The bell over the door chimes as Lan Wangji walks in. The hour is late enough that the place is almost empty, only regulars lingering over their last drinks at one or two tables. Wangji looks around, somewhat distracted, until he catches a movement out of the corner of his eye, a hand waving to beckon him over to the bar. He walks over and takes a seat, nodding to Nie Huaisang in greeting.
He picks up the glass of water that has been set in front of him and takes a sip, humming at the faint tang of lemon. Fingers tapping softly on the polished wood of the bar, he waits.
A few long minutes later, the man slumped over on the stool next to his stirs, slowly raising his head from where it was buried in his arms.
He pushes back from the bar and runs his hands through his already messy hair, ruining it further. Eventually, he sighs and looks at Wangji.
‘What are you doing here?’
Wangji considers his reply.
‘You weren’t picking up Yanli-jie’s or Wei Ying’s calls, so she called to ask if you were with me.’
He studies Jiang Cheng’s face.
‘She wouldn’t have had to if things had gone well.’
Jiang Cheng snorts and turns back to his drink, staring gloomily into the almost empty glass.
‘So, how’d you know to find me here?’ he asks, reaching out to the half-filled bottle in front of him.
Nie Huaisang swoops in and picks it up before he can reach it however, intercepting Jiang Cheng’s resulting scowl with a mocking one of his own.
‘I called him, that’s how. You’re bringing down the spirit of my establishment with your moping.’
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow derisively as he blindly gestures to the almost empty room behind him.
‘That spirit, you mean?’
Nie Huaisang merely sniffs at him, nose in the air.
‘Anyway, you’ve had enough for today. You know you’re a sad drunk and that is really not what anyone needs right now, least of all you.’
‘I’m not even a quarter way drunk!’ Jiang Cheng yelps indignantly.
‘Not for lack of trying!’
‘Well, I wouldn’t have to try if someone stopped watering down every drink I poured!’
Wangji, who has been following this exchange with interest, turns to Huaisang and raises an eyebrow.
‘He asked for the expensive stuff, okay, da-ge would have my hide if he found out I gave away an entire bottle just so A-Cheng could cripple his liver playing out his melodrama.’
Jiang Cheng puffs up with rage, and Wangji would be supportively angry as well, if not for the fact that Huaisang’s words have caused the bleakness in Jiang Cheng’s eyes to recede. He takes advantage of the moment to stand up, brush down his shirt and take Jiang Cheng’s arm, hauling him off the stool. Jiang Cheng stumbles, distracted by his anger and thrown off balance by the sudden movement. By the time he’s righted himself, Wangji has towed him halfway to the door. He tries fruitlessly to tug his arm out of Wangji’s hold.
‘Hey! Let go, I can walk by myself, you know, I’m not actually drunk!’
‘A-Cheng!’ Huaisang calls out just before Wangji opens the door. They turn around to see Huaisang leaning over the bar, arms crossed on the counter.
‘Come back with good news, I won’t mess with your drink then!’
Before Jiang Cheng can do more than splutter, Wangji has them out the door and standing on the footpath.
He lets go of Jiang Cheng’s arm and they stand there for a moment while Jiang Cheng stares blankly in front of him. Wangji can see the bleakness slowly creep back into his gaze and he searches his mind for a way to keep it at bay. Just then, Jiang Cheng exhales loudly and messes up his hair once more.
‘Shit, I can’t do this here.’
He turns to Wangji.
‘Have you eaten?’
‘Come on, I have an idea.’
A-Cheng has been crying, he notices when he pokes his head through the gap in the hedge between their garden and the Jiangs’s. Wangji knows this because his eyes look red around the edges, like Huaisang’s do when he’s been pretending to cry so that his da-ge won’t yell at him, and his nose is red too.
Wangji doesn’t like it when A-Cheng is crying. Whenever A-Cheng cries, Wangji’s hands start trembling and he starts breathing faster in a way he’s learnt means angry. He supposes he is. No one is supposed to make A-Cheng cry.
Wangji likes A-Cheng. He’s quiet, like Wangji, and doesn’t mind sitting for hours near the rabbit hutches in Wangji’s backyard reading books or walking along the river that runs behind their houses looking for the shiny rocks on the river bed. He even loves playing with Wangji’s rabbits, not like his brother-but-not-really, who only laughed at them and threatened to cook them for dinner. When Wangji told Xichen-ge this, he smiled bright and said, ‘I’m glad you’ve found such a good friend, Wangji.’
So A-Cheng is Wangji’s friend, his best friend even, and no one is allowed to make Wangji’s best friend cry.
He can’t make it better if he doesn’t know why A-Cheng’s been crying, though, so he crawls the rest of the way through the hedge and goes over to sit next to A-Cheng, who’s staring absently at the fence that runs along the opposite side. A-Cheng doesn’t acknowledge his presence except by shifting closer so their shoulders brush. Wangji looks at him for a second and then joins him in staring at the fence. They sit like that for a long time and Wangji patiently waits for A-Cheng to tell him what has happened, or just to let Wangji know, in whatever way, how Wangji can make things better.
Eventually A-Cheng leans more of his weight on Wangji, and Wangji sits up straighter so they don’t both topple over. When A-Cheng speaks, his voice is just the tiniest bit shaky.
‘A-Zhan…I think it’s my fault.’
Even though Wangji doesn’t know what A-Cheng is talking about, his denial is immediate and firm.
A-Cheng sighs.‘A-Jie wasn’t the one who insisted, I was. I didn’t know Ying-ge was scared of dogs, who’s scared of puppies? But then he got scared, so we had to come back home and then Baba said Ying-ge’s been with us long enough that I should have known, and then Mama said Ying-ge could have said before we went that he was scared and then they started fighting again and it’s all my fault. I wanted a puppy for my birthday.’
Although Wangji has been listening carefully, he doesn’t understand at all how A-Cheng reached this conclusion. After all, it’s not A-Cheng’s fault Wei Ying didn’t think to tell anyone he was scared of dogs. But this pattern has become very familiar to him over the past few months, and it makes his hands tremble harder. He sits on them to hide it.
A-Cheng’s parents have been fighting a lot for the past half a year or so, and every time they do, it hurts A-Cheng deeply. Wangji has lost count of the number of times he’s had to take an almost teary A-Cheng by the hand and quietly lead him to pet the rabbits until he is calm again and Yanli-jie comes to get him. When he asks Uncle Qiren why A-Cheng’s parents fight so much and upset him, his uncle only sighs and pats Wangji gently on the head, ‘Sometimes, A-Zhan, people are so wrapped up in their own feelings that they cannot see how they affect the people around them.’ He crouches so he’s at Wangji’s eye level and smiles at him. ‘You’re being a very good friend to Jiang Cheng, Wangji. I’m sure that the time you spend with him is very important in making A-Cheng feel better.’
As much as this makes Wangji happy, it also makes him…frustrated (that’s what Xichen-ge calls it). A-Cheng’s family should also care about making A-Cheng happy. If they can’t, then they don’t deserve A-Cheng being with them anymore. A-Cheng should just come and live with Wangji.
There’s an idea.
He absently reaches up to pat A-Cheng consolingly while he turns the idea over in his head. The more he thinks about it, the more he likes it. He sits up straight and turns to A-Cheng, his eyes alive with excitement.
‘A-Cheng, I have an idea.’
They stop at the nearest fast food place to pick up their respective body weights in onion rings, French fries and Coke, and that alone is enough to pique Jiang Cheng’s suspicion, but the realization only cements itself when they pull up outside the old Lan house. He raises an eyebrow as he turns to look at his best friend. Wangji conspicuously avoids his gaze as he parks, gets out and hauls the bags of junk food out of the back seat. Jiang Cheng snorts and follows him out of the car, grabbing a couple of bags from him and climbing up the stairs to the house. When they let themselves in, the ground floor is dark; Uncle Qiren is long asleep. Wangji stops by a closet in the hall to pick up an enormous blanket and they softly make their way through the kitchen and into the backyard.
When the blanket has been spread in front of the empty rabbit hutches and the food has been laid out, Wangji looks up at Jiang Cheng, who has been watching with an amused smirk, and nods towards the blanket, silently suggesting he sit.
Jiang Cheng finally chuckles, his eyes lighter than they’ve been all night.
‘This was your big idea?’
‘If it works...’
Jiang Cheng smirks and bends over the bags of food to pop a fry into his mouth.
‘Uncle Qiren is not going to be happy about this.’
‘I will put the food wrappers in the car. Uncle will never know.’
‘Your Uncle always knows.’
Wangji only shrugs. They sit side by side, work through the food in silence. When they’re done, Jiang Cheng helps Wangji gathers all the used tissues, food wrappers and empty bottles, stuffing them into one large carrier bag. He eyes the overstuffed bag as they sit back down, then sighs and lies back, staring at the night sky above them. The air has cooled down as the cold season approaches and the sky is clear, lit up only by the moon. After a moment’s hesitation, Wangji joins him, close enough for their shoulders to brush. He waits patiently.
‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’
Wangji hums softly.
‘They didn’t agree?’
‘We didn’t even get that far. I only mentioned that Professor Xiao had announced open spots for his next dig and Dad immediately said surely I wasn’t thinking about making Wei Ying put off his trip for one more year, he’d already been generous enough to postpone it until I graduated school and it wasn’t fair to expect him to put off his plans just because I wanted to dig around in the dirt some more.’
His voice hitches. Wangji’s shoulders tense, a fine tremor running through his hands.
‘Wei Ying’s never even at the office any more, Yao-ge’s practically taken over his job and Dad hasn’t even noticed.’
He sits up and crosses his legs, resting his elbows on his knees and burying his head in his hands. Wangji slowly sits up too, casting a worried glance at his friend.
‘And then Mom said, what was even the point of applying, it’s not like it’s a profession that goes anywhere, not like Jie’s culinary arts degree. She said I might as well go work at the company, at least over there I’d earn a steady wage instead of wasting my time digging up bones and bits of ancient trash, and I could keep an eye on Wei Ying, so he didn’t completely ruin the company. Dad got mad at that and starting saying Wei Ying was doing great, and Mom scoffed in that way she has, and it all started going downhill. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I just…walked out.’
Wangji takes a deep breath. He has learnt over the years that age changes the way he thinks about certain things. This thing, however – the Jiang parents’ relentless denigration of their son and his choices – makes him just as angry today as it did when he was six.
He shifts closer to Jiang Cheng, silently offering his shoulder. Jiang Cheng leans over automatically. When his arm touches Lan Zhan’s, it’s trembling slightly in that way that means Jiang Cheng is trying his best to keep the tears inside. Lan Zhan leans into him a bit more so that Jiang Cheng’s weight is mostly on him, quietly allowing his friend time to pull himself together.
Jiang Cheng stays like that for a long time, before he takes a deep, shuddering breath and sits up. Wangji studies his face, disappointed to find that bleakness still hovering around his eyes.
‘I thought they fought so much because they just didn’t get along, so when they said they were separating, I thought maybe things would be better. They wouldn’t fight if they were just spending an hour or two together for the occasional family dinner, right?’
He laughs bitterly.
‘Apparently, I’m such a disaster to both of them that they can’t even manage to avoid fighting long enough to eat a single meal together.’
His shoulders suddenly drop and a bone-deep weariness settles into his face.
‘Professor Xiao gives students on his digs recommendations for whichever Ph.D. program they choose. His recommendations are worth their weight in pure gold. If I don’t get on that dig…well, it’s pretty clear Dad’s not going to pay for any more school, and I won’t qualify for financial aid.’
He pauses, then whispers, as if reluctant to say the words.
‘If I have to go back to the company, I’ll have to move in with one of them, because they’ll refuse to let me stay by myself. I can’t…I know it’s a horrible thing to say, but I can’t stay with either of them, Lan Zhan, I can’t. It’s bad enough sitting through meals with them right now. I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to listen to them judge me and compare me and Wei Ying at the office and at home.’
He buries his face in his hands and goes still. Wangji rubs his back with a gentle hand, his mind working to pack away the rage that those people always bring out in him. Jiang Cheng needs comfort right now.
His eyes wander around the garden, eventually falling on the hutches. His hand stills on Jiang Cheng’s back as a plan begins knitting itself together in his head.
‘A-Cheng, I have an idea.’
Jiang Cheng cautiously raises his head. He sees Lan Zhan staring away from him, and follows his gaze to the rabbit hutches next to the blanket. His eyes shift between the hutches and Lan Zhan a couple of times, before he snorts and sits up straight, shaking his head in exasperation.
‘You can’t kidnap me and haul me over to live in the hutches with you again, A-Zhan, we won’t fit. Plus, I don’t think Xichen-ge will be as willing he used to be to bring us food and water.’
Wangji looks at the hutches and then back at Jiang Cheng, considering.
‘I will not fit, I am too big. You, however…’
Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes.
‘No, I believe that’s you.’
He nimbly dodges the forthcoming punch, smiling at the spark that momentarily lights up his friend’s eyes. He catches the next punch and gently pushes Jiang Cheng’s hand down, letting his face become serious so Jiang Cheng knows he is not lying when he speaks next.
‘It is not a hutch, but you know my apartment has quite a spacious spare room. You spend enough time there already. You may as well move in.’
Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen. Anticipating his protest, Wangji quickly continues.
‘Uncle owns the apartment, but I do pay him a nominal amount for the rent and I pay for the utilities entirely by myself. If you come to stay, you’d be doing me a favour by splitting the costs.’
He can tell Jiang Cheng is still not entirely convinced, so he falls back on his oldest failsafe. He turns fully to face Jiang Cheng and musters all the earnestness he can in his gaze.
‘A-Cheng, you’re my best friend. I hate seeing you unhappy. If I can help you, even a little, you know I will. I just want you to be happy, like you deserve to be.’
Jiang Cheng stares at him, eyes as wide as an owl’s, before he abruptly turns away. Their relationship is built on bickering, silent understandings, and strong emotions buried deep. He has never been able to stand against an earnest Wangji, just as Wangji cannot bear a genuinely unhappy Jiang Cheng.
Wangji sits back, his piece said, content to let Jiang Cheng think it over. As he looks up at the moon, his phone vibrates in his pocket.
As he takes it out, glancing at the name and then unlocking his phone to read the text, .Jiang Cheng speaks up, apparently done working through his indecision surprisingly quickly.
‘Even if I do come stay with you, they still won’t let me continue school. And Mom has contacts everywhere. I’m pretty sure she could pull strings to make sure I don’t get in any Ph.D. programs I apply to.’
Wangji smiles as he finishes reading the text, holding his phone up and waving it at Jiang Cheng.
‘I don’t think you need to worry about that. Wei Ying and Yanli-jie aren’t very happy with your parents right now.’
Jiang Cheng’s mouth falls open and he grabs at the phone, though Wangji is quick to hold it out of reach.
‘What are they doing? What did they do? Come on, A-Zhan, I need to talk to them before they do something stupid.’
Wangji pushes him back gently and puts the phone back in his pocket.
‘They are standing up for you, like they should. And you are going to let them.’
Jiang Cheng still looks unhappy, although this show of support from his brother and sister has pushed away the remaining misery in his eyes.
‘They shouldn’t have to do that for me.’
Wangji shrugs. Secretly, he doubts anything could stop the older Jiang children from doing otherwise.
‘At least, they will make sure that they are open to listening to you. They will not leave you to face your parents alone next time.’
Lost for words, Jiang Cheng sighs and lies back down, putting an arm over his eyes. Wangji gets up to stow the trash in his car, giving Jiang Cheng some space. He takes his time, lingering in the kitchen to get some water for the two of them. When he goes back out, Jiang Cheng is lying where he left him. Wangji sits and gently pokes at Jiang Cheng’s arm.
Jiang Cheng turns despairing eyes towards his best friend.
‘A-Zhan…what do I do?’
Wangji gently pulls him up and hands him a bottle of water.
‘Well, to start with, you don’t need to go back there tonight. You can stay with me. Yanli-jie and Wei Ying are coming over in the morning, with breakfast. You can hear from them what happened, and then we can see what to do next. If your parents still don’t listen…well, I’m sure Uncle’s contacts are much more influential than Madam Yu’s. And my spare room is much better than a dorm room.’
Jiang Cheng stares at him, slightly incredulous for reasons Wangji doesn’t understand. Then he shakes his head and smiles, nudging Wangji’s shoulder.
‘Is it better than a rabbit hutch, though?’
Wangji’s heart lightens at once. He gets up and walks over to the hutches, studying them from different angles.
‘If you really want, I could bring one of them home and lay a mattress for you inside. There might even be place for your clothes, you don’t take up that much space.’
Jiang Cheng’s glare is scorching.
‘Come back and call me small to my face again, bastard, I dare you.’
Wangji looks at him and raises an eyebrow.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t bend that low.’
Jiang Cheng growls and aims a kick at him, which Wangji neatly dodges. He smiles. A-Cheng’s eyes are finally clear, even if they do not have that shade of contentment that means he’s truly happy. No matter. There is lots of time for Wangji to fix that.
A-Cheng is Wangji’s friend, his best friend even, and Wangji will do everything he can to make sure A-Cheng never has to cry.