Paperwork is the most important part of police work, as far as Lan Wangji is concerned. It isn’t as exciting as being out in the field, of course (although it doesn’t involve talking to anyone, which is a big point in paperwork’s favor); it doesn’t stimulate his mind the same way poring over evidence does, and it certainly isn’t as satisfying as that moment when a case cracks wide open and he knows he’ll be bringing someone to justice. Paperwork is a huge part of making sure that the criminals they apprehend actually answer for their crimes, though, and Wangji takes that seriously.
Plus, there’s something soothing about the meticulous collection and tracking of information, a tidiness to it that speaks to his orderly soul. He likes to get to work early and sit in the morning quiet, sipping his tea and filing his reports, so that his desk is pristine and his mind is clear and untroubled before his partner rolls in and stampedes over the rest of his day.
“Of course the second I get in the door the Captain is up my ass,” Nie Mingjue rumbles around a mouthful of blueberry muffin. Slinging his motorcycle helmet under his desk, he flops heavily down into his chair, which creaks alarmingly under his muscular bulk. “I didn’t even get my jacket off before he was talking in my ear.” He tosses a file onto Wangji’s immaculate desk, bypassing the in-tray and by extension negating the need for an in-tray. “New missing persons case. Yao’s being all squirrely about it.”
When Wangji passed the detective’s exam, he’d been less than thrilled to be partnered with his brother’s best friend from high school — he would have preferred a partner who didn’t remember him as a skinny orchestra nerd with braces. He and Nie Mingjue have turned out to be a surprisingly good team, though: Wangji’s sharp eye and meticulous nature are a good foil for Nie Mingjue’s killer instincts and take-charge attitude, and it turns out that Silent Cop/Scary Cop is a decent variation on Good Cop/Bad Cop. Despite all that, Wangji has never been able to suppress a twinge of irritation at his partner’s slovenly ways. He frowns at the offending folder. “Why?” he asks.
Nie Mingjue shrugs and pops open a Red Bull. “I guess the family’s raising a fuss.”
“Mn.” That probably means the family has connections; Captain Yao only goes out of his way if it means pleasing a powerful crony or two. He glances over at the Captain’s office door, but it’s shut. He can hear Yao shouting at someone inside.
There are blueberry muffin crumbs on the case folder. Sighing, Wangji brushes them off and flips it open.
His hands go cold.
The man in the picture is grinning, warm bright eyes crinkling at the camera, one hand shoved into his messy dark hair. The photo must be a few months old, Wangji thinks distantly — the last time he saw the man in this picture, his hair had been longer. The smile is the same.
Lan Zhan, are you going to arrest me?
“Ying Wuxian Wei, 28-year-old Asian male, last seen Monday afternoon at his place of work,” Nie Mingjue says, “wearing…” he checked his notes. “A red t-shirt advertising the band Twin Heroes, and black jeans.”
He knows that shirt. There’s a tiny hole where the collar is starting to come apart from the shoulder, and an oil stain under the “n” in “Twin.” Wangji isn’t breathing.
“Family officially reported him missing this morning. Apparently he was supposed to be at his sister’s house for dinner Monday night, never arrived. Missed work Tuesday and yesterday, they said he never called in, just didn’t show. Sister called Captain Yao yesterday evening on his direct line, wonder how she got that number,” Nie Mingjue says with a flourish of his eyebrows.
Wangji is turning to ice. He’s turning to stone. Wei Ying.
“Yao sent a uniform by his apartment last night to do a welfare check. Roommate stated she hadn’t seen him since Monday. Sister called again this morning, insisted we open a missing persons case. So here we go, one missing person, have fun with that.”
“I know him,” Wangji says quietly.
Nie Mingjue looks up in surprise. “You do?”
“He lives in my building. He’s…” Wangji swallows, his tongue feeling suddenly thick. “...A friend.”
“Are you shitting me?” Nie Mingjue asks, which is Nie Mingjue for Are you OK. “Do I need to tell Yao to give this to somebody else?”
On the one hand: yes, probably. Wangji’s sure that Wei Ying has a ton of people in his life who he’s closer to than he is to Wangji, but he is one of the very few people Wangji would consider a close friend. It’s a breach of ethics, and a conflict of interests, and probably a really bad idea for Wangji to investigate this case. The bottomless pit of anxiety that’s opened up in him at the thought of Wei Ying being missing only serves to confirm that. That’s not even considering the fact that Wangji has romantic feelings toward Wei Ying, which he wouldn’t have revealed to Nie Mingjue or the Captain under torture anyway, but certainly has the potential to cloud his judgment here.
On the other hand: It’s Wei Ying.
Wangji shakes his head. “No. It’s fine.”
Why do you have to be a cop, Lan Zhan?
“It’s fine,” he says again. Like hell is anyone else investigating this case.
The door to the Captain’s office bursts open with a bang. Captain Yao leans out, looking harried. “Nie! Lan!” he barks. “Get in here, we need to discuss your new case.”
A red-faced man in Armani slacks is pacing erratically around Yao’s office. Wangji recognizes him as Jiang Cheng Wanyin, a detective he knows by sight and slightly by reputation. His father is Jiang Fengmian of the Jiang Microsystems Jiangs; Jiang Wanyin’s annual detective’s salary is probably less than they tip their household staff. Even if he wasn’t from a prominent family, Wangji would still be aware of him; he’s seen the man networking away at the few Asian-American Police Association events Xichen has badgered Nie Mingjue into dragging him to, but they’ve never spoken. By all accounts, Detective Jiang works hard and has a decent close rate, but is known around the precinct for being kind of high-strung. A reputation which, if his current clenched jaw and flaring nostrils are any indication, is entirely deserved.
Yao rubs his eyes. His toupee has taken on new levels of unconvincingness this morning; it has sort of a crispy aspect that Wangji knows he’s going to find particularly distracting. “You guys know Detective Jiang, I’m sure,” he says.
Wangji gives the detective a nod of acknowledgement. Nie Mingjue grunts and scowls at him.
“Captain,” Jiang Wanyin says, in a tone of voice Wangji would certainly never take with a work superior. “I should be the one working this case.”
“And I’ve told you,” Captain Yao grinds out through gritted teeth. “You can’t. You’re too close to it. I’m including you in this conversation as a courtesy to your family, but you’re not investigating this case.”
“It doesn’t make sense to put anyone else on it!” Jiang snaps.
“What’s the deal, Jiang, you know this guy or something?” Nie Mingjue asks, carefully avoiding looking at Wangji.
“You —” Jiang appears to somewhat gain control of himself through sheer force of will. “He’s my brother,” he growls.
Wangji blinks. He’d known that Wei Ying had a brother, but not that said brother is also a cop, let alone someone Wangji knows. If Wei Ying is related to the Jiangs, it explains why Yao is so worked up about the case, and probably also explains how Wei Ying’s sister got the Captain’s private work number, which would have only required calling in a favor or two — small potatoes for a family like the Jiangs.
Nie Mingjue regards Jiang skeptically. “Wei Ying Wuxian? Different family name?”
Jiang rolls his eyes. “My family adopted him after his parents died.” He turns back to the Captain. “Look, I appreciate you taking this seriously, but my sister is overreacting. She has a tendency to indulge him. Wei Wuxian is probably just on a bender somewhere or shacked up with a girlfriend or something.”
A part of Wangji sits up in indignant protest at shacked up with a girlfriend. He dismisses it, impatient with himself. So what if Wei Ying is off with some girl, at least that would mean he’s OK.
“He’ll probably turn up on his own in a day or two,” Jiang Wanyin continues, “and if not, I’m perfectly capable of tracking him down myself.” He sighs heavily. “My brother...does shit like this. He’s crazy and selfish and he doesn’t give a shit, he’s always pulling some stunt and leaving the rest of us to clean it up. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with it.”
This is so wildly out of sync with what Wangji knows about Wei Ying that it’s as though Jiang is talking about another person entirely. He takes in Jiang’s perfectly-tailored indigo silk shirt, his subtly-expensive wool slacks, his designer shoes; everything about the man is tastefully broadcasting extreme wealth. It’s the kind of thing Wangji is good at recognizing, having grown up around it. He thinks of Wei Ying’s threadbare t-shirts, the holes and patches in his jeans that are definitely there from wear and not fashion, the duct tape on his sneakers. Brothers they might be, but Wangji is guessing there’s a lot more to that story, and none of it is making him favorably inclined toward Jiang’s easy dismissal of Wei Ying’s disappearance.
Captain Yao is shaking his head. “Maybe you’re right. Hell, probably you’re right. But your sister filed the report, which means we can’t close it until someone at SPD lays eyes on the guy. And as a family member, you are not allowed to work this case. It’s department policy. You know this. I know you know this. Now go do your job, let Detectives Lan and Nie do their jobs, and if you’d like to still have a job, don’t fucking bust into my office like that ever again.”
Jiang Wanyin flushes an angry red. He clenches his hands into fists. “Yes sir,” he practically spits, turning on his heel and stalking out.
“Does he know I’m supposed to be the department hothead?” Nie Mingjue asks into the silence that follows.
Yao covers his face with his hands, presumably at the thought of a second Nie Mingjue.
“Captain,” Wangji says carefully, “I should disclose to you that I’ve met Wei Ying Wuxian.”
“Really?” Yao asks, not taking his face out of his hands. “Fucking fantastic.”
“He lives in my building, and I’ve eaten at the cafe where he works.” All of this is scrupulously true.
“Is he your fuckup adopted brother too?”
“Then I don’t give a shit. Nie, if you can find the brother before Jiang winds up back in my office, I’ll buy you a bottle of scotch.”
“Not much of a case, really,” Nie Mingjue says once they were back at their desks. “Adult man goes four days without talking to his family.”
Wangji exhales a silent snort through his nose. Nie Mingjue would be tearing the city apart brick by brick if his brother hadn’t been seen in that long, but he’s not about to say that. “Under similar circumstances,” he says instead, “I would be quite concerned about Xichen.”
One day, Wangji swears to himself, he’ll have his phone ready to capture the soft, soppy look that comes over his partner’s face whenever the topic of Wangji’s brother Xichen comes up in conversation, and when that moment arrives, he’s making it his phone’s lock screen. “True,” Nie Mingjue grunts, a soft smile floating under his mustache. He stares moonily at his computer for a moment before appearing to get a grip. “I need to wrap a couple things up this morning,” he says, clearing his throat, “and then we can start in on this. I’m thinking his work first, since that was the last place he was seen, then the apartment? Nice easy commute home for you after that, if the guy’s your neighbor.”
A part of Wangji is screaming we have to go now, we have to find him right now, but Nie Mingjue’s request is reasonable, especially in light of the other cases they still have open, and insisting they leave immediately is exactly the kind of behavior that could get the case reassigned. If the Captain, or anyone else, had any idea how Wangji — how he and Wei Ying — well, the case is his now, and even if it wasn’t, he’d still be looking for Wei Ying.
He opens the Missing Persons file again. It’s odd, reviewing Wei Ying’s life and vital stats like this — too impersonal and too intimate at the same time. He’s had so many conversations with Wei Ying, about trivial things and serious things and everything in between; he would have said that he knew Wei Ying, really knew him, but the file is just a laundry list of things his friend has never told him about.
My birthday is Halloween, he imagines Wei Ying saying. My brother’s a cop. My sister lives in Medina. I was convicted of felony assault when I was 18 and sentenced to a year in prison, served 3 months, followed by a year of probation.
Wei Ying would never say these things, of course, because that isn’t how he talks: he evades, he makes jokes, he asks hypothetical questions, he says true things couched in such outrageous language that they sound false. It takes a careful ear to glean out what he’s really saying, even though Wei Ying rarely outright lies. It’s something Wangji has been getting good at.
He wonders if some of the things in Wei Ying’s file would have eventually come drifting out of his rambling speech, if they’d known each other for longer. He wonders if he really knows this man at all.
Even though the cafe is relatively close to his building, Wangji has never been there before. He doesn’t go out to eat much, and when he does, he tends to frequent the same places. Nie Huaisang calls him a stick in the mud, but he sees nothing wrong with being a creature of habit.
He is hungry, though, and work has kept him from getting in his usual grocery run this week. The cafe is a pretty standard hipster American-comfort-food-fusion place, the type that blankets the rest of the city and is now encroaching on the rapidly-gentrifying International District as well. It’s close, though, and it has decent Yelp reviews (“great sandwiches, tons of vegetarian options, at least one seriously cute waiter”), if nothing else.
The place is acceptable at first glance — clean, well-lit, music playing softly in the background instead of blaring at top volume like a lot of places. He chooses a seat, pulls a book out of his bag.
“Hi, how’s it going?”
Wangji looks up. The waiter’s about his age, tall and willowy, long hair in a messy pile on top of his head. He smiles, a natural, easy gesture, and his enormous catlike eyes crinkle up warmly.
This, then, must be the seriously cute waiter.
“First time in? I know I’d remember seeing you before,” the cute waiter says, his full lips curving suggestively around the words.
Wangji is quite aware that there are many, many people in the world who can make lively banter with the waitstaff. Probably some of those people can also handle being flirted with, without it feeling like someone’s dipped them in liquid nitrogen. He has no idea how those people manage it, but he’s aware that they exist. “Chrysanthemum tea,” he says stiffly.
The guy has an order pad shoved in a pocket of his apron, but doesn’t bother writing Wangji’s tea order down. Wangji tries not to feel stressed out about that. “Anything else? You want to see a food menu?”
The guy’s already setting a menu down in front of him. “Hey, settle down,” the waiter says. “Don’t talk my ear off.”
Wangji is accustomed to people being uncomfortable with his taciturn nature, and he is beyond sick of people teasing him about it, but there’s no malice in the waiter’s remark, which is delivered with a wink and another friendly smile. Wangji doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything. He can feel his ears growing warm.
“Be right back with your tea.”
Wangji peruses the menu quickly and then focuses on his book, which makes some very interesting points about the role of social media in guerilla movements in the developing world. It’s difficult to concentrate, though, since in addition to being cute, the waiter appears to be the loudest person in the world. He stacks cups with a clatter, drops a bucket of forks on the floor and then laughs like a hyena while he’s picking them up, and keeps up a more or less nonstop stream of chat to the rest of the staff, sometimes calling across half the cafe to do so. Try as he might, Wangji can’t seem to tune it out; he’s uncomfortably aware, the noise a continuing assault on his senses. It’s starting to set his teeth a little on edge by the time the guy returns with his tea.
“Chrysanthemum tea!” the waiter says brightly, setting Wangji’s tea down with a flourish. “I’d give that another minute to steep. Did you get a chance to look at the menu? Any questions I can answer? Personally, I recommend the spicy chicken grain bowl, or the ghost pepper grilled cheese, or if you don’t like spicy, the turkey avocado sandwich is pretty good —”
“The butternut squash salad,” Wangji says, getting the sense that if he doesn’t interrupt, he’ll never order.
“Got it.” The waiter does actually write this down, for which Wangji is thankful. “And what else?”
“That is all.”
“You sure?” The waiter cocks a hip and looks up from his notepad. A wisp of hair has fallen down into his face, brushing his high cheekbone. “Our salads are pretty small, they’re really intended to be more of a side dish than a main course.”
“That will be fine,” Wangji says. His uncle had always insisted that several small meals throughout the day were healthier than three big ones, and that’s still how Wangji eats most of the time. Old habits die hard.
“Not a lot of protein in the butternut salad,” the waiter presses, like Wangji’s protein intake is any of his business at all. “If you want I could have them add a grilled chicken breast or some tofu, or some shrimp —”
“No.” Wangji’s voice comes out more forcefully than he intends it to. “Thank you,” he adds.
“You always eat like a rabbit?” the waiter laughs.
Wangji glowers at him. Unchastened, the waiter scrunches his nose up like a rabbit’s, wiggles it a couple times, and laughs again. “I’ll get that salad in for you,” he says, sauntering away.
“Ridiculous,” Wangji mutters, not caring if the guy hears him or not. It’s completely uncalled for to comment on what he’s having for lunch. Between that and the overall noise factor, he’s starting to think about leaving a stingy tip. He would never actually do that — he’s a scrupulous 25% tipper in just about every scenario — but thinking about it does serve to temporarily ease some of his irritation.
He glares at his book in silence, not really seeing the words on the page in front of him. Why is he so bothered by this? People have been commenting on his silences and his fastidious habits all his life, it’s just background noise at this point. He should be able to let this remark roll off his back like all the rest, but something about it has gotten under his skin. His tea is delicious, which is just adding insult to injury at this point.
“Here you go.” The waiter sets the salad down in front of him. He doesn’t say anything else, but he doesn’t move away, either, just kind of hovers next to the table. Wangji looks up at him and raises an eyebrow. What now?
“Hey. Um.” The waiter twists his hands together nervously. His fingers are long and dextrous; his fingernails are painted in alternating red and black. “I’m, uh, sorry about the whole. You know. Rabbit comment. I’m annoying, I talk too much, you should just ignore me, everyone does,” he continues in a rush. “I didn’t. Um. Mean anything by it.” He reaches out and touches Wangji’s shoulder; instinctively, Wangji stiffens and pulls away. The waiter draws back his hand, wincing. “Sorry. Again. Um. Anyway, I hope you like your salad! I had them make it extra good, just for you.” He smiles again, closed-lipped, bright-eyed, conciliatory. “Enjoy.”
A little stunned by the sudden outpouring of words and feelings and touching, Wangji can only gape at the waiter as he walks away. The waiter pauses at the counter to re-cinch his apron around his narrow waist, emphasizing his angular shoulders, the full, almost feminine curve to his hips. There’s a hole in his jeans just behind his left knee; the glimpse of skin there causes a bizarre almost-sadness to well up in Wangji’s throat. Wangji scowls down at his salad.
He is mercifully left alone for the rest of his meal. Wangji supposes that one advantage of being what he calls “naturally reserved” and Nie Huaisang calls “scary to everyone all the time for no reason” is that he’s usually left in peace, although peace is a relative term, since their interaction does not appear to have cowed the cute waiter into anything approaching silence; he continues his stream of chatter to his co-workers, who joke and tease him back.
Wangji’s check finally arrives. At the bottom, in the area that says “YOUR SERVER TODAY WAS,” the name “Wei Ying” is written in bold, messy Sharpie. Underneath it is a surprisingly lifelike and adorable sketch of a rabbit.
“Wei Ying,” Wangji murmurs to himself, looking through the file again like he could somehow will more information out of it. He’d last seen Wei Ying on Sunday night; Wei Ying had been, well, extremely drunk, but otherwise fine. What happened between then and Monday afternoon?
How do you know what’s the right thing, Lan Zhan?
He’s so deep in thought, he isn’t aware of Jiang’s approach until the man is standing right beside his desk, looking like he’s about to implode from stress.
“Lan,” Jiang says tightly. “A word? About your case?” He spits the word out like it tastes bad.
Wangji gestures for him to sit in the visitor’s chair next to his desk. He sets down Wei Ying’s file, folds his hands, and waits.
“My brother,” Jiang mutters. Absently, he picks up a pen off of Wangji’s desk and starts clicking it up and down. Click click. “He’s...had a rough time of it. You’ve seen his file.” Click.
Wangji favors him with the smallest hint of a nod.
Jiang scowls at the floor. Click. Click click. “Look, he’s a good person. He’s just...impulsive.” Click clickety click. “He tends to go off and do things without thinking about how they’ll impact other people.” Click. “He drinks a lot,” clickety click, “and he has a big mouth and a giant hero complex, which gets him into trouble.”
All of this more or less jibes with Wangji’s experience of Wei Ying, if put more unkindly than he ever would have. Maybe Jiang is right: maybe Wei Ying just followed a wild impulse somewhere and would be back in a few days, making fun of him for being so worried.
He keeps silent, waiting to see what Jiang will say next. Riding out a pause is a surprisingly effective interrogation technique, especially with someone like Jiang.
Jiang scowls again. He clicks the pen several times in rapid succession. Wangji reflects that he could almost certainly get away with murdering someone if he really put his mind to it, but probably not if he began by stabbing the man with a pen in the middle of the police station.
“The thing is.” Jiang finally puts the pen down. The tension drains out of him, and for the first time Wangji can see the worry behind it. Jiang looks up at him, meets his eyes, looks away. “Either everything’s fine, or something’s really wrong. There’s no in between. There never is, with him.” He blinks rapidly a few times, suddenly looking much younger. “I can’t just...not do anything.”
Wangji allows his attitude to defrost slightly. Despite the fact that Jiang Wanyin appears not to get his brother at all, it’s clear that he cares about him, which is at least something. “I understand.”
“Mn.” Wangji nods. “I cannot allow you to actively assist with the case. But I will keep you apprised of what we find.” He jots down his cell number on a Post-It, taking care to put the pen back out of Jiang’s reach. “Text me if you think of anything that might be helpful.” He wants to say I will find him, but that isn’t the kind of thing you’re supposed to say to the family in a missing persons case. He sees no reason to tell Jiang Wanyin that he knows Wei Ying personally.
Jiang slides the Post-It into his pocket and stands up. “Thank you,” he says formally.
Wangji dismisses him with a nod.
The cafe is just winding down from the breakfast rush by the time they arrive; the crowd has thinned out, but several tables still bear the remnants of breakfasts, lipstick-stained coffee cups, abandoned newspapers. A young blonde woman with a pink streak in her hair is loading dishes into an overloaded tub; Wangji recognizes her as Nicole, who often works the morning shift.
“Hey guys, welcome in, grab a seat anywhere,” she calls as they come in. “Oh, hey!” She brightens, recognizing Wangji. “Chrysanthemum tea? I can clear your usual spot if you give me a sec.”
He can see Nie Mingjue’s questioning glance out of the corner of his eye, but ignores it. “No.”
Nicole sets down her tub. “Hey,” she says again, lowering her voice slightly. “Have you heard from Wuxian? He’s not answering his phone.”
“That’s actually what we’re here to talk to you about, Miss…?” Nie Mingjue flips open his notepad and looked at her expectantly.
Her eyes grow wide. She wipes her hands on her apron. “Larsen,” she says. “What’s this about?”
“I’m Detective Nie, SPD; it sounds like you’ve met my partner Detective Lan already. Were you working here Monday afternoon, Miss Larsen?” Nie Mingjue asks.
“Can you tell me about the last time you saw Ying Wuxian Wei?”
“Why?” She turns to Wangji. “Is he in trouble?”
“He’s been reported missing,” Wangji replies, managing to keep his voice expressionless.
“Holy shit!” Nicole covers her mouth with her hands. “I knew he hadn’t been at work, but I figured he just, I don’t know, got a better job or something. He’s missing?”
A bell dings in the back. “Order UP!” someone bellows.
“I’ll be right back,” Nicole apologizes. They wait by the door while she runs some food out to one table, refreshes another table’s coffee, and closes out a third table’s tab. “OK, sorry about that,” she says upon returning.
“When was the last time you saw Wuxian?” Nie Mingjue asks again.
“On Monday, I guess about 4:30? He ducked out a little early, he was trying to catch a bus out to the Eastside.”
“Did he say or do anything unusual?”
“No, not really? He was maybe a little quiet, but it was a busy day, I didn’t talk to him much.”
“Can you think of any reason he might have left town suddenly? Anywhere he might have gone?”
“I mean...he doesn’t even have a car. I guess he might have stayed at his sister’s?”
Wangji shakes his head. “He never arrived there.”
“Wow,” she says softly. “That’s...wow. I’m sorry, I just...have no idea what could have happened. He never misses work, I know he was actually trying to pick up some extra shifts.”
He thinks about Wei Ying dragging himself to work with colds and the flu, Wei Ying pale and quiet with exhaustion after working back-to-back double shifts. If I lose this job I’m so fucked, Lan Zhan, I’m so fucking fucked. She’s right; Wei Ying might project the image of a total flake, but he never misses work. Something really is wrong.
“Did he leave any belongings here?” Nie Mingjue asks.
She shrugs. “You could check his locker, in the back. Greg — that’s the GM — is back there, he can probably unlock it for you.”
Greg, a tired-looking white guy in his mid-40s, grumpily digs out a master key and opens Wei Ying’s locker for them. “When you find Wuxian,” he pronounces it woo-shawn, “tell him he’s fired.”
The anger is so sudden and so fierce, it steals Wangji’s breath for a moment. Greg must see something in his face, because he takes a half-step back.
My boss is an asshole, but everybody’s boss is an asshole, and I need the job.
Turning his back on the man, Wangji slips on a pair of gloves and bends to inspect the contents of the locker. Behind him, he can hear Nie Mingjue starting to run through the same questions they’d asked Nicole, but Wangji is already tuning them both out.
There isn’t much in there. A scattering of crumpled receipts and napkins. A discarded bus pass. A battered notebook filled with sketches, scribbled bits of computer code, and unintelligible notes, which Wangji slides into an evidence bag to look through in more detail later. He pulls out a wadded-up, tattered black hoodie, and the scent of Wei Ying’s skin rises up around him, making his stomach clench with fear and longing. He has to stop and hang on to himself, just to keep from burying his face in it.
In the hoodie’s left pocket, Wangji finds an envelope, just a standard office-type envelope, folded in half. The letterhead is from Nightless City, a club down in Belltown. Scrawled across the front is the message “XOXO XY” and a smiley face. It’s empty. He slides that into an evidence bag as well.
He straightens up just as Nie Mingjue is suggesting in his best casual-threatening voice that firing someone while they’re the subject of an active missing persons investigation is perhaps not the best look. “We’re done here,” Wangji says, not even bothering to look at Greg again as he walks out the door.
He’s finishing up some work before bed when he sees something moving on the building opposite his window. His and Xichen’s apartment is in a U-shaped building, surrounding a somewhat-dilapidated courtyard area on three sides, which means he has an uninspiring view of his neighbors’ windows from his home office. At first he thinks it’s just a shadow, but then he sees it’s a person, climbing out of a third-story window and pulling themselves up onto the roof. A break-in? No, the person’s not moving with any kind of urgency, and once they haul themselves onto the roof they just sit there, legs dangling off of the edge.
Great, he thinks, already getting up from his chair. One of his neighbors has decided to risk their neck on a lark, and now they’re going to plummet to their death and he’s going to have to be the first responder on the scene.
Xichen has a master key to the building, because he is a genuinely nice and good and decent person and people take advantage of that, which in this case means that the building’s property manager asks him to help out with things from time to time. Wangji snags the key from the bowl in their entryway and stomps upstairs to let himself onto the roof.
Perched there like a vampire bat, kicking his feet and drinking from a bottle of cheap whiskey, is the same guy from the cafe earlier that day. Because of course it is.
“You’re not supposed to be up here,” Wangji says in as stern a voice as he can manage.
The guy from the cafe — Wei Ying, Wangji’s traitorous brain helpfully supplies — glances over his shoulder with a sardonic look. Whatever retort he’d been about to make dies on his lips when he sees Wangji, though. His face brightens; he looks surprised, and, Wangji thinks, pleased to see him.
“Oh,” he says. “It’s you! Hey!” He waves, and laughs, a little dorkily. “What are you doing up here? Did you hippity-hop-hop on up?” He wiggles his nose in another rabbit impression.
Wangji gingerly sits down near him, close enough that he could theoretically reach out and grab the guy if he starts to topple off the edge.
“Do you live here?” Wei Ying asks.
“Mn.” Wangji nods.
“Well.” Wei Ying takes a sip from his bottle of whiskey. “Small world. Small town, anyway.”
In his time with Seattle PD, Wangji has dealt with a lot of drunk people. Wei Ying’s tone and posture are relaxed, his voice smooth and a little slow, but his eyes are bright and focused. Wangji cautiously revises the Rooftop Fall Threat Assessment down a level. “You’re not supposed to be up here,” he says again.
Wei Ying takes another long pull from his bottle, shadows from the streetlight collecting at the base of his throat. “Says who?”
“The law, among other things.”
“Oh, the law.” Wei Ying smirks. He looks around them with exaggeratedly wide eyes. “I don’t see any cops up here, do you?”
Wangji stares down at the pebbled surface of the roof, feeling stiff and awkward.
“Wait.” Wei Ying sits up, peering into his face. “Oh my God. You’re a cop, aren’t you.” He pushes Wangji playfully on the shoulder. “Aren’t you?”
Embarrassment creeping up the back of his neck, Wangji pulls out his badge and hands it to Wei Ying.
“Oh my GOD, you are! You’re a cop!” Wei Ying flops onto his back and laughs uproariously up at the sky. “Oh my God, of course you are. That is just…” he laughs again, a bright, vibrant sound. “That is just so my life, I can’t even describe to you. Well…” he reads Wangji’s badge aloud. “Well, Detective Zhan Wangji Lan. Lan Zhan, are you going to arrest me?” He gives a coquettish flutter of his long eyelashes.
Wangji doesn’t answer, just gently prises his badge from Wei Ying’s warm fingers and tucks it back in his pocket. He’s oddly unsurprised that this ridiculous man has immediately started calling him by his familiar name, just like he hadn’t been surprised that Wei Ying had introduced himself that way either. It seems fitting, somehow.
Wei Ying props himself up on one elbow and considers him. “Why are you up here, then, Lan Zhan? If it’s so illegal?” He pouts a little around the word illegal, to show how ridiculous he finds it.
“It would be unfortunate,” Wangji says, “If you fell.”
“I’m not going to fall,” Wei Ying scoffs. “But it’s nice of you to be concerned.”
He tips the bottle back up to his mouth. A drop of liquor runs down his chin and along the line of his jaw. Wangji has to look away.
“I only come up here to give my roommates some space,” Wei Ying says. “Really, if you think about it, it’s very civic-minded of me. I’m making life in this building more harmonious.”
“There are other places to drink,” Wangji points out.
“I like drinking up here. Oh sorry, do you want some?” Wei Ying holds out the bottle.
Wangji doesn’t answer. He stares out over the courtyard instead. He can hear distant music from the bars a couple blocks over.
Beside him, Wei Ying sits up. He scoots closer, his lean thigh brushing against Wangji’s knee. He’s radiating warmth. He smells like whiskey and fried food. He leans in to wave the bottle in front of Wangji’s face. “Lan Zhan. Do you want some?”
“No.” Lan Wangji automatically pulls away from the touch.
“More for me, then.” Wei Ying takes another swig.
He’s still close enough that Wangji can feel the heat of him. It’s the kind of thing that ordinarily makes Wangji uncomfortable, having another person in his space like this. He’s not comfortable, exactly, but he’s closer to it than he usually gets with someone he’s just met.
Wei Ying is looking at him. Wangji can feel the touch of his frank gaze. “You don’t like to be touched.”
It’s not a question, so Wangji feels no need to answer.
“And...you don’t drink?”
Wangji turns to look at him, glances down at the bottle in his hand. “No.”
“And all you eat is rabbit food.” Wei Ying laughs that dorky laugh, and Wangji feels that odd not-quite-sad feeling surging up in his chest again.
“I was raised in a very strict household.”
“Yeah? Me too.” He waits for Wangji to reply, and when no reply is forthcoming, he sighs. “Seemed like I was always in trouble for something, even when I tried to behave. After a while I just…” he gestures expansively with his whiskey bottle. “Stopped trying.”
“I…” Wangji isn’t sure how to put what he means into words. “I did not.”
“Well.” Wei Ying’s voice is warm and soft. “That’s hard, too.”
Wangji looks away again.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs, reclining back down on one elbow, “I’m afraid I’m going to be a terrible influence on you. I’m always touching people, and drinking, and eating garbage food at all hours of the night. It’s going to be very rough for you, being friends with me.” He prods Wangji’s knee with his shoe. “We are friends now, right? Or don’t you do that either?”
“I have friends,” Wangji says with as much dignity as he can manage.
“Of course you do,” Wei Ying says with a grin. “Just look at you.” He prods Wangji’s knee again, then sits up with a guilty expression. “Lan Zhan, I’ve already touched you again! I’m sorry, I swear I didn’t mean it. You see? I’m totally annoying. You should just tell me to piss off when I’m being annoying.”
Wangji is having trouble following what he means, but he’s not annoyed. “You are not. Annoying me.”
Wei Ying tips his head back and winks at him. “Just wait.”
The Fandom Trumps Hate auction for this fic raised money for Life After Hate, a wonderful organization that is, in their own words, "committed to helping people leave the violent far-right to connect with humanity and lead compassionate lives." Check them out if you're so inclined!
Thanks to Duessa and Ericacea for beta-work and general cheering along! Right now this fic is looking like it's going to be about 9 chapters, although it may end up being 10. I'm going to try to keep to a chapter-a-week posting schedule but what with [waves hands] we'll see how that goes. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Coming soon in Chapter 2: A conversation with Wei Ying's roommate; dinner at the Lans'; a rooftop flute concert.
Chapter 2: Roommates
Your brother is coming over for dinner tonight.
yesssssss get it da-ge
can u like light some candles and put on some Barry White and peace out
Meng Yao is here, too.
Wtf is cockblocktopus doing there
Wei Ying’s roommate, Wen Qing, is tiny and stunning, with long, sooty eyelashes and a perfect rosebud mouth. Wangji knows that she and Wei Ying went to Lakeside together; he can’t help wondering if they met each other at some sort of Impossibly Good-Looking People Club. She should look like a model, but she carries herself like a general, wearing her soft maroon scrubs like they’re chain mail. She’s visibly unimpressed with the police detetctives in her living room.
“The last time I saw him was Monday morning,” she says evenly. Her hands are dwarfed by her gigantic coffee mug. “He was planning to go to his sister’s house for dinner after work. He often does.”
“You didn’t worry when he didn’t come home?” Nie Mingjue asks.
“I was on a surgical rotation. I didn’t even get home again until Tuesday afternoon, and I went straight to bed and slept until Wednesday morning.” She takes a measured sip of coffee. “It’s not unusual for me to go several days without seeing Wei Wuxian.”
Nie Mingjue grunts. “Not the worst setup with a roommate.”
“It works well for us.”
Wangji’s been in the apartment before, once, but it was at night (and he’d been distracted by the drunken fool yammering at him). In daylight, he’s surprised to see how small it is. The living room is made even smaller by the bookshelves lining the walls, crammed with books and papers and DVDs and a random assortment of three people’s belongings. There are posters from bands Wangji hasn’t heard of, movies he’s never seen. The kitchen is small and grimy, the ancient-looking tile bearing years of baked-in grease.
When he and Xichen had moved in to the building, the property manager had explained that he’s renovating the place unit by unit; every time someone moves out, he guts the apartment and puts in all new paint, carpet, and fixtures, then (Wangji assumes) jacks up the rent commensurate with the updated look. He knows this, but it’s still hard to believe this dingy, cramped little space is in the same building as his spacious, sunlit, energy-efficient apartment.
“Who else lives here with the two of you?” Nie Mingjue is asking.
“My younger brother, Wen Ning. He’s at work right now.”
“You have a contact number for him you could give us?”
She eyes Nie Mingjue warily. Clearly, she doesn’t want to give him her brother’s number, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Lots of people are leery of cops, all the more so here in the International District where there’s such a large immigrant community. After a long hesitation, she scribbles a number down on a notepad, hands the torn-off paper to Nie Mingjue. “This is his cell, but I should warn you, he usually doesn’t answer.” The barest smile crosses her face; for some reason, it makes her look sad. “He’s always forgetting to charge it.”
“Do you have any idea where Wei Wuxian might be?”
“No, I don’t.” Her gaze is direct, her voice calm and level. If she’s lying, she’s a good liar.
“Anyone who might have wanted to harm him? Any reason he might have wanted to leave town?”
“Anywhere he might be staying? Friends, maybe a girlfriend? Boyfriend?”
She darts a glance at Wangji, so quickly he thinks he might have imagined it. “No. Well, I don’t know all of his friends. But nobody comes to mind.”
Wangji thinks about the envelope stuffed in Wei Ying’s pocket. XOXO XY. “Do the initials ‘XY’ mean anything to you?”
A microscopic hesitation. “Unless you’re talking about heterogametic sex chromosomes in humans, no,” and she is a good liar, but Wangji is pretty sure that’s a lie.
Something else about the envelope is sticking in Wangji’s brain. He clears his mind and tries to focus on it, missing the question Nie Mingjue asks next, and her response, and then he has it. “Wen Qing,” he says out loud.
Wen Qing sighs, looking down into her coffee mug. “Yes.” Her shoulders hunch in slightly, waiting for the blow.
For maybe the first time in his life, Wangji wishes he’d paid more attention to his father and his uncles and their near-encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every Chinese-American family in the Pacific Northwest; he’s always dreaded the who are they and who is their family? conversation, but in this case the information would have come in handy. Nie Mingjue makes a “hmm” sound; Wangji can practically hear the wheels starting to turn in his partner’s head.
“Related to Wen Ruohan?”
She sighs again, and takes a long sip of her coffee. “He’s my uncle.”
Everyone in the SPD has heard of Wen Ruohan, a local crime lord with suspected ties to Hong Kong triads. He’s responsible for a number of enterprises of varying levels of criminality, and the owner of several local businesses, including the Nightless City nightclub. Major Crimes has been trying to pin something substantial on him for years, to no avail — there’s always some low-level flunky available to take the fall while the boss stays clean.
“When was the last time you saw your uncle?” he asks.
“I haven’t spoken to him in years,” she says, raising her knife-point chin. “I don’t see what that has to do with Wei Wuxian.”
Maybe nothing, Wangji thinks. Maybe more than you think.
“All right if we look around Wei Wuxian’s bedroom?” Nie Mingjue asks.
Her eyes flash. Wangji can hear the word warrant as clearly as if she’d spoken it aloud.
“Please,” he says quietly. “We just want to find him.” He has no idea if she knows who he is, if she’s ever seen him in the hallway or at the cafe, if Wei Ying has ever so much as mentioned his name. He has no way to explain to her what he and Wei Ying are to each other. He doesn’t have a word for it himself. “I...I have to find him.”
She studies him for a moment, her brows drawn together in thought. Whatever she sees in his face, it seems to satisfy her; her posture relents slightly. “Don’t mess anything up.”
Nie Mingjue is now seriously trying to catch his eye, but Wangji keeps his eyes straight ahead.
When he was here before, he’d been so distracted he hadn’t really formed an impression beyond “messy,” but the bedroom Wei Ying shares with Wen Qing’s brother is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two different people co-existing in a small space. The overall effect is that of a relatively tidy young man who loves camping and ultimate frisbee, sharing a room with a tornado who plays the flute. The top bunk is haphazardly made up, in the “pull the covers back up after you get out” style of bed-making that Wangji’s uncle views as a personal affront; the bottom bunk looks like a badger has been nesting in it.
Bunk beds are fun and practical, Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying is almost unbearably present in the small space. Wangji can see him, leaning back in the desk chair, his long legs propped up on his bed, holding forth on some topic. He can imagine Wei Ying twisting a strand of hair around his finger while hunched over a book, or flopped on the bottom bunk complaining about having to get up.
The closet is a mishmash of jeans and cargo shorts, fleece pullovers and ratty concert t-shirts, camping gear. He leaves it to Nie Mingjue to rifle through the dresser drawers; the idea of handling Wei Ying’s underwear is far too intimate to be proper in this scenario. Wangji lets his fingers trail over the spines of the books on the low, overstuffed shelf. Cybersecurity in the Digital Age. Slaughterhouse-Five. Best Northwest Day Hikes. Charlotte’s Web.
On top of the dresser he finds hair ties and carabiners, chewed-up pencils, empty gum wrappers, a discarded red ribbon, a stack of music books. Wei Ying’s flute case is sitting on top. The case is battered and worn, the clasps creaking a little under Wangji’s thumbs, but the flute inside has been lovingly cleaned and maintained. Wangji stares down at it, nestled into the case’s soft lining, and feels his throat close entirely.
He has to hope that neither his partner nor Wei Ying’s roommate are looking at him, because just for a few seconds he’s utterly lost; he can’t be a detective at all. He’s just a man holding a flute, staring into the case like he’ll be able to read Wei Ying’s fate in it.
I should have figured you were an orchestra nerd, no wonder we get along so well.
The lining is coming up on one side. He swallows heavily and presses it back down, and hears something scrape. Huh.
Using a pencil, he gently lifts the lining away from the side of the case. Underneath is an RFID card, the kind you’d use to gain entry to some locked door. No identifying marks, just a serial number. Wangji slips it into an evidence bag.
“Lot of computer stuff,” Nie Mingjue rumbles, poking through the strata of small tools, magnifying lenses, and electronics in various states of disassembly on the desk.
“Wei Wuxian is a computer genius,” says Wen Qing from where she leans in the doorway. “He picks up side projects for extra cash, when he can get them.”
“If he’s such a genius, why’s he a waiter?”
Wangji turns to fix Nie Mingjue with an icy glower, but Wen Qing is way ahead of him in that department. “Not a ton of full-time developer jobs for felons with no college degree,” she sneers at him. “One of the many ways the American criminal justice system keeps poor people poor.”
“People do have the option of not committing crimes,” Nie Mingjue mutters, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah?” Wen Qing folds her arms. “You ever get in a fistfight in high school? Big scary guy like you, I bet you did.”
Nie Mingjue snorts. “Yeah, a few.”
“You go to prison for it?”
Nie Mingjue opens his mouth on a retort, but catches sight of Wangji glaring at him. Nie Mingjue glares back. “No,” he admits.
“Yeah. That’s privilege.” She laughs, a little bitterly. “One mistake shouldn’t fuck up someone’s entire life.”
She directs this last comment to Wangji, as though issuing a challenge, but it isn’t a challenge he wants to take. She’s right, and she sounds just like Wei Ying. He nods, acknowledging her point, and turns away.
A handful of photos are tacked up over the desk. Wei Ying, Wen Qing, and a tall, smiling man who has Wen Qing’s same rosebud mouth — Wen Ning, he assumes — standing on top of Mount Rainier. The three of them wearing sunglasses on a blanket in a park somewhere, Wei Ying mugging for the camera while Wen Qing looks coolly off into the middle distance. A child’s school picture — Wangji recognizes the child as Yuan, Wen Qing's little cousin, who he met once. A chubby, scowling baby. Wei Ying with his arms around a young woman with an angelic smile. That same woman, grinning widely with Wei Ying and a younger, more relaxed-looking Jiang Wanyin at what appears to be a Mariners game, giving them both bunny ears. Wen Qing in her purple doctoral robes, looking irritated. Moments from a life of which Wangji has had very little part, for it to be affecting him so profoundly.
“This his laptop?” Nie Mingjue asks. “We’ll need to take it in.”
“I’ll need an itemized receipt for everything you take,” Wen Qing says.
“Of course.” Nie Mingjue manages to sound polite and deeply sarcastic at the same time.
“Good luck getting anything off his machine,” Wen Qing adds. “He built it himself, it’s probably encrypted to hell and back.”
They fill out the requisite forms for everything they’ve collected — the laptop, the RFID card, a couple more notebooks, a matchbook from Nightless City — and leave Wen Qing with their business cards, encouraging her to call if she hears from Wei Ying or thinks of anything else that might be useful.
“Tough customer,” Nie Mingjue says once they’re safely out in the hall.
“Mn.” Wangji is getting tired, his mind starting to flag with the joint effort of talking to people all day and trying not to freak out.
“You think she was telling the truth?”
“Mn,” he says again, this time meaning I’m not sure. “Not the whole truth.”
“Well, let’s see what we can get from what we have so far. We can always go back and talk to her again, it’s not like it’s out of your way.”
Wangji walks past the elevator to the stairwell. “Would you like to come for dinner?” He badly wants to be alone, to give his whirling thoughts a chance to settle into a theory on Wei Ying’s whereabouts; he also wants his brother to break up with his creepy boyfriend and fall madly in love with Nie Mingjue, thus freeing Wangji from said creepy boyfriend and from the sight of Nie Mingjue’s non-stop pining. He can’t work on the former task while he eats, so he might as well make progress on the latter.
“Oh, uh…that’s OK, I don’t want to intrude on you guys.”
“You would not be intruding. I already texted Xichen. He would like to see you.”
Nie Mingjue does his best to hide a smile at that. “I need to run this evidence back to the station, get everything logged,” he says. “Give me an hour?”
“We eat at 7,” Wangji says, “as always.”
“What’s he cooking?”
Wangji holds the stairwell door open for him. “The occasional vegetarian meal will not kill you.”
Wei Ying is sitting up straight, for once; Wangji can see his upright posture silhouetted against the evening sky. As Wangji walks out onto the roof, he’s surprised to see that Wei Ying is, of all things, playing a flute. A soft melody drifts outward around him, tinged with a hint of melancholy. It sounds like one of Bach’s flute sonatas — Wangji’s not sure which one, although Xichen would probably know.
He stands there for a minute, watching Wei Ying play. His breath control is excellent, and he leans into the extended notes with real feeling, coming lightly into the trills and flutters, his quick fingers moving with confidence. A light breeze catches the ends of his hair, and of the red ribbon holding it back from his face. The sound pulls at something within Wangji, a gentle mournful sensation drawn from his chest. Wangji waits until the last, sustained note fades into silence before stepping forward.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying smiles at him, a faint pink sweeping across his cheeks and into his ears. “Sorry, were you trying to get my attention? I get kind of in the zone when I’m practicing.”
“You play very well,” Wangji says, settling down next to him.
“I...wow, thanks!” Wei Ying says. “That’s a big compliment, coming from you.”
Wangji blinks at him.
Wei Ying leans in, holding a hand up to shield his mouth like he’s going to tell Wangji a secret. “I Googled you,” he says in a stage whisper.
Wangji has no idea what to say to that. “...Oh.”
“I had no idea you were a violinist! I watched a YouTube video of you playing at Benaroya Hall, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone that young with so much musical sensibility. The Sibelius isn’t easy, and you were so…” he makes a fluid gesture, searching for the right word. “...attuned, to the other musicians. You’re really talented!”
That had been one of his last public performances, which is probably a weird thing to say in response to a compliment. “Thank you.”
“Do you still play?”
“My brother plays the oboe. We play together occasionally.”
“You should bring your violin up to the roof sometime! We could play together.” Wei Ying’s eyes crinkle in excitement.
He can feel it, how it would feel to play with Wei Ying, the give and take of it, building the sound together. Wei Ying is creative and clever, and clearly has decent technical chops; it would be a pleasurable way to spend an evening. “Maybe.”
“I mean, I’m no child prodigy, but I like to play when I get a chance. Usually I’m just up here playing to the seagulls, though.” Wei Ying begins to disassemble the flute, cleaning each piece with gentle, practiced movements before slotting it back into the case. “I should have figured you were an orchestra nerd, no wonder we get along so well.”
Do they get along well? Wangji thinks they do, but he’s not always sure, when it comes to other people. “I didn’t know you played the flute,” he says inanely. Why would he know that?
“Oh yes,” Wei Ying drawls, tossing his hair over one shoulder with his pinky extended in a gesture of pretend fanciness. “I’m a man of many useless and bourgeois talents.”
Wei Ying arches a languid eyebrow. “Would you believe that I was also an accomplished archer, once upon a time?” He scoffs, dropping the faux-fancy act, and his smile crumples into something more complicated, sadder. “Fuck, that feels like a million years ago.”
Wangji does not ask him what happened. Wei Ying has just done him the profound courtesy of not asking the same.
Wei Ying stares into his flute case, eyes focused on something in the past that Wangji can’t see. After a long moment, he laughs and shakes his head. “Man...I mean, don’t get me wrong, I do not miss high school, but I do miss playing in the orchestra. It was like being in a little family,” he sighs, imbuing the word with impossible wistfulness. “Just like, spending so much time with the same people, all the rehearsing and the in-jokes and the drama…” he laughs. “Well, maybe you didn’t have drama. I don’t know if violins have drama, but at Lakeside there was always a ton of woodwinds drama.”
Wangji doesn’t know if there had been violin drama in his high school orchestra or not; if so, he wouldn’t have been a part of it.
“But no, of course Lan Zhan wouldn’t be involved in something as petty as orchestra drama,” Wei Ying teases him. “Lan Zhan is far too serious.” He makes a mock serious face.
Wangji snorts and shakes his head.
“I can just imagine you striding through the halls with your violin case. I bet the whole strings section was in love with you.” Wei Ying flashes him a wicked, teasing smile.
“Mn.” Wangji shifts uncomfortably. Xichen had moved through school like a bird through the air, but Xichen was student council president and captain of the wrestling team, not to mention being best friends with Nie Mingjue, who had a fake ID and whose parents were always out of town. Wangji was precisely none of those things, he studied too much and spoke too little and was a little too famous besides, had played with a few too many “real” orchestras, had auditioned and competed and won against a few too many of his fellow violinists for them to welcome into their midst with open arms. “No.”
“Oh right,” Wei Ying says with a roll of his eyes. “You’re nice and mega-hot and super talented, people hate that, I forgot.”
Wangji frowns at his thumb. He knows Wei Ying is just messing with him, but it’s disconcerting, the way he flirts like this — like it doesn’t matter, like it doesn’t mean anything.
Wei Ying has finished packing up his flute. He rummages around in the tote bag at his side and wriggles into a denim jacket, then pulls out a bottle of cheap white wine. “You see, I’m really a very fancy and sophisticated person,” he says, mouth twisting with irony. “Want some?” He holds out the bottle.
“No, thank you.” Wei Ying knows Wangji doesn’t drink, but he still usually offers, which is bizarrely polite of him.
“Suit yourself.” He unscrews the cap and takes a long swig directly from the bottle. Wangji hurriedly looks away from Wei Ying’s bare, elongated throat, focusing instead on the many buttons, pins, and patches decorating his denim jacket.
A chili pepper on fire. A smiling bowl of noodles. A hammer and sickle. Abolish ICE. A lotus flower. A grinning, winking Mount Rainier. Trans Rights Are Human Rights. The Jiang Microsystems logo. A little green creature that Wangji thinks is probably a Pokemon. Just a Little Bi-Furious. Music notes. Polite as Fuck. A blue-pink-and-purple striped heart. Black Lives Matter. A sriracha bottle. A peach-shaped Just Peachy pin. The anarchy symbol. ACAB. A coffee cup. Science is Real. A little Space Needle. I Don’t Have a Dirty Mind, I Have a Sexy Imagination.
Wangji shakes his head. Shameless, he thinks.
“Do my buttons offend you?” Wei Ying asks. His voice is casual, but he’s eyeing Wangji carefully.
“No. I agree with...many of them.”
“But not all of them.”
Wangji shrugs. “I’ve always disliked the Space Needle.”
“What?!?” Wei Ying guffaws. “You hate the Space Needle? Why?”
“It’s a meaningless attraction. It exists only to be a tourist draw.” He frowns, marshaling his thoughts. “The 1962 World’s Fair is not worth commemorating.”
“Plus, the restaurant at the top is terrible,” Wei Ying points out.
“People always want to go there when they visit from out of town,” Wei Ying adds, eyes sparkling, getting into the spirit of it now. “And it’s so boring to actually go.”
“Parking in Lower Queen Anne is always difficult.”
“Well.” Wei Ying chuckles into his wine. “You’ve really opened my eyes, Lan Zhan. Good thing you were here to enlighten me.”
“Good thing,” Wangji murmurs.
He lets the door to his apartment swing shut behind him and stands in the entryway a moment, eyes closed, just breathing. The panic that’s been beating at the walls of his chest all day claws its way up into his mouth and down into his legs, and Wangji can only stand, and breathe, and let it take him.
Wei Ying is missing, Wei Ying is gone. Wei Ying will not be up on the roof tonight drinking and making fun of Wangji’s posture and laughing his electrifying laugh, because he has vanished. Wei Ying might be hurt, he might be scared, he’s almost certainly in some kind of trouble. He might be —
“Wangji?” He can hear his brother calling from the kitchen. He gulps a breath, and another. He gathers his fear and worry up and shoves it firmly back down into his chest. He doesn’t have time for this.
Xichen wanders into the entryway. He’s got an apron on over his cardigan and jeans; it’s Thursday, which means he didn’t have a lecture today. He’s holding a spatula. Wangji attempts to school his face into something resembling its usual impassivity, but he may as well not have bothered — Xichen sees him and his eyes immediately widen in concern. His brother has always been able to read him when no one else can.
Wangji closes his eyes again, just for a second. “Wei Ying is missing.”
“Your friend from the building?” Xichen frowns and moves closer to him, scrutinizing his face. “What happened?”
“I don’t know yet.” The panic in Wangji’s chest is slowly fading into a dull, hollow misery. “We got the case this morning.”
Xichen’s eyes are kind and full of sympathy. He doesn’t hug Wangji; Lan Qiren’s nephews do not hug each other, even after almost a decade outside of their uncle’s house. He simply puts his hands on Wangji’s shoulders, squeezing firmly. Gratefully, Wangji lets himself lean into his brother’s familiar grounding touch, imagining Xichen’s steady, peaceful nature seeping into him. It’s a posture they’ve been in together countless times over the years since their parents died.
“Are you all right?” Xichen asks after a few moments have passed.
“Mn.” Wangji presses against him once more, then stands up straight.
“Is da-ge still coming for dinner?”
“Yes.” Wangji bends to remove his shoes.
“Wonderful!” Xichen beams, because he’s the nicest man in the world. “A-Yao is here, too. We’ll have a nice little dinner party!”
Wangji neither groans nor rolls his eyes as he follows Xichen into the living room, where Meng Yao is perched on the sofa with a cup of tea. Expressing his disapproval for his brother’s odious boyfriend would not be kind to Xichen.
“Lan Wangji!” Meng Yao says warmly, standing up and smiling his pat, dimpled smile. “It’s nice to see you.”
“Meng Yao,” Wangji replies with a nod. Having cultivated an image of awkward aloofness occasionally allows Wangji to viciously snub people without their really registering it.
He wants to like Meng Yao, or at the very least he wants to want to like him. He suspects that his vehement distrust of his brother’s boyfriend is a personal failing on his own part, and feels appropriately guilty about it, but something about the man just sets Wangji’s teeth on edge.
Meng Yao has certainly given Wangji no specific reason to dislike him; he’s unfailingly friendly, almost nauseatingly courteous, and seems to genuinely dote on Xichen. He’s always making thoughtful little gestures that might be performative and self-serving, or might just seem that way because Wangji already doesn’t like him. He’s as smooth and cool and unctuous as a bowl of cream, and just as unappetizing to Wangji’s tastes.
“I hope you don’t mind that I’m joining you for dinner,” Meng Yao says now, with a supercilious little smile that says even if you did mind, I know you’re too polite to say so. “A-Huan’s cooking is too good — I can never pass up the offer.” Xichen takes his hand with a soft, adoring look.
“Of course you’re welcome to join us,” Wangji says mechanically. He turns to Xichen. “I’ve had a long day. If you don’t mind, I’m going to lie down for a few minutes before Nie Mingjue gets here.”
Xichen nods, his eyes full of compassion. “Call me if you need anything.”
A stress headache is just beginning to throb behind Wangji’s temples. He takes a Tylenol, draining the glass of water he washes it down with, which does nothing to make his mouth less dry. He does lie down, but doesn’t close his eyes; he stares at the ceiling, feeling the blood pulsing in his ears, not really thinking anything. Eventually, he pulls out his phone.
Your brother is coming over for dinner tonight.
yesssssss get it da-ge
can u like light some candles and put on some Barry White and peace out
Meng Yao is here, too.
Wtf is cockblocktopus doing there
Xichen invited him.
of course he did
Should I tell Mingjue not to come?
no way man
if Project NieLan is a go we have to overcome all obstacles
can’t let that little fucker get the upper hand
This dinner is going to be a thousand years long.
sorry bro 🙁
u got this
just be a huge bitch like you are to everyone
itll be fine
Wangji snorts and lets his phone fall to his side. He covers his eyes with his other hand.
He and Nie Huaisang had never been friends in high school. They’d seen each other, at the Chinese Community Center and at their respective older brothers’ fencing and wrestling meets, but they’d barely interacted. Nie Huaisang was busy running around with a bunch of the art kids, orchestrating elaborate pranks in which he was never implicated; Wangji was busy practicing the violin and not talking to anyone. I was terrified of you in high school, Nie Huaisang had once confessed over coffee. I was sure you hated me. If I’d known you just had terminal Resting Bitch Face, we could have hung out more.
After Wangji started working with Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang might have absorbed him into his little circle of friends anyway, given their frequent proximity and shared history. Once it became clear that Nie Mingjue’s complete and debilitating crush on Xichen had only gotten more intense since high school, though, Nie Huaisang had made good and sure that Wangji was enlisted into his matchmaking schemes, and that had really cemented their friendship.
Wangji smiles a little, thinking about his brother in the other room, blissfully unaware of the plot to break up his happy relationship with that complete tool. If their Uncle Qiren knew that Wangji was conspiring to get Xichen to break up with his polite, respectful boyfriend with the well-paying corporate job so he could be fixed up with Wangji’s belligerent, mohawked, motorcycle-riding partner, he’d have a heart attack. Right after he was done having a heart attack about Xichen dating men in the first place, and about a hundred other heart attacks about Wangji and Xichen’s lives, which might at least finally put the when are you both moving back to Bellingham like the obedient nephews I raised? conversation to rest.
His phone buzzes with a text from Nie Mingjue: I’m downstairs. Wangji presses the button to let him into the building and goes to meet his partner at the door; he can’t let Nie Mingjue walk into a Meng Yao ambush unprepared.
Nie Mingjue has changed into a nicer shirt, freshly buzzed the sides of his mohawk, and put on cologne since leaving Wangji in the hallway an hour ago. He’s trying so hard, it would be a little pathetic if Wangji weren’t so firmly on his side.
“Come in,” Wangji says. “Xichen and Meng Yao are in the kitchen.” He waits for Nie Mingjue’s face to complete its journey from crestfallen to angry to fiercely determined and back to his usual curmudgeonly scowl before ushering him into the apartment.
Dinner isn’t as terrible as it could be. Xichen is glowing with happiness at having his boyfriend, his best friend, and his brother all sharing a meal together, and Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue are both made too soft by Xichen’s joy to do more than halfheartedly snipe at each other.
“Wangji tells me you have a new Missing Persons case?” Xichen asks at one point. Even after ten years out of their uncle’s house, Wangji still feels weird being allowed to speak during meals, but Xichen always knows how to make people feel comfortable around their table.
Nie Mingjue nods, his mouth full of noodles. “Guy from your building, actually — Wei Wuxian, do you know him?”
“No, but I believe Wangji does.”
“How distressing!” Meng Yao interjects. “Do you know what could have happened to him?”
“Well, he’s gone missing.” Nie Mingjue’s tone is withering.
“I’m sure you’ll track him down,” Meng Yao says with a pleasant smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “He’s lucky to have the two of you working to find him.”
Nie Mingjue grunts. Wangji chews.
“How is work, A-Yao?” Xichen asks before the silence can draw out too long.
“Very busy,” Meng Yao says. “My father is working on a new acquisition. Of course, I can’t share too many of the details,” he chuckles self-importantly, “but it’s a very exciting niche for us to move into.”
“How is your dad these days?” Nie Mingjue asks. “Did they ever settle that, what was it, labor dispute?”
“Da-ge,” Xichen admonishes him quietly.
Meng Yao pats Xichen’s hand like Xichen is a child. Wangji’s chopsticks clack against his bowl as he picks up a piece of bok choy with perhaps more force than is necessary. “It’s all right,” Meng Yao says. “Nie Mingjue is right to be concerned. No one was more shocked than I was at the condition of our overseas facilities. But as I told my father after the report came out, we should regard this as an opportunity to overhaul our whole supply chain, to make sure these sorts of oversights can’t be made in the future.”
“I’m sure he loved hearing that,” Nie Mingjue smiled.
“A-Yao has done a lot to make Jin Corp a more ethical place,” Xichen says. “It’s a lot like the work that you and Wangji are doing within the SPD. Great change for good can come from within.”
Wangji doesn’t think that working for justice within a law enforcement agency hamstrung by internal politics and backbiting is at all the same as being given a meaningless corporate gig by your absentee father after a DNA test forces his hand, but Xichen always sees the best in people.
“Of course,” Xichen’s voice takes on a teasing tone, “da-ge just became a cop because it’s the only remaining profession where it’s acceptable to have a mustache.”
Nie Mingjue laughs, the hearty laugh from his belly he only laughs for Xichen. “And you only became a college professor so you’d never have to leave school, er-ge.”
“That’s Doctor er-ge to you,” Xichen grins.
“Don’t say that too loud, Professor Lan, someone might think you’re a real doctor.”
Wangji wishes he could take a video. Nie Huaisang would be squealing like a schoolgirl.
“A-Huan is a real doctor,” Meng Yao protests.
There’s an awkward silence.
“He knows that, sweetheart,” Xichen says. The smile dies on Nie Mingjue’s face like it was never there.
“I’m sorry, I just get protective of you.” Meng Yao gives Xichen big puppy eyes. “A PhD is a real accomplishment, and you should be proud of it!”
“Of course he should be proud of it,” Nie Mingjue mumbles.
“It’s just a joke, A-Yao.” Xichen says kindly. “Da-ge is just teasing me.”
Meng Yao’s smile is sweet and sincere and apologetic and Wangji hates him so much. “I’m sorry, Nie Mingjue. I guess I’m not used to your sense of humor.”
Nie Mingjue destroys a piece of tofu with extreme prejudice. “Don’t worry about it.”
He’s become a regular at the cafe, without being totally sure about how it happened.
(Well, he knows how it happened. It happened because he kept coming here. That’s how one becomes a regular.)
It’s not just that Wei Ying is attractive, although he is — Wangji is not in the habit of self-deception, and he can readily admit that Wei Ying’s features are pleasing, that the lines of his body draw the eye. He’s charming, too, when he wants to be; the neighborhood aunties are practically lining up for his particular brand of respectful flirtation. Wangji is not immune to these things, to Wei Ying’s electric wit or his delicate wrists or his cheekboned bravado, but Wangji has been around attractive people before, and none of them took up the mental real estate Wei Ying appears to have effortlessly claimed.
Part of it is that Wei Ying is brilliant; he’s a never-ending fountain of thoughts and ideas, and his way of looking at things is so different from Wangji’s that it keeps forcing Wangji to consider old viewpoints in a new light. Occasionally, some tossed-off comment of Wei Ying’s will lodge itself deep into Wangji’s brain and he’ll end up mentally chewing on it for days. It’s very stimulating, being around Wei Ying.
Part of it is that Wei Ying is always teasing, but never mean. He teases Wangji about things like his ramrod-straight posture, or his perfectly-ironed clothing, or the precise little bites he takes when he eats. Things about how Wangji is, but never about who he is; little jabs and pokes designed to draw Wangji out, to encourage him to take himself less seriously. After that first snarky comment the day they met, Wei Ying never mentions Wangji’s taciturnity; he never stops talking, but somehow makes space for Wangji to speak when he wants to speak. After a few interactions, Wangji realizes somewhat self-consciously that Wei Ying reminds him of his mother.
Eating at the cafe is not restful, it’s not relaxing, it’s none of the words Wangji would use to describe a pleasant dining experience; Wei Ying continues to be the loudest person in the world, and his stubborn declaration that they are friends has meant an alarming uptick in the overall decibel level of Wangji’s life. Despite the fact that his new friend is loud and rude and utterly shameless, terrible with boundaries and slippery as an eel with information about himself, Wangji can’t seem to stop seeking him out.
It’s the kind of sunny Saturday morning that makes everyone in Seattle delirious with happiness; the mountain is white and striking against a clear blue sky, the water sparkles with sunlight, and every available patio, balcony, and rooftop is packed with people eager to soak up some rays along with their brunch. The cafe doesn’t have outdoor seating, but there’s still a brisk brunch rush going, and the sun seems to have thawed out the patrons’ usual Northwestern reserve — the atmosphere is almost boisterous.
Wangji holds the door open for a young mother, pushing a baby in a stroller while gripping a toddler firmly by the hand. She gives him a grateful, exhausted smile, and he pulls a chair out of her way as she makes her way over to the to-go counter.
“I want a donut,” the toddler is whining.
“We’re not getting a donut, but you can have some fruit and a muffin,” his mother responds.
Wangji is reading his book at his usual spot, waiting for Wei Ying to have a chance to bring him some tea, when it happens. Attempting to juggle stroller, diaper bag, and the toddler pulling at her jacket, the young mother drops a full 16-ounce latte on the floor. It explodes everywhere, a tidal wave of milk and coffee rolling outward from it. She bursts into tears. Wangji starts to get up to help her, but Wei Ying is there before the cup can even roll to a stop — ushering her to a chair, helping settle her belongings, getting her a new latte, reassuring her even as he mops that these things happen all the time.
He ends up handling his tables while carrying the toddler on his hip, whispering ridiculous things to the kid to make him smile while his mother tearfully collects herself.
“This is my friend Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says to the kid when they stop by Wangji’s table. “He looks very serious, doesn’t he? Don’t worry, he’s nice, that’s just his face.”
“Hello,” Wangji says to the child, ignoring Wei Ying’s attempt to get a rise out of him. The boy buries his face in Wei Ying’s shoulder.
“That was very kind of you,” Wangji says later, after the family has gone.
“Oh!” Wei Ying fidgets. “It’s not such a big deal. I was happy to be able to help out. I like kids.”
“You do?” Wei Ying laughs. “Lan Zhan, you’d better watch out, or everyone will find out how soft you are under that hard-boiled exterior, and your crimefighting days will be over.” He pats Wangji’s shoulder as he walks away.
Wangji, who dreads casual touch under almost any circumstances, finds he doesn’t mind so much when it’s Wei Ying doing the touching. His skin doesn’t crawl when Wei Ying nudges him with an elbow, or grabs his arm to get his attention, or playfully swats at him when he’s done something Wei Ying thinks is funny. It feels almost natural, and Wei Ying wouldn’t be Wei Ying without these casual gestures.
That the pressure of Wei Ying’s palm occasionally causes Wangji’s blood to heat, his breath to catch, is entirely Wangji’s own affair and not something that need impact their friendship.
He’s so lost in thought, he doesn’t immediately register the situation unfolding across the cafe. The group of young white dudes in khaki shorts and Patagonia fleece vests are already on their second round of bloody Marys, beers, and a particularly noxious beer-and-juice concoction the cafe insists on calling a “man-mosa.” Their server, Nicole, is pretty, and new, and a little flustered; they exchange knowing looks as she bustles around refilling waters and fetching them extra ketchup. By the time their conversation gets loud enough to catch Wangji’s attention, they’ve started calling her “sweetheart” and debating over which of them should get her number. “I’m in love,” one of them proclaims to the table; his vest is forest green, and he appears to be the ringleader.
When Nicole returns to ask if they’d like another round, the guy in the green vest puts an arm around her waist, holding her in place as they all take their time ordering. She shrinks from the touch, but doesn’t step away. Wangji can see her shoulders rising up around her ears; she grits her teeth in a trembling, embarrassed smile. When they finally release her to go fetch another round of drinks, Wangji gives the group of guys a stern, frosty glare; the guy in the green vest grins back and winks patronizingly.
Officers of the peace are not supposed to beat the tar out of people, even if it would be very easy for them to do.
When their drinks arrive, it is not pretty-new-server Nicole who brings them.
“All right!” Wei Ying sings with a false and somehow threatening cheer Wangji’s never seen from him. “We have another pitcher of Manny’s, two Bloody Marys, and...who had the man-mosa?”
“Hey, where’d my girlfriend go?” The guy in the green vest protests. The consonants in his speech are getting soft. Sloppy drunk at 11 am, great look, Wangji thinks. His knuckles throb, and looking down, he realizes he is gripping his fork so hard his nails are digging into his palm.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean?” Wei Ying asks, wide-eyed. His smile is wolf-toothed and dangerous.
“The hot waitress,” a guy with aviators propped up on top of his head explains, in the loud, over-enunciated tones people use when they assume you don’t speak English well. “Where did she go.”
“She had to go on break. Will there be anything else for you gentlemen?”
“You should send her back over here,” the green vest guy says. “I was just about to give her my big tip.”
“Forget the tip, throw her down and give her the whole thing!” another guy hollers. The table bursts into raucous laughter.
Wei Ying laughs, too, throws his head back and laughs like a madman. Then he picks up the pitcher of beer and upends it into the green vest guy’s lap.
The men all jump back from the table and the wave of beer washing outward, cursing. “What the fuck!?” the green vest guy yells. “What the fuck is your problem, dude?”
“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry!” Wei Ying makes an exaggerated apologetic face. “I’m such a klutz, here, let me get you a towel.” He pulls out the bar towel he’s got tucked into the back of his apron and attempts to mop some beer off of the guy, who shoves him backward. Wei Ying bounces off a chair with a clatter, but doesn’t fall down. Everyone in the cafe is staring. Wangji is half out of his seat before he even realizes he’s moved.
“What’s going on here?” Greg, the manager, comes barreling out of the back room.
“It’s my fault,” Wei Ying says. “I’m so clumsy, I spilled a pitcher of beer on this gentleman, I was just trying to help clean it up.”
“He did it on purpose,” the guy with the sunglasses says, pointing an accusing finger at Wei Ying. “He just picked it up and dumped it on him, we all saw it.”
Wei Ying’s face twists in contempt, but makes a lightning-fast shift to wide-eyed innocence by the time Greg glances back at him.
“I’m so sorry, gentlemen,” Greg says, his hands out, placating. “Of course, your meal is on the house.” He sets about calming the red-faced bros down, ushering them out of the spreading puddle of beer that Wei Ying is already starting to mop up. Wangji grabs a handful of napkins and kneels to assist him.
“You don’t have to help me,” Wei Ying says softly. A muscle jumps in his jaw; he’s so tense he’s practically vibrating. “This is my job.”
Wangji just keeps on mopping. Another server from the cafe, whose name he doesn’t know, comes over with a stack of towels to join in.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says with slightly more force. “You’re getting beer all over you. Leave it alone.”
Beer is, in fact, soaking into the knees of his gray twill trousers, but clothing can be washed. Wangji grabs another stack of napkins.
Wei Ying grabs his wrist. Wangji’s attention narrows to the touch of Wei Ying’s warm fingers against the sensitive skin of his pulse point; he wonders if Wei Ying notices how fast his heart is beating. “Please,” Wei Ying says. “You’re going to get me in trouble. In more trouble,” he adds with a dry, humorless chuckle. “Just...go sit down, Lan Zhan, OK? Before you make it worse?”
Reluctantly, Wangji returns to his seat.
The group of beer-soaked bros finally allow Greg to escort them out the door, muttering darkly about Yelp reviews as they go. Turning, Greg stands over Wei Ying, his arms folded; Wei Ying just keeps sopping up beer, but Lan Wangji can see his ears flush a deep red. “When you’re done here, come back to the office,” Greg says tightly. “I’d like to discuss this little incident with you.”
Wangji starts to stand up again. He has no idea what he’s going to say, but he feels like he should say something. Wei Ying catches his eye and shakes his head minutely, and Wangji once again sinks back down, his insides an anxious knot.
Wei Ying strolls back to Greg’s office, back straight, head high, an amused little smile playing on his full lips. His hair is falling down from its usual messy bun, the escaped strands draping against the nape of his neck, and Wangji wants to cry. Someone else takes over Wei Ying’s tables; Wangji waits as long as he plausibly can, but Wei Ying doesn’t come back out.
The flute sonata Wei Ying is playing is Bach's flute sonata in E minor (specifically the first movement, Adagio ma non tanto). It's my favorite of Bach's flute sonatas, because like many things in E minor, it's very FEELINGS. Give it a listen.
Seriously, screw the Space Needle.
I forgot to mention this in Chapter 1, but the title to this fic is from the Chvrches song Make Them Gold, a Wangxian banger for the ages.
Thanks to everyone who's commented and left kudos so far — it's a bright spot in my day every time! Come say hi on Tumblr if you're so inclined.
Coming soon in Chapter 3: An excursion to Carp Tower. A realization. [Pining intensifies].
Chapter 3: Family
“Fair warning,” Jiang says. Wangji pauses in the doorway. “My brother-in-law is kind of a dick.”
“Yeah, I mean, he’s fine, I guess, he’s nice to my sister, he’s just kind of a stuck-up prick. He’s like, one of those snobby rich kids who think they’re too good for everyone. He’s always acted like he’s hot shit just because his daddy has money.” This is a pretty hilarious statement coming from a man wearing a Philippe Patek watch, but Wangji nods gravely, as though he will treat “watch out for pomposity” as a warning of the utmost importance.
This chapter is a bit on the shorter side (by which I apparently mean it's only 5100 words or so? What am I like), because it was originally part of chapter 2 before chapter 2 got big enough that I wanted to split it up.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wangji’s eyes open at 5 am and his brain goes into overdrive, making a list of items to follow up on and possible next steps. Today is going to be the day I find him, he tells himself.
The tech guys aren’t optimistic about Wei Ying’s laptop, which does indeed appear to be encrypted to hell and back, but they’ll see what they can do. The RFID card is a door key, but they can’t tell Wangji much more than that. He calls the manufacturer to see if they can tell who the key might belong to from the serial number. The customer service rep is polite, but firm: to preserve customer privacy, the company won’t give out that kind of information without a warrant. Wangji starts the paperwork for that, as well as a warrant for Wei Ying’s cell phone records; hopefully they will have found Wei Ying before either warrant comes back, but it’s best to get these things in motion as soon as possible.
That leaves the notebooks. Wei Ying’s handwriting is a large, impatient scrawl; he seems to use the notebooks as part day planner, part sketchbook, part idea repository. It’s like being hit with a barrage of thoughts straight from Wei Ying’s brilliant, impulsive mind. Wangji aches.
Little of what’s there makes any sense to Wangji — notes like JS array too inefficient and sprites instead of scaling in browser crowd together with reminders that could mean anything: tt JC re JY BD, WC 1p NC Sat. A sketch of a park bench; another of what Wangji recognizes as the view from the cafe’s front windows, smeared with rain. On another page, a drawing that could be a map or could be a maze. A series of boxes that look like the layout for a web page. An onion with a scowling face.
Wangji rubs his eyes and heads to the break room to get some more hot water. He keeps his tea in his desk, but department regulations are very clear on banning electric kettles or personal hot pots, so he’s forced to risk impromptu interactions with his co-workers any time he wants a fresh cup. Usually it’s not so bad first thing in the morning — for some reason, most cops don’t appear to be morning people — but luck isn’t with him today.
“How’s the investigation going?” Jiang Wanyin asks. He sloshes coffee into an insulated mug and, Wangji can’t help but notice, doesn’t start a fresh pot.
“Fine.” Wangji presses the beverage button on the microwave twice.
“Any leads yet?”
“No.” An awkward silence stretches out between them. The microwave hums. With great reluctance, Wangji forces himself to continue talking. “We will go interview your sister today.”
Jiang snorts. “You’re going out to Carp Tower?” He clearly wants Wangji to ask what he means; Wangji is disinclined to do so. “...That’s what Wei Wuxian calls my sister’s house,” Jiang finally says. “Wait ‘til you see it, it’s a lot.” He stirs a truly grotesque amount of sugar into his coffee.
The microwave beeps. Wangji takes his mug and turns to leave, hopefully discouraging further conversation.
“Fair warning,” Jiang says. Wangji pauses in the doorway. “My brother-in-law is kind of a dick.”
“Yeah, I mean, he’s fine, I guess, he’s nice to my sister, he’s just kind of a stuck-up prick. He’s like, one of those snobby rich kids who think they’re too good for everyone. He’s always acted like he’s hot shit just because his daddy has money.” This is a pretty hilarious statement coming from a man wearing a Philippe Patek watch, but Wangji nods gravely, as though he will treat “watch out for pomposity” as a warning of the utmost importance.
Nie Mingjue is there when he gets back to his desk. “Talked to my buddy in Major Crimes,” he says, because he is not a good morning kind of person, and neither is Wangji. “Wen Ruohan is indeed the roommates’ uncle, and like, their actual literal uncle, too, their bobo, not just like, you know.” Nie Mingjue waves a hand to indicate the vast and complex array of familial relationships that might fall under the umbrella of uncle. “Wen Qing and Wen Ning are both totally clean, though. Well. Wen Ning is apparently not great at parking legally, but other than that.”
“Mn.” No reason to believe Wen Qing was lying when she said she hadn’t seen her uncle in years. Wangji couldn’t figure out if he should hope that Wei Ying wasn’t involved in Wen Clan activity, since said involvement would put him in a great deal of danger, or if he should hope Wei Ying was involved, since they had no other leads. “We should go to the nightclub.”
“Nightless City? You want to just waltz into a known Wen hangout?”
“We can go this afternoon, after we talk to the sister. We should follow up on the envelope, and the matchbook.”
“Major Crimes will not like us coming anywhere near their case,” Nie Mingjue points out.
Wangji has already considered this. “There’s no reason to expect larger gang involvement. He may have received the envelope from one of the club’s employees.”
Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “I’m still not convinced we have a case. For all we know, the guy flew to Vegas for the weekend.”
“No.” Something is wrong. Wangji is certain of it.
Nie Mingjue smoothes a hand over his mustache, regarding Wangji thoughtfully. “Wangji,” he says.
Something in his voice makes Wangji nervous. He looks down, re-opens one of the notebooks on his desk. “Hm?”
“Wangji.” Nie Mingjue’s gruff voice is gentle, careful. “Wangji-didi. Look at me.”
Wangji’s eyes snap up to his partner, surprised at the uncharacteristic endearment.
“Look,” Nie Mingjue raises a stern eyebrow. “I trust you. You know that, right? You say you’re okay investigating this case, it’s not my business to question that or contradict you. But if I’m going to stick out my neck and step on a Major Crimes case for this, the least you can do is tell me the fucking truth about your relationship to this guy.”
“I told you,” Wangji replies, raising a stern eyebrow of his own. “He’s a friend.”
“Yeah, so you said, but you made it sound like you hardly knew the guy.”
“I eat at the cafe frequently. He is my neighbor. We have gotten to know each other.”
Nie Mingjue folds his arms. “So when was the last time you saw Wei Ying Wuxian?”
“Sunday night.” He can hear Wei Ying’s voice, slurring You should stay away from me. He shivers.
“Sunday night? Are you fucking kidding me? That makes you one of the last people to have seen him!”
“He didn’t do or say anything unusual. I would have told you if he did.”
“This is...fucking…” Nie Mingjue scrubs a hand over his jaw and exhales noisily. “All right. All right, fine. I will cover for you on this. But if I find out you’re keeping something from me that would have helped us find him, I’ll have to report you. I’ll have to, Wangji. You get that, right?”
Wangji nods. He does get it.
“Good.” Nie Mingjue glowers at him, which means he’s exhausted his emotional-conversation quotient for the day, for which Wangji is profoundly thankful. “Let’s go, traffic to the Eastside’s not getting any lighter. I assume you’re driving, unless you want to hop on the back of my bike?”
They drive over the bridge and into Medina. The speed limit immediately drops to 25; strategically planted evergreen trees block the view of the city behind them but leave views of the water intact, giving the illusion they’ve entered some secluded island getaway. Wei Ying’s sister, Jiang Yanli, lives in a gated community called Meadowsong. “Who the hell is the gate supposed to be keeping out around here, Jeff Bezos?” Nie Mingjue snorts as they’re waiting for the gate attendant to buzz them through.
The houses they drive past are done in a mishmash of styles, from Generic 2000s McMansion to Tudor Pile to Tuscan Villa; their lawns are uniformly immaculate. The street signs are white letters in a “quaint” font on a dark brown background, a winning combination of hard to spot and hard to read that is rapidly giving Wangji a headache.
“Fucking rich people,” Nie Mingjue mutters. “No offense.”
Wangji is manifestly unoffended. His uncle Qiren would be huffing into his beard about the ostentation on display; Lan Qiren of the Shanghai Lans prefers to be exquisitely tasteful and understated about having more money than God.
“Carp Tower” turns out to be an apt nickname for Jiang Yanli’s house, which is done in a blocky, angular modern style that ends up looking like a shipping container tipped on one end. The walkway from the circular white-gravel drive passes over a koi pond drifted over with lotus plants, some of which are starting to unfurl their pink-and-white blossoms. Wangji’s not sure how you could even keep lotus plants alive in a cold, dark place like the Pacific Northwest, but he suspects the answer is money.
There is a handwritten note taped over the doorbell: Please don’t ring! Sleeping baby! in English and in Chinese. They knock instead. After a long moment, a young woman opens the door; Wangji recognizes her as the woman Wei Ying had been hugging in a few of the pictures in his bedroom.
Jiang Yanli’s smile is like sinking into a hot bath, or biting into a fresh chocolate chip cookie — warm, comforting, homey, despite the weary lines around her mouth and dark circles under her eyes. She’s clutching a roly-poly baby in a red onesie, no doubt the source of her visible exhaustion and of the gooey white blotch of spit-up on her shoulder. “Thank you so much for coming,” Jiang Yanli says, meeting both of their eyes in turn, as though she is truly grateful that they’ve come, not just being polite. “A-Ling, say hi to the nice men,” she says to the baby, in a sweet baby voice. “They’re detectives just like your jiujiu.” The baby regards them with suspicion; clearly, Wei Ying has already taught him to have a healthy distrust for law enforcement.
Family photos line the entryway, dominated by a large, striking wedding portrait. Jiang Yanli, radiant in white, smiles stiffly with her blandly handsome husband, who — give Jiang Wanyin credit where credit’s due — does look extremely pompous. They’re bracketed on either side by, Wangji assumes, their families. The man standing to Jiang Yanli’s right must be Jiang Fengmian — he has Wanyin’s strong jaw and Yanli’s kind smile. The woman clutching his arm has Yanli’s dazzling beauty and Wanyin’s overall air of being about to snap at any moment. Jiang Wanyin stands behind his father, looking formal and uncomfortable.
Tucked into the portrait’s heavy wooden frame is a second photo that looks like it was taken with a cell phone camera. In it, Jiang Yanli still looks radiant in her white dress, but also a great deal more relaxed. Her hair is down, not coiffed into the elaborate style from the formal portrait; the picture may be from earlier the same day, or a different day altogether, it’s impossible to tell. On one side of her stands Jiang Wanyin in a dark blue windbreaker; on the other, Wei Ying in a black t-shirt under a black hoodie, his hair a birds’ nest. All three siblings are smiling with a sort of desperate, tearful happiness, Jiang Yanli’s lace-draped arms clutching both men tightly to her, Wei Ying’s eyes red-rimmed.
Jiang Yanli ushers them into her spacious mid-century modern living room, which is done in minimalist glass and bamboo and gold finishes and is absolutely littered with plastic toys. She sets the baby down on an activity mat on the floor, where he fixes them with a baleful stare.
“Thank you so much for coming all the way out here,” she says. “I know it’s an inconvenience, but my husband has to go in to work this afternoon, and I didn’t want to take A-Ling into the city by myself.”
“When did you first become concerned that your, uh, that Wei Wuxian had gone missing?” Nie Mingjue asks.
“Monday evening,” she says. “A-Xian was supposed to come to the house for dinner, but he never turned up, and all my calls went straight to voicemail.”
“And that was unusual for him?” Nie Mingjue presses. “Your brother led us to believe that Wei Wuxian frequently failed to follow through on plans.”
Jiang Yanli’s lips thin into a tight little line. For a moment, she looks exactly like the portrait of her mother in the foyer. “A-Xian had a tumultuous youth. I think A-Cheng — I’m sorry, I think Wanyin still thinks of him as...tumultuous, sometimes. But he’s gotten much steadier, with age. And he would never miss an opportunity to spend time with his nephew.” She gestures at the baby, who is now yanking at a dangling monkey toy like it owes him money.
“His nephew,” Nie Mingjue says. “Then you think of Wei Wuxian as a brother?”
“He is my brother,” Jiang Yanli declares calmly. “He lived with us since he was very small. We grew up together.”
“I don’t want to offend you,” says Nie Mingjue, who Wangji knows doesn’t care one bit about offending her, “but I’ve seen his apartment. Doesn’t exactly seem like he’s living on Jiang Microsystems money to me.”
This is the question Wangji has come here to ask; as always, he’s grateful to his partner for getting there first, even if Nie Mingjue tends to be undiplomatic in his questioning methods.
Jiang Yanli sighs. “He and my parents had a falling out about ten years ago, around the time of his arrest. They’re...estranged. A-Xian won’t accept any help from my brother or me. He is,” she continues with a soft smile, “very stubborn. But he is my little brother, and always will be.” She looks down at her hands, clutching together in her lap. “Have you heard from him? Do you know...what might have happened to him?”
“We’re still following up on a few leads.”
She swallows hard, nodding. “I see.” Her voice is barely above a whisper.
On the floor, the baby has had enough of not being the center of attention; he begins to wail. Jiang Yanli scoops him up, hollow-eyed, and begins to bounce him, looking as if she’d quite like to wail herself.
Wangji thinks of Wei Ying. “May I?” he asks, holding his arms out toward the indignant infant.
“Oh! Do you…” Jiang Yanli’s chin wobbles. “I’m sorry, do you mind?”
He holds out his arms and accepts the squalling bundle from her, cradling the baby to his chest. Perhaps stunned at this turn of events, the baby’s wails subside. He tucks in his multiple chins and regards Wangji solemnly. Nie Mingjue is looking at Wangji like he’s grown another head.
Jiang Yanli dabs at her eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s just with A-Xian, and the baby…”
“Take your time,” Nie Mingjue says. “Anything you think might be helpful. Even if it seems silly, it could help us track him down.”
“A-Li?” a man’s voice calls. “Have you seen my phone charger?”
The man from the wedding portrait — Jiang Yanli’s husband — bustles into the room, fiddling with his shirt cuff. His dark suit has the beautiful draping that only comes with bespoke tailoring; his hair is slicked back into a perfect, glossy shine. His red-and-gold tie matches his red-and-gold pocket square.
“It’s still in the car,” Jiang Yanli says to him. “This is Detective Lan and Detective Nie, from the police department. They’re here about A-Xian. This is my husband, Jin Zixuan.”
Wangji tenses up, startled, at the name. Beside him, he can hear Nie Mingjue go “huh.”
Jin Zixuan reaches out to shake both of their hands. “Lan, related to the Shanghai Lans?” he asks.
Wangji nods, once, frostily.
“I’ve done some business with Lan Zhiyi.”
“He is my cousin,” Wangji mutters.
“So wait,” Nie Mingjue interrupts. “You’re the guy Wei punched.”
The bland, placid smile dissolves off of Jin Zixuan’s face. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “I am a guy he punched, yes,” he admits. His wife pats his thigh comfortingly; he sinks down to sit next to her on the couch.
Wangji looks down at Baby Jin Ling, who is warm and soft and milky-baby-smelling. He gives the baby an experimental jiggle, and is rewarded with a sudden dimpled smile. Of course this baby would have dimples. Wangji’s thoughts are racing; he’s glad for the excuse to avoid eye contact with everyone, particularly Jin Zixuan.
“Look,” Jin Zixuan says. “I was still seventeen at the time, I was a minor. It wasn’t my idea to press charges. My parents insisted. And if you’ve seen Wei Wuxian’s record, then you know that that secondary assault charge was dropped; he went to jail for what he did to my cousin, Jin Zixun. Wei Wuxian punched me in the nose, which, honestly? Fair enough, I was being a dick.” He and Jiang Yanli exchange a wry, fond smile. “But my cousin went after him for it, and Wei Wuxian fucking took him apart. You probably can’t tell it from his file, but the guy can handle himself in a fight.”
Wangji thinks about Wei Ying’s uncanny grace, the lean muscles of his biceps, his quicksilver temper. Plausible.
“A-Xian is a sweet boy,” Jiang Yanli adds, taking her husband’s hand. “He’d never hurt someone just to be cruel, but he feels injustice very deeply, and he’ll always stand up for someone if he thinks they need defending. It might sound strange to you, but he was trying to stand up for me. He didn’t deserve to go to jail. I hope you’ll keep that in mind, during your investigation.”
“My family — I tried to get them to drop the charges, especially since Wei Wuxian was over eighteen, but…” Jin Zixuan pinches his nose again. “That’s not really...how my family rolls. They’ve got sort of a scorched-earth mentality. Useful in business,” he chuckles humorlessly. “Less of a charming trait outside the boardroom.”
Nie Mingjue takes the two of them through the rest of his questions. No, they don’t know of anyone Wei Ying might be staying with. No, he hasn’t responded to emails or texts. Yes, they’d seen him about a week before he disappeared; no, he hadn’t done or said anything unusual. Wangji watches the baby slowly start to nod off in his arms and lets the information wash over him, waiting for anything his mind can grab onto, but nothing comes.
Eventually, Jin Zixuan stands up, smoothing the tasteful lines of his slacks back into place. “I need to get to the office,” he says. Wangji and Nie Mingjue stand as well; Jiang Yanli reaches out to gently scoop the sleeping baby out of Wangji’s arms. There’s a damp spot on his sleeve where the baby has been softly drooling.
Jin Zixuan hands Wangji his business card. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” The card only serves to confirm Wangji’s sinking suspicions. Zachary Jin. Vice President of Sales for North America. Jin Corp.
“I...know your brother,” Wangji says.
Jin Zixuan looks, if possible, even more pained than he had at the mention of Wei Ying punching him. “You do?” he asks, his voice tight. “Ugh. Which one?”
Wangji avoids looking at Nie Mingjue, who is stiff as a poker beside him. “Meng Yao.”
“Oh.” Jin Zixuan exchanges a look with his wife. “Well. He’s not so bad.”
“How many brothers do you have?” Wangji asks, thinking of the total lack of Jin siblings in the wedding portrait.
“Until about five years ago, I thought the answer was none.” Jin Zixuan barks a hard, bitter laugh. “But thanks to all the DNA testing kits on the market, new ones just keep popping out of the woodwork.” He purses his lips. “I don’t mean to disparage Meng Yao. He works hard, and I know it’s meant a lot to him to get to know my — our father. It’s just been...a weird few years.” He turns and kisses Jiang Yanli on the cheek, draws a gentle finger down his son’s downy forehead. “I have to go. I’ll walk you gentlemen out.”
After the incident at the cafe, Wangji spends the rest of the afternoon pacing restlessly, picking things up and putting them down again, unable to focus. Evening finds him sitting at his desk, watching Wei Ying’s window and feeling asinine. He knows where Wei Ying lives, he could just go over there if he wants to talk to Wei Ying so badly, but he’s never done that before and he’s not sure how well it would be received. So he sits and waits, patient, still, the light slowly dying around him. He’s very good at waiting.
Finally, as the sky is fading from gold to pink to deep blue, Wei Ying’s window opens. Wangji watches him haul himself wriggling onto the roof and tries not to think of how far three stories is, or of the paving stones of the courtyard waiting below to snap Wei Ying’s bones.
When Wangji makes his way onto the roof, Wei Ying is slouched back on one elbow, looking west to where a sliver of water is visible between the buildings. The sunset light gilds his nose and cheekbones, staining his skin pink and leaving his eyes in shadow.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying raises the ever-present bottle of cheap whiskey in a toast as Wangji settles in beside him; the liquor glows amber in the setting sun. “Good evening.” He crosses one lanky leg over the other, and Wangji sees that he is barefoot.
There’s no reason for the sight of Wei Ying’s bare foot to affect Wangji the way it does; it’s not like he has a foot fetish or anything, but something about the graceful arch of Wei Ying’s instep, his long and somehow elegant toes, his skin soft and vulnerable and pink in the sunset light, pierces Wangji right to his core. He’s overwhelmed by it, the way he sometimes is by flashes of Wei Ying, by his collarbone or his ear or the fall of his dark hair over his shoulder, and that bittersweet almost-sad feeling pours through him and solidifies into a lump that he can now identify as pure, unadulterated longing.
Oh no, he thinks, staring at Wei Ying’s foot with a mounting sense of panic. Oh no, I’m falling in love with him.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks. Wangji looks up, startled, his eyes wide with fascinated horror, his temples starting to sweat. “Are you OK?”
Oh no. Oh no. “Fine,” Wangji says quickly. He sits up straighter, clears his throat, reaches frantically within himself for his customary impenetrable calm. “I’m fine.”
Wei Ying sits up, mercifully tucking his bare feet under himself, and bumps Wangji’s shoulder with his. Wangji somehow does not burst into flames. “You sure? You look kind of...freaked out.”
“Mn.” Wangji nods. He looks out toward Puget Sound and imagines plunging himself into it, cold saltwater closing over his head. He breathes in through his nose, and out through his mouth. Steady. Calm. He needs to focus on the matter at hand, which is Wei Ying’s work troubles, not Wangji’s ridiculous feelings.
“Are you all right?” he asks Wei Ying, once he’s sure he’s regained control of himself.
“Of course I am. It’s a beautiful evening, I’ve got a bottle and a friend and a view. Why wouldn’t I be all right?”
“At the cafe today, you were upset. You said you would get in trouble. Did you?”
Wei Ying shakes his head at him. “You worry too much.” He takes a long sip of whiskey and avoids Wangji’s eyes.
Wangji waits, riding out the pause, fixing Wei Ying with a stern, expectant look. He knows Wei Ying can’t resist filling a silence.
Eventually, Wei Ying’s eyes slide back toward him. “It’s fine, Lan Zhan,” he huffs exasperatedly. “He just took the cost of the comped meal out of my pay. I didn’t get fired or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
That is part of what Wangji is worried about, but not the only thing. He keeps waiting.
“If anything,” Wei Ying continues, “my manager’s done me a favor. He took me off the schedule for the rest of this week, and all of next week. Little vaycay. I am officially a man of leisure for the next ten days.” He rakes his fingers through his hair with a cynical chuckle.
Wangji frowns. He knows Wei Ying is in no position to lose more than a week’s income. “That seems excessive.”
“Well, my boss is an asshole. But everybody’s boss is an asshole, and I need the job.” He knocks back another pull off of his whiskey bottle, swallowing with a little cough.
“What will you do?”
“Fuck, man, I don’t know. You wanna hang out? What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Working.” Wangji is sorely tempted by the prospect of a whole day with Wei Ying, but that wasn’t what he had been asking, and he’s not letting Wei Ying divert him that easily. “That is not what I meant.”
Wei Ying sighs. The last of the sunset is dwindling into dusk. The street lights flicker on, one by one, throwing shadows across the roof. He meets Wangji’s eyes, and Wangji feels like he’s stuck his tongue in an electrical socket. There’s a sudden, heartbreaking vulnerability in Wei Ying’s face. “I know,” he says.
“If you need a loan —”
“No.” Wei Ying sits up straight. The soft, open look vanishes, replaced by his usual arch smile. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you not to loan your friends money? You’re lucky you have me around, to make sure nobody takes advantage of you,” he adds, wagging a mock-scolding finger.
Several people have, in fact, told Wangji not to loan his friends money, not that it matters. He’s half ready to sign over his trust fund to Wei Ying, if that would help him, ready to whisk him downstairs and set him up in the guest room and let him live there rent-free for as long as he needs. His mind provides him with an image of what Wei Ying might look like first thing in the morning, tousled and stubble-chinned and languid from sleep. Not helpful. Also not relevant to the conversation, since Wei Ying clearly isn’t going to accept that kind of help from him.
“I was there today,” Wangji says slowly. “I saw what happened. If you’d like, I could talk to your manager.”
“Oh hell no,” Wei Ying laughs in scandalized amusement. “I’m not going to be the guy who called the cops because he got in trouble at work.”
Wangji frowns at him.
“Lan Zhan. Stop looking at me like that,” Wei Ying pouts. “It’s gonna be fine. I mean, it’s gonna suck, but I’ll figure something out, I always do. I deserve it, anyway, it was a stupid, impulsive thing to do. I’m lucky I didn’t get fired.”
“Those men were...behaving badly,” Wangji says carefully.
“Those men were dicks,” Wei Ying snorts. “I’m not sorry I ruined their lunch, it would just be nice if I could occasionally stick up for someone without blowing up my own life.” He sags sideways, leaning his head against Wangji’s shoulder. Wangji focuses on not smelling his hair. “Uggghh,” Wei Ying whines, “if I lose this job I’m so fucked, Lan Zhan, I’m so fucking fucked.” He starts to laugh. “Someday I swear I’m gonna learn to mind my own business.”
“If you did,” Wangji points out, his voice rasping in his throat, “you would not be Wei Ying.”
“Fair,” Wei Ying chuckles. He sits up again. Wangji can feel the imprint on his shoulder where Wei Ying’s head no longer rests.
They sit in silence for a while, Wei Ying drinking and staring out into the night and thinking his million thoughts, Wangji breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth and trying to remember what it felt like to behave normally.
“Are you cold?” Wei Ying asks eventually.
“Mm.” Wangji shakes his head. The temperature has dropped sharply since the sun went down, but since Wangji’s heart has apparently decided to become a small nova star, he barely feels the chill.
“So tough,” Wei Ying teases him. “I might climb down and grab a jacket, in a minute. Or maybe I’ll just put on another layer of good ol’ Liquid Coat.” He holds the whiskey bottle up next to his face like he’s in an infomercial for rotgut booze.
“That reminds me,” Wangji says. “I brought you something.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the little brass-colored key.
Wei Ying takes it and holds it curiously up to the light. “A key? To what?”
“To the roof.” Wangji could not, in good conscience, make Wei Ying a copy of Xichen’s master key to the building, but it had been simple enough to ask the property manager for a key to the roof. The man was so desperate to stay in Xichen’s good graces (and continue availing himself of Xichen’s neighborly offers of help around the building), he was more than happy to let Wangji have a key. There was no need for him to know that Wangji didn’t intend to keep it for himself.
“For me?” Wei Ying’s eyebrows lift in astonishment. His eyes grow huge; they flicker up to Wangji’s face, back down to the key. He opens his mouth to say something, pauses. “I...don’t know what to say.”
“It would be very inconvenient for me,” Wangji says, “if you fell while climbing up here. There would be a lot of paperwork.”
Wei Ying gapes at him open-mouthed for a moment, then bursts into peals of loud, delighted laughter. “You made a joke, Lan Zhan!” he exclaims. “I can’t believe it!” He knocks his shoulder against Wangji’s, chortling. Wangji can feel the blush creeping across his face, down his neck; he allows himself a small, satisfied smile.
“Seriously, though, this is very nice of you,” Wei Ying says when his laughter finally subsides. “My Lan Zhan, taking such good care of me.”
Wangji wants to kiss the whiskey off of his lips, slick and open-mouthed and hungry, press his bony shoulders back onto the roof, sink his teeth into the small hole at the shoulder of Wei Ying’s T-shirt and rip the whole thing off of him. “You’re welcome,” he says instead.
The last scene on the rooftop (and my mental picture of Wei Ying's overall look for this fic) is inspired by that one photo shoot Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo did for Harper's Bazaar China (if you haven't seen it, Google it now and thank me later), in which they are barefoot, and I think Xiao Zhan has the best-looking feet I've ever seen on a person? Which is frankly unnecessary for a person who already looks like him?
Thanks as always to Duessa and Ericacea for the beta work/general yelling about this story.
Coming next week in Chapter 4: Two very different lunch appointments. Nightless City.
Chapter 4: Known Associates
hey r u still interested in that project
who is this?
XY 😘from Xingchen's?
don’t tell me u already forgot me
I was p wasted that night dont take it personal
I have a project 4 u if ur still looking for work
Cool whats the project?
The thread ends there, but is immediately followed by a 7-minute phone call from an unlisted number, likely the same one.
When they get back from Carp Tower, Wangji sees that the warrant for Wei Ying’s phone records has come through. He spends the rest of the morning sifting through them. There isn’t a lot there; Wei Ying, like most millennials, appears to avoid phone conversations whenever possible. He FaceTimes his sister regularly, but his text message history is pretty bare — Wangji’s guessing he’s got a few robust chat threads going in WhatsApp or Signal or something.
In recent weeks, however, he’s received a series of calls and texts from unlisted numbers. Wangji scans through the records and finds the earliest such conversation, from three weeks ago.
hey r u still interested in that project
who is this?
XY 😘from Xingchen’s?
don’t tell me u already forgot me
I was p wasted that night dont take it personal
I have a project 4 u if ur still looking for work
Cool whats the project?
The thread ends there, but is immediately followed by a 7-minute phone call from an unlisted number, likely the same one.
XY again. There’s no other mention of those initials, but Wangji does a search for “Xingchen” to see if he can glean any additional context about who XY might be. There’s only one other conversation in which the name is mentioned, as part of a text thread between Wei Ying and his roommates.
I’ll be on the roof if anyone needs me
If you start dating a cop Xiao Xingchen is gonna be so pissed at you
Tell XXC he can comment on other peoples lives when he stops getting crushes on psychopaths
I’m just saying
Dont worry its not like that
He’s like this upstanding citizen
Im a literal gremlin
It would be like prince charming dating
Wangji pushes back from his desk in surprise, his face burning. Wei Ying’s roommates thought they were dating? Wei Ying compared him to Prince Charming? Wangji is many things, but charming certainly isn’t one of them — Wei Ying is nice to say it, but Wangji knows he’s more like Prince Unfriendly. Prince Robot. Prince Permafrost.
He’s not sure what to do with this information. He’s tempted to drop everything and read back over the entire text thread with Wen Qing and Wen Ning, but that wouldn’t be a good use of his time right now.
Anyway, Wei Ying had said it wasn’t like that.
He makes a note of Xiao Xingchen as a friend of Wei Ying’s to possibly follow up with, and returns to his research. A week or so after the first exchange, another text from an unlisted number.
Dropped something off 4 u
What the fuck is this
We have a robust incentive program
Still not interested
U can take it back
Bring it by NC if u want
We can talk
After that, several phone calls, most of which Wei Ying appears to have let go to voicemail. There’s one more text:
Left u another little surprise 😘
Shortly after that, a 5-minute phone call from Wei Ying to the unlisted phone. Wangji checks the dates: that last exchange was on Monday afternoon, the day Wei Ying disappeared. He shows Nie Mingjue what he’s found (omitting the conversation between Wei Ying and his roommates, which is immaterial to the matter at hand).
“NC,” Nie Mingjue muses. “Nightless City?”
“Has to be,” Wangji agrees. “We should go down there. See if we can find this XY person.”
Nie Mingjue frowns. “Nightless City isn’t the kind of place you should roll up on without some serious backup.”
“Then we will take backup.”
“I doubt Yao is gonna go for putting extra people on this. I doubt Yao is gonna go for us going down there, period, not with an open Major Crimes investigation on the Wens.”
“It’s currently the best lead we have. During daylight hours, the risk should be minimal.”
“So...best case scenario is that we piss off Yao and everyone in Major Crimes, and worst case scenario is that they never find our bodies?” Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “It’s not a good idea. If I’m going to be murdered, I’d prefer not to be murdered in Belltown.”
“This is our case. Major Crimes can’t fault us for investigating it.”
“Well, that’s bullshit, and you know it.”
Wangji hesitates for a moment before playing his final card. “If you’d prefer not to be involved, I can go on my own.”
His partner’s head snaps up. Wangji meets his incredulous look with a level stare. Wei Ying is missing. Time is running out.
“You are the stubbornest asshole I’ve ever met,” Nie Mingjue grumbles. Wangji holds his gaze and waits. Nie Mingjue sighs. “Obviously I’m not letting you go in there alone. But for the record, this is a stupid idea and I hate you.”
Wangji exhales a silent sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
Nie Mingjue stands up, stretches. “I need to follow up on some stuff for the Baczewzski break-in this afternoon. We’ll have to go later on anyway, staff probably won’t be getting there much before 5. Try not to do something stupid and get yourself killed between now and then, all right?”
Wangji nods. “In the meantime, I will keep going through the notebooks. Let me know if you need my help with the Baczewzski thing.”
After Nie Mingjue leaves, Wangji pulls out Jin Zixuan’s business card and stares at it, thinking hard. Wei Ying’s brother works in Wangji’s department. Wei Ying’s brother-in-law works with, and is related to, Xichen’s boyfriend. How is it possible that his life could have run in parallel with Wei Ying’s for so long before they met? What else is Wangji missing?
He scowls at the business card and picks up his phone, tapping out the text before he can change his mind. It’s Lan Wangji. Are you free for lunch?
The lobby of Jin Corp Tower is all pale leather and dark wood, crimson orchids and gold-framed mirrors. “Can I help you?” the receptionist asks from behind her gigantic wood-and-steel command center of a desk.
“I’m meeting someone here.”
“Great!” She swivels a touchscreen toward him. “Go ahead and enter your information, and if I could see an ID, I’ll make a photocopy and we’ll get you a temporary badge printed!”
“Can’t I just…” he gestures toward the tastefully-appointed seating area. “Wait for him down here?”
She gives him a plasticky customer-service smile. “We do require that all visitors to the building check in.”
He considers handing her his badge, just to be difficult, but meekly slides over his driver’s license instead. He enters his name, cell phone number, the name of the person he’s there to see, and the reason he’s there to see them (Lunch) into the form, and receives his driver’s license back along with a printed-out badge. “Please have a seat over there,” the receptionist says, gesturing to the same group of chairs Wangji had just suggested he wait in. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Wangji settles into a leather chair, eyeing the security guards stationed at the elevators, who eye him right back. Most private security is a formality, but the way these men stand — backs straight, weight evenly distributed over their feet, heads up, eyes alert — says to Wangji that they mean business. They’re both wearing full suits and blazers, a pretty formal look for Seattle, even in a swanky downtown office building. The boxy cut of the blazers and matching telltale bulges indicate shoulder holsters. Jin Corp clearly isn’t taking security lightly.
“Lan Wangji!” Meng Yao comes striding out of the elevators in his cream-colored shirt and charcoal slacks, seeming more in his element here than he ever has in the Lans’ apartment. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
“Have a nice lunch, Mr. Meng,” the receptionist chirps. Meng Yao acknowledges her with a dimpled smile.
“I’m so happy you texted me,” Meng Yao says as they walk out of the building. “It’s so funny, we both work downtown but we never end up meeting up! We should do this more often.”
“Mn,” Wangji replies, trying to sound as noncommittal as possible.
“Of course, I don’t always have time to take a real lunch break during the workday,” Meng Yao continues.
“But I’ve been thinking for a while, how much I’d like to get to know you better!” Meng Yao beams. “Have you been to the cafe at the Art Museum? Xichen and I ate there last time he met me for lunch.”
Wangji manages to make agonizing small talk with Meng Yao until they’ve been seated and ordered their lunch; people are less likely to walk out of an awkward conversation after they’ve already ordered food.
“So!” Meng Yao says brightly. “How are things down at the station? Any interesting new cases?”
Wangji clears his throat. “Meng Yao, why didn’t you mention at dinner last night that you know Wei Wuxian?”
Meng Yao’s smile falters for a second, then returns brighter than ever. “Oh! I...wouldn’t say that I know him.”
“His sister is married to your brother.”
“Well, I’ve heard his name, of course,” Meng Yao chuckles, “and I’ve met him in passing, but it’s not like we’re friends.”
“Still, it seems an odd thing not to mention.”
Meng Yao sighs, looking tired. “Lan Wangji, can I be honest with you?”
Wangji inclines his head.
“I don’t know how much Xichen has told you about...well, about me.”
“All I wanted, my whole life, was to be part of a family.” Meng Yao says the word family with reverence, a holy incantation. It’s the same way Wei Ying says the word, funnily enough. “It was always just my mom and me, and she was sick for so long before she died…” His practiced businessman’s smile is gone. “When I found my father, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. The fact that I’ve gotten a whole career out of it is an unexpected bonus. But...I’m not unaware that my father already had a family, one I’m not part of. My showing up...I imagine it was very painful for my father’s wife.”
Painful for Meng Yao as well, no doubt, Wangji thinks, feeling like a bit of a heel. He’s starting to see a bit of what drew Xichen and Meng Yao to each other — the Lan brothers know all too well what it’s like to lose your mother too young, to grow up with no one to rely on but yourself. Xichen’s been the only sweetness and softness in Wangji’s life for more than 20 years; he can see why that sweetness might appeal to someone like Meng Yao.
“I know how close you and Xichen are,” Meng Yao continues. “I had hoped to have a close relationship with my brother, as well. He’s a decent man, but I know it’s not easy for him, having me around. Most of the time I try to keep my distance from Jin Zixuan. Our paths don’t cross that often at work — Sales and Operations have less to do with each other than you might think — and outside of work...it’s rare for us to associate. So yes,” he sighs. “I’m aware that Wei Wuxian is Jin Zixuan’s brother-in-law. But I wasn’t exactly eager to expose my difficult relationship with my brother, who is also my co-worker, over dinner, especially with Nie Mingjue.” He gives a little self-deprecating chuckle. “I get the impression your partner isn’t a huge fan of me.”
Wangji does not say Of course he is, what are you talking about, because Wangji does not lie. “Nie Mingjue has been Xichen’s close friend for a long time. He is protective.” Nie Mingjue would burn cities to ashes for the short list of people he really cares about, but Wangji’s not going to say that either.
“Of course,” Meng Yao says softly.
They sit in silence for a while, Wangji feeling stiff and awkward and more guilty than ever about his total inability to like this man.
After their server has dropped their food off, Meng Yao clears his throat. “You know, Lan Wangji, you’re one of the most important people in Xichen’s life.”
Wangji nods; this, of all the things in his life, is never in doubt.
“That makes you an important person in my life, as well.” Meng Yao’s eyes are clear and frank; his smile is pleasant and guileless. There’s no reason for Wangji to doubt his sincerity, but Wangji can’t silence the part of himself that’s asking what’s his angle here? “I understand why you wanted to ask me about this, and it’s to your credit that you’re such a conscientious investigator. But I hope this won’t be the last time we meet for lunch. I really would like to get to know you better. It would be nice if we could be friends.”
“I know Xichen would like that,” Wangji says, because he cannot say I would like that.
The realization that he is falling in love with Wei Ying both does and does not change Wangji’s life. He still gets up at 5 each morning, meditates, gets to work early, bickers with Nie Mingjue about paperwork, cooks dinner with Xichen. He still meets Wei Ying on the roof and spends evenings in pleasant companionship, listening to Wei Ying ramble.
On the other hand, while Wangji has been going through his normal routines, his mind has been compiling a growing list of the places he’d like to kiss Wei Ying. His eyelids, for one, the paper-thin fluttering skin there. His wicked, smiling mouth, of course. The first knob of his spine where it peeks out from his shirt collar. The palms of his quick, clever hands. The soft flesh above his hip bone, which Wangji has not actually seen, but has imagined in vivid, excruciating detail.
He considers himself a good judge of people — he’s a professional investigator, for pity’s sake — but he has no idea what Wei Ying feels about him. He’s still not sure why the man decided to aggressively befriend him in the first place; Wei Ying must have any number of friends, but he always seems genuinely delighted to see Wangji. He makes space for Wangji, rather than treating him like some kind of statue like most people do. He called Wangji “my Lan Zhan” when Wangji gave him the key; the unguarded, surprised emotion in his face at the small gift has taken up permanent residence in Wangji’s head. But Wei Ying is an incorrigible flirt, and Wangji can’t pretend that Wei Ying touches him or flirts with him or laughs at him any more than Wei Ying does with anyone else.
It doesn’t really matter, anyway, because Wangji is quite certain he’d rather die a thousand quiet deaths than tell Wei Ying how he feels. He can imagine the kindness, the pity, in Wei Ying’s face as he let Wangji down gently, and Wangji would rather die of thirst than of sorrow. He has to hope that his face doesn’t betray him. He feels like his crush must be visible from space, but a lifetime of schooling himself into impassivity isn’t going to waste now, and Wei Ying doesn’t seem to notice anything.
Nie Huaisang sends a group text: lunch Sat? Wangji has been eating Saturday lunches at the cafe; Wei Ying is usually too busy to say more than a quick hello, but he likes being there anyway, likes spending time with his friend even if they don’t speak (of course, now that he knows that he’s madly in love with Wei Ying, that attitude makes more sense). He finds himself reluctant to give up that time.
He can’t think of a reason not to suggest the cafe for lunch. He eats there often enough, and he knows his friends would enjoy the food; it’s close to Mianmian’s place, and Nie Huaisang usually comes to the I.D. when the three of them hang out anyway. There’s no reason for him to feel nervous, to hope Wei Ying likes his friends or to hope they will like Wei Ying, who will probably not have time to meet them anyway. It’s a reasonable suggestion.
As soon as they walk in, he knows he’s made a terrible mistake, but it’s too late to back out.
“This place is cute,” Mianmian says, slinging her bag into the booth ahead of her. She’s in yoga pants and a sleeveless United State of Electronica T-shirt; on Saturdays she’s usually coming straight to lunch from yoga. “I keep meaning to check it out, I know you’ve been coming here a lot.”
“Just another hipster spot trying to gentrify the I.D., of course you like it.” Nie Huaisang says in exaggeratedly pious tones. Wangji rolls his eyes; Huaisang and Mingjue’s condo is in Capitol Hill, above a pourover coffee place that used to be one of Seattle’s foremost grunge bars, so it’s not like he has room to talk.
“So what’s good?” Mianmian unfolds the menu.
“Lan Wangji’s just going to say whatever their blandest vegetarian food is,” Nie Huaisang points out. “Ooh, spicy chicken grain bowl.”
Wei Ying strolls up, order pad in hand. His t-shirt is a deep blue today, faded with many washings but a nice contrast with his red apron and his tanned skin. His nails have been freshly painted, Wangji notices without hyperventilating at all, and are a deep crimson. He has a silver ring on one thumb. He sees Wangji’s friends and grins in surprise — Wangji’s heart takes that smile and presses it gently between the pages of his memory, to be examined in detail later. “Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying exclaims. “Are these your friends?”
“Hiiiii,” Mianmian and Nie Huaisang sing in perfect, annoying unison.
“This is Nie Huaisang and Luo Qingyang,” Wangji continues gamely, sending a please do not embarrass me glare to both of them that he already knows, through painful experience, will be completely ignored.
“Call me Mianmian, everyone does,” Mianmian says, offering Wei Ying her hand with a wide grin and a flutter of her eyelashes.
“Nice to meet you, Mianmian,” Wei Ying replies, lingering over the handshake and giving Mianmian the extra-sparkly smile he reserves for attractive women.
“This is Wei Ying. He is…” My best friend. The love of my life. Slowly killing me. “...My neighbor.”
“Lan Zhan, you do have other friends!” Wei Ying cackles. “I was beginning to worry about him,” he explains to Wangji’s friends, who nod with matching expressions of amusement. “Poor Lan Zhan, with nobody to keep him company but some drunk asshole he found on the roof. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who appreciates him.” Wei Ying laughs, giving Wangji’s shoulder an affectionate rub. Wangji goes still under his hand. “Do you guys know what you want, or do you need another minute?”
“Oh we’re definitely going to need a minute,” Nie Huaisang says, his eyes shining with mischief from behind his menu.
“You got it, just yell if you need anything.” Wei Ying’s hand is still resting on Wangji’s shoulder. He lets go with a squeeze and walks off.
“Thank youu,” Mianmian singsongs, watching him walk away.
Wangji looks down at his menu, wishing he could actually implode under the weight of his embarrassment.
“OK,” says Nie Huaisaing. “OK, now I see why you eat here so often.”
“Seriously.” Mianmian is still staring after Wei Ying. “If the food’s even somewhat good, I’m coming here every day.”
“Also,” Nie Huaisang reaches across the table to swat Wangji with his menu, “since when do you have other friends? Rude.”
“I am allowed to have friends,” Wangji points out. He can feel his ears turning red.
Mianmian shakes her head. “Oh you have got it bad, my friend.”
“So bad it’s not even funny,” Nie Huaisang agrees.
He can’t violently shush them without risking Wei Ying’s attention, despite the fact that if anyone has ever deserved repeated and violent shushing, it’s the two of them. “We’re just friends.”
Nie Huaisang snorts. “Tell that to your face, Lan Zhan.”
“A-Sang’s right, you had almost three-quarters of an expression on your face, which for you is like...practically a musical number.”
“Shut. Up,” Wangji mutters. Wei Ying is right. He has no friends. He has zero friends, after this lunch. He’s going to go live at the top of a mountain where his phone won’t even receive group texts.
“I mean, no shame in that game, gege, he is gorgeous.” Nie Huaisang fans himself with his menu. “If you don’t ask him out, I will.”
“Take a number,” Mianmian says with feeling, gazing over to where Wei Ying is setting down another table’s sandwiches.
Nie Huaisang elbows her. “Aren’t you married?”
She elbows him back. “Aren’t you straight?”
“Nobody’s that straight,” Nie Huaisang breathes.
“I will give. Each of you. Five hundred dollars. To change the subject right now,” Wangji says, slowly and distinctly.
The two of them exchange a look and dissolve into helpless giggles. He glares at them, the icy, disdainful glare that kept them — and everyone else — at bay in high school, and does precisely nothing now.
“I’m sorry,” Nie Huaisang says, still giggling. “Sorrysorrysorry, Lan-er-gege, you’re right. Stop with the Murder Eyebrows. He’s right,” he says to Mianmian, wiping away tears of mirth. “Be nice.”
“I’m always nice,” she asserts.
“You would cut a bitch, and that’s why I love you,” Nie Huaisang says.
Nightless City is a labyrinthine, multi-level establishment with 3 different dance floors. The general aesthetic, Wangji thinks as he descends the stairs into the club, appears to be “Satan’s bachelor pad.” The lights all have fiberglass covers to mimic the look of open flames; the banquettes in the lounge area are tufted black vinyl. The ceilings are made to look like they’ve been hewn from rock, as though the whole establishment is set up in some kind of subterranean lair, instead of the basement levels of an office building. The whole thing probably looks very cool at night, but at 5 pm, with chairs still stacked upside down on the tables, it looks about as sexy as a Rainforest Cafe.
There’s a man behind the black lucite bar. Wangji catches a glimpse of ink-black hair pulled into a high, glossy ponytail, and for a wonderful, horrible moment, he thinks it’s Wei Ying. The man behind the bar is shorter than Wei Ying, though, and younger; he’s cute, in a baby-faced kind of way, but as they approach Wangji gets the sense that there’s something off about him. There’s an emptiness to his face, a lack of feeling behind his eyes, which have the affectless, predatory look of a shark’s. He greets them with an unpleasant leer, which doesn’t touch his eyes.
“Club is closed,” he says in Mandarin. “We open at 9. Cover starts at 10.” He’s slicing limes with short, vicious movements, juice and pulp coating his fingers.
Nie Mingjue flashes his badge. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
The bartender’s smirk twists into a manic grin; he widens his eyes, showing the whites on all sides in mock astonishment. “Cops!” he exclaims. “Are you lost? Do you know where you are?”
“We’re looking for this man,” Wangji holds out a copy of the photo from Wei Ying’s missing persons report. “Have you seen him in here recently?”
His hands still dripping with lime juice, the bartender takes the photo and scrutinizes it for a moment. “Oh he’s cute.” He fixes Wangji with his unsettling wide-eyed stare. “Is he single?”
“He’s missing,” Nie Mingjue says.
“Doesn’t mean he’s not single.”
“Has he been in here recently?”
The bartender shrugs. “Lotta people come in here. It’s a very popular bar.”
“You don’t recognize him? Look again,” Nie Mingjue presses.
“Even I can’t keep track of every hot Asian guy who comes in here,” the bartender sighs dramatically, handing back the photo. “Trust me, I’ve tried.”
“Your name?” Nie Mingjue has his notepad out now.
The bartender giggles. “Chengmei.”
“You got a family name?”
“Probably.” He picks up his knife and starts slicing limes again. It’s only then that Wangji notices that the man is missing a finger, the little finger on his left hand; what Wangji had originally taken for a leather wrist cuff is actually the base for a prosthesis.
Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes. “We’d like to review your security footage from last weekend, see if our missing person is on there.”
“Well, gosh.” Chengmei raises his manicured eyebrows and bats his eyelashes as if to say little ol’ me? “I guess for something like that...you’d need to speak to the manager.” He hisses it like a threat.
“Great,” Nie Mingjue rumbles. “Are they here?”
Another dead-eyed smirk. “Right this way, Detective.” He takes the knife he was using to slice the limes, wipes it off on a towel, and slides it into the top of his knee-high boot, which strikes Wangji as poor food-handling safety and also a great way to cut one’s leg.
The bartender leads them back behind the bar, through a door marked Employees Only. They pass through the steamy, swamplike air of the kitchen and up a flight of stairs to a closed door. Chengmei raps at the door, a sharp, staccato pattern that might be a coded knock or might just be his own flourish. A muffled question comes from within.
“The cops are here!” Chengmei sings. The door opens, and he makes an exaggerated after you motion.
The tacky hell motif is even more pronounced up here. The wallpaper is deep, heavy red with a black flame pattern worked into it. There’s a furry black rug on the floor, and another of the black vinyl couches they’d seen in the lounge area. The air is heavy with stale cigarette smoke. The back wall is dominated by a giant tropical fish tank, which gives the whole office a low-rent Bond villain vibe.
Curiously, despite the obvious care and expense that have been taken with the office’s decor, every available surface and bit of floor space is piled with bar supplies: stacked-up rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, industrial-sized bottles of hand soap, cardboard boxes with Cocktail Straws 200ct printed on the site.
There are two men lounging on the couch — the guy seated closer to the door’s pant legs have ridden up, and Wangji can see a shadow that’s likely the bottom of an ankle holster. Another guy leaning against the wall next to them, wearing a jacket indoors, which Wangji has to assume means he’s armed as well. Two more men sitting perched on stacks of boxes; no visible weapons on either, but plenty of places for either of them to conceal one.
Sitting with his feet propped up on the dusty dark wood of the desk is a man Wangji recognizes as Wen Chao, Wen Ruohan’s younger son and the on-paper owner of Nightless City. He has a childish, sulky look that Wangji remembers from the photos he’s seen of the man — apparently it’s his default facial expression — but word is that he’s got a vicious temper, and Wangji knows he’s been implicated in several particularly nasty assaults. He’s dressed to match the decor, in a shiny red shirt with black embroidery down the front. Behind him stands a man maybe ten or fifteen years his senior, built like a tank, who regards them with folded arms and a blank, unimpressed stare. A bodyguard? Wangji thinks. In his own establishment, surrounded by his own people? Are the Wens really so paranoid?
Chengmei pulls the door closed behind them and leans against it. He pulls the knife out of his boot and starts playing with it, flipping it idly between his fingers, smiling maliciously to himself. Wangji is uncomfortably aware that they’re shut up in a room with one exit and seven members of a well-known crime syndicate. Nie Mingjue was right, this was a bad idea. He catches his partner’s eye; Nie Mingjue glares at him, then looks away. Wangji can hear him take a deep, controlled breath.
Wen Chao opens his arms in a welcoming gesture, but doesn’t get up. “Detectives! What can I do for you?” he asks, baring his teeth in what might pass for a smile on another person.
Nie Mingjue shows him Wei Ying’s photo. “We’re looking for this man. We have reason to believe he was here shortly before he disappeared.”
“Disappeared? What a shame.” Wen Chao takes the photo and leans back in his chair. He pulls out a cigarette, making eye contact with Nie Mingjue as he lights it. “I’m sorry, I wish I could be of more help, but I’ve never seen this man before.” He smiles insincerely around his cigarette.
Wangji considers telling him smoking in bars (and offices, for that matter) has been illegal in Seattle for more than 15 years; he has a momentary impulse to just start issuing citations wildly, but he knows (and Wen Chao clearly knows he knows) how outnumbered they are, how easily Wen Chao could pay the fine, how ridiculous he and Nie Mingjue would look bringing in a Wen lieutenant on something like a smoking citation. He grits his teeth.
“We’d like to take a look at your security footage from last week,” Nie Mingjue says. “See if we can spot our missing person, shed some light on where he’s been.”
Wen Chao hands the photo back. “Of course we’d be happy to help the Seattle Police Department with anything they need,” he says with a bug-eyed simper. The flunkies clustered around the office snicker obediently. “But we don’t retain our security footage for more than 48 hours, unless there’s some kind of incident or complaint. It’s a waste of hard drive space.”
There’s no way this is true, especially for an organization like the Wen Clan, but without a warrant, there’s no way to press further.
“Does anyone with the initials XY work here?” Wangji asks.
Wen Chao laughs. He stares at them for a moment, as though waiting for them to say something more. “Oh, you’re serious.” He laughs again, exchanging a glance with one of his men. “Well...who can keep track? Bartenders, waitstaff, kitchen staff, security…” he takes a long drag on his cigarette and blows the smoke directly at them. “We have a lot of turnover. It’s so hard to find reliable help these days. Wouldn’t you agree, Chengmei?” his voice twists the question into something dangerous.
Wangji glances behind them, where the bartender is still leaning against the door. “Sure,” Chengmei replies in a bored voice, not taking his eyes off of the knife he’s playing with. Wangji wonders if that’s how he lost his finger; somehow he doubts it.
“You must have a list of your most recent staff.”
“I’m sure we do,” Wen Chao drawls. “But we take employee privacy very seriously, especially in the current, shall we say, political situation? So unless you’ve got a warrant, I don’t think I can be of any help to you. Wen Zhuliu can show you out.” The bodyguard moves smoothly around the desk and starts advancing on them.
“Who has access to your letterhead?” Nie Mingjue asks suddenly.
“I’m sorry, my what?” Wen Chao asks, taking his feet down from the desk and sitting forward. The bodyguard pauses, glancing at him. “My letterhead?”
“Our missing person had a note from someone with the initials XY, on Nightless City letterhead. How many people would have access to that?”
Wen Chao scowls. “Any number of people.” He stands up, advancing on them slowly. “The janitorial staff. The delivery guy. Anyone who felt like walking in off the street and taking some off the coat check stand. Anyone with a fucking laser printer could have ‘access’ to my letterhead.” He comes to a stop directly in front of Nie Mingjue, peering up into his face with narrowed eyes. “I hope you're not insinuating that one of my employees had something to do with this man’s disappearance.”
To Wangji’s left, a man stands up from where he’s been perched on a stack of boxes. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the men who have been sitting on the couch get up as well. A few of them put their hands in their jackets or in their pockets.
Most people, even people with extensive firearms experience, are terrible shots. There’s a world of difference between firing off rounds down at the shooting range and trying to shoot with any kind of reliability in a real, stressful situation, when your heart rate is elevated and adrenaline is coursing through your body. Even for these men, career criminals who no doubt have some real-world experience, accuracy is going to be an issue in a high-stakes situation, especially with a smaller handgun of the type one might carry concealed on one’s person. Wangji knows this, just as he knows that at this range, with these numbers, none of that matters at all. He and Mingjue are fish in a barrel. A cold drip of alarm runs down his spine. He takes a step closer to Nie Mingjue, keeping his hands loose and open at his sides.
“We’re just trying to find our missing person,” Nie Mingjue says, and Lan Wangji can tell he’s experiencing the same adrenaline spike. His voice is low and gravelly. It’s the voice he uses when he’s about to lose it on someone; fear and anger have always looked the same on Nie Mingjue. He draws himself up to his full height and glares down at Wen Chao. “Are you sure you’ve never seen him?” He holds up the photo again. “He’s your cousins’ roommate. You don’t recognize him?”
“Ah yes. How is Wen Qing? Still a bitch?”
Nie Mingjue snarls. “Is that how you talk about your family?”
“Just the members of my family who are bitches,” Wen Chao sneers.
Wangji puts a hand on the back of Nie Mingjue’s arm. “We’ve taken up enough of your time,” he says firmly.
“More than enough,” Wen Chao says, but he takes a step back, and the tension in the room cools off slightly. He wags a finger at them. “You’re lucky I’m in such a good mood today,” he scolds. “I’d hate to have to contact your captain about how his detectives are bursting into random businesses, demanding to see lists of everyone who works there. The nightlife community would be very upset to hear about it.”
The bodyguard guy starts herding them toward the door, and to Wangji’s immense relief, the other men in the room part to let them pass. “Bye-bye, detectives,” Chengmei says with a deranged half-smile as he moves away from the door.
They walk back to Wangji’s car, not speaking. Nie Mingjue is breathing heavily with suppressed rage. Wangji starts to open the driver’s side door, but Nie Mingjue grabs it. “That was an unnecessary risk,” he says. “I shouldn’t have let you talk me into coming down here.”
Wangji swallows, adrenaline still pinballing through his veins. He nods, slowly.
“From now on,” Nie Mingjue growls, pointing a shaking finger in Wangji’s face, “we’re doing this differently. Or I’m not working this case with you.” He starts to back away. “I’m walking back to the station. I don’t want to fucking be around you right now.”
After lunch at the cafe, Wangji spends the rest of the afternoon with Nie Huaisang and Mianmain, wandering through art galleries and the park. Thanks to what is clearly a herculean effort on both of their parts, they manage to only tease him about Wei Ying a little more (“I have a friend who does custom calligraphy on the side, Wangji-ge. I’m sure he’d be happy to do the invitations when you marry the hot waiter”). He’s feeling pleasantly tired as he walks back up the hill toward his apartment, loose and relaxed from the sun. He doesn’t notice the sound of raised voices until he’s almost upon them.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The man’s voice is aggressive, even hostile. Wangji quickens his step; if there’s some kind of altercation happening outside of his apartment building, it behooves him to defuse the situation.
“Exercising my First Amendment Rights.” There’s no mistaking Wei Ying’s voice, which is an eerie, angry calm. Wangji’s heart sinks. He turns the corner and almost runs directly into Wei Ying, who is holding up a cellphone pointed at a red-faced uniformed police officer. They’re facing each other near the side exit from the building’s stairwell. Dave, the homeless man who often sleeps in the stairwell doorway, is hurriedly gathering up his few belongings from the sheltered area.
“What’s going on?” Wangji asks, not sure which one of them he’s talking to.
“Hello, Lan Wangji,” Wei Ying says, keeping his eyes and his phone pointed at the other cop. It’s a small thing, but it stings — Wei Ying has never called him Lan Wangji before.
The cop rolls an exasperated eye toward Wangji. “Keep moving, sir, this doesn’t concern you.” He turns back to Wei Ying. “Turn off the camera, buddy. It’s against the law for you to be recording me without my consent.”
“Actually, it’s not,” Wei Ying says with that same deliberate calm, raising one eyebrow.
“He is correct,” Wangji says. “State law says that it’s legal to record something happening in a public place, and that includes on-duty police officers.”
That gets Wei Ying’s attention; he spares Wangji a quick, surprised glance.
“What are you, a lawyer?” the cop snaps. His name tag reads PETTY.
“No.” He shows the man his badge. “Now tell me what’s going on, Officer Petty.”
Like magic, Petty’s whole demeanor changes. He rocks back on his heels, blinking, the belligerent thrust going out of his neck. “Well, Detective, this —” he gestures toward the doorway, but Dave is long gone at this point. Wangji hopes he’s doing all right; he’ll have to track him down and check on him. Petty clears his throat. “I was attempting to clear a trespasser from this property, when this guy just walks up with a cell phone and starts recording.”
Wangji turns to Wei Ying, who’s still recording away. There’s no trace of friendliness in his face, or even of recognition — he’s still and guarded, lines of tension drawing down the sides of his mouth. “Is that what happened?” Wangji asks, and winces inwardly at the sound of his voice, which is cold and officious, his Cop Voice.
“I was just observing,” Wei Ying says with a hot, humorless laugh. “Calling Dave a trespasser is a stretch, but yeah. I wasn’t interfering. I’m within my rights to record something happening in a public place.” His hand is trembling, just slightly, where it holds the phone.
“You are,” Wangji agrees, trying to put a world of reassurance into the words, trying to make them say trust me, but he can see in Wei Ying’s blank face that there’s no trust to be had. It’s as though all the conversations they’ve had in the last couple of months, all the late-night confessions and warm greetings over coffee, the large, formless thing that was coming into existence between them have all been wiped out. Wei Ying stares at him like he’s a stranger.
“It seems like no crime is being committed here,” Wangji says to Officer Petty. He turns his back, effectively dismissing the man. Petty splutters a bit, but stomps off.
Wangji watches Wei Ying watch Officer Petty walk away. Wei Ying slowly lets the hand holding the phone drop down to his side, and exhales a long, shuddering breath. His eyes are large and damp and far away.
Without thinking, Wangji reaches out to put a hand on his shoulder. Wei Ying flinches away from him, his face suddenly blazing with anger. He stares at Wangji for a long moment, his jaw working as though he’s chewing on all the words he’s forcing himself not to say. Then he turns on his heel and stalks back into the building, alone.
Thanks everyone who's been commenting and leaving kudos; each and every single one makes my entire day!
When I need a break from writing, I've been working on a silly, fun, fanvid, and it's finally done! Check it out!
Wangji and Wei Ying are correct that in Washington State, it's legal to record an on-duty police officer in public. For a more in-depth explainer on how to safely and ethically film police misconduct, check out this resource from Teen Vogue.
Coming next week in Chapter 5: Here comes the angst. A trip to the hospital. (Some other stuff too but chapter 5 is getting kind of long so it might end up being chapters 5 and 6.)
Chapter 5: Injuries
“So you try to fix it from the inside, I’ll try to burn it down from the outside, and whoever gets there first...buys lunch?”
“Deal,” Wangji says, gravely proffering a hand. Wei Ying sets his bottle down and takes it, and they shake on their new agreement to destroy society.
CW: This chapter depicts the aftermath of a non-POV character having been in a non-fatal traffic accident, and there is a discussion of someone having been injured as a small child.
OK. OK, everyone. Let's all take a deep breath and review the tags, shall we? The "Angst with a Happy Ending" tag is still in play. This story has a happy ending.
But first, here comes the angst.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
With the extra time it takes him to navigate through traffic and park, Wangji only beats Nie Mingjue back to the station by a few minutes. His partner seems to have cooled off a bit when he arrives, but he’s still tense and distant. “I told my friend in Major Crimes we’d go over there and talk to him when we got back from Nightless City,” Nie Mingjue says stiffly. Wangji follows him silently, deep in thought.
Everywhere they’ve looked so far has been a dead end. It’s Friday evening, Wei Ying has been missing since Monday, and they are no closer to finding him. Intellectually, Wangji knows the odds when it comes to Missing Persons cases, and they aren’t great, but he’d been so sure that he could find Wei Ying, help him, if he needed help — there must be something else. Something they’re missing.
Nie Mingjue’s friend Detective Hoffman is a tall, lean Black man with a close-cropped beard, maybe a few years older than Nie Mingjue; he’d worked a few cases with Nie Mingjue back in the day, before transferring to Major Crimes. He’s eating a burrito at his desk when they arrive, and smiles around a mouthful of beans when he sees them. “You actually went down there,” he says, standing and slapping Nie Mingjue’s hand. “Christ, Nie, you are the craziest son of a bitch I ever met.”
Nie Mingjue throws Wangji a significant glance under one forbidding eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything.
“OK,” Hoffman says. “I need to hear everything you said, everyone you met, everything they said, and you better hope you didn’t hear anything good, or I’m not gonna be able to keep my sargeant off your back.”
“We didn’t get everybody’s name,” Nie Mingjue says. “Although most of them weren’t doing a lot of talking.”
“Yeah, the Wens like to have a lot of guys in the room,” Hoffman says. “Power in numbers.” He leads them to a conference room. “I can show you some pictures.”
The conference room has clearly been set up as the command center for the Major Crimes investigation into the Wens’ organization. There are pictures taped up all over, surrounded by bits of paper listing names, aliases, known associates. Hoffman gestures around. “Welcome to the War Room,” he says. “Anyone asks, you were not in here, nobody’s supposed to be in here but the Wen task force, but I’m desperate. Point anybody out who you talked to.”
Nie Mingjue gestures to a photo. “We saw Chao Wen,” he says, switching to the English name order to reflect what’s printed underneath the photo.
“Ugh, that fucking guy,” Hoffman says. “The younger son, not exactly a criminal mastermind, just a dick with poor impulse control and a lot of firepower.”
“Yeah, I got that impression,” Nie Mingjue agrees.
“The older brother is also a dick with poor impulse control, for what it’s worth, but at least he’s like, competent,” Hoffman says. “I don’t suppose Chao sat you down and walked you through all the illegal shit he’s been up to lately?” Hoffman asks.
Nie Mingjue snorts. “Not exactly.”
Wangji indicates a photo of Wen Chao’s bodyguard. “This man.”
“That makes sense, if you saw Chao. That’s Zhuliu, he goes by Wen but he’s not actually related to them at all. Real last name is Zhao. Word is that Ruohan Wen did something for him or his family back in China a million years ago, and he’s been the Wens’ hired gun ever since. Mostly these days he’s Chao’s bodyguard, or more like his babysitter. Little brother there loves to start shit, and Zhuliu’s there to bail him out.”
They point out the other men who had been in the room — all low-to-mid-level functionaries in the organization, which tracks with their behavior at Nightless City. Nie Mingjue indicates a photo of Chengmei. “This guy.”
Hoffman gives a low whistle. “Fu-u-uck, that guy’s a nasty piece of work.”
“The bartender?” Nie Mingjue asks, surprised.
“I mean, that’s what it says on his tax return, but that’s Yang Chengmei Xue. He’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades for the Wens.”
The edges of Wangji’s vision go white.
Nie Mingjue shoots Wangji a look, and Wangji can tell their thoughts are running on similar tracks. “Xue Yang,” he says.
Xue Yang. XY. Wangji closes a hand around the top of a chair back.
“What’s his deal?” Nie Mingjue asks Hoffman.
“You name it, he’s done it, but he’s a wetwork specialist,” Hoffman says. “And I do mean specialist, the guy has…” he shudders. “Flair. Those are pictures we don’t keep up on the walls. He’s been a suspect or a person of interest in like a dozen murders, but the Wens always get him off on some technicality. I don’t know how much you talked to him, but dude is definitely not operating in consensus reality.”
Wangji thinks about Xue Yang’s cold smile, the total lack of empathy behind his eyes, the relish with which he toyed with his knife. He’s dead, Wangji thinks, a freezing wave of nausea overtaking him. Wei Ying is dead.
He stands very still, and he holds on to himself, and he waits for Nie Mingjue to finish telling Hoffman about their visit to Nightless City. He does not cry. He breathes. His heart continues beating.
Wei Ying shouting with laughter, Wei Ying raising an eloquent eyebrow, Wei Ying drowsy and pensive, Wei Ying incandescent with anger. Wei Ying in sunlight, in moonlight, in streetlight. Wei Ying’s nimble fingers and scuffed-up sneakers, Wei Ying’s long thighs and sparkling eyes. Wei Ying.
This is my friend Lan Zhan. He looks very serious, doesn’t he?
Nie Mingjue thanks Hoffman and Wangji silently follows him back down the hall, into the elevator, back to their desks. Nie Mingjue peers into Wangji’s face, his eyebrows drawn together in the black, vicious scowl he only wears when he’s very worried about someone. “OK,” he says brusquely. “OK, here’s where we’re at. We know Wei was mixed up with something with the Wens. We don’t know what, and we still don’t know that it’s related to his disappearance. We still have a missing person to find, so what do we do?”
“Work the case,” Wangji says through clenched teeth. He knows if he opens his jaw so much as a fraction, the emotion clogging his throat will come leaping out.
“We work the case,” Nie Mingjue says. “First things first: you’re gonna tell me, right now, that you’re not going back there tonight.”
Wangji nods. It’s Friday night, and the club will be packed; if Xue Yang actually does any work as a bartender, Wangji won’t be able to get near him anyway, and if he’s half as homicidal as Hoffman claimed, Wangji will need a different approach altogether. He needs to regroup.
“I need you to say it,” Nie Mingjue prompts.
“I’m not going back there tonight.”
Nie Mingjue exhales, a long sigh. “Good. I assume you’re wanting to keep working on this over the weekend?”
“All right. I’ll meet you here tomorrow morning and we’ll keep working. OK?”
“OK,” Wangji grits out.
“Try not to stay here all night.” Nie Mingjue picks up his motorcycle helmet and slings it over his shoulder. He pauses, as if he’s going to say something else, but doesn’t. He pats Wangji’s shoulder briefly as he leaves.
Wangji sits at his desk, his hands clenched into fists, and stares at nothing. All along, he’s been telling himself that there’s no way Wei Ying could have actually been involved with the Wens, that the clues leading to the nightclub were a coincidence, that XY would turn out to be some busboy or club kid or Wei Ying’s weed dealer or something. Even now, he can’t understand how Wei Ying, kind, righteous, outspoken Wei Ying, could have had anything to do with people who would do the kinds of things the Wen organization was notorious for, but that’s clearly the case.
It had been foolish to let his affection for Wei Ying cloud his judgement. Beyond that, it had been a disservice to Wei Ying, who — if he’s still alive, an increasingly big if — deserves everything Wangji has to bring to bear on the case.
There’s a rap of knuckles on his desk, causing him to look up sharply. Jiang Wanyin is standing there, a worried frown creasing his brow. “Didn’t mean to startle you,” he says. “Just wanted to check in before the weekend. Any news?”
Wangji settles his face into its usual neutral expression. “We’re doing everything we can,” he says, which is what you’re supposed to say to the family when you’re not making progress.
Jiang makes a face. “That’s what you’re supposed to say to the family when you’re not making progress,” he says. “I thought you were going to keep me in the loop on what you found?” He presses his lips together so hard they turn white.
Meeting his eyes is too difficult. Wangji fixes his gaze on Jiang’s chin. “It’s...not looking good,” he says quietly, his chest a hollow shell.
A cloud of pain and fear settles onto Wei Ying’s brother’s face. Jiang clenches his jaw, and the fear makes a lightning-fast shift to anger. “Are you giving up?” he demands, assuming an aggressive posture, like he’s already concluded that the answer will be yes.
Wangji feels an answering spark of anger deep within him. He grabs desperately for it, clings to it, feeds it, lets it pour through his veins. “No,” he says. “No, I’m not giving up.”
Jiang exhales through his nose, still looking furious. “Are you ready to let me help you on this?” he glowers.
Yao won’t be happy that he’s bringing Jiang in on the case, but screw Yao, screw departmental politics, screw Major Crimes and screw the Wens. If Wei Ying is alive, he’s going to find him. If Wei Ying is dead, he’s going to see justice done, even if he has to take down the entire Wen operation to do it. “Meet me here tomorrow morning,” Wangji says. “My partner and I will get you up to speed.”
He’s not sure if he should go up to the roof or not; after the altercation with Officer Petty, Wei Ying might need some space. Wangji can’t stop picturing the way Wei Ying glared at him, the way he’d walked away, like Wangji was a stranger.
He gets up and walks to the door and turns around and sits back down half a dozen times. Fortunately, Xichen is out with Meng Yao and isn’t there to see Wangji dithering back and forth. Finally, Wangji decides that the thought of Wei Ying sitting on the roof alone, thinking Wangji didn’t want to see him, is worse than the thought that Wei Ying might still be angry with him.
Wei Ying is stretched out on the roof, his positively ancient Converse sneakers kicked out in front of him, drinking. Usually he has an attitude of louche enjoyment when he’s reclining like this, but tonight one foot is tapping restlessly and his shoulders are one unbroken line of tension.
Wangji settles down next to him, feeling the difference between his own upright posture and Wei Ying’s expansive sprawl more than ever.
“Hey,” Wei Ying says, not looking at him.
They sit there together, the strain between them pulling tighter and tighter. Wangji doesn’t know what to say.
“Dave wasn’t doing anything,” Wei Ying says suddenly.
Wangji nods. “I know.”
“It’s bullshit to just...move somebody along like that. He wasn’t hurting anybody, where’s he supposed to go?”
“He went down to the park,” Wangji says. “I spoke with him, after...after I saw you.”
Wei Ying turns his head to look at him. “You did?”
“What did you say to him?”
Wei Ying’s shoulders relent, just a fraction. His eyes soften, looking at Wangj, but then his gaze turns inward, bitter. He looks away again. “It’s such a terrible law. Nobody knows what it means, there’s no consistency, it’s just like...an excuse to clear people out whenever somebody feels like it.”
“And yet you enforce it,” Wei Ying says with a sour chuckle.
Wangji lifts one shoulder in an uncomfortable shrug. “These things tend to lend themselves to...selective enforcement, as you say. One option with such things is to simply not enforce them.”
“So what, you just ignore the law?”
“If it is an unjust law.”
“That must make you real popular down at the station,” Wei Ying says drily.
“Popularity has never really been my concern,” Wangji replies drily.
Wei Ying chuckles again, and it’s not a real laugh yet, but it’s closer. He looks back at Wangji, and there is something raw and unsettled in his eyes that steals Wangji’s breath. They gaze at each other for a long moment, and Wangji can feel the unspoken thing between them that he’d thought might be ruined, stirring back to life.
As usual, Wei Ying is the first to break eye contact. He shakes his head, swigging almost absently on the bottle in his hand. “Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan,” he says. “Why do you have to be a cop, Lan Zhan? Why couldn’t you be...”
“...A concert violinist?” Wangji asks quietly, completing the question he’s been asked too many times to count.
Wei Ying must hear something in his voice — his eyes dart up to Wangji’s face, taking him in with a measuring look. “For example,” he says carefully.
This is a question Wangji has put a lot of thought into, a question he’s been asked too often, by too many people, not to have thought about. It’s a conversation he’s known they were going to have, known they would have to have sooner or later, if they were going to be...anything, even friends. It’s a question with many answers, many layers of answers. He speaks slowly, trying to choose his words with care.
“My parents split up when I was very young,” he says. “My father was awarded full custody of my brother and me. I didn’t understand it at the time. Who would separate children from their mother? But when we did see her, there was always a sense that we were...being allowed to see her. That that permission might be withdrawn at any time. And then, only a few years later…” he swallows, surprised as always at the freshness of old grief. “She died.”
Beside him, Wei Ying’s breath catches. He knows Wei Ying is watching him, but he can’t look back. He watches an ant crawling along the concrete instead.
“As I got older, the situation became clearer to me. I don’t...I don’t know if you know about my family. About the Lans,” he clarifies, not sure if he’s embarrassed for thinking Wei Ying would have heard about the Lan business empire, or for thinking he wouldn’t have.
“I...do,” Wei Ying admits. “I wasn’t sure if you were those Lans.”
“My family — my father’s family — disapproved of my mother, and always had. They had a full legal team on retainer. My mother had a...complicated past. There was never any question of her getting custody of us. She could barely afford legal counsel. Against an army of lawyers, what chance did she have?”
Wei Ying’s voice is dry and brittle. “No chance at all.”
“It was...unfair. Unjust.”
“Yes,” Wei Ying says, so softly Wangji can hardly hear it.
“I believe in justice,” Wangji says. “I believe that the law has the power to help people. That’s what the law should do. That’s what I want to do.”
“If that’s how you feel, why not become a lawyer?”
“I thought about it,” Wangji confesses. “When I was in college, when I started to realize that I didn’t want to pursue music professionally, I considered going to law school. But…” he waves a hand, reaching fruitlessly for the words to express how he’d felt at that time — his anger at his father for ignoring him for fifteen years and then dying, his creeping fear that he’d end up Lan Industries’ corporate counsel despite his good intentions, his burning need to do something, anything, now. “...I felt I could do more good upholding the law.”
Wei Ying pushes himself up onto his elbows. “But you said it yourself, some laws are unjust. The whole system is unjust.” There’s a damp bite to the air tonight, and he shivers a little.
“All the more reason for people who believe in justice to participate in the system, to change it from within.”
“See, that’s where I disagree with you.” Wei Ying sits up, draping a bony elbow across one knee. “If you participate in the system, you’re complicit in its wrongdoing. Even if you don’t commit the wrongdoing yourself, you tacitly condone it.” His words have a practiced air; Wangji gets the impression he’s had this discussion before.
“I don’t see a way to address that wrongdoing, except from within.”
“...Burn it all down?” Wei Ying suggests, sliding him a sidelong grin.
Wangji shakes his head at his friend. “Shameless.”
“It’s all too fucked up to fix, Lan Zhan. We should just scrap it and start fresh.”
“Do you have a practical suggestion for doing so?” Wangji says, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
Wei Ying laughs, a real laugh, tinged with sadness. “I’m still working on that one. I’ll let you know.”
Wangji risks looking directly at him. Wei Ying is regarding him with a sort of melancholy fondness; his mouth is soft and affectionate. Wangji thinks about kissing him. It’s not the moment, obviously, but he thinks about it.
“I know that we may never agree on this,” Wangji says into the dark wells of Wei Ying’s eyes. “But — I — I hope that you can understand. I don’t do this for love of power or authority. I do it because I want to help people. To pursue justice, at all costs.”
Wei Ying sighs. “I know,” he says. He takes a long pull on his whiskey. “That’s what I want, too.”
“So you try to fix it from the inside, I’ll try to burn it down from the outside, and whoever gets there first...buys lunch?”
“Deal,” Wangji says, gravely proffering a hand. Wei Ying sets his bottle down and takes it, and they shake on their new agreement to destroy society.
Wei Ying’s hand is smooth and cool. His thumb moves, just a fraction of an inch, against the skin of Wangji’s wrist, and Wangji can feel that touch thrum through his entire body. They’re still shaking hands. Have they been shaking hands for too long? Wangji is caught in Wei Ying’s eyes. His heart shivers.
Wei Ying’s eyes widen; he looks down at their hands, draws a breath. “Wow,” he says. “Your hands are huge.” Wangji doesn’t know if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing, or what. Wei Ying pulls his hand away and reaches for the whiskey bottle. “It was nice to meet your friends today, by the way!” he exclaims, his voice suddenly bright and chipper.
“Mn,” Wangji says, feeling a mild whiplash from Wei Ying’s sudden topic change.
“Your friend Mianmian is very pretty,” Wei Ying says with a puckish grin. “Is she your girlfriend?”
Wangji straightens his back. “She’s married.” And completely beside the point, since Wangji has never been anything but extremely, all-encompassingly gay.
Wei Ying makes a sympathetic face. “Oh, poor Lan Zhan. Well, don’t worry, there are plenty of pretty girls out there for you,” and either he’s being deliberately obtuse or he’s the most oblivious man alive, because all Wangji can think about is what the skin on his neck might taste like, whether his long eyelashes might drift closed with pleasure if Wangji were to bite him there, but Wangji also knows a shutdown when he hears one.
At least they’re still friends.
After Jiang Wanyin leaves, Wangji carefully signs out Wei Ying’s phone records and notebooks from Evidence and brings them home with him. He finds that he often does his best thinking from his home office, without the sights and sounds of the busy police station to distract him, and he doesn’t plan on getting much sleep tonight.
Xichen is sitting at their dining room table, laptop open, grading a stack of quizzes, when Wangji arrives home with the box of evidence in his arms. “Working late tonight?” he asks, glancing up over the top of his reading glasses.
“Mn.” Wangji deposits the box in his office, then reemerges. He needs a snack, and to sit quietly for a few minutes, before diving back into the case.
“Still that same case? Your friend from the roof?”
“Yes.” He debates telling Xichen about their excursion to Nightless City, but decides it would worry him too much. Nie Mingjue is unlikely to mention it; Wangji knows he tends to downplay the more dangerous aspects of their work when talking to Xichen. He suspects it’s a common trait in people in their line of work. “How was your day?” he asks instead.
“Pretty good. I actually had some students come to my office hours today, I think they’re getting nervous for the midterm.”
Wangji wanders into the kitchen, selects an apple from the bowl. “It’s good that they are preparing now.”
“Of course, the students who actually come to office hours are never the ones who need to be worried about their midterm grades,” Xichen says. “I ended up emailing that guy Tyler about his quiz grades this morning, actually, it’s getting to the point where if he flunks a few more he’ll fail the quiz portion of the class, and that’s 15% of his grade.”
“Did he respond?” Wangji asks, sitting down at the table.
Xichen smiles, gentle and a little rueful. “Not yet. But hope springs eternal.”
Wangji munches his apple, staring into space, not really thinking anything, just letting his mind rest. Xichen makes his way through another quiz.
“Meng Yao mentioned that you met him for lunch today,” Xichen says presently, in a manner that is perhaps overly casual.
That was today, Wangji thinks dully. A lot happened today. “Yes.”
“It means a lot to me that you’re taking the time to get to know him,” Xichen says.
Apparently Meng Yao hadn’t elaborated on the topic of his and Wangji’s lunchtime conversation. Interesting. Wangji hums noncommittally.
Xichen takes off his glasses and regards him frankly. “I know you’ve never really warmed to Meng Yao.”
Caught off guard, Wangji fumbles for a response that is neither a lie nor something that will hurt Xichen’s feelings. “I’m...not warm.”
“And I’m not stupid,” Xichen counters, exasperated.
Words cannot express how little Wangji wants to have this conversation right now. But he loves his brother. “I didn’t say you were.”
“Neither is Meng Yao. Did you know he was worried he’d done something to offend you, when he first met you?”
Wangji shakes his head. Meng Yao has never offended him. It would be easier if he had.
“I told him not to take it personally,” Xichen says, a smile flickering to his face. “I told him you just never think anyone is good enough for me.”
“No one is,” Wangji points out. This is objectively, empirically true. Xichen is kind, intelligent, thoughtful, generous, and well-mannered, not to mention wealthy and handsome, as the matchmaker Uncle Qiren had brought to the house once (and only once — it was the first time Wangji had ever seen Xichen stand up to Lan Qiren, and after Xichen threw the politest tantrum in the history of the world, no more was said about it) had been quick to point out. No one could even come close to deserving him. Even Nie Mingjue doesn’t deserve Xichen in the slightest, a fact which Wangji has magnanimously chosen to overlook because he loves Nie Mingjue, and because Nie Mingjue would be the first person to agree with him on that count.
Xichen laughs. “Well, it’s kind of you to say so, but I’d rather not never get laid again just because you have impossibly high standards.”
“Xichen,” Wangji reproaches him, flushing. It’s not like he thinks Xichen is celibate, but he’d thought they had an understanding never to discuss their sex lives.
“We are roommates, Wangji,” Xichen says, rolling his eyes. “I am thirty-two years old and I do occasionally have sex. I know you have delicate sensibilities, but give me a break.”
I’ll show you delicate sensibilities, Wangji thinks mutinously. Just for that, he’s going to find Wei Ying, drag him back here, and have sex with him on every surface in the apartment. That might cause Xichen to rethink his new “talk to my brother about my sex life” policy.
The thought of Wei Ying pulls him up short, the fear and sadness creeping back in around the edges. “I need to get back to work,” he says, pushing back from the table.
“I’m just — I’m trying to say,” Xichen says, “I know Meng Yao kind of rubs you the wrong way. I don’t know why, but I can see that he does.”
I don’t know why, either, Wangji thinks miserably. I just don’t trust him. He stands there, awkwardly holding his apple core, waiting for Xichen to finish speaking.
“But I hope that that can change,” Xichen continues. “He’s a good person, and you two actually have a lot in common. I think you’ll like him, once you get to know him better.”
“I’m trying,” Wangji says, and resolves to try harder.
“I know you are, and I appreciate it. Meng Yao…” Xichen gives a lovestruck little sigh. “He makes me really happy, Wangji. Happier than I’ve been in a long time.”
Wangji will never understand how it can be that Xichen, who was raised in the same house that Wangji was, by the same stuffy old man, can be so much more comfortable talking about his feelings. His brother just says how he feels, like it’s easy, like it costs him nothing. Maybe it’s because he got more time with their mother, before she died. “You deserve to be happy.”
Xichen smiles again. “So do you, little brother.”
Wangji deposits the apple core in the compost bin, hoping that they can be done talking about emotions for a little while, before he bursts into tears and tells his brother that he was almost murdered by mobsters today because he’s so freaked out that the man he loves might be dead that he can’t even think clearly. “I’ll be in the office,” he says.
“I can take the lead on making dinner, if you’d like,” Xichen replies, picking up another quiz paper.
In his office, Wangji pulls out a notebook and tries to organize his thoughts. He’s always thought better when writing with ink on paper, instead of typing; it’s apparently something he and Wei Ying have in common, based on the stack of notebooks he still has to go through.
Basic timeline leading up to Wei Ying’s disappearance, he writes.
- Xue Yang reached out to Wei Ying 3 weeks ago, after meeting him at a party(?)
- Follow up with Xiao Xingchen — Jiang Wanyin may have his contact information, and if not, Wen Qing probably does.
- He offered Wei Ying work on a “project.”
- What project? Likely something to do with computers; Wangji doubts this all started because Nightless City needed a new waiter, and Wei Ying is (is, he thinks fiercely), by all accounts, something of a computer genius.
- Shortly after the initial conversation, Xue Yang left something for Wei Ying — based on his reference to an “incentive program,” it was probably money.
- Wei Ying declared himself to be “not interested” and offered to return whatever Xue Yang had left for him.
- Wei Ying is frequently on the lookout for side projects to make some extra cash — the project must have been pretty distasteful, for him to turn down paying work.
- Alternatively, he’d learned that Xue Yang was affiliated with the Wens and had refused on principle.
- Why would the Wens need to enlist the services of a computer whiz in the first place?
- Two weeks went by, during which time Wei Ying repeatedly ducked Xue Yang’s calls.
- Wangji had seen him a couple of times during this period, and he hadn’t done or said anything out of the ordinary.
- The night before Wei Ying disappeared, he had gone up to the roof and gotten stinking, fall-down drunk, which was unlike him — Wei Ying is often tipsy, but rarely outright drunk.
- He seemed distressed, but Wangji hadn’t been able to suss out the cause; it was likely related to the situation with Xue Yang and the Wens, though.
- The day Wei Ying disappeared, Xue Yang left something else for him.
- Likely the source of the Nightless City envelope in Wei Ying’s locker. Forensics hadn’t found any fingerprints or anything of note on it, but that didn’t mean the original contents weren’t important.
- Probably not money, if Wei Ying had already turned down the initial sum.
- Whatever it was, it had gotten Wei Ying’s attention — he called Xue Yang back immediately.
That means that most likely, either:
- Whatever Xue Yang left for him changed Wei Ying’s mind, and he’s currently holed up somewhere working on the Wens’ “project;”
- Whatever Xue Yang left for him scared Wei Ying badly enough that he’d left town or gone into hiding;
- The Wens had abducted or blackmailed Wei Ying, and he’s currently imprisoned somewhere working on the “project;”
- The Wens had Wei Ying killed, and his body is at the bottom of the Sound.
Wangji rubs his eyes. If it’s the last possibility, there is nothing he can do about it. For his own sanity, and to give himself the best shot at finding Wei Ying if he is still alive, he needs to focus on the first 3 possible scenarios. Items 1 and 3 are functionally the same, for his purposes. That leaves the following avenues of pursuit:
- What sort of computer project might the Wens need help with, and where might the Wens hide someone who was working on it?
- Where might Wei Ying hide, to lie low until the Wens lost interest?
Unfortunately, the answer in both cases is too many places, too many unknowns. The Wens control a number of properties and small businesses around town, and could plausibly hide or imprison someone at any one of them; Wei Ying is wily and secretive, and could have gone to ground pretty much anywhere. He needs more information. Wangji sighs and picks up the stack of phone records. It’s going to be a long night.
He walks out onto the roof and Wei Ying is standing there, right at the edge of the roof, holding his flute, his skin lit orange by the rising sun.
Wei Ying? Wangji asks, taking a step forward.
Wei Ying turns toward the sound of his voice. He sees Wangji and starts to laugh, high and strange, and then something changes in the light and Wangji realizes that he’s crying. There’s blood on his face, running down from his mouth.
Wei Ying, Wangji says again in as commanding a voice as he knows how, terror spiraling through him. Wei Ying, come back. He stretches out his hand, beckoning.
Wei Ying sobs, laughs, sobs again. He looks at Wangji and shakes his head; his soft, bloody lips press together in a smile. He closes his eyes and tips backward, off of the edge of the roof.
Wangji starts to run, his hand still outstretched, and there’s no way he can get there in time, but he does anyway, he’s thrown himself across the roof in one fleet, sudden bound. He catches Wei Ying’s hand just as Wei Ying goes over the edge.
They’re staring at each other, Wei Ying’s hand gripped tightly in his, and Wangji isn’t strong enough to pull him up. Wei Ying is whispering something, but Wangji can’t make out what it is; there’s a roaring in his ears that drowns out all other sound. He tries again to haul Wei Ying back up onto the roof, but their hands are slippery with something. Wangji notes with detached amazement that he’s bleeding. Even though he doesn’t feel any pain, blood is running down his arm from somewhere, coating his fingers where they clutch desperately at Wei Ying’s. Their hands slip another inch, slick with blood. Wei Ying is going to fall. Wangji isn’t strong enough, not strong enough to hold him, not strong enough to pull him up…
Lan Zhan, Wei Ying is whispering. Lan Zhan, let me go.
Wangji bolts upright in his desk chair, gasping, his heart pounding. He doesn’t understand where he is for a minute — he’s not in his bedroom. It takes his brain an extra few seconds to understand what’s happening, that he’s fallen asleep at his desk, his cheek pillowed on Wei Ying’s case file. His back and neck are stiff and sore. Xichen is standing over him in a t-shirt and sleep pants, his hair standing on end, looking tense.
“What time is it?” Wangji asks.
“Just before midnight,” Xichen says quietly. “Wangji, we have to go to the hospital. Nie Mingjue’s been in an accident on his bike. He’s OK,” he adds quickly, seeing the horror in Wangji’s face, “but Huaisang’s down there by himself — “
Wangji grabs his phone, which he’d silenced as he usually does when he’s working. He has 7 missed calls from Nie Huaisang, and a slew of text messages, the most recent of which just says answer your fucking phone. Alarm has driven the last vestiges of sleep from his mind. “Get dressed,” he says. “I can drive.”
When they arrive at the hospital waiting area, Nie Huaisang is slumped in a chair, staring at the wall-mounted TV. He’s wearing skinny jeans and a brightly-patterned shirt, his hair styled up in an elaborate swoosh. The relief in his face when he sees them is palpable. He jumps to his feet and punches Wangji in the arm. “Why the fuck don’t you answer your phone?”
“I was asleep,” Wangji protests, rubbing his arm.
Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes. “Oh, of course, you’re a healthy, single, 28-year-old man, why wouldn’t you be asleep at 11:30 on a Friday night?”
“How is he? How are you?” Xichen asks, pulling Nie Huaisang into a one-armed hug.
Nie Huaisang sighs, sagging a little against Xichen. “He’s okay. No internal injuries, which they were worried about at first, just a bunch of scrapes, couple bruised ribs. You should see his helmet,” he says, his voice wobbling a little. “It cracked all the way through, but it did its job, although they still want to keep him overnight for observation. He’ll need surgery for the broken collarbone, that’s scheduled for tomorrow morning. He’s all looped up on pain meds, which is pretty hilarious.”
Xichen sucks in a breath through his teeth. “Broken collarbone, those take a long time to heal.”
“Yeah.” Nie Huaisang breathes out a shaky laugh. “He’s gonna be pissed when he sobers up. They’re doing...” he waves a hand toward what Wangji gathers is Nie Mingjue’s hospital room. “...Nurse things, in there, so I came out here, give him some privacy.”
“And you?” prompts Xichen. “Are you OK? I’m sorry we didn’t get down here sooner.”
“Oh that’s OK, I should have remembered that Wangji is 87 years old and called you first,” Nie Huaisang says, elbowing Wangji in the side. Wangji allows this, as Nie Huaisang is in the middle of a family emergency. “I’m fine,” Nie Huaisang continues. “Pretty sure my date thought the whole ‘my brother was in a motorcycle accident’ thing was an excuse to duck out on her, but what are you gonna do?”
“You were on a date?” asks Xichen, because he is also 87 years old, and a gossipy old auntie to boot. “With whom?”
“Bethany from Tinder, not that it matters now.”
Wangji clears his throat. “Do you know what happened?”
Nie Huaisang grimaces. “Hit and run. They think probably a drunk driver who fled the scene. Fortunately not everybody sucks, a couple of people called an ambulance and stayed with him ‘til it came.”
“Do you know who the responding officer was?”
“Uh…” Nie Huaisang blinks and shakes his head. “Spencer, I think. I hadn’t met her before. She’s around here somewhere, waiting to take Mingjue’s statement.”
The nurse slips out of Nie Mingjue’s room. “You can go back in there, if you want,” she says quietly to Nie Huaisang. “He’s awake.”
Xichen and Wangji exchange a look. “I should find Spencer,” Wangji says. “You should go let Mingjue know we’re here.”
“You should,” Nie Huaisang agrees, a little too quickly, giving Wangji a meaningful glance over Xichen’s shoulder. “I’m going to go find a snack machine to raid. I want to see if Mingjue’s stoned enough to put Bugles on all his fingers like claws.”
Wangji locates Officer Spencer by the coffee machine, shaking powdered creamer into a styrofoam cup of burned-smelling brew. “Oh, hey, Detective Lan,” she says, giving him a tired smile. “That’s nice of you, to come down and see your partner in the hospital.”
“What can you tell me?” he asks.
She sips her coffee and grimaces. “I don’t know what I expected, hospital coffee. Um…” she pulls out her notepad. “Hit and run, incident occurred at around 10:50 pm at the corner of Boylston and Thomas. Multiple witnesses saw a large black sedan turn the wrong way at the roundabout, striking Detective Nie’s motorcycle at speed. Detective Nie was thrown 15 feet and landed on his left side. Witnesses called 911. The sedan sped off into the neighborhood. Nobody got a plate,” she says apologetically, “but witnesses say the car was pretty banged up, and fluids found at the scene suggest some damage to the engine block. We’ve got a call in to local mechanics, we’ll see if anything turns up. Fucking drunk drivers,” she says.
Capitol Hill on a Friday night — drunk driving is a reasonable hypothesis. Wangji’s not convinced.
“I’m glad he’s OK.” Spencer has a look like she might try to pat Wangji’s shoulder; he tries to unobtrusively move out of patting range. “You know we’ll do everything we can to find this guy. We take care of our own.”
Wangji does not say you should be doing everything you can regardless of who the victim is, because Officer Spencer is trying to be nice. He asks her a few more questions, then heads back to check on his partner.
Nie Huaisang is sitting in the same seat he’d been sitting in when Wangji and Xichen had arrived, scrolling through his phone and eating chips. “Since I know I’m definitely not gonna score tonight, it seemed like a good time to really fuck up my breath with some Cool Ranch Doritos,” he says. In a much lower voice, he adds, “Xichen is still in there.”
“Should I wait?” Wangji asks. “I do need to talk to Mingjue.”
“No, you should go in, I know it’s past your bedtime,” Nie Huaisang says with a tolerant smile. “Just...let me know if you spot any...vibes.”
Wangji stares at him, stone-faced.
“Constant vigilance, Wangji-ge.” Nie Huaisang brandishes a Cool Ranch-covered finger in Wangji’s face. “Now go.”
Nie Mingjue looks like hell, but better than Wangji had feared. He’s a little pale, visibly scraped and bruised, his left arm in an immobilizing sling, but otherwise he looks fairly normal. Normal, that is, except for the almost cartoonishly giddy expression on his face as he gazes at Xichen, who is sitting in a chair next to Nie Mingjue’s hospital bed. Xichen looks amused, indulgent, and a little flustered.
“Hey!” Nie Mingjue exclaims. “Hey look, it’s Lan Wangji,” he says to Xichen. Wangji notices with a hidden surge of glee that Nie Mingjue is holding Xichen’s hand in his working hand.
“Yes. Hello, Wangji,” Xichen says, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“I love this fucking guy,” Nie Mingjue slurs. “I was just saying to A-Huan how, it’s so nice that you guys came down to see me. You guys are like…” To Wangji’s mounting horror, Nie Mingjue’s eyes well up with tears. “You guys are like, my fucking family.”
“Oh, don’t cry, da-ge,” Xichen says, peering into Nie Mingjue’s face with a look of concern. “We’re happy to be here.”
“But I’m not,” Nie Mingjue protests, grabbing at Xichen’s hand again. “I’m not your brother, not really. We’re not related.”
“Yes, I know,” Xichen says patiently.
Realizing that Nie Mingjue is about three seconds away from seriously embarrassing himself, Wangji decides to take charge of the situation. “Would it be all right if I spoke with Nie Mingjue privately?” he asks.
“Of course.” Xichen gently extracts his hand from Nie Mingjue’s grasp. “Get some rest, da-ge,” he says. “I’ll see you after your surgery in the morning.”
Nie Mingjue watches Xichen go, that besotted smile still looking incongruous on his chiseled, mustached face. He opens his mouth to say something, and Wangji is quite sure he does not want to hear whatever thoughts Nie Mingjue might be having about his brother right now.
“So,” he says preemptively, laying on the Cop Voice a little thicker than usual.
Nie Mingjue blinks and looks at him, seeming to come back to himself a little bit. “So,” he replies.
“Hit and run?”
“Looks that way,” Nie Mingjue says blearily. His hair is plastered down over his forehead, from some combination of helmet and sweat and hospital.
Wangji keeps his voice carefully neutral, professional, just-the-facts. “Officers on the scene think it was a drunk driver.”
Nie Mingjue shrugs, then winces, grabbing his left shoulder. “Could be.” He fixes Wangji with the sort of overly-serious look people give you when they’re trying to seem less intoxicated than they are. “Be a helluva coincidence, though.”
“Mn.” Wanji nods. He’s been thinking much the same thing. “You think someone was trying to take you out?”
“Or send a message,” Nie Mingjue agrees. He shifts restlessly in the bed, grimacing. “In which case, message fucking received.”
“Seems likely. Good job, too, I’m not going anywhere for awhile.” He sighs. “Sorry, kiddo.”
Wangji thinks about the way Wen Chao had gotten in Nie Mingjue’s face, the way the tension in the room had narrowed to a knife-sharp edge when Nie Mingjue asked about the letterhead. “I owe you an apology,” he says.
Nie Mingjue snorts. “No, you fucking don’t.”
“It was my idea to —”
“Oh my Godddddd,” Nie Mingjue groans, “you fucking Lans and your fucking blame fetish, you and Xichen our whole lives just constantly competing for whose fault it can be the most.” He gives Wangji his sternest eyebrow. “I’m a grown-up and a cop and I’m older’n’you, I make my own choices, you didn’t make me do shit.”
“Even so,” Wangji says. “We would not have been there today if it weren’t for me.”
Closing his eyes, Nie Mingjue lets his head fall back against the pillow. “I will kick your entire ass, Lan Wangji.”
“You should get some sleep. We can discuss this more tomorrow.”
“Wait,” Nie Mingjue rasps. He swallows hard. “Baxia?”
“Your bike was damaged, but not totaled,” Wangji tells him with a small smile. “Huaisang made sure they towed it to your regular garage.”
“Thanks.” His partner’s speech is getting increasingly slurred; he’s half-asleep already. “Watch out for yourself, OK? You and your brother.” He chuckles softly to himself. “Hell, if you have time, watch out for my brother, too.”
Wangji pauses at his mailbox on his way out of the building, but it’s all junk today. He tosses the whole stack in the paper-recycling bin Xichen has helpfully suggested the property manager provide, and rubs the sweat from the back of his neck — it’s already in the 80s today, and their building, for all its charms, isn’t air-conditioned.
“Lan Zhan!” he hears behind him, and turns around just in time for Wei Ying to completely murder him on the spot.
He’s wearing a faded gray t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, baring his smooth, tanned arms to the shoulder; his black running shorts skim the strong muscles of his thighs. He has a red bandanna tied around the top of his head, his hair in a low, damp ponytail beneath it, and a tote bag slung over one shoulder. “I thought that was you,” he says cheerfully, bouncing up to Wangji, catlike eyes sparkling. His upper lip glistens with sweat.
The part of Wangji that is still functioning, the part of his brain that’s not sweeping Wei Ying up in his arms, wrapping those long legs around him, pinning those lithe wrists against the bank of mailboxes, licking the sweat from Wei Ying’s collarbones, manages to say “Hello.”
Wei Ying seems preoccupied. He’s staring thoughtfully at a point somewhere at Wangji’s collar. Wangji glances down at himself, but he doesn’t see anything unusual; he’s wearing a pale blue linen shirt, an extra button worn open in concession to the heat, but he hasn’t dropped food on himself or anything. When he looks back up at Wei Ying, the preoccupied look has vanished.
“Happy Sunday!” Wei Ying says, blinking. “I was about to walk down to the park, wanna come?”
Wangji does want to come. He supposes they could also go to the park.
“It’s my first day off in like 10 days, and my apartment is like a million degrees, so I thought I’d try to grab a shady spot somewhere,” Wei Ying says as they walk. “What have you been up to today?”
Wangji talks to him a bit about the book he’s been reading, the no-bake tofu cheesecake recipe that he and Xichen are working on. Wei Ying talks about his roommates, and how he’d narrowly escaped being dragged along to hike Little Si that morning. It’s nice. Companionable. He’s been worried, even after their last conversation on the roof; a part of him has been waiting for Wei Ying to decide that he can’t overlook Wangji’s profession after all, but Wei Ying chatters away, like nothing has changed. It hurts his heart a little, Wei Ying’s capacity for forgiveness.
The park is crowded with people playing frisbee and hacky-sack and sunning themselves, but they manage to find a shady spot away from the main open area. Wei Ying produces a blanket from his tote bag and spreads it out, flopping down with a satisfied sigh. Wangji sits gingerly down next to him, keeping his eyes carefully away from where Wei Ying’s t-shirt has ridden up to expose an inch of his stomach, scrupulously avoiding looking at the line of hair that disappears into the waistband of Wei Ying’s shorts.
“There’s iced tea in my bag, if you want some,” Wei Ying says. “The orange Nalgene is the tea, the blue one is sangria.”
“Open containers of alcohol are not allowed in Seattle parks,” Wangji reminds him, but he digs out the orange bottle and takes a swig. The tea is cold and refreshing, if sweeter than he likes it.
“Well it’s not open, it’s in a Nalgene, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says airily. “Anyway —” Wei Ying gasps suddenly, and sits up in one startled, fluid movement, looking around them with frightened eyes.
Wangji looks around as well, but doesn’t see anything of note, just other park-goers enjoying the sunshine. “What?”
“Nothing,” Wei Ying says. “I...thought I heard something.” He smiles, and relaxes a bit, but doesn’t lie back down. A part of him still seems alert, watchful. “What were we talking about?”
“You were about to be incorrect about the definition of ‘open container,’” Wangji says.
Wei Ying opens his mouth to retort, but before he can, a frisbee sails in to land on their blanket. Reflexively, they both look up in the direction it came from. A small dog, some kind of terrier, is running joyfully toward them, barking, its owner jogging a few steps behind.
Beside him, Wei Ying makes a sound that’s somewhere between a shriek and a yelp and leaps to his feet. He backs away and hits the tree behind them with an audible thunk. Wangji rises to his feet as well.
The dog reaches the blanket and snatches up the frisbee in its little brown-and-white muzzle, frolicking and jumping up at Wangji’s feet. Wei Ying moans behind him. “No, no no no,” he’s whimpering.
Feeling a little ridiculous, Wangji interposes his body between Wei Ying and the little dog. “No,” he tells it sternly. “Go away.”
“Sorry!” the dog’s owner, a sunburned blond guy maybe a few years their junior, says breathlessly as he catches up. “Sorry, he got away from me! He’s friendly, don’t worry,” he says.
Wei Ying has clenched his fists in the back of Wangji’s shirt; Wangji can hear him breathing, fast and uneven and panicky. Wangji looks at the dog’s owner, who is petting the dog and attempting to take the frisbee back and making no visible effort to move it away from them, and feels a spike of indignation on Wei Ying’s behalf.
“All animals are required to be on a leash within the City of Seattle, unless in a designated off-leash area, which this is not,” he snaps at the guy. “Violation of leash ordinances is punishable by up to a $150 fine.”
“Jesus, chill out, man,” the dog’s owner says. He glares at them, but, mercifully, collects his dog and walks away.
Wangji wants to turn around and check on his friend, but Wei Ying is still clinging to the back of his shirt, holding Wangji in front of him like a shield. “Do you want me to cite him?” Wangji asks over his shoulder.
“What?” Wei Ying asks. “Oh.” He hastily loosens his grip on Wangji’s shirt. “Sorry.”
Turning to face him, Wangji can see that Wei Ying is pale and shaky, leaning against the trunk of the tree. “Are you all right?” he asks.
Wei Ying laughs, weakly. “Yeah! Yeah, sorry, I’m just...I just don’t like dogs. Sorry, I know I’m being ridiculous, I just…” he swallows hard, staring over Wangji’s shoulder in the direction the guy with the dog had gone, as though worried the dog might suddenly reappear.
“Sit down,” Wangji urges him.
“This is so embarrassing, that dog was like 20 pounds,” Wei Ying laughs, avoiding Wangji’s eyes as he settles back down onto the blanket.
Wangji sits down next to him, crossing his legs. “Dogs can be...alarming.”
Wei Ying bites his lip, which Wangji would find unbearably cute if he wasn’t so worried about him. “When I was a kid…” he says haltingly. “I, uh, lived with this foster family for a while, and they had these big dogs. Big, I don’t even know what kind. Way bigger than me, I was a pretty small kid.” He shakes his head ruefully. “I was terrified of them, but everybody just kept telling me to toughen up, they were just dogs. One night I was taking the garbage out, and — I don’t know, I think there had been like a coyote in the neighborhood or something, but the dogs were freaking out, and when I went out there, they just…” he waves a hand. “Went crazy.”
Wangji frowns. “They attacked you?”
Wei Ying folds his leg up between them and runs his fingers over his lean calf muscle, so Wangji can see the silvery traces of old, jagged scars gleaming under the soft dark hair there. Wangji feels a lump rising in his throat. He wants to touch the scars, wants to somehow lay his hand over them and heal them, even though he knows that’s not possible.
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says, “took a pretty sizable chunk out of me. I’ve always had kind of a...thing about dogs, since then.” He exhales, chuckles softly. “I should probably get over it, it’s been more than 20 years, I just...don’t know how, I guess.”
“You must have been pretty young,” Wangji says, doing some quick mental math.
Wei Ying stretches his leg back out and leans back on his hands. “I guess. I was like...5?”
Wangji swallows the horror that rises in him at that. “What did your foster family do?”
“Oh, they took me to the hospital,” Wei Ying says, his tone of voice suggesting that this was a nice favor for them to have done for him. “After that, it was pretty clear that I couldn’t live with the dogs anymore, so…” he shrugs with one shoulder. “They had to find me somewhere else to live. It’s too bad, they were nice.”
There’s nothing to say to that, nothing that Wangji can think of to say. “I’m sorry,” he finally manages, after a long, awkward moment.
Wei Ying turns to look at him, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Oh, it turned out OK!” he says quickly. “It wasn’t long after that that I went to live with my adoptive family. So, you know, it all turned out…” he looks away again, drawing a hitching breath. “...OK.”
Wangji looks around the park, noticing for the first time how many dogs are in the vicinity. He can spot at least three from where they’re sitting, all on-leash, thankfully — the guy with the little dog and the frisbee appears to have cleared out. Wangji is beset with a sudden, vindictive urge to track him down and cite him into oblivion, not that that would help the situation any.
He turns and rummages around in Wei Ying’s tote bag, instead, pulling out the blue water bottle. It’s cold and sweating with condensation in the warm summer air. He holds it out to Wei Ying. Wei Ying’s eyes flutter up to his with a look of soft astonishment.
“What about open container laws?” Wei Ying asks. His voice is teasing, but his face is bewildered.
“Just this once,” Wangji says firmly, settling back against the trunk of the tree.
[extremely Grandpa in The Princess Bride voice] Wei Ying is not dead at this time. I'm explaining to you because you look nervous.
Did I transport Detective Miles Hoffman from Stumptown to Seattle just to appear in one scene of this fic? Yes. Does this universe really not have enough attractive men in it, that I needed to add a Michael Ealy cameo? Look, it's my fic and I'll do as I please.
As you may have noticed, the chapter count on this fic has changed — this is the last chapter where, in the outline, I was like "this might actually be two chapters," and it totally was, so instead of chapter 5 of 9 this is now chapter 5 of 10.
Thanks so much to everyone who has been leaving comments and kudos and sharing this fic, I've come to really love it and I'm so happy y'all are enjoying it too. I'm going to try really hard to stick to the "chapter every Wednesday" schedule, but I'm going to be honest with you: Chapter 6 might end up being a few days late, as I have used up the multi-week buffer I had built up when I started posting this.
Thanks as always to Duessa, Spoops, and Ericacea for beta-ing and yelling!
Coming soon in Chapter 6: Teaming up with Jiang Wanyin. A visit to the farmer’s market. Sunday night.
Chapter 6: Cut Off
Wangji waits until Yao has stormed into the elevator before sinking back into his chair. Jiang approaches, clutching a coffee mug and looking murderous. “How much of that did you hear?” Wangji asks.
“Just the tail end,” Jiang says. “I take it we’re off the case?”
“You were never on the case,” Wangji points out. “But yes. Starting Monday, this is officially a Major Crimes investigation.”
Jiang takes a grim sip. “Sounds like we better find him before Monday, then.”
Jiang Wanyin, as it turns out, has been doing some information gathering of his own. “Try to contain your excitement,” he says tartly as Lan Wangji pages through his notes, face carefully neutral as usual.
In the absence of permission to conduct a formal investigation, Jiang has avoided the sort of legwork Wangji and Nie Mingjue have been doing — where they’ve been collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, Jiang has marshaled his own unique set of resources, tapping into the robust, all-seeing rumor mill that fuels conversation in the homes of Seattle’s wealthiest Chinese-American families. A scion of the Jiang Microsystems Jiangs can get into doors that a detective from Seattle PD wouldn’t get anywhere close to.
“Not that it’s done me any good,” Jiang gripes. He has pages of notes on a variety of interesting scandals — who is sleeping with whom, whose marriage is in shambles, whose younger son got caught smoking weed after lacrosse practice — but no Wei Ying. None of Jiang Wanyin’s and Wei Ying’s extensive array of mutual acquaintances have seen him, heard from him, or noticed anything unusual; Jiang has even spoken to Wen Qing, who, from the look of things, had been even less forthcoming with him than she’d been with Wangji.
One person from the Lakeside Alumni Facebook group claims to have seen Wei Ying downtown on Sunday, the day before he disappeared — apparently, he’d spotted Wei Ying coming out of the Jin Corp building, but had been too far away to say hello.
“Could he have been meeting your brother-in-law?” Wangji asks.
Jiang snorts. “Not likely. They put up with each other for Yanli-jiejie’s sake, but they don’t exactly hang out when she’s not there. No, I’m pretty sure he just saw somebody who kind of looked like Wei Wuxian, and is jumping in to make himself feel important.”
Wangji nods, returning to Jiang’s case notes. False witness reports of this type are common in missing persons cases; casual acquaintances develop a sudden strong case of confirmation bias, seeming to remember seeing the missing person everywhere, in places they couldn’t possibly have been, or recalling incidents from years ago as though they might have some bearing on the case. It’s worth hearing them out, just in case, but most leads of that type go precisely nowhere.
“This doesn’t make sense to me,” Jiang says after a while, slapping Wangji’s case file down on the desk. “Why would Wei Wuxian have anything to do with the Wens? I know you don’t know him, but this is completely out of character for him. You must have gotten something wrong.”
Wangji refrains from pointing out that statements like that are exactly why cops aren’t supposed to investigate cases involving their family members — with Nie Mingjue out of commission, he needs all the help he can get, and it’s not like Wangji has been a paragon of objectivity during this case.
“Actually, I do know him,” he says lightly, not looking up from Jiang’s notes.
Jiang’s head snaps up. “What? You do?”
“He is my neighbor.” A true understatement that’s starting to feel more and more like a lie. “I agree with your assessment. He does not seem like the type of person to be involved with this sort of thing.”
“Right? I mean, he’s stubborn, and rebellious, and he has a huge problem with authority, and he’s the most annoying person I’ve ever met, but he’s not, like, a criminal.” Wangji gets the sense that Jiang is actually speaking affectionately about his brother, but can’t quite stifle his indignation on Wei Ying’s behalf.
I’m annoying, I talk too much, you should just ignore me, everyone does.
How is it that Jiang Wanyin, who grew up with Wei Ying, who clearly cares about him, who should know him better than anyone, can be so close to Wei Ying without seeing him at all?
“...Isn’t he?” Wangji asks, curious about what Jiang will say. “He has a criminal record.”
Jiang’s nostrils flare; his face reddens, and Wangji can see his fist tighten around the pen (thankfully, not the click-top kind) he’s holding. “Look,” he growls. “I appreciate how hard you’re working to find him. But when it comes to what went down with Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixun, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Wangji sits back in his chair, giving Jiang the full, solemn weight of his attention, wordlessly inviting him to elaborate.
Jiang looks away, thrusting his jaw forward. “The thing is,” he mutters. He looks back at Wangji and huffs a frustrated breath. “OK. So. Yes, there was a fight. There were...a bunch of fights, actually, senior year. Jin Zixuan was being such a prick. Yanli’d had a crush on him since we were kids, and he finally figured that out, and he was an asshole to her.”
Wangji thinks about Jiang Yanli’s warm, comforting smile, the love in her face in the pictures in Wei Ying’s room. He thinks about Wei Ying’s righteous fury whenever he sees someone being picked on, and imagines that fury amplified by a worshipful love for a cherished older sister.
“My sister is...a wonderful person,” Jiang continues, echoing Wangji’s thoughts. “That peacock should be so fucking lucky. He and Wei Wuxian were always at each other’s throats, that year.”
Wangji cocks an eyebrow at him.
“Fine,” Jiang allows, a trace of a smile breaking through his anger. “Jin Zixuan and I were also frequently at each other’s throats. He still kind of sucks now, but trust me, he was insufferable back then. Anyway…” his face turns serious again. “Yanli was home from Lewis and Clark for Spring Break, and she came to this Lantern Festival thing the Chinese Community Center was doing, and, like, to this day I don’t even know what Jin Zixuan said, but Wei Wuxian just hauls off and punches him, right there in front of everybody’s parents and friends and all the old people, it was a fucking. Scandal.” Jiang shakes his head, caught somewhere between frustration and admiration.
“The Jins pressed charges?” Wangji asks.
“They might not have, if that had been it. My mom went to U-Dub with Jin-furen, they were sorority sisters. I think they could have worked it out, but…” Jiang frowns, his face drawing inward. “Wei Wuxian is...a lot. Like, he’s my brother, I’d kill for him, but half the time I just want to strangle him myself. He was the kind of kid who would, like, goof off in class, talk back to the teacher, hand in half his assignments late, and then like, ace every test. He’s so annoying,” Jiang sighs. “He hates bullying, and if he doesn’t like you, he has zero problem letting you know that, so he was just constantly getting in fights growing up. He got good at it.”
Wangji feels like he’s looking at Wei Ying through some sort of funhouse mirror; the picture is somewhat the same, but so distorted as to be almost unrecognizable. He does some meditative breathing exercises. Surely, Jiang is now approaching his actual point. Surely he must be close, and this is not just going to be the Bad Takes and High School Memories Hour.
“Jin Zixun was always hanging around, he was never quite one of the cool kids but because he was Jin Zixuan’s cousin, he was like, allowed. He hated Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian just like, barely knew he was alive, which pissed him off even more.”
“Jin Zixun started the fight?” Wangji prompts him. He’s already guessed as much.
“That’s one way to put it,” Jiang scoffs. “Another way to put it is that he lay in wait for Wei Wuxian after school with a big group of guys, and they jumped him.”
Wangji blinks, surprised. “No one else was mentioned in the police report.”
“Apparently — I wasn’t there, I was at swim practice — but apparently, Wei Wuxian goaded Jin Zixun into fighting him one-on-one, and it wasn’t until he had kicked Jin Zixun’s ass pretty thoroughly that the rest of them jumped in.” Jiang’s jaw tightens. “By the time I got there, everyone had cleared out. Wei Wuxian was barely conscious. He still doesn’t remember that entire afternoon. I had to piece this together on my own, which I didn’t do until way later, unfortunately.”
“If he was defending himself, especially against a large group, that wouldn’t be considered assault,” Wangji says slowly.
“It was his word against theirs. Jin Zixun swore up and down that they were the only two involved, and that Wei Wuxian jumped him, and he was the one defending himself, and his buddies backed him up. Like that assclown could have ever done that sort of damage on his own,” Jiang snorts bitterly. “Jin Xixun’s parents throw a big fundraiser for the mayor every year, his dad plays golf with the DA once a month, and they wanted Wei Wuxian’s head, and meanwhile he couldn’t even remember what happened. The public defender got them to drop the secondary assault charge in exchange for a guilty plea for the first one, but without a ‘credible alternative narrative,’” he sneers, doing finger-quotes, “apparently there wasn’t much more he could do. Fucking joke.” Jiang glares into the distance.
“...Public defender?” Wangji asks.
Jiang opens his mouth to say something, then snaps it shut with an audible click. He irritably adjusts the mother-of-pearl buttons at the cuffs of his beautiful sapphire-blue shirt. Wangji’s mind is whirling. A whole lot of pieces are falling into place.
Doesn’t exactly seem like he’s living on Jiang Microsystems money to me.
He and my parents had a falling out about ten years ago, around the time of his arrest. They’re...estranged.
Against an army of lawyers, what chance did she have?
No chance at all.
“Your family cut him off.” Wangji knows his face, his voice, his demeanor, have all dropped to a temperature approaching absolute zero. He can’t be bothered to care. He thinks about Wei Ying, 18 years old, terrified, recovering from head trauma, sitting in this police station alone. Standing in a courtroom, alone. Boarding a prison transport, alone.
Jiang’s face darkens. “Oh, like your family wouldn’t have done the same,” he snaps.
Wangji tries to imagine what his Uncle Qiren would have done if Wangji had been charged with assault at 18. Shout at him for days, no question. Take a belt to him, like he’d threatened for years but never actually done, maybe. Try to lock him in his bedroom for a minimum of three years, probably. But cut him off? Cast him aside? Never. He suddenly finds himself missing Lan Qiren, who, for all his rules and punishments, loves Wangji and Xichen with the same fierceness he does everything else. Out loud, he merely says, “No.”
“Look. Everyone thought he did it. Even he wasn’t sure he didn’t do it. And Jin Corp is a huge client of Jiang Microsystems’. When Yanli and I finally pieced together what really happened, we tried to get Wei Wuxian to sit down with our parents, but…” Jiang folds his arms in front of himself and sighs. “It was too late. Things had been said. Time had been served. Nobody was really in a forgiving mood.” He glances at Wangji and straightens up, glaring as though Wangji is the one who’s been oversharing about family secrets. “Not that it’s any of your business,” he huffs.
He’s right; it isn’t Wangji’s business, and it’s not relevant to the matter at hand. That doesn’t make him like it any more. “Mn,” he sniffs, returning to his notes.
Jiang scrubs a hand across his face. “I’m gonna go get some coffee,” he says, somehow making it sound like an accusation. “You want anything?”
“No, thank you.”
Wangji rubs his eyelids, which feel like they’ve been lined with fine silt after his late night at the hospital. He tries to put the thought of 18-year-old Wei Ying, alone and scared, out of his head. He needs to focus on 28-year-old Wei Ying, who may also be alone and scared, but who Wangji is at least in a position to help.
“Lan!” Captain Yao suddenly shouts from halfway across the bullpen. Wangji jumps; he hadn’t expected to see Yao today, since the captain avoids working on Saturdays if he can help it.
“Sir?” he asks, rising to his feet, instantly grateful that Jiang has chosen that moment to go get coffee.
Yao storms toward him, face twisted in rage; his tie streams out behind him as he moves, but his toupee, as always, stays frozen in place. “Just the motherfucker I wanted to see,” he snarls. “You wanna tell me why I just got out of a meeting with the head of Major Crimes, all about how you stepped all over their case?”
“We were following a lead,” Wangji says mildly. “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Investigate our case?”
“This still the Wei thing?” Yao asks. Wangji nods. “Well I’ve got great news for you, Detective. Starting Monday, it’s not your case anymore. Major Crimes is taking it over. Make sure all the stuff is boxed up and ready to hand over first thing Monday morning.”
If Major Crimes folds the Missing Persons case into their larger investigation into the Wens, they’ll prioritize pinning Wei Ying’s disappearance on someone in the Wen organization over finding him alive. “Respectfully, sir, this is Detective Nie’s and my case. We’re close to finding Wei.”
Yao snorts. “I’m supposed to get excited because some ex-con got mixed up with the mob and got himself disappeared for his trouble? That happens every day, Lan. It literally happens every day. Meanwhile, you’ve flashed your ass all over Nightless City for no reason, and the Wens are going to ground. Every time they do something like this, it’s another six months before Major Crimes makes any headway with them, and that’s all thanks to you.” Yao pokes him in the chest to emphasize his point. “Now, I seem to recall that you and Nie have five other open cases right now, is that correct?”
Wangji draws his equanimity around him and nods, his face completely blank. “Yes, sir.”
“With Nie out of commission for the next six fucking weeks, those other open cases should keep you nice and busy,” Yao sneers. “You’re lucky I don’t bench you entirely, Lan. I don’t want to get pulled into another Saturday meeting because of you, am I clear?”
“Yes, sir.” Wangji waits until Yao has stormed into the elevator before sinking back into his chair. Jiang approaches, clutching a coffee mug and looking murderous. “How much of that did you hear?” Wangji asks.
“Just the tail end,” Jiang says. “I take it we’re off the case?”
“You were never on the case,” Wangji points out. “But yes. Starting Monday, this is officially a Major Crimes investigation.”
Jiang takes a grim sip. “Sounds like we better find him before Monday, then.”
Since Jiang has actually met Xiao Xingchen, they agree that he should be the one to reach out to him; they split up their remaining next moves based on Wangji’s two hypotheses. Jiang takes the “The Wens are holding Wei Ying somewhere” tasks, and goes off to try to track down all the information he can about the Wens’ various real estate holdings, while Wangji pursues the “Wei Ying is in hiding somewhere” route, returning to the stack of Wei Ying’s notebooks in hopes of some clue to his whereabouts.
He doesn’t find any leads as to where Wei Ying might hide, but in the last notebook, the one from Wei Ying’s locker at work, Wangji begins to find himself.
It starts out relatively innocuously — the word “Ridiculous,” drawn in elaborate hand-lettered script across one page. Wangji instantly warms, thinking of their first meeting, but dismisses the thought. Wei Ying, he has learned by now, is in the habit of doodling words that are on his mind, and there’s no reason to think Wangji in particular inspired this one, just because it’s something he says occasionally.
A few pages later, among scribbles of code and more indecipherable notes (150 WQ g/w/t), Wei Ying has doodled the word “Shameless” in big puffy graffiti-style lettering. The following page, “Shameless” again, this time drawn as though the letters are covered in frost and dripping icicles. Underneath it, there’s a sketch of a little bunny, similar to the one Wei Ying had drawn on his check at the cafe the day they met. Wei Ying had been thinking about him; that was nice, even if the icy tone implied by his doodles didn’t indicate the highest opinion of Wangji’s words.
Bunnies start appearing more frequently among the other scribbles and doodles. Wangji lets his fingers trail over the sketches, which are imbued with a great deal of life in just a few hastily-drawn lines. At first, they’re just doing generic cute bunny things: hopping, sleeping, eating carrots. As he keeps turning pages in the notebook, though, the bunnies start developing distinct personalities.
A black bunny with a large, messy clump of hair on its head and a red ribbon tied around one ear lies flopped down onto its belly next to a white bunny who is sitting stiffly upright. The white bunny, this time wearing a little collared shirt, frowning at the black bunny, who’s scratching behind one long ear, tiny hairs flying everywhere. The white bunny, still sitting upright, with a tiny smile on its face, the black bunny leaning its head softly against the white bunny’s fluffy shoulder. The two bunnies with a tiny baby bunny between them, smiling at each other while the baby bunny waves a small butterfly toy. The white bunny with a look of total bunny outrage as the black bunny leans in and kisses it on the cheek, a little heart floating up from the spot.
It’s them, it’s them, and even as Wangji’s pragmatic heart searches for alternate explanations, tries to explain it away as coincidence or meaningless doodling, he can’t deny the fact that it’s them, it’s him, over and over. He spares a moment to be grateful that he’s the one going through the notebook, not Nie Mingjue or (nightmare of nightmares) Jiang Wanyin, then turns another page and has to stop, has to breathe, because this time, it actually is him.
Wei Ying has drawn him sitting cross-legged on the roof, looking away, his hair falling over one eye. As usual, his face appears almost completely expressionless, but Wei Ying has captured a softness around his eyes, the corners of his mouth; he looks relaxed, amused. That amusement carries down into the lines of his shoulders, the easy set of his hands. Wangji can’t think of when Wei Ying could have drawn this — he must have done so from memory. Every line of the sketch is suffused with tenderness.
No one has ever seen him like this. Wangji closes the notebook and presses a hand over his mouth, feeling raw, exposed, bereft.
As with most Sundays during the summer, Wangji spends the morning warring between his hatred of crowds and his desire for fresh produce. Today, it’s overcast and there’s a light drizzle; summer is starting to wind down. On the plus side, the start of the rainy season will mean fewer people at the farmer’s market. He decides to risk it.
He’s testing the ripeness of a pile of peaches, and debating whether or not he should pick up some sweet onions, when he feels something grab on to his leg. He looks down; a small child, maybe 3 or 4, is clinging thoughtlessly to his knee, looking around open-mouthed at the busy market around them. Wangji smiles down at the boy’s head, remembering the times when, as a child, he had grabbed the wrong blue-jeaned leg at a department store or supermarket and found himself gazing up at a stranger instead of his mother. What’s the best way to alert this child to his mistake, without upsetting him?
Wangji clears his throat. “Um, hello there,” he says softly.
The boy looks up at him, but instead of the shyness, embarrassment, or confusion Wangji might have expected, a wide smile breaks out over his chubby-cheeked face. “Gege,” he says, his sweet little high-pitched voice punching Wangji right in the heart.
A line is starting to back up behind them at the peach stall. Wangji tries to remove the child from his leg, but he merely clings on tighter, snuggling up like Wangji’s chinos are the cuddliest teddy bear ever. Wangji ends up sort of crab-walking over to the curb with the kid affixed to him like a barnacle, aware of the indulgent smiles of the people around them. He thinks about explaining that this isn’t his kid, but that seems like it might be somewhat counterproductive, what with all the hugging.
“What’s your name?” he asks the child once they’re out of the main crush of people. “Where are your…” he almost says parents, but catches himself in time. “Where are your grown-ups?”
The kid just beams up at him again, bouncing a little on Wangji’s shoe. Wangji starts scanning the crowd, trying to see if he can spot any other Chinese people. Of course, the kid could be adopted, there’s no guarantee that his family is Chinese, but he’d called Wangji gege…
“Can you stand up?” he asks, feeling foolish. “Let’s see if we can go find your grown-ups.” He reaches down and catches the boy under his armpits, trying to pull him to his feet. The kid promptly does that weird floppy thing kids do, where they suddenly have no bones and weigh twice as much; he slips out of Wangji’s grasp and plops down on the sidewalk. It’s only a drop of a couple inches, but the kid’s eyes go wide and startled.
“Oh! Are you OK?” Wangji asks. The kid’s chin starts trembling. He seems to be debating whether or not he’d like to cry. Wangji tries to remember what you’re supposed to say to kids when they hurt themselves. “You, um, took a spill! But you’re OK.”
The kid appears to decide that he’d better go ahead and cry: he squinches his eyes shut and opens his mouth in an unhappy wail. Big fat tears squeeze through his eyelashes, the most perfect round tears that Wangji’s ever seen. It’s almost overpoweringly cute, which doesn’t help the rising sense of panic Wangji feels as the kid begins to howl in earnest.
Around him, people are giving them sympathetic glances, clucking their tongues and murmuring things to each other like “Aw, someone’s having a rough time.” Help me, Wangji thinks at them, fruitlessly scanning the crowd again for anyone to whom this child might possibly belong.
“Yuan!” he hears someone call. “A-Yuan, there you are!” Someone runs up, sweeps the crying child up in his arms, and turns to Wangji, and he’s somehow not surprised at all that it’s Wei Ying.
“Oh, hi!” Wei Ying says to him, giving the child a small bounce. “Fancy meeting you here.” He turns to the boy, who is rapidly recovering from his upset now that Wei Ying is there (Wangji can relate). “Yuan-er, you’re supposed to stay right by me when we’re at the market! Did you get a little lost?”
The child — Yuan, apparently — nods, scrubbing at his eyes with one pudgy fist.
Wei Ying makes a sympathetic face. “That sounds scary! I’m glad I found you. This is my friend Lan Zhan,” he says, turning back toward Wangji. “Lan Zhan, this is Yuan,” Wei Ying continues, “my son.”
Wangji has no idea what his face is doing, which, mercifully, means it’s probably not doing anything at all. Wei Ying has a son? How has he never mentioned this?
Wei Ying manages to keep the calm, matter-of-fact look on his face for another few seconds before bursting into peals of delighted laughter. “Your face,” he says, wiping away a tear with his free hand. “You should see your face. Oh, man. Did you really think I had a whole-ass 3-year-old child this whole time?”
Attempting to preserve what last shreds of dignity remain to him, Wangji straightens up and gives Wei Ying an imperious look, which just makes Wei Ying laugh harder. “Shameless,” Wangji admonishes him.
Yuan has apparently recovered from his tumble — he leans his head against Wei Ying and watches Wangji with huge, solemn eyes. “Yuan-er is my roommates’ cousin,” Wei Ying explains, once he’s calmed down enough to talk again. “Or, like, their second cousin. Second cousin?” he asks Yuan, who grins at him. “Something like that,” Wei Ying says. “We’re hanging out today while his grandma recovers from a sprained ankle.” He sets Yuan down. “Oof, you’re getting heavy.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Yuan.” Wangji squats down to look him in the eye. “Would you like a peach?”
“Yes!” Yuan exclaims, just as Wei Ying is saying “Oh, Lan Zhan, you don’t have to —”
“Wei Ying may also have a peach, if he likes,” Wangji says evenly, straightening up and offering Yuan his hand.
Peaches acquired, they move back out of the fray and find a bench that’s only slightly damp. As he has every time he’s seen Wei Ying in public since their excursion to the park three weeks ago, Wangji makes a quick, surreptitious scan for dogs. The coast is clear.
“I was thinking we might go to the park after this,” Wei Ying says, “but it’s not the best day for it. Maybe the library?” he asks Yuan.
Yuan takes an enormous bite of peach, chewing vigorously with his little round cheeks covered in fruit and juice. “OK,” he mumbles.
“Take smaller bites, you anaconda,” Wei Ying scolds him. He rummages in his pockets. “I can’t believe how much peach you already have on you. Like, I’m not even mad about it, that’s amazing.” Yuan takes another enormous bite. Juice drips down his chin onto his t-shirt, which has a bunnies-and-hedgehogs motif.
Wangji reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief, which he hands to Wei Ying.
“Of course you have a handkerchief, like an actual cloth handkerchief, just carrying that around with you, what was I thinking,” Wei Ying says. “Of course you do, Lan Zhan.” He winks at Wangji and starts trying to dab peach juice off of Yuan’s increasingly sticky face. “Hold still, little gremlin. Oh my God, it’s in your eyebrows, how.”
Yuan beams beatifically up at Wei Ying and offers him his rapidly disintegrating peach. “Xian-gege,” he chirps, and it’s all Wangji can do not to actually put a hand to his chest and swoon from the cuteness.
Wei Ying smiles at him, and, unhesitating, leans down to take a bite of the slobbery half-eaten fruit. “Thank you for sharing your peach, A-Yuan,” he says. There’s something warm and tender and absolutely genuine in his eyes as he looks at the kid. It loosens something deep inside Wangji. He would be a good father, he thinks, and has to hide his face behind a bite of his own peach in case Wei Ying could somehow read that embarrassing, sentimental thought in his expression.
“I’m done,” Yuan announces. He holds out what remains of his peach in Wangji’s direction and drops it, without bothering to look to see if Wangji will take it from him. Wangji catches the squishy object without comment.
“You can’t just hand people your garbage, bud!” Wei Ying protests. “Sorry about that, I can take it,” he says to Wangji, holding out his hand.
“It’s all right,” Wangji says. He gets up and deposits his own peach pit and the soggy remains of Yuan’s peach in a nearby trash can.
When he returns to the bench, Wei Ying has produced a butterfly-shaped toy from somewhere and given it to Yuan, who begins racing around the bench, flapping the toy’s wings happily. Wei Ying stretches an arm out along the back of the bench and takes a bite of his own, as yet untouched, peach. Wangji can feel Wei Ying’s arm behind him, not touching him, just draped there on the back of the bench, and he knows that Wei Ying just sprawls out wherever possible, but he can’t quell the ridiculous simple happiness that’s oozing out from his belly.
“It’s nice of you to babysit,” he says to Wei Ying, mostly to have something to say.
“It’s nice of him to babysit me, more like,” Wei Ying replies. He’s taking big, messy bites of the fruit, clearly ignoring his own advice to small Yuan. A drop of juice runs down the soft, paler flesh on the inside of Wei Ying’s forearm. Wangji supposes he should just get used to the idea that things like this will completely wreck him. He realizes that he didn’t hear the last thing Wei Ying said, and sternly takes a hold of himself.
“Yuan’s waipo is so awesome,” Wei Ying is saying. “She’s been raising Yuan-er since his parents died, and she even lets me play with him sometime, despite the fact that I’m basically a stray cat that wandered in off the street.” He waves a hand. “She’s got quite the little collection of orphans at this point, I bet she’s cooking dinner for us right now instead of staying off her ankle like she’s supposed to.”
Wangji staunchly approves of this woman he’s never met. Wei Ying should be loved, as much as possible, by everyone he meets; it’s baffling to Wangji that this appears to not be the case.
“Anyway, since I’ve been especially good and smart and charming lately, Yuan has generously agreed to spend the day with me. We’re gonna have fun, right, buddy?”
Yuan nods his agreement, flashing his little seed-pearl teeth. He’s zooming the butterfly around, making loud “VROOOOM, VROOOM, SWOOSH” sounds; he clambers up onto the bench, crawling into Wangji’s lap in his effort to take the butterfly (airplane?) even higher.
“A-Yuan, stop that, you’re bothering him,” Wei Ying says, flushing.
“I don’t mind,” Wangji says quickly, ignoring the very sharp little elbow that socks into his stomach. “Let him play.”
“He’s going to get you all sticky,” Wei Ying points out. The patina of peach juice that still covers Yuan, despite Wei Ying’s best efforts, is rapidly picking up a coating of lint from Wangji’s shirt.
“I don’t mind,” Wangji says again. Yuan flops down into his lap and says “Butterfly! Jutterfly!...MUTTERFLY!” and laughs uproariously. Wangji looks down at him, feeling his lips draw upward into a smile. He glances up at Wei Ying, who’s staring at Yuan with a strange sort of wistfulness.
Wei Ying catches his eye and grins, and winks; the wistful look is replaced with a playful, exaggerated pout. “Ah, Yuan-er, have you forgotten me already? See how fast you replace your Xian-gege? My own son, my flesh and blood, who I grew and birthed with my own body?”
“Noooooo,” Yuan giggles.
“Did I not? Are you sure?” Wei Ying puts his hand on his heart and rolls his eyes around in a caricature of distress. “Oh, woe is me, your poor neglected father, who planted you in my garden and raised you up from a tiny turnip seed.”
“No!” squeals Yuan, scrambling out of Wangji’s lap and into Wei Ying’s.
Wei Ying makes a little “oof” sound and looks pained; Wangji is reasonably sure Yuan has just kicked him in the crotch. “He does still love me, it’s a miracle,” Wei Ying croaks, wrapping the kid up in a hug. Yuan grins and throws his arms around Wei Ying’s neck, bashing him in the face with his butterfly toy as he does so.
“What do you say, A-Yuan?” Wei Ying asks, when he’s recovered from the assault. “Should we head to the library and see what damage we can do? We’ve probably taken up enough of your Sunday,” he says to Wangji. “I’m sure you have less annoying people to hang out with.”
“No,” Wangji says truthfully.
“No? You don’t have anyone to hang out with?”
“No, you’re not annoying. Never annoying.” Worried he’s not expressing himself well enough, Wangji forces himself to add, “I like hanging out with you.”
Wei Ying’s eyebrows raise up almost to his hairline; he drops his head down onto Wangji’s shoulder in a mock swoon. “You can’t just say things like that, Lan Zhan,” he complains. “How am I supposed to cope with you being so nice to me?”
“You’ll manage,” Wangji says. Wei Ying smells like peach juice and shampoo.
“I guess,” Wei Ying says. He hauls himself to a standing position, scooping Yuan up along with him. “Say goodbye to Zhan-gege,” he tells Yuan, shooting Wangji a wicked smile.
“Bye, Zhan-gege!” Yuan exclaims stickily, opening and closing his fingers in a wave.
Wangji watches them walk away, Yuan’s tiny fist clutching trustingly in the back of Wei Ying’s shirt, Wei Ying’s full hips swaying slightly more than usual under the added weight of the child, feeling hopeful and devastated and absolutely drowning in love.
Xiao Xingchen is a rail-thin, serious man in a white MEAT IS MURDER T-shirt; with his narrow chin and watchful eyes, he reminds Wangji of a fox. In the bustle of the coffee shop, he holds almost preternaturally still.
“I appreciate your coming down,” Wangji says, aware that Jiang had spent almost half an hour on the phone cajoling him into speaking with them. According to SPD records, Xiao Xingchen’s been arrested half a dozen times in conjunction with various protests, but never charged with anything; he can see why the man might be reluctant to share any information whatsoever with the police, and why he’d refused to so much as step foot in the actual police station.
“Wei Wuxian is a friend,” Xiao Xingchen says simply.
Much as he wants to dive right into the subject of Xue Yang and what he might want from Wei Ying, Wangji decides to take an indirect approach; Xiao Xingchen seems ready to bolt at any moment. “You had a party three weeks ago, is that correct?” he asks him.
“And Wei Wuxian was in attendance?”
“You must know that he was, if you’re asking me about it,” Xiao Xingchen says, his voice surprisingly gentle for such a contentious statement.
“Did you speak with him?”
“Briefly, yes. I was busy with my hosting duties.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Of course, this was several weeks ago, and I had been drinking, so my memory of our conversation isn’t perfect,” Xiao Xingchen says carefully.
“We get it, your words are successfully shrouded in caveats, no one would be able to hold you to any of this in court, now please get on with it,” Jiang grumbles.
“Which means he was drunk,” Jiang interjects with a roll of his eyes.
Another smile. “I couldn’t speak to how much he’d had to drink.”
Wangji has to admire the care with which the man selects his words, the deliberate way he’s talking his way around declarative statements. If he had to guess, Wangji would say that Xiao Xingchen is either good friends with a lawyer, or has been coached through giving more than one deposition in his time.
“Most of what Wei Wuxian was saying was over my head, I’m afraid, but he was talking about a new code library he’d written,” Xiao Xingchen continues.
“Who else was part of this conversation?” Wangji asks.
“I don’t know who might have overheard. It was a crowded house party.”
“Was Xue Yang there?” Jiang demands, and Wangji cringes inwardly. So much for the indirect approach.
Xiao Xingchen goes still again; the wary, watchful look returns to his eyes.
“We know you know him,” Jiang expostulates, “and we know he met Wei Wuxian at your house that night. You might as well tell us about it.”
“Please,” Wangji says quietly.
Jiang looks irritated, but purses his lips and echoes, “Please.”
“What does Xue Yang have to do with anything?” Xiao Xingchen asks slowly.
Wangji shoots Jiang a look that, miraculously, keeps him from saying any more. “We have reason to believe he may have been involved in Wei Wuxian’s disappearance.”
This seems to hit Xiao Xingchen like a slap; he rocks backward in his chair. The calm, careful, suspicious manner drops away from him, leaving him looking shaken. “Really?”
“That’s...really not good.” Xiao Xingchen says faintly, resting his elbows on the table and looking down at his hands.
Jiang shifts restlessly in his seat. “Yeah, no shit. What was that psycho doing at your party, anyway?”
Xiao Xingchen frowns at his hands, then looks up to look Jiang in the eye. “Song Lan and I broke up.”
“Really?” Jiang asks. “I hadn’t heard that.”
“Yeah,” Xiao Xingchen sighs. “It was a whole...thing.” He covers his eyes with his hands for a moment and sighs again, before continuing. “I met Xue Yang when I was gathering petition signatures downtown, and he asked for my number, and I thought...why not, you know? He’s hot, I’m single, why not?”
“Nice to know even the virtuous Xiao Xingchen isn’t immune to a rebound fuck,” Jiang snorts.
“Nice to know you’re just as charming at work as you are in your personal life, Jiang Cheng,” Xiao Xingchen retorts, but he’s smiling again.
Wangji does not kick Jiang under the table. Wangji is an adult.
“Xue Yang and I only dated for a couple months,” Xiao Xingchen says. “Things got...out of control. Pretty fast. That party was right before I broke it off with him.”
“So he was there,” Wangji says.
Xiao Xingchen swallows. “Yes.”
“And he spoke to Wei Wuxian?”
“Yes, for a while. It was kind of a relief, actually, Xue Yang didn’t really get along with many of my friends.”
“What did they talk about?”
“Like I said, coding, and how modern websites are inefficient, some of the work Wei Wuxian’s done for our volunteer organization website, this code base Wei Wuxian apparently invented...I wandered off to make the rounds, and when I came back they were still talking about it. I was surprised, Xue Yang isn’t typically interested in computer stuff, and he, um...doesn’t handle being bored very well.” Xiao Xingchen shivers, perhaps unconsciously.
“After the party, Xue Yang texted Wei Wuxian about some project he wanted help with. Do you have any idea what that might have been?”
Xiao Xingchen shakes his head. “No, no idea. Like I said, that was right before I broke things off, I didn’t even know they’d been texting.” He laughs, looking a little sick. “I’m a little jealous, how fucked up is that?”
Me too, Wangji thinks. And very.
“Do you...you really think Xue Yang had something to do with Wei Wuxian going missing?” Xiao Xingchen asks, stricken.
“Right now it’s our best theory,” Jiang replies.
“If Xue Yang were involved,” Wangji says carefully, “can you think of anywhere he might...keep someone? If they were working on a project for him?”
“Keep someone,” Xiao Xingchen whispers to himself, the blood draining out of his face. “Fuck.” He shakes his head, increasingly rapidly. “No, I — I don’t know. Not his apartment, he can’t stand for anyone to be there, it makes him...upset.” He swallows hard, blinking. “Um...no, I can’t think of anywhere. He practically lives at the nightclub where he works, he doesn’t really go anywhere else except on errands for his boss.” He glances up at them. “Do you...know about his boss?”
“He told me he was a bartender,” Xiao Xingchen murmurs, staring down at the table with wide, haunted eyes. “I thought he was a bartender.”
They ask a few more questions, but it’s clear that Xiao Xingchen is too rattled to be of much more help. He agrees to call them if he thinks of anything else that might help, and stumbles out of the coffee shop, looking a little green.
“Poor guy,” Jiang says. “Can’t be fun to figure out your ex is a serial killer.”
‘Can’t be fun’ might be something of an understatement, Wangji thinks.
They walk back toward the station. “Honestly, if Wei Wuxian was hiding out somewhere, the first place I’d look would be with Xiao Xingchen and his merry band of anarchists,” Jiang says. “I half expected it to turn out that he was waiting out the trouble on some hemp farm or something, but I talked to a bunch of them, and none of them have seen him.”
Wangji doesn’t reply. It was a slim chance to begin with, and it’s looking less and less likely that Wei Wuxian’s disappearance was in any way voluntary.
“Of course, if that was the case,” Jiang continues, apparently not requiring Wangji to participate in their conversation, “his roommates would know about it. Hell, Wen Ning would probably go with him, and then Wen Qing would definitely know where they were, because he doesn’t do anything without her knowing about it. Not if he knows what’s good for him, anyway,” he chuckles.
Wangji thinks of Wen Qing’s formidable demeanor and has to agree; even a beloved younger brother would have to think twice before crossing her.
“How is Wen Ning, by the way? I didn’t get a chance to talk to him when I went by there,” Jiang says.
“I didn’t speak with him either,” Wangji says. “I believe Nie Mingjue tried to get him on the phone, but was unsuccessful.”
“Yeah, he’s not great at keeping his phone charged. I’m surprised he hasn’t been by the station, though. He and Wei Wuxian are tight,” Jiang spits, making no perceptible effort to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “All part of Wei Wuxian’s whole ‘found family’ thing, since I guess his actual family wasn’t enough for him.”
His actual family doesn’t want him, and you’re the one who told me that, Wangji thinks grumpily. Trust Jiang Wanyin to be offended, instead of glad, that his brother had more people to take care of him.
“But Wen Ning is like, his little sidekick. The Robin to his Batman. The Igor to his Dr. Frankenstein. I don’t even know what that kid is doing with Wei Wuxian not around. I was kind of expecting him to be like, literally living in your pocket until you found Wei Wuxian.”
“Hm.” Nie Mingjue had left Wen Ning multiple messages, both on his voicemail and at his workplace, but Wen Ning had never gotten back in touch. “Maybe you should try calling him.”
Jiang rolls his eyes. “I have.” He pulls out his phone anyway, and makes the call. “It’s going to voicemail,” he says after a moment. “Should I leave a message?”
Wangji shakes his head. They’ve arrived back at the station. When he gets to his desk, he calls Wen Qing’s cell phone.
“Hello?” Her voice is hoarse and exhausted.
“Ms. Wen, it’s Detective Lan from Seattle PD.”
“It’s Doctor Wen,” she says testily.
“My apologies. Doctor Wen, I was wondering if your brother is there. We haven’t been able to contact him to ask about Wei Wuxian’s disappearance.”
“He’s at work. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
“When you see him, could you please have him call me at this number? No matter the hour. I’d like to speak with him.”
“OK.” She hangs up.
Wangji sets the phone back down in its cradle. She hadn’t so much as asked about the investigation. Jiang Yanli had called that morning, before her brother had even arrived at the station, to ask if they’d made any progress on the case. Usually, friends and family members are all over a missing persons case, asking questions, attempting to investigate things on their own, complaining that the police aren’t working hard enough. It’s an understandable response to a level of stress Wangji now knows all too well.
Wei Ying always talks about his roommates like they’re some combination of close friends and bratty siblings; Wangji knows that they spend a lot of time together, and it’s clear from their text history that they’re heavily involved in each other’s lives. So why aren’t the Wen siblings breaking down Wangji’s door to demand that he find Wei Ying?
Deep in thought, he looks up the number of the electronics store where Wen Ning works. “I’m sorry, Detective,” the manager says when he finally gets her on the phone. “Qionglin hasn’t been in all week. His sister called in sick for him, so you might check with her.” He thanks her, and hangs up. Wen Ning’s sister says he’s at work. His work says he’s at home. So where is he?
What if this isn’t one missing persons case? What if it’s two?
It starts raining in earnest about an hour after Wangji says goodbye to Wei Ying and Yuan at the farmer’s market, and doesn’t stop for a week. When it finally does, Wangji is busy all day and doesn’t get a chance to go up to the roof until it’s almost fully dark. He’s a little worried Wei Ying won’t be there. He’s there, though, sprawled out in his usual spot, and Wangji gets pretty close before he notices that anything’s different.
The smell hits him first. Usually the scent of cheap whiskey isn’t that apparent unless Wei Ying hugs him or something, but tonight there’s a sharp alcohol reek to the air hanging around his friend.
“Heyyyyy,” Wei Ying says when he sees Wangji, squinting up at him through narrowed eyes. He tilts the bottle up to his mouth, and Wangji can see that it’s light, that it’s almost empty.
“You’re drunk,” Wangji says, sitting down next to him, closer than usual. For the first time since he gave Wei Ying the key, he’s legitimately concerned that the man might fall off the roof.
“‘M always drunk,” Wei Ying slurs.
“Not like this.”
Wei Ying laughs, holding his nearly-empty whiskey bottle up to the light contemplatively. “You’re very astute, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji doesn’t say anything. He’s seen Wei Ying like this before, although never to this extent — Wei Ying is prone to occasional strange, dark, pensive moods. There isn’t always anything to be done about it, other than to sit with him and let him work them out on his own.
“Is everything all right?” Wangji asks, just in case, even though he knows from experience that Wei Ying will tell him what’s on his mind if he wants to, and nothing will pry it out of him otherwise.
“Is everything all right.” Wei Ying blows out a long breath, and laughs again. “Yes, Lan Zhan, to the extent that anything can be said to be all right, everything’s all right.”
Wangji waits. Wei Ying pushes himself up to sit upright and look him in the eye. “Really, I’m — whoa, sat up too fast — I’m OK.” He puts one hand to his head, and smiles. “How are you?”
“Mn.” Wangji looks away from him, out into the night. It rained earlier, and the pavement is damp and shiny in places in the streetlight. The chill from the concrete of the roof is seeping through his trousers.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. Wangji doesn’t look at him, just waits for him to speak, which is apparently insufficient for Wei Ying. “Lan Zhan,” he says again. “Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan,” this time with a none-too-gentle poke to Wangji’s shoulder. Wangji relents and turns to look at him, exasperated and fond and worried. “You like rabbits, right?”
Wangji has no idea where this is going, but he thinks of the day they met, and says, “Yes.”
Wei Ying laughs his big dorky laugh. “Maybe I should get a bunny rabbit, what do you think? I could feed him and play with him.” He sort of slowly capsizes sideways, until he’s leaning against Wangji’s shoulder. He’s very warm. The smell of whiskey is overpowering. “You could come play with him too, if you wanted. Feed him a carrot.”
“Carrots are not actually a good source of food for bunnies,” Wangji says. He turns his head slightly, so his cheek is resting against the top of Wei Ying’s head. “They are too high in sugar. Bunnies should eat mostly grasses and leaves. And this building does not allow pets.”
“Oh, of course,” Wei Ying says in a fake-serious voice. “We have to follow the rules.” He snuggles further into Wangji’s shoulder. “Mm. You smell good. Why do you always have to smell so good?”
Wangji clears his throat. “It’s sandalwood,” he says in what is almost — almost — a normal voice. “I always wear it.”
Wei Ying hums sleepily. He’s quiet for a long time, leaning on Wangji’s shoulder, long enough that Wangji starts to wonder if he’s fallen asleep.
“Wei Ying?” he asks, hesitantly.
“Mmmmm,” Wei Ying mumbles. He sits up, swaying a little, and blinks up at him with drowsy, hooded eyes. “Lan Zhan, you’re so good.” Wei Ying makes a stern face, which Wangji thinks is supposed to be an impression of him. “You always do the right thing.” A shadow passes over Wei Ying’s face. “How do you know what’s the right thing, Lan Zhan?”
“You also do what is right,” Wangji points out. “You do what’s right even at cost to yourself, which most people do not. You try to help people whenever you can.” He feels vulnerable saying this, like he’s revealing too much of the time he’s spent thinking about Wei Ying, but he can’t let Wei Ying remain in distress if there’s a way he could help.
Wei Ying gives a brittle little chuckle. “What if, you help somebody but you make everything else worse? What if everything you do just makes it worse,” he mumbles, more to himself than to Wangji.
“Wei Ying…” Wangji says helplessly. “Would it help to talk about it?”
“Nope,” Wei Ying says, and it’s as though a door has slammed shut in him. He smiles. “Don’t mind me, I’m just in a weird mood. Just up here drinking my feelings. I should probably go to bed,” he adds, hauling himself up and bouncing to his feet way too fast for the amount of liquor in him.
Wangji leaps to his feet as well, and can therefore catch Wei Ying as he sways and stumbles forward — thankfully not toward the edge of the roof. He grabs him awkwardly around the waist, Wei Ying catching himself with his hands against Wangji’s shoulders.
“Sorry,” Wei Ying mumbles, staring down at the ground between them, breathing heavily. “Sorry, just got the spins a little bit there.” Wangji is quite sure his love for Wei Ying will survive being vomited on, but he really hopes that’s not what’s about to happen.
Wei Ying is still listing against him. He braces his weight on Wangji’s shoulders for a moment to push himself upright; Wangji keeps one hand at the small of his back, to steady him. He can feel the warmth of Wei Ying’s skin through his thin t-shirt. Wei Ying’s long eyelashes flutter upward. He meets Wangji’s eyes with a look of surprise.
“Oh,” Wei Ying says quietly. One of his hands drifts upward from Wangji’s shoulder to rest against his neck. Wangji can’t quite suppress his tiny inhaled breath at the skin-to-skin contact, the way the sensation travels down his spine to flutter in his stomach. Wei Ying’s little finger curls downward, dragging down the skin of Wangji’s throat, tucking just underneath the collar of his shirt. He looks at Wangji’s mouth. Wangji can see him do it.
He would never kiss someone who’d been drinking, and certainly not someone who’s as drunk as Wei Ying is now, but the idea of kissing is there nonetheless, hanging in the air between them, caught in their mingled breath.
Slowly, reluctantly, Wei Ying’s gaze floats back up to Wangji’s eyes. “Even your eyebrows are perfect,” he mutters.
Wangji, who has never given any thought at all to his eyebrows, doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. A miniscule frown begins to appear on Wei Ying’s forehead. He looks down, and away, but his hand is still warm against the skin of Wangji’s neck. “You should stay away from me,” he mumbles. “I’m...not good for you. Not good for anybody,” he continues morosely.
That’s clearly preposterous, so Wangji doesn’t say anything to that either; he merely ducks down to swing one of Wei Ying’s arms around his shoulders, and begins to lead him toward the stairs.
He half-coaxes, half-drags Wei Ying down the stairs to Wei Ying’s apartment. Mercifully, Wei Ying has enough coordination left to pull his keys out of his own pocket, thus preventing Wangji from having to do so and short-circuiting his brain entirely. They make their slow, stumbling way through the darkened apartment, and Wangji manages to wrangle Wei Ying into the bedroom he points out as his.
“You have bunk beds,” Wangji says dully. He has no idea how he might be able to get his inebriated friend up the ladder to the top bunk, and breathes an inward sigh of relief when Wei Ying flops down onto the bottom one.
“Bunk beds are fun and practical, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “I think everyone should have them.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Wangji replies, slipping Wei Ying’s sneakers off.
“You don’t have to be so nice to me,” Wei Ying protests.
Wangji leaves him there in search of the kitchen, opens cupboards until he finds a water glass, and brings it back to Wei Ying, along with some Aleve he finds in the medicine cabinet. “Take these,” he says.
Wei Ying complies, and drinks most of the glass of water before handing it back to Wangji and flopping back down on his bed. Wangji turns him on his side, places a wastebasket next to his head, and can’t quite keep himself from smoothing Wei Ying’s hair back from his face. “Good night,” he says quietly.
“Good night, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying smiles sleepily.
The next time Wangji sees his face, it’s in a missing persons report.
Please enjoy my headcanon of a modern-day Xiao Xingchen as a militant vegan antifa curbstomper. I'm sorry we don't get to spend more time with him, but he's going through a lot right now and this story is angsty enough as it is.
Thanks to everyone who's left comments and kudos, I see each and every one of them and I love them (and you) so much!
Coming soon, in Chapter 7: Some light breaking and entering. Wangji sees a ghost.
Updated 6/3/20: So yeah, this fic is hitting different now, huh? Chapter 7 is done, but I don't think it's appropriate to post it while the actual Seattle Police Department is tear-gassing protestors. I've written out more of my thoughts on my Tumblr, but here's the TL;DR of my current plans for this fic:
- Chapter 7 is finished; I will plan to publish it next Wednesday, June 10th.
- For each chapter of this fic, I will be donating $20 to the Northwest Community Bail Fund, which provides cash bail for marginalized people who are unable to afford bail and find themselves incarcerated while awaiting routine court appearances in King and Snohomish Counties in Washington State. I sent them $120 today for chapters 1-6 and will send another donation each time I post a new chapter.
- Since this fic started as a Fandom Trumps Hate auction, I will also be donating $20 per chapter to Life After Hate, the charity Idhren designated when they bought the fic as a gift for Stultiloquentia. Life After Hate provides support to people who find themselves without resources after leaving violent far-right groups. I sent them $120 today for chapters 1-6 and will send another donation each time I post a new chapter.
- FTH has this great list of other ways you can help the Black Lives Matter movement, if you’re interested.
- To be clear: Lan Wangji will not still be a cop at the end of this fic. I’ve already made some changes to how I plan to handle that based on recent events, but I wanted to let y’all know.
If there’s anything else I can or should be doing, I’m listening. Be safe. Be well. Fight hard.
Chapter 7: Ghosts
As he walks back toward his car, Wangji pulls out his phone and dials Nie Huaisang once more.
“Lan-laoshi! How was your secret mission?”
“I need you to do something for me, no questions asked,” Wangji says.
“Hang on,” Nie Huaisang says. Wangji can hear him say to someone else, muffled, “I’m going to take this outside.” There’s a short interlude of rustling. “OK,” Nie Huaisang says. “Go.”
Wen Ning’s last Instagram post was Sunday morning, a shot of the Space Needle disappearing into a bank of fog with the hashtag #summersover. Nothing since then on any social media channels. Jiang Wanyin drives to Northgate to see if any of Wen Ning’s coworkers have seen or heard from him. Nobodys seen him since Sunday, he texts Wangji. Heading back now.
Wangji calls Wen Qing’s cell phone a few times, but she doesn’t answer. Digging through Wei Ying’s phone records, he finds the number for Yuan’s grandmother.
“Oh, A-Ning is sick! He has pneumonia!” she tells him. He can hear Yuan’s little piping voice in the background, sing-yelling doot-doot-doot-doot-doot! “I took him some soup, but A-Qing told me I shouldn’t see him because of my asthma.”
“When was this?” Wangji asks.
“Wednesday,” she says. “Poor A-Ning’s always been prone to chest colds, it runs in our family.”
He thanks her and hangs up. On the way to his apartment building, he calls the hospital and asks them to page Dr. Wen; they say she just went off rotation and won’t be back until Tuesday. He pounds on her apartment door, but already knows: she’s not answering.
He’s your cousins’ roommate. You don’t recognize him?
Ah yes, how is Wen Qing? Still a bitch?
Wen Chao had known, when they spoke to him last night, that Wangji and Nie Mingjue had only interviewed Wen Qing, because he knew Wen Ning wasn't there. Wen Ning has been missing at least as long as Wei Ying has, possibly longer; the only difference is that nobody’s reported it. Wen Qing is in the wind.
“Why would she cover for them?” he asks Jiang Wanyin when he gets back from Northgate. “I thought they were estranged from that branch of the Wen family.”
“They are,” Jiang says around a bite of sandwich. He’s spread out his lunch and papers across Nie Mingjue’s desk like he owns it. It’s actually kind of nice, seeing Nie Mingjue’s desk restored to its usual covered-in-food-and-papers state; it makes his absence less glaring, somehow. “As far as I know, they went no-contact as soon as Wen Ning turned 18 and never looked back.”
“So why hasn’t she reported Wen Ning missing? Why is she telling everyone he’s somewhere else?” Wen Qing had sat calmly in her apartment and lied to his and Nie Mingjue’s faces for half an hour. He remembers thinking at the time that she was a good liar, but obviously he needs to revise his evaluation of her upward — she’s a fantastic liar.
Jiang shakes his head. “Nobody knows what the Wens are capable of better than Wen Qing. If there’s a threat to her brother, she’d take it seriously. Serious like a nuclear bomb. She doesn’t trust anybody else to handle things, especially not the cops. She always thinks she has to do everything herself.” He grimaces. “One of many things she and my brother have in common.”
“If the Wens threatened Wen Ning to get Wei Wuxian to help them…”
“If the Wens threatened Wen Ning, Wei Wuxian would be falling all over himself to help him. He’d build them all the computers in the world, or whatever they want him for. Joke’s on them, though,” he scoffs. “They could have just grabbed any rando off the street and Wei Wuxian would be busting in to save the day. That is like, his signature move. They could have left Wen Ning and Wen Qing out of it entirely.”
What if, you help somebody but you make everything else worse? What if everything you do just makes it worse.
“How well do you know Wen Qing?” Wangji asks.
Jiang grimaces. “We dated for like a minute, in high school.”
Wangji knows that he doesn’t have any room to judge anyone who only hangs out with the same five people they’ve known since high school. He also really does not want to hear any more about Jiang Wanyin’s high school experience. “Have you stayed in touch?”
“I mean, sort of, she’s my brother’s roommate, but we don’t like, hang out.”
“Where could she be?”
“Honestly? Fucking anywhere. She’s a law-abiding person but she’s still a Wen, she’s cagey as fuck and she knows all their tricks. But for my money, she was probably just sitting in her apartment with the lights off, waiting for you to go away.”
“I could go by again this evening.”
“You could.” Jiang finishes his sandwich and rolls the wrapper into a ball. “But if she doesn’t answer the door, we don’t have a warrant, and we won’t get one before Monday.”
Wangji sighs. “That leaves the Wens.”
Jiang hands him a folder. “I tracked down as many of their real estate holdings as I could find, including those held under known aliases or by known associates. Since we know Xue Yang is involved, that means this whole ‘project,’ whatever it is, is probably being run by Wen Chao’s crew. Those are highlighted in blue.”
It’s good work — Jiang might be blunt and quick-tempered, but he’s clearly good at what he does. Wangji is grudgingly impressed. The color-coding makes it easy to pick out the spots run or frequented by Wen Chao’s branch of the organization; Jiang has thoughtfully highlighted those areas on a map, as well. It would be easy enough to work their way through each location, and if they had unlimited search warrants and a dozen people, they might get through them all by the end of the month.
“What do you want to do?” Jiang asks.
I want to go down to Nightless City, grab Wen Chao by his stupid embroidered shirtfront, and demand that he produce Wei Ying before I make him disappear, Wangji thinks. He pushes back from his desk. “I want you to think about who you know that Wen Qing might take a call from, then I want you to call them and ask to borrow their phone,” he says out loud. “We need to talk to her.”
Jiang nods, slowly. “I can do that.”
“I need to check in on Nie Mingjue,” Wangji says. “I’m going to take a walk, text my brother, and try to think of a way we can check all these locations in the next 36 hours.”
Outside, a fine mist is trying to decide whether it would like to become a light rain. Wangji puts the hood up on his jacket and texts Xichen, How did the surgery go? Is Nie Mingjue awake?
He strides through the downtown core, weaving his way past people without really looking at them. There’s no way they’ll be able to search all the places on Jiang’s list. With further triage, they could winnow it down to a smaller set of locations, but there are still way too many variables in play.
Their best bet (“best” in this case meaning “most likely to yield meaningful results”) at this point would be to lean on some members of the Wen organization. It wouldn’t have to be Xue Yang or Wen Chao; any one of the lower-level flunkies who had been in Wen Chao’s office would do nicely. In a situation where Wangji had the full force of the Seattle PD behind him, he’d already be hauling people in for questioning, but his conversation with Yao that morning made it a dicey proposition, shaky from a jurisdictional level and leaving Wangji without much leverage to exert. He would have to hope that whoever he questioned was so scared of the cops that they just rolled over on Wen Chao without putting up a fuss, and he doubts anyone who’s met Wen Chao would be more afraid of spending the day in a police questioning room (all he could really threaten someone with, in the absence of anything to arrest them for) than they would be of incurring Wen Chao’s wrath.
His phone buzzes with a text.
Surgery went well! Mingjue is sleeping off the anesthetic. NHS went home to feed his birds, but he’ll be back after. Are you coming by later?
Tell him hi for me when he wakes up.
Do you need anything?
Nope! Meng Yao brought me a cardigan and my grading. I’m all set!
So I guess he has a key to the apartment, Wangji thinks but doesn’t text. He doesn’t love the idea of Meng Yao being there when he and Xichen aren’t, but it is thoughtful of him to look after Xichen while he’s staying with Nie Mingjue, especially since Meng Yao knows Nie Mingjue doesn’t like him.
With a sigh, he starts heading back toward the station.
He’s an investigator. Crafting reasonable hypotheses from the available evidence is what he does, what he’s been trained to do, and he’s good at it. The evidence he’s gathered while searching for Wei Ying hasn’t led Wangji to him yet, but it has led him to another hypothesis, one he finally feels comfortable acknowledging to himself: Wei Ying cares about him. Cares for him, maybe even as much as he cares for Wei Ying.
I’m...not good for you. Not good for anybody.
Why hadn’t he said anything? Why couldn’t he, for once in his life, actually say the things that mattered most? He thinks yes you are, as though if he thinks it hard enough he could send the words back in time to Sunday night and make Wei Ying hear them. He’s going to find Wei Ying and say those things to him, every day, for the rest of his life if that’s what it takes.
When Wangji gets back to his desk, Jiang Wanyin is nowhere to be seen, probably off bothering his high school friends to try to borrow their phones.
He’s not expecting to have much in the way of new messages on a Saturday, but he does have some interoffice mail — apparently some judge is also working on the weekend, and has just returned the warrant for the RFID card. He gets on the phone to the manufacturer’s customer service department, and half an hour of waiting on hold and sending faxes later, he has the name of the company that purchased the card matching that serial number.
He’s a little disappointed by how unsurprised he is.
He sits looking at the card for a while, turning it over in his hands. What he’s contemplating is illegal, and dangerous. Any evidence he collects will be inadmissible in court. He could lose his job, possibly even face jail time. If he can hear Wei Ying laugh again, he doesn’t think he’ll mind at all.
Carefully, he loads up the evidence for Wei Ying’s into the box he’s been using to cart it around, and leaves it on Nie Mingjue’s desk for Jiang to find. He texts Jiang Following a hunch. Let’s meet up afterward and I’ll fill you in. Jiang texts back OK. Where/when? Wangji suggests a diner in Capitol Hill that he knows has good vegetarian options. See you there around 6. Then he grabs the spare blazer he keeps at work in case of surprise court appearances and stops in the bathroom to slick back his hair, still damp from his walk earlier.
This is, without a doubt, the foolhardiest thing he’s ever done.
On a Saturday afternoon, the Jin Corp lobby is quiet. Wangji can see through the plate-glass windows that the receptionist’s gleaming high-tech desk is empty, the check-in touch screen dark. The security guards are still there, though, on either side of the elevator, looking as alert and armed and possibly-ex-military as they did when Wangji was here yesterday.
He pulls out his phone and calls Nie Huaisang. “I need to have a conversation in Mandarin,” he says in Mandarin.
“What about?” Nie Huaisang asks in Mandarin. Wangji feels a rush of affection for Nie Huaisang.
“Doesn’t matter,” Wangji says. He puts his head down and starts to walk. “I guess you could still speak English, if you want.”
“OK,” Nie Huaisang says. “So what are you doing? Looking busy and Chinese?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Wangji says, a little more forcefully, getting closer to his Cop Voice. He barely slows down to open the doors.
“Mingjue’s surgery went well,” Nie Huaisang offers.
“Yes. Yes, Xichen already told me that,” Wangji barks into the phone. He heads briskly past the reception desk, bypassing the guest entrance with its metal detector to head directly to the employee entrance, with its electronic gate. “What are you doing to follow up?” he demands.
Nie Huaisang laughs. “You sound very important, Lan-laoshi.”
“I know.” He pulls out the RFID card like he’s barely even thinking about it, like he does this every day, and scans it. The electronic gate slides upward. He’s through. The security guards are watching him, but they haven’t moved from their posts.
“He’s going to have to do some physical therapy,” Nie Huaisang says. “I feel sorry for whoever gets that job.”
“Good, that’s good,” Wangji says. He gives the security guards a distracted nod as he walks past them, and scans the badge again. The elevator lights up, and he selects the button marked 17th Floor - Sales. The doors slide open. “I have to go, I’m about to get on an elevator,” he says. “I’ll call you back later.”
“Have fun storming the castle!” Nie Huaisang says cheerily, and hangs up.
Jin Zixuan’s office has a fantastic view of the water. There’s a wedding photo on his desk, and another of him and Jiang Yanli cradling baby Jin Ling and gazing at each other with bewildered happiness. There’s nothing at all to suggest any kind of wrongdoing, on his or on Jin Corp’s part. His computer password is written on a Post-It stuck under his desk; his email is full of meeting alerts, notifications from Jin Corp’s customer relationship management system, and not much else.
Wangji’s not surprised, if he’s honest with himself. It made sense to check him out, but Wei Ying’s brother-in-law didn’t seem like the type to get involved in some kind of mob conspiracy, and if he did, he’d probably have the self-preservation instinct to leave his wife’s brother well out of it. Maybe Jin Zixuan just dropped his key card, and Wei Ying was keeping it to give back to him, Wangji thinks. But if that was all there was to it, why was the card so carefully hidden inside Wei Ying’s flute case? For that matter, why hadn’t Wei Ying had the card on him when he disappeared, since he’d been on his way to Jin Zixuan’s house?
He heads back to the elevator, contemplating his next move. From what Meng Yao has said about his father, Jin Guangshan, Wangji’s willing to bet that Jin Corp wouldn’t be involved in a secret project with the Wens without the CEO’s knowledge and involvement. He tries the key card, but the elevator won’t take him up to the floors labeled Executive Suite. He spins the card in his hand, considering, then punches the button for Human Resources.
The card-programming machine is at the desk closest to the elevators, which makes sense — at a company this big, people must constantly be getting hired or fired or losing their key cards. While he’s waiting for it to boot up, he tells himself, there are hundreds of people at this company. Just because you dislike him, doesn’t mean it’s him. Just because you think it’s him, doesn’t mean it’s him. It could be anyone.
He scans the card, and the company profile associated with it pops up. Jonathan Meng, Director of Operations. 5th floor.
Meng Yao’s office has no dazzling views; it looks out into the windows of the building across the street. Wangji knows he’s not going to find any computer passwords on Post-Its here. Meng Yao is far too careful for that. There are no pictures on the desk of any kind, for which Wangji is thankful — he’s not sure he could stomach seeing a picture of his brother cuddled up to Meng Yao right now. He slides on some gloves and gets to work.
The drawers are full of pens and paperwork, all normal, boring office stuff, as far as Wangji can tell. The filing cabinet is locked. Wangji frowns at it, heart pounding so hard he can hear his blood in his ears in the quiet office.
He’s already breaking and entering. He’s already conducting a warrantless search. Wei Ying is in danger. Every moment he spends here increases the likelihood he’ll be caught. He only hesitates a moment before grabbing a pen and a paper clip off of the desk and starting to pick the lock.
It’s been a while since the lockpicking seminar he took, but the filing cabinet lock is small and relatively simple, and he pops it open after a couple minutes of careful fiddling. Meng Yao’s files are meticulous, organized, color-coded; his handwriting is so neat it could practically be a font. There’s nothing, nothing but expense reports and gantt charts and revenue forecasting models. Nothing, nothing, nothing, in all three drawers.
The bottom drawer is oddly difficult to slide back into the cabinet. It clunks awkwardly; Wangji has to lift it and wiggle it a little to get it to slide in. He slides it back out, frowning again. He re-opens the middle drawer, which slides out like it’s been greased. Both drawers are full of hanging files; the bottom drawer doesn’t seem to have enough extra paper in it for how much heavier it is. He selects a file at random (“Expense Reports Q3 2018”) and pulls it out from the bottom drawer, pulling one from the middle drawer to compare their weights.
The file from the bottom drawer is no heavier or more full than the one from the middle drawer, but it is about ¾ of an inch shorter. Both folders are the standard letter-size width they’d need to be to fit in the cabinet, but whereas the folder from the middle drawer is about 9 ½ inches deep, leaving about an inch of clearance between the top of the papers inside and the top of the folder, the folder from the bottom drawer is just barely taller than the papers it contains. He can see, now that he’s looking for it, that all of the folders in the bottom drawer have this same characteristic; the edges of the papers inside are a little rumpled, a little frayed, from rubbing up so close to the tops of the folders they’re in.
He slides the folder from the middle drawer back into its spot, careful not to disrupt Meng Yao’s meticulous filing system, then lifts the folders from the bottom drawer in groups, taking that same care to preserve the order they were in. The bottom of the drawer is black plastic. He presses on it, and it gives way a little; there’s a space between the bottom of the inside of the drawer and the bottom of the outside. He keeps pressing around the edges, until he feels something underneath depress with a click and the bottom of the drawer comes up in his hand.
The space under the false drawer bottom is lined with a soft material, presumably to keep the contents from rattling around. There’s an external hard drive; a burner phone; and a stack of envelopes, a couple on Nightless City letterhead, the rest just plain white. Each envelope contains a generic black thumb drive, sometimes two. On the front of each envelope is scrawled the same message: XOXO XY.
The stack of envelopes is rattling; Wangji realizes that it’s because his hands are visibly, uncontrollably shaking. He sets the envelopes down, puts his hands on his knees, and breathes, his vision briefly overwhelmed by spots of blooming, sparkling black. When the spots clear, he’s still staring into the drawer, but for a moment his brain can’t even process what he’s looking at. There’s nothing in him, no thought, no reason, just pulsing waves of red-black rage, a startling violence that he hadn’t known could even live in his body.
He breathes in, and out again. He acknowledges his fear and anger. He breathes in calm and quiet, and breathes out the storm inside him, until it is present, but no longer controlling him. He tells himself, sternly, that he is not allowed to vomit into Meng Yao’s file drawer.
Meng Yao’s computer is password-protected, but that doesn’t prevent Wangji from using it under a guest profile. He expects the thumb drives to be password-protected as well, but they’re not. The first drive he accesses has a few folders, all of images. Guns, at first: handguns and semi-automatic pistols, off-brand variants and clones of M16 and AK-47 rifles, even grenade launchers, in groups of one or ten or 50. In the next folder, boxes of ammunition, hollow-point rounds, grenades nestled neatly into their packing boxes. Mostly from Chinese manufacturers, a few Russian, a few Wangji doesn’t immediately recognize.
The next drive just has numbers. A table of 16-digit numbers, each with a month and year associated with it, makes Wangji blink for a minute before he realizes that it must be credit card numbers and expiration dates; another folder is just a massive dump of thousands of email addresses, usernames, and passwords. All the drives are like this: images of weapons, personal information, tables of prescription drugs, a veritable smorgasbord of illegal items.
He’s expecting the hard drive to be more of the same, but on a larger scale. Instead, he finds balance sheets, routing numbers, incorporation documents. The specifics are way too complicated for Wangji to be able to parse, but put together, they tell a pretty clear story: money is carefully cleansed through a series of shell companies and fictional enterprises, then funneled into Jin Corp’s coffers through various channels, in amounts too small to attract notice individually, but adding up to a sizable sum in aggregate.
Working quickly, the back of his neck prickling every moment with the fear he’ll be apprehended, Wangji accesses his private FTP server and begins copying the files from the hard drive to his home computer — he’s not foolish enough to store illegally-obtained evidence on his work machine. If he hasn’t found Wei Ying by Monday, he can tip Hoffman off about the key card. Hopefully the prospect of a big corporate bust will be enough to motivate Major Crimes to search Meng Yao’s office; they can find all of this evidence for themselves, legally this time. Otherwise, at least he’ll have the financial evidence, which won’t be admissible in court, but could easily be leaked to the media.
The burner phone doesn’t have any contacts saved in it, but Meng Yao clearly hasn’t been as careful as he should have been about deleting the text history. The most recent exchange is from last night: the burner phone received a text from an unlisted number, saying We have N in sight. The burner phone had sent back: Proceed. The time stamps match up with Nie Mingjue's hit-and-run. Wangji sets his jaw, and the maelstrom of anger in his chest goes white, and still, and stone-cold.
He forces himself to be careful, to be slow and considered and thorough, as he packs everything back into the drawer, placing everything back exactly where it had been. The dismantled pen and bent paper clip he shoves into his pocket, not wanting to leave them in the wastebasket to possibly be found. He clears the history from the guest profile on Meng Yao’s computer and slips out of the building, not giving the security guards a second glance as he exits. It’s almost time to meet up with Jiang Wanyin.
As he walks back toward his car, Wangji pulls out his phone and dials Nie Huaisang once more.
“Lan-laoshi! How was your secret mission?”
“I need you to do something for me, no questions asked,” Wangji says.
“Hang on,” Nie Huaisang says. Wangji can hear him say to someone else, muffled, “I’m going to take this outside.” There’s a short interlude of rustling. “OK,” Nie Huaisang says. “Go.”
“Two things, actually,” Wangji amends himself, thinking fast, trying to keep from breaking into a run as he hurries along the sidewalk. “First, I need you to tell Nie Mingjue that our hypothesis about the accident was correct, and that he needs to make Spencer put someone on his door.”
There’s a pause, as his friend absorbs the information that his brother might be in need of police protection, but Nie Huaisang has always held ‘no questions asked’ to be a sacred bond. “Done,” he says. “What else?”
Wangji opens the door to his car, swings inside. “Keep Xichen with you,” he says. There’s an instant, a tiny fraction of a second, where his eyes sting and his throat closes at the thought of his brother, but he shakes it off impatiently. “Don’t let him go back to our apartment. Keep him at the hospital if you can, or if nothing else, make him come home with you. Make up an excuse, you’re better at those sorts of details.”
Nie Huaisang clears his throat. “True.”
“Whatever happens, don’t let him go home, and don’t let him go anywhere with Meng Yao. No matter what he says.”
“OK, I won’t.”
Wangji breathes out a heavy sigh, trying to force his heartbeat to slow down. He closes his eyes. “Thanks, didi.”
“I promise I will explain everything as soon as I can.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Nie Huaisang laughs, a little unsteadily.
He arrives at the diner a few minutes before 6, and doesn’t see Jiang anywhere. Fortunately the dinner rush hasn’t really gotten going yet; he’s able to request a booth at the very back of the long, narrow space, where he can sit with his back to the wall and watch the door. Jiang probably won’t like sitting with his back to the room — most cops don’t — but Wangji’s nerves are still jangling from his foray into corporate espionage, and he needs something solid at his back if he’s going to keep from jumping out of his skin.
The server brings him a glass of water, which he drains gratefully, and a cup of terrible, burnt-tasting tea. Jiang strides in a few minutes later, exuding a restless, irascible energy, like he has a bee in his classically elegant fall coat. He scowls when he sees that Wangji has left him the seat facing away from the door, but sinks into it without comment.
“No luck getting a hold of Wen Qing,” he says without preamble. “I had a hard enough time tracking down anyone who’s still in touch with her, and when I did, she still wasn’t picking up the phone.”
Wangji sips his tea, watching as Jiang adjusts his shirt cuffs, straightens his tie, fidgets around in his chair, and with a final burst of cranky energy, snaps open the menu. In a way, it’s almost soothing; the annoyance he feels at Jiang Wanyin’s mannerisms is refreshingly grounded in the everyday.
The server, perhaps sensing the presence of an impatient rich person, appears next to their table as if by magic. Jiang orders blueberry pancakes, sausage, and scrambled eggs. Wangji’s stomach is feeling weak and shaky after the events of the last 24 hours, so he just orders a fruit cup and a bowl of oatmeal.
“I heard you were uptight, Lan, but I didn’t think that meant you actually ate gruel for dinner,” Jiang scoffs.
Wangji doesn’t feel the need to dignify that with a response.
“So what did you get up to this afternoon?” Jiang asks. “Did your ‘hunch’ pan out?”
Taking another sip of his tea, Wangji makes and holds eye contact. “Before we proceed, I should remind you that this is officially a Major Crimes case now. Neither of us is supposed to be working on it.”
Jiang straightens up in his seat a little. “I know.”
“I make it my practice not to lie,” Wangji says. “But it would perhaps be for the best if you did not inquire as to how I obtained the information I’m about to share with you.”
“Noted,” Jiang says slowly.
Wangji tells him about what he found in Meng Yao’s office, carefully avoiding any details about how he got into the building, or how he knows Meng Yao in the first place — if there’s any way he can keep Xichen’s name out of this, he’s going to do it. Jiang, who is clearly less familiar with the doctrine of ‘no questions asked’ than Nie Huaisang is, interrupts him several times to ask things like “How did you even get past security?” Each time, Wangji simply closes his mouth and waits, silent, until he’s sure Jiang is going to let him continue. By the time he finishes his report, they’re both equal parts upset by the information and irritated with each other.
“Jin Corp,” Jiang says, shaking his head. He takes a ruminative bite of pancake. “I’d say I can’t believe it, but I’m actually having very little trouble believing it.”
“Could Jin Zixuan —”
“No.” Jiang cuts him off. “No way he’s involved.”
“I know he’s your brother-in-law, but…” Wangji tactfully leaves the sentence unfinished.
“Yeah, and you also know I barely even like the guy,” Jiang points out. “But I still don’t think he’d be involved in something like this, and even if he was, he’s not smart enough to keep it a secret from my sister.”
Thinking of Jin Zixuan’s vacuous smile, Wangji’s inclined to agree.
“So, what,” Jiang says. “Jin Corp gets this stuff into the country, the Wens sell it?”
Wangji nods. “Perhaps. But sell it to whom? They wouldn’t be moving goods in such mass quantities without a buyer in mind. Who would be in the market for such a wide array of illegal goods?”
They eat, tossing ideas back and forth, jotting down notes, debating each other. It’s not as easy or as productive as it would have been with Nie Mingjue (and every time Wangji thinks about that, the frigid rage in his gut drops another several degrees), but it’s still helpful to have another person to bounce things off of. Even as the brainstorming focuses his mind and the oatmeal soothes his stomach, though, Wangji can’t quite relax, can’t keep from jumping at every loud noise, can’t keep from looking up every time someone comes through the door.
Which is why he doesn’t miss it when, just as they’re finishing their meal, the ghost of the man he loves walks in.
Wei Ying is pale; his step is slow and measured, so different from the way he usually bounces and lopes and saunters around. His face is closed off, guarded. But it’s him.
Jiang is signing the check and carping about something or other, so absorbed in his complaints that he doesn’t notice that Wangji is frozen to the spot, doesn’t notice anything until Wei Ying quietly sits down in the chair next to him. Jiang looks up and is also frozen; the two of them gape at Wei Ying, who turns to look straight at his brother, ignoring Wangji entirely.
After a long, shocked moment, Jiang is the first to recover. He pulls Wei Ying into a fierce hug, squeezing his eyes tightly shut. Wei Ying stiffens, but brings one hand up to tentatively pat Jiang Wanyin’s back.
Pulling back from the hug, Jiang takes a moment to compose himself, then turns and punches Wei Ying viciously in the arm. “What the hell happened to you?”
Wei Ying smiles, a fractured little half-smile that doesn’t touch his eyes. “Hello to you, too, little brother,” he says quietly. He’s still refusing to so much as glance at Wangji, which at least gives Wangji the stance to study him, to take in every inch of his dear, longed-for face, to scrutinize him for hurt and harm.
He’s thinner than he was six days ago, the bones of his wrists and clavicles standing out more sharply than they usually do. There are deep purple hollows under his eyes, and unshaven shadows on his chin. His skin is dull; his hair is lank and greasy, hanging limply in a loose ponytail down his back. He’s wearing a black button-down shirt that Wangji’s never seen before, and it fits him oddly, straining tight across his shoulders, the unbuttoned cuffs leaving a good half inch of his wrists bare. A half-healed cut ladders up his lower lip.
But he’s here, he’s alive and he’s right here, and Wangji wants nothing more than to touch him, to pull him close and smell his skin and feel his heartbeat, to reassure himself that this isn’t a dream, but Wei Ying still won’t look at him, and Wangji will not betray himself in front of Jiang Wanyin until he understands more about what’s going on.
“You look like hell,” Jiang observes in typical Jiang fashion. “Where the fuck have you been?”
Wei Ying smiles that broken smile again, and ducks his head; the light catches his cheekbone and Wangji can see that there is a large, days-old bruise blooming there, fading greens and browns darkening to mottled purple at the center, another greening bruise darkening the corner of his jaw. “Would you believe I got mugged?” he asks. “Some guys jumped me coming out of work on Monday.”
“A-jie’s been beside herself,” Jiang says, as though he and Wangji have not also been beside themselves. “Why didn’t you call her?”
“They took my phone. I haven’t...had a chance to get a new one,” Wei Ying says carefully. “I’ve been staying with...a friend of a friend. While I recuperated.” An insincere flash of teeth, which Jiang seems to completely buy.
“Goddammit, Wei Wuxian, we’ve been all over the city looking for you,” Jiang grumbles, but he’s looking more and more mollified by the second. Wangji wants to scream, wants to reach across the table and throttle him because something is wrong, something is clearly wrong, nothing about this is right, but Wei Ying’s mere presence seems to have satisfied Jiang that there’s nothing more to worry about.
“You do have a tendency to overreact, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying says evenly. “There’s no need.”
“You’ve been staying with a friend of a friend?” Wangji asks sharply. “Who?”
Wei Ying turns to look at him for the first time, and his eyes are glittering, dangerous, a razor’s well-honed edge. “Ah yes, Detective Lan,” he says in a cold, detached voice that sets Wangji’s teeth on edge. “I must apologize for inconveniencing you, but as you can see, there’s nothing to investigate.”
“And you’re OK?” Jiang asks, elbowing him, relief shading into a sort of jocular brotherly roughhousing.
Wei Ying raises his chin. “I’m fine,” he says firmly.
“I must ask that you come down to the station and give a statement,” Wangji says, privately thinking If I can just get him alone, away from Jiang Wanyin, maybe he’ll tell me the truth.
“That won’t be necessary,” Wei Ying says. His smile is polite, distant, dismissive; it’s the smile you give a passing acquaintance who’s done something overly familiar, when you’re too polite to call them out on it. “Really, Detective Lan, I’m not sure what more you want from me. I heard that you were looking for me; here I am. I’m not missing. I’m right here.” He looks at Wangji as though they mean nothing to each other. It stings. It burns.
“I don’t think he needs to come down to the station,” Jiang Wanyin adds. “We’ve both seen him, that should be enough to close the Missing Persons case. But I expect a full report from you, later,” he says, pointing a finger in Wei Ying’s face.
Wei Ying turns away from Wangji again, disregarding him entirely. “Of course, later,” he tells Jiang Wanyin. “I have to go. I just saw you through the window, and thought I would come in and tell you to call off the hunt. Please apologize to Yanli for me, and tell her I’ll call her when I can.”
“Tell her yourself,” Jiang retorts.
Wei Ying smiles, and this one almost looks real. “Maybe I will.”
He pats Jiang on the shoulder, pushes back from the table, and turns to walk out. Wangji is so stunned by his sudden appearance and his odd behavior that he almost lets him go. A part of him is already trying to protect himself, telling himself that he’d simply gotten too invested in a casual friendship, that he should drop the whole thing before he embarasses himself further. He remembers the bunny drawings, the tender affection with which Wei Ying had sketched his face, and scowls.
Wei Ying is almost to the door of the diner by the time Wangji catches up to him. “Wei Ying!” Wangji calls urgently.
Wei Ying stops, his back to Wangji, and seems to consider not turning around. He does, though, that patient, tolerant, dead-eyed smile still on his face. “Detective Lan?”
“What’s really going on?” Wangji asks, looking searchingly into Wei Ying’s eyes. “You can tell me.” You know you can.
“I already told you everything,” Wei Ying says. His face betrays nothing, no emotion at all. “There’s nothing more to say. Now, unless I’m under arrest for something, I assume I’m free to go?” He turns to leave.
“Wait—” Wangji reaches out and grabs his forearm, intending to turn Wei Ying back toward him. Wei Ying jumps, sucking in a breath through his teeth as though in pain, and jerks his arm out of Wangji’s grasp. He tugs at the sleeve of his too-small shirt, pulling it as far down his arm as he can, but not before Wangji can see the red marks on the soft underside of his arm, several of them, each raised and shiny and perfectly round. Wangji raises his eyes back to Wei Ying’s, and for a moment Wei Ying’s mask slips and Wangji can see pain and fear and a terrible sadness in his eyes.
“Stop looking for me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says softly. He turns and walks out of the restaurant, not looking back.
Wangji watches him through the front window as he walks away. He only makes it a few steps before a black sedan pulls up to the curb. The front of the car is crumpled in on the driver’s side, the headlight shattered, the paint scraped. Wen Zhuliu, or whatever his actual name is, gets out of the backseat and holds the door open for Wei Ying like a chauffeur. Wei Ying, his mouth set in a rigid line, gets into the backseat, and Wen Zhuliu gets in after him. Wangji narrows his eyes, trying to get a look at the driver, who’s wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses; the driver sees him looking and blows him a kiss, wiggling his fingers in a coquettish little wave that shows off his prosthetic finger.
The car peels away from the curb. Wangji stands there, seething, thinking about Nie Mingjue’s collarbone and Xichen’s soon-to-be-broken heart, Xiao Xingchen’s haunted eyes, but above all about Wen Chao chain-smoking in his office, the cigarette burns on Wei Ying’s arm, the bruises on his face. Wangji clenches his hands into fists.
“Fuck,” he whispers.
There's a Tumblr post making the rounds that asks something like, "If you could let Lan Wangji say 'fuck' one time in the series, where would it be?" I decided going in to writing this that Wangji was going to say "fuck" one time in this fic, and this is the spot I chose.
Thanks as always to Spoops and Ericacea for continued betaing/yelling/cheerleading about this story! And thanks to all of you for reading and commenting — I love seeing your reactions to each new chapter.
I made another fanvid, a xuexiao one this time if you're into that: check it out.
Coming next week in Chapter 8: Return to Nightless City.
Chapter 8: Flying Solo
Smiling and being charming, putting people at ease, convincing them to break the rules: these are skills Wangji does not have, has never had. He’s going to have to do this his way, because there is no other way available to him. “I was wondering if you’d let me in there,” he says, indicating the kitchen door. He keeps his chin down and angled slightly away, hoping his hair will keep his face somewhat in shadow in the harsh overhead light, at least enough to obscure his features on the security camera aimed at the door.
“You don’t want to pay the cover?” the shorter guy asks, grinning at him.
Wangji shakes his head. “I don’t care about the cover. I don’t want to wait in the line.”
CW for this chapter: guns
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wangji walks back to his seat at the back of the diner, reeling. His heart is numb with anger and cold shock. He can’t feel his face. After a moment, he realizes that his mouth is hanging open slightly; he closes it with a dry, sandpaper swallow.
“Well, that was...unexpected,” Jiang says as Wangji thumps back into the seat across from him. He’s attempting to look composed, but Wangji can see how relieved he is; it would be a little sweet, if it weren’t so maddening.
“Mn.” Wei Ying had appeared as if from nowhere, looking like death; had given them almost zero information about what had happened to him; and had disappeared as quickly as he’d come, still leaving them with no way to contact him. Unexpected was one way to put it.
“What did you say to him, just now?” Jiang asks.
Stop looking for me, Lan Zhan. “I was trying to find out where he was going.”
Jiang huffs irritably. “I don’t suppose he told you.”
“No,” Wangji admits. “But I saw him get into a car with Wen Zhuliu. I think that guy Xue Yang was driving.”
“Wait, what? Really?” Jiang asks, the relief on his face finally starting to give way to alarm.
“What the fuuuuuuuuuck,” Jiang groans, running a hand through his hair like he’s thinking of pulling it out. “Why the fuck can’t he ever do anything normal?”
“I think he might still be in trouble.” Wangji is sure of it, actually, but men like Jiang respond better to suggestions than to declarative statements.
“Yeah, no shit,” Jiang snorts. “I just don’t know what the fuck we’re supposed to do about it.”
“Why would he get in a car with the Wens?”
Jiang throws up his hands. “Fuck if I know! Fuck if I know anything about what’s going on with him, apparently! If something was wrong, why didn’t he say anything while he was here? And if something’s not wrong…” he trails off, clenching his jaw, and looks away from Wangji. A suspicious look settles over his face.
Wangji can almost hear Jiang’s train of thought, even though he’s stopped speaking aloud. If Wei Ying had gotten in the car with the Wens voluntarily, it would probably mean that he’s been involved in some illegal activity. If that’s the case, as far as Jiang is concerned, the less Wangji or anyone else at the SPD knows about it, the better. Going to jail the first time had destroyed Wei Ying's life; going back would be even worse.
Jiang stands and begins gathering his belongings, avoiding Wangji’s eyes. “I appreciate the extra care you’ve taken with this case, Lan, you and Nie both. Since it seems that my brother is officially no longer a missing person, this is a matter that should be handled within my family. I won’t bother you any more with it.” He holds out a hand for Wangji to shake.
Wangji gets to his feet as well, shaking his hand through sheer force of habit. So now Wei Ying is family, he thinks. “What about Wen Ning?” he asks, starting to feel a little desperate.
“Hell, maybe he really does have pneumonia. Hard to open a case to investigate when nobody’s reported him missing.” He moves briskly toward the door. Wangji trails after him, at a loss for words.
Outside, Jiang claps him on the shoulder. “Thanks again for looking so hard for my brother. I’m sorry to have dragged you into all of this.”
Wangji just stares at him. “We still don’t know where Wei Wuxian has been, or even where he is now.”
“No,” Jiang says, “but we know he’s alive. The rest of it…” He shakes his head, pressing his lips together. “The rest of it is no longer police business. If you’ll excuse me, I should call my sister. I’ll, uh, see you on Monday, Lan.” He strides off, already pulling his phone out of his pocket.
Wangji can’t help feeling like there’s something he could do, some words he could say right now, to get him back on Wangji’s side. Jiang’s brother is still in danger, after all, and Wangji really doesn’t want to do this alone. But he has no idea what those words would be. As far as Jiang Wanyin knows, he’s right not to trust Wangji. Getting mixed up in the Wens' web of criminal activities would be a disaster for Wei Ying, and he can certainly empathize with Jiang Wanyin's desire to keep Wei Ying out of trouble and out of jail.
Unfortunately for Wangji, Jiang is right — there’s no case anymore, now that they’ve both seen Wei Ying and confirmed that he’s alive. He can imagine Yao saying, “it’s not illegal for the guy to ride in a car with scumbags, Lan, close the case.” One five-minute encounter has managed to remove Wangji’s last ally, along with any remaining hope that the SPD would have his back with this investigation.
Even the manner in which they learned this information feels suspect to Wangji — are they really supposed to believe that Wei Ying just happened to be walking by, and saw them seated in the very back of a restaurant?
Wangji pulls out his phone, intending to call Xichen and check in on Nie Mingjue. His thumb is hovering over his brother’s name in his contact list, his mind still playing and replaying the conversation with Wei Ying, when something clicks into place.
How did Wei Ying (or the Wens, or the Jins, or whoever) know he was meeting Jiang here? It’s not like the diner is a regular dinner spot for either of them; he’s eaten there a few times, but not in months, and as far as he knows, Jiang’s never been there before. There’s no reason anyone would assume that’s where he and Jiang would be.
Could Wangji be being followed? He has to assume that the answer is no, since he was able to break into Jin Corp and leave without being apprehended or impeded. Jiang, then? It’s a possibility, especially since the encounter with Wei Ying seemed more designed to set his brother’s mind at ease than to get Wangji off the case.
Of course, there’s another possibility. Slowly, Wangji re-locks his phone and puts it back in his pocket. Meng Yao has a key to his apartment. He’s known since Thursday night that Wangji is one of the investigators on the case. He would have had several opportunities to bug or hack Wangji’s phone. With the right equipment, all it would take was close enough proximity to the phone while it was unlocked to clone the entire thing, which would certainly give Meng Yao access to Wangji’s texts and call history, not to mention his phone’s GPS.
At the convenience store across the street from the diner, he buys a burner phone and loads it with minutes. He uses the ATM and takes out a couple hundred dollars in cash, while he’s at it. Back in his car, he saves Xichen’s number in the burner phone’s contacts, along with Nie Huaisang’s and Nie Mingjue’s; after a moment, he shrugs and adds Jiang Wanyin’s as well.
Xichen isn't picking up, perhaps unsurprisingly given the unfamiliar number Wangji’s calling from. Please answer, Wangji texts him from his own phone, then dials him again from the burner phone.
“Wangji?” Xichen asks when he picks up. “Where are you? What is this number?”
“How’s it going?” Wangji asks, choosing to ignore the question altogether.
“Going pretty well, they’re discharging Mingjue soon. I’m going to go back to the condo with them, help get him settled, and then I think Nie Huaisang wanted to order takeout and maybe watch a movie or something.”
Thank you, Nie Huaisang, Wangji thinks. “Great,” he says. “I already ate. You should hang out there tonight. I’m sure Nie Mingjue would be glad of your company.”
“OK, I think I will!” Xichen says brightly. “You planning to come by later, or do you need to work?”
“I need to work. I…” He thinks carefully about what he wants to say, knowing that someone could be listening. He’s not using his own phone, but Meng Yao seems like the kind of person who might bug his boyfriend’s phone just as a matter of course, if he’s in the habit of bugging phones. “I won’t have my phone on me tonight, so don’t expect to hear from me. If you need me, text me at this number, but I may not be able to answer.”
“All right. Have a good night, be safe!” Xichen’s voice is affectionate, warm; it sounds like home. It makes Wangji long for his childhood, when it seemed like his big brother always knew the right thing to do.
Wangji swallows. He wants to say stay away from Meng Yao. He wants to say I’m sorry. He wants to say I love you. But he can’t risk alarming Xichen, especially when doing so might alert Meng Yao. “You be safe, too,” he says, and hangs up.
He has no partner, no backup, no case. All he has is the burning knowledge that Wei Ying is alive. He knows what he has to do.
He drives home and parks his car in his usual spot; he locks his phone in the glove compartment, sliding the burner phone into his pocket. He does not go inside. He looks up at the roof of the building as he walks past, and imagines that he can see Wei Ying perched up there, cloaked in shadow, whiskey bottle in hand.
Wei Ying is alive, he thinks.
Without his phone, he can’t order a Lyft. He walks down the arterial in the general direction of downtown, keeping an eye out for a cab to hail; he’s almost halfway there before he realizes he might as well just walk. It’s not raining anymore, and he has some time to kill, anyway.
The city is moving from evening into nighttime. Shops are closing up; restaurants are loud and crowded, with lines starting to spill out of the more popular places. Bars are getting noisier. In another couple of hours, Seattle nightlife will be in full swing. It’s not a scene Wangji has much familiarity with, outside of a professional capacity — he doesn’t drink, hates crowds, goes to bed early, and spends too much time dealing with drunk people at work to want to do so in his free time.
He wonders if Wei Ying likes to go out on a Saturday night, and decides that he probably does, when he can afford it. He can picture Wei Ying dancing all night, throwing his arms around his friends’ shoulders, knocking back shots like they were water, sweaty and laughing and alive.
Wei Ying is alive, he thinks again, and the hope hurts so much it’s hard to breathe.
By the time he gets to Belltown, it’s after 9, and the clubs are starting to open. Several different competing bass lines are pounding into the street. He passes groups of people talking, laughing, leaning on each other; alone, his face carefully blank with a touch of ice, he might as well be invisible.
We open at 9, Chengmei — Xue Yang — had said. Cover starts at 10. That means things won’t start getting busy until 10 at the earliest. Wangji finds a wine bar a few blocks up, orders a cup of decaf and a slice of cake, and waits. He’s good at waiting.
Wangji walks past Nightless City carefully, on the other side of the street, his head down. The line’s about 15 people deep — they’re busy, but not slammed. The length of the line matters less than the fact of its forming, for Wangji’s purposes. He’s not planning on going in the front door anyway.
He turns down a side street, then down an alley that stinks of beer and piss and garbage. He leans in the shadows and waits again, watching Nightless City’s loading dock. A young woman comes out the back door and lights a cigarette, staring wearily into space. Wangji notes that she does not move the city-mandated 25 feet from the door before lighting up. From her dramatic makeup and leather bustier, Wangji’s guessing she’s a bartender or a cocktail waitress, something front-of-house, which means she gets guys trying to talk her into things all night, every night. Not the target he’s looking for. He waits. She goes back inside. He waits.
Eventually, two young guys come out, chatting aimlessly in Mandarin. They sit on the edge of the loading dock, feet dangling off the edge, and light up a joint, passing it between them. They’re wearing white aprons over casual street clothes; not front-of-house then, and since Nightless City doesn’t exactly have a robust dinner menu, Wangji assumes they’re busers or dishwashers or the like. Not a glamorous, tip-forward job, and not the kind of job Wen Chao’s flunkies would be lining up for. These guys are likely just regular employees, no mob ties, no larger loyalties.
“Good evening,” Wangji says in Mandarin, walking out of the shadows as if he’s just arrived.
The taller of the two dishwashers snorts out a cloud of smoke. “Good evening,” he says, mocking Wangji’s formal tone.
Smiling and being charming, putting people at ease, convincing them to break the rules: these are skills Wangji does not have, has never had. He’s going to have to do this his way, because there is no other way available to him. “I was wondering if you’d let me in there,” he says, indicating the kitchen door. He keeps his chin down and angled slightly away, hoping his hair will keep his face somewhat in shadow in the harsh overhead light, at least enough to obscure his features on the security camera aimed at the door.
“You don’t want to pay the cover?” the shorter guy asks, grinning at him.
Wangji shakes his head. “I don’t care about the cover. I don’t want to wait in the line.”
“At this time of night, the line shouldn’t be that long,” the taller guy points out.
“There’s someone inside, waiting,” Wangji says. This is technically true; there are likely any number of people waiting inside, for drinks or for the bathroom or for the coat check. Wangji tries not to lie, in part because he’s a terrible liar, but he’s gotten very good, over the years, at saying little and letting people come to their own conclusions.
The tall guy smirks. “If you can’t leave your girl alone in the club, maybe she shouldn’t be your girl.”
Wangji reaches into his pocket. “The cover is 20, right? Why don’t we say 40? 20 for each of you?”
The dishwashers exchange a look.
Ten minutes and 50 bucks later, Wangji is standing in Nightless City’s busy, steam-filled kitchen. No bouncers to check his ID and possibly recognize his name from a “No Entry” list; no Wen henchmen who might recognize his face and call the boss. Most importantly, no metal detector, which means nobody’s seen his badge and he still has his gun, hidden at the small of his back, his untucked shirt pulled over it.
He moves toward the door to the main area of the club, waiting until the last moment to duck into the stairwell leading up to Wen Chao’s office instead. Silently, his back to the wall, he slides up the stairs, keeping to the shadows as much as possible.
It’s Saturday night, and Wen Chao had not struck Wangji as the type of person who works on Saturday night. Wen Chao is more likely to be in the VIP area of the club, or doing something else entirely, than he is to be working in his office. Hoffman had said that Wen Zhuliu rarely left Wen Chao’s side, which means that Wen Chao had almost certainly been the one to send him with Wei Ying to the diner tonight. Wen Chao knows where Wei Ying is. His stupid Bond villain lair of an office is the most likely place to find that information.
No light spills out from underneath the door — Wangji’s hypothesis about Wen Chao’s Saturday night plans appears to have been correct — but it’s locked, of course. Wangji supposes it would have been too much to hope that it wouldn’t be. He glances back down the stairwell, which is dark and empty behind him, lit only by the light filtering in from the kitchen. He can hear the clatter of dishes and glassware, and beyond it, the thump of bass from the dance floor. Nobody seems to have noticed him slipping up here. There are no security cameras in the stairwell. Wen Chao probably doesn’t want a record of who might go in and out of his office.
Wangji reaches into his pocket, where he still has the disassembled pen and bent-out paper clip he’d used to break into Meng Yao’s filing cabinet that afternoon (That was today, he thinks to himself for the second time in two days, and tries not to feel like he’s aged a decade since Thursday morning). He’d put them in his pocket mostly because he hadn’t known what else to do with them at the time, but he’s glad he hasn’t come to this door completely empty-handed. He sinks to one knee and starts to work on the lock.
This lock is sturdier and more complicated than the one on the filing cabinet had been. The plastic inner core of the pen bends and flexes within the lock’s inner workings, and Wangji has to be careful not to break it. It’s dark in the stairwell, and every sound from the kitchen has him glancing down the stairs with his heart in his throat. His back and knees start to ache from kneeling hunched around the lock.
Finally, he can start to feel the tumblers inside start to move. Hope sparking within him, he redoubles his efforts. He thinks he’s close — he can feel things beginning to click into place — when the door is flung open from within. He almost over-balances, falling inward toward the door. When he pulls himself upright, gasping in surprise, he looks up into the barrel of a gun pointed at his forehead.
“Get up,” Wen Zhuliu says, his face expressionless, his hands steady around the gun’s stock.
Awash in cold fear, Wangji holds his hands out away from his body. He stands up slowly, keeping his eyes on the weapon. Wen Zhuliu tracks his motion with the gun’s barrel, keeping it aimed directly at Wangji’s face as Wangji rises to his feet.
After the initial jolt of surprise, Wangji’s heart seems to drop back into his chest in slow motion. The breath he draws into his lungs feels hyper-oxygenated, his vision sharpening into a startling clarity. With the office door open, he can see that there is, in fact, a light on inside, a single reading lamp, too dim for him to have seen around the cracks in the door jamb. The gun is a Sig Sauer, the P226 or maybe the P220, it’s hard to tell in the dim light. Wen Zhuliu’s weight is evenly distributed over his feet, his shoulders dropped low and pointed squarely at Wangji. He knows how to handle the gun, clearly, not that it matters with a .40 caliber at this range, where he could take Wangji’s head off without even trying.
“Let’s talk about this,” Wangji says, with no real idea of what he’s going to say next. Wen Zhuliu doesn’t reply. One of Wen Chao’s other minions appears at Wen Zhuliu’s shoulder from inside the office, speaking quietly into a cell phone. If Wangji is getting out of this, it has to be now, before reinforcements arrive. “Listen,” he tries again, taking a step backward. He holds his hands out in front of him, as though to placate the looming enforcer, a gesture that also takes his hands closer to his own waist, his own gun.
“Hands,” Wen Zhuliu snaps, not taking his eyes — or his gun — off of Wangji’s face. Stomach sinking, Wangji raises his hands back in the air. “On your head,” Wen Zhuliu prompts him. Wangji complies, settling his hands onto the back of his head, trying to keep his breathing steady.
The light coming up the stairwell dims, and Wangji knows he’s missed his chance. Two more men are making their way up the stairs, guns drawn, a third staying below to block the doorway. One stops at the top of the stairs, training his gun on Wangji — this guy seems a little nervous, a little less assured of his weapon, which would be to Wangji’s advantage if he was more than 3 feet away, but right now just increases the likelihood that the guy will shoot him accidentally.
The other guy moves behind Wangji and starts to search him. Wangji keeps his hands on his head, cursing inwardly, as the guy pats down his arms, his sides. His searcher makes an interested sound when he finds the folded cash in Wangji’s front pocket, and slips it into his own pocket; he hands the burner phone over Wen Zhuliu’s shoulder to the man behind him, who’s still on the phone. He makes another interested sound when he finds Wangji’s gun, which he unceremoniously strips, handing the pieces back to the guy in the office as well, along with Wangji’s badge. He pats down Wangji’s legs, and, search completed, grabs Wangji’s wrists and wrestles them behind his back, twisting his right arm up hard enough that pain flares up through Wangji’s shoulder.
Wangji feels oddly calm about the fact that he’s about to die. He’s aware that his heart is jackrabbiting with panic, but it feels removed from him somehow, laid over with a deep, crystalline serenity. He thinks distantly that if the guy behind him doesn’t move, he’s going to get blood all over him. He wishes he could have found Wei Ying.
The guy who’s been on the phone hangs up the call, moving around Wen Zhuliu into the narrow hallway. In doing so, he partially obstructs the guy on the stairs’ line of sight. Wangji watches out of the corner of his eye as the second gunman lowers his weapon, so as not to be aiming directly at his compatriot.
“Don’t kill him,” says the guy with the cell phone.
“I don’t mind killing a cop,” Wen Zhuliu says, in the same tone of voice someone might say I don’t mind tomato on my sandwich.
Cell Phone Guy shrugs. “He said, don’t kill him.”
“Really?” Wen Zhuliu turns to look at Cell Phone Guy, taking his eyes off of Wangji for the first time; the gun barrel drifts a centimeter or so to the right as he turns his head. It’s not much of a chance, but it’s the only one Wangji’s going to get.
Wangji slams his heel down with all his weight onto the foot of the man holding his arms. The guy howls and loosens his grip, enough for Wangji to drive an elbow back and up into his solar plexus; the breath is knocked out of the man with a sick coughing sound. Wangji throws himself forward, intending to knock his shoulder into Wen Zhuliu’s hands and get the gun pointed at the ceiling, hoping to wrest it from his grasp. Instead, Wen Zhuliu smoothly sidesteps him, reaching out with one catcher’s-mitt sized hand to grab Wangji by the throat and slam him into the wall. Wangji’s head rebounds off of the wall with a sickening crack that makes him see stars for a moment.
“Detective Lan,” Wen Zhuliu says dispassionately. He presses the gun into Wangji’s shoulder, angling it up and away from Wangji’s face such that a bullet would shatter his shoulder rather than his skull. “Be smart.”
There’s nothing to say to that. Wangji slumps slightly against the wall, breathing hard.
“What do we do with him?” the guy on the stairs asks.
Wen Zhuliu looks at Wangji, considering. “Put him downstairs, for now.”
Wangji’s arms are seized and wrenched behind him once more. They half-march, half-drag him down the stairs, Wen Zhuliu following behind them with the gun pressed to Wangji’s ribs. In the kitchen, no one so much as glances at them; he wonders how much time the employees of Nightless City must spend looking the other way while people are marched past them at gunpoint. Next to the stairway going up to the office, there’s another stairway leading down. They manhandle him down the stairs and into a long hallway, dragging him past a storeroom full of kegs and an open closet crammed with dusty janitorial supplies, coming to a stop at a reinforced steel door. The door is shiny and new, incongruous in the dank, dingy basement. Wen Zhuliu pulls out a ring of keys and unlocks it; they shove Wangji through the door and slam it behind him.
He stumbles a few steps into the room, which is small-ish and almost entirely empty. An army-surplus cot is shoved into one corner; the only other thing in the room is a large desk, covered with computer equipment. Standing in front of the desk, where he’s clearly just leaped out of his chair, is a white-faced Wei Ying.
They stare at each other for a moment, both too stunned to speak.
Wei Ying is wearing his red Twin Heroes t-shirt; the Wens must have provided him with the shirt he was wearing at the diner earlier, so he wasn’t wearing the exact same clothes he’d been wearing when he disappeared for his conversation with Wangji and Jiang Wanyin. He’s bruised and haggard, just like he’d been this afternoon, but he’s there, breathing and beautiful and just a few feet away.
Wangji’s been thinking for days about what he wants to say to Wei Ying when he sees him again, but now he finds he can’t speak at all, can’t even move, can’t reach out and touch Wei Ying like every fiber of his being is longing to do. He can only stare, his eyes greedily drinking in every detail. Wei Ying’s nails are chipped and bitten down to the quick. His lips are dry and cracked. The hole in the neck of his t-shirt has gotten bigger, revealing a heartbreaking glimpse of his collarbone. His eyes are wide and bloodshot, gazing at Wangji with the same surprise with which Wangji is gazing back at him.
Wei Ying recovers first. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he rasps.
Wangji exhales slowly. The adrenaline is starting to bleed out of his system, leaving him feeling shaky and drained. “Looking for you,” he says.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying rubs his hands over his eyes, his face, clearly frustrated. “I told you not to do that.”
Wangji shrugs. They size each other up for a moment.
Slowly, carefully, the way one might approach a wild animal, Wangji begins to walk toward Wei Ying, who eyes him mistrustfully but lets him approach. Wangji stops right in front of him, just a breath away, close enough to feel the warmth of his body. Up close, Wangji can see that Wei Ying is tense, practically humming with it, his breathing a little frantic, his eyes darting to Wangji and away again.
With that same slow, deliberate movement, giving Wei Ying plenty of time to pull away, Wangi reaches up and touches Wei Ying’s face. A tremor runs through Wei Ying at the contact, but he lets Wangji gently turn his head, angling his bruised cheekbone up toward the light. The point of impact is still a deep purplish red, but the way it’s fading out around the edges and the lack of swelling indicate there’s no deeper damage to the bone underneath. His split lip is mostly healed. Wangji’s guessing that both injuries were part of the initial kidnapping, and not signs of ongoing abuse, which is good.
Wangji’s hand is still on Wei Ying’s face, and he wants rather desperately to kiss him, to wrap him in his arms and never let go, but Wei Ying is looking way too freaked out for anything like that. He drops his hand slowly, reaching down to take Wei Ying’s wrist. Unresisting, Wei Ying lets Wangji lift his hand, turning it over to examine the burns on his forearm. There are five in total. Two have faded to a red-brown and begun to flake, probably five or six days old. The other three are fresher, a blistered, angry red. Wangji softly runs a finger down Wei Ying’s arm alongside the burns, taking care not to touch the injured skin. Wei Ying trembles again, just slightly.
“They hurt you,” Wangji says. He does not add I’ll kill them, but it’s definitely implied.
Wei Ying pulls his hand away, takes a small step back. “I’ve been hurt worse,” he says, tucking his arm behind himself. “It’s not that big a deal.”
For the first time, Wangji really looks around them. They’re in a windowless storage room, marks on the floor and walls indicating the places where, until recently, shelves must have stood. He thinks about the piles of boxes and supplies in Wen Chao’s office, the stacks of paper towels and industrial-sized bottles of dish soap, and kicks himself for not wondering more about why they were being stored there. A door at one end of the room is ajar, leading to a small, dingy toilet cubicle. The cot, the desk, the chair, and the computer are the only furniture in the room. A security camera is bolted to one corner of the ceiling; the room is small enough that the camera could easily capture everything in it. He can hear the distant thump of music from the busy nightclub above.
Wangji gestures toward the camera. “Can they hear us?”
“No.” Wei Ying shakes his head. “Video only, as far as I can tell. Not like I’ve been having a ton of scintillating conversations down here by myself.”
“That’s good.” It isn’t good, exactly, but it’s at least something. “Where is Wen Ning?”
“I don’t know,” Wei Ying says, his mouth twisting with anger.
Wangji sits down on the edge of the cot, feeling a deep weariness tugging at the edges of his mind. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Wei Ying sinks down into the computer chair. He swivels it back and forth a few times, head resting in his hand, looking worn down and a little truculent.
“You might as well tell me,” Wangji points out. “I’m here now.”
“How much do you already know?” Wei Ying asks, blowing a wisp of hair out of his face.
“I know you had a conversation with Xue Yang at a party a few weeks ago, and he offered you some sort of project, which you turned down. I know the Wens are working with Jin Corp to sell illegal goods and launder the money. I assume the project is related. I know Wen Ning disappeared around the same time you did, but nobody reported him missing, and I know his sister is actively covering that up for some reason.”
“Wow, you know a lot,” Wei Ying says with an ironic little smile. “You should be a detective.”
Wangji lifts an eyebrow at him.
Wei Ying sighs. “How familiar are you with the dark web?”
“OK, well.” Wei Ying sits forward, resting his elbows on his knees, the spark coming back into his eyes a little like it always does when he’s talking about something that interests him. “The main thing about a dark web site is that it can’t be accessed via links from other websites, or even from a regular browser like Chrome. You have to have the address to access it, but even with the address, a regular browser would just display a blank page.”
Wangji nods. That much, at least, he knows.
“With a regular web page, you tell your browser what page you want to access, the browser asks the server for the page, and then it returns it to you. Simple. To access a page on the dark web, you need to use something called onion browsing. Basically, instead of going directly to the server, you use a tool like Tor, which routes you through a series of nodes.
“The request is wrapped in multiple layers of encryption, and between each layer is the location of the next node. So node A decrypts a layer and sees that the request needs to be sent to node B; then node B decrypts the next layer and sees that the request needs to be sent to node C, and so on and so on,” Wei Ying mimics the journey with his eloquent hands. “Then, when the request gets to the actual server, the server returns the requested page through a new series of nodes. So the server only knows that the request came from node E or whatever, and you only know that the page was returned from node A. The intermediate steps are disguised.”
“OK,” Wangji says, not sure where this is going.
“So this means that Tor is a lot slower than just, like, the normal internet, because of all the extra steps involved. There’s a ton of stuff like streaming video that just straight-up won’t work on the dark web, and any kind of advanced functionality, you have to weigh against how long it would take to load. As a result, most of the dark web looks like shit, and it’s frustrating to use. It’s, like, a bunch of sites that look like Geocities pages from the mid-90s,” Wei Ying scoffs. “Search engines on dark web markets are borderline useless because modern search algorithms are too complex, actually buying stuff can be a gigantic pain in the ass, the dark web is not, like, a pleasant browsing experience.”
Wangji is starting to put the pieces together. “The Wens are building a dark web marketplace?”
“Actually I’m pretty sure that the Jins are the ones building the dark web marketplace, the Wens are just helping them stock it. But yeah.” Wei Ying slumps back in the computer chair. “This site...it’s everything. Guns, drugs, passports, credit card numbers…it’s like Silk Road, turned up to eleven.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Wangji confesses.
Wei Ying snorts. “Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan. No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” He smiles, shaking his head, and Wangji loves him, loves him, and if Wangji has to die in this basement, at least he’s seen that smile one more time. Wei Ying looks back at him, a softness in his eyes, in the lines of his mouth.
“...What?” Wangji asks, when the moment stretches out too long.
“Nothing. It’s just…” Wei Ying shakes his head again. “It’s nice to see you.”
“You, too.” This is an understatement, but it’s all Wangji can manage without leaping across the room and crushing his mouth onto Wei Ying’s, so it’s going to have to do for now. He clears his throat. “So what does any of this have to do with you?”
“I, um…” Wei Ying looks away from him, down at his feet. “I wrote this programming language,” he says to the floor. “It’s super lightweight, it’s designed to be fast but still enable websites to incorporate some more sophisticated design elements and functionality. I’ve used it to build dark web sites before. Not for anything illegal,” he says hastily, glancing up at Wangji, like Wangji cares even the tiniest amount about that right now. “Just for like...some community organizing stuff, abortion clinic escort resources, that kind of thing.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” Wangji says gently.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying laughs, a tired laugh but a real one. “You can’t just say things like that to me.” He rubs his eyes. “Sorry, I forgot what I was saying.”
“You mentioned this coding language to Xue Yang?” Wangji prompts him.
Wei Ying rolls his eyes. “That fucking guy.”
“Mn,” Wangji concurs.
“So…” Wei Ying fidgets impatiently. “I’m a good friend, OK? Like, if my friend wants to break up with the super-nice dude he’s been practically married to for almost a decade and rebound with some hot scary edgelord, I celebrate his life choices.” Wangji’s not familiar with the term edgelord, but it does seem an apt descriptor for Xue Yang. “I figure, if that’s the crazy train Xiao Xingchen wants to be on, the best thing I can do is get on board, because I am a good friend,” Wei Ying continues, pointing a finger for emphasis.
“Lan Zhaannnnnn,” Wei Ying whines with a teasing grin. “Stop saying nice things to me, my delicate constitution can’t handle it.”
Wangji allows himself a tiny smile of self-satisfaction. Wei Ying is going to have to get used to it.
“Anyway, sorry, it’s taking me forever to tell you this.”
Wangji indicates the bare, empty room they’re imprisoned in with an ironic eyebrow.
“Right,” Wei Ying chuckles. “Not like we have anything better to do.”
Pass out from exhaustion is starting to look like a viable alternative activity to Wangji, but he needs to know what they’re up against. “Go on.”
“So, because, as you so correctly point out, I am such a nice and charming and handsome and loyal friend, and because I was supremely plastered at the time, I end up talking to this guy Xue Yang for like half an hour at this party, because it seemed like Xiao Xingchen maybe needed...a little break from the guy.”
Wangji thinks of Xiao Xingchen’s wide, frightened eyes, the way his hands had shaken when they’d brought up Xue Yang. He told me he was a bartender.
“I don’t even know what all I talked to him about, like I said, I was shitfaced. But apparently I talked a big game about my dark web programming skills, and apparently Xue Yang passed that information on to Wen Chao, because next thing I know, the two of them are blowing up my phone trying to get me to build this fucking website for them.” Wei Ying folds his arms. “Like I’m stupid enough to build them the fucking Amazon of illegal shit, in a programming language I wrote, that only I know, especially…” he trails off, kicking fretfully at the leg of his chair, frowning at the floor.
“...Especially given your criminal record,” Wangji finishes for him.
Wei Ying glances up at him, looking wary and vulnerable and suddenly, impossibly young. In In Wei Ying’s face, Wangji can see the 18-year-old boy whose life shattered around him, and Wangji grieves for that boy. Wei Ying drops his eyes back to the floor. “...You know about that, huh?” he asks quietly.
Wangji keeps his voice equally quiet. “I do.”
“Lan Zhan, I —”
“You were young,” Wangji says firmly. “And from what I understand, it wasn’t your fault.”
Wei Ying smiles a bitter little smile. “It wasn’t not my fault.”
“Even so, you were not the only one to blame. You should not have been the only one to suffer for it.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Wei Ying mumbles, still avoiding Wangji’s eyes.
Wangji reaches across the small space and takes Wei Ying’s hand, giving it a little squeeze. “There is no need for apologies between us.”
Wei Ying looks up at him again, his eyes enormous, astonished. Hesitantly, he wraps his fingers around Wangji’s. A small, sweet smile slowly blooms on his face.
Wangji squeezes his hand again, feeling an answering smile blooming on his own face. Mindful of the camera watching them both, he reluctantly lets go, sitting back. “Please continue.”
“Right,” Wei Ying says, blinking. “So, um, the Wens offered me...a lot of money to build the site, but I didn’t want to risk going back to jail. And even if I did, I didn’t want to help them sell this kind of stuff, there’s some fucked up stuff on here, like anybody who wants to buy a grenade launcher on the dark web should probably not have a grenade launcher. I figured they’d just find somebody else to build it. Not like Seattle has a shortage of web developers.” He rubs his eyes again, and Wangji can see the bone-deep tiredness in every line of him.
“But then on Monday, I get this envelope in my locker at work. I thought it was just going to be another cash offer, but instead it was a picture of my roommate, with a gun to his head, holding up that day’s paper. Like something out of a fucking movie,” he spits bitterly. “So I called them and said I’d do it, and they sent some guys to come pick me up, and they beat the shit out of me, which was fun, and I’ve been here ever since, working on this stupid fucking website, and that was...fuck, I don’t even know what day it is.”
Wangji has to think about it for a minute. “Saturday.”
“Saturday,” Wei Ying mutters to himself. “Fuck. That’s the other thing, they’re starting to get pissed about how long it’s taking.” He glares at the ceiling, as though his eyes could pierce through multiple floors up to Wen Chao’s office. “Which, as I’ve repeatedly told them, is because this is not how anybody builds a website. Do you know how hard it is to build a website without access to the goddamn internet?”
“I can imagine.”
“Anything anybody builds is at least half somebody else’s code. Normally if I was building something like this I’d have like, StackOverflow and GitHub and, like, fucking Google — I wouldn’t be building the entire thing by hand, by myself. So of course it’s taking forever. At least it’s almost done now,” he sighs. He glances back at Wangji and gives him a sad, wry smile. “If you could have just been slightly less good at your job for a couple more days, this all would have been over.”
Wangji shrugs. He’s not going to apologize for looking for Wei Ying.
“You must have been onto something, for them to want me to put on that whole show for you today,” Wei Ying says, eyeing him curiously.
“I found out about Jin Corp’s involvement,” Wangji says.
Wei Ying gives a low whistle. “Well, that would do it.”
“Your brother knows now, too.”
“I still can’t get over the idea of you two working together,” Wei Ying chuckles. “How did that go?”
He considers what he can say that wouldn't be a lie. “Jiang Wanyin is...a fine investigator,” Wangji says judiciously. “And he clearly cares about you very much.”
“Yeah?” Wei Ying asks with a self-deprecating little half-smile. “He tell you that?”
Wangji cannot imagine Jiang Wanyin saying something like that to anyone. “No. But it’s obvious. He was beside himself, looking for you.”
He watches Wei Ying hear him, and he watches Wei Ying not believe him, and it breaks his heart a little. “Well, that’s nice,” Wei Ying says. “I...don’t suppose he knows you’re here?”
“No,” Wangji admits, and the last 24 hours are really starting to catch up with him now, his mind struggling against a heavy blanket of fatigue. “No,” he says again, laughing a little, “nobody knows I’m here.” He yawns, his tongue feeling thick and cottony. “Sorry.”
“You’re falling asleep, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying observes fondly.
“I had a long day.” A day that started with 4 hours’ sleep, and included getting yelled at by his boss, two separate instances of breaking and entering, walking across half the city, and having a gun shoved in his face, among other things — when he thinks about it, Wangji is a little amazed he’s still conscious.
“You should get some sleep,” Wei Ying says. “Go ahead and take the bed, I’ve fallen asleep in this chair plenty of times over the last week as it is.”
Wangji eyes the computer chair, which seems to have limited back support and no head support to speak of. “Don’t be absurd.”
“Beats sleeping on the floor,” Wei Ying points out, indicating the bare poured concrete beneath them.
Kicking off his shoes, Wangji experimentally stretches out on the cot, which is long and narrow and definitely only built for one person; he rolls onto his side and wriggles backwards until his back is pressed against the cold stone wall. It’s not particularly comfortable, but it does create enough space for a second person beside him on the cot, especially if that person is relatively slender and not too picky about personal space. Wei Ying is watching him with a closed, unreadable expression. “There is room for both of us,” Wangji announces, gesturing toward the space he’s created.
“You don’t have to do that, Lan Zhan, really. I can take the chair, it’s not a problem,” Wei Ying assures him, eyebrows raised, sounding a little panicky.
Wangji sits up. He’s too tired to try to convince Wei Ying of anything; coaxing has never been his strong suit to begin with. “Very well. If you do not wish to share the bed, I will take the floor.” He slides down to the floor, which is very hard, and cold in a way that immediately begins to seep through his clothing and into his joints. He grabs the lone pillow off of the bed without bothering to apologize for it — if Wei Ying is going to make Wangji sleep on the floor, giving up the pillow seems the least he can do — and starts to stretch out again.
Wei Ying reaches out and catches his elbow before he can fully lie down. “Lan Zhan, get up off the floor. Don’t be absurd,” he adds, mimicking Wangji’s tone and his words back to him. “Take the bed, I’m fine in the chair.”
Wangji fixes him with a level stare, waiting, making no move to get up from the floor.
“Fine, you win,” Wei Ying laughs. “God, you’re so fucking stubborn. We’ll share, OK? Please get off the floor.”
“OK,” Wangji says, allowing Wei Ying to pull him up by the elbow and deposit him back onto the cot. He can’t help feeling a little smug about his victory as he presses his back against the wall, making space for Wei Ying once more.
“Don’t gloat, Lan Zhan, it’s not becoming,” Wei Ying scolds him, smiling. He walks over to the door and turns off the light, plunging the windowless room into darkness. Gradually, Wangji’s eyes adjust; there’s a faint illumination coming from the darkened computer screen, but otherwise the room is completely black.
Even though there’s nothing in the room for him to trip on, Wei Ying is still hesitant as he makes his way across the space. He stands beside the cot for a long moment; Wangji can hear him take a deep breath before sitting down on the edge of the cot and gingerly stretching out to lie down next to Wangji.
They lie there, facing each other in the darkness, listening to the distant sounds of the music above them. Wangji realizes he’s holding his body perfectly stiff in an effort not to encroach into Wei Ying’s space; Wei Ying appears to be doing the same. After a minute or so, Wei Ying shifts around a bit in an effort to get comfortable, and their knees bump together. “Sorry,” Wei Ying whispers, drawing back.
This is ridiculous, Wangji thinks. They’re never going to be able to get to sleep like this, and it seems silly to even try. Wangji knows that as soon as he does fall asleep, he’s going to roll over onto his back, and they’ll end up tangled up in each other anyway — there’s no point in scrupulously maintaining this two-inch-wide demilitarized zone between them until then. They’re close friends, and Wangji’s pretty sure that they’re in love with each other, and he’s weary and sore and has been holding back from touching Wei Ying from the moment he was shoved into this little room with him, and there no longer seems to be any compelling reason to do so.
“This is ridiculous,” Wangji says out loud. Sliding his arms around Wei Ying’s waist, he pulls him in close, until they’re chest to chest, their legs tangling together.
Wei Ying stays rigid in his arms for a moment, from surprise or uncertainty. Finally, he lets out a long, unsteady sigh, a breath Wangji hadn’t realized he’d even been holding. The tension leaves him all at once, and he melts into Wangji, burying his face in Wangji’s shoulder and inhaling him deeply. His hands slide up Wangji’s back and pull him in closer, tighter, and Wangji realizes that Wei Ying is shaking.
They stay like that for a long time, not speaking, Wei Ying clinging to Wangji’s shoulders, Wangji smoothing one hand up and down Wei Ying’s back. Wangji feels the shoulder of his shirt growing damp, but doesn’t say anything, just holds Wei Ying close. Eventually, the shaking subsides, and Wei Ying starts to relax his hands from where they’ve been gripping the back of Wangji’s shirt. Wangji keeps stroking Wei Ying’s back, down the graceful dip of his spine, up over the too-sharp bones of his shoulder blades.
“I missed you,” Wei Ying murmurs.
Wangji rolls onto his back, pulling Wei Wing with him until Wei Ying is half draped over him, arm wrapped around Wangji’s chest. Wei Ying snuggles into the junction of Wangji’s neck and shoulder with a sigh. “I missed you, too,” Wangji says.
Wei Ying sighs again, and tucks his face into Wangji’s neck. “Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan,” he says, his lips moving softly against Wangji’s pulse point, heating the blood in Wangji’s entire body just with that one gentle touch. “I told you to stop looking for me. I’m not worth getting killed over.”
Tightening his arm around Wei Ying’s shoulders, Wangji turns his head, pushing his nose into Wei Ying’s hair. Wei Ying smells like stale sweat, and exhaustion, and fear. “Yes you are,” he whispers fiercely against Wei Ying’s forehead. “Yes you are, of course you are.” Unable to help himself, he presses a kiss against Wei Ying’s hairline, and another, and another. He can feel Wei Ying smiling into his neck. “Now go to sleep,” Wangji tells him.
“Good night, Lan Zhan.”
Have all 8 chapters of this fic been an extremely elaborate setup for a classic "there was only one bed" scenario? Yes.
I'm so blown away by the response to this fic — thank you to everyone who has commented, left kudos, recommended to your friends, shared, etc. I'm quite invested in this story and it means a lot to know that y'all are too. Thanks also, as always, to Spoops and Ericacea for beta-ing!
Coming next week in Chapter 9: Breakfast with Wen Chao. A variety of confessions.
Chapter 9: Jailbreak
“You said you couldn’t break out because you don’t know where they have Wen Ning, and because they’d see it on the camera.”
“You did not say that you don’t know how to get out.”
Wei Ying’s luscious mouth curves into a sly, knowing smile; it’s so sexy that Wangji almost forgets they’re supposed to be formulating a plan. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says approvingly. “You really do pay attention.”
CW for this chapter: guns
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wangji opens his eyes into total darkness. With no windows in the storage room, it’s impossible to tell what time it is, but since he’s awake, he assumes it’s about 5 am.
He’s lying on his back, with Wei Ying half wrapped around him, half on top of him. This wasn’t exactly how he’d envisioned his first time sharing a bed with Wei Ying, but it’s almost worth the fear and panic of the last few days, the very real danger they’re both still in, just to be lying here, Wei Ying breathing deep and even against him, the ends of Wei Ying’s hair tangled in his fingers.
Closing his eyes, he tries not to wake up, tries to chase the sleep-warm space they’re floating in for just a little while longer. His body is leaden, crying out for more sleep, but he’s never been someone who could sleep in — once he’s awake, he’s awake, no matter how late he stayed up the night before.
He opens his eyes again and stares up at the ceiling, trying to take stock of their predicament. Wei Ying’s safety is at least somewhat guaranteed until the website is finished, which buys them a bit of time there. Last night, Wen Zhuliu had gotten the order from...somewhere (Wen Chao? Wen Ruohan? Meng Yao?) not to kill Wangji, but that’s not the kind of thing Wangji should be relying on; the longer he’s here, the more he sees and hears, the more appealing killing him is going to seem. He needs to get out of here, sooner rather than later. They both do.
Wei Ying is a genius; Wangji is entirely certain that he would not have remained trapped here for six days unless he’d chosen not to escape. No doubt the threat to Wen Ning is keeping him contained, but perhaps the two of them can work out a solution. Regardless, Wei Ying knows much more about the lay of the land, here. There’s not a lot of point in starting to plan in earnest until Wei Ying wakes up.
In the meantime, he has Wei Ying in his arms, and if he’s going to die today, he might as well savor every moment that he can. He lies there quietly, Wei Ying’s breath against his chest, the skin of Wei Ying’s arm smooth and warm under his palm, feeling more at peace than he has in days. Eventually he can no longer ignore his own bladder, and, sighing, decides to get up. He extricates himself from Wei Ying’s arms as gently as he can; Wei Ying stirs and mumbles something incomprehensible, but doesn’t wake.
Wangji uses the small bathroom, then splashes some water on his face. The Wens have left Wei Ying a comb, a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and some deodorant; Wangji avails himself of the comb and the deodorant and cleans his teeth with some toothpaste on his finger, trying to scrub away as much of the unpleasant up-too-late-slept-in-his-clothes feeling as he can.
He leaves the bathroom light on and the door ajar, to let some light into the storeroom without turning on the harsh overhead lights and possibly waking Wei Ying. He settles down onto the floor to meditate. Today is probably going to suck, and he can use all the mental clarity he can get.
An hour later, Wei Ying is still sleeping, and Wangji’s back is starting to ache from sitting on the hard concrete floor. He gets up and sits down at the computer. The code for the website is stored in a series of files Wangji can’t make head or tail of, but the computer’s operating system still includes the other programs it was bundled with. He plays Solitaire until 7, which he judges to be a reasonable hour to wake Wei Ying. They need to talk about what they’re going to do.
In Wangji’s absence, Wei Ying has spread out on the cot like a starfish, one hand dangling over the side toward the floor. Wangji’s heart swells at the sight of him, his face unlined in sleep, his hair spread over the pillow, his lips slightly parted. He bends down and slides his hand onto Wei Ying’s back. “Wei Ying,” he says softly.
He has to say it a few times before Wei Ying so much as stirs, but eventually he feels Wei Ying’s breathing change under his hand. “Mmmmmrrrr,” Wei Ying groans into the pillow.
“Wake up,” Wangji says. “It’s time to wake up.”
Wei Ying lifts his head a little. In the light from the bathroom, Wangji can see a line left on his face from a crease in the pillowcase. “What time ‘sit?” Wei Ying mumbles groggily.
He groans again. “That’s too early, Lan Zhan. Go back t’sleep.” He rolls over, grabbing Wangji’s hand where it’s been rubbing his back and attempting to pull him back into bed.
Wangji smiles a little. “I’ve been up for a while.”
“Whyyyyyyyy,” Wei Ying whines.
“Come on,” Wangji insists, sitting down on the side of the cot. “We need to figure out what we’re going to do.”
“Uggghhh.” Wei Ying rolls onto his back, covering his face against the light coming in. He rubs his hands over his face, then uncovers one eye to squint at Wangji. He blinks, a slow, sleepy smile coming to his face. “Hey.”
“Hi,” Wangji replies, smiling back.
Wei Ying pushes himself into a sitting position. “OK. OK, I’m up. I’m...getting up,” he mumbles. He swings his feet onto the floor, hauls himself out of bed. and shuffles into the bathroom, grumbling. Wangji turns on the light and, for a lack of anything better to do, makes the bed, immediately ruining the effect by sitting back down on it. Presently, Wei Ying emerges, looking marginally more awake, his hair freshly combed and loose around his shoulders. He pauses in the doorway, looking at Wangji.
“You’re really here,” he says quietly.
Wangji nods. His heart is a delicate, fluttering thing living at the back of his throat.
Wei Ying looks down at the floor, the tiniest shy smile on his full lips, and busies himself with pulling his hair up into a knot at the back of his head. The silence between them is careful, fragile, the intimacy of the night before translating uneasily into the harsh fluorescent light of day.
“Well.” Wei Ying breaks the quiet with a sudden burst of distracted movement, striding over to plop himself down in front of the computer, hooking one leg over the chair’s arm. “This complicates matters,” he sighs, swiveling back and forth.
So they’re not going to talk about it. On to the matter at hand, then. “What is your plan, as of right now?” Wangji asks. “I know you must have one.” Knowing Wei Ying, he probably has 5 or 6, with nested contingencies.
“Oh sure, I got plans, I got all kinds of plans,” Wei Ying says dully. He’s fiddling with a strand of his hair, winding and unwinding it around his fingers, like he does when he’s thinking hard. “Up until last night, my plan was to finish the website.”
“I’ve built some extra code into the back end of the site,” Wei Ying says, still fiddling with his hair, not looking directly at Wangji. “It’s buried pretty deep, it would be pretty hard for someone who didn’t know exactly what they were looking at to spot it. Once the site is live, it will document user activity, purchases, payment info, whatever it can log, and start sending it in batches to you and Jiang Cheng. Should be enough to take at least some of the Wens down, along with the site.”
“Wei Ying, that’s…” Wangji swallows. “They’ll kill you for that, when they figure it out.”
Wei Ying mouth quirks into a gloomy half-smile. “Ah, Lan Zhan,” he says with a morose little chuckle. “They were always going to kill me.”
Wangji takes a minute to process that.
“I know too much,” Wei Ying says, matter-of-fact. “About all of this.”
“Wei Ying —”
“Wen Ning is their cousin,” Wei Ying continues, and now he’s almost pleading with Wangji to understand. “They’ll kill him if they have to, but I think they don’t want to. Once the site is live, they’ll have no further need for leverage over me. They’ll let him go. After that…” he shrugs. “I don’t know, I’ll improvise.”
“Yeah, improvise,” he laughs. “I hate to break it to you, Lan Zhan, but that’s usually my plan. I can’t bust out of here, because I have no idea where they’ve got Wen Ning, and they’ll see it on the camera anyway, I wouldn’t even get out of the building. I can’t call for help, because the second that help arrives, Wen Ning is dead. I can’t think of how I’m going to get out of this until I know how I’m getting him out of it, and right now, finishing the website is my best option for that.”
“So that’s your plan?” Wangji asks, and he can hear the anger mounting in his voice. “Just...throw yourself on the grenade, and hope for the best?”
Wei Ying looks him in the eye. “I’m not afraid to die,” he says evenly. “I’d prefer not to, all other things being equal, but I’m not afraid to, if it comes down to that.”
“And you think your friend would want you to just...blithely sacrifice your life for him?”
“No, actually, I’m pretty sure he’d hate it, but he’s welcome to hate it all he wants while he’s alive and safe!” Wei Ying’s voice bounces harshly off of the walls of the small room. He blinks, like he’s surprised at himself, and takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly, his eyes sliding away again. He folds his arms, hunching his shoulders into himself. “As are you,” he adds, his voice gone small and quiet.
Wangji folds his own arms, in retaliation. “I hate this plan.”
Wei Ying glances up, arches an eyebrow at him. “Yes, I received that impression.”
“We need a new plan.”
“Obviously. We need to figure out how we’re getting you out of here.”
“That is not what I meant,” Wangji says, as sternly as he knows how.
Wei Ying grins at him. “I know.” He turns toward the computer. “I’m going to work on this website now, and I will try to think of a plan while I do it, and just for you, I will try to make it a plan in which neither one of us is killed. You…” he waves a hand. “I don’t know, sit there, I don’t have an alternate activity for you, and also try to think of a plan. We have…” he glances at the computer’s clock. “Between thirty and ninety minutes, to think of something.”
“Every day, sometime between 8 and 9, they bring me breakfast. It would be good for us to have our New and Improved Plan in place before then.” He tosses Wangji a wink over his shoulder. “You know, just in case they try to kill you.”
Wangji frowns at the back of his head. Now is not the time for black humor.
“On the plus side,” Wei Ying says, “if they don’t kill you at breakfast, I will have had caffeine, so our mid-morning planning will go a lot better.” He opens a file and starts typing and clicking away.
Wangji sits, and watches him, and thinks. A few minutes pass, in silence.
“How would we get out of here?” Wangji asks.
“Hang on.” Wei Ying finishes typing something, then swivels around to face him. “What?”
“You said you couldn’t break out because you don’t know where they have Wen Ning, and because they’d see it on the camera.”
“You did not say that you don’t know how to get out.”
Wei Ying’s luscious mouth curves into a sly, knowing smile; it’s so sexy that Wangji almost forgets they’re supposed to be formulating a plan. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says approvingly. “You really do pay attention.”
“So,” Wangji spreads his hands. “Enlighten me.”
“Well,” Wei Ying begins, his eyes going a little sparkly. He pauses, sits up. “Actually, I’m going to work while I talk, in case they’re watching.” He swivels back around to face the computer. Doing so also puts his back to the security camera; anyone watching wouldn’t know he was talking at all. “The door is reinforced steel, and the lock is wayyy beyond my abilities to pick, especially limited to only the tools in this room.”
“Same here,” Wangji nods. If Wen Chao’s office door had been toward the limit of his lockpicking capabilities, this door is far beyond them.
“I’m pretty sure they installed the door just for this little project, which is kind of bonkers. They built a little prison in here, just for me. They built me a prison, I built them a website.” Wei Ying snorts. “Sounds like a Panic at the Disco song.”
Wangji doesn’t know what that means. “So, not the door. What else?”
“Hang on.” He types something, copies it, pastes it into a different window. “The outer walls of this room are cinderblock, but the inner walls, like the one the door is set into, are made of drywall.”
“Mn.” Wangji casts an appraising glance around them.
“This is a storage room. Nobody’s supposed to be sleeping in here, or even hanging out in here, really, which means there’s no reason to care about soundproofing the room. You heard how loud it gets down here when the club’s open.”
“It also means this room isn’t subject to the same building codes as, like, a bedroom in a residential home would be, which is relevant to our interests because it means the builders didn’t have to pay as much attention to things like fire safety.”
“You...want to burn down the building?”
Wei Ying cackles. “With us inside? No thank you, although I appreciate your flair for the dramatic. No, what all that means is that the drywall on that wall is only about ¼ inch thick, because whoever built this place did a shitty job. The door is reinforced, but the wall isn’t.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“Oh, you pick up all kinds of things when you’re fighting the machine,” Wei Ying says airily. “My friend Song Lan is a lawyer, and he spends a lot of time suing slumlords on behalf of various tenants’ rights organizations. Thin drywall is a popular way to cut corners, and it’s a terrible fire hazard.”
Wangji eyes the wall. “So we smash through the wall.”
“Yeah, smash it, kick it, pry a leg off the desk or the bed and use that. Layer of drywall, gap of maybe 3 to 4 inches, a second layer of drywall, and we’re through. The widest gap between studs is right next to the door, there,” Wei Ying gestures with his chin, not taking his eyes off the monitor. “So that’s where we’d want to do it. Figured that out my first night in here. But it’s no good,” he sighs. “Even with the thin drywall, it would take at least a few minutes to break a big enough hole for a person to fit through. They’d see us on the camera. Even if we could get out without getting caught, we still don’t know where Wen Ning is, and they’d definitely be pissed enough to kill him.” He laughs ruefully. “Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this in the last however many days.”
They sit for a while, the only sound in the room the clicking of Wei Ying’s mouse, the tap of his fingers on the keyboard.
“What has their schedule been, so far?” Wangji asks.
“Hmm?” Wei Ying is still typing.
“You said they bring you breakfast between 8 and 9. What’s the rest of the day like?”
“Oh, uh...let’s see. Breakfast between 8 and 9, yeah. That’s usually when they bring me whatever new assets I’ve requested for the site, too.”
“Who brings it to you?”
Wei Ying shrugs. “Couple guys, always two but not always the same two. One to watch the door, one to hand stuff off.”
“They tell you what to do with the website?”
“No,” Wei Ying scoffs, “I don’t think these guys even know how a website works. All the instructions and stuff are on the flash drives they give me, along with the assets, images, fonts, whatever else I need. When I need something, I send back a drive with a note on what I need.” He opens a desk drawer and pulls out a generic black flash drive, identical to the ones Wangji had found in Meng Yao’s office, and waves it at Wangji to illustrate his point before turning back to the computer.
I bet I know where those notes are going, Wangji thinks. “What else?”
“Lunch sometime between noon and 1, similar deal. At some point, usually with lunch but sometimes with breakfast, Wen Chao comes in to throw his weight around and yell at me about the website not being done. Because that’s helpful.” Wei Ying glances over his shoulder at Wangji. “Probably show up with breakfast today, gotta be psyched to yell at you as well. Nice little change of pace for him.”
Remembering the burns on Wei Ying’s arm, Wangji idly wonders how many times in a row he could punch Wen Chao before getting shot. Upwards of five, he thinks, especially if he tried to move around a lot while he was doing it.
“Then dinner between 6 and 8. That’s when I get my daily proof of life picture of Wen Ning.” Wei Ying shakes his head. “They’re still doing the fucking newspaper thing, like I’ve had the opportunity to pick up a copy, like I’m so up on world events I’m gonna be like ‘ah yes, this is definitely today’s paper.’ Too many fucking movies,” he snickers.
“Do you have them? The pictures?”
“Sure.” Wei Ying slides open the other desk drawer and pulls out a stack of papers, handing them to Wangji. “There’s not much to go on there, but take a look.”
The pictures look to have been printed on a basic office printer. Each one shows Wen Ning, his sister’s dainty upturned nose and rosebud mouth in a more masculine cast, looking increasingly glassy-eyed and dejected as the days wear on. In each picture, he’s sitting in a chair made of some kind of dark wood, against a cream-colored wall. The newspapers he’s holding up do appear to match up with Wangji’s recollection of the last several days’ news. Wei Ying is right, there’s not much to go on.
“Does Wen Qing know?” Wangji asks. “That you’re here, about the project?”
“She knows about the project, because I told her about it when Xue Yang first started trying to recruit me,” Wei Ying says absently, typing away. “I doubt she knows where I am, specifically, or Wen Ning either, or she’d be trying to do something. For all we know she is trying to do something. She sure as hell wouldn’t tell you about it,” he snorts. “She’s seen what they do to people who talk to the cops.”
The two most recent pictures aren’t framed so tightly around Wen Ning’s face; maybe they were taken by a different person, or maybe whoever’s been taking the pictures has started to get lax as time passes. Whatever the reason, more of the background is visible in Friday’s and Saturday’s pictures. The cream-colored wall behind the chair appears to adjoin to another wall of exposed brick, or possibly a brick fireplace. Above Wen Ning’s head, the bottom inch or so of a painting or print or something hanging on the wall above him can be seen.
Wangji picks up Saturday’s photo and brings it closer to his face, turning it toward the light. The painting above Wen Ning’s head is a series of blotches in primary colors. Squinting too close to the page makes the grainy resolution stand out, breaking the whole thing down into little dots. Wangji blinks, unfocusing and refocusing his eyes. He’s pretty sure that the little blotches are interlocking human figures, but he’s not sure why he thinks that.
Wei Ying pipes up, “I guess it’s possible that Wen Qing —”
“Shh!” Wangji hisses at him, waving a hand. He moves the page closer to his eyes, then farther away. The little blotches are definitely interlocking human figures. It’s hideous. It’s familiar. “Wei Ying,” he murmurs.
“You shushed me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying pouts.
“Look back at the computer,” Wangji says. He puts down the stack of photos and flops down onto his back on the cot, as though frustrated. “Don’t react to what I’m about to tell you.”
“OK…” Wei Ying says slowly, turning back to the monitor. “What’s up?”
Wangji rolls onto his stomach, pillowing his head in his hands, facing away from the camera. “I know where Wen Ning is. I’ve been there before.”
It had been months ago. Xichen had gotten them tickets for a dance performance at the Moore, and of course picked up an extra one for Meng Yao, as well. They’d planned to have dinner somewhere in Belltown before the show, but Meng Yao had needed to make a stop first. To Wangji’s surprise, they’d stopped at a luxury condo building, of the kind that have been springing up all over the city in the last few years, making construction cranes a seemingly permanent part of the skyline.
The lobby was large, elegantly furnished, and entirely empty, their footsteps echoing in the cavernous space. When Meng Yao had pushed the call button, the elevator was already waiting at the ground floor. “Jin Corp owns half a dozen units in this building, via various trusts,” Meng Yao had explained as they were whisked upward. “It’s a great investment, very stable and with some tax benefits — a lot of multinational companies are starting to invest in luxury real estate,” he added with an oily little chuckle.
It was a Thursday evening, just after 5:30 — even in a well-soundproofed building, Wangji would expect to see people arriving home from work, to hear the faint sounds of conversations, TV, pots and pans banging around, but they walk out into an almost eerily silent hallway. An entire floor of multimillion-dollar condos, standing empty.
“Most of the units are still unfurnished,” Meng Yao had explained, bustling down the hallway as though none of this was weird at all, “but we’ve had a decorator come in to fix one up, so we have a place for international execs and guests of the firm to stay when they’re in town.” Wangji remembers the slight swelling of pride in his voice as he’d said we. “It was my suggestion, to save on hotel costs and give our VIPs some privacy.”
He and Xichen had stood awkwardly in the living room while Meng Yao had scuttled around, making sure the fridge and coffee maker were stocked, leaving a plain manila envelope on the kitchen counter for whatever visiting dignitary was going to be gracing this unsettling place with their presence. Wangji had looked around with bored disinterest, noting the bland furnishings, the odd bric-a-brac scattered throughout the room, the atrocious art on the walls. Next to the brick fireplace, a piece in all primary colors. Simplistic human figures in red and yellow and blue, looking like a kindergartner’s art project, probably costing more than the rent on his and Xichen’s apartment.
“Where is it?” Wei Ying is asking now. His body has gone rigid in the computer chair, but he’s as good as his word — he doesn’t gasp or exclaim or look at Wangji at all, nothing to give a potential observer any indication of what they’re discussing.
“Here in Belltown,” Wangji says. He wants to laugh, or maybe cry. He’s so tired. “Just a few blocks from here.”
Wei Ying inhales deeply. Holds the breath for a moment. Lets it out slowly. “What...OK, what should we...what do you want to do?”
Wangji gets up, crosses the room to look over Wei Ying’s shoulder at the computer’s clock. It’s 7:45. He puts a hand on Wei Ying’s shoulder as he leans over him, letting his thumb brush along the bare skin at Wei Ying’s collar. Wei Ying leans back into his hand. “Right now,” Wangji says, “I want to wait for them to bring us breakfast. After they leave, we’re getting out of here.”
“OK,” Wei Ying says. He glances up at Wangji, his eyes huge and dark and full of apprehension and hope. “OK, I like this plan.”
“Do you have any of those flash drives that you don’t need anymore?”
Wei Ying blinks. “Yeah, why?”
“Can I have one?”
Wei Ying pulls a flash drive out of the drawer and hands it to Wangji. “What are you going to do with it? Do you have a hidden USB port I don’t know about? Are you a cyborg, Lan Zhan?” He laughs, that big dorky laugh, Wangji’s very favorite laugh of his. “That would explain a lot about you, if you were a cyborg.”
“I’m going to try to get a leg off of this cot.” Wangi lies down on the bed again in the same position, face down, head pointing away from the camera. “I’m not a cyborg.”
“See, that’s exactly what someone who was secretly a cyborg would say,” Wei Ying points out.
Wangji lets his hand dangle over the edge of the cot, feeling along the leg with his fingertips. The leg is aluminum, attached to the body of the cot with a hinge that would allow it to fold up as needed. It’s bolted to the hinge in two spots, each with, as far as Wangji can tell by touch, a connector bolt seated into a smooth cap nut. The bolts sit flat against the inside of the cot leg, and, thankfully, appear to have a Phillips screw head.
He shifts on the bed, attempting to take as much of his weight off of that leg as possible. It would be easier to do this from the floor, where his weight wouldn’t be a factor and he could see what he’s doing, but much harder to disguise his actions from the camera. In what he hopes is an unobtrusive manner, he brings the flash drive up to his face and bites down on the end, crushing it between his molars. His skin crawls with the unpleasant tooth-to-metal sensation, but he can feel things starting to give way beneath his teeth. He presses his jaw together as hard as he can.
The inner USB plug cracks, splinters, and falls out of its metal housing into his mouth; he spits it out and bites down again. The metal plug casing squeaks under his teeth, slowly compressing. He takes it out and examines his progress, then returns to work, biting and crushing the metal housing until he’s got a single metal edge, not totally flat, thanks to the indents of his teeth, but flat enough. A flat-head screwdriver isn’t the most efficient way to remove a Phillips-head screw, but it will work.
He lets his hand dangle over the edge of the cot again, testing his new tool against the heads of the bolts. It’s a little too wide; Wangji puts his aching jaw to work again until he has a flattened edge that will fit inside the slots in the bolt head.
“How’s it going over there?” Wei Ying asks, not turning away from the computer.
“Making progress,” he replies.
It takes a fair amount of effort to get the first bolt to start to turn. The angle is awkward, requiring Wangji to twist his wrist uncomfortably, which also reduces the amount of force he can bring to bear on it; the bolt is tightly machine-set, and the fact that the hinge is still partially supporting Wangji’s weight only adds to the force he’s combatting to get it to turn. Finally, his wrist screaming, his fingers sweat-slippery against the plastic casing of the drive, he gets the first bolt to budge. From there it’s easier. He doesn’t twist it all the way out, leaving it still partially seated in the nut so the leg doesn’t come off the cot before they’re ready for it. He does the same for the second bolt, untwisting it until he feels the cot starting to creak beneath him.
Elated, he sits up, subtly massaging his wrist. “OK,” he says. “It’s ready. What time is it?”
He has a powerful urge to say let’s just go now, but they’ll have a higher chance of success if they don’t run into their breakfast delivery on the stairs. Be patient, he tells himself. Not wanting to accidentally collapse the bed and give them away, he stands up, pacing around the room a few times.
“It’s Sunday morning,” he says. “I can’t imagine anyone’s going to be staying at the nightclub all day, especially since they’re not open tonight.”
Wei Ying shakes his head. “I don’t think they’d leave us entirely unguarded.”
“No, probably not,” Wangji agrees. “But I doubt there will be more than one or two people in the building until the afternoon. The best window of opportunity to break out will be between breakfast and lunch.”
“What do we do after we get out?” Wei Ying asks. There’s a wobble to his voice, but when Wangji glances in his direction, his face is steady, concentrating on the code in front of him.
“Find a phone and call it in,” Wangji says as firmly as he knows how, leaning slightly into his Cop Voice to convey his confidence in this extremely risky plan. “Get units dispatched here and to the condo, then go to the condo ourselves to get Wen Ning. We’ll probably be able to get there faster than dispatch can send a car, unless someone happens to be right in the area, and as you pointed out, time will be of the essence.”
“Do you really think we can do this?”
“I think it’s our best option,” Wangji says, which isn’t a yes, but isn’t a lie, either.
Before Wei Ying can reply, they’re interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway. Wei Ying wasn’t kidding, Wangji thinks. These walls are really thin. His stomach knots itself with nervous energy; he takes a cleansing breath, letting his face relax into its customary frosty blankness.
“Breakfast time,” Wei Ying says feebly.
There’s the sound of a key turning in the door lock. The door swings open and Wen Chao sweeps into the room, trailed by Wen Zhuliu and the guy from last night, the one who had been on the phone, who’s holding a white paper bag and two paper cups of convenience-store coffee.
“Good morning,” Wen Chao booms, gazing around the room like he owns the place, which, Wangji supposes, he technically does. He’s wearing a red silk shirt under a black leather jacket, his black snakeskin shoes polished to a mirror shine, a large, tacky ruby ring on one hand. He looks like he’s wearing a costume, somehow, like he’s an extra from a mobster movie; Wangji thinks about Wei Ying’s too many movies comment and rolls his eyes inwardly. “How are the two of you feeling this fine morning?” Wen Chao asks.
Neither of them replies. The guy with the paper bag sets it down on the desk; he hands a coffee cup to Wei Ying, and crosses to hand the other one to Wangji. Wen Zhuliu has closed the door behind them and is standing in the doorway, arms folded, looking deeply bored.
“Detective Lan,” Wen Chao continues. “I hope you found our accommodations to your liking. I wasn’t sure if you were a coffee drinker.”
He isn’t, but he takes a sip of the coffee anyway. It’s black and burned and tastes terrible, but he could use the caffeine. Wei Ying removes a bagel from the paper bag and hands it to him.
“I have to say, Detective,” Wen Chao says, wagging a finger at him, “I was disappointed to hear that you’d tried to break into my office last night. Not the upstanding behavior one would expect from Seattle’s Finest.” Now that he’s examined the photos in detail, Wangji can actually see a bit of a family resemblance between Wen Chao and Wen Ning — something in his high forehead, the shape of his face. Wen Chao must have gotten his bulging eyes and sneering mouth from his mother’s side of the family.
Wangji takes another sip of his coffee and holds his bagel, waiting for Wen Chao to leave, but it seems that the man has come here to make a little speech. “Now, the question arises: what am I going to do with you?” Wen Chao shakes his head, as though Wangji is a naughty child who’s been caught misbehaving. “It would be easiest just to kill you, of course,” he says, “but I like to think bigger than that.”
Wangji doubts that very much. Not exactly a criminal mastermind, Hoffman had said.
“There’s no reason that this little incident has to mean we can’t be friends.” Wen Chao is pacing back and forth now, like he’s giving a monologue on a stage. “I like a cop who’s not afraid to let a little law-breaking get in the way. I could always use another officer on the payroll, Detective. It’s shameful, how little fine upstanding public servants like yourself get paid; providing you with supplementary income would practically be my civic duty. Not to mention, of course, my family’s extensive political connections; with our support, you could be climbing the ranks in no time. Sergeant Lan? Captain Lan? It has a nice ring to it.”
Apparently they’re going to be here for a while. Wangji sets his breakfast down on the desk and leans back against the wall, folding his arms. Wen Chao has yet to say anything that warrants an answer.
“The choice is yours, Detective, and it’s not such a hard choice,” Wen Chao declares. “Make a great deal of money in exchange for doing us the occasional small favor, or die in a storage room, leaving your friends and family to wonder what became of you.”
“You won’t kill him,” Wei Ying says suddenly from the computer chair.
Wen Chao turns to look at him, eyes widening unpleasantly. “You think I’ve never killed a cop before, Wei Wuxian?”
Wei Ying snorts derisively. “You?” He shakes his head. “No. That’s the kind of thing you have people do for you, isn’t it?” Wen Chao’s lips thin into an angry little line, but Wei Ying keeps talking. “No,” he continues, sounding bored, “you won’t kill him because the Lans own half of mainland China.”
This is an exaggeration, of course — Lan Industries’ sphere of influence is mainly concentrated around Shanghai, unless you count their real estate holdings, which the Lans themselves do not — but an interesting argument nonetheless.
“You won’t kill him,” Wei Ying says, rising to his feet now, getting into the spirit of the argument, “because your daddy’s money comes from smuggling stuff out of the Port of Shanghai.”
He’s pacing back and forth now, in a clear mockery of Wen Chao’s manner, although Wangji doesn’t know if Wen Chao will pick up on that. Wen Chao’s eyes follow Wei Ying as he paces; Wen Zhuliu and the guy who brought them breakfast are doing the same. Wangji might as well not exist, even though they’re talking about him. He’s known from the first that Wei Ying is charming, of course, that Wei Ying knows how to command attention when he wants to, but he’s never seen the raw full force of his charisma brought to bear like this, like a weapon.
“Lan Industries is, among other things, the biggest container shipping company operating out of the biggest port in the world, which means your dad’s shenanigans are way too small-time for them to concern themselves with. But something tells me Wen Ruohan would pop up on their radar pretty quickly,” Wei Ying says with an arrogant grin, his eyes blazing, “if his son killed the crown prince.”
Wen Chao glances toward Wangji at the phrase crown prince, and Wei Ying dodges quickly into his line of sight, keeping Wen Chao’s attention firmly on him.
“If you were going to kill him, you would have done it already.” Wei Ying’s voice has gone low and dangerous. He steps forward, right into Wen Chao’s face, and Wangji tenses. “You’re not gonna kill him,” Wei Ying says with a sly half-smile, “because you’re not allowed to.”
Wen Chao’s nostrils flare with rage. He smiles, a nasty, superior little smile, and backhands Wei Ying across the face.
Wangji is on him before he even fully realizes what’s happening, seizing the collar of Wen Chao’s silk shirt and shoving him backwards against the wall, his forearm across Wen Chao’s throat. Wen Chao squawks indignantly. He smells like cologne and cigarette smoke. It would be so easy to crush his windpipe. There’s the immediate press of cold metal against Wangji’s temple; the click as Wen Zhuliu releases the gun’s safety is loud in the suddenly quiet room.
“Detective,” Wen Zhuliu murmurs. “We discussed this last night. Be smart.”
Slowly, Wangji removes his arm from Wen Chao’s throat. Wen Chao glares at him. Wangji holds up his hands and steps back from the man, his breath coming fast in his chest. “Keep going,” Wen Zhuliu instructs him, and Wangji keeps backing up until he’s standing next to Wei Ying. He doesn’t look directly at Wei Ying — he can’t afford to, right now — but out of the corner of his eye he can see that Wei Ying is delicately prodding his cheekbone where Wen Chao hit him.
Wen Chao stands up and away from the wall, adjusting his shirt. “Interesting to see what finally gets a reaction out of you, Detective Lan,” he purrs, walking toward Wangji with a deadly gleam in his eye.
Wangji glowers at him.
“Don’t worry,” Wen Chao says with a smile that’s more like a snarl, “your little outburst won’t affect our job offer. I’m prepared to be a forgiving man.” His eyes narrow. “You should know — our incentive program goes beyond just money. You have a brother, I believe? It would be so easy for him to be in an accident just like your partner’s. And speaking of Detective Nie, my sources tell me the two of you are very close, almost like family. It would be a shame for poor Detective Nie to suffer a stroke so soon after his motorcycle accident — although apparently it’s more common than you might suspect.”
A hot wave of rage rises up in Wangji’s chest, but he keeps still. Keeps his face blank. Says nothing.
“The site is almost ready,” Wei Ying blurts out, once again drawing Wen Chao’s attention back to him. “I should have the staging site ready by tomorrow afternoon.” His cheek is bleeding, just a little; Wen Chao’s ridiculous ostentatious ring must have cut him. Wangji decides that at some point, he’s going to make Wen Chao eat that ring.
“Finally, some progress,” Wen Chao sneers. “You see, Wei Wuxian? I knew you just needed a little incentive to get the work done.” He pats Wei Ying’s injured cheek paternalistically; Wei Ying doesn’t even wince. “I’ll give you some time to consider our proposal, Detective Lan,” Wen Chao adds. “But don’t wait too long. I’d hate for something unfortunate to happen to someone you care about.” He glances at Wei Ying and smirks. “Well. Someone else you care about.”
He sweeps out of the room as grandly as he’d come in, trailed by his henchmen. The door locks firmly behind them.
Wangji turns to Wei Ying immediately, touching his shoulder, his face, where a new bruise is rising to the surface next to the older, fading mark. “Are you all right?” he asks. He realizes his hands are shaking a little.
“Fine, I’m fine, really, it’s not as bad as it looks,” Wei Ying assures him. “I can’t believe you just grabbed him like that,” he adds faintly, taking Wangji by the shoulders. “I thought they were about to kill you.”
Wangji can’t stop touching him, smoothing Wei Ying’s hair back from his face, running his hand down Wei Ying’s neck to his chest, feeling his breath, reassuring himself that Wei Ying is alive, in one piece. Why did you do that, he wants to ask him, that was so stupid, that was so brave, but he can’t say it, he can’t say anything, and finally all he can do is slide his hand up Wei Ying’s spine to cup the back of his head and kiss him.
Wei Ying gasps a little, then wraps his arms around Wangji’s neck and kisses him back, fiercely, savagely. Wangji bends into him, pressing Wei Ying’s head back, and Wei Ying’s mouth opens under his, slick and hot and perfect and not like a first kiss at all, kissing him like they’ve been doing this their whole lives, like they’ve already kissed each other and touched each other and been naked together, his body arching up into Wangji’s. Wangji runs his tongue along the plush inside of Wei Ying’s upper lip and Wei Ying makes a helpless mmph sound.
He presses Wei Ying back until they fetch up against the desk. Wei Ying sits down onto it and wraps his long legs around Wangji’s waist, panting into Wangji’s open mouth, his hands sliding down to unbutton the top button of Wangji’s shirt. Wangji plunges his hands into Wei Ying’s soft dark hair, taking his mouth with one more deep, searing kiss, and starts to kiss a line down the elegant column of Wei Ying’s throat.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs.
The sound of it is too much. Wangji grabs Wei Ying’s hips and pulls them flush against him, sliding a hand up the lean muscle of his stomach, tilting Wei Ying’s head back and licking into his mouth like he’ll be able to taste his own name there.
Wei Ying laughs a little, the sound of his breath layered over the wet sounds of their lips parting and meeting again. “We — hmm — Lan Zhan, they’ll see us,” he murmurs.
Wangji leans his head against Wei Ying’s shoulder. “I don’t care,” he mumbles into Wei Ying’s smooth skin, which isn’t exactly true, but feels true.
“If we don’t stop,” Wei Ying points out, his breath hitching as Wangji lightly bites at his collarbone, “this video is going to end up on the internet.”
This very excellent point manages to pierce through the haze of desire that’s descended on Wangji’s mind. He takes a deep, shaking breath, kisses Wei Ying’s collarbone once more, and straightens up, regretfully taking a step back. “You’re right.”
“Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying’s eyes are shining; his mouth is red and wet and swollen and so pretty Wangji could die. “I like you so much,” he whispers.
“I like you too,” Wangji says, swallowing around a sudden lump in his throat. “I like you so much.”
They smile at each other for a minute, long enough that Wangji has to look away to keep from pressing Wei Ying back up against the desk. Wei Ying clears his throat, straightening his t-shirt. “So!” he says brightly, reaching to hand Wangji his discarded bagel. “Breakfast?”
They eat in silence, a silence punctuated by blushes and smiles and longing looks, and drink their terrible coffee. “Do you think it’s been long enough for Wen Chao to have left the building?” Wei Ying asks when they’ve finished.
“Let’s give it another half hour,” Wangji says cautiously. He’s sure Wen Chao has better things to do all day than hang out at work, but if he had seen them kissing on the security camera, Wangji wouldn’t put it past him to stick around a little longer in hopes of another show.
Wei Ying returns to work at the computer. Wangji sits carefully on the other end of the cot from the loosened leg and tries to think about anything other than the taste of Wei Ying’s mouth, the sound of his breath, the things he’s going to do to Wei Ying when they get out of here. He needs to concentrate.
“You were wrong, you know,” he says after a while.
“Hm?” Wei Ying asks.
“I’m not the ‘crown prince’ of anything, especially not Lan Industries. I. Um. Abdicated, I guess.”
“I figured as much,” Wei Ying says. “But don’t try to tell me there wouldn’t be consequences if Wen Ruohan killed you, abdication or no.”
Wei Ying is probably right; he hasn’t had much to do with the Shanghai branch of the family since his father died, but they’d still likely retaliate in the event of his death, for the principle of the thing if nothing else. He lapses back into thoughtful silence.
After what seems like an eternity, Wei Ying says, “OK. It’s been half an hour.” He turns to look at Wangji, his eyes gone solemn and nervous. “You ready?”
Wangji nods. “Ready.” He reaches down and starts unscrewing the bolts from their last few turns. “Should we turn off the light?”
“I’m pretty sure that camera has night vision,” Wei Ying says, “I’ve seen the LEDs. It would make it harder for them to tell what we were doing, though.”
“Harder for us, too, though,” Wangji points out. “And probably not worth it if they can still see us, it would just draw their attention to the camera.” He pulls the first bolt free. “OK. As soon as I pull the leg off, we need to move as fast as possible. Go through the wall, turn left, down the hall, up the stairs, left again, and straight back out the kitchen doors. From there, we need to get up the alley to the street as fast as possible. I doubt they’ll try to shoot us or grab us in broad daylight, in front of witnesses.”
“Got it.” Wei Ying smiles a little. “I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one time, Lan Zhan.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says with a sternness he doesn’t completely feel. “Focus.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Wei Ying rearranges his face into an approximation of seriousness.
“Once we get to the street, turn right, up the hill to 2nd Avenue, right on 2nd. The building is called Lutèce. Got all that?”
Wangji takes his hand, squeezes it tight. Wei Ying brings their joined hands up to his face and kisses Wangji’s knuckles.
“We can do this,” Wangji says.
“OK.” Wei Ying takes a deep breath. “Let’s do this.”
“Ready…” Wangji unscrews the second bolt. Wei Ying moves to stand next to the door. “Set…” He removes the bolt, catching the aluminum cot leg in his hand. “...Go.”
Wangji pulls the cot leg free, leaps across the room, and smashes it into the lower half of the wall, bringing his considerable arm strength to bear, driving through the motion with his shoulders like he’s swinging a golf club. The drywall smashes with a satisfying crack, opening up a hole about the size of an orange. He draws back and hits the wall again, widening the hole, and again, this time feeling the aluminum bar smash all the way through to the second layer of drywall. Drywall and plaster are starting to fall down in big chunks, cracks radiating out from the initial point of impact. A cloud of dust rises around him. He swings the bar twice more, feeling the connection through to the other side of the wall; the hole on their side is big enough now that he can see a black space opening up where he’s broken through into the darkened hallway.
“Hang on,” Wei Ying says as Wangji pulls back to swing again. He sits down on the floor, grabbing the jagged top edge of the hole Wangji’s made, and kicks with both feet. The hole on their side widens considerably, more chunks of drywall falling away, and he can see the drywall on the other side splintering outward, cracking and falling away under Wei Ying’s sneakers. He gives one more kick and his legs break through into the hallway; he winks at Wangji and wiggles through the small space he’s created, just like that.
Wangji takes a moment to knock a few more chunks of drywall away from the hole to make room for his broader shoulders, and slithers out after him. The edges of the wall scrape at his sides, rucking his shirt up, and then they’re both standing in the hallway, disheveled and covered in plaster dust. Wei Ying grins at him.
“Go,” Wangji urges him. Even if their guards hadn’t been paying close attention to the security camera, they’ve surely noticed something by now.
The two of them sprint up the hallway, but they’ve already taken too long. The henchman who had brought them their breakfast throws open the door at the top of the stairs and rushes down them, two at a time, his gun already out. He makes it to the bottom of the stairs before they do and levels the gun at them. “Stop right there,” he gasps, out of breath, steadying the gun with both hands.
Beside him, Wangji can hear Wei Ying’s step falter, but he can’t slow down now, he can’t stop, he’s running on pure love and adrenaline, and he uses the speed and momentum he’s already accumulated to swing the metal bar he’s still holding up into the bottom of the guy’s hands, knocking the gun away, and then Wangji is barreling into him with his shoulder down like a linebacker.
The gun sails in an arc behind them, up the stairs, and lands with a clatter, thankfully not going off. Wen Chao’s henchman struggles underneath Wangji, clawing at him, grabbing for the metal bar. Wangji pushes back and swings the bar down, hard, into the guy’s face. There’s an awful crunch, and the guy drops like a stone beneath him.
“Holy shit,” Wei Ying breathes behind him. “Did you just kill that guy?”
Wangji checks his pulse; the guy’s still breathing, although that head injury isn’t going to be doing him any favors. “He’s alive,” he pants, wiping the sweat from his face. “Get the gun.”
Wei Ying scurries up the stairs to grab the gun. Wangji searches the unconscious henchman, pocketing his wallet in a bizarre reversal of the previous night’s events. Come on, come on, he thinks, digging into the guy’s inner blazer pockets with shaking hands, fingers finally closing around the one thing he really needs: a cell phone.
He joins Wei Ying on the stairs. “You take this,” Wei Ying says, handing him the gun, and he does, tucking the gun into his waistband and giving Wei Ying the metal bar to hold instead. They hurry upward, bursting into the kitchen, which is cool and quiet at this time of morning, and then just a few short steps out the kitchen door and into the alley.
“Don’t stop,” he tells Wei Ying, “don’t stop until you hit the street.” Wei Ying nods and flies down the alley ahead of him. Wangji takes a moment to check the door behind them, but nobody’s coming; he turns and pelts down the alley after Wei Ying, and together, they run out into the sunlight of a regular Sunday morning in Belltown, people walking past with Starbucks cups and dogs on leashes, almost jarring in the normalcy of it all.
“We did it,” Wei Ying gasps, slowing down and grabbing his hand. “Holy fucking shit. I can’t believe that worked.”
Passers-by are giving them odd looks; they’re bedraggled and out of breath and covered in plaster, which has caked itself into the fresh cut on Wei Ying’s face. Wangji slides one arm around Wei Ying’s waist and kisses him, hard, plaster dust and all. “Come on,” Wangji says, taking his hand and starting to rush uphill toward 2nd Avenue. “Let’s go get Wen Ning.”
The henchman’s cell phone is charged, but locked. As they power-walk up the hill, Wangji uses the Emergency Call function to call the direct dispatch line at the precinct, one of the only phone numbers he actually has memorized. He calls in the injured guard at Nightless City, and requests backup at the condo building for a possible kidnapping, which, in addition to being true, is exciting enough that it should get every bored cop in a 5-mile radius down to the scene.
When dispatch confirms that officers are en route to the building, Wangji hangs up and, for the first time since he pulled the leg off of the cot, allows himself to take a cautious breath of relief. He keeps expecting a car full of Wens to careen around the corner toward them, but no one comes; his assumption that they wouldn’t grab them off the street in broad daylight appears to have been correct. Help is on the way. If the guard Wangji took out with the bar was the only one still at Nightless City, he and Wei Ying might be able to get to Wen Ning before anyone from the Wens’ organization raises the alarm. Everyone just might get out of this alive.
The condo building’s lobby is just as empty and silent as Wangji remembers it. Wei Ying clings to his hand in the elevator. Neither of them speak until they’re deposited on the 6th floor. “Stay here by the elevator until I tell you it’s clear,” Wangji tells him in a low voice.
Wei Ying shakes his head. “Fuck that, Lan Zhan, Wen Ning is my friend. I’m coming with you.”
Wangji stops in the hallway, turning to face him. “I have a gun, and I know how to use it. I should go first. We don’t even know what we’ll find in there. How many of them there might be.”
“Well, I have a metal bar,” Wei Ying retorts, brandishing it, “and you can either stand here arguing with me, or let me help you.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Wangji snaps, feeling an odd mixture of irritation and affection.
“I agree,” Wei Ying replies with a glittering smile. “So let’s go.”
Wangji draws the gun. “Stay behind me, at least.”
The gun is another Sig Sauer P226 — Wangji’s fired one a few times, and has logged plenty of range time with similarly-sized pistols, but it still feels clunky and unfamiliar in his hand. Better than going into an uncertain situation unarmed, though.
The door to the condo is locked. Wangji and Wei Ying exchange a look. Wangji grabs the metal bar from Wei Ying’s hands and wedges it between the door and the frame. He kicks it twice, hard, and the door frame cracks and splinters. (“That was very cool,” Wei Ying whispers.) He hands the bar back to Wei Ying and drives the door open with his shoulder, spinning to train the gun on the main living area.
It’s much as he remembered it, generic furniture and horrible art, although last time Wangji was here, there hadn’t been a man handcuffed to the chair in the corner. Wen Ning gapes at Wangji, saucer-eyed. “Is anyone else here?” Wangji asks, and Wen Ning shakes his head no.
“Wen Ning,” Wei Ying breathes behind him. He drops the bar and runs to his friend. “Oh my God, are you OK?”
“Wei Wuxian?” Wen Ning asks, looking shell-shocked. “What are you doing here?”
“We’re rescuing you,” Wei Ying grins, striking a heroic pose.
Wen Ning glances uncertainly at Wangji. “Who’s this?”
Wei Ying looks back over his shoulder at Wangji, his heart blazing out of his face like the sun. “This is my friend Lan Zhan.”
“Oh.” Wen Ning blinks at Wangji, comprehension dawning over his face. “Ohhhhhh dip.” He looks back at Wei Ying, raising his eyebrows. “That’s Sexy Roof Cop?”
Wangji remembers the roommate group text. If you start dating a cop Xiao Xingchen is gonna be so pissed at you. He feels his cheeks growing warm.
“You were right,” Wen Ning says in a whisper that Wangji can easily hear from where he’s standing. “He is really hot.”
“Wen Ning,” Wei Ying hisses. He’s examining the cuffs holding Wen Ning to the chair, but Wangji can see his ears reddening. “Can we talk about this later.”
Wangji clears his throat. “They left you here alone?”
Wen Ning nods. “They never have before, but they got a call like 10 minutes ago and just rushed out of here.”
Wei Ying gives him a significant look over Wen Ning’s head. “Think that was us?”
“It’s likely.” The Wens could have called reinforcements to the nightclub, or possibly just decided to pull up stakes once they discovered the two of them missing. “We shouldn’t hang around here, though.”
“Is there a key or anything that we could use on these cuffs?” Wei Ying asks.
“Probably,” Wen Ning says, looking mournful. “I don’t know where, though.”
“You look for a way to get him loose,” Wangji tells Wei Ying. “I should clear the rest of the condo.”
Gun still drawn, Wangji methodically searches the other rooms, one at a time, looking for hidden guards or, while he’s at it, a handcuff key. Nothing in the large, pristine master bedroom, or the attached bathroom. Nothing in the smaller bathroom off the hallway, or the second bedroom, where, from the looks of the rumpled bedding, they’ve been allowing Wen Ning to sleep.
The deserted condo building is so silent, it’s almost creepy. He should be hearing sirens by now. The precinct’s not that far away — what could possibly be taking so long? He’s straining his ears for the welcome sound of backup arriving, so much so that he doesn’t register that Wei Ying and Wen Ning have stopped talking as well.
He walks back into the living room, which has gone as still and silent as the rest of the condo, and stops cold. Wen Ning is still handcuffed to the chair, his genial face gone pale with outraged terror. Wei Ying stands in the middle of the room, facing Wangji, looking bitter and a little nauseated. Meng Yao is standing directly behind him, holding Wei Ying’s body in front of him like a shield, the barrel of a gun pressed firmly against Wei Ying’s temple.
“Hello, Lan Wangji,” Meng Yao smiles over Wei Ying’s shoulder.
As of this chapter, this is officially the longest fic I've ever written! I couldn't have done it without y'all, thanks to everyone who's been following this story and commenting as we go! Thanks as always to Spoops and Ericacea for beta-ing!
Coming next week in Chapter 10: Our story concludes. Three weeks later. Six months later.
Chapter 10: Endings and Beginnings
Meng Yao peers out from behind Wei Ying’s shoulder once more and gives Wangji a pitying smile, shaking his head. “Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji,” he says in a syrupy fake-sad voice. “Do you know how much time I’ve spent in the last few days, trying to keep you alive? I gave you every opportunity to walk away. I have been running all over town trying to save your life, but you just keep throwing it away.”
Wei Ying’s face is gray, his breathing is shallow, his eyes are red and angry. Meng Yao has an arm wrapped around his neck, holding Wei Ying in place in front of him; he’s enough shorter than Wei Ying that he’s pulling Wei Ying’s shoulders back, his neck at an awkward angle, the gun’s barrel pointing upward directly into the thinnest part of Wei Ying’s skull.
Wangji levels his gun at Meng Yao’s forehead where he’s peering out over Wei Ying’s shoulder. Meng Yao quickly ducks behind his human shield. Reluctantly, Wangji lowers the weapon, not wanting to point it directly at Wei Ying’s face, but keeps it at the ready.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying rasps. “Get out. Go get help. It’ll be OK.” He’s shaking a little.
“He’s not going to do that,” Meng Yao says in his pleasant businessman’s voice. “Are you, Lan Wangji?”
“Let him go,” Wangji growls.
Meng Yao peeks out over Wei Ying’s shoulder and smiles again. “I’m afraid Wei Wuxian isn’t done with his work.”
Wangji brings the gun back up. Meng Yao ducks back behind Wei Ying, but Wangji doesn’t lower it again, keeping it pointed just over Wei Ying’s shoulder, waiting for a clear shot at Meng Yao’s head. Wei Ying closes his eyes and swallows. “The project is over, Meng Yao,” Wangji says evenly. “This place is about to be crawling with cops. You don’t want to be holding a man at gunpoint when they get here.”
“Cops?” Meng Yao gasps mockingly. “How distressing. Is that a siren I hear?” He cocks his head, listening. The silence in the condo, the lack of any sort of commotion outside, the absence of feet pounding down the hall are all too apparent. Meng Yao flashes his dimples, still keeping Wei Ying’s head between his own head and the barrel of Wangji’s gun. “You know, I’ve always found your childlike faith in the institution of policing kind of adorable, when it’s not getting in my way,” he says. “Did you really think I didn’t have anyone in place for this exact sort of situation? Your call for backup was canceled almost as soon as it went out. Nobody’s coming.”
Wangji’s stomach sinks. I could always use another officer on the payroll, Detective, Wen Chao had said. He isn’t so naive as to think there’s no one in his department who’s on the take; thinking about his co-workers, he can come up with half a dozen possibilities without even trying. It’s exactly the sort of loose end Meng Yao would make sure to have tied up.
“Now,” Meng Yao continues, as though they’re having a pleasant conversation over tea. “You’re going to put that gun down on the ground, and step away from it.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying grinds out. “Don’t.” Meng Yao jams the gun barrel harder against the side of his head, and Wei Ying falls silent, swallowing again.
Shaking with rage, Wangji slowly lowers his gun to the ground. He straightens up and takes a few steps to the side.
“There,” Meng Yao sighs. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” He peers out from behind Wei Ying’s shoulder once more and gives Wangji a pitying smile, shaking his head. “Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji,” he says in a syrupy fake-sad voice. “Do you know how much time I’ve spent in the last few days, trying to keep you alive? I got your case taken away, I even took out your partner — which I have to admit felt pretty good — I gave you every opportunity to walk away. I have been running all over town trying to save your life, but you just keep throwing it away.” He clucks regretfully. “I suppose it’s my fault, really. I was so busy, I neglected to account for the possibility that you were in love with him.”
Wei Ying coughs a nervous, surprised, laugh. “What!? What are you talking about, he’s not —”
“I am,” Wangji says steadily. There’s a gun to Wei Ying’s head; this is not the time to hide this sort of thing. He looks Wei Ying in the eye. “I am.”
Wei Ying’s eyebrows raise; all his edges seem to soften. “Lan Zhan,” he breathes. His fathomless eyes well with tears.
“This is touching,” Meng Yao snaps, “but perhaps not the time.”
“Why are you doing this?” Wei Ying asks hollowly. “Why can’t you just let us go?”
Meng Yao laughs. “It’s nothing personal, Wei Wuxian. I had a problem, and you presented a rather elegant solution. That’s my job, you know. Solving problems. Figuring whose hands can get dirty, so my father’s hands stay clean.” He shrugs. “It’s just business.”
Wangji reaches down into the center of himself, grasping for the still calm he’s tried to cultivate through 15 years of daily meditation. “Think about this,” he says. “It’s not too late. It doesn’t have to go down like this.”
Meng Yao sneers at him. “Unfortunately, it does. You saw to that when you broke into my office, like the nosy know-it-all prick you are.” He shakes his head. “You know Xichen’s worried you’re not spontaneous enough? If only he knew.”
It’s kind of a relief, knowing that his dislike of Meng Yao is reciprocated so vehemently. It makes him feel better about it. “Don’t talk about my brother,” Wangji says, letting his disdain for Meng Yao imbue his words. “You’re not worthy to speak his name.”
“If he’s involved in this at all, it’s thanks to you,” Meng Yao spits. “Like I said, I’ve worked very, very hard to try to keep you out of this, for his sake. Not that it’s done me any good.” With the hand that’s not holding the gun, Meng Yao reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pair of handcuffs. He tosses them on the floor in front of Wangji. “Put those on.”
Keeping his eyes on the gun, Wangji bends to pick up the cuffs.
“If you kill him,” Wei Ying says, “I won’t help you build the rest of the website.” His voice is hushed, deadly, seething. “You’ll have to kill me.”
“At which point,” Wen Ning interjects from the corner, “your deal with my sister is officially off.”
“Wait, what?” Wei Ying asks, turning his head slightly to call over his shoulder. “What deal?”
Wen Ning shrugs. “You live, I live, she stays quiet. Either of us dies, she goes public with the literally mountains of evidence she’s amassed about our Uncle Ruohan over the years. It all gets released automatically anyway, if she goes more than 48 hours without inputting her password.”
Meng Yao huffs an irritated sigh. “You can’t possibly know that, you haven’t spoken to your sister since Sunday.”
“I don’t need to have spoken to her to know what she’ll do. You think we’ve never discussed it?” Wen Ning gives an amiable chuckle. “You didn’t grow up in the house we grew up in.”
“Lan Wangji,” Meng Yao says through gritted teeth, turning his back on Wen Ning, “put the cuffs on and sit down on the couch. Or I will kill him, and you, and the website can go fuck itself.”
Wangji believes him. He snaps the cuffs around his left wrist, then his right. The metal is warm from being in Meng Yao’s pocket. Wei Ying’s jaw tenses, and he exhales a long breath, blinking rapidly. With slow, careful movements, watching Meng Yao the whole time, Wangji walks to the drab beige couch and sits down. Meng Yao relaxes visibly, but keeps the gun barrel resting firmly against Wei Ying’s head.
Wangji’s mind is racing through possibilities, discarding them as fast as they arise. His gun is on the floor, too far away for him to dive for, especially with his hands impeded. There’s nobody on this entire floor of the building to hear someone yelling for help, or a gunshot, for that matter. He realizes, with a chilled certainty, that the best opportunity will come in the moments immediately before Meng Yao tries to kill him, when he’ll have to take the gun away from Wei Ying’s head to point it at Wangji.
I can’t think of how I’m going to get out of this until I know how I’m getting him out of it, Wei Ying had said of Wen Ning, and for all Wangji had been so angry with him for that, he now understands the mindset completely.
That’s the play, then. Wait for Meng Yao to aim the gun at Wangji, and use those precious few seconds to make a bid for freedom. The metallic tang of adrenaline seeps into his mouth.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Meng Yao says. “We’re going to sit here and wait for my compatriots. All of you are going to behave yourselves until they get here,” he adds through gritted teeth, “and nobody has to get shot.”
He’s lying, of course he’s lying. When the Wens arrive, they will kill Wangji, if Meng Yao doesn’t beat them to it. Regardless of his brave assertion to the contrary, Wei Ying will finish the website to save Wen Ning’s life, and then they’ll kill Wei Ying as well.
There is a flash of movement behind Meng Yao. Wangji almost looks before he catches himself, but he keeps his eyes trained on Meng Yao’s face, forcing himself not to react. In his peripheral vision, a black-and-purple blur appears in the broken-down doorway, enters the room, and resolves into the figure of Jiang Wanyin, gun drawn. Wangji’s heart constricts and drops into his stomach — the sudden relief and hope are so painful, he feels like he’s going to be sick. From the corner, Wangji can hear Wen Ning draw in an involuntary breath, but he makes no other movement, no other sound. Good for him.
“Did you know Meng Yao and I know each other?” Wangji asks Wei Ying, trying to keep Meng Yao’s attention pointed forward, at the couch, away from the door.
“No, I didn’t,” Wei Ying says immediately. He may not know what’s happening, but he clearly recognizes stalling tactics when he sees them. “How’d that happen?”
Behind them, Wangji can see Jiang taking stock of the situation — Wen Ning and Wangji in handcuffs, Meng Yao’s aggressive posture, the gun to Wei Ying’s head. Lightning flashes in Jiang’s eyes.
“He’s dating my brother,” Wangji says. Jiang is moving stealthily into position. Wangji can see out of the corner of his eye that he’s frowning, looking for the best angle to take Meng Yao down without shooting Wei Ying as well.
“Oof,” Wei Ying groans. “That’s awkward.” He laughs. Despite everything, despite the gun and the handcuffs and the seeming hopelessness of their situation, he laughs, and Wangji loves him so much.
Meng Yao taps the gun barrel against the side of Wei Ying’s head, and he stops laughing. “Get on your knees, please,” Meng Yao smiles insincerely, blinking his doe eyes, like Wei Ying’s done something gauche that Meng Yao is too polite to point out.
Wei Ying meets Wangji’s eyes. Wangji nods in what he hopes is an encouraging manner, thinking it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s gonna be OK, as hard as he can, as though if he thinks it hard enough, Wei Ying will believe him. Haltingly, Wei Ying drops to one knee, then the other.
“Hands on your head.” Meng Yao’s voice is sweet, but firm. He’s looking at Wei Ying now; Wangji risks a glance up at Jiang, who’s standing at the ready, gun aimed at Meng Yao’s back. They just need a moment, one moment, where Meng Yao’s gun isn’t aimed at Wei Ying’s head, where an involuntary muscle spasm on Meng Yao’s part would mean disaster, even if Jiang did get a shot off. Jiang looks at him, and Wangji gives him the tiniest nod of acknowledgement.
Meng Yao is still watching Wei Ying, who slowly puts his hands up, interlacing his fingers behind his head, but Wei Ying hasn’t taken his eyes off of Wangji — he sees Wangji’s nod, even if he can’t know what it’s about. When Wangji meets his eyes again, Wei Ying looks a question at him.
Holding eye contact, Wangji raises his eyebrows. Do you trust me?
Hands on his head, Wei Ying dips his chin down slightly. Yes.
Wangji needs to make Meng Yao point the gun away from Wei Ying, and that means making Meng Yao point the gun at him, instead. He takes a sharp, shallow breath. Another. His chest is clenching, his throat stings. “Meng Yao,” he says, throwing his head back imperiously, his voice coming out surprisingly strong, surprisingly confident. Every muscle in his stomach, his back, all the way up his spine to his skull is tensed, ready, even his veins seem to constrict around the fear coursing through them. “Listen to me. I can help you. If you give up the Wens, I’m sure the DA will cut you a deal. You’re not cut out for prison,” he adds, allowing a patronizing note to drip into his voice.
Meng Yao flushes; the smile drops from his face completely, and for a moment he looks truly enraged. He looks like a murderer. “Well, I’m not going to prison, and I don’t need your help with that, you self-righteous ass,” he hisses. He takes a breath, visibly striving to re-compose himself. He forces the smile back onto his face, but it has a deranged quality now, his eyes still burning with anger.
Wangji can see Meng Yao make the decision. It seems to calm him further. Hopefully Jiang can see it too.
“I really didn’t want to have to kill you, Lan Wangji, but you leave me no choice,” Meng Yao is saying now, and his look of regret is almost genuine. “Xichen will be devastated. At least he’ll have me to help him pick up the pieces.” He lifts the gun away from the back of Wei Ying’s head and brings it to bear on Wangj’s face.
Jiang shoots him in the leg.
It’s a difficult shot, incapacitating without being fatal, and when he has the time to think about it, Wangji’s sure he’ll be impressed. Meng Yao screams and drops like a stone as his leg collapses underneath him. The gun goes off in Meng Yao’s hand, but the shot goes wide and high. It plows into the wall behind Wangji, who is already moving; diving forward, he loops his cuffed hands around Wei Ying’s shoulders, dragging him back out of the way.
Jiang advances on Meng Yao, who is writhing on the floor in pain. “Drop the weapon,” he barks, gun aimed at Meng Yao’s head. “Or better yet, don’t drop it. Give me a fucking reason, asshole.”
Face contorting, Meng Yao drops the gun on the floor and grabs his bleeding leg with both hands. Jiang kicks the gun away.
Wei Ying is struggling to his feet. Wangji still has his cuffed-together arms around Wei Ying’s waist, and sees no reason to let go; Wei Ying leans on him heavily. “Jiang Cheng, what the fuck,” Wei Ying chokes out.
“Try to be a little less surprised that I came to rescue you, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang says gruffly, keeping his eyes on Meng Yao.
“I know, I know, just like…” Wei Ying laughs, a little hysterically. “Holy shit, dude, you just shot a guy.” He’s clinging to Wangji’s arms. His hands are shaking.
“I’m so confused as to what you thought I did for a living, before tonight,” Jiang snarks.
Wen Ning waves, as best he can while handcuffed to a chair. “Hi, Jiang Cheng!”
“Hi, Wen Ning.”
Wen Ning beams. “Uh...how have you been?”
Jiang snorts. “Oh, just peachy. You should call your brother, Lan,” he adds over his shoulder.
“You talked to Xichen?” Wangji asks, surprised. At the sound of Xichen’s name, Meng Yao gives a choked little sob.
“Uh, no,” Jiang says, a little distracted. Keeping his weapon trained on Meng Yao, he grabs a throw pillow off the couch and tosses it to him. Meng Yao wraps it around his leg, the soft beige fabric going crimson. “Your...uh...Nie’s...brother, I guess? Called me this morning, and said you hadn’t been home, and that I needed to go find you, like I’m supposed to fucking know where you are, I don’t even know how he got my number.”
“Yeah, he, um…” Wangji doesn’t have the time or energy to explain Nie Huaisang right now. “He does that.”
“Anyway, I figured you must have gone to that fucking nightclub, fucking terrible decision, you’re not supposed to do things like that by yourself,” Jiang grouses. “I was already on my way down there when I heard the call come in over dispatch, then heard the cancellation come through.” He sniffs. “Figured I’d come down here anyway, just in case.”
“My hero,” Wei Ying says, batting his eyelashes.
Jiang rolls his eyes. “Get fucked,” he says, but he says it like I love you, and Wangji realizes with a sort of resigned dread that the period of his life where he has to spend time with Jiang Wanyin is only just beginning. Jiang turns back to Meng Yao and clears his throat. “Yao Meng, you’re under arrest for, oh, let’s start with kidnapping and we’ll go from there. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…”
As Jiang continues reading Meng Yao his rights, Wei Ying turns in the circle of Wangji’s arms, putting his arms around Wangji’s neck. He’s shaking badly, now; he’s so pale that his lips are the same sickly washed-out color as the rest of his face, just a shade darker than the plaster dust that still covers him. Wangji’s seen this before, in people who have been through an ordeal — now that the danger is over, the shock is setting in.
Wei Ying looks into Wangji’s eyes, even as his own eyes are going dull and glassy. He smiles, a little dreamily. “My hero,” he breathes again, and collapses.
SIX MONTHS LATER
“Uggh,” Wei Ying complains, flopping down onto Wangji’s bed. “My feet hurrrrrrt, Lan Zhan.”
“If you wore shoes with better arch support,” Wangji points out, hanging his shirt neatly in the closet, “your feet would not hurt so much by the end of the day.”
“Spoken like a guy who’s never waited tables,” Wei Ying retorts. “Besides, shoes cost money.”
“Mn,” Wangji acknowledges, privately resolving to buy Wei Ying some new sneakers the next day.
“Oh no,” Wei Ying says. He crawls to the edge of the bed and sits up on his knees on it, so his face is close to level with Wangji’s. “I see you, I see you making that face, don’t even think about it, Lan Zhan. I am perfectly capable of buying my own shoes, and furthermore —”
Wangji turns from the closet, sliding his hands around Wei Ying’s narrow little waist, and kisses whatever words Wei Ying was going to say next right out of his mouth.
“Mmhh,” Wei Ying hums instead, wrapping his arms around Wangji’s neck.
Wangji doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to this, Wei Ying in his arms, in his bed, getting to see him every day, getting to hear his laugh and touch his skin and kiss him whenever he wants. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever stop feeling this way, like his heart is overflowing with something sweet and fizzy, like the smell of Wei Ying in his sheets is enough to move him almost to tears. He hopes not.
“So how was it for you, today?” Wei Ying murmurs when they come up for air. “Baby’s First Protest, I’m so proud.”
Wangji hooks his chin over Wei Ying’s shoulder, breathes in the scent of his hair. “It was...interesting.”
It had been interesting, attending a protest as a protester instead of a cop. Interesting, and intense, and kind of terrifying, and deeply depressing. His feet also hurt, after standing for 16 hours — even though his shoes are much sturdier than Wei Ying’s — but so does his heart.
He’d broken a dozen laws getting Wei Ying back. He’d risked compromising a major investigation, he’d conducted multiple warrantless searches, he’d disobeyed direct orders from his commanding officer, he’d bashed a guy’s face in and left him in a stairwell. He’d gone in to work the morning after the confrontation with Meng Yao expecting to be formally reprimanded, demoted, even fired, and he would have deserved those things. He’d been ready to face the consequences of his actions.
Instead, he’d received a week’s suspension with pay and a slap on the back from Captain Yao, who jovially suggested that Nie Mingjue was getting to be a bad influence on Wangji, and that was it. Major Crimes was happy, because Wei Ying’s testimony and the files from the computer in Nightless City allowed them to arrest a dozen mid-level Wen functionaries; Wen Ruohan prudently sent his younger son back to China until the heat died down, but it was still good PR for the Wen task force. Jin Corp pinned all the blame solidly on Meng Yao, which allowed the captain to act like Wangji had apprehended some sort of internet supervillain without angering any of the captain’s cronies, of which Jin Guangshan is certainly one.
The multiple charges of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping against Meng Yao meant that the FBI had gotten involved. Meng Yao underwent a lengthy federal trial, and is now beginning an even lengthier stint in federal prison. Wen Chao is in China. Xue Yang is in the wind — Wei Ying’s friend Xiao Xingchen has assured them that he wouldn’t be back to bother them, but refused to elaborate. No one else from Jin Corp was ever even charged with anything. Meng Yao was left holding the bag. Wangji would feel a little bad for him, if he hadn’t pointed a gun at Wei Ying.
Everything else Wangji had done was just...waved off. Smoothed over. It had gotten results, so what did anything else matter? If anything, Wangji’s co-workers liked him more after all that, because they’d seen him break the rules. He couldn’t forget how easily Meng Yao had canceled the dispatch call to the condo, but there was no way of knowing who in the department was on the Wens’ payroll. Probably more than one person; potentially a lot of people. It hadn’t sat right with him, how easily it all blew over.
And there was Wei Ying. Wei Ying, who had averred that he wasn’t going to ask Wangji to quit his job for him, but who tensed up and withdrew whenever Wangji talked about work. Wei Ying, who would sometimes stop talking about his activist work mid-sentence and change the subject with a cautious look at Wangji. Wei Ying, who was reluctant to introduce Wangji to his friends. Part of loving someone, it turns out, is seeing yourself through their eyes, and Wangji didn’t like what he saw. He could see the future, as clearly as if he were actually psychic. He could see that this would be the thing that broke them.
He hadn’t known ahead of time that his last day as a cop would be his last day; he’d just woken up one morning and known he had to quit. Yao had shouted at him, somehow managing to simultaneously argue that it was Wangji’s duty to stay and continue enforcing the law, and that Wangji had never been a team player and that the precinct would be better off. Nie Mingjue had grunted and said “Yeah, I figured,” and Wangji had packed up his desk, and that had been it.
“I didn’t...I wasn’t asking you to do that. I wouldn’t ask you to do that, for me,” Wei Ying had said carefully, that night.
“It wasn’t,” Wangji had replied. “For you, I mean.”
Wei Ying had just looked at him, waiting.
“Maybe it’s because of you,” Wangji had said slowly, “but it’s not for you. It’s for me. I just...” he shrugged. “...Can’t do it anymore.”
Wei Ying had smiled at him, looking unbearably relieved, and climbed into his lap. “Thank fuck,” he’d whispered, leaning his forehead against Wangji’s. “Thank fuck, I didn’t want you to make that kind of life decision just for me but thank fuck, Lan Zhan, I didn’t know what to do, I thought we were gonna have to break up…” He’d kissed Wangji’s eyebrow, his nose, his cheek, his lips. “We should celebrate,” he’d murmured suggestively. Wangji had stood up, lifting Wei Ying with his legs wrapped around Wangji’s waist, intending to carry him to the bedroom, but they’d ended up celebrating up against the wall in the hallway instead.
“Hey,” Wei Ying says now, cupping Wangji’s face in his hands, drawing his mind back to the present. “You got all quiet.”
“I’m always quiet.”
Wei Ying raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“Sorry,” Wangji says. “Today was...challenging.”
He’d thought he’d been ready for the protest today, how it would feel to be calling for the abolition of a group he’d belonged to until a few months ago. But even with all Wangji’s mental preparation, he’d been taken aback by how deeply it affected him. It had been hard, seeing the faces of people he’d known, people he’d worked with and collaborated with and maybe not liked — Wangji has come to realize that he’d never really liked most of his old co-workers, but he doesn’t like a lot of people, so hadn’t noticed — but had tolerated, at least, had tried to see good in them and give them the benefit of the doubt where he could, seeing those familiar faces twisted into almost unrecognizable masks of anger and suspicion. It’s difficult to come to terms with.
“I can imagine,” Wei Ying says simply, smoothing a hand between Wangji’s shoulder blades. “Thanks for coming with us, it meant a lot to me to have you there.”
“I needed to go,” Wangji mumbles into his shoulder. It’s true. He did.
Wei Ying kisses his cheek. “Do you have work tomorrow?”
Since leaving the SPD, Wangji has been doing some work for Nie Huaisang in his art gallery, when he’s not studying for the LSAT; he’s looking forward to taking it relatively easy for a year or so before hopefully starting law school next fall. He still can’t decide if he should be encouraging Nie Huaisang and Wei Ying to get to know each other better, since they get along like a house afire, or trying to keep them apart, since they’re mildly alarming when they join forces.
“Mn,” he says. “Going in early to finish the Q1 books.”
“I’ll miss you,” Wei Wing purrs, kissing his ear.
“You’ll see me in the morning,” Wangji tells him. “And after you get off work.”
Wei Ying flings his head back dramatically, a motion that leans him up into Wangji in a way Wangji finds very intriguing. “And in between, an eternity,” Wei Ying sighs, bringing a hand to his brow. “Alas, how am I forsaken, when will my Lan Zhan return from the war?”
“Shameless,” Wangji says, smiling. He bends to kiss the hollow of Wei Ying’s collarbone, which has been revealed by his theatrics. “I’ll miss you, too,” he whispers into it. He will. It seems foolish to think of missing Wei Ying when he sees him all the time now, but the more he gets of him, the more he wants.
“Poor baby.” Wei Ying draws Wangji closer. He slips a hand up under Wangji’s undershirt, sliding it up the skin of Wangji’s back. Wangji draws a gentle breath, his knees going a little weak just from that simple touch. “Show me how much,” Wei Ying breathes.
In the last six months, Wangji has had ample opportunity to check off every item on his mental list of places he wants to kiss Wei Ying, and to start compiling a comprehensive, ever-growing list of his new favorites. Wei Ying’s pillowy lower lip. The ticklish spot just behind his ear, the kissing of which causes Wei Ying to giggle and squirm or to arch and groan, depending on what else Wangji is doing at the time. The tiny mole above his sternum. The long muscle that runs up the inside of Wei Ying’s thigh. The dimples on either side of his tailbone, each of which is the exact size and shape of the tip of Wangji’s tongue.
Afterward, when they are both drowsy and loose-limbed with postcoital contentment, Wei Ying murmurs, “your bed is much comfier than my bed.”
“Mn,” Wangji agrees. “Also, no one else is here.”
“Wen Ning is a model roommate,” Wei Ying protests. He runs the flat of his hand along Wangji’s chest. “I can’t believe you’re hiding all this under all those button-downs,” he says appreciatively. “The world needs to know how hot you are, Lan Zhan. You should just be naked, all the time.”
Wangji exhales a small laugh through his nose, feeling his ears warm slightly. “I would be cold.”
“I’d warm you up,” Wei Ying promises, snuggling into him.
“Did you set your alarm?”
“Mmrmph,” Wei Ying grumps. “Yes.”
I love you, Wangji thinks, skimming his fingertips over Wei Ying’s bare shoulder. “Good night,” he says out loud.
“Sleep tight, baby,” Wei Ying sighs.
The next morning, Wangji is boiling water for tea when Xichen pads into the kitchen, already dressed for the day in a soft blue cardigan and gray cords. He smiles when Wangji sees him and gets out a second cup.
The two of them drink their tea and eat their breakfasts in silence, the dining area slowly growing lighter with the morning sun. It’s a time of day Wangji has come to treasure, this simple, quiet ritual with his brother, not needing to say anything, just enjoying each other’s company. It’s a welcome spot of tranquility, before either of their respective boyfriends wakes up and starts making noise.
In the weeks following Meng Yao’s arrest, Xichen had been hollowed out by grief, wandering silently in and out of rooms, picking things up and putting them back down again. The worst part had been that he wouldn’t talk to Wangji about it, would barely talk to Wangji at all, and Wangji had had no idea what to say to him. It had been the same when their father died — Xichen had done all he could to be there for Wangji, but couldn’t allow him to return the favor.
Shortly after Wangji gave his notice at the precinct, Nie Mingjue had shown up at their door with a stack of bootleg Hikaru No Go DVDs and a pint of soy ice cream, and basically shooed Wangji out of the apartment (pausing only briefly to give Wangji a hard time about dating Wei Ying, which Nie Mingjue claimed he saw coming the whole time). The next morning, Xichen was still behaving like an automaton, but like a slightly more realistic and lifelike one; it wasn’t long after that that Wangji saw him smile for the first time since Meng Yao’s arrest.
He has no idea at what point their relationship turned romantic, but sometime in the last few months Nie Mingjue has gone from crashing on the couch to crashing in Xichen’s bed, and Wangji is happy for them. He’s been rooting for them to get together for ages, of course, but he’s also just enjoying seeing Xichen smiling again.
Nie Mingjue stumbles into the dining room, wearing Xichen’s purple UW sweatpants. Xichen likes his sweatpants baggy, which means they fit Nie Mingjue just about perfectly, besides being too long. “Morning,” he mumbles, scratching his stomach. The scar from his shoulder surgery is still a deep pink, although apparently the doctors have said it will fade with time.
Wangji averts his eyes. The end result of his matchmaking scheme has meant a great deal more shirtless Nie Mingjue in his life than he’d anticipated (“Your brother’s boyfriend needs to start wearing a shirt in the morning, or I’m gonna say something embarrassing to him,” Wei Ying had confessed to him once after too much whiskey). He supposes that being confronted with his former partner’s iliac crests at 7 am is a small price to pay for his brother’s happiness.
Nie Mingjue kisses Xichen’s forehead and plops down at the table with a protein shake. “So,” he grunts. “When you quit, did you like, storm into the captain’s office and slam your badge and gun down on the desk?”
Startled, Wangji looks up at him.
“That’s what cops always do in movies,” Nie Mingjue muses. “Seems like it would be pretty satisfying.” Xichen is unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile.
“Um...no,” Wangji says. “I provided the captain with written notice of my resignation, and forwarded a copy to the union rep.”
Nie Mingjue makes a face. “That sounds boring. I’m gonna do the first one.” He has protein shake in his mustache.
“You could always do the written notice as a backup,” Xichen suggests.
“You’re quitting,” Wangji says, dumbfounded.
“After last night? Yeah.”
“We’ve been discussing it for a while, now,” Xichen says.
“You quit,” Nie Mingjue points out, nudging Wangji’s knee with his foot.
“So, maybe it just took me a little longer. Maybe I’m not as smart as you,” Nie Mingjue snorts. “Can’t be that I’m more stubborn, nobody’s more stubborn than your bullheaded ass.”
Wangji raises an eyebrow at him, feeling secretly pleased. His friendship with Nie Mingjue has felt a little strained, a little awkward, since Wangji quit. It would be nice to have it back. “What will you do?”
“Shit, I don’t know. Was kinda hoping to have something lined up, but...” Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “After last night, I’m just out.”
Wangji nods. He can relate.
Xichen takes Nie Mingjue’s hand; Nie Mingjue gives him the wide-eyed, unguarded look he gets sometimes now, like he can’t believe his luck, and once again, Wangji can relate. “You have lots of marketable skills,” Xichen says. “You’ll be fine.”
“Huaisang will find you something,” Wangji says. “He needs a project, anyway.”
All three of them stare into space for a moment, contemplating the dangers of an under-occupied Nie Huaisang.
“I don’t think quitting’s gonna take that long,” Nie Mingjue says eventually. “Wanna grab lunch after?”
“I would, but I have a faculty meeting,” Xichen tells him.
“Wangji? Lunch? I could come by the gallery.”
Nie Mingjue pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through it, appearing to believe the matter settled.
Wangji smiles to himself and goes to get ready for work. Wei Ying is still sprawled out across Wangji’s bed, asleep; before Wangji leaves, he bends down to kiss Wei Ying’s cheek.
“Have a good day,” Wei Ying mumbles, his skin sleep-soft and warm under Wangji’s hand. “Love you.”
“Love you too,” Wangji says softly, his heart full. “See you tonight.”
Special thanks to Idhren for purchasing this FTH work for Stultiloquentia — Stulti, I hope you liked it! Big shout-outs to my betas Duessa, Spoops, and Ericacea for all the encouragement/feedback/yelling, especially with this last chapter and epilogue, which I rewrote in its entirety no fewer than 4 times.
Headcanons for this AU that didn't make it into the epilogue include:
- Wangji gives regular talks at Xiao Xingchen's house about police tactics and how to avoid them, what your rights are, what to watch out for, etc. He hates it because he hates public speaking, but Xiao Xingchen has a way of smiling and assuming out loud that of course you'll do the right thing that's impossible to say no to.
- Nie Huaisang and Mianmian have already shown Wei Ying their high school yearbooks, including where Wangji signed Nie Huaisang's "Best, Lan Wangji."
- Lan Qiren is over the moon that Wangji has decided to go to law school, but he has no idea how to express this. As a consequence, Wangji wonders if his uncle is a little mad about law school for some reason.
- Wangji and Song Lan have become fast friends, now that Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen are back together. Wangji is borrowing Song Lan's old LSAT prep books.
- Wei Ying hasn't officially moved into the Lans' apartment, but he sleeps there so often that Wen Ning has started turning the bottom bunk in their room into a fort. Wei Ying has yet to notice.
- The restraining order doesn't matter to Xue Yang. The fact that Xiao Xingchen cried when he said he never wanted to see him again does.
- Wangji is planning to propose, this summer, on the roof. Wei Ying is planning to propose, this summer, on the roof.
Thanks so much to everyone who's been reading along, it's been so fun writing my first fic in this fandom! I have [checks notes] 3 other WiPs in this fandom, one of which is another multichapter fic, so I hope y'all will check those out when they're published. In the meantime, come say hi on Tumblr!