publications.
Meridians (Traditional Chinese Medicine)." Retrieved 2020, March 2 from Wikipedia.
- The Hui-yin acupoint is in the perineum. This is, believe it or not, an important plot point.
- "Playing the flute" and "dragon pearls" are Chinese euphemisms for "giving a blowjob" and "testicles," respectively.
- Full disclosure: I'm 100% playing fast and loose with both canon and actual Taoist sexual techniques; the former because timelines are for the WEAK, the latter because Taoism has such a long history that a lot of it ends up contradicting itself. And because some of it is just too ridiculous to use in fic.
Chapter 5: Revise Experimental Parameters
This chapter is so overdue and I'm sorry. Please have some porn to make up for it!
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.
Towler, S. (2014). The Tao of Intimacy and Ecstasy: Realizing the Promise of Spiritual Union. Sounds True Publications.
- WWX's spell to forge the Yin Tiger Seal uses the Chinese elemental system, in which each element is related to each other through a process of either "generation" or "overcoming." The traditional character for "iron" looks like this.
- There's a really good article about ancient Chinese underwear (written in Chinese, but Google Translate is our friend). I... kind of refuse to let LWJ wear crotchless pants, so apologies to historical accuracy but everyone's wearing trousers in this fic.
- Because I'm a nerd, I absolutely looked up bathing in ancient China. As it turns out, they absolutely had soap, though some of it was made out of pig pancreas (I'm choosing to believe that WangXian went with the plant variety for this chapter). They also had towels, probably made of linen or flax.
- All the sex positions mentioned in this chapter are, in fact, real Taoist sex positions. See my works cited list for more details. The "nine shallow, one deep" thrusting technique is also a real Taoist sex thing, meant to prolong orgasm and increase pleasure for the receiving partner.
Chapter 6: Repeat experiments (data should be replicable)
Please note that this chapter, more than the others, contains a mix of novel and CQL canon.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
How’s the Cloud Recesses?
Hope you’re not bored.
See, you should have
come to Lotus Pier.
I’m out of space.
Hope you are well.
Fire spell is limited.
Intended for wartime communication.
Concise speech is needed.
Lan Zhan, I will
investigate increasing the spell’s
capacity. Surely it’s possible.
How else could people
effectively communicate? I am
out of space again.
Concise speech is needed.
Lan Zhan, for your
information, I’m verbose by
choice, not by necessity,
and I’ll not be
forced to change my
ways by a spell.
We could write letters.
Lan Zhan, letters can
be lost, or damaged,
or read by others.
I can do better.
I refuse to be
defeated by a word
Limit. Really? Not even
a single word? I’ve
never seen a spell
so stingy. This is
ridiculous! I can’t work
Under these conditions! How
I await your letter.
I admit it, you were right — the fire spell really can’t be used for long correspondence. But I did figure out something to make sure that our letters will at least be protected from damage or nosy couriers. And if you’re reading this, then you must have figured out how to unseal the package!
That, or you just tore it open and somehow managed to counteract the explosive destruction talisman that I’d laid on the underside. At least, I hope you did. If not, Wei Ying offers deepest apologies to Lan Er-gongzi for the injuries that he unintentionally caused. I hope you didn’t get paper cuts any place too embarrassing.
I’m just joking, Lan Zhan! I’m sure you opened it properly. With my tragically reduced spiritual energy, I could only make the seal strong enough for a few sheets of letter paper, but I’m sure Lan Er-gongzi can figure out the spells I used and adjust them to hold heavier items. Heavier paper items, that is, so alas, I can’t ask you to send me osmanthus cakes. I miss those cakes. They were the best things about the Cloud Recesses — other than you, of course.
Write me back!
I hope this letter finds you in good health.
In response to your questions, I was indeed able to open the package. Your spell is innovative, but unnecessarily costly in spiritual energy. I have made an adjustment.
I have begun my study of Lan sect’s forbidden library. Included with this letter are excerpts copied from a variety of texts pertaining to dual cultivation. All feature cultivation between male and female partners, but should still apply so long as both participants have complementary energies. The library does contain texts that feature same-sex partners, but they are artistic in nature, with little scientific merit. I will continue to explore.
Regarding the osmanthus cakes, they are only served to visiting disciples. As we are still rebuilding, we are not receiving visitors. However, many vendors in Caiyi make them. Once I find a vendor whose wares are of acceptable quality, I will send the cakes with a courier. I do not expect this will take more than a fortnight.
Lan Zhan, did you
read cut-sleeve pornography
for me? Please respond.
First of all, you can’t tell me that you read porn and not elaborate! That’s just rude, Lan Zhan, rudeness unbecoming of the most admired young master in the cultivation world. I won’t insult you by asking if it was good porn; I can’t imagine the Lan sect library carrying anything other than texts of the highest quality. But if Lan Er-gongzi will indulge my professional curiosity — how did we do, in comparison? I like to think that our attempt was fairly successful, but I am also a staunch believer in there always being room for improvement. Please include diagrams as applicable.
Onto more academic matters: Lan Zhan, I’m not surprised that almost no one has successfully dual-cultivated if these are the reference materials that they’re using. Half of them feel like they were written by Jin Guangshan! The ones from Secrets Instructions Concerning the Jade Chamber in particular:
“If you change women often, many are the benefits. It is especially beneficial if you have more than ten partners a night. If you constantly control the same woman, her emission force changes to a weak one, which cannot greatly benefit the man.”
“Now, men who wish to obtain great benefits do well in obtaining women who don’t know the Way… If he gets one above 14 or 15 years of age but below 18 or 19, it is most beneficial.”
I sincerely hope that whoever wrote this died a virgin himself, and I pity any woman who had the misfortune of catching his eye. Truly, if there was ever a book better suited as toilet paper, this would be it. After all, if its contents were true, then Jin Guangshan would have ascended to immortality long ago!
Lan Zhan, I know you only included these texts in your selection of excerpts for completion’s sake. Did you feel as annoyed copying them out as I do reading them? I am sorry that your eyes and hands had to be sullied by such drivel. Lan An, were he still alive, would surely be appalled. Ugh. Moving on.
I have included along with this letter my annotations to your excerpts, along with some of my own notes. What do you think about the formula to calculate the recommended frequency that a man should ejaculate? I think it is flawed, as it does not seem to take into consideration the increased yang presence of the sun in summer. Though this one, at least, does not suggest that the path to immortality is to copulate with 93 partners and not ejaculate once. At the risk of offending Lan Er-gongzi’s sensibilities, my balls shrank at the thought.
Also, Lan Zhan, you didn’t have to take me so seriously about the osmanthus cakes, you know. I was just joking. Still, thank you very much. I shall stand at the pier and await the courier as a devoted wife awaits her husband’s return from battle.
I hope you are well today.
Our efforts bore minimal resemblance to the aforementioned erotica; any comparison would be invalid. Texts did suggest different lubrication. Will investigate further and report relevant results.
Agreed on the dubious accuracy of certain texts. My research indicates that practitioners of dual cultivation fall into two schools of thought: those for whom dual cultivation is a battle, and those for whom it is a partnership. Lan An’s success implies that we should pursue the latter, which advocates mutual respect and the sharing of energy. I have included excerpts of such texts, as well as a selection of Lan An’s lesser-known poetry.
The ejaculation formula is indeed flawed. However, with your current qi imbalance, semen retention is essential in maintaining spiritual health. I have included some exercises in ejaculation management and qi circulation. There are also suggestions for addressing your yang deficiency through increased meat consumption and sun-bathing.
Couriers operate on established schedules. Your waiting is unnecessary.
I am very well today. You know that you don’t need to start every letter with such a formal salutation, right? We’re close now, remember? Whisper to me your deepest fears and I’ll sing you the secret desires of my heart — All right, I’ll stop. Are you scowling at me? I bet you are. I only wish I could see it in person! No one scowls as beautifully as Gusu Lan’s Hanguang-jun, who wears rage like the fiery raiment of a sunrise.
Do my attempts at poetry offend your eyes, Lan Zhan? You only have yourself to blame, since you were the one who sent me all those poems from Lan An. I must confess, I was not expecting the founder of a sect known for its asceticism to be so ardent. Or so erotic! Even I blushed at the poem about thunderstorms. You Lans have hidden depths!
In all seriousness though, it’s astonishing how different Lan An’s experiences are from just about every other attempt at dual cultivation. I now starting to wonder if the reason why no one else has successfully dual cultivated is because they all died. The way they refer to their cultivation partners as cauldrons from whom yin energy is at best stolen and at worst outright pillaged — can you imagine how much resentment would seep into their qi? I bet they all died from qi deviations.
As for the rest of the texts you sent me; Lan Zhan, next time please warn me in advance, because I nearly choked on my tea when I read the one about sunning my nethers. Which, by the way, I am never doing. So long as I, Wei Wuxian, draw breath, I vow that my perineum will remain forever hidden from the light. I know the sun’s the ultimate source of yang, but Lan Zhan, I would sooner eat my weight in raw meat than bend over and expose my balls to the sun. However, just so that you don’t think I’m being unreasonably obdurate, I will do the qi circulation exercises. Some of the exercises, anyway, because a few of them are baffling and seem like they’d be painful. How is holding my breath while slapping and twisting my “jade dragon” meant to strengthen my qi? But, for your efforts in copying out all those instructions, I will at least try.
I will also attempt the exercises for ejaculation management — I can’t believe you just made me write those words, Lan Zhan — since you went through the trouble of sending me a jar of lubricating ointment. Which is another thing for which you should have warned me, because I thought they were osmanthus cakes again and almost offered to share with Shijie! I’m pretty sure half the servants think we’re courting now, though; did you have to send it in such an elaborate box? This is how rumours start, Lan Zhan. I hope you know that you are severely endangering your chances with pretty Yunmeng girls when you come visit me.
I hope you do come visit. Jiang Cheng has been working hard to rebuild our sect, but it’s not the same. There are so many new people, and most of them look at me with this awed terror, as if I’m a tiger that they’re not certain is tame. Shijie tells me it’s because of my reputation from the Sunshot Campaign, but Lan Zhan, I can’t stop thinking about what you’d said to me in the forest, that I felt wrong. Or perhaps it’s all in my head, and I just miss the way things were. Isn’t it strange, to feel homesick while I’m in my home?
Ahhh, this is depressing, and not what these letters are meant for. I’m too lazy to rewrite this letter, so I’ll just end it here.
It is not strange. I, too, feel homesick while in my own home. Rebuilding efforts are underway and progressing well, but the Cloud Recesses are not what they were. Newly constructed buildings and freshly planted trees stand like strangers on the familiar paths of my childhood. The library no longer smells the same.
As Wei Ying is reputed to be a master of all six of the gentlemanly arts, one assumes that his poetry would not be offensive to the eye. Assuming said eye can decipher his handwriting.
I consulted my brother regarding your theory that improper transmission of energies could result in qi deviation. He thought it likely, as this is why healers use their spiritual energy only to replenish a patient’s depleted qi — an excess of foreign infusions may cause an imbalance. However, in his own research, he has found that the probability of this imbalance decreases when donor and recipient are close family or long-term companions, which implies that qi affinity may be a factor.
My apologies for the box. Its elaborate appearance was unintentional. Should its contents prove satisfactory, I can provide the recipe, as well as ingredients that may be difficult to come by in Yunmeng. As for the exercises themselves, my experience has been that while the qi circulation exercises offer no more benefit than meditation, the exercises in ejaculation management have some efficacy. Preliminary results suggest that prolonged and repeated denials produce the greatest benefit to one’s qi.
There is no need.
Lan Zhan, what’s your
highest number of denials
in one session? I
want to see if
I can surpass that.
Wei Ying is humbled.
Should I live to a ripe old age — unlikely, but you never know — I shall always remember this momentous day, when the revered Hanguang-jun blessed this humble one with the title of “friend.” It’s too late to take it back! I have it on paper now, written by your own hand. In honour of our newly acknowledged friendship, this letter is written in my very best handwriting.
You probably know from my last fire message that I’ve been trying the ejaculation management exercises. Lan Zhan, I’m deeply impressed that you made it to six, because I can barely manage three in a single session. You’re not using the Cold Spring, are you? Because that would be an unfair advantage. Almost cheating, in fact!
In any case, I don’t think self-denial has the health benefits for me that it does for you. It might be because I’m not doing it right. The instructions say that pressing my Hui-yin acupoint just before the moment of climax will stop the emissions, but when I do it, the opposite happens. Or maybe this only works if you have a golden core.
I’m glad that Zewu-jun’s research supports what we already theorized about the importance of qi affinity for dual cultivation. It makes sense; imagine having to dual cultivate with someone like Wen Chao! All my meridians would have self-immolated before they let in any of Wen Chao’s rancid-pig-fat qi.
And now I’ve thoroughly disgusted myself. Let’s change the topic. Will you be at the discussion conference next month? I hope you will. I’ve missed you. Also, I’ll need someone to help me hide the body if Jin Zixuan makes my shijie cry again and I’m forced to kill him. Don’t worry, I’m just kidding — maybe. Can you believe that he actually came in person to deliver the invitation? The nerve of that asshole! A rice cake would be a worthier match for my shijie. I honestly don’t know what she could see in someone like that. Is this what it means to be in love? People who fall in love are either the bravest in the world, or the most foolish, to willingly bind themselves to that yoke.
Speaking of Shijie, I have been sternly informed that I have been churlish by not reciprocating Lan Er-gongzi’s generous gift-giving. Please expect, with the next courier’s arrival, a packet of fresh lotus seeds. I stole them for you from the very best lotus plants we have here in Yunmeng — kidding, I’m kidding! I bought them, I promise. They say that lotus seeds are best eaten with a clear mind and a pure heart. And that shouting makes the seeds lose their flavour, so maybe this is something you can keep for yourself and not share with, say, Old Master Lan. I hope you enjoy them.
Thank you for the lotus seeds. They are delicious. Per your request, I did not share with Uncle, though I did offer some to Brother. I believe I now understand what you had meant about starting rumours. Brother was, I feel, unduly amused.
The ejaculation management exercises are not a competition, Wei Ying. But in response to your question, I did not use the Cold Spring. It is not intended for this purpose. As for the technique’s lack of efficacy for you, I recommend more practice before making any conclusions. I, too, required considerable practice.
I will attend the Phoenix Mountain discussion conference. I will not help you conceal any bodies. However, should you wish to resume our experiments in dual cultivation, Lan sect is bringing enough disciples that my absence during the night hunt will not be missed. I have included with this letter a text on the Libations of the Three Peaks, two of which are unavailable to us, but perhaps the third may prove of use.
As for love, the sort of love you describe, I am afraid I only know that which love is not: obligation, guilt, confinement. Everything else remains as unanswered questions in my heart.
I shall end my letter here. Once again, thank you for the lotus seeds.
The Phoenix Mountain discussion conference was a test of patience and self-control in the face of overwhelming boredom. Even getting to publicly humiliate the peacock and his uglier cousin in one release of a bowstring couldn’t make up for days of Jin sect pomposity.
Though it had, at least, gotten Lan Zhan to look at him, which he supposed was something.
He didn’t participate in the hunt, other than gently encouraging some prey into Jiang sect nets. It barely took any effort; the prey the Jins had amassed were disgracefully low-level — probably because that was the only way for them to look even halfway competent.
Afterwards, he found a sturdy tree branch, the bark warm from a full day’s soak in the sun. He leaned back against the trunk and brought Chenqing to his lips again, only breath this time, no resentful energy. Music curled sweetly around him as he played, fragments of melodies stitched haphazardly together like a meandering story. Just for fun, he tried his hand at Lan Zhan’s “Clarity,” even managed to get through the first half before his memory failed. He switched to something simpler instead, the moonlight and clean air song that always seemed to hover just out of reach, a half-written word missing one definitive stroke to impart its identity.
A familiar glimmer of blue and white caught his gaze. Wei Wuxian played a loud, cheerful trill, and waved as Lan Zhan wove his way through the trees to stand below Wei Wuxian. The dappled light painted shifting patterns on his upturned face, and burnished auburn streaks into his hair. Wei Wuxian grinned down at him, and was rewarded with a slow, cat-like blink and the slight softening of his mouth.
Wei Wuxian’s grin widened. He tucked Chenqing into his belt and jumped off the branch. Lan Zhan made a jerky, aborted motion as though to catch him, eyes round and alarmed.
“I’m fine!” Wei Wuxian said, rising from his landing crouch, and made a show of dusting himself off and bounding to Lan Zhan’s side. “So, you got bored with Jin sect’s weak excuse for prey too, huh?”
Lan Zhan gave him a look of such tepid admonishment that it almost circled back to approval. “Jin sect’s prey is appropriately matched for the strength of its cultivators.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows rose in delight. “Lan Zhan.”
“Honesty is paramount,” Lan Zhan said mildly.
Laughter welled up in Wei Wuxian’s throat, joy like the first splash of fine wine on his tongue. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“We already saw each other at the archery competition,” Lan Zhan said, but he was smiling, just a little, at the corners of his eyes.
Wei Wuxian thrust out his lower lip, and threaded a whine into his voice. “Yes, but you completely ignored me! How cold of you, Hanguang-jun! And here I thought we were friends.”
“You asked for my forehead ribbon. In public.”
All right, Wei Wuxian should maybe have thought that one through. “Well, it’s not like it’d be my first time touching it. Or even my second. Besides, as your cultivation partner—”
“Is that what we are?” Lan Zhan asked, then looked almost startled, as though he hadn’t meant for those words to leave his lips. His mouth snapped tightly shut, all traces of the earlier softness gone.
Wei Wuxian blinked, feeling suddenly like he’d miscounted the number of steps on a staircase and met open air where he was expecting solid ground. “Yes?” Weren’t they? Surely Lan Zhan wasn’t still just doing this out of some misguided sense of righteous obligation. “What… else would we be?”
Lan Zhan stared at him for a long, penetrating moment, as if he were a book that Lan Zhan was reading through — and finding wanting. His expression shuttered, a sheathing sword, or a closing door. “You shouldn’t tease if you don’t mean it," he said coolly, and turned away.
“Wait!” Wei Wuxian reached for Lan Zhan’s arm, then remembered that Lan Zhan didn’t like to be touched and jerked his hand back. “Don’t — I didn’t mean—” He broke off with a grimace. “Look, I’m sorry. I promise I’m not teasing. I really do want to keep cultivating with you.”
“Cultivating with me,” Lan Zhan repeated, voice flat and cold, but at least he wasn’t walking away anymore.
Encouraged, Wei Wuxian continued, “I even did my homework, for once — I read the text about the Libations of the Three Peaks. You’re right; we don’t have the equipment for the ‘white snow’ or ‘moon flower’ libations, but we can still obtain the ‘jade spring.’”
That earned him a look, which was a victory in itself, especially when Lan Zhan’s gaze flicked consideringly down to Wei Wuxian’s mouth. Wei Wuxian gave his most winning smile. Lan Zhan glared in response, but enough tension had bled out of his shoulders that he’d probably forgiven Wei Wuxian his misstep. Good. Antagonizing Lan Zhan had its merits, but not when it had been months since he’d last spent time with Lan Zhan. And after tomorrow’s banquet, it would be months before he’d see Lan Zhan again. The letters, for all the precious insight they offered into Lan Zhan’s keen and surprisingly snide mind, were a poor replacement for getting to watch the minute ripples of emotions on his face, or hear the sound of his name on Lan Zhan’s lips.
“Do you want to try it now?” he asked, abruptly. “The ‘jade spring’ libation, I mean. It just involves mouths, right? It shouldn’t take long.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes widened. Wordlessly, he cast a glance at their surroundings.
“Oh, right.” Wei Wuxian reached between the folds of his robes, withdrew five talismans, and sent four of them flying in each of the four cardinal directions. The fifth he held between two fingers, and pulsed resentful energy through it until the spell anchored into place. “There. Now if anyone or anything comes near us, I’ll know.”
Lan Zhan looked at the talisman in Wei Wuxian’s hand. “Four to form a barrier, a fifth to alert you if it's crossed?” His gaze lifted to Wei Wuxian’s face. “You invented these.”
Wei Wuxian grinned. He loved when Lan Zhan was clever. “Just the other day, actually.” After the third time a Jin sect servant tracked him down to invite him to a private audience with Jin Guangshan. “I’ve tested them. They’re a bit unrefined, but I promise, they work.” He’d only used this spell for a head start to duck into empty rooms or jump out convenient windows, but he could already see all the ways he could turn it into a tool for night hunts.
“Your inventions always do,” Lan Zhan agreed, which startled Wei Wuxian enough that he just stood there gaping as Lan Zhan stepped closer, stopped directly in front of him, and placed a hand on his cheek.
Wei Wuxian’s mouth snapped shut. Then he remembered what they were trying to do, and parted his lips again. “Uh,” he said, just to give his mouth something to do, “have you done this before?”
This close, Lan Zhan’s face was a collection of details, too many for Wei Wuxian’s mind to track. He focused on a few things — the inky strokes of his eyelashes, the flare of his nostrils as he breathed, the slight bob in his throat as he shook his head. “No. Have you?”
For a moment, Wei Wuxian was tempted to lie, bring in bravado to bolster his quickening heart. But faced with Lan Zhan’s dark, earnest eyes, and the slight tremble of his lips, no lie would come. Wei Wuxian shook his head, and offered a smile. “It’s a good thing we’re getting some practice, huh?”
Something hot and hard flashed across Lan Zhan’s expression, gone too quickly for Wei Wuxian to even begin to decipher, because in the next breath, Lan Zhan leaned in and kissed him.
At first there was just skin on skin, a huff of breath, the blurry smudge of Lan Zhan’s face too close to his own. Then he closed his eyes, which helped, and let Lan Zhan tilt his head for a better angle, which really helped.
The first brush of tongue startled them both. They jerked back, eyes flying open, lips separating with a soft, sucking sound that brought heat rushing to his face. Lan Zhan was flushed as well, peach-pink blooming on snowy white. His palm still cupped Wei Wuxian’s cheek, thumb tucked against the swell of bone, fingers splayed in four points of pressure on the back of his neck.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t stop staring at his lips. They were wet and slick, each movement hypnotic: the pursed first syllable, the slightly parted second — Wei. Ying.
Oh. “Yes?” Wei Wuxian said, yanking his gaze up to meet Lan Zhan’s eyes.
“I said, this libation works best if we take turns.”
“Right.” He remembered that from the reading. “Yes. Um, why don’t you go first?”
Lan Zhan looked down at Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and licked his lips.
Wei Wuxian’s next inhale stuttered in his throat. His eyes slid shut.
Their second kiss started as a gentle suck to his upper lip, then the lower, before Lan Zhan’s mouth slid fully over his. A light scrape of teeth made him gasp, and Lan Zhan slid his tongue into Wei Wuxian’s mouth. He tried to remember what the books had said, about imagining his yin energy as a pool of shining nectar for his partner to sip. But thinking was surprisingly difficult with Lan Zhan’s tongue in his mouth, wet and hot, pouring yang energy down Wei Wuxian’s throat, sinking it into his skin. Wei Wuxian leaned into Lan Zhan’s hand on his cheek, let Lan Zhan fuck his mouth in slow, rhythmic thrusts that made his skin prickle, made his toes curl in his boots. It reminded him of the last time they’d dual-cultivated, with Lan Zhan’s hands holding him in place as his cock fucked Wei Wuxian to a spectacular orgasm.
The memory of that experience sent a shiver racing down Wei Wuxian’s spine. He groaned into Lan Zhan’s mouth and kissed him back, tongue darting and teasing. The hand on his cheek moved to cup the back of his neck, tightening momentarily as Lan Zhan bit his lip — a warning, perhaps, or a challenge. Wei Wuxian welcomed both. He slid his tongue more insistently against Lan Zhan’s, and on its next retreat, followed it back into Lan Zhan’s mouth.
That earned him a moan, so deep it sounded as though he’d drawn it straight from Lan Zhan’s lungs. Wei Wuxian anchored his fingers in the firm muscle of Lan Zhan’s waist and tugged him closer, chest to chest, thigh to thigh, the heat of his body intoxicating. It was easier to channel energy now, his meridians brimming, cool yin flowing from accupoint to accupoint into Lan Zhan’s mouth. Lan Zhan shuddered, and his mouth went soft and pliant, letting Wei Wuxian drink his fill, letting Wei Wuxian take.
Wei Wuxian took. He kissed Lan Zhan until his lips stung and his jaw ached and Lan Zhan was trembling against him. Then Lan Zhan took over, filling Wei Wuxian’s mouth like a spring flood, churning up earth and reshaping the land as it overwhelmed everything in its path. All the while, energy surged, passed back and forth between their mouths, golden and bright and brimming with life.
When they finally, finally broke apart, Wei Wuxian was dizzy and hot, chest heaving as he gulped for air. His cock was so hard it ached. Lan Zhan, sheened with sweat and red down to his throat, looked more wrecked than when they’d fucked. His own erection pressed urgently against Wei Wuxian’s hip. For a few wild heartbeats, Wei Wuxian considered asking Lan Zhan to skip the evening banquet, meet him back in his borrowed bed, and not leave it until sunrise.
“Lan Zhan,” he rasped, watching the way that made Lan Zhan’s eyes go dark and intent.
A sharp burst of resentful energy flared between them. Wei Wuxian staggered backwards and took out the fifth talisman. It was charring in his hand, heatless flame licking at the paper.
“Shit,” he said. “Someone’s coming.”
He grabbed Lan Zhan’s arm and ducked behind a cluster of tall grass as two figures came into view — a gold-clad man, swaggering a few steps in front of a woman in flowing jade-green.
Jin Zixuan, and his shijie.
Cold fury welled up inside him, dousing any lingering heat in his blood. “I knew it,” he muttered. “No wonder Madame Jin had him deliver Shijie’s invitation—”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s hand closed over his wrist, warm and grounding.
Wei Wuxian gritted his teeth, and tugged his wrist out of Lan Zhan’s grasp. “I’m fine.” He hunkered down a little lower in the grass, and added, “That peacock better behave with Shijie, or he won’t be.”
Jin Zixuan didn’t behave.
Neither did Wei Wuxian.
Then more Jins showed up, and things got even worse.
Afterwards, Lan Zhan found Wei Wuxian trudging down the back of the mountain. Of course he did. Wei Wuxian wanted to be alone, had clearly indicated this when he’d bid Lan Zhan goodbye, but since when had the great Lan Wangji ever given a shit about what Wei Wuxian wanted?
He paused, grimaced, and reined back down the snarling remnants of his earlier fury. Reminded himself that Lan Zhan was a friend. That he meant well. And that if Wei Wuxian tried walking faster, Lan Zhan would just catch up, and it would be marginally less humiliating to just get this conversation over with than try to run down a mountain with Lan Wangji hot on his heels.
“You need to stop sneaking off to be with me, Hanguang-jun,” he said, when Lan Zhan fell into step beside him. “People are going to talk.”
Lan Zhan gave him a cutting look. “Wei Ying—”
“Don’t bother.” He shook his head. “I already know what you’re going to say: I was impolitic. I was an ass. I was unnecessarily confrontational, and as a result, Shijie had to—” debase herself in front of that cockroach, even if she did rip him apart moments later “—apologize for me.”
“Jin Zixun provoked you. He is equally at fault.” Lan Zhan stopped in front of him, blocking his path. “Wei Ying, back there, you nearly lost control of the resentful energy.”
Wei Wuxian scoffed. “Because I wanted to beat that asshole? I don’t need resentful energy for that.” He tried to step around Lan Zhan, but was blocked again, this time by Lan Zhan’s outstretched hand. The insidious frost crept back into him, icing his fingertips where they still gripped Chenqing. He took a deep breath and forced it down, forced even calm into his voice. “Yes, Hanguang-jun?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, low-voiced, intent. “Let me play ‘Clarity’ for you, to purge the resentful energy. Or — we can continue to dual cultivate."
It was only a moment of hesitation. Most people wouldn't even have noticed. But Wei Wuxian had put in more hours of study than most on all the ways Lan Zhan spoke without speaking — the worry in his pinched brow, the dismay in his thinned lips, the determination in the set of his jaw. He didn't want to do this.
Unbidden, his words from that night in the forest returned to Wei Wuxian’s thoughts, when he’d described how Wei Wuxian felt now, all the hollows of his body crammed full with resentment: unsettling, Lan Zhan had said. Unnatural. Like the dead, but not.
And yet Lan Zhan still offered himself up, because he’d promised Wei Wuxian, hadn’t he? And Lan Wangji was a good man who kept his promises. A good man, and a better friend than Wei Wuxian deserved.
“I just need some time alone.” His smile felt brittle, but it held. “I’d be pretty poor company right now anyway — no, really,” he added, when Lan Zhan looked insistent. “A walk through the city will help clear my head. I’ll see you at the banquet tonight.”
He slid past Lan Zhan’s outstretched hand, and continued down the mountain. This time, Lan Zhan didn’t follow him.
The streets of Lanling City were a hive of activity, noisier and busier than Yunmeng’s lazy canals and narrow alleyways. Wei Wuxian let the crowds bring him to vendor after vendor like a boat carried by a river current. He watched master craftspeople mold intricate figurines out of dough, sampled flame-cooked meats and intensely flavoured sea cucumber, and tried not to think about the implications of what he'd done on Phoenix Mountain. Whether Jiang sect could afford to keep having him tag along on night hunts. Whether they could afford not to.
Wine helped, softened the world around him, warmed his blood and dulled the sharp edges of his thoughts. Not great wine though, and far too expensive for what it was. And wasn’t that just like the rest of Lanling Jin?
Especially its people, Wei Wuxian thought, turning around to catch a handful of Jin sect cultivators knock a hooded, shabbily dressed woman to the ground. He grimaced as the men walked past, and was about to go over to help her up, when she lifted her head and met his gaze.
She was grimier than he’d ever seen her, and achingly thin, but the steely determination in her eyes unmistakable.
Three strides and he was at her side, lifting her to her feet and tugging her into a nearby alleyway, out of sight. “What are you doing here?” he demanded, keeping a careful watch on the mouth of the alley. “Jin sect hates the Wens; what if you’re recognized?”
“I don’t care,” she said. "I have to find my brother.”
“Wen Ning? What happened to him?”
She told him, in slow trickles at first, then in a torrent of words.
Things moved quickly, after that:
Climbing the steps of Koi Tower.
Confronting Jin Zixun.
Finding Wen Qing, afterward.
Getting horses, because even if she’d had a sword she’d be in no condition to fly.
Riding as fast as they dared, the sinking sun a bloody ember in the darkening sky. Roiling storm clouds loomed ever closer, but no cultivators took to the skies after them.
They reached the detention camp at Qiongqi Dao shortly after the clouds broke. Lightning blazed overhead, illuminating the world in brief flashes frozen in time: a quarry, slicked black with rain; a handful of Jin sect cultivators, trembling with terror as they met his gaze. And the prisoners, the Wen civilians, their shoulders hunched, faces haggard, eyes dull and empty.
Wen Ning was not among them.
They found him, instead, among the dead.
It looked like the aftermath of a battle. Bodies lay half-submerged in murky water, like macabre tangyuan in dark broth. Some were grotesquely bloated, some still stiff, some cratered with animal bites. Even through the muffling rain, the air reeked of putrefaction.
Bile surged in the back of Wei Wuxian’s throat. Even Wen Chao had burned the bodies when his men had massacred Lotus Pier. These corpses had just been left here to rot, unburied, unmourned, their ghosts shrieking as scavengers ate their flesh and sucked marrow from their bones.
Do you want revenge?
He knew Wen Qing had found her brother when she started to scream. Her scream cut through the booming thunder and the drumming rain, wretched and ragged, as if it had clawed her throat on its way out. He ran to her side, fighting to keep his footing in the insidiously soft clay earth.
Wen Ning was bloodless, the colour of rancid milk. Long, lank hair dripped over his face. He had one hand curled around the base of the flagpole that had impaled him through the belly, and the other outstretched, clutching a talisman pouch.
It took Wei Wuxian a moment to recognize the pouch.
I might not have anywhere near your medical expertise, but when it comes to magic, I have some skills.
He’d made that talisman for Wen Ning, when they were students in the Cloud Recesses. His stomach turned at the memory of his own arrogance, that he’d thought he could protect anyone, from anything.
Do you want revenge?
Lightning lit the world again, and Wei Wuxian saw the flag. He’d thought, at first, that it was a Jin sect banner, but there were lines on the fabric that looked almost like brushstrokes. The next bolt of lightning illuminated the flag just for a heartbeat, and Wei Wuxian went cold to the marrow.
It was a talisman. His talisman. He still remembered the grim satisfaction he’d felt when he’d discovered how to invert an evil-repelling spell to attract instead, turning the caster into bait and prey for any hungry spirit within range.
Horror welled up inside him, floodwater fast. Along with it came a devastating sense of clarity. The Jins hadn’t done this because they were careless, or callous. They’d left the bodies here intentionally , driving the dead to madness and rage, breeding resentment like a crop in a field. And then using all that resentment to prey on the next living victim, and the next, and the next.
They’d stolen his work. And now, Wen Ning was dead.
Do you want revenge?
He began to play. The Yin Tiger Seal woke easily at his command, a rallying cry that echoed through the entire quarry. The dead rose in response, staggering upright on half-rotted limbs, blistered skin oozing noxious liquids. Wen Qing’s sob choked in her throat as Wen Ning opened his eyes, all pupil, black and unseeing.
Wei Wuxian turned back toward the camp, and the dead followed him.
In the end, he was only able to save twenty people. He gathered the survivors in the center of the camp, the older and frailer ones leaning on those more able-bodied. There was a child among them, still round-cheeked despite the gauntness of his relatives, and mercifully asleep. Excluding Wen Qing, none of the others were cultivators, and none of them looked in any shape to walk, much less run.
“Everyone get on a horse,” Wei Wuxian ordered. “Be quick! We’re leaving.”
“Leaving?” a grizzled man asked. “To go where?”
Home, was Wei Wuxian’s first thought, as swift and easy as instinct — the familiar paths of Lotus Pier that he could navigate blindfolded, the smell of roasting meat on festival days, the bell-clear peal of Shijie’s laughter.
Only, he couldn’t. Just Wen Qing and Wen Ning, he could have brought back and hidden among the denizens of Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng owed them both a life debt; he wouldn’t turn them away. But Wei Wuxian had spilled Jin sect blood for these twenty people, and Jin sect would seek revenge. It wouldn’t matter what he said, what each of those twenty people said. The Jins would lie and lie and lie, and the other sects would turn a blind eye just as they’d done under Wen Ruohan’s tyranny, because it wasn’t their blood being spilled, their homes pillaged and destroyed.
The last time Wei Wuxian had gone against a powerful sect, his home had burned for it.
And it would be the same with Jin Guangshan, if the way everyone had bowed and scraped to him at Nightless City was any indication. As if they’d all forgotten that the only reason for Jin sect’s current strength was because Jin Guangshan had kept so many of his own cultivators safe behind Lanling borders. Left the rest of them to bleed and die on the battlefield, to win the war, before he dove into the fray. And he still had the audacity to demand Wei Wuxian’s Yin Tiger Seal. As if he had any right to something that Wei Wuxian had forged with his own blood, after three months of starvation and thirst, screaming agony and howling despair—
Wei Wuxian jerked. The grizzled man flinched backward, eyes wide with fear. Wei Wuxian looked down and realized that he was shaking, dark tendrils of resentful energy creeping out of him like grasping hands. The familiar spreading cold froze his lungs. His lips and fingertips felt frostbitten, rotting ice slowly crawling along his jaw and down his hands.
They didn't have time for his weakness. He clenched his fists, bit the inside of his lip until warm blood pooled in his mouth. “We’ll go someplace safe,” he managed, hopefully reassuringly, and turned away to find his own horse.
It didn’t take long for the surviving Wens to pack what meagre possessions they had — some clothes, squirreled away scraps of food, tiny satchels of precious medicine. The incessant rain had everyone soaked and shivering, but most of the horses were already carrying two riders; they couldn’t bear the additional weight of waterlogged blankets and still move quickly.
As they packed, Wei Wuxian laid the dead to rest. He couldn’t bury them; the ground here was sodden clay and loose gravel, heavy and stubborn. There wasn’t enough time. He played for them instead, as Lan Zhan had done that night in the forest during the war — soothed the memory of pain and anger, and promised an afterlife of peace.
One by one, the spirits relinquished their former bodies, until only Wen Ning remained.
A soft cry nearly broke Wei Wuxian’s concentration. It was a woman, reaching with trembling hands for a male corpse. Her husband perhaps, or a brother, or a son. His empty, pockmarked eye-sockets stared unseeingly as she touched her fingers to his cheek, before he crumpled to the ground, a pile of rotting meat once more. Wei Wuxian looked away from her as she began to sob, and saw the other survivors shudder at his gaze.
Well. He’d already known that he was a monster.
They mounted the horses, Wen Qing behind a man everyone called Fourth Uncle, Wen Ning bound with talismans against the back of a distant cousin. Wei Wuxian led them from the camp, through the narrow path at the north end of the camp. Tall, sheer cliffs rose on either side of the path, as though they were giant stone hands cupping the valley between them.
Standing at the mouth of the quarry, where the cliffs gave way to the open, weeping sky, was Lan Zhan.
No, said Wei Wuxian’s heart, cracking open. Its soft insides dropped like pebbles into a desiccated well, an endless echoing fall. Not you. Anyone but you.
He pulled his horse to a stop with fingers that still ached with cold. “Lan Zhan.” Did they send you? Did you volunteer? How could you, of all people— “You’ve come to stop me?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said. The darkness of the storm washed away what little colour he had, turning his skin and clothes ash-pale. His hand clenched tightly around Bichen’s scabbard. “Where are you going?”
The expression on Lan Zhan’s face was maddening. How dare he look so stricken, as though he were the one being betrayed? “I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian snapped. “But the world is a big place. There must be somewhere that will take us.”
He watched Lan Zhan’s gaze slide past him, to the ragged line of Wen survivors at his back: Wen Qing, Wen Ning, the grandmother, the child — He watched the way Lan Zhan went still, eyes widening in realization, mouth tightening in anger.
Good, he thought viciously. Now you know.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said again, more urgently, “if this is Jin sect’s doing, then they need to be held to account. If you bring these people back—”
Laughter burst from Wei Wuxian’s throat, a splintered, broken thing. “Lan Zhan. You saw them at Koi Tower. No one will care.” He thought again of the bodies in the water, the acrid stench of blood and spilled bowels, the rage that tempered hollow helplessness into bloody-toothed vengeance. “I promised, once, that I’d spend my life eliminating the wicked and defending the weak. I’ve already failed these people.” He shook his head. “I won’t fail them again.”
His hand shook, but he withdrew Chenqing from his belt, held it out in front of him like the sword he no longer carried. “Lan Zhan. Let me go.”
Lan Zhan dropped his gaze, but didn’t move. His hand went white-knuckled on Bichen’s sheath.
For a single, gutting moment, Wei Wuxian considered the possibility that he would have to fight. With Lan Zhan, it could be nothing less than a fight to the death. Either he would ride across Lan Zhan’s resentment-riddled corpse, or he would die spitted on Lan Zhan’s blade.
Then Lan Zhan lifted his head, his expression grim, but resolute. “I will accompany you.”
His flute slid from fingers gone suddenly numb; he caught it just in time. “What?”
“I, too, made that promise.”
It could be a trick. Were this almost anyone else, Wei Wuxian would suspect trickery, coercion, a finger-crook of bait that led to a trap. But Lan Zhan’s integrity was like a mountain, its roots anchored deep in the heart of the world. Wind and rain could lash it for an eternity, and he would not move.
Wei Wuxian’s heart thumped loudly in his chest. He shut his eyes, forced it quiet again, crushed the wild wingbeats of hope before they could fly too high, want too much. Even if Lan Zhan was sincere, so what? It was one thing for Wei Wuxian to turn away from the bright, shining path. He was a cultivator without a core, a weapon without a war, a creature that had walked out of hell and brought its demons with him.
But Lan Zhan was different. Lan Zhan deserved better.
“No,” Wei Wuxian said, and opened his eyes. “We can’t take the risk. They might not care about me disappearing with a group of civilian prisoners; but if I take Hanguang-jun, the entire cultivation world would come after us.”
It should have been gratifying, how upset Lan Zhan looked at his refusal. “Then I will only escort you to your destination,” he said. “Once you are settled, I will leave.”
Wei Wuxian shook his head again.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s voice was a whip-crack in the night, sharper than the edge of any lightning bolt. His eyes were dark and beseeching. “Wei Ying, let me help you.”
What am I to you?
He’d thought of the question before. There were days when it practically lived on the tip of his tongue, or the tip of his brush, a parched, greedy thing held in check only by his own cowardice. He’d thought it sated when Lan Zhan had called him friend, but that just made him want more, the way a drop of water on dry lips provoked even greater thirst. Now, he felt it again, swelling like a cresting wave, urging him to ask the question and all the other questions contained in it—
But what was it Jiang Cheng had always said? Don’t ask a question when you know you won’t like the answer.
And Wei Wuxian already knew the answer, didn’t he. Lan Zhan was doing this because he wanted to help. It wasn’t his fault that he’d made that decision before he realized how deep the rot in Wei Wuxian actually ran.
“Then help,” he said, and tried not to see the flare of hope on Lan Zhan’s face. He continued ruthlessly, “Tell anyone who chases after us that you were too late. I’d already gone. You don’t know what happened to the people here. You have no idea where we went.”
Slowly, Lan Zhan lowered his head and closed his eyes. The expression on his face was devastating.
“Is that all?” he asked, so softly that Wei Wuxian almost missed it amidst the growling thunder and relentless rain.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian made himself say. With even greater effort, he added, “Thank you.”
Lan Zhan made an awful, choked sound. Then his umbrella was falling from his hand and he was coming closer, eyes bright and blazing, heedless of the rain soaking his hair and staining his robes.
Wei Wuxian reared back out of instinct, but there was nowhere for him to go and no time to rein back his horse before Lan Zhan was there, one hand on his sword, the other fisted in Wei Wuxian’s collar. He yanked, and Wei Wuxian lurched sideways.
Lan Zhan caught him. And kissed him.
For a moment, there was just shock. Then came the heat, almost scalding after so much time spent in the cold. Lan Zhan’s lips moved bruisingly over his own, tongue prying open his stunned mouth and thrusting inside. Spiritual energy followed, pouring into his meridians, drenching his entire being in a flood of light.
Wei Wuxian fisted his own hand in Lan Zhan’s hair, squeezed his eyes shut, and forced himself to take it. Forced himself to not kiss back.
And then it was over. Lan Zhan pulled away. Righted Wei Wuxian on the horse. Stepped back.
“Go safely,” Lan Zhan said. He didn’t look up.
Wordlessly, Wei Wuxian nodded, and rode past, with the Wen survivors behind him.
He didn’t look back.
The rain eased eventually. The next time they stopped to eat and to rest the horses, Wen Qing went around to each of their group, binding slashes and scrapes, setting broken fingers and toes.
Wei Wuxian waved off her concerned frown, and went to check on the horses and set his barrier talismans. Only when he was sure that no one could approach unseen, did he allow himself to sit at the base of a kindly curving tree.
He could still feel the thrum of Lan Zhan’s spiritual power warming him.
The memory came easily, unfurling in his mind like a thief examining his spoils in the safety of his den — the taste of Lan Zhan’s mouth, the rough scrape of tongue and teeth. The way he’d pressed his spiritual energy into Wei Wuxian as if equipping him with supplies for a long journey. It hadn’t been a pleasant kiss, but still, there had been a part of him that hadn’t wanted it to stop.
He’d made the right decision. Not even Lan Zhan’s pristine reputation would be able to withstand the taint of Wei Wuxian’s company. It would be an outright sin to drag the luminous Hanguang-jun down a path of darkness and uncertainty, just because Wei Wuxian wanted—
He leaned back against the tree trunk and looked up at the night sky. The clouds, having expended their fury in the storm, were beginning to dissipate, their backs silvered by the emerging moon.
Wanting came easily too, now that the danger of asking, of potentially getting, had long past. He imagined Lan Zhan at his side, lending his unwavering strength and keen intellect. He imagined placing a problem in the space between their minds and passing it back and forth like a child’s ball until they solved it. He imagined making Lan Zhan smile again, maybe even making him laugh, tempting him to stay up past hai hour with riveting discussions about new cultivation theories. He imagined ending long, exhausting days in the warm comfort of Lan Zhan’s presence, not only to dual cultivate but just for the relief of being able to lay his burdens into a pair of trusted hands, lay down his defenses, and rest.
He let himself imagine, let himself swell with want. Then, like finishing a book, he closed it, put it away, and breathed through the ache.
“You haven’t eaten,” Wen Qing said, startling him. She held out a fried pancake, wrapped in coarse cloth.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“You’re also a liar.” She thrust the pancake more insistently at his nose, until he took it, and sat down beside him. “We’ve talked it over, and have decided that we’ll go to Dafan Mountain.”
He shot her a sharp look. “What? Why there?”
“It’s my family’s ancestral home. We know the mountain, where to hide so the Jins won’t find us.”
“All the more reason why you can’t go back there. It will be the first place they look.”
“Wei Wuxian.” Weeks of exhaustion had worn her thin and threadbare, but her eyes were clear and her voice steady as iron. “Where else can we go? As long as we’re alive, they’ll keep hunting us.”
She was right. Wei Wuxian knew that.
He dropped his gaze. The pancake in his hand was cold and soggy from the rain, its original crispy texture a distant memory. A far cry from being appetizing, but Wei Wuxian was too acquainted with hunger to let anything go to waste. In the Burial Mounds, food like this had only appeared in his—
His head jerked up. “I know where we can go.”
Now it was Wen Qing’s turn to look startled.
“You’re right,” he said, before she could speak. “They’ll keep hunting us as long as we’re alive.” His mind felt like a pond in spring thaw, cracks branching and spreading as they sprinted across the icy surface. “So, we’ll live among the dead, in a place no one will dare to follow.”
Her eyes widened. “Do you mean—”
“Yes,” he said. “We’ll go to the Burial Mounds.”
@XiranJayZhao. "SO APPARENTLY THE INVENTOR OF PAPER ISN'T COMMON KNOWLEDGE??" Posted 16 May 2020. Twitter.
Hunxi-guilai. "all right guys, let’s have a conversation about linguistic register, Lan Wangji, and I guess Wei Wuxian can come too." Posted 20 March 2020. Tumblr.
Lai, Hsi. The Sexual Teachings of the Jade Dragon: Taoist Methods for Male Sexual Revitalization. Simon and Schuster, 2002.
North, Kris Deva. "Taoist Ejaculation Formula." Articles on Taoism and the Practice and Politics of Healing. Accessed 2 June 2020.
Reid, Daniel. The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity: A Modern Practical Guide to the Ancient Way. Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Ruan et. al. Sex in China: Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture. Springer Science & Business Media, 1991.
- For this chapter, I decided not to go with CQL canon's use of Wen civilians as targets during the Phoenix Mountain archery scene, mostly because I don't like it. So, novel canon for this bit, and we return to CQL canon when WWX runs into Wen Qing.
- We do, in fact, have the Chinese to thank for toilet paper.
- The term "ejaculation management" comes from the lovely and talented @ok_iroiro, for which I am profoundly grateful.
- The reference to thunderstorms in Lan An's erotic poetry is my nod to the term "clouds and rain," which is a Chinese euphemism for sex.
- I couldn't actually find a physical copy of the novel that's referenced in forum post about the proper way to eat lotus seeds, but the post itself is great and well worth reading.
- The Libations of the Three Peaks are three bodily fluids produced by the yin-partner that supposedly strengthens the yang-partner during dual cultivation. They are, in order: saliva, the upper libation; breast milk, the middle libation; and female ejaculate, the lower libation. Needless to say, Wangxian can only work with one of the three.
- Shandong province, where Lanling Jin is located, is known for their dough figurines. I once had a Monkey King one made for me that was my treasure for a good three years as a child.
- The food that WWX encounters in Lanling City are all delicacies from the Shandong region.
- For more information on the decomposition of human remains, see here.
- The translation for WWX's infamous 一生 锄奸扶弱 line comes from Tumblr user Hunxi-guilai.
- WWX's betrayal at seeing Lan Zhan at Qiongqi Dao was inspired by one of Xiao Zhan's interviews (that I cannot seem to find again), where he says that his feelings for WWX in that scene were basically "even if the entire world goes against me, you, Lan Wangji, cannot go against me."
Chapter 7: Record Observations
Deepest apologies for the belatedness of this chapter (it took me a long time to decide to split up the existing chapter into two, and post them separately instead of as one giant 20k chunk), and profound gratitude for everyone's patience! <3 <3 <3
As always, all my love to Kilerkki, light of my life in so many ways.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first time Wei Wuxian had entered the Burial Mounds, he’d fallen. He remembered the terrifying weightlessness, his hands scrabbling for purchase in the empty air, the howling winds shrinking back in the face of something older, angrier, hungrier.
The second time Wei Wuxian entered the Burial Mounds, he walked.
It felt, strangely, like coming home: stepping off the boat and slipping neatly back into the throbbing heartbeat of Lotus Pier. Like walking the familiar corridors to his room and finding it untouched, as though suspended in time awaiting his return — his unfinished book still opened to the page he’d last read, his desk littered with half-made talismans.
He’d spent those three months in a delirium of terror, rage, and pain. He didn’t think he’d be able to recognize the way up the winding mountain path; or be able to pick out individual, familiar voices among the cacophony of the dead. He didn’t think he remembered enough.
But, perhaps, the Burial Mounds remembered him.
Are you there?
Please, are you well?
I’m fine. Quit pestering.
No, wait. I apologize.
I didn’t mean that.
I’ve just been busy.
Ran out of paper.
Where are you now?
I can’t tell you.
It’s still not safe.
I am not offended.
Only relieved you’re well.
Do you need help?
What can I do?
You’re really too good.
I’m fine. We’re fine.
What’s happened since I
Jin sect cultivators returned.
As you had predicted,
their report was dishonest.
Jin Guangshan denounced you.
So did Jiang Wanyin.
Can’t say I’m surprised.
There was only one
who spoke for you.
Tell me you didn’t.
Lan Zhan I told you
not to say anything.
Shamefully, I did not.
It was Luo Qingyang.
Oh, I remember now.
She’s always been too
good for Jin sect.
She has since defected.
What? Because of me?
Why would she do
something so incredibly foolish?
She has no regrets.
I thought it brave.
Being homeless isn’t brave.
I have to go.
Take care of yourself.
I was informed that
Jiang sect expelled you.
Are you all right?
Are the rumours true?
Are you in the
Burial Mounds? Please respond.
News sure travels fast.
Wei Ying, are you
in the Burial Mounds?
You can’t live there.
It’s an inhospitable place
teeming with resentful energy.
A perfect place for
someone like me, then.
This is no joke.
Who says I’m joking?
It’s not that bad.
No busybody neighbours around.
No rules to follow.
May I visit you?
I wish to help.
Are you safe there?
Do you need anything?
We’re safe, don’t worry.
I’ve warded the mountain.
We don’t need anything.
Besides, it’s filthy here.
Hardly a suitable place
for the pristine Hanguang-jun.
I would not complain.
I would. Lan Zhan,
I appreciate your concern
but really, I’m fine.
Resentful energy and I
are old friends now.
I’ve never felt—
Sharp pain flared beneath the bones of Wei Wuxian’s hand like splintering shards of ice. The writing brush tumbled from numb fingers. His other hand shot up to wrap around his wrist, an instinctive but useless gesture. His hand hurt too much to pick up the brush again. Gritting his teeth, he dipped his finger in the ink — cheap, lumpy stuff — and eked out the final word before he activated the talisman. Within heartbeats, it was devoured by greedy tongues of flame.
Wei Wuxian leaned back against the stone wall of the cave and breathed in the stale, dusty air, tinged with iron from the blood pool. A welcome change from corpse smell, at least.
His hand still felt like he’d plunged it into a frozen lake. He tried flexing his fingers, and nearly cried out when that just made the pain spike teeth and claws all the way up his arm—
Wei Wuxian jolted upright, head snapping toward the source of the sound. Wen Qing, shadowed by the morning sunlight shining in from the mouth of the cave, limning the flyaway strands of her hair and the tired lines of her face.
He hadn’t heard her coming.
“Nothing!” He laughed, curving his mouth into a well-used grin. “I just got a hand cramp. You know, because I’ve been working so hard.”
“Yes, you have,” she said simply, turning his mock pout into something honest and true. His smile snagged, caught, and slid off his face as she approached. “Give me your hand.”
For a mulish moment, he contemplated saying no, and just shoving his hand behind his back. But Wen Qing wasn’t Shijie, who was amused by his childish antics. Wen Qing would simply insist, and that usually involved needles.
He held out his hand, and tried to think qi-calming thoughts as she placed two fingers on his pulse. After months of being in her care, the touch of her spiritual energy had become familiar — the neat slide of it into his meridians, the precise way it wended through his channels like a narrow mountain stream. He didn’t need to wonder what she felt in his qi. Her frown when she lifted her fingers from his wrist said enough.
“See?” he said weakly. “I’m fine.”
Her answering glare could have withered a field. “Strip. Lie on your back.”
He couldn’t help the twitch in his lips as the urge to tease welled up again, an echo from the boy he used to be — Wen-guniang, please, have a thought for my virtue — but it subsided, sinking back into the dark well of who he’d become. Wei Wuxian stripped until he was clad only in loose trousers and lowered himself onto his makeshift bed.
This part had become familiar too.
Wen Qing’s acupuncture needles were too fine to hurt on entry. He felt their effects though, blooming pinpricks of light that broke up the dark clot of yin energy in his hand. More needles opened certain channels and closed off others, guiding the yin energy to circulate throughout his entire body. It was what she’d done for Wen Ruohan during his experiments with the Yin Metal pieces, until his madness and paranoia had driven him to send even his trusted physician away.
Slowly, as she worked, the frostbitten agony in his hand began to ease.
“Your qi imbalance is worsening,” she said.
He sighed. “I know.”
It was to be expected, considering how much yin energy he had coursing through him these days. When they’d first arrived, Wei Wuxian had spent a solid week driving back enraged spirits while the Wens huddled together in the cave he’d found during his first stay in this place. It had been harder work than he’d expected, considering the ease with which he’d controlled a battlefield full of corpses, freshly dead and brimming with resentment. But those dead had wanted to be used, and offered themselves freely for blood and vengeance. The residents here did not wish to be moved, or to move on. They fought him. Only with the Yin Tiger Seal could he command souls to return to decaying bodies and trudge down the mountain; force tree yao to vacate their gnarled wooden homes; soak up centuries-worth of loathing from blood-drenched earth. Those he could not liberate or eliminate, he could only suppress, imprisoning them in the cave pond until the water turned to blood.
Months later, he had managed to wrest a decent-sized settlement, but every new water source still had to be purified before it could be used; every new mu of land had to be cleared of resentful energy before it could be cleared of debris and tilled. He ran out of cinnabar for talismans after two weeks; Wen Qing healed his bloody hands for another week after that, before she taught him an anticoagulation spell so that he could bleed into a bowl instead.
And, of course, there was Wen Ning, who had yet to wake.
“You haven’t been sleeping,” she added.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he said with a shrug, then cringed a little. “Sorry.”
“You should be,” she said coolly. “I’ve worked hard these past few months to keep you alive.”
Wei Wuxian nodded, ducking his head. He knew that, too. Here, far from her books, herbs, and tools, Wen Qing’s hands had eked out miracles, carrying their community through fevers, infections, cuts and bruises — all the ways that daily life wore away at the body. She reminded him of Shijie during the war, tirelessly tending the sick and wounded with a seemingly endless supply of warmth and kindness. Only once during that war had he seen Shijie succumb to exhaustion — when he’d found her tucked away in a corner, head drooped above a cloak that some thoughtful Nie sect disciple had used to cover her.
Wen Qing did not show weakness where he could see, eyes fiery despite the shadows lining the edges, hands steady despite their increasing thinness. And here he was, being yet another burden for her to bear.
“If yang energy deficiency is the problem,” Wen Qing continued, “we still have some money. Probably not enough for meat, but some eggs—”
“It’s not just that,” Wei Wuxian said, shaking his head. He’d thought it was, too, and had snuck away to break his own — admittedly childish — vow and sun his perineum. But even two solid hours beneath the ultimate source of yang had gotten him little more than a mild sunburn on his inner thighs. “It can’t be a passive transfer. Yang energy needs to be actively infused into my meridians, ideally from a compatible source, while my own qi system is in a receptive state.”
Wen Qing looked thoughtful for a moment. Then she sighed. “It’s a pity you can’t try dual cultivation.”
Wei Wuxian’s next inhale caught in his throat. He coughed, winced when that jostled a few of the needles, and stared incredulously at her. “What?”
“I know people think it’s a myth that only works in pornography, but the theory, at least, is fairly well-documented.”
He blinked. “It is?”
Her brows lowered with disapproval. “Wei Wuxian, I should think that you of all people would not be shocked by alternate forms of cultivation.”
“What?” he said again. “No! It’s not — I do know about dual cultivation.” He could feel his face heating up, but he powered through. What was the point in keeping secrets from someone who’d once been red to the elbows with his blood? “I — during the war. My… partner and I only attempted a few times, but the results seemed promising.”
“Who was your cultivation partner?”
Wei Wuxian gasped. “Wen Qing!”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t care about your sex life! But if this person is still alive and willing to keep dual cultivating with you—”
“You can’t be suggesting I bring him here.”
“I’m suggesting,” she said, with the pointed patience of someone speaking to a very dim child, “that you could meet in Yiling.”
Something in him balked at the thought of that. “No,” he said.
Her brows furrowed. “He’s unwilling?”
“It’s not that.”
“Do you think he’ll betray us?”
Memory bloomed, like ink in water — Lan Zhan’s horror that night in the rain when Wei Wuxian had raised Chenqing against him, Lan Zhan's mouth tasting of rain and salt when they’d kissed, Lan Zhan’s eyes downcast and sad as they’d parted. “He’d never,” Wei Wuxian said. “He’s… he’s the best man I know.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Wei Wuxian looked away. The acupuncture had done its work; he could feel energy flowing cleanly from meridian to meridian, the life-giving circuit of his qi smooth and uninterrupted. The pain was receding too, back to its usual dull ache, an ever-present buzzing in his blood. He was getting used to it. He could get used to anything, with time and practice. He always had.
“This isn’t his to deal with,” Wei Wuxian said, slowly. “I chose to be a demonic cultivator. I chose to bring us all here. I knew there would be consequences and I chose to bear them. If there’s a problem then I’m the one who should fix it. That’s my responsibility.”
His head snapped up. “No—”
“Your pride then,” she continued, ruthlessly. “There’s no problem that the great Wei Wuxian cannot solve. He’d rather die of a qi deviation than let someone else help.”
“No!” He struggled to sit up. Wen Qing pressed two fingers to his sternum and forced him back down. He burned with frustration under her touch, a snarling echo in the hollow where his golden core used to reside. “No,” he tried again. “You don’t understand.”
She lifted her chin, dark eyes piercing. “I don’t understand?”
He froze. His heart dropped like a stone in the pit of his gut. “I didn’t mean—”
“I don’t understand what it’s like to have lives resting on my shoulders? To need help, but have no one I can trust? No one who could care about my people as much as I do. No one who could understand.”
Shame flared hot on his face. Her gaze cut into him, knife-sharp, slicing through layers of skin, muscle, and bone to expose the frightened flutter of his rabbit heart. “Wen Qing.”
“Only I could protect my family, my brother—” Her voice cracked, a fault-line running all the way to her heart. Grief bled from her expression as she dropped her gaze. “It was my responsibility. My duty.” She looked back up at him. “My failure, in the end.”
He recognized her regret. It lived in him as well, a constant companion that always spoke too quickly and acted too late. He wondered which paths Wen Qing paced in her mind, decisions that led to happy endings forever out of her reach. Perhaps it was one where she’d accepted the help he’d once offered, during their hunt for the Yin Metal, even though she’d had no reason to trust him then.
“I can’t force you,” Wen Qing said. “You have to make your own choices.” She took his pulse again, then began to remove the needles, cleaning their tips and putting them carefully back into their pouch. “Just keep in mind that it’s not only your life I’m trying to save.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. He said nothing more as she walked away. The sun had risen higher in the sky, bathing her in a pool of light as she exited the cave. Then it swallowed her and left him alone in the candlelit dark.
He shoved himself upright, and went to work on Wen Ning.
That evening, after his daily inspection of the wards, he stepped off the path he usually took back to the cave and instead walked through the settlement that the Wen fugitives had built. He had been absent for most of the construction, sleeping during the day so he could work at night when the Yin Tiger seal was at its strongest. Thin, tired-looking men and women smiled and bowed as he walked past, before returning to their conversations about digging canals for irrigation, harvests for the next year and the year after that. He stopped by one of the dozen or so squat houses that now surrounded the clearing in front of the Demon Subduing Cave, and was quickly joined by a middle-aged woman who beamed with pride when he complimented the strong walls and tightly thatched roof.
“It was months of hard work,” she said, running work-roughened hands along the rammed earth. “But this house will last for years to come.”
In this place of screaming dead and bone-deep resentment, these people were laying the foundations of a home.
He knew he was weakening, each month more spent here wearing away at him, spreading him ever thinner. Wen Qing could keep him alive, but these people needed him strong. And for that, he’d need help.
That night, he took out a fresh sheet of talisman paper, and wrote:
Hey Lan Zhan,
Your offer to visit
Did you mean it?
In some ways, Yiling felt like home. It neighboured Yunmeng closely enough to share its accent, its taste in food, its boisterous cheer. Walking through its noisy, busy streets, Wei Wuxian could almost close his eyes and be in Lotus Pier again. He bought a fried pancake from a street stall, ate half of it, and gave the other half to a scruffy street urchin who was hungrily eyeing a merchant’s plump purse.
The inn was a nice one, clean and well-kept. Wei Wuxian, wearing his best clothes and his old Yunmeng Jiang swagger, asked the innkeeper for their best room and was quickly granted it. The room was spacious, outfitted with a low table and seating cushions, as well as a bed easily big enough for two. A decent enough artist had painted the hanging scrolls decorating the walls, and there was a vase of cut chrysanthemums by the open window.
The cost of a room like this was more than he could afford, these days, but Lan Zhan had offered to pay, and well — Wei Wuxian couldn’t make Hanguang-jun stay in any inn’s second best room.
He sat at the window, drummed his fingers on the wooden frame, and tried to quell the nervous fluttering in his stomach. It was ridiculous; he was just meeting Lan Zhan. They were just going to dual cultivate. Admittedly, they hadn’t parted on the best of terms, but if Lan Zhan still held any grudges then surely he wouldn’t have agreed to come in the first place.
The glint of sunlight on metal caught his eye first, drawing his attention to the tall figure approaching the inn. He was on foot, one hand wrapped around the sheath of his sword, the other tucked behind his back.
Wei Wuxian laughed, exhaled relief and inhaled delight. He propped his chin on his palm and just watched Lan Zhan for a while — the straight line of his back, the grace in his stride, the way the bright midday sun shimmered in his hair. The townspeople had clearly never seen a man so beautiful; they parted around him like water falling away from the prow of a boat, and stared after him as he passed, their faces lit with awe.
Not that Lan Zhan noticed, of course, cruelly denying his admirers even a nod of acknowledgement. Wei Wuxian sighed and shook his head. Then, on impulse, he plucked a chrysanthemum from the vase, imbued it with a spark of spiritual energy, and tossed it out the window.
The flower floated gently on the breeze, and landed unerringly on Lan Zhan’s head. Lan Zhan stopped, as the chrysanthemum tumbled down his shoulder and onto his open palm. He looked down at it, then looked up.
Wei Wuxian waved at him.
Lan Zhan didn’t wave back, but he did tuck the chrysanthemum into the folds of his robes, before heading into the inn.
Wei Wuxian went to the door and opened it, then sat down at the table and listened, grinning, to the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan said as he came through the door.
Up close, he was even more handsome than he’d been out in the sunlit street — his travelling robes pale blue and immaculate, his sleek hair crowned with silver. Wei Wuxian was suddenly grateful that he’d let Wen Qing bully him into washing his hair.
Lan Zhan had the chrysanthemum in his hand, and held it out. “You dropped this.”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Keep it. It’s yours now.” He gestured to the empty seat cushion across the table. “Come sit.”
Lan Zhan sat, placing the flower on top of his sword at his side. “Why did you throw it?”
“Does there need to be a reason?” Wei Wuxian countered lightly. He’d forgotten how easy it was to smile at Lan Zhan. “Maybe I just wanted to give my friend a gift.” He let his smile turn coy, the old motions of teasing returning to him with easy familiarity. “But don’t worry, I’m not expecting anything in return. To be in the company of Lan Er-gongzi’s renowned beauty is already more than this humble man can hope for—”
“I have a gift,” Lan Zhan interrupted.
Wei Wuxian stopped, mid-word, and blinked. “What?”
“I have a gift,” Lan Zhan repeated. He reached between the folds of his robes, pulled out a qiankun pouch, and pulled out from that pouch—
“No,” Wei Wuxian gasped, awestruck, as Lan Zhan placed two jars of Emperor’s Smile on the tabletop. “You didn’t.”
Lan Zhan raised an eyebrow. “It is customary to bring a gift on the first visit to someone’s home.”
Home, beat Wei Wuxian's heart: sun-warmed water, a chorus of crickets, a gentle hand on his hair. His smile faltered, weighed down at the corners. He caught himself before Lan Zhan could notice, and distracted them both by unstoppering one of the jars of wine and taking a long drink.
Sweetness filled his mouth. Even after everything, Emperor's Smile still tasted the same, delicate and mellow, warm with the memories of simpler, happier times: a moonlit duel with a partner who met him parry for parry, an evening of laughter with dear friends. He sighed and cradled the jar close, licking his lips to chase every drop.
Lan Zhan was staring at him oddly when he opened his eyes again. Wei Wuxian tilted his head quizzically. Lan Zhan blinked, then smoothed his expression so quickly that it looked almost furtive, like a child stuffing stolen treats into his mouth before his parents could catch him.
“Well, thank you for the gift, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, to fill the silence. “You really didn’t have to, you know; coming here on a day’s notice and paying for the room is more than enough.”
“I wanted to,” Lan Zhan said, simple and honest, as if he hadn’t cast aside his duties and flown across the cultivation world at Wei Wuxian’s behest. “You’d always refused before. What changed your mind?”
Ah. He’d expected that. Setting aside the wine, he unlaced the vambrace on his left forearm, pushed up the sleeve, and laid his arm palm-up on the table. “Just so you know what you’re dealing with.”
Lan Zhan’s skin felt fever-hot when he touched Wei Wuxian, two fingers pressed against the pulse point of Wei Wuxian's wrist. He watched Lan Zhan frown as his spiritual energy pulsed, heat blooming under Wei Wuxian’s skin for just a moment, before Lan Zhan snatched his hand back.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said, meeting Lan Zhan’s wide-eyed alarm with a crooked smile. “A bit like touching a corpse, right?”
“A fierce corpse,” Lan Zhan corrected, sounding almost angry. “Wei Ying, you—” He stopped, as though he’d just cast his clan’s silencing spell on himself, and lowered his gaze. Breathed slowly. “I thought you said Wen Qing was helping.”
“She is. But there’s only so much even she can do.” Wei Wuxian withdrew his hand, pulled back down the sleeve. He’d expected this, too, though Lan Zhan’s obvious horror still hooked claws into his heart. This was why he hadn’t wanted Lan Zhan to come to Yiling, to see what Wei Wuxian had become.
He eyed the unlaced vambrace, then sighed and looked back at Lan Zhan. “If you don’t want to dual cultivate, we don’t have to. We can just — sit here and talk.” He tried another smile. “You can catch me up on all the gossip that I’ve missed.”
For some reason, that made Lan Zhan look even more stricken. “No,” he said, and rose to his feet. “We will dual cultivate.”
The nervous fluttering came back, a whole flock of winged creatures inside his stomach. Wei Wuxian reminded himself again that they weren’t doing anything they hadn’t done before, and that more wine was probably a bad idea. He stood up, wiped suddenly damp palms on the skirt of his robes, and led the way to the bed.
Lan Zhan followed him, hands already loosening his belt. Wei Wuxian turned away to give Lan Zhan privacy while he changed, and saw that Lan Zhan had left Bichen by the table in the center of the room. Whatever else Lan Zhan thought of Wei Wuxian, however monstrous, it wasn’t enough to make him want his weapon at his side. That was something, at least.
When the sound of rustling fabric stopped, Wei Wuxian turned back around. Lan Zhan was standing beside the bed, stripped down to his underclothes, with the rest of his layers folded in neat squares on the floor. His hair was loose and his feet were bare. Wei Wuxian looked away, undid his own belt and tested the mattress with his fingers. After sleeping on a straw-covered rock for months, this mattress was almost startlingly soft, with a silk comforter that he pushed over to the foot of the bed.
“It’ll be easiest if I’m on my hands and knees, like last time,” Wei Wuxian said. He kicked off his boots and moved to kneel on the bed — only to be stopped by Lan Zhan’s hand on his shoulder. “Something wrong?”
Lan Zhan was frowning, lips tight in a way that meant he was confused as well as unhappy. “You do not intend to undress?”
Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow. “Why would I need to do that? I can just shove my clothes out of the way.”
The crease at the corner of Lan Zhan's mouth deepened, confusion edging out the unhappiness. “Effective dual cultivation requires considerable skin-to-skin contact.” He hesitated, then said, “Wei Ying, if you do not wish to dual cultivate—”
“No, I do, I.” Wei Wuxian sighed again, feeling impatience tug at him. He’d forgotten Lan Zhan’s damnable inability to just leave well enough alone. “Look, I’m doing you a favour. I can’t imagine you’d be too eager to touch me, considering.” He gestured to himself in a way that he hoped encompassed the slow corruption of my body and spirit from overwhelming amounts of resentful energy.
“Considering,” Lan Zhan echoed quietly, carefully. His eyes were uncomfortably keen, penetrating too deep, seeing too much. Lan Zhan always saw too much.
Wei Wuxian looked away, forced lightness back into his voice. “Besides, I get cold a lot easier now, so this works for both of us.”
He saw movement flicker at the corner of his eye, then felt a hand close gently around his bare wrist, fingers covering the back of his hand, thumb pressed against his pulse. He followed the hand back up the white-clad arm, to Lan Zhan’s distressed, determined face.
“I have no aversion to touching you,” Lan Zhan said, framing each word deliberately in his mouth, giving them shape and depth. The sincerity in his eyes hurt to look at. “And I will ensure that you stay warm.”
It felt like an offering, or a promise. A plea, almost, as though Lan Zhan had been the one to summon Wei Wuxian here. As though Wei Wuxian’s touch, his continued presence, was a privilege that Lan Zhan had to earn. The thought made Wei Wuxian’s gut clench.
“All right,” he said, and slid his wrist out of Lan Zhan’s grip.
Lan Zhan watched him as he took off his clothes: boots first, then the heavy outer layer, and the lighter middle layer. The intensity of that gaze made Wei Wuxian’s skin prickle, made him wish that he’d taken in his underclothes a bit so that they didn’t hang quite so loosely off his shoulders and hips.
“What now?” Wei Wuxian asked, when he was in his thin shirt and trousers.
Lan Zhan stepped closer, enough for Wei Wuxian to see the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the uncertain bob of his throat. It helped, a little, that Lan Zhan was nervous too, even though neither of them had any reason to be, even though this was a familiar transaction now, nothing more than a kindness between friends—
He still shivered when Lan Zhan’s hand cupped the back of his neck, fingers sliding beneath his hair, thumb resting against the hinge of his jaw. Like before, it was a measured move, deliberate, making a point. I have no aversion to touching you, Lan Zhan had said. Clearly, he was determined to make Wei Wuxian believe it.
“You are cold,” Lan Zhan murmured, concern once more creasing his brow. His lips stayed parted on the last word, offering just a glimpse of white teeth.
“I’m undressed,” Wei Wuxian replied; still a truthful answer, and an easier one to give than, y es, always, some days I feel like a guttering candle.
Lan Zhan nodded, leaned in the last breath of distance between them, and kissed him.
There was a hitched breath at the moment of contact — him, Lan Zhan, maybe both. Then spiritual energy was flowing into Wei Wuxian, strong and familiar, a broad river flooding arid plains. Wei Wuxian opened his mouth and kissed back. It was so easy; every time they did this it felt easier, as though his body was a stray animal that only knew one set of kind hands, and came obediently and trustingly, waiting to be fed.
Lan Zhan fed him, offered up the inexhaustible well of his spiritual energy for Wei Wuxian to glut himself, not seeming to care that it all just ended up leaking out of the ragged remnants of his core. So Wei Wuxian took, hooked his arm around Lan Zhan’s neck and kissed deeper, groaning when Lan Zhan flattened his other hand against Wei Wuxian’s spine and pulled him close.
This was something else he’d forgotten, how good it felt to kiss, to touch and be touched for a reason other than just to alleviate pain. They were still too new at this to be skilled, their mouths relearning each other’s shape, tongues remembering to take turns. There was heat and sensation everywhere, stirring flesh that had lain cold and dormant for months.
“Bed,” he whispered, against the corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth.
Lan Zhan’s ragged exhale rippled across Wei Wuxian’s face. “Yes.”
They lowered themselves onto the bed, Wei Wuxian on his back, Lan Zhan on top of him, hips cradled between Wei Wuxian’s spread legs. His weight pinned Wei Wuxian to the mattress, which should have felt confining, but instead was comforting, grounding, good. He arched his back and lifted his hips to get his trousers off and—
Felt the weight lift off him, Lan Zhan’s mouth pulling away.
“What’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian asked, propping himself up onto his elbows and trying not to feel self-conscious about having his trousers around his knees and his dick exposed and… frowned at.
“You are not aroused,” Lan Zhan said, still frowning at Wei Wuxian’s — admittedly, only half-hard — cock.
Oh. That. “I am, I swear. It’s just… like that, now.”
Lan Zhan looked up at him. “You have not released? At all, in recent months?”
Wei Wuxian grimaced. He’d had a similar conversation with Wen Qing, when he’d gone to her in a panic after several fruitless attempts at ejaculation management. Though that conversation hadn't involved his naked dick as an active participant. “As it turns out, resentful energy isn’t great for one’s libido. The last time I was able to get fully hard was probably when we were on Phoenix Mountain.”
He thought about that day often — the last time he and Lan Zhan had been able to share the same path, before the ground had fissured and Wei Wuxian had turned away to walk the single-plank road alone. He didn’t think about whether Lan Zhan regretted his choices, on Phoenix Mountain, and later, at Qiongqi Pass.
Lan Zhan nodded, looking thoughtful. “May I try?”
“Sure,” Wei Wuxian said reflexively, still half-caught in memory. Then he blinked. “Wait, try what?”
“Increasing your arousal,” Lan Zhan said calmly. He tugged Wei Wuxian's trousers off as he slid farther down the bed, until his shoulders were between Wei Wuxian’s thighs. His ears were flushed, as if they’d rubbed some colour off a ripe peach. “If you do not object, I would prefer to use my mouth.”
Wei Wuxian gaped at him, stunned silent. Then came the rush of blood, half to burn hot in his cheeks, half down to his cock, making it twitch, just a handbreadth from Lan Zhan’s — wet, pink, and apparently willing — mouth. “Uh,” he managed, before more words came to fill the dry well of his vocabulary. “I mean, you don’t have to; it’s not like we need me to be hard anyway, but… I guess if you really want to.”
“I do,” Lan Zhan confirmed, and promptly took Wei Wuxian’s cock into his mouth.
Oh. Wei Wuxian remembered the last time Lan Zhan had done this, had tried pleasuring himself to the memory and despaired afterward when even that couldn’t make him hard. But perhaps he had simply forgotten the details — the slick pressure and dazzling suction, the occasional, glorious stroke of tongue, the heat that made his toes curl and his hands fist desperately in the bedding. He could feel his cock hardening in Lan Zhan’s mouth, the way it stretched his lips wider, made his brow furrow in concentration as he worked—
Oh fuck, worked to take Wei Wuxian’s cock into his throat. Wei Wuxian’s hips surged, sinking his cock deeper, and Lan Zhan — Lan Zhan let him, pulling off only when the tip of Wei Wuxian’s cock hit the back of his throat and made him choke.
“Shit, are you all right?” Wei Wuxian yanked his hips back and struggled to sit up, only to be pinned flat again by the combined force of Lan Zhan’s hand and the wet slide of his mouth back onto Wei Wuxian’s cock. “ Fuck. I’m — I’m hard, wow, good job. We should — ah — continue?”
Lan Zhan hummed agreement, sending vibrations through his cock that whited out all thought for several breathless heartbeats. When he could think again, there were slick fingers at his hole, rubbing small circles around the rim and pressing gently at the furled entrance. Wei Wuxian moaned, spread his legs wider, and let Lan Zhan’s fingers push inside him, one at a time.
The intrusion still felt strange; Lan Zhan’s fingers were longer than his own, and at a better angle to find all the sensitive spots inside him. The first brush against his Hui-yin acupoint had his back arching clean off the mattress — or it would have, had Lan Zhan not kept him pinned. Then Lan Zhan did it again, rubbing his fingers back and forth over that same spot, slow and careful and intensely good. Too good; Wei Wuxian could feel his thighs start to tremble, his weak, greedy body so starved for pleasure that it forgot what this whole endeavour was for.
He cried out, a drunkard’s jumble of Lan Zhan and stop, and whimpered when Lan Zhan pulled off his cock with an obscenely wet sound.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asked, sounding worried. “Was that… not pleasurable?”
Gods, Wei Wuxian couldn’t listen to Lan Zhan say words like ‘pleasurable’ when his fingers were still buried knuckle-deep in Wei Wuxian’s ass and his lips still swollen from sucking Wei Wuxian’s cock. He shook his head and struggled back onto his elbows, wincing when Lan Zhan’s fingers slid out of him. “No. It’s just — I was about to come.”
The worried expression cleared, turned satisfied, almost pleased. “Yes,” Lan Zhan said, and leaned down again, tucking a wayward lock of hair behind his ear.
“Wait!” Wei Wuxian jerked away, scooting higher up on the bed. “We… uh… don’t you need to be inside me? Dual cultivation needs penetration, right?”
Lan Zhan nodded. “It does. But since you have not released in the past few months, you may ejaculate once now and then again when we dual cultivate.”
Fuck. The way he said that, ‘you may ,’ as though Wei Wuxian’s orgasm was Lan Zhan’s to command, to give or take away as many times as he wished. A shudder rippled through Wei Wuxian, part revulsion at being controlled, part… something else — hotter, darker, like rich honey almost too sweet on the tongue. He shelved the thought for scrutiny later, when he didn’t have Lan Zhan staring at him, and met Lan Zhan’s gaze with a wry, crooked smile.
“I’m honestly flattered that you think we share the same godlike stamina,” he said, “but I don't have it in me to come twice. And I think I’m ready enough now, so let’s keep going?”
That just made Lan Zhan look disappointed, probably at Wei Wuxian’s diminished physical state. You and me both, Wei Wuxian thought, and tried to turn over again — and was stopped, again, when Lan Zhan tightened his grip on Wuxian’s hip.
“Do you prefer to be on your front?” Lan Zhan asked.
Wei Wuxian blinked, mostly at the assumption that he’d done this enough to actually have preferences. “Not really? I just think this way’d be easier for you.”
Lan Zhan dipped his head, long lashes veiling his eyes. Then he let go of Wei Wuxian’s hip and rose to his knees, crawling forward to kneel between Wei Wuxian’s legs again. He leaned in and placed his hand on the mattress beside Wei Wuxian’s head. “I would prefer you like this.”
There suddenly didn’t seem to be quite enough air in the room. Fresh heat bloomed up the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck, licked down his spine, pulsed low in his belly. Lan Zhan’s eyes were dark and intent, turning his already unearthly beauty into something utterly captivating. Wei Wuxian couldn’t look away. “All right,” he heard himself say, and lay back.
It was… different, like this. Being able to watch Lan Zhan and having Lan Zhan watch him in return made everything feel viscerally real, made him acutely aware of where he was and whom he was with. There was no hiding; Lan Zhan saw every minute shift in his expression, every wince of pain and gasp of unexpected pleasure. But the same was true in reverse, giving Wei Wuxian new additions to his well-curated collection of Lan Zhan expressions: the crease in his brow from the strain of holding himself still, the helpless part of his mouth when Wei Wuxian finally took him to the root.
Lan Zhan still felt excruciatingly, exquisitely big inside him though; that part was the same.
“I’m good,” Wei Wuxian panted, carefully adjusting the clutch of his thighs around Lan Zhan’s hips. “Just give me a — there.” He smiled up at Lan Zhan, then caught a thread of memory and added, “No counting this time, all right?”
Afterward, they walked through the town, with Lan Zhan setting a deliberately sedate pace. Wei Wuxian let him, in too pleasant a mood to even fake indignation. With the afternoon sun beaming amber warmth on his skin and the echoes of their shared energy thrumming inside him, it was easy to forget that he’d ever been cold. Even the lingering soreness felt good, a burn in tired muscles that reminded him of a time when pain had meant nothing more than the satisfaction of hard work.
They stopped at the marketplace. Before leaving the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing had given him a shopping list, organized in order of need out of consideration for their meagre funds. Lan Zhan stayed wordlessly patient as Wei Wuxian went from stall to stall, even holding Wei Wuxian’s outer robes when Wei Wuxian realized that his haggling had greater success when he wasn’t dressed like a wealthy young master.
“I can pay,” Lan Zhan said, the third time he handed Wei Wuxian his robe back.
“You already paid for the room,” Wei Wuxian replied, waving a dismissive hand. “And the bath afterwards. Besides, it helps me stay sharp. Haggling’s a valuable life skill, you know — well, you probably don’t, but trust me, it is.” At Lan Zhan’s continued frown, he grinned and leaned in, lashes demurely lowered. “Unless Lan Er-gongzi likes the idea of… rewarding this one for his performance?”
Lan Zhan skewered him with a frosty glare, and flounced away at a deliberately faster pace. Wei Wuxian laughed and jogged after him, offering apologies and reassurances of Hanguang-jun’s unassailable honour, until Lan Zhan thawed enough to at least accept Wei Wuxian’s recommendations for Yiling snacks that he ought to try. Though he didn’t seem to like most of what he bought, and ended up giving it to Wei Wuxian instead.
As they left the town, Lan Zhan asked Wei Wuxian about the Wen settlement. Wei Wuxian gave short, surface-skimming answers about their living conditions in the Burial Mounds, and steered the conversation to safer harbours, such as Fourth Uncle's most recent foray into wine-making, and everyone’s attempts at coaxing a smile out of quiet little A-Yuan.
Lan Zhan listened, gave his usual succinct replies when prompted, but otherwise seemed content to just let Wei Wuxian ramble.
Maybe he missed me a little, after all, Wei Wuxian thought, and hid a grin behind his sleeve.
By the time they reached the base of the mountain, the sun was a fiery marble burning orange and purple streaks in the western sky. In Gusu, it would already be twilight, the first stars blinking themselves awake.
“You should get going,” Wei Wuxian said, feeling reluctant and slightly ashamed of himself for it. “You’ll be in trouble if your ‘night hunt’ lasts too long, right?”
Lan Zhan lowered his gaze. He didn’t seem eager for their parting either, in a way that Wei Wuxian felt – hoped – was more than just courtesy. “It is of no matter.”
Wei Wuxian knocked the side of Lan Zhan’s shoulder with his own. “Where was this attitude when we first met?” he asked, laughing, and warmed when Lan Zhan’s lips tipped upward at the corners in response. “Seriously though, thank you for today.”
“Unnecessary,” Lan Zhan said. He met Wei Wuxian’s gaze and held it. “I wanted to.”
There, again, words with weight, heavy against the bars of Wei Wuxian’s ribcage. He let the words envelope him like a cloak, and drew enough strength from their warmth to say, “Then, until next time?”
A small, soft smile lit Lan Zhan’s face, silver moonlight on calm water. “Until next time.”
Something eased in Wei Wuxian’s chest. He gave his own smile in return, and stepped back to let Lan Zhan unsheathe his sword and mount it. He watched Lan Zhan go, waving as he rose into the darkening eastern sky. When even his pinprick shadow had disappeared, Wei Wuxian turned, made his way to the set of giant stones that marked the outermost set of wards – untouched, good – and followed the signal-fire trail of his wards up into the heart of the mountain.
The two-hour climb felt easier, with his new supply of spiritual energy. It was still tiring, aching legs and burning lungs, but it wasn’t the bone-quaking exhaustion that would force him to his knees, shaking and gasping like a man drowning. The rest of the Burial Mounds noticed the change, too. Spirits steeped in resentment circled him like a predatory animal, sharp-toothed and hungry for the life energy glowing in his veins. Wei Wuxian whistled a firm warning, and they slunk away, clearing the path for him to continue.
At the end of the path was Wen Qing, her features ghostly in the light of her hand-held lantern. She scrutinized him – panting but not trembling, posture slumped but not bowed – and held out her hand. Wei Wuxian placed his wrist obediently on her palm, and let her take his pulse.
“Better?” he asked, after a moment.
“For now,” she replied, gaze turned inward as she continued to thread her mountain-stream spiritual energy through his meridians. “How long do the effects last?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I don’t know.” He’d worked with resentful energy during the war as well, but that was like comparing the clean slice of a sharp blade to the inexorable grind of a millstone.
Wen Qing frowned, but let go of his wrist. “Is he willing to cultivate with you on a regular basis?”
He didn’t know that, either. Lan Zhan had agreed to a next time, had even looked pleased about it, but that was still a far cry from any sort of arrangement. And even Wei Wuxian could admit that a few hours of pleasure and a minor boost to his cultivation was a poor use of Lan Zhan’s time and spiritual energy.
Though Lan Zhan certainly hadn’t seemed reluctant, while they were together. And there had been that smile, before they parted.
Heat crept up Wei Wuxian’s neck, making him suddenly grateful for the concealing dark. “I’ll ask him.”
She nodded. “Good. I recommend at least twice a month, if not more.”
More? The heat spilled into his cheeks and the tips of his ears. “I’ll… keep that in mind.”
Lan Zhan, did you
make it home safely?
I did. Thank you.
That’s good. Is it
too soon to talk
about a next time?
It is not. When?
Two weeks? It’s fine
if that’s too soon
or if you’re busy.
I don’t know how
long the effects of
this session will last
but Wen Qing recommends
once every two weeks
I will see you
in two weeks’ time.
Their second session, two weeks later, started with dinner – at Lan Zhan’s insistence – and ended with a truly spectacular orgasm that rendered Wei Wuxian useless for almost half an hour afterwards.
Which was why, as they left the inn together, it took him a while longer than it should have to register the fact that Lan Zhan had goats.
Three, in fact: a white, shaggy-haired nanny goat on a rope lead, her udder still heavy with milk. Two fluffy white kids trotted along after her, darting away occasionally to explore nearby stalls and wooden doorposts, before running back to their mother’s side. One of them eyed the hem of Wei Wuxian’s robe with what he suspected was chewy intent.
“Why do you have goats?” Wei Wuxian asked, when Lan Zhan didn’t immediately provide an explanation.
“I had a night hunt,” Lan Zhan said. “This was my payment.” He held out a hand to the nanny goat keeping pace alongside him, and rubbed her head when she leaned against his palm.
It was adorable. Wei Wuxian valiantly suppressed the urge to clutch his chest and coo, and dragged his attention back to the topic at hand. “They paid you in goats?”
“I was on a farm,” Lan Zhan said, dipping his head in what was probably the closest he could come to a shrug. “The family was insistent. It seemed impolite to refuse.”
Wei Wuxian grinned, delight like a stolen sunbeam in his belly. First rabbits, and now goats – if only people knew that beneath Hanguang-jun’s aloof, wintry beauty, there lay such a wonderfully soft heart.
“Well, they look healthy,” he said, bending down and examining. Their coats were sleek and unmatted, and their eyes bright and alert. The kid that had been eyeing his robe started nibbling the hem, and complained at him when he shooed it away. “They’ll fetch a good price when you sell them.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Wei Wuxian stood up, groaning a little at the protest of well-used muscles. “Goats are very useful, especially in these parts. There’s the meat, if you slaughter them, and leather if you can find someone to work it. Or you can keep them for milk, or even fertilizer.”
“Hm,” Lan Zhan acknowledged, and… just kept walking, even when their path took him away from the marketplace and toward the edge of the town instead.
Surely Lan Zhan wasn’t planning on bringing these goats back to the Cloud Recesses. Walking would take weeks, but the alternative would be to fly them on Bichen, and Wei Wuxian could just imagine that: serious, dignified Hanguang-jun, flying straight-backed and stoic-faced, with a flailing, bleating goat under each arm and a third strapped across his back.
The hilarity of that mental image, and Wei Wuxian’s subsequent battle to not burst out laughing every time it popped up in his head, kept him occupied for the rest of the walk.
At the base of the mountain, Lan Zhan stopped, turned to face Wei Wuxian, and held out the rope lead. “For you.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. He’d thought as much, though he’d been happily hoping otherwise. “Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan.” He rested his hands on his hips and gave Lan Zhan the Raised Eyebrow of Da-shixiong Disapproval that he’d used on his shidi whenever one of them tried – badly – to get away with misbehaviour. “You just happened to have a night hunt in Yiling, huh? Where they just happened to pay you in goats?”
Lan Zhan’s expression wavered, a fallen leaf rippling a still pond, then firmed into something stubborn and unrepentant. “Yes.”
Fine. “Then these are your goats, given to you fairly in payment for your labours.” He straightened his back and crossed his arms. Months of lean living had stripped him of the stamina and muscle mass that had once allowed him to fight Lan Zhan to a standstill, but they were still of a height, their eyes perfectly level with each other. “I don’t need your charity, Lan Zhan.”
For a long moment, Lan Zhan just looked at him, and said nothing. Wei Wuxian fought the urge to squirm under the force of that stare, uncomfortably aware of his faded and fraying cuffs, and how tightly his belt now cinched above the jutting knobs of his hipbones.
Then Lan Zhan blinked and turned his head, the sweep of his eyelashes a scissor-snip cutting the thread of tension between them. He looked up at the mountain instead, its summit shrouded in deeper darkness than just the encroaching night. “Do they?”
Something tightened in Wei Wuxian’s chest. They. Perpetually cheerful Uncle Liu, who smiled even on rainy days, when the pain of his limp etched new lines between his brows and beside his mouth. Granny, who mended tear after tear in everyone’s clothes even though her aged eyes could barely thread a needle. Wen Qing, always the first to wake in the morning, and the last to sleep at night. Her words came to him again, filling the guilt-sour silence: It’s not only your life I’m trying to save.
He took a deep breath. His pride, a lashed and wounded creature, snarled bitterly at him from the hollow depths of his belly. But pride wouldn’t keep his people fed, and he had other priorities now, other responsibilities. “All right.” Then, on another breath, “Thank you, Lan Zhan.”
He took the goats.
You’re probably still flying
but I wanted to
thank you again for
I have arrived safely.
No need for thanks.
They were well-received, then?
They were extremely well-received.
Everyone was so excited.
Fourth Uncle has already
started work carving spindles.
Also, do you remember
A-Yuan? He was sitting
watching the goats, and
one of the kids
just went over and
sat in his lap!
He was initially startled
but then started petting
the goat and laughing!
It was the first
time I’d ever seen
him laugh. Can you
imagine, a child laughing
in the Burial Mounds!
I’m glad. Is there
anything else you need?
Please let me know.
Actually, if you really
don’t mind, Wen Qing
has a list. Naturally,
I’ll pay you back
for everything you get.
I really don’t mind.
Give me the list.
The third time they met in Yiling, Wei Wuxian actually managed to pay for their meal, by employing the simple but reliable method of pointing over Lan Zhan’s shoulder and saying, “hey, what’s that?” and using the moment of distraction to shove money at the bewildered owner.
Lan Zhan got his revenge, though. He pinned Wei Wuxian to the bed and besieged him with kisses — butterfly-soft on his forehead, eyelids, the tip of his nose; long and lush on his mouth; rough and hungry on his neck. Wei Wuxian retaliated as best he could, twisting in Lan Zhan’s grasp and whining filth until Lan Zhan finally granted him the mercy of a thigh between his legs. He came almost immediately, so fast it made his head spin, hips bucking as he stained his trousers because Lan Zhan hadn’t even let him undress first.
Then, when he was still dazed from orgasm, Lan Zhan stripped him down, opened him up, and fucked him, and Wei Wuxian discovered that he could, in fact, come twice in one session.
“Huh,” he said afterward, once the golden glow of bliss had receded enough to let his mouth make words again, “that… hasn’t happened before.”
Lan Zhan gave a pleased-sounding hmm, and continued wiping Wei Wuxian’s thighs.
Surprisingly improved sexual performance aside, Wei Wuxian did appreciate the usual post-cultivation sense of well-being, as well as purchases that Lan Zhan had made from Wen Qing’s list.
All the purchases, it seemed – Lan Zhan emptied a qiankun pouch to reveal packets of herbs wrapped in leaves and tied to each other like beads on a string; small bags of seeds for hardy, fast-growing plants; a sharp knife; and several tightly wrapped bolts of cloth. Then he stuffed it all back into the pouch, sealed it, and handed both the pouch and an unsealing talisman to Wei Wuxian.
The bag hummed with spiritual energy as it sat in his hand, beautifully embroidered and probably worth more than the entirety of its contents. “I’m giving this back, the next time we see each other,” Wei Wuxian said warningly.
“If you must,” Lan Zhan said.
Lan Zhan did, at least, accept payment, after quoting a price so ludicrously low that Wei Wuxian made a mental reminder to trick Lan Zhan into letting him pay for their meal the next time, as well.
Though he’d clearly underestimated Lan Zhan’s skill at subterfuge; when he and the Wens unrolled the cloth, they found nestled in the fabric a stack of blank talisman paper, a pair of exquisitely forged scissors, and a merchant’s ransom in tiny sachets of precious Gusu salt.
“Goodness me, even my wedding gifts weren’t this fine,” Third Auntie said slyly, and giggled like a maiden when Wei Wuxian blushed.
Wen Qing, practical as always, just shrugged. “Well, it’s not as if he can’t afford it.”
Really, Lan Zhan?
I have no idea
of what you speak.
Lying is forbidden in
the Cloud Recesses.
I’m still in flight.
I can’t believe this.
Who even ARE you?
Nevermind. Just — thank you.
There is no need.
The next day, he woke up hard, the first time it’d happened in months. He immediately told Lan Zhan, who sent back his congratulations and a suggestion to resume ejaculation management exercises. He also – albeit with considerably more reluctance – told Wen Qing, who also offered her congratulations and deemed him healthy enough to help out with the work around the Burial Mounds.
He spent the rest of the week working on the roofs, and eliminating any lingering sense of awe that the Wens might still have felt towards him by being utterly useless at thatching. They laughed, and made him a runner instead, clambering up ladders to deliver armloads of thatched reeds to the people perched on the roof.
The following week, he was on digging duty, helping sun-browned men and women carve trenches in the dry earth for irrigation canals. It was hard work, leaving his muscles watery in ways he hadn’t experienced since before the war. He relished it, warm soreness instead of ice-water agony, and cheerfully accepted the ribbing from the older folks when he joined in the complaining about aches and pains.
When he wasn’t working, either helping the living or suppressing the dead, he took his turn looking after A-Yuan. Wei Wuxian’s experience taking care of small children was, admittedly, limited, but it seemed to largely involve ensuring that A-Yuan didn’t eat anything he wasn’t supposed to, and keeping him from wandering off and getting eaten by resentful spirits. Xiao Bai, the goat that hadn’t left A-Yuan’s side since it had first sat in his lap, romped around them, munching contentedly on dry grass and weeds.
It felt good to be part of a community again, to tell jokes and make people laugh, to be useful in ways beyond just chasing away ghosts. It almost made up for the fact that he still couldn’t wake Wen Ning, or the way starvation still skulked like a predator, lean and hollow-eyed at the edges of their existence.
“Stop it,” Wen Qing said, the third time she caught him taking only a half portion of the meal — watery porridge with pickled vegetables and a luxurious single egg, courtesy of the extra money they got from selling the sachets of salt. Wen Qing snipped her own egg in half with her chopsticks, and placed one half pointedly into Wei Wuxian’s bowl. “Do you think that just because you’re cultivating again, you can mistreat your body? Are you trying to undo all my hard work?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian muttered guiltily, and ate the egg.
That night, he attempted the ejaculation management exercises again, sitting cross-legged with one hand stroking a nipple and the other on his soft cock. He closed his eyes, leafed through his mental library of erotic scenes, and then discarded them all and thought about Lan Zhan instead — the bright sting of teeth on Wei Wuxian’s neck, the unyielding grip of fingers around Wei Wuxian’s wrists, the hot, heavy pressure of being so full that he could hardly breathe. His cock hardened under his touch, straining eagerly upward. His hips followed, a wave building momentum on its way to shore, riding the memory of Lan Zhan’s mouth, his hands, the stuttered gasp of Wei Ying on his lips as the wave rose to a crest—
Wei Wuxian yanked his hand off his cock, biting back a groan as his hips bucked, fucking futilely into empty air. He forced himself into a straight-backed meditation pose, both hands clutching his knees, and directed his attention inward to the riotous tangle of energy between his legs. The research had said to rhythmically clench the muscles of the jaw and buttocks and imagine pumping energy upward to the top of the head. Wei Wuxian imagined instead a tall tree, its roots drinking deep from the earth to quench even the highest branches.
He did feel better afterwards, which meant that research on ejaculation management wasn’t entirely a lie. Still nowhere near the sunned-cat contentment from dual cultivation, though, and the ache in his balls was… not fun. A whisper of cold air spurred him to close his robes back up – yet another way in which this was inferior to dual cultivation; no warm Lan Zhan to curl up against while they both panted themselves down from climax – and stretch, before getting up and checking on the spelled candle by his workstation.
The flame was crackling, sending up firefly sparks as though sprinkled from above with black powder. Wei Wuxian grabbed a blank sheet of talisman paper and passed it over the flame, grinning when characters began to singe themselves onto the yellow surface:
List of purchases complete.
Is there anything else?
No, though I suspect
you're going to sneak
more things in there
than what we asked,
Your silence is telling,
Hanguang-jun. At least
let me buy you
lunch again? It’s the
least I can do.
I will consider it.
Liar. Also, I should
have asked this sooner,
but you don’t mind
me thinking about our
dual cultivation when I
practice ejaculation management, right?
I do not mind.
I do the same.
Oh. That’s good. Anyway,
the exercises remain unpleasant,
but I will continue
because they are beneficial.
Wen Qing says I
shouldn’t mistreat my body.
Wen Qing is right.
She always is. It’s
an older sister thing.
Shijie is also always
right. Hey, Lan Zhan,
if I do exercises
every night from now
until we meet again
in three days, what
will you give me
for a reward?
Reward should be unnecessary.
These exercises are beneficial
to body and spirit.
Nevermind. You’re right. I
was just being silly,
as always. You shouldn’t
take anything I say
seriously. Anyway, see you
in three days!
Two jars of Emperor’s
Smile. Will that suffice?
What? Oh, Lan Zhan,
I said I'm just
being silly! It’s really
not at all necessary!
I see. Three jars.
Lan Zhan! Stop encouraging
my bad behaviour!
Don’t give me any!
How would you know
if I kept my
end of the bargain?
I trust your integrity.
Because Wei Wuxian was a man of his word, he did keep his end of the bargain. Which meant that by the time he and Lan Zhan met up again, he and his aching balls had well and truly earned those jars of wine. With effort, and out of respect for Lan Zhan's sense of propriety, he did not immediately tug Lan Zhan into a secluded alleyway and climb into his lap. Instead, he let Lan Zhan present the four jars of Emperor’s Smile — one of which he traded with a restaurant owner of discerning taste in exchange for a free lunch — and made polite conversation through the meal and the walk to the inn.
Only when there was a locked door between them and the rest of the world, did Wei Wuxian grab Lan Zhan’s shoulders, back him against the wall, and seize his mouth. Lan Zhan kissed back with gratifying hunger, his elegant, well-bred mouth thrillingly rough and delightfully filthy. Warm hands cupped Wei Wuxian’s face, then gripped fistfuls of hair at the base of Wei Wuxian’s skull and pulled.
Wei Wuxian tipped his head back and moaned, breaking the kiss to gulp ragged lungfuls of air. Lan Zhan’s mouth gave chase, sucking a burning column of bites onto Wei Wuxian’s throat. Wei Wuxian’s legs parted, and Lan Zhan’s thigh slid between them. There was a glorious moment of friction on his cock, before Lan Zhan was moving, pushing himself off the wall and reversing their positions, cradling Wei Wuxian’s head protectively as his weight pinned Wei Wuxian to the wall in a solid wall of heat.
“What would you like?” Lan Zhan asked, breath like a caress on Wei Wuxian’s unbearably sensitive skin.
Wei Wuxian keened, rutting up against Lan Zhan’s thigh. “Anything, ah — please, I haven’t come in ages.”
“Three days,” Lan Zhan corrected, so unfairly coherent that if Wei Wuxian didn’t have ample evidence pressing against his hip of just how turned on Lan Zhan was, he’d think they were just having a casual conversation in the street.
Wei Wuxian laughed, more air than sound. “Yeah well, it feels like longer when you’re doing ejaculation management exercises.” He rolled his hips again, and cried out when one of Lan Zhan’s hands came down to grip the back of his thigh and haul him even closer. “Fuck, fuck, Lan Zhan come on, are you going to make me beg?”
The words sent a spark racing down Wei Wuxian’s spine, a spark that caught tinder in Lan Zhan’s startled-wide eyes, and turned them molten. Lan Zhan's next exhale shuddered out of his lungs.
Inside Wei Wuxian, a nameless, formless desire slowly began to take shape.
“Please, Lan Zhan,” he whispered. “Please, make me come?”
Lan Zhan nodded. He held Wei Wuxian’s gaze for a long, considering moment, and then slid to his knees.
Arousal slammed into Wei Wuxian like a physical force, a wave splintering against a cliff. “Fuck,” he breathed, and — dug his fingernails hard into the meat of his thigh and absolutely did not come, untouched and in his trousers like a boy whose balls had just dropped. “Oh my — Lan Zhan.” He bit back a whimper as Lan Zhan undid his belt and parted his outer robes. “I didn’t mean — are you sure? You really don’t have to.”
“I know,” Lan Zhan said, and Wei Wuxian almost came again when Lan Zhan looked up, the demure veil of his lashes a shockingly erotic contrast to his red, kiss-swollen mouth and the obscene jut of Wei Wuxian’s clothed cock in front of his face. “You said, anything I want.”
He had said that, though he distinctly remembered saying it to Lan Wangji, the austere and untouchably beautiful Hanguang-jun, not this vision that seemed to have stepped directly out of a pornographic novel. “I’m, uh, not going to last long.”
Lan Zhan raised an eyebrow, and dropped his gaze deliberately to — oh fuck — the growing wet spot darkening the front of Wei Wuxian’s trousers. “Do your best,” he said , and Wei Wuxian almost gasped out loud at the insult — except then Lan Zhan tugged down Wei Wuxian’s trousers and closed his lips over Wei Wuxian’s cock.
Thought went away like paper boats on a fast-moving current. Sensation rushed into the void, sharpening everything into crystalline focus. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He couldn’t watch; it was too much, but closing his eyes was even worse. It amplified the slick heat of Lan Zhan’s mouth, the unbearable suction as he slid deeper, until the tip met the back of Lan Zhan’s throat with a wet, glottal click.
That knocked some sense back into him, even as his balls drew tight and his spine arched. “Lan Zhan,” he managed. “Lan Zhan I’m close!” He bit his lip and forced enough control to shove Lan Zhan away, so that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t come in his mouth or worse, on his face—
Lan Zhan knocked his arm aside and slammed Wei Wuxian back against the wall. He was panting, his eyes feverishly bright. “In my mouth or not at all,” he said, voice so low it was almost a growl, and sucked Wei Wuxian’s cock back into his mouth.
It wasn’t until later, much later, after he’d come his brains out and left Lan Zhan to carry his limp noodle of a body to bed, wipe him clean, redress him, and tuck him against Lan Zhan’s front – that Wei Wuxian blinked a realization and said, “Oh, we didn’t exchange energies.”
Behind him, Lan Zhan went still. His fingers, which had been stroking Wei Wuxian’s waist like a brush on paper, paused and curled slowly into a loose fist. “We did not,” he said, voice stilted. “Apologies. I… forgot.”
It was so abrupt a response, so utterly unlike the poetic grace of Lan Zhan’s usual speech, that Wei Wuxian couldn’t help laughing. He felt Lan Zhan stiffen and begin to pull away. “Aiya, sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, between stifled giggles, and turned over to his other side to face Lan Zhan. “It’s just — you don’t have to apologize. If anything, I should apologize to you, for not reciprocating.”
Lan Zhan flushed. “Unnecessary.”
Wei Wuxian sighed. It was terribly unfair; when he blushed, he went bright red all over. Lan Zhan, on the other hand, blushed like a winter dawn, pink blooming from his ears to just touch the snowy expanse of his cheeks. “Yes, yes, Hanguang-jun’s precious seed must be reserved only for cultivation purposes, not wasted in pleasure.” Another bit of realization dropped. “Oh, is that why you uh, swallowed, earlier?”
He allowed himself a moment to remember that, the way Lan Zhan’s pale throat had worked as he’d swallowed every pulse from Wei Wuxian’s cock, how he’d licked his lips afterward, as if he hadn’t wanted to waste even a drop of Wei Wuxian’s spend. Then Wei Wuxian folded that moment away and tucked it into a corner of his memory, to be revisited the next time he did ejaculation management exercises, and returned his attention to the conversation at hand.
Lan Zhan’s flush deepened, reddening his ears endearingly. “Some cultivation texts support an initial ejaculation to precede cultivation, as a method of increasing endurance and delaying subsequent ejaculations.”
Which didn’t… actually answer the question. A surprisingly evasive move, for someone as direct as Lan Zhan, and paired with the blush, as well as his earlier confession about forgetting, Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but wonder—
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said tentatively, testingly, “did you like—”
Heat flared on his chest, like a candle caught too close to skin. For a confused moment, he thought it was Lan Zhan’s doing, that Wei Ying had somehow annoyed him into retaliation — then realization slammed into him, sending him jolting upright with one hand already digging through the folds of his robes. His fingers met hot, brittle paper and yanked out a talisman, the edges curling as black char ate its way toward the center.
Blood beat like a war drum in his ears. “Fuck.” He scrambled to his feet.
Wei Wuxian barely heard him, didn’t bother to respond. He shoved on his boots, yanked open the door, and took the stairs at a gallop. Someone was in his way; he swerved hard, knocking his shoulder painfully against the wall, ignored their startled shout, and kept running.
Lan Zhan caught up to him as he burst out into the street. “Wei Ying, what has happened?”
“Danger in the Burial Mounds.” Distantly, he registered that Lan Zhan was keeping pace with him, running alongside, hair and robes fluttering like banners behind him. Wei Wuxian had never seen Lan Zhan run before, and felt the sudden, absurd notion to remind him that running was not permitted in the Cloud Recesses.
“An attack?” Lan Zhan asked, voice tight. “Jin sect?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Perimeter wards intact. Danger inside the Burial Mounds.”
It had happened before, once. A month after their arrival, a rare burst of sudden, intense rainfall had swept through their settlement. The rushing water had washed away everything in its path, including one of Wei Wuxian’s warding stones, leaving a gap in the wards. The next day, Wei Wuxian had woken to screaming, and rushed out just in time to keep a fierce corpse from biting off Third Auntie’s legs.
He’d given everyone the warning talismans after that, and remade the wards, and checked each ward every day on patrol. But somehow he still must have fucked up, must have overlooked something, or maybe he was just stupid —
“—ing? Wei Ying!”
Bichen’s sheath shot into his field of vision, barring his path. He stumbled to a stop, suddenly aware of how winded he was, already, and he hadn’t even left the boundaries of the town. “What?”
Lan Zhan, of course, didn’t look winded in the least. It was probably against the Lan sect precepts to even sweat. “I said, let me fly you back. You cannot run the whole way.”
Defiance and refusal came instinctively to his tongue. But the base of the mountain was another half an hour away, and there would be two hours worth of climbing after that. Running the whole way would get him there faster, but who knew what shape he’d be in by the time he got to the top?
Lan Zhan, on Bichen, could make the trip in a fraction of the time. And if he was willing to trust Wei Wuxian to guide him through the centuries-old death trap that was the Burial Mounds, then surely Wei Wuxian could trust him in return.
“Fine,” Wei Wuxian said. “But you’ll have to go where I tell you.”
“I will,” Lan Zhan agreed, and unsheathed Bichen.
Chia, M., Wei, W. (2002). Sexual Reflexology: the Tao of Sex and Love. Chiang Mai: Universal Tao Publications.
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