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After the Final Rose

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Episode 4: The Dates Go Downhill

Lan Wangji begins the week by taking Xiao Xingchen on a one-on-one date to a Michelin-starred restaurant, where they are invited into the kitchen to learn how to cook some of the chef’s vegetarian specialties. The two bond over their shared parenting experiences, and Xiao Xingchen receives a rose.

The first group date, a bicycling tour of Yangshuo, ends in disaster when Luo Qingyang fractures her wrist in an accident. Wen Qing provides emergency first aid and accompanies her to the hospital. After cancelling the remainder of the date, Lan Wangji goes to the hospital to present the group date rose to Luo Qingyang.

Back at the mansion, conflict has been brewing, and it overflows during the second group date. Xue Chengmei ends up leaving the show after assaulting another suitor. Jinzhu and Yinzhu then inform Lan Wangji that they are not interested in pursuing a relationship with him, and ask to be sent home.

The rose ceremony is cancelled, and Lan Wangji sits down with Nie Huaisang to reflect on a difficult week.

###

Dailies: Episode 4, Mansion

(A shot of number of suitors gathered in the living room at the mansion, in front of the wall-mount television. They are doing karaoke. XUE CHENGMEI and XIAO XINGCHEN are singing a disastrously off-key version of Brandy and Monica’s iconic duet, “The Boy is Mine,” while the other suitors cheer them on. Every now and then, one of the two singers looks over at SONG ZICHEN, who is brooding against the wall at the back of the room. When the song finishes, XUE CHENGMEI turns to SONG ZICHEN.)

XCM: (grinning) You’re up next, Zichen. I’ve picked out a song just for you …

(SONG ZICHEN is clearly reluctant to take the microphone, but does so as the opening strains of Jay Chou’s “An Jing” start up. When he starts singing, he has a beautiful voice. More cheers from the gathered suitors. XIAO XINGCHEN glances at SONG ZICHEN and then at XUE CHENGMEI, puzzled.)
________

(A talking-head interview. MO XUANYU, 29, rare books conservator, and QIN SU, 32, preschool teacher.)

Offscreen voice: You’re half-siblings?

MXY: A-Su — Qin Su — is my half-sister, but we only met for the first time four — is it four? (he looks at QIN SU)

QS: Almost five, now.

MXY: Almost five years ago. It’s kind of a funny story — we were set up on a blind date and then halfway through she said something about her dad and I thought, but that’s my dad you’re talking about? Anyway, we’ve been best friends ever since.

Offscreen voice: How do you feel about competing for the Bachelor’s attention?

MXY (serious) I won’t compete with her. If A-Su likes him, I’ll step aside.

QS: (laughing and patting him on the arm) Don’t be so selfless all the time, Xuanyu! I think you’re more his type, anyway …

###

At first, when Lan Wangji sits down at the piano in the little library, there’s only silence. But silence is a song of its own; the shape of a melody lingers in its depths. So he waits, fingers poised over the keys, listening.

The first notes he plays are halting — just a descending triad in the right hand, then another — as he tries to articulate something he doesn’t have all the words for yet. After he repeats the phrase, the song coalesces enough to carry him forward, like a boat on running water. He finds that the key to the song is in avoiding ornamentation: it wants to remain simple, like a tune you might hum before falling asleep.

When it’s done, he turns to find Wei Ying perched on the edge of the reading chair, chin cradled in his hands. He’s wearing a powder blue sweatshirt and white jeans, so different from his usual black-on-black crew gear that Lan Wangji has the incongruous thought that he’s seeing Wei Ying without his armour. He looks beautiful in it, but that’s not a change. He always looks beautiful.

“That was lovely, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs. “What’s it called?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. The answer is embarrassing. Revealing.

“I didn’t know you composed music.” Wei Ying rises from the chair and crosses to sit on the piano bench beside Lan Wangji, resting his own fingers on the keys. They are long, slender, deft. Lan Wangji wants to put them in his mouth.

“Mn. Sometimes. It helps me process things.”

Wei Ying slowly picks out the opening passage of the song, tentative and quiet, like a version of it played underwater. The silence between them grows harmonies.

“You have a good ear. Do you play an instrument?” Lan Wangji asks. An inane question. He wants to ask something else. He seems to be short of words too often, these days.

Wei Ying nods, then shakes his head. “The dizi. When I was younger. But it wasn’t a priority.” He doesn’t say whose. “I don’t play anymore, anyway.”

When he runs through the first few notes again, Lan Wangji puts a hand over Wei Ying’s, stilling it. He lets his other hand ask what his mouth cannot, sliding it up to cup Wei Ying’s cheek and waiting until he feels the answering pressure of Wei Ying’s head tilting into his hand.

This time, when they kiss, it is sweet, soft. It stretches on, like neither of them can bear to break it.

“I’m sorry about last night, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, when they finally pause for breath, foreheads touching. “That I left. I thought … I thought you would regret it.”

“I thought you had regretted it,” Lan Wangji admits. It was that thought which had consumed him, for most of the night; there had been no room for anything else, no room to think on what the kiss — more than a kiss, really, probably much more if the guard hadn’t come in — might mean for the show. For everything.

“No,” Wei Ying says, quickly. “Ah, Lan Zhan, no. I just wanted to give you some space, so you could decide it was a mistake.”

“It was not a mistake,” Lan Wangji murmurs, stroking the back of Wei Ying’s neck.

Wei Ying laughs, softly, but there’s something almost wild in it. “You can’t say things like that, Lan Zhan. You’ve just met me. Sometimes it takes a while to see the mistakes you’re making for what they really are.”

“Not a mistake,” he insists, and kisses Wei Ying again. Messy, this time, and needy, but Wei Ying takes it, gives and gives, until Lan Wangji feels full to overflowing.

“What should we do?” he says, finally. Somehow they have both turned sideways on the piano bench, so that Wei Ying is kneeling between Lan Wangji’s legs. “About the show.”

He does not relish the thought of going to Meng Yao to say I am sorry to have wasted three weeks of your budget and time, but I cannot continue on this journey. There is the contract to think of, and Meng Yao’s face when he hears — there have already been advertisements, for a season featuring the Bachelor, Lan Wangji. The suitors, too; not that he would have chosen any them in the end, but the opportunities they came here for will be lost. And there is no real barrier to enacting his old plan: the boring Bachelor, who chose no-one, and whose dating life after the show was of no interest to the masses …

No barrier except Wei Ying. If Wei Ying wants him to quit, he will —

“About the show?” Wei Ying says, sounding a little dizzy. His lips are kissed red, his ponytail loose. “What about the show?”

“I could quit,” he clarifies.

Wei Ying looks startled — as if the thought has never once crossed his mind — and then, in the next moment, panicked.

“Aiya, no, Lan Zhan!” he breathes, sounding strangled. He clutches Lan Wangji’s arm tightly, as if he thinks Lan Wangji might leap up to quit right now. Of course, Lan Wangji thinks, kicking himself — this is Wei Ying’s job, the job he took to find a stable base, closer to his family. Of course he would worry at the thought of it coming to an end.

“I would not need to mention you, as the reason,” he says, steadying Wei Ying on the bench. “Your job would not be threatened — ”

“Ah, no, it’s not that, Lan Zhan, I can always find another job! I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like this job if you weren’t the Bachelor, anyway. It’s just … there’s no need for that, right?” He lets out a shaky laugh. “Meng Yao told me when he hired me that the show was all just editing. They go in without a script, he said, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scripted. You’re just playing a role on television, right? You don’t have to quit because of … this. Because of us.”

Lan Wangji clips a tendril of disappointment. Some part of him, it seems, had wanted to leave now, to leap straight to spending time with Wei Ying in a world where he isn’t pretending to fall in love on television.

“It is not too much longer, I suppose,” he says. “And I do not want to disappoint the crew, or Meng Yao. But I will not enjoy pretending for the next three weeks.”

Wei Ying’s grip on his arm loosens, and he flashes a wicked grin. “Are you sure? It’s my job to be with you all the time, right? We can make good use of it …”

Before Lan Wangji can reply, another voice cuts in.

“Where’s my favourite Bachelor?” Meng Yao yells. It sounds like he’s in the living room. “Are you ready to make some beautiful television?”

###

Dailies: Episode 4, One-on-One Date

(A shot of a restaurant kitchen, where a CHEF watches as LAN WANGJI and XIAO XINGCHEN, both bent over the food prep counter, attempt to create their own version of a dish in the foreground of the shot. The dish features an intricate frill of blackened maitake mushroom atop a tower of purple-and-white yam paste, rising out of a cloud of white foam.

LAN WANGJI, looking extremely focused, is using a culinary blow torch on a mushroom, while XIAO XINGCHEN attempts to plate the yam paste tower. Once the dish is assembled, both stare at it for a moment. The tower tilts slowly to one side, and the mushroom slides off into the limp bubbles of a putrid yellow foam.)

LWJ: (immediately) We will do it again.
________

(A talking-head interview. XIAO XINGCHEN, 36, lawyer. An empty restaurant, decorated in wood tones and shades of cream, is in the background.)

Offscreen voice: You left your daughter at home to come on the show — you must have felt strongly about embarking on this journey?

XXC: (gentle smile) Actually, A-Qing spends every summer travelling with her grandmother. Baoshan Sanren — my mother — believes that we learn best while in motion. So I didn’t leave her behind for this! And I initially had a long trial scheduled to run during this time period, but it settled unexpectedly. So when I saw the casting call, I thought, that would be fun! A stress-free vacation.

(He pauses, suddenly concerned) I shouldn’t say that, should I?

Offscreen voice: No, it’s okay. Now that you’re here and you’ve met Lan Wangji, do you still feel like it’s just a holiday?

XXC: (a little flustered) I …

Offscreen voice: You can be honest with me.

XXC: (apologetic) Yes?

Offscreen voice: You don’t feel a connection with the Bachelor?

XXC: You won’t tell him I said this?

Offscreen voice: Sure. Off the record. I mean, on camera, but … we won’t tell him right now, at least.

XXC: Okay, well, it’s just … he’s … not really my type?

Offscreen voice: Oh yeah? How would you describe your type, as compared with Lan Wangji?

XXC: (another gentle smile) … Weirder.
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author. A passable attempt at the mushroom tower dish sits on the counter in front of him.)

Offscreen voice: (chewing noises) Okay, this one’s better? So I’d say: the third one, then the first one, then the second one. There was something off about the foam in the second one.

LWJ: (intense) How do they compare to the original?

Offscreen voice: Lan Zhan! Are you trying to compete with a Michelin-starred chef? (laughs) Okay. It was a close race, but in the end, yours was a bit better. (LAN WANGJI blushes.) I bet you’re a fantastic cook at home. I saw how you handled that blow torch …

LWJ: I do cook regularly at home. Sizhui and my brother both tell me that they enjoy my cooking, but I … I do not have many opportunities to cook for others.

Offscreen voice: What’s your specialty? What would you make for someone you brought home on a date?

LWJ: I am quite adept at most tofu dishes. Pingqiao tofu, perhaps — I might make that for someone I, uh, brought home. Or … shengjianbao. I make very good shengjianbao. I would make them for breakfast, if that someone … (he blushes again) stayed the night.

Offscreen voice: (soft) Ah … I’d like to try them sometime.

###

Dailies: Episode 4, Mansion

(A shot of the outside of the mansion, with the doors to the living room in the background. SONG ZICHEN is lying facedown on a towel in the grass near the pool, shirtless, apparently asleep. XUE CHENGMEI comes out out of the house, also shirtless, with a towel wrapped around his waist. He spots SONG ZICHEN and grins. He comes over and sits down right beside SONG ZICHEN’s head. The camera zooms in.)

XCM: (leaning very close to SONG ZICHEN’s ear) So how do you feel about your boyfriend going on a date today?

(SONG ZICHEN turns his head to look at him. XUE CHENGMEI doesn’t back away; their faces are too close for normal conversation.)

SZC: (icy) That’s how the show works. The suitors go on dates with the Bachelor.

(They stare at each other for a very long moment. XUE CHENGMEI licks his lips, deliberately. SONG ZICHEN drops his head back down, turning his face the other way.)

XCM: Oh, is that how the show works? I didn’t think you understood the premise. You know the idea is to win Lan Wangji’s heart, right? (chuckles) Because it seems to me that you only have eyes for —

SZC: (jumping to his feet) Shut up!

(He stalks away. XUE CHENGMEI watches him go, grinning, but once SONG ZICHEN is out of view, he frowns.)

###

After they leave the restaurant, Meng Yao whisks Lan Wangji and Wei Ying straight to the private jet for the flight to Guangxi. With the next day’s date scheduled to begin at sunrise, the crew and suitors have to travel in advance. The four suitors going on the date are, as usual, seated in a different section of the plane; Lan Wangji is seated up front beside Wei Ying, who is on WeChat, frantically texting someone as they taxi down the runway. While Lan Wangji is still dressed in the cream sweater and black slacks from the afternoon’s date, Wei Ying has found time to change into a red sweatshirt and black sweatpants. (Wei Ying always wears sweatpants on planes, he has learned: I won’t sleep in jeans. It’s a sin against comfort to sleep in jeans, Lan Zhan).

“Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t tell Meng Yao,” Wei Ying whispers, after he turns his phone to airplane mode and the plane takes off, “because he’ll want to film another TV show about it, but my sister’s pregnant. Isn’t that great?”

“Please send her my congratulations,” Lan Wangji murmurs back, and is rewarded by the gentle pressure of Wei Ying’s thigh against his. That doesn’t seem like enough, so he drops his hand into the shadowy gap under the armrest. Wei Ying, catching on, slides his hand into Lan Wangji’s and threads their fingers together. A perfect fit, he marvels, and almost laughs out loud at how he’s turning into a teenager, filled with joy from nothing more than holding hands.

“How did you end up having a kid, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying’s thumb rubs a circle on Lan Wangji’s palm. Out the window, the lively lights of Shanghai at night recede into the distance.

“Because I do not seem like the fatherly type, you mean?” he says, dryly, and Wei Ying laughs.

“Not that, exactly. I could see that you’re wonderful with Sizhui. But — I think it would surprise people who don’t know you very well, if that makes sense?”

“Mn. The woman at the adoption agency thought along the same lines. I suspect it was the Lan family fortune that convinced her to approve the adoption, and not my personal merits as a potential parent,” he says. “And it is not a very long story; Sizhui came to one of the Lan Foundation read-aloud events with his foster family when he was two. I read a book to him. The next year, he came to the same event, but with a different family. The next year, he did not come, and the foster coordinator told me he was having trouble finding a good fit, that he’d had a run of bad luck. I found myself asking what I would need to do to offer him a home.”

“That’s — that’s amazing, Lan Zhan.”

“It did not always feel amazing,” he admits. “Not because of Sizhui — he was wonderful — but because I soon found that I knew almost nothing about the care and feeding of small children. The lady at the adoption agency may have been right about me.”

“No,” Wei Ying says, quietly, “I don’t think so.”

“You are adopted, too?” It strikes Lan Wangji as odd that they haven’t already discussed this; he has spilled so much of his life to Wei Ying in the guise of interviews, and heard many of Wei Ying’s stories in return. Wei Ying often coaxes him to talk by sharing his own experiences, but he has never shared the story of his adoption.

Wei Ying shrugs and curls his long legs up in front of him, like a fortress. “Yeah. Jiang Fengmian was friends with my parents, and he’d promised them that he would look after me if anything ever happened to them. And so when they died, he announced to the world that the Jiangs of Lotus Pier would be taking in a little orphan. At first I thought they wanted me, you know. But it was all just good publicity. Family friendly marketing, you know. And it backfired, anyhow, because there were rumours … anyway. They regretted it right away.”

“I am sure they wanted you,” Lan Wangji says. “They made a choice, to keep you — ”

“It turns out you can live with choices you regret for a long time,” Wei Ying says. His free hand is picking at the frayed edge of his sweatshirt where it has started to unravel. “Fifteen years, actually, until I left home. They didn’t keep me because they wanted to, Lan Zhan. They did it because they couldn’t stomach people knowing they’d broken their word.”

Lan Wangji wishes, desperately, that he could kiss the pain off Wei Ying’s face, smooth the lines from his brow. He can’t, though, not here, so he squeezes his hand, instead. Wei Ying squeezes back, gently.

“Enough about that, Lan Zhan. Tell me … tell me about your life when you’re not on television, okay? Not the big things. Little things, like … do you like to sleep in on the weekends? Are you good at napping? Do you sometimes fall asleep in front of the television? You’d be so cu— ” he swallows the word down, realizing where they are, and starts again. “It’s funny to think of you sleeping through an episode of The Bachelor.”

“Those are all about sleeping,” Lan Wangji objects. He wants to know Wei Ying’s answers, though, so he can imagine Wei Ying filling in the empty spaces of his life. He pictures Wei Ying sleeping late into the morning in Lan Wangji’s bed, a beam of sunlight across his resting face.

“Sleep is important!” Wei Ying laughs.

“Mn. True. I do not generally sleep in, weekends or otherwise. I have perfected the art of the afternoon nap, however. I cannot watch television after nine o’clock without falling asleep — ”

“Hey! Don’t waste good material just chatting! Save it for the interviews!”

Meng Yao plops down in the seat across the aisle, grinning. Ever since the watery kiss with Luo Qingyang, the producer has seemed particularly pleased with Lan Wangji, even going so far as to say you have great instincts, Wangji! Jumping in to swim so you could kiss her in private? The audience is going to eat it up!

“Do you have any complaints about the quality of my interviews?” Lan Wangji says, mock-challenging. Although he’s fairly certain that Meng Yao can’t see his hand joined with Wei Ying’s, he slides one ankle over his knee in an attempt to further obscure the arm rest.

“No complaints from me! Actually — and don’t let this go to your head — I’ve been meaning to tell you that you’ve been doing a good job so far, on the show. A surprisingly good job, actually. I thought you might be a stick-in-the-mud on camera, but you’ve been great. Especially in the interviews.” Meng Yao gives him an odd little smile, one Lan Wangji can’t quite parse. Scheming? That isn’t quite it. Conspiratorial, maybe. “You do whatever you need to in order to keep that up, okay?”

Meng Yao has no idea what he’s giving permission for, Lan Wangji thinks, as Wei Ying’s thumb begins to brush against the pulse point in his wrist. He suddenly wonders whether, if he turned off the overhead light and acquired a blanket, Wei Ying could stay quiet while Lan Wangji slid a hand into his sweatpants.

“Mn,” he says. “I will.”

“Great. Now, let’s talk about Wen Xu.”

“Wen Xu?” Lan Wangji, who has never before in his life thought about the logistics of secret airplane handjobs, now finds he can think of almost nothing else. Once Meng Yao leaves them alone …

“I need you to keep him until the final episode, okay?”

“Why?” he says, curious, although he already intends to keep Wen Xu around. Every interaction he has with the man further convinces him that Wen Xu has his own reasons for being on the show, that those reasons do not include winning Lan Wangji’s heart or hand, and that in fact Lan Wangji could be replaced by a small lump of coal and Wen Xu’s attitude would not change in the slightest. Wen Xu is very good at faking a romantic interest whenever a camera happens to be pointing in his direction, however. Xiao Xingchen — who Lan Wangji now believes is also singularly uninterested in pursuing a romance with the Bachelor — is not quite so accomplished an actor. At the restaurant he had seemed excited about the food, and little else. Along with Luo Qingyang, they constitute Lan Wangji’s ideal final three, as their hearts will not be broken when he doesn’t offer them the Final Rose.

“JGS is negotiating a rights deal with Wen Productions, trying to get permission to develop a reality show based on one of their dramas,” Meng Yao explains. “One of the terms Wen Ruohan is asking for is to have his son as the next Bachelor. Which is no problem on my end, Wen Xu fits all the criteria, but we get a ratings bump when the new Bachelor has a sob story from an earlier season. So, like, he gets his heart broken by you, and then he gets to come back and heal and find true love on his own season, right?”

“Fine. I have no objection to that.” That certainly explains Wen Xu’s attitude.

“Great! Good talk. Wei Wuxian, come sit in the back with me, I need to talk to you about coverage for tomorrow’s date. It’ll be tricky because everyone’s got to fit in the back of the truck, and then we’ve got the two drone cameras, right?”

“We can’t talk about it here?” Wei Ying objects.

“We’ll bore the talent,” Meng Yao says, and so Lan Wangji loses, all at once, both the possibility of giving an airplane handjob, and Wei Ying’s hand cradled in his own.

###

Dailies: Episode 4, Group Date, Guangxi

(A wide shot of a dirt road, curving gently away from the camera. In the background, the karst mountains of Yangshuo rise like the verdant teeth of some colossal fossilized beast. LAN WANGJI and four of his suitors — LUO QINGYANG, WEN QING, MO XUANYU, and SU MINSHAN — are riding bicycles along the path, admiring the scenery.)
________

(The same scene, but now a close-up of LAN WANGJI, riding alongside LUO QINGYANG).

LWJ: … do you find that challenging? To find something new in a character over the course of many nights of performance?

LQY: If I play it the same way each night, I get bored —

(WEN QING rides into frame, on LAN WANGJI’s other side. She somehow manages the feat of riding a bicycle in a flirtatious manner.)

WQ: (sultry) Lan Wangji! You’ve been talking to Luo Qingyang for so long … the rest of us don’t want to miss our chance to spend some time with you …

LWJ: (glances at LUO QINGYANG) Ah … of course. Perhaps you would like to ride with us?

WQ: (disdainful) I would like to ride with you.
________

(The same scene; a wide shot of all the suitors. They begin to descend a long hill, gathering speed. WEN QING is still riding alongside LAN WANGJI, while LUO QINGYANG has dropped back. As the front two riders reach the bottom of the hill, something LAN WANGJI says causes WEN QING to laugh, loudly.

LUO QINGYANG’s head jerks up, staring at them. At the same time, her front tire catches in a rut, and wobbles; she attempts to brake, but it is too late. She is thrown from the bicycle into the rocky ditch beside the road.)
________

(Shot of a hospital room. Antiseptic, fluorescent lighting. LUO QINGYANG is lying on the bed, forearm and wrist in a plaster cast. She is asleep. WEN QING is sitting in a chair beside the bed, reading a magazine.)

LQY: (waking up and seeing WEN QING) Ah. Hey. Thank you …

WQ: (not looking up from her magazine) No need for thanks. I’m a doctor. We’re trained to help, when someone’s hurt.

LQY: I know. But … it helped keep me calm. That you were there. That it was you.

WQ: Oh? And here I thought you were just acting brave for the Bachelor.

LQY: (sighs) Yeah. Right. Lan Wangji. Look, you don’t have to hang around here all night, okay? I’m alright. You can go back …

WQ: (head snapping up from the magazine) You never really understood me, did you?

(From out of the shot, there is the sound of a door opening.)

Offscreen voice: The Bachelor’s in the parking lot, he’ll be here in two. Wen Qing, we need you out of the room for the next twenty minutes, okay?

LQY: (overlapping) No, I —

WQ: (overlapping) I was just going for a walk anyway.

(LUO QINGYANG, pale and clearly in some pain, watches WEN QING walk out.)

LQY: (muttering to herself) I understood you just fine. The only person I didn’t understand was myself …
________

(A talking-head interview. WEN QING, 31, internal medicine resident. She is standing in a hospital hallway.)

Offscreen voice: So, Lan Wangji brought the group date rose here and gave it to Luo Qingyang. How does that make you feel?

WQ: In the circumstances … it’s hard not to feel jealous.

###

It’s no-one’s fault that they all have to stay an extra night in the hotel in Guangxi — where Meng Yao’s room shares a thin wall with Lan Wangji’s, and Wei Ying is bunked with another crew member — so that Luo Qingyang can fly back to Shanghai with them on her discharge from the hospital in the morning. It is certainly not Luo Qingyang’s fault, and Lan Wangji willingly accepts Meng Yao’s suggestion that she sit with him on the flight back, cameras on, so that the Bachelor can offer her comfort in the aftermath of her accident.

(He thinks both he and Luo Qingyang would both rather other company, but he cannot think of an excuse for refusing, especially after the two of them had faked another kiss for the cameras in her hospital room. This time, Wei Ying had helped, manipulating the camera angle to hide the fact that Lan Wangji and Luo Qingyang’s faces were a half-inch apart the entire time.)

“Are you doing alright?” he asks her, as she settles into the seat beside him, in a way that he hopes encompasses her wrist — what he’d seen of the break, before Wen Qing had jumped into the ditch and begun reeling off directions to the horrified on-lookers, had looked extremely painful — as well as her gloomy expression when he’d come into her hospital room with the rose.

“I’m on too many painkillers to know, really,” she says, sounding slightly woozy. “At least I don’t rely on my hands for work. If Wen Qing had been injured like this … that would’ve been terrible, I think. I’m glad it was me.”

Lan Wangji hurriedly changes the topic.

It also isn’t anyone’s fault that they arrive back in Shanghai with barely enough time for Lan Wangji to shrug on his tuxedo and rush to join five dressed-up suitors at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. Any other time, he would be overjoyed at this opportunity — an exclusive performance by the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra, with time afterwards to meet the conductor and musicians, is clearly a date designed with Lan Wangji in mind, rather than Nie Mingjue — and the music is still transcendent, sweeping him away on the resonant notes of the erhu and zheng.

But none of this makes up for how long he’s been wrestling with his desire to bury his face in Wei Ying’s chest, to inhale the sweat and salt and life of him.

“What a great date, right, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks, while they film his talking-head interview in the lobby after the performance. The suitors are spread out around the lobby, filming their own interviews. Lan Wangji does not think many of them enjoyed the evening much: Song Zichen had seemed on edge throughout the performance, and Jinzhu and Yinzhu had been whispering to each other the whole time. “Listening to music with someone can be very romantic, don’t you think?”

Lan Wangji succeeds in keeping his tone bland. “Mn. Sharing good music with someone you like can be very intimate.”

Wei Ying grins and chews on his bottom lip. “And was there anyone here tonight that you would like to be … intimate … with?”

He can’t answer that, not on camera — whatever comes out will be desperately filthy — but he’s saved from Wei Ying’s tease-by-interview by a sudden commotion on the other side of the lobby.

“What the hell?” Wei Ying mutters, shouldering the camera off the tripod. “Did he just — whoa! I think we’d better go see what’s going on, Lan Zhan — ”

###

Dailies: Episode 4, Group Date, Shanghai Grand Theatre

(A shot of two men, both in tuxedos, wrestling on the gold-tiled floor of the theatre lobby: XUE CHENGMEI and SONG ZICHEN. While SONG ZICHEN appears to be in the grip of some overpowering rage, XUE CHENGMEI seems delighted by the turn of events. Sounds of grunting, and the production crew yelling in the background.)

Offscreen voice: (partly inaudible) — don’t stop them yet —

(At one point, SONG ZICHEN’s metal watchband scrapes across XUE CHENGMEI’s forehead, drawing blood, but otherwise the fight appears harmless — until, momentarily pinned under SONG ZICHEN, XUE CHENGMEI takes the opportunity to say something to his opponent.)

XCM: (inaudible) … you feel better? (inaudible, laughing) … make you feel good?

(SONG ZICHEN rears back and lands a punch to XUE CHENGMEI’s jaw. As soon as he does so, however, the spell seems to break — he leaps up and backs away swiftly, looking ashamed rather angry.)

Offscreen voice: Alright, that’s enough, keep them apart —
________

(A talking-head interview. SONG ZICHEN, 38, physiotherapist, and XUE CHENGMEI, 33, extreme sports enthusiast, sitting six feet apart on the steps outside the Shanghai Grand. XUE CHENGMEI has a gash over one eye and is holding an ice pack against his jaw, still grinning).

Offscreen voice: Which one of you started it?

(Silence.)

Offscreen voice: One of you has to go home, okay? But it can be both if I’m in a bad mood, so start talking. I’ll figure it out anyway, there were five cameras in there, somebody got the shot —

SZC: (overlapping) It was —

XCM: (overlapping, louder) Who do you think started it? (he chuckles) Do your worst! I’m ready to take my punishment …
________

(A shot of XUE CHENGMEI, being lead out to the production van, one crew member holding each arm.)

Offscreen voice: Do you regret it?

XCM: No fucking way. In fact … (leaning forward to whisper to the camera) it was worth it.

(He grins widely, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.)

###

The whole way back to the beach house in the van — just the two of them and the driver, Meng Yao staying behind to deal with the paperwork that is apparently necessary in the aftermath of a physical altercation between suitors — Wei Ying rants about Jinzhu and Yinzhu’s decision to quit the show. “Who do they think they are, Lan Zhan? To say they aren’t interested in you?”

“I am not interested in them,” Lan Wangji points out, as he opens the door to the beach house. They are finally — finally — alone together, but Wei Ying, embroiled in his protective fury, doesn’t appear to have noticed.

“That’s not the point!” he says, still incensed. “You are — you’re Lan Zhan, you’re perfect, for them to say they don’t want you — ”

“I do not want them,” Lan Wangji says, putting two days worth of pent-up desire into the last word, and that stops Wei Ying cold.

“Right,” he murmurs, with a crooked smile. “Not the point. Meet me in the hot spring in five minutes?”

Lan Wangji manages to fumble his tuxedo off and pull on one of the six bathing suits production purchased in under thirty seconds. He had been tired — between everything at the date and a sit-down with Nie Huaisang for an “urgent debrief on the state of the Bachelor’s heart,” it’s almost one in the morning — but now, as he walks the stone trail leading away from the back door, his entire body thrums with nervous energy.

The spring is lit by nothing more than stray strands of moonlight. When Lan Wangji slides in to the chest-deep water, the heat drags against his skin.

“Wei Ying?” he murmurs. The other man is almost invisible, on the far side of the spring, just a ripple in the water. There’s a moment of uncertainty — a moment to wonder whether Wei Ying, too, has spent the last two days fighting a constant surge of desire — and then Wei Ying slides into his arms, drags him into a kiss. Under the water, Wei Ying is already naked, half-hard.

Lan Wangji lets his hands rise, to palm the curve of Wei Ying’s ass. The flame of Wei Ying’s skin against his own displaces the heat of the water, a controlled burn.

“Ah, baobei, waiting has been so hard,” Wei Ying groans. “I can’t stop thinking about you, about touching you — ”

Steam and sweat and skin blur together, Wei Ying kissing like he can pull part of Lan Wangji into himself and keep it, if he only kisses him hard enough, fast enough. Lan Wangji lets himself go, falling into the riptide. He can admit it, now, wrapped in Wei Ying’s arms, that he’s wanted this from the moment Wei Ying first came onto the terrace shining in the afternoon sun: wanted Wei Ying’s hands clutching his chest and his hair, Wei Ying sighing against his lips and murmuring “er-gege, so beautiful, even when I can’t see you,” wanted to chase this feeling that is both dangerous and safe all at once.

“Wei Ying,” he murmurs, trying to put everything he feels into those two words. He kicks off his bathing suit and reaches a hand down to wrap around Wei Ying’s cock. Wei Ying jerks against him in the water.

“Wait,” he gasps, crowding Lan Wangji back against the rocky edge of the spring. “Wait, Lan Zhan, I’ve been thinking for days about you in my mouth — ” and he lifts Lan Wangji out of the water and onto the ledge, as if it’s nothing. He clamps a hand on top of each of Lan Wangji’s thighs, as if to anchor him in place. I’m not going anywhere, he wants to say, I’m never going anywhere, but the only thing that comes out is a low, choked moan when Wei Ying licks the seeping tip of his cock.

“You’re so big, er-gege,” Wei Ying says, pulling back. He begins to suck at the inside of Lan Wangji’s thigh, the crease of his leg, anywhere but the spot where Lan Wangji desperately wants to feel his mouth. The cool night breeze on his legs is agony, a searing contrast to the heat of Wei Ying’s travelling lips. He will not beg, Lan Wangji thinks, he will not beg — except that’s already his voice, whispering Wei Ying — please, that — more, and his thighs are shaking

“I wish I could see your face, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs, pausing again in his slow path up Lan Wangji’s thigh. “I want to watch you fall apart. I want to watch you come.”

“Shameless,” he grits out, rough, and Wei Ying laughs.

“Lan Wangji! Are you out here? Security thought you might be.”

They both freeze.

Wei Ying moves first, lifting his head and flipping both hands over to rest palm up on Lan Wangji’s thighs. A question: stop?

Meng Yao is maybe twenty feet away, on the other side of the curtaining bamboo; too far to see anything, but not too far to hear. The thought leaves Lan Wangji lightheaded.

“I am in the hot spring,” he says, loudly. More in control than he expects. “Do not come down here, though.”

“Why not?” Meng Yao sounds annoyed.

“I do not want you to see me naked.”

He flips Wei Ying’s hands back over and presses them down onto his thighs. Keep going.

“Now who’s shameless, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying whispers, delighted, and slowly licks a stripe from the base of Lan Wangji’s cock to the head. Lan Wangji’s hips buck up, hard.

“You’re naked? Seriously? I have to tell your brother about this!” Meng Yao says.

“My brother is aware — ” he has to pause, to suppress the low moan Wei Ying’s tongue has wrung out of him — “that I keep a body underneath my clothing.”

Wei Ying stifles a low laugh by taking Lan Wangji’s cock in his mouth. He slides down once, slow, then sucks him in deeper. As his pace speeds up Lan Wangji can feel himself starting to lose control, heat gathering low in his belly.

“Fine. I’ll just wait here for you to get dressed, okay? I need to talk to you about a bunch of things. I’m glad you’re still awake, I thought you might have gone to bed. Wei Wuxian must be out cold, he didn’t answer when I knocked.”

“Mn,” he manages. He can barely hear Meng Yao over the roaring in his ears. He’s so close — Wei Ying hums, low in his throat, and swirls his tongue around —

There’s no time for a warning. He comes, gasping, into Wei Ying’s warm and willing mouth, hips jerking forward helplessly.

“I got a text earlier,” Meng Yao says, casually. He doesn’t sound like a man who’s just heard unusual noises from the hot spring. Lan Wangji, upright only by virtue of a hand buried in Wei Ying’s hair, has the blurry thought that this is probably a good thing. “Apparently Ouyang Ke’s getting a divorce. He was the Bachelor four years ago, you remember that season? He picked — god, I can’t remember her name! She was a funny combination of spitfire and dyed-in-the-wool romantic. They’ve got a toddler. Zizhen. It’s too bad …”

Wei Ying lays one cheek down, gently, on Lan Wangji’s thigh. “Did you like that, Lan Zhan?” he murmurs, sounding pleased with himself. “Did I do a good job?”

The whisper of breath against his softening cock is enough to make Lan Wangji shudder, oversensitive.

“Mn,” he breathes, an understatement. “Very good.” He combs his fingers through Wei Ying’s hair, wanting to hold onto the moment.

“But I guess it’s better that they end it now than stick together for years because they feel like they have to, you know?” Meng Yao says, late-night philosophical. “Some people from the show do, I think. They don’t want to admit that things are different, after the show’s over. Everyone always thinks they’ll manage the transition to real life just fine, and then they all end up wondering what was love and what was just this … hothouse atmosphere. The intimacy that dissolves in brighter light …”

Wei Ying’s head lifts, suddenly, and he steps back, splashing around softly in the water. After a moment he presses a bundle of damp cloth into Lan Wangji’s hands: his bathing suit. Lan Wangji begins pulling it on with clumsy hands.

“I wish I could stay here with you, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji mumbles, even as he prepares to go. “There are things I want to do — ”

“Don’t worry about me, er-gege.” Wei Ying taps Lan Wangji on the knee, reassuring. “Take him up to the living room to talk and I’ll sneak into my room. I’m sleepy, okay?” Lan Wangji can hear a smile in his voice. “You’ve worn me out.”

He ghosts a kiss across Lan Wangji’s knuckles, and sinks back into the water.

“Anyway, you’re probably immune to all that,” Meng Yao says, cheerfully. “If you’re not going to propose to anyone, tell me in advance, alright? It’s nice to have some time to think about storylines.”

###

Teaser — The Bachelor — 15-second spot

(An unsteady shot of SU MINSHAN walking up a dark trail. It is raining; he is sheltered beneath a white umbrella. His face is illuminated with a handheld spotlight.)

NHS: (voiceover) Next week on the The Bachelor, one suitor makes a list-ditch effort to find the path to Lan Wangji’s heart …

(The shot cuts to a close-up of SU MINSHAN’s horrified face, stumbling back from the camera.)

NHS: (voiceover) … and discovers something else entirely.