“And now, 40 years later, we welcome Wen Biotech as a subsidiary. Dr. Wen Qing will be joining our executive board, bringing her medical experience and expertise to help propel Lotus Pharmaceuticals into the future of medicine.”
There was polite applause.
From his position on stage left behind Jiang Cheng, Huaisang watched him take a deep breath and back away from the podium on stage. Jiang Cheng looked to the audience, eyes falling on his sister. Jiang Yanli looked up to him, giving him an encouraging smile.
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together and gestured for Wen Qing to step up to the microphone.
She did, tilting it down and wincing at the mild feedback.
It was no secret Jiang Cheng hated press conferences, but he could have tried to hide it better than he was.
“Thank you, CEO Jiang,” she began.
She continued to talk, but Huaisang tuned it out. He turned to look at Lan Wangji, standing to Jiang Cheng’s stage right. As usual, his Head of Security uniform was perfectly starched and pressed. They shared a serious look behind Jiang Cheng’s back. So Huaisang wasn’t the only one who had noticed something was off. There was a hum in the air that had nothing to do with nerves and anticipation.
The audience applauded again.
Jiang Cheng stepped up behind Wen Qing as the press began their questions. The questions were all standard issue. What were their plans for the future? What did this mean for current employees of Wen Biotech? They became more banal as the press pushed on.
And then someone asked a question that had been explicitly banned from all press conferences:
“Will Wei Wuxian be part of the future of Lotus?”
Jiang Cheng snapped his gaze to the reporter as he bristled.
Wen Qing dug her fingers into Jiang Cheng’s arm as she answered. “Both Lotus Pharma and Wen Biotech are family-run companies.” It wasn’t an answer. It could and did mean everything from nepotism to explosive infighting. “They just want you to react,” she hissed. “So don’t.”
Jiang Cheng clenched his jaw but said nothing.
Jiang Yanli had gracefully lifted herself out of her chair and made her way to the reporter, who had no idea what he was in for. She laid a hand on his arm and escorted him from the room, all the while keeping a pleasant partial smile on her face. That reporter was doomed.
“No further questions,” Jiang Cheng said, barely unclenching his jaw.
“The fuck,” Jiang Cheng spat once he was back in his office. He began pacing. The room began to fill with a charge, making the hair on the back of Huaisang’s neck stand on end and the tips of his fingers tingle.
The Lan brothers had a dichotomy of expressions: empathy and stoicism. The Wen siblings had similar expressions.
“Now, brother,” Jiang Yanli said, her voice soft.
“They know not to ask that question,” Jiang Cheng said. “They fucking know it.”
“They do,” Jiang Yanli said.
Lan Xichen asked serenely, “Did he say why he asked it?”
Jiang Yanli nodded and looked at Jiang Cheng with a carefully constructed neutral expression. This wasn’t going to end well.
“Well?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
She pushed herself out of her chair and went over to him, placing a comforting hand on his upper arm.
He gave her a confused scowl.
She didn’t say anything, and Jiang Cheng’s thin patience had nearly worn out during the press conference. Huaisang knew he would explode soon if the mounting electric charge was any indication.
“He checked himself out of rehab in the middle of the press conference.” Her voice held so much empathy that it took a moment for Jiang Cheng to react to her words.
“What?!” Jiang Cheng’s roar startled the interns on the floor below. Huaisang could hear their startled yelps echoing through the hallways.
Lan Wangji stepped between Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli. He led Jiang Yanli back to her chair and knelt in front of it. There was actually emotion, bold on his face, and Huaisang was not going to deal with that now.
Jiang Yanli looked down at Lan Wangji, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“This is both a family affair and a business affair,” Lan Xichen said, more diplomatically than Jiang Cheng would notice. Lan Xichen’s lawyer subtleties were usually lost on Jiang Cheng when he was worked up like this. It was mostly for Jiang Yanli’s benefit and possibly the Wen’s. “You need to take both into consideration. Did he mention anything else?”
“His first stop was a bar,” Jiang Yanli said, giving Jiang Cheng another careful look. She turned to Lan Xichen. “I believe we need to have a discussion before tonight’s celebration.”
Jiang Cheng kept most of his anger nonverbal. The ragged breath he dragged in at Jiang Yanli’s unsaid ‘He’ll show up tonight for the drama’ was not the meditative breathing technique his therapist recommended. Not that Jiang Yanli would say something like that. She’d probably say something along the lines of ‘A-Xian will want to confront things immediately’ while neglecting to continue with ‘after he’s no longer sober.’
Lan Xichen nodded slowly. He stood, smoothing out his suit. He put one hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder and offered his other hand to Jiang Yanli. “Let’s discuss this in my office.”
Hesitantly, Jiang Yanli gave her brother a look before taking the offered hand. After a brief look at Jiang Cheng, Lan Wangji followed them out of the room.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said with feeling. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “He has no fucking shame.”
Wen Qing gave him a hard look.
Wen Ning looked at Huaisang with an expression he couldn’t place. It was covered by his expression of nervousness, but Wen Ning was always nervous. It was just a matter of looking beneath that nervousness.
“Uh?” Huaisang asked.
Wen Ning shook his head.
Wen Qing gave Huaisang a shrewd look. “I still don’t understand your role. You're always here, but you never contribute anything of substance.” She had been watching him since the merger process started. She knew more than that, Huaisang was sure. He had been watching right back through a slightly vapid expression.
“Eye candy,” Huaisang said brightly.
Wen Qing and Jiang Cheng rolled their eyes in unison.
“Fine,” Wen Qing huffed.
Huaisang shared a look with Jiang Cheng. Wen Qing caught it. Huaisang could see the calculations and restraint drawn in the line of her lips. She was patient. Good, there needed to be someone else in the company who could also play a long-game. There were too many impulsive personalities already. Not, of course, that Huaisang would have let this merger happen without his due diligence. And there was a lot of diligence due.
“Ah,” Wen Qing said. She crossed her arms over her chest. Her suit jacket pulled over her shoulders, making her look larger than she really was. The woman knew how to dress for her role. He liked that about her. “You’re the fixer.”
Huaisang let loose a peal of laughter. “I’m too delicate for that.”
Wen Qing rolled her eyes again, and Wen Ning tilted his head in consideration.
The intercom on Jiang Cheng’s desk buzzed.
“Yeah?” he demanded.
“He’s at security,” his secretary said.
Huaisang felt the hum and heard the soft pop of Jiang Cheng losing his hold on his electricity. He was sure the Wens did as well.
“No,” Huaisang told Jiang Cheng.
“Like fuck,” Jiang Cheng said, already heading for the door.
This required direct action. The Wens would need to know eventually, especially since Wen Qing was meta. No, not meta, that wasn’t exactly right. Witch, maybe? The label didn’t matter: she had magic. Jury was still out on Wen Ning.
Huaisang stuck his foot out and tripped Jiang Cheng before he had his hand on the door handle. Jiang Cheng landed on his hands and knees with a muffled curse.
“Not before your sister gives you the script,” he said, bending down into Jiang Cheng’s furious face. “I’ll go.” He smiled at the Wens. “Excuse me.” He trusted that Jiang Cheng would stay. He’d be unhappy about it, but he’d stay.
This was something that needed fixing.
Wei Wuxian was flirting with the security guard when Huaisang arrived.
“A-Sang!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, waving an entire arm in greeting.
“Wei Ying!” Huaisang sang back. His smile was earnest.
“My brother’s not coming, is he?” Wei Wuxian asked. He didn’t even bother looking around to see if Jiang Cheng was lurking somewhere.
“Only if you feel the need to be strangled,” Huaisang said. “Let’s go to my office.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian said and allowed himself to be led.
“You have terrible timing, you know,” Huaisang said as they walked.
“I have perfect timing,” Wei Wuxian said. When the door to Huaisang’s office closed behind them, he asked, “Who did he almost electrocute?”
“The head of the newest subsidiary,” Huaisang said. “Tea? Coffee?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. Huaisang tried to smell the alcohol on Wei Wuxian’s breath, but there wasn’t any. So that was the game. At some point, he wanted to stop playing Wei Wuxian’s games.
“I came as soon as I could,” Wei Wuxian said.
Huaisang let his face become as slack as possible, as neutral as possible.
“You didn’t tell him,” Wei Wuxian said with a slow nod. He took a seat across from the desk.
“We’re the only two people who know,” Huaisang said. Wei Wuxian could keep a secret.
“Is this something that can be done with just two people?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Huaisang didn’t respond. He didn’t know yet. There were too many ways this could go wrong. There were too many factors, and he had contingencies, but this had reached a point where it was bigger than himself. He needed Wei Wuxian’s righteous chaos to keep things on track.
“When we were back at school, I saw you track a bird for three days,” Wei Wuxian said. There was a bit more to the story than that, and Huaisang didn’t remember telling Wei Wuxian that part. “You probably have a plan for every letter of the alphabet. Let’s start with Plan A.”
“I also ranked everyone based on face and ass.” Huaisang perched on the edge of his desk.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “I’ll ask for your newest list tonight.”
“I doubt I’m the one you want to talk to tonight,” Huaisang said with a toothy smile.
Wei Wuxian shrugged with a small pout. “Why am I talking to you now then?”
“I need you to take a look at this code,” Huaisang said. He handed Wei Wuxian the tablet that had been sitting on his desk.
“Cybernetics?” Wei Wuxian asked, frowning at it. He scrolled through the lines. “Oh, shit.” His head snapped up so he could look at Huaisang. “Those are sigils.”
He tapped his nose and absently continued. “Someone is casting.... This is a lot more than just AI.”
“Doesn’t that code look familiar?” Huaisang asked, because he needed Wei Wuxian to verbalize his thoughts, to put things out in the open between them.
“The pattern,” Huaisang prompted.
“You’re right,” Wei Wuxian said, his voice turning sour. “They stole my source code. Wait. You knew about - ”
“You had to get your money from somewhere,” Huaisang said with a shrug. Jiang Cheng was adamant about not giving Wei Wuxian a job at Lotus. “I think a safety app is an admirable use of your talents.” It was a bit more complicated than a simple safety app. Wei Wuxian had designed the app as a negative energy repulsion talisman. Huaisang didn’t mention he’d seen Wei Wuxian’s lingfu graffitied under several overpasses as well.
Wei Wuxian gave him a sunny smile and returned to examining the code. He shook his head in thought.
“They stole the source code and made it perverse,” he said. “But you knew that, didn’t you?”
Huaisang gave him a slight smile.
“Who wrote this?”
There was a small knock on the door. Huaisang took the tablet back from Wei Wuxian and opened the door.
Jiang Yanli bustled into the room and scooped Wei Wuxian into a hug.
“My favorite person ever!” he gasped delightedly, hugging her back tightly.
She framed his face with her hands.
“You two catch up,” Huaisang said. “I need to find someone before he electrocutes someone else.”
On his way out the door, he surreptitiously slipped a security badge into Wei Wuxian’s pocket.
Jiang Cheng sat alone in his office, glaring out the window.
“He’d better be gone,” Jiang Cheng muttered.
“Your sister is dealing with it,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng snorted. “She’s probably feeding him soup.”
“You don’t need to go tonight,” Huaisang said.
“And Wei Wuxian doesn’t need soup.” Jiang Cheng had gone from angry to sullen. That was a good sign.
“You’re already too worked up,” Huaisang said.
Honestly, it was only because Jiang Yanli could work miracles that the entire world didn’t know about the side effects of Jiang Cheng’s temper. There was no way to hide his actual temper, though. Jiang Yanli gave up on that over a decade ago. She relied on the rumour mill. So if a reporter asked about rumours of Jiang Cheng glowing purple, she’d point out there were also rumours that her brother was a vampire and that he had a secret dungeon where he killed his critics in an illegal dogfighting ring, yet Mr. Yao was still on the radio live every day at 2pm.
The only positive result of Jiang Cheng’s temper was that it tended to render him mute.
Jiang Cheng turned to glare at Huaisang. “Politics.”
“What about them?” Huaisang looked at Jiang Cheng with wide eyes.
“You know f- Oh, I see. You want me to shout at you so you can say that you told me so,” Jiang Cheng muttered.
Huaisang shrugged. “If it would tire you out.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes flashed.
“You could go down to the gym instead,” Huaisang suggested, folding his arms over his chest. “Or, you know, run your company.”
Jiang Cheng crossed his arms in return, lips twitching into a sneer. This was going to require heavy artillery.
“He was sober.”
Jiang Cheng unsuccessfully tried to bite back a gasp, expression hiding nothing, even that sliver of hope.
“Now run your company. I know for a fact that you have at least three Q3 reports to analyze,” Huaisang said. He waved a hand airily. “Do I need to have a chat with the Wens?”
“No - yes - maybe,” Jiang Cheng said. “No.”
Huaisang raised his eyebrows.
“No,” Jiang Cheng repeated. “They signed the NDA.”
“Q3,” Huaisang said before leaving the office. He would eventually need to have a conversation with the Wens.
===Mr. Yao radio transcript===
And what is it with Jiang Wanyin and his mess of company? He can’t even keep his own brother in line. It’s amazing he can run not one but two companies now. Maybe he shouldn't be. And that so-called doctor who used to run Wen Biotech? Of course she can’t run her own company, she needed a man to take control for her.
Maybe Wei Wuxian had the right idea spending most of his time black-out drunk and high on cocaine in order to avoid the mess of the rest of his family.
Black tie events were always fascinating. Everyone dressed in a way they felt made them look more successful than they actually were but it mostly made them look stuffy. The conversation was always about one-upping another person. The food was always delicious, but there was never enough of it.
Huaisang’s job at these functions was to entertain. He affected his most vacant smile and clueless pout as he made the rounds. It took him three hours to do a full circuit around the ballroom, and he needed more canapes if he was going to make another circuit. And possibly more champagne.
Especially if Wei Wuxian was going to make a dramatic entrance.
Except it wasn’t Wei Wuxian.
Huaisang had no idea what was going on, other than a robbery attempt. Who robbed a black tie event? Did they not understand how security worked?
There were men wearing black, carrying large, intimidating military-grade weapons. There were a lot of them. There was shouting. It was inconvenient.
People screamed and ran in all directions.
Jiang Cheng stood behind three security guards.
Huaisang hid behind an overturned table. There were people who were not him who were paid to deal with this sort of nonsense. He did reinforce the table. It glowed faintly gold then faded. If the shooting started, he wanted that table bulletproof.
The robbers began shooting.
There was chaos.
This was not a robbery attempt. This was anarchy. This was to create fear. There were no demands, no talking at all from the attackers, actually.
Everything went eerily quiet.
Huaisang peered around the table to see Lan Wangji standing between the remaining partygoers and the robbers, looking done. He was going to break a bitch. He had told Huaisang not to call it that, but that wasn’t going to stop him from living his life.
That was most definitely not Lan Wangji who had shouted.
Behind the robbers were three figures. Two men and a woman between them. They wore black catsuits and cowls. One man was tall and broad, the other shorter and more lithe. The woman was practically dwarfed between them.
Vigilantes didn’t factor into Huaisang’s plans until Plan G subsection four.
The men had arrows notched in their bows, and the woman held what looked like genuine throwing stars.
And they wanted to go up against semi automatic weapons?
The robbers turned and laughed. Because, honestly, it was pretty ridiculous.
Chaos erupted again, and Huaisang ducked back behind the table.
Five minutes later, it was over.
He peeked again.
The three vigilantes stood next to Lan Wangji over a pile of bodies. Huaisang had no idea if the men were dead or alive. No, they were alive, because vigilantes still upheld the Code.
Jiang Cheng shouted incoherently from behind his wall of security guards.
Most of the partygoers had escaped.
No one moved, and sirens sounded in the distance.
Lan Xichen and Jiang Yanli slowly approached the four in the center of the ballroom. Huaisang decided it was safe to join them, and the vigilantes decided it was time to leave, passing him with a quick once-over.
Huaisang recognized that mole, right below the lips, not covered by the cowl. He had once accidentally swapped Lan Wangji’s tea with his own whiskey tea, and Lan Wangji had told Huaisang in no uncertain terms about wanting to lick that mole. Huaisang thought that was his payback for giving Lan Wangji alcohol, and Lan Wangji probably knew what he was doing the whole time.
Huaisang would have pursued the vigilantes, but there was a distinctive violet aura emerging from the general direction of Jiang Cheng’s shouts, and that was more pressing.
Huaisang unlocked the door of Jiang Cheng’s rowhouse, dragging Jiang Cheng in with him, locking and warding it behind him. Gold glittered around the door frame before fading. He yanked off both his shoes and Jiang Cheng’s pair. Jiang Cheng’s skin crackled with electricity. It had been a long time since Jiang Cheng had been this worked up, and Huaisang was going to need to put in equal work to bring him back down.
Huaisang pushed Jiang Cheng down onto the edge of the couch in the living room. It had been a while, and there wasn’t enough time to do everything correctly - not yet. Maybe in an hour, but right now -
Jiang Cheng shot back up to his feet, wobbling slightly from the inertia. Right now Jiang Cheng was going to put up a fight instead of accepting what he needed.
“Sit,” Huaisang said, his voice firm but light.
Jiang Cheng glared down at him for a moment, then reconsidered and sat back down.
“You know how this works,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng glared up at him.
“Or I could leave.”
Jiang Cheng worked his jaw and huffed out a breath.
“Do you want to do this slowly or - ”
Jiang Cheng pulled Huaisang down and attacked his mouth, teeth first.
“I’m going to ruin your tuxedo,” Huaisang promised around the bites. He could feel Jiang Cheng’s electricity humming away, making his teeth tingle.
One hand on each lapel, Nie Huaisang tore open the jacket, then the vest, the turn down shirt, and undershirt. He left the bow tie, slipping the torn collar out from under it.
Jiang Cheng was of no help. He writhed and bit at Nie Huaisang’s fingers and lips. Once he caught an ear.
“I wish you wouldn’t work yourself up to be so rabid,” he muttered. His hands cupped around the bare skin of Jiang Cheng’s chest, feeling the jolts run up his arms. “You’re making my fingers go numb. I need those.”
Jiang Cheng sneered at him and bucked his hips. Several locks of hair escaped from his ponytail, framing his face.
Leaning over, still holding Jiang Cheng down by the sides of his chest, Huaisang licked the shell of Jiang Cheng’s ear.
“Relax,” he whispered.
Huaisang ran his hands down to the tuxedo’s pants, tracing the skin around the waistband slowly. Jiang Cheng whined and rolled his hips into Huaisang’s. It was too sharp a motion to do anything but bruise.
The pants ended up just as torn as the other parts of the tuxedo. The boxer briefs stayed whole, just tangled around Jiang Cheng’s ankles. Huaisang kept them there as insurance that Jiang Cheng wouldn’t make a run for it.
“Good,” Huaisang said, hands pressing down on Jiang Cheng’s hips, fingers digging hard enough to leave trails of crescent moons.
Jiang Cheng’s gaze wavered, and his eyes focused in and out.
Huaisang ran his fingers down those hips, sliding around thighs, digging into the soft skin, intent to leave bruises, because that’s what Jiang Cheng needed. He needed an anchor and a reminder. Huaisang could almost taste the blood on his tongue. He clenched his jaw to keep himself from doing something to derail the situation. This was about Jiang Cheng, not Huaisang’s blood kink.
Jiang Cheng fought to keep his breath even. Huaisang wasn’t sure why he bothered. Maybe so he had to work harder to bring Jiang Cheng down. So defiant.
Fine. Huaisang could do that. He was familiar with every trigger point on Jiang Cheng’s body. Been exploiting them frequently enough - since that one time they got drunk at boarding school, and Huaisang threatened to kiss that frown off Jiang Cheng’s face, and Jiang Cheng told him to give it his best shot. There was a cash wager involved, but it had ended with two orgasms and a hangover each, so the wager was mostly forgotten.
Huaisang deftly flipped Jiang Cheng onto his hands and knees, lifting his hips higher into the air. He placed a hand over Jiang Cheng’s mouth and kissed an ear.
“Remember this is just round one,” Huaisang said. “Just round one.”
Jiang Cheng moaned around his hand, and Huaisang returned that hand to Jiang Cheng’s hip, firmly holding him in place.
He left open-mouthed kisses down Jiang Cheng’s neck and spine: there was a hint of teeth. His tongue swept away the sting his teeth left.
The muscles on Jiang Cheng’s back seized and relaxed in time with his ragged breath.
Huaisang blew a cool breath up Jiang Cheng’s spine. “Ready?” he asked.
He wasn’t expecting a response, but Jiang Cheng grunted anyway and arched his back.
No more of an invitation was needed, and Huaisang’s tongue went to work, twisting and coaxing and laving in time with Jiang Cheng’s whimpers.
When the snapping of Jiang Cheng’s hips became too unpredictable, Huaisang flipped him onto his back, holding his hips down.
“Can’t have a wet spot on the couch,” he said before lowering himself to stick his tongue in Jiang Cheng’s belly button. It was mostly to see his stomach muscles leap. Huaisang never grew tired of watching those muscles.
Jiang Cheng sunk his fingernails into Huaisang’s arms.
That tongue continued downward before Huaisang dragged it up again, kissing the tip of Jiang Cheng’s cock. Then slowly back down.
Words dribbled out of Jiang Cheng’s mouth. They weren’t fully formed, so Huaisang ignored them just like he ignored his own needs. There would be time for that later.
Jiang Cheng bit his lip and dug his fingers into Huaisang’s hair.
“You can pull,” Huaisang said, placing a kiss on Jiang Cheng’s stomach. He immediately felt the burn on his scalp.
He kissed up Jiang Cheng’s stomach, giving every muscle his full and undivided attention. He tasted the salt of the collected sweat and the sweet of the skin, and his nose began to fill with the pungent scent of ionization.
He ignored the scar just below Jiang Cheng’s heart. He always avoided that scar.
Jiang Cheng tried to wrap his legs around Huaisang’s legs, but his underwear was still tangled around his ankles.
“Still round one,” Huaisang said against Jiang Cheng’s sternum. “Round two we take your underwear off and make it into your bedroom, I’m sure.”
Jiang Cheng jerked his hips in an answer as incoherencies and whines slipped past his lips. His hair had come completely loose as he writhed, his pupils were blown wide, and his lips hung open as he panted. The jolts kept coming.
“You look so wrecked,” Huaisang said. His tongue was numbing, and he stumbled a bit over the words. “We haven’t done this in far too long. It’s like your body has completely forgotten I know all its secrets.”
Jiang Cheng glared at him through thick lashes, unable to keep his eyes fully open and certainly unwilling to let them close. His lip started to bleed as he worried it. That was definitely on purpose, and Huaisang tried to put it out of his mind, despite how much he wanted to kiss the blood away. He couldn’t be distracted this early in the evening. He had a task to complete.
Huaisang kissed the tip of Jiang Cheng’s cock again. He was so close to the edge, and Huaisang reached down and gave it a few languid tugs before Jiang Cheng came with a groan. His eyes briefly flashed violet before he closed them.
After Jiang Cheng’s breath evened out and his eyes opened back up, Huaisang opened the fly of his own pants.
Jiang Cheng watched greedily as Huaisang worked himself. It took all his control to keep things at a leisurely pace. It was only midnight. Neither had any place to be for the next thirty six hours at least. Looking at Jiang Cheng’s flushed skin, parted, bloody lips, slightly glazed expression and -
Something in Jiang Cheng’s expression shifted, self-deprecation seeping in at the edges. He wanted to be used.
“Not now,” Huaisang muttered, fixing Jiang Cheng with as flat an expression as he could manage. “Now you watch and imagine how I’m going to fuck you an hour from now. And don’t give me that look. It will be an hour from now. We’re not teenagers anymore. Let’s not forget that I don’t want to be electrocuted dick first.”
The sound of metal pinging as it cooled syncopated with Huaisang’s breath. Jiang Cheng was less in control than Huaisang had thought. He recalibrated. He ran a finger over Jiang Cheng’s bloody lip and stuck two fingers in Jiang Cheng’s mouth, and he obligingly sucked, sending wave after wave of electricity up Huaisang’s arm. He could take it.
The jolts settled in his chest and groin as he continued to work himself up.
He removed his fingers from Jiang Cheng’s mouth, slowly licked the blood off, and then worked them around Jiang Cheng’s spent cock. It twitched but didn’t revive. The breathy mewl Jiang Cheng made at the overstimulation was worth it and had Nie Huaisang coming over Jiang Cheng’s stomach.
Nie Huaisang tucked himself back into his pants.
“There,” Huaisang said, kissing the tip of Jiang Cheng’s nose. “All better. You’re no longer glowing purple. But you still need to talk to your therapist.”
“I don’t glow purple,” Jiang Cheng grumbled. He wiped the blood off his lips, which was a pity, because Huaisang wanted to kiss it away.
“You do,” Huaisang said. “It took three of us to get you out of there without being seen by the remaining guests, especially the press.” He paused and wrinkled his nose. “I think you destroyed another lamp.”
Jiang Cheng looked over his shoulder to see the scorched table lamp.
“Wei Wuxian does it to get under your skin, you know,” Huaisang said, as he had said many times before.
He stood up to grab a towel from the kitchen, returning to find Jiang Cheng running his fingers through the spunk on his stomach.
“That’s hot,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng gave him a defiant look and popped three fingers into his mouth.
“Rude,” Huaisang said. He threw the towel at Jiang Cheng’s head.
“What did tonight have to do with him?” Jiang Cheng demanded, angrily wiping at his stomach. Good to know Jiang Cheng hadn’t seen the vigilantes well. That was a wound that didn’t need to be ripped open right now. Or ever.
“You were already worked up before tonight. The rest just pushed you over the edge,” Huaisang said. “The police arrived after we left. Lan Xichen said he’d handle them.”
“Do you know what that whole thing was about?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Contrary to your high opinion of me, I don’t actually know every plot going on in the city,” Huaisang said. “But this was about one of two things: someone didn’t want the Wen merger to be the biggest news about you today or someone did.”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and threw the soiled towel back at Huaisang.
“Or maybe they just wanted to kill you. I can sympathize... Do you think there are extra canapes back there?” Huaisang asked. “I’m starving.”
“There are leftovers in the fridge.” Jiang Cheng tried to stand and tripped over his underwear. “You little shit.”
Nie Huaisang cackled on his way to the kitchen, returning with a styrofoam box.
“How old is this?” he asked.
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “Why am I naked and you’re not?”
“You’re not naked,” Huaisang said. “You still have your bow tie and socks.”
Jiang Cheng hmphed and started in on the buttons of Nie Huaisang’s tuxedo.
“No,” he said, batting away the hands. “I need food.”
It was fried chicken, and it was probably safe to eat.
Huaisang spoke as he ate. “So. What are we discussing first?”
Jiang Cheng huffed and reached for a piece of chicken.
“No,” Huaisang said. “I’m the poison tester.”
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng grumbled. “Today was a lot.”
“Yup,” Huaisang agreed. “Which is why I asked your secretary to up your appointment with your therapist.”
“You did what?” Jiang Cheng’s face darkened.
“I’m just the fuck buddy. I’m not actually qualified to deal with - ” He waved a hand in Jiang Cheng’s general direction.
“You’re going to make me say it.” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.,” Huaisang said, very much knowing what Jiang Cheng was talking about. “My degrees are in the arts, not psychology. Well, and finance, but only because my brother said he wouldn’t help pay unless I took something he considered useful.”
“You’re such a shit,” Jiang Cheng muttered. “Fine. You know you’re more than just a fuck buddy.”
“Of course I do,” Huaisang said, placing a hand to his own chest. “But today was a lot.”
Jiang Cheng settled down against the throw pillows on the couch. He sprawled his legs in what he probably thought was a seductive manner. He looked used: hair tangled, skin flushed, swollen lips still bleeding slightly, cock starting to recover. And, yeah, it worked. For all Huaisang knew Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng knew him right back. The socks were a bit on the hilarious side, though.
Huaisang leaned over and gave him a quick, greasy kiss.
Jiang Cheng chased the kiss as Huaisang pulled away.
“You’re talking while I’m eating. Seriously, A-Cheng, you haven’t lost control like that in a long time. I have some backup sedatives in my pocket in case our usual method didn’t work.”
He had fallen out of the habit of continuously having them on hand, but he had picked some up before leaving the office that afternoon. It had been ages since Jiang Cheng reprimanded Huaisang for stealing samples. He stopped once he realized those reprimands achieved nothing.
Jiang Cheng looked alarmed. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“You were almost there when Wei Wuxian showed up at the office,” Huaisang said. He finished the piece he was gnawing on and tossed the bones back in the box.
“But you dealt with that,” Jiang Cheng said.
“At least he didn’t show up tonight.”
Jiang Yanli and Lan Xichen were in charge of that intervention, but they hadn’t intervened, had they? Huaisang was willing to bet neither knew that Wei Wuxian actually had shown up, just as much as he was willing to bet Lan Wangji did know. That was something he was going to deal with at some point. Maybe after the weekend was over. It was a Friday night. Huaisang had never let Lan Wangji ruin a weekend for him before, and he wasn’t about to let him start.
“Yeah, but look who did,” Huaisang said, starting in on the last piece of chicken.
Jiang Cheng’s jaw worked in a way that made Huaisang’s teeth ache in sympathy.
“You know the Wen’s enemies better than I do,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Why do they have to be the Wen’s enemies?” Huaisang asked.
“I guess they don’t,” Jiang Cheng said. “My list of enemies is too long.”
“Maybe we could just blame Mr. Yao,” Huaisang suggested.
Jiang Cheng snorted. It was half amused, half wry. “If only.”
“We also need to take the vigilantes into account.” It was something that needed to be said, to be faced head-on.
Jiang Cheng winced. “Since when are vigilantes back in the city?”
Huaisang shrugged. He tossed the remaining bones into the box and began to lick the grease from his fingers.
Jiang Cheng grabbed Huaisang’s wrist, and thoroughly sucked on his fingers one at a time while making defiant eye contact. He also did that thing with his tongue that had Huaisang digging his toes into the carpet.
Once he finished, he released Huaisang’s wrist and asked, “And why were they there tonight? And why did Wei Wuxian choose today of all days to decide he was cured?”
“You don’t think he’s going to try this time?” Huaisang asked.
“Can we not talk about him when I’m naked?”
Huaisang shrugged again.
Jiang Cheng scrubbed a hand over his face. “I don’t even know where to start with this mess of a day.”
“That’s why I moved up your therapy appointment.”
“Do you think things are connected or a coincidence?” Jiang Cheng asked. He ran a hand over his hair, trying to smooth it somewhat, before giving up and running his fingers through it.
“Could be both.”
“The Wen merger could be linked to Wei Wuxian checking out of rehab. It could also do with why there was an attack tonight but that attack could have nothing to do with Wei Wuxian. And the vigilantes could have to do with the attack but nothing to do with the Wens.” He deliberately left off the idea of connecting the dots between Wei Wuxian and the vigilantes. He didn’t want to put ideas like that into Jiang Cheng’s head. Not now anyway.
“You sound like you’ve already solved this puzzle.” Jiang Cheng tipped his head back, exposing the tight cords of his neck.
Huaisang sighed. “I don’t think this one is going to be as easy as the last.”
Jiang Cheng lifted his head to hold Huaisang’s gaze. “I’m not going to ask about the information you’re deliberately keeping from me.”
“Good, because I’m not telling.”
“But you think it’s all related?”
Jiang Cheng pinched the bridge of his nose.
“It’s all circumstantial and hunches right now. It would distract you from Q3 review. And don’t think I haven’t remembered it’s the tenth anniversary of - ”
“Don’t say it.”
“Okay. I won’t.” Huaisang hadn’t wanted to say it anyway, because it had been ten years for him as well, but he was more in tune with his emotions than Jiang Cheng. Huaisang hadn’t lost his restraint in ten years.
“Has it been an hour yet?”
Huaisang laughed. “Let me throw this away, and I’ll meet you in your bedroom. You’d better treat my tux better than I treated yours.”
Lan Wangji stood on the other side of Huaisang’s desk. His back was straight, his expression was impassive, and his Head of Security uniform was impeccable. He had been standing there for at least five minutes.
Huaisang sat staring at him, waiting for him to say something first. And if Lan Wangji refused, Huaisang would just go back to work, ignoring him. He was too tired to play Lan Wangji’s game today.
After another minute, Huaisang turned back to his computer, and started responding to an email when Lan Wangji finally spoke.
“What are your plans for him?”
“Plans for whom?” Huaisang said, not looking away from his computer screen.
Lan Wangji made an impatient noise.
Huaisang let him stew a bit longer.
“Nie Huaisang,” Lan Wangji threatened.
Huaisang turned his attention back to Lan Wangji. “Yes, Hanguang Jun .”
Lan Wangji’s eyebrow tilt threatened that he would rip Huaisang in half with his bare hands.
“I’m tired,” he said. He pushed his fingers into his temples. “Ask what you want, and I’ll tell you. Be direct or else go away.”
After a charged pause, Lan Wanji asked, “Who was with Wei Ying at the gala?”
That was not the question Huaisang had anticipated. There were several ways to answer but all would give away what he knew. He had a few options and hadn’t begun to sift through them.
He settled on, “I don’t know.”
Lan Wangji gave him an inscrutable look.
“He knows how to keep a secret,” Huaisang said, holding Lan Wangji’s gaze.
“So do you.”
Yeah, that was fair.
“You were the one who told me about that mole under his lip,” Huaisang reminded him. “I’d say that’s your fault. I doubt he confessed to you, so that’s how you recognized him, too.”
Lan Wangji looked away as the tips of his ears turned red. “Mn.”
“Ask him yourself,” Huaisang said. “If you try to convince me he didn’t end up at your place last night…”
Lan Wangji’s ears flushed.
“And no, Jiang Cheng doesn’t know,” Huaisang added. “And no, I’m not telling him.”
“That seems wise.”
The office phone rang.
Huaisang looked to Lan Wangji before he picked it up.
“Yeah?” He pressed his lips together. “I see. Be right there.” He turned to Lan Wangji. “If you’ll excuse me.”
He didn’t wait for a response before slipping out of the office.
The main campus of Wen Biotech was on the other side of the city and took approximately twenty minutes by taxi on off hours. Huaisang made it in fifteen.
Wei Wuxian sat in Wen Qing’s office, looking serenely out the window, ignoring Jiang Cheng for the most part but sometimes huffing and rolling his eyes.
Wen Qing stood between the two and Wen Ning stood off to the side as Jiang Cheng ranted about Wei Wuxian having no shame, how this is no place for him, how -
“Good morning!” Huaisang sang out.
Jiang Cheng stopped midword to turn to glower at Huaisang.
“You!” Jiang Cheng pointed an accusing finger at Huaisang.
“What about me?” He asked. “Hi, Wei Ying, Wen Qing, Wen Ning.”
Wen Qing looked inscrutable. Wen Ning gave him a baleful look, and Wei Wuxian gave him a cheeky smile.
Jiang Cheng jabbed his finger at Huaisang again.
“I see,” Huaisang said. He sat down in the chair next to Wei Wuxian. “If you wanted to get out of your 10 o’clock so badly, you should have just asked.”
“You gave him that security badge,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Is this a family affair?” Huaisang tilted his head. “Should I leave with Wen Qing and Wen Ning?”
Wen Ning looked very much like he wanted to leave. And he looked much easier to move than Wen Qing.
Huaisang stood and wrapped an arm around Wen Ning’s. The arm was solid and unyielding. Someone never missed arm day at the gym. “Let’s get some coffee.”
Wen Ning stammered an objection, but Huaisang led him out of the room anyway. Wen Qing scoffed but followed them out of the room.
“You’re going to have to remind me where the coffee kiosk is,” Huaisang said, humming to himself.
“Is there going to be a cadaver in my office when we return?” Wen Qing asked, her tone hard.
“No,” Huaisang said. “The shouting stopped already.”
Wen Qing snorted incredulously.
“They’re probably crying in each other’s arms,” Huaisang said.
“Pardon?” Wen Qing asked, stopping short.
“They - they do that,” Huaisang said, turning to face her and turning Wen Ning with him. Someone might end up with a black eye in the process, but they were both very emotional. He wished that sometimes there were other emotions in addition to the anger and grief.
“I wish I knew it was this unprofessional before I signed over my company,” Wen Qing muttered.
“But you did know,” Huaisang said, shifting to Plan H. “Let’s discuss this over coffee. I’m going to need caffeine to keep up with Jiang Cheng today.”
Wen Qing gave him a once over before looking at her brother. “We did know about it.” And there was something hesitant in her voice that made it sound like she didn’t think it would be this bad, and Huaisang had been too close, because it hadn’t been this bad before, and he should have noticed earlier.
“One moment,” he said, sending a quick text to Jiang Yanli. “Okay, you have my undivided attention for the next hour. I might also need some medical advice. Coffee is where?”
===Mr. Yao radio transcription===
And now we have vigilantes back in our city. The end of civilized society is over. First anarchy on the doorsteps of Lotus Pharma, now vigilantes. Who are these new masked crusaders? What do they want from us? Nothing good, that’s for sure. What should we call these new vigilantes? They don’t seem to have any sort of superpowers, which is good for city property, but they could start a fight with anyone and cause damage to anything at any moment.
Jiang Yanli was waiting patiently in Huaisang’s office when he returned.
Huaisang allowed himself a mental breakdown and pulled himself together in the span of a heartbeat. None of his contingencies accounted for this.
“You wanted to see me,” Jiang Yanli said. She smiled kindly.
Huaisang smiled back, knowing even if he tried it wouldn’t reach his eyes, and Jiang Yanli noticed.
“You know,” she said on an exhalation. Which could mean any number of things that had happened in the last few days.
“This is about Jiang Cheng,” he said. He slumped down behind his desk. “Not Wei Wuxian.”
“Oh, you know both their secrets,” Jiang Yanli said.
“I’m more concerned about Jiang Cheng’s curse,” Huaisang said. “Wei Wuxian can handle himself right now.”
Jiang Yanli flinched.
“Does he know?” Huaisang asked.
“I haven’t told him,” she said. “I try to - I try to provide balance every time I touch him.” Which explained why she looked frailer than usual. “But I think he thinks he’s under a lot of stress.”
“What should we do?” Jiang Yanli asked. He could tell it had hurt her to keep that secret, and now she had someone with which to share that secret. She gave him a miserable pleading look. She wanted him to fix it.
He took a deep breath to stop the sudden light-headedness. It almost worked.
“We find the problem,” he said. “We eliminate the problem.”
Her pained expression made him look away. “Both my brothers…” She didn’t continue, but Huaisang understood the gist.
“Yeah,” he said. He empathized. Truly he did, but empathy wasn’t going to solve anything. His original plans needed to be scrapped. He needed new plans. He needed new spies. He needed labor that followed any orders unquestionably and didn’t barter for a pay raise.
He needed the interns.
“You know the parts of his life I don’t,” Jiang Yanli said. “You would know what changed.”
“Is your son in the middle of a project right now?” Huaisang asked.
“I, oh, he doesn’t have to be,” she said. It sounded like she knew where he was going with this, and maybe she did. “I’ll send him in.”
She stood and on her way out said, “Thank you.”
Huaisang didn’t respond.
Jin Ling knocked on his door three minutes later. “You wanted to see me, Uncle?”
Huaisang tried not to let that throw him. “You know you don’t have to call me that.”
Jin Ling made a dismissive sound that was way too close to an imitation of Jiang Cheng. “Close enough. You’re practically married to Uncle anyway.”
So that was the gossip among the interns. Could be worse.
Huaisang shrugged. “Do you want to do something other than file?”
The look of unabashed excitement on Jin Ling’s face told Huaisang everything he needed to know.
Huaisang unlocked the door to his apartment, feeling like he hadn’t slept in nearly a decade. Everything blurred around the edges, and he just needed to pass out and deal with everything in the morning.
His wards were broken.
He should turn around and head out. There were plenty of places to go, including Jiang Cheng’s rowhouse. With its luxury everything, floor to ceiling windows, and warm bed. There probably wasn’t any food, though. There never was.
But whoever broke the wards heard him turn the deadbolt.
He pressed a hand to the door and ran a remedial diagnostic.
“I can see your golden essence under the door, A-Sang!” was called from inside.
Huaisang refrained from rolling his eyes and entered his apartment, locking and warding the door behind him.
“I told you not to call it that,” he grumbled. “You make it sound like I peed all over the door.”
Wei Wuxian sat at his kitchen table, eating the very last of Huaisang’s beef noodles. He had been looking forward to eating those.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” Huaisang asked. He considered pouring himself a glass of wine but rejected that idea after giving Wei Wuxian a once-over. He set the kettle for tea instead.
“We never did finish our conversation from Friday,” Wei Wuxian said around a mouthful of noodles.
“Which conversation?” Huaisang asked, looking pointedly at Wei Wuxian’s mouth.
“Hm?” He pressed two fingers to his lips.
“Is it the one about using concealer to make sure you’ve hidden anything that can identify you when wearing a catsuit?” Huaisang asked. “Because I thought Lan Wangji finished that conversation for me.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Lan Zhan took care of that.” He turned wide, fearful eyes to Huaisang. “Does Jiang Cheng know?”
“You’ve met your brother: you tell me,” Huaisang said. He leaned back against the kitchen counter.
Wei Wuxian laughed again. “He’d have an aneurysm. Then break my legs.”
“It’s a good bet,” Huaisang said.
The kettle clicked off, and Huaisang steeped two cups of oolong.
“So many secrets, A-Sang,” Wei Wuxian said. “How many are you going to share with me?”
Huaisang handed a cup of tea to Wei Wuxian and didn’t respond. Because the answer was as few as possible.
“You look tired,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s okay to share your burden.”
Huaisang gave him a small smile. He had his friend back. “I’ve had to scrap Plan A.”
“So what’s Plan B?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“I’ve already scrapped A through R.”
Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows.
“New information has come to light. It may or may not be related.” He had been hoping for an evening to rest and regroup. He needed to sort his thoughts, parse through the options, weigh each potential outcome.
Wei Wuxian leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms across his chest.
“Does this mean you’ve finally noticed that my brother’s cursed?”
Huaisang was mostly successful in hiding his flinch. He was tired, but he should have been better at hiding it.
“Honestly, I thought that was the reason you asked me for a meeting,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Does this mean the entire world has noticed?” Huaisang could feel the pressure build in his temples.
“Don’t feel bad about missing it,” Wei Wuxian said. Huaisang didn’t feel bad. He felt angry. He felt blind. He felt helpless. He felt hopeless. All things he swore never to feel again. “I’ve known him for so long, even his televised soundbites clued me in.”
Yes, but it was Huaisang’s tongue on Jiang Cheng’s skin. He should have noticed it, too.
Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes, and it wasn’t the beginnings of a headache digging into Huaisang’s temples.
“Stop it,” Huaisang said. His face closed off.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “I always forget you can feel me when I do that.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Sometimes we miss signs from the people we - ”
“No,” Huaisang said.
“How are we going to fix it?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“As I told your sister: we find the problem. We eliminate the problem.” Huaisang sipped his tea. “I started some preliminary research.”
For a moment it looked like Wei Wuxian would mention something about his sister, but instead he asked, “And that code you gave me in your office. Is that related?”
Huaisang shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Wei Wuxian peered at him, tilting his head slightly. He tapped his nose.
Huaisang recognised the gesture. “You’ve seen that code before. Not just your source code.” It was an accusation, not a question.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “Those are other people’s secrets.”
And Huaisang connected two dots. “Why are you asking me where I got that code when you already knew?”
Wei Wuxian waved a dismissive hand.
“I am tired, Wei Ying,” Huaisang said. “Just tell me what I need to know about the Wens.”
He expected the sharp look Wei Wuxian threw him.
“If not, please leave. I’m tired, and I’m going to find out anyway.”
The room erupted in blue light, and Huaisang felt the silencing spell settle around the edges of the kitchen.
“I know you know I lived with the Wens in college,” Wei Wuxian said. His voice had taken on a resigned tone. “You can’t say anything else to anyone. Not even Lan Zhan knows.”
“The three of us, we were - There was an accident, and Wen Ning was hurt badly. It was really, really bad. He was touch and go for days before they put him in a medically induced coma. The doctors didn’t have any idea what to do next or how to save him. It was my idea. It took us months, but I developed the code and sigils, found the scrap wires and metal. Wen Qing did the surgery, connecting bone and tissue to the metal and wire.”
Wen Ning was a cyborg.
That was unexpected.
Not unexpected was the lengths Wei Wuxian would go through for those he cared about.
“But he pulled through. That was when I started the uppers.” He gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Can’t say that at the meetings.”
What could he even say as a response to that? If nothing else, Wei Wuxian was still a friend, and needed a distraction.
“I’ll make sure your brother never touches him, so he won’t short,” Huaisang said, and Wei Wuxian barked out a laugh.
“But that code you showed me,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s not right. There’s no cognitive override.”
“Explain that to me like I’m five,” Huaisang said. “Use small words.”
“They’re mindless,” Wei Wuxian said. “They can’t think for themselves. They need a programmer feeding them instructions. Wen Ning can think for himself.”
“They don’t have free will?” Huaisang asked.
Wei Wuxian shook his head slowly. “You ready to tell me where that code you stole came from?”
Huaisang didn’t answer. His mind went in six directions simultaneously, and it would take time to unravel everything.
He ignored it. He needed to have one thought conclude before he could turn his attention back to -
All trains of thought scattered, slipping back into the recesses of his mind. Fuck. One thought remained.
“Those were the other two vigilantes with you,” he said.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian said. “That code?”
“Let me handle it,” Huaisang said.
“No,” Wei Wuxian said. “That’s my responsibility. I put it out into the world.”
Huaisang sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He put his empty teacup in the sink.
“Not if the three of you are going to storm in,” Huaisang said. “Corporate warfare is different. I need subterfuge. Subtlety. Vigilantes are neither.”
“You can’t just expect me to - I told you so you’d understand when - ”
“No martyrs,” Huaisang said firmly.
“You have enough to worry about with Jiang Cheng’s curse!” Wei Wuxian’s voice rose. He was a few seconds away from banging his fist against the table.
Huaisang’s brain circled back. “An app.”
“You already coded that safety app,” Huaisang said. “Could you do something to calm Jiang Cheng? I’d put you on the payroll.”
“You had me at payroll,” Wei Wuxian said. “But! I want you to share your plans about that code with me.”
Huaisang inclined his head. “If you stay sober and stop riling him up.”
Wei Wuxian reached out a hand. “First is a ‘yes.’ Second is a ‘no promises.’”
They shook on it.
Four very eager interns were waiting in Huaisang’s office when he arrived at ass o’clock in the morning.
He distinctly remembered speaking to only one of them. How had they multiplied?
He ignored them as he placed his laptop bag on his chair and made a show of setting up for the day.
There was fresh coffee in a mug on his desk. It was still hot, and exactly how he took it: mostly sugar and cream with a shot of espresso.
He gave them a bleary, confused look.
“That was me,” one of them said. “If that’s not how you take your coffee…”
He didn’t respond. Just kept them waiting. He remembered being a teenager, and how silence was used as a truth serum. Someone would talk soon.
Wei Wuxian barged into his office before one of the interns cracked.
“A-Sang - oh.” He looked at each intern in turn. “A-Yuan!”
One of the interns grinned at him.
“They were just about to tell me why they are here,” Huaisang said.
“Princess here said - ” The rest of the sentence was cut off by an elbow to the ribs.
“We were hoping to assist Jin Ling on the new project,” one said. The one Wei Wuxian knew.
“I have a meeting now,” Huaisang said. “Then we’ll discuss.”
Wei Wuxian shooed them out of the office.
“Remember being that eager to do work?” Wei Wuxian asked as the door closed behind them.
“The siren call of anything other than filing,” Huaisang said. “What do you need to get started? Other than a computer.”
Wei Wuxian tapped a finger to his chin. “Can I have an intern?”
“Do you need an intern?”
“No,” he said. “But I want one.”
Huaisang laughed. “Sure. I only need one anyway. I set your office up on the Wen campus to keep you as far away from Jiang Cheng as possible while still hardwired to our servers. I assume the Wens gave you a security badge. I only gave you the one for here.”
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“Which intern do you want?”
“My son,” Wei Wuxian said.
Huaisang raised his eyebrows.
Wei Wuxian gave him a toothy smile. “I gave birth to A-Yuan, you know.”
“Does Lan Wangji know?” Huaisang asked. “Is he the father?”
“Of course he’s the father,” Wei Wuxian said, placing a scandalized hand to his chest. “I would never be unfaithful.”
“You still cut a lovely figure,” Huaisang said.
“My hips and ass will never be the same,” Wei Wuxian said mournfully.
“I don’t want to hear about your ass,” Huaisang said, chasing him out of the office. “Some of us have work to do.”
“You love my ass!”
The four interns stood in wait barely ten feet from his office.
“A-Yuan! You’re my intern now,” Wei Wuxian said, wrapping his arms around the shoulders of one and leading him away.
The other three looked to Huaisang with wide, overenthusiastic expressions.
Huaisang was a terrible person.
“Okay. All three of you, in my office.”
They fell over each other in their excitement.
“What are your names and majors?” Huaisang asked.
“Jin Ling, business,” Jin Ling said. He sounded so self-important Huaisang nearly laughed.
“Ouyang Zizhen, finance,” Ouyang Zizhen said. He sounded guarded. Good. That could be useful.
“Lan Jingyi, biochemistry,” Lan Jingyi said. Finally, something actually useful. Business was all well and good, but while Lotus was a company, it was a pharmaceutical company.
“Okay,” Huaisang said. “I’m going to need liaisons between me and the Wen Biotech labs.”
“What’s wrong with emails?” Jin Ling asked.
“If you want to go back to filing...” Huaisang said as the other two interns glared at him.
Jin Ling pressed his lips together and looked at the floor.
“Do any of you have IT experience?” Huaisang asked.
“I can make pivot tables in Excel,” Ouyang Zizhen said with a shrug.
Huaisang’s office phone rang. He pushed the button to make it go directly to his voicemail. He’d deal with it later. If something was on fire, they could come find him themselves.
His cell phone beeped. Maybe something was on fire.
“I need the three of you to collect and analyze the reports coming out of the Wen labs,” Huaisang said. “Before anything is redacted. That’s where the IT experience would come in.”
The interns looked at each other.
“I don’t know anything about science,” Jin Ling said woefully.
Lan Jingyi looked pleased.
“Time to learn,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng burst into Huaisang’s office in exactly the same way Wei Wuxian had not twenty minutes ago.
Yeah, something was on fire.
He hadn’t even had a chance to touch his coffee.
The startled interns looked at Jiang Cheng with a healthy mixture of fear and awe. Except for Jin Ling, who looked hopeful.
“Off you go, then,” Huaisang said to the interns. He probably should have given them more instructions, but he wouldn’t know exactly what he was looking for until he found it. “I want your first report by next Friday EBD.”
The interns fled.
“What are you up to?” Jiang Cheng demanded. “And since when do you say things like EBD?”
“What do you need?” Huaisang countered. “I was in a meeting. You should be in a meeting.”
“There was a fire,” Jiang Cheng said.
“An actual fire?” Huaisang had expected a metaphorical fire, not a real one. “Where?”
“The waterfront,” Jiang Cheng said. “At one of our distribution warehouses. Lan Xichen is on the phone with the insurance company about business continuity, Lan Wangji is already onsite to determine why the sprinklers didn’t go off and what the total loss is, and my sister is writing a press release.”
Huaisang grabbed his jacket from where he had slung it across the back of his chair and followed Jiang Cheng out.
The warehouse had been reduced to charred steel beams. Millions of dollars of medical equipment had gone up in flames.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said vehemently.
They found the Lan brothers with the EMTs, firefighters, and police.
“We’re going to have to conduct a thorough investigation,” the fire marshal said. “But it looks like arson based on how much was destroyed. It wouldn’t have been able to get that hot that quickly without an accelerant.”
“What time did it start?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“We got the call around 5 this morning,” the fire marshal said. “It was already too hot to enter when we arrived.”
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng said. “Why wasn’t security triggered?”
Lan Wangji glowered at him. “I am running diagnostics.”
“What was in this warehouse?” Jiang Cheng asked Huaisang.
“Equipment,” Huaisang said. “I need to go through the records to figure out what exactly. But this is the equipment warehouse.”
He shared a look with Jiang Cheng.
“Let’s walk the perimeter to see the extent of the damage.” He grabbed Jiang Cheng by the arm and pulled him away.
“Do you think?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Huaisang said, answering the unasked ‘was this cover for a theft?’ as well as ‘was this related to the gala?’
Between the charred earth and fire suppressant foam, there really wasn’t much else to see. Huaisang had thought maybe there would be tire tracks or something. There weren’t even footprints. But those could easily have been erased in the carnage.
Jiang Cheng snorted. “Fuck.”
He rubbed a hand over his face.
“Let’s go back to the office,” Huaisang suggested. “There’s not much else we can do here.”
Huaisang had printed out reams of lists, accounting for everything that should have been in the warehouse at the time of the fire. He had placed them on every available surface of Jiang Cheng’s office and began the meticulous and tedious task of going through each itemized line to determine what would seem valuable to an arsonist.
He made it through two pages. He doubted anyone set fire to the warehouse to steal catheters.
Jiang Cheng was on the phone, haggling about the price of something. He waved a hand erratically and paced.
It felt familiar, normal, and intimate. It was just like their dorm room at boarding school when they didn’t have responsibilities, the only dangers were self-inflicted, and they could do whatever they wanted with their time.
It felt like that time in college when they didn’t sleep for three days and were a giggling mess of nerves.
It felt like their first patrol together, still in college, when Jiang Cheng’s temper led him into trouble, and Huaisang, heart in his throat, saw him bleeding and unconscious on the tarmac.
It felt like years of familiarity and understanding and understated affection piling on and wanting years more, and the nostalgia of it all overtook Huaisang before he could ward it off.
It made his nerves sing and settled heavily in the pit of his stomach and the back of his head.
He blamed his exhaustion, but there were few reasons for his exhaustion. One of them was Jiang Cheng and his curse.
The only reason was Jiang Cheng and his curse.
Huaisang’s worldview tilted, and he fell off the edge.
Jiang Cheng stopped pacing and frowned at Huaisang.
Huaisang made a dismissive sound, which only made Jiang Cheng narrow his eyes in suspicion.
Huaisang blew him a kiss, knowing full well the consequences of his actions.
“I’ll call you back,” Jiang Cheng said, peeling off his bluetooth and tossing it onto his desk without waiting for a response.
There was silence in the room as they stared each other down, and Huaisang tilted his head slowly, exposing his jawline in invitation.
“I have work to do,” Jiang Cheng said. “Why are you doing this now? The insurance paperwork alone is going to - ”
“Be done by Lan Xichen, not you,” Huaisang said. He sighed. “I was remembering our last few months at college. The interns - they’re just really young. I was trying to remember being that young.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t say anything, his expression hard.
“And your nephew called me Uncle today,” Huaisang continued.
“So? My sister is raising him to be a polite - ”
“Not as in respect for an elder. As in we’re married .” Huaisang had mostly thought that misinterpretation of his and Jiang Cheng’s relationship was hilarious: a joke. It hit differently now than when Jin Ling had said it the day before.
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Yeah,” Huaisang said. “I think I need to get thoroughly drunk tonight.”
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng repeated, his expression slackening. Then his eyebrows did the thing - that confused, hurt thing, and Huaisang felt that emptiness he hadn’t felt in a long time. It was too similar to helplessness, and he did not want to let that in again.
“So thoroughly I might need to take a sick day tomorrow.”
Jiang Cheng made a wounded sound in the back of his throat, and that combined with those eyebrows -
Huaisang gathered up his papers. “I’m going to finish these in my office.”
Huaisang couldn’t concentrate in his office, either. The investigation could continue tomorrow. Wheels were in motion, and he needed - mostly he needed to sleep.
He set up an out-of-office reply and left.
===Mr. Yao radio transcript===
It looks like Jiang Wanyin can’t catch a break. First anarchy at his fancy party, now fire at his distribution warehouse. Aren’t those vigilantes supposed to stop things like this from happening in our city? What if they were the ones that started the fire? It wouldn’t surprise me if they had destructive superpowers, not in the least.
Someone was banging on his door, and it was too loud, pressing against his wards.
A quick look at the clock next on his nightstand told him he’d been asleep for eight hours. He felt like he could easily sleep twenty more.
His wards happily informed him that Jiang Cheng was at his door, relentless and angry.
“You fucker,” Jiang Cheng hissed when Huaisang finally opened his door.
He pushed his way into Huaisang’s apartment, slamming the door behind him.
Huaisang was pushed up against the wall so forcefully the wind was knocked out of him, and then Jiang Cheng was kissing him like he was drowning, and Huaisang’s mind lost track of the plot.
When his brain rebooted, he was against the wall, and Jiang Cheng had buried his face in Huaisang’s neck. The wet spot from Jiang Cheng’s tears on the collar of his sleep robe grew steadily, and Huaisang wrapped his arms around Jiang Cheng’s waist, slotting their bodies together.
He wasn't sure how long they stood there. Minutes, hours, seconds. One breath after another until Jiang Cheng’s breathing eventually evened out.
Huaisang locked and warded his door before effortlessly scooping up Jiang Cheng and carrying him to the bedroom. Jiang Cheng’s arms around his neck were too snug, and his fingers dug painfully into Huaisang’s back.
“I always forget how strong you are,” Jiang Cheng murmured into Huaisang’s chest.
There were some drawbacks to wanting to be underestimated.
“I still like it when you throw me around,” he said as he carefully set Jiang Cheng down on the bed.
He peeled off Jiang Cheng’s work suit down to his underwear. The suit ended up on the floor, and Huaisang felt like that was a tomorrow problem.
He then crawled into bed behind Jiang Cheng, wrapping his arms around his chest, entwining their legs, shifting until they fit.
Huaisang woke up to an empty bed and a sleep hangover. The sun pierced through his shades, which meant he was so beyond late to work.
He desperately needed some water, but he didn’t want to move. He wanted to go back to sleep, and maybe he should.
He glanced at the clock. It was nearly two in the afternoon, and Jiang Cheng had left a glass of water on his night stand. It had a neon orange bendy straw in it so Huaisang didn’t even need to sit upright.
It was enough to get him moving - that and his insistent bladder.
After finishing the water and relieving his bladder, he checked his phone. There were eight texts and two voicemails.
He set the kettle on and went through the texts first. Four of them were from Wei Wuxian, two from Jiang Cheng, one from Lan Xichen, and one from an unknown number sent fifteen minutes ago.
The unknown text told him that his restaurant delivery was on the way. His stomach twisted, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before.
There was a knock at the door. The wards didn’t complain, so Huaisang opened the door.
The delivery girl handed him the bag. She didn’t even bother to confirm it was him. She nodded and left before Huaisang thought to give her a tip.
With the door locked and warded, he took his prize to the kitchen and rooted through the bag. He pulled out three containers. One had mantou, another had noodles, and the last had ribs.
Huaisang ate them slowly as he looked at the remaining texts.
The text from Lan Xichen was a request for a copy of the itemized list of warehouse items for the insurance company. That would be simple enough.
The texts from Jiang Cheng demanded to know where he was and then that his food was on the way so he’d better wake up soon.
The texts from Wei Wuxian were troublesome and required decoding. He wasn’t mentally awake enough for that yet.
The kettle clicked off, and Huaisang steeped a sachet of green tea.
As his tea steeped, he listened to his voicemails. Both from Jiang Cheng. The first one was angry, and the second one was worried.
He returned Jiang Cheng’s text with a thank you and a picture of the containers of half demolished food.
As near as he could tell, Wei Wuxian’s texts were about the structure of the app. He suggested music-based, to transmit that way as opposed to something that ran in the background at all times. Then he doubled back and changed his mind. Then there was a text not meant for him about something he didn’t understand - clearly IT speak, followed by the apology.
Huaisang would leave those until tomorrow. He needed to finish eating and let his mind wander. Maybe take a shower. Definitely take a shower.
After the shower, everything was much clearer. Well, not everything. It was clear he still had a lot to work through, but the cloudiness in his head had lifted. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be introspective enough to figure out if he was in the middle of a midlife crisis, still hungry, or just needed another eight hours of sleep.
He tried to remember the last time he took a sick day as an actual sick day instead of a slacking day. He was never sick. He didn’t have the constitution that allowed for such a thing. He had never had a cold or allergies or migraines. There was no reason for anything to start now.
He wished he didn’t know why it had started now.
He unearthed his plein air kit from the back of his closet and headed out. He needed to curl into that painting headspace. He hadn’t been there in so long, and he missed that clarity of mind.
Corporate culture had stolen that from him.
He set up his easel in the small park a few blocks from his apartment. It was one of the few wild parks in the city - no lawns, just trees, two benches, and a narrow dirt path. The trees were in their fall vibrancy. The birds found him.
By the time the light shifted to the optimal 35 degrees, he had three watercolor sketches and had slipped into the meditative painting headspace. There was a partridge under the nearby bench watching him, and a squirrel chittered unhappily at him nearly continuously.
Painting the golden hour over the city pulled some of the loose strings of the past week together. While it was not everything, it was a start.
“I figured I’d find you here.”
Huaisang didn’t look up from his easel. “After looking in how many other places?”
Jiang Cheng snorted. “We need to talk about yesterday.”
Yeah, they did. Huaisang was irrationally upset with Jiang Cheng’s therapist, encouraging him to talk about things. Just because they needed to talk didn’t mean he wanted to talk.
“This is bigger than just yesterday,” Huaisang said.
“It’s been ten years for you, too,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Let me finish before we do this,” Huaisang said, finally looking up at Jiang Cheng.
The setting sun on his face was endearingly poetic. Huaisang took a quick cell phone photo of it, hoping he would be able to paint it later.
Huaisang went back to painting. “Can’t waste this lighting.”
Jiang Cheng grumbled, but he settled down on the bench next to Huaisang and watched.
The sunset had started in earnest before Huaisang cleaned his brushes and packed up.
“Where are we having this conversation?” he asked.
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “Your apartment is closer.”
“You hate my apartment,” Huaisang pointed out.
“I don’t understand why you live in those three rooms when you could afford something better,” Jiang Cheng said in a huff, because to Jiang Cheng it was about better instead of comfortable. Instead of a place with memories. Huaisang had lived there for fifteen years. It used to be a home. It had been his brother’s home. Belief lived there, too.
“See?” Huaisang tilted his head. “You hate it.”
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng said. “I hate it.”
“But you stayed there last night,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng looked away.
“Yeah,” Huaisang said.
The shadows were long enough to obscure Jiang Cheng’s expressions. All Huaisang could read was the restraint.
He booped Jiang Cheng on the nose. “Let’s go to your place.” He stood, slinging his bag over a shoulder.
There was a faint purple glow of irritation, but Jiang Cheng followed him.
Jiang Cheng had his head in Huaisang’s lap, legs sprawled out over the armrest of the couch. Huaisang ran his fingers over the short hairs of Jiang Cheng’s undercut.
“I’ve done some terrible things,” Jiang Cheng said.
“As have I,” Huaisang said.
“I mean, I thought it was justice,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Same,” Huaisang said.
“I - Let me start over,” Jiang Cheng said. “I thought collecting the remaining… vigilantes would make things better. I could control them.”
“Don’t let Lan Wangji hear you say that,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng huffed out a laugh.
“But it still - it’s been ten years since the incident,” Jiang Cheng said, not saying ‘since my parents were hunted for sport,’ not saying ‘since your brother died as collateral,’ not saying ‘since I was almost collateral,’ not saying ‘since I had to pick up the pieces.’
“It has,” Huaisang said, knowing if he said more, he wouldn’t be able to keep his voice even.
“And now there are more vigilantes, new vigilantes,” Jiang Cheng said.
“This started before they arrived,” Huaisang said.
“What do you mean by ‘this’?” Jiang Cheng said. Huaisang felt him tense.
“Your sister hasn’t spoken to you, has she?” Huaisang asked.
“What does - ”
“So no,” Huaisang said.
Huaisang took a deep breath, leaning his head back. He needed to break this particular news. This was something Jiang Cheng needed to know. Other things could stay unsaid for now.
“Your energies are being broken down,” Huaisang said quietly.
Jiang Cheng bolted upright, twisting to look Huaisang in the eyes.
Huaisang pressed his lips together and nodded.
“No,” Jiang Cheng demanded. “It’s about Wei Wuxian testing the limits of my patience.”
Huaisang shook his head. “Your sister has been trying to give you balance every time she touches you.”
He watched the panic build in Jiang Cheng’s eyes as they darted around the room.
“No,” he said again. The purple glow was back. “No.”
The desperation on Jiang Cheng’s face was heartwrenching. His lashes clumped together with unshed tears.
“No. You can’t - ” He finally looked back at Huaisang’s face. “You have a plan.”
“Find the problem. Eliminate the problem,” Huaisang said. He tried to keep the razor edge from his words, but Jiang Cheng caught it.
“You think there will be collateral damage,” Jiang Cheng. It was a statement, not a question, so Huaisang didn’t answer. He studied Huaisang’s face. “You want there to be collateral damage.”
“I am a Nie,” Huaisang said. His veins sang with the need for collateral damage, to grind his enemies beneath his heel.
Jiang Cheng released a noisy breath through his nose.
“I have people on it,” Huaisang said.
“The interns?” Jiang Cheng asked, alarmed.
“That’s not a job for an intern,” Huaisang said. “Would you trust your nephew with that job?”
Jiang Cheng looked like he wanted to defend his nephew, but instead he said, “No.”
“The problem is I can’t pinpoint when it started,” Huaisang said. He tugged at Jiang Cheng’s arm, pulling him back down into his lap. “I need you to think about when your stress started.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to say something undoubtedly sarcastic and unnecessary, undoubtedly about Wei Wuxian.
“Recently,” Huaisang clarified.
Jiang Cheng frowned. “When the Wen merger negotiations began.”
Huaisang nodded absently, mind churning. That narrowed it down but not by much. He would need to account for every variable. Buildings, rooms, people in attendance, acquaintances of those people in attendance, any gifts exchanged.
“Is it - you’re sure?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Huaisang nodded. “Your sister confirmed it for me. She and - well, she knows you best.”
The small vibrations started before Huaisang could feel the pinpricks on his fingertips.
“I have people on it,” Huaisang repeated.
The shocks subsided but the vibrations did not.
“What happened yesterday?” Jiang Cheng asked. “You gave me a look when we were in my office, and then you disappeared and passed out for twenty hours. That’s not. Are you - ”
“Can we wait to have that conversation?” Huaisang said, keeping his tone neutral. He wasn’t sure how to explain what happened without being blunt. While it would be the quickest way to deal with it, Jiang Cheng could not handle that at the moment.
Jiang Cheng pinched the inside of Huaisang’s thigh.
“Hey!” he yelped. “I don’t have words for it yet. I only woke up a few hours ago.”
“You tell me I’m going to die, but you won’t tell me what’s wrong with you?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“I have people on it,” Huaisang repeated.
“On both?” Jiang Cheng asked. “What’s wrong?”
Huaisang smiled weakly down at Jiang Cheng before kissing his forehead. “Paradigm shift.”
“A paradigm shift caused you to sleep for twenty hours?” Jiang Cheng stopped vibrating.
“Something like that,” Huaisang said. He was such a coward.
The incredulity on Jiang Cheng’s face was easy to ignore.
“There,” Huaisang said. “We’ve had that conversation.”
“Who said we finished it?”
“I did. Just now.”
Jiang Cheng reached up to poke Huaisang’s cheek. “Coward.”
“What are you doing with the interns?” Jiang Cheng asked. Huaisang reminded himself one of the reasons Jiang Cheng was so successful as a CEO was in part because of his tenacity.
“I turned them into spies,” Huaisang admitted.
“Why do you need spies?” He sounded more curious than appalled.
“They can go places I can’t,” he said. “No one notices an intern.”
“Where are they going that you can’t?” And now Jiang Cheng was suspicious.
“Ah, that’s the question, isn’t it?”
Jiang Cheng started to vibrate again. “Huaisang.”
“I think it’s all related,” he said eventually, refusing to look at Jiang Cheng.
“What is?” Jiang Cheng demanded. The purple glow was back.
“All of it,” Huaisang said. “Everything.”
“That doesn’t clarify anything.”
“I know.” He carded a hand through Jiang Cheng’s hair. “It’s only going to cause you more stress.”
“You keeping secrets is causing me more stress.”
“I’ve always kept secrets.”
“And I’ve always been stressed!”
“I know. I’ll give you a full report once I know more.”
===Mr. Yao radio transcript===
We’re trying to narrow down names for these vigilantes. They’ve appeared throughout the city, causing chaos. There’s one who looks like the leader: maybe I should call him Laozu. What about the other two? They’re just as destructive. Do you trust these vigilantes to keep you safe in a city that was safe until they arrived?
One of the interns was leaning against the doorframe of Huaisang’s office when he arrived.
Huaisang raised his eyebrows. This one was… Lan Jingyi, the biochemist. Interesting.
With an inclination of his head, he invited Lan Jingyi into his office.
“There’s a ghost in Lab Four,” he said. His tone and narrowed eyes dared Huaisang to deny anything about his statement. He crossed his arms over his chest. This kid was going places.
“I see,” Huaisang said.
“I don’t like ghosts,” Lan Jingyi stated matter of factly.
“Have you told the lab manager?” Huaisang asked.
Lan Jingyi scoffed. “Of course not.”
Huaisang stared at him, waiting for him to crack.
It didn’t take more than thirty seconds.
“Can you make it go away?” he finally asked, edges of his bravado cracking.
Years of practice kept Huaisang from laughing at the absurdity.
“What makes you think I can do anything about it?” Huaisang asked.
Lan Jingyi worked his jaw and looked away, and Huaisang waited for him to crack again.
The urgent finger tapping signalled that Lan Jingyi was close.
“I’m an empath,” he blurted. “Kinda.” All his earlier bravado was gone.
Now that was something Huaisang could work with.
“I see,” he said. “Before we go over to Lab Four, I need a few things from you.”
Lan Jingyi looked wary but nodded.
“First,” Huaisang said, handing him a packet of papers. “Sign the NDA.”
“Uh,” Lan Jingyi said. “I already - ”
“I’ll tell you why after you sign it,” Huaisang said. Kids were so easy. If only it worked this way for the actual employees, his job would be so much easier.
Lan Jingyi signed the NDA, barely reading it. Huaisang would make sure to have Lan Xichen have a talk with him about why he should read legally binding documents before signing them, but that would be later.
Huaisang handed him another stack of papers.
“If I were an arsonist and a thief, what would I want?”
Lan Jingyi frowned in thought, flipped through a few dozen pages, and pointed to a line.
Yes, that would be in line with all the other information Huaisang had collected.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go see what the ghost in Lab Four wants.”
What Huaisang meant by that was to make Wei Wuxian do it.
Wei Wuxian had asked Wen Qing to evacuate the lab, and he and his intern and Huaisang and his intern stood in the doorway. Wen Qing stood behind them, insistent that she needed to know everything going on in her building.
Lab Four was a biochemical lab, filled with hoods, making it noisy. Which hid the sounds of anything that shouldn’t be there.
Huaisang was content to hang out by the doorway as the others hunted ghosts. Or rather a ghost. Lan Jingyi stayed next to him, well, more like behind. Poor kid really was afraid of ghosts… or maybe it had to do with the empathy. Maybe Lan Jingyi felt the ghost’s emotions, which probably revolved around death and unpleasant things.
Lan Jingyi had no idea that his hiding spot was the worst of all hiding spots. Seriously, poor kid. Poor Huaisang, who also hated ghosts no matter how much they loved him.
The ghost found him, because of course it did.
It was formerly a woman, maybe in her early 60s. She wore a lab coat, and half her face had melted off.
“Wei Wuxian!” Huaisang called out as the ghost approached him curiously. He hated being ghost catnip. Another benefit of being a Nie. “Wei Wuxian!”
The others appeared behind the ghost.
“That’s her,” Lan Jingyi said, as if there would be more than one ghost.
Wei Wuxian drew sigils in the air and pushed them against the ghost, who did not like that one bit.
She turned and unhinged the remains of her jaw, screaming.
And no, thank you.
The ghost screamed again, covered in talismans and acupuncture needles. She stumbled, screamed another time.
She was also on fire, and Huaisang had no idea how that had happened.
Then gone before the sprinklers could activate.
Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing shared a look.
The interns were a breath away from fainting and were desperately trying not to look like it.
“I’ll get the kiddies some coffee while you two adults have your adult conversation,” Huaisang said. He all but pushed the two interns out of the room. He tapped a barely visible sigil on the door frame as he left. Hopefully Wen Qing caught that, because Wei Wuxian most likely did not.
The two interns sulked in his office, sipping coffee while Huaisang caught up on his emails. He had no idea how he ended up being a babysitter: he had thought he’d buy them coffee or tea or a juice box, and they’d bounce back and go do their work.
Maybe it was their first exorcism?
Lan Xichen stopped by to pick up the inventory list from the warehouse. He gave the interns a curious look and a pleasant smile. Maybe Lan Jingyi was a different Lan, because there was no recognition between the two. Instead, Lan Xichen acknowledged the one Wei Wuxian knew, the one who never gave Huaisang his name.
“Sizhui,” Lan Xichen said. “I thought you were interning with Mr. Wei.”
“There was an incident in Lab Four on the Wen campus,” Huaisang said when it became apparent no one else would answer.
Lan Xichen raised his eyebrows. “Not what they expected, I assume.”
“Is corporate culture ever what you expect?” Huaisang asked.
Lan Xichen gave him an indulgent smile and left after saying his goodbyes.
Huaisang went back to his emails. Maybe someday he’d make it through them all, then he could start doing his actual job.
But no he couldn’t, because Wei Wuxian stepped into his office without knocking.
“A-Sang, Wen Qing fo- ” He noticed the interns. “Don’t you both have work to do?”
“I’m keeping Jingyi company until he feels better,” Sizhui - that’s what Lan Xichen called him - said. “He’s scared of ghosts.”
Lan Jingyi elbowed him in the ribs and received a pout in return.
“The ghost is gone, and that code isn’t going to write itself,” Wei Wuxian said.
Sizhui nodded and grabbed Lan Jingyi’s arm, dragging him out of the office.
“We need to talk,” Wei Wuxian said. All of his usual joviality was gone. He closed the door to Huaisang’s office.
“Is this the right place for that?” Huaisang asked, because if this was going to go in any of the dozen unpleasant directions it could, Huaisang did not have the mental fortitude to deal with anything Wei Wuxian had to say.
“It’s work related, why not?” Wei Wuxian sat on the edge of his desk.
Huaisang pressed his lips together.
“Well, some isn't. It’s you-related.” Which wasn’t what Huaisang wanted to deal with at the moment. Nosy friends were the worst.
“Work first,” Huaisang said.
“The ghost and the sigils in Lab Four,” Wei Wuxian said, kicking his legs out and banging them back against the desk. “They’re consistent with that code you showed me last week.”
“That’s what I thought,” Huaisang said. “Plus, I now know what was stolen from the warehouse before the fire.”
“What fire?” Wei Wuxian stilled his legs.
“The warehouse fire a few days ago,” Huaisang said. “It covered up the theft of our prosthetics.”
“Someone stole prosthetics and set a fire to cover it up?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“And that combined with that code and then the ghost,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian nodded and tapped his nose. Huaisang let him process.
“What step of which plan are we on?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Step six subsection three of Plan E,” Huaisang said.
“You accounted for ghosts? Your brain is scary sometimes,” Wei Wuxian said. He poked Huaisang in the shoulder.
Huaisang shrugged. He really hadn’t accounted for ghosts, but there was always a possibility given where this was undoubtedly going.
He had, however, successfully redirected Wei Wuxian from whatever he had wanted to talk about.
“What’s step seven?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Find the secret lab,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “You make it sound so easy!”
“Isn’t it?” Huaisang asked. “If one happens to be a vigilante?”
Wei Wuxian tilted his head back and cackled.
“How’s the app production coming?” he asked.
“Slowly,” Wei Wuxian said. “I decided to have it as something running in the background, so it’s constantly broadcasting and no one has to remember to turn it on.”
“Have you figured out what is causing it?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“No,” Huaisang said. “Not yet.”
“Have you figured out why it affected you too?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Huaisang’s eyes cut to Wei Wuxian. He looked innocent enough, but his brain was always as busy as Huaisang’s, and sometimes he was way too observant for his own good.
“Yes,” he said tightly.
“Does my brother know?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“No,” he said.
“When are you going to tell him?”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said. “I don’t mind doing it.”
Huaisang gave him a look that might have been a sneer.
Wei Wuxian waved his hands defensively and laughed. “Okay, okay, I won’t, but it’s been what? Twenty years since you started your thing with each other - whatever you want to call it.”
“That’s a really long time,” Wei Wuxian pointed out. “Almost longer than the interns have been alive. He’d be hurt if he thought you knew and you don’t tell him.”
“Which is why no one is telling Jiang Cheng anything,” Huaisang said.
“Why is no one telling Jiang Cheng anything?”
Huaisang’s head snapped to look at the door. How had he not noticed the door open and close again or Jiang Cheng standing there, seething? He suspected Wei Wuxian had something to do with it.
“Because Wen Qing handled the ghost in Lab Four,” Huaisang said. He exchanged a look with Wei Wuxian. “With Wei Ying.”
“A ghost. In Lab Four.” Jiang Cheng said through clenched teeth. “Why was there a ghost in Lab Four?”
“That’s what we’re trying to determine,” Huaisang said. “And we’re not telling you about it until we know more.”
Jiang Cheng gave him a look that clearly stated he did not believe a word Huaisang said.
“Gotta go!” Wei Wuxian said brightly. He jumped down from the desk and skirted around Jiang Cheng on his way out.
“However,” Huaisang said. “I can tell you what was stolen from the warehouse before the fire.”
Jiang Cheng’s expression turned a bit less murderous. “Well?”
“Prosthetics.” He gauged Jiang Cheng’s reaction. There was none other than bafflement. Huaisang had hoped maybe Jiang Cheng had some ideas as to what was going on in his company, but he had Huaisang for that. So Jiang Cheng could focus on actually running his company.
“That doesn't make any sense,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Unfortunately, it makes too much sense,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng waited expectantly at the edge of Huaisang’s desk.
Huaisang sighed and pressed his fingers to his temples. “It means someone is building an army.”
Jiang Cheng slammed his hands down on Huaisang’s desk, leaning over it to glare at him.
“Have a seat,” Huaisang said resignedly. He soundproofed his office.
Jiang Cheng continued to glare, but he sat opposite Huaisang.
“I am handling this,” Huaisang said. “I have people handling this.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, undoubtedly to demand what ‘this’ was.
Huaisang cut him off. “During the Wen merger, I dug up a lot of dirt. A lot of dirt, let me tell you. Most of it wasn’t relevant, and some of it I really didn’t understand. So I found people who did understand.”
“You’re rambling,” Jiang Cheng barked.
Huaisang pinned Jiang Cheng with a stoney stare. “I found a database full of code. It had sigils in it, and I had only seen that used once before.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said with dawning understanding, because he also kept tabs on his brother despite trying to hide it from everyone.
“Yes.” Huaisang nodded. “But he was in rehab, so it wasn't his. Someone had stolen his code base and was using it for - we couldn’t figure out what until today. But someone at Wen Biotech is building an army of cyborgs, and they want you out of the picture because you can easily short circuit them.”
Jiang Cheng stared at Huaisang silently, blankly.
“Jiang Cheng?” he asked. “You still with me? I hope I didn’t break your brain. I don’t think it’s under warranty anymore.”
“That was the information you were withholding from me?” he asked, his voice quiet, his face pained. He looked at the floor.
“Some of it, yes,” Huaisang said.
“I thought it was about some sort of hostile corporate takeover the Jins were orchestrating,” Jiang Cheng said. His voice was rough. Now was not the time for Huaisang to bring up that plot, because Jin Guangshan was planning a takeover, but MianMian was keeping an eye on that for him in exchange for extradition.
“Wanyin,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng’s head snapped up. “Oh. Oh fuck.” He shook his head minutely. “No.”
“I don’t know the why yet,” Huaisang said. “Or the who. Or the where. Just the how and the what.”
“Wait. Does this mean Wei Wuxian has built a cyborg?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
Huaisang didn’t answer.
“Fuck. He did. Of course he did.” Jiang Cheng put his head in his hands. “I have a meeting in half an hour with the Jins. How am I going to - ”
“We don’t know if the Jins have anything to do with this,” Huaisang said.
“You’re in no shape for a meeting anyway,” Huaisang said. “I can’t tell if you’re just stressed or...” Except he could tell, because Huaisang was exhausted as well. He hated that he knew what that meant. He hated that it was an unintentional side effect but no less exploitable. He hated that he desperately needed to find the responsible parties and bleed them dry.
He hated that if he were anything but a Nie, both of them would be dead by now before Huaisang even knew there was a problem.
“You don’t look so good yourself,” Jiang Cheng said, looking back up at Huaisang.
“That’s definitely not a conversation you’re ready for,” Huaisang said.
“Why? You’re not pregnant, are you?” Jiang Cheng asked.
That startled a laugh out of Huaisang. “No, beyond any shadow of a doubt. You and your brother really missed the main message of your sex ed class.”
“That was ‘use a condom,’” Jiang Cheng said. “What does my b- Wei Wuxian have to do with this?”
Huaisang shook his head. “Cancel your meeting with the Jins. Go home. Make any remaining phone calls from your house.”
“Will you be joining me?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“No. I’m going to search your office, and I don’t want you there.”
“I need proof.”
“Proof of what?”
“I’ll know when I find it,” Huaisang said. “Go home.”
Huaisang stood on the threshold of Jiang Cheng’s office. He gave everything a once-over. This was going to take time. He’d have to do it methodically with all seven senses, starting with sight. He didn’t want to move to the last three, especially since he knew better than to lick anything. Hopefully sight, touch, hearing, and smell could cover it. If not, he’d have to reluctantly move on.
He started with the walls, running his eyes and fingers along anything that might be anything and found nothing. Next was the door and frame and then windows.
Nothing out of the ordinary. He could feel Wei Wuxian’s work humming in the background, but that wasn’t with the senses he told himself he would use first.
Next was the upholstery. Nothing except some small change.
This was followed by the filing cabinets. Also nothing.
Lastly was the desk.
Huaisang found Jiang Cheng’s snack stash before he found anything else. He’d been wondering where that was and helped himself to a handful of trail mix. There was no way he’d touch any of the chocolate. That was a good way to end up with a broken leg.
Huaisang hit his head on the bottom of Jiang Cheng’s desk.
“Ow,” he said, then for good measure, “ow.”
He peered over the edge of the desk.
Wen Qing stood in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Dr. Wen,” Huaisang said. “Didn’t see you there.”
She continued to give him her most unimpressed look.
“Where’s Jiang Wanyin?” she asked.
“He went home sick,” Huaisang said. He rubbed at his forehead where it hit the desk. “His secretary would have told you that.”
“She’s not at her desk,” Wen Qing said.
“She was there when I came in,” Huaisang offered with a shrug. “Something I can help with?”
She continued to look unimpressed.
“Did you have a meeting with him?” Huaisang asked, because as far as he knew, Jiang Cheng should have been meeting with the Jins.
“No,” she said. “You.”
Huaisang frowned, making sure to be pouty about it. “It wasn’t on my calendar.”
She closed the door, and the pale red light of her soundproof spell hugged the walls. So that’s how it was.
“Okay,” Huaisang said.
“Tell me everything you know,” she said.
Huaisang tilted his head. “Um. Could you be more specific, please?”
She held his gaze for far longer than socially acceptable. “You know I’ve lived with Wei Wuxian, so you know I can get any information out of him. Except for other peoples’ secrets. Even at the height of...” She didn’t finish, but Huaisang knew.
“He’s a good friend and confidante,” Huaisang said.
“He’s concerned about his brother,” Wen Qing said. “And between that and your questions the other day about stress on the senses, it wasn’t a difficult conclusion to make.”
“I’m still not sure what you’re trying to say,” Huaisang said.
“You’re ransacking his office to try to find what might be causing Jiang Wanyin’s curse,” Wen Qing said. “I’m here to help.”
“You could have led with that,” Huaisang said.
She shrugged. “I’m contractually obligated to save him from himself.”
“And Wei Wuxian would never speak to you again if you could help but didn’t,” Huaisang said.
Her smile was small, but it was there.
“Thank you, Dr. Wen,” Huaisang said. “I’ve already covered everything but the desk. And the snack drawer. Don’t touch the chocolate.” He opened a drawer and riffled the contents around. Pens. So many pens. When was the last time Jiang Cheng had written anything on paper? Why would he need to hoard so many pens?
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said. Something on the desk caught her attention. “Where did he get this?”
Huaisang looked up from the drawer he was ransacking.
She held a jade paperweight. The one with the frog and twin snakes.
“It was a gift from…” Huaisang might as well admit it. “His father.”
She showed him the bottom of the paperweight, and the bottom dropped out of his stomach.
The curse was plain as day. Huaisang should have found that ages ago.
“How long has he had this?” Wen Qing asked.
“Over a decade,” Huaisang said.
She frowned. “This is a powerful curse. It would have killed him within a few weeks.”
“I see,” Huaisang said.
They shared a look.
“I’ll make a list of anyone who has had access to or been in his office since the merger talks,” Huaisang said. Maybe Wen Qing had a better idea about the people on her side of things and could provide insight.
“Why since the talks?”
“Because that’s when this started,” Huaisang said. “How do we get rid of that?”
“You don’t have a cursebreaker on staff?” she asked.
Huaisang pouted indignantly. “I don’t want to involve him with this.”
She raised her eyebrows mockingly. “How many people are involved already?”
“Too many,” Huaisang said. “Fine.” He sent the text.
A few moments later, Lan Wangji swept into the room.
Wen Qing gave Huaisang an amused look from behind Lan Wangji’s back.
“Where is it?” he asked.
Wen Qing handed him the paperweight.
He scrutinized it. “I need to do tests,” he said. And left.
“Well then,” Huaisang said. “Maybe we do need that chocolate. And then you can tell me about the ghost in Lab Four.”
“Is it the good stuff?” Wen Qing asked. “I only divulge company secrets for high quality chocolate.”
Huaisang held up a bag of Swiss truffles, and based on her unabashed delight, Huaisang wondered if negotiations would have gone so much faster if he bribed everyone with sugar.
He sat down on the floor, against the wall. He offered her the bag. “Lab Four?”
She sat down next to him and took the bag.
“There has always been a ghost in Lab Four,” Wen Qing said. She popped a truffle into her mouth.
Huaisang didn’t say anything to that. There must be a reason for a ghost to turn like that. She had been very intent on eating Huaisang: they always were.
“Most people don’t even see her or notice her. She’s never been obtrusive or hostile before now,” Wen Qing said. “How did you know about her?”
“One of the interns is apparently scared of ghosts,” Huaisang said.
“Really?” Wen Qing raised her eyebrows. “Most chemists aren’t…They can’t see ghosts like we can.”
“You can call me a meta,” Huaisang said. “I’m not insulted by it.”
Wen Qing scrutinized his face. “That’s because you’re not a meta. Nor are you a witch or…” She didn’t share what the or was.
“And what am I?” Huaisang asked.
“Someone who has known Wei Wuxian too long,” Wen Qing said.
“That, too,” Huaisang said.
“You’re eldritch,” Wen Qing said, which was true, but not exactly specific. She was fishing.
“You make me sound positively Victorian,” Huaisang said with an amused smile.
“Am I wrong?” Wen Qing said.
“No,” Huaisang said. “Not wrong, but not right either. Tell me more about Lab Four.”
She snorted and popped another truffle. “Something changed to make her act out like she did.”
Judging by the contemplation in her voice, she didn’t know what that something was.
Huaisang tilted his head back against the wall.
“I also want to know why Wei Wuxian has an office in my building, and who thought it was a good idea to give him my baby cousin as his intern.” There was only a hint of accusation in her voice. So the intern Wei Wuxian knew, the one Wei Wuxian had called his son, was a Wen. That explained why the ghost had been on fire. It did not explain how his surname was Lan.
“You mean he didn’t tell you at length?” Huaisang asked, only mildly surprised.
“No.” That was an accusation.
“I see,” Huaisang said.
“And what is it you see?” Wen Qing asked.
Huaisang took the bag of chocolate from her and ate a truffle. It was bitter and stale. How long had it been hiding in the back of Jiang Cheng’s desk?
“Nie Huaisang,” she said sharply. “It’s my building, and I am responsible for everyone in it.”
He turned to watch her expressions. She should know, and he wasn’t sure when his two person operation had grown exponentially. He needed to move to Plan L.
“I know you’re the fixer,” she said. “I know what Nies are capable of. It is my responsibility. He is my responsibility.” She wanted to know things Huaisang didn’t want to tell her.
“I know about Wen Ning,” Huaisang said. “Wei Wuxian told me.”
Her angry expression melted into fear then neutrality. “Why would he say such a thing?” Her voice was carefully constructed along with her newest expression.
“I was asking questions,” Huaisang said. “If he hasn’t approached you yet, he will soon.”
“About what?” He could tell she didn’t want to ask, that she didn’t want to know, that she regretted cornering him.
“About putting on the catsuit tonight,” Huaisang said.
“You know about that too?” she demanded. “What does that have to do with my brother?”
“This is going to take a while,” Huaisang said. “If you want to hear all of it.”
“I do,” she said. “I need to know all the facts before I can make an appropriate and informed decision.”
Huaisang smiled. “Finally! Someone not impulsive.”
She snorted. “Because you’re used to dealing with men.”
“Hey, now,” he protested with a laugh.
“Is it not true?” she asked. She gave him a haughty look.
“Oh, it’s completely true,” he said. “It’s just I happen to be one of those men.”
“No,” she said. “You’re a Nie.”
He was, and he wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that statement. It could mean so many things.
“Don’t overthink that,” she said. “Tell me everything you know. Be as thorough as I know you can be.”
“How can I argue with that? And you did sign that extended NDA.” He sighed. He then went back to Jiang Cheng’s desk to return the bag of chocolate. He pulled out the bottle of scotch. “I think we’re going to need this.”
“I also read that extended NDA,” she said. “It was…” She waved a hand.
“Lan Xichen and I worked very hard on that,” he said.
“Are you done stalling? Because we’re not leaving this room until I know what’s going on in my company.”
“I just told Wanyin this morning,” he said. He took a swig of scotch right from the bottle. It was exactly as smooth a burn as he had anticipated. Trust Jiang Cheng to hoard the good stuff. He handed it to Wen Qing.
She sniffed the contents of the bottle and put it down on the floor without taking a drink. Maybe she had lived with Wei Wuxian too long to consider alcohol a viable solution to anything.
“Is that why he went home sick? Is this…?”
“It can be overwhelming, yeah,” Huaisang said. “There is a lot, and I was only able to put it together this morning.”
“I was very thorough in digging up dirt on your company and employees,” he said. “We didn’t want to be part of something that didn’t align with our company culture and philosophy and all that garbage.”
She nodded again.
“I found a database filled with stolen code,” he said. “Locked away on one of your servers.”
“You hacked our servers,” she said, her voice icy.
“Only a little,” he admitted. “And they’re our servers now anyway.”
She snorted derisively.
“It turned out to be a bastardized version of what Wei Wuxian used for Wen Ning.”
“Oh,” she said. “No.”
“Unfortunately,” Huaisang said. “I am positive this has to do with Wanyin’s curse. They want him out of the picture, because he can, you know.”
“Does he know about my brother?” she asked.
“Of course not,” Huaisang said, insulted. “That’s not his business.”
“It’s not your business either,” Wen Qing said, and she was right. But that wasn’t going to stop him from doing his due diligence. He never knew when it might become his problem. “Is that why Wei Wuxian has his office on the Wen campus, so he can spy?”
“Mostly it was to keep him as far away from his brother as possible,” Huaisang said. “He’s working on a project for me, building an app to help stabilize the curse. It’s a calming app.”
“It’s not as easy as that,” Wen Qing said. “He needs to see a doctor.”
“You’re a doctor,” he said.
“I’m a subordinate,” she said. “If I tell him he needs to rest, he might give me a negative yearly review.” It was refreshing to speak with someone who thought there was such a thing as propriety.
Huaisang laughed. “I’m technically his subordinate, and I tell him to go home all the time.”
“Yes, but you’re s- ” She didn’t exactly clam up, but she steadfastly looked at the opposite wall and refused to continue.
“I’m what now?” Huaisang asked. He wanted that out in the open as soon as possible, so he could dispel any of those rumours.
“You’ve known him for a very long time,” Wen Qing said diplomatically.
“I have, but that’s not what you were going to say,” Huaisang said. He was going to make her say it.
“You’re sleeping together,” Wen Qing said. “No one knows why you two aren’t married yet.”
There it was. It was also refreshing to deal with someone who said what they meant.
“Wei Ying complains about it all the time,” she said with a sigh. “He wants to get drunk and ruin his brother’s wedding.”
“Of course he does,” Huaisang said. “One of the stipulations of his employment is to stay sober.”
“He could ruin it sober,” Wen Qing said. “He’s very good at ruining parties.”
“He is,” Huaisang said fondly.
“Why aren’t you two married?” she asked.
“Not that it’s your business,” Huaisang said. He took the bottle of scotch back from her. If she was not going to drink it, he would.
“It is if it has anything to do with this company,” she said. “I did say you needed to be thorough in your explanations.”
“We’re not dating,” Huaisang said. “We’re just friends and coworkers.” As if coworkers didn’t mean running a Fortune 100 company together. And have occasional sex. And prevent the other from electrocuting shareholders.
“Friends who have been sleeping together for twenty years,” she said, turning to face him. “Wei Wuxian,” she added as an explanation. “Honestly, what do you think married couples are? They’re friends who sleep together. Sometimes they don’t even sleep together.”
She pushed her face into his and said quietly. “And there is only one reason his curse would drain you as well.”
“There is no way Wei Wuxian had time to tell you that,” Huaisang said, face as neutral as he could make it.
She sat back against the wall again. “I’m a doctor. I’m trained to notice things like that. So Wanyin doesn’t know.”
“Why would I tell him that now?” Huaisang said. He took another swig from the bottle. “There is too much going on right now.”
“That’s exactly why you need to tell him now,” Wen Qing said. “Ugh. Why do I need to have this conversation with all the men in my life. How are you all so stupid?”
“I never asked for relationship advice,” Huaisang said. “I just want to stop the army of cyborgs and whatever is killing Jiang Cheng.”
Wen Qing banged her head back against the wall. “Because you wanted to talk about it with me. Otherwise you never would have even brought it up let alone actually shared. If you think I’m stupid enough to beleive you can’t control conversations...”
“I suppose you’re better to talk to than Wei Wuxian,” he said. “Now, about that army of cyborgs. That money has to come from somewhere.”
“I’ll have my CFO look into it,” Wen Qing said.
“No,” Huaisang said. “Either you or me.”
“I’ll do it this afternoon, then,” she said. “We can continue this conversation tomorrow.”
“And tonight?” Huaisang asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Wei Wuxian will explain,” Huaisang said.
“Right, that,” she said. She pushed herself up off the floor. “Anything else going on with my company I should know about?”
“You still never answered the questions about the ghost in Lab Four.”
“Those will be answered tonight,” Wen Qing said.
She left, leaving Huaisang sitting on the floor of Jiang Cheng’s office with a half empty bottle of really expensive scotch, which was where Lan Wangji found him.
The look of disgust he gave Huaisang was a slap to the face.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I know perfectly well how unacceptable my work ethic is.”
Lan Wangji did not say anything.
“Is the curse lifted?” Huaisang asked.
“No,” Lan Wangji said.
“Why not?” Huaisang whined.
“It will take time,” he said.
“How much time?”
“I have never seen a curse with this much power behind it,” Lan Wangji said. “My brother and I need to work on it together. He’s still on the phone with the insurance company.”
“You came here to tell me you’re stuck?”
“No,” Lan Wangji said. “To tell you to go see Jiang Wanyin. I was just on a call with him.”
“Ugh,” Huaisang said. “How bad is the damage?”
“Bruised egos,” Lan Wangji said.
“Could be worse,” Huaisang said.
Lan Wangji eyed the bottle.
“I’ll take it with me,” Huaisang said. “So there won’t be any temptation. I did make it a stipulation in his contract.”
Lan Wangji looked a bit softer around the edges.
Huaisang pushed himself up. “Better go save him from himself.”
Huaisang let himself into Jiang Cheng’s rowhouse, noting the wards were down. He set them back up.
“A-Cheng?” he called.
He heard the thump of a fist against a punching bag. That was a better option than the drugs Huaisang had in his pocket. The generic Xanax the company produced never worked on Jiang Cheng, and no one could figure out why. He brought the stuff that caused serious side effects.
Huaisang found Jiang Cheng in his home gym, shirtless, sweat-sheened, and beating the stuffing out of the punching bag with bloodied knuckles.
“Hey there, muscles,” Huaisang cooed. “You look lovely this afternoon.”
Jiang Cheng whirled around to glare at Huaisang. It took a moment for his eyes to focus. That could not be good.
“Huaisang,” he growled.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Huaisang said. “I was talking to your beautiful muscles.”
Jiang Cheng snorted and rolled his eyes, but his anger seemed to diminish until he noticed what was in Huaisang’s hand.
“That’s my good scotch!” he shouted.
“It is,” Huaisang said. “And we’re going to finish it tonight.”
“Why were you in my desk?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“To find the curse,” Huaisang said. “We found it.”
“We?” Jiang Cheng sneered.
“Yes,” Huaisang said. “We.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“Wen Qing and Lan Wangji,” Huaisang admitted. “Let’s continue this in the other room. With shot glasses.”
If they were going to have this conversation, Huaisang didn’t think he could do it sober. He was such a coward, but at least he acknowledged it.
“Which samples do you have in your pockets this time?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Shots!” Huaisang said, leaving the room.
He was pulling two tumblers out of the cabinet when Jiang Cheng came up behind him, pressing his sweaty chest to Huaisang’s last clean work shirt.
He gave himself two fingers’ worth and gave Jiang Cheng the same but with ice as well. Huaisang had been drinking straight already: he might as well continue.
He downed his before pouring himself another two fingers’ worth.
Jiang Cheng flinched behind him, before he pressed his hips down into Huaisang, trapping him against the counter. There wasn’t anything sexual behind it. It was to keep Huaisang from escaping.
“Bad day,” he whispered into Huaisang’s ear.
Huaisang sighed and turned around. He made eye contact as he downed the scotch again.
The expression on Jiang Cheng’s face was a mix of awe and disbelief.
“Yeah,” Huaisang said as he finally felt the alcohol crash into his brain. No fuzziness, just everything loosening and disconnecting. It was strong scotch, and he’d had a lot. Oh, there was the fuzziness. “Bad day.”
Jiang Cheng released him, and he poured himself another finger’s worth of scotch before handing Jiang Cheng the untouched glass.
“You’re not going to be able to stand in a moment,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s - the scotch is, uh, enhanced.”
Huaisang raised his eyebrows. “You roofied your own scotch?”
“Not like that,” Jiang Cheng said. “Let’s get you into the other room.”
The looseness in Huaisang’s movements allowed for Jiang Cheng to maneuver him onto the couch.
“My arms won’t listen to my brain,” Huaisang said mournfully.
“What do you want to do with your arms?” Jiang Cheng said.
“Don’t be so suspicious, A-Cheng,” Huaisang pouted. “I want to kiss you. Bite you. Lick the blood off your knuckles. Do. Stuff.”
“Do stuff?” Jiang Cheng smiled.
“You need to smile more, too,” Huaisang said. He poked at the corner of Jiang Cheng’s lips with an unsteady finger. “I like your smile.”
“How are you drunk already?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Wen Qing and I started in your office,” Huaisang said. “But that’s a secret. Lan Wangji was mad. He’s always mad. Like you. You’re always mad.”
“Sometimes I’m exasperated,” Jiang Cheng said. “Like now.”
“Need to be drunk for this,” Huaisang said. “Need.” He tried to find the word and couldn’t.
“Why?” Jiang Cheng said.
“I’m a coward,” Huaisang said. “That’s not my secret.”
“And what is your secret?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I do believe you’re trying to take advantage of me,” Huaisang said. “I’ll only tell you the secret I came here to tell you. No more.”
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng said.
“So no asking,” Huaisang said.
“And what secret did you come here to tell me?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Huaisang motioned for Jiang Cheng to come closer, and Jiang Cheng obliged, leaning in.
“We’re soulmates,” Huaisang said.
“Sure,” Jiang Cheng said and leaned back with a roll of his eyes.
“It’s true,” Huaisang said. “Just like someone cursed you with your father’s - your father’s jade paperweight.”
“Cursed,” Huaisang sang out. “Lan Wangji is doing his angry thing with it.”
“You. Are. Cursed.” Huaisang punctuated each word with a sharp jab to Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. Then he was distracted by the cords of muscle on Jiang Cheng’s arms and ran his hands up and down in wonder.
“Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng said. He collected Huaisang’s hands in his. “What do you mean by soulmates?”
“The usual,” Huaisang said. “And Wei Wuxian said he’d tell you if I didn’t, but I can’t tell you, Jiang Cheng. I can’t let you know.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him, blinking owlishly.
“Why does Wei - no, why can’t you tell me?”
“‘Cause then you’d know,” Huaisang said. “And it’s exploitable.”
“Of course,” Jiang Cheng said. “How do you know if it’s true?”
“A lady never kisses and tells,” Huaisang said.
“Good thing you’re not a lady,” Jiang Cheng said. He tugged at Huaisang’s hands, pulling him in.
Huaisang licked Jiang Cheng’s neck, then nibbled along the pulse.
“If Wei Wuxian could figure it out, it can’t be that difficult,” Jiang Cheng said through a shiver.
“You’re stealing my energy,” Huaisang said. “You know, to restore yours.”
Jiang Cheng pushed Huaisang away so he could look him in the eyes. Huaisang couldn’t focus his eyes on Jiang Cheng, so he gave up trying.
“Like soulmates,” Huaisang drawled.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said.
“I know,” Huaisang said mournfully.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng repeated. “That’s why you slept for so long. Fuck.”
“My head is really heavy, A-Cheng,” Huaisang said.
“It’s your own fucking fault for stealing my secret scotch,” Jiang Cheng said. “You’re not going to have a fun morning tomorrow.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say to your soulmate,” Huaisang said.
“You are a coward,” Jiang Cheng said. He pushed Huaisang down onto the couch and nearly followed, because Huaisang had wound his fingers in the waistband of Jiang Cheng’s sweatpants.
Jiang Cheng disappeared for a moment, and then he returned and handed him something. “Take this,” he said.
Huaisang stared at the small white pill in his palm.
“Take it,” Jiang Cheng commanded in his best CEO voice. “We’re not having this conversation with you so…” He waved a hand over Huaisang’s body.
Huaisang took it dry.
Jiang Cheng sat next to Huaisang and ran a hand through his hair. “Feels good.” Huaisang leaned into Jiang Cheng’s side.
It took ten minutes before Huaisang bolted upright and ran to the bathroom.
“What was that?” Huaisang demanded when he returned. “I have never had to pee so badly in my life.”
“You’re sober now,” Jiang Cheng said. He crossed his arms over his chest. “You sneaky fucking coward.”
Huaisang took a deep breath and sank back down onto the couch. Served him right for taking unknown drugs.
“And you get pissy when I steal samples,” he grumbled.
They stared at each other for a long time.
“Am I really stealing your energy?” Jiang Cheng asked. He sounded like he really didn’t want the answer.
Huaisang nodded and refused to look at him.
Jiang Cheng sat down heavily next to Huaisang. “Fuck.”
“It has been twenty years since we started this,” Huaisang said. “It was pointed out to me today that twenty years is a long time for a friends with benefits situation.”
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said again. “But. We.”
“I know,” Huaisang said, feeling just as discombobulated.
“Can’t you be pregnant instead?” Jiang Cheng asked. His eyebrows did the sad thing Huaisang hated to see.
“I don’t have the figure for it,” Huaisang said. “Or equipment.”
“Fuck. So what now?” Jiang Cheng asked. He sounded so lost.
“Nothing has to change,” Huaisang said.
“Everything did change,” Jiang Cheng said hotly.
“It really didn’t,” Huaisang said. “It just has a label.”
“But I don’t - I’m not in love with you,” Jiang Cheng said.
Huaisang didn’t even bother to hide his wince. “I know, but you’ve never been in love with anyone else either - never been with anyone else.”
“I - I am fond of you,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You can love someone without being in love with them,” Huaisang said. “No one said soulmates needed to be in love anyway.”
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said.
“No one can know,” Huaisang said. “Except maybe your therapist, because you’re going to need to talk to her about this.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth but closed it again when he saw Huaisang’s serious face.
“There is a cyborg army being built somewhere in the city, someone wants you dead, and it’s all connected,” Huaisang said. “Those are not going away because you’re having an existential crisis.”
“Are you saying we ignore this?” Jiang Cheng said. “Because if I die from this curse, so will you.”
“Yeah,” Huaisang said. “To both.”
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said. “And fuck you.”
Huaisang could tell he was trying so hard to keep his temper down, and he felt a surge of something in his chest. It might be a side effect of the drug he just took. Maybe heartburn.
“You needed to know,” Huaisang said. “And I told you.” He stood and thought about leaving, but he was here to calm Jiang Cheng down.
“It works the other way as well,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Now that I think back on the last two decades,” Jiang Cheng said. “It works both ways. Some things make a lot more sense now.”
Huaisang didn’t say anything.
“Like that time in college when we both didn’t sleep for three days,” Jiang Cheng said with a laugh. His face clouded over. “The other day when you left my office. And ten years ago. I knew when you - had heard the news and when you...”
When Huaisang had lost his shit and killed his brother's murderer and everyone else within a block radius.
It took a lot of effort for Huaisang to keep his face neutral.
“I guess now is the time you tell me your plan,” Jiang Cheng said. “And we figure out how to use our connection. How the fuck did we not know about it way back then?”
“It might not have existed back then,” Huaisang said. “Soulmates don’t just happen. They have to be forged, cultivated. It requires work.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him. Huaisang understood. Neither of them had knowingly worked on it. It felt like it had just happened to them.
“Not everything is the will of the universe,” Huaisang said. “Sometimes it’s just us finding order in the chaos.”
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said again. He took a sip of his scotch.
“You wanted to know about the cyborg army?” Huaisang posed it as a question, but it wasn’t. “About the plan? Scheming always makes me feel better.” He made a show of looking at Jiang Cheng’s chest. Then met his gaze. “So does sex.”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and took another sip. “Tell me about your plan.”
Actually, in their twenty years of this arrangement, Jiang Cheng had initiated anything sexual maybe a handful of times. How had Huaisang missed that as well?
“We’re currently on Plan L,” Huaisang said. “Step seven, subsection three.”
Jiang Cheng smiled slightly. “Your mind terrifies me.”
“Shh,” Huaisang said. “Do you want to hear it or not?”
Jiang Cheng wrapped his arms around Huaisang and pulled him in so his back was against his chest. “Yeah, I do.”
“You’re not going to like this step,” Huaisang warned. “That’s me telling you not to freak out when I tell you.”
He felt Jiang Cheng nod against him.
“The three vigilantes are searching for the secret lab tonight,” Huaisang said as Jiang Cheng tensed.
“How did you figure out who they were so quickly?” Jiang Cheng asked through clenched teeth.
“Are you going to tell me who they are?”
“Are you going to tell me what the interns have to do with this?”
“They were in Plans A, C, D, E, J, and K,” Huaisang said. “And they might still fit into Plan L, but not until they report to me tomorrow afternoon.”
“What did you ask them to report on?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“What happens in the Wen labs before things are redacted,” Huaisang said.
“You turned my nephew into a spy,” Jiang Cheng said flatly.
“I tried,” Huaisang said. “He’s pretty clueless about people, though. That other one, his biochemist friend, he’s going far. He’s the one who figured out the arsonist was after the prosthetics.”
Jiang Cheng tightened his grip around Huaisang ’s shoulders. “Are you going to tell me what Wei Wuxian is doing on my payroll?”
“Not yet,” Huaisang said. “But I did give him an intern. They seem to work well together.”
“You gave him an intern to corrupt?”
Huaisang shrugged, accidentally knocking Jiang Cheng in the chin. He heard the clink of teeth banging together.
“There are worse things he could be doing,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng growled softly but didn’t protest.
“We do need to figure out who knows about your voltage problem, though,” Huaisang said.
“You, my sister, Wei Wuxian, anyone from back then, and…” Jiang Cheng didn’t continue.
Huaisang twisted to look at him. “And who?”
“Someone is sending me threatening emails,” Jiang Cheng admitted.
“You proud asshole,” Huaisang said. “That’s what I am literally here for, and you’re just telling me now?”
“It’s nothing,” Jiang Cheng muttered.
“I’m the judge of that,” Huaisang said. “Not you.” He sighed. “And they referenced your lightning?”
Jiang Cheng exhaled loudly.
“I’ll look into it in the morning,” Huaisang said. He settled back into Jiang Cheng’s arms.
Huaisang’s phone buzzed in his pocket.
He ignored it.
It buzzed again.
“Just answer it,” Jiang Cheng said tersely.
He supposed he was still technically working, so he fished his phone out of his pocket. It was Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng must have caught the name over his shoulder, because he snorted.
Huaisang extracted himself and took the call in the kitchen, away from Jiang Cheng.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Where is he?” Wei Wuxian asked. There was an urgency in his voice that told Huaisang not to play word games.
“With me. Why?”
“Good,” Wei Wuxian said, sounding relieved. “You’re behind wards?”
Huaisang leaned against the counter and waited for Wei Wuxian to make his point.
“Lan Zhan showed me the curse,” he admitted.
“I see,” Huaisang said.
“It’s really bad,” Wei Wuxian said. “He would have been dead within the next few weeks.”
Huaisang clamped down on the panic that threatened to rise in his chest.
Jiang Cheng was immediately next to him. It didn’t take him that long to capitalize on their connection now that he knew it existed. Huaisang wasn’t sure how he did it, considering he himself couldn’t feel anything going on in Jiang Cheng’s mind. Maybe it was because their magic worked differently from each other.
“Have you made any progress with it?” Huaisang asked.
“Here’s the thing,” Wei Wuxian said. “As soon as we break it, it alerts the person who made it.”
“I see,” Huaisang said.
“So Lan Zhan asked me to trace it before he and his brother blow the thing into oblivion.” He paused. “It’s Xue Yang’s work.”
“He’s dead,” Huaisang said a little too sharply. He had made sure that Xue Yang was very dead.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said, his voice soft. “And this curse was made in the past year.”
Huaisang waited for more information, but Wei Wuxian didn’t supply it.
“He just admitted to receiving threatening emails,” Huaisang said, ignoring Jiang Cheng’s indignant shout. “See if you can trace those instead.”
“Oh, that would be so much easier,” Wei Wuxian said. “Keep him behind the wards, because someone really, really wants him dead.”
“And me as well,” Huaisang reminded him. “Maybe I was coming at it from the wrong angle.”
“Who else would have known about that?” Wei Wuxian asks, bewildered.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just told him half an hour ago.” Huaisang didn’t elaborate.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian whistled. “He had a breakdown, didn’t he?”
“No comment,” Huaisang said.
“Keep him behind the wards,” Wei Wuxian repeated.
“I will,” he said.
“I’ll give you an update as soon as I can,” Wei Wuxian said and hung up.
Huaisang put his phone down on the counter, slowly, deliberately. He then held Jiang Cheng’s gaze.
“Xue Yang,” he said.
Jiang Cheng winced.
“It’s his curse.”
“But - ”
“I know,” Huaisang said, the taste of blood filling his mouth. “The curse is new, and it would have killed you within the month.”
“Shit,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Yeah,” Huaisang agreed. And he had missed it. He hadn’t even noticed until a week ago that anything had changed. Whoever created this curse was talented and powerful and needed to die. “Until we know more, we’re staying behind the wards. Speaking of which, why didn’t you reset them when you returned this afternoon?”
“I did,” Jiang Cheng said.
“They weren’t set when I arrived,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng looked sheepish. It took Huaisang a moment to realize it, because he’d never actually seen Jiang Cheng sheepish before.
“The wards are set for everyone but you,” Jiang Cheng mumbled.
Huaisang smiled. “It’s about time. Only took you twenty years. Maybe I’ll have a toothbrush next,” he said, mostly joking. “So. Since we’re not going anywhere any time soon, whatever shall we do to occupy our time?”
“You’re not nearly as clever or subtle as you think,” Jiang Cheng said. “I have a meeting in fifteen minutes.”
“Canceled,” Huaisang said. “Actually any connection to the outside world is canceled. Wait.” The wards only kept out anything tangible, magical or not. But there were still other intangible ways to sneak past wards.
“You don’t think…?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Huaisang nodded. He barely hesitated before he stabbed the nail of his index finger into his forehead and sliced downward, coaxing out a drop of blood. There wasn’t time for the usual methods.
Jiang Cheng watched with a concerned frown.
He smeared the droplet between his eyebrows, opening up his third eye, closing his others.
And there it was. There were bugs everywhere. Mostly audio, but there was one camera and one on the router.
Why had he never thought to check? How short sighted had he been to think only of magical threats?
He clenched his jaw.
As soon as he destroyed the bugs, it would start a ticking clock, and he had no idea how much time would be left. Too many things remained unknown.
Jiang Cheng put a hand on his arm.
Huaisang snapped his eyes open, his breath short and heavy.
He snapped his fingers on both hands, and it was over. The bugs were smoldering messes.
“Clock’s ticking,” he said. “We have maybe two minutes before they know their bugs are all offline.”
“All the bugs? How many were there?”
“A lot,” Huaisang said. He stuck his bloody finger in his mouth.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said. “How did someone get inside to install them?”
Huaisang shook his head. “I’m sure there are ways, but I’m not going to waste brainpower on that right now. I’m more worried about the confessions we made before this. I made a pretty big confession not half an hour ago, and they heard it. They know we know you’re cursed. They know we are hunting them. They know we are s- They know we’re here right now. Grab your go bag. We need to use those two minutes.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened in realization, and he bolted into his bedroom, emerging a few seconds later with a gym bag.
“Leave your phone,” Huaisang said as he put his own phone in his pocket. “You have a burner in your bag.” Because Huaisang was thorough when Jiang Cheng clearly was not. “And put on a shirt.”
Jiang Cheng looked down at his bare chest and nodded.
They were out the door less than a minute later.
They couldn’t go to Huaisang’s apartment, and that left a handful of places to go, and only one of them was practical.
No one was there when they broke through Lan Wangji’s wards and picked his lock.
“When did you learn to pick locks?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“My brother taught me when I was thirteen,” Huaisang said, and it only hurt a little to say it aloud. “He taught me all sorts of useful things I ignored. I thought you knew about the lock picking?”
“When would you have told me?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Our last semester of college when we got blackout drunk and broke into the organic chemistry lab,” Huaisang said.
“I was blacked out at the time,” Jiang Cheng said dryly.
Huaisang shrugged and waited for his phone to ring. Lan Wangji had to know they’d broken in.
His phone buzzed.
“Ah, Lan Wangji, hello!”
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“We’re at the safehouse,” Huaisang said.
“The safehouse,” Lan Wangji repeated.
“Yup,” Huaisang said. “The one that doesn’t have Jiang Wanyin’s name on any documentation.”
There was silence from the other side of the line.
“Lan Wangji?” Huaisang asked after a moment of silence. He looked at his phone, but Lan Wangji had hung up on him. Rude.
His phone buzzed.
“What was that about?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“We’re at the safehouse while the exterminator deals with Jiang Cheng’s bug problem.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian said. “Is that so?”
“The one that’s well stocked with tea,” Huaisang said.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” Wei Wuxian said. “But there is a stash of KitKats in the freezer.”
“Well stocked safehouse,” Huaisang said. “Five out of five stars.”
“You might change your review in a few hours,” Wei Wuxian said. “Stay safe.”
“That’s the plan,” Huaisang said. “I’ve turned off the location on my phone, and I’m shutting it down as soon as you hang up, so don’t be surprised if an unknown number calls.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I hope so,” Huaisang said. “We’ll talk later.”
“Later,” Wei Wuxian parroted.
Huaisang hung up. “We have this place to ourselves for two hours,” he said. “And there are KitKats in the freezer.”
“Ugh,” Jiang Cheng said. “He likes those gross matcha ones.”
“We’re running for your life and you’re worried about the flavor of KitKats?” Huaisang asked.
“If I focus on the KitKats instead of the death thing, I’ll stay saner longer,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Have it your way,” Huaisang said. “I’m going into the guest room to take a catnap. No need to wake me. I’ll wake up when the shouting starts.”
“Catnaps aren’t two hours long,” Jiang Cheng pointed out.
“They are when you need to close your third eye as well,” Huaisang said, and Jiang Cheng looked away.
“The four of us can have that conversation later,” Huaisang said. “You’re more than welcome to join me, you know.”
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng sneered. “With an invitation like that.”
“Worst soulmate ever,” Huaisang muttered. “Mr. Jiang Wanyin, would you care for a quickie and cuddle in your brother-in-law’s guestroom?”
“Incorrigible,” Jiang Cheng said. “He’s not my brother-in-law, but you sleep. I need to catch up on - ”
“You’d better not say work,” Huaisang warned.
“I was going to say K-Dramas,” Jiang Cheng said.
That startled a laugh out of Huaisang. “In that case,” he said. “Worstest soulmate ever.”
He left to find the guest room.
===Mr. Yao radio transcript===
Another Jin scandal hit the news rags this morning. Jin Zixun gave Wei Wuxian a run for his money last night. He was forcibly removed from a certain type of establishment for doing little white lines. How are either of these degenerates allowed to make company decisions? Not only did Jin Guangshan employ his coked-up nephew, but Wei Wuxian is also employed at his family’s company. Wei Wuxian hasn’t made a drunken scene yet, but it’s only a matter of time. There are plenty of qualified unemployed options instead of those reprobates. Nepotism at its finest.
Huaisang did indeed wake up to shouting.
Except it was Jiang Cheng, shouting at the television.
Huaisang decided it was better to get up while it was still the two of them. His work clothing was completely wrinkled, and he didn’t have a change of clothing with him. Jiang Cheng did, though. He ended up stealing a Jiang Cheng-sized sweatshirt and sweatpants.
“Are you wearing my clothes?” Jiang Cheng asked when Huaisang emerged from the bedroom.
“Obviously,” Huaisang said. “It’s not like I’ve never done that before.”
The deadbolt clicked, and the wards dissipated.
Jiang Cheng crackled and glowed.
Wei Wuxian entered the apartment with Lan Wangji behind him. The wards flew back up.
The glow on Jiang Cheng’s skin didn’t change but the crackling stopped.
“Huaisang, are you wearing my brother’s clothing?” Wei Wuxian asked, giving him a thumbs up.
Huaisang smiled back. “I didn’t have time to grab my go bag.”
“That is a lot less sexy,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Are you thinking about me having sex?” Jiang Cheng demanded, a sneer already twitching his lips.
“Don’t be crass, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said.
The crackle was back.
“Not in the house,” Lan Wangji said.
“You ruin all my fun, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. “I need to talk to A-Sang anyway.”
Wei Wuxian led him away into the guest room. He raised his eyebrows at the very obviously slept-in bed.
“If only,” Huaisang said.
“I think I’m disappointed in you,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I needed a nap first,” he said. “It’s been a very long day, and it was the only way to close my third eye.”
Wei Wuxian looked at him in alarm. “Why did you need to open it?”
“To find all the bugs,” Huaisang said. “There were a lot of bugs.”
“So whoever was listening in knows all your and Jiang Cheng’s secrets,” Wei Wuxian said.
“And half an hour before I found the bugs I told him about why I slept for twenty hours the other day,” Huaisang said.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian said. “That’s…”
“Not good,” Huaisang said. “Which is why we’re here.”
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“It also means they could get past the wards to plant those bugs,” Huaisang added, but Wei Wuxian had become stuck in his own mind, tapping his nose and staring into the middle distance, so Huaisang doubted he heard.
“You can get past wards undetected,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Not like this,” Huaisang said. “I would need to…”
“No, but you can,” Wei Wuxian said.
“You think it’s someone like me?” Huaisang said. “Someone with Nie blood or training?”
“Maybe,” Wei Wuxian said. “But I need to talk to you about the curse.”
Huaisang sat down on the bed. If they were going to have this conversation, he wanted to be sitting. He doubted this would be a conversation about nuances of curse application.
“I traced the emails,” Wei Wuxian said. “They bounced around a lot, but they originated in a Jin owned building in midtown. What else did you see with the third eye?”
“Rude,” Huaisang said. He was not telling Wei Wuxian what else he had seen. It didn’t matter at the moment anyway.
Wei Wuxian winked at him.
“Could you narrow it down to a floor on the building?” Huaisang asked.
“If I were in the building, of course,” Wei Wuxian said, tapping the side of his nose. “But I can’t just walk into a Jin building, and I already have plans for tonight.”
“Oh?” Huaisang asked. “You going on a date?”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Incorrigible.”
“Don’t let your brother catch you sneaking out,” Huaisang said. “Am I correct in assuming you told Lan Wangji?” Just because Lan Wangji already knew didn’t mean he wasn’t owed the courtesy.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “He figured it out on his own.”
Huaisang let mirth curve his lips. “Do you know how?”
“He won’t tell me!” Wei Wuxian bemoaned.
“Same way I knew,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian crossed his arms.
“And how did you know?”
“My lips are sealed,” he said, tapping his lips.
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian said. “He did tell me, didn’t he? And then you did.”
“Just be careful not to let Jiang Cheng catch you,” Huaisang said. “I can’t handle his stress right now.”
“Are you going to distract him?” Wei Wuxian asked with a wink.
“That’s what K-Dramas are for,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “You two have the weirdest relationship.” He shook his head again. “I know you have someone from Jin Labs in your back pocket. Not the peacock who married my sister, but someone else.”
“I do,” Huaisang said. “But I don’t know how useful they can be, and I’m not going to be physically meeting with them any time soon. I don’t even know when - if I should return to the office. Jiang Cheng is not going back to the office. When do you think you can track the curse?”
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “I might need to find a different way to break it down.”
“Would an empath help?” Huaisang asked.
“You are so full of surprises, A-Sang! Where did you find an empath?” Wei Wuxian laughed in delight.
“I’m very good at my job,” Huaisang said. “Would it help?”
“Yeah, undoubtedly,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Good,” Huaisang said. “I’ll bring him to you tomorrow. Stay out of his head.” He gave Wei Wuxian a meaningful look.
Wei Wuxian gave his most innocent ‘who me?’ expression.
“How’s the app coming?”
“Slowly,” Wei Wuxian said. “There are some unexpected hurdles.”
Huaisang didn’t ask. He wouldn’t understand anyway. “Do you know when you’ll at least have a prototype? We’re kinda on a ticking clock.”
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said. He glanced at the closed door.
“When are you heading out?” Huaisang asked.
“I’m meeting up with them around midnight,” he said. “I usually climb out of Lan Zhan’s window anyway.”
Huaisang nodded. “How long do you think we can stay here before someone is killed?”
“Isn’t that the point of not being at - Oh, you mean between me and Jiang Cheng? A few hours, maybe a day if we’re both on our best behavior.”
“So a few hours,” Huaisang said. “I almost ended up with the other Lan brother, but that would raise too many questions.”
“Lan Xichen can be discreet and wouldn’t pry,” Wei Wuxian said.
“True,” Huaisang said. “But other factors.” He waved a hand. “I’d need to at least tell him about the connection between me and… I could barely tell Jiang Cheng without being - ” He cut himself off. That was not something to discuss with someone in recovery.
“You stole his secret enhanced scotch and got smashed,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I wasn’t going to say it,” Huaisang said. And oh, that's why Jiang Cheng had that drug on hand.
“Lan Zhan told me,” Wei Wuxian said. He stared Huaisang down, and Huaisang met his gaze evenly. “And that was four hours ago. Why are you still not drunk? I can’t even smell it.”
That was good to know. He didn’t want to be any sort of temptation. Not that sort of temptation.
Huaisang didn’t answer. There was no adequate answer he could give.
“Fine,” Wei Wuxian said. “I need food. Breaking and entering takes a lot of energy.”
Huaisang flopped back on the bed as Wei Wuxian saw himself out.
He must have dozed off, because he opened his eyes when he felt the bed dip next to him, and a hand settled on his head, fingers brushing against his temples.
“A-Cheng?” Huaisang asked.
“This sucks,” he said. “I hate having no energy.”
There was no response.
“How am I supposed to run your empire if I can’t stay awake a full day?” Huaisang said.
“Oh? Is that what you thought you were doing?”
“One of us has to be the responsible adult,” he said.
“You were the one who stole booze hidden in someone else’s desk to get day drunk just to tell me we were soulmates,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Yeah,” Huaisang said. “That was stupid. I should have never told you anything, because you were a little bitch about it.”
“You were the bitch,” Jiang Cheng said, shoving him lightly. “So cowardly you couldn’t even do it sober.”
“Would you tell me if you had figured it out?” Huaisang asked. He knew the answer, and he was being a little bitch about it, but he figured he had a right.
“Don’t be stupid,” Jiang Cheng said. “Of course not.”
Huaisang nodded. “And your therapist would be so disappointed.”
“Let’s leave her out of this,” Jiang Cheng said. “You need to tell me everything else that’s going on.”
“Why?” Huaisang demanded. He pouted.
“Because I’m your soulmate,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Ugh,” Huaisang moaned. “You are such a little bitch, Jiang Wanyin. Fine. Wei Wuxian.” He paused for dramatic effect. “He’s developing an app to help control your outbursts.”
The fingers in his hair stilled. “What?”
“It’s true,” Huaisang mumbled. “That’s what he’s officially on the payroll to do. And a stipulation of his contract is to stay sober.”
“That’s actually really clever,” Jiang Cheng said.
“And you’re now thinking about marketability, aren’t you?” Huaisang phrased it as a question, but it really wasn’t. He had already run the numbers on marketability. They were really good numbers. Especially if they could create a whole series of meditative apps.
“But it has to work first,” Huaisang added. “It’s barely been a week. He doesn’t have a prototype yet.”
“You’re a good soulmate,” Jiang Cheng said. He leaned over to kiss Huaisang’s forehead. “I could do a lot worse.”
“Fuck, yeah, I’m a catch,” Huaisang told him. He reached up and pulled Jiang Cheng down on top of him and just held him there.
Jiang Cheng shifted and settled.
“Are you going to tell me about the vigilantes?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Shh,” Huaisang said quietly. “I’m asleep.”
Jiang Cheng reached up under Huaisang’s stolen sweatshirt and pinched his stomach.
“Tell me,” Jiang Cheng said.
“It’s not going to be like before,” Huaisang said. “It’s not going to be like - It’s not. Trust me for the time being.”
“You know I’m going to agonize over it,” Jiang Cheng said. His hand stilled under Huaisang’s shirt, spread out flat against his stomach.
“I know,” Huaisang said. “But it could hurt a lot of people if I told you.”
“It’s not like I’m going outside in the near future,” Jiang Cheng said bitterly.
“You think we can stay more than one night here without you and Wei Wuxian trying to kill each other?”
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng yielded. “I see your point. Where are we going in the morning?”
“I’m going into the office, I think,” Huaisang said. “You are staying here and, I assume, watching K-Dramas. Then we’ll figure out what to do with our weekend, because we are not staying here.”
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng said. He kissed Huaisang’s ear. “I came to tell you dinner is ready.”
“Lan Wangji cooked, don’t worry,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You nearly gave me a heart attack,” Huaisang said. “Worst soulmate ever.”
There was a soft clang in the dark.
Huaisang extracted himself from Jiang Cheng’s sprawled limbs and silently crept into the kitchen.
Lan Wangji stared at him.
“Ah,” Huaisang said and sat down at the table as Lan Wangji continued to go about making his breakfast.
“He’s not back yet,” he said.
“Oh,” Huaisang said. “Do you think he..?”
“No,” Lan Wangji said. “He returns after I make breakfast, then sleeps.”
“Okay,” Huaisang said. “What’s for breakfast?”
Lan Wangji gave Huaisang a withering look.
“He’s going to stay here today while we’re at the office,” Huaisang said. “Then we’re going elsewhere.”
“Where?” Lan Wangji asked.
Huaisang shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Lan Wangji continued to stare at him.
“We’ll see how the day progresses,” Huaisang said. “I have a full dance card today.”
“Jin,” Lan Wangji said, but he didn’t elaborate, and it wasn’t a question.
“Probably,” Huaisang said. “I don’t know how much Wei Wuxian has told you, but it’s all very not good. And not just the Jins.”
“Wei Ying is very close to tracking the curse,” Lan Wangji said.
“Good,” Huaisang said.
“My brother and I will need time to break it,” Lan Wangji said.
“I hope we have that time,” Huaisang muttered.
The window opened, and Wei Wuxian crawled through. “I smell breakfast! Oh, hi, A-Sang.”
He still wore his catsuit but not the cowl, which had been replaced with a domino, and there was a gash across his chin. His hair was in disarray and had leaves and feathers in it.
Lan Wangji helped him to his feet and held his chin up to examine.
Huaisang averted his eyes. Their love was so soft; it was a bit nauseating to watch.
“What. The. Fuck.”
Well, that was a problem.
“Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian cried out as Lan Wangji tightened his grip on Wei Wuxian protectively.
Jiang Cheng glowed and crackled, and the hair on the back of Huaisang’s neck stood on end.
Lan Wangji stepped in front of Wei Wuxian. “Not in the house.”
“I’m going to tear you limb from limb,” Jiang Cheng promised through clenched teeth. “How could you even dare?”
Huaisang put a hand on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, heavy and insistent, taking the jolts as they came.
Jiang Cheng brushed his hand off. “You know exactly - ”
Huaisang did know exactly why. He had been with Jiang Cheng ten years ago, searching the debris and destruction, looking for survivors. They had found Wei Wuxian unconscious in an alley. He was not in costume, and his blood alcohol level was… Well, Wei Wuxian had woken up in the ICU, and once he was able to be moved, had been relocated to the psych ward. Followed by years of checking into and out of rehab.
So, yes, Huaisang knew, but now was not the time.
“No,” Huaisang said. “Not now.”
Jiang Cheng whirled on him. His lashes were wet. “You kept this from me! You had no right. He knows exactly why this - ”
“No,” Huaisang repeated. His head swam, and he swayed on his feet. “Shit.”
There was a strong grip on his upper arm, and the electricity shot up it in waves.
“It’s getting worse,” Huaisang gritted out. “So unless you plan on killing me right now, you’re going to stop being such a bitch.”
The grip on his arm released so suddenly Huaisang lost balance and fell to the floor.
Wei Wuxian was at his side, poking into his head, and Jiang Cheng stood a few feet away wearing a horrified expression.
Breakfast burned on the stove, and Lan Wangji went to rescue it.
Wei Wuxian gave Jiang Cheng a venomous glare and helped Huaisang back to the bedroom.
When Huaisang woke again, Jiang Cheng was sitting in a chair next to the bed watching him.
“It explains a lot,” Jiang Cheng said dully.
“What does?” Huaisang asked. He didn’t even bother to sit upright.
“You knowing who the vigilantes are,” Jiang Cheng said. His voice stayed flat, but he wasn’t great at hiding anything, especially turmoil.
“Hm,” Huaisang said. He splayed his fingers out over the sheets, coolness at his fingertips.
“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng said. “About accidentally attempting to kill you.”
Huaisang didn't respond.
“I don’t realize when I’m stealing your energy,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Give me some of yours,” Huaisang said. “I’m going to need it to get through the day.”
“It’s already noon,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Hope the boss doesn’t fire me for slacking,” Huaisang muttered.
“Keep up with the Wei Wuxian level of dramatics and he might,” Jiang Cheng said.
Huaisang sighed. “This is accelerating really quickly. Too quickly. I don’t have all the pieces yet. I don’t suppose you found out if Wei Wuxian found the secret lab or not before you killed him.”
Jiang Cheng’s lips twitched into a sneer. “He said it was that building in midtown you’d talked about.”
Of course it was.
Because Jin Guangshan didn’t know the meaning of subtle.
“What does that mean?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“It means I need to go,” Huaisang said.
“You need to tell me what’s going on,” Jiang Cheng said. There was a desperate edge to it, and Huaisang did not have the energy to deal with that.
“Because things went so well for me when you found out this morning,” Huaisang retorted. “You sit here and sulk. I’m going to go save our lives and your stupid company.”
He pushed himself out of bed and ignored Jiang Cheng’s pained expression. Jerk deserved it.
He stole Jiang Cheng’s work clothes, which were way too big, but it didn’t matter. He rolled the cuffs.
“You’d better be ready to leave when I return,” Huaisang said.
“Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng blurted. “Don’t die.”
“I’ll try not to,” he said.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Sizhui were arguing goodnaturedly over whatever was displayed on the tablet in front of them on the table.
“A-Sang?” Wei Wuxian asked. He had a bandage over the gash on his chin. “Shouldn’t you be…?”
“I should, but I’m not,” Huaisang said. “Let him angst for the afternoon.”
“Are you still wearing his clothes?” Wei Wuxian asked. He looked Huaisang up and down appraisingly.
Lan Sizhui blushed.
“Did he tell you about the building in midtown?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“He did,” Huaisang said. “But I need some information from you first.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian said. “Sizhui, give us a moment.”
Lan Sizhui looked between the two of them and left.
“Have you spoken to Wen Qing about where the money is going?” Huaisang asked.
“She hasn’t figured it out yet, but she will,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I won’t be surprised if she doesn’t find anything,” Huaisang said.
“What do you mean?”
“This person doesn’t need money,” Huaisang said. “They can afford to plant a half dozen bugs behind wards. That does not come cheap.”
Wei Wuxian nodded appreciatively.
“I think the Wen angle is a deadend,” he said.
“I think it’s someone who used to be employed with Wen but is now at Jin,” Huaisang said.
“That’s a leap in logic,” Wei Wuxian said. “Do you have proof?”
“Do we have proof it’s a Wen employee?” Huaisang shot back. “We know this person knew Xue Yang, is possibly funding him, and somehow ended up with the code you wrote for Wen Ning. How could they get their hands on your code?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head slowly. “That’s been bothering me. Huaisang, this is getting too personal for you. Let me finish it.”
“No,” Huaisang said. “This person wants - No. I’m going to finish this. You can join me, but bones need to break.”
“Huaisang!” He wasn’t sure exactly what Wei Wuxian objected to, but Huaisang didn’t really care about moral approval. Because bones needed to break. That was non-negotiable.
“Don’t worry, I’ll let you break the bones.”
“You…” Wei Wuxian didn’t finish.
“Your sister and I are going to visit that lovely husband of hers in a few minutes,” Huaisang said.
“Uh,” Wei Wuxian said. “Is that such a good idea?”
“Your sister is very protective of her younger brothers, so yes.” Jiang Yanli had enthusiastically agreed to join Huaisang on his mission to Jin, offering to keep her husband occupied while Huaisang snooped. She seemed genuinely delighted to be a distraction.
“You are not pulling any punches,” Wei Wuxian said. “Unleashing my sister like that.”
Huaisang’s smile was a little too sharp. This needed to end. ”You need to break that curse, or it won’t matter what your sister does; Jiang Cheng and I will both be dead.”
Wei Wuxian recoiled like he’d been slapped. “I’ll check with Lan Zhan in an hour.”
“It’s progressing too quickly. I don’t think we have much more time,” Huaisang said. “You saw what happened this morning.”
Wei Wuxian looked away.
“I’m going to check on my interns and then with Wen Qing,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“And try not to rile Jiang Cheng up in the meantime,” Huaisang said.
His interns had embarrassingly little to show for themselves, and Huaisang expressed his disappointment. They clambered all over themselves to say they’d have something next week, but nothing was moving quickly, so there really wasn’t much to report, please don’t make them go back to filing.
Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen shared a giggle when Huaisang told Lan Jingyi to report to Lan Wangji’s office at 3pm that afternoon. Lan Jingyi looked like he’d rather have bamboo splinters shoved under his fingernails.
Wen Ning was in Wen Qing’s office when Huaisang entered without announcing himself. Wen Ning was changing a bandage on Wen Qing’s shoulder.
“Oh!” Wen Ning said as Wen Qing hastily covered her shoulder back up with her blouse.
Huaisang gave them a look.
“I’m going there soon,” Huaisang said. “What should I be looking for?”
Wen Ning looked back and forth between Huaisang and his sister.
“Is this in an official capacity?” Wen Qing asked.
Huaisang didn’t know how to respond. “Yes and no.”
“Basement,” Wen Qing said. “Always put the heavy things in the basement. We weren’t able to get down there, but it’s there.”
“Be careful,” she said. She looked terrible, like she’d lost a lot of blood recently. “There is a lot of security.”
Huaisang nodded again. “Do you know of anyone who left the company right before the merger went through?”
“A lot of people did,” she said. “HR would know.”
“What about the ghost in Lab Four?” Huaisang asked. “You said she was fine before the merger, too.”
Wen Qing frowned at him. “I still need to look into that and the money trail.”
“Is there a way to block Jiang Cheng out?” he finally asked. “Keep him from…?”
She shook her head.
Huaisang took a deep breath. “Okay. If you think of anything I can do to help with… him, let Wei Wuxian know.”
Wen Qing nodded.
He and Jiang Yanli walked into the midtown Jin Labs building like they owned the place, coffees in hand.
Jin Zixuan was waiting for them in the lobby and looked genuinely pleased to see his wife and less so to see Huaisang.
“Huaisang is family,” Jiang Yanli said. “He needed to get out of the office. Think of it as a field trip.”
Jin Zixuan gave Huaisang a once-over with a distrustful frown.
Huaisang gave him a coy smile in return. “If you’d like, I can steal all your company secrets while I’m here. But I really did need to get out of the office. You know how it is.”
It was so easy to push buttons, and yet, Jin Zixuan didn’t rise to the bait.
“Yes,” Jin Zixuan said. “I know how it is.”
Jin Zixuan led them into the sunny little courtyard just beyond security. And if MianMian just happened to be passing on her way out the door and Huaisang just happened to slip a note into her open purse and security cameras just happened to not even pick up on it, then the trip was already worth it.
“How is A-Ling doing?” Jin Zixuan asked. “He is very excited to do something other than file.”
“Ah,” Huaisang said. “He’s struggling, but it’s only been a week, and labs have a very different culture than he’s used to.”
“I tried to get him into the labs here, and he refused,” Jin Zixuan said, and it was a peace offering.
“Kids,” Huaisang said with a shrug.
Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan settled into an easy conversation, and it was not as difficult as Huaisang had anticipated to excuse himself claiming a need to use the bathroom.
For verisimilitude, he did enter the bathroom, and he made sure to leave the same time someone else was entering. And if they really wanted to cut down on stolen security badges, they needed to stop clipping them to the outside of their pockets.
Huaisang returned the appropriate amount of time later, and they had barely noticed his absence.
“I need to head back to the office,” he said. “Something came up.”
“Is A-Cheng…?” Jiang Yanli stopped herself. She was the best accomplice he’d had. If only he could convince anyone else to be this great an actor.
“No,” Huaisang said. “Your other brother.”
Jiang Yanli smiled and shook her head. “Do you need a hand?”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” Huaisang said. “Unless you feel the need to help?”
“I am sure everything will be fine.” She smiled through Jin Zixuan’s concern. “RIght now I am being paid to have coffee with my husband. I don’t see any issue continuing.”
The stolen security badge did not let Huaisang access the basement via the elevator, so he had tried the stairs and had ended up trapped.
The people he had been eavesdropping on at the basement level meant he couldn’t continue down, and the person above him on the stairs heading down the stairs to the basement level meant he was going to have to talk his way out. Fortunately no one knew he wasn’t a Jin Labs employee.
The conversation below him hadn’t even been relevant to anything, mostly one-sided bellyaching about how someone’s sister was turning 50 next week and what should he do for her?
Huaisang could see one of them from around the corner, and it took a moment, but he recognized Jin Zixun. He should have recognized it from the whining, but he just hadn’t known Jin Zixun was employed. He was mostly in the tabloids with similar exploits to his uncle: hookers and blow. Jin Zixuan always mentioned his cousin with disdain, but he’d never condemn the same behavior from his own father.
The other one was Xue Yang.
And Huaisang’s mind skittered to a stop.
He stopped breathing as adrenaline surged.
Xue Yang was dead. Pieces of him were still rotting in the gutters of the city.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
The two people below looked up the stairwell to see Huaisang.
And they knew he wasn’t a Jin Lab employee.
Xue Yang’s smirk cut Huaisang’s resolve in ways it hadn’t been in years.
“Just getting my daily stair exercise,” Huaisang said breathlessly, brushing past the thankfully unknown person descending the stairs and bolting up the stairs.
He escaped the stairwell on the ground level and blended in with the crowd milling about.
Jin Zixuan was giving Jiang Yanli a goodbye kiss when Huaisang ducked behind her.
“What?” Jin Zixuan asked.
Jin Zixun shouted across the lobby, rushing in their direction and pointing.
Jiang Yanli frowned. “Your cousin is making a scene.”
Jin Zixuan huffed and cut his eyes to Huaisang. He didn’t say anything, though. He did straighten his back so he was his full height, towering over everyone.
Jin Zixun recoiled.
“What is the meaning of this?” Jin Zixuan said. It wasn’t a question.
“He was spying,” Jin Zixun said. “He should be arrested for trespassing.”
“Huaisang has been with my husband and me this whole time,” Jiang Yanli said. “I’m not sure these accusations are founded.”
Jin Zixuan looked incredulous and hurt for a moment, but then raised his eyebrows at Jin Zixun. “They are both my guests here. Are you saying my wife and her brother-in-law can’t have coffee with the VP of this company?”
Her brother-in-law? If Huaisang could devote brain power to that at the moment… he still probably wouldn’t.
Jin Zixun’s mouth worked but no words came out.
Everyone in the lobby was staring at them.
“Fuck you,” Jin Zixun muttered and stalked away.
“A-Sang?” Jiang Yanli asked.
Huaisang shook his head. His mind was still reeling, and he did not like it.
“Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. Yeah, he did.
Huaisang took in an unsteady breath. “Xue Yang.”
Jiang Yanli flinched. “No.” She turned to Jin Zixuan, eyes wide.
“First,” Jin Zixuan said. “Give me the badge you stole.”
Huaisang didn’t bother to deny anything, just handed over the badge.
“Second, tell me what you saw. You couldn’t have made it too far.”
Huaisang hesitated. There were too many people involved already, and that meant too many variables to control. This was also happening right under Jin Zixuan’s nose, and it might even be sanctioned by his father. Money needed to come from somewhere.
He looked to Jiang Yanli. She was still stuck in her shock.
“I was just in the stairwell,” Huaisang said. He certainly wasn’t going to tell Jin Zixuan about the basement lab. Either he knew already or he would investigate if Huaisang told him, and his death would make Jiang Yanli sad. “Jin Zixun and Xue Yang were talking.”
“Xue Yang is dead,” Jin Zixuan said.
Huaisang bit back a humorless laugh.
“A-Sang,” Jiang Yanli said tentatively. “Are you sure?”
Huaisang nodded, avoiding eye contact.
“Husband-mine,” Jiang Yanli said. “Do not do anything reckless. I need to have a discussion with my brothers.”
Jin Zixuan gaped at her.
“I’ll be back for our date night,” she said. She reached up and kissed his slack mouth.
“Will you tell me what’s going on then?” he called after them as Jiang Yanli dragged Huaisang out of the building.
“Are you sure?” Wei Wuxian asked after Huaisang had recounted his stairwell experience. He looked down from his perch on the back of Lan Wangji’s sofa.
Jiang Cheng boiled over in anger, and it was exhausting. His skin was pale, and he kept spitting out purple sparks.
“That fucking peacock,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
Jiang Yanli gave him a warning look. “My husband had no idea. He is not the sort to…” She was right. Jin Zixuan was not that sort. Jin Zixun, on the other hand. Jin Guangshan, definitely. “And I have never seen Huaisang so undone.”
Jiang Cheng gave Huaisang a look. “I almost called when I felt…”
Huaisang knew he must look beyond bedraggled. “Stop stealing my energy.”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “I don’t know how.”
Jiang Yanli put a hand on Huaisang’s, and it was a small amount of power exchange but it was something. He didn’t want Jiang Cheng to drain the both of them.
“How are you stealing his energy?” she asked. “What is going on?”
Everyone averted their eyes.
“I don’t even know who knows what anymore,” Wei Wuxian said. “Huaisang knows the most, but he never tells anyone anything except under extreme duress. And if it suits his plan.”
Couldn’t argue with that.
“Jiang Cheng is cursed,” Wei Wuxian said when no one else would.
“Why would you hide that from me, A-Cheng?” she asked as if she hadn’t had that conversation with Huaisang days ago.
Jiang Cheng looked away.
“What curse is it?” she asked.
Everyone looked to Lan Wangji.
“It breaks down his energies,” he said. “Until there is nothing left.”
“What does that have to do with A-Sang?”
“We’re soulmates,” Jiang Cheng admitted quietly.
Huaisang felt something surge in him, and he did not want to examine what it was or if it was even his.
“Oh, my dear baby brother,” Jiang Yanli said. She reached out to hold Jiang Cheng’s hand. “I am so happy for you.”
Jiang Cheng blushed and mumbled something under his breath.
“You just need to manage the balance of energies,” she said. “It is very easy once you learn.”
“What?” Wei Wuxian demanded. “Has my sweet, innocent sister been sharing her energies with someone else?”
“Stop it,” she said with a smile. “I’m not here to discuss my marriage.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes bugged, and he choked on air.
“I can feel everything from Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng said, “but I don’t think he can feel anything from me.”
Huaisang shook his head.
“Their physiologies are too different,” Lan Wangji said. “Jiang Wanyin is meta. Nie Huaisang is not.” Huaisang wasn’t even going to question how Lan Wangji of all people knew, but that was a bit of his job, wasn’t it? He wondered when Wei Wuxian had figured it out and accidentally shared it with Lan Wangji. Maybe back in boarding school.
“So there shouldn’t even be a connection at all,” Wei Wuxian said. That’s why it took so long for Huaisang to notice. Their magics were incompatible, but something was being exchanged between them.
Huaisang looked up to see Jiang Cheng’s eyes boring into his.
“We’re here to discuss Xue Yang,” Huaisang reminded them. “When we stop him, it won’t matter what’s going on between my magic and…” He waved a hand in Jiang Cheng’s direction.
Jiang Yanli looked around the room. “Why?”
“It’s Xue Yang’s curse on Jiang Cheng,” Huaisang said.
“Your empath confirmed it this afternoon,“ Wei Wuxian said. “I knew it was Xue Yang’s work, but it’s been ten years since - ”
Yeah, it had been ten years since, and while there were other facts to unearth about that particular situation, the most pressing thing was dispelling the curse.
“My brother and I set up a series of tests to run overnight,” Lan Wangji said. “Once they conclude, we should be able to break it. Even after we break it, it might take some time for balance to be restored.”
“Going into the office on a weekend, Lan Zhan, so dedicated,” Wei Wuxian said, reaching over to pat Lan Wangji on the cheek. Lan Wangji took it without a change of expression or complaint.
“It means you need to have your app completed,” Lan Wangji said, which was good, because Huaisang didn’t have the energy to bring that up. Huaisang just didn’t have the energy, period. And he had no qualms about killing Xue Yang. Again.
“What app?” Jiang Yanli asked.
“A calming app,” Wei Wuxian said. “It was A-Sang’s idea.”
“Like your safety app?” Jiang Yanli asked.
Wei Wuxian smiled. “You’ve been keeping tabs on me.”
“Of course, you’re my baby brother. I’ve even used your app.”
“It’s on your phone?” Wei Wuxian asked giddily.
“And Jin Ling’s,” she said. “I worry.” She turned to Jiang Cheng. “When you feel Huaisang’s emotions, push back against them. That should fix it until the curse is broken.”
“Push back?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Yes,” Jiang Yanli said. “Push them away.”
“Finally,” Wei Wuxian snorted. “Something you’re good at.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng snapped.
“Boys,” Jiang Yanli said.
They both averted their eyes.
“Oh,” Huaisang said reflexively as he felt the electric charge build up in his chest. It was something he only felt when Jiang Cheng couldn’t control himself. It was something he could only feel when they were touching, but Jiang Cheng was on the other side of the room, filling Huaisang with… his magic, with his very being. And this was too intimate and not something he wanted everyone - or anyone - to witness. Was that what JiangCheng felt all the time? “Oh.”
He felt Wei Wuxian pushing into his head. “No,” he said.
Wei Wuxian looked mildly chastised.
“A-Sang?” Jiang Yanli asked. She placed a hand on his arm, and he felt the warmth from her touch spread. It was not dissimilar from Jiang Cheng’s. “Oh,” she said, looking over to Jiang Cheng.
“What plan are we on now?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Good question. A distraction, he knew, but none of Huaisang’s plans accounted for Xue Yang. Except there was always a placeholder in Xue Yang’s stead. It would have been someone. The plans shouldn’t change because it was Xue Yang.
“Plan N, step twelve,” Huaisang said.
Everyone stared at him.
“You had a plan that included Xue Yang?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“No,” Huaisang admitted. “But there was always going to be someone as the henchman.”
“What happens in step twelve?” Jiang Cheng asked. He narrowed his eyes. Huaisang could feel his suspicion and fear.
“I meet with my mole tonight,” he said.
“What?” Jiang Cheng shouted, and there was more fear and outrage behind it. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was better than having his energy stolen.
“Jiang Cheng,” Huaisang said.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli said. “It’s okay for him to meet with her.” Oh, that was interesting.
“How do you know it’s a girl?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
Jiang Yanli gave him a disappointed look. “She’s a woman, not a girl, and you men are nowhere near as subtle as you’d like to believe.”
Everyone stared at her.
“Do you really think I don’t like to know what is going on in my family’s company?” she asked.
Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian exchanged a look and a shrug. Jiang Yanli was a formidable force. Sometimes Huaisang forgot she and Jiang Cheng shared the same upbringing and mother.
“I’m meeting with her at 8pm,” Huaisang said. “Are you going to tell your husband?”
Jiang Yanli smiled privately. “No,” she said. “He could get hurt.” She looked to Wei Wuxian. “What is in the basement of Jin Labs?”
Wei Wuxian pointed to himself innocently. “Why would I know?”
Jiang Yanli shook her head. “When you broke in with Wen Qing and Wen Ning, what did you find?”
Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng gaped at her.
Maybe Huaisang had teamed up with the wrong siblings. If he had included Jiang Yanli from the beginning, this might have been finished by now.
“The Wens?!” Jiang Cheng exploded, swatting at Wei Wuxian. He then turned to Huaisang. “You knew this too?!”
Huaisang kept his face neutral.
He had definitely teamed up with the wrong siblings.
“Hush, A-Cheng,” she said. “What’s in the basement? I don’t want my husband walking into a trap.”
“They’re building a cyborg army,” Lan Wangji said.
“Why?” she asked, which was not the question Huaisang had expected from her.
No one had an answer for that.
“I’m going to go,” Jiang Yanli said. “I have a date with my husband. Please stay behind the wards, A-Cheng. And don’t be too harsh with A-Xian.”
She left them there, staring at each other.
Jiang Cheng turned to Huaisang, jaw working. “How long have you had a mole at Jin Labs?”
“A year,” Huaisang said.
“A year,” Jiang Cheng repeated vacantly.
“A year,” Huaisang repeated. “There was some disquiet, and I wanted to keep an eye on them in case they tried a hostile takeover.”
“So they are planning a hostile takeover,” Jiang Cheng said.
“They are building a cyborg army. I’d say that’s pretty hostile,” Wei Wuxian said.
Jiang Cheng snorted and glared at him.
“I’ll see what my mole says,” Huaisang said. “It’s possible she doesn’t know.”
A phone beeped. Huaisang’s was still off, and Jiang Cheng didn’t even have his.
It beeped again.
Lan Wangji took his phone out of his pocket and stared at it. Then he stared at Wei Wuxian.
“Wei Ying,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Wei Wuxian looked like he was about to protest, but followed Lan Wangji out the door without a word. There would probably be a lot of words once they were out of earshot.
Jiang Cheng gave Huaisang a steady look and released a slow breath.
Huaisang was immediately filled with… what? Yeah, there was energy, but also affection? Sorrow? Frustration? Oh.
Huaisang’s lips curled at the edges. “See, you do love me.”
Jiang Cheng immediately looked away.
With the newly shared energy, Huaisang climbed into Jiang Cheng’s lap and wrapped his arms around Jiang Cheng’s chest.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng was quiet for a moment. “I want to kill Xue Yang.”
“The experience is ten out of ten, would recommend,” Huaisang said.
“I want to kill him now,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You know that’s a terrible idea,” Huaisang said.
“He killed my parents,” Jiang Cheng said. That wasn’t something that had been confirmed, but it was confirmed that Xue Yang had killed Mingjue.
“And he killed my brother,” Huaisang added. “But we don’t know who brought him back or why. Or how his curse ended up on your desk.”
“What?” Jiang Cheng asked as Huaisang curled under his chin.
“That curse ended up on your desk, and Xue Yang didn’t just walk into your office himself.”
Huaisang felt the grumble in Jiang Cheng’s chest rather than heard it.
“It’s more than just him. Especially if he was leading that robbery at the merger gala.”
“You think that was him?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Do you know anyone else as ballsy?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng admitted. “But there are over five million people in this city.”
“Hmm,” Huaisang agreed.
He woke up when Jiang Cheng stretched out underneath him.
“A-Sang,” Jiang Cheng said. “You need to go to your meeting.”
“Didn’t you say you were meeting with your mole at 8pm?”
“Shit!” Huaisang exclaimed. “Wait. Have you been sitting beneath me the whole time?”
Jiang Cheng pushed him off his lap.
“Fuck,” Huaisang breathed into his stretch. “I hope Lan Wangji can break that curse soon. Gimme some energy back.”
Jiang Cheng surged to his feet, glaring down at Huaisang. Huaisang’s eyes dared Jiang Cheng to do something about it.
Jiang Cheng framed Huaisang’s face in his hands and kissed his forehead.
“Go save our lives and my stupid company.”
Huaisang kissed his nose. “I’ll be back in two hours.”
Most classes ended at 8pm, and people shuffled out of the gym as Huaisang entered. There were still people in the squash courts, and it looked like the coed volleyball game had just ended. The players were huddled around the net chatting. Huaisang admired their thighs. Volleyball thighs were the best.
When they left the court, Huaisang waited by the juice bar with two smoothies.
“You look like shit.”
“Thanks,” he said. He handed her a smoothie. “Your mango strawberry with extra protein.”
“Thanks,” MianMian said, taking it and sitting at a table. She hadn’t changed her clothing after the game, and Huaisang hoped her husband took full advantage of those thighs. And her sharp mind, because she was a smart woman and needed to be respected as such. But she also had thighs.
Huaisang sat across from her and sucked down his own smoothie. He hadn’t had time for dinner, which was probably not the best idea for his current situation.
“Seriously,” MianMian said. “I’ve never seen you so terribly put together. Are those even your clothes?”
Huaisang gave her a crooked smile. “No.”
“Let’s also not forget that scene in the lobby this afternoon.” She took a long, loud slurp of her smoothie and was willing to wait him out.
“Things are going to happen soon,” he said eventually.
“Tomorrow, if not earlier.”
She searched his face. “That’s not a lot of notice.”
“No, it’s not,” he agreed. “I need everything you have.”
She leaned back in her chair, calculating. “Everything?”
“Especially regarding a massive budgetary shift to the basement project,” he said.
“Oh?” she asked. “I noticed a massive budgetary shift, but I couldn’t trace it. It came from accounting, marketing, and HR at the request of the CBO.”
So it did come from the top, just not the very top.
“I have no idea what is going on in the basement,” she said. “I assume that’s where you were trying to sneak off to when fuckface caught you.”
“Hey, now,” Huaisang said mildly. “It’s not nice to talk about your boss that way.”
“He’s not my boss,” MianMian said. “He joined the payroll six months ago at his uncle’s request. And from what you just said, if he were my boss, he wouldn’t be much longer.”
“Is Jin Zixuan involved?” he asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” she said. “He recently started a new community outreach program that’s taking up much of his time.”
“Is fuckface hanging around certain people?”
“Just his usual lowlife club bait,” she said with a shrug.
“Such a high opinion,” Huaisang said with a smile.
“Like your opinion is different,” MianMian said.
Huaisang shrugged. “How about new lowlife club bait?”
“Not really.” She paused. “What’s in the basement?”
“A ticking time bomb.”
She shook her head with a frown. “So dramatic. You’re not even giving me time to clean out my desk, so you should at least tell me what requires that massive a budget.”
“The less you know the better,” he said. “Keep Jin Zixuan out of the basement too. It would make his wife sad if he died.”
“Death? Are you serious? Balls. You look like shit. Of course you’re serious.” She sighed. “When I first met with you I thought I was looking for embezzlement or something. Not whatever is actually going on.”
“I’m sure you could find embezzlement somewhere,” Huaisang offered.
She shook her head. “I looked. Oh, trust me, I looked. The finances are a disaster but so squeaky clean. Even the shell corporations are legitimate. There’s money shuffling, but everything is legal. Reprehensible, but legal.”
“Anything off the books - not money but other… things?”
MianMian raised her eyebrows. “Other things?”
He gave her a meaningful look.
“Too many to list,” she said.
Huaisang ran a hand over his chin in thought. “How about things not assigned to a department?”
“I would need to look it up, but from what you said, there might not be an office to go into on Monday morning,” she said.
“There might be,” he said. “It depends on what methods are taken.”
“You’re saying your bureaucrats can handle this?” she asked.
“Of course not,” Huaisang said. “We passed that long ago.”
“What are you thinking?” She paused. “I know, the less I know the better.”
Huaisang’s phone buzzed.
MianMian gestured for him to pick it up, so he did.
“Yeah?” he said.
“Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen broke it,” Wei Wuxian told him.
“You’re a lifesaver,” Huaisang said. Literally. “Have you told him yet?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian said. “We’re on our way back now.”
“I’ll meet you there.” He hung up. “Urgent matters,” he said to MianMian. “Be careful, and stay away from the basement.”
“Take care of yourself,” she said. “If you’re dead, no one at Lotus will vouch for me.”
“Your concern is touching.”
She smiled as he left.
Huaisang returned first. Jiang Cheng was watching his K-Dramas.
“That wasn’t two hours,” he said with a frown.
“No, it wasn’t,” Huaisang agreed. “Do you not want the smoothie I brought you? Because I haven’t eaten yet, and I will claim it as my own.”
“Give it here,” Jiang Cheng said, turning off the television. “There’re leftovers in the fridge.”
Huaisang gave the smoothie to Jiang Cheng and sat down next to him instead of raiding the kitchen.
“Did you get what you needed?” he asked.
“No,” Huaisang said. “She’s going to need to go back to the office to check on some things. I told her to stay out of the basement, so that’s the first place she’s going.”
“You’re truly awful,” Jiang Cheng said. “I felt something from you. Something hopeful.”
“The Lans broke the curse,” Huaisang said. “That’s what that was. They’re on their way back now.”
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng said. “That was quick.”
“Would you rather it lasted long?” Huaisang asked.
“No,” Jiang Cheng. “I was - I don’t know what I was expecting.”
Wei Wuxian burst through the door with Lan Wangji behind him.
“Jiang Cheng! Jiang Cheng!” he cried and draped himself over Jiang Cheng’s back, arms over his shoulders. “Isn’t Lan Zhan amazing?”
“I don’t feel any different,” Jiang Cheng said as he peeled off Wei Wuxian’s arms.
“It should be better by tomorrow morning and fully recovered by the end of the week,” Lan Wangji said. That was a lot sooner than he anticipated. “Nie Huaisang should feel the effects sooner.”
“You are the best,” Huaisang said. “What are the after effects?”
“You’ll be tired.”
Huaisang released a small laugh. What else was new? “Anything else?”
Huaisang knocked Jiang Cheng’s shoulder with his own and was rewarded with a knock in return.
“I’ll let you two crazy kids talk it out,” Wei Wuxian said, dragging Lan Zhan into his bedroom, where he would undoubtedly change into his catsuit and sneak out the window.
“I’m barely a year younger than you!” Jiang Cheng shouted after them.
“We do need to talk it out,” Huaisang said. “Next steps and the like.”
“You’re not going to tell me the plan,” Jiang Cheng said. “So what’s the point?”
“Stop sulking,” Huaisang said. “You have barely processed the soulmate thing.”
He curled into Jiang Cheng’s side and was rewarded with an arm around his shoulder.
“Do you really want to have this conversation on a couch where Wei Wuxian has undoubtedly had sex?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Why are you thinking about Wei Wuxian having sex?” Huaisang teased. “Do you really want to get out of talking about it that badly?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said firmly.
“I’m the coward in this relationship.” Huaisang poked Jiang Cheng between the ribs, and Jiang Cheng swatted his hand away.
“What is our relationship, A-Sang?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“You’re asking for labels after twenty years?” Huaisang asked. “We’re soulmates. We love each other. We might not be in love with each other, but why would that matter? I also love your muscles and when you throw me around.”
Jiang Cheng scoffed and shoved Huaisang down against the couch.
“Yes! Like that,” he said. He reached up and pulled Jiang Cheng’s face down so he could kiss him.
Jiang Cheng shifted and deepened the kiss, reaching a hand up under Huaisang’s stolen shirt.
“You really want to do this on your brother’s sex couch?” Huaisang asked.
Jiang Cheng recoiled.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Let’s go into the bedroom.”
Huaisang woke up feeling more energized than he had in years. It was almost like being a teenager again.
He pulled Jiang Cheng closer, hooking his chin over a shoulder.
“Hm,” Jiang Cheng mumbled, still not awake.
Huaisang shook his head and used his nose to flick Jiang Cheng’s ear.
“Hm,” Jiang Cheng said again.
“Morning,” Huaisang said.
“Hm,” Jiang Cheng said.
Huaisang licked his neck.
A bang of a pot against a pan came from the kitchen. It seemed that Wei Wuxian had returned in time for Lan Wangji to make him breakfast. Maybe Jiang Cheng should sleep through that.
Also? Who woke up at 5am on a Saturday? Gross.
Apparently Huaisang did and didn’t feel the need to go back to sleep. It was a foreign feeling.
Huaisang untangled himself and went into the kitchen.
Lan Wangji was poaching eggs, and Wei Wuxian sat on the counter watching him and quietly teasing, casually touching. He had changed out of his cat suit and into sweats.
“Morning,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian jumped. “A-Sang!”
“Good night patrolling?”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian said. “Is Jiang Cheng still upset about that?”
“Of course,” Huaisang said. “But you know why.”
“I bet he still has his suit,” Wei Wuxian said with a grin.
“He does,” Huaisang said conspiratorially. “I don’t think it fits anymore. He’s not the scrawny twenty-something he was back then.”
“You would know,” Wei Wuxian said, his grin turning lewd. “You can say twink.”
“I do know,” Huaisang said. “Don’t let him hear you call him a twink, though.”
“He was such a twink,” Wei Wuxian said. “Now he has shoulders.”
“How do you feel?” Lan Wangji asked before Wei Wuxian could stick a foot further into his mouth.
“Better than before,” Huaisang said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Lan Wangji said. He scooped the eggs out of the water, dried them off, and placed them on toast.
“No, really,” Huaisang said. “I don’t know what to do with all this energy.”
Wei Wuxian winked.
“Not in your guest room,” Huaisang said. “I do have some decorum.” Last night really hadn’t amounted to anything more than necking and hands on bare chests. “Find anything interesting last night?”
“Always do,” Wei Wuxian said. “Last night we ran into a speedster. He was just a kid, though. What are you hoping we’ll find?”
“A speedster?” Huaisang repeated. “Huh. I haven’t thought about them in years. I was thinking there should be someplace other than just the basement. Someplace isolated like a warehouse.”
“Why do you think that?”
“There is usually a secondary location as a failsafe. That’s what I’d do.”
“We can check,” Wei Wuxian said. “Last night was more mundane. Most of the other metas are still keeping a low profile no matter where they are on the morality spectrum.”
“Mn,” said Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian poked his shoulder. “Like this handsome guy right here.”
“Why don’t you patrol with them?” Huaisang asked Lan Wangji. He had a vague idea, but it never hurt to have confirmation.
“Someone needs to patch me up when I get home,” Wei Wuxian said. “And cook me poached eggs on toast for breakfast.”
Huaisang bit his lip to keep from smiling. “You’re okay being a house husband?”
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian protested. “He makes more money than I do.”
“That sounds like something you should take up with your boss,” Huaisang said.
“My freeloading boss who’s eating my poached eggs,” Wei Wuxian grumbled. “That’s worse than banging my brother in the guest room.”
They shared a look and burst into sniggering laughter.
“What are you planning to do today?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” Huaisang said. “It’s been a while since I’ve had this much energy, and I want to use it.”
Wei Wuxian gave him a calculating look.
“Not like that,” Huaisang said. “Not until I have more information. Well, I guess I’ll be information gathering today.”
Wei Wuxian smiled crookedly, and while Wei Wuxian was the mind reader, Huaisang had no difficulty reading Wei Wuxian’s thoughts. He certainly telegraphed them loudly enough.
“Not like that, either.” Huaisang sighed. “Although you can bet once this is over, we’re going to spend an entire weekend in isolation. Maybe a week. Maybe in an overwater bungalow on Bora Bora.” Huaisang momentarily distracted himself thinking about Jiang Cheng’s tanned skin against bright blue waves.
“If you’re not going to leave the bedroom, why go all the way to Bora Bora?” Wei Wuxian asked.
It was hilarious that Wei Wuxian thought that was implied, not being outside, not the neverending sky, not the heat of the sun on the sand.
“Because it’s not here, where all the problems are,” Huaisang said. “And I can’t remember the last time I had an actual vacation, not just a day here and there playing hooky.”
“You’d be bored if you had nothing to plan,” Wei Wuxian pointed out.
“Planning which tropical fruit to eat for breakfast and which restaurant to dine at is still planning,” Huaisang said, knowing it wasn’t true.
“Bored,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Probably,” Huaisang conceded.
“I’m going into the office to finish the prototype,” Wei Wuxian said. “After I get some sleep. I’ll keep you posted.” He kissed Lan Wangji and jumped off the counter, leaving his dirty plate.
Lan Wangji gave Huaisang a look he couldn’t decipher.
“Are you really okay with him patrolling without you?” Huaisang asked.
“He does what he does,” Lan Wangji said.
“Not what I asked,” Huaisang said.
“I know,” Lan Wangji said and didn’t say anything else. Because Lan Wangji had a moratorium on discussing feelings. Just like Jiang Cheng.
“Thank you,” Huaisang said again.
“You’re welcome,” Lan Wangji said. He took the plates and placed them in the sink.
“I’m going to take Jiang Cheng out of your hair as soon as he wakes up,” Huaisang said.
Lan Wangji tilted his eyebrows incredulously.
“I don’t know where we’re going yet,” Huaisang said. “Neither of our places are safe. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an ambush waiting at either. They know by now the curse is broken.”
Lan Wangji continued to stare at Huaisang.
“If you have any ideas, feel free to jump in, because right now my best option is your brother,” Huaisang said.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “Brother has a rental property he’s currently renovating.”
“Really?” Huaisang asked. “That’s too convenient.”
“There is no furniture or kitchen,” Lan Wangji said.
“Okay, not that convenient,” Huaisang said. “A hotel might also work, but their wards…” He shook his head.
“It’s not good for you to go that long without the sun,” Lan Wangji said, and Huaisang had no idea how Lan Wangji knew that particular piece. Not that he was wrong. Huaisang needed to recharge. He needed to run his fingers along the bark of trees lining the street, slide his feet through grass, feel the sun on his face, hear the birds scolding him, hear the dying scream of a hare.
Jiang Cheng didn’t even know that he had taken the entire sun when he stole Huaisang’s energy.
Yet Lan Wangji did.
“I know,” Huaisang said.
“It’s safe on the roof right now,” Lan Wangji said. He turned to the sink to wash the dishes, closing the conversation.
The roof had a small garden and a view of the sunrise over a large park. He sat next to a plum tree in a large pot to watch the sun breach the horizon.
It wasn’t enough to fully restore what had been stolen from him, and again he briefly wondered if he had been the true target. He couldn’t figure out a motive for removing him from the picture. There were way too many motives for removing Jiang Cheng, however.
He couldn’t bring himself to believe Xue Yang had been acting on his own. Someone would have needed to bring him back - to find all his pieces. Very few people had the skill and want to do that particular bit of magic.
MianMian had said money was moved around by the CBO, not Jin Guangshan, but the request could have come from anyone.
The birds had found him. A sparrowhawk sat above him in the plum tree, and it dropped half a mouse into his lap.
Huaisang was always tickled when they did this, because he clearly was so poor at doing his own hunting that he needed that half a mouse as a tithe. It was less funny when the imperial eagles did it, dropping water deer heads at his feet. Thankfully, he’d never had to explain that to anyone.
A wren chased the sparrowhawk away, unleashing a string of angry trills at Huaisang. They always had opinions.
A white-eye joined it, squeaking at him.
“I was told you were up here,” Jiang Cheng said.
The birds cursed at Jiang Cheng and flew away.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Huaisang said. “You should be behind the wards.”
“It’s barely sunrise,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Great,” Huaisang said. “Now it definitely won’t be.”
He stood, looped his arm around Jiang Cheng’s, and dragged him back inside.
“We need to find a new place to stay,” Huaisang said. “Right now our options are Lan Xichen’s empty, kitchen-less rental property or a hotel.”
“Those aren’t good choices,” Jiang Cheng said.
“And neither is staying here,” Huaisang said. He stopped. “Are you even able to move? You have all your energy?”
“I think so,” Jiang Cheng said with a frown.
Huaisang’s phone buzzed.
It was an unknown number. There was absolutely no way he was answering that.
“Behind the wards,” Huaisang said, pushing Jiang Cheng until he started walking again.
His phone dinged to inform him of the voicemail.
When they were back behind the wards, Huaisang checked the voicemail. It was from MianMian. She certainly didn’t waste time.
“I’ve cleaned out my desk and checked, then deleted the security footage,” she said. That was smarter than going into the basement on her own. She had a healthy sense of self-preservation after all. “There are a lot of large boxes being moved out of the basement, and fuckface is shouting at the movers to move faster.”
Huaisang was right about that secondary location. He wouldn’t be too surprised if it was within walking distance of their charred warehouse. Why would anyone move stolen goods farther than they needed to?
He put the phone back in his pocket. “Did you eat yet?”
Jiang Cheng nodded.
“Okay,” Huaisang said. “Grab your bag. We have a small window to move.”
“What?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“She checked the security footage instead of going into the basement, which is being emptied right now,” Huaisang said. “Why are you making me waste time by explaining this when you should be grabbing your things?”
Jiang Cheng worked his jaw but grabbed his bag from the guest room.
Huaisang debated whether they should go to Lan Xichen’s renovation project or a hotel. Hotels had food but less security. Lan Xichen’s had no food or furniture, but it did have security. At this point, they needed security more than they needed food.
“Wangji,” Huaisang said. “Where’s your brother’s rental?”
Lan Xichen refused to let them use the rental. It was a mess of drywall and plastic sheeting. He instead offered his guest room and brought them tea.
He asked no questions and left them at the kitchen table while he went about his weekend routine, which included running errands.
“How much longer are we going to hide from this problem?” Jiang Cheng griped.
“We’re not hiding,” Huaisang said. “We’re planning.”
“Maybe you are,” Jiang Cheng said. “I am - ”
“Unless you plan on suiting up, stop talking,” Huaisang said.
“I’m trying to figure out how to appropriate the necessary amount of C4 to make it look like an accident,” Huaisang said. “And even that won’t tell us who’s behind all this.”
“What?” Jiang Cheng repeated.
“Do you really think Jin Zixun is able to do all this on his own when he wasn’t even employed until six months ago?” Huaisang said.
“What?” Jiang Cheng repeated again.
Huaisang sighed. “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “This isn’t like business strategy, but there is some overlap. Will you promise to listen and not interrupt?”
“Are you really go- ” Jiang Cheng cut himself off and nodded tersely.
Huaisang moved to whisper in Jiang Cheng’s ear. “In case someone is listening.”
Jiang Cheng shivered but nodded again.
Huaisang situated himself nearly in Jiang Cheng’s lap. “Here’s the timeline I’ve been able to put together. Ten years ago, Xue Yang dies,” - Jiang Cheng stiffened - “ending the golden age of metahuman vigilantes in the city. You take over Lotus as CEO.”
Huaisang did not give himself or Jiang Cheng the moment to reflect.
“A year ago, there was some unrest at Jin Labs, and they positioned themselves to possibly take over certain corners of the market, namely us. I found a mole to keep tabs on it.” That was grossly oversimplifying it, but he needed to catch Jiang Cheng up to speed as quickly as possible before Lan Xichen returned. At this point, the stakes were too high for only Huaisang to know this.
“Six months ago, Jin Zixun was suddenly employed by his uncle for unknown reasons, and it is mostly kept from the papers. I am assuming this is for their basement project. I am also assuming that whomever employed Jin Zixun did something for Xue Yang. They either made a bargain or brought him back themselves. I honestly have no idea how they were able to find all the pieces, and maybe they didn’t.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to say something but was forced to close it again when Huaisang pinched Jiang Cheng’s lips between a thumb and forefinger.
“I said no talking. This basement project is huge. They would need money and people. That money has to come from somewhere, and people talk, so how are they being kept quiet? Not to mention the amount of electricity needed would be astronomical.
“This all happens at the same time we begin talks with Wen Biotech. This might be a coincidence, or it might not be. I dig up all their dirt including a code to program cyborgs, which is really wild. I still can’t believe that’s actually a thing. But the code was confirmed the Monday after the merger was announced two weeks ago.”
Huaisang left out everything about Wei Wuxian. That would only make Jiang Cheng interrupt him, and the explanation would take that much longer.
“I had originally thought this was a Wen Project, and I had somehow missed it when digging; however, I think a former Wen employee took it to Jin, but we don’t know how Wen ended up with the code to begin with.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened in recognition of something. Huaisang was positive he hadn’t made any connections yet. He had been deliberately vague in his phrasing. None of this was Wen Ning’s fault, and Jiang Cheng did not need to know Wen Ning was a cyborg.
“Vigilantes returned the night of the merger, which is not related to the merger itself, but they were there to shut down whoever wanted to ruin the party, which is also really wild, because your brother is usually the one ruining parties. I mean, Lan Xichen and your sister spent a lot of time figuring out how to handle your brother when he showed up drunk.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth again, but closed it when Huaisang flicked his ear.
“The timeline is more ambiguous in the past few weeks, because we still don’t know everything. For example, when was that curse placed on your desk. It was before the merger. I’d also like to know the how and who.
“Then there was the fire to steal the prosthetics, the ghost in Lab Four, the bugs in your apartment, and now they’re moving everything to a secondary location as we speak.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him.
“Did I leave anything out?” Huaisang asked.
“Yeah, and I’m sure it was on purpose,” Jiang Cheng said. “But I’m still processing everything. Give me a moment.”
Huaisang kissed him on the cheek and slid back to his own chair to drink his now cold tea.
Jiang Cheng sipped his own tea, giving Huaisang sideways glances.
“We also don’t know why,” Huaisang reminded him. “And it’s really bothering me. Why does anyone need an army like that? I mean, I understand personal security, but still.”
There was a knock on the door.
Huaisang exchanged a look with Jiang Cheng, and then he went over to Jiang Cheng’s bag and pulled out a pistol.
Based on Jiang Cheng’s bugged eyes, he had no idea he’d been carrying around a gun.
Sometimes magic failed. It was always a good idea to have a backup.
Huaisang let the weight of the gun settle into his palm and curled his fingers around the grip, one finger resting against the trigger guard.
The person knocked again, more insistent this time.
Huaisang removed the safety.
There was no chance Huaisang was going to open that door. There was no way he or Jiang Cheng were going to move a muscle until whoever it was went away.
Except the door splintered inward, and nothing could ever be easy, could it.
Huaisang was able to fire three shots before he was knocked down, wondering why Lan Xichen’s wards had not held.
Jiang Cheng was pressed to the ground next to him.
Xue Yang’s laugh was something Huaisang wished he had forgotten, but he recognized it instantly.
Apparently every shot Huaisang had fired had missed. Maybe he should have practiced.
He weighed his options quickly. This was clearly a kidnapping attempt, not a murder attempt. They had been tracked here. Kidnapping could lead them directly to where they needed to go and to answers. It was not like Huaisang had never been kidnapped before.
Jiang Cheng struggled and sparked, but he still did not have his energy back. Huaisang tried to push a calmness to Jiang Cheng, whose eyes widened as he twisted to look at Huaisang. Huaisang wasn’t sure what Jiang Cheng saw, but he let his body sag.
The only problem was that Xue Yang now had Huaisang’s gun. There were three bullets left. And there were four other people with Xue Yang.
Xue Yang was talking, but Huaisang couldn’t hear it above the bloodlust in his ears. Anything Xue Yang had to say would only make him angrier anyway.
He was hauled to his feet along with Jiang Cheng, who looked absolutely furious, sparks flying uselessly.
Xue Yang laughed again.
Huaisang and Jiang Cheng were escorted out and into a waiting unmarked van.
There was a sharp pain to the back of his head, and he pitched forward.
Huaisang regained his sense of smell first, his sinuses filling with the brine of low tide.
His feet were cold, and he realized he was barefoot against the cement floor.
Next was his hearing. There was whispering, urgent and hushed. They were male, concerned, and young. So young.
He opened his eyes. The room was sideways, meaning he was lying on the cement floor, which explained the soreness in his hips.
The whispering stopped.
“Are you okay, Mr. Nie?” one of them asked. So they knew him.
Huaisang propped himself up. There was pain in the back of his head and soreness from the ground and probably from being thrown around.
There were four vigilantes in obviously homemade costumes. Three wore dominos, and the last one wore a cowl. They were covered in blood and bruises. They still had baby fat in their cheeks.
Jiang Cheng lay beside them, still unconscious.
They were in a windowless room with a metal door, which was probably locked. He’d check in a moment. There was a camera without a microphone in the corner facing the door.
“Not my first kidnapping,” Huaisang said.
There was shocked silence.
Huaisang couldn’t help a small smile. “Is this your first hostage situation?”
“You think this is a joke?” one of them snapped. His costume was blue and white with a stylized lightning bolt down his chest. He had road rash across his left cheek that nearly cut into his domino.
Huaisang didn’t answer. He needed to take stock.
“How did you end up here?” Huaisang asked.
He was answered with angry silence.
“I see,” he said. Baby vigilantes made baby vigilante mistakes. “Any reason why you haven’t escaped?”
No one met his eyes.
“We can’t,” one of them said. “There are dampeners.”
“This is meta jail?” Huaisang asked.
No one answered.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Since last night,” one of them muttered. This one wore a pale yellow speeder’s jumpsuit and the cowl. His costume was more professionally styled but still homemade. Huaisang had seen this suit many years before on Jin Zixuan. And his lips curled into a sneer the same way his maternal uncle’s did, which explained how they knew his name.
“You’d better tell me all about it before your uncle wakes up and flays you alive,” Huaisang said mildly.
Jin Ling sputtered.
“Don’t think he won’t,” Huaisang pressed. “And then he’d tell your mother.”
Jin Ling made a terrified yet affronted sound.
The vigilante in deep blue, who didn’t know that he shouldn’t be wearing a cape, placed a hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder. “Maybe we can help each other.”
“I think you four had better tell me what you found in the Wen labs first,” Huaisang said.
“We didn’t find anything,” Jin Ling protested.
“Better tell me before your uncle wakes up,” Huaisang said. “Tick tock.”
“They’re grafting skin to metal,” the blue vigilante said. That might explain the ghost. If they were using her stem cells to generate the skin, she might have turned restless or vengeful.
“And I found some weird code,” the fourth one said. He also wore a blue and white suit. This one had clouds on it and was very obviously an imitation of Hanguang Jun’s suit from when he had first started.
“Don’t tell him that,” the other blue and white one said.
“And you needed to find out where the cyborgs were being made?” Huaisang asked.
“How do you know about that?” Kids would always be surprised when adults knew things they thought were secret.
“I did make you sign an NDA,” Huaisang said. “Maybe you should have read it.”
He averted his eyes.
Huaisang decided to change tactics. “How many guards are there outside the door?”
“Three,” the blue one said.
“And Xue Yang?” Huaisang asked.
The boys shook their heads.
“Other henchmen?” Huaisang pressed.
“Two uncles,” Jin Ling spat out.
That was interesting. JIn Zixun was working with a cousin. Huaisang knew it wasn’t Jin Zixuan, or Jin Ling would have said that, and Jin Zixuan would have noticed his suit on his son. That left one living option. However, Huaisang didn’t think Mo Xuanyu had it in him to kidnap his nephew. Mo Xuanyu didn’t have the constitution to be a villain, even if he did have the anger. Huaisang hadn’t thought about Mo Xuanyu in years, and now that he was, he knew Mo Xuanyu would use subterfuge not brute force like Jin Zixun. How many uncles did Jin Ling have, anyway?
“And the one in charge?” Huaisang asked.
Everyone shook their heads again.
How could they not know that? All signs pointed to Jin Guangshan. All the big, blinking, neon signs.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng slurred.
Huaisang shuffled over to Jiang Cheng and helped him upright. Jiang Cheng batted his hands away.
“Fuck,” he repeated, running a hand over the back of his head and wincing. He caught sight of the vigilantes. He rolled his eyes. “Fuck.”
The four vigilantes exchanged horrified looks with each other, and Huaisang had to keep himself from laughing.
“Was there a reason we didn’t fight our way out, Huaisang?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“There’s always a reason,” Huaisang said.
“Other than you’re lazy?” Jiang Cheng muttered.
Huaisang did laugh at that. “Legal reasons, yes.”
Jiang Cheng gave him an unimpressed look, then turned his scowl on the vigilantes.
The vigilantes kept their mouths closed and eyes averted.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Huaisang said. “On Forbes’s top 40 under 40, multimillionaire and philanthropist, kidnapped. Imagine the press. Imagine the trial.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “I thought you wanted to kill.”
“Can’t kill someone who’s already dead,” Huaisang said.
“Where the fuck did you get that gun?” Jiang Cheng demanded. “That was so stupid.”
Huaisang shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “It told me everything I needed to know. I thought I had missed Xue Yang, but I didn’t. The bullets passed through him, which also explains your bug problem.”
Jiang Cheng frowned, and Huaisang could feel the vigilantes staring at him.
“How long have we been here?” Jiang Cheng finally asked.
“Almost two hours,” one of the vigilantes said.
“See?” Huaisang said. “By now people know we’re missing.”
“You don’t think he - ”
“No,” Huaisang said. He didn’t think Lan Xichen had anything to do with it. It was just bad luck. They should have stayed put.
Jiang Cheng pinched the bridge of his nose. “And what am I supposed to tell my sister?”
“What do you mean?” the cloud vigilante asked.
“Jin Ling, you stole your father’s suit,” Jiang Cheng said. He sounded more annoyed than angry.
“I didn’t steal it!” Jin Ling protested.
The lightning vigilante snorted in amusement.
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng said. “So he knows you are wearing his suit?”
Jin Ling worked his jaw.
“And you were stupid enough to get caught,” Jiang Cheng said.
“We didn’t mean to!” Jin Ling protested.
“You got caught, too,” the lightning vigilante pointed out.
“We wanted to be caught, kid,” Jiang Cheng said. Not at this point, but eventually, it was part of Plan R.
“Who wants to be kidnapped?” the cloud vigilante asked.
“Someone with a plan,” Jiang Cheng said, eyes cutting to Huaisang.
A boat horn blared, causing the vigilantes to jump. Huaisang still couldn’t get over how inexperienced they were. But maybe that’s what he was like ten years ago.
At least he definitively knew they were by the waterfront, probably not too far from the charred warehouse.
“How long have you been doing this with your friends?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“I dragged him into this,” the cloud vigilante said.
“You made him steal his father’s suit, too?” Jiang Cheng growled.
The cloud vigilante didn’t say anything.
“Didn’t you say you had a plan?” the lightning vigilante asked.
“I do,” Huaisang said. He pulled the pin from Jiang Cheng’s ponytail, causing the disarrayed mess to fall. It looked like an even worse mess. Not everyone could look flawless when kidnapped, he supposed, and they had just had a very trying few weeks. Of course, he was still wearing Jiang Cheng’s sweats.
“Are there dampeners?” Jiang Cheng asked. “Of course there are dampeners.”
“Uncle?” Jin Ling asked.
“Did you seriously think only your father’s side of the family was meta?” Jiang Cheng said with a scowl.
“No,” Jin Ling protested. “I thought it was only Wei Wuxian, and he was adopted, so…”
Jiang Cheng scowled at him and spat out, “You should not know anything about Wei Wuxian.”
“That’s my fault, sir,” the cloud vigilante said.
“Sizhui,” Jin Ling hissed. Ah, confirmation. So Wei Wuxian’s ‘son’ was meta, too. That might explain why he wanted the kid as his intern so badly. That also meant the lightning vigilante was the empath, Lan Jingyi, and the one with the cape was Ouyang Zizhen.
“I’d love to hear this,” Jiang Cheng said dangerously.
“But we don’t have time,” Huaisang said quickly. He stood and went to the door. It was steel, with a deadbolt and a lock on the handle as well. There might be an extra bolt on the outside keeping them in, but he figured it didn’t hurt to try.
He looked directly into the camera and blew a kiss before he picked both locks. The interns watched him raptly, and Jiang Cheng rubbed at the back of his head with a grimace.
There was a bolt on the outside that he wouldn't be able to pick.
Ah, well, at least he had the attention of whoever was watching the security feed. He was honestly surprised it had taken this long for Xue Yang to come in and gloat.
And the dampeners only worked on metas anyway. They were probably for the entire building, too. He was positive Jiang Cheng hadn’t noticed that yet, but he might be concussed, so Huaisang couldn’t fault him. That meant while the five of them were not able to do anything, neither would anyone else. Except Huaisang.
“I might need some energy,” Huaisang said softly.
Jiang Cheng frowned.
“Things are going to get interesting in a few moments,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng set his jaw and nodded tersely.
The interns watched the exchange in confusion.
There was a bang against the door, and it was shoved open with a scrape. No one stepped into the room, which seemed a bit too cautious for Jin Zixun to think of himself.
“Good morning, Jin Zixun,” Huaisang said pleasantly.
Jin Zixun sneered at him, and the four other guards stood impassively behind him.
Jiang Cheng growled.
“I believe there are terms to discuss,” Huaisang said. “With the person in charge. I’m sure your uncle can make the time.”
Jin Ling gasped. Had he really not figured out any piece of this, just went in with figurative guns blazing? Actually, that wouldn’t have surprised Huaisang at all. He was familiar with that impulsivity from Jiang Cheng.
“I’m sure Xue Yang would love to exchange a life for a life,” Jin Zixun said.
“I killed him once, and I’d gladly do it again,” Huaisang said. “None of that is a secret.” The interns gasped, and maybe it was a secret to them. It hadn’t been a secret to anyone at the time.
“Are you forgetting we collected all your secrets?” Jin Zixun sneered.
“All of them?” Huaisang asked, channeling Wei Wuxian for his best impression. “I wasn’t aware you could count that high.”
Jin Zixun leaned in and said, “Yes, all of them, including your favorite position.”
“You perverted fucker,” Jiang Cheng hissed.
“I don’t think you’re in any position to call me that,” Jin Zixun said.
“Oh, there’s the casual homophobia,” Huaisang said. “I was wondering when that would enter the conversation. Are we talking to your uncle or not?”
Jin Zixun snapped his fingers, and two guards flanked Huaisang and frog-marched him out of the room. He took in his surroundings, cataloguing routes and obstacles.
They entered the main warehouse, and it was filled with large tubes, tanks really, filled with flesh and metal forming a mostly human shape.
They all had his brother’s face.
Huaisang whited out and nearly ended everything then and there.
He felt something in his chest that didn’t belong to him, and it brought him back to himself, because Jiang Cheng was concerned. He needed to stay calm. He couldn’t kill everyone until he knew more, then all bets were off.
He tasted blood on the back of his tongue.
There were nearly fifty tanks on the warehouse floor.
This was not a project that started six months ago. It started years ago.
Not wanting to miss a chance to be an asshole, Jin Zixun forced them to stop in front of one of the tanks.
“Do you like our project?” Jin Zixun said mockingly.
Huaisang didn’t say anything as he took in the details. There was still a lot of work to be done before any cyborg could function. He assumed that’s where the prosthetics would be used. He also took the main computer into account as well as where the power was coming from and how many guards were visible.
It also seemed they were under the assumption his brother was meta, because this project would never succeed with the way it was going. Nie magic was incompatible with machinery. Huaisang had inadvertently destroyed many of Wei Wuxian’s projects. He had always apologized as Wei Wuxian chased him from the room. Honestly, Huaisang had no idea how his phone and laptop were still functional.
Jin Guangshan sat behind a desk in the second floor office looking out over the warehouse.
Xue Yang stood behind him.
Meng Yao stood off to the side, and Huaisang hadn’t seen him in ten years, had assumed he died with everyone else, and realized that’s where his brother’s face had come from.
Meng Yao was the missing piece.
Meng Yao and his eidetic memory and psychometry.
Meng Yao, who used to be his friend, his brother. He should have chased that loose end ten years ago, except Meng Yao had died. Huaisang had seen it. Had seen the EMTs load him into the back of the ambulance and not bother turning on the siren or lights as they left.
He felt Jiang Cheng pressing into him again.
He sent back an answering pulse that he hoped conveyed everything but doubted it could even begin to explain the situation.
“I’m here to negotiate,” Huaisang said.
Jin Guangshan laughed. “And what are your terms?”
Huaisang was fully aware of how he looked in Jiang Cheng’s sweats, barefoot, hair standing on end, and a fresh bruise pulsing on his cheek. He wouldn’t have taken himself seriously either.
“I own the rights to many of the patents you’re using as well as filial rights to my brother’s body,” Huaisang said. “I want appropriate compensation for those as well as reparations for the curse you had Xue Yang put on Jiang Wanyin. Let’s start there and see where we end up.”
Jin Guangshan laughed again.
Xue Yang looked thoroughly amused, but Meng Yao’s expression didn’t change at all.
“No,” Jin Guangshan said. “This is not a negotiation.”
“Everything is a negotiation,” Huaisang said, and he noticed his gun on the desk.
“Intruders! Vigilantes!” The guards shouted.
Jin Guangshan scowled.
Huaisang watched him and Xue Yang, knowing that would be where any attack would come from.
Meng Yao was the unpredictable element here. Huaisang understood what Jin Guangshan was capable of, especially when cornered, and Xue Yang’s only instinct was survival, ironic now that he was dead. Meng Yao always went with what was best suited for his survival as well, but it had also been ten years since they last spoke, and Meng Yao had given Huaisang the foundations. Meng Yao had taught Huaisang how to move the pieces across the board. He was in the middle of a plan, and Huaisang could throw him farther than he could trust him, but he wouldn’t attack outright.
But if Huaisang had played everything correctly, four of his pieces were fighting their way inside.
No one in the room moved as gun fire blasted in the warehouse.
Out of the corner of his eye, Huaisang could see Jin Zixun trembling.
There was the thwump of arrows in flesh, the scraping of metal against concrete, and the crunch and sizzle of broken electronics. There was the smell of blood but not the smell of death. Don’t kill the henchmen: that must still be part of the Code.
Huaisang did not turn around to see what was happening. He kept his focus on the three in front of him and the gun on the table. Jin Zixun was useless and not a threat.
And then Jin Zixun went down hard, crumpling to the cement floor in a heap. So did the guards on either side of Huaisang.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for ages,” Wei Wuxian chirped as he stood next to Huaisang. He wore his catsuit and domino.
Jin Guangshan pointed the gun at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian looked at the gun and sighed dramatically. Without needing to look, Huaisang knew he had also rolled his eyes.
“There’s a ghost behind you,” Wei Wuxian said.
This was usually the point when the monologue usually started, but no one said anything. No one moved.
Wei Wuxian huffed.
Jin Guangshan fired the gun twice in quick succession.
Before Huaisang could do anything about it, Lan Wangji stepped in front of Wei Wuxian.
The bullets bounced off Lan Wangji’s chest. He was in costume. It was a new one Huaisang hadn’t seen before. Pale blues and greys that had been professionally sewn, and he wore a cowl. He had planned to go out before Huaisang had said anything about it, and here Huaisang thought he had needed a push.
The spent bullets plopped to the floor with a tink.
Jin Guangshan raised a hand and used it to wave Xue Yang forward.
Xue Yang vaulted over Jin Guangshan’s desk, and Wei Wuxian thankfully dragged the fight out of the office.
Lan Wangji stood, looming over Jin Guangshan, who for some panicked reason, decided to fire the gun again. The last bullet bounced off Lan Wangji’s chest, and the gun clicked as Jin Guangshan tried to fire again and again.
Lan Wangji’s frown intensified. He reached out and crushed the gun in Jin Guangshan’s hand, and that was a too bad thing, because Huaisang had paid good money for that, but the look of abject horror on Jin Guangshan’s face was maybe worth it.
Lan Wangji ziptied Jin Guangshan’s hands together.
He turned to look at Meng Yao, who had not moved.
“A-Yao?” Huaisang asked. He kept his tone neutral.
Meng Yao turned his gaze to Huaisang, and it was deliberately vacant.
There was a small explosion from the warehouse floor. Huaisang barely felt the heat.
Meng Yao held out his wrists.
There were sirens in the distance as Lan Wangji bound Meng Yao’s wrists with zipties.
Wei Wuxian returned, looking disheveled. “We found the hostages.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Huaisang saw Lan Wangji nod, but Huaisang wouldn’t take his eyes off Meng Yao. It had been ten years, but Huaisang knew he had a plan in progress, and he would not stop until he uncovered it.
“How much are we destroying before the cops get here?” Wei Wuxian asked, and it set off a wave of incoherent yet vulgar ranting from Jin Guangshan.
Huaisang took a deep breath. He wanted it razed to the ground, but the question was directed at Lan Wangji, not him.
“Is everything backed up?” Lan Wangji said.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian said. “Take them outside,” he told Lan Wangji before he grabbed Huaisang by the arm and dragged him down to the warehouse floor.
“This is up to you,” Wei Wuxian said. “You said you needed to break bones, but then I saw… Do you want to?”
“It needs to burn,” Huaisang said. “Is everyone else out? Jiang Cheng?”
“They’re out, Xue Yang has gone back to death, Lan Zhan already has the Jins out of the building and will hand them over to the police,” Wei Wuxian said.
Huaisang sighed in relief. He was glad it took so little to kill Xue Yang again, even if he wished he could have killed Xue Yang again.
“They took my brother’s face,” Huaisang said. He felt his teeth grind together and his blood run gold, magic itching to be used.
“They did,” Wei Wuxian said. He placed a hand on Huaisang’s forearm.
“Meng Yao has a backup, too,” Huaisang said and again wondered if he was one of Meng Yao’s pieces moving across a board.
“Is that so?”
“This isn’t close to the end,” Huaisang said. “Even with Hanguang Jun back.”
Wei Wuxian smirked. “He does look delicious in leather.”
“And talk to your son about the precautions he needs to take while patrolling,” Huaisang said.
“I did notice that a certain someone stole his father’s suit,” Wei Wuxian mentioned.
“He’s already been told off,” Huaisang said. “Are you talking to the cops?”
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“Let’s keep it focused on the kidnapping for now. We can debrief later. I want to break things.”
Wei Wuxian squeezed Huaisang’s forearm. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Huaisang let the magic gather and spin through his body as he watched Wei Wuxian leave the warehouse.
It wasn’t his brother in those tanks. It was an incomplete mindless heap of flesh and metal. It would never have been his brother. His brother had been killed. He was dead and buried, and Huaisang could still hear his exasperated sigh when he left his dirty dishes in the sink for too long, could still hear his snort of derision when Huaisang forgot to put the wet clothes in the dryer, could still smell the aftershave he used for dates, indignant when Huaisang teased him about it, could still feel that empty Mingjue-shaped spot in the back of his mind. He would always have that hole in his head.
The magic pressed against Huaisang’s tightening skin, pushing and pulsing painfully.
He took a deep breath and let the magic out, erupting in a way it hadn’t in ten years.
His screams were eaten by the explosions as he lay waste to everything.
He needed to know every single breath Meng Yao had taken over the past ten years.
Huaisang was able to join the other hostages before the police and EMTs arrived. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were standing over the Jins, and the Wens, in their suits and dominos, were inspecting the interns and Jiang Cheng.
Wen Qing clucked her tongue as she held up Lan Jingyi’s chin to properly assess the road rash on his face.
Jiang Cheng jumped to his feet when he saw Huaisang. After a slight wobble, Jiang Cheng stumbled over and wrapped him in a bone crushing hug, digging his chin into the hollow of Huaisang’s shoulder.
Huaisang let him, curling his fingers into Jiang Cheng’s shirt.
It took a long time before Huaisang’s breathing steadied and his hearing returned. The shaking hadn’t stopped.
The news vans showed up barely a full minute after the emergency vehicles.
Lan Wangji dealt with the police, Wei Wuxian entertained the media, and Wen Qing and Wen Ning helped the EMTs.
Jiang Cheng also had to deal with the police, because there was no way Huaisang would let them leave until they had explicitly stated that they would press charges and had an appointment and business cards of all the officers involved.
Everything else could wait until Monday.
The EMTs decided no one needed to be taken to the hospital, but everyone needed fluids and patching up. Nothing internal, except for Jiang Cheng’s concussion.
Huaisang and Jiang Cheng had ended up at the rowhouse, on the couch, Jiang Cheng lying on his side with his head in Huaisang’s lap. Huaisang ran his hands along Jiang Cheng’s shoulders.
“How much did you know?” Jiang Cheng asked eventually.
“Not enough,” Huaisang said. “I didn’t know about what Meng Yao had done to… I didn’t know about Meng Yao.”
Jiang Cheng made a noncommittal noise.
“Did you know about Jin Ling?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I knew there was a speedster in the city,” Huaisang said. “I didn’t know it was Jin Ling until we woke up in that warehouse.”
“Are you okay?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Of course not,” Huaisang said.
“Are you going after Meng Yao?” Jiang Cheng asked.
That was a complicated question. Meng Yao had been like another brother, and there had to be reasons everything ended up this horribly, with not-Mingjue used as a basis for a cyborg. Meng Yao knew that Nies and electronics did not mix.
There was also the fact that the curse on Jiang Cheng must have also been orchestrated by Meng Yao.
“I don’t know,” Huaisang said. “We’ll see. I am going to sweep in to take Jin Labs, or rather, you are.”
“What?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“Hm,” Huaisang said. “Their stock is about to plummet. Technically your brother-in-law could salvage it on his own, but I already have the paperwork drafted. It’s sitting in Lan Xichen’s desk.”
Jiang Cheng grumbled something into Huaisang’s thigh and louder said, “I don’t want to deal with him right now.”
“Who? Jin Zixuan or Lan Xichen?”
“Either,” Jiang Cheng said. “I can’t believe he’d do something that reckless.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said with a huff. “Jin Ling.”
“We did the same thing when we were his age,” Huaisang reminded him.
“Yes, but - ”
“It's no different,” Huaisang said. “We’re just seeing it from the other side. This is what we put our families through.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again with a snort, then said, “We were pretty stupid, too.”
“You still are,” Huaisang said, leaning down to kiss Jiang Cheng’s nose.
Jiang Cheng sputtered an indignant curse.
“Do you want Jin Labs?” Huaisang asked.
“You’re asking like it’s some sort of gift,” Jiang Cheng said. “Bringing me crippled companies like a cat leaving me a dead mouse on my pillow.”
“Do you want a dead mouse on your pillow instead of a company?” Huaisang asked. “Because I can. It would be a lot less work, actually.”
Jiang Cheng reached up and swatted at Huaisang’s face. His fingers caught on Huaisang’s lips, and he traced them. Huaisang opened his mouth to sigh, and Jiang Cheng withdrew his fingers.
“I honestly don’t know,” Jiang Cheng said.
“They’ve sunk a lot of money into the warehouse I destroyed,” Huaisang said. “It wouldn’t be hard to get that money back if Jin Zixuan wanted to. It would be easier for you, though, because you’re not working with a deficit.”
“You know their finances?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Of course,” Huaisang said.
“But then I’d have to run the company,” Jiang Cheng said. “I already have my hands full with Wen and Lotus.”
“Delegate,” Huaisang said. “It would also be the easiest way to figure out how and why they stole my brother’s face.”
“You want the company?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I’m going to find that information anyway,” Huaisang said. “You have until Monday to decide, unless your brother-in-law shows up here demanding to know why you let his son steal his suit.”
“Don’t you dare joke about that,” Jiang Cheng hissed. “It would be my sister anyway.”
There was a knock on the door. Jiang Cheng gave Huaisang a disgusted sneer.
It was Lan Xichen. He handed Huaisang his phone and Jiang Cheng his bag.
“I am so, so sorry,” he said. “I should have been there.”
“We didn’t tell you the whole story,” Huaisang said. “But we might need that paperwork you set aside for me.”
Lan Xichen nodded. “Do you need anything else?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head.
Lan Xichen gave them a small, sad smile. “I need to attend to something. I will see you on Monday.”
Jiang Cheng reset the wards as Huaisang went through all his missed messages and calls. Most were from Wei Wuxian. But there were two from two different unknown numbers, both from within the last hour.
Huaisang frowned at his phone before tossing it aside. He’d deal with it later.
There was another knock at the door. This time it was Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji in street clothing.
“We didn’t interrupt anything, did we?” Wei Wuxian asked, pushing his way past Huaisang and Jiang Cheng and into the kitchen.
“He’s on concussion watch,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian was already raiding the fridge when Huaisang joined him in the kitchen.
“He never has any food,” Wei Wuxian griped, settling on an apple and jumping up to sit on the counter.
Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng joined them.
“So,” Wei Wuxian said. “Today was wild.”
Jiang Cheng snorted.
“You traced the van,” Huaisang said. “How long did it take for Lan Xichen to notice what happened?”
“Maybe ten minutes after you were taken,” Wei Wuxian said. He took a bite of the apple and made a face. “And yeah, I traced the van through the traffic cams.”
“Is Xue Yang gone for good?” Huaisang asked.
Wei Wuxian nodded. “Jin Guangshan wanted him back for whatever reason. He definitely targeted Jiang Cheng and you.”
“Why would he target Jiang Cheng?” Huaisang asked. “He wasn’t in a position to take Lotus.”
“Maybe he thought he was,” Wei Wuxian said with a shrug. “Maybe he’s a petty bastard.”
“I’m sure that Xue Yang planted the bugs here,” Huaisang said. “But I still don’t know who put that curse on Jiang Cheng.”
“I went through the tapes,” Wei Wuxian said. “There aren’t any cameras pointed directly at the door to the office, but I’ve narrowed it down to three people.”
“Were you able to get into Meng Yao’s head?” Huaisang asked. It would save a lot of speculation if Wei Wuxian already knew everything.
“No,” Wei Wuxian said. He handed the half eaten apple to Lan Wangji, who dutifully ate the rest of it.
“Lan Xichen was acting weird this morning. He was nearly brusque,” Huaisang said.
“He contacted us as soon as he discovered what happened,” Wei Wuxian said, eyes on Lan Wangji’s face. He must suspect something that would upset Lan Wangji, but Lan Xichen wasn’t the type to doublecross…or single cross. He was only a bit less rigid about morality than Mingjue had been. “A few of his neighbors had called the police about gunfire.”
“That was me,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“You own a gun?” Wei Wuxian asked in astonishment.
“Use to,” Huaisang said. “Wangji crushed it to death.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said.
“So,” Wei Wuxian said. “Meng Yao.”
Huaisang nodded. “I thought he had died with everyone else.”
Jiang Cheng moved closer to Huaisang, close enough that their fingers touched.
Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows but didn’t comment. He’d wait until later for that.
“That doesn’t sound like something you would miss,” Wei Wuxian said. It wasn’t. It had been kept in his blindspot for years, even after the majority of the trauma had faded to a dull ache.
“It was a very difficult period in my life,” Huaisang said, fighting to keep his voice even. He didn’t like to think about it too carefully. “Yours as well.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged, and Jiang Cheng moved even closer to Huaisang.
“There are a lot of loose ends here that I don’t want to miss,” Huaisang said as Jiang Cheng slotted himself behind Huaisang and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. “Tell me what information you have from the police.”
“We did not tell the police anything about what was in the warehouse,” Wei Wuxian said. “Only that you two had been kidnapped along with the other vigilantes.”
“So the police don’t know about the theft of the prosthetics or what they were going to do with those prosthetics,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian nodded. “You did a very thorough job destroying the warehouse.”
Huaisang smiled wryly, and Jiang Cheng buried his face in Huaisang’s hair.
“Why is he acting so weird?” Wei Wuxian asked, frowning at Jiang Cheng.
“Concussion,” Huaisang said. “So don’t go poking into his head. That might make it worse.”
“Really?” Wei Wuxian asked. “Because it looks like he’s responding to all those emotions you’re keeping off your face.”
“Maybe so,” Huaisang said. “Maybe he’s concussed. I need to collect information on Meng Yao.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Wei Wuxian said.
“He’s in the middle of something, and I want to know what,” Huaisang said. “I don’t like being used like that.”
“Used like what?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Huaisang’s dark look made Wei Wuxian recoil slightly.
“He knows things about me, about my brother,” Huaisang said carefully. “He’s plotted or predicted every step that could be. The rest was chance unless he tipped his hand. But he used to love my brother. He used to be another brother to me. And he used that information to manipulate me and those around me.”
Jiang Cheng squeezed Huaisang’s shoulders, and Huaisang realized his rage needed to be tempered.
“The police arrested the three Jins,” Wei Wuxian said. “Jin Guangshan, Jin Zixun, and Meng Yao.” Huaisang knew Meng Yao would object to the simplification of being called Jin.
“Knowing Jin Guangshan, he’ll post bail and leave the other two in jail,” Huaisang said, glad to know he wasn’t the only one with predictable behavior. “He’ll probably be under house arrest. So the question is why Meng Yao wants that.”
“Being in jail gives him an airtight alibi,” Wei Wuxian said. Lan Wangji nodded in agreement.
“But he can’t do anything from jail,” Huaisang said. “He’s working with someone else. We can start there.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to ask Meng Yao himself?” Wei Wuxian said.
“Not in the middle of his play,” Huaisang said, “but it couldn’t hurt. He’s not going anywhere until he wants to.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Wei Wuxian said. “I think the most important question of the day is who is going to tell our sister what her son is doing as an extracurricular activity.”
Jiang Cheng removed his face from Huaisang’s hair. “Not me.”
“Maybe she saw it on the news,” Wei Wuxian said.
“She would have also seen you on the news,” Jiang Cheng pointed out.
“You were there too,” Wei Wuxian said with a pout. “I had a mask on, so she'd recognise you first.”
“I’m not going to tell her,” Jiang Chang said. “I’m concussed.”
This was going to go on forever if no one stopped them.
“Other than who is going to tell Jiang Yanli,” Huaisang said. “I think our involvement is nearly over. But we still need to know how that curse ended up on Jiang Cheng’s desk and how they got their hands on that code.”
Wei Wuxian quickly looked at Jiang Cheng and just as quickly looked away again. Jiang Cheng still didn’t fully understand where that code had come from.
There was a tense moment between the two brothers, and then Lan Wangji said, “We will leave you two to discuss that further while Wei Ying and I - ”
“Off we go!” Wei Wuxian interrupted.
Huaisang felt Jiang Cheng tense.
Wei Wuxian pushed Lan Wangji out of the kitchen and out the door.
“That was weird,” Huaisang said. Was there something else he’d overlooked? Maybe Wei Wuxian was tired. He couldn’t have had much sleep between patrolling and coming to their rescue. “Maybe everyone is concussed.”
He peeled Jiang Cheng’s arms away from his shoulders and led him back to the couch.
“Do you really not feel anything from me unless I want you to?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Yes,” Huaisang said. “Do you really feel everything I feel?”
“I don’t think so,” Jiang Cheng said. “Only when it’s really strong. You have a lot of anger.”
“Like you don’t,” Huaisang said.
“I never said I don’t,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s just I never knew you did.”
“Let’s talk about this when you’re not concussed,” Huaisang said. He kissed Jiang Cheng on the nose.
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng said reluctantly.
None of the interns showed up Monday morning, not that Huaisang had expected them to. What Huaisang was not expecting was Jiang Yanli waiting for him in his office.
“Good morning,” she said. She had on her pleasant smile. One that didn’t belie the fact that her son had been held hostage and her husband was currently being interrogated by the police… or that her father-in-law was under house arrest, and her brother-in-law was still in jail.
Huaisang had no idea how to respond beyond a rote, “Good morning.”
Jiang Yanli smiled wider, eyes crinkling, and Huaisang was immediately suspicious.
“I didn’t think you’d be in this morning,” he said.
“My brother wanted me to give you this,” she said. She pushed a manila folder across his desk.
Huaisang was about to ask which brother but he opened the folder to the first page and caught the name Meng Yao. He flicked the folder closed.
“How much did you know?” Huaisang asked.
“My husband and I don’t talk about work beyond the superficial,” she said. Which was not what Huaisang had asked.
“About his family,” Huaisang clarified.
“They do overlap, but that is an even more sensitive topic than work,” Jiang Yanli said.
She stood, letting him wrestle with the idea that his world had been completely turned upside down in the past few weeks, and left with a small smile.
Huaisang eyed the folder as if it were poison. He took a deep breath and opened it again.
At least he didn’t have any meetings scheduled for the morning.
Wei Wuxian popped into his office as Huaisang neared the end of the file on Meng Yao.
“I’m heading over to the police station,” Wei Wuxian said. “Are you coming?”
Huaisang had an appointment the next day with Jiang Cheng, but if Huaisang showed up with Wei Wuxian, who was going to stop him? Especially if Wei Wuxian was in his Laozu catsuit. Honestly, of all the names Mr. Yao could have come up with, he chose that one. And who decided that Mr. Yao was the ultimate authority on naming things? Just because he had a radio talk show…
Wei Wuxian hopped up on Huaisang’s desk. “An interesting read.”
“How long have you had this information?” Huaisang asked.
“A few weeks.” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “Rehab is boring.”
“I wasn’t aware you were allowed an internet connection,” Huaisang said. He also doubted half of the information in that file was on any computer, internet connection or not.
“Allowed?” Wei Wuxian asked, feigning innocence.
“Yeah,” Huaisang said. “I’ll meet you there.”
Wei Wuxian was able to talk the police into letting him and Huaisang into an interrogation room with Meng Yao. It actually required very little convincing. The catsuit did most of the talking.
Huaisang nodded slightly in the direction of the two way mirror, and Wei Wuxian smiled.
“What’s that song you had stuck in your head the other day?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian had once told Huaisang about the newest trick he learned. He could broadcast a song and that was all the person could hear. It was a creative solution to whoever was on the other side of that mirror.
“You were humming Toxic the other day,” Wei Wuxian said, tapping his nose. Huaisang had not been humming Toxic the other day, but it was as good a song as any other he could think of off the top of his head.
They took a seat with their backs to the mirror as Meng Yao was led into the room, hands and feet bound. He was then chained to the table. Once the escorting officers left, Meng Yao looked to Wei Wuxian and then to Huaisang, keeping his face in an unimpressed frown.
Huaisang fought to keep his expression neutral.
Meng Yao turned to Wei Wuxian. “I’d keep out if I were you.”
Wei Wuxian grinned and leaned forward. “And why is that?”
Meng Yao didn’t respond. He turned to Huaisang. “I expected you sooner. I’m a bit disappointed.”
“You deliberately hid from me.” Huaisang didn’t let his expression change. “You had to have been planning this for years.”
Meng Yao smiled, dimples appearing. “As I said, I expected you sooner, but you needed to be out of the way until then.”
“He’s out on bail,” Wei Wuxian said before Huaisang could respond. “He left you here.”
Meng Yao’s smile melted. “He did.”
“How are you going to let this play out?” Huaisang asked.
“You play no role,” Meng Yao said. “This is between my siblings and I.” Siblings, not brothers? That answered who Meng Yao’s accomplices were.
“How long do you need to stay behind bars?” Huaisang asked. “Before you’re cleared?”
Meng Yao gave Huaisang an appraising look. “Three days.”
“Everything is in place, then?” Huaisang asked.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t,” Meng Yao said.
Wei Wuxian nodded.
“Why did you use my brother?” Huaisang asked. It was one of the few details he couldn’t work out. Meng Yao knew Mingjue would never successfully work as a cyborg.
Meng Yao flinched. “That was not my idea.” If that were true, if it was not his idea, he still leaned into it as if it were.
“Was Xue Yang your idea?” Huaisang demanded.
Meng Yao flinched again. “No.”
“Yet you were the one who raised him,” Wei Wuxian said.
“So I could control him,” Meng Yao stated.
“He killed my brother,” Huaisang said.
Meng Yao stared at him.
“My brother,” Huaisang repeated. “He wasn’t nothing to you, either.”
Meng Yao’s expression hardened, and his shoulders squared.
“Why did you use my brother?” Huaisang repeated. He could feel his grip on the situation loosen.
“Why did you never return?” Huaisang asked instead. “You never came back to the apartment.”
“I couldn’t,” Meng Yao said harshly. There was that crack Huaisang had been looking for. He needed to worm his way inside.
“Why not?” Wei Wuxian asked as if he didn’t already know about Meng Yao’s medical records.
“You know about the coma,” Meng Yao said. “I’m insulted you’re even asking.”
“Eight months,” Huaisang said. “You were in a coma for eight months. It’s been ten years.”
“Everyone deals with their grief differently,” Meng Yao said.
“My grief would not have let me clone my boyfriend at the order of my father,” Huaisang snapped.
Meng Yao narrowed his eyes.
“You never came home,” Huaisang said, softer than he intended. “The apartment was so empty without you and my brother. I was alone. You were both dead.” Jiang Cheng had needed to work through his own grief with his own family, and Huaisang had been alone for too long.
Meng Yao’s expression laxened. “A-Sang.”
“No,” Huaisang said. “You make terrible decisions, and if you dare say you had no choice, I will have no choice but to punch you in your stupid, lying face.”
Wei Wuxian laughed.
Meng Yao bristled slightly. “Deciding between a terrible choice and an abhorrent choice is the same as no choice.”
Wei Wuxian snorted.
“I chose what brought me closer to retribution,” Meng Yao said. “And it is three days away.”
Huaisang read the threat in the undercurrent: don’t stop what is currently in motion.
“I know you are poised to take Jin Labs,” Meng Yao said, and how would he know that? That was something between Huaisang and Lan Xichen. “I know you have the paperwork all drawn up. Neither your shareholders nor ours will agree to the acquisition. And teach that nephew of ours how to actually patrol.” That last line was directed at Wei Wuxian.
“That’s his father’s responsibility,” Wei Wuxian said.
“His father is going to be too busy running a company,” Meng Yao said.
“Is that so?” Wei Wuxian asked. “In three days?”
Meng Yao’s expression turned mild. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Huaisang rose from his chair and rapped his knuckles against the mirror. “We’ll continue this conversation in four days.”
The guards came in and escorted Meng Yao out again.
It was wholly unsatisfying, being a piece in someone else’s game, caught in someone else’s web. Huaisang had no idea what to do with himself. He had so much pent up energy, and it needed release.
He knocked on the door to Lan Xichen’s office and didn’t wait for a response before entering.
Lan Xichen was on the phone with the insurance company, pressing hard for the BC payout.
Huaisang took a seat across from him and waited patiently.
Lan Xichen rooted around in his desk and handed Huaisang a piece of paper without stopping his conversation.
Huaisang looked at the paper. It was Lan Xichen’s resignation letter. Effective immediately, which clearly wasn’t the case, because he was still on the phone, midconversation.
Honestly, was there a sword a Lan wouldn’t throw himself on?
His phone buzzed: a text from Jiang Cheng that was just a series of question marks. Huaisang put it back in his pocket without responding. Jiang Cheng was supposed to be in therapy all morning anyway.
Lan Xichen finally ended his call and gave Huaisang a serene look.
Huaisang returned it. “Did you tell them we were at your place?”
Lan Xichen shook his head.
“Did you put the curse in his office?”
Lan Xichen shook his head again.
“Did you know about the curse in his office?”
Lan Xichen shook his head a third time.
“How long have you been dating Meng Yao?” If it was the past year, Lan Xichen would be the fall guy. If it was longer, then maybe it was just a coincidence that was leveraged.
The question took Lan Xichen off guard. “I - I don’t…”
Huaisang raised his eyebrows.
“We’re not dating,” Lan Xichen said, and Huaisang was almost ashamed with himself at how much of a relief it was to hear that. “We’ve been good friends for the past three years.”
However complicit Lan Xichen was in Meng Yao’s plans, he wasn’t there solely for those plans. He was just an aside.
“Do you plan to work for Jin?” Huaisang asked.
“I don’t… I’m not sure,” Lan Xichen said.
“Would you take your brother with you?”
“My brother will not do anything without consulting his husband.” Husband? That was a new development. When had they even had time for that?
Huaisang tore the resignation letter in half.
“What?” Lan Xichen said. “I don’t understand.”
“So you shared a few company secrets,” Huaisang said. “Everyone does.”
“I violated the NDA,” Lan Xichen protested.
“You sure did,” Huaisang agreed. “But did you willingly put anyone in danger?”
“Of course not,” Lan Xichen said, looking horrified at the prospect.
“There you have it,” Huaisang said.
“But - ”
“You might want to shred those Jin Lab prospects,” Huaisang said. “Their new CEO is going to be more cooperative with our CEO.”
Lan Xichen frowned.
“How many children does Jin Guangshan have anyway?” He only knew about four of them.
“At least four,” Lan Xichen said. That was a relief to know as well.
===Mr. Yao radio transcription===
What a bad weekend to be a Jin. Here I thought Jiang Wanyin was the peak of corporate corruption. Jin Guangshan and his family prove me wrong. Who would stoop so low as to kidnap a corporate rival? I almost feel sorry for Jiang Wanyin. Not only that, but Jin Guangshan kidnapped several vigilantes, and I can’t blame him for that, but he got caught.
Yet Jin Guangshan isn’t the one sitting in a jail cell. That’s his bastard son of a whore and coked-out nephew. What a winner.
Jiang Cheng was in his rowhouse when Huaisang barged in. He was sitting on the couch, finally reading through the Q3 reports. He wore his reading glasses he had sworn he didn’t need. He looked up at Huaisang in confusion.
“You spoke with him?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I spoke with a lot of people today,” Huaisang said. He dropped down next to Jiang Cheng on the couch and kissed his cheek. “How’d therapy go? Enough to condemn Jin Guangshan?”
Jiang Cheng snorted. He put down the paperwork and tossed his glasses on top of that paperwork. “Did you speak with Meng Yao?”
Huaisang sighed and wrapped his arms around Jiang Cheng’s waist. “I did.”
“And?” Jiang Cheng pressed.
“And what?” Huaisang asked. “He’s doing his thing now. Jin Guangshan won’t be a problem anymore.”
“What? His thing? You’re just going to leave it?”
“Yeah,” Huaisang said. “I have other things to worry about.”
“We still don’t know who put that curse in your office or how Jin got their hands on the cyborg code.”
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng said. He wrapped his arms over Huaisang’s. “I suppose those are important.”
Huaisang buried his face in Jiang Cheng’s neck. “Hmm. You seem a lot less murderous than you were a week ago. That’s good.”
“We never did have a chance to talk about your murderous time in the warehouse,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Yup,” Huaisang agreed.
“So we’re going to talk about it now,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Is this the homework your therapist gave you?” Huaisang muttered. He licked at the pulse in Jiang Cheng’s throat.
“Which answer will make you talk?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Neither,” Huaisang said.
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng said. “I’ll talk about it, and you can suffer through it.”
Huaisang grumbled. He couldn’t stop what was coming, and he steeled his resolve. The faster this happened, the faster it was over.
“I felt it,” Jiang Cheng said. His voice sounded a bit strained. “I felt that pain and loss and hatred and anger. All of it.”
Huaisang stilled, very aware of his breath, forcing himself to keep it steady, and then he realized it didn’t matter, because Jiang Cheng was inside him in a way Huaisang should have noticed years ago. Jiang Cheng was much more than under his skin.
“I also felt the euphoria and your magic,” Jiang Cheng said. “Your magic feels so different from mine. It feels ethereal, resplendent, regal.”
Huaisang didn’t say anything. He stopped breathing, really. This was not a conversation he wanted to ever have, not that it actually was a conversation.
“And you were never going to tell me,” Jiang Cheng said. He sounded hurt, as if it had been about him. “Huaisang, A-Sang.”
He pried Huaisang off his waist to look him in the eye. Huaisang immediately averted his eyes. But Jiang Cheng already knew.
“I knew about the Nies,” Jiang Cheng said. “But I guess I never knew about the Nies.”
“And now you do,” Huaisang said quietly, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He snuck a look at Jiang Cheng, who looked at him as if he were the sun: bright, warm, wide, and dependable, a celestial body to worship.
“Now I do,” Jiang Cheng said, lowering his voice to match Huaisang’s. He leaned in and kissed Huaisang tentatively. He hadn’t been that tentative since they were both at boarding school decades ago.
Huaisang wasn’t sure how to respond.
“It does explain a lot,” Jiang Cheng said.
Huaisang snorted, and Jiang Cheng kissed him again.
“I could do a lot worse in terms of soulmates.” Jiang Cheng smiled against Huaisang’s lips.
There was an ache in his throat, and he wasn’t sure it belonged to him. He needed to divert this conversation before he started explaining things he didn’t want Jiang Cheng to know.
Huaisang snorted. “Is now the time to talk about Lan XIchen divulging company secrets to JIn?”
He could have been a little subtler, but why?
“What?” Jiang Cheng demanded, pushing Huaisang to arm’s length.
“He didn’t do it on purpose,” Huaisang said. “I hadn’t realized he was friends with Meng Yao.”
“He what?” Jiang Cheng sputtered.
Huaisang hummed. “For the past three years.”
Jiang Cheng sighed.
“Yeah, that’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, too,” Huaisang said. “Let’s not talk about that, either.”
“Do you need a distraction?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Huaisang raised his eyebrows, then let the muscles in his face relax. “I need this to be over so I can sleep.”
“You slept enough last week,” Jiang Cheng snorted.
“That’s because some asshole kept using me like an extra battery. So rude.”
“I was cursed!” Jiang Cheng said. “You’re victim-blaming.”
“We still don’t know how it ended up in your office or how the code got out,” Huaisang said. “So until then, no distractions. Except if you want to buy me food. I won’t say no to that.”
“You didn’t eat lunch, did you?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Huaisang shrugged. “I don’t remember.”
Jiang Cheng sighed.
Huaisang’s phone buzzed: Wei Wuxian was calling.
“You answer that,” Jiang Cheng said, pushing himself up off the couch. “I’ll order food.”
Huaisang answered the phone. “Why didn’t you ask me to be a witness when you and Lan Wangji eloped?”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes nearly fell out of his head, and Huaisang waved him away with a flap of his hand.
“Don’t be like that, A-Sang,” Wei Wuxian whined. “I was calling to give you good news.”
“I see,” Huaisang said.
“It was for insurance reasons anyway,” Wei Wuxian said. “Beneficiaries and stuff.”
“Uh-huh, only insurance reasons,” Huaisang said. “What’s the good news?”
“I didn’t say only insurance reasons,” Wei Wuxian said. “But the prototype of the app is complete, and we’re going to start the beta phase.”
“That is good news,” Huaisang agreed.
“I have less than good news as well,” Wei Wuxian said.
“It was Jiang Cheng’s secretary who brought the curse in,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Shame,” Huaisang said. “She always had the best snacks.”
“Found a bank transfer to one of her accounts from one of Jin Zixun’s personal accounts,” Wei Wuxian continued. “Which was rather careless of them.”
Not unless Meng Yao had suggested it. Being one step behind and to the side was frustrating. He knew Jin Guangshan was a problem and needed to be dealt with, but what else had he missed?
“Thanks,” Huaisang said. “I’ll let Lan Wangji handle the secretary, and I’ll be by tomorrow with Jiang Cheng’s phone.”
“I know that tone of voice,” Wei Wuxian teased. “You found a loose end, and you’re going to pick at it.”
“I need to do some digging in Wen’s records tomorrow,” Huaisang said.
“Are you going to stay out of Jin Labs for now?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“I promised him four days,” Huaisang said.
“Yeah, but,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I know, trust me, I know.”
“Don’t overthink it tonight,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I’m going to sulk about your elopement,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian scoffed.
“I’ll be in tomorrow,” Huaisang said. “Will my interns be back by then?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Wei Wuxian said and hung up.
Huaisang smirked as he put his phone on the coffee table next to the Q3 reports.
Jiang Cheng, who must have been hovering just beyond his sightline, joined him on the couch again.
“Your brother got married for insurance reasons,” Huaisang teased, booping Jiang Cheng on the nose.
Jiang Cheng snorted and swiped at Huaisang’s hand.
“I’m serious,” Huaisang said. “Lan Xichen was there.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him.
“I know!” Huaisang groused. “If he wants to ruin our wedding, he’d better have a wedding for us to ruin.”
“Oh?” Jiang Cheng said. “We’re getting married?”
“You know what I mean,” Huaisang said. He tucked his feet underneath his legs. “Seriously, insurance reasons.”
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “It makes sense to me.”
“It does,” Huaisang said. “That’s why it bothers me. Them patrolling, marrying for the life insurance payout.”
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng said. His face clouded over. “That insurance.”
“Come here,” Huaisang said, motioning Jiang Cheng closer.
Jiang Cheng obliged, and Huaisang kissed him. Jiang Cheng wrapped a hand around the back of Huaisang’s neck and opened his mouth. Huaisang took the invitation.
Huaisang broke away with a last quick peck. “I think I’m ready to move out of my apartment.”
“What?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I think it’s time to move on,” Huaisang said. “Meng Yao’s moved on: maybe I should too.” Except Meng Yao was not the type to move on. No, Meng Yao was the type to hold a grudge for as long as it took to rectify it, even if it’s a decade or more. Huaisang would tug on that thread later. He might be able to use that tenacity.
“You like how close it is to that park,” Jiang Cheng said. “You need that park.”
“I do need that park,” Huaisang said. “I need open skies and a thick understory. But I need - ” He couldn’t articulate what he needed. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I need a vacation. I need this to be over. I need to let my brother’s memory finally rest.” Belief could only do so much.
Jiang Cheng wrapped his arms around Huaisang’s shoulders and drew him in. “You know you can live here, even if my closet space is lacking.”
“We haven’t lived together since college,” Huaisang said. “Are you sure you want to do that again?”
“We are soulmates,” Jiang Cheng pointed out. “I assumed that included your stinky, balled-up socks on the bathroom floor.”
“And your obsession with cleanliness, including your disgusting postmodern minimalist decor,” Huaisang said.
“It’s tidy and classy,” Jiang Cheng protested.
“It’s dull,” Huaisang countered. “There’s no personality.”
“Ugh,” Jiang Cheng said. “You haven’t even moved in yet and you want to rearrange everything.”
“Where would my plants go?” Huaisang pouted, eyes wide with as much innocence as he could muster.
“Ugh,” Jiang Cheng repeated. “What else did Wei Wuxian want?”
“Oh,” Huaisang said. “Your secretary was paid by Jin Zixun to put the curse on your desk.”
“At least that’s what the papertrail says,” Huaisang said. “I have a feeling there’s a bit more to it than that. And the app is ready for beta testing, so your phone is needed at Wen tomorrow.”
“How’d he do that so quickly?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“Caffeine, underpaid and overworked labor, and working off a base code he had already created,” Huaisang offered.
Jiang Cheng tightened his arms around Huaisang’s shoulders, and Huaisang grunted in surprise.
The interns had returned, looking surprisingly whole, but they steadfastly ignored Huaisang. Two of them even ducked behind a hood when he entered the lab. The technicians ignored Huaisang as he hijacked a computer and dug in.
Huaisang wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking for, just data entry. Boring, meticulous data entry and metatags to see who had entered said data, all sorts of backend things he should have asked Wei Wuxian to do, because at least he would know what it was when he found it.
After half an hour at the computer, Huaisang felt Jin Ling at his back, all speedster heat, now that he knew to look for it.
A minute after that, Jin Ling broke. “What are you looking for?” he demanded.
“Hmm?” Huaisang hummed. It was too easy sometimes.
There was an intern on either side of him and Jin Ling behind him. They were like cats, so determined of their own independence but slaves to their curiosities.
“What are you looking for?” Ouyang Zizhen asked.
“That looks really boring,” Lan Jingyi said. It was really boring. “That’s not even correct data.”
“Is that so?” Huaisang asked.
“Yeah,” Lan Jingyi said but didn’t elaborate.
Huaisang continued to sift through the metadata in the database, now intent to see who had input the false data and when.
Someone delicately cleared their throat behind Huaisang, and the interns jumped.
Huaisang turned to see the lab manager looking at him with a softer version of Meng Yao’s calculating eyes. This was so much easier and more enjoyable than sifting through metadata.
“Found it,” Huaisang said as the interns scattered. “Qin Su, I don’t believe we’ve formally met.”
Her eyes turned cold like Meng Yao’s as well, which was disconcerting on her youthful face.
He smiled, and she did not.
“Let’s have a chat.”
She nodded and brought Huaisang into her office, offering him the chair across from her desk.
He sat and waited for her to speak first.
Instead, she poured him and then herself tea from a ceramic pot sitting on a hotplate.
Huaisang took a sip: cloyingly sweet jasmine. He’d had worse, and this wasn’t even poisoned.
“I put in my two week’s notice a week and a half ago,” Qin Su said. “I’m sure you understand.”
Huaisang hummed in what might have been agreement. “Do you have a new job lined up?”
Qin Su regarded him solemnly. “I do not play games like the rest of my family,” she said. “If you mean to say something, please say it.”
Maybe this could be refreshingly simple.
“How did you find that code?” Huaisang asked.
She took a sip of her tea. “I am an engineer,” she said. “Years ago, I found a piece of paper with an interesting puzzle on it. It took time to perfect it, a lot more time than it took you to destroy everything.”
Leave it to Wei Wuxian to just leave Super Secret Cyborg Code lying around.
She didn’t sound too upset about the destruction, just resigned to it. Huaisang losing it must have been part of Meng Yao’s plan. Meng Yao probably missed out on the poetry of it all, just thought it was a reliable solution.
“I was always going to destroy everything,” Huaisang said. “How did you get his DNA?”
She studied his face carefully before answering. “That was my brother,” she said. “You’ll need to ask him.” Huaisang should have asked which brother, but it didn’t matter. It could have been any of them, but it was probably Meng Yao.
“And your ghost,” Huaisang said. “Were you trying to replicate your data with her?”
“Yes,” Qin Su said. “She died of cancer years ago. Wen Biotech can certainly benefit from this as well, and no one would suspect an older woman.”
Huaisang wasn’t sure what to do with that information, so he stayed quiet. It was true, yeah, and honestly a lot scarier than his brother. A middle aged woman could go places and no one would notice. People noticed Mingjue.
“He was supposed to be for security, and she was supposed to be a spy?” Huaisang asked.
“That was my understanding,” Qin Su said.
Huaisang pressed his lips together. “I have an appointment to keep,” he said. “Enjoy your shiny new job at Jin Labs.”
“Bury him,” she said. “Bury Jin Guangshan so deep he can never hurt another ever again.”
Before heading over to the police department to give their official statements, Huaisang stopped by Wei Wuxian’s office with Jiang Cheng’s phone, and Wei Wuxian fiddled with it while his intern watched.
“So I just learned something interesting,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian muttered something to the phone.
“It turns out that someone left their top secret code lying out on a lab bench one day,” Huaisang said.
The intern’s eyes bugged.
“What?” Wei Wuxian’s head shot up.
“Yeah,” Huaisang agreed. “That sounds pretty careless to me.”
“Excuse me,” the intern mumbled and fled the room.
“Are you kidding me?” Wei Wuxian sputtered. It was very similar to Jiang Cheng’s sputter, and it had been ages since Huaisang could elicit that sort of response from Wei Wuxian.
“I can’t believe you left Wen Ning’s source code out like that,” Huaisang said. “It’s like leaving out pictures of his dick.”
That startled a laugh out of Wei Wuxian.
“Please be more careful in the future,” Huaisang said.
“Sizhui is keeping me in line,” Wei Wuxian promised. He returned the phone to Huaisang. “Monitor his moods and let me know.”
Huaisang nodded. “We’re on our way to make our official statement to the police, so that will be a real test.”
“Turn it off if he becomes angry,” Wei Wuxian said. “Jiang Cheng angry, not normal person angry. That means it’s having the opposite effect it should, and could lead to serious side effects.” Jiang Cheng was their trial run.
Huaisang nodded. “Did you have The Talk with your son?” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Safe patrolling,” Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian sighed. “A father’s work is never done.”
“Aren’t you obligated by law to embarrass him at every opportunity?”
“I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Huaisang and Jiang Cheng walked into the precinct fifteen minutes before their appointment. Jiang Cheng wore his ‘I am an important person: don’t bother or disappoint me’ expression. It was very specific and mostly involved eyebrows, but it was highly effective.
The officer in charge of the investigation saw them into his office right away.
There was paperwork to fill out, because life was neverending bureaucracy.
About fifteen minutes in, when their appointment was technically supposed to start, the officer received a phone call.
He took it, not saying much but giving Huaisang and Jiang Cheng suspicious glances.
When he hung up the phone, he said, “It seems there is no need for that paperwork.”
“Come again?” Jiang Cheng said.
“Jin Guangshan was just found dead,” the officer said. “I need to know your whereabouts for the past hour.”
“Here,” Jiang Cheng snapped.
The officer looked mildly taken aback.
Huaisang put a hand on Jiang Cheng’s thigh and squeezed tightly enough to be uncomfortable.
“We have nothing to say without our lawyer present,” Huaisang said. “Unless you are arresting us, we will be leaving now.”
The officer stared, then he waved a hand in dismissal.
Huaisang took the dismissal, dragging Jiang Cheng out of the office and building, not breathing until they were on the street.
“What just happened?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Huaisang shook his head. “Tomorrow is day three. Let’s see what happens then. On the plus side, you didn’t glow purple or emit sparks, so that’s good.”
JIang Cheng rolled his eyes.
“I need a milk tea,” Huaisang announced. “Let’s go get one.” He pulled at Jiang Cheng’s sleeve and led him in the direction of the nearest tea shop.
===Mr. Yao radio transcription===
What is going on in this city? JIn Guangshan, who was under house arrest and had a surveillance detail, was found dead. It was right under the nose of the police commissioner. Police have been all over this high priority case, and all his family has been questioned. I bet it was the addict Jin Zixun. He had been released from custody the night before. In fact the only one it can’t be is the son of a whore, who is still rotting in a jail cell, and I’m just as surprised by that as you are.
Huaisang waited outside the precinct with what used to be Meng Yao’s favorite coffee. Maybe it still was. He watched as Meng Yao stepped outside through the automatic doorway, squint as the sun hit his face, and take a deep breath. As he breathed out, years were shed from his face. Sharp lines smoothed out.
“Coffee?” Huaisang asked, approaching him slowly.
Meng Yao eyed the cup in Huaisang’s hand.
“It was your favorite ten years ago,” Huaisang said, offering the cup with an outstretched arm.
Hesitantly, Meng Yao took the cup, lifted the lid to sniff, put the lid back on, and took a tentative sip.
“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Huaisang said.
Meng Yao gave him a hard look. It was a look Huaisang hadn’t seen in ten years. It was the look Meng Yao had given him ten years ago while covered in blood splatter before jumping back into the fray. Huaisang successfully hid his emotional whiplash.
“I still live in the apartment if you’d like to have this conversation there,” Huaisang said. “But we are having this conversation now.”
“Not there,” Meng Yao said a little too quickly. Sometimes Meng Yao was just as cowardly as Huaisang. “We can go to my apartment.”
Meng Yao’s apartment was small, clean, and impersonal in a vacant sort of way. It felt like a hotel room, and maybe the apartment was transient as well.
Huaisang made himself at home on the remarkably uncomfortable couch, and Meng Yao curled up in a chair opposite. He looked so small.
“So,” Huaisang said. “Jin Guangshan is dead.”
Meng Yao didn’t say anything, just gave Huaisang a pointed stare.
Huaisang sighed and soundproofed the room. Once the gold had settled and faded, Meng Yao nodded.
“You still haven’t learned that spell,” Huaisang said with a shake of his head.
“I’m not a witch,” Meng Yao said as if he hadn’t used his mother’s personal spell for raising the dead.
“Neither am I,” Huaisang countered, and because he had to poke, “But your mother was.”
Meng Yao narrowed his eyes but kept his mouth shut.
“I tore up Lan Xichen’s resignation letter,” Huaisang said.
“He told me,” Meng Yao said.
“As if you reading his possessions was his fault,” Huaisang said.
“He’s a very excitable drunk,” Meng Yao admitted.
Huaisang raised his eyebrows. “You got a Lan drunk to steal company secrets?”
Meng Yao shrugged. “That wasn’t the purpose of giving him a glass of wine.”
Huaisang snorted in amusement. “Oh?”
“If I had known he turned into a toddler at the slightest hint of alcohol, I never would have given him any,” Meng Yao said. He shrugged again.
“Did he get loose?” Huaisang giggled. “Not in the way you wanted, right?”
Meng Yao pressed his lips together and shook his head. “He ran out to the street and said he needed to pet every dog in the city to let them know they were good dogs. He couldn’t bear it if they didn’t know.”
Huaisang snorted in amusement.
“Knowing what you were planning helped,” Meng Yao said.
“You should have told me earlier,” Huaisang said. It would have been so much easier for both of them to have just collaborated, but Meng Yao needed to complicate things. He’d rather use people than ask for help. Brothers asked each other for help. They didn’t use each other. “You used to be family, brothers.”
“Only the four of us knew,” Meng Yao said. Huaisang assumed the four meant the four siblings. “There couldn’t be any more.”
Huaisang’s smile melted away. “What did you know?”
Meng Yao studied him carefully. “I knew that if you found out the truth, you would not be able to stop yourself.”
Huaisang stilled, not even breathing. He dug his fingers into his thighs.
Meng Yao reached out and placed a hand on Huaisang’s own. “He paid for Xue Yang to kill Mingjue.”
Huaisang jerked his hand away.
“See?” Meng Yao said, leaning back.
Huaisang felt Jiang Cheng pressing concern into his chest. Huaisang did not need that. He did not need Jiang Cheng to witness this.
“When did you find out?” Huaisang asked, unhappy with how breathy his voice was. Unhappy with Meng Yao for keeping that from him. Unhappy with Meng Yao for telling him.
“Six years ago,” Meng Yao said. “I was going through past budgets and found the invoice.”
“You’ve been planning this for six years?”
“Nearly,” Meng Yao said. “You already know how he treated my mother and Qin Su’s mother. You know what he did to Mo Xuanyu. At least Mo Xuanyu could hide once he figured out how to control it.”
“Six years to set up all the pieces,” Huaisang said icily. “And I was one of those pieces.”
Meng Yao scowled.
“But Jin Zixun was the last piece,” Huaisang said.
Meng Yao inclined his head.
“How - no, who did it?”
“I don’t think I should tell you that,” Meng Yao said.
“You already framed Jin Zixun,” Huaisang said. “I heard he might even confess to it. It was Mo Xuanyu, wasn’t it? He is the only one I can think of who’d be able to sneak past the security detail without being seen.” Invisibility did have its perks.
Meng Yao narrowed his eyes, and it was as good of a confession as he was going to give.
“Why my brother?” Huaisang asked, his voice steadier this time.
“It wasn’t my idea, but that was the only way to get you to destroy everything,” Meng Yao said. “I wanted everything taken from him before he died.”
Huaisang took in a shallow breath and had to remind himself to exhale.
“It never would have truly succeeded in becoming a cyborg,” Meng Yao said. “He wasn’t human or meta or anything compatible with the machinery.” Meng Yao had known and factored that into his plan.
Huaisang snorted wryly. “Gods and machines don’t mix.”
Meng Yao hummed in agreement. “That was why it had to be Xue Yang,” he said. “Because he killed a god. That’s how I could bring him back.”
Huaisang flinched. He didn’t want to think of the sheer coldness and detachment needed to make that decision. Maybe Huaisang could do it. He’d find a way for it not to be Xue Yang. Or, no, if Huaisang knew it was the only way, he could do it. He understood why Meng Yao did it. He wished he didn’t.
“And the curse you put on Jiang Cheng?” Huaisang asked.
“You took your time showing up,” Meng Yao said. “You needed encouragement.”
“You could have called,” Huaisang snapped. “Called and said, ‘Huaisang, by the way, I’m alive and need some help.’”
Meng Yao didn’t respond.
“You didn’t know about…” Huaisang didn’t continue. Jiang Cheng’s curse was to spur Huaisang into action, not to kill either of them. Meng Yao didn’t know the curse would have killed Huaisang as well. Meng Yao had faith Huaisang would swoop in and save Jiang Cheng in time to destroy the warehouse.
Huaisang didn’t like it. He knew Mingjue would have found it reprehensible. Huaisang didn’t know where he stood on the morality of it all. He would have just made a phone call, but he wasn’t Meng Yao.
“It’s over, A-Sang,” Meng Yao said gently. “Mingjue can rest now.” How could Meng Yao account for so many things but be wrong about that? He spent six years doing all that for Mingjue - and the others Jin Guangshan had hurt - and didn’t even know why that wouldn’t work.
Huaisang stared at the ceiling to keep his tears from falling. “No,” he said thickly, “that’s not how it works.”
“Not how what works?” Meng Yao asked gently.
“When a god dies,” Huaisang said. “They’re not human. They don’t - We don’t - That’s it. We cease to exist.” It shouldn’t be so difficult to articulate. It was just facts. He was only relaying a fact. His throat shouldn’t be so tight if he was only stating a fact.
Meng Yao was silent. Huaisang thought he might even be holding his breath.
“There is no afterlife. There is no reincarnation,” Huaisang said. “There is nothing unless there is belief.”
“I have never stopped believing in your brother,” Meng Yao said. “Have you?” He made it sound so simple, so romantic and whimsical.
Huaisang laughed wetly.
Meng Yao knelt in front of Huaisang, slowly, tentatively, placing his hands over Huaisang’s as Huaisang pushed his fingers into his knees. Huaisang let him. They’d been in this position many times before, a lifetime ago.
“What happens when there’s belief?” Meng Yao whispered. Meng Yao wanted to believe. He wanted a happy ending. He’d also wanted revenge, and those two were mutually exclusive. Meng Yao had taught Huaisang that years ago.
Huaisang looked down at him, and his tears fell. Meng Yao’s tears were already tracing down his cheeks. Meng Yao had not gotten over it. Meng Yao had been in love with his brother. Huaisang knew that, but Meng Yao was still in love with his brother. It had been ten years.
“What happens, A-Sang?” Meng Yao asked again.
“Reinstatement,” Huaisang whispered back. “There’s no timeline. It happens when it happens. It happens when belief is strongest, when tithes are given in his honor.”
“Tithes like Jin Guangshan’s death?” Meng Yao asked.
Huaisang shook his head. “The universe is chaos. There are no guarantees.”
“But there’s a chance at some point in the future?” Meng Yao asked. Huaisang was disappointed in himself for catching Meng Yao’s hope. He thought he’d given up on that years ago, not wanting to drown himself in something that might not happen, and now Meng Yao clung tightly to the belief that hope could do something. For all of Meng Yao’s grand schemes, he should have known all this. He also should have known the odds. Maybe knowing the odds had held Huaisang back.
Huaisang nodded slowly.
“How do you know when it happens?” Meng Yao asked.
Huaisang shook his head. “That’s why it’s called belief.”
“Huaisang,” Meng Yao said. “You just told me there is a chance to resurrect a god.” He sounded in awe.
“A small chance,” Huaisang said, as if he hadn’t been trying, as if that wasn’t the first thing Huaisang had tried once he could control his grief. Because he couldn’t forget to live. Living honored his brother, too.
Meng Yao placed his head in Huaisang’s lap. “I miss him,” he admitted.
Huaisang carded his fingers through Meng Yao’s hair. “Me too.”
A silence settled over them.
This was not how Huaisang thought this conversation would go.
“What do you plan to do now?” Huaisang asked eventually.
“Help my brother run his company,” Meng Yao said. He straightened up to look at Huaisang.
“That’s it?” Huaisang asked.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to fix everything Jin Guangshan broke,” Meng Yao said. “As you know, the finances are a mess.”
“I do know that,” Huaisang said.
Meng Yao smiled just enough to show his dimples.
Huaisang poked at one. “I still have your things.”
Meng Yao frowned. “You didn’t throw anything out?”
“No,” Huaisang said. “Mostly because I am too lazy to sort through everything.”
Meng Yao sighed. “Of course you are.”
“I also have my brother’s things,” Huaisang said hesitantly. “If you want to read them. To strengthen your belief.”
The expression Meng Yao gave him was so heartbreakingly hopeful Huaisang had to look away. Just because there was a small chance didn’t mean there was a probable chance. This sort of thing was rarely done. It was rarely needed.
“Come on,” he said, standing and pulling Meng Yao to his feet. “I’m going to be moving soon, so the more you take, the less I have to move.”
“Of course,” Meng Yao said. “Wouldn’t want you to do more work than necessary.”
“Finally,” Huaisang said. “Someone who understands.”
Meng Yao stood paralyzed in his old bedroom, the one he shared with MIngjue.
Huaisang left him to his thoughts. There were years of collected memories that had embedded themselves, and it would take time to sort through them.
Meng Yao needed privacy.
Huaisang needed to breathe, but he also needed to let Jiang Cheng know not to panic. Although, the app seemed to be working. He was down to normal levels of irritation.
HIs phone buzzed.
“Ah, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “I was just thinking about you.”
The snort came through the line clearly.
“Am I not allowed to think of my soulmate?” Huaisang warbled.
Jiang Cheng didn’t respond.
“What's wrong now?” Huaisang asked.
“You,” Jiang Cheng said.
“That’s not very nice,” Huaisang said.
“I mean, your emotions,” Jiang Cheng said.
“They’re very complicated at the moment,” Huaisang said slowly. “Is that why you’re worried?”
“I - no!” Jiang Cheng protested. “I’m not worried.”
“You’re very worried,” Huaisang said. “You can come over if you’d like.”
“Are you at your apartment?” Jiang Cheng asked, sounding like he actually planned to join Huaisang.
“I am,” Huaisang said. “And so is Meng Yao.”
“It’s complicated,” Huaisang said.
“So you said,” Jiang Cheng said, voice turning icy.
“I lived with him for years,” Huaisang said. “Technically he still lives here. His name is still on the lease.”
“You didn’t even bother to change that?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Huaisang shrugged, then realized Jiang Cheng couldn’t see it. Maybe he could feel it. “Nope.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Jiang Cheng sighed. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“I’ll have tea ready by then,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng made a noncommittal sound and hung up.
Huaisang filled the kettle for three cups and flicked it on before checking in on Meng Yao.
He stared at a small trinket in his hand, and he’d maybe moved a step from where Huaisang had last seen him.
“You’re still on the lease,” Huaisang said.
Meng Yao started.
“I never bothered to change the lease,” Huaisang said. “I figured I should tell you. Tea in ten!” He ducked out of the room again, ignoring Meng Yao’s startled expression.
Jiang Cheng pushed against the wards as soon as the kettle clicked off. Huaisang poured three cups to steep before going to the door.
When Huaisang opened the door, Jiang Cheng scrutinized him intently.
“Are you making sure I’m whole?” Huaisang asked.
Jiang Cheng scoffed. “Are you?”
“Get in here,” Huaisang said, pulling him into the apartment.
He gave Jiang Cheng a cup and sat down at the kitchen table. After a moment, Jiang Cheng sat opposite him.
“We talked about it,” Huaisang said.
“What in particular?” Jiang Cheng asked slowly.
“The past ten years,” Huaisang said.
“That’s not very specific,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You’re right,” Huaisang said. “It’s not very specific. But as far as I’m aware, everything is in the past now.”
Jiang Cheng gave Huaisang a long look over his cup of tea. Huaisang ignored it by taking his own sip of tea.
“Are you sure you’re okay with me moving in?” Huaisang asked.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said.
“No take backs,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows, undoubtedly in preparation to say something sarcastic when Meng Yao emerged from the bedroom.
“Oh,” Meng Yao said, eyes settling on Jiang Cheng.
“Tea’s on the counter,” Huaisang said.
Meng Yao picked up his cup of tea and again said, “Oh.” His eyes did that glazed thing they did when he read objects.
Huaisang frowned, and Meng Yao gave him a speculative look.
Jiang Cheng scowled.
“I can’t believe it took you two that long to figure it out,” Meng Yao said. He leaned against the counter and took a sip of his tea.
“To figu-” Huaisang kicked Jiang Cheng under the table to cut him off. Meng Yao had asked a leading question, and Huaisang was not going to play into that ploy. For all he knew, Meng Yao had seen how long it had taken Huaisang to tackle a particularly troublesome budgetary problem.
Jiang Cheng continued to scowl. “Why is he even here? He’s the one who put that curse on me.”
Meng Yao didn’t deny it. He had always been an ‘ends justify the means’ person, and it had started so many arguments between him and Mingjue.
“It’s over,” Huaisang said.
“And when something starts again?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“Then we find the problem and eliminate the problem,” Huaisang said. He stared steadily at Meng Yao, who was entirely unperturbed.
JIang Cheng opened his mouth to say something undoubtedly distasteful when Meng Yao’s eyes went wide and he nearly dropped the tea cup.
“A-Yao?” Huaisang asked, frowning.
Meng Yao pressed a hand to his chest, eyes darting around the room.
Huaisang looked at Jiang Cheng.
“I didn’t poison him,” he said with a shrug and the implication that maybe he should next time.
Meng Yao doubled over and dropped the tea cup. It didn’t break, just spilled over the linoleum.
Huaisang raced over to him, kneeling down and holding his shoulders. He could feel Jiang Cheng hovering uncertainly behind him.
Meng Yao raised his head to look Huaisang in the eye. He had a crazed look in his eyes, crazed and pained and sad and wretched.
“Breathe, A-Yao,” Huaisang said.
There was a loud crash in the other room, like a lamp had been thrown to the floor, and Huaisang’s wards were… confused.
Meng Yao bolted upright and staggered out of Huaisang’s grasp and into the other room.
Huaisang felt something surge in his chest and stick in his throat, and Jiang Cheng was there, helping him to his feet, a comforting hand on his cheek.
There was a loud thump from the other room, like a body falling to the floor.
Huaisang didn’t let himself hope, because he didn’t have any confirmation, but Meng Yao had reacted like he had a soulmate in mortal peril. Huaisang had only seen it once before, but it was a memorable experience. As far as he knew, Meng Yao didn’t have a soulmate. Meng Yao wasn’t the type to forge that connection, not wanting any sort of exploitable weakness, and he was still in love with Mingjue -
Huaisang scrambled into the other room, full of that hope he told himself not to have.
There were two people in the room. Huaisang could only see Meng Yao’s back as he caged the larger person beneath him.
There was crying, but it wasn’t Meng Yao. The person beneath him shook.
Huaisang stood there in the doorway, adrenaline making it difficult to steady himself, and Jiang Cheng wrapped an arm around his waist to keep him standing.
The person below Meng Yao was also very naked.
But it wasn’t a person. It was a god.
Huaisang threw himself at them, inadvertently taking Jiang Cheng with him.
He buried his face in his brother's shoulder as Meng Yao did the same with the other shoulder, and Jiang Cheng sat awkwardly next to them.
A strong arm wrapped around Huaisang, and the other wrapped around Meng Yao.
“My boys,” Mingjue said. His voice was barely a creak. Huaisang didn’t care.
After making his brother put on a house robe, the four of them sat at the kitchen table drinking tea.
It was awkward.
What did one say to someone who had been dead for ten years?
Jiang Cheng had a glassy expression Huaisang attributed to shock. He supposed it was shocking. Jiang Cheng still hadn’t come to terms with who the Nies were and how belief factored into everything.
Meng Yao kept staring at Mingjue in awed silence. But he also looked like he wanted to climb Mingjue like a tree.
“Has it really been ten years?” Mingjue asked.
Huaisang nodded. “What do you last remember?”
Mingjue’s face contorted in anger. “Xue Yang.”
“Dead,” Huaisang said tersely. Later, someone would have to explain everything about that, but now was not the time.
Jiang Cheng gave Huaisang a look, then he gave Meng Yao a darker version of that same look.
“He’s dead,” Meng Yao said. “Huaisang killed him.”
Mingjue gave Huaisang a considering look.
Huaisang looked away. He didn’t want to talk about it. His brother would not like what he had done. His brother also would not like what Meng Yao had done. Apparently the universe had liked it, though.
“Ah,” Mingjue said. “And what has happened since then?”
“A lot,” Meng Yao said. “Jin Guangshan is dead.”
“About time,” Mingjue said.
Huaisang gave Meng Yao a shove with his toe under the table.
“I’m going to be moving in with Jiang Cheng,” Huaisang said.
Mingjue gave Jiang Cheng a once over. “You’re still together?”
“You sound surprised,” Huaisang said.
Mingjue shrugged. “That’s a long time for you to take such an interest in something.”
“Ugh,” Huaisang said. “I can’t believe I missed you so much that I’d forgotten that you’re the worst.”
“I’m mostly surprised that you two aren’t living together,” Mingjue said. “How many years have you two been together? Twenty?”
Huaisang threw himself down on the table with a cry.
“Hm,” Mingjue hummed in amusement.
“Our names are still on the lease,” Meng Yao said. “The three of us. Huaisang was too lazy to update the lease.”
“You don’t live here?” Mingjue asked. Because if Meng Yao lived here, he would have changed the names.
Meng Yao shook his head.
Mingjue wrapped a hand around Huaisang’s shoulder, pulling him upright. “It was just you here alone for all that time. Huaisang.”
Jiang Cheng put a hand on Huaisang’s knee and tenderness into his chest.
“Yes,” Huaisang said. “Meng Yao was in a coma and A-Cheng’s parents… We all had a lot to deal with.” At some point he and Mingjue would need to discuss everything, but until then, Huaisang would deflect.
“Coma?” Mingjue turned to Meng Yao, looking him up and down, scanning for any sign of injury.
“I fared better than a lot of other people that night,” Meng Yao said.
A solemn silence descended.
“There is a lot to catch up with,” Meng Yao said. “It will take time.” He pressed a hand to his chest, and Huaisang knew.
“Meng Yao,” Huaisang said sharply. “You tell him right this second.”
Meng Yao looked alarmed. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out.
Mingjue frowned. “Huaisang?”
“Later, we need to have a conversation,” Meng Yao said, raising his chin and setting his jaw. “Just the two of us.”
“You needed to have that conversation over ten years ago,” Huaisang said. It was cruel not to have told Mingjue, but Meng Yao had paid for it with ten years of emptiness. Maybe that was how he was able to be so cold in his planning, even thinking that at the end he’d still have that emptiness.
Jiang Cheng squeezed Huaisang’s leg and frowned at him. Huaisang pushed back, trying to flood Jiang Cheng’s system with the memory of Huaisang getting day drunk on his couch not too long ago.
“You never told him?” Jiang Cheng blurted out. “He died not knowing?”
“What is everyone talking about?” Mingjue demanded.
“That is a conversation for just the two of us,” Meng Yao said. He smiled through a sneer.
Fine. It was a conversation for the two of them without nosey little brothers, but it wasn’t like Huaisang didn’t know already. The only one in the dark was Mingjue.
Huaisang had also outed his and Jiang Cheng’s situation to Meng Yao - if he hadn’t read it already. Huaisang would have to deal with that in the future, too. Mingjue would need to know about that as well, but it was nowhere near as pressing as Meng Yao’s situation.
Huaisang sniffed. “You have twenty four hours, then I take matters into my own hands.”
Mingjue looked about to argue.
Meng Yao glared at Huaisang before turning to Mingjue with a smile. “We’re going to have to find you a job. I’m not going to be paying the full rent on my own.”
“I’m sure between you and Huaisang that won’t be a problem,” Mingjue said.
“The world is different than it was before,” Huaisang said. “Meng Yao will catch you up on most of it. I’ll fill in the gaps and correct his lies.”
Meng Yao didn’t protest.
“I also expect you to help me move,” Huaisang said.
“Of course,” Mingjue said.
“The two of us will have a conversation,” Huaisang said. “Then I will fill you in on ten years’ worth of gossip.”
“I’d expect no less,” Mingjue said.
“One more thing before Jiang Cheng and I leave,” Huaisang said. He pouted.
“And what is that?” Mingjue asked.
“I need a hug.”
Mingjue laughed. “Of course.”
Huaisang launched himself at his brother, knocking both them and the chair to the floor. Mingjue squeezed, and Huaisang squeezed back.
Huaisang had gone with Jiang Cheng back to his rowhouse. This was where he would be living soon. He’d been here so often but never thought of it as a home. He hadn’t thought of his apartment as a home either. It had been a home when it was the three of them, but that was different. Things were different. The world was different. Mingjue was back, and Huaisang was going to live with Jiang Cheng and the small patch of fenced-in grass that passed as a backyard. There was a small square of sky framed between the buildings.
Huaisang didn’t know how long he could last, but he would try. Then he would convince Jiang Cheng to buy a house out in the country.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Jiang Cheng asked. He poured Huaisang a glass of water.
Huaisang shook his head and kept grasping the kitchen counter to keep himself steady. He refused the glass of water.
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng said. He set the glass down on the counter next to Huaisang’s white knuckles.
They stood there silently for a long time, Jiang Cheng occasionally brushing a stray strand of hair out of Huaisang’s eyes. It kept breaking free and falling into this face again.
“I kinda do,” Jiang Cheng said. “Because that was really weird.”
Huaisang snorted a half laugh.
“I witnessed a resurrection, Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Reinstatement,” Huaisang corrected, leaning into Jiang Cheng’s side.
“What?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“It’s called reinstatement when it’s…” He waved a hand, not entirely sure how to explain to an outsider how their pantheon worked.
“Your brother is back,” Jiang Cheng said. “He’s alive.”
Huaisang nodded and smiled. “He is.”
It would take time to adjust, for everything to settle, and Huaisang knew it wouldn’t be the same as before. Things like death and returning changed people and gods.
Huaisang knew Meng Yao and Jiang Cheng felt things differently than he or his brother did. Metas and gods had different magics, but Meng Yao must have felt that loss for ten years. Huaisang was always there with Jiang Cheng, but Huaisang could only feel Jiang Cheng when Jiang Cheng wanted him to.
He knew it was because he would outlive Jiang Cheng by centuries, and it was a mercy he wouldn’t have that emptiness. There would be loss, but he’d deal with that when he needed to - hopefully years in the future.
“Does that mean if something ever happened to you, I could, you know?” Jiang Cheng asked. He tried to sound casual, but Jiang Cheng had never succeeded in sounding casual at any point in his life, and this was no exception.
“Nothing is going to happen to me,” Huaisang said.
“But!” Jiang Cheng protested, upset that Huaisang hadn’t answered his question.
“I have a healthy sense of self-preservation,” Huaisang said. “I make Wei Wuxian do all my fighting for me.”
“I did notice that,” Jiang Cheng said dryly.
“But if you want to suit up for my honor, I wouldn’t mind,” Huaisang said.
“I don’t think my suit fits anymore,” Jiang Cheng said. He wrinkled his nose in distaste.
“Shame,” Huaisang said. “You should try it some time to make sure.”
Huaisang couldn’t catch his breath: he was laughing too hard.
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “Must you?”
“Yes,” Huaisang breathed out before falling into another fit of giggles.
Jiang Cheng huffed. “I’m changing.”
“Don’t you dare!” Huaisang said, grabbing Jiang Cheng’s wrist. “You’re very sexy.”
“It obviously doesn’t fit,” he grumbled. “I can’t breathe in this thing. I couldn’t even zip it up all the way.”
Jiang Cheng looked extremely uncomfortable in his old superhero suit. It pinched and pulled in places where it hadn’t ten years ago, but it still looked great on him, showing off the hard lines of which Huaisang was quite fond. Jiang Cheng squirmed and picked at the suit in places hoping it would give. It did not give as much as he wanted.
“That’s because you have shoulders now,” Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng huffed again.
“Come here,” Huaisang said, tugging Jiang Cheng into his space and spinning him around.
Huaisang eyed the offending zipper. It barely closed past Jiang Cheng’s shoulder blades, exposing a small slash of a scar. Somewhere on the suit was a corresponding scar, sewn up.
“Yes,” Huaisang said. “Shoulders.”
He slipped his hands underneath the leather, spreading his hands over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder blades, pulling the zipper farther apart. When Huaisang reached Jiang Cheng’s side, he slipped his hands up and over the shoulders, pushing the suit down Jiang Cheng’s arms.
He buried his face in Jiang Cheng’s bare back, placing a kiss between his shoulder blades.
Jiang Cheng shivered slightly.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Huaisang whispered against his skin, and Jiang Cheng shivered again. “Now let’s get this off you. You look really uncomfortable.”
If there were enough room in the suit for Jiang Cheng to take a deep breath of relief, Huaisang was sure he would have, and Jiang Cheng would steadfastly refuse to clarify which statement caused the greater relief.
Huaisang peeled the suit down to Jiang Cheng’s waist, kissing the exposed skin as he worked.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he repeated.