“Dog!” he shouts, pointing. “Dog!”
“Yes, A-Ying, dog!” A-Niang agrees. She sets him on the ground, and Wei Ying toddles as fast his legs can carry him to the dog, who is sitting beside a woman with a sword. He looks up at the woman quickly, to make sure he's not doing anything wrong. The woman smiles down at him, which means it's okay when Wei Ying shoves his hands into the dog's fur.
“You're soft,” he tells the dog. The dog wags its tail and pants, lips pulled up and pink tongue lolling out from between its teeth like it's smiling, so the dog must agree.
A-Niang and A-Die are talking to the woman about boring adult things. Wei Ying ignores them in favour of petting the dog all over. It licks his face and he giggles, then gives its head several pats. It gives a small, happy yip in turn.
Eventually A-Niang tells him it's time to go. She lets him give the dog a hug before she picks him off the ground and settles them both on the donkey.
“Say bye-bye, A-Ying,” A-Niang says.
“Bye-bye, dog!” Wei Ying waves after the dog. It barks, tail wagging, and Wei Ying laughs. So does A-Die, and A-Niang swoops down to kiss Wei Ying on the cheek.
As they walk, Wei Ying keeps twisting around A-Niang to see the dog, its tail wagging happily while it trots alongside its owner, until A-Niang lifts him against her chest so he can watch over her shoulder. “Bye-bye, dog,” he says again, sadly, once its out of sight. A-Niang ruffles his hair and settles him back in front of her, then looks at A-Die.
“What do you think?” A-Niang asks.
“A dog and a kid?” A-Die lets out a huff of laughter. “We'll have to see if we can get one from Fengmian next time we're in Lotus Pier.”
“Dog,” Wei Ying whispers to himself, spotting the dog just down the alleyway. This dog's fur doesn't look as nice as other one's he's seen, but it's probably just as soft.
It's been a long time since he's touched soft things.
“Hi dog,” he says, coming closer. It looks like its eating something on the ground. Maybe if the thing is tasty, the dog will let Wei Ying share.
He's about a donkey's length away when the dog looks up and at him, muzzle stained in blood.
Okay, maybe Wei Ying doesn't want to eat what the dog is eating, but if the dog would like a petting–
The dog growls. Its lips pull back and up, revealing sharp, yellowing, blood-stained teeth.
Wei Ying freezes.
He doesn't like that sound. He doesn't like those teeth.
He backs away.
The dog's growl transforms into a bark as it takes two, abrupt steps towards him.
Wei Ying turns on his heel and flees.
Dog! he screams in his head, but doesn't have the breath to waste. He races down the street, slides under a stall, hurtles around the corner and down the alley. He sees the low outcropping of roof and clambers up, yelping as he almost slips. Below him, he hears the dog thump against the wall, barking, nails scratching against stone.
Wei Ying crowds all his limbs on top of the narrow outcropping and digs out the pork bun he'd shoved into his tunic. It's cold and has dirt smudges from being on the ground, but it's the best food he's found in weeks.
Wei Ying crams it into his mouth and chews as fast as he can. The dog doesn't stop barking, leaping at the wall – not when Wei Ying finishes the food, not when Wei Ying covers his ears with his hands and shrieks it to “Go, go!” It doesn't stop until a man comes out of the house beside them to yell at it.
The dog scampers off. Then the man notices Wei Ying and yells at him too.
Wei Ying jumps down and scampers off as well, in the opposite direction of the dog.
Dogs! he sobs to himself in quick, short breaths. Their barking is behind him, close, too close.
He runs and runs and runs. He's already past the outskirts of town, and he's in the forest, and the barking is still behind him. He doesn't even have any food on him – he'd found some still-warm food outside a restaurant, eaten what he could, shoved the rest in his tunic for later, and then ate that too.
The dogs can still smell it.
He can barely breathe, and barking is getting closer, closer. He searches frantically for a tree with low branches and scrambles up the closest one. The trunk cuts his hands and rips at his nails, branches stab him and scrape him, but that doesn't matter when the dogs are below him, howling, baying, snarling.
“Go away, go away, I don't have any food!” he screams and sobs at them, crawling onto the sturdiest lowest branch. They don't listen. They bark, teeth flashing, nails digging into the tree as they leap at him, circling him.
Wei Ying clutches at the branch with all his strength, shaking. He stays there as they bark and snarl and bare their teeth. He stays there as they get bored and settle in to pacing around the tree until the sun sets. He stays there as they leave and night falls. He stays there, thirsty, hungry, cold, tired, and aching, until the sun rises again and he can't see any dogs in any direction, and then he stays there a bit longer just in case.
Dogdogdogdog, chants through his head in utter terror.
He hadn't even heard the dog coming.
He'd been digging through a treasure trove of food: a broken crate that had fallen off a cart. One moment he'd been grabbing a handful of pickled daikon to stuff in his bag, and the next there'd been low snarling behind him and a sharp, awful pain in his leg.
The dog drags him away, growling, teeth sunk into his leg, and Wei Ying kicks and screams and tries to pull his leg out from between its jaws. He thinks he going to die, mauled with those teeth and claws, but then his other foot connects with the dog's face. He can feel its teeth loosen, and he yanks his leg back, barely feeling it as more skin breaks open under those sharp points.
He stumbles to his feet and runs and runs until his leg hurts too much to run anymore. And then he hops, stumbles, and limps towards a small, run-down shed that he knows is empty, so no one will complain about the noise once he crawls on top of it.
Huddled on the roof, he shoves his hand between his teeth to stop from making noise as he cries. No one in town likes it when he makes loud noise – they're probably already mad about the screaming earlier. And the sound might make the dog find him again.
Belly empty, leg bleeding, Wei Ying bites down harder on his hand.
“Shijie! Dog! Shijie!”
He barely stops himself from slamming into her as he rushes to her side. She quickly picks him up, holding his head against her shoulder and turning to keep her body between him and the dog.
Wei Wuxian peeks up from her shoulder to see the dog stalking closer. He mashes his face back into Shijie's robe, shaking and crying.
“Go away! Shoo!” Shijie shouts at the dog, her voice sharper and meaner than he's ever heard it. “Shoo!” She stamps her foot at it.
The dog makes a whimpering noise, and Wei Wuxian looks up again to see it scuttling away, tail between its legs.
Wei Wuxian stares up at Shijie in awe. “Shijie,” he says between sniffles, “you're so brave.”
Shijie sets him down and helps him wipe his face dry. “You're very brave, too, A-Xian” she tells him, and bumps his nose with her finger. “You helped me stand up to that dog.”
Wei Wuxian doesn't believe her since he wasn't helpful at all, but she still said that because Shijie is brave and nice.
“Can we go home, Shijie?” he asks, rubbing his eyes. Wei Wuxian very much likes having a home. And a Shijie.
Shijie smiles and takes his hand. “Of course, XianXian,” she says and leads him back to Lotus Pier, even though she hasn't yet bought what they came to the market for.
“Dog! Jiang Cheng, dog!” he wails. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and huffs, but lets Wei Wuxian hide behind him as they pass an alley with a dog sitting right there, at the entrance. The position is awkward, because Wei Wuxian has hit his growth spurt and Jiang Cheng hasn't yet.
Jiang Cheng takes a hunk of meat off skewer he'd been eating from, and throws it far, far down the alley. The dog lets out a bark that has Wei Wuxian gasping and flinching, but the dog only turns and runs after the meat. Jiang Cheng puts his hand on Wei Wuxian's side and shuffles them past the alleyway, until the dog is no longer visible.
As soon as Wei Wuxian can think again, his death grip on the back of Jiang Cheng's robe turns into chest-enveloping hug. “You're the best Shidi a Shixiong could ask for, you know that?”
Jiang Cheng grumbles, “And you're the most annoying Shixiong a Shidi could ask for,” pushing Wei Wuxian off, but Wei Wuxian can see the blush spreading up his neck and cheeks. “C'mon, let's get more skewers – and you're paying for making me give up mine.”
Wei Wuxian gives him a playful in nudge. “Alright, alright, don't get your robe in a twist.” He doesn't mention that he hadn't made Jiang Cheng do anything of the sort – it had just been the fastest way for Jiang Cheng to get rid of the dog.
“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan! Dog! Dog!”
Lan Zhan dutifully places himself between Wei Wuxian and the dog, holding up his sheathed sword in warning. The owner must be looking at them curiously as she walks by with her beast at her side, but Wei Wuxian only has eyes for the dog – it watches them as it trots closer, mouth open and its sharp white teeth bracketing its pink tongue.
Then the owner abruptly blanches and grabs the dog's collar, hurrying them both down the street. She must have seen Lan Zhan's glare levelled in her direction, accompanied by his scariest, coldest face.
Once the dog disappears from sight, Wei Wuxian slumps against Lan Zhan in relief. “You're amazing,” Wei Wuxian mutters into his husband's shoulder. Lan Zhan doesn't reply, since of course the Lan Sect rules means he's not allowed to admit how amazing he is. But he lowers his sword and intertwines the fingers of his free hand with Wei Wuxian's, before they carry back on their way.
Dog, he thinks, squeezing Lan Zhan's hand in his own, though the fear isn't as crushing as usual.
“It's okay, Dajiu,” Jin Ling says, holding Fairy in place against the grass. “Just breathe like we practised, remember?”
Wei Wuxian nods and breathes in and out. There's Lan Zhan as a solid weight at his side, ready to move Wei Wuxian back the instant he needs it. There's trees all around the Koi Tower courtyard to climb. There's Jin Ling grabbing Fairy's collar and a promise to not let go.
Wei Wuxian's grasp on Lan Zhan loosens.
“Do you think you can do it to the count of five?” Jin Ling asks, and Wei Wuxian gives another frantic nod. He can do this. He can do this, for Jin Ling.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian whispers to himself. “Okay.” He inches closer, and moves half his body out from behind Lan Zhan. Slowly, he removes one hand from Lan Zhan's arm and tentatively holds it out.
“Ready?” Jin Ling asks.
“Mnhm,” Wei Wuxian agrees. If he opens his mouth, he doesn't think any words will come out.
“Go!” Jin Ling shouts.
Wei Wuxian launches forward and plants a shaking hand on Fairy's side. He breathes in.
Soft, he thinks, hand buried in fur. He breathes out.
Not as soft as rabbits, of course. He breathes in.
If he doesn't look at the head, it's like touching any other animal. He breathes out.
Except now he's looking at the head, where there's sharp teeth hidden, waiting. He breathes in-out-in–
Wei Wuxian explodes away, back behind Lan Zhan, breathing in big gasps. “I did it,” he says to himself, and lets out a startled laugh. “I did it!”
“Mn.” Lan Zhan turns and presses a kiss to his temple. “You did.”
“Yeah,” Jin Ling agrees, smiling delightedly at him and petting Fairy. Fairy doesn't move, except for the tail gently thumping up and down against the ground. But that's fine because the tail isn't all that scary. “Maybe we can do six seconds next time!”
Wei Wuxian forces himself to relax against Lan Zhan's side. With Lan Zhan and Jin Ling here, this isn't so bad. Fairy isn't so bad for a dog, either – she hasn't bitten him or growled at him, and she doesn't chase him anymore.
Maybe he really can do six seconds next time.