Lan Xichen was wading through a usage report on the new Clarity collaboration dashboard features when he got a call from Nina on the front desk telling him he had a visitor.
“He doesn’t have an appointment,” she said, “but he says he’s a friend. His name’s Wei Ying.”
“I think he’s here for the other Mr Lan,” said Lan Xichen. These mix-ups were common – an unavoidable side-effect of working with family. Nina was new, and the two Lans were a lot alike at first glance. But mix-up aside, the situation was odd. A-Zhan often had lunch with Wei Ying – the fact that he’d started actually taking his lunchbreak was what had first alerted Lan Xichen to the fact that his little brother was dating somebody – but they met in the middle between the office and the museum where Wei Ying worked. Besides, A-Zhan was out of town giving a talk at a conference, and would have cancelled his standing lunch date.
There was a pause, a muffled query, and then Nina came back on the line. “Nope, definitely you. Want me to send him up? He says it’s not urgent, he was just passing by and wanted to see if you were free.”
Having Wei Ying show up unannounced at the office was a trifle worrying. Pleasant and charming though he might be, he was still an unknown quantity. Their paths hadn’t crossed much in the months he and A-Zhan had been dating. Lan Xichen knew him from a few brief social encounters and A-Zhan’s monosyllabic responses to questions about how things were going. (“Fine,” for the most part, though it had now graduated to, “Well,” and a small smile). It was his own fault – or perhaps the fault of Clarity for keeping him quite so busy this year – and he felt a twinge of guilt at not having made more of an effort.
He looked at his report again, checked his calendar, and decided that he was due a break before his afternoon with Legal.
“I’ll come down,” he said.
Wei Ying greeted him in the lobby with a wide grin. “Lan Xichen!” he said. “Thanks for taking time out of your busy executive schedule to see me. It felt so weird walking into these big fancy offices and demanding to talk to the CEO.”
“You’re always welcome,” said Lan Xichen politely. “I take it you know A-Zhan isn’t here?”
“Yeah, that’s kind of why I came. I was at a loose end on my lunch break and I wandered this way, and I figured I’d take a chance and say hi. I’ve been meaning to talk to you anyway. And I’ve never seen inside your offices before! It’s so unfair. Your brother’s had a tour of my workplace.”
“That is indeed unfair,” said Lan Xichen, amused. Wei Ying’s day job was literally giving tours, though usually for school groups. For his animation side-projects he worked from his bedroom, which A-Zhan had also undoubtedly toured. “Can I offer you lunch? We have a café.”
Wei Ying beamed. “I knew we were going to be friends.” He slung a friendly arm around Lan Xichen’s shoulders. “You’re buying, yes? Lead the way.”
Lan Xichen didn’t flinch – he was far more comfortable with physical contact than most of his family – but he did shoot a sideways glance at Nina, who was obviously smirking. With a wave to her, he guided Wei Ying through the reception barriers and out to the open-plan lunchroom area.
They collected their food and found a table. “So,” said Lan Xichen, arranging cutlery around his salad and watching with mild horror as Wei Ying emptied packet after packet of hot sauce onto a bowl of noodles, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“It’s about your brother.”
“So I assumed.”
Wei Ying propped his chin on his hands. “You know he hates the office Christmas party, right?”
Lan Xichen suppressed a smile. “I know,” he said. A-Zhan’s opinion had been made plain over the years via flat looks, silent sarcasm, and even direct pleas for mercy. “If he sent you here to help him wiggle out of it, the answer is no. He needs to make the effort. Even if he just stands in a corner looking uncomfortable, it makes him seem a little less intimidating to our colleagues.”
“Intimidating?” said Wei Ying, frowning as though this was a foreign concept.
Lan Xichen himself had never understood how people could be fooled by A-Zhan’s cool façade when the sincere, funny, kind person he really was shone out so clearly from behind it. This was the first time he’d encountered anyone who seemed to share his opinion. “My brother has a tendency to inspire… I suppose it’s best described as nervous awe,” he said. “He has very high standards. I’m not saying he’s overly demanding – he’s actually a very considerate manager – but he won’t accept sloppy work, and it’s given him a reputation.”
“Huh,” said Wei Ying.
“So once a year I try to show everyone that our genius, perfectionist CTO is really just my awkward baby brother who doesn’t know what to do with himself at parties,” said Lan Xichen. “He can handle it. I don’t drag him to the clubbing part, of course; I’m not a monster.” The Clarity holiday party was an odd beast. Since they were part of the music industry, they had to host their industry contacts and showcase the talented artists who were building their careers on the app. Since they were also a tech company, they had an awful lot of introverts to cater to. The compromise was to split the party into two halves. “It’s really not that bad. We set up areas for board games, karaoke, laser tag, an escape room, all that kind of thing.”
Wei Ying tried to muffle a laugh, failed miserably, and flopped back in his seat, giggling. “Laser tag? Poor Lan Zhan.”
“It isn’t his favourite day.”
“I can imagine.” Wei Ying tapped his nose thoughtfully. “Okay, so I came here to talk to you about an idea I had for the party, something to make it a bit less stressful for him. And you know what? I think it might just serve your purpose too.”
Lan Xichen picked up his fork, motioning for Wei Ying to continue before stabbing his first piece of tomato. “Alright,” he said. “I’m listening.”
The Lan Family didn’t celebrate Christmas, beyond Lan Qiren taking advantage of the office closure to demand both of his nephews’ presence for a family meal, so the Clarity party was the only real opportunity Lan Xichen had to wear terrible holiday jumpers. This year’s specimen was a monstrosity of snowmen, bells, holly, and reindeer on a blue-and-white snowflake background. A-Zhan hadn’t been able to look at him without wincing all day.
The party officially began at three o’clock, but nobody had really done any work since lunchtime, distracted by exchanging secret Santa gifts within their teams and speculating about the events of the evening. Lan Xichen made the rounds, watching the setup for the various activities and trying not to micromanage. There was a party committee responsible for the event. It wasn’t his problem. Probably everyone would prefer it if he just kept out of the way.
He was trying to decide whether to suggest a better arrangement for the tables in the board game room when he sensed, rather than heard, A-Zhan walk up behind him.
“Brother,” said A-Zhan, with quiet disapproval, “you’re obsessing again.”
“I want everyone to have a nice time,” said Lan Xichen, turning to find A-Zhan dressed as festive as he ever got, in that he was wearing a snowy white high-necked sweater. “What’s wrong with that?”
He had no problem interpreting the silence he got in return. That slight softening of A-Zhan’s lips meant you are nice and I am fond of you. The little sideways eyeroll – you expect too much of yourself and the world around you. The tiny, irritated huff of breath – if you actually wanted everyone to have a nice time you wouldn’t ask me to be here.
It was really very sweet.
Lan Xichen sighed. “Alright,” he said. “Point made. I’ll go and find something to occupy myself.”
“Finance,” said A-Zhan. “Drinks and…” he sighed, “charades. I’m walking over to the museum to collect Wei Ying.”
He went off without another word. Lan Xichen headed to the Finance department with a quick stop by one of the audio testing suites. There was one arrangement that he legitimately needed to check on.
The enthusiastic voice came just as Lan Xichen had wrapped up the speech that officially kicked off the party, drawing the eye of absolutely everyone who had been crammed into the café space to listen. Wei Ying forged through the crowd, towing A-Zhan by the hand.
“Excuse me, coming through!” he declared. “Hi, everybody! Happy holidays! I hope you’re all ready to have a great night.”
The crowd parted for him like water. Around the room, a low buzz of whispers was rising, along with one unfortunately audible ‘Who the hell is that?” from someone who had already had enough alcohol to disrupt their personal volume control.
“Is everything ready?” said Wei Ying, bouncing to a halt in front of Lan Xichen. “You said three, right? We’re not late?”
“Brother,” said A-Zhan, in a tone of deep suspicion.
Lan Xichen looked between the pair of them, a little confused. He knew Wei Ying was chatty and loud, but he didn’t remember him being quite this… bubbly. “No, you’re not late,” he said. “They should be just about ready to open up.”
Wei Ying beamed. “Lead the way!”
A large portion of the crowd followed curiously in their wake towards the sound studio. Lan Xichen could feel the weight of their interest. Most likely none of these people had ever seen A-Zhan touch another human being beyond the unavoidable business handshakes, and now here was Wei Ying dragging him around, flinging an arm around his shoulder and – there was an audible murmur from the onlookers – leaning in close to whisper a joke into his ear.
Wei Ying glanced back at Lan Xichen and winked.
Ah, Lan Xichen thought. He couldn’t really blame Wei Ying for having a bit of fun, hamming it up for the audience and watching A-Zhan squirm – not when the overall plan was so genuinely thoughtful.
Outside the soundproofed room, one of the handlers was waiting. Her welcoming smile faltered somewhat when she saw the volume of people bearing down on her. Lan Xichen hurried forward to reassure her that the numbers limit hadn’t been forgotten, while Wei Ying turned to the crowd.
“Hi!” he called, waving a hand for attention. “I’m Wei Ying. I don’t work here but I’m dating your beautiful CTO, Lan Zhan, and this is a special treat for him. We’re opening up this room now. Everybody’s welcome – well, ten people at a time are welcome because we have to keep it nice and quiet – but Lan Zhan gets to be at the front of the line because I say so.”
“Wei Ying,” murmured A-Zhan, with a slight note of admonishment. His ears were flushed red, and he was giving awkward sidelong glances to the interested onlookers.
Wei Ying kissed him on the cheek. “You’re going to like it, I promise,” he said, and opened the door.
Lan Xichen had already been inside. He’d done his homework before authorising the hiring of the company, but he’d wanted to make sure that everything was in order. There were long runs and pens, hay on the floor, food and water, hutches where the rabbits could retreat if they wanted to, everything that reassured him that welfare was the priority, that no animals would be forced into interactions they didn’t want. He had checked thoroughly. And if those checks included cuddling a friendly little mini-lop for five minutes, nobody else had to know.
Cautiously, A-Zhan peered past Wei Ying into the room. All at once his stiff posture melted. “Wei Ying,” he breathed. “Bunnies.”
Wei Ying beamed. “Surprise! I got you Christmas bunnies. They can’t stay late because they have to be home in time for bed, so let’s go get introduced, huh.”
He tucked his arm into A-Zhan’s and drew him forwards across the threshold. The onlookers, who had been standing in stunned silence throughout Wei Ying’s little speech, began murmuring again. A handful of people edged up to the open door to get a better look. “Rabbits,” someone said – possibly the same person whose volume control had been impaired in the cafe. “It’s really rabbits, that’s fucking adorable.”
“He likes bunnies,” said a voice at Lan Xichen’s elbow. It was Jingyi, one of the junior coders in A-Zhan’s little retinue. The kid was standing with his mouth hanging open, unashamedly staring.
“He does,” said Lan Xichen.
“And he’s dating that guy?” said Jingyi weakly.
“He is,” said Lan Xichen. He stepped forwards and raised his voice slightly, addressing the crowd. “As Wei Ying said, we arranged this with my brother in mind, but the rabbits are for everyone. They’ll be here for the next two hours, so please have fun.”
The handlers came back to the door to invite the first few people in. Jingyi was so intent on hurrying forward to grab a spot that he didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Lan Xichen chuckled to himself and took one last look through the doorway to where A-Zhan and Wei Ying were already settled in the rabbit pen, tempting bunnies with pieces of greenery. Then he went off to mingle.
It was a while before he had another spare minute. His job at these events was to make people feel appreciated, which meant taking part in the fun, playing games, joining teams, offering his time and attention to everyone from the heads of departments to the janitorial staff. In between friendly small talk he played a round or two of cards with Legal, sat in on part of a quiz, sang karaoke with the café workers and let himself be co-opted onto an escape room team by HR. He enjoyed himself, enjoyed the atmosphere and the people around him, but it was a relief to give himself a break, to slip into the pleasantly soundproofed studio space just as the rabbit handlers were starting to pack up.
There were still a few animal-lovers taking their last opportunity to feed and play with the bunnies before the handlers took them, one by one, to place them in their travel cages. In the midst of everything was A-Zhan, seated serenely cross-legged in the rabbit run, gently petting the biggest and fluffiest of the rabbits, which was sprawled across his lap. He was talking, murmuring gently to the bunny, and to the woman sitting next to him – Maureen, another of his junior coders, who was chattering cheerfully back while offering the bunny bites of vegetable. Lan Xichen quietly chalked this event up as a success and made a mental note for future parties.
He watched quietly from the sidelines for a few minutes more. Finally one of the handlers came over and A-Zhan got to his feet, bunny still in his arms, and followed her to set the animal gently in its travel cage. After one last fond pat he turned away, caught sight of Lan Xichen, and floated over to join him by the door, peaceful as a cloud.
“Hi,” he said.
“Have you been here this whole time?” asked Lan Xichen.
“Mm. I tried to give others a turn. But nobody would take my place, and then Wei Ying told me to stay here and appreciate his gift.” A-Zhan smiled, the slightest soft curve of lips. “He said you wouldn’t mind.”
“I don’t,” said Lan Xichen. He was thoroughly satisfied with the outcome of the plan. The gossip had spread. More than a few times, he’d overheard people urging their friends to get a glimpse of the aloof, impassive CTO sitting on the floor cuddling bunnies. “Where is Wei Ying?”
“He went to play laser tag.”
“You two aren’t much alike, are you?”
A-Zhan shook his head.
“But you’ve seemed very happy this year.”
“Mm,” said A-Zhan. He sighed out a long breath, his ears pinking. “This is serious, brother. For me. He’s… everything.”
“I guessed it was serious. The clue was when he found out you were going to a party where you would suffer a bare few hours of mild discomfort—”
“—mild discomfort, and demanded I organise you a special bunny room to hide in.”
“Mm,” said A-Zhan, and there was that soft smile again. Besotted. Such a strange expression to see on his face. A welcome one, certainly. Lan Xichen had always enjoyed human connections, both fleeting and profound, and watching A-Zhan go through life untouched by the day-to-day interactions that made his own life richer had worried him more than he liked to admit. If A-Zhan could find similar joy bound up in one person, Lan Xichen was all for it – so long as that person stuck around.
A-Zhan glanced over Lan Xichen’s shoulder, and his face went as fond as if he still had a rabbit to pet. Lan Xichen turned to find Wei Ying sauntering up to them.
“Wei Ying,” said A-Zhan. He reached out a hand. “How was laser tag?”
“We destroyed them, you’d have been so proud,” said Wei Ying, taking his hand and immediately snuggling up against him. “How were the bunnies?”
“They were very good bunnies.”
“See, I told you it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Mm,” said A-Zhan. “Not bad at all. Thank you.”
Wei Ying flushed and ducked his head. “Thank your brother, he’s the one who paid for it.”
The look A-Zhan gave was just as easy to interpret as the ones Lan Xichen commonly had directed at himself. The way his lips pursed, the slight frown, the painful gentleness in his eyes all combined to say, I wish you could see how special you are.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t look at me like that,” said Wei Ying, laughing. “You’re being too sincere, I can’t handle it.”
“Hmm,” said A-Zhan. “Alright.” He turned his soft eyes on Lan Xichen. “I must thank you instead. So, thank you for making this party a little less than terrible than previous years.”
Wei Ying swatted at him with his free hand. “So ungrateful! Your brother throws a hell of a party, I’ve been having a blast.”
“I can’t take the credit,” said Lan Xichen hastily. “I’m not involved beyond authorising the budget. But thank you, I’m glad you’ve been enjoying yourself. Does this mean I can tempt you two to stay for a while longer?”
A-Zhan glanced at Wei Ying. “You’re having fun?”
Wei Ying grinned, shrugging apologetically. “I really am,” he admitted. “It’s a great party. There’s still a bunch of stuff I haven’t done, and the people are cool, and I haven’t even tried the food yet.”
“Then we’ll stay,” said A-Zhan.
“You’ll tell me when you’ve had enough, huh?”
As Lan Xichen watched the easy interchange, he felt something inside him relax, a worry soothed and comforted in a way it had never been before. “I’m glad,” he said, and he wasn’t talking about the party.
Wei Ying grinned at him slyly. “By the way, Xichen-ge, have I told you how much I love your jumper?”
A-Zhan’s hand gripped the back of Wei Ying’s neck. “Hush,” he said firmly. “Don’t encourage him.” Then, turning to Lan Xichen, he asked, “I suppose you need to mingle?”
“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll stick with you two for a little while,” said Lan Xichen.
He had to do the rounds for the company, to make small talk to the right people, to be a good CEO, but there were other priorities. From these few minutes alone, he was pretty sure Wei Ying would be his brother-in-law one day. It was about time they got to know each other.