THE WEEK BEFORE
“So,” says Jiang Cheng, leaning against Lan Wangji’s doorway with his arms crossed tight over his chest. “Did you see the email.”
Lan Wangji does not look up from his computer, which has one sentence written in Microsoft Word. That sentence is Ideas For Saturday. There are no ideas for Saturday listed. His phone has been vibrating in his pocket ever since the email arrived in his inbox, which means that Wei Ying has also read it, even though Lan Wangji has taken away his email access while he recuperates. It is obvious that there is no loyalty among Lan Wangji’s staff.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng says, stubborn. “Did you see. The email.”
Lan Wangji is trying to pretend that Jiang Cheng is not there. He is always, on some level, trying to pretend that Jiang Cheng is not there.
Eventually, he accepts the reality that he lives in, which is the one where Jiang Cheng is in his doorway and that there is an email sitting in his inbox that he did, in fact, have the displeasure of reading.
He says, “I read all my emails promptly.”
“You’re such an asshole,” Jiang Cheng mutters. “Why are you like this. Who made you like this. Was it Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Wangji considers this, then bows his head in acknowledgment that, probably, it was indeed Wei Wuxian.
He says, “Was there something regarding next week’s celebrity guest that you feel it important we discuss?”
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng snaps, “Regarding next week’s celebrity guest, I would like to discuss the following point: what the fuck?”
“He agreed to come on short notice,” Lan Wangji explains, looking back at his very empty document. His phone vibrates again, and then again, and then rings four times before he sends it to voicemail. “As a favor to the show. It was very gracious of him.”
Jiang Cheng throws his arms up into the air, coming more fully into Lan Wangji’s office, which is the opposite of what Lan Wangji wants him to do. “He’s not even that famous! We couldn’t get someone else?”
“Whom would you have suggested, on this schedule?” Lan Wangji returns, keeping his tone even.
“I don’t know. Anyone. We’re a very popular show. People like us.”
“Perhaps next time you could offer the names and contact information for more famous celebrities you would prefer we ask to donate a week of their time after a last-minute cancellation,” suggests Lan Wangji. He knows he’s being an asshole, but he can’t help it. Something about Jiang Cheng brings it out in him, and mostly always has. He doesn’t know what.
(He knows what. Wei Wuxian told him once, laughing: He’s the only person in your life you can be an asshole to without feeling bad about it.)
Jiang Cheng flips him off. “You’re really okay with this,” he says flatly. “I thought you’d be even more pissed than me, because of the thing with his manager.”
“I don’t know what gave you that impression,” Lan Wangji answers serenely, and then looks pointedly back down at his computer so that Jiang Cheng knows the conversation is over.
There’s a pause where Lan Wangji can feel Jiang Cheng’s eyes on him, but eventually he gives a disgusted snort and storms out.
Lan Wangji stares determinedly down at his laptop. Under Ideas for Saturday, he writes: Murder is forbidden on NBC premises.
It is Friday, the second busiest day in Lan Wangji’s already punishingly packed schedule, and his to do list is so long that it’s taken up two pages of printer paper, a napkin, the back of a Subway receipt, and fourteen post-its. Lan Wangji is typically more organized than this, but he recently filled up his notebook, and traditionally Wei Ying always buys them for him. On Monday he’d stood in a CVS for twenty minutes that he didn’t have, staring at them, and then left without buying anything except a terrible green juice that he didn’t even want.
Being head writer at SNL is a lot like being a child with untreated ADHD responsible for wrangling a staff full of smaller children with untreated ADHD into solving the Riemann hypothesis, and also all of those children missed the unit of math where they learned long division, and you, the older child, have This Is Halloween from The Nightmare Before Christmas playing on repeat in your head, but the way your brain thinks it would sound if it were sung in Russian, a language you don’t speak, so you have bigger problems than teaching long division to children who don’t want to learn it, even though at this rate, none of you are ever going to solve the Riemann hypothesis.
That could be a sketch, Lan Wangji thinks to himself, making a mental note but not a physical one. Maybe it’s a little weird, but Wei Ying likes sketches that are a little weird. Wei Ying is always trying to push the format forward, to bring in animators for the digital shorts and feature weird underground musicians that nobody knew. There was a slam poet he kept pitching before his hiatus, but Lan Wangji is eighty percent sure that’s a bit.
Once, in the early days, Lan Wangji and Wei Ying locked themselves in their shared dressing room for twenty hours straight, writing until they were both delirious, and the sketch they came up with featured Jiang Cheng as a rabbit turned into a Playboy Bunny, trying to get people at a fancy Hollywood party in the forties to feed him a carrot.
The point is, Lan Wangji is busy, so he ignores his phone for two more hours before he gives up and answers. He makes a brave attempt at crisis mitigation by saying, “It’s one week. It won’t be that bad. Also, I know you can’t get into your email, because I changed the password, so which of my disciples has betrayed me?”
Wei Ying lets out a long, ugly groan. “I am fine, Lan Zhan. Everybody is overreacting, it’s so embarrassing for all of you.”
“You had undiagnosed pneumonia, which you walked around with for weeks until you passed out during dress,” Lan Wangji corrects him. “It got a big laugh, until everyone thought you were dead.”
He keeps his voice even and does not tell Wei Ying that it had been Lan Wangji who had taken him him to the hospital, where he was yelled at by nurses who wanted to know why he hadn’t noticed that Wei Ying couldn’t stop shivering or string proper sentences together, a question he could not answer.
“Rumors of my demise have been vastly overstated,” Wei Ying says. “Unless of course we are talking about le petit mort, in which case I would hate to insult your prowess. Anyway, I’m already much better. Basically fine. Really almost completely back to normal, so stop babying me and tell me why the fuck you let your stupid brother let the worst man in the world host our show.”
Lan Wangji sighs, looking across 30 Rock at where a gaggle of high schoolers are skating. He’s grateful that Wei Ying is on the phone and not here in person, so that for once he doesn’t have to school his features when Wei Ying once again brings up That Time They Had Sex On Lan Wangji’s Couch as if it were the world’s funniest joke.
“The Zodiac Killer,” Lan Wangji says. “Wen Chao. Harvey Weinstein.”
“What is this list. It’s a bad list.”
Wei Ying makes another little noise. Lan Wangji frowns; he can still hear a slight rattle. He probably isn’t even drinking the soup Yanli had couriered over to him, stubborn bastard. “Hm. But are they? Because making Yanli cry is a crime,” Wei Ying argues. “It’s the worst one. It’s against the Geneva Convention. It’s worse than murder. The fact that you fail to realize this makes me think that maybe you should be on the list.”
Lan Wangji resolutely does not smile as he finishes his sandwich and readies himself to head inside. It’s only 10am, but Fridays are always hectic, more hectic even than Saturdays, so Lan Wangji is given the gift of not being able to think about next week. He focuses instead on cutting down the script, getting through the producers’ meeting with Yu Ziyuan and Nie Mingjue, fixing the order of the sketches, and sending everything to Lan Qiren for final review. Usually this leads to another round of edits, but since Wei Ying has been stuck at home, he’s received very little pushback.
He supposes his uncle thinks this is subtle. It is not.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Eat your soup and take a nap and stop making Jingyi read you your email.”
“Nice try,” Wei Ying tells him, sounding amused. “It’s not Jingyi.”
“Then Wen Ning.”
“It’s not Sizhui,” Lan Wangji says doubtfully, brow furrowing. He doesn’t think Sizhui would betray him, but then, Sizhui adores Wei Ying, and Wei Ying can be terribly convincing.
“Of course it’s not Sizhui. He’d never disobey his father like that.”
Lan Wangji sighs. “Eat your soup,” he says again, and hangs up.
Look, he’s not thrilled about it. Of course he’s not. Lan Wangji doesn’t like Jin Zixuan any more than any of the rest of them; he’s arrogant, and his stupid action movies are bad, and he’d once replied to rumors linking him with Yanli by telling a TMZ reporter that “he couldn’t respond to every c-list actress who was obsessed with him.”
Also, and really more to the point, he had the world’s most irritating manager, who for some reason hated Wei Ying and liked to be a really loud asshole about it.
Lan Wangji doesn’t love the idea that Wei Ying’s first week back after a three-month, doctor-mandated period of bedrest is with someone against whom he has a personal grudge, but it’s not like they haven’t had shitty hosts before, and Lan Wangji will simply run interference between him and Jin Zixuan’s manager Jin Zixun.
“I just think it’s fucked up that he and his manager have, like, the same name,” Ah Qing says, frowning down at her clipboard. “Am I blind, or is Xue Yang about to miss his cue a-fucking-gain? If he fucks this up during the live show, he owes me eight hundred candy bars from the vending machine on the fifth floor.”
They've been working on getting the blocking right for this skit for half an hour, which is too long by far. Xue Yang skids out on stage as Ah Qing finishes speaking, already saying his line. Lan Wangji doesn’t think it looked that bad; almost like it had been a bit put in on purpose. It would be extremely like Xue Yang to do exactly that, because Xue Yang loves attention.
On her other side, Zizhen frowns and asks, “Wait — are you not blind?”
“Only mostly,” Ah Qing tells him, “and on Tuesdays. Anyway, your wig is crooked and that’s your cue.” She cheerfully shoves him cheerfully onstage three lines too early.
Lan Wangji sighs. “You’re fired,” he says.
“Prove it, tough guy,” she answers.
“Can you guys shut up? I’m trying to get in character,” snaps Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng is dressed like a lobster unicorn, half-emerging from a city dumpster. Lan Wangji does not care to know what kind of Meisner technique he feels he needs to do in order to embody this particular creation, but nevertheless he leaves Ah Qing to her stage direction and Jiang Cheng to his art. He’s got to get some makeup trials done, anyway; the hair and makeup people are always yelling at him for not giving them enough time to practice character looks, and then yelling at him for being a “twenty-eight-year-old with perfect skin,” which seems unfair, as this is not Lan Wangji’s fault.
He’s sitting in the chair, Jinzhu bustling irritably around him and threatening to crush him into dust if he doesn’t start showing up to hair and makeup when he is scheduled to show up for hair and makeup, when Zizhen’s voice asks, a little nervously, “Uh, hey, Lan Wangji?”
He doesn’t open his eyes, because Jinzhu is putting some kind of something on his eyebrows and he’s afraid to move. “Yes?”
Zizhen clears his throat. “Uh, I just, I wanted to ask? Because Ah Qing said — I mean, when she said earlier, about being blind — ”
Jinzhu’s hands are pulled away from Lan Wangji’s face with a put-upon sigh. “Does nobody in this fucking building have anything better to do than gossip while I am trying to work,” Jinzhu gripes. “I worked on The Greatest Showman. I never had to deal with this shit with Hugh Jackman.”
Lan Wangji puts a hand on Jinzhu’s wrist, so that she knows he is taking her complaints seriously and also so that she won’t hurt him with the eyelash curler she’s waving dangerously close to his face. “Zizhen, what is the question?”
“Just — I thought she was blind? Because of her weird eyes? I mean. Not weird. I think they’re pretty. But they’re — you’ve seen them. They’re very ... white.”
No educator on earth could teach these children long division, Lan Wangji thinks.
“I will answer your question with a question. Have you ever seen Ah Qing read?”
Zizhen is quiet for a long moment. Jinzhu looks down at Lan Wangji with pursed lips and uses two of his fingers to gently slide his eyes shut.
“Oh,” mutters Zizhen.
Jinzhu says, “Okay, my little hanguang-jun. Pucker up.”
As per usual, the first readthrough suggests the show will run about ten minutes over, which means most sketches will need to shave off any unnecessary jokes, and they may have to cut the musical number. He always tries to let the writers decide themselves what jokes to cut, with the asterisk that anything which kills during dress will have to stay in; but often he ends up making the changes himself, because half the time nobody is willing to kill their darlings, and Lan Wangji, frankly, isn’t bothered.
(“My favorite darling serial killer,” Wei Ying sometimes calls him, fondly. Sometimes less fondly.)
He stays late because he always stays late, because there isn’t anyone at SNL that doesn’t stay late. Wei Ying texts him every ten minutes, asking about the sketches and the host and whether his green room is clean and ready for him and also his thoughts on the narrative arc of Scooby Doo! Mystery Inc, which he has been watching during his convalescence and become very invested in.
Lan Wangji has a policy of only answering once per twenty texts, both to discourage Wei Ying and to keep himself from spending his entire ninety-hour work week texting his stupid best friend.
His stupid, stupid best friend, who, as far as Lan Wangji can tell, thought it was hilariously funny that he’d accidentally almost killed himself. Who, when he’d woken up in the hospital, cracked a terrible smile at Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng, and Yanli and said guys I gotta be honest this hotel room sucks as if he hadn’t been living with undiagnosed pneumonia for weeks, giving himself potentially permanent lung damage.
(“Lungs!” he’d cried jovially, having to pause walking up the four steps to Lan Wangji’s front door. “Who needs ’em?”)
He’d come in the year after Lan Wangji, him and Jiang Cheng and Yanli, hired off the back of their wildly successful YouTube sketch channel. Lan Wangji had hated him. He’d hated his bad posture and the way he tore pen caps to pieces chewing on them, hated the way he wrote notes on everything, any scrap of paper he could find; hated how quickly he made jokes, how fast they slid out of his mouth, funnier than everyone else in the room; hated how often he’d hand those jokes over to the other writers, filling out their sketches and not taking any writing credit; hated how he’d sit next to Lan Wangji with their shoulders touching and slide him little doodles when other people were talking.
He hated his easy laugh, his small ears, his perfect mouth, his dancing eyes, his frenetic hands, always moving. Always moving. Lan Wangji hadn’t been able to focus on anything else. It had wreaked havoc on his sketches.
He’d hated him, and then one day Wei Ying had fallen asleep on the couch in their shared office in a horrible old tank-top that said “2001 SENIOR WOMEN’S BOCCE BALL COMPETITION” with his mouth hanging open, drooling onto the cushions, and abruptly Lan Wangji had not hated him, had never hated him, was shocked and upset to realize that there was not one person in the world whose drool he’d rather have staining his shitty velvet.
“Mn,” he’d said, dismayed at himself.
Wei Ying had startled awake. Dried spit flaked off the corner of his mouth. He looked terrible. Lan Wangji wanted to bury his nose in his armpit, which was appalling. “Lan Zhan! Ah, sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I meant — well, okay, yes I did. But only because you weren’t here and it’s so fucking noisy downstairs. I came here not to sleep but to tell you that I had this idea, and stay with me for a minute, that we add a rap verse to the opera parody song, and we get Yanli to do it.”
Lan Wangji had said: “...”
And Wei Ying grinned, somehow already knowing he had won.
Lan Wangji rubs at his eyes. He should go home. He needs to go home. It’s Friday; he needs to shower before the live show, and he won’t have time tomorrow to leave and come back. He’s pretty sure he needs to refill the bunny feeder, because knowing Cloud and Snowball, they’ll have emptied it already.
He looks longingly at the couch. It’s much nicer than the one he’d had with Wei Ying. More comfy. Big enough, on late nights, to fit the both of them.
He blinks the memory away. Lan Wangji is not thinking about it. He has been valiantly Not Thinking About It since it happened, four and a half months ago, at the cast party after the fiftieth anniversary. The office was closer than the train, and it had been so late, and Wei Ying had said bet we can both fit on the couch, and —
And then they’d —
He goes home to shower and feed the rabbits.
They get through exactly zero orders of business on Saturday morning before Jiang Cheng once again brings up the fact that Jin Zixuan is hosting and Lan Wangji once again has to remind him that he’s just the head writer and has nothing to do with booking.
Wen Qing sighs with the attitude of someone who knows she’s going to be asked to compose a magnum opus at 4am the day before the show. Nie Huaisang darts a look at Yanli, then Mianmian, and then immediately begins plotting out sketch ideas that Lan Wangji already knows are going to involve weird kissing. Mianmian drops her head onto the table and says, “That fucker is gonna make us do a dance number. I’ve seen his fucking thirst trap TikToks.”
Yanli rolls her lips inward and says nothing.
The featured players — Lan Wangji likes all of them, mostly; at least, he likes that they are afraid of him — glance at each other and then the room at large and then Zizhen bursts out, “Bruh. Did you hear he got hired to play the new Batman?”
“I thought that we weren’t, like, talking to that guy?” Jingyi asks. “As, you know. A group.” He thinks that he is sneaky about looking at Yanli. He isn’t.
Lan Wangji says, as evenly as possible, “Saturday Night Live is not fighting with Jin Zixuan. It is a television show.”
“Yeah but Jiang Cheng hates him,” Jingyi points out.
“Jiang Cheng doesn’t hate him,” Sizhui tells him, clearly trying to cut this discussion off at the pass.
“No, Jingyi’s right, I hate him,” says Jiang Cheng. “He sucks.”
Yanli reaches across to give Jiang Cheng’s arm a hard pinch. “A-Cheng,” she hisses. “Don’t say that. He’s a good person.”
“He is very much not a good person,” Jiang Cheng corrects her. The featured cast members swivel their heads to stare at him, except Sizhui, who puts his face in his hands. “You’re too nice. I have to be extra mean because you’re too nice and that fucker Wei Wuxian isn’t here to share the burden til next week.”
“It was just a misunderstanding,” Yanli says, in a voice that suggests that there was nothing just about the misunderstanding, and that if anyone talks about it for even one more second, she will burst into tears.
Beside her, Jin Ling leans heavily against her shoulder and submits to a series of painful-looking head pats.
“If we refused to book all the people in the world that Jiang Cheng hates, we would be terminally short on hosts,” Lan Wangji says, to end this conversation. He ignores the irritated look that Jiang Cheng sends him, and also the grateful one from Yanli, because her emotions — right at the surface and for some incomprehensible reason not politely repressed into the size of an atom — have always flustered him, and he never knows what to say except to quickly change the subject.
“Well, I also hate him,” volunteers Wang Lingjiao, studying the nails on her right hand and making a point of not looking at Lan Wangji. “Last time he was here, he picked a skit where I had to play a centipede.”
Lan Wangji does not laugh, remembering this. It had been written by Wei Ying. He’d made Wang Lingjiao tuck her chin into her chest so that it doubled, “for the character.” Lan Wangji doesn’t much care for Wang Lingjiao, but she is a good actress. She had done the double chin.
Jiang Cheng makes a face. “Don’t agree with me,” he snaps at her. “I’ll have to change my mind on principle.”
“I’m reading from the room that our feelings on Jin Zixuan are complicated, so I’m gonna do only fifty percent shitty sketches that heavily imply he’s a Brony or like, into hentai,” Jingyi surmises, slumping against the back of his chair in disappointment. Beside him, Sizhui gives his shoulder a comforting pat.
Lan Wangji does not have favorites amongst his cast, but if he did have favorites, it would be Sizhui, who writes sweetly weird skits and always makes sure that the host feels that their opinions are being heard and honored. He’ll be a good head writer, one day, if he sticks around long enough to be promoted.
Lan Wangji masks a grimace by scratching the bridge of his nose. He misses having a co-head, but the idea of doing it with anyone who wasn’t Wei Ying, even on an interim basis, had made something in him ache like a bad tooth.
Anyway, he reminds himself soothingly, it doesn’t matter now. Monday. On Monday, things will be — how they were.
“Nevertheless, he’s hosting,” Lan Wangji says. “Now, some of you might recall that today is Saturday, and no one has written the monologue, which we need by 1pm.”
It does not surprise Lan Wangji to be met with silence; no one ever wants to write the monologue. The monologue always sucks. With a sigh, he says, “Fine. Jingyi, you do it,” because Jingyi has caused him trouble today and Lan Wangji is not above labor as punishment.
“I’ll help you,” Sizhui offers in that soft voice of his as Jingyi opens his mouth to protest. “Come on. I’ve got some ideas.”
Lan Wangji doles out the rest of his assignments, leaving Nie Huaisang to deal with this week’s host, a truly insane popstar named Mo Xuanyu, whose insistence on covering his face meant that every sketch had to have a mask for it. They’d decided to increase the complexity of the mask with each sketch and never comment on it or address it within the world of the sketch; when in doubt, Lan Wangji has realized over the course of his tenure as a writer on SNL, lean into the host’s weird quirks and make meta bits.
He is gathering his things to go back to his office and give a final glance over tomorrow’s production notes when Sizhui pokes his head back into the meeting room. “Uh, Lan Wangji? Sorry.”
He smiles down at his watch. “Stop apologizing so much. People won’t take you seriously.”
Sizhui makes a face, but he’s clearly blushing, a little. “Maybe I’m just sucking up to you,” he says. “Maybe this is all part of a ploy to get promoted.”
“I will take this suggestion under advisement,” says Lan Wangji dryly. “What can I help you with?”
His eyes skitter away, and then back. Sizhui is many things, but stoic is not one of them. After a brief pause, he clearly steels himself and then blurts: “I just wanted to make sure you were, uh, okay. About. With. I mean — next week. Wei Wuxian coming back.”
Lan Wangji blinks.
“I have no bad blood with Wei Ying,” he says, not bothering to mask his confusion. “We are — very good friends.”
Sizhui says, “It’s just that, well, I don’t know if ... but at the Christmas party, you — they gave you some of the Zombie Punch that Wen Ning made, remember? And ... when I was putting you in a cab to go home, you said — ”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji interrupts quickly. He does not, in fact, remember this; he never remembers anything that happens when he’s drunk. It’s the best part of being drunk. The worst part of being drunk is all the times he’s woken up and had to piece together the mystery of why his house looks like someone took a leaf blower to it. One time he woke up with a tattoo over his heart that matched the one he’d seen on Wei Ying that night on their couch, a terrible secret that he will take with him to the grave or the tattoo removal place Jiang Cheng used. “Don’t worry about that.”
“But — ”
“Aren’t you supposed to be helping Jingyi with the monologue?”
Sizhui closes his mouth with a sigh. He gives Lan Wangji a look that suggests he’s not fooling anybody, but turns and lets himself out.
After the show is the afterparty, which Lan Wangji hates and always tries to skip. Tonight, Mo Xuanyu says, “New York’s hottest club is TASTE, which answers the question: huh?!” fluttering his eyelashes in invitation, and Lan Wangji answers, “I did not ask that question,” and spins on his heel, walking so quickly to the elevator that he nearly brains himself tripping over a loose carpet edge.
He finds Jiang Cheng and Yanli already there, repeatedly smashing the “door close” button. Jiang Cheng yanks him inside as it closes, hissing, “Get in or he’ll see us.”
“I do not want to go anywhere that Mo Xuanyu would take me,” Yanli says fervently. “He said we should go somewhere that was ‘built from the bucket list of every dying pervert.’ I don’t even know what that means.”
“Nothing good,” Jiang Cheng mutters darkly as the elevator pings and the doors slide back open, depositing them into the lobby. “Thank God Wei Wuxian isn’t here. He’d be so into how weird that guy is.”
Lan Wangji hums his agreement. Wei Ying always dragged him to the after parties and then stuck by his side and accepted all the drinks people bought for him. He said it was a fair trade for Lan Wangji always making sure he got home when he was too drunk to take the train alone.
“He misses you,” Yanli says, in the sweet, musical voice she only uses when she’s trying to get someone to do something for her.
“Today he texted me seventy-two times,” Lan Wangji tell her, “he does not have time to miss me,” but by the way Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes Lan Wangji knows he’s horrifically transparent in feeling pleased by Yanli’s report.
Yanli tuts at him, linking their arms. “Texting isn’t the same. You should come over tonight. Don’t go home alone, that’s so sad.”
“Ugh,” says Jiang Cheng with feeling. He hails a cab and stamps an irritated foot as Lan Wangji hesitates and takes too long getting into it. “Let me go in first. I don’t wanna be around when A-Xian gets all weepy and embarrassing.”
Yanli elbows him. “A-Cheng,” she scolds. “It’s not that he’s playing favorites.”
Jiang Cheng snorts, leaning forward so he can see Lan Wangji, on the other side of Yanli. “I don’t care about that,” he splutters. “Wei Wuxian can do whatever he wants. I don’t — I’m not jealous. I’m just saying we had a roommate contract, that we all signed, which agreed: no overnight guests on Fridays, and anyway, he’s supposed to be getting lots of sleep. He’s sick.”
“I won’t spend the night,” Lan Wangji tells him, a little stiffly.
“Liar. You’re going to stay for dinner and then end up writing a bunch of sketches for next week. Just don’t fucking blame me when he collapses again,” Jiang Cheng tells him flatly, and crosses his arms over his chest. “I’m not gonna give a shit.”
He leans his head back against the seat rest and closes his eyes. Yanli sighs, patting his knee comfortingly, and then says to Lan Wangji, “I’ve been tossing around this character for a while — it’s like a spin on Cinderella, a girl who can talk to animals and nature and things, but the punchline is that she’s a butcher.”
Lan Wangji blinks. “...Dark,” he says, but not necessarily with disapproval.
“Yeah,” she agrees cheerfully. “I was thinking we do the set dressings really cartoony and Disney-fied, to get the full effect.”
“It should be an ad for a Disney princess doll,” Jiang Cheng advises, without opening his eyes. “Work with Wen Qing to make it a digital short, so we can animate the birds and stuff.”
Lan Wangji hums in approval. “That’s good.”
Jiang Cheng cracks an eye at him. “Gosh, thanks,” he says sarcastically. “Always the tone of surprise.”
“There’s no way we’ll be able to animate the whole thing,” Yanli muses, ignoring her brother except to put a gentle hand on his knee and give him a half-comforting, half-scolding pat. “I wonder if we could do a blend. A Who Framed Roger Rabbit kind of deal.”
“Jin Zixuan can play one of the birds. We’ll make him do death screams in the recording booth until he loses his voice.”
Yanli frowns at him. “A-Cheng. We can’t do that. We need him to be able to perform on Saturday.”
“We never get to do what I want to do,” Jiang Cheng mutters, and the cab pulls up in front of their building, a neatly appointed loft flat in Red Hook in a converted warehouse. Lan Wangji has only ever been once before, the first night Wei Ying came home from the hospital; Yanli and Jiang Cheng had refused to let him go back to the shithole of a closet he shared with a small village of strangers on the edge of Alphabet City, next to the Marble Cemetery, which was very cheap because the building caught fire every few months due to rats chewing through various wires at the hairdresser’s on the first floor.
(“It’ll only be for a few more years,” Wei Ying had said, the first time Lan Wangji had seen the apartment and not been able to disguise his horror. “I really, uh. Racked up a lot of debt in college. Not all of us come from money, you know. Higher education in this country is a nightmare.”)
The loft is surprisingly massive, with huge bay windows and what Lan Wangji suspects is original exposed brick interiors, situated above a Fairway. Jiang Cheng, jaw tight, had made a sharp remark about hoping it was “up to the Lan standards” when he’d caught Lan Wangji looking around the first time he’d been there; Wei Ying, still mostly unconscious, had mumbled, “Don’t be mean to Lan Wangji. He didn’t kill the Lotus Grocery chain with his low low pricing,” and then giggled himself back into a brief coma.
So there was clearly a lot to unpack there.
Anyway, Wei Ying spent his convalescence with Yanli and Jiang Cheng, except for the three-day reprieve where he came to Lan Wangji’s because their parents were in town, and as the owners of the loft apartment would have — Lan Wangji was told — “fucking lost it” if they found out Wei Ying was staying there.
(“They hate me,” Wei Ying had informed Lan Wangji, leaning heavily against his front door, sweaty and pale. Lan Wangji had, almost without thinking about it, hauled him up onto his back to carry him over to the couch, because the idea of making him walk even one step further was ... untenable. “Shi-jie was supposed to be a doctor. A-Cheng was supposed to go to, like, Harvard Business School and restore the family to their former Grocery Overlord Glory. Then I showed up and got everybody into clown school.”)
Yanli lets them in, then tosses her keys into a bowl by the door and shouts, “A-Xian! We’re home! I brought you a present!”
“If it is more soup, please, I am begging you to have mercy, I can’t do it,” begs Wei Ying’s voice from one of the bedrooms. He sounds good, Lan Wangji thinks. Better than he did over the phone. “It’s all I’ve had since January and if I am not allowed to chew something all my teeth will fall out. I looked it up. That can happen. Nine out of ten dentists agree that I deserve a hamburger. Or a BLT. Or KFC.”
Lan Wangji pokes his head into the bedroom and says, “Not soup.”
Wei Ying’s eyes light up.
He leaps out of bed, his pajamas — too big now after so many months of being ill — sliding off his shoulders and a little bit down his hips. He drags them up impatiently with one hand, skidding to a stop in front of Lan Wangji, smile wide and beaming.
Some day, Lan Wangji is going to learn not to have any feelings about it, that smile, the one that says Lan Zhan is here and I’m so glad to see him. It’s different from his Yanli smile, from the ones for Jiang Cheng or Wen Qing or Wen Ning.
Wei Ying loves enough people to have a whole catalogue of smiles; Lan Wangji actively likes maybe five, and he’s related to two of them.
Mostly people are ... fine, in Lan Wangji’s opinion. Sometimes they are terrible. Often they are fine but annoy him anyway, by not being good enough at their jobs, and then he has to talk to them about it, and when he has Wei Ying it’s all right because Wei Ying can do it. But for the last three months, he’s had to have all those conversations himself, and it turns out, he’s terrible at them.
He made Jin Ling cry. Twice.
He feels his lips twitch up, pleased by Wei Ying’s obvious delight. “You look terrible,” he notes, which isn’t strictly true. Wei Ying never looks terrible. Probably better to say he looks thin. A little tired. Wan.
“Yeah, big undead vibes, I know,” Wei Ying agrees, and flings himself dramatically into Lan Wangji’s startled embrace. “They’ve been forcing me to live on soup. And turnips.”
“The soup has braised pork in it,” Yanli yells from the kitchen. “And you like turnips.”
Wei Ying flutters his eyelashes up at Lan Wangji, sorrowful. “The question is not whether or not I like turnips. The question is whether man can live on turnips alone.”
Jiang Cheng snorts as he comes in, dropping himself dramatically onto the second bed. “Literally last night you had Insomnia Cookies delivered,” he comments dryly.
“Snitch,” mutters Wei Ying, and untangles himself from Lan Wangji with obvious reluctance. Lan Wangji lets himself be guided back into the front area, where they are instructed firmly by Yanli to sit on the couch while she chooses a takeout place.
“Are you staying for Saturday Second Dinner?” she asks Lan Wangji, coming round to sit on one of the massive beanbags, feet tucked under her.
He hadn’t planned to. He really was just going to say hello. But then Wei Ying says, “Don’t be insane, shi-jie, of course he’s staying, he only just got here,” as if there isn’t any question, so Lan Wangji gives Yanli a nod and settles back against the couch cushions. She smiles at him, and calls the place around the corner. She orders double of everything, which Lan Wangji knows is by design so that she can force it on him to take home because “we couldn’t possibly eat this much, you’d be doing us a favor.”
“Called it,” yells Jiang Cheng from the bedroom.
“Called what? And also shut up,” Wei Ying shouts back, before turning conspiratorially to the couch. “Hey, Lan Zhan. Do you have draft copy for the host promos? I’ll bet they suck. Give it to me, I’ll fix it.”
“I’m told you’re not supposed to work,” Lan Wangji informs him.
“Laughter is the best medicine!” Wei Ying wheedles. “Come onnnnn, Lan Zhan, I’ve been rotting away for months and months, if someone doesn’t let me get a joke on TV in the next twenty minutes I’ll die. I’ll literally be forced to fling myself out of the Jiang family’s beautiful bay windows, and on the way down I’ll shout, ‘This was avoidable! This is because Lan Zhan wouldn’t let me punch up the promos!’ and then you’ll be fired for secondhand murder and it’ll be a tragedy like the sketch comedy circuit has never seen.”
Lan Wangji says, “Second-degree.”
“Murder. Not secondhand.”
Wei Ying furrows his brow. “...I’ve heard it both ways,” he says. “That would make a good detective show spoof skit, though. Secondhand Murder.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Murder She Wrote, but an idiot.”
“Keeps suggesting a series of increasingly implausible manners of death,” Wei Ying agrees, scribbling on the back of the takeout menu. Yanli and Lan Wangji share a look. “All the deaths are like — incredibly obvious and she goes buckwild with her theories anyway.”
“Police keep asking her to leave.”
“I want to be one of the victims,” Yanli says. “Put like, a sword right through my chest, but I’m still alive, telling the cops what happened, and she’s still like, ‘No no, that’s what the murderer wants you to think.’”
“Gruesome! Love it,” says Wei Ying, making a note.
Jiang Cheng’s head lolls off his bed and into view of the open doorway. “That doesn’t sound like not working,” he accuses. “Also: what’s for dinner and is Lan Wangji paying since he horned in on our last night with A-Xian?”
“That’s fine,” Lan Wangji concedes.
“Lan Zhan, don’t let A-Cheng bully you,” Wei Ying scolds him. “You don’t have to pay just because you’re our richest friend.” He puts his feet up in Lan Wangji’s lap and leans back against the overly plush cushion. He really does look tired.
Maybe he’s coming back too soon. Maybe he’s doing it because he knows how miserable Lan Wangji is without him, even though Lan Wangji has tried so hard to pretend like he isn’t, for precisely this reason. Like the fun of the job is the job itself and not just doing it with Wei Ying.
Wei Ying at the Weekend Update desk, grinning across at Lan Wangji, flirting as if it were on the cue cards. Lan Wangji, carefully stone-faced, shooting him down. Wei Ying strung out on Lan Wangji’s couch even though they had their own offices now, across the hall from each other, because Lan Wangji’s was “more comfortable.” Both offices had the same couch. Wei Ying just didn’t like to be alone.
To his surprise and dismay, it has become clear, these past three months, that neither does Lan Wangji.
“I’m not,” Lan Wangji says.
“Not our richest friend?”
“Not letting Jiang Cheng bully me. I’m definitely your richest friend.”
“I could bully you if I wanted,” says Jiang Cheng. “I could bully the shit out of you.”
“You could not,” Lan Wangji assures him. “Name one non-work thing about me that you even know.”
Jiang Cheng opens his mouth, then closes it again. “... Holy shit,” he says. “We’ve worked together for three years. I just realized I don’t even know where you’re from.”
“And you never will,” Lan Wangji says, and that’s when the food arrives.
“Manhattan,” Wei Ying murmurs sleepily at three a.m., as Lan Wangji nudges him up off the couch and back to the bedroom. Lan Wangji should have moved him hours ago, but Yanli had overfed him and then given him a blanket and it had seemed impossible to get up, so instead he’d let himself be lazy, lounging on the couch with Wei Ying’s legs tangled in his own. Wei Ying had a bed to go to, but had elected not to, first because he wanted to harass Lan Wangji about next week and then because he claimed to be too sleepy to move.
But it’s time to go home. Lan Wangji has rabbits to care for, and even if he didn’t, he spends most of the week sleeping on a couch in his office and isn’t eager to spend the one night he can sleep in on another.
“What?” he whispers to Wei Ying as he deposits him onto his mattress.
In the dark, Wei Ying’s eyes look liquid, and a little amber in the dotted apartment lights from outside. “Where you’re from. Manhattan. The Upper East, right? Sutton Place? I remember we walked past that boar statue and you said that’s why you’re vegetarian. Because you liked it so much as a kid. And you put Sutton East in a sketch once — we filmed there, remember, and the guy at the front desk knew you by name. He asked after Snowball and Cloud. Everyone thinks you moved there once you got here, but my theory is: it’s not that you got here, it’s that you came back.”
Sometimes Lan Wangji wishes, very fervently, that Wei Ying were less observant of the world around him. Sometimes it feels like everything Lan Wangji says and does is a tiny clue that Wei Ying is collecting in a jar somewhere, to take out and examine under a microscope.
Tucked underneath his blankets, Jiang Cheng snoring across from them, Wei Ying’s smile is quick and almost invisible in the dark. Lan Wangji hasn’t let himself miss him being across the hall or on his couch, because when he did the sting of it was so sharp he couldn’t write, and on a show like SNL there’s no time for writer’s block. But now he feels the weight of missing him shapeshift into the gladness of having him here.
You don’t need to make theories. Just ask, Lan Wangji thinks, but knows he can’t say without it becoming a whole stupid thing.
“Mn,” he says.
“Not answering means I’m right,” says Wei Ying. “Being without me made you all grumpy again. It’s a good thing I’m back on Monday or you’d keep shriveling up like a sad raisin. One of the yellow ones, which are gross. They’re definitely the grossest kind. Hey, Lan Zhan, we should do a sketch about yellow raisins. Remind me. Something about the lady from the Sun-Maid box coming to life.”
Lan Wangji tugs a lock of his hair where it has fallen out of its bun, but gently. “I’ll remind you. Go to sleep,” he instructs.
Sunday is his only day off, so Lan Wangji sleeps in all the way until six-thirty a.m., meets his brother for tennis at seven, and then spends two or three hours doing some luxury reading. He’s got a standing lunch appointment with his uncle at one-thirty which always takes exactly forty-five minutes, and then plays music until three, and then the rest of the afternoon is for any errands or life administration he needs to get gone before the following week.
Today, after tennis, he and Lan Xichen get bagels from the bodega at the end of Lan Wangji’s block, which has been there as long as Lan Wangji can remember and was his favorite as a child because their gimmick was hiding fortunes somewhere on the cup of all their beverages. He’s got an abundance of plastic lids in various boxes around the apartment and in storage that he hasn’t been able to make himself recycle, though there are probably close to a couple thousand now; but his mother had collected them, and now he does.
Plus, some of them have given him pretty good life advice.
“I saw our favored and esteemed uncle earlier,” he says, and Lan Wangji does not bother to contain his sigh. They’d gotten so far into the morning without it coming up. He’s managed to go the whole week without having to engage with it any meaningful way. “I thought perhaps he’d wait until the end of the season. Are you all right?”
Lan Wangji levels Lan Xichen with a firm look. “I’m fine.”
He is doing fine. He’s doing perfectly fine. What he’s not doing is thinking about it. He’s focusing on the show and on Wei Ying’s return and his tennis backhand, and he is simply not engaging with his uncle’s impending retirement and desire to promote Lan Wangji to Executive Producer.
“Freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional?” Lan Xichen asks, in an overly-polite therapist voice.
Lan Wangji takes a sip of his coffee and steers them back toward his apartment. Lan Xichen is too polite to invite himself inside. If he can get them to his front door, he can end this conversation without ever having to make a point of doing it.
“Fantastic, incredible, normal, and excellent,” he corrects. “You were slow on your back foot today. Is your ankle still bothering you?”
“My ankle is fine,” Lan Xichen tells him, smiling a little, but in a way that suggests that he’s considering which terrible HR mediation technique to deploy to get Lan Wangji to talk. “You’re dodging the question.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “I am able to do this because I do not have a swollen ankle.”
The look Lan Xichen gives him is so dry it could wilt even the heartiest of succulents. “It is very hard, sometimes, to have you as a little brother,” he accuses.
This is not news to Lan Wangji.
He finishes his coffee and pulls the lid off to read the fortune on the underside. “Be loyal and filial,” he reads, and taps his nose. “Worth thinking about.”
Lan Xichen laughs, giving up for now, and stops walking as they reach the front of Lan Wangji’s building. Lan Xichen moved to Carnegie Hill years ago, claiming to need the quiet of Central Park, but the doorman still recognizes him and gives him a wave.
“You’re going to have to give him an answer,” his brother tells him gently. “Patience is not his strongest virtue.”
Lan Wangji drops his empty coffee cup, sans-lid, into the recycling. “I can’t give him my answer until I know it.”
“You don’t like change.”
“Change is necessary and inevitable.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to like it.”
Lan Wangji thinks of waking up on the couch in his office. He thinks of the weight of Wei Ying on his chest, his hand curled around Lan Wangji’s wrist as if to keep him in place. He thinks of Wei Ying’s eyes shuddering open, dazed, then confused, then panicked. Thinks of him saying, Wow, I can’t believe we got so drunk last night that we boned, this is the funniest thing that’s ever happened to me, before Lan Wangji had a chance to say what he’d been thinking, which was, of course, I love you.
He says, “The world very rarely has consideration for what we want.”
Which, because what the world does have is extraordinary comedic timing, is when a taxi pulls up and Wei Ying, backpack slung over his shoulder, tumbles out onto the sidewalk.
“Oh, hey guys,” he greets with a sheepish grin. “So, listen. The apartment got set on fire again, and the landlord is forcing everybody out for, like,” he makes air quotes, “‘health and safety reasons,’ but also I think probably so he can gut the place and then hike the rent up. Anyway, I’d stay at the Jiangs, but uh, we sort of had — a big fight this morning. So. I still have a key, from before, and I was hoping maybe I could — ”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji interrupts, not looking at his brother, who he knows is going to be wearing an expression that Lan Wangji won’t care for. But of course Wei Ying can stay. The night, the week, the month. Forever. “What was the fight?”
Wei Ying rubs the back of his neck and doesn’t meet Lan Wangji’s eyes. “It’s ... ah, he’ll tell you anyway.”
Something heavy settles in Lan Wangji’s stomach. “Tell me what?”
“Well, you see, the thing is, I’ve sort of ... while I was sick I had a lot of free time, and nobody would let me write sketches, and hospital bills don’t pay themselves, and anyway you know I’ve always been interested in long form comedy, and I really didn’t think it would, you know, go anywhere, but I’ve got a few meetings now, but obviously it might come to nothing, you know these things often fall through up to the last minute, so there’s really no telling, and Jiang Cheng is just in a snit because if I go he won’t have anyone to run interference with hosts he doesn’t like. Which is, as you know, most hosts.”
Lan Xichen very quietly gives Lan Wangji’s arm a squeeze and excuses himself, patting Wei Ying’s shoulder as he goes. Wei Ying barely seems to notice, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“None of that was information,” Lan Wangji tells him.
And Wei Ying says, “Oh. Right. Well, the thing is, I sort of ... Lan Zhan, don’t be mad. I wrote a pilot.”