His car rattles faintly as Wei Ying pulls off the highway, and onto a rough road leading to the small service station glowing in the darkness. It’s an old car- the cheapest he could get at such short notice and with no questions asked, but it does the job.
He’s been driving for hours. Staring through the windshield into the growing darkness until the roads blur together and the headlights of passing cars make his eyes sting. He’d heard a thud a few minutes back- maybe a flat tyre, maybe just his exhausted mind playing tricks on him- but it had been enough to nudge him out of his daze and into some kind of action.
Wei Ying pulls up near the small building. He’s close enough that the meagre light from the windows should be bright enough for him to figure out if one of his tyres has been punctured. Not that he’s ever fixed a tyre before, so he doesn’t know what he’ll be able to do about it, but that just seems like a fitting end to his day.
He does two laps around the banged up, rusty little car before he’s confident that the tyres aren’t damaged. Straightening up with a groan from where he’d been crouched in the dirt, his legs complain after hours of cramped stillness. His dry throat reminds him that he hasn’t had anything to eat or drink all day, either.
The little store is manned by the tiniest old lady, who tells him he’s too skinny, and offers him one homemade sweet after another despite his protests. Eventually, he agrees to take one if she lets him buy the food and toiletries that he actually wants. He hangs the paper bag off his arm, guzzles down a bottle of water and unwraps his bun as he makes his way back to his car, devouring most of it in two large bites.
He’s not exactly sure what makes him pause after opening the driver’s side door, but in that small moment of hesitation he hears the thud once again. It’s different now though. Hearing it from outside the car this time he realises it must be coming from the boot. He creeps closer, clutching his paper bag to his chest and not really sure why he’s creeping like this when it’s his car , until he’s close enough to reach out and give the boot a few tentative taps.
He hears a loud thud and a disturbing hiss of pain.
Instead of doing the sensible thing, like running for his life, he fumbles to get his car key into the rusty key-hole and pops open the boot.
When he sees the frightened face peering up at him, he jumps and drops his paper bag of snacks, the skittering of them spilling onto the concrete is the only sound for three tense heartbeats. The frightened face belongs to a boy who must have been in his car boot for hours and hours- at least since he last stopped for petrol, or maybe even earlier. As his hastily packed bag of belongings could easily fit on the back seat, he hadn’t even bothered to open the boot.
The frightened boy has got a black eye, a badly cleaned up nosebleed and he’s pressed as far back in the boot as he can manage- which isn’t far really, considering the size of the car.
It’s funny, or at least it might be, from an outside perspective; how they both stare at each other as the moments pass.
Wei Ying clears his throat and licks his dry lips nervously.
“Hello?” he croaks.
“Hi,” his stowaway says back, his small voice wavering nervously.
“You’re in my boot” Wei Ying states. Some part of his brain despairs at himself, but the rest of his brain is about ready to give up after such a long day, so he thinks it’s fair.
The boy- young man, he soon realises- sits up suddenly, powering through a gasping wince to sputter earnestly.
“I’m sorry! I’m really sorry! I didn’t mean to! I just needed somewhere to hide but you came back before I could leave a-and then I was too scared to do anything because I didn’t want to freak you out or get arrested for hiding in your car!”
Wei Ying’s muses that his much complained about habit of rapid-fire rambling is finally good for something, as he follows the words spilling out of his stowaway without much difficulty.
“Okay,” he says placatingly, raising his hands to slow him down. “It’s okay. I’m not going to call the police or anything, so just take a deep breath and let’s try to calm down. Alright? Can you tell me your name? My name is Wei Ying.”
“Wen Ning,” the young man stutters, rubbing the back of his hand over his bloody nose with a wince and sniffle.
Wei Ying nods as his stowaway- Wen Ning- visibly takes a shaking breath, followed by another. Wei Ying decides it’s probably a good idea if he does the same. Faced with this feeling of helplessness, he thinks what he always does.
What would jiejie do?
For the first time in his life, the thought makes his throat tighten and a nasty feeling twists in his chest. It takes him a moment before he can blink away the blurriness in his eyes and breathe through the ache long enough for him to speak.
“Okay Wen Ning. Can you stand? Are you hurt anywhere other than your face?”
Wen Ning complies shakily. It’s a slow process, getting him on his feet and walking him around to set him onto the front passenger seat of his car, where Wei Ying can get a good look at him. He’s smartly dressed, and wouldn't look too out of the ordinary if it weren’t for the glaring bruise on his face and the ghastly, flaking blood smeared across his cheek.
It turns out he is hurt in more places than his face. Wen Ning gestures to bruises on his chest and legs, though he seems reluctant to show Wei Ying. So, he doesn’t push once Wen Ning assures him nothing’s bleeding and lets him clean the cut on his arm and wrap it up.
Not sure what else to do, Wei Ying sets about dealing with one problem at a time. He gives Wen Ning the other bun from his paper bag- thankfully not ruined by it’s tumble to the ground- and takes out his newly purchased wipes to clean up Wen Ning’s face.
Wen Ning is starving, but willing to answer his questions after having been given pretty much anything edible. Eventually, Wei Ying is able to piece together a blurry picture of the events that led to Wen Ning hiding in his car.
He learns that Wen Ning is one of the Wens.
The Wens of Wen Corporation who specialise in medical technology, and own a sizable share of the market.
Wen Ning and his sister are apparently close enough to the inner circle to play a part in the core of the business. Unfortunately, this also means they’re forced to deal with CEO Wen Ruohan’s son- the Wen golden boy, Wen Chao- whose smarmy smiles to the press are apparently as fake as they come.
Wen Chao’s desperation to keep his daddy’s attention and approval, mixed with Wen Ning receiving praise from the higher-ups for his quiet success after success in the engineering department made Wen Chao jealous and angry.
“I didn’t know what to do.” Wen Ning mumbles in embarrassment, worrying his split lip in a way that makes Wei Ying fuss. “I just wanted to get away and go home, but my sister lives mostly in Yiling because she can work remotely and the two of us own a house there. We were on a business trip- I mean Wen Chao and me. I think it’s why he finally went for me. There was no one around to see.”
He stares at his feet glumly, “so I just ran away. We were sharing a hotel room on the company’s pay, which Wen Chao was livid about and I managed to get out when he hurt his hand and went for the alcohol in the mini-bar.”
He looks up at Wei Ying with glassy eyes and asks, “where are we? I just want to go home.”
Opening his mouth to reply, Wei Ying finds himself at a loss. He doesn’t actually know where they are. His only thought that morning had been to get as far away from home- no , he corrects himself, from the Jiang residence - as possible. He’d been unable to think any further than that.
He tries a smile for Wen Ning’s benefit, but the little crease that forms between Wen Ning’s eyebrows suggests he’d not achieved the effect he was hoping for.
“Then we’ll get you home.”
One of them should get to go home, after all.
Soon, their bellies are full and the car refuelled, courtesy of Wen Ning’s personal credit card and determined puppy eyes- “you’re driving me home! Jiejie would kill me if I didn’t at least pay for this.” Wen Ning firmly wedges himself into the front seat with a tiny battery powered torch pointed determinedly at the crumpled map on his lap and they pull back onto the highway.
Not long passes before it becomes apparent that they’re both pretty inexperienced at reading maps, and too tired to make any sense of it now. Wen Ning’s phone was broken by Wen Chao back in their hotel room, and Wei Ying can’t bring himself to dig his phone out of the bottom of his stuffed back-pack and turn it back on. They eventually decide to call it a night at the first place they come across.
Morning comes too quickly. The sun peeks in through the windows as Wei Ying drifts into consciousness. He usually struggles to get up before the sun is high in the sky unless he really has to, so he rolls over to tuck his eyes away from the light.
He stiffens at the feeling of the unfamiliar mattress beneath him and the smell of a new place. Slowly, he squints his eyes open. The instant he takes in the sight of the cramped motel room around him, he squeezes them shut again and breathes shakily against the nausea and grief that rolls through him.
He misses his home and his bed and his siblings. He misses Lan Zhan . But he can’t go home and that only makes it worse. The events of the previous day flash through his mind as he tries fruitlessly to make some sense of his slippery thoughts.
It feels unreal that only two nights ago, after spending the whole day with Lan Zhan, he’d fallen asleep happier than he’d felt in a long while. Lan Zhan had taken a rare day off from his firm and he’d decided to spend it with Wei Ying ( hell yes ). They’d spent the day doing everything they’d been waiting to do- going for breakfast at the new traditional tea shop half an hour away from Wei Ying’s house, that had staff dressed in traditional dress (Lan Zhan’s idea), walking through the botanical gardens to see the cacti in amusing shapes (Wei Ying’s idea), and visiting the bunny café on the outskirts of the city (Lan Zhan’s idea).
They’d finished up with dinner and a play and Lan Zhan had reached out to hold his hand when he saw him tearing up at an emotional showdown. Wei Ying would be the first to say that he didn’t deserve Lan Zhan’s attention and he knew he was oblivious and a total mess. But Lan Zhan had taken his hand and held on tight for the rest of the performance and he was sure he’d seen him pout a little when they had to let go to put their jackets back on at the end.
It had been years spent pining silently, sure that his feelings were unrequited but only recently that he’d allowed himself to hope. Falling into bed that night he’d been drained, but unable to stop smiling.
He’d woken abruptly yesterday morning to his bedroom door being flung open with an echoing thud, raised voices and his belongings being thrown around the room. Madam Yu had burst in in one of her deadly rages, closely followed by Jiang Fengmian protesting weakly.
She’d grabbed him by the wrist and yanked until he obediently struggled out of bed, all the while shouting at him and at Jiang Fengmian when he was able to get her attention.
“Get up you useless boy!” she’d hissed, furious eyes boring into his and nails digging into his wrist as she yanked him up from the floor. “You’re a disgrace! Look at you, sleeping so peacefully after the mess you’ve created. You’ve ruined our family, ruined your brother’s future and ruined your sister’s prospects, just like you ruin everything !”
Wei Ying had cringed back from her, breaths turning shallow as he’d tried to block out the things she was saying. He’d heard it all before. It would all be okay if he just listened until she’d shouted herself out and then did what she told him to do. He knew he’d brought misery into her life when they’d adopted him, knew that he’d tainted her image and the pristine reputation she’d built of her family merely by existing. He knew . She never let him forget it.
He’d tried to stay out of the way after graduating with his degree in Computer Science and Music Technology ( shameful! You’re throwing away everything we’ve done for you! A waste of life- just like your parents! ), but his anxiety and depression had derailed his efforts to hold down a job and he’d struggled to scrape enough together through the occasional remote work he could do from home, so he couldn’t move out like he wanted.
The shouting had reached a crescendo before Jiang Fengmian stormed out, the room suddenly falling silent after the crash of the door slamming shut behind him. No part of him felt relieved however as Madam Yu turned slowly towards him. The sudden silence was just the quiet before the storm.
She’d tugged him towards her with an iron grip on his wrist, eyes fixed on his.
“I want you out of this house. You’re a stain on this family and I never want to see your face again.”
Dread had washed over him, heart sinking before numb resignation sunk into his bones. He’d looked into her icy, unyielding face and understood. She really meant it this time. He would leave now, or she would drag him to the door and throw him out onto the street with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Wei Ying sits up in the creaky twin bed and looks at his backpack lying on the floor.
He can barely remember packing it. Overwhelmed with fear and panic, he’d just shoved some trousers over his boxers and a hoodie over his sleep shirt, grabbed the first things he could see until it was full. Random clothes were stuffed in around his laptop and wallet- already inside and now wedged firmly under everything- and he’d stumbled his way to the front door.
Madam Yu hadn’t even bothered to watch him leave, abandoning him to shove on his shoes and let himself out alone.
He’d walked for an hour before he’d been able to stop and think. Shock and confusion made his fingers feel numb and his thoughts spiral like cotton wool in his brain as he wandered aimlessly. He didn’t even know what had set her off this time.
Eventually he’d become aware enough to feel his phone digging into his hip as he moved. It was still where he’d left it last night and now all jammed against him after his pocket had gotten all twisted up inside his jeans when he’d hastily tugged them on.
He’d stood in the street, people passing him by from all sides until he could think. I can’t go home. Jiejie will be upset and Jiang Cheng will be angry that I didn’t say goodbye but they’ll understand that it’s best for everyone if I go far away where I can’t make things worse.
Wen Ning flinches in his sleep and lets out a pained grunt, no doubt pressing on the bruises littering his ribs as he moves. Wei Ying twitches at the sound and stares blankly at the battered young man sleeping only a meter away.
He has no idea what he’s going to do now. No idea where he should go or where he’ll live, how long he’ll have enough money to eat or when his money will run out. It was all too much to figure out at once, and just the thought of it makes his anxiety rise and stomach clench.
He stares at Wen Ning.
He can’t fix his own situation. But he has a car, Wen Ning said he was willing to get them petrol and they had a destination- “Yiling”. He would do this one thing, help Wen Ning get home, and then he could figure out what the hell he should do afterwards.
Time passes surprisingly easily as they drive. Wei Ying throws out comments on the towns they pass and people they see. He’s doing what he usually does to keep his mind off other things, and Wen Ning seems surprisingly happy to entertain him. They eventually find themselves enthralled in creating increasingly ludicrous backstories for anything that catches their eye and Wei Ying realises he and Wen Ning could really get along if they had the chance.
That said, the aches and pains from being stuck in one position all day are unavoidable. They’re relieved, when a whole day of driving, occasional stops for fuel and food and a sharp learning curve with the map later, they finally approach their destination.
Wen Ning has been jittery for the last hour or so, seemingly both excited to be nearly home, and nervous about talking to his sister; telling her he’d been playing down Wen Chao’s harassment, and the reason she hadn’t contacted her.
Wei Ying tolerates a good twenty minutes of his nervous leg jiggles before a glance at Wen Ning’s nervous face compels him to speak.
“I’m sure your sister will just be happy to have you back safely. And she’ll forgive you for making her worry. She’s your sister! That’s what sisters do, right?”
Wen Ning sucks in a deep breath and shoots him a strained smile.
“Yeah, I know.” Wen Ning says, eyes fixated on how his fingers knit together in his lap, “But she’s very protective of me, she always has been. I feel bad that I’ve made her worry, and when she hears what happened she’s going to feel even worse.”
Wei Ying focuses on the road, not really sure what to say- his relationship with his siblings had always been the best thing in his life, but it had never been simple.
“She’s always telling me to be more confident and to stick up for myself, but I can never seem to do it. Maybe if I’d listened to her more and wasn’t so shy-”
“If you’re about to do something silly like blame this on yourself, I will make you ride in the boot again.”
Wen Ning grimaces sheepishly.
“You were assaulted by a bully with anger management issues and an ego bigger than China. Someone once said to me, “responsibility lies with the perpetrator,” and it’s really important to remember that. Wen Chao saw you working hard and doing well and couldn’t handle the idea of not being in the spotlight for half a damn second so he used his position of power to take his anger out on you. His ego is not your responsibility and you did nothing wrong.”
Wen Ning nods, wide eyed.
“Good. Now, if you say that to your sister, and she’s anything like mine, you might make her head explode- or worse, she’ll look sad and regretful, so put those negative thoughts behind you.”
Wen Ning nods firmly and Wei Ying gamely pretends not to see when he quickly scrubs his sleeve over his teary eyes.
A few minutes pass before Wen Ning pipes up.
“You’re really good at that you know? Explaining it in a way that makes sense and actually makes me believe you. Have you studied like- psychology or psychiatry or anything like that before?”
Wei Ying’s lips pull up into a wry smile.
“Counselling was free when I went to university and I ended up going a lot, so I’ve heard this kind of talk before from people who know way more about these things than me. I stopped going after graduation because I didn’t have the time”- money -”to go anymore, but you get used to how they speak.”
Wen Ning nods like this makes perfect sense and Wei Ying can tell he’s going to ask more questions. Hoping to distract him, he asks, “What’s Yiling like?”
Wen Ning’s face softens as he thinks for a moment.
He glances over shyly, “it’s nothing special on the surface. The buildings in some areas are a bit run down and a lot of them are really old, but the people are great. The area we live in is really close-knit too so everyone knows everyone and it feels like one big family. I think they’ll really like you.”
Wei Ying watches the sun setting ahead of them as they finally see the first smattering of buildings on Yiling’s outskirts.
“That sounds nice.”
Wen Qing is certainly a force to be reckoned with, there’s no doubt about that. She takes one look at the two of them on her doorstep and envelopes Wen Ning in a fierce hug, holding him close for a long moment before stepping back and resting her hands on his shoulders.
“Who do I need to kill?”
Wen Ning laughs softly and Wei Ying stares back with wide eyes when Wen Qing slants a suspicious look his way. She reminds him of Jiang Cheng- prickly as anything but soft underneath. He likes her already.
“I’m okay jiejie , Wei Ying helped me get home. He drove me all the way here!”
She squints at Wei Ying for a long moment. Wei Ying wonders what she sees.
She leads them into a warmly lit kitchen, leaves him to get settled at the dining table and tugs Wen Ning away, worrying over his injuries and quizzing him on what hurts, and where and how bad.
Wei Ying stands awkwardly, glancing around the room and feeling distinctly out of place in someone else’s home. Just a few minutes pass before he feels his worries start to jostle the lid of the crumpled box he’d shoved them into and he starts to search for tea in the tins on the kitchen counter to distract himself.
The process of making tea keeps his hands busy and his focus narrowed just enough to hold off his anxiety. He feels a little more settled by the familiar routine by the time the others come back.
Wen Ning looks a little ruffled and sad and Wen Qing looks furious but steady. She plonks a camera down on the table and sits down with a sigh. When they each have a steaming mug of tea, Wei Ying sits down hesitantly alongside them.
“Wen Ning has explained the basics of what happened. I can’t say I’m massively enthused to hear that he spent hours in the boot of your car, but if he had to pick a car, I’m glad it was yours. Thank you for bringing him home safe.”
Wei Ying huff sheepishly and waves his hands in protest.
“Ahh... You don’t need to thank me, really!”
Wen Ning sits up indignantly and his sister rolls her eyes.
“Yes we do. Now, Wen Ning said you drove him here but he didn’t say where you were originally heading. Do you have a plan for somewhere to be?”
“I uhhh… not really no. I was mostly just planning to figure it out as I went along actually. Here is as good a place as any and Wen Ning said lots of great things about Yiling so I should at least check it out. Actually, do you know of anywhere I could get a room? Maybe an inn? Or a hostel would do! Just until I figure things out.”
Wen Qing frowns and shakes her head.
“We have a spare room, you can stay there.”
Before Wei Ying can get more than three words into his awkward protests he’s cut off.
“You can stay here. You didn’t go through all this trouble to help Wen Ning only for us to turf you out onto the streets. If you find somewhere else you’d prefer to be then we won’t stop you, but you’re not going to find anywhere tonight. You’re welcome to stay.”
Wei Ying nods dumbly, relief and embarrassment simmering inside him as he finds himself, once again, reliant on the good will of others, and knowing that arguing will likely get him nowhere.
Wen Ning perks up. “Yeah! It would be great if you stayed- I can show you all the best places to visit here and take you to find all the best food. Do you like horror? There’s a horror themed experience here at an abandoned building called the Burial Mounds and I used to go every year with my friends. You definitely need to see it, it’s the best! ”
Wei Ying can’t help smiling back at the excitement on his bruised face.
“I’d really like that.”
The day after his return home, Wen Ning submits a formal complaint to Wen Corp regarding his assault and a request for leave accompanied by a medical report from his doctor.
Later that same day he receives approval for his leave request from his direct supervisor, and they spend the rest of the day discussing what they should do next. Ultimately, they decide, they need to wait to hear what Wen Corp intends to do before they can figure out their next step.
Days pass in a strange sense of limbo. Wei Ying spends the time searching for a place to live and researching jobs he could apply for, knowing that he needs to figure out some sort of plan but finding the whole process overwhelming. The Wens seem fine enough with having him around, but he knows that goodwill won’t last forever, and he needs to find out his options.
He still hasn’t turned his phone back on, and his laptop is only for his work, so he’s managed to stick his head in the sand as much as he can as he focuses on what’s ahead of him, rather than behind.
Five days after Wei Ying and Wen Ning first met, Wei Ying sits at the kitchen table and sets about pouring chili sauce onto his rice.
“I spoke to my uncle this morning about the complaint we filed,” Wen Qing announces abruptly as Wei Ying shovels food into his mouth.
Ah, Wen Ruohan .
“He’s read the report, but I explained to him myself again what Wen Chao had done, and asked what had been decided about the complaint. He said lots of pretty words and placations but it’s obvious he has no intention of doing anything about it. He’s just going to bury it as if it never happened, and he expects Wen Ning back in the office next week.”
Wei Ying frowns down at his plate.
“I submitted my resignation this morning and Wen Ning has just done the same. We intend to file a lawsuit against Wen Chao and Wen Corporation for assault and gross negligence.”
He glances up at her with wide eyes, “that will not be an easy fight.”
“I’m aware, but it’s about time someone stood up to them and I won’t allow anyone to get away with hurting my brother- least of all that slimy brat. I know we’ll need all the help we can get- uncle has a team of lawyers at his disposal and is as slippery as they come- so I’ve called in a favour with a friend. His brother’s friend is a partner at a law firm- something of a prodigy- and has agreed to fly out to discuss the case. Usually we’d use Wen Corp lawyers if something went wrong- they’re the best money can buy, but if anyone can help us beat them, this guy can.”
She sighs, tapping her fingers rhythmically on the table.
“I’ve put out feelers with people I trust from work and it’s already looking like there are other incidents that need addressing. Apparently Wen Chao is a bigger bastard than we thought, if that’s even possible. No one has felt able to go up against him before because he’s a Wen, but we’re Wens too and we won’t go down without a fight.”
Wei Ying nods along as she speaks and Wen Qing narrows her eyes, examining him.
“We’ll need your testimony to help build the case.”
Wei Ying nods jerkily, “of course.” He flounders slightly, “I’ll do whatever you need me to do to help Wen Ning. This is going to take a while though right? These cases can take months and months and I don’t know where I’ll be by the time it’s ready to go down. I can’t exactly impose on you forever and I haven’t found anywhere I can afford here yet. I’ll need to move to wherever is cheapest which might be miles and miles away. But we can still keep in touch! I promise. Maybe we could plan my bit through video call or-”
“You can stay here,” Wen Qing cuts in abruptly. “You don’t have to leave. We have the space and it would be good for all of us. We’ll have you here to help work on the case and you can have somewhere you have the space to figure out your next move and take some time for yourself. You can help pay for food and bills if you’re worried about that kind of thing- we own the house so there’s no rent you’d need to pay.”
Wei Ying gapes. “I- what? Are you sure? I’m kind of a mess, you can ask anyone. I know you’ve offered, but you can change your mind- I’ll totally understand.”
Wen Qing frowns back at him for a moment.
“You haven’t made a mess of anything here Wei Ying. We’ve only known you a handful of days and you’ve given us your time and help in countless ways. I know Wen Ning thinks of you as his friend which is honestly the fastest I’ve seen him take to anyone, so you must be doing something right.”
She tilts her head and considers him, “I think you should let yourself have this. I don’t think you see your value the way others do. You’ve been good to Wen Ning, and I mean it when I say you’re more than welcome to stay for as long as you need.”
Wei Ying clamps his jaw shut and swallows hard over the lump in his throat. “Thank you, really. I’ll need to think about it, but I’ll let you know soon.”
Nodding in understanding Wen Qing looks back down to her notebook, already making a list of things to start on.
Wei Ying hesitates for a moment before eventually going back to his food. His appetite is gone- nerves fluttering in his stomach, but a faint feeling of hope is starting to creep up on him.
Maybe he could stay. Maybe he could take some time to figure out where to go from here and have the space to try and make sense of the mess in his brain away from anyone making it worse.
You should call jiejie and a-Cheng , a little voice whispers in his mind as he looks up to see Wen Ning come in and move towards his sister, resting his chin on her head to read what she’s writing.
He pushes the thought away. He knows they must be worried about him by now. He’s never gone this long without contacting them and Madam Yu had probably told them a nice story about how he’d decided it was best for everyone if he went away and that things would be better now.
If he calls them he’ll have to explain what happened and they’d be heartbroken. They’ve never really known the full extent of how their mother had treated him and he doesn’t know if he wants them to know.
Rationally he knows that it wasn’t his fault. Other people aren’t treated like that and it isn’t normal, as his numerous counsellors at university had told him, but a part of him has nevertheless always wondered whether maybe he did deserve it- why would someone hate a child so much if there was nothing wrong with them?
After all, he’d imposed on them for years and Madam Yu had clearly resented him being there from the start. He’d put a strain on their marriage and even Jiang Cheng suffered because of him- always being compared to him and criticised every time he came up lacking.
No. It was better if they just moved on and things went back to the way they should’ve been in the first place. Wei Ying has a chance here to try and get himself sorted and he knows he can’t afford to waste it.
The next morning everyone is tired but jittery with anticipation. Wen Qing had told them that her lawyer contact would be arriving that morning, and they’d spent the evening going over everything with Wen Ning, writing down everything they could think of so that he wouldn’t be too put on the spot in the face of a stranger.
Wei Ying feels more tense than he was expecting, as he scrubs his face and dresses in the most sensible outfit he can form out of his mismatched collection. He’d supplemented it with more of the basics, thanks to Wen Ning’s determination to drag him to every good shop and food stall in the city, but his choices were still far from ideal.
He’d spent enough evenings at Lan Zhan’s apartment when he’d had to bring work home and seen him in the office enough times to be confident that he knew what to expect, but he’s dreading sitting down with another lawyer and trying to ignore everything about it that reminds him of Lan Zhan.
Leaving Lan Zhan behind without a word hurts so much and even just thinking about him makes his heart ache and his fingers tremble. Speaking to him, only to have to say goodbye is more than he can handle and he knows it makes him a coward to give Lan Zhan no explanation but if he never sees him again, he just wants to remember them as they were that last day they shared.
He hears the doorbell ring and Wen Qing call out that she’s going to answer it, so he heads for the stairs and tries to put the aching feeling of loss to the back of his mind.
He heads into the kitchen to boil the water for everyone’s drinks, as has turned into his routine, and hears footsteps and soft voices approach from down the hallway.
He takes down four mugs from the cupboard and sets them down on the worktop, reaching to get the sugar jar down too.
A soft “oof” sounds behind him as Wen Qing bumps into something, and he turns to see what’s happening, his politest smile halfway onto his face before his brain screeches to a halt at the sight before him. The jar of sugar slips through his fingers, shattering on the floor, but his stunned mind barely even registers the sound.
Lan Zhan’s pale, shocked face stares back at him. He’s as professionally put together as always, but Wei Ying’s never seen him look so exhausted. There are dark circles under his eyes- maybe not obvious to others but Wei Ying has never known him to break his 9pm-5am sleep routine- and even though his suit is perfectly pressed and his hair perfectly styled, he looks drained and pale.
He’s still the most beautiful man Wei Ying has ever seen.
His hands begin to shake. For a split second he tries to tell himself that Lan Zhan must have had something else happen since he left that made him look like this, but that just makes him feel even more ashamed for trying to play it off- even in his own head.
He knows Wen Qing is staring between them in confusion, and he can hear Wen Ning coming down the stairs, but he can’t bring himself to move- as if maybe if he just stays frozen here, then he could pretend this isn’t really happening.
Lan Zhan, ever the professional, pulls himself together first. He can’t blink away the worry and traces of hurt in his eyes, but he does his best to appear somewhat put together.
“Forgive me, I know this was not the plan, but would it be okay for me to have a moment with Wei Ying before we get started with everything?”
Wen Qing raises an eyebrow, clearly curious to know what’s going on, but one glance at Wei Ying’s face settles it for her.
“Yes, that’s fine.” She eyes Wei Ying meaningfully, “as long as Wei Ying is comfortable with that?”
Wei Ying doesn’t know how to respond to her unexpected protectiveness, other than to plaster on the brightest smile he can manage and force out the words “of course.”
As he leads Lan Zhan upstairs to his room, unsure where else would be appropriate, Wei Ying’s thoughts start to spin in a million directions.
By the time Lan Zhan shuts the door behind them, he’s worked himself up into an even bigger panic than before and can’t bring himself to do more than clasp his hands together bone-crushingly tight and stare desperately down at the floor, as if the swirling patterns of the wood might give him some much needed clarity.
Lan Zhan takes a small step forward, stopping before he gets too close.
“Wei Ying” he says, and Wei Ying’s resolve crumbles at the sound of the miserable hesitancy in his voice.
He meets Lan Zhan’s eyes and hates himself more than ever.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, seemingly at a loss. “You left. You were just gone . Everyone’s been looking for you but you just vanished . I- are you okay? Did…”
He trails off, swallowing down whatever words had been clamouring to spill out of him.
Wei Ying wants to tunnel deep into himself, play everything off as really not that big a deal as he always has and just laugh and exclaim Lan Zhan, why the long face? Everything’s fine! - but he just can’t . He can’t bring himself to do that to Lan Zhan. Not when he’s staring back at him like he’s been cracked open on the inside, like he’d take any scrap of an answer Wei Ying would give him as long as he let him in.
He clears his throat when a moment passes and the words refuse to come out.
“Lan Zhan… I’m sorry. I know it wasn’t fair to you to leave without saying goodbye, I just… I couldn’t stay. I’m sorry that I made you worry- you must hate me now, for doing this to you-”
Lan Zhan shakes his head firmly.
“No, Wei Ying. No. I could never hate you. I just… I’ve been so worried.”
He takes a deep breath, “Did I… Was it me? Did I do something wrong or make you uncomfortable or did you not want people to-”
“No!” Wei Ying cuts in, “no, Lan Zhan, you could never. I promise, it was nothing to do with you- you’re perfect ” something passes over Lan Zhan’s face- there one moment, gone the next, “I just…”
Wei Ying sits down abruptly on the bed and drops his head into his hands, suddenly feeling heavier than he’s sure he’s ever felt, like everything that’s been too much for him to face until now is just crowding in on him from all sides.
Lan Zhan takes two strides over to sit beside him, leaving a mere inch between them and resting his hand on Wei Ying’s back gently.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan murmurs, “it’s okay. If you want to talk to me, I’m here for you. I’ll listen.”
Wei Ying drops his hands and turns to him with a weak smile, “of course you are, even after all this. You’re kind of amazing Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan shoots him one of his familiar unimpressed looks, but Wei Ying can see his ears going pink and it gives him the strength to take a deep breath and let it all spill out.
“So you know how I went to a lot of counselling when I was at Uni and then I’ve just kind of stayed at home even when people would comment that I should move out?”
Lan Zhan frowns a little but nods his understanding.
“Well, I haven’t necessarily been completely honest with you about some things- it’s not that bad! But…” he sighs. “So my mental health hasn’t been great for a while which has made it hard for me to manage work, so that’s why I stayed living at the Jiangs after I graduated.
I wanted to move out, but I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t want you to worry, so I always said that everything was fine. But it wasn’t, not really.
I know you’re aware that Madam Yu and I haven’t always… seen eye to eye, but I’ve never truly been honest with you about that.”
He shifts uncomfortably on the bed. Just the thought of saying this out loud making him feel like clawing his heart out and handing it over on a silver platter to be judged and pitied.
“Madam Yu doesn’t like me. Like, at all. She’s hated me since the moment I arrived, and she’s never let me doubt that if she had her wish, I would never have been allowed to stay.
And I know how lucky I am! I was really fortunate to have somewhere to stay and amazing siblings and plenty of food to eat- so many other children out there don’t get that. But it just... it made me feel so bad . What kind of person must I be to deserve that much resentment, I thought, and then I just couldn’t let go of that thought. I felt so embarrassed that I’d been given so much and yet I made such a mess out of it all.
So I didn’t tell you. I didn’t tell anyone actually. And then after a while, even when the counselling had helped a bit, even after I graduated, I still felt indebted to the Jiangs- I was still living with them- and I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. How ungrateful would I have to be to complain about them when they’ve let me stay so long with them and asked for nothing in return? I thought that if I could just get myself sorted out, I could save enough money to move out and stop relying on them anymore.”
He rubs his wrist, eyes fixed on his fingers and heart hammering in his chest.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispered. He looked gutted. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I never realised, I’m sorry you had to deal with that alone.”
Wei Ying reached out and grasped his hand, pulling it to him and cradling it to his chest.
“Lan Zhan, no. You couldn’t have known. I spent a long time pretending it was all fine and I got very good at it. Jiang Cheng and Jiejie have no idea how bad it was and we all lived together for years.
And it really wasn’t that bad! For a while- I just got used to it.”
Wei Ying can’t meet his eyes.
“But last week Madam Yu had had enough. I don’t know why she was so angry that morning, but I’ve never seen her so livid. She made it very clear that I was never to come back, so I packed some things and then I left.”
Lan Zhan’s hand clenches into a fist on his lap before he visibly forces himself to relax.
“I think I may know.”
Wei Ying turns to stare at him, confused.
“How could you know? What’s happened Lan Zhan?”
Lan Zhan's mouth pulls downwards, visibly nervous, before taking out his phone and flicking through it to find something. He takes a deep breath as he hands it over.
Wei Ying stares down at the tabloid headline glaring up at him.
“LAN HEIR INVOLVED IN SCANDALOUS GAY ROMANCE WITH JIANG WARD AND BLACK SHEEP WEI WUXIAN!”
“Oh,” Wei Ying looks back at him, “that must have been why Madam Yu was so angry. I didn’t even know.”
He scrolls through the article- nothing of substance by itself, but littered with photographs to add credibility. A photo of the two of them pressed close together as the fuss over a rabbit at the bunny café, a photo of Wei Ying smiling up at Lan Zhan as he holds the door for him to enter the theatre, and most prominent of all, a photo of their clasped hands as they sit together during the performance. Wei Ying looks enthralled and is leaning against Lan Zhan’s shoulder, and Lan Zhan is staring down at him with an expression more tender than he’s ever seen before.
Lan Zhan tenses as the moment stretches on. “I’m sorry Wei Ying- I know that being a Lan occasionally puts me in the spotlight, but I never imagined anyone would be following us or would write something like this.”
Wei Ying shakes his head numbly.
“No I… I was so happy that day- I finally thought maybe it wasn’t wishful thinking on my part, and maybe you really did feel…”
He sees the moment something in Lan Zhan loosens.
He gazes into Lan Zhan’s relieved face- eyes hopeful and fond .
“When I couldn’t reach you the next day, I thought maybe I’d misread everything and scared you away. It wasn’t until Jiang Wanyin rang me that evening about the article and your disappearance that I realised that it wasn’t just you needing space.
Wei Ying frowns. “That day with you was just… the best . But then Madam Yu came in the next morning and I didn’t know what to do. I’d been dreading being kicked out for so long but when it happened it was still such a shock. It was like my brain just shut down and all I could do was focus on the next step and the next step. I was just so scared, I couldn’t think clearly. I took the battery out of my phone and never put it back in. I would never have done that if I’d known- I would have contacted you, I promise.”
His eyes trace over the bruises under Lan Zhan’s tired eyes.
“Were you okay? About the article I mean? Was it really stressful? People must have been awful about it.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head, gazing at him. “The people that matter have been kind. The opinions of the rest mean nothing to me. My thoughts were focused on you.”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying whines, face burning. “You can’t just say things like that, oh my god.”
Lan Zhan quirks his lips into an amused, teasing smile, then presses a kiss to his hand, eyes turning serious.
“Wei Ying, you would have been welcome to stay with me.”
Wei Ying slumps against him, closing his eyes.
“I know that now. I just- everything was such a nightmare and I couldn’t do that to you. You deserve so much better than having to deal with my mess, I didn’t want to ruin anything for you.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan breathes reproachfully, “you deserve the world . You deserve to be safe and happy and loved. You could never ruin anything for me.”
Wei Ying laughs shakily, “ah my stubborn Lan Zhan. Out of everything, leaving you the way I did is the thing I’ve regretted the most. You made everything feel okay even when it really wasn’t. You were so good to me and I just abandoned you without a word.”
He looks up at him. “I really am sorry. You deserve more.”
Lan Zhan tugs him close and presses a gentle kiss to his forehead that makes his face feel hot and a shiver tremble through him.
“Wei Ying” he murmurs, pulling him close and breathing deeply.
“Lan Zhan” he whispers back. He tucks his face into Lan Zhan’s neck and wraps him in his arms, finally feeling something slot back into place deep inside him.
Lan Zhan is here and everything will be okay.
After long minutes of holding each other close, Lan Zhan pulls back to look down at him with soft eyes. Then he glances around the room and a confused little crease forms between his eyebrows.
“How did you end up here? In Yiling of all places?”
Wei Ying smiles the first real smile he’s smiled in weeks. “That is a strange story and it’s kind of why you’re here.” He shakes his head in amazement, “I can’t believe it. Out of all the unlikely coincidences, you being Wen Qing’s lawyer contact tops them all.”
The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches up, “I thought for a moment that you knew I was coming, but when you dropped the sugar everywhere I realised you’d had no idea.”
Wei Ying blanches and then straightens up abruptly, “oh god. Oh god! The sugar! They must be despairing down there- I made such a mess!”
He stood up, tugging Lan Zhan with him by the hand.
“Come on Lan Zhan! I can’t leave then to clean it all up without me- I’m such a bad guest!”
Wei Ying can feel Lan Zhan’s amusement radiating behind him as he propels them down the stairs, but turning the corner they can see that the kitchen has already been returned to its pristine state.
Wen Qing and Wen Ning are seated at the table waiting for them, the former glancing knowingly at their joined hands and the latter staring at them, wide-eyed and confused.
Wei Ying feels Lan Zhan shift beside him and stubbornly holds his hand tighter.
A moment passes before Wen Qing smirks at him teasingly. She gestures to the mugs laid out for them.
“Tea?” she asks and then slides a newly opened bag of sugar across the table towards them, “sugar?”
Wei Ying groans and covers his eyes with his free hand.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry.”
Wen Qing starts laughing as Lan Zhan huffs a laugh in his quiet beside him.
As he’s guided to the table by the warm hand in his, and handed his tea, Wei Ying realises he feels more content than he thinks he’s ever felt. They still had a lot to talk about and a long road ahead of them- Wei Ying needed to figure out what to do with his future and call his siblings, the lawsuit against Wen Chao and Wen Corp would no doubt be long and gruelling, and Wen Ning and Wen Qing were now estranged from their uncle, but he had Lan Zhan and he was welcome here.
What else did he really need?