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The last rays of a dying day glare through the slits between skyscrapers, piercing through fluttering eyelids. He shuts his eyes tighter, a frown creasing the skin between his eyebrows; but the very much needed sleep keeps refusing to arrive— instead a hand tugs at the wire of his earphones, pulling music he wasn’t listening to out of his ears. In the end though, it’s not the warm weight shifting on his lap what prompts him to open his eyes as much as it is the whine that pierces through the clattering, a grim preface of a scene Wei Wuxian would like to not make in the train.

He looks down at the toddler in his arms, who smiles in response to Wei Wuxian's pout as he pries the wire out of chubby, sticky fingers.

“Hey, don’t cry now, you just had your favourite juice,” he whispers, softly flicking the child’s forehead. “Did you drink it with your hands?” Wei Wuxian’s frown deepens; the empty box has been discarded on the vacant seat next to him, but the stain darkening his red hoodie is enough to prove he placed way too much trust in a two-year-old.

Wen Yuan says nothing as Wei Wuxian puts him aside and reaches down for the bag between his feet; he catches his tongue with his teeth as he rummages through the front pocket, until he finds the packet of wipes he now understands why Wen Qing insisted on giving him. The toddler doesn’t speak, either, while Wei Wuxian rubs the wet cloth against his hands; only when he tries to do something about his hoodie does Wen Yuan giggle a little.

Wei Wuxian glances up, but Wen Yuan’s expression is serious again, only the mischievous glint in his eyes giving him away.

“You did it on purpose, didn’t you?”

Wen Yuan remains silent until Wei Wuxian puts the wipes back in his bag; he reaches out as the young man puts his earphones back on.

As he lets the child make himself comfortable on his lap again, Wei Wuxian glances through the window, at the place he will probably spend long enough in to call it a second home— perhaps a third one.

The sun has already gone down, the last traces of the day glowing lighter in its wake. The skyscrapers are but black silhouettes now, titans that grow taller the closer the train gets to them and loom over them, reminding Wei Wuxian that he knows nothing other than the place he will sleep in tonight.

Not whether there are supermarkets close to Jiang Fengmian’s old flat, or what kind of food is adequate for Wen Yuan. He has no idea what he’ll do tomorrow, whether Nie Huaisang’s influence will be enough to get him that job or even what the position itself involves; even though he still has his adoptive father on his side, he can’t just go back if this doesn’t work out well.

Not only for his own sake.

Wei Wuxian brings Wen Yuan closer almost on instinct. If he closes his eyes, he can see the burnt corpses, the blood pooling on the concrete and the twisted, blackened iron; he can smell fire and death and hear Wen Yuan sobbing and Madam Yu’s threats to finally kick him out of the Jiang household, regardless of her husband’s objections.

No matter how loud the music is, there is only so much it can keep at bay.

Wei Wuxian nearly flinches when Wen Yuan tugs at his earphones again, irritation crawling up his spine as he looks into those wide, grey eyes.

“You better have something to say now.”

Wen Yuan’s lower lip trembles as he burrows his face in the stained hoodie, grabbing fistfuls of red fabric.

Ma,” he mutters into Wei Wuxian’s chest. “Ma… Want Ma.”

Wei Wuxian presses his lips together, a futile attempt to will the itch in the back of his throat away. It doesn’t help that he hasn’t slept in two days.

“…I know,” he mutters, lowering his head just enough to brush Wen Yuan’s hair with his lips and finding undeserved comfort in the child’s warmth. “Sorry about that, little one.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

[Friday]

Throughout all of Lan Wangji’s life, a little longer than two decades, there have been few surprises.

He has always been a good student, eager to read and learn; he can count with his fingers the times he didn’t attend school, for even his body is strict about the less inconvenient timing to fall ill. Therefore, his marks have always been nothing less than excellent, every year he was the top student in his class without much conscious effort and his music skills have stood out ever since he entered music school, at the tender age of eight and with a guqin taller than him.

He was never praised for it at home. His uncle is a strict man, not as easily impressionable as teachers and classmates. Just like his older brother, by excelling as a student and a performer Lan Wangji does nothing but what is expected to him— and unlike Lan Xichen, in his life there are no distractions he could ever use as an excuse to do anything other than perfect.

It is nothing short of predictable, then, that when he unlocks the door of the practice booth, reserved two days ago to make sure it would be available, and finds somebody already inside, he freezes for nearly an entire minute before managing to part his lips.

In Lan Wangji’s defence, the stranger acts so naturally he nearly doubts he walked in the right room— but he still has the key in his hand and the other man doesn’t even look up, only hums to himself as he assembles a black wooden dizi and brings it to his lips.

Lan Wangji finds his voice just a second before the first note cuts through the silence.

“You can’t be here.”

Finally, the stranger turns around to face him.

He looks like he just rolled out of bed, wavy hair that barely brushes his shoulders messy, tips pointing in every possible direction. For a moment, when his gaze meets Lan Wangji’s, he nearly seems to consider apologising; but soon his dark eyes glint with amusement as he smirks, as if the situation were remotely funny.

“Hey, there was nobody when I came in,” he defends himself. He makes as if bringing the dizi to his mouth again, but he halts. “But I guess the guqin didn’t came here on its own…”

Lan Wangji’s gaze strays to the zither, inevitably suspicious. It lays on the desk, in the exact position he left it in before leaving for two minutes to talk to a teacher, with no apparent damage; its case is closed, leaning against the wall next to a bag he doesn’t recognise but assumes whose it is. Yet he can’t help a wariness of sorts as he glances back at the stranger.

“You can’t be here,” he repeats. “How did you…”

“Through the window, obviously.” The man’s grin grows even wider; despite himself Lan Wangji is a bit impressed. They’re on the second floor, after all. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

He breathes in deeply, but Lan Wangji refuses to let him play. “I reserved this booth to practice.”

“Ah.” Giving up playing for now, the stranger heads for his bag, looks for something inside. “Go ahead, I don’t mind.”

Up to a minute ago, Lan Wangji wasn’t aware such a degree of shamelessness was even possible.

“I do,” he nearly hisses.

The young man’s smile dissolves into a confused frown; he rescues what looks like a crumpled score from his bag and places it on the stand in the corner. “Don’t play, then,” he suggests with a shrug.

Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow, but it doesn’t release even half the tension coiling between his gritted teeth.

“I. Reserved. This. Booth.”

The dizi finally releases a note— a high, shrill, impatient whine.

“Alright, listen.” The man turns the flute in his right hand, uses it to point at himself. “I’ll leave in twenty minutes. But I seriously need to practice a little. I have an entrance exam to pass.”

Surprise overweighs frustration, it seems— Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to refute that statement, mainly because it’s nonsense. He falls into a half-surprised, half-frustrated silence, eyes narrowing when the stranger interprets it as a victory and finally gives life to the dizi to warm up, scales and arpeggios hopping about like squirrels in spring.

Lan Wangji manages to close the door behind him and fold his arms over his chest, eyes narrowing more at every note the stranger plays. Lan Wangji is certain they have never met, but the young man has an air of inappropriateness around him that looks familiar— he seems the kind of person his uncle would disapprove of after a single glance.

And yet, much to Lan Wangji’s displeasure, he is good— his fingers dance on the dizi when he starts playing the score on the stand, quick and lively as they keep the flute balanced against his lower lip. Only the slightest frown between his eyebrows gives his mistakes away, but he doesn’t stop— he only repeats the sentence after reaching the end, slowing down nearly imperceptibly to get the wrongs right. If Lan Wangji weren’t reading the score himself, he would believe he is playing it note by note.

By the time the piece ends, Lan Wangji has, thankfully, found a proper reply.

“The entrance exam period ended in February.”

Licking his lips, the man looks back at him. Now he is definitely amused. “I know. The headmistress found me so charming she made an exception, just for me.”

Lan Wangji’s eyebrow, which had lowered back to its normal height, raises again. The headmistress is old enough to be his grandmother.

“You won’t pass.” He doesn’t say it just out of spite because he has yet to play a single piece even though it was all he had planned for the afternoon. The practical exam is just half of it— and in spite of this his astuteness, the teachers will notice it when this daring stranger ignores the score whenever he needs to conceal his mistakes.

“That’s what you think, and I don’t blame you, but you’re missing one crucial fact.”

“Am I?” Lan Wangji almost snorts at the quick nod he receives as an answer. “What fact?”

The man winks at him— so quickly Lan Wangji nearly convinces himself that he imagined it.

“That I am a genius.”

 

 


 

 

Dinners in the Lan residence have never been loud, but the tension thickening the air enough to make swallowing hard is relatively new. Lan Wangji keeps his gaze down as he eats, inwardly begging for his brother to stop trying to fill the silence with whatever comes to his mind in an attempt to soothe their uncle’s rage, because it is clearly not working.

While Lan Wangji hardly ever finds anything good or funny enough to quirk up the corners of his lips, as far as he can remember Lan Xichen has been smiling. Their mother used to say he had come into the world giggling— and Lan Wangji does know his brother isn’t that naïve, that he is just extremely good at hiding anything that troubles him behind an easy smile; but he prefers it that way. Because if Lan Xichen can’t keep up his façade— that is a good moment to panic.

Which also means Lan Qiren’s opinion on his love life doesn’t affect Lan Xichen as much as his uncle wishes it did.

Only half-listening to the summary of his brother’s day, Lan Wangji muses that it could be worse. Given their uncle’s temper, his stubborn refusal to acknowledge Lan Xichen’s existence until his relationship with Meng Yao is over is nearly something to be grateful for. Better than disowning him, anyway— and Lan Wangji wouldn’t put it past Lan Qiren.

He doesn’t particularly care about whatever his brother’s friendship with that man has turned into, either way. As long as Lan Xichen is able to smile, he supposes it’ll be fine— their uncle wouldn’t be so tolerant if it weren’t.

In the end, Lan Wangji speaks up because every word his brother says is more strained than the one before:

“Have you hired a new assistant yet?”

To his left, Lan Xichen trips over the second half of a sentence, audibly surprised. Lan Wangji shrugs a little in response to the thanks his brother mouths in the split-second Lan Qiren closes his eyes to take a sip of water.

“It’s being harder than I thought,” he admits after a short silence. “I wasn’t sure to begin with, and A-Yao and Brother Mingjue ended up argu—…”

This time, it’s the loud clang as Lan Qiren slams his glass on the table what cuts Lan Xichen off. Lan Wangji straightens himself up on instinct, but for once their uncle forgets about commenting on improper posture (perhaps because Lan Xichen’s back is hunched too); he just stands up from his seat, on Lan Wangji’s right side, and marches out of the dining room without even uttering a goodnight.

Lan Xichen half-huffs, half-snorts, toying with the barely touched vegetables in his plate.

“Come on, I just mentioned him!” he complains in a whisper. “Uncle is acting as if I had brought A-Yao right under his nose to make him watch as we—…”

“Don’t do that,” Lan Wangji warns. He’s been quite concerned over Lan Qiren’s health as of late.

“I wasn’t going to,” Lan Xichen grumbles, still not bringing any food to his mouth. “…He can’t be angry forever, can he?” Lan Wangji shoves a piece of broccoli into his mouth, chewing intentionally slowly in hopes his brother changes the topic before he has to answer. Which he does, though quite aware of the move. “By the way, did something happen today?”

Lan Wangji frowns.

“Hm?”

“Earlier, at the office, you looked as if you were considering murdering someone.”

Lan Wangji picks up a slice of carrot, but the chopsticks come to a halt before reaching his mouth.

“Someone snuck inside the booth I had reserved.”

His brother’s slow blink as he raises his eyebrows proves the anecdote is just as nonsensical as it sounds in Lan Wangji’s head.

“…What?”

“He got there through the window. On the second floor.” Lan Wangji glares at the piece of carrot as if it had ruined his practice session too.

After claiming to be a genius, the stranger used up the remaining fifteen minutes he had one-sidedly agreed to borrow the booth for, thanked Lan Wangji for his kindness (as if he had ever had any choice) and jumped out of the window to climb down the tree he had used to get to the second floor in the first place, agile and smooth like a dream.

Lan Wangji wonders if he passed the so-called extraordinary entrance exam.

He nearly hopes he doesn’t. That way he’ll stay somewhere between reality and hallucination, and Lan Wangji will not have to see him again.

 

 


 

 

[Monday]

He passed.

He passed.

Lan Wangji knows the strange guy with a liking for sneaking through windows and ruining his afternoon was accepted in his music school the second loud laughter rings in his ears, on his way to the Music Form Analysis’ classroom. By the time he spots the man in the room –sprawled on a seat next to the window, with the kind of posture that will give him atrocious backaches before he reaches thirty–, the knots in his stomach are more childish refusals to accept reality than shock.

As soon as he notices Lan Wangji, the stranger jumps to his feet, as if pulled up by an invisible spring; forgetting about the small crowd gathered around him, he reaches the entrance in a couple of strides, smiling so wide it looks painful.

“I told you,” he announces, stopping right in front of Lan Wangji. “I’m a genius.”

A couple of people laugh behind him. Lan Wangji narrows his eyes, considering the possibility that he somehow underestimated the man’s arrogance. “You were just lucky.”

“Luck is the key to success, Lan Zhan.” His smug smirk shrinks the tiniest bit. “I saw your record when I was doing the paperwork— you don’t mind, do you?”

He can’t possibly miss the shocked gasps of their classmates, but Lan Wangji neither gives him permission nor forbids him from using his birth name.

“By the way, I’m Wei Wuxian—… Wei Ying, I guess it’s fair.”

Truth is nobody has called him Lan Zhan for years now, not even his brother or his uncle; but Lan Wangji has the feeling Wei Wuxian doesn’t actually care about his opinion on the matter, so he just walks around him to leave his guqin in the corner with his classmates’ instruments and takes a seat on the first row.

“Ignoring me? Now that’s rude,” Wei Wuxian complains; but the teacher is already entering the room and their classmates are sitting down. “Anyway, thanks for letting me practice.”

Lan Wangji opens his mouth, thinks again and presses his lips back together into a thin line.

 

 


 

 

“Did another lunatic snuck into your booth?” is Lan Xichen’s greeting that night, when they gather in the dining room.

Lan Wangji refrains from replying, amusement too obvious in his brother’s voice for him to fall for it. As usual, Lan Xichen sits to his left, Lan Qiren to his right; today marks two weeks since he stopped speaking to his oldest nephew and Lan Wangji wonders how much longer he will be able to hold on before yelling at his brother again.

At this point, it’s a matter of who will give up first. For Lan Xichen, it would be as easy as lying and going back to keep their uncle in the dark; telling him about Meng Yao was never something he did out of obligation. But he won’t do that, and Lan Qiren will never change his mind even if it’s just out of sheer pride, so Lan Wangji guesses he will have to get used to this atmosphere at home, so thick it could be cut with a knife.

That is, until his brother lightly kicks his calf under the table, in both an apology and a request, and Lan Wangji remembers he promised to help.

He lets out a quiet sigh.

“No. We’re together in Analysis and Western History.” And probably in most group courses, but Lan Wangji would rather not think about that right now. “How about your assistant?”

Lan Xichen’s expression immediately lights up. “We hired one! He’s an acquaintance of Brother Mingjue’s; and I think it’s the first time in years A-Yao agrees with him, so…”

But he trails off. A heavy silence settles over the table, both brothers sitting in the most proper way as they wait for their uncle to leave the room any moment. Lan Wangji even puts his chopsticks down, not wanting to throw a mushroom away on accident.

Lan Xichen looks into his plate, pretending to examine the leaves painted around the edge as if it were a masterpiece; he can’t help the furtive glances he steals to predict the moment their uncle will explode.

“If you want to say something, don’t stop mid-sentence.” Lan Qiren’s voice cracks through the stale air, stern and irritated. He focuses on his own food, ignoring Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji’s dumbfounded stares. “Is that person competent or not?”

“I— I think so!” Lan Xichen’s smile grows uneasy; but also hopeful, real. “He’ll be on probation for a couple of weeks, but he seems quite capable of handling the job…”

Lan Wangji deems it safe to resume eating after making sure his uncle’s mood has indeed improved, nearly smiles at the relief laced with his brother’s voice.

Maybe he was wrong about his uncle, he muses, decidedly happier than he was when he arrived home.

 

 


 

 

[Tuesday]

Wei Wuxian is majoring in Traditional Music Performance, which means Lan Wangji’s worst fear since yesterday wasn’t unfounded: they are together in every group course.

Wei Wuxian is late to Harmony, which means he misses the chance to pester Lan Wangji in the few minutes until the teacher arrives; he makes up for it in the half an hour they have until their Ensemble class, following Lan Wangji around the whole building and asking questions at random while carelessly throwing an arm around his shoulders, acting hurt at the cold silence he gets as an answer every time.

“I thought we were friends!” he whines, bringing a hand to his chest to emphasise his supposed distress. “We met even before knowing we’re in the same major, in the same year, and now we have classes together. Don’t you think it has to mean something?”

For Lan Wangji, it means that he made an unforgivable mistake in a past life and is now paying for it.

“No,” is all he offers in return, relieved by the fact that at least they specialise in different instruments and Wei Wuxian can’t sit by his side to keep bothering him.

 

 


 

 

At dinner, Lan Xichen is barely able to contain his laughter.

Lan Wangji nearly regrets telling him about his hellish morning as they set the table; for his brother, he’s clearly overreacting to Wei Wuxian’s friendliness and his classmate deserves at least one chance.

Lan Wangji frowns, nearly stabs his fish out of annoyance. Wei Wuxian wasted his chance the second he decided to sneak into the booth he had reserved.

He is tempted to mention Meng Yao as soon as Lan Qiren arrives, if just to stop being the only one feeling troubled at the table; but instead he consoles himself with the thought that the only class he has tomorrow isn’t one where he has to deal with Wei Wuxian.

 

 


 

 

[Wednesday]

Today is Lan Wangji’s first Chamber Music lesson of the year. He should have started last week, but the groups were yet to be made; it’s a tough task, not only to make the class fit in every student’s schedule, but also due to the need to bring together instruments that are compatible and have wide enough a repertoire.

The lesson is on the third floor of the right wing, at the end of the corridor. Lan Wangji glances up at the plate in the door before knocking and, upon hearing a quiet come in, pushing it open and walking in.

“Lan Zhan! I can’t believe it! We’re together in Chamber Music too!”

At first Lan Wangji is convinced he heard wrong. His luck cannot be that bad, he thinks, eyes wide as he whips his head towards the source of the sound.

“Good morning.”

Wei Wuxian is propped up against the baby grand next to the window, dizi hanging from his hand; he grins what feels like a taunting smirk, his hair still as unkempt as the day they met, before Lan Wangji even knew his name.

But now Lan Wangji knows his name, and he also knows Wei Wuxian has a knack for getting under his skin with that exaggerated friendliness of his.

“…You’re here too?” Lan Wangji exhales after a short silence, at this point more defeated than angry.

“It was a luck he was accepted.” The teacher, which Lan Wangji had entirely missed since he spotted Wei Wuxian, smiles a kind smile. She is one of the youngest faculty members, barely a couple of years older than Lan Xichen. “We would have had to put you with three other guqin players again otherwise.”

Lan Wangji is tempted to ask her to swap him with any other student, to take back his request to not be in another guqin quartet for the third consecutive year; but as he glances at Wei Wuxian, who is examining the score laying on the lid of the piano, defiance rises higher than dread.

Lan Wangji refuses to let him win. And retreating is pretty much the same as a defeat. It’s only one hour and a half, after all.

Besides…

Wei Wuxian is a good performer. Infuriatingly so.

A resigned sigh brushes past Lan Wangji’s lips. “What will we be playing this semester?”

Before the teacher can answer, Wei Wuxian raises his score to show him the title.

 

 


 

 

“I didn’t notice it yesterday with everyone, but you’re really good.”

As expected, Wei Wuxian trails after Lan Wangji once the Chamber Music lesson is over. Lan Wangji quickens his pace, wanting to reach the station quickly so that his classmate gets on his own train and leaves him alone already; but he has the feeling the minutes until that happens will pass excruciatingly slow.

“Thanks,” he grunts, stopping before the crossing. Wei Wuxian seems about to cross the street regardless of the red light telling him the opposite, but he thinks twice and takes a step back to the pavement, on Lan Wangji’s right side. Supposing that withholding something he actually thinks is inappropriate, Lan Wangji adds: “You’re good too.”

“Right? The teachers were so impressed they overlooked that I didn’t do that great with theory; that’s useless anyway.”

Lan Wangji nearly regrets the compliment.

“It is not.”

“Do you really think about chords and intervals when you’re playing?” Lan Wangji glances at Wei Wuxian out of the corner of his eye, irritated, then stares ahead again, at the people waiting on the other side of the road. “Okay, maybe for polyphonic instruments it’s a bit more useful, but…”

“You need to know the structure of the sentence, regardless of what you play,” Lan Wangji interrupts. “How can you interpret properly otherwise?”

“By listening to what you’re playing?” Wei Wuxian looks genuinely confused as the stick figure in the traffic light turns green.

He falls behind Lan Wangji, out of his field of view for a couple of seconds. Lan Wangji steps aside to avoid a black Labrador guiding a blind man, but before he passes the dog a hand grabs on his elbow, not letting go until they’re on the pavement again, right when Lan Wangji is about to hiss an annoyed get off.

But Wei Wuxian is glancing down, gripping the case of his dizi so tightly his knuckles are white; and Lan Wangji has no idea what just happened but the sudden silence sets him off.

“Anyway, do you have anything to do now? I’m starving…” Wei Wuxian resumes talking as quickly as he had gone quiet. “Ah, but I can’t invite you, I need to save up. Come to think of it, you don’t look like the type to like fast food anyway. Mian-Mian said your family is rich, so you’re probably used to more elaborated food.”

Lan Wangji may not pay much attention to his classmates, but he is pretty sure there is nobody with such a name among them. It must be just Wei Wuxian calling people whatever he fancies once again.

He got one thing right, though.

“I don’t like fast food.” Or you, Lan Wangji is tempted to add. But Wei Wuxian’s ego is too big to understand how much of a pain he is.

“Your loss.” Instead of turning left, Wei Wuxian drifts to the right, shaking his hand goodbye. “See you tomorrow, Lan Zhan!”

 

 


 

 

Tonight, the seat on Lan Wangji’s left is empty.

The reason is unclear, a vague text all Lan Xichen gave as an explanation in the afternoon; still, even though Lan Wangji doesn’t quite know where his brother is, he is certain who his brother’s companion is.

“When did Xichen get so irresponsible?” Lan Qiren grumbles.

Lan Wangji doesn’t particularly miss his brother tonight; he is rather content, not being laughed at for one evening. “He said he texted you as well.”

“He did. But warning on such short notice…”

Lan Qiren lowers his voice, continues muttering about his eldest nephew’s disregard for his own family and complaining about how the table grows emptier as time passes; though it doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes. Shoulders relaxing in relief, Lan Wangji supposes his uncle’s grudge is finally losing steam, which was probably his brother’s goal.

His gaze lifts from his plate, only to land on the empty seats in front of his and his brother’s. Lan Wangji couldn’t touch the floor with his feet the last time they were occupied; in spite of the few photographs he and Lan Xichen managed to save from their uncle’s fury, his mother’s face is blurred in his memory, her clear laughter the only thing he can recall accurately— even more so than the noncommittal hums his father dodged most questions with.

Lan Wangji barely misses them, these days— but he has to agree with his uncle: tonight, the table is too wide without his brother.

 

 


 

 

[Thursday]

Nearly a week after meeting him, Lan Wangji has already more or less accepted that Wei Wuxian’s favourite pastime is testing the limits of how annoying he can be before he has to face the consequences of his action; but today the billboard he sees every day from the train catches his attention, makes him tilt his head to the side with an idea he hadn’t stopped to consider.

Am I being bullied?

The thought follows Lan Wangji to school, grows louder when Wei Wuxian arrives late, out of breath and muttering something about a tantrum over some toys before dropping himself on the seat next to Lan Wangji’s and proceeding to stare off into the distance instead of taking notes.

Of course, the calm is ephemeral. As soon as Wei Wuxian’s breathing slows down, he starts calling Lan Wangji in whispers, trying every variation of hey, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, look and failing even though the review of what was taught in Chinese Music History last year isn’t that interesting. Lan Wangji forces his gaze to not drift away from the teacher even when Wei Wuxian resorts to more drastic measures; namely, throwing paper planes in his direction.

Lan Wangji is pretty sure this counts at the very least as harassment.

He gives up when there are seventeen folded sheets on his desk; the teacher’s frown gives away he has noticed but is deliberately turning a blind eye, most likely because Lan Wangji is his best student. Lan Wangi looks down, picks a plane at random to unfold and flatten it.

There is a doodle, rather simple, of a cat and what seems a grasshopper, staring at each other; both animals are roughly the same size, and the grasshopper seems to be smiling.

Out of the corner of his eye Lan Wangji catches Wei Wuxian grinning at him, apparently very satisfied with himself.

Unfolding the other planes, Lan Wangji realises the pictures are related; they depict a story without narration or speech bubbles. More invested in the task than he should, Lan Wangji momentarily forgets about the lesson, focuses on arranging the doodles so that the tale makes sense.

A cat bumped into a grasshopper. The cat wanted to play with the grasshopper before eating it, but the grasshopper was actually more audacious, letting the predator toy with it until it saw an opening to escape. The last picture depicts the grasshopper jumping to save its life, with the cat’s claw advancing from the corner of the paper to reclaim its dinner.

Lan Wangji barely has the time to dislike such an open ending; another plane descends on his desk, right on top of the pile of doodles.

Eagerness morphs into disappointment upon unfolding it: there is no drawing, only Wei Wuxian’s messy handwriting:

 

I’m out of sheets, so please give those back. I need them to take notes.

 

There is a plea in Wei Wuxian’s expression when Lan Wangji looks at him, eyes wide and a pout so exaggerated it can’t be sincere. Lan Wangji sets the creased papers aside –on the side Wei Wuxian can’t reach– and looks ahead.

After all, Wei Wuxian still has one sheet on his desk.

 

 


 

 

Tonight, the table is a bit fuller than yesterday, though it is easy to picture the springs on Lan Qiren’s seat, the painful self-restraint he imposes on himself to not storm out of the living room when his oldest nephew walks in followed by Meng Yao, who he didn’t like even before learning he is dating Lan Xichen.

Lan Wangji now understands why his brother decided to be absent yesterday; though their uncle deigns to acknowledge Meng Yao’s presence, icy indifference is all he offers once he starts eating, the tense air nearly too thick to speak through it. Yet Lan Xichen and Meng Yao fill the silence with small talk that, while not staged, sounds so unnatural Lan Qiren’s face is reaching an ugly shade of green.

And Lan Wangji has never been one to like pointless conversations, but his brother’s posture slouches more and more with every glance he throws in Lan Qiren’s direction and their uncle pointedly avoids; so he kicks Lan Xichen’s ankle beneath the table.

“Wh—… Ah.” Lan Xichen pauses to pull himself together. “How was your day, Wangji?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widen; being willing to help out is one thing, but suddenly having the conversation be about him is too demanding a situation, and he has never been one quick to think of something worth saying aloud.

“I think the new student is bullying me,” he blurts out, words dripping hastily from his lips before he can do anything to contain them.

Lan Xichen’s smile vanishes immediately, eyebrows pushed together into a frown; next to him Meng Yao raises his head, interested. Lan Wangji can feel even his uncle’s gaze piercing into his temple, as if wanting to drill through his skull to see the truth by himself.

“What did he do?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t know much about Meng Yao: only that he is the illegitimate son of a very influential man, that he is closer to him than to his brother in age and that he has an extraordinary memory. But he remembers, when he meets the eyes focused on him, that the time Lan Xichen was expelled for three days after getting into a fight it was to defend Meng Yao from a bunch of schoolmates who had ganged up on him.

“…He’s annoying,” he mutters, because Wei Wuxian doesn’t look like the type to enjoy intimidating those weaker than him.

“Annoying how?” Meng Yao intervenes, but at the same time Lan Xichen asks:

“Did he hit you?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head immediately. He is fairly certain he would have the upper hand in that regard, were things ever to get that bad.

“Does he call you names?” Lan Xichen continues, serious, taking air in even before Lan Wangji can shake his head again. “Does he make fun of you when you make a mistake in class?”

 “I do not make mistakes,” Lan Wangi answers, offended by the mere insinuation.

Such answer brings the smile back to Lan Xichen’s lips.

“Does he speak ill of you to others?” Meng Yao asks.

Lan Wangji frowns. He has caught Wei Wuxian talking about him several times since Monday, and Wei Wuxian himself confirmed it; but the nature of every word he speaks…

“He… praises me,” Lan Wangji admits, as surprised by the revelation as the couple looking at him.

Lan Xichen and Meng Yao share a glance.

“Maybe,” the younger man starts, hesitant, “maybe he just wants to be your friend.”

Lan Wangji frowns.

Strictly speaking, his only friend is his brother. He has no way to recognise bullying from his own experience; ever since he was a child, he felt no need to get close to other people his age, nor did they ever approach him in bad faith. But other than Lan Xichen, nobody has ever, on their own volition, asked Lan Wangji to play with them.

Bullying and friendship are hard to tell apart.

Lan Xichen’s hypothesis doesn’t sound too convincing though— Wei Wuxian wanting to befriend him may explain why he is a complete pain in the neck, but Lan Wangji is at a loss for words to express the way Wei Wuxian’s smirk never fails to stir up something within him, how aggravating that moment right after Wei Wuxian smiles when the ground disappears and Lan Wangji feels like falling is.

 

 


 

 

[Friday]

This year, Lan Wangji has only individual lessons on Friday.

They are in the afternoon, so he spends the morning doing homework, studying and practising, his mood improving slightly at the realisation that today there is no way he ends up having to spend time with Wei Wuxian— at most, they will pass each other down some hallway.

But they don’t; the calm following Lan Wangji as he walks out of the building is nearly too quiet, the evening chillier than yesterday. After four days putting up with Wei Wuxian testing his patience at every chance, peace feels odd.

Instead of going to the station though, Lan Wangji heads for the city centre, to wide streets where nonetheless the sun doesn’t reach the ground between the high buildings. He walks upright, his posture flawless after years of carrying the guqin on his back as properly as the posters in his elementary school.

Lan Xichen’s business is only ten minutes away on foot; though returning home by train would be faster, Lan Wangi prefers waiting for his brother to finish his paperwork and going back in his car. He can do some homework as he waits, after all.

His destination is on one of the highest floors of a black office building; Lan Wangji hums absent-mindedly as the lift crawls up to the seventeenth floor, fingers plucking imaginary strings. Hopefully, Lan Xichen will abstain from bringing his boyfriend for dinner anytime soon and there will be no more incidents until the weekend; dealing with Wei Wuxian is inevitable, but having time to rest until then would be nice.

Lan Wangji finds the door of the establishment open, the cold light inside spilling to the dark hallway. The piece he practised in class is still playing in his mind, filling the tired silence after a long week of hard work; upon walking through the door though, the pleasant melody is interrupted by a loud voice that, eager and inconsiderate, smashes right through it:

“Lan Zhan!”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Dinner tonight is as tense as the one exactly one week ago; but unlike last Friday, today it’s not Lan Qiren who oozes hostility out of his every pore. In fact, the head of the family seems put off by the invisible wall separating his nephews. Though there are some torn drawings and purposefully snapped guqin strings among their childhood memories, especially in the hazy days when their parents were still around, they have never the kind of siblings who spend the day fighting over trivial matters.

But an unusually intense kind of indignation radiates off Lan Wangji ever since he set foot in the house; and asking Lan Xichen, only twenty-four hours after he returned his uncle’s tentative truce by bringing home the man he is fooling around with, is not an option.

Unlike other evenings though, Lan Xichen doesn’t try to start a conversation to keep the silence at bay. He has always been good at understanding his brother, and Lan Wangji has made it quite clear he does not want to even look at him during the uncomfortable trip back home.

Perhaps it is childish— perhaps Lan Wangji is truly blowing things out of proportion and he is just too attentive to every irritating trait Wei Wuxian possesses. But the fact that his brother, who doubles as his best (and only) friend, is not even considering the idea of firing his new assistant after knowing his identity is little less than an insult.

 

 


 

 

Only a week worth of unwanted training stopped Lan Wangji from freezing on the spot.

Still, as he spun on his heels to spot the source of the voice, he was partly hoping not to find him there—yet on the other side of the counter was, indeed, the most annoying classmate he had ever had.

His surprise was mirrored in Wei Wuxian’s expression; but he seemed far from displeased, with his wide smile and his bright eyes and his inability to realise how utterly inconvenient his sole presence was.

“You…” Lan Wangji glanced around; but his brother was either inside his office or had left for a meeting, so no help came. “What are you doing here?”

You can’t be here, was what he actually wanted to say, just like he had the first time he had seen Wei Wuxian, exactly one week prior.

“I work here,” Wei Wuxian answered easily. “What are you—… Ah! Oh, of course! I can’t believe I didn’t notice right away; you and Mr. Lan look really alike, now that I think about it…”

Even if they hadn’t been mistaken for twins for years, they still had the same surname. But Lan Wangji kept that bit to himself, concerned with more urgent matters.

“You’re my brother’s new assistant.” The words came out incredulous, more air than voice, with the tiny hope reality would change if he said them out loud.

“Yes! And I must say, he’s quite happy with me so far.” Wei Wuxian twirled a stray lock around the pen he was absent-mindedly toying with. “Were you at school?” he asked, pointing at the guqin.

Lan Wangji didn’t move.

“Why you?” he nearly whimpered.

“I was the only candidate the three bosses liked, apparently,” Wei Wuxian replied, oblivious to Lan Wangji’s puerile despair. “Which is a relief. I have a mouth to feed, after all!”

At that, Lan Wangji tilted his head to the side, the offhanded remark lighting up a curious flame within him even after Wei Wuxian changed the topic.

“Are you here to lend him a hand?”

It took Lan Wangji a couple of seconds to catch up and shake his head.

“Is he here?”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “He’s finishing a budget for a client, I think—… Hey, Lan Zhan! Let your brother work!”

Lan Wangji ignored him, widening his strides towards Lan Xichen’s office. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to talk to his brother or to simply escape Wei Wuxian’s presence; all he knew was that he wasn’t ready to have his new classmate intrude on so many parts of his life at once.

 

 


 

 

Much like his uncle, Lan Wangji is unable to stay angry with Lan Xichen for long, even though unlike Lan Qiren he has rightful reasons to resent him. The following days, he repeatedly interrogates his brother about Wei Wuxian, trying to find some unforgiveable flaw, something he can use to convince Lan Xichen to fire his new assistant; but it seems Wei Wuxian is not only a great dizi player, but also quite an organised secretary, able to coordinate Lan Xichen, Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue in the most efficient way to get things done and to keep the youngest and oldest partners separated as much as possible to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Plus, Wei Wuxian is polite, charismatic and awfully good at handling clients— only surpassed by Meng Yao (as Lan Xichen always makes sure to point out with badly concealed pride).

Therefore, Lan Wangji has no option but to get used to his presence in his brother’s office too, to spend a whole hour every Friday with him as he waits for Lan Xichen to finish his paperwork before driving him home. To listen as Wei Wuxian talks and talks and talks and to pretend to be focused on his homework, wishing there were a spell to sew his classmate’s lips shut for five minutes.

He isn’t sure what he prefers— on Fridays Wei Wuxian has nobody else to annoy, but the rest of the days he surrounds himself with most of their classmates, shamelessly flirts at every chance; it is nothing short of predictable that his reputation soon revolves around his charming nature, attracting girls’ longing and boys’ jealousy. It seems Lan Wangji is the only one who realises the new student is uninterested in anything serious and only plays along for fun.

“You’re misleading them,” he comments one day as they walk out of the classroom.

By his side, Wei Wuxian picks a candy from the little bag he holds in his other hand; a classmate gave it to him in appreciation for helping with her homework, but he stops before bringing it to his mouth.

“How so? It’s not like I got engaged…” Wei Wuxian scrunches up his nose. “Should I be cold to girls, just because I don’t intend on dating them?”

Lan Wangji frowns, but he can’t disagree with that.

“You’re the opposite, cold with everyone…” Wei Wuxian continues, as if to himself. “I guess that way there are no misunderstandings. But if they get the wrong idea, it’s on them.” Wei Wuxian finally shoves the candy into his mouth, munches on it for a couple of seconds. “Want one?”  he offers, moving the bag closer to Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji shakes his head, and in spite of the valid points his classmate just made he can’t help but be annoyed by Wei Wuxian’s purposeful obliviousness.

 

 


 

 

One Monday, halfway through an admittedly tedious Western History lesson, Wei Wuxian’s phone rings.

The noise startles everyone, including himself; he nearly drops the nearly finished paper crane he was making instead of paying attention, hurrying out of the classroom so quickly he doesn’t even apologise to the teacher.

Wei Wuxian returns less than two minutes later, phone in hand and concern written all over his features as he approaches the teacher’s desk. In spite of himself, Lan Wangji is intrigued; but all he can make out is emergency and pick him up before Wei Wuxian carelessly stuffs his belongings inside his bag and leaves in less than one minute, nearly forgetting his dizi and leaving the half-made crane on his desk.

Lan Wangji is still wondering what can be so urgent to get rid of Wei Wuxian’s carefree attitude when, once out of the classroom, his phone vibrates with an incoming text. Twirling the now finished crane with his free hand, he frowns at the unknown number— only his brother and his uncle ever text him. But soon more texts appear on the screen, quick and messy, and his thumb reluctantly draws back from the block button.

 

hey

lan zhan

is there any homework

?

lan zhan

lan zhan dont ignore me

im serious

lan zhan!!!

!!!!

 

Lan Wangji’s frown deepens at the flurry of texts, types a question whose answer he already knows.

 

Who is it?

 

What he actually wants to ask was how on earth did you get my number, but it would most likely entail not speaking to his brother for a couple more days.

 

wei wuxian, wei ying

who else?

 

(Who else can it be, indeed.)

 

you forgot me so quickly D:

aren’t we friends?

DDDDDDDDD:

 

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes, the block button more tempting than ever; but after a heated inner debate he replies to Wei Wuxian’s original question:

 

There is a text to read and analyse.

 

He doesn’t mention that the teacher gave him Wei Wuxian’s copy, assuming he was the most fitting to deliver it to him. They don’t have to hand the exercise in until next Monday, so Lan Wangji was planning to give it to Wei Wuxian in one of the too many lessons they have together throughout the week.

Before he can type that though, Wei Wuxian sends him a location with too sincere an addendum:

 

bring it to me, i don’t think you have anything better to do

(please)

 

 


 

 

The location on his phone doesn’t take Lan Wangji too far from music school; after a short train ride and a walk he arrives at a grey block of apartments, rings the bell of the one Wei Wuxian specified in his text and steps in the lift when his classmate lets him inside the hall.

Wei Wuxian’s flat is on the fourth floor; he is already waiting at the entrance when Lan Wangji walks out of the lift, face poking out between the frame and the ajar door.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, thank you,” he says as Lan Wangji takes the sheets out of his own bag, reaching out to grab them. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

It’s not as if Lan Wangji particularly wanted Wei Wuxian to invite him inside and offer him tea, but such secrecy feels nearly rude, considering he just practically forced Lan Wangji to do him a favour.

“Is,” he starts, and he can’t help but remember the offhanded comment Wei Wuxian made the day Lan Wangji found out he was working for his brother, “everything alright?”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem aware he is biting the nail of his thumb, but he nods.

“See you tomorrow,” he repeats. He jumps though, reaches for his phone into the pocket of his jeans, hastily bringing it to his ear. “We—…” Wei Wuxian trails off, seems to reconsider his words upon remembering Lan Wangji is in front of him. “Yes, it’s okay. No, no, I just got a bit… It was an emergency! I’ve never done this.”

Seeing Wei Wuxian bite his lower lip every time he glances up, Lan Wangji understands he is not welcome there. With a curt nod he turns around and heads back towards the lift.

 

 


 

 

“Did Wei Ying go to work today?”

Lan Xichen glances up from the dish he is rinsing off just in time to see his brother setting three piled-up bowls in the kitchen sink.

“He didn’t,” he admits, passing the wet sink to his uncle. “Still trying to get him fired?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. He has to admit that was not the noblest thing he has ever done, exactly. No matter how good at getting under his skin Wei Wuxian is. “He left school earlier.”

Lan Xichen frowns a little.

“You’re so curious when it comes to him…” He picks a glass, sets it under the tap to get rid of the foam. “He talked about family circumstances, but didn’t specify.”

Lan Wangji walks back to the dining room to bring the remaining plates and cutlery, but to his dismay his brother is still too amused to drop the matter.

“I was curious because he is too secretive,” Lan Wangji defends himself. It is not a lie. If Wei Wuxian didn’t have the ability to talk for hours without disclosing a single fact about himself, Lan Wangji would happily return to ignoring him like he is so good at pretend he does.

Lan Xichen’s smile is nearly a taunt.

“I didn’t ask.”

 

 


 

 

Next morning there isn’t time to talk: their Harmony teacher arrives ten minutes earlier to arrange the desks appropriately for a surprise exam that will last forty-five minutes.

Lan Wangji is used to handing in his exam way before his classmates; the test is more of a quick composition exercise for the teacher to check they have grasped the chord resolutions they have been studying since the school year started, so he is quite fast. Nonetheless, when he writes the last chord and looks up, he finds Wei Wuxian already setting his exam on the teacher’s desk, unruly hair bouncing up and down as he walks out of the classroom.

Lan Wangji breathes out slowly, his grip on the pencil so tight even his knuckles pale.

Upon handing in his exam, he finds Wei Wuxian sitting on the cold floor and leaning his back against the wall, toying with his phone.

“Hey, Lan Zhan. How’d it go?” he absent-mindedly asks, not taking his eyes off the screen.

“Fine.” Lan Wangji notices then the dark circles clinging to Wei Wuxian’s eyes, the tense lines around his mouth. He parts his lips, hesitates; after a couple of seconds he asks a question other than the one whose answer he craves. “Did you do Western History homework?”

“Hm?” Finally, Wei Wuxian looks up. “Ah, I started it, since I couldn’t sleep much last night.”

Lan Wangji bites the question before it escapes his lips. Again, what he asks isn’t exactly what he wants to know:

“Why?”

“A-Yuan was sick.” Wei Wuxian’s gaze drifts back to his phone. “That’s why I left earlier yesterday… It’s just a cold, but Mo Xuanyu had his own emergency with his mother, so…”

Lan Wangji would like to nod in response, but he has no clue what Wei Wuxian is taking about. Who is A-Yuan? Who is Mo Xuanyu and what’s wrong with his mother?

Before he can ask however, the door opens again. Lan Wangji steps aside as a short girl closes the door gently behind her and heads for the main hallway, halts before Wei Wuxian’s extended legs, feet reaching the opposite wall.

“Would you be so kind as to not block the way?”

Wei Wuxian glances up again.

“I wouldn’t. You’re young, Mian-Mian. Jump.”

Lan Wangji arches an eyebrow.

Not the mystery he aches to solve, but knowledge is never unwanted.

“I told you my name isn’t Mian-Mian!” she hisses, doing her best to keep her voice low and not disturb the students still doing the exam. But she does, indeed, walk over Wei Wuxian’s legs; Lan Wangji admires her self-control when she doesn’t kick him or step on his shins. “I hope you don’t tag along after classes,” she warns.

“Tagging along where?”

Luo Qingyang shrugs.

“To have lunch. Probably to the cinema, afterwards …”

“I wasn’t interested anyway.”

“I wasn’t inviting you anyway,” Luo Qingyang snaps back, ignoring Wei Wuxian as he sticks out his tongue. She seems about to resume walking away; but she halts, nearly apologetic when she addresses the other person in the corridor. “Lan Wangji, uhm… Would you like to come with us later?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. It is not the first time, but there haven’t been enough chances to lose count. He is aware the proposal comes only from politeness and a trace of guilt, rather than any actual wish to spend more time than necessary with him.

For some reason though, today loneliness stings worse than usual.

 

 


 

 

Partly to avoid his family, partly to prove himself that he does not need those frivolous outings to be a functional human being, Lan Wangji doesn’t return home for lunch. He doesn’t know whether the way Wei Wuxian leaves quickly, without pestering him all the way to the station, is relieving or disappointing, but he refuses to let it affect him— after all, hasn’t he yearned to get his routine back for a month?

Lan Wangji eats at a restaurant close to school, takes a long detour on his way to the station. He would rather come back home after his brother has left for work, to have time to think through his unstable mood and placate his irritation before dinner.

His steps take him to a small park; the path leading to its core is flanked by a gallery of willows whose leaves are already yellowing. The tunnel is a couple of degrees colder than the outside, with golden sunlight barely piercing through the canopy overhead. Walking along the side of the path to not bother people heading out, Lan Wangji folds his arms to protect himself from the sudden chill, grateful for the long hair cascading down his back and over his shoulders.

The path leads to a grassy area scattered with benches, most of them empty. To the left there is a fenced enclosure with swings, rocking horses and a slide; most people sitting close, Lan Wangji guesses, are there accompanying the kids who play and laugh with each other, talking among them while keeping an eye on the children.

The one who catches his eye is alone though.

Wei Wuxian has a bench all for himself; his bag, his dizi case and a couple of books are scattered on the seat, as well as papers that, as Lan Wangji discovers upon walking close, are the ones he went out of his way to give Wei Wuxian yesterday.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t notice his presence; with a leg crossed over the opposite knee, he seems rather focused on the notebook he is holding. He is not writing though, the movements of his pencil light yet determined across the page.

Lan Wangji’s steps come to a halt, his back straighter than the guqin he carries. He hesitates, torn between announcing his presence and walking away yet itching to see what his classmate is doodling; but before he can make up his mind Wei Wuxian looks up, concentration dissolving into excitement.

“Lan Zhan! What are you doing here?”

Lan Wangji lifts his foot a little, not sure where he wants to land it. “Walking.”

“Ah, I thought you’d be already home, since you didn’t want to go out with Mian-Mian and the others…” Wei Wuxian gathers the sheets and the books, sets them on top of the case to make room. “Have a seat.”

Lan Wangji takes a step forward. He takes his guqin case off his back, sits down and lands it between his feet.

“…Thanks.”

It’s not what he wants to say, exactly; but he isn’t sure how to comment that Wei Wuxian looks livelier than he did in the morning.

“No problem!” Wei Wuxian glances away for a second, but soon his gaze is back on Lan Wangji. “I forgot to ask earlier, but did you do anything else yesterday in class?”

“Not much.” Lan Wangji’s fingers drum on his case— Wei Wuxian is still staring at him, expectant. “We mostly revised concepts from last year.” Wei Wuxian nods; before he can ask the obvious question, because he can be a prodigy but he is new at this school, Lan Wangji explains more in depth, stressing the parts that make his classmate frown in slight confusion. Eventually though, Lan Wangji can’t keep his curiosity to himself anymore: “Don’t you work in the afternoon?”

Wei Wuxian smiles. “Your brother let me start a bit later today.” He takes his phone out of his pocket to check the time, looks away once more before standing up and leaving his notebook on the bench. “I’m going to get a drink, do you mind keeping an eye on my things for a minute?”

Lan Wangji nods; he doesn’t have much of an option though, because Wei Wuxian is already sprinting towards the gallery of willows without looking back.

With a sigh, he looks down; soon his gaze strays, inevitably, towards the notebook.

Wei Wuxian left it open. Lan Wangji does not want to pry, but his classmate caught all of his attention, so he missed the chance to take a peek at the drawing. At first out of the corner of his eye as if it were a forbidden secret, then barely craning his neck, Lan Wangji focuses on the lines crossing the page.

It is not a single drawing, but rather lazy, unfinished sketches; they remind Lan Wangji of the doodles Lan Xichen makes nearly on accident when he’s nervous and has a pencil and an appropriate surface within reach.

There is a woman with her hair up in twin buns, a cat and what looks like a harp; Lan Wangji identifies a building in flames, a peacock and a face too round to belong to an adult. He tilts his head in curiosity at a pair of silhouettes, but before he can figure what they are a wail spreads across the whole park.

Lan Wangji nearly drops his guqin at the noise, gaze jumping to its source— a child around two years old standing in front of him, his face scrunched up as tears run down his cheeks and he keeps crying, attracting people’s attention. With his mouth open, he doesn’t bother to wipe his tears, half-articulating calls Lan Wangji does not understand.

He looks around, but nobody makes as if to walk close and stop their kid’s tantrum.

Lan Wangji swallows down, focuses on the toddler again even though his only experience with children is the distant cousin he met at the latest family gathering, which he refused to hold because the baby wouldn’t stop crying even in his own mother’s arms.

“Making a scene, are we?!”

Lan Wangji turns around, spots Wei Wuxian running towards them; without hesitating, he bends down to pick the crying toddler in his arms, laughing when short arms wrap around his neck.

“It’s fine, it’s fine… See? I’m here, so stop crying already, okay? I just left for a little and look what you did. Now Lan Zhan is going to cry too.” As Wei Wuxian keeps speaking the child quietens down, his crying reduced to sobs and hiccups in Wei Wuxian’s arms.

Suddenly Lan Wangji understands a lot of things. The emergency, A-Yuan and Wei Wuxian’s exhaustion in the morning— he only keeps his mouth closed out of stubbornness.

“The child…” he eventually manages, long after the witnesses of the scene have gone back to watch their own kids. Rocking the toddler in his arms, Wei Wuxian looks at him. “He’s A-Yuan.”

Wei Wuxian’s hold on the child tightens the tiniest bit as he sits down.

“It’s okay,” he whispers in the child’s hair, running his fingers through dark locks. He doesn’t look at Lan Wangji. “Alright?”

A-Yuan nods, but he doesn’t let go.

“He’s A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian confirms, still hugging the child. “He’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Lan Wangji tears his gaze off the scene. “I was thinking he’s your younger brother,” he retorts, so that it’s not a complete lie— it was his second guess.

“Also wrong. Luckily. My younger brother is older and way harder to deal with than A-Yuan.” There is a smile in Wei Wuxian’s voice. “Everyone always assumes I’m his father, but I don’t really mind.” He laughs. “I suppose nobody would ever think that of you—” he adds; as Lan Wangji looks up he finds grey eyes bright with amusement— “you looked like you were about to be swallowed up by the earth!”

Lan Wangji’s ears heat up at the laughter filling the park, notices A-Yuan is peeking at him from his shelter in Wei Wuxian’s arms.

With eyes only a couple of shades lighter than Wei Wuxian’s and his hair nearly the same colour, not to mention how close they seem, assuming they are family isn’t such a stretch.

“Then you two aren’t related?” Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “But you are taking care of him.”

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian confirms, but his smile shrinks a little. “A-Yuan is a friend’s relative. I have to take care of him for a while, due to… circumstances.”

Lan Wangji nods, stops himself from asking any further. Just like yesterday, the feeling that he is no longer welcome, that Wei Wuxian is building an invisible wall between them, clings to his lungs; and it tastes bitter, but today he has learnt more about Wei Wuxian than in the entire month since he snuck into the booth Lan Wangji had reserved.

“He was sick yesterday,” he eventually comments. “Is he better now?”

Wei Wuxian glances up from where A-Yuan is playing with his fingers.

“Ah, yes. He had a fever last night, but in the morning he was like new. Made me promise I’d take him out today, too… Kids are amazing, aren’t they?”

Lan Wangji nods again, not knowing what else to say. Every question he wants to make seems invasive, because he shouldn’t even want to ask in the first place.

“Taking care of him while studying must be hard.”

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Not exactly what I expected to be doing in my twenties when I was a kid, but I manage. I’m not alone, anyway; most afternoons my neighbour takes care of A-Yuan, and I can always call my sister; all she’s done since she got pregnant is reading about children…”

His voice is so thick with affection for that sister of his it pulls at the corners of Lan Wangji’s lips.

Already over his tantrum, A-Yuan keeps stealing glances at Lan Wangji, hiding his face in Wei Wuxian’s shoulders every time he knows himself caught. Lan Wangji supposes that, waiting for him in the spot where he expected to find Wei Wuxian, he hasn’t made the best first impression on the child; but as A-Yuan gestures for Wei Wuxian to tilt his head he doesn’t look scared, his whispers in Wei Wuxian’s ear perfectly audible:

“Brother Xian, is he your friend?”

“Yep.”

“What is the black thing?”

“A guqin.” Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji, smirking at the certainty that he’s listening. “Do you want him to play?”

A-Yuan stays quiet for a couple of seconds.

“What’s a guqin?”

Wei Wuxian can’t hold back laughter.

“Like a very old guitar.”

The next time A-Yuan looks in Lan Wangji’s direction, the guqin is out of its case, laying across his legs. An excited cry leaves his throat; though he doesn’t leave Wei Wuxian’s lap, his legs dangle off the man’s thighs, eyes bright in excitement.

Lan Wangji plucks a string, leaves the sound vibrate across the park before making up his mind, interrupted only by A-Yuan’s clap.

Once the song starts though, the child grows silent, his wide eyes following every movement as Lan Wangji’s fingers trail along the zither, paying attention to every note, drinking every motif.

Keeping an arm around A-Yuan’s waist to level him, Wei Wuxian leans back on the bench, closes his eyes to enjoy the music too.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Wen Qing calls when Wei Wuxian is finishing making dinner.

Walking around a minuscule kitchen isn’t easy with a sleepy toddler hugging his leg like a koala; but Wen Yuan, Wei Wuxian has learnt, becomes clingier when he is tired or sick, and the extent of his neediness is alarming when both cases overlap. Even though his temperature hasn’t risen throughout the day, he has been more active than usual, as if to make up for the hours he spent huddled up in a cocoon of blankets; and the result is an exhausted stubbornness Wei Wuxian can’t shake off without making the child cry.

“How’s A-Yuan?” is her greeting, abrupt and severe, her tone unmistakable even though she calls from an unknown number.

“Good evening, Wen Qing, there are no news about your psychopath of a cousin, I’m alive and well and yes, A-Yuan is alive, no need to worry,” Wei Wuxian answers in the sweetest voice he can muster. The child looks up after hearing his name; Wei Wuxian smiles and ruffles his hair. “Are you this kind to your patients?”

“My patients don’t usually panic when a kid has a slight fever,” she snaps back. “Is he better?” she asks after a short pause.

Wei Wuxian nods before realising she can’t see him. “Yeah, he even insisted to go to the park after lunch. Now he’s awake enough to hug my leg and be a pain in general.” He holds the phone between his cheek and his shoulder as he pours soup from the steaming pot to a black bowl, but Wen Qing just sighs. “Anything happened on your end? How’s your brother?”

“Better.” After pouring some soup for himself, Wei Wuxian carries the two bowls to the table and sits Wen Yuan on his high chair. “Put A-Yuan on the phone.”

She sounds so tired Wei Wuxian doesn’t feel like teasing her anymore.

“Guess who it is, A-Yuan,” he tells the child.

After rubbing at his eyes Wen Yuan stares at the phone, a frown set between his eyebrows.

“Sister Qing?”

Wei Wuxian snorts, handing him the phone in defeat. “You’re no fun. Yes, it’s her.”

But he smiles as Wen Yuan’s face lights up upon hearing Wen Qing, as he giggles and talks to her, words slurred by excitement and the yawns he can’t contain. The child is far too young to understand his parents are dead, but he holds the two close relatives still alive dear and is always eager to talk to them.

Wei Wuxian often thinks Wen Yuan is managing all the sudden changes better than himself. Unlike him, the child will most likely forget everything about his parents in a few months; and the less he remembers, the fewer burdens will hinder his steps in the future. Wei Wuxian can barely recall his own parents’ faces, the people getting married in the only photograph he keeps barely more familiar than strangers; but time hasn’t erased their warmth from his memory and it’s enough for him to understand that his life now would be vastly different had that accident never happened.

Not that Wei Wuxian particularly dislikes his life up to this point. Except for Madam Yu, the Jiang household has never been other than welcoming; and even though the night Wen Yuan's parents died set fire to whatever future might await him there, Wei Wuxian doesn’t regret leaving everything behind to protect a child that doesn’t even understand what is going on around him.

Wei Wuxian has almost finished his soup when Wen Yuan hands the phone back, pulling him out of not quite happy thoughts.

“Thank you, now eat your soup,” Wei Wuxian indicates. Wen Yuan grabs his small spoon, switching it from one hand to the other until he finds a position that works for him. “See? A-Yuan is alive and making friends. I succeeded. I’m ready to start a family.”

Wen Qing huffs. “In terms of maturity, you’re three.” She sounds as weary as Wen Yuan looks though. “You aren’t attracting attention, are you?”

“No, I’m being good,” Wei Wuxian bites onto his lower lip. “In my last year of music school, getting average marks and having an average part-time job. And most people assume A-Yuan is my son. For some reason I come off as that kind of irresponsible.”

“Maybe the reason is that you flirt with every walking being you see,” Wen Qing points out. “I have to check on A-Ning,” she adds before Wei Wuxian can reply. An undefined murmur comes from her end of the line. “He wishes you a happy birthday in advance.”

“Thank you, Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian replies, realising now his friend heard the whole conversation. “I’m not getting a birthday cake this year though… Anyway, get better soon.”

Wei Wuxian stares at his phone long after Wen Qing hangs up and the screen goes black; it’s Wen Yuan’s voice what tears his attention off the idea of calling somebody else, because the toddler under his care is not the only who misses his family.

“Brother Xian… Birthday?” he asks, mouth open.

Somehow broth, noodles and bits of vegetables have splashed the plastic table attached to his chair, the actual table and the floor around Wen Yuan, but his mouth is clean.

“You were supposed to eat that, not bathe in it,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, walking around the table to feed Wen Yuan himself. “Open your mouth.”

Wen Yuan shakes his head, defiant. “Birthday,” he repeats.

“Yeah, my birthday is next week. Now be a good boy and eat, or Wen Qing will come here to make you.”

Threatening Wen Yuan with his cousin, who also happens to be one of the scariest people both of them can think of, is usually the most effective way to get him to do as Wei Wuxian says; however, the child is not only stubborn, but also quite precocious:

“Sister Qing is away,” he reasons. He looks down at the soup. “It’s bad.”

“You haven’t tried it, you don’t know.”

Wen Yuan pouts. “But it tastes bad always.”

The quiet, childish grumbling offends Wei Wuxian more than he expected. His cooking can’t compare to his sister’s, of course, but he is able to make at least edible food.

“It’s not spicy,” he promises, and it’s not a lie. Lately he has grown used to not adding spices at all; he can deal with tasteless food, but Wen Yuan can’t stand strong flavours. “Just one spoonful, and if it’s spicy you can have something else. How does that sound?”

Wen Yuan considers his options for a couple of seconds; in the end, reluctantly, he reaches for the spoon.

 

 


 

 

The next morning, Wei Wuxian is late to Chamber Music.

There is no excuse this time, but Lan Wangji still watches his classmate try his best to charm his way out of a scolding, not hurrying to assemble his dizi even as the guqin strings vibrate impatiently with Lan Wangji’s half of the duet. It’s hard, when he looks at his dishevelled appearance, to accept that this man has a child under his care— and that he seems to be making a good job of looking after him.

“There is no time to waste, so pay attention while you get ready,” the teacher eventually cuts Wei Wuxian off. “There is a concert next week, on the thirty-first. It goes without saying that, as top performers of your respective instrument, you two are more than expected to take part and excel.”

Lan Wangji offers a curt nod just as Wei Wuxian’s head snaps up.

“Next week?” He glances at Lan Wangji, perhaps expecting him to take his side; but Lan Wangji remains silent. “Why so soon?”

“It’s the only day the concert hall is free; there are courses, masterclasses and other programmed concerts.” The teacher sounds sympathetic, and in spite of Wei Wuxian’s growing indignation Lan Wangji suspects he knows she tried to push the date back. “But today’s class won’t be enough practice; you should meet up on your own a couple of days to solve some of your… issues.”

Lan Wangji’s fingers curl on his guqin. His issues, he wants to specify, because their coordination problems boil down to Wei Wuxian’s inability to follow the tempo for more than five beats. “How many pieces do we have to play?” he asks instead.

“One.”

As expected, one hour and a half isn’t enough for the two of them to agree on a common pace. Wei Wuxian relies on instinct more than the written score; and Lan Wangji, while having memorised his part down to the number of the pages, keeps playing purposefully slower in an attempt to exaggerate the disparity between them, hoping that Wei Wuxian realises by himself and acts accordingly.

“Ad-libbing is alright to some degree, and you grasp the intention behind the piece quite well,” the teacher comments at the end, smiling as if to make up for the disastrous lesson as she opens the window to let the soft autumn breeze in.

As soon as she looks away, Wei Wuxian waves his dizi to attract Lan Wangji’s attention; he smirks and sticks out his tongue, as if he had won some sort of argument.

“However, the guqin isn’t just accompaniment,” the teacher adds, looking back at the two students. “It’s just as important as the dizi; you should pay more attention to it.”

Lan Wangji wants to think of himself as too mature to stoop to Wei Wuxian’s level; he just arches an eyebrow, more satisfied than he should by his classmate’s offended expression.

Perhaps there was an argument. Just not a verbal one.

However, as they walk out of the classroom, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian can agree on one thing.

“We need to fix this before the concert, and we have less than five days.” Wei Wuxian mutters, toying with the case of his dizi. “Any ideas?”

Lan Wangji isn’t exactly willing to dedicate his free time to stress over Wei Wuxian’s trouble to understand he isn’t playing alone, but he doesn’t want the concert to be a disaster either. Perhaps what bothers him the most is that, in Ensemble classes, Wei Wuxian has no problem to follow the conductor and their classmates; it’s as if he had something against playing with Lan Wangji in particular.

“You can come to my house to practise today, after work,” he suggests after a long silence, when they are already out of the building.

Wei Wuxian glances up. “I have no idea where you live, but I can’t come back too late; I don’t want to trouble Mo Xuanyu and A-Yuan gets really upset by changes in routine.”

Lan Wangji isn’t sure why he is going through this much trouble. If he tries, he can follow Wei Wuxian’s chaotic tempo; it’s not that important a concert anyway. But that possibility feels too close to giving in.

“I’ll tell my brother to drive you there.” His voice is so quiet it’s a miracle Wei Wuxian hears it; Lan Wangji wouldn’t mind if he didn’t. “Afterwards he can take you back. Or I can do it, if he’s tired.”

Wei Wuxian glances up, eyes wide. “Woah, Lan Zhan, you can drive? I would’ve never guessed… Are you good? Or will you crash the car?”

“I won’t,” Lan Wangji replies through gritted teeth, nearly regretting the offer.

Wei Wuxian hums, pensive. “Tempting. Is dinner included in the deal?”

“…If my brother’s… partner isn’t there, yes.” One person his uncle doesn’t like at the table is more than enough, but Lan Wangji doesn’t miss the twitch of Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows. “What?”

“The word is boyfriend, right?”

Doing his best to ignore the cold weight settling in his stomach, Lan Wangji looks ahead, nearly glaring at the streetlight keeping them still until the silhouette in it turns green. He is not about to discuss his brother’s love life with outsiders, least of all Wei Wuxian. He is Lan Xichen’s employee, after all.

“That is none of my business. Or yours.”

“Hey, I wasn’t trying to be mean or anything,” Wei Wuxian replies. “I was just curious, since I see them…” When Lan Wangji glances back at him, he finds a troubled expression trying to come up with the right words. “But they seem happy, and it doesn’t make me uncomfortable or anything, so you don’t have to worry if that’s the problem.”

Lan Wangji purses his lips together, but there is no anger in the gesture. “It’s not,” he mutters, stopping at the red light before the crossing.

But the weight in his stomach is a bit lighter.

 

 


 

 

The Lan residence stands at the end of a wide street close to the river, a two-story white building crowned by a slanted black roof identical to the neighbouring ones. The urbanisation is upstream, on the outskirts of the city; its atmosphere reminds Wei Wuxian of the wealthy aura surrounding his brother-in-law’s estate, except for the strictness thickening the air. The crescent moon barely peeks above the black trees hovering beyond the houses; but other than a few birds and the occasional humming of passing vehicles the night is so silent that as soon as he steps out of the car Wei Wuxian feels his steps are too loud compared to Lan Xichen’s noiseless ones.

Seemingly in a good mood, his boss opens the gate and gestures for Wei Wuxian to follow him into a garden that looks larger than the other houses’. Among the trees planted on the margins Wei Wuxian recognises a couple of magnolias and an apple tree, as well as ivies creeping up the wall enclosing the place.

Out of the corner of his eye Wei Wuxian catches a glimpse of something dashing towards him like a silvery arrow; alarmed, he halts so abruptly the little thing freezes, too, a couple of metres to his right.

It only takes a second glance to confirm it’s not a dog, but Wei Wuxian needs to breathe in deeply to push his heart back down into his ribcage. He crouches down, dread quickly morphing into curiosity to see the fluffy white thing up close.

“Is that a rabbit?”

Lan Xichen turns around.

“It’s rare for it to be outside now,” he comments, for some reason amused. “It spends most of the time…”

He trails off when Wei Wuxian tries to catch the rabbit. The animal leaps out of his reach, hops around him, past Lan Xichen, a bright ball bouncing towards the corner of the house, halting only before someone else’s feet.

Lan Wangji bends down to pick up the rabbit, straightens up with it in his arms and fixes his gaze on Wei Wuxian, but it’s too dark to discern his expression.

“How come you let it outside today?” Lan Xichen intervenes; golden glints in Lan Wangji’s eyes when he glances at his brother. “It never gets too far from you.”

“It got out through the back door.” Lan Wangji shrugs as he walks closer, gaze flying back to Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying.”

“Good evening, Lan Zhan.” It’s only then that Wei Wuxian remembers he’s still kneeling on his classmate’s garden, which is also his boss’ garden; grinning, he stands up and reaches out to pet the rabbit. “Is it yours?”

“Hm.” Lan Wangji bows his head a little in his brother’s direction. “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing.” Lan Xichen heads towards the door, fishing his keys out of the pocket of his blazer. “Is Uncle here yet?”

“On the phone with Father.”

Lan Xichen’s easy smile morphs into a deep frown, as if he were trying his best to fight off an impending headache. It lasts less than a second, yet his shoulders are visibly tense when he bids them farewell and heads along the hallway by himself.

Lan Wangji stares at his brother’s retreating back for a bit; only when Lan Xichen disappears around the corner does he turn towards Wei Wuxian, running his fingers through the rabbit’s thick fur.

“Come with me,” he orders, and Wei Wuxian follows him without complaints.

“Is the rabbit really yours?” As they walk past the living room, Lan Wangji glances at him. “You don’t look like someone who likes pets.”

“…Why not?”

Wei Wuxian scrunches up his nose, pensive. “I don’t know. But even if I had heard you had a pet, I wouldn’t have pictured a rabbit. A cat would suit you more.”

Lan Wangji hums quietly, starts climbing up the stairs. “Two rabbits.”

“Huh?”

“I had two rabbits,” he repeats, not looking back. “The other died in spring.”

Wei Wuxian freezes for the briefest second, nearly regrets teasing Lan Wangji.

“I’m sorry,” he mutters. “Was it old?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, but doesn’t say anything else; and Wei Wuxian makes sure to keep his mouth shut until they reach a room at the end of the hallway crossing the second floor.

Lan Wangji sets the rabbit down once Wei Wuxian enters behind him. The animal hesitates, under the frame separating the hallway from the soundproof room; but it finally hops behind its master as he reaches for the black case leaning against the wall and takes his guqin out to set it on a table. As Wei Wuxian assembles his dizi on a desk nearby, his gaze hops among the cases of different sizes lying on the shelves among tuners and metronomes.

“Can you play all these instruments?” he can’t help but ask.

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Everyone on my father’s side of the family plays some instrument.”

“Oh…” Wei Wuxian can guess which instruments most cases contain. When he is about to reach for one though, Lan Wangji’s rabbit decides his foot is a good place to rest its white head and take a nap; Wei Wuxian reluctantly glances back at his classmate. “Your brother too?”

“He used to attend music school too, but he barely plays his xiao now,” Lan Wangji explains, in that monotone voice of his that nonetheless isn’t boring.

“He must be too busy… Your uncle?”

“Several instruments.”

Wei Wuxian hums.

“And your father?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji mutters after an exasperated sigh. “Let’s play.”

 

 


 

 

As expected, Lan Qiren dislikes Wei Wuxian as soon as they meet.

It doesn’t help that Wei Wuxian seems unable to conceal that he doesn’t like how poorly seasoned dinner is; while he is cautious enough to not say it out loud, his inability to finish his portion is enough to deepen the disapproving frown carved between Lan Qiren’s eyebrows. Lan Xichen, however, can hardly hide an odd smile as he eats; Lan Wangji can’t tell whether it’s due to not being the target of their uncle’s ire for once or there is something else, but the glint in his brother’s eyes is unsettling.

“I think your uncle doesn’t like me,” Wei Wuxian comments later, making himself comfortable in Lan Xichen’s car.

“Get your feet off the dashboard,” Lan Wangji mutters, checking the side mirrors’ position before starting the engine. “And fasten your seatbelt.”

Wei Wuxian snorts.

“Listen, if it’s written that we have an accident and die tonight, we will, regardless of where I put my feet.” Lan Wangji doesn’t bother to reply to that; as soon as they leave the residential area a high-pitched beeping fills the car, the sounding equivalent to a needle constantly poking one’s temples. “Oh, man, I hate these.”

He stays sitting in an awful position, but he at least obeys one of Lan Wangji’s orders.

They don’t talk as the car drives along highways, avenues and streets; the light from the lampposts intermittently bathes them in shades of orange, the never completely silent calm of the city muffled by the engine. Wei Wuxian’s distracted fingers drum the rhythm of the piece they practised on his knee, absent-mindedly staring through the window.

“…Now you’re sticking to the tempo,” Lan Wangji can’t help but notice by the time the grey block Wei Wuxian lives in appears in front of them.

Wei Wuxian glances at him. “I always do.”

“You don’t. Not even with a metronome.”

“Your metronome is defective.”

“All thirteen of them?”

Wei Wuxian has no way to refute that, so he only huffs and glances away. He lowers his legs when there is but one turn left to reach the entrance of the building, unfastening his seatbelt to pick his bag.

“Thanks for the ride,” he says, opening the door. “See you tomorrow, Lan Zhan.”

“See you tomorrow…” Lan Wangji echoes, but Wei Wuxian has already closed the door; he jogs towards the entrance, most likely eager to see A-Yuan. “…Wei Ying.”

It’s too late to pinpoint the source of the small whirlwind in his stomach as he drives back home, so Lan Wangji pretends it doesn’t exist.

 

 


 

 

For the following days, they fall into a routine of sorts: once Wei Wuxian’s shift is over, Lan Xichen drives him to his house, half of the times accompanied by Meng Yao. In the Lan residence, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji practice their piece for an hour or so— though it would be more accurate to say they play a stubborn game of tug-o-war where neither of them wants to give in, completely ignoring the metronome except for considering throwing it to each other’s head. Then, they have dinner with Lan Qiren; Wei Wuxian tries to make himself less annoying when Meng Yao is invited too, for the man is irritated enough by his nephew’s boyfriend alone.

In the end though, what helps the most is not playing to exhaustion and hoping for a miracle. On Friday afternoon, during the hour Lan Wangji spends in his brother’s office before going home, he and Wei Wuxian try a ceasefire by reading the score together and agreeing to speed up or slow down at different points of the piece.

“So you want to play fast whenever there are semiquavers,” Lan Wangji summarises. “Why?”

“It’s meant to be fast anyway.” Wei Wuxian twirls his pencil between his fingers. “I don’t mind you being a turtle in the middle section though.”

Lan Wangji frowns.

He’s on the other side of the counter, leaning on it; his gaze hops from his score to Wei Wuxian’s to compare their melodies, his long, black hair pooling on the board. He taps the paper twice with the sharp tip of his own pencil, pensive.

“There are long notes for you there,” he eventually mutters.

It occurs to Wei Wuxian that even though they look alike, Lan Wangji’s seriousness hold a sort of charm that completely opposes his brother’s friendly attitude.

“Long… Ah, I don’t mind.” Wei Wuxian shakes his head, pushing trivial thoughts to the back of his mind. “I already know you’ll slow down, so I’ll make sure I don’t run out of air.”

That night, rehearsal is way smoother, the only problem being deciding how much they will adapt the original pace. Lan Wangji seems to be in a good mood when he drives Wei Wuxian home, the severe lines between his eyebrows nearly unnoticeable.

“Do you mind coming tomorrow here instead?” Wei Wuxian asks before getting off the car. “Mo Xuanyu can’t take care of A-Yuan during weekends, so…”

“You can bring him to my house too,” Lan Wangji suggests. He presses his lips together, and for a second Wei Wuxian is convinced he changed his mind. “If you want to.”

Wei Wuxian considers the offer.

“Alright! But on Sunday you come here instead. Your uncle’s cooking is terrible.”

 

 


 

 

Not long after noon, Lan Wangji sees Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan heading towards his house through the window of his bedroom, the child hopping around his classmate like an excited puppy. From his spot he can’t make out A-Yuan’s words, but his enthusiasm is unmistakable and Wei Wuxian’s smile grows as he approaches the gate leading to the garden.

For his part, Lan Wangji heads downstairs, followed by his rabbit, opens the door at the same time Wei Wuxian closes the gate behind himself and A-Yuan.

“Oh, hi, Lan Zhan.” A white bullet dashes towards the newcomers, noses around the one it doesn’t know yet. A-Yuan’s first instinct is to cling to Wei Wuxian’s leg, letting out an alarmed cry. “It doesn’t bite, A-Yuan; it’s just very curious.”

Cautiously, A-Yuan disentangles himself from Wei Wuxian, stares at the fluffy ball bouncing around them and, eventually, reaches out in an attempt to catch it.

“Hey! That’s not fair,” Wei Wuxian complains, watching the rabbit stay very still as A-Yuan sinks his chubby fingers in its white fur. “It never lets me pet it unless Lan Zhan is holding it.”

Lan Wangji abstains from commenting that maybe his pet wouldn’t hate Wei Wuxian if he did anything other than pulling at its ears at every chance.

“Let’s go inside,” he suggests instead.

The moment he turns around the rabbit forgets about A-Yuan, hops to follow him to the house. The child runs behind it, while Wei Wuxian catches up in a couple of long strides.

They leave A-Yuan in Lan Wangji’s room, accompanied by the toys Wei Wuxian brought for him to entertain himself and the rabbit that seems to adore the child, lock themselves up in the soundproof room to resume practicing. Every now and then Wei Wuxian leaves for a couple of minutes to check on A-Yuan; the last time he returns with a wide smile across his face.

“He fell asleep,” he confides, lowering his voice despite the walls are made to contain it inside the room. “Using your rabbit as a plushie.”

 

 


 

 

To Wei Wuxian’s irritation, Wen Yuan’s exemplary behaviour in Lan Wangji’s house is gone the second his classmate sets foot in his flat. It seems the child was just intimidated by the unfamiliar place yesterday, and therefore didn’t even dare to explore Lan Wangji’s room. Today, as soon as Lan Wangji arrives, Wen Yuan drags him to the sofa and shows him all of his toys, explaining in great detail but not-so-great pronunciation the reasoning behind his plushies’ names.

“A-Yuan, we have to practice,” Wei Wuxian chimes in, because Lan Wangji is too polite to cut the child off himself. “Go play by yourself.”

Wen Yuan pouts and Lan Wangji looks up. “I don’t mind,” he assures, glancing back down at the child. “What happened to that dog toy?”

“It broke at the… the…” Wen Yuan grabs a duck plushie, points at the line joining its head to a bright yellow beak. “This.”

“Seams?” Lan Wangji suggests.

“Yes!” Beaming, Wen Yuan picks a new toy, shows it to him. “And then Brother Ning gave me this. It’s a coco—… cocro—… a co…” Wen Yuan frowns, tries again. “A co… codi…” Frustrated, Wen Yuan kicks the sofa with his heels, looks at Lan Wangji with a helpless pout.

“Crocodile.”

“If I had known you like kids so much, I would have asked you to babysit A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian comments, but now he is amused— it seems Lan Wangji isn’t feigning interest for Wen Yuan’s sake, after all.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Lan Wangji says again, but he caresses his guqin case, leaning on the side of the sofa. “Go play now,” he tells A-Yuan, who nods and jumps off his seat, gathering most of his toys in his arms.

“I can’t believe he obeyed you at the first try,” Wei Wuxian comments a couple of minutes later, sitting on the empty sofa with his dizi as Lan Wangji carefully places the guqin on the tea table. “He complains about everything I say.”

Wen Yuan comes back to pick the remaining toys, running on his short legs, but he halts when he notices the instruments; instead of heading to his bedroom again he climbs back to his seat next to Lan Wangji, all his attention focused on the guqin.

“You have to stay quiet now,” Wei Wuxian warns. “Behave well like yesterday, alright?”

Wen Yuan nods, legs dangling off the sofa as he stares at the zither impatiently, waiting for Lan Wangji to start playing.

After talking about it and scribbling on their scores, it turns out Lan Wangji’s vision of the piece isn’t that different from Wei Wuxian’s. Coordination is easier when they know what to expect, and following the other gets more natural, the idea of a fight for the lead blurred into something that resembles teamwork. Even though Lan Wangji always stays still as a statue when he plays, so straight he might as well be a model for posters on proper posture, he tilts his head to the side imperceptibly, fingers dancing over the strings.

Wen Yuan looks so entranced even his legs swing to the beat of the piece.

The piece was already acceptable yesterday, but now both of them have embraced the idea; it doesn’t take more than a couple of replays for even Lan Wangji to be satisfied. Wei Wuxian soon puts his legs on the sofa, fingers moving absent-mindedly to play fragments of melodies he learnt long ago.

On the other sofa, Lan Wangji listens as Wen Yuan resumes his passionate explanation about his toys, allows the child to try his luck plucking the guqin strings to satisfy his curiosity. Wei Wuxian watches them, fascinated and a bit jealous— they have warmed up so quickly to each other, when it took Wei Wuxian so long to get the son of Wen Qing’s cousin to stop crying in his arms and Lan Wangji wouldn’t deign to spend all this time with him were he not worried about tomorrow’s concert.

“Will you stay for dinner?” Wen Yuan asks Lan Wangji, once he gets bored of the guqin.

“He has to, we made a deal.” Wei Wuxian smiles triumphantly. “He has to try real food.”

Wen Yuan frowns, grabs the sleeve of Lan Wangji’s sweater. “Brother Xian’s food is bad,” he whispers, but a two-year-old’s secrecy is loud enough for Wei Wuxian to hear it perfectly. “Sister Qing says it. And she’s a doctor.”

“That’s not true!” Wei Wuxian defends himself, indignation crawling up the sides of his neck when Lan Wangji looks at him. “I mean, she is a doctor, but I’m not that bad at cooking! You’re just too picky.”

“It’s so bad, Brother Ning once cried,” Wen Yuan assures, tugging at Lan Wangji’s arm. “The food in your house is better.”

At that Wei Wuxian puts his dizi aside, bolts up and walks around the tea table to get Wen Yuan. The child jumps and hides behind Lan Wangji, head poking out from under his arm.

“You little chicken, leave Lan Zhan out of this.”

“No! You’ll tickle me!”

“Because you’re a liar!”

“No!” Wen Yuan raises his chin defiantly. “It’s bad!”

“It’s not!”

Lan Wangji’s gaze hops between them, expression unreadable. When Wei Wuxian tries to reach around him though, firm fingers coil around his wrist, not tight enough to hurt but with enough strength to keep his hand immobilised.

He then glances down, at the child tucked under his arm. “Is his cooking really that bad?”

“No,” Wei Wuxian grunts.

Lan Wangji doesn’t move.

“I asked A-Yuan,” he clarifies, as if it were needed. Wen Yuan nods several times, eyes bright with joy. “How about I make dinner?”

Much to Wei Wuxian’s annoyance, the toddler has just realised he has a saviour willing to defend him from his caretaker’s cooking. As soon as Lan Wangji frees his hand and stands up to head for the kitchen, he picks Wen Yuan up to tickle him until there are tears in his eyes, stopping only when he admits Wei Wuxian’s food is not that bad.

 

 


 

 

The next day, Lan Xichen allows Wei Wuxian to leave earlier so that he can get ready for the concert and Lan Wangji drives him to his flat so that he doesn’t waste time in the train; Mo Xuanyu helps him dress Wen Yuan properly for the concert, because the toddler hasn’t stopped talking about it since he was picked up from the nursery and Wei Wuxian had planned to take him anyway.

“Do you want to come with us?” Wei Wuxian offers after taking a shower and getting dressed, dizi case in one hand and Wen Yuan clinging to the opposite leg. “I don’t think Lan Zhan minds.”

Mo Xuanyu shakes his head. “I’ve heard enough about him from the little thing there,” he comments, pointing at Wen Yuan with his chin. Wei Wuxian shrugs, hoping it hides a new pang of jealousy. Just what does Lan Wangji have that has Wen Yuan so fascinated? “Good luck with the concert,” Mo Xuanyu adds as Wei Wuxian drags his feet to the lift.

Lan Wangji was ready when he picked Wei Wuxian up from his brother’s business, but once Wei Wuxian secures Wen Yuan on the back seat and drops himself next to his classmate he isn’t in a hurry anymore. He takes a minute to admire the way Lan Wangji’s white trousers cling to his legs and the outline of muscles Wei Wuxian can almost trace through a white shirt.

“Shouldn’t we wear the same colour?” he comments though, tugging at the cuff of his black shirt.

“You should wear white,” Lan Wangji informs, not taking his eyes off the road.

“Too bad I don’t have white clothes.” Wei Wuxian folds his arms behind his head. In his old school, the norm was wearing black for concerts; and he doesn’t like white to begin with. “Is your brother really coming?”

Something tugs at the corners of Lan Wangji’s lips as he nods.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are the last to play, so they aren’t particularly nervous about performing. They arrive ten minutes before the concert starts; Wei Wuxian makes sure Wen Yuan doesn’t get too far from him as he follows Lan Wangji to the ensemble room to warm up. Afterwards they head towards the concert hall, finding Lan Xichen, Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue halfway, waiting for the doors to open.

“An… interesting choice of clothes,” Lan Xichen comments upon seeing Wei Wuxian, the single black dot in a massive domino.

“Lan Zhan didn’t tell me the custom here is wearing white,” Wei Wuxian defends himself. Lan Wangji glares at him.

“He didn’t ask.”

“It’s alright, it’s alright,” Lan Xichen quickly says with a placating smile. He tilts his head when he notices the small figure nearly hidden behind Wei Wuxian’s leg though, smile growing a little. “Oh, good evening.”

Wen Yuan met Lan Xichen when Wei Wuxian took him to the Lan residence, but the child is a bit afraid of the amount of people swarming around them.

“Hm?” It takes Nie Mingjue, tall enough to tower even above the Lan brothers, a couple of seconds to spot Wen Yuan. “Ah, there he is.”

Even though there is more warmth in his eyes than Wei Wuxian has ever seen in his entire being when addressing Meng Yao, Wen Yuan shrinks a little, tries to shelter from the man’s gaze behind Lan Wangji’s guqin.

Meng Yao smiles as he crouches down to the toddler’s height, a friendly hand reaching out. “So who is this handsome little man honouring us with his presence?”

Wen Yuan hesitates; biting on his thumb, he glances at Wei Wuxian, all of a sudden timid and devoid of his usual vivaciousness. After a pat on his head though, he decides to speak— perhaps because Meng Yao is the least intimidating out of Wei Wuxian’s bosses.

“I’m Wen Yuan,” he introduces himself, reaching out to take Meng Yao’s hand. “And you?”

For the briefest second, Wei Wuxian would swear he sees surprise distorting Meng Yao’s expression.

“Meng Yao.” The two of them shake hands; it makes Wen Yuan smile a little. “Nice to meet you, A-Yuan.”

 

 


 

 

As their turn to play approaches, Lan Wangji notices small signs that give Wei Wuxian’s nerves away: his expression remains relaxed as Wen Yuan high-fives him to the beat of the pieces performed, but he constantly shifts on his seat, changing the child from one thigh to the other as his feet tap on the floor, quicker as time passes.

Two pieces before their turn, they leave Wen Yuan with Lan Xichen and Meng Yao –the child is still terrified of Nie Mingjue’s height and deep voice– and walk out of the hall to enter through another door to the backstage area, where they find their Chamber Music teacher giving the second-to-last performers a last piece of advice before they walk on stage.

“Ah, there you two are.” She smiles, walking towards them. “Did you fix your problem?”

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian answers as Lan Wangji nods.

“Perfect.” Her smile grows; she doesn’t comment on Wei Wuxian’s attire. “You’re both great musicians; just remember to listen to each other.”

The teacher doesn’t stay with them after they nod again; she heads towards the stage to listen to the string quartet currently playing.

With his score rolled up in the pocket of his trousers, Wei Wuxian’s fingers tap on the holes of his dizi, playing the piece without blowing on the instrument as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. His hair is still wet; even though he combed it before leaving his flat, it seems determined to go back to its generally dishevelled appearance.  Absent-mindedly Lan Wangji reaches out, runs his fingers through wavy locks in an attempt to somewhat tame them.

He freezes when Wei Wuxian jumps at the gesture, hand still at the eyes staring up at him in surprise.

“Your hair,” Lan Wangji rasps, words feeble and clumsy. “It’s…”

“A mess?” Wei Wuxian suggests. His amused smirk reaches up to his grey eyes.

Lan Wangji forcibly swallows down; but his heart remains in his throat, beats echoing against his eardrums. “…Yes.”

He presses his lips together before he can say anything else, something just as sincere but infinite times more inappropriate.

“It’s useless,” Wei Wuxian confides, lowering his voice as if it were a secret. “Yours is way more beautiful.” He racks his own fingers through his hair and Lan Wangji pulls his hand back, clutching the edge of his guqin because the brief brush with Wei Wuxian’s skin burns. “Are you nervous?”

In an unplanned display of sincerity, Lan Wangji nods.

He just keeps to himself the reason behind the uneasiness coiling in his stomach, far from the brief minutes left until they step in front of the public.

“Aw, don’t be. Even if you mess up, I’ll follow… I’ll even slow down during the fast sections.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “No need.”

And there is truly no need, because once Wei Wuxian sets foot on stage his anxiousness disappears, devoured by that fervent need to prove himself no matter what. Because they have practiced this piece enough to memorise it and yet it sounds new, different every time their gazes meet; and every time Wei Wuxian winks as if to say my turn Lan Wangji is truly grateful to know the piece by heart, because logic fails when his classmate slides down a string of semiquavers that tangle with the deep sounds supporting the melody until the guqin finds its time to shine, dizi quiet and attentive during the longer notes.

And when they reach the end, way too soon, and they bow to the clapping audience, Lan Wangji only has eyes for the blush clinging to Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, that pink born from the lights bathing the stage, from the exertion after playing and the dozens of eyes staring at them.

“It’s been really a cool birthday,” Wei Wuxian mutters later, cleaning his dizi. The Ensemble room is empty, all of their schoolmates already outside with their families.

From his reclaimed spot clinging to his leg, Wen Yuan looks up.

“Happy birthday, Brother Xian,” he mutters. “I’ll… I’ll draw something for you.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes are bright with affection when he crouches to press a kiss to Wen Yuan’s forehead.

“Thank you, but I’d be happier if you just ate what I cook without complaining.” Wen Yuan looks horrified. “Hey, no, no, don’t cry! It was a joke.”

“…Is it really your birthday?” Lan Wangji asks from his chair— he has long since finished saving his guqin, so he is waiting for Wei Wuxian.

“Ah, yeah. But it’s fine, you don’t need to get me anything.” Wei Wuxian smiles. “I really had fun today.”

Lan Wangji nods slowly.

“…Me too,” he admits a couple of minutes later, as the three of them head outside to meet up with Lan Xichen and the others.

 

 


 

 

Later, after dropping Wei Wuxian and Wen Yuan in their flat and driving back home, Lan Wangji catches a glimpse of his brother and Meng Yao in the kitchen, trying to cook something without awakening Lan Qiren.

The two of them have their backs turned towards the entrance, so they don’t notice Lan Wangji. Lan Xichen leans down a bit, and Meng Yao whispers something in his ear. Whatever it is, it makes Lan Xichen laugh; as if on instinct he crashes their lips together to muffle the sound, something Meng Yao takes advantage of to sneak his arms around his boyfriend’s neck and keep him close.

Lan Wangji’s ears feel hot just from watching them. Flustered, he bends down to pick the rabbit nibbling at the hem of his trousers, heads towards his room without making any noise or turning the lights on.

For a long time he stays sitting on his bed, staring at the opposite wall without really seeing it.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

November brings colder days and a persistent wind that blows golden leaves off most trees, as well as whirlwinds to gather them in small piles along the streets. Most of the time clouds hover above the city, threatening rain that doesn’t arrive.

Wen Yuan likes stepping on the dead leaves, jumping on them until they grow quiet and then hopping to the next pile, the ends of his red scarf zigzagging in his wake. Sometimes he calls Wei Wuxian, makes sure he is watching before shrinking like a spring to gain momentum and dive into a particularly big heap.

“Alright, enough playing.” Wei Wuxian extends his hand. “We have a road to cross.”

Obediently Wen Yuan returns to his side, small hands clasping a couple of Wei Wuxian’s fingers.

“Are we going to Brother Rich’s house?”

Stopping before the crossing, Wei Wuxian can’t help a chuckle. He’s positive Lan Wangji would be absolutely mortified at being called that.

“I have to work, A-Yuan,” he explains though, impatient at the red light glaring at them; he has yet to make lunch and take a shower before heading for Lan Xichen’s office. “Today is Brother Xuanyu’s turn.”

Wen Yuan likes Mo Xuanyu nearly since they met, the very night Wei Wuxian arrived at Jiang Fengmian’s old flat; but today he pouts and puffs up his cheeks in displeasure.

“I want Brother Rich.”

“We’ll go see him some other time,” Wei Wuxian promises, even though he himself isn’t quite sure of that. Without any upcoming concerts or major coordination problems, there is no reason for him to spend time in Lan Wangji’s house these days. “Actually, since you like Lan Zhan so much, I’m going to sell you to him.”

Wen Yuan’s eyes widen; the child clings tighter to Wei Wuxian’s hand when they start crossing the street.

“Sell?”

“Yeah. You go to live with him and he gives me money in exchange. Imagine everything I could buy… Like a plane, or a tiger. Tigers are cool.”

“But… But… You can’t sell me,” Wen Yuan argues, though he doesn’t look particularly confident.

“I can,” Wei Wuxian assures, raising his index. “It’s just that children are expensive, so not everyone can afford to buy them… But Lan Zhan is rich, so he’ll pay for sure. What do you say? It’s a good deal for you too: you’ll get all the toys you want, all the rabbits you want…”

Wen Yuan scrunches up his nose, pensive; he stays silent until they reach the grey block.

“I like his food,” he comments, grabbing the hem of Wei Wuxian’s jacket while he searches for his keys.

“You little—…” Wei Wuxian crouches down with the sole purpose of biting Wen Yuan’s cheek, lifts him in spite of the child’s kicks to carry him towards the lift. “I changed my mind,” he declares. “You’re staying with me and eating my food.  Forever.”

Nooo…” Wen Yuan complains, but his whine morphs into laughter as soon as Wei Wuxian tickles his sides. “Brother Xian, Brother Xian! I’ll eat, I’ll eat everything!” he promises, twisting in Wei Wuxian’s arms in his struggle to break free.

Wei Wuxian only sets the child down once the door of the lift slides open, lets him run along the hallway on his short legs. An artificial melody rings from the pocket of his jeans before reaching their little flat though.

“Sister Qing?” Wen Yuan immediately asks, eyes bright even before Wei Wuxian can take his phone out.

“…No.”

“Brother Ning?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head.

Perplexity carves a frown between his eyebrows as he rereads the name in the screen, something unpleasant stirring in the pit of his stomach— not because of the person calling him, but because of the absolutely off timing.

“It’s not for you this time,” he mutters, only a bit guilty at the disappointment that washes over Wen Yuan’s round face.

Jiang Cheng?

 

 


 

 

Lan Wangji had no particular plan in mind for Wednesday afternoon, other than playing on his own and maybe keeping reading on the French Baroque; but his brother’s call, twenty minutes before a meeting, requesting to take a folder with documents to his office still irks him. It’s unusual for Lan Xichen to be so careless as to forget about such important matters, and it is even rarer for him to trouble anyone else due to his negligence.

He still concedes though. Since Nie Mingjue is visiting his brother, the other option Lan Xichen has left is sending Meng Yao, which would surely lead to disaster. Lan Wangji finds the folder on his brother’s desk, the papers in it neatly organised and prepared for take them and leave. It takes him fifteen minutes to drive to the office, and a couple more to park the car and take the lift to the seventeenth floor.

Wei Wuxian is waiting at the entrance of the establishment, arms folded over his chest and back leaning on the doorframe; he rushes towards Lan Wangji as soon as he spots him, pries the folder off his arms and disappears inside in a matter of seconds, wavy hair dangling in his wake, brushing his shoulders.

By the time Lan Wangji makes it to the counter, Wei Wuxian is walking back there. His easy smile widens as he approaches.

“Just in time, Lan Zhan! Your brother told me to thank you.” He grabs the edge of the counter with both hands, hoists himself up to sit on the board, from where he watches Lan Wangji. “Did you start Analysis homework?”

“I finished doing it yesterday,” Lan Wangji replies. “Get down.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer immediately; instead he swings his legs and stretches his arms above his head. “They won’t come out for at least half an hour,” he mutters, pointing at the meeting room with his head. “And I just have to jump down as soon as the lift door opens…”

“Still.” Lan Wangji narrows his eyes as Wei Wuxian reaches out with his leg to poke at his arm with the tip of his shoe. “Stop that.”

“But I’m bored,” Wei Wuxian whines, poking at him again. “Are you keeping me company?”

Lan Wangji shifts his weight from one foot to the other, staring at Wei Wuxian’s so intently it’s a miracle his shoe doesn’t melt. “You could finish homework.”

“Or you could entertain me.” Wei Wuxian twirls a lock of dark hair around his index, puckering his lips into a pensive frown. “Or better, come to see A-Yuan some time. You know where to find us.”

The memory of the toddler mellows Lan Wangji’s glare. He looks at Wei Wuxian again, partly wondering whether it’s a joke, partly wishing it were so that he bursts into laughter.

“…Really?”

“Yeah! He won’t shut up about you, I still don’t know how you made him get attached so fast.” Wei Wuxian lowers his leg. “Oh, I know! You don’t have anything to do tomorrow after class, right?”

“Which class?”

“Trad Music.” Wei Wuxian grins. “Actually, I know you have a pretty boring life, so why don’t you come with me to pick A-Yuan up?”

As satisfied as he is with his life so far, Lan Wangji cannot help the tinge of resentment embittering the affectionate flame within his heart, eyes narrowing at Wei Wuxian’s obliviousness— which is perhaps what stings the most.

“I have things to do,” he excuses himself, with nothing but spite fuelling the lie.

Wei Wuxian arches a sceptical eyebrow, the swinging of his legs halting. “Oh. Really?”

Pursing his lips together, Lan Wangji glances aside, neither nodding nor shaking his head. Frustration boils within his stomach, ears burning— both satisfied for erasing Wei Wuxian’s smile and aching to take back his words so that his classmate’s cheerfulness returns to the empty space between them.

But he stays silent, biting his tongue until it hurts.

“You can just say you don’t want to,” Wei Wuxian eventually comments, jumping off the counter and walking around it to go back to his seat.

Lan Wangji doesn’t particularly enjoy lying, much less without a solid reason, so he turns around to leave, neither confirming nor denying Wei Wuxian’s statement.

 

 


 

 

Wen Qing’s call that night eases Wen Yuan’s eagerness to see Lan Wangji the tiniest bit; he tells his cousin about the man that has a big house and a rabbit and is better at cooking than Wei Wuxian, but also asks when she and Wen Ning will be back, listens to her orders to behave well and not give Wei Wuxian much trouble. As if to prove he paid attention, as soon as his turn on the phone is over he diligently digs into his congee.

“News?” Wei Wuxian asks, not taking his eyes off Wen Yuan to make sure he doesn’t throw the rice around.

“Sister went to… To…” A voice that isn’t Wen Qing’s stammers, always unsure. “She’ll be back right now…”

“Ah, Wen Ning!” Wei Wuxian grins; it’s been a while since they could talk. “How are you?”

“Better.” On the other side of the line Wen Ning swallows audibly. “Walking a bit.”

“That’s great! What about your hand?”

It takes Wen Ning a couple of seconds to answer.

“…Almost useless.” Wei Wuxian purses his lips together, guilt pooling in his stomach. “But the burns don’t look that bad now.” Silence settles between them; as if sensing Wei Wuxian’s inability to come up with something to say –because no amount of apologies will fix his charred fingers–, Wen Ning speaks again: “Thanks for taking care of A-Yuan.”

“It’s alright.” Wei Wuxian can’t help but smile again at the face Wen Yuan makes with every spoonful of rice he brings to his mouth. “I tease him a lot, but he’s really good.”

“Who…” Wen Ning trails off, tries again after a moment. “Who’s that Brother Rich he talked about?”

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian chuckles. “He’s a classmate of mine; last week we had a concert together. A-Yuan adores him.”

Wen Ning hums, his smile as loud as if he had laughed. Wei Wuxian waits for him to speak again, but it’s Wen Qing’s words what he actually hears:

“Yeah, it’s the same guy he wouldn’t shut up about the first time we called.”

“Hey!”

“Sorry,” Wen Ning apologises on instinct. “But are you sure that classmate…?”

“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian can’t help the tinge of impatience in his voice. “I did my research when I arrived; the Lans are all lawyers, musicians or both. Well, except my boss. He’s an architect… Not even a scientist, in any case. A-Yuan, stop spitting your food.”

There are tears in Wen Yuan’s eyes when he glances up.

“It’s bad,” he whines.

“Nonsense.” Wei Wuxian takes a spoonful of congee to taste it. “…Or not.”

The child isn’t exaggerating; while he was making dinner, Wei Wuxian was distracted by the incessant babbling about Lan Wangji, so he didn’t pay attention to how much pepper he added.

“I swear, Wei Wuxian, if you damage A-Yuan’s taste buds I’ll damage yours permanently by cutting your tongue off,” Wen Qing threatens. “For the love of all that is holy, get that friend of yours to cook for him more often.”

“Alright, Mum,” Wei Wuxian snaps back, heading towards the kitchen to fetch some fruit. “By the way, my brother called earlier… Apparently your uncle is coming here for a meeting. Do you know anything about it, by any chance?”

He hears a shuffle as Wen Ning passes the phone to his sister.

“It’s a convention at the University of Medicine, from what I know. It was planned way before I left, so I don’t think… You’re probably safe. But be careful.”

Wei Wuxian nods. Wen Yuan’s eyes are bright when he brings a banana to the table, but the child’s happiness over such a small thing isn’t enough to make him smile now.

“Like always… Take care, you too.”

 

 


 

 

Nothing in Wei Wuxian’s behaviour the following morning betrays he has become any less airheaded than he was yesterday, but when he grabs Lan Wangji’s arm to drag him in the opposite direction he usually follows him to his smile is somewhat duller.

“Where are you taking me?”

“To pick A-Yuan up, like I told you yesterday.” Wei Wuxian advances in long strides, not giving any sign of slowing down even as they reach the end of the pavement.

“And I told you…” Lan Wangji digs his heels on the ground, stopping Wei Wuxian before he throws them both to the road. “I have things to do.”

“Whatever.” Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “It’s not as if that were true. And you may not like me, but you absolutely drool over him.” He tugs at Lan Wangji again. “Come on, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji glances away, struggles to stay pinned to the spot despite Wei Wuxian’s insistence.

“You can’t cross the road wherever you fancy,” he eventually mutters. Taking advantage of the grip on his wrist, he drags Wei Wuxian towards the crossing, where other people are waiting for the human silhouette in the traffic light to become green.

Wei Wuxian clicks his tongue.

“What’s the fun in that?”

Lan Wangji is quite certain that is a question not meant to have an answer; but he replies anyway, because Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to be actually aware of what his words entail.

“Not dying.”

Perhaps Wei Wuxian finds the idea ridiculous, or maybe he is laughing at Lan Wangji for answering a rhetorical question in all seriousness; his chuckle lightens the cloudy day hovering above them.

“It bothered you, didn’t it?” Lan Wangji knits his eyebrow together, off-guard at Wei Wuxian’s suddenly serious tone. “That I called your life boring.”

Lan Wangji’s stubborn glare, directed at the traffic light, hops back towards his classmate, not knowing whether he is more surprised by Wei Wuxian addressing the root of the irritation crawling on his skin since yesterday or by the fact that he may not be as much of a scatterbrain as he assumed.

“…Not really,” Lan Wangji eventually replies, and it’s not a complete lie— he is aware Wei Wuxian just voiced what most people he’s acquainted with keep to themselves; and as satisfied with his life as he is, he sometimes wishes it had been more of his choice. “You’re just inconsiderate.”

“Can’t argue against that.” Wei Wuxian admits. “I just talk faster than I think. Sorry.”

Lan Wangji isn’t sure how to reply to that, so he just pulls at his classmate to cross the road as soon as he notices the green light.

“Plus, l’m one to talk, right?” Wei Wuxian lets go of him once they reach the pavement. “I’m either at school, at work or babysitting a toddler.”

It’s hard to come up with something to say, Lan Wangji muses, when Wei Wuxian does nearly all the work himself. Once things are cleared up his trademark cheerfulness comes back; there is not a single silence until they arrive at the nursery, and even then Wei Wuxian chats with the teachers as he waits for Wen Yuan to come out.

“I painted with my feet!” is the child’s greeting as soon as he spots Wei Wuxian, running as far as he can with his artwork waving in his wake. “Look, look!”

“Woah, did you have fun?” Wei Wuxian picks him up in his arms, smiling when Wen Yuan shows him the red footprints in the sheet. “Your feet are so small… Anyway, look who came to see you.”

Wen Yuan follows the direction Wei Wuxian’s finger is pointing in, smile growing when he spots Lan Wangji; he shakes his legs to be put back down, rushes towards Lan Wangji.

“Brother Rich, Brother Rich! Look!” He holds the paper high to show the silhouette of his feet, beaming and proud.

Bewildered, Lan Wangji glances at Wei Wuxian; his classmate just shrugs and offers a smirk as an answer.

“Very… red,” he manages, but it’s enough for Wen Yuan. “About that way to address me…”

“Will you cook today?” Wen Yuan interrupts, clinging to his leg with bright eyes.

A few metres behind the child, Wei Wuxian nearly doubles over in laughter: “Now that’s being shameless.”

But Wei Wuxian is right: Lan Wangji has nothing to do until the afternoon.

“Alright.”

 

 


 

 

Thursday is the only weekday Wei Wuxian doesn’t work; he has Acoustics in the afternoon, the only group lesson he doesn’t share with Lan Wangji. From what he has gathered, at the same time Lan Wangji has Choir class; but they always finish earlier, so Wei Wuxian heads back home alone, engulfed by a silence that not even the earphones in his ears can push away.

He knocks on Mo Xuanyu’s door first, where he finds his neighbour gathering a bunch of toys in a bag, carefully prying them off a very asleep Wen Yuan to not awaken him.

“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian mutters as he picks the child up, honest, because between music school, work and a toddler that no matter how well-behaved is still two, getting used to a new city is being more tiring than he anticipated.

“It’s okay, really! A-Yuan is so good I almost forget he’s here.” Mo Xuanyu zips up the bag and hands it to him. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow in the morning though.”

Wei Wuxian glances at him. “Ah, don’t worry, I’ll figure something out.” Mo Xuanyu already does enough by taking care of Wen Yuan for free. “How’s your mother doing?”

Mo Xuanyu’s gaze remains on Wen Yuan’s bag. “Stable,” he eventually admits.

“That means she’s not worse, right?” But Mo Xuanyu only shrugs, conflicted, and Wei Wuxian can’t think of anything else to say, so he thanks his neighbour for babysitting Wen Yuan one last time before walking towards his own flat.

He balances the child with one arm, which considering his habit to cling to anything within his reach isn’t hard, to fish the key out of his pocket and unlock his own flat, hangs it on the hook before closing the door behind him.

In the pocket of his jeans, his phone vibrates just when Wei Wuxian is changing a drowsy Wen Yuan into his pyjamas; he doesn’t check the text until the child is tucked in and asleep though.

His lungs fail to fill with air at the three words glowering black against the white background, sent from an unknown number:

 

21.16

They found you.

 

 


 

 

Lan Wangji spends Friday morning doing homework and playing the guqin; except for him and his rabbit, the house is empty, so he takes instrument and score to the garden and plays among the magnolia’s falling leaves.

Only the artificial notes of his phone break the peaceful atmosphere; upon confirming the identity of the incoming call Lan Wangji can only think, not without a tinge of frustration, that it’s quite fitting.

But Wei Wuxian is too oblivious to be blamed for something he will most likely never know, so Lan Wangji answers the call.

“Hi, Lan Zhan… I hope I didn’t wake you up…”

Lan Wangji frowns. “It’s half-past eleven.”

“A great time to sleep, if you ask me.” But Wei Wuxian sounds so breathless that his joke holds no amusement. “Can I please ask you for the smallest favour?”

“What is it?”

Lan Wangji identifies the shuffle coming from the other end of the line as Wei Wuxian closing a door.

“Pick A-Yuan up from the nursery. Someone’s… If I… I really can’t go…”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupts before his classmate’s disjointed speech derails into some nonsensical rambling. “Are you alright?”

“…Yeah,” Wei Wuxian replies after a couple of seconds. “I’m alright. Great, even. But A-Yuan…” His voice wavers. “I’ll go for him later, just take care of him until then. Please.”

“I will,” Lan Wangji replies, because there is a sliver of despair lodged deep within Wei Wuxian’s voice and it’s slowly sinking into his own heart. “What happened?”

“Oh, nothing important.” Wei Wuxian’s voice grows higher, the discordance with its heaviness jarring to hear— a lie. “I just have stuff to take care of, it won’t take long…”

It’s not the first time Lan Wangji walks into the wall Wei Wuxian’s constant teasing makes invisible, but he doesn’t remember the certainty that his classmate refuses to let him be too close being so infuriating.

“Alright,” Lan Wangji cuts him off again, his lower lip trembling without a reason. “Take care.”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Wei Wuxian snaps back, too defensive. “I—… Sorry. Thank you, Lan Zhan.”

He hangs up abruptly, without even saying goodbye, leaving a knot tied tight in Lan Wangji’s stomach.

 

 


 

 

Lan Qiren’s tolerance of Meng Yao has reached a level Lan Xichen wouldn’t have believed possible when he first told his uncle he was dating his high school friend, so he invites his boyfriend to stay the night.

Tonight, it’s Lan Wangji’s turn to make dinner, but Lan Xichen doesn’t expect to find a second person in the kitchen, much less a child that follows his brother and clings to the hem of his sweater, looking at him with bright eyes. Despite not having seen him much, Lan Xichen knows who he is right away.

“Good evening, A-Yuan,” he greets; the toddler lets go of Lan Wangji and approaches them, high-fives both Lan Xichen and Meng Yao when they offer their palms. “How come you’re here?”

“Brother Xian has… has… things to do,” Wen Yuan explains. He rushes back to Lan Wangji’s side. “I can play with Brother Rich today.”

Next to Lan Xichen, Meng Yao struggles to contain his laughter; but Lan Wangji seems neither amused nor offended.

“Wei Ying asked me to pick him up,” he offers instead, pushing a stray lock of hair off his face while he stirs the soup. “He should come for him soon.”

Lan Xichen frowns.

“So he didn’t miss work because of the kid?” Meng Yao comments.

“He missed work?”

The three of them share a glance, each understanding several things to piece the scene together.

Since the last and only time Wei Wuxian didn’t attend work was because the child under his care was sick, Lan Xichen assumed today it was the same— what else could it be? Wei Wuxian is a great assistant, so Lan Xichen had no reservations about giving him a day off; especially since his employee specifically said it was an emergency.

In the end it’s Wen Yuan’s hesitant voice what shatters the silence.

“Brother Xian is gone?” Tears shine in the corners of his eyes, fear taking over the wide grey. “When will he come back?”

Lan Xichen’s gaze hops from his brother to the child, then to his brother again, stomach shrinking a little at the budding panic in Lan Wangji’s eyes.

“He said—…”

“Brother Xian selled me!” Wen Yuan howls, stomping on the floor as his round face scrunches up and grows redder. “To buy a tiger!” Tears finally stream down his cheeks, his wailing spreading beyond the kitchen. “Or a plane!”

“A-Yuan,” Lan Xichen starts, but his voice is barely audible above the child’s tantrum, “he didn’t—…”

“You cannot sell children,” Lan Wangji blurts out, taking a step away from the toddler as if he were about to explode. “Trafficking with people is forbidden.”

“Brother Xian selled me to buy a tiger!” Wen Yuan drops himself on the floor, rubbing at his eyes with tight fists as he kicks his heels against the tiles.

“The correct form is sold…”

But Wen Yuan does not care about grammar, nor does he give a hoot about legality or human rights.

“I want Brother Xian,” he sobs, his cries cut off by hiccups. “I want Brother Xian! I don’t like tigers!”

“I think buying tigers is forbidden too…” Lan Xichen whispers, voice too quiet against Wen Yuan’s wails.

Meng Yao’s gaze hops from one brother to the other— the older about to cry along with the toddler, the younger clearly considering escaping through the window as a viable option.

“You two are hopeless.”

“I want… I want Brother Xian…” Wen Yuan repeats between desperate wails. “Brother Xian is gone like Mum and Dad…”

“Then you try,” Lan Xichen dares his boyfriend, but before Meng Yao can so much as accept the challenge a new voice pierces through the commotion.

“What’s all this noise?” Lan Qiren’s voice cracks across the kitchen like thunder; Lan Xichen feels Meng Yao’s hand grabbing onto his forearm, but he seems to decide it’s a bad idea just as his uncle walks in the room. “What are you crying about?”

The second question is noticeably gentler and quieter than the first one, but Wen Yuan shrinks into himself a bit, tears freezing out of fright alone.

“Brother Xian…” Wen Yuan is shaking noticeably, but for him increasing Lan Qiren’s anger seems scarier than answering. “Brother Xian selled me…”

“Oh? And how come nobody informed me?” He looks at his nephews, deliberately acting as if Meng Yao were a piece of furniture. “Xichen, Wangji, don’t forget you still live under your father’s roof, regardless of your age… Did you think I’d let you keep the child if you brought him without asking, just like I did with the rabbits?”

Still with the ladle in his hand, Lan Wangji’s mouth falls open the tiniest bit, eyes slightly widened in a shock Lan Xichen somehow manages to swallow down:

“Well, Uncle…”

“We are returning him. I don’t like loud children.” Lan Qiren turns around, heading back towards the dining room. “I will text that Brother Xian to let him know we don’t want such an impolite child, so that he comes pick you up as soon as he can.”

Lan Qiren leaves behind an astonished silence, broken only by Wen Yuan’s quieter sobs; out of every idea Lan Xichen was coming up with, none included his uncle scaring the toddler speechless— and somehow soothing him.

After nearly a whole minute, Lan Wangji sets the ladle on an empty plate and picks Wen Yuan up by his waist.

“Wei Ying will come back later,” he states, monotone yet confident as he sits Wen Yuan on the countertop. “Now wait until I finish making dinner.”

Wen Yuan nods, sniffling as he wipes away his tears.

“W-when will Brother Xian be back?”

“Soon.”

Lan Xichen expects Wen Yuan to insist, but the child seems satisfied enough with the answer.

 

 


 

 

After eating more than he probably should, Wen Yuan is too tired to resume demanding answers about Wei Wuxian’s whereabouts. When Lan Wangji prepares the bed in the guest room the child asks him to call Wei Wuxian, but his whines grow tired as Lan Wangji changes him into old clothes that could have belonged to either him or Lan Xichen; his words become slurred, the knuckles against his eyes less effective to rub sleep away than they were to get rid of his tears barely two hours prior.

It’s not as if Wei Wuxian picks up his phone, anyway.

Wen Yuan falls asleep in a matter of minutes, Lan Wangji’s rabbit curled up against his side; but it takes Lan Wangji longer to leave, exactly as long as three more calls need to be unanswered.

Lan Wangji purses his lips together, staring at his phone as if he could make Wei Wuxian remember he owns similar one if he puts enough effort. After making sure Wen Yuan is properly tucked in, he walks out of the room and closes the door without making any noise; he isn’t stealthy enough to avoid his brother though.

Lan Xichen looks at him from the space between the door of his bedroom and the frame; though not as long as his brother’s, his black hair is tousled, loose locks falling on his face.

“A-Yuan didn’t throw another tantrum?” His expression softens when Lan Wangji shakes his head. “What about Wei Wuxian?”

Lan Wangji shrugs, not bothering with an answer he doesn’t need to voice.

“I’m sure he is alright,” Lan Xichen offers. “He would have said something if he needed help.”

Lan Wangji’s lips part, but after a couple of seconds he realises he can’t find the words to explain the helplessness coiling around his heart, squeezing tighter every time he thinks he is finally closer and Wei Wuxian takes another step back.

He is nearly grateful to Meng Yao for pulling his brother back into the room, their laughter louder than the door closing before his eyes.

“…Good night, brother,” he eventually mutters, continuing his way to his bedroom.

 

 


 

 

When A-Yuan awakens, he is so scared he can’t breathe.

He kicks the bedsheets off him, rolls to his side until there is no more bed to hold him. Tears distort the darkness around with the thud the floor catches him with, so silent he can only hear his own heartbeat, too loud as the formless blotches grow bright, consumed by screeching flames.

“Mum,” A-Yuan calls, but since the fire she never comes to hug him— just like Dad. “Sister Qing, Brother Ning… Brother Xian… Brother Xian…”

A white thing slides to the edge of the bed and he cries out, jumping to his feet and running across the dark room until he hits a wall where the door used to be, always half-open for him to go to Brother Xian’s bed and sleep with him.

“Brother Xian…?” A-Yuan hits the wall with his palms, feeling it in search for the door; he yelps when he finds a corner instead, with nothing but more wall beyond it. “Brother Xian! Brother Xian—”

Darkness disappears violently, the world so bright A-Yuan has to cover his tearstained face; his hands soon curl into fists to hit the grip hoisting him up though, but before he can break free he finds himself pulled up against someone big and warm and he can’t help but sob into soft clothes.

“Shhh…” A-Yuan punches the person holding him, knowing, before hearing the voice that they’re not Brother Xian, but they don’t budge. “It’s alright.”

Brother Rich’s voice is calm, deep and as steady as his arms.

“I want Brother Xian,” A-Yuan mumbles, sniffling. “When will he come back?”

He likes the soft rocking in Brother Rich’s embrace; with his face hidden between Brother Rich’s neck and shoulder, light doesn’t bother A-Yuan that much.

“Not yet.” Brother Rich’s hold tightens a bit and A-Yuan grabs onto fistfuls of his clothes. “It’s late, so he must be sleeping.”

A-Yuan nuzzles his head against Brother Rich’s shoulder. “Is Brother Xian gone too?”

A-Yuan doesn’t understand some of the thing Brother Xian talks about. He doesn’t really get why he sounds sad when he says Mum and Dad are gone, but he knows it means they are never going to play with him or talk to him again. He knows it’s different from away, because Sister Qing and Brother Ning can’t play with him but he can still talk to them on the phone and they will come back.

A-Yuan can’t grasp many things, but he doesn’t want Brother Xian to be gone, because he plays with him and talks to him and cooks for him even if his food makes A-Yuan cry.

“No,” Brother Rich eventually answers, after so long A-Yuan is tired of crying. “He just has things to do.”

“What things?”

Brother Rich doesn’t speak for a while; A-Yuan is sleepy again when he does.

“You should ask him when you see him.”

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t come back on Saturday.

Keeping Wen Yuan distracted gets harder as time passes; he grows clingier and whinier the more tired he is, and he seems convinced that in spite of Lan Qiren’s disapproval Wei Wuxian won’t come to pick him up. He only relaxes when Lan Wangji plays for him, and therefore they spend the afternoon in the soundproof room with the rabbit.

That night Lan Wangji lets the toddler sleep in his room. Wen Yuan still awakens crying in the middle of the night, but this time Lan Wangji manages to calm him down before he awakens the rest of his family.

On Sunday, Lan Wangji leaves Wen Yuan under his brother’s care for a while, heads towards Wei Wuxian’s flat and nearly knocks the door down out of impatience and worry; but, just like his phone calls, all he gets in response is silence.

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian is out of breath by the time he reaches the end of the residential street, past sunset; he supposes he should have left this for tomorrow, but guilt weighs heavy in his stomach even though he didn’t have much of an option. Upon opening the gate he walks across the garden in irregular steps, nearly punches the doorbell in his haste.

The time until the door opens is agonisingly slow, and yet when a familiar expression appears framed by the light from the hall Wei Wuxian finds himself wishing for a couple of seconds to find something worth saying, perhaps sorry or thank you or both.

But his tongue feels like sandpaper in his mouth, so in the end it’s Lan Wangji who speaks first:

“Wei Ying,” he mutters, amber eyes looking him up and down— Wei Wuxian takes a step back, head hanging low at his classmate’s scrutiny. “Where were you?”

“Busy, I told you.” The words are out before Wei Wuxian can even consider them, more defensive than it’s strictly necessary. “Where’s A-Yuan?”

“Playing with…” Lan Wangji trails off, glances back over his shoulder; Wei Wuxian hears it too, the light steps approaching along the hallway before a small figure skids the last stretch before reaching Lan Wangji, his big eyes fixed on the newcomer. “Ah.”

“Brother Xian!” Wen Yuan leaps towards Wei Wuxian, tries to hug his waist. “You can’t sell me! They don’t want me, you have to take me back.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. His face scrunches up in pain as he crouches down; while Lan Wangji cannot see his expression from his height, Wen Yuan, devouring him with his gaze, doesn’t miss it.

“What nonsense are you spouting now…?” He grins in spite of the agony burning up his leg, hugging Wen Yuan close— he’s solid, he’s alright and he’s there. “Did you behave yourself?”

Wen Yuan nods, not letting go.

“You should stop joking about selling him,” Lan Wangji mutters. Wei Wuxian glances up, hoping for an explanation, but all he sees is his classmate’s expression going from serious to shocked in a second. “Your—…”

“Alright, I won’t tease him that much.” Wei Wuxian clenches his teeth together as he stands back up, now with Wen Yuan in his arms, head tucked under his chin. “Thanks for taking care of A-Yuan, I’ll see you at school…”

He turns around to leave, but a firm grip on his shoulder halts him. It’s not tight enough to hurt on its own, but with his sore limbs and the already growing ache in his ankle from the added weight Wei Wuxian can’t supress a pained noise.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji’s voice is quiet, yet serious enough to make Wei Wuxian shudder. “Why is your eye bruised?”

Silence stretches the distance between them, the fingers on his shoulder cold. Wei Wuxian purses his lips together, both wanting to answer and wishing he could keep the truth a secret for the rest of his life— because there are already too many people involved in this, because Lan Wangji values his dull routine.

“…I don’t want to lie to you,” he manages, shrugging Lan Wangji’s grip off. “So don’t ask.”

He gives up on concealing his limping once he’s out of Lan Wangji’s garden, but as Wen Yuan starts talking about his weekend in the Lan Residence he smiles through the pain and the bruises.

The child is safe.

Everything is alright.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Lan Wangji’s quietness is far from unusual, but the unease in his movements as he toys with his dinner, picking bits of vegetables just to drop them and dig in search of more food he is clearly not planning to eat, is nothing short of remarkable.

Lan Xichen finishes his own meal quickly, but unlike Lan Qiren he stays sitting at the table afterwards, hoping against all hope his brother gets something in his system. He decides to speak up after a particularly vicious stab into a piece of carrot.

“What are you so upset about?”

Shaking his head, Lan Wangji brings the vegetable skewered on the chopstick to his mouth, changes his mind again and sets it down.

The restlessness accompanying his every move for the whole weekend left when Wei Wuxian arrived to pick Wen Yuan up, morphing into a stubborn moodiness as he helped set the table and tested their uncle’s patience by fiddling with his food; and it’s ridiculously easy to see where it comes from, but Lan Xichen is a bit at a loss about the specific reasoning leading to his brother’s agitation.

“He’s hiding something,” he mutters after nearly a whole minute, letting go of his chopsticks— it seems he won’t eat anything tonight, after all.

Lan Xichen bites the inside of his cheeks. While he is as intrigued as his brother about the reason Wei Wuxian seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth for the whole weekend, he does have the right to take a couple of days off every month. Plus, on Thursday he stayed working an extra hour, which makes Lan Xichen suspect whatever happened afterwards wasn’t completely unexpected.

“Everyone has circumstances of their own,” he eventually replies, eyes steady when Lan Wangji raises his head to look at him. “Besides, you enjoyed having A-Yuan here, didn’t you?”

Lan Wangji clenches his teeth, but the small pout as he tears his gaze away is as good as a verbal confirmation.

 

 


 

 

On Monday morning, the empty seat next to Lan Wangji attracts his gaze often, even more so than the days when there is someone doodling between staves or throwing paper planes at him. The quiet normalcy as the lessons progress sounds like a never-ending ringing that pierces through his eardrums; even though the teachers seem relieved by the break, paying attention to their explanations becomes harder with every glance Lan Wangji steals to where Wei Wuxian should be.

He accepts the second copy of the score to analyse and the text to read without complaining, heads towards Wei Wuxian’s flat before he can really consider whether it’s the best course of action.

But Analysis homework is an actual, valid reason for Lan Wangji to show up in Wei Wuxian’s doorstep, so he guesses he may as well do it.

He slips inside the building as a neighbour walks out, climbs the stairs to the fourth floor and knocks on Wei Wuxian’s door, struggling to keep the springs under his heels shrunk as he waits. After a couple of seconds small steps come from the other side, a weight leaning against the wooden board as Wen Yuan struggles to reach the lock.

An irregular, heavier pace joins the toddler’s; Wei Wuxian’s voice is too quiet for Lan Wangji to make out his words though. He stands still, aware of the eye looking at him through the peephole, until the door opens and Wen Yuan slips through the crack as soon as it’s wide enough for him to fit.

“Brother Rich!” The child hugs Lan Wangji’s leg, looks up with bright eyes. “Hello.”

Lan Wangji ruffles his hair, but his gaze strays to where Wei Wuxian watches the scene with tired eyes.

“A-Yuan, what did I tell you about the door,” he scolds, though his voice holds no edge. The bruise beneath his right eye looks darker than last night, but that is perhaps due to the messy hair falling on his face. “Don’t rush to let anyone in.”

Wen Yuan looks at him.

“But… But it’s Brother Rich.”

“You only know that now,” Wei Wuxian replies, irritated; he finally looks at Lan Wangji though. “What are you doing here?”

Lan Wangji bites down the dozens of questions struggling to break through his sealed lips.

“I don’t want to lie to you,” Wei Wuxian said less than twenty-four hours ago. Whatever is going on, Lan Wangji isn’t invited.

“I brought your homework,” he answers though, taking his bag off to reach for the papers. However, before he finds the folder Wei Wuxian takes a step back, opening the door wider. “Wei Ying?”

Wei Wuxian huffs. “The least I can do after you took the trouble is inviting you in,” he mutters, already turning around.

He limps, tries to avoid putting all his weight on his right leg.

Lan Wangji leaves the scores and the text on the tea table, sits on the same sofa he occupied the last time he was in Wei Wuxian’s flat, less than a week ago. It feels like it’s been longer since then. Wen Yuan sits next to him, swinging his legs in his best display of good behaviour until a clattering in the kitchen catches his attention.

“Don’t mind it, it’s just a couple of spoons,” Wei Wuxian reassures them.

Lan Wangji has half his mind made to help when Wen Yuan stands on the sofa to reach his ear and whisper into it:

“You know what, you know what?” He continues before Lan Wangji can answer. “Before, Sister Qing and Brother Xian talked. And Brother Xian, he, he asked her if we have to go to another place.”

Lan Wangji frowns. He is uncertain about how reliable a two-year-old’s word is; but he knows for sure Wen Yuan is sincere and way more open than the man battling against the whole kitchen to make tea a few metres away.

“Why would you have to?” he asks, swallowing down the uneasy knot in the back of his throat.

Wen Yuan’s shrug isn’t unexpected, but irritation prickles beneath Lan Wangji’s skin upon finding a dead end so soon.

“But Brother Ning says we can stay here,” Wen Yuan adds. “Because Brother Xian has school.” Lan Wangji nods. “But today Brother Xian is tired, and he didn’t go to school… Sister Qing says I have to be good, because he has to rest.”

“She’s right,” Lan Wangji agrees; even though he doesn’t know who Wen Yuan is talking about, he carefully puts the names the child drops so easily right next to the words slurred against his chest the other night, a fear that can’t come out of nowhere for a child that young. Whatever vague concept Wen Yuan may have about death, his parents most likely fit it.

“I didn’t make noise today!” Wen Yuan announces, proud and too loud against Lan Wangji’s ear, who has to resist the urge to draw back.

“Good,” he replies instead. Good that Wei Wuxian can at least get some rest, that he isn’t as alone as he seems every time he slips out of Lan Wangji’s reach. Good that he isn’t about to vanish just like he did during the weekend, this time to never show up again.

Lan Wangji presses his lips into a thin line, expression unchanging until Wei Wuxian comes back from the kitchen with a tray of teacups and sets it on the table, dropping himself on the other sofa. His hands hover around Wen Yuan as he hops down to the floor and runs to sit by Wei Wuxian’s side.

Wei Wuxian hands him the only plastic cup on the tray; as Wen Yuan sips on his tea he grabs his homework to skim through it.

“Another madrigal? Seriously? Did the Europeans do anything else?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. Bringing his cup to his lips, he eyes his classmate as he hums the melody of the piece, pinching the edges of the paper with different fingers as if it were his dizi. Other than his eye and his foot, Lan Wangji wonders where else he is hurt; Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to mind Wen Yuan’s weight leaning on him at all, so perhaps it isn’t that bad.

As he puts the cup down and glares at his reflection on the tea, Lan Wangji curses Wei Wuxian’s secretiveness— what kind of business can be so questionable to make him unable to tell anyone? And who else is involved in whatever he was doing while Wen Yuan stayed with Lan Wangji?

“…Will you go to school tomorrow?”

“Hm, yeah, most likely.” Wei Wuxian looks up from the papers. “I couldn’t catch a break for the whole weekend, it’s all.” He notices the shallowest frown between Lan Wangji’s eyebrows. “What? I bet you think I got in a fight or something.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, the sincerity in the gesture surprising even for himself; but unless it was accidentally, due to his overly quick tongue, Wei Wuxian doesn’t look like someone who goes around stirring up conflict just for fun— or at least not too serious an argument.

“Did you?” He can’t help but ask.

Wei Wuxian laughs. “No. I haven’t for… five years?” He finally reaches for his own teacup, the only one left on the tray. “And he deserved it.”

Lan Wangji’s frown deepens. “I doubt that.”

“He really did!” Wei Wuxian insists after downing his cup in a couple of gulps. “He still does, just so you know. But my sister married him, so I can’t exactly punch him in the face as a greeting anymore.”

“But fighting is bad,” Wen Yuan intervenes, more attentive to the conversation than the adults give him credit for. He’s holding his plastic cup with both hands, still blowing on it even though it wasn’t too hot to begin with; but he looks at Wei Wuxian. “My teacher says I can’t fight with the other children.”

“That’s true,” Wei Wuxian concedes with a sigh. “And it’s why I don’t fight with anyone these days. I’m a mature grownup.”

Wen Yuan glances down, brings the tea to his mouth— apparently now it’s at an adequate temperature. “Sister Qing says you act like a baby,” he mumbles into his cup.

Wei Wuxian is considerate enough to set both his and Wen Yuan’s cup on the table before trapping him with one arm and tickling the child’s belly with his free hand; and Lan Wangji’s frown eases the tiniest bit at the scene, vanishes without a trace when Wen Yuan somehow breaks free and crawls beneath the table to seek his protection.

Perhaps he isn’t allowed to know everything, but as he picks Wen Yuan in his arms and jumps aside to dodge Wei Wuxian’s attempt to catch the child, zigzagging among pieces of furniture and bags forgotten where they shouldn’t to leave him behind, Lan Wangji doesn’t feel like an outsider.

 

 


 

 

Days go by, colder and windier; eventually the weather brings the promised storm and rain that sticks brown, red and golden leaves to the ground, flat and soundless no matter how much Wen Yuan stomps on them. The toddler soon finds a new hobby in the puddles where the smallest leaves float though, oblivious to the water flooding his shoes and the frowns of passers-by he splashes in his enthusiasm.

Wei Wuxian buys him a yellow umbrella and a pair of small, red rain boots. Apart from not wanting Wen Yuan to catch a cold and give him another heart attack, the bright colours help spot the child easily.

And what is more important: they are ridiculous, and Wen Yuan loves them.

It doesn’t take long for the ache in his joints to fade, just like the bruises marring his skin; until then, make-up proves to be a clever way to avoid being asked one too many questions by his classmates. Only Lan Wangji asks, walking next to him towards the Ensemble classroom; it gives Wei Wuxian an excuse to talk about Mo Xuanyu’s talent with coloured powder until the teacher reminds them both to take their instruments out of their respective case.

Lan Wangji doesn’t deign to look at him again until the lesson is over.

 

 


 

 

More often than not, Wei Wuxian drags Lan Wangji to pick Wen Yuan up from the nursery. In his defence, Lan Wangji’s excuses grow less believable every time he tries to refuse, so clearly wanting to see the child he eventually stops pretending he would rather be doing homework or playing the guqin.

“You’re already the best, and I’m not particularly interested in surpassing you,” Wei Wuxian tells him one day.

Lan Wangji is well aware of it, knows he excels at every subject and he is the favourite of all the teachers. Good marks have never been praises though; and even actual recognition has never tempted him to believe himself above others— greatness is but what it’s expected for someone with his means.

Wei Wuxian however, cares little about marks or accurately played pieces; his presence sets everything around him on fire, leaves the memory of him imprinted on every messy assignment, every song where he believes himself as worthy as the composer. It may feel disrespectful, but it is, above everything, what makes the voice of his dizi unique, different to the ones surrounding him.

Therefore, his compliments feel all but ordinary.

 

 


 

 

On a rainy Sunday morning, Wei Wuxian awakens to a colossal headache and a flurry of texts.

He doesn’t read them immediately; the third thing he didn’t notice at first, Wen Yuan’s limbs wrapped around his arm, is the most delicate to deal with. Wei Wuxian tries to think back, recalls the child’s explanation about his nightmare, slurred by tiredness and tears, right before he pulled him under the covers to shelter him from the fire burning his dream.

But now Wen Yuan is soundly asleep, comfortable and relaxed next to him; it’s more than Wei Wuxian dared to wish for the first days, when the child would cry himself to sleep in his arms, begging for his mother and his father to be the ones holding him.

In spite of his headache, Wei Wuxian smiles as he runs his free hand through Wen Yuan’s dark hair. Sometimes, he is nearly able to convince himself that he is doing a good job of taking care of the toddler, despite his awful cooking and his knack for picking on him. Wen Yuan is safe, healthy and happy and worth everything Wei Wuxian has done since he met Wen Ning— mistakes, as Jiang Cheng grunts every time he calls.

Wen Yuan pouts, clings tighter to Wei Wuxian when he tries to reach for his phone, forgotten on the bedside table.

“…ther Xian,” he mumbles, content enough to keep sleeping.

Wei Wuxian stifles a yawn with the back of his hand before unlocking his phone, blinks away tears as he opens the texts, all of them from his brother. He can’t help the pang of worry in his stomach at the memory of the last time Jiang Cheng got in touch with him at an odd time.

But today, the texts don’t bring bad news.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen as he scrolls down, excitement bubbling up as he gasps at the pictures attached at the bottom of the chat— he forgets about Wen Yuan as he sits up, nearly bouncing on the mattress.

“A-Yuan, look.” Wei Wuxian shakes the child awake, too agitated to keep the news to himself. Wen Yuan rubs at his eyes, sleepy and confused by the photograph Wei Wuxian shows him. “Isn’t he the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?”

Wen Yuan frowns. “What’s that?”

“My nephew! A-Ling! Look, he’s so tiny!”

Tilting his head to the side seems to help Wen Yuan interpret the picture correctly. His sleepy eyes widen at the realisation:

“A baby!”

“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian smiles, scrolls down the pictures until the last one, where Jiang Yanli looks about to fall asleep breastfeeding her son; sitting on the edge of the bed, Jin Zixuan seems, for once, sincerely unaware of the camera, with eyes only for his wife and child. “I can’t wait to… to…”

But he trails off, smile vanishing so quickly it worsens his headache.

“Brother Xian?” Wen Yuan calls, hesitant, but Wei Wuxian feels as if all the weight of reality had just fallen on his aching head.

To nothing.

He can’t.

He can’t go back.

Not with Wen Ning and Wen Qing on the run, with every semblance of normalcy in Wen Yuan’s life depending solely on him. Visiting his family would be the same as sending Wen Ruohan a letter explaining that the Jiangs never actually disowned him, would entail endangering all of them, from his adoptive parents to his siblings to his newborn nephew.

“…Brother Xian? Are you sad?”

Wei Wuxian glances at the child, and his smile comes back but now it’s as tired as if he hadn’t got any sleep at all.

“Just a bit,” he admits quietly. Standing on the mattress, Wen Yuan tries to cup his face, but his hands are too small to even cover Wei Wuxian’s cheeks. “A-Yuan… Do you like it here?”

Wen Yuan nods twice. “Yes! I can draw and play and… and… I like your songs, and Brother Rich’s food… And, and… And his rabbit! And I like my red boots, too…”

Wei Wuxian laughs, leans down to press a kiss on the child’s forehead.

“Then I’m not sad,” he promises. “And you shouldn’t either, Lan Zhan invited us to his house for lunch… So let’s have breakfast, alright?”

Wen Yuan nods again, kisses Wei Wuxian’s cheek; it’s loud and wet and clumsy and it brings joy back to Wei Wuxian’s smile.

 

 


 

 

The rain has let up by the time Lan Wangji sees Wei Wuxian and Wen Yuan enter his garden. He heads toward the entrance to greet them, takes them to the living room and brings tea and pastries from the kitchen; but Wen Yuan, always fascinated by the rabbit that has also taken a liking to him, doesn’t even look to the table, other than to grab a sweet every now and then before continuing using Lan Wangji’s pet as a mount for his toys.

For his part, Wei Wuxian soon forgets they were supposed to spend the morning playing; for half an hour Lan Wangji nods at the dozens of pics of a tiny, wrinkled thing his classmate introduces as his nephew, only a few hours old.

“He takes after my sister; he’ll be so handsome when he grows up.”

For Lan Wangji, after seeing photographs of both parents, little A-Ling looks just like any other baby; but his supposed lack of resemblance to his father seems to play a big role in Wei Wuxian’s opinion on him, so he keeps nodding and truly trying to see how the infant’s ears are his brother’s.

“…You don’t look alike,” he eventually comments though. Wei Wuxian glances up, perplexed. “Your siblings and you.”

“Ah!” Wei Wuxian chuckles. “That’s because we aren’t blood related. I was adopted into their family after my parents died.” He frowns a little. “I wasn’t much older than A-Yuan when we had the accident, so I don’t really remember them.”

Lan Wangji hums. It seems that out of the three of them, he is the one with the higher number of living parents— the thrilling amount of one, even though he only sees his father once every few months.

“A-Yuan’s parents died too,” he comments.

The corners of Wei Wuxian’s mouth quiver. “How do you know?”

“He told me.” Lan Wangji bites the inside of his cheeks, but he eventually gathers the determination to continue. “Is that why you came here?”

Wei Wuxian’s gaze falls to his phone.

“’Here’ as in ‘not somewhere else’?”

“Here as in away from your family.”

Wei Wuxian sighs, the gesture rattling down his spine. He can’t keep the joking tone in his words anymore.

“Can you stop interrogating me at every chance you get?” Messy locks conceal his eyes, but the lines around his mouth are tense. “A-Yuan is happy, so what does it matter?”

A lot, Lan Wangji wants to reply, because since the weekend Wei Wuxian spent Heavens know where he looks more tired, even after he stopped limping and hiding his bruises with make-up. Because he is clearly running away from something, and Lan Wangji suspects it is the same thing responsible for Wen Yuan losing his parents.

But Wei Wuxian didn’t ask the question in a way that requires an answer, so Lan Wangji once more keeps it to himself.

 

 


 

 

Lan Xichen jolts up at the tell-tale ding of the lift doors sliding open on their floor, rushes towards the entrance without a word.

Sprawled on an armchair by the window, Nie Mingjue barely raises his gaze from the document he has been snorting at for the last twenty minutes, quickly going back to clicking his tongue at every sentence he reads. Meng Yao’s gaze, however, follows his boyfriend until he disappears behind a corner and waits until he comes back to his seat.

“It’s my brother,” he announces, sitting back down in the exact same posture he was before leaving.

Meng Yao raises an eyebrow. “But it’s Wednesday.”

“I know.” A small smile dances in Lan Xichen’s lips. “He brought Wei Wuxian a few toys A-Yuan forgot at home the other day.”

Nie Mingjue looks up again, and Meng Yao knows that, for once, his friend’s thoughts match his own— since Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are classmates, wouldn’t it be more practical to give the toys back at school?

“…And it couldn’t wait?”

Lan Xichen’s amusement is contagious. Before being aware of it, Meng Yao finds himself mirroring his expression; even the corners of Nie Mingjue’s lips quirk up the tiniest bit.

“I guess not.”

As Lan Xichen focuses on his laptop again, Meng Yao leans on his shoulder, absent-mindedly opening and closing apps on his phone until he makes his mind to tap on a particular icon. His thumbs hesitate before typing in the tactile keyboard though.

“A-Yao.” Meng Yao glances up; Lan Xichen’s nearly apologetic expression as he gestures for him to straighten up vanishes the unease stirring in his stomach. “I think it’s the client now…”

Meng Yao nods, gets off his boyfriend and locks his phone as Lan Xichen stands up again.

 

 


 

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t have dinner with his family; he arrives home when they’re clearing the table and helps after apologising to his uncle for telling them so abruptly— which is the only thing he regrets about being dragged to Wei Wuxian’s flat again to make dinner and eat with him and Wen Yuan.

“It seems you had fun,” Lan Xichen greets.

His smile isn’t symmetrical, the corner of his lips a bit higher on one side than the other, and as Lan Wangji passes him a couple of glasses he wonders if his brother is making fun of him. Lan Qiren is still grumbling not far from them though, so he only nods.

“Those toys must be important for A-Yuan,” Lan Xichen continues a couple of minutes later, once they are out of their uncle’s hearing’s reach.

Lan Wangji halts at the bottom of the stairs, so abruptly his brother walks into him; he glances back over his shoulder, both curious and a bit irritated— it is unusual for Lan Xichen to speak in riddles, particularly since he knows they bother Lan Wangji. And he is still smiling a bit too much, which makes Lan Wangji feel as if he had done something he shouldn’t but not particularly serious.

“What do you want to say?”

“Nothing bad.” Lan Xichen walks around him, taking the lead to climb up the stairs. “But you didn’t even have afternoon classes today.”

Reluctantly Lan Wangji follows his brother, gritting his teeth at the heat crawling up his spine, prickling his skin beneath his clothes.

“…So?”

“Nothing bad, I promise!” Lan Xichen insists, looking back at him. “I’m just glad you’re spending time with Wei Wuxian; you really look happier these days.”

He nearly trips when he reaches the upper floor, and Lan Wangji nearly falls down too; both of them regain their balance just in time, and when Lan Wangji finishes climbing the stairs Lan Xichen turns around with the white rabbit in his arms, the joy in his eyes genuine in spite of the equally sincere teasing.

As his brother hands him his pet, as they continue walking until Lan Xichen turns to enter his bedroom, Lan Wangji pushes through uncertainty and embarrassment to speak— even if just a single word comes out between his lips.

“Brother.”

Lan Xichen turns around, kind and knowledgeable.

And Lan Wangji wants to continue, wants to put into words too many thoughts whose sole existence is a problem; to bring up Meng Yao and maybe ask for a way to keep all those ideas he barely dared to think about before Wei Wuxian snuck into his practice booth locked away, in that part of his mind he can pretend doesn’t exist.

But in the end, all his suddenly exhausted voice allows is:

“Good night.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The first day of December is a white Wednesday, one that doesn’t start with the dreaded beeping of his phone. Wei Wuxian stirs at the small limbs crawling over him, covers his face with the blanket when chubby hands pinch his cheeks, all of it with a barely understandable but very excited speech about snow, cold and many games this peculiar alarm clock wants to play right now.

“It’s not even eight,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, easily stopping Wen Yuan from reaching for his face again. “Go to sleep, A-Yuan.”

“But it’s all white!” Sitting on his chest, he toddler grabs his fingers, trying to pry the blanket off his grasp. “Please, Brother Xian, please! Let’s play with the snow!”

Wei Wuxian does his best to ignore Wen Yuan’s enthusiasm; but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t fall asleep with that high-pitched voice relentlessly attacking his eardrums, with that weight bouncing on top of him to the beat of the fingers struggling to bring the blanket down.

He gives up when the child resorts to biting his knuckles.

“Hey, no biting,” he grunts, uncovering his face to look at Wen Yuan. The stubborn expression hovering over him dims a little. “I don’t like dogs; if you’re going to act like one…”

Wen Yuan pouts. “…you’ll sell me? But Brother Rich’s uncle doesn’t want me because I cried.”

“Seriously, where did you get that from?”  Wei Wuxian raises a hand to flick the child’s nose; Wen Yuan grabs his wrist.

“Please…” he insists, his pout growing as his eyes widen, bright with crocodile tears. “Please, please, please.”

Wei Wuxian snorts. “Alright, you win, little manipulator. Get off me.”

Wen Yuan has breakfast in record time, and by the time Wei Wuxian is dressed the toddler has found the warmest clothes he owns, including his new scarf, and is trying to put them on by himself. Wei Wuxian only has to help him a little, and before long they’re heading outside the flat. They find Mo Xuanyu walking towards the lift, too; he smiles as Wen Yuan tells him about the snow and shows him his mittens.

“Do you want to play with us?”

Mo Xuanyu pats the child’s head. “I’d love to, but I can’t stay long.”

“Classes?” Wei Wuxian asks as he opens the building door, letting his neighbour walk outside behind Wen Yuan.

“Yeah. It’d be great if there were enough snow to use it as an excuse …”

Wei Wuxian nods; in spite of the tempestuous night, the day ahead promises sunlight and warmth that will most likely melt the snow by noon.

That’s why he doesn’t intend on attending Solo class, himself. He’ll go to Chamber Music, because leaving Lan Wangji alone would be impolite after all; but he doesn’t have the heart to refuse a few hours playing with Wen Yuan, not when the child rarely asks for anything other than a little attention.

Wei Wuxian cannot ignore the pang of guilt over Wen Yuan’s distress during the weekend he spent under Lan Wangji’s care; the child seems fixated –like both Lan brothers and Meng Yao like to remind him with varying degrees of amusement– on the possibility of Wei Wuxian wanting to sell him. And he knows the other option was fleeing with the toddler again, this time without a clear destination in mind; he knows that thanks to that rushed plan Wen Chao and his lackeys now think Wen Yuan is on the run with his cousins and it was the best outcome he could have hoped for, well worth a few bruises.

He still feels bad for Wen Yuan.

“Isn’t your friend coming to play too?”

Mo Xuanyu’s question when they’re approaching the park snaps Wei Wuxian out of his reverie, even though he is asking Wen Yuan.

“Friend…? Ah! Brother Rich?” He tugs at Wei Wuxian’s hand. “Can Brother Rich come too?”

Wei Wuxian huffs. “No, he probably has classes.”

“He’d be happy to skip them to come here,” Mo Xuanyu mutters, quietly enough for only Wei Wuxian to hear him.

He can’t help a loud laughter.

“Lan Zhan? He’d rather die than miss a lesson.” Wei Wuxian regrets not wearing gloves when he pushes the freezing gate of the park open. “Though he does adore A-Yuan,” he mutters, pensive.

He has spent weeks leading Lan Wangji by the nose with the excuse that it would make Wen Yuan happy— and while it’s true that his classmate has the child wrapped around his little finger, Wei Wuxian enjoys spending time with him outside school just as much.

But he guesses that’s not good enough of a reason.

“…A-Yuan,” Mo Xuanyu repeats.

“Anything you want to say?” Wei Wuxian snaps back, the defensiveness in his voice startling even himself.

Mo Xuanyu frowns, and his following words sound too careful to be spontaneous. “The times I’ve seen him he seemed more focused on you.”

Wei Wuxian raises a sceptical eyebrow.

“That was him being frustrated because I don’t stick to the score, most likely.”

“It wasn’t.” Mo Xuanyu shakes his head, gaze drifting towards Wen Yuan as the child hops on the shiny snow, squealing in glee at the sight of his small, perfectly drawn footsteps. “Seriously, have you seen him?”

“Just because you’re gay—” There is nobody in the park, but Wei Wuxian’s voice is low, as if even Wen Yuan could give them a disapproving glare if he heard the word— “it doesn’t mean everyone else is.”

Mo Xuanyu doesn’t seem offended though. From what Wei Wuxian knows, he has dealt with way more hurtful remarks.

“I never said that. But A-Yuan’s Brother Rich is.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. He doesn’t even know why Mo Xuanyu’s insistence feels so aggravating, but he is sure –one hundred percent– that his neighbour is wrong. Lan Wangji is neither gay nor interested in him.

Not that he cares.

 

 


 

 

The snow has nearly melted away by the time Lan Wangji finds himself standing at the door of the Chamber Music classroom, waiting for Wei Wuxian to finish cleaning his dizi. He turns around when his friend (are they friends? Lan Wangji can’t tell, and he isn’t sure he wants to ask and get disappointed) closes the case and puts his scores inside his bag, bites down a smile as Wei Wuxian catches up with him in light, quick steps.

He talks about the snow, about how excited Wen Yuan was to play with it; Lan Wangji frowns at the offhanded mention of a skipped lesson, can only find Wei Wuxian’s gloom over how little it lasted amusing. It is as if he were the one who is new to snow, not the toddler.

“It’ll snow more,” Lan Wangji assures. His fingers twitch at the smile spreading across Wei Wuxian’s face again; he hides them in the pockets of his coat, where they curl into fists. “Sometimes it lasts for a week.”

“Really? Then you should come too!” Wei Wuxian swirls around him, hopping to appear at times to his right, others to his left. It reminds Lan Wangji of his other rabbit, the one that died half a year ago and was unable to stay still for longer than two minutes; but he bites his tongue. “Maybe that’ll soften the blow when the snow melts; A-Yuan was devastated…”

“Okay.”

Wei Wuxian looks like he was close to swallowing his tongue; always quick to recover, he throws an arm around Lan Wangji’s shoulders.

“Cool! By the way, how are you doing with the Trad Music assignment?”

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes.

“I finished it last Saturday. I’m not letting you copy,” he warns, though Wei Wuxian must know already— he has never lent his homework, no matter how nicely Wei Wuxian asks.

“I don’t need you to, I finished mine too.” Wei Wuxian sticks out his tongue; he leans towards Lan Wangji, who draws back and struggles to push his heart back inside his ribcage. “I was just curious, man of little faith. I’m lazy, not stupid…”

“I know,” Lan Wangji replies, too quiet to interrupt Wei Wuxian’s new stream of nonsense as they walk outside the building. It irritates him that Wei Wuxian could easily surpass their classmates in theorical subjects but chooses to skip classes or spend them doodling and annoying him instead.

He doesn’t shrug Wei Wuxian off though, despite the possibility of his friend noticing his heartbeat speeding up with every second he keeps half-hugging him, comfortable as if he weren’t invading Lan Wangji’s personal space.

He probably doesn’t even realise.

It’s that thought, sharper than expected, what propels the light slap that finally pushes Wei Wuxian’s arm off him.

 

 


 

 

Brother Xian promises that there will be more snow, but as A-Yuan walks back home with him, watching the last remainders of snow struggling to resist the unforgiving sunlight on the side of the street, he doesn’t really believe it. Even though Brother Rich was the one who said it first, according to him.

A-Yuan holds on Brother Xian’s hand, too big for him to cover it even with both of his own hands, because he forgot his gloves and it’s so cold A-Yuan can feel it through his mittens. He only lets go once they’re in the lift, a bit warmer than the air outside.

“When will it snow again?” he asks as they go up in the small cubicle.

“I don’t know, but Lan Zhan promised he’d come to play too.” A-Yuan jumps at the news, clings to Brother Xian when the entire lift shakes. “Careful, A-Yuan. This thing is old.”

A-Yuan slips to the hallway before the door completely slides open, runs towards their flat with the keys jingling in his hand. He already knows which is the one that opens the door, but he halts when he sees a man leaning against the frame, watching him from his height.

“What?” he grunts, eyes narrowing, and A-Yuan takes a careful step back.

He’s neither Brother Xuanyu nor Brother Rich, the only people Brother Xian ever invites in, and he looks annoyed by A-Yuan’s mere presence.

“Hmmm…” A-Yuan grabs the keychain tighter, with both hands. He wants to ask who the stranger is and why he is there, but he only remembers how to speak when he hears Brother Xian’s steps approaching from behind, reaching the corner to find the surprise too. “I live there,” is what he eventually says.

“That’s fun, because the place is mine,” the man replies.

A-Yuan furrows his brow. The stranger is scary but he is wrong; he and Brother Xian live there.

“It’s Brother Xian’s,” he insists, but before he can say anything else Brother Xian turns around the corner:

“What are you doing here?”

“What do you think I’m doing?!”

To A-Yuan’s surprise, Brother Xian walks past him and practically jumps on the stranger, his smile wide before he hides it in the other’s shoulder. They only hug for a couple of seconds; soon the newcomer pokes at Brother Xian’s side to make him jump back.

“You missed me that much?” Brother Xian brings a hand to his chest, pretends to sniffle and wipe his tears with the other one. “I’m moved.”

“Your heart is on the other side, idiot.”

It seems the stranger is permanently angry, so A-Yuan doesn’t move in spite of how happy to see him Brother Xian looks. Brother Xian pulls at the pompom on top of A-Yuan’s head to take his hat off, ruffles his hair to attract his attention.

“He’s my brother. Jiang Cheng. I told you about him, remember?”

 

 


 

 

Jiang Cheng finds his father’s old flat is surprisingly tidy, considering who is currently inhabiting it. Except for Wei Wuxian’s room, which is a mess of scores, sketches and half-eaten snacks, the place looks quite decent, with only a few toys scattered here and there; but the worst part of the disorder seems to be contained within the confines of the main bedroom.

“And I haven’t set it on fire yet,” Wei Wuxian brags, making the bare minimum somehow sound like a feat.

Yet.” Jiang Cheng watches his brother fumble with a couple of tea bags, leaning on the countertop. Wen Yuan’s tug on his sweater makes him look down. “Yes, that’s a chicken. Very nice.”

“It’s a duck,” Wen Yuan replies with a pout. Now that Wei Wuxian has introduced the two of them, he doesn’t appreciate Jiang Cheng’s disinterest.

“A bird, in any case.” Jiang Cheng’s watches the toddler stomp his way out of the kitchen, visibly offended. “I hope A-Ling doesn’t get that annoying when he’s his age.”

“He was just being friendly.” Wei Wuxian pours hot water on the three cups; it’s only then that Jiang Cheng realises one is smaller and made of plastic. “How’s A-Ling?”

“Fat and loud. He likes shiny things and cries when Mum raises his voice,” Jiang Cheng summarises, following his brother to the living room. “She’s in a bad mood lately.”

He knows what Wei Wuxian is thinking when their gazes meet for a second –she’s in a bad mood everyday–, but for once his brother keeps his mouth shut.

Wen Yuan leaves his toys when he sees the adults sitting around the table, climbs on the sofa next to Wei Wuxian and reaches for his cup. Jiang Cheng watches the kid blow on the tea, his lips exaggeratedly puckered as he stares at the drink; and he knows Wen Yuan is too young to understand anything, but he can’t help the pang of resentment at the reason behind his brother’s absence since the school year started.

“Why are you here?” Wei Wuxian breaks the silence, makes the one following his words thick. “I don’t actually think you miss me that much.”

Jiang Cheng huffs, because his brother is only partly right.

“Dad and Mum have been arguing more than usual,” he admits. Ever since his sister got married, and especially after Wei Wuxian left, he has spent as long as possible in her and Jin Zixuan’s flat; he isn’t sure whether he asked or she suggested it first, not wanting to leave him to bear their parents’ fights alone. “Since A-Ling was born sis has been having a lot of visits, so I had to come back…”

“And they still don’t want to get a divorce?” Wei Wuxian leans back, stares at the ceiling. “And I thought they’d get along better if I left.”

Jiang Cheng glances down. He bites the insides of his cheeks until they hurt, because he also hoped for his parents to fix their marriage the day they sent Wei Wuxian away— because the arguments have accompanied him since he can remember, way before his father brought Wei Wuxian home, but they were always about his adoptive brother’s late mother, about Jiang Fengmian’s supposedly unrequited affection.

“What’s a divorce?” Wen Yuan’s small voice slices through the tension, momentarily melting it away.

“It’s when two people who are married don’t love each other anymore and they stop living together.”

“Oh.”

Divorces don’t seem to particularly interest Wen Yuan; after handing his still full cup, he jumps off the sofa to look for a toy to play with.

It’s only then that Jiang Cheng brings up a more serious topic.

“What about you? Wen Ruohan…”

Wei Wuxian clicks his tongue. “He sent that dumbass of a son he has and a couple of gorillas… I don’t think they’ll come here again though; I told them A-Yuan is with Wen Qing and Wen Ning, so they probably think I cut ties with them.”

Jiang Cheng has the annoying feeling that his brother is deliberately omitting information; but Wei Wuxian looks alright, just like the toddler under his care, against all odds, and the flat has not been set on fire yet after all.

“You could come back, then,” he hears himself whisper.

He feels Wei Wuxian’s gaze on him, but doesn’t look up.

“I can’t… The whole reason they haven’t found A-Yuan is I’m here.” Jiang Cheng purses his lips together. “The Wens have too many friends in the police; until Wen Qing finds something big enough to incriminate Wen Ruohan I have to stay here.”

Jiang Cheng knows. He knew when he suggested it, but hearing a logical, reasonable answer only angers him.

“If you hadn’t stuck your nose in that stuff, you wouldn’t have to.”

“That’s a low blow.”

“It’s the truth.” Jiang Cheng glares up, into his brother’s equally furious eyes. “What did any of that have to do with you?”

“And what should have I done?” Wei Wuxian sets the plastic teacup on the table, so forcefully half of it splashes around. “Letting Wen Ruohan take A-Yuan hostage? Or make him be constantly moving across the country? Wen Qing has enough as it is, with Wen Ning injured—…”

“That wouldn’t have affected you,” Jiang Cheng hisses, leaving his own cup too— it’s a miracle it doesn’t break. “Wouldn’t have affected us. But you and your damn hero complex had to save the day, didn’t you? Who cares you are putting all of us in danger, as long as you get to feel good about yourself?”

“Then why are you here?!” Wei Wuxian seems about to throw himself across the table and punch him, and Jiang Cheng half-wishes he did— that they could solve this with a fight and then laugh and come back home with an arm thrown around the other’s shoulders, like they did when they were kids and their problems were simpler. “After that show of disowning me, Wen Ruohan has no reason to touch any of you, but if he finds out you’re here it all’ll be for nothing— was it so hard to stay with your parents or Sis instead?”

Jiang Cheng clenches his teeth until his jaw hurts. He partly regrets speaking, even the trip on train to make sure his brother is doing as well as he assures every time they talk on the phone.

Because with every call the unease in his chest grows, the idea that nothing is getting better and no matter the reason Wei Wuxian is getting himself in too deep a mess to find his way out taking root in his lungs. Because his brother is too selfless for his own good and he would rather die than admit it and think about himself for once, and Jiang Cheng is out of ways to make him realise how dangerous this game is.

“…I’m going to take a shower,” he eventually announces, because punching Wei Wuxian is too tempting an option but giving in would definitely dynamite any chance to get along with Wen Yuan.

 

 


 

 

Since Jiang Cheng doesn’t trust Wei Wuxian’s cooking skills (even though he has managed to feed himself and a toddler without either of them ending up at the hospital due to food poisoning for three entire months), they order pizza for lunch; Wen Yuan is visibly delighted, though he still keeps his distance.

“Congrats, you won him over,” Wei Wuxian comments, chewing on a bit. “Not as much as Lan Zhan, but that’d be worrying.”

“Lan Zhan?”

“A classmate, about this tall, plays the guqin and aspires to break some record of inexpressiveness. He’s fun though.” Wei Wuxian’s munching slows down until it stops, a sudden idea lighting up a metaphorical bulb in his head. “Say, Jiang Cheng, how long are you staying?”

“Until Sunday, I guess.” Jiang Cheng watches as Wen Yuan struggles to get all the cheese in his mouth before the string linking it to his slice snaps. “I don’t know yet, I only bought the tickets to come. But I don’t want to miss too many classes.”

“Then we could go out together one day, after work. And take A-Yuan too, because he doesn’t like being left out. What do you say?”

“I don’t…”

But Wei Wuxian waves at his brother to shush him.

“I was asking A-Yuan.” The child looks up, expectant; he was too focused on eating to hear what the adults were talking about. “Would you like if we went out with Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan?” Wen Yuan nods, grinning with his small teeth. “Then it’s decided.”

“Hey, what about my opinion?” Jiang Cheng intervenes.

“Doesn’t matter, even if you’re against it. It’s two on one. Three, as soon as I ask Lan Zhan.”

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian is late to Chinese Music History.

It is nothing unusual; what irks Lan Wangji is how his friend doesn’t start doodling as soon as he drops himself on his seat like he usually does, but takes his phone out to send texts, half-hiding it beneath the table.

Lan Wangji isn’t the only one who notices; the teacher’s frown grows deeper with every minute Wei Wuxian spends distracted, but the question he asks, seeking for a reason to kick him out or expel him on the spot, gets a correct answer. Afterwards the teacher pretends to ignore him, visibly annoyed Wei Wuxian is more attentive than everyone gives him credit for.

Lan Wangji nearly misses the paper cranes, fishes and frogs he receives every day to add to a collection whose existence he will deny if asked. By the time the lesson is over though, Wei Wuxian trails behind him along the hallway, just like every other day.

“Hey, Lan Zhan, do you have anything to do tonight?”

Lan Wangji is aware Wei Wuxian already knows the answer, but he still shakes his head.

“Great! Do you want to go out for dinner? With A-Yuan and my brother,” he quickly adds when Lan Wangji’s jaw drops— Lan Wangji doesn’t want to think about what Wei Wuxian takes his reaction as. “He’s staying here until Sunday and, uh, it’d be fun.”

Lan Wangji swallows that ridiculous bout of nervousness down, pretends he doesn’t taste the bitter twinge in his throat. All of a sudden he feels stupid— and it has happened often since the start of the school year but it is still an unfamiliar sensation overall, one he isn’t sure he likes.

“Okay.”

Wei Wuxian grins in response. “Then wait for me after Choir, alright?”

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian walks straight towards Lan Wangji as soon as he steps out of the Acoustics classroom, grabs his wrist and drags him out without even a greeting. Lan Wangji follows him out of inertia, only stopping after they get outside to zip up his coat.

Not even then does Wei Wuxian let go of him.

“They’re already at the restaurant, waiting for us,” he announces, impatiently tugging at Lan Wangji when he digs his heels before a crossing. “Come on, even if the traffic light is red there are no cars.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t move. If Wei Wuxian really made the effort, he could probably drag him to the road, but he only seems annoyed. He nearly runs once the light turns green, Lan Wangji following close.

Their breath comes out in white puffs that vanish as soon as they touch the freezing night; but Lan Wangji doesn’t feel cold, not with the weight of the guqin on his back, with Wei Wuxian telling him about his brother between pants and those thin fingers tightly curled around his wrist. As they zigzag among the people, more as they dive into the city centre, Lan Wangji nearly smiles at the pink clinging to Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, the glow lighting up the grey in his eyes.

Just like Wei Wuxian said, a man waits for them at a restaurant, frowns at them next to an oddly still Wen Yuan. The child jumps off his chair as soon as he spots them, but as he approaches he hesitates about who he should greet first— he solves the dilemma clutching Lan Wangji’s hand and clinging to Wei Wuxian’s leg with his free arm, then switching to hug Lan Wangji.

“Were you good with Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian asks, finally letting go of Lan Wangji’s wrist. “Was he?” he asks again, this time to the man still at the round table, while Wen Yuan raises his arms in a wordless request to be picked up.

“For his own good, yeah.” Wen Yuan places his hands on Lan Wangji’s cheeks, giggles at how cold the man’s skin is.

“You know who he is?” the child asks, pointing at Jiang Cheng.

“Pointing at people is impolite,” Lan Wangji softly scolds as he walks the last metres separating him from the table, but his words go right over Wen Yuan’s head.

“He’s Brother Cheng. Brother Xian’s little brother.”

“By months,” Jiang Cheng remarks as the toddler is put back down, visibly annoyed. He stands up to shake Lan Wangji’s hand, but soon he sits down again and turns to Wei Wuxian. “You’re late.”

“Your fault for coming too soon.” Wei Wuxian sticks out his tongue as he sits down to his brother’s right, hisses a curse too quietly for Wen Yuan to hear it. “That was my shin!”

“Your fault for sitting too soon.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t reply to that; Lan Wangji sits by Jiang Cheng’s other side, holds the chair between him and his friend as Wen Yuan climbs to it. The board is to his nose’s height, but the child seems delighted to have the same seat as the adults.

 

 


 

 

By the end of the evening, Wen Yuan likes Jiang Cheng enough to ask him to carry him in his arms; it’s not for long, and against Wei Wuxian’s predictions the toddler isn’t sleepy yet, but this time Jiang Cheng pretends to listen to the child’s rambling about his toys until Wen Yuan kicks around to get back to the ground.

“He should have started whining about wanting to sleep around the time we ordered the desserts,” Wei Wuxian comments, bewildered by such liveliness when midnight is only minutes away. Instead Wen Yuan hops about a couple of metres ahead, coming back when he’s approaching the end of the pavement every time without fail. “Anyway, what do you think about Lan Zhan?”

Jiang Cheng shoves his hands in the pockets of his coat. “Honestly? I thought you were exaggerating when you mentioned his poker face, but it was an understatement.”

Wei Wuxian’s laughter spreads across the nearly empty street.

“Even if it’s true, wording it like that is mean… He’s a great guqin player. And really kind…” In the warm light from the lampposts, Jiang Cheng watches as his brother’s smile goes to amused to fond. “No wonder A-Yuan wants to spend every waking moment with him.”

Jiang Cheng bites his tongue. It’s not Wen Yuan who talked about Lan Wangji first, who suggested going out with him and who brings him up in every conversation.

Well, at least Wei Wuxian is having fun hiding Wen Yuan from his relatives.

The two men jump when the toddler lets out a high-pitched shriek, sharp enough to feel like electricity straightening their spine.

“A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian takes a couple of strides forward as Wen Yuan runs back towards him. Hiding his face in Wei Wuxian’s leg, the child shivers violently; but Jiang Cheng doubts it’s due to the cold. “Hey, hey, what’s wrong?”

“There’s someone,” he explains, clinging to Wei Wuxian when he picks him up in his arms.

Swallowing the knot in his throat down to his stomach, Jiang Cheng walks past where Wei Wuxian is frozen holding the kid, looks around with narrowed eyes.

“Someone?”

“There,” Wen Yuan insists, unmoving.

“Where, A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian asks softly, turning around too.

Jiang Cheng glances at them in time to see Wen Yuan drawing back the tiniest bit, pointing at a corner they have not yet reached with a trembling arm. His cold fingers curl into fists as he approaches the spot, knuckles white when he leans forward, his heartbeat loud in his eardrums as he looks around the corner.

The street is empty.

The air Jiang Cheng breathes out leaves him feeling like a deflated balloon, relief crawling across his skin with a shiver.

“There’s nobody here,” he announces. Wei Wuxian imitates him, peeking around the corner before letting out a loud sigh; Wen Yuan refuses to keep looking. “Must’ve been an animal or something.”

“Did you hear that? It’s alright, you can look,” Wei Wuxian coaxes the child, kissing his head through the woolly hat. “Come on, A-Yuan, you’re so brave, and there’s nothing to be scared of.”

Eventually Wen Yuan looks around again. His gaze hops from the bins to the lampposts to the motorbike parked on the furthest end, trembling lips pursed together.

“I saw someone,” he whispers again. Absent-mindedly Jiang Cheng wonders who is more stubborn, Wen Yuan or his brother.

“A cat, maybe,” Wei Wuxian suggests. “Or a dog… A dog would be actually scary; but whatever it was, it already left.”

Wen Yuan pouts, lodging his head in the crook of Wei Wuxian’s neck again. “I want to sleep,” he announces.

“About time,” Wei Wuxian mutters, resuming walking as he hums something Jiang Cheng recognises as their sister’s favourite song when they were children. “They can’t find us again,” he adds, confident.

Jiang Cheng takes a couple of strides to catch up with his brother.

“Aren’t you a bit too alert to make that sound believable?”

“Don’t start again,” Wei Wuxian nearly begs, tired. “It’s late… I just don’t want to lower my guard, it’s all.”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “How long do you plan to stay like this?” he asks, too quietly to reach Wei Wuxian.

Perhaps it’s for the better.

 

 


 

 

The clock is closer to one in the morning than to midnight when Lan Xichen hears the key rotate inside the lock. He closes the book he was reading, puts it on the bedside table and stretches his arms over his head, smiling at the figure dragging his feet into the bedroom.

“You’re late,” he whispers as Meng Yao gracelessly flops on the bed, drags himself towards Lan Xichen and props himself up on his hands. “Did you invite me to your flat just to leave me reading?”

“I invited you because we’ve had dinner at your place twice this week already and I’d feel bad if your uncle had a stroke because he can’t stand me,” Meng Yao jokes.

Or, at least, Lan Xichen hopes it never gets past a silly remark. Lan Qiren may be conservative and a bit narrow-minded, but aside from his brother –and his father, in theory– he is the closest relative he has left.

“What took you so long?” he mutters, not really expecting an answer when Meng Yao kisses him, the two of them sinking among the pillows Lan Xichen was using to prop himself up. “Your nose is freezing.”

“It’s freezing outside, and I need my nose to breathe.” Lan Xichen shivers at the cold fingers cradling his cheek, but his hands find Meng Yao’s waist to bring him closer with a deeper kiss. His boyfriend draws back too soon though. “I’ve been thinking, Brother Lan.”

“What about?” Lan Xichen’s hands trail up Meng Yao’s sides, then slide down his arms to grip his fingers tightly, an attempt to warm them up.

“We didn’t celebrate your birthday, right?”

“Hmm, it was only a couple of weeks after Wei Wuxian started working, so I didn’t think of anything,” Lan Xichen admits. “What do you have in mind?” he asks, because Meng Yao never brings anything up without second intentions.

“Mum’s been really insistent about me visiting lately,” Meng Yao explains. His smile dies down a little. “I haven’t really told her. About us.” He looks down, to where Lan Xichen’s hands have trapped his own. “But she can’t be worse than your uncle, right? And she’ll be happy to have people in the house…”

Lan Xichen’s lips curl upwards, as if to make up for his boyfriend’s nearly apologetic tone.

“Brother Mingjue is going to kill us both for slacking off.”

Meng Yao chuckles. “It’ll be worth it.”

Lan Xichen shakes his head, but he can’t really be angry with his boyfriend.

“Just try not to look too happy to leave all the work to him.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

On Sunday, Wei Wuxian and Wen Yuan accompany Jiang Cheng to the train station.

He won’t be back home in time to attend tomorrow classes, but Wei Wuxian thinks a few more hours far from his parents’ arguments are well worth missing a couple of lessons. He’d like to have his brother stay longer, four days barely enough to make up for over three months of a few phone calls scattered across every week; but if running away from Wen Ruohan has taught Wei Wuxian something is that getting his way is, most of the time, impossible.

“Say hello to Sis for me,” Wei Wuxian mutters as the train approaches, firmly grabbing Wen Yuan’s hand in case the toddler feels the need to jump to the rails. “And to A-Ling, Uncle Jiang… and everyone, really. Except Jin Zixuan.”

Jiang Cheng snorts. “He’s been decent since he married Sis,” he defends their brother-in-law, but his amusement doesn’t last long. “I know it’s too late to convince you to stop being a dumbass, but be careful.”

“I am,” Wei Wuxian replies. His gaze falls to the pompom of Wen Yuan’s hat, bouncing as the child turns around to see the train on the other platform leave. “Seriously, I know what I’m doing.”

“The Wens do too.” Jiang Cheng bends down, pokes at Wen Yuan’s cheek. “You little runt, make sure this idiot doesn’t do anything stupid.”

Wen Yuan is clearly at a loss about what exactly Jiang Cheng expects of him; but he has been hearing both men insult each other for half a week, so he only nods twice, straightening his back to appear taller.

“Brother Cheng, will you come to see us again?”

Jiang Cheng stands back up.

“I don’t know,” he admits, gaze flying back to Wei Wuxian. “I guess you visiting for New Year is out of the question.” Unless a miracle happens, the few weeks left until then won’t be enough to fix this mess; Wei Wuxian nods reluctantly. “I’ll try to visit someday, but it’ll have to wait until after finals.”

Wen Yuan pouts. Most likely, because he doesn’t know how long that is.

Wei Wuxian lets go of his hand to hug Jiang Cheng, misses the annoyed poke to his side after the three seconds that are the longest his brother can tolerate affection for. Jiang Cheng is a whole second and a half late to draw back and doesn’t even grumble; Wei Wuxian is thankful when Wen Yuan hugs his brother’s leg too, for it gives him an excuse to not face the concern in Jiang Cheng’s eyes.

“Alright, enough hugs, now get off,” Jiang Cheng eventually grunts though, voice recovering its edge as Wen Yuan steps back. “Do you like animals? How about keeping a pet? I’ll bring you a puppy the next time I come,” he tells the toddler, visibly guilty over his pout.

“And I’ll kick it out as soon as you leave.”

Wen Yuan’s eyes widen in horror.

“It’s just an expression,” Wei Wuxian quickly clarifies. No matter how bad his phobia is, he wants to think he is above animal abuse. “Anyway, get on the train, it’s about to leave.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything else. He waves at them from inside the coach when the doors close; but by the time it starts to move he is focused on finding a seat.

As he and Wen Yuan head out of the station, Wei Wuxian can’t keep the bitter hue off his smile anymore.

 

 


 

 

On the way back home, A-Yuan trips over his own feet several times, even after Brother Xian crouches down to tie his shoelaces. The reason is he keeps looking back, stopping to scratch the nape of his neck every time a stare fixed on him makes his hairs stand on end; but he never finds the eyes among the people walking in different directions behind him and Brother Xian.

A-Yuan nearly falls when Brother Xian pulls at him again. With a sigh, Brother Xian stoops until they look the same height.

“What’s with you today? Are you tired?” A-Yuan shakes his head. “Then? Anything caught your eye?”

“Someone’s looking at us.”

“There are a lot of people here, A-Yuan,” Brother Xian replies calmly, in his tone to explain adult things. “Of course some of them look at us; I’m so handsome I attract their attention.”

A-Yuan shakes his head again. It’s not that; he sometimes notices it when strangers look at him playing with stray cats or stepping on puddles, and those gazes are different. Brother Xian doesn’t get it.

“It’s like with Brother Cheng,” he mutters with a pout.

“You saw there was nobody there yourself.” Brother Xian pinches his cheek with his cold fingers. “Stop worrying, alright? The only people looking right now are the ones who have to walk around us because we’re in their way, so let’s stop bothering them.”

Not too convinced, A-Yuan nods.

The next time he feels that intent gaze, he asks Brother Xian to carry him in his arms, looking for the responsible from that warm embrace where he feels safer.

But, just like the other night, he doesn’t find them.

 

 


 

 

Wen Ning isn’t as foolish as to blame himself for the current situation, but he has no doubt his circumstances only make it worse.

He wants to think it’s not that bad, now. That his broken bones have healed enough for him to stand again, even though he still needs help to walk on his unsteady legs; that the burns braiding along his arm, where a red-hot steel beam nearly crushed him whole, don’t hurt that much. That his sister doesn’t have to waste her time risking giving out their location to find painkillers strong enough to keep that agony away, can now focus on fixing the mess she thinks she is the only responsible for.

“If only I hadn’t fooled around with chemicals,” she says sometimes, late at night when she is too tired to keep wearing the proud, scary mask she has grown so used to Wen Ning can’t remember when it became another part of his sister. “It wasn’t part of the research in the first place.”

Wen Ning then reaches out with his charred arm, tries to squeeze her shoulder even though his fingers can barely obey his commands anymore.

“It’s not your fault,” he whispers, and he never stutters those words because he is convinced of their meaning with his whole heart. “You couldn’t know Uncle would…”

Wen Qing interrupts him, lets out a laughter that sounds more like a bark.

“When have pharmaceutical companies had a good reputation, A-Ning? If I had stuck to open-heart surgeries… I can’t believe that sounds like a calm lifestyle now.”

She grabs Wen Ning’s burnt hand, absent-mindedly toys with his fingers. The scar tissue now covering most of them is inflexible and stiff, and only allows movements so small Wen Ning sometimes thinks he imagined the feeling. Regardless of how much mobility he recovers, he is aware –has been since before his sister told him– that it will never be the same. He should be grateful the limb is still attached to his body, even if it’s nearly useless. He should be grateful he survived at all.

Even if he can’t even grab a bow anymore.

“Don’t work overtime when things go back to normal,” he warns instead of voicing troubles that would only drag his sister down, only half-jokingly. Wen Qing is prone to burrowing herself in work to avoid thinking too much. “You… found something, right…? Y-You said it in the morning.”

“I said I never knew why Uncle’s business partner resigned, exactly.” Wen Qing sighs. “But it could have been just because he was scandalised by Uncle’s lack of morals. I wouldn’t blame him…” Shaking her head as if she could get rid of her thoughts so easily, Wen Qing puts Wen Ning’s hand down, carefully so as to not hurt him, reaches for her phone. “Anyway, let’s hear what dish Wei Wuxian tortured A-Yuan with today.”

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian has been quite popular among their classmates since the beginning of the school year; but after the Chinese Music History exam he finds himself surrounded by a small crowd of people who, from what Lan Wangji gathers, hadn’t realised he is brilliant when he wants to until he helped them with the toughest parts of the test.

Without the teacher knowing about such solidary actions, that’s it.

Lan Wangji is still debating with himself whether it’s too late to complain about practically all his classmates cheating when he steps out of the building; his hair tangles with the freezing wind that blows against his face, and all of a sudden he feels too light— nearly scared of the possibility of being swept away.

His steps come to a halt, breathing slowing down when he realises what is missing, what the excessive quietude engulfing him lacks.

Swallowing down, Lan Wangji turns around and glances back inside.

Wei Wuxian is still at the end of the main hallway, surrounded by their classmates; his gaze hops among them, constantly called to be thanked again. He smiles as he answers, undefined words Lan Wangji can’t make out until they’re only a few metres from reaching the exit.

It’s then that Wei Wuxian spots him, lets out a chuckle that brings sound back to the world before approaching in a light jog, leaving their classmates behind.

“Lan Zhan! I thought you’d already left.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. They only have half one hour before the next lesson; he couldn’t spend it at home even if he wanted to.

Luo Qingyang steps forward too, clutching the case of her clarinet against her chest. “Hm… Wei Wuxian, it’d be good if…” She trails off under Lan Wangji’s stare, perhaps realising talking about him when he is right there is not the best idea.

Oblivious to the sudden discomfort spreading among them, Wei Wuxian walks closer to Lan Wangji.

“We were talking about going out tonight,” he explains. “Do you want to come?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t. Not because he has bad memories attached to nights out with his peers –or any kind of memories, to be sincere–; he knows everyone thinks he is too cold, too stiff. He is not clueless; he is aware that in the rare occasions they invite him to any joint activity it is just to feel good about not putting him aside.

He is not about to impose his presence on people who don’t want it.

But Wei Wuxian speaks again before he even starts to move his head from side to side.

“It’ll be fun! And today we finish our classes earlier, so we’ll still get a good night’s sleep. Come on, I haven’t gone out in ages, and never with you.”

In an admirable impersonation of Wen Yuan, Wei Wuxian accompanies his impeccable reasoning with an exaggerated pout, eyes wide and bright. He seems completely unaware of the badly concealed shock in everyone’s face and Lan Wangji wonders if now is a good time to tell him that he has never gone out with a friend at all.

But instead he nods, and the cold bites a bit gentler when Wei Wuxian hops towards him, waving their classmates goodbye.

“See you guys in Trad Music—… Well, most of you. I’ve got to eat something first.” He throws an arm around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, guides him to the closest pedestrian crossing. “The other day, before Jiang Cheng left, we found a place with the best cupcakes in the city. Aren’t you hungry?”

Truth is Lan Wangji isn’t, not really.

He still lets Wei Wuxian take him to try those cupcakes.

 

 


 

 

After Acoustics, Wei Wuxian nearly runs towards his flat, eager to change into something more appropriate for a night out than worn-out jeans and his favourite hoodie, though not so much over asking Mo Xuanyu to take care of Wen Yuan for a bit longer.

His neighbour is delighted though; much like Wei Wuxian feared, the only one who dislikes the plan is Wen Yuan.

“I won’t be back late,” Wei Wuxian promises— besides, in half an hour the toddler will be out like a light. “Besides, you won’t have to eat my food tonight.”

But Wen Yuan shakes his head, tugging at Wei Wuxian’s hand. “I want to go with you.”

Wei Wuxian flicks his nose. “You’re too young.”

“Hey, A-Yuan, how about we have pizza tonight?” Mo Xuanyu intervenes; Wen Yuan’s pout recedes the tiniest bit. “With everything you want… Go get the flyer, it’s on the cupboard next to the TV, purple and green.”

Getting to choose dinner seems to convince Wen Yuan; he runs back inside Mo Xuanyu’s flat in search for the flyer, but his quick steps are cut off abruptly by a loud fall. The toddler doesn’t seem too hurt though, for he doesn’t even complain.

“Thanks, really,” Wei Wuxian mutters. “One of these days I should take you out and treat you.”

“I don’t mind.” Mo Xuanyu waves the matter away with a gesture of his hand. “I aspire to become a preschool teacher, so A-Yuan is great practice… More importantly, where are you going?”

“I don’t really know. Mian-Mian sent the location, but Lan Zhan is the one driving…” Wei Wuxian fishes his phone from the pocket of his trousers, taps twice on the screen with his thumb. “Talking about which, he’ll be here in twenty minutes and I haven’t even showered yet.”

Oh. How thoughtful of him.”

Wei Wuxian glances up, narrows his eyes at the lopsided grin spreading across his neighbour’s face.

“Hey, stop that.”

“Stop what?” Shocked, Mo Xuanyu takes a step back and leans against the doorframe, arms crossed in a perfect farce of innocence.

“Implying that—…” Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “You know what, never mind.”

“Alright. Have fun with Brother Rich.”

“Don’t say that too loud; if A-Yuan hears you…” Wen Yuan seems to be still shuffling through the pile of flyers in search for the pizzeria one though. “And it’s all the class together.”

“Okay, okay, I get it, he’s straight, so are you. Go get ready to impress him.”

Biting his tongue to stop himself from replying –maybe starting with I’m not straight, because the teasing would get even more annoying if Mo Xuanyu knew that–, Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. As much as he enjoys teasing and poking others, he isn’t really used to being on the receiving end of such actions and he isn’t sure he likes it.

Luckily, Wen Yuan chooses that exact moment to come back, saving Wei Wuxian from having to come up with something to say.

“Brother Xuanyu,” he starts, waving the bright pamphlet to draw the adults’ attention before shoving it in Mo Xuanyu’s hand. “What does it say?”

Wei Wuxian leaves the two of them deciding which pizza they want, takes a shower and gets dressed; a bit proud he still has time, he takes a while to climb down the stairs and head for the end of the street, so as to save Lan Wangji from taking a detour to pick him up right at the entrance of the building.

He folds his arms over his chest, shrinks a little at the night wind ruffling his wet hair, freezing his brain through his skull. This is why he would rather be late, Wei Wuxian thinks; but Lan Wangji loathes tardiness and he is too eager to go out with him (and their classmates) to test his friend’s patience even before the fun part begins.

Wei Wuxian soon finds himself shivering though; he can’t blame the people passing him by for the intrigued glances they give him, walking quickly because nobody with half a brain wants to spend longer than necessary outside in winter.

Only one person stops, clearly approaches him. Wei Wuxian doesn’t recognise the face half-hidden beneath a wide scarf until he is only a couple of metres from him:

“Mr. Meng,” he greets his boss, biting on his tongue to stop his teeth from chattering. “How come you’re having a walk in this weather?”

Meng Yao shrugs. “I enjoy the cold. And we have a pending conversation.”

Wei Wuxian frowns. He is quite confident of doing his job without the slightest flaw; isn’t that the reason all his three employers are delighted with his performance?

“I can’t cancel your obligations until January,” he explains. “I’m sorry Mr. Lan and you have to postpone your trip, but those are matters that can’t be delayed.”

“It’s not about work.” Meng Yao waves his hand; the gesture reminds Wei Wuxian of Mo Xuanyu’s pretence of naivety only a few minutes earlier. “I’m just curious as to what your plans are.”

Wei Wuxian’s lips, chapped from the cold and constantly licking and biting onto them, part in surprise.

“Plans?” he repeats, momentarily lost. “As in… Do you mean for New Year, or…?”

“Ah, no, this isn’t such a bland conversation.” Meng Yao shakes his head. “I mean for Wen Yuan.”

Something about the slight emphasis stressing the toddler’s surname digs long nails into Wei Wuxian’s lungs— all of a sudden, his brain is in overdrive, because he is quite sure he has never mentioned Wen Yuan’s full name to anyone since he moved in this city and even if he had… Even if he had, what does it matter? It’s not that rare a name, there should be no reason for Meng Yao to…

To…

“What about him?” Wei Wuxian grunts, filled with the kind of hostility one expects from a cornered animal.

“You aren’t that foolish,” Meng Yao replies; his mouth is covered by the scarf, but the tension in his cheekbones betrays a smile. “A-Yuan’s head has a price, as well as Doctor Wen Qing’s…”

Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes. He isn’t cold anymore; fear has been replaced by fury and his entire face feels hot with determination.

“If you so much as lay a finger on A-Yuan…” He takes a step towards Meng Yao— he’s shorter, but his perpetually amused gaze doesn’t waver; as if he wanted to remind Wei Wuxian that, in spite of everything, he is still his boss, and he is still in possession of knowledge nobody in this city was supposed to learn. “How…?”

“For how clever you are, your attitude is certainly inefficient at times.” Meng Yao raises his chin to breathe out, creating a white puff when the warm air freezes against the night. “The clues are there; it only takes a little thinking to piece the situation together.

“Wen Ruohan wants his star researcher back, and I believe you already know he doesn’t mind what it takes.”

“Wen Qing isn’t Wen Ruohan’s property,” Wei Wuxian nearly growls. “And what are you going to do? Giving us away?”

Meng Yao’s smile dims a little. Wei Wuxian sees it in the way he glances aside.

“You’re a danger to everyone around you,” he states, and it’s not something Wei Wuxian has never thought, and it doesn’t even come from people with more power to cause him pain than an almost complete stranger; but it hurts all the same. “I do like you and there are no reasons for me to disturb your life; but if the moment comes and I have to make a decision… Between you and me, you know you wouldn’t choose saving your own skin either. And Wen Yuan—… He's already dead; who would miss him? His parents?

“Is this farce really worth all the trouble?”

Wei Wuxian stays silent, not giving him a response.

Not as Meng Yao stares, expectant; much less when he realises that he is not going to obtain it and bids farewell with such elegance every move slaps Wei Wuxian so forcefully the beating by Wen Chao’s thugs pales in comparison.

Only when his boss is a few metres away does Wei Wuxian regain his voice:

“Was it you who was following us the other day?”

Meng Yao spins on his heels, tilts his head to the side. With his widened eyes he looks utterly surprised— only Wei Wuxian doesn’t buy it.

“Why would I? That wasn’t in the schedule you made, was it?”

As Meng Yao leaves, this time without anything halting his steps, Wei Wuxian stands on the same spot, glued to the ground by the lead weighing down his ankles. He keeps shaking out of a kind of helplessness that seeps even into the painful strain of clenched fists and teeth ground together.

 

 


 

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t recognise Wei Wuxian right away.

The lone silhouette standing on the corner under the flickering light of a lamppost is too tense to belong to his friend. It is only when he is closer that he makes out the sharp features half-concealed by the dark locks framing his face that he slows down, comes to a halt in front of him.

Wei Wuxian’s steps seem heavier as he walks towards the car, his limbs stiff when he opens the door and gets inside. And Lan Wangji’s eyes trail up the silvery rivets decorating his boots, up close-fitting black jeans and a similarly leather jacket without rushing; but eventually he finds a troubled expression that seems too pale behind the wet tips curling against his skin. More words than he wants to use pile up in the back of his throat, but questions that will be unanswered step aside in favour of less inquisitive sentences.

“You shouldn’t go out with your hair wet.”

“I never catch colds,” Wei Wuxian replies as he closes the door. “Let’s go, shall we?”

Even after leaning his back on the seat and fastening his seatbelt, an invisible restlessness sinks its claws into his limbs to make his posture rigid, unnatural.

“…Is everything alright?” Lan Wangji cannot help but ask, right foot firmly pressed against the brake pedal. Wei Wuxian looks at him, a lie already forming in the corners of his mouth. “You look worried.”

“Do I?” Wei Wuxian turns towards the window. “It’s nothing that can affect you, it doesn’t matter.”

Lan Wangji’s fingers curl tighter around the wheel. “Wei Ying.”

“What?! Seriously, it’s alright! You’re the worried one and you don’t even have a reason… Why do you even care?” Wei Wuxian halts, and Lan Wangji fears he expects an answer to a question that sounds far too terrifying even in his mind to dwell on it for long. “Let’s go with the others and stop wasting time on me.”

It’s odd, how powerful Wei Wuxian’s voice is. Once Lan Wangji yields, biting his tongue as he drives towards the location Luo Qingyang sent to the group chat (whose existence Lan Wangji ignored up until two hours ago), he starts chatting again, talking about Wen Yuan and his nephew and the pastries he bought in the morning and had to hide so that the toddler didn’t eat all of them in one sitting and fell ill as a result. His words alone revive the awkward atmosphere as they head for their destination, making whatever is troubling him recede to the back of Lan Wangji’s mind.

For as long as he listens, Lan Wangji nearly forgets that Wei Wuxian disappeared for a whole weekend and showed up injured.

“If it were something you can’t solve on your own,” he hears himself say fifteen minutes later, once the car is parked and they are heading to the nightclub, “would you tell me?”

Wei Wuxian stops dead in his tracks.

If it weren’t because he was already expecting it, Lan Wangji would have left him behind. He still takes two more steps than his friend, has to turn around to see Wei Wuxian’s slouched shoulders, head hanging low as if to avoid the breeze dishevelling his nearly dry hair.

“I’m handling it pretty well for now, don’t you agree?”

Lan Wangji purses his lips together.

“From what I’ve seen, no.”

Wei Wuxian laughs. It is not fake, but it’s not meant to express amusement.

“You’re too sincere, Lan Zhan!” he exclaims, taking a long stride to catch up with Lan Wangji. “Alright, I’ll tell you if you can help… Can we just get some shots now? What do you like?”

Lan Wangji finds himself being playfully shoved aside as Wei Wuxian walks past him; he hesitates, but after a couple of seconds he catches up with his friend and chooses to address the most urgent matter:

“I don’t drink.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “Really?” He sighs in response to Lan Wangji’s nod. “I’m not actually surprised, anything potentially funny is forbidden in your house…”

“It’s not.” Lan Wangji can’t recall a single stance of his uncle explicitly banning alcohol. “I just don’t like it.”

“Now I don’t buy that,” Wei Wuxian argues. “There’s just too many drinks to say that… It’s like saying you don’t like eggs. They can be cooked in so many ways… You can’t say you don’t like it until you’ve tried all of it. Which, let me guess— you haven’t.”

Lan Wangji frowns. Wei Wuxian is right –he is right quite often–, but all of a sudden he would rather swallow his own tongue than admitting he has never taken a single sip of any alcoholic beverage in nearly twenty-two years.

It’s a relief when they walk in the club, for Wei Wuxian forgets his dissertation about the wide variety of alcoholic drinks in favour of looking at their surroundings, so different from the dull street behind their back that both of them stop for the briefest second.

Though bright lights shine on the ceiling, the dance floor and the colourful wall behind the counter, the place is noticeably darker than the well illuminated street; the people around them are but bland silhouettes, so easy to ignore Lan Wangji is tempted to retrace his steps to make sure they haven’t missed their classmates. Nobody is paying attention to them anyway— they are just shadows, no more important than the ones already dancing to music so loud it drowns out every conversation around them as its beat reverberates within Lan Wangji’s chest, the slight desynchronization with his pulse enough to fill his insides with dread.

He tears his gaze off the bright dance floor –with its alternating luminous tiles, it seems to recreate a giant chessboard–, eyes widening at the realisation that he has lost Wei Wuxian among the faceless silhouettes.

Lan Wangji halts, looks for his friend’s black jacket— but most people, particularly men, seem to be wearing that colour in a crushing display of creativity.

“Lan Zhan, here!”

He sees his name more than he hears it, whipping his head to the side when cold fingers curl around his wrist. As the moving lights momentarily paint his face blue, Wei Wuxian’s smile looks nearly apologetic.

“They’re there,” he yells, somehow managing to make himself heard as he points at a small crowd gathered by the bar, close to the furthest wall. He meanders across the place, nearly swimming among people; in comparison Lan Wangji feels unusually clumsy, unsettled and disoriented amidst of the deafening noise. “Look, Mian-Mian isn’t here yet… We’re not the last ones after all.”

The words start loud but end so quiet it’s a miracle Lan Wangji hears them, a whisper hot against his ear as Wei Wuxian pulls him closer, grabbing his shoulder with his free hand.

He turns his head to the side, nearly jumps at Wei Wuxian’s closeness.

“And…” Wei Wuxian frowns, and Lan Wangji understands— he reaches for his friend’s chin, tilts his head aside before leaning on his ear. “What now?”

Wei Wuxian’s jaw trembles, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he swallows— whether the disturbance comes from Lan Wangji’s fingers holding it in place remains a mystery even after Wei Wuxian draws back, bubbly laughter leaving his lips as if to get rid of the heat in his cheeks.

“Now we drink, Lan Zhan. And dance.”

“I don’t…”

“Relax, I’m pretty sure there are non-alcoholic drinks too.” Wei Wuxian drags him to where their classmates are, barely spares them a greeting before reaching for the menu. Lan Wangji greets them properly, but soon glances at the menu too. “Oh, here. See? They have water and soda. And juice.”

Lan Wangji asks for a glass of soda, while Wei Wuxian doesn’t hesitate to order three shots whose names don’t give too many hints about what they are made of but don’t sound particularly healthy. He downs them in less than a minute, too, while Lan Wangji sips on his own drink and wonders how much alcohol is enough to get someone inebriated.

He has no clue whether Wei Wuxian is though; the hand insistently tugging at him as soon as he finishes his own drink is no different than the one he carries him to pick Wen Yuan up with, but the bright pink clinging to his cheeks is unusual.

“Let’s dance,” he suggests, and Lan Wangji would swear he is drunk until they reach the giant chessboard and he adds: “The girls next to the stairs, aren’t they pretty?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head before even bothering to look.

“It’s too dark.”

Wei Wuxian then does something strange: not only does he halt, but also takes a step back, leans into Lan Wangji’s chest, throwing his head back with a smirk.

“What about the guys close to the entrance, then?”

Something in the machinery that keeps Lan Wangji’s body on autopilot so that he can think about more complex matters freezes, destroying the whole mechanism as soon as Wei Wuxian’s question, as well as all it implies, falls on his shoulders with all the weight of reality.

“I…”

“The one with his hair dyed red has nice arms,” Wei Wuxian adds, though his gaze is entirely focused on him.

Lan Wangji licks at his lips. In spite of the drink he just had, his mouth is dry; he forces himself to look in the direction Wei Wuxian just mentioned, to squint at the small group advancing through the club.

“…Do you think so?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Wei Wuxian straightens up; it’s only when he feels the squeeze around his fingers that Lan Wangji realises his friend’s hand is intertwined with his own— a carefully casual grip, hidden between their bodies. “It’s fine, it really is. Don’t think too much about it.

“Let’s just dance a bit, alright?”

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian feels his forehead and neck sticky with sweat when he and Lan Wangji stumble out of the dance floor, peeling his jacket off as they head towards the counter to ask for more drinks— now water for Lan Wangji and a couple more shots for himself. He guides Lan Wangji towards the opposite wall, divided by translucent screens in booths that give some privacy to the people within them.

“Luo Qingyang just texted,” someone (Ouyang-Something, Wei Wuxian’s brain supplies) comments as Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji squeeze on the edge of the sofa curved around the round table. “She said her dress’ zip broke or something, but she’s already on her way.”

“And what’s the problem with that?” Wei Wuxian huffs. “She’d look sexier with more exposed skin, wouldn’t she?” He drinks one of the two shots as he glances around, through the mess of coloured lights and people. “Hey, she’s already here…! Wow, she’s really pretty.”

He jumps at a sudden slam on the table, too loud even among the music; bewildered, his eyes travel to his second shot, now empty between Lan Wangji’s thumb and index.

“I don’t like it,” he announces with a low growl, nearly daring Wei Wuxian to contradict him.

“…Okay? I wasn’t going to treat you to it anyway.” Lan Wangji draws his hand back, clasps it against the other in his lap. He seems almost ashamed of what he just did. “Just don’t drink anything else, you have to drive…”

But Lan Wangji isn’t listening. He leans back against the sofa, eyes glassy before he tears his gaze off a bewildered Wei Wuxian.

Why is he so moody all of a sudden? Just a couple of minutes ago he seemed nearly comfortable with their attempts at dancing, and Wei Wuxian would have sworn he was having fun. Even if he is upset over Wei Wuxian figuring out what Mo Xuanyu has been suggesting for a while, there is no reason to worry; holding it against Lan Wangji would be quite hypocritical of him.

Wei Wuxian reaches for the bottle of water between the empty shots, gulps down half of it in an attempt to clear his mind. He has got drunk enough times since high school to know he is just the tiniest bit tipsy now; the unease in his stomach has little to do with the alcohol though.

He glances at Lan Wangji again, but words slip away between his fingers as soon as his gaze meets his friend.

“…Lan Zhan?”

There is no answer, not even as Wei Wuxian leans closer, squinting at his friend’s closed eyes in search of a flutter of his eyelids, a blink that gives him away. But Lan Wangji remains still, head so low his chin touches his chest.

“Did he really fall asleep?” Wei Wuxian looks up; Luo Qingyang has already reached the table, is taking off her jacket to leave it on the empty spot next to Lan Wangji. “I’m going to dance, and to get some drinks; do you want something?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, inching away from the oblivious Lan Wangji.

His classmates soon decide to join Luo Qingyang; Wei Wuxian crosses his legs, not entirely upset over having to watch over their belongings even though Lan Wangji doesn’t look any closer to waking up. Upon poking his friend’s cheeks with his index and failing to get any reaction, Wei Wuxian struggles to free his phone from the pocket of his tight jeans, eyebrows knitting together when he finds a string of texts from Mo Xuanyu.

 

So the pizza didn’t work and A-Yuan is asking after you

I told him you’re doing homework with a friend but that made him cry

Now he’s saying something about a fire

He mentions fire a lot actually

Oh never mind he just fell asleep

Sorry for bothering you but he didn’t look about to stop

But he has now

Have fun~

 

Wei Wuxian huffs, locks the phone before struggling to fit it back in his pocket. Lan Wangji is still –somehow– asleep, deaf to the loud music; Wei Wuxian’s gaze hops from the glasses to the bottle, then to his friend’s hands— and, finally, to Luo Qingyang’s purse.

He hesitates upon standing up, but Lan Wangji sits so straight he doesn’t look asleep unless one gets really close. Wei Wuxian zigzags his way to the dance floor, gestures for his classmate once he’s close enough.

Luo Qingyang is visibly irritated he interrupted her dance with a man that doesn’t look pleased by Wei Wuxian’s presence; but whatever he thinks about it is his problem.

“Hey, Mian-Mian, did you bring some make-up?”

“My name isn’t Mian-Mian,” she snaps back. “Why do you care?”

“Don’t be mean.” Wei Wuxian puts his palms together in a mocking plea. “Lend me your eyeliner. I promise I won’t break it.”

He wonders what Luo Qingyang and the guy she clearly plans to get laid before the night is over make of his words, but she only nods once before spinning on her high heels and guiding her catch as far from Wei Wuxian as she can. Wei Wuxian heads back towards where Lan Wangji is still sleeping, hovers over his long legs to fetch Luo Qingyang’s purse and rummage through her things until he finds the thin pencil.

“Hey, Lan Zhan, you awake?” he asks one last time, barely waiting two seconds before unbuttoning the cuff of his friend’s shirt and rolling his sleeve up. Not even then does Lan Wangji open his eyes. “Alright, you had your chance to say no and you missed.”

Wei Wuxian’s smirk grows as he holds Lan Wangji’s hand and doodles on his forearm, flowers and rabbits linked by chains and threads and a couple of clouds trailing across the inside of his wrist. Lan Wangji remains asleep, oblivious to the canvas his skin has become under Wei Wuxian’s agile hands.

Wei Wuxian, who can barely contain his giggling when he’s satisfied with his work and puts Luo Qingyang’s eyeliner back inside her purse.

“Wonderful,” he mutters, tugging at Lan Wangji’s sleeve and buttoning his cuff again to hide most of the drawing. “So, so beautiful. If I ever get tired of music, I’ll be a tattoo artist.”

It’s only then, with a small smile and bright eyes, that he notices the gaze fixed on him.

He looks up, finds Lan Wangji’s clear eyes open, so focused that Wei Wuxian is nearly sure his friend has been awake for a while.

“Hey, good evening,” he still greets, his smile growing— they are so close, with their legs pressed together, that yelling is not necessary. “How on earth did you manage to fall asleep with all this noise?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t move. Wei Wuxian cannot tell whether he’s breathing at all.

“Did you dislike the shot that much?” It’s like talking to a statue— quite a beautiful one, but a sculpture nonetheless. “Hey, it’s fine, trying new things isn’t a sin…”

That seems to ignite a spark of feeling in Lan Wangji’s eyes. He shifts onto his seat, drawing back half a centimetre.

“…I have the feeling I’m a bad influence on you,” Wei Wuxian comments, throwing a quick glance to the small space now between them, “but I’d be even if you were sitting over there, no need to be scared.”

“I’m. Not,” Lan Wangji blurts out, one word at a time as if he had trouble stringing them together. “Of… you.”

Wei Wuxian tilts his head to the side, a suspicion taking shape in the back of his mind— even though Lan Wangji isn’t particularly talkative, it's not due to shyness. His speech is always fluid, a deep, steady stream always pleasant to hear.

“You thirsty?” Wei Wuxian asks, not tearing his gaze off his friend as he grabs the still half-full bottle of water and swings it in front of his face.

“Hm.” Lan Wangji reaches for it; and there it is— he brings the bottle to his lips, tilts it to pour water into his mouth without opening it first.

“…You’re kidding.” Wei Wuxian’s gaze falls to the small glass, now empty, goes back to his friend, who looks at the bottle as if it had insulted his entire family; he can’t help the bout of laughter rattling his entire frame. “Good Heavens, Lan Zhan, you can’t be such a lightweight.”

“You’re lighter,” Lan Wangji replies, the offended frown between his eyebrows deepening. “I can carry you.”

“I didn’t mean… Oh? You’re that strong? I’m way heavier than A-Yuan, you know. You can’t just—… Lan Zhan?!”

Lan Wangji has reached for him, pulled him up and on his lap without so much as blinking. His arms circle Wei Wuxian’s waist, face tilted up to look at his suddenly flustered expression.

But even after having been practically glued together ever since they set foot in the club, Wei Wuxian finds his limbs frozen at such closeness, enough to notice the soft smell always clinging to Lan Wangji and letting it lodge itself in his memory.

“…Alright, you’re so strong and amazing, I shouldn’t have doubted you.” Of course when Wei Wuxian finds his voice it’s to be his usual silly self, a role he is comfortable playing. But he can’t stop himself from sneaking his arms around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, fingers threading down his long, black hair tied in a low ponytail. “It’s so soft…”

The white ribbon keeping Lan Wangji’s hair in place slides down all too easily, allowing Wei Wuxian to keep playing with his friend’s hair even as his fingers tremble— but what should he do, when amidst the music and the lights piercing through the darkness he is the only thing Lan Wangji stares at with utmost attention.

And for the briefest second Wei Wuxian forgets where they are, forgets that Lan Wangji is clearly not fully aware of his actions and he is a bit too overjoyed for it to be explained without the alcohol coursing through his system too— he doesn’t care someone might see them, pushes that concern away because he would bet his arms Luo Qingyang is already somewhere more private making out with her dancing partner and why should anyone mind his isn’t a girl.

He leans down, slowly, slowly, not wanting to scare this fickle, stubborn Lan Wangji away. Pink lips part slightly, gaze entirely focused on Wei Wuxian’s small moves as if his intentions were a mystery at all—…

Aren’t they?, Wei Wuxian briefly wonders, but then Lan Wangji inches closer and he doesn’t particularly mind the answer.

A loud boom shatters the moment, cracks the air between them; shards hammer into Wei Wuxian’s chest, push him back so violently he hits his elbow against the table. For the briefest second he is scared of falling off, for despite Lan Wangji’s arms holding him tighter his friend has drawn back too, looking around until he realises the noise comes from a new song, somehow louder than the ones preceding it.

“My ears,” Wei Wuxian complains, voiceless. Lan Wangji’s gaze falls back on him, inquisitive. “…Are you tired?” he asks, already preparing a hundred excuses in case Lan Wangji brings up what almost happened only ten seconds ago— like a sudden interest in his friend’s long eyelashes or childlike curiosity about the few light, nearly invisible freckles on his nose.

To his relief, Lan Wangji doesn’t ask. The line between his lips is distressed.

“Hm.”

“Alright then.”

Wei Wuxian pries himself off Lan Wangji’s embrace, stumbles when he stands up. He can’t tell whether it’s the music, the alcohol or the burning ghost of his friend’s hands imprinted on his waist, but his steps are wobbly as he waves at another classmate.

“Su She! We’re leaving!”

Su She –at least Wei Wuxian hopes that’s his name– walks closer, scrunches up his nose at the prospect of having to keep an eye on their classmates’ things. But it’s not like he was dancing or about to convince a pretty girl to spend the night with him, so he’s the most suitable for this noble task.

Wei Wuxian gestures at Lan Wangji; his friend doesn’t move though, so he has to resort to pulling him up and guiding him through the crowd.

“Let’s go home.”

Wei Wuxian is relieved to step outside, not minding the biting cold he had forgotten at some point after dragging Lan Wangji to dance with him; both of them shiver even after wrapping themselves up in an extra layer of clothes.

Drunk Lan Wangji acts just like Wen Yuan in some ways, Wei Wuxian muses after a couple of minutes walking towards where they left the car. He gets distracted easily, stops advancing unless Wei Wuxian keeps pulling at his hand; even then Lan Wangji seems oblivious to steps, crossings and traffic lights Wei Wuxian is getting away with ignoring in his presence for the first time.

It’s almost midnight, anyway. There aren’t many cars outside, especially in side streets.

As if Wei Wuxian needed further reasons to keep alcohol away from Lan Wangji the next time they go out, when they reach the car his friend automatically gets in the passenger’s seat, looking so confused at the lack of a wheel and pedals it’s endearing.

“Wrong door,” Wei Wuxian tells him, sitting on the driver’s seat. Swiping the key has been awfully easy. “You’re in no condition to drive.”

Lan Wangji frowns. “But. You can’t drive.”

“I don’t like it,” Wei Wuxian corrects. “It’s different…”

But he trails off. No matter how much worse of a state Lan Wangji is in, his own senses are dulled; and now that he isn’t lulled by loud music and Lan Wangji’s embrace he can’t ignore the old fear that has kept him from driving ever since he got his license, only due to Jiang Fengmian’s insistence.

Wei Wuxian can barely remember his parents, but he doesn’t have the slightest desire to end up like them.

“…We can sleep it off and get back tomorrow,” he suggests. Wen Yuan is already asleep anyway.

Lan Wangji frowns. “Meng Yao.”

“Huh?”

“He lives close by. Brother is staying over.”

Wei Wuxian is tempted to sprint back to the club and ask for the strongest drink they have there; his boss’ advice, warning, veiled threat or whatever it was is the reason he wanted alcohol so badly to begin with.

But Lan Wangji doesn’t need to know that.

“How is he?” Lan Wangji stares at him. “Meng Yao.”

“…Cunning. Good memory.”  It seems every word takes a day off Lan Wangji’s lifespan. “Brother is in love with him.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. Alcohol does make Lan Wangji more honest and compliant, but not precisely sharper.

“Alright, then. Let’s take you there.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Lan Xichen is dozing off when the doorbell rings.

The startle is not enough to fully awaken him; he raises his head, blinks at the figure stirring in his arms. It is not until Meng Yao glances up, confusion clear in his sleepy expression, that Lan Xichen remembers the noise that yanked him off a pleasant dream.

“…Wait here,” he mumbles, disentangling his legs from his boyfriend’s and stumbling out of bed, steps clumsy as he approaches the entrance of the flat.

It’s not until he rubs at his eyes to look through the peephole that Lan Xichen realises this is not his house; Meng Yao must not mind him taking the role of main resident of his place though, for there are no signs he is rushing to open the door himself.

Once he realises who rang the bell though, every thought evaporates despite it being the dead of winter.

“Thank Heavens,” Wei Wuxian breathes out as soon as the door swings open. “It’s the fifth flat we try… Hey, Lan Zhan, no, this is the one, don’t go—…” He digs his heels into the floor, pulling at Lan Wangji’s hand to stop him from walking away. Which he does, though confused. “See? Your brother’s here, no need to keep angering the neighbours.”

Lan Xichen frowns at the clear eyes blinking at him slowly, as if his younger brother were about to fall asleep on his feet. Which, as he realises less than a second later, is quite likely.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Oh, nothing serious.” Wei Wuxian waves his free hand. “We went out with the rest of our class and he drank… It was just one shot, really, I didn’t think it’d affect him that much.” He reaches into the pocket of his leather jacket, takes out the key of Lan Qiren’s car. “I thought about driving him home, but I had a little too much, too, and then Lan Zhan mentioned Mr. Meng lives nearby, so…”

Wei Wuxian explains his point quickly, perhaps giving more details than strictly necessary, his cheeks lit up as he half-uses the hand Lan Wangji has trapped in his own to make vague gestures. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that nearly everything he mentions without a second thought has been a first for Lan Wangji, as much as he is to the gaze focused on him, staring with such an unwavering attention that at times Lan Xichen finds it hard to believe that his brother is actually drunk.

“I see.” Lan Xichen takes the key Wei Wuxian is offering, interrupting his rambling. “I’m afraid low alcohol tolerance runs in the family; I never thought I’d ever get to see Wangji drunk though.” Wei Wuxian purses his lips together, seemingly holding back laughter; Lan Xichen steps aside to make room for a person to enter the flat. “Wangji, let’s go to sleep now.”

Lan Wangji tears his gaze off Wei Wuxian, reluctantly meets Lan Xichen’s.

“…Sleep?” After a quick nod, Lan Xichen watches his brother look from him to Wei Wuxian, as if trying to solve a puzzle. Upon finding the answer, he heads inside the flat, though he forgets to let go of Wei Wuxian’s hand. He furrows his brow at the resistance he finds, nearly glares at his friend. “Let’s sleep.”

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian blinks; pink climbs up his neck, clings to his cheeks for the brief second it takes him to contextualise the proposal. “Ah! No, Lan Zhan, I can’t stay. I have to pick A-Yuan up; Mo Xuanyu is going to kill me…”

“He can come too.”

Wei Wuxian frowns, confused. “…Mo Xuanyu?”

Lan Wangji pauses. Only Lan Xichen can see the displeasure taking over his face before he finally lets go of his friend and stomps his way inside Meng Yao’s flat like a petulant child.

“What’s with him now?”

Lan Xichen’s lips part, but upon thinking twice he decides not to voice what he has in mind.

“Thank you for taking care of my brother and bringing him here,” is what he says, just as sincere. “If you wait a bit for me to get dressed, I can drive you home…”

“Ah, no, you don’t have to!” Wei Wuxian waves his hands before his face exaggeratedly. “It’s not that far, I can walk.”

“Really? It’s not a problem; the streets are nearly empty at this time…”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Wei Wuxian insists, taking a step back.

“As you wish. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

It’s only when Wei Wuxian walks away that Lan Xichen realises why his hands kept drawing his attention since he opened the door. He raises an eyebrow, follows the item tied around Wei Wuxian’s wrist—thin, white, fluttering in his wake.

Is that Wangji’s hair ribbon?

 

 


 

 

A dull ache clings to his senses when he comes to, too faint to be any worse than a feeble ghost reminding him of the fact that his head exists, too sharp to ignore it and go back to sleep. For a long while Lan Wangji stares at a pale-yellow ceiling, mind too sluggish to worry about the fact that he is clearly not in his bedroom— or anywhere in his house, for that matter.

He stirs when he hears hushed voices, sits up and finds himself in a narrow bed leaning up against the wall, the rest of the room seemingly used to store stuff in large boxes. Trying to make sense of the fragmented memories he retains from the night prior, Lan Wangji yawns as he runs his fingers through his hair –he would swear he tied it in a ponytail–, frowns at a blur in his lap that catches his attention.

It is a curved stroke that peeks out from the cuff of his wrinkled shirt, a black line that crosses the back of his hand, sliding to his knuckle before sneaking its way back beneath the sleeve.

Lan Wangji blinks, half-expects it to disappear. It doesn’t, so he unbuttons the cuff and rolls up his sleeve.

His jaw drops at the myriad of small doodles decorating his skin, silly patterns that reach all the way to his elbow. There are flowers, clouds, ribbons and musical figures crawling around his forearm, zigzagging along a wobbly stave; the bubbly, round style of the drawings contrasts with the thin heads of the notes, as if they had been written in a rush.

Lan Wangji traces the strokes with his index, blending them against his pale skin; black smudges the tip of his finger, distorting the clear lines. Out of curiosity, he hums the short motif they’re supposed to construct. It doesn’t remind him of any particular piece, but it is still pleasant to hear.

Wei Ying, he thinks, and there is a lot less annoyance than he expected.

He can recall a few bits from last night— the deafening music, the colourful darkness and the movements that resembled a dance. Wei Wuxian convinced him with no effort, only a squeeze to his hand and that mischievous smirk… and then Lan Wangji decided to give alcohol a chance. From that point on he can’t tell what is a dream apart from what actually happened; but he is pretty sure the warm weight on his thighs as Wei Wuxian toyed with his hair, his too slow advance until an explosion shattered the moment, exist only in his head.

Wei Wuxian’s doodles on his arm are real though.

Wei Ying, he thinks again, because it’s easier than dealing with a sudden need to never erase the drawings, unhygienic as it is.

The door opens, but it’s not until he hears his name that Lan Wangji looks at his brother, carefully covering his arm again.

“Oh, you’re awake.” Lan Xichen’s perpetual smile looks apologetic. “Did you have fun last night?”

Lan Wangji nods, glances around once more. He may have never been in this particular room, but the atmosphere it radiates smells familiar.

“It’s A-Yao’s flat,” Lan Xichen answers the question before he can ask it. “Both you and Wei Wuxian drank too much to drive, so he brought you here.”

“Oh.” That probably means the reluctant tug at Wei Wuxian’s hand was actually real, as well as that childish wish to never reach his brother’s boyfriend’s home. “Wei Ying—…?”

“He couldn’t stay.” Lan Wangji’s posture hunches, head hanging low in a poor attempt to conceal his disappointment behind long, black locks. “We’ll be leaving soon; if you want to have breakfast before going home…”

As Lan Wangji heads for the kitchen, he has the feeling Lan Xichen seems chirpier than he usually is at seven in the morning.

 

 


 

 

If it were for Wei Wuxian, he would have spent the last Friday of the year sleeping, lazing around until noon and then reluctantly feeding himself and Wen Yuan to drag himself to work afterwards.

However, his young flatmate has his own plans, which include sticking to a routine of playing with children his age until lunchtime; therefore, Wei Wuxian has no option but to begrudgingly get up when the alarm rings, to prepare breakfast and get Wen Yuan and himself dressed for the day.

He is still half-asleep by the time they reach the nursery; it is not a surprise that, when Wen Yuan’s teacher hands him a paper that requests the child to dress up as a robot the twenty-second of January at six in the afternoon, he thinks he read wrong.

“…A robot,” he repeats, squinting at the characters glaring up at him— but yes, it says Wen Yuan needs to be a robot next month indeed.

“A robot?” the child repeats, just as confused.

“A-Yuan, go inside,” the teacher softly commands. Wen Yuan hugs Wei Wuxian’s leg for a second before rushing in the nursery. She then gives Wei Wuxian an apologetic smile. “It seems far away, but it wouldn’t be the first time a kid’s guardian forgets about the costume—”

“What does A-Yuan need a robot costume for?” Wei Wuxian interrupts her.

“Oh, that!” She laughs, twirls a lock around her finger. “It’s a little play we do every year,” she explains. “It’s the older children who have more lines, but everyone has at least one; we’ll give A-Yuan the script today…”

Wei Wuxian refrains from commenting that Wen Yuan can’t read. At least the situation makes sense now.

He still has no clue how he can make a robot costume, of all things.

 

 


 

 

When Lan Wangji heads for his brother’s business after his last lesson until January, the guqin case clinging to his back weighs heavier than usual.

The headache he awoke to refuses to leave, but that’s not the reason he nearly drags his feet even though he is looking forward to arriving. He stares at his feet as he walks, torn between the need to come up with solid reasons to see Wei Wuxian during the holidays and the certainty that he is being childish. When he reaches the lift, unease joins the already unstable whirlwind of emotions squeezing his stomach, for Wei Wuxian may have already made his own plans for all Lan Wangji knows.

Not finding Wei Wuxian in his usual spot sets Lan Wangji off, even though it’s not exactly rare. He drums on the case of his guqin as he waits, the hum of the heating mixing with a conversation in a nearby room; Lan Wangji cannot tell what it is about, but he recognises his brother and Nie Mingjue’s voices tangled in a passionate debate.

After a couple of minutes without changes though, Lan Wangji heads further inside— it is not likely that Wei Wuxian took a break now, less than one hour before his shift ends. He passes the closed door hiding his brother, steps growing lighter when he catches a familiar voice speaking in an unusually low volume.

“…never clear. Why should I trust someone like you?”

“Trust is too strong a word.” A sigh precedes the follow-up, and it’s its cadence what gives its owner away: “More like a deal.”

“Yeah, the one that ends as soon as you get the chance to hand us over.” Wei Wuxian’s reply drips sarcasm.

Meng Yao sighs again. “You’re intent on branding me as the bad guy no matter what, aren’t you?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widen at the steps approaching without a warning, alarm blossoming like flames in his chest when he recognises Wei Wuxian’s pace.

“Do you even have a side?” he snaps, not wanting to continue the conversation.

Years of no eavesdropping drilled into Lan Wangji’s mind propel a quick retreat towards the entrance; he is positive he makes no noise even when he trips over his own feet in his rush, but he still clings to the case of his guqin as soon as he reaches it, heartbeat loud in his ears when Wei Wuxian catches up with him.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re already here!” Lan Wangji doesn’t move as his friend hops around in his usual fashion. “Have you been waiting for long?”

As he finally turns around, Lan Wangji finds no trace of the clear upset he heard less than one minute ago in Wei Wuxian’s expression, as cheerful as ever. The bitter glint in his eyes is dimmed by his smile, nearly invisible even though Lan Wangji knows better.

Wei Wuxian is so good at lying Lan Wangji feels jealous.

Lan Wangji is tempted to drag him away; he wants to ask about the conversation he just overheard, what is going on and why his brother’s boyfriend is more informed than himself. He needs to know whether Wei Wuxian would have the decency to tell him if he had to leave or would just disappear without a warning like that weekend when he refused to explain what he had been doing to end up with a black eye.

But his brother and Nie Mingjue have already reached an agreement and are heading out of the office, and Meng Yao soon sneaks his way towards Lan Xichen to ask about a conversation that wouldn’t have been so peaceful had he taken part in it.

And, what hurts more— Wei Wuxian is not going to answer.

“No,” is all Lan Wangji eventually says.

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian may be too naïve to accept that the abnormalities in his, at a first glance, very normal life are not as inconspicuous as he wants to make them seem, but Meng Yao is no fool.

He knows Lan Wangji heard them as soon as he notices that intent stare focused on him, following his every move even though Wei Wuxian is way closer and louder as he chirps about holidays and plans as if nothing were wrong. Meng Yao cannot tell how much his boyfriend’s brother heard though; he hopes that not enough— not because he particularly minds the suspicious glares piercing his chest like needles, but because that would only make everything more difficult. Wei Wuxian has been fighting a lost battle from the beginning and all Meng Yao hopes is nobody else gets involved.

(But he is pretty sure it’s been too late for Lan Wangji for a while now.)

Not bothering to give Lan Wangji a smile he would interpret as fake, Meng Yao breathes out slowly and squeezes Lan Xichen’s fingers, warm and solid where they are intertwined with his own.

It will be alright.

 

 


 

 

Christmas holidays mean no classes, which also means Lan Wangji finds himself squeezing his brain in search for reasons to, on the one hand, stay in his house studying and playing and, on the other, go visit Wei Wuxian or invite him home when his will to make the most of the free days wears down.

Imagination has never been one of Lan Wangji’s strengths though; once he gives back a forgotten toy Wen Yuan probably didn’t miss, he runs out of excuses— and Wei Wuxian’s full attention is devoted to a costume he has to make for Wen Yuan, so aside from asking for empty boxes he barely texts Lan Wangji. And on the rare occasions they do chat –at night, while Wei Wuxian makes dinner–, their exchanges orbit around the advances with the robot costume, which Wei Wuxian is quite proud of.

The incomplete conversation he overheard is more vivid in the back of his head than he would like, but Lan Wangji forces himself to give up on whatever plan to ask Wei Wuxian he might have had— his friend’s easy-going personality vanishes whenever he feels any threat to expose his secret, his cheerfulness replaced by caution and hostility so quickly it seems as if someone else had taken over his body. All he can do, he concluded the second night he spent staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, is staying by Wei Wuxian’s side, just close enough to not be pushed away.

Lan Wangji tells himself that there is no other reason to not dare to ask about whatever happened the night he got drunk. Regardless of his fragmented memories, if Wei Wuxian doesn’t bring it up it must be because there is nothing to talk about.

The thought is both relieving and upsetting.

But when, one of the first days of January, Wei Wuxian invites him over –to practice, he says, because even though they aren’t quite sure of the date they will face a new concert sooner or later–, when Lan Wangji recognises something he thought lost adorning his wrist, curiosity is stronger than any caution.

“That’s mine.”

Ignoring Wen Yuan’s punches to his stomach as he holds the child’s plastic teacup out of his reach, Wei Wuxian glances at him.

“What?” He follows the direction of Lan Wangji’s gaze, blinks at the ends of the white ribbon poking from beneath the hem of his sweater, swaying as he waves his hand to tease Wen Yuan. Then he pauses. “Ah.”

For the longest ten seconds, Wei Wuxian stares at the ribbon, Lan Wangji stares at Wei Wuxian and Wen Yuan blinks at the sudden silence, confused by the subtle shift in the atmosphere.

The child is the first one to speak though, words accompanied by renewed blows:

“My cup! Brother Xian, give it back!”

“…It fell,” Wei Wuxian explains, snapping them both out of their trance and finally handing Wen Yuan the blue teacup. “I wanted to give it back, but I forgot…” Laughter comes back to his voice as he unties the ribbon. “Here.”

“You can keep it,” Lan Wangji hears himself say, stomach shrinking at a suddenly vivid sensation of fingers threading through his hair. “I… have more.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “My hair isn’t long enough; what would I do with it? Twin tails?” He grabs two fistfuls of hair on the sides of his head to illustrate his point, then leaves the ribbon on the table with a chuckle. “Do you remember what happened that night?”

Lan Wangji looks at the ribbon, doesn’t miss Wei Wuxian has stopped laughing.

“Partly.” And if he knows anything about those parts, it’s that his hair ribbon didn’t just fall. But if Wei Wuxian doesn’t acknowledge it, then… “I still don’t like drinking.”

…Then there is no point in asking him about anything else.

“It was kind of fun though.” Wei Wuxian smirks when Lan Wangji glances up. “Somehow it made me look like the responsible one.”

Lan Wangji can’t help the smallest smile, that nonetheless has some bitterness curled in the corners.

Maybe it’s better to leave things as they are for now.

 

 


 

 

“Two weeks? Where are you going for two weeks?”

Lan Qiren sounds appalled, as if his older nephew had just announced he is leaving in two days out of the blue.

“To visit A-Yao’s mother.” Lan Xichen’s tone is calm, patient, despite having started making comments with the exact information his uncle demands to know when they decided it. “Wei Wuxian rearranged our schedule so that it won’t be too hard on Brother Mingjue even if he’s alone…”

Lan Qiren’s expression sours, probably due to his two least favourite people being mentioned in consecutive sentences. Next to Lan Xichen, Meng Yao seems completely entranced by his food, staring at it so intently it can’t pass for casual. For his part, Lan Wangji is neither eating nor paying attention to the conversation; even though their uncle hasn’t realised, Lan Xichen keeps glancing at him out of the corner of his eye every now and then.

“You’re getting irresponsible,” Lan Qiren grumbles. “Since you started hanging out with the likes of him…”

Lan Xichen lets out a quiet sigh, tuning his uncle’s rant out. It’s always the same, something about how he shouldn’t get carried away by fleeting emotions and lose sight of his goals— which stopped being founding a company with his two best friends the moment Lan Qiren learnt one of them was no longer just that.

He snaps out of the bittersweet hue his thoughts are dyeing in when Lan Qiren directs his anger to the only person in the room who has yet to make a noise.

“Wangji! Are you on your phone?”

Like propelled by an invisible spring Lan Wangji straightens his back, raises his empty hands to the table— as if that could make it any less obvious that the device is resting in his lap.

“I’m sorry, Uncle.”

“What can be so important that it can’t wait until you finish dinner?”

Lan Wangji’s lips part, habit and the subconscious desire to do what is expected of him guiding the gesture. After a couple of seconds, he changes his mind though, gaze trailing down to his untouched food.

“It’s from school,” he eventually offers, and Lan Xichen doesn’t need his boyfriend’s knee bumping against his own to know his brother is lying.

As if the answer weren’t written all over his face.

 

 


 

 

Wen Yuan’s birthday dawns white, which is the best present he could have asked for.

And, unlike the last time, now there is enough snow to suspend classes. Which Wei Wuxian is incredibly thankful for.

He manages to keep Wen Yuan still for long enough to get him dressed, so warm he looks like a particularly colourful croquette; he checks his phone and hides the child’s present in his bag, slacking off as he has breakfast until Wen Yuan pouts, on the verge of howling and startling the whole building. Wei Wuxian flicks the kid’s forehead, checks his phone again and grabs his own coat and bag to head out.

“You’re already three and all you can do is threaten to make some noise,” he teases, but Wen Yuan is already rushing to push the lift button. “Let me…”

Wen Yuan stops his hopping as Wei Wuxian pushes his hat down to cover his ears.

“I’m… three,” he repeats, delighted.

When he does let out a cry, as they walk out of the building, it’s out of joy; Wen Yuan stomps on the twenty centimetres of snow to reach Lan Wangji, who stands with a paper bag in his hand, still and silent like an ice statue, face nearly hidden behind a thick scarf.

“Good morning,” he greets, so quietly Wei Wuxian barely hears him, even though he isn’t that far behind.

“Brother Rich, Brother Rich!” Wen Yuan clings to his leg, but soon draws back to smile up at him. “You know what? It’s my birthday!”

“Hm.”

Wen Yuan raises his arms, giving Lan Wangji no option but to pick him up. He never looks annoyed about it; Wei Wuxian suspects he loves it.

“And you know what? I’m three now!” Wen Yuan raises his hand and looks at it, fingers curling and uncurling until he finds the right position; it’s hard to tell with his mittens on though. “This!”

Lan Wangji catches the small hand in his, feeling the short fingers to make sure Wen Yuan raised the correct amount of them.

“Hm.” Wei Wuxian would swear his friend smiles a little when Wen Yuan wraps his thin arms around his neck and leans his head on his chest. “Happy birthday, A-Yuan.”

Truth be told, Wei Wuxian had already finished informing Lan Wangji about his daily progress on Wen Yuan’s costume when he saw the weather forecast; he thought his friend would be already asleep, but Lan Wangji’s reply was incredibly fast— so was his agreement to go to Wei Wuxian’s flat in the morning, instead of accompanying him to pick Wen Yuan up from the nursery, like they had initially planned.

But Lan Wangji never seems troubled when it comes to that child.

“Hey, you little runt.” Wei Wuxian draws Wen Yuan’s attention once he’s fished a package wrapped in a bright red paper out of his bag, smile growing when the child’s eyes widen. “Happy birthday.”

Still in Lan Wangji’s arms, Wen Yuan reaches for his present, struggling to tear the paper off in spite of the mittens hindering the movements of his hands. Wei Wuxian catches the falling strips before they hit the white ground, crumples them in a ball without missing the glow in Wen Yuan’s eyes.

The child holds the colourful fabric, mouth hanging open at the black, yellow and red scattered across a couple of wings that spread before him. It’s Lan Wangji who holds the threads before they fall too, for Wen Yuan is too enthralled by the artificial butterfly whose purpose he clearly does not understand.

“It’s a kite,” Wei Wuxian explains. “We can fly it, when the weather gets better.”

Wen Yuan holds the butterfly by the middle, holds it above his head and waves it, pretending it can fly now.

“It’s so bright!”

Wen Yuan inspects the places where the threads are attached to the butterfly, and Wei Wuxian understands without words.

“We can take them off now,” he assures, raising his hands to do exactly that. “Do you want to play with it?”

Despite both Wen Yuan and Lan Wangji seem exceedingly comfortable with the child in the man’s arms, Wen Yuan nods quickly, leads the way towards the park as soon as he’s put back on the ground.

“Hey, hey, don’t leave poor Lan Zhan like this,” Wei Wuxian chides, making Wen Yuan turn around, the huge butterfly grabbed tightly. He obediently hops back towards them, confused as Wei Wuxian smirks at his friend. “Your turn.”

Lan Wangji offers Wen Yuan the paper bag he brought with him.

The child’s eyes are so wide they seem about to pop out of their sockets at the realisation that he has two birthday presents, nearly squealing as he pushes the butterfly against Wei Wuxian to focus on his other gift, which turns out to be a small xylophone.

Every wooden bar is painted a different colour, and he soon notices the mallets’ likeness to antennae. He giggles as he puts them on his head, completely ignoring their actual function.

“Look! I’m a snail!” he exclaims, running towards the park in front of them.

Still holding the xylophone, Lan Wangji seems utterly devastated Wen Yuan disregarded the actual intention behind the gift.

“Hey, it’s not that bad.” Wei Wuxian can hardly supress laughter. With the hand that isn’t holding the butterfly kite he pokes at Lan Wangji’s cheek, chuckles at the glare he gets in response. “He loves it,” he assures. “He’s just giving it a more creative purpose.”

Lan Wangji still looks upset by the time they reach the park, even though Wen Yuan is having the time of his life rolling around in the snow. Wei Wuxian is considering inviting him over for lunch, if only to show him the robot costume, but his friend’s gloved hands trap his own mid-gesture, tight enough to keep them still without hurting.

Wei Wuxian completely forgets what he was saying, words failing to keep coming as his eyes widen and his heart climbs to his throat.

“Where are your gloves?”

Swallowing down, Wei Wuxian wishes it were enough to bring his usual light stupidity back.

“I lost them, I think,” he mutters, trying to retrieve his hands. Perhaps he should try harder, perhaps Lan Wangji’s gentle grip is just as strong as himself. “But it’s fine, really, I have pockets.”

“Your fingers are cold,” Lan Wangji insists, looking down at their hands.

“You don’t have to…” Wei Wuxian swallows down, because it’s not the first time he holds Lan Wangji’s hands— and up until now it always was without the gloves covering them; but this isn’t out of impatience and the necessity to make sure Lan Wangji doesn’t wander off on his own, drunk and childish.

Now it’s out of sheer kindness and it burns in the pit of Wei Wuxian’s stomach, stings behind his eyelids.

“…If it makes you happy,” he breathes out.

“It does.”

As he looks up Wei Wuxian nearly chokes on his own breath, the freezing morning scratching down his throat. He finds Lan Wangji’s clear gaze unwavering, amber eyes holding all the warmth today lacks.

Wei Wuxian can’t tell why he feels like crying when his fingers curl in Lan Wangji’s hold. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Lan Wangji offers to take care of Wen Yuan throughout the following days.

Even though the child loves spending time with Mo Xuanyu, his neighbour is busy with upcoming exams and presentations; and thus, despite Wen Yuan asking after him often and rushing to greet him every time they pass by, he has never concealed how much he cherishes every bit of attention Lan Wangji gives him.

Along with Meng Yao and Lan Xichen leaving for nearly two weeks, not having to worry about where Wen Yuan stays in the afternoon does take a weight off Wei Wuxian’s chest; his shifts are more relaxing, too, Nie Mingjue being a surprisingly calm man when Meng Yao stays away from his field of vision for longer than two days.

Wei Wuxian often wonders how such incompatible people are running a company together; other than Lan Xichen being the common ground between the two, there aren’t really many reasons for Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue to stick together.

He stopped wondering why Nie Mingjue dislikes Meng Yao a couple of weeks ago.

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, forces himself to focus on his exam. He nibbles on the end of his pencil as he rereads the few chords he has written so far, nose scrunching up when he erases the latest two.

In his pocket, his phone vibrates. It’s the number Wen Qing has been using to call him this week, which Wei Wuxian has memorised thanks to more calls than usual to catch him up with their findings about Wen Ruohan’s questionable affairs— it’s not normal that everyone he had a dispute with is either dead or ruined.

Wei Wuxian tells the teacher he needs to answer his phone, ignores his negative and walks out of the classroom, not missing Lan Wangji’s scowl before closing the door and finally picking up.

“You know I’m in class, right?”

“This is more important,” Wen Qing snaps back, her tone energetic. “I finally managed to get my hands on some interesting autopsies.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow, leaning his back against the wall. “Lovely.”

“Shut up and listen. My uncle has associated with a lot of rich entrepreneurs since he founded the company, but he fell out with all of them. Now I admit I haven’t seen all the autopsies, but over half of them overdosed on the same drug.

“It’s not conclusive, of course,” Wen Qing admits, lowering her voice. “It’s not all of them who died that way, and not all the deaths benefited my uncle… Even if he didn’t have contacts in the police they’d laugh in our faces. But it’s a thread to pull at.”

Wei Wuxian can’t help the corners of his lips from lifting at Wen Qing’s excitement, a shy relief settling a stomach that has been upset for so long he was starting to get used to it.

“Good… Good.” He leans his head on the wall, breathes out a long sigh. “And hey, what about Meng Yao?”

There is a rustling on the other side of the line; after a few seconds Wen Ning’s voice reaches Wei Wuxian’s ears, quiet and timid.

“Sister… She had to fight a lot to get access to the autopsies… s-so… I’ve been more focused on Mr. Yao,” he explains. “I found interesting things about him, but… but…”

Wei Wuxian bites down his impatience, taps his foot against the floor as he waits for his friend to gather the courage to continue.

“None of the stuff I read links him directly to our uncle,” Wen Ning starts anew, after taking a couple of deep breaths. “But apparently he is Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate son. You know, Jin…”

“…I know who Jin Guangshan is,” Wei Wuxian mutters.

Filthy rich, with an infamous reputation for repeatedly cheating on his wife, he still attended Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli’s wedding, nearly ruined it when he drank too much and harassed a waitress. His now ex-wife kicked him out of the family estate herself.

Wei Wuxian isn’t exactly surprised by the fact that Jin Guangshan has some children he doesn’t acknowledge as his, but he would’ve never expected to have one of them so close.

“It’s Jin Guangshan’s circumstances which are more interesting,” Wen Ning continues. “Our uncle’s and one of his companies are apparently collaborating lately… A construction company. I suppose Uncle wants to hire them to build new labs.”

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian purses his lips together. “I hope Jin Guangshan knows what he’s doing,” he comments, scratching his chin. As despicable as he finds his sister’s father-in-law, he doesn’t really want to see anyone dead. “Do you think handing us over to Wen Ruohan would help Meng Yao earn his father’s recognition?”

Wen Ning hesitates.

“You know them better than I do…” He pauses to gather the right words. “But Jin Guangshan wouldn’t acknowledge him as his son. It’d set a precedent for… others.”

Wei Wuxian hums. “That’s what I thought.” And what Meng Yao knows, most likely. And yet… “I hope this mess is over soon.” He thinks about Jiang Cheng, about his family’s estate back in his hometown and about the infant he yearns to meet.

(He thinks about Lan Wangji, about how much Wen Yuan adores him and how warm his eyes are in the dead of winter, decides he can at least stay until the school year ends before going back home.)

“I hope so too,” Wen Ning replies, and his voice is tinted with a sincere smile.

 

 


 

 

It takes Wen Yuan almost a whole week to start using his new xylophone the way he was supposed to instead of pretending the mallets are snail eyes, butterfly antennae or –Wei Wuxian’s favourite– juggling clubs.

He isn’t interested in learning the names of the notes or where each is, but he memorises a simple melody Lan Wangji accompanies with his guqin whenever Wen Yuan plays it. He alternates his fickle interest in music with practising the few lines he has in the nursery play, when he uses one of the mallets as a microphone and points at Lan Wangji as he reads the script until the child’s next intervention, giggling every time Lan Wangji holds the other mallet and plays along.

They often go pick Wei Wuxian up after work, and more often than not Lan Wangji finds himself dragged to his friend’s minuscule flat to try his awfully spicy food— and, unlike Wen Yuan, he doesn’t make a fuss about his insides being on fire, so Wei Wuxian doesn’t take pity on him. The child seems to notice though; he often tries to share his new edible dinner and insists even when Lan Wangji assures that he is fine.

Lan Wangji hasn’t forgotten about Meng Yao, about the conversation he wasn’t supposed to overhear. He made his mind before Christmas, knowing confronting Wei Wuxian again would lead to nothing but his friend closing off the way he always does when he’s threatened by concerned questions, but he still thinks about it more often than he’d like, watches the ever-present circles under Wei Wuxian’s eyes and wonders what is going on with him, who he is so scared of.

But since his brother left with his boyfriend to pay the latter’s mother a visit Wei Wuxian seems to be getting a bit more sleep, so Lan Wangji once more pushes his worries to the back of his mind and treasures the smiles, somewhat less tense, that his friend gives him.

At least, until Lan Xichen calls and Meng Yao’s voice, mellow and pleasant, reaches Lan Wangji through the miles separating them, despite the louder, closer voice speaking about the never-ending stone stairs preceding the place they’re currently at, presumably Meng Shi’s residence. As the finger sliding along the third string of his guqin comes to a halt, Lan Wangji’s entire expression sours.

(In spite of the kilometres between them, Lan Xichen notices.)

“Are you alright?” The question comes after five silent seconds, its tone suddenly grave. “Father visited again, or—…?”

“…Do you,” Lan Wangji starts, gripping his phone tighter, “do you trust Meng Yao?”

This time, breathy laughter precedes his brother’s voice. “If I…” Lan Xichen trails off. “What kind of question is that?”

Lan Wangji bites the inside of his cheeks, wonders how he should word his suspicions— which are, when he thinks about it objectively, vague and imprecise.

“…He knows something that could get Wei Ying in trouble,” is what he eventually says. Childish and, in his brother’s ears, probably too similar to I don’t like him to count as actual criticism.

“And what is that?”

Lan Wangji exhales slowly.

“I don’t know.” From the other side he hears steps and a creaking noise— then wind whistling against the phone. “I heard them talking,” Lan Wangji tries again. “Wei Ying insisted that Meng Yao could… hand them over.”

“Them?” Lan Xichen repeats, and now curiosity rises over the obvious disbelief in his voice. “Who else…?”

“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji cuts him off, and it’s not until he says it that he realises it’s true— he has no idea of who Wei Wuxian is hiding from, but the anxiousness bubbling in his words the other day, just beneath the surface, is the exact tone he uses to fret over the child when he’s sick or misbehaving…

…and to ask Lan Wangji to take care of him, the weekend he disappeared.

“Perhaps you misunderstood,” Lan Xichen replies calmly, but Lan Wangji doesn’t miss the resented hue in his voice, “A-Yao may have his own way to do things, but…” Lan Wangji closes his eyes, bites his tongue— it’s not the first time his brother gets defensive over Meng Yao, though that subtle hostility is usually addressed towards their uncle and his prejudices. “Even if there’s someone to hand Mr. Wei and A-Yuan over to… Why would he be hiding, if he were innocent?”

Lan Wangji grinds his teeth together.

It’s not that he hasn’t thought about it. It’s not that the suspicion completely went over his head, since the day he first realised Wei Wuxian’s life isn’t exactly the average for someone his age. Shutting down at the most innocent questions isn’t average. Disappearing for a whole weekend, and showing up clearly wounded afterwards, is far from normal. He has known Wei Wuxian is hiding something for months, but…

But…

“I trust him.”

For a second, Lan Wangji can swear that even the wind on his brother’s side of the line quietens down.

“…I’m glad you do,” Lan Xichen eventually replies. “I trust A-Yao, too.”

Nothing about that is new. An out-of-context conversation, no matter how suspicious, does not prove anything; Lan Xichen is just as convinced that he is as right as Lan Wangji and unless either of them pries further into the matter they have reached a stalemate.

“It’s late,” Lan Wangji mutters after a tense silence, suddenly too tired to keep talking to his brother. “Goodnight.”

 

 


 

 

Wen Yuan’s play turns out to be the day before Lan Wangji’s birthday— or, to be more exact, the afternoon. Of course, Lan Wangji, being the utterly boring (yet undeniably skilful) musician he is, has no plans to do anything special to celebrate his twenty-second birthday; still, Wei Wuxian didn’t think convincing him to skip his afternoon lesson would be so easy— and still, Lan Wangji carries his guqin on his back as a penitence of sorts even though not attending Choir just means there will be fewer singers. Unlike other subjects, there is no exam awaiting at the end of the year.

(On the other hand, Acoustics, the class Wei Wuxian doesn’t mind missing, is important; but he figures he’ll have time to ask his classmates for notes and catch up during the weekend.)

Wen Yuan’s robot costume, made of coloured boxes and cardboard cylinders just wide enough for him to pass his thin arms through them, is a faded, rusted grey. Screw heads trail along the edges, oxide spots scattered across the faded tin it took Wei Wuxian an entire week to paint over the cardboard. The child insists on wearing it all the way to the nursery, proudly walking with rigid limbs in front of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to show them what a great robot he is.

“I’ve never seen anyone so excited over speaking twice in a play,” Wei Wuxian comments once they reach the nursery and leave Wen Yuan with his teacher and friends, guiding Lan Wangji towards the biggest room. Around ten rows of benches are set in front of the improvised stage; most parents are already there, gushing about their children’s costumes and roles or testing their cameras before the play starts.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji squeeze up against each other on the third row, legs awkwardly folded in the narrow space between the benches. It’s worse for Lan Wangji, for he has to make extra room for the guqin he brought for no reason; but he doesn’t complain.

“What is the play about?”

“Something about a girl falling asleep in a toy shop and the toys coming to life,” Wei Wuxian mutters. His chin rests on his palm and his elbow on his knee as he looks at his friend, eyes widening slightly at the sight of the white ribbon tying Lan Wangji’s hair in a long ponytail.

He should let his hair down more often, Wei Wuxian thinks.

It’s only when Lan Wangji looks at him that he realises he spoke those words out loud.

“I mean…  It’s so long, it’s a pity you never show off.”

Lan Wangji’s frown is nearly imperceptible. “But I don’t want to show off.”

“Yeah, I mean, no. I mean, yes, I know you’re just that handsome without trying.” Wei Wuxian swallows a gulp of air, hopes his voice stops sounding higher with every word; while blurting out the first thing that pops up in his mind is as natural for him as breathing, he doesn’t know how safe sharing his thoughts regarding Lan Wangji with Lan Wangji can be. “I guess it’s not any of my business.”

He can feel Lan Wangji’s stare burning holes into his temple long after he’s made up his mind to focus on the still empty stage; all in all, it’s a relief when one of the teachers steps in front of the public to introduce the children’ play.

 

 


 

 

Predictably, Wen Yuan gets tired of his costume shortly after the play; Wei Wuxian carries it in a bag, wraps the child in a couple more layers of clothes just in case. Lan Wangji accompanies them to eat something at a cafeteria and, after a couple of hours listening to Wen Yuan’s disjointed rambling, suggests to have dinner out too.

The offer seems to catch Wei Wuxian off-guard; he stammers and trips over his tongue for a couple of seconds before nodding and grinning wide, his excitement shadowed only by Wen Yuan’s own.

“Who would have guessed he’d be so fond of you,” Wei Wuxian mutters, and Lan Wangji’s breath hitches at the affection in his voice as he looks at the child. “I mean, do you remember the scene he made that day at the park?”

Lan Wangji nods; clinging to his hand as he skips along to avoid stepping on the red cobblestones, Wen Yuan seems oblivious to the two adults’ gazes.

“He’s fond of you too.”

Wei Wuxian glances up, his smile falling a little. “Well, yeah, he has no choice. He’s stuck with me no matter he likes it or not, so he better cooperates…”

“No,” Lan Wangji starts to argue; but he doesn’t know what Wen Yuan was like before living with Wei Wuxian. He would bet his right arm there is more than habit to the child’s fondness of his friend though.

Wen Yuan’s exhaustion becomes obvious during dinner. He gets impatient as they wait for their dishes, barely touches his croquettes when the food arrives and soon folds his arms over the edge of the table, using them as a pillow as he pouts in response to Wei Wuxian’s knowing smirk.

He’s asleep by the time Wei Wuxian orders his dessert. Lan Wangji doesn’t miss the smallest frown in his friend’s expression as he pays without much thought, but can’t help but speak up when Wei Wuxian grabs his guqin case and puts it on his back.

“I can carry it.”

Wei Wuxian’s gaze goes from him to Wen Yuan, who has slid off to the side and is now leaning on Lan Wangji’s arm. “Better carry the little monster without waking him up.”

Wen Yuan has the habit of clinging to anything whose shape allows it, which on top of his lightness makes him absurdly easy to carry. He doesn’t awaken when Lan Wangji hoists him up, only shivering a little once they walk out of the restaurant and the biting cold reaches under the coat draped over his back like a cape.

Wei Wuxian walks right next to them. He doesn’t look tired, nearly hopping with every step, and in spite of the few things Lan Wangji knows and the many he’s aware of ignoring he wants to think Meng Yao’s absence is helping his friend sleep better these days. Nobody can feign being well-rested that well, not even Wei Wuxian with his thousands of different façades of joy.

“Something the matter?” he asks, and it is only then that Lan Wangji realises he was staring— looking for a hint, the tiniest sign that something is not alright. Or, well, worse than Wei Wuxian’s usual secretiveness, to be more exact.

“…No,” Lan Wangji lies, and it feels a bit true.

Their shadows circle them like clock hands as they walk towards Wei Wuxian’s flat.

“Oh, so you were just checking me out, then.” Wei Wuxian switches the bag with the costume from one hand to the other and Lan Wangji nearly trips over his own foot, holding Wen Yuan tighter until he sees Wei Wuxian’s smile. “Okay, fine with me. I am good-looking, after all.”

Lan Wangji resists the urge to roll his eyes. He wants to say something about arrogance; but his lips purse together at the sight of the grey block, dyed an undefined hue in the polluted night of the city.

It occurs to him that he doesn’t want to part ways with Wei Wuxian so soon, even though the clock on his wrist has long since left midnight behind; and as the second hand ticks like a countdown Lan Wangji considers, for the first time in his life, to actually ask for a birthday present.

Maybe spending the night in Wei Wuxian’s flat. Maybe bringing him home, even if his uncle disagrees and his brother will silently make fun of him as soon as he’s back and learns about it.

Maybe just…

“Lan Zhan? Lan Zhan, hey. Can you give A-Yuan back?”

Lan Wangji blinks at the request, which Wei Wuxian breathes out softly but reaches him with the delicacy of a rusted blade and twists within his chest as the grey building, taller and more hostile than it has ever looked, hovers above them.

Whatever it was he was about to say, it’s too late to bring it up.

“…Yes.” He looks back at Wei Wuxian, with his arms half-raised to hold Wen Yuan. “You have my guqin,” he notes, and it’s the furthest from what he really wants to say but Lan Wangji doesn’t take it back.

“Ah, right.” Wei Wuxian takes the case off his shoulder, carefully leaning it against his hip before reaching for the sleeping child. “A-Yuan for your guqin. A fair trade,” he enunciates, and there is laughter in his voice.

“Hm.”

Wen Yuan’s face scrunches up in distress when Lan Wangji pushes him away, but immediately clings to Wei Wuxian’s neck and hums in contentment, as calm as if he had been with him since he fell asleep. For his part, Wei Wuxian looks pensive, gaze hopping from the mop of hair tickling his chin to the guqin Lan Wangji is putting on.

“It’s a bit underwhelming,” he mutters, and his tone is both joking and serious. “No offence, but A-Yuan is worth more than a piece of wood with strings.” His grey eyes finally settle on Lan Wangji’s. “Maybe I should give you something else?”

There are barely a few centimetres between them, because Wei Wuxian forgot to step back after picking Wen Yuan and Lan Wangji didn’t want to. In the cold light of a sleeping city Lan Wangji can see the shadows Wei Wuxian’s long eyelashes cast across his cheeks, red perhaps from the hostile weather biting into his skin.

Lan Wangji remembers a warm weight on his lap and long fingers threading down his hair, and he inches closer to take a better look at his friend’s bright eyes.

“You don’t have to,” he blurts out. “Give anything else.”

The corners of Wei Wuxian’s lips quiver, as if he were about to smile.

“Oh, but I’d love to.”

And before Lan Wangji can so much as think of a proper reply, he finds Wei Wuxian’s lips on his, red and chapped and full of a fiery determination that occupies the place where having an idea of what on earth they’re doing should be. Lan Wangji’s fingers curl around the strap of the guqin case, so tight the black fabric itches against his skin; and Wen Yuan’s asleep form forces them to keep their distance but his free hand flies to Wei Wuxian’s cheek and it’s a demand and a plea to not draw back at the same time.

Whether Wei Wuxian understands o not doesn’t matter. What does is that he stays, that he risks holding Wen Yuan with only one hand to reach for Lan Wangji’s hair, to card his fingers through black locks just like that night in the club.

So Lan Wangji stays, too.

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian dances his way into the block where Jiang Fengmian’s flat is, spinning around several times to wave Lan Wangji goodbye. He can swear his… friend, for the lack of a better word as for now, is smiling, and in return he grins with tingling lips, somewhat reluctant to let go.

It’s childish, because they’re seeing each other in less than ten hours. Lan Wangji deserves having a proper birthday for once, after all.

It’s that thought, plus Wen Yuan’s warm weight clinging to him, what finally convinces Wei Wuxian to go inside, with a goodnight, Lan Zhan! and a happy birthday, see you tomorrow! He hums his way up to the flat with no incidences; but when he’s unlocking the door a sleepy voice vibrates against his neck.

Ew.”

“’Ew’, what?”

Wen Yuan stirs in his arms.

“You kissed Brother Rich in the mouth,” he explains, accusatory and judging. “I seed it.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow, sliding to Wen Yuan’s bedroom.

“So? Does it bother you?”

Wen Yuan shakes his head, which translates into a nuzzle. “But you eat with your mouth.”

“You can do plenty of things with your mouth, as long as everyone involved is fine with it,” Wei Wuxian corrects him, earning a new, disgusted ew. “But for now you can use it just for eating.”

“Are you and Brother Rich married now?”

“What? No.” Wei Wuxian breathes out a quiet laughter. “Just… You know, it’s an adult thing. We’ll talk about it in a few years.”

As Wei Wuxian helps him change into his pyjamas, Wen Yuan mutters something along the likes of I don’t want to kiss anyone never; but he’s asleep again by the time Wei Wuxian asks him to elaborate on such a categorical statement.

 

 


 

 

Today, A-Yuan doesn’t play with his friends.

He’s not angry with them, even if A-Qing always tells everyone what to do when they play house; he spends the morning making Brother Rich’s birthday present, a drawing of them and Brother Xian and Brother Rich’s rabbit standing in the middle of a green field.

Brother Xian promised him in the morning that the three of them would go to the park to fly his kite, and A-Yuan is eager to give Brother Rich his drawing and see the giant butterfly rise high above his head. He wonders if Brother Rich will go home with them this time, and if Brother Xian will kiss him again— and A-Yuan hopes he doesn’t, because that’s not what mouths are for.

He’s ready to leave way before it’s time, and when the moment arrives he’s the first to rush out of the nursery, looking for Brother Xian among his friends’ parents. He’s not there, so A-Yuan rushes between the adults and glances up, lips pursing together in a pout the more he searches and fails to find him.

It’s only when he’s at the end of the chatting crowd that A-Yuan stops walking. Not because there’s nobody else and Brother Xian hasn’t come, but because all of a sudden he feels cold even though the day is bright and sunny.

A-Yuan hugs the drawing against his chest, because it’s not the first time somebody stares in that way that makes his skin crawl but now Brother Xian isn’t with him.

“A-Yuan?”

A-Yuan jumps at the voice, but when he turns around there’s only a boy grinning at him, bigger than him but not exactly a grownup; he seems friendly, so A-Yuan decides to be polite:

“Hi.”

“Are you lost?” Sharp canines flash in the boy’s smile.

“I’m waiting for Brother Xian,” A-Yuan explains after shaking his head. “Who are you?”

“I’m in your Brother Xian’s class.” The boy extends a hand towards A-Yuan. “He’s still in class, so he asked me to come for you instead.”

“Oh.” A-Yuan frowns. “But it’s Brother Rich’s birthday. He’s in class too?”

The boy nods. “Oh, but they’ll be out soon,” he assures when A-Yuan pouts again. “They just have to copy, because they were cheating in an exam.”

A-Yuan doesn’t quite know what an exam is, but cheating is bad, so he agrees with Brother Xian’s teacher. He reaches for the boy’s hand, hesitates a little when he sees it up close.

“You don’t have a pinkie. Why don’t you have a pinkie?”

“I lost it,” the boy answers, guiding A-Yuan around the corner. “You know when adults get your nose? A man got my finger and never gave it back.”

A-Yuan’s mouth falls open. He doesn’t like it when Brother Xian takes his nose, but at least Brother Xian always puts it in his face again, in the exact same place it was.

He doesn’t have time to ask about it though, because when they reach the road he finds the person who has been watching him all these times, staring from inside a black car parked at a crossing.

A-Yuan tries to tell the boy holding his hand, but the four fingers are now claws that hold him prisoner, drag him into the car before he can even cry out.

The yell that escapes through open windows is short-lived. After a gesture from the man sitting on the passenger’s seat, the driver starts the engine, neither of them paying any attention to the struggle between A-Yuan and the boy without a pinkie.

It doesn’t take long for A-Yuan to lose.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

A grey car decelerates as it enters the service station, its driver humming along the song that escapes through the barely open windows. Next to him, another man keeps his gaze fixed on an empty point that changes with the landscapes they pass, lost in thought; he keeps his right hand on his thigh, palm up, waiting patiently every gear change for another to grab it.

Meng Yao barely notices the car’s eventual halt, in the petrol station; only the finger stroking his cheek snaps him out of his reverie, nearly violently. He jolts up, raises his arm and stops halfway through an alarmed smack to push Lan Xichen’s touch away before even registering what’s going on.

Lan Xichen frowns, but draws back without making any comment. Seconds slip away like water between the two of them, but Meng Yao finds himself unable to push out an explanation, or an apology, or anything that can reassure his boyfriend that he did nothing wrong.

Because then, the inevitable question would come; and for that Meng Yao has no acceptable answer.

“…I’ll be back in a moment,” Lan Xichen says at last, and Meng Yao feels a bit light-headed when the door closes and he resumes breathing.

Through doubts, through guilt.

It’s for the best.

In his mind, Meng Yao repeats the same thing he’s been telling himself since he suggested this trip, far from casual. He was quite convinced when his mother jogged down two flights of stairs to greet them, then ran back up and mocked their struggles to follow her; but as the moment to come back home drew closer those words lost power— and now, halfway to the city where he built up a life he’s quite proud of, Meng Yao wonders if maybe there was a better option.

A more proper one.

 

 


 

 

Wen Yuan isn’t in the nursery.

Or in Lan Wangji’s house, or with Mo Xuanyu; Wei Wuxian has called both of them to make sure. His neighbour is already on his way to visit his mother, just like he does every weekend, while Lan Wangji has spent the first half of his birthday doing homework and playing the guqin.

“Wei Ying,” he said, when Wei Wuxian was torn between pulling his hair out and throwing his phone to the ground as the most effective way to end the call, “is ever—…”

Wei Wuxian hung up, because really, losing a kid isn’t such a big deal. Wen Yuan has a worrying tendency to get distracted in the mall the moment Wei Wuxian leaves him unsupervised for longer than three seconds, but it’s never hard to find him— either because they run into each other or because one of the employees hears Wen Yuan’s tantrum and asks Brother Xian to come pick up A-Yuan over the loudspeaker.

But Wen Yuan’s teacher said the child left with a young man, and the only young men Wei Wuxian trusts to be with him have already denied having seen the child today at all.

And the options he has left to consider, well.

They are ideas he would have given everything to keep in the back of his mind forever.

Not sure about his destination, Wei Wuxian walks in long strides down the street, glancing around in case he sees a child crying, or someone with a kid they don’t know what to do with. And he does see children, hopping around, talking, smiling at the adults with them— but none of them is Wen Yuan.

The police, he remembers, and he feels stupid for not thinking about it sooner until he takes his phone out of the pocket of his jeans to search the closest station.

It’s in that moment, staring at the lock screen –black, with the logo of a barely known music band drawn in white– that he realises how foolish, how dangerous that simple idea is.

It’s not just that Wen Ruohan has contacts in so many unsuspected places— which he does; it’s the reason Wen Qing only calls once every week and never from the same number.

It’s that Wen Yuan is legally dead.

That, technically, the bad guy in the story, the one hiding a child from his own relatives, is Wei Wuxian.

His arm falls limp to his side, the fingers holding the phone tense around it.

He has lost Wen Yuan, and has no idea where to search.

Or people to ask for help.

 

(“If it were something you can’t solve on your own, would you tell me?”)

 

Wei Wuxian’s glare, piercing holes through the pavement before him, strays to the right— to his phone.

It feels like it was ages ago, but only a few weeks have passed since that night. Lan Wangji must have meant his offer— he always means everything, figurative sense something Wei Wuxian doesn’t think he has ever used. He remembers how upset he was after Meng Yao talked to him, how easily Lan Wangji cheered him up.

And then he remembers the casual promise his friend tore off his lips, that today is Lan Wangji’s birthday and that finding Wen Yuan isn’t something he can help with.

Why troubling him, then?

 

 


 

 

The child has done nothing other than crying since he woke up. Crying, asking after Wei Wuxian and crying again. Even locked up in another room, his wails are unbearable, like an alarm that won’t shut up no matter how many times one hits the button.

Eventually though, even the best clocks run out of battery. Cries become sobs, broken by hiccups and sniffling and quieter calls for someone that won’t come no matter how many times he repeats his name.

In the adjacent room, Wen Chao pinches the bridge of his nose. It does nothing to soothe the headache lodged in his temples because of the damned child. If it were for him, he would keep him unconscious all the way— but abusing the anaesthetic could be dangerous, apparently. Still, Wen Chao doesn’t see how it’s a problem at all; he can’t stand that loud wailing machine.

No, Wen Chao doesn’t like kids.

He supposes the child has finally fallen asleep when he stops hearing his voice. Annoyed, he dials the phone number Xue Yang found in the nursery’s files, hoping not to see the brat again; though Wen Chao has to admit the delinquent was quite useful.

He smirks when Wei Wuxian picks up, nearly tasting the restlessness in his inhale before he answers:

“Hello?”

“Wei Ying, it’s been a while! How are you doing?”

There is a second of silence. Only one.

“What did you do?” Wei Wuxian hisses. “If you lay a finger on him, Wen Chao, I swear…”

“Swear all you like; you can’t find him.” Wen Chao licks his lips, satisfied when Wei Wuxian’s voice cuts off abruptly. “But I wanted to offer you a deal. You know what I want, and I have little A-Yuan with me.”

“I don’t know where Wen Qing is.” Wei Wuxian sounds exasperated, as if they had already had this conversation. Which they have. “Or her research.”

“I figured that much the last time we met,” Wen Chao replies. “But you can ask, and now you have a good reason to get answers— well, actually I have the reason.”

“I can’t,” Wei Wuxian insists, and now the desperation in his voice gives away he’s sincere. “I can’t contact Wen Qing. It’s she who usually—…”

“Not even for A-Yuan?” Wen Chao’s lopsided grin grows. “The poor thing, has been crying so much… He wouldn’t shut up, calling as if you could do anything for him—”

“I get it,” Wei Wuxian interrupts him. “Don’t do anything to him. None of this is his fault.”

“You offend me, Wei Ying. Do you think I’m dumb? A-Yuan is a kid, of course he did nothing wrong.” Wen Chao pauses, licks his lips at the hatred he can nearly hear filtering out of the speaker. “It’s Wen Qing’s, for being such an ungrateful bitch and forgetting who paid for her studies. And yours, for helping her.

“That’s why A-Yuan is the only way to get you to cooperate. But I have nothing against him—… well, except that he’s so damn loud when he…”

“Wei Ying?”

Wen Chao trails off at the voice cutting through his monologue, trembling and uncertain.

Apparently the child wasn’t asleep, after all.

“That’s Brother Xian,” Wen Yuan reasons, raising his voice. “Brother Xian? I’m here! Brother Xian!”

“A-Yuan?! A-Yuan, are you alright? Where—…”

“He can’t hear you, you idiot,” Wen Chao grumbles. He gestures for Wen Zhuliu to keep the door closed when Wen Yuan starts hitting it, walks away from the noise. “So? What do you say, Wei Ying?”

Unlike the first silence, this one stretches for seconds that feel infinite, Wen Yuan’s crying echoing in the building with renewed energy.

“I’ll try,” Wei Wuxian finally accepts, defeated. “But I really don’t know if I can contact her… Don’t do anything to A-Yuan. Keeping him hostage is enough, right?”

“You’re in no place to order me around,” Wen Chao singsongs. “I’ll send you a location. In three hours, if you have news, we’ll give you the damn kid. It’d be the best for all of us.”

He hangs up before Wei Wuxian can reply, irritation growing as his headache worsens.

And the kid, the fucking kid won’t shut up.

Upon striding back towards the source of the cries, Wen Chao shoves Wen Zhuliu aside and pulls the door open.

With the surface he was punching gone, Wen Yuan stumbles forward a step, stops right before falling against Wen Chao’s legs. He looks up, a round, red face stained with tears and snot, scrunched up in distress.

“Will you shut up?!” Wen Chao yells, grabbing his arm and shaking the child. His grip tightens when Wen Yuan’s lips part again, the preface of a new sob. “Your Brother Xian can’t find you here, so stop being so damn loud!”

Wen Chao lets go of his cousin, pushing him so roughly that Wen Yuan falls back on his butt. He spins on his heels, catches a glimpse of Wen Zhuliu looking at the child and putting his index to his lips in a silent warning.

“You can’t treat the child like that,” the man says once the door is closed again. Inside, Wen Yuan is crying; but now his crying is stifled, muffled against his clothes.

“I can do whatever I want with him,” Wen Chao grunts in response. “Nobody will miss him.”

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian has kicked everything in Jiang Fengmian’s old flat at least twice, but he still does it once more the umpteenth time he walks around the place, being particularly vicious with the case of his dizi when he runs across it.

Wen Qing won’t pick up the phone— the one she called from five days ago and has probably discarded already. Wei Wuxian ignores what she does with the lines she no longer uses; he only called her once since he moved, when Wen Yuan fell ill, and she warned him that she had been about to ignore the call. For caution, she clarified, and it was obvious.

Now it’s just as obvious, but Wen Yuan doesn’t have a fever that will break out in a few hours. He’s being held hostage by the most despicable relative he has, and Wei Wuxian has nothing to bargain with. Something he once agreed to –for caution–, but now despises.

What is a bunch of notes on a new drug, compared to a child kept captive, scared and upset? Wen Qing claimed her discovery could be dangerous if it fell in the wrong hands, but what about Wen Yuan? He is in danger precisely because Wen Qing’s research is in what she calls the right hands— hers.

Wei Wuxian finishes his walk in Wen Yuan’s room, kicks a couple more plushies out of his way before dropping himself on the bed. He covers his face with his hands, tries to think about the problem again— because there must be something he can do, something he just hasn’t come up with yet.

Wen Chao has Wen Yuan at his mercy.

Wen Chao has given him three hours –of which there are two and a half left– to contact Wen Qing and get something to bargain with.

And he can’t for the life of him reach Wen Qing.

Frustrated, Wei Wuxian flings his arm around, slams his fist against the wall. The noise spreads across the empty room, pain crawling up his wrist. He considers waking up again and throwing his dizi through the window, as if that would solve anything, starting with the guilt tearing at his heart.

If only he hadn’t spent so long playing and had arrived to pick Wen Yuan up in time.

Wei Wuxian nearly jumps at the vibration in his pocket. Holding his breath, he pulls his phone out, but he can’t help the disappointment flooding his chest when the name he reads in the screen is—

“Lan Zhan. What do you want?”

There is a short silence, and Wei Wuxian wonders if Lan Wangji is offended. He doesn’t particularly care. Today can’t get any worse, not even if Lan Wangji gets angry with him.

But Lan Wangji doesn’t sound bothered.

“You said you and A-Yuan would come to my house to fly his kite.”

Right. Right. It’s, also, Lan Wangji’s birthday, and Wei Wuxian was eager to take him to do something fun for the first time in his life and maybe find another excuse to kiss him again—

“Yeah,” he chokes out, his cruel reality crushing ideas that seem now more than ever out of a blissful dream. “Yes, I did.”

“Is anything wrong with A-Yuan?”

Wei Wuxian bites the inside of his cheeks, realises he has no idea how to explain this whole mess to an outsider.

“No,” he lies. “No, everything’s alright. But we won’t… Sorry, we can’t go.”

“I can pick you up.”

“No! I mean…” Wei Wuxian curses himself inwardly for raising his voice. “We just have other things to do. You can stay home and study, isn’t that what you do every year?”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji’s tone grows more serious than it usually is, and Wei Wuxian thinks that’s it, he hates me, and then he thinks that he deserves it for saying such a thing. “What’s going on?”

Get angry, Wei Wuxian nearly begs, because there is concern in Lan Wangji’s voice and it’s worse than if he got the hint and let Wei Wuxian push him away. Get angry with me for once.

“I said everything’s alright,” he insists. “But I can’t spend the afternoon with you. I’m sorry, Lan Zhan.”

Wei Wuxian hangs up before Lan Wangji can keep nagging him with that worry that hurts.

He has to do something, and quickly.

 

 


 

 

Wen Ning and Wen Qing come back home –a provisional one, but somewhere they feel some semblance of calm– to twelve missed calls. A red dot lights up intermittently on a corner of the device, and Wen Qing snorts and predicts Wei Wuxian must be having another heart attack because Wen Yuan ate too many sweets, and heads to the bathroom to take a shower.

Wen Ning calls their friend back though, because he’s sure his sister will as soon as she’s washed the sweat from their short walk off her skin but none of their situations is pleasant. Wei Wuxian is already doing a lot he doesn’t have to.

He doesn’t expect Wei Wuxian to answer so quickly— or to sound so frantic either.

“What the hell do you have a phone for?! I’ve been calling you for… You know what, never mind. I lost A-Yuan, Wen Chao has him and I don’t want to think what he’ll do if he doesn’t get his filthy hands on your—…”

“…It’s not Wen Qing,” Wen Ning cuts him off, not knowing what to address first. Fear sinks its cold claws in his lungs, a sickness transmitted through the line. “What… What happened to-to…”

“Wen Ning.” Wei Wuxian sighs, and he sounds in the brink of a nervous breakdown but his following words are clear: “Wen Chao took A-Yuan, and he won’t give him back unless he gets your sister’s research—” but he seems unable to keep himself collected for long— “and I can’t go for him because I have no idea where he’s hiding A-Yuan, and I hoped prodigy doctor Wen Qing came up with a bright idea to somehow fix all of this.”

Wen Ning bites onto his lower lip. His hand –the good one, the one without hideous reliefs for skin– shakes, mind as blank as a brand new notebook.

“I’m sorry,” he says on instinct, and it’s the least useful reaction but he means every bit of it. He regrets getting Wei Wuxian involved in this mess, making him move somewhere entirely new and take care of A-Yuan. “I… How long…?”

“Three hours—… One and a quarter, now.” Wei Wuxian swallows audibly. “Listen, I know that thing is important for your sister, and…”

“It doesn’t matter,” Wen Ning cuts him off— something he hardly ever does, never unless he has a good reason to. “A-Yuan is more important.”

When his sister walks out of the shower, wrapped in a bathrobe, Wen Ning knows she agrees.

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian nearly runs to the location Wen Chao sent him, mind racing with something perhaps Wen Yuan would call a good plan.

It’s rushed and full of holes, but it’s the best thing he and the Wen siblings have managed to come up with. Wei Wuxian has never seen Wen Chao as a particularly sharp man, and his friends confirm his impressions whenever the occasion arises. He’s the second and last of Wen Ruohan’s children, a spoiled brat that has spent his life bullying everyone he could get away with— which means everyone, according to Wen Ning, because there are few things his father ever denied him and his brother.

Which means it can work. And Wei Wuxian doesn’t have any better ideas, himself.

He recognises Wen Chao right away, as well as Wen Zhuliu, his bodyguard and the one dirtying his hands in the bastard’s stead. They’re standing at the end of a narrow street that is barely wide enough to avoid being called alley. It’s already flooded in the darkness projected by the skyscrapers hiding the sunset.

“Missed me?” Wen Chao taunts as soon as Wei Wuxian stops in front of him.

“In a way, yeah. It’s good to see the proof that no matter how low I fall, I’ll never reach your level.”

Wei Wuxian licks his lips in satisfaction at Wen Chao’s frozen smirk. It’s little comfort, but he dwells on it for the seconds it takes Wen Chao to come up with a proper reply.

“You must have something really good, to be so insolent.”

Wei Wuxian glances around, making sure to never lose sight of Wen Zhuliu. It cost him a black eye the last time.

“Where’s A-Yuan?”

“Asleep. Such an annoying brat… You seriously want him back? I’m almost doing you a favour.” Not answering, Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes. That’s not the answer to the question he asked. “So? What do you have for us?”

“Let me see A-Yuan first.”

Wen Chao narrows his eyes. “He’s not dead, if that’s what you’re worried about. Sadly. I seriously can’t stand him.”

“So am I just supposed to trust your word?”

Wen Chao’s grin grows, wide and cruel. “Yes.”

Wei Wuxian breathes in deeply, a parody of calm he doesn’t feel. Despicable as he is, Wen Chao is right— and he knows it. He can’t continue this without laying his cards on the table.

“I did contact Wen Qing.” Wen Chao hums in appreciation. “She’s on her way here, with the notes your dad so obsessed with.”

“Interesting.” Wen Chao makes as if to turn around, halts when he realises Wei Wuxian has opened his mouth again. “Yes?”

Wei Wuxian takes half a step, halts before taking his phone out of his pocket. He’s lost count of how many times he has done this today.

“Maybe you want her number. You know, to agree on a meeting point to… exchange goods.”

Wei Wuxian feels sick at his own words. Less than twenty-four hours ago, he traded Wen Yuan for a guqin and a kiss. He presses his lips together, trying not to think about Lan Wangji spending his birthday exactly like every other because he was late to pick Wen Yuan up.

Wen Chao hums. “Right. Send it to me, then.”

“Let me see A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says again. He objectively knows it’s a bad sign, but he enjoys irritating Wen Chao more than he should. “Trust my word, I’ll give you her real number.”

Hatred shines in Wen Chao’s gaze, but he eventually yields. Right now, it’s Wei Wuxian who has something he wants.

“Right.” He gestures to car parked on the other end of the street. “The kid’s there— go see it for yourself.”

Wei Wuxian takes a step towards the vehicle, throwing the two men a wary glance. He advances slowly, both eager to see Wen Yuan and dreading what he might find because he doesn’t trust any descendant of Wen Ruohan’s to have a basic amount of decency.

But then worry overweighs caution, and Wei Wuxian does the only thing he promised himself he wouldn’t.

He tears his gaze off Wen Zhuliu.

Wei Wuxian can’t scream when expert hands twist his arms behind his back, the awkward angle nearly as painful as the knee slamming into his back and knocking all the air out of his lungs. He falls to the ground face-first, writhing under the man’s grip and trying to kick him between breathless curses.

He feels the phone slipping off his grasp, weakened by the uncomfortable way his wrist is twisted. With a growl he sees, out of the corner of his eye, as Wen Chao noses around the entire device.

“A-Yuan is almost cute playing in the snow,” he comments, visibly surprised. “Aw, who’s this baby? It’s a lot smaller than A-Yuan… Ah! You’re an uncle! Truly touching.

“And here I thought the Jiangs had kicked you out for real…”

“Don’t you dare,” Wei Wuxian hisses, doubling his struggle no matter how fruitless. “Don’t you dare touch them.”

“I don’t need to, I already have my cousin’s number,” Wen Chao replies.

He drops the phone; the screen cracks when it hits the floor. Nearly simultaneously, Wen Zhuliu lets go of Wei Wuxian, who sits up and turns around to properly glare at them.

“There was no need,” he grunts, rubbing his sore wrists.

Wen Chao shrugs. “Just in case. It’s not like you’ll be useful anymore.”

“…What?”

“I already can reach Wen Qing, I don’t need you,” Wen Chao says again. He gives Wen Zhuliu a pointed glance, then looks at Wei Wuxian again. “I’d say it was a pleasure knowing you, but I’d be lying. I hope you rot in hell.”

Wei Wuxian should understand, but he doesn’t.

Not until he sees the flash of silver in Wen Zhuliu’s hand.

 

 


 

 

Lan Wangji has never celebrated his birthday.

Neither has his brother, not even when their mother was still alive; one day every year she would praise how big either of them was getting and take them out to go to the cinema or the amusement park, but the yearly tradition died with her. After that, there was no more praise, no special days out; it was only a few winters ago that Lan Xichen dared to show up with a rabbit in each hand and a firm smile that wouldn’t accept a rejection.

Lan Wangji retaliated the following autumn, and before they realised it became a new tradition between then.

But a party? With cake and candles? Lan Wangji has only seen those on TV.

His birthday is, therefore, pretty much like any other day, except for Lan Xichen’s gift. Lan Wangji doesn’t go out, doesn’t have friends he can invite to see how he blows on candles shaped like his new age.

Now he has one friend aside from his brother (two, if a three-year-old counts), but he is still alone.

In spite of Wei Wuxian’s biting words though, Lan Wangji isn’t spending his birthday like every other year. After the call, he has tried to shake the turmoil in his chest off by reading, given up when every word tasted of the desperation laced deep within Wei Wuxian’s voice; he has locked himself up in the soundproof room to play the guqin, only for two strings to snap when he was only three notes into the piece, bruising his hand where they hit like whips.

In the end, Lan Wangji has spent the afternoon fixing the broken strings and tuning them, and checking his phone with unprecedented urgency every five minutes, concern growing twice its size every time a text from Wei Wuxian failed to arrive.

Lan Wangji isn’t angry about Wei Wuxian’s comments. He’s upset and hurt and worried, not because anyone says his life is boring (which it is; he knows it and he enjoys the safety of a routine), but because he knows his friend has lied to him— with the same tone he used the evening Lan Wangji overheard his conversation with Meng Yao.

By twilight Lan Wangji has made up his mind, and he finds himself standing up from his bed as soon as he spots his brother and Meng Yao entering the garden, their holidays officially over. Lan Xichen already knows Lan Qiren isn’t home, which is why he allows himself to hold his boyfriend’s hand so easily.

Lan Wangji walks down the stairs quickly, not paying attention to the rabbit hopping in his wake. He meets up with the two men in the hall.

“Who is it,” he starts. Lan Xichen and Meng Yao look at each other. “Who is it?” he repeats, and this tis time it’s more of a question than a demand. “Whoever you threatened to hand Wei Ying and A-Yuan over to.”

“Wangji.” Lan Xichen’s voice is stern, tense with the memory of their last conversation.

For his part, Meng Yao looks paler than usual, as if he had got sick in the car. His words are firm though:

“You know overhearing others’ conversations is rude, right?”

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes.

“So is threatening them.”

Meng Yao shakes his head. “Take it as whatever you like. I’d rather not get on Wen Ruohan’s bad side; and if you knew even a little about him, you would too.”

“Wen Ruohan?” Lan Xichen repeats, “Isn’t that…”

But Lan Wangji doesn’t learn who Wen Ruohan is; he tunes his brother’s voice out the second his phone, inert for hours, vibrates in his hand.

His eyes widen when he reads the name he has been yearning to see all afternoon, heart jumping to his throat. He brings the device to his ear, holding his breath in expectation.

But he doesn’t hear Wei Wuxian’s voice. He hears a sharp inhale, then a tremulous exhale. It restarts, like the recurring motif of a melody, at an increased pace; and Lan Wangji wonders if—… he wonders, but doesn’t ask.

“Wei Ying?” he calls instead.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian breathes in again, as if just a name had consumed all the air in his lungs. “I really didn’t expect—…”

“What’s wrong?”

Not are you alright?

Not what’s going on?

What’s wrong.

Because something definitely is, has been since Wei Wuxian called him to ask if by any chance you didn’t feel the need to pick up A-Yuan by yourself today, right, and Lan Wangji is tired of waiting for answers that never come on their own.

“W-Wen… Ah, hm, I-I…” Wei Wuxian stammers, clearly uneasy. “I didn’t think you’d pick up.” Lan Wangji grinds his teeth together. There he goes again, changing the topic. “I mean, that bastard broke it and… Ugh, that’s not the point.”

Lan Wangji’s determination falters.

“The point?” he echoes. “Wei Ying, why did you call me?”

“Because I’m sorry. I really wanted to spend the day with you and A-Yuan, and instead I just picked on you because I’m that stupid…”

There is something off about Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji can’t tell what it is, but somehow his friend doesn’t sound like a liar, or someone talking his way out of an awkward situation. It’s as if were honestly trying to get to the point but kept getting distracted.

“It’s alright. But why couldn’t you and A-Yuan come?”

Wei Wuxian takes a couple of deep breaths.

“Ah! Yeah, that’s…I want to go with you now, I’d love to, but you see, I was sort of… sort of shot.”

Lan Wangji nearly drops his phone. He faintly notices his brother’s worried expression.

“You were what.”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds, I promise!” Wei Wuxian adds quickly. “Just… I’m not dying or anything, but… Wow, there’s a lot of blood here. And it’s so dark, too. Doesn’t that mean it's from the veins? Or the arteries? I always mix it up. How sticky… Ew… But I’m fine, really! I just need—…”

“Where are you?” Lan Wangji cuts him off, snatching the keys of the car off his brother’s hand; and he swears he will track Wei Wuxian’s phone if he has to. Not prying into whatever he’s hiding from is one thing; getting shot, on the other hand… “I need it,” he tells Lan Xichen, pushing him and Meng Yao aside in his rush to get out of the house. “Wei Ying,” he calls again.

“I don’t… really know.” Wei Wuxian’s voice sounds softer now, duller. “I’m not familiar with this… Ah! I can send you my location. Wait.”

Lan Wangji is already heading for his uncle’s car, not bothering to apologise or say goodbye to either his brother or his boyfriend; he stabs his smartphone with his thumb as soon as he sees the link to Wei Wuxian’s location, a sigh stuck in his throat when he confirms it’s not far.

“…Lan Zhan?”

Wei Wuxian’s voice comes quiet from the speaker, more air than sound.

“Hm.” Lan Wangji doesn’t think he can manage much more. But then he wonders if Wei Wuxian has heard him at all. I’ll be there in ten minutes, he wants to say, but what comes out instead is: “I’m coming to you.”

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian falls silent for a while, and Lan Wangji throws a worried glance at his phone, on the dashboard. “Lan Zhan, I fucked up.”

Lan Wangji frowns. “You did. You were shot.”

“Besides that.” Wei Wuxian sounds annoyed, as if he were being pretty clear and Lan Wangji enjoyed purposefully missing his point. “A-Yuan, I… They have him, and I don’t—… I don’t even know where.” Wei Wuxian inhales shakily. “And Wen Qing and Wen Ning are heading to wherever he is with her damn research and I was supposed to help but I’m bleeding out here, and, and…”

Lan Wangji isn’t sure what the noise coming from the speaker next is, but it makes his fists clench around the wheel tighter and squeezes his lungs and his heart.

“Are you crying?” he asks, quietly, and he wouldn’t mind if Wei Wuxian didn’t hear him.

“Me? No,” Wei Wuxian assures, and it sounds quite convincing. “Why would I? Nobody’s dead. Yet. Nobody’s dead, so there’s no reason for me to—…”

He trails off, and Lan Wangji thinks that being shot seems like something painful enough to cry but he doesn’t comment on it.

“Blood from the veins is darker because it doesn’t have oxygen in it,” he says instead. “Or nutrients. If it’s from the arteries, it’s bright red. It’s easy to remember because in diagrams arteries are the ones painted red.” He pauses. “Are you listening?”

“Ah, yes! Yes.” But Wei Wuxian falls silent again. Lan Wangji makes an inappropriate turn that earns him a couple of insults, but he doesn’t care; most of his attention is devoted to finding something to make Wei Wuxian keep speaking, because if he doesn’t Lan Wangji can’t know if he’s still—… “Are you really coming?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” The rustle of movement can be heard, and Wei Wuxian lets out a pained grunt.

“Why didn’t you call an ambulance?” Lan Wangji asks.

It’s a stupid question, but so is Wei Wuxian for calling him instead of anyone with proper knowledge to treat gunshot wounds. Lan Wangji is a musician, for Heaven’s sake.

“You said…” Wei Wuxian hesitates. “You said I could tell you, if it were something I couldn’t handle alone.” There is a pause, and then Wei Wuxian verbalises what Lan Wangji can’t help but think: “I’m an idiot. Maybe this is worse than I thought…” He takes air again. “I just really want to see you—… I’m an idiot.”

“Two more streets,” Lan Wangji mutters. “Are you trying to stop the bleeding?”

Again, it’s a stupid question. But Lan Wangji wouldn’t put this delirious Wei Wuxian past forgetting basic survival instincts.

“Yes. But there’s a lot of blood.” Wei Wuxian coughs into the phone. “Lan Zhan?”

“Hm?”

“Sorry for ruining your birthday.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, pulling up at the beginning of the street where, according to his phone, Wei Wuxian is currently bleeding out.

“It’s just another day,” he replies, grabbing his phone before walking out of the car. He barely hears Wei Wuxian’s content hum. “Wei Ying?”

A car honks at him, but Lan Wangji couldn’t care less, because Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer.

“Wei Ying?!”

He breaks into a sprint when his phone stays eerily silent, heart nearly stopping when he sees the dark liquid flowing along the grooves between cobblestones.

Wei Wuxian didn’t exaggerate. There is way too much blood.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The air smelt of smoke and death.

There was no way the fire had spread so quickly without help. The entire house was crumbling under its own weight, its old beams and pillars unable to hold up any longer.

The scene blurred before Wei Wuxian’s eyes when he headed inside that hell of flames again, irritated by the heat. He ignored Wen Qing’s warning, heading along the hallway where not even three hours prior her and Wen Ning’s uncle and aunt had greeted him. They, as well as their child and a couple of relatives, who had been invited to celebrate Wen Qing’s new job where her other uncle’s claws couldn’t reach her, were still trapped there, burning alive or drowning in the smoke flooding the air like poison.

Most likely, already dead.

Wei Wuxian shook his head, but he couldn’t let go of that idea, the thought that was quickly festering the stubborn hope fuelling his advance. He climbed up the wooden stairs, two steps snapping under his weight, ran along a burning hallway and kicked the furthest door open.

The fire hadn’t reached the toddler’s bedroom yet, but the smoke had. Still, the child that lay on his side, covered in blankets to protect him from the cold, looked calm, oblivious to the nightmare eating the house. He didn’t stir even when Wei Wuxian picked him up.

Wei Wuxian ran down what was left of the stairs and rushed outside, hugging the child tightly— he was still breathing, still alive, but the adults inside wouldn’t be that lucky. Half the house came apart as he ran across the garden, the roof sinking in a mess of beams and pillars that crushed the entrance. Wei Wuxian saw that hell reflected in Wen Qing’s tears, but she was more focused on tending to the burns that reached all the way up to her brother’s shoulder.

“I didn’t—” A coughing fit cut Wei Wuxian off, the unconscious child in his arms shaking with him. “How’s Wen Ning?”

“Will live,” Wen Qing choked out, more tears streaming down her cheeks. “Not like— like…” A sob wrecked her thin form and Wen Ning reached out to caress her face with his uninjured hand. “You stay still,” she ordered her younger brother. “You’re hurt.”

In Wei Wuxian’s arms, the child coughed. Violent tremors ran through his small body, hands reaching out blindly to cling to Wei Wuxian’s clothes as he burst into tears.

“Hey, it’s okay. I know, smoke tastes awful, but you’re safe now.” Wei Wuxian’s reassurance made nothing to stop the child’s crying; in fact, his wails grew louder, more desperate, shaped in Mums and Dads that made the night shiver.

“A-Yuan…?” Wen Ning muttered, craning his neck to try to see the child. “Thank Heavens… At least he’s…”

“An orphan! He’s an orphan!” Wen Qing cut him off, voice shrill. “Everyone inside is dead, all because of that bastard!” She drew back from her brother, covered her soot-stained face with trembling hands. “The phone didn’t work! The firefighters aren’t here yet! That son of a bitch killed our family, just because… because…”

A furious, helpless scream tore through the dark sky, louder than Wen Yuan’s crying. Wen Qing’s curses morphed into inarticulate sobs, her proud form shrinking into itself as if she could hide from reality that way.

Wei Wuxian hugged Wen Yuan tighter, even though the toddler kept calling for his mother and his father and he was neither.

He just wanted him and Wen Qing to stop crying.

 

 


 

 

It’s nearly two in the morning and Wei Wuxian’s face is a shade paler than white.

In the faint light of a lamp, he still looks healthier than he did a few hours ago, when Lan Wangji found him quiet and unconscious and dying, and Lan Wangji doesn’t dare to speak louder than a whisper. He doesn’t think he could say anything even if he wanted to, for his mouth is dry as sandpaper, tongue heavy and useless where it rests against his teeth.

So he stares.

Wei Wuxian’s eyelids flutter constantly, his hands clutching at air and blankets and betraying an uneasy sleep. His lips move, but his hasty breathing isn’t enough to make any noise and his words are unintelligible no matter how hard Lan Wangji tries to make sense of them.

But he keeps staring.

Because if Lan Wangji lets his gaze drift away from Wei Wuxian, even for just the briefest second, it’ll stray to the hands he washed with enough viciousness to rub away a few layers of skin and the clean clothes his brother brought to the hospital, and all there is to see in them is blood stains he won’t be able to look away from. He sits still, so close to the bed his knees brush the mattress, eyes reddened and tired and too stubborn to let Wei Wuxian out of his sight; as if watching him could heal him faster, as if staying by his side could stop him from getting hurt again.

Since he can remember, Lan Wangji doesn’t like change. Unlike his brother, he struggles to get used to every alteration of his routine, no matter how small; he clings fiercely to habits, refuses to let go until there is no other way.

Perhaps that’s why he used to resent Wei Wuxian so much, ever since the moment he snuck in his practice booth. Not because he was cheerful and always smiling, or even because he ruined his study session that afternoon back in September; it was because Wei Wuxian is the very embodiment of unpredictability, coming and going as he wishes and always dragging Lan Wangji to do whatever he just came up with. Practising out of school hours, taking him to a new patisserie, preparing a surprise for Wen Yuan’s birthday; Lan Wangji is sure there has been no week Wei Wuxian hasn’t met up with him at least once to do something, even as they danced that ridiculous dance around whatever it is that got Wen Yuan kidnapped.

And Lan Wangji got used to it, too. As used to something as one can be to the opposite of a routine, at least.

And it’s selfish, and inappropriate, and Lan Wangji rejects the thought every time it gets too loud for him to bear; but the idea of another change –a change back, to days with no impulsiveness, no unplanned dates, no butterflies in his stomach– is terrifying enough to stop him from reaching out, through the twenty centimetres separating him from the most beautiful dissonance in his life, and letting Wei Wuxian grab onto his still trembling fingers.

Instead, Lan Wangji clenches his teeth. Anger and helplessness keep stirring within his chest, but there is no clear target for them— because Wei Wuxian is a complete idiot, because he was shot and left to bleed out in a filthy backstreet and because instead of being with him Lan Wangji spent hours waiting for a call he still considers a miracle he received.

Soft footsteps catch his attention, and for the first time since entering the room Lan Wangji dares to look away from Wei Wuxian— he makes out his brother’s silhouette walking around the bed, follows the hand that leans on his shoulder to offer some sort of reassurance.

“You’ve been sitting here for hours,” he mutters. “Why don’t you go out a little?”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes, tightly, and the itch of sleepiness goes away for a couple of seconds upon opening them again. This time, his gaze falls on the fourth person in the room, the man dozing off on a plastic chair.

“No.”

Lan Xichen sighs. Lan Wangji wonders whether he and Meng Yao had time to talk before he called his brother without the slightest idea of what to do once he arrived at the hospital, but he isn’t any closer to trusting him.

“Just have a little walk,” Lan Xichen nearly pleads. “Stretch your legs, get some water… I’ll stay here, in case something—… in case he wakes up.”

Lan Wangji feels his brother’s fingers digging deeper in his shoulder. It doesn’t hurt, but it feels more real, in a way nothing other than Wei Wuxian has since they were allowed to see him.

“…Alright,” he accepts, though still reluctant.

It’s been a while since Lan Wangji went to a hospital. In any case, he has never been in one so late at night; but against all odds, he decides he likes it better than the tidy chaos at day. As he wanders along corridors, passing nurses and doctors and patients’ relatives, he enjoys the sort of calm the whole place radiates, that collective silence that makes the building feel like a limbo of sorts.

Close to the entrance, there is a set of vending machines with various products that barely qualify as edible. Lan Wangji fishes a few coins from the pocket of his jacket to get a bottle of water, and it’s not only to give his brother proof that he has done what he agreed to; now that he thinks about it his throat is dry, the few words he has managed after hours of silence sounding closer to squawks.

As soon as he sees them, his fingers tremble at the memory of blood coating them; Lan Wangji swallows down even though there is nothing in his mouth, forces himself to remember that Wei Wuxian’s life isn’t in immediate danger, that he is sleeping in his room and he should awaken soon. He should worry more about Wen Yuan, whose state and whereabouts are unknown and whose disappearance has already been reported to the police.

Lan Wangji picks the bottle from the bottom of the machine, clutches the cold plastic. He uncaps it and drinks in large gulps to wash away the sour taste lodged in the back of his throat. He doesn’t raise his gaze on his way back to the room, but his grip on the bottle tightens with every step.

Nothing is different when Lan Wangji opens the door and slides inside. Meng Yao is still sleeping on a plastic chair, Lan Xichen toying with his phone to keep his restless hands busy. Wei Wuxian yet to find his way out of the nightmare he’s locked up in—…

…No.

Wei Wuxian isn’t asleep. He’s still writhing, looking for something; but his eyes are open, his frantic gaze flitting around the room.

 

 


 

 

Darkness floods the world he opens his eyes to, black painting everything except for the blue hue of the light trying to spread among inky tendrils. Blinking the fire carved in the back of his eyelids away, Wei Wuxian makes out indistinct lumps surrounding him, monsters that stare, that wait for their turn to leap on him.

He wants to scream when one of them lurches forward, but he can’t find his voice.

“Wei Ying,” the silhouette calls, halting at the side of the bed. Wei Wuxian squints at the clear eyes too bright in the dim room. “Breathe.”

Lan Zhan.

Wei Wuxian tries to swallow down, tries to obey the order. Tries to…

He really came.

But his lungs refuse to slow down.

“A-Yuan,” he croaks out. “A-Yuan,” he repeats, because Lan Wangji isn’t moving. “I don’t—… I don’t know where he is, but I have to… I have to…” He struggles to sit up, efforts fruitless the second Lan Wangji’s hand leans on his shoulder.

“You have to rest.”

“I have to find him!” Wei Wuxian argues, breathing hitching at the pain in his abdomen. “Wen Ruohan and Wen Chao won’t care about him once Wen Qing gives him the documents…”

“What documents?”

Wei Wuxian turns his head around so quickly his neck hurts, helplessness replaced by anger when he spots, next to Lan Xichen’s flawlessly straight posture, Meng Yao blinking at him, apparently half-asleep.

“You…” Meng Yao sighs, as if he were talking to a particularly stubborn child, shakes his head. “You told him! You knew from the beginning who A-Yuan is, and now he’s missing—…” With a growl Wei Wuxian doubles his efforts to sit up, pain twisting his expression until Lan Wangji gives up and grabs his shoulders to steady him instead. “Not the bad guy, my ass.”

His voice thins into a whine as he hugs his torso so as to keep the burning agony away, struggling to breathe through the pain piercing his abdomen.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji warns quietly. As if Wei Wuxian had it in him to care about the way he addresses one of his bosses, who is incidentally dating another of his bosses, currently watching the scene

“I would love to know what this is about,” Lan Xichen intervenes. “Who are those people, and how are they related to this situation?”

His tone is calm, peaceful, the same he uses to end conflicts when Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao fight; and yet, Wei Wuxian can tell he won’t accept evasive answers, won’t stop until both he and Meng Yao admit what they know.

Meng Yao’s sigh isn’t as exasperated as it is resigned. His gaze hops between Wei Wuxian and Lan Xichen, reaching the same conclusion.

“Since I’m the one being accused…”

“I heard you threaten Wei Ying.” Wei Wuxian’s heart skips a beat at Lan Wangji’s sharp tone, but when he turns his head his friend’s gaze doesn’t waver. “The last Friday of December.”

Apparently oblivious to Lan Xichen’s shocked gaze, Meng Yao stretches his arms over his head.

“You heard an incomplete conversation,” he corrects. “I’m not in contact with Wen Ruohan, nor am I in any way affiliated to him.” Wei Wuxian clicks his tongue, sarcastic. “I spent a few months in his company for an internship, two years ago. That’s all, and I never intended for it to be a secret. You can check my contract, there’s no ‘kidnap a kid for a raise’ clause.”

He is focused only on Lan Xichen now, expression severe as if he were disappointed on his boyfriend for doubting him.

It seems to work, because Lan Xichen tears his gaze off him. “Then… What Wangji said…”

He looks uneasy, as if he had just sworn aloud.

“During the time I spent bringing coffees for the Human Resources staff, I learnt about a few questionable things, realised that being openly against Wen Ruohan is a bad idea— and not bad as in he will never hire me, but bad as in he is perfectly capable of ruin someone’s life if he feels like it.” Meng Yao’s voice is monotone, as if he were reciting a particularly boring poem. “That’s why, in the case he found out I had a connection to Mr. Wei, I decided I wouldn’t get on his bad side. I guess that’s the part your brother overheard.”

The silence that follows is thick, hard to breathe.

“So… Then, A-Yuan…” Lan Xichen starts, still not looking at the man in front of him.

“I have nothing to do with that.” Meng Yao assures. He reaches for his boyfriend’s hand, tugs at it until Lan Xichen’s eyes meet his, reluctant. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Why should he?” Wei Wuxian snaps. Lan Wangji’s fingers dig into his shoulders deeper. “You basically just admitted—…”

“No,” Meng Yao cuts him off, and this time there is real anger in his voice. “I didn’t tell Wen Ruohan, or either of the dimwits he has for sons, about you or A-Yuan.

“I have to admit, however,” he adds after a pause, squeezing Lan Xichen’s fingers between his, “that I didn’t just want to take you to visit my mother. I wanted to be away in the case Wen Ruohan did contact me, so that I could warn Mr. Wei and have some room for manoeuvre, to keep ourselves safe from him.”

Wei Wuxian can’t help the whine that escapes his lips; Lan Wangji’s grip on his shoulder is growing painful. He reaches for his friend’s hand, and Lan Wangji’s hold loosens but the glare pining Meng Yao to the spot doesn’t dim the tiniest bit.

Seeing Lan Xichen’s troubled expression, the way his lower lip trembles with hesitation and guilt, Wei Wuxian can’t really blame him.

“Brother,” Lan Wangji calls. “Do you still trust him?”

It takes nearly a minute, but finally Lan Xichen turns towards his brother. After a small nod, he squeezes Meng Yao’s hand back.

“I do. I may… not agree with everything, but A-Yao has always done things in his own way.”

“It’s so obviously a lie,” Wei Wuxian grunts.

Meng Yao doesn’t even look at him. “You not liking me doesn’t prove that I’m evil.”

“And your heart-warming story doesn’t—…”

“It doesn’t work like that though,” Lan Xichen interrupts. “You have to prove that someone’s guilty when you accuse them.” Wei Wuxian bites his tongue, the iron flooding his mouth added to the gunshot wound. “On the other hand, you… From what I’ve gathered, you are hiding A-Yuan from his own family.” Wei Wuxian closes his eyes as he nods, unable to deny the cold truth. “Why?”

Leaning into Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian weighs his options.

He has a hole in his abdomen and no clue about how to find Wen Yuan. He is pretty sure he would be dead if he hadn’t called Lan Wangji, if that stupid idea hadn’t taken over him when Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu left him to bleed out alone, with no A-Yuan, no answers and a half-broken phone.

Even if he has managed three months on his own, the situation isn’t the same anymore. Pride and stubbornness can be damned; Wei Wuxian needs help to find Wen Yuan and fix this mess, and he would beg on his knees if he found the right person to pray to find Wen Yuan safe and sound.

And Lan Wangji is right there, with him, quiet and strong and eager to help in spite of every attempt to keep him at bay. Shifting until he nestles his face against the crook of his neck, Wei Wuxian feels warm and hears Lan Wangji’s loud, constant heartbeat— and then he draws back the tiniest bit and opens his eyes, and finds that golden gaze staring down at him, focused on every little change in his expression.

Wei Wuxian’s lips itch to kiss him again.

But he knows, when Lan Wangji’s lips twitch downwards, that there is no peck, joke or caress capable of getting him out of this without explaining the exact circumstances that led to this situation.

 

 


 

 

Clutching the plastic bottle Lan Wangji bought, Wei Wuxian talks. He stops frequently, to take a sip of water, posture slouching with every sentence until he’s lying back down on the mattress and his tale frays in disjointed sentences.

He talks about how he met Wen Ning, at an archery competition three years ago. It turned out he and his sister lived with their uncles close by, so they naturally became acquaintances, then friends.

Wen Qing had just majored in Medicine, and combined her job at a local hospital with her thesis in their other uncle’s laboratory. Being the head of the richest branch of the family, as well as the main owner of a prominent pharmaceutical company, Wen Ruohan paid for her studies and let her use every resource for her research on improving immunosuppressants for transplant patients.

But then, Wen Qing happened to synthetize something she shouldn’t.

“I’ve always been more into physics,” Wei Wuxian admits, pausing to drink water, “but from what I understand, Wen Qing made something that wasn’t as effective as it was addictive, and couldn’t be replaced by any other active ingredient.”

Of course, Wen Ruohan was interested in such a thing.

Of course, Wen Qing refused to give it to him.

Wei Wuxian talks about threats, bribing attempts, harassment. About how Wen Qing decided to move away, both to get away from her uncle and to draw his attention away from her brother, uncle, aunt and their baby son. He smiles genuinely when he remembers how happy she was when she was admitted in a private hospital located miles away from Wen Ruohan, so much that she invited Wei Wuxian, who had tried to help as much as the others, to her farewell dinner.

But then his smile vanishes, and he keeps quiet for five whole minutes.

Because that night, the house was burnt down.

Legally, only Wei Wuxian, Wen Qing and Wen Ning survived the fire. Everyone else was dead, or presumed dead.

“Wen Qing supposed it was so that nobody suspected when Wen Ruohan took A-Yuan away.” Wei Wuxian drums on the nearly empty bottle with his fingers. “But the thing is, A-Yuan was with us, and he couldn’t report a kidnapped dead kid…

“We agreed on splitting up: Wen Qing would hide with Wen Ning, who was injured in the fire, and I’d take A-Yuan. I’ve never seen Madam Yu as angry as she was when I explained what had happened… She nearly disowned me for real. But technically it was a farce, to keep Jiang Cheng and the others safe. I came here, moved in Uncle Jiang’s old flat with A-Yuan and tried to make this as normal as I could, for his sake.”

Wei Wuxian rubs at his eyes, grinding his teeth together.

“That time I left A-Yuan under your care…” His breathing hitches. “They found me. But they didn’t know if A-Yuan was with me or with Wen Qing and Wen Ning, so I used that to my advantage. No matter how much they threatened, it didn’t work because I really have no idea where Wen Qing and Wen Ning are…”

The knot in Lan Xichen’s stomach tightens the more Wei Wuxian tells, pained and worried and a bit heartbroken at the lightness the man forces into his voice but can’t make sound believable. Still standing next to the bed, Lan Wangji listens with his head hanging low, and Lan Xichen knows his brother wants to say something but doesn’t know which words could possibly make Wei Wuxian’s story less horrifying.

Wei Wuxian’s grip on the bottle falters when he falls silent, only Lan Wangji’s reflexes stopping the water from spilling on the sheets. The four men in the room stay quiet, none of them knowing how to continue that conversation, how to prompt Wei Wuxian to tell the end of his tale.

“So, now…” Lan Xichen whispers, quiet enough for Wei Wuxian to ignore him if he so wishes.

But he doesn’t.

“Now they have A-Yuan, and I gave them Wen Qing’s number so that they could agree to meet up and trade him for her research, and she was supposed to tell me about it so that I came up with… something.”

Lan Xichen bites his tongue, but Meng Yao voices his thoughts anyway:

“That’s full of holes.”

Wei Wuxian glares at him, but the exhaustion clinging to him is tangible.

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” Lan Xichen asks.

Wei Wuxian starts to shake his head, halts before finishing the gesture and looks at Lan Wangji.

“You found me, right?”

“Hm.”

“Where’s my phone?”

Not saying a word, Lan Wangji grabs the device from the bedside table and hands it to Wei Wuxian, who seems to have trouble to hold it over his face as he navigates its menus through the broken screen.

“Do you intend on calling Wen Qing?”

Wei Wuxian nods. “I don’t think she’ll be here until tomorrow, so I have time to…”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Xichen hears the plea underneath his brother’s commanding tone, and judging by Wei Wuxian’s flinch he does too. “You won’t be healed by tomorrow.”

Wei Wuxian tries to shrug, grimaces at the pain the movement brings. The phone slips off his grasp and falls on his face; he curses under his breath before grabbing it again.

“I don’t care. I don’t trust them to really give A-Yuan back, and I’m the one who didn’t pick him up on time. I…”

“It’s not your fault,” Lan Wangji cuts him off. Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen as he finally looks over the screen, at his serious expression. “They would have found another way to take him away.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t reply. He only shakes his head, closing his eyes as he brings his phone to his ear.

“…Wen Qing? It’s me—… Oh, really? Well, it’s kind of broken, so maybe it can’t receive calls… Did you…?” Wei Wuxian falls silent for an entire minute, the displeasure in his expression growing with each passing second. “Bastard. Yeah, send me the location. Hm…? Yes, I’m fine. See you tomorrow then.

“Tomorrow, at three in the afternoon,” he announces upon hanging up. “That’s when they agreed to meet up with Wen Chao… So I have time to get there.”

“Mr. Wei, you were shot,” Meng Yao intervenes. “You should rest, not overexert yourself.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” Wei Wuxian grunts. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to save A-Yuan, and I don’t care how many stupid bullet holes I have.”

But he can barely sit up before being out of breath; for a second time, Lan Wangji reaches out to steady him, eases him back down in spite of his complaints, which is all he can do to resist at this point.

“Sleep now,” Lan Wangji orders quietly, shaking his head slightly when Wei Wuxian opens his mouth again. “There is time.”

 

 


 

 

Wei Wuxian knows there is nothing he can do to find Wen Yuan faster. He knows that he needs to rest; his body screams for him to close his eyes and sleep and regain some strength and make the sharpest edge of the pain piercing through his abdomen go away.

He knows that he’s pretty much useless right now.

And still, he can’t help the childish spark of resentment following Lan Wangji’s moves as he sits down.

“I don’t want to sleep,” he mutters.

Lan Wangji’s entire demeanour screams I don’t care, but he remains silent for a couple of minutes. Wei Wuxian realises what is drawing his attention when he hears Meng Yao’s quiet whispers, turns his head to watch him and Lan Xichen walk out of the room after waving goodbye.

Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes. He doesn’t trust Meng Yao any more than he did before hearing his explanation, and he wonders why Lan Xichen insists on rejecting every suspicion thrown his boyfriend’s way. Meng Yao could be texting Wen Zhuliu to ask him to finish Wei Wuxian’s off, for all they know.

“They’re going home,” Lan Wangji explains; it’s only then that Wei Wuxian realised the last part slipped out of his mouth. “Brother is trusting, not stupid.”

Wei Wuxian purses his lips together. He wants to rebut the statement, but he can’t focus enough to find the words; his eyelids grow heavier with every blink, and a yawn breaks past his lips without a warning.

“Home…” he repeats. It takes him a while to understand. “To sleep?”

“Hm.”

Wei Wuxian’s gaze drifts back to Lan Wangji. “Then what about you?”

Lan Wangji looks down, at his laced fingers on the edge of the bed.

“I’m staying.”

Wei Wuxian frowns. He opens his mouth, closes it again; he only opens it again after a few seconds.

“You don’t have to. I’m not going to… to sneak out through the window, or anything,” he assures. “I promise. I’m too tired for it. Not that I’ve considered it or anything…”

Wei Wuxian can’t help but chuckle at his own lie, but the sound dies down at Lan Wangji’s impassive expression.

“…I’m staying,” he repeats.

Something about Lan Wangji’s quiet refusal to look at him bothers Wei Wuxian; for the first time since waking up he recalls everything he has said to him since he realised Wen Yuan was missing.

“You’re angry, aren’t you? I’ve acted like a complete idiot today. I…” Wei Wuxian tries to swallow down; but even though he just drank nearly an entire litre of water, his mouth is dry as sandpaper. “I’m sorry I told you…”

But Lan Wangji shakes his head, nearly imperceptibly. It’s hard, in the dark room, to make out the exact shade of his gaze; but Wei Wuxian does see the slight tremor running through his fingers.

And all of a sudden, he understands.

“Were you scared?”

Lan Wangji finally looks up, and Wei Wuxian’s heart shrinks a little at his nod.

“Don’t…” The sentence’s start holds a sharp edge, but he trails off immediately, not knowing how to continue.

“‘Don’t get shot again’?” Wei Wuxian suggests, laughing in spite of the pain. “I’ll try my best.”

His gaze strays to Lan Wangji’s hands, only a few centimetres from his left one; Wei Wuxian remembers, with a pang of bitterness, that only twenty-four hours ago he was rolling in his bed, unable to sleep from excitement, and his greatest worry was finding the right moment to steal another kiss.

He reaches out, too tired to keep thinking, and Lan Wangji traps his hand between his, bigger and warmer than Wei Wuxian’s.

Neither of them speaks; but Wei Wuxian would swear, in the last second before sleep finally claims him, that Lan Wangji’s ears are a funny shade of red.