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After the Final Rose

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Episode 1: Love at First Sight?

Our season begins with Lan Wangji meeting up with Jin Zixuan, last season’s Bachelor, and his fianceé, Jiang Yanli, to talk about the difficulties of finding love on-camera.

“The key is to be honest with yourself,” Jin Zixuan tells our new Bachelor. “It took me a long time to figure that out, and I almost lost A-Li as a result.”

“Be patient with yourself, and trust your instincts,” Jiang Yanli says. “And remember — it’ll all work out alright in the end.”

Lan Wangji then heads to the mansion to meet the suitors who will be vying for his heart on this season of The Bachelor. Memorable entrances include Jinzhu and Yinzhu, who put on a knife-fighting demonstration; Xue Chengmei sky-diving in to land in the driveway; and Su Minshan playing a guqin solo he wrote for Lan Wangji. Luo Qingyang gets the first impression rose.

At the rose ceremony, we go from 25 suitors down to 17.

###

“ … and then he smashed in all the windows on the guy’s car, and now he’s been sentenced to anger management for the next three months. So, yeah. Two weeks to go before the season starts, we don’t have a Bachelor, and Guangshan’s going to fire me if I don’t come in on Monday with an alternative.”

This — this being Meng Yao lamenting his work woes during Friday night dinner at the Lan house — is not unusual, but this is the first time Lan Wangji has seen his brother’s boyfriend look quite so distraught.

“A-Yao, I am sure your father won’t really fire you,” Lan Xichen says, mildly. “It’s not your fault Mingjue has anger issues.”

“Of course it is,” Meng Yao says, his big eyes filling with unshed tears. “I clearly didn’t vet him well enough. Ah! A-Chen, what will I do if I lose this job?”

Lan Wangji wonders whether Meng Yao practices this exact move in the mirror, times how long he can wait before letting one solitary tear trickle down his dimpled cheek. He is fascinated, in a clinical way, by the degree of control Meng Yao has over his emotional expression, and his ability to use it to his advantage. It’s a skill Lan Wangji has no knack for, himself. He may present a thick face to the world, but unlike Meng Yao, he cannot convince anyone that he feels something he does not. He can only hide the truth of his feelings behind the chill, stoic affect; the alternative is writing his thoughts on his face in red ink, inscribing them in the hoarse rasp of his voice.

“Now, now, A-Yao, it’ll be alright,” Xichen says, and lifts Meng Yao out of his seat and deposits him in his lap. Lan Wangji busies himself with another bite of tofu and mushrooms, pretending not to see his brother kissing his boyfriend’s neck. He would reprimand them about the PDA in front of the children — Sizhui and Jingyi, at the other end of the table, are watching with the wide eyes of ten-year-old boys who have accidentally seen some R-rated media — but he knows it makes Xichen happy to dote on Meng Yao. Happier, maybe, than Lan Wangji has seen Xichen since their father’s death. And since the only thing Lan Wangji believes about Meng Yao is that he is absolutely devoted to Xichen, he finds it hard to interfere.

“Do you know anyone who could do it, A-Chen? Anyone who’s bi or pan, single, and not a total mess would do,” Meng Yao sniffles. “And the single part’s probably negotiable.”

“Well …” Xichen glances around the dining room, as if it might contain a viable candidate.

“Please, gege,” Meng Yao says, and releases the single tear. Lan Wangji can see when it hits his brother, like a heat-seeking missile. Then Xichen look ups at Lan Wangji and says, a question: “ … Wangji?”

It takes him a moment to understand what his brother is suggesting, because yes, Lan Wangji is single; yes, he’s a 5.25 on the Kinsey scale (he’s never dated a woman, but wouldn’t rule it out); yes, in theory he has his life together, but — no. His brain short circuits at the idea. When it comes back online, he is pushing his chair back from the table and lurching up, blushing through his dawning horror.

“No, brother! Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”

###

Dailies: Episode 1

(A talking-head interview. JIN ZIXUN, 36, entrepreneur.)

JZX: Oh, yeah, he’s a fucking catch, alright. He’s rich, he’s hot, he’s a Lan. Like, he’s been ranked number two among the local bachelors for years, and now that his brother’s seeing someone, he’s number one, right? So, yeah, of course I want to win.

Offscreen voice: Do you know anything else about him, besides that he’s rich and hot?

JZX: (shrugging) What else is there to know?
________

(NIE HUAISANG, host, walks up a landscaped driveway towards an opulent mansion.)

NHS: … this season’s Bachelor has published three best-selling books about the history of food in China, plays four instruments, speaks three languages, and is a single dad to his ten-year-old son. Along with his older brother, he also runs a charitable foundation focused on literacy and arts outreach and educational programs for underprivileged youth. How he’s made it this far without someone snapping him up, I don’t know! But it’s lucky for our suitors that no-one has …
________

(A talking-head interview. XUE CHENGMEI, 33, extreme sports enthusiast.)

XCM: Yeah, I dunno, I tried out because I liked the look of the first guy they cast. That guy was a fucking Daddy, you know? This guy’s too buttoned-up. Like, I started talking to him about what a dead body looks like after it falls from a height — like, if you’re BASE jumping and your parachute doesn’t open, did you know —

Offscreen voice: Uh, yeah, you don’t have to recap it for me, that’s fine. What did he say?

XCM: He said he “was not interested in hearing descriptions of other people’s pain.” Like, what are you interested in, buddy?
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author.)

LWJ: I have not been successful in my attempts to find a partner by other means. And so I thought perhaps this might offer an alternative route to happiness?

Offscreen voice: (chuckles) You don’t sound very convinced, Lan Zhan. Be honest with me — who talked you into this?

LWJ: … It was my son’s idea. Sizhui. He is ten years old, now; I adopted him when he was four. My brother had asked me to go on the show, and after I said no, when I went to tuck Sizhui into bed, he said: “Baba? I’d really like it if you went on that show.”

And when I asked him why, he said: “I don’t want you to be lonely. You deserve to be happy, Baba.”

Offscreen voice: Do you think you do? Deserve to be happy, I mean.

LWJ: I am not sure I would say that I deserve happiness. I would like to be happy, of course. And in any event, I do not think a romantic connection is necessary, for happiness.

Offscreen voice: That’s true. But it would be nice, wouldn’t it, Lan Zhan? To find someone that really gets you?

LWJ: I would like to find someone I can be myself with. (short pause) Do you (coughs) do you have that, Wei Ying?

Offscreen voice: Oh, no, I’m totally single! I’m a bit of a tough pill to swallow, sometimes. You’ll see! We’re going to spend the next six weeks together, right …

###

The two weeks between Lan Wangji’s begrudging “Fine. I will do it” and the beginning of the shoot are a whirlwind. A horrifying, sand-filled whirlwind that grinds away at his dignity until all that remains is his stubborn insistence that he will not have his chest waxed.

He does, however, do all of the other shameless things Meng Yao demands of him:

First, Lan Wangji moves out of the house he shares with Xichen and Sizhui and into an enormous beach house owned by JGS Productions — it hasn’t escaped Lan Wangji that at least part of Sizhui’s desire to have him do the show is the resulting opportunity for an extended sleepover at Jingyi’s house, “and anyway, Dad, I’m already booked for summer camp for half of the time, so you’d need a distraction from missing me anyhow!” — and emails his editor to explain that he’ll be out of touch for a bit. Since he’s just approved final copy-edits on The Wanderer’s Plate: The Foods of Zhang Qian, he is, in fact — as Meng Yao pointed out, triumphantly, on that fateful night — “kind of at loose ends for the next two months, right?”

Yes, Lan Wangji thinks. He is at loose ends, and unravelling fast.

Then there is a contract, with a dizzying number of clauses, and a recitation from Meng Yao of The Rules of Being the Bachelor — “you can’t eat on camera because it sounds gross, just pretend,” and “no interactions with suitors off-camera” and “never say ‘process,’ you are on a journey” — and then tuxedo and bathing-suit fittings and a haircut and purchases of more watches than one person could ever find time for.

He passes the required STD screenings, the worst part of which is that he’s forced to announce, in front of Meng Yao and the sexual health nurse, that it has been two years since his last sexual encounter. It’s not that there haven’t been opportunities — the Lan family wealth and his best-seller status see to that — but something was always missing, in his encounters. It never felt like it mattered, like he mattered, to the people in his bed, at least not the real him, the person who’s more than just money and #1 on the non-fiction list for 16 weeks! and a handsome face. And Lan Wangji knows he has no knack for showing people his innermost self; his halting attempts at romance have taught him that most people find him cold (unapproachable, stiff, aloof, remote, he’s heard enough variants on this to fill a thesaurus). At a certain point, it became easier to stop trying.

Then, finally, after he passes a battery of psychological tests and a criminal record check and a credit check (“that one’s a formality,” Meng Yao chuckles), Lan Wangji is, improbably, The Bachelor: Lan Wangji.

“I hope you are happy about this, brother,” he says to Lan Xichen, when his brother comes to visit him at the beach house the day before production officially starts. “Because I am not.”

Lan Xichen laughs and has the audacity to ruffle his hair. “You’ll be fine, Wangji. You might even find you enjoy yourself.”

They are sitting in a sunny little library at the back of the beach house, a room Lan Wangji had stumbled into one afternoon after another round in the chest-waxing fight with Meng Yao. The room had been dusty, when he first came in; he doesn’t think many of the previous Bachelors have used it. Most of the books on the shelves are fake, but the reading chairs are comfortable and the window has a view out over the city. There’s a stand-up piano in one corner, in passably good tune. Along with his pre-dawn runs on the beach below the house, reading and playing the piano in here have been the best part of the last two weeks.

“I will focus on surviving,” he murmurs, dryly. “Enjoyment may be out of my reach.”

Lan Xichen smiles, but no longer looks so amused. “Wangji … would it be such a bad thing, to fall in love?”

That wasn’t what he’d been thinking; the opposite, really. You don’t really have to fall in love, you know, Meng Yao had said, when he and Xichen were taking turns wearing down Lan Wangji’s resistance. It’s fine if you don’t. Most of the suitors are just there for exposure, anyhow. And Lan Wangji knows that — knows that the likelihood of making any real connection in six weeks under the watchful gaze of a dozen cameras is close to nil — but that hasn’t stopped him from daydreaming about what it might be like if he did fall in love.

Lan Wangji has pictured himself standing in the driveway outside the mansion, a suitor walking slowly towards him. Their eyes meet — his heart beats faster, and something warm blooms in his chest —

But he knows what Xichen means, the thing that lies in the background of every conversation the two of them have ever had about love and relationships.

“It can be terrible,” he says, softly. He has wondered, sometimes, if it runs in the blood, the desire to fall so deep in love that you could drown in it. “We saw that, first-hand.”

“Love wasn’t the problem, Wangji. I know Uncle would have it that way, but it’s not true. The problem was … well, everything else, I suppose.”

“Wasn’t it love that made him forget everything else?”

He and Xichen rarely speak directly of their parents; they creep around the edges of the subject, like they are walking in the dark with a flashlight, the beam of light only touching bits and pieces, so that they never have to see the whole story. Lan Wangji isn’t certain if he and Xichen see different parts of the past, when they let the light linger.

“Maybe. No. And it doesn’t have to be that way, does it?” Xichen says. “You are not doomed to be Father. Or Mother, for that matter.”

When Lan Wangji doesn’t answer, Xichen sighs. “Will you try, at least, Wangji? Try for me?”

It is hard to say no, to Xichen. Which is, of course, exactly how Lan Wangji got himself into this farce in the first place.

“I will keep an open mind, brother.”

###

Dailies: Episode 1

(Shot of a young woman onstage, in Baroque costume. She is singing, in front of a large audience.)

NHS: (voiceover) Let’s meet a few of the suitors who will join Lan Wangji on his journey. First, Luo Qingyang, 30 years old, a rising soprano with the City Opera …

LQY: (voiceover) I sing love arias six nights a week. It’s hard not to want that for myself …

(Shot of a man carrying a giggling young girl on his back while hiking through the woods.)

NHS: (voiceover) Xiao Xingchen, 36 years old, a single father and human rights lawyer …

XXC: (voiceover) It isn’t always easy to meet people when you’re a single parent. I think Lan Wangji will understand that, will understand what it’s like to raise a child on your own.

(A talking-head interview. XIAO XINGCHEN, 36, lawyer, and XIAO QING, 12, Xiao Xingchen’s daughter.)

XQ: He’d better pick you, Dad.

XXC: Why?

XQ: Because I bet my friends three hundred bucks that you’d win …

(A shot of young man, dimly lit, white gloves on his hands, carefully inspecting an unbound manuscript.)

NHS: Mo Xuanyu, 29 years old, a rare books conservator …

MXY: (voiceover) He understands books, and he understands history. And so I think — I hope — that he might understand me …

###

“Okay, just touch him up a bit, something with a matte finish, I don’t want any shine, okay?” Meng Yao says, as he bustles around the light-filled terrace outside the second storey of the beach house. The ocean is a distant roar, a smudge of turquoise on the horizon.

Lan Wangji is sitting in a chair in the middle of the terrace, in the shade of a number of potted palms, trying not to vibrate out of his skin with irritation. There are at least ten hands touching him right now, or at least that’s what it feels like: someone doing his makeup, someone arranging his hair, someone shoving the straw for a bottle of hydrating water in his face (is water not normally hydrating, he wonders), someone adjusting his thin, clinging periwinkle blue sweater.

“Cozy, yet sexy. It’s approachable,” Meng Yao had said, when he’d seen the sweater. “Wardrobe did good.”

“Do I need to be approachable?” Lan Wangji shot back.

“You need to try,” was the reply, and Lan Wangji thinks, mutinous, that Meng Yao could at least try to act a bit more grateful.

Meng Yao shoves a potted plant over a few inches, frowning, then pushes it back and nods, apparently satisfied.

“Right.” He turns around and snaps his fingers, and the crowd of people around Lan Wangji disappears. Another skill Meng Yao has that Lan Wangji wouldn’t mind learning. “So, you know what’s happening today?”

“You are going to interview me,” Lan Wangji says. He has, in fact, seen The Bachelor, because Xichen watches it religiously, and hates watching television alone. Xichen had squealed in excitement when Lan Wangji finally capitulated. “About my intentions, on the show, and what I see as desirable traits in a partner.”

“Good. Now” — Meng Yao looks around, raises his voice so it’ll be audible inside the house, “where the fuck is Wei Wuxian?”

“I’m here, I’m here, sorry, I got caught in traffic!” someone yells back, and a man comes bouncing through the open sliding doors — that’s the only way Lan Wangji can describe it — and scrambles to a stop in front of the camera that’s pointed at Lan Wangji. The man (Wei Wuxian?) is dressed all in black: a simple T-shirt, black jeans tight against narrow hips, black Converse sneakers. His black hair is pushed up into a short ponytail, revealing a buzzed undercut. His eyes, purple-black in the shade from the palm trees, meet Lan Wangji’s.

Wei Wuxian grins at him, an enormous smile that almost seems to reflect light, like sun glancing off water.

“Hi. Lan Wangji, right?”

Lan Wangji pulls in a struggling breath. His lungs feel tight, and there’s something wrong with his heart. He doesn’t think it’s supposed to pause like that, and then flutter back to life.

“I’ll deal with introductions, just get everything rolling, please, we’re short on time,” Meng Yao snaps. “Lan Wangji, this is Wei Wuxian, he’s the cameraman assigned to you. He gets the close-ups of you. He gets the shots that show your hand trembling when you reach across the table for a suitor’s hand. He gets the shot that shows you on the verge of tears when you’re trying to decide who to let go. He gets the shot when you smile for the first time at your future husband, or wife, whatever. If you’re in the scene, Wei Wuxian is filming you, understand? He’s got a room here in the house, okay, across from yours.”

“Right,” Lan Wangji says, and his voice sounds like it’s coming from far away, an echo through clouds. He feels dizzy, and his stomach is boiling. It must be too hot on the terrace, he thinks. Or maybe breakfast didn’t agree with him …

“Nice to meet you, Lan Wangji!” Wei Wuxian says, as he begins fiddling with the camera set up.

“ … Likewise,” he manages.

Lan Wangji drinks a hydrating water, and then another one. By the time Wei Wuxian nods at Meng Yao that he’s ready to go, Lan Wangji has wrangled his heart and stomach back under control. Perhaps he had only been thirsty, after all. Nothing to do with the man crouched behind the camera, balanced gracefully on the balls of his feet.

Meng Yao starts in with the questions, stopping every few minutes to remind him to answer “by incorporating the question, you understand? We don’t air the questions. The viewers need to understand what you’re responding to,” but even with Lan Wangji managing to remember that, by thirty minutes in he can tell Meng Yao is about to combust.

“Okay,” Meng Yao says, leaping off his stool and swiping a hand through his hair. Meng Yao never messes up his hair, so Lan Wangji knows he’s actually frustrated, not faking it. “I know you are, like, prim and proper, old-fashioned, buttoned-up — however you want to put that, whatever — but I can’t just have you say I suppose I am looking for a nice person. That’s not an answer. I could get better responses than that from a chatbot. And you can’t say I have a son, he is ten, his name is Sizhui, and then clam up. The audience needs to be on your side, right? Rooting for you. The Bachelor can’t be a block of wood.”

Lan Wangji feels a flush crawl up his ears. He opens his mouth, to say — what? I will try harder, I promise I can do this, the same way he always did in high school when Uncle lectured him over some minor error?

“Can I try?” Wei Wuxian says, interrupting whatever Lan Wangji was about to blurt out.

“What?” Meng Yao snaps.

“Can I try interviewing him?”

“Why?”

“Well, look, no offence, I bet you’d be really good at this, usually? But Lan Wangji here seems like he might need special handling.” Wei Wuxian shoots a conspiratorial grin at Lan Wangji, like they’re on a team together. “And I spent the last three years shooting for Wild China and you learn some tricks, doing that, for dealing with the shyer animals. It took forever to get any footage of pangolins and when we did it was because I’d camped out in their territory for two weeks and gotten them used to me, you know? Not that you’re an animal, Lan Wangji! But the same principles apply.”

Meng Yao lets out frustrated sigh, checks his watch, and then nods. “Fine. Whatever. Go for it. I need to check in on prep at the mansion, anyway, so you’ve got, like, two hours to try your pangolin-charming technique.”

Then he’s gone. It’s just Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian on the terrace, in the company of the sea-wind and the slight fragrance of lotus wafting up from the pond below the house.

Wei Wuxian rises out of his crouch and stretches, arms lifting over his head. His t-shirt rises, revealing a trail of dark hair running from his stomach to the waistband of his jeans. Lan Wangji’s eyes follow it down, then snap away as Wei Wuxian flops down on the stool Meng Yao vacated.

“Okay. Let’s show him how it’s done, hey?”

“I am not naturally charming,” Lan Wangji says. Forces himself to say. “It may be difficult, to wrangle a passable interview with me.”

“I bet that’s not true, but don’t think about that right now,” Wei Wuxian says, in a voice that Lan Wangji can imagine him using with a shy, cornered animal. “Don’t think about anything at all. I’m just … we’re just going to talk, okay?”

“About … about what?”

“Not about the show. That’s for later. Look, Lan Wangji — wait, what should I call you?”

Lan Wangji frowns, puzzled. “My name is Lan Wangji. You know that.”

“Yeah, I know! But do you have a nickname? Something that the people who are close to you call you?”

There are very few people Lan Wangji is close enough with that he might exchange nicknames. Even Xichen always calls him Wangji, or brother. And Lan Wangji understands the trick, here — Wei Wuxian wants to manufacture closeness, it’s his job to do so — but still, he finds himself scrambling for an answer. The desire to exceed expectations (even if they are Meng Yao’s, for the concept of the “perfect Bachelor”) is hardwired into him, it seems.

“My mother called me Lan Zhan,” he says, after a moment. “I don’t know why, though. She died when I was young. You could … you could call me that.”

“Ah, yeah. My parents died when I was a baby. Apparently they named me Wei Ying? But my adoptive parents thought that was silly, you know? Because obviously I wouldn’t be a baby forever, and so they changed it. But I’d like it if you called me Wei Ying.”

“Wei Ying,” he says, rolling it around on his tongue just to try it out. It tastes sweet, somehow. “Alright.”

“So, Lan Zhan, what do you have against mapo tofu?”

“What?” he says, startled.

“Your first book, about the history of tofu, right? The section where you describe eating mapo tofu in Chengdu? I could tell you hated it.”

“You’ve read it?” Lan Wangji can feel all the muscles in his back, tensed against the chair for the last hour, begin to relax.

“I’ve read all of your books! Bottom of the Cup is my favourite, though you made me feel like I could taste the da hong pao. Which, let’s be honest, is probably the closest I’ll get to actually trying it, given the price point …”

“Ah. Well. I don’t like mapo tofu because it is too spicy.”

Wei Ying giggles and drops his jaw open in feigned shock. “Too spicy? Lan Zhan, most of the time it’s not spicy enough!”

“Perhaps we disagree on standards for spice,” Lan Wangji suggests, and finds he is smiling, too.

Wei Ying asks him a bunch more questions about his books —

“Did you really not try the modern recreation of the Jiahu wine, Lan Zhan? Like, just to see what alcohol was like seven thousand years ago?”

“I don’t drink. I have a bottle of it at home, in the cupboard, though.”

“Oh my god, I have to try it. You’ll let me try it, right? Wait, no, don’t answer that, please, don’t answer that, my brother always says I can’t just go around asking people things like that” —

until Lan Wangji finds himself talking about getting lost in the Wuyishan Mountains while tracing the path of eighteenth century plant hunters, and the incredible sweetness of the watermelon he’d eaten in a village in Tajikistan, for his latest book. Then Wei Ying somehow coaxes out his opinion on the inaccurate presentation of food in historical C-dramas — “it is perfectly rational to be angry about the presence of S. tuberosum in a drama set before the late Ming dynasty” — and Lan Wangji finds, with surprise, that he has made Wei Ying laugh.

Wei Ying’s laugh is free, easy, joyful. Lan Wangji wants to hear it again. He wants to do something that will make Wei Ying laugh, again.

Then Wei Ying tells a series of increasingly unbelievable stories from the filming of Wild China, about stalking snow leopards through sleepless nights and hang-gliding into remote locations to film red ibis. He ends with an anecdote (which cannot be true) about a Yangtze alligator, a camera lens, and Wei Ying running three li in his underwear, which finally draws a huff of laughter from Lan Wangji.

“Was that a laugh, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying says. “It was, wasn’t it? Mission accomplished, then. Now I think we can talk a bit about the show, huh?”

Lan Wangji has the odd feeling that Wei Ying could ask him anything and he would answer honestly.

“Mn. Ask me whatever you wish.”

###

Lan Wangji stands at the top of the driveway, and twenty-five people walk up to him (or, in one case, skateboard toward him before falling backwards into the shrubbery) and introduce themselves, and his heart remains sedate. It was nothing more than a fantasy, he tells himself firmly; and some of the suitors are very nice, and very attractive.

Some of the suitors, on the other hand, are horrible. Wen Chao comes up the driveway and immediately asks why Lan Wangji doesn’t write about something more interesting than food.

“Like, you could write military histories, right? Or weapons. Guns? Swords?”

“Did he just try to neg you?” Wei Ying says, as they wait for the next suitor to arrive.

As promised, Wei Ying is his unobtrusive shadow, camera always fixed on Lan Wangji’s face. The interview two days ago must have gone well, too, because after watching the dailies Meng Yao came by the beach house and announced that Wei Ying would handle interviewing Lan Wangji from now on.

“What does ‘neg’ mean?” Lan Wangji fiddles with the rosebud in the buttonhole of his tux, running a finger over the damp crimson of a furled petal.

“Like, flirt with you by tearing you down.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re a man of principles.”

During the cocktail party, Lan Wangji clings to his sparkling water and watches as some of the suitors get drunk enough to fall into the pool, crew scrambling to pull them out before they drown. He can hear Meng Yao muttering happily to himself — “what a disaster,” as if this is somehow a good thing — as he sweeps by the spot where Lan Wangji stands talking to Wen Qing, an internal medicine resident.

“You’re doing great, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs, after Lan Wangji politely announces to Wen Qing that it was nice to chat, but that he should speak with another of his suitors (and what a strange thought that is, his suitors).

His social anxiety is a low buzz at the back of his skull all night — Lan Wangji has never before attended a party where everyone is there to talk to him — but, to his surprise, he finds that he is enjoying himself, just a little bit. It helps to have Wei Ying beside him, to press down the nerves. Whenever he starts to freeze up and turn into a block of ice, he can feel Wei Ying’s gaze on him, and thaw. With each suitor, he finds it easier and easier to exchange little nothings, make jokes, ask questions about their jobs and lives. He just imagines he’s talking to Wei Ying.

By the time Nie Huaisang comes out with a tray of sixteen long-stemmed roses, Lan Wangji has a very short list of people at this party he might ever consider dating, if this was real life. That would make the rose ceremony easy (and the show very short), if it weren’t for the fact that he’s only allowed to cut eight people tonight, and — as Meng Yao made clear, during the “pre-rose ceremony debrief” in the mansion kitchen — he’s also required to keep four specific suitors for at least the first three episodes.

“I thought I was making the decisions. About who I like, and want to see more of.”

“No, no. I mean, yeah, you get to keep your favourites, you just can’t dump these four yet.”

“But why these people? Jin Zixun is odious. Wang Lingjiao is …” he gestures, trying to find a polite way to describe her, failing. “She threatened to tattoo her name on my chest with a pen nib.”

“Exactly!” Meng Yao says, cheerful. “They make great TV.”

###

Dailies: Episode 1, Cocktail Party

(A talking-head interview. WEN QING, 31, internal medicine resident.)

Offscreen voice: Thoughts on Lan Wangji? Do you think you made a connection with him tonight?

WQ: Lan Wangji is clearly intelligent, very well-spoken. Handsome. We had a very nice conversation about how I raised my little brother after our parents died. I think we have a lot in common, but I don’t know if I would say we made a connection. He’s … a little hard to read.

Offscreen voice: Impressions of the other suitors?

WQ: Uh. Well. There was a bit of awkwardness, when I first arrived. It turns out my ex-girlfriend is a suitor? But I’m sure it won’t be a problem, Mianmian is … well. Things are totally over between us, there’s no unresolved feelings on either side. Our break-up was amicable, we’re both grown-ups …
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author.)

Offscreen voice: So, Lan Zhan, do you think the love of your life was in the mansion tonight?

LWJ: It is too early to say whether any of the people I met tonight could be the love of my life. I found many of the suitors very interesting, however, and look forward to the opportunity to get to know them better.

Offscreen voice: But no bolts of lightning? No love at first sight?

LWJ: There was no love at first sight. That is for the best, however. What people call love at first sight is a chemical reaction: oxytocin, hormones. My parents — I have been told that my father fell in love with my mother the moment he met her. But it was not a good relationship, for either of them. It would have been better if they had taken time to understand each other, to develop a relationship over time, with trust, with understanding. To determine if mutual respect and affection were possible, or not. And so love at first sight ... I do not think I would trust it.
________

(A talking-head interview. WANG LINGJIAO, 28, social media influencer.)

WLJ: I don’t understand why she got the first impression rose. She’s, like, nothing to write home about, you know? Not even really that pretty. Like, I’m clearly prettier, right? Can someone bring me another glass of champagne?

###

Trailer — The Bachelor — 30-second spot

Voiceover: This season on the Bachelor …

(A series of shots, as the theme music swells:

Grainy black-and-white footage of two people falling into a pool.

LAN WANGJI, staring out at the ocean, pensive.

Two women, embracing in the starlight on a beach.

LAN WANGJI, weeping, trying to turn away from the camera’s unrelenting gaze.

A man, his face not visible, punches another man in the jaw.

A helicopter, flying low over mountains.

LAN WANGJI, tearing off his mic pack and walking away from the camera.

A half-dozen roses, lying crushed and broken on the ground.)

LWJ: (voiceover, tearful) I can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t.

Voiceover: … a journey like you’ve never seen before — and an ending that you won’t see coming.

(A shot of a man in a tuxedo, silhouetted against the sunset, standing at the end of a pier. He has his back to the camera.)

LWJ: (voiceover) It feels like … like I have been cracked open by love, and laid bare.

Chapter Text

Episode 2: First Dates

Lan Wangji has some surprise visitors from home, who give him advice on how to tell which of his suitors he likes best. He then takes ten of his suitors to a xianxia-themed resort, where they’re hooked up to wires to try running through the air in billowing hanfu. Xiao Xingchen receives a rose at the end of the group date.

Wen Xu gets the season’s first one-on-one date, and Lan Wangji takes him on a helicopter ride up to the top of Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er before visiting a thousand-year-old tea farm and testing some of the local wares. After Wen Xu opens up about his mother’s death, he receives a rose.

Back at the mansion, Qin Su wonders if she’s too soft-spoken to stand a chance with Lan Wangji, while Song Zichen gets into an argument with Xue Chengmei after he catches the other suitor throwing cigarette butts in the pool.

At the rose ceremony, Wen Chao, Sisi and Chang Ping are eliminated.

###

Dailies: Episode 2

(Two boys sitting on a boulder in a bamboo grove. LAN SIZHUI, 10, the Bachelor’s son, and LAN JINGYI, 10, Lan Sizhui’s best friend. Cradled in the rocks below them is a steaming hot spring, large enough to fit two people comfortably. LAN WANGJI sits across from them, on another boulder.)

LSZ: Okay, so, Baba? The first thing to remember is that sometimes you don’t know that you like someone. Like, you’ll be hanging out with them, at school or whatever —

LJY: He’s not at school, Sizhui! He’s on TV.

LSZ: I know that, Jingyi! So, Baba, you’ll be hanging out with them and all you really know is that you want to, like, tease them? Or play with them. Like maybe you want to tickle them when they’re trying to be quiet, or double-bounce them on the trampoline, right?

LJY: Or sometimes? (LAN JINGYI stands up, waving an arm for emphasis.) Sometimes you want to show off in front of them. Do ollies on your skateboard where they can see? Or, like, share things with them. Like your lunch, right? And that’s how you know you’ve got a crush, Lan-xiansheng.

LWJ: I see. So if I am trying to determine which suitors I like, I should look for the person I wish to share things with, show off for, or play with. Is that right?

LSZ: Yeah! Exactly.

LJY: (distracted by something out of view, and then pointing down the slope) Is that a cold spring, Lan-xiansheng?

LWJ: Mn. In addition to the hot spring, there is a cold spring, and a saltwater swimming pool, below the waterfall.

LJY: Oh, man, Sizhui, your dad’s TV house is swank!

LSZ: Can we go swimming, Baba?

LWJ: You may.

(A shot of the two boys running down a flight of stone steps that descends through the bamboo grove. LAN WANGJI watches them fondly.)

Offscreen voice: Your son’s great, Lan Zhan!

(Distant sounds of splashing, followed by laughter.)

LWJ: Sizhui is wonderful. I am very lucky to have him in my life.

Offscreen voice: (softly) I think he would say the same about you.
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN SIZHUI, 10, the Bachelor’s son. His hair and t-shirt are both soaking wet.)

Offscreen voice: What do you hope your dad gets out of his journey as the Bachelor?

LSZ: I guess … I guess I hope somebody likes my dad for who he really is? Like, lots of people like my dad, right, because he’s rich and sort of famous and he dresses nicely. But also he’s kind of quiet and shy, so people don’t really get to know him. They don’t know that he’s kind, and fun, and funny, too. I think maybe they don’t want to know, because they only care about those other things?

And that sucks. So that’s what I hope happens for him, that someone likes who he really is.
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author.)

Offscreen voice: Alright, Lan Zhan, the first dates are coming up. Exciting, right? Tell me your thoughts on dating.

LWJ: I try not to have any thoughts on dating, other than that it is usually more fuss than it is worth.

Offscreen voice: C’mon, Lan Zhan! You have to give them something to work with!

LWJ: Alright. Here are my thoughts on dating: it is a scourge upon society, and should be outlawed.

Offscreen voice: (breathless laughter) Lan Zhan, you can’t say that! You’re on a dating show!

LWJ: Mn. I know.

Offscreen voice: Really, though? I can’t imagine you’ve had much trouble with dating. I mean, look at you! (LAN WANGJI’s ears go pink) And you’re so smart, and you tell such wonderful stories. Everyone loves your books …

LWJ: (a pause; he looks away, and then back to the offscreen interviewer) My dating history has taught me that the voice in my books is not the one people hear when I speak. I do not open up to strangers easily, and as a result, few of those I have dated ever wanted to be more than a stranger. Here … during this process (he coughs) … on this journey, I will need to find some way to unbend, to loosen up, or … (he trails off)

Offscreen voice: Don’t worry about that, Lan Zhan. Making you comfortable’s my job, okay?

###

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says, from his spot on the long leather couch in the living room of the beach house. “What are you doing? The van doesn’t arrive until eleven to take us to the airport.”

Already this morning they’ve shot a bunch of pick-up footage, first of Lan Wangji cooking breakfast in the beach house kitchen and then of him looking pensively out to sea — “More pensive!” Meng Yao had yelled, four times, and then, finally satisfied with Lan Wangji’s level of pensiveness, had bustled off to the mansion to “provoke some petty drama” — but the shooting schedule by the door is blank for the next two hours. Lan Wangji has absolutely no idea what to do with himself, beyond following Meng Yao’s instruction to not mess up your hair, and so for ten minutes now he has been taking items in and out of his bag for the flight to Fujian.

“I am not used to this,” he admits, putting the bag down beside the door. “Waiting, I mean. I am the master of my own schedule, usually, and I do not fill it with empty space.”

“Ah, then you’ll have to learn from me, Lan Zhan! When you have to wait for two weeks to get ten minutes of footage of brown-eared pheasant chicks hatching, you become an expert on how to do nothing.”

Lan Wangji sinks down onto one of the oversized lounge seats. The beach house, with its vaulted ceilings, huge windows and dark wood beams, is too modern and showy for his tastes, but he can admit that the furniture is comfortable. “How did you end up on the crew for this show, Wei Ying?”

“Because it’s so different from Wild China, you mean?”

“Mn.”

“I wanted to stop wandering, at least for a bit. My sister’s getting married — you know, Jiang Yanli? She won last season?” — Lan Wangji nods, remembering the afternoon blocked off on the shooting schedule for Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli to provide him with insights into the Bachelor’s journey — “and I want to be around for the wedding. And I guess I want to see my siblings more than I could when I was spending half the year in places you need a helicopter to get to.”

Wei Ying sighs, and rolls over onto his stomach on the couch. His t-shirt — too short, Lan Wangji notices, all of Wei Ying’s t-shirts are too short — rides up and exposes the lean bands of muscle along his spine. Lan Wangji’s traitorous eyes follow it, and then slide to the grip of Wei Ying’s t-shirt on his biceps, to the curve of his hamstrings against his tight jeans, the arc of his ass —

He tears his gaze away, pins it somewhere else: the gaudy gold vase on the fireplace mantle. The too-large, too-purple piece of abstract art hanging on the back wall. The rustling palms on the terrace. Anywhere else, really, because his job is to focus on his suitors, not ogle his cameraman. Even if said cameraman is attractive in a sunny, heated way that reminds Lan Wangji of late summer afternoons, of loquat juice sticky on his fingers, sweat dripping warm down his chest, skin flushed from too much sun …

There are many attractive suitors, he reminds himself.

“It’s funny,” Wei Ying says, voice muffled by the couch. “I left home because I thought it would be better if I didn’t see everyone so often, because … well, family is complicated, everybody knows that.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji is not sure he does know, exactly. Something in Wei Ying’s voice — an almost-inaudible catch in his breath — suggests a wound deeper than any Lan Wangji has sustained at his family’s hands.

“But I guess I missed seeing people on a regular basis, even if some of them don’t like me very much. And so when Huaisang — he’s a friend from high school — said he could get me a job here, I thought … well, that’ll do. And it’s not really that different from wildlife documentaries, anyway, remember? You’re my pangolin!”

Lan Wangji’s heart does that funny flutter-pause thing again.

“Ridiculous,” he huffs.

“I usually am,” Wei Ying says, with a chuckle. “But enough about me, Lan Zhan! There are definitely more interesting ways to pass the time. Why don’t we have tea on the terrace?”

“Ah.” He clears his throat. “I have … if you are interested … I had Sizhui bring over my store of da hong pao — ”

“What? No. I couldn’t!” Wei Ying leaps off the couch so fast he almost falls over. The t-shirt slides back down. “Seriously? Lan Zhan, that would be amazing. I mean, I’m sure my tea palate isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate that, I mean, I mostly drink boba. Maybe I shouldn’t — ”

Lan Wangji has already crossed to the kettle in the open kitchen, begun pouring in enough water to preheat the teapot and cups. “No. I want you to try it.”

It is only natural that he wants Wei Ying to try it; the other man had mentioned an interest, and Lan Wangji has an embarrassingly large stash of the rare tea at home. It would simply be rude not to share. (If some part of his brain hisses liar, he ignores it. Lying is against the Lan family rules.) They will be spending a lot of time together over these six weeks, he thinks, and … well. It’s the right thing to do. No other reason.

(There is no rule against lying to yourself.)

The tea is the work of minutes to steep, and then Lan Wangji carries a tray with two cups out onto the terrace. When he places it on the table, a sweet, woody scent rises on spirals of steam.

“Here,” he says, pushing a cup across to Wei Ying. “For you.”

Wei Ying sips, slowly, and then smiles. His normal smile is so wide that Lan Wangji has wondered if it hurts him, but somehow now it stretches even further, overflows the bounds of his face. “Ah, it’s lovely, Lan Zhan. Thank you.”

He shakes his head. “No need to thank me. I wanted to share it with you.”

They sit in silence for a few minutes, Wei Ying too engrossed in the tea to speak. The soft, almost grape-like sweetness mellows into a lingering, toasty warmth on Lan Wangji’s tongue, and he feels the morning’s nervous energy begin to disperse. If this is Wei Ying’s lesson in how to do nothing — tea, good company — he thinks he could learn it easily enough.

“Are you nervous?” Wei Ying says, when he finishes his cup. “About the date, I mean.”

Wei Ying has already asked him many questions, under the camera’s searching gaze, about his expectations for the first dates and his dating history. Lan Wangji thinks — wants to believe — that this is something different. That maybe it’s just Wei Ying asking because he wants to know.

“I do not know if I would say that I am nervous,” he says, then realizes he’s internalized Meng Yao’s command to incorporate the words of the question into his answer. He doesn’t have to be the Bachelor, Lan Wangji, when it’s just him with Wei Ying.

A gentle breeze stirs across the terrace, barely enough to ruffle the palms. He tries again. “Yes. There are so many people with expectations of me, who wish I was a certain way. I am nervous I will disappoint them, or the show. I have already disappointed some of the suitors by not being Nie Mingjue, I imagine. They were expecting a very different type of Bachelor.”

Wei Ying shakes his head. “If anyone’s disappointed that it’s you — if anyone’s disappointed in you — then they’re fools, Lan Zhan. I can’t imagine coming up that driveway and seeing you and not being ecstatic.”

Wei Ying has to say this; Lan Wangji knows that. It is Wei Ying’s job to make Lan Wangji into good television, and he’s not good television if he’s snarled in strands of self-doubt. And yet, an hour later, when Meng Yao looks back from his seat in the front of the production van and says, “You aren’t nervous, are you? I don’t want you looking uptight on camera,” Lan Wangji says “I’m not,” and finds that, somehow, it’s true.

###

Dailies: Episode 2, Group Date

(Shot of LAN WANGJI in a pale blue hanfu in the middle of a clearing, hooked up to the wires used for filming aerial stunts in xianxia dramas. A WIREWORK COORDINATOR stands beside him. In one hand he has a sword; in the background is a low building with a hip roof. Ten of the suitors stand at the edge of the clearing, each in a hanfu of their own.)

Wirework coordinator: When you get up in the air, we’ll swing you in a slow arc over the field and then land you on the rooftop, okay? You need to keep your core engaged in order to stay upright. Don’t wave the sword around unnecessarily, you don’t want it to tangle with the wires.

LWJ: (hand over mic, muffled) What if I would like to (indecipherable)?

Wirework coordinator: Uh, that’s a pretty high difficulty level? You’ll probably just get tangled up. But if you want to try, you …

(Shot from LAN WANGJI’s head-mount cam, mid-air, the landscape below a blur. The shot begins to spin.)

Offscreen voices: Oh my god! — Holy shit — I can’t —

(Shot from the ground of LAN WANGJI, running through the air toward the low roof. Just before he arrives, he tucks his shoulders, does a double flip, and lands lightly on the top of the roof, sword extended.)
________

(A talking-head interview. SU MINSHAN, 36, audio engineer. In the background is the xianxia resort. A woman in a red hanfu is visible, dangling mid-air.)

Offscreen voice: Impressions of the Bachelor after the group date?

SMS: Lan Wangji is hot. That move he did? Ugh. He can flip me over any time. But I knew that already — we went to high school together, you know. I had a bit of a crush on him, actually (awkward laugh).

Offscreen voice: Oh? Were you friends?

SMS: … Yeah, of course. I mean, we ran in the same circles. I mean … I don’t know if he remembers me, or whatever. But that just means I’ve got a blank slate to work with, here.
________

(A talking-head interview. SONG ZICHEN, 38, physiotherapist.)

Offscreen voice: Were you surprised that Xiao Xingchen got the group date rose?

SZC: Xiao Xingchen was incredibly graceful in the air. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. And he is a human rights lawyer and a single parent? No, I was not surprised by who got the group date rose. I would have made the same decision Lan Wangji did.

Offscreen voice: And the Bachelor’s wirework? Impressive?

SZC: Oh … Yes. Lan Wangji was quite impressive, too.

________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author.)

Offscreen voice: Lan Zhan, what was that?

LWJ: (tips of his ears blushing red) I simply wanted to try the full range of moves the wires make possible. It is not every day you have the opportunity to try something like this.

Offscreen voice: How did you manage it, though? It was amazing!

LWJ: You liked it? (clears his throat) Ah. I did both ballet and wushu when I was younger. The body remembers, I suppose.

###

The day after the group date — which, Lan Wangji is forced to admit, was surprisingly fun, not that he intends to tell Meng Yao that — is spent shooting footage for his introductory clips: running on the hilly paths in the park near his home, playing his piano and qin, sitting in his home office and pretending to write.

“Why did we pick a writer?” Meng Yao laments, after they finish another shot of Lan Wangji contemplatively typing nonsense on his laptop. He has also play-acted his profession by slowly turning the pages of various reference books; sipping from an empty tea cup; and staring thoughtfully out the window at the green hills and the distant red edifice of the Basilica. “Mingjue runs a boxing gym. Imagine the shots. Fists flying! Blood on skin! Sweat running down the lens, a slow motion punch towards the camera …”

Lan Wangji ignores this — biting at Meng Yao’s barbs will, in his experience, do no more than give you a bloody mouth — but Wei Ying lowers the camera and gives Meng Yao a look that could strip the fur from a tiger.

“Didn’t you beg him to be the Bachelor? I hear you promised him eternal gratitude,” he says, sharply. “You’ve got a funny way of showing it.”

“Nobody asked you,” Meng Yao snaps, but as they pile into the production van for the ride across the city, Meng Yao mutters a tiny “thanks” to Lan Wangji. There’s plausible deniability — Lan Wangji is holding the van door open — but when he looks over, Meng Yao gives him a small, genuine smile, and repeats himself.

“Thanks for doing this, okay, Lan Wangji? I know it’s not your idea of a good time.”

“That’s better,” Wei Ying says, as he climbs into the back seat.

“You did not have to do that, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji murmurs, once the van is moving. Meng Yao is talking on his phone in the front seat, leaving Lan Wangji and Wei Ying alone in the back. “I know my life is not telegenic.”

“Ah, don’t listen to him, Lan Zhan! Your work’s fascinating. I’d like …” Wei Ying trails off, gives him an inscrutable glance. “Well, never mind what I want. Just … don’t listen to him, okay?”

Lan Wangji enjoys an hour of gracious Meng Yao before he finds the thorn lurking on the olive branch.

“You know, Wangji, I really do want to make this journey a good one for you. I owe you for doing this, right? So I owe it to you to give you the best possible experience,” Meng Yao says. The three of them — Meng Yao, Lan Wangji, and Wei Ying — are sitting at a table in the riverside restaurant where Lan Wangji is supposed to film a sit-down interview with Nie Huaisang. Nie Huaisang, however, is late, which (as Lan Wangji has learned from Meng Yao’s regular tirades about The Bachelor’s host at Friday night dinner) is apparently Huaisang’s default state.

“And so I want to get the right people on the right dates, you know?” Meng Yao continues. “Give me a list of the four, maybe five suitors you like the best. Like, who do you want to have on the dates with hot tubs? Who do you want to drink too much wine with?”

“I do not drink,” Lan Wangji reminds him, as one of the crew members steps close to pat his nose with mineral powder.

“Right, of course, bad example,” Meng Yao says, waving away this objection. “You know what I mean, though. The ones you can see yourself taking to the fantasy suites. The ones who make your hands a little clammy.”

When Lan Wangji glances over at Wei Ying, the other man is uncharacteristically quiet, staring out the window towards the river. “I …” Lan Wangji tries to picture himself holding out the fantasy suite key, someone reaching out to take it, but none of the suitors’ face appear. “I don’t know.”

(If he sees another face — a blinding smile, clever fingers reaching for the key —

Lan Wangji squelches the thought. Lan Wangji is the Bachelor; the Bachelor chooses a suitor, those are the rules. Lan Wangji is very good at following rules.)

“You must know,” Meng Yao says, exasperated. “I know you don’t believe in love at first sight, but that’s not what I’m asking you for.”

“There are some suitors I respect,” Lan Wangji says. He wants to give Meng Yao an answer. It would be easier if he had an answer. “I can give you that list.”

“Fine. Give me that list, I’ll put them on the respectful dates, and then I’ll throw whoever I think is the most fun on the hot tub dates. Let’s see …” Meng Yao pulls out a notebook and pretends to scrawl a note in it. “Maybe Wang Lingjiao?”

“That is fine. I am perfectly capable of avoiding all hot tubs for the duration of the show,” Lan Wangji says, and is rewarded by Wei Ying’s brilliant laugh.

Before Meng Yao can unleash his comeback — a blistering one, if the look on his face is anything to go by — Nie Huaisang bursts through the door, juggling a boba and what appear to be five miniature gold-plated bird cages.

“Ah, Yao-xiong, I don’t know what happened, I really don’t,” he moans. “I had something I needed to pick up” — he rattles the cages — “and I thought I’d left enough time for the traffic!”

“Lucky for you you’re too popular to fire, Huaisang,” Meng Yao mutters. “Alright, someone get over here and take his … cages? Whatever. And powder off the sweat. We’ve got an interview to shoot …”

###

Dailies: Episode 2, One-on-One Date

(A close-up of LAN WANGJI, inspecting a huge, gnarled tea tree. Visible over his shoulder, a few paces behind him, is WEN XU.)

LWJ: (reverently) This one is more than a thousand years old. (He looks up, directly into the camera.) How strange to think that they drank this same tea in the Tang dynasty, and we can still drink it, today …

Offscreen voice: (softly) Lan Zhan, you can’t look right at the camera, okay?
________

(A wide, static shot of a table on the terraced slopes of a tea garden. Sitting at the table are LAN WANGJI and WEN XU. Staff are setting the table with pots of tea and cups. Crouched beside LAN WANGJI is WEI WUXIAN, his cameraman, who is testing angles for shots. The sun is obscured by clouds hanging close over the tea garden.)

Offscreen voice: I’m just testing the lighting for this shot, the clouds are —

Another offscreen voice: — yeah. Okay. We’ll be rolling in three minutes.

(LAN WANGJI turns to WEI WUXIAN and says something. WEI WUXIAN laughs and leans in closer to LAN WANGJI, so that their heads are almost touching. He gestures at something in the distance. The camera is just close enough to capture the curve of LAN WANGJI’s smile.)
________

(A talking-head interview. WEN XU, 34, VP Creative, Wen Productions. In the background are sharp green foothills, wreathed in white mist.)

Offscreen voice: … sibling rivalry?

WX: My brother and I do not get along particularly well. I was jealous, today, when Lan Wangji talked about his relationship with his brother. Between my brother and I, it’s always been a competition, not a collaboration.

Offscreen voice: Did you talk to Lan Wangji about that during your date?

WX: I told Lan Wangji a little bit about my upbringing, and my family. He’s a good listener. So I’m not too worried about Wen Chao. And anyway … (he grins) I don’t think my brother is Lan Wangji’s type.

###

Dailies: Episode 2, Mansion

(The pool outside the mansion. WEN QING is lying in a deckchair in the shade of a wisteria trellis, reading. LUO QINGYANG comes out in a bikini and sits on the edge of the pool deck. She takes off her microphone pack.)

LQY: (voice muffled) Hey.

WQ: (clear) What do you want, Mianmian?

LQY: (voice muffled) This isn’t too weird, right? Like, you’re okay with … (she shrugs) this?

WQ: It’s fine. Why would it be weird?

LQY: I don’t know, I just thought … it seems like you’re avoiding me.

WQ: I’m not avoiding you. I’m here for Lan Wangji, right? That’s my focus.

(LUO QINGYANG stands and jumps into the pool. Some of the water from the splash hits WEN QING; she doesn’t react.)
________

(A talking-head interview. LUO QINGYANG, 30, opera singer.)

Offscreen voice: Did you know she was going to be on the show?

LQY: I’d heard from friends that Wen Qing was going out for the show, too. But we broke up four months ago, we’re on good terms, so I don’t … I don’t think it’ll be a problem.

Offscreen voice: Who broke up with who?

LQY: Uh. I … Our break-up was mutual. Sometimes things just don’t work out, I guess.

Offscreen voice: Do you see Wen Qing as strong competition for the Bachelor?

LQY: Is Wen Qing strong competition? Have you seen her? Obviously she is. She’s smart, and so stubborn, and if she thinks you’re really funny she has this laugh that … (trails off, looks down) So, yes, I’ll be watching to see if Wen Qing seems to like — sorry. I mean, I’ll be watching to see if Lan Wangji seems to like Wen Qing.

###

The night after the second rose ceremony Lan Wangji tosses and turns for two hours, then gives up and slips out of his bedroom to the pool deck, clad in nothing but a t-shirt and boxers. It’s been a long and strange week; long enough that he’s tired, but strange enough that he can’t sleep.

Outside, the warm night air feels soft against his skin, like morning dew. He crosses to the high railing that runs along the edge of the deck and leans against it. Below the house, the waxing moon inks broken silver brushstrokes on the waves.

It’s nice to just breathe, just be, without needing to worry about what he’s saying or doing or how he looks or if they’ve gotten usable footage. During their date in Pu’er, Wen Xu had always seemed to know how to find the best lighting, how to move to give the cameras a clean shot, how to pretend to eat and drink. Maybe not surprising, given that his family runs a production company, but Lan Wangji can’t help but think Wen Xu would make a better Bachelor than he does. And the date had left him feeling off for other reasons, too. Wen Xu had been nice, entertaining, certainly handsome: what Xichen, during his Bachelor binge-watches, would call “the total package.”

But maybe that’s the problem: Wen Xu had felt like a package of personality traits put together by someone who hoped to appeal to Lan Wangji (or maybe just to certain market segments). He knows some of the contestants are just here for the exposure — this is a plot point on the show every season — and yet it had still been strange to find himself in a conversation with someone who seemed to be playing a role.

He’d given Wen Xu a rose, though (had the cynical thought that he had to, after Wen Xu had teared up when describing his mother’s death) and so maybe he isn’t any better: Lan Wangji is playing the game, too. But what else can he do? None of the suitors on this week’s dates made his heart beat faster — not even those, like Wen Qing and Xiao Xingchen, that his rational side acknowledges are attractive and interesting —

“More pensive!” a voice calls, from behind, and Lan Wangji spins around to find Wei Ying, laughing. The other man is in a red t-shirt and black shorts, barefoot. His hair is loose, so that it feathers across his cheekbones. It makes him look younger, softer.

“I believe I was impressively pensive, just now,” Lan Wangji says. “I defy anyone to be more pensive than I was.”

Wei Ying skirts the edge of the pool to join Lan Wangji by the railing. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Mn. Too pensive.”

“A serious issue. You should have that looked into.” This close, every breath Lan Wangji takes is filled with Wei Ying. He smells like the pine woods at dawn. “Were you thinking about the show?”

“Overthinking, perhaps.” Lan Wangji looks away, towards the ocean’s rhythmic swells, so that he won’t have to see the way Wei Ying’s eyes glitter in the moonlight, starlike.

“About whether you like anyone?”

“Mn. I thought I would, I suppose. Or at least that I would have preferences, at this stage, beyond ‘these five people are not objectionable.’”

Wei Ying bumps one shoulder against his, a gentle benediction. “Have you thought about Sizhui and Jingyi’s test? I thought it was a good one.”

“Sharing my lunch is part of the production requirements.” Sharing tea is not; he and Wei Ying have taken to drinking it every morning, together on the terrace. (He doesn’t think about what that means. He can’t think about that. He can hear his uncle’s voice: There are rules in life for a reason, Lan Wangji.)

“What about showing off?” Wei Ying bumps him again, hip to hip.

“No. I —”

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying laughs, steps back, and begins slashing wildly with what Lan Zhan realizes is meant to be an imaginary sword. “You can’t tell me you weren’t showing off, on the wires. I was there! I was filming you! You were like … shhhuu shhhuu shhhuu — those are sword noises, okay, just imagine — ”

He really hadn’t been showing off for his suitors, though. He’d just been thinking about how Wei Ying had said, on the dramas it looks so effortless, I love it, and wondering if he could make it look effortless, too.

Lan Wangji unsheathes his own imaginary sword.

“Nonsense. I was not showing off,” he says, and attacks.

They parry back and forth across the pool deck, spinning and ducking. Lan Wangji finds it impossible not to make sound effects: the hiss of a blade through air, the sharp clang when they pretend their swords meet —

“Oh, such denial, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying says, deflecting Lan Wangji’s thrust. “When you landed on the roof you gave this look that clearly said anyone think they can do better than that?” He leaps out of sword range, and strikes an exaggerated, cocky pose.

Lan Wangji doesn’t know what comes over him. Maybe it’s Wei Ying’s fake swagger, or the way the night hasn’t managed to dissipate the heat of the day — or the strand of hair that swings into Wei Ying’s eyes, the way he blows it off with a little puff of air — or the little part of Lan Wangji that whispers forget the rules

“If I am showing off, you will know,” he hisses. He lunges forward, grabs the other man around the waist, and topples them both into the pool.

“Yield! I yield!” Wei Ying yells, ten minutes later, throwing his arms in the air. A meteor shower of water drops flies off him. “You win, Lan Zhan. Who would have thought you’d be so vicious? That last move …” he shakes his head and pulls himself out of the pool to sit on the edge, beside the spot where Lan Wangji is treading water.

Lan Wangji can still feel the imprint of Wei Ying’s arms around him, the hitch of Wei Ying’s breath against his shoulders as the other man lifted Lan Wangji from the water; can still feel Wei Ying’s knees clamped against his hips, hands warm and wet as he climbed onto Lan Wangji’s back to avoid a retaliatory dunking. Out of the water, the moonlight is bright enough to reveal how close Wei Ying’s t-shirt clings to his chest. His shorts, too, are plastered against his legs, and — oh — it is abundantly clear that he is not wearing any underwear … Lan Wangji is suddenly very glad for the dark cloak of the water.

“I … thank you,” Lan Wangji says, voice hoarse.

“What for?”

“It is rare for me to have so much fun.”

Wei Ying smiles, at this, and reaches out to run a thumb along Lan Wangji’s temple.

“You’ve got water, there,” he murmurs. Absurd, Lan Wangji thinks; he is all over with water. He lifts his own hand — to do what, he doesn’t know — to touch Wei Ying’s cheek, his lip, somewhere else warm and wet —

Wei Ying surges up, dripping.

“Time for bed for me, I think,” he says. “Another early morning tomorrow.”

As he walks away, Lan Wangji sinks back down under the water. He can’t deny it anymore; can’t keep lying, even to himself.

A person I wish to give gifts to, show off for, play with.

He does like someone. It’s just not one of his suitors.

###

Dailies: Episode 2

(A talking-head interview, in the van driving away from the mansion after the end of the rose ceremony. WEN CHAO, 34, VP Finance, Wen Productions.)

Offscreen voice: Were you surprised that you didn’t get a rose?

WC: Lan Wangji doesn’t know what he’s missing out on, because I didn’t even get to go on a fucking date. And my brother got the one-on-one date? That’s bullshit. How is that fair? I know he said something about me to Lan Wangji …

Whatever. I didn’t even fucking like Lan Wangji. I just thought I was going to be the next Bachelor …

###

Teaser — The Bachelor, Episode 3 — 15-second spot

NHS: (voiceover) Next week, on The Bachelor

(A grainy night-vision shot of two people in a pool, splashing playfully. The footage is too low-quality to identify either of them.)

NHS: (voiceover) Lan Wangji and a mystery visitor take a late-night dip at the beach house, and then the Bachelor makes a connection with one of his suitors …

(A shot of three women sitting poolside at the mansion, each with a drink in hand: LUO QINGYANG, WEN QING, and QIN SU.)

QS: I bet he’s a great kisser. He just seems like he’d be so gentle, you know? And those big hands … (She runs a hand through her own hair, and tips her head back, as if demonstrating.)

WQ: (glancing at LUO QINGYANG, who has her eyes closed) Yeah, for sure. Right, Mianmian?

LQY: (eyes still closed) Oh, he is. A good kisser, I mean …

Chapter Text

Episode 3: First Kiss

Lan Wangji’s brother, Lan Xichen, visits the beach house to share the tips he’s gleaned from years of watching The Bachelor. As their visit ends, Lan Wangji reluctantly agrees to consider kissing some of his suitors.

The group date involves a stallion novel-themed photo shoot, where Wang Lingjiao, Jin Zixun and Su Minshan’s attempts to catch Lan Wangji’s eye are unsuccessful: he gives Qin Su, who was embarrassed by the experience, the group date rose.

The first one-on-one date sees Lan Wangji and Mo Xuanyu head to a wildlife reserve, where they get up close with tigers and help groom Ili pikas. During the final one-on-one, Lan Wangji takes Luo Qingyang on a sailing excursion — and finally locks lips with one of his suitors.

At the rose ceremony, Jin Zixun and Wang Lingjiao are eliminated.

###

Dailies: Episode 3

(Shot of LAN XICHEN, 38, the Bachelor’s brother, walking with LAN WANGJI along a white-sand beach.)

LXC: Tip four: some of the suitors are there for the wrong reasons. You need to sniff them out early, and cut them ruthlessly, because they will cause trouble for you in the long run.

LWJ: Mn. I will endeavour to do so, brother.

LXC: And tip five — this the last one, and the most important, Wangji — kiss as many of the suitors as you can.

LWJ: (he stops walking and stares at LAN XICHEN as if his brother has grown a second head) … Why would I do that?

LXC: Because that’s how you get information! About whether you like them, whether they like you, whether they’re sincere about their feelings, whether you can see yourself kissing them more … a kiss reveals a lot, Wangji.
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN XICHEN, 38, the Bachelor’s brother.)

Offscreen voice: Do you have any reservations about your brother participating in the show?

LXC: It was my suggestion that Wangji become the Bachelor, and I am glad he agreed to do so. I’m always telling him to get out of the house and meet more people. He won’t admit it, but I think he’s lonely.

Offscreen voice: You aren’t concerned he might get his heart broken?

LXC: I do fear Wangji might fall for someone who isn’t here for the right reasons. There is a saying, in our family, that when a Lan falls in love, they fall in love for a lifetime, and so —

Offscreen voice: (intense) Is that … is that true? In your experience?

LXC: (startled, low voice) Are you asking for the show, A-Yao? Or for you?

Offscreen voice: (urgent) Is it true?

LXC: I … um. I have only been in love once, in my life. And I can’t imagine I will ever stop loving —

Offscreen voice: Turn off the camera, please.

Camera operator: What?

Offscreen voice: Turn off the camera! I need to kiss my boyfriend —

(The shot goes black.)

###

“ … and now I need you to tell me who this is,” Meng Yao says, pointing to one of the two figures visible in the infrared video playing on the security monitor.

“No,” Lan Wangji says.

The two of them are sitting in the cramped confines of the guardhouse that squats at the end of the beach house driveway, watching security footage of the pool. Lan Wangji had forgotten about the security cameras sprinkled around the beach house; he wonders if Wei Ying had known.

“Your contract says — ”

“No.”

He hopes Meng Yao will decide he needs Lan Wangji too much to argue with him about the alleged contractual breach, because although there isn’t one — nothing in the contract says the Bachelor can’t have fun with his cameraman — Lan Wangji would like Meng Yao to remain convinced that the other person is one of his suitors.

The problem is that the footage looks, undeniably, like a flirtation. (Like foreplay, some part of him whispers, but that isn’t quite right; Wei Ying, at least, had only been playing.) Maybe someone else could sell it as innocent fun, but Meng Yao is too familiar with Lan Wangji to believe that story. If Meng Yao figures out who the other person in the footage is, he’ll know how Lan Wangji feels, and Lan Wangji can imagine what will happen after that. Meng Yao will have Wei Ying transferred to some other part of the crew — night shift at the mansion, perhaps, as far away from Lan Wangji as possible — or worse, fire him, for nothing more than the sin of trying to cheer Lan Wangji up. (It really hadn’t been anything more than that. The touch to his forehead … Lan Wangji had wanted, in the moment, to think it meant something, but Wei Ying had said it himself a few days ago: it’s his job to make Lan Wangji comfortable. Nothing more than that.)

Last night, Lan Wangji had stayed in the pool after Wei Ying walked away, frantically trying to design a plan to survive the next five weeks without letting his feelings for his cameraman derail the show. The logical side of his brain — the side not consumed with replaying the feeling of Wei Ying’s thumb on his temple — had pointed out that nothing had really changed. The only difference was that now he knew his season of the Bachelor wouldn’t show a real love story; but hadn’t he always known how unlikely that was?

And so there was no reason to default on his obligations to the show, to let anyone down. The story of the Bachelor, Lan Wangji could still be a simple one. If he was in charge of writing it, it would look like this:

Lan Wangji’s season as the Bachelor was marked by little drama and ended without an engagement. He continued to date — someone who was playing the game, who wouldn’t care if Lan Wangji was only pretending; maybe Wen Xu? Or perhaps he could take Wen Xu to the very end and then break up with him, so sorry, but the connection just isn’t there. Meng Yao had been complaining a few months ago that he’d never had a chance to test his skills on sculpting a season where the Bachelor chose himself at the end. He ended the season alone, and public interest swiftly moved on to the next person seeking love onscreen. At no point did the Bachelor make any inappropriate advances towards his cameraman.

And then, when it was all over, he could go home and pretend he hadn’t spent five weeks desperately wishing Wei Ying’s cheerful professionalism was something more. Or maybe he could embarrass himself by asking Wei Ying out, then slink back to his boring, quiet life when Wei Ying inevitably said What are you talking about, Lan Zhan? We’re just friends … in reply.

A simple plan; a tidy one, even. Airtight. He’d been very pleased with it.

The security footage — Meng Yao hissing “come with me, there’s something we need to talk about” after Xichen had departed the beach house — has poked a hole in the plan. Lan Wangji intends to patch it up by refusing to talk.

“It’s a man, right?” Meng Yao mutters, as one of the figures on screen surges out of the water, picks the other one up, and tosses him across the pool. “I don’t think any of the women this season could throw you like that.”

“I am not going to tell you,” Lan Wangji says. The footage, thankfully, is too grainy to make out many details.

“Why not?” Meng Yao says, his lips drooping into a sad pout. Since Lan Wangji is not his brother, the pout has no effect on him. The change in tactics doesn’t fool him, either; Meng Yao is put out. “They won’t get in trouble, I promise. I only want to know who you were frolicking with in the pool last night so I can develop storylines. Also, our security team wants to know how they got in, because we had some security issues last season.”

“I am not going to tell you.” His infrared self has just rolled onto his back in order to drag Wei Ying, clinging to his shoulders, under the water.

“Ugh,” Meng Yao says, abandoning the doe eyes. “Your brother told me you would be perfect for this. He’s never broken a rule in his life, he said. You won’t have any of the usual problems, A-Yao. And here we are, it’s been a week and you’re already a nightmare.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t dignify this with a reply.

“You really aren’t going to tell me, are you? You know I’m not your enemy, right? That my job is to work with you?”

“I am not going to tell you.”

Meng Yao visibly deflates, like a snakeskin losing its snake.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” he says, turning the monitor off. The screen goes dark before it can show the worst moment — the best moment — the moment when Wei Ying had reached out to touch him. “You want to keep your secret that badly? Fine. I won’t ask you about it again, I won’t bother you about it at all — if, and only if, you kiss someone on this week’s dates.”

“Is that all?” Lan Wangji asks, keeping his expression cool. He had not been intending to follow through on his brother’s advice, and it will complicate things — his airtight plan has sprung another leak — but Meng Yao might have asked for more.

“Is that a small thing?” Meng Yao says, and just for a moment he seems genuine, like he’s concerned about Lan Wangji. His eyes flicker back to the darkened security monitors, just for a moment. “I didn’t think you’d do it, if you didn’t really like someone. You know nobody will mind, right? They all just want the screen time, anyway. The suitors know they’re here to make good television. You should remember that, too. Whatever you need to do to make good television? That’s what I want you to do. But also — I want you to kiss someone.”

“Alright.”

“Alright, it’s a deal?”

“Mn.”

“Great,” Meng Yao says, the snake shrugging back into its skin with a smug shimmy. “Let’s go, then. The van is waiting.”

When they get to the idling production van, Meng Yao shoots a glare at Wei Ying, slouched in the backseat.

“Wei Wuxian! Did you know he was cavorting around with someone in the pool last night? Why didn’t you get any of it on film? Don’t tell me you didn’t hear them!” (After parsing it for a moment, Lan Wangji decides that this does not break the terms of the deal; Meng Yao had only promised not to bother him about it anymore. This is his fault, for not considering the terms more closely.)

Wei Ying looks up from his phone. “I sleep like the dead,” he shrugs. When Meng Yao turns away, huffing, Wei Ying catches Lan Wangji’s eye and winks.

It’s not until the van is snarled in westbound Shanghai traffic that Wei Ying leans over and whispers, “Why didn’t you tell him?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head and shrugs towards the front of the van. He can’t think of an excuse that won’t spill the truth; better to imply something vague and hope for the best. “It’s Meng Yao,” he says, simply.

Wei Ying seems to consider this, then nods and gently rubs Lan Wangji’s knee, as if to say don’t worry, I’ve got your back. (Lan Wangji had not previously been aware that the knee was an erogenous zone. Now he is very aware, and the van is very stuffy, and he is going to need to open a window.)

“What are you two whispering about back there?” Meng Yao says.

“Oh, just trying to figure out where we’re going,” Wei Ying says. “The shooting schedule only listed an address out in an industrial area.”

“Oh, yes, I thought it might be nice to surprise you,” Meng Yao says, with false cheer. “There are a few dates that were designed for Nie Mingjue, where we couldn’t find an alternative in time. This is one of them. But I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as he would have, Lan Wangji! You’re clearly more adventurous than I’d thought!”

###

Dailies: Episode 3, Group Date

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author. He is wearing a blue, intricately-embroidered hanfu that looks vaguely Ming Dynasty in origin, except that the front is wide open, revealing his bare chest. In the background is a large, well-lit set with a canopy bed made of woven cane, copious sheer silk curtains, and many pillows.

Offscreen voice: So, uh. (laughing) This is fun, right, Lan Zhan?

LWJ: (looking directly at the camera) I am going to kill Meng Yao.

Offscreen voice, in the distance: I heard that!
________

(A wide shot of a PHOTOGRAPHER directing LAN WANGJI and three of his suitors — JIN ZIXUN, SU MINSHAN, and WANG LINGJIAO — in a photo shoot. They are all seated on a fake mountain slope, framed against a painted backdrop of blue sky and more mountains. LAN WANGJI, sitting at the top of the mountain peak, is wearing nothing but a pair of blue silk pants, and holding a guqin in his lap; the other three are equally scantily clad and draped artfully over LAN WANGJI and the fake rocks.)

PHOTOGRAPHER: You at the bottom, move your arm down a bit, and then lean back near his ankle … that’s right. (She snaps a few photos.) Okay. Lan Wangji, I need you to look … less pained, okay? Like you’re enjoying the attention.

LWJ: (quietly) I am not.

JZX: (leering) Maybe you just need some help relaxing … (He jumps up from his position beside LAN WANGJI’s knee and crosses to a small folding table standing off to one side of the set. It holds a number of full champagne flutes. He picks one up.) Here, try this …

LWJ: I do not drink.

JZX: Time to make an exception, right? (chuckles) We all want to see your stallion side come out …

(As JIN ZIXUN starts to walk back to the mountain slope, the glass of champagne in one hand, WEI WUXIAN, LAN WANGJI’s cameraman, suddenly stands up from where he had been crouching below the angle of the wide shot. He knocks into JIN ZIXUN as he stands, sending the champagne glass flying.)

WWX: (coolly) Ah, sorry. I just need to get a little closer, for a better angle …

(WEI WUXIAN crosses with his camera to the other side of the mountain set and crouches down again, out of sight.)

PHOTOGRAPHER: Yes! That’s it, Lan Wangji! That’s the expression I want. Can you hold that?
________

Dailies: Episode 3, Mansion

(A shot from a high angle of WEN QING lying on a bed in the mansion, reading a book. Through the window, the sun is low: it is twilight. A bedside lamp is on, but not the overhead light, so that WEN QING’s face is in shadow.

After a moment, LUO QINGYANG comes into the bedroom and lies down on one of the other three beds in the room.)

LQY: (softly) Can we talk?

WQ: (putting down the book, gesturing to the camera mounted in the corner of the room) On camera?

LQY: (she shrugs) Yeah. It’s not like we can talk off-camera, is it? Anyway they won’t air it, it’s not about Lan Wangji.

WQ: Fine. (She turns off the bedside lamp. In the dusk-light, neither woman’s face is visible.) Talk.

LQY: Why … why’d you try out for the show?

WQ: What do you care?

LQY: It’s just that we … it hasn’t been very long, that’s all.

WQ: So? You were the one who wanted out, you don’t get to say how long I have to wait before moving on.

LQY: That’s not fair! You know that’s not fair —

WQ: And you’re here too, aren’t you? Why’d you try out? Did you think this was a good place to find those big romantic gestures you’re always on about? Maybe I thought I’d come on the show and see if I could find someone who actually appreciates me.

LQY: (choked up) I … I’m sorry, A-Qing, I don’t …

WQ: Forget it. (she turns the light back on and flips open her book)

(LUO QINGYANG rolls on the bed so that she’s facing away from the camera. There is a period of silence.)

LQY: How’s … how’s A-Ning?

WQ: (not looking up) He’s fine. Putting together his grad school applications. … He says he misses you. Not sure what there is to miss, but he’s always been the sentimental type.

###

Lan Wangji spends the next day and a half congratulating himself on how well he is handling his problematic crush. Not that his success is a surprise: he is 35 years old, after all, he has experienced feelings before … (Never like this, that annoying inner voice says. He ignores it; he seems to be getting a lot of practice at that, lately.)

On the flight to Beijing he chats with Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang without any embarrassing incidents — no accidental confessions, no awkward attempts to flirt, no feigning sleep so as to slump against Wei Ying’s shoulder — and the interviews with Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli at Koi Tower go smoothly, as well. There is one moment, during a break in the interviews, when Jiang Yanli — laughing with Wei Ying about a childhood memory — looks up and catches Lan Wangji watching; he flushes crimson and spins away, hoping she doesn’t notice. But otherwise, the plan is on track.

Then comes the return flight to Shanghai.

“I don’t think she’s forgiven me yet for that one time with the bird,” Nie Huaisang says, mournfully, from across the aisle.

“Of course she hasn’t! I haven’t forgiven you! It took me three hours to clean bird shit out of the six guest lodges it got into,” Wei Ying says, with a laugh. “And of course A-Li took most of the blame, because she always did, but everyone knew it was you.”

“It was such a pretty bird, though,” Huaisang sighs. “I really couldn’t resist.”

Wei Ying turns to Lan Wangji and grins. “Huaisang was a horrible teenager. I mean, we both were, really! At one point Yu-furen banned him from coming over to Lotus Pier after school because every time he did we ended up making trouble in front of the guests. Remember, Huaisang? She’d yell You’re bringing down our star rating!”

“I don’t think any of it was my fault,” Huaisang says, and turns back to his phone, where he is bidding on vintage fans in an online auction. The host, Lan Wangji has learned, collects rare and beautiful objects.

“I bet you never got in trouble when you were younger, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “You were that kid the other parents pointed to and said, why can’t you be more like him?”

“I did get in trouble with Uncle once,” he says. “For getting my ears pierced.” He had been fifteen, and had thought, foolishly, that this tiny rebellion might draw his father’s attention, jolt loose his locked-in grief. Father hadn’t noticed, though; Uncle had seen to that.

Wei Ying reaches up and tugs on Lan Wangji’s earlobe. He suppresses a responding shiver, just barely.

“You let them grow over?”

“The next day,” he admits, and Wei Ying laughs, gently. Xichen had come to the piercing parlour, too, but come out with his ears bare. Lan Wangji had spent six years thinking his brother’s courage had failed him, only to find out in college that Xichen had had his nipple pierced.

“You said your sister mostly raised you?” he says, casting about for a change of topic.

“Yeah. My adoptive parents were busy running the resorts, so she kind of took over with Jiang Cheng and me at a certain point. And, I mean, it was probably for the best, because it kept me away from Yu-furen. She doesn’t really like me.” He slumps a little in the airline seat.

Lan Wangji’s traitorous mouth opens before he can command it to remain shut. “I cannot imagine anyone not liking you, Wei Ying.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you’d met him as a teenager,” Huaisang says, not looking up from his phone.

Wei Ying ignores Huaisang, chewing at the edge of his lip before letting it tilt into the ghost of a smile. The expression on his face is soft enough, pleased enough, that Lan Wangji decides he doesn’t regret saying it. “You’re really nice, Lan Zhan, you know that?”

Lan Wangji clears his throat and looks down at his hands, folded neatly in his lap. “I do not know about that. Your sister seemed extremely nice, however.”

“Ah, she really is! Maybe the nicest person in the world, honestly. Although your brother was super-nice too, Lan Zhan. He’s the eldest, right?”

“Mn.”

“So can I call you Lan-er-gege?”

Oh god.

With that, whatever grasp Lan Wangji thought he had on the situation goes flying out the emergency doors, and takes his plan — foolproof, and yet apparently not, for here he is, a fool — with it. It turns out he is not handling this well at all.

###

Dailies: Interview with Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli

(A talking-head interview. JIN ZIXUAN, 36, last season’s Bachelor, and JIANG YANLI, 37, Jin Zixuan’s fiancée. They are seated on a large patio on one of the upper floors of Koi Tower, a boutique five-star hotel. Behind them is a small pond is filled with lotus blossoms; in the distance, the Beijing skyline gleams.

JYL: … I’m not sure if it would’ve helped, if I’d been honest.

JZX: Of course it would — if I’d known it was you all along, making the soup —

JYL: (shakes her head, gives him a fond glance) You weren’t ready to admit how you felt, even to yourself. And everything worked out fine, didn’t it?

JZX: I could have done without the part where your brother screamed in my face for an hour …

JYL: (laughing) That’s just A-Cheng. You might have gotten that no matter what. And he likes you now!

JZX: (looking skeptical) Does he?

Offscreen voice: Now that you’ve met Lan Wangji, how do you feel about his chances of finding love on his journey as the Bachelor?

JZX: I think Lan Wangji will do just fine. He’s a good listener; he just has to remember to listen to his heart.

(JIANG YANLI giggles at the cliche, but then looks up, frowning, as if remembering something that concerns her.)

JYL: I hope … I hope that if he finds love somewhere unexpected, Lan Wangji won’t turn his back on it. And that he remembers that this is just a television show, and that what he wants — who he wants — is far more important than ratings.

###

The little boat slips smoothly along the sheltered coast of the Shengsi Islands, blue ocean winds dancing in the sails. Lan Wangji tacks to windward, hoping to arc around the end of Shengshan so that they can see the abandoned village of Houtouwan from the sea; he and Luo Qingyang have already eaten lunch on the beach below its ivy-drenched slopes, immersed in the strange tranquility of a modern ghost town.

This is already the best date of the week, in Lan Wangji’s opinion. The group date had been predictably horrible; after the photoshoot there had been an excruciating cocktail party in a concrete bunker-slash-bar, with the photos from the shoot displayed on oversize televisions on every wall. Wang Lingjiao had sported her stallion novel costume all night, and Su Minshan had drunkenly commandeered the DJ station. The visit to the wildlife reserve with Mo Xuanyu had been disturbing in an entirely different way, though. Mo Xuanyu looks a little like Wei Ying — similar height, black hair a little longer than fashionable, sharp jawline — and Lan Wangji had caught himself, when confronted with the petulant frowns of a troop of golden snub-nosed monkeys, turning towards his date to say, tell me a story about them, Wei Ying. He’d clamped his mouth shut just in time. (Wei Ying had told his snub-nosed monkey story later, over tea on the terrace. “And then I realized it was the wrong tree, Lan Zhan! I’d wasted three days in the wrong tree — ”)

After that he’d sleepwalked through to the end of the date, and handed Mo Xuanyu a perfunctory rose, only to find that the other man looked … pleased. Grateful. Almost as if he actually liked Lan Wangji.

And so it is a relief, today, to find Luo Qingyang prickly, distant. On land they had managed polite small talk, but now the rush of the wind is loud enough to excuse the silence on both their parts. Lan Wangji flicks a glance down to where Wei Ying is lying flat in the hull, out of view of the production boat that’s motoring off their starboard bow. He must surely be bored, lacking even a view of the sinuous curves of green on the horizon for entertainment, but what Lan Wangji can see of his face is relaxed, focused.

Luo Qingyang breaks into his reverie by tapping him lightly on the back. When he turns to look at her, she gives him a strained smile and presses a piece of folded paper into his hand.

When he unfolds it, carefully palming it to keep it from the camera’s gaze, it reads: Could we talk privately?

Lan Wangji has no idea how they might manage such a thing, but Wei Ying’s stories — not just about Wild China, but about a childhood filled with miraculous escapes from punishment for some rather outlandish pranks — suggest he may have some ideas. Bending to some busywork with the lines, Lan Wangji slides the note, face-up, along the hull. Wei Ying’s eyes flick down to read it, and after a moment he reaches up to Lan Wangji’s hand and scrawls swim east on his palm with one finger.

The production boat is to the west; the stretch of water to the east is open all the way to shore.

Lan Wangji stands back up and says, “Would you like to go for a swim?”

Luo Qingyang understands immediately. “Yes! The water looks lovely, and it’s so hot today.”

He points the nose of the boat into the wind, secures the boom and tiller, and heaves the sea anchor in. Luo Qingyang has already stripped off her mic pack and the light dress she was wearing over her bathing suit, so Lan Wangji sheds his mic and shirt, too. (He lets the camera have a good look, thinking that’s for you, Meng Yao).

It’s all done so fast that it’s only when they both dive into the water that the crew on the other boat seems to understand what’s happening. As Lan Wangji strokes towards shore, he can hear Meng Yao yelling: “What are you doing? If you want to swim, you have to tell us! We need to get mics set up! Ugh, how are you such a problem?”

“I’ve got the shot,” Wei Ying is yelling back. Glancing back over his shoulder, Lan Wangji can see Wei Ying standing in the sailboat, camera trained on the sea.

Luo Qingyang catches up to him and they begin to tread water. The waves are higher than Lan Wangji expected — colder, too — so he’s glad to see that Luo Qingyang appears to be a competent swimmer.

“What did you wish to talk about?”

Meng Yao, in the distance, has begun to direct the production boat into a position where they can swing out a boom mic without getting into the line of Wei Ying’s shot from the sailboat. Lan Wangji estimates they have two minutes, at most.

“I … Well, I guess you’d say that I’m not here for the right reasons,” she mutters, sounding miserable.

“What?” Lan Wangji isn’t sure what he had expected; he knows this was not it.

“I’m sorry,” Luo Qingyang says. “It’s just — I actually applied for the show because Wen Qing did? She’s my ex. I screwed things up with her pretty bad, and then I realized I was still in love with her, and I thought, maybe if I came on the show …” she trails off and tries to pull a hank of wet hair off her face.

“You came on the show because you wanted to … romance her?” Lan Wangji says, confused. A grey swell lifts them both — the production boat has turned, and is motoring into position beyond the sailboat, while Wei Ying frantically plays spoiler: “You’re drifting into my shot! Stay back, stay back” —

“I don’t know what I thought I was going to do. Apologize, maybe. Try to win her back. I was mostly jealous, I guess?” Luo Qingyang says. A close-up of her face right now could launch a thousand storylines, Lan Wangji thinks. “But then today I felt like I couldn’t lead you along and make you think I might like you. That’s why I was being kind of cold. Then I felt terrible about that, too. So don’t give me a rose at the end of the date, alright, and — ”

“Wait,” Lan Wangji says, struck by an idea. The plan adapts, reforms. If he can make Meng Yao happy without needing to feign romantic interest … “Would you like to stay? To try to do … whatever it is you thought might do? I could keep you around, and Wen Qing, as well. I am not … I am not interested in her, but it would not be a problem, to keep you both.”

“What do you get out of that?” she says, confused.

“I …” there isn’t time to explain, and no time to consider whether this idea is gold, or just gold-plated. Another wave lifts them, splashing against his mouth. The production boat is getting closer, despite Wei Ying’s best efforts. Lan Wangji can see someone hoisting a boom mic. “I need you to kiss me,” he says. “It will be fake — we just have to make it look real for the camera — ”

###

Dailies: Episode 3, One-on-One Date

(A shot of LAN WANGJI and LUO QINGYANG, swimming in the ocean. The shot rises and falls with the chop, and waves intermittently hide the two swimmers from view. The sound of wind, the flap of sails, the creak of the mast. Suddenly LAN WANGJI leans towards LUO QINGYANG, one hand rising to the back of her head, and pulls her in to a kiss.)

Offscreen voice: (almost inaudible) Oh, fuck

###

Dailies: Episode 3, Mansion

(A shot of the grand marble staircase in the mansion, which leads from the entryway up to a mezzanine where the bedrooms are. WANG LINGJIAO is standing halfway up the stairs, yelling at YINZHU and JINZHU, who are standing together at the top. A number of other suitors are watching from the bottom of the stairs.)

WLJ: (shrieking) … don’t lie to me, I know you took it! You’re just jealous, it won’t look good on you anyway! I should —

YINZHU: We didn’t take your ugly dress! You took one of our knives!

WLJ: Why would I want one of your knives?!? What am I going to do with a knife?
________

(A talking-head interview. XUE CHENGMEI, 33, extreme sports enthusiast.)

XCM: (grinning) It was fucking boring around here before they started arguing. And that dress was really ugly, anyway. Did you see it? Sequined cheetah print. Somebody was doing her a favour … if Lan Wangji saw her wearing that, she’d go home, for certain.

(He pulls a knife out of one pocket, inspects the edge, winks at the camera, and walks away, whistling.)
________

(A talking-head interview. XIAO XINGCHEN, 36, lawyer, and SONG ZICHEN, 38, physiotherapist.)

Offscreen voice: What’s your take on the suitors that are still here?

SZC: (agitated) If Lan Wangji keeps Xue Chengmei … then I don’t know what to say. A person who likes someone like Xue Chengmei couldn’t like someone like me. It’s that simple.

XXC: (smiling gently) Xue Chengmei doesn’t seem so bad to me, though? Maybe a little immature, but I think he’s just having fun. This morning he gave me a bunch of these lychee candies! (He brings a handful of candies out of one pocket and shows them to SONG ZICHEN). He says he snuck them in by sewing them into the lining of his luggage.

SZC: (closes his eyes, then glances despairingly at XIAO XINGCHEN, who doesn’t notice) Like I said … if he likes Xue Chengmei, he must not like me …

###

The date ends with a noisy helicopter ride back to Shanghai after midnight, and so it isn’t until the next day that Lan Wangji realizes that Wei Ying seems … different, somehow. Quiet, withdrawn. He doesn’t join Lan Wangji for tea, and only appears right before they’re due to start shooting.

“Just needed to go for a run, burn off some energy,” he mutters. Even his questions, during the day’s interviews, don’t have the their usual rambling charm.

There’s nothing Lan Wangji can do about it, though; the day is filled with a series of interviews and another sit-down with Nie Huaisang — “let’s talk about the hard part of being the Bachelor: making decisions you know are going to break hearts” — and then a long cocktail party and a rose ceremony, capped by the satisfying departure of Wang Lingjiao and Jin Zixun. When they return to the beach house afterwards, Lan Wangji wants nothing more than to sit with Wei Ying in the living room and tell him about the odd experience of pretending to kiss Luo Qingyang, the odd shame of it fighting with the thrill that it had worked, but in the time it takes him to change out of his tuxedo, Wei Ying disappears.

Lan Wangji searches most of the house before finally finding Wei Ying sitting in the dark on the rooftop patio.

“Hi,” Wei Ying says, softly, when he sees Lan Wangji coming up the spiral staircase. The rooftop patio is tiny — just two lounge chairs enclosed in a ring of raised flowerbeds — and Wei Ying is sprawled on one of the chairs, a bottle of huangjiu in one hand. There’s another bottle lying empty near his feet.

“Wei Ying …” he doesn’t know quite what to ask. “Are you alright?”

“Of course,” Wei Ying says, sounding almost sarcastic. Then he seems to catch himself, and gestures to the bottle. “It was just a long day, and I thought I’d have a drink before bed. The guys in security told me there are only two places outside the house that aren’t covered by their cameras, this patio and the hot spring, and so … Yeah. I’m alright.”

“Good. I am glad.” It is very clear that Wei Ying is not alright, and also that he would like Lan Wangji to depart the roof. But Lan Wangji doesn’t go; he wants to know what has hurt Wei Ying, what has tarnished his bright shine, muted the resounding clamour of his joy.

He sits down on the other lounger, instead.

Wei Ying drains the bottle and drops it with a clatter beside its empty fellow. “So,” he says, with a mirthless chuckle, “yesterday was good, huh, Lan Zhan? With Luo Qingyang. You like her, right?”

Suddenly Lan Wangji wonders if Wei Ying is jealous. He remembers, now, the bite in Wei Ying’s questions during the interviews at the end of the sailing date.

“That wasn’t real,” he says. “I wanted everyone to stop insisting that I kiss someone. And so she agreed, because … well, it is a long story — she agreed to do it so that people would leave me alone.”

“It was fake?” The shadowy patio has wrapped Wei Ying in a blanket of darkness, his face barely visible, but the edge is gone from his voice.

“Mn.”

“Oh! I thought … well …” Wei Ying’s laugh peals like a bell, no longer dampened, and now Lan Wangji is almost certain. Jealous. “I thought it was real. It looked real, Lan Zhan! I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you.”

“I was not certain, either. But it seemed the best way to avoid kissing for real.”

“Why don’t you want to, though?” Wei Ying asks. “Kiss people, I mean.”

“It’s not that simple. There are” — feelings, he wants to say, but the word is too big in his mouth — “ … circumstances … that make it difficult.”

He puts out one hand, tentative, and rests it on Wei Ying’s bare ankle. There is a choked breath, and then Wei Ying suddenly sits up and swivels towards Lan Wangji, so that they are knee-to-knee on the low chairs.

“Actually, it is pretty simple, really, Lan Zhan,” he says, in a passable attempt at a teasing tone. Underneath it, though, there’s a current of something else, something vulnerable, an animal showing its belly. His voice is shaking slightly. “You just sort of lean in, like this, and …”

Then their faces are inches apart and it is simple: Lan Wangji presses his lips gently against Wei Ying’s.

He holds the kiss for a moment, light as a summer breeze, and then begins to pull back, because they should talk about this —

And then Wei Ying bites down on Lan Wangji’s lower lip, and Lan Wangji forgets about talking, forgets about anything but frantically kissing into Wei Ying’s hungry mouth.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, breathless, when Lan Wangji pauses to try to find a better angle — their knees are knocking together and Lan Wangji is tilting precariously off the edge of the lounger when he tries to pull Wei Ying’s face closer, closer — “I thought you’d kiss sweetly, this is not sweet” —

“Do you want sweet?”

He buries one hand in Wei Ying’s soft hair and tugs, just a little. Wei Ying answers him with another sharp bite on his lip, then soothes the sting with the tip of his tongue.

Lan Wangji gives up on finding the right angle and hoists the other man onto his lap, so that they fall back together onto the lounger, Wei Ying’s knees cradling Lan Wangji’s ribs. He snakes a hand under Wei Ying’s shirt and scrapes nails down his back. In reply, Wei Ying groans and reaches one hand down to press against Lan Wangji’s silk pyjamas. The light pants do nothing to hide how hard he is, and less than nothing to stop the feeling of Wei Ying’s palm hot against his cock.

“Fuck, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying murmurs, against his lips. “You’re so hot. I want — did you know I wanted … that first day, on the terrace — and then in the pool I thought you must know — ” He rocks back a little, so that his ass presses down — “hnnnnghh,” Lan Wangji breathes, eloquently, buoyed by a wave of dizziness. All the blood in his head has gone straight to his cock.

Wei Ying laughs, softly. “You like that, er-gege?”

Lan Wangji rewards him for that — or punishes him, he doesn’t know which, can’t think over the rockslide of want tearing through him — by slowly biting and licking and kissing his way up from Wei Ying’s collarbone to the spot where jaw meets neck, his teeth sharp against the pulse point. Wei Ying goes limp in his arms and whimpers in Lan Wangji’s ear.

“Baobei, ah, I — sweetheart … Lan Zhan … er-gege — please —”

The crackle of a walkie-talkie cuts through the tangle of heartbeats and hard breath.

“… Just going to check the rooftop. There’s no coverage up there. I thought I heard — ”

They both freeze, and Wei Ying’s hand flies up to cover his own mouth, muffling his little gasping breaths. Heavy footfalls ring against the metal stairs that spiral up from the house below.

Shit.” Wei Ying scrambles up and over to the edge of the patio, and Lan Wangji’s hands, suddenly empty, reach out of their own accord, then fall back. He can’t breathe. He wants Wei Ying there, in his arms, to breathe with him.

“Lan-xiansheng?” the security guard says, coming onto the roof. “Is that you?”

A flashlight glances over Lan Wangji’s face, just long enough to confirm his identity, and then sweeps across to where Wei Ying is leaning against the balustrade. His posture is nonchalant, but when the light hits his face Lan Wangji can see the dangerous flush of his skin, the stinging red of his lips, his blown-out pupils.

“Turn out the light, please,” he snaps. “You’ll hurt his eyes.”

The security guard obeys, and then turns back to Lan Wangji. “Sorry, Lan-xiansheng, I didn’t know it was you and Wei-xiansheng up here. Meng-xiansheng told us — well, he said that there were some security concerns, that we should investigate anything unusual — ”

“Nothing unusual up here,” Wei Ying says. “Lan Wangji was just keeping me company for a few drinks after a long day.” He doesn’t sound flustered at all. Lan Wangji almost can’t believe it’s the same person who was just murmuring obscenities into his ear. Baobei — he likes that — and Lan Zhan, in that broken voice — and er-gege, oh god.

His cock twitches, at the memory.

“Right,” the security guard says, clearly relieved. “Great. I really didn’t want to have to write up another incident report, not after last time.”

“Well, glad there’s no need for that!” Wei Ying says. “Anyway” — an audible yawn, a stretch in star-backed silhouette — “I was just going to bed, so I’ll follow you down …”

###

Teaser — The Bachelor — 15-second spot

NHS: (voiceover) Next week on the The Bachelor

(A shot of XUE CHENGMEI, in a tuxedo, with a gash over one eye, grinning. He is restrained by two crew members, one on each arm. The Shanghai Grand Theatre is in the background.)

XCM: (leaning forward to whisper to the camera) It was worth it.

(A shot of NIE HUAISANG, host, in the living room of the mansion, standing in front of six of the suitors: XIAO XINGCHEN, WEN QING, LUO QINGYANG, SU MINSHAN, QIN SU, and MO XUANYU. They are all dressed in pyjamas, as if they were recently woken from sleep. LUO QINGYANG’s forearm and wrist are encased in a plaster cast.)

NHS: I wanted to come and tell you that the cocktail party and rose ceremony this week have both been cancelled —

(A hot of LAN WANGJI, sitting in the living room of the beach house, across from NIE HUAISANG.)

LWJ: (sappy smile) Both of the group dates were disasters, yes. But overall, I would say my journey is going quite well …

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Episode 5: In the Dark

The remaining suitors are told to pack up and prepare to depart the mansion: Lan Wangji has invited them to travel to the Huangshan mountain range, where they’ll spend the week enjoying the hospitality of the famous Cloud Recesses Resort and Spa.

During a one-on-one date exploring the canals of Suzhou, Lan Wangji remembers where he’s met Su Minshan before, and sends him home in tears. The group date takes four suitors to explore the depths of a mountain cave, and leads the Bachelor into a dark place.

Mo Xuanyu and Qin Su are then paired together on a two-on-one date to learn the art of longquan sword-making. The question of which sibling will receive the date rose and which one will go home receives an unexpected answer. At the rose ceremony in Cloud Recesses, Bicao is sent home.

The episode ends on a surprising note when Su Minshan returns to beg Lan Wangji for another chance — only to discover that Lan Wangji isn’t alone in his guest lodge at Cloud Recesses …

###

Dailies: Episode 5

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author. On the terrace at the beach house.)

Offscreen voice: So, you’re in the second half of your journey to love, Lan Zhan! Thoughts?

LWJ: It is strange to think of this journey as being half over. It will be odd, when it comes to an end. It is very different from my everyday life …

Offscreen voice: (a slight pause) Right! How do you feel about saying goodbye to the beach house and going on the road?

LWJ: I will miss the house, I think … (his ears go red) I have fond memories of things that happened while I was living here.

Offscreen voice: (trying to restrain laughter) Oh? Do you want to tell the camera more about that?

###

Dailies: Episode 5, Bachelor Family Interviews

(A shot of three generations of Lans, gathered in the tastefully-appointed living room of the Bachelor’s home in Shanghai: LAN QIREN, the Bachelor’s uncle; LAN XICHEN, the Bachelor’s brother; and LAN SIZHUI, the Bachelor’s son. They are watching a television displaying clips from the footage shot during the first three weeks. Both LAN XICHEN and LAN SIZHUI appear to be enjoying what they see, while LAN QIREN looks mildly disapproving.)

LSZ: (reacting to a shot from the stallion novel photoshoot date) Oh nooooo, I bet Baba hated that!

LQR: (muttering) … terrible television show. I told him not to do it.

Offscreen voice: There’s just one more clip, okay?

(The next clip to come onscreen is the staticky infrared security footage of two people playing in the beach house pool.)

LQR: (disapproving) This breaks at least four rules of pool safety. I expect better of Wangji.

LXC: (perplexed) I didn’t get the sense he was interested in any of the suitors when we were talking yesterday … who is that?

LSZ: (pleased) Oh boy! Baba’s in love!

###

The jeweller opens a wooden case and places it on the table. Nie Huaisang leans forward with interest, eyes alight.

“Ah! Is it just me, or do you have some new rings?” he says to the jeweller, while Lan Wangji examines the selection. To his eyes, the rings in the case look gaudy: too large, too sparkly, designed for a public display of love rather than a private pledge. Suitable, perhaps, considering the circumstances, but not to his tastes.

Of course, since Lan Wangji doesn’t intend to propose to any of his suitors, it hardly matters. When he’d tried to object to shooting the Bachelor’s traditional ring selection, though, Meng Yao had refused to cancel it.

“Everyone does it, even if they don’t think they’re going to propose at this point in the process,” he’d said. “If you don’t propose, we still get a nice shot of the ring looking forlorn beside the abandoned Final Rose. Plus, I can think of at least three Bachelorettes and two Bachelors who did propose after they said they weren’t going to at this point.”

And so, after returning from his “holiday” — two nights in his own home, no cameras, no dates, Meng Yao’s idea because with the cancellation of the rose ceremony there’s a gap in the schedule, so we’re giving you a little break, okay? — he’s been tasked with picking out a ring for a non-existent proposal and an imaginary suitor.

It is difficult to look down at the jeweller’s offensively shiny wares, though, when he can feel Wei Ying crouched a few feet away, his presence pulling at Lan Wangji like the magnetic north pole. They have not seen each other for two days, and Lan Wangji does not think two days have ever felt quite so long.

“Won’t I need to be filmed?” he’d said, when Meng Yao had told him about the scheduled break.

“Are you enjoying the limelight that much, Lan Wangji? No. This is a holiday! A reward for you. Relish it — the suitors have to stay in the mansion.”

“What will Wei Ying do?”

“Wei Wuxian? I’m sure he can find a way to entertain himself for two days!”

The result had been two days of furtive sexting, both of them trying to maintain a level of plausible deniability in their texts in case someone — Meng Yao or Lan Xichen, at Lan Wangji’s end, or Jiang Yanli at Wei Ying’s, as he’d taken the train up to Beijing to see his sister — happened to see some part of their text chain:

Wei Ying
I can’t sleep, Lan Zhan
the beds in the peacock’s hotel are too big

Lan Zhan
Would it help if you were to imagine someone lying next to you?

Wei Ying
yeah! it might
how do you think that person might help me get to sleep, if they were here?

Lan Zhan
Perhaps this person might give you a massage.

Wei Ying
good idea, Lan Zhan
maybe if you described it …

Lan Zhan
Picture their hands on your skin, covered in oil.
They would use light pressure at first,
and then they would press deeper.

Wei Ying
ok Lan Zhan that’s not making me sleepy
it is keeping me *up*

Lan Zhan
Do you wish me to stop?

Wei Ying
no! no, please keep going

“There are some excellent options,” Nie Huaisang says, into Lan Wangji’s stubborn silence. The host is meant to assist Lan Wangji in the selection process, although he does not see how Huaisang trying on various rings and admiring them as they twinkle on his own fingers is helpful.

“See? These are all very nice.” Huaisang holds his hands out to Lan Wangji to demonstrate, four flashing monstrosities on each one.

“They may look nice on you,” Lan Wangji says. “But I am not proposing to you.” He feels, rather than hears, Wei Ying’s soft chuckle, swallowed by a shift of his feet as he adjusts the angle of his shot.

“Oh? Who are you proposing to?”

“It is too early to say.”

“Ah, that’s right, Wangji-xiong!” The host plucks out a ring with a ruby on it and slides it onto his pinky finger. “You did say, when we first sat down together, that you were skeptical about falling in love so quickly.”

Sometimes it’s obvious, when Nie Huaisang speaks in front of the camera, that his words were written for him by someone else. “Mn.”

“And now? After the rose ceremony this week, you’ll be down to six suitors. Are you still skeptical about the possibility of finding love on this journey?”

“I am picking out a ring, as you see,” Lan Wangji replies, pleased with the adept side-step of this answer. If some part of his mind wants its own answer to the question, that is hardly a thought for here or now: not with a half-dozen people watching, cameras on. There will be time later to think about what name to give to what he’s doing with Wei Ying, beyond desire. He turns to the jeweller. “None of these are quite right, I think. Is this all that you have?”

The jeweller bustles over to the door and comes back with a smaller case. “For our customers who like a minimalist aesthetic, I often suggest they look at the wedding bands. It is not unheard of to use one for a proposal.”

When he flips open the case, Lan Wangji’s eyes settle on one pair of rings immediately: simple white-gold bands, each inscribed with a stylized cloud pattern. He reaches out and runs a finger along the first, and then along its matching mate.

“Ah, a very fine choice, Lan-xiansheng,” the jeweller says. “The cloud design on each pair we sell is unique.”

Nie Huaisang holds out his bedecked hands. “Do you want to see one on me?”

“No need,” Lan Wangji says. He is not certain why he wants them, since he doesn’t intend to put them to use. But if he has to pick something … “I will take them.”

###

Dailies: Episode 5, One-on-One Date

(A talking-head interview. SU MINSHAN, 36, audio engineer. In the background is a wide canal, dotted with boats and framed by mimosa trees and weeping willows.)

Offscreen voice: Are you going to tell him you knew him in high school?

SMS: (uncertain) I don’t know. If he doesn’t remember me, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to remind him …

Offscreen voice: You want my opinion? You probably need to do it if you want to stick around. He’s got a very strong connection with some of the other suitors, so you can’t miss an opportunity to make an impression …
________

(A shot of LAN WANGJI and SU MINSHAN on a canal boat, gliding toward the round arch of a stone bridge. Beyond the bridge, the canal is lined with traditional houses and decorated with hanging red lanterns. LAN WANGJI isn’t paying attention to SU MINSHAN, but is instead staring down into the water.)

SMS: (licks lips nervously) Lan Wangji?

LWJ: (turning towards him) Hm?

SMS: Do you … you don’t remember me, do you?

LWJ: (brow furrowing) Have we met before?

SMS: … at Shanghai High? Innovation class? And in Olympiad, although —

LWJ: (leaning forward, suddenly angry) Did you go by the name Su She in high school?
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author. He is now alone in the canal boat, travelling on jade waters that reflects the branching canopy above. The stone esplanade on either side of the canal is lined with little restaurants, each with its own thicket of green umbrellas.)

Offscreen voice: (delighted) Lan Zhan — do you hold onto your grudges?

LWJ: I would not describe it as a “grudge,” but I do not forgive easily. When I was in high school, there was a secret club organized by LGBTQ+ students. At the time it was necessary that it be kept secret — students only learned of it through word of mouth. I … I was invited to attend, a number of times. I never went, however, because I was afraid of what my family might say if they learned of it. I like to think that now, I would … (he shakes his head) It was not until some years later that my brother and I felt able to be open about our sexuality.

In any event, Su She — Su Minshan — received an invitation to one of the meetings. He attended, and afterwards went to the administration and revealed the identity of all the club members, as well as the the time and location of the next meeting. Parents were informed, and many of the students were removed from the school. And Su She was rewarded for his behaviour with a number of recommendations to prestigious universities.

And so. It is only a small thing, to send him home, but …

Offscreen voice: Why didn’t you tell him that was why you were sending him home?

LWJ: I did not wish to demean myself by speaking with him any further.

Offscreen voice: Remind me to never get on your bad side, Lan Zhan!

LWJ: (he smiles) You could not, Wei Ying.

###

In the end, the answer to the question of whether Lan Wangji is still skeptical of finding love on his journey comes easily, in the space of a moment on a boat on the canals of Tongli.

“Want a loquat, Lan Zhan?”

Meng Yao, down at the other end of the esplanade, has just yelled “alright, cut, we’ve got what we need,” and brought an end to the canal date, freeing Wei Ying to put down the camera and dig out a handful of golden fruit he has apparently been hiding in the pockets of his black cargo pants.

“Where did you get them?” Lan Wangji says, surprised. The season for loquats is six weeks past.

Wei Ying leans forward so that the boatman, who is rowing them down the long green channel that cuts through Tongli, can’t hear. “I went into the market this morning to see if I could find some! When you were getting your hair and makeup done before the date. Took me a bit, but they had these at one of the stalls. They might be a bit old” — he runs a dubious finger along the honeyed lemon skin — “but they’ll still taste alright, I think. They’re your favourite, right?”

Three weeks ago, Lan Wangji thinks. Three weeks ago, during that first interview on the terrace — at some point he’d said, in passing, oh, loquats are my favourite fruit. He hadn't really thought Wei Ying was listening, had never thought he would remember.

The boat slips from shade into the light. The sun on his back is warm silk.

“Yes,” he says, softly, “they are my favourite,” and then “I would like one, thank you.” When Wei Ying presses the soft weight of a loquat into his hand, there is a moment of perfect, suspended stillness: the diners chattering at the restaurants along the esplanade freeze; the wind on the water holds its trembling breath; the boatman halts in his efforts to bring them to the base of the stone steps at the edge of the canal.

“Hey,” Wei Ying murmurs, because he’s still there, still with him, bright eyes smiling, “you alright?”

His heart is beating too hard, for a man who is doing nothing more than sit in a boat. Nothing has happened — nothing is happening — but it turns out that the most important thing already happened, that day on the terrace, in the moment he locked eyes with Wei Ying. The only new thing is that now he knows it. Oh. “I — I am fine. Thank you.”

And then everything starts moving again.

“That was amazing,” Meng Yao enthuses, leaping into the boat from the steps. It rocks slightly in the water. “I can’t believe you threw the rose overboard. I thought I was going to ascend right then and there.”

Wei Ying shoves the remaining loquats back into his pocket and leans against the edge of the boat, beside Lan Wangji. His thumb slips under the bottom edge of Lan Wangji’s sweater and runs along the bare skin of his back.

“You know, Lan Wangji,” Meng Yao says, sitting down on the bench across from them, “I still think it’s too bad you’re not the type to fall in love in six weeks, but this is shaping up to be a great season.”

Six weeks? That would be easy, Lan Wangji thinks, dazed. It turns out he is capable of losing his heart in six seconds.

###

Dailies: Episode 5, Group Date

(A talking-head interview. WEN XU, 34, VP Creative, Wen Productions. He is seated just inside the entrance to a large cave, wearing caving gear: helmet, headlamp, boots.)

WX: … I didn’t expect to feel like this. Not so quickly. He’s everything I’ve always been looking for, without even knowing it … It’s scary, though. Because I’m falling in love with Lan Wangji, but I’m not the only suitor here …

Offscreen voice: Do you think —

WX: (annoyed) Shit. That wasn’t quite right. Maybe it’d play better if I seemed a bit more emotional? Let’s shoot it again, I’ll drop some tears at the end. And let’s get rid of this (he takes off the caving helmet), I track better with younger viewers when they can see my hair …
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author. In the trees near the mouth of a large cave, also in caving gear. He looks nervous, a little sweaty.)

Offscreen voice: Lan Zhan? Are you okay?

LWJ: I am fine. (clearly not) I will be fine.

Offscreen voice: (concerned) Are you claustrophobic?

LWJ: No … no. It is not that. When I was six I fell behind during a tour of one of the Lan family mines and became disoriented in the dark — (he swallows) I was not discovered until the next morning. Since then I have not particularly enjoyed underground spaces.

Offscreen voice: (sound of someone standing up) Okay, you’re not doing this, Lan Zhan. I’ll tell Meng Yao he can’t —

LWJ: No. It is fine, Wei Ying. He did not know — and the suitors cannot say no to a date — (determined) I will not have them made to do things they fear only to find I quit when things are difficult.

Offscreen voice: (soft) Alright. But when we’re in there, Lan Zhan — remember that I’m right beside you, okay? And if it gets dark — if you can’t see me — (a hand extends into the shot, holding something red) Here. Put this on your wrist. When you feel it you’ll know I’m still there …

(LAN WANGJI takes the item. It is a red hair elastic. He slides it onto his wrist.)

LWJ: (looking down at his wrist) Wei Ying … I …

Offscreen voice: (hasty) We’re still filming —

LWJ: Ah. Yes. Well … I suppose we should go and meet the suitors.
________

(A shot in the dark. A headlamp illuminates the top part of LAN WANGJI’s face and the walls of a narrow tunnel. There is a distant sound of echoing voices.)

Offscreen voice: — too far ahead. I think we should —

(LAN WANGJI lifts a hand to his head; the headlamp goes out. A surprised gasp, followed by a period of soft silence. Eventually the headlamp flicks back on.)

LWJ: (clearing his throat) Yes — we should go back this way. I am feeling better. This date has demonstrated to me that not everything about caves is terrible …

###

The morning of their third day at Cloud Recesses, Meng Yao knocks on the door of Lan Wangji’s guest lodge and sticks his head in without waiting for an answer. The fact that Meng Yao does not know the meaning of the word “privacy” is one of the reasons Lan Wangji is lying alone in the bed, having spent another two nights texting with Wei Ying (it is only sexting, he has decided, by the most charitable interpretation).

Wei Ying
how’s the bed in your room, Lan Zhan?
things in my room are very … hard

Lan Zhan
I find that I have a similar problem —
I am trying to find a position to alleviate the discomfort.
Could you recommend one? Your favourite position, perhaps …

The other reason for abstaining is that Meng Yao’s guest lodge is right next door. Lan Wangji had agreed with Wei Ying, somewhat reluctantly, that this meant it was probably too dangerous to attempt anything beyond a few stolen kisses. (“You like that idea, don’t you?” Wei Ying had murmured, laughing. “The thought that someone might be watching.” “I do not dislike it,” he’d admitted.)

“We’ve got someone who wants to talk with you on the phone,” Meng Yao says, leaning in further. “Are you dressed?”

The door swings wide and reveals a number of crew members, Wei Ying among them, waiting behind Meng Yao.

“I am in my pyjamas,” Lan Wangji says. Since this means that he is wearing a navy silk button-up top, he nods for them to enter. While Meng Yao quickly set-dresses the bedside table with some books (Lan Wangji’s own, he notices, minorly appalled at the implied narcissism), Wei Ying comes over and sits down on the edge of the bed, camera on his shoulder.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, they’ve given you the deluxe lodge,” Wei Ying says, bouncing a little on the bed. Meng Yao adjusts the curtains to let the morning light spill in, while another crew member clips a mic onto Lan Wangji. “This bed is soft compared to the one in my room!”

“Is it?” Lan Wangji says, raising an eyebrow. “I found it uncomfortably hard last night.”

“You want me to complain about the mattress?” Meng Yao says, done with his set-up. “We can get you a different one.”

“Who is the phone call from?” he says, rather than answer.

“You’ll see. You ready?”

He nods, and Wei Ying lifts the camera. Meng Yao places a cell phone on the bed, dials a number and sets it to speaker.

“Wangji?” an irate voice says.

Ah.

“Uncle,” he acknowledges.

Lan Qiren hadn’t made an appearance during Lan Wangji’s brief return home, but Xichen had mentioned that he’d been invited to a family session to watch some of the footage filmed during the first three weeks. Lan Wangji can think of a long list of things he has done as the Bachelor that his uncle might wish to criticize — the stallion date alone broke four of Lan Qiren’s Rules for a Respectable Life, a list which had been drilled into Lan Wangji as a teenager until he knew it by heart. Once, he would have minded the thought of breaking one of the rules; but since realizing that his adoption of Sizhui would break two — do not make decisions rooted in strong emotion and follow the wisdom of your elders, as Lan Qiren had not been in favour of the adoption — Lan Wangji has done his best to repress his knee-jerk instinct to abide by them.

Lan Qiren does immediately launch into a complaint, but its object is an unexpected one.

“I was aware when you made the regrettable decision to do this that the ultimate goal was to enter into a romantic relationship,” he says. “However, I comforted myself with the thought that, as a reasonable person with a well-developed sense of propriety, you would be unlikely to form any strong emotional attachments.”

Meng Yao, watching from the end of the bed, is rubbing his hands together in apparent glee. (Lan Wangji has long suspected that Meng Yao fantasizes about the prospect of introducing suitors to Lan Qiren during the “meet the family” segment of the final episode.)

“We spoke of this prior to the start of the shoot, Uncle.” One finger absently strokes the red elastic that still rings his wrist.

“Indeed. And I thought you agreed with me, Wangji. But then they showed me that footage.”

“Which footage would that be?” Perhaps the kiss — kissing someone while swimming in the ocean breaks Rule 67, no intemperate displays of affection in public

“The pool footage!” Lan Qiren sputters.

Lan Wangji almost says “but that was not with a suitor,” and in his flustered attempt to settle on a proper reaction he only manages, “I did not expect them to show you that.”

“They did. And I am reliably informed, by both your brother and your son, that it is evidence that your affections are strongly engaged.”

“Well. Perhaps I am less reasonable than either of us might have expected,” he says, cold. Lan Wangji has no desire to reveal the depth of his feelings for Wei Ying in the middle of a phone call with his uncle — he has yet to figure out when would be the right time, or if saying I love you so quickly will scare Wei Ying off — but he will not lie to placate Lan Qiren. As usual, Wei Ying’s reaction to all this is hidden by the camera. “If that is all you called to say, Uncle —”

“I called to remind you to heed the lessons of your father’s life,” Lan Qiren says. “You may think that you are doing no more than following your heart — that plunging headlong into some whirlwind romance cannot harm you. But the mistake of a moment can haunt you for a lifetime. You have seen that, Wangji. Tell me you know that. Tell me that when you choose a life partner, you will choose someone more suitable than he did.”

Lan Wangji cannot remember the first time he heard his uncle call his mother an unsuitable choice, as a bride for a Lan; it predates conscious memory. He had never taken it as an edict on the qualities of a future partner, though. Instead, he had spent his childhood forming himself in that image, buttoning away any unsuitable behaviours or thoughts of his own. Thirty years — maybe more — spent bending himself against the iron rod of it, the need to be suitable. Appropriate. Respectable.

He thinks of the day he came out to Xichen, and received the same confession in return; of bringing Sizhui home, watching him blossom into a happy child; of inking the contract for his first book, and realizing that he could earn a living by pursuing the things that fascinated him. There have been bright moments, free from the crush of his family’s expectations. But there have been too many grey days in the catalogue of years, where he might have been hearing his father’s voice, on his deathbed: You cannot want too much, Wangji. The world won’t let you have it. Years spent locking out the world, to avoid being infected by all the chaos that life might let in. But now he is here, and Wei Ying is in the world — Wei Ying, who makes him feel alive and interesting and messy, who makes him want things, makes him want too much and believe he might have it — and so cutting off the world is no longer an option.

“Thank you for the advice, Uncle,” he says, voice rimed with hoarfrost. “But I will not be guided by you or your expectations. I will let my heart choose.”

“That is a mistake, Wangji — ”

He leans forward and hangs up the call.

###

Dailies: Episode 5, Two-on-One Date

(A talking-head interview. QIN SU, 32, preschool teacher. Behind her is the courtyard in the middle of a stone building; the sound of hammers against hot iron rings out from inside. She is holding a sword in both hands, as if displaying it to the camera.)

Offscreen voice: Did you say leaving?

QS: (determined) Yes. I’m leaving now. They won’t notice for another fifteen minutes — they think I’m filming interviews.

Offscreen voice: Why leave?

QS: Because I think Lan Wangji might give me the rose.

Offscreen voice: You don’t want the rose?

QS: (wistful) It’s not that I would say no … but Xuanyu wants it more. And I know he’ll try to make the sacrifice for me, because that’s just who he is. He thinks about what everyone else wants before he thinks about himself, you know? And so I thought … (smile) I’ll just beat him to it. (She carefully puts the sword down, and walks out of the shot.)

###

Dailies: Episode 5

(The seven remaining suitors are relaxing in the cold springs at Cloud Recesses Resort and Spa: WEN QING, XIAO XINGCHEN, SONG ZICHEN, MO XUANYU, WEN XU, BICAO, and LUO QINGYANG, who has her injured arm propped up on the ledge, out of the water. A number of conversations are happening at once, although WEN XU is lying back in the water with his eyes closed, ignoring everyone else. The camera focuses in on MO XUANYU and WEN QING, at one end of the spring.)

MXY: (to WEN QING, agitated) … because we didn’t grow up together, you know? But she’s still my sister — and so I —

WQ: Hey. She did a nice thing for you. You can be upset about it, or you can be grateful, and I know which one I would pick.

MXY: (calming down) Yeah. Okay. Yeah. (looking for a distraction) You’ve got a brother, right?

WQ: Yeah. He’s eight years younger. I’d do anything for him.

MXY: Even throw away your shot with Lan Wangji?

WQ: (laughs) Oh, easy, I don’t — (catching herself) Yeah. Definitely.

MXY: (not noticing) Do you live with your brother?

WQ: Not anymore. He’s in Wuhan, graduated last year with a zoology degree. (enthused) He’s going to be an ornithologist, he’s been interested in endangered bird populations since he was a kid —

(The camera zooms out, already bored of the bird talk. SONG ZICHEN is talking to LUO QINGYANG.)

SZC: I could give you some tips on rehabbing your wrist later, if you want.

LQY: Would you? That would be great.

XXC: (leaning over and joining the conversation) It must be disappointing to miss out on all the dates this week because of that. (he gestures at her wrist)

LQY: It’s alright. It’s been a restful few days, actually.

BICAO: You’re not worried you’ll lose your connection with Lan Wangji?

XXC: (smiling) I don’t think she needs to worry about that! She’s the only one he’s kissed.

BICAO: But only once —

WQ: (stops talking about her brother’s interest in the white-eared night heron in order to to interject) Twice, actually.

XXC: (delighted) Twice?!? When was the second time?

(SONG ZICHEN glances over at him, surprised by XIAO XINGCHEN’s evident pleasure in LUO QINGYANG’s success with the Bachelor. Among the suitors in the spring, only MO XUANYU and BICAO seem upset by news of this second kiss.)

WQ: At the hospital. When he came to give her the group date rose.

(LUO QINGYANG wrinkles her nose, but says nothing.)

BICAO: So if I want a kiss I need to get injured?

(Nobody bothers to reply to this. A stretch of silence).

BICAO: (to SONG ZICHEN) What was the deal with that Xue Chengmei guy? Why’d he attack you?

SZC: He didn’t — (cuts himself off, stands up) It’s a long story. I’m going to go get ready for the rose ceremony now …

###

“What about Meng Yao?” Wei Ying says, hands fumbling at the buttons on Lan Wangji’s tuxedo shirt. Lan Wangji has already pulled Wei Ying’s t-shirt off in the gaps between frantic kisses, discarding it on the floor of his room alongside his tuxedo jacket and umbrella. He slides a hand across Wei Ying’s bare chest, drags a thumb hard along his collarbone.

“He took the production van down the mountain right after the rose ceremony.” His pants drop to the floor, and he tugs Wei Ying urgently toward the bed. The other man follows, grinning, jeans sliding down his hips.

“And you don’t want to spend another night texting with me about how firm your mattress is? Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, here I thought you were enjoying our little conversations” —

Lan Wangji shuts him up by sliding two fingers into Wei Ying’s open mouth. This elicits a very satisfying groan from Wei Ying, but then his lips close, sucking Lan Wangji’s fingers in, and Lan Wangji has to pull them out, breathless. He has plans for tonight, plans that mean he cannot have his brain short out — not yet — just from the feeling of Wei Ying’s tongue between his fingers.

“I will enjoy making you just as uncomfortably hard as I have been every night this week,” he says, pushing Wei Ying onto the bed and spreading his legs with one knee.

“Already there, baobei,” Wei Ying says, and when Lan Wangji pulls his boxers down the evidence of this springs, flushed and pink, up against his stomach.

Lan Wangji manages to strip his own underwear off without taking his eyes off Wei Ying, sprawled back on the bed. Wei Ying naked is so much hotter than in Lan Wangji’s imagination, which had already set the bar incredibly high. “Wei Ying,” he says, serious, “you’re gorgeous.”

This wrings a low laugh from Wei Ying, reaching up for him. “You’re one to talk.”

When Lan Wangji’s phone starts to ring, in the pocket of the abandoned tuxedo pants, he is tempted to throw it out the window. Or maybe smash it with the lamp stand — that would keep it quiet —

“Should you get that?” Wei Ying says, on the second ring. He lets go of Lan Wangji’s shoulders.

“No, I should not,” Lan Wangji says, but Wei Ying is already sitting up.

“I’m not going anywhere, Lan Zhan. What if it’s Sizhui? An emergency?”

Truly, very few people call him, and even less would call late on a Thursday evening. “Alright,” he mutters. “Do not move. I will be one minute. Less. Do not move.”

The call display says Brother.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, as soon as he picks up. “I’m so sorry about Uncle. He has just told me that he called you — that he called the production — and attempted to lecture you about your romantic choices … I swear I didn’t know he was intending to do it, or I would have stopped him.”

“It is fine. I did not listen to him, in any event. Uncle’s opinions about my love life are of no moment to me.” He tries to ignore the fact that he is speaking to his brother while fully naked.

“The point stands. He shouldn’t have done it. But I’m glad you weren’t upset.”

“Thank you, I was not,” he says, preparing to hang up. When he turns back towards the bed, though, Wei Ying has curled his knees up to his chest, and something in his eyes suggests the urgent mood of a moment before has shattered. When this is all over, Lan Wangji thinks, he is going to find a very private place — maybe he will rent out an entire hotel, because what is money for if not for this? or perhaps they’ll go to Antarctica, that seems sufficiently inaccessible — and then they won’t surface for a week. Two.

“Wangji?”

“Mn?” The phone is still at his ear. The wind and rain outside have picked up; the rush of water over the roof lends the room the feeling of a boat in a storm.

“Who is it? The person you like. I thought … somehow I thought you weren’t going to choose anyone.”

“I … I cannot tell you, brother. Not yet. I will tell you in a few weeks. I have to go.”

When he hangs up and sits down on the bed, Wei Ying doesn’t reach for him. He doesn’t flinch back when Lan Wangji runs a hand down his bare calf, either, but it’s almost as if he doesn’t feel it — like he’s wearing steel plate, rather than skin.

“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji tries, sorry all over again to have picked up the phone. The other man’s eyes, when they meet his, are lightyears away.

“Lan Zhan … what did your uncle mean, when he said you should pick someone more suitable?”

“It is not a happy story,” he says, with another soft stroke down Wei Ying’s leg. He can see how, from the other side, the conversation on the phone two days ago might have been disconcerting. “Are you certain you want to hear it right now?”

Wei Ying just nods. Lan Wangji is tempted to put his underwear back on, but then decides that there is something right about telling this story while stripped bare.

“My mother …” he says. “My mother was an escort. A very popular one — in high demand with her clients, I have heard. She was very beautiful. My father met her by chance — she was accompanying a business associate of his, at a dinner. I have been told that he fell in love at first sight. She … I do not know if it was the same, for her. But I believe — hope — she must have loved him, at some point, because she did agree to marry him. In any event, it was a huge scandal. She was quite well known, and he was a Lan.”

He pauses, remembering the hissing innuendoes from the older Lan cousins when he’d been too young to really understand. Uncle had been polite, if chilly, to her, but the other Lan elders would stand, bow, and leave the room whenever she came in. “The family wouldn’t have anything to do with her, even after Xichen and I were born. And my father … he shut down. He abandoned his role in the family business, and went into … a form of seclusion, you might call it. Uncle took over the running of the business. My mother became very isolated. But she wanted us to be Lans, and so she sent us to spend most of our time with my uncle. And then she died, when I was twelve, of cancer.”

“Do you think,” Wei Ying says, then stops. Starts again. He puts a hand on Lan Wangji’s knee, and then takes it away, quickly. Lan Wangji has never spoken of this history with anyone other than Xichen; he recognizes that, from the outside, it must seem rather strange. “Do you think it would have been better if he’d never married her? Or if he’d divorced her?”

“It was not in his nature to divorce, once he had committed. As for marriage … they found very little happiness, together. So, yes, I suppose so. I do not think my father would have refused to marry even if he had known how it would turn out, but if my mother had said no …” He pauses, and reaches out a hand. Wei Ying takes it, and presses their palms together. “But I have come to realize that my uncle is wrong, when he says that my father made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong person. My father’s mistake was not in loving my mother, but — ”

Somebody knocks, gently, on the door.

“Shit,” Wei Ying says, rising to his knees, “oh, shit” —

And then the door opens.

###

Dailies: Episode 5, Post-Rose Ceremony

(A close-up shot of SU MINSHAN in the backseat of a van, being driven through the dark. It seems to be a bumpy, uphill ride. A gentle patter of rain against the van windows. )

Offscreen voice: Alright. What are you going to say, when you see him?

SU MINSHAN: Um. I think maybe there was a misunderstanding during our date? And so I’ve come to ask you whether —

Offscreen voice: Boring! I didn’t bring you back to be boring. Beg him! Plead! Show him all the passion he’s missing out on by sending you home!
________

(A shot of SU MINSHAN, carrying a white umbrella, walking up the path at Cloud Recesses at night. The rain is coming down heavily. His face is illuminated by a spotlight. NIE HUAISANG, host, can briefly be seen in the background of the shot, but he steps out of view. The offscreen conversation that follows is rendered partly inaudible by the sound of the rain. )

NHS: (offscreen) Yao-xiong, shouldn’t we warn him before we arrive?

Offscreen voice: (inaudible) … better if it’s a surprise. I think he might refuse, otherwise. And it’s fine, he’ll just be lying in bed reading or something … (inaudible) wears pyjamas …

NHS: What if (inaudible) … I think (inaudible)

Offscreen voice: … (laughs) thought that too for a while, but my room’s right next to Lan Wangji’s and I’ve dropped by a few times the last couple nights and he’s been alone. Just doing something on his phone. (louder) Has anyone tracked down Wei Wuxian?

Second offscreen voice: He wasn’t in his room.

NHS: (dubious) I don’t know, Yao-xiong, are you sure

Offscreen voice: Look, A-Sang, I know what you’re seeing, I’m seeing the same thing, but I’m telling you, they aren’t (inaudible) … essentially gave them permission so if they’re not (inaudible) … can’t imagine Lan Wangji carrying on a torrid secret affair, anyway. (to someone else) Bingwen! You’re on reaction shots for the Bachelor, okay?

(In the shot, SU MINSHAN has reached the door to one of the Cloud Recesses guest lodges. The porch is protected from the rain by the overhanging edge of the roof; he closes the umbrella and puts it down. Another cameraman comes into the shot and crouches beside the door. The camera zooms in, to focus on the door. SU MINSHAN knocks, timidly.)

Offscreen voice: Just open it!

(Reluctantly, SU MINSHAN reaches for the door and pulls it open. When he looks inside, he falls back, looking horrified; he stumbles into the rain and out of the shot).

SU MINSHAN: (offscreen) Oh god, I — they —

(MENG YAO, a producer, enters the shot and peers inside the guest lodge.)

MY: (surprised) Fuck me, I was so certain they weren’t …

Camera operator: (offscreen) Should I keep filming?
________

(A wide shot of the same scene. At the edge of the shot is SU MINSHAN, rejected suitor, trying to huddle under the same umbrella as NIE HUAISANG, host, and a number of other crew members. Because it is dark and wet, with no film lighting set up, the footage that follows is somewhat difficult to see. The sound of rain pervades all the audio.)

MY: … Yeah. Keep filming.

NHS: (protesting) Yao-xiong …

MY: (exiting the porch and and walking towards NIE HUAISANG and the crew) It’s all part of the story, Huaisang … (to the crew generally) Somebody get legal on the phone — I need a new, stronger NDA for Su Minshan — two NDAs. Airtight. Huge penalties if he breaches. Tell them we can put him on Bachelor in Paradise, if that helps —

(WEI WUXIAN, the Bachelor’s cameraman, dressed in a dark t-shirt and jeans, darts out the open door of the guest lodge and runs into the night. A moment later, LAN WANGJI comes out, wearing nothing but an unbuttoned white tuxedo shirt over boxers. He is attempting to pull on a pair of black pants.)

LWJ: (yelling) Wei Ying! Wait!

(As soon as struggles into his pants, LAN WANGJI jumps off the porch, barefoot. The camera follows, the shot unsteady, as he runs down the dark, wet path.)

MY: (offscreen) All cameras on the Bachelor, keep the mics close —

(Someone is attempting to light LAN WANGJI’s progress, but is only intermittently successful. The camera does manage to capture the relief on his face when he sees WEI WUXIAN, who has paused under the overhang outside the building that houses the Cloud Recesses Resort and Spa reception. The light leaking out from inside the building is not strong enough to show the expressions on WEI WUXIAN’s face. He seems to be doing something on his phone. )

LWJ: (coming to a stop a few feet away from him, still in the rain; the white tuxedo shirt is soaked through and his hair is plastered to his head) Wei Ying — there is no problem — I will quit —

WWX: (looking up from his phone, sharp) And why would you do that, Lan Wangji?

LWJ: (soft, almost drowned out by the rain) Because I love you —

WWX: (continuing, as though LAN WANGJI hasn’t spoken) What did you think we were doing? What did you think this was?

###

Teaser — The Bachelor — 15-second spot

NHS: (voiceover) Next time on The Bachelor, Lan Wangji is faced with a decision …

(A shot of LAN WANGJI, watching a man walk away from him. His face is despairing. The shot then cuts to LAN WANGJI, sitting with his brother, LAN XICHEN, at a low table in one of the Cloud Recesses guest lodges. It is mid-day; the sun through the window is bright. LAN WANGJI’s jaw is clenched and he is not meeting his brother’s gaze).

LWJ: There is no problem, brother. I will continue on my journey …

NHS: (voiceover) … and confronts a familiar face from last season.

(A shot of a man wearing a lavender-coloured suit, lit by the setting sun, clearly enraged.)

JC: What will it take for you to leave my family alone?

Chapter Text

Episode 6: Journey’s End?

A shocking revelation leads to the departure of a member of the crew and a crisis for Lan Wangji. Following a heart-to-heart with his brother, Lan Wangji reaffirms his commitment to completing his journey, and takes Wen Xu on a restorative date to Xianning Hot Springs. While Wen Xu worries that Lan Wangji seems distant, he still receives a rose.

After a group date to learn wushu at its birthplace in the Wudang Mountains, Lan Wangji takes Xiao Xingchen and a very nervous Song Zichen on a two-on-one date to the world’s highest bungee jump, at the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge. While both men take the plunge, at the end of the date it’s Xiao Xingchen who heads home.

The remaining suitors travel to the Lotus Pier Resort on Liangzi Lake, but find themselves waiting when Lan Wangji doesn’t appear for the lakeside rose ceremony. Meanwhile, Lan Wangji is confronted by the last person he expects to see …

###

Dailies: Episode 5, Post-Rose Ceremony

(A tight shot of LAN WANGJI, at night, in the rain. Looking at someone offscreen. He is barefoot and soaking, but doesn’t seem to notice.)

LWJ: Wei Ying — there is no problem — I will quit —

Offscreen voice: And why would you do that, Lan Wangji?

LWJ: (soft, almost drowned out by the rain) Because I love you —

Offscreen voice: (overlapping) What did you think we were doing? What did you think this was?

LWJ: (strangled) I thought — I thought you —

Offscreen voice: (muffled, as if moving away from the microphones) Meng Yao! I want to talk to you. Privately.

(The shot pulls back until WEI WUXIAN, the Bachelor’s cameraman, and MENG YAO, producer, are both visible. MENG YAO shrugs and gestures for WEI WUXIAN to enter the building with him. Once they are gone, LAN WANGJI tilts his head back and lets the rain pour over his face.)

###

Ten minutes tick by, then fifteen, twenty. Lan Wangji doesn’t take his eyes off the door to the office where Wei Ying and Meng Yao have retreated, even as someone helps him into a dry shirt, towels off his hair, and forces him into one of the chairs in the Cloud Recesses lobby. The damp chill doesn’t retreat once he is dry, though; it seems to have leached into his bones, taken up residence along with the echoes of Wei Ying’s words: What did you think we were doing?

I thought —

“Have some tea,” someone says.

“No.” The insistent fingers on his shoulder don’t go away, though. The person steps between Lan Wangji and the closed door.

“Have some tea,” Nie Huaisang repeats, gently, and holds out a delicate cup filled with steaming liquid. “It’ll help.”

It won’t, he thinks, but takes the cup anyway. The tea tastes like ashes and iron; it takes a moment for Lan Wangji to realize there is blood on the rim of the cup, from where he’s chewed his lip open.

“I’m sorry, Wangji-xiong,” Huaisang says, sitting down. “I wasn’t sure … well, I thought … Anyway. I tried to tell Yao-xiong that he should warn you before he came in, but he thought — well, I don’t know what he thought. He was wrong, I guess.”

The room is blanketed in a grey fog; the host’s aimless chatter disperses into it, freeing Lan Wangji’s mind to circle, over and over again, through those moments in the dark: What did you think this was?

A love story.

A foolish thought. How many times has he begun a relationship only to find that the other person wants him, but doesn’t want anything more, doesn’t really care who he is? Why had he thought this would be different? You cannot want too much, Lan Wangji. The world won’t let you have it.

When the door finally opens, Meng Yao comes out first, muttering under his breath, and then Wei Ying, still wet, hunched in on himself. Lan Wangji finds he’s on his feet —

“Wei Ying,” he says, helpless. And then, in case the rain drowned him out, the first time: “I love you.”

Their eyes meet, and for a moment Lan Wangji thinks he sees an answering light in Wei Ying’s. It’s a spark buried under the weight of night; the first few pale rays of dawn, visible only as a break in the endless dark. Wei Ying hesitates, takes one step towards Lan Wangji — and then the light snuffs out. He shakes his head, turns, and walks out into the rain.

“Ah, so … for what it’s worth, I’m sorry about all that,” Meng Yao says, guiding Lan Wangji over to the chairs. He doesn’t resist; he’s beyond caring what he looks like, what he does. “I actually didn’t mean for any of it to happen. I mean, Su Minshan surprising you was on purpose, but not him catching you with your cameraman — that was an accident. God, if I’d known, though … it would have been great television.”

“It still can be,” Lan Wangji says, flat. Why shouldn’t his humiliation air for the world to see? Isn’t that what he signed up for? The cameras can take his heartbreak and pin it down, like a dead butterfly to a board.

Meng Yao shakes his head. “He wouldn’t consent to appear on the show, no matter what I offered him. I mean, we’ve already got his consent to incidental appearances as part of the job function in the contract, but this … we’d need something more. Which means we can’t air any part of tonight, not without some seriously creative editing.” He sounds rueful. “Lucky you.”

“Tell me what he said,” Lan Wangji grates out. “About … what we were doing.”

“He said he thought he was helping you relax — just doing his job, you know, charming the shy animal — but that he took it too far. Then he said he wasn’t suited for the job, and quit.”

Lan Wangji remembers saying — weeks ago, now — I will need to find some way to unbend, to loosen up, or …

And Wei Ying, answering: Don’t worry about that, Lan Zhan. Making you comfortable’s my job, okay?

“Seriously. I am sorry. I really wouldn’t have gone through with it, if I’d known. I’d have picked another time …”

“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Lan Wangji says. It is not that he wants to confide in Meng Yao, particularly, but a trebuchet is pounding this thought into his skull and leaving a throbbing headache in its wake. Perhaps, if he says it out loud, it will lose its ammunition. “It was my fault — my fault for thinking that someone might actually like me, or that this was anything more than a job to him …”

Meng Yao hisses, as if stung. “Okay. Yeah, that’s not …” He shakes his head, then leans over and pats Lan Wangji, awkwardly, on the knee. “Are you going to be alright?”

It’s a genuine question, not a producer’s platitude. There’s something like kindness on his lips, like sympathy in his eyes. It’s this — only this, Meng Yao’s pity — that finally breaks Lan Wangji.

###

Dailies: Episode 6

(A shot of LAN WANGJI weeping, seated in the lobby of the Cloud Recesses Resort and Spa. He tries to turn away from the camera, to cover his face with his hands. After a few seconds —)

Offscreen voice: (gently) Alright, that’s enough, turn it off. We can’t use the footage anyway —

(The shot goes black.)
________

(LAN WANGJI and his brother, LAN XICHEN, are sitting at a low table in one of the Cloud Recesses guest lodges. The table is filled with plates of food, and both men have tea in front of them. The sun through the window behind them is bright. LAN WANGJI is not looking at his brother; he seems absorbed in his teacup. The cuff of his white sweater reveals a hint of something red around his wrist.)

LXC: … and I know this isn’t what A-Yao wants me to say, didi, but … you don’t have to do this.

LWJ: (still not looking at him) Why would I stop? There is no impediment to my continuing.

LXC: (sighs) It’s me, Wangji. You don’t have to hide things from me. I saw … well. I don’t know what happened, exactly? I don’t know what you’re feeling right now. But if it were me — if I felt a connection with someone and it … (he attempts to find words to describe what happened, gives up) didn’t work out, I would not want to spend the next few weeks filming a dating show.

LWJ: (puts down the teacup) There was nothing there. I misunderstood. Apparently there was nothing there … He never … (he stops; his hands clench his knees, hard, then slowly release, as if he has gained control over his emotions) There is no problem, brother. I will continue on my journey …

###

“ … supposed to know he’d fall for his cameraman? I thought maybe they were hooking up, at most, and then I thought I was wrong about that, too,” Meng Yao says. “I’m not heartless, gege.” He and Xichen are carrying on an argument in the pleasant-but-strained voices of adults who do not wish to be seen fighting in front of a child, while Lan Wangji sits slumped in a chair in the corner of his room. His posture is very bad, right now. He finds he does not particularly care.

Lan Xichen sighs. “I know, A-Yao! I'm not calling you heartless. I know this is your job. But …”

“I didn’t even make him film a follow-up with Su Minshan! I just ditched that entire storyline for him. Anyway, even if I had known about his feelings, what was I supposed to do about it?”

“I am right here,” Lan Wangji points out. “I can hear you.”

They both swivel to look at him, and then turn away, as if he is not, in fact, sitting right there. The entire morning has gone like that: Xichen acting as if Lan Wangji is a bird with a broken wing, and Meng Yao tiptoeing around him as if afraid of setting off another round of tears. Either way, the outcome is the same; they have mostly ignored him.

“What would you have done if Wangji had come to you and said, I’m falling in love with someone else?”

“I’d have let him out of the contract! I can’t make the show if he’s not a willing participant, you know.”

If he had quit after they kissed — or after the night in the pool — if he’d just come to Meng Yao and said, “I can’t do this …”

But it wouldn’t have mattered, would it? Because it hadn’t meant anything, anyway. There’s no need for that, Wei Ying had said, and You don’t have to quit because of this. Because of us.

Lan Wangji closes his eyes and lets the darkness wash over him. When he opens them — a sleepless night having exacted its toll — Xichen and Meng Yao are gone, and the room is as dark as the space under his eyelids. He feels for the red elastic on his wrist. And if it gets dark — if you can’t see me — when you feel it, you’ll know I’m still there. Touching it gives him a strange jolt, a sort of vertigo: the contrast between the presence of the elastic and the absence of Wei Ying. That had been a lie, then.

He is not angry at Wei Ying, though. He is not certain he could be, in all honesty. Xichen had been: he’d only stopped ranting when Lan Wangji announced that he would refuse to speak to him if he continued. Wei Ying hadn’t done anything wrong, he’d pointed out, in a dull voice.

“He hurt you,” Lan Xichen had said.

“I did that to myself.” Lan Wangji was the one who’d plunged in too deep, sunk down too far to be pulled back. Gone in unguarded, unthinking.

The elastic rubs against his wrist, gentle. He thinks he should probably take it off, but when he tries, his fingers slip away, tired. All of him is very tired.

The door opens and Meng Yao slips back in. “You awake?”

“Mn.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” With the lights out, he’s nothing more than a voice. He doesn’t sound upset; Lan Wangji has a vague, sleep-addled memory of Xichen and Meng Yao parting with a kiss, of Xichen murmuring, Maybe the filming will distract him. “I was serious, when I said you didn’t have to. You can just leave, no hard feelings. We’ll figure something out.”

“What would be the point?” he says. He hadn’t left when Wei Ying was here; now that Wei Ying is gone, what reason does he have not to trudge onwards, to complete what he’d agreed to do? The boring Bachelor — no, the respectable Bachelor, the appropriate and suitable Bachelor — can end his story the way he always should have expected: alone.

###

Dailies: Episode 6, One-on-One Date

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author. A very large hot spring is visible in the background.)

Offscreen voice: So it seemed like you and Wen Xu had a real connection on this date. Thoughts?

LWJ: (fiddling with the red hair elastic on his wrist) I believe you are mistaken. Wen Xu had a very strong connection with the cameras on this date.

Offscreen voice: (sighs) If you’re going to do this, Lan Wangji, you can’t half-ass it. Say one nice thing about him, okay? One thing is enough. I can build a storyline around one nice thing.

LWJ: (very clearly fake) I had a wonderful time with Wen Xu today. Every time I see him I am surprised at how he oozes charm.

Offscreen voice: (exasperated) I know you’re a better actor than that. You’ve been acting for weeks now —

(LAN WANGJI stands, rips off his mic pack, and stomps away from the camera.)

Offscreen voice: (to himself) Seriously? A tantrum? (louder) Come back here!

###

Dailies: Episode 6

(A shot of LAN WANGJI sitting on the bed in a nondescript hotel room, somewhere in Hubei. His phone, on speaker, is lying on the bed in front of him.)

LSZ: (voice coming from the phone) … wanted to call and say hi, because Uncle Xichen said he’d seen you.

LWJ: He visited, yes.

LSZ: (uncertain) Baba? Can I give you some advice? (LAN WANGJI makes a noise of assent) I just wanted to say that if somebody doesn’t like you … that’s not about you, okay?

LWJ: (pinching the bridge of his nose; his voice wavers, then steadies) Thank you. That is good advice.

LSZ: And you know I love you, right, Baba?

LWJ: Mn. I love you as well.

LSZ: Okay. That’s all I wanted to say! (someone talking in the background, indecipherable) Oh! Jingyi says to tell you that he thinks you’re really cool. So if anybody there thought you weren’t cool enough, or anything like that, they’re wrong.

LWJ: Please thank Jingyi for the thought.

###

Lan Wangji had thought it would be simple, to continue with the filming; that he could be numb. Anesthetized, even. Hadn’t he done that often enough, in his life, moving through it without letting any of it touch him? And he had been pretending — acting, as Meng Yao would have it — before; this is nothing more than a variation on the same theme.

But he had not reckoned with the constant, clawing reminders of Wei Ying’s absence, tearing at the raw spot in the centre of him until it bleeds.

On the first date, when Lan Wangji sinks into the hot water, his mind travels inexorably to Wei Ying in the hot spring at the beach house. And from there to that night in the pool: to the pleasure Lan Wangji had felt in playing, in how Wei Ying had made him comfortable enough to just … be. To laugh and splash and chase after joy for no more reason than to feel it.

“Tell me about your family,” Wen Xu says, stretching in the water so the camera can see his flexing pectorals. “What should I expect, when I meet them?”

“Do you think you will?” Lan Wangji asks, not bothering with fake pleasantries.

Wen Xu gives him a flat stare from an angle the camera can’t see, then shifts back to a public smile. “I hope so!”

And again, as Lan Wangji describes his family in dutiful terms, he is haunted by a memory of Wei Ying, of the other man pressing against him and complimenting every one of the hundreds of pictures of Sizhui Lan Wangji has saved on his phone. Haunted by the thought of drinking da hong pao on the terrace, talking about their brothers.

After the date, he drinks bad hotel tea to burn the taste of memory from his mouth.

Even worse than the date, though, is the presence of his new cameraman, Yao Zhiqiang (“still sounds strange after twenty years of Zack Yao,” he says, when Meng Yao introduces him), a jocular man in his mid-50s who never stops talking about his two decades working in American reality television. As the production van carts them around Hubei, Lan Wangji is forced to listen to a lecture on how the stars of something called The Real Housewives of Orange County could teach Lan Wangji a whole lot about how to make a good scene on television.

“That outburst? Just walking out of the interview? That was tame,” Yao Zhiqiang says. “Next time you should try throwing something.”

“That will not be necessary. I am not here to create drama.”

“Of course you are!” the man says, horribly confident. “This is a dating show.”

The stories Wei Ying told him while they huddled together in the van crowd back, tangible, until Lan Wangji is buried in them. He closes his eyes and puts his head against the window, but there is no escape in sleep, either. His fitful dreams are filled with Wei Ying — smiling, putting a hand to his cheek, leaning close.

In his dreams, Wei Ying doesn’t leave. He hates waking from them.

###

Dailies: Episode 6, Group Date

(The courtyard of a mountaintop wushu academy, red buildings nestled into the rising rock slope above. The three suitors — MO XUANYU, WEN QING, and LUO QINGYANG — are sitting together near a stone staircase. The camera comes closer, focusing on them. After four weeks under constant watch, they either don’t notice or don’t care that their conversation is being filmed.)

MXY: (upset) What do you think’s going on with him? (he gestures vaguely offscreen) He’s so different today. I haven’t seen him smile once.

WQ: I mean … he’s normally a bit of a chilly guy? (at a glance from MO XUANYU) Fine, I know what you mean. This is like he’s been buried in ice for a thousand years.

MXY: Qingyang, you must know —

LQY: (uncomfortable) Why would I know any more than you two? I probably know less, since I’ve spent all morning sitting off to one side and watching (she gestures at her injured wrist) while you two have been learning how to kick with him.

MXY: But you’re obviously closest to him. And I saw him talking to you earlier —

LQY: Oh, that … he was just (she shakes her head) … introducing his new cameraman.

WQ: Speaking of — what happened to Wei Wuxian?

(LUO QINGYANG hesitates, then doesn’t say anything.)

MXY: I don’t know. He and Lan Wangji seemed close …

###

The sweat on his back and the sun on his face are a mercy. Lan Wangji narrows himself down to the wushu forms, sliding between stances until he finds a space where the ceaseless thrum of memory is momentarily silent. Then, out of the corner of one eye, he catches sight of Mo Xuanyu, and feels his heart jump. The resemblance from behind is almost enough to fool him. Wei Ying — is that you —

But of course it’s not.

During a pause in the instruction, Lan Wangji forces himself to walk over to where Luo Qingyang is sitting, back against the wall of the courtyard. He sits down, too, leaning against the warm stone.

“I know this must be boring for you,” he says, oddly conscious, in a strange, double-vision way, of Yao Zhiqiang and the camera watching them. With Wei Ying it had felt like someone watching over him, protective. This feels intrusive, nosy, even if the man seems well-intentioned. But there is no choice but to speak on camera, now, which is exactly why he has approached Luo Qingyang.

She smiles, a little wan. “It’s kind of fun to watch. I’m sorry I can’t participate, though.”

“That is not your fault. I am sorry so many of the dates are not accommodating of your injury.”

When Yao Zhiqiang presses closer, from an angle that Lan Wangji suspects is meant to foreshorten the distance between Bachelor and suitor, Luo Qingyang flicks the cameraman an irritated glance.

“Where’s Wei Wuxian?”

Lan Wangji can feel his mask slip, a little, and can see when Luo Qingyang sees it, too.

“Ah — forget I asked, okay?” she says. “I don’t … I’m sorry I asked.”

“Do not apologize,” Lan Wangji says, regaining control. He has many years of practice at this: he can be distant, polite, without effort. “This is Yao Zhiqiang, my new camera operator. I understand he is very experienced. I wanted to introduce him, and tell you that going forward it will not be so simple to … interact, as we did in the hospital room.”

It is hard not to hear the prickle of jealousy in Wei Ying’s voice, after Lan Wangji had kissed Luo Qingyang in the ocean, and from there the heat of baobei, of er-gege. And then Wei Ying had been so eager to help him fake another kiss with Luo Qingyang, turning easily against the show’s best interests. But the current of hope that runs through Lan Wangji’s thoughts is dangerous, he knows that; he has already combed over the details of all his interactions with Wei Ying, trying to identify a moment — any moment — where he should have seen what was coming. The first kiss on the rooftop, Wei Ying in his arms on the piano bench, voice breaking on sweetheart — and then another kiss, in the dark, so gentle and giving that Lan Wangji had thought he could crawl into the world’s deepest cavern if he found that embrace at the bottom of it.

But when he had given in to that hope, and tried to text Wei Ying — Could we talk, Wei Ying? Not on camera — all that came back from the void was this message was successfully sent but rejected by the receiver.

“Yeah,” Luo Qingyang says, thoughtful. The wushu masters have begun to assemble in the centre of the courtyard again. “I’ve started to think that was all a bad idea, anyway.”

“You no longer wish to … apologize? To someone?”

“It’s not that,” she says, shaking her head. He can see her eyes go to Wen Qing, across the courtyard. “It’s just that … I’ve realized that I came here because I was afraid — of articulating my feelings, or apologizing, or hearing her tell me that none of it was enough, that it was really over. So instead I lied to myself. Told myself I was doing enough by coming on the show, when really I was just avoiding the fact that I needed to be honest. And this — what you and I were doing — is the opposite of that.”

“Mn. Do you intend to be honest now?”

She nods. “Yeah. I’m going to try. Thank you for trying to help, though. I hope you … well. I hope that you get what you want.”

Lan Wangji cannot not get what he wants. What he wants is gone.

###

Dailies: Episode 6, Two-on-One Date

(A shot of SONG ZICHEN, in full bungee-jumping gear, standing on a platform attached to the underside of a glass-bottomed bridge. The bottom of the green gorge that surrounds the bridge is so distant as to be invisible. SONG ZICHEN is clearly unhappy. A number of crew members are talking to him, trying to convince him to do the jump. LAN WANGJI is standing nearby, also geared up to jump.)

LWJ: (to someone offscreen) I will not make him go with me —

Offscreen voice: He has to jump, it’s in the contract —

(XIAO XINGCHEN, also in bungee-jumping gear, steps into the shot. He puts his hands in SONG ZICHEN’s.)

XXC: It won’t be that bad! It’s only thirty seconds — you can just close your eyes …

SZC: (desperate) I’ll only do it if you do it with me.

XXC: (surprised) Me?
________

(A shot from a head-mounted camera. XIAO XINGCHEN’s face is visible in close-up, plunging at high speeds into the depths of the gorge. Both he and another person are shrieking, although XIAO XINGCHEN’s shriek seems excited, not scared. They reach the bottom, recoil, and drop again. After a few iterations of this, they are left hanging at the bottom of the bungee cord.)

XXC: (cheerful) There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

(No response, other than some rather fast breathing.)

XXC: (curious) Why did you want to go down with me instead of Lan Wangji?

SZC: (offscreen, with the sort of delirious honesty that comes after an extreme adrenaline rush) Don’t you already know? I thought … I thought I’d been obvious.

XXC: (uncertain) You like me?

SZC: … Yes.

XXC: Oh! Weird. I mean, not weird that you like me! But I just thought (the bungee cord begins to retract, so that they are slowly being towed upward as they speak)… well, there was all that unresolved sexual tension, that “hate you so much I want to fuck you” energy … I thought you liked Xue Chengmei, honestly.

SZC: … (reluctantly) I do.

XXC: (as if this explains a lot of things) Ohhh!

SZC: I didn’t figure it out until I was punching him in the face. But … yeah. (embarrassed) Him too.

XXC: (suddenly extremely interested) Oh really?

###

The wind screams past his ears, the green bottom of the gorge rising up like a fist. Lan Wangji flinches, waiting for the strike —

Then the cord catches, recoils. He is left bouncing upside-down in mid-air, tears leaking down his forehead. Crying, but not from the jump; from the song that played in his head as he fell, the descending triads that had given voice to his feelings for Wei Ying before he had words for them.

For a moment, suspended, Lan Wangji permits himself the indulgence of closing his eyes and imagining that Wei Ying is clinging to him at the end of the cord, laughing. (Wei Ying had laughed so often, even when there were no cameras around, when there was no reason to pretend he found Lan Wangji funny.)

“I wanted to make you laugh, Wei Ying,” he whispers, to the imaginary Wei Ying in his arms. If they had done the jump together Wei Ying would have laughed the whole way down, and kissed him at the bottom. “That was new, you know … and I wanted you to really know me. That was new, too.” It had been exhilarating, like the first sip of a new tea, the first sentence of a new book: a sense of infinite space opening up before him. Lan Wangji had never about what love might do to him, how it might make him and unmake him, unravel him and weave something new. “I liked who I was with you,” he says. “That part of it was real. I want you, but also … I want to feel that again.”

Well what are you still doing here, then, Lan Zhan? the spectre of Wei Ying says, poking him in the ribs. This is no place to be real.

Then the cord begins to tow them back up.

###

Dailies: Episode 6, Two-on-One Date

(A shot of LAN WANGJI standing on the edge of the bungee jump platform, geared up to jump. He leans back and plunges off the platform, cord unspooling as he goes. The camera tracks his silent arc into the depths of the gorge, until he’s no more than a speck against the green. When the jump is complete, he is towed back up onto the platform and placed on his feet again. He looks over at someone offscreen.)

LWJ: (tearful) I can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t.

Offscreen voice: You already did it, buddy! You just jumped! Got it on camera and everything.

MY: (offscreen, muttering) That’s not what he means, you fool …

###

Dailies: Episode 6, Rose Ceremony

(NIE HUAISANG, host, is standing on a boardwalk that stretches out into Liangzi Lake. The sun is low in the sky, but still fully visible. Beside him are four long-stemmed red roses lying on a stand. The five remaining suitors are sitting on the boardwalk, looking variously bored (SONG ZICHEN and WEN QING); nervous (LUO QINGYANG and MO XUANYU); or annoyed (WEN XU). A crew member comes into the shot and whispers to NIE HUAISANG for a minute, then leaves.)

NHS: (unconvincing) It won’t be too much longer, everyone — Lan Wangji’s just getting ready to join us …
________

(The same scene, but the sun has sunk most of the way below the horizon. WEN QING has just walked into the shot, having apparently left the boardwalk for some period of time. She sits back down, and LUO QINGYANG comes over to join her. The camera closes in.)

LQY: Everything okay? I heard them say your brother was calling …

WQ: He’s fine. He just had some information about the show he wanted to pass on to me.

LQY: (surprised) About the show?

WQ: (hesitates, then begins to speak, a little defensive) Look, maybe this is none of my business, but I don’t want to see you get hurt, okay? So I think you should know that Lan Wangji probably — well, I think he’s involved with someone else. Or was, at least. Not a suitor.

LQY: Yeah. Uh … (glances at the camera, then shrugs, as if making a decision) I know.

WQ: What? But you two —

LQY: That was fake. I told him I wasn’t here for him, he said he’d keep you and me on the show, and in return I helped him fake a couple kisses. He didn’t actually say so — I mean, it’s pretty hard to say anything with all this (gestures at the camera), but — I assumed he wanted to cover for whatever he had going on with Wei Wuxian.

WQ: Okay, thank you, I thought there was something there even before — (stops, frowns) Wait. Keep you and me on the show? Why? Why are you here?

LQY: (she takes a deep breath; the camera has been zooming in as the conversation goes on, so it is now a tight shot on the two women, backed by the red flame of the sunset) I came here for you. (Rushing on before WEN QING can say anything) I fucked up, I know, and I don’t expect you to forgive me, okay? But I wanted to come here to apologize. I mean, I also came because I was jealous — I hated that you were moving on so quickly, even though I knew it was my fault —

And so I applied to come on the show. But then I felt bad for faking and so I had to tell Lan Wangji, but he said he’d keep you on too, and so … (at a loss for words)

WQ: Mianmian …

(Whatever she is about to say is cut off.)

NHS: (offscreen) Ah! Here comes the Bachelor! I did say he’d arrive any minute …

###

“The end of a bungee cord is no place to make life decisions,” Meng Yao says, briskly, after Lan Wangji is towed back up and announces he can no longer continue as the Bachelor. “We’ve got a flight to Liangzi Lake to catch, we’ll sit down in your room at Lotus Pier —”

“Lotus Pier?” Lan Wangji says, sharp.

“Yeah, I worked out a promotional deal with the Jiangs after Jiang Yanli won last season. It’s beautiful, you’ll like it. Anyway, we can talk about this later, okay? We’ve got a rose ceremony tonight, we’ll just get that over with — oh, yeah. That reminds me, you need to give out a rose before we go. Xiao Xingchen or Song Zichen?”

“Flip a coin. Or ask them to choose,” Lan Wangji says, with a shrug.

When they arrive at Lotus Pier — apparently he has kept Song Zichen; Lan Wangji doesn’t ask how the decision was made — Meng Yao shows him to a guest suite built over the waters of Liangzi Lake, accessible only by a long boardwalk that stretches back to shore. Yao Zhiqiang goes in first, but Lan Wangji manages to slip in and lock the door in Meng Yao’s face before the producer can react.

“Lan Wangji! What are you doing?” he snaps, from the other side of the door.

“You are right, the end of a bungee cord is not a good place to think. Too much blood rushing to the brain. And so I will think in here.”

“You can think with me in there, too.”

“Your presence is inimicable to thought.”

He leaves Meng Yao pounding angrily on the door and goes inside the suite. It is opulent, with two airy wings embracing a finger of lotus-pink water that extends off the lake. The heady scent of lotus feels familiar, from Wei Ying’s stories.

Yao Zhiqiang is already sitting on the boardwalk that rings the water’s edge, crunching on a handful of peanuts. The camera is on a tripod, red recording light flashing.

“You do not have to film me right now,” Lan Wangji says. He’s still mic’d up from the date. “I will be very boring.” He wants to think about what he might say to the suitors; it seems important, to be as honest as possible, to make up for the lies that have come before.

“Meng-xiansheng told me to film everything,” Yao Zhiqiang shrugs, cracking open another peanut. “So I’m filming everything. Who’s the guy in the boat?”

When Lan Wangji turns around, a man in a wooden rowboat has pulled into the slip of water between the arms of the suite, carving a path through the lotus. Lan Wangji recognizes him immediately, from Wei Ying’s pictures, but even without that there is a marked family resemblance to Jiang Yanli: the same high cheekbones, narrow pointed chin. Jiang Cheng is dressed in a high-end, lightweight lavender suit; Lan Wangji can almost hear Wei Ying laughing. We always call Jin Zixuan a peacock, but Jiang Cheng gives him a run for his money. He hates my clothes, Lan Zhan, he tries to throw them out sometimes. Says that it’s no wonder I have no self-respect, when I dress the way I do.

The boat bumps against the boardwalk and Jiang Cheng leaps out. “So,” he says, with a sneer so strong Lan Wangji thinks it might be able to power the electrical grid, “you’re the asshole, then? The one who thinks he can use my brother and then, when it gets kind of embarrassing, drop him and go right back to the other poor fools who think they want to date you?”

“I did not — ” But Jiang Cheng runs right over this weak interjection, a tiger over a house cat.

“You know, I thought Zixuan was bad? But he’d been poisoned against A-Li by our parents pushing the match, so at least he had an excuse. You, though — you don’t have any of that. You just came in and saw, what? That he was soft? That he’d been hurt before? That it would be easy, that you could have him eating out of the palm of your hand in minutes, and you wouldn’t need to promise him anything for it? God, you know — I think he was half in love with you before he even met you. He never shut up about your fucking books. People aren’t like their writing, Wei Wuxian, I told him, and he’d say But what if he is?”

He pauses for a moment, and Lan Wangji manages to say, breathless — half in love with you — “That is not what happened.” Yao Zhiqiang, who has shouldered the camera and moved to stand between them, gives Lan Wangji a thumbs up. This, he finds, is an unexpectedly welcome gesture of support.

“Yeah? Could have fooled me. He came rolling in here five nights ago all red-eyed and crying and yelling at me to leave him alone — and, look, I hate it when he gets in that mopey-ass mood, but he’s my brother, okay? And then just when I’d finally got him to admit that there’d been some sort of fucking scandal — they caught you two fucking on camera, is that it? — he found out you lot were booked to come here and ran off again. And now he’s got my phone blocked and it’s just going to be fifteen years ago all over again. So fuck you, with your pissy little ‘that’s not what happened.’”

“Are you done?” Lan Wangji is both angry — he is not used to being yelled at or called an asshole — and sad, because Wei Ying was crying. And then also hopeful, maybe, because Wei Ying was crying over him.

“Yeah. You going to try to defend yourself?”

“No. I am going to tell you what happened. I did not ‘drop him,’ as you put it. He left me. I told him I loved him, and he left.”

All of the anger leaks out of Jiang Cheng, like the air hissing out of a balloon that’s been stuck with a pin. “Fuck. Really? That’s …” he shakes his head. “Typical Wei Wuxian. He’s always been good at running away. You really fell in love with him?”

Lan Wangji nods.

“Well, that was a mistake,” Jiang Cheng says, with a shrug, as if this is an incontrovertible fact.

You can’t say things like that, Lan Zhan … Sometimes it takes a while to see the mistakes you’re making for what they really are.

“It was not,” he says, an echo. “It was not a mistake.”

“Whatever. Why are you still play-acting as the fucking Bachelor if you’re in love with my brother?” He sounds both genuinely curious and maybe a little mad, still. Which, Lan Wangji can admit, is probably fair.

That was the mistake,” he says. And then, because it seems suddenly urgent to know why Wei Ying is so good at running away, he adds, “Tell me why he runs away, please. Tell me what happened fifteen years ago.”

Jiang Cheng drops to the boardwalk, careless of his beautiful suit, and Lan Wangji sits down beside him.

“He’s been running away all his life,” he mutters. “A-Li says he’s afraid of being a burden, or an obligation, whatever the fuck that means. I guess he thinks he’s going to screw up people’s lives. Like people can’t do that for themselves just fine, god … Anyway, whenever he dates someone he always fucks off before it gets serious. One time I asked him why and he said, It’s better to go before they have a chance to tell me to leave. Or before they’re too tangled up in it to get rid of me.

“Ah,” Lan Wangji breathes. He remembers his uncle, saying the mistake of a moment can haunt you for a lifetime, and Wei Ying curling in on himself when he’d asked about Lan Wangji’s parents. Remembers Wei Ying speaking of his own family, saying It turns out you can live with choices you regret for a long time … they did it because they couldn’t stomach people knowing they’d broken their word. “And fifteen years ago?”

“He ran away from us. My parents were having some relationship issues — they separated for a bit, almost got a divorce. And Wei Wuxian got it in his head that it was because of him, that the rumours — did he tell you that there were rumours that my dad’s really his biological dad?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head.

“He doesn’t talk about it much. Anyway, I guess he thought it would help if he disappeared for a while. We didn’t hear from him for three fucking years. I thought he was dead, honestly. A-Li finally found him holed up at a film school outside Yichang — he’d put a student film up on the Internet, some documentary about the Battle of Xiaoting. When she told him our parents had patched things up, he started talking to us again, but there are still times when he just … drifts away, I guess. Keeps his distance.”

“Thank you for telling me. It explains a lot.” He feels lighter and heavier all at once, struck by the impossibility of telling Wei Ying that he is not a mistake — that he could never be a mistake to Lan Wangji — when Wei Ying doesn’t want to hear it.

“There’s no explanation for Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says, rolling his eyes, but he seems more relaxed, now. He reaches into the breast pocket of his blazer and pulls out a flask. “Want a drink?”

###

Dailies: Episode 6

(A shot of LAN WANGJI and JIANG CHENG, General Manager of Lotus Pier Resort, on the lotus-lined boardwalk outside a guest suite. JIANG CHENG takes a long drink from a flask, and then offers it to LAN WANGJI, who shakes his head.)

JC: What are you going to do now?

LWJ: What I should have done weeks ago, I suppose — tell the truth.
________

(A talking-head interview. JIANG CHENG, 34, General Manager of Lotus Pier Resort. The stars over Liangzi Lake are his backdrop.)

Offscreen voice: So you’ve been involved with the show twice, now. Would you ever consider being the Bachelor?

(JIANG CHENG lets out an incredulous bark of laughter. Realizes the interviewer isn’t joking.)

JC: You’re serious? Fuck no. Absolutely fucking not, never in a million years. I mean, that guy — Lan Wangji — it turns out he’s probably okay. And Zixuan — well, look, I’ve never been a fan, but he’s doing right by A-Li now. But the show? That’s a pile of toxic garbage. If it looks like a dumpster fire, and smells like a dumpster fire, it’s —

Offscreen voice: (hasty) Right. I get it.

###

Teaser — The Bachelor — 15-second spot

NHS: (voiceover) Next week on The Bachelor, a confession …

(A shot of LAN WANGJI, facing the remaining suitors on the boardwalk at Lotus Pier.)

LWJ: I will no longer stand here and lie to all of you, just to pay lip service to my obligations.

NHS: (voiceover) And a final twist on the Bachelor’s journey to love.

(A shot of NIE HUAISANG, leading LAN WANGJI down a boardwalk at sunset. NIE HUAISANG presses something into LAN WANGJI’s hand.)

NHS: I think you might need this …

Chapter Text

Episode 7: The Bachelor Says Goodbye

Lan Wangji arrives late to his own rose ceremony and makes a bombshell announcement: he won’t be offering a rose to any of his remaining suitors. After giving an emotional speech, the Bachelor visits with each of the suitors to say a personal goodbye.

The suitors all reflect on their own time on the show, with some finding that the journey has brought them to unexpected destinations. Luo Qingyang and Wen Qing reckon with the possibility of a future together, while Song Zichen receives some surprising visitors and makes Bachelor history. Wen Xu expresses his frustration with the obstacles on the path to finding love.

With four of the goodbyes complete, the show’s host, Nie Huaisang, leads Lan Wangji down to the lake at sunset. At the end of the pier, his final suitor is waiting …

###

Dailies: Episode 6, Rose Ceremony

(LAN WANGJI stands in front of his final five suitors, who are gathered on a boardwalk that stretches out into Liangzi Lake. Rather than his usual rose ceremony tuxedo, he is wearing the linen slacks and sweater he had on during the bungee jumping date. The sun has just dipped below the horizon; the sky, swimming in crimson and pink, is twinned in the serene waters of the lake below. LAN WANGJI begins to speak with uncharacteristic hesitation, stepping from word to word as if searching for a path through the tangle of his thoughts.)

LWJ: I am not going to give out any roses tonight.

(Mutters and gasps from the suitors.)

LWJ: I have realized, today, that I should have quit my role as the Bachelor weeks ago. Everything I have done since … (he thinks for a moment) almost the very beginning, has been dishonest — fake. I told myself that it was for the best, and that there was no harm in it — and (he glances over at the suitors) perhaps, for many of you, it was true that there was no real harm.

But that is not an excuse. And so I wanted to come here tonight and … explain, I suppose, why I did what I did, and why I have changed my mind now, when we are so close to the end.

(Another pause; he turns away for a moment, touches the four long-stemmed roses lying on the stand behind him, then turns back.) All my life, I have worked to live up to the world’s expectations for me, to be the person I believed that duty and my family required me to be. Over time, I became … (he thinks about the metaphor) a rock, of sorts. I thought an impenetrable exterior would keep my real self safe, protect me from the world. I thought — I was convinced that I was doing so because it was proper, but perhaps … one of you said something to me, a few days ago, that I have been thinking about … (he flicks a glance at LUO QINGYANG)

The truth is that I was afraid. Afraid of what love might do to me, of how it might hurt me. There were reasons for this, perhaps, but … (he trails off, and starts again)

But then I came to film this show, and I met someone. I fell in love.

And it was as if he was a chisel — a hammer — and it only took one blow to break through … (he wipes at his eyes) It feels like I have been cracked open by love, and laid bare.

(Long pause, but all of the suitors are silent, listening.)

I do not know if he loves me in return. (He chokes back some heavy emotion, stiffens himself) But … even if he does not … I will no longer stand here and lie to all of you, just to pay lip service to my obligations. I am still afraid — I am not sure that will ever go away — but I do not want to close myself back up again and retreat from the world.

Continuing with this show to the end would be the easy path. It is the path I would have taken, in the past. But in doing so I would be failing myself, forgetting a duty I owe to myself and to my heart. (A long pause where he looks out over the water; the light has dimmed enough that it isn’t clear if he’s crying or not. Finally he pulls himself together and turns back to the suitors and gives them a low bow.) I apologize for taking you all so far on a futile journey. I hope you can forgive me.

###

After he finishes the speech, Lan Wangji takes off his mic pack, puts it down beside the roses, and goes back to the guest suite. Nobody — not even Yao Zhiqiang — tries to follow him; it’s almost as if his announcement has, in fact, transformed him from the Bachelor, Lan Wangji back into plain old Lan Wangji.

He wonders idly if Meng Yao will come to drag him out of the guest suite (“This suite is only for the Bachelor, and you’re not the Bachelor, are you?”), but that doesn’t happen. Nothing happens, actually, except that Lan Wangji takes off his socks and rolls up his pants so that he can sit on the boardwalk with his feet in the dark water. It’s still warm from the heat of the day; the lotus roots sway softly against his calves. Each of the flowers has curled in on itself, protective; he knows they only open for the sun.

“I heard your speech,” a voice says, from the water. A few splashes, and then the boat bumps against the boardwalk again. “I rowed over and hid in the reeds and listened.”

“And?” The moonlight shows Jiang Cheng in the boat, now wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

“And I hope Wei Wuxian gets to hear it, someday. Sometimes I think he’s got it in his head that what he does doesn’t matter to anyone, because he thinks he doesn’t really matter … but you stood up there and said …” Jiang Cheng pauses, and then snorts. “Well, I don’t really know exactly what you said, but it seemed really thoughtful. And like it might shut up that part of Wei Wuxian that’s always convinced that he’s the only one who’s going to get hurt by the shit he pulls, because he’s too disposable for anyone to really mourn the loss of him.”

The tone of Jiang Cheng’s voice suggests a personal acquaintance with this feeling. It also suggests that questions on the topic would be quite unwelcome, so Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. “Anyway,” Jiang Cheng continues, “maybe he’ll see it when it airs on TV, or something.”

“I hope to tell him myself.”

“You’re going to look for him, then?”

Jiang Yanli had found Wei Ying, once, when he’d run away; Lan Wangji thinks he can be as dogged, in searching, if only to tell him that he deserves to be loved. Even if Wei Ying doesn’t want his love, Lan Wangji still wants to tell him that. “Mn. I hope it does not take another three years to find him, but I will wait, if necessary. I would wait longer.”

“Ugh, don’t tell me you’re the romantic type,” Jiang Cheng says. Lan Wangji can almost hear his eyes rolling. “But … uh. Yeah. I think you might actually be good for him, so if you want some help, let me know.”

“Thank you. The offer is appreciated.”

“No problem.” He pauses, and then adds, uncertain, “I actually came to ask if you wanted to come out for a row. Wei Wuxian loves the lake at night, so I thought … I thought you might like it, too.”

Lan Wangji swings his legs over the edge of the boat and climbs in. He is not sure why he is doing it; five weeks ago, he would have politely declined an invitation to go boating with a near-stranger. Maybe that’s reason enough. Jiang Cheng uses an oar to push them away from the boardwalk, then begins rowing, with strong, steady strokes that carry them out into the lake. The wood of the boat scratches against the bottoms of Lan Wangji’s bare feet, the gunwale curving around him like an embrace.

“So. You’ll just forgive him, then, when you find him?” Jiang Cheng asks, as he pulls.

“Mn.” His feelings for Wei Ying are, in some ways, terrifying. Too large to encompass, to control. If Wei Ying does feel something for him, Lan Wangji can understand why, in the chaos of that night at Cloud Recesses, he might have felt the need to run. Why he might have given in to the instinct towards self-preservation. “Didn’t you?”

There’s a slight hesitation, and then, drily: “It took a while.”

“Do you still have the flask?” He had refused to partake, earlier, but something about the surreal dark of the lake, punctured only by the moon and clouds of lightning bugs, leaves Lan Wangji wanting to feel unmoored. As if he’s gone out past all known navigation markers, off the edge of the map, to a place where he’ll have to forge a new route. Alcohol seems like it might help with that.

“Yeah.” Jiang Cheng passes it over, and Lan Wangji takes in a gulp of something that tastes vaguely like the bottom of an old campfire. It’s not pleasant, and then, after a minute, it is. He takes one sip, then another. Jiang Cheng has shipped the oars, so that the boat bobs, gently, on the water. The lights of the resort are strung out along the shore like a constellation.

“Why’d you go on the show?” Jiang Cheng asks, after a stretch of companionable silence. “You don’t really strike me as the type.”

“My brother talked me into it.” The cool metal of the flask beneath his fingers feels nice. Grounding. “He likes the show. Also, he is dating Meng Yao, and Meng Yao was desperate to find someone to replace the man who was supposed to do it.”

“Your brother’s dating Meng Yao?” Jiang Cheng says, dubious. “Really?”

“I said something similar when they started dating,” Lan Wangji admits. “But he is not so bad. I will not stand up and object at their wedding, at very least.”

Jiang Cheng huffs a laugh. “A real testament to his character.”

“Wei Ying told me” — Lan Wangji pauses, for a polite hiccup — “that you have been single for a while now?”

“Did he? That fucker. Give me the flask.”

He passes it back. “By choice?”

“Fuck! What is this, an interrogation on my relationship status?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. He had some other reason for asking, he is certain, but it takes a minute for him to chase the thought, which is lazily swimming away from him, just out of reach. When he looks up at the sky, the newborn moon is a sleepy curve against the cheek of the distant hills. “Oh! I remember, now. You were very helpful, earlier today. You gave me hope. And so I thought that if I could help you, in some way …”

“Do not suggest that I should be the next Bachelor. Seriously. Do not.

“A ridiculous suggestion,” Lan Wangji says. “I would never.”

“And I’m doing fine, whatever Wei Wuxian wants to say about it, okay? If I’m going to meet someone, it’s going to be in some normal, everyday way, that doesn’t involve cameras and roses and whatever other shit this has attached to it. A chance meeting. A coincidence. A friend of a friend, you know? And it’ll be someone who’s too low-key to ever want to pursue romance on television.”

“Mn. Very smart.” The flask reappears, and he upends it over his mouth, but only a few burning drops come out. Lan Wangji drags a hand in the water and considers the multiplying stars, the double span of the Silver River arcing through the sky. “I think I may be quite drunk.”

Jiang Cheng laughs and picks up the oars again. “Great. Time to get you back before someone decides I’ve taken you out here to drown you.”

“Oh.” Another hiccup. “I did not think of that. You are not intending to throw me overboard, are you? You were very angry earlier.”

“Of course not.” A pause, and the boat surges ahead, gliding over the water. “It’d be terrible for the resort’s reputation.”

“You are not half as bad as Wei Ying made you out to be,” Lan Wangji says, eyes drifting closed. Jiang Cheng seems quite nice, in fact, now that he is not yelling and is instead lulling Lan Wangji to sleep with the sound of the oars shushing into the water. “If I am ever lucky enough to get married to Wei Ying, I hope you are his best man. I would like that very much.”

“God, you really are a sap, aren’t you? I should have known. Only a sap could fall in love with Wei Wuxian.”

###

Dailies: Episode 7

(A shot of LUO QINGYANG and WEN QING, walking along the shore of Liangzi Lake at night. Each of them is sneaking glances at the other when they think they won’t be seen. Silence, for a bit, and then:)

WQ: Earlier — when you said you wanted to apologize — was that … (she falters) was that all you wanted to do, when you came on the show?

LQY: No … (shy) I wanted to win you back. (hasty) But even if that’s not possible, I still owe you an apology, okay? Because I know I fucked up. I should — (getting emotional) I should have called you months ago and told you I was a fool.

I thought I wanted this big grand romance and that you being practical and steady meant you didn’t really love me, but it only took me a week after we broke up — after I said all those horrible things to you, too — to realize that I’d screwed up. It was my first performance after you left, and I realized I didn’t know what was in the throat-soothing tea you used to make for me. It was always just there when I needed it, perfect … like you. And right then I had the desperate thought that I couldn’t live without that tea and then I knew — I knew — that really what that meant was that I couldn’t live without you. But I couldn’t … I was afraid to just call and tell you …

So … yeah. I’m sorry. I fucked up, and coming on the show was fucked up, too, I just —

(WEN QING shuts her up with a kiss. They cling to each other, totally unaware of the cameras. Finally they break apart and LUO QINGYANG leans her forehead against WEN QING’s.)

LQY: (very soft) God. I love you. I’m so sorry. You know that, right?

WQ: (tender) I know.
________

(A talking-head interview. WEN QING, 31, internal medicine resident.)

Offscreen voice: Why did you go on the show if you were still in love with Luo Qingyang?

WQ: I didn’t think there was any hope for us. When Mianmian didn’t call … if she’d called me and said I’m sorry, I was wrong … I would have taken her back right away. But she didn’t and I thought, fine, you’ve moved on? I’ll show you that I can move on too. (a rueful grin) I wanted to make her jealous, I guess.

Offscreen voice: Is it fair to say that in the end she was the one who made a big romantic gesture, by applying to the show so she could win you back?

WQ: (stares at the person offscreen for fifteen seconds) Oh my god. Oh my god, she did, didn’t she? (overcome by a fit of giggles) That’s amazing …
________

(A shot from a distance of two people in a boat on Liangzi Lake, in the early morning: NIE HUAISANG, host, and MO XUANYU. There are no cameras in the boat, and no microphones; only a private conversation. The camera zooms in to show that NIE HUAISANG is talking, and that MO XUANYU is nodding in apparent agreement.)
________

(A shot of a tablet, held in someone’s hands. The camera doesn’t show the person’s face. The tablet is playing footage of LAN WANGJI’s speech to his suitors. When that clip reaches its end, the footage switches to a close-up of LAN WANGJI’s face while he dangles on the end of his bungee jump cord, as captured by his head-mount camera.)

LWJ: (on the tablet, whispering, tears in his eyes) I wanted to make you laugh, Wei Ying. That was new, you know … and I wanted to you to really know me. That was new, too … (When the cord retracts, towing him upward, he is humming a song.)

Offscreen voice: (very shaky) I’ve fucked everything up so badly, though …what do you want me to do?

###

Lan Wangji wakes up to the vicious stab of sunlight in his eyes and a bitter taste on his tongue. He takes a cautious inventory of his body — all there, though his stomach wishes it was not — and recalls, with a twinge, how he got into this state. It has been some two decades since Lan Wangji was last hungover, and he is surprised to find that the experience has not improved with age.

“Rise and shine,” Meng Yao says, in an aggressively loud voice, from a chair beside Lan Wangji’s bed. Judging from the two empty plates beside him and the half-finished book in his hand — a romance novel, which Lan Wangji knows the man peruses for inspiration when crafting Bachelor storylines — he has been waiting there for some time.

“I fail to see why I should get up,” Lan Wangji says. His stomach and head growl protests when he shifts in the bed. “I have quit the show. Perhaps you did not notice?”

“Well, I noticed you saying you weren’t going to give out any roses to your suitors, and that you should have quit weeks ago, and also that you weren’t going to lie anymore — yes, thank you, I did notice all that, it is kind of you to ask — but you didn’t actually say you wouldn’t film any more footage.”

“Why would I?” Lan Wangji manages to sit up. The room, which he only half-remembers returning to — brief flickers of Jiang Cheng heaving him out of the boat, grumbling as he dragged Lan Wangji across the suite and then dumping him, fully-clothed, in the bed — spins woozily around him for a moment, then settles. Meng Yao pours a cup of tea and passes it to him.

“Because I need footage to finish up storylines. I’m not going to complain about you torpedoing the show without any warning, even though I asked you whether you wanted to leave a week ago, and you told me you were fine to continue, but the least you can do is work with me by shooting personal goodbyes with the remaining suitors. You won’t have to lie to them, anyway. You’ve already told the whole truth.”

Lan Wangji sighs, and takes a sip of the tea. It is oversteeped, but when his stomach doesn’t immediately object to it, he drinks a little more. “That is all? You simply want me to meet with each of them and say goodbye?”

“I want you to say a little more than just the word goodbye, but that’s the gist of it, yeah. Like — Luo Qingyang, I think you might have something to say to her. Or she might have something to say to you, really. She and Wen Qing got back together last night and I gather, from what she said, that you were somehow involved in that.”

“Ah. I am glad for her. Were you not already aware that she and I were faking?”

Meng Yao has the decency to blush a little. “Maybe I had my suspicions.”

“And when you cast Luo Qingyang, did you know she had previously dated Wen Qing?”

“That’s none of your business,” he says, re-opening the romance novel. “We were talking about you.”

Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. That, at least, does not have the effect of making him nauseous. “Actually, you were talking about Luo Qingyang and Wen Qing.”

“Fine, whatever, yes, I did know. So will you do it?”

“No more lies?” It will delay his plan to search for Wei Ying, but he is not entirely sure where to begin, and admittedly there will be some sense of closure in this. Besides, if he refuses to do it, Meng Yao is entirely capable of taking footage from the season so far and editing it to make Lan Wangji look ridiculous.

“No.”

“Will this be enough for your storyline with Wen Xu? Will I need to be particularly cutting with him, in order to create drama?” He considers the thought. “I believe I could be, if necessary.”

“What? Oh, that. No, it doesn’t matter now, the deal with Wen Productions fell through. I’ve got other plans for next season anyway.”

“Alright. And you promise this is the last thing you will ask me to film?”

“I promise it’ll be the last thing you film for the show, unless you decide for yourself that you want to film more.”

“Impossible,” Lan Wangji says promptly. “But, on those terms, I will do it. Not today, though.”

“Why not?” Meng Yao starts to do the little pout, catches himself, and gives Lan Wangji a genuine, pissed-off glare.

“Because today I am going back to sleep.”

###

Dailies: Episode 7

(A wide shot of SONG ZICHEN, standing on the slopes of a tiny green islet flowering in the middle of Liangzi Lake. LAN WANGJI, who has just finished speaking with him, gives him a polite bow and climbs down the rocks to a waiting boat. SONG ZICHEN tries to follow, but someone on the crew waves him back.)

CREWMEMBER: We’re not quite done with you, okay?

(Visibly confused, SONG ZICHEN sits down on the slope and waits.)
________

(A shot of SONG ZICHEN from behind, looking out at a small powerboat approaching the islet. There are three people onboard, one of whom is driving the boat. One of the other two figures, tall and graceful, is calmly watching the islet as the boat approaches. The last figures appears to examining the boat for anything he might discreetly pocket. The boat reaches the shore, and the first man — now close enough to identify as XIAO XINGCHEN — disembarks smoothly, while the second, XUE CHENGMEI, jumps into the water with a big splash. XIAO XINGCHEN laughs. SONG ZICHEN begins to descend the slope, the camera following.)

XCM: (smirking) Hey, Zichen. Got all the punching out of your system?

SZC: (stiffly) I am very sorry about that. It wasn’t your fault at all — I lost control, and there’s no excuse —

XCM: (annoyed that he’s losing credit for provoking chaos) Pretty sure it was mostly my fault, actually.

SZC: You — (uncertain) why did you come here?

XCM: (shrugs) Because I want you? And I want him. (he jabs a thumb at XIAO XINGCHEN) And if he’s telling the truth, you want that, too. Which would be nice because I, uh … (he feels a feeling, notices it, and immediately tries to cover up for his vulnerability by making a joke of it) Well, you know. A guy likes to feel wanted, every now and then.

XXC: (cheerful, to SONG ZICHEN) See? I told you he’d be into it.
________

(A talking-head interview. SONG ZICHEN, 38, physiotherapist. He is sitting on a chair in one of the Lotus Pier suites, with XUE CHENGMEI on his lap. XIAO XINGCHEN is sitting beside him, head lying on SONG ZICHEN’s shoulder, one hand holding XUE CHENGMEI’s.)

Offscreen voice: So I think this is the first time the show has produced a throuple? A bit of a historic moment. Do you feel good about that?

XCM: (grinding his ass down into SONG ZICHEN’s lap) No, he feels good about this.

SZC: (voice rough) Stop it, brat.

XCM (challenge accepted) Oh, yeah? Make me.

(XIAO XINGCHEN appears to find this interaction extremely interesting.)

Offscreen voice: Yeah, uh, okay. Maybe we’ll film the interviews later?
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author, and LUO QINGYANG, 30, opera singer. Lakeside, mid-day, both of them dressed casually.)

Offscreen voice: So. Your kisses. All fake?

LWJ: Luo Qingyang and I agreed that we would pretend to kiss for reasons that, at the time, seemed to make sense.

LQY: (laughing, ebullient) Actually, he really surprised me when he suggested that we kiss — when we went swimming that day I thought for sure he’d just send me home, once he knew that I was here for all the wrong reasons.

Offscreen voice: Do you regret it?

LQY: (before LAN WANGJI can respond) I probably should, but … I don’t think so, actually. I mean, totally a terrible idea? Obviously, if I’d been thinking about it at all, the idea of trying to make someone jealous through a fake relationship … but then it really worked out for me. So, thank you, Lan Wangji, for having a spectacularly bad idea that ended up turning out just fine.

(LAN WANGJI inclines his head graciously.)

LQY: (in a cagey tone that suggests she may know more than she’s saying) And I hope you can still find your happy ending, too.

###

“I do not understand why you had to leave Mo Xuanyu for last,” Lan Wangji says, as a crew member fusses with his hair. “He is the only one that might actually be interested in me. It seems … cruel.” He is also not certain why he has been stuffed into his tuxedo again — a new one, rather than the one that had been battered by the elements in Cloud Recesses — or why they are taking so much care with his hair, given that he had gone to say goodbye to Song Zichen wearing a windbreaker and jeans.

The goodbye scenes with the other suitors went almost exactly as Lan Wangji expected, right down to Wen Xu’s extremely petulant tirade when he realized he wasn’t getting a next-Bachelor edit. But Mo Xuanyu and his potential feelings have been a storm cloud on the horizon for some time — Lan Wangji had wanted to send the man home on the sword-making date in order to avoid stringing him along, but Qin Su had snatched that option away — and he finds he is reluctant to to film this particular farewell.

Meng Yao, on the other side of the suite, looks up sharply. He seems almost nervous, drumming his fingers repeatedly against the edge of the table where he’s sitting. No, it can’t be nerves, Lan Wangji thinks; Meng Yao doesn’t get nervous, not about things involving the show. Perhaps he is impatient. “Yeah, I can see how you’d think that,” he says, “but can you just trust me that it’s not?”

Lan Wangji considers this. “I cannot. Huaisang?”

The host — who is also in a tuxedo, oddly, despite the fact that he, too, had dressed casually for the other goodbyes — jerks his head up from where he’s busy texting someone. “Ah, Wangji-xiong, there’s nothing cruel about this. I spoke with Mo Xuanyu yesterday, and I can promise you that everyone is on the same page about what is happening tonight.”

Nie Huaisang seems more trustworthy than Meng Yao, so Lan Wangji allows himself to relax, fractionally. It is possible that he has misread Mo Xuanyu; after all, he is hardly an expert in other people’s feelings.

“Alright,” he says, to Nie Huaisang. “I will trust you, then.”

“Everything ready?” Meng Yao says. The crew member gives Lan Wangji’s hair a final pat and nods. When Lan Wangji casts a glance at himself in the mirror, he looks calm, almost serene. The makeup artists have erased the dark circles that the last week left under his eyes. “Let’s go, then.”

When the three of them leave the suite, the sun has just slipped below the horizon, chased by a scarlet afterglow. Yao Zhiqiang, who was waiting outside, begins walking backwards down the winding boardwalk that parallels the shore, camera trained on Lan Wangji’s steady progress. The wind off the lake is fresh, carrying the scent of open water.

As the pier grows visible through the gaps in the trees, Lan Wangji can see Mo Xuanyu standing at the end of it, staring out at the water, a camera operator crouched at his feet, plus a few other members of the crew milling around. “You are certain this isn’t cruel?” he says, stopping.

“I’m certain. Even Yao-xiong doesn’t go in for cruelty.” (“Even Yao-xiong?” Meng Yao mutters. “Eat dirt, Huaisang.”) Nie Huaisang takes Lan Wangji by the elbow and tugs him along. “Come on, we’ll miss the sunset lighting.”

At the foot of the pier Lan Wangji stops, adjusts his tuxedo, steels himself. He has the strangest feeling, like everything that came before this is narrowing down to this moment, pinprick sharp.

Foolish. He will not let Meng Yao’s strange mood infect him. A final goodbye, and then this will all be over, and he will be free to start his life over again. Lan Wangji’s season as the Bachelor was marked by much drama, but he ended the season alone. A fine ending. He does not think he will want to watch the show when it airs, to see his own feelings reflected back at him during every interview where he answers Wei Ying’s questions.

“Wait,” Nie Huaisang says, catching Lan Wangji’s arm just before he starts to walk forward. “I think you might need this.” He shoves something — it feels like a silk handkerchief, wrapped around something small and hard — into Lan Wangji’s hand.

“Thank you,” he says, absently, not looking at it. Mo Xuanyu, at the end of the pier, still hasn’t turned around, as if he’s waiting for Lan Wangji’s invitation. Just a few more steps … he feels oddly nervous, now, but it’s just the tuxedo and the sunset and is that a rose on the stand at the end of the pier, and the other man is wearing a tuxedo, too, which — “Mo Xuanyu?” he says, almost a gasp.

The man turns around. “Lan Zhan.”

It’s Wei Ying.

###

Dailies: Episode 7

(A talking-head interview. WEN NING, a young man who happens to be WEN QING’s brother, although that is not the context in which he is filming footage for the show.)

Offscreen voice: And how do you two know each other?

WN: (soft-spoken, and somewhat nervous on camera) I … um. I did an internship on Wild China in my final semester? Consulting on bird behaviour patterns during the shoot. Wei-xiong and I became friends.

Offscreen voice: Did you know he was working on the show your sister was filming?

WN: No. Not until he showed up at my door last week and asked if he could sleep on my couch for a while. (apologetic) He also told me to keep it a secret that he was there but I thought I’d better tell jiejie about it in case she liked Lan Wangji. And then I guess she told someone else?

Offscreen voice: Yeah, well, we’re very grateful to you. And I think Wei Wuxian will be, too, when everything’s said and done.

WN: I would like him to be happy. He is a very nice man, although I think he is not always very nice to himself.

Offscreen voice: Okay, that’s good for now, thanks. We might want to shoot a bit more later, though, so if you could stick around the area …

WN: (standing and fumbling with his mic pack) Do you know if there is somewhere I could rent a boat? I thought I saw a red-crowned crane out on the lake …

Offscreen voice (muffled) Try up at the resort offices, they’ve got rowboats —
________

(A talking-head interview. WEI WUXIAN, 34, camera operator. He is fiddling with the bow tie on his tuxedo.)

Offscreen voice: Do you think he’ll forgive you?

WWX: I hope so. I — (the words catch in his throat, and he swallows) I really hope so.

Offscreen voice: Why did you leave, if you were in love with him too?

WWX: (soft, looking into the distance) I think … well. Loving is easy, you know? It’s being loved that’s hard.

###

Wei Ying. Here — his Wei Ying — smiling, yes, but cautious, eyes too big and the usual laughing edge of him buried in uncertainty, but — here. Lan Wangji feels his heart unfurling, petals before the sun.

“Wei Ying,” he says, a breath. There doesn’t seem to be anything else to say. He can feel tears prickling at his eyes. “Wei Ying.”

“Aiya, Lan Zhan, don’t cry,” Wei Ying says, stricken. “Don’t cry, if you cry I won’t be able to tell you all the things I need to say, I won’t be able to get my apology out, okay?”

“You came back.”

“Of course I came back, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying steps closer and wipes futilely at the tears on Lan Wangji’s cheeks, ignoring those trickling down his own face. “They showed me your speech, sweetheart — they showed me the footage of you on the bungee-jump. It’s not fair that you can look so beautiful when you’re upside-down and crying, did you know that? I bet you don’t know that, so I had to come and tell you. And I had to come and tell you that I want to laugh with you, and I want to know you — ah, zhiyin, of course I want to know you. And I had to come and tell you that I love you, and …” he sighs, and closes his eyes, then opens them again. Lan Wangji, reaching out to take Wei Ying’s hand, finds it is shaking. In the press of their palms he can feel the contents of the handkerchief, and realizes what Nie Huaisang has given him. “I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan. Can you forgive me?”

“There is nothing to forgive,” he says.

“No,” Wei Ying says, stubborn, stepping back. “Lan Zhan, I hurt you. You can’t just let me off the hook for that.”

“You were scared.”

“Yeah, but who isn’t? You were scared, too, that’s no excuse. I owe you a big apology and I want you to hear it, okay? And then you can decide if you can forgive me.”

“Mn. Alright.” He pulls Wei Ying in close, though, unable to resist any longer. Wei Ying drops his head to Lan Wangji’s shoulder.

“I didn’t really believe you,” Wei Ying murmurs into his jacket. “When you said you loved me. I know, Jiang Cheng tells me all the time that I need to stop thinking people aren’t telling me how they really feel, but I thought … I thought maybe it was just the situation. Because we were spending all that time together, you know? It’s not like real life. And so I thought you’d wake up after it was all over and think, it was all just a fantasy …”

Lan Wangji buries his free hand in Wei Ying’s hair, breathes in the pine wood scent of him. “Never.”

“I’m not done, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying protests, and Lan Wangji nods for him to continue. “When the door opened that night, all I could think was I’ve screwed everything up for him and then I thought if I refused to be on TV and just left, maybe it would be okay. You’d realize that it wasn’t real, and go back to your happy life. But then, your speech … you …” he almost chokes on his words, and Lan Wangji realizes that the shoulder of his tuxedo jacket is soaked through.

“Wei Ying. You do not have to tell me now. I will listen whenever you wish to speak.”

“No, I …” he leans back, looks into Lan Wangji’s eyes. His face is a snotty mess, tears tangled in his eyelashes, eyes red. Lan Wangji thinks he’s beautiful.“That’s it. I just want to say that I’m sorry, okay?”

“Alright. I have heard you, and now I forgive you. And I am glad the speech helped you believe in my feelings. Your brother said it might.”

“Lan Zhan, have you met Jiang Cheng? What did he say about me?”

“Only good things.” He thinks about it, and amends. “Well, some of the things did not seem like good things on the surface, but I think they really mean that he loves you. And he came and yelled at me very loudly when he thought I had hurt you.”

“What? He can’t yell at you! I’ll yell at him!”

“Wei Ying …”

And then, because Wei Ying is still shaking, his breath still coming in nervous gasps, Lan Wangji leans forward and kisses him. He can hear Yao Zhiqiang’s footsteps on the wooden pier, trying to get the right angle, the movements of the other crew shifting around them, but it doesn’t matter; nothing matters but their lips, meeting warm and soft.

When they break apart, Lan Wangji fumbles the handkerchief open, and drops to his knees.

“Ah, baobei, what are you doing? You can’t — everyone will think you’re going to — ”

By then Lan Wangji has the rings out, cloud patterns glittering in the dusk. Someone — Huaisang, he suspects — has moved the rose from the stand to the pier beside him, and he picks that up, too. “Mn. I am. Unless you do not want me to. If you think it is too soon, I will wait, Wei Ying.”

“No,” Wei Ying says, and then, flustered, “wait, that’s not what I mean, I meant it’s not too soon. Oh, shit, Lan Zhan, I’m messing this up too — your perfect moment — ”

“Wei Ying. You are not,” Lan Wangji says, fond. “The moment is perfect because you are in it.”

Wei Ying drags Lan Wangji up from his knees, so that they are standing face to face. The rose falls between them, forgotten. “Okay. Can you ask me again?”

“Wei Ying — will you — ”

Before he can get the words out, though, Wei Ying says, “Yes,” as if it’s been punched out of him. Hands trembling, Lan Wangji takes the rings and slides one onto Wei Ying’s finger — it looks perfect, just as he’d imagined — before letting Wei Ying slide the other onto Lan Wangji’s finger. When Wei Ying looks up, the light Lan Wangji had thought snuffed out is shining in Wei Ying’s eyes again, like the brightest star in the firmament. Lan Wangji thinks he could look at that sight every day for the rest of his life and never grow tired of it.

And now, he thinks, leaning in to kiss Wei Ying again, he can.

###

Dailies: Episode 7

(A talking-head interview. LAN WANGJI, 35, author, and his fiancé, WEI WUXIAN, 34, camera operator. The sun has completely set and they are sitting on the dock where the proposal took place. WEI WUXIAN is leaning against LAN WANGJI, who has an arm tight around his shoulders. The night air must be chilly, because someone has draped a blanket around the two of them.)

Offscreen voice: … when did you know you were in love with him?

WWX: (shy) You want me to answer that on camera?

Offscreen voice: (amused) That’s the idea, yes.

WWX: (not bothering to answer, he turns to LAN WANGJI) Aiya, it’s so strange to be on the other side of the camera! I don’t know how you put up with it for so long, Lan Zhan.

LWJ: (serious) I only managed because it was you, xingan.

WWX: (ducking into his shoulder, overwhelmed) My heart! Lan Zhan, you can’t just say things like that, okay? Give me a little warning next time …

###

Teaser — The Bachelor — 15-second spot

NHS: (voiceover) Next time on the Bachelor, Lan Wangji takes his fiancé to meet his family …

(A shot of LAN SIZHUI, the Bachelor’s son, happily embracing WEI WUXIAN while LAN XICHEN glowers in the background.)

NHS: (voiceover) and to the Fantasy Suite.

(A shot of LAN WANGJI sliding a door closed in the camera’s face, grinning widely.)

NHS: (voiceover) Then it’s time for the live taping of After the Final Rose, where we look back on the many surprises from this season …

(A shot of two people from behind, in silhouette, each holding a rose.)

NHS: (voiceover) and introduce our next Bachelor … and Bachelorette.

Chapter Text

Episode 8: A Happy Ending/After the Final Rose

We reach the surprise ending of the Bachelor’s journey, with Lan Wangji offering his Final Rose to Wei Wuxian, the cameraman whose offscreen voice and rapport with the Bachelor charmed viewers right from the first episode. Although he’s already given out his Final Rose, Lan Wangji insists on taking Wei Wuxian on the traditional family visits, as well as on an overnight date to a special Fantasy Suite.

We then catch up with the Bachelor and his fiancé at the live taping of After the Final Rose, and find out where Lan Wangji’s other suitors have ended up. Nie Huaisang makes a surprise announcement: next season, the show will have two leads — for the first time ever, it’s a Bachelor and a Bachelorette! Tune in next season for more surprising twists and turns on the journey to true love …

###

Dailies: Episode 8

(A shot of the pier in the aftermath of the proposal; most the crew seems to have forgotten that cameras are still filming, as they are milling around congratulating LAN WANGJI and WEI WUXIAN. WEI WUXIAN, wrapped in LAN WANGJI’s arms, is clutching the Final Rose, which someone has rescued from underfoot. MENG YAO, producer, and NIE HUAISANG, host, are arguing about something while the engaged couple watches, bemused.)

NHS: It was my idea to have him return like this in the first place, you were hung up on the idea that the Bachelor could only give the Final Rose to a suitor —

MY: (hissing) That is an outright lie, Nie Huaisang. I was the one who said we had lots of footage of the two of them, and that if we could just find Wei Wuxian we could make it work!

NHS: (smug) Right. And who was it that found Wei Wuxian?

MY: Because Wen Qing tipped you off!

LWJ: (clearing his throat) Are we … are we done filming?

MY: (calling a temporary truce in the argument) I said this would be the last thing you’d film for the show unless you decided for yourself you wanted to film more. We do have a very nice overnight date prepared for you, though …

LWJ: (to WEI WUXIAN) If you want to, Wei Ying, I will take you on an overnight date, and to meet my family, and I will meet your family on camera. But if you do not, this will be the end of it.

WWX: (considering) I wouldn’t mind the overnight date. And your family, okay, and my siblings, but … not my parents. Not yet. Not on camera. It’s not that I don’t want them to meet you, Lan Zhan. They’ll definitely like you, they’ll think you’re too good for me (LAN WANGJI makes a wordless noise of protest) but I just want … I don’t know. I need some time. Is that okay?

LWJ: Of course. We can wait as long as you want, Wei Ying.
________

(A talking-head interview. WEI WUXIAN, 34, camera operator. He is holding the Final Rose in one hand, rubbing absently at the petals.)

Offscreen voice: So, tell us about your journey back to the show. How did you end up here on the pier tonight?

WWX: I went to stay with a friend in Wuhan, and I guess — I guess he ratted me out to the show? (a soft chuckle) I didn’t realize he and Wen Qing were related. Life is full of funny coincidences, I guess. And Wen Ning was probably so annoyed with me, because I was just lying around crying on his couch, so it’s hard to blame him! Anyway, yesterday Huaisang showed up at Wen Ning’s house and said he had something I needed to watch. I tried to say no — actually, I, uh, tried to run away again? — but Huaisang’s pretty persuasive when he wants to be. And kind of surprisingly fast?

(He pauses as he remembers watching the footage.) And then he played the speech and as soon as Lan Zhan said he was afraid, I thought, Oh. He’s scared too. That made it easier to be brave …
________

(The talking-head interviews are still going on. LAN WANGJI, 35, author, and his fiancé, WEI WUXIAN, 34, camera operator, cozied up on the pier, under a blanket. The offscreen voice has mostly given up on asking questions, and left them to their own devices. WEI WUXIAN is rubbing LAN WANGJI’s hand and discovers something under the edge of his shirt cuff.).

WWX: (pulling a red hair elastic into view) You kept this? You kept wearing it, even when I was gone?

LWJ: Mn. I wanted to be able to imagine that you were still here, even if I couldn’t see you.

WWX: (pressing his head into LAN WANGJI’s chest) Ah, Lan Zhan. I won’t leave again, okay? Promise.

###

Not surprisingly, the meeting with Wei Ying’s siblings (plus Jin Zixuan), held the night after the proposal, is a success. Lan Wangji has already met all three of them, and he was there for the telephone call where Jiang Yanli let out an earsplitting shriek of joy when Wei Ying broke the news of the engagement, so he knows going into it that he already has the blessing of the sibling whose opinion matters most to Wei Ying.

He likes to think he has Jiang Cheng’s blessing, too, after his ride in the boat — Wei Ying had howled with laughter when he’d learned that Jiang Cheng had accidentally gotten Lan Wangji drunk in a rowboat — but Jiang Cheng is currently grumpy with both Lan Wangji and Wei Ying because of the incident. (This is what Wei Ying calls it.)

The incident took place the morning after the proposal, when Lan Wangji and Wei Ying went over to Jiang Cheng’s lakefront house to tell him about the engagement. When Wei Ying knocked on the door, there was a very long pause, and then Jiang Cheng cracked the door open.

“Oh. You’re back, are you?”

“Yeah! And I’m engaged!” Wei Ying said, waving the hand with the ring on it near the door’s narrow opening. “Open up, Jiang Cheng, why don’t you? I want to come in!”

Instead, Jiang Cheng slammed the door in their faces.

“I’m not letting those cameras in here,” he said, from the other side of the door. The cameras in question were not yet filming, a fact which Lan Wangji would, in retrospect, be very thankful for.

“Why not? You’ve already been on camera this season, Lan Zhan told me all about it. And it’s not like you’ve got someone in there with you,” Wei Ying said. Silence from inside, which Wei Ying seemed to interpret as significant. “Jiang Cheng! Do you have someone in there with you?”

This was followed almost immediately by a splash from the porch at the back of the house, and then Lan Wangji, Wei Ying and the entire crew of The Bachelor were treated to a view of a man wading sheepishly through the reeds along the shore.

“Wait,” Wei Ying said, delighted, raising his voice. “Wen Ning! Is that you?”

“Ah,” Wen Ning said, coming to a stop. “Wei-xiong! I was just doing some birding! This is a very good spot for long-tailed pheasants, you know …”

This incident is how Jiang Cheng ends up spending most of the official meet-the-family dinner fending off jokes from his siblings about how he’s taken up birding, a state of affairs which he somehow blames on Lan Wangji.

“I expect it from them,” Jiang Cheng mutters, after dinner is over and the cameras have gone away. (Lan Wangji has found that Meng Yao will actually listen to him, now, when he announces that filming is done for the day.) “But you? What did I ever do to you?”

Jiang Cheng has taken up a seat at the opposite end of the couch from Lan Wangji, while Wei Ying is curled up on the couch across from them, chatting with Jiang Yanli about her pregnancy.

(“Can I name the baby, A-Li? I’d be good at naming a baby.”

“Maybe,” Jiang Yanli says, indulgently, as Jin Zixuan voices a protest. “What would you name a boy?”

“Hmm … how about Jin Rulan?”

“That’s actually not too bad,” Zixuan says, surprised.)

“You did call me an asshole,” Lan Wangji says. He decides not to point out that Jiang Cheng and Wen Ning have, in fact, gone birding — an activity Jiang Cheng has defensively described as “really interesting, if you’re with someone who knows what they’re talking about” — twice in the last twenty-four hours.

“True,” Jiang Cheng mutters. “The jury’s still out on that one.”

Lan Wangji surprises himself by laughing. Then Jiang Cheng laughs, too, and says “Welcome to the family, asshole,” and Wei Ying looks up and says “Jiang Cheng, you take that back!” and when they start to squabble about whether Jiang Cheng can call Lan Wangji names — Jiang Cheng says, darkly, that Lan Wangji should know “exactly what he’s getting into,” and Zixuan puts in that he’s been “the peacock” for years and that it’s someone else’s turn, and that descends into a series of bird jokes — Lan Wangji realizes that he’s enjoying himself immensely. The hum and buzz of spirited sibling banter is nothing like his experience of family, but he likes it. When Wei Ying looks up and catches his eye and grins, Lan Wangji actually grins back.

“Lan Zhan! Jiang Cheng says you have to pick a bird nickname!”

“It’s that, or you’re stuck with asshole.”

“Mn. I will be a goose, then.”

“Why?” Jiang Cheng says, suspicious.

“They mate for life.”

Everyone groans, except Wei Ying, who bounds over to sit beside Lan Wangji on the couch. Now that he’s not a member of the crew, production has put Wei Ying in a tight purple t-shirt and the same pair of slim white jeans he was wearing that morning in the beach house library, and Lan Wangji thinks that when this is all over he is going to make Wei Ying wear them every day just so Lan Wangji can tear them off of him.

“This one’s mine, everyone,” Wei Ying announces, and Lan Wangji slips a polite arm around his shoulders, instead of squeezing his ass like he wants to. He will not be horny in front of the future in-laws. That can wait until the sixth time they meet, or perhaps the seventh.

The rest of the evening is spent happily arguing about whether Jiang Yanli actually knew that there was something going on between Lan Wangji and her brother during the visit to Koi Tower in the second week.

“I definitely knew,” she says, smug. “It was obvious.”

Lan Wangji feels duty-bound to point out that nothing was actually happening at the time — “Besides, you know, some mutually-oblivious pining,” Wei Ying says — but Jiang Yanli waves away this objection.

“How could you possibly have known?” Jin Zixuan says. “You barely even saw them speak.”

“Sometimes you just know,” she says, and then turns to Lan Wangji. “Oh! I’ll have to make my soup for you now! You don’t eat meat, right?”

“Mn. I could advise you on meat substitutes, if you would like.”

Jin Zixuan cuts off his fianceé’s answer with a pout. “My soup, A-Li? You’re going to make him my soup?”

“I make the soup for anyone I want to welcome to the family, A-Xuan.”

“But you made it for me right at the start of the show!”

Jiang Yanli makes a face that suggests that Zixuan, too, is oblivious. “Yes. I did.”

Understanding dawns. “A-Li …” He leans in to kiss her, softly. Lan Wangji takes the opportunity to pull Wei Ying in for a kiss of his own.

“Gross,” Jiang Cheng mutters, but his heart clearly isn’t in it.

###

Dailies: Episode 8

(MO XUANYU is in a small but exquisite library, full of rare and ancient books and manuscripts. He wanders from shelf to shelf, inspecting without touching; it is clear from his face that he is entranced. A door opens off camera, and NIE HUAISANG walks into the shot.)

NHS: So sorry for the delay, I don’t know what happened!

MXY: (indicating the bookshelves) These are all yours?

NHS: Ah, you like my collection?

MXY: It’s beautiful … you’ve got books I’ve never seen before …

(NIE HUAISANG looks surprised, but then pleased. He watches MO XUANYU wander around for a minute longer, then startles — seemingly remembering that they are being filmed — and quickly gestures for MO XUANYU to join him in a pair of chairs by the window. They both sit down.)

NHS: Thank you for coming to film a final interview … we thought it was best if it wasn’t in the mansion or the same location as the proposal … (MO XUANYU flinches at the mention of the proposal, and the host notices.) Ah. I’m sorry …

MXY: (shaking his head) No. I’m happy for him — I just … Well, I knew I didn’t have a chance with him. That’s why I agreed to step aside … I mean, you know that. It was your idea.

NHS: (very gently) I’m sorry it hurt you … I wouldn’t …

MXY: It wasn’t your fault, though. It was just circumstances. We don’t — (swallows) nobody owes us love, you know? Or even a chance for it, really. I just thought, that this time …

(He shrugs, and falls silent, as if there’s nothing else that can be said. NIE HUAISANG looks sad.)

###

It turns out that the overnight date is at Hengdian, starting with a private tour of the extensive historical sets — the palace of Qin Shi Huang, Guangzhou in the late nineteenth century, the Forbidden City — and ending with a period-accurate Song Dynasty meal, served in a replica riverside town from the Northern Song. There’s an orange stuffed with hairy crab, clams in rice wine, sour bean sesame buns, and plum cake soup. All of it — the food, the tour — is probably amazing; Lan Wangji can’t say, because he can’t think of anything but what will follow, of being alone with Wei Ying. When their hands brush together as they wander the site, an electric shock runs up his arm, the feel of skin on skin enough to leave him shivering.

The night after the proposal they had been too tired to do anything more than fall asleep. Then, last night, Meng Yao had suggested they sleep apart: “Keep it for the Fantasy Suite,” he’d said, then left them to discuss it themselves.

“We can hold out,” Wei Ying had said, a little uncertain. “Right? It’s only one night. And it’ll be fun to wait … you can think about me, and I can think about you, and then, tomorrow, it’ll be … ”

He’d trailed off, breathing heavily, but there was a challenge, in his eyes. Lan Wangji, who had thought he might combust with the dizzying desire of it, had nodded, agreed.

And now Wei Ying is teasing him, as if waiting was easy, as if he doesn’t know that Lan Wangji wants to pull him into a darkened corner of the Imperial Summer Palace and fuck him against a wall.

“This is so amazing,” he says, with a bright smile, running his fingers lightly along Lan Wangji’s forearm. He blinks up from under long eyelashes. “The level of detail, that they’ve built it almost to scale … don’t you think so, er-gege?”

Lan Wangji leans close to Wei Ying’s ear, muffles his mic with one hand. “Later,” he hisses, “I am going to take you apart. Do you understand?”

The harsh breath Wei Ying sucks in is very satisfying.

###

Dailies: Episode 8

(A shot of LAN WANGJI and WEI WUXIAN, holding hands, and walking through a series of pavilions at Hengdian that are decorated in serene blues and whites. Eventually they find themselves on a gravel path leading to a low wooden building tucked in against a bamboo forest. A plaque above the door says Quiet Room.)

MY: (offscreen) This is it! Normally we’d make a big deal about whether you’re going to offer him a key to the Fantasy Suite, and whether he accepts it, but you’re already engaged, so … have fun, I guess!

###

After Lan Wangji slides the door closed on the cameras, he turns back to find that Wei Ying has wandered off into one of the other sparsely-decorated rooms. The central room, where Lan Wangji is standing, has a wood-framed bed beneath a round window, a low table with a tea set, and very little else. The dim lighting lends everything a sepia tint.

“Someone’s poured us a bath, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, coming back in from the other room. In here he seems to glow softly, skin the gold of lantern-light. “Isn’t that nice?”

“Mn,” he says. “It is.”

“Do you want to take a bath?” Wei Ying lingers by the other door, arching one eyebrow.

“No,” Lan Wangji says, “I do not.”

He crosses the room so that they are standing inches apart, and runs a hand slowly up Wei Ying’s chest.

“That is for later,” he murmurs, and leans forward to suck softly at the tender flesh behind Wei Ying’s ear. Wei Ying shivers, full-body, but otherwise doesn’t move. He understands the game. “For now, I am going to play with you until you come undone.”

“Fuck,” Wei Ying groans, as Lan Wangji moves to lick the little mole under his lip. “Fuck, baobei, sweetheart, I’ve been turned on for the past twenty-four hours. I almost went to my knees for you in old Shanghai, you have” — Lan Wangji ghosts fingers over the front of Wei Ying’s pants, pulls away from the evidence of his desire — “you have no idea …” he reaches for Lan Wangji, to pull him in to a kiss, but Lan Wangji is ready for this; he captures Wei Ying by the wrists and presses him back to the bed, tips him over so that he’s flat on his back, hands pinned. Wei Ying grins, wildly, his hair falling loose across the pillow. It would be so easy to just fall into his embrace, to give into the magnetic pull of his smile, but Lan Wangji wants to see Wei Ying shaking beneath him first.

“You will keep talking,” he commands, and Wei Ying shivers again. “Keep talking, and I will keep touching. Do not move your hands.” He pulls Wei Ying’s shirt up to reveal that strip of golden skin, unbuckles his belt and begins to run a finger along the top edge of his boxers.

“What — ahh, Lan Zhan, yes — what do you want me to talk about?”

“When did you fall in love with me?” Wei Ying hadn’t ever answered, for the cameras.

“Ah. Right away — right away,” he says, and Lan Wangji rewards him by tracing the strokes for 我爱你 on Wei Ying’s stomach with his fingers. With his other hand he pushes Wei Ying’s pants down, and his boxers, freeing his straining cock. “I saw you sitting on the terrace, looking absolutely terrified, and then you said I am not naturally charming, and I thought, oh, no, what have I done?” He lets out a little gasp as the downstroke on 爱 trails down, right to the base of his cock, before Lan Wangji pulls away and starts to write 你 along the crease of his leg.

“What about you, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying still has the composure to ask without his voice breaking, so Lan Wangji carefully pulls Wei Ying’s shirt off, pushing his hands back down, and then drops his mouth to Wei Ying’s brown nipple. When he licks, the salt tang of sweat in his mouth goes right to Lan Wangji’s cock. “Ah. Fuck, fuck, I’m still talking, I promise, please do that again …”

“When did I fall in love or when did I know?” he murmurs, ghosting a hot breath over the nipple and then licking again, while his hand pinches the other one, rolls it between his fingers.

“Both,” Wei Ying says, now a little high-pitched. Maybe he can feel Lan Wangji pressing against his thigh, hard in his own pants. Lan Wangji pushes against him, wanting him to feel it. Wanting to know what’s coming.

“Right away, as well. But I did not realize it until we were in the canal boat in Tongli and you gave me the loquat.” He doesn’t lift his face, so that his voice vibrates against Wei Ying’s chest. Lan Wangji can feel the friction of his own cock pressing against his fly, leaking. He ignores it.

“Love at first sight, er-gege?” Wei Ying groans. “I thought you didn’t believe in it.”

“I can admit when I am wrong,” Lan Wangji says in a low voice, and now bites at one nipple before teasing bites down the curve of Wei Ying’s waist, to his hip. He runs a hand through the pre-come leaking from Wei Ying’s cock and gets a loose grip. His hand slides up and down at a leisurely pace, in no hurry. “Keep talking.”

“It’s not fair, sweetheart — ah, fuck, yes, don’t stop — you’re still dressed, you can see what you’re doing to me,” Wei Ying says. Lan Wangji sits back up, keeps his hand going, slow, slick. He can see: Wei Ying is flushed red, writhing beneath Lan Wangji’s hands, trying to buck up into his hand for more friction. Lan Wangji presses him back down flat, resumes the lazy hand job.

“Mn. You said it would be fun to wait. Is it not fun to wait?”

“I want you so bad, er-gege,” Wei Ying says, pupils blown dark. The muscles in his stomach are twitching, like he’s trying to control the urge to lunge up, to reach for Lan Wangji.

“Do you want me to fuck you?” Lan Wangji asks. He holds it together. Manages to sound in control. “I want to fuck you.”

Wei Ying lets out a desperate moan. He sounds wrecked. It’s glorious. “Please, sweetheart — I can’t wait any longer — if you don’t I’ll come just from this, I swear — ”

Lan Wangji stands up — Wei Ying groans, but doesn’t lift his hands from the position Lan Wangji put them in over his head — and grabs the lube from a small shelf behind the bed. There’s a big box of condoms, too, but they’ve talked about this already, that they won’t need them.

Lan Wangji comes back with the lube, slicks up a finger.

“Keep talking,” he instructs, and Wei Ying begins to babble, broken exhalations of Lan Wangji’s name, of sweetheart and baobei and please, as Lan Wangji runs one finger around his entrance and slides it in to the heat of him. That sparks a bonfire in Lan Wangji’s guts, a burn that quickens his breath, topples him forward. Now he’s the one shaking, struggling to find the thread of thought, to think of anything but the feeling of Wei Ying, hot and tight, stretching around his fingers, of anything but the sound Wei Ying makes when Lan Wangji curls his fingers into the right spot to have him arching off the bed.

“Fuck,” Wei Ying says. Lan Wangji feels almost drunk, wobbly; it’s like being at sea, trying to find his balance on the uneven deck of a boat in heavy water. Just this, just touching Wei Ying, watching him twist against Lan Wangji’s fingers, hearing him fall slowly into incoherence, is almost enough. Lan Wangji thinks that if he let go of the last thread of control, he might come in his pants. He gives in, unzips and presses his pants down. The shirt will have to stay on; he doesn’t have a hand free for it.

He leans forward and finally kisses Wei Ying, swallowing his little gasps, tasting the warm softness of his mouth. “You can touch me now,” Lan Wangji murmurs, sliding another finger inside. “Touch me, Wei Ying.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, I’ll never stop.” Wei Ying pulls him in close for a messy, frantic kiss. When Wei Ying buries his hands in Lan Wangji’s hair and pulls, arousal coils low in his belly, threatening to strike. Lan Wangji sits up, slicks up his cock, pulls his fingers free. Wei Ying gasps, at the loss of them, tries to hang on.

“I’m ready,” he says. “I’m ready, baobei.”

Lan Wangji pushes inside, slow, achingly slow, even as Wei Ying groans that he can take it, begs for it faster, faster. When he’s all the way in, Wei Ying’s heels pressing into his back, Lan Wangji kisses him, and drives in again. He struggles to keep a slow, even rhythm, to keep from giving in to the pounding desire that pulses through his core. He doesn’t think he’ll last long, but Wei Ying looks ruined, too, eyes blown wide and dark, his gasping breath and twitching cock suggesting that he’s barely holding off.

“Do you like that?” Lan Wangji gasps, shifting his angle.

“Nnnngh,” Wei Ying says, as if that’s all the answer he can manage. His fingers are curled around Lan Wangji’s where he’s gripping Wei Ying’s hip, just barely holding on. Lan Wangji slides out and then thrusts back in, hard. Wei Ying lets out a keening moan. Lan Wangji rocks in again, the pace of his hips picking up, the rhythm now lost in favour of a driving need.

“I’m going to — Lan Zhan, I’m — ” Wei Ying says, voice breaking, and then he’s coming, in hot spurts all over his own stomach. Lan Wangji thrusts back in twice, three times, and then follows, shuddering through the white heat of the aftershocks.

Afterwards he collapses slowly forward, no strength left. Wei Ying is waiting for him, arms open.

“See?” he says, in a soft, blurry voice. “Waiting was worth it.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Lan Wangji murmurs.

“You love it.”

“Mn. I love you.” They trade soft kisses, thread their fingers together. Lan Wangji has an idea about what they can do next — the bath will need to be heated up again — but there’ll be time for that, time for many things. For now, he can just hold Wei Ying, and be held.

###

Dailies: Episode 8, Meet the Families

(A shot in the small back garden of LAN WANGJI’s home in Shanghai, framed against the slopes of Sheshan National Forest Park. Someone has foolishly left WEI WUXIAN alone with LAN XICHEN, the Bachelor’s brother.)

LXC: (totally flat) So. You’re the man who tried to break my brother’s heart.

WWX: (suddenly very nervous) Ummm. Yeah. That is … I can see how you would think that was what happened.

LXC: And you understand what would happen if you tried to do so again?

WWX: (glancing around the garden, as if either the answer to this question or a rescuer might be found there) Well … I’m not sure I do, actually? (hasty) But I can probably imagine something pretty bad all on my own, so …
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN XICHEN, 38, the Bachelor’s brother.)

LXC: (disappointed in himself) I’ve never had to give a shovel talk before. I don’t think it was a very good one …

Offscreen voice: It was better than the one your brother gave me three years ago.

LXC: (outraged) A-Yao! He gave you a shovel talk?!?

Offscreen voice: Well, he came up to me the first time I stayed the night and stared at me for a long time and then said, Do not hurt him. And then he walked away. So … I guess so? But, you know … Wei Wuxian really does love your brother. If that makes you feel better.

LXC: (unconvinced) How can you be sure?

Offscreen voice: Because I’ve seen the footage. I’ve been doing this a long time … I know what love looks like.
________

(A talking-head interview. LAN QIREN, 65, the Bachelor’s uncle).

Offscreen voice: Thoughts on Lan Wangji’s choice of fiancé?

LQR: (stiff) Wei Wuxian seems to be a very pleasant and respectable young man. I am pleased that Lan Wangji has found someone who makes him happy.

Offscreen voice: (disappointed) That’s it? That’s all you have to say?

LQR: … Yes.

Offscreen voice: (irritated) Did Lan Wangji tell you to keep your mouth shut? (LAN QIREN’s face twitches, just a little.) He did, didn’t he?

###

An otherwise awkward afternoon introducing Wei Ying to the Lan family is redeemed, in Lan Wangji’s eyes, by the fact that Wei Ying and Sizhui are clearly delighted with each other. When Lan Wangji and Wei Ying and the crew arrive at the Songjiang house, Sizhui leaps out and greets Wei Ying with “I wanted it to be you, right from that day at the beach house!” and Wei Ying volleys back “I wanted it to be me, too,” and then their happy chatter is the only thing to cut through the silence Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen maintain all through lunch. (Xichen does almost laugh at one of Wei Ying’s stories before catching himself, though, and on that basis alone Lan Wangji allows himself to imagine that his brother and fiancé will become friends in the not-too-distant future.)

After lunch, Meng Yao forces Lan Wangji to leave Wei Ying alone in the garden with Lan Xichen while he films interview with Sizhui. There, too, he is rewarded by Sizhui announcing that he approves of Lan Wangji’s choice, because “Xian-ge says he doesn’t understand how no-one else ever notices how hilarious you are, which is exactly what I’m always saying, Baba!”

“You are happy I am getting married? You do not mind that our family is growing?”

“Baba. I told you. I want you to be happy, and I think you’re happy now, right? Besides …” Sizhui grins, the smile of a ten-year-old who can see a future in which he gets his way a lot more often. “Xian-ge said he likes the idea of us having a trampoline, too!”

When Lan Wangji returns to the garden, he finds Wei Ying alone with the cameras, looking thoughtful.

“Was my brother horribly rude?”

“It’s fine, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mutters, which means yes. Wei Ying shifts so that they can lean against each other on the low stone bench, and Lan Wangji adds Wei Ying sitting on my lap to the long list of things he plans to do immediately post-filming. “Your brother agreed to give me some time to show him that I’m not going to mess things up again, and I thanked him for coming to help you after I got scared and ran away.”

Lan Wangji must look skeptical, because Wei Ying reaches up and brushes a thumb across his temple, a gentle echo of the night in the pool. “Really. It’s fine. I’d face down a dozen angry older brothers if that was what it took to keep you, Lan-er-gege.”

“Kiss me,” Lan Wangji murmurs, a little overwhelmed, and Wei Ying does, and this is how the story of the Bachelor, Lan Wangji, comes to an end — at least the filming of it — with Meng Yao waltzing into the garden and yelling “We’re all done here, folks!” while Lan Wangji has one hand buried in the silky hair beneath Wei Ying’s ponytail.

A happy ending for the Bachelor, he thinks, and out loud says: “We’re done?”

“Yup. You’re free to go live your life!”

Ten minutes later, Lan Wangji’s house is empty: no more Bachelor crew, no more Lan Qiren or Lan Sizhui (who announces that he has no desire to cut short his visit with Jingyi), and no more Lan Xichen, either, although there’s a note on the kitchen counter that says Wangji: I will spend a few days at A-Yao’s. Please enjoy some time alone together, which Lan Wangji takes to be a peace offering, of sorts.

It is (Lan Wangji checks his watch) barely 5:30 in the evening. The two of them are alone in the kitchen.

“That went okay, right?” Wei Ying says. “Like … it could have been worse.”

“Mn. Yes. It might have been worse.” They’ve already been through worse, Lan Wangji reflects. At some point they’ll have to finish having that conversation, and Lan Wangji will get to say my father’s mistake was not in loving my mother, but in failing to live like he loved her. Not now, though. There will be time. “Are you hungry?”

He tries to remember what he would usually make, wondering if his brother has kept the fridge stocked or just eaten takeout from the noodle place around the corner for five weeks.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying comes up behind him, leans a head against Lan Wangji’s shoulder blades, circles his waist with one arm. “Dinner can wait. Take me to bed?”

###

In the morning, Lan Wangji makes shengjianbao while Wei Ying sleeps in.

“That smells amazing, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, padding in to the kitchen at half-past nine, a pair of Lan Wangji’s sweatpants hanging loose on his hips. The soft path of black hair on his stomach that Lan Wangji noticed the very first day they met draws his eyes down; the spike of desire that hit him back then is magnified tenfold by knowing exactly what it’s like to lick his way down that trail, and lower. “I’m going to be spoiled if you keep this up.”

“Mn. I hope so,” Lan Wangji manages, holding back for the moment, and pushes a plate full of steaming bao across the counter. “Have some breakfast.”

Wei Ying sits down and begins to make his way through a bao, making appreciative noises as he eats.

“What would you like to do today?” Lan Wangji asks, studiedly casual, as he begins frying the second batch. He has his own thoughts on what it would be nice to do on their first full day together without cameras around, but something tells him that if he’s not careful, Wei Ying is capable of squashing his own wants and needs into dark corners where they might go too easily unnoticed.

Wei Ying takes the cup of coffee that Lan Wangji passes to him. Neither Lan Wangji nor his brother are coffee-drinkers, so he had raided the stash Meng Yao keeps for nights when he stays over. “I hadn’t really thought about it, I guess. What are my options?”

“Anything you want.” Satisfied the bao are sufficiently browned, he pours the water into the pan and claps the lid on.

“Anything?” Wei Ying says, wiggling his eyebrows.

A thought occurs to him. “Do you need to go back to your place? I could drive, if you do.” He doesn’t actually know where Wei Ying lives, Lan Wangji realizes. It hadn’t come up in any of their conversations.

“Uh. Actually, I don’t … I don’t have my own place?” Wei Ying puts down his bao, looking rather embarrassed. “I mean, it’s not that I’ve never had my own place, but I let the lease run out on the last one go during Wild China because it felt like I was never there, and then when I got on with the show Meng Yao told me I’d be living in the beach house, so I thought … well, I guess I just thought I’d find something once the shoot was over.”

There are a million things they don’t know about each other yet, Lan Wangji thinks. He wants to find out everything immediately, and also he wants to spend years and years taking a leisurely exploration of everything Wei Ying.

“Is that okay? That I’m just kind of squatting at your place, Lan Zhan? I mean, I could find a place, hopefully not too far away, although Songjiang might be a little outside my budget” —

Lan Wangji huffs a little laugh. “Wei Ying. We are engaged. You do not need to find somewhere else to live.” I don’t want you to leave again, he thinks, and then, because he doesn’t want to keep his thoughts to himself anymore, not with Wei Ying: “I don’t want you to leave again.”

Wei Ying laughs, the laugh that Lan Wangji now understands to mean this isn’t really funny but I have to pretend it is in order to talk about it. “Of course I won’t leave, Lan Zhan. Your house is beautiful.”

“It is your house, too, xingan.” Wei Ying takes another bad off the plate, juggling it between his fingers as it cools. “And since there is nowhere you need to go, then yes, we can do anything you want today.”

“Well … it’s a beautiful day,” Wei Ying says, in a teasing tone. “We could rent a boat and cruise up the Bund. Or learn how to fly a helicopter? Or … there was apparently a date that didn’t get used this season, that involved ballroom dancing at the Paramount …”

Lan Wangji remembers what Meng Yao had said, about couples from the show finding the transition back to real life difficult, and how Wei Ying had reacted when he’d heard that, as if Lan Wangji might want to live the Bachelor life forever. “Do you want to do any of those things, Wei Ying?”

“No.” Wei Ying laughs again. “I think … I think what I’d like to do is stay in.”

This is exactly Lan Wangji’s idea of the perfect day. “Wei Ying?”

“Hm?” He looks up in the middle of another bite of his bao.

This is the good part,” Lan Wangji says, as certain as he’s ever been of anything in his life. “This, not what we just did — although that was good, too, because it brought us together — but this. Everything that comes after. The rest of our lives.”

###

After the Final Rose: Live Studio Taping

(On stage at the live taping are SONG ZICHEN, XIAO XINGCHEN, and XUE CHENGMEI. They, along with the live studio audience and NIE HUAISANG, are watching a highlight reel of their appearances on the season: SONG ZICHEN announcing that no-one who likes XUE CHENGMEI could possibly like him (onstage, SONG ZICHEN groans and covers his face, embarrassed); singing karaoke; a series of shots in which one or another of the trio is staring hungrily at one or both of the other two; the fight between XUE CHENGMEI and SONG ZICHEN (XUE CHENGMEI whispers something to SONG ZICHEN and he blushes); the bungee-jumping; and the reunion on Liangzi Lake. The studio audience cheers wildly.)

NHS: (as the cheering dies down) So, you’ve all been dating now for, what, four months?

(Nods from all three.)

NHS: We were going to ask you how that was going, but we thought it might be fun to bring on a special guest to give us a little commentary …

(They are joined onstage by XIAO QING, 12, XIAO XINGCHEN’s daughter. She gives SONG ZICHEN a high-five, hugs her father, and sticks her tongue out at XUE CHENGMEI, before sitting down in an extra chair.)

NHS: So, Xiao Qing! Thoughts on your dad’s boyfriends?

XQ: Okay, so, first, Zichen-ge is great. Like, he paid off the three hundred bucks I owed to my friends when my dad didn’t win The Bachelor? So, yeah, he’s really great.

(XUE CHENGMEI shoots SONG ZICHEN an outraged glance, and SONG ZICHEN just shrugs, unapologetic about his efforts to be XIAO QING’s favourite.)

XQ: But if that one (she gestures to XUE CHENGMEI) thinks he can win me over with just a bit of candy, he should think again.

XCM: (petulant) She locked me in the bathroom for an hour the last time I was over! Nobody even noticed!

XXC: (laughing) To be fair, you do like to spend a lot of time in the bathroom.

NHS: (to SONG ZICHEN) Who’s going to win the battle of wills between those two?

SZC: Oh, A-Qing. No question.
________

(On stage at the live taping are WEN QING and LUO QINGYANG, being interviewed by NIE HUAISANG.)

NHS: … can’t help but notice that you two are wearing engagement rings?

(The two women exchange fond glances, and then LUO QINGYANG answers).

LQY: A few weeks ago Wen Qing took me on a bicycling tour around Lake Tai —

WQ: I felt terrible when I realized that she fell off the bike in Yangshuo because I distracted her —

LQY: It wasn’t your fault! (obviously a well-worn disagreement)

WQ: Still. We like bicycling! I wanted to make a better memory for you …

LQY: Anyway, we stopped to admire the scenery and when I turned around she was down on one knee with a ring and she said (she chokes up) “I want to pick you up every time you fall, for the rest of your life …”
________

(The next Bachelor and Bachelorette, MO XUANYU and QIN SU, are brought onstage to join NIE HUAISANG, to big cheers.)

NHS: So! Have you two talked about how you’re going to handle this?

QS: (gentle smile) Well, I’ve agreed I wont’t quit to protect his feelings.

NHS: (to MO XUANYU, sounding ever-so-slightly anxious) And how do you feel, four months on from the last season? Are you ready to start a new journey towards love?

MXY: I think so. Seeing Lan Wangji looking so happy tonight … well, I guess I’m ready to find that for myself.

NHS: Great! So we’ve got a bit of a surprise for you tonight — I don’t quite know how we got special permission for this, but apparently I’m allowed to introduce you to one of the suitors that we’ll have next season. I want you both to meet my brother …

(Polite applause as NIE MINGJUE, who has a boxer’s physique and an excellent moustache, joins them on the stage. The only empty chair is beside MO XUANYU, but when NIE MINGJUE moves towards it, NIE HUAISANG quickly intervenes, rather awkwardly forcing his brother to take the host’s chair beside QIN SU and taking the empty one for himself. Everyone but NIE HUAISANG looks confused by this).

QS: (polite) Nie Mingjue, is it? It’s very nice to meet you.

NMJ: Ah, I’ve heard about you! You’re the one who knows all about protecting your didi, right?

###

After four months away, the glare of the cameras feels strange, intrusive.

Filming segments for the documentary Wei Ying is making based on The Soil Before Spring, Lan Wangji’s book on ancient agriculture and cuisine in China, isn’t quite the same; there, Lan Wangji is on solid ground, comfortable. Here, under the studio lights and staring eyes of the audience, he fights down a queasy urge to loosen his bow tie, and holds on tight to Wei Ying’s hand while they answer Nie Huaiang’s seemingly endless questions on their lives post-Bachelor:

Yes, Lan Xichen and Wei Ying are friends, now. Xichen likes to say he was won over by Wei Ying while watching Meng Yao edit the third episode to include the pool security footage and a shot where Wei Ying knocked champagne out of Jin Zixun’s hand during the photoshoot date, but Lan Wangji suspects he began to thaw almost immediately. Maybe by the end of the first week, when Xichen walked into the kitchen and found Lan Wangji wheezing with laughter at one of Wei Ying’s stories. Or maybe on the first weekend, when Wei Ying spent three hours helping Sizhui make a wildlife documentary in the garden on his phone, then played the resulting film during dinner. Lan Wangji, who had been unable to participate in the creation of this masterpiece due to an overflowing email inbox, was nevertheless rather smug about the way Lan Xichen’s expression went from sulky to charmed as he watched.

Yes, Lan Qiren actually does approve of Wei Ying. In fact, Wei Ying’s ongoing campaign to improve the Lan spice tolerance has found fertile ground in Lan Wangji’s uncle; on one memorable occasion, they even made chili oil together.

Yes, Lan Wangji has met Wei Ying’s parents, once, on neutral ground at Koi Tower. Nie Huaisang doesn’t press the point, which is probably for the best; Lan Wangji doesn’t want to say on live television that he dislikes both Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, and that he will not easily forgive them for the fact that it took Wei Ying three hours to stop shaking in Lan Wangji’s arms after the family dinner.

As predicted, Yu Ziyuan had said “I don’t know what someone like you is doing with someone like him, but I suppose the world is full of mysteries,” to Lan Wangji within fifteen minutes of their arrival. Lan Wangji had waited until dinner was halfway done, leaned over to her, and whispered, “It is baffling how someone as horrible as you produced three such wonderful children, Yu-furen. But then, I suppose that is one of those mysteries you were speaking of earlier.”

There have been no further attempts to get together, although Lan Wangji is resigned to the idea that meetings are inevitable once Jiang Yanli has her baby in six weeks.

No, Jiang Cheng is not single. (Based on the reaction from the studio audience, this is distressing news to a large segment of the Bachelor fandom.) Wen Ning and Jiang Cheng are in the audience, in fact, although Lan Wangji and Wei Ying refrain from pointing them out, since Jiang Cheng has made clear that he never wants to be on television again.

No, Lan Wangji hasn’t spoken with Su Minshan since sending him home in Suzhou. Su Minshan hasn’t shown up for the live studio taping, but the boos from the audience when he’s mentioned are extremely pleasing to the ear. Yes, he and Wei Ying are friends with Luo Qingyang and Wen Qing. No, they haven’t been back to Cloud Recesses, but they’ve talked about going and spending some time erasing troubled memories with happy ones. Yes, Jingyi — apparently very popular with the studio audience — has given the union his blessing, pronouncing Wei Ying “like, so extremely cool, Lan-xiansheng, you don’t even know,” to which Lan Wangji had responded, “Actually, Jingyi, I think I do know.”

No, Wei Ying won’t be coming back to The Bachelor as a cameraman next season. It had taken a while for Lan Wangji to convince him that this was alright — and that it was alright for him to film the documentary instead.

“I don’t want to take advantage of you, or get something I haven’t earned,” he’d fretted, after admitting that what he really wanted was to go back to making documentaries of his own, like he had in film school, and more specifically a documentary about the history of food.

“Am I receiving a benefit I haven’t earned, then?” Lan Wangji asked. All three of his books had received major sales bumps when the show began to air, something he’d never considered when he had agreed to be the Bachelor.

“No, of course not!”

“Why are you different, then? If you want to do it, we should do it.”

“Really, Lan Zhan?”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji had even agreed to try drinking the re-creation of the seven thousand-year-old Jiahu wine on camera. The aftermath had been much more fun than the last time he’d had something to drink.

When Nie Huaisang throws questions open to the studio audience, a woman stands up and says “Okay, this is more of a comment than a question, but how did everyone around you two not know that you were falling in love, like, immediately? It was so obvious, and we could only see one of you.”

Lan Wangji thinks a lot of the credit for this goes to Meng Yao, who had put together the available footage in a way that hinted at the coming twist. Nie Huaisang, who Lan Wangji has learned is much more perceptive than people like to give him credit for, grins at the two of them. He’s told them that he, like Jiang Yanli, knew something was going on from the beginning — right from the first cocktail party, in fact.

Wei Ying laughs. “People see what they’re looking for, I guess,” he says, shrugging. “Even we didn’t really know for a bit …”

After the shoot wraps up and the studio audience funnels out, Meng Yao bumps into Lan Wangji and Wei Ying just outside the doors to the studio. They have just finished saying goodbye to Wen Ning and Jiang Cheng, who are taking the opportunity to spend a night enjoying Shanghai together.

“Another successful night,” Meng Yao says, triumphant, one hand on the door to go back in to the studio. “How do you two feel about doing a wedding special? Your wedding would do huge numbers.”

“Ah.” Lan Wangji, having been instructed to keep Meng Yao from re-entering the studio for a few more minutes, decides to unleash news he knows will keep Meng Yao’s attention. “About that. We are getting married this weekend.”

“What?” Meng Yao says, genuinely startled.

“A small ceremony. Just close family, at home. You are invited, of course. My brother assures me that you will be available.”

“What? This weekend, as in, four days from now? That’s not enough time to get together a film crew. And a small wedding — no, no, we’ve got to do something spectacular — ”

“Ohhh, he’s mad,” Wei Ying says, hopping back a bit and dragging Lan Wangji with him. “I told you we should have told him on the phone, er-gege.”

“Your brother knows about this?” Meng Yao says. He is, in fact, spitting mad. Lan Wangji hopes his read on Meng Yao’s inner romantic is correct.

“Mn. Of course. He and Jiang Cheng are the best men.”

Wei Ying cracks the door to the studio back open while Meng Yao fumes. The floor inside has, in the time since everyone left, been carpeted in thousands of red rosebuds. Lan Xichen is standing in a spotlight at the centre, diamond ring in hand. It is excessive. Meng Yao is going to love it.

“Ah, perhaps we can discuss this later,” Lan Wangji says, and pushes Meng Yao towards the door. “I think someone needs you in there …”

###

Dailies: Episode 8, Overnight Date

(Dawn, on the porch outside the set in Hengdian where LAN WANGJI and WEI WUXIAN have just spent the night. They are sitting together on the steps, WEI WUXIAN reverently stroking the ring on his finger while he leans against LAN WANGJI. The camera is an afterthought.)

WWX: I still think you’re going to want to leave, Lan Zhan. Maybe not today, maybe not a year from now … but someday, you’ll look up from whatever you’re doing and think, why did I choose him?

LWJ: (gently) I will not. And I have a whole lifetime to convince you, if you will let me.

WWX: (a laugh, soft and shaky) You’ll have to convince me every day, Lan Zhan.

LWJ: Mn. Every day.