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It’s an early autumn day when Wei Wuxian first sees the man walking down his path.

 

The situation in itself is a bit of an improbability. Wei Wuxian lives alone in the middle of the woods, away from where any cars or public transit can reach by road. Way off-grid. So remote that the invention of the telephone has been rendered obsolete. So remote that his own brother doesn’t know where to find him, and even if he did, he would have a very hard time getting to him  — which is probably, considering several things, for the best.

 

So seeing a man out in his secluded part of the woods is in itself unusual. Seeing a man in his part of the woods wearing a cardigan sails past improbable into the realm of the absurd. Through the grime-frosted window pane above his sink, Wei Wuxian watches the stranger’s approach in the sort of enthralled disbelief with which a kid might watch a dog stand on its hind legs.

 

The man stops in front of Wei Wuxian’s cottage, his hands behind his back, and appraises it with an assessing look.  

 

Probably just out on a walk and curious, Wei Wuxian reasons. He writes him off, mostly due to the aforementioned cardigan, and goes back to what he’s doing.

 

Then he hears the familiar groan of the latch on his garden gate unclenching its teeth. His head snaps up. 

 

The man is definitely — through the gate now and striding with purpose toward Wei Wuxian’s front door.

 

Shit,” Wei Wuxian mutters, and hastily slams a couple of lids on the pots he has boiling on the stove. He rakes a quick, assessing look over the kitchen — unsalvageable — and scrambles to throw on a sweatshirt over his tanktop before three sturdy knocks sound out from the front door.

 

Beyond baffled, Wei Wuxian goes to answer it.

 

Wei Wuxian has made peace with the cardigan by the time the door opens, but he certainly had not been not expecting — that. The man’s face is one made for pouting indifferently at Wei Wuxian from the glossy covers of magazines at the convenience store, not for — staring at Wei Wuxian, in real life, on his sagging front doorstep. It had rained last night, the cool air rich with the damp of dead leaves stamped into the wet earth. Even so, there’s not a single speck on the guy to be found. Clean, unmuddied white lines from head to toe. 

 

Cardigan is the most beautiful man Wei Wuxian has ever seen, in sort of a hilarious way, in the sense that — he’s so improbably attractive you almost have to laugh, otherwise you might cry. Raven-black hair swept up in a short, silky ponytail with an undercut, golden eyes, and unfairly clear, pale skin. Like an incredibly sexy, cardigan-wearing vampire.

 

All in all, he could not strike a more stark contrast to Wei Wuxian, who’s sporting three studs in each ear, some smudged eyeliner from the previous night, two healing pimples between his eyebrows, and black everything, from skinny jeans to studded boots.

 

“Uh…” Wei Wuxian says, as he tries to figure out the politest way to suggest there’s been an obvious mistake. “Hi?”

 

“Good morning,” Cardigan says in a deep, melodic voice. “My name is Lan Wangji. I’ve been sent from the Central Institute of Witchcraft and Magic Use.”

 

Oh, good God, the Institute. They’d found him, Wei Wuxian thinks, harrowed, then realizes he’d probably been naïve to think he’d ever lost them.

 

“Wei Wuxian,” Wei Wuxian offers, sticking out a chummy, ring-heavy hand.

 

“I know,” Lan Wangji says, and does not take the hand.

 

Wei Wuxian drops it, leans one shoulder into the stunted door frame. “Oh. Okay. So. Why are you here, exactly?”

 

“The Institute sent me to assist you,” the ridiculously beautiful cardigan owner says, “as your familiar.”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs as if it’s a joke, although the man’s stony expression makes it clear that any humor gleaned from him is likely unintentional.

 

“Well, uh, I appreciate your,” Wei Wuxian says, “you know, time, but everything is under control here, actually.”

 

With impeccable timing, a tea-kettle sound keens from the kitchen, followed by a contained bang.

 

Lan Wangji’s cat-gold eyes slide slightly past Wei Wuxian’s shoulder into the house. His expression does not shift even a little, but Wei Wuxian senses judgment nonetheless.

 

“I’m cooking,” Wei Wuxian says brightly. “Do you want to come in?”

 

Wei Wuxian is glad for the company, but thinks even the briefest tour may be enough to convince this Lan Wangji that he’s a lost cause. After all, the front hallway leads directly to his kitchen, which is by far the direst of the rooms in his fairly dire residence. 

 

Fat, crooked spines of books pile up in vertebral turrets on every flat surface as Wei Wuxian leads Lan Wangji down the hall. In the corner of the corridor is a vat of green liquid that exudes a brackish, putrid smell, a chemical womb for animal bones. The shaggy rug in the entryway is red, though it had not been that color when Wei Wuxian first purchased it.

 

The journey down the cramped main hall is a fittingly climactic buildup to the kitchen. Black, lacquered stains stipple the walls as they enter. (It’s nail polish, but Lan Wangji doesn’t need to know that. The optics of it add to ambiance.) Wei Wuxian had not been expecting guests — correction: He, as a general rule, never expects guests, so there’s a damning jar of milk teeth that he’d left out on the table. Weeks’ worth of dirty dishes, compiled on the counter and in the sink, have started to grow their own ecosystems. Two white-foamed, bubbling pots, which Wei Wuxian primly refuses to call cauldrons, shake and whistle on the stove.

 

Wei Wuxian turns back toward Lan Wangji, expecting to find him halfway out the door.

 

“There is a dead cat on your windowsill,” he is not expecting Lan Wangji to say.

 

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian follows the direction of his gaze. “Oh! That.”

 

“That,” Lan Wangji agrees, flatly.

 

The thing is: Wei Wuxian has heard of the Lan family. They’re an influential, moneyed clan with a heavy sway in the Institute, and are also well-known for producing strong familiars, powerful and corrective guides for young witches. Most witches are automatically assigned a familiar so long as they’re registered with the Institute, but given Wei Wuxian’s reputation teeters in the Institute’s dubious gray territory of “secluded lunatic” and “potential enemy of state,” he had assumed he was, well. Exempt from such assignments.

 

For Wei Wuxian to be sent not only a familiar, but a high-caliber one from the golden upper echelons of the Institute, it’s — it’s certainly a Wednesday.

 

“So, Lan Wangji,” he says, testing the waters, and dials up a bright smile as Lan Wangji’s gaze pins him. “Who exactly did you piss off to get stuck with this detail?”

 

One of Lan Wangji’s eyebrow twitches. Oh, maybe that was a frown. “No one.”

 

“Aren’t you Lans, like,” Wei Wuxian says, circling one hand demonstratively, “supposed to be outfitted with witches who are, I don’t know... ” 

 

Not me hovers right there for the taking.

 

Lan Wangji’s mouth tightens into a lemon-pucker line. “There have been...questions voiced about your methods. I offered to investigate and to provide corrective recourse, if the need be.”

 

Well, the guy is nothing if not transparent. And also, as it’s shaping up, kind of a drip. 

 

“Oh, so they’re worried I’m going to blow up a government building,” Wei Wuxian says mildly. “Can I offer you some tea?”

 

Lan Wangji blinks. His gaze shifts to the metallic rattling of the pots, then back to Wei Wuxian, which makes his preference quite clear even before he answers, “No, thank you.”

 

Wei Wuxian shrugs one shoulder. Suit yourself. He pours himself a generous helping before he turns and leans back against the counter, cupping the warm mug between his hands.

 

“The cat,” Lan Wangji presses, weirdly caught up on this detail.

 

“She has a name,” Wei Wuxian sniffs. “It’s Juzi. And because I can see you’re about to ask, no, I did not kill her.” As if Wei Wuxian needs to add “animal cruelty” to his growing list of transgressions against humanity.

 

“Then,” Lan Wangji prompts.

 

“She passed from natural causes, the cause of nature being that she was old as fuck. I’ve been trying to see if I can bring her back,” Wei Wuxian says, then takes a moment to check on the contents of one of the pots. The broth has turned a virulent shade of purple, which means that it’s coming along rather nicely.

 

“You mean necrotic magic,” Lan Wangji says, and with the words, it’s as if a cold front has swept through the kitchen.

 

“That’s such an oppressive term, don’t you think?” Wei Wuxian asks, shooting another smile across the kitchen. It bounces off of Lan Wangji like a meteor against a force field. “I prefer to call it being resourceful with the materials at hand.”

 

“Necrotic practice is in violation of Institute protocol,” Lan Wangji says stiffly, and Wei Wuxian sighs and sets the stirring spoon down. 

 

“That’s why I work outside of Institute parameters,” Wei Wuxian explains with great patience. “No harm done to them, they leave me alone in return, right? Again, I really don’t get why they felt the need to send you.”

 

“It has become more clear now,” Lan Wangji says with a grim finality, and Wei Wuxian sighs again.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Wuxian is unfamiliar (ha!) with how familiars work, but apparently there’s some sort of unspoken agreement, entirely without Wei Wuxian’s input, that Lan Wangji will be living in his house. He’d brought pretty much his whole wardrobe and several of his belongings in a qiankun pouch. Wei Wuxian has one bedroom (which barely meets the definition of the term), so he clears off books, clothes, and other unmentionables so that Lan Wangji can sleep on the couch, and is met with silence when he tentatively wishes Lan Wangji a good night and puts out the lights later that evening.

 

All in all, one of his stranger nights in recent memory.

 

Early the next morning, Wei Wuxian stumbles down the hallway in sweatpants and one sock, yawning so hard his jaw creaks. He fumbles around for the switch, and tangerine light floods the bathroom, and Wei Wuxian startles and swears loudly when it does, windmilling backward.

 

There’s a rabbit perched in the middle of his bathroom floor. Wei Wuxian is certain it’s not one of his, mostly because it looks too intact. It’s yellow-eyed, serene-looking, and extremely fluffy.

 

Wei Wuxian bends down, uncertainly, and says, “Hello?”

 

The rabbit stares back at him with a stare that could be qualified as simply “rabbity,” but Wei Wuxian perceives a withering judgment from it.

 

Then the rabbit ruffles its white fur, and something disobeys the laws of physics that makes Wei Wuxian’s brain twist slightly sideways because the next thing he knows, it’s Lan Wangji standing before him, and Wei Wuxian yelps louder than before, scrambling back into the darkness of the hallway.

 

“Good morning,” Lan Wangji says, with a stoicism that from anyone else Wei Wuxian would mistake for deliberate irony, if he wasn’t already apprised of the fact that Lan Wangji does not joke.

 

“You,” Wei Wuxian splutters, and takes a despairing moment of entirely disordered priorities to realize he’d left his shirt in his bedroom. Oddly self-conscious, he crosses his arms over his bare chest. Lan Wangji surveys him with an unmoved patience. 

 

“So you,” Wei Wuxian says, then intelligently asks, “Bunny?”

 

Lan Wangji stares at him harder.

 

“It was a hare,” he says, with frost-bitten gravity.

 

“It was a bunny,” Wei Wuxian corrects him. “That’s your — animal form? A bunny?”

 

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes at him, as if he’s trying to suss out whether he’s being laughed at, which he is. A little. Wei Wuxian has one hand clamped to his mouth under the guise of remaining surprise, which conceals the laughter nicely.

 

“My animal form,” Lan Wangji says slowly, “can be whatever I choose, which in my resting state is generally a hare.”

 

“Bunny,” Wei Wuxian moves his hand away to point out again.

 

Lan Wangji sets his jaw and makes a visible show of retaining his patience.

 

“I’m sorry!” Wei Wuxian says. “It’s really, you know! Cute and all! I just, when I always pictured familiars, I thought they were supposed to be...protective? Fierce?”

 

“I can take any form,” Lan Wangji repeats, though his expression had faltered strangely at the word “cute,” which Wei Wuxian files away for later observation.

 

“Okay, so,” Wei Wuxian says, then scrubs a knuckle against the sleep gumming his eyes. “What’re you doing in my bathroom?”

 

“Waiting for you,” Lan Wangji says crisply. “You woke late.”

 

Wei Wuxian stares. “It’s...it’s six a.m.”

 

“Late,” Lan Wangji says, like he’s punctuating his earlier point.

 

“Why are you...waiting for me,” Wei Wuxian says.

 

“I thought you could walk me through your day,” Lan Wangji answers. “As your familiar for at least the time being, it will behoove us both to familiarize with each other’s schedules and magical practice.”

 

Wei Wuxian, who’s still mouthing “behoove” to himself in slight bafflement, catches onto the plot a bit late. “Uh, you want to...follow me around?”

 

Lan Wangji blinks, slow like a lizard. “Yes,” he says.

 

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. Ah, this is. New. A wrench in his daily schedule, which is a generous term for his everyday goings-on. He’s used to working very much alone. 

 

Wei Wuxian bumps past Lan Wangji, who’s as immovable as a mountain crag, to brush his teeth. “Well, on the docket today, I’m going to mess around with that dead cat for the first couple hours. Then I was going to head into town for business.”

 

“Business,” Lan Wangji echoes, hovering over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. He watches with those strange amber eyes as Wei Wuxian squirts paste onto his toothbrush, like the process is somehow fascinating to him.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian garbles around the toothbrush, then raises his eyebrows at Lan Wangji in the mirror. “I’ve got to eat somehow, Lan Wangji.”

 

“So you,” Lan Wangji says, with darkening disapproval, “turn your magic for profit.”

 

“That’s a pretty way of saying it, yeah,” Wei Wuxian replies through a mouthful of mint sludge, then spits into the sink.  He starts to tick off on the toothbrush. “A woman wants her ex-husband hexed, a teenage girl wants her acne gone, an old guy wants his chart read to see if he has a shot with the hot young widow next door...kind of just depends on the day.”

 

“It is,” Lan Wangji says, each word heavily enunciated. He’s speaking to himself, Wei Wuxian realizes. “Much worse than I thought.”

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Wuxian does, in fact, mess with the dead cat for a couple of hours. He doesn’t make much headway. The cat stays very, very dead, and shows no signs of getting up and walking again.

 

The entire time Wei Wuxian pokes around with it, Lan Wangji hovers in the corner of the kitchen like some kind of albino bat and watches him with undisguised disapproval.

 

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian announces with a merry finality, after two hours of nothing to show for his work. He heads over to the sink to wash his hands, clearing away a wobbling stack of dirty plates as he does. “Town?”

 

“I will follow your schedule,” Lan Wangji says staunchly.

 

“Alright,” Wei Wuxian says with a shrug, and goes to retrieve his broomstick.

 

The nice thing about Wei Wuxian’s place is that it can pretty much only be accessed via broomstick. He realizes, once they step outside, that he hadn’t seen Lan Wangji’s landing before he’d walked up to the cottage yesterday, so when Lan Wangji removes his broomstick from his qiankun pouch, Wei Wuxian takes a sneaky moment to observe it. Lan Wangji’s broomstick is a smooth, lighter bark than his, with silver accents along the handle and a white jade tassel near the bristles. Overall, it looks super high-brow.

 

“What’s the material?” Wei Wuxian asks, curious.

 

“Sandalwood bark,” Lan Wangji answers.

 

“Nice, nice. Mine’s ash,” Wei Wuxian explains, setting Suibian on the ground. On most broomsticks, there are two flatter grooves on the handle to make it easier for balance, and he fits his feet there. “Kinda cheap, but durable, and it was a gift from my uncle. He really knows nothing about witchcraft, but it wasn’t like I could exactly say no.

 

God, Aunt Yu had thrown a fit when Uncle Jiang had gifted it to him for his seventeenth birthday. He neatly folds up that memory, its sharp and loud edges, and tucks it away into the back of his mind. 

 

“Yours is nice,” Wei Wuxian calls as they start off. “What’s her name?”

 

“Bichen,” Lan Wangji replies.

 

Wei Wuxian laughs so hard he almost pitches off his broom, midway into the air. “Bichen! A perfect name for a broom, I guess.”

 

“And yours?” Lan Wangji replies, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.

 

“Suibian!” Wei Wuxian calls back with cheer, and laughs again when Lan Wangji responds with the predicted reaction: a perplexed frown. The wind is too high now to explain, so Wei Wuxian resolves to let him sit with that confusion for a while.

 

It’s a perfect day for flying, clear and fall-crisp and the blue of a robin’s egg. The trees have started to turn, an assorted palette of amber and bronze that unfurls beneath them like an impressionist painting. The way into town is mostly uneventful, although about halfway through the trip, they pass others, two witches and their familiars flying in the opposite direction. Wei Wuxian offers them a hearty wave, but they cut hostile looks toward him and ignore the greeting.

 

It only takes a little under a half an hour to get to town, and Wei Wuxian leads them into a landing once they reach the familiar, cluttered row of shops. Lan Wangji neatly tucks Bichen into his qiankun pouch while Wei Wuxian slings Suibian over his shoulders. The two walk the short distance to Wei Wuxian’s store as he explains his setup to Lan Wangji, whose brows seem to etch an increment deeper with each word.



Wei Wuxian shares his rented space with a crotchety but endearing old witch named Wu Lanfen. She specializes in Suan ming — standard divination, scrying, hand-reading, pretty much the whole deal. Wei Wuxian’s space is just across the hall from hers. It’s cramped and a little hard to find, as it’s tucked halfway down an alley, but it’s honestly all Wei Wuxian can afford.

 

“Good morning, popo!” he calls out brightly as he swings open the front door, and is rewarded for his efforts with three distinct, irritated bangs against their shared wall.

 

Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Wangji, who he finds is already watching him. “She loves me.”

 

Wu Lanfen’s door, which clatters with a curtain of red beads, is firmly shut, which means she’s either with a client or avoiding Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian unlocks his own door and budges his shoulder hard against the stick of it, then props it open with a copper, lion-shaped paperweight, long greened with age.

 

Within the actual shop, there isn’t room for much else besides Wei Wuxian’s desk, which takes up most of the space. High, crooked shelves protrude from the walls, crammed with a disorderly array of potions, powders, sachets of herbs, crystals, tarot decks, books and scrolls, as well as some truly random shit — another jar of teeth, this time molars both animal and human, a magnetic compass that was a gift from Uncle Jiang. Mostly for decor, there are also a few polished animal skulls that leer toothily from the upper levels. Strung along the western wall are additional bundles of herbs, yarrow stalks and red sage and dang gui. (Wei Wuxian had tried to keep live plants here for about a week, but had killed them almost immediately.) The shelves stretch to the ceiling, so there’s a small, rusty stepladder tucked in the corner of the shop. 

 

A caramel-stained sheaf of papers, crinkled with dried, spilt tea, scatters across Wei Wuxian’s desk — bills and mail, mostly, as well as various notes from appointments with clients and talisman papers. A souring carton of takeout is wilting next to them, which Wei Wuxian hastily sweeps into the trash. Propped on the edge of his desk, closest to the door, is a small sign that reads “Yiling Laozu’s Horror Store.” 

 

“You like?” Wei Wuxian asks Lan Wangji, although he’s already fairly sure he knows the answer. 

 

Lan Wangji still lingers outside the doorway. His chin is tipped back to observe the tattered characters above the shop door. His neck has a long, swan-like elegance, his Adam’s apple sharp enough to crack glass. Wei Wuxian stares.

 

Lan Wangji angles his head to look at Wei Wuxian, silent and expectant. He’d asked a question, Wei Wuxian realizes.

 

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian says, succinctly.

 

More deliberately, Lan Wangji repeats, “What is Yiling Laozu?”

 

“Oh! It’s a dumb nickname I picked up when I was studying at the Institute,” Wei Wuxian says as he lights a stick of incense. “I kind of, ah. Okay, you’ve read my file, so you know I was expelled. It happened because of one of my field assignments in Yiling. Involving an, uh...unpermitted use of talisman?”

 

There’s a weighty pause, and then Lan Wangji says, “I see.”

 

“I tried out some self-made fire talismans and blew up a few buildings,” Wei Wuxian explains in a rush.

 

“Hm,” Lan Wangji says.

 

“But surely you already knew that,” Wei Wuxian continues, dimly aware that he’s babbling. “I mean, if you read my file.”

 

“I did not,” Lan Wangji says, then clarifies, “Know that. Regarding your expulsion, your file only mentioned magic usage that violated Institute protocol.”

 

“Yeeeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Well. They really didn’t like that I created my own stuff — spells, talismans, hexes, all of it. It was sort of an ongoing thing, and Yiling was kind of their breaking point, I think. I mean, they’d been searching for an excuse to kick me out for ages. Ah, it wasn’t meant to be, anyway. What can I say, I’m a free spirit.”

 

“Some would say too free,” Lan Wangji says, with a clear note of disapproval. “Your business has not been Institute-approved.”

 

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian gripes. He aimlessly begins to rearrange a few stacks of talismans on the lower shelves. It’s moreso out of a desire to do something with his hands than to introduce any organized system into his hurricane of a workspace. “I can’t be the only freelancing witch that you’ve encountered. Plenty of witches sell their magic for business purposes.”

 

“Yes,” Lan Wangji allows. “Those who are Institute-approved. The others are criminals.”

 

Wei Wuxian sighs gustily in his direction.

 

“And Institute-compliant witches use approved magical techniques,” Lan Wangji adds. He picks up a flask of black powder from Wei Wuxian’s desk and begins to examine its contents. “For example, no hexing.”

 

“I’m a witch!” Wei Wuxian protests, and snatches the flask back from him. “Witches hex! It’s an inherent part of the deal! Besides, I’m not doing any major hexes, it’s not like I’m blacking out the moon or something. It’s usually just a case of, I don’t know, genital warts or a couple days’ worth of shit luck.”

 

At “genital warts,” Lan Wangji’s expression sours like curdled milk.

 

“You do whatever someone pays you to,” Lan Wangji says. It is not a question.

 

Yes, Wei Wuxian thinks, crankily, he’s definitely being judged.

 

“Well, yeah,” Wei Wuxian replies, a little defensive. “It’s none of my business either way — it’s just business. I don’t attach any morality to it, especially when it’s all mostly harmless, so you can stop looking at me like that.”

 

“You call this a horror store,” Lan Wangji notes.

 

“Yeah, for the purpose of edge. Mostly to keep people like you away. See, before you met me, would you have ever stepped foot in here?”

 

Lan Wangji tilts his head to one side, as though genuinely considering it, before he allows, “No.”

 

“There you go,” Wei Wuxian says triumphantly. “I’m gonna open shop.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s first client of the day is a harried-looking man with dark swoops under his eyes. Wei Wuxian brightly calls out a greeting as Lan Wangji takes a seat behind the cramped desk with him, in a chair that is far too small for him and complains loudly at his weight.

 

The man’s gaze flicks to Lan Wangji first, where he takes a brief moment to look unsettled before he returns his attention to Wei Wuxian.

 

“Uh, hi,” the man says, and shuffles from foot to foot. “I was just wondering if you could provide a treatment for, uh. Like. You know.” He scratches the back of his head, then appraises the ceiling like he wants to melt into the floor. He won’t look Wei Wuxian in the eye. “Look, I’m sure you get it a lot.”

 

“You’ll need to explain more if you want me to provide a potion or elixir,” Wei Wuxian says.

 

“I, uh,” the man says, then scowls red-faced at his shoes. “I can’t...”

 

Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows and waits.

 

“I can’t get it up,” the guy mutters.

 

And well, the day can only improve from there.

 

“See?” Wei Wuxian asks Lan Wangji when he flips the sign to CLOSED at the end of the afternoon. “Wasn’t so bad, huh?”

 

To be honest, Wei Wuxian is fully expecting an Institute-scripted lecture. Maybe about today’s second client, a young woman and fellow witch who’d solicited Wei Wuxian’s help on a tricky piece of botany spellwork for improving the crop on her family’s farm. Or the third client, an elderly widower who had asked for his dead wife’s scent as a potion. Or his last client, a woman who had requested a misfortune hex on her ex-best friend for stealing her most expensive wok. 

 

“Your magic is wasted here,” Lan Wangji says instead.

 

Wei Wuxian stops halfway out the door at this, then turns to stare at Lan Wangji in disbelief. “What?”

 

“Your abilities exceed these menial services you offer,” Lan Wangji continues, still in that clipped, steady voice. “Your magic is stronger than they can appreciate.”

 

Wei Wuxian bristles more with each word, his barbs instinctively sliding out. The words needle deep, pricking at old and well-picked scabs.

 

“Yeah, well, last I checked,” he says, with bite, “I didn’t ask you to show up at my house out of nowhere, follow me around, and insult my livelihood.”

 

Lan Wangji blinks hard at him. Wei Wuxian imagines it’s as close as he gets to a double-take.

 

“I...have offended you,” Lan Wangji says slowly, almost a question.

 

“Well, no shit,” Wei Wuxian snaps. “How else am I supposed to take it when someone I barely know says I’m wasting myself?”

 

Lan Wangji looks a little lost, his eyes flickering over Wei Wuxian.

 

“It is only the truth,” he says. “I didn’t think it would insult you to point it out.”

 

“The truth. Okay. Fine. Whatever.” Wei Wuxian scrubs a weary, rough hand over his face. “Can we just go? Please?”

 

Lan Wangji follows him out without another word, and they mount their broomsticks and fly back.

 

“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji says a half-hour later, when they enter the house. He seems to be visibly struggling with something, his expression one of a deeply unhappy wet cat. “I should apologize.”

 

“Probably,” Wei Wuxian agrees, his tone light as he clatters down the hallway toward the kitchen. The brisk ride home had cooled some of his anger. 

 

“It was not my intention to insult you,” Lan Wangji says, following after him closely. “Or to denigrate your practice.”

 

Wei Wuxian side-eyes him as he opens one of the cupboards. “It took you the whole ride back to come up with that, huh?”

 

Lan Wangji is wearing that lost expression again.

 

“Yes?” he says, quietly unsure.

 

“Well, then, I accept your apology,” Wei Wuxian says generously. “I guess I kind of — reacted to that in a way that probably seems weird, huh? I can try to explain, without it getting too personal.”

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything, just waits patiently for Wei Wuxian to continue.

 

“It’s just that.” Wei Wuxian folds his arms over his chest, rocks back onto his heels. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard it. I get it from my brother and my aunt all the time, sometimes my uncle. I don’t need it from someone I just met.” And who, by the way, Wei Wuxian didn’t ask to be here, living in his house.

 

For someone generally expressionless, Lan Wangji manages to look appropriately abashed at this. He’s halfway into the kitchen, but he falters a small step. A slight, backward shift in his weight, casting the brights of him into the shrouded darkness of the hallway.

 

“So, I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says. “If I jumped down your throat about it.”

 

“Why are you apologizing,” Lan Wangji says, looking strangely frustrated.

 

“I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian replies, frowning, “aren’t apologies kind of a two-way street? Give-take situation? You say sorry, I say sorry, everything’s fixed, we’re all good?”

 

Lan Wangji stares at him, unblinking.

 

“No,” he says, inflectionless. “The one who has erred should apologize, which in this case, you have not.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says.

 

A fiercely awkward silence settles between them, peculiar and loud.

 

“All this tense talk,” Wei Wuxian says to dispel it, and gives an airy wave of his hand. “It’s made much worse on an empty stomach. Let’s just eat, okay?”

 

Lan Wangji nods, relaxing an increment as he moves into the kitchen.

 

“And for the record,” Wei Wuxian says as he rustles around in the cupboards. “It’s Wei Ying.”

 

“What?” Lan Wangji asks.

 

Wei Wuxian huffs, shakes some cottony spiderwebs off of his hand, and then thwacks two packets of instant ramen on the countertop. “You’re sleeping on my couch as an actual bunny rabbit, so I think we’re past formalities. You can call me Wei Ying.”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji echoes, in his musical baritone, and something pleasant shivers in Wei Wuxian, to hear him say it.

 

God, maybe he’s much lonelier than he thought.

 

Lan Wangji moves past him to examine the contents of his cupboard, reaches up to pull down a jar which happens to be — okay, in Wei Wuxian’s defense, he had been paid a lot of money to finish the spell that involved this particular ingredient, but — Lan Wangji pulls down a jar of pickled eyeballs, then spends so long staring at it that Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to ask him if he’s okay, and before he can do so, Lan Wangji quietly sets down the jar on the counter, turns, and leaves the house.

 

Wei Wuxian spends the next half-hour frantically wearing a hole in his kitchen floor and chewing the pad of his thumb ragged. He’d really gone and scared off his Institute-assigned familiar — a GusuLan familiar, at that — in less than a day. Maybe after the dead cat and the hexes and Wei Wuxian’s general personality, the eyeballs had been the final straw. They surely would be for any person of sane mind.

 

He had just been complaining to himself about Lan Wangji showing up unannounced to live in his house, so it’s not like the abrupt departure should bother him. They’d barely even liked each other. Wei Wuxian is used to being on his own! He mostly just doesn’t want to hear it from the Institute, or to have his business forcibly shut down once Lan Wangji reports back to them, now that he knows its location and its unapproved transactions. Right? Good riddance! Wei Wuxian thinks, and it sounds thoroughly unconvincing even to himself.

 

He really couldn’t have just thrown out the fucking pickled eyeballs, Wei Wuxian thinks, despairingly. This is what he does, he makes people leave; he makes people leave with zero explanation, because the reasons for their leaving are always self-evident, and that reason is always just — Wei Wuxian as a general entity.

 

There’s a sudden bang at the front door, and Wei Wuxian scrambles, an attack spell flying to his lips, before a bulky shadow shuffles down the hallway and he realizes — 

 

— it’s Lan Wangji, both of his arms full to bursting with grocery bags.

 

“You,” Wei Wuxian says, so stupidly relieved he can barely talk. A strange, light heat rises in him, like a hot air balloon soaring up and up. “You came back.”

 

Lan Wangji slings him a strange look as he sets the groceries on the counter.

 

“You have no food,” Lan Wangji says, and manages to make it sound like a reproach.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian agrees, still nodding dumbly, and he gives a weak, giddy little laugh, and helps Lan Wangji unpack the groceries.

As it turns out, Lan Wangji is a vegetarian. No wonder the dead cat had perturbed him so much. Wei Wuxian loves meat, but he’ll never say no to a free meal, so he watches with bated breath at the kitchen table as Lan Wangji...cooks for them. Wei Wuxian can’t remember the last time someone cooked for him. It had definitely been his jie. He just can’t remember how long ago it was. Long enough ago that he can’t recall specifics.

 

Wei Wuxian gets the sense that it might be an apology dinner, which he steadfastly ignores because apologies, in general, make his skin crawl.

 

So, being a vegetarian and all, Lan Wangji makes a tofu dish. Naturally. Wei Wuxian watches with his chin propped on his hands as Lan Wangji slices the tofu into triangles, then fries it until it’s gold and crispy. Then with graceful, sure movements of his hands, he adds carrots, peppers, bamboo shoots, and baby bok choy, followed by green onions and a dash of garlic and ginger. Wei Wuxian hasn’t mentioned his affinity for spice, but Lan Wangji braises his portion with doubanjiang anyway. Wei Wuxian is the witch here, but it’s like watching a magician at work. 

 

It’s been — Wei Wuxian can’t even remember the last time his house smelled like fresh cooking. In the interest of a more peaceful world, Wei Wuxian tries to cook as little as possible, and usually opts for instant ramen or cereal or takeout, when he’s up for the trip. The aromas of the food, mingled with the cool evening breeze through the cracked windows, fill him with a hearth-warm delight, as well as a lurching homesickness.

 

“Silence during meals,” Lan Wangji tells him when he places the dish in front of Wei Wuxian, once he’s finished plating.

 

Wei Wuxian nods and makes a show of sealing his lips, then the second he takes the first few bites, promptly forgets all about it.

 

“This is really good,” Wei Wuxian praises him with his mouth full. He means it. “The best thing I’ve eaten in ages. Thanks, Wangji-xiong!”

 

Lan Wangji purses his lips and sets his napkin on the table. He keeps his eyes on his plate when he speaks next.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he says, quietly.

 

“Hm?” Wei Wuxian says through cheeks stuffed with food.

 

“If we are past formalities.” Lan Wangji’s voice is low, but very clear. “It’s Lan Zhan.”

 

Wei Wuxian beams at him around his food-packed cheeks. “Okay, Lan Zhan.”

 

Lan Wangji hmphs a small sound and drops his eyes again, his eyelashes casting long, spidery shadows on his cheeks.

 

Wei Wuxian swallows noisily and says, “Okay, Lan Zhan, so. Are you human or what?”

 

Almost daintily, Lan Wangji sets down his chopsticks. “Not strictly speaking.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen. “Cool. I really don’t know that much about familiars, to be honest. You said you can shift into whatever you want?”

 

“Mn.”

 

Wei Wuxian considers the potential of this, tapping a chopstick against his chin. “Are you limited by size? Could you turn into, like, a whale?”

 

“The larger the form, the greater the exertion of magic,” Lan Wangji explains. “Smaller forms are natural to us. They require almost no effort and are easy to maintain.”

 

“Okay, but you can do it on command?” Wei Wuxian prompts. “So could I ask you to turn into, I don’t know, a bushbaby? Like you could just do that, right now, if I asked you to?”

 

Lan Wangji frowns at him. “We are not permitted to phase for trivial purposes.”

 

“Okay, permitted is a slippery word,” Wei Wuxian points out. “So you’re saying that you can, you just won’t.”

 

Lan Wangji primly refuses to answer this, and takes a long, pointed sip of water.

 

“If I begged you, could you please turn into a bushbaby,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning forward on the tabletop and flickering his eyelashes. “Lan Zhan, pleeease? I’ll get on my knees and beg if you want, please turn into a bushbaby.”

 

Lan Wangji’s throat works as he levels a glare at Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian curls his mouth into a lopsided grin and rests his chin on his palm, swaying a little in the seat.

 

“No,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian pouts.

 

“Ai, Lan Zhan, you’re no fun,” he whines. “What’s the good of being able to turn into anything you want when you only use it for boring things?”

 

Lan Wangji’s reply is muted, but no less reproachful for it. “Frivolous.”

 

“That’s me,” Wei Wuxian says, and smiles at Lan Wangji with all of his teeth. “You’re gonna have to get used to that, if you’re sticking around for a while.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Wangji says with a sigh, and the rest of their meal is silent.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

It’s after another two weeks of working on dead animals that Wei Wuxian has a small breakthrough, thanks to Lan Wangji.

 

Sadly, he’d had to bid farewell to Juzi after the first couple days, since she’d started to really smell up the place, and she was really the ideal candidate for this, but he’s making do with dead squirrels, weasels and rats and the like. Lan Wangji mostly watches him do this with an expression of lightly wrinkled disgust, like a smelly sock has been affixed to his top lip.

 

Then, one day, surprising him utterly, Lan Wangji says, “What if it is not the technique that’s wrong, but the level of energy?”

 

“Ah?” Wei Wuxian says, looking up from where he’s currently eyeballs-deep into a weasel’s innards. 

 

“Your theoretical base is sound,” Lan Wangji says — a little grudgingly, but it’s the closest he’s gotten so far to giving Wei Wuxian a compliment, and Wei Wuxian is appropriately warm and fuzzy about it. “So perhaps what you’re missing is power.”

 

“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian considers this. “You may be right. But then there’s nothing to be done, huh? I mean, I have the magic I have.”

 

Wordlessly, Lan Wangji meets his eyes and holds out his hand, palm facing up.

 

Wei Wuxian looks at it uncertainly, then even more uncertainly, he takes it.

 

“What are you — ” Lan Wangji rips his hand back with a scandalized expression. 

 

The reaction seems a bit much to Wei Wuxian, given it hadn’t even been the hand covered in weasel viscera.

 

“...sorry?” Wei Wuxian tries.

 

Lan Wangji’s ears have gone coral-pink and he’s still holding his hand tightly to his chest. 

 

“I was offering my magic,” Lan Wangji says through his teeth. “Familiars are amplifiers of power to their witches, even before a Bonding.”

 

“Oh!” says Wei Wuxian, who had rationally known this, but whose dumb hindbrain had somehow assumed Lan Wangji wanted to hold hands. “Of course, yeah.”

 

The reality of Lan Wangji’s offer belatedly settles in, and Wei Wuxian widens his eyes at him.

 

“Lan Wangji,” he says, with a low-voiced glee. “Are you offering to break a rule?”

 

“It’s for experimental purposes,” Lan Wangji says, tetchy, and his ears are still flushed, maybe due to genuine indignation this time. He’s still clutching his hand with a wary air, looking for all the world like Wei Wuxian had tried to bite him.  “I do not see any large-scale damage that can be wrought by resurrecting one weasel. All the better if it means you will stop playing with animal corpses.”

 

“Ooh, feisty,” Wei Wuxian says, feeling a little thrill shimmy through him at Lan Wangji’s acidic tone. “Okay, let’s do it, then. For science,” he adds solemnly, to the withering look he receives.

 

Lan Wangji holds out his hand again, and careful not to clasp it the way he did before, Wei Wuxian places his palm on top of Lan Wangji’s. It’s the lightest skim of skin, but the jolt of energy that tears through him shakes him like a subwoofer, and he gasps, ripping his hand away in surprise.

 

Lan Wangji opens his eyes and says, a reprimand, “Focus.”

 

“I am, I am, it’s just —” Wei Wuxian shakes his head, and extends his hand again. “More than I expected. You’re like a walking car battery.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian slides their hands back together. He grits his teeth through the renewed surge of magic, and finds that after the initial shock of discomfort, the roughness of muchness, it begins to smooth out into a natural hum.

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian hears himself say. It feels like his bones are shaking. Lan Wangji is powerful. More powerful than he’d imagined. As he closes his eyes, he can almost visualize a churning, golden sphere of magic inside Lan Wangji, stretching out its fingers to him.

 

“Can I —” Wei Wuxian begins, and Lan Wangji says, “Take it,” and Wei Wuxian does, reaching out on a surprisingly natural reflex to absorb the magic into himself.

 

It floods through him bright and crackling, a zip of lightning through a weather vane — too powerful to harness, let alone direct toward a specific end.

 

“Wei Ying, focus,” Lan Wangji says through gritted teeth. “It is simple magic, the same as yours, just more of it. Channel the same way.”

 

“I’m trying,” Wei Wuxian manages.

 

He pictures Lan Wangji’s magic arcing through him in time with his own, scattering a wake of light through his body like phosphorescence. He directs it down his shoulder, down his arm, through his hand, and then —

 

There’s a rattling gasp from the table, and the dead weasel moves. 

 

Wei Wuxian yanks his hand back, Lan Wangji jerks away, and then the bond severs in a quick snap. The sudden loss of energy leaves Wei Wuxian strangely bereft, a sensation like a phantom limb, but he’s still jittery and lit-up, like a potent caffeine high. Lan Wangji is turning away from him, flexing his hand in and out, his breathing ragged.

 

“Wow,” Wei Wuxian says, breathless. “That was…”

 

“Informative,” Lan Wangji rasps, then looks away, his chest rising and falling rapidly. The flush has returned to his ears, pink cascading down his neck.

 

It’s truly a powerful moment, nearly profound. Wei Wuxian almost wishes the first use of their awe-inspiring combined magic bond wasn’t to reanimate some roadkill. 

 

Almost.

 

“Aw, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian coos at the weasel. The weasel death-rattles in return. “What do you want to name it?”

 

The weasel bares its teeth at Wei Wuxian, then promptly keels over again.

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says sadly.

 

“So it needs your sustained magic to keep it animate,” Lan Wangji says.

 

“Yeah, it would seem so,” Wei Wuxian muses, rubbing his chin with his clean hand. “I honestly...hadn’t thought that far ahead. I was just trying to resurrect something first.” He slides a sly look to Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan, is that interest in my work that I detect?”

 

“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji says coldly, then stands up and moves imperiously to the couch.

 

Undeterred, Wei Wuxian follows him. His legs feel weirdly boneless as he walks.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, and takes up the vacant spot on the couch next to him. “Was that your first time?”

 

“Mn. How do you feel?” Lan Wangji asks. “I’ve heard that the first time, for witches, can be…”

 

“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian says, so high-pitched his voice nearly cracks. He clears his throat, and brings it back down a level. “I’m fine. It just was — a lot, like I was trying to guide the path of a comet or something. How was it for you?”

 

“Easy,” Lan Wangji says, quiet. “Natural. To give magic, this way, is a familiar’s purpose, after all.” He fixes Wei Wuxian with a slightly unsteady look, then blinks, his gaze sharpening. “We will need to practice. Your lack of control is concerning.”

 

Wei Wuxian huffs at him, a little put out.

 

“But your magic is stronger than I even initially believed,” Lan Wangji allows, and Wei Wuxian perks up.

 

“So you want to keep doing this?” Wei Wuxian asks, tilting his head. “Even if it’s to reanimate some animal corpses?”

 

Lan Wangji sighs through his nose, then gives a very unhappy-sounding “En.”

 

“Such inspiring enthusiasm!” Wei Wuxian says, then adds with a wink, “I’ll make a necrotic witch out of you yet, Lan Zhan.” 

 

With this, Lan Wangji pointedly gets up to turn out the lights.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Their daily rituals continue over the next few weeks, and before Wei Wuxian knows it, a month and a half has slipped him by. Their routine follows the same cadences: Wei Wuxian wakes up every morning to a white rabbit waiting patiently for him in the bathroom, they eat breakfast then head to town for work, they come back and Lan Wangji makes them dinner, they sit together in the living room while Wei Wuxian toils away at something and Lan Wangji reads, and then they go to sleep. Most evenings, after dinner, they practice, passing magic back and forth to each other to experiment on smaller tasks — like levitating an object, or boiling water, or flickering the lights.

 

It’s...nice. Oh, God, it’s really nice. Wei Wuxian hasn’t had a roommate since he’d studied at the Institute, but Lan Wangji makes for a ridiculously easy living partner. Wei Wuxian hadn’t minded living alone — had in fact, enjoyed parts of it a lot — but Lan Wangji never seems to take up any space, never presses on his nerves, listens to Wei Wuxian chatter on and on about this and that. (Wei Wuxian had done that anyway, the out-loud rambling, but it’s nice to have an actual person to hum in assent or offer one-worded replies rather than the judgmental silence of his assorted collection of strays.) Lan Wangji cooks. He cleans. He’s easy on the eyes, as an understatement of the decade. And he makes for a cute fucking bunny, to boot. 

 

Every day, Wei Wuxian is expecting a dealbreaker. Some depraved, wicked, unforgivable thing he’ll do that will make Lan Wangji pack up his things and leave for good. It starts to pit itself into a small knot of dread in his stomach, the first moment he wakes up — and then it dissolves into a smoothed-over, calm feeling, like a lake surface settling after a breeze, when he finds a rabbit waiting for him in the bathroom.

 

He spends so much time expecting Lan Wangji to leave that it takes him until the end of that month and a half to realize what it will do to him if Lan Wangji stays.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

It’s a stormy mid-autumn night when Wei Wuxian meets an old friend in town for a drink. 

 

He parks his broomstick outside the bar, taking care to lock it, before he heads in, shaking rain off his shoulders. At once, he’s greeted with crowing enthusiasm and a pair of wiry arms thrown around him, and then Nie Huaisang, already tipsy, drags him to a table.

 

Nie Huaisang had been his roommate all three years at the Institute, and remains one of his only close friends. He is also, notably, the only other queer friend that Wei Wuxian has — other than Wen Qing, who he hasn’t seen in years.

 

At the Institute, Nie Huaisang had been on track to be a combat witch, like his older brother Nie Mingjue, but he had despised every second of it, and had filled up all his spare courses with arts, theater, and music. The second that he graduated, after Wei Wuxian’s expulsion, Nie Huaisang had slipped away, with extreme relief, to make his own way in the magical world.

 

“How’s business going?” Wei Wuxian asks after taking a pull of his drink. Nie Huaisang calls himself a love witch, as he specializes in aphrodisiacs, light love potions and the like, and his business is Institute-approved, but he has a much wider network under the counter which would fall into Lan Wangji’s “criminal” category. Darker, rarer sex drugs at astronomical costs, with an approval system so heavily vetted that it makes Wei Wuxian’s brain ache to even think about it.

 

Nie Huaisang waves a hand and tugs at one of his large gauges with two black-nailed fingers. “It’s fine, it’s fine. Same as ever, the usual headaches.”

 

“Have you heard anything from the Wens lately?” Wei Wuxian asks. Their friend Wen Qing had graduated from the Institute with top marks, then passed her assessment for the School of Medicinal Witchcraft with flying colors. Her didi Wen Ning had needed to drop out of the Institute halfway through his courses because of ongoing health conditions, and the last Wei Wuxian had heard from him, he had started a small living for himself as an archery instructor for little kids.

 

“Wen Qing is fine, as far as I’ve heard from her, just underwater with all the shit she has to do for Medicinal,” Nie Huaisang replies. “She recently got approved for a familiar — named Mianmian, I think? Mi-mi? Something cutesy. I’m jealous as hell. I applied to the Institute for a familiar ages ago, and they’re taking their sweet fucking time about it.”

 

“Speaking of that,” Wei Wuxian says, perking up that he can share this piece of news. “The Institute sent me a familiar, can you believe?”

 

Nie Huaisang’s jaw drops open, and Wei Wuxian takes a moment to feel smug about it. Nie Huaisang is always the first to know everything, so to take him off-guard with new information is a true feat. 

 

“Wei-xiong, how,” Nie Huaisang says, flattening a palm on the table. “You’re not even —” He winces and runs his tongue over his teeth, clearly trying not to be mean. “I mean, no offense, but the Institute hates you, so how the fuck.”

 

“I was as surprised as you are,” Wei Wuxian says. “But I guess they’re like, worried that I’m being a criminal? Which, I am, but that’s beside the point. But Nie-xiong, you should see the guy they sent me — he’s seriously next-level.”

 

“What’s the name?” Nie Huaisang says, suddenly all business. “I probably know him.”

 

He probably does. Nie Huaisang is at most three degrees of separation from everyone in the magical world.

 

“Lan Wangji?” Wei Wuxian says. “He’s like, one of the Institute’s top —” Then stops short because Nie Huaisang squawks like a plucked parrot and almost upturns his drink.

 

“You are fucking with me,” Nie Huaisang says, his eyes as round as coins. “You’re absolutely fucking with me, right? Lan Wangji?”

 

Wei Wuxian frowns, a little uneasy at the violence of this reaction. “So...you do know him.”

 

Know him? ” Nie Huaisang splutters. “I jerked off to him like every night of our first year, as did every other gay in that cursed place. Wei-xiong, how did you not know him?”

 

Wei Wuxian feels his frown deepen, at least three steps behind. “Wait, what? What do you mean?”

 

Nie Huaisang leans forward and says, with heightened emphasis, “Lan Wangji was a year above us at the Institute. The entire student body was obsessed with him — seriously, Wei-xiong, where were you?”

 

“I wasn’t exactly checked-in during our time at the Institute,” Wei Wuxian says, a little crisply. “If you don’t remember.”

 

During most of their academic days, Wei Wuxian had oscillated pretty regularly between manic insomnia and deep depression. He’d barely known his own name of the time, as he’d tried to balance his overloaded coursework and his own mental deterioration. He most certainly wasn’t paying attention to the Institute’s hottest bachelors. 

 

Nie Huaisang waves a hand, always one to angle for levity on such topics. “I think it’s because it was when you were still straight.”

 

“Hey, we talked about this,” Wei Wuxian protests. “Just because I didn’t realize I wasn’t straight until the Institute doesn’t mean I actually was. I played football growing up with Jiang Cheng, okay, I spent plenty of time thinking about men in shorts!”

 

“Aw, sweetheart,” Nie Huaisang says, in that sad, sugary tone he always uses before he roasts him to hell. He reaches out to pat Wei Wuxian’s hand. “You were like the straightest person I knew at the time. It was honestly adorable.” 

 

“Okay, come on.”

 

“I take full credit for dragging your bony ass out of the closet.”

 

Wei Wuxian huffs into his drink and scowls. “Okay, so what, Lan Wangji’s hot. He’s also my familiar now, in case you missed that.”

 

“Yes, please let’s go back to that,” Nie Huaisang says. “Because I’m still processing how the fuck you ended up with a GusuLan familiar, not to mention that one. No offense again, Wei-xiong.”

 

“None taken,” Wei Wuxian says wryly. “I’m honestly still trying to figure it out myself.”

 

“Are you two fucking?” Nie Huaisang asks, as casually as one would inquire after his light reading list.

 

Wei Wuxian does slop his drink at this, and swears loudly. “No, we are not — we’re just —”

 

“Wo-ow.” Nie Huaisang slowly shakes his head, a little reverent. “You’ve got an entire stack of sex god living in your house for — how long now? Never mind, long enough — and you’re telling me you haven’t tackled him into bed yet and had your way with him?” He gives a slow, sardonic clap, his mouth tilting up into a lazy smile. “Wei-xiong, your restraint is inspiring.”

 

“Shut up. Yes, he’s hot,” Wei Wuxian says with a weary sigh. Unbelievably hot. He’d taken off his shirt to shower the other day and Wei Wuxian had walked directly into a wall and bruised his cheek. “Okay, very hot, unfairly hot. That doesn’t mean anything. Besides, I’m sure he’s straight, anyway.”

 

Nie Huaisang just guffaws and shakes his head. He sticks his nose into his drink and takes a long, dainty sip, loaded with meaning.

 

“What,” Wei Wuxian says, his heart beating a little faster in his chest. “What do you know that I don’t know. Actually, you know what, Lan Wangji’s sexuality is none of my busi — okay, stop looking at me like that, what do you know.

 

Nie Huaisang holds up two hands, palms forward, the picture of innocence. “I don’t know anything about Lan Wangji’s personal tastes. What I do know is that his older brother is da-ge’s familiar, and they are most definitely fucking, so your chances are probably better than you think, if the Twin Jades are as similar as everyone says they are.”

 

Wei Wuxian blinks twice, trying to process this information. “Your brother…”

 

“Yep. He and Xichen-ge have been together for like, almost a year now?” Nie Huaisang says. “They just had their Bonding, and it’s nauseating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for them, but. Nauseating.”

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know much about the Bonding process, other than that it cements the connection between a witch and their familiar, and that once it’s done, it’s very hard to break. He’s never even considered it for himself — for starters, who the hell would want to be stuck with him all the time? The idea is impossible. Besides, Bonding has always seemed terrifyingly...permanent.

 

As though reading his thoughts, Nie Huaisang asks, with a coy glitter in his eyes, “Do you think you’ll Bond with Lan Wangji?”

 

Wei Wuxian squirms in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable. 

 

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s a little early to be thinking about that, but probably not, just given his whole…given my whole...”

 

“Yeah,” Nie Huaisang agrees. “Listen, something you should know: Lans are very traditional about Bonding.”

 

Wei Wuxian frowns. “What do you mean?”

 

“Like, they want to wife you up or nothing,” Nie Huaisang says. “They Bond to marry. Xichen-ge, like, pretty much locked da-ge down with a marriage contract before they went through with it.”

 

“That’s not terrifying at all,” Wei Wuxian mutters, ignoring the strange flippy feelings in his stomach at the idea of Lan Wangji doing anything involving wifing. “Well, Lan Zhan barely tolerates me, so I don’t think I’ll have to worry about him wanting to Bond or — anything else.”

 

“Lan Zhan.” Nie Huaisang rolls out the syllables with a slow flair, then gives a disbelieving shake of his head. “Lan Wang-fucking-ji. I cannot believe you didn’t lead with that. I can’t believe you didn’t remember him.”

 

“Ah, you know me,” Wei Wuxian says, then finishes his drink, cleans the sharp traces of it from his teeth with his tongue. “My memory’s shit.”

 

“It really is,” Nie Huaisang says. “So if you’re not screwing each other like rabbits, then what do you guys even do with your time?”

 

Wei Wuxian shrugs, stares off a little bit. “He hangs out with me while I work. Then we come home and he cooks and we go to bed.”

 

“Oh, God,” Nie Huaisang says, in tones of dawning horror. “That’s so much worse.”

 

“It’s nice!” Wei Wuxian protests, but Nie Huaisang is shaking his head and muttering to himself, with increasing fervor, “No, this can’t be happening. It cannot happen that both my older brother and my best friend get to fuck and fall in love with Lans and I’m 27 and still single. What the fuck, what the fuck.”

 

“Nie-xiong,” Wei Wuxian says placatingly, and gives his friend’s wrist a kind pat. “Lan Zhan would rather walk off a cliff than have sex with me. You have nothing to worry about on my end, believe me.”

 

“He makes you dinner,” Nie Huaisang wails, then buries his face in his hands. “Wei-xiong, are you stupid? What did I just fucking say about Lans? It’s only going to get so much worse from here. Ugh, I can’t be friends with you, it’s over, I can’t believe you’re going to wife up my dream man.”

 

“Nie Huaisang,” Wei Wuxian complains. His face has gotten spectacularly hot, and his scalp is starting to prickle with embarrassment. “Stop it, okay? I told you it’s nothing. He’s going to leave the second that his — audit, or whatever it is he’s doing — is over, and then I’ll never see him again. Mark my words.”

 

Then he takes Nie Huaisang’s drink and finishes it to wash down the bitter taste in his throat.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

The rain hammers down in black, feathering sheets as Wei Wuxian makes his way home. The wind whips it against his skin as he flies, stinging as sharp as acupuncture. It’s also freezing, soaking him straight through, but the alcohol makes him numb to the worst of the cold. Though he does nearly get knocked from his broomstick once or twice, but he blames that more on the liquor than the storm.

 

When he stumbles in through the front door, he’s surprised to find the hallway light on, a muted yellow glow to welcome him. He always leaves the place dark when he leaves. He squints at it uncertainly.

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says from the next room, and oh yeah. He has a live-in now.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian slurs, and is just aware enough of himself to realize that he sounds beyond trashed. He stumbles into the living room, where Lan Wangji is standing by the couch in his sleep-clothes, a white t-shirt and sweatpants. “Sh-shouldn’t you...aren’t you asleep?”

 

Lan Wangji watches him approach with his mouth tight, his brows pulled together. There’s something...strange about him, different, and it takes Wei Wuxian a belated moment to realize that it’s because his ribbon is gone. Wei Wuxian has never seen his forehead bare. 

 

“You did not return,” Lan Wangji says. His eyes widen a little as he seems to register the full picture of Wei Wuxian’s current state. “Did you fly like this?”

 

“S-so?” Wei Wuxian chatters, shivering so hard he can barely talk. He’s dripping in messy spatters all over the floor.

 

Lan Wangji’s lips pinch further, thinning into a white line, and then he pulls Wei Wuxian by the wrist, hard, through the living room.

 

“Hey, hey! Lan Zhan, I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian moans as he’s dragged, stumbling, through the dark of the house. “Don’t hate me now, okay? I didn’t — hic — I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

 

“I was not sleeping,” Lan Wangji says.

 

Wei Wuxian frowns to himself. This does not track. It’s almost midnight. Lan Wangji should be asleep.

 

Lan Wangji keeps towing him, a little meanly, all the way to Wei Wuxian’s bedroom, while Wei Wuxian stumbles behind him, whining at Lan Wangji’s back all the way.

 

“Stand still,” Lan Wangji orders when they enter. “Take off your jacket.”

 

Wei Wuxian really tries, but his limbs are numb and he’s drunk and he gets tangled up in the sopping sleeves, and then Lan Wangji is there, helping to peel his jacket off, and Wei Wuxian is rolling his forehead onto Lan Wangji’s shoulder as he pitches forward into him, and he breathes in deep. He distantly registers the fact that this is fucking embarrassing, even for him. He’ll be humiliated tomorrow. Lan Wangji smells so good, a hint of sandalwood and something else earthier that he can’t name, and Lan Wangji is warm, very warm, the heat of him soaking into Wei Wuxian’s numb nose and cheeks. The distinct shape of a collarbone is pressed against his jaw. Wei Wuxian’s teeth are still chattering.

 

“You could have died,” Lan Wangji says thinly, then steps away to drape Wei Wuxian’s dripping jacket over the bedframe to dry.

 

“So what,” Wei Wuxian mutters, and Lan Wangji levels a sharp look at him, and Wei Wuxian blinks hazily back. What had he said? He’s already forgotten.

 

Lan Wangji rustles through his drawers in silence for another moment before he surfaces with a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, then sets them on the bed.

 

“I’ll go,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “Change or you’ll get sick.”

 

“W-wait, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, still shivering. He looks down at his hands, the fingers bone-white and bloodless, the knuckles slightly pink. They’re so cold he can’t feel them. They don’t even feel like his own. “My hands, they’re — my hands are so cold, I can’t move them.”

 

He looks up at Lan Wangji, who’s already staring at him intently from the doorway. 

 

“Can you —” Wei Wuxian starts, then stops, rolls his tongue around in his mouth and sways. He isn’t sure what he’s asking for.

 

Lan Wangji hesitates, and then steps back toward Wei Wuxian and takes his hands. He rubs them between his, the way you would with two sticks to start a fire, the friction a hot sting. Wei Wuxian flinches as feeling returns in pins and needles, tingling almost painfully, and then all he can do is stare, his hands dwarfed by Lan Wangji’s, which are big and graceful and very warm.

 

Lan Wangji has stopped with the rubbing, just has his hands cupped around Wei Wuxian’s in the shape of an oyster. Wei Wuxian stares down at their hands folded together like the inside of a lotus, too drunk to process the image.

 

“Better?” Lan Wangji asks quietly, and Wei Wuxian nods.

 

“Better,” Wei Wuxian answers, just as soft.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Wuxian wakes up the next morning with a dark migraine clustering around his temples and a deep-seated, leftover impression of self-loathing like a sour taste, although he doesn’t know for what.

 

He twists in the bed, stares at the untouched glass of water on his bedside table, and abruptly remembers.

 

Wei Wuxian groans and digs the heel of his palm against one gritty eyelid. When he pulls it back, the skin is smudged charcoal with eyeliner.

 

Not one of his finest hours. He’ll have to apologize to Lan Wangji for forcing him to witness whatever antics he’d submitted him to last night. He rolls out of bed, the world heaving around him with the change in elevation, and he groans again and steadies a hand on the bedside table, letting the blood settle in his head like kicked silt.

 

Wei Wuxian makes his way to the bathroom, rubbing his hands along his bare arms to warm them up as he shuffles down the hallway.

 

He’s so used to seeing Lan Wangji waiting for him that he stops short when he finds the bathroom empty of rabbits. He checks behind the door and the shower curtain just to make sure. 

 

Wei Wuxian catches sight of himself in the mirror and sighs — the rain had smeared his eyeliner all down his cheeks in a ghoulish mask. He splashes cold water on his face, clears away the makeup, brushes his teeth, then mutters to his reflection, “You idiot,” before he wanders back out to search the rest of the house.

 

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian calls out, but Lan Wangji is not in the living room, or the kitchen either. The cottage is quiet other than its usual, creaking breathing, settling deeper into its haunches as the wind folds around it.

 

Finally, after a few more minutes of fruitless searching, Wei Wuxian gives up. He sits on the couch and rubs a hand over his face.

 

Well. Of course Lan Wangji wasn’t going to stick around after that display, right? Wei Wuxian had crashed home in the middle of the night, woken him up while sloppy drunk, then had probably said something unforgivably stupid. He takes a deep, even breath, letting it expand into him. He’s used to being alone, and he had expected this, hadn’t he? He’d expected this from the first day, and every day after, but somehow that doesn’t make it — sting any less. Somehow the idea of an empty, quiet house, the idea of everything as it was before, is suddenly unimaginable.

 

And, fuck it to hell, he’s still hungover. He blackly curses Nie Huaisang as he stumbles to his feet, then gathers some stale buns from the cupboards to feed the strays. He pulls down a box of stale, dry cereal as well, and stares off into the middle-distance for an undefined while as he eats it by the fistful. Lan Wangji had always been unobtrusive, maneuvering around the cottage noiselessly, but nonetheless, it seems so much quieter without him here.

 

Wei Wuxian firmly pushes the thought out of mind, sets down the box of cereal, and then shuffles in his socks toward the front door, the bag of stale buns tucked under his armpit.

 

At the screen, he stops in surprise.

 

Lan Wangji is sitting on the front step, ringed by a circus of various animals. Well, it’s Wei Wuxian’s circus. He’s been feeding stray cats, rabbits, squirrels, geese and ducks for the last couple of years, and they come back every morning for their breakfast. Lan Wangji is scattering pieces of bun along the ground and quietly discussing something with one of the cats.

 

The acidic burn of tension in Wei Wuxian’s chest eases; he hadn’t even noticed when it had formed. Suddenly afraid to move, Wei Wuxian observes for a few moments more, this oddly scenic picture of Lan Wangji surrounded by a like some kind of — angelic, white-garbed woodland fairy. Then he shakes his head with a soft laugh and opens the door.

 

It’s chilly out. The damp from the rains last night curls up from the wet ground in ghostly fogs, clinging in silver shrouds to the tops of the half-bare trees. Wei Wuxian sits down next to Lan Wangji on the front step without a word, tucks his knees into his chest and his hands into his sweater sleeves.

 

“Thanks for feeding the zoo,” Wei Wuxian says a moment later, a little awkwardly.

 

Lan Wangji offers an infinitesimal nod, and continues to scatter the shreds of bread in the mud.

 

“Hey, I’m really sorry about last night,” Wei Wuxian says, and watches his breath leave him, a thin vapor of sound. “I’m not usually such a mess about drinking, but Nie Huaisang can really put it away.”

 

Lan Wangji brushes the crumbs off with two rasping swipes of his palms together. “You should not have flown in that state. Especially with the weather.”

 

“I know,” Wei Wuxian says, a little sheepish. “But hey, it turned out fine, right? I’m a pretty good flyer.”

 

“Something could have happened to you,” Lan Wangji says, and stares off into the bronzing trees.

 

“Aw, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian teases, and bumps his shoulder with his. “Were you worried about me?”

 

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says tightly, and a small muscle in his jaw feathers, then clenches.

 

Wei Wuxian blinks through the mist curling his lashes, unbalanced by that single word. “Oh.”

 

A beat of strained silence falls between them. Wei Wuxian watches the small motions of Lan Wangji’s large, pale, gorgeous-boned hands, cupped against his knees.

 

“Well, you don’t have to worry about me pretty much ever,” Wei Wuxian assures him. “I’m always fine, no matter what.”

 

“Fine does not mean okay,” Lan Wangji says simply, and Wei Wuxian has to take a few moments to really let that settle into him, the unsparing truth of it.

 

“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says, curling his knees tighter toward his chest. “I guess I never thought of it that way.” 

 

As he keeps staring at Lan Wangji, snatches of last night’s conversation with Nie Huaisang creep back to him. Of course everyone at the Institute had been in love with him, Wei Wuxian thinks, staring at the bolt-cutter sharpness of Lan Wangji’s jawline. Everyone except for him, apparently.

 

“Have you eaten?” Lan Wangji asks, and turns to look at him, and Wei Wuxian’s breath catches, a hazy sense-memory flickering through him — how their hands had felt sandwiched together, Wei Wuxian’s warm and safe and wrapped in Lan Wangji’s, gentler than he would’ve thought.

 

“No,” Wei Wuxian admits. He doesn’t count dry cereal as food. “I could really go for something, though.”

 

Lan Wangji tilts his head. “I could make congee for you here, or we could go into town.”

 

Staring at him, Wei Wuxian is suddenly struck dumb by the concept of — getting something to eat with someone. The casual easiness of sharing space and time with another person. By the concept of Lan Wangji making breakfast for him when he’s hungover, even though Lan Wangji has made meals for them almost every night, now. 

 

Something pitches unsteadily in his chest, like the ground trembling in the wake of an earthquake.

 

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, with a small, shaky smile. “Yeah, let’s go into town.”

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

The weeks go on, and by some miracle — certainly with some hidden catch — Lan Wangji stays. 

 

As a familiar, he mostly takes the form of a rabbit, but sometimes he slinks alongside Wei Wuxian as a white cat. Another time, he perches on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder as a white raven, which is such a fucking delight to Wei Wuxian that it makes up for the painful dig of talons into his shoulder.

 

“Lan Zhan, this is like...a whole aesthetic,” Wei Wuxian had said, then he’d reached up to stroke one knuckle along the snowy feathers of his chest, and it had flustered Lan Wangji so much that he’d phased back and sent them both crashing to the floor.

 

He mostly stays in animal form while Wei Wuxian is working, because clients tend to be less weirded out to see a pet roaming around than a man perched behind Wei Wuxian and staring at them gravely during their transactions.

 

It’s a dragging Monday morning when Wei Wuxian receives an unexpected visitor.

 

There’s the ting of the bell, then two sharp bangs at the shop door, and Wei Wuxian looks up to sound out a greeting, but the welcome dies on his lips when he sees who’s in his doorway.

 

It’s Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian is so taken off-guard that for a moment, his mouth pops open soundlessly and he can’t think of a single thing to say.

 

His brother beats him to it.

 

“What,” Jiang Cheng says, rudely, “is that.”

 

That refers to Lan Wangji, who is sleeping in bunny form at Wei Wuxian’s elbow. Sorry, “meditating.” He has it on good authority that the Lans are allergic to naps. 

 

“That’s my familiar,” Wei Wuxian replies, then adds, “Hi, Jiang Cheng. Was there something I could help you with?”

 

“Your —” Jiang Cheng barks, then nearly chokes on a shocked laugh. “Since fucking when are you involved with the Institute?”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m involved so much as they’re having me tailed,” Wei Wuxian says, “but their surveillance style is pretty cute, wouldn’t you say?”

 

Lan Wangji visibly ruffles at this, so ah, he is awake.

 

“This was all they could send?” Jiang Cheng says with disbelief, too loud for the enclosed, cluttered space of the shop. He stares down at Lan Wangji with wide, scathing eyes. “Is it because you’re a deadbeat witch that they gave you such a useless familiar?”

 

At this, Lan Wangji’s form ripples, unfolding outward in the cramped shop space until he’s a gargantuan, utterly horrifying white wolf, and a few things happen at once: Lan Wangji snaps his teeth, Jiang Cheng swears and leaps backward, and Wei Wuxian screams, yes, screams like a child, and falls right out of his chair.

 

He scrambles backwards, a numbing sensation jarring through his butt as he tries on primal instinct to get away from Lan Wangji in the limited space. The wolf turns to appraise Wei Wuxian with large golden eyes, foam dripping from its muzzle.

 

Cowering, Wei Wuxian blinks again, and suddenly Lan Wangji the human (well, human-adjacent) is staring at Wei Wuxian with a mixture of evident dismay and confusion.

 

“Wei Ying?” he says, his eyebrows arching up.

 

Wei Wuxian is still caved into himself, one of his arms over his head and the other hand clutched to his heart, which is jackhammering in his chest fast enough to burst.

 

“He has this fucked up thing about dogs,” Jiang Cheng snaps to Lan Wangji. “Or didn’t you know that, if you’re going around calling him Wei Ying?”

 

Lan Wangji transfers his gaze to Jiang Cheng, the concern in it cooling over at once. “I do not believe we have been formally introduced, Jiang-gongzi, though I have heard of you.”

 

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and fires a glare at Wei Wuxian. “Only good things, I’m sure.

 

“Not from Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian could swear he enunciates the syllables of his name deliberately, which does something stupid to his already wrecked heart. “From the Institute. You attempted to join the School of Combat Witchcraft, did you not?”

 

Shit. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know if Lan Wangji’s intentionally being an asshole or not, but he suspects that he probably is, given the blood that’s drained from Jiang Cheng’s face has started to flood back, a much darker color than before.

 

“The forehead ribbon tells me you’re Lan,” Jiang Cheng says, a subject change through gritted teeth. “Tell me, who did you royally fuck over at the Institute to get saddled with Wei Wuxian?”

 

“That is what I said,” Wei Wuxian interjects helpfully.

 

“I chose to be here,” Lan Wangji says. “I had been made aware of Wei Ying’s prowess as a witch and was curious to examine his alternative methods.”

 

Wait. Huh? Wei Wuxian stares at Lan Wangji, sort of mystified, who is wearing his resolve firmly in the face of Jiang Cheng’s searing skepticism.

 

Jiang Cheng scrapes out another scoffing laugh. “Oh, yes! Wei Wuxian’s a right fucking prodigy.”

 

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, pained.

 

“I only came by because a-jie begged me to because she’s with the kid today,” Jiang Cheng grits out, and slops a basket down on the table. “One of her care packages or whatever.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, and swallows. “Um, thanks, Jiang Ch—” but Jiang Cheng has already turned to go with heavy, thundering steps. The welcome bell tinkles merrily in his wake as the door slams behind him. There’s a complaining, responding triple-thump from Wu Lanfen across the hall.

 

The silence that falls after this storm of noise is deafening.

 

Lan Wangji drops into a crouch next to him, where Wei Wuxian is still sitting with his knees folded to his chest.

 

“You’ve really done it now,” he tells Lan Wangji with a tired laugh, then offers a friendly smile so that Lan Zhan knows he’s teasing. “God, I’m gonna get some raving call from Yu-ayi to remind me all the ways in which I ruined Jiang Cheng’s career. Again.”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. He hesitates, his tongue poking out to wet his lips, and Wei Wuxian tracks the movement with an odd fixedness.

 

His next words are unanticipated. “I am sorry I frightened you.”

 

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian says, then recalls that he is, in fact, still on the floor, where Lan Wangji has now joined him. “Oh, that. Don’t worry about it, you couldn’t have known.”

 

“It will not happen again,” Lan Wangji says solemnly, a little notch digging between his eyebrows.

 

“I just prefer you as a bunny, that’s all,” Wei Wuxian says, doing his casual best to  underplay the whole thing.

 

“Secondly,” Lan Wangji says, ignoring this. “If you want to close shop early, I’d like to treat you to tea.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s brain momentarily fries out like a slosh of water into a bed of electric cords.

 

“Tea?” he echoes blankly.

 

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says with a nod. “Then, you can tell me about your brother.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says weakly. “That.”

 

“That,” says Lan Wangji, almost gentle.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Together, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji crunch through crackling dead leaves as they walk two blocks to the tea shop. The back end of autumn has been dragging, shedding its crisp brown remnants in the gutters and along the paths. The air today is crisp and sharp like teeth into a cold apple. Not quite wintry, but there’s the whisper of an impending cold snap. 

 

Lan Wangji holds the door open for him at the tea shop, and Wei Wuxian thanks him and slips inside, his cheeks tingling with the temperature change.

 

Usually, Wei Wuxian would order boba, but the thought of jawing on tapioca pearls while pouring out his family history is less than ideal, so he orders a cup of hei cha instead. The booths are too small when they sit down moments later, especially for someone of Lan Wangji’s height; their legs cram under the tabletop, their knees knocking together.

 

So, to the singular audience of Lan Wangji’s steady, maple-gold gaze, Wei Wuxian talks. He explains he’d been adopted by the Jiang family after his parents had been killed in the field when he was five — that his Uncle Jiang and older sister, Jiang Yanli, are non-witches, but his Aunt Yu, a retired combat witch, had been very serious about Jiang Cheng’s burgeoning abilities when they were growing up. Wei Wuxian had abilities too, as the kid of two powerful witches, but Aunt Yu had actively discouraged them. Her familiar, a violet snake named Zidian, had been a powerful disincentive for practicing his magic. It hadn’t really been until Wei Wuxian was accepted to the Institute that he’d received any formal training. 

 

“Jiang Cheng was well on his way to being a combat witch by our final year,” Wei Wuxian says while Lan Wangji watches him with his hands folded, statuesque in his stillness. “He’d passed all his exams and just had his assessment left, and then he could go on to next-levels.” 

 

Wei Wuxian sighs and splits open a pink sugar packet, then starts to rip the paper into small, neat shreds. “And then Yiling happened, and I got expelled. It was super messy and public. Pretty much everyone knows that the Jiang family adopted me, so they lost a lot of face in their circles for it.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s disgrace had been the final nail in the coffin, both for his brother’s career aspirations and for their already fraught relationship. Jiang Cheng hadn’t passed his assessment. He still has to wait another three years to take it again. 

 

“The waiting-three-years thing doesn’t sound that bad when I say it,” Wei Wuxian finishes, “but believe me, for the Jiang family, that’s like. Insurmountable failure.”

 

Lan Wangji is considering him closely, a slight pinch creasing the lines of his handsome face as he leaves his tea untouched. His expressions are becoming more readable — that is definitely a frown. 

 

Lan Wangji says, “What you said, about your expulsion. Jiang Cheng’s affiliations would have had no bearing on his assessment.”

 

“Well, yeah, that’s what they say — ” Wei Wuxian begins, and surprisingly, Lan Wangji interrupts him.

 

“ — because it is true,” Lan Wangji says, with a sudden, strange fire. “I have conducted enough assessments myself to know. We are not permitted to consider personal affiliations when evaluating a candidate; it is a punishable offense. If Jiang Cheng failed to advance based on his own skill level, it had nothing to do with you.”

 

Wei Wuxian suddenly feels like it’s hard to breathe, like his lungs are porous.

 

“Oh.” He swallows, watches the alternating glint of his rings in the sunlight as he piano-scales his fingers on the table. “It’s just that — Jiang Cheng always said, Yu-ayi always said that — ”

 

“Not true,” Lan Wangji says again.

 

“Well, in any case,” Wei Wuxian says, then pauses to take a long sip of too-hot tea, to swill it through his teeth, earthy and near-bitter. “It’s easier for both of them if there’s someone to blame. And I’m okay with it, honestly.”

 

“Hm,” Lan Wangji says, at a disapproving octave.

 

Wei Wuxian chews on his lip. Something has been itching around in his head since Jiang Cheng had left the shop, knocking things over until it can be voiced.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he begins, hesitantly.

 

“Mm.”

 

“Did you mean what you said?” Wei Wuxian asks, then focuses on dragging his finger through the fine sugar grains on the wood laminate tabletop. “That you chose to be here?”

 

He’s too nervous to look at Lan Wangji when he says it. He keeps his gaze down, making an anthill out of the sugar with his pinky.

 

“I did,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian does look at him now, a startled blink upward. “The Institute petitioned the Lan sect for a familiar to attend you, and I volunteered.”

 

Why?” Wei Wuxian remains as baffled as when Lan Wangji had first said it. “I mean, I just — why?”

 

Lan Wangji’s expression is as difficult to read as always, but Wei Wuxian thinks he detects a low hum of nerves radiating off of him. He won’t fully meet Wei Wuxian’s eyes, the very tips of his ears pinking.

 

“I was familiar with your reputation from our days at the Institute,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “We did not interact then, but I was still curious.”

 

“Wow,” Wei Wuxian says, genuinely stunned by this information. That he’d been noticed — even peripherally, even a little bit — by someone like Lan Wangji. “Hey, I hope you don’t take it personally that I don’t remember you. It’s just — I was kind of a mess then, I was barely aware of my own feet on the ground. Let alone any of my classmates.”

 

“I do not take it personally,” Lan Wangji says, pinning Wei Wuxian in place with his stare. “Although I am glad to have finally gotten to know you. I never fully believed what was said about you.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. He feels strangely choked up. “Lan Zhan, that’s...really…” Sweet. It’s so sweet that the word gets stuck in his throat, as sticky as taffy. 

 

“Drink your tea,” Lan Wangji says, nearly soft. He says it like he’s saying something else, but Wei Wuxian can’t understand what.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Wuxian is getting ready the next morning, carefully smudging eyeliner along his waterline, when Lan Wangji asks behind him, “Why do you do that.”

 

“Ah?” Wei Wuxian narrowly avoids stabbing himself in the eyeball with the liner. He pauses in what he’s doing and blinks at Lan Wangji in the mirror, who is appraising him with no judgment he can detect. All he can find reflected back at him is a simple, open curiosity.

 

“You mean makeup?” Wei Wuxian shrugs and returns to his task. “I just think it looks nice. Haven’t you done it before?”

 

“No,” Lan Wangji says.

 

What,” Wei Wuxian says flatly, and puts down the eyeliner. “Lan Zhan, you can’t — have the face you have, then tell me you’ve never worn makeup.”

 

A slight groove appears between Lan Wangji’s eyebrows. “Is my face offensive enough to require it?”

 

“Stop,” Wei Wuxian says in amazement. “Offens Lan Zhan, what.

 

It’s one of the uncontested laws of the universe that hot people don’t not know they’re hot. Wei Wuxian is only moderately hot and is aware of it, hence the makeup. Someone as gorgeous as Lan Wangji cannot be unconscious of the devastating clout of his attractiveness.

 

...can he?!

 

Wei Wuxian momentarily blacks out, and when he returns to his senses, Lan Wangji is seated on the closed toilet seat at his instruction while Wei Wuxian rummages through his cheap plastic bag of cosmetics. He belatedly realizes, as he does this, that Lan Wangji might have actually been joking, before. Lan Wangji potentially possessing a sense of humor is another layer of hotness that Wei Wuxian will need to unpack later, but in the meantime, he’s already committed to this, so he uncaps the eyeliner and turns back toward Lan Wangji.

 

Oh, he hadn’t — thought this through, because he becomes glaringly aware of the fact that this will require extreme personal space. 

 

Wei Wuxian takes a tentative step closer.

 

“Okay, just,” he says, and Lan Wangji simply watches him, following his movements. “Close your eyes?”

 

Lan Wangji obeys. To give himself better access, Wei Wuxian uses a knuckle to tilt Lan Wangji’s chin at an upward angle. He forcibly steadies the slight tremor in his hand, then leans in.

 

“God, your eyelashes should be illegal,” Wei Wuxian mutters as he starts a careful, black line across Lan Wangji’s upper lid. The criminal eyelashes in question flutter at either the touch of the eye pencil or Wei Wuxian’s words, and Wei Wuxian is close enough to hear the soft huff through Lan Wangji’s nose. It might be a sound of surprise, or maybe a non-laugh.

 

Lan Wangji tries to crack his eyes open, and Wei Wuxian chides, gently, “Aiya, keep them closed,” and Lan Wangji does.

 

Wei Wuxian has just completed the tail of a decent wing when he realizes Lan Wangji’s eyes are open again, flickering rapidly to trace over Wei Wuxian’s every movement. They’ve never been this close to each other, and Wei Wuxian makes the offhanded discovery that the shade of Lan Wangji’s eyes is warmer than he’d thought, up until now. Less like a hard chip of amber — more something soft and sweet, like honey.

 

“I didn’t realize you were so bad at following instructions,” Wei Wuxian ribs him as he moves to the other eye, then forcibly presses Lan Wangji’s downcast eyelashes against his cheek with a thumb so it will stay shut. 

 

“I did not realize Wei Ying was so prone to giving them,” Lan Wangji replies, and. Okay, that feels fucking loaded. Wei Wuxian carefully does not touch whatever is going on there.

 

Lan Wangji is starting to make him nervous, so Wei Wuxian does as Wei Wuxian will, which is to say he starts to blather in a stream of empty chatter.

 

“My brother always gives me shit for my makeup,” he says as he sharpens the tip of the left wing. “He says it makes me look like a raccoon.”

 

It’s an apt comparison. Wei Wuxian feels a special kinship with any animal so fond of garbage. That also roams the streets as a mangy stray, eating scraps from the bins before the Jiangs had —

 

Ah, metaphor’s gone too deep. Too deep! Fuck. Wei Wuxian carefully leaves it alone before he can prod into that damage further.

 

“It looks nice on you,” Lan Wangji says stubbornly, and his eyes are closed so he can’t see whatever endeared, mushy smile mutilates Wei Wuxian’s face just then.

 

“It’s okay,” he says. “Jiejie likes it. Although she would never tell me if she didn’t, probably.”

 

Wei Wuxian opts to give Lan Wangji a smoky eye look, because if this is really his first makeover, then obviously Wei Wuxian is gonna go all out for it. Despite how close Lan Wangji’s face is, his skin surprisingly warm against the heel of Wei Wuxian’s hand, it becomes oddly easy to focus on what he’s doing. Methodical, a familiar ritual. Dark powder in the crease, dark in the outer corner, light on the inner corner, blend. One eyelid, then the other, then a light smattering of shimmer. 

 

Lan Wangji keeps preternaturally still as Wei Wuxian works. Sometimes his eyelids flinch at the foreign probe of the eyeshadow brush, but other than that he remains quiet, listening to Wei Wuxian talk about nothing.

 

When he’s done, Wei Wuxian steps back to examine the symmetry of the makeup as Lan Wangji opens his eyes.

 

“Verdict?” Lan Wangji asks, in a tone that might be wry, and. Oh. 

 

Oh, no. 

 

Lan Wangji is. Fucking hot. Well, he’s always hot, distractingly so, that’s been so thoroughly established by now, but — good God, what has he done, Wei Wuxian thinks with no small horror. He’s created a monster. A cat-eyed, beautiful monster. Like a blithe, swanning idiot, Wei Wuxian had escorted himself directly into his own jail cell of repressed desires and then kicked away the key. What was he thinking , putting Lan Wangji in makeup? The utter masochism of it! The hubris of it!

 

The winged eyeliner does look good, if Wei Wuxian does say so himself, as does the smoky eyeshadow. The ashy hues contrast starkly with the gold of Lan Wangji’s irises, a metallic clash that makes his gaze smolder even moreso than usual.

 

A little lost for words, Wei Wuxian gives a weak thumbs-up.

 

“Looks, uh, great. Good,” he tries. His brain scrambles for the exit door, and somehow comes up with: “Lipstick?”

 

Lan Wangji looks even more uncertain at this suggestion, but he seems to have made up his mind to trust whatever Wei Wuxian wants to do to him, which is so oddly sweet that Wei Wuxian has to bite down on his lip to keep from smiling.

 

The smile drops as he uncaps the tube of black lipstick, and then looks up at Lan Wangji. He shuffles closer as Lan Wangji watches him, expressionless, but his eyes seem to burn, a golden sear. Probably just the makeup, right? Wei Wuxian thinks, a little wildly. Ah, fuck. 

 

Again, he had so...not thought this through.

 

“Uh, open your mouth for me?” Wei Wuxian says quietly, and he thinks he hears Lan Wangji take in an unsteady breath before he complies, his pink lips slightly parting.

 

Wei Wuxian gets to work, trying to be as clinical about it as possible even though Lan Wangji’s mouth is. Right there. The plush of his lower lip gives slightly under the swipes of the lipstick tube. Each of Lan Wangji’s individual features is flawless, Wei Wuxian thinks to himself, not sure whether to be more amazed or annoyed. It’s so much more overwhelming up close. He’s been holding his breath so long from their proximity that he’s starting to get lightheaded.

 

“All done,” Wei Wuxian announces when he’s finished, and steps back to review his work. He’d hoped the black lipstick would be a shock to the system, extreme enough to make the overall look less devastating, but sadly, Lan Wangji is still hot. He now just looks like someone who would be hot and slightly misplaced at a cyberpunk concert.

 

Lan Wangji surveys himself in the mirror critically. His painted lips turn down at the corners, an ebony moue.

 

“Clownish,” he says, diagnostically.

 

A shocked laugh bursts out of Wei Wuxian.

 

“Noooo,” he protests, trying for wounded but giggling too hard to sell it. “Lan Zhan! Don’t insult my artistry!”

 

“Ghoulish,” Lan Wangji amends.

 

“Better,” Wei Wuxian allows with a wide grin. He feels his cheeks ache around it. “I have to say that I really like it. Lan Zhan, in another life, you would’ve made a hot goth.”

 

Lan Wangji turns to stare at him with a frown threatening to form, and Wei Wuxian backtracks with nervous, extremely obvious laughter. Ah, he’d fucked up; had it sounded like Wei Wuxian was hitting on him? Well, he kind of was, but judging by Lan Wangji’s strange reaction, it was the wrong direction to go. He worries himself with piling up his cosmetics on the sink, just to give his hands something to do.

 

“I like the eyes,” Lan Wangji says. He has returned to observing himself in the mirror with a solemn scrutiny. Wei Wuxian had never imagined that Lan Wangji, of all people, could preen, but he thinks he can spot the promising potential of vanity, the birth of something beautiful under the shitty fluorescents of his cramped bathroom. 

 

“I’ll do it for you any time you like,” Wei Wuxian offers with a wide smile, and Lan Wangji looks back at him, almost soft.

 

“Thanks for letting me experiment on you,” Wei Wuxian says. “This was fun.”

 

“Fun,” Lan Wangji echoes, his black lips curving down.

 

Wei Wuxian frowns and pauses in shoving makeup into his bag. “Ye...ah? Fun.”

 

Lan Wangji appears to deeply mull this over. Then he says, slowly, “It was.”

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

That night, hours after Lan Wangji’s gone to sleep on the couch, Wei Wuxian moves through his pre-bedtime rituals. It’s when he reaches over to turn off the lamp that a flash of white in the open doorway catches his eye, and he freezes.

 

It’s Lan Zhan, in bunny form. Perched in the middle of the open doorway. Watching him.

 

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian murmurs, rubbing his eyes sleepily to ensure his vision isn’t wrong. He’s blind as a bat without his contacts in. “What’s wrong?”

 

Lan Wangji sits there and continues to watch him, unmoving. His silence feels oddly expectant.

 

Wei Wuxian stares back.

 

Then, a little hesitantly, he whispers, “Do you wanna come up here? Is that it?”

 

Lan Wangji hops forward once, then twice, and then he keeps shuffling forward until he’s next to the bed. Wei Wuxian pats his hand on the mattress encouragingly, and Lan Wangji jumps up with an easy spring of his hind legs, then settles down next to Wei Wuxian in a tight ball.

 

“You’re so soft,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. He’s a little awed by just how much as he strokes a finger over the downy fur on Lan Wangji’s head, along his ears. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re so cute.”

 

Lan Wangji’s long ears flatten back against his head and he closes his eyes, his pink nose still twitching.

 

“Tired of the couch? Or did you just want cuddles?” Wei Wuxian asks, a soft tease, and Lan Wangji slits his eyes open. Wei Wuxian can picture the droll expression so clearly on his human face that he turns his head to cackle quietly into his pillow.

 

When he resurfaces, he examines Lan Wangji the rabbit thoughtfully, trying to track the expressions in his eyes.

 

“Why did you pick a bunny, I wonder?” he asks aloud, as if Lan Wangji can respond to him. “Is it because you’re secretly a huge softie? I think that might be it.”

 

Lan Wangji headbutts his chest with an expression that, for a rabbit, still manages to convey faint annoyance.

 

“Yes, you’re very fierce,” Wei Wuxian tells him solemnly, and puts a fingertip to his pink nose. “A bulwark of terror.”

 

Lan Wangji bites him.

 

“Aiyo! Lan Zhan, you’re so mean,” Wei Wuxian whines, and theatrically holds up his finger to examine it. There’s barely an impression of teeth marks. “Do I have to get a rabies shot for this?”

 

Lan Wangji exudes petulance as he curls up into a tighter ball, further away from Wei Wuxian. Oh, maybe rabies jokes are in poor taste with familiars.

 

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, and gently moves Lan Wangji back toward him with a cupped hand. “Forgive this thoughtless one, yeah? Lan Zhan, I’ll leave you alone for the night, I promise.” 

 

He’s sort of expecting Lan Wangji to move away from him again, but he doesn’t. Wei Wuxian reaches over him to turn out the lamp. 

 

“Good night, Lan Zhan,” he whispers into the sudden dark. With Lan Zhan tucked into a soft ball at the center of his chest, warm like a second heart, Wei Wuxian drifts off.

 

At some point in the middle of the night, he finds himself squirming awake, stifled by heat and sweating through his clothes. He blinks, once in confusion, twice in disbelief, when he processes the fact that Lan Wangji the human is curled up into him. He must have phased back at some point after he’d fallen asleep. As always, Wei Wuxian finds himself caught off-guard by the beauty of him, set spinning unsteadily by it like a light-blind moth. He’s even more flummoxed now, as sleep-addled as he is. For an uncounted handful of minutes, he watches Lan Wangji with his breath bated, and a tiny, incredulous smile tugs at his mouth. He looks so...different like this, with his handsome features so relaxed; less severe and cold, much younger. Before he can stop himself, a little trance-like, Wei Wuxian reaches out and touches the bow of his lips with a thumb.

 

A rose-colored haze settles into him, a sunrise spilling over a gray horizon and touching everything to color.

 

Oh no, he thinks, staring at Lan Wangji with a scooped-out feeling in his chest. Oh, I really like you.

 

Then Wei Wuxian burrows into him closer, and he falls back asleep.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

When he wakes, a few hours later, the bed is empty. The gray sheets are still crinkled into Lan Wangji’s shape, and Wei Wuxian spends another hazy moment observing this before he groans and rolls into an upward position. An involuntary shiver vibrates through him when his bare feet touch the wooden floors. Is the heat off? Lan Zhan usually kicks it up a few notches before Wei Wuxian is even awake.

 

He wraps a blanket around himself and drifts out into the hallway.

 

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks, rubbing at his eyes as he shuffles barefoot along the wooden floors. He finds the bathroom empty, which is also unusual.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he calls out, more loudly as he moves into the living room, also unoccupied. No one in the kitchen either. He checks the front step just to be sure, half-expecting to see Lan Wangji’s sweater-fuzzed back facing him with a halo of fauna around him, like the last time. But the garden is vacant, even of his usual strays.

 

Maybe he went into town to get something, Wei Wuxian reasons, his traitorous heart drumming faster in his chest. They’d been running low on groceries, anyway.

 

He waits hours, curled up into the deep-bellied part of the couch, watching the path of sunlight flicker through different phases of color and angle along the carpet. 

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t return.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Wuxian spends the first day, after this, convincing himself there’s been a misunderstanding. He does a pretty good job at it, all things considered.

 

He spends the following day being pissed, stomping through his chores and turning mental cartwheels, because why the fuck would Lan Zhan leave without so much as a note? If he’d gone into town, or left to see his family, isn’t that common courtesy for a roommate? Besides, Wei Wuxian hadn’t even done anything particularly grisly or repulsive that night, so surely he hadn’t…surely it hadn’t been something he said? Something he’d done?

 

By the third day, it becomes evident that Lan Wangji isn’t coming back, for whatever inexplicable reason, and habitual dread crystallizes like formations of rock salt in Wei Wuxian’s chest.

 

He had seen this coming, right? Wei Wuxian miserably reasons to himself as he makes his way through washing a food-flecked tower of dishes. It’s just that he’d — he’d lulled himself into a false sense of security, let his guard drop at the worst possible moment, let himself get attached to some — some stupid idea about him and Lan Wangji, in a joint shape. He’d started thinking of them in the collective, which is always his first mistake. He’d thought himself in the collective with the Jiangs for twenty years, and look where it had gotten him.

 

It’s just this, right? He’d known from the first day that Lan Wangji’s stay had an expiration date, and Wei Wuxian had still — he’d still — he’d let himself —

 

God, he doesn’t want to be conscious, he thinks as he sets down the last of the dishes. He hasn’t changed his clothes since that night he’d given Lan Wangji a makeover — hasn’t showered, hasn’t gone to work, has barely eaten. He’s spent most of his hours wrapped in a tattered blanket, wandering aimlessly like a ghost haunting his own house, circling the exit wound of Lan Wangji’s departure.

 

It’s only two in the afternoon, but Wei Wuxian rustles around in his cabinets and manages to locate an expired sleeping pill, knocks it back and chases it with a slug of baijiu. 

 

Already half-fogged, he lists his way over to the couch and collapses there, and promptly passes out.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

“ — Ying,” something in his dreams tells him.

 

“Ah?” Wei Wuxian attempts to respond to it, but the torpor of the sleeping pill is molasses-thick. He has to wriggle his way toward the surface of it.

 

Wei Ying, his dream says, murky and insistent.

 

He cracks his eyes open, the white smear of Lan Wangji doubling then tripling over him. Then the beautiful image of him slides back into focus. Wei Wuxian blinks again, just to make sure he’s fully awake. He tries to sit up, which is made difficult by his limbs refusing to cooperate.

 

Lan Wangji — the real one, sans cardigan now — takes a seat next to him on the couch.

 

“You,” Wei Wuxian says, and then nothing else, a synaptic fizzling.

 

He should be hurt, he should be pissed, but for the moment, as he sits there looking at Lan Wangji completely dumbfounded, the only emotion that his half-asleep brain can prioritize is an overwhelming, boneless relief. Lan Wangji is intact and unhurt, Lan Wangji is back, Lan Zhan is here.

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. He looks concerned, his hand halfway to Wei Wuxian’s kneecap. “You look…”

 

“I look what? What did you expect?” Wei Wuxian says, more awake. Oh, he’s bristling, he realizes. He’s surprised that he’s alert enough for anger. “You left without a word, you didn’t even leave a note, Lan Zhan, I didn’t know if you were dead or if you — if you just —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats. His hand has located Wei Wuxian’s bare kneecap, a firm clamp of pressure.

 

“Where have you been?” Wei Wuxian demands.

 

“The Institute,” Lan Wangji answers. Two twinned creases have gathered between his eyebrows. “I should have left a note. Wei Ying, I…”

 

“You what?” Wei Wuxian says.

 

“I am new,” Lan Wangji finishes, with evident difficulty. He makes a stilted motion with his hand. “To this. To having…someone else in my life. I did not think to…”

 

Wei Wuxian sags back into the cushions, and tips his chin back to stare abjectly at the ceiling.

 

“You leave a note,” he says, sort of weakly. “You leave a note when there’s people who care about you, Lan Zhan. God.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Lan Wangji says, quiet. His hand hasn’t moved, a tingling pressure against Wei Wuxian’s skin. “I did not imagine I would take so long, or that you would worry.”

 

“All I do is worry,” Wei Wuxian says indignantly, and levers his head off the arm of the couch to glare. “I’m at least eighty-percent worry at all times.”

 

He writhes in an attempt to sit up, the heaviness in his head still sleep-thick. Lan Wangji helps him, a gentle yank on his elbow that maneuvers him into an upright position.

 

It’s probably the first question he should have prioritized, but Wei Wuxian asks then, “Why were you at the Institute?”   

 

Lan Wangji glances down at his knees, a downward shuttering of his eyelashes.

 

Looking at him, the realization slides between two of Wei Wuxian’s ribs, cold and slithering. 

 

Oh, Wei Wuxian thinks, a little dizzily. He asked for a reassignment.

 

Of course he had. Lan Wangji had asked for a reassignment; he’s come back to tell Wei Wuxian in person because it’s the decent thing to do, after leaving the way he did, and then he’ll be on his way again. Wei Wuxian swallows, his throat tightening.

 

The silence expands, settles like air over a bog, low and sour.

 

“You can just say it,” Wei Wuxian tells him, then follows it with a laugh that is horribly awkward. He feels a little sick. Maybe the liquor and the sleeping pill, but probably not. “No need to keep me in suspense, aha.”

 

“I should have spoken to you about it first,” Lan Wangji says, which is oh, an incredibly promising opener.

 

“There are a lot of shoulds happening in this conversation,” Wei Wuxian mutters, and waves a tired hand. “Well, past is the past. Just hit me, Lan Zhan, I can take it.”

 

Lan Wangji takes a breath — almost soundlessly, as though to steady himself — and says, “I petitioned the Institute —”

 

“— for a new witch,” Wei Wuxian concludes with a nod, just as Lan Wangji says, “for a Bonding approval,” and then they both stare at each other for several wordless moments, slack-jawed on Wei Wuxian’s part.

 

“You,” Wei Wuxian says, when he’s managed to catch up. “Bond — what?”

 

Lan Wangji is frowning. “Why would I request a new witch?”

 

“Because you —” Wei Wuxian false-starts, then tries again, running up to it from a different angle. “You left, and I…”

 

The longer he flounders, the more Lan Wangji is starting to look at him in that way that Wei Wuxian has really come to hate from other people that he knows — that inevitable “oh, you poor thing, I had no idea there was damage here” look that Wei Wuxian gets the first time people realize just how neurotic he is. Granted, Lan Wangji wears it much more subtly, but Wei Wuxian has a bloodhound’s nose for people’s pity.

 

“I mean, what was I supposed to think,” Wei Wuxian says, which is the feeblest defense in his arsenal. “We’re not exactly alike, Lan Zhan.”

 

“No,” Lan Wangji says slowly, and then adds, with an odd emphasis that Wei Wuxian can’t interpret, “We are not.”

 

Bonding. Lan Wangji had requested a Bond with him. The full weight of the meaning of this has started to settle into Wei Wuxian, the implications of it and the reality of how the Institute must have reacted. 

 

“So wait, you really…” Wei Wuxian says. His heartbeat pounds erratically in his throat, tachycardic. “I’m assuming — I mean, they told you no, right?”

 

“They did,” Lan Wangji says, apparently unperturbed. “But I’m very persistent.”

 

Wei Wuxian feels his eyebrows shoot up toward his hairline, tracing the implicit meaning of this. “You got them to agree? Your family must have — there’s no way that — weren’t you supposed to be, like, my corrective officer?”

 

“I was,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Things changed.”

 

“Oh, okay,” Wei Wuxian says, too lightly, because he feels like he might pass out again.

 

“I should have asked your permission before I left,” Lan Wangji says, then his clasped fingers twitch, like a nervous tic. “I did not imagine the process would take so long, but the Institute voiced…several objections, more than I thought they would. I projected that the trip would only take a day, and once I had approval, I could ask you upon my return.”

 

Wei Wuxian feels oddly woozy. He elects to blame the sleeping pill again.

 

“There are a few stipulations,” Lan Wangji continues, keeping his gaze fastened to a crusted black stain on the carpet. His long, pale fingers are slotting together, in and out. Oh, he’s nervous, Wei Wuxian realizes, very nervous, Lan Wangji is — nervous because — ?

 

“The Bond requires proximity,” Lan Wangji says, still not looking at him. “We would perpetually remain within ten li of each other. Exceeding the boundary would cause pain for us both.”

 

He starts talking about the Bonding ceremony then, this and that about the ritual and the requirements, but the details slide away from Wei Wuxian’s understanding like water, because he’s too busy processing the fact that —

 

Lan Wangji is offering to stay. He’s offering to stay and never leave. Lan Wangji is offering to stay within Wei Wuxian’s radius upon threat of physical pain.

 

Which means there’s definitely a catch.

 

“This is something you’re doing — willingly?” Wei Wuxian tries, cutting off Lan Wangji mid-speech. “The Institute doesn’t have anything on you, right? Because if this is a blackmail situation, we can fix it, Lan Zhan. My friend Nie Huaisang can get pretty much anything they have on you wiped from the face of the earth —“

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupts. He’s staring at Wei Wuxian — has been, Wei Wuxian realizes, for an unbroken minute during this little diatribe. “This is my choice. Entirely of my own volition.”

 

A treacherous, thorny hope plants itself in Wei Wuxian, its stubborn roots burrowing deep.

 

Wei Wuxian wrangles desperately against it, scrounges for a different angle. “Lan Zhan, have you really thought this through? I mean…it’s just that…”

 

He can suddenly hear Nie Huaisang’s voice from the bar, low and lilting and suggestive: Lans Bond to marry.

 

“It’s just so...permanent,” Wei Wuxian says. “I mean, what if later on, you want to — you know, be with someone, but you can’t because you’re stuck Bonded with me?”

 

“I do not want to be with anyone else,” Lan Wangji says. “Nor will I.”

 

“How can you know that,” Wei Wuxian says despairingly. “You can’t know that, Lan Zhan!”

 

“I do.” Lan Wangji says it like a verbal shrug, devoid of hesitation or doubt. 

 

“Okay.” Wei Wuxian is starting to sound semi-hysterical, even to his own ears. “I guess I just don’t understand how you, of all people, don’t think this isn’t a completely awful idea —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupts him (again! Twice in one discussion!).

 

Wei Wuxian allows it, falls silent.

 

Lan Wangji continues, firm-voiced, “I have already made my thoughts clear. What is this really about?”

 

Wei Wuxian scrubs a hand through his hair, agitated. He blows out a fast breath. “It’s just that...”

 

It’s just that what? That some days, it feels like Wei Wuxian swallowed a broken mirror when he was still a kid, and all those glass shards are still grinding around inside of him, and if he moves a certain way, they rip and tear and prod and set him bleeding? That sometimes the only way he can see himself is through this cracked, silver kaleidoscope of assorted pieces? Fractured, fracturing?

 

Ah, no, of course he doesn’t say that. 

 

Wei Wuxian rubs his thumb into the palm of his hand, soothing over an old scar there. “I live alone for a reason, Lan Zhan,” he says instead.

 

Lan Wangji goes curiously still, his expression freezing into its current molding. “Would you...would you prefer if I…”

 

“What?” Wei Wuxian stares, then abruptly, like a kick to the chest, catches on. “Wait, no! Ah, no, that’s not what I meant. Lan Zhan, you being here has been — it’s been the best thing to happen to me in ages.”

 

He doesn’t realize how true it is until he says it out loud, until the sharpness of the ensuing silence emphasizes the force of his words. They ring and ring between them. Wei Wuxian blinks. Lan Wangji blinks back at him, and then they stare at each other.

 

“I’m just saying that...” Wei Wuxian pauses, then swallows around the broken-mirror feeling, jagged and pinching in his chest. “There’s a reason people stay away from me. It’s something in me, I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want to hold you down with it, okay?”

 

Lan Wangji’s lips part, as though about to speak, but he doesn’t. He remains silent, staring at Wei Wuxian with his brow slightly pinched.

 

“You deserve a good witch, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian finishes quietly. “You really do, the best witch. Not a dropout who will make your job at the Institute even harder.”

 

“Wei Ying is a good witch,” Lan Wangji says, a stubborn set hardening his jaw. “More importantly, Wei Ying is good.”

 

Wei Wuxian claps both hands over his face, blood rushing to his head. 

 

“You can’t just —” he begins, muffled.

 

“Why not?” Lan Wangji says, so evenly.

 

“The Bond, it’s so…” Wei Wuxian trails off. “I mean, it’s like what you said. We can barely be apart from each other, if we go through with it. I don’t want to — inflict that on you, Lan Zhan, I — I’m too much for myself sometimes, let alone anyone else, and I don’t want to make you hate me, I can’t have you hate me, I can’t.” His voice cracks over the last word, which is completely mortifying, and Wei Wuxian stares down hard at his feet, clenching his teeth in and out.

 

Lan Wangji’s hands, so ridiculously gentle, encircle Wei Wuxian’s wrists. Wei Wuxian stares down at the image of them with a laser-beam focus, unable to look Lan Wangji in the eye.

 

“That will not happen,” Lan Wangji tells him gently. “Wei Ying. I promise you that will not happen. Do you believe me?”

 

Wei Wuxian takes a shaky breath. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, or at least that you believe what you’re saying — it’s just that —” He tears his hands away, the touch suddenly too stifling, and he gets up from the couch and starts to pace. “You barely know me, alright? I’ve known myself for 27 years, so believe me, I’m the resident expert on being around me.”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again. His hands fall to his sides. “If you do not want to Bond with me, that is a separate matter, and I will respect your decision wholly. But do not presume my opinion of you is the same as your own, because it clearly is not.”

 

Wei Wuxian stops in his tracks. He stares at Lan Wangji, who responds with a gaze steady like granite, evidently unruffled by Wei Wuxian’s raving.

 

“Of course I want to Bond with you, don’t be dumb,” Wei Wuxian says finally, because it’s the easier part of that speech to address. “Who the hell wouldn’t?”

 

Lan Wangji huffs a quiet sound, although his face does not move. “Most of the magic-practicing world.”

 

“That’s so stupid,” Wei Wuxian snaps, genuinely annoyed by the concept. “They’re all stupid. You’re the best.”

 

“I’m glad to hear you say it,” Lan Wangji replies, his eyes alight on Wei Wuxian. “It means you understand my perspective.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s mouth moves soundlessly for a moment, then his jaw snaps shut.

 

“That was sneaky,” he complains a moment later. “This is different.”

 

The tiniest eyebrow lift from Lan Zhan. “How? Explain.”

 

“It just is!” Wei Wuxian says. “Stop that, stop outsmarting me to be nice to me.”

 

If nothing else, Wei Wuxian isn’t in the habit of being outwitted, and he’s a little put out by it.

 

An odd silence falls between them. Not uncomfortable, but strangely...expectant. They’re both holding their breaths.

 

Okay, so. They could really do this. Lan Zhan doesn’t lie — he wouldn’t lie to Wei Wuxian about wanting this, he wouldn’t do that, and God, Wei Wuxian wants it too. He hadn’t even realized how much until Lan Zhan had said Bonding like that, so serious and intent.

 

Maybe this is something he can allow himself. Would there be anything wrong in allowing himself this?

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian warns, after another wordless moment between them. “If you really want to Bond with me, I hope you know you’re in for it. There will be hexing. There will be dead animals. There will be Jiang Cheng.”

 

The corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth ticks upward, the smallest flicker of movement. “I know.”

 

“My witchcraft is not orthodox,” Wei Wuxian continues. He takes one tentative step closer toward Lan Wangji, then two more. “Heavens know it’s not Institute-approved. If there’s some crime I could commit that would send you hopping back to Gusu, then I will probably do it at some point, and we should address that — you know, before we commit to a magic ritual with permanent and long-lasting consequences.”

 

Wei Wuxian stops in front of Lan Wangji, in front of the slightly parted vee of his knees. He takes a deep breath, steadying himself. “So. Lan Zhan. If there’s anything I can do that would — scare you off, you should tell me now.”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, very seriously, and takes his wrist in one of his hands again. 

 

Wei Wuxian’s heart skips a beat in his chest — at the shape of his name in Lan Wangji’s mouth, at his proximity and his touch, then at the prospect of an impending letdown. He’s been waiting, since they met, for Lan Wangji’s dealbreakers. To know, at last, the catch that could send him packing for good. Lan Zhan will make it gentle, he knows.

 

“I have already tried your cooking,” Lan Wangji continues, still in that very solemn voice.

 

Wei Wuxian’s mouth drops open, and he reaches out to shove at Lan Wangji’s shoulder.

 

“Lan Zhan, I’m being serious!” Wei Wuxian whines. “Don’t try to be funny to distract me.”

 

“As am I,” Lan Wangji responds, then delivers the following words with a casualness that utterly belies their devastation: “There is nothing you could do that would make me reject you.”

 

Wei Wuxian inhales once, jagged and too loud. It’s just — too much all at once, too intense, spindly tendrils of warmth spreading under his skin, down to his capillaries. He raises both hands to his face again to mask whatever is happening with his expression.

 

“What if I killed someone?” Wei Wuxian says through the slats of his fingers. “Lan Zhan, what if I murdered someone and showed up to the house with the body? What would you say to that?”

 

“That I am sure you had good reason,” Lan Wangji answers steadily.

 

Wei Wuxian drops his hands and for a long moment, he just — stares at Lan Wangji.

 

“You’re really serious, aren’t you,” he says, kind of faintly.

 

Lan Wangji tightens his grip around Wei Wuxian’s wrist again, almost a squeeze, and nods once.

 

Wei Wuxian regards him for another silent moment, a lightness expanding in his chest. The feeling reminds him of his first time he’d managed to fly a broomstick — that giddy, euphoric rush of flight, interwoven with the sudden realization, as he’d watched the green hills spooling out beneath his feet, that there was an entire sky open to him.

 

Hesitantly, then with a renewed confidence, Wei Wuxian squeezes back.

 

“Okay,” he says, and takes a deep breath. “What do we need?”

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

As it turns out, Lan Wangji’s journey to the Institute hadn’t just been to harangue them about obtaining a Bonding approval, although this is admittedly the part that interests Wei Wuxian the most. (He eagerly solicits the gory details about it after dinner that night.) On the way back, Lan Wangji explains, he’d also stopped a few places to pick up some necessary supplies for the ritual. The methodical preparedness of it is sort of in itself shocking, mostly because it implicates Lan Wangji as an impatient person, which is not at all what Wei Wuxian had assumed of him.

 

“Were you so sure I’d say yes?” Wei Wuxian asks, stroking Doudou in his lap. In a fit of mourning during Lan Wangji’s absence, he’d formally adopted one of the stray cats from outside.

 

“No.” Lan Wangji sets down his chopsticks with a soft clink. Then, more quietly: “Not at all.”

 

The whole ordeal, the accelerating pace of it, does feel strangely like an elopement, although every time the thought occurs, Wei Wuxian firmly buries it in the backyard of his brain and kicks some extra dirt over it for good measure. 

 

The next evening, Wei Wuxian sits very still on the couch and does his best not to make trouble as he watches Lan Wangji set up. He had offered to help, but Lan Wangji had insisted on doing everything himself. Wei Wuxian watches the liquid-smooth movements of his forearms, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow as he lightly chalks runes into the carpet, placing certain herbs and bones at various intersections. The geometry of the circle follows feng shui, and given Wei Wuxian is the resident occultist here, he should really be doing more to help, but Lan Wangji seems to have it handled, surprisingly enough, for a non-witch.

 

“Is this going to hurt?” Wei Wuxian asks, once Lan Wangji looks close to finished. Wei Wuxian has an astronomical threshold for pain, but he is curious.

 

“It shouldn’t,” Lan Wangji answers. He dusts off his hands neatly and stands at the middle of the circle, before he picks up a large, ancient-looking tome from the ground and begins to leaf through the pages. “Other than perhaps the sealing, as we discussed.”

 

“The what?” Wei Wuxian says blankly. “When did we discuss that?”

 

“I explained yesterday,” Lan Wangji says, glancing up at him from under his eyebrows. Right, probably when Wei Wuxian was dissociating. “The Bonding ritual can only be consummated through the sharing of bodily fluid.”

 

“What.” Wei Wuxian feels slightly faint. “That sounds fake.”

 

“It is not,” Lan Wangji responds, thumbing through the pages of the book with an idle attentiveness.

 

“So, what,” Wei Wuxian says, “you have to spit in my mouth or something?”

 

Lan Wangji looks up from the book, then stares at him for a very long time. A little frozen, Wei Wuxian stares back.

 

Then Lan Wangji blinks, apparently regaining access to his motor functions. “No,” he says. “Uncoupled Bonding pairs often make an incision and share blood.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Right, right, blood. Obviously.”

 

“The Bondings of romantic couples tend to involve saliva,” Lan Wangji allows. “But a kiss usually suffices for that.”

 

Wei Wuxian is nodding vigorously, his arms crossed and his hands hooked in his armpits. “Mhm. Yeah. Okay, great, so I just have to — cut my hand open?”

 

“Will that be an issue?” Lan Wangji asks. His concern is cute.

 

Wei Wuxian laughs once, humorless and dry. “No, that won’t be an issue.”

 

This earns him a searching look from Lan Wangji, to which Wei Wuxian blinks innocently back.

 

“If you are sure,” Lan Wangji says, “then we will begin.”

 

 ◈ ◈ ◈

 

Most of the ritual itself goes a little over Wei Wuxian’s head. Lan Wangji moves through it with an unwavering assuredness, the dulcet baritone of his voice rolling over syllables of extremely archaic Chinese that Wei Wuxian can’t understand, and also a language he’s never heard spoken before — Latin, maybe?

 

Wei Wuxian keeps his mouth sealed shut, as difficult as it is not to crack jokes at inopportune times, because he wants to be well-behaved for this. He doesn’t fully trust that he won’t do something that will send Lan Wangji fleeing out the door last minute. He follows Lan Wangji’s motions, the movements around the circle toward each direction, the burning of acrid herbs and the crackling of oracle bones. He offers qi whenever Lan Wangji quietly directs him, guiding it through the lines of the circle formation like river currents, and Lan Wangji’s magic follows. Wei Wuxian takes a soft, unsteady breath when he feels it, a familiar charge that matches his magic watt for watt. It’s only been about a week since he and Lan Wangji had shared their energy like this, but his own magic rushes toward Lan Wangji’s eagerly like moss soaking up rainwater.

 

He hears Lan Wangji’s intake of breath when it does, a displacement of sound. Gratifying to know he’s not the only one affected.

 

“Now, the sealing,” Lan Wangji murmurs, once each corner of the circle has been activated. He holds out a small pocket-knife to Wei Wuxian, and joins him at the middle of the circle. He’s so — tall, and broad, and endearingly handsome, and suddenly in Wei Wuxian’s space after their time apart, after this time where Wei Wuxian had thought he’d never see him again, and —

 

Wei Wuxian raises the blade to his palm, then hesitates. He digs the cold metal of it into his heart-line, watches the pale skin whiten further, but doesn’t break it open to blood, even though it would be so easy to.

 

“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji asks, sensing his hesitation. He’s paused as well, his blade hovering over his left hand. “Is something wrong?”

 

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. It’s just that he’s suddenly thinking about what Lan Zhan had said earlier, about sharing spit, about how some pairs kiss to seal something like this, and how much more — intimate it would be, than goring open his hand. How easy it would be, to kiss Lan Zhan with their shared magic blooming around them like a botanical garden. It feels more right, somehow, if they were to...but how can he, how would they….

 

Lan Wangji lowers his voice and takes the smallest step closer to him. The edges of their clothes brush, their feet almost bumping together. “Wei Ying, if you have doubts, it is not too late to stop the ritual. Do not commit to this unless you are fully sure.”

 

“I’m sure!” Wei Wuxian says quickly, darting a glance up to Lan Wangji. “No doubts here; I’m very, very sure, it’s just that —”

 

Lan Wangji, ever-patient, waits. Magic still hums and crackles through the intricate lines of the circle like the buzz of fluorescence, anticipatory and eager.

 

“I just — really don’t want to cut open my hand,” Wei Wuxian says, which is...not exactly a lie, it’s just far easier than asking for what he wants.

 

There’s an audible frown from Lan Wangji when he responds. “I thought you had no concerns.”

 

“I don’t,” Wei Wuxian rushes to say, then rocks back onto his heels. “It’s just, that — wouldn’t it just be easier if we —”

 

He feels the air shift, the sensation of Lan Wangji holding his breath, so close to him.

 

“I mean, what’s a little kissing between roommates, right?” Wei Wuxian fumbles the words, then plucks up bravado he does not feel to offer Lan Wangji an attempt at a jaunty smile. “Wouldn’t it be nicer that way?”

 

Lan Wangji stares at him, his lips slightly parted. 

 

“It wouldn’t have to mean anything,” Wei Wuxian trainwrecks on, trying to ease Lan Wangji’s stunned expression. “I mean, I just think it would be easier than cutting ourselves open, and —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, firm and sudden. “I cannot.”

 

“Oh! Haha!” Wei Wuxian says, about two seconds away from stabbing himself with the aforementioned knife. Of course Lan Wangji doesn’t want to, why would he? He takes a step backward, putting more space between them. “Ahaha, that’s alright then, it was just a suggestion, you can forget I ever said anything —”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats, whetted now with an edge of impatience, and follows after him. He drops the hand holding the knife, the intensity of his gaze ratcheting higher, and Wei Wuxian finds himself powerless in the face of it, ensnared and floundering like a fly in a web. 

 

“I cannot,” Lan Wangji says. Low, enunciating each word. “Because it would mean something to me.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s mouth opens to say something, anything, then closes, airless. 

 

“You mean —” Wei Wuxian says, when he finally rediscovers the capacity for language. “Because...your sect takes physical intimacy really seriously?”

 

Lan Wangji’s lips curve down at the corners. It’s possibly exasperation, or something akin to it. “We do,” he says. “That’s not what I mean.”

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, knocked to a whisper.

 

“Oh,” Lan Wangji echoes, his mouth thinning into a shape that’s half-wry, half-sad. Like remorse. Why is he remorseful? Does he think that Wei Wuxian doesn’t…?

 

Wei Wuxian’s heart is rioting against the walls of his chest. He feels fit to burst. An ember-red heat burns its way up his throat, a sun rising, as he grapples for the words to speak.

 

“Okay, so,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, “what if I said,” and his voice sounds faraway, not his own, “that it’s not just you?”

 

Lan Wangji shudders out a breath, hard enough for Wei Wuxian to feel it stir the remaining space between them. Even still, their joint magic orbits around them, spitting sparks along the outer chalky edges of the circle.

 

Wei Wuxian drops the knife, a dull thump against the carpet. His freed hand drifts up to anchor, safely, on one of Lan Wangji’s beautiful, muscular shoulders. He can feel a tremor through his palm, up the bones of his arm — he can’t tell if it’s Lan Wangji shaking, or if it’s him, or if it’s just this, all of it, an energy more potent than anything he’s ever experienced.

 

“Lan Zhan,” he whispers, raw. “Can I please — can I —”

 

Lan Wangji has barely nodded before they’re both moving, melding into each other, meeting halfway as Wei Wuxian stretches up to kiss him.

 

Lan Wangji’s mouth, warm and firm against his, is a shock for entirely non-magical reasons. Wei Wuxian holds very still for it — not sure what’s allowed, not sure what’s wanted, not sure what’s standard for a ritual — so their first kiss is sweet, but careful. Tame. A gentle slot of their lips into a fixed shape.

 

“Is it working?” Wei Wuxian asks, the words muffled against Lan Wangji’s mouth, and Lan Wangji pulls back, in a small increment, to gasp for breath. The tip of his nose is rosy, his cheeks and ears flushed and his mouth already dark, just from Wei Wuxian barely kissing him, and Wei Wuxian wants to do it again, and again and again and —

 

“I’m not sure if — mmf,” Lan Wangji says, because Wei Wuxian follows the path of that impulse, surges up to kiss him harder than before, suddenly wild with the knowledge that Lan Zhan is here, here and not leaving, here by choice. Lan Wangji, immovable and sturdy as he is, falters a step back in surprise, then groans low as Wei Wuxian’s tongue slides between his teeth, prying as deep as he can reach. There. Bodily fluid.

 

Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji gasps when they part, too wrecked-sounding to sell reproach, and he stares at Wei Wuxian wild-eyed, his mouth kiss-slick and the gold of his irises thinned to black.

 

“Just in — the interest of being thorough,” Wei Wuxian says raggedly, staring at Lan Wangji’s reddened mouth. “You know, for the ritual.”

 

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and then they’re kissing again, hands moving from tentative shoulder-grips into motions more exploratory and desperate — Lan Wangji’s long fingers splayed open on Wei Wuxian’s narrow hips, Wei Wuxian’s hands in Lan Wangji’s hair, skimming over the peach-fuzz of his undercut to tangle in the longer strands.

 

Still kissing, they stagger out of the chalk circle, the ritual forgotten; stumbling, jagging sideways like newborn colts until Wei Wuxian’s back hits the nearest wall, which oh, feels good, to be pressed against so solidly. It’s been so long since Wei Wuxian has been kissed, and never like this, never even close to this. He isn’t sure he can ever make himself stop, now that he has it, ritual be damned.

 

And then he — feels it. The bubbling of their joined magic wells up in him as abruptly as a geyser, and they both gasp, sharp, against each other’s mouths at the sensation. It does not fully recede, even when the initial intensity of it peters away. The tether to Lan Zhan’s magic remains even after, settling deep into the core of him like a lung-mei line.

 

“It worked,” Lan Wangji says, somehow managing to sound business-like and not at all obliterated like Wei Wuxian, who for his part can only manage a dazed “Fuck.

 

“Does this mean we have to stop?” Wei Wuxian asks through panting breaths, way more whiny and petulant than is warranted. Lan Wangji ignores him, crowds him closer against the wall and kisses him again, which answers that question nicely. One of his gorgeous hands, hands that Wei Wuxian has been admiring for weeks and weeks, slips down the back of Wei Wuxian’s thigh, palms the back of it so easily, then hitches it so Wei Wuxian’s leg is slung around his hip. It’s so unfairly, ridiculously, mortifyingly hot that Wei Wuxian nearly combusts on the spot, the doubled magic too loud, too much. He’s vibrating with it all.

 

He thunks his head back into the wall, panting shallowly toward the ceiling and his hands gripping tight into the backs of Lan Wangji’s shoulders as Lan Wangji bites kisses down the column of his neck.

 

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, nearly wheezing. “In the extended interest of being thorough, ah , when the ritual says consummate —

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t need to be asked twice. Without so much as a spared breath, he picks Wei Wuxian up by the backs of his thighs, which earns him a startled whoop. With Wei Wuxian laughing into the next kiss, and the next, Lan Wangji carries them both toward the bedroom.

 

◈ ◈ ◈

 

Wei Wuxian is awoken the next morning by an odd, vibrating sensation that hums through him. A heavy weight is pressing him into the bed, hard enough that some of his bones are creaking.

 

He opens his eyes and squirms, a little overheated and short of breath but mostly confused, then he spits out a mouthful of fur. Something sharp and dully painful digs into his ribs.

 

“What —” he tries, then realizes that there is, in fact, a large, tiger-shaped Lan Wangji flattening him into the mattress. His rumbling purrs are so deep that they shake through Wei Wuxian, down to the mattress.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian begins, delighted, then adds with a tiny grimace, “Your cat elbows are sharp.

 

Which is true. Lan Wangji’s big, knobby tiger elbows are what’s digging into either side of Wei Wuxian’s ribcage.

 

Lan Wangji rubs his cheek against Wei Wuxian’s, then his lips peel back a little so his purr is louder, buzzier through his large teeth. 

 

“You are one happy kitty,” Wei Wuxian observes, stroking a hand happily through the soft white fur on the crown of his head. He lowers his voice into a tease, dragging a knuckle down the broad bridge of his muzzle. “I wonder why?”

 

Lan Wangji’s golden cat eyes slowly blink open — a little wry, a little judgmental, so very him despite the new form. Wei Wuxian laughs and buries his face into Lan Wangji’s fur.

 

“I really do love this,” Wei Wuxian says, rubbing two hands along Lan Wangji’s striped sides. “But can you phase back for a second? It’s important.”

 

Lan Wangji obeys, and for the first time, Wei Wuxian can feel the pull of the magic as he does it. The shift tugs at that new tether between them, an electric ripple that twangs at the core of him.

 

His favorite Lan Zhan form is in his arms now, a tangle of warm, naked skin and muscle. He watches Wei Wuxian with that same quiet, feline dignity as a moment ago, but the fond softness of his gaze, the slight curve of his mouth, are unmistakably human.

 

“Hi,” Wei Wuxian tells him, and kisses him before his bones can turn to jelly.

 

Lan Wangji huffs a quiet sound and presses back into the kiss, and Wei Wuxian feels his lips curl further.

 

“That’s all I wanted,” Wei Wuxian declares when he pulls away, and hugs Lan Wangji tighter against him. “You can phase back if you want, although I think you’re prettier in this form.”

 

“How are you feeling?” Lan Wangji asks softly, his eyes sketching over Wei Wuxian’s features. He draws a finger lightly down the bridge of Wei Wuxian’s nose, which scrunches under the touch. “Sometimes for witches, the day after a Bonding can be...overwhelming.”

 

“I feel fine,” Wei Wuxian says brightly, and stretches his arms over his head. “Incredible, actually. How are you feeling?”

 

“I...very good,” Lan Wangji says, with a slight incline of his head. The tips of his ears have gone pink.

 

“Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, tracking the blush down the lobe with a knuckle. He’s still a little disbelieving that he gets to have this. He keeps expecting to wake up or something. “I really can’t believe we’re Bonded.”

 

“Mm,” Lan Wangji hums back.

 

“And we haven’t even told anyone. Oh my god, Nie Huaisang is going to kill me. Jiang Cheng is going to throw a fit.

 

Lan Wangji sighs and rests his cheek against Wei Wuxian’s chest, closing his eyes again. “My xiongzhang and shufu already know. I will need to arrange a day for you to formally meet them.”

 

That sounds...nice? Although Wei Wuxian has to repress a bodily shudder at the concept of Lan Wangji meeting his family, save for Yanli-jie, who he would like to befriend Lan Zhan very, very much. Maybe they can just...wait a while on family introductions, while they adjust to the newness of this.

 

For a moment, they bask in a content, sun-warmed silence, apart from the quiet, well-worn creaks of the cottage shifting into the morning winds. Early winter sunlight, dulled through the frosted glass panes, daubs wheaten shapes onto their bare skin as they share each other’s breath.

 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, after a few more moments of this easy quiet. He traces the conch shape of his ear with his thumb. It’s a quiet thrill he revels in, to touch Lan Wangji so casually and openly. “When did you know? I’m curious.”

 

From Lan Wangji, he receives a slow, singular blink, then the quizzical twitch of an eyebrow.

 

“You know,” Wei Wuxian says, and flashes a grin. “That you liked me. Wanted me, whatever.”

 

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, a reflective sound. He rests his cheek back on Wei Wuxian’s chest and after another moment, he answers, “Third day.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s thumb pauses in surprise. “Ah?”

 

“Third day,” Lan Wangji repeats, more clearly. “High ponytail. Athletic shorts.”

 

Wei Wuxian blinks, his memory scrambling to pull this specific instance to mind. He distinctly remembers traipsing around in an old pair of shorts while waiting for the bulk of his clothes to dry. He’d been trying to dodge Lan Wangji’s glare, which had seemed confusingly harsh for the context and had followed his every movement. “Hang on, you really — Lan Zhan, it was laundry day! I wasn’t even trying!”

 

“I know,” Lan Wangji replies, dour. “That made it worse.”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs with unconcealed delight, lets the warm shape of that sound shake his insides. His ribs ache around it, like they’re rusty with disuse. It’s hard to laugh when you’re alone so much, he thinks, sudden and unbidden, and tucks a strand of hair behind Lan Wangji’s ear.

 

The concept of this new life of his, without loneliness, leaves him a little breathless. A little hopeful.

 

“Okay, well, now I have your number,” he warns Lan Wangji. “Shorts and high ponytail, got it.”

 

Lan Wangji hums a sound that does not sound anywhere close to a protest, and kisses the skin beneath Wei Wuxian’s ear. Wei Wuxian smiles and tilts his face toward the warmth of him, like a sunflower unfurling at the touch of daylight.

 

“It’s well past five a.m.,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, closing his eyes as Lan Wangji’s lips drift lower, to the pulse-point hidden under his jaw. “Doesn’t Lan er-gege want to get up?”

 

“No,” Lan Wangji says, almost a whisper. He tucks his nose into the hollow of Wei Wuxian’s neck. “Let’s stay like this.”

 

Wei Wuxian takes a deep, unsteady breath, and tightens his grip around Lan Wangji’s shoulders.

 

“Okay,” he says, softly, so they do.

 

 

END.