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the shadow of a name in skin

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I won’t let you do it. Wen Qing. I won’t let you go to the Jin –

 

His voice. He remembered his own voice. What else had he said?

 

He’d forgotten so much already.

 

His blood seeped into the soil. He kept on drawing the array, carefully, fleshing it with his own soul – not his spiritual energy (there was none in him to give; why? He’d known, once) but all the scraps of worth he had left inside him.

 

There were cultivators coming. He could feel them. He didn’t have long. Behind him, Wen Ning stood entirely still, head bowed. Grieving.

 

Sacrifice is the oldest kind of magic. That was his own voice too. The echo of it clung to him, even as the rest of him seeped away: his memories. Lotus Pier. Shijie in her wedding clothes. Jin Zixuan’s blood. A gift for a child. Promises broken. His own howling grief.

 

Himself.

 

I’ve already lost everything. For you, for Wen Ning, for the others –

 

He bit down on his tongue. Tasted blood. Leaned forward. Kissed the soil. And mouthed his name one last time.

 

I can sacrifice one more thing.

 

-

 

The Yiling Patriarch woke on the edge of the Burial Mounds. A man who was dead and walking held him up, an arm around the Patriarch’s shoulders. The Patriarch coughed. Spat blood on the ground. Looked up.

 

The wards were holding strong, pulsing with resentful energy. He spat again, clearing the blood from his mouth and said, “Tell me your name.”

 

“Wen Ning, master,” the dead man said eventually. His voice sounded – strange. Hollow. “Courtesy name Qionglin.”

 

“Ah, it’s good to meet you again, Wen Ning!” The Yiling Patriarch kept his voice cheerful. No need to let the monstrous rage coiled in his gut out. Not yet. “Give me a moment, and then we’ll head back, eh?”

 

The dead man gave him a moment. The Patriarch felt the approach of the cultivators. Closed his eyes, and let the rage flare out of him.

 

He felt it as his wards rose to meet the cultivators – howling, terrible, a tide laden with the dead – and shoved them back, back, in a sea of limbs and blood and howling. He nodded to himself, satisfied, and gestured for the dead man Wen Ning to lead the way.

 

The two of them walked toward a small settlement of homes. There was a lotus pond. A patch of vegetables. The doors of the homes were shut. Only one woman waited for them.

 

The woman called out a name. The Yiling Patriarch saw her mouth move, and flinched as a sound like a knife struck him about the ears. He clenched a hand over his ears, then lowered them. He was laughing, he realised. Laughing, laughing, because he’d wanted this.

 

The woman did not laugh. She looked as if she had been weeping.

 

“It worked, then,” she said.

 

“No one will be able to hurt you,” the Patriarch agreed.

 

His bones felt heavy. The malice running through him was a burnt sweetness, syrupy and so thick that it made him sluggish. It wouldn’t slow him down, later. He thought of how watching and feeling the wards work had sated his rage – left it purring, quiescent and well fed. It would not stay that way for long, and he could not hurt the people here. He had become this for them, after all.

 

“Who are you?” he asked. “Who were you to me, before?”

 

“My name is Wen Qing,” she said. “We’re – friends.”

 

“I suppose we were, once,” the Patriarch agreed. “Now leave me alone, Wen Qing. Ah, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to,” he went on, when she opened her mouth to protest. “I look handsome, don’t I? But I promise you, I’m not good company anymore! So please make sure everyone avoids me. After all, you should do my old self the favour of staying alive.”

 

-

 

No one could enter the Burial Mounds. Not anymore.

 

Many cultivators tried to break through the wards, after that. The Lanling Jin had deep pockets, and the Jin heir was dead, murdered by the Yiling Patriarch and his Ghost General. The Jin wanted to raze the Wen Remnants to the ground. But any cultivator who tried to enter the Yiling Patriarch’s land was expelled, forced back by resentful energy so thick and strong that it left burns upon their hands and nightmares in their rattling skulls.

 

If they kept on trying… well. The rage in the Patriarch’s body had to be fed somehow.

 

Their deaths brought him a pleasure so sharp it was almost pain. (Perhaps, once, it would have been.) He meditated in his cave, cross-legged, resentful energy wreathed around him, and tore apart bodies with the wards he had built and fed, nourished by his own soul. And then, when he was done, he stood at the entrance of his home and watch the Wen Remnants farm and eat and talk to one another, entirely safe.

 

They were happy. It was enough.

 

Months passed. The rage wore his skin. He dreamt of nothing and slept like the dead, in a silence born where his memories had once lived. Sometimes the Wen watched him with sad, worried eyes. There was a child that reached for him, sometimes. He did not reach back, and soon enough it stopped trying. He grew used to his new life.

 

Then it happened.

 

Someone was at the wards. Not crossing them. Not resisting them. Merely waiting, a gentle animal baring its neck for slaughter. It made the angry hunger in him twist and turn, confused. He closed his eyes and reached, through the wards, for that presence:

 

A man. A cultivator. Not of Lanling Jin. Weaponless. Kneeling.

 

Wen Ning came in to speak to him, in that timid voice of his.

 

“Master, there’s…”

 

“I know,” said the Patriarch. “Strange, isn’t it? I’ll go deal with him myself.”

 

-

 

The cultivator was kneeling just beyond the wards. His sword lay on the ground far behind him. His hands were flat on the ground, palms up, in a gesture of vulnerability. He had lowered himself into a bow so deep that the back of his throat was bare, his hair spooled on the ground.

 

The black tide of the wards lapped at the edges of his fingertips and the fine, pale lace of his outer robes. He had not crossed the wards, but the wards had him regardless: held his wrists like manacles, rose like water up his skin. The man carried all the curses the Patriarch had placed upon the wards of the Burial Mounds upon his body. Beneath smoke and red lines of those curses, his clothes were white, his skin pale, his hair deep black.

 

The Patriarch raised a hand, banishing those curses away.

 

“Raise your head,” said the Patriarch. “Let me see you.”

 

The man raised his head. The Patriarch’s breath caught. In his chest, his heart clenched.

 

Behind him, he heard Wen Ning make a noise of surprise, and then he knew:

 

This one had known him before.

 

Even without memory, his body reacted with a kind of knowing yearning, shoulders softening, his skin warming as he drew closer, one footstep at a time.

 

Once, I wanted you, he thought, looking at the pristine cultivator still kneeling before him. And somehow, my flesh wants you still. Who are you?

 

“Honoured cultivator,” the Patriarch said, keeping his voice genial. Friendly. “Have you come to kill me? We knew each other once, I expect. Did I murder your lover? Your sister?”

 

“I came here for you,” the cultivator said.

 

“Everyone comes here for me,” said the Patriarch. “Why do you kneel? And why have you abandoned your sword?”

 

The cultivator said his name, then. The Patriarch heard the discordant scrape of it, tearing through him. But the cultivator did not see his pain. The cultivator’s gaze was dark and steady as he continued, saying, “I do not want you to think me a threat.”

 

“No cultivator alive is a true threat to me.”

 

“I did not want you to think that I desire to threaten you,” the cultivator corrected.

 

“Ah,” breathed the Patriarch, leaning down. They were the same height now, he and the cultivator. The cultivator did not move, but everything about his stillness screamed.

 

“What do you want, then, cultivator?”

 

“Please,” the man whispered. “Allow me to stay with you.”

 

“I don’t know you,” the Patriarch said, with vicious gentleness. “I have no memory of the man I was before, and no kindness in me for cultivators who don’t respect my wards. I could murder you now, and I’d feel nothing.” He runs his fingertips in a line along the cultivator’s throat. Back, forth. When had he lifted his hand? He didn’t know. “But I am feeling generous, honourable cultivator, and I think perhaps I cared for you once. So go. Run, and I promise not to gut you like a dog.”

 

“I will not go,” the cultivator said. “I came here for you. I came here to remain with you. To… to be yours.” The cultivator swallowed. The Patriarch felt his throat move. “I will obey you. Be loyal to you. Anything. As I should have done long ago.”

 

The Patriarch almost laughed at the strangeness of that. He stopped stroking the cultivator’s throat. Encircled it instead, with one hand, and brushed a rough thumb along the hard lines of the cultivator’s jaw.

 

“A man like you, saying such things,” the Patriarch murmured. “Offering yourself up to the Yiling Patriarch himself. Anyone would believe you were offering something you’re not.”

 

He leered at the cultivator… who simply blinked back at him, and said, “I am offering what I am offering.”

 

“Yourself,” said the Patriarch.

 

“To you, Yiling Patriarch,” he said, “I offer all that I am, without reservation. I will do anything you ask of me.”

 

“Even leave?”

 

“Anything you ask, as long as I am yours,” said the cultivator. “I cannot be yours if you send me away.”

 

He could leave the cultivator here. Let the wards close behind him. The cultivator would not be able to follow.

 

But he could feel the cultivator’s pulse thrumming in his hand. He tightened his grip, just a little, and watched the cultivator’s eyelids flutter and felt a surge of want so strong that it almost felled him.

 

I want him, the rage whispered. You want him.

 

We have always wanted him.

 

The hunger punched through him harder still, as he looked into the cultivator’s eyes.

 

“You have a name, don’t you? A noble cultivator like you, in such fine clothes! You probably have a title too. Tell me. Tell me all of it.”

 

“Lan Wangji,” the man said, voice a vibration beneath the Patriarch’s palm. “My title - Hanguang Jun.”

 

“Those are not all your names.”

 

A flicker of those dark lashes, over piercing eyes.

 

“Lan Zhan,” the cultivator said.

 

“You want to be mine?” the Patriarch asked. Lan Wangji nodded.

 

“Then come with me,” the Patriarch said silkily. “And let us test your resolve together.” He let go off the cultivator’s throat. Stood. “But I won’t make you do anything you don’t wish to,” the Patriarch said with a smile. “You can leave whenever you like, and never come back. How does that sound?”

 

Lan Wangji watched him expressionlessly.

 

“It is a bargain,” said Lan Wangji. He rose to his feet.

 

-

 

It would not take long to break this cultivator’s resolve.

 

A man in white robes, with such fine hair and skin – a man like that would not be used to being shamed, to yielding or want, to begging or humbling himself.

 

The Patriarch would simply be himself – no more than that – and the cultivator would flinch from him. Say no. Disobey. And then the Patriarch would graciously let him go.

 

I should kill him, the Patriarch thought distantly. But he could not give the idea serious thought. Even looking at Lan Wangji made his stomach swoop; made something rise in his blood and burn like poison in his veins.

 

He could not kill this one. He didn’t know why.

 

He took the cultivator to his cave. The blood pool gave off a low red light that mingled with the candlelight. On the cultivator’s skin, it took on the colour of roses.

 

“You’re mine now,” the Patriarch said. He shaped the words like a question.

 

The cultivator nodded, wordless.

 

“Who was I to you, before? Was I your friend? Your lover?”

 

The cultivator did not move a muscle. Said nothing.

 

“Lan Wangji,” said the Patriarch, testing the name. It felt as unfamiliar as all names did to him, now. “Hanguang Jun.” This, for some reason, finally made the cultivator before him flinch. He filed that knowledge away. “What did you used to call me? Tell me what I was named once more.”

 

The cultivator swallowed. Spoke his name.

 

A sound like a knife.

 

By now, the Patriarch was used to the pain of his name. He didn’t even flinch. Instead he walked over to the cultivator until there was no distance between them until they were uncomfortably close, chest to chest, and said, “Again.”

 

The cultivator froze. But he did not draw back.

 

“Again,” the Patriarch repeated, and pressed his mouth oh so close to Lan Wangji’s own, just to feel the shadow of the shape of his own name on Lan Wangji’s breath. He waited for Lan Wangji to flinch. To pull back. To say no.

 

Instead, he felt Lan Wangji’s hesitation, and heard the familiar painful chime of the first syllable of his broken name. But Lan Wangji’s voice faltered fast, leaving them sharing breath in absolute silence.

 

“Say my name again,” said the Patriarch. His mouth was still close to Lan Wangji’s, and he felt more than saw the way Lan Wangji shivered at the movement of the Patriarch’s own mouth, the caress of his breath. The Patriarch could not resist reaching out a hand, tracing the swoop of the cultivator’s collarbones through all the thick cloth of his robes. “Ah, Hanguang Jun, why so silent? Don’t you want me to be happy? Don’t you want to obey me?”

 

A shudder ran through Lan Wangji.

 

“I do,” he said.

 

“Then say my name,” wheedled the Patriarch. “Say it.”

 

Lan Wangji was still silent.

 

“Go on,” said the Patriarch. “Be good, now.”

 

Lan Wangji’s mouth parted reluctantly. Said his name.

 

A cymbal crash of broken noise, and the Patriarch shoved Lan Wangji back. The Patriarch felt giddy, the pain is sweet and clear and heady, and he laughed even as blood dripped from his nose.

 

“Do you know, honoured cultivator, it hurts me here, to hear it?” The Patriarch touched a fingertip to his own forehead. “It hurts me here. Like knives.”

 

The cultivator flinched, his eyes widening.

 

“I did not know,” he admitted. “I did not, W-”

 

He stopped himself. Just.

 

“So kind,” the patriarch says softly. “So generous to me, Hanguang Jun.”

 

“I will not say your name again.” The cultivator’s expression was resolute.

 

“I suppose you won’t,” the Patriarch said with a sigh, thinking of the Wens who look at him with soft, haunted eyes and refuse to call him anything but Yiling Patriarch, or master. “I thought you came here for me,” added the Patriarch. “I thought you said you would do anything for me. Did you lie?”

 

“It is not my will to hurt you.” Lan Wangji’s voice was tight. “I would do anything for you but not – not hurt you.”

 

“Then you have already broken your word,” said the Patriarch. “You offered me anything, and now you refuse me this?” The Patriarch shook his head. “I did not think I would break you so swiftly. But as I said – you may go.”

 

“No,” the cultivator said. “No. I.” He swallowed. “Forgive me.” His eyes were black with feeling. And then he said the Patriarch’s name once more, as he’d been bid, and gave a full-body flinch at the Patriarch’s groan of pain, and the laughter that followed it.

 

“Would you truly hurt me again if I asked? Speak my name? Cut me, perhaps, with your blade?”

 

“If that is your will,” said the cultivator, sounding wretched. And somehow that made the Patriarch feel ill, in a way he could not explain. He shoved the feeling aside.

 

“Ah, ah. No more names then. You don’t like hurting me! I see that now. But I think it would be a pleasure to be used by you. Would you hold me down, honoured cultivator?” His voice was still light. “Would you enjoy making me scream?”

 

“If anyone must be hurt, let it be me,” Lan Wangji said.

 

“Hanguang Jun,” the Patriarch said, disappointment dripping from his voice. “Is it your free will, if you’re afraid for me? You’re so uptight. You musn’t worry so much about me. Besides, you misunderstand me. I don’t want you to hurt me. I want you to fuck me. I want you to make me scream from pleasure. That’s not so bad, is it? Would you fuck me if I asked?”

 

Silence.

 

His nod was so small the Patriarch barely saw it.  

 

Ah. Well.

 

Fool that he was, he somehow hadn’t expected that.

 

“Of course you would,” said the Patriarch, rallying. “I’m sure any cultivator would be proud to conquer me.”

 

“You misunderstand me, Patriarch. I would be yours,” said the cultivator, gaze unflinching. “I would not conquer you. I have surrendered to you already. I was yours long before I ever came here and kneeled before you. I am yours even now.”

 

“You have perverse desires, Hanguang Jun,” the Patriarch said with a laugh. “You came all this way to be mastered by me?”

 

“I came here for you,” said Lan Wangji. It sounded like agreement. This time, the cultivator was the one to step toward the Patriarch. “I would please you,” he went on. “However you desired.”

 

The Patriarch felt as if his equilibrium had been lost. Control of this situation – whatever it was – had slipped from his grasp.

 

“And if I want to fuck you, honoured cultivator? What then?”

 

“Then I would thank you,” he said, in a low voice that made the Patriarch want to seize him by the throat and kiss the air out of him. Perhaps the cultivator was not the only one with perverse desires.


The Patriarch pushed, a little further. This, at least, would make this proud, pure cultivator balk.

 

“If I asked you to plead for my cock, would you beg, hm?”

 

“I would,” Lan Wangji said simply.

 

“Go on then,” said the Patriarch.

 

An infinitesimal hesitation. A blush of colour on the cultivator’s ears.

 

“Please… use me.”

 

“No,” the Patriarch said, the rage rolling in him, howling. Hungry. There was no possibility the cultivator would do it. None at all. Not this beautiful thing, robed in white, he would not sully himself, so the Patriarch pushed onward. “Say it. Clearly. Beg.”

 

“Please, Yiling Patriarch,” said Lan Wangji. Such a steady, beautiful voice. “Please, give me your cock. I want you. I always have.”

 

So strange, to hear such lewdness spoken so eloquently.

 

The rage in him stretched out its tendrils.

 

“Then prove it to me,” said the Patriarch. “Strip. Right now.”

 

The cultivator stripped down, layer by layer. A fine weft of cloth, white as snow, was removed. Another, the faint blue of clouds, joined it. Another robe of white, and then another even thinner layer, were folded and placed upon the ground, the cultivator bending forward to place them down, his hair cloaking his face as if he were some demure maiden. Then he straightened, standing tall again, letting the Patriarch look at him.

 

Firm, broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Sharp collarbones. He was pale as jade, so perfect that the Patriarch was almost sure that if he dug his nails into all that endless skin he wouldn’t even be able to leave a mark. Some people were made not be to be sullied. If the Patriarch were a better man, he would not even try.

 

But he was not a better man. His mouth felt very dry, and very hungry. He stared. The cultivator showed no signs of embarrassment or discomfort, his eyes still on the Patriarch, his face serene.

 

“Trousers and boots too,” the Patriarch said eventually.  “I want you bare.”

 

The cultivator’s hands clenched faintly at his sides. Reluctant.  Perhaps he was not so unashamed after all.

 

“You offered me everything,” the Patriarch pointed out. “No one is forcing you to be here, Hanguang Jun. If you don’t care for this game, you have my permission to go.”

 

The cultivator removed the rest of his clothing without a word or another moment of hesitation. In mere moments was naked, and ah, he wasn’t pale as jade all over after all. His cock was flushed and hard, heavy and vulnerable. The Patriarch had not even touched him yet. There were no more pretending, now, that Lan Wangji was beyond the base needs of human of flesh.

 

“Kneel,” said the Patriarch.

 

Lan Wangji went down willingly, but oh, he was proud.  His back was straight. His chin high.

 

The Patriarch thought about how good it would be to see that proud face between his legs, mouth stretched and wet and full of cock, and realised with a rush of heat he did not simply need to imagine it. He could have that, right now. The cultivator had come to him, had offered himself up like a pretty beast to the slaughter. The Patriarch did not have to control himself.

 

When he seized hold of the cultivator’s hair, Lan Wangji exhaled. Only once, sharp and soundless.

 

He held the cultivator’s hair in a painfully tight grip, all that slippery, dark hair wound tight around his fist. But the thumb he pressed against Lan Wangji’s mouth was gentle. Open, the touch said. And Lan Wangji… did. The Patriarch felt the plushness of that lower lip, felt the jaw slacken, and looked down to see the cultivator’s soft mouth parted, ready to take what it was given.  

 

He removed his own aching cock from his trousers with surprisingly little difficulty, considering his own unwillingness to let go of that hair. It took time, one-handed, but Lan Wangji did not protest and did not move.

 

He held Lan Wangji still; fisted his own cock once, twice, and watched Lan Wangji’s eyelids flicker, a dark flush colouring the tips of his ears. The Patriarch forced himself to ease his grip on the leash of dark hair. Just enough.

 

“Turn your head away, and I’ll let you go,” the Patriarch told him. He canted his hips forward, the tip of his cock brushing Lan Wangji’s lips – and felt both the softness of that mouth and of Lan Wangji’s punched out exhale as he shuddered. He did not try to turn his head away. Instead he tried to move his head forward. Tried to take the Patriarch in his mouth, with the faintest shimmer of tongue against his lips.

 

The Patriarch tightened his grip, holding him still.

 

“No,” he said. “Not yet.”

 

Lan Wangji looked up at him.

 

“Would you have me beg again?” he asked.

 

The Patriarch had not planned to ask that of him. But suddenly it was all he wanted.

 

“Yes,” he said roughly.

 

“Please,” said Lan Wangji. “Please let me suck you. We-“ He stopped. Hands tightening into fists once more. “Yiling Patriarch,” he said instead. “Let me. I would – please you.”

 

How could he say no to that?

 

Lan Wangji had clearly never sucked a cock before. He was artless, clumsy. Careless at first with his teeth, until the Patriarch gripped his jaw and began to instruct him. Cover your teeth. Like this. Good, good. And your tongue – just there, ah. So obedient Hanguang Jun. Now lean forward. Take me deeper. I know you can, Hanguang Jun. There you go.

 

And like that, step by step, he made Lan Wangji’s mouth biddable; made it wet with drool and softly open, his tongue curling obediently beneath the Patriarch’s dick.

 

“Lan Wangji,” he crooned. “You have a mouth made for this. Look how well you take it. You only needed to be taught.” He tightened his hand on the cultivator’s jaw, pressing his thumb to the skin of his cheek, feeling the shape of himself inside that mouth. Lan Wangji groaned. “You like a firm hand.”

 

He shoved forward, feeling Lan Wangji choke around him, and came so hard his vision went white. After a moment he draw back, every inch of him burning still with hunger, and tucked himself away.

 

“Finish yourself,” the Patriarch said casually.

 

He expected Lan Wangji to take himself in hand right there on the floor, or leave and deal with himself, or demand that the Patriarch see to him. What he did not expect was the quiet hitch of breath that followed his words, or the way the cultivator’s hands clenched tight on his spread knees, or even the way he lowered his head – as if he could not bring himself to do it. As if he were shy.

 

The Patriarch placed a fingertip beneath Lan Wangji’s chin, tilting his head up. The cultivator’s eyes were blown, his lips swollen and chin slick. His cheeks were flushed. The Patriarch could see the red shadow of his own fingertips against that jaw. The cultivator was a mess, no longer a pure and peerless jade, and the Patriarch, who should have been satisfied wanted, wanted –

 

“Touch yourself,” he said. His voice came out of him as a low growl. The shadows moved around them, thrumming with resentful energy. “Be good for me now, Hanguang Jun. Touch yourself now. For me.”

 

Lan Wangji curled his own fingers around his cock. Tightened his fist, a rough drag up and down. And up.

 

“Slower,” said the Patriarch. His voice was dark. “Don’t come yet. Take your time.”

 

Lan Wangji’s hand slowed. Up, slow, slow. Down. Slower still.

 

The cultivator did not beg or plead, as the minutes ticked by. He only slowed down, more and more, his thighs shaking, his breath coming in sharp pants.

 

“Come,” said the Patriarch. And Lan Wangji did, messy and silent, his eyes fixed on the Patriarch’s, his mouth parted as if he could take the Patriarch all over again, as if he wanted to be good.

 

-

 

After that, it was hard not to put Lan Wangji on his knees all the time.

 

But the truth was, the Yiling Patriarch had other duties that unfortunately occupied his time. The wards required his constant attention and energy. His rage was a razor-winged bird, rattling against the edges of his consciousness. Containing it was an endless duty.

 

He could not let (anyone else, not after Jin Zi-) the Wens be hurt by his carelessness. He had done this for them, after all.

 

He had a feeling that someone, long ago, had told him cultivating resentful energy was dangerous. Someone from before his sacrifice – before he poured himself into the wards – had tried to save him. Whoever they were, poor fool, they hadn’t been wrong. His anger was a beast. The only time it quietened was when he took a life, and his wards were fed with more than his own strength.

 

Or… when he had Lan Wangji kneeling before him, lips wrapped around the Patriarch’s hardness, undressed where the Patriarch was fully clothed, leashed by his own hair, his obedient hands curled upon his knees or on his flushed cock, at the Patriarch’s whims. Then, it was as if he felt no rage at all. Only pleasure, possessive and sweet. Only the warmth of Lan Wangji’s perfect mouth.

 

-

 

Lan Wangji was not always at the Patriarch’s beck and call. Over the days that followed, he carved a place for himself among the Wen Remnants. He began to dress like them, in dark and serviceable robes, keeping nothing of his old finery apart from his forehead ribbon, a pale embroidered thing that he clearly valued.

 

He watched Lan Wangji work in the fields. There was a small child following him. The child kept on chattering, clinging to Lan Wangji’s leg until the cultivator finally relented, and lifted the child up. The child was familiar, in a vague way, but the Yiling Patriarch did not really know him. Not anymore. No one had told him the child’s name since his sacrifice.

 

A-Yuan, he thought suddenly. And with the thought came a nauseating rush of memory. A small toy on a stick. A child clutching his leg. The Patriarch smiling, as Lan Wangji looked at him, dressed in blue, his eyes gentle and full of quietly wanting –

 

He shoved the memory away.

 

The memory. He should not have been able to remember this. He’d sacrificed this along with everything else. In a panic, he tried to meditate where he stood, feeling for the wards. The tide of them held steady. The wards still held strong.

 

A fluke. That was all it was. But he looked again at Lan Wangji working with the Wen, in simple brown robes with his pale ribbon at his forehead, and felt something like disquiet.

 

That night, when Lan Wangji came to the Patriarch’s bed, the Patriarch didn’t look at him as he said, “Lie down. On your back.”

 

Lan Wangji stripped without being told to. The Patriarch watched as Lan Wangji lay down nude on his back. In the red light of the cave, he was beautiful. He would be beautiful in any light. Even looking at him made the Patriarch’s chest go tight.

 

Whoever I was before, I could have had you. And I didn’t.

 

I was a fool.

 

He crouched over Lan Wangji and kissed him.

 

He had never kissed him before. But he did not make this first kiss sweet. He did not bother with gentleness. He traced the seam of Lan Wangji’s lips, forcing his mouth open, fucking between those lips with his tongue. Lan Wangji opened for him easily, as he always did; gave a sharp noise when the Patriarch bit down on his lip and sucked, harsh and leisurely, bruising that soft skin with his teeth.

 

Another kiss followed, wet and filthy. Lan Wangji kissed him back intently, reverently, lifting his hands to brush over the Patriarch’s hair.

 

The Patriarch drew back.

 

“Be good for me,” the Patriarch murmured, pressing kisses to his forehead, his nose, his jaw. He moved lower, running his fingertips over the planes of Lan Wangji’s chest, scraping his nipples with the edges of his nails, digging his thumbs into the divots of Lan Wangji’s hips. Every touch made Lan Wangji freeze for a moment, then twitch, as if he wanted to beg for more with every fibre of his body, but didn’t know how.

 

“Let me fuck you, Lan Wangji.”

 

Lan Wangji gave one of his silent, sharp exhales, as if the Patriarch had punched the air out of him. Then he nodded. Said, “Yes.”

 

There was oil for this. The Patriarch placed the vial in Lan Wangji’s hand.

 

“Open yourself.”

 

Lan Wangji froze again.

 

“I have never,” Lan Wangji said haltingly. And the Patriarch groaned, arousal rushing through him. He took hold of the oil and slicked up Lan Wangji’s fingers himself, until they were slippery, gleaming.

 

“Try anyway,” he said. “I’d like to see you try.”

 

Lan Wangji bit down on his own lip. Lowered his hand, adjusting. Slipped a finger inside of himself. The angle was clearly awkward. He was still on his back. He lifted his hips a little, canting them up. Spread his legs on the bed, his knees rising, heels digging down for purchase.

 

“You’ll need another finger,” the Patriarch told him.

 

“I…” A choked noise. “I…”

 

“Let me help you,” the Patriarch said softly. He moved his own hand between Lan Wangji’s legs. Pressed a finger into him. He felt Lan Wangji’s own finger – felt the heat of his body twitch and tighten around the both of them inside him – and heard Lan Wangji gasp. When he looked up, he saw that Lan Wangji’s eyes were wide, his mouth a dark o of surprise. It made the Patriarch want to kiss him, so he did. And again.

 

He bit down on Lan Wangji’s lower lip once more and felt him shudder, his body moving instinctually to take their tangled fingers deeper. Then he froze, and shuddered anew, and froze again, fucking himself in tiny, hitched increments.

 

Ah. What a lovely vicious cycle.

 

“There you go,” the Patriarch murmured, drawing his mouth back. He moved his fingers back, forth. On skin, it would have been a soothing motion. But inside Lan Wangji – ah. It made the cultivator’s body shudder, his hips twitch, another helpless, breathless noise escaping his mouth as he fucked himself helplessly, hungry for something the Patriarch wasn’t ready to give him. Not yet.

 

He’d meant to fuck Lan Wangji hard. He’d meant to quiet the strange memories swirling inside of him. Instead he opened the cultivator up with aching slowness. One finger, then two. Then a third, as Lan Wangji’s own finger stayed inside himself, entirely still; as Lan Wangji’s breath hitched over and over again, his throat red, his mouth bitten and swollen by his own teeth as he tried to hold the cries in. The Patriarch brushed his free hand over any inch of skin he could reach: Lan Wangji’s arms, his wrists. His thighs.

 

“Ask for what you want,” said the Patriarch. “Go on.”

 

“Please,” Lan Wangji said, voice flat, but his body, ah – his body squirming on the bed, his legs parted – was an invitation the Patriarch had no desire to ignore, not anymore.

 

The Patriarch withdrew his fingers.

 

“Turn over,” he said. Lan Wangji did. “Now raise your hips. Just like this,” he told him, taking hold of Lan Wangji’s narrow hips, drawing them up until Lan Wangji was on his elbows and splayed knees, the slick furl of his body exposed to the Patriarch’s eyes. The Patriarch could not resist touching him again, a single caress of his fingers that made Lan Wangji gasp and move his hips, restless and seeking.

 

The Patriarch couldn’t delay any longer. If anyone had tried to stop him taking Lan Wangji now he would have murdered them, would have gutted them with absolute fury and pleasure. But they were alone, and the Patriarch could do nothing but spread Lan Wangji’s legs wider, and hold his hips, and press his own cock into Lan Wangji’s waiting heat.

 

Lan Wangji’s head arched back. He made a noise, utterly lost and wanting, and the Patriarch could do nothing but slide into him deeper and take hold of his hair one handed, drawing Lan Wangji’s body into the press of his dick, helping Lan Wangji be good for him.

 

“You’re so tight,” the Patriarch said reverently. “Should I wait, Lan Wangj? Is it too much?”

 

A breath. Another.

 

“No,” said Lan Wangji, voice shaking. “No, I want – more. Please.”

 

And Lan Wangji – ah – rolled his hips, a sinuous, pleading movement that ran through his whole body. The Patriarch groaned and moved with him, drawing back, then shoving forward into the hot clench of Lan Wangji’s body.

 

Lan Wangji pushed back to meet each thrust, his beautiful back arching. It should have looked lewd, but a surrender like this from a man who so clearly never surrendered anything was…

 

The Patriarch had no words for it. He only wanted more. More of Lan Wangji. More of that voice pleading. More of that mouth around his cock, and those legs wrapped around his waist, and the shy lowering of those eyes when Lan Wangji wanted something too much and didn’t know how to ask for it.

 

He rolled his own hips, setting a steady rhythm that was both slow and merciless. It was something like the tide meeting the shore; something like the steady, hungry cadence of the wards he’d built around the Burial Mounds. He could do this forever, he thought. Spend forever taking and taking Lan Wangji. But he felt Lan Wangji go very still, and make a choked noise – felt Lan Wangji come around him, entirely untouched – and nothing could stop the Patriarch from spending inside him, shoving deeper and deeper as if he could mark Lan Wangji just like this, collar and keep him just like this. Nothing could stop him pressing kisses to the wings of his shoulders, damp with sweat, as Lan Wangji shuddered beneath him, and twisted, still fucked open around the Patriarch’s cock, seeking a kiss.

 

-

 

He woke in the night from a dream.

 

He hadn’t dreamt in so long. His heart was racing. He couldn’t remember it.

 

He felt hands on his arms; callused, elegant hands, soothing him, palms tracing him from shoulder to wrist.

 

“You’re awake,” said Lan Wangji.

 

Of course. He’d kept Lan Wangji in his bed. Held him by the wrists, when the cultivator had risen to go, hours before. He wasn’t holding Lan Wangji’s wrists anymore. Lan Wangji was holding him.

 

“You were having a nightmare,” Lan Wangji said.

 

“I remember things I shouldn’t remember,” the Patriarch said. It was easy to be honest in the dark. Easy to be honest, too, to this particular man, for reasons the Patriarch couldn’t explain. “I gave those memories up. I fed the wards. If I begin to remember…” he shuddered. “I’m afraid.”

 

“Your strength will not fail,” Lan Wangji said. As if he understood.

 

“You don’t know that,” the Patriarch told him, closing his eyes. “You know nothing of what I’ve done to protect this place. What I’ve given up.”

 

“I have faith in you,” said Lan Wangji. “And I am here. I will not allow your wards to fail.”

 

His body believed it. Strange, how his aching heart eased, and his breathing slowed. If Hanguang Jun said he would not allow the wards to fail, they would not fail. If Hanguang Jun had faith, then the Yiling Patriarch could have faith too.

 

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” the Patriarch said, with a smile in his voice that he couldn’t contain. He brushed a hand through Lan Wangji’s hair, feeling the softness of exhaustion roll back over him. “You are better than this one deserves.”

 

The Patriarch fell asleep, after that. And if Lan Wangji froze, when he heard Lan Zhan on the Patriarch’s lips, or pressed his face to the Patriarch’s arm and sobbed, ragged and quiet and hopeful, then it was only another dream, and one the Patriarch had forgotten by morning.

 

-

 

“I should never have let you come here,” said Wen Qing.

 

“You could not have stopped me,” Lan Wangji replied.

 

The Yiling Patriarch could not see them, where he stood beyond the makeshift kitchens.  The Yiling Patriarch was not meant to be here. Not meant to be listening to them. But he had heard the threads of Lan Wangji’s voice and Wen Qing’s combined, and followed them. Now he stood and listened to the sound of the two of them chopping vegetables, and of A-Yuan singing to himself, some nonsense song as he played on the floor at their feet.

 

“I should never have sent you that message,” Wen Qing said, sounding strangely both angry and close to tears. “But I thought, if anyone can save him from himself – if I can’t, then surely Hanguang Jun –”

 

“I am glad you told me,” Lan Wangji said evenly. Where Wen Qing was tearful, he was utterly calm. “I am glad I am here.”

 

Silence. Then.

 

“He hurts you.”

 

The snap of the cleaver. Once, twice.

 

Wen Qing continued. “If he were himself – he’d never do this. He would never forgive himself.”

 

“He doesn’t hurt me,” said Lan Wangji, after a moment.

 

“I can see the marks on you.”

 

“They are not hurts,” Lan Wangji said. His voice was quiet and even. “They are – gifts.”

 

A sound. Wen Qing. Laughing or crying?

 

Lan Wangji.”

 

“I know what you assume. But I… I am not hurt.” There was a fierceness to his voice, unfamiliar, rich as flame. “They are proof that I can save him.” A pause. “Trust me in this, Lady Wen.”

 

“I suppose I don’t have any choice,” she replied.

 

The Patriarch walked away.

 

-

 

He called Wen Ning to his side. Went to inspect the wards himself, and clear away any dead cultivators that resentful energy of the wards hadn’t yet consumed.

 

The wards still held strong. He watched Wen Ning walk beside him and thought, strangely, You were an archer once.

 

Another memory he should not have had.

 

His brain – his frayed, broken brain – worked through things slowly.

 

Something had changed.

 

The price the strength of the wards demanded had always been clear: everything. Everything the Patriarch had once been. Memories. Name. Heart.

 

But now someone else had made a sacrifice. Someone else had paid a price equal to the one the Patriarch had paid, and something of the Yiling Patriarch’s old self had returned to him.

 

He looked closer at the wards. Closer still.

 

Now that he was paying attention, now that he was here in person… ah. There.

 

He saw new strength in the wards: a golden ribbon, a skein of cultivation that slid through his grasp like music.

 

This was not his spiritual energy. But it was there, in the wards, bound up among his curses. And it was making the wards even stronger.

 

-

 

He returned to his chamber in the early evening. Lan Wangji was already waiting for him, seated upon the bed. The ends of his hair were wet. He must have bathed. Lan Wangji stood when the Patriarch approached, and removed his own robes, deft and steady.

 

“Your ribbon,” the Patriarch said. “Give it to me.”

 

Lan Wangji went still.

 

“It means something, doesn’t it?” the Patriarch observed. “I knew that once.”

 

Lan Wangji did not even breathe. His face was very pale. But his hands did not shake, when he reached up and removed the forehead ribbon, and placed it in the Patriarch’s waiting palm.

 

“Remember you can go,” said the Patriarch, shoving him down upon the bed. “You can always leave. I won’t stop you.”

 

Lan Wangji watched as the Patriarch stripped himself down until he was bare too, all his scarred and burned skin on display. He watched as the Patriarch leaned forward, ribbon still in his hand. He didn’t flinch when the Patriarch kissed his thighs, or when he bit them, over and over again, sucking deep bruises into flesh. When the Patriarch took his cock in his mouth, licking his way up, sucking a shade too hard, Lan Wangji finally made a noise, a pleading groan, his bruised thighs tensing beneath the Patriarch’s hands.

 

“I want you to ride me,” the Patriarch said. “Fuck yourself down onto me. Satisfy me, Hanguang Jun and maybe…” he lowered his hand, still holding the forehead, ribbon, down on Lan Wangji’s thigh. He slid the ribbon higher, letting the edge touch Lan Wangji’s hardness. Lan Wangji shivered.  “Maybe then I’ll let you come. Do you understand?”

 

Lan Wangji looked at him. He was breathing hard already, fast and shallow as if the Patriarch had stolen all the air from him.

 

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “Please.”

 

His hands twisted in the sheets, knuckles tight, as the Patriarch bound his cock with the forehead ribbon. Then Lan Wangji rose to his knees, watching as the Patriarch lowered himself back on the bed.

 

Lan Wangji reached for the oil himself, slicking his fingers, sliding them into himself with a roughness that spoke of desperation. He placed one hand flat on the bed beside the Patriarch’s hip as he opened himself. There was a crease of tension between his brows. The Patriarch reached up, smoothing it away with his thumb, and moved his hand to clasp the back of Lan Wangji’s neck.

 

“On me,” he murmured. “Here.”

 

He guided Lan Wangji up, until Lan Wangji was straddling him.

 

It took a moment for Lan Wangji to take hold of the Patriarch’s cock, and move his own hips into position. There was a long, luxuriant, awkward moment where Lan Wangji was above him, blushing and body bare and bound, gazing down into the Patriarch’s eyes with a plea he didn’t voice. The Patriarch took pity on him – grasped Lan Wangji’s hips, murmuring, “Like this,” - and guided Lan Wangji down onto him.

 

Like this, he was so tight. Trembling all over, thighs all sweat-slick against the Patriarch’s own as he lowered himself, inch by inch, taking it. Lan Wangji threw his head back, breaking eye contact. He was biting down on his lip, his chest rising and falling, his hands clenched at nothing.

 

“Hold me, if you want,” said the Patriarch. “Lan Wangji. Hold me,” he repeated, and Lan Wangji’s hands grasped at the Patriarch’s sides instead, clinging as if the Patriarch’s body was the only thing holding him steady against the pleasure burning through them both.

 

“You’re doing something to me,” the Patriarch observed, breathless from the slide of Lan Wangji’s heat up and down and his cock. “I know it’s you. You – I remember too much.”

 

He tightened his grip brutally on Lan Wangji’s hips. Felt the heat of skin, the sharpness of bones. He was going to leave more bruises.

 

Lan Wangji clenched around him, hips moving with sudden violence. Taking him to the hilt.

 

“I shouldn’t trust you,” the Patriarch said, thrusting upward, he couldn’t get close enough, couldn’t get deep enough, it was driving him mad. “I should kill you for it.”

 

Lan Wangji did not flinch. Only leaned forward, his hair a curtain around them, and kissed the Patriarch soundlessly on the mouth, panting with need, as he fucked down brutally hard, meeting the Patriarch violence for violence, want for want.

 

The Patriarch made a broken noise.

 

“I could never,” he said.

 

“I know,” said Lan Wangji.

 

“I – Lan Zhan.”

 

Lan Wangji was riding him, using him, kissing him without end.

 

“Sacrifice,” the Patriarch gasped between kisses. “Is that what – this is? Sacrificing yourself to me?”

 

“No.” Lan Wangji’s teeth against his lower lip, his jaw. “Patriarch.”

 

“Why are you here?”

 

“To serve you,” said Lan Wangji.

 

“Why are you here?” the Patriarch asked again, feeling the way his own voice turned frayed, choked by feeling. He pinned Lan Wangji still with his hands, cock deep inside him, their legs tangled. And Lan Wangji went obediently still, breathing with him, rough and sweet.

 

“I am here for - love,” said Lan Wangji.

 

“So I stole your lover from you after all,” the Patriarch said with a bitter laugh.

 

“No,” said Lan Wangji, ever so gentle, as he stayed still in the vice of the Patriarch’s hands – as he wiped the tears from the Patriarch’s cheeks. The Patriarch hadn’t even known he was weeping. “Want… my beloved… to remember himself.” Another brutal roll of those hips. “Want him to have… everything he desires.”

 

The Patriarch made a noise of surprise when he came. Lan Wangji hushed him, mouth soft on his own, swallowing the sound. It took a long time for the Patriarch to return to himself – to remember his rage and his hunger and the hollowness inside him which felt somehow less hollow, less all-encompassing.

 

Lan Wangji was still hard, still shaking. The Patriarch lifted him off of his cock; rolled him flat onto the bed, and took Lan Wangji into his mouth as he unknotted the ribbon. As it slithered free, Lan Wangji gasped, and hitched his hips, and came silently into the Patriarch’s mouth.

 

The Patriarch wiped his mouth clean, and kissed the soft skin of Lan Wangji’s thigh. Salt, and hunger, and ownership. His. This man was his.

 

Lan Wangji stroked a hand over his hair.

 

“It is not sacrifice,” Lan Wangji said, breathless, “to give my beloved all that he desires.”

 

-

 

He dreamt of Lotus Pier.

 

Shijie smiling. Jiang Cheng’s scowl melting as he nudged the Patriarch’s shoulder with his own. Eating lotus seeds, his feet in the water, his trousers rolled up to his knees.

 

Cloud Recesses. The flash of a blade, silver in moonlight. A lantern rising into the air, and a young Lan Wangji’s faint, wondering smile as they watched it drift away.

 

The Patriarch woke. He was crying.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he whispered. Moving, moving, as pale dawn light filtered in. Lan Wangji rolled onto his back, and the Patriarch moved with him. It was so easy, so natural, to lie between Lan Wangji’s spread thighs, and slide into him, deep and slow. Lan Wangji was still slick from the last time they’d fucked; slippery with oil and spend, his hair a tangle at his back, his hips covered with the flowering marks of the Patriarch’s fingers. The Patriarch placed his fingers over those marks, comforted by them, hungry to keep them there.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he said again. The shape of that name in his mouth was like grief. “What am I to you? Why are you here?”

 

Lan Wangji looked up at him, the light worshipful on his face, his dark eyes.

 

“My soulmate,” Lan Wangji said. “You are my soulmate.”

 

“Ah,” the Patriarch breathed out. He closed his own eyes. “Please.”

 

“My soulmate,” Lan Wangji said again, and this time it was tender. An endearment.

 

He arched his back, moving with the Patriarch. Bared his throat, for the Patriarch to hide his face against. The Patriarch leaned forward and did just that, mouthing soft kisses against Lan Wangji’s skin, closing his eyes desperately. He wished he could be the soulmate Lan Wangji remembered. But he was only this – this hungry, hateful thing that could never be enough – and Lan Wangji was a fool for being here, for offering himself up to what remained of the man he’d loved.

 

“I’ve hurt you,” said the Patriarch. “I’ve – I’ve used you. And I don’t want to stop, Lan Zhan. Do you understand?” He shoved in deeper, Lan Wangji’s body all clenched heat around him. He wanted to tie Lan Wangji to his bed; wanted to mark him and claim him and make him cry for the Patriarch’s pleasure. He wants to say good, you’re so good for me and watch Lan Wangji shudder and submit and be good for him, a thousand times over. He told Lan Wangji so, and felt Lan Wangji tighten around him. “I want to keep you. The way I want you, it’s…”

 

“I want,” said Lan Wangji. “I want as you want.”

 

“You don’t have to lie to me, Lan Zhan,” the Patriarch whispered.

 

“Want you to keep me with you always,” Lan Wangji said. “Want you to be with me every day. Your skin, your fingers, your cock. Your voice. Want you to tell me I am – good.” Lan Wangji’s breath hitched then.

 

“You are good, Lan Zhan,” the Patriarch said fervently. “Good, so good, the way you take me. Ah, Lan Zhan,” he breathed, fucking him with tight, deep circles of his hips. “You feel so good around me. Never want to stop being inside you.”

 

Lan Wangji’s body locked around him tighter still, his hips moving, little hitched rolls of his body as he shuddered and arched tight as a bowstring, and said, “Please, please, I-”

 

“Yes,” the Patriarch told him. He brushed a hand over Lan Wangji’s cock, and that was all it took. “Lan Zhan,” he said. “Come for me. Let me hear you. Please.”

 

And Lan Wangji howled, head thrown back as he came, as he rolled his hips in absolute surrender. The Patriarch fucked into him, hard and vicious and desperate, one hand tightly clenched on Lan Wangji’s hip, and let his own hunger drown him.

 

-

 

In the morning the Yiling Patriarch woke, and remembered everything.

 

-

 

 

The Patriarch walked the edges of the Burial Mounds. The wards were still strong, pulsing with resentful energy. No Jin or Jiang, no Nie or Ouyang or Yao or Lan would pass those wards. His people were still safe. Everything he had managed to scrounge from death would continue to survive. But his anger was gone. The darkness in him was like a river, deep and silken and steady, its knife-sharp edges gone, its teeth blunted.

 

He missed his shijie. He missed Jiang Cheng. He missed – everything. But missing meant remembering, and remembering meant being more than a hollowed out vessel for resentful energy and rage. It meant being himself.

 

He stared beyond the wards. He heard footsteps behind him.

 

“I’ve figured you out, Lan Zhan,” the Patriarch said, not turning. “What kind of forbidden books do you Lans keep in your library? You bunch of perverts. And after you tore up that book Nie Huaisang gave me, too! Do you have a whole section for erotic cultivation? I bet you do. Did you come here knowing you were going to fuck me well again? That was a foolish plan, Lan Zhan. I didn’t know you were an idiot. To come here when I’m – when I was… how could you risk yourself like this?”

 

“Wei Ying.”

 

“You’re not listening,” the Patriarch said impatiently. “You, I would never have asked you-”

 

“Wei Ying,” he said again. His voice shook.

 

The Yiling Patriarch froze.

 

His name. He had heard his own name. There was no ring of pain through his skull. Only the steady presence of the wards, tied to his heart and his soul and his memories and his name. There was only Lan Wangji, saying his name, holding it in his mouth by a thread of magic born of love and of sacrifice.

 

He turned sharply. Met Lan Wangji’s eyes. Lan Wangji was smiling – the faintest, morning ray of a smile – but his face was wet with tears too.

 

“Wei Ying,” he said again. “I love you.”

 

The Yiling Patriarch – Wei Wuxian – Wei Ying exhaled, and began to shake. And strode across the Burial Mounds, throwing himself into Lan Wangji’s waiting arms.