As far as earth-shattering, life-changing moments go, Lan Wangji has had his fair share of them. His parents’ deaths, his move to the city to live with his uncle, the day Lan Xichen returned from a work trip with a thick black mustache to rival Nie Mingjue’s—the list goes on and on.
But heretofore, such moments always changed him when they happened, instead of several months after the fact.
This time, Lan Wangji doesn’t notice the transformation until he’s in too deep to do anything about it; because this time, his metamorphosis began with a single loaf of bread.
Lan Wangji found the bread in Lan Xichen’s pantry. He stayed over at his brother’s apartment at least once a week, so this was hardly unusual. The unusual thing was the bread itself, which tasted like beaten egg whites and nutmeg and pumpkin pie, and seemed to be made by a family-owned bakery that hand-picked all its ingredients from nearby farms.
That was eye-catching enough, if you happened to be interested in that kind of thing. But what caught Lan Wangji’s attention was the line of tiny handprints running across the top of the crust, as if someone very small had buried their hands in the rising dough before it went into the oven.
“Try a piece of yuanyuan bread,” Lan Wangji read aloud, tracing the double gold characters for hope on the package. “Do you know what this means, Ge? I thought this was supposed to be pumpkin bread.”
Lan Xichen laughed. “It is. But from what I have gathered, double-hope bread is any kind made with the help of the baker’s children. The handprints are his son’s.”
Intrigued, Lan Wangji turned the loaf over and squinted at the fine print on the bottom.
“They have a dine-in bakery in Hubei,” he noted. “Lotus Pier Bakery, run by Jiang Yanli.”
“In Hubei? Oh, that’s a pity. I won’t be able to visit there until the next time I go down to see A-Jue.”
Hubei was nearly ten hours away by train, and Lan Wangji had no reason to visit such a far-flung place while he and Xichen were neck-deep in harried clients, so he ate the rest of the pumpkin bread with a cup of sweet osmanthus tea and decided to see if he could order more online. But Lan Xichen swiftly dashed his hopes by informing him that Nie Mingjue sent it over with a friend who was visiting family in Shanghai, which meant that Lan Wangji would have to wait until his brother’s maybe-fiance sent Xichen another care package.
It shouldn’t have bothered him as much as it did. After all, it was only a loaf of bread—a delicious loaf of bread, to be sure, but not something Lan Wangji couldn’t do without.
He would have forgotten all about it if he could. But whenever he tried, Lan Wangji found himself imagining a gentle-eyed baker helping his children press their hands into pans of sweet bread, and his heart began to ache at the memory of the life he lost when his parents passed away—the small handprints in the bread reminded him too much of his late mother, who made red-bean baozi for her sons every week and insisted that the buns were sweeter when Xichen and Wangji helped knead the dough alongside her.
In the end, Lan Wangji kept the lotus-shaped tag that bore the bakery’s address. If his Xiongzhang had the chance to go see Nie Mingjue again in the next few months, he could visit the bakery on the way; and perhaps, if Lan Wangji had a few days to spare, Lan Xichen could take him along.
Most likely, nothing would come of it.
But it never hurt to be prepared, just in case.
* * *
During the next six months, so many things changed at the Lan household that Lan Wangji completely forgot about the bakery.
In fact, he hardly had the wits to notice what he ate those days, or the time to sleep much longer than a couple of hours each night.
The foremost reason for his plight was his friend Song Lan, who was nearly killed when the Baixue Boys’ Institute burned down. Song Lan charged into the burning manor several minutes before help arrived, barely escaping the place alive—and then, as if that were not enough, Wangji’s great-uncle died and left an orphaned grandson in Xiongzhang’s care scarcely two days after Song Lan was released from hospital. Worse still, his partner and daughter disappeared less than six hours before he was due to return home, leaving no trace of their whereabouts save for a note in Xiao Xingchen’s hand, vowing that he and A-Qing were safe and begging Song Lan not to follow them.
And though Song Lan's heart was not wholly broken by the loss of his four guardians, Xiao Xingchen's desertion wounded him so deeply that he had to be carried back to a doctor less than five hours later.
In the aftermath of that disastrous summer, Lan Xichen took custody of his and Wangji’s young nephew and moved into their mother’s old cottage in Yunmeng so that Lan Jingyi could stay at his current elementary school. He took Lan Wangji and Song Lan along with him, insisting that Song Lan needed a change of scene and friends close by to look after him; and then, just like that, Lan Wangji found himself getting used to life in Hubei.
It was easy enough, Lan Wangji thought, given the otherworldly beauty of the place. Their late mother’s house was built close to a lake full of lotuses, turning the place into a riot of color between April and July; and it was no less breathtaking in late September, when Lan Wangji and his brother arrived there.
The weather was already turning chilly, promising months of long storms ahead, and the lake was choked up with drying seed-pods instead of leaves and flowers. Lan Wangji kept forgetting to carry umbrellas after the wet season arrived, taking refuge in nearby buildings whenever he was caught in the rain after leaving the city office where he worked; once, he even stumbled into a cat cafe, and ended up lying flat on his back for three straight hours while the cafe’s feline staff clambered all over him.
It was on one such occasion that Lan Wangji went out during what seemed to be a clear morning to drop Jingyi off at school, and ducked into a restaurant to avoid yet another unexpected shower while returning to his office at the Tianyun law firm.
“Finally!” someone yells, the minute he walks through the door. “Hey, xiansheng, don’t drip on the mat. Cheng-ge’ll eat you alive if the floor gets wet.”
Lan Wangji blinks, staring in bewilderment at the skinny, sharp-eyed child lounging behind the counter. He didn’t expect to find this place manned by a single angry teenager, given the quality of the furnishings and the illustrated menus in the windows.
“I will not,” he says, puzzled. “If my clothes were already damp enough for that, I would just have gone home.”
“You’d be the first, then,” the little cashier snorts, turning his head to show two fang-shaped crystals dangling from his left ear. “Are you going to sit down, xiansheng?”
“Xian-ge!” the boy shouts, so loudly that Lan Wangji winces and starts backing away towards the door. “We have a customer! What are you still doing in there?”
“Taking orders is your job, A-Yang. Do you want to come back here and strain the custard instead?”
This unseen man is presumably the cook, and Lan Wangji likes his voice immediately—warm and honey-sweet like the filling of a fresh lianzi mooncake, and bright and bold as a sunbeam at the same time. “If you burn it, I won’t make you another batch of banana rolls until next week.”
The cashief sniffs. “What do I get if I don’t burn it?”
“You get to avoid the customers? Honestly, A-Yang…”
A slender brown hand appears in the doorway that separates the space behind the counter from the kitchen, and Lan Wangji feels the breath leave his body as the hand’s owner makes his way out into the light.
“Aiyah, xiansheng, forgive this little nuisance of mine,” the cook laughs, setting those lovely hands on the boy’s skinny shoulders. “I took him in as a kitten, you see, and he hasn’t quite figured out how to be a boy yet. Why else would he hang around a bakery when he doesn’t know how to cook?”
“Nuisance! You’re the nuisance! You haven't even given me my guihua pastries yet!”
The cook rolls his eyes and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a small round pastry wrapped in flowered paper.
“There, your daily osmanthus cake. Now go away and stir the custard so I can get this poor man something to eat.”
“You need not worry,” Lan Wangji says hurriedly, as the cook wipes his floury hands on his apron and goes to pull up the menu on the tablet bolted to the cash register. “I only came in to take shelter from the rain, and I will leave as soon as it clears. If you have work to do, you should attend to it.”
“Nonsense. It’s freezing outside, and you don’t have a coat on. At least have some soup before you go? Our soup of the day is free between eleven and four, and it comes with a side of fried rice.”
He ducks down behind the counter, giving Lan Wangji a brief glimpse of the nametag on his shirt—Wei Wuxian, it says—before passing him a small white bowl patterned with purple lotus flowers.
“Do you have any food allergies? You can read the ingredient lists on the tablet here, just in case.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “No allergies. I will be happy to try anything you recommend.”
Wei Wuxian smiles, his eyes curving up into sweet brown crescents like twin slices of sugared fruit, and Lan Wangji lets his hair fall down over his ears so Wei Wuxian can’t see them turning red.
“Should we start with the soup, then? My sister made pork and lotus root soup today, and we have a vegetarian version if you don’t want to spend time picking out the bones.”
After the cook tells him a little more about the dish, and how anyone could come in and take a cupful of soup away in the afternoons if they wanted, Lan Wangji decides to taste the original recipe. Wei Wuxian seems to like that version better, and since his sister (a clearly beloved sister, no less) had made it with her own hands, Lan Wangji asks him to fill the bowl half-way with pork ribs and chunks of lotus root before covering them with clear golden broth.
The soup begins to warm him the moment he takes his first sip, soothing the quivering muscles of Lan Wangji’s back and shoulders until he no longer feels even a shadow of the chill that followed him in through the doors. The change in his bearing must be obvious, he realizes, because Wei Wuxian takes one look at his rapidly emptying bowl before offering him another.
“I couldn’t,” Lan Wangji apologizes. “I haven’t even bought anything, and—”
In answer, Wei Wuxian brings out a plate of steaming buns and sets it down on the counter between them.
“I don’t bother charging for soup and buns on days like this,” he laughs. “Xue Yang and I are alone today, and unless the dinner crowd comes through, we’re going to have to offload the baked goods to anywhere that will take them after business hours are over.”
Lan Wangji turns around and takes a good look at the display case beside him. He had thought this little out-of-the-way eatery was a restaurant, but judging by the rows of fresh sweets and pastries behind the glass, it must be a bakery, too.
He glances at the wooden lotus flowers nailed to the walls, all bearing the names of the shop’s specialty cakes and breads; and then, as if from out of a dream, Lan Wangji remembers the loaf of double-hope pumpkin bread he found in Xiongzhang’s kitchen before they moved down to Yunmeng, and his own wistful thoughts of seeing the bakery it had come from. This is definitely Lotus Pier Bakery, run by one Jiang Yanli—probably the sister Wei Wuxian mentioned, now that he thinks about it—which means that the baker who made that loaf of bread is none other than Wei Wuxian himself.
Lan Wangji reaches into his briefcase for his wallet when the baker’s back is turned, extracting the golden tag he saved from the double-hope bread, and holds it up to the light. The two insignias are identical, right down to the number of petals on the lotus blooms and the neat calligraphy that spells out lianhua wu and yuan yuan, and the longer he looks, the surer he is that this delicate, steady handwriting must belong to Wei Wuxian.
“Is that a tag from our flavored bread?” Wei Wuxian pipes up, gliding back out of the kitchen with a drowsy infant cradled to his chest. “We don’t have any on the shelves right now, but I was just about to put another batch in the oven.”
“It was from a loaf of double-hope bread, the one with handprints on the top.”
It seems childish to say so—foolish, even, to confess that such a little thing struck him so deeply. But the baker only laughs again, baring his beautiful golden throat to the glow of the low-hanging lamps, and takes Lan Wangji’s hand before pulling him back through the beaded curtain hanging in the kitchen doorway.
“Do you want to see how they’re made?” he asks, pretending to ignore his teenage assistant guzzling fresh custard from the steaming pot in the corner. “My older son isn’t home yet, but I can show you how I make the double-hope bread with this little one.”
The aforementioned little one rubs his small fists into his eyes, curling into Wei Wuxian’s sweet-smelling apron like a sleepy kitten, and Lan Wangji feels his heart melt.
While he stands rooted to the spot, entranced by the picture the baker and his son make, Wei Wuxian unbuttons the baby’s knitted sweater and leaves him in the bee-printed shirt tucked underneath it. “Look closely, xiansheng,” he teases, taking the child to a nearby sink and scrubbing his chubby arms all the way up to the elbows. “You know what to do, right, A-Yu? Remember the first time A-Die showed you?”
The baby squeals, trying to clap his hands through the stream of water, and Wei Wuxian kisses his fluffy black hair and dries his fingers before carrying him to the trays of sweet rising dough on the other side of the room. Once there, he immerses the baby’s hands in the dough, pan by pan, leaving a line of tiny prints down the middle of each one.
“And now they go into the oven, before the dough bounces back!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, dropping A-Yu back into his sling. He slides the pans into the oven, balancing them across his palms with the grace of a dancer, or a wildflower swaying in a light spring breeze—and then he dusts his hands off with a grin, and closes the oven doors.
“Those are chocolate loaves, so they’ll be a little sweeter than the pumpkin bread,” he yawns, after he and Lan Wangji are out in the restaurant’s front room again. “You can try them out if you come back tomorrow!”
Lan Wangji will be back tomorrow. In fact, he will likely be back the day after tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on and so forth until Xiongzhang hacks his bank account to make him stop spending their law firm’s money on luxury baked goods. And he’ll probably find some way to keep coming here even if his notoriously soft-hearted brother objects, because the prospect of walking out of Lotus Pier and never seeing Wei Wuxian again is far too tortuous to bear.
“Eh, shuai ge, you have me at a disadvantage,” the baker says, after catching Lan Wangji’s gaze lingering somewhere around his nametag; he hadn’t been staring, exactly, but upon being faced with a man who seemed both too handsome and too kind to be true, what else could Lan Wangji do? “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
Shuai ge? Lan Wangji wants to die. Only, he would never hear that term of endearment again if he did, so he won’t. For now.
“Lan Wangji,” he replies, taking Wei Wuxian’s outstretched hand and shaking it. “I work with the Hubei branch of the Tianyun law firm, so I live close by.”
“What a coincidence! So do I.” And then, in response to Lan Wangji’s puzzled glance: "I meant that I live upstairs,” Wei Wuxian whispers, cupping one hand around his mouth. “Don’t tell A-Yang, though. He’d never leave me alone if he knew where to find me after closing hours.”
Unfortunately for his maybe-guardian, Xue Yang seems to have the ears of a feral bat. “I know where you live, Xian-ge!” he screeches. “In case you've forgotten, I live with you.”
“How time flies,” Wei Wuxian calls back, just as a text reading A-Zhan, where are you? flashes across the screen of Lan Wangji’s phone. “It feels like only yesterday that I—wait, Wangji-xiong, do you have to go?”
“I have work to do,” Lan Wangji apologizes. He doesn’t want to leave, not in the slightest, and upon glimpsing the sudden downward turn in Wei Wuxian’s mouth, he wonders—hopes—if Wei Wuxian might not want him to go, either. “I was supposed to meet my brother for lunch over half an hour ago.”
And then, when Wei Wuxian’s face falls even further, he says—
“I will come back, Wei-xiansheng. And when I do, you should not call me Wangji-xiong. Call me Lan Zhan instead.”
Wei Wuxian quirks an eyebrow at him. “Lan Zhan?”
“Mm, my personal name. For friends, only.”
Lan Wangji decides not to mention the fact that he barely has any friends in the first place. He has Song Lan, of course, but they’ve known each other all their lives, and Song Lan is practically a second brother to him at this point—and more importantly, Song Lan hasn’t used Lan Wangji’s baby name since Shufu first gave him his courtesy name. Only Xiongzhang ever uses it now, though he always says A-Zhan instead of Lan Zhan, which means that Lan Zhan would belong to Wei Wuxian alone.
“You should use my personal name, then,” the baker gasps. “It’s Wei Ying. Also for friends only,” he adds with a wink. “And we’re friends now, Lan Zhan.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats. The name sits in the hollow of his tongue like a sweet, as soft and dense as one of the melon pastries Wei Ying pressed upon him earlier, and Wangji thinks that if he could utter nothing but those two darling syllables for the rest of his life, he could die a happy man.
But he has emails and case files to review, and two more conferences lined up before this evening, so he bids a regretful farewell to Wei Ying and hurries out of Lotus Pier. Wei Ying makes him take a box of pastries with him, insisting that Lan Wangji is doing him a favor by taking them off his hands, and coaxes his grumpy cashier into saying a semi-polite goodbye before sending Lan Wangji off with a purple umbrella to keep him dry.
“You have to come back now, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying tells him, just before the glass doors of the bakery swing shut between them. “That’s my only umbrella.”
He refuses to take the umbrella back, making a show of locking the doors and sticking his tongue out at Lan Wangji, and then he turns back into the bakery with a laugh still etched across his flower-like lips.
Lan Wangji can barely tell if his heart is still beating.
“Wei Ying. Wei Ying,” he whispers to himself. “Heavens, how can he be real?”
He takes one last look at the painted lotus blooms in the bakery windows, one last look at the sheet of ebony hair fluttering just beyond them; and then, stiffening his resolve, Lan Wangji opens the borrowed umbrella and begins the long walk downtown.
Something begins to ache inside him, but Lan Wangji pays it no mind. He’ll be here again tomorrow, with no work duties to hold him back, and nothing to call him away from Wei Ying before he chooses to go.
After all, he still has to return Wei Ying’s umbrella.