He has followed his uncle's lead in this; Lan Zhan has a credit card and the statement comes to Lan Huan, who pays it out of his trust monthly. There has never been a question of anything that has come across, and until six months ago, Lan Huan would have called Lan Zhan downright frugal.
Six months ago, Lan Zhan starting making weekly purchases at an electronics store. The amounts varied but it was several hundred dollars a week, at least, always at the same store. Lan Huan hadn't paid attention the first couple of months; he'd been amused that perhaps Lan Zhan was joining the twenty-first century. The third month had piqued his curiosity and by the fourth month he started looking closely at the statements to see if anything else might be amiss. There were no other questionable charges, so Lan Huan simply let it go as a strange new hobby and kept his eye on the statements.
Two months later, there is a charge for an Indian restaurant. It's the last charge on the bill, at the end of a cycle, and Lan Huan calls Lan Zhan to ensure it isn't a mistake. Lan Zhan rarely eats out, and when he does, it is usually for business and expensed on his Lan Industries AMEX. The restaurants are always upscale, downtown, and have menus that accommodate his brother's bland palate. This restaurant is none of those things.
"Hi, Lan Zhan. How are you?"
"I am well. How are you?"
Lan Huan smiles. He can picture Lan Zhan's impassive face; his voice and face seem expressionless to those who don't know him, but it's only a matter of careful attention to find the warmth there. "I'm well, thank you. I'm paying your credit card bill from the trust and I just wanted to make sure it's still in your possession."
"It is. What is the cause of your concern?"
"There is a charge from an Indian restaurant –"
"Ah, yes, I took a friend to dinner. The restaurant was his choice."
A friend! This is wonderful. Lan Zhan has never had many friends. It's never seemed to bother him, but it always saddened Lan Huan to know how wonderful his brother is and that so few people could see through to his deeply kind nature.
"That's wonderful, Lan Zhan. Did you have a nice time?"
Lan Huan sighs. He does not force his brother to talk but sometimes wonders if he should push harder than he does. It's difficult to determine whether he's doing it for Lan Zhan's benefit or his own curiosity, though, and he errs on the side of caution.
"Excellent. How are things in the downtown office?"
The conversation turns to business and Lan Zhan gets fractionally more talkative, and it's only a few more moments before they're saying their good nights.
"Perhaps we should do dinner soon," Lan Huan says. He's been busy, eating takeout or simple, reheatable meals. It would be good to cook together. "Are you free next weekend?"
"Not next weekend," Lan Zhan demurs and Lan Huan immediately thinks about his brother's new friend when he offers, "The weekend after. Dinner on Sunday?"
"Your place," Lan Huan agrees. "I have nothing in the house and your kitchen is bigger."
"Mn," Lan Zhan agrees. "See you then."
They split the grocery list – Lan Zhan goes to the local farmer's market every weekend and what he can't find there Lan Huan picks up in the busy market with all the aunties halfway between his home and his brother's.
When he arrives, he notices small changes in the apartment. A laptop on the table, a stack of blu-rays on the shelves with his books. There's still no TV, so Lan Huan can't figure out what Lan Zhan might play them on. The computer doesn't look to have a drive. There are a few new kitchen gadgets as well; a complicated espresso maker that looks as though it has never been used and a new rice cooker that plays a little song when Lan Huan sets it to cook.
Lan Zhan does not take well to guests in his kitchen, but he is too polite to refuse Lan Huan's offer of help, so he allows Lan Huan to chop vegetables. He probably wouldn't commit a major miscalculation, but he hasn't cooked in a long time and Lan Zhan cooks for himself as often as possible – several times a week.
"So, tell me about your friend that takes you to Indian restaurants. Did you like it?"
"I did," Lan Zhan says, the smallest of smiles on his lips. "Much was too spicy but they made some dishes more to my taste after the first batch of appetizers. Wei Ying knew the owner. He was treated like a treasured guest."
Lan Huan is bowled over. That is effusive praise from his brother. He must really like him. "How did you meet Wei Ying?" he asks, taking care to make it sound like a throwaway question, something to keep the conversation going and not a question to probe into an area of Lan Zhan's life that he normally doesn't think to share.
Lan Zhan stares down at the pan thoughtfully. He won't meet Lan Huan's eyes when he says, "We met when I went to buy a new phone."
A new phone, Lan Huan thinks, is something you might buy at an electronics store… The pieces fall into place. Lan Zhan has been going back to the store, buying things in order to be close to this Wei Ying person. But now he has obviously worked up the courage to ask him to… a date? Is he dating Wei Ying? It seems odd he would use the pretense of purchasing electronics to get closer to someone he liked only as a friend. "That's wonderful," Lan Huan says sincerely. Whatever Lan Zhan's relationship with Wei Ying, he is genuinely happy that Lan Zhan has another person in his life.
The conversation drifts, as it is wont to do when Lan Zhan doesn't want to give Lan Huan any more information. It's fine. This is how Lan Zhan is. It's how they are, together. As long as Lan Zhan knows that Lan Huan is there for him, he tries desperately not to pry.
"Yup!" Wei Ying chirps. "Leftovers from my… date? Pity date? Is that a thing? Is A'Yuan in bed?"
A'Ning's eyes shift, briefly, from the bags of food to Wei Ying's face, and then back again. Wei Ying sets them on the table and lets A'Ning paw through them.
"He went down just fine at bedtime and I don't think a pity date is a thing," A'Ning says as he stuffs half of a samosa in his mouth. "But if they are, I hope you have more of them."
"Thanks," Wei Ying says, the sarcasm breaking into laughter. He looks at Wen Qing. "Actually – he asked me out on a real date. Like, to a two-star restaurant?" He shakes his head. "Two stars, Wen Qing, like that's –"
"Two Michelin stars?" Wen Qing asks, frowning. “Not like, Yelp, or something?”
Wei Ying looks at her. "I… uh…"
"Where is it?" she asks sharply, opening the laptop A'Ning set aside to fully shove his face into the food.
She googles it. Two Michelin stars. There are no prices on the menu. There's a dress code. "Do you even have a suit?" she asks, because she knows if he does there's no way it'll clean up enough to be appropriate. "Never mind," she says. "We have to go shopping."
"With what money?" he asks. "The reason I got a pity date is because my asshole boss docked me three hundred bucks from my paycheck and sent me home early because he thought he could get Lan Zhan's commission, and then Lan Zhan left in a huff."
Wen Qing rolls her eyes. Lan Zhan, eh? Sounds like Wei Ying is already attached.
"Though…" he says sheepishly, holding out several crumpled…. Hundred dollar bills? "Lan Zhan gave me rent money."
Wow. "Are you sure it was a pity date?" she asks, because unless she's misreading things here…
"Of course. What else could it be?"
Right. She sighs. "All right, I'll teach you a trick I learned after the third random cousin got married my sophomore year in college and I didn't have the money for another dress to yet another society wedding."
"It's all in the genes," he says, giving her a shit-eating grin that she will never tell him she actually adores.
"Forget it, we're going to have to go with separates to get it to look halfway decent."
Eventually she finds a black jacket with an embroidered pattern that matches the black pants they find to fit him decently, and she nixes his choice of a black shirt and tie and gets him red instead. They buy the black tie, too, because she isn't sure how she feels about the red one, except that he looks very good in it.
"Okay," she says on the night, making sure he's not wrinkled and checking his half Windsor. "The trick is to stay cool. Don't sweat – we can't return the suit if you sweat in it. Or spill anything! Or… get it dirty." She smirks at him and waggles her eyebrows.
"Oh please, Wen Qing, this is a first date. There's no way anything like that is going to happen."
"I thought your last date was your first date. And didn't you say he's been coming into the store and dropping a couple hundred every week like clockwork?"
Wei Ying looks dumbfounded. "You think…"
"That it's because he wanted to see you? Yeah, Wei Ying, I think it's because he wanted to see you. No one cracks their screen that often without at least buying a protective case." Wei Ying looks like he's having a seriously unwelcome epiphany. There's a buzz at the door, though, and they both hear it when Lan Zhan introduces himself over the speaker.
"Should I buzz him in?" A'Ning asks, finger hovering over the button.
"No," Wei Ying says, sliding past Wen Qing to run for the door. "Tell him I'm coming down." He picks A'Yuan up, twirls him and kisses him on the cheeks. "Be good," he says.
"Be good!" A'Yuan parrots, and Wen Qing thinks that it seems unlikely.
"Wen Qing, I ruined the suit. It's so bad, it's covered in… it's so dirty, I'm an idiot, I just… he just… what are we going to do about rent?"
Wen Qing takes a deep breath. She knew there was at least a fifty percent chance of this happening. She'd already set aside her small cash stores and checked which pieces of her mother's jewelry she could hock until next month. "It's fine, Wei Ying."
"I was so good, Qing-jie, I was good all through dinner, but he fed me with his hands and they're such nice hands and –"
"It sounds like it was a good date. Don't worry about it. We'll work it out when you get home."
"I really tried," Wei Ying says, his voice wavering.
"I know," she says. "It's okay, Wei Ying. Go back to your date. Let him cheer you up."
She takes the cash and the suit, telling A'Ning that she'll take it to the cleaners and pay the rent as she waltzes out the door, half an hour early so she can manage the extra errands and get some coffee.
"Mm hm," Wei Ying says, still watching the cartoon they put on for A'Yuan's sake.
"And… he's giving you cash at the end of every date?"
"It isn't like that," Wei Ying says, his face turning toward her while his eyes stay on the screen. He can't seem to look away, though she knows for a fact that he's seen this movie several dozen times. "He said he felt responsible for me not being able to make rent."
That gets him to look at her. He's pink in the cheeks. It's cute. She hopes he's right about this. "No more cash on dates, yeah?"
"Of course not," Wei Ying huffs, slumping down the couch and curling around A'Yuan. "We've paid the rent already. Besides, it was just a freak accident."
"Getting come all over your new suit is not an accident, Wei Ying. A little freaky, yeah, but definitely not an accident."
That makes the blush in his cheeks come up red and he puts his hands over his face. "Oh my god, Qing-jie, you're the worst."
It is possibly Lan Zhan going overboard for someone he likes. Lan Huan thinks he has probably dated a little, here and there, but he's never liked someone enough to mention them to Lan Huan, much less be this extravagant with his money. He tries not to let the nagging feeling that's settling into his stomach turn sour. Maybe it's just Lan Zhan not being sure of himself, wanting to present himself as a worthy partner.
He texts Lan Zhan and asks to meet for dinner again. We should do this every month! I miss your cooking and I don't get to see you enough. How's next weekend?
Lan Zhan doesn't answer him for several hours, but when he does, he agrees and says he will come to Lan Huan's and bring soup and they can make dumplings. He smiles, thinking fondly of sitting around the table with the aunties and uncle learning how to pinch dumplings. Lan Zhan's were always perfect, just like him, though the aunties teased him for how slow he was. He can't wait.
"Mom's, of course," he says, and Lan Zhan's ears go pink.
"Apologies," he says. "I don't…"
Lan Huan studies him. "You don't use her recipe?"
Lan Zhan shrugs. "It's a little… complex. I like cleaner flavor profiles."
Is that code for too spicy? Lan Huan doesn't remember Mom's dumplings being spicy. "I overbought, we can make something else?"
Lan Zhan looks in the fridge and nods. "I can make a small batch of the filling I prefer."
"Oh, good," Lan Huan says. He's glad he has no eye for the amount of ingredients necessary for a recipe.
Lan Zhan pulls out several vegetables and starts chopping. "You don't have to wait for me to finish," he says. "Do you have enough wrappers?"
"No," Lan Huan says, taking his bowl over to the table, "but we can just split them. I'll save half of my filling for another batch later."
"Mn," Lan Zhan agrees. "Thank you."
They work in silence for a while and Lan Huan lets his mind wander as his hands work to remember how to do this. The first dumplings don't look very good and will likely fall apart when he tries to cook them.
It's been over a week since he got the last credit card statement and he still doesn't know how to bring up the situation in a way that won't put Lan Zhan on his guard. The last thing he wants is for him to get defensive and leave.
"Have you seen Wei Ying again?" he asks as lightly as he can.
It's an immediate answer, so that's good. Lan Huan turns his attention to pinching the dumpling in his hands to see if Lan Zhan will add anything. When he feels like the silence is starting to weigh on him, he counts to ten – he's learned that Lan Zhan has a higher tolerance for silence and the awkwardness that comes with it.
He's at eight when Lan Zhan says, "He is talkative. Smart and creative. I enjoy spending time with him."
Lan Huan looks up at Lan Zhan and can't help smiling at his pink ears. "He sounds lovely."
"How is Nie Mingjue?"
Lan Huan grins. He's been friends with Mingjue-ge since they were small children and they briefly dated the same boy in high school before realizing they were more jealous of the boy than they were of each other. Lan Zhan always deflects his own embarrassment with questions about Mingjue-ge.
"He's fine. Travelling most of this month." Lan Zhan knows this, it's something they've both talked about often, how their local commitments mean they can't travel the way they were used to with their uncle.
Lan Zhan hums in understanding. "Have you given more thought to retiring?"
It's a pipe dream. After their uncle's death, they needed to stabilize the company. Lan Zhan had graduated less than a month before and put plans for graduate school on hold. If anyone should be able to step down and go back to their life, it should be him. "No, but it would be easy enough to hire someone to take care of the office downtown. Or promote – didn't you say Luo Qingyang was promising?"
"Brother," Lan Zhan says, bringing his bowl of filling over to the table. "I am not looking to leave the company."
Lan Huan sighs. It's an old argument, well worn by now. He knows every back and forth. But there's never been a Wei Ying as part of it before. "You shouldn't feel obligated, Lan Zhan. And going back to school is hardly the same as 'being a galavanting playboy'."
Jin Zixuan refusing to take over his father's business is hardly news, but even the suggestion that Lan Zhan somehow wouldn't live up to his responsibilities always seems to invite comparisons.
"You have already done more for the company than could have been expected for someone so young. You deserve to do something you want to do."
There are still six or seven arguments left, but Lan Zhan's face has gone contemplative while he pinches dumplings deftly and fills up his tray with a speed that makes Lan Huan jealous. He is happy enough with his talents and skills and he loves his little brother, but Lan Zhan's single-minded focus does mean he seems to excel at anything he tries. It can be infuriating at times.
Lan Zhan sets down the dumpling he's working on and says, "Thank you, brother. But I will only consider going back to school if you also consider moving on. Certainly it's not required to have a Lan as a CEO. We do not have to work ourselves to early graves because our father and uncle did."
There is an odd fizz of excitement in Lan Huan's chest. When he first took over for uncle, he was grieving and relieved to have something to do, to keep his hands busy. After a few months, during which Mingjue-ge had stayed close for a change, a grim look of concern always on his handsome features, Lan Huan had thought longingly of doing something else. Travelling again, in the easy, carefree way of his youth, not the exhausting, bland way of business travel. But the board is a pit of vipers. Conservative, backbiting snakes, the lot of them. They're all getting on in years, and Lan Huan has been sweet talking them into retirement, slowly. He's replaced three board members with trusted friends and allies, and he only needs two more before he has a majority. Then he might be willing to retire.
"I have thought about it," Lan Huan admits, and feels a pang of guilt at the surprise on Lan Zhan's face. Lan Huan knows he seems approachable and friendly, but he is actually on par with Lan Zhan for keeping his personal business to himself. He has to actively remind himself to share these things with Lan Zhan. "Once the board is less…"
Lan Zhan's eyebrows go up; Lan Huan knows he understands the sentiment. He finishes with, "…conservative."
That gets him a tiny smile, just a curl at the corner of Lan Zhan's mouth. He's finished his own dumplings and shifts over a chair to help with Lan Huan's. "I would like to go back to school," Lan Zhan says quietly. "Wei Ying has also spoken about finishing his degree."
Lan Huan breathes carefully. His mind is whirling with thoughts of how much his brother must like this man, and also that the nature of his credit card statements indicate a different relationship than the one his brother seems to think. But his brother is sharing, so he must share too.
"I would like to travel again," Lan Huan says. "For the love of it."
"And to meet up with Nie Mingjue?" Lan Zhan asks, a rare teasing note in his voice.
"Yes," Lan Huan answers. They're not exclusive; neither of them can ask that of each other with their lives the way they are. But maybe if Lan Huan could travel on a whim, meeting Mingjue-ge on his business trips… maybe.
"Good," Lan Zhan says.
They let a comfortable silence come over them. They haven't shared this much with each other in years. Lan Huan resolves to keep an eye on his brother's credit card statements. It would be a shame for this Wei Ying to break his heart.
"Hahahaha, um, hi, Qing-jie. Why are you up? Can't you can't sleep?"
Wen Qing gives him a sharp smile. "I was waiting for you."
Wei Ying drops the act and sits down heavily next to her on the couch. "Sorry if I worried you," he says. "Lan Zhan is just so…"
She's pretty sure she doesn't want to hear the end of that sentence so she says, "A'Yuan didn't want to go to bed alone, so A'Ning is in your bedroom. You'll have to sleep out here tonight."
"Ah," Wei Ying says, and he sounds even more miserable. She would almost feel bad for guilt tripping him this hard, but A'Yuan had missed him tonight, and had been angry and pouty in turns. The worst part had been when he had asked if baba didn't love him anymore. She's going to save that tidbit for something more egregious than coming home late from a date, though.
"I hope you had a good time," she says, honestly, because Wei Ying does deserve to be happy, and if he can find someone nice to settle down with, life will be easier for all of them.
"I did," he says, picking at a string on the hem of his jacket. "I really like him, Qing-jie."
She's just about to say she's happy for him, and maybe he should think about introducing A'Yuan to Lan Zhan when the sleeve of his jacket rides up and Wen Qing sees the watch. It's beautiful, and a chill runs down Wen Qing's spine. "Nice watch," she says.
Wei Ying grins, rubbing a thumb over the face and leaving streaks. "Isn't it? I said it was too nice, but Lan Zhan insisted, he said it reminded him of me."
"Hmm." Wen Qing has a bad feeling that watch could pay their rent for the next year. "That's very sweet."
"Yeah," Wei Ying says, the word turning into a yawn that she has to clamp her jaw shut not to catch.
"Come on," Wen Qing says, "I have pajamas and blankets for you. Give me the watch so you don’t catch it on something while you change."
His grin is blinding as he takes off the watch and drops it carelessly in her hands. "Thanks!" he says, and heads off to the bathroom.
She googles the watchmaker on her phone – Patek Philippe – and the cheapest watch she can find is more than she could afford in half a year, and this is definitely not their cheapest watch. She can't find the exact type, but it looks a lot closer to the multiple thousand dollar watches than the multiple hundred dollar ones. She has a bad feeling about this.
Wei Ying always looks sexed up and blissed out when he comes home and he talks about how great Lan Zhan is, but he doesn't give any details or really even any attributes and she's pretty sure he's sex-drunk on his sugar daddy. It isn't until he says he's thinking of introducing A'Yuan that she puts her foot down.
"None of the dates you go on are appropriate for children," she snaps. A'Ning's eyes go very wide and he grabs his bowl and retreats into his room.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Wei Ying asks. "Of course we wouldn't go out to some fancy restaurant if A'Yuan was with us. We'd do something fun, that kids like. Maybe we could play mini-golf."
Wen Qing rolls her eyes. "A'Yuan is too little for mini-golf, Wei Ying. Get your head out of the clouds. Besides, I'm not talking about the meal. I'm talking about after." Wei Ying chokes on his noodles and she slaps him harder than necessary on the back. "How will Lan Zhan like a date that doesn't end in sex?"
Wei Ying's eyes are watering and he reaches for his water to drink half the glass at once. "Qing-jie! How can you talk like that?"
"Easy. A'Yuan is my first priority here. You're a close second, but if being with Lan Zhan means giving up A'Yuan, then…"
"Qing-jie!" Wei Ying says, scandalized. "I would never. I can't believe you think I would even see Lan Zhan if I thought he wouldn't love A'Yuan."
"So you've told him you have a son, then?" she asks sweetly. She's sure he hasn't.
Wei Ying looks dejectedly into his bowl of noodles and spins them around. "At first I was protecting A'Yuan," he says. "And then it got awkward because it probably is something that should've come up before our sixth date."
"Have you considered that Lan Zhan isn't in it for the same things as you?" she asks, as gently as she can.
Wei Ying squints at her. "Like what?" he asks. "Why else would we be dating?"
She is trying very hard not to judge Lan Zhan before she meets him, but his extravagant gifts have definitely left a bad taste in her mouth. "Well, you've had sex after every date so far," she says drily, and Wei Ying chokes and turns red again.
"You have," she says. Beyond his general sex-drunk demeanor, he's always got hickeys and teeth marks all over him.
"Because he's hot, and we want to, and…" The penny drops and Wei Ying looks at her shrewdly. "You don't think I can say no to sex."
That is not at all what she meant, but if they have a date that doesn't end in sex despite an extravagant gift, whether or not Lan Zhan calls again will definitely tell her if her suspicions are right. And maybe it'd be an easy break for Wei Ying that way. Maybe.
"Fine, I'll beg off before we have sex next time. Will that convince you?"
It's not Wen Qing he's trying to convince, but it will work for her purposes too. "Sure," she says. "When's the next date?"
"Next weekend," Wei Ying says miserably. "Some new restaurant is opening and he knows someone who knows someone."
Wen Qing smiles sadly. She is desperately hoping she's somehow wrong about this, and Lan Zhan really is the guy of Wei Ying's dreams, but… he sure doesn't act like it.
It's true that Lan Zhan is a bit naïve and doesn't always get certain social interactions, but this seems excessive.
At their dinner this month, which Lan Zhan insists on cooking, Lan Huan doesn't even volunteer to help. Whatever Lan Zhan is making doesn't seem to have that many ingredients, and his brother has always been more at ease in the kitchen then most other spaces they share.
"How is Wei Ying?" Lan Huan asks. He wonders if Lan Zhan would get prickly if he asked for an introduction.
"Good," Lan Zhan says. "Nie Huaisang got us in to the opening of some new restaurant."
"Oh?" Lan Huan asks.
Lan Zhan looks at Lan Huan a little too closely for Lan Huan's comfort. "Is there a problem, brother?"
"Of course not," Lan Huan says, shaking his head and smiling. Friendly and sincere. "You just seem to go out to dinner a lot for someone who enjoys cooking as much as you do."
Lan Zhan is frowning now. "If you have something to say, just say it."
Damn it. Lan Huan has not tread carefully enough. He sighs. "I apologize, Lan Zhan, I truly do not mean to imply anything. My only concern is ensuring that Wei Ying values you and all the things you bring to the table."
Lan Zhan is still frowning, but it no longer seems to be directed at Lan Huan, at least. "Do you think I should invite Wei Ying to stay in? Cook for him?"
It takes all Lan Huan's strength not to make a noise that will betray the feeling of his chest expanding like a helium balloon. Lan Zhan, asking him for advice! Ah, he can't mess this up now. "Your cooking is excellent, of course he would like it. It would be nice, wouldn't it, a cozy evening together, nothing so formal or dress-up?"
"Mn," Lan Zhan agrees, his ears going from pink to red. Lan Huan closes his eyes and wishes fervently for his doubts about Wei Ying to be wrong. He wants nothing more than Lan Zhan's happiness.
It's not time to push just yet, but if Wei Ying passes this test, if he enjoys a night without any fancy dinners or extravagant presents… maybe Lan Huan can ask to meet him.
"Lan Zhan?" he asks, worried. The phone is not ideal if Lan Zhan is upset; he has trouble with words and it will likely be nothing more than Lan Huan wishing for Lan Zhan to gain telepathy while he tries to translate various flavors of silence.
Lan Zhan is breathing heavily on the other end of the line, and that typically means he is upset. Lan Huan grabs his keys and runs for the door with Lan Zhan still trying to form words. "It's okay, Lan Zhan, just breathe."
"Will you bring…"
"I will," Lan Huan says, looking around for any kind of store that would have baked goods at this time of night. He won't be able to get the kind of tart that Lan Zhan likes, but it's an emergency and store-bought bakery will have to do.
He picks up a variety of terrible-looking snacks at a convenience store and hopes something will work to cheer Lan Zhan up.
Lan Zhan still hasn't spoken by the time Lan Huan arrives, and he doesn't hang up until Lan Zhan opens the door, phone still to his ear. He looks miserable, and Lan Huan feels like it's his heart that's been broken.
The hug is a little rough; he has to tug Lan Zhan into his arms. Lan Zhan doesn't hug him back, but he lets Lan Huan take his weight and Lan Huan accepts it and rubs circles on his brother's back.
"What happened?" he asks, his voice low.
"I don't know," Lan Zhan says, pulling away. Lan Huan lets him go and follows him into the apartment. It looks like a tornado has blown through Lan Zhan's usually-spotless home. There are pillows and blankets everywhere, food on the table and in the kitchen like it'd been abandoned without cleaning up after, a thing Lan Huan has never witnessed in his life with Lan Zhan.
"He fell asleep while we were watching the movie, and when I woke him up, we –" Lan Zhan lowers his eyes, his ears turning pink. "But then Wei Ying… something was… off." The words stall out and Lan Zhan closes his eyes again, two tears squeezed out of them.
It is excruciating waiting for Lan Zhan to complete his thoughts, but Lan Huan is unable to predict them and guessing only makes Lan Zhan shut down. Finally, he says, "He was… He didn't want to… But he did. He wanted to, but he decided not to. And then he was angry about it."
"Was he tired?" Lan Huan asks. "Maybe he needed sleep?"
Lan Zhan shakes his head. "He simply tells me if he's tired or if it's time to leave."
Lan Huan very carefully asks, "He never stays over?"
Lan Zhan shakes his head. "He has a commitment, and he works early on Sundays."
A commitment. That doesn't sound good. He skips that part of it for now, and says, "At the electronics store?"
Lan Zhan shakes his head. "At his third job."
"Third job?" Lan Huan asks, appalled. "What's his second job?"
"He's a barista at a coffee shop downtown."
"And his third job?" The skin on the back of Lan Huan's neck prickles.
Lan Zhan looks at the floor and speaks very softly. "I don't know. He's never told me."
Right now, Lan Huan would like to pull his brother into another hug. Right behind that desire is the one to punch Wei Ying in the face. His brother hasn't cried in front of him since their mother died. He is worried Lan Zhan has given his heart away to someone who has no idea how precious it is.
"I'm so sorry," he says, squeezing his brother's shoulder. He doesn't want to say something trite, like perhaps it is for the best, but he thinks it is for the best, and it is difficult not to say that he hopes Lan Zhan has seen the last of Wei Ying. It will not help, and his brother is already hurting.
"Wei Ying?" she asks carefully. She can see A'Ning look up from where he's sitting on the couch, watching some drama or another. He comes over when he sees the look on Wei Ying's face.
"What happened?" A'Ning asks, coming in to bundle Wei Ying up in the blanket he'd been under and direct him over to the couch. Her brother is much better at comfort than Wen Qing is, so she goes into the kitchen and makes hot chocolate, as quietly as she can. She can't hear most of what Wei Ying is saying, but she can hear the way his voice is unsteady – she thinks he's crying, or maybe trying not to. She's annoyed to be right about Lan Zhan. She had hoped for better for Wei Ying.
When she brings the hot chocolate over and sets it on the table, Wei Ying has finished telling his story and A'Ning looks furious. She doesn't ask. She gives Wei Ying his mug of hot chocolate and makes him hold the cup, at least. It settles him, keeps his hands from shaking. Eventually he drinks it and stares miserably at the floor.
She shares a look with A'Ning and sighs heavily. They put A'Yuan down less than an hour ago. It's possible he's not asleep yet, and he's their best chance at comforting Wei Ying. She gets up and peeks into their bedroom. A'Yuan blinks sleepily up at her when the light from the hallway shines into the room.
"Hey, A'Yuan," she says gently. "Baba's home."
He's immediately awake and smiling. "Can I see him?"
"Mm," she says, pretending to consider it.
"Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease?" he whines adorably, and she smiles.
"I suppose," she says. "But baba needs to go to sleep too, so we're just going to talk a little while and then we have to get baba to bed, okay?"
"Okay," he says adorably, climbing out of bed and toddling over to her. As soon as he hits the hallway he's running and shortly after that he's yelling for his baba, and Wen Qing hears Wei Ying's genuine delight at seeing his son.
"A'Yuan, you naughty boy, staying up so late," he teases, and his voice is steady, if a little rough. When she comes around the corner, she sees him sweep A'Yuan in his arms and bury his face in A'Yuan's belly. "Naughty boys get tickles!" Wei Ying says, and A'Yuan shrieks with laughter.
"Nooooo," he cries, laughing until he's hiccupping. "Baba stoooooop!"
Wei Ying does stop because they all know getting A'Yuan too riled up will keep him from going to sleep and he and Wei Ying have to go to the bookstore early tomorrow. Wei Ying settles back down on the couch with A'Yuan on his lap and drinks the dregs of his hot chocolate, letting A'Yuan sip at it too. Wei Ying drifts off, staring again, and A'Yuan seems to sense the shift in mood. He looks at Wei Ying and asks, "Is Baba sad?"
Wei Ying smiles at his son and shakes his head. "How can I be sad when A'Yuan is here?"
He'll be okay, she thinks. He's suffered worse heartbreaks in his life, and he deserves someone who loves him completely, the way she and A'Ning and A'Yuan do.
She worries a bit about A'Ning. He'll stew about this more than Wei Ying will, likely. Wei Ying has the infuriating ability to let pretty much anything go, any sleight, any hurt, any upset (so long as it is to himself). She is jealous beyond words.
"Homework?" she asks A'Ning, because she is certain he is not googling something for the paper he has due tomorrow. He grunts at her. He's watching Bruce Lee videos. It could be… well. She hopes it's for his paper. "He'll be fine," she says. "Don't worry about it – he's better off without that guy."
Wen Ning hums impartially and goes back to his videos. She decides not to tell him she's going grocery shopping and leaves him to his revenge fantasies.
A'Ning wakes when A'Yuan kisses him goodbye on the cheek, closing the laptop and rolling over to curl up under the covers and get some real sleep before his first class. "Remember it's your turn to pick up A'Yuan from day care today," Wen Qing reminds him.
"Yeah," A'Ning grumps and throws the blanket over his head.
She doesn't like it when A'Ning gets like this, and it's only ever been when someone treats Wei Ying unfairly. They've never told her how they became thick as thieves; they were nominally friendly back when Wei Ying was just part of her queer circle of friends, but one night they came in holding each other up and they've been best friends ever since.
It does mean that A'Ning is a bit overprotective of Wei Ying, and it worries at her the rest of the day. Her worry boils over when she gets a text from Wei Ying at 6:30 asking her if she can go pick up A'Yuan, and she's texting A'Ning where are you??? as she dashes to her car.
He glances over just in time to see Wei Ying roll his eyes. "I told you I can't get here by 5:30. I've told you this since the day I was hired. You know this."
"You're still late," the man says, "that's 30 minutes off your paycheck."
Wei Ying sighs and heads to the "employees only" door at the back of the store. Lan Huan looks at his watch. It's only 5:45. The manager comes over and checks on him again, and he smiles pleasantly and makes small talk and pretends that he is extremely indecisive until the man finally leaves.
After a few minutes, Wei Ying comes back out and heads to the computer area. Lan Huan wanders his way over, browsing the laptops. Every employee in the place has approached him; he's fairly certain Wei Ying will eventually come over. He looks over the mediocre laptops and smiles to himself. He would only ever buy the most basic laptop here; anything else is extremely overpriced.
"Hey there," Wei Ying says. He has a cheerful tone to his voice and when Lan Huan looks up at him, he smiles widely. He's good-looking, which Lan Huan can imagine might have caught his brother's eye, but he wouldn't go to the lengths he did just for a pretty smile. "Are you looking for something in particular?"
Lan Huan shrugs. "I don't know. My laptop isn't working anymore and my friend told me it's very old so I should get a new one."
Wei Ying smiles indulgently. "Well, you can take it somewhere to see if it's really dead – buying a new one isn't always the way to go. Do you know what's wrong with it?"
Lan Huan hadn't been expecting to make up a story on the spot. He casts about for issues he's heard Mingjue complain about. "It doesn't start up? It just… endlessly circles."
"Ah," Wei Ying says, and leans in conspiratorially. "Probably worth taking to someone who can take a look at it. Might be a virus."
"Well," Lan Huan hedges. "I have a project due tomorrow for a deadline; it's probably time I bought something new anyway."
"Okay," Wei Ying says. "Let's talk about a few things then. What do you use it for? How much are you looking to spend?"
Lan Huan tries not to let his frustration get the better of him while Wei Ying keeps trying to talk him out of pricey computers. He'd thought when he said there was no issue with price he'd get talked into the bloated model at the end of the aisle, but Wei Ying keeps telling him it's full of things he doesn't need.
"Don't you work on commission?" he finally asks, when his patience runs out. "Why aren't you trying to sell me something expensive?"
The look of surprise on Wei Ying's face makes Lan Huan's guts swirl nervously. Maybe he's gotten this wrong.
"Well sure," Wei Ying says. "But no one should buy something just for the price tag. And… you remind me of someone. A… friend of mine."
Lan Huan is about to tell him that he's Lan Zhan's brother and just ask him outright what's happening, but Wei Ying's phone goes off, and he says, "excuse me" and walks down the aisle to pick up the call.
"What? But… um." He looks nervous, is rocking back and forth. "Yeah, okay. I'm sorry. Someone will be there soon." He glances around the area and waves at one of his coworkers. "Hey, Troy," he calls, and Troy looks up at him. "Can you come help this customer? I have to go."
Wei Ying comes back to him, his face pinched up with worry. "Sorry, sir, I have to leave. Troy will take care of you." He smiles tightly and starts texting as he jogs for the front of the store. Lan Huan stops with his ridiculous subterfuge and follows him.
There's a bus stop at the far side of the parking lot and Wei Ying seems to be heading there, anxiously glancing down the block in the universal stance of someone desperately wishing the public transit schedule was accurate. Can he not even afford a rideshare? Lan Huan gets into his car and parks next to the bus stop, leaving it running as he approaches.
"Wei Ying," he says.
Wei Ying turns and frowns at him. "I'm sorry, I don't –"
"I am Lan Zhan's brother," he says. "Lan Huan."
Wei Ying blinks. "What are you doing here?"
Lan Huan doesn't even know any more. "Honestly," he says, "I'm not sure. But if you need to get somewhere, please let me take you. It sounded… urgent."
Wei Ying stares at him, his mouth working, but no sound coming out. He looks down at his phone. "You know what?" he says. "Why not. This is an emergency."
"I hope everything is okay," Lan Huan says, knowing it sounds inane but not knowing what else to ask, or how to explain himself.
"Of course it's not," Wei Ying says, his voice low. He's staring out the window. "Distract me. Tell me why you came to my workplace and pretended to be a customer for 45 minutes."
Lan Huan swallows. What had been his objective? To prove his theory right? To find out what Lan Zhan sees in Wei Ying? He's not sure he thought it through at any point between coming up with the idea and getting in the car. "My brother called me in tears Saturday night," he says.
Wei Ying turns to him whiplash-quick. "What?"
Lan Huan nods, keeping his eyes carefully on the road. "He was inconsolable."
They don't speak any more after that, and the silence is tense. Lan Huan feels like a fool. Not quite as much of a fool as when he pulls up in front of a daycare, though. Wei Ying throws himself out of the car up the front steps, and presses a doorbell incessantly. Lan Huan stumbles inelegantly over the fact that Wei Ying is responsible, at least to some degree, for a child.
But then a woman is running up to Wei Ying and they are frowning and talking with frantic hand gestures, and Lan Huan gets out of the car. Is that his wife?
"–reminded him this morning," she's saying, visibly upset. "What if he did something stupid?"
They're standing in front of the door and Wei Ying presses a doorbell twice. "I'm sure he's fine," Wei Ying says, going in for the doorbell again.
"Stop it," she says. "You know it takes a minute for them to get A'Yuan packed up. You're being annoying."
"I'm being annoying?" he screeches.
She grabs his chin and shakes it roughly, then points at Lan Huan. "Yes. Now how about you introduce me to Lan Zhan."
Wei Ying startles and the woman raises an eyebrow and tilts her head toward Lan Huan.
"Ah, funny story," Wei Ying says, and Lan Huan steps up to them and smiles.
"I'm Lan Huan," he says. "Lan Zhan's brother."
She stares at him, blinks, and turns to Wei Ying, wordlessly raising her eyebrows.
"Yeah, I don't know either," Wei Ying says. "He was at the store when they called and offered me a ride. Lan Huan, this is Wen Qing."
Before Lan Huan can greet Wen Qing, or ask something that might give him a little clarity on this strange situation, another car pulls up. When Lan Huan glances over his shoulder at it, he realizes it is his brother's car. A young man practically leaps out of the passenger side, yelling, "Jiejie!"
"Oh," the woman says, dropping her purse and the paper bag she was holding to engulf the young man in a hug. "Oh, thank the heavens you're all right." Then she smacks him on top of the head. "What did you do?"
The young man looks sheepish, and Lan Huan follows Wen Qing's gaze to where his brother has finally gotten out of the car. Lan Huan turns to him, hoping perhaps he will have some idea of what's going on, only to see that his face is swollen and the bruising starting to come up looks like he's getting a black eye.
"Brother," he says, and Lan Huan can hear the question in his voice.
"Are you all right?" Lan Huan asks, instead of answering the question he still doesn't have a decent answer for. "What happened?"
"I'm guessing my brother happened," Wen Qing says. "This is Wen Ning. A'Ning, that's Lan Zhan's brother, Lan Huan." She turns to Lan Zhan with a poisonous look on her face. "And you must be Lan Zhan."
The door to the daycare finally opens with a small, cheery woman saying, "Sorry, it took a while to find his bunny." There is an adorable toddler in her arms, tightly gripping a stuffed white bunny. She looks around at the group of people. "Oh! Well… thank you all for coming, but really we only needed one of you."
"Baba," the toddler cries, and holds his hands out to Wei Ying. Lan Huan is still not sure what to make of any of this, and his mind is reeling.
"Wei Ying," his brother says, and that's… That's his soft voice, the one he's only ever used in quiet moments of happiness. Lan Huan could count on one hand how many times he's heard that voice.
"Ah, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says, smiling widely now, and Lan Huan can now absolutely see what his brother was attracted to. The warmth there, directed at his brother, feels like a sunrise over water. "This is my son, A'Yuan. A'Yuan, this is my…"
For a moment, no one breathes, everyone looking between Wei Ying, A'Yuan and Lan Zhan.
"My Lan Zhan," he says simply.
Lan Huan may be overwhelmed by whatever the hell is happening here, but he does not miss the way his brother's eyes tear up. "Hello, A'Yuan," Lan Zhan says, nodding at the small child.
A'Yuan looks at him thoughtfully for a moment and says, "Hello," before laying his head on his father's shoulder adorably.
"Are you tired?" Wei Ying asks, and suddenly Lan Huan feels like he is intruding. His eyes meet Wen Qing's and some silent understanding passes between them as they back quietly away. Once they're out of earshot, Lan Huan asks, "Can I take you both to dinner?"
Wen Qing eyes him but the sound Wen Ning makes is very close to a whimper. "Fine," she says, "but nothing fancy. There's a noodle place around the corner."
Lan Huan sighs, nodding slowly over his tea. “And you thought Lan Zhan was a sugar daddy, so you convinced Wei Ying to... abstain."
They both cast a sidelong glance at a table near the windows.
A'Yuan, upon hearing the news that there was food to be had, whined that he was hungry, so they'd all gone together, but Wei Ying and Lan Zhan had gotten a separate table for the three of them. Wei Ying is fussing over Lan Zhan's face while Lan Zhan seems to be having a solemn conversation with a three year old. The toddler giggles and the quiet happiness radiating from their table drifts through the restaurant like the softest music.
A'Ning looks completely confused, watching them with his chin resting on his hands. “I thought they broke up?”
"It's okay, A'Ning," she says, patting his arm. "They're idiots and apparently it's catching."