Dusting off his pants, Wei Ying unfolds from his crouch and stretches. His joints crack loudly. He winces. If Wen Qing were here, she would tell him that it’s because he spends too long hunched over his work table instead of sitting properly. But all the cool kids these days complain about back pain. It’s fine.
“Chen-bobo,” Wei Ying says, ambling over to the man struggling to untangle the cords behind the TV. “I’ve set up the wards. It will keep the cockroaches out of your kitchen. But it can’t come in contact with water, or else its effectiveness will disappear, okay?”
“Yes, yes,” Chen-bobo says. He waves Wei Ying over. “Young man, can you do me one last favour here...”
Laughing, Wei Ying kneels down and gently tugs the older man’s hands away. It takes him a minute to untangle the cords. If he was still a proper witch, it would have taken maybe a few seconds to do so; a wave of his hand, a concentration of energy, and bam, cords neatly lined up. As it is, he carefully pulls and unwinds each one until he frees them all.
Wei Ying waves off Chen-bobo ’s offer of payment. The man insists on giving him the extra pineapple his niece had bought the day before. Shaking his head in fond exasperation, Wei Ying stuffs it into his ratty backpack and begins the trek back to the Wens’ place.
It’s about dinner time now. Wei Ying dodges around the mopeds and cars crowding the street, used to the noise. Students in uniforms huddle in the undercover walkways, waiting in line for restaurants and bubble tea shops. Wei Ying turns right at the busy intersection and ducks through a small alley. Around the corner, there is a street vendor that sells the best shuijianbao on this side of town.
“Laoban,” Wei Ying calls. “Four of them, please.”
“Have an extra,” the man says, handing him the plastic bag in one hand and pocketing his coins in the other. “They are the last ones. You caught me just in time! I’m about to close up.”
“Lucky me!” Wei Ying grins. “Thank you. Get home safe!”
By the time he’s climbing up the narrow stairwell up to the apartment, he’s stuffing the last bite of a bao in his mouth. The rest is still piping hot in the bag. He greets the auntie in the apartment across the landing as she’s exiting. When he enters the apartment, the heavy metal door slamming shut behind him, Wen Qing is at the stove, a heavy textbook propped up on the counter.
“Qing-jie, ” Wei Ying says. “I got bao for everyone!”
“Great, put it in the steamer. Wen Ning’s on his way back with A-Yuan.”
“Cool. How is Popo?”
“Sleeping.” Wen Qing puts the lid on the pot, and then turns to look at him. “How was the job?”
Wei Ying shrugs. “A simple fix. He gave us a pineapple.”
“Popo will like that.” She flips a page on the textbook. “There’s a new witch in town.”
“Hah? Since when?”
“Since yesterday. They rented a place in the building up by the train station.”
“What, the new one? Must be a rich guy.” Wei Ying pauses. “You think I should go say hi? Throw them a welcome party? It’s been a while since a witch has come to town.”
Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “Scare them off if you want, just make sure you don’t get detained by the Board of Magic again. I won’t bail you out this time.”
“Have more faith in me, Qing-jie! ”
Dinner goes by as usual, A-Yuan telling everyone about his day, Wei Ying cracking jokes until Popo is smiling and Wen Ning is smothering laughter into his bowl. Even Wen Qing’s eye-rolling is out of fondness. It’s familiar, and Wei Ying basks in it. Here at the chipped wooden dinner table, he is not a handyman-slash-witch, he is not a failure or a genius, he is just Wei Ying, would you like another chicken leg?
The Wens live on the top floor of the run-down apartment building. On the roof, there’s a storage room that was turned into a one-bedroom one-bath loft when Wei Ying moved in. It might be slightly illegal. Though arguably, Wei Ying himself can be considered slightly illegal. As long as he continues to refresh the anti-pest wards, the building’s occupants are willing to turn a blind eye. The loft is tiny, barely enough room for a bed and a desk area, but the rest of the rooftop is his space, too. Over the last few years, he has managed to grow his little army of plants all across the roof—pots and planters line the edges of it, vines and shrubs and small hedges growing close to the stairwell opening. It’s a little wild, a lot messy, but it’s his.
Behind the clothesline extending from his tiny window, he’s built a little shed. All his witchy experiments are in there. His secondhand cauldron, his hoarded rare potion ingredients, the scraps and spare parts that he’s been fiddling with in an attempt to fuse magic with everyday items to make life easier for himself. And others, too, he supposes. Having to adapt to leeching off external energy sources has really made him appreciate non-witch technology a lot more. Wen Qing had peeked into the shed once and then vowed to never step in again. The mess hurts her fragile sensibilities, she’d said. What sensibilities, Wei Ying’d said back. And then she’d smacked him, proving his point.
Wei Ying takes the world’s fastest shower and then squeezes himself into the shed. He’s had some new ideas bouncing in his head all evening about perimeter sensors and harnessing the city’s natural humidity to power safety seals. If he doesn’t write them down now, they’ll surely disappear into the void of his mind when he inevitably passes out.
It turns out he didn’t even have to pay a special visit to the new witch in town.
Wei Ying wakes up to a call from Liang-xiansheng , who works at the city hall and is probably in charge of something important, but all Wei Ying knows is that this is the guy he goes to for permits to do his witchy stuff. Witchcraft is not very popular in the city of Yiling. Once in a while, however, there are still strange occurrences that make them scratch their head and ask for a witch as a last ditch resort. Wei Ying is lucky that the people of Yiling do not seem to understand or care to understand the intricacies of witchcraft, otherwise he probably would have been run out of the city ages ago for being a fraud. At least Wen Qing’s medicinal magic has been integrated thoroughly with modern science.
Someone had reported a strange disturbance in the park. Because Wei Ying is Wei Ying, he arrives around noon, an hour or so after Liang-xiansheng ’s call.
“You told me it wasn’t an emergency!” Wei Ying says to the man, hands on his hips.
“It wasn’t,” Liang-xiansheng says warily.
“Then why did you call another witch?”
“I thought that maybe two witches were better than one. Also, unlike you, this one actually showed me proof of graduation from an Academy. And he’s coherent in the mornings.”
Wei Ying makes a face. “I’ve proved myself pretty decent at witchcraft, haven’t I? And I answered your call! I would have been here earlier if Qing-jie hadn’t forced me to eat breakfast.”
Liang-xiansheng gives him a long-suffering look, but Wei Ying is distracted by a tap on his shoulder, and then a voice going, “Wei Ying?”
He freezes. He knows that voice. Even though it’s been years, even if decades more passed, he would know that voice anywhere. Slowly, Wei Ying turns around. He sees long, silky hair pulled back into a neat braid, a snow white ribbon around the forehead, and beautiful gold eyes—
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes out.
The last time Wei Ying saw him, they were just kids, still growing into their magic and unable to fathom the world beyond their fingertips. He remembers a lanky, serious boy, who ironed his uniform every single morning because Lans woke up at ass o’clock so of course he would have the time to do that, and that boy had looked at Wei Ying’s rumpled uniform with disdain as if he was the weird one.
The witch before him now is unmistakably Lan Zhan, but. Wei Ying’s eyes widen as he takes in the man’s attire: a large white sweater that looks softer than a cloud, form-fitting gray pants, and a cream-coloured witch’s hat, accessorized with a sky-blue ribbon and gentian flowers that are vibrant with life. This Lan Zhan has lost none of the allure and effortless grace, only instead of the cold, unapproachable aura a teenage Lan Zhan emitted, this Lan Zhan looks comfy. Cozy. Almost sweet.
Wei Ying is still trying to compute how Lan Zhan went from Come with me to detention to Let’s talk about it over a mug of honey lemon so he barely notices Liang-xiansheng leaving. Lan Zhan is quiet before him. Suddenly, Wei Ying is all too aware of his days-old clothes, the accidentally-on-purpose rips in his jeans, his messy ponytail, and oh gods, the piercings. One or two is standard for witches, but both of Wei Ying’s ears are adorned with bits of metal that can only be explained by the unorthodox methods of magic he’s been practising these days.
“Ha,” Wei Ying bursts out, startling them both. “So you’re the new witch in town! What a coincidence, Lan Zhan! Did they send you to keep an eye on me?”
A delicate frown crosses Lan Zhan’s face. “I did not know Wei Ying lived in this city.”
“Oh. Well, I do. Live here. In Yiling.”
Awkward silence descends on them like a fog. Wei Ying is a people person, he’s been described as charismatic and charming, but in front of Lan Zhan, all grown up and soft-looking—Suddenly, Wei Ying feels like the most useless person in the whole world.
“The case,” Lan Zhan says eventually, and Wei Ying breathes out a sigh of relief.
“Right, yeah. Uh. What have you found so far?”
He follows Lan Zhan to the willow tree at the edge of the lake. It’s a popular spot, seeing as this is one of the only parks in the city that hasn’t been torn down for a skyscraper or factory. The postcard-esque scene of the willow tree weeping over the water has probably been on every local’s cover photo at some point. Today, however, the tree is taped off, and as they walk closer, Wei Ying can see why.
There’s a ring of decay growing around the base of the tree.
Wei Ying kneels down. He reaches out, but Lan Zhan grabs his arm. Wei Ying looks up at him. “Aiyah, Lan Zhan. I might not have a fancy graduate brooch like you, but I know my safety protocols, okay?”
Having the decency to look chastised, Lan Zhan lets him go. “I did not mean to insult you. I have not yet tested if the decay is harmful through physical touch.”
Wei Ying squints. He digs through his pockets and pulls out a tape measure. It’s secondhand, given to him by the uncle whose garage he had cleared of dust bunnies that had turned into guai. It was already rusting on the inside, so he doesn’t feel bad about using it to poke the dead dirt. There are fungi already sprouted along the decay, a pale, lifeless brown. The metal of the tape sizzles slightly at the touch. “Uh, that’s not good.”
“No,” Lan Zhan agrees. “Not good.”
They scour the nearby vicinity, but nothing stands out to indicate the source of the decay. All they can conclude is that the cause is magical. Lan Zhan attempts to reverse the spell with his own growth magic, but all he manages to do is multiply the amount of moss and clovers in the surrounding grass. The ring of death stays, taunting them. Wei Ying’s talismans also do nothing. In the end, they can only stab some copper wires around it and slam a stasis spell on top, hoping to contain the decay until they can come back.
Wei Ying places a hand on the trunk as if patting a friend’s back. “Don’t worry,” he tells the tree. “We’ll figure this out and have you safe and healthy in no time.”
When he turns around, Lan Zhan is studying him. Wei Ying slides off one of the pins holding his bangs back and repositions it, self-conscious. He aims a smile at Lan Zhan. “Want to grab a coffee or something? Compare notes, catch up. Ah, maybe you like tea better?”
They end up in a bubble tea shop by the library. A lemon green tea with aiyu jelly for Lan Zhan, and a regular milk tea with grass jelly for Wei Ying. The shop is tiny, nearly empty this time of day, except for the PandaDelivery drivers picking up their customers’ orders. They sit at the windows.
Wei Ying stirs his straw around, trying to break up the grass jelly. “So,” he says. “What brings you to Yiling?”
“I’m taking a year off from my studies,” Lan Zhan says. “I thought it would be beneficial for me to gain some practical experience with magic use before I moved forward with my thesis.”
“So you’re on a sabbatical.”
“Why Yiling, though?”
“I looked at the nationwide witch-to-city index,” Lan Zhan explains, “and Yiling has only one registered witch. However, I noted that there were quite a few reports of magical happenings in this city throughout the years. I thought I’d provide my services.”
Wei Ying laughs. “That sounds like Lan Zhan. It’s mostly just hauntings or weird temperature changes in random places. Nothing a talisman here or there can’t handle. But I guess you’re lucky, since it looks like we’ve finally got a real case to handle now, huh?”
As the day is still early, they spend some time trading news. Lan Zhan’s brother has been nominated recently as one of the Board of Magic directors, while his uncle remains the Lan Academy headmaster. His new apartment came with a bathtub, but he is not used to taking baths. Wei Ying recommends some bath bombs, even though he hasn’t had access to a bathtub in years. Lan Zhan talks like he used to: quiet and measured, pausing to think before he lets the words out of his mouth. But he shares things about himself without Wei Ying prying, and he returns the questions as if he really wants to hear Wei Ying’s answer. Compared to the teenage boy that Wei Ying remembers, the one who wouldn’t even give him the time of day, Wei Ying has no idea how to act around this man.
Wei Ying does not ask about Lotus Pier or the Jiangs. Lan Zhan does not mention them, either.
Eventually, they have other places to be. Lan Zhan needs to do some more shopping for his apartment, and Wei Ying always has some project to work on. They trade contact information and then go their separate ways.
Wei Ying waits until Lan Zhan turns the corner towards the supermarket before he cuts through the library’s parking lot back towards the park. His charmed pouch is worn and the threads are falling apart, but it still works. He pulls out a few tools and gloves, courtesy of Wen Qing, and digs up a portion of the decay around the willow tree. He’s a hands-on type of witch. What Lan Zhan doesn’t know can’t hurt him.
The rings of decay start popping up around the city. Some around the lone-standing trees on the sidewalks, some around the shrubbery outside the train station. Some even pop up in between the cracks of the broken sidewalks, line the age-worn thresholds of the post office. It doesn’t smell, doesn’t do much except look ugly and gross.
Most people have the sense not to touch it. The ones who do, though, are reported to have volatile changes in temper. One person even tore a hole through their wall before their spouse convinced them something was wrong.
Having spent the past few days poking at the decay in his workshop, Wei Ying has to admit his curiosity has grown. Where did it come from? How did it spread so quickly, and why in separate places? No amount of random keyword guessing and reverse image searches on the internet turned up anything remotely similar. Faerie rings were close, but no faeries existed this close to an urban city like Yiling. It feels like something older. Wei Ying wants to study it more, but protecting the city comes first.
Wei Ying bangs around his little loft room, grabbing the notes he was working on last night and his backpack. As an afterthought, he grabs the flannel shirt thrown over his chair and ties it around his waist. The little voice in his head saying in case it becomes cold later sounds more like Lan Zhan than Wen Qing today, but he’s too busy running down the stairwell to think about it.
Lan Zhan is already waiting outside the convenience store when Wei Ying runs up. He’s wearing a pale blue cardigan today, bunnies embroidered on the pockets. The Lan Clan forehead ribbon is interwoven through his braid. It’s really unfair how someone can look so breathtaking just by existing.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying yells, startling some high schoolers exiting with hefan in their hands. He winces in apology at them, and then hurries the rest of the way to Lan Zhan’s side. “I figured something out. Look.”
Blinking, Lan Zhan takes the messy notes shoved at him. His eyes move over Wei Ying’s chicken scratch quickly. A tiny furrow appears in his brow. “Elimination?”
“Yeah. We’ve tried everything, and suppression only makes it grow back with a vengeance... but I tried it. This works.”
“This is not the standard spell for elimination.”
“... That’s right.” Wei Ying tugs at the end of his ponytail. “I tweaked it a little. I thought the city could use some vegetation, don’t you think?”
The truth is that he can’t exactly cast powerful elimination spells anymore—or any proper spell, for the matter. So he improvised. He devised a new spell built on the foundations of the traditional one, using the basic knowledge he’s figured out from experimenting with the decay he’s collected when Lan Zhan isn’t looking. This one will dig through to the roots and evaporate the decay down to its molecular level, turning its spores into resentful energy, which Wei Ying trusts that the Lan witch is more than capable of dispersing. Lan Zhan’s magic is all nature—growth, life energy, blooming flowers. Pretty much the opposite of Wei Ying’s own brand of magic, which takes, steals, and hoards the energy from whatever available source and twists it into something usable for himself. So far, Lan Zhan hasn’t said anything about Wei Ying’s use of necromancy. It’s not exactly illegal—but very, very frowned upon.
“Alright,” Lan Zhan says. “I will follow you.”
The two of them make a great team. Wei Ying does the initial cleanse, attacking the decay directly with his hand-drawn talismans and funky flute tunes. Then Lan Zhan comes in and dispels the resentful energy that arises.
His magic is as graceful as ever: a swish of his arms, his long musician’s fingers carefully pulling energy through the air. Mesmerized with the soft glow of his hands, Wei Ying can almost see the afternoon sunshine on an open meadow, the first sprout after the snow melts. Elegant and ethereal, just like the witch conducting the magic.
“I can see why they call you Hanguang-jun ,” Wei Ying teases after they finish with the patch behind the post office.
Lan Zhan’s lips do the thing that Wei Ying is starting to recognize as his version of a shrug. He’s so cute, all composed all the time, that Wei Ying can’t help but want to fluster him. “It is a title I strive to uphold every day.”
“Aiyou, you’re too good, Lan Zhan. You’re already acknowledged as one of the greatest witches of our generation.”
“Wei Ying also is very masterful at his craft.”
“Hah! If your uncle saw me now, I’d imagine he’d lecture me into next year. ‘Necromancy! Blasphemy!’ I can hear him now.”
Tilting his head, Lan Zhan says, “Necromancy is one of the most complicated magic arts. It requires a vast amount of knowledge, creativity, and an understanding of balance. Wei Ying possesses all of that.”
Wei Ying can’t help but blush. He waves his hands. “Tian ah, if you keep going, my head won’t be able to fit through the doorway! Come on, we’ve been working all day. I’ll treat you to some noodles. There’s this place down the block, they have these delicious pickled side dishes...”
In the underground parking lot of the chain supermarket, Wei Ying shakes out his fingers and looks at Lan Zhan. Even under the dirty yellow lights, Lan Zhan looks as fresh as a flower garden. He looks back at Wei Ying.
“So,” Wei Ying says. “How are you holding up?”
Lan Zhan fixes his hat, sweeping off the stray petals off his long jacket. The flowers on his hat today are lanhua, a delicate purple. “I am alright,” he says. “How about Wei Ying?”
“Eh. A little hungry, but I’m fine. Skipping breakfast caught up to me.”
A small frown is thrown his way. “Wei Ying should eat breakfast.”
“Yeah, but I didn't want to leave you hanging. Actually, there’s a conveyor belt sushi restaurant on the first floor of this building. Wanna come with me?”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan pauses. “I will pay this time.”
“Aiyou, what a gentleman.”
It’s just after the lunch rush, so they manage to snag seats at the counter, backs facing the food court walkway. Lan Zhan makes them both tea with the genmaicha tea bags and the hot water dispenser built into the table. Barely giving himself enough time to wipe his hands with the sanitary napkin, Wei Ying starts pulling dishes off the conveyor belt.
“You eat fish, right, Lan Zhan? I know you don’t really eat meat—wait, do you eat raw fish? Ah, should we have gone to another restaurant?”
“I am fine,” Lan Zhan assures him.
Wei Ying smiles sheepishly. “I’ll ask first next time.”
“I will speak up as well.”
A sauce dish already filled with an obscene amount of wasabi is placed in front of Wei Ying. “You’re so nice, Lan Zhan,” he exclaims. “What happened to the boy that made me stay the full hour of detention even though we didn’t even have teacher supervision!”
“Discipline is important. Paying attention to a friend’s tastes is important also.”
“Oh, what’s that? Did you just admit we are friends?”
“Wei Ying does not want to be my friend?”
Wei Ying waves his hands. “I do, I do! And I am!” He slides over the plate of salmon nigiri sushi. “Here you go, my best friend Lan Zhan.”
“Thank you, best friend Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan responds solemnly. It makes Wei Ying crack up, and as Wei Ying tries to get his cackling under control without choking on a piece of unagi, he swears he sees a tiny smile playing at Lan Zhan’s lips, too.
They take their time with the meal, talking about everything from the case to the rise in fruit prices recently to the new cushion Lan Zhan bought for Bichen, his rabbit familiar. Lan Zhan clearly adores her, enough to spoil her with new toys even though witch familiars do not usually need stimulation the way regular pets do. Wei Ying does most of the talking, as Lan Zhan does not like to talk with food in his mouth. He’s been told that he’s a bit of a chatterbox, but Lan Zhan makes humming noises and blinks at Wei Ying expectantly whenever Wei Ying starts to trail off. It’s nice. To know he’s being listened to so carefully.
As they’re paying, Wei Ying receives a notification for a miscellaneous help request a few blocks away. Since he relocated to the city a few years ago, he’s established himself as the resident problem-solver for all things magical. They’re mostly small jobs, not really worth charging service fees. He still receives small gifts in the form of food or practical items, which is nice. It’s also cool because these are ordinary, non-magic users that appreciate his work and are willing to give his inventions a go since they have no context for all the taboos he’s breaking and all the shortcuts he’s taking in his witchcraft.
“Do you want to come along with me?” Wei Ying finds himself asking.
Lan Zhan places his hat back on his head. He takes a moment to rearrange his hair over his shoulder, straighten the long chain of his locket. “Alright,” he says.
Across the busy intersection, tucked away behind a row of buildings with first-floor shops and restaurants, the streets are narrower, cars and mopeds squeezed on both sides of the road. There are potholes in the cement, the walkway tiles stained from age. Above them, the balconies are cramped with air conditioners and plants growing past the railings. They seem to perk up as Lan Zhan walks by.
The auntie that lets them into the apartment is chatty, offering them refreshments before they even sit down. She coos at having the most handsome men in the city help her with a little rat problem until Lan Zhan’s ears have turned red and Wei Ying is bent over laughing.
“Over here,” she tells them, indicating the heavy wooden shelf in the corner of the living area. Behind the glass sits some antique dolls, their black eyes peering out eerily. In the centre of the shelf, the family altar sits, a statue of Guanyin raised above the ancestral tablets, burned joss sticks and a plate of oranges placed neatly in front of it all. The auntie points at the back of the shelf. “It’s loudest in the night, when we’re trying to sleep. The scratching sounds are very terrifying in the dark! We’ve tried calling pest control, but they said there is nothing. My husband thought maybe it is a magical problem.”
“We’ll take a look,” Wei Ying says. “Is it okay if we move the shelf?”
Between the two of them, they manage to shift the shelf forwards a few centimeters. As expected, it is dusty and dark in the space between the shelf and the wall. Wei Ying shines the flashlight on his phone at it. Other than dust bunnies, nothing stands out. He looks at Lan Zhan.
“I do not sense anything,” Lan Zhan says.
“Hm... maybe they need a little poke?” Wei Ying digs through his pockets. He finds a crumpled receipt in his jacket. Biting his thumb, he quickly draws out a talisman and slaps it on the wall. For a moment, nothing happens. Then, first slowly but quickly building into a cacophony, the sound of scratching and scrabbling.
“Resentful energy,” Lan Zhan says.
“A haunting, huh.” Wei Ying licks at the cut on his thumb distractedly as he thinks. It is probably a stray spirit, something small like a rat or lizard, somehow snuck in and latched onto this family’s altar. This happens sometimes. Depending on the witch’s specialty, dealing with lost spirits can be a flick of a hand or a whole day’s work. Luckily, Wei Ying is a self-trained necromancer.
He’s thinking of the most efficient way to deal with this when he realizes his hand has been taken captive by Lan Zhan. The other witch is frowning down at his thumb.
“Ah, don’t worry about it, Lan Zhan! I’ve got bandaids somewhere.”
“No need,” Lan Zhan says. He presses two fingers over Wei Ying’s thumb. A moment later, a tendril of warmth spreads from their hands, all the way up to his heart. The cut on his thumb closes.
“Lan Zhan! You didn’t have to do that!”
“I wanted to.”
Well. Wei Ying can’t argue with that. “Thank you.”
Lan Zhan lets go of his hand, but his eyes are a gentle weight on Wei Ying. “No need,” he repeats.
Heat floods Wei Ying’s face. He clears his throat, hoping he’s not blushing too hard. “I have an idea.”
As Lan Zhan is a nature witch, there is not much he can do inside this old apartment. Wei Ying takes off one of his earrings, a little black pearl, and hands it to him. It will be fine to use as a temporary spirit net. In the meantime, he pulls out the dizi he has tucked away on his belt. He’s mostly been using talismans and other props he’s invented to do magic, but for spirits like this, he’s found that channeling magic through music is much more powerful. He had the idea from when he was studying at Cloud Recesses, adapting it around the liminal instead of a person’s life energy. If old man Lan saw him now, he’d probably be foaming at the mouth. Lan Zhan just watches him curiously.
Wei Ying puts the instrument to his lips, and starts to play.
It’s a short song he made up, something lilting and melancholic, like an old record echoing through an abandoned stairwell. He draws quick breaths, dragging out the melody until the scratching seems to pause, as if distracted. Shadows start slinking out from behind the shelf. Wei Ying closes his eyes. He plays, fingers dancing along the bamboo, feeling the smoke-like wisps of the resentful energy he’s borrowing rise, leaving the spirit and following Wei Ying’s will. It’s okay, he says through the song. You don’t need to be afraid anymore.
It goes quickly after that. Lan Zhan catches the spirit in the charmed earring and Wei Ying sketches a quick talisman over it, putting it into stasis until they can safely aid it in passing on from the mortal realm. They push the shelf back into place and accept the pastries the auntie gives them in lieu of money payment.
“Thanks for your help,” Wei Ying says to Lan Zhan, biting into a pastry as they walk towards the train station. It’s not too sweet, filled with red bean paste and a generous amount of sesame seeds on top. “Usually I’d have to call Wen Ning over to do the heavy lifting but I see that famous Lan arm strength is no joke, huh?”
Lan Zhan’s expression doesn’t change, but his ears go red. “It was no trouble. I am lucky to see Wei Ying in action.”
“Ah, that was nothing. Gotta make do with what I have, right?”
“... What you have?”
Wei Ying stuffs the last bit of pastry in his mouth. He’s always had a habit of throwing himself under the bus. Taking a deep breath, he stretches out a hand. Lan Zhan blinks down at it. Then, with careful fingers, takes hold of Wei Ying’s wrist. There’s a rush of heat, like sunlight at the beach, sinking into Wei Ying’s core, searching. Finding nothing but a candle where there should have been a bonfire.
With a sharp inhale, Lan Zhan releases his hand. “What happened?”
Pulling on a nonchalant air, Wei Ying shrugs. “You know. Messed with something I shouldn’t have. But once born magic, always born magic, right? As you can see, I’ve taken up necromancy and it’s working out fine for me. You know me, Wei Ying never liked playing by the rules.”
“One must know the rules in order to break them.”
“True.” Wei Ying slants a look at the other witch. “Are you saying that you break rules, Lan Zhan? You just never get caught because you know all the loopholes?”
Lan Zhan stares straight ahead and does not answer. Wei Ying laughs, throwing his head back with the force of it. The tree on the sidewalk they pass by suddenly breaks through the concrete, its roots raised through the uneven pavement, its leaves now a vibrant shade of green. Startled, Wei Ying grabs onto Lan Zhan’s arm. The tips of Lan Zhan’s ears are red.
“Uh,” Wei Ying says.
“Mm,” Lan Zhan replies, which does not answer anything.
It takes him a minute, but Lan Zhan eventually manages to coax the tree’s suddenly healthy roots back under the pavement. Wei Ying helps heave the pieces back into an approximate flatness so no unsuspecting grannies trip over it with their grocery carts. Lan Zhan’s ears are still red, but he does not pull away from Wei Ying, even when their arms brush against each other.
“Wei Ying could consider teaching,” he says as they wait for the light to change at an intersection. He has to speak up to be heard over the roar of the mopeds and buses. “Or publishing a book.”
“I think I’d give your uncle a real heart attack if I did.”
Lan Zhan does not shrug, but his mouth tilts to suggest it. “Wei Ying’s inventions and unorthodox way of thinking are revolutionary. It is not only helpful to magic-users, but non-witches as well.”
Wei Ying covers his face with his hands. “Aiyou, stop it, you’re turning me into a tomato!”
“I believe Wei Ying would make a fine teacher,” Lan Zhan continues mercilessly.
“Lan Zhan! You can’t say things like that!”
“I am simply stating what I believe is the truth.”
“Aaah! No more. I surrender. Tian ah, Lan Zhan, when did you become such a sweet talker? You have all the girls back home throwing themselves at your feet, don’t you?”
Something flickers across Lan Zhan’s face, faster than Wei Ying can identify it. “No,” he says. “No one back home.”
For some inexplicable reason, Wei Ying’s heart stutters at that. What is he, a schoolgirl with a crush? There’s no way someone like Lan Zhan would look twice at Wei Ying. He’s only just reconnected with the guy. He wants this friendship to last. At least until the other witch inevitably leaves this rundown city. This is the kind of in between place that everyone moves on from eventually. The kind of dying place that Wei Ying belongs to, with his dusty history and scarred hands.
“I’m sure you’ll find the right person,” Wei Ying says. “They’ll be a lucky one.”
Lan Zhan looks at him. Holds his gaze. “I will be just as lucky.”
The decay keeps growing.
It does not seem to respawn in the places they’ve already cleansed, but there are too many nooks and crannies in this city for it to grow. The more they clean up, the more places it pops up. Like a miserable whack-a-mole. It’s no trouble for them to clean up, especially since they’re on the city’s payroll, but chasing down the decay patches every day starts to feel futile and annoying very soon.
After a long day of dispersing the decay, Wei Ying invites Lan Zhan over for dinner. “It’s no trouble at all,” he says when Lan Zhan hesitates. “I’m not even the one cooking, so your taste buds are safe. And after, I can show you what I’ve been working on—maybe with two minds brainstorming we’ll actually get somewhere.”
So Lan Zhan follows him up the narrow stairwell, their footsteps echoing on the stone steps. A door slams below them, a neighbour is laughing on the phone on one of the landings as they pass by. Lan Zhan, dressed in his usual soft colours, almost seems like an otherworldly being. A heavenly prince, who flew down to grace this ancient place with his presence.
Wei Ying offers him a pair of slippers. He calls into the apartment, “Qing-jie! I brought a guest!”
Wen Qing looks up when they enter the kitchen. She pauses in mixing the ground pork and jiucai in the giant bowl Wen Ning is holding steady. “Lan Zhan.”
“Wen-xiaojie,” Lan Zhan says.
Looking between them, Wei Ying asks, “You know each other?”
“Wen-xiaojie attended Lan Academy a year after you left.”
“I didn’t finish,” Wen Qing explains. “That was a little before the whole scandal with my uncle. Please, Wen Qing is fine.”
Wei Ying tugs at his ponytail. He doesn’t like to think about the series of stupid events that led to him being kicked out of the prestigious academy for witchcraft and magic. It started with him defending his sister’s honour, but then Wen Ruohan’s idiot son had to get involved, and then the accident happened. With Yu-ayi ’s disapproval at his back and the shame of causing everyone trouble, Wei Ying voluntarily quit school and left the Jiang family home. He was resigned to a life of mundanity after losing his core, until he met the Wen siblings.
Wen Qing’s branch of the family have been healers for generations, but Wen Ruohan had wanted to experiment with forbidden magic, the kind that uses real live people’s life energy. Unwilling to follow her uncle down that path, Wen Qing had taken her family and gone off-grid. But Wei Ying always had been too smart for his own good. He taught himself necromancy, learned how to manipulate energy from dead things and the environment to replace his inability to generate organic magic. He rose up from the ashes and destroyed Wen Ruohan’s work before the man could take the entire country’s witch population as his personal army. He walked away from one family only to force himself into another. He gave away too much of himself until his magic has all but destroyed him from the inside—only thanks to Wen Qing’s quick thinking and medical knowledge that he can even do what magic he does now.
He doesn’t regret a thing.
Jiaozi are on the menu for tonight. They wash their hands and settle around the table to help. One tray is lined with freshly closed dumplings—Lan Zhan’s row neat and tidy with even folds, Wei Ying’s floppy and just on the safe side of overfilled, Wen Ning’s evenly scaled with pretty, intricate folds, and Wen Qing’s quick hands folding more dumplings than all of them combined—when Popo comes home with A-Yuan.
“I want to help!” A-Yuan demands.
“Fold it like Zhan-gege,” Wen Qing says. “Don’t copy Ying-gege .”
“Qing-jie! Are you saying I’m a bad influence!”
“I’ve been saying that for years, bendan. Also your dumplings are definitely going to explode in the pot.”
Wei Ying pouts. “They will not. Here, I’ll get Lan Zhan to cast a spell on it so you won’t have to scrape jiucai bits from the pot—”
“Wei Ying, I said no magicked foods!”
They bicker all the way through finishing off the last pack of dumpling wrappers. Melting into the safety of the Wen family kitchen, Wei Ying whines dramatically that Wen Qing is being mean to him and hides behind Lan Zhan when she threateningly waves the wooden chopsticks she is using to fry the fish. A-Yuan giggles while Wen Ning pretends to be distracted with measuring the perfect ratio of vinegar, soy sauce, and chili oil for the dipping sauce. Popo is laughing from where she watches the dumplings slowly rise in the boiling pot. Dinner will be ready soon. The weary world outside can wait until after the meal.
Lan Zhan sits next to Wei Ying at the table. He is half-turned to A-Yuan, who is very seriously telling him about the earthquake and fire drill they practised at school today. Wei Ying refills Lan Zhan’s bowl, careful not to contaminate it with his own bright red chili oil-stained chopsticks. In return, Lan Zhan places a piece of fish in his. Across the table, Wen Ning catches Wei Ying’s eye and raises his eyebrows. Wei Ying stuffs an entire dumpling into his mouth in a panic.
“Ah!” Wei Ying fans at his face. “Hot! Hot!”
A-Yuan squeals with laughter. “Ying-gege, your face is like a tomato!”
“That’s why we take small bites,” Wen Qing says dryly.
Lan Zhan peers at Wei Ying with concern. “Are you alright?”
Aware of the food still in his mouth, Wei Ying flaps a hand. His bowl is whisked away and filled with tofu soup. Ah, this man. So attentive. So caring. He’d surely make somebody a great husband some day.
Popo makes them all eat seconds, patting Lan Zhan’s cheek when he helps to clear the plates even though he’s a guest. In the span of two hours, A-Yuan has latched onto Lan Zhan, adopting this shiny new gege without fanfare. It’s not much of a surprise; Lan Zhan is wonderful and Wei Ying would be offended if the Wens didn’t like him. As it is, it takes them another half an hour to convince the boy to go do his homework and steal away up the stairs to the loft.
Wei Ying opens the stairwell door with a flourish. He hovers, watching the other witch for a reaction. Lan Zhan ducks his head as he steps over the threshold. He is holding his hat, taken off during dinner, and it flutters in the slight evening breeze. The pink and purple geraniums adorned on the hat today sway gently as Lan Zhan drinks in the sight of Wei Ying’s messy garden.
“It’s a little cramped,” Wei Ying says, nudging a potted plant out of the way. “A lot of these I got as a thank-you gift. I’ve always been interested in growing my own vegetables and fruits, too, but it’s a little difficult in the city, huh?”
“Wei Ying has done an excellent job,” Lan Zhan says. He touches the blood-red leaves of the jinzisu almost reverently. “They are healthy and beautiful.”
“Aiyou, Lan Zhan, there you go sweet talking again.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. He crouches by the strawberry plant that Wei Ying has a love-hate relationship with. Originally, Wei Ying had bought the plant because A-Yuan liked strawberries, but growing it has been quite a hassle, until he managed to convince his familiar to look after the plant instead of harassing it. Speaking of his familiar—something shuffles behind the wall of molihua. A head pops up, leaves entwined through the stark-white cat skull, soil and dandelions scattered throughout the rest of its body.
“A cat?” Lan Zhan says, a dubious expression on his face.
Wei Ying clucks his tongue, beckoning the creature forwards. “This is Suibian, my familiar.” She is a cat. Or was a cat. Wei Ying had left the Jiang household before he could petition for a familiar of his own, and by then, trying to keep himself alive was much more of a priority than raising another living organism, magical or not. He’d found Suibian in a back alley when he first moved to Yiling. Poor little thing was mauled by dogs, barely clinging onto life when Wei Ying managed to pull himself together and send the little shits running with the resentful pain the cat felt, still lingering in the air.
“An animated skeleton,” Lan Zhan murmurs. He reaches out a hand for Suibian to nose at. “Infused with the life energy of the plants?”
“Ah, yeah. It’s mostly weeds at her center, because they don’t need much to grow and they’re so stubborn about staying alive, you know? They’re kind of the only living thing that will listen to me now, anyway.”
“Mm.” With gentle fingers, Lan Zhan strokes down the exposed bone of Suibian’s back. The greenery inside the cat’s ribcage unfurls, tiny flowers opening where her eyes are. Suibian nuzzles against his hand, her tail making a clicking noise as she flicks it happily.
Wei Ying can’t help but smile into his palm. Lan Zhan truly is so good.
He shows the other man his workshop shed, shoving aside the half-finished talismans and notes fluttering around in disorganized piles. He has drawers and he has files and he has a working laptop with extra memory space, but sometimes his mind just works better with ink and paper. Witchcraft has changed over the centuries to adapt with newer technologies, but the more Wei Ying researches and invents, the more he finds that some things just don’t translate as well digitally.
“This is what I have so far,” he says, pulling out the only chair for Lan Zhan. He had bought a corkboard and plastered it against the wall. On it, he’s pinned photographs of the decay, notes on the interviews they’ve done with people who reported it and came in contact with it, a list of numbers on how frequent the calls came in, how big the surface area is, etc. He’s even printed out a map of the city, marking down the places they’ve cleaned up so far. “I can’t figure out if there’s a pattern or not. I’ve tried using arrays but nothing bounces back, even though we can clearly sense the resentful energy when it is fresh on location.”
Sheepishly, Wei Ying gestures to the sample of decay he’s been studying. It is carefully sealed and warded in a glass box in the corner. He’s been replacing it with new samples from recent cleanup calls as the decay disintegrates into ash after a few days.
Lan Zhan frowns. “You should not have taken it home.”
“I know, I know, but look, I’m being very careful. Does Hanguang-jun want to check my seal work?”
“It is sound. But I would rather be aware of the risks Wei Ying takes so I can protect you accordingly.”
“I don’t need protecting, Lan Zhan.”
“I know,” says Lan Zhan like he means it. He meets Wei Ying’s eyes, something so intense in his gaze that Wei Ying’s words die on his tongue. “I just don’t want Wei Ying to be hurt.”
Wei Ying swallows. He twists the string bracelets around his wrist. “Okay,” he says softly. “I wouldn’t want Lan Zhan to be hurt, either.”
“I will tell Wei Ying if I am taking risks,” Lan Zhan promises.
“Aiyah. Promise is a promise.” Wei Ying circles back to the corkboard. “Anyway. From what I can tell, the decay is tied to the specific place and the earth it’s growing out of, but when we clear it, there are no traces of anything lingering. No roots. I can’t figure out why they keep popping up, and how.”
Humming slightly, Lan Zhan leans forwards to study the map. He traces a finger through the little scribbled stars Wei Ying has marked. “Not a pattern. Perhaps a character?”
“A character? Do you recognize it?”
“The grain radical,” Lan Zhan murmurs. His thumb moves down the map, then from west to east, several times. “Zhong. A seed, to cultivate. But not as we know it. The traditional character, it would have more strokes. Like this.” He sketches it in the air.
“That’s strange. You think this is some ancient magic at work?”
“That would make sense. If it is truly tied to the earth, then something must have been triggered or awakened.”
“Awakened, you say.” Wei Ying curls his fingers around the end of his ponytail and tugs. The idea tickles something in his mind. Yiling is an old city, still hanging onto its roots, its low apartment buildings, its greying concrete, despite the fast-growing skyscrapers slowly moving in just like all the nearby cities. Yiling is situated in a no-name valley, removed from any nearby witch coven or community, yet strange magical mishaps continue to happen because...
“Ah!” Wei Ying exclaims. He flaps his hands when Lan Zhan blinks up at him. “The earth! Ancient magic! Wait, here—look.” He reaches over to tap at the laptop, pulling up a few maps, then a webpage depicting the area’s history. “Yiling has been here for ages, even though the geography sucks and the weather’s worse and barely anyone comes here for any reason other than having the misfortune of being born here. You said you chose the city because of the continuous reports on magical occurrences, right? Wen Qing and I are the only active witches around here, but neither of us have the time or ability to be running around casting spells. So it has to be the city itself. Or what the city is built on.”
Widening his eyes, Lan Zhan says, “Leylines.”
Wei Ying snaps his fingers. “Exactly! If we trace through the leylines and figure out the roots—figure out what’s wrong, what’s happened to corrupt the earth’s magic—we can solve this, Lan Zhan! Finally! I knew having you around was a good idea. You’re so smart, Lan Zhan!”
“Wei Ying figured it out.”
“We figured it out together.” Wei Ying beams. “We make a great team, don’t we!”
Lan Zhan blinks at him, and then quickly averts his eyes. The tips of his ears are red. “Mn,” is all he says.
They spend another hour discussing their findings and reading up on leyline magic. According to the influx of magic energy that various parts of the city experiences at irregular intervals, there should be cores along the leylines, naturally formed deposits of magical energy embedded within the landscape that is as much a part of the city as the city is a part of it. Underneath the hustle and bustle of a city full of humans, it’s not a stretch to think of the leyline cores becoming contaminated and reacting negatively. If their theory is correct, the decay must be the city’s cry for help.
It’s only after Wei Ying goes to walk Lan Zhan back to the street that he sees it: all the plants in his makeshift garden have bloomed. Flowerbuds opening, leaves unfurling, vines reaching up—as if they’ve been visited by their very own spring.
Going off the map and their research, they have managed to plot out a few major locations in the city where the leylines intersect. Wei Ying drags himself out of bed earlier than usual and meets Lan Zhan at the subway station.
“Can you sense the energy?” Wei Ying asks. Only a proper witch with a proper energy core of their own can resonate with the magic within a leyline. No wonder Wei Ying couldn’t find them before.
Lan Zhan nods. He narrows his eyes and points at the far end of the platform. “It is strongest over there.”
This is an older station, built over when new lines were implemented. The new platforms are lit up brightly, new turnstiles beeping cheerfully as passengers enter and exit. Down the stairs, the old platform still exists, serving as another route to exit four, which opens up to the street on the north side. The route to the exit is lit up, but the other side of the platform is dark. They venture into the dimness, Wei Ying using his phone as a flashlight.
“Here,” Lan Zhan says. He motions at one of the pillars. It is plastered with old posters and messy graffiti. There’s a pretty impressive drawing of some anime girl with cat ears, half-faded with time. Steadying his breathing and straightening his posture even further, Lan Zhan lifts his hands, palms glowing. He draws the character for reveal and sends out a wave of magic, soft light pulsing through the air.
The pillar lights up. When Wei Ying lowers the hand shielding his eyes, he sees the twisted trunk of a tree in its place. A heavy chain of thorns wind up around the trunk. The branches are empty, sickly.
“That looks painful.”
Lan Zhan reaches out, hands hovering over the thorns. He frowns. “A parasite.”
Wei Ying narrows his eyes. “Has to be nearby, then. Something must have festered with the lack of traffic here. Hold on.” He shrugs off his backpack and digs around until his hand closes around something flat and round. With a triumphant noise, he pulls it out to show Lan Zhan.
It’s a compass he made himself. The only one of its kind, a compass that can detect resentful energy, dark magic, those kinds of unsavoury things. It’s very useful when he needs to tap into some extra power to perform magic greater than what a baby witch can do.
“It still needs a bit of tweaking,” he says, twisting the metal tab on its head to start its calibration.
“It is a resourceful invention,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying is saved from trying to brush off the compliment when the compass immediately spins to a stop, pointing down the dark corridor behind the stairs. “Stay here, I’ll go check it out.” Without waiting for an answer, he leaves the backpack with Lan Zhan and heads further down.
The flashlight on his phone feels muted in the oppressing dark. His footsteps are muffled, and what should have been a short distance stretches like melted caramel. A shudder goes down Wei Ying’s spine involuntarily. He tucks the compass away, fingers brushing the cool metal of the chain hanging off his belt. A disguised weapon that doubles as a fashion statement. Wei Ying is nothing if not resourceful.
Something is moving. Shadows within shadows. Wei Ying whistles sharply once, catching its attention.
He immediately wishes he hadn’t.
The thing rears back and snarls. It is definitely not a living thing anymore. By leeching the energy off the leyline core, it has managed to manifest pain and despair into something bigger and more harmful than what it used to be.
None of that matters to Wei Ying. Because the thing is stalking over to him on four feet, sharp teeth glinting off the flicker of his phone light, accompanied by low, dangerous growls—a dog.
Yelping, Wei Ying nearly trips over his feet as he dashes away. He can’t turn his back on the resentful creature, but facing it only heightens his terror. “Lan Zhan!” he screams, mind blank, “Lan Zhan, help me, please!”
It takes too long but he makes it back to the tree-pillar, where light exists again. He ducks behind the other witch, clinging onto the material of Lan Zhan’s sweater. He’s probably stretching the poor fabric, but Wei Ying is in too much of a panic to care. All he knows is that there is a dog and Jiang Cheng isn’t here to chase it away and there is a dog and Wei Ying is useless, useless, use—
Something is pressed onto his head, obscuring his vision. Startled out of his panic, Wei Ying reaches up. It’s Lan Zhan’s hat. The wide brim is soft to the touch, the sweet smell of flowers and sandalwood surrounding him like a hug. He grips it tight as he struggles to bring his breathing back under control.
By the time Wei Ying manages to lift his head, Lan Zhan has already subdued the tortured spirit of what must have been a stray dog. Weeds and moss have popped up through the concrete platform, chasing away the last lingering shadows. Lan Zhan turns back to Wei Ying, concern obvious in the slight furrow of his brow.
“Are you alright?”
Wei Ying laughs. It comes out strained. He clears his throat. “Ah, yeah. Thanks. I’m not—not good with dogs.”
Lan Zhan takes back the hat without comment, replacing it on his own head gracefully. Sweeping his long hair over his shoulder, he gestures at the tree. The thorns have shattered, fading into itty bitty sparkles, a sea of stars. “The dog must have died nearby.”
“Yeah. We should probably check if there are other strays in the area and call a shelter. Not much we can do about the location being out of service.”
They get to work cleaning up the last traces of resentment, Lan Zhan using his plant magic to return the leyline core back to health, and Wei Ying setting up protective wards to prevent future decay. His hands stop shaking fifteen minutes in. It helps that Lan Zhan stays near him, always within arm’s reach.
When people from the nearest animal shelter come to take a family of newly born pups found in the abandoned tunnel, Lan Zhan lets Wei Ying hide behind him. His back is broad, straight and steady. Wei Ying grasps at the back of his teal sweater, standing close enough to feel Lan Zhan’s body heat. He doesn’t let go until the dogs are gone. Lan Zhan lets him.
The next few days, they track down the leyline cores and figure out how to free them of the corruption. Often it is simple, caused by natural things that have twisted into the unnatural through lack of care in the surrounding environment. A disturbance in the landscape by a construction company, pollution and dumping where there shouldn’t be, a haunting at a traffic accident site where the promised crosswalk has been delayed due to inefficient bureaucracy. Often, even after setting up proper wards and seals, Wei Ying can tell it is only a matter of time before the cycle starts again.
They do what they can.
Today, they are at a middle school. It is Sunday, the school is closed and free of students. The gates are open during the day so neighbourhood residents could peruse the track field. Standing in the middle of said field, Wei Ying glances around. In the distance, there is an elderly couple making their way around the track at a leisurely pace, a few kids timing their sprinting. Nothing that particularly screams huge magic deposit here.
“That one,” Lan Zhan says. He points at a tree to the side, underneath the main school building.
“Aiyah, having Hanguang-jun as my partner really is the best!”
Lan Zhan does not reply, instead striding towards the tree. His ears are pink, though. Wei Ying laughs and follows.
After the nature witch reveals the leyline core, Wei Ying brings out his compass, a well-practised routine between them by now. It leads them into the school building. Most of the classrooms are locked. The compass directs them down the hall, past the concrete sinks. They stop in front of the boys’ restroom. Wei Ying exchanges a glance with Lan Zhan. They enter.
At first glance, it appears to be a regular restroom. Clean enough, tiles discoloured from age. The sound of a cranky pipe echoes through the room. On a whim, Wei Ying slams open the stall doors, peeking in. They’re empty, as expected. Then he gets to the last one. A rush of shadows leaps out at him. Wei Ying scrambles back, half-blinded and deafened by the sudden shrieking in his ears.
Something winds around his waist and yanks him to the side. Wei Ying shoves his messy ponytail to the side in time to see Lan Zhan grow an entire net made of vines, trapping the shadows against the ground. It has less of a distinct shape than the others they have encountered, but it is crying out coherent words in a choir of despairing voices.
Stop it! Why? What did I do? Help me! Help me!
The intensity of the anguish pierces through Wei Ying, right through to the hollowness inside him where his core used to be. It takes him a moment to gather himself, separate himself from the resentment. “Hold it down,” he tells Lan Zhan.
In his backpack, wrapped in a cloth that has been embroidered with protection sigils, is a small doll. It is faceless, minimalistic, something one can find in the craft section of a Daiso. Wei Ying unpins one of the buttons from his backpack and stabs himself in the meat of his thumb. He squeezes a drop of blood onto the doll’s head. Carrying it over to the writhing mass of darkness, he carefully lowers it into the cage. It takes a bit of coaxing for the shadows to enter the doll. Instantly, the doll thrashes, its limbs spasming violently before falling still.
Lan Zhan releases the vines, watching carefully as Wei Ying picks up the doll. Wei Ying cradles it close. He makes eye contact with Lan Zhan, tells him, “I will attempt Empathy with the spirit. It might knock me over, but I should be fine.”
Lan Zhan frowns. “How do I call you back if it overwhelms you?”
Tilting his head, Wei Ying considers. He’s never had to use an emergency escape before—but then again, he’s never had a partner looking out for him before. “Uh... it should probably force a break in the bond if you remove my contact with the doll? But don’t touch it with your bare skin.”
The answer is not good enough for Lan Zhan. Still, the witch nods. He steps closer as Wei Ying lifts the doll towards his face. There’s a dull thrumming emanating from the doll. Closing his eyes, Wei Ying presses his forehead against the doll, and—
A boy is hiding in the stall. His hair is a mess, his uniform rumpled. A bruise is darkening on his cheek. Tears are streaming down his face but he is biting down hard on his lips, trying to stifle the sound. In his hands, he is clutching a torn pink ribbon.
Footsteps enter the restroom. Loud, mean laughter rings through the room, then harsh banging on the locked stall door. The boy flinches.
“You can’t hide in there forever,” someone calls. A round of snickers follow.
The boy curls over his ruined ribbon. Why? he whispers. He looks up, catches Wei Ying’s eyes from where he is hovering, translucent, through the neighbouring stall.
The scene changes. There is a different boy, sitting on the toilet with several notebooks balanced on his knees. He is tugging at his hair, frustrated tears in his eyes. He’s gripping the pencil too tight, trying to finish three sets of homework at once.
Outside, the bell rings. The sound of the restroom door banging open, then voices demanding him come out and deliver the homework for them.
Muttering curses under his breath, the boy pulls harder at his hair. I can’t, the boy mumbles, tears staining the book. He opens his eyes and stares right at Wei Ying.
Another shift, another boy. The stall door is open this time, and Wei Ying peers out to see two boys, wrestling against the wall. The bigger one punches the other. The smaller one tries to fight back, fingers scratching ineffectively.
“Stop,” he whimpers.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” the other one says. “I told you not to tattle.”
Another punch, then another. The smaller boy manages to look over the bigger one’s shoulder, latches onto Wei Ying’s gaze. His nose is bleeding, one eye swelling shut.
Gasping, Wei Ying is wrenched back into himself, the doll vibrating in his hands. He loosens his hold, only half-aware of Lan Zhan’s hands on his back, steadying him. He can still hear the pleading of the boys. There are so many more, flashing by before he broke the link, so many stories of anger and hurt all tangled up, witnessed by the last stall in this restroom. It is different from a haunting; none of those boys have passed here, as far as Wei Ying can tell, but the suffering lingers. An invisible infection that could cause real harm if it continues to eat the leyline core.
“Middle school,” Wei Ying rasps. He tries to chuckle, but he chokes on it. “Bullies suck.”
Lan Zhan hums in agreement. He looks at the doll in Wei Ying’s cupped hands. “What should we do?”
“Soothe it. Let it go. And then maybe bother the school administration to do something about it, I guess.” He allows himself a moment to feel angry. There are some things magic cannot fix, and he knows this. He still can’t help but feel powerless. He can only do his best here.
Wei Ying pulls out his dizi to play a resting song. The resentment twists in the air, before dispersing like fireflies in the daylight. He rubs at his chest. He can only hope the adults will become more vigilant.
When he looks up, he sees Lan Zhan tracing something through the air. Dandelion seeds trail from his fingertips, swirling briefly before fading from sight. “What are you doing?” Wei Ying asks.
“Cleansing,” Lan Zhan says. “It will fade over time, but this will keep this space a safe haven for those who need it.”
Their magic cannot affect a person directly, but it can influence the environment and the natural energy that resides in places that living things touch and breathe in. Lan Zhan is doing his best, too.
Wei Ying rewraps the cloth around his doll and packs it away carefully. His hands have mostly stopped trembling by the time they make their way back to the field. He hangs back as Lan Zhan finishes with the leyline core, watching as fresh grass sprouts around the tree. Only after the glow has disappeared completely does Wei Ying allow himself to drop to the ground, giving in to the heaviness that has clung to him like a winter cloak since exiting the restroom.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan is crouching beside him. He reaches out, brushes his fingers over Wei Ying’s cheek. “You’re crying,” he says.
“Ah.” Wei Ying swipes at his eyes. “Don’t worry, it’s just—Empathy, you know? I just gotta let it pass through.”
Lan Zhan hesitates. Then he shifts, opening his arms. “Would you like a hug?”
It’s all too easy to fall into Lan Zhan’s embrace. The man is so solid, a safe haven, a childhood summer where Wei Ying can hide, just for a little while. Shoving his face into the soft cotton of Lan Zhan’s shirt, Wei Ying allows the negative feelings from the Empathy session to wash over him. Sobs crawl up his throat. His chest heaves with the effort of muffling the sounds so the people going around the field aren’t alarmed by a fully grown man just losing it in a public space for no reason. A hand slides up and down his back, slow and steady. Wei Ying grips the hem of Lan Zhan’s flowy shirt. He is caught. He is held. He is okay. He is okay.
When his tears finally subside, Wei Ying pulls back and mops at his face with the jacket tied around his waist. “Sorry,” Wei Ying says.
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “No need,” he says, “for sorrys or thank yous between us.”
Wei Ying laughs at that. He rubs his eyes one last time. “You’re really great, Lan Zhan. I really like you, you know?”
A gentle hand tucks Wei Ying’s hair behind his ear. Something flutters just at the periphery of his vision—a purple lotus flower, carefully pressed into his hair. Lan Zhan smiles down at him. On anyone else, it would be barely any change in expression: the slight upwards tilt of his lips, the softening of his eyes. But on Lan Zhan, it’s like watching the sun rise over mountain springs, a secret place only they know.
“I really like Wei Ying, too.”
The very last leyline core is back at the park with the willow tree. It is not the tree itself. Rather, the coordinates they have end up somewhere in the water. They rent out one of the tiny duck-shaped boats from the shop on the far end of the lake. Most of the shop’s business is from the occasional tourists and couples that come for a romantic boat ride date. Wei Ying helps Lan Zhan onto the boat, fingers tingling where their hands touch.
The lake opens up as Lan Zhan calls out to the leyline core. A pulsing sphere wrapped in dead tree roots rises from the water. The core looks strangled, an unhealthy, washed out colour. Wei Ying throws an arm around Lan Zhan’s middle and the other around the edge of the boat as the waves rock them none too gently.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, voice low and close. “Where is the resentment?”
Ignoring the shiver that shoots down his spine at the feel of Lan Zhan’s lips brushing against the shell of his ear, Wei Ying scrambles for the compass. But the needle just spins endlessly. He frowns. Taps it with his fingers. It was working just fine yesterday. “Gaisi,” he mutters. “Guess we’ll have to do this the old fashioned way.” He pulls out a spare talisman and bites his thumb, quickly sketching out a seek command with his blood. Catching Lan Zhan’s gaze, Wei Ying tugs out a bandaid from his other pocket. “Don’t worry, no infections here!”
The talisman glows brightly before dissolving, leaving behind streaks of red light, stretched out like arrows, all pointing... straight towards the sphere of energy.
“Oh, shit,” he says. Lan Zhan’s hand tightens on his shoulder. Wei Ying stares in dismay at the leyline core, where it is literally trapped and intertwined with the resentful energy they’re trying to rescue it from. “What do we do?”
“Let’s retreat for now.”
Lan Zhan casts a simple spell asking the wind currents to push them towards the dock. They disembark quickly and set up wards around the side of the lake, asking the few people around gawking at the strange phenomena currently floating over the water to back away out of range. Wei Ying shrugs off his backpack and rifles through its contents. He has to have something that can work. They don’t need to erase the resentment entirely, they just need to convince it to detach itself from the energy deposit that has been granting it power to grow and survive. Right. Easy.
His hands hit something oblong and metallic. Wei Ying grins. He pulls out the small thermos he uses as a portable cauldron. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “Buy me time!”
With a nod, Lan Zhan unclips the bunny pin on the lapel of his coat. He’s wearing a raincoat today since they’re working near water, and probably has an extra umbrella ready to go in his pouch. The way he is so prepared for everything makes Wei Ying feel all fuzzy inside. The pin is tossed into the air. Before it falls to the ground, the enamel expands, turning into a real, live bunny—if real, live bunnies are the size of a bicycle. “Bichen,” Lan Zhan says, climbing on. “Steady.”
Still on the grassy bank, Wei Ying spares a look. So that is Lan Zhan’s prized familiar. She is as beautiful and majestic as her witch, weaving through the air like some sort of dragon deity. He turns back to the half-formed potion in his hands. Dumping the hastily thrown together ingredients into the thermos, Wei Ying twists the lid back on and shakes it vigorously. He jumps to his feet and calls out for Lan Zhan. Between one blink and the next, he is flying through the air, Lan Zhan’s large hands on his waist keeping him from dropping into the water.
“Here goes,” he says. Wei Ying twists the cap open. The liquid inside the thermos is dark, bubbling lazily. It smells a little like burnt chocolate. Wei Ying upends it directly onto the leyline root.
The effect is immediate. The dead roots sizzle, poking and twisting around the new liquid. Wei Ying’s potion stubbornly clings onto the spindly roots. In its attempts to shake off the potion, the resentment has loosened its grasp on the leyline core. Lan Zhan takes the chance. He whips out a hand, palm shining, and the leyline core brightens in response. The last of the resentment drops off it, writhing, and a whirlpool appears, the lake becoming a violent storm. Wei Ying catches a glimpse of the dead roots, stretching all the way down to the muddy bottom of the lake. The resentment has switched targets, now reaching towards where Bichen is hovering in midair.
Wei Ying has a split second moment of realization. Lan Zhan is still healing the leyline core. The resentment only has enough strength to grab for one of them. It can’t be Lan Zhan.
He slips out of the other witch’s grip before he can react. As he starts to drop through the air, Wei Ying tosses a glance over his shoulder. The last thing he sees before the water swallows him is Lan Zhan’s wide eyes, an outstretched hand just missing his own, and the swirl of white and pink yinghua petals from Lan Zhan’s hat.
The lake is not that deep. But when Wei Ying squints open his eyes underwater, it is pitch-black. He can barely tell which way is up. His limbs recall the swimming lessons the Jiangs had instilled in him when he first joined their household, but the water feels heavier than usual. Then, out of nowhere, the gnarly tree roots shoot out from the darkness and winds around his body. Wei Ying kicks, manages to free one arm, but he can’t swim like this. His chest is starting to burn with the effort of holding his breath.
No, Wei Ying says firmly in his mind. I will not be drowning today.
He has people waiting for him to come home for dinner. He has Lan Zhan, who is probably seconds away from diving in after him.
With his one free hand, Wei Ying pulls off one of his hairclips and stabs his other palm, splitting the skin enough for a small cloud of blood. Letting go of the clip, he swipes his thumb into the blood and brings it to his chest. He sketches out an array, spots appearing in his vision, urging himself to hurry, hurry. At the last stroke, he lets his eyes fall closed, water slipping into his mouth as he chants something old and unnatural, inviting in the angry energy all around him. Freezing ice, so cold it aches, spreads through his body, and then—
Everything after that happens in snapshots.
He remembers the water opening up, being suspended above it, held aloft by the resentment. The glow of the leyline core. The urge to reach for it, consume it.
He remembers something bright cutting in front of him. Someone calling his name from far away. Leaves fluttering around him like hands trying to cradle him close.
He remembers rage, blood-red and wine-dark, flooding his body and overflowing. Reaching up and a loud, resounding crack. The whip of willow branches as the uprooted tree flies through the air towards the bright thing in his way.
He remembers brightness like moonlight, enveloping his entire being. He remembers his body moving on its own. He remembers flowers, cascading colours, the intoxicating smell of it. He remembers seeing the lake below, displaced water, boats scattered. People running. The gaping hole where the willow tree used to be. Destruction by his hands.
He remembers meeting golden eyes. He remembers his own fingers, sticky with blood, trying to stop himself as he digs out the dizi from his pouch. Cutting his teeth on the bamboo. The shrill, eerie sound of a song he composed to put his unwilling nightmares to rest.
He remembers the last note ringing, and then a sharp pain splitting through his head. He remembers
When Wei Ying wakes up, he is in his bed. Suibian is curled up on his knees. He feels awful enough that he doesn’t mind the tiny dried leaves she had scattered all over his bed. His body aches all over, and one of his hands is wrapped in bandages, tied with Wen Qing’s special knot.
“Wei Ying. How are you feeling?”
He turns to find Lan Zhan ducking under the curtain hung up as a divider between his bed and the rest of the tiny room. Setting aside a small tray, Lan Zhan helps Wei Ying sit up. A mug—the one with the faded Crayon Shin-chan print—is pressed into his hands. Wei Ying drinks the water gratefully.
“What,” he croaks, “happened?”
Lan Zhan sets the mug down and hands him a bowl of xifan, making sure Wei Ying has a good grip on the spoon, before speaking. “You surrendered yourself as a vessel for the resentful energy, giving me enough time to restore the leyline to its proper state. However, the resentment had sent you on a rampage.” Here, Lan Zhan hesitates. He doesn’t look at Wei Ying when he continues, “I tried to stop you, but I... I thought I’d hurt you.”
“No,” Wei Ying says immediately. “You could never hurt me, Lan Zhan.”
“You weren’t responding. Your eyes were red, and you were bleeding, and—When you started playing, I thought I had lost you for good. But you came back.” Lan Zhan looks at him then, his eyes intense with too many emotions. “I was afraid.”
“Oh, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying drops the spoon into the bowl and reaches out. Lan Zhan holds his hand, warm and steady. “You caught me,” Wei Ying says.
Wei Ying doesn’t say thank you. Instead, he squeezes Lan Zhan’s hand. The other witch exhales slightly at the touch, something cracking in his composed expression. There are no tears. Here, in Wei Ying’s rooftop loft, with only the whirring of the electric fan in the corner breaking the quiet, there is no need to hide. Here, it is safe.
Wei Ying lets his gaze fall to the bowl in his lap. There’s a sunny egg in there, crispy on the edges the way Wen Ning makes it, even a little bit of chili oil. “What happened after?” Wei Ying forces himself to ask.
“The lake returned to normal after the leyline stabilized.”
“But, the park—the boats—I know I damaged some, and the walkways are flooded, and—the tree—”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan tugs his hand until he looks at him. “It’s alright. No one was hurt. I said we will return to help with reparations.”
“I killed the tree,” Wei Ying says, wretched. “I ruined it. My magic destroys things.”
“You did not ruin anything,” Lan Zhan tells him firmly. “The resentful energy took over your body, but you fought it. You saved the leyline core, just like you have been doing these past few weeks. Wei Ying, your magic is good.”
Wei Ying shakes his head. He was empty inside, and the resentment had only reminded him just how far he had fallen from what a witch should be. All he is now is a bag of tricks, broken parts taped together masquerading as something that can help people.
His hand is released. The bowl is removed from his lap. Wei Ying closes his eyes, not wanting to see Lan Zhan’s back when he leaves. But the next thing he knows, he is lifted from the bed, strong arms around his back and under his knees. Yelping, Wei Ying clings onto the other man, fisting the pale silver oversized sweater. Lan Zhan brings him outside onto the roof. He sets him down on the chair by the garden.
“Look,” Lan Zhan says.
Steeling himself, Wei Ying does. There are the potted plants and box planters he’s arranged like a Tetris puzzle against the edge of the roof. He’s been taking care of them as best he could, but he’s often busy, and his attention span has always been all over the place. As Wen Qing says, he can barely take care of himself. Doesn’t help that he doesn’t have proper witchcraft to rely on to keep the plants healthy. All he knows now is how to play with dead things. But—
Right now, as he looks, flowers have opened up, stretching towards the morning sun. The previously yellowing bamboo plant has straightened. The tomato plant is no longer shrivelled, the fern is lush again, the shrubs are now a vibrant green. The garden is thriving.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he says.
Lan Zhan shakes his head. He kneels down, ignoring Wei Ying’s sputtering. “It isn’t me, this time. Wei Ying, freeing the leylines didn’t just stop the decay. It revitalized the entire city. You did this.”
“That’s because I had you. I wouldn’t be able to do anything without you.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan takes his hand in both of his. “It’s the same for me.”
Wide-eyed, Wei Ying stares back. “What...?”
Then he feels it: unwavering, gentle warmth, rising slowly like steam from a fresh cup of hot soy milk, seeping into every part of him until his toes are tingling. Something nudges his fingers, and Wei Ying glances down to find little seedlings sprouting from where their hands are clasped together. He gasps.
“It’s you,” Lan Zhan says softly. When Wei Ying looks back up, he is already watching him back.
Wei Ying laughs. One of the sproutlings dips down to tickle his thumb. He grins, a little wobbly but true. “It’s us,” he says, “together.”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan untangles one of his hands to brush away a tear from Wei Ying’s eye. He lets his fingers rest against Wei Ying’s face, lets Wei Ying lean into the heat of his palm. He doesn’t look away.
Between them, all around them, life continues to bloom.