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vintage (for old time's sake)

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(prologue)

Jiang Cheng has many regrets.

The first of those regrets is that he didn’t have the right coat nor the right scarf on for walking in the chilly night air tonight. But they’re what he had in his car, and with the traffic, he really didn’t have enough time to fetch something more appropriate. 

It’s unlike him to be unprepared, but it’s been an… eventful… few days.

He’ll live, he supposes. He shouldn’t be long, anyway. It’s not that far a walk to the theater district.

He takes a deep breath and gets a whiff of the scent of the flowers in his arm. He knows it won’t warm him, but he holds the bouquet closer anyway, though he is careful not to mess up the careful packaging and arrangement.

That is another regret. Not the flowers, per se. He knows (or hopes, anyway) that they’ll be appreciated. The regret is the fact that he didn’t just get the flowers himself .

If he had gotten the flowers himself, he wouldn't have to deal with the teenagers very obviously tailing him.

They've been at it for a few blocks now, and as Jiang Cheng keeps walking, it’s becoming clearer that they hadn't realized the fact that he knows they're following him.

There's two of them, Jiang Cheng deduces. He notes the body language and the whispered argument they think no one would catch.

'A-Ling.' he sighs, because he knows his nephew like the back of his hand, and would pick him out in any crowd with his eyes closed. 'With Lan Jingyi.' he decides, because only those two together would be this horrible at being subtle. It can't be Ouyang Zizhen, who is a team player. And not Lan Sizhui, who...-

That makes him pause, but only for a second. He pretends to adjust his scarf, then continues his pace. This time, he pays extra attention.

After another block of careful listening and subtle glances at reflections, he finally spots what - who - he's looking for. Surprisingly closer to him than the first two.

Lan Sizhui has... practice, but he's still young. Jiang Cheng has more experience and sharper instincts under his belt.

'Three kids, then.' Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

Well. At least one of them is doing a decent job.

Still, the whole thing is annoying. And Jiang Cheng hates being sneaked up on.

So he stops walking and turns to look directly at his tails, making sure he looks very displeased and unimpressed.

The two of them walking side-by-side visibly freeze. The other one keeps walking, but is obviously trying to ease himself back in the crowd for a quiet escape-

"Lan Sizhui, come on, I know that's you." Jiang Cheng says.

That makes the teen stop, finally, and he steps out from the crowd, looking up with a sheepish smile. He's wearing his hair differently, and his scarf was drawn up enough so he'd only had to look down to hide most of his face. No wonder Jiang Cheng didn't spot him until he really tried.

Jiang Cheng gestures for the boy to come closer, then he eyes the other two. "Well? You two are blocking the sidewalk."

Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi, whose respective stealth modes consist of one putting up his hoodie and the other wearing sunglasses (in a chilly winter night, wow), elbow each other and argue on their way to catching up to him.

Jiang Cheng turns, starting to walk again and leaving the three boys to keep up with him.

He sees Lan Jingyi poke Jin Ling's arm, and there's another incoherent argument before Jin Ling finally speaks up. "Uncle-"

Jiang Cheng glances at his nephew. "Where's the other one?"

Jin Ling blinks, then realizes what he's being asked about. "Uh- Zizhen? He lost rock-paper-scissors."

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "I see. Then care to tell me why the three of you decided to stalk me tonight? Only Sizhui was actually achieving anything close to stealth back there, by the way. Good job. Don’t do it to me again."

He notes Sizhui looking at him in surprise, about to say something but stopping himself when Jin Ling steps closer to his uncle.

Jiang Cheng glances at his nephew and sees the teen looking at him guiltily. "Uncle, w-we didn’t mean to stalk you, we were just-... well, uh-"

“Curious.” Lan Sizhui provides.

“Yeah, we were just curious-”

Lan Jingyi, bless him, has always had no time to dance around questions. "Who are the flowers for?"

“Jingyi!” Jin Ling hisses.

Jiang Cheng shakes his head again and this time he makes sure they hear him sigh.

He really should have made anyone else at all get the goddamn flowers. Not one of four overly-curious teenagers, not when he already knew they could and would snoop on things they shouldn’t be snooping on.

“What?” Lan Jingyi pouts. He’s walking behind Jiang Cheng and Jiang Cheng knows he’s pouting. “I mean, there’s no card, just flowers, but they’re not dead people flowers, I looked those up-”

“Jingyi.” Lan Sizhui tries this time, to no avail.

“- and Zizhen said the lady at the shop looked really impressed and said it’s their most expensive order today by a lot , so-”

“Alright, alright.” Jiang Cheng cuts him off before he could spit out any more details. “I get it, I will never ask any of you to run an errand for me ever again.”

Anyway, he thinks, four nosy kids are better off with this knowledge than, say, one of the office staff.

He still makes a mental note that next time he’ll just learn how to order online.

‘Next time, huh?’ his thoughts interrupt. ‘Aren’t we getting our hopes up too much?’

“They’re for a friend.” Jiang Cheng finally answers.

“You have a friend?” Jin Ling asks almost immediately.

Then he seems to realize what he said, or maybe he saw his uncle’s glare, or perhaps he heard Lan Jingyi’s snicker and the strangled sound Lan Sizhui made - or all of those, because he rushes to correct himself.

“I mean-! Uncle, you have a friend, who- who… likes-… flowers?”

Jiang Cheng replies, weary. “Yes.”

“Do I know them?”

“No.” Jiang Cheng says. After consideration, he continues, “You were too little when you last met him.”

“Oh.” Jin Ling thinks about it. “So you’re… coming to meet him, then? And give him flowers?”

“Super expensive flowers.” Lan Jingyi chimes in.

“No, I’m not going to meet him, I’m just going to drop these flowers off.”

Lan Sizhui blinks. “You couldn’t have had them delivered?”

Jiang Cheng has half a mind to send these boys home. “You three aren’t going to leave me alone about this, are you?”

“C’mon, jiujiu, I promised Zizhen that we’ll let him know who it is he had to suffer questions from aunties in the flower shop for.” Jin Ling insists.

“Fine.” Jiang Cheng decides. “You lot will come with me, no sneaking. And you’ll behave yourselves.”

“We can do that!” Lan Jingyi says, giddy.

“You will do that.”

“So where are we going, Uncle?”

Jiang Cheng shifts his hold on the (super expensive) bouquet. “We’re going to see a play.”

.

He really should have known better than to expect the boys to sit still and be quiet through a boring local production of a Shakespeare play. The cast is… less than stellar. Even the audience seemed bored, or barely hanging in there. Less than half the seats were taken.

Out of the corner of his eye, he notes Jin Ling trying his best to muffle a yawn, and then he hears Lan Jingyi whispering, “Is it me, or is that one guy just new?”

“Which one?” Jin Ling asks.

“You know, that one! They’re all pretty okay, but that one’s… terrible.”

“The one in green? He’s… trying. I guess.”

“Maybe it’s just nerves.” Lan Sizhui says, though he also doesn’t sound convinced. “The lines are quite… complicated.”

“Nah, I think he’s just actually bad at it.”

Or, Jiang Cheng thinks - as his eyes follow the actor in green moving across the stage while clumsily holding on to another actor as he awkwardly pretends to cry - it isn’t inexperience, or nerves, or lack of skill.

Maybe this is simply not his stage.

By the end of it, Lan Sizhui is the only one that Jiang Cheng didn’t have to wake, though the boy had already started yawning. The boys follow him out of the auditorium and back to the theater lobby, where he told them to “stay, meet the actors, take pictures or something”

He makes his way backstage and finds a staff member who is happy to take the bouquet to the dressing rooms. He slips a little note beneath the flower stems and gives his friend’s name, then tips the staff for the favor.

When he returns, he finds Jin Ling watching as his two friends take photos with the actors. Well, Lan Jingyi is happily posing with the two main leads. Sizhui is happy to take the photos for his friend.

Jin Ling, of course, notes that the bouquet on his uncle’s arm is missing.

“Uncle! Did you meet your friend?”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “I told you. I was only going to drop it off. Besides, I wouldn’t want to bother him while he’s working.”

The boy stares at him, curious and questioning. Jiang Cheng lets him. He only nods when Jingyi and Sizhui return to them.

“All done?” he asks, though he doesn’t wait for a reply seeing as both were busy looking through the new photos on Jingyi’s phone. “Good. I’m hungry. Let’s go get dinner.”

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i.

Ouyang Zizhen would dare to say that he knows a lot of things about Jiang Cheng.

Well, he knows a lot of things about Jin Ling , really. But! Claiming to be Jin Ling’s best friend at five years old and sticking around ever since has entitled him to a lot of information about Jiang Cheng, too. When you’ve been playmates and classmates, present on every birthday, holiday, sleepover, summer camp, school trip, entrance exam and everything else there is with someone for as long as you can remember, you’d naturally get to know their only family too, right?

Okay, closest family. There’s another family, but besides the cool (expensive) presents every now and then, they’ve been pretty distant, or at least that’s all Ouyang Zizhen hears about them.

(That other family is like, super super rich, but Jin Ling never talked much about them, so Zizhen never asked about them either. Then, there’s… recent and not-so-recent events… that made that topic much much more complicated. Zizhen chooses not to unpack that right now.)

So. Good ol’ Jiang-shushu, right? Zizhen likes to think he knows Uncle Jiang well by now. The man is tough and, frankly speaking, very intimidating and he only really smiles once in a blue moon, or if there’s a dog. His hobbies are working out, collecting postcards, doing household chores and making Jin Ling also do household chores. But through his strictness, he’s fair and actually quite kind, and he cares about Jin Ling a lot. He always says Zizhen is ‘loud’, ‘nosy’ and ‘too dramatic for your own good’ but he has also called Zizhen ‘smart’ and ‘a good kid’, so Zizhen knows that he had passed the Jiang Cheng Test for being Jin Ling’s Friend sometime down the decade or so since he first declared himself as Jin Ling’s Best Friend.

(Did Jin Ling ever call him his best friend too? Nope, never, but Jin Ling never said he’s not his best friend either, so like - it’s free real estate, right?)

(Did Ouyang Zizhen feel jealous that time Jin Ling said to his face that he finally found his best friend? Yep, but then Jin Ling took out Little Fairy and like, that’s fair. That’s totally fair. Fairy is Best Girl. Zizhen can be Best Boy.)

Then, when Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui came into the picture, Uncle Jiang took that in stride too. Were there suddenly double the number of teenagers in his house? No problem. He has extra plates.

(He did tell Lan Jingyi to be quieter or he’ll kick them all out, though. But Zizhen is putting that on Jingyi, because… well. It was 2 AM.)

Anyway, imagine Ouyang Zizhen’s surprise when one morning in the middle of (Jin Ling’s, but also Zizhen’s and Jingyi’s) breakfast, Jiang Cheng put down a credit card and a note on the table, then told them (in general, he didn’t indicate who, maybe he assumed they’d delegate among themselves) to go to some fancy flower shop and have a bouquet made exactly according to the instructions on the note, then have it ready for him to pick up at the end of the day.

Then he left for work. Without explaining anything.

“Did he say bouquet ?” Jingyi had asked, bewildered, while Jin Ling was busy absorbing everything written on the note, mouthing flower names as he went. “Like with flowers ?”

“That’s what a bouquet normally is, Jingyi.” Zizhen said, then leaned over to read the notes with Jin Ling. “Oh, wow. Those are specific .”

“How specific?”

“As in like Zizhen’s milk tea order.” Jin Ling answered as he passed the note to Jingyi in favor of petting Fairy who had laid her head on his lap.

Jingyi chewed on his food that he totally stole from Jin Ling’s bowl. “What does he need something that fancy for?”

Zizhen took a sip of his soup, thinking.

(Uncle Jiang does not only act like a grumpy grandma, but he cooks like one too - dang, these family recipes were delicious.)

“Maybe it’s for a work thing?” Jin Ling said. “A client or whatever? People do that, sometimes, right?”

“Yeah, could be.” Zizhen mused. “But, your uncle’s a private investigator, A-Ling. I doubt he gives flowers to clients. And, if it is a client, why can’t he just get one of the office people to do this? So, to conclude-”

“-it’s for a personal thing.”

“Definitely personal.”

“Totally personal.”

“Maybe he’s visiting a grave!”

“These are not dead person flowers, buddy, I assure you.”

“Huh.”

“Huh.”

“Huuuuhhh-”

“No way. Jiujiu doesn’t have-... He doesn’t! Right? Zizhen?!

Right, Zizhen thinks. Jiujiu- Mr. Jiang- Uncle Cheng-... is single and not intent to mingle, as far as he knew. And he knew !

(He knew very well, believe him. He and Jin Ling were 8 years old when they foolishly concluded that if they got Jiujiu to date a nice lady, maybe he’ll be nicer too, and let Jin Ling skip on washing the dishes. So they tried to set him up with Zizhen’s Jiejie, who was a nice lady. There were shenanigans. A lot of them. Jiujiu and Zizhen’s Jiejie were not pleased by the end.)

(That’s how Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen learned terms like ‘romantic attraction’ and ‘spectrum’ and ‘lesbian’.)

(Also, they both ended up washing dishes.)

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Now, it’s been a few days since the bouquet incident, and they had more information, but not a lot.

According to sources (or: Jingyi and Jin Ling, but Zizhen always took their intel with a grain of salt until confirmation from Sizhui), Uncle Jiang’s mystery person is a he . He is an “old friend” who’s been away for a while. The bouquet went backstage, so he must be an actor or a company member. Uncle didn’t approach any of the lead actors, so maybe not them? Was it one of the ensemble? A member of the band? They don’t know!

It’s haunting him, honestly. It’s haunted him since he lost rock-paper-scissors, got the flowers and then let his friends stalk the man in question… until now, days later.

“Do you think,” he asks the room in general, “it’s actually about the… job? I don’t mean his, err- work-job, but like, The Job ?”

“I think-” Lan Sizhui says from his comfy cuddle with Fairy on the couch, eyes trained on an old paperback, “I think we’re overthinking it. Shushu will tell us if it’s something- someone - important.”

“Yeah, but when ?” Jin Ling, who is stress-cleaning - because somehow that’s how he copes - says to the pile of old books he had earlier decided needed dusting. It’s where Sizhui got his current read from.

“When he thinks it’s right.” Sizhui tells him, still invested in his reading. “Anyways, he left us some homework, didn’t he?”

Zizhen decides to correct him. “No, he left Jingyi some homework.”

“And I’m doing it!” Lan Jingyi answers - cries , really - he sounds like he’s in pain. “I’m doing all the research!” At this, he slams his open bag of potato chips down the table to continue his lightspeed typing on his laptop.

Crumbs fall to the floor. Jin Ling lets out a horrified shriek, and then stomps his way to what Zizhen knows is the broom closet, muttering about how Jiujiu Will Kill Me If He Sees All This Mess.

Zizhen should get his best friend a stress ball or something for his next birthday. Jin Ling deserves it. Maybe he’ll get one for Uncle Jiang, too. So they can be matchy-matchy! Yep-

“I don’t get it. He said we should wait until we have a proper plan. He also said I could start recon, but I’m not allowed to go onsite to do anything. Does he think hacking is easy? He probably does, and I probably make it look easy, but it’s really not, when it’s goddamn J-Corp. with their private security and protected servers- ” Jingyi rants, his typing on his laptop getting more… emotional. “Why am I the only one with homework? I dropped out of school to not have homework!”

He continues venting, even as Jin Ling comes back and sweeps up the crumbs on the floor, and then tells him to just do your job, Jingyi, do you know how lucky we are that we’re not in jail?

And of course, Jingyi responds accordingly and another round of bickering starts.

Zizhen turns to Sizhui to gesture vaguely at the other half of their quartet. “Uh, I don’t want to go near… that. And we don’t have homework, so I’ll just go back to thinking about who Jin Ling’s uncle’s mystery person is.”

“Our homework,” Lan Sizhui starts, smiling patiently, “...is to stay put.”

Zizhen stares at him. “You wanna go out there too, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” Sizhui nods, still smiling. “But shushu said we’re not to do anything until there’s a good plan. And we all know there’s not a good plan yet, so we’ve been stuck here for a week Even though we could have been doing so much more…

Zizhen really fears the day his friend wakes up feeling tired of being nice and just wanting to go apeshit.

In the meantime, he laughs, awkward. Really, what did he get himself into?

‘Crime.’ he thinks. ‘Yep we are doing crimes. It’s fine, it’s FINE, they’re nice crimes? Under adult supervision!’

“Uh-huh. Okay, yeah, I get you. Okay, just… go read, yeah? I won’t… bug you with details on one Mr. Jiang Cheng’s possible lovelife anymore, haha-”

“My possible what now, Ouyang Zizhen?”

No, the ungodly shriek that was heard just then was not Zizhen, nope, totally not him.

“J-Jiujiu!” Jin Ling says, the first to recover, sliding to Jingyi’s other side to shield from his uncle’s eyes the mess of junk food, soda and energy drinks that his friend had brought to their dinner table. “We didn’t hear you come in!”

“I can tell.” Jiang Cheng says, eyes surveying the room. His room. His living room. Where his nephew and his friends are all engaged in different activities.

Zizhen beams innocently when dark eyes land pointedly on him. “Hi, shushu! How was work today?”

“It was fine.” the man answers, then as he always does, he notices his nephew first. “A-Ling, you cleaned?”

Jin Ling blinks, looks down at the broom and the mini vacuum cleaner in his hands, then nods. “Y-Yeah? Yeah, it was… dusty… and… I was bored, I thought I’d clean?”

“And your training?”

That makes Jin Ling pale. “I… Did some drills this morning?”

Jiang Cheng sighs, and visibly holds himself back to form his response first. “What did we talk about when you said you could be this job’s hitter?”

“It’s dangerous, I don’t have enough experience, and I’d just get myself killed.” Jin Ling recited. “Or worse, in jail.”

Jiang Cheng just looks at him pointedly until Jin Ling says something about putting the broom away. Then Jiang Cheng heads over to Lan Jingyi, looking over at the several monitor displays set up around him. “How’s the research coming along?”

“I don’t know, not that much more since I first looked.” Jingyi shrugs. “They’ve got a spotless public record, really scary clean. No scandals except for the usual rich-kid-went-clubbing ones we all know from gossip and news, and of course, the last CEO’s… uh, adventures, but they cover all of that with PR and charity. There’s legit records of stuff going to foundations and NGO’s, which is nice. So, I did like you said and looked into the people and… I’m very glad I did.”

Jiang Cheng’s brows furrow. “What have you got?”

By this time, both Zizhen and Sizhui have both moved closer, also curious about the new information. Jingyi waits for Jin Ling to appear beside his uncle first before continuing.

“So, the upper management is fishy, we know that already - but there are some other higher-ranking folks who stood out. I was looking into their histories and… well, the records show a number of people, scattered across different departments, were previously employed by Wen Pharmaceuticals. Some jumped ship right before the store closed, and some waited a few months before landing their new job.”

Zizhen swears he saw Jiang Cheng take a quick glance towards Sizhui’s direction, but before he could think anything of it, the man had already nodded towards the monitors again. “Is this for the desk employees? How about security?”

“Oh, uh… Security and building staff are here too. Nothing came up.” Jingyi answers, pulling up some records. “They’re all clear, outsourced.”

“What company?”

“Some private security firm called Su Security Solutions, head office is in Moling. That’s as far as I’ve looked-”

“Do you have photos?”

Jingyi blinks before starting to type. “Yeah… but just from employee records… I can’t get CCTV, all their servers are in-house so we really have to get onsite to-”

He is interrupted by the sound of the doorbell.

Jiang Cheng sighs. “You ordered chicken wings again?”

“Hey! Last time it was pizza!”

“That’s worse.” Jin Ling says. “That’s greasier-

“-and I didn’t order anything today!” Jingyi insists. When uncle and nephew both squint at him, he huffs. “Yet! I was gonna do that later -”

Ouyang Zizhen, as he always does, watches them argue before turning to Sizhui, who just smiles, shrugs and gestures vaguely towards the general direction of the front door.

Zizhen nods. “Okay, I’ll get that, then.”

He leaves them to bicker, getting to the door. Maybe it’s a package delivery, or something else that’s not Jingyi’s latest greasy food order. Maybe.

So he goes to the door and swings it open.

It’s not a package delivery.

The man standing outside and waiting is bundled up in an expensive-looking jade green fur coat and a knitted honey-gold scarf. He has long dark hair in a half bun, a beautiful face with delicate features and light brown eyes that blinked at Ouyang Zizhen before looking down at his phone, reading once, twice, then looking at the apartment number beside the door.

“Uh… Hello, may I help you?” Ouyang Zizhen asks.

Maybe the guy’s just lost, or rang on the wrong door.

“I’m sorry, I may have gotten the wrong place…” the stranger says as he produces a little piece of paper from his pocket. He frowns as he reads it.

That’s when Jin Ling comes up beside him. “Zizhen, jiujiu says if it’s a delivery, just-” He pauses when he sees their ‘guest’, squinting before his expression becomes that of recognition. “ ...You?

“Wh- Me? ” the person blinks, looking at Jin Ling now, up, down and up again, tilting his head slightly.

Zizhen looks between them, feeling awkward now. “A-Ling, do you know him?”

“A-Ling-...?” the man whispers, then gasps. “Ah! Little A-Ling! Is that you?” he asks, practically lighting up, smiling delightedly. “Oh, you’ve grown so big! You’re so tall, and so handsome like your dad-”

“What?” Jin Ling asks, stepping back. “Uh- Who-”

“-and here I thought I got lost again!” the man laughs. “Is your uncle around?”

“Wha-” Jin Ling stammers, then, perhaps overwhelmed by this sudden barrage of affection from a stranger, he finally calls out, “Jiujiu?!”

Ouyang Zizhen chooses to rescue his friend. “Hi, are you Jiang-shushu’s friend?”

The stranger smiles at him. “Oh, I sure hope so.”

Wow. Ouyang Zizhen has seen and met some pretty people, but this one is pretty pretty. And what kind of charming, mysterious, dramatic answer was that?! Who is this person?!

Finally, perhaps to save them from this sparkling, pretty man, Uncle Jiang arrives.

He is scowling very grumpily as he rifles through his wallet.

“How many times do I have to tell you to just pay your orders online if you don’t have cash to-”

“A-Cheng!”

Jiang Cheng looks up and stops in his tracks as he sees their guest.

“Hey.” the stranger says, and this time his smile is not delighted as much as it was soft and almost… shy?

Zizhen and Jin Ling stare at Jiang Cheng, gauging his reaction, and they were surprised to find him not just schooling his expression, but trying to hold a smile back, trying to sound annoyed. “You’re early.”

The other man giggles. “Surprise?”

Jiang Cheng turns to Zizhen and his nephew. “Tell Jingyi to clear out the table. We have a guest.” When they just look at him, waiting for more information, he frowns and says, “Go.”

And that’s their cue. Jin Ling looks like he has at least a hundred more questions, but Zizhen takes his elbow and pulls him inside.

The last thing he hears is their guest saying “What, is this all the welcome I get? Didn’t you miss me?”

Wow. Wow . Zizhen has so many questions too.

.

Jin Ling is obviously still… processing… so Zizhen takes it upon himself to take charge when they get to their friends. “Jingyi! Clear out, uncle has a guest!”

Meanwhile, Jingyi scrunches up his nose as he munches on his latest unhealthy snack. “Whaff? Whorgh?”

Thankfully, Sizhui doesn’t need to be told twice as he gathers the food and drinks on the table, no questions asked.

Zizhen follows his lead, picking up pillows and stray stuff scattered around the couch. “I don’t know, some old friend of his, I guess? He knows A-Ling. Whatever! Just clean up!”

Jingyi makes a noise of complaint first, but he goes to follow anyway, setting his food aside and starting to tidy up his workspace.

“It’s that one guy from the play.” Jin Ling says. For all he uses cleaning to cope, he is standing totally useless this time.

Jingyi pauses. “What guy?”

“One of the actors.” Jin Ling answers.

“Which one?” Sizhui asks.

“The terrible one.”

Zizhen looks up. “So you know him?”

They’re interrupted mid-cleanup when the adults walk in.

“Sorry for the mess. Jin Ling and his friends are… working on a project.” Jiang Cheng says.

“Oh, it’s fine, it’s fine!” That-One-Guy-The-Terrible-One-From-the-Play replies with a friendly laugh as Jiang Cheng helps him slip off his coat and scarf. “I’m the one who’s intruding.”

“Nonsense. I invited you. I just didn’t expect you to come so early. I was gonna send the kids off to eat out.”

“You were?” Jin Ling asks, confused.

“But I already ordered chicken wings!” Jingyi whines.

Jin Ling turns to him, appropriately looking like he’s being betrayed from several sides. “You told us you didn’t.”

Ouyang Zizhen reaches over to pat his back for moral support.

Jiang Cheng doesn't look mad, just disappointed. “Cancel it.” As he tucks his friend’s coat and scarf under his arm, he finally addresses the teenagers. “Everyone. This is Nie Huaisang.”

“Hello!” Nie Huaisang greets.

Without his coat and scarf, he still looks fashionable and expensive, wearing a flowy shirt with layered necklaces and perfectly-fitted pants. He holds an ornate fan in his hand - it's black with gold embellishments and an elaborate jade charm hanging off of it. For some reason Ouyang Zizhen finds himself drawn to it. Like he’d seen it before. It just looks very familiar… Like from a museum or the news or something like that.

His gaze follows the fan until Nie Huaisang presses it to his lips as he says, “What a dashing set of young men you have here, A-Cheng.”

“Don’t do that.” Jiang Cheng tells him, then he turns to the teens. “Don’t listen to him. Jin Ling, here.”

Jin Ling steps forward and accepts the items handed to him. He blinks down at his uncle’s credit card and car keys. “Jiujiu?”

“Put on something warm. You four eat something other than pizza and chicken wings.”

“Oh! What a cutie!” They look over to see Nie Huaisang crouching down to pet Fairy, who has started sniffing up at him. “Hello, what’s your name?” - a pause as he checks the tag - “Fairy! What a pretty name! Ah, who’s a good girl?!”

Jiang Cheng turns back to his nephew and nods. “Go. Be back by ten.”

Jin Ling frowns. “But jiujiu, who-”

“We just need the place for a bit. I’ll tell you when you get back.”

Zizhen exchanges a look with the others. He doesn’t really know what’s going on, but he knows that when an adult is giving you his credit card and car keys to get rid of you and be alone with another adult, it’s probably just best to obey.

So he goes and gets his jacket.

.

As they file outside, Nie Huaisang says, “Sorry, you’re getting kicked out. Have fun! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

And Lan Jingyi, shrugging exasperatedly, says, “I don’t know you so I literally don’t know what that is.”

Nie Huaisang laughs while Jiang Cheng simply tells them to drive safely.

And then their little quartet is out, heading to the parking lot, and filing inside Jiang Cheng’s car.

Ouyang Zizhen calls shotgun, and then they just sit in silence for a bit, because Jin Ling in the driver’s seat is still somehow in a state of confusion over-

“What the fuck just happened.”

Ouyang Zizhen laughs. “A-Ling, I think your jiujiu has a boyfriend and sent us away so they could… you know.”

Jin Ling brings his hands to his face, leans down over the steering wheel and whines. “What the fuck…”

From the backseat, Lan Jingyi cackles.

Lan Sizhui, bless him, leans over, lays a hand on Jin Ling's shoulder and smiles. “A-Ling, I think it’s better if I drive this time, don’t you think?”

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ii.

Nie Huaisang doesn’t look up from where he’s giving Fairy a belly rub until the door has closed behind the boys.

When he does look up, he watches Jiang Cheng tidying up what mess the teens have left behind on the table. They did a good job cleaning, so it isn’t much work, and soon he’s just left moving things around for the sake of moving them.

Huaisang sighs, one hand still absently petting the dog as he finally breaks the silence. “So?”

The other man doesn’t look at him, intent on nitpicking on his home decor. “Hm?”

“I haven’t seen you in more than a decade. Then, you send me a bouquet with all my favorite flowers, leave a note with your address, and when I come over, you won’t even look at me?”

“I told you.” Jiang Cheng says, moving a stack of coasters an inch, before frowning and moving it back again. “You’re early.”

“And it’s a good thing I was, I got to see your wonderful nephew! And his adorable friends, before you sent them away.”

Huaisang stands up, walking towards his companion but stopping at a safe distance, just beside a wall filled with neatly-arranged postcards and picture frames. He reaches up and his fingers trace a frame of a relatively new photo of Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen with some other classmates at their graduation ceremony.

“He’s got your sister’s smile.”

He notes Jiang Cheng pausing for a second before continuing to gather up a bunch of crumpled papers and receipts left lying on the countertop. “He does.”

Huaisang’s fingers stray from the frames to hover over the postcards. Different scenery from different cities around the globe. “And, you have all my little postcards on display… How should I feel about that, I wonder?”

At this, Jiang Cheng finally looks up from the counter and to his guest, who meets his gaze head on. “Huaisang-”

“Finally, you look at me. I made an effort to look nice, you know.”

Jiang Cheng stops, and he shakes his head as he chuckles. “Don’t try to make me feel special. I know you make an effort to look nice at all times.”

“There you are trying to downplay how much I like you, as always.” Nie Huaisang pouts, leaving the space of the wall and stepping closer. “I fussed over my hair for, like, an hour.”

“Like you do everytime.” Jiang Cheng shrugs.

“A-Cheng,” Huaisang laughs softly, and this time, he dares to stand right in front of the other. “We're too old for this game. Will you hold me? I’m really here. I won’t disappear, I promise.”

Jiang Cheng heaves a sigh, and after a moment of hesitation, he reaches over and takes the other man’s hands in his. “Happy?”

Being close to Jiang Cheng feels different, after all these years, but at the same time it feels so familiar.

He is reminded of being 19, laughing at a joke whispered between them over the noise of their friends around them.

Jiang Cheng squeezes his hands, thumbs rubbing his knuckles, and Huaisang wonders how such a simple gesture can send such complicated memories reeling in his mind.

He's 23, and there were late nights and stolen kisses on the back of Jiang Cheng's car, trying not to talk about where the other's been, or what the other's been doing.

Then he's 25, with his life falling apart and feeling like he'd fall apart too. Only Jiang Cheng was there holding him together, but he'd have to go, too, because their lives were different now even after such a short time. Jiang Cheng has to go home and take care of A-Ling, and Huaisang has to go through his da-ge's things, and decide what to do with them now that he’s gone.

But as familiar as being together like this felt, it's also different. They've spent a decade apart with barely any word exchanged between them.

Only postcards, one for each city Huaisang has been to.

It's like being with a stranger who only knew you through a quick outline of who you are.

But then again, that's Huaisang's day job - knowing strangers and making it seem like he'd known them forever.

So he steps closer. “I’m very happy, thank you very much.” he says as he tilts his head to peer at his companion’s face, and now that he has permission, he reaches a hand up to trace the other’s cheek.

He smiles when Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and leans into the touch.

‘Oh. I’m still allowed this much.’ Huaisang thinks.

“So, why am I here?” he asks now, his free hand fiddling with the other man’s collar. “Has Mister Law-Abiding Citizen finally decided to play for my team, or did you just miss me? I can’t say that I won’t be disappointed if it’s business, but I’ll hear you out. I was looking for a new gig, anyway.”

Jiang Cheng chuckles. “Is the theater job not working out?”

“It’s a cover. Technically, I’m on vacation. ‘Tis the season, and I don’t hunt when I’m home.”

“And how many times have you gone home and not told me?”

“Just a couple. Three, four? It never lasted long. I always leave for the next big catch, right away.” Huaisang says, looking down at their linked hands. “Because otherwise I’d feel tempted to come looking for you. And we can’t have that, can’t we?”

“No.” Jiang Cheng replies. “We can’t. Not back then, anyway.”

“Ah… so how about now?” His eyes twinkle when Jiang Cheng bows his head so their foreheads touch. “A-Cheng, please answer my question? Am I here for business? Or did you want my company for the holidays?”

There’s a pregnant pause before Jiang Cheng finally says, “Business.”

“Hm…” Huaisang raises an eyebrow, feeling the hand holding his let go and slip around his waist instead. He laughs, tickled as the man leans forward and nuzzles his cheek. “Business, really? Your actions say otherwise.”

“I’m only holding you this close,” Jiang Cheng whispers to his ear, stubborn even as he holds him tighter, “because I know how good you are at slipping away.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Slip away? I’m just clumsy old me.” Huaisang replies, finally melting against the taller man, hands clutching at his shirt. “And why would I wanna leave? It's freezing outside and you’re so warm.”

Huaisang lets out a gasp when the other’s hands tighten on his slim waist. He gives in to old instincts and stays pliant as warm lips trail butterfly kisses on his cheek, below his ear, on his shoulder, as Jiang Cheng gently guides him backwards until his back is against the edge of the dining table, and then he’s propped up on top of it, spreading his thighs so the other man can stand in between them, pulling him closer, closer-

Just like old times.

But it can’t be exactly like those times again, right? Can things really just… click right back into place, just like that? Like this?

“A-... A-Cheng-” he stammers, planting his hands on the other man’s shoulder. “Wait.”

The slightest pressure is enough to stop Jiang Cheng, who draws back and looks at him. “I-It’s okay if this is not- I rushed, didn’t I-?”

Huaisang is quick to assure him, bringing his hands up to cup his face. “No. No, it’s okay. It’s okay, don’t worry.” he says, smiling in reassurance. “I just- I just wanted to ask too, if this is okay. For you . If I-... If I can touch you? It’s just, it’s been a while and I don’t know if you still-”

Jiang Cheng looks at him. He blinks once, then chuckles, leaning over and kissing his forehead. “Yes.” he says, kissing his cheek next. “It’s okay.”

“Ah. Good.” Huaisang says, breathless, and with a little laugh, he finally wraps his arms around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and pulls him close again, pressing a fleeting kiss to his lips. “Can we-... I don’t think I can- Can we do just… this?”

“Of course.” Jiang Cheng nods, tucking dark hair behind his ear. “That’s okay.”

“Mm-hm.” Huaisang hums, grateful, and lets Jiang Cheng kiss his cheek again before he goes for another kiss on the lips. This one is hesitant, but Jiang Cheng clears any more doubts he has when he deepens the kiss, one arm around his waist while the other caresses his cheek and tangles in his hair.

The kisses that follow are slower, lighter, more indulgent. Nothing too intense, nothing they’re not ready for, with all the uncertainty of being apart after too long. But each one is sweet, full of yearning and reassurance that it’s okay. This is okay. This is safe.

When Huaisang draws back again, he’s looking down, hands clumsily clenching together at his chest. “Oh, dear.” he whispers with an awkward laugh. “I’m too old to feel like this…”

Jiang Cheng’s brows furrow, and his hands move to support Huaisang’s back, “A-Sang? Hey, what is it?” He grows more concerned when he hears a sniff. “Are you crying? Was it too much-”

Nie Huaisang shakes his head, but he feels even more light-headed. Overwhelmed. “No, no it wasn’t- I just- Ah, I’m sorry, I don’t know what got to me!” He laughs wetly, and with shaking hands, he reaches out again, but only to clutch at Jiang Cheng’s shirt and bury his head on the man’s shoulder. “I just-... I miss you…”

“Hey.” Jiang Cheng says, rubbing his back. “I’m right here.”

Nie Huaisang sniffs, and with a trembling voice, he replies,  “I know.”

Jiang Cheng holds him. Tight. Steady. “Welcome home.”

A broken whimper escapes Huaisang before he breaks down in quiet sobs, overwhelmed with emotions he couldn’t fully understand.

He meant everything he said. He misses Jiang Cheng - present tense , always present tense - and he doesn’t even know that’s possible, when he knows the other is right here now, holding him, keeping him from falling apart-

So much like that last time, more than a decade ago, right before he made up his mind to leave.

How could he wait so long to come home?

How did he go without this, without Jiang Cheng, for so long?

They stay like that for neither of them knows how long, and it gets so quiet and still that they both almost jump when the doorbell rings.

Jiang Cheng draws away from the embrace slightly, but he still holds Huaisang close while he checks the time on his watch. No, it’s still too early. The boys wouldn’t be back yet-

“Food delivery!”

That makes Huaisang snort. And it surprises them both so much that Huaisang dissolves into giggles, shaking his head.

Jiang Cheng groans. “I told them to cancel those chicken wings.”

Huaisang snuggles against him, closer but more relaxed. “Please don’t send the poor guy away, he drove all the way over in this weather. I’m good with chicken wings.”

Jiang Cheng frowns. “But it’s so… oily.”

Huaisang rolls his eyes. “As if you didn’t live on instant noodles and energy drinks when you were that age. C’mon, A-Cheng,” he goads, kissing Jiang Cheng’s cheek sweetly. “I am getting hungry.”

“Ugh. Fine.” Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, and he finally lets him go. He straightens his shirt and runs a hand through his hair, then heads over to get the door.

Huaisang watches him go, trying to smooth his own hair back as much as he can. He’s thankful for the box of tissues within arm’s reach as he dabs at his cheeks. Finally, he hops off the table and pats down his shirt. Fairy noses at his leg and he leans down to pet the dog again.

Jiang Cheng returns with a large box of chicken wings. “Here’s dinner, I guess. There’s beer and soda on the fridge.”

Huaisang claps his hands excitedly. “Yay! Okay, now you’re actually gonna explain to me what’s happening, yes? Why am I here?”

Jiang Cheng looks done , but he nods anyway. “I’ll try my best.”

.

They move to the couch, settling the food and drinks on the table in front of them, and Jiang Cheng does try his best to explain.

They’ve eaten most of the wings by the time he finishes.

“So you’re telling me-” Huaisang manages in between bites, “-that your nephew and his friends… have been taking down corrupt politicians and CEOs over the internet.”

“Yep.” Jiang Cheng replies, shaking his head as he dumps a pile of chicken bones and takes a new piece. He decides that the kids shall never know about this. “Y’know, when he got to his teens and started… asking questions…”

Huaisang snorts. “Sex questions?”

“Sex questions.” Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “I just basically answered what I can, told him to be responsible, I said this was a safe space and he can talk to me about anything he needs… that sort of stuff.”

“Hm. Good for you.”

“Right? I thought, it’ll be fine, what’s the worst that can happen, that I will catch him one time making out with some girl, or boy, or… or Zizhen? But no, no this is worse than that, he gave a hacker our wi-fi password. Zizhen’s little projects he’s been tinkering with whenever he’s here? Drones. Sizhui somehow managed to get past professional security in a government-owned building to plant a virus. That bruise A-Ling told me was a slip from his boxing workout, he got it wrangling some goon. They’re on the dark web and leaking confidential, career-ending information from his bedroom. I’m a goddamn private investigator and I missed all this happening on my own roof.”

Nie Huaisang laughs, delighted. “Good for them . Start ‘em early, yeah? Ah, I miss those days…”

“Huaisang.” Jiang Cheng says with a sigh. “What they’re doing is dangerous. You should know this. You used to-”

“-do the same, yes. It’s fun being in a team, you know. I work alone these days, but I do miss when I had backup-”

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, taking a deep breath before he snaps, “Remind me again why you stopped.”

Huaisang freezes, and he bites his lip.

This conversation got serious real fast.

He looks away.

“I get it. We screwed up. The job went sideways. We never meant to get your sister involved, Wei Ying never wanted-...”

He stops and sighs. He’d run out of things to say about that part of his life. He’d spent the last years not looking back.

“We’ve put all that behind us though, right?”

“We have.” Jiang Cheng nods. “And I know you don’t regret it. You’ve always made that clear, even when- even after-”

“Just say it. Even after I got your brother killed.”

“You didn't. It’s as you said, job went sideways. You did your part in the plan he came up with. He knew what he was doing, who he was going up against. He did what he wanted, until the end.” Jiang Cheng says. “And jiejie- I couldn’t have stopped her trying to help him, anyway. She would have done that for him, for me, for her stupid peacock husband, for anyone she cared about.”

Huaisang shakes his head. “I know you still think it wasn’t worth it.”

“Worth it?” Jiang Cheng snorts. “What’s a few lives lost in an ambitious heist job against the corruption of the leading pharmaceutical company in China? Just collateral damage for the sake of exposing Wen Ruohan. My family , collateral damage. Jin Ling’s parents. Sizhui’s family-”

Huaisang looks at him, brows furrowed in question. “Wait, who? One of the boys earlier?”

“His name’s Lan Sizhui.”

“Lan-...” Huaisang straightens, eyes wide. “That was little A-Yuan?”

“Not so little anymore.” Jiang Cheng shrugs. “You’d think he’d grow up with more self-preservation than his stupid, hard-headed father, but no.”

“Does-... Does Wangji know?” 

“I’m guessing he doesn’t. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be abroad, helping his brother with some family business. But he left earlier this year.” he says. “Sizhui’s just staying to finish high school. I guess he got introduced to his other uncle growing up, though. They keep in contact.”

“Uncle-... You mean Wen Ning? I haven’t been able to find him since-... since everything.”

“Me neither. From what Sizhui told me, he’s been lying low. Anyways, the kid knows about his family. His old family, everything, and goddamn Wei Ying. You’d think he’s the sensible one, but he and Jingyi have been doing the whole vigilante hacker-thief thing for a while now, apparently.”

“They’re, what, seventeen?”

“Eighteen.”

Huaisang huffs out a breath, impressed. “Wow. And I guess A-Ling and his friend Zizhen thought it was cool? The right thing to do?”

Jiang Cheng leans back against the couch. “They’re teenagers, and the world is fucked up. They see an opportunity to make some things right, they don’t care that they’re in over their heads, or that they’d get in trouble - they do it. Because it’s worth it. They always think it’s worth it.”

“They’re idealists.” Huaisang chuckles. “Then again, that’s how it was for me, too. Your brother came up with a plan to scam the rich and give back to the little ones, and I’d follow him, because it’ll help people. And like you said, the world’s fucked up. You can't blame them wanting to try and make it better.”

“I know.” Jiang Cheng frowns. “But sometimes I wish they’d just- I don’t know- Just plant a fucking tree or something. Anything but the very thing that made them grow up without their parents.”

Nie Huaisang watches his companion take a swig from his canned beer and lets a peaceful silence linger for a moment before speaking up again.

“So, you have a team of teenage vigilantes under your roof.”

“I do.”

“And you call me up.”

“I did.”

“What do you need me to do, exactly? Tell them cautionary tales? I don’t think you want me to mentor them. The grifter is the person who gets closest to the mark, and I doubt you want that for any of those boys...”

Jiang Cheng stares at his beer can and takes a deep breath. “Do you know what they were doing when I caught them, a few days ago? Which big-shot they were going to try and take down this time?”

Huaisang smiles, indulgent. “Who?”

And then Jiang Cheng delivers a blow that knocks the breath out of his lungs.

“Jin Corp.”

Huaisang freezes. “But-... Jin Ling-”

“He said he didn’t care. He didn’t grow up on their side. I made sure of it, and he never really asked to get to know them, so.” Jiang Cheng sighs. “Jingyi uncovered some bribes to the government and a bit of your usual corruption, smuggled goods and all that.”

Huaisang looks down, expression stormy. “But… Jin Corp… That’s not the only thing they…”

“Yeah, we know that. Those kids don’t. The four of them thought that that’s enough evidence and reason, but we know that’s barely scratching the surface. They don’t know how deep it goes. We don’t even know and we already know a lot more than we should.”

“It’ll most definitely be traced back to them,” Nie Huaisang nods. “No matter how careful they are.”

“And before they know it, they’re either locked up or dead.”

”A-Cheng, I-... You managed to stop them though, right?”

“Got there just in time.” he runs a hand down his face, and this time, Huaisang can see how weary he is. “They were going to just… leak the information, Huaisang. They thought that’d be enough.”

He moves closer, taking the other’s hand in his and resting his chin on the man’s shoulder. “That’s good, then. They’re safe.”

“That’s the thing.” Jiang Cheng says, straightening up, and looking at him. “I saw the intel that they had, and… and I started putting it together with what I already know.”

Slowly, cautiously, Huaisang pulls away. “What are you saying?”

“I know those boys. I know they won’t stop , they’d find a way, somehow, to keep going. Behind my back.”

Huaisang looks at him in disbelief as he processes what he’s being told. “A-Cheng. You didn’t .”

“I told them what they’re doing is suicide without a proper plan, a proper operation. So I said… well, they’re not going to do it without me.”

“Jiang Cheng!” Huaisang cries, drawing away, shaking his head. “What are you doing?! They’re kids, and you’re just-... You’re-”

“I’m what?” Jiang Cheng challenges.

Huaisang takes a deep breath, and then he says, “You’re insane.” When Jiang Cheng looks away and chuckles bitterly, he softens and quickly reaches out to the other man. “A-Cheng, I just mean… You’ve never done this before…”

“I’ve chased after you- after Wei Ying ’s trail enough times to know how you work, how you got around and got away- I’ve spent the last decade thinking of what you did, of his plan and what went wrong-”

“I know, but-”

“And then I made it my job to know how these rich people work, how they hide their dirty secrets-”

“-that’s different-”

“Jin Guangyao had your brother killed.”

Huaisang freezes, the hand he had rested on the man’s arm clutching tight on his sleeve.

“I know.” he says in a whisper.

His brother’s death is an open wound to him, even after all these years. He didn’t need to be reminded of how he lost his only family. His wonderful big brother who had sworn to protect him since they were children, then had sworn to serve and protect all others in his reach.

His da-ge had trusted the system, wanted to change things the right way , and then trusted the wrong man.

Huaisang had told Jiang Cheng, long ago. Only Jiang Cheng, because he was the only one Huaisang had left, and even then Huaisang lost him too.

But Jiang Cheng is here now, again. And Huaisang doesn’t know why he’d bring this up, why he’d hurt him like this , out of all the ways he could -

“He also probably murdered his own son.”

That is new, and it distracts Huaisang enough to ask, “What?”

“I told Jingyi to look further into Jin Corp, specifically the upper management, any and all intel he can get access to, that might help us. The next day, he and Sizhui came up to me with something. A confession from a woman who claims that Jin Guangyao poisoned his own son and paid off staff and doctors to fake the cause of death. It’s evidence that’s been redacted and buried under red tape. They managed to get her name. I tried to find her, even used my contacts. People knew her but didn’t know where she went. I had Jingyi look her up. Online records were scrubbed clean.”

“Like she didn’t exist.” Huaisang whispers. “How did Jin Ling take it?”

“He doesn’t know yet.” Jiang Cheng replies. “Jingyi and Sizhui came to me first because they didn’t want to be the ones to break it to him. Jin Rusong was still his cousin.”

Huaisang smiles softly, sadly.

“You know what this means, right? That boy is Jin Guangyao’s heir. Who’s the other one left?”

“Jin Ling.” Huaisang bites his lip. “So that’s it, then? You want to take them down before they ever touch him.”

“I have to.” Jiang Cheng looks at him with stormy eyes. The last time Nie Huaisang saw those eyes, they were saying the exact same thing- “He’s the only family I have.”

Oh.

Finally, Nie Huaisang knows where this is going.

“So what are you asking of me?”

“The same thing you asked of me, before you left last time.” Jiang Cheng says. “Help me destroy Jin Guangyao.”

Nie Huaisang looks at him, takes in his handsome face, the features that have stayed the same and the parts that have changed over the years.

He raises a hand and cups the other man’s cheek.

“So it comes down to that. When I lost da-ge, and I asked the same of you, you said that you couldn’t do it. Because if we fail, Jin Ling will be alone.”

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, dropping a kiss to the palm pressed against his cheek.

“You broke my heart, A-Cheng, but I didn’t hold it against you because I would’ve done the same. So I just ran and made a life for myself. Well. Several lives.” he chuckles, but it turns to a sigh. “I went around the world and stole anything I fancied. Maybe if I have enough pretty things, I’ll stop missing you.

“Now you call me back. And you ask me to do the very thing you refused to do for me, for the one person you broke my heart for.”

“It’s selfish. I know.” Jiang Cheng acknowledges, and he takes the hand cupping his cheek and squeezes. “You can say no.”

He’s so earnest. He always had been. Nie Huaisang laughs, light and disbelieving, “You assume I’m capable of saying no to you.”

“I’m serious, Huaisang. I know this is risky, I just-... I know we need a grifter and you’re the best one I know. You’re the only one who really knows the stakes, but if you don’t want this burden, if you think it’s too dangerous-”

Huaisang shakes his head and lifts a finger to press against Jiang Cheng’s lips, shushing him. “A-Cheng, A-Cheng, sshhhh, no need for a speech, please. You have me.”

Jiang Cheng draws back to say, “Really? You’re in?”

Huaisang lets out a hopeless little laugh. “Well… yes, but under two conditions.”

“And those are…?”

Huaisang hums and pretends to think about it for a moment. “Hmm… Oh, I know! Say you missed me. I’ve been asking you since I got here and you never answered! It’s like I’m the only one who was miserable, and that’s, like, super unfair-”

He’s cut off when Jiang Cheng kisses him on the lips, heated and passionate and- too short. Nie Huaisang thinks it’s too short because he’s hardly had time to process anything when Jiang Cheng says, loud and clear - “I missed you.”

“O-Okay. That was easy.” Nie Huaisang says, breathless.

Jiang Cheng smirks. “What’s the second condition?”

Huaisang feels like melting, but he takes a deep breath and manages to compose himself enough to answer.

“We call Wen Ning.”

.

.


.

.

iii.

Lan Jingyi does not like Nie Huaisang.

And it’s not just because Nie Huaisang ate his chicken wings-

Okay, it’s mostly because Nie Huaisang ate his chicken wings.

But also because Nie Huaisang used his laptop without his permission, like, when they got back from their dinner out, they found Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang sitting together in Jingyi’s workstation. Nie Huaisang was typing, clicking on things and pulling up stuff in the monitors.

That’s Jingyi’s job, to type and click on things and to pull up cool stuff in the monitors!

(“You ate my wings!”)

(Jin Ling’s uncle huffed. “Don’t be so dramatic, I paid for your dinner-”)

(“You touched MY BABY!”)

(To be fair, Nie Huaisang looked apologetic - “Oh, I’m sorry, we needed some info-”)

(“How did you even open it, there’s a password-”)

(“You mean this sticky note that says, ‘Password: HoneyBBQ?”)

Okay, maybe that last one’s on Jingyi.

Actually, for the most part, he’s just… confused. Sorta.

A few days ago, they didn’t even know Nie Huaisang, he was just that Terrible Actor from that Boring Play that Jiang Cheng took them to. Jingyi had actually forgotten about him until Jin Ling reminded him.

Now apparently he’s, like, Jin Ling’s Other Uncle’s Who Is Also Sizhui’s Other Dad’s long-lost BFF, who is “home for the holidays” after his “world tour” and “would love to help out ” because Jin Ling’s Uncle asked “so nicely”. That last part was said while clinging and openly batting his eyes up at said uncle.

Jin Ling had stared, while Ouyang Zizhen just said, “Wow, okay, wow , thank you, that’s very kind of you.”

Jingyi mouthed ‘What?’ at his friend, because said friend said “wow” twice. Poor guy has a crush.

Obviously they were shaken, Jingyi knows, and he had hoped that Sizhui would be better off, but Sizhui had just stared curiously too.

So it had been up to Jingyi to shoo them away from his station. And they did, but before any more explanations could be shared, Jiang Cheng had asked for his car keys back so he could drive Nie Huaisang home.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Jingyi told them, as revenge, but Nie Huaisang just looked amused and told him he was adorable.

So yeah, Lan Jingyi was confused - who is this person, exactly, and what is his role in their job? 

Lan Jingyi didn’t like feeling confused.

So he does what he does best: research.

Extensive research.

Fine. Hacking .

“-and I found nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.” he repeats to Lan Sizhui. Or more accurately, Sizhui’s back, as Sizhui is busy making breakfast. Sizhui wakes up at 5 AM sharp and always delegates himself to breakfast duty wherever he’s staying because he is God’s gift to Jingyi, who is also always up at 5 AM because he is up to no good, or because he hasn’t slept yet at all.

Sizhui turns and sets down a mug of coffee on the counter beside where Jingyi is slumping miserably on. “Is that possible? That there’s nothing?” he asks.

Okay, Jingyi doesn't even know when Sizhui made the coffee because he’s pretty sure Sizhui was chopping some vegetables up just now, but he’s not gonna question his best friend’s life skills.

He sits up properly and takes a sip of his drink. Once he feels more awake, he answers, “Well, I don’t mean nothing -nothing. I got the usual records. Who he is, family background, where he went to school, the basics… I even got all the places he went to on that world tour he talked about and man, it was a world tour. Guy’s been all over. But that’s it, he just flies around on his own savings with his trust fund money as backup. He stays with different acting companies. He’s clean. Just a normal person. So what’s he here for, really?”

Sizhui smiles at him - that smile he gets whenever he holds himself back from telling Jingyi that he is missing out a detail or two, something obvious he’s not seeing.

Jingyi frowns. “What?”

“You know he’s a grifter, right?” Sizhui says as he turns his back to him again to continue breakfast. “He probably fabricates a new identity for every job and then wipes his slate clean when he’s done.”

Jingyi almost spits out his coffee.

“G-Grifter?! He’s-... What? How do you know that?”

“He said he knew Baba. I remember Ning-shushu telling me that back when they were a team, when he was the hacker and Baba was the mastermind for the jobs, they had a grifter. Mr. Nie must be that person. He fits the bill, and I doubt shushu would just share our… project… with a complete outsider, or someone who has no experience.”

“That… would explain the moving around and the squeaky clean profile.” Lan Jingyi mumbles, more to himself than to his friend. Then he looks up again, now looking even more bothered. “But… but how ? He’s the worst actor I’ve seen! You were there, you’ve seen him!”

Sizhui hums softly, thinking. “Hmm… Oh! What if he was only acting?”

Jingyi is skeptical. “He was… acting. Like a bad actor. Sounds fake.”

“It isn’t, actually.”

They both jump when Jiang Cheng walks in.

He needs to stop scaring people like that, really.

He sleepily assesses Sizhui’s progress in the breakfast department. He probably thinks it’s satisfactory as he simply yawns, then shrugs and starts making a cup of coffee for himself.

“Don’t let him hear you say it.” he continues. “He is terrible onstage. But he’s a completely different person on a job. And no, we don’t know how it works.”

Sizhui looks at him, curious. “Have you worked with him before, shushu?” 

Jiang Cheng snorts. “No. I never worked with him. He’s always been your dad’s guy.” he says, stirring his coffee while he grabs another mug. “I was actually… on the other team.”

Jingyi grins. “You were trying to arrest them? Your own brother and your boyfriend?”

Jiang Cheng glares at him. “I was a detective. It was my job. ” After a moment, he adds, “Also he wasn’t my boyfriend.”

Lan Jingyi does not believe him. “He totally was. You were flirting.”

“He does that to everyone.” Jiang Cheng says. Sizhui is now looking pointedly at the second mug he’s making, because it looks like he’s attempting to dump a whole jar of creamer on it. “I should tell him to leave Zizhen alone though, I don’t want to be held accountable when that kid faints and hits his head on something.”

“Eh. It’s fun to watch him struggle.” Jingyi sniggers. Then he notices the figure stumbling inside the kitchen like a zombie. “In speaking of struggles! Why are you up so early?”

Ouyang Zizhen sniffs. “It’s my turn on the Fairy.” Behind him, Fairy is nosing at his thighs urging him forward. “Yes, your highness, yes, we’re going for a walk, after my tea - thank you, Sizhui. You have a beautiful soul.”

“You’re welcome.” Lan Sizhui smiles, then gives Fairy something to munch on to calm her down. Then he goes back to cooking.

Jingyi doesn’t know where that tea and the food came from. He’s been watching Sizhui the entire time!

Then Jin Ling enters, already in his workout clothes. “Hey, I’m going jogging- Sizhui, are you cooking again? I should be doing that- oh, thanks.”

Jingyi narrows his eyes at the cup of hot chocolate that Jin Ling just received.

He’s starting to think that Sizhui can conjure things up from thin air. He won’t be surprised if that’s actually the case. One time they got drunk and Sizhui told Jingyi that he was a radish baby who grew up among the bunnies. Sizhui is magic.

Then Jiang Cheng says something about stocking up on groceries that day. He looks like he has resigned himself to the fact that Zizhen, Jingyi and Sizhui are going to be staying in his house until the job is over.

Hell yes, they were! It’s free food! And good wi-fi! And Fairy!

Anyway, he already feeds Zizhen on the regular, what’s two more people?

Sizhui and Jin Ling tell him about stuff they plan to cook. Jingyi tunes them out as he returns to his laptop and logs on to his usual online haunts. Beside him, Zizhen is slumped on the table, still yawning while Fairy tugs on his pants.

That’s when Nie Huaisang trudges in, rubbing his eyes. His long hair is in a messy loose braid and he is wearing a too-big sweatshirt that Jingyi is sure he had seen somewhere before.

“Ah, you’re all up so early… ” he whines, ignoring the teens staring at him and instead just making a beeline for Jiang Cheng. Or more accurately, Jiang Cheng’s arm.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t seem to mind this as he slides his second mug, the terrifying 5% coffee and 95% creamer solution, towards the newcomer.

The man gasps, touched. “Coffee! Thank you~” He takes a sip, then sighs contentedly. “A-Cheng, you are the best thing in my life after this coffee.”

“I’m very flattered.” Jiang Cheng replies flatly.

There is a long awkward pause in the room.

Jin Ling is the first to break. “I thought you went home?!”

“Hm?” Huaisang blinks. “Yes, I did. It was very nice of your jiujiu to drive me home so we can get some of my stuff.”

Zizhen straightens up. “You’re moving in?”

Nie Huaisang laughs. “Oh, no, no! If I was moving in, we'd have made sure to talk to A-Ling first.”

Jingyi looks at Jin Ling. The poor guy looks like that confused math lady meme.

“Let’s just say I’m staying over. Like you guys are!” the man says with a cheerful smile. “It’ll be nice for the team to get to know each other. You don’t go dismantling a multi-billion company with strangers , you know. You have to build a bond of trust and respect first.”

Zizhen is nodding furiously. He looks like he’s considering taking down notes.

Sizhui looks like he has something to say, but then Jin Ling cries, “Jiujiu, who is this guy, exactly?!”

Jiang Cheng stares at his nephew. “Uh. He’s- Well. It’s complic-”

“I’m his boyfriend.” Nie Huaisang says, simple and straight to the point.

“He’s not.” Jiang Cheng amends quickly.

“We’re in love!” Nie Huaisang adds, full of confidence.

“Don’t listen to him, he is made of lies.” Jiang Cheng says, and before Nie Huaisang can say more incriminating things, he covers the man’s mouth with his hand. “No, literally. That’s his job. He’s a grifter. He’ll be working with us for this job, because there’s no way I am letting you kids anywhere near that building. No. You will assist, but we’ll let the professional handle this.”

That is enough to keep the teenagers quiet enough as they process that.

Nie Huaisang frees himself from the hand shutting him up. “A-... A-Cheng, you called me a professional…” he says, big eyes shining. “Finally, you appreciate me and praise my work! Oh! After all these years…!

Jiang Cheng’s eye twitches in annoyance as he looks at him. “You’re a criminal wanted in more than a dozen countries.”

Despite his grudge - because Nie Huaisang ate his chicken wings - Jingyi finds himself saying “Nice.” and raising his hand, which Nie Huaisang gladly high-fives.

Then, because Sizhui is God’s gift to Jingyi, he asks, “So how long have you been dating, shushu?”

“Oh! Ten years, ten minutes?” Nie Huaisang shrugs. “I don’t really keep track.”

“You have nothing to track.” Jiang Cheng points out.

“Don’t I? We never actually broke up, you know.” Nie Huaisang furrows his brows in thought. “I just went on a trip! Well, several trips, for several years, but-”

Jiang Cheng gapes at him. “We never got together in the first place! Because you were doing crimes!”

Nie Huaisang scrunches up his nose. “Well, if you put it that way…” Then he scoffs. “But I sleep in your bed and wear your clothes, so. I think I’m a boyfriend. I like that role. I can be cute. I’m good at that con.”

“Are you calling our relationship a con ?”

“Oh, now there’s a relationship? Okay .”

“A-Sang-”

“My love, do you want to explain to these children the complicated nature of what we are ? Look at them, they’re babies. We have to use simple baby words. We are boyfriends.”

Jiang Cheng stares at him, then looks at the four teenagers watching them intently, then goes back to his coffee, darkly muttering. “Dammit.”

Jingyi feels Zizhen rest his head on his shoulder. After a beat, his friend whispers, “Grown-ups are so weird. They’ll be like, long-distance married and they don’t realize it for ten years.”

Jingyi couldn’t agree more. And yeah, he is enjoying this. Really, when Jin Ling’s uncle first caught them, he had thought “Oh no, an ex-cop-slash-now-a-private-investigator, surely he’ll turn us in!” then Jiang Cheng didn’t turn them in, he basically just went “If you’re gonna do crime, do it properly.”

Lan Jingyi had to admit - that was surprising, and it was honestly a bit suspicious how a man like Jiang Cheng could be so… chill… about, well, crimes. With how long he’s been making them wait until there’s a “good plan”, Jingyi had begun to think that the man was just delaying them until they got discouraged, tired, and then quit.

But it just turns out that he has a secret criminal boyfriend. And he was just waiting for said secret criminal boyfriend to arrive. Before commencing the crimes.

That explains a lot of things.

Lan Jingyi thinks Jiang Cheng is kinda cooler now. He’s still not as cool as Sizhui’s dads, but he’s getting there. The secret criminal boyfriend did wonders for his ratings. The broody scowling grumpy mysterious detective man is boring on his own.

Also, it’s just really fun watching Jin Ling be very confused.

Case in point: he is now staring back and forth between his uncle and his uncle’s not-so-secret-anymore criminal boyfriend.

“J-Jiujiu… are you… going to get married?”

“Stop being dramatic, Jin Ling.” Jiang Cheng says. “I can assure you, we’re all here for a heist, not a wedding.” He rolls his eyes as he sips on his drink.

Nie Huaisang simply giggles into his hand.

Something glints in the morning light.

Jin Ling gapes. “You gave him grandma’s ring?!”

Jiang Cheng almost spits his coffee. Jingyi almost drops his own coffee, and Sizhui blinks and says, “Oh…”

Nie Huaisang looks at the ornate silver-and-amethyst ring in his hand and smiles at it fondly.

Zizhen, who is also probably some sort of angel to be able to deal with Jin Ling for as long as he has, gets up and grabs his friend. “Ah, A-Ling! Fairy is getting antsy, let’s go jogging now, yeah? Let’s go, let’s go! Fairy, c’mon girl! Walk, walk!”

And so Jin Ling is taken away, practically being dragged by Ouyang Zizhen, with Fairy on their heels. Jingyi hopes jogging helps him.

What? Jingyi’s not that evil!

“So we’re doing groceries later?” Nie Huaisang asks the room in general, as if he didn’t just traumatize half the people around him.

“I hate that you’re using ‘we’.” Jiang Cheng says.

Somewhere in the house (read: Jiang Cheng’s bedroom, oh my- ) a phone rings.

“Oh, that’s my alarm.” Nie Huaisang says, setting his coffee down. He turns towards the man beside him and grins. “And hey, you called me in, don’t regret it now.” He goes on tiptoes and kisses Jiang Cheng’s cheek before gracefully exiting the room, humming as he does so. He even twirls once.

‘Theater people.’ Jingyi thinks.

He kinda wishes Jin Ling is still here, because that little kiss would have ended him, the poor guy. But also, maybe it’s good that Jin Ling had already left, because otherwise Jingyi is sure he and his friends would not hear the end of it if the guy decides to vent. Boy oh boy, Jin Ling can vent .

Oh, well. He just lifts his mug at Jiang Cheng. “Nice, shushu, putting a ring on it, huh.”

Jiang Cheng glares at him. “No.”

Then Sizhui says, “Jingyi, can you set the table? Breakfast is ready.”

Jingyi stares at him in disbelief, because when . How.

Sizhui really is magic.

.

.


.

.

iv.

Contrary to Lan Jingyi’s belief, Lan Sizhui isn’t really magic.

Lan Sizhui was simply raised by a very strict and efficient man who had passed down his routines, schedules and some useful habits to his son.

Like 5 AM. Or cooking breakfast and being attentive to everyone. Like loving bunnies. Like being helpful and polite to your elders.

That’s the only thing that’s holding him back from jumping at Nie Huaisang with questions, really. And anyway, he thinks Jin Ling should get first dibs on the questions. After all, it’s Jin Ling’s uncle who sprung this surprise on them.

But now they’re alone together, doing groceries. Jingyi had stayed to do more ‘homework’, Zizhen decided to go home for a bit (probably to tell his dad that he’ll be hanging out at the Jiangs’ a bit longer), and Jiang Cheng had a “work thing” and stated very clearly that he’s taking Jin Ling and only Jin Ling with him.

They’re probably going to talk things out.

So now Sizhui has an opportunity to ask his own questions. He observes Nie Huaisang, who is looking back and forth between the checklist app on his phone and the aisle shelves. He plucks out a pack of instant coffee and puts it in their cart.

“You’re a lot like your dad, Sizhui. Wangji, I mean.” Nie Huaisang says, inspecting their groceries.

“Y-Yes?”

“He gets very focused just looking at people trying to understand them, he forgets they can see him looking.” He says, punctuated with a wink.

Sizhui blushes in embarrassment, then the man starts walking away in search of the next item and Sizhui has to wheel their cart after him.

“N-Nie-shushu, you know my father? I mean-… both of them?”

“Please. I was the one who introduced them to each other!” Nie Huaisang laughs. “But you’re not all Wangji, of course. That revolutionary streak is very signature Wei Ying.”

“You must have been good friends…” Sizhui says. “Ning-shushu said you were a team but you were also like family.”

There’s a pause, and Nie Huaisang smiles softly. “Ah, always so sweet, our A-Ning. How is he?”

“He’s… He’s fine.” the boy answers, tentative.

He is not used to talking about his uncle from his old family. Other than his dad, he’d only ever shared this with Jingyi, and then with Jiang Cheng when he had to let the man know that he was Wei Ying’s son.

“I never know where he is, exactly. He says he’s traveling, but…” he bites his lip. “He’s been traveling since I was ten, then.”

Nie Huaisang looks at him with a strained smile. “I’m sure you know it’s for your protection. His, too. But yours, first.”

Sizhui attempts to smile back. “I know.”

“Good kid.” the man says, then he keeps walking, fingers hovering on the items on the shelves before plucking stuff that he liked and then dumping them on the cart. “By the way, I don’t have to be a grifter to see that you are dying to ask about a dozen other questions.”

“O-Oh. I just-”

“Don’t worry about it! Go on now, ask away…”

Sizhui hesitates because that seems… so easy. But Nie Huaisang’s voice is kind. His voice has always been kind and sweet, Sizhui had observed. It’s a direct contrast to Jiang Cheng’s, but instead of clashing against each other, they find a balance instead.

Anyway. What’s the worst that could happen from asking questions?

“So, um, you’re a grifter, then?” he asks the first question, testing the waters. “I never… had to do that job, before. I don’t actually know what it means, I guess? Me and Jingyi, we always managed by sneaking around.”

“Well, that’s simple.” the man says. “You guys steal by sneaking around, you say? Making sure you’re out of sight? Well, I steal by walking through the front door and looking my mark in the eyes.”

Sizhui nods. He makes it sound really simple. “Have we been… doing this whole thing wrong, then?”

“Oh, goodness, no! Some jobs only need a thief to grab and run. For other jobs - see, my jobs I’ve been working for the past years, a grifter is enough. But this one’s big, yeah? Jin Corp. We need things done with more… finesse. They’re very powerful, Sizhui. I know you kids think you’ve stumbled upon something big - and you have - but it goes deeper, and riskier.”

“So exposing them will not be enough.”

“You’d be surprised at the kind of stuff people get away with if they have a good PR department.” Nie Huaisang says. “No, exposure is not enough.”

“So these are the kind of jobs you took on, then? With Baba and Ning-shushu?”

“Well, yes. Before… you know.” Nie Huaisang looks down. “Ah… I shouldn’t be the one talking you through this. It should have been…” he trails off with a sigh.

Sizhui watches the man smiling sadly, and he finds that it’s not a good fit for him. “I doubt anyone should be talking me through this, to be honest.”

That makes Nie Huaisang laugh, and he takes a moment to gather himself. “You’re totally right! You lucked out on role models, kid. Anyways! Is that it? I doubt that’s all there is. You have more, don’t you?”

Sizhui smiles sheepishly. Nie Huaisang stops walking, so he stops pushing their cart too.

“Um… I just have to ask… What was Baba like?”

Nie Huaisang blinks, then grins. “Wangji? He was a total snob! But he’s very nice once you get to know him-”

“Ah, I don’t mean… umm…” he stammers. He doesn’t always stammer. “It’s just… I don’t know.. a lot of people… who also knew him. Like, really knew him… Baba always goes silent, when I ask him. Ning-shushu just says he was smart, and kind, and that he loved me. And Jiang-shushu… he said they always fought but that he was a good person.”

The man visibly softens, and his smile turns wistful again. “Oh. Well… Let’s see...”

Lan Sizhui waits, eager but patient.

“He was a menace.” Nie Huaisang says, nodding to himself before going on. “To be honest? Your dad was a tornado, A-Yuan. He was super smart and talented, and an absolute looker, and that made him a bit arrogant, sometimes. But that’s because when he believes in something, he’s unstoppable. Gods, the sheer number of people he offended .” He laughs. “But he always had people’s best interests at heart, you know? That’s how he came up with his schemes, you know. And that’s why your Ning-shushu and I followed him too, because we knew he was trying to do good, despite how it might look.

“But yes, he was a total menace. I didn’t always appreciate him literally pushing me into danger, with only my wits about me, but boy did that do wonders for my improv skills. He gave Jin Ling’s dad a hell of a time just because he was a bit of a stuck-up rich kid when they were teenagers. Yes , even after the wedding and A-Ling. The guy changed, by the way. Best character development I’ve seen in a person.”

Sizhui grins. This is… so much more information he’s getting not just about his father but other people too.

“He was the sweetest when he was around his sister. But as much of a show-off as he is, the guy totally stuttered in the presence of The Great Lan Wangji. Yes, they were a match made in heaven, really, it just felt like Hell to watch them try to flirt.”

That makes Sizhui snort, in spite of himself. “R-Really?”

Nie Huaisang looks absolutely done as he says, “Sweet child. Your dads each thought the other was straight and friendzoned themselves for years on end. That was the dumbest thing, ever!”

Sizhui laughs, and he can’t help but feel like a little kid when the man reaches over and ruffles his hair. Then he yelps when he is hugged and squeezed. “Ah! Nie-shushu-!”

“I can’t help it, you’re so cute!” Nie Huaisang coos. “I remember when you were, like, so tiny! The radishes were bigger than you, ahhhh~”

Sizhui squeaks, but surrenders himself in the embrace. When the man lets him go, “Thank you for telling me, Nie-shushu.”

“Anytime, kid.” he says, tucking a stray strand of hair behind the boy’s ear. “Wei Ying was brilliant. The others were right, too. He’s a good person, and he loved you.”

Sizhui nods, content with that answer.

Nie Huaisang just smiles at him and then they go back to their task at hand - grocery shopping - for six people.

“...and Sizhui, if you’re worried about your Ning-shushu, you could try to invite him over. We’ll help find a way to let you meet up safely. I’m sure he wants to see you just as bad.”

“Oh… Maybe I could try that.” Sizhui considers. Then, remembering who he’s talking to, he blinks. “Are… are you trying to recruit him?”

Nie Huaisang narrows his eyes at him, but he’s not frowning. He even looks please. “So like your dad. Well! Maybe I am. It won’t hurt, right? And if he’s not interested, then you still have your reunion! That’s enough, don’t you think?”

Sizhui chuckles, but nods anyway, conceding. “Okay, I’ll try…”

“Nie-shushu?”

“Yes?”

“Umm… We got into a bit of trouble on a job a few months back...” he starts, sheepish. “Someone caught me, and I totally blanked out. Thankfully A-Ling got there just then and knocked the man out. Can you share some tips? What do I say when that stuff happens? To avoid trouble?”

“Ah… So curious, so smart…!” Nie Huaisang marvels, taking a few steps back so they can walk side-by-side. “Okay, tell me what happened…”

.

.

.


.

.

v.

Jin Ling had known where they were going even without his uncle telling him. It is definitely not a ‘work thing’ as he had claimed, but they did drop by the office, because apparently his jiujiu had left his gear there.

There weren’t many people in the agency at this day of the week, or simply this time of the year, so they didn’t stay for long. Jin Ling just sat by the lobby as his uncle got his stuff. He watched as his uncle checked in for a while with Mr. Song, who was the only one in the office finishing off the last of his work. Neither of them were particularly talkative people though, so after exchanging pleasantries and holiday greetings, Jiang Cheng bid the other man goodbye.

Their usual boxing gym is open, but save for the staff, they were the only ones there. Jin Ling doesn’t need instructions - he simply changed into his boxing clothes, picked up his gloves, and then met up with his uncle by the punching bag.

Jin Ling had practically grown up in this gym. Back in middle school, he punched a classmate and when his uncle confronted him about it, he ugly cried and… well, he doesn’t remember everything he said that day, but he was probably frustrated about a lot of things. That very weekend, Jiang Cheng took him to this gym and then taught him how to box. Through the years, even when his uncle got too busy, Jin Ling kept coming out of habit.

Growing up, he learned that about himself - that physical activity always helped him let out the pent-up anger and frustrations. The fact that it kept him fit and healthy is just a bonus.

Right now though, he’s not sure he needs it. He’d already jogged the chaos of that morning out, to Fairy’s approval and Zizhen’s complaints.

“Jiujiu,” he says as he watches his uncle stretching. “I’m not mad… at anything, really. Why are we here?”

His uncle raises an eyebrow, and takes a deep breath. “Honestly? I just couldn’t think of anywhere else.”

Oh.

What .

Jin Ling blinks. “To… to talk?

“Yes.”

How about at home?

His uncle looks mildly annoyed now. “In case you weren’t paying attention, Jin Ling, there are four other people invading our home right now.”

“Just kick them out.” Jin Ling shrugs, then, mumbling, he adds, “Like you did with us last night.”

“See? You are mad.”

“I’m not! Jiujiu-”

“Nope. C’mon. Warm up.”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes, but he joins his uncle in warming up.

Then, when his uncle moves and holds the punching bag steady for him, Jin Ling just goes into position and starts punching.

He’s several minutes in when Jiang Cheng says, “Alright. Are you getting tired?”

“A bit.” he admits, slightly breathless.

“So.”

“So?”

“I’m sorry for springing… all that… on you.”

“All what?”

He notes his uncle’s awkward expression. “Nie Huaisang. That whole thing. Are you mad at me?”

“I’m not mad, jiujiu.” he says, meaning it. His answers come out in short phrases as he works on regulating his breathing. “Just… surprised. And… Whatever.”

“Whatever?”

“Could’ve told me… that you had… boyfriend.”

“He’s not really-”

“Fine… Not-a-boyfriend.” he huffs. “Why, anyway?”

“Why what?”

“Why won’t you… boyfriend?”

Jiang Cheng takes a second to answer that. Jin Ling stops punching, catching his breath and waiting.

“Well, we never really got together , in an official capacity. You knew I was a detective. He was - still is - a grifter. That made things complicated.”

“But you two were… uh… you know.

Jiang Cheng sighs as he looks away. “...yep.”

Jiujiu , whoa . ” he says, with feeling. That feeling is embarrassment. For his jiujiu or for himself, he doesn’t know. “Is that why you’re not police anymore? You wouldn’t arrest a criminal because you like him?”

The man shakes his head. “No, A-Ling. I told you this before. I switched to a job where I had more control over the cases I took and my working hours, because I had to raise you. And in the end, I didn’t regret it because I found it was a better fit for me.”

Jin Ling nods. He had asked that question before, and he’s glad his uncle had been honest with him.

“But… when you were still a cop… you knew da-jiu and, err, Nie-shushu, and Sizhui’s shushu… you knew what they were doing, but you let them get away everytime…”

Jiang Cheng looks tired, but he nods, slowly. “It’s just-... Their actions… They did good. I didn’t agree with how they did it. But they… helped a lot of people, and took down some very bad people. I couldn’t deny that. And I couldn’t… bring myself to fault them for it. So, yes, maybe they were part of why I quit the force, but the first and main reason has always been you.”

“Okay.” he says, nodding again, accepting the answer. Jiang Cheng takes hold of the punching bag again, and Jin Ling falls into his stance to start punching again. “So you can date Nie-shushu now, because you’re not a cop anymore?”

“I-... That’s not-... It’s more complicated than that.”

“I’ll try to understand.” he says, then starts punching.

“We haven’t seen each other in a decade, A-Ling. And we parted in… not bad terms, but… Let’s just say, he asked something of me, something very important, something only I can help him with, and I turned him down. He took it gracefully, and then he left. And I never heard from him again until I looked for him because I knew we needed someone with his skills for the job. Well, there were the postcards, but that’s not proper communication , so-”

Jin Ling stops. “Whoa- wait- what- What postcards? The postcards? On our wall? Those were him?”

“Uh. Yeah, why? Where did you think they were from?”

“I thought you were just… collecting them! Like, like in an old person way!”

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “What? Why would I collect postcards? I don’t even like them.”

“But you keep a bunch of them on our wall… in our house! I grew up with those things, I just always thought you liked them, that’s why there’s so many!”

“A-Ling. I don’t collect postcards.” Jiang Cheng says, looking like he’s trying hard not to laugh.

Jin Ling stares at him. “You just… keep them. Because they’re from someone you… care about.”

“Yeah.” Jiang Cheng answers, his voice soft. “It’s just nice to know he’s okay.” Then he scowls. “And I’m not an old person! I’m not even 40!”

“Eh.” Jin Ling shrugs, then resumes his punching. “So…?”

“So what?”

“You keep saying… Nie-shushu is… here for the job… What about after?”

His uncle goes  quiet, probably reflecting. Jin Ling knows it’s a loaded question. A future after the job , and a man who had already left him once and didn’t look back until he was called on.

‘How were your holidays?’ his classmates will probably ask, and his answer, if he were to tell the truth, would be ‘Oh, just fine, we committed some crimes. Good ones, though, we’re taking down this big evil corporation. My uncle - father’s side - owns it. Families, right?’

“We’ll see where it goes.” Jiang Cheng says. “For now, we’ll work together. And… well, he’s staying in my room.”

“He is, jiujiu. He very much is.”

“Watch your mouth, Jin Ling.” his uncle snaps, but he softens immediately.  “I just mean that… I hope you don’t think he’s intruding on your space or anything. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable in our home. So If you feel-”

“Jiujiu.” he says, stopping his punching to grin at his uncle in reassurance. “I’m fine. He’s… okay. I’m already bearing with Jingyi’s food delivery orders everyday. Your boyfriend seems nice. Fairy likes him.”

His uncle looks at him for a moment, then he smiles. Soft, fond. The smile he always has for Jin Ling.

Nothing’s changed, then. Jiujiu is still jiujiu. He’s just harboring criminals at home now. Cool.

“You’re dropping your elbows. Again!”

Yup. Still the same jiujiu.

.

When they come home, they’re assaulted by the sight of their usually plain and simple house decked in tinsel, glitter and colorful lights.

“What the hell.”

“Welcome home!” Nie Huaisang greets them. He is wearing a green santa hat. He immediately puts a red one on Jiang Cheng’s head. “We decorated! It’s the holidays, A-Cheng, and your house is bare . We should be festive! Do you like it?”

Jin Ling watches as his uncle smiles . It’s terrifying, particularly because it’s too sweet and nice. Like he’s preparing to murder someone. “Mm-hm, yes, this is… very bright… and merry… and- Lan Sizhui, I made you come with him so he won’t… do this .”

Sizhui smiles sheepishly from where he’s busy taking aesthetic photos of the tiny christmas tree on the counter. “Umm… he paid for it?”

“Personally speaking, I like it.” Jingyi chimes in. “It’s very jolly and really gets you in the mood you know?” He’s still in his workstation, but his monitors have colorful lights wrapped around them, and he’s wearing a pair of big ugly glittery glasses that spell ‘Happy New Year’.

Jin Ling narrows his eyes at his friend, and the bowl of chicken wings beside him. “You don’t get to talk, Lan Jingyi. You took bribes .”

“Aw, but it’s fun!” Ouyang Zizhen says. He’s sitting on the floor by the couch, wrapping Fairy in something colorful and horrid.

“Not you too, Zizhen! What are you-” He stops, because Fairy is now wearing a fluffy red-and-green tutu, with a matching headband. “Okay. Okay, that’s cute, actually.”

He’s about to take his phone out to take photos, but he hears his uncle sigh. Jin Ling turns to see his uncle, with Nie Huaisang practically hanging off his neck. “A-Sang… We don’t really… celebrate the Christmas holidays… like this.”

“I guess I just got used to it, I spent a lot of time in Europe.” Nie Huaisang says, thoughtful. “And I hear you, but consider… We have children now, A-Cheng. Festivities are good for them.”

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but these four are neither children nor are they ours.”

“Goodness, no!” Nie Huaisang laughs. “Except A-Ling, he’s totally yours. I meant the tiny succulents I just adopted! Look at them, on the window over there? They’re so cute. I was waiting for you to name them!”

“He paid for those too.” Sizhui chimes in, just to wash his hands of the whole business, Jin Ling guesses.

“Huh.” Jiang Cheng says. “I was planning to get some plants.”

“See?” Nie Huaisang beams. Then, he turns to Jin Ling and gasps. “Oh! A-Ling, I have something for you!”

Jin Ling suddenly feels fear. Real fear. Fairy’s tutu is cute and all, and the decorations indeed brought some life to the place specially now that there’s more people in it, but he doesn’t want himself dressed up in some silly-

“Here, I remember you used to love these!”

He looks down at the item thrust into his hands. It’s a big teddy bear shaped jar, heavy and filled to the brim… with gummy bears.

So many gummy bears.

Dammit.

He turns to his uncle. The man doesn’t look too pleased with all the candy, probably thinking it’s too much sugar, but then he just shrugs at Jin Ling. Then Jin Ling turns to Nie Huaisang, who, to his credit, is actually starting to look nervous.

After a moment, the man reaches for the humongous jar again. “Uh… But if you don’t like them anymore, we can get another-”

Jin Ling quickly hugs the item to his chest and turns away. “Nothey’remyfavoritethankyou.”

“Oh! That’s good, then!” The man says, then he looks towards Jiang Cheng again. “By the way, our Jingyi found some useful stuff.”

That visibly resets Jiang Cheng’s priorities, as he nods right away, then follows the other man to head to Lan Jingyi, who is munching happily on his chicken wings, the lucky bastard.

Jin Ling, still hugging his giant jar of gummy bears, slumps down beside Zizhen and Fairy on the couch.

“Hey.” Zizhen says, nudging him with a shoulder. “Happy with your gummy bear army?”

“Yup.” Jin Ling says, looking down at the item. “It’s… nice of him.”

“So where’d you go?”

“Boxing.”

“Ah…” Zizhen nods, already knowing what it means when Jin Ling hits the boxing gym outside his usual gym schedule. “Everything okay, then?”

“Mm-hm. We’re okay.”

“Good.” Zizhen smiles. Jin Ling leans sideways, resting his head on his friend’s shoulder. Zizhen just moves his arm to drape it on the back of the couch. “Your jiujiu… he’s a bit different these days, isn’t he?”

Jin Ling watches his jiujiu and Nie Huaisang. They look quite serious as they listen to and instruct Jingyi, pointing out stuff in the monitors every now and then. Sizhui has joined them too, listening attentively. He asks a question, and both adults start to answer at the same time, then catch themselves. Nie Huaisang looks up at Jiang Cheng and smiles, then lets him do the talking, content to lean against him and nod in agreement.

“Not really.” Jin Ling says, after some thought. “He’s always been-... He’s just… softer. A bit.”

“Soft?” Zizhen laughs. “He’s planning crimes.”

“Yeah.” he says, closing his eyes. “Still soft.”

Well. As soft as a man planning a takedown of a billion-dollar corporation could be.

Jin Ling yawns. It looks like that gym session really knocked him out…

Fairy sprawls across their laps and he pets her sleepily. He hears Ouyang Zizhen chuckle and a hand pats his head.

Warm and pleasantly tired, Jin Ling lets himself drift to sleep.

.

.


.

.

vi.

Jiang Cheng is reading emails on his phone when Nie Huaisang climbs into bed, long hair down and wavy from his braids.

“A-Cheng…” he starts, scooting closer while fiddling with the latest oversized shirt he had “borrowed” from Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t look up from his phone. “Yeah?”

“I was just… listening to the boys earlier. Zizhen was dreading classes resuming after the winter break.” He pauses for a while then, making Jiang Cheng look at him, questioning. “Are we seriously going to try and pull off a job like this with kids?

“They’re not kids anymore, Huaisang.”

“Yes, but they’re not adults, either. They’re young .”

“Exactly, and you’ve been that age.” Jiang Cheng says. “They’ve already started. They don’t want to stop anytime soon. You know that if we told them to, they’d just go behind our backs.”

Nie Huaisang heaves a heavy sigh. “They would.”

“So I think the best we can do is to just make sure they know what they’re doing.” Jiang Cheng continues, setting his phone aside. “And be there to protect them if they get in over their heads.”

Huaisang nods. “I hope they trust me for that. They don’t know me, not really.”

Jiang Cheng huffs. “Please. You’ve already made them like you, in less than a day. Don’t think I don’t know why you decorated the house and basically handed out tailor-made bribes to each of them.”

He looks to see his companion pouting at him. He grins lightly as he raises a hand to cup the other man’s chin.

“What? I didn’t say it was a bad thing. I’m just saying that I can tell when you’re using your… skills. Even for non-nefarious purposes.”

“You always make it sound so evil .” Nie Huaisang whines, even as Jiang Cheng leans over and kisses his cheek. “I actually care, you know. A-Ling is your world. I remember holding little A-Yuan. And Jingyi and Zizhen are good kids.”

“I know.” He chuckles when Huaisang cuddles into him and simply starts playing with the other’s hair. “That’s why I called you. Because I know you’d care about them.”

“Mm… I told Sizhui to invite Wen Ning.”

“And?”

“He said he would. He obviously wants to see his uncle. And knowing Wen Ning, he misses the kid.”

“Right.” Jiang Cheng nods. “Maybe I should buy more sheets.”

Nie Huaisang laughs. “Isn’t that nice? Your house will be full for New Year’s.”

“I guess.” Jiang Cheng answers. “For the first time since…”

Nie Huaisang doesn’t need him to finish. He hums, cuddling closer. “Mm-hm. I’m sure it’ll be fun.”

Jiang Cheng drops a kiss on the top of his lover’s head. “Jin Ling asked me earlier. About us. What happens, after the job.”

“What did you say?” Huaisang asks softly, voice muffled against the other’s shirt.

“I told him we’ll see where it goes.”

“Good answer. Vague. Makes it sound like you’d want me to stay.”

Jiang Cheng take a deep breath, holding him close. “Do you want to stay?”

Nie Huaisang smiles. “We’ll see where it goes.”

.

.


.

.

coda.

Several days later, Jiang Cheng announces that there is a “good plan”.

They gather around Jingyi’s monitors and watch as their hacker pulls up a bunch of profile photographs.

“So! Our mark - Jin Guangyao, current CEO of Jin Corp, and these other rich old dudes on the board.” Jingyi says. “I don’t have to repeat everything that Jin Corp’s been doing, we’ve added a lot on our list over the past few days. Zizhen legit cried over some of ‘em. I got in on video. Really bad stuff, and I’m sure if - when - we access those private servers, we’ll uncover some more! That’s gotta be fun-”

“Jingyi.” Jiang Cheng prompts.

“Okay, okay! Anyways, we really need a way in so we can do… stuff, and we found…” - a different profile is put on display. This time, it’s a young man with dark hair and a gentle face. “ - this one guy!”

“Mo Xuanyu.” Jiang Cheng says, taking over. “Fresh graduate. Jin Guangyao’s new secretary. From what we can catch in the street CCTV’s, he’s pretty meek, follows his boss like a shadow. Jin Guangyao is pretty nice to him, in public at least.”

 “He’ll get us in?” Jin Ling says. “He looks… pretty loyal.”

“Yes, and that’s the strange part. He’s a fresh graduate from a pretty unpopular university, he’s not the top of his class or anything really warranting someone his age and status to be the secretary of a CEO of a company as big as Jin Corp. So I had Jingyi look him up some more, and - Jingyi?”

A document is pulled up on the screen, and Jingyi says, “His birth certificate says his father is Jin Guangshan. So it looks like Mr. CEO is still keeping the family scandals in the family. Safe PR.”

“So, our ‘in’ is our mark’s secret illegitimate brother?” Nie Huaisang muses. “Jin Guangyao used to be an illegitimate child himself, so this kid probably thinks the world of him. Thinks his brother is the fair, kind one in a family that never acknowledged him.”

“Yes.” Jiang Cheng says, looking at him. “Think you can crack him? Get him to turn?”

Nie Huaisang looks at him and grins, then eyes the profile on the monitor again. “Who do you think you’re talking to?” 

“We also need to clone his phone.”

“Noted. Jingyi, I’m gonna need some webpages up ASAP.”

Jingyi blinks. “Uh. Yeah, got it.”

“Sizhui, we’re gonna brush up those pickpocket skills. And Zizhen, we’re going shopping tomorrow.”

The two look at him and nod eagerly. Finally, something to do .

“What about me?” Jin Ling asks, noticing that he’s left without an assignment.

Nie Huaisang squints at him before smiling. “Okay, how willing are you to spill coffee on someone?“

Jin Ling shrugs. “It… depends on the person…?”

Jiang Cheng chuckles. “Alright, for now we focus on cloning that phone, and getting Huaisang a new friend. After that, we go to Phase 2.”

“What’s Phase 2?” Sizhui asks.

Jiang Cheng is about to answer, but then the doorbell rings.

Everyone looks at Jingyi, who quickly puts his hands up.

“Hey, it’s New Year’s Eve! I won’t bother the delivery guys, and I know Sizhui and Jin Ling are already cooking stuff! That’s not me!”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, but he heads over to get the door.

It is not a delivery guy, but it’s someone who has something for him anyway.

Wen Ning stands in his doorway, bundled up in a dark scarf and coat.

“I-It’s nice to see you again, Jiang-xiong.” the man says, smile sheepish. He raises his hand and shows Jiang Cheng what he recognizes as a flash drive. “A-Yuan told me you’re on a job. I… I have something that might h-help.”

Jiang Cheng stares at his old friend for a moment, and he grins.

“Good to see you too. Come in.”

.

.

.

.fin.