“Ah-Ling, Ah-Ling, will you forgive him? Will you forgive your Uncle Wei?”
Jiang Yanli’s voice, soft and melodious though it had been deteriorated by months of illness, echoed in his dreams from distant past. He couldn’t tell whether his mother’s plead was an actual fragment from his memory or just a figment of his imagination. All he knew was that his mother was dying, and the androids were to blame.
The creators of those monsters, too, were unforgiveable.
Jin Ling didn’t get to know his father well. He was three years old when Jin Zixuan passed away.
He didn’t understand at first: why he never saw his father anymore, why his mother — his kind, loving mother — always seemed so melancholic and didn’t laugh as much as she used to, why the kids in his class teased him about not having a daddy.
As he grew older, the pieces began to come together to form a disjointed and bloody picture.
He heard stories and rumors of how his father, a respectable, talented, and highly-ranked lieutenant in the military, was savagely killed by one of the first generations of the WEN series androids, created by the young and gifted robotic engineer Wei Wuxian.
Wen Ning was the first of its kind when it was initially introduced to the world and society that had already begun to accept automata and robots as part of people’s everyday lives: an android programmed with not only humanistic properties like artificial intelligence and emotions, but also skill sets that were much deadlier and more dangerous — combat abilities and weapon knowledge akin to soldiers who’d undergone years of training and battle experience.
Such creations couldn’t escape criticism and controversy: these things were too powerful, too dangerous if fallen into the wrong hands, they were mere scrap metal and shouldn’t be given the same rights as the human beings that made and commanded them…
The debate went on and on… Until one day, the perfect society as they knew it fell apart because a little virus had been input into the first generation of the WEN series android, the unit that Wei Wuxian lovingly named “Wen Ning”. The war general was his trusted assistant, his loyal friend, and it had a vulnerability in its mainframe system that even the creator himself had somehow overlooked.
By the time Wei Wuxian realized what’d happened, the virus had already spread to other mass-produced units purchased by the government and the military, and a violent massacre ignited, resulting in weeks of gory battles and thousands dead and injured.
They never found the person who first planted the virus into Wen Ning, but the government and the public needed a scapegoat for the loss they’d suffered, and so they’d chosen the next best thing: the creator of the originally affected android himself, Wei Wuxian.
Jin Ling woke up to the familiar chills in his bones, the vision of his father bleeding while metallic arms tore him apart and his mother pleading him to forgive still swimming vividly in his consciousness as he combed his sweat-slicked forelocks back with shaky fingers.
He’d fallen asleep on the couch with the television still on, the audio quiet but clear enough for Jin Ling to hear the content.
“Today marks the 15th anniversary of the android rebellion. Let us take a moment to remember those who had lost their lives during this tragic event…” the anchor on the news program announced somberly as she continued her reporting of the key events of the rebellion, including the fact that Wei Wuxian had been imprisoned for 13 years for his crime and how, upon his release two years ago, he was now employed by Gusu Robotics, personally assisting in the production of the various LAN series models that Lan Wangji, the younger brother of the company’s CEO and one of its lead robotic engineers and designers, had established.
In the aftermath of the disaster caused by the malfunction of the WEN series androids all those years ago, which had the government scrambling to necessitate a mass recall of numerous other android models produced around that same year, many unaffected androids and even some of the owners of these androids were unwilling to give up the ‘lives’ they’d already established within society. In turn, many units were reported ‘missing’, ‘self-destructed’, or simply ‘escaped’.
Monetary rewards were given to encourage citizens to capture and return what were known as ‘fugitive units’ to the police stations or governmental agencies, and during the first few months after this announcement, there were large-scale hunts organized throughout the city in the name of justice, but as the years went by, people’s enthusiasm died down, their thirst for android blood and anger simmered into nothing, and events of the rebellion were forgotten.
Since then, all the robotics design and production companies had to follow much stricter procedures and regulations to ensure that the chances of such vulnerabilities would be minimized.
Still, it was easier for Jin Ling to hate androids and everything related to those metal plates and wirings. They were cold, hard, unfeeling — dead.
Just like the humans who no longer breathe, their hearts no longer beat.
“…Ling! Jin Ling! Are you even listening to me?”
A smack to the back of his head brought the young man back to the present.
Jin Ling blinked a few times, and his vision cleared up to reveal the mess of his new apartment. Boxes were stacked against the walls and furniture were still wrapped in their protective covers. Fairy, his two-year-old husky with fierce blue eyes and a thick coat of light russet and cream ivory fur, was sniffing around the new environment rather excitedly and exploring each and every nook of the apartment.
“Oww! Uncle! What the hell was that for?!” he yelped belatedly, rubbing the back of his head with his hand.
“Hey, watch your language,” Jiang Cheng snapped after he directed another mechanical unit to place the rest of the boxes against the corner of the living-room. The quiet whirring of the transport androids sounded especially strident in the quiet apartment, and all this time Jin Ling was cautiously staring at them with unblinking eyes, and Fairy was barking at the motorized workers until they finally left.
Jiang Cheng closed the door behind them and turned to his nephew with a sigh.
“Ah-Ling, you’re going to have to control your temper if you want to survive university,” Jiang Cheng tried to tone down his own irritation and used a gentler approach, “not everyone is going to indulge you and yield to your every whim, remember that. If only you have one-quarter of your Uncle Jin’s pleasant and accommodating temperament, I wouldn’t need to be this worried about you living on your own for the first time.”
“Uncle, it’s going to be fine,” Jin Ling said with a grin and joined him in the small open kitchen, where Jiang Cheng had broken open the box with the coffee machine and mugs and began to brew themselves some much needed caffeine. “At the rate you’re going, your hair will grow prematurely grey and those frown lines aren’t going to help you get a girlfriend any sooner.”
“You little brat…”
Jin Ling thought his uncle was going to attack him again with a household item and was about to dodge, but Jiang Cheng only gave him a look — partly helpless and partly melancholic — and the older man mumbled almost as if he was speaking to himself, “where did you learn to trash talk like your good-for-nothing Uncle Wei…?”
“Don’t,” Jin Ling’s voice was quiet, almost incomprehensible, his eyes turning sharp and cold at the sound of Wei Wuxian’s name.
Jiang Cheng knew his best friend and brother was a sensitive topic to bring up around Jin Ling, and he’d always been extra careful not to mention Wei Wuxian in their conversations, but Jin Ling’s tenor and turn of phrase just now had reminded Jiang Cheng so much of Wei Wuxian that he couldn’t help but let slip of the forbidden name.
“Ah-Ling, you aren’t still…” Jiang Cheng couldn’t finish his question and only concluded with another sigh because he knew his nephew too well. Hadn’t he, at one time, been as stubborn and blinded by the same rage and waves of depression as Jin Ling after his older sister’s passing, just a year after her husband’s violent death?
Jiang Yanli had always been susceptible to illnesses ever since she was a child, and the Jiang family had taken excellent care of her and kept her protected growing up; this shelter only further strengthened after she married into the Jin family, but it was as if she’d entirely given up on herself and caved in to her body after Jin Zixuan left, so much so that even toddler Jin Ling’s reliance of her couldn’t pull her out of the darkness that’d already long swallowed her bones and soul the moment she’d lost her husband to the androids.
For the longest time, Jiang Cheng thought he would never forgive Wei Wuxian. He wasn’t the one who drove a dagger into her heart, but it was an undeniable fact that he had indirectly caused Jiang Yanli to fall so deep that nobody close to her was able to save her. He could see that Wei Wuxian was blaming himself too, the few times Jiang Cheng visited him in prison. But thirteen years was too long to hold a grudge, especially when the only family they had left was each other.
Since Jin Ling’s parents died, Jiang Cheng and Jin Guangyao had been rearing Jin Ling together as if he was their own. They saw to it that their nephew wanted for nothing, which was likely what resulted in Jin Ling’s prideful and fiery temperament.
Jiang Cheng understood what Jin Ling was going through, knew why every time he came face-to-face with anything or anyone related to robotics, his temper flared up like fireworks that’d gone out of control, but he was equally powerless in helping Jin Ling overcome that part of his past.
It was a place where no one but Jin Ling himself could reach.
“So what if I am?” Jin Ling sipped noisily at his coffee, sweetened with three big spoonful of sugar and a splash of almond milk, as he muttered into the rim of his mug.
“You aren’t a little boy anymore, so I’m not going to scold you or tell you what to do. You should be old enough to determine what’s best for your own wellbeing,” Jiang Cheng ruffled his nephew’s hair and continued in a more serious tone, “remember to introduce yourself to your neighbors when you have some time later. It’s always better to have more friends than enemies.”
Finally tired of exploring, Fairy wandered into the kitchen, which had become quite crowded with three occupants in the small space, and Jin Ling leaned down to give his canine companion a pat on the head while murmuring a sound of assent.
Jin Ling’s apartment unit was located at the furthest end of the hallway, and there were six units in total on each floor, which meant that he’d have to introduce himself to five households. Just the mere thought of it was giving him a dull headache, but it was something that he’d promised Jiang Cheng he’d do even if he’d grumbled about how old-fashioned the gesture was.
The first unit housed two brothers: Nie Mingjue was like a goddamn mountain at first glance and just as intimidating, while the younger Nie Huaisang seemed nervous but otherwise quite friendly. However, once Jin Ling made a quick introduction of himself and Fairy, who kept wagging his tail with so much enthusiasm that even the elder Nie brother was charmed into giving the husky a few pats along its neck, and gave them a box of macarons that Jin Ling purchased from his favourite store, Nie Mingjue turned to his brother with an unimpressed look on his face, “look, even a first-year has more sense and courtesy than you.”
“Huaisang-ge also attends the local university?” Jin Ling was genuinely curious. Nie Huaisang was definitely older than him; he was perhaps around his Jiang Cheng’s age, maybe a few years younger.
Nie Huaisang nodded with a weak smile, “art history masters.”
“For the last two years,” Nie Mingjue shook his head, an expression of disappointment and bitterness clearly aiming at his younger brother for not meeting his academic and career expectations. There was nothing wrong with getting a master’s, but when one has already gained master’s degrees in history, philosophy, and psychology, and still hadn’t decide on a clear career path, that was certainly something an elder brother should be worried about.
“There are a few students from the same university living on this floor, too,” Nie Huaisang added in an obvious attempt to steer the topic away from his own.
“But a word of advice,” Nie Mingjue continued, his expression visibly darkened, “stay away from the kid in Unit 904.”
“…may I ask why?” Jin Ling was a little spooked by Nie Mingjue’s warning.
“Let’s just say, Xue Yang is a bit of a, um… robotics maniac,” Nie Huaisang treaded carefully.
“That would be an understatement,” Nie Mingjue muttered before turning to the young man once more with a much friendlier grin, “Jin Ling, right? Feel free to knock on our door if you run into any trouble, all right?”
Jin Ling thanked him with a quick smile and a light bow, and made his way to the next door.
Making courteous small talks with strangers was a tiring task for Jin Ling, who usually spent his spare time at home with his uncles. Even while attending school, despite his perfect grades, his teachers always commented that Jin Ling had an unhealthy tendency to keep to himself or to start fights with his peers when something didn’t go his way. He’d lost count of the times the school had to call either Jiang Cheng or Jin Guangyao in for meetings with the teachers.
He breezed through the rest of the units as quickly as he could without seeming to be too rude: OuYang ZiZhen, an energetic young man who was also a first year student in the same university, resided with a roommate and was going to study biochemistry; Xiao XingChen, a professor of literature, A-Qing, his high-school aged adopted sister, and Song Lan, a man who looked to be ill and solemn from the vigilant and precise manner he carried himself, lived together in a strangely harmonious arrangement that defied the traditional family household; and then there was Xue Yang…
Jin Ling hesitated by the door of Unit 904 for about five minutes with his box of fancy macarons in his hand until he decided that he was going to take Nie Mingjue’s advice and skip this one neighbor. Besides, he could vaguely hear mysterious muffled whirring and tinkering noises inside, and Jin Ling convinced himself that he shouldn’t bother his neighbor when he was clearly busy with… something.
The last household to visit was the unit directly across from Jin Ling’s. A few seconds after he rang the doorbell, a man who looked to be about his age opened the door, his grey eyes displaying a hint of surprise though his smile remained warm and friendly.
This was when Fairy started growling and barking viciously at the man by the door.
“Sizhui, what in the world—”
Another person popped up beside the man who opened the door, though this one seemed less welcoming and more irritated by Fairy’s loud barking.
“Oi! What do you think you’re doing — siccing your dog on poor Sizhui?!” the man pulled his friend back, narrowly avoiding the husky’s snapping jaws.
“Fairy, hush! What’s wrong with you?” Jin Ling tried to pull Fairy back, since it was obvious that his neighbors did not take too well to a stranger and his dog barking up a storm in front of their place of residence. He attempted to calm down his canine companion by resting his hand on the back of Fairy’s back and stroked the dog in a pacifying gesture, but the husky continued to snarl and yelp ferociously at the two men standing at the door as if they had personally offended him.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into Fairy. He only ever gets like this when he’s near androids…” Jin Ling, his tone uncharacteristically frantic, explained, and distracted by Fairy’s commotion, he’d failed to notice the troubled look the two men shared. “Come on, Fairy, are you upset you didn’t get to eat any of the macarons? You know that stuff will upset your tummy, now get your butt moving and let’s get you home for now. You’re embarrassing me…”
Jin Ling had to use his entire body strength to pull his dog far away from his neighbor’s door, and with a comedically apologetic “I’m sorry! I’ll be right back, please don’t shut the door in my face!”, he and the agitated husky fought their way back into their own apartment as the door slammed shut behind them.
“Wow, that was—”
“Yeah, that certainly was… something,” the man who opened the door chuckled.
“That’s the new neighbor, is it?”
“I believe so.”
About a minute later, Jin Ling appeared before them again, his forelocks stuck to his forehead due to the hint of sweat he’d gained from playing tug-a-war with his canine, his respiration shallow and fast.
“S-sorry about that! He’s usually much better behaved than this. I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Jin Ling glanced up and saw the amused expressions on his neighbors’ faces, and Jin Ling suddenly realized he’d been rambling nonstop in front of two strangers. His cheeks heated up as he quickly introduced himself in a much softer murmur, “I—uh, I’m Jin Ling. I just moved into Unit 906 with my dog, Fairy. Here, this is for you.”
He handed the man who’d opened the door for him a paper bag, inside which the subtle, velvety sweet scent of macarons wafted.
“Thank you, Mr. Jin, that’s very kind of you,” the man nodded his thanks, his smile deepening and making the dimples on his cheeks much more prominent. “I’m Lan Sizhui. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Lan Jingyi,” the man standing behind Lan Sizhui gave him a casual wave. Now that Fairy was not present, he seemed a lot more at ease. “Nice to meet ya!”
“Likewise,” Jin Ling said.
“You mentioned your dog, Fairy—"
Lan Jingyi snorted and unsuccessfully hid his laughter behind a fake cough when Jin Ling glared at him. Lan Sizhui elbowed his roommate, which efficiently shut the other man up, and looking at Jin Ling again with an apologetic smile, he continued, “you said Fairy is especially perceptive towards androids?”
Jin Ling tried not to let it show too obviously on his face, but he was never good at hiding his emotions — especially that of disgust — and the two men must have realized they’d touched on a sensitive topic, for Lan Sizhui quickly and smoothly changed the direction of their conversation without either party feeling too awkward.
“If you’re not busy right now, Mr. Jin, would you like to come inside for some coffee?”
Jin Ling hesitated, his gaze lowering to his feet. No one had so openly invited him into their household to hang out after knowing him for all of five minutes. Hell, those who knew him would avoid him like the plague because they knew how bad his temper could get, and his naturally prideful defensive mechanism honestly didn’t help him gain any friends or acquaintances over the years. His neighbors didn’t know that side of him — not yet — and he wondered how the two young men would think of him once they got to know him longer, once they knew what a difficult guy he was to deal with.
He thought about what Jiang Cheng said: how attending a new school, making the effort to get to know the people and the world around him, and living by himself was like starting a new life all together. He could start anew, Jin Ling thought to himself, fingers gathering into loose fists by his side as he made up his mind. He could start now. It wasn’t too late.
He was also thinking about the chaotic state of his apartment with a bunch of half-opened boxes, and the daunting notion of needing to tidy everything away once he got home, and Jin Ling said, “sure, only don’t call me Mr. Jin anymore. Jin Ling is fine.”
The Lan household was inexplicably spotless and nothing was out of place. In fact, the living-room looked so sterile and sleek, every corner of each piece of furniture positioned perfectly so that the placements of them allowed maximum amount of space for the residents to move around without destroying the simple yet modern aesthetics of the design. The colour scheme was a comforting combination of pale, seafoam blue and warm, dark wood, accented with splashes of colours from several paintings hanging on the walls.
It should be a comfortable place to be in, but Jin Ling almost felt cold and isolated while sitting on the couch, twiddling his fingers in his lap, and trying to reign in his curiosity. There were no photographs or any signs of the apartment being lived in, which was strange in and of itself, but Jin Ling held in the urge to ask. After all, he barely knew his neighbors and it would be rude to intrude; Jiang Cheng wouldn’t take well to that if he were to find out.
“How do you take your coffee?” Lan Sizhui stuck his head out from the kitchen and asked, effectively tearing Jin Ling’s attention away from his surroundings.
“Three spoons of sugar and almond milk,” Jin Ling automatically replied before adding a tentative, “please.”
Lan Jingyi made a face, half-disgusted and half-concerned. “Ever heard of diabetes?”
“Ever heard of minding your own business?” Jin Ling snapped back with a raise of his eyebrow. The cheeky reply came out so naturally that he didn’t have time to process what’d come out of his mouth before the words were already out there, and he almost instantly regretted it. His tendency to speak before thinking was what got him into trouble most of the time. He wouldn’t even be surprised if they kicked him out of their home this instance, but Lan Jingyi seemed unperturbed by the jab, and Jin Ling’s racing heart settled just a little for now.
“Don’t mind Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui elbowed his roommate again and turned to their guest with an easy smile, “he used to work in childcare so he’s especially attentive about other people’s diets, among other things.”
“You worked with children?” Jin Ling was impressed.
“Surprised? Amazed?” Lan Jingyi carried a mug of steaming coffee and a plate with the pastel rounds of macarons that Jin Ling had bought for them, and placed them carefully on the coffee table.
“Actually, I’m not that surprised,” Jin Ling grinned, a hint of playful teasing in the curve of his lips, “you’re pretty much like a kid yourself, so I guess it makes sense that you’d get along with children.”
“I,” Lan Jingyi punctuated the pronoun by heaving himself onto the loveseat across from Jin Ling with a smug grin, “will take that as a compliment.”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have almond milk,” Lan Sizhui came out of the kitchen with two more mugs, and set one down in front of Jin Ling. “I hope milk is all right with you.” When he stooped down by his waist, his black hair, which looked almost unnaturally blue under the white florescent lights in the house and tied up in a ponytail, tumbled over his shoulder and Jin Ling swore he could smell a mixture akin to motor oil and raw metal that clung to Lan Sizhui’s skin — a stench that was reminiscent of the violent dreams he had, the way Jin Zixuan bled and how the reek of blood was like rusted iron, the way the nameless and faceless androids blew up into unrecognizable pieces and how the grease and wires were leaking and exposed like blood and bones.
“T-That’s fine,” Jin Ling realized he’d stayed quiet for too long, for Lan Sizhui was looking at him with a concerned expression after he’d settled into the couch a few inches next to Jin Ling. “Thanks.”
A few seconds of awkward silence during which the three of them took sips from their mugs, and Jin Ling was screaming internally because he was reminded once again of how terrible he was at making conversations, but after he forced himself to take a bite of the overly-saccharine macaron, Lan Sizhui turned towards him with a kind smile, the steam from his coffee blurring his face and the grey of his eyes, and the conversation flowed smoothly again like the first sign of spring had arrived and the frozen creek was once more circulating.
When Jin Ling left, it was already early evening, and he wondered why it was ever so difficult for him to connect to others when it was so easy to befriend the two men living in unit 905.
Remained on the coffee table were a platter of half-eaten macarons and three mugs: one emptied, and two still full with cold, untouched coffee.
“Hey, Lan Jingyi,” Jin Ling rubbed his dry eyes and craned his neck back in his chair, feeling the satisfying cracking along his spine that released the tightness in his joints and muscles before he tried to return his attention back to the paper he’d been reading on his laptop. The words were swimming in his vision, and he couldn’t understand a thing he read.
“What, Mistress Jin?” Lan Jingyi, as per usual on a Saturday evening ever since he’d been introduced to the concept of VR video games by game enthusiast Jin Ling, was curled up against the plush cushions of the couch with a pair of dark VR glasses across his eyes, his hands donned in fingerless gloves that act as wireless controls.
“Stop calling me that,” Jin Ling mumbled, flinging a wad of sticky notes at Lan Jingyi, who easily swatted it away with an accurate flick of his wrist and smoothly switched to a move that controlled the character in the game.
“If you’d stop acting like a rich mistress and buying fancy pastries from patisseries that your full-time student ass can’t afford, then yes, I’ll stop calling you that, but until then, you’re Mistress Jin and that is the way it’ll have to be,” Lan Jingyi said without pausing for a breath, and Jin Ling was almost impressed by that feat. Almost.
“Play nice, you two,” Lan Sizhui’s voice floated out from the kitchen, and the two men in the living-room instantly shut up, their faces paling slightly.
Lan Sizhui may be the gentlest, kindest, and most accommodating human being Jin Ling had ever encountered, but he’d also heard that the sweetest person could become even more terrifying on the other end of the spectrum. Jin Ling wasn’t about to risk being in Lan Sizhui’s bad books.
“You said you used to work in childcare, right? What happened?” Jin Ling wasn’t sure if this was okay to ask. Some people were more sensitive about this kind of topic than others, and after spending the last two months in his presence two to three times a week, he had a feeling that Lan Jingyi wasn’t one of them.
“Life happened,” Lan Jingyi wrinkled his nose in irritation but didn’t expand on his vague answer, which piqued Jin Ling’s curiosity even more, but he decided not to dwell on the ‘why’ for now.
“What do you do now?”
“Helping our, uh, uncle with his business, like Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi replied, wincing when he didn’t manage to dodge his enemy’s attack in his game, which wiped out the rest of his life and ended the round. He took off the VR glasses and gloves, and threw them haphazardly onto the couch next to him. “We’re basically his assistants… or disciples, I guess?”
“Your uncle? What does he do?”
“Oh, you must have heard of him!” Lan Jingyi’s grin grew wider, his voice filled with pride. “He’s quite famous in his field — Lan Wangji, chief robotics engineer of Gusu Robotics. Pretty neat, huh?”
“Wait, that must mean your uncle knows…” Jin Ling couldn’t even allow the syllable of that man’s name to pass through his lips.
“Knows… who?” Lan Jingyi frowned in confusion when the other man halted. “He knows a lot of people in the industry.”
Jin Ling cleared his throat and glanced away, slamming his laptop shut with a sense of finality and muttered, “never mind.”
Despite his words, it was obvious to Lan Jingyi that Jin Ling clearly minded, but whether this was about Lan Wangji, Gusu Robotics, or the nameless person that Jin Ling assumed that Lan Wangji was acquainted with, Lan Jingyi wasn’t entirely sure.
“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” Lan Sizhu, still wearing a pale blue apron over his clothes, strolled out of the kitchen and announced. He glanced at the two men who’d suddenly gone quiet, and took a seat across from Jin Ling, whose expression had darkened as if a storm cloud had silently migrated over his head and ready to break into a violent tempest.
“Ah-Ling, if you don’t mind, may I ask you a question?”
“You can always ask me anything,” Jin Ling replied, glancing up to meet Lan Sizhui’s eyes that had shown nothing but warmth and compassion for him since the first day they met, “you know that.”
“Correct me if I am wrong, but I’ve noticed that you are especially…” Lan Sizhui cautiously contemplated the right word to use so that Jin Ling wouldn’t be offended, and finally said, “… especially responsive whenever the topic of androids or robotics comes up.”
“It’s like you’ve got something against androids, the way you get so wound up whenever they’re mentioned,” Lan Jingyi added in agreement.
“May I ask the reason why?”
Jin Ling might have imagined it, but he thought he heard Lan Sizhui’s voice trembled when the question came out, almost like he was afraid of Jin Ling’s answer. For the two short months that he’d known him, Jin Ling noticed that though Lan Sizhui always spoke with a soft, gentle tenor, his intent and enunciation was always clear and held a quiet sense of calm and confidence that Jin Ling found impossible to imitate, so it was strange to hear the uncertainty in his voice.
Then a thought immediately popped into his mind: ‘Did they think I would resent them because of their uncle’s work?’
Jin Ling swallowed uneasily; he wasn’t planning to tell them about his father this soon, if at all. He despised the sympathetic looks people spared him whenever he told them; he didn’t need pity from those who weren’t genuine. But Jin Ling had to wonder how Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui would react…
Perhaps he was the one who was afraid. He couldn’t bear to be disappointed again.
The insincere consolation. The crocodile tears.
“What would you think if I tell you that my father died because of the android rebellion fifteen years ago and that… that Wei Wuxian is my maternal uncle?”
Jin Ling told them everything: how he was orphaned when his father died in his duties to protect citizens against infected androids and when his mother followed in her husband’s footsteps a year later, how much he hated Wei Wuxian for designing and building such a monstrous unit like the WEN series, how that hatred had somehow, over the years, seeped into his consciousness and entangled into his mindset.
In the end, the three of them were silent, and the room was only filled with the sound of the humming air conditioning.
“Ah-Ling…” Lan Sizhui looked as if he was about to reach over to touch him, but froze in his tracks when he saw the dejection in Jin Ling’s topaz irises.
“I’m not telling you two this because I wanted pity or sympathy; I’ve had enough of that bullshit when I was a kid,” Jin Ling told them, tone soft but genuine.
“Then what do you need from us?” Lan Sizhui asked.
“Treat me as if nothing’s changed, as if I’ve never told you this story,” Jin Ling answered with a small smile.
Lan Jingyi glanced over at his roommate; he didn’t say anything but there was mild panic in his eyes, like he was asking Lan Sizhui what they should do and how they should proceed and if they should tell him now…
Lan Sizhui shook his head minutely.
It wasn’t the right time yet.
“Thank you for sharing that part of yourself with us, Ah-Ling,” Lan Sizhui ruffled Jin Ling’s hair in an affectionate manner, and Jin Ling felt a surge of warmth from the tip of the other man’s fingers that spread down from the spot where he touched him dripping like warm, molten glass down his spine, malleable but would harden into an elegant structure that was simultaneously strong and fragile after some time. “It must not have been easy.”
Telling them this.
Spending his childhood without the love and protection of his parents.
Both statements went unspoken, but Jin Ling could read it in the gentle smile and tender light in Lan Sizhui’s eyes.
“Jin Ling! Have you been eating take-out again?” Lan Jingyi scolded him for the third time that week.
“Who’s got the time to cook when finals are upon us?” Jin Ling howled in desperation from his desk corner, where he’d been studying for his first-year biology class for the last five hours. Content about mechanisms of genetic inheritance was swimming meaninglessly in his head as he stared harder at the monitor of his laptop, as if this simple gesture would help imprint the information into his mind.
“You don’t even cook around here,” Lan Jingyi rolled his eyes. He glanced over at his friend’s laptop, which had remained on the same Powerpoint slide since the last time he’d checked twenty minutes ago, and slapped him lightly on his shoulder. “Go take a break and help out Sizhui in the kitchen.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Jin Ling swatted the other man’s hand away but stood up anyway to stretch before he shuffled towards the kitchen, where Lan Sizhui was preparing dinner.
Speaking of food preparation, Jin Ling was still getting used to the fact that Lan Sizhui seemed to be only interested in making him an actual meal out of naturally grown products. Jin Ling had learned earlier on that Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi fell amongst the majority of population that had chosen to eat out of efficiency than enjoyment of taste and texture; this meant that a lot of the time, they fed themselves quickly with bland protein powders and insipid nutrition bars or pills to save time.
Somehow, the two always managed to eat while Jin Ling wasn’t paying attention or when he was away, and so by the time his hot meal was ready and the three of them were sitting at the dining table at the Lan’s home, the only person who’d actually be eating was Jin Ling himself. But he enjoyed the atmosphere of it; it was almost like having meals back at home with his uncles, except he was free to vent about whatever had happened at school that day without risking Jiang Cheng’s disapproving looks or random blows to the back of his head.
A lot of the time, Lan Jingyi would chime in with stories of his own from work, carefully meandering away from any topics linked to Wei Wuxian. Lan Sizhui tended to just stay quiet and listened, only occasionally adding a comment or two when it was appropriate.
“Ah-Ling? I thought you’re studying for your biology final,” Lan Sizhui turned to him with his usual gentle smile that sent Jin Ling’s heart a fluttering sensation. It had been happening more and more often lately, and he wondered if there was something wrong with his health despite the nutritious meals that Lan Sizhui always made for him. Yet it wasn’t all together disagreeable if not a little oddly thrilling.
“Let me help,” Jin Ling didn’t give him any opportunity to kick him out of the kitchen since he was already rolling up his sleeves to his elbows.
“Remember the last time you tried to ‘help’ me?” Lan Sizhui chuckled, rinsing his hands after handling some olive oil.
“I—” Jin Ling tried to defend himself, but then recalled how he almost set the kitchen on fire whilst making a salad. A freaking salad — a dish that shouldn’t even require the use of a stove! Lan Jingyi had teased him about that for days afterwards. “I can do the dishes!”
Ignoring the much more convenient and efficient dishwasher near him, Jin Ling parked himself right by the sink and began to pile the dirtied dishes and knives that Lan Sizhui had been using whilst cooking into the sink, twisting the tap to fill the basin with hot, soapy water.
For about ten minutes, they worked in companionable silence: Jin Ling miraculously didn’t break any dishes while scrubbing them thoroughly with a wet cloth, and Lan Sizhui was making something over the stove that smelled absolutely like heaven. This was all going very well until Jin Ling decided to be extra helpful; after rinsing and drying the dishes, he went directly into putting them away into their rightful cabinets and drawers.
The kitchen space in the Lan residence wasn’t small by any means; two full-grown men could maneuver around each other easily enough, but when Jin Ling had to reach over the slightly taller Lan Sizhui, who was handling a knife expertly while chopping some parsley on the counter, in order to open the cabinet door over their heads, Lan Sizhui was suddenly flooded by the presence of a warm body pressing flush against his back, and an embarrassed murmur of ‘excuse me’ by his ear.
For the first time in his life, Lan Sizhui thought he finally experienced a short-circuit. His mind went blank, and all he could sense was Jin Ling’s body heat against his frame.
The knife slipped out of his hand, and the blade sliced a deep gash against the fingertip of his left hand.
“Lan Sizhui, your hand!”
Alarmed by Lan Sizhui’s uncharacteristic negligence, Jin Ling quickly turned the other man around to face him and tightened his hold onto Lan Sizhui’s injured hand into both of his as he accessed the damage.
Jin Ling blinked incomprehensively for a few seconds. He was certain the knife had cut into Lan Sizhui’s skin, so why wasn’t he bleeding?
Instead of seeing bright red where he thought Lan Sizhui had cut himself, Jin Ling only saw a clean laceration on the other man’s forefinger that started from the tip to the knuckle, the “skin” curling slightly outwards around the edges to reveal the complex web of wirings inside.
“What the hell…” Jin Ling’s eyes widened in disbelief, the gold in his irises brightening in instant vigilance, and he took a step back, dropping Lan Sizhui’s hand as if it was something tainted and dirty. “Lan Sizhui, what the hell are you?”
“It’s just as you see, Ah-Ling,” Lan Sizhui smiled at him, dark hair falling into his eyes — it was still gentle, almost the same as the smile that managed to make Jin Ling’s heart flutter every time he set eyes on him, but there was a hint of helplessness and melancholy laced within those eyes, too. He held up his hand, palm facing Jin Ling so that the gape with the wires inside was all that Jin Ling could focus on. “This is what I am. What both Jingyi and I are.”
“Guys, what’s taking so long—Oh.”
Lan Jingyi froze by the entryway of the kitchen. He could tell right away from the heavy silence and tenseness in the air that Jin Ling had figured it out.
“Jin Ling, we’ve wanted to tell you—”
“Stop,” Jin Ling snapped, glaring up at him through dark, messy fringes, but there was no real ire in his eyes or behind the one, single word — just hurt and bewilderment, shattered and bleeding. Exposed. “Just… stop.”
Jin Ling felt the oxygen flowed out of his lungs, and his vision swam like he was underwater and he couldn’t breathe no matter how hard he tried.
Without another word to the two men, Jin Ling got out of the apartment as if a nightmare was chasing after him and if he didn’t run fast enough, he would be swallowed by the darkness, so thick and viscous he knew he’d never crawl his way back out into the light.
It was almost midnight when Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui found their friend sitting on a swing in a small playground quite some ways away from their apartment building.
“Jin Ling, you inconsiderate jerk, you had us worried sick!” Lan Jingyi yelled from afar when he spotted Jin Ling’s figure by the swing-set, his silhouette made starker under the warm glow of the white streetlight. They could see Jin Ling straightening up his back when he heard Lan Jingyi’s shouting, and he was about to get up when Lan Jingyi huffed, “don’t you dare move, Jin Ling, we’re coming and you aren’t going to run away from us again until we talk about this.”
“Please,” Lan Sizhui pleaded with him quietly.
Jin Ling stood up from the swing seat but didn’t move away otherwise. He waited for the two men to approach him, and they stopped just two steps away from him, the light from the streetlamp touching them just enough to cast an ethereal glow on their pale skin and ink-black hair.
He couldn’t look them in the eye.
“Ah-Ling, I’m sorry you had to find out this way,” Lan Sizhui told him in that frustratingly tranquil tenor of his, so that any remnant traces of confusion or irrational rage from hours ago that had been clawing at his chest completely faded away the moment Jin Ling heard his voice.
He took a step closer to them, and lifted his head, the topaz in his eyes difficult to read from the shadows casted by his forelocks.
“It’s true then,” Jin Ling, his arms shaking slightly and the brims of his eye reddened, reached out and placed his palms over the left sides of Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui’s chests — the side where he would feel the dull beating of a heart, if he were touching a human being.
But their chests were absolutely still, deadly silent — metallic, cold.
“You two really are androids…” Jin Ling whispered, like a confirmation to himself, and he closed his eyes as he retrieved his arms back to his side.
“We are,” Lan Sizhui affirmed calmly.
“All this time, you’ve been lying to me,” Jin Ling said in an accusing tone, and he shrank away when he saw that Lan Sizhui was about to step closer to him. “And for what?!”
“Like I’ve been trying to tell you before you ran off,” Lan Jingyi continued frenziedly, “we wanted to tell you earlier, but then you told us what’d happened to your dad—”
Lan Sizhui put his arm out to stop Lan Jingyi from going further.
“Ah-Ling, it was wrong of us to hide who — or rather, what — we are, especially after understanding your reason behind your dislike towards our kind, but for the sake of our friendship, will you listen to our story?” Lan Sizhui asked, his smile gentle yet imploring, and Jin Ling knew he couldn’t deny him anything.
He nodded stiffly.
“Jingyi and I are the archetypes of the LAN series that had been part of the models that were recalled by the government fifteen years ago for dismantlement and disposal,” Lan Sizhui began in a soothing, distant voice, as if he was narrating someone else’s story and not his own. “Lan Wangji was our designer and creator — he made us, the prototypes, from scratch, so I suppose in a way, he saw us as his children, and he wanted to protect us from the purge, so he hid us away until the worst had passed.
“After you’d told us about your father’s passing, we were afraid that…” Lan Sizhui paused, and grinned self-depreciatively when he realized how ironic it was for him and Lan Jingyi — two androids that couldn’t feel physical pain, that the emotions they supposedly felt were nothing but mere programming codes and learned responses — to feel that fear of rejection from a human being. “…we were afraid that you wouldn’t want to be associated with us once you realized what we are.”
“Why would you be willing to go so far — to be so goddamn considerate — to a human like me?” Jin Ling seemed lost.
“Because we like you, you dummy,” Lan Jingyi jumped into the conversation with a shake of his head as if Jin Ling was too slow to understand and he had to explain it in the simplest terms. “Whether you’re a human or an android, you’re you. You’re Jin Ling, and we like you for who you are. Is that really so hard for you to understand?”
Lan Sizhui nodded in silent agreement.
“Besides, does it matter that we’re androids?” Lan Jingyi continued in a huff, and he erased the distance between himself and Jin Ling in one brave step, holding Jin Ling’s hands in both of his. “That we’re made of metal and wires and run on electricity?”
Jin Ling looked startled from the contact but didn’t pull away.
Lan Sizhui took that as a positive sign for him to come forward as well, raising his hand to tuck a loose strand of Jin Ling’s hair behind the curve of his ear as he leaned in close, his artificial breaths fanning across the other man’s cheek when he spoke next.
“Do our being androids invalidate any emotions we may have? Are our affections for you any less genuine or tangible?” Lan Sizhui never raised his voice, but the potency behind his questions were almost demanding as if he was forcing Jin Ling to confront them — his feelings for them — with no paths left to escape.
Jin Ling was done being a coward. He wouldn’t run away anymore.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Jin Ling whispered, his senses and body overwhelmed solely from the close proximity of the two androids before him. “I…”
Words were stuck at the back of his throat, but he was more of an act-first-ask-questions-later kind of person anyway, and so with the crescent moon as their only witness and his heart filled with a surge of emotion he dared not put a name on it just yet, Jin Ling pulled the two men into his arms for a tight embrace.