"You want me to what?" Lan Zhan asks.
On his doorstep, his brother holds a scruffy, ambiguously white creature commonly known as a dog in his arms, where it huffs and beats its tail into Lan Huan's elbow with all the voraciousness of a small child. It noses at Lan Huan's neck, leaving a smear of wetness behind. Suddenly Lan Zhan feels very grateful for his bunnies, whose noses are dry. Most of the time.
"I want you to dogsit," says Lan Huan again, hefting the dog in his arms. The dog in question makes an odd snorting sound, like a horse. A horse-like dog. "Wangwang, specifically."
"I will not sit on your dog."
"You know that's not what I mean, A-Zhan."
"It is your dog," says Lan Zhan, because that's exactly what Lan Huan said to him when he was twelve and suffering through violin lessons, advanced math tutoring, and SAT prep in one day and didn't have time to change the litter box.
Lan Huan had looked at him with a sympathetic gaze and patted him on the head, and right as Lan Zhan was about to collapse in the relief of having one less chore for the day amidst the flood of assignments, out came the words: They are your rabbits, A-Zhan, said Lan Huan, cruel and unyielding. You must take care of them yourself.
Never mind that his brother adored the rabbits and lured them away with too many carrots than was healthy for them, and often napped on the couch with one of them on his chest. They were just "Lan Zhan's bunnies" when convenient for everyone—his brother and uncle—in the household. It was how Lan Zhan had learned the cold brutality of the world at twelve.
"You should take care of your own pets," says Lan Zhan now, pointedly. "Your dog is your responsibility. Hire someone to sit on your dog, Ge."
"You know that's not what that means," says Lan Huan, but he sighs and shifts the dog more securely in his arms. This would be fine, except he does it in a way that makes the dog face him with its shaggy face and soulful dark eyes, and Lan Zhan is not looking. He refuses.
"I wish you and your dog well," says Lan Zhan, and moves to shut the door.
A sly foot slides into the doorway before he can close it. "A-Zhan, my dogsitter cancelled on me at the last minute and you know that I can't take her with me now."
All that time spent with that strange secretary Jin Guangyao must've taught Lan Huan some unsavory tricks. Two months ago he was never the type of person to shove his foot in a doorway and follow up statements like "you know" with guilt-inducing facts.
"That is your responsibility," says Lan Zhan instead. If the world was cruel to him at twelve, surely Lan Huan at twenty-eight can handle it. "Please take care. I wish you well on your business trip."
"A-Zhan, when was the last time you left your house and talked to people that weren't me and Shufu?"
The question makes him stop short.
By his memory, it's been three days since he left his house, and perhaps two weeks since he has talked to anyone. His freelance work in photography allows him to communicate with his clients via email, so it's not as if he needs to talk to them in person or even at all. The last non-relative person he talked to was maybe the cashier at the local Costco. She asked him if he found everything okay. He said he did. She told him the total, and he paid it, and she told him to have a good day. That was enough social interaction.
Before that was—a client, Lan Zhan thinks, with a flush in his ears. A model with warm eyes crinkling in his smile, who chatted away as if Lan Zhan’s silence were entire sentences in response, who never seemed to find him awkward or intimidating or mean, as had several of his other clients. He was—nice. Kind. He had even given Lan Zhan his number, telling him that he should “really text me, you know! I got a few bunnies of my own. We can trade bunny tips. And I make a mean cup of tea. Do you drink tea, Lan Zhan? Maybe we could go for a cup sometime, after this is over.”
Lan Zhan carefully saved the number in his wallet. Two days later he found Tiaotiao munching through the paper slip with the number on it, along with a few dollar bills. That was three weeks ago.
But he has a feeling that Lan Huan won't accept his answer if he responds, so he stays quiet.
"Dogs can be soothing to the soul if you're stressed," says Lan Huan gently. "Not to mention they can be excellent icebreakers when you take them for walks. Everyone likes dogs, you know."
"I am not stressed."
"You are wearing sweatpants."
"That does not mean I'm stressed."
"You are holding your bunny in the pocket of your sweatpants," Lan Huan says, and Lan Zhan looks down just in time to see Tiaotiao poke her head out of the pocket, her white ears twitching. She blinks at him. Lan Huan blinks back. She flips her ear and then snuggles back into the recesses of his pockets again.
The weight of Lan Huan's eyes on him intensifies. Lan Zhan returns his gaze to his brother's face, impassive. "I like to hold her," he says. "For comfort. She is soft."
"I know she is. But you like to hold her especially when you're stressed. Wangwang can help you with that. Have you ever tried brushing a dog before? It's very soothing."
"I do not want to brush a dog," Lan Zhan protests.
But it's too late. In very un-Lan-Huan-like behavior—more evidence that Jin Guangyao is a terrible influence on his brother—Lan Huan shoves the dog into his arms, along with a bag of dog-caring equipment. There is a brush. A collar. A leash. Lan Zhan is already feeling the stirrings of fear.
"Treat Wangwang well for me," says Lan Huan, beaming, before he vanishes into his car. A cowardly tactic. Lan Zhan makes a mental note to find ways to cut Jin Guangyao out of Lan Huan's life, then turns to the dog.
Wangwang. Who he has to take care of for the next week.
"Bark," says Wangwang, fearfully.
Inside his pocket, he feels Tiaotiao flinch and burrow deeper into his pocket.
This is going to be a long week.
The good news is that Lan Huan is detailed and extensive. The bag contains a veritable binder of information, organized into tabs for schedules, food, exercise, affection, and other miscellaneous tags. Feed her three times a day, Lan Huan had written, and if she gives you the eyes begging for more, you must steel your heart and tell her no. I have seen how fat your rabbits are. You must say no.
Lan Huan is being ridiculous. He feeds Tiaotiao and Tutu as much as they deserve, which is to say a normal amount, because they are good bunnies.
The bad news, of course, is that the dog hates him.
"I believe it is time for your midday meal," says Lan Zhan to Wangwang, who wags her tail and barks once before scampering below the couch.
Lan Huan had said she was used to humans. Lan Huan is a liar.
Lan Zhan sighs and doles out the appropriate amount of food into her dog bowl. "I'll just leave this out for you," he tells her. "Eat whenever you are comfortable."
With that said, he heads to the bunny hutch on the other end of the room, far away from the couch. She really is a scruffy dog. White and furry and strangely beautiful, in a haunting cryptid sort of way. He already has nightmares about vacuuming the fur she has doubtlessly shed on the floor. It's a blessing that he has wooden floors in his apartment.
It's not as if Lan Zhan hates dogs. In general he likes all pets and living creatures, or tolerates them enough that he can avoid hating them. But there is a reason why bunnies are his favorite: they're small, quiet, easy to clean after, and especially affectionate, constantly bumping into his ankles for pets and cuddles during work and meals and any time in between. They're cute, in a gentle way that Lan Zhan enjoys.
Dogs? Dogs have wet noses.
"You must come out at some point," Lan Zhan tries reasoning with Wangwang after he finishes, who is still cowering underneath the couch. The only point of contact he has made is with her wet nose, when she bumped her face against his palm before scurrying back into the shadows. His palm is wet. He doesn't know what the wetness is. "Wangwang. Please eat your food. My brother would be worried to see yourself starved."
Wangwang whimpers. A strange shuffling noise, like she's shadowboxing with nonexistent dust bunnies. "Bark bark. Boof."
"I know," he says, as if he understands anything at all about dog language. "You are distressed. This is a new environment and I am not your owner. But this is no cause to go without meals. You must take care of yourself, Wangwang."
When there's no verbal response, Lan Zhan tries to think of what would comfort her. Food did not work, and his brother isn't here. He digs into Lan Huan's bag of dogsitting wonders and comes out with a beaten tennis ball that is, as emblematic of dogs and their noses, wet.
"Please take this offering," he says, and then rolls it gently under the couch.
A second passes. Two.
Then, shuffling noises. Lan Zhan breathes a sigh of relief. The offering has been accepted, he thinks.
"I am not my brother," he says, "but I will care for you properly nonetheless. Please come out. Your food will not get cold because it is kibble, but it may grow stale. You should enjoy it while it is fresh, Wangwang."
"Bark," says Wangwang, and finally comes out from beneath the couch.
It's only been maybe twenty minutes since she hid away, but it's shocking how much scruffier she has gotten in the time since. Perhaps the shadowboxing really did happen. It would certainly explain her messiness and the white of her fur gone even more ambiguous.
He watches her trudge towards the bowl with all the resignation of a sleep-deprived college student heading for their final exams, and that's what does it. "I will brush you after you eat," Lan Zhan decides. Wangwang's ears twitch, and she glances up at him with dark eyes, blinking. He nods. "Yes. Perhaps it will help relax you as well."
"Bark," she says, and he still can't understand her, but he thinks that there's less fear in her bark now, and a thrum of warm satisfaction pulses through him.
As it turns out, brushing a dog is easier said than done. He's never had to brush his bunnies so he has no experience brushing anything aside from his own hair, which doesn't help much. At first he begins at the base of her skull and works his way down, but she gives a little yelp that he can't help but apologize, giving her a few consolatory scratches to her ears.
"Forgive my inexperience, Wangwang," he says, scritching at the underside of her chin. She whimpers and burrows her face in his thigh. Despite himself, his heart clenches at the sight. "I will do better next time. Let me try again."
The second run goes better. Marginally. There's too many strange little knots in her fur that he has to tug loose, and the first few times, he's too harsh, making her scrabble at his legs to make him stop. But then the learning curve eases, and she settles into the brushing like a puddle, sinking into his lap.
"Good girl," he says softly, and she gives a content little rumble. He brushes through her knot-free, soft fur, again and again, neck to tail. "Very well-behaved. Ge would be proud."
He brushes her for what must be the better part of an hour. The weight of her body is heavy and warm and comforting in his lap, like the dense layers of a blanket, and he finds himself reluctant to move. She's soft and quiet, more than he expected dogs to be, and the repetition of the constant brushing motions loosens a ball of stress that he hadn't realized existed inside him, letting his breaths come easier. It's... nice, surprisingly.
But all good things in the world must come to an end, and the period of calm ends when she rouses herself from her half-nap with a lick to his palm that isn't even all that horrifying. Instead, it's endearing. He will never forgive Lan Huan for this.
He sets the brush down and strokes through her fur, just to feel the ease of his fingers sliding through, and gives her a pat on the head. "What would you like to do?" he asks. He knows that he can't reasonably go through this entire week abiding by her wishes, but at least on her first day, he reasons with himself, he can try to make her at ease.
Wangwang offers no answers, though. She just barks and wags her tail and does a little circle on his lap before butting her head against his old university sweater.
"I see," he says, even though he doesn't at all. "Would you like your tennis ball? Or a treat? Or... a walk. A walk?"
At the word walk, she butts into him again, hard enough that he's sure that if she was a bigger dog, or he were a smaller person, he would've fallen to the ground. He gives a tiny smile and pets her floppy ears. "Okay," he says. "A walk it is."
Unlike the brush, the leash isn't much of a hassle. Once again the instructions in Lan Huan's binder is detailed and thorough, complete with diagrams and pictures like a furniture assembly guide from Ikea without the strange numbers, and he manages to get her into her collar and leash with minimal fuss.
"Does my brother give you treats for behaving well?" he asks, puzzled. Wangwang barks. Ah. He nods. "Then I will give you a treat. You deserve it."
Inside the bag holds a packet of what looks like little bone-shaped cookies. Immaculate design. On the plastic, Lan Huan had written in bold marker: DO NOT FEED HER TREATS JUST BECAUSE SHE IS A GOOD DOG. I KNOW SHE IS A GOOD DOG. BUT SHE WILL GROW FAT AND SPOILED IF YOU GIVE HER THESE TOO OFTEN. THINK TWICE BEFORE FEEDING HER A-ZHAN.
"That seems unnecessarily cruel." Wangwang barks in agreement. Again, he nods. "I am glad we agree. You are a good dog and you deserve treats. I have thought twice and I have not changed my mind. Ge will not know. Come here, Wangwang. You can enjoy your treat while I change into some proper clothes. One must be dressed appropriately, you see."
After she's scarfed down the treat with a strange sort of enthusiasm that makes him want to try it despite knowing it is a Very Bad Idea, they venture out on their walk.
The walk itself is fine. The scenery is pleasant, and the park he's chosen isn't particularly crowded or littered, as tends to be the case with many parks in the city. It's a weekday, too, which means there aren't many kids either; while Lan Zhan adores kids, he isn't a large fan of their volume. Not to mention kids are truly incomprehensible. One time a client's son that he was photographing argued with him for the entire duration of the three-hour shoot that fractions didn't make sense and needed to be eliminated. Lan Zhan, being a humanities major, eventually ran out of arguments.
It is what it is.
"Are you enjoying the walk?" he asks Wangwang, who barks and circles herself around his legs. He carefully disentangles himself from her leash and pats her head. "Good. Let's keep going, then."
The strangest part about walking a dog, Lan Zhan muses as they pick their way through the park, is how easily people seem to approach him. They simply—walk up to him and ask if they can pet his dog, and somehow that invites conversation as they ask him about the dog's name, the breed, how long he's taken care of Wangwang.
"She is not my dog," he explains, and that invites even more conversation. It leaves Lan Zhan feeling more than a little bewildered. Dogs can be excellent icebreakers, Lan Huan had said, and now Lan Zhan gets it. Bunnies, unfortunately don't invite the same type of conversation. Not that he takes the bunnies for walks like he does Wangwang anyway.
Most of the walk proceeds in that fashion, with Wangwang scampering over to the random tree or park bench or small child to rub her face against them. Quiet, peaceful, largely uneventful.
And then he catches sight of a familiar swishing ponytail, and his heart stops.
"Wei Ying?" he calls, not daring to believe it, but it is that ribbon, that ponytail, those crinkling eyes—"Is that you?"
"Who—" Wei Ying breaks off in a screech. "OH MY GOD IS THAT A DOG?"
Lan Zhan blinks down at Wangwang, who has not magically transformed into some Eldritch horror in the last twenty seconds he's taken his eyes off her. "Yes? She is a dog. Is there something wrong?"
"NO, NOTHING WRONG," Wei Ying shrieks, scrambling away. Wangwang barks, and Wei Ying physically cringes away, as if he is... scared. Of dogs. Of Wangwang? "I'M FINE."
"You do not seem fine," says Lan Zhan, deeply concerned. "Is Wangwang scaring you?"
"IS WANGWANG YOUR DOG?"
"THEN YEAH, SHE'S—"
"She is my brother's."
"NOT SCARING ME AT ALL," Wei Ying finishes hastily, voice still pitched eerily high. He lets out a nervous laugh that Lan Zhan can't bring himself to believe.
He's heard Wei Ying's laugh before: bright, cheery, a hint of a mild cackle of the heavily sleep-deprived. This note of terror sneaking through his laugh is not part of his genuine laughter.
Carefully, Lan Zhan gathers Wangwang in his arms, pulling her away from Wei Ying. Wei Ying's shoulders visibly slump in relief. Lan Zhan blinks. "Are you scared of dogs?"
"What?" Another laugh. "Haha. No. What makes you think that?"
"You seem scared."
"You're being ridiculous. Who's scared? Did you lose my number?"
Lan Zhan blinks again, taken aback. He'd forgotten how abrupt Wei Ying could be in his conversations. "I... yes. I apologize. I did want to text you."
"Oh," says Wei Ying. "You. Really?"
"Oh," says Wei Ying again. Lan Zhan watches as he takes a deep, bracing breath, and then: "Here's the deal," says Wei Ying, and Lan Zhan nods. "I really want to get tea with you, yes? And see your bunnies. And maybe cuddle. That sounds nice."
Lan Zhan nods again. It does sound nice.
"But I lied earlier," continues Wei Ying, "and I am really, really fucking scared of dogs. Your dog is. A dog. Therefore. I will give you my number again. Do you have a pen on you?"
"Excellent. Knew you'd be the type of guy to carry around pens. I will give my number to you and you can write it down on your hand or somewhere you won't lose it, and I will go home and try not to freak out about this whole dog situation we got going on, and then, maybe, in a week or something, you can text me and we can forget this ever happened."
Lan Zhan thinks he might be in love. He swallows and then says, voice hoarse, "That sounds good."
Wei Ying smiles, blinding for the first time since they met again. "Great," he says. "Then write down my number, pretty boy."