The Parent-Teacher Association at the Cloud Recesses Secondary School, is a relatively small one, considering that the school itself is a small, community school run by the Lan family.
At the beginning of every week, on Monday evenings, the PTA meets for discussion in the conference room of Lan Qiren, the school’s principal. At the table, several parents and members of the community come in to sit down, with Lan Qiren at the head of the table. He strokes his beard and takes his blood pressure medication, trying to meditate before the chaos can truly begin.
The first to arrive is Officer Nie Mingjue, the precinct chief of the area. Though he is on the PTA, he is not a parent, but due to extenuating circumstances of him practically raising his younger brother, his position is unquestioned. To remove him from the PTA would take a lot more muscle and determination than anyone was willing to expend.
The second to arrive are Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian, the married couple, co-owners of the Lotus Pier Shipping Company. Their two children and foster son also attend the school. Though the two have opposite temperaments, they seem to agree more often than they disagree when it comes to PTA matters, and present a united front.
Jin Guangshan and Wen Ruohan both arrive at the same time, fashionably late by a few minutes. Wen Ruohan’s donations to the school have been noted, and his position within the world is a high one, he is rich – though the exact details of his job are unknown. When asked, he gives a derisive stare and says, “I’m in real estate.”
Jin Guangshan jogs in after Wen Ruohan, his overly tight designer jeans leaving things that should be left to the imagination, not left to the imagination. He winks at Jiang Fengmian when he slides into his seat right next to him, and then immediately pulls out two sleek iPhones and begins to scroll through Tinder on both of them.
The seat of Qingheng-Jun, Lan Qiren’s brother and great contributor to the school, is left empty. Lan Qiren says that he’s got a cold (every PTA meeting) and takes no more questions. Though Qingheng-Jun is the president of the PTA board, no-one has seen him in over a year.
Once everyone is seated, Lan Qiren clears his throat.
A silence descends.
"This PTA weekly meeting is now in session. We need to speak of a certain topic. In fact, to acknowledge the rise in bad behavior at the school," says Lan Qiren, steepling his fingers and glaring down the table. "Certain people's children are starting fights," he looks at Jin Guangshan, who does not notice, too busy scrolling through Tinder on both of his brand-new iPhones, "Setting fire to school equipment," he glares at Wen Ruohan, who looks imperturbably back, flicking imaginary dust off the sleeve of his red silk suit jacket, "And just…" Lan Qiren looks down, taking a deep breath in through his nose, "Trying my patience." He looks over at Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, who blinks in surprise. Lan Qiren sighs and looks over at Nie Mingjue. “Your brother is doing fine, but he needs to put a little more effort into his schoolwork.”
Nie Mingjue frowns. “Alright, I understand. I’ll threaten to break his legs if his grades don’t go up.”
Lan Qiren pauses. “…His Physical Education grade needs to improve also, so it would be best if his legs were left alone,” he says quickly.
Nodding thoughtfully, Nie Mingjue falls silent.
Wen Ruohan speaks up. “What did Chao-er incinerate this time?” he asks. “I will pay damages.”
Lan Qiren runs his fingers through his beard in an unconscious, stressed-out motion. “A table in the science lab,” he says. “But I think it would be best if you could influence him not to set things on fire entirely – the maniacal laughter makes me think professional help could be necessary – rather than just pay obscene amounts of money every time-”
Wen Ruohan has already slid a stack of bills across the table. “That should cover it.”
As if he has gotten a stab of pain from a headache, Lan Qiren massages his temples and closes his eyes.
Jin Guangshan only looks up from his phones in the silence that ensues. "…Oh, yeah, totally. We, uh, let's have a bake sale!" he says, trying to pretend like he's been listening. "To, uh, fundraise. I’ll get catering, and then you guys sell it, right? Or wait… I think that’s illegal. Whatever. Anything to get money for the education of bright minds, am I right?"
The sound of Nie Mingjue rolling his eyes is even louder than Wen Ruohan's scoff. The frown line between Lan Qiren’s eyebrows deepens, and he covers his face with a hand. “This was about your children’s bad behavior,” he repeats, through his teeth.
Jiang Fengmian sighs, putting a hand on the wrist of Yu Ziyuan (who looks about ready to fly across the table in order to strangle Jin Guangshan) and says, "Ah, this is the first I've heard of it. We'll go home and speak well with our children."
"Your daughter is wonderful," says Lan Qiren quickly, "Good grades, good behavior, excellent all around. Wei Wuxian, on the other hand-"
"I am going to strangle Wei Ying when we get home," says Yu Ziyuan in a vehement undertone.
"A-Xian surely doesn't mean to annoy anyone…" Jiang Fengmian trails off, knowing what he is saying, is, unfortunately, bullshit. "…Go easy on the strangulation," he finally says, smiling thinly.
Across the table, Wen Ruohan's smile means nothing good. "Did I hear, 'strangulation'?"
Jin Guangshan swallows audibly. "Who's getting choked?" he asks, shifting uncomfortably in his seat and licking his lips.
Nie Mingjue slams his folder on the table. "Someone is going to be, if we don't get back on track," he growls.
Yu Ziyuan hides a snort as she takes a sip of her coffee.
Jin Guangshan's smile wavers a little, but he lowers his voice and leans over. "Oh, Officer Nie, is that a promise? I'm not usually into that kind of stuff, but if it's-"
"Moving on!" says Lan Qiren loudly, before the bulging vein in Nie Mingjue’s head can rupture from pure rage. He strokes his beard, looking like he’s holding himself back from committing murder, also, by reciting the school rules to himself over and over in his own head. “…Now, before this discussion turned to other things,” he says, “Mr. Jin suggested a bake sale. Despite the fact that it had nothing to do with what we were discussing at the time, it was a useful suggestion. In fact, our school’s orchestra has won a regional competition, and will go on to compete on a national level.”
Jiang Fengmian smiles proudly. “A-Cheng and A-Xian are in that,” he says in a cheerful, carrying whisper.
Wen Ruohan hides a smile as he takes a sip of coffee.
Yu Ziyuan rolls her eyes. “A-Cheng plays the triangle.”
“It’s an important contribution!” Jiang Fengmian says defensively.
“Aren’t you embarrassed to tell people?!”
Jin Guangshan leans over. “If it helps, there are things a lot more embarrassing than that, Jiang-xiong,” he says. “Why, I remember this one time when this young lady and I were in one of my new hotels, and she-”
Yu Ziyuan slams her uncapped pen into the table less than an inch away from where Jin Guangshan’s hand is reaching for her husband’s. The pen’s sharp tip buries its’ entire metal nib in the wood.
Jin Guangshan makes an undignified squeak of terror.
“My hand slipped,” Yu Ziyuan deadpans.
Jin Guangshan’s eye twitches and he swallows, then leans away, to the sound of Nie Mingjue’s roar of laughter, and Wen Ruohan’s approving nod and appraising glance towards Yu Ziyuan.
Lan Qiren clears his throat. “…A bake sale fundraiser would be necessary to raise money for them to go to that competition. Things like a bus fare, a special orchestra uniform, as well as accommodations for the duration of the two days that the competition will be held.”
Wen Ruohan takes out his wallet. “How much?” he asks. “I can pay it now.”
Yu Ziyuan leans over to Jiang Fengmian. “I am not going to let Wen Ruohan take this bake sale away from us,” she hisses. “Your brownies will surely guarantee us a presidential position on the PTA board in this year’s election!”
Jiang Fengmian smiles. “I’m glad you think they’re good…”
Jin Guangshan jumps up. “Me too!” He slowly sits down as people turn to stare at him, but manages to pull his wallet out of the back pocket of his obscenely tight designer jeans. Yu Ziyuan glares at him so hard that he drops it and has to crawl under the table to get it. Wen Ruohan glances over with a raised eyebrow, but doesn’t comment.
Lan Qiren covers his face with his hand again, and combs his hand through his beard in an attempt to stay calm. “You misunderstand, Mr. Wen,” he says. “The baking part of the bake sale is vital. It’s a connection with the community.”
“That’s right,” says Yu Ziyuan.
Wen Ruohan is imperturbable, low voice rolling through the boardroom. “I am the community.”
“You own a mc-mansion in Qishan Heights and you let your bitch-ass little- I mean, your son, drive a Maserati in blatant disregard of traffic rules! The only thing you are to the community is obnoxious!” roars Nie Mingjue across the table, standing up so hard that his chair falls back.
“I think the kids call that a ‘burn’, nowadays,” whispers Jiang Fengmian to Yu Ziyuan.
Nie Mingjue goes on. “I am going to personally arrest that punk one day, and you won’t be able to bribe me, Wen Ruohan!”
His rumbling voice seems to frighten Jin Guangshan, who tries to subtly hide behind Jiang Fengmian’s chair. Yu Ziyuan cracks her knuckles, preparing for the occurrence if Jin Guangshan touches her husband.
“I look forward to the day,” Wen Ruohan says flatly.
Lan Qiren pinches the bridge of his nose, his hand becoming white-knuckled as it curls into a fist on the table. “Mr. Nie, please sit down. Mr. Jin, stop hiding behind Mr. Jiang. Mr. Wen, put your wallet away,” he growls. “We will do this the traditional way. If you wish to contribute, Mr. Wen, please bake us all some cookies.”
There is a silence during which Wen Ruohan’s expression becomes stormy, and Lan Qiren looks back with an icy countenance.
Jiang Fengmian smiles to diffuse the tension. “I could give Mr. Wen a good recipe, actually,” he says.
“…Oh?” says Wen Ruohan, blinking.
Nodding, Jiang Fengmian tugs the pen out of the table. “I have it memorized, I’ll write it out for you now-” He does so quickly and slides it across the table to Wen Ruohan. “It’s relatively easy to make, I think,” he says. “If you have any trouble, please call, I’ll be happy to give you some tips.”
Wen Ruohan stares at the paper, then at Jiang Fengmian. “…Right,” he says. “Yes.”
Yu Ziyuan snorts.
Jin Guangshan’s eyebrows rise and he looks like he’s about to say something, but Yu Ziyuan glares at him so hard he shuts his mouth with an audible ‘clack’ of teeth. She stands up. “We will be glad to participate, this year,” she says with a heavy and defiant tone. “My husband’s baked goods are better than anything any of you have ever tasted.”
“Thank you, Madam Yu,” says Lan Qiren tiredly. He has run his fingers through his beard so many times that it looks much messier, and he tries to re-arrange it into the sleek shape it held before. “…I think we can call this the end of our meeting,” he says distractedly. “I hope to see you all at the bake sale…”
Wen Ruohan looks curiously from Jiang Fengmian to Yu Ziyuan, and smiles. “I’ll look forward to it,” he says.
The brownie stall is immensely popular. Jiang Yanli and Jiang Fengmian are all smiles, Wei Ying uses his boundless energy to run around waving his handmade sign on bright purple cardboard that says ‘Jiang Fam Brownies!!! Super lit!!! Good AF!!!’ and yelling about how good they are. Jiang Cheng handles the money, marking down the numbers on the back of his hand as he keeps adding up the dollars that pile in.
Yu Ziyuan stands a distance away, watching over the situation, leaning against Madam Jin’s minivan and smoking.
“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!” calls Wei Ying, spotting a familiar face in the crowd. “Come here!”
The serious-faced boy buys three brownies at Wei Ying’s urging, and then offers them to Wei Ying blankly. Wei Ying blinks. “You don’t want them? You just paid for them.”
“Accidentally bought too many,” Lan Wangji says. “Have some.”
Wei Ying’s face splits into a grin. “My hands are full of this sign, Lan Zhan! You should feed me!”
“Shameless!” Lan Wangji chokes out, turning away and biting into a brownie.
Jiang Fengmian doesn’t pay much attention to the rest of the interaction, but he notices later that Wei Ying is licking brownie crumbs from the corners of his mouth, so Lan Wangji must have somehow caved.
What Jiang Fengmian’s attention is held by, at that moment, is someone else. As Jiang Fengmian is unloading a large baking tray of brownies out of the back of the Jiang Family Subaru. Wen Ruohan steps up to the brownie stall. “I want one,” he says. “Wrap it.”
Jiang Yanli smiles, unintimidated. “Coming right up!” She quickly wraps one in pretty, lotus-patterned baking paper, puts it on a matching napkin, then slides it across the counter with a smile. “One dollar a pop!” she says in a cheerful customer service voice that she learned at her job in the ice cream parlor. Jiang Fengmian can’t help but beam with pride.
The stack of bills Wen Ruohan lays down is certainly not a dollar.
Jiang Fengmian sets down the baking tray, and Jiang Yanli ducks out of the way. “Ah, Mr. Wen, good to see you.” He smiles. “They’re one dollar, each,” he says. “I think I need to give you some change.”
“I misheard,” deadpans Wen Ruohan. “I thought she said one thousand dollars. Ah, well… Too late now. Keep it.”
Jiang Fengmian blinks. “I beg your pardon?”
Wen Ruohan ignores him and peels back the corner of the wrapping on the brownie, taking a bite. He nods as he chews, eyes becoming slightly round as he looks back up at Jiang Fengmian. “This is… Really good,” he says. As if he can’t hold himself back, he takes another bite. “Really good,” he repeats.
“Ah, thank you,” says Jiang Fengmian, before he can even think.
“…See you around, Mr. Jiang.”
Then Wen Ruohan turns and leaves, leaving the confusedly blinking Jiang Fengmian saying, “See you, Mr. Wen,” to empty air.
Yu Ziyuan drops her cigarette and stomps on it, storming over to Jiang Fengmian’s side, to stare after Wen Ruohan’s retreating back. “That bastard,” she growls, grabbing Jiang Fengmian’s arm. “He’s trying to show us up with a massive donation! At the PTA elections, he’s going to use this against us!”
“He said my baking was good,” says Jiang Fengmian, still emptily staring after him.
“No shit,” says Yu Ziyuan, but she smiles slightly. “At least we know even if he is an asshole, he’s not got shit taste.”
On Friday night, Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan sit down at the table with all three of the children. Jiang Fengmian is asking Jiang Yanli about the book she is studying in literature class, and dishing out mashed potatoes to Jiang Cheng, when Yu Ziyuan notices Wei Ying avoiding eye contact, his hair hanging over his face in an odd way as he slowly chews his food, wincing occasionally.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asks, in a not-so harsh way. “Are you not hungry or something? And get your hair out of your face, sit up straight, Wei Ying,” she admonishes.
The boy complies, but when he drags his hair away from his face, there is a collecting intake of breath as everyone sees the huge bruise blooming over Wei Ying’s jaw. He rolls his eyes and grins, then winces at the pain the action causes him. “It’s not a big deal, you should see the other guy!” he says cheerfully.
“Oh, A-Xian…” sighs Jiang Yanli, getting up from the table to get a first-aid kit from above the fridge.
Jiang Cheng stands up and hits Wei Ying on the arm. “I told you not to get involved with Wen Chao, just ignore him!” he bursts out.
“He was messing with our classmate! Should I have ignored it when he was messing with Mian-Mian?!” bursts out Wei Ying, dropping his fork with a sharp clatter. “I can’t just stand by when he does whatever he wants!”
“So you’re just gonna get beat up by Zhao Zhuliu whenever you try to land a hit on Wen Chao, then?” snaps Jiang Cheng.
Wei Ying grins again, and winces again. “Not try. I got him good. He’ll have a black eye for a while.”
Yu Ziyuan sees that Jiang Fengmian wants to say something, so she slams her hand down on the table, and a silence falls. She nudges her husband, and he throws her a gently exasperated, but thankful look. “A-Xian, is this Mr. Wen’s son?” he asks. “It seems that he is causing trouble?”
“He’s a bully, and Mr. Wen hired this jerk Zhao Zhuliu to be his friend and beat up anyone who doesn’t like him!” Jiang Cheng bursts out. “Zhao Zhuliu should have graduated two years ago, but he’s being held back just so he can be Wen Chao’s shitty bodyguard!”
“A-Cheng, language,” says Jiang Fengmian as a force of habit.
Wei Ying frowns. “He used to be just a jerk we could handle, but he’s gone too far,” he says in a low voice, frowning deeply. “He locked our whole class in the gym this one time, when we were getting ready for the culture festival, so there were no teachers around.”
“Most of us got out from the roof window, by tying our jackets together into a rope,” Jiang Cheng adds.
“But the rope fell out, so me and Lan Zhan were stuck in there until Jiang Cheng went and found Lan Qiren to get us out with the keys,” says Wei Ying, leaning over so that Jiang Yanli can apply a compress to his face. “…Thanks, Jie!”
Jiang Cheng shivers, the look in his eyes speaking of far more than words could express.
Yu Ziyuan frowns, eyes blazing. “We’ve got something on Wen Ruohan now. A shitty son like that is going to cause hell to his PR – if we let more people know, we’ve got this year’s board elections in the bag,” she growls. “Wen Ruohan’s little monster of a son isn’t going to mess around with my kids.”
Jiang Fengmian sighs. “A-Ying, A-Cheng – you could have told us sooner,” he says gently.
The two boys nod, looking down.
The PTA meeting discusses the profits made by the bake sale of last week, at which Wen Ruohan looks very smug, as does Yu Ziyuan. Jiang Fengmian, on the other hand, is simply calm. “Mr. Wen,” he says, tone a bit colder than usual, “Have you tried my cookie recipe yet?”
Jin Guangshan cuts in before Wen Ruohan can say anything. “Speaking of sweet things, check this out, Jiang-xiong,” he says lasciviously, leaning closer to Jiang Fengmian, licking his lips.
“This indecency-” begins to growl Lan Qiren as Jiang Fengmian begins to shift away.
“…Have you seen this cake?” Jin Guangshan asks gleefully, holding up one of his phones to show Jiang Fengmian.
Yu Ziyuan bats it out of his hand before Jiang Fengmian can even see it. The iPhone flies out of Jin Guangshan’s hand and falls to the floor with a shattering noise.
“My hand slipped,” she deadpans.
Nie Mingjue barks with laughter, and Wen Ruohan hides a grin in his teacup. Jin Guangshan looks like he may start crying and says nothing for the rest of the meeting.
Wen Ruohan looks over at Jiang Fengmian. “Not yet,” he says. “I’ve been busy. But I still have it, and I will have them made.”
“I think your sons would benefit from some home cooking,” Jiang Fengmian says with a thin smile. “Wen Chao especially – he seems to be suffering from a severe lack of…” Jiang Fengmian pauses, “Nutrition and social skills.”
Nie Mingjue makes a sound like, “O-oh snap,” clapping his hands together, and Yu Ziyuan squeezes his hand proudly under the table, unable to keep from smiling as she looks at him.
Lan Qiren’s eyebrows fly up, but he does not stop anyone, as Wen Ruohan leans across the table towards Jiang Fengmian. “Then what would you suggest?” he asks in a low voice.
Jiang Fengmian does not lose his smile as he looks back. “I would suggest a talk about harassment with your son, Mr. Wen. Property damage can be fixed by opening your wallet, but damage to a person is a little different.” His eyes curve as he continues to keep his smile up. “People fight back.”
Wen Ruohan looks back, not dropping his gaze from Jiang Fengmian’s eyes that are cold, despite their appearance of smiling. Then he nods, smiling back, but it looks more genuine. “Very well,” he says. “Thank you for letting me know, Mr. Jiang.”
There is a silence as the two men continue to hold each other’s gazes, but finally Lan Qiren clears his throat, raking his fingers through his no-longer neat beard. “…Alright!” he says, his tired voice disrupting the tension. “Now, let us move on to discussing the orchestra’s trip to the competition, and the presentation about traffic safety that will be happening tomorrow.”
When the meeting is over, Jiang Fengmian goes back to the car, but Yu Ziyuan stays behind, saying only, “I’m going to chew him out.” Jiang Fengmian sighs long-sufferingly and pats her on the arm.
When she sees Wen Ruohan, she begins to advance on him, the aura of killing intent behind her truly strong. The man remains calm, though and only raises an eyebrow, waiting for her to speak. “I’m listening,” he says.
Yu Ziyuan narrows her eyes, taking a step closer, the heels of her leather boots making ominous sounds. In them, she is the same height as Wen Ruohan, and can glare him straight in the eyes without bending her neck at all. "Wen Ruohan. I’m much less polite than my husband. If that bratty gremlin you call a son touches my children again," she growls, voice getting lower and lower with every word, "I promise you this; I will kick you between the legs so hard that your balls will retreat back into your body, and then I will reach down your throat..." she pauses, "And pull them out."
Wen Ruohan blinks once. There is a marked silence.
And then Wen Ruohan smiles, the entirely opposite reaction to what Yu Ziyuan was expecting. "Are you and your husband free on Friday evening?" he asks. "I will take you both to dinner."
Yu Ziyuan blinks also. “Yes, we’re free,” she says cautiously, then narrows her eyes, refusing to let him get the best of her. “Golden Peony restaurant, eight o’clock,” she counters.
“That suits me well,” Wen Ruohan says.
“Yeah?” says Yu Ziyuan, putting her hands on her hips. “Good. We’ll be there.”
“As will I.”
They shake hands, and Yu Ziyuan goes back to the car, still trying to process what just happened. She sits down in the driver’s seat and turns to Jiang Fengmian. “He just invited us out to dinner,” she says.
Jiang Fengmian smiles. “You accepted, I hope?”
“Yeah, Friday night at eight – Golden Peony,” she says. “I haven’t worn a cocktail dress in years.”
“Now we can’t not go,” Jiang Fengmian says.
And that is how, on Saturday morning at three o’clock, Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian find themselves slipping out through the back door of the Wen Manson as their host slept in the Imperial-sized bed – Jiang Fengmian struggling to re-tie his tie, and Yu Ziyuan sans makeup and heels, down to the driveway where their car had been valet-parked .
“So,” says Yu Ziyuan without looking at Jiang Fengmian as she reverses out of Wen Ruohan’s massive driveway, “That happened.”
Jiang Fengmian lays in the backseat, an arm over his eyes. He’s given up on trying to re-tie his tie. “Yeah… That happened. I am going to need to go to the chiropractor…” he sighs. “But more than that… We have a board meeting the day after tomorrow! How can we look him in the face?”
“With our eyes,” deadpans Yu Ziyuan. “We’re still rivals. He’s not going to get the better of us at the PTA Board elections, no matter how good he is in bed. And if we don’t win over him, we’re going to make sure literally anyone else does. Except Jin Guangshan.”
“But he’s going to do that… Thing,” Jiang Fengmian groans. “The meaningful looks. The smirk thing. Oh god, and if Jin Guangshan finds out, we’ll never hear the last of it-”
Yu Ziyuan scoffs. “He won’t mess with us – he’s an asshole, but he’s got class. …Not Jin Guangshan,” she clarifies, “Wen Ruohan.” Her mouth twists. “Jin Guangshan is a walking STD factory wrapped in Armani with the class of a thirty-five-year-old Twinkie that’s been repeatedly stepped on.”
She hears a soft laugh from the backseat, and can’t help smiling in response. It’s three in the morning, before the ass-crack of dawn, so when she turns onto their street, she’s surprised to see that the lights in their house are on.
Pulling into the driveway, she reaches behind herself and pats Jiang Fengmian’s knee to get his attention. “Hey. Look. What the fuck are our kids doing?” she hisses. “…Is that Jin Zixuan?”
The front door is open, and Wei Ying, along with Jiang Cheng are both loudly arguing with Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan. The two younger boys are holding baseball bats, Jin Zixuan and Wei Ying are trying to strangle each other, and Jiang Cheng is wildly waving his arms as he explains something to his older sister.
Yu Ziyuan gets out of the car, and can hear them better.
“…-telling you, he kidnapped them!” yells Jiang Cheng. “We’re going to beat him up and steal Wen Chao as payback!”
“…-let go of me, you peacock asshole, you’re getting it on with my sister over my dead fucking body!” Wei Ying screams.
“…-you’re overreacting, A-Cheng, I’m sure they just took a detour or something!” Jiang Yanli cries out, raising her volume to be heard.
“…-I’m not getting it on with anyone, you little shit, we were doing homework!” screeches Jin Zixuan, his face bright red.
Jiang Fengmian climbs out of the car to stand at her side. “Ah, to be young. So much energy,” he says, and then winces. “Ah, ouch- My waist…”
Yu Ziyuan yells, “Hey!” but the children do not hear her. She cusses under her breath, then ups the volume button on her phone and brings up the mp3 file of a nuclear klaxon alarm. “Cover your ears,” she says to Jiang Fengmian. She presses ‘play’, and offers a silent apology to Jiang Yanli as she covers her own ears also.
The children stop doing what they are doing.
Yu Ziyuan pauses the audio on her phone, then puts her hands on her hips as she advances on them, eyes blazing. “What the fuck do you all think you’re doing, you crazy little shits!” she roars. “It’s five in the morning – I left you home because I thought that you were old enough to deal with it!” She takes a breath and says more calmly, “Not you, A-Li, I’m sure you tried your best.” She turns her glare onto Jin Zixuan. “And what are you doing here?”
“Just leaving now, ma’am,” chokes out Jin Zixuan, flattening himself against the door.
Wei Ying and Jin Zixuan have let go of each other, Jiang Cheng has sat straight down, and Jiang Yanli is leaning against the doorway, as if her legs might give way underneath her at any moment.
“Uncle Jiang! Madam Yu!” Wei Ying exclaims, looking disproportionately happy to see them, his sunny grin tempered by tears of joy. “You’re alive!”
Jiang Cheng jumps up, tears in his eyes also. “Mom! Dad! You’re okay! I thought you got kidnapped!” he yells.
“What?” say Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan at the same time as Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying crush them both in a tight group hug.
“Wen Ruohan is like, a mob boss, or something!” Wei Ying starts. “How else is he so evil and rich?”
“And you guys went to have dinner with him!” Jiang Cheng adds.
“But you didn’t come back until now!”
“You were gone all night! And since you’re rivals, we thought he might’ve eliminated his competition!”
“We were gonna get you back!”
“Yeah, and kidnap Wen Chao so that he’ll give you back!” says Jiang Cheng with venom. “Beat the shit out of him.”
“Lan Zhan has his learner’s license, I was gonna call him to drive us over there!” Wei Ying adds.
Jiang Fengmian pats the heads of the two boys, blinking several times. “Ah, it’s nothing like that,” he says. “Don’t worry, alright? No mafia activity, we just got sidetracked. PTA matters and all that. Please don’t kidnap anyone, alright?”
Being hugged by her son and Wei Ying, Yu Ziyuan can’t exactly figure out how to make words, because she feels a feeling that is not disgust, and her throat feels oddly scratchy. She allows herself to be hugged for a while. “…What a dumb idea,” she grumbles, suddenly pulling on both of their ears. “You’re both grounded for a week.”
“Owowowow-” Wei Ying whines. “Madam Yu-u, my ear, my ear, it’s gonna come off-”
“Mom, owwww-” Jiang Cheng whines. “Leggo, leggo-”
Yu Ziyuan turns to Jin Zixuan, who is currently inching his way across the wall, visible in the corner of her eye, trying to escape. She pins him with a glare. “And what are you doing here at three in the morning, young man?”
“Yes ma’am!” squawks Jin Zixuan. “I-I mean, no ma’am! I-I mean-” He falls to his knees and bows. “I was paired up with Yanli on a project and I was just handing over my half so we could combine it and present today in class!” he says, all in one breath. “Nothing indecent, please don’t kill me, please don’t tell my mom!”
Jiang Yanli runs over and tugs on Yu Ziyuan’s sleeve. “Mom, Zixuan hasn’t done anything wrong, we were just talking.”
Jin Zixuan takes this opportunity to run for it. Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying go back inside, duly shamed, and Jiang Yanli goes back to her room to get on the phone with Jin Zixuan probably.
As Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian go up the stairs to their bedroom in order to catch up on the sleep that they lost, they can hear Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying whispering as they look out of the crack of their door.
“Dude, your dad is limping,” Wei Ying hisses. “That Wen Ruohan bastard must’ve kidnapped them, then let them go, and threatened them to stay quiet!”
Jiang Cheng gasps. “He even managed to threaten someone like Mom?”
“No, Madam Yu must be biding her time. And then she’ll beat the shit out of him, just you see,” Wei Ying says with relish. “And then maybe she’ll let us beat up Wen Chao.”
“Let’s hope,” grumbles Jiang Cheng.
Once they’re in their own room, Jiang Fengmian falls back onto the bed and covers his face, shaking from silent laughter. “…Having any sort of social life really is impossible when you have kids. Much less accidentally have a threesome with Wen Ruohan, of all people,” he finally says, before falling into helpless laughter again, looking up at Yu Ziyuan, once he can form words.
Yu Ziyuan takes one look at him, then sinks onto a chair, ribs aching from laughter, also. “Oh god, whoever said that life is only crazy enough to be worth living up to twenty-five was wrong.”
Guess what? It's another chapter!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The PTA meeting is now in session. Lan Qiren has taken his blood pressure medication, everyone has arrived, and everyone seems mostly in a good mood – from Nie Mingjue all the way to Wen Ruohan. Lan Qiren arranges his notes and is about to begin, when Nie Mingjue stands up. “Before we start,” he says, “I’d like to make an announcement.” He’s grinning, and his eyebrows move triumphantly, but he casts a quick look at Lan Qiren. “With your permission, Principal Lan.”
Lan Qiren sighs, but Nie Mingjue is someone who he tends to approve of, generally, so he nods. “…Go on, Officer Nie.”
Nie Mingjue’s grin widens and he locks eyes with Wen Ruohan, leaning over the table. “I’d like to announce that Wen Xu totaled his stupid Maserati, got arrested by yours truly, spent the night in jail last night, and is going to be doing ninety-six hours of community service,” he says smugly. “That punk never saw it coming.”
Jin Guangshan lets out a dramatic gasp, clutching to Jiang Fengmian’s arm. “No!” With an almost bored expression, Yu Ziyuan reaches around her husband’s shoulders and pulls on Jin Guangshan’s ear, not gently at all. “Owowowfuckowow-!”
“Language,” says Lan Qiren in a bored tone.
Jiang Fengmian’s ever-present smile becomes somewhat strained, as if it's taking a lot of his energy to pretend that nothing is happening.
And yet Wen Ruohan’s good mood does not seem to dissipate. “Oh, really,” he says, sounding almost bored, distracted by his own thoughts. “A pity. I’ll have to buy him a new one.”
Nie Mingjue glares, but sits down. “You won’t take this feeling of victory away from me, Wen Ruohan,” he mutters under his breath. “But I’ll be the better man and won’t say anything.”
Lan Qiren clears his throat. “…Alright. This meeting is now in session.” Five pairs of eyes turn expectantly to him, the room falling silent. “I would first like to acknowledge the efforts of the Jiang family at last week’s bake sale. Those brownies were the first sweet thing I have eaten in forty years, and I was surprised to find that not all things with sugar in them are, in fact, the devil.”
“You’re not even fifty yet, what kind of bitter childhood did you have?” gasps Jin Guangshan. He is ignored.
Yu Ziyuan looks smug, and Jiang Fengmian inclines his head, smiling slightly. “Thank you,” he says at the same time as Yu Ziyuan says, “What the hell did I tell you all?”
“Mr. Wen also donated a thousand dollars at that bake sale, and so, besides the funding gathered from the food stalls, we will have plenty of money to send the orchestra to the national championships, and for orchestra uniforms,” Lan Qiren continues. “This is fantastic news.”
Everyone claps politely, and Wen Ruohan looks smugly across the table at the Jiang couple. As usual, Yu Ziyuan glares powerfully back, but for some reason, Jiang Fengmian colors slightly and takes a drink of water from his paper cup, avoiding Wen Ruohan’s eyes.
“Now, this is a new age of technology,” Lan Qiren says, an expression of mild disgust on his face as he strokes his beard, “And as such, we must adapt.”
“You want smartboards for the school or something?” Wen Ruohan asks in a bored voice, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket.
A vein pulses in the side of Lan Qiren’s head. “Put your wallet away,” he says, almost snappishly, “And let me finish talking, Mr. Wen. I do not want smartboards. They had them at Wangji’s elementary school and they were purely awful.” He strokes his beard to calm himself.
“Stop pulling your wallet out every damn time someone sneezes!” Nie Mingjue adds. “We get it! You’re rich! Do you have anything else to offer society except capitalism, inflation, and snobbery?”
Jin Guangshan smiles. “I’m rich too!” he pipes up, waving a hand.
“No-one cares,” snap Nie Mingjue and Yu Ziyuan at the same time. The two of them exchange a look, then subtly bump fists under the table.
Jiang Fengmian pinches the bridge of his nose, and Lan Qiren unconsciously mirrors the action, before he clears his throat meaningfully and continues. “We must adapt! Therefore, I have created a Facebook group for our PTA. I’ve invited all of you to join.”
There is a general rustle as people pull their phones out (Jin Guangshan shields his phone with his body, looking nervously at Madam Yu). Nie Mingjue huffs. “…I forgot I even had a Facebook account. Who uses Facebook anymore?” he says.
Wen Ruohan raises an eyebrow. “Not all of us are quite as young as you,” he says. “After all, you aren’t even a parent. You’re almost fifteen years too young to be sitting here.”
“I’m a grown-ass man!” objects Nie Mingjue.
“And a fine ass it is, too…” Jin Guangshan says under his breath, then blinks innocently when people look at him. “I mean, wha-at? Did I say something? I didn’t say anything.”
Lan Qiren rakes his fingers through his beard and shuts his eyes tightly. “Let’s get back on topic here,” he says loudly.
Wen Ruohan turns away. Nie Mingjue flips him the bird, then turns to his phone. “What the hell is my password?” he mutters to himself. “…I’ll call Huaisang, give me a second.”
Wen Ruohan is the first to accept the invitation. Then Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian. Jin Guangshan finally joins, after taking a selfie that involves him unbuttoning his shirt halfway as his profile picture. He notices Lan Qiren’s angry glare, and how the principal opens his mouth to admonish him for his shamelessness, but he mistakes the fire of anger for the flames of passion, and winks seductively.
Lan Qiren stands up so hard his chair skids back across the room. “Shameless!” he snaps, face darkening with rage.
Jin Guangshan cowers. Just as he is buttoning his shirt back up, Yu Ziyuan narrows her eyes at him. “…Why is your Facebook relationship status ‘single’, you bastard?! You’re married!”
“Ah- That is-” Jin Guangshan looks around himself for an escape route, or a distraction, and then glances down at his phone, finding the perfect opportunity. “Mr. Wen!” he gasps. “Your relationship status is ‘it’s complicated’!”
Jing Fengmian, who had begun to drink water at the very mention of Wen Ruohan’s name, has a coughing fit. Yu Ziyuan, whose eyes had widened at Jin Guangshan's words pats his back as he gets his breath back.
Wen Ruohan doesn't even look up. “Any tangle of limbs is complicated,” he says absently, still scrolling through his phone, as if he is not really paying attention and responding automatically.
Jin Guangshan looks gleeful. “And whose limbs are you tangling, Mr. Wen?” He pauses. "Tangling with? Being tangled by?" He frowns. "No it just sounds wrong…"
Jiang Fengmian continues choking.
Wen Ruohan frowns at Jin Guangshan, as if just having noticed him. “Mind your own business, Mr. Jin – or I’ll find someone to mind it for you.” Leaving Jin Guangshan silently mouthing ‘what the actual fuck does that mean?!’, Wen Ruohan turns to look at Jiang Fengmian. “Are you alright?” he asks, unsuccessfully hiding a smirk.
Jiang Fengmian clears his throat, tightens his tie, and offers a slightly shaky smile. “Ah, yes, of course, Mr. Wen. The, ah, the water – it’s, ah, rather, hm, spicy.”
Yu Ziyuan covers her face.
Wen Ruohan makes no effort to hide his smirk. “‘Mr. Wen’? I think we should be past that point by now, shouldn’t we, Fengmian, Ziyuan?”
Yu Ziyuan smirks right back. “Call me ‘Madam Yu’,” she says.
“Doable,” says Wen Ruohan, still smirking.
Jin Guangshan’s eyes light up. “Can I call you ‘Ruohan’, too?” he asks, almost salivating.
Wen Ruohan’s eyes narrow, and the tone of his voice becomes low and dangerous. “If you call me anything but ‘Mr. Wen’, I will make you regret it.”
Jiang Fengmian clears his throat. “Ah, Mr. Wen, actually, I was going to ask you – have you tried the recipe for the cookies, yet?” he says, regaining his smiling composure.
“No,” says Wen Ruohan. “But I will. The thing is, I am not a talented baker. Never baked anything in my life. I think I will need some guidance from the experts. This weekend?”
Looking flushed, Jiang Fengmian nods quickly. “Baking,” he says in a choked voice. “I love baking…”
Yu Ziyuan nods. “Saturday. Eight o’clock. Your place.”
“She sounds like she’s deciding the destination for a fight…” whispers Jin Guangshan to Lan Qiren who has regained his seat. “And who bakes that late at night?”
Lan Qiren steadfastly ignores him, hands convulsively tightening into fists on the table.
Meanwhile, Nie Mingjue frowns at the phone. “Hello? Huaisang? …Yeah, good. Keep studying. …I need to ask you something. Yeah. …What’s my Facebook password?” There is a long pause. “What the hell do you mean, you don’t know?! Don’t pretend, you know all my passwords, even the ones you shouldn’t!”
Jin Guangshan snorts.
Another pause. “…You’re kidding. Are you sure that’s it?”
Jin Guangshan cups a hand to his ear, trying to listen in.
“There’s no way-” A longer pause. “Yep. Yep. Don’t say a fucking word, please. Oh, sweet Jesus. I’m changing it. Changing it now.” Nie Mingjue rubs his forehead with his hand. “…Alright. Okay. Huaisang… Thank you. If you tell anyone, especially that person, you’re so dead. …Yep. Bye. Study hard. Dinner’s in the fridge, heat it up.”
Jin Guangshan leans forward over the table. “Just as a matter of curiosity, Officer Nie, after you change it, what was it?”
Nie Mingjue looks up with a haunted expression. “I made my Facebook account when I was fifteen,” he says by way of explanation. “That was one password Huaisang really shouldn’t have known…”
Jin Guangshan blinks. "Ah. I had been fifteen once, too. I'm sorry you had to remember that," he says solemnly, and Nie Mingjue is visibly surprised by this moment of solidarity. Then the moment is gone, and Jin Guangshan turns to Jiang Fengmian, running his fingers up the man's arm. "…Jiang-xio-ong? Remember when we were fifteen?" he says.
"Did we go to the same school, even?" wonders Jiang Fengmian mildly.
Looking genuinely hurt, Jin Guangshan says, "Jiang-xiong! We were in the same class for four yea-" but doesn't finish speaking, because his ear is pulled by Yu Ziyuan, and a rubber band is flicked at his forehead across the table by Wen Ruohan.
"My hand slipped," deadpans Yu Ziyuan as Jin Guangshan whimpers.
"What a coincidence, Madam Yu," says Wen Ruohan smoothly. "Mine, also."
They darkly smirk at each other as Jiang Fengmian sighs and shakes his head.
Lan Qiren and Nie Mingjue exchange glances of raised eyebrows over the other people's heads. Lan Qiren sighs, then claps his hands together to get everyone’s attention. “Tomorrow, there’s a field trip to the museum,” he says. “We are in need of two more chaperones besides myself, and parents are welcome to come along. Is anyone here willing?”
Wen Ruohan holds up a hand, looking bored. “Pass.”
Jiang Fengmian looks apologetic, turning to Yu Ziyuan. “I’m already missing work to go to the chiropractor, and you’re covering for me… Neither of us can go, right?”
Yu Ziyuan shakes her head.
Nie Mingjue looks at his phone. “I might actually be able to,” he says. “That’s my day off.”
“Me too!” says Jin Guangshan with a smile. He looks between Nie Mingjue and Lan Qiren. “It’ll be the three of us? This is going to be so fun!”
Lan Qiren becomes pale with apprehension, then red-faced with anger – and Nie Mingjue scowls. "Fuck," he says emphatically, and Lan Qiren doesn't even bother to tell him off about his language.
Nie Mingjue and Lan Qiren bracket Jin Guangshan as they sit at the back of the bus and glare forwards. Jin Guangshan sprawls comfortably, scrolling through his phones – he’d gotten yet another new iPhone since the PTA meeting before last. He laughs to himself, takes selfies, and has stopped trying to communicate with the other two men, at least for now.
Over his head, Lan Qiren and Nie Mingjue have a conversation on their own. “Good morning, Officer Nie.”
“Good morning, Principal Lan. How are you doing today?”
“I am well, thank you, and you?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“We are having good weather, are we not?”
Nie Mingjue glances out the bus window and pauses. “…Yeah. The rain clouds really bring out the, uh… Low temperature.”
"Hm. Did you bring an umbrella, Officer Nie?" Lan Qiren asks.
"No, actually, I forgot." Nie Mingjue winces slightly, but shrugs. He is a man. The man. Man. A little cloud water won't hurt him (though it’s going to be a pain to be cold and wet for a long time).
Lan Qiren opens his bag and offers Nie Mingjue a compact folding umbrella. "I brought an extra for such a situation, you may have it."
"Thanks for letting me borrow it, Principal Lan." Nie Mingjue grins and raises it up.
"No need for thanks." Lan Qiren smiles faintly, inclining his head.
"Hey, I forgot my umbrella too!" Jin Guangshan pipes up, looking up from his phone and glancing with false coyness between his two seating companions. "Principal Ren-Ren, do you have an umbrella for me too, or will I have to squeeze under the umbrella together with Officer Nie and his muscles?"
A vein throbs in the side of Lan Qiren's head, and his hands tighten into fists on his lap, as if he is holding himself back from punching something (namely, Jin Guangshan's smug face). Under his breath, he begins to recite school rules, glaring straight ahead. "…Do not engage in personal fights. Do not cause harm to others unnecessarily. No murder within school bounds. Exercise restraint in all things…"
Nie Mingjue's powerful fist just misses Jin Guangshan's head and makes a serious dent in the plastic back of the bus seat. "If you so much as touch me or my muscles, Jin Guangshan, I will fucking end you. And don’t call him…” Nie Mingjue’s mouth twists as he realizes that he cannot utter such a tasteless thing as ‘Principal Ren-Ren’, “…That."
Jin Guangshan's eye and the corner of his mouth both twitch with terror. "Holy shit, that would be hot if it wasn't so scary," he whispers, eyes fluttering shut.
"Shameless!" Lan Qiren snaps.
Nie Mingjue’s eye twitches.
The museum is a very enjoyable field trip for the students. Nie Huaisang has his sketchbook out and looks at the paintings with such starry eyes, that Nie Mingjue waits until he’s done sketching to tell him off. “Ehey. Pay attention to the tour guide, put the thing away.”
Nie Huaisang pouts. “You bought it for me,” he mutters.
“Don’t make me regret it,” Nie Mingjue shoots back, but can’t suppress a small smile as Nie Huaisang jogs to catch up with his class group.
Meanwhile, Jin Zixuan is pretending that he is not related to his father. He’s not in the same class as Jiang Yanli, so he stays with his friends, and has them surround him to avoid Jin Guangshan approaching him.
Jin Guangshan, however, has no shame.
“Zixuan! Zixua-an-n!” Jin Guangshan calls. “Hey, son of mine!” He frowns, tilting his head to the side. “Why can’t he hear me?”
Lan Qiren glares at him. “The rules clearly said: ‘No raised voices within the museum’.”
Jin Guangshan makes a face, then takes out a third, secret iPhone out of his Gucci purse, and texts his son.
On the other side of the gallery, Jin Zixuan’s phone makes a gentle tinkling noise as a notification arrives. “Da-ad!” complains Jin Zixuan, elbowing through his circle of friends, to glare at his father. “Don’t tell me to put on a jacket, it’s not even cold in here! Besides, your shirt is, like…” he waves a hand and looks disgusted, “See-through.”
There is smattered giggling.
Lan Qiren runs his fingers through his beard and looks like he wants to be literally anywhere else. He vaguely wonders whether he should resign and buy a ticket to Hawaii for a vacation, to lay on the beach, fully-clothed, and drink non-alcoholic margaritas.
Jin Guangshan loops his arm through Nie Mingjue’s and drags the police officer to stand beside the display case featuring a model of an ancient Greek warrior. “Look, everyone!” he calls, even as Lan Qiren and the museum security turn to glare at him. “We should get him to model the Greek armor!” Jin Guangshan’s lascivious gaze at Nie Mingjue’s pectoral muscles does not go unnoticed.
There is smattered laughter among the students.
“If you touch me again, Jin Guangshan,” Nie Mingjue growls, yanking his arm away, “I will break your hand off and slap you with it.”
The laughter becomes louder.
Jin Guangshan bats his eyelashes at Nie Mingjue. “Please be gentle with me, Officer Nie…” He licks his lips suggestively, and shudders as Nie Mingjue glares. "My hands have other uses…"
Nie Mingjue takes a step back, face showing disgust and confusion, able to say nothing. Lan Qiren’s face becomes red from rage. “Ludicrous! Preposterous! Degenerate! Reprobate! Shameless!”
In the echoing silence that ensues, everyone can hear Wei Wuxian say, “Ah, so that’s where you get it from, Lan Zhan! It runs in the family!”
“Ridiculous!” Lan Wangji growls, turning away. His ears are bright red.
Jin Guangshan is now forbidden from being a parent chaperone on field trips.
The next week’s PTA meeting is concluded early, nothing of note to have been discussed. However, Jin Guangshan cannot help noticing that Wen Ruohan, Jiang Fengmian, and Yu Ziyuan all get in the back of Wen Ruohan’s limo and drive away. One of the tinted windows is rolled down, and he can clearly see (because he is straining to do so, peeking through the slats of the blinds in the closed conference room), how Wen Ruohan has a hand on Jiang Fengmian’s knee, how Yu Ziyuan is holding Wen Ruohan by the tie as if she is ready to strangle him, and how Wen Ruohan looks way too happy about that.
When he tells this to other people, not one of them believes him.
Q: What was Nie Mingjue’s FB password?
A: Nie Mingjue’s FB password from when he was 15 was ‘NieLan5201314’
NieLan: self-explanatory ship name
520：五二零: ‘wu er ling’：我爱你：‘wo ai ni’：‘I love you’
1314：一三一四：‘yi san yi si’：一生一死：‘yi sheng yi si’：roughly; ‘for the rest of my life’ (one life, one death – sounds super hardcore)
I stand by the idea that Nie Mingjue was a closet mega-romantic when it came to his crushes as a kid (still is).
Q: What did he change it to?
A: He didn’t.
Thanks for reading!
Hey, here's a new chapter
In this one, Lan Qiren has a hell of a week
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lan Qiren readies himself for another exhausting PTA meeting. The table is spotless (though not for long if Jin Guangshan spills the vodka in his waterbottle again), the tea is made (but unappreciated), and all the meditation he's been doing on his days off should be kicking in by now (and if not, well, there's always the meds). He sighs, strokes his beard, and sits down at the head of the table.
His phone buzzes and he looks to see what the notification is. It's a relatively tame picture of Jin Guangshan drinking water (out of a vase with the Gucci logo) with the caption, 'Im thirstee' and several empty rectangles following the words. As far as messages go, this one is one of the less offensive ones from Jin Guangshan – but Lan Qiren's response is exactly the same, for every message.
'You have the wrong number. Never text me again. Best Regards.'
After sending this text, Lan Qiren uncaps his pen and makes a note to himself, 'Ask Wangji how to block telephone numbers.' His second nephew is the IT person in their house who is literate in the puzzling and ever-advancing world of technology that Lan Qiren and Xichen are slightly less informed in.
It is exactly five o'clock.
The first to come is Nie Mingjue. Lan Qiren is glad to know that at least someone understands punctuality. He doesn't exactly blame the Jiang couple too much, that at least seem like they're trying (and besides, they have three children, and one of them is Wei Wuxian) but Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan have no excuse. Staying hydrated doesn't equal being late.
Nie Mingjue greets him politely, and Lan Qiren can't help thinking that he wishes this one to come and visit Xichen more often.
Wangji's visitors on the other hand… Lan Qiren sighs deeply and strokes his beard. His second nephew is a polite, upstanding boy with a good heart; but he doesn't have the friendly and bright charisma of his older brother. He's had no visitors whatsoever, discounting that Su Minshan boy that was stalking him last year, or Wei Wuxian arriving to harass him (though Wangji always seems to put up with it? Somehow? Lan Qiren really doesn’t understand it).
Lan Qiren’s older brother is off overseas again, drowning his sorrows in some foreign country, leaving the boys in Lan Qiren's charge (as they have been since the age of five and two). But Lan Qiren is doing his best. If only he doesn't lose his goddamn mind from the people he has to talk to…
And, speak of the devil.
Jin Guangshan waltzes in, surprisingly early, chirping on the phone to someone who is obviously not his wife. "…Of course, sweetie. Yes, of course I love you. …Her? How do you even- Well, yes, sweetie, I love her too – but that’s not a problem! I have enough love to go around, don’t you worry… Yep! Bye-bye-e!" Jin Guangshan ends the call and smiles at Lan Qiren and Nie Mingjue. "Hello! How is everyone today? Good?"
"Mr. Jin," Nie Mingjue says heavily, turning in his chair to give Jin Guangshan a sharp stare.
Nie Mingjue continues to stare unblinkingly at Jin Guangshan, prompting him to preen. "Yes, Officer Nie?"
"Whenever I look at you, Mr. Jin," Nie Mingjue quietly begins, "Even though I am an officer of the law, I have the urge to commit a crime."
"Adultery?" Jin Guagshan asks hopefully, with a salacious wink.
One must not laugh at others. Death threats are generally frowned upon. Crimes are not right to joke about. But Lan Qiren covers his mouth with his hand to cover a 'cough'; what may have been a barely suppressed smile. His approval of Nie Mingjue goes up by one point, though, so does his headache.
Pointedly ignoring Jin Guangshan, Lan Qiren turns to Nie Mingjue. “My nephew has been meaning to ask you over for dinner,” he says. “He has been busy with his studies recently, but he is coming home on Saturday. You may bring your younger brother as well, of course.”
Nie Mingjue nods. “Thank you, sir.” He smiles a little. “Xichen is really busy with law school, isn’t he… Very admirable.” He clears his throat and nods, returning to his customary frown.
Lan Qiren senses something, as if he’s not picking something up – but he is glad that Xichen’s good friend appreciates the Lan Family’s strong working ethic. Nie Mingjue would be a welcome addition to the family (a pity that the ancient tradition of sworn brothers was no longer a thing).
Jin Guangshan leans over the table. “Can I come over too?” he asks.
“No,” says Lan Qiren.
“Then you can come over to my place!” Jin Guangshan is undeterred. “For dinner. Very, very late at night… And I’ll be on the menu-”
Feeling his entire body fill with rage, Lan Qiren suppresses the urge to cough blood right into Jin Guangshan’s face, but is saved from having to respond to that by the door flying open and the appearance of Wen Ruohan, who gives a dignified nod and goes to sit at his usual place. For all the man’s many (many) faults, at least he’s not flirtatious. On Lan Qiren’s ranking of the PTA members, Wen Ruohan is one point above Jin Guangshan. Above Wen Ruohan, there is Jiang Fengmian, then Yu Ziyuan, and then, at the top, Nie Mingjue.
Wen Ruohan pours himself some tea and nods in appreciation. “Good tea.”
Lan Qiren inclines his head. Yes, Wen Ruohan is better than Jin Guangshan (though, really anyone is, that's not a particularly high praise).
Nie Mingjue glowers.
Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan come in late, Jiang Fengmian a little out of breath and apologetic, and Yu Ziyuan striding stoically in behind him. “Sorry everyone, A-Cheng joined the soccer club with A-Xian, so we had to drop them off, but then A-Xian spilled bubble tea on his soccer uniform in the car, so we had to go back home to get them both new uniforms…”
Wen Ruohan nods. “Oh, I understand. You know, when my sons were younger, Chao-er would always set Xu-er’s bedspread on fire when they fought, so Xu-er physically removed one of the walls from Chao-er’s bedroom… Ah, children fighting – it’s pretty much the same.”
Jiang Fengmian smiles brightly and looks almost adoringly at Wen Ruohan. “Yeah…”
Jin Guangshan and Lan Qiren look at each other, with neither rage nor salaciousness; Jin Guangshan mouths, 'Physically removed?!' with an almost terrified expression, while Lan Qiren's eyebrows rise.
Yu Ziyuan sighs and rolls her eyes when Wen Ruohan smiles at her.
Lan Qiren blinks. “No, it’s really not,” he says quietly, pinching the bridge of his nose and praying for patience, then running his fingers though his beard. Not everyone’s children are utter psychopaths! Mine are perfect, for example. “Alright, everyone, let the meeting begin.”
Nie Huaisang and Nie Mingjue show up to the Lan Residence at six o’clock sharp. Nie Mingjue is wearing a suit, but his brother looks a little odd in what looks to be an oversized sweater, the sleeves of which go past his palms, and oddly tight pants – holding a bright pink electrical fan that buzzes cheerfully away. Young people nowadays have strange fashion senses, Lan Qiren knows – but he has to admit that the green and gold flowers painted on a black background of Nie Huaisang’s nail-polish is quite skillfully done.
Dinner is a little larger and fancier than the Lan family is used to, due to the fact that Xichen had spent the whole day beaming, since the morning rushing around the house, finding recipes using the computer, and cooking different side-dishes (but also cleaning and re-cleaning the house, re-decorating the whole front garden, and washing the already quite clean driveway, among other things) until Wangji had taken him aside and calmed him down with a few words.
Those who did not know the boys well would have thought that through Xichen’s uncanny way of sensing his brother’s emotions through Wangji’s blank face, was the task of a patient older brother. But Lan Qiren knows that Lan Xichen’s bright smile expresses just as little, and just as much as Wangji’s stoic stare. The two can read each other so well, better than Lan Qiren can, though he can better than most.
Xichen greets Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang at the door. “Mingjue-xiong,” he says, and then doesn’t say anything else.
“Xichen,” says Nie Mingjue. The two young men stare at each other for a moment, as Lan Qiren’s eyebrows twitch in confusion, and notices Nie Huaisang hide a small smirk behind his hand.
The silence becomes a little awkward, and Nie Huaisang’s little fan’s buzzing becomes a little grating. Then Wangji appears at the door beside Xichen, and the atmosphere changes.
Lan Qiren sits at the head of the dinner table, with two brothers on either side, oldest towards the head. Nie Huaisang and Wangji’s interactions are rather one-sided, and Lan Qiren inwardly sighs – Wangji really does want to make friends, but the poor boy is too awkward. Unfortunately, people seem to think that he’s cold.
“Wangji-xiong, this is good!” Nie Huaisang says, eyes lighting up as he digs into the food.
“Brother made it,” Wangji says. “Speech is forbidden while eating.”
“Um, right,” Nie Huaisang says. “So, like, if I want you to pass the salt, do I use sign language, or…?”
Nie Mingjue lightly smacks his brother’s shoulder. “Don’t be facetious,” he grumbles.
“I’m not! I just didn’t know!”
Xichen smiles placatingly. “Wangji is used to our rules. Of course, if you need the salt, here you go, A-Sang.”
Nie Mingjue smiles at Xichen, which is such a rare occurrence that Lan Qiren’s eyebrows rise of their own accord. Xichen smiles back, and the salt remains un-passed.
Nie Huaisang and Wangji exchange knowing glances. It seems that the only one out of the loop is Lan Qiren, so he simply continues to eat. Xichen’s cooking is really good – he makes the rice fluffier than Lan Qiren has ever had before, and doesn’t know how to make.
They eat on in comfortable silence, then (comfortable for everyone except for Nie Huaisang), until Nie Huaisang raises his hand. “Um, sir, may I go to the bathroom?”
Lan Qiren stares at him, chopsticks halfway between his bowl and his mouth. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, crap, sorry!” squeaks Nie Huaisang, quickly jerking his hand down. “Sorry, sorry, Principal Lan, just, being here, I feel like I’m still at school!”
Xichen (the angel) simply smiles. “Down the hall. You remember, right?”
“Thank you Er-ge!” breathes Nie Huaisang, then all but runs out of the dining room.
Actually, Lan Qiren is also feeling a little bit like he’s still at school; he was about to order, “No running in the halls!” after Nie Huaisang’s retreating back. Instead, he pays more attention to his meal, and tries to ignore the feeling that he’s an unnecessary member at the dinner table when Nie Mingjue and Xichen continue to look adoringly at each other.
Wangji may seem unperturbed on the outside, but even he looks a little awkward.
About two minutes later, there is a bloodcurdling shriek from the bathroom.
Nie Mingjue jumps up, hand going to where there would be his gun holster, Xichen’s head snaps up and his eyes widen, and Wangji’s shoulders tighten, gaze darting around. Lan Qiren sets his chopsticks down.
There is a sound of a door opening, and dragging footsteps down the hallway.
In the doorway to the kitchen, a strange creature appears, damp hair hanging over its face, long arms dragging by its sides and leaving wet droplets on the tile floor. It lets out a miserable sound, then looks up.
It is Nie Huaisang. He looks as if he has taken a bath with his clothes on, against his will.
Lan Qiren really does feel like he’s at school again, having to deal with strange children doing unnecessary things. He rubs his forehead where he feels a headache coming on, then strokes his beard to calm himself.
“Huaisang, what the hell?” asks Nie Mingjue.
“I- I don’t know, I really don’t know!” Nie Huaisang says, almost crying. “Like, I was washing my hands, and then I took a step back to look for a hand-towel, and there was all this water everywhere suddenly, and it was so cold! I don’t know! Da-ge…!”
“Ah,” says Xichen, looking like he’s not sure whether to laugh or cry. “That was our shower.”
Wangji nods. “Motion-activated shower cubicle.”
Lan Qiren sighs loudly.
Nie Mingjue turns around. “I’m sorry, you have a what?”
“Motion-activated shower cubicle,” repeats Wangji, then continues to imperturbably eat his dinner.
Xichen clarifies. “It’s very modern and eco-friendly. Uncle had it installed a few months ago. If you step onto a four-foot square of the floor in the bathroom, the shower turns on. It’s surrounded with glass, but I can understand that, ah, it can be confusing.” He gets up and smiles apologetically. “I’ll get a towel.”
“It’s like a… A trap!” Nie Huaisang complains miserably, teeth chattering.
“Don’t be rude,” sighs Nie Mingjue.
“No, the fault is mine, I should have warned you, A-Sang,” Xichen says gently, patting the boy’s dripping hair. He gets a large, fluffy towel from the linen closet and wraps it around Nie Huaisang. “Here, I’ll get you a chair next to the heater, alright?”
“T-thank you,” chatters Nie Huaisang.
As Nie Huaisang and Xichen leave, Nie Mingjue turns to Lan Qiren and bows. “I am extremely sorry. We’ve troubled you.”
“Do not worry about it, Officer Nie. In fact… We see you as part of the family already, and your younger brother, also, of course. There is no need for this.”
“I- Part of the family… Thank you, sir.” Nie Mingjue bows again, but Lan Qiren can catch a glimpse of a smile.
“It is only natural, given your and Xichen’s relationship.”
Nie Mingjue’s head comes suddenly up, eyes a little wide. “Oh! We’re not- I mean, it’s not like that, sir. We’re just friends.”
“No need to be modest. Closer than that, surely.”
Nie Mingjue’s jaw works, as if he’s trying to say something and it’s not coming out. His eyes widen a little, as if in panic, though what he would have to panic about, Lan Qiren has no idea.
“The bonds of brotherhood are not constrained by blood. In the times of our ancestors, you two would have surely been sworn brothers,” Lan Qiren adds, a little more gently, because it is at times like this that he sees how, really, Nie Mingjue is not that much older than Xichen. But then, again, Lan Qiren himself has probably reached the age where everyone below thirty is a child in his eyes. Lan Qiren strokes his beard.
Eating his dinner at the table, Wangji seems to choke a little.
“…Oh. Yeah. Thank you, sir.” Nie Mingjue looks both relieved and pained. Again, Lan Qiren feels like he’s not fully understanding something.
When the Nie brothers leave, Xichen slumps and covers his face with a hand, and Lan Qiren worries a little. “Are you unwell?”
“Oh, yes, Uncle. I’m fine.” Xichen straightens and smiles slightly, but Lan Qiren can still tell that there is some problem.
“If you do not tell me what is wrong, then I cannot assist,” he reminds his nephew.
Xichen’s smile drops a little. “I… Tonight, I wished to go differently. While A-Sang is important to me, and I know he did not mean to, I thought this evening might last longer. That I may…” Xichen stops. “I apologize, Uncle, it is not appropriate to say.”
Now Lan Qiren is definitely worried, raking his fingers through his beard. “You may say it,” he assures Xichen.
“Well, I never thought of marriage before, but…”
Lan Qiren blinks. “Marriage?”
Xichen’s back straightens. “Tonight, I wished to confess. I have feelings for him. Those that go beyond that of a friend, and I think he may have the same for me,” Xichen admits quietly. His face is perfectly still, though his voice shakes a little. “I am sorry, Uncle. Have I… Let you down?”
Lan Qiren’s eyebrows twitch, then his eyes lower. The fact that his nephew thinks that he would be disappointed because of this… Lan Qiren wonders whether he has done something wrong, so he should not repeat it again. To these two boys without a father and mother, he has tried to be both – and he can admit that he may have failed in some aspects. He needs to try harder. Never to make either of them to feel uncared for.
He puts his hand on the back of Xichen’s chair comfortingly. “…Never.”
Xichen looks up.
“You always conduct yourself with dignity, remain with your upstanding soul and kind heart. What kind of person you care for most… That is not your uncle’s choice. You have never let me down. And definitely not for this.”
“In fact, it happens that I quite appreciate Officer Nie.” Lan Qiren tries to soften his tone. “To have him as a daughter-in-law would be my honor.”
He pauses. That doesn’t sound quite right.
Xichen’s lips thin and his cheeks hollow with a suppressed laugh, and his eyes sparkle with something between amusement and unshed tears. “Uncle…” he says; partially an embarrassed huff, partially a sigh of relief.
“…It seems I need to update my lexicon,” Lan Qiren sighs, stroking his beard.
Xichen smiles and nods.
There is a silence, and then Wangji sits up straighter in his chair. “…Me too.”
Lan Qiren chokes. “What?” Both?! That- They can do that?!
“Like that,” clarifies Wangji. His jaw is squared and his eyes cast down, expression just as blank as always, but Lan Qiren, as having raised this boy since he was two, can tell that there is some emotional distress in the almost imperceptible way his chin trembles.
Xichen glances at his younger brother, and makes as if to say something, but remains quiet, now turning to watch Lan Qiren.
“Wangji. Look up at your uncle,” sighs Lan Qiren, “Surely you do not think I would say anything different to you than I would to your brother? I have raised you both to have strong and discerning hearts – and I see that you both do. I find no fault with you for this, nor with your brother, nor with anyone. If I am to find fault with someone, it would not be for this. It would be for some other flawed aspect of their character or bearing.”
Wangji does look up, finally. “What if… Uncle doesn’t like my person.”
Xichen bites his lip, and finally lays his hand on Wangji’s shoulder.
“Even still, I would find no fault in you for your… Hm, preferences,” Lan Qiren says. Yes, I really do need to update my lexicon. “Whatever faults the person you care for has, if you truly wish to spend your life with them, that is your choice. And… Perhaps I would come to appreciate them, over time. For, as I said before, you have a strong and discerning heart. You bear yourself in an upstanding way. I have no doubt that person would not be so terribly awful – would have redeeming qualities that make you care for them.”
Wangji inclines his head. “Thank you, Uncle.” His voice trembles a little bit, and Lan Qiren pours him more tea, taking two of the best pieces of meat from the center dish and putting one on Wangji’s rice, one on Xichen’s.
This kind of display of affection is really almost a little bit over the top! Next thing you know, he would be trying to hug them.
“There is nothing to thank me for,” Lan Qiren says. It seems he is in a terribly emotional mood today…
All of them are emotional messes! Instead of his usual one blink per six seconds, Wangji is blinking twice every three seconds, and Xichen's smile is smaller by a whole twenty-five degrees! Lan Qiren's own eyebrows have moved a while quarter of an inch closer together!
“Zhan-er, Huan-er, you are both this old man’s closest family.” The childhood names slip out entirely accidentally. Though the two before him are young men, sometimes, Lan Qiren still sees the children they were, and in some ways, never stopped being. “I hope that I can be able to provide you both with everything you need – and that you do not feel… Uncared for. The fact that it was difficult for the two of you to tell your uncle this, that you thought I would receive it badly – the fault lies with me. I apologize.” He inclines his head for a moment.
What is painful, is that Lan Qiren knows that in another time, he would have reacted differently, and made his nephews feel hurt or unwelcome, because he thought it was for the best. But those are the actions of a man stuck in a bygone era, and he is unwilling to cause pain.
Xichen and Wangji look lost for words, but words are not needed, so they continue to eat.
When both Wangji and Xichen are done with their meal, they excuse themselves to wash the dishes, and Lan Qiren remains behind at the table.
He remembers five-year-old Huan-er holding two-year-old Zhan-er in his tiny little arms, Zhan-er’s chubby little tear-stained cheek resting on Huan-er’s shoulder. “When’s Mother going to come back?” Huan-er asks, in a voice that trembles.
Zhan-er is silent, but tears begin to build in his eyes again. He finally takes his chubby fist out of his mouth. “Mom…” he says plaintively.
It is his older brother that should be here, that should be comforting his two children, should be explaining their mother’s disappearance, and shouldn’t be the coward he is, fleeing to wherever he is. But it is Lan Qiren who stands before them. Who awkwardly gathers them both up in his arms and shuts his eyes as tears soak into his shirt.
(Later, he finds out that it’s not all tears, and that, in fact, most of it is slobber from Zhan-er getting distracted and trying to eat the buttons off his shirt, but that’s a different story.)
Lan Qiren rubs his forehead. Really, what an emotional wreck he’s being. Any more, and his voice would begin shaking like an absolute child, or, god forbid, he would have an allergic reaction to all these emotions and his eyes could begin watering! He would have to commit himself to a mental hospital before such a thing happened – how could he be on the verge of a breakdown in front of the children?!
“Uncle?” Xichen asks, startling Lan Qiren out of his reverie, coming up to him, holding Lan Qiren’s cellphone. “Someone’s calling you.”
Lan Qiren clears his throat and takes the phone. The display shows that it’s Jiang Fengmian. “Hello?”
There is the sound of rustling. Unsure whether he just can’t hear what the people on the other end are saying, Lan Qiren puts the phone on speaker.
More rustling, then the sound of a groan. Yu Ziyuan’s voice, as if from far away, says, “Get the rope, will you?”
Xichen and Lan Qiren exchange glances of equal confusion. “Excuse me?” Lan Qiren says. “Madam Yu?”
There is another, louder groan. Someone laughing smugly. Rustling, breathing.
“Mr. Jiang?” asks Lan Qiren again, now thoroughly confused. He looks with some confusion at Xichen again, who sometimes has a better idea of what is going on, but this time, just shrugs.
Then there is a clatter, as if someone has finally picked up the phone. “Hello?” asks Wen Ruohan, of all people. He sounds a little out of breath.
“I…” Lan Qiren is thrown off-balance. “Mr. Jiang called me,” he says, running his fingers through his beard.
“Oh, must’ve happened when his pants… Fell,” Wen Ruohan says dispassionately.
Xichen covers his mouth, eyes widening. Lan Qiren is a little bit worried. “Is… Everything alright?”
There is more rustling and shuffling. Then Jiang Fengmian’s voice, that sounds as if he has run a marathon. “H-hello?”
More than a little confused, and now extremely worried, Lan Qiren says, “I think you may have accidentally called me, Mr. Jiang. I think the children nowadays refer to it as…” he wracks his memory, “A ‘booty call’.”
Lan Qiren has no idea what those words mean, but in that order, he's pretty sure it means an accidental call. He remembers Xichen’s friend Meng Yao explaining that to Xichen a few years ago. Xichen’s hands that are covering his mouth move up to cover his entire face, and his shoulders begin to shake.
“…But I simply wanted to make sure everything was alright,” adds Lan Qiren.
Jiang Fengmian pants heavily. “I- Ah, yes. Fine. Ah-”
“Was that Mr. Wen I heard earlier?”
“Oh! Ah- Um, yes. I mean, no! No, it wasn’t. A-ah-!” Then Jiang Fengmian’s breathing hitches, and by the clatter, it seems like he’s dropped the phone.
The phone is picked up once more, this time by Yu Ziyuan. She sounds only very slightly out of breath, and much more coherent. “We’ve joined a Pilates class,” she says brusquely. “Wen Ruohan signed up as well. Fengmian called you by accident, so sorry to bother you, Principal Lan.”
“Very well,” says Lan Qiren, satisfied with this explanation. “Good evening.”
“Good evening,” says Yu Ziyuan.
In the background there is a long, drawn-out groan, cut off by the phone hanging up.
Lan Qiren looks at the phone and strokes his beard. “I did not know there was a Pilates class this late at night,” he says thoughtfully.
Xichen looks like he’s about to cry. “Me neither, Uncle…”
This PTA meeting already feels different, with the parents presenting a united front. Usually, they can never agree on anything, but to see both Jin Guangshan, Wen Ruohan, and the Jiang couple on the same side of a petition is an extremely rare thing. Jiang Fengmian smiles politely. “Principal Lan,” he beings, “The other parents and I have been talking-”
Jin Guangshan winks, about to say something – and Yu Ziyuan’s hand flexes, knuckles popping ominously, purple, razor-sharp, pointed nails glinting ominously. “If you say anything, my hand might slip,” she hisses.
Jin Guangshan shuts his mouth with a soft whimper.
“And we’ve all come to a decision,” continues Jiang Fengmian.
“Years ago, as soon as you became principal, Principal Lan banned the annual School Dance, but had been aiming to shut it down for many years beforehand on the grounds that it was ‘ridiculous’, ‘unnecessary’, and ‘undignified’,” Wen Ruohan drawls, looking into Lan Qiren’s eyes for a little too long.
“We want it back, for our kids,” says Yu Ziyuan.
“That’s right!” chimes in Jin Guangshan.
Nie Mingjue is the only one to say nothing, and Lan Qiren wants Xichen to marry the boy immediately.
Lan Qiren draws himself up and strokes his beard. “My view on this matter stands,” he says icily, glaring right back at Wen Ruohan. “It is pointless – it does not further their education, nor their physical health. If you wish your children to dance,” and here he spits the word out with venom, “Then I am sure there are plenty of dance studios that would accept new pupils. After all, there are Pilates studios open at all times of the night – I suppose the same goes for dance lessons, so time is not an issue.”
Wen Ruohan’s eyes narrow. “Are you threatening to blackmail me?”
Yu Ziyuan’s eyebrows rise, while Jiang Fengmian’s face turns red.
Lan Qiren blinks. “What? No, of course not. Exercise is important for health – Xichen got me a pull-up bar for my home office a few years ago.”
Wen Ruohan begins to laugh, shaking his head. “Oh, you really one in a million, Lan Qiren. I really do appreciate you, quite a bit, you know?”
Lan Qiren is extremely confused. “What- No need, Mr. Wen.”
Jin Guangshan leans over the table. “Is that why you’re in such good shape, Principal Lan? I’m sure with those big, strong arms, you could-”
“Shameless!” snaps Lan Qiren. He feels his blood pressure rising and mentally assigns himself an extra hour of meditation when he gets home. He would sign up for a yoga class, but where would he get the time?
“A pull-up bar actually sounds like a really good idea!” Jing Fengmian exclaims, getting distracted. “Where did your nephew get it?”
“Through the internet,” Lan Qiren says. “I am not sure, myself.”
“Their shower is automatic, too,” Nie Mingjue adds.
Wen Ruohan snorts. “And you know this, why?”
“I was over there for dinner the other night,” Nie Mingjue says defensively. “What are you implying, Mr. Wen?”
“Oh, nothing. Just a little surprised at your intimate familiarity with Principal Lan’s shower.”
Jin Guangshan giggles. Nie Mingjue looks confused.
“Anyway, my decision is final,” Lan Qiren says loudly, to get everyone back on track, running a hand through his beard.
“But please! Consider it more carefully! It’s the feeling of the night!’ exclaims Jin Guangshan. “The magic of the moment! Everyone is there, dressed beautifully, the music is usually awful, but you’re having so much fun! A night of discovery and enjoyment – unforgettable in its entirety!” He sighs, throwing his head back and putting a hand to his forehead dramatically. “That night is when they show themselves as they want to be, not as they really are. It’s important in the development of their own sense of self, you know.”
There is a stunned silence.
Lan Qiren’s jaw is squared. “Like I said, my decision is final. No distasteful ‘School Dance’.”
Next time I update, the School Dance debate will be continued
Thanks for reading! Any thoughts?