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this river runs to you

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Wei Wuxian is napping when someone knocks on his door.

Okay, not napping. Dozing, at most. Curled over his worktable with his cheek pressed into the crook of his arm, resting his eyes for a moment, that’s all. It’s—he squints at the spiderweb-cracked watch on his wrist—two in the afternoon, give or take ten minutes depending on his watch’s mood. Wei Wuxian is an adult and certainly is not napping at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday.

The knock comes again, pounding hard enough to shake the cottage walls.

“I’m coming,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, then lifts his head and, ow, his neck. Note to his future self: be more discerning about mid-afternoon dozing positions.

It takes him a good thirty seconds to get to the door, navigating around a half-open crate in the hall—careful not to touch the spiky purple vines that have started to poke out, shit, he should move that up the to-do list—and gingerly crossing the singed entryway rug where a cursed daruma doll came to life and tried to burn him to a crisp last week. The doll had missed, luckily, but it was probably time to get a new rug. It just...hasn’t seemed high priority, given that the last time someone came to the front door it was a woman all the way from Lanling looking for her nephew’s birthday party in June. (The party wasn’t at Wei Wuxian’s cottage, obviously, but he’d helped her with directions because the sheer number of cursed and otherwise-magical objects in his house can mess with GPS signals, and the poor woman would’ve been going in circles all morning. Also, Wei Wuxian hadn’t spoken to anyone in...a while, so he maybe chattered a bit more than necessary while he rummaged around for a map.)

Anyway, he’d kind of forgotten about the rug situation. Dust and soot swirl up with each step, so when he opens the door he has a hand pressed over his mouth and nose, eyes already starting to water.

“What are you crying about?” Jiang Cheng demands from the doorstep, and Wei Wuxian freezes.

“Jiang Cheng,” he says, only it sounds like Jnn Chngh because of the hand/mouth/dust situation. He drops his sleeve, takes a breath to try again, and immediately starts coughing.

Jiang Cheng steps back, mouth curling in distaste. “Whatever that is, keep it away from me,” he says. The tone is so familiar that Wei Wuxian would smile if he weren’t so busy trying to breathe.

Wei Wuxian fans the air in front of his face and finally gets a lungful of decently clean air. “Um,” he says. “Hi.”

“Ngh,” Jiang Cheng replies. It’s hard to see him properly, because the sun outside is so bright and the inside of Wei Wuxian’s cottage is...decidedly not. Jiang Cheng looks okay, though, from what he can tell. Standing tall, dressed in official Consortium robes with a metal YunmengJiang decal on his left shoulder. He’s scowling, but Wei Wuxian would be worried if he wasn’t.

“Do you…,” Wei Wuxian starts, and trails off, unsure how to finish. Do you need something? Do you want to come in? Jiang Cheng would surely be offended at the idea of needing something, and considering he hasn’t visited in...ever, he’s probably not here for a tour. In fact, considering the uniform robes and the way his car is parked all the way at the end of the drive, he’s probably—

“You’re being summoned,” Jiang Cheng says, his look of distaste deepening.

—here on official business. Right.

“Right,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. Then: “Wait, right now?”

“Why do you think I’m here?” Jiang Cheng snaps. “To hand-deliver an invitation requesting your presence at your earliest convenience? Don’t make my day more difficult than it already is.”

The sun really is too bright, reminding Wei Wuxian that he’d been definitely-not-napping only minutes ago. His eyes are gritty, his hair is sticking to his cheek and neck on one side, and his shirt has a giant ink smudge on the sleeve. “Let me, uh, get presentable,” he says.

Jiang Cheng snorts. “You do that.”

“Feel free to wait inside,” Wei Wuxian says sweetly, because he’s not above wanting to see Jiang Cheng’s reaction if he gets soot all over his very shiny shoes. Then Wei Wuxian ducks down the hall, because he’s also not above getting out of range early.

A shout of “Wei Wuxian!” reaches him as he’s pulling on his cleanest pair of robes. If he grins, small and softly to himself, well. There’s no one here to see it.

#

He’s been summoned, apparently, to a warehouse on the other side of Lotus Pier.

Jiang Cheng barely says anything on the ride, so Wei Wuxian fills the silence, talking about what he had for lunch (“Nothing, Jiang Cheng! You whisked me away before I could eat. We should stop somewhere, you don’t want me to faint, do you?” “Shut up.”) and what he thinks those purple vines in the box might be (an innocent houseplant that had a nasty run-in with a ghost) and his recent misadventures trying to change the headlight bulbs in his car using online tutorials (on a related note, why are cars so expensive?). He doesn’t know if Jiang Cheng pays attention, and he doesn’t look over to see, propping his chin on his hand and watching the scenery instead. The small clusters of cottages turn into bustling riverfront properties, which eventually give way to narrower streets and higher buildings. Wei Wuxian feels a headache starting somewhere behind his eyes.

The warehouse is in the least exciting part of the city’s industrial sprawl, the surrounding properties all abandoned factories or stalled construction sites for fancy new gyms. The warehouse where Jiang Cheng parks the car is right next to a shipping yard ringed by barbed wire and a sign that says CONDEMNED in red paint.

Just once, it would be nice if the Consortium called Wei Wuxian in for a haunted spa or tea house or something. He’ll have to hold out hope for next time.

Jiang Cheng kicks open his door, and Wei Wuxian has to scramble to keep up, trailing on his heels. There’s a perimeter around the warehouse, a faint buzz he can feel in the talismans taped to his wrists. Two cultivators in Consortium robes, both with gold LanlingJin decals, greet them on the sidewalk outside the open warehouse door.

“Jiang-gongzi,” one says, bowing slightly. Jiang Cheng bows back. The cultivator pauses, her gaze moving back to take in Wei Wuxian. She looks slightly familiar, like Wei Wuxian might recognize her if she were wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of her work uniform. “And…Wei-gongzi. Thank you for coming.”

“Don’t thank him yet,” the second Jin cultivator drawls, and unfortunately Wei Wuxian does recognize this one. “Last time we called on him to help he ended up frying half of Qinghe’s electrical grid. Paperwork for weeks.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile sharpens. “Jin Zixun. I thought I heard some feral cats yowling around here, but that must’ve just been you talking.”

“You—,” Jin Zixun starts. His companion cuts him off with a glare.

Jiang Cheng is shooting an equally harsh glare in Wei Wuxian’s direction. “I was told to bring him,” Jiang Cheng says, addressing the other two. “Let’s not waste time.”

Jin Zixun’s lip curls, but he tosses two barrier-passing talismans to Jiang Cheng and beckons them inside.

The job is pretty standard, if daunting. Every few months the Consortium dredges up yet another hidden Wen cache full of cursed objects and weapons forged with resentful energy—some long-dormant, others active dropsites for dwindling Wen smuggling operations. In the wake of the Sunshot Accords and Wen Ruohan’s death, everything Wen-owned fell to the Consortium to deal with. Which, in turn, meant the more dangerous stuff fell even further: to Wei Wuxian. This isn’t the first time he’s been tasked with identifying or neutralizing a cursed object, or even a whole warehouse of them. It’s fun, sometimes, when it’s something new, or something that presents a particular challenge. And he supposes he should be glad that they have a use for him at all, considering everything that happened.

(Still, it’s hard to feel glad when one is within ten meters of Jin Zixun.)

This warehouse, unfortunately, looks less fun and more…daunting. The giant space manages to feel cluttered, wall-to-wall full of shelves stuffed with qiankun pouches and seemingly—hopefully—empty spirit-trapping bags, wooden boxes etched with faded characters, clothing racks with countless garment bags (haunted cocktail dresses, Wei Wuxian guesses), display hooks laden with costume jewelry (blood-sucking necklaces), dusty wine racks (regular poison) and bundles of dried herbs (magical poison), and various opaque plastic tubs that could house anything. They’ll want him to take inventory of everything here, and contain any dangerous curses for easy transport and study later, and it’s the kind of clutter where one square meter could take a whole afternoon.

Wei Wuxian stops trying to mentally catalogue the whole building and forces his attention back to Jin Zixun, who is saying something about a two-week timeline. Jiang Cheng and the other Jin cultivator stepped outside a few minutes ago to check the perimeter, leaving Wei Wuxian stuck inside with a lot of dust and the world’s least-favorite cultivator.

Well, Wei Wuxian might actually be some people’s least-favorite cultivator. If he still meets the criteria, that is.

“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says, interrupting whatever Jin Zixun is saying about discretion and proper channels. “Two weeks? This place is packed. There’s no way.”

“You can’t expect us to maintain a protective spiritual perimeter and allay civilian interest in the locale for any longer than that,” Jin Zixun sniffs. Wei Wuxian hears: We want a big fancy press conference ASAP where we crow about all the threats we’ve neutralized, and conveniently don’t mention your involvement at all.

“Wow,” Wei Wuxian says. “The great and powerful Consortium, toppled by a single spiritual perimeter! To think there was a day when all the great cultivators banded together to take down Wen Ruohan himself—now they can’t even take down one of his warehouses.”

“I wouldn’t run your mouth about all the great cultivators if I were you,” Jin Zixun snaps, “considering where you were at the time.”

“My point stands,” Wei Wuxian says, picking up a qiankun pouch and weighing it in his palm. “This is going to take a while, if I’m expected to do it alone.”

(He is, he knows he is.)

Jin Zixun’s lip curls. “We can’t spare anyone.”

(Of course.)

There’s movement from the door, and the other Jin cultivator comes back inside. “We put up a posting for a short-term assistant,” she tells Wei Wuxian. “We’ll let you know if anyone—is hired.”

Or applies at all. They’ve done this before, and no one has. Well, one person did last year ago—Su She, a grad student from Moling. He’d taken one look at the cursed music box Wei Wuxian was working on, and the half-manifested spirit warping into existence next to it, and bolted for the door.

“Well, thanks,” Wei Wuxian tells the cultivator now. “I guess I’ll just—get started, then.”

He goes outside to say goodbye to Jiang Cheng, only to find Jiang Cheng’s car already gone. With nothing else left to do, he rummages in his robes for a notebook and pen, squares his shoulders, and re-enters the warehouse.

He’s here for hours, mostly setting up an inventory system. On jobs like this the Consortium doesn’t actually want him to dispel any curses or resentful spirits lurking in the goods, just log and neutralize them so they can take them to a secure location later. They claim they study the curses, but Wei Wuxian wouldn’t be surprised if they were just stockpiling potential weapons somewhere under Koi Tower. He doesn’t know, and no one will ever tell him, and for now he just has to grit his teeth and do what he can.

The Jin cultivators leave around dinnertime with parting instructions to not blow anything up, and Wei Wuxian manages to heed that, though he has a close call when he brushes against what is definitely a haunted cocktail dress and it tries to summon a small cyclone of demonic energy directly over his head. He manages to dissipate it with a few shrill notes of his dizi—elemental stuff is the easiest to manage that way—but not before it sends a few stacks of plastic bins crashing to the ground.

One of them pops open in the fall, spilling articles of clothing (regular-non-haunted clothing, Wei Wuxian’s detection talisman tells him) across the concrete floor. As Wei Wuxian crouches to shove them back into the bin, he pushes aside a denim jacket and his fingers brush something—smooth.

One of his talismans buzzes. There’s nothing there when he looks, so he looks harder and sees the thread of a glamour. Someone went an extra step to hide something here, so Wei Wuxian settles cross-legged and gets to work untangling it. Seven minutes later, and there it is—a stretch of what looks like white snakeskin, oddly warm to the touch.

He panics at first, because coming across a live animal in a place like this is almost never good. But when he unravels the final thread of glamour, it’s not to find an angry and/or traumatized reptile ready to leap out of the pile. Instead, there’s just…the skin.

Not a pair of shoes, or a bag, or anything else Wei Wuxian can conceivably think of that would be made of snakeskin. Just a very smooth, very dry, somehow warm length of tiny, overlapping white scales, like a giant snake slithered away and left this behind.

He gently eases it from the pile, and sucks in a sharp breath as the detection talismans on his wrist buzz again. Under his fingers the snakeskin shudders, and shifts, and then it’s a folded set of silk robes—a thick wool cloak—a single, opalesque pearl the size of Wei Wuxian’s thumbprint—a long white ribbon, nearly weightless in Wei Wuxian’s palm—

It stops. Settles. It stays like that, a ribbon, trailing from Wei Wuxian’s hand and down across his knee, still warm. His skin tingles where the ribbon touches. And oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. This isn’t any sort of snakeskin at all, not if the lurch in his gut is right, which it usually is when it’s lurching this horribly.

The thing is, inanimate objects shouldn’t possess spiritual energy unless they’re haunted, or cursed, or forged, or spelled. Nothing that really applies to a fold of snakeskin that can change its own form without a glamour, and certainly nothing that would feel this warm. Nothing that would carry a faint but certain hint of life. Nothing except—well. One thing, and it’s not something that belongs in a Wen smuggling cache.

He realizes, distantly, that he should probably start breathing again soon.

He sucks in a deep breath, then shakes his head and lets out a noise that very nearly sounds like laughter. It’s almost worth noting dragon pearl on his inventory list just to see the Consortium’s reaction, but also not worth being blacklisted (again) for being a raving lunatic (again). He has rent to pay, after all.

And, more importantly: as much as the pearl doesn’t belong in a Wen cache, it doesn’t belong in the hands of the sect leaders, either.

He carefully folds the ribbon—the form the pearl seems set on now—and stows it in his qiankun pocket. Then he pulls out his phone and records an audio message.

“Hey,” he says. “Hi. It’s me. Call me as soon as you can, okay? Okay.” He goes to lift his thumb, then quickly adds: “Oh, I’m all right. Just to clarify. It’s something else.”

Wen Qing will worry, otherwise, because she’s Wen Qing. (And maybe, maybe because Wei Wuxian has given her a few reasons to worry. Mostly it’s because she’s Wen Qing, though.)

He sends the message, which takes forever to load, because reception in here is almost as bad as his cottage. Then he stands and closes his notebook for the day.

It’s dark when he leaves, and the closest bus route has just stopped running for the day. By the time he’s back on the other side of Lotus Pier his headache has returned and Wen Qing hasn’t called, or seen the message. Which isn’t surprising—it could be a week before she has service again, so the best thing for Wei Wuxian to do is wait.

At home he has just about enough energy to unseal his warded chest and tuck the ribbon-pearl inside, carefully, next to a bundle of postcards from Jiang Yanli and scribbled drawings from A-Yuan and the qiankun pouch that holds Suibian, before splashing some water on his face and crawling into bed. The warehouse, the Consortium, the pearl—they’ll be tomorrow’s problems.

#

Tomorrow’s problems arrive earlier than expected when, the next morning, Wei Wuxian is woken by knocking. Again.

This time he really is asleep, because it is—he blinks at his watch once, then again, because surely not—six-thirty in the morning. The sun is barely a streak of light outside the window, and someone is pounding on the door like it has personally insulted them.

“Jiang Cheng, if that’s you again, I’ll—,” Wei Wuxian starts, but doesn’t finish, because he’ll what? Turn down another summons from the Consortium? Not likely.

His trip to the door is only slightly more graceful than yesterday’s, because he at least tries to avoid kicking up dust on the entryway rug. “Jiang Cheng—,” he’s saying as he yanks the door open, and then he stops.

It’s not Jiang Cheng.

The man standing on Wei Wuxian’s doorstep has the kind of cold, graceful beauty Jiang Cheng could maybe achieve in his wildest dreams. Framed by the soft morning light, sleek hair swept back and pale blue robes not even slightly rumpled, he looks almost inhuman.

He looks like the last person who should be knocking on Wei Wuxian’s door.

“Hi,” Wei Wuxian says, when he remembers that the person’s shocking beauty should probably be less important than the person’s presence at all. “Are you lost?”

“No,” the beautiful, improbable person says.

“Because your GPS might not work properly for half a kilometer, so just take the—oh. What?”

“I am not lost,” the person says. He brandishes something in Wei Wuxian’s direction. “I am your new assistant.”

Wei Wuxian is busy tamping down on his instinct to duck from whatever the man is shoving at him—a folder?—so it takes a moment to process his words. “My what?” Wei Wuxian says. “My assistant? What assistant?”

The man continues to stare at him, expression impassive, and gives the folder a pointed shake. Wei Wuxian finally takes it. There are only two pieces of paper inside: the first is a short, impersonal letter from the Consortium Recruitment Office verifying a temporary Consortium work license for one Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji, effective immediately, and the second is the most impressive resume Wei Wuxian has ever seen.

Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji, is not only inhumanly beautiful, but also graduated top of his class from Caiyi University with a dual concentration in music theory and history of maritime cultivation. He received a concurrent post-graduate degree in global health & spiritual development. After that, he spent a year interning in a research lab studying the effects of traditional guqin music as therapy for class-three hauntings. There’s more, too—volunteer work with primary schools, two journal publications, a note that he’s certified in three different types of hand-to-hand combat and traditional swordfighting. The font has to be size ten, max, to fit everything on here.

This man can’t be Wei Wuxian’s assistant. He should be Wei Wuxian’s boss.

“I think there’s been a mistake,” Wei Wuxian says. “This is—I do, like, shitty cursework stuff. Inventory. The occasional demonic mishap. Your assignment is probably a clerical error, I’d call the office and have them fix it.” There’s no extra car in the driveway, so Lan Wangji must have taken a Didi or walked from the bus stop. Either way, Wei Wuxian feels a little bad that he went through the trouble. “You might have to go to the end of the driveway to get decent cell service, sorry.”

He looks at Lan Wangji as he hands back the folder. Takes in the way his light blue robes look like they’re almost glowing, how the flat line of his mouth draws Wei Wuxian’s more-than-fleeting gaze. The rest of Wei Wuxian’s day will be a harshly-lit warehouse and nothing but his own company, so it’s only practical, really, to appreciate something weird and beautiful and unexpected before it disappears.

Lan Wangji opens his mouth. “Not an error,” he says, and brushes past Wei Wuxian to step inside.

“Ah, shit, hang on—,” Wei Wuxian starts, but Lan Wangji has already met the charred remains of the rug. “Oops. I’ll...I have a broom around here. Somewhere. It should wash out of your robes, don’t worry.”

Lan Wangji looks down at the small clouds of soot swirling around his feet, then back up at Wei Wuxian. Nothing about his expression changes.

Wei Wuxian pastes on a grin. “So, uh,” he says. “Do you want some tea?”

#

Nothing Wei Wuxian says manages to convince Lan Wangji that this whole thing is a mistake. He’s also not deterred by the soot stains on his hems, Wei Wuxian’s bitter tea, any variation of the word “curse,” or the phrase “really, really big warehouse full of curses.”

“I understand,” Lan Wangji says.

“You say that now,” Wei Wuxian tells him. “It’s a different story after a cute little daruma doll comes to life and tries to burn off both of your eyebrows.”

“I wish to diversify my experience,” Lan Wangji says, and then says nothing else. He just sits there sipping horrible tea and looking intently across the table, until the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck starts to prickle.

He stands, making the hasty excuse that he should probably go get dressed, and flees in a very dignified manner down the hall and into his own room. He takes a moment to lean his forehead against the closed door, keeping his movements small and quiet. It’s just—it’s weird. Having someone in his home. Having someone look at him for that long without looking away, without also yelling at him or whispering behind their sleeves. Wei Wuxian isn’t quite sure what to do with that kind of thing anymore.

Keep it together, he chides himself, pushing away from the door. It’s not like anything is changing, really—yeah, this throws off his morning plans of looking at the pearl more closely and waiting for his phone to not ring, but in the grand scheme of things, whatever this is will be over very soon, because there’s no way Lan Wangji will actually stick around. Sure, he seems a bit more composed than Su She had been, so Wei Wuxian generously estimates it will take Lan Wangji a whole day before he decides this isn’t the resume-padding or edgy pastime he thought it would be. Maybe even long enough for Wei Wuxian to see more than one expression on his face. But soon enough Lan Wangji will leave, and Wei Wuxian will...keep doing what he always does.

It’ll be fine.

He throws on yesterday’s set of work robes, tucks his dizi in his belt, brushes his teeth, splashes cold water on his face, and tells himself again: it will be fine.

“Okay,” he says, sweeping back into the kitchen. Lan Wangji is already turned toward him, waiting. “Okay, let me do this right, then. Hello. I’m Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian, and I’m very pleased to meet you, if not still incredibly confused. And you’re Lan Wangji, my new assistant, who fully understands the nature of this job and its many risks, including but not limited to minor burns and light psychological scarring.”

“Correct,” Lan Wangji says.

That’s that. Wei Wuxian literally cannot be any clearer. He grabs his car keys off the kitchen counter, then pauses one more time. “You’re sure? You’re super, super sure.”

Lan Wangji nods.

“All right, then,” Wei Wuxian says, spinning his keys around his finger once before closing them in his fist. “Hold on to your eyebrows.”

#

Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything about the fact that Wei Wuxian’s car is old as balls, or comment on the strange wheezing noise it makes while idling. He doesn’t say anything at all, actually, sitting in silence while Wei Wuxian fiddles with the stereo and tries to sweet-talk some heat out of the vents despite the fact that they’ve been blowing nothing but cold air for two years now. Lan Wangji’s silence is different from Jiang Cheng’s, though. When Jiang Cheng goes quiet it’s tense, crackling, the eye of a storm. Lan Wangji’s silence is the deepest part of a forest. Quiet, but somehow very, very alive.

Wei Wuxian blinks, hard. This is what happens when he’s dragged out of bed before a reasonable hour. He starts thinking in metaphors.

He takes the long way around, skirting as much of the city as possible, which brings them along the river. This early the water’s glittering with the rising sun and dotted with fishing boats, and Wei Wuxian wishes he could just—pause. Pull over, wade in up to his knees. Stay there until he understands what, exactly, the fuck is going on here.

In what is Wei Wuxian’s first stroke of luck this morning, Jin Zixun isn’t at the warehouse today. The other cultivator from yesterday, however, is, and she meets them on the sidewalk just outside the perimeter.

“Wei Wuxian, good morning,” she says, greeting him without hesitation this time, and Wei Wuxian covers his surprise with a bow. (Which also, helpfully, covers the fact that if he learned her name yesterday he’s already forgotten it.) The cultivator turns to Lan Wangji, her gaze sweeping over him once, and then again, almost surprised. Wei Wuxian doesn’t blame her. Even standing on a cracked sidewalk in front of a barbed-wire fence, the hems of his robes smudged with soot, Lan Wangji looks almost ethereal. “And—Lan Wangji, is it? I saw your name on the memo this morning. Good to meet you. I’m Luo Qingyang. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Well met, Luo-guniang,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to say something—because, really, well met?—when Luo Qingyang’s words catch up to him.

“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says. “Wait, wait, wait, hang on, wait.” He frowns and really does try to picture her in jeans and a t-shirt. And maybe with her hair down, and glasses? “I know—wait. Mianmian?”

“Took you long enough,” Mianmian says.

Mianmian! I didn’t recognize you in all the getup.” Wei Wuxian grins. “You should’ve said something! I would’ve—”

He stops, because there isn’t a good way to finish that sentence. Would’ve said they should grab coffee and catch up? She’s a member of the Consortium—LanlingJin sect, no less. It’s not like she could be seen hanging out with someone like Wei Wuxian.

“We went to school together,” Wei Wuxian tells Lan Wangji, to cover his stumble. “Only for a year, though, so I can’t really be blamed for not figuring it out right away. Also my memory is terrible, ha ha. I don’t even know what I had for breakfast today.”

“You had tea,” Lan Wangji says placidly. “And nothing else.”

Wei Wuxian blinks at him.

Mianmian looks between the two and shrugs. “I wasn’t losing sleep over it,” she says to Wei Wuxian. Then, to Lan Wangji: “And I was glad to see someone applied for this position so quickly.”

Lan Wangji nods, maintaining that same detached civility. He keeps it up as Mianmian gives them both a talisman and lets them inside, expression not wavering as he takes in the cluttered warehouse. Surely he can feel the cursed energy permeating the air—there’s enough resentment for even a non-cultivator (or a person without detection talismans taped to their wrists) to feel unsettled just stepping through the door. But Lan Wangji doesn’t react, just trails Wei Wuxian through the makeshift aisles of objects.

The warehouse looks even bigger than it did yesterday, somehow. Certainly intimidating, for someone’s first cursework job—but there isn’t anything Wei Wuxian can do to make it seem less daunting for Lan Wangji except get started. He stops near a lopsided stack of dishware and puts his hands on his hips.

“I started sorting everything yesterday,” he says. Mianmian had to leave almost immediately, so it’s just the two of them here. “Well, rearranging, at least. Shoving things in general directions. I usually go four-quadrant with this kind of thing. Jewelry, books, clothes, and wildcards.” He points to each section as he goes. “I haven’t gotten through everything, obviously, there’s still piles of stuff over here that I haven’t even started on, but it’s enough to get going. There’s lots of costume jewelry in this cache for some reason? I think someone raided a theater costume department. And there’s an inventory list right around...oh.” He locates the spiral-bound notebook he started yesterday on top of an empty terrarium, paging through grid paper and his incredibly messy writing. “I guess we should start a second one for you, unless you’d rather shadow and take notes for a bit? Sorry for my handwriting, ha. That’s the main downside of using notebooks, but computers tend to fritz in places like this.” Jin Zixun had tried to bring an iPad into the Qinghe warehouse and it literally started smoking. It still makes Wei Wuxian smile, thinking about it. “Anyway, here, take a look and let me know what you—”

He stops, frowning, because Lan Wangji isn’t standing silently behind him when he turns around. Instead, Lan Wangji is over in the clothes quadrant, going through one of the bins with a look of deep concentration on his face. Or, what Wei Wuxian assumes is deep concentration. It’s his same blank expression, just a little more intensely blank.

“Uh,” Wei Wuxian says. “I thought we could start with jewelry, actually, it’s usually easier?”

Lan Wangji glances over his shoulder and gives him a flat look, almost a glare, and continues doing what he’s doing.

“Hey hey hey!” Wei Wuxian flails the hand not holding the inventory book. “Slow down, this stuff is dangerous! Well, most of it is nonsense and superstition, but still, you shouldn’t just dive in without—”

There’s a sharp jolt in Wei Wuxian’s detection talismans, and half a second later the lumpy knit scarf resting by Lan Wangji’s launches itself into the air, curling around Lan Wangji’s throat. Wei Wuxian drops the notebook and has his dizi out before it even hits the ground.

He trills a high, sharp note—stop—and then a short, staccato melody that tells the spirit attached to the scarf to unwind, to return. He can see the tendrils of resentful energy seeping through the knitwork, shuddering against his music, and it starts to ease back—

Lan Wangji closes his eyes. A burst of bright spiritual energy passes through the scarf, and it drops, inert and smoking slightly.

Wei Wuxian lets his last note trail off and lowers his dizi. “As I was saying,” he remarks.

“And as you can see,” Lan Wangji says evenly, “I am fine.” Then his gaze sharpens on Wei Wuxian. “Your method just now was—unorthodox.”

Great. This. “It was working,” Wei Wuxian says. “I mean, your trick was good too, but just so you know, some of these curses are way more complicated, so.”

“My...trick,” Lan Wangji says. “It was spiritual energy. Not a trick.”

Wei Wuxian waves a hand. “Whatever. It was fine. I’m just saying, blasting energy around doesn’t replace good old-fashioned common sense, okay?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow a fraction. “I was aware of the curse. I let it activate so I could identify and dispose of it.”

Wei Wuxian shoves his dizi back in his belt. “Great! Great for you. My bad for not realizing I was working with a professional.”

“What does that make you?”

“Excuse me?”

Lan Wangji nods toward Wei Wuxian’s dizi. “You were manipulating the curse’s own energy. I could feel it. That is not standard practice.”

“Not standard, but it works,” Wei Wuxian says. “Could’ve done it without singeing the goods, too.” It’s true—he’s started enough fires to occasionally know how not to burn things.

Lan Wangji’s voice is a few degrees cooler when he says, “It is not natural.”

“A professional and an authority on magic itself,” Wei Wuxian snipes. “I am humbled to be in your presence, young master.”

“The Consortium allows you to work like this?”

“The Consortium just wants results,” Wei Wuxian says, which isn’t a yes. He has a feeling Lan Wangji knows it. “If you have a problem with my method, you’re free to leave.”

There it is. In another second Lan Wangji will stand up, face impassive as ever, and head for the door. Wei Wuxian will stay here, in this giant space full of cold air and curses, and that will be the end of this weird little interlude in Wei Wuxian’s life.

Lan Wangji doesn’t stand.

“Really,” Wei Wuxian says, trying not to sound confused. “The office won’t hold it against you. You’ve already lasted longer than anyone else.”

Lan Wangji looks at him, then at the stacks of items around him. At the bin of clothing, the cursed scarf by his knees.

“I will not leave,” he says.

“...Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. Why, he wants to say, and doesn’t. “Uh. Your call, I guess.”

He bends down and retrieves the notebook from the ground, then moves away, back to where he got halfway through untangling a giant pile of earbuds yesterday. (They’re harmless so far, just annoying.) He’s still got a line of sight on Lan Wangji, who turns his head away and continues to kneel (gracefully! somehow!) on the cold warehouse floor, sorting through the pile of clothes in front of him.

Whatever. Whatever! Lan Wangji doesn’t have to like Wei Wuxian’s methods. Literally no one else does, so it’s not a surprise. Same goes for Lan Wangji not wanting to stick to Wei Wuxian’s inventory plan, or listen to his advice. If Lan Wangji can handle a curse or two and wants to just paw through random bins and be judgmental until he gets bored, so be it. As long as he doesn’t get himself (or Wei Wuxian) hurt, it’s not Wei Wuxian’s problem.

It’s really not.

What is Wei Wuxian’s problem, however, is that with someone else here—even someone as expressive as the concrete floor—Wei Wuxian can’t not talk. Which isn’t unexpected, considering Wei Wuxian talks to his car, himself, and the occasional ghost. He’s only surprised that he lasts thirty seconds before opening his mouth again.

“Look, just go slow, at least,” he says, giving up on the earbuds and moving on to a pile of dishware. He can just do the inventory himself, it wasn’t like he’d been planning on having help in the first place. “Shout if you find something weird before you just blast it again. And don’t touch anything that sparkles, either. That’s how I ended up in the hospital last time.” And knocked out ten kilometers of electrical grid. It had all been horribly annoying. He was stuck in the hospital for two days—long enough to get restless, but not long enough to justify Jiang Yanli flying in from Lanling. He’d told her not to, anyway, lied and said he was back home the first afternoon. She’d just worry unnecessarily, and it wasn’t like Jiang Cheng would say anything about it to her. Wei Wuxian didn’t even think Jiang Cheng knew about the whole fiasco until months later, when they ran into each other on the music box job and Jiang Cheng had scowled and said, I heard Qinghe went well, try to make less of a mess this time, and Wei Wuxian chose to hear the be more careful that may or may not have been intended there.

Anyway. Lan Wangji pauses for a moment, setting aside what looks like a completely innocuous—if extremely gaudy—brocade blazer. “The hospital,” he repeats.

“I did say it can be dangerous,” Wei Wuxian reminds him. There’s another beat where Lan Wangji takes a breath, like he might say something else, but then he turns to the next bin and the moment is gone.

They pass most of the day like that—Wei Wuxian chattering as he works his way through a few pages of inventory, and Lan Wangji silently scouring through every bin, clothing rack, and chest he can get his hands on. It’s still hard to tell, but Wei Wuxian thinks Lan Wangji starts to look irritated, or frustrated, as the shadows stretch longer and longer across the floor. And, shit, maybe that’s his secret—he’s a collector of some sort, and he thinks he’s going to find an authentic Tang dynasty hat or the last jade hairpin he needs to complete a matching set. Wei Wuxian doesn’t really care if that’s the case, but it means Lan Wangji’s interest is going to fizzle out pretty quickly once he realizes whatever it is he wants isn’t here.

Wei Wuxian is about to call it a day when he comes across them, shoved against the east wall—a row of wire mesh cages, all of them empty except the last one, where two white rabbits blink out from a bed of straw.

“Ohhhhh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Oh no, this was absolutely not good news for you, was it.” He’s seen it just a few times, animals tucked away in these caches, likely waiting to be used to test various curses. Most times he’s been too late for the animals, and the one time he was able to save one—a sad-looking bird with red-tipped feathers—no one at the Consortium would tell him what happened to it after he handed it over.

These rabbits look healthy, though, if a bit disgruntled at their shoddy surroundings. Wei Wuxian detaches their cage from the row and picks it up. “Look at you,” he coos, peering inside. The rabbits huddle in the corner, blinking back at him. One chews on a piece of straw. “All this and you’re just grumpy! Don’t worry, Uncle Wei is here to rescue you from the big, bad Wens.”

“What is that?”

Wei Wuxian yelps and spins around, clutching the cage to his chest. Lan Wangji is standing there—right there, shit, the guy needs a bell or something—and frowning at the cage in Wei Wuxian’s hands.

“It’s—they’re rabbits,” Wei Wuxian says, still trying to process the triple surprise of Lan Wangji 1) speaking for the first time in literal hours, 2) frowning, and 3) still being right there. “Pre-experiment, I’d guess, I can’t feel anything on them. So, just rabbits.”

Lan Wangji’s frown deepens and he leans in to look through the other side of the cage. The rabbits shift inside, pressing their little noses against the wire, like they’re sussing out Lan Wangji in return. One lock of Lan Wangji’s hair falls against his cheek, and Wei Wuxian’s fingers twitch against the cage, like he wants to—

He shuts that thought down immediately.

“They look hungry,” Lan Wangji says.

Personally Wei Wuxian thinks they just look bored, but he lets that one go. “I’ll pick up some carrots on the way home.”

“You’re...taking them with you?”

“I mean, I should probably make extra sure they’re not cursed before I take them to a vet or anything, so, yeah.”

Lan Wangji straightens, a fluid motion that brings him eye to eye with Wei Wuxian. Well, almost. Lan Wangji is a bit taller than him, and Wei Wuxian is trying really hard not to notice. “Do you do that often?” Lan Wangji says. “Take things home from the jobs you work?”

His eyes, for a moment, are gold. Even in the shitty warehouse lighting, Lan Wangji’s eyes almost gleam, bright and rich and very, very focused on Wei Wuxian. “Not, like, all the time,” Wei Wuxian says, his brain scrambling to catch up. “Sometimes to study more closely?”

“So you do.”

“Yes.” Wei Wuxian isn’t sure why Lan Wangji is asking so intensely. “My job is, unfortunately, also my hobby, which is its own curse, ha ha. Wait,” he says, gripping the cage tighter. “You’re not going to report that, are you? Because it’s not for profit or anything. I just look at the stuff, I never sell it! Sometimes I destroy it. Wait—don’t report that, either! Just the dangerous stuff, I swear.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything. Nor does he step out of Wei Wuxian’s space. A tiny crease appears between his perfectly-arched eyebrows.

“Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan Zhan.” That gets a reaction—Lan Wangji’s eyes widen. Wei Wuxian grins and holds the bunnies higher. “Lan Zhaaaaan, look. They’re so cute. You’d really have me turn them over to a government holding facility? That’s so heartless, Lan Zhan! At least let me make them into a proper stew first—oh my god, Lan Zhan, I’m kidding. I’m kidding!” He tries not to laugh as Lan Wangji quickly wipes a brief but horrified look from his face. Wei Wuxian is losing count of how many expressions he’s seen from Lan Wangji in the last minute—it’s all a bit dizzying, to be honest.

“I really won’t eat them,” Wei Wuxian says, sincere this time.

Lan Wangji looks at him, then at the rabbits, then very decidedly looks away.

(It may be the aforementioned shitty warehouse lighting, but Wei Wuxian swears the tips of Lan Wangji’s ears are pink, just for a moment.)

They lock up the warehouse soon after that, Lan Wangji going back to not speaking as they drive to Wei Wuxian’s cottage (detouring for carrots on the way). He nods when Wei Wuxian offers to drop him at the bus stop, getting out of the car without a word, and Wei Wuxian kind of expects it to be the last he sees of Lan Wangji.

#

He’s wrong.

The next morning, Lan Wangji is back on Wei Wuxian’s doorstep at an unholy hour. It’s a twofold surprise—that he’s back at all, and that he’s accompanied by what looks like half of a hardware store.

“What,” Wei Wuxian says. Maybe he’s still dreaming? He’d been up way too late looking at the dragon pearl (which stubbornly remained a ribbon and didn’t provide any insight into how it fell into a Wen cache) and staring at his phone (which didn’t ring), and therefore his dreams had been a bit more vivid than usual. Mostly nightmares, though, about endless floods and Jiang Cheng’s battered, unmoving face. Lan Wangji’s weird but non-menacing return isn’t really keeping with the genre.

In what is, apparently, Wei Wuxian’s actual reality, Lan Wangji just maneuvers his way inside, passing a reusable grocery bag to Wei Wuxian from his full arms. “Where are the rabbits?”

“Living room, last I saw.” Wei Wuxian frowns into the grocery bag. There’s a heavy container of brown pellets, what looks like a bundle of grass, and a take-out box that turns out to be full of steamed buns. “What is this?”

“Food for the rabbits,” Lan Wangji says. “And breakfast for you.”

No less confused, Wei Wuxian trails Lan Wangji into the tiny living room, where the rabbits have wasted no time making themselves comfortable. The one with the black spot on its back—Spot—is napping under the coffee table, and the one without a spot—Not Spot—is happily chewing its way through chapter 5 of Wei Wuxian’s old physics textbook.

“See, they’re fine. They’re not cursed, either. Or stew!” Wei Wuxian flings out his free arm as if to say, look how alive these rabbits are.

“Hm,” Lan Wangji says. Then: “They should be outside.”

“Seemed a little harsh to kick them out overnight,” Wei Wuxian starts, but Lan Wangji is already leaving, heading through the kitchen and out the back door. “Um?”

Wei Wuxian’s backyard is small, most of it taken up by the currently barren garden plot and a magnolia tree that refuses to flower. When the wind is blowing right there’s a hint of wet earth and sand from the river, a short walk away through the trees, but right now it mostly smells like leaves and early, early morning. When Wei Wuxian steps outside, he sees Lan Wangji has deposited his armload of supplies in the little patch of grass left over and is crouching beside the pile.

“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, standing on the edge of the yard and still holding the grocery bag. His bare feet damp with dew and already cold because, and he cannot emphasize this enough, it is barely after sunrise. “Sorry, can you just—what’s going on right now?”

“The rabbits should be allowed outside,” Lan Wangji says again. “I am building them a hutch.”

“You’re—” Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how to finish that thought. He, Wei Wuxian, who talks even when no one else is around, has been rendered speechless by the concept of a rabbit hutch.

Or, well, the concept of someone building him a rabbit hutch. It’s all very confusing.

Finally, he says, “Do you know how to build a hutch? Because I’m sorry, that’s not my area of expertise at all, I will be absolutely no help.”

“I do not need help,” Lan Wangji says. Then: “Eat your breakfast.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t usually eat breakfast, at least not this early, but he sets the bag down and does as he’s told. The buns are still warm when he takes them out. “Do you want one too?” he asks. The scent of scallions drifts up to his nose as he does, and whoa, maybe he really is hungry.

Lan Wangji stops unpacking an actual, literal toolbox. “All right,” he says, after a short pause.

Their fingers brush as Wei Wuxian hands over the bun, and tingles bloom across Wei Wuxian’s skin. For a moment there’s something sharp in the air, like ozone, mixing with the leaf-smell, and then it’s gone and Wei Wuxian is fumbling to hold on to the mantou box.

“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says.

“Don’t thank me,” Wei Wuxian says, “I mean, you’re the one who—I should thank you, I mean—” He shoves a bun in his mouth and makes a vague gesture toward the cottage, retreating back inside, where he promptly collapses on the living room floor next to Not Spot and throws his hands over his face. “What?” he moans, muffled, mouth full. “What is happening? What is even happening?”

His detection talismans hum against his wrists. “Shh,” he chides them. It’s not the first time they’ve confused a particularly strong emotion for a spike of spiritual energy, but gods, it’s still embarrassing.

Not Spot doesn’t have any answers for him, just continues to sniff around the chapter 5 title: Mysteries Even the Physical Sciences Have Yet to Solve.

“Buddy,” Wei Wuxian tells the rabbit, “you have no idea.”

#

Over the next week, Lan Wangji builds the rabbit hutch. And then he builds a netted-in pen, so the rabbits can be in the grass without worrying about foxes or eagles or owls. And then he fixes the screen door that’s been hanging off its hinges for a year, and reorganizes the stacks of ancient academic tomes and overdue library books that take up half the living room. Each day they go to the warehouse, hack away at the piles of mostly-mundane objects and neutralize the odd spirit or curse, and debate the merits of Wei Wuxian’s unorthodox methods, and then they come back to the cottage, and Lan Wangji...keeps working. He arrives at sunrise with breakfast every morning, and then stays at the cottage an hour or two into the evening, and Wei Wuxian continues to understand absolutely none of it.

“You don’t have to do this,” Wei Wuxian keeps saying, at first in bewilderment, then in resignation. “You know that, right?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t look up from the bookshelf he is currently assembling. Where had he gotten a bookshelf? And when? And why is Wei Wuxian suddenly unable to look away from where Lan Wangji’s sleeves are rolled up, his wrists flexing as he twists a screw into place and—?

“My job is to assist you,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, blinking hard. “Only technically? The Consortium pays your salary, they only care about the warehouse stuff. I’m not even your boss. You report to Jin Zixun or Mianmian or someone at the admin office.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and keeps working.

“I won’t pay you for it, either,” Wei Wuxian tries when he walks in on Lan Wangji gutting his kitchen cabinets. Reorganizing them? Rebuilding them, possibly? “Not that I wouldn’t, that’s not what I’m saying, but I literally cannot afford to. Not if I want, like, hot water next month. My landlord definitely won’t pay you, either. I’m not even sure she’s alive? I wouldn’t put it past her to jack the rent up from beyond the grave. But my point is...well, yeah.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says again. Wei Wuxian still doesn’t know what to do with that, so he goes back to the purple vines—he’s nearly figured out how to exorcise them, now—and waits until he hears Lan Wangji leave well after dinnertime. When Wei Wuxian goes back out to the kitchen he finds his cabinets fully rearranged, spell ingredients and cooking ingredients in separate, well-labeled cupboards. Some of the items even have new “NOT EDIBLE (POISONOUS)” labels on them, which is—

Thoughtful, Wei Wuxian supposes. Baffling. A little—

—an elegant wrist turning a screw, a small frown directed at Wei Wuxian’s latest mess, an even smaller smile turned toward the new rabbit hutch out back—

Oh god, more than a little endearing.

Well. Fuck.

#

“If you’re not going to properly neutralize the spirits,” Lan Wangji says the day after the great cabinet reorganization, “then let me do it instead.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow and lowers his dizi, his last note still ringing in his ears. The old clock in front of them has stopped ticking. A few minutes ago dark wisps of resentful energy had been leaking out of its face, but now it’s still, dust settling around it in a cut of yellow light. “I’ve got it,” Wei Wuxian says, trying not to sound tired, because are they really going to do this every day? “It’s fine. Just write down clock, class-two haunting, from...hmm...1920-ish? I’m guessing 1920, they can get an appraiser if they’d like. Uh, and the clock might be broken, but no one can prove it wasn’t broken before we neutralized it, so maybe don’t include that part.”

Lan Wangji does not write anything down. “It’s dangerous,” he says instead, slowly. He doesn’t sound angry, though, as far as Wei Wuxian can tell—if anything, he sounds confused.

Wei Wuxian spins his dizi in his fingers. “Have I let anything hurt you yet? Have some faith.”

“Not dangerous for me,” Lan Wangji says. “Dangerous for you.”

“My nose isn’t even bleeding this time,” Wei Wuxian says. “Come on, we’re gonna be here all day if we don’t keep going.” It’s already late—the sun is slanting through the far warehouse windows in a way that signals evening is almost here. That, and the way Wei Wuxian’s stomach has started growling tells him it’s been a good while since lunch.

Lan Wangji finally notes something down, then snaps the notebook shut and stands. He’s in light blue work robes, like usual, and there’s a tiny dip in the line of his brow when he looks at Wei Wuxian. “You are not worried about it affecting your core?”

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, “no.”

“It—,” Lan Wangji starts. He cuts off, glancing down at the notebook, the clock, and back to Wei Wuxian, seeming to choose his words carefully. “As you said yourself, the Consortium cares about results. They do not always care who bears the burden to achieve those results.”

Wei Wuxian blinks, trying to re-orient himself, because he’d expected—more of an argument? More lecturing? Not worry.

“I don’t do this for the Consortium,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to sound reassuring. “I mean, yes, for them, as in, they pay me, but not because of them. I—” Don’t say anything else, Wei Wuxian scolds himself, a little wild. They’ve bickered, yes, and Lan Wangji has made his thoughts on the way Wei Wuxian gets elbow-deep in resentful energy in order to deal with it pretty clear, but this is the closest they’ve come to any sort of reasoning and—Wei Wuxian can’t just spill his secret to the first person who looks at him with concern. “You’re seeing only a bit of what I do, anyway,” he says hastily. “It’s not all murder-clocks and demon-flutes. I do plenty of totally innocuous things, like—my phone!” He stows his dizi and pulls his phone out of one of his pockets. It’s an ancient smartphone, clunky by today’s standards, the oldest still-functional one he could find online. It’s just simple enough to not fritz in a place like the cottage or this warehouse, provided he doesn’t use more than one app at a time, bolstered by the attraction charm hanging from one corner. “It took me months to figure out a charm that lets me actually make calls from my place, that’s definitely more collective time than I’ve spent, ah”—compensating? playing around with blood and terror and resentment to do what he no longer can on his own?—“demon-fluting.”

Lan Wangi studies the charm hanging off Wei Wuxian’s phone for a moment, the crease in his forehead relaxing into something soft and curious, before he shakes his head and meets Wei Wuxian’s eyes again. “But,” Lan Wangji says, “why—?”

In his hand, Wei Wuxian’s phone starts to buzz.

It takes a second to actually register—in Wei Wuxian’s defense, eye contact with Lan Wangji is a lot to process—and then Wei Wuxian is yanking his phone back. “Oh,” he says, and his brain catches up and he adds, “oh, finally.”

“Finally?” Lan Wangji repeats.

“Yeah, I—” He realizes he doesn’t have time to explain he’s been waiting on this call for a week, and probably shouldn’t explain anyway, so he just waves a hand and says, “I’m just gonna—step out for a bit! Take a break, you’ve earned it, okay?”

He doesn’t wait for a reply, just hurries to the door and ducks outside. The street is long and empty, a paper bag caught between fencelinks across the street rustling in the slight breeze. Wei Wuxian hangs by the wall, close enough to stay inside the perimeter, and answers the call.

“Qing-jie,” he starts, “hi—”

“I got your message,” Wen Qing says, before he can even finish. “If you’ve been in the hospital again and didn’t tell me, you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do—”

Wei Wuxian laughs, then apologizes immediately. “Sorry, sorry, it’s just—good to hear your voice. But I’m fine, I told you that!”

“Yes, and sometimes you lie,” Wen Qing says. There are faint, jumbled voices under hers, and Wei Wuxian guesses she’s at an outdoor market somewhere. She doesn’t go on a regular basis, spacing out supply runs every few weeks and picking different towns at random before retreating back to the mountains. It’s the only time she gets service, so Wei Wuxian never knows exactly when she’ll call. “Assuming you’re telling the truth, then, what was your message about?”

“Ah,” he says, not quite shaking the smile off his face. The matter of the pearl is still urgent, it is, but somehow it doesn’t seem as stomach-droppingly alarming as it had last week, when Wei Wuxian was alone and facing down a whole warehouse of curses by himself. “Okay, first, is your brother with you? And A-Yuan?”

“Yes,” she says immediately.

“Good. Okay. And everyone else is accounted for, right?” She’ll know what he means by everyone else—the others in her small, sequestered community, bound together by their secret. A secret that, until a few days ago, Wei Wuxian was pretty confident no one else outside their village knew but him.

They’d made sure of it.

“Yes,” Wen Qing says again, “why?”

Wei Wuxian lets out a breath, even though he knew her answer would be yes. He knew the pearl didn’t belong to one of them—the five dragons in Wen Qing’s village had black pearls, which they usually kept in the shape of a hairpiece when they were in human form. Not white pearls; not ones that shifted into ribbons. He knew it wasn’t one of theirs, but considering he’d also thought those five dragons were the only ones in existence—well. If he found a dragon pearl and no dragon, he’s damn well going to check and make sure the ones he does know are all right. “I...found something,” he says, lowering his voice and moving further from the door, just in case. “In a repossessed Wen cache. A...teacup.”

Teacup had been their code word during the war for anything dragon-related, for the days when they were huddled together at a bus station or bent over library computers tracking the news. Should we go to Lueyang next? Wen Xu is camped out there, might have a teacup of ours. His gut twists using it now, a weird combination of nostalgia and dontthinkaboutthat. “Just a teacup,” he adds, “no...teapot?”

The metaphor isn’t really equipped to handle this situation, he thinks. There’s no good way to use teacup to explain I found a lost pearl and no dragon for it to belong to, which I’m aware isn’t supposed to happen, ever, and also I’m aware there aren’t even supposed to be other dragons with pearls to lose, so if you could please tell me what to do that would be really great. But it seems like Wen Qing understands him anyway, because she says, “Oh.” And she doesn’t ask are you sure? or how is that possible? She just believes him. “Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Is it just like our...set?”

“No. Uh, this one’s white. It’s got a...ribbon pattern.”

“A what?”

Wei Wuxian kneads his forehead a bit. “You know how your...sets...have hair pieces painted on them? Usually?” God, the whole thing is falling apart as he speaks. “This one has a—it has—it turned into a ribbon,” he says helplessly. “Sorry. No one can hear me. I found it in a bin, there was a glamour on it, it shifted a few times, enough for me to see it’s a white pearl, and then it settled into a ribbon.”

“And it’s safe?”

“Yeah. I got it out of there.” He lifts his face as another breeze sweeps down the street, not letting himself close his eyes and pretend he’s somewhere else. “And I don’t know what to do, really. I know your...set...is the last...set, but is it possible there are other...sets? That this one might belong to?”

Wen Qing lets out a long breath. Wei Wuxian can almost picture her face, her mouth pursed the way she gets when she’s deep in thought. “No,” she says. “At least, no, it’s not supposed to be possible. But—hang on. A-Ning,” she calls.

A moment later Wen Ning’s soft voice joins hers. “Hello?”

“Hi,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Hi!” A-Yuan shouts somewhere in the background.

“Come here,” Wen Qing’s voice says, “there’s a table—there. Okay.” The background conversations fade, the way they do when Wen Qing uses a silencing talisman, and Wei Wuxian hears her give Wen Ning a quick recap of what he just said, their voices low and muffled. “You listened to more of Granny’s stories than I did,” she says when she’s done. “Could this be anything? A white pearl?”

“Oh,” Wen Ning says, closer to the phone. “Yes. I think so. Our friends in the east. That’s what Granny called them.”

Wei Wuxian’s breath catches.

“The stories were all old,” Wen Ning continues. “Old enough that she’d just say generations and generations ago to start. Generations and generations ago, there were four families like ours in the four corners of the world. The dragons of the north, with black pearls—that’s us. Our friends in the south, with silver ones. Our friends in the west, with green pearls. And our friends in the east, with white.”

“Shhh,” A-Yuan’s voice says. “No talking about dragons when we aren’t home.”

“Whoops,” Wen Ning stage-whispers, and Wei Wuxian can picture him ducking his head, comically wide-eyed for A-Yuan’s benefit.

“A-Yuan, here,” Wen Qing says. “Here’s your chalk. Why don’t you draw us something over there?”

“I want to talk to Xian-gege.”

“Aw, bud,” Wei Wuxian says, as Wen Qing assures A-Yuan that Xian-gege isn’t going anywhere yet, they just need to talk about gross grown-up things, and if A-Yuan draws a really nice picture then they might just stop for tanghulu on the way home. Once A-Yuan has presumably gone to start his chalk masterpiece, Wei Wuxian continues: “These friends in the east—how far east?” he says. “Do you know?”

“The ocean, I think,” Wen Ning says. “Our friends in the east came from the sea, and they had a great underwater library that they rebuilt on land. And they’d hold conferences, where other—where everyone like us could come and learn and record histories and share knowledge. And then the library was destroyed in a war, and, according to Granny, so was everyone there.”

“How many times did she tell this?” Wen Qing says to Wen Ning. “I feel like I heard it once, and I don’t even remember the different colors.”

“You started leaving every time she told stories like this,” Wen Ning says, not unkindly. “They made you sad.”

“Well. I was also busy,” Wen Qing says. “Medicine doesn’t study itself.”

“No,” Wen Ning agrees.

“So,” Wei Wuxian cuts in, “so, there really are others.”

“There shouldn’t be,” Wen Qing says, just as Wen Ning says, “Not for a long time. At least, that’s how the story ended. Our friends in the south, west, and east were hunted down or fled across the ocean until we were the only ones left.” He pauses. “But...if you found a white pearl…”

“Maybe they’ve been in hiding, too,” Wei Wuxian finishes.

“Yes.” Wen Ning sounds a bit wonderstruck.

Wei Wuxian presses a hand over his eyes, Wen Ning’s words rattling around inside his too-tired brain. If the dragons from the east aren’t actually gone—if they’ve just been hiding for years and years— “So there’s a real chance the pearl belongs to someone? Someone like you?”

Wen Ning hesitates. “I think it probably...did, yes.”

“If it was buried in one of those warehouses, the dragon is long gone,” Wen Qing cuts in, saying what Wen Ning won’t. “Gone,” she says again, with emphasis, because her directness still doesn’t extend to saying dead so matter-of-factly in earshot of A-Yuan.

Oh. “Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. That...tracks. If the pearl was in this warehouse, it’s because whoever stored it here didn’t know what they had, and thought it was just another item for a contraband collection. Which means they didn’t take it along with a dragon, or the dragon is dead already. And if it was stolen by someone like Wen Chao—someone who goes about things in the cruelest way possible—

A breeze picks up on the street, and Wei Wuxian tells himself that’s why he shivers.

“Do you think you could find out anything else?” Wei Wuxian asks. “If the stories are true, if they’re still around. I’d like to return it to their family, if I can. If they exist.”

“There’s not much I can do from here.” Wen Ning sounds sad. “But I can try. I’ll ask if anyone else remembers Granny’s stories.”

“They may not welcome you, if you find them. Even if you are trying to help,” Wen Qing adds.

“I know,” Wei Wuxian says. None of them speak for a few moments, sharing a stretch of quiet static across hundreds of kilometers.

“All right,” Wen Qing says after a bit, brusque, “all right, now that we’ve established you are not, in fact, injured and bedridden, what else?”

“What else?” Wei Wuxian says. “What do you mean, what else?”

“We haven’t spoken to you in weeks,” she says, “and you gave me a heart attack with your last message, so, you owe us more than just ‘I found a teacup.’”

“I really feel like that’s the most important part.”

“What, so you’ve said that and we’re going to hang up now? Goodbye until next month?”

Wei Wuxian makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and a groan. Wen Qing insists on this every time they talk, and he knows it’s because she and Wen Ning caught on pretty quickly that Wei Wuxian didn’t really have many people to talk to at all after he...came home. “Okay,” he says. “Uh.” And then he pauses because—for the first time in a long time, he has more to babble about than whatever TV show he’s watching or curse mishaps he’s had that usually involve an update on what parts of his cottage/his body have recently caught fire. “I got...rabbits?”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Wen Ning says.

“Why do you sound unsure about that?” Wen Qing says. Wei Wuxian can almost see the arch of her eyebrow right now.

“I did,” Wei Wuxian confirms. “I got rabbits. And I also got a coworker?”

Wen Qing is quiet for a while. “A good coworker?” she finally asks.

“Yeah. I think so. He reorganized my pantry.”

Another pause. “What the fuck,” Wen Qing says. Wei Wuxian hears an exclamation behind her—probably Wen Ning objecting to language around A-Yuan’s little ears—and the background noise changes as Wen Qing presumably moves away from the table. “What kind of coworker does that?”

“I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian says. “A really nice one or a really weird one. Maybe both? I think we sort of co-adopted the rabbits, so, there’s that.”

“Wei Wuxian, are you dating this coworker?”

“No!” Wei Wuxian yelps. “No no no no, no. Haha. No.” Unfortunately, he has the sense to not add out loud. “He’s not—it’s all very temporary.”

“Yes, adopting rabbits together does sound very temporary.” Wen Qing’s voice is dry enough to cause a small drought.

“Okay, the rabbits are mostly mine. I have custody when he leaves. Leaves the job, to clarify. He just likes to visit them.”

“A-Xian,” Wen Qing says, gentleness and hesitance obvious even through the poor connection, and for a second she sounds so much like Jiang Yanli that Wei Wuxian feels dizzy. And then her regular brusqueness is back and she’s 100% Wen Qing again. “This coworker. Be careful.”

“I am,” Wei Wuxian says. “I will be. I didn’t give him a key to my cottage or anything.” Not that it would stop him, if Lan Wangji really wanted to get in, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Wen Qing lets out a short breath, crackling over the line. “That’s...not what I meant.”

Wei Wuxian waits.

“You haven’t had a great track record with coworkers,” Wen Qing continues, blunt. “And you don’t always know the difference between someone being kind to you, and someone simply not being outright cruel. So as helpful as this person is, don’t let him hurt you.”

“I,” Wei Wuxian says. “It’s not like that, it’s just—I said it’s temporary, first of all. And second of all—”

He doesn’t have a second of all. Wen Qing has the grace not to call him out on it, and he both loves and hates her for it. “Agh,” he says, “enough about this. Where’s A-Yuan? Put A-Yuan on.”

There are a few seconds of static and indistinct voices, and then A-Yuan’s little voice says “Xian-gege!” way too loudly in his ear, and Wei Wuxian feels himself smile again.

He goes back and forth with A-Yuan, both of them firing off questions (Wei Wuxian: Are you listening to Auntie and Uncle? Are you going to help plant the garden again? How tall have you grown now, are you taller than me yet? A-Yuan: Have you set anything on fire today? How many things have you set on fire and were the flames really big? When are you coming back?) before A-Yuan gets distracted by his chalk art and the phone finds its way back to Wen Qing.

“He sounds good,” Wei Wuxian says, trying not to sound like his throat is suddenly too tight.

“He’s good,” Wen Qing agrees. “He’s fine. Right now, at least. He misses you.”

Wei Wuxian swallows. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to. Wen Qing knows he misses A-Yuan, misses all of them.

“And he’s still not—?” he starts. So far, A-Yuan hasn’t shown any signs that he has a dragon form. It can be apparent from birth, according to Wen Qing and Wen Ning’s family, or it can take any number of years to manifest. Or, like Wen Qing and about half of their family, it may never happen at all. 

“Nope,” Wen Qing says. “We keep dunking him in the lake and not a single scale to show for it. Great swimmer though.”

“He gets that from me,” Wei Wuxian jokes.

“The real problem is that he’s too smart,” Wen Qing goes on. “I’m worried about homeschooling him. Soon he’ll be ready for, like, long division. What am I supposed to do then? I can tell him the name of every bone in the body, but I don’t remember fucking long division.”

“He’s—” Wei Wuxian does some quick mental calculations, like he always does when thinking about A-Yuan and how he keeps growing even when Wei Wuxian isn’t there to see it. “He’s five. I think you have some time before long division.”

“Not enough time.” She pauses, and it’s a serious pause. ”I’ve been thinking about it again—you taking him, even for a few months of the year.”

Wei Wuxian thinks of his cottage, full of cursed objects and bad energy. Close to schools and the city, yes, but marred by Wei Wuxian’s reputation. His presence. He doesn’t want A-Yuan to be alone in a place like that with only Wei Wuxian for company.

“Or you could come back,” Wen Qing says, when Wei Wuxian doesn’t respond. “There’s no tracking charm in the world that could follow you here. You know they don’t deserve you,” she adds, and Wei Wuxian isn’t sure if she means the Consortium or the Jiangs or the whole cultivation world at large.

Either way, this option is more tempting. Wei Wuxian leans his head back against the brick wall, the sky above eye-wateringly bright even in his sliver of shade. “Maybe,” he says.

Wen Qing doesn’t press, and he hears her rejoin Wen Ning and A-Yuan by the table. The conversation wanders away from strange coworkers and old stories, and Wei Wuxian clings to their voices as long as possible, until Wen Qing instructs Wen Ning and A-Yuan to say goodbye, it’s getting dark, they need to head back. And then Wei Wuxian stays outside the warehouse for a bit longer, phone still in his hand long after the screen has gone dark.

Lan Wangji finds him a few minutes later, a small frown on his face. It looks almost like his usual unaffected expression, and Wei Wuxian feels the tiniest spark of delight that Lan Wangji has been around—for whatever reason—long enough that Wei Wuxian can tell he’s frowning.

“Are we finished for the day?” Lan Wangji asks.

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Yeah. We can be. I’m getting hungry, anyway, nothing whips up an appetite like logging inventory for hours on end, huh? Besides, the rabbits are probably lonely.” That’s been his line the last few nights—Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan, time to stop for the day, the rabbits are surely dying of boredom by now! It tended to snap Lan Wangji out of his still-intense inspection of every item in the warehouse. Whatever he’s looking for, he clearly hasn’t found it, though he has started cataloguing things as he goes using Wei Wuxian’s system. It’s amazing, actually, how much quicker the whole thing is going now—they won’t make Jin Zixun’s two-week deadline, but a month might be possible at this rate. If Lan Wangji sticks around that long.

Wei Wuxian pushes away from where he was leaning against the wall, shoving his phone in his pocket. He aims a smile at Lan Wangji, who only frowns more intensely.

“Is everything,” Lan Wangji starts. Tilts his head. “Are you all right.”

His voice is low, the question almost without inflection, and it still startles Wei Wuxian into stopping in his tracks. “I’m fine?” Wei Wuxian glances down at himself, like that might tell him what Lan Wangji’s getting fussed about. “Why? Was there a problem inside? Did something explode that wasn’t supposed to explode?”

Lan Wangji is silent for another moment, then: “You don’t usually take calls.”

He isn’t sure what Lan Wangji is expecting to hear other than I don’t usually get calls, so he just waves his hand and says, “It’s fine, sorry for leaving you to wrap up.”

“You also look unsettled,” Lan Wangji adds.

Wei Wuxian definitely can’t start talking about dragons and how he might have a (likely) dead one’s lost shapeshifting pearl in the personal trinket chest under his bed. Instead, he grins with his teeth and says, “Are you sure you don’t mean unsettling? I’ve been told I’m very unsettling in the right lighting.”

Lan Wangji’s eyebrows twitch down, and he quickly turns away. Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath, adjusts his smile to something more normal, and follows.

They’re halfway to the cottage, Wei Wuxian humming along with whatever his car is managing to catch on the radio today, when Lan Wangji looks at him from the passenger seat. Wei Wuxian feels his gaze, hyperaware the way he always seems to be when Lan Wangji’s attention lands on him.

“Yes?” Wei Wuxian says. Lan Wangji doesn’t reply for a moment, and Wei Wuxian has to bite back the instinct to tease him a bit more—Ah, Lan Zhan, is there something you need or are you just admiring my profile? It’s something the Wei Wuxian of three years ago would’ve done without thinking. Poked around until he got a reaction, and then another, and then another.

The Wei Wuxian of today is a bit out of practice on that front. He just raises an eyebrow, looking sideways back at Lan Wangji.

“Would you mind stopping at my apartment on the way,” Lan Wangji says, in that same not-quite-asking way.

“Sure,” Wei Wuxian says. “I mean, I can also just drop you off if you want? Wait, does this mean your apartment is between the cottage and the warehouse? And you’ve been going all the way back to my place this whole time? Lan Zhan, you should’ve said something. I can just pick you up from now on, if you want.” It’s not an easy offer to make, because, well. He likes seeing Lan Wangji in the mornings, helping him alphabetize books and drinking tea (which isn’t even bad anymore, now that Lan Wangji has started preparing it instead—another thing Wei Wuxian likes). But he doesn’t want Lan Wangji to resent that time, either.

“No,” Lan Wangji says, a bit sharply. “No, you do not need to do that.”

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, nonplussed, but lets Lan Wangji direct him to an apartment building by the lakefront. “Oh, I grew up around here,” Wei Wuxian tells him after wedging his car into a narrow spot and realizing he can see the water through the gaps between buildings. “Ten minutes away, give or take.” The Jiangs live in one of the older, fancier neighborhoods along the eastern lakeshore. Lan Wangji’s apartment is on a newer street, trendy shops mixed in with residential buildings, but it’s familiar enough that Wei Wuxian feels a slight pang in his chest. He doesn’t come over here a lot. Ever, really. He’s missed the lake air.

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, a non-committal hum that could mean he’s thoroughly contemplating Wei Wuxian’s fun fact, or that he doesn’t find it fun at all. Probably the latter, because it’s true. “Do you want to...come upstairs?”

“What?” Wei Wuxian says, tearing his eyes from a noodle place across the street. He really is hungry. “Oh, you don’t have to—I can just wait here.” A breeze picks up, right off the water and chillier than by the warehouse, and damn, he’s cold, too.

“Come upstairs,” Lan Wangji says firmly.

Well. Okay, then.

Lan Wangji’s apartment is on the top floor, and the first thing Wei Wuxian notices about it is its dizzying view of the lake. There’s a large sliding-glass door on the other side of the living room that opens onto a balcony, and the water stretches beyond it, buildings on the distant shore just starting to glitter in the dimming light. I used to have that, Wei Wuxian wants to share. I used to wake up to this same lake every morning.

The rest of the place is...spartan. It looks right out of a real estate listing, except with less stuff. Wei Wuxian slips off his shoes and then hesitates just beyond the threshold because he has the sudden, irrational thought that he shouldn’t be here. That by stepping inside he’ll somehow drag in the specter of his cottage and all its cursed clutter. He can’t remember the last time he was in someone else’s home as a guest, not trapping a demon or removing some cursed music box, and none of those apartments were nearly this pristine.

“Um,” he says.

Lan Wangji has already shed his shoes and strides past, eyes on the thin bundle of mail in his hand. “I will be a moment,” he says. “Make yourself comfortable.”

Comfortable is not how Wei Wuxian would describe this, but all right. He casts around, looking for the least offensive spot for him to exist. There’s a tall bookshelf and a low table near the small, spotless kitchen that has nothing on the counter but an electric kettle and a tiny teacup tree. The sitting area consists of a side table, a thin wooden instrument stand, and a single armchair, which is white, so Wei Wuxian isn’t going within three paces of that. On the other side of the room a bamboo partition walls off what must be the sleeping area, a lonely tranquility charm looped over the corner.

It looks temporary, Wei Wuxian thinks. Even someone as reserved as Lan Wangji would surely have a few knick-knacks, little post-its on the fridge or a nice pebble on top of the bookshelf from a morning walk by the lake. Maybe he just moved apartments and hasn’t gotten stuff from storage yet? “How long have you lived here?” Wei Wuxian says.

Lan Wangji looks up briefly. “A year.”

Or he’s just a bad decorator, Wei Wuxian amends. A bad decorator who maybe doesn’t have that many opportunities to gather knick-knacks in the first place, which might actually be the case, considering he seems to spend all his free time hanging around with a societal outcast and two spoiled rabbits.

The thought pokes at something soft in Wei Wuxian’s chest.

By the counter, Lan Wangji opens a piece of mail and skims the letter inside. (Yes, an actual handwritten letter.) With no change to his expression, he turns and disappears behind the partition.

Wei Wuxian drifts toward the bookshelf, because it seems like the least awkward thing to do. There’s a shelf just for bound sheet music, all for the guqin, and the rest of the shelves are full of pristine textbooks and travel guides for places far further inland. There’s nothing particularly intriguing until Wei Wuxian’s fingers brush across the last book on the shelf, and he has to stifle a yelp as his detection talismans flare to life, vibrating against his wrists. It doesn’t hurt, it’s just wholly unexpected—because here, tucked among a dozen wholly mundane titles, is something decidedly not-mundane.

He glances over his shoulder. Lan Wangji is still behind the partition. There’s a sink running somewhere—maybe in the bathroom? Wei Wuxian gives it another few seconds, and when Lan Wangji doesn’t appear demanding to know what the fuss is all about, he turns back to the bookshelf.

There’s a glamour here, spun tight over a thin paperback about trees of northern Qishan. And—Wei Wuxian shouldn’t, he really shouldn’t, but. He quickly pricks his finger on his eyetooth and shakes a blank talisman paper from his robes, drawing a messy Reveal and laying it on the book’s cover. The texture of the pages softens under his fingers and the glamour curls back like burning paper, revealing a much older book. The cover is a flat brown, the hand-inked characters traditional and faded, but something about it feels undeniably elegant.

Poetry of Lan An, the title reads.

Wei Wuxian very, very gently tips the book and lets it fall open, skimming one of the poems. It’s a bit hard to wrap his mind around, because usually when he’s reading text like this it’s dense old cultivator journals and guidebooks that don’t really care for style, but he picks up something about an ebbing tide and a loved one disappearing like seafoam before he hears movement behind the partition.

He pulls the talisman off the book, crumpling it in his fist as the glamour slips back over Lan An’s words, and returns the book to the shelf. He stands right as Lan Wangji reappears.

The letter is gone, and Lan Wangji has shed his work robes for a gray wool jacket, which he buttons as he walks toward the front door. “Apologies for the delay,” he says.

Wei Wuxian’s brain seems to be minorly stalling. (The jacket looks nice.) “Um? Oh—no, not at all.” He quickly tucks his hand behind his back and wipes his bleeding finger on his robes. Black: good for fashion and good for bloodstains. “Ah, who was the letter from?” he says, trying to divert attention from himself and anything he may or may not have been doing by the bookcase.

It might’ve been rude to ask, but Lan Wangji just says, “My brother.”

“Does he not know how to use a phone? Or is handwriting letters like, a hobby? A deep dedication to the institution of the postal service?” Shut up, Wei Wuxian tells himself.

“My family is old-fashioned.” Lan Wangji slips his shoes on. “From certain perspectives.”

Wei Wuxian practically jogs to the doorway and starts shoving his feet back into his boots. “Hey, I get it. Every family has their thing.” And letters aren’t that weird. He used to get letters from Wen Qing and Wen Ning with little drawings by A-Yuan on the backs, until they got worried the Consortium might start monitoring Wei Wuxian’s mail. “I think it’s kind of neat, actually.”

Lan Wangji pauses for a moment, one hand on the door. “My family is also...like you.”

“Like me?” Wei Wuxian grins. “Messy, but in a devilishly charming sort of way?”

And then he realizes what just happened: Lan Wangji offered up something about his life without a direct question. Wei Wuxian pulls his grin back.

Lan Wangji seems to be considering his words carefully. “They surround themselves with many different types of magic,” he finally says. “So much so that cell signals often don’t transmit well. So we have come up with workarounds. Like you.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Most of our workarounds focus on creating pockets of uninterrupted signal. But unlike you, we haven’t figured out an effective charm for phones themselves.” Lan Wangji nods toward Wei Wuxian, as if to acknowledge the phone in his pocket.

“It’s nothing much,” Wei Wuxian says, suddenly fighting the urge to fidget. “It’s more about attracting the signal despite the energy blockage instead of trying to dissipate the energy itself. And it won’t work on anything post-2011, it confuses the tech.”

“It’s,” Lan Wangji starts. Stops. “It is impressive.”

“Ahh, I think you mean unorthodox,” Wei Wuxian says. “Considering I got the idea from a ghost that kept broadcasting random radio transmissions when she opened her mouth. Now that was a weird case! A poor granny thought she was being haunted by an entire boyband.”

“Unorthodox,” Lan Wangji agrees. “And impressive.”

Oh.

Lan Wangji continues: “If you don’t mind, I would like to pass that idea on to my brother, to see if it might work for us as well.”

Wei Wuxian feels like this conversation took a sharp left turn somewhere and he’s still scrambling to catch up. Since when does Lan Wangji need to ask his permission for anything? Since when does anyone? “Yeah, of course, I don’t—it’s not like I own attraction charms or anything, haha. Ah. of course.”

“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says sincerely.

Wei Wuxian makes a small noise in the back of his throat, a distant, warped cousin of a laugh. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m really starving. Let’s go, all right?”

Lan Wangji nods, and Wei Wuxian barrels out the door, hopefully leaving whatever the hell that was behind. (Thank you, Lan Wangji said, like Wei Wuxian’s stupid cell phone charm was worth any sort of fuss. He’d looked at Wei Wuxian so steadily. Wei Wuxian should be used to that look by now, after nearly two weeks, but. But.)

Evening has fully settled in outside. The air is a few degrees chillier, and Wei Wuxian tugs his robes more tightly around him. The noodle place across the street is all lit up now, inviting and warm-looking, but Wei Wuxian feels a bit too off-balance to linger. Get to the car, he tells himself. Get home. See the rabbits. Make instant noodles, if you must. Do not stare at Lan Wangji in his nice-looking jacket.

Lan Wangji hasn’t caught up by the time Wei Wuxian reaches his parking spot, so Wei Wuxian sees them first.

He stumbles to a halt, right in front of his car. His first thought is that he should turn and run, and his second thought, quick on its heels, is that he should pretend he hasn’t seen them—he should let them pass and spend the rest of the night trying very hard not to think about this at all. But it’s too late for both options, and Wei Wuxian can only stand there, frozen.

One car-length away, Jiang Cheng stares back.

He’s standing next to his own car, the shiny one that he’d parked at the end of the driveway when he came to escort Wei Wuxian to the warehouse. The door is open, and as Wei Wuxian watches, Madam Yu unfolds herself from the passenger seat, her hand resting in the crook of Jiang Cheng’s arm even as her gaze casts around and lands, needle-sharp, on Wei Wuxian. And now they’ve both seen him, and he still can’t move.

Jiang Cheng must be off work, dressed in slacks and a crushed-velvet jacket rather than his cultivation robes. Which makes sense because it’s—it’s Friday, the day Jiang Cheng and Madam Yu get dinner together and talk about the state of the family and cultivation affairs they have a disproportionate hand in. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure what staggers him more, the fact that he’d forgotten the Friday tradition for a moment, or that he’s staring at evidence of their lives going on as usual, Wei Wuxian’s removal from the family clearly nothing but a long-gone bump in the road.

He knew that. He did.

All of this clatters around Wei Wuxian’s head in the span of a few seconds, and by the time he gets ahold of himself Lan Wangji has stopped by his shoulder. Jiang Cheng and Madam Yu haven’t moved, the shiny car door still hanging open.

Next to him, Lan Wangji looks at Jiang Cheng and Madam Yu, and then back to Wei Wuxian, waiting.

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, “um,” and then he bows. “Yu-furen. Jiang Cheng. I didn’t—expect to see you here.”

Madam Yu’s eyes narrow. Fuck. Should he have been more formal? Pretended not to see them after all?

“A-Cheng,” Madam Yu says, speaking to Jiang Cheng even as her eyes stay locked on Wei Wuxian, “the door, if you would.” It’s a blatant dismissal, refusing to greet Wei Wuxian while staring him full in the face. He feels his cheeks flush, and hates himself a bit for it.

Jiang Cheng reaches around his mother to close the car door. Madam Yu looks between Wei Wuxian and his beat-up car, her distaste for both clear on her face. Jiang Cheng avoids looking at him at all.

Wei Wuxian clenches his teeth. “Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, jerking his head toward the car.

He has one foot off the curb when Madam Yu shifts her attention to Lan Wangji. “Who is this one?” she asks Jiang Cheng, not bothering to keep her voice low.

“New hire,” Jiang Cheng says shortly. “Curse department.”

Madam Yu hums, eyes narrowing. “My condolences,” she says directly to Lan Wangji, “for your career, if you ever had one.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, more urgently.

Lan Wangji doesn’t get in the car. He looks back at Madam Yu, steady. “That is unnecessary,” he replies, “as no harm has come to myself or my career.”

Through the sudden buzzing in his brain, Wei Wuxian hears Madam Yu snort. “It’s a matter of time,” she says. “Everything that boy touches falls to ruin. If you have any sense, you’ll get as far away as possible.”

“I can look after myself,” Lan Wangji says, and bows. “If you’ll excuse us.” His tone is mild, but Wei Wuxian has never seen a bow look so quietly, unequivocally sarcastic before. He fights the urge to gape as Madam Yu’s mouth tightens, and she brushes past them without another word.

Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw. He looks at Wei Wuxian for a moment—opens his mouth, almost says something—then pivots and strides after Madam Yu.

Wei Wuxian stands there, one foot on the sidewalk and one on the pavement, trying to get his damn brain to quiet down. “Lan Zhan,” he says for a third time, unsure how to finish but aware that he should say something. “They—that was Jiang Ch—Jiang Wanyin and Yu-furen—Jiang-zongzhu’s wife, she basically runs the Jiang sect. You should, I don’t even know, go after them? Or maybe send them a formal letter or something saying this was a misunderstanding! They’ll probably accept it if you tell them I didn’t properly introduce you, which I didn’t. Um. Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji is not recoiling in horror, or turning to run after Jiang Cheng and Madam Yu. Instead, he’s doing that thing where he almost frowns, but not quite. “They were rude,” he says.

“I know. I’m sorry.” Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how to explain this. “It was about me, though, you shouldn’t—you can still say you misunderstood.”

“Lying is forbidden in my family,” Lan Wangji says, like it’s that simple.

Wei Wuxian, once again, has no idea what to say to that. “You’re not,” he finally ventures, “upset, about this?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head once. The lengthening shadows somehow don’t seem to touch him, and for a moment Wei Wuxian thinks he’s looking at the last speck of sunlight left from the day, standing there on the sidewalk and refusing to fade.

Then Lan Wangji moves, stepping around him to open the car door. “Let’s not keep the rabbits waiting.”

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. Something small and warm is sparking to life inside his chest. “Yeah, the rabbits.”

#

He looks up the poet’s name later that night, tucked away in the back of the university library. (It’s the only one open late enough for him to bike to after Lan Wangji leaves for the evening, and if he’s casual enough about it he can usually slip in with his old student ID.) Technically, he’s here to look for any scraps of information about dragons in the east—Wen Ning and Wen Qing’s family archives and stories are going to be more useful than anything he can find here, but he’s restless, so he skims through books on maritime legends and essays from folklorists about shapeshifters and water-dwellers, through articles about sudden storms and strange shipwrecks and other things that might, somehow, be related to a whole group of dragons that were supposed to have vanished years and years ago.

He dredges up a few stories about sea monsters and water demons that trick people by pretending to be drowning humans, and plenty of tales of dragons from Olden Times where they controlled the rivers and tides and storms and sometimes took human form and sometimes did not, and it’s all very coy on whether the authors believe any of it actually happened. Nothing that conveniently says: “Oh, yes, there’s another hidden community of dragons in Lanling, or Gusu, or Tingshan, and here’s their mailing address!”

But the thing is, it does tell him something, that the old folktales and obviously unrelated urban legends are all he can find. Wei Wuxian has spent enough time researching things at the fringes of respectable academia that he knows there’s usually a range—fantastical tales molded into their broadest strokes by hundreds of retellings, to more direct firsthand accounts of things that may or may not be true and may or may not have happened, to news articles that mention something just strange enough to stand out and hint at something different. The more famous cursed objects all have this range, if you know how to look. The fact that there’s so little here means the dragons in the east really did disappear, or…there are people carefully purging any information about them from the world.

This is what gives him the most hope, even if it’s a dead end—that the lack of information might be information itself, and there’s a slight chance he can, someday, find them, even just to return the pearl. Because it isn’t just some nifty little shapeshifting token. It isn’t even some nifty, super rare shapeshifting token. It’s part of someone. For Wen Ning and the other dragons in his family, the pearls are the manifestation of their shapeshifting magic—what allows them to return to dragon form. Which is why it’s so unsettling to know that there’s one tucked away in Wei Wuxian’s warded trunk like some sort of trinket, with no one to claim it.

Gone, Wen Qing’s voice says in his mind, and, well.

He hopes Wen Ning turns up something helpful, and soon.

After an hour, he re-shelves the last book and finds an empty computer, plugging Lan An into the system. Once he filters out irrelevant results, not much comes up other than a few blog posts and a bare-bones info page on a biography site. Lan An was a poet and essayist from the Gusu region who died some 150 years ago, and was more known for his lectures on asceticism and environmentalism than his published work. Only one short essay comparing the teachings of 15th-century cultivation philosophers to their lived experiences exists anywhere in the library’s archives. (Wei Wuxian reads it, and it’s dry as hell but kind of amusing, mostly because Lan An seems to be politely calling every single philosopher a giant hypocrite.) Other than that, according to the essay’s endnotes, most of Lan An’s work has been lost to time.

Except, apparently, for the entire book in Lan Wangji’s blank, impersonal apartment in Lotus Pier.

Maybe Lan An is Lan Wangji’s ancestor, Wei Wuxian thinks, and that’s why he has the book. Or maybe that’s what Lan Wangji is really looking for in the Wens’ collection—he’s a rare book collector of some sort, and that’s why he took this job in the first place, hoping to find a lost manuscript or first edition. It makes as much sense as anything else.

Wei Wuxian can’t find it in him to care all that much if that’s the case. A small, selfish part of him only hopes that if there are any rare books buried in the warehouse, he’ll get to see Lan Wangji smile at least a few more times before they find them.

#

A truly shocking amount of dust and mold has been removed and the cottage is about half-reorganized when Wei Wuxian ruins the quiet peace between him and Lan Wangji.

It starts as a good day—Jin Zixun forgets the no-tech rule again and fries his new phone (and consequently has to leave for the rest of the day, adding to the score), Mianmian brings Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian tea and coffee respectively, and Lan Wangji cracks a dry, unexpected joke over a pair of malevolent boxers that has Wei Wuxian gasping with laughter in a way that feels both new and achingly familiar all at once. Also, Jiang Yanli calls just before dinnertime, which makes any day a good day, and says she’s planning to visit Lotus Pier this summer, after the baby arrives.

All in all, Wei Wuxian’s feeling oddly light as he rummages through his kitchen cupboards after work. There’s congee on the stove, and he knows there’s a new jar of chili oil hidden around here somewhere—ah, here, on a shelf labeled additional cooking ingredients in Lan Wangji’s precise handwriting—and a slight breeze wafts in through the window over the sink, mixing with the cooking smell and suffusing the whole kitchen with an almost tranquil effect. It might be because Lan Wangji made him throw away the crooked old blinds, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t think the place has ever looked so bright.

He straightens and takes a deep breath as he unscrews the chili oil lid, ready to dump about half of it right into the pot when his mind flits to Lan Wangji again. That’s nothing new, but then his mind swings back to the food and the bright kitchen and the time of day, and he finally pieces together what should’ve been a simple realization: he should ask Lan Wangji to stay for dinner.

The more he turns the thought over in his mind, the more he likes it. It’s not like today’s cooking is anything exciting—congee with onions and bok choy and soon to be a hearty helping of flavor, made in bulk to last him through the week—but. Still. They’ve had dinner together a few times now, rushed takeout after working late at the warehouse, but never something here, cooked in this kitchen, eaten together for the sole purpose of eating together. And maybe Lan Wangji will want to go home to his spotless kitchen and better cooking, but…it can’t hurt to offer.

He sets the chili oil back on the counter.

Lan Wangji stepped outside half an hour ago to check on the rabbits and look through Wei Wuxian’s ramshackle shed for leftover seed packets. He hasn’t come back in, but Wei Wuxian is pretty sure he’s still here somewhere. Partly because he always says goodbye first, and partly because he let Wei Wuxian drive him home last night, and Wei Wuxian has every reason to believe he’ll let him do it again today.

He’s not by the hutch when Wei Wuxian goes outside, or in the shed, but there’s something a bit different in the air at the edge of the yard. A bite, like the gathering energy before a storm, accompanied by a soft hum from the detection talismans. It takes Wei Wuxian no time at all to recognize it as magic, and only half a second more than that to place it as Lan Wangji’s magic, or something similar. It lingers in a faint trail through the trees. Before he can think too much about it Wei Wuxian is following along, tracking a path to the riverbank. The river is calm here, the smaller of twin branches that eventually merge and flow into Yunmeng Lake. He’s far enough outside the city that this stretch is mostly lined with trees and other cottages, perfect for morning walks to see mist rising off the water, and for nighttime walks when he can’t be in the cottage anymore.

He hears Lan Wangji a few moments before he sees him. Lan Wangji’s talking, low and a little urgent, and Wei Wuxian catches the words brother and time and realizes he must be on the phone. Wei Wuxian rounds the bed to see Lan Wangji down the bank, crouching on the rocks and peering into the dark water. It looks like he’s balanced millimeters from the river’s edge, close enough to soak the sleeves of his robes if he leans too far. The evening around them is still and calm, save for the hum of the river, and Wei Wuxian likes it. He just likes it.

Wei Wuxian’s foot sends a pebble skittering across the bank. There’s a soft splash, and Lan Wangji immediately stops talking and whirls around, rising to his full height. From this distance he’s more silhouette than person, a bright set of robes against the dusk. “What are you doing?” he demands.

“Sorry about that,” Wei Wuxian calls, “I didn’t realize you were on the phone. Were you talking to your brother? Does that mean the signal charms worked, then? I meant to ask about that, actually, because I’ve never tried to replicate them—”

“Stop,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian stumbles, looking for traction on the slick rocks, and grinds to a halt.

He’s close enough now to see that Lan Wangji is glaring at him.

It feels like all the air leaves Wei Wuxian’s lungs at once. “Ah. Sorry,” he says again, stupidly. “I was just. I.” He can’t say I was just going to see if you wanted to stay for dinner, I didn’t even make it spicy yet, not now, not under the force of Lan Wangji’s expression, which is the most closed-off Wei Wuxian has seen in weeks and still manages to radiate something like panic. Wei Wuxian caused that. Lan Wangji probably walked out here for privacy, to get away, and Wei Wuxian barged in without a second thought and—

“I’ll go,” he manages, and steps back. Turns. Tracks his steps back to the cottage. He doesn’t know if Lan Wangji follows, or if he stays on the riverbank, because Wei Wuxian doesn’t let himself look back. He just removes himself as quickly as possible and doesn’t stop until he’s reached the rabbit hutch, where he rests a hand on its roof and leans over and makes himself breathe normally until the ringing in his ears starts to fade.

It’s not like other people haven’t reacted the same way when he’s sprung his presence on them. Lan Wangji didn’t even yell, so really, what is Wei Wuxian getting so worked up about?

He puts the congee away without having any.

#

He has nightmares that night.

It’s nothing new, but these feel more pointed than usual. He keeps waking up with phantom water in his lungs, the sensation of a scalpel carving a path under his ribs, and, stupidly, a remix of the horrible sudden-drop feeling in his gut when he’d realized Lan Wangji didn’t want him there. How that one manages to achieve a top-three ranking alongside the other two he doesn’t know, but it’s still unpleasant. Really, really unpleasant. He forces himself to breathe long and slow after the third time his eyes jolt open, rubbing absently at his chest and trying to ignore the sickening creep of resentful energy skulking around the edges of the room. It’s residual energy from his collection, mostly, but some of it is older than that, spirits sunken deep enough into the foundations of the house that no one can really get rid of them. It’s why he can afford this place at all—no one else wanted it, and he’d figured, well, he already has nightmares, so what the hell.

Normally it’s fine. He weathers it. Tonight, though, the spirits are bold, creeping around his consciousness, poking at the place inside him that still (still) feels hollow. It’s survivable, but it’s not great, and when the sun starts to make itself known through the east-facing window, Wei Wuxian is still wide awake.

Today, he thinks, is not going to be fun.

#

It’s not fun. It’s incredibly not fun and, worse than that, it’s awkward.

Lan Wangji shows up at 6:30am, same as every morning, but he’s back to barely acknowledging Wei Wuxian, giving him a single nod in greeting and waiting on the doorstep, not brewing tea or checking on the rabbits. Wei Wuxian, for his part, is tired as hell and wouldn’t even know how to deal with this on a full night’s sleep, so he just gets dressed and drives them—silently, for once—to the warehouse. He listens to nothing on the radio, and Lan Wangji stares out the window the whole time, hands resting flat on his thighs in a way Wei Wuxian thinks would equal anxious fidgeting in other people. Or—maybe not. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know anymore. He has no clue what’s going on in Lan Wangji’s head, like a door has been shut to him, and he wishes that thought didn’t make his throat feel as tight as it does.

And since this is already the worst day Wei Wuxian has had in a while, of course Jin Zixun is standing outside the warehouse when they pull up.

“Wei Wuxian,” he drawls, one hand holding his (brand new) phone, the other resting on the hilt of his sword. Jin Zixun is the kind of asshole who still carries his sword on his belt instead of in a qiankun pouch, not because of tradition or danger, but because he likes to flaunt it. (Wei Wuxian supposes that between his unfortunate personality and terrible reputation, Jin Zixun must take flaunting opportunities where he can. Sometimes Wei Wuxian’s charitable act for the week is simply not making fun of him in every possible way.) “You’re on time, for once.”

“I’m an hour early,” Wei Wuxian says, stepping onto the sidewalk and fighting not to punctuate his statement with a yawn. Lan Wangji is a few steps behind him, and Wei Wuxian has to tell himself not to stop and wait for him to catch up like usual. “Is your new phone clock set wrong? Or is the attendant who usually tells time for you out sick today?”

There’s a vein throbbing at Jin Zixun’s temple, and Wei Wuxian wishes he were awake enough to really appreciate it. “You’d better watch yourself, Wei Wuxian. I’m moving up to district supervisor soon. I’ll have the power to make your life absolutely miserable.”

“You already do,” Wei Wuxian assures him. “But thanks for the update.”

Jin Zixun’s lip curls. “Just wait until I’m back in Lanling, you won’t be able to find a Consortium job in any district. You and your—whatever he is.” He glares behind Wei Wuxian, where Lan Wangji is presumably standing.

Wei Wuxian waves his hand. “He’s not—leave him out of your temper tantrum, that’s all me. What do you really want?”

Jin Zixun somehow manages to sniff imperiously without breaking his glare. “My promotion involves a transfer back to Lanling once this project is complete. You have one week to finish here, no more.”

“It won’t happen,” Wei Wuxian says flatly. “There’s still too much stuff.”

“I don’t care. You’ll be finished in a week if you want to be paid in full, and after that I’ll be out of this second-rate city. So I’d suggest showing up on time from now on.” Jin Zixun unsheathes his sword. In Wei Wuxian’s peripheral vision Lan Wangji makes an aborted move, a step forward, and then Jin Zixun steps on the blade and flies off, because he’s, again, an asshole who can get away with ignoring zoning laws about flying in populated areas.

Ugggghhh,” Wei Wuxian says with feeling, scrubbing at his eyes. “Fucking—wonderful. I need coffee. Hey, at least you get paid hourly, right?” he asks, glancing back before remembering Lan Wangji doesn’t want to talk to him.

Lan Wangji looks at him and says nothing, just frowns the smallest frown possible. Wei Wuxian quickly turns away.

His day gets even better after lunch—after cold congee and six hours of silence from Lan Wangji—when he moves to start in on the household goods section of the warehouse and discovers all of the small-to-medium sized appliances have been stacked right around the switchbox on the back wall.

“Shit,” he says to the general area where he thinks Lan Wangji is. “Maybe let me take point here for a bit. They put these appliances right by an electrical hub, so if any of them have lingering resentful energy they’re probably super volatile by now. Good chance at least one is going to explode.” He holds a hand over an electric fan teetering on top of a pile of outdated toasters, and when his detection talismans don’t spike, he gingerly grabs it and holds it up to catch the light. “The fun part is, you never know which one until it goes up in flames. One time at school Nie Huaisang and I—”

He stops. Right. The warehouse is its usual eerie quiet, save some faint ticking from the corner with a bunch of clocks, and there’s a chill radiating from the cold concrete floor, and neither of those things are as uncomfortable as the way Lan Wangji is standing five paces away with his hand tucked behind his back.

And gods, it’s not like Wei Wuxian isn’t used to disappointing literally every single person in his life, but it somehow doesn’t get easier with time. Especially when he doesn’t even know what he did in this case—was it following Lan Wangji in the first place? Or interrupting his call? Or had Lan Wangji just...hit his Wei Wuxian interaction limit yesterday, nothing else to be done about it?

Wei Wuxian drops his arm. “Look,” he says. Go home, he should say. Please, because I can’t do a whole day of whatever this is. What he says is: “Sorry for startling you yesterday.”

In his peripheral vision, Lan Wangji stiffens.

“I wasn’t, like, checking up on you or anything. Or trying to invade your privacy. I just.” He still can’t say I was going to invite you to dinner, it’s still too embarrassing. “I thought you had left without saying goodbye to the rabbits! That’s all. It wasn’t— I didn’t— Agh.” He presses his free hand to the bridge of his nose, grimacing. “It won’t happen again.”

He’s about to say something else—or maybe he’s about to finally shut up, he hasn’t decided yet—when the electric fan bursts into flame.

“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says, then, “shit,” and drops it onto the concrete, where he stomps on it until the fire recedes, leaving a charred-out husk and a smear of soot on the floor.

It takes about three seconds, long enough for Lan Wangji to make an aborted move forward. “It’s okay, it’s over,” Wei Wuxian says quickly. “I sewed suppression talismans in my boots ages ago, I’m not even burned. Well, my fingers are, but my feet are fine.” He stares at the small mess and wrinkles his nose as a wisp of charred-plastic variety smoke floats up. “Anyway. Clearly this day isn’t going well for either of us, and it’s not like we’re going to make Jin Zixun’s deadline anyway, so. I can handle things, you don’t have to force yourself to be here.”

Wei Wuxian blows on his slightly singed fingertips as the silence stretches between them. When he finally glances over, Lan Wangji is frowning at him.

“Oh,” Lan Wangji says. “I hurt you.”

“What? No. This was me being a dumbass,” Wei Wuxian assures him. “Good rule of thumb, always pay close attention to things that might spontaneously combust.”

“Yesterday,” Lan Wangji continues, instead of taking notes on Wei Wuxian’s very wise and helpful advice. “When I told you to go away. That hurt you.”

Wei Wuxian freezes mid-blow. He very carefully does not look up. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Lan Wangji cock his head and make a soft, considering noise before dropping his gaze back to the inventory list.

It takes Wei Wuxian longer to move. It’s really something, he thinks, being so summarily pried open by someone, and then set aside just as swiftly. He can’t be blamed for not knowing what to do with it.

And. Well. He’s said what he wanted to say. There isn’t much more he can do short of beg Lan Wangji to explain what happened, what Wei Wuxian did wrong, and it seems like being overly familiar was the whole problem in the first place, so he won’t be doing that. It’s fine. They’ll finish out this job and—

“I apologize,” Lan Wangji says, abrupt.

What.

Wei Wuxian jerks his head up. Lan Wangji is still staring at the list, his shoulders taut, like he’s steeling himself.

“You don’t—you don’t have to,” Wei Wuxian says, rushed, trying to ignore the crazy hope sparking in his chest simply because Lan Wangji is talking to him at all. “I shouldn’t’ve—”

Lan Wangji’s mouth tightens, and Wei Wuxian stops talking, as if Lan Wangji had held up a hand for silence. Lan Wangji blinks, almost surprised, and lifts his eyes.

“I…,” he says. “I am. Very protective of my family.” A pause. “I was talking to my brother last night, yes. I was startled when you arrived, and reacted poorly. I’m not good at—” He stops again, consternation and determination warring on his face. “At letting people be close to me, or those I care about.”

Wei Wuxian’s gut twists uncomfortably. “It’s okay,” he says. “You don’t have to explain, I know I can be a bit much.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, “that’s not— Please. I am trying to say I’m sorry.”

He looks at Wei Wuxian expectantly.

“I know,” Wei Wuxian says, bewildered. “I can hear that. But you really don’t—”

“I’m sorry,” Lan Wangji says again, pointed, meeting Wei Wuxian’s eyes.

Oh. “Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Oh. Um. You’re forgiven?”

Lan Wangji still looks slightly vexed, but he nods once. Then he holds out his hand. “May I?”

Wei Wuxian has officially had enough confusion for one day. He doesn’t even ask, just nods, and watches as Lan Wangji reaches over and very gently tugs Wei Wuxian’s hand away from his chest. The tips of Lan Wangji’s fingers glow a faint blue as he holds them to Wei Wuxian’s burns. It’s— Wei Wuxian should say something, tell Lan Wangji it won’t really work, but as the healing energy starts flowing he shuts his mouth. It might not get rid of the problem, but it feels good. Cool, tingling just a bit, infinitely better than Wei Wuxian’s own plan, which was to blow on his fingers a bit more and then generally suffer about it until the burns faded.

Embarrassingly, he feels his eyes start to sting. He’s going to just pretend it’s from the pain that’s no longer there.

He pulls his arm back after a minute, shaking his sleeve over his hand so Lan Wangji won’t notice the burns haven’t faded, and clears his throat. “Ah, thanks. Thank you.”

Lan Wangji nods. His eyes don’t leave Wei Wuxian’s.

This is—too much, really. Anyone would be bowled over under this gaze, it’s not just Wei Wuxian. “I should probably—you know, that batch of stuff over there also looks dangerously close to the switchbox, I’d better go. Um. Check on it. Here, you can get started on this pile, it should be harmless now that we’ve found the wild card.” He shoves his own inventory journal into Lan Wangji’s hands. And then he doesn’t run away, he definitely doesn’t run, but he does very calmly fling himself around the side of a large armoire.

The moment he’s out of Lan Wangji’s line of sight he slumps, a puppet with its strings cut, bracing his hands on his thighs. He stays there a few seconds, breathing in the stale warehouse air and fighting a grin. His hand is still tingling, and not just the burns—it’s the backs of his fingers, too, where Lan Wangji had steadied Wei Wuxian with his free hand. That was, Wei Wuxian realizes, the first time Lan Wangji has ever touched him deliberately.

It takes him longer than it should to realize his detection talismans aren’t just vibrating in response to his own feelings.

Wei Wuxian straightens, frowning down at his wrists, then at the dark space around him. His left talisman buzzes with slowly-but-surely growing intensity, and his right one has started to heat up as well, reaching the sensation of hot tea spattering across his skin. It’s a greater reaction than anything on this job so far—the last time one of his talismans grew this hot was the music box case, which had been a spirit strong enough to destroy half a kitchen and start a whole litigation with the Consortium over who paid for the damages, and also strong enough to break three of Wei Wuxian’s fingers, which in his opinion was far more annoying than the kitchen thing.

In the span of a second, the right talisman flares even hotter.

There’s something here, in this little pocket of old cushions and dusty curio cases, and it’s angry.

Okay. Wei Wuxian pulls his dizi from his belt, scanning the surfaces around him and gritting his teeth against the heat on his forearm. Pro: whatever this thing is, it isn’t smart enough to hide its energy. Con: the energy it isn’t hiding is...a lot. It’s not stable enough to lurk, which means it’s going to manifest sooner rather than later, and it’ll be better to make the first move while he can. He’ll have to—

Ah. There. His eyes land on an unsheathed wood-handled knife in one of the curio cabinets, its blade clean of dust, shimmering with light that definitely isn’t coming from its surroundings. “There you are,” he murmurs, and steps closer. The buzzing and heat both ramp up. “Oh, you’re so tiny. But don’t worry, I’ve learned plenty of lessons about underestimating little things.”

He’s about to reach out when he remembers: he has a partner, now.

(His talismans buzz, if possible, even more intensely. “Shut up,” he tells them.)

“Lan Zhan,” he calls.

“Yes.” Lan Wangji appears by Wei Wuxian’s shoulder almost immediately. Like he hadn’t been doing inventory at all. Like he’d been just standing back there, looking after Wei Wuxian, waiting.

“You are going to kill me,” Wei Wuxian complains. “Forget curses and demons, I’m going to die of a heart attack.”

Lan Wangji frowns at him. Then his gaze flicks past Wei Wuxian to the curio case, immediately honing in on the knife. “What is that?”

“I think we’re about to find out,” Wei Wuxian says. “Whatever it is, it’s too powerful to let be. Like, beyond our usual fare, so we should—oh, good, you brought your sword.”

Lan Wangji finishes drawing a sword out of a qiankun pocket in his robes. He shoots Wei Wuxian an odd look, the slightest dip of an eyebrow, and Wei Wuxian reads: Of course I brought my sword. What a strange question.

What a strange question. Right.

They’ve done this a few times together before—albeit nothing sword-worthy, just minor spirits and low-level cursed objects—so Wei Wuxian makes quick work of sketching a chalk array across the concrete around the curio cabinet, Lan Wangji dragging a stack of cushions and a heavy-looking desk out of his path as he goes. When they’re done, Wei Wuxian shoos Lan Wangji to the edge of the chalk lines and makes his way to an unmarked spot of floor in front of the cabinet.

He glances back. Lan Wangji has his sword hooked into his belt, one hand resting lightly on its hilt. The sword itself is elegant, its sheath patterned white and blue, finely-carved hilt glinting like it’s newly-polished. Wei Wuxian has never had sword envy—Suibian was perfectly fine, thank you very much, and all he’d ever needed—but he can appreciate that this is a nice sword. Powerful, in all likelihood. Well cared-for, in all certainty.

“Ready?” Wei Wuxian asks, even though he knows the answer. Lan Wangji is never not ready.

“Your sword,” Lan Wangji says. “You should be ready as well.”

“Ah...no need.” Wei Wuxian twirls his dizi. “That’s why I have you!” He shoots Lan Wangji a grin, ignoring whatever flashes across Lan Wangji’s face at that, then looks back at the cabinet and shakes a pre-made talisman into his hand. “All right,” Wei Wuxian says to the knife. “Let’s see what’s bothering you, hmm?”

He glances at Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji nods.

Wei Wuxian reaches out and unlocks the curio cabinet.

It’s instantaneous: a mass of energy bursts forth, sending Wei Wuxian stumbling back. He barely manages to not smudge the array, coming to a stop just outside its lines next to Lan Wangji, who, of course, has barely swayed back. Damn, though, the energy is rolling off this spirit in waves. It explodes out of the knife as a roiling mass of dark energy, smoke and shadow trying to break through the array lines and come together into a solid form all at once. In the space between blinks, the mass has become the vague shape of a woman, grayscale and floating above the floor, hair indistinguishable from the dark shadows that surround her. The chalk lines below her feet are eroding under the onslaught of energy.

Wei Wuxian flings the talisman. The spirit freezes, struck, but Wei Wuxian can already see the paper starting to burn. He revises his assessment from strong to really strong (and probably stronger for having been sitting near the damn switchbox).

“Lan Zhan,” he says, low, “do you have your guqin with you?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes flick to him, startled. “I do.”

“Good. That’s good. Okay. I need you to use it to reinforce the warehouse’s perimeter.” With music, Lan Wangji can stay in one place to reach all edges of the spiritual perimeter. Which is important, because 1) they can’t risk this thing getting out, and that array is only going to do so much, and 2) Wei Wuxian is going to have to keep the spirit away from Lan Wangji, which will be much easier if he is sitting still.

“You reinforce it,” Lan Wangji says. “I will subdue the spirit.”

“No, it has to be you,” Wei Wuxian says distractedly. Shit, the talisman’s nearly burned through.

Lan Wangji frowns, starting to unsheathe his sword. A blue light dances at the edge of Wei Wuxian’s vision, the wan warehouse lights reflecting tenfold on the finger-width of exposed blade, and an instant later the talisman dissolves into ash. A gale of wind whips around the spirit, sweeping away half of the array as she flies forward, ghostly arm outstretched.

“Shit,” Wei Wuxian gets out, and throws himself at Lan Wangji. He gets there right as the spirit does, wedging himself between them. Five needlepoint fingers, sharp as the knife she was confined in, rake across Wei Wuxian’s ribs. His back collides with Lan Wangji’s shoulder and he uses that to brace himself, kicking the ghost squarely in what might be her stomach. Wherever it lands, it lands, and the ghost reels back.

Lan Wangji sucks in a harsh breath, his hands coming up to grip Wei Wuxian’s elbow, his back, his presence the only thing keeping Wei Wuxian upright for a moment.

“Ahh fuck,” Wei Wuxian says, because this knife spirit has claws, what the fuck. He doesn’t take his eyes off the spirit as he gets his feet back under him. “Lan Zhan, I don’t think she likes your sword very much.”

In front of the curio case, the spirit raises a shadow-shrouded hand to her mouth. Wei Wuxian’s blood drips off her fingers, spattering the floor where her feet don’t touch. “Oh,” the spirit says. “I see. Little lightless cultivator. Lonely, lonely, little lightless cultivator.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, “the perimeter.”

And then he raises his dizi to his lips.

The first high, soaring note seems to take the spirit by surprise. Her jagged slash of a mouth opens but only a low keen comes out. Wei Wuxian steps forward, breath not wavering even as pain flares in his side, weaving a melody that draws the shadows tighter, that pulls her resentful energy back around herself. Over his shoulder Lan Wangji stays frozen for only another second or two, then drops to the floor, cross-legged. A guqin appears in his lap.

Wei Wuxian flicks his gaze between Lan Wangji and the spirit, moving between them as the low, reverberating notes of the guqin join his dizi. The spiritual energy in Lan Wangji’s music passes through him in waves, dulling and then sharpening the buzzing in his talismans. It’s powerful, definitely enough to hold the perimeter while Wei Wuxian takes care of the spirit—

The spirit, who is flailing against Wei Wuxian’s song. She flings out a clawed arm and the curio glass shatters, shards flying through the air. Wei Wuxian stops playing in favor of throwing his arms over his face—lurching to the right to block anything coming Lan Wangji’s way—and the spirit takes the chance to draw herself up, eyes red and flickering.

“You’re out of your league, little cultivator,” the spirit says. Little cultivator, again! Wei Wuxian kind of wants to argue—he’s perfectly average-sized! A bit tall, even!—but he knows that’s not the priority here. “You should’ve never opened that cabinet door. Do you know who I am? Do you know how long I’ve been here, waiting for someone foolish enough to disturb my slumber?

“Ah, no, sorry,” Wei Wuxian says. “Care to enlighten me?”

The spirit’s eyes flash brighter. They’re not flamelike, Wei Wuxian notes, peeking out from behind his arms. You’d expect flickering red eyes to be flamelike, or ember-like, at least, on an old ghost. But they’re more like a dying neon sign—harsh and electric. He can almost hear the hum sputtering in and out like a movie sound effect.

Longer that you have been alive, little cultivator. I,” the spirit declares, “am the Ghost-maker.”

“Cool name. Very evocative.” As he speaks, Wei Wuxian slowly lifts his dizi again.

It is more than a name,” the spirit screeches. “It is an ancient title, earned over the course of centuries, a lethal spirit, a weapon forged in the blood of evildoers and sharpened by the tears of generations.” She pauses—not for breath, but for emphasis. Lan Wangji’s music swells around them. “Surely you’ve heard of me.

“I haven’t,” Wei Wuxian says apologetically. “But I have a bad memory, so don’t take it personally.”

He brings the dizi to his lips before she can say anything else, spinning a new melody, one that prods and pulls at the spirit (the Ghost-maker), searching for the thread of energy binding her here. She’s a mass of emotions and ideas, as inscrutable as the darkness swirling through the air. He presses her back with her own energy, searching, searching. Something feels off, he thinks, sidestepping a lash of shadow. She doesn’t feel ancient. She feels confused.

The spirit lets out a shriek of anger, and the guqin strikes a harsh chord behind him. Wei Wuxian hears the warning in it, gaze snapping up to see the knife rattle on the curio shelf, spinning to face him. It flies off the shelf and he ducks just as an out-of-melody guqin note sounds, a wave of blue light intercepting the knife and turning it away from where it was very much aimed at Wei Wuxian’s face. He feels it whistle past his hair, hears a clatter where it bounces off the wooden chest to his left. It falls, Wei Wuxian realizes, instead of burying itself in the wood, even though it collided point-first.

The knife is dull.

The knife isn’t a formidable weapon sharpened by the tears of generations. It just looks like one.

“Ohhhhh, I get it,” Wei Wuxian says, and switches to a new melody. Something less searching, and more calling. Because he’s not reaching for the ancient pain of an entire family—he’s reaching for the confusion and fear of a single spirit.

He finds something in the darkness and pulls. Threads of resentful energy unravel and the shadows dissipate until just the spirit floats there, shrinking back against the blown-out curio doors, desaturated and furious. She presses her hands over her ears, still shrieking wordlessly.

“I figured it out, lady Ghost-maker!” Wei Wuxian shouts over her. “And by that I mean, you’re not the Ghost-maker! I mean, you can absolutely call yourself that if you want, that’s your choice. But the knife is a movie prop—this place is full of stuff like that, it must’ve gotten thrown in the mix. It’s not even sharp, see? It’s not real. Or, it is real, but it’s not a real weapon.”

Her screaming falters. Red eyes blink back at him.

“There’s no painful saga for you to avenge,” Wei Wuxian tells her, trying not to breathe harshly. Between the cuts on his ribs and the dizi playing and the whole resentful-energy harnessing, he’s feeling a bit dizzy. “It’s just you here. Just you and me and, uh, my friend, and neither of us have done anything to your family worth killing for, I promise.”

There’s a long pause. Lan Wangji’s melody shifts to something softer, calmer.

“A movie prop,” the spirit says, finally. Her voice is smaller now.

Wei Wuxian nods, though he isn’t sure just how much she’s processing right now. “I should’ve realized earlier,” he says, mostly over his shoulder to Lan Wangji. “All that costume jewelry, those cocktail dresses, those truly weird divans.” To the spirit: “Someone was using this place to smuggle cursed objects, and they hid them among a bunch of random things. Like your prop knife. I don’t know how long you’ve been here, but it hasn’t been centuries. You’re not the Ghost-maker, but you are a ghost,” he adds, gently. “I’m sorry. Just a ghost, though, and not a revenge-seeking ghost. Which is good news.”

“A movie prop,” she repeats. Wei Wuxian worries for a moment that she’s stuck there, that without the excess energy she’d collected from being stored by electrical outlets and among other cursed objects she’s lost her awareness entirely. Then she says: “Yes. A movie prop. I made it.”

“You...made it?”

The spirit lowers her hands slightly. Her eyes are focused just beyond Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “I designed a lot of them. Props for the movie. Three different knives. One was the Ghost-maker. A drama about betrayal and murder and revenge,” she recites. “A family plagued by the Ghost-maker, an evil knife spirit that started taking lives on its own.”

“That sounds—ah—riveting.” Wei Wuxian bites down a hiss. Standing still and not fighting feels like he’s letting the dizziness catch up, and he can’t really afford that at the moment.

“But,” the spirit says, “I died. I was going to work. I had the props in my van. I had been up all night, finishing them. And I fell asleep at the wheel.”

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian swallows. “I’m sorry.”

“They kept filming anyway. They took the props out of the van and kept going. Only half a day off schedule.”

“I’m really sorry,” Wei Wuxian offers. “That was...horrible of them.”

“I had been up all night,” the spirit says again. Her eyes flicker.

He might be losing her. “Listen,” Wei Wuxian says. “I can help you. What’s your name?”

“All night,” the spirit says. “All night.”

Shit. “Tell me your name,” Wei Wuxian says. Doesn’t plead. Doesn’t. “We’ll start there, and it’ll be okay, I promise. We can release your energy, so you can be reborn. So your soul isn’t destroyed.”

Another pause. Then her eyes shift, landing squarely on Wei Wuxian for the first time.

“Destroyed?” She sounds scared. And then her eyes flare brighter. “Destroyed? I was already destroyed!” Shadows start to creep back toward her, rising from the floor, from the blown-out curio doors. Shit, shit. Wei Wuxian fumbles for his dizi again as the spirit unfurls again. “The Ghost-maker may be a story, but I’m real. I’m powerful. And I can see you, cultivator-who’s-not-a-cultivator. I can see that you’re empty. You have shadows where light should be—you have nothing. How can you help me?”

And then she screams. The darkness bursts forth again, accompanied by a gale of wind. Through the cacophony, Wei Wuxian hears Lan Wangji shout: “Wei Ying!”

He has a split second to process that—to hear his name in Lan Wangji’s voice, to think, huh—before the ghost reaches him.

Darkness surrounds him, dust and tiny slivers of glass from the broken curio cabinet kicking up in the air and choking him. Dark energy pours into him like a faucet turned on high. He won’t last long unless he does something, unless he takes control of it. If he doesn’t, he’ll pass out, or worse, and the spirit will blow past him and attack Lan Wangji. And Lan Wangji can probably take her, but he’ll be too distracted to strengthen the perimeter, and she might hurt him in the process—

Wei Wuxian forces his arms to move, panting, feeling like his limbs are ten times as heavy as they should be. The spirit’s shriek rings in his ears along with the pounding of his own heart.

He gets his dizi up, because he has to. He plays a long, piercing note that spins into something eerie and punishing, because he has to. He forces the spirit’s resentful energy to turn back on her, to consume her, to consume itself, until all that’s left of her are dispersing wisps of darkness on the concrete, because he has to.

Then he falls to his knees.

His dizi clatters to the floor beside him. The guqin music, which had turned frantic in the last few seconds, cuts off sharply. A moment later Lan Wangji crouches in front of Wei Wuxian, pulling his chin up. His eyes are wide as they rake over Wei Wuxian’s face. Are you okay, Wei Wuxian wants to ask, and he sucks in a deep breath—

“Owwww,” he whines, pressing a hand to his side. His robes are damp, and he knows it’s blood, which is a real shame considering these are his nicest set of everyday robes. He’s good at getting bloodstains out, but these are surely going to set before he can get them in the wash. “I know I disturbed her slumber and all, but that was really uncalled for.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth cracks open. “Uncalled for,” he repeats.

“Yeah, I was only trying to help her,” Wei Wuxian says. “You heard me, right, Lan Zhan? Good job with the perimeter, by the way. And deflecting the knife. That could’ve been bad, ha, even if it was a prop.” He pats his ear, which he’s pretty sure he very nearly lost. “Good thing you were here.”

He starts to stand, and Lan Wangji stops him. “You’re hurt,” he says.

“Ah, I’ll deal with it later,” Wei Wuxian says, but Lan Wangji is already moving. Before Wei Wuxian can stop him, his hand is hovering over Wei Wuxian’s stomach, shifting toward the gashes. Healing energy starts to flow, and at first Wei Wuxian’s mind goes blank—he hasn’t felt a rush of spiritual energy passing through him like this in years. It’s not like the small trickle of energy Lan Wangji used on his burned fingers. This is a flood, crashing through him, threatening to carry him away.

“It’s not—” Confusion lands, heavy, on Lan Wangji’s face. Wei Wuxian watches for a moment, mesmerized by how a whole damn emotion can happen in the line between someone’s eyebrows. How did he ever think Lan Wangji was expressionless when everything, everything about him has a world of meaning behind it? The way his gaze goes sharp when he’s intrigued. The slight tightening of his mouth when he’s frustrated, the softening around his eyes when he almost-smiles—it’s overwhelming. This tiny furrow in his brow holds more dawning panic than most people have in their entire body. 

And then he remembers why Lan Wangji’s eyebrows are doing that.

“Your core,” Lan Wangji says, and the panic’s in his voice now, too. “Something is wrong.”

Fuck. “Nothing’s wrong,” Wei Wuxian says, and tries to push him away. Lan Wangji hardly budges, their hands clasped between them in some weird, bloody handshake.

“Something is wrong,” Lan Wangji repeats, and the healing energy flares, the intensity making Wei Wuxian gasp. “Just—stay still, I will call someone—”

“Lan Zhan—”

“A doctor—”

Lan Wangji.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth snaps shut. Wei Wuxian grits his teeth. “Stop with the—stop the energy transfer,” he says. “Just stop.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, “no, your core. I can’t feel it. The spirit—”

“It wasn’t the spirit!” Wei Wuxian says. Energy crackles between them, coming off Lan Wangji in waves, seeking a home it won’t find in Wei Wuxian’s chest. Fuck. Fuck. Wei Wuxian swallows. “I don’t have a golden core,” he says roughly. “Not like, oh, it’s weak, it’s unformed, but at all. It’s gone. That’s what feels wrong.”

Wei Wuxian feels Lan Wangji’s hands flex under his, and then go still.

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Yeah. So. Stop. It won’t help.”

Now Lan Wangji’s grip goes slack, the energy draining away. Shock flickers across his face in the widening of his eyes, the slight parting of his lips. Or maybe it’s horror. Maybe both, it’s the kind of thing that earns both. Wei Wuxian can almost see things slotting into place—Wei Wuxian’s lack of a sword, his abundance of talismans, the way he crashed to his knees just now because he got all wobbly without a way to fend off the resentful energy. Lan Wangji’s expression stays frozen in a way that’s worse than outright horror, and, yeah. Wei Wuxian has never told anyone about his core—Wen Qing and Wen Ning know because they were there—but this reaction is...about what he expected.

“How,” Lan Wangji whispers.

“Not important,” Wei Wuxian says. His voice, somehow, stays steady.

“Not important—”

“No. What does it matter, if it disappeared or I got sick or I gambled it away in a game of dice? It’s gone. It is what it is. I’m done talking about it now.” He pauses. In the absence of their music, of the spirit’s shrieks, the silence between them feels like a physical weight on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. “If you could,” he starts. “Maybe. Not tell anyone else, though.” He swallows again. “Please.”

Another long silence. Lan Wangji’s eyes search his face, like they’re looking for whatever Wei Wuxian isn’t saying. Wei Wuxian wants to flash him a grin, come up with something insouciant yet clever to shift the conversation, but, like his spiritual energy, he’s running on empty here.

“Your wound,” Lan Wangji says, eventually.

“I’ll take care of it, it’s fine,” Wei Wuxian says quickly, temporary relief making him lightheaded. “I mean, objectively, it’s not fine, but it will be.” Lan Wangji’s hand curls into a fist on his knee, and Wei Wuxian notices little cuts slashed across his knuckles. A deeper one on his collarbone, smudging his robes red, and a thin red line on his forehead. “Oh, shit,” Wei Wuxian says, “are you okay? Is that from the glass? I can take you to a hospital—”

“No hospitals,” Lan Wangji says. He seems a bit dazed.

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, “okay, yeah, I don’t like them either. Just, yell if you start feeling dizzy or seeing double, all right?”

“I did not hit my head,” Lan Wangji says. “You—you took the brunt of it.”

“I’ve had worse,” Wei Wuxian assures him, which for some reason just makes Lan Wangji look more agitated.

Having successfully convinced Lan Wangji to stop flinging healing energy at him—Wei Wuxian’s stomach drops when he thinks of how, so he decides he’s just not going to think about it anymore—Wei Wuxian pulls some butterfly bandages out of his Cursed Shit First Aid Pocket and patches them onto his side as a stopgap. The wounds are still bleeding sluggishly, but he doesn’t think he’ll need anything beyond what he’s got in his bathroom cabinet back home. Maybe a few stitches, which is always fun, but. Like he said, he’s had worse.

Lan Wangji insists on driving back to the cottage, and Wei Wuxian’s head is still spinning, so he doesn’t even try to protest. It’s strange going back midday, the sunlight watery but bright above them, perfectly illuminating the silver threads on Lan Wangji’s robes and the near-gold of his eyes, which haven’t left Wei Wuxian’s face since they stepped out of the warehouse. Or, obviously Lan Wangji has to watch the road at some point, but every time Wei Wuxian looks up, Lan Wangji is looking back.

“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian finally tells him again when they arrive. He gets out of the car, moving stiffly. “Really, I’m barely even bleeding anymore. I promise I’ll be in better shape tomorrow. Oh, ah, before you go. Hang on.” He steers Lan Wangji to sit by the kitchen table, then retrieves rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs and a half-empty box of bandages. “May I?” he asks when he’s back, a mirror of Lan Wangji’s words to him earlier.

“May you…?” Lan Wangji echoes.

Wei Wuxian kneels in front of him, slowly enough for Lan Wangji to push him away if he wants, and when he does not, Wei Wuxian takes his hand and coaxes his fingers to uncurl. “This’ll sting,” Wei Wuxian warns, and dabs at the tiny cuts on Lan Wangji’s knuckles with an alcohol swab. Lan Wangji’s hand twitches, but he doesn’t react otherwise. Wei Wuxian cleans one hand, then the other, then continues on to the cut on Lan Wangji’s collarbone. Again, Lan Wangji twitches, like half a shudder, but doesn’t move as Wei Wuxian cleans it and pastes on a bandage for good measure.

“I know you can heal these yourself,” Wei Wuxian says, “but this takes two seconds and it’s good practice. Medicine isn’t just for non-cultivators, you know, anyone can get an infection.” He’s talking to hide his own tinge of embarrassment—at what, he’s not entirely sure, but he keeps going. “We’re lucky you don’t have any glass splinters, those are awful to pull out. Everything’s super clean, I’d be surprised if there’s even a scratch left here tomorrow. Sorry, does that feel okay? There, that’s over.”

When he finally looks up, Lan Wangji’s eyes are wide, his lips half-parted. It’s not the same shock from earlier. It’s—something else.

“You have,” Wei Wuxian says. “Your forehead. Um. One more.”

He rests his fingers feather-light under Lan Wangji’s chin, just to say don’t move, and dabs at the cut above his eyebrow. It’s not a deep cut, hardly worth the attention, but. Still. Good to be thorough.

Wei Wuxian’s heart is pounding in his own ears again. He hopes, fervently and irrationally, that Lan Wangji can’t hear it.

“Okay,” he says, and drops his hands. “Okay, that’s all. I just wanted to—I didn’t want to send you home like that. Sorry. You’re good now.”

“Good,” Lan Wangji murmurs, less like he’s agreeing and more like he’s puzzling out the meaning of the word. He blinks hard. “You didn’t—what about you?”

Wei Wuxian waves a hand, which was a mistake because: his side. “Oh, ha, ow. I’m fine. I’ll stitch everything up and maybe drink some wine and go to bed early, and all will be well.”

“I will help,” Lan Wangji says, reaching for the box of bandages.

Wei Wuxian swallows. “Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t worry about me. That’s not part of your job.”

Lan Wangji’s hand stills on the box. “You helped me.”

“That’s different.”

Lan Wangji keeps looking at him, in the way that means, that response is insufficient.

“It’s my fault you were hurt in the first place,” Wei Wuxian elaborates.

“I see,” Lan Wangji says, tone dry. “I didn’t realize you were the one who put the knife spirit in the Wens’ warehouse.”

Wei Wuxian laughs, because it’s so Lan Zhan, and—oh. When did he get so used to Lan Wangji’s presence to be able to think that? When did he learn the rhythm of someone else’s humor well enough to sit and joke around a kitchen table that has literally never seen another guest?

And how much is it going to hurt, when it’s Wei Wuxian sitting alone once again?

He feels abruptly, overwhelmingly exhausted. ”Don’t take this the wrong way, Lan Zhan, but why are you even here?”

Lan Wangji’s brow furrows. “I accompanied you here from the warehouse. Are you hiding a head injury?” He leans forward and cups Wei Wuxian’s face, peering into his eyes, long fingers pressing gently into the skin of Wei Wuxian’s jaw. For the second time today, Wei Wuxian’s mind goes absolutely blank.

When his brain returns from its ill-timed time out, he scrambles to say, ”No, no. I know that. I meant—at all. In general.” He flaps his arm to indicate the two of them at this table, in this cottage, in this city. “You could be doing anything. You could go anywhere! This won’t even look good on your resume, not to mention you almost lost a perfectly good eyebrow today.”

Lan Wangji stares at him, hard, and then—something seems to click into place behind his eyes. “You really think I could go anywhere,” he says slowly.

“Of course,” Wei Wuxian says, baffled. “I don’t see why you couldn’t. Any research program would be lucky to have you. And if you didn’t want to pursue academia, or stay with the Consortium, you could have a perfectly viable career as a handyman.” He pauses. When he continues, his voice is smaller, and he doesn’t have the strength to fix it. “I just—don’t know why you’re here at all. Not really.”

The look Lan Wangji gives him is the most intent one yet, like he’s seeing right through Wei Wuxian. No, not through, but into. Right to Wei Wuxian’s golden core that isn’t even there anymore, and then even deeper.

Wei Wuxian, gods help him, wouldn’t be able to move right now even if the whole cottage caught fire.

“Come,” Lan Wangji says. He picks up the box of bandages and tugs the rubbing alcohol out of Wei Wuxian’s hand.

Wei Wuxian lets him. “Huh? What are you doing?”

“Helping you,” Lan Wangji says.

And he does. He takes Wei Wuxian back to the tiny bathroom and settles him on the edge of the tub, lining up the rubbing alcohol and bandages and cleaning the wounds on Wei Wuxian’s hands with the same tenderness he uses to pet the rabbits, and Wei Wuxian kind of wants to die. In a good way.

Then: “Your side,” Lan Wangji says. “Your robes.”

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian grimaces. “Right. You know, you really don’t have to...you don’t have to.”

“I don’t,” Lan Wangji agrees. “But I will.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t have an argument for that.

He gingerly shrugs off his outer robe, and then pulls off his shirt, dumping both into the tub behind him. When he looks back, Lan Wangji’s gaze is caught on his torso, to the left of the Ghost-maker’s cuts. Wei Wuxian knows what’s so interesting: the puckered surgical scar that runs under his ribs, and the old, mottled burn on the side of his chest.

“Battle scars,” he says lightly.

Lan Wangji’s eyes jump to his, and stay there. Wei Wuxian looks back. Please don’t ask, he wants to say, but he knows that kind of thing only makes people want to ask more.

“Thread,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian’s shoulders slump in relief. “Cabinet. Top shelf.” Which is always a curse, having to reach for the thread, but he keeps putting it that high with the hope that he won’t need it for a while.

Luckily Lan Wangji is both tall and relatively uninjured, and returns to kneel in front of Wei Wuxian in a matter of seconds. He disinfects the cuts, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t complain, even though he wants to. It’s both better and worse, having someone else do this for him. He doesn’t have to force himself to go through with it, which is a plus, but he feels like he’s lost some element of control, which is...he doesn’t know. He thinks he actually feels kind of fine with the fact that Lan Wangji is the one who now has that control, which. Okay. Like the whole golden core confession, Wei Wuxian shoves that train of thought directly in the Do Not Open part of his brain.

When the cuts are sanitized and stinging, Wei Wuxian dabs on some numbing cream while Lan Wangji primes and disinfects the needle. (“Have you done this before?” Wei Wuxian asks when he does so perfectly, and Lan Wangji answers, “I have,” and Wei Wuxian wants to ask more, because how is this man good at everything, but Lan Wangji looks very focused.) Lan Wangji leans forward, surveying the cuts—glancing at, then away from, the other scars—and very carefully settles his free hand on Wei Wuxian’s uninjured side.

“Will this...,” Lan Wangji starts. His hand is very warm. “You— Wei Yi—”

He cuts himself off, stilling, like he’s been caught. Like he hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

Wei Wuxian remembers: Lan Wangji shouting an hour ago, a frantic Wei Ying! bouncing off the wide walls, reaching Wei Wuxian even through the blood rushing in his ears. Is that what he’s embarrassed about? Really? “You’re literally stitching my body back together,” Wei Wuxian says, and winces as doing so pulls at the gash. “You can call me Wei Ying. You can call me whatever you want.”

Lan Wangji ducks his head. And—it’s not the lighting this time. His ears are definitely red. “...All right,” he says.

“If it helps,” Wei Wuxian says. “Ah. I like it.”

Lan Wangji nods tightly.

“You were asking something?” Wei Wuxian prods, refusing to acknowledge how his stupid heart has started pounding again, as hard as it did when facing down the knife spirit. “Just now?”

Lan Wangji looks at the needle in his hands, then back to Wei Wuxian’s ribs. “How long will this take to heal?” How long will it take without a golden core, Wei Wuxian hears, and reminds himself that he’d also all but forgotten what normal healing was like, back when he did have one.

“About...two weeks, maybe? It’ll at least be almost done scabbing by then.”

Lan Wangji leans forward, hardly putting any weight behind his steadying hand, but Wei Wuxian feels anchored, held down. The first stitch goes in, pulls. “You know this from experience.”

“Yeah—ah—mostly. I have a friend who’s sort of a doctor, so everything else I know comes from her. Though I still heal faster than I’m supposed to, apparently. My friend says I’m just that stubborn.”

This is straying into territory he doesn’t want to talk about, so he pivots. “But turns out the scabbing is—ngh—no, keep going, it’s fine—the scabbing is usually worse than the wound itself,” he says. “It’s so itchy.”

“Are there not...creams for that?”

“They never work,” Wei Wuxian says, morose. “Scabs really are some kind of dark magic. And I should know, ha.”

Lan Wangji ties off a stitch, moving his other hand from Wei Wuxian’s hip. Wei Wuxian tells himself he has no right to feel any sort of way about it. “Earlier,” Lan Wangji says. “Were you telling the truth?”

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian says. “About what, infections? Yes. There’s no substitute for—ahh—simple first aid protocol.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Earlier, with the spirit. About not destroying her soul.”

It takes a moment for Wei Wuxian to remember exactly what he said to the knife spirit. In his defense, it has been over an hour since then. “Yes,” he says, a bit carefully. “Even spirits already consumed by resentful energy can be helped. If they want to be. At least, in my experience. And”—he pauses for another stitch, trying not to make a noise this time—“it’s easier to do that if you’re able to manipulate their energy, too, so I try to do it when I can.” He takes a moment to acknowledge a pang of sadness for the spirit today, because he’d failed on that front. He hadn’t had much of a choice, but still, he’ll try to track down her family when this job is over. Maybe send them part of his paycheck, if he can spare it.

Lan Wangji doesn’t tell him he’s wrong, or that resentful spirits shouldn’t be helped. What he says is: “I misunderstood you.”

“Ah?”

“Your reasons for doing what you do,” Lan Wangji says. “The first day I met you, I called your methods unorthodox. I misunderstood.”

“I mean—you weren’t wrong. Plus, I didn’t exactly explain myself,” Wei Wuxian points out. He would like to un-explain himself, honestly, because Lan Wangji knowing makes him feel like he’s walking around in his underwear, and not in any sort of fun way. “And...like I said, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t. Tell anyone. Just let people keep thinking—whatever. Okay?”

Lan Wangji’s hands still. “I will not tell anyone,” he says. “I promise.”

“Okay.” Wei Wuxian knows he has no reason to trust him so immediately, but he supposes he also has no reason not to trust him. And it’s not like Lan Wangji will be here much longer, anyway, so hopefully Lan Wangji will keep his word for another week and carry Wei Wuxian’s secret wherever he goes next, until he just forgets all about it.

It’s the best outcome, really.

Lan Wangji finishes tying the last stitch in silence. And then it’s done, and Lan Wangji very gently layers a bandage over his work, his hands skimming Wei Wuxian’s skin as Wei Wuxian breathes a bit too deeply, a bit too quickly, his ribs rising and falling under Lan Wangji’s fingers.

“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian says. It comes out as a whisper. “Lan Zhan. Thank you.”

Lan Wangji’s hands pull back, then fall to his side. “Mn,” he says. His ears are still red.

He helps Wei Wuxian back to his room. Not that Wei Wuxian needs help—he can walk just fine—but Lan Wangji still hovers, insisting on pulling a fresh shirt from Wei Wuxian’s closet for him. In all the evenings he’s spent fixing things up around the house, Lan Wangji has never actually been in Wei Wuxian’s bedroom. Wei Wuxian is self-aware enough to wish it were happening under different circumstances, ones where Wei Wuxian is shirtless for entirely other reasons, and he is also self-aware enough to know that will probably never happen, so he should just be grateful for the weird little moment he has right now. And also grateful that his room is at least decently clean.

Wei Wuxian perches on the edge of his bed. Lan Wangji crosses the floor, shirt in hand, and has to navigate around Wei Wuxian’s warded chest that’s jutting out under the side table.

“Oh, that’s—just shove that aside,” Wei Wuxian says when Lan Wangji pauses.

Lan Wangji blinks at the chest. “What is in here?”

“Just...stupid stuff, mostly. Knick knacks. Um. My sword.”

Lan Wangji looks at him, and it’s one of the rare expressions Wei Wuxian still doesn’t know how to read. He hopes it isn’t pity. “And other stuff, like, stupid comics my friend and I did in college, that kind of thing,” Wei Wuxian says in a rush. And—he almost tells him. Almost brings up the other thing burning a metaphorical hole in that chest, almost says, hey, weird question, but do you believe in dragons? You’re smart, any ideas how to find a whole lost community of them beyond the world’s weirdest 58.com ad?

But. It’s not his secret to tell, first of all. And Lan Wangji has been so—nice, today. It’s been a long time since someone other than Wei Wuxian dressed his wounds. As much as Lan Wangji is jeopardizing his resume already by taking this job, Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to see the look in Lan Wangji’s eyes when he decides Wei Wuxian is actually the kind of madman who wholeheartedly believes in things that are only supposed to exist in folktales.

“That’s it, really,” Wei Wuxian finishes with a weak smile.

Lan Wangji looks thoughtful, but nudges the chest out of his way and deposits the clean shirt into Wei Wuxian’s hands. Then he nods and leaves, shutting the door carefully behind him.

It takes Wei Wuxian longer than it should to stop staring at the shirt in his hands and actually put it on.

#

A few minutes later, he steps outside to find Lan Wangji cross-legged in the backyard, Spot sleeping in his lap and Not Spot by his knee, nibbling on a piece of grass held loosely in his fingers.

“I would like to play qin for them sometime,” Lan Wangji says. His voice is quiet, carried to Wei Wuxian on the faint breeze, bringing with it the distant river air and hay-smell of fresh bedding in the hutch. The magnolia branches sway above them, conducting a soft afternoon symphony. “And for you.” Then, gently, as if testing the shape of the words: “Wei Ying.”

Even just standing there, Wei Wuxian’s stitches pull uncomfortably under his shirt. There’s a still-stinging cut under his left eye and a raw feeling in his throat from the dust and glass, and a moment ago he felt piecemeal and hollow, the knife spirit’s words rattling around inside of him. Lonely, lonely, lonely.

And now.

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, almost helplessly. “Yeah. I’d like that.”

When Lan Wangji smiles down at the rabbits, Wei Wuxian forgets he has ever been anything but this: whole and alive and filled to the brim with magic.

#

Lan Wangji shows up late the next morning. Wei Wuxian surprises himself by how much he doesn’t panic about it—yes, there’s a little panic, but a larger part of his brain reasons that if a violent knife spirit was enough to scare Lan Wangji off, he probably wouldn’t have come back to patch Wei Wuxian up after. And he’s proven right when Lan Wangji arrives just as Wei Wuxian is done feeding the rabbits, letting himself in through the front door, a basket hanging off the crook of his arm and a travel mug in his hand.

“What’s that?” Wei Wuxian asks. He finishes washing up in the kitchen sink and comes to the front door, wiping his hands on his pants. Lan Wangji waits just inside the entryway, shoes still on, and he’s not wearing his work robes. Instead, he’s dressed in slacks and a white shirt with some sort of bow knotted at the neck, fashionably loose in a way Wei Wuxian didn’t know people could pull off in real life. His hair is still tied back, but strands hang down on either side of his face. Wei Wuxian crosses his arms just to stop himself from reaching out and looping one of those strands around his finger.

And then the panic returns a bit, because Lan Wangji is definitely not dressed for work. “Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian says. “Seriously, what’s all this?”

“I thought,” Lan Wangji says, “we could rest today.”

Ah. “Lan Zhan, I told you I’ll be fine.” Wei Wuxian shifts his weight, uncomfortable, not sure if he’s being pitied or if Lan Wangji truly thinks Wei Wuxian is too fragile for a day’s work after getting knocked around a little. He makes himself grin—it’s honestly not that hard, not when he’s looking at Lan Wangji. “It takes more than that to get me down! Look, I could take on a whole army of ghosts right now.” He flings his arms wide, hisses when that ill-advised move pulls at his ribs, and pretends he didn’t just do either of those things. Then he adds: “But you don’t have to work today, I keep telling you that you work too much. If this is your way of asking for a day off, by all means. You can tell the admin office or I can just cover for you.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Contractually, you have two leisure days a week. You haven’t taken a day off since I started.”

“Technically I took yesterday afternoon off,” Wei Wuxian points out.

Lan Wangji gives him a flat look, which Wei Wuxian definitely deserves.

“Anyway,” Wei Wuxian continues, “you heard Jin Zixun. Deadlines, and all.”

Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow, just enough to get his point across. “I also heard you say finishing in a week is unrealistic no matter what.”

“Well, yeah. But. What else am I going to do?”

“Then let me rephrase,” Lan Wangji says. “I am terribly overworked. I need a day of rest. Won’t you join me?”

Wei Wuxian blinks. Before he can formulate a response, Lan Wangji hands him the travel mug. Wei Wuxian can smell the coffee, rich and sweet, and takes it with a small, grateful noise. “I have already informed the admin office that we are off today,” Lan Wangji says. “Come on.”

With that, he turns and walks back out the front door. Wei Wuxian has enough presence of mind to grab his keys and throw on his shoes, and then—what can he do but follow?

“Okay, I’ll bite. Where are we going?” he says, catching up to Lan Wangji by the car.

“Hm.” Lan Wangji seems to consider this. “Surprise.” He holds out his hand, nodding at Wei Wuxian’s keys. Wei Wuxian hands them over. He has a horrible, wonderful feeling that there isn’t much he wouldn’t give, if it’s Lan Wangji asking.

Lan Wangji drives for two hours, something soft and instrumental floating through the car stereo, humming occasionally in acknowledgment as Wei Wuxian talks. It feels good. It feels comfortable. It feels, Wei Wuxian thinks, tipping his head against the cool window for a moment, like singing along to a song and realizing you still know all the words, even though you are a very different person than you were the last time you heard it. It feels like remembering without hurting.

Very deep inside of him, something starts to stitch itself back together.

Outside, the edges of the city fall away and start to yield to more and more greenery and wide fields, and, finally, thickening trees and rising mountains to the north. They stop at a small, mostly-empty dirt-packed parking lot by the riverbank.

“I have to say, I didn’t guess ‘nature walk’ for your big day-off plan.” Wei Wuxian clambers out of the car, stretching his arms above his head and sucking in a lungful of humid air. “Or, boating trip? Swimming excursion? Ooh, are we hunting water ghouls?”

“Trunk,” Lan Wangji says, unfolding gracefully from the driver’s seat. Wei Wuxian obliges and pulls out the basket Lan Wangji stowed in there earlier, which turns out to contain a packed lunch.

“A picnic?” Wei Wuxian asks, which seems somehow far more bizarre to him than a day of hunting water ghouls.

“Eventually,” Lan Wangji says.

They pick their way down the pebbled path to the riverbank. The sky is a blanket of gray, low and heavy, reflected back in the wide, dark water. It’s as far from the city as Wei Wuxian has been in ages—the other riverbank is distant, lined with trees and backed by more mountains beyond them, and there’s no one else around save one boat making its lazy way downstream. Lan Wangji steers them past a little kayak rental shack that’s closed for the season to a thin wooden dock that stretches into the water. As soon as Wei Wuxian’s feet hit the boards he feels like a kid again, a sweltering Yunmeng summer superimposed over his vision, running footsteps slapping against another dock and Jiang Cheng’s voice in his ears, whining, No fair, no fair, Mom said not to run!

In the present, a laugh catches in Wei Wuxian’s throat.

“I’ve never been up here,” Wei Wuxian hears himself say. “We used to play in the river plenty as kids, obviously, but always right by Lotus Pier. This is pretty far, though, we must be almost to Moling.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says. “We are.” He steps to the edge of the dock and inclines his head, as if greeting the river to the east. “The border of Yunmeng is right...here.”

He looks at Wei Wuxian then, and Wei Wuxian feels himself deflate. “Ahh, so you know about that.” That being the court order limiting him to Yunmeng except on official Consortium business, that’s been there ever since—ever since. He’ll have to be careful not to stray too far today, or he’ll have the Consortium on his doorstep tomorrow morning, threatening to reinstate house arrest or deciding to search his cottage again, just for kicks.

Lan Wangji nods. “I also know that tracking charms are often confused in water.”

“Really?” Wei Wuxian has never tested that. Not that he’s had a lot of opportunities to fiddle with the Consortium’s charm locked around his ankle, but still. “How does that work? Like, if I take a bath does it go on the fritz, or does the charm have to be in a natural waterway? I bet it’s a natural waterway, right? Because of the energy. There’s very little spiritual energy in most bathtubs.”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji looks...fond, and a little impatient. “I’m saying, if you happened to go for a swim…no one at the Consortium would notice.”

It takes a second, and then it clicks. Wei Wuxian breaks into a delighted grin. “Are you telling me to break the law?”

Lan Wangji’s lips twitch slightly. He pulls something from his sleeve and hands it to Wei Wuxian. A talisman, inscribed in Lan Wangji’s neat calligraphy. “To keep your bandages dry,” he says.

“You planned this,” Wei Wuxian says, mostly to himself, and tries not to sound too awed. He probably fails. He takes the talisman and presses it over the bandages on his ribs, then yanks off his shoes, hands Lan Wangji the food basket, and jumps into the river.

He lets the water buffet him downstream for a few seconds before he gets his feet under him. It’s only chest-height when he stands, and he shakes his head, messy ponytail flinging water everywhere. The laugh he swallowed earlier comes back with a vengeance, and he tips his head back, turning his face toward the low-hanging clouds and feeling the river swirl around him. He’s in Moling. He’s in Moling, the Consortium’s charm on his ankle is inert, and his strange, brilliant, wonderful coworker—his strange, brilliant, wonderful friend, maybe—brought him here instead of the curse-filled warehouse.

Wei Wuxian can breathe.

The current is more of a tug than a pull, hardly fighting him when he works his way back to the dock where Lan Wangji is standing, watching him with a look Wei Wuxian can only describe as quietly pleased.

Wei Wuxian hoists his head and shoulders over the edge of the dock, just enough that his feet no longer touch the riverbed, propping his chin on his folded arms. “I think it worked,” he says, a bit breathless. “It’s working.”

“Hm,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian hears the satisfaction in it.

“Really,” Wei Wuxian says. “This is...I hadn’t even thought of this. Water. I live in Lotus Pier and all this time—not that I was planning to—but still. Lan Zhan. Lan—do you have more than one older brother?”

Lan Wangji blinks. “No. Just the one.”

“Okay.” Wei Wuxian lays his cheek on his arm, looking up through his lashes. Gods, he’s not even trying to—to be so obvious, to be so over-the-top, but it’s like he’s too big for his own skin right now. Lan Wangji’s perfectly dry ankle is half a meter away, and Wei Wuxian wants to reach out and tug. “Lan-er-gege,” he says, holding each syllable on his tongue an extra moment, a spun-sugar candy he doesn’t want to dissolve too fast. “You really are something else, aren’t you?”

“I,” Lan Wangji says. His ears flush pink. Wei Wuxian wonders how many people have called him that. Have been familiar enough to call out Lan-er-gege back home, or wherever he was before Yunmeng. If any of them have seen this: Lan Wangji’s carefully neutral expression. His pink ears.

Somehow, Wei Wuxian thinks he knows the answer. There’s a warm glow in his belly. He plunges underwater to shock it out of his system, but it doesn’t die down. If anything, when Wei Wuxian resurfaces to find Lan Wangji still standing in the exact same position on the dock, eyes unwavering on Wei Wuxian—it grows warmer.

Wei Wuxian thinks he’s okay with that.

The water is freezing. It’s perfect. He’s absolutely soaked, and Lan Wangji is there on the dock, the tiniest of smiles blooming on his face as Wei Wuxian flagrantly (if minorly) throws up a middle finger to the Consortium. It could only be better if—

“You should join me.” Wei Wuxian pushes a lock of wet hair off his cheek. It’s probably his imagination, but it looks like Lan Wangji’s eyes track the gesture, follow rivulets of water down Wei Wuxian’s collarbone to the river below. It’s as if Lan Wangji wants—as if he wants to swim, too. Surely. “Come,” Wei Wuxian wheedles. “We drove all the way out here, you can’t pretend you don’t want to have fun now. I’ll show you how to get the stains out of your clothes later, I know a trick.”

Lan Wangji’s small smile fades. “I...not today.”

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian squints up at him. Whatever expression Lan Wangji is making now, he’s turned his face to the side and Wei Wuxian can’t catch it. “Not a fan of swimming?”

“I am,” Lan Wangji says, and he sounds borderline offended. “Very much so. I grew up near—plenty of water.”

“Where?” Wei Wuxian asks, hefting himself back onto the dock. He pulls out a talisman paper of his own. Lan Wangji frowns as Wei Wuxian pricks his finger to complete it, but it’s worth it for the rush of energy that dries his clothes. It’s not like he’s going to keep paddling around if Lan Wangji isn’t in a swimming mood, but Wei Wuxian also doesn’t want to leave the dock just yet. Being here, over the water, facing Lan Wangji, feels too much like—well, like a mix of his past and present and maybe a bit of his future all jumbled together. He needs another few minutes for his brain to untangle itself, he decides, and promptly sits down, bracing himself on his palms and tilting his head back to see Lan Wangji.

“Gusu,” Lan Wangji says, once Wei Wuxian is settled.

It takes Wei Wuxian a moment to remember what question he’s answering. “Oh yeah, you went to Caiyi for school. Did you live near there?” Lan Wangji blinks at him again. “I saw it on your resume,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Ah. Yes, not far from Caiyi.”

“When did you move to Lotus Pier?”

“A year ago.” Lan Wangji glances down the river, like he’s peering all the way through Moling and right to Gusu and its coastline. And mountains? Wei Wuxian’s pretty sure there’s a giant lake there, too, if he remembers his primary school geography well enough. “I was...foolish.”

“Hey,” Wei Wuxian protests halfheartedly. “Lotus Pier’s not that bad.”

“It’s not Lotus Pier.” Lan Wangji pauses. Then, carefully, he settles down cross-legged on the boards, facing Wei Wuxian. “I spent much of my life following rules. My family is...strict.”

“Strict like finish your homework before you play outside, or strict like—” Wei Wuxian stops, not totally sure how to phrase this. Lying is forbidden in my family, he remembers Lan Wangji saying. “Uh, you couldn’t play outside at all?”

Lan Wangji’s considers this for a moment too long. “Strict with expectations. Rules for studying. Rules for appearance. Rules for...friends.”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth is already open to say that’s rough (but more tactful, somehow, he’d figure it out) when Madam Yu’s face flashes across his mind, and he stops. He’d certainly had...appearances to keep, growing up in that house. Expectations for his grades, his presentation, the kinds of classmates he could bring home. As indulgent as Uncle Jiang had been, Wei Wuxian still had a narrow lane to walk, and he’d never not known it.

Maybe he understands, a bit, what Lan Wangji is saying.

“I was allowed outside,” Lan Wangji continues, “my family is not cruel. I have been to university; I have pursued research and music. But I have also been bound to duties close to home, and did not have the chance to see much beyond Gusu. So when a family matter of sorts arose in Yunmeng, I volunteered to see to it. I wanted to travel, and I thought the matter would be easy to handle myself.” Another pause. “It did not go as planned.”

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says ruefully. “You ended up working with me. Probably not something that fits into anyone’s five-year plan.” Then, as it occurs to him: “Wait, do you mean the family matter went sideways? Are you all right? Oh, man, you really are in debt, aren’t you. That’s why you took this shitty job.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, “I am not in debt. The matter was resolved.”

Something like relief passes through Wei Wuxian, along with a still-present thread of confusion. “That’s good,” he says. “But then. You’re still here?”

Lan Wangji pauses again. He reaches up to touch his forehead, then drops his hand. “I lost something in the process,” he says. The words are soft, deliberate, almost swallowed by the hum of the river, the nature-haze of insects and trees and sky. “I cannot go home without it.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Like, your passport? I think you can just get those replaced, right? Or is it some sort of heirloom? Do you know where you last saw it?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian’s breath hitches a bit. He swallows, hoping Lan Wangji doesn't notice. “No. It is against the rules to discuss this type of family matter with outsiders.”

“Ah.” The word outsiders rattles around in Wei Wuxian’s head for a moment before he forcibly beats it down. “That makes sense.” It’s more polite than necessary, really, Lan Wangji referencing his family’s rules instead of just saying outright that Wei Wuxian is being too nosy. He pastes a grin back on. “Well, let me know if you find whatever it is, yeah? So I have a little warning before I have to do inventory all by myself again.”

A new line appears between Lan Wangji’s eyebrows, the kind that means frustrated. “I am trying to tell you that I cannot—should not tell you.”

“Okay.” He gets it. He really gets it. “Rules. Right.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “Even telling you that much is against the rules.” He swallows. “I want—”

The silence stretches on again as Lan Wangji wars with whatever is supposed to come after want. Maybe it’s to give you a heads up, and this is his way of saying he’s leaving soon—explaining his family obligations, why he won’t be staying after the job, or after he finds his heirloom or lost passport or rare book. And he’s doing it in this weird, roundabout way because he thinks Wei Wuxian will be upset. (Lonely, the knife spirit's voice says in his mind.) “You don’t owe me anything. Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “Whatever this is, I don’t have any—expectations of you.”

Lan Wangji presses his hand over his eyes. “I know. I know that, now.”

Wei Wuxian waits to see if he’ll say any more. It feels like there should be more, but silence settles back over them. A breeze sweeps across the river, ruffling the loose locks of hair around Lan Wangji’s face. He somehow, Wei Wuxian thinks, manages to make even that look graceful. His hair in the breeze is no different than faint ripples across the water’s surface. Lan Wangji sits on a sun-weathered dock in the shallows of a giant river and weathers the wind like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Like he’s a piece of nature himself, a single note in its melody.

“It’s okay,” Wei Wuxian says after a while. “I get weird family stuff. I grew up with the Jiangs, so it wasn’t like things were exactly normal for me. I definitely wouldn’t, like, talk about any of their family issues to anyone.” Both because he’d usually felt like an intruder, very, very careful of his place even as he grew older, or because he’d often been the issue. “Even now—it’d feel weird. So. I don’t know. You don’t have to explain, for me to believe you.”

Lan Wangji looks at him for a long moment, his shoulders loosening just a bit. “The Jiangs,” he says, finally.

“Yeah. You met them. Well, you met my broth—you met Jiang Cheng and Yu-furen. They were outside your apartment that day?”

Lan Wangji nods after a moment. “I didn’t realize they were your family.”

“Well, they’re—they’re not.” Anymore. “It’s complicated.”

“Other than the evening outside my apartment,” Lan Wangji says slowly, “you have not...spoken to them. That I am aware.”

“I’ve spoken to Jiejie,” Wei Wuxian protests. “The other day, when you were—walking by the river. But yeah, she’s the only one who...Lan Zhan, really, you don’t know?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head.

“You know about the tracking charm on my ankle, but not what happened between Wei Wuxian and the Jiang family?” Wei Wuxian presses, trying not to sound incredulous.

“I could sense the tracking charm,” Lan Wangji says. “I asked Luo Qingyang about it the morning you spilled coffee on your sleeve and went back to your car to—” He stops, troubled. “Did the burn take long to heal?”

“It was hardly a burn,” Wei Wuxian says. “It’s fine. It’s gone now. Okay. You asked Mianmian. Got it.”

“She said it was not fair,” Lan Wangji says. “But she did not explain beyond that.”

“Okay, well.” Wei Wuxian isn’t...used to this. For the last few years, it’s seemed like everyone he encounters already knows everything about him. Or, at least, everything they think they need to know. “It’s a thrilling story, but maybe not for a picnic. Let’s wait for a gloomy day. Or a thunderstorm, to really set the mood.” He picks at a little needle of wood splintering off from one of the boards. “The relevant thing right now is, the Jiangs disowned me. So technically I’m not their problem—their family, anymore. But I did grow up with them, so there’s that. And that’s all, I guess—just that I get the family thing, on some level.”

Lan Wangji nods again. Wei Wuxian waits for him to press anyway—Why would the most powerful family in Yunmeng disown you? What did you do?—but...he doesn’t.

Instead, Lan Wangji stands, holding out his hand. Wei Wuxian takes it and has the singular experience of being pulled to his feet by Lan Wangji, something that leaves him dizzied and steadied all at once. “It is lunchtime,” Lan Wangji says, as if they hadn’t just cracked themselves open sitting on this dock, as if he isn’t even thinking of looking at Wei Wuxian differently now. “If you would like to join me.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says with his whole heart, “I would like nothing more.”

#

Things really change, after their trip to the Moling border. In retrospect, he and Lan Wangji have been sliding toward each other for a while—slowly, cautiously—but in the days after, Wei Wuxian feels Lan Wangji’s eyes on him. Lan Wangji touches him more, too, fleeting brushes of fingers as he hands over a pen or deposits one of the rabbits into Wei Wuxian’s arms. His hand under Wei Wuxian’s elbow after neutralizing a haunted jewelry box leaves Wei Wuxian dizzy. His knee pressed against Wei Wuxian’s foot as Lan Wangji plays guqin in the backyard and Wei Wuxian lies sprawled on the grass in front of him, trying to get Not Spot to quit eating his hair.

Wei Wuxian’s first instinct is to once again worry that it’s—pity, or concern, the fallout of his awful confession at the warehouse, that Lan Wangji sees him as something fragile now. Or something different, to be watched and carefully corralled lest he lose his mind to his unorthodox methods. But...Lan Wangji also smiles more. Those small, corner-of-his-mouth smiles that can’t possibly be fake, because they’re too him. Because there’s no reason for Lan Wangji to fake a smile at Wei Wuxian complaining about Not Spot’s taste for hair or that his cup noodle isn’t scorching the inside of his mouth. So Wei Wuxian is forced to conclude that Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian and still sees a person, maybe even a person he likes. Wei Wuxian stays awake late into the night turning that conclusion over in his brain and it doesn’t fall apart. So. Scientifically, even, things are good. They’re good.

(On one notable evening, it starts to rain while Wei Wuxian is turning soil in the garden plot. When he plods his way to the back door, only mildly surprised to find Lan Wangji still inside, Spot on his lap, Lan Wangji looks up and says, “No.”

“No?” Wei Wuxian stops with one foot inside. Water drips down his neck onto his already-sodden collar, and all he can think is that Lan Wangji looks warm and soft and dry here in his kitchen. “No what? I haven’t even said anything yet, Lan Zhan, this is horribly unfair.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says again, and puts down his book—a detective novel Wei Wuxian stole from the library by virtue of borrowing it and then promptly losing it for thirteen months—before standing. He deposits Spot on the table and strides across the room. Without another word, he leans forward and—Wei Wuxian’s brain whites out—

He picks Wei Wuxian up.

“Um!” Wei Wuxian yelps, clinging to Lan Wangji’s robes as gravity realigns itself around him. Lan Wangji’s holding him bridal-style, just-swept-off-his-damn-feet-style, one arm hooked under Wei Wuxian’s knees and the other looped around his back. His face, when Wei Wuxian looks up, is very, very close. “Hello! Lan Zhan! What?

“I just cleaned the floor,” Lan Wangji says calmly.

“You—oh my god.” Wei Wuxian feels weightless. Drenched and grimy and absolutely weightless. “You could’ve just gotten me a towel, you absolute terror!”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and carries him all the way to the bathtub.

Somehow, Wei Wuxian doesn’t have nightmares that night.)

The warehouse job deadline ticks closer, but the days are full, and Lan Wangji touches him without pity or horror, and Wei Wuxian can’t bring himself to regret a moment of it.

#

The night before the last day on the warehouse job, Wei Wuxian decides, mostly on a whim, that he’s going to invite Lan Wangji over for dinner again tomorrow. Properly this time—that is, they’ve eaten together more than a few times since the first attempt (Lan Wangji has bought takeaway on the way home twice now, and refused Wei Wuxian’s attempts to pay him back both times), but Wei Wuxian wants to cook something for dinner, deliberately, in a planned-ahead-of-time sort of way. Cook something vegetarian and, uh, not spicy, but something nonetheless, and he’s sure he’ll get the chance to ask him to stay this time. And Lan Wangji will say yes, even if it’s because it’ll be the last time, before Lan Wangji moves on to whatever’s next.

That much, Wei Wuxian is sure about. And it’s nice to be sure about something.

He’s standing in the produce section of the grocery store, wishing for the first time in a while that he had a better smartphone so he could search Vegetables That Make Good Substitutes for Pork Ribs without waiting five minutes for a webpage to load, when his phone starts buzzing with an incoming call. It’s not a contact he recognizes, and more to the point, it’s not Wen Qing or Jiang Yanli, so he ignores it.

The unknown contact calls again as he’s contemplating a bundle of jie lan (should he do a side dish??), closely followed by a message: pick up, bro

When his phone buzzes a third time, Wei Wuxian picks up. “Uh. Hello?”

“Wei-xiong!” someone calls on the other end of the line. “How’s it hanging?”

It takes Wei Wuxian a moment to place the voice. “...Nie Huaisang?”

“Of course! Who else would it be?”

“Uh,” Wei Wuxian says, because he has three WeChat contacts total, and none of them are Nie Huaisang.

“Honestly, what a greeting for your best friend in the world,” Nie Huaisang says. There’s a steady thrumming in the background, vague music and conversations fading in and out. “Unless I’ve been replaced? Wei-xiong, how could you?”

Wei Wuxian hasn’t spoken to Nie Huaisang since university, when, yes, they were arguably best friends. He still has some of their old sketches tucked away in his warded chest, from back when they had silly 3am aspirations of publishing a sprawling webcomic about gods and demons and epic battles that were really metaphors for the world’s many injustices.

Then: The Wens. The dragons. Jiang Cheng. When that was all over, the trial. Wei Wuxian wasn’t in the habit of counting his friends after that.

“I’m flying solo right now, actually,” he says, weighing a pomegranate in his hand and trying not to think about how weird this whole conversation is. If he doesn’t think about it, he won’t have to deal with it, surely.

“So I’m the defending champion,” Nie Huaisang says. “Wonderful. Anyway, best friend, what’s up? What’s new? What are you doing at this very moment?”

“Grocery shopping.”

“Fascinating. And, ah, how’s work? I hear you’re freelancing these days? That’s so entrepreneurial of you. Tell me about your current assignment.”

Wei Wuxian feels like he should ask where did you hear that? Who were you talking to? but Nie Huaisang has always seemed to know things he had no business knowing. So instead he asks: “Why?”

“A friend can’t be curious?” Nie Huaisang cries. “A friend can’t check on his bro? His buddy? You wound me, Wei-xiong!”

“I just feel like, of all the things that have happened since we last spoke, my freelance job isn’t the most exciting thing to check in about,” Wei Wuxian says. No sense in beating around the bush.

Nie Huaisang pauses. “Maybe I’m being tactful.”

Wei Wuxian laughs, and marvels at how easy it feels to do so. “What’s really going on, best friend in the world?” he says, pointed.

There’s a shift on Nie Huaisang’s end, the music growing louder and the background conversations disappearing. “I may have heard some things,” he says. “In passing. Casually. About an unsavory warehouse that fell into the Consortium’s hands.”

“I mean, that’s the general idea, yeah. They don’t call me in for not-unsavory things.”

“Wouldn’t not-unsavory just be savory?” Nie Huaisang says.

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, “huh, yeah,” and then: “My point stands, your information isn’t all that exciting. Apologies.”

(Gods, he’s starting to talk like Lan Wangji. Two days ago Jin Zixun had shown up to poke his head around and generally be a wart about things, and ended up mildly electrocuting himself on some of the appliances Wei Wuxian hadn’t gotten around to neutralizing. Wei Wuxian had watched him yell for a bit and then just said Apologies, so sincerely he couldn’t possibly be sincere, the same tone Lan Wangji had used when bowing to Madam Yu. And then Wei Wuxian had the pleasure of catching Lan Wangji’s eye across the room and seeing him press his lips together, which was basically Lan Wangji’s version of roaring laughter.)

“Interesting,” Nie Huaisang says, back in the present. “Considering Jin Zixun’s been running his mouth left and right about the whole job, what with his promotion and all.”

“You’re on gossiping terms with Jin Zixun?”

“Absolutely not.” Nie Huaisang sounds outright offended, which makes Wei Wuxian feel better. Not that he should really care, but he does. “That’s my point, actually, any idiot with half an ear to the wind can hear his bragging. It takes almost no work at all to get information out of him, it’s insulting. Anyway, this not-so-savory warehouse of yours, tell me about it.”

“Um.” Wei Wuxian tries to process all of that and loses his way about halfway through. “I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about it. Not that I really care, just, security protocol is at least vaguely a thing here and I’m not in a position to risk my paycheck, you know?”

Nie Huaisang hums. “Let’s say for, like, argument’s sake that I have a higher security clearance than most of the Consortium combined.”

There’s something about his tone that jogs Wei Wuxian’s memory, pulling him back to late-night conversations in the library stacks, Nie Huaisang spinning wild hypotheticals about their professors and their classmates and their webcomic characters, all of them grounded in a thread of truth no matter how outlandish they sounded. Wei Wuxian ducks into an empty aisle of vitamins. “For...argument’s sake, I’d say it’s an old trick cache in an even older warehouse and no one outside my distinguished employers seem to have any interest in it.” No one other than Lan Wangji, that is, and Wei Wuxian feels a bit warm at the thought. He almost says so. The urge to talk to someone, anyone, about Lan Wangji is nearly overwhelming—he built a rabbit hutch and reads old unpublished poetry manuscripts and listens when I talk and—

He doesn’t say it, but the fact that he wants to is embarrassing enough to make his detection talismans tingle faintly.

“Hmm,” Nie Huaisang says.

“Seriously. As far as I know, Jin Zixun is just blowing hot air like usual. You’ll have to go elsewhere if you want any decent gossip.”

“Wei Wuxian!” Nie Huaisang gasps. “I didn’t just call you for gossip. I can’t believe you’d say such a thing.”

“You are so many things,” Wei Wuxian tells him, “but subtle is not one of them.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Nie Huaisang says. “None. I simply wanted to reconnect with my pal. With my friend. You believe me, right? Say you believe me, Wei-xiong.”

Wei Wuxian refuses, refuses, to ruin his good shopping-for-dinner-with-Lan-Wangji mood by missing a friendship that fizzled out three years ago. “Sure,” he says lightly.

“I know that voice,” Nie Huaisang accuses. “That’s your lying voice. The one you used on professors when you told them why you definitely weren’t late because you overslept.”

“Listen,” Wei Wuxian says, “that happened maybe twice. A month. I don’t have a voice for it.”

“Whoops,” Nie Huaisang continues over him, “Da-ge’s calling, gotta run! Lovely chat, love to hear your voice, et cetera. Don’t be a stranger, yeah?”

“Nie—”

The phone beeps, screen telling Wei Wuxian he just spent three minutes and forty-three seconds being thoroughly confused while surrounded by fruits and vitamins. And he’s still holding the pomegranate.

(He ends up buying the pomegranate, because if Lan Wangji maybe wants to stay late after dinner—if he wants dessert—if he wants to share a bowl of pomegranate seeds and keep talking—

Anyway. He buys the pomegranate.)

#

Mianmian shows up just after lunchtime on the last day of the job, handing Wei Wuxian a coffee and Lan Wangji a cup of tea as she lets out a low whistle and surveys the warehouse. “It looks...better than I expected at this point, honestly.”

“Ugh,” Wei Wuxian says, “I know, there’s still that whole corner we didn’t even get to, but I think we covered the big stuff. Might be able to argue for 75% of my fee, especially if my supervisor puts in a good word.” He widens his eyes at Mianmian and sticks out his lower lip a bit.

“That hasn’t worked on me since first year of university,” she tells him. “But I’ll push for the full rate, obviously. It’s not your fault Jin Zixun is an ass.”

Lan Wangji, to Wei Wuxian’s left, snorts very delicately into his tea. Wei Wuxian wants to—hug him.

He settles for gripping his coffee cup a bit too tightly instead. “Thanks,” he tells Mianmian. “Honestly, you’ve got the worse end of the deal. You have to actually talk to that human-shaped wart. I just have to ignore him and deal with a few pesky spirits. Which I think went all right on the whole, don’t you, Lan Zhan?”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says. “Wei Ying did well.”

“I—! We did well.”

Lan Wangji sips his tea.

Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian’s traitorous mind thinks, stay, and he quickly forces his gaze down to his coffee and tries not to let anything show on his face. He’s not going to do this today—he’s not going to wallow just because the whole job will be over in a few hours. He’s going to be grateful he got this at all, and he’s going to ask Lan Wangji to stay for dinner, and he’s not going to dwell on how he’ll wake up tomorrow without a routine and no new friend to make him tea and no old friend to bring him coffee.

Unless—there’s a chance it might not all be lost to him, actually. If he can just ask. He’s been toying with the idea, but keeps getting distracted. Or, letting himself get distracted as an excuse. He’d mentioned it to Lan Wangji, though, on the drive back from the river the other day. I want to ask Mianmian to grab coffee sometime, he’d said after steeling himself, because if he said it out loud to Lan Wangji then the idea would exist outside Wei Wuxian’s own head. It’d be real. I’m not sure, but, it’s been fun seeing her, you know?

Mn, Lan Wangji had said, eyes on the road. If that is what you want. His tone was even, but his shoulders had gone rigid, like he was uncomfortable, and maybe he thought it was a bad idea, or that Wei Wuxian was making a big deal over nothing. Normal people didn’t worry this much over whether to ask a friend to hang out, after all, and Wei Wuxian felt silly all of a sudden.

Yeah, I. I just thought it might be nice, he’d said, turning toward the window. There’s a lot I’ve missed, so I thoughtit’d like to hear more about her girlfriend and complain about Jin Zixun or something. Also, she was at Jiejie’s wedding? I wasn’tI still haven’t gotten a lot of first-hand stories from that. But. I don’t want to get her in hot water with the Consortium or anything, so maybe it’s a bad idea.

Some of the tension drained out of Lan Wangji, and the next time Wei Wuxian looked over, Lan Wangji was looking back. Hm, he said. Then: I think she might appreciate the chance to decide for herself.

That’s...a good point, Wei Wuxian had said, feeling a bit less ridiculous. You’re so wise, Lan Zhan! You should be a professor somewhere, growing a beard and writing philosophy books.

No beard, Lan Wangji said. 

But it would be so adorable! So dignified! Wei Wuxian said, and teased him for half the ride back, and Lan Wangji had let him.

Now, Wei Wuxian steels himself again. “Hey Mianmian,” he starts.

“Yeah?” She’s on page two of the evaluation form, chewing on the pen cap like she used to around the second hour of a study session.

Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji, who meets his eyes with a small, barely-there smile before studiously looking down at the inventory notebook. “Want to grab coffee next week?” Wei Wuxian says, and thinks he manages something like casual.

Mianmian pulls a face. “Ahh, I’m away next week.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, and this is fine, this is totally fine, “okay, yeah, no worries! I just thought—I owe you like seven coffees or something, so I might—yeah, though, no problem.”

“I’m back next Friday, though,” Mianmian continues. “So we could meet up that weekend. And it’s twelve coffees you owe me, with interest.” Then she grins at him, and, oh. This isn’t a dismissal.

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian manages. “That sounds—great. Yeah.”

“Great,” Mianmian says, and goes back to the form.

Wei Wuxian makes his way over to Lan Wangji, who doesn’t quite raise an eyebrow, but does something with his face that suggests he could if he felt so inclined.

“Yes, yes,” Wei Wuxian says, “you told me so, et cetera. I’m big enough to admit you’re right, sometimes.”

“Mm. Only sometimes?”

“I maintain that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat instant noodles for every meal of the day, and anyone who thinks otherwise cannot be trusted in a culinary sense.”

“Ah,” Lan Wangji says gravely. “Our differences remain irreconcilable. A shame.”

Wei Wuxian nudges his shoulder, jostling Lan Wangji enough to cause a stray line in his otherwise impeccable penmanship. That’s proof, Wei Wuxian thinks. Wherever the inventory notebook goes after they turn it in, that line is proof that he and Lan Wangji were here—that right now, in this moment, they were close enough to touch.

“Hey,” Wei Wuxian says, “speaking of meals.” He scratches the back of his head, then meets Lan Wangji’s gaze. “Do you want to stay for dinner tonight?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, like it’s that simple.

“Lan Zhan, you don’t even know what I’m cooking,” Wei Wuxian warns, but feels a smile steal over his face. “What if it’s instant noodles? What if I’m just trying to slowly trick you into accepting them?”

“You are welcome to try,” Lan Wangji replies, in a way that implies but you won’t succeed.

Wei Wuxian laughs. “Well, you’re off the hook for now, because I’m making soup. Vegetarian soup! It’ll be great, probably. I haven’t actually tried this one without ribs before, but Jiejie assures me it can be done. Ah, I’m not selling this well, am I? Whatever, you’ve already said yes, no takebacks.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees.

Wei Wuxian pats his pocket for his own notebook, and realizes he left it on the purple divan after lunch (of instant noodles). “I think we’re pretty much done, short of going through that whole corner. So maybe I’ll mark off some last things and we can head out early?”

“Whatever you wish.”

Really. What’s he supposed to do with that?

“Uh, Wei Wuxian,” Mianmian says from across the floor, just as Wei Wuxian turns around, still smiling. “You have a visitor.”

Wei Wuxian freezes. “Jiang Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng is standing a few paces inside the warehouse, looking back at him, mouth twisted like he’s already holding back something bitter. He’s wearing the same uniform robes as Mianmian, but he looks different. Out of place, here among the sorted piles and concrete floors. Wei Wuxian had almost forgotten that Jiang Cheng was the one who brought him here in the first place.

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says. “You have another assignment.”

“What?” Wei Wuxian looks around. “I’ve barely finished this one. Surely you haven’t dug up another whole warehouse since this morning.” Part of him hopes Jiang Cheng says yes, actually, and we need all hands on deck, so Lan Wangji will be staying for another assignment as well.

Of course, that’s not what happens. “A single item,” Jiang Cheng says. “It’s timely. Let’s go.”

He turns and starts for the door, like he can’t stand to be in this place for another second. Wei Wuxian hesitates, glancing back to Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan,” he says. Something in him balks at leaving so quickly—there should be more ceremony, surely, than their last day coming to a sudden, screeching end. Another part of him is already calculating how much more pissed Jiang Cheng will be for every second he delays. “I have to—when Jiang Cheng says timely he usually means something’s on fire, or about to be, so I should probably—”

“Not a problem.” Lan Wangji is closing up his inventory book, hooking his pen over the cover. “I will join you.”

“What?”

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng calls. His arms are crossed now, so he’s reached Anger Level Two. Mianmian frowns next to him, looking distinctly unimpressed.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan Zhan—”

Lan Wangji is already striding toward Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian scrambles to follow.

“What,” Jiang Cheng says, looking Lan Wangji up and down. “Do you need something? The Consortium will compensate you for a Didi if you don’t have a means of getting home.”

“Hey,” Wei Wuxian protests, catching up, “you’ve never compensated me for anything. Should I be saving my receipts?”

“It’s not in your contract terms,” Jiang Cheng says through his teeth.

“I do not need anything,” Lan Wangji says. “I will assist Wei Ying.”

Disbelief flickers across Jiang Cheng’s face. “You—,” he starts. Lan Wangji’s expression doesn’t change. “Seriously, why are you still here?”

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says sharply. To Lan Wangji, he says: “I’m sorry, he’s just like this, you really don’t—”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “I am coming with you.”

“Lan Zhan, “ Wei Wuxian murmurs, not sure what else to say. He settles for not stopping the new grin that spreads over his face, looking up at Lan Wangji, who blinks and then does something soft with his face that makes Wei Wuxian never want to look away.

But, of course, he has to, and when he finally turns back, Jiang Cheng’s jaw is clenched so tight that Wei Wuxian is worried his teeth might crack. “We’re leaving,” Jiang Cheng gets out, and whirls around.

“All right, all right. Bye, Mianmian,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Don’t forget our appointment, Wei Wuxian,” she calls. “That’s twelve coffees you owe me!”

Wei Wuxian waves and follows Jiang Cheng into the sunlight, Lan Wangji not a half step behind him. They pile into Jiang Cheng’s car mostly in silence, except when Jiang Cheng refuses to let Wei Wuxian climb into the back with Lan Wangji—“I’m not a fucking chauffeur”—and Wei Wuxian has to settle in the passenger seat next to Jiang Cheng’s chillier-than-usual self.

Jiang Cheng drives them toward the lakefront, to an estate set just on the other side of the Jiang’s neighborhood, a sprawling house that overlooks the water. It takes Wei Wuxian only a moment to recognize it.

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says as they park. “I see the rush. Timely, in this case, really means wealthy.”

“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says. “Chang-qianbei is a respected friend of the Consortium.”

“He’s the ambassador from Yueyang,” Wei Wuxian tells Lan Wangji as they get out of the car. “Technically he splits his time between there and Lotus Pier, but he’s basically always here. I think it’s because we have better food.”

“Don’t be so flippant.” Jiang Cheng slams his car door. “Especially considering what you were doing the last time you were here.”

“Ah? What was I doing?”

Jiang Cheng glares at him. “Stealing his persimmons.”

It takes a moment, but Wei Wuxian remembers. “Ahh, right.” He scratches his nose and laughs, glancing at Lan Wangji. “Me and Nie Huaisang. In my defense, he was letting them fall off the trees and just rot!”

“It was none of your business what he did with his persimmons.”

“You didn’t seem to mind so much when we brought you some,” Wei Wuxian mutters.

“I minded when Mom—” Jiang Cheng cuts off. “When you were caught.”

Wei Wuxian winces. “Fair.”

“When Yu-furen what?” Lan Wangji asks, brow creasing.

Wei Wuxian waves a hand. “She just—wasn’t very happy about it. Which is silly! They were just persimmons. Anyway, Jiang Cheng, do we have a job to do or what?”

Yes,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and leads them through the front door.

Chang Weiyu, ambassador to Yueyang, is in a windowless back room, surrounded by two household staff members and a young cultivator decked out in training robes. Chang Weiyu is also, Wei Wuxian notes, totally asleep.

“Sorry, is this a bad time?” Wei Wuxian asks, raising an eyebrow at the sight of Chang Weiyu arranged on a velvet-lined couch, arms folded over his chest, which is rising and falling steadily. “Maybe we should come back when Chang-qianbei is, uh, done napping.”

The young cultivator glares at him from where they’re crouching by the arm of the couch, then looks at Jiang Cheng. “Are these people here to help?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, and shoots a look at Wei Wuxian, and then at Lan Wangji for good measure. “Tell them both what happened, Chang Ling. And then these people will stop messing around and fix it.”

Chang Ling looks way too skeptical for someone who can’t be more than fifteen, which Wei Wuxian tries not to find offensive. “Well, to start with, Uncle’s not napping,” they say. “He’s cursed.”

“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says, stepping closer. “Are you sure?”

“Very sure!” the kid exclaims. To Jiang Cheng: “I thought you went to get an expert?”

Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose and doesn’t answer.

“Wei Ying.” That’s Lan Wangji, quietly, right beside him. “What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Wei Wuxian tilts his head, peering down at Chang Weiyu and his peaceful slumber. He’s still the same as Wei Wuxian remembers him—elegant, even asleep, his appearance hardly betraying the fact that he’s surely in his sixties by now. He looks like he did the few times Wei Wuxian was shuttled to this big, glittering estate as a kid for some political party, and he slipped into one of the back rooms where Chang Weiyu let him flip through old books and look at his collection of ancient sword scabbards as long as Wei Wuxian didn’t bother him about it. It wasn’t out of any sort of affection for him, Wei Wuxian knew—Chang Weiyu was mostly apathetic toward everyone, which was why Wei Wuxian usually found him in the back rooms of his own parties. He cared about good food and having uninterrupted time to cultivate, and not much else. “He doesn’t feel cursed,” Wei Wuxian says, after a moment. He sweeps an arm, talisman-down, in the air over the couch, and only gets a faint tingle in response. There’s no resentful energy swirling around him, and Wei Wuxian isn’t picking up on anything blocking his meridians or clouding his mind. Wei Wuxian starts circling the couch, and the two staff members scramble out of his way.

“He is cursed,” Chang Ling insists. “He was like this when I got back from the lake. I tried to wake him up, and then I noticed—”

Wei Wuxian pauses at the foot of the couch. There’s something here—not resentful energy, something lighter and more distant to his senses, stretching beyond Chang Weiyu’s body and reaching over—

“There,” Wei Wuxian says, pointing, just as Chang Ling says, “The mirror,” and points in the same direction.

It’s about the size of someone’s head, on an old writing desk with a dish towel thrown over it. Wei Wuxian wouldn’t know it was a mirror if Chang Ling hadn’t said so.

“What about the mirror,” Lan Wangji says, as Wei Wuxian drifts toward the desk. And ah, here it is—a sharp tug at his talismans. Not burning, not as intense as the knife spirit’s energy had been, but this is feeling more familiar now.

“Well,” Chang Ling says, and hesitates. “He was asleep on the floor. And. His reflection was still there, looking out from the mirror.”

“Ooh,” Wei Wuxian says, “yeah, I can see where you’d get cursed from that. My apologies.” He glances over his shoulder, meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes almost instantly. “Catch me if I take a spontaneous nap, okay?” he says, and then yanks the dish towel off the mirror.

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng shouts, mixed with Chang Ling’s “Hey!” And, over both of them: “Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, crossing the room in a moment, his hands hovering by Wei Wuxian’s arms. But nothing happens—no burst of smokelike evil energy, no sudden swooning on Wei Wuxian’s part, just a small gleam of light as the mirror reflects the lamp in the corner.

“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says. Lan Wangji is right behind him—right behind him, and he tries not to think about it too much as he leans forward to examine the mirror. (But also, he does let himself think about it a little. Because in a room full of people who don’t trust him and/or actively dislike him, it’s...a nice contrast. Also, it’s Lan Wangji. He’s always going to be thinking about Lan Wangji.)

The mirror looks old, framed in thick silver that’s been given a halfhearted polish. Thankfully the reflection seems normal so far, no lurking specter of Chang Weiyu. There are animals etched into the top with glittering little gemstone eyes—a dragon, a nine-headed bird, a mo. “It’s a bit camp,” Wei Wuxian says, bending closer, “but so far it doesn’t exactly scream evil or anything—”

His gaze dips down. He has a second to see his own face filling the mirror, a sliver of Lan Wangji behind him and a flash of Jiang Cheng’s robes in the very corner of the frame, and then he meets his own eyes in the reflection.

The world lurches.

Someone yells behind him. Wei Wuxian’s stomach swoops as his reflection warps, dissolves, the mirror surface yawning open, and he’s falling right into it. The last thing he feels before he’s fully submerged in the mirror’s energy is Lan Wangji’s fingers curling around his wrist.

And then: thunder.

He’s on a stone path between two buildings, rain pelting down so thick he can hardly breathe, the air crackling with the ozone aftertaste of a lightning strike. Thunder rumbles and clouds swirl toward the rooftops in a sudden, devastating storm. Wei Wuxian tries to push forward and the ground cracks open in front of him, water bursting upward, swirling around his ankles, his knees. The rain stings against his skin, and somewhere, high above the chaos, an agonized shriek rings out. The noise crescendos as the village he’s standing in starts to collapse, swept away in a sudden flood, and it’s his fault. He clings to a doorframe as the water rises, surging past his thighs. His waist. It tears him away. Pulls him under, slams him against the wall. He can’t breathe—he can’t breathe—

Something hooks around his ribs, dragging him out of the water, breaking the surface and then pulling him up

A small part of his mind has enough confusion to think, not this, not this again, why this again, before the village melts away.

He’s standing in a dark, run-down room—an abandoned inn, he knows, because he remembers—looking down at Jiang Cheng, unconscious on the thin bed, Wen Qing applying medicine to a blistering burn down Jiang Cheng’s arm. Wen Ning stands sentry at the door, his shadow warping and stretching across the wood floor in the corner of Wei Wuxian’s eye.

“But you can do it,” Wei Wuxian hears himself say. His hands are shaking. His voice isn’t.

“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing says sharply. “Don’t. Don’t ask me.”

“You said you owed me a life-debt, for your brother.”

“And you said I didn’t.”

“I changed my mind. Wen Qing. Please.”

“Don’t—”

“Please.” The word rasps in his throat. He shoves her medicine bag into her free hand and Wen Qing turns to him, grief and resignation already warring on her face—

He’s on the other bed, his fingernails digging into Wen Ning’s hand, teeth biting through the leather band he used to wear in his hair, sweat shining on Wen Qing’s forehead as she bends over him, scalpel in hand, cutting into his—into his—

(It hurts.)

He’s stumbling on the rain-slick asphalt, supporting a near-unconscious Jiang Cheng, heart hammering, fresh stitches and a searing pain in his stomach. They’re onto us, he thinks, trying to focus on his phone, the screen almost too bright to see, they’re onto us they’re on to us. The Didi pulls up and Jiang Cheng stirs—slurs, “Wei Wuxian? Where have you—?”—and passes out again as Wei Wuxian shoves him into the car and shuts the door. The Didi drives off. Wei Wuxian watches the taillights get swallowed by the rain, breathing harshly, and gives himself five seconds. Five seconds. Then he turns and stumbles the opposite way, tracking a trail in the wrong direction as long as he can until—

Wen Chao finds him.

(It hurts.)

And then: he’s standing trial in Lanling’s Hall of Justice, his hands cuffed together with iron so cold it sears his wrists, still wearing donated clothes from the hospital, listening to Jin Guangshan talk. Saying nothing when pressed, because—Wen Qing, Wen Ning, A-Yuan. The secret they guard. “Clearly unrepentant,” Jin Guangshan says from his seat at the head of the hall, to murmurs from the council of sect leaders. Jiang Fengmian remains quiet. “Even with Wen Ruohan gone, we must be careful of snakes in our own grass.” The memory finds traction here, colors and sounds amplifying, details appearing in sharp focus. Jiang Yanli at the side of the hall, tears in her eyes. Madam Yu’s terrifyingly blank expression. Jiang Cheng’s arm, wrapped in bandages, his fist clenched. “However,” Jin Guangshan continues, “in deference to the Jiang family’s honorable standing—”

He’s in the front hall of the Jiang family estate, bracing on a suitcase handle to stay upright, aching and hollow inside. Jiang Cheng stands halfway up the staircase, bandaged hand on the rail, and Wei Wuxian can hardly speak around the lump in his throat. “Tell—tell Jiejie it was my choice to leave. Okay? Please, just.” He stops. There are no more words. Jiang Cheng just nods, not moving to help or hurry him along. Wei Wuxian drags the suitcase out the door, to the waiting car Madam Yu had called to get him gone as quickly as possible, and the hollow feeling spreads as he stumbles down the front walkway of his childhood home—spreads and deepens—

(It hurts—)

A tug. The world jolts. Wei Wuxian feels fingers tighten around his wrist, and he’s far enough gone that he doesn’t remember whose fingers they are, just that they belong to someone important, and then. And then.

A crashing wave. Wet sand under his feet, water once again surging around his legs, night sky stretching endlessly, spinning, spinning. But this isn’t—Wei Wuxian isn’t—this isn’t him, he thinks, he’s never seen this before. This is—

A woman stands on shore, just out of reach. She faces land, wrapped in muted colors, dark hair piled on top of her head. Something pale slips from her fingers. Falls to the sand. A wave swallows it, pulls it back to sea.

He’s frozen, watching her, his small body—and he is small, he understands that with a distant sense of clarity, he’s seeing this scene through a child’s eyes—rooted in the surf. He’s frozen, but his heart is breaking.

The woman steps away.

He opens his mouth—

Wei Ying,” someone says, right by his ear, and Wei Wuxian opens his eyes.

Spiritual energy is coursing through his body, grounding him. It’s Lan Wangji’s energy, he knows that even before the world re-orients itself, before he remembers that it’s Lan Wangji’s voice speaking and Lan Wangji’s hand holding his wrist. “Oh, shit,” Wei Wuxian says, or maybe just thinks he says, and sways. The energy is so strong he can feel it in his teeth, like an electrical current.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again, urgently.

“Mm,” Wei Wuxian manages. He’s—he’s here. All of that happened in—the mirror. Right. It feels like the little spiritual energy he has left just got sucked out of him through a straw. If he’d been alone… “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers, and Lan Wangji’s grip tightens for a moment. Wei Wuxian looks up, meeting Lan Wangji’s wide-eyed stare, and the sound of crashing waves still echoes in his ears. Was that Lan Wangji’s memory? If it was, and if Wei Wuxian experienced it like that, then that means—

For a moment he wishes he’d been alone anyway, because he’s not optimistic enough to believe Lan Wangji didn’t see every single thing the mirror dredged up just now.

There isn’t time to dwell on it. More noise starts filtering through in the background—footsteps, someone gasping. Jiang Cheng’s robes flash by as he grabs the dish towel and throws it back over the mirror, and then he spins to face Wei Wuxian, grabbing his shoulders.

“You’re so—” Jiang Cheng hisses. “So—damn you, Wei Wuxian.”

“Hey,” Wei Wuxian protests, voice scratchy even though he’s 99% sure the screaming had been all in his head. And then he’s being pulled back, yanked out of Jiang Cheng’s reach. Jiang Cheng makes a noise of indignation and starts to follow, and Lan Wangji shifts beside Wei Wuxian.

“Do not,” Lan Wangji says, voice low and final. It’s not directed at Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng’s lip curls. “Oh, what, you’re protecting him? From me? After you just let him waltz up and touch that thing?” To Wei Wuxian: “What the fuck was that?”

“Uhhh,” Wei Wuxian says. His head feels kind of like a box of nails. A box of nails that just got kicked down a flight of stairs. “Cursed mirror. Very cursed.”

“Wei Ying needs—”

“I know how to help Chang-qianbei,” Wei Wuxian says. He has to get through this before his head gets any more jumbled. Or worse, any less jumbled. “We have to—” He stops. Turns his head, which puts his eyes approximately a centimeter from Lan Wangji’s cheek. “You have to,” he amends, low enough that Jiang Cheng hopefully can’t hear. “It isn’t resentful energy, it’s trapped him with his own—so you have to call him back. Like you did with me. Which. You can stop transferring now, I’m okay. Really.”

Lan Wangji reluctantly uncurls his fingers.

“There should be a thread of energy,” Wei Wuxian says at normal volume. “From the mirror, right to him. Follow that thread. We have to untangle the mirror from him, not him from the mirror. And then you can smash the mirror, Jiang Cheng, I know you want to. There won’t be any blowback.”

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms. “And you got all that from looking at it for two seconds and going all woozy?”

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says shortly. “Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian for another long moment, then does as he’s told, kneeling beside the couch. Wei Wuxian watches him close his eyes and redirect his energy to meet Chang Weiyu’s. He watches Jiang Cheng and Chang Ling and the two household attendants turn to watch as well as Lan Wangji’s light blue energy ripples outward.

And while everyone’s focused on Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian slips out the door.

He knows his way through the back of Chang Weiyu’s house, emerging from the lower level and heading to the lake. It’ll take Lan Wangji a few minutes to locate the thread of Chang Weiyu’s energy (Wei Wuxian shoves aside the whisper in his mind that points out that Lan Wangji found his energy right away, that Lan Wangji’s energy already feels as familiar as his presence, because it’s not helpful right now), and that’ll give Wei Wuxian enough time to reach the lake path. He’s not running away, exactly. Or, he is, but—he just needs a few minutes to be alone in his head, after that.

He’s made it to the edge of the marina by the time he realizes there’s someone following him. It’s a testament to how rattled he is, honestly, because Wei Wuxian didn’t spend two years gaining an incredibly healthy sense of paranoia for nothing. The person is tall, broad-shouldered, his hands shoved in the pockets of a dark wool jacket. His gaze hasn’t wavered once in the thirty seconds since Wei Wuxian became aware of him.

Wei Wuxian turns, walking slowly down one of the docks. There are a few other people here, bringing boats in before daylight’s gone completely, but none close enough to make the person hang back. So Wei Wuxian slows further, and waits.

When the person is within earshot Wei Wuxian says, “Did the Consortium send you to keep an eye on me?”

It’s happened before, so it’s not totally out of the question. And now that Wei Wuxian’s got a closer look, this guy looks like Consortium muscle—elegant even out of robes, hair tied back neatly, a small charm tied into his bootlaces. “Or was it Yu-furen?” Wei Wuxian continues, because that also happened once. “Whoever it is, you can tell them I’m not getting into any trouble. Really.” He wants to make some sort of joke—sorry you got such a boring assignment, ha—but he’s too tired.

The guy stares at him. His expression is blank, strangely blank, not like Lan Wangji’s blank. There’s something off about him, Wei Wuxian thinks. A crackle of power that seems to mix with the lake air, matching a low tingle in Wei Wuxian’s talismans. His blank eyes don’t blink as he steps forward.

“Hey,” Wei Wuxian says, and then the person grabs his arm. Wei Wuxian isn’t quick enough to dodge and feels himself freeze instead as the person turns his unblinking stare to Wei Wuxian’s wrist, where Lan Wangji had gripped so tightly there are still crescent-moon marks in his skin. “Listen,” Wei Wuxian says, and he’s done, he really is, “either tell me why the hell you’re following me, or—”

Before Wei Wuxian can finish his sentence, the person drops Wei Wuxian’s arm and steps back. He turns and strides back toward the main walkway, disappearing behind the slow-swaying ship masts, and Wei Wuxian wishes he could bring himself to care. To be angry, or irritated enough to run after him and demand answers. But he isn’t, and he doesn’t. He just stands there with memories cluttering his brain and Lan Wangji’s energy coursing through him, and waits.

He has to take two buses to get back to the warehouse where his car is still parked, the street dim and quiet. There are two missed call alerts from Jiang Cheng on his phone, so Jiang Cheng must be furious. Wei Wuxian messages him a quick I’m fine, needed some air, tell Chang-qianbei to eat his persimmons, and then drives home.

Lan Wangji is sitting on his front stoop. His white work robes glow dully in the dusk, and Wei Wuxian can see his hands pressed flat against his knees. Lan Wangji stands as Wei Wuxian gets out of his car, waiting.

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says when he’s a few paces away. “I hope I didn’t make you come all this way just to check on me.”

A little line appears on Lan Wangji’s brow.

“Everything’s fine, I promise,” Wei Wuxian says. He steps around Lan Wangji and opens the front door, kicking off his shoes. Keep moving, keep moving. “Really, you don’t—”

He makes it to the kitchen, flips on the light, and sees the carton of broth on the counter. The soup pot already set out on the stove. The knife, newly sharpened, balanced on the drying rack.

For a moment he just blinks, processing that, processing Lan Wangji watching him from the doorway, and—right. Right. “Ahh. Lan Zhan. I was supposed to make you dinner.” He swallows. “I’m sorry. I didn’t...I can still make something. I have the ingredients. It’ll just...maybe not, it’ll take a long time, you’re probably hungry.” He rubs his eyes. “Um, if you’re still around tomorrow, maybe, I can make it then, if you don’t mind waiting. Sorry.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says.

“No,” Wei Wuxian repeats. “Yeah, no, I understand. Okay.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says again. “I mean. No, do not apologize. You do not need to apologize to me.”

“But I said dinner.” Wei Wuxian’s aware on some level that he’s not being entirely rational, but on another, greater level, the sight of the empty soup pot is this close to making him lose the last thread of composure he has left. “I wanted to cook you dinner.”

Lan Wangji crosses the room, stopping right in front of Wei Wuxian. “You can cook me dinner another time. Any time, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how to reply. What do you say to something that earnest? That forgiving? He presses a hand to his eyes.

Fingers catch his wrist. Lan Wangji carefully turns Wei Wuxian’s hand over, eyes raking the fading fingernail marks, his expression creasing in a frown. “Wei Ying,” he says, “where did you go?”

“Just to the marina. I had to...get that out of my head.”

Lan Wangji’s frown doesn’t quite ease, but it switches to focus on Wei Wuxian’s face instead. “And did you?”

“Not entirely,” Wei Wuxian admits. “No.” Then: “Lan Zhan. How much of it did you see? Be honest. Please.”

Lan Wangji breathes in once, then out, eyes not leaving Wei Wuxian’s. “Flashes,” he says. “And—feelings.”

Wei Wuxian scrubs his free hand over his eyes. “Shit. I’m sorry.”

Lan Wangji’s hand tightens on his. “Those were your memories,” Lan Wangji says carefully.

“Yeah. Ah.” Gods, this is going to suck. Wei Wuxian lets out a deep breath and rubs the back of his head. “It’s a long story, but—since you had to see it, you deserve some answers. If you want.” He glances at the window, into the too-quiet evening. “I did say I’d tell you at some point, didn’t it? Too bad it’s not properly storming. Mood’s all off.”

Lan Wangji seems to consider this. Then, instead of responding, he steers Wei Wuxian into the living room and gently, gently, pushes him to the couch. Wei Wuxian’s legs practically give out, and then he’s curling into the back cushion, watching Lan Wangji disappear back into the kitchen. A few minutes later he returns, a bowl of instant noodles in each hand, one swimming with chili oil and one topped with sesame seeds Wei Wuxian forgot he had.

“You do not need to tell me anything,” Lan Wangji says. “Anything. But if you want to, I will listen.”

He hands Wei Wuxian the bowl with chili oil and settles, cross-legged, on the other cushion. If Wei Wuxian were to move his foot just a few centimeters he’d brush against Lan Wangji’s knee.

He doesn’t.

“Okay,” he starts. Takes a bite of noodles, feels the warmth settle into his stomach, bolstering him. “You probably put together that most of that was from the war.” He doesn’t have to say what war. Wen Ruohan’s gambit for total power had been short, only a year, but it’s fresh enough in everyone’s minds that it’s just—The War, now. “It’s. I can’t tell you everything. But the short of it is, I ran away in the middle of it. And I didn’t come back for a long time. And that’s why the Jiangs disowned me.”

Neither of them say anything, letting Wei Wuxian’s words settle between them. Then: “You ran away,” Lan Wangji says. His voice is even. Acknowledging, and nothing else. Wei Wuxian had expected—skeptical, or accusatory, but he should know by now that Lan Wangji will always, always surprise him.

Wei Wuxian cups his bowl. It’s warm, almost too warm, enough to remind him that he’s here. “I was looking for something.”

Lan Wangji tilts his head the tiniest degree, eyes never leaving Wei Wuxian. “Did you find it?”

“Yes.”

It’s the truth, but there’s so much more to it that he can’t tell. 

When Wen Ruohan was first making good on his threats to seize other sects’ territories, there was something wrong about the destruction left in his wake. Entire towns disappeared, and entire factions of cultivators sent to stop the Wen army were wiped out in storms and mudslides, swept away until there was nothing and no one left. Based on reports from those who saw the aftermath, the Consortium decided the Wens must have harnessed mass amounts of resentful energy. But Wei Wuxian, who was idealistic and stubborn and had an incomplete university transcript with way too many lore & mythology credits on it, had his own theory: that Wen Ruohan had gotten his hands on a dragon.

Well, first, that Wen Ruohan had discovered the existence of dragons, and then that he’d started using one as a weapon. There was some evidence, Wei Wuxian insisted, if you looked, like the fact that most of the attacks took place near major waterways, and during days with cloud cover, and that the flood patterns came from water that was pulled up through the ground itself, and also that there was a strange lack of fierce corpses wandering around in the rubble. He charmed his way into a closed-doors Consortium meeting to present this idea, which went over about as well as asking forgiveness from Madam Yu, and, so.

He went off on his own. And he found one.

A tiny faction of Wen soldiers had a dragon chained in an old-growth forest, waiting to attack the approaching Nie faction on their way to Nightless City. The dragon’s scales were blue-black, tipped with frost, and its long, thin body was unnaturally still, not fighting its restraints. The Wen soldiers barely paid it any attention, and Wei Wuxian was able to slip in, close enough to see the nails embedded in the back of the dragon’s skull.

The first thing Wei Wuxian did was think: I was right.

The second thing he did was throw up on his own shoes.

The third thing he did was break the chains and pull the nails out of the dragon’s head.

The dragon killed all of the Wens at that little forest camp. With water bubbling up from the ground, with swirling winds, with its own claws. And then it tore out of the forest and flooded the Wen encampment in the nearby village. No one survived. And it wasn’t the dragon’s fault—he told Wei Wuxian later that he didn’t even know what he was doing, not until he had enough presence of mind to pull Wei Wuxian from the floodwater swallowing the wrecked village.

If Wei Wuxian had done what he was supposed to do, he would’ve gone back to the Consortium before any of it happened. Left the dragon, taken evidence, and let them decide what to do. But even then he knew the Consortium wouldn’t just—catch and release. The dragon would simply change owners. So yeah, Wei Wuxian had a choice, technically. But—

The dragon’s name was Wen Ning. Wei Wuxian found that out after the dragon deposited him on a rocky stream bank, where Wei Wuxian promptly threw up again—nearly drowning sucks, as it turns out—and then watched the dragon curl up and shift into a person. Wen Ning the dragon was lethal, powerful beyond measure, and Wen Ning the person was soft-spoken and hesitant as he thanked Wei Wuxian for saving his life.

That was the moment Wei Wuxian knew he wasn’t going home, not for a long time.

Wen Ning was from a little village hidden away in the mountains, where his family protected the last dragons and the secret of their existence—until Wen Ruohan and his inner circle discovered them and kidnapped Wen Ning for his war against the other sects. Wei Wuxian spent nearly a year tracking down every single Wen soldier and sect official who knew about the existence of dragons and made sure the secret went with them to their grave. Their very imminent grave, more often than not. From the shadows Wei Wuxian broke into encampments, ambushed convoys of armored trucks, and intercepted coded messages alongside Wen Ning and Wen Qing. And as Wen Ruohan’s inner circle slowly depleted, Wei Wuxian lived with the remnants of Wen Ning and Wen Qing’s village, finding a new place to rebuild while all around them the war grew and grew, every side doing one horrible thing after another.

He almost stayed with them, in their new mountain home. There was no cell service—something about the dragons’ magic disrupts the signal, like his cottage. It was so isolated, but he almost stayed, and sometimes, gods. He wishes he had. He misses A-Yuan so much it hurts, and the way Wen Qing and Wen Ning had felt like family by the end— But.

But.

Wei Wuxian realizes he’s been staring into his bowl for way too long. He wants to tell all of this to Lan Wangji, with an electric urgency he hasn’t felt since the short, silent moments he had with Jiang Cheng after the trial, before the banishment. He didn’t then, and he won’t now, because it isn’t his secret to tell, but he still wants to. He wants to crack himself open and let Lan Wangji pass judgment on what’s inside of him, and finally know if he’s worth anything anymore.

“Ask me something,” Wei Wuxian says, teetering on the edge of desperate. “Anything. There are some things I can’t talk about, but anything else I’ll—just ask me.”

Lan Wangji’s face is still, carefully neutral in the way Wei Wuxian knows means whatever he’s feeling definitely isn’t neutral, but Wei Wuxian cannot, cannot let himself try to guess at what it might be if he wants to be able to continue talking right now.

“The burn on your chest,” Lan Wangji says slowly. “Is that from—the war?”

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, “yeah. Got that from Wen Chao.”

A shadow flickers across Lan Wangji’s expression. It’s a darker look than Wei Wuxian has seen on him, darker even than when Lan Wangji was calling his cultivation unnatural their very first day. That, Wei Wuxian now knows, was closer to trepidation than anything. This here-and-gone-again look is something like—hatred. “I recognized him,” Lan Wangji says. “In the mirror’s vision.”

“You know him?” Wei Wuxian’s brain has trouble with the idea of Lan Wangji and Wen Chao existing closely enough to each other to be known. Wen Chao is the shit that crusts on the bottom of your boots, and Lan Wangji is—

Is—

“I have seen him. Briefly,” Lan Wangji says. “He—?”

Wei Wuxian touches the burn on his chest, unconsciously. “We—I was tracking Wen Chao at one point near the end of it all, and heard he’d caught Jiang Cheng. Who was probably doing something brave and stupid, trying to prove himself, and the damn Consortium let him get tangled up in a war they could barely wage themselves—but yeah. Wen Chao caught him.” Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing had been tracking Wen Chao down, trying to figure out if Wen Ruohan had trusted his second son enough to tell him about dragons. (From what they could figure, Wen Ruohan had put Wen Chao in charge of some of the nastier smuggling operations, but nothing that suggested he knew about dragons or the village in the mountains. Wen Chao was cruel, and nasty, and an idiot, and thankfully no more than that.) That’s how they’d found Jiang Cheng. “We rescued him. But they’d already—” He grips his bowl tighter so Lan Wangji won’t see that his hands are shaking as he tries to hold it. “They’d crushed his golden core.”

He sees Lan Wangji’s fleeting look of confusion, and then—

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. His voice is hoarse. “Um. My friend studied medicine, and she and her family know a lot about…certain unorthodox magic. I made her give my core to Jiang Cheng.”

“Give…,” Lan Wangji repeats. “Give.”

Wei Wuxian points at his midriff, around where the surgical scar is. “It’s that one. For reference.”

In the dim lighting, Lan Wangji looks faintly ill.

“But yeah. That. And then I was trying to take Jiang Cheng back, and that’s when Wen Chao found us. Well, found me, at that point. And he—yeah. He has a thing about fire. The Consortium raided his safehouse two weeks later, though,” Wei Wuxian adds quickly. “He got a head start on them, but left me behind, so they found me.”

“Two weeks?”

“Wen Chao was gone for most of it,” Wei Wuxian says. He doesn’t add how those two weeks had felt like years, time stretching long and thin as he reeled with the loss of his core, and he was pretty sure no one was coming to save him. Wen Ning might want to, but he wouldn’t know where to look, and Wei Wuxian trusted Wen Qing to have her priorities straight. Their debts were even, at that point.

Lan Wangji opens his mouth. Closes it. Tries again, carefully: “And you...came home, after that.”

“Well—they detoured me to Lanling first for the trial. But yeah, home, after that.” Though he’d been home for only a few hours before Madam Yu told him to pack anything he owned in a suitcase.

“The trial.”

“Yeah, the trial? It was all over the news? Lan Zhan, you really should’ve looked up your new coworker when you got this job.” He tries to laugh, and it sounds a little wet. “Wen Ruohan was dead by then, but the Consortium, ah, accused me of being an inside agent before that. For the Wens, because I’d disappeared.” He’d been in the hospital for all of a day before the Consortium assembled in Lanling and Jin Guangshan handed down his judgment. They’d released him to house arrest in deference to his ties to YunmengJiang, which he’d then promptly violated, by virtue of being kicked out of said house (what did that make it, then? uni library arrest? weird little inn that smells like eggs arrest?), but then he’d stumbled onto the cottage and the Consortium decided they wanted Wei Wuxian’s help taking care of leftover curses from the war, so the order got relaxed to Yunmeng’s borders. “They didn’t end up convicting me, but all the news stories are still out there. If you want.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, “I don’t. What you told me is—enough.”

Wei Wuxian finally lets himself meet Lan Wangji’s eyes. “Is it?” he says. “It’s not a pretty story, and I’ve barely told you any of it. I hurt people, Lan Zhan. A lot of people who—deserved it, but also people who were just there, and I don’t know if they deserved it or not, but they got hurt anyway because I decided something else was more important. And I’d do it again, if I had to.” He draws in a short breath. “I had a good reason, but I can’t tell you what it was. Is that really enough?”

Lan Wangji holds his gaze. “The war didn’t reach Gusu before Wen Ruohan was killed,” he murmurs after a moment. “We were not yet a target. But I made choices, too. Who to protect, and who not to protect.” Then, deliberately: “Wei Ying, I believe you.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. His head spins a bit. “But, the Consortium—”

“I don’t care,” Lan Wangi says, “what the Consortium thinks. You are—Wei Ying. That is enough.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says helplessly. His hands tighten on his bowl and it tips, broth sloshing over the side and soaking into his sleeve. “Shit. I mean. Whoops. Ahah, you know, Lan Zhan, for someone who isn’t a fan of instant noodles, you made them really well? It’s actually hard to get right. But you did good.” Wei Wuxian drops his eyes, which are stinging for some totally unrelated reason, and tries to wipe his sleeve against his knee.

Across from him, Lan Wangji sets his own bowl aside. Then he moves forward and gently, gently takes the bowl out of Wei Wuxian’s hands and puts it on the table as well.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and doesn’t move, hovering over him on the couch, one knee sunk into the cushion by Wei Wuxian’s feet. Close enough that a stray lock of hair slips off of Lan Wangji’s shoulder and brushes Wei Wuxian’s cheek.

The thing is, Wei Wuxian is tired. His exhaustion feels written into his bones at this point, physically and mentally, like everything that happened in the mirror is once again only hours old. He’s tired, and Lan Wangji is right here, and this time Wei Wuxian’s brain isn’t fast enough to stop him from reaching out and looping the stray strand of hair around his finger.

He’s close enough to feel it when Lan Wangji stops breathing.

The moment stretches between them. Lan Wangji is close, as close as he’d been earlier when Wei Wuxian had tilted his head up to tell him how to save Chang Weiyu. As close as he’d been when he swept Wei Wuxian off his feet so he wouldn’t muddy the kitchen floor. As close as he’d been when he tried to pour healing energy into Wei Wuxian’s side, and Wei Wuxian told him the truth, and he stayed anyway.

That small, warm feeling that’s taken up residence in Wei Wuxian’s chest sparks back to life. And Wei Wuxian, in a fit of panic and joy and reckless hope, tightens his hand around Lan Wangji’s hair and pulls.

Lan Wangji closes the distance in a heartbeat. He kisses Wei Wuxian, lips dry and cool and barely-there, still braced above him until Wei Wuxian tugs again, says “Yes” against his mouth, says, “Lan Zhan, ah, yes,” and then Lan Wangji is a wave crashing into him, buffeting him back into the cushions. His hand slips around the back of Wei Wuxian’s head, steadying, and Wei Wuxian unwinds his fingers from Lan Wangji’s hair in favor of curling them in his shirt. He feels it when Lan Wangji’s eyes flutter shut, lashes feathery against his skin, right before Lan Wangji kisses him again.

It’s warm, and fumbling at first, and a bit salty from the noodles, and then Lan Wangji brushes his thumb under Wei Wuxian’s ear and Wei Wuxian’s breath catches. Lan Wangji’s mouth curves against his, just the tiniest amount, the kind of Lan Wangji smile that’s blinding to see and even more overwhelming to feel and, well. Oh, Wei Wuxian thinks.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, muffled, and tries to pull him closer. The angle isn’t awkward, but it’s not enough, he wants to—he wants—

He surges up, trying to press into Lan Wangji’s space as much as possible, grabbing at the couch for leverage. They end up overbalancing, Lan Wangji falling back against the cushions and Wei Wuxian straddling his lap. This is better, much better, gravity lending him a hand, pulling him flush against Lan Wangji’s stomach, legs, Wei Wuxian’s knees on either side of his hips, holding him here.

They make out on the damn couch, noodles forgotten. Lan Wangji’s hands settle on Wei Wuxian’s waist, lightly at first, and then far less lightly when Wei Wuxian’s teeth snag on his lower lip. They kiss until Wei Wuxian’s lips are tingling when he pulls away, and then he just moves on to kiss Lan Wangji’s cheek, his eyelids, his forehead where the cut from the knife spirit has fully healed, leaving nothing but smooth (soft, kissable) skin. He kisses Lan Wangji’s temple, his hairline that’s just the slightest bit damp with sweat, the shell of his ear, as Lan Wangji’s breathing goes ragged. Wei Wuxian wonders if Lan Wangji can feel the way his heart is soaring in his chest; he wonders how it’s possible to feel so much in one day, to be dragged through the worst things that live in his head only to end up here, Lan Wangji warm and wanting under him, a single point of light in the soft and quiet darkness outside.

And Wei Wuxian thinks: maybe this isn’t the end.

Maybe Lan Wangji really will stay, for a bit.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmurs.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, his lips moving against Wei Wuxian’s jaw.

“Say that again.”

“Wei Ying.”

“No one says my name like that,” Wei Wuxian says, breathless. “No one says my name the way you do, no one ever has. You—you say my name like that, you listen to me, you—” He’s babbling. Lan Wangji is looking up at him, so close Wei Wuxian can hardly see both of his eyes at the same time, his entire vision blurring and filling with Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. “You’re so wonderful, you know that? I thought you’d run away the very first day, but you didn’t. You’re brave and smart and I still don’t know why you stayed, but I’m so glad you did. Lan Zhan. Kiss me again?”

Lan Wangji does.

Time passes, surely, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t pay it any mind, even as his head goes foggier and limbs grow heavier. It isn’t until he has to break away to stifle a yawn that Lan Wangji huffs a small laugh and shifts, tugging Wei Wuxian’s arms until they’re around his neck. “Hold on,” he whispers, and pulls both of them off the couch, carrying Wei Wuxian back to his bedroom with Wei Wuxian’s legs hooked around his waist.

“You’re strong,” Wei Wuxian says, muffled against the side of Lan Wangji’s neck.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian feels himself be lowered carefully onto his bed. Hands tug at the ties of Wei Wuxian’s robes. He forces himself back to full awareness, blinking up at Lan Wangji. “Oh, are we—?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, a small smile playing on the edge of his mouth. “You are exhausted,” he says.

“Yeah, but.” Wei Wuxian gestures between them, ignoring the way he has to fight to keep his eyes open. Surely he is stronger than this, especially when properly motivated. “I’m fine. I’m more than fine.”

Lan Wangji lets out a small huff, his little version of a laugh, and succeeds in unlacing Wei Wuxian’s robes, leaving Wei Wuxian in his pants and nothing else. The air is chilly for a moment on his bare skin, and then Lan Wangji sheds his own robes and climbs onto the bed, leveraging himself right on top of Wei Wuxian. He brackets his arms on either side of Wei Wuxian’s head, and any thoughts of being cold immediately disappear.

Wei Wuxian can’t help it. He grins. “So we are—”

“Keep your eyes open for ten seconds,” Lan Wangji says, his voice taking on an edge that makes Wei Wuxian’s brain nearly white out, “and we will do anything you want, right now.”

Wei Wuxian widens his eyes, breath stuttering. He curls his fingers around Lan Wangji’s wrists.

“One,” Lan Wangji whispers. His body is pressed against Wei Wuxian’s, hips against hips, legs slotted together. He holds his weight up just enough that Wei Wuxian’s chest meets his when he inhales, the millimeters between them charged with more energy than Wei Wuxian’s felt in his entire life. “Two.”

“You’re counting so slow!”

“Three,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian realizes he’s never seen him smirk until right now. Wei Wuxian raises his head to kiss that smirk, muffling four as Lan Wangji says it, and then falls back onto the pillow. “Five,” Lan Wangji says, undeterred.

“Lan Zhan...Lan-er-gege...please.”

“Six.”

On seven Wei Wuxian loses his battle, his heavy eyes refusing to stay open any longer.

“Nooo,” he says, and feels more than hears Lan Wangji’s tiny laugh again. Lips press against his forehead, and he forces his eyes back open. “Are you—?”

“I am staying,” Lan Wangji says softly.

He shifts, moving his weight off Wei Wuxian and settling next to him. Wei Wuxian rolls over, hands reaching, pulling himself close because—he can, he can touch, he can—

“Lan Zhan,” he mumbles. Surely there’s more he means to say, but his eyes are closed again, thoughts full of soft hands and I believe you and the sharp corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth. His head is on Lan Wangji’s chest, the gentle rise and fall of it carrying him like a small boat on an endless sea. “Lan Zhan. I really—I really did want to.”

“Tomorrow,” Lan Wangji murmurs, and Wei Wuxian’s heart sings. “I will be here.” His chest rises with a slow breath, and then he says: “And—there is something I need to tell you. Want to tell you. Tomorrow, as well.”

Wei Wuxian thinks he responds—okay, sure, anything you want forever for the rest of my life—but he’s not sure the words actually leave his lips. His brain is muddled, his world is spinning pleasantly, and Lan Wangji is here, steady and sure as everything else melts away.

#

Wei Wuxian wakes long after the sun, and for a moment he stretches in bed, his mind pleasantly empty. He’s warm and he didn’t dream, and for the first few slow, honeyed seconds of the day he doesn’t even think to question why.

And then his arm, stretching above his head, brushes his ear and he winces. It’s tender, like he fell asleep pressed against something solid. He’s not unfamiliar with the feeling, considering the number of times he’s nodded off at his worktable, but clearly he didn’t do that last night if he’s—

He remembers in an instant: falling asleep on Lan Wangji’s (bare!) chest, his arm slung around Lan Wangji’s stomach. The other side of the bed is empty now, but the blankets are neatly tucked over the pillow, around the side of the mattress. Something Wei Wuxian never does, a little gesture that says: Lan Wangji was here. And—those are Lan Wangji’s robes still folded on the worktable.

How—? Wei Wuxian touches his ear again. How long had Lan Wangji let him stay there, draped over him, for Wei Wuxian’s ear to still twinge from it now?

All night?

Warmth blooms in Wei Wuxian’s chest, and he doesn’t even try to stop it.

He gets himself up and dressed, conscious that Lan Wangji is nearby somewhere. He wouldn’t have left his robes behind, and their presence also means that wherever Lan Wangji is, he’s either still shirtless or he borrowed something from Wei Wuxian’s closet, and honestly neither of those options bode well for Wei Wuxian’s composure right now.

Because—Lan Wangji stayed.

And Wei Wuxian is going to make sure he doesn’t regret it. First, he’ll start cooking the soup, because the job is over and they don’t have anywhere to be. And second, he’ll find Lan Wangji and get him to repeat the whole carrying-Wei-Wuxian-to-the-bedroom thing, except this time he won’t fall asleep right after, and then they’ll...go from there.

It’s a good plan. Wei Wuxian doesn’t bound into the kitchen, but it’s a near thing. Through the window he can see Spot and Not Spot’s hutch and pen have been moved closer to the garden, tracks running through the still-dewy grass. Lan Wangji must be outside, somewhere by the shed or walking to the river. In a moment Wei Wuxian will go out and call out Lan Zhan! with his whole lungs, and not be surprised when he gets a response.

The pomegranate he got two days ago is still sitting on the kitchen table, next to his phone and keys. He plucks the knife from the drying rack and a bowl from the cupboard, whistling something tuneless and cheerful. Is it close enough to lunch that the pomegranate will hold them over? Or—Wei Wuxian’s mouth curves into a grin—will they need more fuel than that to get through the morning, maybe?

He picks up his phone to check the time. 9:02, it tells him, right above a missed call notification and two WeChat voice messages from Wen Qing.

And—he almost doesn’t look, almost just sets it aside for later, because his brain is already racing ahead to pomegranate and scrounging together a hearty breakfast, or at least some sort of breakfast, but he moves on auto-pilot, swiping open his phone and playing the first message.

“Hey, Xian-ge,” Wen Ning’s soft voice says as Wei Wuxian tucks the phone between his shoulder and his ear and halves the pomegranate. “Hope you had a good week! Give us a call if you get this in the next few minutes? I think we found something.”

Wei Wuxian has to force himself to focus, because his mind has already started to drift back into the future again, and taps the next message.

“Okay,” Wen Ning continues, “I’m guessing you’re asleep, and A-jie’s not saying it but I can tell she’s kind of worried about that considering it’s barely 10pm. We’ll come back to town tomorrow around noon and call again, all right? And in the meanwhile—” He pauses, then, sounding a bit excited: “We did find something, so make sure you’re around! It’s a book that Uncle rescued when we had to—you know—move. It used to belong to the friends you’re looking for, at least, according to his records. A book of poems by Lan An, the last keeper of the library we talked about. We can tell you more about it when we call, I really think this could be something. I hope you’re sleeping well, now. And check your phone!”

The message ends. Wei Wuxian doesn’t move. He has a knife in one hand, half a pomegranate in the other, and his whole world is in the process of slipping, sickeningly, right off its axis.

The thing is, Wei Wuxian isn’t stupid. Impulsive, yes. And reckless. And oblivious, obviously. But he isn’t stupid, he never has been, so as soon as Wen Ning says Lan An—he knows. In the time it takes for him to set the knife down, to replay the message, even though he remembers it perfectly, the certainty has already settled bone-deep inside of him.

The pearl locked in his warded chest belongs to Lan Wangji.

The pieces fall into place with alarming speed. Lan Wangji’s single-minded search through the Wen warehouse those early days. His odd behavior at the river when Wei Wuxian asked him to swim. His caginess about his family, their many rules. The way he hasn’t been setting down roots in Lotus Pier. The odd bursts of power Wei Wuxian picked up around him sometimes, the ones he thought were his own embarrassing feelings. This whole time Wei Wuxian has been assuming the Wens killed the dragon, and meanwhile Lan Wangji has been looking for the pearl. Taking the curseworking job wasn’t about Lan Wangji diversifying his experience, it was about finding his stolen pearl. Organizing Wei Wuxian’s entire cottage—that was searching his entire cottage, once Lan Wangji realized Wei Wuxian took oddities home with him. Lan Wangji staying as long as he did wasn’t about wanting to be here. Lan Wangji falling asleep with Wei Wuxian’s face tucked into his chest wasn’t about wanting—

Wei Wuxian revises his opinion on being stupid, in this case. He’s really, really stupid.

Somehow he makes it back to his room, and barely feels it when he cuts his thumb on his tooth to open the warded chest. The pearl is there—it’s been right there all along—still in the form of a white ribbon. He pulls it out, careful not to smear any blood on it, and carries it back to the kitchen. He lays it on the table between his keys and the pomegranate, and reminds himself that he should probably keep breathing if he doesn’t want to pass out. (He does, kind of, want to pass out.)

Should he apologize, he wonders? Say: hey, I didn’t realize I was practically keeping you prisoner here, ha ha, sorry! Didn’t put together that your organizing my entire cabin and helping with my work was because you were in fact looking for a vital piece of your impossible, magical self that I was apparently keeping from you! I didn’t realize that was why you were here at all, all along. My bad, Lan Zhan.

No. He shouldn’t say anything. He won’t force Lan Wangji to act grateful, or even polite, to Wei Wuxian’s face, not when all of this is Wei Wuxian’s fault. And maybe there’s a small, cowardly part of Wei Wuxian that doesn’t want to actively watch someone he—someone he cares about leave him for good.

He leaves the ribbon-pearl next to the car keys on the kitchen table, where he and Lan Wangji have eaten half a dozen takeaway meals together. Where they will, Wei Wuxian knows now, never eat a home-cooked dinner together. He methodically puts on the outer layer of yesterday’s work robes, the first thing he can find, and hauls his bike off the front porch—he’ll leave the car for Lan Wangji, in case he needs to go right away, to his apartment or the train station or all the way to Gusu. He won’t keep Lan Wangji away for longer than necessary. He just hopes, selfishly, that Lan Wangji stays in the backyard until Wei Wuxian is long gone.

He turns away from the lake and heads north, letting neighborhood streets pass by without really tracking where he’s going. His mind keeps flashing back to the moment in the kitchen, listening to Wen Ning’s voice say Lan An, to the day he found the pearl in the warehouse, to Lan Wangji’s robes folded in his bedroom this morning. He’s having trouble connecting them, like he’s nine again and he just dropped Madam Yu’s second-favorite teapot and he’s standing there, staring at the jagged pieces, hot tea soaking into his pants, not yet comprehending the fact that there’s no way to put the pieces together again. No way to put the tea back inside the pot. No way to go back to the moment before he dropped it at all.

He nearly runs into someone standing in the middle of the next block. His body moves before his mind does, bringing his bike to a screeching stop centimeters from a dark pair of dress shoes.

When Wei Wuxian looks up, he sees the man from the marina staring blankly back at him.

“Listen,” Wei Wuxian says. “I am really, really not in the mood today.”

The man lifts a hand. Wei Wuxian’s detection talismans flare to life, buzzing sharply. Wei Wuxian swears and jerks backward, but not fast enough.

The man presses two fingers to Wei Wuxian’s forehead, and the world goes dark.

#

When consciousness returns, his first, muddled thought is that he fell asleep at work again. He’s huddled on chilly concrete, breathing equally chilly air, and the light hitting his eyelids is the watery kind of sunlight that leaks through the far windows of the warehouse every morning. This kind of thing has happened before, on long shifts after bad nights, because it’s easy enough to curl up in a corner and nod off for a bit when no else is around. But he hasn’t done that on this job, really, not with Lan Wangji around, so why—

Ah.

His wrists are bound in front of him with—he flexes his hands for a moment—what feels like a cable tie. His sleeves are shoved up to his elbows, forearms bare and a little raw where his talismans have been yanked away. His limbs aren’t stiff yet, which tells him he hasn’t been here long, but he doesn’t have time to feel relieved about that before he cracks his eyes open and notices the man leaning over him.

It’s Wen Chao.

“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian says hoarsely.

“Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian.” Wen Chao tsks. He’s wearing the kind of suit jacket that probably costs more than Wei Wuxian’s entire net worth paired with a sword hooked casually on his belt, because he’s got the same arrogant streak as Jin Zixun. In other words, he looks just like he did the last time Wei Wuxian saw him. “When Wen Zhuliu told me you were in the middle of all this, I wasn’t surprised at all. That Wei Wuxian, I said, is always getting himself tangled up in my business. It’s rude, honestly. Classless.”

Wei Wuxian awkwardly shoves himself upright, leaning against a rosewood armoire he removed a haunted pair of boots from last week, and looks around. Wen Chao must’ve disabled the barrier, and then wasted no time tearing apart everything he could get his hands on. The place is wrecked, boxes and bins overturned, half the furniture broken, appliances smashed and strewn across the floor, all of Wei Wuxian’s careful organization up in smoke. “So this was your warehouse,” Wei Wuxian says. After three years of silence, he’d really expected Wen Chao to be laying low somewhere, as much as someone like Wen Chao could ever lay low. Spending his days on an island with his horrible girlfriend, living off treasures he pilfered during the war. “The Consortium’s gonna be furious. You’ve just cost me a month’s rent, at least.”

“I don’t think you should be too concerned about that right now,” Wen Chao tells him. “I think you should be concerned with what’s missing from this warehouse.”

Wei Wuxian’s mind jumps to the ribbon he left in his kitchen, to Lan Wangji, waiting to find it. “Actually,” he says around his heart, which is beating wildly in his throat all of a sudden, “I kept a very extensive inventory list as part of my work here, could’ve saved you all this trouble. What are you looking for, hm? A suit jacket that doesn’t look like you’re playing dress-up in daddy’s clothes? There’s a wonderful vintage section in that corner over there.”

Wen Chao sneers down at him with equal amounts hatred and—anticipation, Wei Wuxian thinks. “Don’t play stupid,” Wen Chao says. “Wen Zhuliu felt a trace of another dragon on you.”

Every part of Wei Wuxian goes cold.

So Wen Chao knows after all.

“I didn’t know what I had until it was taken from me,” Wen Chao continues, gesturing at the warehouse. “But I know you know. You always know too much, Wei Wuxian. You knew about dragons before I even did, didn’t you? The way you were running around during the war, in my brother’s business. My father didn’t trust me enough to tell me, but now he’s dead and I found Wen Zhuliu. I’m going to start my own army, and it’ll restore the Wen seat of power with me back where I belong. And it’s only a matter of time, now that you’re back where you belong, Wei Wuxian: cowering on the floor in front of me.”

Wei Wuxian barely registers Wen Chao’s words beyond dragon. Wen Chao knows, and he knows about the—about Lan Wangji’s pearl. This Wen Zhuliu must be the one who was following Wei Wuxian on the docks, which was only yesterday, but he has to figure out how long they’ve been tracking him, if there’s a chance they saw him with Lan Wangji—

“So.” Wen Chao crouches down, bringing himself eye-level with Wei Wuxian. “Tell me, then: where is the dragon that goes with the pearl you stole?”

Wei Wuxian blinks, then bares his teeth in a smile. “Oh, you know. Around. We’re meeting up for tea later, along with our friends the nine-tailed fox and the Lake Tianchi monster.”

Maybe this can work, maybe he can still convince Wen Chao he’s chasing a fantasy—

Wen Chao reaches out, fisting a hand in Wei Wuxian’s hair and slamming his head against the armoire door. “Try again.”

Or not.

The taste of iron fills his mouth. Ah. He bit his tongue, there. “All right, all right,” he says. “Gods. Can’t take a joke. Look, I don’t want a repeat of last time, okay? That was—that wasn’t fun. So if I tell you, will you promise to let me leave? I won’t say anything to the Consortium, I swear, I just want to go home.”

“Sure,” Wen Chao says. “Whatever you want. Go on, then.”

“Okay. It’s in—how do I describe it.” Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath, glancing to the side, and opens his mouth—

When Wen Chao leans in to listen, Wei Wuxian pulls his leg back and kicks him right in the gut.

Wen Chao falls back with a strangled yell. Wei Wuxian leverages himself to his feet and actually makes it a few steps before Wen Chao’s on him, slamming him back to the ground. He jams a knee into Wei Wuxian’s stomach and wraps one hand around Wei Wuxian’s neck.

“Nice fucking try,” Wen Chao says, and pulls something out of his pocket. A fire talisman, flames already licking up the side. “I came prepared,” he says. “Your favorite, if I remember correctly.”

He presses the talisman to Wei Wuxian’s chest. The flames sputter for a moment, and then fizzle out.

When Wen Chao meets his eyes, Wei Wuxian smiles with all his teeth again. “Suppression talismans sewn into my robes,” he says. “Little habit I picked up. So unless you plan to undress me…”

He chokes off as Wen Chao tightens his grip.

“I’d be careful, Wei Wuxian,” Wen Chao says. “You think you’re invincible, hm? You’re no one. You’re just as weak as last time, and you have nothing at all to offer me. The only thing I want more than that pearl you took is to see you cry like a baby. Again. So tell me or don’t, because either way I get what I want, see?”

His fingers dig in harder, nails biting into the skin under Wei Wuxian’s jaw. (The skin Lan Wangji kissed just last night—) Wei Wuxian’s pulse is rabbit-kicking in his ears, too loud, and he needs to think.

“It’s here,” he gasps. He hasn’t thought more than two steps ahead, but if he can get Wen Chao to look at something—Wei Wuxian knows every curse in here, surely he can concoct a sufficient enough wild goose chase to buy Lan Wangji a few more minutes. Give him enough time to get his pearl and disappear. And a few minutes will be precious, because Wei Wuxian is an idiot and should’ve figured it out sooner, instead of dragging Lan Wangji this close to danger out of his own sheer ignorance. “I hid it somewhere here.”

Please. We’ve already searched this whole building. Wen Zhuliu is at your shitty little cottage now, too, so if you say it’s there and he comes back without it, I’ll cut off your hand.”

The bottom drops out of Wei Wuxian’s stomach, and he fights not to let it show on his face. “Seems like you know so much, you should be telling me where you misplaced this dragon,” he gets out.

Please, he thinks, please let Lan Wangji have come inside, found the ribbon on the table, and left immediately. Wei Wuxian has to imagine he would’ve—there’s no reason for Lan Wangji to stay, after that—but please don’t let Wei Wuxian’s realization have come too late.

(Also, gods, he hopes Wen Zhuliu leaves the rabbits alone.)

“I’d stop joking, if I were you.” Wen Chao shoves up his sleeves. The rings on his fingers glint in the weak sunlight, and Wei Wuxian’s stupid, traitorous brain thinks about Lan Wangji’s eyes catching the light that first day, when Wei Wuxian held the rabbit cage up between them and had no idea, no idea, who he was really looking at. “My friend, Wen Zhuliu? He’s even more fun than I am. And we both know I’m very fun.”

He proceeds to show Wei Wuxian just how fun he is, swinging back and punching him in his still-healing side, until Wei Wuxian is curled up again, winded, ribs bruised in a pattern that will surely match the rings on Wen Chao’s knuckles, gritting his teeth because he promised himself two years ago that Wen Chao wouldn’t get a single scream out of him. And then he’d immediately broken that promise, but today’s a new day, right?

“Do you remember where the dragon is, now?” Wen Chao says, shaking out his hand.

Wei Wuxian spits a glob of blood on Wen Chao’s expensive jacket.

Wen Chao’s pulling his fist back to hit him again—Wei Wuxian has a feeling he’s moving on to his face now, which is going to suck—when someone enters the warehouse, and Wen Chao pauses.

The man from the marina—who Wei Wuxian is just coherent enough to realize must be Wen Zhuliu—approaches.

“It isn’t there,” he says to Wen Chao, measured and almost toneless. 

Wei Wuxian slumps in relief, ears ringing too hard to hear what Wen Chao says next. It doesn’t matter what they do to him now, because if they didn’t find Lan Wangji at the cottage, then surely Lan Wangji is long gone. All Wei Wuxian has to do is keep his mouth shut until someone comes to check on the warehouse (unlikely) or Wen Chao gets bored and decides Wei Wuxian is no longer useful or entertaining (more likely), and Lan Wangji will be safe. Ideally Wei Wuxian will be smart enough to find a way to get out of this alive, too—he’s defied greater odds than this before—but that’s secondary to not telling Wen Chao anything he can use to track down Lan Wangji, or Wen Ning, or anyone else. Wei Wuxian will die right here on this concrete floor before he lets that happen. And he probably will, considering no one knows he’s here, and it’ll likely be a day or two before Jiang Yanli starts worrying that he’s not answering her calls.

For a small, useless moment, the image of Lan Wangji sitting on the cottage steps flickers through his mind. He’s going to miss having someone who cares where he is. Not care where he isn’t—not the Consortium keeping him tethered to Yunmeng, not Jiang Cheng only showing up just to take him somewhere else—but someone who cares when he leaves. When he doesn’t come home. Even if none of that was real, he’s going to miss it.

Though maybe he won’t have time to miss it for long, with the way Wen Chao is glaring down at him when Wei Wuxian reopens his eyes.

“Maybe you can help me out here, then,” Wen Chao says to Wen Zhuliu. “Do that thing you do.”

Wen Zhuliu steps closer and grabs Wei Wuxian’s collar, propping him up against the armoire again. Wei Wuxian watches him. It’s hard to sense much without his talismans, but he feels some sort of shift in the air, a hint of ozone. He sifts through Wen Chao’s monologuing from earlier, forcing the pieces into place.

“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says, “wait, wait. You’re—you’re one of them.”

Wen Zhuliu looks down at him.

“He has your pearl.” Wei Wuxian jerks his chin at Wen Chao, the only body part he can move without jarring his ribs. “He took it, didn’t he?”

“Yes.” Wen Zhuliu doesn’t sound too upset about it. He takes another step, looming over Wei Wuxian.

“You can take it back,” Wei Wuxian says, low and urgent. “Whatever he has on you, you can just take it now. If he threatened your family, or threatened to expose your secret—I can help. I can help.”

“Wen-gongzi has nothing on me,” Wen Zhuliu says, and presses his palm against Wei Wuxian’s forehead.

A flood of energy hits him, and Wei Wuxian forgets what he was about to say next. That he was about to say anything at all. His eyes roll back, and then he’s not even in his own body. He’s a thimble trying to hold the whole ocean, a lone bird caught in the middle of a typhoon, a pebble buried in a landslide. It’s like Lan Wangji’s magic, but too much, and worse; it’s not Lan Wangji, and it hurts.

A horrible, never-ending minute, and then it’s over. Awareness of his own body comes back in waves. His wrists chafing against the cable tie. The chill between his shoulder blades where his shirt has soaked through with sweat. A raw patch deep in his throat, and the sinking realization that he’s already broken his promise not to scream. When everything settles, when swirls of color have become walls and bins and furniture again, when he can hear anything other than his own ragged breathing, Wei Wuxian says, barely audible, “I’ll take that as a no, then.”

The blur that is Wen Chao snorts. “Wen Zhuliu has a little thing called loyalty. But I wouldn’t expect you to understand that, considering your borrowed family doesn’t even want you anymore. No, there’s no hope for you here, Wei Wuxian. No Consortium to swoop in and save you. No one who could possibly get past Wen Zhuliu. You won’t leave this place alive, unless you tell me where to find your dragon.”

Wei Wuxian turns his head and presses the side of his face into the wood. Counts his breaths as they come.

“Ugh,” Wen Chao says. “Do it again.”

Wen Zhuliu makes a considering hum. “He may not survive it.”

“Oh?”

Wen Zhuliu’s fingers ghost over Wei Wuxian’s hairline. Settle on his temple. Wei Wuxian flinches. “He doesn’t have enough spiritual energy on his own to fight it.” The fingers press harder. “I will likely overwhelm him.”

Wen Chao snorts. “You don’t know Wei Wuxian like I do. Do it.”

The fingers move as Wen Zhuliu shrugs. Wei Wuxian forces his eyes open, glaring at Wen Chao with everything he has. Go ahead, he wants to say, but his tongue is too heavy in his mouth. So he just keeps glaring, letting the fury rise in his wrung-out body, because if he’s about to die he’ll die with anger in his veins, enough to defy the laws of nature and manifest a vengeful spirit the very moment he—

There’s a shift in the air, a new crackle of power, and then the hand on Wei Wuxian’s head falls away as Wen Zhuliu ducks, rolling away from a streak of blue flashing above his head.

Wen Chao yelps, whipping around. Wei Wuxian tears his gaze away to look toward the front wall, just in time to see Lan Wangji’s sword return to his hand.

Wait, Wei Wuxian tells himself, wait, wait, no, wait. He blinks hard, focus, and—that’s still Lan Wangji across the room, still Lan Wangji stalking toward them through the mess of the warehouse. He looks like he could be here for work, blue robes and all, except for the unsheathed sword and the way his chest is heaving, just a bit.

That, and the white ribbon tied around his forehead.

“Do not,” Lan Wangji says, “touch him.”

Wen Zhuliu rises, planting himself in front of Wen Chao and Wei Wuxian as Lan Wangji approaches. Lan Wangji doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t stop until he’s three paces away, where he raises his sword to rest the tip just under Wen Zhuliu’s throat.

No, Wei Wuxian thinks. He swallows, trying to find his voice. No, no, Lan Zhan, no. This is all wrong—Lan Wangji is supposed to be far away, heading home at last, not here within arm’s reach of the kind of people who want to chain him up and use him as a weapon. Wei Wuxian sways forward, trying to catch Lan Wangji’s eye around Wen Chao’s back, but Lan Wangji’s gaze doesn’t waver.

“I am going to count to three,” Lan Wangji says, cold and quiet. “You will go to your master.” He spares a glance at Wen Chao, then looks back to Wen Zhuliu. “You will bind his hands, and then yours. And I will not kill you where you stand.”

Wen Zhuliu doesn’t draw a sword or make any move to retaliate, but Wei Wuxian knows he doesn’t need a sword. The very air ripples around him. Lan Wangji may be radiating fury, may have a blade to Wen Zhuliu’s throat, but—can he tell what Wen Zhuliu is? Does he know what he’s just walked into? How much danger he’s in?

Wei Wuxian pushes himself up onto shaking knees. “L—,” he starts, and catches Lan Wangji’s name behind his teeth, because no, he won’t give them anything they can track back to Lan Wangji or his family. “Go,” he says instead. By his side, Lan Wangji’s free hand twitches. “Please, go—”

Lan Wangji doesn’t look at him. “One.”

“Hold on. Who the fuck are you?” Wen Chao says, seeming to finally get his bearings. He unfolds from where he’d been cowering by the divan. “Aren’t you just the assistant?”

“He’s no one,” Wei Wuxian says, hoarse. Lan Wangji has a clear path to the door, he can still—

Wen Zhuliu tilts his head to the side, eyes locked onto Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian goes cold again. He knows.

“Two.”

Fuck. Fuck it. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian shouts, just as Wen Zhuliu lifts a hand. By the divan, Wen Chao untwists one of his rings and tosses it to Wen Zhuliu. Lan Wangji’s eyes track the movement, narrowing slightly, and then—

A crackle of ozone, an instant of ear-popping pressure, and instead of Lan Wangji and Wen Zhuliu—

They waste no time, launching into the air, twisting around each other like—carnival streamers, Wei Wuxian’s tattered mind thinks as he cranes his neck back, like streamers twirling through the air, except they’re two dragons each the length of a train car, and they’re furious.

Wen Zhuliu’s dragon form is dark like Wen Ning’s, with streaks of deep red around the ears and old scars crisscrossing the scales on his back. And Lan Wangi—Lan Wangji. In flashes, Wei Wuxian can see frost-white scales, a flicker of golden eyes, blue ridges the exact color of Lan Wangji’s spiritual energy when he played guqin to contain the knife spirit. He’s—Wei Wuxian’s mouth is dry, and not just from the screaming earlier. He wants to look; he wants to look and never stop looking. He wants time to stop so Lan Wangji doesn’t have to fight, can instead return to the ground, can be still enough for Wei Wuxian to look—to, maybe, reach out and touch—

Time, however, isn’t stopping. And Wei Wuxian can’t stop, either. He shoves himself to his feet, clinging to the armoire door, and hooks the tie around his wrists over the door’s metal handle and pulls until the cable tie snaps. Wei Wuxian gasps, shaking out his bloody hands, and looks up to see Wen Chao’s face go from slackjawed to a full-on grin as he watches Lan Wangji and Wen Zhuliu fight above them.

“Call off your bodyguard,” Wei Wuxian says, and somehow keeps his voice level. “Call him off, Wen Chao.”

“No,” Wen Chao says. A crash, and a stack of bins goes down under the fighting dragons, spilling their contents everywhere. The painted head of a porcelain doll rolls to a stop by Wen Chao’s foot. “I don’t think I will. You’ve just made everything so much easier for us, thank you. And now that we have your dragon, there’s no need to keep you around, hm?”

He draws his sword.

Wei Wuxian grits his teeth, steels himself, and launches himself right at Wen Chao.

He has a short moment to savor the look of surprise on Wen Chao’s face before he slams into him. They topple over the back of the divan, crashing to the floor on the other side. Wen Chao’s sword goes clattering away, because Wen Chao is better at fighting when he can stand behind someone else, and because Wei Wuxian has absolutely nothing to lose. Something burns inside of him as they grapple, some cocktail of fury and adrenaline, that only spikes as he lands a hit to Wen Chao’s nose with a satisfying crunch. Wei Wuxian drags him up and shoves him face-first against the broken curio cabinet by the wall.

“Call. Him. Off,” Wei Wuxian snarls.

Wen Chao whines, scrabbling against the edges of the curio door, still jagged with broken glass from the knife spirit, his head straining sideways. “You must really want to die,” he says. “Tell you what, when Wen Zhuliu’s finished over there, I’ll have him take care of you next. Not with his special little trick, but with his fucking claws. Slice you into ribbons and wait for you to bleed out. We’ll leave you here for the Consortium to f—”

A spike of energy washes over them like a soundwave, followed by a crack as the concrete floor splits open—a pipe burst somewhere under them, and it’s flooding up, a geyser. Murky water soaks Wei Wuxian’s shoes and his hands go clammy—in his mind, for a split second, he hears thunder—

A smirk grows on Wen Chao’s face. “Oh, your dragon is powerful,” he says.

Wei Wuxian tightens his fist in the back of Wen Chao’s collar and twists. Wen Chao wheezes, and Wei Wuxian twists harder. He wants Wen Chao to stop—stop talking, stop saying things about Lan Wangji in that awful, greedy voice—and somewhere, distantly, Wei Wuxian realizes he doesn’t plan to loosen his grip. Wen Chao thrashes, trying to throw him off, but Wei Wuxian feels like he’s made of nothing but rage. There’s no more weakness to exploit; he could stand here forever. He could stand here until Wen Chao stops moving and never says anything ever again.

As if from very far away, there’s another clatter as furniture cascades to the ground, a dual-toned hiss, and the sound of two large bodies colliding. It filters through Wei Wuxian’s awareness once, and then again, urgently. Without blinking he turns his head just enough to see the two dragons crash toward the floor.

Lan Wangji—

Wei Wuxian spins around, heart seizing in his chest, rage souring into terror. Lan Wangji and Wen Zhuliu are halfway across the warehouse, wedged in knee-deep water between a row of clothing racks and the empty stack of cages where the rabbits once were. Lan Wangji holds Wen Zhuliu’s head down, claws digging in behind his ears, pinning him.

Wei Wuxian has a second to feel relief, and then Wen Chao grabs something inside the curio cabinet and wrenches out of Wei Wuxian’s grasp. The next moment a cold blade presses against Wei Wuxian’s throat.

Wen Chao hooks an arm around Wei Wuxian’s neck, right above the blade, forcing his head back. Wei Wuxian sees a flash of wood handle, and almost laughs, because that’s the fucking Ghost-maker in Wen Chao’s hand. Dull enough not to cut him outright, and dull enough to hurt even more if Wen Chao decides to drive it in full-force anyway.

“All right, all right,” Wen Chao calls, right in Wei Wuxian’s ear. His voice is thick through his swelling nose, but it carries. “I think that’s enough, White Dragon.”

On top of Wen Zhuliu, Lan Wangji stills, his golden eyes flicking toward Wen Chao.

Wen Chao huffs a laugh, breath warm at Wei Wuxian’s temple. “Interesting,” he says, still loud enough for both of the dragons to hear. “This is what it takes to get your attention? What are you, Wei Wuxian’s pet?” He gives Wei Wuxian a shake, and Wei Wuxian clenches his teeth. “I’ll offer you a deal. Work for me instead. You can do better than some no-name cultivator—with me, we’ll be running every single sect within a year.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow, the blue ridges on his neck flaring like hackles.

“Fine,” Wen Chao says. “Let’s try this. You let go of Wen Zhuliu right now, or I stab Wei Wuxian right through the throat.”

He presses the knife in harder for emphasis. From his strained position, Wei Wuxian sees just the slightest shudder pass through Lan Wangji’s long body, and he knows—Lan Wangji’s going to do as he’s told, and then Wen Zhuliu will turn the tables on him, and Lan Wangji won’t make it home to his family today. Or ever.

Wei Wuxian lets his weight drop. The knife bites into his skin, but it’s just dull enough not to cut deep, so he ignores it, gets his knees back under him and then shoots back up, slamming his head right into Wen Chao’s already-crooked nose. Which, fuck, that hurts, but it works, because Wen Chao goes reeling back with a howl, far enough for Wei Wuxian to turn and wrest the knife from his hand. He drives an elbow into Wen Chao’s gut and kicks out his knee for good measure, and Wen Chao drops with a splash in the still-rising water.

A yowl near the cages, and out of the corner of his eye Wei Wuxian sees Wen Zhuliu throw off Lan Wangji and launch into the air, hurtling right toward him.

Lan Wangji reaches Wei Wuxian first, a blur of white wrapping around him. When Wen Zhuliu lashes out, his claws rake across Lan Wangji’s scales instead of Wei Wuxian’s skin. There’s a spatter of red, swirling into the water at their feet, and then Wei Wuxian’s stomach swoops as he’s yanked through the air.

They land by the far wall, skidding across the wet floor. When they stop Lan Wangji is still curled around him, facing Wen Zhuliu and Wen Chao. His side heaves under Wei Wuxian’s arms, warm and tacky with blood.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers, horrified, his brain scrambling to put together a new plan, to think. “Lan Zhan, you shouldn’t have—you shouldn’t be—”

A scream of rage reaches them as Wen Chao staggers to his feet. In front of him Wen Zhuliu shifts, and Lan Wangji tenses around Wei Wuxian, ready to keep fighting. Ready to keep protecting Wei Wuxian, for some reason, ready to throw himself in front of another dragon, to get himself hurt.

No.

Wei Wuxian tilts forward, leaning into the coil of Lan Wangji’s body, and gathers the last of his strength.

He begins to whistle.

The warehouse is, by all appearances, the perfect place to stage a kidnapping. Especially the kidnapping of someone like Wei Wuxian, who wouldn’t be missed. It’s inactive Consortium property with enough dark energy to keep away random passers-by, even with a dismantled barrier. It’s messy enough to hide evidence, and large enough to accommodate a dragon should it come to a fight. They could’ve hurt Wei Wuxian until there was nothing left of him to hurt, and been long gone before anyone realized.

Wen Chao hadn’t counted on two things: Wei Wuxian’s bone-deep knowledge of every thorny, angry thing in this place, and this—that Wei Wuxian was missed after all.

He whistles high and sharp, and then lets the note nosedive, long and slow toward sure destruction. The whole place stirs around them, every curse and spirit he’s carefully catalogued for weeks coming to attention. He knows each one, knows exactly how they’ve been suppressed or neutralized, and like tugging a loose thread on a tapestry, he undoes it all with a scratchy tune from his cracked lips.

He’s never done something like this before, not to this extent. It’s been in the back of his mind, purely hypothetical, as he figured out his tricks and workarounds and built this strange new system of cultivation. But there’s no time for theories, or trials. If this doesn’t work, Lan Wangji could be hurt again. If this doesn’t work, Wen Chao or Wen Zhuliu could slip past them, and Lan Wangji would become someone hunted. And Wei Wuxian will not let that happen.

He opens the empty place inside of him, and invites the resentful energy in.

The spirits respond, gleefully.

One last scream from Wen Chao before there’s no one left to scream.

It takes longer for the resentful energy to seep out than it did to rush in. He’s aware of his own heartbeat first, racing double-time in his ears. And then the air in his lungs, the water soaking into his shins, the chill settling over him. He’s crouching, clutching his own head, warm blood dripping down his chin from a nosebleed that he’d be incredibly concerned about if his brain weren’t full of nails again. And—Lan Wangji is no longer wrapped around him, he realizes. His limbs are numb and his vision may be swimming, but he thinks he’d notice a twenty-meter dragon if one were still pressed up against his body.

Lan Wangji’s all right, he knows, even as his chest starts to lock up with panic, he’s certain the spirits didn’t touch him, focused only on—

Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu, now nothing but small, mostly person-shaped figures in a spreading swirl of red across the floor—

Someone falls to their knees beside him, blue robes thudding against the wet mess of the floor. Wei Wuxian swallows, throat dry, and looks up at Lan Wangji. Human form again. Sword in hand. Blue fabric dotted with red at his side.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. He reaches out, cupping the back of Wei Wuxian’s head, gentle like he thinks, of everything that’s happened, this might be the thing that hurts Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, and he’s slurring his words a little. He barrels on anyway, because this is important, this isn’t over. “They were looking for you, specifically. They kept asking where you—where your—you have to go now, you have to get home—”

“Wei Ying, calm down—”

“There could be more coming, please, Lan Zhan—”

There’s a clatter by the door. Lan Wangji moves, turning to face the door, one hand raising his sword, the other dropping to Wei Wuxian’s waist, tucking him into Lan Wangji’s side. Half a dozen cultivators spill into the warehouse, their olive robes formal but muted, not Consortium but clearly something, and leading the group—

“Wei-xiong!” Nie Huaisang cries, running over. Lan Wangji’s arm tightens around Wei Wuxian. “Oh my god, you look terrible.” Nie Huaisang makes a face, then turns to the other cultivators, who are fanning out around the warehouse. “What are you doing over there? Go be useful and cover the back exits.”

“...Nie Huaisang?” Wei Wuxian says, or tries to. The syllables get a bit jumbled.

“Yeah, it’s me!” Nie Huaisang says. He drops to a crouch just out of arm’s length away, glancing at Lan Wangji warily. “I was just passing through and saw all this commotion, what a weird coincidence. Please don’t vomit on me.” He dips his head to Lan Wangji, who glares and draws Wei Wuxian closer. “Nice to meet you, I’m Wei Wuxian’s best friend.”

“Nngh,” Wei Wuxian says.

He means to say more—to ask what’s going to happen to the bodies, to them, to come up with a way to get Lan Wangji out of here before he gets more tangled in this than he already is—but none of his thoughts are connecting to each other right now. His head tips sideways, falling against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. There’s an extra buzz there now, maybe, a tiny thrum of power Wei Wuxian can feel even without his talismans, but otherwise he’s the same Lan Wangji whose chest Wei Wuxian slept on for a whole night, the same Lan Wangji who carried Wei Wuxian through the kitchen and pulled him out of a cursed mirror. Wei Wuxian had expected him to feel different, somehow. Or, he hadn’t expected him to be here at all.

That’s the last thought he has before passing out.

#

He wakes up in a hospital.

He knows it’s a hospital before he opens his eyes. There’s a very distinctive smell, lemony and sterile, and a low, close-up beeping backed by a thrum of activity far beyond it. That, and the fact that the pain in his neck and his head has a fuzzy, sleepy quality to it, and the back of his hand itches where the IV tape pulls at his skin.

The last time he’d been in a hospital was after the Qinghe incident, when doctors had flitted through to adjust his IVs and treat him for exhaustion and a few minor burns. He’d been in a ward with eleven other people, two of them watching loud TV throughout the whole experience, and no one had talked to him much beyond please rate your pain and do you want us to notify anyone, and he left the first possible moment he could. The time before that had been the hospital in Lanling, where he’d woken up to an empty room and a Consortium guard standing outside the door, fending off an irate Jiang Cheng. A doctor ran tests just long enough to determine he wasn’t actively dying anymore, and he’d been promptly removed in time for the trial.

All in all, this is his most peaceful hospital experience so far, mostly because there’s no TV that he can hear, and no yelling Jiang Cheng. For a moment he just breathes, and listens.

When he does open his eyes, it’s to an empty room. There’s a sink in the corner, a clipboard hanging on the back of the door, and two burnished-metal chairs by his bedside. It won’t last very long, probably, because a nurse or a doctor will probably be around soon, and he’ll have to tell them he’s as fine as he can get away with, and they’ll ask if he has family to call and he’ll say no, and they’ll look uncomfortable about it, and then, eventually, he’ll be allowed to leave, hopefully with a decent prescription for pain meds and minimal Consortium interrogation.

It’s fine, because if he’s here, it means they really did get out of that warehouse. And if they really did get out of that warehouse, then Lan Wangji can go home.

He’s just debating whether or not to press the little Call button when he hears footsteps outside. He opens his mouth, ready to head off the nurse’s questions, but—

It isn’t a nurse.

Lan Wangji pauses just inside the doorway. He’s holding a paper drinking cup and wearing a clean shirt, no more bloodstained robes, and his white ribbon is still tied around his forehead. When his eyes meet Wei Wuxian’s they widen, just for a moment, a crack in his unflappable composure. Then he’s across the room, setting the cup on one of the chairs and kneeling by the bed. “Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan—?” Wei Wuxian says. His voice comes out scratchy, and ow, okay, his throat isn’t happy. Probably from the strangling. That’s not important now, though, what’s important is— “What are you doing here?”

He tries to sit up and Lan Wangji stops him with a touch to the shoulder. He stills, and Lan Wangji looks him over, gaze sweeping from Wei Wuxian’s face to his neck to the bandages around both wrists where the cable tie bit into his skin.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says again, and half wishes a nurse would walk in, if only so things would start making sense again.

“Do you want some tea?” Lan Wangji says.

“Do I—? No. Hold on.” Wei Wuxian shoves himself up again, succeeding this time. Lan Wangji’s hand falls to the sheets. “Listen,” he says, low and urgent, “Wen Chao might have more associates. They’re probably looking for you, for me, they already raided my house. They might come here, so you should go.”

“No one will come here,” Lan Wangji says. “Lie down.”

Wei Wuxian does not.

“If you won’t lie down, at least have some tea.” Lan Wangji reaches for the paper cup and tries to press it into Wei Wuxian’s non-IV hand. “Are you in pain? I can call for the doctor.” Lan Wangji’s mouth tightens. “I know you don’t like hospitals, but you were—you would not wake up. However your, ah, friend called in a favor, and assured discretion. The Consortium does not know you are here.”

Wei Wuxian’s head spins. “I’m—wait. What about you? Are you okay? Wen Zhuliu—he got you, when you were—”

Lan Wangji touches his side, where his blue robes had been splotchy with blood. “I took care of it. We match now,” he says mildly.

“Lan Zhan.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand why Lan Wangji is still here, in this room, in this hospital, in this city, trying to push Wei Wuxian back into bed and hand him tea at the same time. “Seriously, there could be more. Wen Chao is—” Wei Wuxian stops, something lurching in his gut as he remembers Wen Chao is dead. “Was,” he says, “was well-connected, there could be more people on his payroll out there or—”

“There are not,” Lan Wangji says. 

Wei Wuxian starts kicking away his sheets. If Lan Wangji won’t listen to him, then he’ll—he’ll shove him out the door if he has to, out to the nearest train station or car rental service. “You don’t know that.”

“I do.” Lan Wangji grabs Wei Wuxian’s hand and covers it with his own, finally curling Wei Wuxian’s fingers firmly around the cup of tea. It’s warm. “Wei Ying, I do know. Listen to me. I haven’t simply been idle the past few months.”

“You haven’t—what?”

Lan Wangji looks pointedly at Wei Wuxian, then at the bed pillows. Slowly, Wei Wuxian leans back until he’s propped against the headboard. Seeming to be satisfied with this, Lan Wangji says: “Wen Chao was running an operation that crossed into Gusu last year—he stole a shipment of old manuscripts we were transporting for our library. I tracked him here and reclaimed them, but in the process my ribbon fell into his...collection. He had no idea, but he and the rest of his collection disappeared before I could retrieve it. So I stayed here, and I tracked them. There weren’t many others on Wen Chao’s crew—he and the dragon were the only ones I hadn’t found yet. The others...are no longer a concern.”

His expression is hard. Dragons have old magic, Wei Wuxian knows—the kind that can manipulate dreams and memories, sometimes, so it could be that Lan Wangji simply altered the memories of everyone he tracked down. Wen Ning had done that, once or twice.

It could be that.

It probably isn’t.

“I didn’t have a lead on Wen Chao’s collection until the warehouse turned up in the Consortium’s custody,” Lan Wangji says. “Everything else, however—please trust me on this. No one is coming back for me, or for you.”

His fingers tighten around Wei Wuxian’s for a moment. Wei Wuxian blinks hard, sorting out everything Lan Wangji said in his slow-moving brain. He thinks about Lan Wangji staying in Lotus Pier all these months, dismantling an entire smuggling operation on his own—so he wouldn’t draw more attention to his family? To redeem himself for losing his pearl?

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, “that is—thank you for telling me. Wow. You really covered everything. And now you have your pearl back.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. He somehow, still, isn’t leaving.

“There’s nothing stopping you from going home,” Wei Wuxian tries.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says again. “When did you know?”

“When did I—?” (Lan Wangji couldn’t be asking about Wei Wuxian’s...feelings, could he? They’re just going to ignore the making out on the couch thing, right? Surely, considering the circumstances—)

“When did you know,” Lan Wangji says, “what you had.”

Oh. The pearl. Right. Wei Wuxian looks down at his hands, one of which is still wrapped in Lan Wangji’s. The tea steams gently. “I knew what it was when I found it. The first day. But I didn’t know it was yours until this morning,” he says. And then: “I’m sorry. Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize. I thought you, or, whoever it belonged to, had to be dead, I was just trying to keep it safe and I didn’t mean to—none of it, I didn’t mean for any of this.”

Lan Wangji is quiet for a long time. Then, calmly, he says, “None of it?”

So maybe they’re not ignoring it, then. Wei Wuxian covers his face with his free arm, then uncovers it. “Not...none of it,” he says.

Lan Wangji nods gravely. And then he leans forward and kisses Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian freezes. Lan Wangji is kissing him. Here. In a hospital, where he doesn’t have to be. The door is there, the door isn’t locked, and Wei Wuxian could do absolutely nothing to stop him from walking right out of it. Lan Wangji could be gone forever in a matter of seconds, but he’s. Here. He’s kissing Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian kisses back, cracked lips and all, because if it’s the last chance he gets—well.

It takes a minute for him to come to his senses. Maybe two. In his defense, kissing Lan Wangji—even if it’s gentle like this, especially if it’s gentle like this, with Lan Wangji holding himself carefully so he doesn’t jostle Wei Wuxian at all—is more mind-addling than the pain meds. But Wei Wuxian does, eventually, find his way back to the topic at hand, and he pulls back. “Wait,” he says. “Wait. What were you thinking? Barging into the warehouse like that? Revealing yourself? You could’ve been hurt! Hurt worse, that is! You could’ve been seen!”

“I was thinking,” Lan Wangji says calmly, still just centimeters away, “that there was little I wouldn’t do, to get you out of there.”

“But,” Wei Wuxian says, because that doesn’t seem right. “How…?”

“I was—confused, at first,” Lan Wangji says. “This morning. I came inside to find my pearl on the table, and to find you gone. I walked to the river, just to be by the water, because it had been—” He exhales. “It had been a very long time, since I was connected with the water. I sent a message to my brother. And then I returned to wait for you, and your cottage had been torn apart inside.” He pauses. “I wasn’t there to stop it.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “I don’t care. I don’t.”

“Still.” Lan Wangji’s mouth does something small and unhappy. “Whoever had been there was powerful. I tracked them back to the warehouse, and when I arrived, I knew—I knew. You were inside. And I didn’t care if it meant exposing my secret. It wasn’t about Wen Chao anymore, or what he did or did not know. Wei Ying. I would have done anything to make sure you were safe. I still would.”

Wei Wuxian’s heart hammers in his throat. Lan Wangji holds his gaze for another moment, the space between them charged with the intensity of that statement, and then Lan Wangji looks down, smoothing the rumpled sheets. “Lie down,” he says again.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian replies, and he sounds helpless. “Why?”

“Because you are hurt.”

“No.” Very carefully, Wei Wuxian detangles his hand from Lan Wangji’s, balancing the cup on the mattress. He reaches up and presses his too-warm hand to Lan Wangji’s cheek. “Why?

Lan Wangji ducks his head, pressing his face into Wei Wuxian’s hand. “Not...none of it for me, as well,” he says.

“But your pearl,” Wei Wuxian says. “Even if I didn’t know, I still—you still—”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, once. “I guessed you didn’t know,” he says. “Rules prevent us from talking about it directly with outsiders. I was going to find a way to bring it up anyway, but I already suspected. When you returned it to me, I knew.”

“You were going to break the rules for me?”

Lan Wangji gives him a pointed look, which is—really something, from this angle, through those eyelashes. “I am breaking them now.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says.

“I do not regret it.” Lan Wangji presses his lips to Wei Wuxian’s palm, soft. “You are good,” he says. Like he believes it. Like it’s simple.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to say to that. He feels unmoored. Untethered.

He feels, in the strangest twist of fate, okay.

“Lan Zhan,” is all he says, and it is enough.

#

A nurse comes in soon after, nodding to Lan Wangji like she already knows who he is, and sets about fussing over Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian lets her, partly because he’s tired again, and partly because if Lan Wangji is here—and Wei Wuxian finally seems to be catching on to the fact that Lan Wangji really, really isn’t about to vanish—then Wei Wuxian isn’t in a rush to go anywhere else.

(Also, he has a feeling Lan Wangji will know if he downplays his pain levels, so he grits his teeth and tries to be honest for once. He mostly succeeds.)

The nurse has just left, and Wei Wuxian has just rolled his head to face Lan Wangji again, ready to ask him more questions about dragons or maybe ask him for another kiss, please, now that he’s had some water and his brain is back online, when the door bursts open.

“There you are,” Jiang Cheng snaps.

Lan Wangji is on his feet. Wei Wuxian tries to sit up again, which is difficult given how firmly the nurse tucked the sheets around him. “Jiang Cheng?”

“Took me fucking hours to track you down.” Jiang Cheng glares at Wei Wuxian, like that’s somehow his fault. “Glad you’re alive, at least, Huaisang was being a cryptic fucker like usual.”

“I’m alive,” Wei Wuxian confirms.

“That’s one less hassle to deal with, at least.” Jiang Cheng steps forward, and Lan Wangji shifts, blocking his path. Jiang Cheng blinks, like he’s only just realizing Lan Wangji is here. “Gods,” he says, “you again? What is your deal? Whatever it is, get out of the way and let me talk to my—let me talk to him.”

Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian.

“It’s okay,” Wei Wuxian tells him, “if he’s not wearing his uniform robes, then he’s not here to arrest me.” Then, because Lan Wangji still doesn’t move: “Lan Zhan. It’s okay.”

“I will be outside,” Lan Wangji says shortly, more to Jiang Cheng than to Wei Wuxian, and sweeps out of the room.

“You really aren’t here to arrest me, right?” Wei Wuxian says, once Jiang Cheng has kicked the door shut. “I’d hate to have lied to Lan Zhan.”

Jiang Cheng looks at him for a long moment. “The official story,” he says, “is that Wen Chao and his associate broke into that warehouse and ran afoul of a particularly powerful resentful spirit. Because he was very clearly killed by something...not human. Or, not human anymore.” Jiang Cheng keeps staring. There’s a question there, in his look. Wei Wuxian meets his eyes, and lets his lack of answer be answer enough.

Jiang Cheng looks away first. “You, on the other hand, clearly were attacked by something human. Wen Chao, I presume. Again.”

“Mm.”

“And now you turn up here, with—with this Lan Wangji, who you’ve only known for like three weeks, sitting by your bed.”

Wei Wuxian grimaces. “Jiang Cheng. Leave him alone. Please.”

“Hmph,” Jiang Cheng says, which Wei Wuxian knows is as close to a fine as he’ll get. “You’re—friends.”

Wei Wuxian’s face heats up entirely without his permission. Giddiness blooms in his chest, washing over the concoction of guilt and frustration and wistfulness Jiang Cheng had dragged into the room. “I think we’re, uh. More than that?”

Jiang Cheng’s face twists. “I thought—”

“If you’re about to say you thought I was straight, I’ll be incredibly surprised that you managed to block out literally all of senior secondary—”

“I thought you pushed everyone away,” Jiang Cheng says.

“Ah?”

Jiang Cheng shuffles his foot, an old habit. “During the war. And after. You went off on your own. You came back and didn’t tell anyone anything. You left home.”

“I was disowned,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. “Do you not remember that part? Yu-furen was very loud about it.”

“Yeah, and you just left. You didn’t argue. You didn’t try to come back.”

“What could I have done?” Wei Wuxian’s voice sounds raw. He clears his throat. “You didn’t want me.” Fuck, that’s worse. “I couldn’t change what I did.”

“You called A-jie,” Jiang Cheng says. “And you stopped calling me.”

“You stopped picking up.”

“Because you wouldn’t tell me anything when I did! And you kept lying to A-jie, saying it was your choice to leave, and you made me lie to her, too.” Jiang Cheng is breathing hard. He seems to realize it, and crosses his arms. “There’s so much you never told us. And we never told you. Because you fucked off to be a martyr about—I don’t even know what about. But now this random guy shows up, and you’re suddenly soulmates?”

“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, “it might be a bit early to tell on the soulmate front, but I kind of hope so.”

Jiang Cheng’s mouth flattens into a dangerous line. “Great. I’m thrilled for you.”

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian says. “Jiang Cheng. I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I want to know what happened. When you disappeared. Tonight. All of it. The truth.”

“I can’t tell you all of it,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. Maybe, years ago, Jiang Cheng would’ve been the only one he’d have told. But there’s a canyon between them now. “You can’t trust that I have a reason for that, and talk to me anyway?”

Jiang Cheng glares at the wall like he’s trying to bore a hole into the hallway. “I was looking for you,” he says.

“I know. You found me.” Wei Wuxian spreads his arms wide. Here I am.

“During the war,” Jiang Cheng says. “When Wen Chao caught me. Two years ago, that’s what I was doing. Looking for you. You just left—you didn’t tell me where you were going or anything. I looked for you for a year. And the next thing I knew, I was home and you were in some hospital in Lanling.”

“I,” Wei Wuxian says. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah. Well.” Jiang Cheng shifts his foot again, then looks toward the door. “I’m done here, I think. Now that I know you’re alive. And taken care of, apparently.”

“Jiang Cheng…”

Jiang Cheng heads for the door again. He pauses with his hand on the doorknob. “If,” he says. Purses his lips. “If you leave again. Tell me, this time.”

Wei Wuxian blinks. Oh. “I will,” he says.

Jiang Cheng nods, and leaves.

Lan Wangji comes back a minute later, closing the door with a soft click, fresh cup of tea in his hand. He sits on the edge of the mattress as Wei Wuxian settles back against the pillows.

“Are you all right?” Lan Wangji says.

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, “I think I am.” And he means it.

one year later

“All right,” Wei Wuxian says in a low voice, “let’s review the plan of attack one more t—”

A jet of water hits him right in the eye.

“Ningning, we’re waiting for my signal,” he says, mock-stern, mopping his face with his sleeve.

“Sorry,” a round-faced Lan child says, and giggles. There are about eight of them clustered around Wei Wuxian in this clearing, and one A-Yuan, who isn’t a Lan but might be, someday. Piles of blank talisman paper and scribbled-on drafts litter the ground around them, because they’re well into today’s lesson already and these serious little Lan kids have a shocking ability to make a mess when given the chance. (A chance Wei Wuxian tries to provide often, because, honestly. They’re babies.)

“Xian-gege,” A-Yuan says, “use this. Not your sleeve.” He passes Wei Wuxian a handkerchief from his own pocket, one Wen Ning made for him on his last visit.

“Of course, where are my manners,” Wei Wuxian says, and dabs at his face. “Thank you, A-Yuan.”

He hands the handkerchief back with a wink, and A-Yuan beams back, the same earnest, adorable face he had when he was three, now a few years older with a white ribbon looped around his forehead. It’s a placeholder ribbon, like most of the other kids have, because he still hasn’t shown a dragon form yet. The Lan elders say he has time, though, and in the meanwhile A-Yuan’s here, attending classes with kids his age for the first time. He’s been in Gusu for just under a year, almost as long as Wei Wuxian has, and already he fits in like he was born here.

Wei Wuxian wouldn’t say “fits in” describes his own place within the Lans’ mountain home, but he’s happy, and that’s enough. The whole Wen Chao fiasco last year turned into an official pardon for Wei Wuxian, which means he can travel freely, so if he wants he can go visit Jiang Yanli in Lanling, and he can bring A-Yuan to see Wen Ning and Wen Qing every month, and he can go to new places that call to him, or call for him, now that Nie Huaisang has gotten word out to his many contacts that Wei Wuxian is a very trusted and very hirable curse worker. (Nie Huaisang had come by while Wei Wuxian was packing his cottage to let him know about the pardon, saying he’d “heard it from a friend of a friend of my brother’s, I don’t even know,” and then gave Wei Wuxian a rare, old book of folklore he “found at an estate sale somewhere.” There was a whole section about dragons inside.) It means Wei Wuxian got to see Jiang Yanli and A-Ling in Caiyi just a few months ago, and when Jiang Yanli looked at him and said, “Tell me the truth, please, A-Xian,” Wei Wuxian had. Well, part of it. Some of it still isn’t his to tell, but it was a start.

Most of all, it means he can stay in Gusu, with Lan Wangji.

Soon the two of them will bring A-Yuan back to Wen Ning and Wen Qing for the summer, and Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji will set out traveling. Wei Wuxian’s blossoming career as a freelance curse worker is great cover for digging through ancient archives and oddity collections looking for traces of other lost dragon sects, and it promises an adventure on the horizon. And in the meanwhile, Wei Wuxian has a home. A real one, with no curses sunk into the floorboards (though Lan Wangji is building him a workshop out past Spot and Not Spot’s hutch, because there are a surprising number of cursed objects in the Lans’ vast library). A home where he can fall asleep on Lan Wangji’s chest every night, if he wants, and it’s not done on borrowed time. It’s just time, and it’s theirs.

There’s a flash of white down the path as someone approaches the clearing. “Shh,” Wei Wuxian says, beckoning the kids close. “Our target approaches. Talismans at the ready...shh...wait for it...now.”

As Lan Wangji steps into the clearing, the kids run forward, activating their water-squirting talismans and drenching him head to toe with surprisingly good aim for a bunch of six-year-olds. “Success!” Wei Wuxian crows, as the kids fall over themselves laughing. “Look at that! You all did so well. Didn’t they do so well, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji blinks water out of his eyes. “Very good,” he says.

Wei Wuxian laughs along with the kids, feeling like his smile must be as big as the whole mountain, watching Lan Wangji make his way around the kids to join Wei Wuxian. He’s holding a basket, which is also soaked, and there’s a small smile playing on the edge of his lips.

“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, not sorry at all. Lan Wangji gives him a slow blink, which says he knows. “What’s up? Did you need something?”

“I was bringing you some lunch,” Lan Wangji says, and nods to the basket. Inside is an arrangement of very neat, slightly soggy buns.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says fervently, picking one up and biting in, “have I told you lately how much I love you? Because I love you very much.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, but his ears are pink. He leans in to press a brief kiss to Wei Wuxian’s temple.

“Lan Zhan, you’re going to get my clothes all wet,” Wei Wuxian complains, and contradicts himself by clinging to Lan Wangji’s soaked robes and turning his face up to steal another kiss. The mountain air is crisp and cool for this time of year, the nearby spring burbling and the kids still giggling across the clearing as they gather their used paper. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure he ever knew what being at peace really felt like, before, but he thinks this might be it.

He breaks away after a short, sunlit moment and finishes the rest of his bun. “I still have to go over drying talismans with them this afternoon,” he says. “We’ll need a test subject. Will you stay?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, and he does.