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where angels fear to tread

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Wei Wuxian saunters into Q-branch on a Tuesday afternoon, three months after being declared Missing in Action during a mission in Venice, in a brand-new, impeccably tailored suit and sporting a cut over his left eyebrow. Luo Qingyang takes one look at him and scowls.

"Get out," she says without preamble.

He pouts.

"But Mianmian," he wheedles, sidling up to her workbench with his best, most dazzling smile. "It's been so long since we've last seen each other. Don't you miss me?"

"No," she says shortly, and slaps the hand creeping towards the newly-reassembled gun on the bench without looking away from him. "Get out. You're not welcome here."

But Wei Wuxian lives to be contrary, so he makes a show of stretching his arms with a loud groan and leans his hip against the workbench instead, his arms folded and lips curved into a cocky smile. She rolls her eyes and turns back to fiddling with the gun in front of her. Wei Wuxian leans in closer and whistles appreciatively.

"Is that an original Beretta 418?" he asks. "I thought they stopped producing those in the fifties."

"Not that it's any of your business, but yes." She shoos him away when he tries to get a closer look. "We found it in storage with some of the older equipment and I'm trying to see if I can give it an...upgrade."

She gives him the side-eye.

"It's not for you," she says before he can even open his mouth, "so don't even bother asking."

He claps a hand over his chest with a wounded expression.

"Mianmian! How could you be so cruel to your ever faithful Yuandao?" he cries dramatically. "When I have spent the last three months wasting away, pining for a glimpse of your fair countenance?"

The corner of her eyebrow twitches and her knuckles turn white around the handle of the screwdriver. She whirls around to face him, pressing the tip of the screwdriver against his throat, eyes blazing.

"Don't even start," she hisses. "Don't even think about it."

The smile fades from his face as he takes in the redness of her eyes, the way her lips are pressed into a thin, trembling line; he looks down and wraps a hand around hers to lower the screwdriver from his throat. He sighs heavily.

"I'm sorry," he says.

She sniffs, snatching her hand from his and turning back to the Beretta on the bench, furiously swiping at her face with the back of her free hand.

"I'm not the one you should be apologising to," she says.

They both look over to the other end of the lab blocked off by floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass, currently frosted over for privacy. Wei Wuxian scratches the back of his head and winces.

"Yeah..." he says nervously, slowly making his way towards it. "Wish me luck, Mianmian."

"You deserve everything that's coming to you," she calls after him cheerfully.

He stops in front of the lab door, takes a deep breath, and knocks on the door three times. No answer. He winces, glancing over his shoulder at Luo Qingyang, who doesn't even bother pretending she isn't watching the show unfold; she raises her eyebrows and gives him a pointed look, as if to say: 'Well go on, no point in delaying the inevitable'. She's right of course, but that doesn't make him any less nervous or (mildly) terrified. He steels himself and knocks again.

"Lan Zhan," he calls through the door with his most enthusiastic voice. "Guess who it is!"

There's still no answer, and now he's really starting to sweat. A couple of other Q-branch minions have caught onto what's happening and are gathered around Luo Qingyang's bench to snigger and watch as he inevitably resorts to begging. It's a good thing his tolerance for shame and embarrassment is unmatched, otherwise he'd never live this down.

"Lan Zhan!" he says, raising his voice. He starts hitting the door with his open palm instead, because he knows Lan Wangji hates it when he does. "Lan Zhan, open up! Mianmian's about to torch the servers!"

Behind him, Luo Qingyang shouts indignantly, but Wei Wuxian pays her no mind because the glass door slides open right at that moment to reveal a stone-faced Lan Wangji. He's wearing his glasses today, a sight that never fails to send Wei Wuxian into mild cardiac arrest for how attractive they make him look, and his long hair is pulled back into a long braid over his shoulder. He looks...really good, and Wei Wuxian's heart aches with the sudden, fierce reminder of how much he's missed him while he was away. He offers a small, sheepish smile and a wave.

"Hiya, Lan Zhan," he says. "I'm back."

Lan Wangji stares at him for all of three seconds in silence, before his hand comes up to press a button on the other side of the glass and the door slides shut again. Wei Wuxian blinks. Luo Qingyang and the other minions don't even bother hiding their laughter this time, and he scowls when he looks back and sees money changing hands.

"Hey," he says, affronted. "Are you guys betting on me?"

"No," she replies innocently. "Just on how long Hanguang-jun would tolerate your presence before he shuts the door in your face. Thanks for three hundred yuan, by the way."

She wiggles her fingers in his direction with a smirk and he sticks his tongue out at her in response, just as the door slides open again. This time, Lan Wangji glares at him.

"You're meant to be in a debriefing," he says.

Wei Wuxian cocks his head to the side and grins.

"I thought you could debrief me this time," he says, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

Lan Wangji closes his eyes and breathes deeply, a muscle twitching in his jaw with how hard he's clenching his teeth. Sometimes Wei Wuxian worries he'll grind his teeth down to nothing and have to get dentures. And at such a young age! Then he opens his eyes again and looks Wei Wuxian critically.

"You don't have your equipment," he says. It's not even a question.

Wei Wuxian spreads his arms to show Lan Wangji just how empty they are.

"Nope," he says cheerfully.

Lan Wangji frowns.

"That Walther PPK/S was equipped with state-of-the-art biotechnology," he says stiffly. "The only one of its kind. What did you do with it?"

"I didn't do anything," Wei Wuxian says, raising three fingers in the air. "Blame the guy who pretended to be a gondola driver to try and drown me. It's probably at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea by now."

He watches a series of microexpressions flit across that handsome face—no doubt Lan Wangji is trying to decide whether to strangle him on the spot, or toss him to the minions to be shredded piece by piece like a pack of hungry hyenas. If it were up to him, though, he'd rather have Lan Wangji's hands around his neck any day. He's sure Lan Wangji can tell what's going through his mind right now, because the tips of his ears are turning pink and his fists are clenched so hard they're trembling at his sides.

"Since you have no equipment, you do not need to be here," he tells him shortly. "Get out."

"Ah!" Wei Wuxian bounds forward and grabs Lan Wangji's hand before he can press the button to close the door again. Lan Wangji jerks his hand back as if scalded. "Sorry."

"It's fine," Lan Wangji replies stiffly, clutching his hand to his chest. "What else do you need?"

"Um..." Wei Wuxian rubs the back of his suddenly burning neck and looks away. "I'll, uh—see you tonight? My place?"

Lan Wangji's ears flush darker, but he snorts softly instead of agreeing.

"Your apartment was vacated when you were declared missing," he says, almost smugly. Lan Wangji is never smug though, so Wei Wuxian must be imagining things. "The locks were changed and your belongings have all been moved into storage."

Wei Wuxian sighs. Damn, he'd forgotten about that protocol.

"Well, I guess I'll just have to stay over at yours then," he says, perking up.

"No," Lan Wangji says. "Rent a hotel room."

And with that, he presses the button and the door slides shut in Wei Wuxian's stunned face.

"Oh shit," Luo Qingyang says in a gleeful stage whisper. "He's definitely mad."

 

 

 

--

 

 

 

Over the next month, Lan Wangji makes his displeasure very apparent every time Wei Wuxian walks into the R&D labs. If he is in his private office, the doors will immediately lock and the glass frosts over so Wei Wuxian doesn't even get to see him. If he's speaking to another technician, he'll completely disregard Wei Wuxian hovering around and walk straight back to his office when he's done without sparing him a glance. Wei Wuxian's even tried to bring him tea, brewed just the way he likes it—with cute, apologetic messages written on post-it notes attached to the thermos—but they're always returned to him untouched.

He always keeps the post-it notes though, so Wei Wuxian knows not all hope is lost.

He turns his attention instead to wearing down Luo Qingyang for information. She's Lan Wangji's second-in-command, his chief technician, the one who knows Lan Wangji better than anyone else. (Except perhaps Zewu-zun, but after being subjected to the nicest and most terrifying chewing out he's ever received in all his time as a Double-Oh, Wei Wuxian is not about to approach him for information on how to get back in his younger brother's good graces.) Luo Qingyang is fierce on the outside, but sweet and gooey on the side like a crispy, roasted marshmallow, so there's a higher chance of her divulging some helpful intel on the Lan Wangji situation.

She hums as she takes a sip of the gourmet spicy drinking chocolate he had brought all the way back from Venice especially for her. Because she's the only other person in the whole agency who knows how to properly appreciate spicy chocolate.

"Ooh, this is good," she sighs blissfully, cradling the mug closer. "I want more of this next time you get shipped off to Italy."

"Roger that," he says, saluting her with two fingers as he perches on the corner of her workbench. "Now, are you ready to talk?"

"Mm, I don't know if Hanguang-jun would want me to tell you," she says, staring into the mug with a thoughtful expression. "It seemed really personal. Private. You know?"

He kind of does, and he feels guilty about it, which is why he's doing this. He folds his arms across his chest and nods solemnly, the very picture of contrition as she sighs.

"When you switched off your comms and went dark in Venice," she begins slowly, not looking him in the eye, "we feared the worst, but there was no way for us to get back into contact with you to see if you were alright. We searched around the clock for three weeks before Zewu-zun gave the order to stop. But Hanguang-jun refused to stop looking, not even for a minute. He spent all three of those weeks, and then another, searching for you through every channel he could get access to, regardless of legitimacy."

Guilt gnaws at Wei Wuxian's stomach as he imagines Lan Wangji running himself ragged, right here in Q-branch, refusing to leave his monitors, refusing to give up the search for him. And then he remembers the way he had just rocked up and thoughtlessly invited himself over to Lan Wangji's apartment as if he hadn't just disappeared off the face of the earth for three whole months. He's never wanted to slap himself so much before now.

But Luo Qingyang isn't done.

"Eventually, when we caught wind of what was happening down there, when we found traces of activity in that old, abandoned warehouse where you went dark, Zewu-zun ordered us to stay put until we could get eyes in the area." She takes a deep breath and grips the mug tighter. "Hanguang-jun went behind his back and sent all nearby field agents to the area to extract you."

Wei Wuxian inhales sharply, his blood running cold. Lan Wangji had gone against direct orders for him?

"We were blind," she continues relentlessly. "He was sending them in with no plan, no intel and no surveillance. We didn't even know if it was even you in there. Ten agents, going in completely blind, because Hanguang-jun thought you were in danger."

She glares down at her hot chocolate as if willing it to combust on the spot. He wishes she would direct it at him instead.

"Zewu-zun interceded before they could get there," she says. "I've never seen him so angry before. He had Hanguang-jun stood down immediately and placed under house arrest to await court-martialing. They only cleared him to come back about a week before you turned up again."

 

 

 

--

 

 

 

He resorts to breaking into Lan Wangji's apartment that night while he knows the other is still at work.

It's not particularly difficult to do so—something he will have to speak to Zewu-zun about once this all blows over—and he's standing in the middle of the apartment surveying his surroundings in less than half an hour. Lan Wangji's apartment is sparsely furnished, with only a bookshelf, a couch and a coffee table in the living room. He doesn't even own a television.

Wei Wuxian peeks into the kitchen and finds it thankfully well-stocked. He debates whether or not he should try and get dinner ready for when Lan Wangji comes home. He knows a couple of recipes that he's put to good use in the field when trying to seduce marks—at the thought of cooking Lan Wangji those same dishes, the idea doesn't seem so appealing anymore. He opts for something simple instead, something homely.

By the time Lan Wangji comes home, the rice cooker is set to keep warm and there are three dishes ready on the kitchen table. Wei Wuxian hangs around the doorway to the kitchen, shifting nervously on his feet as Lan Wangji stares at him from where he's standing, frozen, in the foyer.

"What are you doing here?" he bites out angrily. "The key—"

Wei Wuxian raises his hands in the air to pacify him.

"I had no choice," he says quickly. "You weren't speaking to me and I really, really needed to see you."

Lan Wangji sighs and brushes past him to set his brief case on the sofa.

"What do you want from me, Wei Ying?" he asks heavily. "It's late."

Wei Wuxian takes a step towards him.

"I—I made dinner," he says hesitantly. "Do you want to eat first?"

Lan Wangji turns towards him then, surprised. Wei Wuxian takes this chance to take hold of his hand gently and lead him to the kitchen, sitting him down in his usual seat at the table and offering him a pair of chopsticks before he can even protest. He sits himself down next to him.

"I learned these dishes from shijie when I was a kid," he tells him, picking out a piece of chicken and placing it on Lan Wangji's plate. "She was already worried I'd starve if I ever lived on my own, so she had me practice them over and over again before I moved here."

He falls silent when it becomes obvious that Lan Wangji isn't going to respond; he doesn't like to speak during meals, he recalls fondly, and smiles as he digs into his own dinner. They eat in companionable silence, and he allows himself for a moment to forget the gigantic elephant in the room.

Once the meal is over, however, and the last of the plates cleaned up, the atmosphere in the room grows frosty again. Lan Wangji stays seated at the kitchen table, his hands folded neatly in front of him, looking at Wei Wuxian with an unreadable expression. Wei Wuxian squirms in his own seat under the force of his scrutiny, like a guilty child preparing himself for a scolding. It probably isn't that far off, if he's being honest.

He stares down at his hands and sighs. Time to face the music.

"Lan Zhan, I...heard about what happened when I was—" he swallows thickly, "when I was gone."

Lan Wangji continues to stare at him in silence, so he forces himself to continue.

"I'm...I'm sorry," he says quietly. "We had a plan. I shouldn't have gone off on my own without consulting you first. I—I'm sorry you got court-martialed because of me."

He peeks up at Lan Wangji to gauge his reaction, and is surprised to see him even more upset than before. The furrow between his brows is deeper, and his lips are pressed together so tightly the skin around them has gone white; his eyes are squeezed shut and he's breathing heavily through his nose, as if it's all he can do to remain calm. The guilty feeling returns again, churning away in Wei Wuxian's stomach until he feels sick. He opens his mouth to apologise again, but Lan Wangji cuts him off.

"Is that all?" he asks quietly, voice tightly controlled. Wei Wuxian hesitates.

"Um...yes?" he ventures, unsure. "I—I promise I'll stick to the plan as closely as I can next time, and I won't do anything without your say-so, Lan Zhan, I promise—"

Lan Wangji slams his hand on the table with so much force, Wei Wuxian feels the bones in his arms rattle. He falls silent, cowed.

"Wei Ying..." Lan Wangji breathes deeply, and starts again. "I'm not upset that you didn't follow the plan. You never follow the plan."

If it were any other situation, Wei Wuxian would offer a joking protest, but the expression on Lan Wangji's face tells him it's probably not the best idea at the moment. So he stays silent and waits for him to continue. Lan Wangji looks down at his hands and squeezes them together.

"I'm upset," he says, "not because you didn't stick to the plan, but because you went dark without warning, without even considering the danger you were putting yourself in by doing so. You cut me off, Wei Ying, when I could have helped."

Wei Wuxian stares at him, lost for words. When Lan Wangji looks up to meet his gaze, his eyes are red-rimmed and wet. The sight of them hurts more than all the bullets Wei Wuxian has taken to the chest.

"Three months," Lan Wangji says quietly, fiercely. "We didn't know where you were. I searched everywhere and still couldn't find you. We had no way of knowing if you were alive or—or dead—" he chokes on the word and Wei Wuxian's stomach lurches at the sound, "—and I was stuck here. Helpless."

Wei Wuxian slides off his seat and onto his knees beside Lan Wangji's chair. He takes hold of Lan Wangji's elbow, gently turning him around to face him, and is gratified to meet no resistance. Lan Wangji is glaring at the floor, his eyes wet. Wei Wuxian covers Lan Wangji's trembling fists with his own and rests his forehead over their joined hands in his lap. Lan Wangji's breath hitches.

"I'm sorry," Wei Wuxian whispers, feeling tears prick at his own eyes. "I'm sorry I scared you. I didn't consider how you would feel. I'm sorry. I promise I won't do it again."

Lan Wangji says nothing, but the body beneath his shifts in the seat as he leans forward and a warm weight settles across his upper back. Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, listening to the sound of Lan Wangji's heart beat against his ear, and holds on a little tighter.