Wei Wuxian trudged up the steps leading to his apartment building. Ordinarily, his stride wouldn’t be caught dead in the vicinity of “trudging,” but the pouring rain had caught him on his walk home. His jacket plastered itself to his sides, cold water dripped down his neck, and his arms did very little to shelter his groceries. Maybe he could rescue some of the vegetables.
His calculations stuttered when he saw a glittering length of rope on the welcome mat. He crouched down to take a closer look, setting his groceries beside him. Had it twitched? Even in the gloomy half-light, it was covered in unmistakable scales. Dull gray. Four legs. Some kind of lizard?
“Poor little guy,” Wei Wuxian murmured, nudging it onto his hand. He could feel its shivers. “Let’s get you warmed up, okay?”
Once he maneuvered himself, the lizard, and his sodden groceries into his apartment, he ran to the sink to turn on the hot water. The lizard made a sad chirp when it was unceremoniously shoved under the faucet. “I know,” Wei Wuxian said, trying to sound soothing. “But this is the fastest way to get warm! Weren’t you cold before?”
At the sound of his voice, the lizard’s eyes snapped open. Deep gold, and piercing: somehow it felt as though such imperious eyes should belong to a much larger animal. A shiver ran down Wei Wuxian’s spine. He turned over the lizard to get a better look at it. Under the hot water, and Wei Wuxian’s vigorous soaping, color returned to its scales.
He had never seen a lizard like this. Wouldn’t its blue scales make it vulnerable to predators? What kind of lizard had antlers? But two unmistakable little nubs stuck out of its forehead. And it wouldn’t stop watching him. Maybe it belonged to a rare species and had escaped from exotic animal traffickers.
“What trouble are you going to bring me, huh?” He splashed a handful of water onto the lizard’s back. It narrowed its eyes. “Are scary guys in suits going to come after you?”
It huffed through its nose. A little plume of steam rose into the air. Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but smile. The apartment had been quiet after Jiang Cheng moved out for his new job. Then the pandemic started, Wei Wuxian moved his work computer home, and it became even quieter. Maybe that was why it felt like this strange creature could understand him.
“Well, I’m telling you right now,” he says, mockingly stern, “If they offer me a few million to hand you over, I’m not going to say no. I can’t afford this place as it is—ow!” Five thin scratches appeared on his hand. The soapy lizard had shot out of his grasp and was now coiled around his wrist. It bared its teeth at him. “Watch those claws! I was kidding, they’d probably just give me fake money anyway. Come on, let’s get you rinsed off.”
The lizard haughtily allowed itself to be rinsed and then swaddled in Wei Wuxian’s softest, least threadbare towel. Wei Wuxian set the towel bundle on his kitchen table and rested his head at table level to gaze at it. It was grooming itself, a delicate pink tongue flicking out to clean its scales. “Don’t reptiles have forked tongues?” He wondered aloud. It ignored him. He patted the top of its head with one finger, and it closed its eyes in apparent contentment. After a moment, it gave him a small lick before returning to its work.
“What a weird lizard. Maybe you’re the missing link between reptiles and felines. Maybe they’ll let me name you as a reward for discovering your species. I think I’ll call you…” Finished with its grooming, it curled up on the towel next to his hand and started falling asleep. A helpless grin spread across Wei Wuxian’s face. He had found his pandemic hobby.
“Xiao miantiao.” Little noodle.
- - -
Wei Wuxian staggered through the door with an armful of groceries, again, with Xiao Miantiao riding in his sweatshirt hood. “I told you to stay in my pocket!” It was difficult to scold something you couldn’t make eye contact with, but he gave it his best try. “The guy at the pet shop was just about to sell me four different kinds of food for you , and then you had to come out to bite him, and now it’s all ‘what is THAT,’ ‘no way it’s legal to own one of those,’ ‘I think I have to call Animal Control,’” he set down his bags and reached a hand back for Xiao Miantiao to crawl onto.
A closer look revealed that Xiao Miantiao, though seemingly unrepentant, looked a bit green. “Yeah? You got a little jostled? Do you think it’s because your rudeness meant I had to scoop you up and run two miles until we lost Animal Control?” Wei Wuxian gave him a gentle pat on the head before turning to fill a water bowl for him. (The pet shop clerk hadn’t been helpful in determining Xiao Miantiao’s gender, but Wei Wuxian was fairly confident in his guess.)
“You’ll have to take your pick from what I got at the grocery store. Don’t come complaining to me if it’s not the finest hand-harvested Peruvian mealworms or whatever.” Xiao Miantiao had already drunk his fill and settled down to gaze at Wei Wuxian through drowsy, slitted eyes. “It would help if we knew what type of lizard you are, but lots of them are carnivorous, so…”
Wei Wuxian held up a small box of crickets. They were best fed live: he pinched one between his thumb and index finger and lifted it up and out. Wei Wuxian wiggled the cricket in front of Xiao Miantiao’s eyes; the cricket kicked its legs wildly. “Fresh cricket! Get them while they’re crunchy!”
He had never seen Xiao Miantiao move so quickly or with so little dignity. In less than a second, his claws scrabbled beneath him as he skittered to the other end of the table. He hissed, raising his front claws as if to warn the cricket against coming closer.
Wei Wuxian didn’t think that was going to be a problem.
“Okay, okay, I’m putting it back.” The reprieved cricket went into the box. The box shut with a click. Wei Wuxian rested his chin on his hand as he reached out his other hand. With an aggrieved air, Xiao Miantiao raised his head to accept some scritches. “Aren’t you embarrassed to be scared of something a tenth of your size? I bet you could squish it in one hand. Claw.” Xiao Miantiao didn’t respond, of course, but somehow Wei Wuxian thought he looked miffed.
“Fine, we’ll try something else.” He reached into one of the bags and pulled out a head of cabbage. While shredding it into a bowl, he continued talking: “Jiang Cheng called today. He says he likes the new job, but apparently his new roommate’s even messier than I am.” Wei Wuxian wrinkled his nose. “Brat. Younger brothers these days don’t have any respect, you know?”
He peered at Xiao Miantiao. Certainly Xiao Miantiao couldn’t understand, but his gaze was so intent that it almost felt like he could. Wei Wuxian laughed ruefully. “Maybe you don’t. You seem way too prissy to have a younger brother. But you’re pretty good at listening. With Jiang Cheng you’ve really got to fight to get your words in. Anyway, he told me to eat vegetables or he’d break my legs, so he definitely misses me.” He pushed the bowl of cabbage towards Xiao Miantiao, snagging a piece for himself. “Eugh, no flavor. I don’t think this is good for you.”
But Xiao Miantiao descended upon the cabbage pile with surprising speed and grace. He held each piece in his front claws and worked steadily through them. He must have been hungry. There was no telling when he had last eaten before he appeared on the doorstep. Wei Wuxian peeled a carrot for him as well, which he devoured with equal enthusiasm.
“Slow down, all right? If you make yourself sick you’ll only have me to treat you, and I don’t know anything about reptiles. Or reptile-mammal hybrids.” Xiao Miantiao stopped chewing for a moment to glare at him. It should have been unnerving, but Wei Wuxian was unbearably charmed.
“I always ate too fast at Jiang-shushu and Yu-ayi’s. Yu-ayi would tell me not to go crying to her if my stomach hurt later.” He smiled through the familiar tug in his chest. Xiao Miantiao stopped eating entirely, walking over to put one clawed foreleg on Wei Wuxian’s much bigger hand. Wei Wuxian stroked his white crest from head to tail. Xiao Miantiao closed his eyes and a quiet rumble vibrated in his chest. When Wei Wuxian tried to take his hand away, Xiao Miantiao butted his antlers into Wei Wuxian’s wrist.
“Such a demanding customer! You can’t get rid of me so easily. I’m stuck here, right? I don’t know when I’ll be able to visit the Jiangs again. Since we’re quarantined and all.” He swallowed. Kept his voice light, and didn’t think about why he needed to do it for a lizard’s benefit. “Saves us all some stress, really. But jiejie just had her baby, so Yu-ayi and Jiang-shushu are staying with her to help. And I’ve seen pictures of Jin Ling—there’s never been such a fat baby—but I was really hoping to actually see him. Who doesn’t want to hold a baby, right?”
Wei Wuxian took a breath that was only a little shaky. He didn’t know why he kept talking. Xiao Miantiao was resting his head on Wei Wuxian’s hand. His weight was warm. It wasn’t as though he was burdening Xiao Miantiao, anyway.
“It’s fine. I know we’re all just waiting it out.” Xiao Miantiao cocked his head to the side, looking straight up at Wei Wuxian. He really did have beautiful eyes. “And going back to work means I’ll have to decide what to do with you. I don’t think they’ll let you sleep in my pocket.”
That night, Wei Wuxian slept with Xiao Miantiao curled in the crook of his neck. He dreamed about golden eyes and blue scales the size of his hand. He dreamed about a man who had the same eyes. The man leaned over to brush the hair out of Wei Wuxian’s face, dropping a brief kiss on his forehead. Wei Ying, the man said, sleep. It is only mao shi.
Wei Wuxian woke with tear stains dried onto his cheeks.
- - -
The days went on. Wei Wuxian worked at his computer, logged onto the occasional meeting, and talked on the phone. His sister videochatted with him and waved Jin Ling’s chubby arm at the camera. Jiang Cheng scolded him about not going outside. Nie Huaisang chattered about his new YouTube channel. Every day Wei Wuxian watched the sky brighten and darken from his window.
Xiao Miantiao coiled around Wei Wuxian’s arm while he worked, slipped into his pocket when he took a call, and gazed back steadily when Wei Wuxian talked to him. So Wei Wuxian talked to him constantly. He talked through his work—“Why did changing this break that?” Xiao Miantiao would tilt his head to the side, as though fascinated with Wei Wuxian’s database struggles. “You’re a genius! I’ll try a workaround, they should give you a job instead,”—his dinner plans—“What do you think? Ramen or canned soup? Ow! You bit me!”—and once, when he had too much to drink, his romantic woes.
“Maybe I’m just never meant to be with anyone, you know? And there’s nothing wrong with doing your own thing. Jiang Cheng’s probably going to be single forever. I just never thought that was going to be me.” He was sprawled on the couch, Xiao Miantiao nested in his hair. His eyes had gone crossed from trying to look at Xiao Miantiao. “Ever since I was little I thought about coming home to someone. Growing old with someone, right?”
Xiao Miantiao climbed onto his chest to look up at him. Wei Wuxian could never describe how Xiao Miantiao managed to seem interested.
“Does your species mate for life? Maybe you know what I’m talking about. That’s basically what I’ve always wanted. And it’s not like I never meet people; I guess I just never met someone who felt right.” Xiao Miantiao’s little claws dug into Wei Wuxian’s shirt. “But does anyone ever feel right? I don’t know, did my parents just know that they were going to be happy together? Maybe if I met someone really nice. Someone who—hey!” The claws had gone clean through his shirt. “I’m not made of money, you know! When I meet my wealthy provider I’ll let you shred all the shirts you want!”
Xiao Miantiao followed him everywhere. Every time Wei Wuxian tried to leave him behind, even for a quick errand, Xiao Miantiao would cling to his hand and widen his eyes as though his heart was breaking. Wei Wuxian would grumble about his inability to entertain himself while placing him into a pocket or a hood. After the first month, they settled into a familiar routine.
- - -
And then Wei Wuxian woke up with his wrists bound in zipties. He strained against them experimentally. They held. As his mind cleared, he realized that he was still in his apartment—his cheek was pressed against one of his kitchen cabinets. He choked on his shouts for help. Someone had stuffed a gag into his mouth.
Three strangers in his kitchen. Probably one of them had tied him up.
Before he could try to escape, an incandescent flash blinded them all. A thunderclap made his ears ring, even though the sun shone bright through his windows. When the glare had faded, a white-robed man stood between Wei Wuxian and the intruders. The man had a sword pointed at one of the strangers.
“Leave,” he ordered. A shiver ran down Wei Wuxian’s spine. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the man whom he certainly had never seen before. Beautiful, of course, but the air around him crackled like the air before a summer storm.
Another stranger drew his own sword. “Hanguang-jun is too righteous to deny us justice,” he said, though both his voice and his sword trembled. “Let us take the Yiling Laozu and we’ll leave in peace.”
The white-robed man did not budge. “This man remembers nothing. He lives an ordinary life.” Wei Wuxian’s hands were cold and slippery. He kept pulling at his zipties. They must have mistaken him for someone else. “He is a man like any other.”
“Bullshit,” said the first stranger, undaunted by the sword pointed inches from his chest. “Then why are you here?”
The white-robed man did not change his expression, but Wei Wuxian knew with absolute certainty that he was stricken beyond speaking. Whoever this Yiling Laozu was, he must have been important to Hanguang-jun.
The first stranger pressed his advantage. “Three thousand years and Hanguang-jun finally comes down from his celestial mountain. Do you think we’re stupid? He might not be dangerous now,” their eyes all flickered to Wei Wuxian—except Hanguang-jun, who had never looked away from him. “But the sects will make sure he never will be.”
One of the others took a step toward Wei Wuxian. Hanguang-jun’s mouth tightened. His robes whirled too quickly for Wei Wuxian to follow—the strangers yelped, their weapons clattering to the floor—when Hanguang-jun stilled, red bloomed across each of their chests. His sword dripped blood onto Wei Wuxian’s kitchen tiles.
“I will not ask again,” he said icily. “Go. The Yiling Laozu is dead.”
The door hadn’t yet shut behind them when Hanguang-jun knelt at Wei Wuxian’s side. He cut Wei Wuxian’s wrists free and, with the utmost care, worked the gag out of his mouth. His hands were warm. His calloused thumb brushed against Wei Wuxian’s lips, and Wei Wuxian had to stifle a gasp. His gaze darted up to Hanguang-jun’s. Such mesmerizing eyes. He’s never seen that color except on—
“Are you all right?” Hanguang-jun asked. Gentleness suited his voice.
“I’m,” Wei Wuxian swallowed, rubbing his jaw to work out the soreness. “Yeah,” he rasped. He tried to give his rescuer a smile. “Thanks for not letting them kidnap me. I don’t know who they wanted, but my name’s actually Wei Wuxian.”
The warmth in Hanguang-jun’s eyes gave way to something more inscrutable. “There is no need for thanks between us.” He rose to his feet and extended his hand to pull up Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian had a thousand questions and no idea where to start. He opened his mouth, but his stomach decided right then to announce that he hadn’t eaten yet that day.
“Hey, do you want to stay for breakfast? I’ll trade you cereal and tea for an explanation, how’s that?”
Hanguang-jun’s lips quirked into the smallest, most endearing smile. “Agreed.”
- - -
“So, let me get this straight,” Wei Wuxian said through a mouthful of egg. “You’re an immortal dragon. Your name is Lan Zhan, courtesy name Lan Wangji, whatever that means—you don’t look like a Wangji—and I’ve been feeding you and bathing you and telling you my most embarrassing secrets for the past month?” At Lan Zhan’s nod, Wei Wuxian dropped his face into his hands. His shoulders shook from laughing. “Fuck. I—could you become a human this whole time?”
“No,” Lan Zhan said. He could finish a bowl of cereal without slurping once, which was nearly as impressive as his other abilities. “The journey from my home left me weakened when you found me. I have been recovering my strength. I can now assume my human form for five hours a day.” Wei Wuxian went to pour him a fourth bowl, but he declined with a polite head shake.
“Is it true that you haven’t left for three thousand years?”
Lan Zhan shook his head again. “I go where I am needed. Often I am unnoticed.”
“Hard to believe, with a face like that.” The words came out before Wei Wuxian could question the wisdom of flirting with a god. Lan Zhan’s ears flushed, but his eyes crinkled just a little. Something swooped in Wei Wuxian’s chest. I did that, he thought incredulously, and suddenly nothing was more important than doing it again.
“What happened this time?”
Lan Zhan’s expression shuttered. He fell silent, but it felt as though he was just searching for the right words. His hand curled into a fist on the table.
Wei Wuxian probed again from a different direction: “Who’s the Yiling Laozu?” Lan Zhan relaxed. Even sorrow looked graceful on him. He replied immediately, as though the answer was carved into his bones:
“He was my zhiji.”
Wei Wuxian swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. Of course. Had he expected such a fantastical being to live thousands of years without meeting his equal? Someone who could match his every step?
“What was he like? He must really have been something special if Hanguang-jun thought he was worth knowing.” Surprisingly, that got another small smile.
“He was his sect’s first disciple. The most promising cultivator of his generation.” Lan Zhan paused to sip his tea. “He was the most righteous man I have ever met.” There was an undercurrent in Lan Zhan’s placid voice that almost sounded like amusement.
Wei Wuxian seized and pulled. “I bet he wasn’t perfect like you. Come on, you can tell me, did he snore? Did he steal all the blankets?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes sparkled. It knocked the breath out of Wei Wuxian. Did the Yiling Laozu wake up to this every day?
“The first time we met, I fought him to a draw for smuggling forbidden alcohol.”
Wei Wuxian gasped theatrically. “What a scoundrel! And he was first in his generation? What did he do, build the world’s first modern brewery?”
“No.” Lan Zhan’s features settled back into his gentle melancholy. He set his cup on the table. “He invented demonic cultivation.”
“He what. I thought—“ Wei Wuxian’s mind was whirling. “I thought that only existed in fantasy novels, are you telling me that he raised the dead,”
Lan Zhan cut him off dryly. “Did you believe that dragons existed outside of fantasy novels, then?” It was a fair point. Wei Wuxian slumped back in his chair.
“He never told me why he delved into demonic cultivation. It gave him immense power at a terrible price.” Lan Zhan stared down at the table, unseeing. “He made many enemies. In the end, the resentful energy devoured him before they could.”
“Lan Zhan, you don’t…” Wei Wuxian hesitated. He didn’t want to force a painful story out of Lan Zhan, but there was an itch at the back of his mind. He was painfully, desperately curious.
Lan Zhan plunged on ruthlessly, still refusing to meet Wei Wuxian’s eyes. “I have found him each time he was reborn. I have protected him, guided him, helped him ascend to a higher life form in his next reincarnation. Two months ago, I discovered that he has regained his human body.”
A vise gripped Wei Wuxian’s heart. The pieces clicked into place. “That’s why you came to my doorstep. You think it’s me.” How could he answer three thousand years of devotion? How could his little life be enough for a dead man’s monument?
Lan Zhan bowed his head. “I apologize. My haste drew attention. I believe I can set a false trail away from you. It is common to hear rumors of your reincarnation; a few months of discretion will ensure your safety.” He drew an unsteady breath, finally looking up at Wei Wuxian. “I placed you in danger for my reckless desire to see you again. I am sorry.”
It’s as though Lan Zhan’s pain pulled a thread within Wei Wuxian. He leaned forward to wrap a hand around Lan Zhan’s wrist and knew, without thinking, that it was the right thing to do. “It’s all right,” he said, hoping that his voice was light enough. Hoping that his smile was real enough. “I’m not scared. Aren’t you here to protect me?”
Lan Zhan was staring at him like he needed to memorize every detail, every contour, every last freckle. He turned his hand up to grasp Wei Wuxian’s. “Always,” he said.
For a wild moment, Wei Wuxian wondered if his own face looked the same as the Yiling Laozu’s. He wondered how Lan Zhan could be so sure about him. He wondered which differences split him from the Yiling Laozu, and which one would be Lan Zhan’s last straw.
He decided that he didn’t want to know.
- - -
Wei Wuxian reported for work almost every morning. He stayed up late to read apocryphal texts about the history of cultivation, and scraps of legends about dragons. Lan Zhan, when he wasn’t out fending off Wei Wuxian’s pursuers, often curled around his forearm to read along.
Strangely enough, Wei Wuxian found not even a whisper about the Yiling Laozu.
“They purged him from all written histories,” Lan Zhan said flatly, shifting into his human form to sit on Wei Wuxian’s sofa. “They first told his story as a cautionary tale. It was no use. Jiang Wanyin and I found demonic cultivators following his methods year after year.” He continued the story, but Wei Wuxian was too dazed to listen. He could see, as though through water, a man wielding a bolt of lightning. In our next life, let’s be brothers again.
“Jiang Wanyin?” He finally said, unsteadily. Lan Zhan fell silent at once. Wei Wuxian would never get used to how dizzying it felt to be pinned under his full attention. “Who was he?”
Lan Zhan did not answer for a long time. His eyes searched Wei Wuxian’s, but whatever he found didn’t seem to satisfy him. Finally, he replied, “Who do you think he was?”
Wei Wuxian broke eye contact first. He went back to the page he was reading. His eyes slid over the same line five times before he caught himself. Jiang was a common enough surname.
He said, almost too quietly even for himself to hear: “I think the Yiling Laozu must’ve cared about him very much.”
- - -
After Wei Wuxian closed his laptop for the day, he usually let Lan Zhan—as a small dragon—sleep on his pillow, just like before. Sometimes he dreamed that he slept on Lan Zhan’s chest, or curled up in Lan Zhan’s arms. Invariably, Lan Zhan would wake up at some unreasonably early hour. He would sit up, gently touch the side of Wei Wuxian’s face, and drop a kiss on his forehead.
It is only mao shi. Sleep, Wei Y—
Was it stealing to take something that belonged to a dead person? Wei Wuxian kept his eyes closed. Not if it was a dream. Not if he didn’t know any better.
He only had these dreams the nights before Lan Zhan left. He would never leave for more than a few days, but sometimes he returned with blood stains.
“Poor Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmured, dabbing at his shoulder wound with a wet paper towel. Lan Zhan had taken off his torn robes. He sat across from Wei Wuxian on the couch, as calm as a bodhisattva. His eyes were closed. Which was just as well. The two inches that separated their legs crackled like static electricity.
Wei Wuxian tried not to let his eyes wander down Lan Zhan’s chest, but fixing his eyes on Lan Zhan’s shoulder did no good. The slope of it tapered elegantly into Lan Zhan’s collarbone. Even at rest, the muscle stood taut against his skin. Wei Wuxian’s mouth was dry.
“Did you ever patch each other up? After a fight?” He asked, just to have something to say. If the Yiling Laozu could bandage Lan Zhan without wanting to skim his eyes over every inch of exposed skin, he was a better man than Wei Wuxian.
Lan Zhan nodded. He didn’t quite smile, but his eyes looked fond. “My leg was broken. His chest was burned. We took turns caring for each other in a cave.” He paused. Wei Wuxian tried to imagine it. A dark cave, and a weak fire casting flickering shadows over Lan Zhan’s face. “He was stubborn. He tried to refuse my help, but the wound made him feverish. I had to keep him conscious.”
Maybe they had sat beside each other, just like this. No, with a fever, Lan Zhan would have let the Yiling Laozu rest on his shoulder. Or his lap. Wei Wuxian’s tongue darted out to wet his lips.
“How?” He asked.
Lan Zhan stilled. He had hardly been moving before, but it was as though he was steeling himself. He looked at Wei Wuxian again, searchingly, asking a question in words that Wei Wuxian didn’t know.
“He asked me to sing to him.”
They were so close that their breath mingled between them. Something was tugging the back of Wei Wuxian’s mind like a floorboard coming loose. His world had narrowed to this point, this couch, and the question that he whispered now against Lan Zhan’s lips:
“What was the song called?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes widened. Then his hand came up to cradle Wei Wuxian’s jaw as he closed the remaining distance between their lips. The kiss began as a gentle press, but Wei Wuxian gasped into it—nobody had so much as touched his hand in almost a year—and Lan Zhan chased the sound, nipping at Wei Wuxian’s lower lip until he panted soft moans into Lan Zhan’s mouth.
Lan Zhan wrapped his other arm around Wei Wuxian’s waist to pull them flush against each other, which was just as well, because Wei Wuxian’s bones had turned to jelly. Lan Zhan’s heart was beating so quickly, Wei Wuxian realized with wonder.
Something wet was seeping onto his shoulder. Wei Wuxian broke the kiss abruptly: “Lan Zhan, you’re still bleeding— oh,” Lan Zhan tilted his head up to trail hungry kisses from the corner of his jaw down his throat. Wei Wuxian’s head was spinning. He’d never kissed anyone before. The way Lan Zhan held him, as though he was some priceless treasure, tore at him.
“Wangxian,” Lan Zhan said, his voice rough with unshed tears. He left a searing kiss on Wei Wuxian’s collarbone—that one was going to bruise; the very thought made Wei Wuxian whimper—and glanced up at him with desperate hope. “Wei Ying, the song was called Wangxian.”
Wei Wuxian stopped breathing. He’d never heard that name in his life, but goosebumps pebbled his skin as though his body recognized it. Wei Ying, Wei Ying—and suddenly it felt as though he would die if he went another moment without kissing Lan Zhan. He yanked Lan Zhan back up, tangling his fingers in Lan Zhan’s hair as he crashed their mouths together.
Was it stealing to take from a dead man?
Lan Zhan pinned him down on the couch by his wrists and sucked a chain of bruises around his neck. Had Wei Ying ever keened for Lan Zhan like this? “Lan Zhan, fuck, please, please,” as Lan Zhan’s hand slid down Wei Wuxian’s sweatpants to grip his already-leaking cock, his other hand curled possessively around Wei Wuxian’s hip. Had Lan Zhan ever hushed Wei Ying with two fingers shoved into his mouth—Wei Wuxian thrusting helplessly into Lan Zhan’s hand—somehow Wei Wuxian didn’t think so, because Lan Zhan stopped to ask, with a trace of uncertainty, “Wei Ying?”
Was it stealing to take from a dead man what he never had?
Wei Wuxian moaned around Lan Zhan’s fingers, “Yes, Lan Zhan, please, anything,” and Lan Zhan’s eyes darkened with want. He slid his hand out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth. Wei Wuxian’s protest cut into a surprised whimper when Lan Zhan pressed a finger against his hole.
Nobody had ever told Wei Wuxian that he could be touched like this. “Lan Zhan, please, more—“ When Lan Zhan did not immediately comply, Wei Wuxian snapped his hips forward, hissing in pain as he took Lan Zhan’s finger all at once. It hurt, but the pain sent thrills rippling up his spine.
Lan Zhan stared down at where his hand joined Wei Ying, lips parted as though he couldn’t believe his eyes. His paralysis did not last long. When a second finger slid in to join the first, Wei Wuxian opened for it like a flower. He arched his back from the couch, panting, “I need you, Lan Zhan, fuck—“ he didn’t know what he was begging for, but Lan Zhan understood. He buried his face in Wei Wuxian’s shoulder—Wei Wuxian could come just listening to his harsh, staccato breaths—and pumped into Wei Wuxian with quick, steady thrusts that reduced him to a wordless stream of moans.
It was too much and never enough. Wei Wuxian summoned the strength to wrap his hand around Lan Zhan’s cock that laid, neglected, on his stomach. He tugged it once. He couldn’t put together the words for a proper request, but “Lan Zhan, please?” got him what he wanted anyway.
It burned when it went in. Lan Zhan’s teeth at the base of his neck dulled some of the pain, but tears welled in his eyes as Lan Zhan entered him. If the air crackled before, lightning surged through his veins now. When Lan Zhan came up for air, cheeks flushed and hair tousled, he looked at Wei Wuxian with so much naked reverence that the tears finally spilled over.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he sobbed, his fingers digging into the side of the couch as Lan Zhan rocked into him. “It’s so good, I’ve never—you’re the first one who—“
Lan Zhan’s rhythm stuttered. Then he sped up again, slamming into Wei Wuxian with hard and graceless thrusts. Each one wringed a bitten-off cry from Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan choked out, and the warm shock of his spend sent Wei Wuxian over the edge as well. Wei Wuxian turned his face into a cushion to muffle his keening orgasm, but Lan Zhan grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled him free. “Wei Ying,” he said roughly, “please, I want to hear you.”
Wei Wuxian didn’t think it was possible to come so hard that his vision blurred white at the edges.
He clung to Lan Zhan through the after-tremors. Lan Zhan brushed his lips across Wei Wuxian’s forehead, his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and lingered over his tear stains to kiss them dry. Wei Wuxian tucked his face into Lan Zhan’s chest, tracing patterns on his back with shaking hands.
With growing horror, he realized that Lan Zhan’s back was covered in knotted scars. They had been too small to see in his dragon form.
Lan Zhan stiffened under his touch. Wei Wuxian pulled back to look at him. His face was carefully blank. He rested one hand on Lan Zhan’s cheek, stroking a thumb over his tense jaw.
“Lan Zhan, what are these?”
Lan Zhan wouldn’t meet his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was numb. “I hid you in a cave for the three days before you died. The resentment had consumed your senses, but you recognized me.” Lan Zhan’s knuckles were white where his hands clenched. Wei Wuxian took one in both of his own. When he pressed his lips to the back of Lan Zhan’s hand, something broke behind Lan Zhan’s eyes, though he didn’t take his hand away.
“My uncle brought thirty-three Lan elders to bring me back.” Lan Zhan drew a shaking breath. “I refused. When they moved to take you, I fought them all. For hurting them, I received one lash for each elder.”
Wei Wuxian was frozen in horror. He could only squeeze Lan Zhan’s hand, letting its solid warmth anchor him. “Lan Zhan,” he rasped, not knowing where to begin. In any case, Lan Zhan didn’t let him.
“Wei Ying,” he said, finally looking up. His gaze drank in Wei Wuxian like a desert wanderer with his last mouthful of water. “You owe me nothing. This is what I told you in each of your lives. I found you and protected you only to let you live your days in peace.”
“It can’t have been easy,” Wei Wuxian said, trying for a smile. “If this is the first time I’ve been a human. Did you ever have to chase down an elephant and convince it to walk away from an electric fence?”
“You were a hawk once,” Lan Zhan replied. He touched Wei Wuxian’s cheek with the back of his hand, and it came away wet. “I raised you from an egg. When you grew up, you flew away. Each time you left, it would take you longer to return. I fastened a talisman around your ankle to protect you.”
He was stroking Wei Wuxian’s hair. Wei Wuxian realized that he could feel himself shaking. When had Lan Zhan folded him into his arms? Lan Zhan was shaking too. His heart beat so quickly.
“You invented the talisman yourself. I modified it so that it would work as long as you lived, no matter how far you flew.” Wei Wuxian could hear, laced inextricably with grief, the hint of a smile. “I have no gift for talismans. I thought that you might have been proud of me.”
Wei Wuxian felt small and distinctly unworthy. He opened his mouth to protest, but no words came.
“Do you understand?” Lan Zhan had never sounded so urgent, not even when he stood between Wei Wuxian and his would-be kidnappers. “You owe me nothing. You need never see me again, if you wish, and I will still protect you.”
“Who could want that?” Wei Wuxian’s outrage broke past his shame. “Lan Zhan, I was ready to spend the rest of my life with you when I thought you were just some lizard I picked up off the ground. Who could have the chance to stay with you and throw it away?”
Lan Zhan was silent. It felt like he was collecting himself.
“Do you remember what you said and heard in the cave before you died?”
Wei Wuxian remembered very little. Only flashes of voices and faces, and he couldn’t say which life they belonged to. He could imagine a cave with Lan Zhan in it but couldn’t know whether such a cave had really existed.
“No, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry.” The last word comes out on a yawn. With a start, Wei Wuxian realized that it was nearly morning.
Lan Zhan sighed. With infinite gentleness, he picked up Wei Wuxian from the couch and walked the few steps to deposit him onto his bed.
“Good night, Wei Ying.” A brush of lips next to his temple.
As he slept, Wei Wuxian remembered.
- - -
I have wronged you beyond reparation. You deserve to know everything, so I will describe the events that occurred in your final days. I hope the recollection does not cause you too much harm, or if it does, I hope my departure can mitigate it.
After you began using demonic cultivation, I could not convince you to receive cleansing or purification rituals at my hands. I never knew why you turned to forbidden methods, but I know you must have thought that you had no other choice. I have always wished that you had allowed me to help you. When you lost control of the resentment, near the end, I hid you because I hoped to save your life. If I could not do that, I hoped to relieve your suffering.
In no uncertain terms, even at the point of death, you told me that you wanted nothing to do with me. I have protected you for so long because I wanted to give you a clean start when you attained humanity again. You should choose your own path without regrets. In my selfishness, I brought danger to your door and took your affection under false pretenses. I do not think you would have given me all that you did, if you had remembered your previous life. I am sorry.
From today forward, I will leave you to the peace you have earned. It will be as though I never existed. I will ensure that you come to no harm, unless you wish for me to stop guarding you. The attached talisman will transmit to me any message you write upon it.
Lan Zhan, courtesy name Lan Wangji
As Lan Wangji unlatched Wei Ying’s window, a floorboard creaked behind him. He was afraid to turn. Wei Ying must surely be angry that Lan Wangji misled him for so long. Even worse, perhaps Wei Ying mourned the loss of the friend that he considered Lan Wangji to be.
But for all his faults, Lan Wangji never ran from his mistakes. He turned. Wei Ying did look angry, and hurt, and somewhat confused, and utterly, devastatingly lovely in his worn T-shirt and bed-rumpled hair. He held Lan Wangji’s letter in one hand.
“Lan er-gege,” he said, and Lan Wangji could hardly hear him over the blood pounding in his ears. He never told Wei Ying about his brother. Could Wei Ying have— “Were you going to leave without even saying goodbye?”
Lan Wangji was frozen in place. He hardly dared to acknowledge the painful hope that awoke in his chest. “Wei Ying?”
Wei Ying smiled as bright as the sun, and for the first time in three thousand years, Lan Wangji knew that Wei Ying recognized him. In an instant, Wei Ying crossed the room and threw his arms around Lan Wangji.
“Take me home, Lan Zhan.”