There is a Dark House in Ballard, and people say to avoid it.
It is probably not called the Dark House because evil lurks inside, although there is some debate about that. It is called the Dark House because it is black from threshold to cupola, from shutters to frames, and it looms on a block where whimsical shops of brick and steel are far more common. Unlike the thrift store and the record shop, the hiking outfitter and the vegan patissiere, no ivy reaches toward the roof of the Dark House. Unlike the local yarn store, no dogs sniff the Dark House’s gate, although at least two cats—also black, naturally—are always sitting on the porch.
It may not be fair to judge a house by its color, but the local legends are clear. If you step on the cracks in the sidewalk, the Dark House will steal your soul. The wrought iron gate of twining snakes comes alive under the light of the full moon to snap at unwary joggers. Children who walk alone after dark get eaten, and the yard is full of bones that wail songs of their murders.
Xue Yang sits on a bench, across the street, eating ice cream and admiring the house. He wonders about the sanity of people who mow the lawn and trim the roses, yet painted their pretty little house black, until it occurs to him that he could just go inside and find out.
He waits until dark, not to stay hidden, but because it’s a more terrible idea, and Xue Yang always gives himself permission to do more terrible things whenever he gets the chance. The high iron fence buzzes with a strange kind of energy that crackles in his palms, so Xue Yang wraps his hands tightly in his flannel shirt as he climbs over. His mother always said he was a practical boy, back when she was still around to say things.
Xue Yang lands in the backyard with a quiet thump onto thin and scraggly grass. The center of the yard is dark under the watery moonlight, with the dirt churned up and loose, and for the first time, a tiny twinge of warning pings in the back of his mind.
He ignores it.
With a flick of his wrist, he summons his knife, a long black switchblade that is seven kinds of illegal and which he loves more than anything else he has ever had, not that there is much competition. With nimble and practiced hands, he slides the knife between the door and the frame, twisting just right when he reaches the lock. With a grin of triumph, he turns the handle, shaped like a gaping mouth, and opens the door.
Xue Yang uses his phone screen to look around the room, the dim blue glow tracing the outlines of furniture within the room. He walks slowly, carefully, listening hopefully for sounds of ghosts, ghouls, or any other delightfully gruesome monsters.
In the center of the room, there is a long sort of table that seems somehow to pull all the darkness of the room toward it. The shadows gather most thickly around a large, human-shaped lump laid out stiffly on top of it. Xue Yang reaches out to poke it and feels something unexpectedly warm give slightly under his finger.
The shadowy lump on the table sits upright with a sudden jerk.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Xue Yang shrieks.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHH!” the shadowy lump shrieks back.
“Why the fuck is everyone yelling?” a voice says, and the room is suddenly filled with light.
The shadowy lump rips off the sheet and turns into a guy in his early twenties with a scraggly little beard and wicked bedhead. The voice belongs to a grumpy-looking woman wearing a fluffy pink bathrobe. She squints at him in the oppressive brightness, glaring for a long moment before apparently deciding to deal with the man on the table first.
“Wei Wuxian, I’ve told you a thousand times that the workshop is not a place for sleeping.”
“Technically—” the man begins, before being abruptly cut off by the woman.
“If the next words out of your mouth aren’t ‘yes, Wen Qing,’ then I don’t care. Go to bed.” She rounds on Xue Yang and he takes a tiny, involuntary step back. “You. What are you doing here?”
Before Xue Yang can answer, another guy—this one with long hair, killer tats, and a dedication to the goth look Xue Yang has to admire—runs in with a baseball bat held in his hands like a club.
“Jiejie! Is there something wrong?”
The woman—Wen Qing, she’d said—pinches the bridge of her nose and says, “It’s fine, A-Ning. I’m just trying to figure out what this little hooligan thinks he’s doing breaking into my house and tripping all of my wards while I’m trying to fucking sleep .”
Xue Yang is now convinced that what he’s broken into is some kind of madhouse, and he pastes a charming smile on his face, the one he uses when fists are clenched and the smell of alcohol burns in his nose. The smile whispers words like “anger issues” and “prone to destruction,” and it’s usually weapon enough, but he holds his knife a little tighter too, just in case.
The woman snaps around like she’s felt his fingers grip the handle of the blade and holds out her hand. “Give it to me.”
No. He will not. His chin tips dangerously, his smile grows icy spikes.
Her eyes narrow. “I could just take it.”
They face off for a minute, the tension almost palpable. Actually, Xue Yang thinks, it’s not tension after all. There’s something else in the air. It reminds him of the buzzing fence, and he doesn’t like the way it confuses him.
“Ah, Wen-jie, let him keep her. Can’t you tell? The kid is scared, they’re both scared, and it’s not like he can hurt us.”
Xue Yang is offended. He is not scared, but he’s relieved that Wei Wuxian spoke up all the same, because even though Wen Qing purses her lips and looks annoyed, she drops her hand.
“Fine.” She crosses her arms again. “Wei Wuxian, make sure our little guest leaves. I’m resetting the wards in five minutes and going back to sleep.”
“Yeah, sure.” Wei Wuxian grins and shoots finger guns at Wen Qing. “Sleep well and dream of me.”
Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “Yes, because I love having nightmares.”
“Oh shoo.” Wei Wuxian flicks his hand at the goth man and Wen Qing. “To bed with you both. I can handle it.”
Their footsteps creak on the wooden floors as they walk further into the house. Xue Yang and Wei Wuxian wait in silence until the footsteps quiet, and then Wei Wuxian turns to Xue Yang. The grin he’d been wearing drops off his face and he looks serious, his eyes shaded and dark.
“Look kid, you should know better than to piss off powerful witches. It tends to be bad for the health.” The side of his mouth just barely tilts upwards, more wry than mirthful, and he looks old now. Old and grey and tired. “So, we’ll just call this a learning experience, and you’ll never come here again, right?”
Xue Yang snorts. “Are you kidding? If you’ve got real magic why the fuck would I leave now?”
“Toddlers shouldn’t swear.”
“I’m almost fourteen, fuck you very much.”
“Ah yes, I am now so convinced you are an adult.” Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “It’s two in the morning. You want to go home and go to bed. There’s nothing here for you to be curious about at all.”
Something sibilant and musical weaves its way through the words, and Xue Yang has his hand on the door knob before he fights off the slithering compulsion.
Holy fuck that was cool.
“Nah, I think I’ll stay,” he says, sauntering back casually, pausing to look at a weird painting of a monster facing off with an axe-wielding guy in front of a lighthouse. He feels a very strong sense of camaraderie with it right now.
Wei Wuxian sighs. “Sure, maybe you’ve got a little gift. But you’re a kid. Don’t you have parents who are going to, you know, notice you’re missing?”
Xue Yang stares him in the eyes, willing himself not to flinch. Something tells him this is a chance he’s never going to have again, a chance that requires honesty.
“No.” Xue Yang lifts his chin stubbornly. “I don’t.”
Wei Wuxian stares back, and Xue Yang gets the feeling that he sees all the years and all the disappointments that fit into that no. He doesn’t care. No one gives you what you want unless you take it.
This standoff lasts forever, or maybe it’s only a few seconds.
“She’s going to kill me,” Wei Wuxian mutters, and a little louder, “You can sleep on the couch tonight, but I’m locking you in the room and if you touch anything, I will turn you into a mannequin.”
He turns to leave, but looks back with a frown. “Wen Qing builds beautiful, elegant wards that you’ll never feel, never even notice if she doesn’t want you to. Mine will hurt. Don’t. Touch. Anything.”
Xue Yang decides, in the principle of magnanimity, to agree. “Whatever.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head and points a finger at Xue Yang. “Go to sleep, kiddo.”
The words hold Xue Yang’s hand and lead him to the couch, make him lay down, and within minutes, he is asleep.
He opens his eyes to piercing sunlight and a pale face inches from his.
“What the fuck!” he yelps, instinctively grabbing for his knife and snapping it open.
“Mr. Wei, he’s awake and noisy,” the face says, and Xue Yang focuses on its features.
It’s the goth guy. His arms have full-sleeve tattoos, matching patterns of stark black geometric lines and circles, but his neck has weird black veins tattooed on it. His eyes, which are still way too close to Xue Yang’s, are so dark they’re practically black.
“Where’s the witch?” Xue Yang asks, sufficiently recovered to be an asshole.
“Boiling children,” Wei Wuxian retorts. He’s leaning over the table and taking notes in a tattered book, poking something with a tiny screwdriver. “It’s the only reason we let you stay.”
“Really?” Xue Yang can’t decide if that’s cool or terrifying.
“He’s always like that in the morning,” Goth Guy says conspiratorially. “By ten, he’s pretty nice again.”
“I’m never nice,” Wei Wuxian grumbles. “A-Ning, can you take our miscreant home, please? The last thing I need is cops knocking on The House door asking if we’re kidnapping children. Again.”
“Okay, Mr. Wei.”
Xue Yang panics. He can’t go back there. Not since they found him alone with the fire. He knows what they’ll do, and he can’t go back. He won’t . He ducks under Goth Guy’s arm and has his knife angled under Wei Wuxian’s chin before he’s even processed the motor function commands “get up” and “don’t let him send you away.”
“No! You have to…” He scrambles though thoughts, desperate ideas, each one crazier than the last before he hits on words that work themselves loose from his mouth. “You said I had a gift, you have to teach me to use it.”
Wei Wuxian frowns, but instead of being afraid or angry, he tips his head and whistles, two notes that almost sound like a name. To his great shock and horror, Xue Yang’s knife vibrates in his hand, and his fingers snap open like a broken trap, dropping the knife onto Wei Wuxian’s waiting palm. He carefully folds the blade back into the handle.
“Jiangzai,” he says, almost affectionately.
It doesn’t mean anything, but then it does , and it hits Xue Yang so hard he collapses to the ground. The knife has a name, and he knows it’s right as soon as Wei Wuxian says it. Xue Yang’s heart pounds, and he hates it. He hates this motherfucker who just took his knife away and he hates the Goth Guy who is helping him back to his feet. He doesn’t want to stay anymore, and he shakes off Goth Guy, wishing he could throw his kindness on the floor and stomp on it.
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Okay, maybe you have a little bit more than a little bit of a gift. But you still can’t stay, and I’m not teaching you anything.”
Xue Yang snatches his knife— his Jiangzai—out of Wei Wuxian’s hand and stomps to the door. “Fine. Fuck you.”
He gets as far as yanking the door open and slamming it against the wall before he realizes that there is a person in the way, and she doesn’t look inclined to move.
“Here you go, kiddo,” she says, handing him a bag. “I bought you some clean clothes and a toothbrush. A-Ning will show you where the bathroom is. Come back down for breakfast when you’ve changed.”
This is somehow more terrifying than when she was yelling at him. Yelling he understands. Now she’s just being...creepy. He stares at her belligerently, and she sighs.
“Listen, you little shit,” she says, bending over to look him dead in the eye. She doesn’t have to bend very far, he realizes. She’s actually tiny, even though she seems as big as the Fremont troll. “You will either go willingly with A-Ning, who is very nice, or you can test my patience and get buried in the yard with all the rest of the naughty children who break into my house. Your choice.”
Yeah, that’s more solid ground.
“Fine.” He grabs the bag from her and waves at the Goth Guy. “Lead the way, A-Ning .” He means it to be an insult, but Goth Guy just grins.
Xue Yang hears Wei Wuxian ask, “Wen Qing, what the fuck,” before Goth Guy herds him up the wide staircase, and he doesn’t hear any more of her answer than, “A-Xian, I can’t let him leave. You don’t understand, I did a location…”
This close to the Goth Guy, Xue Yang decides to acknowledge that the pale translucence of his skin is probably not makeup.
“I’m Wen Ning, by the way. I doubt Mr. Wei or jiejie introduced me,” Goth Guy—Wen Ning—says in a casual tone.
“So are you actually dead or what?” he asks Wen Ning, and Wen Ning grins.
“Or what,” he answers enigmatically, and gently shoves Xue Yang in a bathroom with pink tiles and a claw-foot tub.
Once he’s bathed and changed, Xue Yang heads back downstairs. Breakfast is bacon, eggs, and toast, and he doesn’t even pretend it isn’t the best food he’s eaten in a week. It is, in fact, the first food he hasn’t stolen in a week, and that alone is a novelty.
He’s halfway done with his food when Wei Wuxian, who hasn’t touched a bit of his and looks as sullen as an orange, says, “I have been informed that there is some arcane rule about teaching a gift you discover, and my...how did you put it, dear Wen Qing? My immortal soul and earthly being will be in danger if I don’t capitulate to the inevitable?”
He glares at Wen Qing, and she smiles sweetly at him.
“Whatever,” Xue Yang says around a mouthful of eggs. “Are you going to eat that?”
Wei Wuxian passes him the plate of food, and Xue Yang closes his eyes in bliss. Food is amazing.
“There are conditions—don’t look at me like that, Wen-jie. I agreed, okay? I get to set conditions. First of all, you do whatever I tell you. If I tell you to sell turnips on the street corner, you better sell some goddamn turnips. Second, you don’t touch anything unless I say it’s okay. A lot of this stuff,” he waves his hand around the white and yellow room, which looks surprisingly cheerful for a kitchen in a black house, “is priceless and dangerous, so…”
Wen Qing clears her throat and glares at Wei Wuxian.
“Uh...don’t touch anything.” Wei Wuxian finishes, snaking a piece of bacon from Xue Yang’s plate and shoving it into his mouth before disappearing back into his workroom.
Wen Qing rolls her eyes. “I promise he’ll actually teach you stuff once he pulls his head—” She visibly checks herself. “Once he stops being an idiot. More bacon?”
There is a zombie in Ballard, and people say to avoid him.
He is probably not called a zombie because of his unnaturally pallid complexion, although there is some debate about that. He is called a zombie because he doesn’t have a heartbeat and only breathes when he wants to.
It may not be fair to judge him for this, not when his hands are gentle and kind, and his smiles are quick and easy, but the local legends are clear. If you make him angry, he’ll tie up your limbs in knots and bury you under the hedges of roses.
Everyone knows it’s better to pretend you don’t know he exists.
Xue Yang decides not to appear too eager, so he ignores the lure of the workroom and climbs the stairs. They go up and up, curving around one landing and then another to the second floor, but he knows there must be more, some way to get to the third floor he can see from outside.
He finds another staircase behind a closed door, this one narrow and crooked, and it leads to a wide-open attic that smells of oak and varnish and things he doesn’t recognize. He breathes in the musty air, and like memories from his childhood—if he had memories from his childhood—the scents resolve into unfamiliar words. Chamomile. Fennel. Nettle. Ginger. Wormwood. He doesn’t see anything in the room at all, but it feels like there are lines carved into the floor, and he walks their path, trying to figure out what they mean.
“If you had my kind of magic, you would be able to see the lines too,” a voice from behind him says.
He hates that everyone in this fucking house is so fucking sneaky, and he glares at Wen Qing, ready for battle, but she tilts a smile at him and holds out her hand.
“You’d also be able to call The Armoire,” she adds, and a jar appears on her hand with something wriggling and green inside it. “Based on your affinity with the knife, and the way you shook off the compulsions, my guess is that you have blood magic like A-Xian. Or something similar.”
She turns to go back down the twisting staircase. “You’re welcome to go anywhere in The House, but Wei Wuxian would prefer that you stay out of the workroom.”
After a warning like that Xue Yang has no choice but to find his way into the workroom via a closet that has nothing but tiny empty drawers from floor to ceiling, through a glassed-in porch with some ornate fairy tale-looking mirror against one wall, and back through the kitchen. He is surprised to find Wei Wuxian reading the coffee-stained notebook, and Wen Ning and Wen Qing sitting cross-legged on the floor across from each other.
“Oh, you’re still here?” Wei Wuxian says without looking up. “Okay, here’s today’s lesson. I don’t have time for lessons today. Now leave me alone or I’ll be forced to make you leave.”
He gestures at a spray bottle sitting on the table that’s labelled Naughty Boy Repellent. Xue Yang has no way of being certain, but it looks like Wei Wuxian just took a Sharpie to the spray bottle Wen Qing was using to water the kitchen orchids this morning. Xue Yang scowls, and doesn’t move.
There is a noise from the floor, and Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Fine, you get a second lesson today. Magic starts with meditation. I guess.”
He doesn’t say anything else, so apparently the lesson is over. Great lesson. Very inspirational.
Xue Yang watches the Wen siblings for a bit, squatting on the floor next to them. The dude looks extra dead, and Xue Yang can’t tell if he’s even breathing. He’s pretty sure the witch is breathing, but he’s a little weirded out by the way her hair seems to gravitate toward him. Like static electricity, except...not. A lock of it pats him on the cheek.
“Meditation is actually a huge waste of time,” Wei Wuxian says, frowning at a tiny something on the table. “That kind, at least. That’s meditation for earth witches and qi cultivators and shit like that.”
“Yeah?” Xue Yang asks, despite himself.
“No. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” Wen Qing gripes, unfolding her legs. “Don’t go teaching your apprentice bad habits, you lazy fu...jerk.” She turns to Xue Yang. “Meditation is a foundational practice that emphasizes grounding, which is important in case of magical overload.”
“Eh overload schmoverload.” Wei Wuxian waves a hand dismissively. “If I die, I die, but at least it will be doing something cool.”
“As if you have ever done anything cool in your life,” Wen Qing shoots back.
“I did die once,” Wei Wuxian points out, and Xue Yang has to admit that, as lies go, it does sound really fucking cool.
He watches in horrified fascination as Wen Qing’s face starts to turn red, and then purple at the edges. She looks like she is either about to explode or return Wei Wuxian’s living status to dead, and which one will depend on the next words out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth.
“Uh, jiejie. I can teach him the basics,” Wen Ning cuts in, deflating the building tension in the room. “Come on Yang-er. Let’s go for a walk, and I’ll tell you how meditation works. I need the exercise.”
Xue Yang mutters, “If you’re dead, why do you need to exercise?”
Wen Ning grins and says, “I’m only mostly dead, which is slightly alive.”
“Inconceivable,” Wei Wuxian blurts out, and Wen Qing laughs, which seems even more inconceivable.
“That wasn’t even funny,” Xue Yang says.
Wei Wuxian starts shrieking like a velociraptor, spluttering out words like “intolerable” and “uncultured hayseed” and “this generation is killing me, Wen-jie, killing me .” Now he’s turning vaguely purple, and even Wen Qing scrutinizes Xue Yang suspiciously. More suspiciously than usual.
“No, Mr. Wei. Walk first, then movie night,” Wen Ning says cryptically. “Get caramel corn.”
He puts a not-so-light hand on Xue Yang’s shoulder and steers him out of the room, out of The House.
On the other side of the gate, Wen Ning stretches, turning his face to the late autumn sun with a smile before setting off purposefully down the sidewalk.
“So, meditation is about opening a quiet space inside you that allows you to find true awareness of yourself and the world around you,” Wen Ning says, walking so fast with his long legs that Xue Yang has to jog to keep up. “Jiejie likes traditional mindful meditation, but I’m not sure that’ll work for you. It doesn’t work for Mr. Wei. Don’t worry, though. We’ll figure you out.”
It sounds a little like a threat. But it’s a manageable one, and Xue Yang would know. He’s kind of an expert in threats.
They end up in front of a low, angular building with trees growing on the roof.
“The library? You dragged me to the fucking library?” Xue Yang demands, following Wen Ning inside.
“Yeah, I love the library, but I’m not allowed to leave The House alone. It’s not safe, you know?”
He shrugs wistfully and Xue Yang rolls his eyes. The library is for poor kids who need free lunches and someone to tell them they’re special, or whatever. No one goes to the library on purpose . “Fine, but I don’t want to be caught dead in the library.”
Wen Ning laughs loudly and ruffles Xue Yang’s hair. “You’re funny,” he says, heading into the science books in the 600s as soon as they walk through the doors, and Xue Yang stares at his back in consternation.
Xue Yang picks through the 398.2s before getting bored. Fairy tale is just another word for “lie” anyway.
“So, like, what other kinds of meditation are there?” he asks when he crosses paths with Wen Ning looking at books about mushrooms in the botany section. “What kind of meditation do you do?”
Wen Ning hums thoughtfully. “I don’t really. Not anymore.”
Xue Yang snorts. Adults always say stupid shit like ‘do this thing’ and then they don’t even do it.
“I sort of do the opposite. I’m all quiet spaces, so I work to shield them,” Wen Ning adds, looking at Xue Yang with a tilt to his head that just doesn’t seem normal. More like a bird than a man.
“The fuck does that mean?” Xue Yang frowns.
Wen Ning seems to consider something carefully, peering at Xue Yang’s face.
“I’ll show you.”
Faster than humanly possibly— really not an exaggeration, Xue Yang thinks later—Wen Ning grabs Xue Yang’s hand and holds it to his forehead.
Sometimes Xue Yang ditches school and goes to the fish ladder to watch the color of the bay change in shadow and sun, from sparkling blues to murmuring greys to inky blacks. That’s sort of how the inside of Wen Ning feels, except it’s all darkness, all swirling, grasping hands of sticky pitch that whisper to him. Without understanding how or why, Xue Yang knows instinctively that he could command the emptiness inside Wen Ning, and a part of him reaches out to touch it, like curiously petting a feral cat. With a nearly-audible slam, Wen Ning shuts his mind, locking Xue Yang firmly on the other side.
“See!” Wen Ning says proudly. “Protected space.”
He picks up a stack of books that seems to contain everything from engineering manuals to prog rock biographies to contemporary poetry, and heads to the checkout, letting Xue Yang trail in his wake debating what the hell just happened.
Okay. Dead guy is definitely dead.
And Xue Yang can...do something with that? Sense it? Control it, maybe?
The part he really doesn’t understand—and which kind of pisses him off—is that Wen Ning let him touch this tiny piece of something that even Xue Yang knows is a dangerous weapon. Why did he let him look?
He doesn’t like the answer that keeps bouncing into his head.
No one should ever trust him. Fuck that responsibility.
Xue Yang doesn’t even realize he’s holding a book until Wen Ning takes it from him and adds it to the pile. Whatever. May as well read Meditation and Mindfulness . Better than sitting around all day and watching old people do fuck-all.
“Yang-er, can we get ice cream?” Wen Ning asks, only his eyes visible over the stack of books. “Jiejie says it’s bad for my health.”
“Bet she thinks fun is bad for your health too,” Xue Yang mutters, and Wen Ning chuckles.
“Nah, she’s great. She seems like a tough cookie, but she’s really a gooey marshmallow.”
Xue Yang blames the promise of ice cream for laughing out loud, and he vows not to let it happen again.
But it does. Several times. Xue Yang wonders if they’ve cursed him.
They make him watch some dumb old movie about a princess and a pirate as part of his “lessons.” Yeah, okay, maybe the “inconceivable” thing is a little funny. And the rhyming. And storming the castle. Fine, the whole movie is fucking hilarious for no good reason.
Xue Yang doesn’t really get why anyone would care about their father dying, but Wen Qing tears up, so maybe it’s a girl thing. What he really loves is all the fencing. That shit rocks, and he wonders where he could find a sword.
The end is kind of boring though, and after three bowls of caramel corn, Xue Yang can’t keep his eyes open anymore. A cat sits on his shoulder, so he closes his eyes and buries further under the scratchy wool blankets to listen to the “to the pain” part (actually, that’s pretty cool too, and even cooler that it’s a bluff), and the happy ending, which he’s pretty skeptical about. How does anyone get stabbed in the stomach and survive?
He dreams about sitting in a rocking boat that’s a zombie, alone in the middle of an ocean that’s a library, looking for a book that’s a key, and since it doesn’t make any sense, he wakes himself up.
“Hey, you’re okay, just moving you upstairs,” a soft voice says in the dark, and Xue Yang realizes he’s being carried like a baby. Wen Ning hums softly as he takes Xue Yang upstairs.
So insulting, he thinks, but the words he wants to yell seem so far away, on the other side of a mostly-dead man’s kindness.
Xue Yang tries to pull Jiangzai to his hand, but she’s already resting on his chest, and he wraps his fingers around her hilt. That’s good enough. If this dude tries anything weird, he’s safe.
Somewhere in the soft grey flannel between waking and sleep, Xue Yang knows he’s being tucked under blankets in a room that smells like coriander and lemon. He drops down into a heavy sleep with the sound of The House groaning and shifting around him. It doesn’t sound menacing, though. It sounds like a lullaby.
There is a witch in Ballard, and people say to avoid her.
She is probably not called a witch because of her black hats and long dresses, although there is some debate about that. She is called a witch because she always speaks the truth, and The Truth speaks through her.
It may not be fair to judge her for this, not when everyone knows her cookies are magic and there’s always room at her table for a hungry child, but the local legends are clear. If you get on her bad side, she’ll turn you into a toad and bury you under the rose bushes.
Everyone knows it’s better not to look at her more than you have to.
It’s already light by the time Xue Yang wakes up, and he honestly can’t remember the last time he didn’t wake up holding his knife. Instead, he wakes slowly to the smell of cinnamon sugar drifting into the room through the gap under the door. The sun streams through his window and gently warms his cheek, pouring over him like honey-gold contentment.
Disgusting. He hates it.
In the kitchen, Wen Ning is tossing pancakes in the air, flipping them without a spatula. He catches Xue Yang definitely not gawking and winks as the pancake lands neatly in the pan. Wen Qing hands Xue Yang a plate of pumpkin pancakes with a cinnamon frosting glaze, and he stares at them, aghast. He thought this kind of thing only happened on TV, both the pancake flipping thing and the eating breakfast every day thing.
Wei Wuxian is sitting at the table, if the definition of sitting includes laying face-down on the table. He looks more dead than Wen Ning, which is saying something.
“Yang-er,” Wen Qing says sweetly, and something about her tone sets off screaming alarms in his head. Worse, Wei Wuxian lifts his head and waggles his eyebrows at Xue Yang, a definite better you than me waggle.
“Uh, I’m going to eat upstairs,” Xue Yang says and tries to sidle out the door. He’s usually very good at sidling.
“No, you’re not excused yet,” Wen Qing says, pinning him to the wall.
Not literally, of course. She doesn’t move a muscle, but he feels the compulsion, like feathery white tendrils holding his feet while thick green stalks wrap around his ankles. It’s not painful, but it’s really fucking weird. And unlike Wei Wuxian’s compulsions, he can’t duck away.
“The police were here bright and early on a Monday morning, which, I should warn you, is my least favorite time of day. They were trying to find a truant middle schooler last seen near our house. Care to comment?”
“That’s a funny coincidence,” he tries with a charming grin, seeing if she’ll buy it, but Wen Qing narrows her eyes and cuts him off.
“Go to school, kiddo. You can come back afterward, but skipping is not an option.”
Xue Yang frowns at his plate. “Why would I go to school to learn useless, boring shit, when I could stay here and learn magic?”
Wen Qing presses her hands flat on the table in front of her. “Because believe it or not, there are real world applications for the quote-unquote ‘useless shit’ you’re supposed to be learning. You think magic doesn’t involve math? Chemistry? Biology?”
He snorts. “Fuck, the teachers know less about math than I do. And they never let us do anything cool in science because we’re ‘children.’”
Maybe she softens, because she sighs and the roots holding him in place dissipate. Or maybe not, because the next words out of her mouth are, “This is not a discussion. You can’t stay here if you don’t go to school. As it is, I had to Send the police away, and I do not like doing that. If you make me waste power on a fu...on the police again, I will bury you in the rose hedge.”
“I can go with you,” Wen Ning offers, and Xue Yang shakes his head violently. Just what he needs. A zombie chaperone.
“Fine. Fuck. You guys suck,” he complains, slouching into a chair at the table and stuffing his mouth with bites of squishy pancake.
Xue Yang survives school, but only barely, and he’s certain he doesn’t learn anything at all.
Things at The House aren’t much better. Wen Qing meets him at the door with a pair of leather gloves.
“Tell me about your day while we pull weeds.”
“No,” Xue Yang tries, but he loses again, not because she forces him, but because she smiles sympathetically at him.
“Everyone hates middle school, Yang-er. Let’s go dig in the dirt while we chat. Gardening always makes me feel better.”
She hands him a stick with a fork on the end and points out the sheep sorrel growing between tomato plants easily six inches taller than Xue Yang. Sheep sorrel, she explains, is a weed, but it also makes a medicinal tea to treat upset stomachs. Lots of things are like that, she says pointedly. Bad from one angle, good from another. He rolls his eyes at the life lesson.
Gardening is quiet work, punctuated only by Wen Qing humming a lilting tune that almost sounds familiar, and Xue Yang is annoyed to find that he sort of likes pulling the sorrel. It comes out easily, releasing its grip on the soil more willingly than he would have expected. He fills a basket quickly, moving from the tomatoes to shiny rows of pepper plants, and the sun is turning the sky to candy-coated stripes when Wen Qing stands and stretches.
“You did a great job, Yang-er,” she says, looking through his basket. “Thank you for your help.”
Xue Yang stares at her, a war raging inside him, something he hates and something he yearns for that he hates too.
“Whatever,” he grunts, throwing the hand tool in the basket.
“Hungry?” Wen Qing asks, and as soon as she says the word, he realizes he is. Famished .
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Bummer. It’s A-Xian’s turn to cook. Hope you like burned pizza.” She walks away and Xue Yang hears her laugh. Not a witch’s cackle, but just as evil.
He goes to school the next day and only sleeps through the morning half his classes. At noon, the counselor calls him to the front office, usually a terrible sign. He can’t remember doing anything wrong this week—after all, it’s only Tuesday—but maybe it's a holdover from last week.
“Xue Yang? You’ve been moved to Advanced Math and Biology. What grade are you in? Seventh? This must be a mistake, these are eighth-grade classes...no...I guess not. Huh. Weird. Well, class starts in ten minutes. Take this,” she hands him a piece of paper, “and don’t be late.”
“Wait, it’s halfway through the semester. How the fu...how am I supposed to catch up?”
“Hmmm.” She types for another minute, peers at the computer and peers at Xue Yang. “Looks like your teachers will be averaging out your scores from your previous class. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
Math is something about the difference between monomials and polynomials, and Xue Yang has no idea what the teacher is talking about until halfway through the class when he finally figures out polynomials are the sum of multiple monomials, and after that, he sort of gets it.
Biology is something about photosynthesis, plants making energy, and everything clicks. Wen Qing did this. He doesn’t know how, but this is all her fault. He’s never had to work so hard in his life and this is her fault.
“Did you make me do math today?” Xue Yang demands, slamming into The House at the end of the day.
Wen Qing is tying on a leather apron, and raises her eyebrows. “I was under the impression that school made you do math.”
It’s hard to dispute that, but he tries. “Yeah, well, I don’t usually have to do anything,” he yells before realizing it’s not a stellar defense.
To her credit, Wen Qing only stares at him until he grabs the leather gloves from her. “Fine, what are we killing today?”
The answer is something called buckhorn plantain, which is easy to pick out with its long stalky flower. Wen Qing says this one is for treating skin conditions.
“So if this shit is all, like, medicinal, why are we pulling it?” Xue Yang asks.
Wen Qing pulls a spiky thing with a purple flower from beside a corn stalk. “Why do you think?”
Yeah, this is not school, and he’s not answering questions. She doesn’t ask again.
Halfway down a row of sprawling melon plants, he realizes the answer, and he’s so fucking pleased with himself, he says it out loud.
“Can’t make medicine unless you pull the weeds first, duh.”
Wen Qing hums in agreement. “Life and death are intertwined. You have to understand one to control the other.”
School continues to be school, but at least two periods of it are a little more interesting. Gardening should suck, but it doesn’t, even when it’s just weeding.
Xue Yang would rather die than admit it, but Wen Qing was kind of right: he does feel a lot better after digging in some dirt. It becomes habit to drop his backpack in the kitchen and immediately head to the backyard, even when there’s no one else in The House. He likes learning which weeds are useful and which are just assholes, like Johnsongrass. Johnsongrass resists him, and he loves the feeling of the vines ripping as he tears them out of the ground. It’s viscerally satisfying when he’s able to get the whole root in one pull.
Sometimes Wen Ning joins them, his hair braided neatly, his hands quick and deft with the rose bushes. Some days he fertilizes them, some days he prunes them back because, he says, the thorns don’t hurt him. Wen Qing points out that they don’t hurt her either, they wouldn’t dare, but Wen Ning just laughs and kisses her forehead. She always smiles at him, soft in a way she never is with anyone else, and Xue Yang wonders what their lives were like before...before Wen Ning died. He usually ignores it. Before is never a fun place to visit. He prefers to stick with today.
One afternoon, Wen Qing stops him in the kitchen instead of letting him go out to the backyard.
“Everyone cooks in this house, kiddo.”
Xue Yang scowls. “I thought we agreed not to call what Wei Wuxian does ‘cooking.’”
She sighs. “Fair enough. Everyone in this house is responsible for at least one meal. Congratulations, you get Thursdays. What do you want to make?”
“Do chips count?”
“Are you planning to steal them?” she retorts.
Xue Yang rolls his eyes. Yes, but he can’t very well admit that now. “Grilled cheese?”
Wen Qing tips her head at him, considering. “Okay. Grilled cheese. With peas and tomatoes.”
“Why the fuck do we have to have peas?” he complains, and she bonks him with a spoon before shooing a cat off the counter.
“Because cooking is about balance and peas are green. You have to eat vegetables if you want to grow taller; it’s science.”
That makes absolutely no sense, but at least she didn’t insist on lima beans.
Ning-ge perches on the table to watch as Wen Qing walks Xue Yang through making grilled cheese. “The secret,” he whispers, as though someone was lurking in the corner, trying to steal the Wen Family Grilled Cheese Recipe, “is covering the pan.”
He’s right, though. Every single sandwich comes out golden brown and melty, and by the time the garden tomatoes have been sliced and the peas reheated with a dash of seasoning, even Wei Wuxian has wandered in, sniffing the air.
“Wen-jie, you never make grilled cheese, even when I beg,” he says, blinking in puzzled surprise.
“You have hands,” she points out. “You could always learn. Yang-er did.”
“What, our little miscreant made these?”
Xue Yang is a little offended that Wei Wuxian is so shocked, but also a little delighted that Wei Wuxian is so shocked.
“Better than burned pizza,” he snipes, yanking the plate of sandwiches away from Wei Wuxian’s reaching hand.
Wei Wuxian laughs and ruffles his hair. “Hey, my burned pizza is world-renowned! But just between you and me, I’d rather have grilled cheese.”
Xue Yang eats his sandwich and watches them. Wei Wuxian douses his peas in sriracha and Wen Qing wrinkles her nose in disgust, so of course, Wei Wuxian tries to douse her peas in the vile sauce too. Wen Ning laughs at them, pretty easily for a dead guy, and steals his sister’s tomatoes when she’s not looking, pretty smoothly for a nice guy.
It’s been two weeks, Xue Yang realizes. Two weeks since he picked the lock. Two weeks of sleeping in a bed, pulling weeds, doing homework, eating food.
Can’t get comfortable. Can’t get used to this. He needs to leave before it’s too late.
There is a necromancer in Ballard, and people say to avoid him.
He is probably not called a necromancer because of his bone collection, although there is some debate about that. He is called a necromancer because he can, quite literally, command the dead.
It may not be fair to judge him for this, not when he’s only ever tried to save his friends and ward his city, but the local legends are clear. If you spend too much time with him, his dark magic will corrupt your soul, and he’ll bury your heart under the hedges of roses.
Everyone knows it’s better to keep your distance to avoid getting hurt.
“Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey,” a cruel and unusual voice chirps, waking Xue Yang from what had been a dark and dreamless sleep.
He checks the clock by the bed and can’t believe what it tells him. He looks at the window to verify.
It’s dark outside.
It’s so dark outside.
Xue Yang flops face down into his pillow. “Why the fuck are you waking me up at six in the fucking morning on a Saturday ? It’s so early .”
“Au contraire, my young apprentice. If you don’t sleep, it’s not early, it’s late! But anyway, Wen-jie got you shoes,” Wei Wuxian flips on the light and hands Xue Yang a box. “They’ll fit. She’s good with fit.”
The box says they’re running shoes. He stares uncomprehendingly at Wei Wuxian. He's an innocent child. He shouldn’t be tortured this way. It has to be against the Geneva Conventions or something. Xue Yang tries to convince Wei Wuxian that he can’t run , but he just laughs.
“A-Ning says you haven’t been meditating with Wen-jie, so this is the next step. Come on: how bad can it be?”
The answer? Bad. Very bad.
Wei Wuxian is obviously a regular runner, bouncing and stretching on the sidewalk in the crisp autumn air, rolling his shoulders and neck, and poking Xue Yang when he tries tucking his entire body into his sweatshirt.
“Stretch, or you’ll pull something and Wen-jie will have my head.”
Xue Yang grouchily mimics the stretches Wei Wuxian is doing. His muscles twinge as he contorts himself every which way, and he’s not sure it’s doing much to prepare him for the torment ahead.
“Ready?” Wei Wuxian asks, and doesn’t wait for an answer before bounding off at what Xue Yang feels is an unfairly brisk pace.
Xue Yang follows behind him, shoes thudding against the pavement and jarring his shins and knees. The orange glow of the street lights flicker above them as they run down the sidewalk. Xue Yang scowls as the sky turns the color of an old bruise off to his left where the sun is still thinking about waking up.
They reach the end of the sidewalk and keep going. They run long enough that the road switches from gravel to pavement, from pavement to dirt, and the view changes from shipyards to shops to curated gardens.
It’s so far .
And then, to make matters worse, when they reach a low area filled with mist that snakes under the collar of Xue Yang’s shirt and makes him shiver, Wei Wuxian starts talking . He doesn’t even sound out of breath, not at all. Xue Yang feels more than a little murderous about it.
“So here’s the thing: necromancy is what most people in the magical community would call ‘not cool, bro,’ but it’s not, strictly speaking, forbidden,” he says as they reach the train tracks and the sun starts to peek over the horizon, the street lights clicking off one by one.
“Part of that is because of cultural taboos, which, fair , you know? Most people don’t like dealing with dead things. The other part of that is that there have historically been kind of a lot of necromancers who have done—and this is the official term—some fucked up shit.
“Aside from the whole ‘going against the natural order’ thing, necromancy is one of the most dangerous forms of magic. Not because it’s the most powerful kind—even though it sort of is—but because if you do a lot of it thoughtlessly, you stop seeing people as people. Oh, hold on.”
Wei Wuxian interrupts himself to pause on the side of the road with an arm stretched out to keep Xue Yang from running out into the road. A car bumps down the potholed street, and Wei Wuxian smiles and waves at it as it passes by them.
“Where was I? Oh yeah: when your magic deals with other people’s bodies as the source of its power, you have to make sure that you never let yourself start seeing people as nothing more than meat puppets to be controlled.
“What I can do—what you can do—isn’t something to play with. Trust me. I’ve fucked up enough to know. People, even dead people, are real.”
Wei Wuxian keeps talking and talking and talking . At first, his voice grates against Xue Yang’s early morning resentment, but somewhere along the way, his mind empties and all that’s left is Wei Wuxian’s voice. He’s as bossy as Wen Qing, but Xue Yang reluctantly admits to himself, even if he will never ever say it out loud, that what he’s saying feels right .
Eventually, Wei Wuxian comes to a stop and starts to stretch out his legs again. “Does that make sense?”
Xue Yang is startled to realize that they’re back in front of The House. All of a sudden he becomes aware of his body again as all of his muscles do their best jelly impression. He’s covered in sweat and his heart is beating hard enough that it feels like it’s trying to escape from his chest.
“Yeah,” he gasps. “But I am never running again.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Eh, it gets easier,” he says, which is not the answer Xue Yang was looking for.
Once Xue Yang drags himself through a shower and eats what feels like his body weight in cheddar bacon biscuits, he follows Wei Wuxian into his workshop. Wen Ning is already there, perched on a tall wooden stool.
“Yangyang, how was running?” he asks, always so genuinely interested, and Xue Yang shrugs.
“Pretty much the worst.”
Wen Ning laughs, “Yeah, you think that because you’ve never tried sword fighting with Mr. Wei.”
“What? Seriously?” Xue Yang hates the childish awe in his voice and he tries to backpedal with a dismissive snort. “Why the fuck would you sword fight?”
“Exactly what I always say,” Wei Wuxian agrees and changes the subject, much to Xue Yang’s disappointment. “A-Ning is going to allow you to learn something today, so buckle up and pay attention.”
Idly, Wei Wuxian dips his fingers into Wen Ning’s long hair and starts to separate it while he talks. “There are different parts to necromancy: calling the dead, raising the dead, communicating with the dead, controlling the dead...you get the picture, right? Lots of dealing with dead people.” His fingers work to twist locks of hair together, top over bottom, left to right, right to left, leaving a neat braid as he goes. “A-Ning is special, but you can at least get a taste of what death feels like.”
Wei Wuxian ties off the braid and touches Wen Ning’s shoulder. “You sure about this?” he asks, and Wen Ning nods. Wei Wuxian sighs. He looks reluctant, and Xue Yang wonders why anyone wouldn’t want to use magic if they could.
“Yeah, so, remember, the point of meditation?” Wei Wuxian asks, grabbing a dark wooden flute off his work bench.
Xue Yang does, actually, but Wei Wuxian keeps talking like he hadn’t asked a question.
“You have to be able to clear your mind at will. You really don’t want to be thinking about the bills or your shitty landlord while you’re doing this. Magic, especially this kind of magic, requires focus and intent, or you’ll die.”
It sounds pretty melodramatic to Xue Yang, but then he remembers Wei Wuxian saying he died once, and he frowns, wondering if that was actually true.
“I prefer music,” Wei Wuxian says, twirling the flute, “but any focusing object will work. Your voice, your hands—hell, you could probably wield power with a typewriter if you put enough will behind it.”
The music, when he starts to play, is nothing like Xue Yang has ever heard before. He knows the tune—it’s the one Wen Qing hums all the fucking time—but when Wei Wuxian plays it, it doesn’t sound like music at all. It coils around Xue Yang like the tail of a friendly cat, and the air shifts, turning wet and swampy, the ribbons of sound becoming hands Xue Yang can almost see. They reach toward Wen Ning, reach inside him, and suddenly, Wen Ning is not Wen Ning anymore. He is only a body, animated by shadows and Wei Wuxian’s will.
No, Xue Yang frowns. Wei Wuxian had said dead people were still people. This is still Wen Ning, even if it doesn’t seem like it.
Wen Ning’s eyes open, black and endless, and he stands with swift, graceful steps, his head twitching like electricity is tickling his ear.
And still the music plays, winding and dipping, discordant sometimes, lilting sometimes, resolving ugly sounds into achingly beautiful notes, and destroying them again in strident tones. Xue Yang thinks he sees the pattern in the music, the words that command and the words that bind. For the first time, for the first real time, he thinks, I could do this .
Wen Ning picks up the stool he had been sitting on and folds it in half. The sound of breaking wood makes Xue Yang jump, jarring him from his fascinated gawking. He gasps and Wen Ning peers at Xue Yang like he’s just noticed him, tilting his head, nostrils flaring. Some primitive instinct freezes Xue Yang in place, and it takes real effort for him to remember that he controls this too. He doesn’t have to be afraid of it.
Slowly, he reaches out to touch Wen Ning’s forehead, to feel the sticky molasses of Wen Ning, to find the person beneath the compulsion. He doesn’t try to take charge—he couldn’t, even if he wanted to. Wei Wuxian’s power is enormous, wrapping around Wen Ning like a heavy blanket, holding every piece of him tightly. Xue Yang just looks, a casual observer window shopping way outside his price range.
The music shifts, moving from a magic spell to an ordinary tune. The flute is just a flute again. And Wen Ning becomes himself again. His eyes, still dark, have a white cornea around them, and his movements seem more natural.
“Dude,” Xue Yang says after the last note drifts away. “How the fuck did you learn to do that?”
Ning-ge laughs, but Wei Wuxian shakes his head. He looks tired and worn.
“I don’t know,” he says with a shrug, and Xue Yang is shocked at how honest he sounds. “I didn’t really have a choice, I guess.”
A granola bar hits Wei Wuxian in the head and bounces onto the workbench. Two more fly in from the open door, expertly aimed, expertly thrown, expertly hitting Wen Ning and Xue Yang on their heads too.
“Eat something!” Wen Qing calls from the kitchen. “A-Ning, make sure A-Xian eats!”
Wen Ning dutifully peels open the granola bar and hands it to Wei Wuxian, who grumbles, but he bites into the chocolate and almond-covered bar.
“Yangyang too!” she adds, and Wen Ning raises his eyebrows at Xue Yang.
“I can open my own goddamn granola bar,” he snaps, hurrying to prove his point before anyone treats him like a baby.
“Anyway,” Wei Wuxian says, mouth full of granola, “you’re not ready for A-Ning yet but...you’ll get there. We can work on it.”
It’s almost a compliment, Xue Yang thinks, and he can’t decide if he wishes it was more of one or less of one.
He didn’t realize it was a test until later, but whatever it was, he fucking passed , because after that, Wei Wuxian, Wen Qing, and Ning-ge, make him learn so much , like they think they can put all their collective knowledge into his head all at once. Xue Yang keeps looking for an out, a reason to leave, but he’s so busy . If it’s not jogging or doing homework or returning library books, it’s copying talismans, sorting herbs, and picking vegetables for winter.
He’s pretty sure Wen Qing’s garden is growing all the wrong things at all the wrong times, but he picks tomatoes when they’re ripe, even though it’s October, and strawberries when Wen Qing wants to make pie, even though he doesn’t remember even seeing strawberries growing yesterday. But eventually, Wen Qing says nature has to take its course, so they cut down perennials, till down the vegetable rows, cover the beds with straw, and plant seeds to lay dormant over winter.
Once the summer garden is put away and the winter garden is established to Wen Qing’s satisfaction, there’s a lull of time where nothing green is growing, and lessons move indoors. And every time Xue Yang thinks, today is the day to go , Wei Wuxian drags him into the workshop.
Sometimes Xue Yang holds the compass case as Wei Wuxian wrangles tiny gears into it. Or he sticks out his finger for Wei Wuxian to prick it with a sterile needle, watching in fascination as a single bead of blood wells on the tip, and Wei Wuxian guides it carefully over a paper talisman, the design flaring to life as he touches it. Or he pulls out a recorder and makes Xue Yang practice weird music that makes his nose itch and every once in a while makes the cut roses on the kitchen table tremble.
It’s kind of cool, or whatever.
One crisp November day, Wei Wuxian comes back from his shift doing whatever the fuck he does—he claims it’s graphic design, but he often smells like potatoes—carrying a busted-up microwave and a chair with peeling varnish. The chair he leaves at the kitchen table in the empty spot that had made Wen Qing glare darkly at Wei Wuxian every time Xue Yang asked about it.
He hands the microwave to Xue Yang while he clears some of the loose papers and bits of cable and wire off a section of the workbench. It weighs a fuckton, which Xue Yang has been assured is a necromantic unit of measurement. The edges of it dig into his fingers, and by the time he’s able to set it down on the table, he has angry red pressure lines and his fingers have gone a little numb at the tip. Xue Yang shakes his hand to try and get some feeling back into them while Wei Wuxian darts around the room digging through a bunch of drawers and boxes.
Wei Wuxian crows with victory as he pulls a soldering iron and a strip of metal from a Hello Kitty lunchbox sitting on a bookshelf. He also grabs a battered red tool box and a plastic bag full of various sizes of screws. He sets them on the table next to the broken microwave, and opens the toolbox.
“Here, go ahead and unscrew that back panel so we can start looking at the guts of this thing.” Wei Wuxian hands Xue Yang a Phillips-head screwdriver.
“Why?” Xue Yang has no idea how “used appliance repair” became part of magical training.
“Uh, because I said so? Maybe you should just be grateful that I’m not making you sell turnips, eh?”
Xue Yang rolls his eyes, but he flips the microwave up onto its front and starts unscrewing. Conveniently, Wei Wuxian’s coffee mug—helpfully labelled Coffee, Not Paint Water in messy Sharpie—is right next to the microwave, so he takes each loose screw and drops it into the mug with a neat little plink.
“Jerk,” Wei Wuxian says sourly, plugging in the soldering iron to heat and digging his increasingly-tattered notebook out from under the desk.
Xue Yang smiles beatifically. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“Don’t make me get the Naughty Boy Repellent.”
Xue Yang rolls his eyes. “Please, O Wise Teacher: impart your wisdom upon your humble apprentice.”
“You little shit.” Wei Wuxian ruffles Xue Yang’s hair vigorously and spitefully, causing a mat of frizzy tangles. He lets go before Xue Yang manages to bite him, laughing. “Okay, okay. Here it is: necromancy isn’t just reviving dead people, it’s about giving new life to anything. And sometimes that includes old microwaves.”
Wei Wuxian gestures with the soldering iron he’s picked up and Xue Yang takes a step backward, out of the splatter zone, as a globule of hot metal hits the floor
Xue Yang says, “Somehow I don’t think that’s true.”
“Who’s the expert here: you or me?”
“There’s an expert here?”
“Hey!” Wei Wuxian makes an offended noise, and puts a hand—thankfully the one not holding the soldering iron—to his chest. “Everyone at this house calls me an expert.”
“ No we don’t! ” Wen Qing yells from the kitchen.
“WHO ASKED YOU, ANYWAY?” Wei Wuxian bellows back, and Xue Yang bites his lip to keep from smiling.
It takes them a week to fix up the microwave, and Wei Wuxian only sprays him with the spray bottle once. Xue Yang manages to avoid burning his fingers at all—unlike Wei Wuxian, who’s fingertips are covered in all sorts of bandages and ointments.
Well... fix is a bit strong of a word, if Xue Yang is being honest: they sort of fix the microwave. It definitely works and it’s definitely capable of making popcorn. It just...isn’t capable of making anything else.
Reheating pizza? Popcorn.
Warming up a slice of pie? Popcorn.
Melting butter? Popcorn.
Cooking bacon? Popcorn.
Xue Yan thinks the microwave is pretty fucking useless, but Wei Wuxian insists that they keep it. He even takes a Polaroid photo of it and sticks it on the fridge with the caption “Baby’s First Dark Sorcery.” He drags Ning-ge and Wen Qing into the room to show them. Ning-ge claps him on the shoulder, Wen Qing grins, and they all agree that yes, pancakes for dinner seems like a reasonable way to celebrate. Wen Qing even makes an apple compote for the top of the fluffy buttermilk pancakes that Ning-ge makes. They’re all so proud of him for something that he didn’t even do a good job on. It’s deeply lame and super embarrassing.
He goes to bed that night with his face feeling a little weird and sore. It’s definitely not from smiling. That would be almost as lame and embarrassing as getting excited over a slightly less-broken microwave.
Still, Xue Yang decides he’ll stay a little longer and just see how this all goes. He suspects something is going to blow up, possibly literally, and it sounds fucking awesome.
And it is.
Life becomes a tame creature Xue Yang has never lived with before—a house cat, not a demonic beast. There are no shouted curses and cruel insults, just Ning-ge who reads self-help books. No unexpected slaps or drunken cuffs, just Wen-jie who makes cookies and smells like loamy soil, even after the first faint snowfall. No anxious days and fearful nights. Just Wei Wuxian doing his best.
Days turn into comfortable weeks and Xue Yang almost believes he can relax.
Until the Sunday he learns that Wei Wuxian has a brother that’s not Wen Ning.
Actually, Xue Yang learns many things that Sunday. The first is that Wei Wuxian’s real, legal brother is named Jiang Cheng, he lives in Portland, and he’s a smarmy tech douchebag.
The second is that the mirror in the glass porch is a kind of magical video phone.
The third is that when a witch is really, really angry, her hair floats around her head like it’s weightless in space, and tiny white sparks flicker up and down her finger as she listens to the man on the other side of the mirror with a scowl on her face.
From what Xue Yang has heard since he crept down the back stairs to listen, Jiang Cheng thinks that Wei Wuxian is wasting his time and his degree “dicking around with those stupid little toys.” He also thinks that Wei Wuxian is a coward and a fool.
“At least our parents never had to see you disgrace yourself like this, living in that evil little house, doing fuck-all with your life,” he bellows when Wei Wuxian shouts that Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand how important his work is.
“Asshole,” Wen Qing spits.
“Oh, big surprise, you’re still hiding behind your pet witch and zombie,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “Playing house to avoid your real responsibilities as always. I hear you even picked up some random kid to round out your pretend family, your big happy-fucking-family. Tell me, brother , when was the last time you came to see jiejie and A-Ling?”
“Jiang Wanyin,” Wen Qing says sharply, the tone of her voice lodging painful thorns in Xue Yang’s gut. Xue Yang can only occasionally see her from where he’s sitting, perched on the third stair, but he can hear her just fine. If it wasn’t for the wards, he’s pretty sure the tourists at the Space Needle would be able to hear her. “You shut—”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head at her, and she falls silent, but she looks murderous. Wei Wuxian looks exhausted all of a sudden, as grey and lifeless as Ning-ge.
“Jiang Cheng, you know it’s not like that.” Wei Wuxian runs a hand through his hair. “He’s just some kid, so get off my ass about it. He’ll be out of here as soon as he has enough magical control not to blow himself up.”
Wei Wuxian says something else after that, but Xue Yang has heard this exact conversation enough times to know the end of it. Better to leave on his own before they make him go. He creeps back up the stairs and into his—into the guest room. With practiced speed, he takes his school books out of his backpack and replaces them with shirts and underwear. He uses socks to fill in the gaps around the neatly rolled shirts. In the front pocket, he stows the jar of peanut butter, water bottle, and high-protein snack bars he’s been stashing in a box under his bed.
He’s not even upset. This place was too good to be true. It was always going to fall to pieces. Honestly, Xue Yang thinks, sneaking into Wei Wuxian’s workroom, it’s a miracle that they managed to fake him out for so long.
Xue Yang tunes his ears to the muted sounds of raised voices on the other side of several sets of solid wooden doors. Still arguing, probably about him. That should keep them occupied for a while. In his experience, arguing usually does.
Carefully, he pushes aside some of Wei Wuxian’s wards, pricking his finger with Jiangzai and slipping the bloody tip of the knife through the threads of magic. He didn’t really intend to learn how to do this, but he’s watched Wei Wuxian set them for a couple of months now. He’d have to be an idiot not to grasp the mechanics, and Jiangzai is so willing to help with whatever he needs. She’s a good knife like that.
He goes through the workshop, taking some useful stuff and putting it in his bag. Okay, fine, he has no idea if any of this shit is useful to anyone but Wei Wuxian, but it’s good enough that it’s his and Xue Yang wants to take something he cares about, at least.
There’s a plastic bag with some dollar bills of varying denominations that Xue Yang pockets and feels zero guilt about. He finds a file folder with his birth certificate and other shit that Wen Qing must have procured somewhere, and he tucks away that file folder too. Xue Yang knows he should leave now, but there’s one thing, one important thing he wants that will make this whole miserable experience worthwhile.
Xue Yang finds the battered notebook of rituals in the bottom drawer of Wei Wuxian’s desk, underneath a value pack of store brand granola bars and a ratty yellow baby blanket, next to a carved stone rabbit statue that burns his fingers a little. The book is conveniently labelled Super Bad Necromancy Rituals: Do Not Use , which means it goes into his backpack along with the granola bars.
He takes one last look around, scratches one of the identical black cats on the top of her head, and then walks out the exact way he had broken in all those weeks ago, a completely expected circle of life.
It takes him one train, two buses, and forty-five minutes to get to the wooded park where his parents are buried, their plain, white, rounded headstones just like all the others here. There hadn’t been enough money for anything nicer six years ago, so they just got what the government gave them—name and date in a publicly-maintained memorial cemetery dotted with flags and roses. He hasn’t been back here in ages: at first because no one would drive him out this far, and then because he stopped telling anyone anything that mattered.
Fuck ‘em all. Once he brings back his parents, he is never going to have to worry about another shitty foster family ever again.
They’re harder to find than he expected, and he starts to panic as the sun sets and the cold night mist rolls in off the bay. But he remembers Wei...he remembers to focus and breathe. He thinks about the last time he saw his parents, and slowly, so slowly, he feels the tingle in his feet that tells him to walk this way, walk a little further, until they’re right beneath him.
This victory, standing in front of a pair of headstones marked “Xue,” buoys him. He can do this. He’s going to do this.
Xue Yang sits on the ground and flips through the notebook until he gets to the page he wants. He digs the ingredients out of his backpack: salt for protection, an egg for sacrifice, bone for strength, honey as a gift to the dead, and of course, his blood, his necromancer’s blood. He reads the directions carefully; he’s not an idiot. There’s a scratched-out note at the bottom of the page, and Xue Yang frowns, trying to decipher Wei Wuxian’s awful handwriting. It’s an inexplicable mix between Hanzi and pinyin, and Xue Yang thinks it might say “once you’ve shot the arrow, you can’t get it back” but that doesn’t make any sense so he ignores it.
After everything is set up, after the circle is drawn, after the array is composed, after the egg is lying quietly in its cracked shell in the center of the circle, Xue Yang takes a deep breath, pricks his finger, and draws a shape in the air. He forces his will into it, forces what he wants : a wish for the people who birthed him, the people who made him to come back. With an acrid smell of smoke, a breeze begins to twist around him.
Words he doesn’t know gather in his mouth, waiting to be used, and with a loud cry, he slams the words and his blood into the ground, pushing the power down into the earth, feeling for old life, familiar lives, and reaching out to grab them.
Darkness swirls around him, fraught with tense silence, balanced on a knife’s edge. Xue Yang thinks he’s holding it together, all of it, but…
The wind suddenly seethes around him, furious with his arrogance. His control wobbles once, twice, and begins to fall apart. Waves of smoke scatter along the ground, sending out branching forks like dark lightning. They pulse with an icy hate that makes Xue Yang’s fingers go numb. He tries to let go, to let the power dissipate, but something clutches at him, grasping claws that find his core and start to pull.
Xue Yang hears the screaming before he realizes it’s him, and he can’t stop it, he can’t stop any of it, not his tears and not the thing that’s coming up through the ground, laughing at him in a velvety voice.
It isn’t the first time he’s thought he would die, but it feels like the final time.
And then there are arms around him, strong pale arms with black geometric lines and circles, and a soft voice in his ear.
“Try to think of something else.”
Wen Ning hauls Xue Yang back, holding him tightly against his chest. The rapid thundering of Xue Yang’s heartbeat is met with the silence from Wen Ning’s lack of one, and Xue Yang tries, he really tries to think of anything other than the coursing river of life connecting him to the thing in the ground.
He can’t though. He can’t. He’s only thirteen. He can’t .
Xue Yang is barely coherent when Wen Qing appears in the corner of his eye and shouts a word that crackles with energy and makes Xue Yang’s teeth feel fuzzy. Something screams back at her, but the force that’s crushing Xue Yang eases, just a smidgen. The voice that’s whispering to him, beckoning to him, gets a little quieter, and Xue Yang realizes that Wen Ning is singing. Xue Yang knows this song, he thinks. It’s the one Wei Wuxian plays sometimes, that Wen Qing hums when she’s gardening. What are the words? Does it even have words?
He hears more music—an orchestra? No, just a flute, Wei Wuxian playing one small flute against the roaring, furious thing that’s breaking through the sod, the thing Xue Yang can’t look directly at. It swirls, dark and angry and soaked in blood, and it howls at him. His head feels like it’s about to split open, and he screams back at the thing until his throat is raw.
All the while, Wen Ning hangs on. Xue Yang looks down to see the man’s muscles straining, and it doesn’t make sense, none of it makes sense. Wen Ning’s skin is ripping, shredding under the strain of keeping Xue Yang away from the monster that wants to take him.
But it’s working. They’re winning. Xue Yang has no idea how, but they’re beating the thing back, Wen Qing with words that make battering rams from the roots of the surrounding pine trees, and Wei Wuxian with his thick, cruel whips of music.
The music stops and the only sound is Wei Wuxian’s voice, filled with incandescent rage. “NO! YOU CAN’T HAVE HIM! HE BELONGS TO US!”
With one last jagged hiss, the thing retreats, and it’s over. The wind fizzles and dies, and Wen Qing slumps to the ground, burying her fingers deep into the earth, lips moving silently. A smell like ozone fills the air, and her hair starts obeying gravity again. Wei Wuxian sinks to his knees, biting his finger and pressing his bloody hand to the soil with a satisfied sigh.
Wen Ning finally lets Xue Yang go. His arms are covered in long, bloodless tears that break up the lines of his tattoos like a slashed canvas. Xue Yang’s stomach dips at the sight of it.
It’s all his fault.
Wei Wuxian stands up, and helps Wen Qing stand as well. The knees of Wei Wuxian’s jeans are torn, and Xue Yang can see bloody scrapes on the skin below. Wen Qing smooths a hand over Wen Ning’s hair, and Xue Yang knows they must hate him.
“Everyone okay?” Wei Wuxian asks sunnily.
“Yes, Mr. Wei,” Wen Ning says, standing up. He lifts Xue Yang to his feet as well, hands under his armpits like Xue Yang is a grumpy toddler.
“Yeah. Thanks,” Xue Yang says, not looking up from the disturbed ground.
Wei Wuxian pats him on the shoulder. “Eh, chin up. Necromantic mishaps happen to everyone. This one wasn’t even that bad, so don’t worry about it.”
They all pile in Wen Qing’s ancient Toyota to drive back to The House. Xue Yang feels like a wrung out rag, and he smells like burning hair. No one says a word for the entire ride, and he stares out of the window, counting crosswalks, listening to the tiny car’s engine putter at every red light.
When they finally get back, Wen Qing immediately heads to the kitchen. To make tea, she says, but Xue Yang suspects she needs a minute by herself. He can relate. He would like nothing more than to sink into the rose hedge alone.
Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning lead him to the living room, and Xue Yang sits on the couch next to Wen Ning while Wei Wuxian fetches a suture kit from the bookshelf. He hands it to Xue Yang.
“Important necromancy lesson: learning how to clean up after yourself. Can’t exactly go to the ER? A-Ning is a perfect first try for this. I’ll show you, but you get to do the hard work.” He pauses, and there must be something miserable on Xue Yang’s face, because his voice softens and he says, “Seriously, it’s not that bad. It’s a simple mistake that could have happened to anyone. Even me.”
Xue Yang nods, more to get Wei Wuxian to stop trying to reassure him than in agreement. He watches how Wei Wuxian threads the needle and begins to sew up Wen Ning’s arms, the marks he makes in blood over Wen Ning’s skin, and then Wei Wuxian hands him the needle. He doesn’t really want to take it—this really seems outside his purview—but Wei Wuxian nods at him and Xue Yang sighs. Fine. Whatever.
They’re almost done when Wen Qing walks in and sets a tray holding a teapot and four cups down on the coffee table. Xue Yang bites his lip and waits for the other shoe to drop.
“Oh, that looks great. I knew you’d be fine,” she says to Wen Ning, filling the cups, and Wei Wuxian fucking nods again. Xue Yang is getting really tired of people pretending to be nice. He wishes they’d just get it over with.
“Actually,” Wen Ning says. There it is . “I was in a lot of danger, jiejie, and so was Yangyang! If we—”
“A-Ning,” Wei Wuxian warns, but Wen Ning barrels on enthusiastically, ignoring him.
“If we hadn’t gotten there when we did, he would have gotten so twisted up in the resentful energy that it would have ripped his soul apart. And maybe destroyed mine too,” he says, gesturing at the scratch Xue Yang is stitching up. “And even then, it nearly took Mr. Wei! And you almost overloaded! We haven’t done anything this crazy in...”
Wen Ning trails off when Wei Wuxian clears his throat.
“You didn’t have to help me,” Xue Yang says sullenly, pulling the needle through.
“Of course we did!” Wen Ning says.
“But why?” Xue Yang mutters, not really expecting an answer.
“Uh...Yangyang...because we care about what happens to you.” Wen Ning looks puzzled, and he pulls the needle out of Xue Yang’s hand so he can grasp the shaking fingers in both of his. “Because you’re family. You belong to us, and we belong to you.”
Xue Yang hates crying in front of other people. He hates when his face gets all blotchy, and he hates when his nose runs, and most of all he hates when people know he’s upset. He hates it, but he can’t seem to stop the thick tears and gasping breaths now. His whole body convulses around the sobs, and his chest burns.
He presses his forehead into Wen Ning’s shoulder, and Ning-ge strokes his hair back from his face.
“Oh, Yang-er,” Wen Qing says, and then the smell of wet earth surrounds him as she hugs him from behind.
“I don’t...understand…” he chokes out, hiccuping painfully. “You said...your brother…”
Wei Wuxian makes a growling noise that sounds like the start of a thunderstorm, and Wen Qing rubs Xue Yang’s back, the gentle touch only makes him cry harder into Wen Ning’s shoulder.
“Shhhh, shhhh,” she soothes softly. “Don’t worry about him, Yangyang. We just tell him what he wants to hear and do what we want to do. We love you . We’re not going anywhere.”
They hang on to him until his sobs die down to sniffles, and then the sniffles fade away to emptiness. He feels utterly exhausted, scooped out and hollow. Xue Yang leans his forehead on the knobby bone at the top of Ning-ge’s shoulder, and focuses on breathing.
Wen Qing pats his back decisively. “I’m going to go get changed. A-Ning, go clean up, and we can make some cookies. I think we’ve all earned cookies today.”
Xue Yang doesn’t look up, but the heavy sound of her footsteps echoes through the room before going silent.
“Ah,” says Wen Ning. Xue Yang can feel his voice as much as hear it. “I’m going to do what jiejie said and...also...um...I’m going to go feed the cats.”
He gives Wei Wuxian a significant look before he exits the room as well. It leaves three of them there: Xue Yang, Wei Wuxian, and the awkward silence between them.
Wei Wuxian collapses onto the couch and kicks his feet up on a chair. Xue Yang braces himself. He already knows he’s a worthless apprentice, and honestly, he deserves to be yelled at, to be despised. Wei Wuxian clears his throat, and Xue Yang flinches away from him before he can stop himself.
The flinch makes Wei Wuxian’s face pale, his stricken eyes glimmering with instant tears.
“Yangyang. I—” he starts to say, but shakes his head and just hugs Xue Yang tightly. He’s still a little sweaty and singed from the graveyard, but Xue Yang hugs him back just as hard. One of them is shaking, but Xue Yang can’t tell who.
“Please don’t send me away,” he whispers into Wei Wuxian’s chest.
“Oh, Yangyang.” Wei Wuxian tightens his arms around Xue Yang even more. His voice sounds a little wet. “We could never. We would never .”
And so Xue Yang stays.
There is a wild boy in Ballard, and people say to avoid him.
He is probably not called a wild boy because evil lurks inside him, although there is some debate about that. He is called a wild boy because he hides fear behind a feral smile and his heart inside a suit of knives.
It may not be fair to judge a boy by his anger, but the local legends are clear. If you insult the wild boy, he’ll break your window. If you hurt the wild boy, he’ll burn down your house. Everyone knows, there’s no way to tame the wild boy, just leave him alone, and with luck he’ll just go away.
It also happens that everyone is wrong. He won’t go away, and he doesn’t need taming. The thing that lurks inside the boy, so deep he can’t even give it a name, is hope.
There is a Dark House in Ballard, and people say to avoid it, but what lives in the Dark House is a family, a family with room, room for a boy who is not so wild anymore, not since the day he came home.