There’s something on Wei Ying’s thigh. Something damp, unpleasant, and spreading slowly, inch by inch.
He cracks an eye open.
The Y key on his laptop keyboard looks back at him, blurry and magnified from how close he’s pressed up against it. His phone is ringing somewhere in the area, his right arm is numb from the elbow down, there’s spilt coffee on his joggers and dried drool on his chin.
This last bit has him sitting bolt upright at once.
Pressing random keys in a fit of panic, he watches with bated breath as his laptop comes to life and his keysmashing takes shape on the open document on the screen. He slides a few inches down his chair with a shuddering sigh of relief. After another night drooling all over his keyboard without any disastrous consequences, he’s pretty much ready to call the day a success already.
It’s only then that the shrill cry of his ringtone finally hits him, making his head start to throb. He leans over, joints creaking in the process, and retrieves the phone from the pile of books and papers scattered across his desk.
Wen Qing’s name flashes on the screen as he rights himself. He winces as the coffee drips further down his joggers, then again with more feeling as an image of Wen Qing’s irate face floats before his eyes. Quickly sliding his finger across the screen, he presses his phone to his ear.
“Wei Wuxian!” her voice thunders through the phone, making him jump. He’s not nearly awake enough for this.
“Good morning to you, too,” he answers, trying to sound like he hadn’t been dead to the world three minutes ago.
It’s a losing battle.
“Morning?” she snaps. “Take a look out of your window, sunshine.”
She’s probably forgotten that he keeps the curtains in his flat perpetually drawn closed, since he prefers not to be aware what time of day it is as a general rule. He holds his phone out instead and checks the time. 12:43 pm, it reads. Worrying his lip for a moment as he ponders how he’s going to sell this, he puts his phone to his ear again.
“I was writing,” he says. “You know how I get when I’m in the zone.”
“Which zone is that?” says Wen Qing. “REM? NREM? Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3?”
“Jiejie, you’re so mean to this poor worker bee of yours!” Wei Ying exclaims theatrically. “I’ve been so hard at work writing all night!”
He scrolls up the document he’d left open before he fell asleep, hoping to find at least a single meaningful phrase. He ends up grimacing at the three pages of exclusively face-typed gibberish from when he’d flopped down onto the keyboard.
“Hard work drooling over your laptop and face-typing nonsense onto your word document?”
She’s always been too good at seeing right through him.
“There are some useable lines,” Wei Ying says, hurriedly beginning to type as quietly as he can:
—that whimsical, nostalgic atmosphere of Zhao Ah’s works, so very reminiscent of—
“I don’t have time for this,” cuts in Wen Qing.
Wei Ying hears the weariness in her voice and the sounds of papers being shuffled around at the other end, and feels a twinge of guilt. Wen Qing is probably the toughest person he knows, but she’s always spread herself thin. It’s not easy running a small magazine like Burial Mounds with three writers whilst trying to stay true to the idealistic attitude you started out with. Especially when you walked out on your wealthy, corrupt family at the age of sixteen like she did, starting afresh with sky-high ambitions and not so much as a bank account to her name.
“Tell me what to do,” he says, sobering down.
“Come over to the office,” she tells him. “I want to see you at my desk in fifteen minutes. Oh, and get snacks on the way. Healthy ones. Lots of them.”
As the line goes dead, Wei Ying puts his phone down and stares at his laptop screen, nonplussed. The cursor blinks back at him, at the end of what should have been an article exposing a popular clothing retail website for stealing designs from an online artist with less than a thousand followers on Weibo.
Wei Ying groans, stretches and hobbles to his feet.
He’s only eleven minutes late to Wen Qing’s desk, which is a pretty impressive feat if you asked him.
Tragically, Wen Qing never asks.
“Hand over the snacks,” she demands briskly instead, holding out her hand.
Wei Ying frowns, but he tips the bag over onto her desk. Wen Qing leafs through the collection with a critical eye. “I said healthy,” she chides, and extricates a pineapple bun and a pack of haw flakes from the pile. “Pretty sure nothing besides these two fits under that definition by any stretch of imagination.”
“I came prepared,” says Wei Ying, as Wen Qing pushes the rest of the snacks towards him. “Oh, are these for me?” He clutches a hand to his chest in mock surprise.
“Who else but you could eat that kind of junk and live?” She turns then, to the armchair in the corner of her office. “You can come out now,” she calls out. “Look who’s here.”
Wei Ying starts, turning in the direction she’d addressed that to. He hadn’t been expecting the presence of a third party in the room.
A beat passes.
Then, from behind the armchair emerges a tiny foot. A chubby, hesitant hand follows to wrap around the side of the chair. Finally, a pair of round, fretful eyes peer out and travel warily around the room.
As they land on Wei Ying, they go wide as dinner plates.
“Xian-gege!” squeals A-Yuan, tumbling forth and launching himself towards Wei Ying. Waddling to him as fast as his tiny feet would let him, he wraps his whole body around Wei Ying’s leg. “Xian-gege,” he says again, through peals of laughter as Wei Ying stoops over to pet him.
“Hey, A-Yuan,” he says, breaking easily into the wide grin that seems to be a permanent fixture on his face when his boss’s four-year old nephew is around. “Happy to see me, are you? Wait till you see—this!” He scoops A-Yuan up in his arms and holds him out over the snacks spread out on Wen Qing’s desk like Simba. “All yours for the taking.”
“Absolutely not,” says Wen Qing sternly. “These are the only ones you’re getting, young man.” She offers the pineapple bun and haw crackers she’d separated from the pile earlier to A-Yuan. She nods, eyes softening in encouragement as he looks worriedly up at her to make sure it’s okay.
“What?” cries Wei Ying in affront, watching the scene unfold. “You left out all the fun stuff! If you’d told me this was for A-Yuan I would’ve brought so much more of the fun stuff!”
“Yeah, and then you can deal with A-Yuan bouncing off the walls all day,” says Wen Qing. “Besides, he’s already had his breakfast. You, on the other hand, haven’t.”
“A-Yuan have congee for b’eakfast,” A-Yuan informs Wei Ying.
“Woah, that sounds great!” Wei Ying tells him, then whips his head back to Wen Qing when he realises what she’d said. “Wait—You knew I’d end up getting extra, but you didn’t stop me because you really just wanted me to get something for myself too! Even if it is junk. Ah, you really do care. I’m touched.”
“And A-Yuan will have his lunch soon, as well,” Wen Qing continues, ignoring him. “He just needed something to tide him over in the meantime.” She tips her head pointedly towards the door.
Wei Ying gets the hint, although he doesn’t really want to put A-Yuan down just yet, not when the child at his hip seems so content tugging at the strands of his hair that had come loose from his ponytail on the way here. But Wen Qing continues to glare at him, so he carries A-Yuan over to the chair he’d been hiding behind, and sets him down on it with his snacks. Then he hands him his phone, choosing a colouring app from the new folder titled A-Yuan he’d created not long ago.
He looks up to find Wen Qing giving him a disapproving look. “It’s fine, we can time him!” he says defensively. “Thirty minutes phone time per day is perfectly acceptable for ages four to six.”
Wen Qing raises her eyebrow at him for a brief moment, but she seems to decide it’s a battle for another day. It’s just as well; she doesn’t need to know Wei Ying’s been checking Chinese Pediatric Society guidelines to decide just how long A-Yuan’s daily electronic device time should be. Or that he’s been combing online reviews to decide what apps would be best for him, saving them to his A-Yuan folder.
“Come outside,” Wen Qing tells him, heading towards the door. “Need to talk.”
Wei Ying gives A-Yuan a final ruffle of his hair before following her outside. They walk out into the only other room in their office besides Wen Qing’s room, although that’s a fairly loose term. It’s not uncommon to run into Wen Ning or Mianmian working on the armchair in Wen Qing’s room sometimes, or even at her desk. As terrifying as Wen Qing is, she’s not too bothered where work is being done, as long as it’s getting done somewhere.
And the armchair is the most comfortable piece of furniture in the office after all. Wei Ying is only too aware of this from the number of times he’s made full use of it for his afternoon nap.
The room outside is larger and airier, with three desks at each corner of the room. At the fourth corner, there’s a fridge, a microwave and a coffee machine. Wen Qing steps up to Wen Ning’s desk, which is nearest to her door, and leans back against it, arms crossed.
“I heard back,” she says. “Last night.”
Wei Ying inhales sharply. “Your application?”
“I’ve been accepted,” she says shortly. “Just an observership for now, of course. But I’ll rotate in the emergency department, and that’ll be enough to get my story.”
Her fingertips are white from how firmly she’s digging them into her arms. Besides that, there’s nothing about her demeanour to suggest she’s just walked into the opportunity she’s been working towards for years.
“That’s—Holy shit,” says Wei Ying. “You’re finally getting in.”
It’s a big deal. Massive, really. Getting right to the heart of the story she’s been wanting to cover for years now, about physician burnout at one of the most prominent teaching hospitals in the country. She’d been through five years of medical school for this precise moment: an opening into the career in medical journalism that she’d always wanted.
“It’s early days,” says Wen Qing briskly. “But more importantly, I need to sort out the situation here.”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” says Wei Ying, with a laugh. “You’ll only be gone for three weeks. And there’s always Mianmian to keep us in line.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” says Wen Qing. “There’s also A-Yuan.”
“Oh,” says Wei Ying. After A-Yuan’s parents had died a year ago, Wen Qing had taken her three year old nephew in as a temporary legal guardian. Wen Ning, Mianmian and Wei Ying had pretty much taken it upon themselves to be his honorary guardians too, with how often Wen Qing brought him to the office on days he wasn’t at kindergarten. “I could—I mean, Mianmian could keep him with her? Her kid’s probably around the same age, she’s clearly experienced enough.”
Wen Qing shakes her head. “Her husband’s in Taiwan for the next six months. It’s hard enough taking care of one kid on your own, and she has two other jobs besides this.” She worries her lip for a moment. Then she exhales deeply. “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to be the one to do it. A-Yuan won’t accept anyone else, anyway.”
Wei Ying feels like he just got kicked squarely in the stomach. “What,” he says.
Wen Qing heaves another sigh, and rolls a chair over to him with her foot. “Sit down if you need to, but save the freaking out for later. My flight is in two days, I have shit to do.”
Heart in his throat, Wei Ying balances his hip against the arm of the chair. He still doesn’t think he’s capable of forming actual words, so he opts to stare blankly at Wen Qing instead.
Wen Qing seems grateful for his silence, proceeding undeterred. “So, he’s in the middle of his summer holidays, so that’s one thing out of the way. He has a couple of workbooks and colouring stuff he needs to get done as part of his homework, so I hope to see a dent in that when I get back. He’s not a picky eater, but you’ll need to take a little extra care with his diet. He’s still pretty small for his age thanks to—well, everything he went through last year after the accident, bouncing around from relative to relative.” She presses her lips in a thin line for a moment, and continues. “But you knew that already, I guess.”
Wei Ying does.
He knows it so well it eats away at his insides sometimes, knowing he could’ve prevented it if only he hadn’t been too late.
“I—Hold on, he says,” There’s a knot in his stomach, tightening every second. “I—I’m not the right person for this,” he says.
He’s the fun uncle. The one who carries him piggyback around the house, gets him muddy and dirty, and brings him sweets and presents. He doesn’t do more. He can’t possibly be more.
“Look, I’d hold your hand through it, but I really can’t do this right now.” Wen Qing’s voice is as sharp as ever, but there’s a softness around her eyes now. “A-Ning has no time at all, juggling this magazine with his college classes is too much already. So I don’t have a choice. I’ll email you my go-to recipes. They’re all pretty quick and simple; as long as you steer clear of your spice shelf, even you couldn’t mess them up.”
Wei Ying doesn’t meet that with a disgruntled rejoinder, which is a fairly good indicator of how disoriented he feels.
Wen Qing doesn’t get it. It’s not that he doesn’t want to take care of A-Yuan. He’s babysat A-Yuan enough times to know what a well-behaved, undemanding child he is. Wei Ying would barely admit it even to himself, but he’s flipped through actual adoption magazines and online articles about adoption laws in the year he’s known A-Yuan.
But that’s just it. A whim, a fanciful thought to distract himself with when he’s trying to delay cleaning his flat. The reality, though? Actually keeping him with him, in his home, for three whole weeks?
Cold terror gripping his insides, he pictures A-Yuan crying because he forgot to give him lunch on time, A-Yuan hating him, refusing to let him carry him ever again—
“Will you stop thinking so much? I can hear the wheels in your head,” says Wen Qing. “A-Yuan is an independent kid. You know that. He’ll wake up on time, bathe himself, keep himself occupied with his books and toys, and even pour himself his cereal and milk. So pull yourself together, because I’ve got more for you.”
A wave of guilt floods Wei Ying at that. After A-Yuan’s parents had passed in the accident last year, he’d been shuttled at first from one member of his family to the other. The section of the Wen family willing to take care of him was unfortunately too poor to sustain it, so Wen Qing had finally stepped in as his temporary legal guardian before they figured out the rest.
A-Yuan must have had no choice but to become independent to survive the past year. Living with Wei Ying in his sordid flat for the next three weeks isn’t close to what he deserves, but what choice do they have?
Fiddling with the sleeve of his hoodie, he says at last, “Bring it on. What’s more?”
Wen Qing exhales. “I don’t think I need to tell you that we’re struggling.”
Wei Ying shrugs, unsure where she’s going with this. He knows this, of course. With their desire to keep Burial Mounds ad-free and keep most of their content available for free, they didn’t have a lot of options to make money out of it. They’d known this before they’d even started, but things had taken a significantly grimmer turn in the recent months.
“We’ve barely been able to afford rent for this office space the last couple of months, as you know,” she continues, matter-of-factly. “So yes, we do need something to boost sales. Desperately. And this is going to help. But it’s also a story worth telling, if there’s any way to.”
“You’re scaring me,” says Wei Ying, huffing a laugh. “Never thought I’d hear you trying to justify anything in the name of journalism, and you put yourself through five years of medical school just to write an article about physician burnout.”
Wen Qing takes a deep breath, and looks him directly in the eye. “I want you to write a piece about Lan Wangji.”
When Wei Ying had sent in his first submission for their school magazine, he was thirteen years old. He’d come home with a bounce in his step, talking a mile a minute to anyone who would listen.
Jiang Cheng definitely hadn’t wanted to listen, but he’d ended up the target of Wei Ying’s endless chatter anyway as they walked home together.
“You could have picked literally anyone else,” he’d grunted in irritation, around a mouthful of melon shaved ice. “There are five other people on the editorial board you could’ve chosen to play your stupid prank on.”
“Stop calling it a prank, it’s investigative journalism!” Wei Ying had said, playing catch with his history textbook as they turned the corner towards their street. “I even waited till it was his turn to screen submissions for the week. It had to be him finding it. It’s only worth it if it’s him.”
“You have a death wish,” Jiang Cheng had said, pointedly shifting away from him as far as he could on the narrow pavement. “Get away from me.”
“Come on, it’s funny and you know it! Picture it,” he’d said, moving next to Jiang Cheng again. He’d looped an arm around his shoulder and waved his arm in front of them for effect. “He’s sitting at the desk, back really straight and stiff as always, going through article submissions one after the other, reaches mine, expecting something about... I don’t know, poetry or tectonic plates or something boring like that—and suddenly he’s reading an article about ten masturbation techniques that will change your life.”
Jiang Cheng had shaken his arm off his shoulder. “Don’t even think about asking me for cover when he’s out for your blood. It’s not even funny. Just what is it with you and him, anyway?”
“He’s so uptight!” Wei Ying had said, frowning. “I just wish I could see his face when he opens it. Can you imagine it? I bet he’ll blush really hard. Wouldn’t you want to see that? What? But it’s so funny! Perfect model student Lan Zhan in his perfectly pressed uniform and shoes so clean you could see your face on them, finding himself reading jerk-off tips and blushing—”
Wei Ying reaches a hand out to steady himself against the chair he’s leaning on. He feels like the whole world just shifted beneath his feet.
“Yeah, I know it’s a tough call, but stop looking like you’ve just seen a ghost,” says Wen Qing.
A ghost? Wei Ying would laugh at the irony of that, but he can barely take a breath.
Wen Qing takes a glance at the clock on the wall, and straightens up. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ve heard all about him. Sensational, award-winning novelist who went viral everywhere with his debut novel, broke multiple records, is still a number one bestseller two years after release. Also notoriously reclusive, and has never actually been interviewed. Except there are rumours he’s recently finished his next novel, and everyone’s desperate to get a story.”
Wei Ying's hands are white as a sheet on the arm of the chair he’s leaning against.
“I write to expose things like intellectual property theft and corrupt employee safety practices of big corporations,” he says quietly. “Not fluffy celebrity interviews.”
“Give it a shot, okay?” says Wen Qing. “It’s exactly the kind of thing Burial Mounds needs. Also, A-Ning tells me his book is genuinely excellent. You might surprise yourself on the way.”
Wei Ying has never heard her come this close to pleading before. It’s unsettling, and it only makes the room spin faster around him.
“I would give you pointers if I had any, but I don’t,” Wen Qing continues. “Seems like the guy’s based out of this city, but that’s all I know. Couldn’t even tell you how old he is.”
Twenty five years. Three months. Two days. Seven, maybe eight hours.
(“You must’ve been born super early in the morning, Lan Zhan, it’s always the early morning babies who grow up to be morning people. Nie Huaisang says so.”
“... Four thirty a.m..”
“Hah, told you!”
“Mn... And you?”
“Ah—I’m not sure, actually. Don’t think anyone knows.”)
Wei Ying fights down the sick feeling rising in his stomach. “Is there anything else?” he asks.
“If there is, I’ll have to call or text you,” says Wen Qing. She gets to her feet, and glances at her phone. “I have a visa appointment to get to, and I’ll pack A-Yuan’s things after that. When can I drop him at yours?”
“Give me three hours,” says Wei Ying. He’s already listing the things he’ll need to get done: clean, buy actual food that doesn’t come out of a tin, Baidu search how the fuck to childproof a flat—
“Hey,” says Wen Qing, looking at him sharply. “You’re thinking too much again.”
Wei Ying gives her a faint grin. “Weren’t you always complaining how I don’t put my big brain to use enough?”
“I don’t recall calling it big, but go off,” she says, rolling her eyes and busying herself on her phone.
As she goes silent, Wei Ying straightens himself up and walks back into her office. He finds A-Yuan engrossed in the colouring app, a tiny sliver of tongue poking out at the corner of his mouth as he colours in a drawing of a dolphin. Wei Ying watches him for a moment, painting the fins a bright yellow. Then he walks closer and kneels in front of him.
“You’ll have to stay with me for a while,” he says, a rueful smile at his lips. “I think your jiejie told you already. I’m sorry, kiddo, but—”
A-Yuan breaks into the widest smile he’s ever seen on him, and nods vigorously. “We play Captain Toad and eat white rabbit candy every day.”
Wei Ying stares at his wide, shining eyes and blinding grin for a moment, stunned into silence. His excitement makes him feel worse, because he knows he’s only going to disappoint him.
When he speaks again, his voice comes as a croak. “No, A-Yuan, Xian-gege’s been getting tummy problems,” he says. He clutches his stomach, and pretends to wince in pain. “We can only have sweets once a week from now on, or I’ll get an owie again.”
A-Yuan’s face falls, and he shuffles to the edge of the chair. Reaching out, he gently lays a hand on Wei Ying’s stomach. “A-Yuan take care of gege,” he announces solemnly. He puffs out his chest ever so slightly. Giving his tiny hand a brief squeeze, Wei Ying straightens up.
“I’ll see you in a bit, okay? Wen Qing will drop you at mine with your things.”
A-Yuan nods again, bouncing slightly in his seat. Taking a moment to let a sudden rush of fondness flood his chest, Wei Ying waves and turns to the door.
When Wei Ying reaches home, he feels like he’d held his breath the entire way. He doesn’t spare himself a moment once he’s inside either, setting immediately to work.
He finds a childproofing tutorial on Bilibili and plays it while he begins the process of deep cleaning his flat. He throws away the empty pizza boxes he tends to stuff into his shoe rack, opens out the windows, dusts every surface he can find, and scrubs over when he’s done. He doesn’t have time to actually buy all the equipment he needs to childproof his flat fully, but that kind of thing has never stopped him before. He tapes the sharp corners of the tables, puts away his knives and electrical appliances in the kitchen, changes the curtains, and finally installs the safety lock to his fridge that he’d been sitting on for months.
Two and a half hours later, he crouches in the middle of his living room and takes it all in. He’s not done a bad job, all things considered. He still needs to get a few more safety locks for his kitchen drawers, but he’s not too worried. A-Yuan is too clever a child, with enough self-preservation instincts to avoid something as obviously dangerous as that.
He slumps back on his heels and heaves a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, it’s a bit premature.
Everything he’d been trying for the past couple of hours to bury into the deepest recesses of his brain by diving headfirst into his new mission starts to seep back now, steadily through the cracks. Suddenly, there’s only one thought occupying his head.
I want you to write a piece about Lan Wangji.
Getting abruptly to his feet, he walks to his kitchen, eager for something to distract himself with. He heads to his fridge and struggles momentarily with the safety lock he’d just installed himself. Once he’s managed to open it, he takes out a beer and downs half of it in a series of gulps.
Almost immediately, he’s met with intense regret at the fact that he’s drinking in the middle of the day, just before Wen Qing comes over to drop A-Yuan. He shoves the half-empty can back inside and paces around his kitchen.
He catches sight of his phone on the counter, and grabs it. He scrolls fitfully through his contacts till he pauses at his sister’s numbers. Pressing call, he holds the phone to his ear.
“A-Ying,” his sister’s voice comes in through the speaker. As ever, she sounds like she’s smiling. “Hi, what’s up?”
Wei Ying feels the knot in his stomach start to unravel the moment he hears her voice. “Hi, A-jie.”
He doesn’t have to wait long.
“Ah, good thing you called!” she continues, when he doesn’t elaborate. She’s always been quick to read him, never asking questions until he’s ready to answer. “A-Ling was talking about you a lot today. We were out for a walk with Fairy, and when we crossed this bridge over the stream in Xujiahui park it seemed to trigger some sort of memory in him. I wonder what that could be all about?”
Wei Ying lowers himself down to the floor, and leans back against the cabinet door behind him. “Aiyo, that kid... All the football tackles I took the effort to teach him that afternoon, and that’s all he remembers? It was a hot day, okay? I just wanted a swim!”
Jiang Yanli giggles. “And a dirty stream in the middle of a park was a great choice, I’m sure,” she says. “Nothing to do with a furry little monster that ended up in your way?”
“There was nothing little about him!” Wei Ying wails.
“I have it on reliable authority that he was. My three year old son.”
“That little brat—A-jie, he was barking so loud! And the owner didn’t even do anything. Lan—”
He bites down on his tongue, hard, before he says it out loud.
Lan Zhan wouldn’t have let that happen to me.
“All right, A-Ying?”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says quietly. He gives himself a shake. He’s got a four year child coming to live with him in less than an hour. He’s got to pull himself together.
“By the way, A-Ling has a new obsession,” Jiang Yanli goes on, and Wei Ying feels a rush of fondness for her at how easily she picks up again on the fact that he just needs to be distracted. “Tomatoes, of all things. He asked me if I could put some in his cereal? He even snuck some into Fairy’s dinner, for some reason, imagine...”
She keeps talking, and Wei Ying lets her soft, comforting voice slow the racing thoughts in his brain. She’s talking about A-Ling’s progress with the alphabet, when Wei Ying feels his head clear at last.
“A-jie,” he says softly, interrupting her monologue. “I’ll be taking care of a baby for the next three weeks.”
There’s a pause. Then: “A-Ying, what?”
“Um, you remember A-Yuan?”
“Of course I do. You can never stop talking about him. Haven’t seen you so taken with someone since—in a very long time. What about him?”
Wei Ying tells her. After he’s done, his sister is quiet for a long moment.
“How do you feel about this?” she asks at last.
Wei Ying presses his lips together briefly. “I don’t know. I—I care about the kid, a lot. And I have babysat him before. Several times, in fact. But I guess I’m just terrified of messing up somehow.”
Jiang Yanli is quiet for a moment. Then she says, “Do you know the number of times I used to wake up in the middle of the night after we moved A-Ling into his own bedroom? I’d imagine all kinds of scenarios: us sleeping through while he cried the whole night, him finding his way out of his cot and wandering around the house, even hurting himself with one of his toys lying about on the floor because we forgot to check.”
“A-jie, that’s not fair. You’ve had enough experience dealing with me and Jiang Cheng.”
Jiang Yanli laughs out loud at that. “You’re right,” she says, “My point is, I’m still terrified of messing up. Even now, three years after having A-Ling. All I’m trying to say is, you’ll probably never stop being afraid of messing up.”
Wei Ying plays with a loose thread in his jeans. “Still,” he says, shaking his head, “There’s no way you can compare us. I can barely keep my own life together, what am I going to do with a whole baby? Do you know how many dead lizards I found around my flat just now while I was cleaning? Three!”
“A-Ying,” cuts in his sister, voice sweet but firm. “I trust you. Your methods aren’t always—conventional, probably, but you always rise wonderfully to the situation when it demands it.”
“We’re talking about a baby, A-jie, not solving differential equations in high school.”
“It’s really not that different.”
Wei Ying splutters, but she goes on calmly.
“Look, if you really don’t want to take care of the child, I’ll be happy to come over and help you out. My husband can take a few days off work, maybe—”
“I can’t ask you to do that,” Wei Ying says immediately. “And it’s not—it’s not that I don’t want...”
He hears A-Yuan’s giggles in his head, his excited voice squealing, “Xian-gege!” He finds himself smiling.
“I thought so,” his sister says gently. “I have no doubt you’ll figure out just what to do. You always do. I’ve seen you with A-Ling, you’re a natural.”
“I put in actual effort teaching him all those football tricks, you know,” Wei Ying grumbles. “But of course all he remembers is the one time I jumped into a stream to save myself from a dog.”
“I’m sure it was terrifying,” says Jiang Yanli kindly.
“It was! I knew you wouldn’t make fun of me.”
(Lan Zhan wouldn’t either.)
“Anyway,” he presses, trying to ignore the dull ache still tugging at his ribcage. “Tips! I need them. Give me all you’ve got. Run me through a full day with A-Ling. Waking him up, getting him to pee, poop, bathe...”
Jiang Yanli laughs. “Okay,” she says. “So first of all, you’ll have to figure out their sleeping habits...”
Wei Ying listens, letting her voice wash over him and lull his restless brain again.
Wen Qing drops by at his doorstep at five thirty, depositing A-Yuan in his arms. He helps her carry in the two suitcases she’s brought with A-Yuan’s things, and watches her sit on her heels and hug A-Yuan tightly.
“He was so excited to stay with you, he’s not even bothered about me leaving,” she says. “Are you, you cheeky little monster?”
“It’s not sunk in yet,” Wei Ying says. “He’ll probably start bawling five minutes after you leave. Although I agree, I am too much fun.”
“I hope you’ll have fun waiting half an hour for him to choose his shoes every time you take him outside,” says Wen Qing. “He’s in that phase right now. Half of the contents of these suitcases are his shoes because he refused to be parted from any of them.”
A-Yuan sticks out his lower lip in affront, wiggles free of Wen Qing’s arms and runs over to Wei Ying, wrapping himself around his leg.
“Don’t listen to her, A-Yuan,” says Wei Ying. “Shoes are very serious business. I’m glad you’ve recognised that so early in life.” He takes his tiny hand and shakes it, nodding gravely.
“You’ve been busy,” says Wen Qing, straightening up to take a look around the flat. “I’m impressed.”
“Damn, I should’ve recorded that,” says Wei Ying, with an exaggerated sigh. “Don’t know if I’ll ever have the honour of hearing you admit I impressed you again in this lifetime.”
“Don’t push your luck,” says Wen Qing. “He had a bit too much radish with his dinner, so there’s a chance he’ll need a couple of bathroom runs tonight. You can skip his bedtime glass of milk too, that’ll only make it worse.”
“Cookie?” A-Yuan asks mournfully.
“Not tonight, but we’ll play some extra Super Mario to make up, okay?”
“Absolutely not,” says Wen Qing. “No TV or video games after six, or he’ll be too buzzed to fall asleep. Read him a book instead. Ah, that reminds me.” She reaches into her bag, and pulls out a paperback book. “A-Ning left this at my place sometime back. It’s Lan Wangji’s first novel.”
It’s a simple cover, with a drawing of a solemn-looking boy dressed all in white standing on a pool of water. Reflected in the water below him is a different boy with a halo around his head, laughing, with his hands outstretched as he tries to balance himself. Above, the title reads: Bu Wang.
Wei Ying starts as he comes to the sudden realisation she’s been holding it out for him. He reaches out and takes it.
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying. His voice comes out as a croak. “Sorry. I’m just—Sorry, I didn’t know about the sleep thing.”
“It’s fine,” says Wen Qing. “Nobody wakes up one day magically blessed with the power to care perfectly for little humans. You’ve just got to figure it out on your own.”
Wei Ying nods. The book is still in his hands, but he can’t really feel his fingers anymore.
“I’m off, then,” she says.
“Good luck,” Wei Ying says, pulling his shoulders straight. “And—take care of yourself.”
Wen Qing nods. She bends to give A-Yuan a final kiss to the top of her forehead, waves goodbye and turns to leave.
Once she’s shut the door behind her, Wei Ying picks A-Yuan up and brings him to the guest room. It’s small, with a narrow bed by the window, red curtains at the windows and a small bookcase against the other wall. Wei Ying steps inside, slipping the book in his hands right at the back of one of the shelves and out of sight.
“This is going to be your room for the next couple of weeks,” he tells A-Yuan. “Do you like it?”
“Gege’s room?” A-Yuan asks, looking doubtful.
Wei Ying carries him outside and into his own room, just across the corridor. A-Yuan turns over his shoulder as if to estimate the distance between their rooms, seems satisfied and curls up against Wei Ying’s chest again.
“Would you like me to run a bath for you?” he asks.
A-Yuan shakes his head. “Want Bunny,” he says.
Wei Ying realises he’s talking about his plushies. He sets A-Yuan down, walks out to the living room and opens up the suitcases.
Wen Qing wasn’t exaggerating: A-Yuan’s shoe collection is formidable. He puts them up in his shoe rack, where he’d normally pile up empty pizza boxes he was too lazy to take out till the end of the week. He squeezes the shoes one by one in between his own, A-Yuan monitoring the proceedings from the side. There’s a funny feeling in Wei Ying’s chest when he finishes, and looks at the tiny baby shoes side by side with his larger ones.
With the shoes out of the way, he unearths the plushies. “Look how strong your gege is,” he tells an awestruck A-Yuan as he piles them one on top of the other till he’s carrying all twenty-odd plushies in his arms. He gets to his feet carefully and begins to make his way to his bedroom.
It’s fine at first. He can’t see anything thanks to the mountain of soft toy animals in his arms, but it’s his own flat, so he knows his way well enough. His arm starts to itch at one point, but he grits his teeth through it and keeps walking, A-Yuan’s bare feet pattering alongside his.
That is, till his foot strikes the corner of a rug he’d forgotten to put in place.
With a squawk of surprise, he tumbles to the floor in a graceless heap. The plushies scatter all around him, and when he gets his bearings his thoughts turn immediately to A-Yuan. For a brief, terrifying moment, he can’t see him at all even though he’d just been walking next to him.
Then: “Gege, look!”
He turns to see A-Yuan emerge from under the plushies, wave his arms like he’s swimming, and dive under. A moment later, still giggling uncontrollably, he rears his head again.
Wei Ying exhales, shoulders slumping forward as he relaxes. For a moment there he’d been worried A-Yuan had been hurt—they were only just plushies, but it’s not like his brain would listen. So he’d chosen to fixate on the worst possible scenarios, blaming himself for not remembering to put the rug out of the way—
Except A-Yuan is looking at him with round eyes full of laughter, and for the first time Wei Ying starts to wonder if there’s a chance he won’t end these three weeks as A-Yuan’s least favourite person after all.
Grinning widely to match A-Yuan, he dives into the sea of plushies surrounding them.
It turns out that playing plushie war with A-Yuan in the middle of their living room floor is a foolproof way to get him ready for bed. Wei Ying watches his energy start to fizzle out, carries him to the bathroom and draws him a bath, and puts him to bed after he’s bathed, towelled, dry and changed into his pyjamas.
He’s asleep before Wei Ying has finished tucking him in. Wei Ying gets up to leave, careful not to look at the bookshelf on the other side of the room.
Once he’s in his bedroom, he sits at his desk and begins to type.
The first thing he’s aware of next morning is a warm weight on his lap. His eyes fly wide open as he jolts awake the moment the realisation hits.
Big, worried eyes blink back at him.
“A-Yuan,” he croaks. He picks up the child and places him on the desk before stretching till he feels a satisfying pop in his spine.
“Gege didn’t sleep in the bed?” A-Yuan asks, a stern look in his eyes very reminiscent of his aunt.
“No,” says Wei Ying, “Gege was working late.” He clicks his laptop, relieved to find the three thousand words he’d speed-written on the story about the retail website that had been stealing online artists’ designs. He clicks save quickly and exits the document before any mishap could befall it.
“Horse sleeps standing up,” says A-Yuan, sagely. “Gege also?”
Wei Ying clicks his tongue. “What is with you kids wanting to roast your poor gege so much, hmm? First my nephew, now you. You’re getting too clever for your own good. And I was sitting, not standing!”
He stretches his neck from side to side, turning to look out through the window. He’d left the curtains open yesterday after he’d changed them, so for once he can guess what time in the day it is without having to check his phone. He’s pretty sure he’s read somewhere how good sunlight is for children.
He’s surprised to see the pale, hazy light filtering through, and he hastily reaches for his phone.
“A-Yuan, you woke me at six!” he groans.
“Poo time,” announces A-Yuan. He slides off the desk to Wei Ying’s lap, and then down to the floor. He glances up curiously, as though considering doing that again.
Wei Ying gets to his feet with a soft groan, scooping A-Yuan up in his arms. “Well, to the poo mobile we go,” he says, holding A-Yuan horizontally in the air and making aeroplane noises as he swoops him from one side to the other on the way to the bathroom.
A-Yuan is giggling madly by the time Wei Ying drops him off at the door to the bathroom.
“Would you like something to eat?” he asks, before A-Yuan goes inside.
“In the poo seat?” he asks, regarding him with interest.
“No!” cries Wei Ying, huffing a laugh. “I mean, after you’re done.”
A-Yuan seems to ponder the question a while. “Congee?” he asks, cocking his head to the side.
Wei Ying gives him a thumbs-up, and sets off back to his bedroom.
He opens up his laptop and reads over the article he’d finished last night, making minor edits as he goes. It’s a good story, even to the hyper-critical eye with which he always looks over his own works. He knows it, and that’s what makes everything else so frustrating.
It’s been six months now since he’d joined Burial Mounds with Wen Ning and Mianmian, headed by Wen Qing. They were based in Shanghai, the city Wei Ying hadn’t stepped foot in for six years. But the scandal from a year ago had died down enough by then, so when he finally came home he was almost certain no one would be searching for him anymore.
Still, with everything he’s had to do to keep himself on the down-low, he fears he’s sabotaged the future of their magazine. It’s risky enough starting something like Burial Mounds from scratch, exclusively tackling tough stories that no one else would touch and that were bound to make them unpopular. With Wei Ying on the team, they couldn’t expand beyond his closest, most trusted circle of friends yet, and it was growing harder every day to keep their magazine afloat.
His co-workers seem to suggest the opposite, with the extensive capslock and emotional cat memes he’s bombarded with every time he sends in articles to their shared email account. Or the ice cream and alcohol they bring over to his place unannounced whenever they sense he’s slipping back into his usual cycle of regret.
But Wei Ying isn’t wired to think like that, so he’ll end up sending in his articles, uncapping himself a beer, and thinking about how he could have somehow done it all differently. Going under the radar for six years, with no more than an occasional message from a burner phone to let his siblings know he was still alive, being too late to save A-Yuan’s parents, turning away from the one person who’d always believed in him—
He’ll dream up imaginary scenarios where he could have achieved what he did without having to resort to any of that, and drink himself to sleep.
After breakfast, Wei Ying showers and changes into a worn-in pair of jeans and a jumper, all black save for red trims at the wrists. He helps A-Yuan into a bright red shirt and white shorts with red flames along the hem, and brings him to the shoe rack.
A-Yuan puts his chubby feet into one pair of shoes. Then another. Sometimes mismatched, sometimes accompanied by him pulling his socks on or off, always taking a few minutes to make sure Wei Ying takes a good look at them. And so it goes, as he makes his way steadily through his collection.
So Wei Ying waits.
Wen Qing wasn’t exaggerating when she’d said shoes were his new thing.
A good twenty minutes later, A-Yuan looks at the tiny pair of purple Converse trainers on his feet in satisfaction, and tugs at Wei Ying’s hand.
“Ready?” Wei Ying says.
He reaches out for his Doc Martens, but he’s stopped by another pull at his hand. Glancing down, he finds A-Yuan pointing at his ratty red Converses which he’d stuffed into a corner long ago.
Wei Ying laughs, unsure how to react. “Yeah, they’re the same as yours,” he says.
“Wear that,” says A-Yuan, with conviction. “We match.”
Wei Ying is struck speechless for a moment. He takes the shoes A-Yuan wants him to wear and puts them on as he bounces next to him, coming to stand by his side when he’s done.
Wei Ying looks down at their matching shoes, that funny feeling back in his chest. “Let’s go?” he says quickly, taking his hand.
A-Yuan nods, and they head outside.
Their first stop is at the hardware store, where Wei Ying picks up safety rails for A-Yuan’s bed and some more locks for the cabinets he keeps sharp objects and electrical appliances in. Once he’s done, he looks down at A-Yuan and asks, “So, we have a couple of hours till lunchtime—what would you like to do next?”
A-Yuan scratches his nose. “Uncle takes me for story time,” he says cryptically, after a moment. “To the big house with many books.”
A-Yuan swings absently from his arm, suddenly too absorbed in his shoelaces to answer.
Wei Ying frowns. Uncle must mean Wen Ning; he takes his phone out and calls him. It goes to voicemail.
Belatedly, he remembers he must be in class.
“Um, would you mind going to the park instead?” he asks A-Yuan. “Wen Ning won’t answer my call, and I don’t know which bookstore you guys have been going to.”
A-Yuan’s lower lip wobbles dangerously. “But... story,” he says.
Wei Ying sighs, melting as always at the despondent look on his tiny face. He opens up his maps app and begins to look for bookstores around. There’s only one that pops up in the neighbourhood.
Wei Ying feels his heart drop.
He glances down at A-Yuan’s scrunched-up face. He’s such a good kid; in all the times Wei Ying has babysat him, he’s hardly ever thrown tantrums. Could he really deny him this, for his own childish feelings?
He swallows. “There’s a bookstore near here,” he says finally. “It’s probably not the same one you went to, and I’m not sure they still do story times. They used to, though,” he says quietly. “Although I haven’t been there in a very long time.”
The proposal seems to please A-Yuan. He skips along ahead, and Wei Ying follows him, trying to ignore the knot growing steadily at the pit of his stomach.
Wei Ying has only to lay his eyes on the storefront from a distance to know he’s probably made a terrible mistake. Caiyi Books is a quaint single-storey building done up in red brick, looking very out of place between the high rise apartment complexes and shopping centres that have risen around it in recent years.
He’ll still know it anywhere.
Wei Ying watches for a moment blankly as A-Yuan runs forward; then collects himself when he stops and turns to look at him questioningly. The ridiculousness of the situation hits him. He’s supposed to be the adult here. Giving himself a shake, he pulls a grin onto his face and hurries over to him.
They stop in front of the doors, and Wei Ying wonders briefly if he could just pick A-Yuan up and run for it instead of walking inside. Would he mind too terribly? Swiftly putting an end to that thought, A-Yuan reaches forward with both of his hands and pushes at the door with all his might. It swings open, with a tinkle of the chime overhead.
If he’s being honest, the sound of it is enough to make Wei Ying feel like something just carved half of his heart right out. But he bites down on his lip, holds the door open and follows A-Yuan inside.
Not much has changed inside, either. They’re not doing too badly, which Wei Ying supposes is as good as you could expect in this economy. There’s hardly a market for physical books anymore, and with a vibe as unassuming and niche as this? It’s a miracle that it’s even lasted this long.
It’s dimly lit inside as it has always been, lined with shelves from floor to ceiling with ladders at convenient intervals and small reading stools with plush red seats in the narrow spaces between. Wei Ying keeps a close eye on A-Yuan, following at his heels as he runs further in and begins to skip along between the bookshelves. As they wind along deeper and deeper, the smell of books grows stronger with every step, sinking vice-like into every one of his senses till it’s the only thing he really knows anymore.
Wei Ying keeps his eyes on A-Yuan to tether himself, but bone-deep memories have been fighting their way to the surface too long. He supposes he’s done the best he could.
By the ladder just in front of him, two teenage boys bicker in steadily rising voices. One of them has a bright grin on his face, messy ponytail tied up with a red ribbon. The other has just slammed a book shut as if it’s personally offended him, golden eyes wide in shock.
“What is this?” thirteen year old Lan Zhan had said to him, his ordinarily calm and even voice shaking in anger.
“Mianmian said the school magazine’s next issue was going to have book recommendations,” Wei Ying had answered, lips pursed into an innocent pout. “I was only trying to help.”
It was true. The kids at their school would appreciate the graphic sex scenes in the novel he’d just handed to Lan Zhan a lot more than whatever dull, preachy tomes he must have had in mind. Besides, if it gave Wei Ying a glimpse of that flash of anger in the eyes and the bright flush in his ears, it was only a plus, wasn’t it?
“Shameless,” Lan Zhan had said, shoving the book back at his chest before turning to leave.
Twelve years later, Wei Ying follows A-Yuan between those very same bookshelves. He turns a corner into the next aisle. To his surprise, he finds that the two boys have moved as well. They’re sitting side by side on two stools now, heads almost touching as they pore over a book.
“Turn the page, Lan Zhan,” fourteen year old Wei Ying had urged. “I know you read just as fast as me. You’re literally the only person who’s ever been able to keep up!”
“You should leave some time for reflection,” Lan Zhan had said, laying a firm hand on Wei Ying’s twitching fingers at the corner of the page.
Lan Zhan was boring, a prude, and was always telling him off for being too loud or not tucking his uniform shirt in. So why did his hand on Wei Ying’s fingers make him feel like his heart was about to beat so fast it was about to launch into hyperspace?
“I’ll reflect later!” he’d cried out, snatching his hand away and carefully avoiding eye contact, hoping his face didn’t look as warm as it felt.
“You haven’t understood the purpose of the assignment,” Lan Zhan had replied. “We’re supposed to write about our first impressions after reading the novel.”
“We should have just bought two copies and read separately,” Wei Ying had grumbled. “Would be so much faster.”
“But we’re meant to be discussing our thoughts during the process of reading it,” Lan Zhan had said stiffly. “That—That is what was told in class. We have been paired up to learn how we each interpret the same text differently.”
Wei Ying was fairly sure that hadn’t, in fact, been mentioned in class. It was an intriguing thought nonetheless, and one Wei Ying had found himself wondering about often. He’d spend hours reading Lan Zhan’s essays and his editorials for their school magazine over and over, studying his precise, measured prose that was even more effective for its sparseness. Wei Ying’s speciality was in pacing and clever turns of phrase, and Lan Zhan excelled in exactly the areas he wanted to improve himself at.
But did that mean Lan Zhan wanted to know Wei Ying’s process as well? Was he actually lying to get them to read together so they could discuss their thoughts? Was the great Lan Zhan actually interested in learning from him too? This awareness had given him the headiest rush, and he’d glanced up to look at Lan Zhan.
In the soft glow of the light overheard and the shadows of the bookshelves around them, Lan Zhan had looked soft and earnest. Vulnerable, somehow. It wasn’t something Wei Ying had ever seen on his face, and it passed quickly, but he knew he’d remember it for a long time after that.
Wei Ying is so much older now, but he can see it in his head like it happened just yesterday. He walks past down the aisle, following A-Yuan into the next.
He finds the two boys again, sitting on the floor with their backs against the bookshelf behind them. They’re a year older now, and several inches taller.
”No way,” Wei Ying had said quietly, not looking up from his book. “Can’t ask you to do that.”
He wasn’t sure when all this had started. Caiyi Books was not exactly close to their school or their homes, but something about it kept drawing Wei Ying back. He’d keep running into Lan Zhan here, find every other aisle occupied and end up sitting side by side with him for hours, devouring books at lightning speed. Sometimes, they’d exchange books and compare their thoughts as well.
“You are one of the best writers in the school, Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan had pressed. “You are better than most of our current staff.”
“I’d take that as a compliment, but you have Wen Chao on the board, so I’m not too flattered,” Wei Ying had laughed. “It’s honestly fine, Lan Zhan. I’m too chaotic to do something as stuffy as editing a school magazine anyway.”
“Your writing—It is different from anything we have ever published,” Lan Zhan had insisted. “You are brave enough to cover things that no one else would read. Your stories deserve to be read.”
“Lan Zhan, I sent in my tamest piece yet, about the sexist comments people write on the bathroom walls at our school. Even that got rejected by your esteemed board,” Wei Ying had said. “Pretty sure it’s a losing battle.”
“I can try,” Lan Zhan had said. “I will speak to my brother—he is active in alumni association activities, he can put in a word with Nie-laoshi, who is in charge of the magazine.”
“Okay, okay, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying had said, doing his best to act like his heart wasn’t doing somersaults in his chest at the way Lan Zhan was being so emphatic about getting him on the board. “If Nie-laoshi ends up bench-pressing me for daring to send in articles, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I will not let that happen,” Lan Zhan had said firmly. Like it was nothing. Wei Ying had coughed loudly into his hand, trying to hide how furiously red he’d turned.
Wei Ying had ended up officially accepted into the editorial board of their school magazine, less than two weeks after.
Ten years later, Wei Ying finds himself smiling softly to himself at the memory.
It’s mortifying. Get yourself together, he tells himself.
Pulling his shoulders straight, he follows A-Yuan as he turns the corner into the next aisle. Then he stops dead. He’s pretty sure A-Yuan was just a few feet ahead of him, but the aisle is empty in front of him. He spins around on his heels. A-Yuan is nowhere in sight in the opposite direction either.
Panic rising in his chest, he hurtles forward. He crosses aisle after aisle, turns corner after corner. He’ll see those tiny purple Converses right around the next one, won’t he?
He turns into the main passage through the bookstore. It leads straight ahead to the nook at the other end of the store from the entrance where they used to hold storytime sessions, back when Wei Ying was a regular. Wei Ying feels his throat close up in terror, but he looks from side to side, not missing an inch as he moves further and further inside the store.
Hot tears prick at the corner of his eyes as he arrives at the end of the store. He knows that’s what it is because there are small stools and rugs laid around, just like there used to be years ago. There seems to be some sort of event in progress, but there’s still no purple Converse in sight.
“Hi, are you okay?”
Wei Ying starts at the voice of the woman in front of him, and looks up. As he’s moving to face her, he notices there’s a desk set up right in front of the dark red curtains with a stack of books on it, around which a lot of people have gathered.
“Sorry, I’m looking for—” he begins to tell the woman, but something seems to have caught her attention over Wei Ying’s shoulder. He turns to look, but he ends up stumbling on his own ankles in his distraction, throwing his arms out—
—Only for him to fall back against a firm body, at the same moment as a hand grasps his wrist lightly.
For a moment, Wei Ying doesn’t move. Nothing happens. The person behind him stands their ground, holding him securely. For one reckless moment, Wei Ying thinks he could stay just like this for a very long time.
“Baba...” A-Yuan’s voice whimpers behind him, and instantly Wei Ying wheels around, clutching the arm of whoever’s holding him to pivot himself.
The first thing he sees is A-Yuan. He blinks to make sure he’s seeing right, but it’s unmistakably him, in his bright red shirt and patterned shorts and vivid purple trainers.
Relief washes over him so acutely he feels like he could actually slump onto the ground in a heap if it weren’t for the arm he’s grabbing on to, and the hand holding onto him in turn. His gaze shifts then, to the person he’d fallen against, the one who’s currently balancing A-Yuan on his hip.
Wei Ying stares. The wind knocked out of his chest, he stares some more.
It’s Lan Zhan.
It’s Lan Zhan, thin-framed glasses perched on his nose. Lan Zhan, tall and solid and real, in his blue button-up and white cardigan. Lan Zhan, staring helplessly at a sniffling A-Yuan with bewilderment all over his achingly familiar face.
He looks around at him as if seeking help, golden eyes wide in alarm. Then their eyes meet, and the world falls silent.
Lan Zhan tears his eyes back to A-Yuan. Then he turns his gaze back around, a fresh crease between his brows that perhaps no one else would have noticed. He looks surprised when he meets Wei Ying’s eyes, like he hadn’t been expecting to see him still standing there.
A-Yuan erupts in a fresh wave of sobs, and the moment breaks.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying. He coughs, because his voice had cracked as he said his name for some inexplicable reason. “Fancy seeing you here.”
At his voice, A-Yuan turns around. He starts crying harder when he sees Wei Ying, and reaches his chubby hands out to him. Wei Ying gathers him in his arms, and pets him till he starts to calm down. Through the corner of his eye, he can tell Lan Zhan doesn’t take his eyes off him for a moment.
Wei Ying can’t stand it, so he does what he does best: open his big mouth.
“I see you’ve met my son.”
Lan Zhan seems to start at that, finally. His golden eyes go imperceptibly wider with shock first, quickly replaced with a different, inscrutable emotion.
“Your son?” he asks.
It’s definitely pretty pathetic to hold on tighter to a four year old child to ground yourself, but Wei Ying finds himself pulling A-Yuan closer to his chest. A-Yuan throws his arms around his neck and burrows his face in his shoulder, and it’s comforting.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying replies, lips turning upwards in what he hopes is a believable grin. “Son, meet Lan Zhan.”
A-Yuan frowns, extricating his face from Wei Ying’s shoulder. “Gege?” he asks curiously.
Something shifts in Lan Zhan’s face at that. His brows smooth out, and his face is back to being impassive as usual. Somehow, this only makes Wei Ying’s chest squeeze even tighter.
“Aiyo, A-Yuan, did you really have to expose me like that?” Wei Ying laughs, like he isn’t struggling to breathe. “Anyway, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry A-Yuan interrupted your—your signing event? We’ll leave you to it—”
He spins around quickly, but A-Yuan has other plans.
“Down,” he says gravely.
Wei Ying lets him down, but to his shock, A-Yuan turns behind him.
“Wait, that’s the wrong direction, the exit’s this way—” he cries out quickly, but A-Yuan summarily ignores him. Heart sinking, Wei Ying turns to see him waddle right up to Lan Zhan and latch himself to his thigh.
“A-Yuan!” he gasps.
“Gege, tell a story,” he says, looking up at him.
Flushing in embarrassment, Wei Ying hurries over to A-Yuan and crouches to put his hands on his shoulders. “A-Yuan, that’s enough,” he says. “Let’s leave Lan Zhan alone to do his work, okay? Sorry, Lan Zhan, he used to go to a different bookstore where they regularly host storytimes, I think he thinks you’re the designated storyteller for the day—”
He gets to his feet, holding A-Yuan at his hip, and glances up to look at Lan Zhan. It’s an awful, terrible, horrible mistake. This close, every detail of his face is utterly inescapable.
He doesn’t realise how long he just stands there, staring into Lan Zhan’s bottomless, inscrutable gold eyes. That is, till A-Yuan breaks the silence again.
“Story time,” he says, lower lip wobbling dangerously.
Wei Ying glances around, finding people staring curiously at the scene unfolding before them. “A-Yuan,” he hisses urgently. “We need to go. I’ll tell you a story on the way home, okay?”
“Do you really need to go?”
Wei Ying starts at Lan Zhan’s voice. He’s still looking steadily at him, an unreadable expression in his eyes.
“It is no trouble. My event will be over soon, I can tell him a story later.”
“Lan Zhan, I can’t—”
He watches helplessly as A-Yuan squirms around in an attempt to clamber into Lan Zhan’s arms, and Lan Zhan takes him. He strides over with A-Yuan in his arms to the desk at the end of the room, and Wei Ying follows in a mild haze. He watches Lan Zhan place him on his desk, next to the stack of books. “You can sit here till I finish, is that all right?”
A-Yuan nods vigorously, settling in comfortably.
Lan Zhan takes his seat behind the desk, and picks up the copy at the top of the pile. It’s Bu Wang. Seeming utterly unconcerned, he opens it to the first page to sign it. The sight annoys Wei Ying to the core, and snaps him back to action.
“Lan Zhan, give me my son back,” he demands, laying a hand on the table right in front of Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan doesn’t even look at him. Years ago, he would have glared after him, maybe retorted in anger. “Would you like to go back to your gege?” he calmly asks A-Yuan instead.
A-Yuan shakes his head.
“You can sit over there,” says Lan Zhan, taking another book from the pile as Wei Ying gasps in affront. He waves in the direction of a seat by the side of the desk, a few feet away from his own.
The prospect of sitting so close to Lan Zhan for an indefinite length of time has Wei Ying feeling hot all over. “I’m fine, I’ll just sit with everyone else,” he mutters, making to leave.
“Wei Ying,” he says, and the way he says his name has Wei Ying frozen in place, unable to speak or form a single coherent thought. “All the seats are occupied.”
There’s nothing left for him to do, not after hearing him say his name like that. Not even finding it in him to check in case there is an empty seat in the audience, he steps up to the chair and sinks down on it.
Wei Ying tightens his fingers in his jeans and watches the scene before him. He watches Lan Zhan, close enough he could touch him if he just stretched out his arm. He watches him sign books in a bookstore Wei Ying hasn’t been to in eight years now. He watches A-Yuan gurgle contentedly by his elbow.
He feels like he’s lost control of his physical form, looking down at himself from somewhere far above.
He glances around the audience. With the ruckus caused by A-Yuan’s arrival settled, a line has formed again in front of the table. Wei Ying watches them approach Lan Zhan one by one, gushing excitedly as he signs their copy, listens closely to every word they say and nods and answers from time to time in his usual brief, precise way.
It’s not hard to tell they adore him.
Wei Ying looks around the store, his confusion growing. Why would Lan Zhan come to a place like this? Was this announced beforehand? There’s no way, he’s certain Wen Qing would have been on top of that. The crowd in the store isn’t nearly large enough as he’d undoubtedly attract if people actually knew he was about to come.
He turns back to Lan Zhan. He tells himself this is okay. He won’t be here much longer. He’ll certainly never see him again. If he looks a little too long at his old friend, just this once, would it really be so wrong?
Lan Zhan still sits with his back perfectly straight, his feet placed squarely on the ground exactly the right distance apart. He’s sure there’s some kind of rule for that. He’s forgotten now, but Lan Zhan had most certainly told him at least a few times, in a futile effort to get him to improve his posture.
The line seems to thin too quickly, and before Wei Ying knows it, the last girl in the crowd bows deeply several times before Lan Zhan, and leaves with her signed book. Lan Zhan gets to his feet, scoops A-Yuan up in his arms and walks up to Wei Ying.
“Come,” he says. “We can find a better place to sit.”
Wei Ying stands up and follows him wordlessly. It’s a strange feeling for him, being at a loss for words. But then again, the things Lan Zhan has made him feel have always been anything but ordinary.
They walk towards the bookshelves lining the sides of the stores, entering one of the aisles. Lan Zhan makes his way to one of the small stools and sits down, perching A-Yuan on his knee. Wei Ying walks forward as if in a dream, sinking down on the seat opposite him.
“What kind of story would you like to listen to?” he asks.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying, reaching out before he realises what he’s doing. For a moment, both of them stare down at his fingers on Lan Zhan’s arm. “This really isn’t necessary. I’m sure you have places to be, important people to meet—”
“There is nothing more important,” says Lan Zhan, firmly. Then he seems to correct himself, the tips of his ears tinging pink. “Since—Since A-Yuan asked me to, I can spare some time.”
A-Yuan has been lost in thought; then his eyes land suddenly on the bunny stickers he’d put on his backpack that Wei Ying is clutching onto. “Bunnies,” he declares.
Wei Ying, struck by the dual attack of Lan Zhan saying A-Yuan’s name and the look on his face when A-Yuan had said bunnies, can’t seem to be able to form words.
There’s a reason the only request Wei Ying has ever refused from A-Yuan has been to take him to see bunnies. He’d make an excuse every time, passing the duty on to Wen Ning. Sitting here now with his knees close to touching Lan Zhan’s, as he’s about to start telling a story about bunnies to A-Yuan, Wei Ying isn’t sure if he’s about to wake up from a particularly cruel dream.
“A-Yu was a bunny with black fur, who lived in a magical forest,” says Lan Zhan. His voice is steady and clearly calming, but there must be something wrong with Wei Ying because it only makes his heart race faster.
“Did the forest have radishes?” A-Yuan asks.
“Radishes grow on farms, not forests,” Lan Zhan tells him. “It is rude to interrupt.”
A-Yuan’s face falls. “But A-Yu never met a radish?” he presses. “I have a radish at home.”
He’s referring to his beloved radish-shaped plushie, and Wei Ying finds himself grinning despite himself. Lan Zhan shifts in his seat, looking utterly unprepared to deal with his question.
“He did—He will meet a radish,” he informs A-Yuan awkwardly. “Later on in the story.”
This seems to satisfy A-Yuan, and he reaches out to play with Lan Zhan’s watch. “Did he have a best friend?” he asks suddenly. “I have a best friend. His name is A-Yi.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says. Then he looks up, directly at Wei Ying for some reason. “He does.”
Wei Ying jumps to his feet, heart rate skyrocketing till he feels like he’s about to throw up. “That’s enough,” he says. “A-Yuan, it’s your lunchtime.”
A-Yuan wails out in despair, clutching onto Lan Zhan’s knee for dear life. “Quiet,” says Lan Zhan gently, and he falls silent at once. “It’s fine,” he continues. “I can take you both to lunch and continue the story.”
Wei Ying balks. It’s not what he wanted. It’s the exact opposite of what he’d wanted. But A-Yuan jumps happily off Lan Zhan’s knee and takes his hand. To his escalating dread, Wei Ying watches him hold out his other hand to him.
Helplessly, he takes it.
Lan Zhan leads the way to the door, and Wei Ying can’t do much else than follow. Heading to lunch with Lan Zhan with A-Yuan swinging between their arms isn’t exactly how he’d expected this day to go, and he’s starting to think it couldn’t end soon enough.
Lan Zhan puts on sunglasses, a face mask and a cap before they exit. A-Yuan gasps when he sees him, and Lan Zhan looks down at him, hesitates a moment, then pulls his mask down before pulling it back up again.
Peek-a-boo. He just played peek-a-boo with A-Yuan. Wei Ying wishes he could erase the memory, but he’ll probably be haunted by it for the rest of his life.
They make their way outside, into a side street where a jet black sedan is waiting for Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan lifts A-Yuan up onto the seat, and motions to Wei Ying to enter.
When he’s inside, he realises immediately he’s made a terrible mistake. Lan Zhan enters after him, and the door slides shut. The car is huge, but with the three of them in the seat and A-Yuan taking up too much room crawling around in every direction, Wei Ying finds himself with his thighs flush against Lan Zhan’s.
“Is there an air conditioner in here?” he asks, trying to squeeze his legs as close together and away from Lan Zhan’s as he can. They’ve strapped A-Yuan into his seat, but he’s still kicking around absently from time to time.
He regrets it almost at once: of course a car as fancy as this would. He’s being ridiculous. People run into their childhood friends years later all the time. He’s just been caught by surprise, that’s the only reason he’s reacting this way.
There’s nothing more to it. There really isn’t.
“It is on,” Lan Zhan replies. “Would you like me to lower the temperature further?”
“No,” Wei Ying says, stiffly.
They fall silent; A-Yuan has his nose pressed to the window as he stares out at the buildings passing by.
“I didn’t know you made public appearances,” said Wei Ying, when seconds start to drag too long and he wonders if talking would make it go any faster. “You’ve got quite a reputation, you know. Mystery novelist. Reclusive phenomenon. People trying to figure out how old you are from your writing. There are actual forums about it.”
“You have seen them?”
Wei Ying finds himself growing warm again. “Just heard about it at work,” he says. “Sorry, haven’t had time to read your book yet.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t reply to that. Wei Ying glances out of the corner of his eye and finds him with his eyes lowered and his face shuttered off completely.
Wei Ying can’t stand to look at him like that a moment longer, so he continues. “I’ve heard about the awards and everything, though. Pretty crazy, but I wouldn’t have expected any less from Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan looks up at that. His face is as impassive as ever again, but for the tiny crease between his brows. “How have you been?” he asks, quietly.
Wei Ying shrugs. “Oh, you know. Working for a small magazine. Wouldn’t be on your radar, but we’re getting by.”
Lan Zhan looks like he has something to say about that, but seems to change his mind. Not that Wei Ying expected him to be curious about what he’d been doing all these years. He’d had a thousand more important things in his life, and Wei Ying is happy for him.
“The child,” Lan Zhan says instead, “Who is he?”
He looks so annoyingly earnest that Wei Ying can’t bring himself to tease him anymore. “He’s my boss’s nephew,” he says. He turns to Lan Zhan, and lowers his voice. “He lost his parents last year, and my boss became his temporary guardian. She’s travelling for work, so I’ve taken him in for now.”
Lan Zhan seems to stiffen at that, although Wei Ying can’t figure out why. It makes his heart ache momentarily, to realise that he can’t immediately tell what Lan Zhan is thinking anymore.
“He’s a good kid,” he continues, staring down at his hands. “I was probably the last person on my boss’s list, but she literally had no other choice. Sad for poor A-Yuan that it was me he had to be dumped with. But with the minimal trust my boss has in me, you can imagine how desperate she was.”
“What do you mean?” Lan Zhan’s voice is sharp, and his demeanour has shifted again. Wei Ying chances a glance at his face, and regrets it immediately. Facing him like this, Lan Zhan is suddenly much too close for him to deal with.
“A-Yuan deserves better than me, you know?” he says, averting his eyes again. “I’m not exactly a model parental figure.”
“You are doing fine,” says Lan Zhan. “A-Yuan seems very fond of you.”
“Oh, so you know all about my son already? I knew you were planning to steal him away from me!”
“He was inconsolable when he found his way to me. He kept asking for—for his pretty Xian-gege.”
Wei Ying bites down on his tongue and whips around in the opposite direction, flushing furiously. The words pretty Xian-gege from Lan Zhan’s lips aren’t something he’d expected to hear ever, in any plane of existence. Now that he has, he’d very much like to bury himself in the ground.
He finds A-Yuan humming contentedly, craning his neck to look out through the window. “A-Yuan,” he says, trying very hard to ignore Lan Zhan’s suddenly overwhelming presence right beside him. “Did you miss me when you couldn’t find me in the bookstore?”
A-Yuan doesn’t respond, too engrossed in counting the lampposts they passed. (They’re on twenty-three now.)
Instead, Lan Zhan does.
“He did,” he says quietly behind him, shivers running down Wei Ying’s nape at the way his light exhales feel against his skin. They’re too close. Too close, and Wei Ying wants nothing more than to run. “I told you. He must be very attached to you.”
“Oh—Well, I did babysit him a couple of times. I’m pretty good at being the fun uncle, but now that he’ll be staying with me, give it time,” Wei Ying says, discomfited. “Enough about me, though. Your world sounds a lot more interesting. What were you doing at Caiyi Books, anyway?”
Lan Zhan is silent for a moment. “I visit sometimes,” he says briefly. “For book signing events and readings.”
In hindsight, Wei Ying doesn’t know why he expected any differently. Not consciously, but maybe in some weak recess of his brain. Somewhere he could pretend that he wasn’t the only one who’d been avoiding a bookstore for years. Somewhere he could choose to ignore that no ordinary person would do that just because they used to visit it with an old friend, years and years ago.
“Anyway,” he goes on quickly, before more of these confusing feelings can fester in his head, “How come the media hasn’t noticed?”
“I do not make announcements beforehand,” says Lan Zhan. “Only the loyal clientele of the store who keep frequenting it find me. They are requested not to spread the news, but it is largely unnecessary.”
It sounds far-fetched, but in some way it does make sense. The people you’d end up running into at Caiyi books on an average day were either one of two kinds. Genuine book-lovers who wouldn’t care about getting their five seconds of fame tipping off the media, or hipsters who’d be happy to prevent their haunts from attracting mainstream attention.
“Why, though?” Wei Ying asks. “Do you go to other places to do the same too? How come the media has never picked up on it?”
“No.” He pauses for a long moment, and Wei Ying glances around to find him looking straight ahead with his lips pressed in a thin line. “I do not go anywhere else. This was a place that was important to me while growing up, and I wished to extend my support to the community around it.”
Something stirs in Wei Ying’s chest, but he tamps it down quickly. It was the place that was important to him. Nothing more. “That’s nice,” he says, although it sounds awfully inadequate.
They’ve reached their destination by now, and Wei Ying is grateful he doesn’t need to elaborate. Lan Zhan disembarks, waiting for him to come out with A-Yuan, and Wei Ying is struck once again with the wild urge to take the child and run far away.
In the end, he follows Lan Zhan into the restaurant, hand in hand with A-Yuan. Lan Zhan has his mask up and his cap pulled down low again, and they take a seat in the back end.
After they order, A-Yuan beams at Lan Zhan. “Story now?”
Lan Zhan nods. “A-Yu was the cleverest bunny at his school.”
“Did he know how to add numbers?” A-Yuan asks, before suddenly seeming to realise what he’s done, gasping and putting a finger to his lips.
Lan Zhan exhales, but he doesn’t correct him. “Mn,” he says. “Does A-Yuan know how to add numbers?”
A-Yuan nods, eyes bright with pride. “Xian-gege teaches me,” he says, sitting up straight and puffing out his chest. “A-Yi and A-Ling can’t do it.”
“A-Yuan is very clever,” Lan Zhan says.
“Don’t flatter him too much, he got five plus three wrong just on the way here.” Wei Ying laughs lightly, but when he turns to Lan Zhan he finds him looking at him with a softness around his eyes that makes his heart stutter.
“Eight!” A-Yuan says, sticking his lower lip out petulantly.
Wei Ying ruffles his hair just as Lan Zhan says, “Very good.”
It hits Wei Ying then how absurd the whole situation is. He’s sitting with Lan Zhan over lunch, while he tells A-Yuan a story and they praise him together over performing addition correctly. That uncomfortable feeling returns in his stomach, and he takes his phone out to distract himself and pretends to be doing something with it.
Lan Zhan continues the story, punctuated by A-Yuan’s questions. He seems to have given up trying to get him to stop interrupting, and A-Yuan is happy to take full advantage. Wei Ying lets their voices trail into background noise as he goes through his emails till he’s three weeks back, checks his Calendar for appointments and goes through the list of stories he has planned, yet to be researched.
Anything to direct his brain away from the devastating reality of Lan Zhan being here, somehow real, sitting across the table from him and telling a story to A-Yuan.
He’s going through the Notes app on his phone, when a notification slides down onto his screen. Lecture by Professor Li Qiang, Lecture Hall 3C, Tongji University, 3:30pm.
He scrolls down his notes lightning-quick till his fingers freeze on a title: chokehold.
It’s an article he’s been wanting to pursue for a while: one on the unacceptably poor handling of waste disposal by the city council. In the course of his initial research, Wei Ying had chanced upon a public health professor at a prominent university who’d been trying to publish his data on an increased incidence of respiratory illnesses in the area surrounding the plants. But he’d been rejected by every journal he’d tried.
He’d laid low after the backlash, but Wei Ying had kept tabs on him all the while, waiting for an opportunity to meet him. The notification he’d just got was a reminder that he’d be speaking on the subject today, and even entertain questions from the public.
There’s no way Wei Ying could pass this chance up. A familiar thrill hums through his bloodstream as he looks up and watches Lan Zhan patiently explain the curriculum of bunny school to A-Yuan. Warmth fills his chest as he watches the scene.
He gives himself a swift shake. “Lan Zhan.” When Lan Zhan turns to him, he says, “Something came up at work.”
Something crosses Lan Zhan’s face briefly, but he quickly smooths his expression out and nods.
“We’ll have to go,” he says.
Again, Lan Zhan nods.
“We’ll ask them to pack our lunch.”
“You didn’t finish the story.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly. “No,” he says.
“No,” adds A-Yuan, tugging at Wei Ying’s shirt for emphasis.
“I could,” says Lan Zhan slowly, “Finish it later.”
A-Yuan nods vigorously, eyes wide and pleading as he lays his head on Wei Ying’s thigh and hugs it. Wei Ying looks down at him, then up at Lan Zhan. He has that maddeningly sincere expression on his face again that Wei Ying absolutely doesn’t want to think too much about.
This is all clearly too much for him to wrap his head around, because the next word that come out from his lips is: “Yes.”
A beat passes. Then:
“Numbers,” Lan Zhan says. “We should exchange them.”
Wei Ying lifts his phone up, in a mild daze. The thought of having Lan Zhan’s number in his phone after all these years is something he can’t possibly wrap his head around right now.
Lan Zhan reaches out for it, and Wei Ying’s hand stiffens as he nears. None of this feels real. He feels like he’s managed to deceive him somehow, because why else would Lan Zhan possibly want his number on his phone after everything that’s passed between them?
Lan Zhan is too quick for him. He grasps Wei Ying’s wrist lightly with one hand, and smoothly draws out his phone with the other before he can react.
Wei Ying watches him key in his number into his contacts, and give himself a missed call. Then he hands him back his phone, and beckons a waiter over.
“Please pack our order to go.”
“Gege come with us?” says A-Yuan hopefully.
“No!” Wei Ying says at once, jolting back to reality. “Lan Zhan is busy, he needs to go to work. By the way, won’t you take your portion of the order, Lan Zhan?”
“It is fine,” says Lan Zhan. “A-Yuan must be hungry. I will order again.”
Wei Ying looks down at A-Yuan, with a small smile. He’s never seen Lan Zhan interact with a child, but he can’t blame him. A-Yuan is wonderful, and it’s only natural he would’ve stolen his heart immediately.
It’s not like there could be any other possible reason he’d want to meet them again.
“Aiyo, this A-Yuan is such a charmer, making Lan Zhan give up his lunch—he’s getting out of control!” Wei Ying grins. He gets to his feet with A-Yuan at his hip, and walks towards the exit as A-Yuan waves wildly behind him at Lan Zhan.
Of course there isn’t.
Wei Ying drops A-Yuan off at Wen Ning’s before making his way over to Tongji University. After the lecture, he waits till the rest of the audience has filed outside before accosting the professor. His insistence takes the professor by surprise, but he warms up pretty soon to Wei Ying’s enthusiasm and curiosity.
By the time Wei Ying reaches Wen Ning’s flat to collect A-Yuan, he’s buzzing with everything he’s just learnt. With all this information, he’s got a solid article in the bag. For the first time since Wen Qing had given him his impossible mission, hope begins to awaken in him. Maybe if he writes all of his in-progress stories to this level of perfection, she won’t need him to write the piece about Lan Zhan after all.
As he rings the bell and waits for Wen Ning to answer, he takes a moment to wonder how it had all turned out this way. Writing a story on Lan Zhan isn’t impossible anymore. He has A-Yuan as an excuse to get close to Lan Zhan. He has his number in his phone. He has the very real possibility of meeting up with him again, soon.
He thinks of Lan Zhan’s soft, earnest face as he’d described sports day at bunny school to an enraptured A-Yuan. He thinks of Lan Zhan’s face across the corner table from him at Caiyi bookstore once, fresh peonies in the vase between them. He thinks of Lan Zhan’s beautiful face twisted in desperation as the rain battered down on him, eight years ago.
“A-Yuan, look who’s here!”
He starts, and finds Wen Ning grinning widely at him. Behind him, A-Yuan waddles over and gives an excited squeal once he catches sight of him. Wei Ying squeezes him to his chest and feels a pleasant warmth replace a hollowness he hadn’t realised he’d been carrying for the last few hours.
“Xian-gege, look at our jigsaw!” A-Yuan says, slipping away from his arms and tugging him inside.
Wei Ying lets himself be led into the drawing room, where a half-done jigsaw puzzle is laid out on the floor. “Woah, that’s amazing,” he tells A-Yuan, when he points proudly at it.
“He was good today,” Wen Ning tells him. “Had his dinner really fast, though I think it was just so he could get back to his puzzle. Can I get you a beer?”
Wei Ying glances at his watch. It’s a quarter to six, so if they stay for a half hour more they’ll reach in time for A-Yuan’s bedtime.
“Okay,” he says. “Well, A-Yuan, you have half an hour more with your puzzle. Show us what you’ve got, then!”
They’re sitting on the couch together watching A-Yuan crawl around his jigsaw puzzle, when Wen Ning turns to him. He’s been giving him odd looks on and off the whole time, and the question that seems to have been on his mind bursts forth at last.
“Did my sister give you my copy of Bu Wang?”
The knot in his stomach tightens. Wei Ying sighs; he’d really been hoping not to have to deal with this particular subject for the rest of the evening. He nods.
“Ah, that’s okay... I was wondering where that went,” says Wen Ning. “How are you planning to go about it, though? I know he’s got a website, but that only has information about his book and an email address.”
“I’ll start off trying to email him,” Wei Ying lies. He pauses a moment, considering. “Is there anything you’ve found on him that you’d like to pass on to me? Don’t even try to pretend you’re not a regular on his fan forums online.”
Wen Ning starts to splutter, then flushes lightly and nods. “Did you see the one where someone with a degree in numerology tries to guess his age based on the words he uses?”
“Ah yes, the one who claims he’s seventy three.”
Last year, Wei Ying had in a drunken haze looked Lan Zhan up online and combed all his fan forums looking for everything he could find on him. When he’d found a numerologist’s analysis about his age based on his apparently stuffy writing style, he’d laughed about it first. Then he’d typed a seven hundred word response to it, annihilating it.
The next forum he’d happened upon was one speculating how Bu Wang was inspired by a long-lost love from Lan Wangji’s childhood who’d changed his life. He’d slammed his laptop shut at once, and never looked him up on the internet since.
But Wen Ning didn’t need to know that. Or anyone, ever, for that matter.
Wen Ning laughs, then he bites his lip. “I don’t know much, there really isn’t anything concrete out there. You’ve read his book, so you’ll know—”
“I haven’t,” Wei Ying mumbles.
Wen Ning goggles at him for a moment. “What! You haven’t read Bu Wang? That’s so—That’s literally the ultimate—” He coughs, realising how excited he’d sounded. Then he continues, voice soft and even again, “It’s a really good read, I promise. It’ll change your life.”
Wei Ying thinks about the back end of the bookshelf in A-Yuan’s room, the knot rising to his throat. Reading Lan Zhan’s writing has always felt too intimate. After everything that’s happened, all these years later, there’s no way he could. “Can’t you give me a summary?” he pleads.
Wen Ning shakes his head. “No way. I couldn’t in good faith deprive you of the most incredible experience you’ll have in your life. It’ll just be wrong! Besides, if my sister finds out I’ve been helping you avoid researching for a story, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“It’s not research I’m trying to avoid,” Wei Ying says. “You know I never shy away from that.”
He’s never dreamt he’d be researching for a story on Lan Zhan, though.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m not getting?” says Wen Ning. “I thought you’d have read the book cover to cover three times by now.”
Wei Ying can feel the conversation shift towards a territory he isn’t ready to venture into just yet. “Just been busy,” he says. “You know, with A-Yuan.”
“That’s not a good enough excuse,” says Wen Ning. His voice is as gentle as ever, but he’s looking sharply at Wei Ying in a way that reminds him instantly of Wen Qing. “Look at A-Yuan, he’s a dream!”
He is. A-Yuan gurgles contentedly to himself, putting a puzzle piece in place.
“Ah, don’t nag, you sound like your sister. I’ll read it,” says Wei Ying. Something strikes him, cold dread pooling in his stomach at once. “Just tell me one thing. Why are you so sure I need to read Bu Wang to understand him? You-You think it’s autobiographical?”
He thinks he knows the answer even before Wen Ning nods. “That’s what most of us think, anyway.”
Perfect, he thinks internally.
“Um, it’s getting late,” he says. It’s not even six fifteen yet. “I think we’ll head out. A-Yuan, where’d you leave your bag?”
“Sure about that?” says Wen Ning, as A-Yuan turns to look at him with doleful eyes. “You can still stay another fifteen minutes or so, you’ll be home in time.”
Wei Ying gets to his feet. “Nah, the subway gets pretty crowded after this. A-Yuan, tonight you get two snow cookies before bed since you didn’t get any last night. How does that sound?”
A-Yuan jumps to his feet at once, and runs to get his bag as fast as his tiny legs would allow him.
Wei Ying tucks A-Yuan into bed after his snack of cookies and milk, and sits at the edge of his bed as he chatters on about his day. As much as he loves hanging out with Wen Ning, today the only person he wants to talk about is rich-gege.
“When will we see rich-gege?” he asks from under his blanket, for the fifth time in the hour since they’d left Wen Ning’s flat.
“I don’t know, A-Yuan,” says Wei Ying, playing with the hem of his pyjama shorts. “Lan Zhan is a really important guy, you know. I’m sure he’s too busy to hang out with us every day.”
“But the naughty bunny was mean to A-Yu’s sister,” he says. “What will happen to him?”
He looks so distressed that Wei Ying reaches forward and gives his foot a comforting squeeze. “Don’t worry,” he says, although seeing Lan Zhan again is the last thing he wants to think about right now. “I’m sure he’ll do his best to make time for us.”
A-Yuan doesn’t look too convinced, but he falls silent. There’s a crease between his brows still that makes Wei Ying’s heart turn.
“What about I tell you a new story, huh? You always liked Xian-gege’s stories too!”
To his surprise, A-Yuan shakes his head and turns his face into his pillow. Wei Ying shifts to sit by his head, stroking his hair gently till he falls asleep at last.
Lan Zhan (05:12): Good morning, this is Lan Zhan. I am free today. Please let me know if you would like to arrange a time with A-Yuan.
Wei Ying reads the message a good twenty times before he even attempts to type a response. It’s six thirty, and he’d woken up abruptly half an hour ago at his desk in a panic. When he’d hurtled into A-Yuan’s room to find him peacefully sleeping instead of crying like he’d imagined, he’d slumped against the door in relief.
He’s still in an endless loop of type-backspace-type, when A-Yuan shuffles into his room sleepily with his favourite giant bunny plushie in his arm. Wei Ying takes him to the toilet, waits for him to finish, and then enters to help him wash his face properly. He’s placed a stool for A-Yuan to stand on in front of the mirror, and he helps him onto it as they begin to brush their teeth side by side.
He looks at A-Yuan in the mirror, and remembers the light in his eyes when he listened to Lan Zhan’s story and the way he’d turned his face into the pillow last night.
“A-Yuan,” he says, “How’d you feel about seeing Lan Zhan again today? Wait—don’t answer right now, spit out the toothpaste and rinse your mouth first.”
A-Yuan does so at lightning speed, and turns to Wei Ying to nod enthusiastically. “Yeah!” he says, waving his arms around in the air.
Wei Ying looks at his shining eyes and the bright smile on his face and feels his heart squeeze. He’d do anything to make sure they never left this sweet, darling little child’s face, and getting over his own stupid, selfish feelings was the least he could do.
And even more pressingly, he has a story to write. His magazine to save.
After they’re done, he heads to his bedroom, takes his phone in hand and types his response.
Wei Ying (07:03): Cool. 3 p.m. works for you?
Lan Zhan (07:03): Yes. At Caiyi Books?
Wei Ying bites his lip, pictures A-Yuan’s bright, excited face when he tells him they’re going to see his new favourite person, and types:
Wei Ying (07:04): Yeah sure
Lan Zhan (07:04): See you, Wei Ying.
Wei Ying (07:05): You too, Lan Zhan
Lan Zhan is waiting for them in one of the aisles between the shelves just like yesterday, looking comically tall and broad on the tiny stool he’s sitting on. He’s wearing a white button-down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and light blue slacks. Wei Ying watches him for a moment as he leafs through a book, that old lump back in his throat.
He realises how long he’s been staring when A-Yuan lets go of his hand and runs up to him.
“Gege!” he cries out. Then he seems to remember what Lan Zhan had told him about being quiet, his eyes going wide as he places a finger on his lips. “Gege,” he says again, in a theatrical whisper.
Lan Zhan looks at him and nods. He doesn’t smile, but his eyes soften and something seems to light up in his face. Then he turns his eyes up, and before Wei Ying knows it, he’s waiting with bated breath for the light to fade the moment they fall on his face—
At A-Yuan’s demanding voice, they tear their eyes away from each other immediately. Wei Ying walks over quickly to sit on the stool opposite Lan Zhan and take A-Yuan onto his lap.
“Sorry for making you wait,” he says.
“I did not wait long,” says Lan Zhan. “It’s no trouble.”
“Wh-Where do you stay these days?” he asks. A-Yuan seems distracted and Lan Zhan seems to have forgotten to start A-Yuan’s story, and Wei Ying wants to be selfish just for a bit and have this moment with him.
“Xintiandi,” says Lan Zhan.
“Ah, that’s nice. How’s your brother?”
“He is well. Busy learning the ropes of the business.” Lan Zhan glances down at his hands, a tiny wrinkle appearing between his brows.
When they were younger, Lan Zhan had been set on a course to study business and take the reins of the family business like his brother. It was Wei Ying who had questioned it; had pestered him over and over about it. Lan Zhan was such a talented writer, and Wei Ying could see it brought him comfort and happiness that a life in business never would. Back then it had seemed out of the question for Wei Ying, spending his life doing something his heart didn’t agree with it.
It’s not so simple, Lan Zhan had told him.
“I’m proud of you, you know,” says Wei Ying. There’s a light ache still in his chest, at the thought that he hadn’t been there for Lan Zhan as he took a stand against his family. “You finally let go and did what you were born to do.”
Lan Zhan looks like there’s something he wants to say, but is struggling to put into words. “It’s what you did, too.”
Wei Ying’s eyes go wide. “Lan Zhan, you can’t possibly compare what we did,” he says. It angers him that Lan Zhan could even think of it that way. That Lan Zhan would ever do something like he had to him.
Lan Zhan frowns. “Wei Ying, you were the one who showed me,” he begins, but he’s interrupted by a small hand tugging at his sleeve.
“Story,” says A-Yuan, bored of surveying the bookshelves around and ready for his story again.
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, leaving Wei Ying to wonder what he could possibly have shown him.
Wei Ying leaves A-Yuan with Lan Zhan after a point, and roams around the bookstore. He crosses aisles he’s travelled countless times, trails his fingers across bookshelves he’s known every inch of. He finds a familiar crack shaped like a drumstick on a shelf in the P section, and stops to dip his finger into it.
He’s still thinking about what Lan Zhan had said earlier, and his thoughts drift easily to an autumn evening, nine years ago.
They’d stumbled into a friendship in their first year of high school, in a clumsy sort of way they’d never really acknowledged openly. After Lan Zhan had got him onto the editorial board for their magazine, Wei Ying had fully expected him to go back to being cold and aloof again. Surely he’d only been interested in Wei Ying’s work, to get him on their team to diversify their magazine with his unique, outlandish perspective.
But he hadn’t.
They’d end up staying back at school long after meetings of their editorial board ended, thrashing out ideas for new stories together. When the cleaners arrived to throw them out, they’d come to realise that the sun had set long ago. But they always still had so much to talk about that they’d head to Caiyi Books, continuing their discussion on the carpeted floor between the bookshelves they knew so well.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I know I suggested it myself, but it’s really too dark for a school magazine,” he’d said that evening, tipping his head back against the shelf to stare at the ceiling.
“Mental health among teenagers is something students should be educated about,” Lan Zhan had replied, “Since our curriculum barely includes it. It is a subject you care about. You should not hold yourself back.”
For some reason, the way Lan Zhan had looked at him—deep, steady, unbearably sincere—had made Wei Ying feel warm.
“Lan Zhan, you’re lecturing me about not holding back, but you ended up choosing business management as your high school elective,” Wei Ying had chided. “And you hate it, just like I told you you would.”
Perhaps no one else would have noticed, but he’d seen Lan Zhan’s closed-off expression and the slow drag of his feet as he made his way to his elective class.
“It is not that simple.”
Wei Ying had known this on a factual level. Lan Zhan was utterly dutiful, particularly to his family. He was a model student, well on his way to helping his brother take over the family business like he was expected to. Still, Wei Ying never had been able to actually wrap his head around the concept.
“I know, Lan Zhan,” he’d said. “You’d better still write, though, even when you’re old and busy with your boring business stuff. Or you’ll be hearing from me.”
Lan Zhan had been quiet for a long moment. “I’ll hear from you when we’re older?” he’d said suddenly. There’d be an oddly surprised and vulnerable look on his face that Wei Ying had never seen before.
Wei Ying had laughed at that. “What, you think you’ll get rid of me that easily? Sorry, Lan Zhan, but I’ll be around to annoy you for a very long time.”
Lan Zhan’s expression had shifted then, frowning slightly and lips parting in a sharp inhale. After a while, he’d quietly said, “Wei Ying isn’t annoying.”
Wei Ying hadn’t expected that. Flushing, he’d said, “Aiya, Lan Zhan, you’re being weird! I’ll annoy you. I’ll annoy you a lot. I’ll sniff out a story so cool that I’ll do something no one will expect, and then you’ll be so annoyed about it you’ll want to do something just as cool as me!”
Eight years later, Wei Ying traces the drumstick-shaped crack on the shelf one last time before drawing away his finger. This whole exercise is messing with his head. Suddenly, he feels an acute desire for Lan Zhan’s stupid story to end already, so that he could go back to never thinking of him again.
He continues his walk amidst the bookshelves aimlessly, fingers trailing across the spines of the books. Not much has changed about this place, whether from the owners’ desire to maintain the quaint, old-world charm about it or from a lack of funds to make renovations. Wei Ying is leaning towards the former, since the place is still in good shape and clearly well cared for. It’s odd, since patronage must have shrunk massively over the years, but he supposes it’s a good thing.
He’s about to turn a corner into the next aisle when he catches a conversation.
“—In all these years, never thought I’d see him come here with another person.”
“People, at that! I wonder who they are. That little boy is absolutely squeezable.”
“It doesn’t matter. Whoever they are, they seem to have brought about a world of a difference in him.”
“Yeah, and I can’t think of a person who deserves it more. For someone to reach the heights he has, to still keep coming to my mother’s bookstore after all these years, sit in for free and sign books for our patrons, and donate such massive sums of money... You don’t know the number of times I’ve begged him to stop.”
“I can imagine. Sorry for being blunt, but I’m quite sure the only reason your store is still open is thanks to him.”
“Of course! I’ll be the first to admit it. But he’s just so sincere every time, bordering on desperate. I—I don’t understand it? Sometimes I think he’s more committed to keep this shop open than I am myself! But I’m grateful, and I’m grateful he’s happier now, for whatever reason that is.”
Wei Ying has heard enough. He turns away quickly, heart racing in his chest.
He’s always known Lan Zhan to be a good person. The best he’s ever known. But this—his chest aches as he thinks of Lan Zhan helping this childhood haunt of his stay afloat with everything he has. He’s never taken Lan Zhan to be this sentimental, but it seems to fit.
It also makes sense that Wei Ying himself had pushed it away entirely, just like he’d done with everything good in his life.
When he makes his way back to where he’d left Lan Zhan and A-Yuan, he isn’t prepared for what he finds. Lan Zhan is sitting very still, holding a sleeping A-Yuan to his chest.
Wei Ying stops dead, the wind knocked right out of his chest.
A-Yuan looks blissfully peaceful, his face relaxed and small chest rising and falling gently in a clearly deep slumber. As for Lan Zhan—
Wei Ying resists the urge to clap his hand to his mouth. Lan Zhan looks utterly serious, sitting very straight and rigid, careful not to move a single muscle for fear of waking A-Yuan up with one hand gently resting on his back to support him. It may just be the cutest thing Wei Ying laid his eyes on.
He walks up slowly to him and lays a hand on his arm. He bends low, close to his ear.
“How long has he been asleep?” he murmurs.
“Around ten minutes,” says Lan Zhan, very quietly. His forehead furrows suddenly. “Was this not the right time for him to sleep?”
“Nah, it’s okay,” Wei Ying says, instantly endeared. “Wen Qing says he sometimes naps after lunch. Um... Sorry about this, Lan Zhan. I’ll take it from here.”
He reaches out to take A-Yuan, but Lan Zhan doesn’t loosen his hold on him. “How do you plan on returning home?” he asks.
“Um, the subway?” A-Yuan will most certainly wake up on the way and be nightmarishly cranky afterwards, but it couldn’t be helped.
For a moment, Lan Zhan doesn’t answer.
Then he says, “He will wake up on the way.”
Once again, Wei Ying finds himself struggling to breathe. “Yeah,” he says, because he feels like he should say something.
“He will be irritable afterwards,” Lan Zhan goes on.
“Sure,” Wei Ying says again, breathless. He feels like he’s waiting—for what, he isn’t sure yet.
“I can drop you home,” he says.
It’s wrong. It’s stupid. It’s a pointless prolongation of an already pointless exercise. And yet—
—For some wild, unfathomable reason, Wei Ying can’t bring himself to say no.
Lan Zhan carries A-Yuan with infinite gentleness to his car, cradling him carefully as they set off towards Wei Ying’s flat.
“You seem really good with kids,” Wei Ying says, voice teasing. “Have you been practising? Found someone you’d like to settle down with?”
A sick feeling rises in his stomach at the thought, but he quickly pushes it back down. It’s the element of surprise—one of the more morally questionable ways to dig dirt from a celebrity, but also one of the most effective. And Wei Ying had built a whole career out of decisions based on dodgy ethics, after all.
There’s no reason the same principles he’s lived by all his life shouldn’t apply to Lan Zhan, especially not now.
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer, giving him a strange look instead.
“God, I don’t know why you always react that way. You had that same constipated look when I used to tell you to confess to Mianmian already. She’s married with a kid now, you know. You lost your chance, Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying can’t stop himself from rambling, spurred on by the sick feeling building faster and faster inside him. “Of course, I’ve hooked up a lot in these years since I left.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer that and Wei Ying falls silent, glancing back outside the window again. There’s something eating at him, profoundly irritated at Lan Zhan for saying his name like that, soft and calming. At himself, too, for the way he can’t even look at Lan Zhan for fear that he’ll know the last words he’d spoken were an absolute lie.
After a long moment, Lan Zhan speaks again. “When you—When you left,” he says, an uncharacteristic hesitation in his voice. “Was it hard?”
Wei Ying thinks back to the dingy two-bedroom flat he’d shared in the most obscure neighbourhood in town, with three other men he didn’t know. He remembers lying in bed as his roommate got high and wet his bed across the room from him. He remembers holding on to memories of fresh ink on paper, books and sandalwood soap to forget the smell of piss surrounding him.
“I got by,” he says quietly.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. His voice sounds strained. “I should have been there—”
“No,” says Wei Ying, firmly. These past couple of days have felt nothing short of surreal, but this is one thing he’ll always be certain of. “There was no other way.”
“I should have told you—”
“Stop!” says Wei Ying. If not anything else, he can’t let Lan Zhan dwell on the past. It’s the last thing he deserves. “It’s too late,” he says, more harshly than he’d intended.
“Wei Ying.” He sounds pained, and Wei Ying feels a fresh wave of anger at himself since he’s the reason behind it.
“Enough about me, okay?” he says, voice edged with desperation. He has a job to do. That’s all Lan Zhan should be to him right now, and all he should be to Lan Zhan. Just another journalist trying to sneak a story out of him. “Let’s talk about you. When did you start writing Bu Wang?”
Lan Zhan is quiet for a long moment. When he speaks again, his voice sounds heavy, resigned. “In my second year of university,” he says.
More than a year after he’d seen him last. Wei Ying thinks back to what Wen Ning had told him about the book being possibly influenced by events in Lan Zhan’s own life. He wonders what he’d been through in all these years, and is instantly glad he hasn’t read his book. He can’t tell what would be worse: to find that he’d hurt Lan Zhan, or to find that he hadn’t touched his life at all.
“Had you already decided?” he asks. “That-That you’d give up trying to take over your family business?”
The fact that he didn’t know how it had gone down, how Lan Zhan must have struggled with it makes him ache.
Lan Zhan nods.
“Had you told them yet? Your uncle?”
“No,” he answers, “I did not tell them till my final term, when my book was finished.”
“That’s so like you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying can’t help saying, a fond smile tugging at his lips. “Always the model kid, even when you’re rebelling against your family.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer immediately. When he does, his voice is thick with an emotion Wei Ying can’t quite place. “I had motivation,” he says. “It had nothing to do with them.”
Wei Ying is quiet for a moment, warring within himself. He tries to fight down his need to know, tries to convince himself he doesn’t deserve to know what exactly happened.
I want you to write a story about Lan Wangji.
But it’s for a cause. Burial Mounds is barely staying afloat. He’s doing it for his magazine; for Wen Ning, Wen Qing, and Mianmian.
It has nothing to do with the gnawing hunger in his chest to know about everything he’s missed in Lan Zhan’s life.
“What motivated you?” he asks, finally. Celebrity interviews aren’t even his thing. He hasn’t done one ever before in his life. He’s trying to think back to every one he’s read before, trying to sift through his memories for the least cringeworthy questions.
Lan Zhan’s face is closed off completely when he turns to look at him at last. “You haven’t read my book,” he says, as if it’s an answer.
Wei Ying shakes his head, that awful feeling of guilt roiling in his stomach again. How is he to explain to Lan Zhan that he’s as hungry as he’s terrified of knowing the parts of his life he wasn’t around to see?
“I told you,” he says quietly. “I didn’t have time.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t seem to have anything more to say. He doesn’t seem curious about the kind of work Wei Ying has been doing, either. It’s just as Wei Ying thought—He hasn’t made a dent in his life.
A nearby car honks, causing A-Yuan to stir. Wei Ying reaches out to calm him just as Lan Zhan does himself. For a moment, their fingers touch over A-Yuan’s hair.
Wei Ying draws his hand back quickly, and silence falls in the car for the rest of the way.
When they reach Wei Ying’s street, he prepares to take A-Yuan from Lan Zhan’s lap.
“It’s fine,” says Lan Zhan. “I can carry him inside.”
Wei Ying knows in the back of his mind that this has gone on long enough, but he finds himself nodding before he realises what he’s doing.
They make their way upstairs, toe off their shoes in the doorway and quietly take A-Yuan to his bedroom. Wei Ying sits at the foot of his bed, watching Lan Zhan lay A-Yuan down with infinite gentleness. Their hands meet once more over the blanket as they both reach out to tuck A-Yuan in, and once again Wei Ying feels like something shot right up his spine.
Lan Zhan is bent over the bed just as Wei Ying had leant forward, and this has brought their faces very, very near. This close, his warm golden eyes look bottomless, his thin lips soft and pink. He’s always been handsome, but there’s something unbearable, almost overwhelming about it now. His hand on top of him is so large it covers his own completely, and so firm he can’t pull away even though he knows he’s probably applying only the barest minimum of his strength.
Or is it because he can’t move himself? For a long moment, he remains frozen, his hand under Lan Zhan’s on the blanket. Then—
They dart apart, finding A-Yuan sitting up on the bed, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He looks confused, then he blinks for a few moments as he looks from Wei Ying to Lan Zhan. Then he starts to sniffle.
Wei Ying gathers him instantly into his arms, heart breaking. Had he seen him and Lan Zhan on his bed like that and remembered his parents? He changes a glance at Lan Zhan and finds him standing at a distance, eyes downcast like he feels he’s intruding.
Before he can do anything about it, A-Yuan reaches out a tiny hand behind him and paws at Lan Zhan’s trouser leg.
Wei Ying feels the word mumbled against his chest more than he actually hears it. “A-Yuan, what?”
“Story!” he cries, looking up. His eyes are still wet, but he isn’t sobbing anymore. There’s a determined look in his eyes as he turns to Lan Zhan.
“It’s not over yet?” ask Wei Ying.
A-Yuan shakes his head fervently. “A-Yu the bunny was playing with his brother bunny and sister bunny.” He looks expectantly at Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying feels warmth flood him as Lan Zhan stays in place, not sure if he should react. He stands away from the bed, hands at his back, with a closed-off expression on his face. Like he thinks he might be overstepping after A-Yuan’s reaction to seeing them on his bed. For some reason, this simple act has Wei Ying reeling.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, fondness filling him before he can help it. He can tell how much he wants to comfort A-Yuan, and that he’s holding himself back with an effort. “Would you have time to continue your story?”
Lan Zhan looks startled at that. Then he nods. Perhaps no one else would be able to tell, but Wei Ying can see the eagerness writ large on his face.
“Sit down, gege,” says A-Yuan, and he pats the bed next to him. Lan Zhan steps closer, and sits down right next to Wei Ying. Their knees knock together in the process, and Wei Ying feels that jolt down his spine once again, even sharper than before.
He springs to his feet.
“Ah, I’ll get some work done,” he says. “Enjoy your story, okay, A-Yuan?”
He doesn’t run from the room, but it’s a close thing.
When he’s in the kitchen, he downs the remaining half of the can of beer he’d left the day Wen Qing had dropped A-Yuan off. Then he proceeds to reason with himself.
He’s only confused. Too many things happening right now—him having to take care of A-Yuan, Lan Zhan showing up in his life after all these years, A-Yuan imprinting on Lan Zhan, one thing leading to another till he ended up sitting on a bed with Lan Zhan, holding hands with him on top of A-Yuan’s blanket as they tucked him in—
Anybody would be confused. He hasn’t had time to process everything. And Lan Zhan is an attractive guy. Has always been attractive, tall, beautiful, frankly obscenely strong, and now, with all these conflicting emotions—it’s only natural his brain would conflate it all into attraction.
Would happen to anyone.
So he’s fine. Everything is fine.
All he needs to do is channel all that energy into extricating more information for his potential story. He opens up an archive of classic celebrity interviews he’d saved on his drive for pointers and never actually opened, and begins to read.
He’s neck deep into a controversial 2007 interview of Fan Bingbing, when his phone buzzes. He blinks when he sees the name flashing across his phone screen.
It’s Wen Qing. He hurries to answer, pressing his phone to his ear.
“Hey, hey,” he says. “How’s it going?”
“I’m good,” answers Wen Qing. “It’s been pretty interesting so far here, actually. Been getting more information than I’d anticipated.”
“No one’s figured yet that you aren’t actually there to learn emergency tracheostomies but dismantle the establishment instead?”
“Surprisingly, no,” she replies. “All the healthcare workers here are too stressed and overworked to even care what the person next to them is feeling or thinking, which is part of the whole problem.”
“Well, I hope you’ve got your Pulitzer acceptance speech ready,” says Wei Ying. “With abundant references to how I provided all the snacks and moral support that helped you get there.”
“God, I can’t believe I almost forgot how annoying you were in less than a week,” says Wen Qing. “Won’t make that mistake again. Although—” She pauses for a moment. “As much as I hate to admit it, your seriously impressive ability to not give a fuck may just have rubbed off on me.”
Wei Ying gasps exaggeratedly. “Did you actually just say that? Do I need to check up in case you’re being held hostage? Click your tongue twice if you are.”
“Shut up,” she grits out. “I’m serious, though. Not sure if I’d actually been able to go ahead with this otherwise.” She pauses for a moment, then continues. “It’s true for everyone at Burial Mounds, actually. When A-Ning told me last month he’d like to investigate possible corruption in his college’s sports scholarship scheme, I thought for the longest time you were playing a prank or something by getting him to say that to me. I was half-right—he told me later you inspired him to do it.”
It’s perhaps the most Wei Ying has heard her speak in one go, and he’s stunned for a moment.
“Don’t make me say that again,” she says immediately. “How’s A-Yuan?”
When Wei Ying finally manages to process what she’d said, he manages to answer, “He’s good.” A fond smile spreads across his face. “He’s great.”
“That’s good,” she says. She’s quiet for a moment. Then: “How are things at work?”
Wei Ying fights down a wave of guilt: he’s not sure why he’d hoped she’d forgotten about the assignment she’d left him. “Before you can say anything, I’ve hit a major break in the Li Qiang case last night,” he tells her. “I’ve got half of it down, should be done with it the rest by the weekend.”
“That’s cool, but there’s a reason I’m calling,” she says. Her voice has taken on a sharper edge, just like her morning briefs at the office. “It’s something new.”
“What do you mean?” Wei Ying answers, instantly on alert.
“There may be something big happening,” she says. “Something to do with Lan Wangji.”
Wei Ying’s fingers freeze at the spot on his ankle he’d been scratching. “What?” he gasps. Then he composes himself quickly, and says, “B-But I’ve made progress. I met up with him the other day. I don’t know what you mean?”
“That’s because it’s likely Lan Wangji doesn’t know about it himself.”
“Looks like my good uncle may be up to his old tricks,” she says, heaving a sigh.
“Wait, what?” says Wei Ying.
The last he’d heard of media mogul Wen Ruohan, his name had been splattered all over in one of the biggest news fabrication scandals in recent history. Probably one of Wei Ying’s top ten exposés in his career so far, but the only one that had made him change his name and run away from home at eighteen to go undercover in pursuit of evidence.
“Granny Wen seems to think so. Apparently, they’ve got something big planned in the next couple of days. Some massive new publication—a magazine, a whole newspaper—we don’t know yet. But what we know for sure is it’ll have some sort of a dramatic story to build up a frenzy. There are rumours floating around that it’s to do with Lan Wangji. Could be a leak of his new book, could be a scandalous romance.”
Wei Ying reaches out to grip the corner of the kitchen table to steady himself. He tries not to zero in at the thought of a secret romance, and fails spectacularly.
“I don’t get it,” he says. “Why now? I thought they were out of the media business for good.”
“They seem to think enough time has passed since the scandal,” she says. “I guess they were waiting for it to die down and for everyone to forget, then make a comeback.”
In hindsight, Wei Ying should have known. As quick as the scandal had blown up a year ago, Wen Ruohan had the best legal counsel and the money to settle everything just as swiftly in court. He had spent months desperately seeking the person who’d exposed him, but he must eventually have resumed plotting his next move too.
“People died,” Wei Ying says weakly, leaning against the side of the dinner table. “I knew they’d never end up linked to it or anything, but for them to come back so quickly? Like nothing ever happened?”
His blood surges angrily.
A year ago, A-Yuan’s parents had made a food blogger wait his turn at their small dumpling restaurant instead of letting him bypass the long queues. When the restaurant was slammed so severely in Wen Ruohan’s paper that they’d had to shut it down, the couple started an online petition to boycott it. It had gained traction for a few days, too, till the fatal accident they’d met abruptly with.
Wei Ying hadn’t been able to prove it, and it wouldn’t bring them back. But he’d finished the explosive four thousand word story he’d been working on for six years soon after, and sent it in to all the biggest newspapers he could find. It was the best he could have done.
He’d looked for their closest relatives then—Wen Ning and Wen Qing, and told them the truth about their cousin and his wife. He’d expected anger, frustration, maybe even hatred—but strangely enough, they’d only been grateful to him for bringing the story to light.
It hasn’t stopped the nightmares wishing he could have been in time to save them.
And yet, despite all this, for Wen Ruohan to resurface with another publication, undoubtedly as ugly as everything else he touched, like none of that had mattered—
“Nothing,” says Wen Qing firmly. “Just lay low. Our primary worry is they may use this as bait to lure you out. Keep your digital footprint squeaky clean. They shouldn’t be able to trace you unless someone rats you out.”
“Impossible,” he says at once. “The only people who know me as the source are you guys at Burial Mounds, A-jie, A-Cheng and my friend Nie Huaisang.”
Lan Zhan too, but she doesn’t need to know.
“Cool,” she says. “And of course, find out this story before they do.”
Wei Ying has to replay that in his head to make sure he heard right.
“What,” he says weakly. “Find out... the story?”
Wen Qing makes a noise of annoyance. “What part of that do you want me to repeat? I’d have thought you were already starting to plan how to go about it, honestly.”
She’s right. It strikes Wei Ying that that’s exactly what he would’ve done in such a situation if literally anyone else was involved.
But this is Lan Zhan, and he’s foolish and weak, and he can’t bring himself to tell Wen Qing just yet.
“Right,” he says, after a long moment. “I’m on it.”
“Of course you are,” she says. “And—Stay safe, okay?”
Wei Ying can’t actually remember the last time she’d asked him to stay safe, and he’s made it a habit to put himself at risk for his job at least on a weekly basis. She’d grown to trust his methods despite herself, realising there’s nothing she could do to stop it, so it’s doubly disconcerting that she’s actually reminding him to take care of himself now.
“You too,” he says. “Bye.”
After she ends the call, Wei Ying drops his phone on the table and walks to the other end of the room. Then he walks back. Over and over he paces, wondering what to do.
It’s clear to him immediately that he needs to find out what Wen Ruohan has discovered, if it really has anything to do with Lan Zhan. As for actually writing that article about him for Burial Mounds —well, he’ll just cross that bridge when he gets to it.
He’s deep in his thoughts, when he hears soft chatter coming from the direction of the bedrooms. It grows steadily near, and in moments A-Yuan appears in the doorway, hand in hand with Lan Zhan.
“I should go,” Lan Zhan says to Wei Ying. He’s still holding A-Yuan’s hand, and A-Yuan doesn’t seem to be in any mood to let go. “You should put him to bed.”
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying. He pulls himself out of the haze he’d gone into, and looks at A-Yuan. “Story’s done?”
A-Yuan glances up at Lan Zhan. Then he nods, although he doesn’t look very happy about it.
He’s probably feeling sleepy. Wei Ying walks over and picks him up in his arms, poking his cheeks lightly. “Are we ready for bed?”
A-Yuan presses his face into his shoulder like he usually does when he’s displeased but knows better than to make a fuss.
“What did you do, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying laughs. “Last time I saw him, you were about to steal his favourite person crown from me.”
“I am sorry,” says Lan Zhan, looking truly apologetic. “I did not know the ending would affect him like this.”
Wei Ying stares at him a moment, charmed by how earnestly he’s looking at A-Yuan, eyes widened a fraction in dismay. Then he hurriedly turns away, glancing at the door.
“Goodbye, A-Yuan,” says Lan Zhan, seeming to take the hint. “Wei Ying.” Wei Ying can’t help the way his eyes dart up to look at him, and immediately wants to kick himself for it. “See you,” says Lan Zhan quickly, before walking towards the door.
Wei Ying watches him walk over to the shoe rack and bend to wear his shoes. Something rises in him, and before he can stop himself, he cries out, “Wait!”
Lan Zhan straightens up at once, turning around to face Wei Ying, shoelaces undone.
“You—A-Yuan wants you to tell him a part two.”
A-Yuan looks up to regard the proceedings with mild interest.
“A part two?” Lan Zhan repeats quietly.
“Yeah! He—He just told me. In my ear.”
When Lan Zhan leaves, he’s going to read A-Yuan at least three bedtime stories themed around how wrong it is to lie.
“Yes,” says Lan Zhan, without missing a beat. Wei Ying marvels silently at how effective a bait A-Yuan is turning out to be. No mortal is strong enough for his big round eyes and adorable childish wiles after all. “We can fix a time,” he continues, “Whenever you—Whenever A-Yuan wishes.”
“Sure,” says Wei Ying. “I—I’ll text you.”
They stare at each other across the living room a moment and suddenly Lan Zhan’s ears are pink and Wei Ying is hot all over, deliriously happy that he’ll see him again, what the hell—
“Your shoelaces aren’t tied,” he blurts out, turning with A-Yuan in his arms and facing the bedrooms. “I’ll go tuck him in. See you, I guess.”
He makes for the bedroom, but not too fast to miss Lan Zhan telling him from the doorway:
“See you tomorrow, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying is an idiot.
A colossal, ridiculous idiot, who for some reason has decided to cook a five course meal to pack for lunch with Lan Zhan at the park.
Wei Ying had texted him earlier that morning trying to fix a time and place, and for some reason they’d decided to meet at Xuhui Park at eleven. Something to do with how being in the sunshine outdoors would be good for A-Yuan. It’s a lovely day and it had seemed a great idea at the time, one that both of them had easily agreed to.
There’s nothing easy about the way Wei Ying has his phone balanced on the counter as Jiang Yanli runs him through the recipe on speaker. He bends over the chopping board as his knife flies across the tomatoes, one eye trained on the meat in the pan as he wills it to cook faster.
It’s no good.
So far, the only dishes he’s finished are a cabbage salad with scallions and roasted peanuts, and sweet and sour shrimp. The stir-fried pork is still cooking, as is the rice. He’s prepared the ingredients for his chicken and tofu noodle soup too, but he’s waiting till everything else is done so it’ll stay as warm as possible.
It’s twenty minutes to eleven, and it’s unlikely he’ll finish on time.
“A-jie, let me call you back,” he says. “Thanks for all the help, but I’m getting a call from—um, one of the kids’ parents.”
“Sure,” she says. “Good luck with the party, A-Ying! I’m sure A-Yuan’s about to be the most popular kid in his kindergarten class.”
Wei Ying swallows down the guilt of lying to his sister, but he couldn’t possibly tell her he was cooking an elaborate meal for the childhood friend he’d just met for the first time in years. Or that he’s about to have a picnic with him and the child he’s currently taking care of. Especially not that this childhood friend in question is Lan Zhan.
“Yeah, thanks, talk later!” he tells her, and ends the call.
He scrolls down to Lan Zhan’s contact and lingers a moment over his name.
Gods, is this really happening? Everything that’s being happening lately seems to hit him all at once. Is Lan Zhan’s name really on his phone? Did he just spend pretty much the whole day with him yesterday? Are they about to go on an actual picnic right now, that he’s been sweating in the kitchen the past three hours for?
Since A-Yuan asked me to, I can spare some time.
He’s being ridiculous again. It’s A-Yuan who all this is for. A-Yuan, who can make anyone fall in love instantly and deserves the world and more.
That’s all this is for. And for the job Wei Ying has to do. Once it’s over, he can finally go back to how it used to be.
He presses call.
“Hi, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying lets his heart skitter for a moment, his chest flushing with warmth at the sound of his name from Lan Zhan’s voice. “Um... So, I’m running a bit late.” He sends up a silent prayer in thanks that Lan Zhan can’t see how hard he’s flushing through the phone.
“I have just left. Would it be okay if I picked you up?”
Wei Ying bites his lip and knocks his hip against the counter to steady himself. Lan Zhan is coming to his flat to pick A-Yuan up, he reminds himself. Wei Ying is only tagging along.
“Sure,” he says.
“See you, Wei Ying.”
There’s something about the way he says that again that sets off a fresh ache tugging at Wei Ying’s ribs. “Yeah. See you, Lan Zhan.”
He realises he’s answered the door in his apron when Lan Zhan looks him up and down with eyes widened a fraction. Not to mention he’s only wearing a sleeveless tank and shorts under it. He flushes, moving aside to let Lan Zhan enter. He’s trying not to make eye contact with Lan Zhan, but he catches a brief glimpse of the tips of his ears. They’d looked bright pink, but he’d probably just imagined it.
“Um—Sorry about this, Lan Zhan. I’m almost done. A-Yuan! Look who’s here.”
There’s a soft sound of bare feet approaching from the bedrooms, and A-Yuan appears in view. “Gege!” he squeals when he sees Lan Zhan, running right at him and wrapping himself around his leg.
“Gege, come see my toys,” A-Yuan says. Wei Ying watches him tug Lan Zhan towards his room, that old hollow feeling settling in his chest again.
He’s finished packing their lunch, lifting up the bowls in his arms, when a hand falls on his. He gasps out loud, turning his head to find Lan Zhan standing just behind him.
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer, gently extricating a few of the bowls from his hand. Wei Ying squeezes his eyes close at the contact, trying hard not to think too much about the fact that he’d be flush against Lan Zhan’s chest if he just tipped back a few inches.
The thought is so ludicrous that he stiffens immediately. Suddenly, he’s irrationally angry with Lan Zhan. For finding him after all these years and acting like nothing had changed. For insinuating himself in a few short days into his life, his home, his kitchen—without a single question for him, a single demand for an explanation. For standing behind him, holding his hand, taking bowls from his hands and making his heart thud in his throat and blood rush in his ears.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says quietly. He pushes away from Lan Zhan and turns to face him. “What is this?”
Lan Zhan looks at him steadily. “What do you mean?”
“This,” whispers Wei Ying. “The way we’re going on a fucking picnic after—after all these years, after everything I—”
Wei Ying is being ridiculous, of course. He’d been the one to initiate this in the first place, just like he’d planned. Just like he needed to, for the job he’s meant to do. But something has snapped in him, and suddenly he can’t stop.
“Lan Zhan, why? I get that A-Yuan is wonderful and deserves the universe, but why are you doing this to me?”
“I don’t understand, Wei Ying. We discussed this. Do you not want to come?”
“Fuck, Lan Zhan. How can you look at me right now? How can you stand to be in the same room after what I—?”
“Wei Ying. I—I don’t blame you. I never have.”
“How could you not, Lan Zhan? You’re wrong, you need to blame me, you should —”
“Wei Ying, you are—”
“Gege?” a soft voice says uncertainly from behind them, at the same moment. They turn around to find A-Yuan at the door, holding a radish and a bunny plushie in either arm.
“A-Yuan,” says Wei Ying, hurrying over and crouching in front of him. “What’s wrong?”
“Gege didn’t see all my toys,” he says, crestfallen. “He want to see Xian-gege first.”
Wei Ying goes warm all over; he looks around before he can help it, and finds Lan Zhan looking to the side. This time, his ears are definitely pink.
He looks back around at the distraught child, and feels a rush of guilt all over again. Lan Zhan is just being the good, decent person that he’s always been, indulging a four year old child when he absolutely did not need to. It was Wei Ying who’d made things awkward, blaming Lan Zhan for something he’d agreed to himself, frustrated with his stupid, childish feelings. Now that it’s affecting even A-Yuan, it would absolutely not do.
He plasters a full grin onto his face, and says loudly, “Xian-gege was clumsy, so Lan Zhan had to help me out. It’s over now! Thanks, Lan Zhan, you can go see the rest of A-Yuan’s toys now, sorry for keeping you.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan begins, voice heavy with some emotion Wei Ying doesn’t want to recognise.
Wei Ying gets to his feet, and walks to the fridge. He grips the door handle tight, and says, “Lan Zhan, it’s fine.”
A long moment later, he hears Lan Zhan’s steady footsteps recede, joined by A-Yuan scurrying off with him.
They get into Lan Zhan’s car, and this time Wei Ying places A-Yuan in between himself and Lan Zhan. Neither he nor Lan Zhan speaks much today, humming and nodding in reply to A-Yuan’s endless babble instead. Once they’re at the park, they make their way inside and find a spot under a tree.
Now that they’re here, A-Yuan seems more interested in running circles around the tree behind them than the actual story. And that’d be fine, except it leaves Wei Ying and Lan Zhan together with a heavy silence hanging between them.
That is, till Lan Zhan breaks it.
Wei Ying jumps, turning to find him staring intently at him.
“What you said earlier,” he says. “About blame—I do not blame you for what you had to do. I never did.”
Wei Ying looks at him, the open and honest expression on his face suddenly making him almost believe it. He’d known this would happen; this proximity to Lan Zhan messing with his head and making him feel things he’s taught himself not to feel. So he does the best thing he can think of: he changes the subject, and proceeds to do his job.
“Yeah, ah, anyway. How are things with you, Lan Zhan? Anything exciting?”
Lan Zhan looks like he wants to change the subject right back, but he replies eventually. “Working on a new book.”
Wei Ying leans in, his senses heightened the way they do whenever he catches a whiff of a story. “Yeah?” He feigns interest, satisfied he finally has confirmation that Lan Zhan is, in fact, working on a new book. Not that he’d doubted it; Wen Qing’s intel was always pretty water-tight. “Is it a sequel to Bu Wang? Or an entirely different story?”
“Different,” says Lan Zhan shortly.
“Oh,” says Wei Ying, momentarily unsure how to react. Maybe it wasn’t a great idea bringing up Bu Wang, although he’s still not sure what Lan Zhan feels about him not having read it yet. “And how’s that going? Spare a release date so I can drop it anonymously on one of your fan club forums and crash their servers?”
“I sent it in a few days ago,” he says. “I am not sure how long it will take.”
With the rumour Wen Qing had told him about coinciding so well with Lan Zhan sending his finished novel to his publishers, it’s making more and more sense that there could be someone within the publishing house feeding information to Wen Ruohan. Wei Ying is wondering how to phrase his next question, when voices catch his attention from a few metres away.
He turns in their direction, and spots a man selling flowers a short distance away. Two teenaged boys stand in front of his cart, heatedly debating which to buy.
“They’re fighting over which roses to buy, when the correct answer is always peonies,” Wei Ying scoffs.
“You like peonies,” says Lan Zhan. It doesn’t sound like a question.
When Wei Ying turns in surprise to look at him, there’s an unreadable look on his face. He nods, suddenly self-conscious for some reason. He looks back at the peonies in the man’s cart, but he can’t get that expression on Lan Zhan’s face out of his head.
Just like that, he’s sixteen years old again, facing Lan Zhan over a vase of peonies at the corner table at Caiyi Books.
This corner table by the French windows overlooking the street was the only one of its kind in the whole store. It was a coveted spot, one that Wei Ying would almost always find occupied by couples being sickening with each other and doing everything besides actually reading books. So when he’d found Lan Zhan sitting there, saving a spot for him on Valentine’s Day of all days, he’d been surprised.
“How’d you find this place empty?” he’d said, bemused. There were couples glaring at them from every direction, maybe hoping Lan Zhan would get stood up by his date.
“I arrived early,” Lan Zhan had answered briefly.
“Oh, wow!” Wei Ying had just noticed the vase with fresh peonies between them. “I thought they’d put something cheesy like roses like every other time. Wonder if someone told them off about it, hah.”
Lan Zhan hadn’t responded. He’d continued to look steadily at Wei Ying in a way that soon made him feel very uncomfortable. He had also been wearing that white turtleneck of his again, the one that clung to his body in a way that always made Wei Ying feel hot. Who wore turtlenecks at twenty seven degrees, honestly?
To break the moment, Wei Ying had said, “So! Why’d you call me here today?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes had gone wide for a moment. Then his whole face had shuttered off completely.
“To—To discuss the next edition,” he’d said, sounding unusually discomposed.
“Oh,” Wei Ying had said. “But that’s ages later. I thought it was for something urgent! I could’ve been on a date, you know. It’s Valentine’s Day.”
Lan Zhan had pressed his lips into a thin line. “Does Wei Ying have a date?” he’d asked quietly.
“No, but I could have!” He’d leant his chin on his hand, lips forming into a pout. “Anyway, since I’m already here. What’s on your mind?”
He’d stayed up late the previous night playing Mortal Kombat, so a few minutes into their discussion, he’d drifted off to sleep with his head on the table. He’d awoken at least an hour later, Lan Zhan reading across the table from him.
He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the strange dream he’d had about someone kissing him on the lips while he’d been sleeping, soft hair brushing his cheek.
Sitting across the picnic blanket from Lan Zhan all these years later, Wei Ying isn’t sure why that memory had just come to him. But he doesn’t have long to think about it, because A-Yuan runs up to them just then.
“Take off your shoes before you step on the blanket,” Lan Zhan says, voice gentle but firm. A-Yuan comes to a stop inches away from the edge, and considers his options.
Being closer to Lan Zhan seems to win over keeping his beloved shoes on, so he crouches reluctantly to take them off. As he’s doing so, his eyes fall on the two other pairs of shoes on the grass—the red Converses Wei Ying had learnt to wear every time he came out with A-Yuan, and Lan Zhan’s grey suede ankle boots.
“Your shoes are wrong,” A-Yuan exclaims accusingly, pointing at Lan Zhan’s shoes and then at Lan Zhan himself.
“What are you on about,” Wei Ying laughs, as Lan Zhan stares at him in bewilderment.
“Look,” demonstrates A-Yuan, like the two adults are being so unbelievably dense, “My shoes, Xian-gege’s shoes. Yours are wrong.”
“Wrong?” says Lan Zhan blankly.
“We match,” A-Yuan says. He hops onto the blanket and rolls over towards Lan Zhan to look up at him with beady eyes.
For a moment, neither Lan Zhan or Wei Ying have an answer to that. The thought of them matching shoes with A-Yuan sends an unfamiliar ache shooting through Wei Ying so acutely that he presses three fingers against his sternum to make it stop.
“Let’s have lunch,” he bursts out, although it’s definitely still too early for that.
The ridiculousness of the situation fully hits Wei Ying as he’s pouring soup into a bowl for Lan Zhan and A-Yuan. He draws back, taking a look around the elaborate array of dishes laid out on the blanket as his stomach coils in abject mortification.
What the hell is he doing, playing house with Lan Zhan?
“Mmm!” comes the enthusiastic hum from A-Yuan as he chugs the soup enthusiastically. He’s used to Wei Ying’s horrifically spicy cooking, having been exposed to it from such a tender age.
Next to him, Lan Zhan seems to be struggling. But he nods, eyes red and watering. “It is very good,” he says, and finishes the entire thing.
Wei Ying inhales. He wonders if it’s okay to pretend, just for a little while. They’re already here, aren’t they?
After lunch, Lan Zhan continues A-Yuan’s story and Wei Ying decides to take a walk to clear his head. He’s extricated about as much information as he can from Lan Zhan without him noticing, although it’s not nearly enough to understand the full situation.
In all the digging he’d started into Wen Ruohan’s business eight years ago, he’d found out a good few things about the way he operated. One of them was that you could save a lot of time by just asking Nie Huaisang, although this was more like a general rule to live by.
Making sure he’s out of earshot from Lan Zhan and A-Yuan, he makes a call.
“Hey!” says Nie Huaisang when he picks up, voice bright and airy as always. You’d never be able to guess it belonged to the brains behind the most merciless gossip rag in town, striking fear in the hearts of the most untouchable A-list celebrities. “What’s up?”
“I’m good,” Wei Ying says. “Look, I need some help.”
“Some friend you are,” says Nie Huaisang, the pout clear in his voice. “Only calling me when you need help.”
“I’m literally operating as a single dad right now,” said Wei Ying. “And no, I don’t have time to elaborate,” he adds, when Nie Huaisang squeaks in surprise. “I need to know about what Wen Ruohan has been up to recently. There are rumours of… a new release he’s been planning. Could you find out what you can and let me know?”
There’s dead silence for a moment. Then Nie Huaisang says, “Okay.”
Six minutes after the call ends, Nie Huaisang calls back.
“You know... I really don’t know anything of importance.”
“You never do,” says Wei Ying, smirking.
“I hear there’s something happening at Ahn Luh Hotel today,” he says. “The sushi restaurant. At six in the evening. Probably not important, though.”
“Sure,” says Wei Ying. He puts the call on speaker, already keying in the location into Baidu. “Thanks for nothing.”
“Yeah.” He’s quiet for a bit. Then he says, “Stay safe, yeah?”
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying distractedly, heart pumping in that familiar way whenever he’s hot on the trail of a story.
Ending the call, he checks for directions to the hotel. It’s fifteen past five now, so if he wants to reach by six he’ll have to leave just now. He doesn’t have another choice. He could drop A-Yuan over at Wen Ning’s, but he lives in the opposite direction and there’s no way he’d reach on time.
Taking a deep breath, he walks towards the picnic blanket.
What he sees makes his chest ache. At some point, the story seems to have turned into an interactive session with A-Yuan’s plush toys. A-Yuan has his radish plushie in his hand, and Lan Zhan a bunny, and A-Yuan is babbling animatedly. Lan Zhan is watching him with complete seriousness, nodding and humming in agreement at all the right moments.
Wei Ying bites down on the inside of his cheek to steel himself. “Hey,” he says. Lan Zhan looks up at him. “Lan Zhan, can I talk to you a moment?”
Lan Zhan nods. “We will continue soon,” he promises A-Yuan gravely, and gets off the blanket to follow Wei Ying outside.
“There’s something urgent at work I need to attend to,” Wei Ying says when they’re outside. “Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry to ask you this, but could you take A-Yuan home and stay with him till I get back? I’ll give you my keys—here.”
“Of course,” says Lan Zhan. A small frown appears on his face. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says lightly. “It’s just something I should have done before! You know me, always leaving things for the last minute, hah.”
Lan Zhan frowns deeper, like he isn’t satisfied with that answer at all. “I can come with you, and keep A-Yuan with me,” he offers.
“No!” says Wei Ying immediately. That’s the last thing he could let happen, given that things were always fraught with at least a little bit of danger when it came to Wen Ruohan. “Trust me, I’ll be okay.”
At long last, Lan Zhan relents. He nods, and Wei Ying gives him a grateful smile.
“Do you have your cap and sunglasses on you, by the way?” he asks suddenly, thankful he’d remembered.
Lan Zhan gives him a look of concern, but he rifles through his briefcase and hands them to him anyway. Just as Wei Ying’s about to take it, he says, “Wei Ying, be safe.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” says Wei Ying lightly. “This isn’t a disguise or anything, hah—it’s a pretty long walk to the subway station from here and it’s just sunny and I forgot my sunscreen, that’s all!”
One glance up at Lan Zhan tells him he hadn’t bought that in the slightest.
Now that they’re standing barely a foot apart, Wei Ying is suddenly overpowered by that sandalwood scent he’s carried with him ever since they were kids. Typical Lan Zhan, who’d never have even thought to change his cologne once he’d found something that stuck. Steadfast, true-hearted, devoted Lan Zhan, always so loyal to everything he holds important. Unfailing, unchanging, good, wonderful, perfect Lan Zhan, still the same after all these years, making him feel like the teenager he used to be—
Wei Ying’s head feels light, and he’s suddenly very aware of how tall and broad Lan Zhan is. For one wild moment, he wonders what it would be like to tip forward and lean into that chest, to have those arms wrap around him.
His low voice takes Wei Ying by surprise. He steps back hurriedly, almost stumbling as he does. Lan Zhan reaches out to grab him, so firm that Wei Ying feels like he could just let go completely and still not fall thanks to that one hand on his arm.
“Yeah,” he says, the notion so ridiculous that he starts back to the present at once. “See you, Lan Zhan.”
After looking at him a few moments, Lan Zhan lets him go. Wei Ying turns, and hurries towards the exit before his addled brain can come up with any more bizarre thoughts.
When Wei Ying arrives at the venue, it’s just struck six. Cap low over his eyes and sunglasses on, he takes a table in the corner, orders a bottle of sake and the cheapest sushi platter he can find on the menu. Then he begins to survey the room.
His eyes fall on a table in the opposite corner, and zero in on two men seated at it, head bent over a tablet.
One of them is Wen Zhuiliu.
Wei Ying has studied Wen Ruohan’s dealings enough to recognise his right hand man instantly. He smiles briefly to himself—he has no idea how Nie Huaisang knew this, but he knows him well enough to never be surprised by anything he does anymore.
He gets to his feet and starts to walk towards the balcony near their table, with measured, confident steps, back straight. He doesn’t realise till later it’s Lan Zhan’s gait he’s unconsciously mirroring.
He takes his phone out as he nears, idly pretending to text. Just as he’s as near to the table as he can get without being noticed, he angles his phone just enough to take a series of burst photos of the table, the two men, and the screen of the tablet between them.
He waits in the balcony for a couple of minutes, returns to his table, asks for the bill, and leaves as soon as he’s paid and downed his beer.
When Wei Ying closes the door to his flat behind him, it’s past nine. It was the earliest he could possibly have been—there had been a delay on the subway, and he had run nearly the whole way back from the station. He hastily shucks off his shoes and hurries towards A-Yuan’s room, guilt pricking under his skin.
He skids to a halt at the doorway, ready to gush apologies for being so late. Instead, he finds A-Yuan peacefully asleep in his bed, blanket drawn up to his chin and his favourite plushies by his side. The next thing he sees is Lan Zhan awkwardly half-sitting against the headboard on the other side of the bed. He has the bunny plushie A-Yuan had given him earlier on his lap, and he’s fast asleep.
Wei Ying brings a hand up to his mouth, smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. He can’t help recreate the scene in his head—Lan Zhan tucking A-Yuan in, continuing the story till he fell asleep, trying very hard to stay awake so he wouldn’t shift the blanket and wake him, then slumping over asleep in that uncomfortable position. There’s even a glass of milk by the side of the table and an empty plate with tell-tale crumbs. Wei Ying pictures A-Yuan conning a helpless Lan Zhan into giving him as many cookies as his heart desired, and feels a tinge of pride.
He’s halfway to Lan Zhan’s side of the bed, about to wake him up and apologise for the delay, when he has a thought. Did Lan Zhan really have to go home?
He reasons with himself: Lan Zhan looks so comfortable like this, and Xintaindi is on the other side of the city. Besides, it’s after nine. Lan Zhan was dead to the world after nine. Wei Ying had always known that would never change, but seeing it all these years later still makes his heart clench painfully in his chest.
He gets closer to Lan Zhan. In the soft moonlight through the window, his face is lit up in a soft glow. He’s beautiful.
Wei Ying tears his eyes away and pulls off his socks, gently straightens him out to lie properly on the bed, and pulls a blanket over him. He hovers over him a moment, then takes his watch off. As his fingers skim the skin of his inner wrist, Lan Zhan stirs just the slightest bit. Wei Ying hurriedly places the watch on the nightstand and scurries out of the room.
Outside, he calms his racing heart. The scene inside had felt like something he wasn’t meant to see. He shouldn’t get to see Lan Zhan sleeping so calmly, and do something as intimate as take his watch and his socks off. He doesn’t deserve to know him like that, not anymore.
At the same time, he’s struck with the crushing awareness that he doesn’t want him to leave just yet.
He wakes up next morning to the smell of something cooking. It’s such an incongruous sensation that he sits bolt upright at once. He’s fairly sure no one in his building has ever cooked a warm breakfast before A-Yuan came to stay with him, certainly not this early. Since Wei Ying is actually in bed himself and not cooking, he scrambles to his feet and out the door in a state of complete disorientation.
What he sees in the kitchen makes him freeze completely, heart screeching to a halt. Lan Zhan is standing at the counter, stirring a pot of congee. A-Yuan is sitting on the table behind, swinging his feet as he chatters on about his plush toys. He seems to have taken it upon himself to tell Lan Zhan a story now, and Lan Zhan dutifully listens.
“This is his dad, Bunny,” A-Yuan is telling him. He holds out his radish and bunny plushies to demonstrate, but his face falls suddenly. In an uncertain voice he asks, “Gege, can bunny eat radish?”
“Sometimes, but it’s not good for them. The leaves on top are better, but they should still eat them in moderation.”
“Leaves... Radish hair?” asks A-Yuan, realisation dawning on him.
Wei Ying stifles a laugh. A-Yuan’s radish-shaped plushie had been styled to make it look like the leaves on top were his vibrant green hair.
“They are leaves,” says Lan Zhan, deadpan. Wei Ying bites back a smile—it’s just so him.
“And bunny eat them?”
“Sometimes, as I said. They shouldn’t have a lot of it.”
There’s a silence from A-Yuan for a moment. It stretches long enough to be unnatural, and Lan Zhan turns to look at him. From the doorway, Wei Ying watches his golden eyes go wide and round.
“A-Yuan,” he says, turning the stove and moving in front of him in one long stride. “What happened?”
Wei Ying watches A-Yuan’s back shake with small sobs, and he lifts his hand up to rub at his eyes.
“Don’t rub your eyes,” Lan Zhan says immediately, then seems to regret it.
“But Bunny eat Radish hair,” A-Yuan says wetly, tiny fists clenched at his sides to stop himself from rubbing at his eyes. “Radish is his baby.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes shift through the whole gamut of human emotion—confusion, shock, regret and finally fondness. He says, “I’m sorry, A-Yuan, I did not mean to say that. Bunny will not eat Radish’s hair.”
“Really?” A-Yuan looks up at him, pleading.
“Yes,” says Lan Zhan. “Radish’s hair is safe, please don’t worry.”
“Oh,” says A-Yuan, mollified.
Lan Zhan pets his hair for a moment, then turns to his kitchen stove. As he’s moving, he catches sight of Wei Ying at the doorway. His ears turn pink.
“Morning, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying brightly. He crosses over to the counter right next to Lan Zhan, and lifts the lid of the pot. He takes a sniff and gasps, “You actually put some ginger in the congee! Lan Zhan, I’m touched. A-Yuan, look what he’s done for you. He wouldn’t do that for anyone else, you know.”
Lan Zhan continues to stir, ears still flushed. After a moment, he says, “A-Yuan was hungry.”
Smiling to himself, Wei Ying turns to A-Yuan and picks him off the table to take him to his seat. He looks freshly bathed, and Wei Ying presses his nose into his cheek for a moment to inhale that clean baby scent that he thinks he’s getting swiftly attached to.
The congee is ready soon after, and Lan Zhan carries the pot over easily with a single hand, holding two mugs of coffee in his other hand with plates and spoons stacked in the crook of his elbow. Wei Ying takes a long sip of the coffee, mouth abruptly dry at the way he’d carried all that weight so effortlessly.
The meal ends, and all too soon it’s time for Lan Zhan to leave again.
“See you tomorrow,” he says, once he’s put on his shoes.
“See you, Lan Zhan.”
He doesn’t remind him he hasn’t returned the sunglasses and cap he’d borrowed from him yesterday. After all, he never knows when he’d need an excuse to see him again. So maybe it’s fine if he just conveniently forgets to give it back.
Just in case.
Wei Ying sets A-Yuan in the living room with his toys and colouring books, and brings his laptop out to the sofa so he could work while watching him. The first thing he does is to open up the photos he’d taken the previous day.
Most of them are too blurry to be useable, but he does have clear enough shots of both men at the table and the screen they were looking at. He knows Wen Zhuiliu for certain, and turns on his laptop to use reverse image search on the other man. As his laptop boots up, he magnifies the photo with the tablet screen and squints at it.
It looks like a page from a novel. There’s one paragraph that’s clear as day, and Wei Ying reads it several times over as though to make sure he’s reading it right.
“We count as having lived through death with each other, don’t we? You don’t even want to lend your lap for me to lie on?” said the Yiling Laozu.
“You are delirious,” Hanguang-Jun replied.
Sure enough, the Yiling Laozu drifted off to sleep soon after. In the low light of the cave, his face looked soft and peaceful in a way that made something stir in Hanguang-Jun’s chest.
Before he could stop himself, he lifted the Yiling Laozu’s head onto his lap. Slowly, he inched his fingers closer to touch his burning forehead.
Wei Ying gets to his feet, pacing the room enough till A-Yuan calls out hesitantly, “Gege?”
“I’m okay,” Wei Ying tells him, coming over to crouch next to him. “What have you been up to?”
A-Yuan holds out his favourite bunny toy, the one he’d designated his radish plushie’s father. To his surprise, Wei Ying finds there’s a red scrunchie tied around one of its fluffy grey ears.
“Where did you find this?” he asks curiously. He pulls it off the ear to give it a closer look. It’s similar to the ones he’s always worn, although he’s pretty sure he’s lost too many of them to have any extra lying around.
A-Yuan shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says unhelpfully. “It wake up like this.”
“Woke,” says Wei Ying automatically, flushing lightly as he realises he’d picked up on Lan Zhan’s habit unconsciously. “It was like this in the morning?”
A-Yuan nods, tugging absently at the green shock of “hair” atop his radish plushie’s head. “Gege said Bunny is the prettiest bunny in the world.”
“Lan Zhan said that?” asks Wei Ying.
“Mn,” says A-Yuan, in another impression of Lan Zhan. Wei Ying thinks he’s very close to losing it. “He said my Bunny is A-Yu, the bunny in his story. He found him after a long time.”
“What?” says Wei Ying, utterly confused. “Who did he find?”
A-Yuan shakes his head and puts a finger to his lips. “Secret,” he says, rolling onto his side and diving back into his mountain of plushies.
That evening, after A-Yuan has been put to bed, Wei Ying comes to a decision.
Hanguang-Jun and Yiling Laozu weren’t common names—an online search had brought up nothing. But he remembers hearing those names long ago, in Lan Zhan’s voice. He couldn’t possibly be mistaken about that.
Something about those few short sentences has stirred up memories within him too. He knows that writing, and it has him craving more with a sudden fervour that he can’t deny.
Padding quietly into A-Yuan’s room, he takes out the paperback tucked away into the furthest recess of the bookstore, brings it to his room and starts to read.
Seventeen year old Xiong Qiu is a model student and the apple of his parents’ eyes, all set for a promising career in science in their footsteps. While browsing the internet one day, he finds an app claiming to be able to predict people’s deaths twenty-four hours in advance, offering to pair such people up to help them live their last day together. Convinced it’s a terrible, disrespectful hoax, Xiong Qiu hacks into it to look for inconsistencies and put this farce to an end. In the process, something goes wrong and he finds himself paired up with a boy his own age.
Xiong Qiu replies to him as a courtesy at first, but one message turns to two, and soon he cannot stop. The boy is grating, obnoxious and confidently mistaken about everything, and Xiong Qiu has to prove him wrong. Twenty minutes into the conversation, the boy even has the gall to decide that Xiong Qiu is wasting his whole life pursuing a career in the sciences when his first love will always be the qin.
He’s right, and Xiong Qiu hates him more for it.
Their argument becomes so intense they finally decide to resolve it in person. When they meet, Xiong Qiu quickly discovers that this boy is as different from him as could be—he’s wild, irreverent, laughs constantly, loud and unrestrained. He’s also brilliant, kind and empathetic, and created the app himself to help people find some comfort and thrill in their last day on earth. And unlike Xiong Qiu, he really is going to die in twenty four hours.
Stirring, melancholy and unforgettable, Bu Wang is sure to leave you aching long after you’ve put it down.
When Wei Ying puts the book down, it’s the crack of dawn.
There’s a choked up feeling in his throat that he realises has been there for a while now. He makes himself a coffee, does a quick sprint on his treadmill, and showers before six in the morning for the first time in his life. It doesn’t help.
When Wen Ning had told him the book would change him, he hadn’t really taken him seriously. Wen Ning has always been soft-hearted. For all he’s read in his lifetime, Wei Ying himself had never cried actual tears for a book in his life.
He doesn’t even know why, but he doesn’t feel okay till he’s pressed his face against the shower tiles and cried for several long minutes.
Later in the day, he finds a message from Nie Huaisang, with a self-destructing link to a folder containing all the information he needs. The second man in the photo is someone called Su She, and he works at the publishing house with rights to Lan Zhan’s last book. Presumably his next one too.
Wei Ying wages a brief war within himself. If Wen Ruohan is indeed trying to leak Lan Zhan’s new book, the most reliable way to confirm it would be by talking to Lan Zhan himself.
He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t deny it’s a great story for Burial Mounds to make a breakthrough. He’d be helping Lan Zhan out in the process, too. And they wouldn’t need to meet after this one last time, ever again.
It’ll all be for a good cause, right?
Convinced with his reasoning, he texts Lan Zhan:
Wei Ying (16:42): lan zhan! i forgot to give you back your cap and sunglasses... where are you rn, i’ll drop by and give them back?
His phone dings less than a minute later.
Lan Zhan (16:43): I am at Caiyi Books. You can come whenever is convenient. I could also come by your place to collect it.
Wei Ying (16:44): nah it’s cool! i’ll be there in like an hour?
Lan Zhan (16:45): OK. See you then.
Wei Ying (16:46): you too lan zhan!
Wei Ying’s heart absolutely does not do several somersaults in his chest at the prospect of seeing Lan Zhan again.
It’s the weekend, so Wen Ning agrees readily to come over and babysit his favourite nephew. Wei Ying gets ready; if he takes a few extra minutes to choose his outfit, no one has to know.
He thumbs the red scrunchie he’s wrapped around his wrist, the one he’d found on A-Yuan’s bunny plushie’s ear the day before. He wonders briefly if he should leave it behind, then decides against it. He isn’t sure yet where it came from, but he’s not going to question it. He’s always running out of them anyway; he knows from experience that his wrist is probably the safest place to keep them.
Wen Ning is too polite to comment, but his eyes widen a fraction when Wei Ying emerges from his bedroom in faded black jeans and a red cropped cardigan, just oversized enough to cross his wrists and hang wide on his shoulders. Wei Ying half-considers changing into something different, suddenly self-conscious. What the hell had he been thinking, dressing up like this—like he’s on a date? He’s hard pressed for time, though, so he has no choice right now.
He gives A-Yuan a quick hug. “Don’t give your poor uncle a lot of trouble, okay? He’s got his exams coming up.”
A-Yuan nods seriously, like he’s been made to shoulder the weight of the world, and runs back to his toys.
Wei Ying holds onto the subway rails, wondering how he’ll broach the topic of his new book. His thoughts drift to Lan Zhan, sitting at Caiyi Books. Maybe with a cup of tea and a book. Before he knows what he’s doing, his brain zeroes in on imaginary Lan Zhan’s hand around the handle of his cup. Just like it had touched his own the other day, on top of A-Yuan’s blanket. If it had moved up just a bit, it’d have wrapped around his wrist. Just a bit more, and it would slide up his arm, tug the sleeve of his cardigan right off his shoulder—
Wei Ying lets out a shuddering exhale, pressing his face into his arm for a moment. Everything has been so much lately. He needs to focus on the matter at hand, get the information he needs from Lan Zhan, get his story, and never see him again.
When he arrives at Caiyi, he drops Lan Zhan a text.
Wei Ying (17:51): hey I’m here! Where are you
Lan Zhan (17:51): At the corner table by the window.
Wei Ying stops dead for a moment. As if drawn by something inexplicable and unstoppable, he begins to walk. He isn’t even sure where, but his feet seem to remember perfectly.
He crosses several aisles, turns corners, and ends up at a small table hidden away from the rest of the store. There’s a window right by it, and two chairs on either side. Wei Ying finds Lan Zhan sitting with his laptop open in front of him, and a cup of tea by his elbow.
A memory of peonies and a feather-light kiss to his lips starts to fight its way to the surface again, but Lan Zhan looks up just then. Instantly, every thought Wei Ying has ever had evaporates.
“Hey,” says Wei Ying, walking over to sit on the chair opposite him. As he bends to take his seat, the sleeve of his too-large cardigan threatens to slip off his shoulder for a moment. He tugs it back in place just in time, but not before he catches Lan Zhan’s eyes lingering on his bare skin.
He probably thought he was dressed shamelessly, Wei Ying thinks as a wave of embarrassment hits him.
What was wrong with him? If he’s being perfectly honest, he didn’t even need to come here in the first place, he’s always been able to do most of his research to perfection with just his phone and a decent internet connection, that’s his job and he’s excellent at it, there’s no reason at all for him to be sitting here opposite Lan Zhan at this bookstore dressed like he’s—
Starting, Wei Ying says, “Um. Hi.”
“Would you like to order anything?”
“They haven’t opened a bar here yet, have they?” he laughs lightly.
Lan Zhan raises a brow at him. Wei Ying waits for the annoyed huff, the curt reprimand. It never comes.
Instead, Lan Zhan says, “Would you like to go somewhere that serves alcohol?”
Wei Ying gawks at him. Is he hearing right? Did Lan Zhan just offer to take him somewhere that serves alcohol?
“Are you actually serious?” he asks, mouth hanging open.
“I don’t mind,” says Lan Zhan.
“What—Lan Zhan, don’t tell me you’ve started drinking!” he gasps, a hand to his chest. “You’re really committed to the writer thing, huh? Can you actually drink more than one sip now without plopping face down on the table?”
Lan Zhan’s ears turn pink. “I have not—” he begins, then a shadow crosses his face. “I do not drink. But if Wei Ying wants, we can go to a place that serves it.”
Wei Ying stares at him. The one time he’d seen Lan Zhan drink had been at Nie Huaisang’s seventeenth birthday party. Wei Ying had been asking him all night if he’d liked to dance, but he’d flatly refused each time. Wei Ying had sulked, but then they’d started playing his favourite new G.E.M. song, the one he had to dance to. So he’d gone off to find Mianmian on the dance floor.
He’d come back a few minutes later to find Lan Zhan with his face down on the table after a single sip of the vodka sour Wei Ying had left, according to the amused group at the next table. He was flat-out drunk, and Wei Ying had messed around with him to his heart’s content, even getting him to call him gege.
Wei Ying had mentioned craving chicken wings at some point, and Lan Zhan had got up and disappeared into the crowd the next moment, only to return five minutes later followed by at least eight bemused waiters carrying stacks upon stacks of platters of the same.
“All for you,” he had told him with the utmost seriousness.
Grinning at the memory, Wei Ying says, “Well, that’s a relief. If I knew you’d become an alcoholic without me to keep you in check I’d never have left.”
He means it as a joke, of course. But Lan Zhan’s face darkens immediately and he looks away, and Wei Ying is struck by the crushing feeling that he’s said something very wrong.
“What are you working on?” Wei Ying blurts out to change the subject, pointing vaguely at his laptop.
Lan Zhan looks discomfited for a moment, then his expression clears. “Writing.”
He doesn’t seem inclined to answer, so Wei Ying decides to change tack. “I finally read Bu Wang, by the way.”
This time, Lan Zhan certainly looks uncomfortable, and it doesn’t pass so quickly. He takes a few sips of tea, passes his hand over his mouth and eventually replies, “I see.”
“It was... interesting.” He almost wants to cringe at how big an understatement that was. “You were never big on magical realism when we were kids, but the way you wove it in sneakily throughout the day they spend together? It was so cool, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan nods. “Thank you,” he says.
“The talking rabbits they meet, especially—that was just so you.”
Lan Zhan’s ears turn pink, and he hides behind his cup of tea as he takes another sip.
“Makes me even more curious to know what motivated you,” says Wei Ying. “At first I thought you just wanted to prove something to your uncle, but it seemed more inspired than that.”
He bites the inside of his tongue to stop himself from rambling further. But there’s an ugly feeling filling his chest at the thought that there was something that had inspired Lan Zhan to create something so beautiful, when he hadn’t even been there to know what it was.
He finds Lan Zhan looking at him with a strange expression on his face. A part of him seems annoyed, the rest unwilling to answer anything further. Wei Ying thinks back to the model interviews he’d read up, the usual follow-up questions you’d ask in this situation.
“Was it someone you met? Lan Zhan, did you find a girl who inspired you like—”
Lan Zhan slams his laptop shut, harder than Wei Ying thinks he ever has in his life.
“Aiyo, Lan Zhan, is your laptop okay?” He reaches out to check it, only for Lan Zhan to wrap a hand around his wrist.
Wei Ying freezes.
Lan Zhan’s hand around his wrist feels different from the times before, even the fleeting image that had crept into his brain on the subway here. Now, Wei Ying is acutely aware of how firm and warm he feels and the way his own pulse quickens under it, accelerating further when he realises Lan Zhan could feel every beat against his palm.
Even worse is the way Lan Zhan looks at him—first with his brows creased in frustration, then smoothing as his eyes soften with an emotion Wei Ying almost can’t bear to see. Like there’s something he’s trying to convey to him without words, and Wei Ying doesn’t think he’s ready to know just yet. Roughly, he pulls his hand free and presses it into his thigh.
“Looks like it’s a touchy subject, hah,” he says, with a breathy laugh that sounds hollow even to himself. “I’ll leave you alone. Well, would you at least tell me more about the book you just finished? At least what you named the main characters?”
Lan Zhan is quiet for a long moment, till the hand he’d held Wei Ying’s wrist in unclenches slowly.
“You’re being mean, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying goes on, when he doesn’t reply. “You always used to share what you wrote! Have you even decided a name? You always used ended up using the names I suggested.”
“It has a name.” He sounds firm.
“Ah—That’s cool, then.” Silence falls for a moment. Nothing more seems to be forthcoming, and Wei Ying is at a loss.
Lan Zhan exhales. He finishes his cup of tea. Then he slides his laptop into his briefcase. “You should probably get home. A-Yuan will be waiting for you.”
“Wen Ning is babysitting him! Stop trying to get out of this, Lan Zhan. Won’t you humour this old friend of yours a bit longer?”
“A-Yuan wants you to tuck him in,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying splutters. “What?”
“He told me,” comes the easy reply. “He said he wanted you to tuck him in.”
“Oh,” says Wei Ying. Something squeezes in his chest at the thought that maybe he hadn’t messed up just yet. Maybe he wasn’t being a complete failure at taking care of A-Yuan. Maybe after all this was over, A-Yuan would still want to spend time with him. “Y-You managed to put him to sleep just fine, too.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s voice is stern. “You are doing a good job with him. He only let me tuck him in once I told him he’d get his goodnight kiss later from… pretty Xian-gege.”
Wei Ying colours, heart thudding as Lan Zhan looks steadily back at him. There’s something different about this moment, like he’s on the edge of something, dangerously close to falling—into what, he isn’t sure yet.
Tearing his eyes away, he nods. Lan Zhan takes his briefcase in his hand and stands up, and they leave the shop together.
Lan Zhan’s driver isn’t here today, so he takes the wheel and Wei Ying slides into the seat next to him. There’s silence in the car for most of the trip, although inside Wei Ying’s brain there is anything but.
He doesn’t think he’s ever been so aware of another person’s presence next to him. They’re still a foot or two apart in the car, but everything about Lan Zhan seems too much for the car. Or the city. Or the universe. He’s too much. Even with all the space between them, it’s like every nerve ending in his body is aware of him more than anything ever before in his life.
He finds himself looking at Lan Zhan’s hand on the gear, wondering what it would feel like to reach out and hold it. If only sitting next to him had him feeling like this, an unknown energy thrumming under his skin, who knew what it’d be like if he actually touched him?
The car comes to a stop at a red light, and Wei Ying scrambles for something else to think. This meeting had been unproductive anyway, but he still has time. It’s not like him at all to leave any encounter without at least ten answers to questions no one’s ever thought to ask before.
Suddenly he’s seventeen years old again, begging Lan Zhan to tell him a story as he slumped over on his lap in a feverish daze.
They’d been on a weekend trip to Beijing to write an editorial for their magazine on the startup cafes at Zhongguancun, Wei Ying’s foster parents agreeing to let him go only when he told them Lan Zhan would be coming too. He’d suspected Lan Zhan’s uncle hadn’t been quite so enthusiastic about the prospect of him travelling with Wei Ying, but Lan Zhan had denied it when he asked.
But after a whole day investigating this fascinating hub of tech innovation, a burst of rain in the evening that had led them drenched. They’d just returned to the hotel room they were sharing, when Wei Ying had started to feel chills wrack his whole body.
“Lan Zhaaan, tell me a story. I know you’re working on something. Tell me, tell me, don’t be mean.”
“Wei Ying, stop talking.” Lan Zhan had already called reception asking for medicine to bring his fever done, and placed the pill in his mouth and tipped a glass of water to his lips. But his fever still wouldn’t let up, and he kept growing more delirious by the minute.
“Aiya, that towel you’re putting on my head is cooold. Does it have to be this cold? I’m cold, Lan Zhan. But your lap is warm. Lan Zhan is always warm.”
“Wei Ying, please try to sleep.”
“Can’t sleep,” Wei Ying had murmured. He’d turned his face into Lan Zhan’s stomach, inhaled the clean smell of his cotton pyjamas. His lips had eased into a smile. “I will, if you tell me a story.”
He’d felt Lan Zhan exhale over him. Then he’d relaxed, and said, “Zewu-Jun and Hanguang-Jun sat on two snowy steeds as they led the Gusu Lan Sect’s riding formation slowly forward.”
“Mm... who are they? Zewu-Jun and...?”
“Hanguang-jun,” Lan Zhan had said.
“Hanguang-jun. Ah, what’s he like? His name sounds pretty stuffy... Lan Zhan, touch my hair.”
“A rain of flowers immediately scattered down on them from the sky,” Lan Zhan had continued, in his low, even voice. “It was a tradition to toss flowers at the men and women in expression of admiration.”
“That’s a cute tradition, I guess. I bet you’d get a lot of flowers.”
“Wei Ying, please be quiet.”
His fingers in Wei Ying’s hair had felt really, really good. Went to show how sleepy he was getting. Then Lan Zhan had continued:
“Zewu-jun and Hanguang-jun had been accustomed to this ever since they were thirteen. The two looked completely calm. Nodding in display of respect, they didn’t stop and continued to move forth.”
Wei Ying had smiled to himself, Lan Zhan’s words painting a vivid picture in his head as always.
“However, Hanguang-jun suddenly raised his hand, stopping a flower tossed over from behind him. He looked back. Over at the side of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect’s riding formation, someone sat on a horse with black, gleaming hair. His elbow was at the head of the horse as he looked to the side as though nothing had happened, talking and laughing with two beautiful women.”
Jolted back to the present, Wei Ying turns to Lan Zhan in the driver’s seat next to him. They’re at another stop, less than a minute away from his building. Illuminated in the soft glow of the street lights, he looks even more unbearably beautiful than usual.
“Hey, ah, sorry,” Wei Ying says, though he isn’t sure what he’s apologising for. “Did you say something? Sorry, I—Uh, I zoned out for a bit.”
“Why did you want to meet today?”
Wei Ying freezes. A question like this shouldn’t be so hard to answer, right? Especially for him. He’s always had an answer to everything, no matter how impossible on the surface.
The signal turns green, and Lan Zhan starts to drive again. Wei Ying can’t stop looking at his hand over the steering wheel. It’s paler than the rest of him from how tight he’s gripping it. His eyes shift up his arm to the clench of his jaw and his parted lips, the shimmering gold of his eyes and the crease between his brows. Older, thinner than his face seven years ago, but still the same to Wei Ying.
It hits him then what he’s already known for a while now, but perhaps not acknowledged yet, even to himself. A-Yuan’s endless story, pretending to need information for the magazine article, the cap and sunglasses—however he tried to justify it, all of it had just been an elaborate excuse to keep seeing Lan Zhan again.
The car rolls to a stop in front of Wei Ying’s building.
“I should go,” he murmurs, by way of an answer.
In the driver’s seat next to him, Lan Zhan doesn’t move. Wei Ying tries to undo his seatbelt, but his hands don’t seem to work.
Lan Zhan leans over and unclips it, but he doesn’t immediately straighten himself back in his seat. He stays like that instead, bent over the gear and a hand by Wei Ying’s hip. He’s noticed the red scrunchie on Wei Ying’s wrist, and for some reason he can’t tear his eyes away from it. Wei Ying stops breathing, feeling like he’s strung taut, ready to snap at any moment.
“Ah—What are you looking at Lan Zhan, I just found it on A-Yuan’s bunny,” he says, voice strained. “And, uh, if it’s about today, I—I only wanted to talk—”
Wanted to see you, wanted to keep seeing you, wanted to know you again even if I shouldn’t, wanted—
Lan Zhan lifts his face, exhales against his lips, and before he can help himself Wei Ying’s whole body is arching in his seat, toes curling as he digs his fingers into the plush covers of the seat.
He doesn’t know who moves first but they’re suddenly kissing furiously, Lan Zhan’s hand at his neck and another at his waist. Wei Ying’s lips part easily against the hot press of Lan Zhan’s mouth and he grips his shoulders with everything he has as the whole world spins around him.
He’s kissing Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan is kissing him. That’s the last thought he has before the universe shrinks to the solitary sensation of Lan Zhan’s mouth, kissing and pulling and nipping at his lips, and the way his hands close over his neck and his waist in an iron grip.
Suddenly, Lan Zhan’s arm tightens around his waist and he’s hauling him in one smooth motion onto his lap. The way he manhandles him so easily is so hot Wei Ying whimpers out loud against his mouth, crushing Lan Zhan’s collar in his hands. Lan Zhan’s grip around his neck is light but firm as he licks his way deep into his mouth, his other hand heavy on the small of Wei Ying’s back.
Is this what kissing should feel like? He’s pretty sure he’s never been this turned on in his life, every axon in his nervous system alight, and all they’re doing is kissing. After a particularly hard bite to his bottom lip, Lan Zhan breaks away to kiss a path from the corner of his mouth to his jaw, then turning Wei Ying’s head to the side to kiss down his neck.
Wei Ying realises dimly he’s moaning now that his mouth is free, the sound amplified by the undoubtedly fancy acoustics of Lan Zhan’s stupidly expensive car. But he doesn’t have it in him to be embarrassed about it because Lan Zhan is littering his neck thoroughly with bruising kisses, biting so hard it should hurt but instead sends sparks down his body right to his toes.
Wei Ying’s cardigan has slipped off his shoulder at some point while Lan Zhan had lifted him onto his lap, and he slides a hand down his chest till most of the buttons come undone. Wei Ying has a moment to realise that his nipples are sensitive as the fabric drags over them—what the hell, his nipples could be sensitive?—before Lan Zhan pinches one roughly between his fingers. Jerking forward, he’s abruptly aware that Lan Zhan’s just as hard as he is, then as he lunges forward to bite down on Wei Ying’s shoulder they’re suddenly grinding up against each other, Wei Ying raking his fingernails down Lan Zhan’s broad, muscled back, keening—
—Till Wei Ying’s ass hits the steering wheel and a honk pierces the air, and they break apart abruptly.
Wei Ying shrugs his cardigan back on, slipping off Lan Zhan’s lap and onto his seat.
“I should go,” he says numbly, and opens the door to leave.
He goes straight into his bedroom past a perplexed Wen Ning, changing into a hoodie that’ll cover his neck. Just before he pulls it on he glances at his reflection in the mirror. He looks wrecked, and the bruises haven’t even formed yet.
Exhaling slowly, he zips up the hoodie and walks out into the living room.
“Sorry, spilt something on my sweater,” he lies, when Wen Ning looks up at him. A-Yuan is playing with his plushies again, seating them in a row in front of him like he’s teaching a class.
“You okay?” says Wen Ning.
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying, bending down to cuddle A-Yuan when he runs over to hug his leg.
Wen Ning doesn’t look convinced, but he gets to his feet. “I’ll get going, then,” he says.
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying, hitching A-Yuan up onto his hip.
“You—You know you can take a few days off if it’s getting too much, you know?” says Wen Ning. “I mean, with A-Yuan. We’re covered for the next issue, so you can take it easy.”
“I’m fine,” says Wei Ying, a hint of frustration creeping into his voice. He regrets it instantly. Wen Ning, bless his gentle soul, is only trying to help.
It’s not his fault Wei Ying just basically dry humped Lan Zhan in his car.
“Take care,” says Wen Ning, uncertainly. “Bye, A-Yuan!”
A-Yuan is a little disgruntled after Wen Ning leaves, but he cheers up after his bedtime snack. After Wei Ying tucks him into bed, a small hand reaches out to tug at his thumb.
“Hey, what’s up?” Wei Ying says, melting. He wonders if he’s seemed distant, and even after what had just happened there was no excuse for not giving A-Yuan every inch of his attention at all times.
“When will gege come again?” he asks, voice soft.
“Lan Zhan?” says Wei Ying, a beat too quickly. He worries his lip a moment, then says, “I don’t know, A-Yuan.”
I don’t think he’ll be coming again is what he should be saying. Because Lan Zhan can’t come into his life. Lan Zhan deserves more than him grinding down on him in the driver’s seat of his car—so much more. He can’t keep drawing him in, can’t keep making excuses to see him over and over, it’s time to end this once and for all.
A-Yuan sticks his bottom lip out. “I think he wants to steal Bunny,” he says.
“What?” says Wei Ying, at his unexpected response.
“I will tell him, I can share Bunny,” mumbles A-Yuan. He’s half-delirious with sleep, eyes almost shutting close. “I will share Bunny, only with rich-gege.”
The next moment, he’s snoring softly.
Wei Ying gets into bed and stares up at the ceiling. Instantly, the scene in the car replays itself in excruciating detail.
Fuck, he thinks, trailing a finger over his lips. How’d they even get there?
It’s fine. It’s probably just messed with Lan Zhan’s head, seeing him around A-Yuan. Somehow, he must have managed to trick Lan Zhan into thinking he’s something he isn’t. Definitely not anymore.
But it’s okay. All that needs to happen now is for Wen Qing to get back, A-Yuan to return to her, Lan Zhan to never see him again, and his flat back to having more lizards than shoes in his cabinet.
He just needs to be discreet as he figures out what Wen Ruohan is about to drop, and everything will be fine.
He can’t come up with anything all night, the voices in his head too deafening to come up with anything useful. Next morning, he caves and sends Nie Huaisang a text.
Wei Ying (08:52) : any more info on Wen Ruohan? hitting a dead end rn
An hour later, his doorbell rings and he finds Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang at the door.
“What—” he splutters.
“Sorry, sorry,” Nie Huaisang bursts out. “We were studying together, and he saw you texted me, and everything came out. I’m sorry, I really don’t know anything more!”
Wei Ying moves to the side to let them enter, heart thudding in his chest. It’s probably the first time Jiang Cheng has come over to his flat in the six months since Wei Ying had returned home. Even now, Wei Ying struggles to look him in the eye.
When the door closes behind them, Nie Huaisang glances between Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying uncertainly. “I’ll—Um, oh, there’s A-Yuan! Let me say hi to him, you guys must have a lot to catch up on!” With that, he slips away to the rug in front of the sofa where A-Yuan is busy colouring.
“Hey,” says Wei Ying. He turns towards the kitchen. “You want something? Uh, beer—?”
The moment he’s inside the kitchen, Jiang Cheng speaks. “What the fuck are you playing at.”
His harsh voice has Wei Ying snapping his head up to look at him. He’s followed him inside, and he looks furious.
“Don’t you dare,” he snarls. “Don’t you dare try to cover this up.”
Wei Ying swallows. “I don’t know—”
“Yes, you sure as hell know!” he says. “Like you knew after graduation when you ran away.”
“It’s not like that this time!”
“Yeah? You’re not pursuing a story to take down a fucking media mogul again? Not planning to do another disappearing act? With no more than a single text from an untraceable number every couple of months, just to grace us with the knowledge you were alive?”
Wei Ying opens his mouth to answer, but falters and finally falls silent. Jiang Cheng is wrong, but he can’t bring himself to argue. After what he’d done, he’s not sure he has the right.
He turns to open the fridge, but Jiang Cheng takes a long stride forward and slams the door shut.
“Why aren’t you answering me?” he says.
“How does it matter?” Wei Ying asks, shrugging. It shouldn’t matter. Jiang Cheng is wasting his time with him, just like Lan Zhan is.
“Fuck you,” says Jiang Cheng.
“I don’t care,” says Jiang Cheng. “If you don’t want him to hear me swear, answer me. Or I’ll keep yelling, and it’s not going to get better.”
Wei Ying stares at him. He looks dead serious. Wei Ying can’t understand why, but he knows he means it.
So he answers quietly, “It’s not for a story. I think he’s planning something, and I’ve got to stop it.”
There’s silence for a long moment. Then Jiang Cheng says, “What?”
Wei Ying inhales shakily. “I think they’re planning on leaking Lan Zhan’s new novel.”
Again, a beat passes. And another. “Did you just say,” says Jiang Cheng, slow and measured, like he’s holding himself back with superhuman effort. “Did you just say Lan Zhan?”
“I—I... Hear me out, I ran into him while, uh, actually pursuing an article on him? And then I found out there’s a possibility Wen Ruohan is releasing a new newspaper or magazine or something, and they’ve probably got leaks of Lan Zhan’s—”
“You’re joking, right?”
Wei Ying makes a noise of frustration. “Look, I’m only going to meet Lan Zhan’s publishers and tell them they have a snitch in their midst and hope they investigate, okay?”
“You expect me to believe that?” snaps Jiang Cheng. “I already heard how you went spying on Wen Ruohan’s right hand man for information. Fucking hell, you asshole, you know how dangerous these people are!”
“That’s not what happened!” Wei Ying protests. “Damn, Nie Huaisang really—” Shaking his head, he presses his lips together for a brief moment. Then he says, quiet, “I’m not in touch with Lan Zhan anymore. But I have to do the right thing, and informing his publishers would be the professional thing to do. That’s all. I promise.”
Jiang Cheng rubs his temple. He doesn’t reply for so long that Wei Ying glances up to look at him. He looks uncomfortable, brows drawn together tight. But there’s no fire in his eyes anymore when he says, “Look, I don’t know what the deal between you two is. But if there’s any way you’re trying to do anything more than that—”
“There isn’t,” says Wei Ying firmly. If there’s anything he knows for sure right now, it’s that he can’t see Lan Zhan again. Can’t keep playing up this farce that he’s somehow led Lan Zhan to believe in.
Jiang Cheng looks thoroughly unconvinced, but he shakes his head and grunts, “Whatever. I’ll check in on you tonight. I’d better not find you up to anything suspicious, or I’m hauling you and the kid over to A-jie’s for twenty-four hour surveillance.”
Wei Ying doesn’t know how to answer that. Out of everything he’d expected Jiang Cheng to feel for him all this time—contempt, indifference, hatred— protectiveness had been so far off he feels like he’s been roundhouse kicked to the chest.
At that moment, the sound of small footsteps coming in from the living room. A-Yuan makes a beeline for Wei Ying’s leg, and clings onto it firmly with a distressed look on his face.
“What’s wrong, A-Yuan?” asks Wei Ying.
“The scary gege said Bunny likes to eat poo,” says A-Yuan.
Wei Ying fights down a laugh. Suddenly, he feels unbelievably light. If he isn’t careful, he might just float right into the sky.
“Aiyo, Nie Huaisang, what have you been telling my son?” he calls out. He crouches down and pets A-Yuan, then cuddles him close to his chest. “Eating their own poo is good for them, actually,” he says. “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.”
“But radish is bad for them?” he presses.
“Yes,” says Wei Ying. “You heard it from—” He stumbles, biting back the name he’d almost said out loud. There’s no point reminding him of Lan Zhan when he couldn’t ever see him again. “We talked about it. It’s not good for them.”
A-Yuan looks up at him with his eyes wide and reverent, hanging on to his every word. Like Wei Ying is his whole world, and he’ll trust anything he says. For a moment, Wei Ying finds himself wondering if he really could let him.
It’s a passing fancy, but Wei Ying allows himself a moment of indulgence thinking it.
Then A-Yuan straightens up, the cloud on his face giving way to sunshine. He turns his attention to Jiang Cheng, who’d been watching the whole interaction with an incredulous look on his face.
A-Yuan regards him with interest. Then he walks up to him and offers him his bunny plush toy.
Wei Ying wants to scream internally at the flustered look on Jiang Cheng’s face as he takes it. You’re a legend, A-Yuan, he thinks. Of course even Jiang Cheng isn’t immune to his irresistible baby charms.
“J-Just get me a soda,” Jiang Cheng says to Wei Ying, discomfited, although the effect is significantly reduced by the bunny in his arms.
When Wei Ying takes one out from his fridge and hands it to him, Jiang Cheng hovers his hand an inch away from the can for a moment. Then he mutters, “If you really want to do something, you should probably find Lan Zhan’s agent. His brother, that is. I only heard this from Nie Huaisang on the way here, by the way. God, only an idiot like you would go straight to his publisher without talking to his agent first. Especially when his agent is his own brother.”
Wei Ying has barely any time to react before Jiang Cheng swipes the can from his hand and stalks towards the living room, A-Yuan clutching his hand tightly.
It turns out Jiang Cheng is, in fact, right.
Lan Huan, in addition to heading the family business, does double as Lan Zhan’s agent. His name comes up immediately in a Baidu search, complete with articles speculating why he’d refused every single movie producer who’d wanted rights to bring Bu Wang to the big screen.
Wei Ying knows that was Lan Zhan’s idea, though. He doesn’t fully understand why and he’s pretty sure he’ll never get the chance to ask him, but he’s sure of it.
In any case, Wei Ying knows who he needs to meet. He drops A-Yuan off at Wen Ning’s for a sleepover, since he isn’t sure how long his meeting will take.
It’s not a meeting he’s looking forward to. From what he remembers of Lan Huan, he’s an affable guy. He was student council president when they were in middle school, and generally considered about as friendly and approachable as his little brother was intimidating. But Wei Ying had always had the feeling that he knew too much, and could see right through him.
Now more than ever, that’s a daunting thought. Still, as long as he doesn’t actually have to see Lan Zhan again, it’ll have to do.
Lan Huan’s website lists his mailing address as his company offices in Pudong, and that’s where Wei Ying heads for. He tells his secretary to mention his name to his boss, and sure enough, he only has to wait five minutes before he’s ushered inside.
His office is as sparsely furnished as the rest of his building, as is the Lan way. Lan Huan stands up from behind his desk and walks up to Wei Ying, bowing before him.
“It’s been a long time,” he says. He’s smiling, but there’s a sharp, assessing look in his kind eyes that Wei Ying doesn’t miss.
“Hope you’re doing okay,” says Wei Ying.
“Please sit,” says Lan Huan, drawing him a chair. “I’m doing well. How about you?”
“I’m good,” says Wei Ying, sitting. He tightens his fists in the fabric of his jeans as Lan Huan takes his seat behind his desk. “Sorry—Sorry for just coming in like this. I would’ve dropped you an email, but I’m not sure when you’d get around to it, hah. Bet you’re busy, and this is—uh, pretty urgent.”
“I do check my emails quite regularly,” says Lan Huan with his lips pressed into a smile, but his eyes are narrowed ever so slightly in curiosity. “What is urgent?”
Wei Ying takes a deep breath. “I think there’s someone—Wen Ruohan, actually... planning on leaking Lan Zh—your brother’s next novel.”
For a moment, the room is so quiet that the whir of the standing fan next to Lan Huan’s desk seems deafening. Lan Huan has his eyes trained on him, an inscrutable expression on his face.
Then he says, “How do you know this?”
Wei Ying feels a rush of relief. Maybe he wouldn’t be asked questions he didn’t know how to answer. Maybe Lan Huan had no questions for him at all. And why would he? It’s not like Lan Zhan did, and he’s the only reason Lan Huan would ever have anything to ask of him.
Wei Ying isn’t sure why he was ever worried in the first place.
“I got a tip-off from a friend,” he says. “That Wen Ruohan was planning a new magazine or newspaper release, with an explosive new story to kick things off. Dug into it, and found this.” He slides his phone across the table to Lan Huan with the photo he’d taken open on it, magnified to show the passage on the tablet.
Lan Huan’s eyes grow wide as he reads it.
“Scroll left,” says Wei Ying. “I have pictures of the men. One of them is Wen Zhuiliu, who functions as a sort of private investigator for Wen Ruohan? The other, I think, works for the publishers you guys work with.”
Lan Huan is still looking at the photo, a crease between his brows. He nods. “Yes, it’s Su She.”
“I—” That should be it, right? Wei Ying has said everything he needed to. “Yeah, that’s all I wanted to say.”
Lan Huan tears his eyes away from the screen and hands Wei Ying back the phone. “Thank you,” he says. He bites his lip, seeming to wage a brief war within himself. “If I may ask, how did you know this was my brother’s novel from this passage?”
Well, shit. Wei Ying had started to get hopeful too soon.
“I, uh. I recognised the names.”
“Yeah. Hanguang-Jun and Yiling Laozu. It was—It was in a story he had started to tell me before—Uh. Before. I thought it was too much of a coincidence.”
Lan Huan’s smile doesn’t falter, but a flash of hurt passes across his face. “A story he told you,” he repeats quietly, almost to himself.
“Was I right?” Wei Ying asks, before he can help himself. He doesn’t know why, but his heart is racing. “I heard rumours he was writing a new novel, is this it?”
There’s a pause. Then: “Yes,” says Lan Huan. “It is.”
Wei Ying’s heart aches with a longing he’d tried to hold down the moment he’d seen those words. The thought that Lan Zhan had held on to this story all these years, and was finally able to write it—
“Oh,” he answers. He gets to his feet. Suddenly, he wants to be anywhere but here. “I—I’ll get going, then. I hope you guys can sort this out, and the rest of the release happens without any more drama.”
He’s halfway to the door when he stops dead at Lan Huan‘s voice.
“It was good to see you,” he says. Wei Ying turns around slowly, and finds him standing at his desk, still smiling gently. “Much better than the last time I saw you, I think.”
“The last time?” Wei Ying can’t help asking, and realises immediately he may have walked into a trap.
“If my memory serves me well,” says Lan Huan, although Wei Ying has the sneaking suspicion that was quite an unnecessary opening, “It was at your graduation party.”
Wei Ying flushes. It hadn’t been one of his proudest nights; it took a lot of alcohol to get him drunk out of his mind, but that evening was one of the few times in his life he had. He remembers none of it, though, not after the moment he’d snuck away from everyone else to drink alone in one of the toilets.
Curiosity wins over.
“What—What happened? Sorry, I—”
“It’s natural you wouldn’t remember,” says Lan Huan mildly. “Of course, I don’t know the details either. I found my brother with you in the toilets. You were quite inebriated.”
Wei Ying bites the inside of his cheek to stop himself from gasping. He’d always wondered how he’d made it back. Neither his siblings nor anyone else had seen him in the time since he’d disappeared from the party till he’d stumbled back home late that night.
“What—What was I saying?” Wei Ying asks, because he clearly cannot help himself.
Lan Huan hesitates a moment. “My brother was whispering something to you. But you kept pushing at him, telling him to—to get lost.”
Just like that, Wei Ying’s heart shatters.
“I’m sorry,” says Lan Huan. “For bringing this up.”
“I asked for it,” says Wei Ying. “I should be the one apologising.” He turns to the door.
“Not to me, though.”
Wei Ying wheels around. It’s the sharpest he’s ever heard Lan Huan sound.
“You should tell that to A-Zhan,” he adds, voice going gentle again.
“You want me to talk to him?” he asks. It doesn’t make sense. If Wei Ying had hurt his beloved brother, why would he want him to talk to him ever again? “You—You can convey it to him yourself. He probably doesn’t even remember, or want—”
“He searched for you, you know. After you left.”
“What do you mean?”
“He never stopped searching.”
“You should ask him about it.” He says it with air of finality, and turns back to walk towards his desk.
Not wanting to linger a moment longer despite all the burning questions in his head, Wei Ying heads out through the door.
He’s outside, when he stops in front of a shuttered down storefront to lean against it and exhale deeply.
He never stopped searching.
Wei Ying’s stomach turns with so many emotions he feels like it’s hard to stay upright. Maybe walking would be easier. Maybe it’ll help clear his head, to make sense of everything he’s feeling and let him reason with himself.
He walks straight down the main road: it stretches endlessly before him, punctuated by crossings and stop signs. It’s one of the busiest roads of Shanghai, at one of the busiest times of the day. Even if he can’t make sense of anything yet, he’s grateful for the bright lights and the incessant noise of traffic all around him, drowning out the storm inside his head just a little bit.
He’d never hoped Lan Zhan would search for him, but it wasn’t as simple as it sounded. He’d tried his very best in the weeks before he ran away to distance himself from Lan Zhan. And Lan Zhan had so much waiting for him—a scholarship to the number one business program at the most prestigious university in the country. Surely, searching for Wei Ying would be the last thing on his mind.
A guilty part of him that he didn’t like to acknowledge had hoped selfishly, secretly, that Lan Zhan would try to find him, because it would mean he hadn’t forgotten him.
But he’d dismissed it quickly. It was laughable: why would Lan Zhan waste his time like that, when he had so much else in his life to go on? It was easy this way. Even if Lan Zhan forgot about his childhood friend, at least he’d be happy. And that was all that ever mattered anyway.
Now, the knowledge that he had—that he’d never stopped—is too much to take. Wei Ying quickens his pace, though he has no idea where he’s going.
An uncertain length of time later, something pricks at the back of his neck. Years of pursuing stories has honed his instincts to perfection, and he knows to trust them. Out of the corner of his eye, he scans the pavement behind him and the street he’s walking down.
There’s a black car rolling along slowly. It slows down as he slows, and picks up pace as he walks faster.
Panic bubbles up in Wei Ying’s chest.
He’s put himself in dangerous situations in the name of journalism plenty of times. He’s good enough at getting himself out of them, too, but it’s more likely than not that Wen Ruohan is behind this. He’d undoubtedly have caught wind of how Wei Ying had been tracking down this story. And Wei Ying hadn’t even remembered to wear his usual disguise today, in all the confusion he’d been in since last night.
Not that that would have worked anyway, not for the kind of people Wen Ruohan tends to employ.
Fingers fumbling, he takes his phone out and hides it in his sleeve as well as he can as he discreetly thumbs through to his contacts. He isn’t even really thinking when he types in Lan Zhan’s name into the search bar.
In that split second he’s hesitating before he presses call, a car zips down the street and screeches to a halt next to him. The rear door slides open. Inside, there’s Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying runs up to the car, throws himself inside and doesn’t stop shaking till he’s held both of Lan Zhan’s arms in a tight grip.
“Lan Zhan, I—I was—”
He hadn’t realised when hot tears had started pricking at his eyes. He was afraid, yes, but that had nothing to do with the way he’d felt seeing Lan Zhan in the car. Sweet, wonderful, beautiful Lan Zhan, who’d found him somehow, even before he’d called him. Lan Zhan, who hadn’t stopped searching for him in all these years.
Lan Zhan, who lets him hold him till his breathing calms down, and his fingers relax. Then he extricates his arms from his grip and pulls him into his arms, wrapping one hand lightly around his wrist.
Fuck, he thinks, feeling Lan Zhan’s heartbeat against his chest. He’s screwed.
“Yeah?” Wei Ying says, proud of the way he’s still able to form coherent words.
“What were you doing?”
“I was—” He falters, the ready lie dying at his lips. “Lan Zhan, how’d you find me?”
Lan Zhan is quiet for a moment. “I kept trying to call you. Sent you several texts, but you didn’t respond. Then my brother called to tell me you’d come to meet him.”
“Did he tell you why,” says Wei Ying, heart sinking.
“Lan Zhan, I—I’m sorry, I didn’t want to get involved in your life again,” he says. “But I heard a rumour about Wen Ruohan, and I thought it had something to do with you.”
Wei Ying wants to pull away, but Lan Zhan’s arms are firm around him. “These two guys—Wen Ruohan’s right hand man and some guy from your publishing house, Su She? Photographed them looking at a passage that I—that I thought was from your, uh. Your next novel.”
There’s a pause. They’ve reached a quieter part of the city, the only car in sight on a flyover across a river. Wei Ying isn’t in the right frame of mind to identify where they are even if he tried. What he does note, however, is the way Lan Zhan’s heartbeat sounds even more deafening in the quiet.
“Why did you think so?” Perhaps no one else would be able to tell, but Wei Ying catches the crack in Lan Zhan’s voice despite his best efforts.
Wei Ying turns his face away. Everything’s horribly warm, and he just manages to stop himself from asking an inane question about the air conditioning again. “Hanguang-Jun,” he murmurs, looking at the dark screen separating them from the chauffeur’s seat. “And Yiling Laozu.”
Lan Zhan inhales sharply, and Wei Ying’s heart leaps to his throat. He squirms, trying to pull himself away, but Lan Zhan tightens his grasp and places a hand on his chin. He turns his face towards him, and suddenly Wei Ying is staring right into his eyes, molten gold in the reflection of the street lights.
There’s so much emotion in his eyes, Wei Ying almost can’t stand it. But he’s equal parts transfixed, drawn inexorably towards him.
“You remembered,” he says.
Wei Ying nods. Was there ever a question? “You searched for me,” he says, because that seems like a better question to ask. “Your brother told me.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes widen a fraction for a moment. Then he nods.
“Why?” says Wei Ying. He probably sounds like a petulant child, but he has to know. He tries to turn away, but Lan Zhan’s grip on his chin is firm. “Why search for me?”
“Wei Ying, I—” For some reason Lan Zhan’s desperate face, drenched in the rain crashing over him, appears in his head momentarily. “I knew you had your reasons to leave. I am sorry.”
“It was Wen Ruohan,” says Wei Ying. “He’d built his whole conglomerate on lies, plagiarising content from freelance writers and shutting them up, fabricating information, hacking into innocent people’s socials—I had to expose them.”
Lan Zhan nods. “I know,” he says quietly.
“I knew you’d try to stop me, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying. “I’m sorry for the way I acted in our last few weeks together. I thought—I thought you’d forget me more easily, if I started to push you away.”
“Forget you?” Lan Zhan’s voice is edged with something close to anger.
“Lan Zhan, I didn’t want to hurt you. You had this amazing life ahead of you, and me—I didn’t even know how long I’d had to stay hiding. A-Yuan’s parents—Lan Zhan, it wasn’t an accident, it was Wen Ruohan, and I was too late—”
Lan Zhan’s eyes grow wide. “Wei Ying,” he says, voice thick with emotion. “It was not your fault. You did expose Wen Ruohan in the end.”
“But I wasn’t fast enough, Lan Zhan, it’s my fault, A-Yuan wouldn't be growing up without his— ”
“Wei Ying, you—” Lan Zhan makes a noise of frustration that Wei Ying has never heard from him before. “You have done more for him than anyone could possibly have done. You are the bravest and most admirable person I have ever known.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “And you were alone. You went through all of that alone.”
Wei Ying lets out a shuddering exhale. “I was okay, you know,” he says quietly. “My friends helped me. Wen Qing, Wen Ning, Mianmian. I—They weren’t Lan Zhan, but I got by.” He colours as he realises what he’d just said. “Lan Zhan didn’t need to worry about me.”
“I did not worry. I knew you would be able to take care of yourself.” Lan Zhan closes his eyes briefly, a crease appearing between his brows, and then looks at him again. “But I—I wanted. I waited.”
“You wanted?” Wei Ying murmurs. “What did you want, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Zhan’s lips part, but he doesn’t answer. He doesn’t answer for a long moment. They don’t know how long they’re just sitting like that, just staring at each other, when the car comes to a stop.
“I should go,” Wei Ying says quietly. He really should. It’s the right thing to do.
“It is almost A-Yuan’s bedtime,” Lan Zhan says, as if to convince himself. His hold on Wei Ying loosens a fraction.
Wei Ying should agree. There’s no reason for him to know that A-Yuan is sleeping over at Wen Ning’s tonight. Nothing would possibly change with him knowing that information.
And yet: “He’s actually staying over at Wen Ning’s tonight.”
Wei Ying waits a moment, then pulls away. He’s being ridiculous. “Bye, then,” he says, getting out of the car. He starts to walk as fast as he can away from the car, not even waiting to hear Lan Zhan’s goodbye, if he even said one.
He’s almost at the entrance, when something collides with his back. Solid, firm and warm behind him, enveloping him in his arms and grasping his wrist as he’d lifted it to swipe his way inside the building.
“You shouldn’t be alone tonight.”
Lan Zhan’s gentle breath against his nape sends shivers down his whole body. His arm is wrapped around Wei Ying’s chest, tight enough to knock the wind out of him. For a long moment, Wei Ying just stands there, frozen in place as Lan Zhan holds him.
Lan Zhan is worried for him. He’s right. Wen Ruohan is on his trail, and who knew what measures he could take to find him and shut him up.
In any case. It’s getting harder to think by the second. He shouldn’t be alone. It’s an easy enough decision, wasn’t it? So he nods, the light hairs of his nape brushing Lan Zhan’s skin and it’s like he’s been electrocuted. Every sinew in his body feels stretched thin as Lan Zhan lets go of him at last.
They walk in silence inside, into the lift and down the corridor towards Wei Ying’s flat. Wei Ying fumbles with the key in his lock, Lan Zhan’s breath heavy on his nape.
The moment they’re inside and Wei Ying has kicked the door shut behind them, they’re in each other’s arms again and kissing like it’s the only thing keeping them alive. Wei Ying is unsure once again who made the first move, but then he isn’t even really sure how they got here at all. They toe off their shoes, stumbling inside, never once breaking the kiss.
It’s clumsy, messy, and yet: Wei Ying hasn’t known anything could be this immeasurably, impossibly, perfect. They can’t stop touching. Lan Zhan has an arm at his back and another around his waist as Wei Ying runs his hands down his chest, drunk with the awareness that this is Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan, who never stopped searching for him. Lan Zhan, who never forgot him. Lan Zhan, who wants him, even if he doesn’t deserve it. Lan Zhan, who kisses him like he couldn’t imagine anyone could ever be kissed, much less him. Lan Zhan, who presses him against a wall, hitches his legs up around his hips and bites into the skin of his neck till he stops thinking altogether.
“Lan Zhan, ah, fuck—” he babbles, “Feels so good.”
Lan Zhan undoes the buttons of his shirt in one go, letting it fall to the floor. A few buttons fall with it too, judging by the sound of it, but it’s not like Wei Ying has it in him to care. He pulls desperately at Lan Zhan’s shirt, craving his skin on his, and Lan Zhan shrugs it off his body in a move that he probably doesn’t even realise is wildly, unbearably hot. It’s even hotter for the fact that he doesn’t recognise it.
Lan Zhan licks over the bruises he’d left last night, sucks in a few new ones as his hands roam, one over his ass and the other roaming up his side. Wei Ying clings to him, the overload of sensations making him roll his head up and grind his hips wantonly against his.
“Lan Zhan, bed, please—” he moans, and Lan Zhan pulls off to kiss him. He walks him inside the flat, kissing him the whole way like he can’t bear to stop kissing him. Once they’re in Wei Ying’s bedroom he lays him down gently on the sheets.
Wei Ying gets to his knees on the bed, taking Lan Zhan’s face in his hands and kissing his lips, his neck and all the way down his chest. Lan Zhan curls his fingers in his hair, then pulls him up to kiss him so tenderly that Wei Ying is shaking by the end of it, whispering his name against his lips.
“Lan Zhan,” he gasps as Lan Zhan mouths at his neck again, swatting uselessly at the zip of his trousers. His motor control never stood a chance against Lan Zhan’s kisses. Or the feel of Lan Zhan’s length straining against his trousers. “If you don’t take this off, right now—”
They both break apart just long enough to take off their trousers and underwear, and they’re on each other again instantly, Lan Zhan pressing him into the bed.
“You’re so fucking hot,” Wei Ying groans, pretty sure his is face melting off from the way Lan Zhan is looking down at him and how firmly he’s pinning his arms down.
Lan Zhan grinds their hips together, and those are the last coherent words Wei Ying says for a long while after that.
“Who’d have thought you’d get like this in bed,” Wei Ying says, still breathing heavily several minutes afterwards they’d pulled apart.
Lan Zhan’s arm is under him as he lies pressed to his side; if it’s uncomfortable (and it should be), Lan Zhan doesn’t complain. “Wei Ying is my first,” he says, quietly. “My only.”
Wei Ying is glad he’s lying down already, but he still feels like this was the kind of situation where a fainting couch would come in handy.
“Hah!” he says, poking him in the ribs, because running his mouth is the way he deals best with situations like this. “You twenty-five year old virgin, you.” Lan Zhan stiffens next to him, just as Wei Ying turns to burrow himself close to him with his face in his hands. “Which makes two of us,” he adds. “God, we’re embarrassing.”
“I am happy,” says Lan Zhan simply, holding him closer to his chest.
“You are—Aiyo, stop saying things like that,” he says, pressing his face closer against Lan Zhan.
“It’s true,” says Lan Zhan. “I have wanted. This.”
Wei Ying’s heart races, a jackrabbit in his chest. “How long?” he murmurs. “Lan Zhan, how long have you—”
“A while,” says Lan Zhan. Suddenly, he seems to close off. The fingers curled around his arms withdraw a fraction.
He doesn’t seem like he wants to talk about it any further, and silence falls between them. Wei Ying is too spent to think too much about it, and he falls asleep soon after.
He starts awake to the sound of his phone. Craning his neck, he sees it’s Wen Qing. He hadn’t been expecting her to make a call from outside the country, and his immediate thought is he must have fucked up somehow.
His eyes flit to Lan Zhan, asleep peacefully next to him. He looks younger, face smooth and relaxed, and Wei Ying aches at the memory of his younger self he resembles so much in his sleep.
The Lan Zhan he’d fallen in love with, he realises now.
The longer he looks at Lan Zhan’s face, the clearer it grows. He’s been in love with Lan Zhan. All this time. From sending him entries for the school magazine just to make him blush, to pushing him away before running away to make it easier for him, to avoiding Caiyi Books all these years, to this—
How could he have ever thought it was anything else but this?
Chest flooding with emotions he’d tried to fight all these years, he bends to press a kiss to his lips. Love you, he thinks. And another. Adore you. Again. My Lan Zhan. And on and on, as gently as he can so he won’t wake up, unable to stop pouring his feelings against Lan Zhan’s soft, darling face.
When the buzzing of his phone floats into his awareness again, he tears himself away to answer it. Wen Qing wouldn’t make an international call for nothing, even if answering it right now is the last thing he wants to do.
“Hey,” he whispers.
“What took you so long? Were you asleep?”
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying. “A-Yuan wanted me to sleep in his room tonight,” he lies.
There’s no way he could tell her he’d just slept with the man he was supposed to be writing a story on, one that would potentially save their struggling magazine. A twinge of guilt hits him, but he turns around to look at Lan Zhan, and he’s never been as sure of anything in his life.
He’ll just explain everything to her in person, later.
“Oh,” says Wen Qing. “How is he?”
“He’s doing well. Misses you.”
Wen Qing laughs. “Don’t lie,” she says. “I know he’s having a blast. Good to hear he’s been well, though, can’t imagine it’s been easy.”
If you had any idea, he thinks, glancing around at Lan Zhan again.
“I’m almost done with the Li Qiang story,” he says.
“Mianmian filled me in about that. How about the Lan Wangji story?”
Wei Ying’s heart stops. He shrinks in on himself, like pulling away from Lan Zhan would make it easier to lie. “It’s going okay,” he says. “Met him the other day.”
“Really?” says Wen Qing, sounding impressed despite herself.
“We’ve been hanging out,” he says. “I—I knew him back in school, actually.”
“You what ?” exclaims Wen Qing. “And you forgot to mention it all this time, why?”
“Knew him as... Lan Zhan,” he murmurs. He looks around at him again, but he still seems fast asleep.
“A pseudonym,” she says. “Of course.”
“Don’t worry,” he says hurriedly, eager to change the subject. “I’ll have a story for you in a few days.”
“Fine,” she says. “Keep me posted.”
She ends the call, and Wei Ying snuggles back into Lan Zhan’s arms. He forgets about the conversation almost instantly, the light sandalwood scent of Lan Zhan’s skin making his brain cloud over again. He drifts off to sleep, a small smile playing at his lips at the thought of telling Lan Zhan he loves him the moment he’s awake.
He doesn’t catch the way Lan Zhan’s breath hitches, a long moment later.
When Wei Ying stirs next morning, his first thought is Lan Zhan. The next thing he realises is he’s naked. The third thing to enter his awareness is the fact that he’d slept with Lan Zhan.
A lazy smile forming on his lips, he swats around the bed. Why’d Lan Zhan move away from him? He was looking forward to waking up in his arms, to finally tell him what he’d realised last night.
Something isn’t right, though. The bed is far too cold for Lan Zhan to have slept in it, and Wei Ying’s heart is in his throat before he’s even fully opened his eyes. The room is empty, and the clothes he’d torn off Lan Zhan last night are nowhere to be seen.
Pulling his shirt over his head, he peers into his bathroom, then walks out to the kitchen, the living room, even A-Yuan’s room. At last, he walks slowly over to his shoe rack and finds Lan Zhan’s oxfords gone like he’d imagined the whole thing.
Wen Ning drops A-Yuan home before heading for class. Wei Ying finds himself hugging him extra long and tight; it’s comforting, and A-Yuan babbles effusively in his arms the whole time so it works out perfectly for both of them.
He’s had his breakfast already, so Wei Ying sets him down on the living room rug and brings him his toys and books. A-Yuan doesn’t seem in the mood for that, though.
“Xian-gege,” he says, crawling up to him and tugging the fabric of his trousers, just as he’s about to leave.
Warmth envelopes Wei Ying as he looks down at A-Yuan, defiantly clinging on to his leg. It hits him how much he’d missed him even in the last few days they’d spent so much time apart. What hits harder is that it seems like he wasn’t the only one.
“Hey, I’m here,” he says. “What do you want to do? Would you like to learn adding bigger numbers today?”
It’s not like he has anything to do, anyway.
A-Yuan looks doubtful. “Story first?” he says, after weighing his options for a few moments.
“Here I thought you’d never ask me for a story again,” he laughs, without thinking.
“But you help him finish the story,” says A-Yuan. “That’s what gege say to me.”
“Said,” says Wei Ying automatically, then winces at once. “What do you mean? Which story?”
“The story. About bunny A-Yu, who ran away.”
“What do you mean about—about me helping him finish it?”
A-Yuan seems to lose interest in the conversation, resumes colouring the dragon on the page open in front of him, and doesn’t respond.
After lunch, Wei Ying fiddles with his phone for a bit. He wonders idly what he’d have been doing if A-Yuan weren’t here. Probably slept the whole day in a drunk daze, and reheated week-old frozen pizza for lunch at six in the evening.
It’s easy to understand what had happened. Lan Zhan didn’t want a life with him. He’d probably just wanted a fuck, and Wei Ying was—there. He’d spent most of the night with him, so he’d even done what he’d said he’d do. Kept him company after the scare that evening.
He ignores the voice in his head that reminds him that Lan Zhan would never do something like that. Wouldn’t sleep with an old friend he’s shared so much with over the years, just to leave without a second thought. Wouldn’t look at him like that, wouldn’t hold him like he did, wouldn’t whisper his name—
It’s so much easier to think like this. It’s what he’s used to, anyway.
His fingers find their way to his sister’s number, and he presses call before he’s even thought too much about it.
“A-Ying, hi!” she says, bright and warm as ever.
Wei Ying lets himself soak in the sound of her voice for a moment before answering. “Hi, how’ve you been?”
“We’ve been good. You tell me, how’s A-Yuan?”
“He’s good,” says Wei Ying, watching him leaf through one of his picture books on the rug below him. “He’s great. Yeah, everything’s great.”
She doesn’t miss a beat. “A-Ying?” When he doesn’t reply, she says, “You’ll let me know if anything’s wrong, won’t you?”
He wonders briefly if Jiang Cheng had mentioned to her the story he’d been pursuing. Guilt grips him as he realises she’s probably worried he’s up to something.
“Of course,” he says quickly. “I’m done with the Wen thing, you know. Not sure if Jiang Cheng told you.”
“He did,” says his sister. “I’m glad you’re done with it, I can’t lie about that.”
She sounds like she’s holding herself back from saying more, but suddenly, Wei Ying feels the dams burst.
“Did he tell you why I did it, A-jie? It was Lan Zhan. They were going to leak Lan Zhan’s book.”
There’s a pause. Then she says, “Yeah. It was all over the papers. They’ve launched a lawsuit against Wen Ruohan, and the person who leaked the information. It really doesn’t look good for them. You did that, A-Ying.”
Wei Ying should be happy. And he is. He’s done everything he’d set out to do, and he has nothing to link him to Lan Zhan ever again.
So he smiles, just like he should, but his eyes blur and he pulls his knees to his chest and buries his face in the sleeve of his sweater so A-Yuan won’t see.
“Yeah,” he says, soft and wet. “Yeah, that’s great.”
“What’s wrong?” she says, her voice breaking with concern. “A-Ying, what’s wrong?”
“It’s silly,” he says. “It’s silly, and I’m stupid, A-jie.”
“You’re not,” she says firmly. “You’ve never been stupid, A-Ying.”
“But I fell in love with him,” he says, his voice cracking. “I went and fell in love with Lan Zhan.”
She’s quiet for a long moment. Then she says, “Oh.” And then, “Oh, A-Ying.”
“And I thought—” his breath catches, “When we met again, I started making all these excuses just to see him again. And then it felt that he might, too—And we slept together, and now he’s gone, and of course he should have gone, it makes no sense for him to stay, I’ve always known that, even when I was finally able to reach out to you guys but couldn’t reach out to him, because I was scared to face my own feelings, scared to know he’d moved on, but—A-jie, why does it hurt so much?”
“I—A-Ying,” she says. She sounds like she’s about to cry too. “That doesn’t sound like him at all. You know that, right?”
“You think he shouldn’t leave?” he scoffs. “You don’t know how good he is, A-jie. Do you know he never stopped looking for me? Even after all I did to push him away, and avoid him? You still think he should stay with me?”
“A-Ying, we—we tried to tell you this, but ever since you returned you seemed so unwilling to hear about him every time we brought him up. He—He kept calling us, you know. All those years you were away. To ask if you’d reached out to us.”
Wei Ying feels his heart drop. “He—Lan Zhan called… What—What did you tell him?”
“We kept relaying everything you told us,” she answers. “He deserved to know that you were safe, A-Ying. He was so broken when you disappeared, I never thought I’d see him like that.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says quietly, almost to himself. “I don’t understand. Why would he do that?”
“He wouldn’t be pushed away so easily, you know,” says Jiang Yanli. “He could have assumed you just didn’t want anything to do with him anymore, but he kept checking up with us. He’d been the one to tell us why you’d left in the first place, your grand plans of exposing Wen Ruohan that you’d shared only with him. I think he felt he failed to stop you.”
Wei Ying doesn’t reply at once, trying to make sense of his too-loud thoughts.
“He accepted it, though, better than we did. He even seemed to understand why you couldn’t call up everyone you’d ever known, in the kind of situation you were in,” Jiang Yanli continues, “But—A-Ying, I think he still hoped you’d reach out to him.”
It’s ludicrous to think that Lan Zhan could ever just be anyone to Wei Ying. He wonders briefly if Lan Zhan could really have thought that, when the truth was that he’d always meant too much, in a way that terrified Wei Ying and made him dread facing his own feelings.
“What about—” he asks, a sudden thought striking him, “What about the past year, after I returned to you guys?”
Jiang Yanli exhales. “We kept telling him you were safe and well. We thought you needed time, that you had to be the one to tell him you’d returned, so we never mentioned that you were back. If you never ended up telling him, I think he’d just… keep calling us forever, just to know you were okay.”
“Why?” asks Wei Ying, through a shaky exhale. “I don’t—”
“But you’re worth all of that,” she says. “A-Ying, when will you see that? You’re worth everything he’s done for you, and more. And he’ll be happy to do more, if you’ll let him, I’m sure of it.”
Wei Ying knows this can’t be true, but he breaks anyway. Pulling his knees closer, he buries his face in them and shakes as he soaks his joggers with the tears spilling uncontrollably from his eyes.
The next thing he knows, an uncertain length of time later, is the sound of the doorbell.
Rubbing his eyes furiously, he says softly into the phone, “Hold on. Someone’s at the door.”
He makes his way to the door. When he opens it, he finds Jiang Cheng staring back at him.
“Um, A-jie, I’ll have to call you back,” he says into the phone. “Jiang Cheng is here.”
“Oh good, he arrived already.”
Wei Ying can’t tell if he heard that right. “What?”
“Texted him the moment you called,” his sister replies. “He’ll take care of you.”
Wei Ying stands rooted to the spot, powerless to reply. Jiang Cheng strides inside, making sure to shove him hard to the side as he enters.
“A-Ying, I love you,” she says. “You’re so loved. You know that, don’t you?”
Wei Ying swallows thickly. “Thank you,” he says, at last. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
He shuts the door, and turns to find Jiang Cheng in the kitchen. He’s at the sink, noisily washing the dishes Wei Ying had left for later.
“Stop just standing there and looking at me, asshole,” Jiang Cheng snarls, not turning back.
“You don’t have to—”
“What did you just say?” says Jiang Cheng, spinning around. He’s trying to look threatening, but the effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that his arms are covered with soap suds to his elbows. “I don’t have to what, precisely?”
“Whatever you’re doing,” he says quietly. “Whatever A-jie told you to do.”
“Because you’re doing a stellar fucking job at taking care of yourself, right?”
Wei Ying opens his mouth to answer, then stops. “I know I’m a mess, okay?” he says. “Honestly, you should just take A-Yuan and keep him with you or A-jie, before I—”
“You idiot,” says Jiang Cheng, clenching his soapy hands. “Who told you to do everything on your own, huh?”
“What?” says Wei Ying, surprised at the unexpected reply.
“You—God, you’re so annoying,” says Jiang Cheng. “Why are you always like this?”
“Jiang Cheng, back then—” Wei Ying’s voice catches; it’s the first time he’s ever spoken so openly about this to him since he’d returned home, “You know I couldn’t tell you guys where I was, to keep you safe. I couldn’t come home till I’d finished.”
“I know that, all right?” Jiang Cheng bursts out, frustrated. “I still—You’re still my brother, okay?”
“What?” he asks.
“Did I fucking stutter?” he says, resolutely not looking Wei Ying in the eye. “Honestly, fuck whatever already happened. It’s done, it’s over. But you’re not pulling a stunt like that again, not on my watch.” He breathes heavily, turning on his heels. “Now get over here, I’m only doing half of these dishes.”
He turns on the tap, the sound drowning out whatever he continues to grumble under his breath.
Wei Ying shuffles closer, and takes his place next to him. They work quietly for a few minutes. Slowly Wei Ying begins to feel Jiang Cheng’s breathing next to him grow heavier and heavier, till he bursts out:
“A-Jie told me you—you’re in love—” He grimaces at the word, putting down a plate with a particularly loud clatter. “And the fucker just left?”
Wei Ying bites his lip. “Yeah, I… Lan Zhan—It’s fine,” he says quickly, because he can almost sense fury rolling off Jiang Cheng in waves, “You know I shouldn’t have thought—”
“I will kill him,” Jiang Cheng says, never one to mince words. “I don’t care how many times he annoyed us trying to find out about you with those creepy puppy eyes, who the hell does he think he—”
“Hey, calm down!” Wei Ying says. “It was my fault for thinking there was anything more—It was always supposed to be a job, right from the day Wen Qing—”
The words die in his throat, a soaped-up glass forgotten in his hands.
“What?” prompts Jiang Cheng impatiently.
Fuck, thinks Wei Ying.
The conversation last night—
“I think Lan Zhan heard me,” says Wei Ying quietly. “My call with Wen Qing. I—I think he thought I’d slept with him only to get a story.”
“He—You—What?” Jiang Cheng splutters, confusion writ large on his face.
Wei Ying stands frozen in place for what feels like forever, scenes running through his head before he can do anything about it. Lan Zhan stirring awake, hearing his side of the conversation with Wen Qing, slipping out of bed later, not looking back as he left—
There’s a gentle nudge at his ankles all of a sudden, and he starts back to the present.
Looking down, he sees A-Yuan standing in front of him, his lower lip wobbling but a determined look in his eyes. He’s holding a book in his hands.
It’s Bu Wang.
Squatting, he reaches out for A-Yuan. “Hey, come here.” He pulls him closer.
“Are you sad?” A-Yuan asks mournfully, reaching his hand out to touch his face.
Wei Ying gives his face a quick rub, holds out his dry palm and smiles at him. “I’m okay, see?” he says. Looking slightly appeased, A-Yuan settles in his arms.
Wei Ying looks down at the book he’s holding. He lightly thumbs over the Lan Wangji below the title, then gives himself a small shake. “A-Yuan, why’d you bring this?”
“You read this,” he says. “You keep it beside your pillow. I keep Bunny beside my pillow.” He says it like the correlation is obvious, and Wei Ying’s heart clenches. Just now intelligent and perceptive is this child? Just how distracted has Wei Ying been for this four-year-old child to understand the turmoil that’s been going on in his life?
Pressing a kiss into A-Yuan’s hair, he opens the book without thinking. It opens to the dedication page at the very front, that he’d missed in his first time reading the book.
Hand flying to his mouth, he reads the words a second time. And again, and again, and again, till he’s sure he isn’t dreaming.
The world passes by, but I remember only you.
The day after graduation, Wei Ying had packed everything he’d need into one canvas bag he’d kept under his bed. He’d pretended well into the afternoon he was hungover from the last night, and used the time to get ready. After that, he’d gone about his day just as usual.
In the evening, he’d called Lan Zhan to walk down their street like they sometimes did. It had been stormy all afternoon and the thunder had just started to rumble in the distance, but he’d selfishly had to see him one last time, and Lan Zhan hadn’t said no.
They’d talked a long time about this and that, Wei Ying hoping he wouldn’t be able to tell how quiet he was being. Suddenly, the sky had cracked open above them and they’d run for cover under the eaves of a closed stationery shop.
“When are you moving into your college dorms?” he’d asked Lan Zhan. “We forgot to get a laundry basket for you last time, did you get it?”
It hadn’t struck him till later how funny it was for him to have remembered a thing like buying laundry baskets. But Lan Zhan had always given him funny feelings, for as long as he could remember.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan had answered. “When are you doing your shopping? I will come with you.”
“Ah—let’s see,” Wei Ying had lied. But he never was going to do his shopping, because he wasn’t going to college at all.
“You shouldn’t delay it any longer,” Lan Zhan had chided. “You have been too distracted with this Wen Ruohan nonsense. Your classes are due to start in two weeks.”
Heart in his throat, eager to change the subject, Wei Ying had answered, “Yeah, yeah. Stop nagging! Hey, Lan Zhan?”
“How long will it take you to forget me once you move to Beijing and start your classes? A week? Maybe more than that, but only because no one’s going to be as annoying as me. A month?”
He’d said it without meaning to; the words rushing to his lips before he could stop himself. He wanted to smack himself. He’d tried his best to push Lan Zhan away the last few weeks so leaving would hurt less, but in the end he’d been too weak. Calling him out here one last time and even asking him a question as pathetic as that.
Lan Zhan’s face had turned almost scary. Golden eyes narrowed in fury, he’d rounded on Wei Ying.
“Well, I—” Wei Ying had grown warm at the look in his eyes, so focused and intent on him. “You should forget about me, though,” he’d said quietly, almost like he’d been trying to convince himself. “You’ll have so much to do! Studying boring business things, and—and taking over your family company—”
Lan Zhan had made a frustrated huff at that. It was so unlike him that Wei Ying’s eyes had darted up to look at him. “Whatever in the world—” Lan Zhan had said stiffly at last, jaw clenched, looking straight ahead of him as rivulets of rainwater streamed down the edges of the parapet above them. “Whatever passes, I’ll remember Wei Ying.”
“Yeah, but,” Wei Ying had said, a note of desperation in his voice, “It’s like you’ll remember everything else about school, right? And the magazine, and Caiyi—?”
“Only you,” Lan Zhan had said at once. He’d turned away after that, ears a bright red.
“Why?” Wei Ying had said helplessly, voice cracking.
He had to know. For the first time, a thought he’d never imagined he’d think had briefly entered his head. He’d always been certain his resolve would never falter for anything, but suddenly he’d felt like a word from Lan Zhan would have him reconsider. He wouldn’t give up on his goal, but maybe he’d try harder to find a way to do this differently. If only he’d say the word.
It was a terrifying thought.
Lan Zhan had looked at him with his brows furrowed, like there was something he wanted to say. But no words came out at all.
After a moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity, Wei Ying had torn his glance away. It was a silly, fanciful thought. All the more reason he needed to stay away from Lan Zhan, and leave him to live out his life the way he was meant to.
“Well, bye then,” he’d said. “Madam Yu’s going to yell if I don’t get home by dinner time.”
He jogged on ahead, right into the pouring rain.
Behind him, Lan Zhan had shouted his name, “Wei Ying!”
He’d turned back, to find Lan Zhan standing just at the edge of the eaves, rainwater battering down on his beautiful, pained face. His eyes were wide, like he’d just realised something. But he hadn’t said another word, or taken another step forward.
Wei Ying had turned, waved without looking back, and run off towards his house.
“A-Yuan,” says Wei Ying, “Would you like to play on your own for a bit? Xian-gege has something to do.”
He lets him go, watches him run out towards the living room, and turns to Jiang Cheng.
“Just go,” Jiang Cheng says harshly, heaving a long-suffering sigh without even turning around. “It’s not like I have anything better to do.”
Wei Ying stands still for a moment. Then he quietly says, “Thank you.”
Walking out into the living room, he drops down onto the couch, turns his laptop on and begins to type.
Lan Wangji is at the corner table of Caiyi Books when I walk inside. It’s probably the first time in history an interviewee has had to wait for his interviewer to arrive, but he doesn’t look perturbed. He has a cup of tea by his elbow as he types on his laptop keypad, long fingers skimming swift and soundless over it.
He’s wearing a white turtleneck sweater that clings wonderfully to his broad frame and slim tan dress pants, with a powder blue coat hung over the back of his chair and not much of an expression on his handsome face. Or so you’d think, before a closer look. The noted novelist, youngest recipient ever of the Mao Dun prize for his debut novel Bu Wang, is infamously reticent. People would describe him as stern and frosty, giving off an air of unapproachability. But I notice a small crease between his brows, his lips parted in a sharp inhale. I stand in the doorway, wondering what he’s thinking.
... Haha, Lan Zhan, if I actually could go through with writing a story about you, that’s probably how the beginning would go. I know, I know, you’re probably glaring at your screen right now. Celebrity stories aren’t my thing, but that’s pretty epically bad even considering that, right? I did my research, too. Downloaded pirated books about it and everything.
And for what. I ended up getting poetic about your handsomeness and your broad chest and your stern brows anyway. You’re just too distracting, Lan Zhan. You’ve always been distracting! Even when we were thirteen and you were our middle school magazine editor and my only goal in life was how to get you to blush.
Who knew the tables would turn so much, huh? You’ve probably reset my thermostat or something, because I’m always burning up these days when I think of you. Which is always. Is this revenge for how much I teased you when you were kids? I’m sorry, Lan Zhan!
I’m sorry I made you think I was only trying to get close to you for a story. To be honest, when my boss Wen Qing first suggested it, I thought I might even be able to go through it. Wanted to prove that I didn’t care anymore. I tried, Lan Zhan. I really did. Told myself you should be a stranger, because that’d make everything so much easier.
Just like I pushed you away in the weeks before I ran away. I’m sorry I didn’t realise you wouldn’t just forget about me. I really tried, but you’re too good for that, aren’t you? You haven’t forgotten that stupid sandalwood soap you discovered in middle school all these years later, you’d definitely not forget someone as annoying as me!
Aiyo, I’m sorry about that too! You’ve told me you don’t think I’m annoying so many times, but I guess I keep forgetting. I’ll get better. You make me want to be better.
Lan Zhan, I’ve been back for a year. I couldn’t face you, and my family wanted me to tell you myself. They were right. You deserved that. But I thought you should move on. A shitty part of me was terrified about it, of facing my own feelings, of finding I had no place in your life anymore. So I thought I should move on, too.
It’s hard to see myself as someone worth remembering, but you’ve always made me feel like I might just be. Someone worth... something.
Before he can talk himself out of it, he clicks send without even reading it a second time.
There’s no reply from him in the next hour. Jiang Cheng ends up staying the night, grudgingly allowing A-Yuan to fill him in on his complicated plushie family drama as he’s being tucked into bed.
There’s no reply the next day, either.
Or the day after that.
A whole week passes, and Wei Ying doesn’t hear back.
Wen Qing returns as scheduled a week later, and on her way back from the airport, she texts the Burial Mounds group chat at eleven thirty at night ordering everyone to come into the office at eight thirty the next morning.
Wei Ying brings A-Yuan with him, armed with the two suitcases full of everything Wen Qing had dropped him off at his flat with, three weeks ago. When he reaches the office, he finds the front room empty and the door to Wen Qing’s office shut. Even the blinds aren’t up yet, which is usually the first order of business Mianmian attends to when she gets in. But her purse is on her desk and Wen Ning’s lunch bag at his; besides, it’s eleven minutes past the scheduled time.
Placing A-Yuan at his desk with a book and a box of crayons, he walks over to Wen Qing’s door, wincing slightly. He pauses outside for a moment, looking back at A-Yuan. Today is the day he goes back to Wen Qing, which means Wei Ying can finally use his freed-up shoe rack to stuff empty pizza boxes into again.
He turns back to the door, catching the sound of low voices inside. Unable to control his curiosity, he pushes his way in.
Three faces turn his way and instantly, he’s shushed silently by all three of them even though he hasn’t even said a word. Wen Qing is sitting behind her desk flanked by Mianmian and Wen Ning, and all three of them have their attention focused on her computer.
“... tell us about the recent attempt by Wen Ruohan to leak your work?” asks Wen Qing in her crisp, clear voice.
Two things happened at that moment.
A voice emanates from the speakers; one that makes Wei Ying’s heart lurch, then stop altogether.
Wen Ning gesticulates wildly at him, pointing down at the monitor, mouthing: It’s Lan Wangji!
Rooted to the spot, Wei Ying hears Lan Zhan’s answer.
“It was—It is not important. What matters is that it was resolved, thanks to someone.” He pauses for a moment. “Someone who has inspired me from the very beginning, almost ten years ago now.”
“It started as a story that took shape then, but circumstances caused me to abandon it. I finally wrote it, but it has still been evolving. I changed the ending very recently.”
Mianmian has crossed the room to come next to Wei Ying at some point, and whispers into his ear, making him jump. “Lan Wangji randomly phoned in just now, asking if we’d be interested in doing an interview with him. Can you believe how huge this is? What the hell did you do, holy shit, can you wrap your head around what this means for us?”
Across the room, Wen Qing asks her next question. “Change the ending? Why did you do that?”
“I found some inadequacies in my original draft. One of the main characters makes a mistake that he doesn’t resolve till the very end. Perhaps it was true to his characterisation at the start, but he develops over the course of the story, and I wanted his arc to reflect that. So I made him correct it.”
“Could you elaborate?”
There’s a pause.
“That same person helped me realise,” says Lan Zhan slowly, “That it is never too late. For things that are worth it—or people—it is never too late to say the things you’d left unsaid once.”
Wei Ying runs, scrambles on top of the desk and turns Wen Qing’s monitor around to face him. “Lan Zhan! Back then, I really wanted to sleep with you!”
There’s a long pause. Then:
Wen Qing, Wen Ning and Mianmian make assorted noises in shock, but Wei Ying doesn’t notice at all.
“Lan Zhan… I—You just said yourself you shouldn’t leave things unsaid, so this is going to be your fault! I’m sorry again that I made you think I only slept with you for the story. I don’t care about the story! I never cared. I only wanted to sleep with you. Long before I knew how amazing you are in bed, hah. Long before I knew it myself, I think. My boss is right here, by the way.”
He laughs hysterically, scratching his head as he looks at Wen Qing. For the first time, she looks stunned into utter silence.
Wei Ying turns back to the monitor. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “You’re so great, I like you so much.”
“Wei Ying, I—I should never have thought you were capable of that,” says Lan Zhan, sounding increasingly vehement. There’s a shuffle from his end, like maybe he’s pacing around. “I regretted it as soon as I left, but I realised I had to change the ending. To make Hanguang-jun tell Yiling Laozu what he should have told him years ago. So I wanted to finish writing as fast as possible. And I did, just this morning. Wanted you to be the first to read it.”
“I will, Lan Zhan, and I’m sorry I never read Bu Wang all this time,” Wei Ying cries out. “I’m sorry I was too scared to go to Caiyi Books and face all the memories of us I’d taught myself to forget. I’m sorry I left you that day in the rain, Lan Zhan, I couldn’t drag you into the hole I would have to go down, for what I had to do.” Wei Ying squeezes his eyes shut for a moment; when he opens them, he’s smiling. “Because I love you, Lan Zhan. I love you, I fancy you, it can’t be anyone else but you, I want to listen to your stories every day, kiss you, have you pin me down in bed, because holy fuck —”
There’s a collective groan from everyone else in the room, but he hardly notices.
“Wei Ying—” Lan Zhan’s voice sounds wrecked with emotion. “You are Wei Ying because you did what you had to do, fearless and brilliant. And I love you. All of you. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that day in the rain. I will tell you every day from now, as many times as you will let me, to make up. I love you. I adore you. It has only ever been you. I want to be by your side as you uncover the stories you love to write, every day, I want to—to kiss—”
“Lan Zhan, where the fuck are you right now, if I don’t see you this instant—”
“Come outside,” Lan Zhan cuts in, breathless.
Wei Ying doesn’t question it. He finds himself on autopilot, jumping right off the table, bursting through the doors, past the other desks, through the main door—
—To find Lan Zhan standing on the other side, phone in hand, eyes wild and breathing heavily.
The next thing Wei Ying knows, his arms are around Lan Zhan’s neck and Lan Zhan’s hands are on his waist and they’re kissing. They kiss deep and fervent and definitely very inappropriately for the lobby of an office building until they’re out of breath, and Wei Ying stands on his tiptoes and presses his forehead against Lan Zhan’s.
“The world passes by, but I remember only you.”
Lan Zhan inhales sharply. “You remembered.”
“Of course I do,” Wei Ying replies. “I’ve always felt the same, it was just less prettily worded in my head.”
“Wei Ying’s words are pretty,” says Lan Zhan, matter-of-factly. “I found Burial Mounds when I looked up your boss, Wen Qing, who you named in your message. I read all your stories, Wei Wuxian. They are all beautiful and riveting. Everything about you is.”
“Lan Zhan, how can you just say that,” Wei Ying cries in horror. “With such a straight face too!”
“I merely perceive and speak the truth,” says Lan Zhan, sounding almost smug.
“Speak the truth—why don’t you speak some truth about your book and give me some spoilers already,” grumbles Wei Ying. “Do Hanguang-jun and Yiling Laozu get together in the end? All that UST in the scenes you shared with me when we were kids—please tell me they stopped being idiots and it came to something.”
“Read it,” says Lan Zhan, reaching down to take both of Wei Ying’s hands.
“I will,” Wei Ying promises. He’s quiet for a moment, then he says, “I was an idiot, Lan Zhan. I was so scared to read Bu Wang—I heard it was possibly autobiographical, read rumours about it being inspired by some long lost love of yours and I just... couldn’t. Just like I couldn’t bring myself to go to Caiyi Books anymore, because I knew it’d remind me so much of you.”
“I tried to keep Caiyi Books open for you,” says Lan Zhan. “It held my happiest memories, and it felt good to help out the loyal clientele. But I always hoped—When you walked in that day, I was certain it was a dream.”
“Lan Zhan—” Wei Ying gasps, flushing down to his toes. He can’t wrap his head around any of this, but the way Lan Zhan is looking at him, he doesn’t seem likely to stop till he does.
“You have always been my dream.”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying wails, pressing his face into his hands. He can’t bring himself to look up, not till he hears a patter of someone coming up behind him.
Peering through his fingers, he finds A-Yuan standing between the two of them, curiously looking up at the goings on. He seems reassured when he catches Wei Ying’s eye, and turns his attention to Lan Zhan’s deeply offensive shoes instead.
He points accusingly at them, looking up at Lan Zhan.
Looking up over Lan Zhan’s shoulder, Wei Ying finds Wen Ning in the doorway with his hands covering his mouth, eyes suspiciously red. Mianmian is slack-jawed beside him, weakly offering a thumbs-up when they make eye contact. Wen Qing shakes her head, and a soft smile appears on her lips so briefly it’s almost like he imagined it.
“I would like them,” says Lan Zhan suddenly, ears a bright red. “The shoes. One day.”
Wei Ying lifts A-Yuan up. He reaches out to play with a button on Lan Zhan’s shirt, and a picture bursts into Wei Ying’s head of A-Yuan swinging between the two of them, matching baby sneakers between their bigger ones.
“We should go shopping,” he says, before he can stop himself. “Sometime. Maybe.”
“Mn!” echoes A-Yuan.
Wei Ying smiles. He’s starting to think he’ll have to leave some room on his shoe rack after all—you never know who could drop by.
Or maybe even stay.