Wei Wuxian wasn’t drunk but he wanted to be. It was a ravenous hunger at the back of his mind to dull this, that, everything. His father (dead) had told him to beware of demons, his brother (lost) had told him to keep his mouth shut, his beloved sister (dead, dead, dead) had told him to run, A-Xian, run.
Above him Trinity Tower stretched its ragged spires towards a dark, overcast sky. Below him the asphalt was wet from a recent rain shower. Inside him was pain, sadness, anger, hope. He wanted to die, fight, bite, live-- and a drink. He really wanted a drink.
He remembered drinking from Before. (Before they died. Before the fight. Before the bite. Before everything that happened after.) Wine, sweet and sour on his tongue, bitter baijiu, hearty beer. He remembered cocktails and long drinks and whiskey on the rocks, sweet and sour Paramian Azzo.
There were bars in Trinity, plenty of bars. If you could think of it, there was a bar for it. Wei Wuxian had been to one, two, ten, twenty. He would have been to every single one if the credits on his counterfeit ID bracelet hadn’t run out with a dull chirp and a red cross.
He wanted to forget but the wolf wouldn’t let him.
Wei Wuxian crouched at the top of a low wall that separated two equally sad stretches of back alley. On one side of him were trash cans, litter, and an uneven row of well-worn FuCe bikes; on the other was a swirling vortex.
It didn’t used to be a swirling vortex. It had in fact not been a swirling vortex just ten seconds ago when Wei Wuxian had leapt onto the wall. Then it had been an alley, much like the alley on the other side of the wall.
He looked around but the vortex had no obvious source. There was no ship hanging in the sky above him and the houses on either side of him had no windows facing his way. A wise decision, he thought, because the alley stunk of urine and vomit and garbage left out too long in the sun. It should be terrible but the wolf, of course, thought it was interesting.
“You’re such a fucking weirdo,” Wei Wuxian muttered, shifting around so that he was fully facing the vortex.
The vortex was not very large, four feet across at most, but it felt as endless as the universe, and it sang. Wei Wuxian had never been off planet, but he imagined that the feeling he got when down looking into the vortex was similar to the feeling provoked by looking down at a planet from a great height. He felt tiny and insignificant, but at the same time the sight filled him with wonder.
He put his hands down on the edge of the wall between his silver buckled black boots and shifted forward so that some of his weight rested on his palms. From afar he imagined he looked like a black-clad long-haired frog ready to leap.
The vortex grew and shrank, swirling in two directions at once, but most of all it sang. It sang a song he couldn’t comprehend, but that tugged at his very soul, pulling him forward until his palms were holding nearly all of his weight.
Careful, A-Xian, you’ll fall. He heard his sister’s voice as clearly as if she’d been standing right next to him even though it’d been years since he heard it last. A memory from a simpler time, before their lives had been touched by death and destruction. When the Asophage War was nothing but a whispered rumor of faraway clashes and incomprehensible losses, too vast for a boy like Wei Wuxian to understand.
I’ll jump before I’ll fall, he’d said then, not ten years yet and cocky as they get, caught balancing on the ridge of a rickety roof.
“I’ll jump before I’ll fall,” he said now.
Wei Wuxian landed on his hands and knees with a jolt and even without opening his tightly clenched eyes he could tell that he was no longer in the alley. He didn’t even think he was in Trinity.
Slowly he got his feet under him and sat back on his haunches, crouched, but more like a predator ready to attack now than a frog about to leap. He counted eight heartbeats in a circle around him all beating the crescendo of a thunderous gallop except for one, the one that sang.
It was just a heartbeat, strong and steady, but it spoke to him, to his wolf, in a way he couldn’t explain. He had heard thousands of heartbeats but never one that beat as in tune with his own as this one. At the back of his mind the wolf hummed.
He opened his eyes. It was symptomatic to his life, he thought, to find the owner of this spectacular heartsong pointing a sword at his face. His brother would have said it was nothing less than he deserved. His sister would have smiled and, later, made him soup.
He followed the blade to the hilt, clutched in a fine limbed hand that stuck out of a voluminous white sleeve, and then further up over a rounded shoulder all the way to a pale expressionless face.
The man, for it was a man, wore his black hair in a similar fashion to Wei Wuxian himself, but while Wei Wuxian’s hair was tied up with a simple red ribbon, this man wore an intricate silver headpiece that strongly resembled a crown. He wore another silver piece on his high forehead, tied around his head with a pale blue ribbon that disappeared into his hair, and he was gorgeous.
Delicately slanted black brows over clear intense eyes that glared at Wei Wuxian down the length of a straight regal nose. But his mouth, his mouth was the real treasure, plush and pink with a sort of unfinished look, as if edges of his mouth had been smudged when the gods created him.
Wei Wuxian wanted to kiss him.
Wei Wuxian needed to get a hold of himself.
“Demon,” someone hissed behind him and he spun around, coming face to face with an old white man in a long brown robe that looked nothing like the fitted white and blue one that the heartsong man wore. His eyes were a pale watery blue that reminded Wei Wuxian too much of things he would rather not think about.
“No.” A white woman in a long grey dress with brown curly hair piled into a messy bun at the top of her head. “He’s human or,” she tilted her head slightly to the side, studying him, “close to it.”
“He has a wild spirit.” It was the heartsong man, he had sheathed his sword and now held it at his side. His posture was impeccable and compared to the other people in the room, he looked like royalty. He was younger, his clothes were finer, and he held himself with a regal air.
“Indeed.” The woman again.
“The connection has closed.” A second woman, also in grey, but this one had white hair in thick dreadlocks and deep brown skin. “I’m sorry, Nemas, I could not hold it.”
“You did your best, Valinya,” Nemas, the brown-haired woman, said serenely.
“Banish him.” It was the demon dude again. “Begone foul creature.” He threw a green powder at Wei Wuxian that made him sneeze. It smelled terrible.
He shook the powder out of his hair and glared at the man. “What's your problem?” he asked.
The man hissed and jumped back. “Leash him, Nemas.”
Wei Wuxian had to suppress his answering growl, swallowing it down and telling the wolf to calm the fuck down. He’d rather die than go on a leash again, but attacking now was not the right move. He had to be patient.
“Calm yourself, Peres,” Nemas said. It had the ring of a grave insult.
Wei Wuxian glanced at the heartsong man. He looked less than impressed, but that seemed to be his permanent expression.
“What is your name?” Nemas looked at Wei Wuxian. Her eyes were green and she had freckles across her nose. She didn’t exactly look like a powerhouse but Wei Wuxian could feel the power rolling off of her. It made his hair stand on end.
“Wei Wuxian,” he answered.
“Shandarian?” she asked.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Lan Wangji is Shandarian.”
Wei Wuxian glanced at the heartsong man, who gave him a barely perceptible nod.
“No,” Wei Wuxian said, settling down with his legs crossed before him. “I’m not Shandarian. I’m from Lotus Pier in ZhenLa of Atlas. My ancestors trace their roots to Yunmeng in Zhong-guo of Tellus.”
“Curious,” Nemas said. “These names mean nothing to me.”
“So what planet is this, then?” Wei Wuxian asked, looking around again. He was in a circular room, he realized, and everything was made of stone except for the large wooden door set into the wall behind Nemas and Lan Wangji. It looked very…primitive. Light fixings around the walls glowed with a warm yellow light that wasn’t fire but also didn’t exactly look technological.
“You know big round thing that moves through space.” He sketched a circle with his hands. “Usually divided into countries and cities and stuff.”
“Oh, we don’t call it anything,” Nemas said at the same time as Lan Wangji said, “Charphien.”
Wei Wuxian looked between them. Nemas smiled, Lan Wangji looked like he was carved out of marble but Wei Wuxian thought there was a hint of pink high on his cheekbones.
“The Shandarians call it Charphien,” Lan Wangji amended stiffly. Without changing his expression even slightly, he strongly conveyed the impression of someone who’d just bitten into a sour sherba.
“Never heard of it,” Wei Wuxian said. “But the universe is endless, or so they say.”
This provoked a murmur among the rest of the circle, but Nemas ignored them. “This is Tavarin Academy in Morrow the capital city of Dalmania. I believe we have called you here by mistake.”
“Mistake,” someone sneered. “That’s one way to put it. He is clearly evil.” Wei Wuxian thought it could be the demon dude, Peres, but he didn’t care enough to look.
“I’m not evil,” he said instead. He was many thing but not that. Never that.
“Lan Wangji said it: his spirit is wild. We can all feel it.” The name sounded nothing like it had when Nemas pronounced it.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a wild spirit,” Nemas said, watching Wei Wuxian intently. “Sometimes the mother gives us not what we ask for, but what we need.”
“What we need is an oracle.” Wei Wuxian was really starting to dislike this guy.
“No,” Nemas said calmly. “That is simply what we asked for.”
Wei Wuxian wasn’t interested in their discussion of semantics, so he took his time studying the room. He was sitting in the middle of an intricately painted circle that reminded him of a mandala. On the outside of the circle were eight peaks and at each peak stood Lan Wangji, Nemas, Peres, Valinya and four other men in long robes whose names Wei Wuxian had yet to learn. They were all older and all bearded. They looked a lot like caricatures of fantasy wizards.
He looked up and found another circle much like the one he was sitting in on the circular ceiling. In the middle, right above him, was another one of the warmly glowing lights, except this one had no fixture and was just a floating ball of light.
He wondered what would happen if he jumped up and touched it, but immediately decided against it. He could be reckless at times, but he thought it wise to not reveal just how fast, strong, and deadly he could be just yet. He didn’t want Peres to start campaigning for his immediate demise.
“Wei Wuxian,” Nemas said. “Would you be willing to swear on the Oxessor wand that you will do no harm while you’re a guest in this house?”
“Sure.” Wei Wuxian shrugged. He had no intention of doing anyone harm unless they tried to harm him first. He had no idea what the Oxessor wand was, but as long as it wasn’t a silver bullet through the heart he thought he would be fine. The wolf had come with some perks after all.
“Lan Wangji,” Nemas said. Lan Wangji nodded once before he turned on his heel and floated to the door.
Well, he walked—Wei Wuxian could see movement under his robe—but he looked like he floated. He opened the door and then closed it with himself on the other side of it. The wolf didn’t like it, suddenly restless and agitated at the back of Wei Wuxian’s mind. A part of him but apart and always with its own agenda.
He’ll be back, Wei Wuxian assured it, even if he didn’t actually know that. I promise.
He was almost certain he could hear the wolf snort in response but he decided to ignore it. It was one thing to talk to the wolf in your head. It was another altogether to hear it talk, or snort, back.
Lan Wangji did come back, floating into the room with a big wooden box in his hands.
“Thank you,” Nemas said, lifting the lid of the box and lifting out a wooden staff crowned with a large blueish crystal.
Lan Wangji returned to his spot on the circle, still with the box held out stiffly in front of him. Wei Wuxian wanted to poke him in the side just to see if he would cringe. Somehow he didn’t think so.
“This is the Oxessor wand,” Nemas said, holding it out before her gripped in both of her hands. Her right hand at the top facing downwards and her left at the bottom facing upwards. “May any oath sworn on it be witnessed by Miija, mother of all.”
They crystal started glowing faintly with a light blue sheen not dissimilar to the light blue details on Lan Wangji’s robes.
“Wei Wuxian of Lotus Pier in ZhenLan of Atlas, do you swear to uphold the Tavarin peace and abide by the laws that govern all of humankind?”
Wei Wuxian rose to his feet and heard shuffling behind him as if some of the others had taken a step back.
“I do,” he said. An extremely easy promise to make as he was not, strictly speaking, human anymore.
Nemas slid her hands apart, leaving enough space in between them for Wei Wuxian to grip the wand. After a slight hesitation he did, curling his right hand around the worn wood. It tingled, as if the wand was lightly electrified.
“Repeat after me,” Nemas said. “I, Wei Wuxian of Lotus Pier in ZhenLan of Atlas, hereby swear to uphold the Tavarin peace and abide by the laws that govern all of human kind. May the mother be my witness.”
Wei Wuxian dutifully repeated the oath and the tingling intensified, spreading up his arm and washing through his torso all the way to his feet. The blue of the crystal deepened to a sapphire glow.
“I, Nemas Herasdaughter of Dalmania, witness this oath. May the mother stand with me.”
Wei Wuxian twitched when the rest of the circle suddenly chimed in. “We, the circle of eight, witness this oath. May the mother stand with us.”
A deep red pulse spread from the center of the glowing crystal and washed through Wei Wuxian in a wave of power that made the wolf howl at the back of his mind. He was suddenly certain that even if he wanted to let go of the wand he wouldn’t be able to. His grip was white-knuckled.
“The oath has been witnessed,” Nemas said and suddenly the wand was just a piece of wood, warm and smooth against Wei Wuxian’s palm. “You may let go,” she said, not unkindly, and Wei Wuxian did, flexing his fingers.
She took a step back and then turned to put the wand back into the box. Lan Wangji was still holding it out in front of him as if he'd been frozen in place. If he ever needed a second job he'd make a fine statue.
"Thank you, Lan Wangji," she said, taking the box out of his hands. "You may escort Wei Wuxian to the holding cell now."
"The holding cell?" Wei Wuxian arched an eyebrow. "Your hospitality needs some work."
"A temporary solution," Nemas assured him. "While we debate this unexpected matter further."
"No one expects Wei Wuxian," he mumbled, mostly to himself.
Lan Wangji gave him a hard stare and then turned on his heel. "Come."
Wei Wuxian took a step forward and then stopped, not because he didn't want to step further but because he couldn't. It looked like he had nothing but thin air before him but it was air solid as a wall. He looked down and realized he'd reached the edge of the circle.
"Peres," Nemas said sharply. "You'll empty your reserves holding the circle on your own. Let him go."
"Let. Him. Go."
There was so much command in her voice that Wei Wuxian had to fight his urge to fall to her feet and beg for attention. At the door Lan Wangji had turned to face the circle again, and even though he was once again still as a statue, it was obvious that he was poised for action.
Nothing happened yet Wei Wuxian could feel the air before him ripple and then settle. After a moment he stepped forward and this time nothing held him back.
"He'll bring ill fortune on all of us. Mark my words." Someone said behind him and he didn't have to turn around to know it was Peres. The man sure had a grudge. Wei Wuxian had occasionally been known to have that effect on people, but in this case he felt wrongly accused. He hadn't even done anything yet.
"Come." There was just a hint of impatience in Lan Wangji's otherwise low and mellow voice. He'd already stepped through the door while Wei Wuxian had stopped just inside of it, trying to decide if it was worth it to try and defend his dubious honor.
"Fine," Wei Wuxian muttered, stepping forward again. "No need to get pissy."
Lan Wangji led him down a winding set of stone stairs lit by the same type of lights that had been in the room and Wei Wuxian realized they were in a tower. Occasionally they'd pass over a small landing with a door but all doors were closed and there was nothing much to see but for stone and more stone.
"You guys need an interior decorator," Wei Wuxian said. "This place could use a few wall hangings and carpets. You could really use carpets. It must be a bitch to heat."
"Quiet," Lan Wangji ordered. "Don't waste your breath on silly words."
"I'll waste my breath however I see fit," Wei Wuxian retorted.
With Lan Wangji below him on the stairs he could only really see the top of his head, his well-rounded shoulders and his right hand that he held fisted at his back. From this vantage point his headpiece looked less like a crown and more like a scorpion poised to strike.
"So, if this country is Dalmania and this is an Academy but you come from Shandaria--"
"Right. If you come from Shandar does that mean you're like an exchange student?"
Lan Wangji gave Wei Wuxian an ice cold look over his shoulder that somehow didn't slow him down at all.
"A visiting professor? I bet you're just a whole bag of fun in the classroom."
"I am here to learn."
"So an exchange student then."
Wei Wuxian gathered his breath to say that he absolutely wouldn't, but they'd reached the bottom of the stairs and the large double door at the bottom were already open, showing him a glimpse of the sky.
"Two moons," he breathed. "You have two moons."
Lan Wangji who had already stepped through the doors stopped and turned.
"Yes," he said but it sounded like a question.
Wei Wuxian joined him on the front step and for a moment the twin moons were all he could see. One was large and white and the other, hanging just below it, was smaller and tinted a faint lavender. The big one looked just like the moon over Atlas, but he could see it and the wildly star spangled sky so much clearer than he was used to.
"Wow," he breathed, tilting his head back and staring at the sky. Suddenly the eternal stretch of the universe felt a lot more real. He'd never seen a sky so clear.
"It must be lack of light pollution," he said, glancing at Lan Wangji. As he should have expected, Lan Wangji looked positively ethereal under the silver light of the moon, features washed white and eyes like dark pools, as if he'd been sketched with nothing but ink on a white piece of paper. It made Wei Wuxian's fingers ache for a brush, or a piece of kohl, even though he hadn't drawn since he was a kid.
"Stop talking nonsense," Lan Wangji said, breaking the spell. "It's late."
He led Wei Wuxian down the front stairs and onto a gravel path that lead towards a huge hulking building with a ragged silhouette that reminded Wei Wuxian of Trinity Tower.
"It's a castle," he realized. "Are you kidding me? Is there a moat?"
He'd only ever seen castles on screen. Atlas was an old colony as far as colonies went; humans had lived there for a long time, but they'd never built castles. They'd built towers and skyscrapers and the enormous floating platform that was Trinity Station, but never a castle, nothing like this at any rate.
As they got closer he had to crane his neck to see the steep roofs on the towers, far above him. They looked black in the moonlight but he thought they might be colored in daylight.
"No moat," Lan Wangji said, sounding annoyed. He really wasn't much of a conversationalist.
"If I built a castle I would have a moat," Wei Wuxian decided. "With people-eating giant sea snakes in it."
"They can't be trained."
"People-eating giant sea snakes. They can't be trained."
Wei Wuxian blinked. "So?"
"So, how would you keep them from eating you?"
"I wouldn't fall in."
"They're snakes. They can breathe on land."
Wei Wuxian considered this. "You're saying people-eating giant sea snakes actually exist?"
Wei Wuxian blinked a few more times and lengthened his step slightly, nearly bumping into Lan Wangji's back. It earned him another scathing look, but he didn't care. He'd jump on Lan Wangji's back if he had to. People-eating giant sea snakes that you couldn't be safe from anywhere sounded terrible.
"I don't like this place," he said petulantly.
"Mn," said Lan Wangji.
"I can't believe you're just going to leave me here. It's a dungeon."
Admittedly, it was clean and warm and had a bed and a small secluded privy, which meant it had more than most places Wei Wuxian had slept these last few years, but it was also, very clearly, a prison cell. There were bars over the small window set high into the wall and over the spy hole in the thick metal door.
"There's bread and water on the table," Lan Wangji said, ignoring him.
The table was a shelf bolted to the wall and the backless chair that accompanied it was stuck to the floor. Everything was stone, except for the iron bars, the wooden furniture and the fabric covers on the narrow bed.
The wolf was agitated at the back of Wei Wuxian's mind. It didn't like the thought of Lan Wangji and his heartsong walking away.
Fucking weirdo, Wei Wuxian internally snarled at it, even though he also didn't like the thought of Lan Wangji leaving. At least Wei Wuxian knew where he stood with Lan Wangji's quiet disdain. He didn't know the guards in this place at all. They'd been nothing more than a couple of bearded faces on his way in, one of whom had had the audacity to complain Wei Wuxian wasn't in chains. Chains! He wasn't an animal. Most of the time.
"Sleep well," Lan Wangji said, which was awfully courteous of him, and then he left.
Wei Wuxian watched him through the bars in the door. "Lan Wangji," he called out. Lan Wangji stopped but didn't turn around. "You sleep well too."
The dungeon was boring. Wei Wuxian was fed three times a day: a breakfast of sweet rolls fresh from the oven and strong sweet tea, soup of some kind and another roll for lunch, and a hearty stew for dinner. It was better and more regularly than he'd eaten since the military.
It was a strange thing to never be hungry, to always be warm and to have a bed to sleep in every night. He'd much prefer free roam of the castle because he couldn't see much from his window and looking out from it required hanging on to the window fitting with his fingertips, but he wasn't entirely ungrateful. It was just that the solitude gave him way too much time to think. He didn't like to think.
"Reflection is good for the soul," Lan Wangji said on one of his nightly (well, eveningly) visits. They were the brightest spot of Wei Wuxian's days, but he'd certainly never say so. Lan Wangji was beautiful to look at even through iron bars, but his personality was largely intolerable.
"No, it's not. It's terrible for the soul."
"We should all take time to reflect on past mistakes and learn from them."
Wei Wuxian scoffed. "Like you've ever made a mistake in your life."
He was in a terrible mood and the wolf was restless, pacing at the back of his mind. He thought the full moon, or one of them, must be drawing near. It wasn't an imperative to shift with the moon, but the moon agitated the wolf and flooded his system with a damning urge to fight or fuck or, ideally, both. He'd made many mistakes under a full moon and he didn't want to reflect on a single one of them.
"We all make mistakes," Lan Wangji said quietly. There was probably a story there, but Wei Wuxian didn't have the patience to dig for it and he knew Lan Wangji wouldn't tell him anyway.
"Speaking of mistakes, have the almighty Tavarin Council decided what to do with me yet?"
Lan Wangji shook his head. It was barely a twitch, but Wei Wuxian had learned to read him pretty well.
"They'll find a way to send you back," Lan Wangji said with uncharacteristic urgency.
"Great," Wei Wuxian said again. It was almost a snarl. Fight or fuck, always getting him into trouble.
He'd learned a little more of this world during his captivity. Lan Wangji was a terrible conversationalist, but he didn't mind answering questions as long as he considered them relevant.
Tavarin Academy, where he was being held, was a renowned school for mages, the largest on the Ruaphemanian continent. He was a little unclear what continent actually meant to these people, but he figured it was something like great hulking landmass. Dalmania, the country he was in, was not the largest country on the continent—that was Phenaia in the north (by the sound of it mostly made up of grass and horses)—but it was the most powerful one, with the other regents being somewhat subservient to Juran Sollevyn, the high king of Dalmania.
Shandar, where Lan Wangji was from, was not part of the Ruaphemanian continent, though it sounded to Wei Wuxian as if it was part of the same landmass. It was a great country in the east that did not accept the superiority of the Dalmanian high king. The current regent was Empress San Lhar, along with her consort, who was, to Wei Wuxian's great surprise, also a woman. Call him prejudiced, but he would have thought that this world would be a lot less open-minded.
He had also learned that the night that the mages had accidentally opened a shiny vortex to Wei Wuxian's world, they had been trying to call forth an oracle to ask about a recent string of thefts. An oracle was, as far as Wei Wuxian understood it, a mystical being from another realm who answered questions with riddles. It didn't sound like a whole lot of help to him, but then he wasn't a mage, just a lowly deserter with a wolf alter ego from a planet no one here had ever heard of.
He'd tried asking once if this world had anything like werewolves, but Lan Wangji had given him such a scathing look he'd decided to shelve the topic forever and make sure he never outed himself. Excuse him for thinking this world was ripe for werewolves when it had actual man-eating giant sea snakes
Wei Wuxian's world had not been ripe for werewolves, but he'd been turned into one anyway, which just went to show that you should always read the fine print of your government contract and maybe not sign it if there’s a line at the bottom that says: may be turned into a mythological creature and subsequently brain-raped by a mind-control device.
He snarled and tossed his head, baring his teeth at Lan Wangji, who looked taken aback. Not enough to actually step back, but then, from what Wei Wuxian had gathered, Lan Wangji was a really strong mage, or cultivator as they were called where he came from, and probably not scared of anything.
"What is wrong?" Lan Wangji asked.
"Nothing," Wei Wuxian snarled. "I just have too much time to think."
For once Lan Wangji didn't offer a platitude, he just inclined his head slightly in what might be a show of sympathy.
Wei Wuxian paced the length of his cell, five steps here, five there, while Lan Wangji stood serenely outside the door. He wanted to run. He wanted to run until his lungs burned and his legs ached. He wanted to fight and fuck and howl at the moon. He wanted a drink.
"Your hair is in disarray," Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian stopped and turned to face him. He was willing to bet Lan Wangji's hair had never been tangled in his life. It hung now, sleek and glossy, with the ends trailing almost to his waist. He wore a different headpiece than the one Wei Wuxian had first seen on him, but it was no less elaborate, a curved shape that somehow reminded Wei Wuxian of both a dragon and a tulip.
The forehead piece was the same. Wei Wuxian had been told it was supposed to resemble a cloud, the symbol of Lan Wangji's home, Cloud Recesses, and also that it was a reminder to 'conduct oneself well'. Wei Wuxian felt strong that Lan Wangji needed no such reminder. He'd never met such a stickler for rules in his life and he'd been in the army.
Wei Wuxian combed through his hair with his fingers, untangling it as best as he could. There was no mirror in his cell and he was only allowed a comb for his morning toilet.
"Better?" he asked, giving Lan Wangji a coquettish look.
He didn't realize until he came to stand before Lan Wangji again, leaning against the deep doorway, that Lan Wangji had been distracting him. It was unusually underhanded of him and Wei Wuxian wholeheartedly approved.
"You're not as pure as you look," Wei Wuxian told him.
"Hn," Lan Wangji said.
The next day Wei Wuxian had only just had lunch when the wolf first perked up at Lan Wangji's approaching heartsong and then grew agitated because he was not alone.
"Such a fucking weirdo," Wei Wuxian muttered. He had lived with the wolf for nearly five years now, but even though it was a part of him and he had control of it he didn't always understand it.
Still, he went to wait by the door on the wolf's insistence. Sometimes it was just easier to go with the wolf’s instincts because fighting them inevitably left him in a terrible mood. Lan Wangji had said at some point: "one should never be at war with oneself", which was very typical for his brand of peaceful nonsense but perhaps true nevertheless.
There wasn't much to see outside Wei Wuxian's door except for a small open space and a few other doors much like the one he looked out of. The other cells were empty. The holding cells at the academy were not in common use and Wei Wuxian had learned that the guards, who were part of the academy's own school of guards, the Tavarin Guard, had duties elsewhere when the cells were empty. He had learned this from Lan Wangji rather than the guards because the prisoners held in the academy dungeon were usually high-ranking mages or out of control students and the guards had learned to never engage them in conversation.
A door opened and closed and then Lan Wangji came into view with Nemas at his side. Wei Wuxian had also learned that Lan Wangji was apprenticed to Nemas, who was the headmaster of the Tavarin Academy, but that he would never achieve the rank of Tavarin due to already being an accomplished cultivator in his homeland. A Tavarin had to train at Tavarin Academy from an early age to achieve that most coveted rank, only afforded to a few of the most accomplished disciples and only after many years of study.
Lan Wangji had told him a whole lot more than that, but the subject gave Wei Wuxian a headache and since he had no magical ability of his own— he didn't; they had checked—he mostly ignored Lan Wangji when he got into lecture mode.
"Wei Wuxian," Lan Wangji said now, inclining his head in a slight bow. "I'm sure you remember Tavarin Nemas."
"I do," Wei Wuxian agreed, giving her an exaggerated bow. "Pleased to meet you again, milady."
He didn't know if he actually was, but a little flattery never went amiss. She smiled faintly as if she could read his mind.
Maybe she could. It was possible he should have listened more carefully to Lan Wangji's lectures.
"I'm pleased to meet you too," she said. "Lan Wangji tells me you've been very well behaved."
Wei Wuxian shrugged. There wasn't much mischief he could get up to while locked in a prison cell. He could have made a dress out of the bed clothes or danced around naked, he supposed, but he wanted these people to trust him and he'd been called crazy enough times to last a life time. He was surprised that Lan Wangji thought so, though, because the man was so rigid Wei Wuxian had been sure that Lan Wangji viewed him as a most unorthodox and undisciplined creature.
"The council have graciously allowed your release from the holding cell," Nemas said, "but there are some stipulations."
"Of course," Wei Wuxian said, trying to not sound too eager.
"You will be released into Lan Wangji's care, which means you must follow whatever rules he set for you."
Wei Wuxian stared at Lan Wangji who stared back solemnly. If their roles were reversed Wei Wuxian would have smirked. Lan Wangji didn't. He probably didn't know how.
"Okay," Wei Wuxian agreed.
"You will have free reign of the academy grounds but you must not venture beyond the walls without supervision and there are certain areas where you will not be allowed. I will place a rune on you to make sure these demands are met."
"Okay," he said again. He wasn't thrilled about the rune, but the thought of spending another minute in this barren room had him ready to agree to anything. You want to skin me alive, ma'am? Not a problem.
"Good," Nemas said, smiling again. She was as free with her smiles as Lan Wangji was cheap.
"I will be back to fetch you after dinner," Lan Wangji said stiffly. "Here is a copy of the house rules for you to study until then." He slid a thick stack of folded paper into the slat in the door meant for Wei Wuxian's food trays.
"Oh," Wei Wuxian said.
There were 500 house rules, ranging from mundane, to ridiculous, to are you fucking kidding me? Wei Wuxian dutifully read them all, twice, and then decided it was no wonder Lan Wangji was so rigid if this was how he lived his life. No alcohol, no fighting, no running, no talking after 21-hour, no talking while eating, no profanity, no nudity, no loud noises.
"How do you bathe?" Wei Wuxian asked when Lan Wangji showed up to fetch him after dinner as he'd said he would.
Lan Wangji blinked, seemingly stunned. "What?"
"If nudity is forbidden, how do you bathe?"
Wei Wuxian had learned, to his great dismay, that this world had yet to invent showers, even if it did have running water and magical green-glowing box shaped toilets.
"Nudity is not forbidden in appropriate places," Lan Wangji said stiffly. Wei Wuxian wasn't sure, but he might be blushing.
"What about partial nudity? I sleep in my…uh…under things." Wei Wuxian had been given a change of clothes, a robe like assemble with many layers and ties much like the ones Lan Wangji wore and a stack of quadruple tied silky boxers that he'd thought he would hate but the he actually found quite comfortable. The robes had to go though, all that swishing, it wasn't good for his mood.
Lan Wangji stared at him. Wei Wuxian stared back. A muscle in Lan Wangji's cheek ticked.
"Partial nudity is okay," Lan Wangji said finally.
Wei Wuxian had not expected that and he copied the slight head tilt that Lan Wangji gave as a sign of approval, not wanting to try Lan Wangji's patience with too many words. Lan Wangji didn't smile in response, but Wei Wuxian could tell he almost did.
"Guard, open the door, please," Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian wouldn't even have noticed the guard was there if the wolf hadn't alerted him to the guard's presence. He could hear very well since his transformation, much much better than an ordinary human, but his human brain couldn't always filter all the things he heard. He'd learned to block his extraordinary senses out of his consciousness quite effectively. Lan Wangji would probably be proud of him for achieving that level of focus if he knew.
There was a great amount of groaning and clanking as the guard inserted the key and turned it, even though the locks were mostly for show. Since the cells had been built to hold mages, the stone and metal were only the first line of the defense. Even if the door had been left wide open, Wei Wuxian wouldn't have been able to just walk out.
Eventually the guard got the door to swing open. Wei Wuxian waited impatiently for Lan Wangji to do whatever it was he was doing. Nemas had already put the rune on him before she'd left earlier and he could not wait to explore the limits of his range. From what Lan Wangji had told him the academy grounds were quite extensive.
Lan Wangji sketched a symbol in the air that looked nothing like Nemas's rune and pushed it forward with the palm of his hand. It hit the invisible barrier that enveloped the cell, and for a moment, the walls, floor, and ceiling glowed with mystical runes. Then the glow faded and Lan Wangji stepped back.
"Come," he said.
He led Wei Wuxian out of the dungeons the same way he'd led him in: through a door into the guard room, where a table showed signs of habitation in form of an abandoned card game and still steaming cups of sweet tea.
From the guard room they walked up a set of dull stone stairs to yet another door that opened up into a cavernous hall. At every door Wei Wuxian had to wait while Lan Wangji told the runes to let them through and he felt like a race horse chomping at the bit.
"Finally," he exclaimed when he was at long last allowed to step into the main hall. The castle was a maze, he'd gleaned that much from their last march through it, and a cavernous entrance hall was at its center. Far above the hall was a magnificent painted cupola, and on either side of it, giant arches led to another set of equally magnificent halls. The size of it was humbling.
The halls were bustling with activity: students in light grey robes were everywhere, and occasionally there was a flash of brown or darker grey as a Tavarin walked past, the crowd parting and closing around them as if they were surrounded by a force field. Lan Wangji had told him that the castle, aside from the academy, also had a great library, a research facility, and a medical school. Looking around, Wei Wuxian suspected it also housed an entire city. He had not realized it would be so crowded.
Lan Wangji took a left and started walking towards one of the connecting halls. Wei Wuxian took a right because he could smell fresh air and he was dying to go outside.
"Wei Wuxian," Lan Wangji said sharply.
"I need air," Wei Wuxian told him, following his nose towards the closest set of doors.
He didn't look to see if Lan Wangji would follow him, though he was sure that he would. The moment he spotted the half open doors he took off at a run and burst out of the castle with an audible whoop of glee that earned him a few suspicious looks. He didn't care. He was outside. He wanted to tear off his clothes and shift into wolfskin, but for now just running off some of his excess energy would have to do.
Lan Wangji hadn’t run after him, but instead had walked a little way down the closest gravel path and just stood there, right hand at his back, looking much like one of the white statues that lined the main road towards the entrance. Wei Wuxian ran in a wide circle around him with his arms thrown out to the sides and his face tilted towards the setting sun. Eventually he slowed to a jog and then to a brisk walk. The air had a bite to it, crisp and clear. He thought it might be autumn.
He stopped and breathed for a moment, drawing the scent of the academy deep into his lungs. If he focused, he would be able to pick out every individual scent and recognize them if they meant something to him, but he didn't want to try. It was enough to him that it smelled different, a lot different, than Trinity. There were few traces of human detritus and none of the acrid tang of electric circuitry that hung about Trinity like a cloud. He smelled wood smoke and wet dirt and, somewhere in the distance, overripe apples.
It smelled a bit like Lotus Pier had when he'd gone back after deserting. It had been a wasteland by then and the air had been heavy with all kinds of scents he didn't want to pick apart, but underneath it had been the smells of his childhood. He hadn't stayed for long, too many ghosts looking to choke him, but he’d curled up under the great oak that had been his refuge as a child and had the best night's sleep he'd had in years. He had toyed with the idea of going back many times after that, of making a home for himself on top of the hill behind the village, but if they were still looking for him it would have made him too easy to find.
His eyes prickled and he dialed his sense of smell down a few notches. The air still smelled too much like home, but it was easier to ignore now.
"You look sad."
Wei Wuxian hadn't heard Lan Wangji approach. Normally the wolf would never let him be so careless but it was practically preening at the back of Wei Wuxian’s mind. Lan Wangji could probably murder him and the wolf would let him.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. He didn't particularly want to explain himself. He wouldn't know where to start.
"I'm sorry we took you from your home," Lan Wangji said, clearly misinterpreting Wei Wuxian's sudden melancholy.
Wei Wuxian shrugged again. "It's okay," he said.
There was nothing and no one waiting for him in Trinity. He'd had a shitty room in an even shittier boarding house. It would have been ransacked and rented out again twice over by now and he couldn't bring himself to care. There had been nothing there but for a few changes of clothes. He still had his counterfeit ID bracelet wrapped around his right wrist, but here it was just a piece of metal. If they ever managed to send him back, he hoped it would still work. He'd gone to considerable lengths to procure it.
Lan Wangji hesitantly reached out and gave his shoulder an awkward pat. "I'll figure out how to send you back," he vowed. It was oddly endearing, and the wolf was in ecstasy over the touch.
Wei Wuxian didn't realize until they were walking back towards the castle side by side that it was Lan Wangji's scent being on his shirt that it was so damn excited about.
Weirdo, he thought pointedly, and for a moment he was absolutely certain that the wolf was laughing at him.
Lan Wangji's rooms were much like the man himself: pristine. The walls were white, a welcome reprieve from all the stone, and the floor had been covered with large patterned rugs.
"Finally a fucking rug," Wei Wuxian said.
"No profanity," Lan Wangji reminded him. For a dude that looked to be in his early to mid-twenties, he sure had the soul of an ancient being.
Wei Wuxian didn't answer because he was busy looking at the wall hangings, the low table, the desk, the side table with a carafe, glasses, and a delicate tea set. It looked like home and it made his heart clench.
"The bedroom is through here," Lan Wangji said, opening a door to the right.
Wei Wuxian followed him into a second smaller room with large windows facing an orchard. There was only one bed, and like the desk and table it was low, and surrounded by a four-poster canopy hung with transparent layers of white and light blue fabric.
"There is only one bed," Wei Wuxian said, somewhat stunned by the revelation. It was a large bed that could easily fit two men of their lithe build, but still.
"I'll have a cot brought up," Lan Wangji said.
"Uh huh," Wei Wuxian agreed distractedly, reaching out to run his hand over flimsy fabric that surrounded the bed. He'd never had a bed this fine. As a child he'd had to share his room with adopted brother, Jiang Cheng, but his uncle, Jiang Fengmian, had built wooden frames for both of their beds that had been hung with fabric just like this. Jiang Cheng's had been in shades of purple and Wei Wuxian's in shade of deepest red.
Not for the first time he wondered if Jiang Cheng was still alive. He'd joined the army too, but by then there had been nothing but bitterness and anger between them. The last time they had seen each other, a year after enrollment, had ended with a fight that sent both of them to lockup. They hadn’t seen each other again.
A year later Wei Wuxian had entered what he thought was a training exercise and he'd come out of it not quite a man. He had never tried to find Jiang Cheng after that.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and rolled his shoulders. This place was really doing a number on him. Far out of the military’s grasp, without the constant struggle to keep himself fed and clothed, he had too much time to think.
After showing him the rooms Lan Wangji gave him a brief tour of the whole floor. It was a residential area for higher ranked students which meant rows of suites much like Lan Wangji's, a few lavatories and a shared bath facility at the end of the corridor.
There was also a common area around a fire place with scattered plush chairs, tables and a large bookshelf full of books in different colors.
"Literature," Lan Wangji said when he caught Wei Wuxian looking. "The colors of the spines indicate the genre."
"Oh," Wei Wuxian said, curious now. "What's this one?"
He touched the spine of a blue book.
"Mystery," Lan Wangji said.
A green book.
"What about this one?"
He touched the spine of a vermillion book that was crammed in next to a number of other books with spines a much lighter shade of red. He spied another few vermillion books, but the lighter shade of red ones were far more plentiful, taking up maybe a fourth of the bookshelf. Not the most popular shade, that was blue, but not far from it.
Lan Wangji didn’t answer so Wei Wuxian pulled it out to study it more closely. Grandmaster of demonic cultivation was written on the front together with what he assumed was the author's name.
"The red books are romance," Lan Wangji said sounding even more stiff than normal.
"Yeah, but this one is a darker shade," Wei Wuxian pointed out.
He looked up at Lan Wangji and realized that he was blushing; even the tops of his ears were pink. It was a truly stunning sight.
"If you don't tell me I guess I have to read it," Wei Wuxian said, tucking the book in under his arm.
Lan Wangji's eyes widened in panic. "It's danmei," he said.
"It's what now?"
"You're going to have to use smaller words." Wei Wuxian didn't particularly care what the book was about, but this was the most emotion Lan Wangji had shown since he'd met him and it was delightful. The wolf didn't agree. It was a very curious sensation to feel as if the back of your mind was trying to bite you.
"It's about two men," Lan Wangji finally said, holding himself so rigidly Wei Wuxian was afraid he would shatter. "Who fall in love."
"Oh, it’s a gay romance?" Wei Wuxian took pity on him and returned the book to the shelf. "You could have just said so."
"Gay?" Lan Wangji looked confused.
"It's a word for same sex relationships."
Lan Wangji was still blushing but he'd relaxed his posture ever so slightly.
"Is that sort of thing not okay where you come from?" Wei Wuxian asked. From what he'd gathered the society here was fairly open to such things and Lan Wangji had said that the Empress of Shandar had a female consort.
"It is okay," Lan Wangji said stiffly.
"Okay." Wei Wuxian decided to drop the subject lest Lan Wangji spontaneously combust. He didn't know anyone else here. "It's okay where I come from too." He hesitated, then added. "I'm like that.”
Lan Wangji's mouth opened and then closed. "Good," he said after a moment and then managed to look like he wanted to cut out his own tongue without actually changing his expression.
Wei Wuxian laughed and clapped his shoulder as he went past.
"Yeah," he said. "I think that's pretty good too."
He half expected Lan Wangji to draw his sword and hack him down, but after a moment he fell into step. "I'll arrange for that cot," he said.
"Good," Wei Wuxian said and then he laughed again.
The cot looked like a death trap. It was held together by a bunch of leather straps connected to a metal frame. Even with a mattress put on top it looked like a torture device.
"If I die in the night, I will come back to haunt you," Wei Wuxian said, eyeing it.
"It is not for you," Lan Wangji said.
"What? I'm a prisoner. Of course I'm taking the cot."
"You are a guest and you are taking the bed."
"I'm not taking the bed. Come on, I can't let you sleep on that. If you die everyone will blame me."
"I will not die."
Lan Wangji was back to being aloof and ethereal, but Wei Wuxian knew what he looked like when he blushed now and it was hard to not contemplate ways to make it happen again. A whole subsection of his brain had been taken up by these thoughts. It must be the damn moon again.
"Fine," Wei Wuxian said. He could tell that Lan Wangji would not be swayed on this matter. "Take the cot."
Lan Wangji almost smiled. Wei Wuxian wasn't sure his mouth actually curled that way, but the corners of his mouth lifted ever so slightly and there was warmth in his eyes.
They got ready for bed in silence. Lan Wangji slept in adorable pajamas that included a pair of long white socks and didn't expose an unnecessary inch of skin. Wei Wuxian stripped down to his under-things and smiled at how ridiculously risqué it felt. He'd been naked with plenty of men in his life, platonically and sexually, yet few things had felt as charged as stripping off his outer layers under Lan Wangji's watchful eye. Not that Lan Wangji was actually watching him, at least not obviously so. He had already stretched out on the cot with his hands primly folded on his chest.
"I'm going to need clothes," Wei Wuxian said, crawling on to the bed.
"I'll have someone take you to the tailor tomorrow," Lan Wangji replied.
Wei Wuxian sat in lotus position and watched Lan Wangji through the flimsy bed hangings.
"You've taken your forehead thing off," Wei Wuxian remarked. It was resting on top Lan Wangji's neatly folded robes.
"Silence," Lan Wangji ordered, and with a sigh Wei Wuxian laid down.
He could see the moons through the windows. The large one would be full within a couple of days, the smaller one maybe a week after that. He pulled the covers up to his chin and shifted into a more comfortable position.
The whole room smelled like Lan Wangji: sandalwood, spring rain, and man. The wolf seemed to find it soothing. Despite the pregnant heaviness of the moon, it was calm at the back of Wei Wuxian's mind, listening with perked ears to the enchanting thrum of Lan Wangji's heartsong.
Lan Wangji rose at 5-hour. Wei Wuxian did not, but he watched Lan Wangji get ready through half-lidded eyes. He was such a finely formed man, with nothing but smooth skin and sleek muscle, revealed to Wei Wuxian in glimpses while Lan Wangji clothed himself.
Lan Wangji was tying the last of his belts when he noticed Wei Wuxian watching him from the bed. His fingers stilled, caught halfway through a knot.
"You should have made no peeking one of the rules," Wei Wuxian stated, crossing his arms under his head. He was rewarded with a slight flush of pink washing across Lan Wangji's cheekbones.
"I thought you were asleep," Lan Wangji murmured, finally finishing his knot.
Wei Wuxian shrugged as best as he could. "The cot makes a lot of noise."
Lan Wangji inclined his head. "Breakfast will be brought for you at 8-hour. If you stick around the rooms after someone will take you to the tailor."
"Okay," Wei Wuxian agreed, already sinking back towards sleep now that the show was over.
"I will see you tonight, Wei Wuxian," Lan Wangji said softly.
Wei Wuxian would have answered but he was already asleep.
Someone turned out to be a black woman in coveralls called Marci.
"Well, it's Marcianella, but no one calls me that." Marci scrunched up her nose. "I can't believe Lan Wangji let you in his room. I've known him for a year and I've never been here before, but I'm not a pretty boy like you." She grinned at him. "What's your name anyway?"
Wei Wuxian was in love. Well, not in love love since he didn't bend that way, but Marci was awesome.
"Wei Wuxian," he said.
"Wei Wuxian," she repeated carefully, getting the pronunciation almost exactly right. "So, do you know Lan Wangji from back home? He didn't say he'd have a friend visiting, but he never really says anything."
"Something like that," Wei Wuxian agreed. He didn't know how much the students and the rest of the staff had been told about him and it seemed simpler to just go with the flow.
"Brilliant," Marci said. "I hear you need clothes. Not that I don't love what you're wearing right now—it's fantastic. Love those pants."
Wei Wuxian was wearing black jeans tucked into black boots, a dark red t-shirt and a simple black college shirt, which was what he had been wearing when he jumped into the void. His backpack seemed to have been lost in the transition.
He was grateful that he'd seen enough people actually wearing simple rather tight fitting pants to be sure he could ask for it. Lan Wangji looked incredible in his robes, but Wei Wuxian didn't like the way they tangled around his legs.
“I’m an engineer,” Marci said. “That’s why I’m wearing overalls. I’m not really supposed to wear them out of the research wing, but they’re just so comfortable, you know? Mother would behead me if she knew. She’s still hoping I’ll grow out of my independence and marry like she did.” Marci scoffed. “Why would I ever want to marry? Men are useless.”
Wei Wuxian bit back a laugh and said, “You could marry a woman.”
Marci perked up. “I could, couldn’t I? Mother would not approve, of course, but she doesn’t approve of anything. Father wouldn’t mind. He could talk some sense into her. Are you married?”
“Ever wanted to be?”
“Is Lan Wangji your vixa?”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “What’s a vixa?”
“Oh, it means…” She made a complicated gesture. “Beloved partner, more or less.”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “No, he’s not.”
“Do you want him to be?”
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth and then closed it, shrugging. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
“He’s very pretty,” Marci said knowingly.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “That he is.”
“You’re very pretty too,” she added. “Very good face, build.” She waved a hand at him. “Everything. Mika is going to love you.”
“The tailor. He’s great. I’m sorry I asked, by the way, about Lan Wangji. It’s none of my business.”
“It’s okay,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I’m always getting into trouble for asking too many questions, but if you don’t ask you don’t get any answers, you know?”
Wei Wuxian smiled because he did know.
Marci led him back down to the main hall and then into one of the smaller adjoining halls. They drew a few looks along the way and Wei Wuxian saw a number of students leaning in to whisper to each other after they had walked past.
He wondered what they whispered about, his looks or Marci’s, or just the two of them together. The group was diverse. He saw several people in the main hall alone that he would have assumed were ZhenLan if he’d met them in Trinity and dark skin was about as common as light among students and teachers alike.
“Lan Wangji said he was the first cultivator to study here,” Wei Wuxian remarked. “But I see many Shandarians among the students.”
“Cultivation is a different kind of magic,” Marci said. “Very fascinating. I have a book you can borrow on the subject if you want to, but I’m afraid it’s very basic. Cultivator sects mostly keep to themselves and they’re wary of strangers. After the Inclusion many families who had children with potential, but not the means, to cultivate a golden core started sending their students to the Academy and Morrow has always been a trading port. Many of the old Shandar merchant families have Dalmanian branches.” She shrugged. “And lot of people come here just to build their own luck and then they meet someone and marry and stay.”
“The Inclusion?” Wei Wuxian asked, probably making it abundantly clear he was not one of Lan Wangji’s friends from back home.
“When the Shandarian Empire opened up its borders. It’s really a pretty interesting story--”
The convoluted story about emperors, betrayal and new ways of doing things took them all the way to the tailor’s shop. It had a clear window towards the hall with the name of the shop in black and gold and next to it was a small door with a tingling bell. It was not the only shop, Wei Wuxian realized.. All along the hall were storefronts for shops, cafés and restaurants, most of them proclaiming they were the academy branch of a Morrow establishment.
“Welcome to my humble shop. Do step in, and don’t let in the draft.”
Wei Wuxian realized he’d been caught on the doorstep, taking in the sight of the hall in broad daylight and he hurriedly stepped forward.
“My apologies, good Sir,” he said, inclining his head.
The shopkeeper, who was a good-looking man in his forties with chestnut hair and a wide mouth, grinned and pushed up from where he had been leaning against a wooden counter with a strange looking till sitting on top of it. “Oh, I like you,” he purred. “Mika Misanaro at your service.” He held out his hand.
Wei Wuxian took it, regretting that he’d not asked more questions about common customs.
“Wei Wuxian,” he introduced himself.
“What a pretty name.” Mika squeezed his hand once and then dropped it to walk a slow circle around him. “How can I help you, Wei Wuxian?”
Marci, who was looking far too amused, had already taken a seat in one of the plush chairs that lined the shop floor. It looked a lot like she had settled down to watch the show.
“I need clothes,” Wei Wuxian said. “Pants, shirts. Well, everything, really.”
Mika was wearing fitted emerald pants and a flowing white shirt under a richly embroidered emerald vest. It was a very good look for him but not exactly what Wei Wuxian was looking for. Without warning Mika grabbed the hem of Wei Wuxian’s shirt and lifted it, possibly to look at the cut of his jeans, possibly to look at the cut of Wei Wuxian. Well, he had nothing to be ashamed of there.
“This is a curious fabric,” Mika said, running his fingers over the denim. “I don’t think I have anything like it, but the cut is very good for you.”
He let go of Wei Wuxian’s shirt. “Strip so I can measure you.”
Wei Wuxian glanced at Marci, who didn’t look like she was going anywhere anytime soon, before he hesitantly pulled his shirts over his head.
Mika rolled his eyes. “All off it. Ezwa. Ezwa.”
Wei Wuxian didn’t know what the words meant, but he figured it was something like “hurry,” so he kicked off his boots and socks and stepped out of his jeans. He was wearing the quadruple tied underthings underneath. It was possible he’d never felt more naked.
“This is an easy body to flatter,” Mika said, grabbing a measuring tape from the counter. “Very clean lines. You want tight-fitting pants, yes?”
He wrapped the measuring tape around Wei Wuxian’s thigh and pulled it tight.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian agreed, staring resolutely into the middle distance. The wolf, who was normally all for this kind of manhandling, was agitated at the back of his mind.
The measuring seemingly took forever and involved a lot of shifting and pulling and holding his hair out of the way. Mika was a professional and Wei Wuxian didn’t think he was copping a feel but it still made him uneasy. The last time he had been so thoroughly measured it had been for a training exercise that turned out to be an ambush.
“You can dress now,” Mika said after jotting down the last measurements on a notepad he had open on the counter. “Clothes will be ready in three days.” With that he slipped behind the counter and disappeared through a hidden door.
“I don’t really know what just happened,” Wei Wuxian confessed as he stepped into his jeans and pulled them up his legs.
“That’s Mika for you,” Marci said cheerfully. “Are you hungry? I could eat.”
“I don’t have any…uh…credits?”
“Oh, that’s right. I was supposed to give you this.” Marci slipped piece of thick folded paper out of a hidden pocket and handed it over.
Wei Wuxian who had just finished dressing took it and unfolded it. It was a credit letter stating that his expenses would be covered by the Academy. It was signed by the treasurer, whose signature was illegible, and Nemas, the headmaster, whose signature was a study in grace. A complicated rune was drawn at the bottom and Marci instructed him to lick his palm and then press it down over the rune. He did so and the by now familiar tingle of magic spread up his arm.
“Now it’s tied to you,” Marci explained. “If someone else tries to use it, it will burn.”
“Well, that’s one way of dealing with ID theft,” he said, folding the letter and slipping into his pocket.
“You’re a strange one, Wei Wuxian,” said Marci.
It was after dinner when Marci returned Wei Wuxian to the residential wing, bidding him farewell at the bottom of the stairs.
"Can you find your way from here?" she asked, eyeing both him and the stairs dubiously.
"Of course," he assured her. He had no idea what floor they'd walked to last night or how many floors they'd walked down this morning but he was certain the wolf wouldn't let him get lost. It had picked out Lan Wangji's scent already and was pacing at the back of his mind.
"Good luck," she said cheerfully, obviously not believing him for a second. "See you around, Wei Wuxian."
"I hope so," he said truthfully. Marci was a riot. After the visit to the tailor they'd had lunch and she had showed him around the building. A tour that had taken so long they ended up having dinner as well. It had been a long time since he had just hung out with someone. Unless you counted Lan Wangji visiting him while he was in the holding cell.
Marci grinned at him and lifted her hand in a vague wave. “Goodbye,” she said.
“Bye,” he echoed.
He watched her walk back down the hall for a moment. It had been a long time since he had a friend. He thought he might want Marci to be one.
He turned back to the stairs and started climbing them slowly. Somewhere someone was playing a string instrument and every slow mournful note tugged directly on his heartstrings. He followed the song all the way to the door to Lan Wangji’s rooms. He knocked but when there was no answer he entered anyway.
Lan Wangji was sitting at the desk with his legs crossed before him, a seven stringed instrument laid out before him. Wei Wuxian thought it might be a zither. Lan Wangji’s eyes were closed and he didn’t seem to have noticed Wei Wuxian entering, fingers moving slow and sure over the strings.
Wei Wuxian stepped closer and sank down onto the rug in lotus position. His fingers ached for a flute. He hadn’t played in years and he wondered if his fingers would still remember how or if he still had the breath for it.
The song made him think of home and loss and the twists and turns of life. It was sad, it was happy, it was hopeful, and it spoke directly to his soul. He closed his eyes and hummed a quiet counterpart, letting his voice wind around the notes. When he opened them again, Lan Wangji was watching him.
The last note rang out and Lan Wangji rested his hand over the strings to quiet their residual hum. For a long moment they stared at each other across the desk.
“If you wanted to,” Wei Wuxian said, the slightest quiver to his voice. “You could call me Wei Ying.”
It was a name for close friends, for family, and no one had used it since Jiang Cheng last spit it in his face. He wanted it to mean something again. He wanted it to be more than a memory of better times.
Lan Wangji’s expression turned tender in a way that made Wei Wuxian’s heart feel bruised. “Lan Zhan,” he said.
Wei Wuxian could think of a thousand things to say to that but he bit them all back and just smiled instead. It was definitely a moment and for once he didn’t feel the need to cheapen it with words.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmured instead and at the back of his mind the wolf howled.
That night the large moon was full and Wei Wuxian sat at the edge of the bed and watched it through the window. The wolf was calm. He had not shifted in weeks, but at the back of his mind the wolf seemed to be sleeping already. It was the human side of him that was restless.
Lan Wangji was deeply asleep on the terrible cot, face lax and hands primly clasped on his chest. He looked different with his hair down and his forehead ribbon resting on top of his robes, younger. He made Wei Wuxian, who had turned twenty-six last year, feel ancient, but he thought that in actual years Lan Wangji might be older than him. Not that Wei Wuxian showed his age either. He didn’t know if he was immortal or if Lycans just aged very very slowly, but he looked younger now than he had when he was first bitten.
He sighed and settled down on the bed, still watching the moon through the window. Everything was so quiet without the constant hum of electricity and far away traffic. Trinity was never quiet, a bustling hub of activity at all hours of the day even though it was primitive compared to many other cities. It was one of the few port cities where it was still possible to live almost entirely off the grid, but in a few years that might no longer be the case.
The Universal Federation had won the Asophage War and one by one the old ports were being upgraded. They said it was to keep people safe. Wei Wuxian thought it was because they had scores to settle. Not everyone had agreed with the Universal Federation’s tactics.
He sighed and rolled over on his back, staring up at the canopy above him. It was a long time before he fell asleep.
Wei Wuxian spent the next couple of days familiarizing himself with the Academy and its grounds. He walked up and down stairs, poked his head through doors, and walked the entire length of the wall that enclosed the Academy area twice. He hung out with Marci in the engineering wing and he convinced the captain of the Tavarin Guard, a stone-faced man called Esha Elron, to let him train with the new recruits. For someone who’d never held a sword before in his life, he thought he was pretty good with the wooden blade they let him borrow.
“Crude,” said Lan Wangji, when he came to watch one afternoon and then he and Esha gave a masterclass in swordmanship that drew a crowd from all over the Academy.
“I can’t believe how good you are,” Wei Wuxian enthused when they walked back towards the castle side by side. “You never told me you could fly.”
“I bet I could beat you in hand to hand combat though.”
Wei Wuxian had summarily wiped the floor with most of the recruits and all of the trained soldiers who had been willing to challenge him.
“Hn,” Lan Wangji said again and five seconds later Wei Wuxian was on the ground with Bichen, Lan Wangji’s spiritual sword, at his throat.
“Hand to hand combat doesn’t involve swords, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, laughter bubbling in his throat. He didn’t feel threatened, partly because the wolf was doing some sort of complicated roll over, neck baring, yes-please-Alpha act at the back of his mind and partly because, well, he didn’t think Lan Wangji wanted to hurt him.
“Hn.” Lan Wangji sheathed Bichen and kept on walking, leaving Wei Wuxian to jump to his feet and run after him.
“You don’t have to show off, you know,” Wei Wuxian said, bumping their shoulders together when he caught up. “I already like you.”
Lan Wangji glanced sideways at him.
“It’s true. Cross my heart.”
“Don’t even try, you like me too. I’ve grown on you. Like a fungus.”
“Every day,” Wei Wuxian said proudly, and when he glanced at Lan Wangji he was sure there was a smile lingering at the corners of his mouth.
The next day Wei Wuxian was called to the headmaster’s office.
“Wei Wuxian,” Nemas said as he entered her cavernous study. “Please take a seat."
She gestured at one of the high-backed chairs before her large scarred desk. Wei Wuxian did as asked, gingerly sitting down on the edge of one of the ornate chairs. The seat was a red velvet that had seen better days much like Nemas's desk and the large patterned rug it sat on. Not the office he'd expected for the headmaster of what seemed to be a thriving Academy.
"It's good to see you again," Nemas said. "You seem to be settling in well."
"I am," Wei Wuxian replied. Anything else would be a lie.
"I hear you've been training with the new recruits. Captain Elron tells me you're very good."
"He flatters me," Wei Wuxian said, trying to sound demure. Nemas amused smile said she didn't buy it.
"He also says you fight like someone who has been well trained."
"I was a soldier once," Wei Wuxian admitted. "Close combat specialist."
Nemas nodded. "He thought you might have been."
"I deserted." Wei Wuxian didn't know if he wanted to provoke her or if he just wanted to confess. "I didn't like their methods and I knew they'd never let me leave."
"How long ago was that?"
"Three years give or take. I've been on the run ever since."
It was freeing to admit it. The few people he had hung out with in Trinity knew better than to ask questions about someone's past.
Nemas nodded and offered no further comment. Instead she took a paper from a stack on the desk and slid it towards him. "Do these things mean anything to you?"
He took the paper and read it quickly. It was a list of random items some of which he had never heard of. He shook his head.
"No, I can't say it does. What's a zhenzar?"
"It's a type of metal coin sometimes used for low-level magic. It's the sort of thing a spell-worker might carry."
Spell-workers, Wei Wuxian had learned, were low-level mages who relied heavily on pre-made runes because they had a very small magic reserve. Spell-workers were generally not trained at the Academy, but either apprenticed with another spell-worker or attended one of the many smaller magic schools that were sprinkled across the continent, few of which had a good reputation.
"It's a crystal used to focus power. Not particularly strong."
Wei Wuxian looked at the list again. It really was random and none of the things seemed to be of particular value. "Is this a list of the things that were stolen?" he asked.
"Why are you showing it to me?"
Nemas looked thoughtful for a moment, then she sighed. "I don't know. We called for an oracle but we got you. I thought maybe the list would mean more to you than it does to us."
"I'm sorry," Wei Wuxian said, putting the list down on the edge of the desk. "It's just--none of these things are valuable, right?"
"No, not really."
"Then how did you even notice they were missing?"
"They were all part of larger collections."
Wei Wuxian frowned at the list. "Even the spoon?"
"Yes, even the spoon."
"What kind of collections are we talking about here?"
"When a Tavarin dies most of their personal affects will be sent to the Academy for study. We keep everything that has a magical trace and send the rest back to their relatives. Over the years we've amassed a very large collection of magical artifacts and it's very well guarded. The fact that someone has gotten in, several times, to steal things from it even if they're of little value is very worrisome. There are items in our collection that could do a lot of damage if it fell into the wrong hands."
"I wish I could be of more help." Wei Wuxian tapped the list once. "I guess I could--I have a very keen sense of smell. I might be able to sniff someone out if I could see the scene of the latest theft."
To him it seemed most likely that the thief was someone on the staff who had access to the collection, and if that was true, he might be able to find that person without too much trouble. Chances were, however, that the latest crime scene was just too old. Scents lingered far longer than most people thought, but there were limits to even his excellent nose, especially in human skin.
"I'll have to bring it before the council," Nemas said. "But I think it could be arranged."
"I'm happy to help if I can. You've been good to me."
"I'll send someone for you if I get their approval," Nemas said. "I won't take up more of your time."
"Thank you, ma'am."
Wei Wuxian was almost at the door when Nemas spoke again. "You haven't asked if we've made any progress when it comes to sending you back."
He stopped but didn't turn around. He thought she might be able to read his face all too well.
"I assumed Lan Zhan--Lan Wangji would have told me if there was any progress."
Before Nemas could respond, they were interrupted by one of the Academy's many runners coming to fetch her for an urgent meeting. Wei Wuxian used the distraction to slip out of the room and quickly made his way down to the main hall, letting himself get lost in the crowd. Talk about going home agitated the wolf and he didn't particularly want to think about why.
That night a great clatter woke Wei Wuxian from a deep sleep and he jumped up to crouch at the foot of the bed, poised to strike before he was even fully awake.
"I'm sorry I woke you," Lan Wangji said stiffly.
He was on the floor, Wei Wuxian realized, next to an upended cot.
"I told you that thing was a hazard," Wei Wuxian replied, swallowing back his laughter because Lan Wangji looked adorably befuddled and likely wouldn't appreciate being laughed at.
Lan Wangji climbed to his feet and somehow managed to look as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Even his hair was perfect. He tried a couple of times to upright the cot, but it seemed to be irrevocably broken. The second time it fell over Lan Wangji let it be, staring down at it as if it had personally betrayed him.
Wei Wuxian took the chance to get back under the covers and stretch out, making sure to keep to one side.
"You can sleep here," he said, patting the left side of the mattress. "There's plenty of room."
Lan Wangji stared at him. In the faint light, he was nothing but silver and shadows but no less breathtaking for it.
"I promise not to jump you." Wei Wuxian made a mock salute. "Scout’s honor."
Lan Wangji blinked. Wei Wuxian couldn't fully read his expression in the low light, but he thought it was probably one of quiet suffering.
"You can't stand and sleep," he said reasonably. "Just lie down."
After a moment Lan Wangji did, slowly, as if he expected to change his mind at any moment. He settled on the far edge of the bed on top of the covers, hands primly crossed over his chest.
Wei Wuxian stared at his ice-cut profile. He really was a remarkably beautiful man.
"Has anyone ever told you you're beautiful?" he asked. It was a stupid thing to say, but he couldn't not say it when it was so incredibly, irrevocably true.
Lan Wangji was quiet for so long Wei Wuxian thought he wasn't going to answer, then he said: "Yes."
"That's good." Wei Wuxian reached out and touched his fingertips to Lan Wangji's shoulder, more to quiet the wolf than anything else. "You should hear that every day."
"Ridiculous." Lan Wangji's voice was full of scorn. His sect probably had rules for that sort of thing.
"Perhaps," Wei Wuxian admitted. "But true."
He rolled over on his side, turning his back to Lan Wangji and his enchanting profile. He wanted to apologize, but he wasn't actually sorry and he didn't think Lan Wangji would appreciate an apology that wasn't honestly given. He was almost asleep when Lan Wangji spoke again.
"You're beautiful too," he said, voice so low Wei Wuxian wouldn't have heard him if it wasn't for the wolf.
Wei Wuxian heart skipped a beat and then another one before taking off in a gallop to make up for the lost time. It had been a long time since anyone called him beautiful and even longer since it had been said in a setting where he was able to enjoy it. He discarded a thousand replies before he settled on silence. It was better, he thought, to let Lan Wangji think he hadn't heard. Maybe one day he'd say it again.
In the morning, Wei Wuxian watched Lan Wangji getting dressed. He couldn't say why he liked it so much. It wasn't like Lan Wangji in any way put on a show. His movements were precise and exact and at most Wei Wuxian got a glimpse of his collarbones as he tied his robes.
He wasn't certain what Lan Wangji did most of the time, except that it required copious amounts of research. The few times he had thought to bother Lan Wangji during the day he had always found him in the library, surrounded by books and scrolls. A few times he'd gone to sit with him, but the books were all dull and many were written in languages he didn't understand, so he'd always left again, leaving Lan Wangji to his studies.
"Go back to sleep," Lan Wangji said now without looking at him. "It's early."
It was early and the sky outside was pale and pink, the sun still struggling to rise over the horizon. It painted Lan Wangji's fair skin with a rosy tint, making him seem more human.
"I like watching you," Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji cut him a look that seemed more surprised than angry. "Why?"
Wei Wuxian shrugged, making the covers slip down his chest. "You look more human in the morning."
Lan Wangji blinked at that. "I'm always human."
Lan Wangji's eyebrows drew together slightly. Wei Wuxian struggled for a way to explain himself.
"You're less perfect in the morning. Sometimes your hair is even tangled."
Lan Wangji's hands flew to his hair.
"Not now," Wei Wuxian said impatiently. "Just sometimes."
Lan Wangji stared at him, then it seemed to occur to him that Wei Wuxian was barely dressed because his gaze dropped to his chest for a moment before being wrenched away.
"You're weird," he said, seemingly with as much dignity as he could muster, which was more dignity than Wei Wuxian had mustered in his entire life.
"I know," Wei Wuxian said, unconcerned.
Lan Wangji's eyes narrowed into perfect crescents, the way they did when he was smiling internally, and Wei Wuxian congratulated himself on a morning well spent. It was worth every bit of discomfort waking at 5-hour brought him if he could make Lan Wangji almost-smile.
It started raining at midday and by evening it was pouring. Rain smattered against the windows at uneven intervals tossed about by a fickle wind and down in the orchard the trees swung back and forth, as if dancing. Wei Wuxian watched the spectacle through the window in Lan Wangji's bedroom. The cot had been removed and no new deathtrap had been brought in its place. He wondered if Lan Wangji meant for them to share the bed from now, a thought that pleased the wolf way too much. It was a bit of a creep sometimes.
He looked around. It was somehow obvious that two people lived here now. The book Wei Wuxian had started reading lay discarded on the low table on the left side of the bed with the jagged edge of the slip parchment he'd used as bookmark sticking out between the covers. It was a blue book, a mystery; he'd thought about picking a gay romance, but he was afraid it might have given Lan Wangji a coronary.
The stack of clothes Mika had delivered lay carefully folded on the table by the windows. Black, well-fitting pants in some sort of thick silken material that was incredibly comfortable and double-tied tunics that looked a lot like the top half of Lan Wangji's robes, but in shades of subtly patterned black and grey with thinner crimson tunics to wear underneath. There was even a couple of wide belts, one leather, one silk, to wear at the waist if he was feeling fancy and a pair of tall dark boots. They were easily the finest clothes Wei Wuxian had ever owned.
Lan Wangji had taken one look at him in them, said "nice", and then turned on his heel and walked right back out again. Wei Wuxian hadn't seen him since and it was drawing perilously close to Lan Wangji’s usual bedtime. He sighed and kicked a heel against the wall. The window-nook was comfortable and he liked looking out the window, but it would be nicer if Lan Wangji was also around. It was not like him to be gone in the evenings.
Wei Wuxian wasn't really worried since he knew Lan Wangji was more than capable of taking care of himself, but the wolf certainly was. It seemed to pride itself on being contrary.
"What is the use of you anyway," Wei Wuxian muttered, tapping his fingers against the side of his head.
He sighed and stared out into the dancing orchard again. If there still was fruit on the trees it ought to be littering the ground by now, torn from the wildly swinging branches. A flash of white caught his attention and he kept staring at the same spot until the branches parted enough for him to make sure he hadn't imagined it. There was a figure in white kneeling in one of the orchard’s many clearings, its arms stretched out before it. Wei Wuxian was up and moving before he had even decided to do so, propelled by the wolf's need to be closer.
Lan Wangji wasn't hard to find. The wolf could hear his heartsong even over the howl of the riotous wind, and he hadn't strayed far from the path.
"Lan Zhan." Wei Wuxian had to almost shout to be heard over the wind. "What are you doing?"
Wei Wuxian hadn't seen it wrong from the window: Lan Wangji was on his knees with his arms stretched out before him with a thick wooden staff resting on his open palms. He didn't acknowledge Wei Wuxian's presence.
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian fell to his knees at Lan Wangji's side. Lan Wangji was soaked through, hair plastered to his skull whenever the wind let it rest and robes clinging limply to his lithe frame, even the forehead ribbon was listless, having slipped down his forehead to rest against his brows. Wei Wuxian's hands hovered for a moment before he let himself touch.
"You fool," he said, tugging on Lan Wangji's arm. "Stop this."
Water was dripping down Wei Wuxian's face, sneaking in under his collar in a way that sent shivers down his spine. He blinked to clear his eyes. Lan Wangji was like the statues he so resembled under his hands, cold and immovable. Lan Wangji had told him once, while he was still in the holding cell, about the punishments doled out by his sect. Kneeling was one of them and he was certain Lan Wangji was punishing himself for some reason. But it made absolutely no sense. Lan Wangji was the best person he'd ever known.
"I'm sorry," he said, tugging on Lan Wangji's arm again. "If it was my fault, I'm sorry, but you have to come inside. It's dangerous out here."
Even the wall patrols had been suspended for the duration of the storm and faint lights glowed in the watchtowers where the guards kept vigil while they waited for the storm to die down. Wei Wuxian envied them. His clothes were already soaked through and loose leaves and small twigs rained over them with every gust of wind.
"Fine," he said, finally letting go of Lan Wangji's arm to settle down in lotus position in front of him. "I guess I'll just wait here until you're ready to go inside."
Lan Wangji's eyes narrowed, the first reaction he'd gotten.
A twig hit Wei Wuxian on the side of the face. It had stung and he made a face as he pulled it away, but he could be stubborn too. He'd sit in the cold and rain all night if he had to.
"You're bleeding." Lan Wangji's voice was low and rough.
Wei Wuxian lifted his fingers to his face. He was indeed bleeding from a shallow cut below his temple. "It's just a nick," he said, letting his hands drop back to his lap.
"You should go inside."
"You should go inside."
They stared at each other, or at least they did until the wind whipped Wei Wuxian's hair across his face, blinding him.
"Fool," Lan Wangji said tightly and then the wooden staff fell to the ground with a dull thud. "You're a fool, Wei Ying."
"You're the fool," Wei Wuxian said angrily, tearing his hair away from his face. "What could you possibly have done wrong to deserve this punishment? You're so rule-abiding you'd make a monk feel guilty."
Lan Wangji flinched, nostrils flaring. "Monks would not look to me for guidance," he spat.
Wei Wuxian was taken aback by the unusual outburst.
"I'm sorry if I insulted your religion," he said stiffly and to his great surprise Lan Wangji laughed. It wasn't a pretty laugh, harsh and angry.
"You know nothing, Wei Ying." Lan Wangji's voice was tight with fury. It made the wolf want to crawl at his feet.
There was a thunderous crack above them and then the sky lit up with a flash of lightning. It cast everything into stark relief for a moment before they were once again plunged into darkness.
"Come inside," Wei Wuxian begged. He didn't care if Lan Wangji was angry with him as long as he was angry somewhere safe.
Lan Wangji didn't answer, but he rose to his feet in one fluid motion. His robes were dirty at the knees; it was the least put together Wei Wuxian had ever seen him. He bent down to pick up the wooden staff and then offered a hand to Wei Wuxian.
"Come," he said.
Wei Wuxian took the offered hand and let Lan Wangji pull him to his feet as if he weighed nothing. Lan Wangji released him as soon as he was standing and started walking back towards the castle with long sure strides despite the way the robes clung to his legs. Wei Wuxian followed after him, suddenly feeling guilty.
"You can kneel in the room if you want," he offered. "I won't disturb you."
Lan Wangji cut him a look.
"I won't. I promise."
Lan Wangji didn't say anything to that and Wei Wuxian wondered if he'd put himself in danger of being hit over the head with the wooden staff.
They entered the castle through one of the side doors, the same one Wei Wuxian had burst out of earlier, and walked up the stairs to Lan Wangji's rooms in silence.
"Wait here," Lan Wangji ordered when they reached the rooms before he disappeared inside, leaving the door ajar.
Wei Wuxian waited, hugging himself. He was chilled to the bone, only just able to suppress his shivers. He wondered if maybe the lack of cot meant that Lan Wangji had arranged for him to have his own rooms. Surely they would have realized he wasn't a threat by now.
Lan Wangji returned with a stack of clothes and for a moment Wei Wuxian thought he'd been right, but Lan Wangji didn't lead him to a new room. He took him to the baths.
"Oh," Wei Wuxian said, stepping after Lan Wangji into the bathroom. There were four tubs in total separated by flimsy privacy screens, all unoccupied.
Lan Wangji turned the taps on two of them and warm water started gushing out of the pipes.
"Thank you," he said lowly, taking the pile of clothes Lan Wangji offered him. They were all white, as if Lan Wangji had taken them out of his own closet.
Lan Wangji didn't answer. Strictly speaking, he wasn't supposed to since it was after 21-hour, but he broke that rule so often Wei Wuxian had almost forgotten about it. Another stab of guilt made him cringe internally.
"I really am sorry," he offered.
"What for?" Lan Wangji's voice was still rough but no longer laced with anger.
The corner of Wei Wuxian's mouth lifted. "Everything? You never asked for any of this."
Lan Wangji managed to be ethereally beautiful even while looking like a drowned rat. It was entirely unfair. Wei Wuxian refused to glance at himself in the mirror, he was sure he looked a mess.
"Don't apologize." Lan Wangji's voice was short and clipped, his face unreadable. "Get in the bath."
"Okay," Wei Wuxian agreed. He felt young and unsure all of a sudden. Lan Wangji sometimes had that effect on him.
Wei Wuxian stripped behind the privacy screen, letting his clothes fall to the floor in a crumpled mess. He could see Lan Wangji's shadow moving in the booth next to his and carefully averted his eyes even though he wanted to look more than anything. He felt as if he'd crossed a line somewhere and he wasn't sure where it had been drawn.
He sank down into the tub with a quiet groan. The water wasn't scalding but felt like it, burning against his chilled skin. He glanced to the left. He could only just make out the shadowed lump of Lan Wangji's head against the much larger shadow of the tub. He sighed and wrenched his eyes away again.
He'd been to the bathroom a few times before, but it had never felt so intimate. Lan Wangji was naked, just a privacy screen away.
"Did Nemas tell you about our conversation yesterday?" he asked, just to have something else to think about.
It was hard to tell if it was supposed to be a yes or a no.
"So you know about me. That I deserted," he pressed. His sordid past was a paltry offering for whatever distress he had caused Lan Wangji, but it was the only thing he had to offer. Besides, it didn't sit right, Lan Wangji not knowing.
"I know now," Lan Wangji offered, his tone neutral.
Wei Wuxian took a breath and let it out slowly. For Lan Wangji he'd tell the story from the start. It was the right thing to do. Both, he thought, because he wanted to be known and because he wanted Lan Wangji to feel better about whatever he did to deserve punishment. "I grew up in a small… village called Lotus Pier. My parents died when I was little and my uncle adopted me. He already had two kids, Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli, who became my siblings."
He stretched out, staring up at the ceiling. He was no longer cold on the outside, but the chill was creeping through his chest.
"It was a good childhood, peaceful. We didn't have to lock our doors at night and if you forgot your bike on the street it was still there in the morning. As I grew older I guess I stopped appreciating it, I wanted to go places, see things, but by then there was already unrest in the territory. Atlas was part of the Universal Federation and the Federation had declared war on a species called the Asophage. They said afterwards that the Asophage started it but I don't know if that was true. I guess it doesn't matter anymore."
Wei Wuxian blew out a breath and reached for the soap, just to have something to do with his hands. He told himself it wasn't so that he wouldn't have to see them shaking.
"I was nineteen when they came. I thought I was a man but I was really just a frightened child." He clenched his teeth. "They came at night and half the village was already gone before we realized what had happened. Only five of us made it out. My uncle, his wife…" He sucked in a shaky breath. "My sister. They all died."
Lan Wangji made a small noise. Wei Wuxian thought it was one of sympathy.
"My brother blamed me. When Sister told me to run, I grabbed him and I did. I just left her there." Wei Wuxian blinked away tears. He'd never told anyone the full story. He'd never wanted to. "We found shelter in a cave and we stayed there for four days without food before hunger drove us out. The Asophage where gone by then and the Federation army had moved in. My brother and I both joined up that night."
Wei Wuxian pulled the ribbon out of his hair and dunked himself. "I didn't see him again until a year later," he said when he resurfaced, pulling hair away from his face. "We ended up fighting in the canteen until the MPs pulled us apart. I haven't seen him since."
"Why did you leave?" Lan Wangji asked quietly.
"Maybe a year after my fight with Jiang Cheng I was invited to a training exercise held in the mountains not far from where I grew up. I thought it was classic survival stuff: here, have a knife and a bottle of water, go grab the flag at the top of the mountain. It wasn't. The mountain was littered with enemies, captured Asophage who'd been given a chance to get even. I barely made to the top alive. I thought that I'd made it then, that I'd be rescued but…" Wei Wuxian swallowed, not sure how to put it. "The Asophage were not the only monsters on that mountain."
Wei Wuxian reached for the hair soap, that it was different bar had been a hard-learned lesson, and started soaping his hair.
"They put a thing in me afterwards, to control me, some kind of brain chip and for two years I was the perfect soldier. I don't remember most of what I did but I know that some of it, at least, was not good. Not what I'd signed up to do."
"How did you break free?" Lan Wangji's voice was shaking.
"The chip broke. Someone clubbed me over the head and when I woke up my head was my own. I got up, ran, and never looked back. That was three years ago."
Sometimes he dreamt that Jiang Cheng had been there, that Jiang Cheng had rescued him, but he thought it was just wishful thinking from an addled brain.
There was a splash and then Lan Wangji was on Wei Wuxian's side of the privacy screen. Naked and dripping and, wow, hung.
Lan Wangji took a step forward and sank to his knees by the side of the tub, grabbing Wei Wuxian's hands from where they were still working at his hair.
"I'm so sorry that happened to you," he said earnestly, squeezing Wei Wuxian's fingers. "So sorry."
Wei Wuxian stared at him. Lan Wangji looked like a whole different person in the golden light of the bathroom with his hair fully down and not a stitch of clothing on him. He tried for a smile but it sat a bit wonky at his face.
"I might not deserve your sympathy," he whispered. "The things I dream sometimes are…" He shook his head, unable to go on. He'd killed people, not Asophage, not enemies, people. He was sure of that.
"Don't say that," Lan Wangji said, strangely intense. "You are a good person."
Wei Wuxian snorted. "I tell you all that and your takeaway is that I'm a good person. Your subtext reading needs work."
Lan Wangji shook his head. "No," he said."You are good."
Wei Wuxian stared at him. He could tell that Lan Wangji fully meant it. After a moment he nodded. "Okay," he said. "But Lan Zhan, if I'm good then so are you. Whatever you've done."
He had an insane urge to tell Lan Wangji about the wolf and the full truth of what had really happened at that mountain, but he didn't want the strange light in Lan Wangji's eyes to die out. He didn't want Lan Wangji to know he was a monster. Lan Wangji's reaction when he asked about wolves had not been promising.
Lan Wangji nodded and squeezed his fingers again. Belatedly he seemed to notice the situation they were in and color flooded his cheeks.
"Oh." His eyes flitted back and forth. "I—"
"I won't peek if you don't," Wei Wuxian promised. Never mind that he'd already gotten an eyeful.
"You are not that good," Lan Wangji said wryly. Wei Wuxian had never been more delighted in his life. It was such a relief to hear that wry note to Lan Wangji's voice after the emotional turmoil of the evening.
"Was that a joke? Oh my god, Lan Zhan, I can't believe it."
Lan Wangji smiled. Actually smiled. It sent Wei Wuxian's heart aflutter.
"Oh wow," he said, pulling a hand free to cover Lan Wangji's mouth. "Warn a guy before you bring out the big guns."
Lan Wangji looked extremely pleased with himself. It suited him.
Lan Wangji squeezed the hand he still had captured before rising smoothly to his feet. Wei Wuxian stared. How could he not with all that in his face? Lan Wangji looked down at him and smiled again despite the flush of color across his cheeks. Two smiles in a matter of minutes! Wei Wuxian was blessed.
They returned to the room in matching white under-robes. The wolf was delighted about it and Wei Wuxian, well, he was delighted too. Lan Wangji had been mad at him when they left, but he’d still grabbed one of his own robes for Wei Wuxian to wear. He wondered, suddenly, if the underthings were his too and had a hot flash on the spot.
"What?" Lan Wangji asked, glancing at him. He was back to being an unreadable marble statue, but Wei Wuxian didn't mind. He knew what Lan Wangji looked like when he smiled now.
"Nothing," Wei Wuxian muttered. "Just thoughts."
Lan Wangji quirked one of his perfect eyebrows, but didn't press. Wei Wuxian was thankful for it.
When they entered the suite, the wooden staff Lan Wangji had been holding laid discarded on the table and the whole terrible scene outside came back to Wei Wuxian with a bang.
He reached down and picked the staff up. It was heavy. Beside him Lan Wangji froze.
"Can you tell me why you were punishing yourself?" he asked. "Was it something I did?"
"No," Lan Wangji said and Wei Wuxian didn't know if it was an answer to the first question or the second.
Lan Wangji took the staff from him, weighing it in his hand. "The GusuLan sect has over 3000 rules," he said. "It's inevitable that I break a few of them. This place is nothing like my home."
He sighed, returning the staff to a stand Wei Wuxian had never noticed.
"What goes on in here," he touched his fingers to the side of his head, "is never going to be your fault."
"It could be a little bit my fault though," Wei Wuxian insisted.
"You are very eager to take the blame for something you don't know anything about," Lan Wangji remarked.
Wei Wuxian couldn't explain why if he tried, but he was certain, to the bone, that whatever Lan Wangji had felt the need to punish himself for was directly related to him and then he'd gone and ruined the punishment too. Did that mean Lan Wangji would have to punish himself double at a later date? He didn't like that thought.
"I don't want to make you unhappy," he admitted.
Wei Wuxian wanted to kiss him then, more than he'd ever wanted to kiss anyone in his life. He rocked back on his heels.
"That's good," he said. "Wouldn't want to make your life a misery or anything."
Lan Wangji's eyes softened. "You really don't," he said and somehow it sounded like a confession.
The next day Wei Wuxian spent bothering Marci and her colleague Ashna, who were hard at work designing a shower. Ashna was a slight woman with long brown hair and grey-green doe eyes who was as quiet as Marci was talkative but they seemed to work very well together.
“Look at it,” Marci said proudly. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
It was the shower, an elegant arch of pipe crowned with a sizeable showerhead.
“It looks fantastic,” Wei Wuxian agreed. “Dibs on first shower.”
Marci giggled. “You’re so silly Wei Ying.”
The name brought a flush of warmth still. He’d told Marci she could use it and explained what it meant but actually using it had been her choice and it just felt good to have friends again. He’d had guys he was friendly with in the military but that had been a whole other situation with its own plethora of nicknames. He hadn’t been Wei Ying to anyone in many years and now he had two people, well three if Ashna ever felt like addressing him directly, using it.
The three of them ate dinner together at one of the scarred workbenches, perched on high stools that made Wei Wuxian feel as if he was in a bar. He sometimes ate dinner with Lan Wangji but Lan Wangji a, ate the dullest food ever and b, believed in complete silence at the dinner table. Wei Wuxian always felt like he was ruining a sacred institution with his happy chatter and liberal application of spice.
After dinner he returned to the residential wing and the moment he stepped onto the landing he heard raised voice. One of them was Lan Wangji, he was certain, and the other was Peres, he was almost as certain.
He lengthened his step. Two guards were standing in the corridor outside Lan Wangji’s room, Wei Wuxian recognized them both from sparring.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
The closest guard waved him forward and reached for the door. “They’re looking for you.”
Whatever argument had been going on quieted when he walked inside. Two more guards were in the room with Tavarin Peres and another Tavarin who Wei Wuxian recognized from that first day. He was a tall, stern-looking man with hollowed cheeks and thin white hair.
“Tavarin Peres, Tavarin … I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“Tavarin Salar,” the white haired man said.
Wei Wuxian bowed respectfully to both of them. Peres scoffed, but Salar gave him a slight smile.
"The council has granted you access to the crime scene," Lan Wangji said stiffly.
“Took you long enough to turn up,” Peres said, turning his bulbous nose up. “Come here, boy,” he added, reaching for Wei Wuxian's arm. Lan Wangji knocked his hand away before he could reach.
"Don’t touch him," Lan Wangji snarled.
"Oh, that's precious," Peres drawled. "The puppy’s got claws."
Wei Wuxian could feel the surge in the air when they both readied their power and quickly stepped forward, getting in between them. Salar watched the whole exchange with calm blue eyes. He didn’t seem like a man moved by much.
"It's okay," Wei Wuxian said, sending Lan Wangji a placating look. "What do you want me to do, Tavarin Peres?"
Peres suddenly yanked him forward by the hair and he stumbled into Peres’s bony chest. Half a second later he was behind Lan Wangji who was suddenly holding up his sheathed sword, as if to shield them.
"Don't. Touch. Him," he said again.
"Fine," Peres spat. "You put it on him then."
It turned out to be a blindfold, a long strip of black fabric that Peres thrust into Lan Wangji's free hand. Lan Wangji lowered he sword, giving Peres a hard stare before putting it to the side. He could call it to his hand, Wei Wuxian knew; he didn't need to hold it to have use of it.
"You didn't have to do that," he murmured when Lan Wangji turned around to face him.
"Hn," Lan Wangji replied, holding the blindfold between both his hands.
Wei Wuxian glanced at Peres, who was scowling at them, looking disgusted. Salar’s face didn’t betray anything and the guards mostly looked nervously bewildered. Most Tavarin didn’t carry weapons and in what Wei Wuxian was sure was a nod to the Tavarin customs Lan Wangji left his sword in the room most of the time.
"You can put it on," he said. "I don't mind."
Lan Wangji looked like he minded very much, but he still reached up to tie the blindfold around Wei Wuxian’s head. It was pitch black behind it, unnaturally black. He should have been able to see some light filtering through the fabric.
"Wow," he said, blinking rapidly. "That's really dark."
"I'm sorry, it's spelled," Lan Wangji murmured. "Here, hold on to this." He pressed a piece of fabric into Wei Wuxian's hand. Wei Wuxian wasn't sure, but he thought the fabric was one of Lan Wangji's trailing sleeves. "Walk closely."
Walking closely without seeing where he put his feet wasn't easy and he bumped into Lan Wangji a couple of times before Lan Wangji sighed and grabbed his wrist instead.
"Stairs," he offered as an explanation, and Wei Wuxian carefully followed him down and down.
Wei Wuxian could hear the main hall when they passed it, but instead of entering it they twisted around into a corridor Wei Wuxian didn't think he'd ever explored. He could hear Peres and Salar before them and the guards behind them, but mostly his senses were focused on Lan Wangji. The wolf was, of course, ecstatic about it.
After a few more twists and turns, Wei Wuxian was almost certain he was being led on a pointless wild goose chase through the castle to confuse him. It was a good effort, but they were literally taking him to the crime scene because he'd confessed to having a very keen sense of smell. They must realize he would be able to track their scent to find his way back if he wanted to. The wolf was not at all confused, occasionally offering up where they were on Wei Wuxian's internal map of the castle based on a combination of scents and sounds. It awed him how it could keep track even when he was determinedly suppressing it most of the time.
Good boy, he told it silently.
He wasn't sure what it was trying to send back, but he was fairly certain it was some version of HE IS TOUCHING US. The wolf really had a one-track mind.
Eventually, they came to a stop in the northeast corner of the castle. Lan Wangji squeezed his wrist. He heard a door open and was hit in the face with a stale puff of air tinted with something vile. He wrinkled his nose but he kept his mouth shut as Lan Wangji tugged him forward again. Who knew what kind of dubious treasures they kept in their collection?
"Steps," Lan Wangji murmured, squeezing his wrist again and Wei Wuxian slowed his pace, searching each step until he was standing on solid ground. Behind them the door closed, but no one reached out to remove the blindfold.
"Take him over here," Peres said, he sounded annoyed. "Stop babying him."
Lan Wangji's grip tightened to an almost painful degree but he obediently led Wei Wuxian forward.
"Here," Lan Wangji said, putting Wei Wuxian’s hand against something cold. He thought it was glass.
Wei Wuxian bent forward slightly, sniffing. Behind him he heard Peres snort. He picked up on the faintest trace of the same vile scent that had hit him when the door opened. It smelled a bit like rotting flesh, but sweeter and tinted with fresh blood.
He straightened up, nostrils flaring. Whatever it was that stunk so badly had definitely been here more recently than this faint trace. He started fumbling his way sideways until he reached an open space, and after that he just followed his nose.
"Careful." Lan Wangji grabbed the back of his jacket. "There's a step."
Wei Wuxian found the step with his feet and then took off again.
"Here," he said. "The scent is here."
He reached out, knocking his knuckles painfully against another glass wall.
"What is he talking about?" Peres sounded both breathless and annoyed. "Nothing's missing from—oh."
Wei Wuxian spun on his heel, ignoring him completely in favor of tracking the scent back where it had come from.
"Where is he going now?"
Wei Wuxian could feel Lan Wangji moving with him, hand still fisted into the back of his jacket.
"Here," Wei Wuxian said. "It came through here."
He reached out, expecting to find a door or a window but instead he knocked his hand against a stone wall.
"Are you sure?" Lan Wangji asked.
"Yes," Wei Wuxian said, fumbling across the uneven stone. "I'm sure."
Behind them Peres barked out a laugh. "Leash your dog, Lan Wangji. He's clearly full of shit. Nothing that can walk through a wall would leave a scent for him to follow."
"Don't talk to him like that," Lan Wangji said, low and murderous.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian cautioned, grabbing onto the first part of him he could reach, which turned out to be his arm. "He's not worth it."
"Take him out of here," Peres said imperiously. "He's done enough. Time for the real men to do some work."
Lan Wangji's arm was like stone under Wei Wuxian's hands and he tightened his grip slightly, pulling him back.
"Lan Zhan," he said urgently.
Finally Lan Wangji relaxed and deftly twisted his arm out of Wei Wuxian’s grip, only to immediately grab his hand instead.
"Come," he said.
Wei Wuxian followed him up the step, across the floor, and up the short stair to the door, all while squeezing Lan Wangji's fingers tightly. He heard the guards left outside the door talking to each other in low tones. They immediately quieted when Lan Wangji opened the door, tugging Wei Wuxian along with him.
Lan Wangji didn't drag him on a wild goose chase instead he led Wei Wuxian outdoors. Wei Wuxian turned his face to the wind and sniffed.
"It's going to rain again," he said.
"Bear with me just for a moment longer," Lan Wangji said, ignoring him. "Grass now."
Wei Wuxian let himself be tugged along, his boots squeaking against the still damp grass. He didn't even realize what Lan Wangji was trying to do until he caught the scent again and nearly gagged.
"Stop," he said. "Right here."
"Thought so," Lan Wangji said with obvious satisfaction, and then he dropped Wei Wuxian’s hand in favor of untying the blindfold.
Wei Wuxian squinted against the sudden light, even if it was faint, and tried to get his bearings. They were at the north east corner of the castle, not far from the orchard. Above them sky was darkening rapidly, tinted in hues of red and purple.
"Sorry about that," Lan Wangji said, looking embarrassed as he stuffed the blindfold into a hidden pocket. "Are you okay?"
"Of course," Wei Wuxian said quickly.
Most people were probably still sitting at the dinner table and they could walk undisturbed through the orchard, following the scent towards the northern wall.
"What's behind the wall in that direction?" Wei Wuxian asked. He knew that Morrow, the capital city, was in the opposite direction.
"The King's Park," Lan Wangji said. "It's used mostly for hunting and recreation. It stretches from the Morrow city wall all the way to the Tallorian border in the east."
That didn't necessarily mean much to Wei Wuxian even though he had been allowed to look at a map so he translated it to huge in his head.
"Do people live there?"
Lan Wangji nodded. "Only the parts closest to Morrow are considered the king's personal property. There's a regiment of gamekeepers and hunters that oversee the grounds, but it would be easy for someone to hide in the park undetected. They can't be everywhere at once."
Wei Wuxian nodded.
The scent was eerily easy to follow. It was so strong he could almost see it hanging like a green-grey mist in the air. It made him suspicious and the wolf insisted he push Lan Wangji in behind him which he thought would be about as welcomed as a slap to the face.
"Can you still smell it?" Lan Wangji asked when they were close enough to the outer wall to have it looming above them.
"Yeah," Wei Wuxian said. "It's really easy to track."
He was actually surprised Lan Wangji couldn't smell it. It was that strong.
"It went through there," he said, pointing at a section of the wall that looked exactly like all other sections of the wall.
"You keep saying ‘it,’" Lan Wangji pointed out.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. "I’ve never met an ordinary human who can walk through walls."
"Hn,” Lan Wangji said, then he added. “There’s a door over there.”
"Do you think we should ask someone to come with us?" Wei Wuxian asked uncertainly. Whatever it was it had broken into a very secure facility several times undetected and it also smelled like death.
"I don't want the scent to dissipate."
He had a point, but Wei Wuxian still felt uneasy as he trailed after Lan Wangji towards the door. If Lan Wangji hadn't showed it to him, he wouldn't even have noticed it was there. It looked like it was part of the wall. It was only when they were almost upon it that he could see the cracks around the frame and the hidden handle.
"Won't the door be locked?" Wei Wuxian asked. He didn't know why he was so anxious. He'd once taken on a mountain full of angry aliens with a knife and a water bottle. He could handle himself, and even without his sword, Lan Wangji was more than capable.
Lan Wangji gave him a look. "Not to me."
He touched the handle and with a brief flash of blue the door swung open. "You have to hold my hand," he said, reaching out.
Wei Wuxian took his hand before he thought to ask why. It made the wolf very happy.
"Otherwise you won’t be able to exit. The grounds end here.”
"Oh, right." Wei Wuxian felt foolish. "Of course."
He liked holding Lan Wangji's hand and wouldn't have minded keeping doing it, but Lan Wangji let him go as soon as they were across the threshold. The door swung shut behind them with a clang. It was dark on this side of the wall, caught as they were between the wall and the forest, and Wei Wuxian stared nervously at the shadows among the trees while they made their way back along the wall. Soon it would be fully dark.
At one point he heard a guard pass above them and he nearly jumped out of his skin, but the guard either didn't spot them or recognized Lan Wangji.
"They should clear out a perimeter around the wall," Wei Wuxian murmured. "Anyone could sneak right up to it like this."
"I don't think they worry too much about an attack," Lan Wangji replied. "Dalmania has been at peace for many years."
"Still," Wei Wuxian muttered. "Why patrol the wall if you don't care what's below it?"
It took them a while to make it back to where the creature had gone through with the tall grass and thorny bushes of the underbrush slowing them down. The grounds were terrible for a fight, which didn't help his lingering anxiety.
"Here," Wei Wuxian said when they finally came back across the scent trail. It led straight into the forest. Of course.
Lan Wangji insisted on walking before him, despite Wei Wuxian being the one following the trail, so Wei Wuxian walked sullenly in his footsteps with his senses on high alert. He longed to shift. The wolf’s long, strong legs were much better suited for this terrain and its claws were much sharper. Lan Wangji might look like he wasn't bothered, but a tingle in the air told Wei Wuxian he was ready to strike if he had to.
Somewhere ahead of them something moved and Wei Wuxian grabbed the back of Lan Wangji's robes, slowing him down.
"Something's out here," he whispered.
He could no longer see the wall behind them for all the trees and he doubted anyone would come their rescue even if they heard them scream. He knew jurisdiction of the Tavarin Guard ended with the wall.
They continued forward at a slower pace, Wei Wuxian still with his hand fisted into Lan Wangji’s robes. If Lan Wangji was bothered by it, he didn’t say. A branch snapped to their left and they both twitched, heads turning. The scent of death was heavy in the air. We Wuxian could no longer tell what direction it was coming from.
“It’s close,” he breathed. The wolf was ready for a fight at the back of his mind and he could feel his teeth getting sharper despite his efforts to push it back.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji agreed and when he lifted his hands they glowed faintly blue.
The attack came without warning. One moment Wei Wuxian was holding onto Lan Wangji's robes, the next he was holding onto nothing while Lan Wangji grappled with a dark-clad, humanoid something.
Lan Wangji let out a low moan of pain before he managed to kick the thing off him. It rolled to the side and easily jumped to its feet for another attack. It was a man, or rather it used to be a man. He had an eerily pretty Shandarian face, but his eyes glowed red and he had a mouthful of fangs. He had long black claws and he was incredibly fast.
"Cultivator," he spat when Lan Wangji threw a wave of blue on him. "Your magics won't work on me."
Blood was already staining Lan Wangji's white robes red. The claws seemed to have pierced his side, and Wei Wuxian didn’t even think before he started shedding his clothes with record speed. Lan Wangji was a good fighter, but he was used to being able to rely on spells or his sword and in a hand to hand fight with a clawed, lightning-fast monster he was clearly at disadvantage.
Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, wasn’t. The shift came over him faster than it ever had: one second he was a man, the next a wolf, and he threw himself into the fight with abandon, knocking the horrendous thing away from Lan Wangji. He rolled to his paws and attacked, locking his teeth around the man's wrist and biting down until he felt it crack.
The man threw his head back and howled, swiping at Wei Wuxian's side with his claws, but Wei Wuxian was already moving, going for his leg next. It was fast and dirty, claws and teeth against claws and teeth, until the thing swiped at Wei Wuxian's face one last time with his good hand before jumping up into the closest tree with an unbelievable leap.
Wei Wuxian heard him move through the treetops and he would have followed if Lan Wangji hadn't called his name in a tremulous voice.
Wei Wuxian stopped and slowly turned. There was blood on his muzzle, he knew, and the hair across his back still stood on end. Lan Wangji stared at him. Wei Wuxian stared back with his head lowered. He felt his tail droop.
Lan Wangji dropped to his knees. The right side of his tunic was dark with blood and his back wasn’t as ramrod straight as it usually was, body curving in around his injury.
“Wei Ying,” he said again, his voice trembling.
Wei Wuxian walked closer, head low and tail between his legs now. He whined.
Lan Wangji reached out with shaking arms taking Wei Wuxian’s furry head between his hands.
“You have to come back to me,” he whispered. “You have to.”
The wolf didn’t want to go. Wei Wuxian was shaking too and a low whine wrenched itself from his throat.
“Please.” Lan Wangji’s voice broke.
Wei Wuxian shifted. The translation wasn’t exact but one moment Lan Wangji was holding onto a wolf, the next he was cupping Wei Wuxian’s face.
“Wei Ying,” he breathed and then Wei Wuxian found himself peppered with kisses. Lan Wangji kissed his cheeks, his chin, his forehead, his mouth, all the while trembling like an aspen leaf in a breeze.
“I’m okay,” Wei Wuxian assured him, gripping his wrist. “You’re the one who’s injured.”
Lan Wangji shook his head. His eyes still looked as if they were about to run over.
“Wei Ying,” he said again, smoothing his thumbs over Wei Wuxian’s cheekbones. “You came back.”
Wei Wuxian smiled at him, slightly uncertain. “Yes?”
Lan Wangji leaned in and for a moment Wei Wuxian thought he was about to kissed again but Lan Wangji just rested their foreheads together.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Um.”” Things were not going as Wei Wuxian had expected them to go after outing himself as a Lycan. “Are you okay?”
There was a lot of blood on Lan Wangji’s robes. The scent of it made his stomach turn.
“I’m fine,” Lan Wangji insisted. Then he turned his head to the side and threw up a huge clump of clotted blood next to Wei Wuxian’s naked knee.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian’s hands flitted over his shoulders, unsure where he dared to touch. What if he bled out?”
“It’s fine.” Lan Wangji wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just some bad energy.”
“Bad energy? What are you even talking about?” Wei Wuxian was aware he sounded slightly hysterical, but Lan Wangji just threw up blood, he thought he was entitled.
“It’s a cultivator thing.” Lan Wangji’s color actually looked better and his hands no longer shook when he clasped Wei Wuxian’s upper arms. “Get dressed. We need to see Nemas.”
“You need to see a healer.”
“We don’t have time for the healer. That was a shade. Someone’s working some very dark magic.”
“You also don’t have time to die,” Wei Wuxian said, as he gathered his clothes and started pulling his pants up his legs.
“It’s just a flesh wound.”
“Funnily, those kill people all the time.”
Lan Wangji climbed to his feet and his posture was back to ramrod straight despite the blood staining his robes. Wei Wuxian kept a worried eye on him while he laced his boots. He would have preferred to stay in wolf skin. He couldn’t protect Lan Wangji like this; he had neither a knife nor even a water bottle.
As soon as Wei Wuxian got to his feet, Lan Wangji started walking back towards the wall, his stride long and sure despite his injuries.
“I could carry you,” Wei Wuxian suggested.
Lan Wangji gave him a withering look over his shoulder. “Not necessary. It’s just--”
“A flesh wound. Yeah, you said.” Wei Wuxian walked behind him in silence for a moment before he added: “I’m going to be very upset with you if you die.”
They caused some consternation when they arrived back at the castle since Lan Wangji was covered in blood, but he brushed everyone off and sent a runner to fetch Nemas to her study if she wasn’t there already.
They ended up meeting in the corridor outside Nemas office.
“Lan WanJi,” she gasped, taking in his bloodstained appearance. “What happened?”
Wei Wuxian was very grateful that her eyes didn’t immediately go to him.
“We need to talk,” Lan Wangji said. “In private.”
“We also need a healer,” Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji glared at him.
“Literally a dog with a bone,” Wei Wuxian pointed out. “Not going to let it go.”
Lan Wangji actually smiled at that and, dear lord, it was a lot. Wei Wuxian had to stop himself from swooning.
“I can heal him,” Nemas said.
“Good.” Wei Wuxian was going to demand they did that first. Whatever was going on had been going on for weeks already and could wait.
Nemas did heal Lan Wangji first, or rather, she healed him while Lan Wangji told the entire story start to finish, including Wei Wuxian’s wolf alter ego.
“How curious,” Nemas said, staring at him. “Were you born this way?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I was bitten.”
“There’s a species of wolf called Lycana Lupus. Some of them have the ability to spread their essence with a bite. Most victims don’t survive. I did.” It was an incredibly simplified explanation but explaining the finer points would just take too long.
“And you can shift at will.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. Nemas glanced at Lan Wangji who shook his head minutely. Wei Wuxian arched an eyebrow at him but Lan Wangji ignored him.
Nemas sighed, looking down at her desk. “You’re sure it was a shade?”
“Without a doubt,” Lan Wangji answered.
Wei Wuxian raised a hand. “What exactly is a shade?”
“It’s dark magic,” Nemas said. “It’s been forbidden for hundreds of years.”
“It’s a dead man’s bones clad in flesh and it’s completely under the control of its master,” Lan Wangji added. “They can turn into a shadow at will, which explains how it was able to walk through walls.” His face betrayed a mild distaste.
“A ritual like that takes a lot of ghi. Not many mages could achieve it,” Nemas said.
“That is true,” Lan Wangji said.
“It could be an outsider,” Nemas said, but it was obvious she didn’t believe her own words.
Lan Wangji inclined his head, but Wei Wuxian didn’t think he believed it any more than she did. Wei Wuxian thought about the list of stolen trinkets Nemas had showed him. Surely the answer to both why and who were on that list. They just needed to figure it out.
“Nemas,” he said. “You said all the things kept in the collection had traces of magic on them. Is there anything one could do with such a trace? Like use it to recreate the spell?”
Nemas and Lan Wangji both turned to stare at him. He threw his hands up.
“It was just a thought. I don’t know how magic works.”
Nemas ignored him. She was leafing through the papers on her desk until she came up with a piece of parchment that she handed to Lan Wangji. It looked like a list, but not the same list she had shown to Wei Wuxian. This one seemed to have more information.
“I’d need to do some research,” Lan Wangji said, scanning the list. “But a few names stand out.”
“Core Melting Hand,” Nemas said.
Lan Wangji nodded.
“Core Melting Hand?” Wei Wuxian asked. He was getting kind of tired of conversations going over his head.
“It’s an old, very old, battle spell. It’s very hard and dangerous to achieve, but it grants the caster the ability to suck the energy out of another mage’s nessa-ghi, what cultivators call a golden core. All records of how it’s performed have been lost or destroyed, but several items on the list belong to mages who either performed it or attempted to,” Nemas explained.
Wei Wuxian glanced at Lan Wangji, ice gathering in his vein. “What happens to the mages who lose their core?”
“They survive,” Nemas answered. “But their ability to wield magic is gone.”
Nemas’s face told Wei Wuxian all he needed to know. They might survive the procedure, but they lost their will to live.
Wei Wuxian nodded to himself. He couldn’t do much, but there was one way he could help.
“I would like to track the shade,” he said. “In my wolf skin.”
“Absolutely not,” Lan Wangji said, but Nemas nodded.
“Not tonight,“ she said. “I don’t want you running around at night. Do you think you’ll still be able to track it in the morning? It looks like it’s going to rain.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. “It has a very strong smell. I can almost see it. Also, it escaped through the trees where the scent will linger even if it rains.”
“You have to be careful,” Nemas cautioned. “I want you to find where it’s been hiding without revealing yourself.”
“I will go with you,” Lan Wangji said, as if keeping him safe wasn’t the whole point of Wei Wuxian’s proposal.
“No, you won’t,” Wei Wuxian said, looking to Nemas for backup.
Nemas gave Wei Wuxian a barely perceptible nod. “I need you here,” she said.
Lan Wangji looked like he wanted to argue the point but he was simply too well brought up to manage.
“Right now, I want both of you to retire to your rooms,” Nemas said tiredly. “I need to think. If anyone asks, you went for a walk and Lan Zhan fell on a branch.”
Lan Wangji stood up and bowed respectfully with his hands clasped before him. Wei Wuxian followed his lead.
“Goodnight, Tavarin Nemas,” they said, almost with one voice, and Nemas smiled tiredly.
“Thank you,” she said, returning their bow while seated. “And goodnight.”
They returned to the residential wing in silence, both of them, Wei Wuxian assumed, mulling over the day’s unexpected events. If the few people they met noticed Lan Wangji’s bloodstained clothes, they didn’t mention it, hurrying past with their heads bowed. The Academy didn’t have a strictly enforced curfew, especially not for high-ranked students and teachers, but it was still pretty much dead after 22-hour aside from the servants who kept the place running and the occasional runner on their way with a message.
Wei Wuxian trailed after Lan Wangji into his rooms, feeling awkward all of a sudden. He wanted to bring up the wolf and why he hadn’t said anything, but he wasn’t sure how to open the conversation. He had no excuse but for the fear that Lan Wangji would look at him differently, and he didn’t know how to phrase that in a way that didn’t give his whole heart away.
“My brother,” Lan Wangji said suddenly. Wei Wuxian waited for more but Lan Wangji had his mouth pressed together, looking conflicted.
“Yes?” Wei Wuxian queried hesitantly when nothing seemed to be forthcoming.
“I need tea. Do you want tea?”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said, cautiously taking a seat at the table. The tea Lan Wangji served was not the strong sweet-tea favored otherwise at the Academy, but a milder fragrant and not as sweet blend that reminded Wei Wuxian of his childhood.
Lan Wangji nodded decisively and set about preparing the tea. The ritual seemed to calm him and when he brought the tray to the table he once again seemed to be carved in ice. He was still bloodied and disheveled but he served the tea with his customary calm and precise movements, watching Wei Wuxian across the table.
Wei Wuxian waited, sipping his tea in silence.
“My brother had a friend,” Lan Wangji said eventually. “Jin Guangyao, who was the illegitimate son of a sect leader, Jin Guangshan.”
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“They were friends for many years. Jin Guangyao didn’t have an easy life. His mother was a prostitute and it wasn’t until he had proven himself several times over that his father took him in and accepted him, but he was forever subservient to the legitimate son, Jin Zixuan.”
Lan Wangji lifted his cup but didn’t drink, staring into it as if it could tell the future or maybe make sense of the past.
“Then Jin Zixuan died in a night-hunting accident and shortly thereafter the father, Jin Guangshan died as well, making Jin Guangyao the sect leader.”
Lan Wangji put his cup down.
“Jin Guangyao married and had a son, but the son died in an accident while he was still a child. My brother spent many months consoling Jin Guangyao. They were very close.”
Lan Wangji swallowed, head bowed so that Wei Wuxian couldn’t see his face, just the curtain of hair that had come lose from his headpiece and the graceful arch of his throat.
“Then rumors started flying about Jin Guangyao, that he’d had something to do with the death of his father and half-brother. My brother defended him, pointing out that Jin Guangyao himself had been run through in the accident that killed Jin Zixuan and that Jin Guangshan had been in bad health after the death of his only legitimate son.”
Lan Wangji shook his head. “My brother’s faith in him was unwavering and I stood with my brother. I believed him when he said Jin Guangyao was being framed. I knew people had always looked down on him for his lowly birth and that many people opposed to him being the head of such a rich and influential clan.”
“Then one night Qin Su, Jin Guangyao’s wife, arrived at Cloud Recesses in a terrible state. Under the influence of a spell, she had tried to take her own life but she’d regained her senses just in time to flee, and the story she told broke my brother. Not only did she had evidence that Jin Guangyao had been directly involved with both the death of his half-brother and father, he had also murdered his son. On her deathbed Qin Su’s mother had finally told the secret she’d intended to take to her grave Qin Su and Jin Guangyao shared a father and Jin Guangyao knew. He’d married his sister and they'd had a child.”
Lan Wangji looked up, face a study in pain that crumpled Wei Wuxian’s heart in his chest. “Men were sent to capture Jin Guangyao, but he had already escaped. The moment he realized his plot had failed, he disappeared without a trace.”
“My brother became obsessed with finding him, leaving the sect leader duties to our uncle. For weeks he poured over books in the forbidden section of the library until he finally found a spell to help him along the way. He called into himself the spirit of a wolf.”
Wei Wuxian’s breath caught.
“He searched for months on end with his nose to the ground, sending the occasional sparse message so that I’d know he was still out there. Then the messages stopped, and one night a wolf visited me at the cold springs. It was my brother, lost to his grief and the wolf’s wild spirit, unable to turn back.”
Lan Wangji flattened his shaking hands against the table. “He still lives on the far side of the mountain, but I don’t know if he still remembers who he is.” He looked up. “It’s why I came here. Once upon a time, the Tavarin practiced a spell much like the one my brother used, calling down the spirit of a wolf into soldiers to create wolf-kin. They were used to track shades and dark mages. It was dangerous and many ended up like my brother, lost to their wolf. I wanted to see if someone had managed to call someone back.”
“Did they?” Wei Wuxian asked, fingers tight around his cup.
“Not that I’ve found. The tides changed after the war, overnight the wolf-kin became expendable and many were hunted down and killed. The rest disappeared. If anyone had contact with them afterwards they were too scared to write it down. When my year is up I will most likely return empty handed.”
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian said. “If there’s anything I can do to help, anything at all, I will do it.”
Lan Wangji looked at him, face unreadable. “We will have found a way to send you home before then.”
Wei Wuxian took a deep breath and finally said the thing he’d been thinking to himself for a while now. “I don’t want to go home.”
Lan Wangji blinked.
“There’s nothing for me to go home to. I’ve spent the last three years running and unless I’m captured, I’ll keep on running for the rest of my life. My only hope is to make enough money to get myself off planet and out of the Federation’s reach, but there are only two ways for me to make that much money without resorting to stealing and one would draw too much attention and the other--” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I don’t think I could sell my body without selling a piece of my soul.”
Technically he was still a prisoner here but he'd rather spend the rest of his life at the Academy than on one of the Federation's prison planets. At least the Academy offered both fresh air and leisure.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said and for a moment it looked like he was about to cry. Then he stood up abruptly. “I need a bath.”
He disappeared into the bedroom for a moment, presumably to grab clean clothes, and then left the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said to no one in particular. “That went well.”
While Lan Wangji was in the bathroom, Wei Wuxian cleared the table and tried to make some semblance of sense of his racing mind. There were many things about his old world that he missed, FuCe bikes and holoscreens and the junk food, dear lord, the junk food, but he felt safe here and it had been such a long time since he felt safe and cared for.
And then there was Lan Wangji, beautiful mysterious Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian felt drawn to him like he'd never felt drawn to another human being before and Lan Wangji had kissed him. Lan Wangji had kissed him.
When Lan Wangji returned to the room Wei Wuxian was once again seated at the table. He'd untied his outer tunic, but he couldn't bring himself to undress and go to bed before he'd gotten a chance to talk to Lan Wangji, so he'd sunk back down into his previous position to wait.
Lan Wangji looked like a vision. In nothing but a thin inner tunic and with his hair piled into a messy bun on top of his head, he was a wet dream come to life. Wei Wuxian wanted to kiss the pale graceful column of his neck. Wei Wuxian wanted to undo him.
"You kissed me," Wei Wuxian said. It was not exactly what he'd planned to say.
Lan Wangji ignored him, crossing the room to stand before the window.
"You did." Wei Wuxian rose to his feet and crossed the floor to stand behind him. "In the woods. You kissed me."
He reached out, putting his hands on Lan Wangji's rounded shoulders, palms open so that Lan Wangji could move away if he wanted to. Lan Wangji didn't move away, frozen in pale moonlight, a statue of ice under Wei Wuxian's hands. Wei Wuxian slowly slid his hands down over Lan Wangji's biceps to cup his sharp elbows.
"You kissed me," he said again.
"It was my first," Lan Wangji said stiffly, still not moving.
"Your first kiss? Why?" Lan Wangji must have had plenty of suitors.
"I don't like people touching me."
"Oh." Wei Wuxian lifted his hands and took a step back. "Sorry."
"No." Lan Wangji spun around, cheeks pink and eyes intense. "You can touch me. You can do anything to me."
Wei Wuxian's mind went blank and he stared at Lan Wangji's heaving chest, at his parted lips, at the flush coloring even the tips of his ears.
"Don't say things like that unless you mean them," he said roughly. He reached out, putting his hands on Lan Wangji's waist. "The things I want to do to you."
"You can do them." Lan Wangji stepped closer. "Please." His voice broke and he averted his gaze in shame. He was shaking under Wei Wuxian's hands and when Wei Wuxian dropped his gaze he realized Lan Wangji was already hard, the line of his dick clearly visible under the thin fabric of his robe.
"You don't have to beg," Wei Wuxian murmured, feeling none too steady himself. "Whatever you want, we can do it."
He'd be happy to hold Lan Wangji's hand all night if that was what he wanted, he realized. He only wanted what Lan Wangji would freely give him.
"Kiss me," Lan Wangji breathed and Wei Wuxian did. It was slow at first, tentative, but the quiet noise Lan Wangji made when Wei Wuxian licked his mouth open set his blood on fire.
When they pulled apart, Lan Wangji was trembling, breathing hard through his half open mouth, now red and slick with saliva. Wei Wuxian wanted to eat him alive.
"Your forehead ribbon is crooked," he said instead, gently running his hands up and down Lan Wangji's heaving sides. Watching him unravel was a rare privilege. Wei Wuxian didn't think he deserved it.
Lan Wangji squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head slightly. "You better take it off, then," he whispered.
Wei Wuxian's hands shook when he lifted them to the knot at the back of Lan Wangji's head. The forehead ribbon was sacred, he'd learned that much, and it meant something that Lan Wangji let him touch it. He imagined there would be some resistance but it came off easily, falling into his hands. He held it carefully, the silver piece resting on his damp palms with the ribbon trailing down between his thumb and forefinger.
He bent down and kissed the silver piece. "Thank you," he said.
When he looked up, Lan Wangji's blown-black eyes were shimmering with emotion. He deftly took the ribbon and wrapped it several times around Wei Wuxian's left wrist, tying it neatly on the inside.
"Hold on to it for me," he said.
Wei Wuxian flexed his hand. The silver piece sat well on the outside of his wrist and it didn’t seem to be in danger of slipping off. "I will," he promised.
They came together again like crashing waves for a hungry, clumsy, desperate kiss that left Wei Wuxian feeling breathless. He stroked the back of Lan Wangji’s neck with his right hand while his left toyed with the ties at Lan Wangji's waist. Lan Wangji was clutching his shoulders, looking wrecked already.
"I didn't know," he whispered, fisting his hands into the loose fabric of Wei Wuxian's outer tunic.
"Didn't know what?" Wei Wuxian asked, nosing a kiss against the hinge of Lan Wangji's jaw, delighted by the way he shivered.
"That it would feel like this." Lan Wangji swayed into him, their hips pressing together for a moment before he swayed back.
Wei Wuxian looked at him, suddenly suspicious. "Have you ever even touched yourself?"
Lan Wangji's brows drew together. Wei Wuxian slipped his hand down to press his hand against Lan Wangji's hip, close enough that he could feel the line of Lan Wangji's hard dick against his thumb.
"Here," he clarified. "Have you ever touched yourself here?"
Lan Wangji stared at him, seemingly unaware of the way he was pressing his hip into Wei Wuxian's hand. "Only to wash."
"Fuck," Wei Wuxian breathed. He couldn't even wrap his mind around the concept.
"My clan was founded by a monk," Lan Wangji said with some of his old stiffness. "It's not required to live by his principles, but I always have." He paused and pressed closer to hide his face against the crook of Wei Wuxian's neck. "Until you."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian breathed. He was twenty-six years old and he'd touched himself more times than he could count, but he'd never come this close to coming in his pants from a conversation in his life. He had always preferred his partners to be older and more experienced, but being the first, being Lan Wangji's first, had his blood boiling.
"I'll take such good care of you," he promised, seeking Lan Wangji's mouth. "I'll make it so good for you."
They kissed, hard and deep and wet until Wei Wuxian's knees felt weak. Lan Wangji might not have a lot of experience, but he was a quick learner, and Wei Wuxian found himself panting when they pulled apart, cock throbbing against the confines of his pants.
"Let's take this into the bedroom," he managed.
Lan Wangji nodded, looking nervous and excited all at once.
As soon as they entered the bedroom, Lan Wangji dimmed the lights to a golden glow with a sweep of his hands. Then he unceremoniously untied his robe and let it fall to floor. He was naked underneath, all sleek muscle and silky skin. His cock was fully hard, rising in a graceful arch from a thick thatch of black hair. Wei Wuxian couldn't stop staring at him.
Lan Wangji looked uncertain. "I thought—"
"You're good," Wei Wuxian said quickly. "You're good. Wow, look at you."
Lan Wangji didn't roll his eyes, but Wei Wuxian could tell it was close. Wei Wuxian shrugged out of his already untied outer tunic and started in on the inner. Then his brain short circuited all together when Lan Wangji gracefully sank to the floor at his feet.
"Your boots," he said when he caught Wei Wuxian staring. "They need to be untied."
"Boots. Right. Of course," Wei Wuxian babbled, ignoring the heavy throb of his cock. "Yeah, those need to go."
He kept his eyes on the windows as he divested himself of his inner tunic and started unbuttoning his pants. He didn't think he could look at Lan Wangji looking at him and still keep some semblance of composure.
Lan Wangji touched Wei Wuxian’s knees, and foolishly he looked down. His mouth ran dry. Lan Wangji's cheeks were flushed and lose hair surrounded his face and rained over his shoulders. His kiss-swollen lips were parted and redder than Wei Wuxian had ever seen them. He didn't even have to follow the line of Lan Wangji's body to the juncture of his spread thighs to feel breathless.
"Your boots are open," Lan Wangji said. "Step out of them."
Wei Wuxian did, first one, then the other. Lan Wangji put them aside.
"Your legs are so long," Lan Wangji said, looking embarrassed to even have noticed such a thing.
Wei Wuxian nodded reaching down to touch Lan Wangji's hair. He could think of a dozen inappropriate things to say, but he didn't want to voice a single one of them.
"Get on the bed," he said instead. It seemed rude to shed his pants with Lan Wangji still kneeling.
Lan Wangji did as he was told, but not before he'd stolen a kiss with a hand curled around Wei Wuxian's bare waist. Wei Wuxian watched him fold the covers down before settling while he kicked off his socks and shoved his pants down his legs. He’d left the quadruple tied underthings in the forest and his cock slapped up against his stomach, primed for action.
"Oh," Lan Wangji said. It was barely more than an exhale, but Wei Wuxian heard because the wolf had every sense trained on Lan Wangji.
There were things Wei Wuxian might have said, crude things, if the situation was different. Now he just moved closer and crawled onto the bed next to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji was still staring at his cock.
"I didn't think…" He blinked and looked away, obviously embarrassed.
"You can tell me," Wei Wuxian promised, urging him to lay back against the pillows. "You can tell me anything."
"I didn't think it would move me so," Lan Wangji whispered, face still turned to the side. "Just to see you naked." He hesitated. "And hard."
Wei Wuxian put two fingers to Lan Wangji's chin and turned his head back, giving him a kiss.
"It's normal," he promised.
Lan Wangji smiled, resting their foreheads together. His hand had found where the forehead ribbon was wrapped around Wei Wuxian's wrist and curled around it, as if he wanted to remind himself it was still there.
"Not for me," he said.
"I can take it off if you want," Wei Wuxian offered. "Put it on the nightstand."
The wolf didn't like that at all; it seemed to view the ribbon as some sort of brand.
"No." Lan Wangji squeezed his wrist. "I like seeing it on you."
Wei Wuxian had to kiss him then and one kiss turned into many, until they were both breathing hard. Wei Wuxian slipped his hand down over Lan Wangji's heaving chest to his quivering stomach, letting it come to rest against the base of his cock. Lan Wangji sucked in a breath.
Wei Wuxian slipped his hand further down, to cup Lan Wangji's tight sac. "Is this okay?" he asked.
Lan Wangji nodded jerkily, hips lifting seemingly of their own volition and thighs falling open. Wei Wuxian wanted to bury himself between them, but he didn't think they were quite there yet.
"I want to make you come," he confessed, trailing his fingers up the underside of Lan Wangji's cock. "Can I?"
"Anything," Lan Wangji promised breathlessly, reaching down to grab Wei Wuxian's wrist. "You can do anything."
Wei Wuxian took Lan Wangji's cock in his hand. It was large, long and thick, curving elegantly over his stomach. The foreskin had pulled back and moisture beaded on the rosy tip. Wei Wuxian wanted it in his mouth, but then he wouldn't be able to watch the emotions flitter across Lan Wangji's face.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji breathed, squeezing his wrist. "Wei Ying."
Wei Wuxian wouldn't be able to do his best work with his left hand, but he thought the forehead ribbon lent his touch some urgency with the way Lan Wangji clung to it.
"If you want me to stop just tell me," he murmured, kissing Lan Wangji's flushed cheek and the corner of his mouth. "I won't be mad."
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji breathed, fingers almost painfully tight around Wei Wuxian's wrist. "I—" His eyes flew open and he desperately thought Wei Wuxian's gaze. "I'm—"
He arched into Wei Wuxian's hand, coating his fingers with precome.
"It's okay, sweetheart. You can let go."
"I don't want it to be over," Lan Wangji managed, a low noise wrenching itself from the back of his throat. "I want—"
He was so very clearly struggling to keep his composure, to not give into the mounting pleasure. It made Wei Wuxian's cock throb and drool where it was pressed up against Lan Wangji's hip.
"It won't be over," Wei Wuxian promised, pressing a kiss to his gasping mouth. "We'll keep going as long as you want."
Lan Wangji made a soft, almost surprised, noise, and then he was coming, coating his stomach and chest.
"Oh," he breathed, fingers going lax around Wei Wuxian's wrist. "Oh."
Wei Wuxian gentled his hand and then stopped, resting his sticky fingers against Lan Wangji's hip while Lan Wangji caught his breath. Lan Wangji's hand was still on his wrist but petting him now, fingers tracing from his knuckles to the top of the ribbon and back.
Lan Wangji rolled his head against the pillows to look at Wei Wuxian, his cheeks were flushed pink and his eyes unfocused. He was naked, but he looked even more so without his forehead ribbon. Wei Wuxian leaned in to kiss his bare forehead and then the tip of his nose. Lan Wangji smiled, soft and unguarded, and Wei Wuxian's heart skipped several beats.
"Can I take you inside me?" Lan Wangji asked. "Nie Huaisang showed me a picture once."
Wei Wuxian's mind crackled with static while the wolf whispered the wolf equivalent of yes, yes, YES, at the back of his mind.
"Guh," he said and then, "We need something slick."
Lan Wangji's brows drew together. "Would oil work?"
Wei Wuxian nodded. He'd used stranger things than that, once upon a time.
"Okay." Lan Wangji let go of Wei Wuxian's wrist and rolled to his feet in one smooth move. He disappeared into the outer room but returned moments later with a glass vial that he thrust into Wei Wuxian's hands.
"It's unscented," he said, looking slightly uncertain, or what passed for uncertain on Lan Wangji's perfectly composed face.
"That's good," Wei Wuxian assured him, setting the vial down on the nightstand. "Come here."
He reached out and Lan Wangji happily burrowed into his arms, kissing him on the mouth.
"Your hair is a mess," Wei Wuxian said fondly, digging his fingers into the sides of the lose bun. "Look at you, so improper."
Lan Wangji kissed him again but Wei Wuxian could tell he was smiling.
They took their time, kissing and touching, rolling around on the bed in a tangle of limbs until Lan Wangji was fully hard again and Wei Wuxian thought he might burst.
"This will feel weird," Wei Wuxian warned as he coated his fingers liberally with oil and slid them down between Lan Wangji's spread thighs.
Lan Wangji nodded jerkily, following Wei Wuxian every move with his eyes. He sucked in a breath when Wei Wuxian fingers found their target, but he didn't try to close his thighs. Wei Wuxian slid his left hand up the bed until Lan Wangji found his wrist and latched on.
"If you want me to stop and can't say it, just let go of my wrist."
Lan Wangji rubbed his thumb over the cloud insignia. "Okay," he said.
Wei Wuxian barely recognized him, this flushed pink, rumpled creature who gave his affection so willingly. He would never had guessed that this would be his reward for chipping away at the icy exterior until Lan Wangji trusted him enough to show the softness underneath.
Lan Wangji sucked in a breath when Wei Wuxian slid the first finger inside, leg twitching against Wei Wuxian's arm.
"Okay?" Wei Wuxian asked, kissing his side.
Lan Wangji squeezed his wrist in response.
He took his time, one finger, two, more oil, three, until his gently probing fingers met nearly no resistance and Lan Wangji's quivering thighs were slick with oil.
"You have to—" Lan Wangji squeezed his wrist hard. "I want—"
"I got you," Wei Wuxian promised.
Wei Wuxian barely dared to touch himself as he slicked oil over his rigid cock and shuffled into position between Lan Wangji's spread legs. Lan Wangji pulled his legs up and out on his own volition.
"This might burn," Wei Wuxian warned. "But it shouldn’t hurt. If it does, you have to let me know."
He braced himself over Lan Wangji and grabbed hold of his cock with his right hand, squeezing the base tight for a moment.
"I trust you," Lan Wangji said, finding Wei Wuxian's wrist with his hand. "You won't hurt me."
Lan Wangji did trust him. Even when his brows pulled together in consternation his body stayed open and relaxed, accepting the slow slow slide of Wei Wuxian's cock. There was a lot to be said for his extreme level of body control. Wei Wuxian hoped he could manage at least a semblance of it, or this would be over real fast.
"Do feel that?" Wei Wuxian asked, collapsing onto his elbows over Lan Wangji, buried to the hilt. "I'm inside you now."
He wasn't sure for who's sake he was holding still, Lan Wangji's or his own. Lan Wangji was looking up at him with something akin to wonder and Wei Wuxian was scared that if he moved he'd come instantly. He'd promised to make it good.
We need to make this last, he told the wolf-part of his brain. We have to make him happy.
He started moving, slow and shallow at first, letting Lan Wangji get used to the sensation.
"Oh," Lan Wangji gasped. "Oh, that's—"
He squeezed Wei Wuxian's wrist tight, mouth falling open and legs coming up to wrap around Wei Wuxian's back. He reached up with his free hand and pulled Wei Wuxian into a sloppy kiss, deftly stealing the crimson ribbon holding Wei Wuxian's hair tied. Wei Wuxian's hair fell down around them like a curtain, pooling on the pillow around Lan Wangji's face.
Lan Wangji looked extremely pleased with himself, reprising the smug look Wei Wuxian had only had the privilege to see once before.
"Wild, like your spirit," he managed, arching into Wei Wuxian next thrust. "You can—more."
Wei Wuxian couldn't deny him and didn't want to, thrusting harder and faster and at the same time reaching in between them to curl his hand around Lan Wangji's rigid cock.
"Bite me," Lan Wangji gasped.
"What?" Wei Wuxian almost stopped in his surprise.
Lan Wangji bared his neck, clutching hard at Wei Wuxian's wrist.
Wei Wuxian did, or maybe the wolf did it for him, digging blunt teeth into the juncture between Lan Wangji's neck and shoulder, hard enough to bruise. Lan Wangji let out a high-pitched whine and abruptly came all over Wei Wuxian's hand and both their stomachs, pulling Wei Wuxian over the edge with him.
Wei Wuxian had never been blinded by an orgasm before but this one made his blood sing in his ear and his world turn dark, surging through his stomach and loins in wave after wave. He didn't release Lan Wangji's neck until his hips had stopped pumping and his heartbeat slowed. It was going to bruise for sure.
Lan Wangji lifted his right hand to feel the indentations Wei Wuxian's teeth had left behind, smiling dreamily.
"You left your mark on me," he murmured, looking as if he was about to melt right into bed.
Wei Wuxian wanted to apologize for biting so hard, but it was hard to apologize to someone who looked like they were enjoying themselves immensely. He was also enjoying himself immensely and naturally the wolf was fucking ecstatic. He decided that probably no one was actually sorry. Smiling, he pressed a kiss to Lan Wangji's probing fingers and then to the soft line of his mouth.
"This will feel weird," he warned before slowly pulling out and collapsing, with some difficulty due to Lan Wangji's death grip on his wrist, onto the bed next to him. Lan Wangji rolled onto his side to face him, still looking soft and pink and happy. Wei Wuxian wanted to keep him looking like that forever.
"I should clean you up," Wei Wuxian said, touching the inside of one of Lan Wangji's sticky thighs with his fingers.
Lan Wangji squeezed his wrist. "Don't," he said sleepily. "I want to smell like you."
If the wolf could say I told you so, that was definitely what it was doing at the back of Wei Wuxian's mind.
"Okay," Wei Wuxian agreed easily, wrapping an arm around Lan Wangji's waist and pulling him down to rest on his chest. "You better sleep on me too."
"Mmm," Lan Wangji agreed, tucking his head in under Wei Wuxian's chin. "Night."
They had a hundred things to talk about, at the very least, but it was way past Lan Wangji's usual bedtime and Wei Wuxian's own eyelids were drooping.
"Night," he murmured, pressing a kiss into Lan Wangji's hair and managing, somehow, to pull a corner of the covers up over them. They could talk in the morning.
Lan Wangji rose, as was his habit, just before 5-hour. Wei Wuxian listened to the by now familiar sound of Lan Wangji going through his morning ablutions with half-lidded eyes and a smile lingering at the corners of his mouth. Lan Wangji was humming to himself, a sweet happy-sounding little song.
"I know you're awake," Lan Wangji remarked, coming around the privacy screen that shielded the small sink.
"Mmm," Wei Wuxian agreed, blinking his eyes more fully open.
"I brought you a cloth."
Lan Wangji was standing by the side of the bed, holding out a piece of cloth, but it was not what caught Wei Wuxian's eye. It was the fact that while Lan Wangji's hair had been arranged into its usual sleek splendor and pinned into place with an elaborate headpiece, he was not wearing his forehead ribbon but rather one of Wei Wuxian's crimson hair ties, perhaps the same one he'd liberated last night.
"Your ribbon," Wei Wuxian said, offering his wrist. "I—"
Lan Wangji ignored the offer and instead pressed the cloth into his hand. "Wash yourself," he said.
Lan Wangji was fully dressed and Wei Wuxian was at least moderately clean when the door to the bedroom suddenly burst open, revealing a disheveled Peres. Wei Wuxian should have heard him approach but the wolf was preoccupied with the warm steady thrum of Lan Wangji's heartsong and Wei Wuxian himself was still struck a bit dumb.
"Nemas is missing," Peres panted. "When the maid came to wake her this morning her bed was empty and there were signs of a struggle."
He looked straight at Wei Wuxian and Wei Wuxian was certain the next words out of his mouth would be an accusation. Lan Wangji apparently thought the same thing because Bichen suddenly flew into his hand.
"Can you track her?" Peres asked, pale eyes boring into Wei Wuxian's.
"Yes," Wei Wuxian said, already moving.
Salar was nowhere to be seen this morning, but Wei Wuxian suddenly realized Valinya and one of the other council Tavarins were crowding in the doorway behind Peres. Valinya looked pale but her amber eyes were sharp and clear. They all seemed entirely unsurprised by his nudity.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji said, catching his eyes. "Shift."
Wei Wuxian nodded. He was a much better tracker in wolf skin and also much better equipped to fight the shade if it was involved.
"Please don't be alarmed," he said to the gathered Tavarin and then he shifted to a chorus of gasps and whispered curses.
He padded over to Lan Wangji, bumping his head against his thigh. Lan Wangji hadn't spent too much time cleaning himself and he still smelled like the both of them. Wei Wuxian thought that maybe that was intentional.
"Be safe," Lan Wangji said, crouching down to take Wei Wuxian's head in between his hands, completely ignoring the Tavarin who were murmuring among themselves. "I'll be right behind you."
The wolf saw the world in shades of grey, but the dark color of the ribbon across Lan Wangji's forehead was still apparent. Wei Wuxian licked at it and then sat back on his haunches with a wolfish grin.
"Ridiculous," Lan Wangji said, but he sounded fond.
He picked up Bichen and straightened up, looking as regal as ever.
"Nemas’s rooms are on the level above her study," he said. "Go."
Wei Wuxian realized as he took the stairs in careless leaps that he still seemed to be wearing the forehead ribbon. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it wrapped tight around his left front leg. The ID bracelet around his right wrist had stayed on as usual. With the bracelet he'd always assumed it had something to do with bio-technology embedded in it, but he didn’t think the forehead ribbon did.
He skidded around a corner and took off down a long corridor. A few people saw him, but he didn't think they had time to see much more than a grey blur before he was past them and leaping up another set of stairs. He wasn't quite as fast as the shade had been, but greyhounds had nothing on him.
He reached the landing that would lead to Nemas’s study and bound up another set of stairs, bursting into a new corridor. He could hear crying and voices down the hall where a door had been left ajar, but he didn't even have to go inside to know it was the shade. The stench of it was everywhere.
He skidded to a stop, claws raking across the stone floor, and spun around, heading back down the stairs. If the shade had taken her out of the castle, it would be easier to pick the smell up outside. Since the whole level was permeated by its stench, it would be hard to determine its precise movements.
He barreled past Lan Wangji and the Tavarins on the bottom floor, hoping that they'd know to follow him. Lan Wangji would, he was sure of that, but he wanted him to have backup.
The back door had been left ajar and soon Wei Wuxian caught the stench of the shade and, underneath it, a faint trace of Nemas's scent. He followed it along the orchard and onto a gravel path that seemed familiar. It wasn't until he looked up and spotted the tower that he realized he had been there the night he first arrived.
He slowed his pace to a trot, listening for Lan Wangji's heartsong. He was not far away and Wei Wuxian threw his head back and howled, hoping it would be enough for Lan Wangji to pinpoint his location.
Ahead of him the shade stepped through the tower door, seemingly shrouded in black smoke. It stepped down on to the gravel path and the smoke slowly dissipated. They stared at each other. The last time Wei Wuxian had had the element of surprise, but this time the shade could see him coming. It didn't matter: the shade had to be eliminated.
It was a dirty fight, claws tearing and teeth snapping, but Wei Wuxian had one advantage: he was fighting for something, for someone, and failure was not an option for him. He twisted and turned, kicked and bit, ignoring the sting of the shade’s claws raking down his side in favor of yanking its leg out from underneath it. It was over quick after that; one firm yank of powerful jaws and the shade gurgled its last breath.
Wei Wuxian spat out the remains of its throat and howled at the sky. He was bleeding from claw marks and bites all over his body, but the wounds were superficial, easily ignored. He headed for the tower, following the thrum of Lan Wangji's heartsong up the winding stairs.
Lan Wangji and the Tavarins, he quickly realized, were being kept out of the summoning room by a magical barrier. They were all shouting and pleading, or silently working their magic, while inside the room Salar had Nemas spread out on a table, chanting with his glowing left hand held over her bared chest.
Wei Wuxian pressed his head against Lan Wangji's thigh in silent apology and received a head pat in return. Then he charged. Whatever the barrier was made of, it wasn't calibrated for him. He landed once on the outskirts of the summoning circle and then he leapt, barreling into Salar's side.
He heard Lan Wangji screaming his name as he rolled to his feet and prepared for another charge. Salar had struggled up onto his knees and was facing him with a twisted grin on his face.
"I should have known there was something different about you," he said, lifting his right hand.
Wei Wuxian kept still. Behind Salar, Lan Wangji and the Tavarin had used his distraction to dismantle the magical barrier. Bichen glowed in Lan Wangji's hand, but his eyes were trained on Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji lifted his sword at the same time as Salar thrust his right hand out and hit Wei Wuxian with a wave of power.
"I banish you," he growled.
The last thing Wei Wuxian heard was Lan Wangji screaming his name.
Wei Wuxian woke up in an alley with the jagged spires of Trinity Tower stretching towards the washed-out sky above him.
"Where did you come from, mate?" The speaker was a standing a few feet away with a pile of shopping bags at his feet. He must have been looking to cut through the alley behind the tower when Wei Wuxian had suddenly appeared.
Wei Wuxian growled at him. He was back in human skin and stark naked but for his ID bracelet and the forehead ribbon. It didn't make his growl any less menacing and the man backed away, holding his hands out in a placating gesture.
"I'm just going to— over there."
He took off, running towards Trinity Main. Wei Wuxian looked after him for a moment before he rolled to his hands and knees and crawled to the shopping bags. Jackpot.
Three minutes later he strolled out onto Trinity High, wearing a pair of sagging blue jeans, a college shirt and sneakers half a size too large for his bare feet. The fabric felt strange against his skin and chafed against his various bruises and abrasions, but it was better than walking around naked.
It was late in Trinity, much later than it had been in Dalmania, but glossy storefronts still played their tired ads, casting colorful shadows onto the sidewalk. The light hurt Wei Wuxian's eyes, the noisy jingles, his ears, and the pervasive smell of circuitry, perfumes and human detritus, his heart.
He slunk into an opening between two buildings, making his way into the maze of narrow dirty alleys hidden between the glossy storefronts of the Trinity Fork. No one looked at him twice. The motto of the Trinity underworld was live and let live, or, more accurately, ignore and you might live.
It had only been weeks since Wei Wuxian walked these streets, but it felt like a lifetime. He twisted left and right, letting his feet take him towards more familiar stomping grounds. He reentered Trinty High far west of where he'd left it. The store fronts here where less glossy and less loud. The tourists and the rich never made it this far west; this was where the workers shopped, the ones who could afford to at least.
Wei Wuxian tapped his ID bracelet and after a moment it came to life, projecting a bleak hologram above his wrist. He had more credits than he'd thought he had, enough to buy a few changes of clothes and pay for decent room. He let the hologram go with a gesture and ducked into Molly's All Night Diner.
"Mr Wei," the waitress, Diana, said and grinned and waved at him. "I haven't seen you in ages. Want your usual?”
Wei Wuxian nodded and slid into an unoccupied booth by the window. In his mind, he could still hear Lan Wangji screaming his name.
Diana returned with a cup and poured him coffee from a silver thermos. "Burger will be ready in five," she said. She looked tired—everyone this far west of Trinty Tower looked tired—but her smile was sweet and genuine.
Wei Wuxian managed an answering smile that felt weird on his face and reached for the cup. He was sure that at one point he'd missed coffee, and he'd known Molly's to be decent, but the acrid stench of it made his stomach turn.
"Diana," he called. She looked up from where she’d been heading back towards her spot at the counter. "Could I have a bottle of water?"
She grabbed a bottle from the cooler and a glass from behind the counter, bringing them over.
"So where have you been?" she asked. "I thought you were dead when you stopped showing up for your Sunday night burger."
He'd been on his way to Molly's, he suddenly remembered, when the void had appeared.
"Travelling," he said vaguely. "Had to lie low for a bit."
"I'm glad you're back," she said, twisting the cap of the bottle and pouring it for him.
"Thank you," he said, cupping his hands around the glass.
The water tasted funky and the food, when it came, held no appeal. He slathered the burger in chili-ketchup, like he used to, and dipped the fries into the mess he made, like he used to, but it just tasted greasy, and chemical, and way too salty. He pushed the plate away, staring blindly out the window.
He was used to heartache, had walked around with a hole in his heart for so long he didn’t remember what it was like to feel whole, but to have part of it filled and then hollowed out again hurt more than he ever thought possible.
Wei Ying , Lan Wangji screamed at the back of his mind. His eyes prickled.
He hoped he'd saved Nemas at least, that Salar hadn't had time to absorb her core, and that Lan Wangji was safe. He had to be safe.
Diana came and took his plate away, replacing it with a bowl of ice cream and a fresh cup of coffee without asking. The ice cream, at least, tasted better than the burger.
He didn't know how long he'd been sitting rooted to the spot, but the ice cream had melted and it was getting light outside when someone slid into the booth opposite him. A slim someone, in a black shirt with the hood pulled up. Wei Wuxian glanced at Diana, but she seemed to be absorbed in a magazine at the counter.
"You disappeared." The hood was pulled back enough for Wei Wuxian to make out Jiang Cheng's angular features for moment. "Where have you been?"
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth and then closed it. He tried not to stare. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
He wondered if Jiang Cheng was there to arrest him and found that he didn't really care. Under the table he wrapped his right hand around his left wrist, tracing the cloud insignia with his fingertips. It was real. It had happened.
"Try me," Jiang Cheng said. He sounded angry, but he always did. It must mean something that he was there at all.
Wei Wuxian told him everything.
"You're a fool, Wei Ying," Jiang Cheng said when he'd finished his story. He even pulled his hood back so that Wei Wuxian could experience the full weight of his disapproving stare.
Wei Wuxian didn't argue. He was a fool. A lonely fool. He sucked in a breath and blinked away the tears gathering in his lashes. Underneath the table he was pressing the cloud insignia into his skin hard enough to hurt.
You left your mark on me, Lan Wangji had said. Wei Wuxian wished he'd asked for one in return. All he had was bruises and scrapes from his fight with the shade.
"How did you even know I was gone?" Wei Wuxian asked when Jiang Cheng seemed unwilling to move past the disapproving stare. He was probably still processing Wei Wuxian’s wild tale. He never liked things that didn’t make sense.
"There's a tracking chip embedded into the back of your neck."
"What?" Wei Wuxian's hand flew up as if he'd be able to feel it.
"I put it there after I'd dismantled the control chip."
Jiang Cheng blew out a breath, looking annoyed. "I thought you knew it was me."
Wei Wuxian shook his head slowly. He'd just dreamt Jiang Cheng was there, hadn't he?
"I'm sorry for what they did to you," Jiang Cheng said, looking down on his hands. "I didn't know."
"Would you have warned me if you did?"
Jiang Cheng jerked his head up. "Of course I would. I was angry with you but you're still my brother. Sister wouldn't have wanted this."
Wei Wuxian heart squeezed. He had lost too much today to be able to bear Jiang Cheng's regret too.
"It's okay." Wei Wuxian managed a wan smile. "It's not so bad."
"You could have died," Jiang Cheng said lowly.
"But I didn't," Wei Wuxian pointed out with fake cheerfulness. He was exhausted, he wanted to curl into a ball and sleep forever with his tail over his nose. He didn’t know how to process the things Jiang Cheng had just told him. He just wanted to be left alone.
Jiang Cheng took something out of his pocket and slid it across the table. It was an address on a slip of white paper and a code for a bullet train ticket. Wei Wuxian scanned it and saw it was to Yiling in Northern ZhenLan.
"It's just a small village, but it's safe," Jiang Cheng said. "It would mean a lot to me if you went." He stuck his hands back into his pockets. "I won't be able to visit you, but if you write there are people in the village who know how to get a letter to me. They don't know who I am, it's safer that way. Just address the letter to Sandu Shengshu."
Wei Wuxian took the slip of paper and slid it into the pocket of his too large jeans. Yiling. Burial Mounds. He'd never heard of either. The ticket would already have saved itself onto his ID bracelet.
"I have to go," Jiang Cheng said. After a moment of hesitation he reached out across the table. Wei Wuxian took his hand and squeezed it. "Live well, Wei Ying."
"You too, Jiang Cheng."
Three hours later Wei Wuxian boarded the bullet train to Yiling. He'd purchased a set of clothes that fit him and enough underwear, t-shirts, and socks to fill a small duffel bag. He wore his hair piled up under a gray cap, but no one looked at him twice and his counterfeit ID bracelet didn't trigger any alarms.
He didn't look back once as the train pulled out of the station. There was nothing left for him in Trinity. He didn't expect Lan Wangji to look for him and if he did, well, Trinity had millions of inhabitants. The chance of them finding each other was nearly nonexistent.
Yiling Station had a roof, three benches, and a ticket machine. Across the train tracks Wei Wuxian could see a bus stop by a dusty stretch of road and, a little ways off, enough buildings to indicate there was a town of some sort, probably the one that had given the station its name.
Wei Wuxian and his duffel bag were alone on the platform. No one else had exited the train and no one was waiting to board. A computerized voice announced the train’s imminent departure and then it left with a quiet swoosh and a gust of air that threw his hair into disarray. He patted it down and then shouldered his duffel bag, heading for the exit. Maybe someone in town could point him in the right direction.
It took four tries before he was finally able to find someone who was willing to talk to him. Yiling was a sleepy town and they were clearly wary of strangers. Even the lady who sold him an excellent spicy wok wouldn’t answer any of his questions. She just shook her head and shooed him off.
“I hear you want to go to the Burial Mounds.”
Wei Wuxian looked up to find a tiny old man looking down at him. He’d taken a seat against a brick wall to eat his wok and he hadn’t thought anyone was near.
Some watchdog you are, he muttered to the wolf but it was nothing but a lump of sadness at the back of his mind. If he wanted to use his extraordinary senses he would have to do it himself.
“I do, yeah,” he admitted, giving the man what he hoped was a winning smile. The man didn’t look fooled.
“Follow this road and take a left at the yellow house. Follow the road until you see a temple. There’s a path behind it that will take you to the Burial Mounds.”
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said, inclining his head. “No one else wanted to talk to me.”
The man’s narrow mouth quirked into a smile. “They think the Burial Mounds is haunted,” he said. “Sometimes the young boys try to go up there but they always get turned around in the fog and end up back at the foot of the mountain with no recollection of how they got there. Strangers like you, though—” The man’s smile widened. “They never come back.”
“Sounds delightful,” Wei Wuxian said, grabbing a piece of chicken—at least he thought it was chicken; it might be what the Federation liked to call “a related meat”— with his chopsticks. “I look forward to it.”
“I hope you have an invitation,” the man said, tapping his walking stick against Wei Wuxian’s left boot. “Good luck.”
“An invitation,” Wei Wuxian mouthed to himself. Would the address slip count or was he supposed to have brought something else? He guessed he would find out soon enough. In his current state of mind, disappearing forever didn’t seem like the worst thing.
The path to the Burial Mounds was a steep uphill climb in fog so thick he could barely see his hand before him. It would be easy to get turned around in such fog, but he kept his eyes on the path and made sure to not stray from it.
He was sure there were other people in the fog with him—he could hear them breathing and the dull thud of their heartbeats—but while they kept pace with him, no one approached.
“I know you’re out there,” he said conversationally. “I can hear you.”
He squinted into the fog, trying to make out anything but the vague shapes of trees and curiously formed rocks, but it was just too dense.
“Sandu ShengSu sent me,” he continued. “I’m a friend.”
“We’ll see,” a disembodied voice said and then a foul smelling spray of something hit Wei Wuxian in the face.
“What the—” he managed to get out before everything went black.
Wei Wuxian woke up in a bed. Sitting next to it was an older man with his greying hair in a loose bun. He looked kind, but looks could be deceiving.
“Who are you?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Wen Boqin,” the man answered. “Most people here call me Fourth Uncle.”
“Hn.” With some difficulty Wei Wuxian pushed himself up to sit against the headboard. “Is this the Burial Mounds?”
Wen Boqin nodded.
Wei Wuxian’s head throbbed and his limbs felt heavy. He assumed they had drugged him. He looked down on his arms, making sure he was still wearing both the forehead ribbon and his ID bracelet.
“We’re not thieves,” Wen Boqin said sternly.
Wei Wuxian thought that was pretty rich coming from someone who had essentially just kidnapped him, but he didn’t bother pointing it out. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Maybe he’d just go back to sleep. Maybe he’d just keep on sleeping until his heart stopped hurting.
“This is your room,” Wen Boqin said, forcing Wei Wuxian to open his eyes again. “Dinner will be served in the communal hall two hours from now.”
Wei Wuxian made himself look around. It was a simple room with a bed, a table, and a desk. There was a privacy screen in the corner, probably hiding a sink, and a free-standing wardrobe with the doors left ajar. It was a good room, but it wasn’t Lan Wangji’s, and now that he had run out of purpose he was just so very tired.
“I’ll let you rest,” Wen Boqin said, not unkindly. “You shook off the sedation very fast, but you must still be feeling it.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged. He was feeling it, but it was only the tip of the iceberg that made up his problems.
“Rest.” Wen Boqin put his hand on Wei Wuxian’s arm. “No one will bother you.”
This, Wei Wuxian soon realized, was a lie. People bothered him all the time. They brought him food, made him wash, changed his sheets and generally just made a nuisance of themselves. Couldn’t they see he didn’t want to be a part of their community – that he just wanted to sleep?
“It’s been three weeks,” Wen Boqin said, as he came into Wei Wuxian’s room one evening. “Don’t you think you have slept the sedation off by now?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian said sourly, knotting his hands under his head. “I don’t.”
“MianMian is worried about you. She says you don’t eat enough.”
Wei Wuxian threw Wen Boqin a sour glare. Did he really think Wei Wuxian was so faithless he’d be lured by a pretty face? Who cared what MianMian thought? Not Wei Wuxian, that was for sure.
“And I’m worried about you.” Wen Boqin settled down in lotus position next to bed. “I know you are hurting, but seeing nothing but these four walls won’t make you feel better.” He sighed. “I lost my wife and my—my daughter in the war. I lost nearly all of my neighbors and friends. It was hard, it is still hard, but being around other people and helping create this safe haven, it helps. I think it could help you too.”
Wei Wuxian blinked up at the water stained ceiling. He could say no. He could stay here and wallow in his sadness until he sank into the mattress and became one with the bed frame. It was his prerogative. He could do whatever he wanted.
"Okay," he said after a moment, running his fingers over the cloud insignia. "Let's do something."
Wen Boqin smiled.
Wei Wuxian was half a man, but he didn't think people noticed much. He put up a good front; he teased and laughed, and made up silly songs to amuse the village kids. He worked hard on the fields and helped out in the communal kitchen. The face he saw in the mirror these days was tanned and healthy looking. He'd taken to wearing his hair in a messy bun and he thought it suited him.
He made friends. First Wen Ning, another deserter who he was surprised to learn had been liberated by Jiang Cheng, who was more a wolf in man-skin than he ever was a man in wolf-skin. He followed Wei Wuxian around like a puppy following its master until one night Wen Ning’s sister, Wen Qing, found them.
"He didn't use to be like this," Wen Qing told him that night, sadness apparent in her eyes as she ran her fingers through Wen Ning's unruly hair. He was asleep already, happy smile lingering on his lips.
"I think he's fine the way he is," Wei Wuxian said firmly. The bite had changed him too, but at least he'd come out of it with his psyche intact. Wen Ning had not been that lucky.
Wen Qing became a friend after that. She was sharp-tongued and ruthless, dragging Wei Wuxian out of his occasional funks kicking and screaming. Sometimes he hated her for it, but mostly he loved her. It was almost like he had a sister again.
One night, after a long leisurely run with Wen Ning, patrolling the borders of their hidden kingdom, Wei Wuxian told them everything. He told them about Dalmania and the Academy and the fantastical world where magic was real, but mostly he told them about Lan Wangji.
"Mate," Wen Ning said.
"What?" Wei Wuxian stared at him.
"He's your mate." Wen Ning tapped his head. "The wolf knows."
Wei Wuxian wanted to protest because it was ridiculous, but the wolf had been singularly invested in Lan Wangji from the moment they met.
"His heartbeat," he found himself saying. "It sounds like a song."
Wen Ning smiled, obviously pleased. "Mate."
"So what does that even mean?"
Wen Ning shrugged. "That you better find him and not lose him again."
"A-Ning," Wen Qing said sharply, slapping him upside the head.
"It's okay," Wei Wuxian said.
Mate. He really liked that.
Wei Wuxian fashioned a flute out of bamboo and spent many nights playing every tune he knew and a few he'd made up on the spot in the communal hall. Sometimes he played the tune Lan Wangji had played him what felt like a very long time ago and if he had tears in his eyes when he lowered the flute, he wasn't the only one. They had all loved, they had all lost, and they were all running from something.
The Burial Mounds had, despite the name, been a resort before the war destroyed almost everything in its path, and together they brought it back to its former glory and made it more. There were fields now of potatoes and beets, but also flowerbeds and meticulously kept paths.
Wei Wuxian picked up a brush for the first time in years and helped decorated privacy screens and wall hangings. He took over physical education for the Burial Mounds kids and tried to learn how to cook, but he was hopeless.
He was content, but he wasn’t happy. With every passing month, it became more and more obvious that Wen Ning was right. Lan Wangji was his mate and the wolf would never stopped howling for him.
"You shouldn't have mounted him," Wen Ning said, one night after they'd changed back into human skin after a run. Wen Ning, most of the time, understood Wei Wuxian's wolf-side better than he did himself.
There was a blissful moment where Wei Wuxian didn’t understand what he was talking about, then he did.
"What?" Wei Wuxian squeaked.
"It's important to wolves. Mounting and biting and that sort of thing."
"Right." Wei Wuxian was not an easily embarrassed person but his cheeks were flaming.
"It doesn't matter now, though," Wen Ning said encouragingly. "When you see him again you can mount him freely."
Wei Wuxian touched his fingers to the cloud insignia and tried very hard to not think about mounting. His mind still conjured an image of Lan Wangji pink and happy and smiling. It hurt.
"He gave you that, right?" Wen Ning pointed at the cloud insignia.
Wei Wuxian nodded, eyeing him nervously. You just never knew where Wen Ning was going with a question.
"You should have Fourth Uncle make one for him. He's really good with metal work. We've been selling his jewelry online."
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, then closed it. "We have? How do you know that?"
"I bring the packages to the post office." The duh was implied.
Wei Wuxian was aware of course that they made money for the village in a number of different ways, most of it online. There was a lot of work for code drones and several villagers had worked in the industry before they'd had to run for one reason or another. It wasn't that hard to set up anonymous online accounts and find work. Despite the size of the Federation's territory there was always a shortage of people to do menial code work.
"Think about it," Wen Ning said, clapping Wei Wuxian's back. "I think he'd like it."
Wei Wuxian wasn't sure Wen Ning understood the part where Lan Wangji was out of Wei Wuxian's reach. Even if Lan Wangji was trying to find him, the odds of him succeeding were slim. The best and brightest of Tavarin Academy had never even figured out how to send him back.
Salar had figured it out, obviously, but Wei Wuxian didn't think Salar had cared much where Wei Wuxian ended up as long as it wasn't there. Also he figured it was easier to send someone back to their home world than to find a needle in a haystack in an infinite universe and locate them there. But still. Still.
He was a hundred times the fool, but nearly a year after he first arrived at Burial Mounds, Wei Wuxian commissioned Fourth Uncle to make a new cloud insignia. It was the same size and general design as the one Wei Wuxian now wore but with a replica of his paw print embedded into the right side of the cloud.
"For your mate," Fourth Uncle said when he handed it over, eyes twinkling with amusement.
Wei Wuxian wanted to cry because it was beautiful and Lan Wangji would never see it.
"Wen Ning talks too much," he said grouchily instead, closing his fingers around the new insignia. He really hoped Wen Ning hadn't said anything about “mounting.” He would like to keep looking Fourth Uncle in the eye. "It's beautiful. Thank you."
Fourth uncle smiled and clapped his shoulder. "I hope you get to give it to him one day," he said kindly.
"Yeah." Wei Wuxian managed a smile. "Me too."
Autumn came bright and sharp and Wei Wuxian found himself filled with a curious lightness. He imagined sometimes that he could feel Lan Wangji reaching for him. He knew it was just wishful thinking, but hope was such a wonderful feeling that he couldn’t help clinging to it.
“I’m going to miss you when you leave,” Wen Ning said one night, as they were making their way back from a supply run to town. It was slow going, weighed down as they were by boxes and bags, but Wen Ning, who was easily carrying twice the weight Wei Wuxian was, made it look easy. “But I have sister, and Grandma, and Fourth Uncle, and MianMian.” He turned his face away, blushing. “I’ll be fine.”
“What makes you think I’m leaving?” Wei Wuxian asked, shifting his grip on the box in his arms.
Wen Ning looked at him sideways. “I know you can feel it too.”
“A-Ning thinks you’re leaving,” Wen Qing said the next morning. Fourth Uncle had cut his hand and she was preparing a herbal paste with calm precise movements. Occasionally Wei Wuxian was called upon to hand her things, but most of the time he just watched. The way she worked reminded him of how Lan Wangji prepared tea. It was very calming.
“Yes,” he agreed, because Wen Ning did think that.
“I don’t know.”
Sometimes at night he thought he heard Lan Wangji’s heartsong calling him from far away, a distant thrumming echo that had him waking up full of longing but also lingering hope.
She gave him a sharp look. “You are such a man.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I know you can feel it too, whatever it is that Wen Ning feels, but you’re just sitting around watching me work. You should help him.”
“Who, Wen Ning?”
“No. Lan Wangji.” She rolled her eyes at him.
Wei Wuxian blinked. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Well, I don’t know, but you haven’t even tried, have you?”
“I—no.” Wei Wuxian was stunned, the thought had honestly not occurred to him.
She raised her brows at him with a pointed stare. “What are you still doing here? Try.”
“I—Yes. Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian retired to his room. It had been his refuge for over a year now and he had come a long way from the sad lump that refused get out of bed. He’d arrived to a barren room with nothing but the clothes on his back and a few changes of underwear, but now there were signs of life everywhere. A pile of drawings lay discarded on the desk and others had been pinned to the walls. A thick knit blanket in shades of blue had been thrown over the foot of the bed and colorful rugs made from scraps covered the floor.
He’d filled out his wardrobe with jeans, t-shirts, winter clothes, and practical work boots. He even owned a thick knit cardigan and, if he was honest with himself, he was very partial to it even if it made him look like a stuffy old man.
He sank down onto the floor in lotus position and took a few deep breaths to center himself.
Listen, he told the wolf. Listen for him.
And, boy, did the wolf listen. The first few seconds were really disorientating as the wolf reached out and out, flooding Wei Wuxian’s senses with scents and sounds. Then things calmed down and the wolf pulled back. It couldn’t sense anything relevant.
Keep your ears open, Wei Wuxian told it and clambered to his feet.
He wasn’t disappointed. He’d only ever heard that distant heartsong at night and Wen Ning was right, he could feel it. Something was about to happen.
With his wolf ears on full alert, Wei Wuxian spent the day saying his goodbyes. He took time to stop and talk to everyone he met, thanking them for the things they’d done for him and praising them for their good work. He never said the word goodbye, or even indicated he was leaving, because it would only lead to questions he didn’t know how to answer.
“You’re a good man, Wei Ying,” Wen Qing said, coming to sit by him after dinner. “I hope they know to appreciate you in that other world of yours.”
He glanced at her, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking over at Wen Ning, who was sitting ramrod straight next to MianMian, barely even daring to look at her despite her clear invitation to do so.
“I will miss you,” Wei Wuxian said. “I wish I would take you with me.”
“And miss Crossed Faiths now that everyone knows Izla is carrying Gora’bohn’s baby? I don’t think so.”
Wei Wuxian laughed, bumping their shoulders together. “Live well, Wen Qing,” he said.
Wei Wuxian returned to his room early, opening up the locked desk drawer that held the pile of letters he'd drafted last night: one for Wen Qing, one for Wen Ning, one for Fourth Uncle, one to be read in the communal hall, and, lastly, one for Jiang Cheng, addressed, as instructed, to Sandu Shengsu.
He lined the letters up on the desk, took off his ID bracelet, and put it down next to them. His wrist was pale compared the rest of his arm since he’d spent a lot of time this summer working in his shirtsleeves. Next he took out the box that held the new cloud insignia and slipped it into the front pocket of his jeans. The old was, as always, tied around his wrist.
Heart thumping wildly with something like hope and something like trepidation, he sank down into lotus position on the floor before the desk. If this didn’t work he’d be crushed, but he’d pick himself up and try the next night, and the night after that, every night for the rest of his life if he had to.
He’d made a life for himself here, a good life, but he was so tired of feeling like half of his heart was missing. He was willing to risk it all just to see Lan Wangji again, just to know that he was okay.
Listen, he told the wolf. Reach out.
The wolf was him and not him, but in this, at least, they were united. He closed his eyes and listened.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting when he heard the first faint echo of Lan Wangji’s heartsong. He almost thought he imagined it at first but then he heard it again.
He reached out with everything he had: Here, here, I’m here, please come, I love you.
The song grew louder, clearer. It seemed as if it was moving closer.
“Please,” he whispered, balling his hands into fists against his thighs. “Please, come to me.”
At the back of his mind the wolf howled with him, reaching, reaching, and then it pulled. Wei Wuxian gasped because he could feel the sudden connection down to his toes. He already knew what he’d see when he opened his eyes, but there, right in front of him, was a void.
He rose to his feet, patting his pocket to make sure the cloud insignia was still there, and looked around one last time.
“Thank you,” he said, shaky and heartfelt.
Wei Wuxian landed on his hands and knees in the middle of a familiar circle. He jerked his head up and looked around, wide-eyed. He spotted Nemas, Peres, Valinya, Marci—he grinned—and Ashna—he grinned wider—before he finally – finally—spotted him.
"No sword this time, huh? Lan Zhan, you'll give a boy ideas."
Wei Wuxian clambered to his feet. His grin felt as if it was splitting his face in two. He stepped closer to Lan Wangji, drinking in the sight of him. His face was unreadable and his outfit was impeccable. The ribbon across his forehead was the same crimson ribbon Wei Wuxian had last seen on him.
"Don't tell me," Wei Wuxian said. "You went through all of this trouble just to get this back." He pulled his sleeve up to reveal the ribbon wrapped tight around his wrist. "If I knew you wanted it I could have just mailed to you."
Lan Wangji’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes dropped to Wei Wuxian’s wrist and he leaned forward slightly, as if he wanted to reach out but wouldn’t let himself.
"Wei Wuxian of Lotus Pier in ZhenLan of Atlas," Nemas said, getting Wei Wuxian's attention. "Do you acknowledge that once you step out of this circle, you will be a citizen of Dalmania, subject to the High King of Dalmania and living under Dalmanian law?”
"I do," Wei Wuxian said without taking his eyes off of Lan Wangji. He felt as if he couldn’t breathe properly; how could one man be so beautiful?
"Do you, and this is important, swear to keep the unusual circumstances of your origins a secret outside this room?"
"I do," he repeated. He'd promise anything as long as they let him get to Lan Wangji. He couldn't smell him yet, the barrier seemed to prevent that, but he could hear the enchanting song of his heart and dear lords, he'd waited long enough.
"Step out of the circle, Wei Wuxian of Dalmania," someone said behind him. He thought it was Valinya. “Welcome back.”
He could tell the barrier had been dropped because his sense were flooded with Lan Wangji's scent, but he didn't move, still staring at Lan Wangji. There were so many things he wanted to say that they got stuck at the back of his tongue.
“You found me,” he finally choked out and Lan Wangji inclined his head slightly. Wei Wuxian wanted to kiss him, he wanted to do a lot of things, but before he got the chance Marci squealed “Wei Ying,” and barreled into his side, wrapping him up in a bear hug.
“You’re so tan,” she said. “And your hair is shorter and hi! I missed you.”
He laughed, hugging her back. He’d missed her too. He’d missed all of them. Well, he glanced at Peres, almost.
“I owe you a debt of gratitude for saving my life,” Nemas said, stepping forward to offer her hand.
Wei Wuxian took it. “It was the least I could do,” he said.
“On motherday we will hold a dinner to welcome you to Dalmania, but for now I think Lan Zhan is waiting to show you to your rooms.”
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said uncertainly. He never really knew what to do with gratitude and a whole dinner just for him seemed a bit extravagant, but he was very invested in being alone with Lan Wangji and he’d agree to anything they wanted.
He turned back to Lan Wangji to find he was already waiting by the door, a sliver of icy calm compared to the general high spirits of the room. Wei Wuxian walked over to him.
“Come,” Lan Wangji said and led the way out the door.
Wei Wuxian followed him.
The air outside was cool and crisp and the moons hung low over the castle. Wei Wuxian walked half a step behind Lan Wangji, who had yet to talk to him, and watched the trailing ends of the crimson ribbon. Surely it must mean something that Lan Wangji still wore it. Had he brought Wei Wuxian all this way to let him down gently?
“Lan Zhan—” he started, but Lan Wangji cut him off.
It would be fine, he thought, if Lan Wangji regretted their night together as long as he agreed to still being Wei Wuxian’s friend. The wolf had some thoughts about that, but Wei Wuxian ignored it. He would take what he could get.
The entered the castle through the backdoor and Lan Wangji led him down a corridor to a familiar set of stairs. It seemed to Wei Wuxian that he was walking faster than his usual very sedate pace and he almost reminded Lan Wangji that running was forbidden, but he’d already run his mouth enough with trivialities and jokes. He should have said what he actually meant: I missed you. I missed you so much.
Lan Wangji stopped outside the rooms they had shared before, Lan Wangji’s room.
“Another suite has been prepared for you,“ he said stiffly. “If you’d rather—”
“No,” Wei Wuxian said quickly. “Can I stay with you?”
Lan Wangji didn’t answer but the opened the door and left it open behind him. Wei Wuxian followed him inside. He closed the door behind him and stopped, because Lan Wangji had stopped, blocking the way.
“Lan Zhan,” he said uncertainly. “What—”
Lan Wangji spun around and pushed Wei Wuxian up against the door, hands planted firmly on Wei Wuxian's shoulders. Wei Wuxian went willingly, holding still while Lan Wangji stared at him.
“I don’t—” Lan Wangji eased his grip, pulling back slightly, as if he'd gotten a grip on himself. “It’s been a year,” he said. “Have you been well?”
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help it: he laughed. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, grabbing onto Lan Wangji belt when he tried to pull even further away. “It’s just— I’ve been fucking miserable, that’s how I been. I found a good place with good people but I wasn’t here. With you.”
“Oh.” Lan Wangji was staring at where Wei Wuxian’s knuckles dug in to his stomach. “Oh, that’s—” He swallowed. “I was wondering if….” He trailed off.
Wei Wuxian used the belt to pull him closer. He still had his shoulders against the door with his feet planted a foot or so in front of it. Their knees knocked and Lan Wangji looked up and then immediately down. Wei Wuxian stared at the crimson ribbon across his forehead. Had he been wearing it for an entire year, the way Wei Wuxian had worn his?
“Lan Zhan,” he said. “What did you want to ask me?”
“I was wondering if…if you’d want….”Lan Wangji trailed off again.
“To marry you?” Wei Wuxian asked brightly, grinning widely so that Lan Wangji would know he was teasing. He'd told himself to not run his mouth, but he was incorrigible.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said, finally looking up to meet his eyes. “That.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, his mouth falling open in shock.
“Oh.” Lan Wangji looked away. “You were teasing.”
Lan Wangji looked so defeated Wei Wuxian wanted to punch himself in the face. “No,” he said. “I mean, I was, but you really want that?”
“No.” He pulled Lan Wangji a little closer. “You don’t get to do that. Use your words, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji looked up, pinning Wei Wuxian to the door more effectively with his gaze than he had with his hands.
“Yes,” he said. “I want that.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart was in danger of beating right out of his chest and the wolf, well, it was best not to think about what the wolf wanted.
"You want to marry me. Wow. I'll make a terrible wife, you know. I can't cook. And what will your family say?"
"My brother is a wolf and my uncle is currently not speaking to me, so I don't imagine they will say very much."
Wei Wuxian let out a startled snort of laughter. "Lan Zhan, I love it when you joke."
Lan Wangji looked very pleased with himself. "Enough to marry me?" he asked, and he sounded hopeful. It would have been enough to break a much stronger man than Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian laughed again and then with joy bursting through his chest he pulled Lan Wangji in whispering his yes against his mouth. He'd never even thought about getting married, but oh, how he wanted it. After everything they'd been through, together and apart, he thought they deserved a happy ending.
"Yes," he said again and Lan Wangji finally kissed him.
Much later, when Lan Wangji had been both mounted and bitten and was spread out across the sheets pink, naked, and bruised at the neck, Wei Wuxian retrieved the new cloud insignia from his jeans pocket and settled down on the bed next to him.
Lan Wangji, who was still wearing the crimson forehead ribbon, though it was now both sweat-stained and askew, watched him with hawk-like attention.
"I brought you something," Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji looked down between his legs, raising his eyebrows.
"No, not that. Wow, I created an animal," Wei Wuxian muttered and pulled a corner of the covers over his lap. Lan Wangji pulled the covers away and then rolled over on his side to kiss Wei Wuxian's knee.
"You brought me something?"
If Wei Wuxian had not seen it with his own eyes, he would never have believed that Lan Wangji who was so rigid and rule-abiding in his robes, could be so loose and relaxed out of them. He loved it; seeing it felt like a rare privilege. He ran a hand through Lan Wangji's hair, just because he could, and was rewarded with another kiss to the knee.
Nervous all of a sudden, he held the cloud insignia out for Lan Wangji to take. Lan Wangji looked at it and then sat up before he picked it from Wei Wuxian's palm. He'd held it out upside down and Lan Wangji turned it over slowly, staring at it.
"You can have yours back, of course. If you'd rather—"
"No." Lan Wangji gave him a sharp look as if he wanted to make sure Wei Wuxian was not trying to remove his wrist ribbon. Then he looked down on the new cloud insignia again, touching it with the tip of a shaking finger.
"You had this made," he said. It was not quite a question. "It's your paw."
Lan Wangji held it out suddenly and Wei Wuxian took it back, heart sinking, until he realized Lan Wangji was untying the forehead ribbon. Once he had it in his hands he pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and dragged his fingers down the length of it. When he was done the ribbon looked like it had never been worn. Wei Wuxian was impressed.
Lan Wangji took the new insignia back from him and threaded it onto the ribbon, making sure it was centered, before he effortlessly tied it back on. Wei Wuxian stared – that was his cloud insignia on his ribbon on his man. He was starting to see why Lan Wangji was so adamant about the original ribbon staying on his wrist.
"Yours now," Lan Wangji said simply, as if he could read his mind, and then reached out to take Wei Wuxian's hands in his.
Wei Wuxian stared at him, sure his whole entire face was just a love declaration in giant letters.
"I love you," he said, just in case it wasn't clear.
Lan Wangji smiled and, oh wow, Wei Wuxian had been in the army, but he'd never seen a more lethal weapon.
"I love you too."
As it turned out, Wei Wuxian did have it in him to give Lan Wangji another present. There was still a side of his neck that was unbitten after all.
Later again, when the sky was turning pink outside, and they were dozing in a sticky tangle, Wei Wuxian took a deep breath, pulling the scent of the academy, Lan Wangji, and sex deep into his lungs. For the first time in a year the wolf was calm and content at the back of his mind, almost humming with quiet pleasure, or maybe that was Lan Wangji. For some reason it was very hard to tell the two apart.
"Are you in my head?" he asked, winding a lose strand of Lan Wangji's hair and the end of the crimson ribbon around his fingers.
Mate, Wen Ning's voice whispered at the back of his mind.
"Hn," Lan Wangji responded.
It was neither a yes nor a no, but Wei Wuxian decided it didn't matter. He'd figure it out eventually. He smiled to himself and pulled Lan Wangji a little closer. He had time.