"We have filled the open Cultivation Technician position," Shufu announced at their weekly meeting, looking somehow both pleased and pained. “He formerly worked in Yunmeng.”
Lan Wangji took the news with appropriate levels of enthusiasm, which is to say he nodded, made a note of the most likely start date , and then turned his attention to the next agenda item. While the Gusu Bureau of Cultivation covered all of Gusu, comparatively few agents worked out of the HQ in Caiyi Town. There were enough bodies to fill all the seats in their large meeting space, but the various satellite branches and offices hosted the majority of their staff. HO hosted only two full-time technicians, the rest scattered to all corners of the country.
"Oh good, good, good," CA Su said, consciously making the decision to provide unnecessary commentary. "I look forward to our evidence being processed more efficiently. I had to wait a full week for the results of my last case."
On the other end of the table, their terribly competent forensic cultivator, CT Luo, appeared unmoved, though Lan Wangji did notice the slight strain around her eyes. Until now, she had been the only transplant in the lab filled with Gusu-schooled experts in the Lan techniques of forensic cultivation. Despite her unfortunate background with Lanling, she’d proven one of their most dedicated lab technicians, and more than capable. She had been single-handedly dealing with the demands of their department for almost six months, now, since their second full-time CT retired, and had been doing a remarkably competent job all things considered. Any delays could be easily excused by anyone not actively attempting to curry favour through inappropriate assessments of her talents.
Lan Wangji declined to mention any of this. Judging from the set of his uncle’s brow, he knew well enough the games CA Su was playing. Shufu had been around politicking for longer than CA Su had been a legal adult, and Lan Wangji had very little doubt that he had witnessed much more nuanced attempts.
“An understandable timeframe, when she has been on her own addressing the various demands of our agents,” Shufu made a point of stating. CA Su’s nose wrinkled; not quite a sneer, but not far off from one either. CT Luo looked down at her laptop, a small curl at the corner of her mouth. “Moving on…”
After dinner that evening, Shufu confided a few details about their new technician, seeming equal parts consternated and quietly pleased, though Lan Wangji was only able to detect the latter due to having been raised by Shufu since early childhood.
"I was pleased when he took my suggestion to apply seriously,” Lan Qiren told Lan Wangji and Xichen, when conversation had invariably drifted to their shared workplace. The applicant, Wei Wuxian, had apparently been a student while Shufu had guest lectured for a semester in Yunmeng while recovering from an injury which had, eventually, removed him from the field. “He talks too much. Relies on shock factor to win arguments. Horribly unorthodox. Bright, though, if his baser inclinations can be tamed."
Lan Wangji was not optimistic. He himself had often been referred to as "bright" in his youth (though oftentimes in such a way someone might describe a clear winter day in which sunglasses had been forgotten at home), and had thus far managed to restrain himself from behaviour that caused his uncle such strain around the eyes.
Still, once Wei Wuxian was installed in the labs, Lan Wangji couldn't say he noticed any particular instances of indecency. In fact, if popular opinion was to be believed—Lan Wangji rarely took stock in it himself—Wei Wuxian was an excellent addition to the team, and not only because he'd taken it upon himself to supply the break room with far superior coffee.
Lan Wangji, a dedicated tea drinker, decided this did nothing to recommend him.
Lan Wangji did not storm places; his gait was perfectly level and betrayed no particular haste or disgruntlement. Nonetheless, one of the other Cultivation Agents, an uninspiring man who took little initiative outside of being the first to liberate unlabeled snacks from the break room, practically dove out of the way when he crossed paths with Lan Wangji outside of the entrance to the labs.
It perhaps indicated a level of obvious irritation Lan Wangji had not been aware of, considering his focus had been wholly occupied by the unnecessary and outrageous corrections that had been made to his recently-submitted case report. Regardless, he continued walking with purpose through the heavy double doors that separated their forensics unit from the rest of the bureau.
The first person he encountered showed no signs of cowering, perhaps evidencing the common assertion that Cultivation Technicians were made of sterner stuff than their field counterparts.
"CA Lan," CT Luo greeted cheerfully. She paused in her inspection of an antique blade seated in the middle of an identification array, some of her cheer fading when she looked his way. "What brings you down here?"
"I need to speak to whoever examined my findings on the Huo murders," he replied.
CT Luo’s eyebrow twitched in a very telling way. “I believe that CT Wei took over the file,” she said with such conviction of neutrality that she might have been impersonating Lan Wangji himself.
Lan Wangji considered this a moment. He’d not had the opportunity to encounter CT Wei since the other man had joined the Bureau. The cases he’d worked on had required little in the area of forensic cultivation, and what small effort they required from their technicians was conducted entirely via email.
Needless to say, this first impression of their new technician was not looking favourable.
“What was the problem?” Interesting that she assumed—correctly—there was a problem instead of asking if one existed.
“He made unauthorized additions to my summation.” The case already sat uncomfortably beneath his skin; a young, recently-married couple had been found dismembered in their home, unidentifiable talismans hung around the front doorway. Lan Wangji had been unable to determine their purpose or whether they’d been related to the murders. The technician had, apparently, decided that the talismans had been a deeply perverted version of a spirit lure, and concluded their purpose had been to draw forth such violently resentful spirits that they’d torn the couple apart.
The borderline heretical assertions had no place in Lan Wangji’s otherwise meticulously fact-based report.
“I’m sure he thought it would be helpful,” CT Luo said.
Lan Wangji generously kept his thoughts on such ‘helpfulness’ private. “Where might I find CT Wei?”
He followed CT Luo’s directions to the workspace Wei Wuxian had excavated for himself near the back of the building.
Lan Wangji enjoyed the sterling reputation of the Gusu Bureau of Cultivation; the GBC often distinguished itself among other regional counterparts through their dedication to professionalism and holding its agents to the highest possible calibre. Obviously the Yunmeng Special Investigations Branch didn’t hold their own people to the same standards.
CT Wei had plunked himself down in the area furthest from the elevator, a small enclosure which had likely been earmarked for storage when the building plans had first been designed. Chaos consumed the space around him; haphazardly stacked books and piles of talisman paper—both used and unused—tilted dangerously in every corner, and both his recycling bin and trash basket were overflowing even though the cleaning staff emptied both receptacles every evening.
The man himself was perched on his chair, staring at his laptop with a furrowed brow, chewing on his ID lanyard. He blinked owlishly at the door when Lan Wangji appeared, face brightening into a welcoming grin. “Welcome to my cave! What do you need, CA…”
“Lan,” Lan Wangji answered tightly. Had he used a child’s lunchbox to shore up overladen bookshelves?
“Wangji or Xichen?”
“My brother is Senior Cultivation Agent Lan.”
“Ah. Lan Wangji, then. Lan Zhan, yeah?” He nodded to himself, apparently immune to the downturn to Lan Wangji’s mouth at the overfamiliarity. “You’re here about the Huo findings?”
"Yes. You changed the summary," Lan Wangji stated.
Wei Wuxian nodded in agreement. "Well, yeah. You claimed everything was inconclusive. I had a conclusion."
"Speculation does not inform conclusive findings on official documentation."
Wei Wuxian had the utter audacity to roll his eyes. "It wasn’t speculation. It was irrefutable fact."
"How can you possibly know that?"
"Because I recreated the talismans and tested them in the lab."
Lan Wangji stood a moment in absolute silence, and thanked years of carefully trained stoicism which kept that silence from appearing too obviously shocked. "You...?" He paused and gathered his thoughts. He’d obviously misunderstood. Clarity was the soul of understanding. “What?” Surely not.
"How else was I supposed to figure it out?"
Had they been anywhere besides a place of employment, Lan Wangji would have physically manhandled Wei Wuxian to his uncle's office. Instead, he said in his chilliest and most intimidating manner, "You will accompany me at once."
He would have enjoyed the visceral satisfaction of crossing Cloud Recesses in an effort to deposit the miscreant Technician in his uncle’s office, but the Bureau had long since relocated to Caiyi Town in deference to accessibility. The insufferably long crawl of the elevator up to the top floor lasted forever, with Lan Wangji keeping his eyes determinedly fixed forward. Once or twice, Wei Wuxian seemed to have something to say, but each time he bit it back and rubbed at his nose instead before blowing a breath out of pursed lips to create some truly obnoxious noises.
His uncle’s assistant shuffled them into his office without further delay.
Lan Qiren looked at them both over the top of his monitor with an ominous lack of surprise. “Already?”
Lan Wangji explained the situation as succinctly as possible. It was not in his nature to be overly loquacious anyway, and surely the actions spoke for themselves. Wei Wuxian offered little in the way of his own defense, attention drifting out the magnificent bay window behind uncle’s desk to admire the mountains beyond.
“Thank you, Wangji. I shall speak to him.”
Lan Wangji inclined his head, pierced Wei Wuxian with a last annoyed moue, and showed himself out.
No one in the history of the Gusu Cultivation Bureau had ever been fired in their first week. Alas for the breakroom coffee.
He might have left it there, of course. He’d done his diligence by reporting the egregious protocol violation. And yet, when he was looking over his report that evening prior to his finalized submission, he grit his teeth and made no changes to Wei Wuxian’s findings. It was almost unfortunate that he’d be dismissed so quickly; the actual insight he’d provided filled out the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Two days later, Lan Wangji stopped short in the doorway to CT Luo’s workspace, shocked to see CT Wei lounging in the chair on the other side of her desk.
“CA Lan,” CT Luo greeted. “I’m sorry, but SCA Lan put a priority rush on his request for results, and I haven’t had time to look at yours yet.”
CT Wei’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Why didn’t you give them to me?”
“Because for the past two days you’ve been busy,” CT Luo reminded him.
“Not with anything important.” Wei Wuxian swung around to look at Lan Wangji with an accusatory yet somehow playful scowl. "Thanks to you, I need to take all the health and safety training again. And I still need to review and copy all the minutes from the past five years’ worth of HSC meetings and copy out all the key findings five times." Lan Wangji would normally have considered this a ridiculously lenient punishment in light of circumstances, but CT Wei looked so bereft at the prospect that he couldn’t bring himself to complain.
Privately, he decided, he could seethe a while longer.
(Especially when CT Wei made grabby hands and demanded Lan Wangji’s casefile. It seemed as though he was destined to be a fixture in their labs until he did something unforgivably stupid.)
Unfortunately for all of them, which his uncle had almost certainly overlooked, the health and safety courses were designed without significant input from the cultivation world at large, and OSHA failed to provide specific guidelines around what constituted a hazardous workplace where magic was involved. Less than a week after completing the eight hour training course, CT Wei ended up accidentally lighting CA Su on fire. More unforgivably, the incident distracted him from returning the results of Lan Wangji’s recent case in a timely manner.
This time, at least, Lan Qiren raised his voice. At CA Su, for not following fire safety protocols, but Lan Wangji was willing to count it as a win.
The monthly copy of Advances in Modern Cultivation appeared in the breakroom overnight, left to the mercy of curious eyes atop the once-pristine table now eternally marred by flagrant disuse of coasters. Lan Wangji wasted very little time here; the air smelled like coffee grounds and cleaning products and whatever specimen had been left to rot its way to sentience in the back of the refrigerator. Lan Wangji had an office with a small electric kettle and an assortment of teas he’d learned to never leave unattended around the general masses. He often skipped the midday meal, and on the rare occasions he had nothing else to occupy himself, Xichen was excellent at allowing him to thumb through his old cases in search of learning opportunities. He also very generously never commented on the habit.
But Xichen was pursuing a case outside of Caiyi, and Lan Wangji's own pending sat in a state of investigative stalemate. He had aggressively emptied his inbox less than an hour ago. The breakroom called him for no other reason than he wanted to escape the four walls of his office and this was the only destination which could result in easily ignored attempts at conversation, especially in the quietude of post-9:00am coffee hunt and pre-11:00am seekers of an early lunch.
The journal was a pleasant surprise. He'd received a gift subscription from Xichen several years back, and forgot to renew it once it expired. Advances in Modern Cultivation was the preeminent publication for academic pursuits, and while little of the content offered practical solutions for those working in the Bureau, it was fascinating.
He had only just reached an article on applications of identification arrays in advanced stages of decomposition when he heard the exaggerated gasp from the doorway. Somehow, without bothering to look up, he accurately prescribed the drama of it to its rightful owner.
"Good morning, CT Wei."
"Aha, Lan Zhan"—the hand not resting on the journal curled into a fist beneath the table—"Where did you find that rag? I wouldn't think you'd waste your time with it."
Lan Wangji considered and then discarded the possibility of CT Wei being serious.
When he failed to get a rise, CT Wei huffed and headed for the coffee maker instead, grumbling in irritation when the pot yielded little less than a quarter of a mug, and cursing the last person who'd come to fetch a refill and hadn't bothered to make more.
"There is an article on talismans you would probably find valuable if you insist on continuing with irresponsible experimentation," Lan Wangji finally noted. Not because he felt a need to fill the silence, but because the other techs had been gossiping about escalating amounts of alarming noise coming from CT Wei's workspace.
"Uhhh," CT Wei replied cleverly. Lan Wangji spared a moment to wonder if whatever was wrong with CA Su had become contagious. "I. Uh." He turned the entirety of his attention back to making coffee. "Talismans?"
Perhaps he was ill. Or, far more likely, his comfort with unorthodox methods had begun melting his brain. "I believe you have some passing familiarity."
CT Wei paused with a scoop of coffee halfway to the basket filter before coughing out a laugh. "That I do." He looked mournfully at the achingly slow percolator and then seemed to come to a decision. Without so much as a ‘by your leave’ he dropped into the chair across from Lan Wangji. "Okay, do you want to hear every single thing wrong with that article? Because about twenty percent of it is poorly misunderstood brilliance and the rest is unmitigated horseshit."
Lan Wangji could immediately guess the bits CT Wei had liked. As he had read a few of the lines he'd practically been able to hear them spoken aloud in the other man's petulant sneer.
Before Lan Wangji could reply, CT Wei launched into an excoriating takedown of the article as a whole, noting the authorial reliance on pre-established notions and lowest common denominator assumptions. Some of the verbiage seemed entirely too familiar, and Lan Wangji thumbed back to the article in question.
"‘The Problem with Talisman Use in Field,'" he read aloud. CT Wei froze. "Zhang Yunke, Wu Mingfang, Zhiyong Si, Ye Zhong, and Wei Wuxian."
The technician rubbed at his nose and twisted out his cheeks even as his lips puckered up as though he'd taken a sip of lemon juice.
"Twenty percent," Lan Wangji repeated.
"Misunderstood brilliance," Wei Wu… CT Wei repeated at a hiss. He realized that the coffee pot had filled up during his rant and stood to finally collect his refill. "I'm pretty sure they only asked me to contribute as a PSA for all the baby researchers out there."
There had certainly been a timbre of cautionary admonishment when the other authors attempted to rebut CT Wei's points. Unfortunately none of the attempts had landed palpable points. Even Lan Wangji could admit that his own opinions on talisman use had been challenged once he'd concluded his first read through. He wondered how a second look would go, knowing how passionate CT Wei's voice became when he presented the words aloud.
CT Wei added an unnecessary amount of sugar to his coffee but wisely avoided all three cartons of milk in the fridge.
Lan Wangji thought about asking after the publication, but before he could think of a way to give his questions voice, CT Wei shot a jaunty salute in his direction and disappeared back out the door.
“Lan-laoshi, I need a dead body.”
Lan Qiren did not so much as look up at the door to acknowledge CT Wei’s sudden interruption, but his eyebrows conveyed the deep, perplexed pain which must have followed the statement.
“I’m no longer your teacher—”
“I aspire to learn from you every day.”
“—and the fact you only refer to me as such when you need something does not incent me to provide it in case it encourages further instances.”
It seemed reasonable enough to Lan Wangji, though from the mulish set to CT Wei’s jaw the point was not internalized as reasonable.
“Outside,” Lan Qiren said.
CT Wei frowned. “There’s a body outside?”
“No. I wish for you to go back out the door, knock, and then wait to be called in. Or, better, please speak to Lan Ruiyu and request an appointment.”
“When’s your next appointment, then?”
“I don’t know, Wei Wuxian, that’s why I employ a very capable assistant. Now, if you’ll excuse us.”
CT Wei, still looking mutinous, showed himself back out the door. Lan Qiren waited expectantly until it closed and then nodded stiffly to Lan Wangji before reaching for his phone and asking the aforementioned assistant to put in a requisition for a cadaver.
Lan Qiren visibly bit back a harrumph. “Might as well start on the procurement process right away.”
He ignored CT Wei’s knock, and gestured for Lan Wangji to continue with his assessment of the junior CA he’d been paired with on their last case.
When he strode out of the office forty-five minutes later, CT Wei hopped up from where he’d half-collapsed on one of the waiting chairs in the small reception area outside. Lan Wangji very pointedly, and without prompting, closed the door behind him.
CT Wei slumped again and cast pleading eyes at Lan Ruiyu.
“Director Lan will be free to discuss the necessity of your requisition in approximately one hour,” she said without looking up. “In the meantime, please make sure you fill out all pertinent forms.”
“There are forms?”
Lan Ruiyu’s reply could have inspired a desert. “Unless you plan to rob a morgue, there are always forms.”
Lan Wangji did not care for the speculative look in CT Wei’s eyes. “I believe CT Luo would be able to assist with locating the appropriate ones,” he offered.
CT Wei grumbled, but pushed himself up out of his seat. This led to the uncomfortable realization that they would likely be sharing an elevator. Lan Wangji turned as he left his uncle’s suite of offices to head towards the stairs.
CT Wei, ranting about unnecessary bureaucracy and stunningly blind to social cues, followed.
"You seem to be coming to a point which accidentally endorses graverobbing," Lan Wangji pointed out as they finally reached the door to the second floor, where his blissfully silent office awaited.
CT Wei paused and furrowed his brow. "You were actually listening?"
"The whole time? Because I think I may have also said something about criminal desecration, and I feel I should point out that I don't encourage that in the workplace."
"As opposed to at home?"
CT Wei cackled. "You're amazing, Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji's eyebrows shifted slightly in face of his disapproval. Correcting the familiarity at this point seemed a lost cause.
"I'm going to go find Mianmian and bully her into helping me with those forms. Or more likely make sad eyes and offer to get her coffee refills for the week. Do you want me to text you once the experiment is up and running? It's going to be a blast."
Hopefully not literally. Lan Wangji offered a noncommittal noise he hoped would convey, but did not expect to be taken as, a rejection and exited out into the hallway perpendicular to his office. Unfortunately, right when CT Wei cried out an unbecomingly enthusiastic farewell, Xichen rounded the corner. His eyebrows rose in surprise, which seemed to lift his entire face with the power of his amusement. Lan Wangji hated this particular cast to his brother's face; it always heralded subtle teasing.
The heavy door slammed shut behind him, and Lan Wangji refused to flinch.
"Wangji," Lan Xichen greeted. "Was that Wei Wuxian I heard just now?"
As though it could have been anyone else. GBC did not typically employ cultivators with such extreme levels of... extroversion.
"CT Wei is on his way back to B1 if you require his assistance."
"Not at all. I should find time to thank him, however. He did excellent work on the last file I sent him."
The problem with CT Wei was, lamentably, not incompetence. Incompetence was a failing no one at the Gusu Bureau of Cultivation could forgive. Had he been incompetent, he would have already been dismissed from his position. No, the problem with CT Wei was far worse: he was friendly.
"I'm sure the feedback will be very—" liable to reinforce his terrible manners, work habits, and lackadaisical approach to administrative tasks, "—valuable."
"I'm sure." His brother's smile widened. He thankfully changed the subject, but the amusement remained fixed in his eyes as an insufferable twinkle which made Lan Wangji want to run.
Fifty-seven minutes later, his Bureau-issued phone lit up with a series of texts.
Lan Zhan! I got my corpse. Come down to the lab!!
There was something inherently grotesque about such a statement being followed by a string of emojis, including one with heart eyes, but Lan Wangji did himself the favour of not examining his feelings on the matter too closely.
I do not at present have time to supervise your experiment. Thank you.
But it's going to be awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Lan Wangji detested exclamation marks. The bevy of them sprinting across his screen made him wince.
He silenced his phone and set it aside.
Forty-three minutes later, the container holding his pens shook, his windows rattled, and the fire alarm went off.
"...which is why we will no longer allow untested experimental arrays in the labs without the approval of myself, and the supervision of at minimum one Senior Cultivation Agent," Lan Qiren finished at the staff meeting the following afternoon. It had been hastily organized for late in the day, and more than one person seated at the boardroom table looked antsy to have it over with.
"You will all also find the amended procurement forms in your inboxes. Please make every effort to familiarize yourselves with the changes and fill them out in their entirety should the need arise," Lan Ruiyu added.
"You will be conducting a thorough review of the incident and make sure any parties found to be at fault will be addressed," CA Su said, glaring at CT Wei from across the table. It was not an unusual statement for CA Su. He seemed to think himself the authority on all compliance-related matters, regardless that it was completely outside his purview. Xichen had suggested that CA Su’s ambitions tended towards leadership. Unfortunately for him he completely lacked the qualifications, competence and temperament to make such a thing feasible.
CT Wei did not stick out his tongue in response. Lan Wangji, for the first time since meeting the other man, found himself admiring his restraint. Nevermind that, strictly speaking, Wei Ying outranked CA Su. There existed an all-too-common assumption that because they worked in the labs, Cultivation Technicians held no authority. Even though most cases were solved under microscopic examination in the Bureau’s backrooms, agents such as Su She would always look at them and see nothing more than cowards chained to desks who offered nothing he couldn’t figure out himself with half a moment’s consideration.
(Lan Wangji doubted CA Su could do anything with half a moment’s consideration, save possibly tie his shoes, and even that seemed a stretch of generosity).
"The review was completed this morning, and no negligence was found," Lan Qiren replied.
"How?!" CA Su demanded.
"The experiment did what I expected it to," CT Wei spoke for the first time since entering the room. His right hand was swaddled with bandages; a nasty injury, if he hadn't been able to heal it yet. "The explosion was a result of outdated containment measures."
Shufu continued, "The incident brought to light insufficient safety protocols, which is the reasoning behind the change."
CA Su curled his lip. "I don't recall any other techs blowing up the building."
Lan Wangji could have remained silent, but his dislike of CA Su outweighed his want of it. "No other techs had the cause or insight to perform such an experiment, which incidentally resulted in an arrest this morning."
The meeting ended, and everyone filed out except CA Su, who remained lurking near the wastepaper basket, trying to catch Lan Wangji's eye.
"I apologize, Hanguang-jun. I didn't realize it was your case," CA Su said with faux sweetness. "Undoubtedly the oversight was the fault of the tech— pardon me, the arrays, in that case, I’m sure."
Quiet guilt made Lan Wangji's joints itch for action. If CA Su had picked up on his dislike of CT Wei to try and leverage it into a play for approval, he needed to be more circumspect.
"Wrong on both accounts. I assisted in the review with Director Lan, which provided me with particulars. And CT Wei is excellent. If you feel the need to offer an apology, it should be to him."
There. Guilt assuaged. He waited until CA Su trudged from the room before making his own way out.
Only to stumble upon CT Wei waiting outside the door.
"'Excellent!'" CT Wei crowed.
Lan Wangji immediately turned on his heel, leaving CT Wei scrambling after him.
"You called me excellent. I heard it! I am going to make sure all of your cases go to the top of my pile, Lan Zhan!"
"That would be unethical," Lan Wangji stated.
CT Wei followed after him like a newly-imprinted gosling, flapping his arms and hopping from foot to foot. He was a fully-grown adult. It was not adorable.
He paused after one particularly effusive wave and pulled his hand in close to his chest, wincing.
"Are you all right?" Lan Wangji asked.
"Oh, yeah. I needed to slap my own talismans down to keep the explosion from destroying the building and ended up getting a little singed. Nothing to worry about."
Lan Wangji frowned. "If it will impede you from working, it should be reported."
"Ah, no, Lan Zhan. Nothing all that serious." Despite the words, he hugged the swaddled limb gently.
"You…" Lan Wangji did not enjoy his brother's talent with words. He rarely regretted it, when his own strengths were more than adequate, but situations occasionally arose which called for envy. "You will not be penalized for taking time away if required."
"Are you worried about me?" CT Wei asked, delighted.
“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji muttered.
“That wasn’t a no!” CT Wei scrambled after him, and managed to nudge his way into the elevator before the doors could close on him. He rode with Lan Wangji down to the ground floor, grinning in an indecorous fashion.
He feared CT Wei planned to follow him around to the parking garage, and determined as he was to keep his eyes forward he almost failed to notice when CT Wei ducked through one of the doorways lining the building foyer. What could he possibly want from the daycare?
First aid supplies? Lan Wangji frowned, cross at himself for allowing the other man's flippancy to distract him from a real injury, and turned to follow.
CT Wei grinned when Lan Wangji moved to stand next to where he'd sidled up to the intake counter. The daycare had been Lan Qiren’s initiative, surprisingly, opened shortly after he had assumed directorship of the Bureau. He had provided no explanation beyond an offhand comment Lan Wangji likely hadn't been meant to overhear, where he had told Xichen that he refused to allow workaholic parents to neglect their children to the point of orphanship.
"What do you need here?"
"Sometimes they give me free juice if I pout hard enough," CT Wei responded.
Lan Wangji froze with momentary outrage long enough for one of the staff members to emerge from the back area, accompanied by a small child.
The boy, around six, smiled up at the caregiver. “Thank you for your help today.”
“You are very welcome, A-Yuan,” the aging gentleman said with a soft smile.
The boy bowed politely before turning to CT Wei and bursting out a joyous, “Xian-gege!”
“Radish!” CT Wei said, much more effusively than the literal child before them, and bounced on his toes as the caregiver released the magnetic lock blocking the reception from the childcare area beyond. The boy barely made it two steps out before CT Wei descended, sweeping him into his arms for an enthusiastic hug. The boy, A-Yuan, accepted the greeting with a brilliant smile and then waited patiently for CT Wei to set him down.
“Lan Zhan, this is A-Yuan,” CT Wei said.
“It is very nice to meet you,” Lan Wangji said solemnly, determined not to be enchanted when the boy bowed to him as well. “I did not realize you had a child, CT Wei.”
“Why does he call you CT Wei?” A-Yuan asked curiously.
“Because he doesn’t know my name,” CT Wei replied.
Lan Wangji blinked. “I do.”
“Then you should use it, Lan Zhan.”
Trapped in a net of his own weave, Lan Zhan leveled an unimpressed look CT… Wei Ying’s way, and received a sunny smile in return. Surely smiling so much was bad for a person’s health?
“What did you do today at school?” Wei Ying asked. He offered his uninjured hand, which A-Yuan took with a smile.
“I made a shark picture,” A-Yuan said. “And I learned about the senses. Pei-laoshi taught us about the flow of qi. And we did math. I’m on patterns. Then the shuttle driver picked us up and brought me here.”
“I am very interested in this shark picture,” Wei Ying told him with the utmost seriousness. “Did you bring it back with you?”
A-Yuan stopped and dropped to the floor to open his backpack and sort through the contents. Wei Ying dodged around a few people leaving the building and waited patiently for A-Yuan to produce his effort.
“Very good,” Wei Ying exclaimed when he finally pulled it out. “Lan Zhan! Look at this! This is a mighty beast of the sea, who has probably eaten many sailors.” The picture was fairly well-constructed paperwork, with different cut outs of grey assembled into a serviceable representation of the subject matter.
“It’s a nurse shark, Xian-gege. They don’t eat people.”
“Very smart of you to choose that one, then.” Wei Ying went to rub his nose, but stopped at the last moment when he remembered his hand was still bandaged. “Ah, maybe you can carry it, A-Yuan, until we get home and put it on the board.”
A-Yuan nodded and carefully tucked it back into his bag.
They continued onwards, out the doors and onto the bustling sidewalk of Caiyi’s downtown. Caiyi had never reached the metropolitan extravagance of other capital cities. Building ordinances kept buildings below six storeys, and architectural design strictly adhered to municipal guidelines which promoted respect to antiquity and feelings of serenity. The city, in that way, felt very much like an elegant extension of Cloud Recesses, and it had always made Lan Wangji more comfortable because of it.
"Goodnight, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying said with a smile. Lan Wangji nodded to him and managed to conjure up a small smile for A-Yuan when the boy looked his way.
Wei Ying made a noise not dissimilar to a deflating balloon, but when Lan Wangji looked at him he could see nothing amiss.
"Goodnight," he offered.
Wei Ying and A-Yuan headed in the opposite direction, towards the train station nearby. Home, presumably. To a wife? Girlfriend? The thought sat sour in Lan Wangji's stomach, and he muscled down the urge to chase after them and offer them a ride home to assuage the prickly feeling of dissatisfaction that accompanied it.
Lan Wangji did not care if Wei Ying had a significant other at home. It would be better if he did, in all likelihood, given that he had a child to take care of. A child who did not refer to him with a parental moniker. A stepson? And yet it became increasingly irritating trying to figure out how anyone else might fit into his life, when Wei Ying spoke everything of mirth and nothing of matter.
CT Luo cast him concerned looks while she finished her explanation of the filaments she had pulled off a shroud found at a crime scene.
The ill feeling eventually overcame his need for professional distance. "Your daughter attends the on-site daycare, correct?"
"Yes…?" CT Luo nodded. "She is too young to begin primary, but we wanted to give her some time around other children."
How did he now transition this to the pressing question? This awkward heaviness of the tongue—completely absent when he needed to interview suspects or witnesses—felt undefeatable.
"Wei Wuxian's son attends as well, if you'd like his opinion on it. A-Yuan also attends the school a few blocks over."
"Mn." They really were fortunate to have CT Luo and her flawless intuitive strength. "And CT Wei's… partner?"
CT Luo turned away to gather something from her desk. It appeared incidental—he was unsure why she needed a stapler when neither of them were holding loose papers—and she took her time retrieving it. When she looked back, it looked as though she was barely containing an unusually cheerful countenance. Perhaps due to the looming weekend?
"Wei Wuxian is not in a relationship as of two weeks ago when we invited him and A-Yuan for dinner," she informed him.
Lan Wangji felt curiously light headed with the information. "Ah."
"I think he mentioned that his last partner broke up with him shortly before he adopted A-Yuan. Apparently he wasn't interested in children."
Lan Wangji allowed himself a moment of outrage on Wei Ying's behalf. He enjoyed the company of children. They rarely disassembled, and it was far easier to determine their actual needs than those of adults who concealed their true intentions behind otherwise innocuous questions.
(He deliberately shied away from any sense of irony).
Wei Ying himself saved Lan Wangji the trouble of further discourse by entering the room, attention on the tablet in his hand.
"Mianmian, I can't figure out this character sequencing, can you do me a favour and put fresh eyes on it?" The tablet's screen proved so transfixing that he did not look away from it until he walked directly into Lan Wangji's back. "Oh! Lan Zhan! Come to scurry through the warrens with us lab rats?"
"Rats have burrows. Rabbits have warrens," Lan Wangji informed him.
“‘Lab bunnies’ does sound better," Wei Ying grinned.
"Ridiculous," Lan Wangji replied without venom. He returned his attention to CT Luo. "Please forward me your findings when complete."
"I will, CA Lan."
He showed himself out, though not before Wei Ying called a sunny farewell.
Instead of returning to his office, he went to the gym to put himself through his paces with Bichen. The problem facing him was likely one of idleness, he decided. Too much time spent in speculation. His most recent case only required CT Luo's confirmation of his suspicions before closing, and he had nothing else pending. Gusu was an expansive country, filled with history and old ghosts. It kept everyone at the Bureau busy most of the time. Fortunate. Lan Wangji was not built for inactivity and periods such as this did him no favours. Next he'd be prying into his brother's social calendar, and while Xichen would certainly love the opportunity to wax poetic about it, Lan Wangji would frankly rather extract his own back molars with a spoon.
Nothing new had crossed his desk by the time he returned to his office, though his inbox had filled. He scrolled through the unread messages, deleted half of them without opening them, and then turned his attention to whatever remaining emails which might have actual value.
Of course, once he was aware of Wei Ying's son, he could hardly overlook his existence. The next time he visited Wei Ying's office—certainly not because he wanted to check and see if Wei Ying's offer of prioritizing his cases had been genuine—he took more notice of what he had formerly dismissed as idiosyncrasies. Age-appropriate books, a tablet with a heavy-duty foam case of garishly bright green, the sparkly stickers covering Wei Ying’s laptop. All signs pointing to a man with a child, instead of a childish man.
(Well, the stickers might reasonably be his - Lan Wangji doubted a child of six enjoyed quite so much power metal).
While Lan Wangji had been surprised by A-Yuan, his sudden knowledge had attuned him to Wei Ying's every word in the past month, no matter how many poured from his mouth.
And perhaps because he felt more willing to listen as Wei Ying filled the silence, he caught more references to the boy himself. The "we" in "we went swimming this weekend" no longer existed as a vague, amorphous human. Instead, he caught himself smiling, just a bit, as Wei Ying described A-Yuan's water wings.
The endless chatter, which had seemed so displeasingly inane before, became a soothing white noise in Lan Wangji's background, and when he had truly begun to listen, he had realized how much each word meant. Whereas Lan Wangji measured out his words as though he were hoarding them, Wei Ying saw his own as wealth to be shared.
He returned late to HO one evening, having consulted briefly on a case that to all appearances looked as though a cultivator might be necessary though ultimately determined to be mundane in origin, and found A-Yuan seated at his uncle's desk.
"Wangji," Shufu said with a nod. "Are you acquainted with Wei Wuxian's son?"
"Yes, we've met. He told me about sharks," Lan Wangji replied.
A-Yuan smiled sunnily up at him from a book of very simple math exercises.
"Xian-gege needed to work late," A-Yuan said. "You don't need to worry." The words seemed like an echo, as though the child had heard them himself before.
"Thank you," Lan Wangji said. He cast a curious look his uncle's way.
"The work he's doing is unsuitable for small eyes," Lan Qiren explained. "But he should be finished soon. I offered to let A-Yuan complete his school assignments here."
It hearkened back to his own childhood, and Lan Wangji felt oddly satisfied knowing that Wei Ying had the support. He had imparted more about his family (lack of family) with his silence than he could have said with words, though he talked expansively of his friends. A category in which, curiously, Lan Wangji realized himself to be included. He had made no overt overtures of friendship, but perhaps the slightly warmer demeanour he presented after the Explosion Incident merited the change.
"I can accompany him down, if you'd like," Lan Wangji offered.
"Much appreciated." Lan Qiren's eyes tightened in long-suffering frustration. "I still have to call Lanling."
"Call them what?" A-Yuan asked.
Doubtless if Wei Ying had been present he would have thought of a pithy reply, but neither Lan Qiren nor Lan Wangji cared to voice grievances in front of a child. Even well-earned ones.
A-Yuan slipped his hand into Lan Wangji's once they left Lan Qiren's office. Lan Wangji caught himself from taking a wrong-footed step of surprise, but A-Yuan barely noticed, instead content to talk about his day. He reminded Lan Wangji very strongly of Wei Ying in his smiles and ease with one-sided conversation.
As they waited for the elevator, Lan Wangji sent a quick, one-handed text to Wei Ying.
I have offered to bring A-Yuan down to you so Director Lan may finish his tasks for the day. Please let me know when you will be finished.
Wei Ying (CT Wei)
Lan Zhan!!!!!! So good of you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Wei Ying (CT Wei)
Bring him on down. I'm almost done, and you can both see what I've been working on.
So down they went.
Wei Ying had taken over one of the smaller labs, each table completely covered with a variety of what might have once been talismans, before the paper upon which they'd been written had all but disintegrated with some form of liquid. Wei Ying was standing at the least-cluttered workspace, unfairly attractive in a lab coat and safety glasses.
"My favourite people! Come, come. I am going to show you something amazing." He beckoned them closer. Once A-Yuan reached his side, Wei Ying produced a pair of child-sized goggles from one of his myriad pockets, which A-Yuan donned with an air of familiarity. "Lan Zhan, what is one of the foremost problems facing us when trying to determine the origin of talismans?"
"When activated, they are imbued with spiritual energy, which interferes with most modern methods of examination, making composition identification next to impossible."
"Exactly! What do you think, A-Yuan, is Lan Zhan not the smartest cultivator of all time?"
A-Yuan nodded, though he was obviously distracted by the assortment of papers laid out on the table.
"Here, A-Yuan." He passed the young boy a spray bottle. "Spray all of the talismans."
A-Yuan examined them before aiming the spray bottle at a very well-drawn summoning for wind and working his way down the line of papers. The spray misted out, barely there, and Wei Ying clapped his hands.
"Excellent. Lan Zhan, hit the lights!"
Lan Zhan obeyed. Wei Ying whipped a black light out of his pocket and turned it on. Three of the talismans lit up as though the characters had been created with glow in the dark paint.
"Your Xian-gege has figured out exactly the solution of luminol which will show up without destroying the talisman."
"Impressive," Lan Wangji said sincerely. To date, their efforts in talisman identification tended towards guesswork and reasonable hypotheses. Having the ability to determine whether blood was involved would save countless hours of painstakingly careful swabbing and analysis. "You should patent it, and share with other bureaus."
Wei Ying snorted while smirking, his expression one of amused resignation. "We'll see. Maybe if Qinghe wants in on this." Qinghe was Gusu's closest ally, though Lan Wangji doubted that accounted for the offhand remark.
"Let's get this all cleaned up. I promised A-Yuan soup dumplings for dinner."
"He did," A-Yuan nodded. "But it's important to clean up your messes before moving on to something new."
"I knew I let you spend too much time around Qing-jie," Wei Ying laughed.
"I will help," Lan Wangji stated, surveying the mess. If even half the wasted talismans had been drawn with blood, they would require proper disposal.
Between the two of them (two and a half, counting the efforts of A-Yuan, who Wei Ying put to work organizing the remaining, unused talisman paper) the job flew by. He was halfway done when it struck him that nothing Wei Ying suggested had been inherently inappropriate for a child to observe.
Unless. "Wei Ying, did you draw all these with your own blood?"
"Well, it's not like we keep blood-based talismans on hand, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying replied. Now the lights were back on, and his glasses removed, it was far easier to see the sallow cast to his skin and dark marks beneath his eyes. "That's one of those areas we suspiciously never get funding for."
"It's not suspicious. It's practical and sanitary," Lan Wangji said.
"Also boring. But A-Yuan and I get soup dumplings out of it, so I'll stop whining." Doubtful. "Care to join us, Lan Zhan? There's a pretty great place next door to our apartment."
It was on the tip of his tongue to refuse when Wei Ying and A-Yuan both favoured him with brilliant smiles and quite beyond his control, his voice replied, "Yes."
And so it was.
He drove them across town, towards the lake, to a small hole-in-the-wall which had a grand total of three tables and a few ageworn stools pulled up to a long bar. The owner of the restaurant spoke with a distinctly Yunmeng flare, not dissimilar to Wei Ying's own, and already knew their order before they walked in the door. She gleefully added Lan Wangji's much milder dish with a knowing smile that Lan Wangji had no desire to acknowledge, and sent them on their way laden down with takeout containers.
Wei Ying and A-Yuan lived on the outskirts of Caiyi Town in a newer development near the lake, the buildings a daring four-storey low rise surrounded by shops and carefully maintained gardens. They walked the short distance from the restaurant to their home, A-Yuan a very capable tour guide as he pointed out all the areas of interest.
"...And that's where we saw the ducks when we first moved here," he finished, pointing across the street to a small pond. "I am not allowed to swim there."
"Not unless you want to be a duck's lunch," Wei Ying agreed. He ushered them all inside.
Their third floor apartment was a spacious place filled with homey chaos. While Wei Ying's workspace always seemed a step away from collapsing under its own weight, his home appeared marginally more organized. Possibly in deference to the small cohabitant. A-Yuan meticulously put away his shoes and backpack before taking Lan Wangji's hand to lead him around the apartment and show it off. General clutter occupied the corners, though in such a way that made it looked at least tangentially organized. Books and art supplies comprised the majority of the collections.
Lan Wangji enjoyed the quiet of his home tucked away in Cloud Recesses, the area still held by the Lan clan, though few of them lived there full time. Many of the people of his generation, would-be peers, saw it as hopelessly old fashioned and did not care for the numerous rules of conduct one had to follow in order to live there. He occupied a well-maintained house which he kept scrupulously tidy.
A-Yuan showed off his room proudly, and made sure Lan Wangji took note of the posters on his wall.
"Xian-gege will need to show you his room. You should knock before going in," A-Yuan told him.
"Very polite," Lan Wangji nodded, determined not to be disappointed by the sight of the closed door.
They returned to the main living area, where Wei Ying had set out plates for everyone.
"Do you drink, Lan Zhan? Wine? Beer?"
"No thank you," Lan Zhan replied.
Wei Ying enjoyed a single cup of wine with dinner, but no more. Afterwards, he settled A-Yuan down in front of the television and beckoned Lan Wangji out to what must have been the true draw of the apartment: a narrow balcony which barely fit two chairs, but showed off a majestic and uninterrupted view of the lake. They were just in time to catch it as sunset lit it up a brilliant golden glow.
"The agent showed us this place right at sunset. Brilliant move on her part… no one can look at a sight like this and walk away." Wei Ying beckoned him to one of the collapsible chairs. There was still sand caught in some of the seams, white and glorious in a way that spoke of beaches and sun.
"You moved here recently?" He seemed to recall the building itself being under construction only half a year ago.
"Yeah. I finished my thesis last year and found myself at odds as to whether I wanted to pursue higher academia—which, I'm sure you can imagine how well that would go over, when ninety percent of the people in my field hate me and my ideas—or go back into cultivation. Your uncle let me know about the opening at GBC, and the next thing I knew, we were packing up our place and on our way here."
"And A-Yuan had no challenges with the move?"
"You're very subtle, Lan Zhan. Feel free to pry if you want to."
"I would never force a confidence."
Wei Ying smiled at him. It was a smaller smile than Lan Wangji could recall seeing before, but it warmed him right through. "You wouldn't be." But before Lan Wangji could ask anything, Wei Ying continued. "I adopted him right as I was getting into my studies. I think it might've been what made Lan-laoshi decide to take me seriously. Like, here's this trainwreck of a student spouting heretical nonsense because he wants to get a rise out of people, and suddenly holy shit he's got a kid?"
Lan Wangji experienced a moment of staggering empathy for his uncle. Wasn't that how he had felt, as well? As though a small piece of the universe had tilted and realigned itself, Wei Ying inextricably in the middle of it?
"...And A-Yuan can win over anyone…" He paused and frowned. "Well, almost anyone. So, really, I have him to thank for convincing your uncle to support my thesis. Without him, I probably would've given up on it before I'd even begun."
"I doubt you would give up on anything you put your heart into." His mind, yes. Lan Wangji could say with confidence that Wei Ying's mind, while brilliant, seemed to be built out of honeycomb, in which ideas were busily generated and then lost among the many pockets of poor memory or when distracted by something new. But his heart? Lan Wangji suspected that when Wei Ying's heart became involved in a decision there would be no deviating. And he wondered if A-Yuan wasn't proof of it.
The smile on Wei Ying's face faded, but the warmth in his eyes remained, making the glow off the lake pale in comparison.
Lan Wangji suddenly realized he was in real danger.
Dinner together quickly became routine. Wei Ying occasionally cooked, decent attempts that spoke to a basic understanding of food preparation without any real love of it.
"I didn't cook a single meal for myself before my twentieth birthday," Wei Ying laughed one evening. "And it wasn't until I adopted A-Yuan that I realized that I shouldn't live on vending machines and take away."
As a cultivation technician, he continued to thrive. Between him and Mianmian, few cases came through the HO that weren't quickly resolved. More than once, foreign agencies reached out for assistance, which Wei Ying obliged as long as he could remain in Gusu and maintain some form of anonymity, frequently crediting Mianmian with any breakthroughs.
This, Lan Wangji thought, spoke more of his need to avoid the other major clans instead of any inborn sense of humility. Lan Wangji had played Xiangqi with him; humility was not a virtue to which Wei Ying paid much heed, unless it involved noteworthy accomplishments. He tended to prefer people overlook actual achievements, which made the frequent presence of Advances in Modern Cultivation in their breakroom a subject of silent mortification, especially once others began noticing his writing credits within.
Just once, when Lan Wangji had arrived for an exceptionally early call with one of the SCAs from a satellite office, he caught Mianmian placing the newest edition in the breakroom.
She shrugged away his bemused glance. "He needs to know we see him," she explained. "And remember that we value him."
He wished he had more time to unpack that. "I have a subscription. I can bring additional copies if needed."
Mianmian smiled. "It's good he's got someone else watching out for him. He takes it for granted that no one will."
Lan Wangji spontaneously invited Wei Ying and A-Yuan to dinner at his home that afternoon. He had a fair hand at cooking, and even without proper preparation managed to put together a decent meal for the three of them.
They looked… right. In his home. For reasons Lan Wangji didn't have the cardiatric fortitude to examine too closely.
After the meal he took them for a walk through the trees, towards the river, which proved to be a terrible idea moments later when his brother appeared on the path ahead of them.
"Wei Wuxian. Wangji." His gaze turned soft and fond and not a little privately amused. "And this must be A-Yuan. My brother tells me that you are the authority on both ducks and sharks."
Lan Wangji bit back the denial. Perhaps he had spoken of A-Yuan more frequently than was wise, considering the knowing look in his brother's eyes. He and Xichen had always been close. He never regretted it until now.
“Only some sharks,” A-Yuan protested, surprisingly demure for a child of six-almost-seven. “The nice ones.”
Lan Wangji cast a quick glance towards Wei Ying, troubled when he saw the stricken expression on the other man’s face. Surely this wasn’t improper? A-Yuan interacted in such a way with everyone, from what Lan Wangji had observed. He was an open, sweet child who combined all his father’s exuberance with what must have been his own natural reserve. Why would it trouble Wei Ying to see him so engaged?
The conversation didn’t last long—Xichen admitted he had only been out for a brief stroll to clear his head while reviewing the facts of a particularly challenging case—and once he’d left them, they continued onwards.
He deliberately slowed his pace, allowing A-Yuan to move ahead of them as Wei Ying matched his steps.
“It’s nothing,” Wei Ying murmured. And then, immediately contradicting himself, “Just…” He paused again. “We don’t have any family here. Or anywhere really, I guess. I’ve wasted a lot of time imagining what it would be like for him to have that sort of thing.”
Once again, the silence between the words said more than what came from Wei Ying’s mouth. Lan Wangji felt at once pleased that Wei Ying could see Xichen as family, and a stab of sorrow that he had gone without. He bumped their fingers together gently. Had he been braver, he might have taken Wei Ying’s hand. Lacking bravery, this was all he could offer.
Wei Ying shook off his pensiveness after a moment. “Come on, before he gets too far ahead and decides to go live with the squirrels.”
Their evening together ended up being the quiet, terribly wonderful precursor to an otherwise horrible week. It always was, somehow, when he needed to involve Lanling in one of his cases. The Lanling Cultivation Office boasted themselves to be at the forefront of breakthrough cultivation techniques and efficiencies, yet whenever help was requested of them such efficiencies suddenly seemed to dry up.
Wei Ying found him less than ten minutes after he’d hit ‘send.’
Subject: RE: Interview Transcripts - Feng Pingtan
[System Note: this user has requested a read receipt to be sent once this email is read]
Thank you for your reply.
Per my previous email, please note that my initial request pertained to the interviews conducted with the subject on the below listed dates. While I appreciate your confirmation that he was convicted and additional details around current detainment, I require the transcripts of these interviews for comparison purposes.
Please do not hesitate to let me know if you require further clarification. I have again attached the scanned approval forms. I appreciate your prompt attention to this simple request.
"That email was a thing of beauty. I have never read such a polite tell off in my entire life. And the read receipt! Those are the fucking worst." In retrospect he needn’t have requested one from Wei Ying, given that he'd replied almost immediately with a number of animated image files indicating great amusement. "Jin Guangyao is a prick anyway. I met him at a wedding and I swear…"
Whatever he might’ve sworn trailed off as CA Su appeared at the other end of the hallway, looking murderous. The expression smoothed out as soon as he spotted Lan Wangji, of course, and drifted towards something categorically more deferential.
“Wei Wuxian,” CA Su said after bowing to Lan Wangji. The lack of respect sat poorly in Lan Wangji’s gut. It was one thing for Lan Wangji to address Wei Ying casually, but quite another for a substandard person to do the same. “Where are the findings on the jewelry box?”
“I haven’t started on it yet,” Wei YIng shrugged.
“You—!” CA Su’s gaze flickered towards Lan Wangji, making him wonder what the other man might’ve said in his absence. He could practically see the words hanging on CA Su’s tongue; accusations of indolence, complaints about ineffective work, questions around Wei Ying’s competence, regardless of the value he brought to the Bureau. Flying in the face of his regular conduct, CA Su contented himself with a sneer. “If you could prioritize it. I need it within the hour.”
“An hour?” Wei Ying repeated incredulously.
“The hour! We still have the local investigators out at the crime scene.”
Wei Ying cast an apologetic look towards Lan Wangji, as though being tasked with performing a necessary work function was somehow an inconvenience to them both. Lan Wangji found himself mildly surprised to discover that, in many ways, it was. Wei Ying had revealed something about his past, a rare gem even as they grew ever-closer. And, if nothing else, he savoured the rare delight of finding others who agreed with his assessment of Jin Guangyao.
Perhaps that was the reason he trailed after Wei Ying back to one of the spare labs, where an ornate jewelry box had been settled in the middle of an otherwise empty table, Wei Ying rambling about the case as they went. According to Bureau protocols, CA Su would have already cleared it of lingering resentful energy and any potentially problematic magic effects. All that remained was for Wei Ying to run advanced diagnostics.
“Nothing else at the crime scene stood out,” Wei Ying said, his voice dropping into a low purr of excitement. Lan Wangji shifted, tilting his brow downwards slightly. It wasn’t his case. Wei Ying was an asset available to the whole department, not Lan Wangji exclusively. And while the thought rankled, there was little he could do about it.
He studied the box closely, making a few absent notes on his tablet as his attention flitted from the lacquered wood construction to soft velvet-lined interior.
“Huh.” Wei Ying ducked closer to the box. “There’s a catch here.” He slipped a curved set of tweezers from his pocket and carefully finagled them into what looked to Lan Wangji to be nothing more than a seam in the box’s craftsmanship. He bent his wrist around until an audible click broke the silence like a pane of glass shattering on the ground.
All at once, two things happened:
The resentful energy which CA Su supposedly cleared billowed into the room in a mushroom cloud of hatred, a buzzing swarm vengeful anger whipping to lash out at everything around it;
And Wei Ying drew a talisman from his pocket with one hand while cutting his other open with the tweezers. He hurled it at Lan Wangji. It struck him in the chest and pushed him out of the lab, the doors freezing shut behind him.
“Wei Ying!” he shouted, grabbing the spent talisman paper and crumpling it in his hands. The power behind it had pushed him across the hallway and into the far wall, and by the time he’d jumped back to the shut lab doors they were sealed from the inside. The wide windows gave him a clear view of Wei Ying, dizi in hand, trying to calm the resentful energy endlessly pouring from the box.
It wasn’t working.
Tendrils of black smoke curled up and coalesced into a line of black tipped with a sharp point, and before Wei Ying could do more than play a few calming notes it stabbed into his chest, knocking him entirely off his feet and slamming him into the floor.
Lan Wangji considered the glass between himself and Wei Ying, Bichen already flying into his hand in preparation to break it. Before he could even unsheath his blade, Wei Ying stumbled to his feet on the other side and slapped a hand against the window, shaking his head frantically for Lan Wangji to stop.
He hesitated, but only because he found himself distracted by the unnatural pallor of Wei Ying’s skin.
Wei Ying spoke, but the labs were created to be sealed completely in such circumstances, and not even sound filtered out. Huffing out an obviously frustrated sigh, Wei Ying fished his phone from his pocket. Seconds later, Lan Wangji’s lit up with an incoming call.
“You can’t just break in here, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying protested immediately. Lan Wangji hoped the look on his face conveyed how utterly ridiculous he found the words. “No, listen to me, okay? The curse isn’t contained. I barely managed to stop it from killing me outright—” Lan Wangji’s hand clenched around his phone so hard that the slim case nearly cracked “—and we can’t risk it breaching containment measures. Lan Zhan. I don’t know what sort of curse it is, even. Su She didn’t include any relevant information in his initial report.” Something must have shifted in Lan Wangji’s face, because Wei Ying offered up a half-manic giggle. “Lan Zhan, you can’t kill him. But I do need you to head to the scene. I need more information, and I somehow doubt that Su She has it on hand.” More than likely he’d grabbed what he’d considered to be the most relevant piece of evidence and raced back to the lab to claim any findings as a personal victory. The investigators still on-site would have the necessary context.
"Stay on the phone with me," Lan Wangji ordered. It would give him insight as to what he might search for, considering Wei Ying would doubtless continue his examination.
He refused to budge until Wei Ying caught his gaze through the glass and nodded. "I will."
He finally swept down the hallway, barely pausing to inform Mianmian of what happened and asking her to run point on anything inaccessible Wei Ying might require while trapped in a sealed lab. He could admit, even to himself, his tone was brusque, though she jumped to assist.
"You should be nicer to her!" Wei Ying protested. "Mianmian is lovely."
"She is very capable." He set his phone in its cradle in his car, easily switching to hands-free.
"Did you know she's the reason I applied to GBC?"
The scene was not close enough to HQ for his comfort, but midday traffic proved less obnoxious than he'd feared.
"I thought my uncle?"
"Oh, he definitely had a say in it. Won't lie, I'd be wasting away in academia if he hadn't put the bug in my ear. But Mianmian reeled me in with promises of decent labs and easy access to a mass spectrometre."
The Bureau's relationship with nearby Gusu University allowed a certain amount of polite exchange between labs. He'd no doubt Wei Ying had taken shameless advantage of it.
He jerked forward when something crashed on the other side of the line. "Wei Ying?"
"It's nothing. Shaky hands." Lan Wangji's lips pursed into a thin line. Wei Ying's hands were categorically steady. "I've got the box open the rest of the way. Nasty piece of business. Just stinks of the angry dead. Wish you were here to play Inquiry so we could figure out what the fuck is going on."
"I have asked Mianmian to fetch my brother if you need someone there to play."
Wei Ying snorted. "Like I'd let anyone usurp my favourite guqin player." Lan Wangji failed to suppress a smug bubble of warmth from rising up in his throat. "Besides, whatever spirit this is, they're so angry his strings would probably snap."
His breathing was slightly ragged, Lan Wangji noted. He hated it.
By the time he reached the crime scene, Wei Ying had identified a few venues to check. A second hidden compartment yielding a yellowed photograph he'd texted over. A keyhole in the back of the box which refused to be jimmied open. One half of a best friend pendant.
"Unfortunately no helpful written instructions on what may have caused the curse, or how to undo it. Oh, there’s your brother. And Mianmian. I’m collecting an audience.”
Good. In Lan Wangji’s absence, he could trust both of them to have Wei Ying’s best interest in mind. "How are you feeling?"
"Mostly honoured that the great Hanguang-jun asked!"
"Ridiculous," Lan Wangji muttered without rancour. Wei Ying laughed at him. It buoyed him until he reached the front door of the home and was immediately assaulted by the scent of blood and the feeling of death.
Old death spoke to him in tones of musty air pervading an unused room. New death whispered as the autumn air after the leaves had fallen and begun to rot. This house filled itself to the brim with both, a rocking push threatening to send his very blood spilling from his mouth to release the poison it wanted to thread through his core.
The investigators inside—non-cultivators, as befitted a mixed crime scene—made way for him as he moved to the centre of the home. He paused to speak to one of the on-scene reps, and requested a thorough search be made for the jewelry box key. Whatever the woman might have seen in his face, she nodded and quickly took off to convey his orders.
The Bureau had been called in late, according to the cursory report Lan Wangji barely had a chance to glance at. The local constabulary had responded to the crime scene believing it to be one of lamentable domestic violence, and not realizing it was anything more until they'd stumbled across the rising corpse of the first victim. CA Su should have been capable of handling things.
Lan Wangji pulled out his guqin and seated himself with the instrument balanced across his knees.
"Wei Ying? Any line of questioning I should follow?" Silence. "Wei Ying?"
The worrying pause continued longer than was comforting. And then, "Yeah. I'm here." He sounded very much not all there. He coughed. It sounded wet. "Your usual stuff. I managed to get an array down that should push it off for a bit." He coughed again, followed shortly by the sound of spitting.
Lan Wangji commenced Inquiry, focusing on the newly dead, coaxing out details of their last moments.
He paused when Wei Ying barked out a laugh that quickly warped into another worrisome cough. "Sorry! CA Su just showed up. He's got one of those fancy coffees from the cafe a couple blocks over. Your brother looks like he's going to commit another murder."
Lan Wangji considered this. "Please encourage him to do so outside to avoid inconveniencing the janitors."
He felt a momentary stab of guilt when Wei Ying's laugh once again trailed into a hard hacking of air, but his ability to keep laughing offered some small comfort.
The new dead, two young women and their elder brother, were not the source of the resentful energy. While their deaths had been undoubtedly violent, they gratefully allowed Lan Wangji to put them to rest.
The young woman proved the most helpful. In the way of spirits, her sentences came out incomplete and choppy, but Lan Wangji had substantial experience with parsing out the wheat from the chaff. She'd told her brother the house was haunted, the very walls plaguing them all with violent, vicious nightmares from the first night they'd moved in. They'd believed her, but after all the money they'd already spent on the property, they'd decided to live with it. They allowed themselves to become used to the nightmares. Even when they'd begun accumulating odd scratches, as though someone had attacked them in their sleep, they'd dismissed it as a mild inconvenience and slapped on plasters and antiseptic.
Obviously, Lan Wangji decided, the Bureau needed to revisit the education programs offered by local schools and community centres around dealing with the disquiet dead. No haunting should have been thus ignored.
It escalated when she found the jewelry box and opened it.
The young woman dropped the key somewhere in her bedroom when the angry spirit emerged from the box and killed her.
Lan Wangji settled her to rest, packed up his guqin, and did not quite run to her bedroom. He ignored the coppery scent of dried blood, and the outlines on the floor indicating where the pieces had fallen, and pushed the bed away from where it was tucked up close to a nearby nightstand. The key lay on the floor, waiting.
He snatched it up and took off back to his car.
"I have it," he said, heart dropping to his stomach when he realized he hadn't heard Wei Ying's voice these past five minutes.
"...good," Wei Ying whispered. "Hey. Uh. Can you pick up A-Yuan today?"
"Sorry, we just… we don't have anyone else. ‘S my fault. And you're good. You're so good to us, Lan Zhan." He wheezed out a breath. "We like you so much."
He found he could no longer bear the idea of silence. "Tell me about the curse, Wei Ying. Everything. In detail."
Wei Ying's voice grew increasingly choked as he detailed the effects it had on his body with clinical precision. Most curses could be removed with proper treatment and care. This one stemmed from a much more sinister branch of dark cultivation, and would likely resist the traditional methods of removal.
"...In summary, maybe drive a bit faster."
Lan Wangji pressed harder on the gas, and managed to overcome years of safe driving habit by running three red lights.
Wei Ying stopped talking as he sailed through the second intersection.
The sound of his phone clattering to the floor, followed by a hard thump, accompanied the third.
Lan Wangji tore into the building, taking the stairs down to the lab so quickly he might as well have dropped down the middle of the stairwell. People clustered outside the entrance to Wei Ying's lab, now including his uncle and several other agents. The room had to remain sealed until the danger was dissipated, he knew, and tried to focus his attention on the fact that he now hopefully had the means of doing so instead of the fact that Wei Ying was no longer visible through the glass.
Shufu noticed him first. “Paramedics are en route,” he said quietly.
“Xichen,” Lan Wangji said as he strode forward. His brother nodded and used a not-insubstantial amount of spiritual power to break the seal. The resentful energy immediately tried to escape into the hallway, stopped only by the joint power of Xichen and Lan Qiren as they drew their xiaos and began weaving a melody of containment.
Lan Wangji entered the room, and his traitorous gaze immediately sought out Wei Ying, unconscious on the floor, blood pooled around his head, either from coughing the poisoned blood from his system or striking his temple on the way down. He ached to go to him.
Instead he approached the jewelry box and shoved the key into the hole in the back Wei Ying’s tampering had revealed behind a sliding panel. The small drawer opened with a click and slid out, revealing a crumpled piece of talisman paper seething was barely constrained hatred.
He furiously drew up his own array, layering it over the ones Wei Ying had inscribed on the table. He recognized each attempt from Wei Ying’s description over the phone: one to identify the resentful energy, three separate attempts to suppress or dispel it, one he did not recognize at all but had undoubtedly stemmed from a moment of brilliance. He wove his own in and around the lines, trusting Wei Ying’s grasp on them to guide his hand until the array was completed, the crumpled paper sitting in the middle.
He spent one terrible moment taking a picture of the insidious design filling the paper, both for the casefile and what would undoubtedly be Wei Ying’s own interest. He then pushed as much spiritual power into the combined arrays as possible. The cursed item burned as though written on flash paper, and with a silent wail that set in his bones the resentful energy dissipated and left behind the smell of smoke and rot.
Lan Wangji dropped to Wei Ying’s side, grabbing his wrist to feel for a pulse and relieved to find one, even weakened as it was. He started to pour spiritual power into Wei Ying, half-staggered when Wei Ying’s own failed to respond. He tried again, but it didn’t seem to take. As though there was nothing for it to grasp onto.
As though Wei Ying’s golden core…
The paramedics arrived only a moment later, and Lan Wangji could do nothing except step back and allow them to work.
“Wangji,” Xichen said, appearing at his elbow. “Uncle has offered to pick up Wei Ying’s son if you’d like to accompany him to the hospital.”
Lan Wangji grabbed Xichen’s arm in silent thanks, and quickly followed after the paramedics as they loaded Wei Ying onto the stretcher and ferried him down the hallway and into the awaiting ambulance.
Wei Ying woke up halfway to the hospital with a jolt, and looked scared and confused for a few long seconds before his eyes landed on Lan Wangji and his entire body slumped.
“Let’s not do that again,” he whispered, voice presumably hoarse from the massive amounts of blood he’d coughed up.
“Agreed,” Lan Wangji said solemnly. “My uncle is collecting A-Yuan. If you’d like, they can meet us at the hospital.”
Wei Ying paled impossibly further. “No! No. He’s… he’s been in enough hospitals.” Wei Ying waved a hand around until Lan Wangji caught it in his own. “No more.”
He passed out again. Lan Wangji brushed the hair back from his clammy forehead, and held onto his hand until they arrived at the hospital and the paramedics forced them apart. Despite his fiercest glare, they refused to allow him to accompany them into the recesses of the ER, where the medical cultivator waited.
Impotent with worry and anger, Lan Wangji chose to stand in the lone corner empty of chairs, and wait.
Uncle arrived an hour later, pensive, but with tea in hand. He passed it to Lan Wangji and urged him to one of the seats nearby.
"Xichen is with A-Yuan," he offered quietly. Lan Wangji nodded. "I thought you might. Well."
Lan Qiren had 'thought he might well' many times after the death of Lan Wangji's mother. Where his father, already absent in their lives, had barely emerged from his workload to attend her funeral. Shufu had always been the one to believe ‘he might well’ and offer him what comfort he could.
“CA Su has been placed on unpaid administrative leave, pending investigation.”
It brought Lan Wangji no satisfaction, considering the much more violent way he would have dealt with the other agent had he been the one to decide. While not a violent person by nature, there were certain unforgivable trespasses he could and would not forgive. Interestingly, harm to Wei Ying had come to account for most of them.
He took a sip of tea, burned his tongue, and spoke the tremulous words he could barely believe himself. “I think the curse damaged his golden core.”
“It wasn’t the curse,” Lan Qiren answered after a long moment of uncomfortable silence. Lan Wangji’s stomach dropped away from his torso and buried itself under his feet. “He does not have one.”
No golden core.
How did Wei Ying lack a golden core?. It was inconceivable. He used a dizi as a spiritual tool. He had profound working knowledge of cultivation which would have been impossible to acquire without practical experience. There were criteria required to becoming a cultivator, even a forensic technician. How?!
"You knew," Lan Wangji said numbly. Before he could demand an explanation, a medical cultivator appeared at the entrance to the waiting room.
"Is anybody here for Wei Wuxian?" She seemed surprised when both Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren immediately stood. "Oh. He didn't think…" She schooled her face back to neutrality.
"I am his medical POA," Lan Qiren declared, to Lan Wangji's shock. "The paperwork has been sent over."
The doctor nodded and, with a cursory look towards Lan Wangji, continued, "Wei Wuxian is still unconscious, but requires attention to address the damage caused by the curse mark." She smiled comfortingly. "We usually don't see such extensive damage in a living subject."
The words gutted Lan Wangji, but Lan Qiren appeared unphased. "What do you need from us?"
"There are a few courses of treatment we can try. If you could sign off on the alternates in case he is unresponsive, we can proceed."
Once the necessary forms had been signed, and the doctor returned to the back, Lan Wangji remained frozen in place.
"Come and sit." Quiet grief rested within the quiet rumble of his voice. "I will not tell you. He may, if you ask. I trust you will not push."
"No," Lan Wangji agreed. He would not. Would Wei Ying trust him enough to share such a thing? Did he still have cause to doubt Lan Wangji's regard for him?
Though it had been slow to thrive, he thought it to be obvious by now. He rarely spent time with anyone outside of work besides his uncle and brother. His natural reservation, a holdover from childhood where his father undoubtedly would have preferred not to see him at all, did not lend itself towards effusive shows of affection. If he needed to embrace discomfort in order for Wei Ying to see what he meant to Lan Wangji, he would find a way.
Time crawled by with not a whisper of news as patients came and went. Lan Wangji tried and failed to meditate on the value of patience, though he refused to pace. Eventually, his uncle had to return to the office, leaving Lan Wangji alone with his thoughts.
The doctor emerged a scant five hours later. Lan Wangji jumped up at the sight of her.
"I was able to remove the curse mark, and alleviated the majority of the damage. He's still unconscious, but we've moved him to recovery if you want to see him."
Lan Wangji nodded, still not trusting himself to speak. He followed her through winding corridors and up two flights of stairs until they emerged in a brightly lit hallway, Wei Ying's room settled at the end of it.
He hesitated outside the door before remembering the silent vow he had made to himself and making his way inside. The small room overlooked the back courtyard, and the last of the grey evening light filtered through the windows, the only light in the room since no one had turned on the overhead halogens. Wei Ying slept on the lone bed, still pale and beautifully alive.
Lan Wangji took the seat beside the bed and gently folded his hand around Wei Ying's, holding on as tightly as he dared.
When he woke, Lan Wangji decided, he would tell Wei Ying how he felt.
Wei Ying did not wake up.
Visiting hours ended, and a very kind nurse showed Lan Wangji to the door with every assurance they would call the moment he stirred. Lan Wangji walked back to the office to collect his car, hoping the cool evening air might calm his mind. In vain, his thoughts were still racing once he made it back to the office and into the garage to collect his car. Nor did they calm on the way back to Cloud Recesses.
In fact, they remained in turmoil until he entered his home to the sound of quiet voices.
Shufu, Xichen, and A-Yuan waited for him in the small sitting area. A-Yuan read aloud from a beginner's book, brightly coloured with pictures of cartoon animals on the front which looked vaguely familiar from the posters he had shown off in his rooms. Lan Wangji found himself violently grateful that they'd brought the boy here, where he could watch over him, though he hadn't even considered it until he had arrived.
"Zhan-gege," A-Yuan said with a shadow of his usual brightness, looking up from his book when he noticed Lan Wangji hovering at the entrance.
"Hello," he said quietly. He crossed the room and folded himself to the floor next to A-Yuan. "Do you have questions?" He had been filled with questions at the time of his mother's death, desperate for an adult to make sense of the sudden chaos in the world around him. His uncle had come closest to managing, but he had been struggling with balancing work, his own grief, and the sudden presence of two young children in his life. Eventually, questions dried up along with most other words Lan Wangji cared to speak. Lan Wangji would answer every question A-Yuan could think of until there was nothing unknown left of which to be afraid.
Rather than rattle off a million questions immediately, A-Yuan took a moment to think. He's been in too many hospitals, Wei Ying had said.
"Sometimes Xian-gege has nightmares. He's told me, when I wake up because of scary dreams," A-Yuan whispered, eyes fixed downwards, as though he had betrayed a confidence. Lan Wangji nodded encouragingly. "Will there be someone there if he wakes up?"
"The doctors and nurses will all take very good care of him," Lan Wangji promised.
A-Yuan leaned against Lan Wangji's side, and Lan Wangji automatically brought an arm up to pull him closer. The boy folded into Lan Wangji's embrace with sudden exhaustion, and turned his face to hide it against Lan Wangji's chest. Lan Wangji held on as tightly as he dared until the telltale warm dampness of tears began soaking in the front of his clothing.
He asked no more questions, possibly because he fell asleep before he could. The silence of his tears felt heartbreaking. Wei Ying could never be the sort of father who hushed a child's crying, and Lan Wangji's stomach churned uncomfortably that A-Yuan might have had to learn the behaviour from others.
He effortlessly lifted him and carried him to the guest room. Someone, probably Shufu, had thoughtfully made the bed afresh, and Lan Wangji eased A-Yuan into it.
He left the door open in case A-Yuan woke and called for him—Wei Ying always described him as a deep sleeper, but his comment about nightmares was telling—and trudged back to the sitting room.
Shufu had gone, leaving only Xichen and his infinite, loving patience.
Lan Wangji did not slouch. Tension wound his body too stiffly to do anything save alight with unimpeachable posture and stare at the nearby wall as though he might find answers on the neatly organized bookshelf.
"Do you want to talk about Wei Wuxian?" Xichen asked gently. Lan Wangji shook his head. "Would you like me to talk about the case? CT Luo and I took over." That, at least, was good news. He could think of no two more competent investigators.
(Save Wei Ying and himself).
"I've looked at the picture you took." Sent his way during the countless hours of waiting. "I've managed to identify bits and pieces of the talisman, though in the absence of Wei Wuxian it's undoubtedly taken longer than it might have with his expertise."
In the absence of Wei Wuxian. The words hit with more force than a tidal wave and robbed him of his breath, until he manually reminded himself to take an unsteady gulp of air.
"It's old. CT Luo only dated the box itself to the last decade, but the talisman could have been significantly older. Unfortunately, and not that I think this is a failing on your part, it's impossible to say with the paper destroyed."
Lan Wangji refused to feel the smallest stirring of guilt. It had been killing Wei Ying.
"But the paper itself doesn't appear to be out of the ordinary. CT Luo believes it may even be so recent that she recognized the brand."
"Then when you say it's old, you mean the style of the talisman, rather than the talisman itself."
Wei Ying would know. Because he had mastered forensic talisman analysis along with making forays into research on resentful energy. Because he specialized in such heterodoxy. Because he lacked the golden core necessary for orthodox cultivation.
Exhaustion wrung the tension out of him until he slumped awkwardly over.
Xichen refused to laugh at him, not even in the silent way into which his amusement often retreated when at the expense of others. Instead, he crossed to Lan Wangji's side and gently eased him to standing and helped him towards his own bed.
"Wei Wuxian is a strong cultivator, Wangji. I know he'll be alright."
And the thing of it truly was: Wei Ying exceeded the definition of 'strong' in ways that baffled Lan Wangji, and he had only discovered it because of CA Su’s incompetence.
Lan Wangji gripped Xichen's wrist for a moment and squeezed. Xichen nodded and made his way back out of the room. Lan Wangji listened, but did not hear the front door. If Xichen planned to stay the night, with A-Yuan in the second room, he would have to spend it on the couch. And while Lan Wangji thought of returning to the sitting room and forcing his brother to take the bed, the sheer thought of the necessary effort to achieve such a thing almost made him weep.
Instead, graceless and half-dressed, Lan Wangji collapsed onto the bed and slipped into restless dreams.
A-Yuan appeared in the kitchen early the next morning, a silent ghost of himself, and cuddled immediately into Lan Wangji's side. He’d spent the night tossing and turning, and Lan Wangji had been drawn from bed at least a half-dozen times to reassure him. Neither of them looked at their best, though Lan Wangji had done his utmost to compose himself as though it were a typical day instead of one beset by exhaustion and emotional demands he barely felt human enough to address.
Xichen must have left earlier; there was no sign of him in the front room, and it was a full hour past their usual rising time. Lan Wangji had never been on his own with A-Yuan before. Instead of finding the prospect to be intimidating, it warmed him through his exhaustion.
"Do you want to go to school today?" Lan Wangji asked him quietly.
A-Yuan whispered a tremulous, "no" and Lan Wangji nodded to himself. School had been a welcome retreat for Xichen, where he had been able to throw himself both into schoolwork and the arms of his friends. It had been a prison for Lan Wangji, when all he had wanted was to build his own escape.
“Your Xian-gege has said he would prefer you not come to the hospital.”
A-Yuan’s lower lip trembled, but he nodded with understanding. “Don’t like hospitals,” he admitted, as though it was something of which to be ashamed.
“Once he wakes up, then, I may ask my brother to watch over you so I can visit Xian-gege and make sure he has everything he needs.”
Immediate relief eased the tense rigidity from A-Yuan’s shoulders. “Thank you.” Lan Wangji’s heart ached. “I like gardens. Xian-gege told me he grew me in a hospital garden.”
“Did he?” Lan Wangji asked quietly.
“He said he planted me when he got sick, and by the time he was better I was ready to take home.” A-Yuan smiled, showing off a gap between two of his bottom teeth. “It’s a nice story, but I know I was grown in a lady’s tummy.”
“Her womb,” Lan Wangji corrected gently. A-Yuan pondered the word for a few moments as Lan Wangji moved about the small kitchen to prepare breakfast.
Before he could do more than give his pantry a cursory once-over, a knock summoned him to the front of the house. A-Yuan shadowed his steps, not-quite clinging to his leg when Lan Wangji opened the door and found his uncle on his front step.
“Wei Ying is awake,” he said without preamble or even a cursory greeting. “I will take A-Yuan back to my home, if that is acceptable, and you may go see him.”
Lan Wangji looked down at A-Yuan, and the boy nodded bravely.
An hour later, he walked into Wei Ying’s room, relief punching through his stomach and cracking against his lungs when the other man met his eyes.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispered. He still looked ghastly pale.
In a moment, Lan Wangji went from relieved to furious to bereft. While he doubted any of it reflected in his expression, Wei Ying nevertheless read it all at once. He struggled to adjust himself against the elevated back of his bed, and Lan Wangji swept in to assist him. The limited effort had him sweating by the time he was finally upright.
“Prognosis?” he asked once Wei Ying looked more comfortable. He helped prop a pillow behind his shoulders, which Wei Ying immediately squirmed against.
“Limited damage,” Wei Ying said through a plastic smile. “I probably could’ve gone home yesterday, but you know doctors…”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji admonished as gently as he could. The words still landed like a blow. Wei Ying shuddered, but when Lan Wangji tried to pull away he grabbed hold of Lan Wangji’s wrist and held on tight.
“It meant a lot to me that you stayed on the line,” he whispered. His eyes remained downcast, but his grip on Lan Wangji tightened. “A-Yuan…?”
“With my uncle. I wanted to respect your wishes he be kept out of the hospital.”
Wei Ying took a steadying breath. “I know you’re not the type of person to ask, Lan Zhan. You can. I want you to. Sometimes… sometimes questions are easier than me shooting my mouth off and hoping something lands properly.”
Truth was an ocean, and Lan Wangji understood the comfort in disappearing beneath waves of direct questions, the swell and ebb of information as he parsed what needed to be said and responded with exact truth. He wanted better for Wei Ying than drowning in half answers and the frigidity of yes and no.
"Whatever Wei Ying wants to tell me, I will listen."
"Ugh, no fair Lan Zhan. What if I don't want to tell you anything?"
"Then say nothing."
Wei Ying froze and then rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, narrowly avoiding dislodging the heart rate monitor from his finger. "Sorry, sorry. I just. I guess I'm more used to yelling."
Lan Wangji's eyes narrowed. No one should be demanding confidences from Wei Ying if he felt unwilling to share. Anyone who might was highly unworthy of his time and affection.
"You really are too good, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying grabbed his hand and held it, much as Lan Wangji had done himself the night before. At least now Wei Ying's hands were warm. "You must know, now. About my core?"
"Only in that it is absent."
"'Absent,' he says." Wei Ying lifted his hand to rub his nose, realized their fingers were still interlocked, and eased them downwards.
"Prior to my uncle's retirement from the field, he encountered a vengeful spirit who had died due to the fault of incompetent cultivators. In death, he swore he would scour them from the earth. Prior to Shufu being assigned to the case, three CAs were all seriously harmed or killed, and all of them stripped of their golden cores when the spirit possessed them and burned them from their bodies." He kept his description clinical and unaffected. The case file had been a harrowing ordeal, even from an outsider’s perspective. "It almost did the same to Shufu, though he overpowered it before it could do permanent damage."
"I always wondered how he knew," Wei Ying admitted. He shifted and the pillow behind his shoulders slid down to the small of his back. He sat forward instead of bothering to correct it. "You're always cold without a core. Like your body forgets how to regulate its own temperature. I was wearing sweaters even though we were in the summer session and they'd tucked his seminar into the oldest building with no fans or A/C. I didn't even think about it. But one day, while we were arguing, he rounded on me and told me that someone without a golden core couldn't be expected to appreciate the nuances of cultivation."
Lan Wangji made every effort to remain still, when all he wanted was to storm out of the hospital and demand his uncle account for himself.
"Don't look like that, Lan Zhan. I told you he hated me. Probably for good reason. I wasn't in a good place. I wanted someone to fight with, and he was the only one who would oblige. I think he was more surprised than I was when he said that. Like he couldn't conceive of a student driving him to actual anger. That's what it took for the two of us to figure our shit out, though. He dragged me to his office, I cried all over him and the next day we started cobbling together my thesis."
"You forgive too easily," Lan Wangji grumbled.
"Let's just say that I've seen a lot of ugliness caused by grudges. I'd rather forgive and forget than carry around that sort of hate." His fingers tightened and then relaxed against Lan Wangji's.
He had also, Lan Wangji noted, almost successfully distracted them both from the point of the conversation. Did he need Lan Wangji to ask in order to finally unburden himself of the truth? Or did the distraction mean he truly could not bring himself to share?
Wei Ying continued unprompted, "It wasn't a spirit. Or a curse. It was a voluntary choice on my part to have it removed and donated to someone else who needed it. Someone who couldn't have survived without it. I lost them anyway, but at least I know they're alive."
"How?" Lan Wangji demanded.
"No." Wei Ying froze, and Lan Wangji realized he had never spoken so forcefully in the other man's presence. Or perhaps ever. "How could you have sacrificed so much for someone who did not fight to keep you?"
Wei Ying blinked, and in his eyes Lan Wangji saw a hundred denials and self-recriminations and deprecations against his own worth. "Lan Zhan—"
Before he could say anything more, Lan Wangji surged forward and pressed his lips to Wei Ying's. He slipped a hand from Wei Ying's overly tight hold and cupped Wei Ying's cheek, caressing the soft skin with the pad of his thumb and felt Wei Ying trembling.
He hadn't planned on it. Not with Wei Ying vulnerable in a hospital bed. But he knew the next words from Wei Ying's lips would have dripped with poison and scorn for himself, and Lan Wangji could not allow such a thing to pass.
He pulled away again almost immediately. For all he wanted to lose himself, he had bestowed his affection without permission or invitation, and refused to press the point he hoped he'd made. Should Wei Ying prove receptive, he would apply himself to the task of reinforcing it as often as possible.
Wei Ying, stunned, stared at him with wide eyes. Lan Wangji caught his gaze. Held it with his own. Wei Ying never experienced the trouble so many others did in reading Lan Wangji's want of expression. He prayed this would be no different.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying finally murmured. "Really?"
"Yes. Forever, Wei Ying."
"Forever," Wei Ying repeated. His smile set his face aglow. "Do you think that will be long enough?"
"It's an acceptable beginning."
A doctor, this time a slightly wizened medical cultivator with an air not dissimilar to an attentive grandmother, reviewed Wei Ying's progress and deemed him suitable for discharge late that afternoon. Fortunately, with the curse mitigated, the worst of the remaining injuries seemed to be the bruise on his temple from where he’d hit his head on the corner of the table after losing consciousness. She recommended light duty for a week to ensure his full recovery. While Wei Ying nodded along, Lan Wangji could already tell he planned to ignore the advice, and made a mental note to ensure that their suggestions were dutifully followed.
“I’ll be able to pick A-Yuan up from school,” Wei Ying sighed with relief once she’d left the room.
"From Uncle. He did not attend school today," Lan Wangji said. “And we will pick him up."
A small, pleased smile tugged at the corners of Wei Ying’s lips. Lan Wangji fought down the urge to push his thumb against it to feel the shape of it against his own skin.
Contrary to Lan Wangji’s word, Lan Qiren and A-Yuan met them at Wei Ying’s apartment building. He and the young boy were having an intense conversation on the bench outside the front door, which only paused when Wei Ying emerged from the passenger’s side of Lan Wangji’s car.
“Baba!” A-Yuan called with a grin which immediately faded into worry. Wei Ying seemed to trip over the word as though it had landed a punch to his solar plexus. “You’re allowed to be out of the hospital?”
“I’m doing much better, radish,” Wei Ying promised. He bowed to Lan Qiren. “Would you like to join us for dinner? Lan Zhan said he’d cook, so it’ll definitely be edible.”
Lan Qiren favoured Lan Wangji with a look that foretold a lengthy discussion on the horizon. “Not tonight, thank you. I assume you have plans to ignore the doctors’ orders?”
“Because I should hate to have to place you on mandatory medical leave. Fully paid. Where you will undoubtedly quickly become bored at home and find ways to further alienate the academic community.” Lan Wangji honestly couldn't say whether his uncle was trying to encourage or discourage that course of action.
Wei Ying scratched his nose, though he smiled into his palm as he did. “Alienate is such a strong word.”
Lan Qiren glared. Wei Ying ignored his glare. Lan Wangji turned his attention to A-Yuan and asked if they had noodles in the kitchen or if more groceries were required.
He and A-Yuan ended up in the small shop down the street, collecting everything they needed for a relatively healthy dinner which didn't consist of take away or anything requiring a microwave. More than once, as A-Yuan eyed a particular treat which Lan Wangji quickly placed in the basket, he wondered about Wei Ying's words about hospitals. A-Yuan always struck him as a bright, lively young man, and he hoped that the impression hadn't coloured his assumptions with regards to his abilities. Not a discussion to have with a six-year-old, perhaps, without careful scripting or preparation, but he did wonder.
Shufu was gone once they returned to the flat and found Wei Ying sacked out on the couch, unconscious but peacefully so. He didn't wake through dinner preparation, or afterwards when Lan Wangji sat down to review A-Yuan's spelling words. And while Lan Wangji would usually never presume to make himself at home in another person's living space, he refused to leave them both unattended for the evening. Wei Ying was no random coworker in need of solitude, and while Lan Wangji knew himself well enough to know he probably would have left but for A-Yuan, he had a convenient excuse to stay.
He assisted A-Yuan with his bedtime routine, and then found a hastily-folded knit blanket in a nearby closet and tucked it over Wei Ying.
While he found himself confident his uncle had succeeded in bullying Wei Ying into resting the next few days, he had no excuse for himself. Quite aware of both the need for a decent night's rest and the incredible impropriety, he made up Wei Ying's bed with the spare sheets he found in the linen closet, and settled himself in for the evening.
Halfway through the night, he half-woke to the feeling of the bed adjusting around him. A hand smoothed through his hair, and a soft voice whispered calm words to ease him back to sleep.
He dreamt of Wei Ying.
Lan Wangji suspected the next few days would prove more challenging than they ended up being, if only because Wei Ying struck him as being a man disinclined towards rest. He woke early the morning after, Wei Ying tucked in his arms still deep asleep. He didn’t so much as twitch as Lan Wangji slid out of his bed and made a quick trip home to collect enough clothing to last him the week. He returned before either A-Yuan or Wei Ying woke, and set himself to making breakfast.
(He also silenced Wei Ying’s phone before his alarm could wake him, took A-Yuan to school and let the office staff know that either himself, Xichen or his uncle would be picking the boy up through the remainder of the week.)
Wei Ying roused himself from bed midmorning, and squinted at Lan Wangji when he spotted him working at his table. He still moved more slowly than Lan Wangji would have preferred, dropping into place beside him as though remaining standing proved much too difficult to bear. Lan Wangji slid his mostly-full teacup along the table to him, which Wei Ying regarded with a pout.
“The caffeine is detrimental to your circadian rhythms.”
“So is napping, but I doubt you’ll let me get away with, you know, not.”
“If you stay awake for the entire afternoon, I will personally make you coffee tomorrow morning. As much as you want.”
Wei Ying lasted until just after lunch, whereupon he passed out leaning against Lan Wangji’s side, critiquing his reply email to Jin Guangyao, who still hadn’t forwarded the transcripts which had seemed so crucial only a few days ago, and now seemed frivolous in comparison to every other consideration.
He woke shortly after Lan Wangji returned home from picking up A-Yuan and setting him in front of the television with a nutritious snack and a few colouring sheets.
“Yeah, all right, tea it is,” he murmured in a sleep-wrecked voice. “I’ll make dinner.”
“You will not,” Lan Wangji stated, pushing him down next to A-Yuan. Wei Ying toppled over as though his bones were made of cotton and slung an arm around A-Yuan, who leaned back against him with a small sigh of contentment.
“Xian-gege,” he whispered, half an hour later, “Is it okay if I call you ‘baba’ from now on?”
“Ah, radish, only if it makes you happy. I’ll love you no matter what.”
A-Yuan repeated the word a few more times under his breath, every iteration tensing Wei Ying’s shoulders incrementally until they were practically hanging from his ears.
“I might still call you Xian-gege sometimes, if I forget. But I think I would like to.”
“I’d like that, too.”
A-Yuan twisted around and wrapped his arms tightly around Wei Ying’s neck, choking his breath but earning a more brilliant smile than even Lan Wangji’s imagination had ever been able to conjure.
The next morning, powered by decaffeinated tea, acute boredom, and deep irritation, Wei Ying wrote an entire abstract refuting a recently-published article in Advances of Modern Cultivation which postulated that talisman use was inherently inferior to traditional methods of cultivation. Lan Wangji managed to finagle a read-over prior to submission, and narrowly avoided a potential academic catastrophe by changing the phrase ‘grossly incompetent and willfully ignorant of advances made in [his] lifetime’ to ‘unfortunately misinformed.’
(Wei Ying held strong opinions about academic stagnation. Lan Wangji was beginning to realize it was one of many things about which he loved Wei Ying).
The third day of his recovery, Lan Wangji reluctantly left him with a premade lunch and headed back into the office.
The news he received upon arriving was not optimal.
"Terminated? He should be brought up on charges of negligence," Lan Wangji stated coolly when his uncle imparted the news regarding CA Su’s future with the department.
Shufu sighed. "I agree, but I am not going to drag the Bureau through unnecessary litigation."
Lan Wangji did not snort. Such a thing, especially in front of his uncle, would be an unforgivable breach of professionalism and decorum. He hoped his eyes conveyed the sentiment nonetheless.
"This is not to be shared," Lan Qiren reminded him unnecessarily. "Considering we terminated with cause, he will not be receiving any sort of package or reference. He will likely never work as a cultivator again. Consider that to be punishment enough."
The only reason it could be called punishment enough is because when Lan Wangji woke up the morning after the incident, he'd enjoyed the sight of Wei Ying tucked into his arms, having crawled back into bed the night before. Even the sight of Wei Ying's face peaceful and slack with sleep, however, barely compensated for the incompetence that had sent him into the hospital in the first place.
Lan Qiren did not sigh at the mulish cast to Lan Wangji’s jaw. His uncle had never been the type to sigh. He did, however, provide Lan Wangji with a stack of CA Su's former cases to review for any signs of additional negligence, which was more than sigh enough.
“These are convenience copies, and can probably be reviewed outside of the office without a breach of records management protocol,” Shufu said, “Should you wish to work off-site for the remainder of the week.”
Lan Wangji directly met his eyes. “Thank you.”
“Make sure not to tell him that Yao Bang has published another paper which is in desperate need of refutation.”
“Wasn’t Professor Yao at Yunmeng University at the same time as yourself?” Lan Wangji questioned.
“He is indeed an esteemed colleague.”
A few years ago, there had been a rodent problem in the building due to careless renovations rendering their lower levels accessible to furry intruders. Shufu had described the pests with the same tone.
“I will inform him.”
Shufu huffed, “Make sure he doesn’t overtax himself” Lan Qiren then directed the entirety of his attention back to his laptop.
Lan Wangji doubted that taking down an uneducated opinion could ‘overtax’ Wei Ying; he seemed to find such things relaxing.
He returned to Wei Ying’s apartment to find him with four open programs dividing the screen on his laptop, and ignoring them all in favour of watching one of A-Yuan’s cartoons chirping merrily away on the television. This episode, which Lan Wangji felt confident he had seen at least two other times in recent memory, involved protecting the ocean.
“I think the starfish might be a metaphor,” he said absently when Lan Wangji walked in. He blinked and craned his neck backwards. “Wait, what time is it? Should I be off to pick up A-Yuan?”
“Not yet,” Lan Wangji assured him. “I am working here today.” He declined to mention his review of Su She’s cases; he suspected Wei Ying would be suitably enraged with arguing against his fellow academics without needing to look at any past cases.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said after a few moments of comfortable silence, the credits only now beginning to roll on the television program.
“You kissed me in the hospital.”
Lan Wangji closed his laptop. “I did.”
Wei Ying nodded, mostly to himself, lips pulled over his teeth. “I love you immensely.”
“Love you too.”
“I’m feeling well enough to kiss you again. And—”
He didn’t get to whatever constituted ‘and’ as Lan Wangji reached over and grabbed him, broad hands stretching over Wei Ying’s hips and hauling him across his lap in order to kiss him again. Wei Ying tasted like everything Lan Wangji never knew he wanted; freedom to speak his mind and send petty emails. A home and family vastly different than the controlled, if loving, household of his youth.
“And, Lan Zhan, I want… I want to… please… I…”
“Anything,” Lan Wangji promised without hesitation.
Well, some hesitation. The thought of doing anything on the couch where A-Yuan spent time watching his favourite cartoons—which had rolled into the next episode, all about the life cycle of amphibians—had zero appeal. Lan Wangji took initiative and hoisted Wei Ying up into his arms, earning himself an outraged laugh and another desperate kiss.
“I love you,” Wei Ying whispered against his mouth, lips dragging up Lan Wangji’s chin until he could press a relatively innocent kiss to the tip of his nose. “Fuck I love you so much.”
Lan Wangji hissed and stumbled, barely catching them against the wall and only barely managing to brace himself with his forearm before Wei Ying’s skull cracked against the plaster. Wei Ying laughed again with unhinged joy.
“I loved you from the second you came to yell at me about your stupid report,” Wei Ying told him. “You were so beautiful and such an asshole, fuck.”
He wanted to scream, and tell Wei Ying that no one had ever annoyed him the same way Wei Ying had. Instead, he bit down on the tender spot between Wei Ying’s ear and his neck, the barest brush of his jawbone catching against the scrape of Lan Wangji’s teeth and earning a hard groan in response. Lan Wangji wanted all of Wei Ying’s noises, and bit into his mouth before swiping his tongue against his lower lip and relishing the jerk of Wei Ying’s hips in response.
“Yeah, yeah, right…”
Lan Wangji bit him again, harder, and Wei Ying moaned.
They barely made it to the bedroom, rutting against one another as Lan Wangji lost his footing and tumbled them both to the floor, wild giggles hanging in condensation trails through the air behind them. Wei Ying hit the carpet first, and stared up at Lan Wangji, cupping his cheek in his palm. He pressed a kiss to Lan Wangji’s chin with infinite tenderness, barely a ghost of lips against skin before his mouth opened and he swallowed another desperate kiss.
With a hard roll of his hips, Lan Wangji earned himself another painfully arousing whine, and caught it in his mouth, holding it against his tongue and relishing the taste of Wei Ying’s want. Wei Ying gasped small twitches of breath out of his chest until Lan Wangji trailed his mouth down his neck and bit hard at his shoulder and Wei Ying came with a long, shuddering gasp.
Wei Ying’s hips jerked through an aftershock, much to Lan Wangji’s smug satisfaction, and he mouthed at Lan Wangji’s neck blindly, lips against Lan Wangji’s pulse. He sucked without intention, as if not looking to mark Lan Wangji, but just to taste his skin.
“You are so good, Lan Zhan,” he finally whispered. “Stay here with me.”
Lan Wangji pressed the word ‘always’ into Wei Ying’s skin as though he could brand him with the force of the affection burning through his veins.
“I’m going to catch my breath, and then get my mouth on you, and then you’ll be sorry for the way you’ve treated me,” Wei Ying told him.
Lan Wangji laved his tongue against the mark he’d left on Wei Ying’s neck. “I am going to wreck you.” A promise. A vow. Not even the most substantial of which he wanted to offer.
Later he’d find the energy to haul Wei Ying onto the bed and press more vows into his skin, bright and beautiful, losing himself in the touch of Wei Ying’s hot hands moving against him. For now, the floor offered enough comfort, and he sank his weight down against Wei Ying, panting against him and relishing the feel of Wei Ying’s heartbeat against his chest.
“You might as well have just titled it ‘Fuck You, Yao Bang’ and given up the pretense,” Mianmian said, looking at the article open on the table before her.
“Lan Zhan said they probably wouldn’t publish if I used that title,” Wei Ying said into his coffee.
Lan Wangji shrugged; or, rather, he hoped he conveyed as such with the small twitch of his left shoulder. The truth wasn’t far off. Neither was the eventual title he’d landed on: ‘Disputing the Relevance of an Uncritical Approach to Orthodoxy in a Post-Modern Cultivation World’ pretty much said the same thing. The journal itself hesitated to publish it at first, until Lan Qiren had offered to coauthor it and supported Wei Ying’s assertions.
“If you end up presenting this in person, he’s going to fight you,” Mianmian said.
“Lan Zhan will protect me,” Wei Ying stated with the utmost confidence.
Lan Wangji nodded, “Always,” set to defend him from tweedy old men who refused to innovate.
(Fortunately, such people happened to be easily fought).
The word itself made Wei Ying blush, and Mianmian shook her head in exaggerated despair. She swiped Wei Ying’s mostly-full coffee mug and flicked his forehead when he protested the theft.
“Come on. The University has agreed to let us use the mass spec to run trace on that shroud CA Zhou brought in last week.”
Wei Ying brightened and jumped to his feet, trailing her out of the breakroom.
After a moment, he darted back inside and kissed Lan Wangji’s forehead. “Love you.”
He disappeared before Lan Wangji could respond. It was all right, though; he’d have plenty of time to tell him.