Lan Zhan had just finished double-checking the bunny-proof mesh around Lan Xichen’s tomatoes and was about to start up Luo Qingyang's latest kpop mix when he heard the first distant bark.
Twitch and Nibble—thoroughly domesticated rabbits who had never so much as seen the outline of a predator before—did not react to the sound. The wooden fence around the back of the garden was high, but Lan Zhan kept an ear out all the same.
He noticed, therefore, when the barking grew slightly louder, followed by the slapping sound of shoes in the small alleyway that dead-ended into the cement slab behind Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen’s backyard.
“Oh shit, oh shit,” came a high, panicked voice, and then there was a small thhhuck and a tiny groan as the wood of the fence was weighed down, and suddenly an unknown man was scrambling over the top of the fence.
The stranger did not land perfectly, his knees wobbling as he tried to get his feet back under him, and his first few unsteady steps nearly sent him careening into Twitch. Twitch would have been crushed underfoot, too late for Lan Wangji to save her, had the stranger not noticed his own ill-fated trajectory at the last second and thrown himself bodily to the side.
He hit the grass with a whumpf of breath and rolled onto his back without a pause.
“Parkour,” he wheezed, raising a limp fist in the air. He sounded both winded and oddly triumphant.
Twitch, distressed by this large interloper interrupting her precious supervised lawn time, hopped away. Nibble, however, had been safe in Lan Wangji’s lap, and she chose this moment to hop over to the supine stranger, nibbling curiously at the sleeve of his leather jacket.
Nibble had always been the more adventurous of the pair.
“Oh!” said the nameless man. “There’s two of you!” His eyes widened as they caught on Lan Wangji, who was sitting with his back to Lan Xichen’s favorite maple tree. “Three of you!”
“I am not a rabbit,” said Lan Wangji, completely at a loss for anything more substantial to say.
The invader blinked at him, looking mildly taken aback, and then he laughed, his smile splitting his face like a sunbeam breaking through the trees. He laughed harder, squeezing his wide grey eyes closed. Lan Wangji didn’t think the man was laughing at his response, not really; the laughter was like tension shaking out of him, a helpless catharsis.
The laugh finally subsided. “Ah, fuck,” said the stranger, and there was something charming about the way his smiling mouth caressed the fricative. Nibble had moved away from the stranger’s sleeve, put off by the noise and the shaking, which freed the stranger to pull his arm back and put it behind his head. He angled his neck up to get a better look at Lan Wangji. “Fuck, you’re really not, are you. Who are you then, if you’re not a rabbit?”
“My name is Lan Zhan, courtesy name Lan Wangji,” said Lan Wangji, seeing no reason to prevaricate—this was his garden, after all—“and you are trespassing in my garden, and scaring my rabbits.”
The stranger’s beautiful face blanched. He pushed himself up on one elbow, then another, his eyes still fixed on Lan Wangji’s face. “Shit, sorry, I just—the police are here, and they brought dogs, and usually when it’s just somebody’s little poodle across the street or whatever I can be cool, I can handle it like an adult and stuff, but it was an entire K9 squad, and I just, I really hate dogs, they scare the living daylights out of me, you know? So I saw this whole pack of them coming my way, and I panicked, and then I nearly squashed your bunny, I’m sorry.”
Lan Wangji considered this. Now that he was no longer fearing for Twitch’s life, he could make out the sounds of an unusually large number of dogs coming from the direction of the commercial street between the back of his house and the creek. There was also the crackle of police radios, echoing back and forth at different distances, as though the police were looking for something.
Lan Wangji looked more closely at the young man still lying on his lawn. His hair was wrapped up in a practical bun at the back of his head. As Lan Wangji had noted earlier, he was wearing a leather jacket, and, as Lan Wangji looked on, black jeans as well, tucked into well-loved combat boots, which were also black.
The only hint of color to his outfit was peeking out through the vee of his jacket: a small glimpse of a cherry-red crew-neck of unknown provenance.
There was nothing about his appearance that screamed criminal, other than perhaps the undeniable practicality of his outfit in the event he was planning a midnight break-in, but Lan Wangji knew better than to judge criminality by clothing style as his uncle still did. (Also, it was the middle of the afternoon.) However, Lan Wangji could add two and two to get four as well as the next person. There were only so many reasons to jump over a fence to evade a squad of policemen, and this man had chosen to do it specifically between a marijuana dispensary and a Sichuan restaurant—a combination Lan Xichen appreciated but which had long left Lan Wangji despairing of the aggressive smells. Where better to lose a K9 unit?
But he said nothing. Who knew how dangerous this man was?
He threw himself to the ground to avoid hurting a rabbit, Lan Wangji found himself thinking. How vicious could he possibly be?
“Okay, okay, so you don’t forgive me,” said the stranger. “That’s totally fair. Can I apologize to your rabbits, though? I really do feel bad about that bit.”
Lan Wangji’s brow wrinkled. Apologize to the rabbits?
“To the white one, for almost stepping on it, obviously,” said the stranger, as though replying to Lan Wangji’s thoughts. “And to the black one, for nearly squishing its friend. That’s why it came over to nip me, I bet! A show of strength!” He smiled another dazzling smile, this time close-mouthed. “Please, can I pet them? How do I make friends with them? You’ll tell me, won’t you?”
Lan Wangji had been shown a documentary, at some point in his youth, about the art of confidence men like Frank Abagnale. He had seen flashes of that slickness, that forwardness, that capacity to turn any situation to one’s advantage, in his late father’s business associate Jin Guangshan, and there were echoes of those same skills in his brother’s latest boyfriend, Meng Yao. But he’d never encountered anyone even half as good at worming their way past his defenses as this strange man on his lawn, who had broken into his quiet home by force and threatened the life of his pets, and who was now, inexplicably, charming Lan Wangji into, well—
“You must hold still,” he found himself saying. “And be quiet. I will give you treats to feed them.”
The man popped up like a prairie dog, looking around for Twitch, presumably concerned he might squish her for real this time, and dusted off his legs with gusto.
“Oh my god, thank you so much! You can call me Wei Ying, by the way! And you said your name was Lan Zhan, right? It’s nice to meet you, Lan Zhan!”
“Quiet,” said Lan Wangji, rather than insist that the man—Wei Ying, though the name was surely just as fictional as “Robert Black” or any of Frank Abagnale’s other aliases—call Lan Wangji by his courtesy name. He reached into the bag in his pocket and set some radish tops on Wei Ying’s knee.
“Yessss,” hissed Wei Ying softly with a tiny, tiny fist pump as Nibble perked up and poked her head in his direction. “C’mere, li’l bun!”
Wei Ying’s face as the rabbit approached him was a picture of genuine delight. He looked excitedly between Lan Wangji and Nibble as Nibble put out a paw and began to chomp down on the radish tops. “Oh my god, Lan Zhan, it’s working! It’s so cute I’m gonna die!” said Wei Ying in a not-very-hushed whisper. His eyes were the size of dinner plates, the grey glinting silver as they took in the dappled afternoon light.
Lan Wangji was not staring. “She,” he said.
“Not ‘it,’ ‘she.’ And be quiet.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” said Wei Ying, only barely quieter than he had been before. “It’s sort of a struggle for me to hear how loud I’m being.”
“Hard to believe,” said Lan Wangji, then frowned at his own uncharacteristically candid speech. He was often sardonic in the privacy of his own head, but rarely did his mental asides become verbal. What was this man, this Wei Ying, doing to him?
Wei Ying, for his part, did not seem offended in the slightest. He snorted and grinned, barely managing to muffle his laughter in one of his leather sleeves.
“I just mean,” he said, his exaggerated, barely-there whisper forcing Lan Wangji to focus on those plush, mobile lips, “that I always sound a normal volume—to myself.”
Wei Ying smiled at him—a pleased, secret sort of smile. Then he startled, his eyebrows jumping up into his hairline and his shoulders tensing, as Twitch crept back over from where she had been hiding in the bushes and joined Nibble at Wei Ying’s knee.
“Lan Zhan!” mouthed Wei Ying, thrilled. It was uncanny, Lan Wangji thought to himself, how it had been barely any time at all, and yet he could already see just how perfectly his name sat in Wei Ying’s mouth.
The barest breath: “Does this mean they both forgive me?” One of Wei Ying’s hands tentatively crept up from the grass toward his long-eared visitors. “Can I pet them yet?”
“Not yet,” said Lan Wangji. Unlike Wei Ying, he could keep his voice to a timbre soothing enough for the bunnies without needing to be practically inaudible to human ears. “Let them finish eating.”
The two of them sat in silence for another minute as Wei Ying stared at the bunnies’ busy teeth and twitching noses.
Then Wei Ying opened his mouth again. (Lan Wangji was beginning to believe that open-mouthed was simply Wei Ying’s natural state.) “What are their names? They do have names, right?”
“Twitch,” said Lan Wangji, indicating the white rabbit. “And Nibble.”
“Oh my god, that’s so cute,” Wei Ying cooed. Lan Wangji assumed, not without precedent, that this was a reaction to his rabbits’ names, but then Wei Ying went on: “You were totally stone-faced when you said that. That’s adorable, you’re totally serious about them, aren’t you?”
“They are my pets,” said Lan Zhan, nonplussed. Of course he took their care seriously.
“I mean you don’t think it’s funny, or silly, or embarrassing. That you have cute li’l buns with cute li’l names.”
Lan Wangji shifted a little on the grass. He was aware that dedicating himself to the care of two small rabbits was not, perhaps, in keeping with the masculine image he could not help but project due to his size and facial features. In his youth, he had indeed been somewhat ashamed, or at any rate fearful of being judged, for the various incongruities between the assumptions strangers made about him and his true self. However, he was twenty-two now, and he had clawed his self-image back from those who would impose it on him against his will; he had not fallen prey to self-consciousness about his masculinity in years.
Spending so much of his time sequestered away from the world, he had lost sight of what an accomplishment it was to no longer feel nervous about this private part of himself.
Feeling a strange flush of pride, he held his ground, blinking at Wei Ying slowly as if he had no idea what Wei Ying could possibly be talking about. “There is nothing embarrassing about keeping rabbits, so keeping rabbits does not embarrass me.”
Wei Ying’s nose wrinkled with suppressed laughter. “Lan Zhan! You’ve got to stop making me laugh if you want me to be quiet, you know!”
His voice was, as he had warned, getting louder again. Could he really not hear himself?
“You’re totally on the money, though, there’s nothing embarrassing about it at all,” Wei Ying continued. “But there’s such a big difference between the stuff that’s, like, objectively worthy of shame, and the stuff people try to make you feel bad about, am I right?”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji decided to let him talk on, rather than address the frankly astonishing proposition that someone other than his brother had realized he was capable of intentional humor.
Apparently undeterred by Lan Wangji’s understated response, Wei Ying barreled on: “Like, when I was younger, I had the biggest complex about nail polish…”
If Lan Wangji had stopped paying attention to his words and listened only to his tone of voice, he would have assumed Wei Ying was rambling about nothing. He certainly didn’t seem to be giving particular weight to anything he said. But because Lan Wangji was listening, he realized that Wei Ying’s reflections on his childhood fears were surprisingly cogent, and even as Wei Ying segued into talking about the week he decided to lacquer his nails with the morning newspaper every day, and then into the science behind color-changing thermal nail polishes—the technical details of which Lan Wangji had barely any hope of following—he remained equally engaging.
“You may pet them now, if you wish,” Lan Wangji put in, the next time Wei Ying paused for breath. The bunnies had totally acclimated to the sound of his voice, despite how much louder it had grown. “But slowly. And gently.”
Wei Ying’s eyebrows shot up and he nodded eagerly. With slow, careful movements, he shucked off his leather jacket, revealing the rest of his red shirt, stretched taut with age and wear. It was worn so thin that Lan Wangji could, if he looked hard enough, make out Wei Ying’s nipples as they peaked in the cool spring afternoon.
Lan Wangji did not want to look hard enough. He very pointedly stopped looking hard enough, and in fact looked very hard in the opposite direction. But nevertheless, he had seen, and could not seem to divest himself of the mental image now, no matter how he strove. In fact, the mental image joined forces with his own instructions—slowly, gently—to present him with an even more lethal mental image, until finally he gave up his fruitless resistance and simply turned his eyes back towards the real Wei Ying, now happily petting one bunny with each hand.
“I think they’ve forgiven me, Lan Zhan, what do you say?” he asked, his eyes still blessedly trained on the bunnies he was stroking.
“Mn,” was all Lan Wangji could manage.
Moments later, there was a buzzing sound from Wei Ying’s jacket where it lay discarded on the lawn behind him. “Shit,” he said, twisting carefully in place to retrieve the jacket without disturbing the bunnies. He fished the phone out and thumbed it open. “Shit,” he repeated. “My ride’s looking for me. I gotta go, Lan Zhan.”
He sounded a touch nervous, but not nearly as nervous as Lan Wangji would have expected from someone who was practically admitting to being on the run from law enforcement. Perhaps, given how attentively Lan Wangji had listened to him, he was operating under the assumption that Lan Wangji was not going to give him away?
And he was quite right to do so, Lan Wangji thought, realizing it fully for the first time. The idea that he was letting Wei Ying share his space unchallenged out of some kind of fear for himself or his rabbits had dispersed long ago. He had somehow, in the space of not very many minutes at all, decided that he did not want any harm to come to this strange man who had fallen into his garden, even if said strange man was almost certainly a wanted criminal.
It was a very bizarre feeling. Like a door had opened somewhere in his soul.
Wei Ying was pulling his leather jacket back on now, his lighthearted chatter bubbling up once again, louder and louder: “—It was really nice to meet you, Lan Zhan! Wish it could have been under better circumstances, haha! But I guess getting to pet some adorable bunnies with a handsome stranger isn’t really the worst way to spend an afternoon. I’ll have to drop by another time and see if you’re out here again!”
Who was meant to be the handsome stranger in this case? Lan Wangji was unsure.
“You should go out the left side,” Lan Wangji said as Wei Ying stood to leave. There was a large rhododendron bush in bloom there. If the police happened to be lurking on Lan Wangji’s street, they would have a hard time seeing Wei Ying through the screen of leaves and blossoms.
“Oh, right, thanks,” said Wei Ying. He scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. “Don’t wanna put a dent in your fence trying to boost myself out the back, now do I?”
He knelt once more and brought his face down to Twitch’s height, pushing his face forward to rub his nose briefly against hers. She sneezed at him, and he laughed with childlike joy, then straightened. “This is the best thing to happen to me all week,” he said, half to himself. “Thanks, Lan Zhan. You’ve been a wonderful host.”
He stuck his hand out for Lan Wangji to shake. It seemed, somehow, wildly inappropriate for what had transpired between them; Lan Wangji found himself fighting the urge to take Wei Ying’s face in both his hands and kiss him senseless.
The urge was bested, and Lan Wangji shook Wei Ying’s hand. It was warm, calloused, a little damp with dew from the grass. Lan Wangji committed the feeling of it to memory.
When Wei Ying disappeared in the direction of the rhododendron bush, Lan Wangji was almost prepared to believe Wei Ying was walking out of his life forever.
Almost. But not quite.
The police showed up an hour later. With his brother and Meng Yao off on a long-planned drive out into the country today, Lan Wangji was the only one around to answer the door.
They asked if he had seen any suspicious activity recently.
He told them no.
The next time he saw Wei Ying was about a month later.
Lan Wangji’s final exams for his last year of university were approaching, but Uncle had not lessened his internship responsibilities in the slightest. On this particular day, Uncle had brought him along to an important meeting with Jiang Entertainment, ostensibly so that Lan Wangji could learn how the Cloudburst Broadcast Rights Group conducted itself in such situations, but more likely so that Lan Qiren did not have to distract himself from the meeting by taking his own notes.
The Cloudburst Group’s official headquarters were still in the same location as they had been a hundred years ago when the organization was still called Cloud Recesses Composers & Musicians Representation Society, though they did have a large branch office in the city.
Jiang Entertainment, by contrast, had relocated their headquarters thirty years ago to the shores of the lake just outside the city limits. There, they had built an elaborate complex whose architect must have been tasked with incorporating a “lake” theme into every inch of the place. Jiang Entertainment’s lobby was dominated by a two-story waterfall running down the far wall with a soothing burble, swirling around its plunge basin before its stream flowed into a large koi pond situated directly under a giant skylight. The office housed skillful collage of live plants, curved niches, and textured woods. Although it was likely a nightmare to clean, the fact that their campus was kept immaculate nevertheless spoke to Jiang Entertainment’s high standards. The aesthetic made the building look inviting and free-spirited, yet served quite effectively as a status symbol.
Lan Wangji was begrudgingly impressed.
The content of the meeting itself did not interest him overmuch. The notes he took were unimpeachable, but mechanical and uninspired—he would not be able to offer his uncle any insights worthy of a future CEO, which was appropriate, as he had no interest in taking any leadership role, or in fact any role, with the Cloudburst Group in the future.
Uncle did not know this, which accounted for the continued harmony between them.
The one insight Lan Wangji had been able to glean without much effort was that the young man sitting to the right of the Jiang Entertainment CEO seemed to be in the meeting for much the same reason as Lan Wangji himself. Said young man did not speak, although occasionally the CEO—Jiang Fengmian, supplied Lan Wangji’s notepad—looked expectantly at him, as though waiting for some witty aside that was not forthcoming.
Lan Wangji could read some of his own frustration on his counterpart’s expressive face.
When the meeting ended and the other participants had taken their leave, Uncle walked down the long boardroom table and began talking to Jiang Fengmian like they were old friends. Jiang Fengmian aimed a paternalistic gesture of dismissal at his young note-taker and turned more fully toward Lan Qiren, who immediately made a similar gesture in Lan Wangji’s direction.
If Lan Wangji’s past experience was any judge, they would be another half-hour at the very least. Lan Qiren only engaged in excessive small talk—a vice cautioned against in the family’s ancestral rules—when he was steeling himself to violate another such rule, such as the one against cashing in personal favors for reasons of business advancement.
With a small, private sigh, Lan Wangji rose and quit the boardroom. The young Jiang Entertainment employee had already fled the area. What exactly was Lan Wangji meant to do with himself? The meeting attendees had all been escorted up to a boardroom situated on the same floor as all the executive suites. It was not an acceptable place for an outsider to be wandering around unattended.
Unwilling to venture too far afield, Lan Wangji walked down the hall until he came to a wedge-shaped seating area that gave onto the building’s sunlit central column. The koi pond in the foyer was visible several stories below. Just as Lan Wangji had tucked himself into a chair and begun resigning himself to contemplating the koi pond in silence for the better part of an hour, his attention was drawn by a figure passing by the narrow seating area, heading for the corner office across from it.
Was that—no. It couldn’t be. Wei Ying?
It was indeed Wei Ying. He walked right past Lan Wangji, who was screened from his view by one of Jiang Entertainment’s ubiquitous leafy plants, and knocked briskly on the door of the corner office, a handful of generic mailers and industry-related magazines in his hand.
“Mail’s here,” he called through the door, his voice a warm drawl.
It did not sound like he expected an answer.
He looked almost nothing like he had that strange spring day on Lan Wangji’s lawn, black leather and black denim and a sneezeworth of red cotton. Today he looked practically clean-cut in a grey button-down shirt and tan slacks, his hair in a neat French braid.
From behind the generous foliage of his potted plant, Lan Wangji watched in fascination as Wei Ying darted a quick glance down each of the two hallways that formed the corner where he stood, forgetting to check directly behind himself in the seating area. Then he let himself into the corner office. Lan Wangji looked at the nameplate on the door: Jiang Fengmian, CEO.
After a minute had passed—too quick to have done anything particularly nefarious, but far too long for a simple mail delivery—Wei Ying poked his head out of the door again.
And saw Lan Wangji.
In the first moment, all Lan Wangji could see on his face was the simple shock of discovering an entire human person when you had been quite sure you were alone. But in the blink of an eye, his panic gave way to what could only be called pleased recognition.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying said. His voice was not yet truly loud, but it was certainly too loud for a tranquil office environment. He let the door to Jiang Fengmian’s office swing fully open, and Lan Wangji could see that the handful of mail had been tossed haphazardly on Jiang Fengmian’s desk. What had Wei Ying been doing in the remaining time? This question was driven from his head by the brightness of Wei Ying’s smile as he went on: “Lan Zhan, what on earth are you doing here?”
“Attending a meeting,” said Lan Wangji. He tried to keep talking, tried to ask what Wei Ying was doing here, but his mouth felt paper-dry.
“Ah!” said Wei Ying, instantly delighted. “Is Lan Zhan going to sign a contract here? Are you talent?” He pursed his lips, pouting at Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan, I hope you remember me when you’re a lofty star and I’m still a lowly mail runner!” And then he winked.
His office attire looked all wrong, like he was trying desperately to blend in to the corporate world and failing abysmally. His slacks were too short for his long legs and showed far too much ankle, his shoes were not shiny patent leather but were, on closer inspection, actually just plastic, and he wasn’t wearing a belt, though the outfit clearly called for one.
There was a Jiang Entertainment employee badge around his neck, but it had been turned inward so that the side where the identifying information should have been was flat against his chest.
“I am not here as talent,” Lan Wangji managed. And you’re not here as a mail runner, he didn’t add.
“Aww, really?” Wei Ying seemed genuinely disappointed. “You have the face for it, you know!”
Lan Wangji’s ears burned. He shook his head. “I am an intern,” he said. “With Cloudburst.”
Wei Ying’s face wrinkled. “Cloudburst? Aren’t they the ones who tried to sue the Scouts for singing copyrighted campfire songs?” Then his eyebrows rose. “Oh, of course, you’re a Lan Lan,” he said, understanding dawning on his face. “One of those Lans.”
“By birth,” said Lan Wangji mulishly. “Not by choice.”
Wei Ying’s eyebrows rose further, taking his entire head with them. Then he tipped his head down again in an approving nod, grinning widely. “Lan Zhan! Don’t tell me you’re a rebel!”
Lan Wangji said nothing.
Wei Ying put a hand on one hip. “Well?”
“You told me not to tell you,” said Lan Wangji, deadpan.
The delighted giggle that burst from Wei Ying at this response was sure to keep Lan Wangji’s mood afloat all through his exams.
“Ahh, you’re great, Lan Zhan, I’m so glad I ran into you again,” said Wei Ying. “What would you rather be doing, then? Since it’s not working for the people collecting the licensing fees.”
“I would rather be on the other side,” Lan Wangji found himself admitting. He hadn’t even told his brother. Not yet. He’d gotten away with studying music at university because pre-law students could technically take any subject they liked before going on to study law, and he’d managed to convince Uncle that a gap year after graduation would benefit his law career in the long run, but he had not quite been able to bring himself to announce that he was never, ever, ever going to go to law school.
“The other side? You mean, like, making the music? Or writing it?”
“I do compose, occasionally,” Lan Wanji conceded, “but that’s not what I meant. I would like to be the one who pays the licensing fees, because I would like to be the one finding and selecting music to pair with the stories that need accompaniment.”
“Ohhh,” Wei Ying said. “Right, right, I know what you mean, a whatsit, music-chooser thingy... A music supervisor!”
Lan Wangji nodded. In any other universe, it was exactly the kind of job that would be perfect for him, given his areas of interest (music as a storytelling tool, music as an expression of emotion) and expertise (music as a subcategory of archival research, music as it was handled by copyright law.) But in this universe, he had not yet found out how to wrench himself off the track that had been laid out for him.
“A music supervisor…” Wei Ying repeated slowly, his tone contemplative. “Actually, wow, that’s perfect, Lan Zhan!” His expressive grey eyes sparkled. How was it he could infuse his words with so much joy on behalf of someone he hardly knew? “I mean, you’re such a good listener! And so thoughtful, you know, like you always pick exactly as many words as you need for what you want to get across, and stuff? That’s totally the kind of thing they do, right, just with songs? I bet you’d be great at it!”
Lan Wangji couldn’t put a name to the emotion he was feeling. It was less an emotion, and more an outpouring of it: a release of the tension he had never put into words. It was real, somehow, now that he’d said it out loud, now that someone had really seen the truth of him.
He did not want to go to law school. He did not want to continue his family’s work.
A song for this moment: something thrumming, something defiant and scrappy and hopeful. Frank Turner’s Get Better, maybe.
“Thank you,” was all he said.
Wei Ying shrugged. “When it comes to disappointing your family, I pretty much wrote the book,” he said, jerking two thumbs towards his chest. “So I get it. I can see it all over your face.”
Lan Wangji very nearly smiled. That was certainly not an idiom he heard applied to himself very often.
There was a soft ping from the depths of the office, and Wei Ying perked up. “There we go, so much faster—my I3 is such a piece of shit compared to the magic of a corporate budget, he doesn’t even need this much processing power, it’s obscene, honestly—”
He retreated into the office and bent over the computer atop Jiang Fengmian’s desk, typing rapidly.
Ah. Yes. Things were beginning to fall into place in Lan Wangji’s mind. He’d spent all month wondering what Wei Ying could possibly have done to warrant such a high-budget manhunt, but if he had stolen some kind of valuable corporate secrets, social-engineered his way to the inner sanctums of capitalism and then hacked his way into its heart—
Somewhere down the hall further from the boardroom there was the sound of a slamming door.
“Oh shit,” said Wei Ying. He started typing, if possible, even faster.
Lan Wangji leapt to his feet and nearly tripped in his haste to position himself between the open door to the corner office and whoever was coming down the hallway.
It was the young note-taker from the meeting, the one who had sat tersely next to Jiang Fengmian with frustration seeping out of his pores. Lan Wangji strode forward to meet him.
“Excuse me,” he said quickly. “Mr. Lan and Mr. Jiang are still talking. Do you have any idea when they will wrap up for the day?”
The young note-taker stopped short. The scowl that seemed etched into his features relaxed into a vague diplomatic neutrality. “They’re friends, aren’t they? So they’re speaking of personal matters. There’s no scheduled agenda.” He said this last in a tone that split the difference between patronizing and impatient. “But as it happens, I’m about to go remind Fa--Mr. Jiang that he has a call in half an hour, so perhaps he’ll want to take the time to prepare. If you’ll excuse me?”
“I,” started Lan Wangji, and then couldn't think of anything else to say to waylay him. Why had he led with impatience? Now he had no excuse to dawdle! “Yes, thank you, I’ll walk with you.” He swallowed. “If that’s all right.”
The young man gave him a strange look. “Jiang Cheng, courtesy name Jiang Wanyin,” he said gruffly, thrusting out his hand. Lan Wangji accepted it, giving his own name in return. “Nice to meet you, Lan Wangji,” Jiang Wanyin said. He didn’t especially sound like he meant it, but he didn’t sound like he didn’t mean it either.
Lan Wangji endeavored to keep himself between Jiang Wanyin and the door to the corner office, which worked perfectly well, but belatedly he realized he should have done the opposite: Jiang Cheng looked over at him at exactly the wrong second, and caught sight of Wei Ying over his shoulder through the open door.
“You—you shouldn’t be in there!” Jiang Wanyin sputtered immediately, the volume of his voice ratcheting ever higher as he went on, “Get out of there! Right now!”
Lan Wangji glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Wei Ying duck down to pull a sparkly red flash drive from the computer tower under Jiang Fengmian’s desk, waggle it triumphantly in his fingers, and dive for the door.
Jiang Wanyin dived for him in turn, and found himself tripping over Lan Wangji’s conveniently placed foot as Wei Ying slipped out of his reach and began to run at full tilt down the hall. “You little—get back here!” Jiang Wanyin howled. He took off running after Wei Ying without even looking at Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji’s heart was pounding in his ears. He’d—he’d done more than just passively harbor a criminal this time. He’d actively interfered in Wei Ying’s capture; he’d touched another person to do it. What was happening to him?
Wei Ying’s gleeful laughter as he fled down that immaculate hallway echoed in his ears the rest of the day.
The next time he saw Wei Ying, his final exams were well and truly over. He’d graduated. He was still working for the Cloudburst Group—in fact, his responsibilities there had only expanded since he’d earned his degree and his gap year had begun; he was a full-time employee now—but it was still far too early in the summer for his uncle to begin incessantly pressuring him about law school. Instead, Uncle began squiring Lan Wangji around to an ever-increasing number of meetings.
The most odious of these took place at the obnoxiously gilded tower owned and occupied by the Jin Music Group. The label had more money than God himself, Lan Wangji had once found himself thinking. Surely they could afford to buy some taste?
Every cloud had its silver lining, though, and the silver lining of the constant visits to the ostentatiously named “Golden Unicorn Tower” was that Lan Wangji had discovered his new favorite tea shop three doors down. On days when Uncle’s questions became too much, and even his brother’s curious glances began to feel oppressive, Lan Wangji had developed a habit of catching the bus downtown and sitting at the window of Tea City, watching the world go by.
Sometimes, when he was in a truly terrible mood, he would look up music supervisors on LinkedIn and draft inquiries he still couldn’t quite bring himself to send.
He was in precisely such a mood the day he saw Wei Ying again.
The day was bright and fine, the summer air not too terribly muggy, kept breathable by a generous breeze from the direction of the lake. Lan Wangji was sitting in Tea City’s front patio for once instead of behind the glass, all the indoor tables having been taken.
Although he faced Golden Unicorn Tower, his eyes were on his laptop. He knew that reaching out to someone in his circle—inevitably via Lan Qiren—was almost certainly better than reaching out to someone who had no reason to know him, but part of him longed to simply be known as himself, not “one of those Lans,” as Wei Ying had put it. He had been waffling on sending this particular email for weeks now, and it occupied all of his attention.
Until he heard a very particular laugh.
His eyes shot up. Wei Ying and a smaller man wearing a crop top made from an oversized sports jersey were being roughly herded toward a large black SUV in a line of several large black SUVs, all parked directly in front of Golden Unicorn Tower.
The man herding them was very large. He was also wearing a bulletproof vest. There was an insignia patch sewn to the shoulder of his sleeve; Lan Wangji couldn’t make it out from where he was sitting, but it looked very official.
Knowing what he knew, Lan Wangji made the necessary mental leap at once: Wei Ying had gone after the Jin Group—good for him, Lan Wangji thought viciously—but then he and his accomplice had been apprehended.
Lan Wangji was on his feet before he could think about it, but what could he do? What could he possibly do? The question played on repeat in his mind as the large man in the bulletproof vest cuffed Wei Ying’s accomplice over the head like he was an unruly child, and Wei Ying ducked his own head in response, looking suddenly hangdog. He had been laughing and defiant moments ago, but now he was, Lan Wangji surmised, reckoning with what it meant to be caught.
The law enforcement officer opened the door of the black SUV and pushed down Wei Ying’s head as he climbed reluctantly into the car, just like in every crime serial Lan Wangji had caught bits of while Lan Xichen channel-surfed after dinner.
Lan Wangji sank back into his seat. This was it, then. His role in Wei Ying’s life was over. Two short, magical conversations, two glittering moments out of time, and then this last glimpse, like the universe was offering him closure.
For some people, life had a plot, a throughline, a narrative arc. Wei Ying, with his high-stakes crusade and his crushing defeat, was one of those people. It was a miracle Wei Ying had crossed paths with him at all. Compared to him, Lan Wangji would only ever be a background character.
Well, that was what he had told Wei Ying he wanted, wasn’t it? He wanted to help bring the stories on the screen to life, not star in them.
If he got his way, he might one day be called on to pick a song to play over a moment of quiet longing and quieter despair just like this one. Something like Genius Next Door, by Regina Spektor. Ready to Lose, by Ingrid Michaelson. Things That Stop You Dreaming, by Passenger.
In a movie, this moment would be touching and poignant, the soundtrack pitch-perfect. As it was, Lan Wangji felt vaguely like all three of his chosen songs were playing in his head at once: discordant, unwelcome, ugly.
He glanced back down at his laptop. His fears of a moment ago seemed so small, now. Tears gathered unbidden at the corners of his eyes. Hand shaking, he hit send.
Missive sent, he took a deep breath and looked up one more time. Wei Ying was nowhere to be seen, still locked away in the belly of the black SUV, but the man in the bulletproof vest was still standing out on the sidewalk, muttering into a walkie-talkie.
When the man pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them into the collar of his uniform, Lan Wangji suddenly recognized him. It was Nie Mingjue.
That night, he asked his brother when Nie Mingjue had last been in touch.
Lan Wangji was vaguely aware that Nie Mingjue and his brother had been able to remain on good terms after their breakup, but Lan Wangji had been away at boarding school for the entirety of their relationship. He had only ever seen Nie Mingjue in social media photos and at a few stilted holiday dinners. Uncle had approved of Nie Mingjue’s passion for justice and his burgeoning career in law enforcement—it seemed to dovetail neatly with the Lan family’s calling—but did not care overmuch for Nie Mingjue’s increasingly disillusioned screeds on the futility inherent in reforming a broken system, nor for the man’s tendency to refer to the entrenchment of the prison-industrial complex as an “ancestral curse.”
Lan Wangji had merely approved of Nie Mingjue’s forthrightness, his ability to say exactly what he meant. It was why he still found himself preferring Nie Mingjue to Meng Yao, even though Meng Yao had gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with his boyfriend’s little brother.
Lan Xichen seemed happy to be reminded of Nie Mingjue, and even went so far as to invite him over for dinner the next night. This was quite a bit more than Lan Wangji had even thought to hope for; he was well aware that Meng Yao bristled like a cornered cat whenever Nie Mingjue’s name was mentioned. Meng Yao, however, was meant to be out of the city on business for the next week, and somehow Lan Xichen had convinced himself that inviting your ex over for dinner while your boyfriend was away was something other than an utterly terrible idea.
Lan Wangji loved his brother, loved him dearly, but...really, Xichen? Really?
At any rate, Lan Wangji got what he wanted: the chance to ask Nie Mingjue about Wei Ying.
(Obliquely, of course.)
When the conversation inevitably shifted to Nie Mingjue’s job, Lan Wangji asked, “Have you made any...noteworthy arrests lately?”
A complicated expression took up residence on Nie Mingjue’s face. For all his own face was often said to be inscrutable, Lan Wangji had never had any particular insight into the expressions of others. If forced to guess, Lan Wangji would have put his money on “suspicious,” but somehow he was sure there was a layer of guilt behind it as well.
“Noteworthy?” repeated Nie Mingjue, as if tasting the word. “I don’t think I’d say that, no. Nobody who’d get a write-up in the papers.” He grinned at Lan Wangji. “Just the usual scumbags.”
Lan Wangji mentally revised Nie Mingjue’s rank to just below Meng Yao’s.
He excused himself almost immediately after finishing his food and retreated upstairs to his room. His brother shot him a concerned glance, but Lan Wangji let it slide off him and continued up the stairs.
His brother and Nie Mingjue talked late into the night, Nie Mingjue’s loud voice filtering up through the living room ceiling and into Lan Wangji’s bedroom as a bass hum that kept Lan Wangji awake far past his usual hours.
In the end, he put on his Weird Girls With Pianos playlist and let it carry him away until he could finally sleep.
Luckily, it was a very long playlist.
Impossibly, it was only three days after Nie Mingjue’s visit that he saw Wei Ying for the fourth time.
Lan Wangji was sitting on a bench outside his customary barbershop, fifteen minutes early for his scheduled trim—he hated doing it himself, and he didn’t trust his brother after that time with The Bangs—when he realized he was witnessing a high-speed chase. A disheveled man in black jeans and a ponytail was sprinting across the street, jaywalking—jayrunning, rather—from somewhere on the other side.
It only took Lan Wangji half a glance to recognize Wei Ying, and another half a glance to see he was being chased by a grim-faced man in track pants and the same dark Aviator sunglasses Nie Mingjue favored.
Wei Ying was running madly down the street toward Lan Wangji, still a ways off, looking back over his shoulder and grinning like a demon whenever he did. Now that he was a little closer, Lan Wangji could see he was clutching a phone in one hand.
Lan Wangji followed Wei Ying’s trajectory in his mind. He would almost certainly turn into the small covered lane that connected this row of shops to the interior mall and to the parking lot beyond, the better to lose his pursuer.
It was the work of a moment for Lan Wangji to duck around the corner and into the lane himself. He barely had the space of a breath to admire the wisteria twining around the wooden beams arching over the lane, forming a delicate canopy over the brick, before Wei Ying came barreling around the corner after him.
Lan Wangji caught him around the middle and spun him in a circle to press Wei Ying back into the wall, covering him with his body. Before Wei Ying could cry out in surprise and give the game away, Lan Wangji kissed him quiet.
Wei Ying melted into the kiss, and Lan Wangji melted into Wei Ying. At first it was just a press of lips on lips, soft, sweet pressure; Wei Ying’s skin was warm and Lan Wangji felt he like he was cradling sunshine.They moved apart to breathe and Wei Ying had just enough time to say “Lan Zhan,” in quiet wonder before Lan Wangji was on him again, now diving into his mouth to taste him fully, and Wei Ying moaned around Lan Wangji’s greedy tongue.
Lan Wangji was spiralling, but upwards: his soul soared. Wei Ying was here and alive and real and in his arms and kissing him back. Behind him, Wei Ying’s pursuer thundered past, successfully fooled, but Lan Wangji did not even register the success of his plan. In the amphitheatre of Lan Wangji’s mind, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Cut to the Feeling was playing on full volume, and there was nothing else in his reality but Wei Ying’s mouth under his, Wei Ying’s body like a live wire in his arms, squirming against him as if trying to get even closer.
Finally Lan Wangji became aware of his surroundings again, feeling very much as if he were surfacing from deep underwater. He took a step back.
“Lan Zhan, what—”
“We should go,” Lan Wangji cut in, letting his hands drop to his sides and tangling the fingers of his hand with Wei Ying’s. He forced himself to be pragmatic. Wei Ying had escaped from custody somehow, but the authorities were clearly hot on his trail. There was no time for his daydreams. “That bought us some time, but we need to make the most of it.”
“Bought us time?” Wei Ying’s voice was adorably confused.
“To get you out of here,” Lan Wangji said. “Before the authorities realize they’ve been tricked.” He tugged at Wei Ying’s hand, trying to tow him back around the corner—Lan Wangji had a long-standing relationship with his barber, they could almost certainly hide in the barbershop until a better plan could be made—but Wei Ying was not moving.
“Lan Zhan,” said Wei Ying, more serious now. He slipped the phone he had been holding into his pocket and took Lan Wangji’s free hand in his, so that both their hands were joined. “Not that I don’t appreciate being swept off my feet and kissed within an inch of my life by unrealistically pretty men, especially men I happen to be crushing on, but what the fuck are you talking about?”
Lan Wangji faltered. “I—I kissed you to, to hide you. From the man chasing you. Because you are on the run?”
He hadn’t intended to say it as a question, but Wei Ying’s complete lack of urgency and totally baffled expression had him suddenly questioning all the things he had seen with his own eyes.
“On the run...from the authorities,” Wei Ying repeated, in what was unmistakably a tone of disbelief.
“I saw you. Being arrested,” said Lan Wangji, haltingly. A frantic, rising doubt was gnawing at him. He struggled to choose his next words with his customary level of precision. “I saw you put into a law enforcement officer’s car. By an on-duty officer. In uniform.” Wei Ying still looked nonplussed, so Lan Wangji added, “Golden Unicorn Tower? With your accomplice…?”
Wei Ying’s mouth was moving and his eyes were not meeting Lan Wangji’s, as though he was riffling through the card catalog of his mind. Then his face cleared. “Oh! Huaisang and his brother! That was—” He laughed, and the laugh was bright and totally carefree—not the laugh of a man on the run. “Okay, I can see how that might have looked weird. So, my friend’s big brother is this bigshot detective, and my friend and I were hanging around while his brother was following up on—anyway, he said we were going to muck up the crime scene, so he made us go sit in his car—”
“Nie Mingjue,” interrupted Lan Wangji. “Your friend’s brother is Nie Mingjue?”
“Yeah, you know him?”
Lan Wangji could not quite bring himself to say anything.
“Lan Zhan,” said Wei Ying, a bit of that laugh still in his voice. He swung their clasped hands back and forth playfully. “You really thought I was some big-time criminal? I wasn’t even in handcuffs!”
Lan Wangji squeezed his eyes shut. His ears were burning. How could he have—? No, no, it wasn’t just that one instance, it was everything together—the police dogs, the CEO’s office—he hadn’t imagined it.
Could this be, somehow, another ploy?
“When I spoke to you last,” he said slowly, “you were extracting data from the CEO of a major corporation. You fled upon discovery.” He swallowed. Stick to the facts. “Your ID badge was obscured. You were in disguise—that is, your clothes fit poorly and were not appropriate for the setting.”
Wei Ying was looking at him as though he were a small child mispronouncing ‘caterpillar’: incorrect, but very, very cute with it. He whistled, a “whew, ouch” kind of whistle. “I didn’t exactly feel like shelling out for an entirely new wardrobe when I got roped into working for the family business, okay, so sue me. Some of us have bigger things to worry about than looking like an absolute god in everything we wear.” He looked Lan Wangji up and down as if to punctuate his statement, making no attempt to hide his appreciation.
Lan Wangji was so, so confused. His emotions were a mess. Wei Ying was holding his hand—both his hands. Wei Ying was flirting with him. Wei Ying had—was he remembering this correctly? It couldn’t have been more than a minute ago, but it already felt like days—implied he thought Lan Wangji was unrealistically pretty, had even said he had a crush on Lan Wangji, and that was wonderful, it was, but also—
—also everything he knew about Wei Ying was wrong.
“The family business?” he echoed weakly. “You are related to the Jiang family?”
“Well, sort of.” Wei Ying shrugged. “They took me in when I was young, raised me, but the paperwork’s a little complicated. At any rate, I was working there in the mailroom for real, badge and everything, I was just using Uncle Jiang’s computer to compile some software I was writing, ’cuz my laptop’s slow as shit. And then Jiang Cheng got all huffy about it, because his mom gets mad when I act too familiar with Uncle Jiang.”
Using their clasped hands, Wei Ying pulled Lan Wangji in, and told him, very seriously, “The important thing to know about Jiang Cheng, though, is that he’s always huffy about something. If he doesn’t have anything to be huffy about, he’s not really happy. So you can’t take him too seriously.”
“Mn,” said Lan Wangji. If the Jiangs were Wei Ying’s family, then he would need to be prepared for—wait, no, he still had important questions! He had to focus. “But the dogs,” he said, desperately clinging to what he was quite sure had been entirely coherent reasoning at the time. How could he possibly have gotten this so wrong? “The police dogs. When we first met, you were running from—”
“Oh god, that,” said Wei Ying. He made a disgusted face. “Really, I don’t even know why Huaisang dragged me there that day anyway, he just wanted someone to gloat to when they found the—okay, so I get why it totally looked shady, but I really do honestly just hate dogs? Like. My brain turns off. I just panic and run. Like I told you! They wouldn’t even have gone my direction. They were all heading for the creek.”
“Some police officers came to my house, after you left,” Lan Wangji told him.
“Really?” Wei Ying’s huge grey eyes looked shot through with lavender, an effect of all the wisteria climbing behind him. “What did they want?”
“They asked if I had seen anything suspicious.” Lan Wangji cleared his throat, a tiny hhm. “I told them no.”
“And this is the part I’m still not clear on,” said Wei Ying in wonderment. “You genuinely, honest-to-god, one-hundred-per-cent thought I was a crook! You thought I was on the run from the cops and stealing corporate secrets! But you...you covered for me? You were ready to help me go on the run?!”
He looked positively touched at the thought. Lan Wangji, overwhelmed, dropped his gaze to the ground. “Mn.”
“You didn’t even know me!” Wei Ying’s brow was creased in confusion. “You still don’t!”
Lan Wangji swallowed. “But I knew enough. I knew I wanted you to be safe. I knew I wanted to see you again. I knew I wanted to know everything about you.”
Wei Ying’s head thunked against Lan Wangji’s breastbone. His voice was muffled in Lan Wangji’s chest as he whined, “Lan Zhan! You can’t just say things like that! Give a guy a little warning!”
“I knew Wei Ying was good,” Lan Wangji went on. He liked Wei Ying moaning into his skin very much. “Wei Ying befriended the bunnies.”
As he’d hoped, this made Wei Ying curl into him tighter, releasing Lan Wangji’s hands to clutch at his shirt instead. “Ah, Lan Zhan! Are you sure you’re real?”
“Kiss me again,” said Lan Wangji, shocked at his own forwardness, “and find out.”
They were still kissing a minute later when none other than Jiang Cheng came slinking back down the lane, having been unable to find his quarry anywhere in the adjacent parking lot or shops.
“Wei Wuxian!” he barked. “What the hell are you doing! And give me back my phone!”
“Sure thing,” said Wei Ying, after languidly detaching himself from Lan Wangji. He retrieved the phone he’d been running with from his pocket and tossed it to Jiang Cheng. “I already texted your crush ages ago.”
Jiang Cheng began thumbing frantically through his phone. Then he stilled. “Wei Wuxian, you sick fuck, there’s nothing here!”
Wei Ying was already looking over his shoulder. “Oh, so that’s who you’ve been crushing on,” he said in delight. “I wasn’t sure!”
Jiang Cheng roared and reached for him, but Wei Ying quickly danced out of his reach and ducked behind Lan Wangji.
That was when Jiang Cheng finally looked at Lan Wangji properly, recognizing him for the first time. His chest puffed out, a big bad wolf ready to huff and puff.
Lan Wangji almost smiled. He had been warned. He would be fine.
Since their initial acquaintance had been such a whirlwind of misunderstandings, they had decided to try to take things slow.
In a manner of speaking.
They scheduled their first date for the very next day—boba at the tea shop on the street behind Lan Wangji’s house, and then a walk back to his garden to spend some quality time with the bunnies.
It was perfect. They talked about music, about Wei Ying’s career aspirations in software development now that he had graduated, about the response Lan Wangji had just received that morning from the music supervisor he’d contacted, about the books they had loved as children. Wei Ying was ecstatic to see Nibble and Twitch again, if not any better at keeping his voice down. Lan Wangji had been wrong about so much, but not about how perfectly Wei Ying fell in step beside him, how perfectly Wei Ying filled his silences.
Wei Ying was dozing under Lan Xichen’s favorite maple tree with his head in Lan Wangji’s lap when the notification popped up on Lan Wangji’s phone. Lan Wangji tapped it immediately.
JIN CEO ARRESTED FOR RAPE, MURDER Son may be implicated in scandal cover-up
Jin Guangshan, CEO of the multi-billion dollar Jin Music Group, was taken into custody in an airport today in the process of attempting to flee the country. He has been charged with multiple counts of rape and one count of murder. His son, Jin Guangyao, also known as Meng Yao, has been taken into custody as well in connection with the case, though he has not been formally charged…
Several wheels were turning in Lan Wangji’s head.
“Wei Ying,” he said, softly enough to not disturb Twitch and Nibble, who were sitting on his other side. “Wei Ying, did you know about this?”
“Jin Guangshan has been arrested.”
Wei Ying shot up. “Oh my god, I forgot that was today.”
Lan Wangji frowned. “So you did know.”
“Well, duh,” said Wei Ying. He yawned hugely. “Oh shit, I forgot I never actually explained that whole thing to you. You’re way too trusting, you know that, Lan Zhan?” He smiled helplessly at Lan Wangji. “Don’t trust anybody this much unless they’re me, okay?”
Lan Wangji leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. “I promise.” He held out his phone with the news article still displayed on the screen. “Now, tell me.”
Wei Ying proceeded to recount a story truly dizzying in its complexity, beginning with a cold case Nie Mingjue had taken an interest in, leading to inquiries in some old Jin employee records, proceeding to Meng Yao accusing him of harassing the Jin Group because Nie Mingjue was upset Meng Yao was dating Nie Mingjue’s ex-boyfriend, which had sent Nie Mingjue into a bit of a crisis of confidence, which had gotten Nie Huaisang’s hackles riled on his brother’s behalf, which had prompted him to wonder what it was Meng Yao had to hide, which had sparked a one-man crusade to dig up every dirty secret Jin Guangshan had ever buried—
(“—which became a two-man crusade, because when your best friend is in school to be a professional computer-toucher, you naturally ask him for all kinds of sneaky computer-related favors, and eventually he had to let me in on the whole shebang—”)
—which had culminated in feeding illegally-obtained information to several different law enforcement agencies, planting a couple clues to point them in the right direction, at which point Nie Mingjue had finally caught wind of what his little brother was up to—
(“—which is what you happened to see that one time, and then he promised to keep us in the loop on the case if we promised to keep our noses clean from then on and not fuck up the chain of custody any worse—”)
—which brought them up to the present.
“You must have interacted with Jin Guangshan once or twice, right?” Wei Ying asked. “Going to all those meetings with your uncle? He’s got unmistakeable scumbag energy, huh.”
Lan Wangji hummed in acknowledgement, then added, “Wei Ying. Do you know the name of Meng Yao’s current boyfriend? The one Nie Mingjue used to date?”
Wei Ying looked at him like he was crazy. “No, why would I?”
“Because Meng Yao is currently dating my brother.”
“Oh my god.” As it had on the morning of their first meeting when Lan Wangji had accused him of trespassing, Wei Ying’s lovely face blanched. “Oh my god, that’s why—the creek by your house—oh fuck, that’s so fucked up.” He blew out a breath. “No, I had no idea, I mean, I made my own little piece of software to sit on his work computer and copy his emails for us, and he never mentioned anybody by name, just, you know, ‘my partner,’ ‘my boyfriend,’ that kind of thing. No mistresses, or boytoys, or whatever you call it when it’s a dude.”
“I must confess I never took to him, but he always treated Brother well.”
A conflicted look passed across Wei Ying’s face. “Yeah. I mean, he did all kinds of slimy shit, but—I felt kind of sorry for him, in the end. His dad really knew how to twist the knife. Maybe it’s kinda armchair-psychology of me, but I thought it seemed like one of those things where you’re in so deep, you don’t know how to do anything but keep going. One mask after another.” His shoulders hunched in. “I know how that goes, I guess.”
“Brother will likely want to stand by him, despite what he’s done. I don’t know if he’d be cheered to hear such a sympathetic view, or if he’d be affronted that you invaded Meng Yao’s privacy.” Memory stirred. “You said your ‘own little piece of software.’ Would that be the one you made on Jiang Fengmian’s computer, by any chance?”
Wei Ying bit his lip. He raised a lone eyebrow. “Maybe.”
“And this ‘feeding of information’ you mention. Would it possibly have resulted in several K-9 units descending on the street behind my house?”
Lan Wangji just looked at him. He didn’t know how it was possible to be this exasperated and this fond after so short a time, but somehow he was managing it.
Wei Ying put up both hands, the picture of innocence. “I don’t know how you could have mistaken me for a wanted criminal, Lan Zhan! I was helping catch the bad guy!”
“Planting evidence. Unauthorized wiretapping. I am fairly certain those are criminal acts.”
Groaning, Wei Ying rolled his eyes. “It was for the greater good!”
“And as for ‘wanted’...I have wanted Wei Ying almost from the first moment I saw him.”
This made Wei Ying cover his face with both hands and keen like a wounded animal. “I told you, you can’t just say things like that!” he said, letting his hands fall forward onto Lan Wangji’s chest. His face was crimson. “My poor heart can’t take it!”
After only one glorious afternoon with Wei Ying all to himself, Lan Wangji was already learning how to be bold. He nuzzled into Wei Ying’s neck, nipping lightly at his ear. “My wanted criminal,” he murmured, and Wei Ying shivered pleasantly.
“You know that first bit doesn’t really count,” he said, his breath already speeding up. “Not really. I’m not on law enforcement’s radar at all, unless you count Nie Mingjue, and I’m pretty sure he’s planning to quit after this. Points for the pun, though.”
“Would you like me to invite you upstairs, then, so I can show you just how wanted you really are?”
There was a sharp intake of breath. “So shameless, Lan Zhan!” Pulling back, Wei Ying tilted his head down and then looked up at Lan Wangji through his eyelashes, a picture-perfect coquette. “I suppose I’m open to hearing your arguments.”
He forced himself to take his time putting the bunnies back in their hutch. Once the door was safely latched, though, Lan Wangji seized Wei Ying’s hand, and this time when he tugged Wei Ying after him, Wei Ying came gladly, laughing all the while.