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All Things Bright and Beautiful

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Lan Wangji comes into existence exactly nine months before his first assigned human is born. It’s enough time to learn the rules by heart, a kind senior of his on temporary leave from his protégé teaching Lan Wangji in a gentle voice. He doesn’t know why the other guardian angel left his protégé in the care of someone else, but he doesn’t pry. Lan Xichen will have a good reason for it.

After he is called back, an older senior named Lan Qiren educates Wangji instead. He shows him how to use his powers, teaches him about the ways of the human realm.

Time works differently in the Cloud Recesses than in the human realm, so he doesn’t have to wait so long to finally meet his protégé.

The other guardians welcome him excitedly. It’s a joyous occasion for them, no imminent threat in sight, so they start chattering a bit amongst themselves.

“What a beautiful child!” gushes the mother’s guardian, still looking slightly stressed. “Surely its soul has a beautiful name to match.”

“It does,” Lan Wangji nods, looking in wonder at the soft golden glow of the tiny spark resting below the baby’s belly button.

Wei Ying.

Knowledge of the name has presented itself to him on its own, like Lan Xichen told him it would.

The boy’s parents name him Wei Wuxian.

The little family lives in a small but cozy apartment in a city called Yunmeng. It’s a simple but happy life. The couple teach their son how to find joy in even the smallest things— a ray of sunshine, a little caterpillar, the air after rainfall.

Lan Wangji does his best to protect his little human. He watches over every wobbly step he takes, blows gently at bees flying through the grass his protégé will step on shortly. He helps his body battle an invisible fight when he gets sick, singing sweetly for him even though he knows he cannot hear it. He keeps his first tricycle steady under his feet, pride swelling in his chest when his little protégé proves to be a genius at it. Even when he falls despite Lan Wangji’s efforts, Wei Wuxian has his father by his side to pick him up, and his mother by his side to dry his tears and crack jokes until he laughs and giggles again. It’s the most beautiful sound in the world to him. But Lan Wangji will soon come to understand that there are some things even guardian angels can’t protect you from.

*

Wei Wuxian is four years old when his parents die. The little boy has to fend two days in their little apartment, confusion and hunger and fear ever growing, until finally an acquaintance from work remembers the child and brings him to the hospital where his parents have been brought after the car crash on their way back from work.

Wei Wuxian runs as soon as they’re out of sight. Lan Wangji hurries after him, slows the engines of oncoming cars as his protégé hurtles over crosswalks without a care.

Then there are dogs, snarling and growling and drooling as they advance menacingly onto Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji tries to scare them off, throws rocks at them, arms spread wide in front of his protégé who crawls backwards, terrified.

“Don’t you dare come near him,” Lan Wangji growls, not caring if the dogs can actually hear him. Behind him, he hears a small thud. Wei Wuxian’s back has collided with hard stone. They are trapped in a dead end.

A yelp, a whimper, a commanding voice – when Lan Wangji whips his head back around, the dogs are gone, and a man stands there instead. He’s keeping his distance, giving Wei Wuxian space, which makes Lan Wangji relax a bit in turn.

“Wei Wuxian?” the man asks, crouching down, and the boy nods tentatively. “It’s alright. You’re safe now.”

Lan Wangji watches as the man introduces himself as Jiang Fengmian, an old friend of his parents. He thinks he might have seen him in some pictures in the albums back home, and Wei Wuxian seems to recognize him vaguely, too, because he stops crying and looks up at the man with big, hopeful eyes. Jiang Fengmian extends a hand, smiling, and after a few seconds, Wei Wuxian takes it.

*

Their new home is spacious, a whole house almost five times as big as the old apartment Wei Wuxian used to live in. There are expensive decorations everywhere, and out in the backyard there is a beautiful lotus pond. From what Lan Wangji can grasp, Jiang Fengmian and his wife own some kind of successful family business while also meddling in politics.

They have two children, who welcome Wei Wuxian with open arms, although Jiang Wanyin makes a show of rejecting him at first because he had to give away his dogs when Wei Wuxian reacted violently to them. Only Madam Yu looks at him with contempt in her eyes. She doesn’t seem to be particularly happy about the new addition to her household.

On the contrary, her daughter Jiang Yanli is just the best, kindest, and sweetest human being Lan Wangji has ever met. She makes Wei Wuxian feel at home from the start, resolves the conflict between the two boys, cares for her siblings when they get injured and makes a special soup that makes Lan Wangji wish he had tastebuds whenever he sees their reactions to it. He nods his admiration to her guardian, who just smiles fondly and shakes her head.

“I don’t have any part in that. It’s just how she is. Isn’t she wonderful? You should see her soul – it’s so beautiful!” she gushes.

That remains true to the steadily growing golden glow of Wei Wuxian’s soul, as well. The little one tries to help anywhere he can, often getting in the way of the adults because of it. He likes cheering his new siblings up whenever one of them gets in a bad mood – mostly Jiang Wanyin after he fails at something his father wants him to succeed at. On one memorable occasion, little Wei Wuxian finds an injured bunny hiding away under the bushes of their garden and nurses it to health with patience and care. His soul grows even brighter after that.

*

Wei Wuxian is six years old when Madam Yu punishes him for the first time, making him kneel for hours in front of the family shrine. He has taken credit for a window his brother has smashed while they played football. Lan Wangji can only stand by helpless and frustrated, shaking with the unfairness of it.

Soon after that incident, Wei Wuxian enters school and quickly gets to the top of his class. It fills Lan Wangji with pride to see him grasp difficult concepts with ease, excelling at mathematics and sports, amongst other subjects. But what pleases him even more is how his protégé makes quick friends with his classmates, how his playful laughter echoes through the schoolyard.

It’s not long before that carefree laughter gets a bitter aftertaste to it.

Wei Wuxian’s adoptive brother has not taken as well to his studies, wavering under the constant pressure of his parents’ expectations. Even though Wei Wuxian means no harm, he always surpasses him, which not only gnaws at Jiang Wanyin himself but also angers Madam Yu immensely. Her nonsensical punishments happen more frequently, exam results after exam results grating at her patience, until she finally snaps.

Wei Wuxian is ten years old when Madam Yu hurts him for the first time. One afternoon, he returns from school with his best report card yet, waving it excitedly around while he tries to cheer his brother up.

“No seriously, you did amazing, just look at that grade, you’re gonna surpass me in no time!”

Without a single word of warning, Madam Yu slaps him hard across the face. It all happens so fast Lan Wangji can only stand by in absolute shock. Then everything is moving again. Wei Wuxian is on the floor, clutching his cheek and nose, Lan Wangji standing between him and her in a millisecond.

“Are you proud? Humiliating your brother like that? You arrogant, hateful boy!” she screeches.

“N-no,” Wei Wuxian whimpers. “I-I didn’t—”

Madam Yu grabs right through Lan Wangji, hauls Wei Wuxian up by his hair and down the corridor towards her study. Lan Wangji hurries after them trying to push her away but to no avail. He cannot touch living beings, can only move objects around with his will or slow gusts of air. He has never felt so powerless as he does right now.

In her study, Madam Yu turns the lock so that Jiang Wanyin cannot follow, then lets go of the protesting ten-year-old and orders him to stretch his hands out. Only when she loosens her belt and folds it neatly around her fingers does Lan Wangji understand what she’s about to do. With a scream, he unleashes his power, lets a sudden gust of wind shove her away, makes the leather snap back so it will hurt her instead, leaving an ugly red streak on the back of her hand; he tries to shake and unscrew the crystalline candelabra over her head, anything, to make her stop –

But suddenly there’s a force working against his own, keeping the belt steady and the candelabra from falling, and then there are strong arms pushing him away and against the wall.

“Are you out of your mind?” Madam Yu’s guardian demands, “She’s off limits!”

“She’s going to hurt him!” he growls back.

She has the decency to look slightly guilty. “I know, but we cannot interfere. It’s forbidden.”

“She’s not even his real family…”

“And what if she were?”

“I would still try to do something!”

“That’s against the rules!”

“Then the rules are worthless!” he shouts.

They’re interrupted by Madam Yu’s first strike on Wei Wuxian’s hands. The boy only twitches slightly when the harsh leather splits open his skin, determined to not let one sound out. But after a few more strikes, he begins to whimper and cry regardless.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji screams, fighting against the hold, “Wei Ying!”

The hands holding him down do not relent until Madam Yu has vented her anger thoroughly, Wei Wuxian’s hands a mess of criss-crossed bloody lines. She tells him he is to stay in his room for a week. The boy walks away in a daze, lies limp and frozen on his bed that night and for the next few days, hands cradled to his chest. Lan Wangji does his best to help him recover, as does Jiang Yanli who must have heard of the ordeal from her brother and smuggles in salves and her famous soup. Only a few faint scars will remain on the outside, but Lan Wangji still feels like a failure.

After that, Wei Wuxian’s grades go down. He gets a reputation as the class clown, grows his hair out, fully the image of the rebellious teen, even though it’s far from a rebellion. It’s compliance, another method to appease Madam Yu. The thing is: it does not matter. It’s irrelevant how he behaves, because Madam Yu will find fault in him anyway. Some time down the road, a few years later, Wei Wuxian will realize that. But for now at least, as the resident troublemaker, no longer a threat to her own precious children, she won’t hurt him again.

*

Wei Wuxian is fourteen years old when he takes on martial arts and sharp shooting together with Jiang Wanyin. His aim is steady and true, and Lan Wangji watches with pride as he hits the bullseye every time after the first few tries (at least when Madam Yu isn’t watching), even as worry is creeping in his heart at the dangers this hobby beholds for his protégé’s body and soul.

It’s around that age too when Wei Wuxian finds out he’s attracted to both women and men. He doesn’t tell anyone, but it’s evident in the numerous material he consumes, a fast-growing stack of magazines soon hidden away under his mattress. Like with any other private affair concerning his body, Lan Wangji leaves him alone for it, waiting outside the bedroom or bathroom door until he feels like he can return to his side. He looks over his shoulder, once, to determine from the descriptions in the teen magazine open on his lap if there is any way his protégé could get hurt from this. As it turns out, he could, but there’s nothing Lan Wangji could do about it if it came down to it, seeing as it involves other humans and he’s not allowed to interfere with them. Ultimately, it’s Wei Wuxian’s own decision to make. When his hand wanders down into his sweatpants, Lan Wangji pries his eyes away from the page and gives him his privacy.

Wei Wuxian is fifteen years old when he jots down his first business plan. Of course, Lan Wangji isn’t able to read his mind, but the secrecy with which he hides the scraps of paper tells him enough to know he’s not planning to rely on his adoptive family for long after graduation.

That summer, the three siblings go to summer camp in Qinghe together. Wei Wuxian meets another boy there, just as mischievous and prone to laugh as him, and they soon become best friends over the course of six weeks. Together they play around in the streams, try to catch fish and prank every single instructor in the camp. Under the starry night sky, they whisper together until late, exchanging secret plans for the future. They take part in the science, math and chess competitions together, coming out on top of the whole camp for the first two tests and playing against each other in the final round of the chess competition. The other boy wins by a tiny fraction. In return, he’s in the last tier when it comes to physical competitions, his poor guardian angel almost getting out of breath (if he had one) while he struggles to keep him unharmed. Wei Wuxian shares one of his chocolate medals with him when he wins first place at both archery and running. At the end of summer, they promise to stay in contact, eyes shining with repressed tears as they bid each other goodbye. Nie Huaisang never does.

*

Wei Wuxian is seventeen years old, hair cut short again and going back home from his secret part-time job, when he gets cornered in an alley by two people Lan Wangji would describe as thugs. Although he’s only ever seen them on television, he recognizes that particular brand of human beings at once. They wear dingy dark clothes with a logo sewn over the hearts, a stylized white mountain and the letters B and M underneath it. They move threateningly, one of them holding a bat. Another indication is the weary and tired looks on their guardian angels’ faces. Lan Wangji pities them a bit. They can’t do anything about the poor decisions of their protégés, whose souls are probably very tainted by now.

“Wei Wuxian,” one of the two guys calls out. “There’s someone who wants to talk to you.”

Wei Wuxian looks mostly confused and not at all as if he feels threatened, even though Lan Wangji can feel the adrenaline shooting through his veins when he reaches out to him for reassurance. “Hey now,” he smiles winningly, “You can’t spring something like that on a poor weak man like me. An advance notice would have been great.”

In lieu of an answer, the speaker tosses him a small object. Wei Wuxian catches it instinctively, even though Lan Wangji tries to redirect its path a bit because he’s not sure what it is. It’s a flip phone, shabby and plain, and after a few seconds it vibrates with an incoming call from a restricted number. Wei Wuxian glances down at it in consideration, never letting the two thugs out of his sight. Finally, he pushes the button to accept.

“If you found me attractive, you could’ve just said so in person,” he greets cordially.

“You’re funny,” a deeply distorted voice replies. “But I sadly have to inform you that you’re not my type. Sorry to burst your little bubble.”

“What do you want then?” Wei Wuxian asks pleasantly.

“Straight to the point. Alright. I want to recruit you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know what you can do. You’re a genius in almost every field, any organization would be lucky to have you. And your marksmanship is top-notch.”

“Oh wow, I’m very flattered, but I’ll have to decline,” Wei Wuxian says resolutely.

“You don’t even know what I want you to do for me.”

“Looking at your welcome committee I’m guessing it won’t be pretty or legal. Why would I want to be involved in something like that?”

“I’m willing to offer you two thousand a month.”

“Money. How original,” Wei Wuxian sneers. “No, thank you. Now excuse me, I have to be back by ten or I’m getting my ass beat.”

He hangs up and tosses the phone back to the thug. The guy lets him pass by without trying something but holds out a small piece of paper for him to take.

“Call this number when you change your mind,” he murmurs. “A little bird told me you’re going to need funds for your start-up.”

Wei Wuxian stares at him, wide-eyed, for a second until he remembers the flirtatious façade he’s supposed to maintain.

“Alright, darling, I guess I should take your number if you’re so desperate,” he quips, taking the note and stuffing it unceremoniously into the pocket of his pants. When he’s home, he’s apparently forgotten all about it. His pants don’t go in the wash though. Lan Wangji fusses several minutes over if he should try to get the slip of paper out and let it vanish with the wind. In the end, he trusts his protégé not to call the number on it. After all, he has no reason to get involved with such shady characters. No reason at all.

*

Several weeks after that, only days after Wei Wuxian’s eighteenth birthday, everything changes. He’s returning from his secret job late, way past curfew. As he’s sneaking soundlessly through the back entrance, Wei Wuxian furrows his brows. It’s quiet. Almost too quiet. Something’s wrong. Lan Wangji can feel it, a sinister change in the atmosphere, as if something or someone was lurking in the shadows of the so familiar house. He’s sure his protégé can feel it, too, by the way he’s creeping up the staircase silently, glancing left and right every few steps.

The door to his adopted parents’ bedroom stands open. Wei Wuxian sucks in an almost inaudible breath, then inches forward like he’s afraid to see what’s inside. It’s dark, so dark, but in the faint light spilling in from the doorway, there are two outlines on the floor. The second Wei Wuxian notices, he sprints inside tumbling down at their sides.

“Y-Yu-furen,” he breathes, “J-Jiang-shushu – no, no, no…”

There’s still life in the madam, but his uncle is already gone. Lan Wangji can see his beautiful, only slightly dimmed soul glow brightly above his body, hovering in the air. Normally, it should be striving upwards by now, but there seems to be something keeping it there. If it decides to stay, Lan Wangji will have to inform the authorities. A wandering soul should be under close surveillance at all times.

“Y-you,” a voice croaks. It’s the madam, and for one moment Wei Wuxian looks relieved, but her next whispered words are like a cruel knife carving him open. “W-worthless child! Protect them, s-swear to me you will take care of them – ”

“Of course; I promise,” Wei Wuxian hurries, like he always does, trying to appease her however he can. But it’s not enough, it’s never enough. Lan Wangji hurts seeing him like this. The madam rolls slowly around until she can grasp her husband’s hand gently, and finally, the golden soul hovering over their lifeless forms drifts upward. Right after, Lan Wangji is able to see a muddied amber light following it. Wei Wuxian trembles slightly, rocking back and forth, still whispering the same names over and over again. At last, he snaps himself out of it, clenching his jaw as he stands up slowly, hands curled into fists at his sides. He bows, once, deep, then steps softly into the hallway again. Lan Wangji bows to their guardians too before following his protégé. They’re already fading.

Wei Wuxian is already halfway down the corridor leading to the children’s bedrooms when Lan Wangji catches up to him. Berating himself silently, Lan Wangji watches the shadows in every nook and cranny carefully as he circles around his protégé. He prays they’re not too late.

Jiang Wanyin’s bedroom door seems to be locked, so Wei Wuxian raps his knuckles softly against the wood in a little coded message that the siblings have invented years ago while playing together. He waits several long moments with bated breath, then proceeds to occupy himself with the lock. Lan Wangji moves on the other side of the door to assess the situation there. Jiang Wanyin is sitting at his desk with headphones on, playing some computer game. His guardian springs up alert when he sees Lan Wangji. Before he can ask what’s going on, Lan Wangji vanishes through the door again to be at Wei Wuxian’s side. With a click, the door opens. Wei Wuxian sneaks up to his brother on quiet feet, pressing a hand over his mouth to muffle his startled shout when he shakes him by the shoulders.

“A-Yin, listen to me,” he hisses in his ear. “There are burglars in the house. We need to go.”

“Wei Wuxian, I swear if this is one of your little pranks – ”

“Then you can break my legs later. Jiang Wanyin, I would never joke about something like that.” Wei Wuxian holds up his shaking fingers where Madam Yu’s blood is drying. Jiang Wanyin sucks in a sharp breath, then surges up. “Jiejie – ”

Wei Wuxian nods. “Let’s go get her.”

While they’re moving further down the corridor to Jiang Yanli’s room, Wei Wuxian tells Jiang Wanyin to call the police – his own hands are shaking too badly to hold the phone. “They killed two people,” Wei Wuxian manages out when the police request further details. Jiang Wanyin stares at him in utter shock. “Who?” he whispers. Wei Wuxian ignores him. His nose has scrunched up as if he has smelled something unpleasant. “Shit – and I think they’re starting a fire now.” The officer must tell him to get out of the house immediately, because Wei Wuxian whispers in response, “Yes. We’re getting our sister on our way,” before nodding at Jiang Wanyin to take the phone from his ear.

“Wei Wuxian! Who did they kill? Why won’t we get ba and ma, too? Answer me!” Jiang Wanyin hisses, desperation lacing his words.

“We need to go,” Wei Wuxian repeats. He can’t seem to look his brother in the eye.

Jiang Yanli is sleeping soundly in her bed. When they shake her awake, she just blinks at them confused and bleary-eyed and lets herself be shepherded out the door. As quiet as they can, the three of them move down the second stairway on the opposite side of the house, their guardians circling around them in constant vigilance.

At the last steps, they freeze abruptly. There are people in the foyer, muffled laughter and whispers echoing through the hall. It sounds like some kind of liquid is being sloshed around. Lan Wangji rounds the corner and sees what he feared the most: two shadows directly between the entryway and the siblings. One of them giggles in glee when he lights up a match and drops it onto the floor next to the windows.

Flames immediately lick at the curtains, paintings and hardwood floor, illuminating the intruders. Lan Wangji freezes in shock, ice-cold water dousing him from head to toe. He’s never seen anything like it, but it’s undeniable: the two figures don’t have guardians anymore. Their souls must be broken beyond repair, swallowed by darkness until there’s nothing left. With a start, he realizes how much danger his protégé and his siblings are in right now.

The arsonist moves towards the second staircase now, pouring what is most likely gasoline out of a large container every few steps, while the other one has apparently moved in the direction of the living room, out of sight. When Lan Wangji turns back, Wei Wuxian has his eyes on the giant decorative vase at the corner. From how he gestures to his siblings, he plans to attack the assailant with it to clear the way for them. After a few tense seconds, they nod reluctantly. Nobody seems to have a better plan, and they have to get out of there before they get smoked out. Lan Wangji lets most of the water in the vase evaporate in order to make it lighter when Wei Wuxian grabs it.

Just as the arsonist arrives at the space in front of their staircase, Wei Wuxian runs out, lifts the giant vase with all his might and hits the man over the head. With a yelp, he goes tumbling down. The siblings hurry past him, but now the man, unfortunately not completely knocked out, calls out to his partner for help accompanied by many curses.

Lan Wangji sees him scramble up, producing a very mean-looking knife out of his jacket and running after them. Cursing under his breath, Wei Wuxian turns, ducks under the oncoming knife and gets an arm around the man’s throat in a practiced move, knee coming up from behind to hit him straight in the groin. The arsonist lets out a strangled groan and tumbles down a second time, knife clattering to the floor when his grip loosens enough for Lan Wangji to manipulate it.

Wei Wuxian straightens, makes to move towards his siblings again. Right then, a shot rings out. One tiny moment, one fraction of a second where Lan Wangji was concentrated on one enemy and forgot about the other lurking in the dark, and he’s powerless as he whips around, trying to somehow divert the path of the bullet on time –

“Wei Wuxian!”

That’s when Jiang Wanyin jumps in front of his brother, taking the bullet intended for Wei Wuxian in his stomach.

“Didi!” Wei Wuxian cries out, at the same time as Jiang Wanyin’s guardian angel desperately shouts, “Jiang Cheng!”

The arsonist takes this distraction to jump up and hobble towards his partner as fast as he can. Before the latter can take another shot, the sirens of a police car and ambulance finally can be heard approaching. The shooter pulls the arsonists’ arm over his shoulder and turns without another word, vanishing into the shadows.

In front of Lan Wangji a horrifying scene is playing out. Wei Wuxian is on the floor, pressing his hands to the heavily bleeding wound in his brother’s stomach, his guardian frantically working on keeping his body running. Jiang Yanli, who has ducked behind a shoe cabinet when the shot rang out, has crawled over to them and is cradling Jiang Wanyin’s head in her lap, eyes wide and shocked as she tries to keep him conscious. “A-Yin,” she sobs, over and over again. Around them, Lotus Estate is going up in flames.

“Stay with me, didi, come on,” Wei Wuxian presses out, face white. He has already seen too much death tonight. He shouldn’t have ever seen this much death in his life. This– this shouldn’t have happened. Lan Wangji looks up at Luo Qingyang, her face as shocked and panicked as her protégé’s, and feels for the first time in his existence utterly lost.

*

The journey to the hospital is a blur. Somehow, they get Jiang Wanyin into an ambulance. Somehow, they manage to convince the officers and the paramedics to let them huddle next to him while they speed through Yunmeng with sirens on and blue lights flashing and the paramedics try to patch Jiang Wanyin up. Somehow, they watch as their brother gets carried away to surgery on a stretcher, sinking down on the nearest bench. Somehow, they keep each other awake all through the night and the next morning on vending machine coffee and snacks. When Jiang Yanli asks about their parents, Wei Wuxian tells her the truth and watches with unspeakable pain on his face as she breaks into tears, sobbing her grief into his shoulder.

At nearly midday, a doctor finally comes to inform them that they have managed to save Jiang Wanyin’s life, but that he has fallen into a coma. It’s only until late that evening when they are finally allowed to see him. Jiang Yanli breaks down a second time when she sees her brother, looking like the life has almost drained out of him, hooked up to countless machines. Wei Wuxian has to help her out the room to sit on another bench and slowly calm down again. When she’s no longer trembling, she makes herself sit up and grabs her adoptive brother by the shoulders.

“A-Xian. You, me, and A-Yin, the three of us must stay together. And never be parted,” she says, and even though her voice wobbles and her lips quiver and there are still tears streaming down her face, there’s determination in her eyes.

“Never,” Wei Wuxian agrees. She nods, reassured, and turns to fetch some water for them at the next dispenser. But as he watches her walk away, a pained expression passes over Wei Wuxian’s face. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “You’ll be better off without me.”

In the quiet blue of the night, when Jiang Yanli has fallen asleep in the chair next to Jiang Wanyin’s bed, Wei Wuxian rises and slips out of the room silently. He takes several detours, stumbling along the corridors until he finally reaches a bathroom that is far enough for his sister not to immediately find him upon waking. In the closed space of the bathroom, Wei Wuxian finally breaks down, irregular, heaving sobs ripping out of him that break Lan Wangji’s heart. White tiles against his back, he slithers down the walls, legs no longer able to carry him. Endless shudders take over his body, the same body that worked tirelessly the last twenty-four hours for all three of them to make it out alive. Wei Wuxian is falling apart in front of Lan Wangji’s eyes, and he can’t do anything to stop it. There hasn’t been a moment where he’s felt as powerless as right now. He wants nothing more than to take Wei Wuxian into his arms, holding him tight until his silent cries have ceased. But this is something he absolutely cannot do. Not only is it forbidden, he knows he actually isn’t able to touch a human being. Still, from where he’s standing in front of his protégé, looking down at him with deep sorrow engraved in his heart, he reaches towards him in a fruitless effort to do so. His transparent fingers ghost over dark hair, tightly shut eyes and trembling lips. He crouches down next to him, puts his arms around his shivering form, moves his head next to his protégé’s and begins to hum the song he always sang for him when he was a little child, feverish and sick. He holds him like that for a long, long time.

*

Lan Wangji is with Wei Wuxian when the police question him, when he describes the murderers of his family thoroughly to the sketch artist. He is with Wei Wuxian when he arranges a funeral for their parents together with Jiang Yanli, only to discover that their killers took all their money and credit cards too, so that there’s nothing left in their bank accounts. They try to block their cards, but by then it’s already too late. There is no money for a grand funeral, no money for another operation or Jiang Wanyin’s hospital bills. Wei Wuxian, who had his wallet with him that night, scrapes together every last hard-earned cent from his private account to provide for food and accommodations for his sister and himself near the hospital. Jiang Yanli almost always sleeps by her brother’s side anyways. Her face is strained with constant grief and worry, her guardian looking hollow when she comes to face Lan Wangji. Both of them still can’t wrap their mind around what’s happened. What is still happening.

Lan Wangji is with Wei Wuxian when the police finally manage to get hold of the assailants. There are names to their horrible, guardian-less features, now. Wen Chao, the arsonist. Wen Zhuliu, the one who shot Jiang Wanyin. Wei Wuxian watches with grim satisfaction as they’re escorted into the station. At least they’re taken to justice, Lan Wangji thinks.

He’s wrong. Only a day later, Wei Wuxian walks up to the police station to give another testimony, when he sees the two of them getting escorted back out, handcuffs nowhere to be seen, an important-looking man in formal attire guiding them along. It doesn’t take long for him to assess the situation, coming to the same terrible realization as Lan Wangji. They’re letting them go.

Seething, Wei Wuxian takes a step forward, seizing Wen Chao by the collar. “You fucking bastard!” he snarls. “I’m gonna break every fucking bone in your goddamn body for doing that to my family.”

Wen Chao has the audacity to sneer at him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The man beside him, presumably his lawyer, interrupts them at once. “I’m going to have to ask you to release my client and cease your threats against him or there will be charges pressed.”

Wei Wuxian stares at him in utter disbelief. Lan Wangji, who has been fretting over the dark promise his protégé just made, gapes as well before composing himself again. Shaking all over, Wei Wuxian backs away slowly, fury in his eyes as he watches them leave, Wen Chao still grinning at him over his shoulder while Wen Zhuliu stares stoically straight ahead.

His jaw and the empty fists at his sides clench and unclench erratically.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, concerned, “Breathe.”

After what seems far too long, Wei Wuxian does.

*

That evening, Lan Wangji watches as his protégé paces back and forth in his small motel room. Finally, he rummages in his pockets until he produces a worn-out piece of paper. If there was any blood in Lan Wangji, he would have paled beyond belief. As it is, he looks on in shock while Wei Wuxian punches the numbers into his flip phone and lifts it to his ear with a shuddering exhale betraying his nerves. They wait as the phone rings, one long beep after another until Lan Wangji hopes the other party will just not pick up –

“Wei Wuxian,” drawls the distorted voice from several weeks ago.

“I’ll do it,” Wei Wuxian tells him without preamble. “I’ll do anything you want me to do for you for the price you mentioned last time. In return, I have one condition.”

“Name it.”

“Find Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu for me and help me get revenge.”

The voice chuckles darkly. “You’re in luck; I’m an expert at getting revenge. We’ll find them and provide you with the tools for your revenge. I’ll even throw in a new identity for you if you’ll need one when you’re finished. It’s a very generous offer.”

“I’ll be at your disposal as soon as I’m done with them.”

“Alright, it’s a deal then. I’m very curious to see what you’re capable of, Wei Wuxian.” With that, the call ends.

Lan Wangji hovers nervously at his side. “Wei Ying … what are you planning to do?” But of course, Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer.

*

Directions are sent to him on a crumpled inconspicuous paper suddenly appearing in his bag a week after that. Determination sets on his face as he lets the page burn down in an ashtray and puts on an old black leather jacket over worn dark clothes.

Lan Wangji hovers anxiously behind him as he takes a bus to the outskirts of the city after sundown, walks through desolate neighborhoods and industrial parks until he reaches a row of abandoned warehouses. The road bypassing them is muddy, leading into fields at the end, a forest looming up ahead in the darkness. Wei Wuxian hesitates, once, in front of the rusty metal doors leading into the last of the warehouses. Then, he slides them open. Lan Wangji darts in immediately, looking for possible threats. The whole place is cleared out, only a few stray pieces of broken metal scattered carelessly around. About ten people await them in a loose circle. As Wei Wuxian strides forward to meet them, Lan Wangji makes sure he doesn’t trip over anything. The group is illuminated by two braziers behind them. Lan Wangji notices all of them are wearing similarly dark clothing as his protégé. Some of them are holding weapon-like bats. They don’t exactly seem like trustworthy people to Lan Wangji.

“Wei Wuxian,” says one of them in lieu of a greeting.

Wei Wuxian lifts his chin up in challenge. “That’s me.”

The men move to the sides, giving Wei Wuxian free view of what’s behind them. On two chairs between the braziers, two figures are bound and gagged tightly, wriggling about and crying muffled in vain. Lan Wangji’s heart sinks when he recognizes them.

“Wen Chao,” Wei Wuxian breathes. “Wen Zhuliu.”

“That’s right,” a voice says from the left. It’s the same distorted voice as before. Wei Wuxian’s eyes flicker to the left, where a metal table is set up next to the brazier, several objects splayed out on the shining grey surface. One of them is a laptop, a video call lighting up the display, even though the other party has not activated their camera. Wei Wuxian steps closer, eyes roaming over the objects on the table.

“Now that I caught them for you, what will you do with them? How would you like your revenge?”

Wei Wuxian inclines his head absent-mindedly, his hands reaching out to a pile of documents on the left. Slowly, he peruses through them, eyes narrowed as he seems to ponder over something. Lan Wangji peers over his shoulder. It’s intel, evidence, incriminating pictures. Hope flutters in his chest. Maybe this will help open up the case again, maybe with this Wei Wuxian can finally bring his adopted parent’s killers to justice –

But Wei Wuxian only lets out a quiet sigh, shaking his head minutely as he puts the documents back down.

Appalled, Lan Wangji looks at him, tries to understand what he’s thinking. There’s something akin to defeat on his face before it settles back into the steely determination that Lan Wangji has decided he doesn’t like at all. He lets his hands wander over the other objects on the table, from left to right, each one worse than the other. A knife, a gun, a pair of tongs … The item he picks up at the end is a sharp-ended branding iron.

Normally, Wei Wuxian’s face is so open and expressive, but now, there’s a stone-cold mask sliding down over his features. Cruelty and indifference are two things Lan Wangji has never associated with Wei Wuxian before, and seeing them on him now frightens him.

His protégé doesn’t say a thing while he heats the end of the branding iron over the charcoal fire lit up in the brazier.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji croaks out when he finally begins to understand. “Wei Ying, don’t do this, please don’t do this, surely there are other, fairer ways to go about this –”

And then he sees it. The darkness around the golden glow of his protégé’s soul. It’s closing in, taking away more and more of that brilliant, magnificent light, swallowing it whole until there’s only a tiny spark left.

Lan Wangji can only stare in horror as Wei Wuxian rips off the tape over Wen Chao’s mouth. The man splutters around for a few seconds, then starts throwing insults and threats at him. “You – you fucking son of a bitch! Wait till my father hears about this! He will return anything you do to me tenfold! Let me go this instant!”

A smirk forms on Wei Wuxian’s face, cold and lifeless. It makes Lan Wangji shudder with fear. He can see the darkness closing in, extinguishing more and more until there’s only a small flicker of light left in his soul. “Don’t do this, please don’t do this,” he whimpers again, trying desperately to divert his attention, to make him reconsider. The objects on the table begin to tremble, the knife falling over the edge, clanging loudly against the ground. But over the ignorant shouts turned into desperate pleas of the man in front of him, Wei Wuxian either doesn’t notice or elects to ignore it. The branding iron inches closer and closer to the man’s face.

“Wei Ying!” he cries out in despair, reaching out to him. At that moment, Wei Wuxian flinches so hard the branding iron almost falls out of his hand. He jerks his head back, casting his glare here and there, one word finally escaping his mouth.

“Who …?”

Lan Wangji reels back in shock. Without noticing, he has done the unthinkable: breaching a human’s mind.

Wei Wuxian has recovered quickly, concealing that anything unusual happened behind the same cold smiling mask as before. Lan Wangji is still in shock from what he’s done, and so he can only look on powerlessly as Wei Wuxian plunges the branding iron deep into Wen Chao’s shoulder. Twisting it cruelly, he begins to whistle.

“You should have run when you had the chance,” he smiles, yanks the iron out again and drags the bloody tip across the man’s face, ripping open his cheek, his nose, his screaming mouth -

That’s when Lan Wangji gets ripped from Wei Wuxian’s side, only the eerie sound of his whistles and the screams of the man he’s torturing remaining in his ears.

*

A whirlwind of darkness, colors and bright lights – then, the white walls of the Cloud Recesses, and above him, Lan Qiren’s solemn face.

“Wangji,” he says, and oh, how can one word contain so much sorrow, pity and disappointment?

“I am so sorry this happened to you,” his teacher continues. “Take all the time you need to heal. Whenever you’re ready, you can come to the elders and we will assign you someone new. You broke some of the highest rules, so you will probably temporarily replace another guardian to get used to everything again.”

Lan Wangji remains silent, although everything inside him is screaming in protest. He is still reeling from what just happened, is still hearing those whistles and screams, and Lan Qiren talks about new assignments? Replacing another guardian?

As soon as his teacher leaves, Lan Wangji goes down the quiet hallways until he reaches the library. He hasn’t set foot in the Cloud Recesses in more than eighteen years, and its tranquility is a stark contrast to the lively colors and noises of the human world. It’s calming, but also unnerving. He only ever anticipated coming back here when Wei Wuxian died. This, somehow, seems so much worse. Forcefully separated from the one he’s sworn to protect – even though the existence of guardian angels is a losing battle in itself, this is what is most important to him: to always stay by his protégé’s side, through good and bad times.

How can they just deem Wei Wuxian no longer worthy of having someone by his side?

Anger flares through Lan Wangji, but he keeps it sealed inside, turns it useful by making a resolve out of it instead. He will not comply with Lan Qiren’s wishes. He will not let himself be reassigned to some other human while his Wei Ying still breathes and struggles somewhere in the world. He will find a way to go back to him, to save his withered soul. All the signs he ignored – the darkness slowly creeping in until Wei Wuxian let it consume him in that warehouse – he turned a blind eye to it, and now he’s paid the price.

But this is no time for regrets.

With meticulous care, he peruses the collective memory of the guardians. There are many techniques he was not aware of. For example, there’s one that lets guardians go into the subconsciousness of their protégé to bring them back when they’re in a coma or something similar. He wonders if Jiang Wanyin’s guardian heard about that.

Finally, in one of the oldest corners of the library, he finds something.

Lan Qiren is surprised when Lan Wangji asks him to assemble the elder’s council instead of telling him he’s ready to be reassigned. He presents his case in front of them and watches them become astounded at his request.

“No one has used this technique in a very long time,” Lan Qiren contemplates. The other elders incline their heads, seeming reluctant as well.

“Please,” he begs. “Please let me go to him. I’ll bring him back onto the right path. There’s good in him, I can still see it glowing in his soul. Faintly and tainted, but it’s there. I can prove it to you if you’d just let me go. If you give him one last chance.”

Lan Wangji had to watch powerlessly as Wei Wuxian’s light dimmed more and more. He’s not going to let the golden light that enraptured him so much when he was younger extinguish for good. He’s going to save his protégé’s soul, whatever it takes.

The elders seem to recognize his determination at last. They converse with each other before giving their final verdict.

“You may go to him using that technique. But it will be no small feat bringing him back. You will have to show us that your former protégé is still capable of kindness. Still capable of forgiveness. Still capable of pure love,” one of them proclaims. “We will test him on those three virtues and examine whether he can redeem himself. But you will not be able to tell him about those conditions or about our existence. We will make sure of it.”

“I understand,” Lan Wangji answers, and bows to them.

*

Lan Wangji comes into existence for the second time huddled at a corner of a street. It’s nighttime, and it’s raining, and there are so many new sensations crashing down on him at once he almost passes out again. His white robes feel weird on his skin – he has skin now! – as the rain soaks them through, and the cold chills him to the very bone – he has bones now! – and there are a dozen smells filling his nose, none of them pleasant. Also, his mouth tastes dry and disgusting.

He doesn’t recognize the buildings of this city, he doesn’t know how much time elapsed in the human world since the rip, but he knows his former protégé is somewhere around here. Shivering, Lan Wangji draws his knees tighter towards his chest, and waits. There’s a neon display in a shop window across the street that blinks the time at him – it’s so late in the night that the streets are completely empty, save for a drunkard or two staggering by ever so often. Lan Wangji rests his head on top of his knees and rocks back and forth on the concrete in a futile attempt to keep warm. He feels too weak to get up, to search for the one he’s waiting for. He knows his knees would give up under him if he tried. In the end, his eyes grow wearier and wearier by the second, until he closes them, letting the dull sound of the rain lull him into a barely conscious state.

Footsteps approach, so quiet he only notices them when the person they belong to halts abruptly in front of him. All of a sudden, the rain stops pounding on his head and shoulders.

“Fuck,” someone breathes. Lan Wangji pries his eyes open at that. He knows that voice, knows it better than his own. When he looks up, Wei Wuxian crouches before him, umbrella in hand. Relief washes over him as he takes him in. He’s wearing a black leather jacket over similar dark clothes, and for one instant, Lan Wangji thinks this must be still the same day as when he’s last seen him. But then, he notices the black cap over his hair, how he holds himself, guarded somehow. His expression is closed off, barely any emotions on display except for a small line of quiet worry between his eyebrows. Lan Wangji itches to smooth it out, but he can’t lift a finger.

“Are you alright?” his former protégé asks. He looks older, and so different Lan Wangji’s chest tightens painfully. That’s new, too.

“N-no,” he croaks out. Another shiver passes through him. With chattering teeth, he presses out the next sentence. “H-help me. P-please.” With bated breath, he waits for Wei Wuxian’s answer. This is important. This is the first test, he’s sure of it. If Wei Wuxian left him there on the sidewalk … Impossible. My Wei Ying would never do that. His eyes drift down to where he can see Wei Wuxian’s soul, only a tiny spark still persevering against the darkness surrounding it. His shoulders sag as he releases his breath, that tiny spark giving him more hope than he would have ever imagined.

“Do you need an ambulance? Should I get you to the hospital?” Wei Wuxian finally asks.

“No!” Lan Wangji chokes out. “No hospital, please!” He is pretty sure his fellow angels have not provided him with any of the necessary papers or even the money he would need for that.

Familiar grey eyes search his face for what feels like an eternity. Then, Wei Wuxian nods. “Alright. No hospital.” And with a strength he knows Wei Wuxian possesses but never has demonstrated in such a way, his former protégé lifts Lan Wangji up and unto his back. Lan Wangji can’t do anything but let himself be carried, clasping his hands together in front of Wei Wuxian’s chest and holding on tight. His heart thrums with the certainty that his faith has remained true. That Wei Wuxian is about to pass the first test. As his eyelids grow heavy again, he catches sight of the little spark below. It seems to glow a bit brighter, pushing against the darkness until it’s twice the size as before. Suddenly, there’s something wet and hot behind his eyes, threatening to overflow.

“Wei Ying,” he whispers into his shoulder as a single tear joins the downstream of the rain.

“Who’s that?” Wei Wuxian mumbles. Distantly, Lan Wangji realizes he must have let his umbrella fall down back there in order to pick him up. The thought makes warmth grow in his chest.

“You.” It’s the name of your soul, he thinks. Your soul I’ve come to save.Then, he slips away into unconsciousness for the first time in his life.

*

When he wakes, there’s something soft but unyielding beneath him. As he blinks the sleep from his eyes, they adjust to the darkness around him. He seems to be indoors, as there’s no more rain coming down from above and the air feels kind of stale. From somewhere above his head, dulled light pours into the room. His skin doesn’t feel wet anymore, and when he sits up, he realizes he’s not wearing his white robes. Instead, he’s dressed in soft grey cotton pajamas. Someone must have changed his clothes while he was asleep. Not someone. Wei Wuxian.

Suddenly a lot more awake, Lan Wangji begins to assess his surroundings more clearly. He seems to be in the living room of a small apartment, and the soft but unyielding surface beneath him belongs to a couch, one of two standing vis-à-vis with a coffee table between them. Behind him, there’s a window through which the lights of the city pour into the room, only slightly dulled by a light-colored curtain. There’s a small kitchen corner in front of him, only separated from the living room by a long counter. From where he sits on the couch, he can make out three closed doors. One of them is clearly the front door, situated to the far left, in an alcove that looks like an entryway, separated with a wall from the kitchen. The second is to the right of the kitchen, directly in Lan Wangji’s line of sight. The last one is on the wall to his right, next to the left end of the other couch.

Wei Wuxian is nowhere to be seen.

Another shiver suddenly wracks through his body again. There’s a coldness situated deep in his bones, and a sort of pull in his chest, a pang of loneliness. He is not used to being alone. Shaking, Lan Wangji manages to set his feet on the ground. As he moves to stand up, he sways dangerously but somehow stays upright. The door to the right seems the nearest, and so Lan Wangji moves slowly on his weak unsteady legs in its general direction. He knocks against the coffee table when he does so, and something on it – probably a glass – falls down with a clang. Holding his bruised shin, he shuffles forward once more. He’s almost reached the door when it swings open inwardly.

There’s a shadow in the doorway. It’s Wei Wuxian. And he’s pointing a gun right at Lan Wangji’s head.

The spark in him is shrouded by darkness again.

Lan Wangji puts his hands above his head like he’s seen the people do on television. “Wei Ying,” he says, carefully, as if he were talking to a spooked animal. “Put that down.” That only seems to aggravate him more.

“How do you know my last name?” he grits out, a slight tremble to his grip on the gun. “I thought I misheard earlier, but you said my name, right?”

“…Not exactly.”

“What do you want?” he asks. “Trying to enter my bedroom like that?”

“I was cold. May I sleep in your bed with you?”

“Cut the crap! Tell me what you want from me or I’ll have to get your blood out of the carpet, and wouldn’t that be a shame?”

“Wei Ying!” he cries out appalled. Pure shock passes over Wei Wuxian’s features. The gun trembles.

“You!” Eyes wide, Wei Wuxian points a shaking finger at him. “No way …,” he whispers, touching that finger to his lips, incredulous. Something changes in him, then. Lan Wangji sees him forcefully schooling his expression again, but his voice is still slightly wobbling when he speaks next.

“I’m not drunk enough for this.” Finally putting the gun down, he sits down heavily on the couch, pouring himself a glass of something decidedly alcoholic with shaking hands. That’s what Lan Wangji must have jolted, before. He eyes the liquid with contempt as Wei Wuxian brings it up to his lips and downs it in one go.

“It was you that night, then. It’s your voice I heard back then. How … how is that possible? Where were you hiding?”

Lan Wangji feels … strangely proud, but also kind of wary. Of course, Wei Wuxian would figure it out that fast. If he comes to a wrong conclusion, though … He tries to answer his question, tries to tell him he was right beside him, but it is as if his mouth was sealed close. There is no sound coming out of his throat. This must be the silencing spell the elders warned him about. He settles on evading the question entirely, in the end.

“You’re smart,” Lan Wangji says with quiet confidence.

Wei Wuxian peers up at him, a calculating look on his face.

“You want me to figure it out, yeah? Because you can’t tell me yourself, is that it?”

Fierce pride blooms in Lan Wangji’s chest. “You will figure it out.”

Wei Wuxian regards him for a long moment. His voice is dangerously low when he poses the next question.

“Why are you acting as if you know me? Telling me what to do … Who do you think you are?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t even know your name. What was I thinking, taking a complete stranger back here?” he mumbles to himself.

“Lan Zhan.” Without thinking, Lan Wangji has shared the name of the fledgling soul inside himself.

“Hm?”

“My name.”

Absurdly, that, of all things, makes Wei Wuxian smile. It’s a ghost of his old smile, a short uptick of his lips that is gone in an instant, but to Lan Wangji, it is like a raindrop on the parched tongue of a dehydrated man.

“Lan Zhan,” he repeats, voice curling around the two syllables. Lan Wangji thinks there’s a hint of curiosity in there, too. “And what are you doing here, Lan Zhan?”

There are a thousand ways he could answer that question, and only a few of them he can actually articulate.

“I really don’t have anywhere else to go. I wouldn’t lie to you.” I couldn’t.

“What a virtuous man you are,” Wei Wuxian remarks cynically. “Why would you want to get tainted by remaining at the side of a man like me?”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes. “Wei Ying,” he pleads. “Please let me stay.”

Wei Wuxian sighs, suddenly sounding very, very tired. “Alright.” He locks his bedroom door, this time. Lan Wangji supposes that’s fair.

*

The next morning, Wei Wuxian steps out of his door, takes one look at Lan Wangji standing in the middle of his living room and burrows his face in his hands.

“I can’t deal with this right now,” he mumbles.

“Look, I’ll be gone for the day,” he addresses Lan Wangji directly, emerging from behind his hands again.

“Where are you going?” Lan Wangji can’t help but ask. He’s been up since the first beams of sunlight peeked through the curtains of the living room, thoughts circling through his head in an endless carrousel. How much time has elapsed since the warehouse? What has happened to Wei Wuxian since then? He must have honored his deal with the thugs, but where did that lead him? What has he done in the meantime? What is it he got hired to do?

“I can’t see how that’s any of your business,” Wei Wuxian says drily. Lan Wangji shrivels back under the cutting edge of his gaze.

“You want to stay? Then stay. You want to go back to wherever you came from or somewhere else? Then go. I won’t be able to keep you in. But if I catch you following me, I won’t be as forgiving as last night. Did I make myself clear?”

Lan Wangji nods. “I told you, I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he repeats. “I will stay here and wait for you if you’ll allow me.”

Wei Wuxian looks at him like he’s a puzzle waiting to be solved. Finally, he tears his gaze away.

“Do whatever you want,” he says, seemingly indifferent. “It’s none of my business, either. Just don’t go snooping around.”

He’s out the door before Lan Wangji can remind him to eat something first.

His own stomach grumbles at the thought. Right. He’s a human now. This body has needs. Careful, Lan Wangji ventures into the adjoined kitchen, searching for something to satisfy his hunger. The fridge is … very empty, as is the pantry. Wei Wuxian, he thinks to himself while he boils the meager remains of rice he’s found, have you been taking care of yourself?

After he has eaten the boiled rice with some side dishes he produced from the fridge (this, at least, he’s able to do, having watched humans cook over the course of many years), he cleans the bowls, the pot and the whole kitchen corner carefully until it’s spotless. Eating is unfamiliar to him, but experiencing the taste of food for the first time fills him with joy.

“Are you sure about this?” a gentle voice murmurs in his ear as he puts the cleaning rag away. “You can put a stop to this anytime you want.”

Lan Wangji turns to Lan Xichen, giving his interim guardian angel a withering look.

“I’m not giving up on him. He saved me. Helped a person in need even though he didn’t know him. Expecting nothing in return.”

Lan Xichen regards him intently. “I trust you. But I cannot trust him. Not when he pulled a gun on you.” His voice becomes sharp at those last words.

“You can’t blame him for reacting like that. Not after everything that has happened to him.”

Lan Xichen closes his eyes, looking pained. “I can’t see his soul, but it must be consumed by darkness by now.”

“There still is a spark of untainted light left in him. And I won’t let it extinguish”, Lan Wangji replies with conviction. His senior just nods.

Wei Wuxian told him not to snoop around, but Lan Wangji has hours of time on his hand and curiosity soon gets the better of him. In the light of day, he can see that the whole apartment is decked out in grey tones and the furniture is very modern, resulting in a rather lifeless and cold atmosphere. The bedroom is locked again, so Lan Wangji surveys the rest of the apartment instead. There’s nothing remotely personal in here – no picture frames, no decorations beyond the basic furniture. Lan Wangji doesn’t recognize any of the belongings. There’s nothing betraying Wei Wuxian’s previous life. When he finds a driver’s license lying around on the doormat – it must have fallen out of the pocket of Wei Wuxian’s jacket when he put it on in his haste to get out the door this morning – he realizes why. The picture on it looks like Wei Wuxian, but also not quite, as if someone had mixed his features with someone else’s. On the line where his birth name is supposed to go, there are unfamiliar characters written instead. Mo Xuanyu.

As it turns out, there is a small bathroom behind the third door he noticed last night. Lan Wangji washes his hands, then examines his reflection in the mirror over the sink.

He has never paid much attention to his own appearance, but now he gets curious what he looks like to Wei Wuxian’s eyes.

Golden eyes stare back at him out of a fairly pale face framed by jet black hair. The grey cotton pajamas strain a bit against his chest, indicating Wei Wuxian to be slightly thinner than him. Again, worry surges through him.

Back on the couch, Lan Wangji sits down cross-legged and closes his eyes. He familiarizes himself with the intake of breath, the expansion of his lungs, the strain in his muscles when he bends his limbs a certain way. This human body of his has its restraints – he has no access to his powers, for example. But he is able to touch Wei Wuxian like this, is able to communicate with him, although not about everything. He will treat this body with respect, will accustom himself to its needs until the day he’ll return to his original form once more.

At last, the lock of the front door turns. The sun has already set, painting the walls bright pink, orange and red before leaving only darkness behind. Lan Wangji had eaten a second time when his body called for it and switched on the lights to hold the darkness at bay. When he hears the footsteps in the entry, he looks up from his position on the couch and untangles his limbs to stand up gracefully. His feet prickle when he sets them on the ground – a phenomenon he wasn’t acquainted with until now, although he remembers Wei Wuxian hobbling around and complaining to Jiang Wanyin after he spent too long sitting at his desk with his feet under him. Suppressing the weird feeling, he steps towards his former protégé who is in the process of toeing his shoes off. In his arms is a giant paper shopping bag, which Lan Wangji relieves him of immediately. Wei Wuxian shoots him a dark look, but lets him stagger into the kitchen under the weight of the bag and unpack it while he surveys the state of the room and hangs his jacket over a hook by the door. Apparently, Wei Wuxian has been grocery shopping. Lan Wangji unpacks far too many glasses of chili oil and snacks before he finds a few more useful ingredients.

He makes them something for dinner while Wei Wuxian rummages in the bathroom and his bedroom, and they both eat in silence at the coffee table, sitting across from each other on the couches.

Wei Wuxian leaves the room without another word when he’s finished, locking the bedroom door behind him, so Lan Wangji settles on the couch again, waiting for sleep to take him.

The moon rises over the city. Lan Wangji tosses and turns. The distance between them is unbearable. He is used to being at Wei Wuxian’s side at all times, but as a human, he can’t get that close without his permission. The locked door of his bedroom is a cruel reminder that his former protégé doesn’t trust him enough to grant it to him.

As a human, he feels so much suddenly – before, it was only inside, but as a human, he feels everything outside of his body as well: the warmth of the sun, the gentle caress or harsh whisper of the wind, the goosebumps and tender warmth when Wei Wuxian touched him last night, but also the absence of his touch this whole day. It’s all very … physical, and he can’t quite get used to it. How can somebody feel so much at once? Why are humans built like this? Questions he never had to ask before come swimming through his mind.

He shivers in the dark.

There’s a small click coming from the bedroom door.

A shadow looms over him.

“Come on, then,” Wei Wuxian sighs quietly. Lan Wangji feels strong arms hauling him up from the couch, supporting him as he walks on unsteady feet, almost as if he’s sleepwalking. Somehow, he’s on his side on a bed the next second, and Wei Wuxian lowers himself onto the mattress beside him, drawing up the covers to their chins. His arms sneak around Lan Wangji’s shivering form, drawing him near until he can feel the heat radiating off the other’s body. His hands begin to rub gentle circles and patterns over the soft cloth of Lan Wangji’s pajamas. Drowsy, he lets himself succumb to the sensation, everything else that overwhelmed him falling away until all he can focus on is Wei Wuxian’s touch. Wei Wuxian’s scent, which he cannot discern, but wonders at its existence regardless. He didn’t know Wei Wuxian had a scent.

His mouth opens without his own volition, his voice brittle and small when he asks the question that’s been swimming in his head since he first learned what it truly meant to be human.

“How do you cope with it? Feeling so much at once?”

Wei Wuxian is quiet for a long time, so long that Lan Wangji almost thinks he won’t reply. “I don’t,” he whispers finally.

Lan Wangji is afraid to ask what he means by that. He doesn’t cope with it? Or he doesn’t feel that much anymore? Thankfully, Wei Wuxian remains quiet after that, keeping up his soothing motions on Lan Wangji’s back until the shivers have subsided and he’s barely conscious, only a few deep breaths away from sleep.

“You’re a strange one, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian hums. It’s the last thing he hears before he drifts off.

*

The next morning, Lan Wangji wakes up late, having caught up on his sleep. He takes a moment to survey his surroundings, but at first glance, even the bedroom doesn’t have any familiar items. As he steps out of the room, Wei Wuxian comes out of the bathroom with only a pair of sleek black pants covering his legs. At once, Lan Wangji notices two things. First, the unfamiliar but strong reaction of his body. For a second, it feels as if he cannot breathe, and warmth pools in his stomach, just below the place his soul lies. Lan Wangji doesn’t dwell on the strange sensation, though, because the second thing he notices is the scar crossing Wei Wuxian’s midriff.

“What’s that?”

Wei Wuxian’s head snaps up. “What?”

Lan Wangji goes up to him and reaches his fingers out to trace it. Inexplicably, his mouth goes a bit dry. Wei Wuxian, dumbfounded, only catches his wrist after a few moments of Lan Wangji following the line of the scar he’s tracing intently with his eyes. “Someone tried to come at me with a knife. Now get out of my space before I try the same thing on you.”

Instantly, Lan Wangji steps back, eyes trained on the ground. “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. Furious with himself, his fists clench at his sides while he watches Wei Wuxian brush past him. Soon enough, there’s a black hoodie thrown over his bare skin, hiding the proof of Lan Wangji’s failure again from the world.

Wei Wuxian vanishes again for most of the day. Meanwhile, Lan Wangji becomes acquainted with the mechanisms of the shower and hairdryer and tries on the clothes Wei Wuxian has laid out for him. When he returns in the evening, he takes one look at Lan Wangji’s outfit before declaring abruptly: “If you’re going to stay here, you’ll need at least a toothbrush and decent clothes.”

That’s how Lan Wangji’s first venture out of the apartment comes about.

“You should not call me your little nickname out there, alright?” Wei Wuxian tells him as they make their way out into the hall. Apparently, the apartment is on the fourth floor of a complex, and a flight of stairs leads them to street-level.

They go shopping in a dollar-store around the corner. Shoes, shirts and pants in Lan Wangji’s size as well as daily necessities land in their cart one after another. In front of one particular section, Lan Wangji stops a bit longer. Among other nightwear, he notices fluffy white pajamas with black and white sprightly jumping bunnies on them. Reminded of the time a younger Wei Wuxian saved that bunny, he smiles a bit and puts them in the cart. Wei Wuxian blinks a few times at him before tearing his gaze away.

There are also a few bottles of alcohol in the cart. Lan Wangji eyes them disapprovingly. Wei Wuxian shows his fake I.D. to the cashier whose guardian flinches away from him, then proceeds to haul their stuff in the bags he brought with.

“Stop glaring like that,” Wei Wuxian tells him when they’re on their way out, out of earshot from the employee. “I’m old enough to drink.”

Lan Wangji takes one look at the date on the newspapers out front. “No, you’re not.”

Something in his voice must have alerted Wei Wuxian again, because his tone becomes dangerous when he replies: “And how would you know that? Here, my birthday was several months ago.”

Lan Wangji rolls his eyes at the I.D. he’s brandishing in front of his face and says without thinking: “That’s a fake. Your birthday is two weeks from now.”

Wei Wuxian stops dead on his tracks in front of his apartment building. With a jerk, he grabs Lan Wangji by the arm and hauls him roughly up the stairs. When they’re inside, he presses him against his front door and pats him down without a word. Then, he proceeds to search furiously for something between the sofa cushions, under the coffee table and in the kitchen.

“Wei Ying. What are you doing?”

Finally, he produces Lan Wangji’s old clothes from somewhere and searches through them, as well. At last, he crowds Lan Wangji against the door again.

“Fine. You’re not a cop. What the hell are you, then? A stalker?”

There’s a knife in his hand now, its blade pressing cold and sharp into Lan Wangji’s ribs.

“Wei Ying,” he forces out. Looks into those furious grey eyes with every bit of honesty inside him. “I am of no threat to you.”

With a frustrated growl, Wei Wuxian twists away, slamming the bedroom door violently behind him.

Lan Wangji exhales a shaking breath and lets himself slump against the hard metal of the door for several long moments, trembling, before he takes a few calming breaths to collect himself enough to push off it and collect the bag of groceries to unpack them in the kitchen. His heart is still hammering in his chest when he puts down the bottles of alcohol that have sparked all this with a clink and realizes he has fallen right into Wei Wuxian’s trap. That was a test. The knowledge makes his lips quirk upwards. Thinking back to his school days, to long-term plans and a chess tournament almost won, his anxiety simmers down. My Wei Ying is smart indeed.

Thankfully, Lan Xichen stays silent this time, even though Lan Wangji can sense him vibrating furiously next to him, because Lan Wangji would have to talk back to defend him again and being caught talking to thin air certainly won’t help his case.

His former protégé only emerges after a while when Lan Wangji has made dinner for the both of them. Without a word, he takes his bowl of soup and sits on the couch, only the sound of his spoon clanging against the bowl echoing through the room while he mostly refuses to acknowledge Lan Wangji’s presence. Lan Wangji watches him silently from the kitchen counter, trying not to unnerve him with his stare. Once finished, Wei Wuxian brushes past him to put his dish in the sink and wash it out. After he’s dried it off and returned it to its place, he makes a trip to the bathroom, coming out in his sleepwear. When he retires, he leaves the bedroom door ajar.

Lan Wangji allows his shoulders to sag down in relief. He takes the second bag with his new belongings to the bathroom, changing into the bunny pajamas. They feel soft and warm on his skin, and they make the corners of his mouth go up ever-so slightly when he looks at their pattern, runs a hand over the fabric. How can such little details make one so happy?

He pulls out the toothbrush next, squirts a bit of the white paste on it like he’s seen Wei Wuxian do countless times in front of the bathroom mirror. The taste is … weird. Definitely not edible, though he thinks Wei Wuxian had tried a candy once that apparently tasted like toothpaste. How anyone could like that is beyond him. Ignoring the taste, he brushes his teeth diligently, rinsing his mouth with water from the sink once he’s finished to get the taste out of his mouth. When he slinks hesitantly through the bedroom door, he can still taste it on his tongue, though.

The lights are already out. Eyes adjusting to the darkness, Lan Wangji makes out Wei Wuxian’s form on the bed. He’s lying on his side, back turned towards the space he left on the right side of the mattress. Quiet as not to wake him, Lan Wangji slips under the covers, fitting himself right into that space. He settles his hands above his stomach and blinks up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to pull him under. It doesn’t come. Lan Wangji focuses on the quiet regular breathing and the heat coming off the body next to his, but still, it doesn’t come. He’s still not used to this, shutting down for hours to keep functioning. As a guardian, he didn’t need to sleep, instead watching over his protégé’s, humming a lullaby to him when nightmares seemed to overtake his dreams. With a start, he realizes that he’s shivering again. The mattress dips beside him. The next moment, there are arms sneaking around his torso, hands stroking up and down his back. Lan Wangji breathes into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, breathes the scent of him in as he lets himself get lulled to sleep once again.

*

Several days pass like this. After those first two eventful days, they fall into an easy rhythm. Wei Wuxian is gone most of the day, only arriving back home at nightfall. Lan Wangji stays and longs to be by his side as always. They have dinner together, then go to bed while Wei Wuxian holds Lan Wangji and helps him sleep. (They don’t talk that much, a wary kind of truce between them since Lan Wangji has assured Wei Wuxian he doesn’t pose a threat to him. But Wei Wuxian trusts him enough to keep him close during the night, so that must account for something.)

One evening, Lan Wangji has almost been pulled under when he feels Wei Wuxian carefully extracting himself from their embrace. Blinking blearily into the darkness, he sees him putting on his leather jacket, as if he were about to go out. If he’s going out at night, it can’t be for something good, Lan Wangji concludes hazily. So he does the only thing that comes to mind to prevent him from going. With an effort, he catches Wei Wuxian by the wrist and says, voice drowsy with sleep:

“Wei Ying. Stay here. Please. I need you.” I need you to stay.

Wei Wuxian is perfectly still for a long, long moment. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you can’t say stuff like that. I might misunderstand,” he finally sighs. But he settles again under the covers nevertheless, resuming the soothing motions on Lan Wangji’s back. It doesn’t take long until he’s fast asleep. The next morning, the bed is cold and empty, and he fears for a moment, fears that he’d gone regardless, that it was all for nothing. But then Lan Xichen whispers in his ear, “Don’t worry, he didn’t go out last night.”

A mouth-watering smell greets Lan Wangji when he ventures out into the living room. He spots Wei Wuxian in the kitchen making breakfast with his back to him, a phone balanced precariously between his shoulder and his ear while he busies himself by the stove. “Alright. …Yes,” he says in a low voice. “Keep him there. … No. After a few days; I’m busy with other assignments. … Report back if something happens.” At that, he turns to deposit a pancake on a plate on the counter and catches Lan Wangji’s eye. “Well done last night. I have to go now,” he tells the other party, never breaking eye contact with Lan Wangji even after he’s hung up.

“Good morning,” he says, and Lan Wangji can see it in his watchful grey eyes, in the defiant way he sets his jaw. The challenge, the dare to ask him what that was about. But Lan Wangji finds he doesn’t want to ask. Not yet. And so he just wishes him a good morning, too, and takes his plate to the coffee table without another word.

That evening, though, Lan Wangji finds he wishes to know some other things he’s curious about. Wei Wuxian sits across him, as always nursing a drink on the couch after dinner. Lan Wangji holds back the long-suffering sigh building up inside him, the useless reminders about how too much alcohol can damage the body and the mind, and opens his mouth to speak up instead.

“May I ask you a question?”

Wei Wuxian looks up in surprise at him straying from their evening routine, but only shrugs before he gives him the permission. “Go ahead.”

“How are your siblings?”

Fortunately, Wei Wuxian doesn’t pull a gun or a knife on him this time. Instead, he remains silent for a bit before huffing out a quiet laugh. “Of course you know about my siblings. Tell me, then. What exactly do you know about them?”

“The last I saw them, Jiang Wanyin was in a coma,” Lan Wangji answers truthfully. For once, the silencing charm doesn’t act up. “And Jiang Yanli was desperately searching for a job to pay the hospital bills.”

Wei Wuxian sucks in a harsh breath. “Lan Zhan, admit it, you really did stalk me, didn’t you?”

“How are they now? I’d like to know. They are dear to my heart as well.” And I want to know if your efforts helped them.

Wei Wuxian is silent for a minute, deep in thought.

“My brother has recovered. Regarding my sister … she met someone in the hospital soon after I … left. Jin Zixuan.”

Lan Wangji remembers that name. Madam Yu had always pushed her daughter towards that rather arrogant boy who treated her with contempt, incurring the wrath of her brothers.

“They’re married now,” Wei Wuxian adds, looking intently at his glass before he chugs it down and refills it again. “So he’s not so bad after all, I suppose. She’s even expecting a child.”

Oh. Lan Wangji grips the edge of the coffee table tightly. All that change in the span of one or two years …

“I used to drive by their house every month to leave her some cash for A-Yin and herself, but … well, I can’t compete against Jin wealth, now can I? Nowadays, I only have someone gather information now and then.”

He seems to notice when Lan Wangji comes to the realization: if Wei Wuxian had known, if Jiang Yanli had reconnected with Jin Zixuan and they’d gotten his help a little bit sooner, maybe he wouldn’t have had to take that faceless voice up on their ominous offer.

“Life is unpredictable, huh?” Wei Wuxian concludes with a small poignant smile.

“Things are unpredictable,” Lan Wangji agrees, then snatches the glass from the table on a sudden impulse, downing it in one shot as if to prove a point.

The liquor burns down his throat and he coughs a little as Wei Wuxian looks at him over the table, utterly astonished.

“Lan Zhan…” he says slowly. “Are you alright?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nods, and then he’s out cold.

When he drifts into consciousness again, he’s lying on the bed. Wei Wuxian must have moved him there, he thinks dizzily. His thoughts are somewhat sluggish, and everything feels kind of floaty around him, washed-out and dreamlike. Wei Wuxian’s face swims into view. He looks ethereal.

“Lan Zhan!” he exclaims, concern mixed with relief and maybe a tinge of amusement fluttering over his features. “You scared me for a bit out there.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji slurs. Yes, that’s definitely amusement right there. It makes Lan Wangji so happy he smiles dopily in return, reaching out to cup his former protégé’s cheek.

“Woah,” Wei Wuxian breathes, eyes wide.

Lan Wangji’s unsteady gaze refocuses on his mouth, lips plush and pink in the warm glow of the bedside lamp. He wonders idly if they feel as soft as they look. The warm fuzzy feeling he gets whenever he looks at Wei Wuxian intensifies. He cannot look away. He will never look away from his Wei Ying.

“Lan Zhan, hey” – the man in question waves his hand in front of his face – “how many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two,” he answers, wondering what game Wei Wuxian is playing with him now. His hand drops from his cheek to catch the digits in his hand and trap them against his thigh. Wei Wuxian sucks in a breath, but lets him.

“So, is it Q&A time right now?” he muses.

Whatever that means, Lan Wangji affirms it with a small noise. Immediately, Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes and begins to bombard him with questions.

“Is Lan Zhan your real name?”

“Almost,” Lan Wangji admits, surprised the silencing spell allows him to.

“Hm. You said the same thing about my nickname …” Wei Wuxian considers. “What were you doing on that street?” he asks next, viper-fast.

“Waiting for you.” Once again, the words come over his lips easily, and Lan Wangji wonders if alcohol has loosened the tight hold of the silencing ban.

At the next few questions, it acts up, though. After “Where are you from?”, “Why do you know so much about me?” and “Where were you that night in the warehouse?”, he can only gag helplessly on his words. Eventually, Wei Wuxian sighs and doesn’t try anymore. Assessing Lan Wangji, his mouth twists into something he can’t read. Subdued, he queries one last time. “Would you answer these questions even if you’re not drunk?”

This, he can answer again in all honesty. “I would answer anything you ask of me to the best of my abilities.”

Wei Wuxian nods, seemingly content with the answer. His hand is still under Lan Wangji’s, resting somewhere on his right thigh. The warmth of his skin seeping through the fabric, the feel of his calloused fingers against his palm feels like an anchor holding him steady when everything around him seems to melt away.

After a long, quiet moment of just looking at each other – or, in Lan Wangji’s case, looking at either his lips or their hands – Wei Wuxian clears his throat and makes to stand up, his hand slipping out from under Lan Wangji’s as he does so. Without thinking, Lan Wangji moves to grasp it again, catching him by the wrist.

“Stay with me. Don’t go out of my sight,” he pleads, once again. He cannot bear to be apart from him, cannot bear to see him leave unprotected.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, what is it with you and me staying?” Wei Wuxian sighs, but it sounds almost … fond, rather than irritated. Muddy as his thoughts are, Lan Wangji realizes only now that Wei Wuxian has, once more, put on his black leather jacket sometime between dinner and now. Is he planning to go out again? He can’t let that happen, he needs him to stay, to keep out of danger to both his body and his soul. Desperate, he tightens his grip on his wrist.

“Lan Zhan, let me go, hm?” Wei Wuxian murmurs gently, the hint of a smile adorning his face. His mouth looks so pretty like this – Lan Wangji’s staring at it moving, transfixed. His head is swimming with soft lips and cheekbones highlighted by warm light and dark lashes casting shadows over golden skin.

“Wei Ying,” he murmurs, and it comes out rougher than he expected.

When Wei Wuxian moves to twist away, something – a dam? A stronghold? – breaks in Lan Wangji. Full of desperation, he reels him back in, pulls him towards himself as he sways forward to meet him midway. Their lips fall together and everything goes silent, except for Lan Wangji’s still strange pulse thundering in his ears. Wei Wuxian’s lips feel as soft and divine as they look like, his mouth pliant and sweet when Lan Wangji licks them quick and kitten-like. The way they move against each other spreads a tingling and warm sensation throughout his whole body. Wei Wuxian shudders and presses more firmly against him for one heavenly second before drawing back abruptly.

When Wei Wuxian pulls away, there’s a complicated expression on his face. He withdraws himself completely, so they are only connected again at the point where Lan Wangji’s hand is still gripping his wrist. “Lan Zhan, you’re drunk.”

“Come back,” he whines.

Wei Wuxian clenches his jaw. “Stop that; I’m trying to be a decent person here.”

Lan Wangji goes completely limp at that, surprising his former protégé. “Wait, that really got you to stop?” Intrigued, Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes. “You … want me to be decent?”

“Stay here. Be good.”

Wei Wuxian sucks in a harsh breath. “Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan. Who are you to give me commands like that?”

There’s no real heat behind the words this time, though.

“Want you to stay,” Lan Wangji almost whines.

Wei Wuxian’s resolve crumples. “Alright, alright. I wasn’t even going anywhere.”

*

The next morning, Lan Wangji feels as if a truck has run him over. Ah, yes. The glass of whisky. When he moves slowly into the living room, squinting against the sunshine and pressing a hand against his head, Wei Wuxian raises his brow from where he’s leaning on the counter. “If you would have let me get you that glass of water last night you wouldn’t be like this now.”

He puts the bowl he was eating out of back on the metal surface and pushes himself off the counter. “Come on, have some hangover soup.”

Lan Wangji sips the broth and swallows the small pill Wei Wuxian’s passing him dutifully. It’s strange, but not unpleasant, letting his former protégé take care of him instead of the other way around. His heart warms at the thought.

Looking up from his last spoonful of soup, he finds Wei Wuxian observing him while munching on the rest of his breakfast. As his gaze fastens on his mouth, he remembers the feel of it against his own – soft, pliant, sweet, pressing in for more.

Oh.

Ears burning, he tears his eyes away. Well. Wei Wuxian stayed. He tried to be good. All for him. That’s what matters the most.

They do not speak of the kiss. Maybe Wei Wuxian thinks Lan Wangji has forgotten, maybe he himself doesn’t want to talk about it, and wants to forget about it. After all, Lan Wangji still is barely more than a stranger to him. He pushes the sharp pang that tugs at his heart at the thought in the back of his head and gets on with the day. Today, he busies himself with cleaning the apartment while Wei Wuxian is out, hangover successfully subdued by the soup and whatever pill he swallowed. As always, Wei Wuxian returns only when the sun has already set. The moon is so bright that evening they don’t even have to turn on the lights, curtains opened wide instead to let all of that silver light in. Everything is black and white and various shades in between. It is another kind of beauty Lan Wangji has always enjoyed. After dinner, Wei Wuxian leans back against the couch and pours himself a drink again. He seems to ponder over something, turning a question over and over in his head.

Face half in the shadows, suddenly very serious in contrast to the playfulness from last night, he asks it eventually.

“Lan Zhan. Why are you here?”

“Because you helped me.” Lan Wangji places emphasis on the verb, hoping Wei Wuxian will catch on the underlying implications. I am here because I want to help you as well. Because you helping me proves there’s still good in you.

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow at him and downs his whole drink. While he fills his glass again, he begins to talk to himself. “I helped you… I saved you, so you think I’m worth saving, too? Is that it?” He chuckles hollowly, and Lan Wangji wants nothing more than to return his old, cheerful laugh to him. “How can you think that? When you were there that night? When you fully know what I did?” He shakes his head in disbelief. “Let me remind you of it again, then. I burnt Wen Chao as he did to my home. I shot Wen Zhuliu in the stomach as he did to my brother and watched him bleed out slowly,” Wei Wuxian tells him matter-of-factly, grey eyes burning into golden ones while he sips on his drink. A bitter laugh. “I am beyond redemption. So if you’re here for that, you should just go.”

That night, it’s Wei Wuxian who has trouble sleeping. Lan Wangji wakes to his shallow breathing turning into gasps, tossing and turning until he sits up with a start, panting erratically. Without a word, he clambers out of bed, hurrying on unsteady feet to the bathroom. Lan Wangji hears him crashing into pieces of furniture on the way. He’s up in a second, running after him. When he catches up to him, Wei Wuxian is already retching over the toilet in dry, desperate heaves. He startles like a wild animal when Lan Wangji touches him. Tentatively, he rests his hand between his shoulder blades, rubbing soothing circles there like he learnt from his former protégé himself.

“Get lost!” Wei Wuxian croaks out forcefully between his panicked breaths and retches, trying weakly to shove Lan Wangji away.

“Wei Ying. It’s alright. You’re alright now. Let me help you…”

“Get lost!” There are tears streaming down Wei Wuxian’s face as he turns around to look at Lan Wangji. Something must be showing in his expression, though, because he breaks down right that instant, wrapping his arms around Lan Wangji, burying his trembling, sullied mouth in his pajamas and clinging to him for life.

*

“I want you to come with me.”

Puzzled, Lan Wangji stares for a moment at his former protégé who has uttered this phrase right after breakfast, a determined look on his face. Then, he nods. Without another word, Wei Wuxian grabs his keys, throws on a black leather jacket and tosses Lan Wangji his coat. It’s only the second time they’re going out together, and Lan Wangji falls back in his old habits easily when Wei Wuxian strides ahead of him, slots himself right into his old place, following him closely like a shadow just behind his right shoulder. His former protégé never looks back while he weaves his way through the streets and alleys of the unfamiliar city until they’ve reached their destination.

Lan Wangji recognizes the sign above the entrance to the nightclub at once: a stylized white mountain and the words “Burial Mounds” written underneath it against a dark background. The club looks a bit run-down from the outside, being situated in one of the more underdeveloped neighborhoods of the city, and the autumn wind rustles orange leaves across the dirty sidewalk, giving the whole street a rather creepy feeling.

Wei Wuxian gives a curt nod to the man smoking a cigarette at the doorway and enters with confident steps, Lan Wangji hot on his trail. Inside, several people are busy cleaning, shouting a few greetings at the two newcomers as they go by. Wei Wuxian strides with purpose through the chaotic jumble of upended bar stools and dirty tables, waving his hand here and there in greeting. Somewhere ahead of them, the shouts are getting louder – two men seem to have abandoned their cleaning utensils in favor of going at each other’s throats. A few others are either standing around them egging them on or trying to break up the fight. Lan Wangji sees their guardians standing by their sides, helpless. A heavy kick to the back of one of the brawlers sends them tumbling to the ground together. Wei Wuxian leans over them, giving them a cold smile. “Break it up. You’re embarrassing all of us.”

Immediately, they let go of each other, scrambling to their feet looking sheepish and apologetic. The small crowd around them dissipates quickly, even as Wei Wuxian has already continued on his way. Lan Wangji hurries to catch up with him just as he unlocks a door hidden in the black velvet wall at the utmost back of the club. It opens to a dimly lit back room, decked out with a sturdy wooden desk with stacks of documents and files as well as a huge computer resting upon it. At the wall behind the office chair on the other side of the desk, there seems to be a row of dark curtains. There’s also a small black leather couch with an end table in front of it crammed in one corner.

“They listen to you well,” Lan Wangji observes quietly as he follows his guide in, closing the door behind them.

Wei Wuxian turns to him, leaning against the desk. His mouth twists.

“Of course,” he replies airily. “After all, I’m the fearsome Yiling Patriarch, head of Burial Mounds, who has a reputation for being ruthless and cunning. They’ve got another thing coming if they don’t listen to me. Besides, they were there that night. They know what I’m capable of doing.”

Do they also know it keeps you up at night? Lan Wangji doesn’t say, because Wei Wuxian would surely think of it as a threat.

Head of Burial Mounds. It seems like Wei Wuxian’s position in the gang is much higher than Lan Wangji has anticipated. Where is the owner of the distorted voice, though?

A knock on the door interrupts them. “Come on in,” Wei Wuxian shouts, quirking an eyebrow at Lan Wangji who moves hurriedly to his side. One second later, the door opens again, its hard edge swinging in full force to the exact place Lan Wangji has stood. A handsome man wearing an elegant black suit walks in, shoots a curious look to Lan Wangji, then hands a file to Wei Wuxian.

“Song Lan,” he greets, flipping through the file. “A good night?”

“Very good,” the other confirms. Then, after a beat, “There’s someone who didn’t have one, though.”

Wei Wuxian lets his eyes wander between the man called Song Lan and Lan Wangji before he curls his mouth into an easy smile. Like all the other expressions he made since he’s entered this place, it seems empty, like a mask that doesn’t sit quite right on his face. “You may speak freely in front of our guest.”

Song Lan nods. “Xingchen will want to talk to you later. He’s been tormented by that psycho all night,” he grits out. “We’ve yet to pull anything useful out of the guy. You really should have come sooner to interrogate him.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes blaze at that remark. “I was occupied. A bit of waiting can help quite a bit to wear someone down.”

“Tell that to Xingchen; he’s the one being worn down,” Song Lan bites back.

Pushing back from the desk, Wei Wuxian taps the file in his hands against the other man’s chest.

“Talk to me like that one more time and I will demote you so hard you will come crying to your boyfriend begging for a job like his. You don’t get to tell me what to do. Do you understand?”

Song Lan steps back and exhales shakily. “I understand.”

“Good. Now take the next few hours off to get some fresh air and calm down outside; I will send your boyfriend to you soon enough.”

After Song Lan has retreated, Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Wangji again.

“So, that’s the current manager of the club,” he introduces the man belatedly. “He’s a smart one; I would be very disappointed if I actually had to demote him. Now, let’s go see what all the fuss is about, hm?”

With another key, he unlocks a metal door in the left wall of the room that Lan Wangji had not noticed up until now, preoccupied with their visitor. At first, he can only see darkness and a few dingy steps leading downwards, but then Wei Wuxian must have pulled on a switch because a series of overhead lamps flicker on, illuminating the narrow staircase better. Without a glance back, Wei Wuxian starts to descend the stairs. After a beat, Lan Wangji follows him.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” Lan Xichen whispers anxiously in his ears. “Do you really want to see what’s down there?”

What he wants to see is the truth. He wants to know what exactly Wei Wuxian is up to with this kind of work, how far gone he is already. (It doesn’t matter how far, Lan Wangji will bring him back). At least, being allowed to follow him like this, he can keep him from doing something dreadful again.

The staircase is still only dimly lit and the steps are uneven, making Lan Wangji worry out of his mind until Wei Wuxian has safely reached level ground. In his old form, he could have cushioned his fall if he tripped, moving at the speed of light. But now, he can only keep close, hand itching to reach out. They’re moving along an even darker corridor, vague shapes of doorways going off it appearing left and right, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Afraid?” Wei Wuxian’s voice floats back to him. Yes, of what I will find. “I’ll let you hold my hand if you are,” he teases.

Accepting the invitation in a heartbeat, Lan Wangji accelerates his steps and reaches out towards where he sees the tiny spark glowing in the darkness. He finds an arm first, then lets his hand slide down to grip Wei Wuxian’s clumsily. The man beside him sucks in a shaky breath, then squeezes back in reassurance before they continue. His hand feels calloused and sweaty and a bit cold in Lan Wangji’s own, but it’s … grounding, like an anchor for his mind to concentrate on while they move on towards whatever is waiting in this cellar system.

A white spot appears suddenly in the darkness in front of them. As they draw near, Lan Wangji recognizes it as a human figure dressed all in white. A peculiar sight in a gang whose members seem to prefer wearing dark colors like their leader.

“Xiao Xingchen!” Wei Wuxian calls out. “I’ve come to save you!”

“Password?” asks the man named Xiao Xingchen in lieu of a greeting.

Suibian,” Wei Wuxian answers. “Good work down here; Song Lan just told me you didn’t get much sleep last night, is that correct?”

“That man is getting on my nerves,” Xiao Xingchen affirms. He sounds exhausted. Wei Wuxian must be thinking the same thing, because he pats the man on the shoulder and says: “If that’s coming from a man like you, I can see Song Lan has clearly not exaggerated. You may go search for your replacement and tell him I’ve moved the shift change forward. In the meantime, I’m going in.”

“Thank you. Be careful.”

With one last curious tilt of his head in the direction of Lan Wangji, Xiao Xingchen vanishes down the corridor. Wei Wuxian lets go of Lan Wangji’s hand and pushes open a little window in the door in front of them, light streaming out immediately. He looks inside for a long moment, then pushes it close again and opens the door instead with a small key that he fishes out of his pocket. Lan Wangji hesitates, then follows him in and presses himself against the wall near the door.

A man is bound to a chair in the middle of the small cell. There’s something very, very wrong with him. Lan Wangji’s pulse quickens when he realizes what it is: he has no guardian angel. The man doesn’t smell very pleasant, indicating he’s been here for several days, and there are dark circles under his eyes as if he hasn’t slept in as long. Nevertheless, there’s a smirk on his face as he watches his captor and his companion come in.

“Welcome, welcome,” he sing-songs. “Is that finally the esteemed Yiling Patriarch I see?”

“Xue Yang, is it?” Wei Wuxian smiles. There’s a dangerous undertone in his voice.

“And who’s that handsome companion of yours? Another guard?” the man sneers. “I might say, the other one was way too kinky, he even tried to gag me once! I liked it, though. Gonna have fun with this one, too.”

The smile slips off Wei Wuxian’s face. His hands behind his back, he begins to walk in a slow circle around his captive.

“You don’t quite seem to get the gravity of the situation you’re in,” he says slowly, fiddling with a device on a desk in the corner that looks like some sort of recorder. When he’s content with how it’s working, he resumes his path. “May I remind you, then? Our poor little A-Qing almost got murdered by you a few nights ago. She will gladly testify against you in court if it comes to it.”

Wei Wuxian comes to the front again in time to see the grin on Xue Yang’s face widen even more. “In court,” he mocks. “Sweet little thing. So weak and frail, walking down a dark and empty road with that cane as if she was blind. I couldn’t resist her. That was a good trap you laid out there.”

“But that’s the problem, isn’t that right?” Wei Wuxian continues as if he heard only the first part. “Reporting your crimes to the police isn’t going to work. At least that’s what you think.”

Xue Yang’s eyes widen just a flash, but it’s enough for Lan Wangji to know Wei Wuxian has struck gold.

“After all, it has happened once before.” Wei Wuxian keeps up his slow circle around his captive. “When you killed the whole Chang family and got captured by the police, you somehow managed to evade justice. Want to tell us how that came to be?”

The captive’s mouth opens and closes rapidly. Finally, he seems at a loss for words.

“You were let go because the only witness apparently took back his testimony. Still, you must have left some traces – but no– the police claimed there was not enough evidence. A retired officer told us through the grapevine that he got pressure from upstairs to make it so. The police commissioner at the time was called Jin Guangshan.” Xue Yang’s left eyelid twitches. Next to Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen makes a small noise and leans forward.

“Here’s what I’m guessing. There is someone in the police force who protects you from prosecution. Someone with the power to do so. Someone who was able to influence the police commissioner back then, someone who may as well be the police commissioner now.”

“How do you know all that?” Xue Yang blurts out. Wei Wuxian leans back in triumph as the criminal backtracks quickly. “Yeah, there’s someone high up there supporting me. So what if you know about it? You can’t even do anything. Do you want to get his protection, too? Sorry, but I don’t think you’ll be of much use to him. Too many morals left.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re not really living up to your reputation right now, you know?”

“You talked, anyway.” The pleasant smile is back on Wei Wuxian’s face. “I’ve got your confession right here on recorder.”

“That will be useless to you.”

“Oh, but I don’t intend to give it to the police, you see? There’s someone else who can make use of it much, much better.”

Wei Wuxian stretches, then looks at his watch. “Ah, I’m glad this took so little time. I’ve got a meeting this afternoon I can’t miss.” He turns and gestures at Lan Wangji to open the door and go out.

“Aww, don’t leave, little guard,” the captive drawls. “Though you look nice from behind, too. Tell the other one I miss his beautiful innocent face and his immaculate clothes, will you? White is so easy to be tainted …”

Lan Wangji looks back to see Wei Wuxian stiffen and turn at those lewd remarks. His hands are trembling. Behind him, Xue Yang grins widely.

“Hit me,” he goads. “Come on. I know you want to.”

“Why would I hit you if that’s exactly what you want?” Wei Wuxian retorts calmly. “I will tell you instead that if you harass one of my people again, they have my full permission to gag you permanently.”

Xue Yang’s smirk weakens, but he lets out an exaggerated yawn. “You’re no fun.”

“Oh, and I have to warn you,” Wei Wuxian says, turning back at the door. His voice is made of ice and steel. “Unfortunate things happen to people who think they’re above the law.”

When they’re out the door, Wei Wuxian leans against the wall and breathes heavily in and out, fists clenching at his sides. “I want to slap his fucking smirk off his face,” he grits out. Lan Wangji grips him at the shoulders and strokes down his arms in a hopefully grounding way.

“Wei Ying. Calm down.”

Wei Wuxian nods at him. “I know, I know, there’s no use getting worked up over a psychopath like him.” It takes a few more breaths for him to fully calm down. Then, he turns to the new guard who’s been watching them with curious eyes and instructs him to keep their captive bound and to gag him immediately if he tries to goad him.

They walk back through the dark in silence, each in their own thoughts. Back in the office, Wei Wuxian turns to his companion.

“Lan Zhan, you must be wondering what all that was about. Let me show you something.”

With that, he reaches for the curtains draped over the back wall of his office and draws them back. Instead of a window, there is a giant corkboard spanning the length of the room hung on the wall. Countless pictures, little notes and strings connecting them are pinned to it. There are photos of several people in golden uniforms, marking them as high-ranking police officers, as well as a few shots from surveillance cameras, newspaper clippings, pictures of bank accounts as well as maps of Lanling, Yunmeng and Yiling. Lan Wangji recognizes a man shown in a newspaper article – Xue Yang, the criminal Wei Wuxian interrogated just now. His train of thought gets interrupted by his interim guardian angel.

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen breathes, surging forward to look at the picture of a man in a golden uniform.

“This place is a front,” Wei Wuxian explains, oblivious to the turmoil he’s sparked in the third man in the room. “A lucrative front, yes, but nonetheless a front.”

Lan Wangji takes the situation in, and puts the hints together. “You’re not the real leader,” he concludes.

“Lan Zhan, so smart,” Wei Wuxian praises with a grin. “That’s right. You probably know who I receive my orders from?”

“Not exactly. Do you?”

“No. But I’m pretty confident I’ll find out eventually. With every order, every detail that person tells me to investigate, they’re not only drawing a picture of their opponent and their deeds, but also of themselves and they’re own motives. Speaking of, I have orders to interview someone else today as well. We’re going to have to drive a bit if that’s okay with you.”

With that, Wei Wuxian pulls the curtains close again and strides back into the club. Lan Wangji stays back a bit before he follows him.

“Is that your- ?”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen answers. His voice is shaking. He’s still looking at the place in the curtains where the picture is hidden. “Why is he looking into him, what does he intend to do? I-I need to go back.”

“Lan Xichen, get a grip on yourself!” Lan Wangji hisses, but his interim guardian keeps fretting nervously. He has never seen his senior like this.

“I shouldn’t have left him in Su Minshan’s care again, what was I thinking – ”

“Lan Zhan! Are you coming or not?” Wei Wuxian’s voice calls out to him from a distance.

When Lan Wangji ventures back into the taproom, he finds Wei Wuxian talking to a high-spirited girl that must be no older than sixteen.

The Wei Wuxian he knew before would have casually slung an arm around her shoulders, ruffled her hair, elbowed one of his co-workers good-naturedly. Always in constant motion, always seeking the warmth of others.

Lan Wangji watches Wei Wuxian stand two feet away from the girl; watches as everyone gives him a wide berth when they have to sweep by. It unsettles him, this enormous difference. Of course he’d known he was changed in many ways. But every time he notices another discrepancy, it feels like a shard of glass tearing into Lan Wangji’s heart. Maybe Wei Wuxian will never be as he once was, even if Lan Wangji manages to save his soul. Maybe he is changed so fundamentally that Lan Wangji should make his peace with the fact that he should say goodbye to his old self. He’s reluctant to do so, though.

There was so much joy, so much happiness and glee in Wei Wuxian, so much that it overflowed constantly, that he lent it freely to everyone around him. Lan Wangji wants to return that happiness to him, wants to find and close the tap to prevent it from leaking out again.

When Lan Wangji joins them, Wei Wuxian is about to brag about his success regarding their prisoner.

“Really, A-Qing, why did you get next to nothing from him? He’s easy to crack if you let him talk and know where to press.”

“He’s also been awake for three days and hasn’t got anything to eat or drink in that time,” the girl called A-Qing retorts drily. “No wonder he was not in his right mind to deflect your questions and assumptions as he did with ours.”

Wei Wuxian shrugs, then holds his hand out.

“I’m taking the company car. A dear old friend of mine is waiting.”

They walk in silence to the dingy old car parked in an alleyway a few streets away. As Wei Wuxian settles into the driver’s seat, Lan Wangji remembers how he first learned to drive. It feels like a lifetime ago now. Jiang Fengmian showing him how to shift gears, how to look into the mirrors and grip the wheel. A sharp ache suddenly pierces through Lan Wangji’s stomach, and it takes him several moments to realize this is how his body expresses grief.

Only when they’re on the freeway out of the city does he break the silence. “Where are we going?”

Wei Wuxian glances quickly at him before focusing back on the road. “Qinghe.”

That one word sends another pang of emotion through him. This time, he can’t quite figure out what he’s feeling. Sadness? Longing? Nostalgia? He settles on melancholy.

These few carefree weeks in the summer seem so distant now. The Wei Wuxian who sits beside him is nothing like the one back then. Wei Wuxian was a lively boy, and it filled Lan Wangji with pride to watch him talk animatedly with his classmates, friends with almost everyone, always smiling, even though Lan Wangji knew of the hurt underneath that smile. Nowadays, every expression of his seems to be controlled, his smiles cold and empty.

A dear old friend, Wei Wuxian had said. Could it be that he means… Nie Huaisang?

Lan Wangji spends the rest of the one-hour trip staring out of the window, the landscape a blur while he reminisces about the past. Lan Xichen is restless in the backseat, clearly still upset about seeing his former charge on Wei Wuxian’s wall of evidence.

After a quick stop at a fast food restaurant just outside of Qinghe, they park at a short distance from a bar that, despite the early hour, is already getting crowded. Wei Wuxian gives his false name to the waiter, who leads them down a corridor to a private room. Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath, steeling himself, before he slides the doors open.

Even after five long years, Lan Wangji recognizes the man waiting for them at once. Nie Huaisang is dressed in grey and green tones, his shoulders have grown broader and his face more solemn over the years. Just like Wei Wuxian, he looks older than he is, as if time had worn him down faster and crueler than others. His eyes widen when he takes his two visitors in.

“W-Wei-xiong!” he shouts, scrambling up in surprise. Wei Wuxian’s glare shuts him down effectively. “Man, I haven’t seen you in ages!” Nie Huaisang stage-whispers after he’s sat down heavily, fidgeting around. “How have you been?” Something about his presence irks Lan Wangji, makes his skin crawl with irritation.

Wei Wuxian gives him a tight-lipped smile. “Fine.”

“Wei-xiong, I’m so sorry, I heard about your loss –”

“Don’t.”

Nie Huaisang just nods. “Ah,” he says after a short and heavy silence, eyes darting nervously to Lan Wangji, “And who would be that gentleman here?”

“… My partner,” Wei Wuxian replies. “We’re investigating something.”

“Yes, you said so in your e-mail,” Nie Huaisang nods, but his eyes still narrow suspiciously at Lan Wangji before they return to meet Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “What would you like to know?”

They talk about the disappearance of his older brother, Nie Huaisang giving up information willingly without hesitation.

“What can you tell me about Jin Guangyao?” Wei Wuxian asks him eventually.

Next to Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen tenses visibly.

“Ah, that subordinate of my brother’s from years back?” Nie Huaisang frowns. “My brother held him in high regards, but after he got sent undercover, he began to distrust him. I heard that guy cleared his name and is in line to be the next police commissioner now, though.”

Wei Wuxian nods. Awkwardly, Nie Huaisang turns his glass back and forth in his hands.

“I’m sorry I didn’t write to you back then. It was right after summer camp, you know? When da-ge vanished…” He sighs. “Maybe you can find him. It would be a relief to finally have confirmation, you know. To finally have closure.”

Lan Wangji wonders if Wei Wuxian hears the lie hidden there, too.

It’s only when they’re bidding their farewells when Lan Wangji can put a finger on what exactly irritated him before, makes his skin crawl around him. Nie Huaisang is standing up to formally bow at them, the beam of the overhead light falling directly on him, and suddenly it hits him: Nie Huaisang doesn’t have a guardian anymore.

The realization makes Lan Wangji stagger into Wei Wuxian, who catches him in surprise. “Lan Zhan?”

“Is your… partner alright?” Nie Huaisang asks, stretching out a helpful hand. There’s something dangerous lurking underneath that gentle, worried smile. Lan Wangji recoils, tugging at Wei Wuxian’s sleeve. “Let’s go already,” he whispers hurriedly. “Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian complies, bewildered. “Please excuse us.”

As they make their way out of the crowded bar, Lan Wangji’s mind reels back to the last time they had seen Nie Huaisang. He must have been sixteen back then, his guardian angel a steadfast presence at his side. What has happened in the meantime? What has the mischievous boy from high school done in all those years that has let him stray so far into darkness that his guardian angel has been ripped from his side like Lan Wangji has been from Wei Wuxian’s? Nie Mingjue, his mind supplies helpfully. It must have something to do with his brother. His train of thought is interrupted by Wei Wuxian’s gentle hands on his elbows, steering him into a side alley. Concern in his eyes, he touches his cheek softly. “Lan Zhan? What’s going on?”

“Don’t trust him,” is all he can push out. “There’s something wrong with him.” It’s vague enough that the silencing spell doesn’t act up again.

Wei Wuxian looks back at the bar, eyes hardened. “I noticed as much,” he murmurs. “He’s changed, although he does a very good job to hide it. It takes one to know one, huh?” he muses.

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “No. You’re different.” Or else, wouldn’t Nie Huaisang’s guardian have come back for him, too? But maybe, it dawns on him, not every guardian has such faith in their protégé. After all, Lan Qiren said it had been a long time since anyone had tried what he had. The thought makes him incredibly sad. Poor Nie Huaisang – he doesn’t know to what extent his soul is damaged, but his heart aches for the boy nobody deemed worth saving. He’s getting furious on his behalf, wants to grab his guardian by the collar and shake him. Shouldn’t you try to steer him back? Shouldn’t you be there for him when nobody else is? Even if there’s only a small glimmer left in him, you shouldn’t abandon the one you’ve sworn to protect! He vaguely recognizes he’s shaking, Wei Wuxian’s arms tight around him, murmuring in his ear. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, come back to me. What’s going on?”

As Lan Wangji looks into those familiar grey eyes, determination surges through him anew. He will save this beautiful man’s soul, will see its steadfast and bright glow shine again, will prove to all of them he’s worth it, on behalf of everyone out there who’s been given up on. With that sure promise in his mind, he surges forward, claiming Wei Wuxian’s mouth with his own, swallowing his surprised gasp as he kisses him desperately and fiercely.

“You’re not drunk,” Wei Wuxian observes when they break apart for air.

Lan Wangji nods.

“Good. ‘Cause I’m not sure if I would be able to resist you right now.”

“You would.”

“Right, your thing with me being a decent person.”

“Not decent. Good.

Wei Wuxian shivers slightly. “Lan Zhan. You know I’m not. You saw what I do today.”

Is that why he has brought him along today? To prove to him he’s beyond saving, that he should get lost like he screamed at him in the bathroom last night? Honestly, what Lan Wangji saw today has been far better than what he imagined Wei Wuxian doing all those nights he begged him to stay.

“I know you can be,” he says fiercely. “And I won’t leave your side unless you really want me to.”

“Your misplaced belief in me really makes me want to jump off a cliff sometimes,” is Wei Wuxian’s idea of a humorous retort.

“Stop talking and kiss me again,” Lan Wangji bites out, his patience with Wei Wuxian’s self-deprecating thoughts worn down to a thin thread. Wei Wuxian takes in a sharp breath, and complies in a heartbeat. Pulling him closer into an almost bruising kiss, he hopes this will at least quiet down those whispers a bit.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian pants when they part again after what feels like a lifetime. “Let’s get home right this instant.”

The drive back to Yiling is charged with a different kind of tension than the one before. Lan Xichen looks deeply uncomfortable in the backseat and takes to flying overhead after a few minutes. They’re out of the car the moment Wei Wuxian parks it in front of his apartment building, racing up the stairs hand in hand. Wei Wuxian fumbles with his keys for far too long, and then they’re finally inside.

Lan Wangji kisses him against the wall of the entrance, kisses him against his bedroom door, kisses him against his soft and yielding pillow, all while they lose their clothes somewhere along the way. Then, he lets his lips wander down, down, down, putting those teen magazine instructions to good use.

“L-Lan Zhan, my sweet, innocent Lan Zhan, where did you learn something like that?” Wei Wuxian gasps above him.

Lan Wangji doesn’t dignify that with a response, just swallows him down further, swirling his tongue around. Wei Wuxian makes sweet little noises above him with every movement of his tongue. Lan Wangji wants to catalogue every single one of them. There’s a hand in his hair now, keeping him steady, not pressuring but encouraging as he bobs his head up and down. Unconsciously, Lan Wangji’s hands have come up to Wei Wuxian’s hips, keeping them still with gentle but firm pressure.

“I’m not gonna last long if you continue like this. I haven’t – not in a long time, ah – ” Wei Wuxian sounds hoarse, wrecked, but in a good way. “Come here, come here,” he commands frantically. When Lan Wangji obeys, Wei Wuxian slots their mouths together again messily. Their bodies align with each other so easily. Lan Wangji wonders hazily at how they fit together so well as if they were made for each other. As his guardian, corporal desire was foreign to him, and it wasn’t like this in the beginning when he still had to grow accustomed to this physical form, but right now, this very human body reacts and wants fiercely, every nerve aflame with burning need. When Wei Wuxian reaches down and grips both of them together, he almost shakes apart with it. He can do little else but focus completely on keeping himself steady above Wei Wuxian, on kissing him senseless while his hand brings them both closer and closer to the edge. It’s too much, overwhelming like it was when he first got this body, so many sensations registering in his brain until he sees stars and they come together, gasping into each other’s mouths.

A few hours later, curled up in their usual embrace, Lan Wangji grips Wei Wuxian’s pajama shirt tighter, marveling at the feel of him in his arms. They have always been close, but this is something else. Before, their closeness was entirely on Lan Wangji’s side. As his guardian, he followed Wei Wuxian around, always looking out for him but never touching, his protégé naturally being oblivious to it. This is another kind of closeness. One that is mutual and active, one that is physical and overwhelming in a good way. Sometimes the sudden realization that he can finally hold Wei Wuxian physically like this – that he can touch him and talk to him and Wei Wuxian is able to feel and hear him and listen to him, that he will react and reply – makes his heart ache, though not unpleasantly. The ache is tinged with sorrow and regret, but also relief and wonder and something like happiness simmering beneath.

That night, both of them sleep soundly, not a nightmare in sight.

*

The next few days, Wei Wuxian lets Lan Wangji follow him around everywhere, like a silent shadow. It almost feels like their old routine, except that Wei Wuxian is distinctly aware of Lan Wangji’s presence now. This is evident in the way he sneaks glances at him, laces their fingers together, crowds him against the door of his office to kiss the living daylights out of him, for example. Or when he pushes Lan Wangji up on his desk and kisses him roughly, pulls his head back by his hair to suck dark bruises on his neck. Wei Wuxian, as it turns out, has been craving touch, and Lan Wangji is happy to give him what he wants.

Lan Xichen has a bit of a crisis, though. “Can’t you give me a warning first?” he hisses in his ear one time after he appears back at his side after an especially long make out session on the office chair in front of the computer screen. Lan Wangji, still high on endorphins, just shakes him off.

“What are you even doing; this is not part of your mission!” his interim guardian groans.

“Maybe it is,” Lan Wangji mutters back, eyes never leaving the small golden spark while he watches Wei Wuxian type on the keyboard. Maybe this will help bring Wei Wuxian back, as well. Maybe it will change him. Maybe the third test will apply to this.

It doesn’t take long for him to realize how wrong he is.

*

A week after their meeting with Nie Huaisang, Wei Wuxian is looking over the sales statistics of the nightclub in the backroom while Lan Wangji occupies himself with a book on the couch, when loud, arguing voices come through the thick walls. Furrowing his brows, Wei Wuxian puts down the documents and marches out the door.

“My, my, what’s that commotion out here?” His people make way for their false leader in his thin long coat as he saunters up to their loose circle. Lan Wangji trails closely behind him out of habit, looking over his shoulder at the two strangers standing there, palms held open and empty. It’s a woman approximately the same age as them, with a younger man at her side who resembles her greatly. They both have guardians anxiously hovering behind them, jerking back in repulsion when they notice the absence around their opponent. Wei Wuxian smiles at them with a friendliness that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Don’t you know better than to disturb other people’s places of work?”

The woman bows slightly to him then. “Apologies for the disturbance. My name is Wen Qing, this is my brother Wen Ning. We have something to ask of you.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t have any time to react before Wei Wuxian has drawn his gun on them, friendly demeanor wiped away abruptly from his face.

“Wei Ying!” he calls out, gripping at his shoulder. The woman – Wen Qing – takes a curious look at him.

“Wen,” Wei Wuxian presses out slowly, “as in Wen Ruohan?”

“I thought you would react like this,” Wen Qing sighs. Lan Wangji notices she has moved slightly in front of her brother, keeping him out of Wei Wuxian’s line of shot. “Listen, we’re not his closest relatives. In fact, we don’t want to be associated with him at all. That’s why we’re here.”

“I won’t listen to your bullshit. Leave while I’m asking you nicely.”

“We will leave when you have listened to us,” Wen Qing replies firmly.

“Well then you leave me no choice, do you?” Wei Wuxian smiles grimly. “I’ll have to make myself clearer, then.” The first bullet zings through the narrow space between the two siblings’ heads, shattering the mirror behind them.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji all but shouts, pulling at his arm. Wei Wuxian shrugs him off. He clutches at his arm again. “Wei Ying, stop it! Put that down!”

Furious, Wei Wuxian turns to him, shaking him off with such force that he almost falls to the ground.

“Why do you care so much?!” he shouts. “Didn’t I tell you to get lost?”

“Don’t listen to the loudest voice in your head,” Lan Wangji begs. “Listen to the small one underneath.”

“What do you even mean by that –”

“Wei Wuxian.”

Shocked, Wei Wuxian turns back to the woman who just uttered his name.

“You’re not Mo Xuanyu,” Wen Qing says with absolute surety. “You’re Wei Wuxian. I hoped so.”

“Look at what you did,” Wei Wuxian grits out to Lan Wangji. “Spouting my last name about like that.”

“I suspected it already. Else, I wouldn’t have come here.”

Wei Wuxian’s gun is trained on her again. “Why?”

“We need your help.”

“Who are ‘we’? And what could I possibly help you with?”

“A small branch of the Wen family. There’s about a dozen of us. We want to get out.”

Suddenly, Lan Wangji understands. This is the second test. The test of forgiveness.

“I can offer you valuable information on Wen Ruohan’s operations,” the woman adds, pausing deliberately. “As well as on Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu.”

There’s an imperceptible change in the atmosphere at the mention of those two names. A few of the men around them shift from one foot to the other, some of them twitch slightly.

Wei Wuxian just looks very exhausted all of a sudden. Tucking his gun back into the folds of his coat, he sighs. “Talk then, by all means. But not here.”

He lets their two guests get pat down by A-Qing and Song Lan respectively – “Hey, my name’s Qing, too,” the little one chirps excitedly, which prompts Wen Qing to raise one eyebrow at her – then escorts them to the back room.

Lan Wangji follows, as usual. The man – Wen Ning – looks pretty shell-shocked, his small form trembling. His guardian glares at Wei Wuxian, probably furious at him and himself. Lan Wangji knows that feeling of being powerless way too well. At least this one could have changed the direction of the bullet, had Wei Wuxian really aimed for his protégé’s head. Jiang Wanyin’s guardian hadn’t been so lucky – it all happened too fast and the bullet wasn’t meant for him originally.

After the siblings have settled on the cramped leather couch occupying the left corner of the room, Wen Qing turns to her brother and brushes her hands down his shivering arms a few times. “I’m sorry, could we have a glass of hot water, please?” she asks, looking at Lan Wangji of all people. Beside him, Wei Wuxian’s lips curl. “He’s not a waiter,” he says, voice sharp. “It’s alright, I’ll bring some,” Lan Wangji makes to turn for the door, only to be stopped by a harsh grasp on his upper arm. Wei Wuxian’s gaze is still fixed on Wen Qing. “He stays.” There is no explanation like there had been with Nie Huaisang. This is Wei Wuxian making it perfectly clear that they’re on his turf and his people are not to be commanded around by someone else.

“It’s not about getting you alone,” Wen Qing replies with an eye-roll. “My brother really needs something warm to drink, is all. Or at least some chocolate.”

The grip on Lan Wangji’s arm softens a bit. Then, Wei Wuxian lets go completely to take something out of his desk drawer and toss it to his guests.

Wen Qing catches the chocolate bar gratefully. “Thank you,” she says pointedly.

As Wen Ning munches on the chocolate, eyes trained on his shoes while the tremors subside little by little, Wei Wuxian gestures for Lan Wangji to take the chair while he leans back against the desk and crosses his arms over his chest.

“My people have found no device on you with which you could record our little conversation, so I will tell you this,” he begins, almost friendly tone back in place. “I’ve already dealt with Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu long ago, so your information is of no value to me.”

If Wen Qing is dismayed about losing one bargaining chip, she doesn’t let on about it.

“Just so you know,” she replies, “I was not searching for you, specifically. I was searching for someone who suffered under Wen Ruohan’s schemes, who would want to seek revenge on him. You see, I heard through the grapevine that someone apprehended the Candy Killer back in Yueyang one or two weeks ago.”

Wei Wuxian snorts. “Ah, sorry, sorry, it’s just … the Candy Killer! What a name! Who came up with that?”

Wen Qing shoots him a withering look. “Xue Yang, then. He’s under Wen Ruohan’s command, too – if one could describe a rabid dog as under someone’s command. So I assumed the one who caught him but was smart enough not to give him over to the police should be one of the people I was looking for. I discovered members of Burial Mounds were in the area that night, and my contacts told me some guy named Mo Xuanyu was their leader. I concluded someone who held a grudge against Wen Ruohan had taken on the guise of ‘Mo Xuanyu’ to exert his revenge.”

The look on Wei Wuxian’s face can only be described as appreciative. “Now, that information is highly valuable to me,” he admits, tapping his nose with his index finger. The familiar gesture ignites something in Lan Wangji’s chest. “Xue Yang was acting under Wen Ruohan’s orders sometimes?”

Surprise flits through Wen Qing’s eyes.

“You didn’t know? But then, why did you -?”

“As I said, I’ve had my revenge long ago.”

Wen Qing, Lan Wangji realizes, has miscalculated gravely. All of the reasons she probably hoped would get Wei Wuxian to help her have gone down the drain. Neither does he want information on Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu, nor is he actively looking into the Wen family. The woman seems to come to the same conclusion as he does.

“Alright. If you’re not after the Wens … are you investigating the Jins?”

“Lan Zhan! We’ve got ourselves a smart one,” Wei Wuxian quips, suddenly nudging at Lan Wangji’s shoulder. When he looks up at him, there’s a glint in his eyes. “I think I like her.”

“Be serious,” Lan Wangji retorts. Although he’s glad his companion is somewhat relaxing, this is not the time to joke around.

“If you are,” Wen Qing continues unperturbed, “you’ll be very interested in what I have to say.”

Wei Wuxian straightens back immediately. “Is that so?”

“My family and co-workers specialize in medicine. A few months ago, Wen Ruohan put us under the command of one Jin Zixun and his goons. That person wanted to exploit our knowledge, but not to save people. At first, they had us experiment on small animals. But after a while, they demanded we try out our concoctions on human beings.” Her voice shakes as she recounts their ordeal. “We refused. So Jin Zixun told his goons to detain us and experiment on us, instead.” She has to take a few shuddering breaths before she can continue. “Wen Ning and I barely managed to escape. Now we're on the run, and we promised our family we'd return and save them … Please, I know now you won't gain much from this, but you have to help us. You cannot allow such an injustice to stand.”

Wei Wuxian's expression has turned grim again. After a few long moments, he sighs. “What makes you think I am a man of justice?” He doesn't wait for her answer, though, pushing away from the desk. “This won't be my decision alone to make. Are you situated somewhere safe right now?” She nods. “Good. How can I contact you?” Lan Wangji watches as she scrawls down a few numbers on a piece of paper and passes it to Wei Wuxian. “I will call you when the decision is made,” he promises.

He strides to the door, holding it open for the siblings. When they're on the threshold, he clears his throat almost awkwardly. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for shooting at you.”

Wen Qing gives him a tight-lipped smile. “You didn’t shoot at us. Besides, I can hardly blame you for it. But if you aim a gun in the general direction of my brother ever again, I won’t be blamed for my actions, either,” she ends fiercely.

“Trust me, I understand that sentiment perfectly.”

*

Wei Wuxian doesn't talk about their unexpected visitors until they've returned to his apartment.

Lan Wangji washes the dishes while Wei Wuxian dries them off, deep in thought.

“I want to help them,” he confesses suddenly after they've put the last plate away. “Isn’t that curious?”

“Not at all.” Lan Wangji feels the corners of his lips tick upwards slightly. Helpfulness, kindness, and most importantly a keen sense of justice are traits that have always been integral to Wei Wuxian’s nature. When he passes this second test as well, surely the elders will recognize that, too. It may be a trick of light, but the soft golden glow of Wei Wuxian’s soul seems to have expanded ever so slightly upon his choice.

Wei Wuxian stares a bit at him, then turns around and wanders into the living room. Immediately, Lan Wangji trails behind him as always. All of a sudden, his former protégé stops abruptly. When he turns around again, there’s a contemplative expression on his face.

“You know, I noticed something lately,” he muses. “The way you hold yourself just slightly behind me all the time – it’s like you’re some sort of bodyguard.”

Lan Wangji shifts, startled by his choice of words. That movement is enough for Wei Wuxian to inhale sharply, eyes narrowing.

“Wait. I’m on the right track this time, aren’t I?”

Lan Wangji holds his breath. Has the time finally come for Wei Wuxian to figure it out? One part of him feels exhilarated at the thought, proud even, but the other part dreads it with equal measure. How will he even react to such a truth?

“I heard your voice in my head, but I couldn’t see you, and none of the other guys heard you. I really thought I was going out of my mind back then, you know? Well, maybe I was, anyway,” he mutters darkly. “You’re some kind of supernatural being, then? A ghost, maybe? But no, you have a solid and firm body now, I can attest to that,” he half-smirks, then grows serious again as he taps his nose. The familiar gesture makes that longing ache in Lan Wangji’s stomach make itself known again.

“So you did not have a solid body back then, but now you do … The question is why? And why are you trying to protect me? Like a bodyguard… guardian… It’s as if- As if you were-” His face darkens. “A guardian angel.”

Lan Wangji can’t affirm or deny it, but something in his expression must have changed, because Wei Wuxian’s eyes grow wide, realization dawning on him.

He laughs then, laughs and laughs and laughs, tears in his eyes as he bends backwards. The sound tears something apart in Lan Wangji.

“My guardian angel,” he repeats, voice brittle and rough and mocking, clutching at his sides. All of a sudden, he sounds furious. “Where were you, then? Where were you when I was chased by rabid dogs, when Madam Yu punished me? When my home was destroyed? Where were you?!” The intensity of his words, his agitated expression, the severe accusations hurled at him rip open Lan Wangji’s own regrets and wounds.

Wei Wuxian has figured it out all by himself, surely Lan Wangji will be able to tell him everything now… Still, he can only croak hopelessly, again, trying in vain to tell Wei Wuxian that there are rules, that he had to obey them, that he couldn’t interfere – but those, he realizes, are all frail excuses, so in the end what comes over his lips, pleading and fragile and trembling, is “Wei Ying. I failed you.” A shuddering sigh. “I failed to protect you.”

Somehow, there’s a wetness on his cheeks, a sting in his eyes. He falls to his knees, the weight of his regret pushing him down. He doesn’t dare to look his former protégé in the eye anymore. He expects him to turn away, to order him to leave, but Wei Wuxian’s feet remain in their place as if they’re glued to the ground. After what feels like an eternity, a gentle hand guides his chin up again. When he looks up, Wei Wuxian’s expression has changed. It’s open, vulnerable, mask shattered to pieces, disbelief turned into … hope shining in his eyes?

“It’s true?” he breathes, “You are? You were… my guardian angel?”

Lan Wangji cannot give any sort of affirmation, but his eyes fill with fresh tears again. “I don’t deserve –”

Eyes wide with wonder, Wei Wuxian leans in. “You became human,” he whispers. “Why did you become human?”

For you, Lan Wangji wants to say. Instead, he reaches out with a trembling hand, splaying his fingers over the place where Wei Wuxian’s soul rests, joyous as he sees the spark rekindling as he looks at it, pulsing weakly against the darkness, unfurling into golden rays of sunshine. He laughs wetly. The things hope does to humans…

“You think you’re not worth saving,” he chokes out. “But I know for a fact you are. I can see it in you.”

As the rays of sunshine reach further in his soul, pushing back at the shadows smothering them, Wei Wuxian closes the distance between them completely.

This kiss is nothing like the ones before. It’s slow and sweet, lingering for minutes while Lan Wangji clutches at the fabric of Wei Wuxian’s shirt over his stomach and silent tears stream down both of their faces. At some point, Wei Wuxian lowers himself to the ground, too, their mouths finding each other again instantly, never straying from each other. Eventually, the kiss turns into a hug, holding their trembling forms together, chins digging into shoulders, breathing each other in.

“I wondered,” Wei Wuxian mumbles into his shoulder, “I wondered why I felt so comfortable around you. As if you were a missing piece of myself. Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji marvels at the way his voice curls around the syllables. “Wei Ying,” he echoes.

Wei Wuxian laughs wetly, but there’s real joy in it this time, warming Lan Wangji’s body to the bone. “What even is that name?” he mumbles.

“A-Ying,” Lan Wangji says fondly.

“A-Zhan,” Wei Wuxian tries out with a laugh in return. Lan Wangji’s breath hitches. There’s that sound he longed for the most, full of mirth and free of pain. He thinks he could get drunk on it.

*

The next morning, Wei Wuxian calls the number Wen Qing gave him.

After, he dials another number.

“Am I hearing this correctly?” The distorted voice sounds incredulous. “You want to use Burial Mounds to help the Wens?”

“Not the Wens, just a small fraction that wants to defect –”

“Wei Wuxian. Did you perhaps forget who the real leader is?” There’s an underlying tension in the crackle of static of the connection now. “I don’t want to do it, but if you take my men and go against my direct orders, I will expose you to the police.”

“Nie Huaisang, cut the crap!” Wei Wuxian shouts into the phone. “I know it’s you!”

The voice on the other end of the call is silent for so long Lan Wangji almost thinks he has hung up. Then, “Ahaha Wei-xiong, sometimes I wonder if you’re too smart for your own good,” he sighs. “It seems we’ve reached a standstill, then. I reckon you will also expose me as the real leader if I expose you?”

“You bet I will.”

“You don’t have evidence,” Nie Huaisang points out.

“I have now,” Wei Wuxian smirks.

“Ahh, I should’ve seen that coming,” he sighs. “I can’t let you risk everything we’ve built over a few Wens, though. We’re almost there – can’t this wait a while longer?”

“Look, whatever your plan is, it involves the Jins, right? What if I told you those Wens were also running from the Jins?”

Nie Huaisang remains silent for a few moments. Lan Wangji can practically hear the gears in his head turn.

“That would certainly change things …” he muses.

“We could hit two birds with one stone,” Wei Wuxian pushes forward. “So, what do you say?”

A giant sigh. Then, “What do you need?”

*

Wei Wuxian is tense the day before everything is to be set in motion, stressed out and jittery with nerves, fretting over potential flaws in his plan over and over again.

In the evening, Wei Wuxian paces nervously from kitchen to couch, from couch to kitchen. Ever so often, he bends over the table to study the blueprint of Qiongqi Labs, mumbling to himself the details of his plan. When he begins to tear at his hair, Lan Wangji has had enough.

“Wei Ying,” he calls out. “Stop freaking out, please.”

Wei Wuxian, on his way to the kitchen again, turns around to face him and raises his eyebrow at Lan Wangji as the former guardian rises from where he’s sat on the couch.

“Sorry, sorry, am I annoying you?”

It is a genuine question, and suddenly, Lan Wangji is transported back to when he had to watch his protégé make himself smaller, avoid being a nuisance to Madam Yu. With two wide strides, he’s in front of Wei Wuxian, reaching out to stroke down his arms reassuringly. “Wei Ying,” he repeats. “Never.”

He reaches for the collar of the soft grey jacket Wei Wuxian is wearing over one of his black t-shirts and slides it off him, down his shoulders. Wei Wuxian’s breath hitches slightly, his eyes dark when they meet Lan Wangji’s.

“Your plan is brilliant, as is your mind. There is no reason to worry so much; you’ll only exhaust yourself,” Lan Wangji continues. Somehow, he can’t seem to stop touching the man in front of him, the bare skin of his arms where goosebumps rise with every trail of his fingers. Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and breathes deeply.

“Alright,” he replies, feather-light.

“Good. Will you take a shower for me, then? Dress yourself for bed?”

“Mhm,” Wei Wuxian nods, eyes still closed.

“Let me take care of you,” Lan Wangji murmurs.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes open at that. “Lan Zhan,” he grins. “I sure hope you mean that in a sexy way, too.”

“Mn, I do,” Lan Wangji smiles back.

Wei Wuxian’s lips fall apart, just a bit, but Lan Wangji’s gaze focuses on them immediately.

“Go shower. I’ll wait for you,” he manages out.

Lan Wangji goes to the bedroom. He strokes over the carefully-made bed sheets, once, twice, to ground himself. Then, he sits on the edge and waits.

Lan Xichen has long since vanished, which leaves Lan Wangji alone with his thoughts and the muted sounds of the shower running, his heart thrumming quickly in anticipation.

When Wei Wuxian finally emerges from the bathroom, he’s only in his pajama pants. Lan Wangji’s human body reacts like it always does at the sight.

“Lie down,” he says. Pupils blown wide, Wei Wuxian smiles at him and does.

When he's situated against the sheets, Lan Wangji draws his legs up to kneel at the foot of the bed. He bends forward and raises Wei Wuxian's hand to his lips, kisses the back of it where faint scars from Madam Yu’s abuse linger. His regret weighs him down once more, and he swallows a few times. Only when Wei Wuxian lifts his other hand to guide his jaw does he meet his gaze. Wei Wuxian looks serious but gentle, so gentle. There’s a strong emotion swimming in his dark eyes.

“Lan Zhan. I hope you will be able to tell me one day. I know it weighs on you. But for me it’s all in the past, now. You take care of me so well, Lan Zhan. Wasn’t there something you wanted to do to me?”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes, pressing his lips against that marred skin once more.

“Let me take care of you, then.”

Their first time has been frantic and crazed, as if they would explode if they didn’t have each other right then and there. This time, Lan Wangji takes his time with Wei Wuxian, begins with little kisses down his throat, peppers them liberally down his torso, licks a broad stripe over the scar on his abdomen, mouths at the place under which his soul glimmers faintly.

Then, he slides down his pajama pants and moves on to his knees and thighs, presses his mouth to the inside of Wei Wuxian’s thighs, worries the soft skin gently between his teeth until Wei Wuxian is writhing on the sheets. He likes him like this – in his arms, underneath him, where he can see him and keep him from harm. He makes the prettiest noises like this, little helpless gasps in reply to every feather-light touch, so responsive Lan Wangji’s head swims with it. He’s the one making Wei Wuxian feel good, giving him pleasure.

“Lan Zhan,” he whines, trying in vain to guide him where he needs him most. “Don’t tease me like that; don’t you want to fuck me?”

Lan Wangji raises his head from where it’s been buried in between Wei Wuxian’s thighs to look him straight in the eye. “I want to make love to you,” he says fervently.

That, strangely, makes Wei Wuxian hide his face behind his hands. Which simply won’t do.

“Let me see you,” Lan Wangji commands. Wei Wuxian groans quietly behind his hands before he lets them sink down slowly to gently enframe the sides of Lan Wangji’s face. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you can’t just say such things!” he complains.

“I can,” Lan Wangji says, smugly, before he ducks his head once more between those strong enticing thighs, this time to lick experimentally across his entrance. That elicits a honest-to-god moan from Wei Wuxian, who begins to babble nonsense as Lan Wangji slowly traces his rim with his tongue.

“God, Lan Zhan, is this why you wanted me to shower? Ah, don’t stop, don’t stop – ”

Lan Wangji stops to give him a proper answer. “Wanted you to relax. But I thought about it, too.”

He watches Wei Wuxian’s mouth fall open in a silent moan, half-lidded eyes trained on Lan Wangji’s face. Then, he gets back to work.

If Lan Wangji thought Wei Wuxian made pretty noises before, his responses to his gentle ministrations down there are off the charts. Being human means feeling too much at once, but right now, that does seem to be a positive experience, for once. Quiet gasps and small moans echo through their room as Lan Wangji grips Wei Wuxian’s thighs to spread him slowly apart, to push the tip of his tongue inside, retreating immediately when Wei Wuxian rocks his hips forward, trying to chase the feeling.

“Patience,” Lan Wangji orders.

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian pleads. “W-won’t my sweet Lan Zhan give me what I asked him for?”

“What is your wish then? Tell me.”

Wei Wuxian shudders. “Inside, inside,” he rushes out. “Please.”

He fumbles for something in his bedroom drawer, tossing it over to where Lan Wangji is sitting between his thighs. It's the bottle of lube they bought a few days ago in wise foresight.

Lan Wangji drips an abundant amount on his fingers, warming it up for a bit before he pushes his forefinger slowly into that tight heat, waiting until Wei Wuxian rocks his hips on that finger in small increments, whimpering.

“More,” he pants after a while. Lan Wangji waits a bit longer, until he feels him loosen up even more. Then, he works his middle finger inside, as well. Praises, pleas and curses are falling constantly from Wei Wuxian's lips. “Ah, ah, don't stop, fuck, how are you this good to me, how do you even know what to do – ”

Lan Wangji, who now sits between his thighs, keeping them apart with the soft pressure of his knees, replies without thinking, “Teen magazines.”

Wei Wuxian stills abruptly. “Oh my god,” he says then. “You were there?”

“No!” Lan Wangji hurries to answer. “No, humans need privacy.” His movements have halted, as well. Wei Wuxian's eyes go wide, then he bursts out laughing. “But you took a peek?”

“Mn. Had to make sure you wouldn't get hurt.”

The smile on Wei Wuxian's face trickles down slowly, making place for a gentle, impossibly fond look. “Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan,” he sighs. “Always looking out for me. My sweet angel. Come here.” Lan Wangji lets himself get dragged up for a kiss. Wei Wuxian breaks it off by laughing in his mouth. “I can't believe you learned all that from teen magazines! Those are rubbish, what the hell?!”

“That, and the internet over the last few days,” Lan Wangji confesses. Wei Wuxian's eyes grow dark at that. “Oh my god, if you don't put your fingers back inside immediately, I will do it myself.”

Lan Wangji complies in a heartbeat, still going at an extremely slow pace while he explores his tightness with his fingers. When he crooks them and drags them back slightly, he comes across a spot that lets Wei Wuxian arch off the bed with a shout. “Again, do that again,” he babbles. Lan Wangji strokes over that spot with every other slow thrust of his fingers while he begins to scissor them carefully. By the time he inserts a third finger, Wei Wuxian is a mewling mess under him, barely capable of stringing two words other than his name together.

“Harder,” he pleads when he's used to the stretch of three fingers inside him, eagerly rocking his hips back and forth. “Faster!” But Lan Wangji keeps up his slow and steady pace. He wants this to last, wants to drag it out as long as he can, wants Wei Wuxian to lose himself to pleasure, drown in it, wave after wave erasing any coherent thought until he just feels.

Finally, Wei Wuxian resorts to begging. “Please, please!” “Hm?” “Take me, fill me up, do whatever you want to me – ”

Lan Wangji silences him with a long, measured kiss while he aligns himself. When he presses in slowly, they both gasp in each other's mouth. It feels like an eternity until he finally bottoms out, buried so deep in the tight heat of Wei Wuxian's body he wants to stay there forever. They breathe in unison until Wei Wuxian slings his legs around his hips, pulling him even deeper. Gently, Lan Wangji retreats before pushing in again, every time deep and grazing that spot from before.

“Harder, please, I can take it,” Wei Wuxian manages out. But Lan Wangji doesn't indulge him. Instead, he takes his time, watches Wei Wuxian shudder and moan with every drag across that spot, with every deep slow thrust inside. He ghosts his hand over the planes of his chest, brushes his thumb over a nipple only to be rewarded with a sharp gasp. “Cruel, you are too cruel – hhnngh, talk to me, Lan Zhan, please!”

This time, Lan Wangji obliges.

“Wei Ying is beautiful,” he whispers as he strokes over his hair, his cheekbones, kisses the corner of his mouth. “I love your brilliant mind-” he continues, rasping in his ear while he punctuates each phrase with a thrust,

“-your beautiful soul-” he pulls out,

“-your bright and real smile-” in,

“-your wonderful voice,” out.

“Wei Ying, Wei Ying. My first and last. My one and only. Come for me.”

Lan Wangji brushes his hand over the tip of Wei Wuxian's leaking member and watches him fall apart. His tremors and clenches around him almost undo him, and as the aftershocks go through Wei Wuxian's body, Lan Wangji lets himself be overtaken by instinct, snapping his hips forward in the way Wei Wuxian has wanted him to earlier, thrusting harder and harder, faster and faster, chasing his own high while Wei Wuxian cries out, sensitive and overstimulated, until it's too much, he sees stars and buries himself deep inside with a grunt.

Blissed-out, they hold each other close.

“When your mission is finished … will you vanish again?” Wei Wuxian asks in a very small voice.

“I don’t know,” Lan Wangji answers truthfully. “But I know as long as the sea is bound to wash up on the sand and stars are above you, we will meet again.”

*

Lan Wangji’s heart pounds in his chest as he watches the plan unfold from the front seat.

“Let me protect you for once, will you?” Wei Wuxian had said, and how could Lan Wangji refuse him that. But he couldn't bear waiting alone at home or at the club for their safe return. So Wei Wuxian has allowed him, although reluctantly, to wait in the car.

Night has fallen already on this early November evening; the members of Burial Mounds and Wen Qing only shadows in the dark as they move towards the building. Qiongqi Labs is in an abandoned hospital in a remote valley between Yiling and Lanling; grey concrete against the night sky, broken windows and ruptures in the walls giving off an eerie atmosphere, warding off any passerby who might take a second look. Somewhere inside are people who need protection, taken prisoner and undergoing horrific treatment all because they stood up for what is right. Lan Wangji's hands on top of his knees curl into fists.

“I can't turn to the authorities with this,” Wei Wuxian had said, almost apologetically. Lan Wangji had just nodded. “Do what you must. As long as no one gets hurt.”

As Wei Wuxian explained to his people beforehand, their mission is rather simple. Lure the guards out, go in, find the prisoners, get them out to the van and run. It should not take more than ten minutes. Still, Lan Wangji worries. He's used to being close behind his protégé, especially at times like this. If only this human body wasn't so frail, so weak, so unskilled –

One after one, the gang members and the Wens file out of the building and into the van. Exhaustion lines the faces of the rescued, and their guardian angels hold a sadness behind their eyes that is intensely familiar to Lan Wangji. A sadness that speaks of failure, of not being able to protect them properly. It is not their fault, Lan Wangji wants to assure them. They did the best they could, he's sure of it, but against other humans deciding to be cruel to their own kind, the guardians are almost powerless. Even more if the rules restrict them, as Lan Wangji has experienced himself.

But there is a spark of hope humming in the air, illuminating the weary faces of the Wens and lifting a bit of the weight that seems to lie on their guardians. A chance to start anew, to put the horrors of the past behind them and move forward. It is astounding to Lan Wangji how quickly and resolutely humans can pick themselves up again after a catastrophe.

At last, an elder woman climbs into the van with help from Xiao Xingchen. “They took him away; he's all alone,” she weeps, shaking at the young man's arm. “What if he doesn't find him?”

“That won't happen,” Xiao Xingchen tells her fiercely. “We're only going when all of you are out. And our leader always keeps to his word.”

Lan Wangji gets even more anxious. What has Wei Wuxian promised this lady? Who is left in there that is so difficult to find? He keeps his eyes trained on the entrance of the building, nearly invisible in the dark, fingers clenching in the fabric of his pants.

Finally, finally, Wei Wuxian emerges. Lan Wangji would recognize his form anywhere- the stretch of his shoulders, his thin waist, the dark clothes he prefers to wear. Except there's a new shape against his own right now, on that waist, next to that shoulder. Something. Someone. A small child.

Wei Wuxian runs up to the van, child in his arms, and the unexpected sight makes something blossom in Lan Wangji's chest. As Wei Wuxian climbs up into the bus, past his guardian on the passenger seat, Lan Wangji can see the tears in the boy's eyes, silent sobs shaking his small body. His hands are fisted in Wei Wuxian's shirt.

“Shh,” Wei Wuxian makes, rocking the child on his hip. “It's alright. You're safe now.”

The boy hiccups, clinging more closely to Wei Wuxian's shirt.

“How old are you?” he asks gently. The child holds up three fingers. “A-Yuan is three!” he announces, momentarily stopping his sobs to answer.

“Hush now,” Wei Wuxian whispers, “I’ll take care of you.” As always, it’s only visible to Lan Wangji, but the light in his soul unfurls further at those gentle and honest words.

“Look, there's your granny!” he points out, and little A-Yuan lets himself almost reluctantly get handed over into the waiting arms of the weeping elder lady. “Everyone out?” Wei Wuxian calls. Wen Qing, who has counted the rescued people one after one as they climbed into the van, affirms it.

At that, Wei Wuxian pulls out a little device from his pocket, lifts it and pushes the button. “Go, go, go!” he shouts to the driver. The man steps on the gas and they're racing out of the valley in an instant.

Behind them, Qiongqi Labs erupts in flames.

*

As soon as they're in the safe confines of Burial Mounds and he's made sure the Wens are sufficiently taken care of, Wei Wuxian separates from the group and a pouting, clingy A-Yuan and bounds down the stairs to the cellar. “One sec, I need to confirm something with our dear guest.”

“Don't run,” Lan Wangji admonishes while he follows him down the stairs. Wei Wuxian turns to grin up at him, only to stumble and miss the last step. Lan Wangji shoots an arm out to steady him and reels him in by his outstretched hand.

“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian laughs against his chest, breathless. “I'll be careful from now on, I promise.”

Somehow, Lan Wangji doesn't think that resolve will last for long. But that's alright. He will be there to catch him.

In the darkness of the corridor, Wei Wuxian takes his hand again, and Lan Wangji's heart sings.

His protégé doesn't attend to his prisoner for long. Leaning forward to look carefully in his eyes, he utters a single phrase, “Yunping City.”

Xue Yang's eyes widen just a fraction, his skin turning waxen before he schools his face into the sneering mask again. But that's enough for Wei Wuxian. Cataloguing his captive's reaction, he leans back, satisfied, and is out without another word.

He slows down on the stairs this time.

In his office, Wei Wuxian picks up the phone.

“Nie Huaisang,” he says without preamble when the other party picks up. “I think I know where your brother is.”

*

They find themselves in an empty parking space only an hour later.

“No,” Wei Wuxian says. “Absolutely not.”

“Wei Ying.”

“Don’t you Wei Ying me. It’s enough that I let you come here with me. You will stay put in the car until I’m back, alright?”

“No,” says Lan Wangji. “Absolutely not.”

In the end, he feigns defeat, but carefully watches Wei Wuxian stride away and enter the building across the street. Then, he climbs out of the car and follows him.

Wei Wuxian has filled Lan Wangji in on the details of his meticulous research over the last few days.

Jin Guangyao is the illegitimate son of the former police commissioner Jin Guangshan. Soon after he himself joined the force, he had been sent to work undercover in Wen Ruohan’s crime network. A suicide mission, and a futile effort, given that Jin Guangshan regularly took bribes from Wen Ruohan. Somehow, Jin Guangyao had gotten away unscathed, and his father had died soon after of a heart attack - allegedly. (Wei Wuxian has enough evidence to conclude that wasn’t a coincidence.) Over the last two years, Jin Guangyao had risen through the ranks, fast. And anyone that stood in his way mysteriously got into scandals or into an accident.

Before he’d been assigned to the undercover mission, he had worked under captain Nie Mingjue. Just a few months after, Nie Mingjue disappeared.

The address Wei Wuxian found somewhere inside Qiongqi Labs belonged to an abandoned building that harbored a brothel up until several years ago. What exactly led him to conclude Nie Mingjue or his remains should be there, Lan Wangji isn’t sure. But he trusts his Wei Ying’s instincts.

Darkness and grime greet him when he enters the building. He has to take a moment to let his human eyes adjust to the surroundings. Carefully, he listens for Wei Wuxian’s quiet footsteps ahead of him, and feels his way inside. After a narrow staircase leading up two floors, he follows the little creaking sounds of the floorboard. A doorway that seems to be nothing more than an eerie black hole leads him into a wide, open space. In the moonlight filtering in through the boarded-up windows, he spots a familiar silhouette close to the stabilizing pillar in the middle of the room.

A floorboard creaks ominously under Lan Wangji’s feet.

Wei Wuxian swivels around and raises his gun at him, but lowers it after a moment.

“Lan Zhan,” he hisses. “Didn’t I tell you to - ”

Wei Wuxian inhales sharply. His gun, one second ago pointed to the floor, is now trained on Lan Wangji again. Vaguely, Lan Wangji registers something cold and hard pressing against his temple. Before he can comprehend what is happening, there’s an arm around his throat, pressing on his windpipe.

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen breathes.

“Welcome,” a pleasant voice says next to Lan Wangji’s ear. “I see there are several factors that want to complicate matters for me this fine evening.”

“Let him go,” Wei Wuxian seethes. The gun is trembling in his hands. Lan Wangji shakes his head just slightly at him, as far as he can manage. Instantly, the cold metal presses even more firmly against his temple.

“I don’t think so,” Jin Guangyao replies evenly. “You see, I prefer my unexpected visitors polite and quiet.”

The translucent silhouette of a guardian circles around Lan Wangji. The guardian is smiling, seemingly satisfied. Confused, Lan Wangji blinks at him. This situation is nothing for a guardian to be happy about.

“Su Minshan,” Lan Xichen growls. “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”

Su Minshan. Jin Guangyao’s interim guardian angel.

That man continues to talk in a far too calm manner. “Now, if you’d kindly let your weapons drop to the floor and slide them over to me, please.”

Wei Wuxian’s face contorts with barely contained fury, but after Jin Guangyao tightens his hold around Lan Wangji once more, he puts his gun onto the hardwood floor, giving it a kick so it slides out of reach.

“I said all of your weapons,” Jin Guangyao murmurs next to Lan Wangji. “Or shall we see if this one bleeds?”

“A-Yao!” Lan Xichen calls out in despair. “Stop this, please!”

Su Minshan grins again. “He can do what he pleases. Why should he listen to you?”

Both Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji stare at him. This is not how a guardian should behave.

Meanwhile, Wei Wuxian heaves an exaggerated sigh and theatrically pulls several small blades out of his waistband and one out of his shoe. They fall onto the ground with a clatter, several meters away.

“Are you satisfied?” he asks, empty arms spread wide.

“Not quite,” Jin Guangyao says. “Next, you will let this one tie you to that pillar.”

With that, he pushes Lan Wangji towards the back of the room, keeping his gun trained on him. Wei Wuxian retreats, eyes watching every movement carefully. His fists clench at his sides.

Lan Wangji tries to signal him wordlessly that everything's alright. Wei Wuxian presses his lips together, but backs farther away until he’s up against the pillar, hands reaching around it in a backwards hug.

“Slide to the ground,” Jin Guangyao commands, pressing the barrel of the gun more firmly against Lan Wangji’s head. After Wei Wuxian has complied with a sigh, Jin Guangyao hands Lan Wangji a pair of handcuffs. Lan Wangji feels like a failure again as he takes them in hand. He fumbles a bit with the metal links, rapidly calculating the chances Jin Guangyao will notice if he doesn’t lock them completely. But Jin Guangyao isn’t stupid, and he has also served as a police officer, so in the end, Lan Wangji has no choice but to bind his protégé. Just as he suspected, Jin Guangyao checks the lock, then pushes Lan Wangji against the pillar, too, binding him in the same way. Lan Wangji doesn’t put up much resistance - he’s afraid Jin Guangyao will hurt Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian must sense his anxiety, because he reaches out with his foot to nudge against Lan Wangji’s reassuringly, and murmurs, “It’s okay, don’t worry.”

“What a nice sentiment,” Jin Guangyao sneers. “Your former guardian must really take care of you.”

Shock pulses through Lan Wangji. He must have misheard -

“... You breached his mind?” Lan Xichen asks Su Minshan. “You told him about us?”

“That’s right,” Su Minshan nods. “I’m no longer adhering to the rules. This is revenge for everyone looking down at me! I made one tiny mistake and the elders only assigned me as a stand-in!” he spits. “He understands what it’s like to be treated unfairly. He understands what it’s like when everyone judges you for your background. We’re very similar, so I decided to help him.”

“How in the world is that helping him? You’ve made everything worse!”

The usually calm and collected Lan Xichen launches himself on Su Minshan.

“Um, guys,” Wei Wuxian drawls next to Lan Wangji. “I feel a little left out here. Anyone care to explain what’s happening?”

“His guardian is fighting with mine,” Jin Guangyao informs him matter-of-factly.

“You can see them?” Lan Wangji asks, incredulous.

“Minshan opened my eyes in more than one way,” Jin Guangyao replies. “I know that Lan Xichen abandoned me. He left me to die when I would have needed him most.”

Somewhere in the cluster of limbs and fists, Lan Xichen lets out a pained sound. “No, A-Yao, I-”

“Don’t call me that,” Jin Guangyao seethes.

A blue light begins to emit from the place where the two guardians are fighting. It shines stronger and stronger, and soon Lan Wangji notices it is coming from Su Minshan, who is fading more and more, his protests quieter and quieter. He’s never seen this before, but he’s read about it in the Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen is sending Su Minshan back to the elders. With a flash of lightning, the misguided guardian is gone.

“What did you do to him?” Jin Guangyao screeches.

There’s a hard edge to Lan Xichen’s voice Lan Wangji has never heard from him before. “I sent him where he belongs.”

“How dare you?! He was the only one who understood me, who helped me-”

“Meng Yao! Please, no, please listen to me! He’s corrupted you; he wanted to ruin you to spite us all!”

“He gave me the eyes and ears to see the world as it is,” his former charge sneers. “You didn’t even protect me when that sorry excuse of a father pushed me down the stairs.”

Lan Xichen looks as if Jin Guangyao just punched him in the stomach.

“I couldn’t - ”

“Because of your stupid rules?” Jin Guangyao bellows, then continues in a much too calm voice. “Trust me, I know them. I heard this one broke every single one of them without retribution, so why didn’t you do the same?!”

“I-”

“I was five years old and in a coma, and you left me alone!”

“I had to, so that I could visit you, so that I could guide you back to consciousness!”

It’s silent for a moment. Then: “… Er-ge?” Jin Guangyao says in a very small voice. “Was that you?”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen sighs. “Yes. Do you see now?”

“Then why did you go to this one instead of remaining by my side?”

“Because, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen emphasizes, voice thick with sorrow and regret, “I thought that if Wangji managed to save his protégé’s soul, I would know how to save yours, as well.”

Jin Guangyao stares at him.

“Do you know how dark your soul has become over the years?”, Lan Xichen continues. “How hard I had to fight against the pull, explaining over and over again to the elders that everything you did was in self-defense, that you didn’t do it directly, that it was an accident? But I was lying to myself the whole time, wasn’t I?” he concludes bitterly. “And leaving you only resulted in Su Minshan corrupting you entirely. I failed you, and I’m sorry. But please, A-Yao, won’t you try and feel remorse for a bit?”

“Enough!” Jin Guangyao snaps. “I don’t have time for this!”

Ignoring Lan Xichen’s desperate pleas, his former charge walks up to a battered cabinet to the side and pulls it open, only to freeze like a statue at the sight that greets him.

Lan Wangji watches him feel around inside the cabinet and shove meaningless things outside with increasing panic. Shaking all over, Jin Guangyao begins to turn the whole room on its head, searching for something that is obviously not there anymore.

“Where is it? Where is it??

“Right here in my hands,” says Nie Huaisang, stepping out of the shadows.

He’s holding himself very differently from when Lan Wangji had last seen him – gone is the overbearing nervousness, the clueless look on his face. Instead, he strides in with measured, confident steps, his head held high, eyes fixed on Jin Guangyao. There’s a small urn cradled protectively in his left arm and a phone in his right hand.

“As is the last evidence I needed, thank you very much for that.”

“Nie Huaisang,” says Jin Guangyao, sounding both surprised and utterly resigned. “What do you mean?”

“I just uploaded every single piece of evidence regarding your crimes to major sites all over the country. Killing your father, murdering my brother, allowing human experiments, letting go of the Candy Killer and using him as a mercenary – the media and the public will be very shocked to hear what our police commissioner has been up to.” Nie Huaisang’s eyes gleam in the darkness. “It’s over, Jin Guangyao. You won’t be able to get yourself out of this one.”

“Yes, I will.” Jin Guangyao’s smile is twisted and bitter as he raises the gun to his own head.

That’s when there’s a loud crack and a rotten ceiling beam comes crashing down on him from above. The next second, he’s on the floor, clutching his crushed arm, howling like a wounded beast.

Lan Xichen lowers his arms. He looks stricken as he approaches his former charge, his face a grimace of grief and shame.

“I’m sorry, A-Yao.” He crouches down next to him, eyes roaming over the battered flesh, the wounds he caused himself. “I cannot let you commit this last grave sin. You’ll have to live with the consequences of your actions. And I hope that one day you will see what you did wrong and that you’ll regret it and try to make amends.”

Lan Xichen pauses, one hand coming up as if to cradle his former charge’s face, ghosting over the side of it.

“I’m sorry, A-Yao,” he says once more, voice thick with emotion. “Er-ge won’t be able to accompany you anymore.”

Bitter tears slide down Jin Guangyao’s face. Like this, curled up on the floor with nothing left, he just looks like a most pitiful creature to Lan Wangji.

Lan Xichen turns towards Lan Wangji. “I hurt him. I touched a human, I failed my protégé.” His voice is made of stone as he condemns himself. “I will stand trial for that. Will you be alright while I’m gone?”

Lan Wangji nods. Lan Xichen bows to him, then fades away.

Calloused fingers find Lan Wangji’s own. “You alright there, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian whispers.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji affirms. As those fingers work on his handcuffs, he comes to the realization that Wei Wuxian has managed to free himself. Pride swells up in him.

Nie Huaisang walks over to Wei Wuxian. “Let me help,” he offers, extending a hand to help him up. Wei Wuxian doesn’t even look at it. He hauls himself up none too gracefully, then helps up Lan Wangji too. “Are we done here?” he asks.

Nie Huaisang looks as if he wants to say something else, but doesn’t do so in the end. “Yes. Someone will pick him up soon. I’m going to keep watch so he doesn’t do anything stupid again until they’re there. You’re free to go.”

Wei Wuxian just nods and turns away, supporting Lan Wangji while they make their way out of the room.

“I gave you a choice, you know,” Nie Huaisang suddenly calls out. Wei Wuxian seems to understand immediately what he’s referring to, because he stiffens next to Lan Wangji, stopping just short of the doorway.

“I know.”

What’s done is done. If there is something Lan Wangji has learned in his time in the human realm, it’s that you can’t turn back time even if you desperately wish for it.

Together, they walk out of the room, leaving the two adversaries behind.

*

A few days later, Wei Wuxian takes something out of his bedroom drawer. It’s a tassel with a piece of jade, engraved with a lotus flower. Wei Wuxian strokes his thumb over the detailed carvings. “Let’s go,” he says, eyes full of quiet longing.

The villa they find themselves standing in front of a few hours later is huge, painted in warm beige, emanating wealth and splendor with its architecture. There’s a lotus pond in the garden. It looks freshly built.

Wei Wuxian straightens his shoulders, taking one final deep breath before ringing the doorbell. The camera above their heads takes notice.

One second, two seconds, ten seconds. Just as Wei Wuxian begins to raise his hand once more, distant footsteps approach rapidly, and then the door flies open, and Jiang Yanli is standing there, out of breath.

“A-Xian,” she whispers, her eyes wide. And then she’s crying, hand covering her mouth in disbelief, the other one stretched out to touch her brother, to confirm he’s real, and she trembles even stronger when she finds warm skin and a strong heartbeat, and Lan Wangji doesn’t know who moved first, but suddenly they’re hugging and crying and laughing, everything at once.

Over the shoulders of Wei Wuxian and his sister he can see Jiang Wanyin approaching. There’s a brief moment where pure relief and joy flitter over his face before anger takes over.

“Wei Wuxian!” he bellows. “Where on earth have you been?!”

Wei Wuxian draws back from the embrace of his sister, looking everywhere but at the place from where his brother is glowering at him.

“...It’s a long story,” he sighs, then lets out a surprised grunt when Jiang Wanyin embraces him abruptly and vehemently. It takes a long time for them to let go of each other.

Meanwhile, Jiang Yanli, who is drying her tears with an embroidered handkerchief, tilts her head curiously at Lan Wangji. He has almost forgotten she’s able to see her, now.

“Oh, and who is your companion here?” she asks, a glint in her eyes. The sibling’s guardians look astonished when they finally notice Lan Wangji standing there in the flesh.

“My partner,” Wei Wuxian introduces him, having disentangled from his brother’s embrace.

“So this is what you’ve been up to all this time?” Jiang Wanyin asks, suddenly angry again. “Waltzing around, falling in love while we were worried sick about you? Eloping with some kind of dimwit was more important than your family?”

“Jiang Wanyin!” Wei Wuxian all but shouts before Lan Wangji can open his mouth to do the same. For one moment, the cold, unyielding look of the Yiling Patriarch slips into his eyes again. When he speaks again, his voice is low and tense. “You don’t know half of what I’ve done. Don’t you dare pull Lan Zhan into this.”

“Alright, alright, you two,” Jiang Yanli mollifies them as usual, putting a hand on both their upper arms. “We have all the time in the world now to talk about the last few years. For now, don’t you want to meet your nephew, A-Xian?”

Gone is the Yiling Patriarch. Wei Wuxian’s eyes soften and he nods eagerly, following the siblings inside. Lan Wangji takes his hand and squeezes once in reassurance. They’re greeted in the bright and spacious living room by an incredulous Jin Zixuan, who looks much grown up compared to the last time they saw him. In the corner by the window, there’s a colorful crib, adorned lovingly with wooden birds dangling from its peak. Jiang Yanli leads her brother carefully towards it, telling him about her son.

“Do you want to hold him?” she asks, and Lan Wangji can see Wei Wuxian’s mask shattering completely. He can only manage a nod, throat seemingly too tight to speak.

The baby is crying, and his guardian, aghast over Wei Wuxian’s lack of one, tries frantically to keep him from reaching out to him. Lan Wangji makes eye contact with him and shakes his head slightly to reassure him. Lan Jingyi must recognize him from when they passed each other fleetingly in the Cloud Recesses when Lan Wangji had been ripped from Wei Wuxian’s side, because his eyes widen in understanding and he bows respectfully, moving a bit to the side from where he had been standing protectively between uncle and nephew.

Careful, ever so careful, Wei Wuxian lifts the baby out of the crib, cradling his head gently. The baby stops crying then, looking at him curiously with big round eyes. Lan Wangji is not able to see clearly from where he’s standing, but Wei Wuxian’s face seems to be overtaken by a wide, real, full smile.

“Jin Rulan,” he breathes.

It’s like the ever-growing sprout inside of his soul has been doused with fresh April rain, blooming into a beautiful golden flower once again. Of course, there’s still darkness swirling around it at the seams, as it probably always will. But most of Wei Wuxian’s soul has been brought back to its former radiating glow.

Suddenly, Lan Wangji realizes he can’t smell the soup anymore. A few moments later, his sense of taste vanishes, as well. Looking at his trembling outstretched hands, he realizes he’s begun to fade.

Pure love, he thinks even through the thundering noise of his heart. Of course. It started with that little A-Yuan, and now his nephew proves it once and for all.

He allows himself one last look at his protégé holding his nephew in his arms with such affection and warmth it makes his chest hurt, at the quiet huddle of happiness surrounding him, then retreats slowly backwards down the corridor and into the bathroom Jiang Yanli gestured to earlier, almost passing through the closed door already. As soon as he’s inside, he can feel the call of his fellow angels. One single tear slips down his face before his sense of touch is also gone and he answers to them, leaving behind an empty bathroom in a home filled with love and new-found hope.

*

“Well done, Wangji,” Lan Qiren says when he appears in front of him and the assembled elders. He looks immensely proud of him. “You will be assigned again to him shortly.”

“No.”

Astounded, Lan Qiren stutters for probably the first time in his immortal life. “W-What did you say?”

“Let me return to him as I was in the last months – not as a guardian, but as a human.”

“Have you become used to those… carnal pleasures, then?” Lan Qiren’s mouth wrinkles in disgust.

“It’s not about that,” Lan Wangji pleads. “You don’t know what it’s like… You don’t understand what it means to be human. To be able to feel so much and at the same time be so strong, to fail and err and lose your way and also come back, stand up and try again – to be imperfect and with flaws, but to find the beauty in that regardless. To lead a life full of ups and downs, of tragedy and fortune and everything in between, and still move on, move on, move on with that restrictive body of yours. To be active, not a passive bystander on the sidelines who prides himself in knowing right from wrong, when he can’t even comprehend half of what it means to be caught in between those strict black-and-white lines. I don’t want to be that person anymore. I want to keep protecting Wei Ying from others and himself, but I can’t do that from the side, hidden from his sight. So please, shifu: let me go.”

Astonished silence fills the room.

“It is not a selfish request,” he presses on. At least not entirely. “I wish for Xichen to not dwell too long on his misfortune, but to be occupied. He’ll have his hands full with us.”

“You suggest-”

He nods. “He will keep watch over us both, and the two of us will keep protecting each other. Equal, as we should be.”

*

Lan Wangji comes into existence for the third and last time on a street in Yiling not far from their apartment. The air feels warm even though it’s getting dark, the trees on the sidewalk in full bloom. He can’t tell how long it’s been exactly since the day he had to leave Wei Wuxian’s side again, but he assumes it’s spring. His fellow angels have equipped him with papers and enough money to last him a few days, and have absolved him of the silencing spell. If he so wishes, he may even use the otherwise strictly forbidden technique to make Wei Wuxian able to see everything he can see. He will have to talk to him about that. But first, he needs to find him.

Lan Wangji tries the apartment, but no one seems to be there. As always, there is a blank paper instead of a name at the mailbox. What if Wei Wuxian moved? He’d wanted to take care of the kid, and that apartment only has one bedroom. But why didn’t he leave something behind for Lan Wangji to find, then? Did he not trust him to come back? Did he not truly believe his promise that they were sure to meet again?

Lan Wangji checks the little dollar store next door, then makes his way to the Burial Mounds Night Club, heart pounding anxiously in his chest. Surely, it must be open by now; surely, he must be there, as always sitting over the numbers in the backroom … When he’s arrived at his destination, he stops dead on his tracks. There’s construction going on and a sign that says this club is going to be rebuilt into a bar called “Coffin Bar.”

Lan Wangji panics. He runs down the streets of Yiling, searching desperately for places Wei Wuxian could have gone. He feels his thoughts spiralling; what if something happened to him, what if the other angels miscalculated, what if he’s – it can’t be – can’t be that they’re so cruel to send him out into a world where Wei Wuxian no longer lives, that they would condemn him to live years without him –

He almost misses it over the sound of his own frantic breathing. The whistle. He recognizes the melody at once. It’s the little lullaby he has sung countless times to his protégé. Following the notes, he arrives at a street leading to the train station. And there he is, strolling down the street, once silhouetted against the night sky, once illuminated by the streetlamp. Whistling idly, Wei Wuxian walks towards him, hands in the pockets of his dark long cloak, eyes trained on the ground.

The song comes to an end.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes.

Wei Wuxian turns his head up. His eyes widen. And his smile is ever-growing.

“Lan Zhan! You came!”

Lan Wangji throws himself into his waiting arms.

“Of course,” he says. “I told you so.”

Wei Wuxian laughs wetly. “I missed you. I missed you so much.”

And his soul glimmers bright and beautiful as he leans in to kiss him again.