“Hm,” says the tall woman with the ribbon braided through her hair. She’s sitting on the ground, safety goggles knocked slightly askew. These last two features are Wei Ying’s (elbow’s) fault, although in a different, more true sense, they aren’t Wei Ying’s fault at all, because her elbow only went flying in response to being startled. Nobody’s glasses would be anywhere they weren’t meant to be if the Handsome Ms. Hair Ribbon hadn’t shown up out of literally nowhere and cleared her throat to scare Wei Ying, probably on purpose.
Wei Ying winces down at her. “Well,” she scolds gently as she offers her hand, “next time you should make noise.”
“Next time you break into my lab?” the Handsome Ms. Hair Ribbon asks, raising her delicate eyebrows and accepting the hand. She stands.
“I’m not breaking into anything,” Wei Ying snorts, turning back and shoving the last of the bones — an intercostal clavicle — into her qiankun bag. “The museum is open for visitors. I’m visiting.”
The Handsome Ms. Hair Ribbon points at a sign on the wall, rapping her knuckle against it. It says CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC.
Wei Ying blinks a couple times. Tricky. That one’s tricky.
“Oh. Hm,” she says, brilliantly. “Well — in that case, I guess I'll show myself out.”
In fact, Wei Ying and the Handsome Ms. Hair Ribbon have already met, two years prior, which would be evident to them both if it weren’t for Wei Ying being decked out like a cat burglar in a ski mask and the Handsome Ms. Hair Ribbon’s safety goggles being so large and so askew that they covered half her face.
Their first meeting was in Jing’an Sculpture Park, next to the Shanghai Natural History Museum. The Handsome Ms. Hair Ribbon — whose name, by the way, is Lan Zhan (that’s Doctor Lan Zhan, if you’re asking) — was taking a stroll during her lunch break, loyally eating what could only be described as a pathetic ham sandwich. Her girlfriend, one Wen Qing (that’s Doctor Wen Qing, if you’re asking) had dutifully slapped it together as a gesture of general regard. In exchange, Lan Zhan had handed Wen Qing a packet of instant ramen.
Girlfriend duties thus discharged, Lan Zhan and Wen Qing had shaken hands, bid one another adieu, and gone their separate ways, to their separate jobs, which were, for both of them, their primary source of joy. Lan Zhan liked Wen Qing. Namely, she liked that Wen Qing asked very little of her, in terms of time and attention. Wen Qing was dedicated to her career as a surgeon, after all; she had even less time than Lan Zhan for things like whiling away the lunch hour by holding hands in a park, which Huan-ge insisted was an appealing way to spend time with a partner. The two women had agreed to date one another after meeting at a cocktail fundraiser (mandatory, they’d been told by their respective institutions) where they both stood miserably in the corner, by the hors d'oeuvres.
For her part, Wei Ying was in the park because her jie was extremely, very pregnant and had taken it into her head that she needed to lie in the sun, for “the good of the baby.” So Wei Ying was laying in the sun beside her with a picnic full of her jie’s favorite pregnancy foods: a jar of hot pickles, the kind that were so hot and so disgusting they were sold only in American gas stations and had to be imported; a container of mapo tofu, purchased and wrapped in three layers of plastic for transport by Jiang Cheng on his last trip to Chengdu; and of course a full three packets of Toxic Waste candy, bought in bulk by Jin Yixuan in a fit of panic in the early stages of Yanli’s pregnancy when Jie refused all sustenance, directly from the manufacturer in Pakistan.
And, of course, wine for Wei Ying.
When a basketball had rolled over to their picnic blanket, nearly upsetting the tofu, Wei Ying had chucked it back in the direction it had come. Unfortunately, having been described from several quarters as “directionally insane,” the ball instead wound up striking, quite squarely — albeit accidentally — Lan Zhan’s beautifully shaped skull. In her resulting stumble, her pathetic ham sandwich tumbled from her hand into the dirt.
“Hey!” she’d cried, marching over to the spot where a drunk woman was apparently assaulting passersby with basketballs. She held her ruined sandwich aloft, accusatorily.
Wei Ying had blinked up at her. Yanli did not open her eyes. She was napping. (It would be a mistake to think of Yanli’s naps as light or dozing. She was at a stage in her pregnancy where not even the dead could wake her. Wei Ying had tried. The dead had come gloomily back, heads hung low with failure.)
“Oh, no thank you,” Wei Ying had said to this beautiful, though clearly unwell, stranger. “I’m not much for dirt on my sandwiches.”
Lan Zhan pursed her lips. “Neither am I,” she said, pointedly.
“Well, bit of an odd choice to put dirt on it then, wasn’t it?” Wei Ying had asked, cocking her head to the side.
Wei Ying had squinted. “I hate to contradict you, but there’s clearly dirt on that sandwich,” she said. “I mean, all over.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan said, gritting her teeth, “because of you.”
“Me?” cried Wei Ying, aghast. “But I’ve never seen that sandwich before just this moment. How could I have put dirt on it?”
Lan Zhan gaped at her, this deranged basketball assailant sitting cross-legged next to an absolute balloon of a woman, drinking wine that Lan Zhan knew was banned in the park and happily munching on something labeled “toxic waste,” while suggesting that somehow Lan Zhan was the crazy one.
“You’re not allowed to drink wine here,” she pivoted, since clearly this Basketball Woman was not going to take responsibility for Lan Zhan’s ruined sandwich.
“Oh, no, it’s all right,” Wei Ying explained, tipping her head toward Yanli. “She’s pregnant, so she can’t drink.”
“Yes. But you’re drinking.”
“Right, since she can’t,” Wei Ying agreed. “What sort of monster would I be to let her drink it? No, best I drink it all, and spare the baby.”
“Nobody ought to drink it!”
“But it’s here, so someone’s got to,” Wei Ying pointed out cheerfully. “Anyway, I’m sorry about your sandwich, but if you didn’t want it to be dirty, you simply shouldn’t have put dirt on it. There’s not much to be done about it at this stage. Tell you what — take one of jie’s hot pickles. They’re just disgusting. We have them sent from a gas station in Indiana. That’s in the United States.”
“I know where Indiana is,” said Lan Zhan, quite exasperated at this point, and then faltered. “A — did you say a gas station?”
“Yes,” said Wei Ying, drinking deeply from her wine glass. “It’s a funny little building where they sell gasoline. For cars. You must be a cultivator if you’ve never been to a gas station before. Don’t you ever drive anywhere? I like it enormously, but then, I can’t ride a sword like you can. Bit difficult to stand on a flute.”
Lan Zhan thought it was really a quite impressive reflection of her good upbringing that she did not, at this point, draw Bichen and demand satisfaction. Instead, she pocketed the ham/dirt sandwich and explained, as slowly and clearly as she could: “I am not concerned with gas stations. I am concerned with public drunkenness.”
“Oh, is that all,” Wei Ying laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ve got great tolerance. This is nothing. Isn’t that right, jie? Oh — jie?”
Only Yanli, newly awake, could neither confirm nor deny Wei Ying’s claim, because she was too busy staring down at the wetness in her lap. “A-Ying,” she said faintly, and before Lan Zhan could settle the matter of the public drinking, or the basketball assault, or even her poor ham sandwich, the woman was hustling her sister from the park in a flurry of noise and smoke, leaving Lan Zhan standing on an abandoned picnic blanket with a jar of what she suspected were truly disgusting pickles.
In the two years since their first meeting, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan have both made great strides. Wei Ying, for example, is currently winning her competition with Jiang Cheng to be their nephew’s favorite among his mother’s siblings, because even though Jiang Cheng lives closer and is able to spoil him more regularly, Wei Ying has a much cooler life and is able to do it more extravagantly.
(“I wouldn’t say much cooler,” Jiang Cheng grumbles whenever Wei Ying visits, but of course, he wouldn’t, would he? He loves running the sect, even though all running a sect really is these days is babysitting a bunch of kids and sitting through extremely tiresome meetings that Wei Ying can’t stand to attend, and even if she could have, wouldn’t.)
(And at any rate, Wei Ying’s had more girlfriends, which is a point Jiang Cheng is, quite simply, unable to address, because all the matchmakers hate him.)
She’s also a paleontologist.
Well, some people might call her a smuggler. But Wei Ying thinks that’s an extremely unfair title. She does not smuggle. Smuggling requires that you transport illegal things in secret, and Wei Ying does not. Wei Ying transports illegal things right out in the open. And in her defense, the things she smuggles belong out in the open.
She’s a liberator, really. She takes things that are locked up in laboratories and private collections and she returns them to their natural habitats. You’re welcome, actually.
(“You’re a thief,” says Jiang Cheng, but what does Jiang Cheng know? He thinks museums are “for nerds,” which is funny given that the hardest Wei Ying has ever seen him cry was the time he ranked second at the summer school Wei Ying had not been permitted to go to.)
The important thing is, whether you consider her a great liberator or a great thief, she’s great at it.
Lan Zhan, for her part, has progressed from a paleontologist who takes brisk lunchtime strolls in a park to a chair of paleontology who takes brisk lunchtime strolls in a park. She’s also become engaged to Wen Qing, as they had hit the appropriate chronological milestone. Everything is very pleasant, and very correct. Wen Qing values Lan Zhan’s work, and Lan Zhan values Wen Qing’s. They live in a well-appointed apartment filled with nice art and mutual respect, and more importantly, now that they’re wearing engagement rings, they almost never have to deal with the more lecherous donors to their respective institutions looking to exchange a donation for a… Lan Zhan would refer to it as “a date.”
(“But — are you in love with her?” Huan-ge always asks, which is thoughtful of him, but quite, Lan Zhan thinks, beside the point.)
“Wait a minute,” Lan Zhan says now, peering closer at the interloper who has neatly packed an entire lufengosaurus into her bag: “You’re that woman!”
Wei Ying, with one foot already out the window, pauses. “Which woman?” she asks, tipping her head to the side. She squints down the length of Lan Zhan’s accusatory finger to her face and the ribbon in her hair, and then claps a hand over her mouth before crying out in recognition, “Ms. Dirty Sandwich!”
“It was a ham sandwich,” says Lan Zhan, aggrieved. “The dirt was incidental.”
“I’ll be honest, it really seemed more like a defining feature of the sandwich,” Wei Ying says, breaking the news as gently as she can. “Lots of people have ham sandwiches. Very few elect to season with dirt.”
Determined not to be sidetracked this time, Lan Zhan draws Bichen, pointing the tip at Wei Ying’s throat. “Unhand the dinosaur,” she instructs firmly.
With a beaming smile, Wei Ying holds up both palms. Her qiankun bag is clutched between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand, and she twists the bag to hold it suspended above the sill. “You got it, boss,” she says cheerfully, and proceeds to drop the bag out of the window before she herself topples down after it.
The thing with the bones is that they are actually Wei Ying’s bones. Or — well, okay. Technically they’re not her bones, they’re not anybody’s bones except the dinosaur they belonged to, in this case a lufengosaurus that she’s been calling Baby, on account of how it’s little enough to have probably been a baby. But Wei Ying found them. She’d found them on one of her expeditions, and she’d donated them to this museum for the express purpose of letting Jin Ling (and, she supposes, other babies) play with them, and now — now! They’re going to lock her Baby away in some ... stuffy lab.
It’s unconscionable. Baby needs to be with people. She should be in a big room, with lots of space, where people could come to give her the admiration she deserves. And if she couldn’t be there, she could at least be in Wei Ying’s Shanghai apartment, where Jin Ling could come and play with her. Jin Ling is very into dinosaurs right now. (“He’s in his dinosaur phase,” Wei Ying had said knowingly. “What do you mean a dinosaur phase,” Jiang Cheng had grumbled. “That’s not a thing. It’s not in any of the books.”)
“This is a terrible idea,” current Jiang Cheng tells her nervously, eyeing Wei Ying’s flute while bouncing Jin Ling on his knee. Jin Ling is too old to be bounced like that for soothing purposes, but he does find it fun, and screams with delight.
Wei Ying rolls her eyes dismissively. Jiang Cheng, noted fun killer, wouldn’t know a good idea if it animated itself from a pile of bones on the floor into the world’s best playmate for a two-year-old.
Which, incidentally —
The flute dies out and Baby sits up, shaking her bony head. She toddles cautiously up to Wei Ying, chomping cheerfully on the air, and consents to a pet. Briefly. Jin Ling screams with joy (he mostly communicates through screams), wiggling off Jiang Cheng’s lap by turning his body liquid as only two-year-olds can, and running up to the lufengosaurus with his arms outstretched. Baby looks down at him, and magnanimously allows him to climb up through the ladder of bones to sit on Baby’s neck.
“Dino!” the (human) baby yells happily.
“Best aunt,” Wei Ying declares, hooking her thumbs at herself and looking smug.
“First of all, you’re his only aunt. Second, I pick him up at school every day,” Jiang Cheng grits out. “I changed all his diapers! I suffered through potty training.”
Swinging her voice up an octave, Wei Ying — who didn’t change even one diaper because: gross! — sings, “I can’t give you anything but love, baby. Just a real, live dinosaur, and loooove baby!”
Jin Ling claps. Baby’s head bops back and forth happily to Wei Ying’s singing. The movement topples Jin Ling off Baby’s back and toward the ground; before either Wei Ying or Jiang Cheng can react, Baby snaps her jaws around his baby suspenders, catching him in mid-air. He claps again, pleased as punch.
“Baby,” he says happily, patting her face with his fat toddler hands. “Dino.”
Wei Ying, hand still pressed to her chest from when Jin Ling had tumbled from Baby’s back, reaches forward so that she can untangle him from Baby’s teeth. But, seeing the gesture, Baby swings her head away, bringing Jin Ling with her. It’s difficult to tell what she’s thinking, on account of how her face is just a skull and can’t make expressions, but when Jiang Cheng takes a step forward, Baby scuttles back. She cocks her head again, and sprints out the open door and into the night.
“Uh oh,” says Wei Ying.
“Oh, a-jie’s gonna kill you,” Jiang Cheng says, thrilled to be right and horrified that they may never see their nephew again. “A-jie’s gonna eat you for breakfast.”
“A-jie’s not going to know,” Wei Ying says quellingly, pointing her flute at him. “A-jie is still on her romantic weekend away with her stupid husband, and when she returns, we will have Jin Ling back, happy and well and completely unharmed, because Baby would never hurt him. We just. Uh. We just have to find them.”
“We?” repeats Jiang Cheng. “What am I gonna do? I don’t know shit about what a baby-snatching dinosaur would do or where it would go. You’re the paleontologist!”
“I’m an amateur at best!” Wei Ying wails. She doesn’t know where a re-animated dinosaur with a toddler would go. For one thing, it’s a very different world than it was when Baby was alive, and for another, Wei Ying doesn’t actually know shit about alive dinosaurs. She only likes the bones parts.
Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose. “Okay,” he says flatly. “Look, you deal with museums a lot, don’t you?”
Wei Ying makes a hedging motion with her hand. “I’m certainly ... in museums a lot,” she hedges. “I wouldn’t say I’m, uh, on the best terms with ... the individuals inside them.”
“Great,” Jiang Cheng mutters. “So you brought a dinosaur back to life, despite not knowing shit about dinosaurs, and now you’re telling me that you don’t even know any real paleontologists?”
Wei Ying opens her mouth, then closes it again, struck suddenly with a vision of a beautiful, ribbon-haired woman holding a dirty sandwich.
“Well,” she says. “Now that I think about it — ”
“There’s someone on the phone for you,” Wen Qing says, brow furrowed. “I didn’t know you knew Wei Ying.”
“Who?” asks Lan Zhan, looking up from the fifth draft of her email to the museum board detailing the police report she’d filed earlier that day. Uncle Qiren is going to be so disappointed in her. The complete lufengosaurus skeleton — the only of its kind — was supposed to be the focal point of their capital campaign to build a new wing of the museum, dedicated to experiential science for kids. They were housing it in the lab to clean and assemble before a big meeting with one of the museum’s benefactors, whose son apparently loved dinosaurs and who was therefore considering a multi-million-dollar donation.
No bones, no meeting, no money.
Wen Qing gives the phone a wave. “Wei Ying,” she repeats. “I went to university with her and her brother. And — ” she cuts off, biting her lip, before clearing her throat. “That is, she’s a couple years younger than me, but she was good friends with A-Ning. She’s on the phone for you; I didn’t realize you were friends.”
“I don’t know a Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, but takes the phone nevertheless. “Yes?”
“Dirty Sandwich,” says the phone, sounding delighted and distressed in equal measure.
Lan Zhan feels the stirrings of a migraine. “You!” she cries. “Give me back my dinosaur!”
“Okay, well, I think the ownership of the dinosaur is — an open question at best,” says the voice on the phone. “Hey, I didn’t know you were dating Qing-jie. Nobody tells me anything, just because I’m impossible to reach and I never return messages. Anyway, I hear congratulations on your impending nuptials are in order!”
“Give me back,” Lan Zhan grits out, “my dinosaur.”
“Baby is her own dinosaur,” This “Wei Ying” tells her haughtily. “And also, I can’t.”
“No. That’s, ah. Sort of why I’m calling.”
A feeling of dread settles in Lan Zhan’s stomach. “Speak clearly,” she commands.
On the other end of the phone, Wei Ying sighs. “Okay, but you’re not going to like it,” she warns. “You see, what happened was, I sort of. Well, I lost her.”
Lan Zhan blinks. “You what.”
“Well, I didn’t lose her, exactly. She — ran away. Or sort of, rattled away, I guess. And while I’m great with dead dinosaurs, I don’t precisely, exactly, per se, know a ton about alive dinosaurs, so I was hoping you might know where — ”
“How,” says Lan Zhan.
There’s a pause. “How ... what?”
“How did a pile of bones get up and walk away?”
“Oh,” laughs Wei Ying, voice brightening. “That bit’s easy. I reanimated her. With my flute.”
Lan Zhan closes her eyes, very slowly. She understands, suddenly, why Huan-ge does it all the time; it brings her a measure of peace, however small.
The dinosaur thief, this Wei Ying, had broken into Lan Zhan’s museum, stolen her dinosaur, and then used demonic cultivation to bring her back to life. There was no end to her crimes. She needed to be put in prison, forever. Longer than forever.
“Look, you’re welcome to be mad at me later,” Wei Ying is saying now. “But the facts are that Baby is running around in the world all willy-nilly, and I certainly don’t know how to catch her, so there’s simply no time for you to be overly traditional about my cultivation methods. Help me find Baby and we’ll deal with the rest of it then.”
“You’ll return the bones,” Lan Zhan demands.
There’s a pause. “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” Wei Ying hedges. “Anyway, now that I know where you live, I’ll come pick you up. See you in twenty minutes.”
She hangs up. Lan Zhan, gaping, looks up at Wen Qing, who has been observing with an elegantly raised eyebrow. When Lan Zhan opens her mouth to explain, Wen Qing holds a hand in the air. “I am familiar,” she says, “with Wei Ying’s ... whole deal. Sounds like you’re in for an interesting night. I’m on night shift, so, should any real emergencies arise, call the hospital.” She bends down to peck Lan Zhan’s cheek. “Have fun!”
“Fun,” Lan Zhan repeats, faintly, as the door swings closed behind Wen Qing and she’s left with eighteen minutes to dress.
Wei Ying, when she arrives, is in a surprisingly sensible Toyota and wearing driving gloves. She waves cheerfully at Lan Zhan from where she’s leaning against the driver-side door.
“Zhan-jie,” she greets, beaming. Now that Lan Zhan has the chance to really look at her, she’s actually quite beautiful: full lips, crisp cheekbones, and a delicate mole just below her mouth. Lan Zhan suspects her skin quality comes from the unbothered sleep of the truly deranged. She bounces a couple of times on the balls of her feet. “Can I call you Zhan-jie? Well, I’m gonna, I can’t go around calling you Lan-laoshi, that’s so stuffy. Anyway, I know you’re terribly angry with me, which I do understand even though of course you’re wrong to be because all I did was liberate what was mine to begin with. But let’s not fight.”
Lan Zhan is going to go to prison for murder.
“You’re a criminal,” she says flatly.
Wei Ying shrugs. “Well, what’s the worse crime,” she muses, “stealing some bones or hiding those bones away from the people in a dusty old lab?”
“Stealing, definitely,” Lan Zhan answers immediately.
“Tomato tomato,” says Wei Ying, in English, incomprehensibly. “Anyway, what’s done is done. What we ought to do now is focus on how we’re going to get Jin Ling back.” She gestures grandly toward the passenger door.
“You called her Baby before,” Lan Zhan says, plucking the car keys from Wei Ying’s hand. She’s not going to put her life in the hands of this unhinged dinosaur thief. “Be consistent.” She gets into the driver’s seat and does not slam the door.
Wei Ying gapes at her for a moment before scrambling into the passenger side of the vehicle. “Oh! Jin Ling’s not the dinosaur, he’s my nephew,” she explains, buckling her seatbelt.
Lan Zhan pauses, keys halfway to the transmission. “I thought we were looking for the dinosaur,” she says.
“We are,” agrees Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan waits, but no further information is forthcoming. She prompts: “Explain.”
Wei Ying makes a face. “You’re going to get all,” she flaps a hand in Lan Zhan’s direction, to indicate what all Lan Zhan is going to get. When Lan Zhan simply blinks at her, she clarifies, “Grumpy. Or. Well. Grumpier.”
Lan Zhan brings the keys down to her lap and turns to face Wei Ying more fully, sufficiently conveying that the car won’t move until Wei Ying has, for the first time in her entire goddamn life probably, explained herself clearly.
Wei Ying’s mouth twists, and she lets out a put-upon sigh. “Fine,” she grumbles. “But you have to promise not to get mad.”
“I will not promise that,” says Lan Zhan.
“Zhan-jie,” Wei Ying whines, and Lan Zhan is appalled to realize that the sound sends a shiver down her spine. She wants to shut Wei Ying’s stupid mouth. She wants to tie Wei Ying’s hands behind her back and tell her exactly what she is and is not allowed to do. She. Hm.
“Explain,” Lan Zhan commands her, voice going dark and heavy, and the startled look that Wei Ying gives her sends another zip through each and every one of Lan Zhan’s nerve endings.
Hm, Lan Zhan thinks, again.
“Well,” Wei Ying mumbles, darting glances at Lan Zhan, “well, the thing is, Baby sort of — it’s not her fault, but she, when she ran away, she sort of. She, uh. Well, she had a passenger.”
“The dinosaur took my nephew,” Wei Ying says, and Lan Zhan lays her forehead against the wheel and ignores the horn as it sounds.
Two and a half hours later, Lan Zhan and Wei Ying are approaching Huzhou. Lan Zhan has decided that Wei Ying needs to be gagged and thrown in the trunk, in part for reasons of Wei Ying being a deeply irritating person, and in part for reasons that she doesn’t care to investigate and will absolutely never admit aloud. Lan Zhan is surprised to learn that there are aspects of herself she has never encountered. She is distressed to learn those aspects are not of the “naturally gifted at juggling” variety.
Wei Ying, for her part, has spent this time deciding that Lan Zhan is absolutely positively the best person in the entire world, and, unfortunately, the love of her life. She has messaged Wen Qing seventeen times at last count, explaining first that she’s very sorry to have stolen her fiancée away for the evening, and then effusively gushing that Lan Zhan does Wen Qing great credit, and then explaining that she’s in head-over-heels love with Lan Zhan and she’s going to shoot her shot and please don’t be angry.
Wen Qing has responded once. Her WeChat says, Then do it & stop texting me.
“I don’t understand why we’re going to Huzhou,” Wei Ying says, pulling her knees up and resting her cheek on them, so that she can gaze at Lan Zhan more comfortably. “Why would Baby go to Huzhou?”
“We’re not going to Huzhou,” Lan Zhan says. “We’re going toward Lufeng City.”
Wei Ying sits up so fast she knocks her head on the headrest. “Lufeng City! But that’s a twenty-seven hour drive!” she cries. “Jie, you can’t make me sit in this car for twenty-seven hours. I’ll die. I’ll really die.”
“Toward,” says Lan Zhan, peering out the window.
It takes Wei Ying a moment, and then her expression clears. “You mean — you think Baby is going back to Lufeng? But how does she know where Lufeng is? Or that she was found there? Baby doesn’t know she’s a lufengosaurus.”
Lan Zhan pulls into Taohuajie Forest Park and abandons the car, Wei Ying still in it. Wei Ying hops out after her, lacing the fingers of their hands together and wrapping her other arm around Lan Zhan’s bicep so she can’t get any further. For one thing, Wei Ying loves her, and cannot therefore let her out of her sight, in case she does something stupid, like marry somebody else. For another, Wei Ying doesn’t trust that if Lan Zhan finds Baby first, she won’t just play Rest and then take all the bones back to her stupid museum.
Lan Zhan blinks a few times, but doesn’t shake her off. “She will be looking for her nest,” Lan Zhan explains, marching forward. Her eyes are scanning the park. Wei Ying is pretty sure there’s supposed to be some sort of entrance fee, but she’s never paid for a ticket in her life, and she’s sure as hell not going to start now. “She will know what direction to go. This will be her first encounter with a familiar landscape.”
That doesn’t sound right, but Wei Ying doesn’t know enough about dinosaurs to dispute it, so she shrugs and says, “Okay. Are you hungry? I have snacks in my pocket. They’re a little squished.”
Lan Zhan ignores this. She peels Wei Ying off her arm, but gives her hand a little pat first, so Wei Ying figures she won’t run immediately. Then Lan Zhan produces a beautiful guqin, and begins to play.
She’s extraordinary. Really. Wei Ying has made a phenomenal choice for the love of her life, but, “Oh, that won’t work,” she says, sorry for it. “Don’t take it personally, though, jie. It’s not your playing, it’s the song.”
Lan Zhan’s fingers still. “The song,” she repeats.
“Mn. Baby only likes one song.” Wei Ying pulls out her flute, giving it a sheepish little wave before she brings it to her lips and starts to play, singing along in her head as the notes float onto the breeze: I can’t give you anything but love, baby ... that's the only thing I've plenty of, baby ...
Somewhere off to the right, Wei Ying hears a loud crash, and then Jin Ling’s honking baby laughter. Her eyes snap up to Lan Zhan’s. Lan Zhan holds her free hand out, and Wei Ying takes it, and they run.
Lan Zhan is crouched some feet away, studying a set of badly but enthusiastically dug holes, which Wei Ying tried to explain was probably Jin Ling (he’s also in his hole-digging phase). Lan Zhan had said, “why would a two-year-old boy dig a bunch of holes?” to which Wei Ying had replied, “Why would a two-hundred-million-year-old dinosaur dig a bunch of holes?” to which Lan Zhan had replied, “Shut up.”
Wei Ying was wearing her down already, she could feel it.
Anyway, Wei Ying has crept away to give Lan Zhan some thinking space, and also to call the second-smartest person she knows for help. “Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying hisses into her phone, cupping one hand around it so that her whisper can’t be overheard. “Listen. What would you say about a woman who throws a girl around and is all sexy about it — ”
Jiang Cheng mutters, “Please don’t do this,” and is, appropriately in Wei Ying’s opinion, ignored.
“ — but then when that innocent, defenseless girl says anything at all, she fights with her?”
“Fights with her,” Jiang Cheng repeats. “Is this about your paleontologist? I don’t care. But is it?”
“She’s her own paleontologist,” sniffs Wei Ying. “And also, technically a little bit I guess Wen Qing’s paleontologist.”
“...Wen Qing’s? Paleontologist?”
“Engaged!” cries Jiang Cheng, a real note of distress threaded through his voice. Wei Ying winces. She supposes she could have been more delicate about breaking this news, but she doesn’t have time for Jiang Cheng’s impending breakdown. She’s in the middle of her own, and that’s not even taking into account all the stuff with Baby and Jin Ling. “Wen Qing is getting married? To a paleontologist?”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a paleontologist! I’m a paleontologist!”
“That is not the endorsement of paleontology you believe it to be,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “They shouldn’t get married. They can’t.”
Wei Ying’s ears prick up. “They can’t? Why not?”
“Because,” says Jiang Cheng, spluttering, “because — well, you have to be in love to get married!”
This is true, Wei Ying thinks, and is a very strong argument for why Wei Ying herself should get to marry Lan Zhan, but: “Maybe they are in love.”
She says this very doubtfully. She knows Wen Qing a bit, likes her enormously, is very grateful for the time she did the incredibly difficult core transfer surgery that numerous other doctors said couldn’t be done, and can see why she — and everyone in the entire world — would think Lan Zhan was marriage material, but Wen Qing is already married. To her work. And also, Wei Ying has seen the way she used to look at Jiang Cheng, sometimes. So that’s suspicious.
“But they get along, I’ll bet,” Jiang Cheng points out.
Jiang Cheng makes another sputtering noise. “So, they can’t be in love, because the love impulse in paleontologists very frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.”
“The love impulse,” Wei Ying gasps, delighted. “What’s the love impulse?”
“What does it sound like, idiot? It’s the impulse. Of love.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying reminds him, as gently as she can given the circumstances, “your last blind date emptied a whole can of beer on your head. It took her a long time. She had to shake it at the end. What do you know about the impulse of love?”
“I’ve read books,” Jiang Cheng sniffs. “They’re very clear on this point. No conflict, no love impulse. Without knowing anything about it, my rough guess would be, this paleontologist has a fixation on you, a fixation which — ”
“No, no,” Wei Ying interrupts, already pulling the phone away from her ear and shouting into it from a safe distance. “I can’t remember any more than that. That’s plenty. Goodbye, I love you, don't tell a-jie anything. Hey, Lan Zhan! Jiejie!”
Lan Zhan looks up from where she’s very carefully studying another insane-looking hole. Wei Ying wonders briefly whether that’s a sign of something that they should send Jin Ling to a psychologist for, or if it’s just like, normal two-year-old shit. But she puts the thought away to scurry over and help liberate a few clumps of mud from Lan Zhan’s hair. She looks a fright. Wei Ying wants to kiss her one hundred thousand times, right on the tip of her nose.
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan, returning to her dirt.
“I have great news,” says Wei Ying. She flings herself down beside Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying waves a dismissive hand. “No, of course not about Baby, how could I know anything about Baby that you don’t know? I’ve never met an undead dinosaur ever in my life. Though — I guess you haven’t either. Nobody has. Hey, there’s never been anything like Baby before, ever in the world. Do you think she deserves rights? Like, legally, is she an endangered species? Or is she still a fossil? Hey, do you think — ”
Lan Zhan puts a big, warm hand on the back of Wei Ying’s neck, and Wei Ying’s focus tunnels from the entirety of Chinese legal history regarding personhood to the rub of the rough pad of Lan Zhan’s thumb on the sensitive skin behind her ear. It’s making it very hard to talk, and think, and also keep from flinging herself into Lan Zhan’s arms and showering her face with butterfly kisses.
The problem is that Lan Zhan is so stern and tall and handsome and mean and smart and good. Wei Ying doesn’t know her that well but she can already tell she’s good. She brings her hand down from Wei Ying’s neck instead to grip her elbow, and pulls Wei Ying to her feet, steering her forward.
“They went this way,” Lan Zhan determines. “And no.”
“No, Baby is not an endangered species. Baby is bones.”
“Tell me more about bones, jiejie,” Wei Ying murmurs, fluttering her eyelashes as they come to a creek that runs through the forest. There’s a big skeletal claw print in the mud on the bank.
Lan Zhan frowns, lifting Wei Ying easily with a hand on either side of her waist and hefting her over the creek before following with just one large step. Wei Ying could have crossed with one large step, but in her opinion, it’s much better to be lifted. She thinks maybe the best thing in the world would to be carried by Lan Zhan, which she could certainly make happen if only she was willing to injure, or pretend to injure, her ankle.
But then she’d be a burden, and while Wei Ying certainly doesn’t mind being troublesome, she’d hate to be an actual deadweight.
Anyway, Lan Zhan’s hands are still on Wei Ying’s waist. Wei Ying really thinks they should talk about whatever this is, or at least have sex about it, though she concedes that it’s perhaps best left until after they’ve resolved the Missing Dinosaur With Kidnapped Child situation.
“Aren’t you a paleontologist?” Lan Zhan asks crisply, cutting her a very mean, and very sexy, look. She looks down and seemingly remembers to take her hands back, which Wei Ying thinks is quite rude.
Wei Ying beams regardless. “I’m really more of a — a finder,” she says. “I’m very good at finding bones, jie. You wouldn’t believe how good I can be. I can find bones just about anywhere.”
Lan Zhan blinks at her like she’s not sure whether this is innuendo. It is, but not even Wei Ying is entirely sure in what way. Sometimes things just sound dirty, and Wei Ying frankly thinks that ought to be enough.
“Why?” asks Lan Zhan, and now it’s Wei Ying’s turn to blink.
“Why ... do I look for bones, you mean?”
Wei Ying opens her mouth, and then closes it again. The real answer is that Wei Ying used to be a cultivator, and a PhD student besides. She was going to be an archaeologist. But then she donated her core and started down the ghost path, and it turned out it was just too much of a raging bummer to talk to ghosts as old as the ones she found on her digs. There was so much need in them, so much need in the world, and Wei Ying did her best for a while but then one day Jiang Cheng and her jie found Wei Ying curled up in a corner of her shitty student housing, trembling and exhausted and thin, unable to speak above a whisper because the negative energy had sapped so much of the life from her.
“Uh, actually, fuck this,” Jiang Cheng had said, and their jie had scolded, “A-Cheng, watch your language,” before laying down next to Wei Ying, right there on the floor, and warming her frozen bones with her own body, holding her so tightly Wei Ying couldn’t hear the ghosts. Jiang Cheng had done the same, and then, when Wei Ying could finally feel her toes again, they’d all stood up and gone to the kitchen and eaten instant ramen and Wei Ying had agreed not ever to do quite that much demonic cultivating ever again.
But she still liked the dig sites, so.
Anyway, that’s a big downer, so instead she says cheerfully, ticking off on her fingers, “Had a core, gave it away, almost died, got kicked out of school, my jie got married so I had to move out of her house,” she switches hands, “needed rent money, can talk to ghosts, ghosts lead me to bones, bones lead me to money, profit.”
Lan Zhan’s face does something that makes Wei Ying nervous. “You gave away your golden core?”
Wei Ying sighs. She just knew Lan Zhan was going to be upset about this, and for what? What was done was done. “Who needs it, anyway,” she shrugs. “No use trying to mend the pen after sheep are lost. Hey, you never heard my good news.”
But before she can say it, Wei Ying notices a rustling of leaves from behind Lan Zhan, and after a moment, Baby’s giant skull emerges from behind a small cluster of trees. Her jaw is open and Jin Ling’s little face is peeping out. He beams at Wei Ying and gives her a wave. He’s got dirty hands. Definitely his holes.
She gives a cheery wave back.
Lan Zhan turns, flinches, and lunges forward. The motion startles Baby so badly that her intercostal clavicle falls right out of her skeleton. She throws her head back as if she were roaring, but of course, she can’t roar. She’s bones.
Jin Ling, very helpfully, gives a long scream instead.
“STOP,” says a new voice, one that Wei Ying has never heard. “THIS IS PARK POLICE. YOU’RE IN VIOLATION OF — ”
Baby turns tail and runs. Lan Zhan whips a beautiful sword out of nowhere and leaps up on it, dragging Wei Ying up behind her. Wei Ying wraps her arms around Lan Zhan’s middle and doesn’t look down, nuzzling her face into the warmth of Lan Zhan’s stuffy jacket, with its elbow patches and soft wool even though it’s summer. What a strange and wonderful darling.
They follow the trees where they shake, giving Baby’s position away. Behind them, still on the ground and moving much more slowly, are the park police vehicles. It’s all very exciting, in Wei Ying’s opinion.
Of course, now that they’re close enough, it would be a fairly simple thing for her to take out her flute and steer Baby to a halt, and even put her spirit back to rest, if only so that they could get her out of the public park and back to Wei Ying’s apartment. Or, probably better, to one of the islands the Jin family rents out in Liaoning. Technically they’re supposed to be developing it as a tourist spot, but as far as Wei Ying can tell the only tourists who use it are Jin Zixuan’s forty-two “cousins” who look suspiciously like his dad.
Anyway, the point is, now that they’ve found Baby, of course it would be no problem at all to end this whole adventure. But once the adventure ends, Wei Ying will have to give Lan Zhan back to Wen Qing, and then where will Wei Ying be?
Disconsolate! Unmoored! And Lan Zhan will be trapped in a boring, empty marriage, because the love impulse in paleontologists frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict! Wei Ying can’t abandon her to such a fate!
“Isn’t this fun?” she yells over Lan Zhan’s shoulder, so that she can be heard above the wind and the sirens and the smashing of trees below.
Lan Zhan glares at her over her shoulder, very sexily. “This is an absolute fiasco,” she snaps, and Wei Ying beams. See? Even Lan Zhan is having fun. Wei Ying bets Wen Qing never shows her this good of a time. Wen Qing and Lan Zhan probably just blink politely at one another and talk about science.
Although, actually, listening to Lan Zhan explain things strictly yet patiently is also probably very sexy.
She sets her cheek against Lan Zhan’s back again, curling her arms tighter around Lan Zhan’s middle. It’s nice. If she’s only going to get Lan Zhan for the length of this adventure, she’s damn well going to get a good cuddle out of it.
“Why did you give your core away?” Lan Zhan asks abruptly, pulling up on her sword enough that the noise below them fades, and they can see almost the whole of the park. It’s quiet. The mountains rise up like goosebumps on a startled arm. It’s colder up here, so Wei Ying has an excuse to nuzzle in even closer.
Wei Ying sighs. “Are you still hung up on that?” she grouches. “Who cares? It was a long time ago.”
“Wei Ying,” she mimics, pitching her voice down. She can’t quite get Lan Zhan’s husky octave, but it’s not too bad, as impressions go. Still, Lan Zhan moves a hand to gently cover Wei Ying’s own where it rests against her hip, and gives it what Wei Ying chooses to interpret as an encouraging squeeze. And what’s she supposed to do? Not give Lan Zhan literally everything she could possibly want?
She sighs. “My brother … got sick. He needed a donation.”
“Well, look,” Wei Ying defends, “he was an important cultivator. I was a graduate student mooching off the goodwill of my aunt and uncle — his parents. It made sense.”
Lan Zhan turns on her sword, but doesn’t shake loose Wei Ying’s grip. They face each other, Lan Zhan still within the warm circle of Wei Ying’s arms. “To whom?”
“Everybody,” Wei Ying says, which is almost even true. Everybody she’d talked to had agreed with her, it’s just that the only person she talked to was Auntie Yu, and Auntie Yu had thought it was a spectacular idea. “And anyway, it’s fine. Look at me now! I’m doing great, except, of course, for how heartbroken I am that you don’t like me.”
Wei Ying lets go of Lan Zhan to spread her arms triumphantly. She realizes only as Lan Zhan’s eyes go wide that this was a bad idea for a host of reasons, because the next thing she knows, she’s plummeting toward the ground.
Lan Zhan watches her fall with horror, seconds and seconds of Wei Ying’s surprised face tumbling away before her instincts kick in and she dives down to grab her before she hits anything.
It isn’t, she thinks distantly, that she doesn’t like Wei Ying. Because, after all, in moments of quiet she feels — oddly drawn to her. It’s just that there haven’t been any quiet moments. This entire day is probably the silliest thing that’s ever happened to Lan Zhan, and when she pays attention to it, she thinks it’s. Well, it hasn’t been bad, per se, certainly not bad enough for her to —
Lan Zhan reaches out, and Wei Ying reaches back. Their fingers are close enough to brush. All day Wei Ying has spun around Lan Zhan like one of those tanoura dancers with lights sewn into their skirts, surprising and hypnotizing and bewildering. Everything she says is the new most insane thing Lan Zhan has ever heard. She’s annoying and the skin on the inside of her elbows feels like silk and Lan Zhan has no idea what the feeling is that’s been welling up inside her, this desire to make Wei Ying just go away warring with the desire to pull her as close as she can possibly get. Maybe even closer than that.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan, startled, catching up and clutching their hands together, trying to pull her back onto Bichen. “Wei Ying — ”
Something thwacks into the back of Lan Zhan’s head, and she registers Wei Ying’s look of horror before everything goes black.
Lan Zhan wakes in a jail cell.
Well. Jail cell is a little dramatic. It’s really more of a waiting room with locks on it. But it’s certainly the closest Lan Zhan has ever personally been to a jail cell. There are five of them locked inside: herself, Wei Ying, and three strangers all huddled together on the far side of the room. Wei Ying has Lan Zhan’s head in her lap, and she’s running her fingers through Lan Zhan’s hair as she talks to the other inmates. It feels nice.
“... rough, buddy,” she’s saying. “Personally, I think you should be allowed to do rituals wherever you want. It’s a public park, isn’t it? You’re public.”
“That’s what we said!” one of the other criminals whines. He’s thin, and wearing very badly-done makeup.
“Park police did not find it convincing,” says one of his compatriots, dryly. “Perhaps, if anyone had listened to me when I suggested we act with a hint of subtlety — ”
“Boring,” interrupts the third criminal, and turns conspiratorially to Wei Ying. “Sang-ge never wants to have any fun. What’s the point of being demonic cultivators if we never demonically cultivate?” He flashes a smile that makes Lan Zhan want to ban smiling from society at large, just to make sure she never has to see it again.
Wei Ying sighs, threading her fingers into Lan Zhan’s hair and scratching gently against her scalp. “Oh, are you demonic cultivators?” she asks, fingers stilling for a moment before resuming their gentle pattern. No one has ever touched Lan Zhan like this. No one has ever — wanted to.
“Don’t be scared,” coos the slimy one. “We won’t hurt you.”
“Don’t say it like that,” mutters his friend, the one with the makeup on. “We really won’t.”
“I just said we won’t.”
“Yeah, but you said it like we would.”
“Both of you shut up,” snaps the third. Sang-ge. Lan Zhan guesses that’s the leader. He looks familiar, though Lan Zhan can’t quite place him.
Wei Ying laughs. It’s a light, airy sound, flat somehow, nothing like the laughs she’d gifted to Lan Zhan throughout the day, which were throaty and joyful. “I’m not worried that you’ll hurt me,” she assures their compatriots. “You couldn’t possibly. Hey, by the way, did the police say when they’d be back? We’re on something of a tight schedule. Our dinosaur is getting further and further away with each second.”
There’s a long pause. Lan Zhan flicks her eyes upward, so that Wei Ying, when she looks down, will be able to tell that Lan Zhan is awake. She doesn’t have to wait long; Wei Ying looks down, and her mouth immediately blooms into a big smile. She brings an index finger to stroke a line down Lan Zhan’s nose, making a soft cooing sound of welcome.
“Sorry,” the makeup-wearing criminal rudely interrupts, “did you say dinosaur?”
Wei Ying, looking cross at last, spares a glance upwards. “Yes,” she says curtly.
“Like. A real dinosaur? An alive one?”
“Alive is a bit of a stretch,” admits Wei Ying. “But certainly animated.”
Lan Zhan could sit up now, she supposes. But Wei Ying’s lap is soft, and comfortable. Lan Zhan’s head still hurts. This has been a very tiring day. Things have happened which have never happened to Lan Zhan before, and also possibly have never happened to anyone in the whole history of the world. Just a day ago Wei Ying was nothing to Lan Zhan but a sandwich-ruiner and a thief and a madwoman, and now here she is, playful fingers tapping on Lan Zhan’s cheek, lap warm and welcoming. Now Wei Ying is still all those other things, but she’s this, too.
It’s confusing, the conflicting elements of Wei Ying. It makes Lan Zhan’s head hurt.
“Who animated it?” asks Sang-ge, voice keen with interest. “You’ve met a demonic cultivator powerful enough to animate a whole dinosaur?”
Wei Ying hums. “No,” she muses. “I’ve never met anyone like that.”
“Then how ... ?”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying leans down to whisper in her ear, ignoring the question. “I’m really sorry to tell you this, but I think we’re in jail.”
Lan Zhan hums thoughtfully. She lets her eyes flutter back closed so that she can better feel the trace of Wei Ying’s fingers along her cheekbones, her jaw, the bow of her lips. Wen Qing has never touched Lan Zhan like this. Wen Qing doesn’t really touch her at all; but then, Lan Zhan wouldn’t want her to. Lan Zhan realizes, lying here, using every bit of her sensory perception to memorize the whorls of Wei Ying’s fingertips, that they’re less girlfriends than they are roommates playing at being girlfriends, getting married because it’s the Right Thing To Do. Because everyone else is annoying. They sleep in separate rooms, eat on opposite sides of the table. They keep separate schedules. Wen Qing admires Lan Zhan’s work and supports it and does an exquisite job glaring down the other curators and potential museum donors when they get too chummy at cocktail parties. She’s mean on Lan Zhan’s behalf when Lan Zhan is not permitted to be mean herself.
Wen Qing is lovely. Lan Zhan likes her a lot.
That’s not enough.
Wen Qing has never made Lan Zhan’s head hurt like this, never made her heart hurt like this, never made her skin tingle like cinnamon oil lip plumper. Lan Zhan hates to think what Wei Ying’s lips would do to her.
“Oh no,” Lan Zhan says, eyes still closed.
Wei Ying, taking this to be a response to the news about their incarceration, winces. “I knew you’d be upset about it,” she sighs. “But don’t worry, I’ve been in jail loads of times, and anyway, this is junior jail at best. They even let us have a phone call! I’ve already used mine, but unfortunately I called Jiang Cheng, and when I said it was me, he said, ‘I don’t know a Wei Ying,’ and hung up.”
Lan Zhan blinks her eyes open. “You called the Jiang sect heir to tell him you were in prison?”
“Well, yeah,” Wei Ying replies, with a puzzled tip of her head. “It’s not like I could call our jie. If I did that, I’d have to tell her that I got Jin Ling kidnapped by a dinosaur.”
“Your jie,” Lan Zhan repeats. She feels like half her conversations with Wei Ying are just Lan Zhan repeating the incomprehensible things Wei Ying has said, as if saying them twice will elucidate the madness. It never does. “Jin Zixuan is your brother-in-law?”
Jin Zixuan, who wants to make a multi-million-dollar donation, or at least who wanted to before Lan Zhan lost his lufengosaurus.
Jin Zixuan, father of a two-year-old boy who is in his dinosaur phase.
A two-year-old boy who ... loves ...
Wei Ying’s face is twisted with distaste. “Technically, that is true,” she laments. “Stupid peacock. He doesn’t deserve my jie, but she wanted him, and she should get everything she wants, so what’s to be done? Anyway, I couldn’t call them, because they’d just get worried for no reason. That’s why I called Jiang Cheng. But he’s upset because of — ” Her eyes flick at Lan Zhan and then away, “ — unrelated bad news he received earlier today. So it looks like we’re going to have to break out on our own.”
Lan Zhan pushes up onto her elbows, waits her way through a dizzy spell, and then sits up. It feels: very bad. She may have a concussion from whatever struck her. It’s nothing her core won’t fix, but brain injuries always take a little longer.
“My phone call,” she demands. “I’ll make it now.”
“Ah,” says Wei Ying, wincing again. “Well.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes narrow. “What.”
“It’s just that Jiang Cheng didn’t help me!” Wei Ying mutters, defensively. “So I thought — surely your brother — ”
“You called Huan-ge?”
“Well, I didn’t. I just. I told them who you were, and that if they called the museum, surely they’d be able to confirm with Lan Huan that you were, you know. A very important person. Lan Zhan, don’t look like that, I really thought it would work! You’re very sensible and good, so why wouldn’t Lan Huan tell them how sensible and good you are, and that they ought to release you immediately? Only ... ” She sighs, looking sheepish. The three demonic cultivators are watching them with interest. “Only, I guess when they called and said they were Jail and you were in it, and that you were claiming to be chasing a re-animated dinosaur which is why you were traipsing through the park without paying the fee, and your brother said, ‘There’s simply no way my sister would associate with demonic cultivation. Tell whoever is impersonating her that identity theft is a crime,’ and hung up on them. Which reminds me, I think you’re being charged with identity fraud now, on top of trespassing.”
Lan Zhan buries her face in her hands.
“But don’t worry!” Wei Ying says quickly, seeing Lan Zhan’s distress. “I have a plan! These three dummies gave it to me.” She hooks her thumb toward the three demonic cultivators, who look intrigued, annoyed, and confused in turn.
“Hey,” protests the makeup-wearing one. “We’re not dumb.”
Wei Ying gives him a patronizing smile. “Of course you’re not,” she soothes. “Well, anyway, as I said, I have a plan. You’re not going to like it, obviously, but it really is going to save the day. So isn’t that good news?”
“Every time you say that, this day gets worse,” Lan Zhan points out, scrubbing at her forehead. “Please resist any further good news. Regular news only from here out.”
“All right,” Wei Ying agrees peaceably. “Then I have very regular news for you, which is that at any point after finding Baby, I could have put a stop to this whole thing, only Jin Ling was clearly having so much fun, and so was I, and so were you! Also, I love you. I love you very much, and you can’t marry Wen Qing. Well, you can, but please don’t. Marry me instead.”
“Is that all?” Lan Zhan asks, voice faint.
“No,” admits Wei Ying. “There’s one more thing.”
“Right now, my regular news plan involves Baby causing fairly significant property damage in a bid to break us out of here.” She pulls out her flute and takes a deep breath.
“Oh,” says Lan Zhan, when the wall on the far side of the room explodes and Baby’s giant skull pokes through the newly-established hole, Jin Ling’s hand waving cheerfully from inside her belly.
Wei Ying looks beautiful and terrible, wrapped in smoke. I can’t give you anything but love, baby. That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby. Dream awhile, scheme awhile, we're sure to find, baby, happiness ...
Baby, entranced, rattles her way through the newly-wrecked wall. Jin Ling bobs his head cheerfully along. The three demonic cultivators, mouths agape, watch Wei Ying with wide eyes as the lufengosaurus comes to sit at Wei Ying’s feet, nuzzling her head up against Wei Ying.
Jin Ling clamors out and toddles over to Wei Ying’s lap, plopping himself cheerfully into the bend of her knee. She pulls her flute from her lips in order to pepper the baby’s face with kisses, and Lan Zhan is appalled to feel her stomach twist with — jealousy?
Is she jealous of a two-year-old?
“Ah, sweet Baby,” Wei Ying murmurs, mournful as her hand runs along the ridge of the dinosaur’s head. “You’ve been very naughty. Did you have a fun day?”
The dinosaur wriggles, delighted by Wei Ying’s attentions. If she’s speaking, Lan Zhan can’t hear it; but the smoke around Wei Ying seems to shift responsively, in a way that makes Wei Ying laugh.
The real laugh. The good one. The one from deep in her throat.
“Well, that’s good,” says Wei Ying. “I’m glad. But it’s time to take a rest now, all right? A-Ling needs a nap, too. There’s two very sleepy babies in this jail cell. So let’s go back to the museum and take a nice rest. How does that sound?”
The dinosaur climbs back up to its full height and tosses its head in invitation. Wei Ying scoops Jin Ling up into the crook of her arm and then, not looking at Lan Zhan, offers her free hand. Lan Zhan takes it, and together they climb onto the dinosaur’s back.
She’s distantly aware that the park police are shouting, fighting to get close but being kept at bay by a swirl of smoke and the deadly swipe of Baby’s wagging tail. The three cultivators in the corner are huddled together, their eyes as large as saucers. Wei Ying gives them a cheerful wave.
“Stop doing demon stuff,” she tells them sternly. “I didn’t take any disciples for the very good reason that none of you are as good at it as me, and I’m not even that good at it, so imagine the trouble you’ll cause.”
“Laozu,” breathes the slimy one, looking thrilled.
Wei Ying makes a face. “Ugh, no, that’s too much responsibility, cut that shit out,” she snaps, then looks down at Jin Ling and says quickly, “Don’t say shit.”
“Shit,” agrees Jin Ling.
“Fuck,” Wei Ying mutters, and then, before Jin Ling can open his mouth, she whistles sharply and Baby marches the three of them out of the cell.
THREE MONTHS LATER
The donation comes in without much fanfare. It is earmarked for the dinosaur wing, but has no stipulations beyond that. Lan Zhan can use it to build better facilities, more interactive exhibits, better labs. She can use it to spruce up the corners of the museum housing the lesser fossils, the less sexy ones. She can use it to excuse herself from at least three fundraisers’ worth of attendance.
She has spent the end of every day since at the museum, standing in front of where they put Baby, still and frozen in the foyer. Her head is tilted up, looking at the skylight.
Wen Qing pats Lan Zhan’s shoulder comfortingly from beside her on the couch. She’s taken the day off, probably the first time she’s ever done so in the history of her employment, but when she’d seen Lan Zhan at breakfast she’d said, “You look so awful that if I leave this apartment I will be jailed for criminal neglect,” so now here they are, side-by-side, in companionable silence.
Lan Zhan sighs. Wen Qing’s mouth flickers with what might have been a smile.
“So you had a big day recently,” Wen Qing prompts. “Wei Ying ought to have called me, not Lan Huan. I’d have come and gotten you.”
“She didn’t want to,” Lan Zhan admits, “because she doesn’t want us to get married.”
Wen Qing rolls her lips inward. Lan Zhan has the distinct impression that she’s being laughed at. “No,” Wen Qing agrees. “I imagine she doesn’t.”
“It’s foolish,” Lan Zhan decides. “She’s a nightmare woman. Impulsive. Distractible. Unfettered by logic.”
“Those are all true things,” says Wen Qing. “She’s also kind, and loyal, and brilliant, and fun.”
“She said she was in love with me.”
Lan Zhan nods. She had. She’d said it: I love you. I love you very much. But then she’d taken Lan Zhan from the jail cell and deposited her back at her car, disassembling Baby into a cluttered heap with a few notes of her flute before taking off with Jin Ling, the police in hot pursuit. And then she’d been gone, completely, no word sent to Lan Zhan at all. After a few days, Lan Zhan had caved and called the Jiang sect heir, who’d explained furiously that he himself hadn’t heard anything either, and that if Lan Zhan had broken his sister’s heart and made her disappear forever, he was going to burn the museum down.
So clearly the whole family was insane.
The donation from Jin Zixuan had been hand-delivered by his wife, a sweet-looking woman with a stubborn set to her jaw. She had handed over the check and said, Oh I see, when Lan Zhan shook her hand. Yes, I understand completely.
None of it made any sense, but since when did anything to do with Wei Ying make sense?
“Are you?” Lan Zhan asks now, looking over at Wen Qing with a curious tilt of her head.
Wen Qing hums. “Am I in love with you?” she clarifies, and Lan Zhan nods. “No. I hope that doesn’t come as too much of a shock.”
Despite herself, Lan Zhan huffs a laugh. “Not really.”
“In my defense, you aren’t in love with me either,” Wen Qing points out, which is an argument Lan Zhan cannot but concede. “I love my work. It’s the most important thing to me. It’s my purpose. We worked well together before because, when we met, your work was your purpose, too.”
“Mn,” agrees Lan Zhan, miserably.
“And now, I think, it’s not.”
Lan Zhan heaves a sigh. She tips her head back against the couch, glaring up at the ceiling. “She’s a very chaotic woman,” she mutters.
Wen Qing laughs, knocking their shoulders together. “Lan Zhan, you love chaos,” she points out. “Any time there’s drama at the museum, you’re always in the center of it.”
“I’m not chaotic,” Lan Zhan protests, frowning.
“You don’t have to be chaotic to be drawn to it,” Wen Qing replies. She pats Lan Zhan’s shoulder again. Lan Zhan feels a little patronized, but then again, she guesses she deserves it, given that three months ago Wen Qing had a fiancée and now it seems that all she’s got is a very depressed roommate.
“I’m sorry,” she says, sincerely. “I was really ready to marry you.”
“Of course you were, I mean, look at me,” Wen Qing assures her. “Don’t worry, Lan Zhan. I always knew you didn’t love me.”
Wen Qing laughs. She climbs to her feet and reaches under the kitchen table, emerging with Lan Zhan’s suitcase, one that Lan Zhan certainly had not packed. She presses it into Lan Zhan’s hand, along with a print-out of a news article. The headline reads NEARLY-COMPLETE TARBOSAURUS BAATAR FOUND IN GOBI DESERT BY BONE HUNTER.
“We get along too well,” Wen Qing tells her. “And everyone knows that the love impulse in paleontologists frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.”
“What,” says Lan Zhan, but she’s already being ushered out the door.
Wei Ying pulls her forearm across her brow, wicking off the sweat. It’s hot in the desert. Obviously she’d known it would be, she’s been in deserts before, but she hadn’t really prepared this time. She’d been haphazard in her choices, careless in her packing. She’d just wanted to be — not in Shanghai. Not in China at all, if she could help it.
“This is good,” she tells Jiang Cheng, keeping her voice light. He’d found her a couple of days ago, shown up at the dig site with a scowl, waving her own cell phone in her face and demanding she explain why she hasn’t used it.
Now, he looks up from where he’s trying to piece together the spine of the dinosaur they’ve uncovered. He’s doing a bad job. He’s not even an amateur paleontologist; he’s only here to make sure Wei Ying doesn’t die of dehydration brought on by a broken heart.
“Don’t patronize me,” he snaps now. “We both know I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
“No, not you, you’re doing awful, that one in your hand’s not even from the spine,” Wei Ying tells him. “I mean, being here. In the Gobi. Lots of bones, very little internet service. I’ll just stay here, forever, and then I’ll never have to hear about Lan Zhan and Wen Qing’s wedding, or see poor sad Baby stuck in that back lab, or face any of my problems, ever again.”
“They’re not getting married,” Jiang Cheng informs her, with an air of studied disinterest. “Also there’s a flaw in your plan, which is that there’s no way a-jie lets Jin Ling visit you out here. It’s too hot. He’ll die.”
“He won’t die,” Wei Ying argues, and then, brain doing a record skip: “Wait. What?”
“I said there’s no way a-jie — ”
“Not that! The other thing!”
Jiang Cheng smirks. “What other thing?”
“You know what other thing!”
“Oh, that Lan Zhan and Wen Qing aren’t getting married? They aren’t. They broke off their engagement months ago, something you might have known already if you’d picked up your phone. I know because we’ve been talking a lot. Me and Wen Qing.”
He sounds smug about it, and also like he wants Wei Ying to ask him questions about his relationship with Wen Qing, a satisfaction she will not give him. Instead, she leaps to her feet, brush and pick falling from her hands. “But why!” she cries. “What was Wen Qing thinking? How could she — who in their right mind would have Lan Zhan and not marry her?”
“Wen Qing is of the opinion,” says a new voice, from behind them, “that she shouldn’t marry someone who is in love with somebody else.”
Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng both twist to look, and Wei Ying lets out a cry before clapping her hand over her mouth.
Lan Zhan is sitting astride Baby’s neck, steering with a set of leather reins. She swings her leg over and hops down into the sand, leading an obedient Baby behind her. Sensing Wei Ying, Baby happily stretches her neck forward for a pet, which Wei Ying gives, dazed.
Jiang Cheng mutters something disparaging from beside her, which Wei Ying magnanimously ignores.
“Baby,” Wei Ying breathes, looking at Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan quirks her mouth into half a smile. It’s radiant. It’s the most beautiful thing Wei Ying has ever seen.
Jiang Cheng, Grandmaster of Ruining Moments, pipes up: “How’d you get the dinosaur to move?”
“One of the cultivators we were in jail with,” Lan Zhan answers, without looking away from Wei Ying. “I thought he looked familiar. It turns out his elder brother is a dear family friend. He was very grateful to me for having the charges against him waived with a warning, after the authorities learned he and his friends were part of our dinosaur-hunting group and were performing a public safety service. And they kindly flew us out — for an intra-museum exhibition.”
“But your museum,” Wei Ying protests weakly. “You needed Baby to be the centerpiece, didn’t you? For the donations?”
“We got the donation,” Lan Zhan says. “And anyway, we can always find more fossils. I have it on very good authority that somewhere out there in the world is a very good bone finder. The best in the business.”
Wei Ying swallows. She’s going to cry, probably. “You want — my bones?” she croaks. “Mine? Really?”
Lan Zhan takes several strides forward, and gathers Wei Ying’s face in her hands. She swipes her thumbs along the bottom of Wei Ying’s eyes, tender. “Mn,” she agrees. “All of them. Every single one. Don’t give them to anyone else.”
Wei Ying flings herself into Lan Zhan’s arms, nestling her face into the dip of Lan Zhan’s throat. She’s so handsome. She’s so handsome and smart and good and now here she is, with Wei Ying’s baby, saying she — saying —
“You have to mean it,” Wei Ying murmurs into Lan Zhan’s skin. “You have to, forever, you can’t — Lan Zhan, I’ll die if you don’t mean it, okay? I’ll die.”
“Don’t die,” Lan Zhan murmurs, lifting Wei Ying’s head. She presses a kiss to each corner of Wei Ying’s mouth, and then over her little mole. She kisses Wei Ying’s ears, then untangles her hands from where they’re clutching the lapels of Lan Zhan’s jacket and kisses each one of Wei Ying’s flute-playing fingertips. “I mean it.”
“But I’m very troublesome,” Wei Ying sniffs happily. “I commit a lot of crimes.”
“I love trouble,” Lan Zhan assures her. “We’ll work on the crime thing.”
“For God’s sake,” Jiang Cheng mutters, but Wei Ying ignores him, because what does Jiang Cheng, noted unromantic, know? Instead, she pulls herself up onto her tip-toes and kisses Lan Zhan, smack dab on the mouth. Lan Zhan kisses back, wrapping her arms around Wei Ying’s waist and drawing her in as close as she can get. Even closer than that. Baby lies down happily to watch.
Wei Ying pulls away, but keeps her eyes closed. “You know, all that happened, sort of happened because I was trying to keep you near me, and I just — did anything that popped into my head.”
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan. “Thank you.”
Wei Ying’s eyes snap open. “Thank me? But why?”
“For giving me the best day of my life,” Lan Zhan tells her, and her eyes are so soft, and her hands are so warm, and her jaw line is so sharp. Wei Ying wants to bite it, but she can be patient. Wei Ying is known for her patience, actually. It’s her defining feature.
“Really? Even though I was there? Even though we fought the whole time?”
Lan Zhan kisses her again, deeply, deeply. “Even so,” she agrees when she’s finished, and Wei Ying is dizzy with kissing and delight. “Haven’t you heard? About paleontologists and conflict?”
“The love impulse!” Wei Ying cries, and finally gives into the impulse to plant a kiss on every inch of Lan Zhan’s face. Lan Zhan topples backward, laughing, a beautiful sound, perfect, delicate and brash all at once. Distantly, Wei Ying registers Jiang Cheng stomping away, but she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care. Lan Zhan is here, beneath her, mouth tipped up, eyes warm. Wei Ying kisses her again, once, twice, three times. Then a fourth time, for good luck. She says, “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.”
“Good. Marry me,” commands Lan Zhan, fierce, grip tightening. Wei Ying’s waist is going to bruise. She doesn’t mind. She hopes it does. She looks out and can see the future suddenly stretched out ahead of her, as long as the desert. Wei Ying and Lan Zhan and Baby in the chaos, spinning in perfect step.
Wei Ying looks down, just to see Lan Zhan’s face. Just to kiss it.
Lan Zhan is looking at her like she’ll never look away.